So many years come and gone,
yet the memory is strong,
one word we never could learn: "goodbye...";
true love is frozen in time,
I'll be your champion and you will be mine,
I will remember you...
Xena disappeared into the night and made her circuitous way back to Ilium's strong walls. Once inside, she alerted Lila and the Amazons that they were to leave on the following day.
"Tomorrow?" Ephiny said in dismay. "That hardly gives us time to say our goodbyes."
"You'll have to say them now," Xena told the group. "Diomedes has promised safe passage back to Tenedos. You'll have a letter from him, saying, to whom it may concern, that you're travelling under his protection so that you can get back home without incident. We're on his time frame now, and he says we roll tomorrow."
Then Xena went to find Aeneas to arrange for two horse-drawn cars to take Lila and the Amazons to rendezvous with the Argive envoys.
"We'll be staying on," Gabrielle informed Joxer as the Macedonian Amazons went to bid farewell to their Themiscyran sisters.
"You, me and Xena. Just like the old days," Joxer grinned. "'We are fa-mi-lee. I got Gab and Xena with me...'"
"And we’ve got a big job to do," Gabrielle looked, with mild trepidation, out from the balcony at the dark, overcast night.
The Amazons said a tearful farewell. "Be brave, be strong; know that you won't be forgotten." Then Ephiny and Velasca went to see Penthesileia who met with them privately in her chamber.
As always, Penthesileia was dressed in her plain, unassuming, white tunic and short skirt. Her lithe, bronze arms were bare, and her long black hair hung loose below her shoulders. The familiar scent of gardenia hovered gently between the casements whose tall, rectangular, openings looked down to the courtyard and the narrow alley that ran between the stone face of the keep and the high, garrisoned watchtowers along a section of the outer wall. Around her neck, in unaccustomed adornment, Penthesileia had draped a blue scarf whose ends, lightly knotted, rested in the space between her small, firm breasts.
"May the bow of Artemis speed you on your way like arrows shot from the quiver of her heart," Penthesileia looked at Ephiny and Velasca, the three of them standing together at the casement. Ephiny and Velasca had begun to kneel, but Penthesileia had put out a hand to stop them.
"Not 'my queen'. Not any longer," Penthesileia said. "Rather say, 'My sister and my friend.' That's how I'd wish you to think of me in the days ahead. Now give me your hands."
Penthesileia's right hand took both of Ephiny's hands; her left hand took both of Velasca's hands. "I give you my blessing," Penthesileia said, "and my thanks. Though I've known you previously by reputation, Ephiny, it's only now that I've had the pleasure of getting to meet and spend a bit of time with you. You're a joy and a delight. I could only wish that our time together might have been longer. Lead the Amazons well. In your hands, I know they'll be well cared for.
"Velasca," Penthesileia turned and spoke tenderly. Her eyes watered and so did Velasca's. "The young girl so full of fire and life, whose light I first beheld when she came with her teenage troupe to perform her cottas with the sword and staff for Hippolyte and her Mycenean Amazons, has grown to be a woman of power and grace, a gem of rare beauty. Stand side by side with Ephiny, sharing equally in the blessings and burdens of leadership, the rewards and challenges of sisterhood, the joys and sorrows of love. Above all, forgive yourself. Let go of past wrongs. In your dark moments, remember that there was an Amazon queen who believed in you and never, for the shadow of the fall of a sand grain, doubted or wavered.
"Come here, the both of you," Penthesileia reached out her sinewy arms and embraced Ephiny and Velasca, holding them, for a long time, in the gripping power of her strength and love.
"Goodbye, my queen," Ephiny said, struggling not to weep.
"Farewell, my queen," Velasca whispered. "You will always be my queen."
Penthesileia at last let them go and walked with them to the door. "Watch over Lila," were Penthesileia's parting words. "Protect her and keep her safe."
Ephiny and Velasca turned away from the Penthesileia’s chamber and headed through the outer suite into the long corridor which led to their quarters where the others were packing up their swords, daggers and personal items for the following morning's departure. A little ways along the passage, Velasca paused and leaned heavily against the rounded stones of the cold, sturdy wall. Ephiny stopped and stood alongside her. Velasca tried to say something but a sob burst from her throat and then she wept hard, bitter, wracking tears. Ephiny put her strong arms around Velasca and pulled Velasca into her close embrace, holding her while she wept.
"Oh, Ephiny...," Velasca groaned as the tears kept coming. "Ephiny, Ephiny, Ephiny..."
Velasca let Ephiny hold her, and Ephiny's heart opened to let its love and kindness pour out upon Velasca, the soul's glue to moisten the space between them and then to congeal and adhere so that, forever after, Ephiny's heart would be joined to Velasca's heart in a deep, wordless grafting of empathy and communion that no clash of temperament or difference of opinion could pry loose from its unbreakable bond.
In the crush of the night's farewells and the hasty preparations to take their leave of Ilium’s lovely fountains and gardens, the Amazons failed to notice that Lila was nowhere to be found. Nor could Gabrielle and Joxer track her down while, for her part, Xena was taken up with arranging the details of tomorrow's departure. Meanwhile, far from the hubbub taking place in the guest quarters, in a wing of the palace that was little frequented, Lila was standing outside the portico of an elegant suite, having just knocked on the outer door and now awaiting a response from within.
The door opened part way. An older woman whose auburn hair was twined in a twist and whose haunting face was deeply recessed with powerful cheekbones and a square jaw stood on the far side of the threshold. She was about the same height as Lila and wore a long peplos fringed with silver filigree along the hem. The woman looked at Lila for a long turn of the sandglass and then smiled.
"May I come in?" Lila said.
The woman nodded and opened the door the rest of the way. Lila stepped inside and at once breathed the suite's silent, otherworldly air. Many wall hangings, delicate furnishings, exquisitely adorned side altars and dangling mobiles that gleamed in the eerie light competed for Lila's attention. The woman who resided here lived very much alone yet seemed not to be eccentric in her isolation. If there were indeed a spirit world lurking beyond the borders of the material world, its boundaries were most permeable here.
"You're Cassandra," Lila said.
"I am. And you're..."
"Won't you have a seat," Cassandra motioned to the settee on which Aeneas had recently sat as Cassandra took her accustomed seat on the chair across from the settee. Folding her hands on her lap, Cassandra scrutinized Lila's face which, for its part, regarded Cassandra’s face with firmly rooted composure. So the tales they told were true. King Priam’s eldest daughter was a woman of rare and dangerous beauty.
"You're enareti kori," Cassandra said without dropping her gaze.
"I was. I am no longer," Lila said.
"Of pure issue of blood," Cassandra continued.
"No," Lila said. "My blood has been mingled with that of another."
"With the blood of the one you love."
"Then it's purity remains."
"How do you know that?"
"Come, young one, don't trifle with me," Cassandra gave Lila a stern look and placed the calf of one of her legs over the knee of the other leg. "You're intent upon performing an errand which it would be foolhardy to attempt were you not enareti kori and of pure issue of blood."
"I had no inkling of that," Lila said. "That my being enareti kori might make a difference either way. I'd undertake my journey anyhow and happily face any perils that I might encounter along the way."
"Which shows you have courage," Cassandra said. "You carry no weapon. You travel with neither the shield nor the sponsorship of a powerful lord -- and you’re soon without the sword of the Warrior Princess."
"That's correct. I'm proceeding on my own."
"Where's your necklace?"
"In my pocket," Lila said, surprised at Cassandra's perspicuity but not showing any outward sign of her surprise.
"Don't lose it," Cassandra said in a tone of mild warning.
"I’ve come to ask whether or not I’ll succeed in my mission," Lila put the question.
"What if I were to tell you no?"
"I'd undertake it anyhow."
Cassandra smiled. "Then what more could you need from me?"
"I'm told you deal in prophesies and potions. I have need of the latter. I could do with the former."
"Begin with the latter. For what purpose do you need such an item?"
"To put a man to sleep."
"To rob him. To finance my errand."
"That and no more?"
"And what sort of prophesy are you after?"
"To know if I’ll be successful in my quest."
Cassandra let go a light chuckle. "You expect me to wrap that up in a neat little bow? That's not how prophesy works, my dear."
"I thought prophesy dealt with outcomes."
"It does. Prophesy plumbs the force of destiny and counsels both resistance and acceptance."
"My destiny seems to point to loss and mourning."
"And how do you wish to face it?"
"With dignity, bravery and self-restraint."
"Then set out on your quest, and steer a course between the twin pole stars, each the complement of the other."
"Care to elaborate?"
"I assume you know the ban that I labor under."
"That no one pays heed to your prophesies," Lila said.
"No one spurns the gods without suffering their wrath. That's a prophesy that only the foolish and the reckless disregard."
"Xena spurned Ares. He set her on a rough road because of it, but she's ridden it hard and well."
"Perhaps Xena's destiny is to break the chain which binds the gods to men. But that bond could only be broken at the cost of Xena's life. Hers and one other."
"Do you mean Gabrielle? My sister?"
"You ask too many questions, Lila. Focus on the goal that you've set for yourself. Steer a course between light and light. No more need be said. I'll get you the item you've asked for, but remember: you have only until the moon is full to complete your journey."
Cassandra went to one of her many cabinets and removed several small sachets, one of which she handed to Lila. "This will require a candlemark to produce the desired result. Its effects will last four to six candlemarks and will cause nothing more than mild, temporary discomfort upon awakening."
"Thank you. Very much," Lila said as Cassandra saw her to the door.
"Aléthéu, enareti kori," Cassandra said as she closed the door. "Don't forget you have only until the full moon."
"I won't forget," Lila nodded and went on her way.
Place your faith in the truth and follow it from light to light. Easier said than done, Lila suspected.
An odd sight greeted the Trojan sentries at the Scaean Gate early the next morning: seven women in dark halter tops, close fitting short shorts and feathered bird masks, each armed with a sword and a dagger, several with bows and arrows and one with a double bladed labrys; then three other women -- one in brass and leather, one in gold skirt and brassiere with a sai in a holster at either hip, and one in buff and brown, with suede buckskin for fringes and a short brown wraparound skirt; this last woman perhaps the most noticeable as she, alone of the group, was unarmed and appeared soft in face and body.
Two small chariots pulled up, each drawn by a team of three horses and manned by a driver who hauled on the reins to circle the chariots and bring them to a stop.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged hugs with Lila and the Amazons.
"You'll be switching chariots out on the plain," Xena went over the protocol. "One of the drivers who'll be picking you up will give you the letter from Diomedes. It will have his seal on it. Be sure you don't lose it. It's your ticket to safe passage. There'll be a boat beached and waiting for you behind the Argive lines. Climb aboard, shove off, start rowing, then hoist the sail. The moon will be coming up shortly after the twelfth candlemark. Keep her behind you at the width of a quarter turn of the bow to starboard. That'll set you on a bee line for Tenedos. Many skiffs and scows belonging to the Argive merchant fleet will be shipping out empty from Tenedos, some to the Chalkidiki capes. Word will have made the rounds that you're the Amazons who can crew as fine as any squad of mates and bo'sons. Keep the faith, and we'll be seeing you back home once this bloody business has run its course to term."
"Thank you, Xena; for everything. And you, too, Gabrielle," the Amazons crowded around and each waited to connect with Xena and Gabrielle in powerful hand to elbow grips of temporary farewell.
"Ephiny," Gabrielle smiled and reached out to embrace her dear friend.
"Don't make us wait too long to see your face again. You take good care, you hear?" Ephiny hugged Gabrielle and they kissed each other on the cheek. "Look after that Warrior Princess of yours. Make sure she gets some sleep -- and takes a day off every other moonmark."
Gabrielle grinned and assured Ephiny that she’d take Ephiny’s sage advice.
"Velasca," Gabrielle reached out a warm hand, "have a safe trip home. It will be good to see you again when Xena and I get back."
"Do come soon, Gabrielle," Velasca said, taking Gabrielle's hand and gripping it firmly. "We'll be needing your advice and guidance. But it will be good just to see you."
They quickly embraced and parted.
"Lee," Gabrielle went over to Lila. "Please be careful. I don't think we'll be here much longer. Let's not let the grass grow under our feet before we find a way to spend some quality time together, just the two of us, okay? Maybe we could take a couple, three days to head up to Thessaloniki and bang around a bit and have ourselves a whaling good time."
"I'd like that," Lila said. "No Xena, no anybody, just us -- though I do like Xena. I've grown quite fond of her, actually. Any word to bring back to Mom and Dad?"
"Just tell them I love them and that I'll be seeing them soon," Gabrielle said.
"I'm going to have to tell them the truth. About me and Penthesileia," Lila said. "It won't be easy, but I've never lied to them before, and I don’t think I could start doing that now."
"You're a grown woman, Lee," Gabrielle said. "A woman of power and grace who’ll never need to lie. About Penthesileia or anything else. I'm so incredibly proud of you!" Gabrielle reached out and gave Lila a big hug.
"Woo! You're so much stronger than you look," Lila gasped as Gabrielle's hug scrunched the air out of her lungs. "Maybe I'll start working out ‘til I get as musclebound as Minya so I can freak you and Xena out when you get home."
"Seeing you looking like Minya would freak me out allright," Gabrielle grinned. "Say hi to Lex."
Lila said she would and then her face grew pallid. "Tell her... just tell her that I love her, would you, Gab?"
"I will," Gabrielle took Lila's hand and gave it a warm squeeze. "I surely will."
Ephiny, Solari, Eponin and Lila climbed onto one of the cars. Velasca, Elana, Oriena and Thelestria climbed into the other. The drivers snapped the reins. The horses pitched forward. The gate opened. The Amazons and Lila whipped around to wave and shout their farewells.
"King Priam wishes you gods' speed! Cherish those jeweled lion clasps he gave you!" Xena shouted above the thrumping of the horses’ hooves. And away they went, flying far from the doomed walls of Ilium toward the battle lines of the eager, marauding, Argive soldiery.
The gates swung closed. The sentries resumed their watch along the palisade. The air, lit by the early sunlight, was suddenly thin and still. Tears came to Gabrielle's eyes as she watched several guards lift the huge blunderbuss and heft it into place as a bar across the gate. Then she turned to Xena and made a sad face. Xena made a sad face too and reached out to place a sturdy hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"I'm gonna miss them," Gabrielle said.
"We'll be hooking up with them before long," Xena said.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it go. "I truly hope so."
The best remedy for the blues, in Xena's experience, was some old-fashioned, task-oriented elbow grease which she heartily recommended to Gabrielle as soon as they'd had breakfast in the refectory. Joxer would be spending the day in the tiny laboratory that he'd rigged up in back of the kitchen while Xena and Gabrielle would be returning to the labyrinthine underground below the city's fortifications. Xena had discovered some troublesome gaps in the vents and pipes, the kind of gaps that Autolycus had uncovered in the basement of the pottery works that had made it possible for him to lug the warehouse inventory to the jail cells in the cellar of the constable's station. Just as loose lips tended to sink ships, Xena pointed out, unplugged holes often attracted moles -- some of them armed with swords and spears, inflammable solvents and ready-to-light torches.
Out on Scamander's sandy wastes, under the rising sun, the two chariots went racing, at top speed, along the broad, flat delta. There were no trees to stipple or hills to mottle the land, only the huge bowl of the sky and the unscreened blaze of Helios’ fiery orb to pour down unabated upon puny men and miniscule women who had the temerity to imagine that they might be the peers of the gods. The wind whipped past the drivers and their passengers, blasts of it slamming into faces now reddening from the down-streaming rays of the blaring sun.
"Yeee...!" the Amazons cried. "Have huntress' eyes ever seen so vast and rolling a plain!"
"Lila!" Ephiny shouted above the rush of wind and the rumble of the horses’ hooves. "Hold on tight!"
"I'm doing my best!" Lila shouted as she hung for dear life onto the leather handles that ran like a belt around the interior of the top of the chariots' outer rim. "Everything's a blur!"
"You need goggles to see anything!" Solari cried.
"And strips of leather to braid in our hair to keep it out of our eyes!" Eponin shouted.
Far in the distance, two small dots materialized on the horizon. They grew bigger as they advanced toward the racing chariots. The Amazons could eventually make out the shape of two empty chariots approaching them at a gallop. When the matching pair of horse-driven cars had come within twenty lengths of the opposite pair, the horses began to slow their pace. The roar of the wind and the bumpy grind over the cracked hardtack began to ease until, at length, the chariots circled each other and came to a gradual stop. They were out in the middle of nowhere -- not a shrub, not a brake, not a knoll, not another living thing in this empty and desolate stretch of dirt so hard it could almost be turved for brick.
The chariot drivers dismounted. Ilium’s walls were so stupendous that even out here, in the middle of nowhere, at a distance of two leagues and more from the city, those walls towered over the landscape like ancient megaliths menacing a meadow. One pair of drivers strode up to the other pair. Each pair halted. They stood their ground in plume and mail, made fists with their right hands and, clamping the front of those fists to their breasts just below the left collarbone, one pair cried, "Apo Troias!" and the opposing pair cried, "Apo Hellas!"
"They're your charges now," the driver of Lila's chariot spoke to one of the Argive drivers.
"Dismount and switch," the Argive driver approached the Amazons and barked in a none too friendly a tone of voice.
The Amazons and Lila climbed down from one set of chariots and mounted the other.
"Thank you," several voices called to the Trojan drivers who, perhaps not wanting to trigger an unpleasant incident between belligerents, declined to honor the acknowledgement as they climbed into their chariots, wheeled around and bolted back across the plain to the giant gates of the walled city.
"Who's your leader?" the gruff charioteer scowled at the Amazons.
Ephiny and Velasca exchanged glances. "She is," Velasca said and nodded in Ephiny's direction.
"Hang onto this, then," the charioteer handed Ephiny a rolled scroll bound with a length of blue ribbon. "And don’t lose it."
The Amazons assembled in the two chariots, picking up the rope handles and twisting them around their wrists for firm grips.
"You bitches ready?" the charioteer barked in a familiar accent. Ah, the Amazons sighed, the sweet sound of home.
"Walkin' the streets of Troy," the second charioteer taunted. "The Johns back in Thessaloniki aren't good enough for you?"
Velasca's eyes flared with rage. Her hand drifted toward the pommel of her sword. But she was able to keep her cool sufficiently to think the same thought that the others were thinking. If they let themselves get provoked and, in consequence, were to run these turkeys through with the shafts of their blades, their Amazon gooses would be cooked on the spot, and they would never live to see the ocean waves on the nearby shore, never mind the distant huts of their village and their sisters who were anxiously awaiting their return.
Once more, the chariots took off at a gallop. This time the long lines of the Argive encampment rose up in the distance. Lila and the Amazons marveled at the sight. They'd had no idea how immense the Argive build up had gotten during the week in which they'd been King Priam's guests in the royal halls of Ilium. But now they beheld rank upon rank and file after file of the massing Argive armies, wave upon wave of enlisted men and draftees, comported in companies and brigades, brought in from the farthest isles for what must surely be an upcoming, go-for-broke offensive on a scale of tidal proportions.
The mighty arm of Hellas, from Crete and Rhodes in the southeast to the Illyrian coast in the northwest, was throwing everything it had at staunch Ilium that now stood alone, with only a handful of allies, at the gateway to Ionia, Anatolia and the endless leagues of the Asian plateau that stretched as far into the nether distance as the legendary kingdom of Chin. For an instant -- perhaps longer -- upon seeing this oceanic upsweep of military personnel and materiel poised to strike the death blow at the fortress city which stood in lone splendor before it, the Amazons' hearts went out to the people of Ilium no less than to their Themiscyran sisters who’d come to stand bravely with them. Honor and nobility, the realization was hammered home to the Amazons in the swiftest turn of the sandglass, had little, in the end, to do with the fortunes of win and lose.
To the roar of the beefed-up emplacements, Lila and the Amazons came thundering up to and then through the Argive lines, staring in speechless wonder at the huge panoply of thousands of bodies in assorted troop formations. The line parted to let the chariots pass and then closed around them like the ocean swell closing upon the wake of a passing prow.
Somewhere in this mass of humanity now seasoned for battle and poised to strike, Perdicas and Andros, along with Alexis' brothers, Galen and Menarchos, were performing some duty or fulfilling some function as compliant cogs in this grandiose war machine. Perhaps these young volunteers of the Poteidaian company would hear the story, told later that night around one of the invaders’ innumerable campfires, of the seven birdlike women in skimpy bras and panties and an eighth woman, in a creme and buff tunic over a brown wraparound skirt, who'd ridden past these reinforced batteries earlier in the day. Macedonian Greeks, they were, brought out from Troy not as part of a hostage swap but as bloody guests of King Priam and his dirty, thievin' Trojans, can you believe: traitors to the Argive cause who merited, each one of them, the brazen hussies, to be shriven by the mercy awaiting them at the tip of a thrusting sword.
"Allright, ladies, you're on your own," the chariot driver pulled up somewhere in the grand push and pull of these expansive military preparations. Smoke rose from forges where iron was being smelted into weapons and tools. Flames leapt from charcoal-stoked braziers next to which, on anvils, the bashing clang of sword shafts being hammered and bellowed echo'ed so loudly that voices had to shout to be heard above the din. Troops marshalled in opposing lines were sparring with javelins, halberds, lances and pikes in preparation for an infantry charge so wide and sweeping that the soldiers, charging with spears and swords, would look, from above, where divinity hovered, as relentless in their advance as a thundering tidal wave bearing down, with superhuman force, on the straw huts that leaned on poles above the calm inlet of a gently sheltered beach.
"We were told there’d be a boat waiting for us," Ephiny said to the charioteer.
"Then head on down to the beach. If it's there, you'll see it," the charioteer replied and then shoo'ed the horses away, leaving the Amazons and Lila, without an escort, to make their way through the crowd of military personnel in the hope that their dress, gender and strange presence among these men geared up for battle wouldn't trip the wire of an unfortunate incident.
"There it is! I see it!" Solari cried as the Amazons and Lila drifted to the rear of the base camps and climbed the dunes that sloped down to the shore. As promised, a skiff with eight oars and a furled sail sat beached at the edge of the tide, ready for boarding and launching into the waves.
"It's smaller and lighter than the one that took us here," Eponin peered the two hundred paces down the sandy scrawl, interspersed with tidal stones, to the waiting craft whose rudder sat on the stern seat ready to be shanked and dropped. "We ought to make pretty decent time hauling over the water."
Just then, off to the left, in the direction of the cove where hordes of men were yelping, howling and brandishing weapons in mock battle, a gang of soldiers came running down to the shoreline in the direction of Lila and the Amazons. Wailing and shrieking, they appeared to be a group of fifty to sixty armed regulars, a whole platoon that looked to have suddenly been set upon by a nest of angry hornets who'd caused them to flee, in broken formation, on the heels of dozens of painful stings. The women paused and turned their heads. One or two chuckled at the sight.
"Amazons! Amazons!" the men's voices cried as though they were trying to get the women's attention, perhaps to issue a warning or to assist them with urgent words of advice.
Ephiny perked up her head and frowned. "What's all the shouting about?" she called to the others. "Can anyone tell why they're motioning to us?"
"Amazons! Friggin' Amazons!"
Ephiny stepped forward while the others stood still. "What is it!?" she shouted across the dunes that separated the women from the warring charge.
"Death to the friggin' Amazons! Get the flippin' bitches! Slice the horny dykes from gut to gizzard!"
"What?!" Ephiny shouted. "What are they shouting about?"
"They sound pretty hostile, Eph," Solari called out.
Then the men, brandishing their swords and lances, came tearing along the beach, rapidly closing on the women who were still a good hundred paces from the boat.
"They're wheeling their swords around! I think they're coming for us!" Eponin shouted.
"Look! Up there!" Elana pointed to the crest of the marshy berm that overlooked the sandy dunes. "Those guys are pointing at us and laughing!"
A group of onlookers stood crowded together, perhaps a hundred strong. They were razzing, guffawing and egging their comrades on. "Amazons lop off one boob so they can fire their bows and arrows!" some joker in the crowd heehawed. "How about loppin' off the other boob so they can do their curls and bench presses!"
"C'mon, let's get going!" Ephiny shouted.
The Amazons and Lila lit out for the boat with the soldiers in hot pursuit. What had initially appeared to be some kind of a sleazy prank on the part of a bunch of guys out for a romp was now turning deadly as the weapon wielders, with the cold fire of real hatred in their eyes, came roaring along the beach with what now seemed to be an intent to inflict genuine violence upon the Amazons.
As the Amazons fled, with Lila struggling to keep up, the men, being, for the most part, bigger and longer strided, rapidly closed the gap.
"The only good Amazon is a dead one, and these chicks are about to become real good Amazons!" one of their pursuers bellowed, and the others responded by raising the hue and cry of lurid blood lust. Whether the men's fierce hostility was rooted in meanness, idleness, bigotry or depravity, the women's blood grasped what their heads could hardly fathom. Murder was in the air and had overmastered all sense, restraint and the least shreds of fellow feeling.
"Let's turn and fight!" Eponin shouted.
"We've stood up to bozo's like these before!" Solari cried.
"Half of 'em are drunk and the other half are beanbags!" Elana hooted.
"If it were three or even five to one, we could handle them! But look! It's easily ten to one! That's too many!" Ephiny cried. "Onto the boat! It's our only chance!"
The women were nearing on the boat, but Velasca saw that there was no way they could reach the boat, shove off into the waves, then climb aboard and row far enough away from shore to escape the clutches of their maddened pursuers. They'd take down twenty, maybe thirty attackers but they'd all pay with their lives.
Reaching the boat a step behind Ephiny, Velasca made an instant decision. She whirled around and cried, "Amazons! To the boat! Shove off and ply the oars!" But instead of joining in the effort to shove the boat off the smooth, grippy wetness of the sand at the water's edge, Velasca turned back to face the raging mob.
"Velasca!" Ephiny cried. "What are you doing?"
"Get everyone into the boat! Lila, to the boat! I'll stand them off! That will buy you the time you need to get out past the breakers!" Velasca shouted.
"Velasca, what are you saying...," Ephiny cried.
"Don't argue with me, Ephiny! There isn't time!" Velasca shouted and whipped her sword out of its scabbard. "All of you push and launch while I screen them off!"
"Velasca!" Ephiny came running up to her. "You'll be killed!"
"Better that one should go down than all should perish!" Velasca cried. "I'm the strongest. I'm the best of us in a fight. You've said it yourself. We can't sustain anymore losses than we’ve already suffered. Go, Ephiny! They're murderers! Take the Amazons, flee and live!"
"Then I'll go down fighting by your side!" Ephiny cried and reached for her sword as the others were clearing the boat from the sand.
"No!" Velasca overruled her. "They need a leader. Be their leader, Ephiny! Be for them what Melosa was for us! They need you! Don't desert them!"
Ephiny hesitated, torn between the opposite poles of duty and desire.
"Place your hand on my sword," Velasca extended the pommel of her sword to Ephiny. Ephiny grasped it and Velasca placed her hand over Ephiny's. "Together we quarreled. Together we reconciled. Together we do this deed. Hand in hand. Heart to heart. For the Amazons."
"For the Amazons," Ephiny said.
"Now go!" Velasca wrenched the sword free of Ephiny's grip and turned to hold off the engines of frenzied blood lust. "Foul dogs! You spit on the Amazons? Well, watch how an Amazon kills before she dies!"
In the instant of truth that came roaring up from the waves like a sea serpent to scorch Ephiny with the fiery breath of irrevocable decision, Ephiny turned and ran to the boat – the Amazons needed a leader, maybe not a queen in a mask and feathers, but a leader in hand and heart, and, whether she liked it or not, the voice of truth told Ephiny that she was that leader.
"We will honor you, Velasca!" Ephiny cried. "We will never forget your bravery and sacrifice! And I will deeply mourn for you, my sister and my friend!"
Then Ephiny lit out for the boat and lurching hands dragged her aboard.
"Amazons, row!" Ephiny cried and the women, grabbing for the oars, found the locks and began to haul for their lives while, on the shore, buying the precious sand grains that made the difference between Amazon life and death, Velasca cut down five, ten, twenty attackers before the furious swarm at length overpowered even her brave sword and redeemed heart as the waters of life, pierced, gouged, hacked and a hundred times rent by the pokes and strokes of cowards not fit to serve as goons for Latrinus' raid on defenseless pots and bowls, spilled and then poured onto the sandy beach, sanctifying this ground to the glory of the many Amazon dead who'd given their lives for the sake of their beloved sisters. Out on the waves, free at last from the murderous onslaught, their pursuers having no craft at hand with which to give chase, the Amazons and Lila, strengthened by panic and beset by confusion, rowed for their lives long after land was out of sight and it had become clear to them that no pursuit was in the offing. Not a one of them could piece together the precise sequence of events or comprehend the senselessness of such random and pointless blood lust with its murderous violence that had neither rhyme nor reason. The gods were petty, mean, spiteful and cruel, but were they also demented, sadistic and crazy? If only there might be a reason. But there was no reason. And there wasn't even a reason why there wasn’t a reason.
Solari, Eponin and Lila rowed on one side of the lurching craft. Elana, Oriena and Thelestria rowed on the other. Dread silence ruled the waves, the brine so flat and gentle that the oars left little, eddying swirls in their wake to drift far astern and unravel in the softness of the sea. The only sound the women could hear, above the dip and haul of the oars, honoring that sound with their silence as they rowed and wouldn't stop rowing long after they could have eased their toil by hoisting the sail, was Ephiny, seated in the bow, facing the stern and the six women whom she now led westward toward the island of Tenedos: Ephiny who had won an historic place for herself among the bravest and most dedicated of the Amazons, the victorious commander of the Battle of the Strymon Road, one of the most glorious victories in the mighty lore of the Amazons, a woman already close to being a legend in her own time, but who now moaned and gagged and wept like a baby, making no effort to hide from her sisters the wracking sobs rolling up from her gut or the torrent of tears now pouring from her eyes and sweeping down her cheeks and chin without the least hint of shame or embarrassment.
"I Will Remember You" by Amy Grant, Gary Chapman & Keith Thomas
|Continued - Chapter 60|
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