Chapter 6: "She Was Made A Wonder Of Beauty...

even in her death...

to the end that he, the son of noble Peleus,

might be pierced with the sharp arrow of repentant love..."

The following morning, after a breakfast of wheat groats and feta cheese, Lila gathered up a mesh of loose netting, tossed it over her shoulder, left the cottage and headed down the lane into town.

The netting was made to stretch bulbously to the ground. Slung crosswise over both shoulders and hitched to a harness buckled at the hips, the netting evenly distributed the weight of fruits, vegetables and other staples so that even those women who were slight of build could carry as much as a saddleweight for several leagues without undue strain on their shoulders and backs.

The day was tart with the heat a bare candlemark after sunrise: a day for stopping into the café with Alexis when the shopping was done, for relaxing with a tall flagon of cool, lemon-bobbed grenadine and a petite square of baklava lathered in a thin layer of ground walnuts and topped with a stream of honey. Anticipating the calm and ease of that well-earned snack on the heels of the day's crush and haggle, Lila smiled pleasantly as she made her way through the dense acacia grove, softly humming the sour distraint of one of the region's glorious Macedonian magnificats. Yet Lila's smile faded somewhat and her humming tailed off to a murmur when she recalled that her father, along with a number of the other men from the surrounding villages, had, shortly after dawn, lit out in pursuit of Latrinus' gang of armed thugs. Daddy, be careful, Lila mumbled with a touch of rising anxiety; I hope you aren't biting off more than you can chew.

The cottages' kitchen gardens supplied most of the households' store of perishables. The market stalls sported silks, trinkets, herbs, spices, crockery, cutlery and succulent fruits – mangoes, avocados, pomegranates – that couldn't be procured locally. Pomegranates: mustn’t forget to stop by the fruit vendor's stall and make good on yesterday's little caper. And no doubt the Felafel Man would be working the crowd, his acrid lunch cart teeming with pungent tins of ground chick peas, often badly burnt, and diced cukes and tomatoes that looked too wilted and smothered with pepper to be very appetizing. I swear, Lila shook her head, that man gads about the world so gross and grungy, I don't know how he manages to make ends meet from one day to the next.

Alexis was already caught up in the swing of things by the time Lila came strolling through the town gate and approached the main square. Alexis was wearing a ruffly skirt of a deep garnet color and a thin, white, cotton blouse through which the straps and cups of her bra were vaguely visible.

Honest to Zeus, Lila wondered, I can’t imagine why Lexie's parents permit her walk around looking so disheveled, especially with that striking mass of tousled red hair. "She's got the blood of the Bulgars in her veins, the coarse, redheaded one," some of the old dodgers nodded knowingly at one another as they sat and smoked their pipes on the square's stone benches while oogling the tasty wenches who ambled singly or in pairs in and out of the rows of market stalls. It often seemed to Lila as though, expressly to make a young woman feel self-conscious, these frayed and balding duffers had been permanently installed on the low benches that lay shaded beneath the portico along the inner wall of the high, wooden palisade. They were probably accurate in their assessment of Alexis, though. There was indeed something Northern, unkempt and slattern about Alexis whom Lila now spotted at a fabric booth manned by a dark young man who had a fine mane of thick, black hair; probably a traveling merchant from the Levant come on one of his periodic stops along the port circuit of the Aegean from the Peloponnese in the southwest to the far reaches of the Halicarnassus in the northeast.

"Three dinars and not one drachma more," Alexis was haggling with the young merchant. "That's as good an offer as you're going to get for three armlengths of plain bolted cloth and you know it. Look," Alexis took a hank of the smooth, unbleached fabric between her fingers and crinkled it. "See how easy it creases? I bet it'll shrink plenty as soon as it’s washed and hung out to dry."

The young merchant bowed gracefully behind his wide counter piled high with silks and crepes. "Given the material’s superior quality," he said, "letting you have that much worsted cloth for a mere five dinars would amount to giving it away. Tell you what, I'll throw in a paper of pins from Crete where they make the finest darning pins in all of creation. You know you'll be needing good, sturdy pins to hold the hems in place." The merchant demonstrated how the material, well-suited for rougher, winter wear, was the dickens to stay pinned when using ordinary pins. "Hassan is an honest merchant," the young man said of himself. "He has never cheated his customers, especially those of Hellas, who are famed for driving the hardest bargains throughout the length and breadth of the known world."

"Four dinars, take it or leave it," Alexis held firm. "C'mon, that's all the dinars I've got."

Hassan smiled. "Although I will be forced to take a loss on the sale, I do not mind doing so for the sake of one whose face and hair, its beauty and lustre, must surely arouse the jealousy of Aphrodite herself. Four dinars it is."

"Yadda, yadda...," Alexis waved the compliment away as money and material changed hands. But Hassan may have been sincere in his flattery in view of his lingering gaze. For her part, being not unresponsive to the beckoning upsurge of the internal juices prompted by the admiring gaze of the handsome young merchant, Alexis made a slight demur, her bright, green eyes flirting as nimbly as his dark brown ones as she took her leave, the folded quantity of fabric tucked safely under one arm.

"What was that all about?" Lila caught up with Alexis and fell into step beside her.

"Check it out," Alexis turned to Lila with an affectionate smile and showed her the fabric. "Ought to be good for at least a couple of skirts, don’t you think?"

"Good Olympus'es!" Lila gasped. Two large bruises, one on her cheek, the other on her forehead, discolored Alexis' face. "Lexie, is that what you got when you landed in the bushes last night?"

"They're showing, aren't they," Alexis wrinkled her nose and gave Lila a sour look.

"Poor Lexie," Lila smiled sympathetically. "Does it hurt?"

"Only when I squint," Alexis said.

"Did your parents flip out when you walked in the door?"

"I was gonna tell 'em I got jumped by the goons who jumped Mickey, but I figured that if I did that, I might get grounded for my own protection. So I told 'em the truth."

"You told your parents you jumped out the window to run off to the meadow and meet up with The Big O?" Lila eyes were incredulous.

"No, silly, I told them I fell out the window and landed in the bushes," Alexis shook her head at Lila's naiveté.

"But didn't they ask why you fell out the window?"

"Yeah, and I told 'em. I said you were showing me how to do action crochet and that when I dove to catch the ball of yarn you tossed at me, I didn't know how close to the window I was. Being as how the window was open and there was no screen in it, there was nothing to keep me from landing in the bushes when I hit the edge and went over the sill."

"Lexie," Lila raised an eyebrow, "you told you parents you fell out the window doing action crochet?"

"Got any better ideas?"

"Didn't they ask you what action crochet was? Action crochet: what a crock."

"When you embroider as badly as I do, action crochet could only be an improvement. Besides, Dad was at Mickey's with your dad. Now the guys are beating the bushes, hunting for Latrinus and his gang."

"I know. Dad was out of the house by the time I got up. I hope our fathers don't do anything reckless. It's times like these when I wish that Perdy, Andros and your brothers would hurry up and get home from the war."

Lila and Alexis had arrived at the far end of the marketplace where slews of goats, chickens and sheep had been herded into pens, coops and folds. Beyond the last cordon of stalls and stands, alone in the sun, his one-man-band of pots, pans, ladles and tureens clanking and simmering, the Felafel Man kept a lonely watch on his lunch cart. The crowd that only a few weeks ago would have gathered around him at any candlemark of the day to hear news of the war was nowhere to be seen now that the news, more likely than not, would be discouraging. "Pocket Sandwiches One Dinar: Tahini Extra," read the sign over the cart.

Lila and Alexis went padding over.

"Good day, ladies," the Felafel Man beamed his shaggy, unshaven smile at the day's first potential customers. "It's getting on toward lunchtime. After a busy morning spent haggling and bargaining, the two of you must be famished. Try my nice hummus plate: crushed chickpeas steeped in olive oil with a sprig of parsley, spread smoothly on a fresh sesame bun, garnished with a slice of lemon and served with lightly salted papaya chips. How about it, girls: you can't beat the price and I'll throw in a bottle of fizz water on the cart. My compliments to the two loveliest ladies whose presence, on this warm and sunny market day, graces the streets and alleys of Poteidaia-By-The-Sea."

"Whew," Alexis waved her hand like a fan in front of her face, "get me a knife and I'll cut it."

"It would be an honor no less than a pleasure to serve lunch to the splendid daughters of Herodotus and Clenesthides," the Felafel Man poured it on.

"Cut to the chase, F.M.," Alexis grilled him with a look. "It's been over a week since we've heard anything about how the war's been going. And when I cornered Salmoneus at his Treasures of the Nile booth the other day and tried to get him to talk, he was like, 'The war? What war? I didn't know were fighting a war.'"

"War," the Felafel Man mused. "Battle. Combat. Men – sometimes women – in arms, slicing and hacking at one another with sharp, pointed instruments amid fierce, blood-curdling yells and horrid, agonizing cries. Yes, I've heard tell of such awful goings on."

"C’mon, give us the skinny," Alexis persisted. "What's been hitting the fan that we aren't being told about?"

"There's been a news blackout," the Felafel Man wiped his hands on a soiled rag. "By order of King Agammemnon."

"The news must be pretty bad, then," Lila murmurred.

"So spill already," Alexis' eyes drilled more deeply into the somewhat distracted expression on the Felafel Man's pasty face.

"Right now, I'd say that your guess is as good as mine," the Felafel Man shrugged.

"But you get around. You must get word of things on your travels," Lila said.

"Well, there have been rumors," the Felafel Man said in a cagey tone of voice. "Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to divulge them."

"Bullhockey," Alexis protested. "We've got friends and loved ones over there. We've got a right to know what’s going on."

"Are you sure you ladies wouldn't care for a bite to eat?" the Felafel Man smiled unguently at Lila and Alexis. "I have grape leaves. I have egg drop soup. I’m sure you'll go gaga over my juicy lamb kabob."

"Hmm, maybe I'll try the special," Alexis said in an effort to butter him up.

"One hummus plate coming up," the Felafel Man took the prepped platter out of the cabinet below the clashing clutter of cooking utensils.

"Make that two," Lila said, realizing that she was getting hungry.

"Shake-a, shake-a, shake-a, oregano and spice; some red and yellow pep-per will make it very nice," the Felafel Man crooned as he seasoned the hummus. "Your every dish is my command."

When the specials were done, the Felafel Man handed one plate to Lila, the other one to Alexis.

Lila took out her purse and paid for both of them.

"Lee, wait," Alexis said. "Here," she said to the Felafel Man, "take my dinar and give one of hers back."

"My treat," Lila waved Alexis' dinar away. "For the way my mom almost sliced you to ribbons last night. You still owe me for the table, though."

"So how come there’s a news blackout?" Alexis nodded her thanks at Lila and chomped on her hummus roll.

"Well," the Felafel Man said, "it seems that things have been heating up over there." He popped the tops off a couple of spritzers and gave one to each of the ladies.

"Whyzzat? Urrpp...," Alexis took a swig and belched.

"Achilles, for one thing," the Felafel Man said. "The spoilsport's gone on strike. Lolls around in his tent, won't get naked, won't run foot races with the guys on the beach."

"That overgrown hunk of postpubescent hormones?" Alexis grunted, "What's the big kahuna's problem this time?"

"Agammemnon. The King took Achilles' mistress away," the Felafel Man said.

"Poor baby," Alexis rolled her eyes and shot a peevish glance at Lila. "So why doesn't the dude shack up with some other broad? Achilles has never been shy when it comes to hitting on chicks."

"Agammemnon was hoping that if Achilles were to spend less time in the sack, he might put in more time with the pack," the Felafel Man said. "But the deal backfired and now the big fella just sits around and mopes. And then there's Aphrodite."

"Why would Aphrodite care? Old Toots can't stand Achilles," Alexis took another bite.

"It's Briseis who Aphrodite’s concerned about: Achilles' mistress," the Felafel Man said, "She's one of Aphrodite's pets."

"With whom Agammemnon is no doubt rolling in the sea shells even as we speak," Alexis looked at Lila who was chewing on a huge mouthful of lunch and trying to breathe at the same time.

"You know what they say: one man's loss is another man's toss," the Felafel Man stirred the soup pot. "But it seems that our boys are about to encounter something... that is to say, someone... who could give them worse fits than Hector and all his Trojans." The Felafel Man looked cautiously around the square lest any random passerby might overhear. "Someone who just might reverse the course of the war and bring disaster raining down on Achaian, Spartan, Mycenean, Thessalonian and, not least of all, on nice boys from small, out-of-the-way, Macedonian towns like this one."

"A god who's more powerful than Ares, Aphrodite and Apollo?" Alexis mentioned the three Olympian divinities who were backing the Trojans.

"A warlord who's as wild and crazy as Xena used to be?" Lila said.

Then Lila and Alexis turned to look at one another, their eyes bulging with disbelief. "It couldn’t be... Joxer?!"

"That someone – that group of someones – is none other than Queen Penthesileia of the Seven Stars and her elite corps of Amazons. The buzz is that they're on their way from their home in Themiscyra, at the mouth of the River Thermidon, two hundred leagues to the east of Ilium, to fight alongside the Trojans from the banks of the Xanthus to the shores of the Scamander," the Felafel Man relayed the bad news.

Alexis' jaw dropped. "Penthesileia and her Amazons? Are on their way to Troy to take on the Argive? You gotta be goosing the moose."

"I wish I was. As I say, the reports are unconfirmed," the Felafel Man hush-hushed. "At this point in time, no one knows what’s really going on over there."

"Who's Penthesil... who'd did you say this person was?" Lila said to the Felafel Man.

"The bards say that she was made a wonder of beauty," the Felafel Man said, "and that all who look upon her behold..."

"Trouble with a capital Tau," Alexis said. "She's an Amazon queen like Melosa was, except that Melosa was a small-time queen. This girl is big time. Plus they're the kind of in-your-face Amazons that make Ephiny, Solari and Eponin seem downright ladylike."

"Gab and Xena have gone to try and get some jeweled belt from Queen Admete so they can give it back to the Amazons," Lila said, munching on her hummus roll.

"Hippolyte’s belt," The Felafel Man said.

"That’s the one," Lila said. "You know about it, then."

"I should say," The Felafel Man said in a wary tone of voice.

"I don't get it," Lila frowned. "What has some jeweled Amazon belt got to do with Gab and Xena and the war in Troy heating up?"

Alexis took the last bite of her hummus roll and handed the empty plate to the Felafel Man who scraped off the drippings and dumped the plate into the dirty dish tub. "The Amazon tribe that Gab's the acting queen of is a small, out of the way tribe. And it's a Macedonian tribe, meaning that it's technically a Greek tribe. Penthesileia heads up a federation of much bigger tribes, and they’ve gone to war against the Greeks."

"I thought an Amazon was an Amazon," Lila said.

"They are, but they're spread out. Some Amazons are Greek, but most aren't," Alexis said. "So the stories they tell about Hippolyte's belt must be true, then."

"What's the rap on this fancy Amazon belt? Gab never said," Lila scowled, sensing a potentially unpleasant train of events that might be about to unfold.

"The jeweled belt of the Amazons," the Felafel Man said. "It was forged by Hephaestos, at Ares' request, as a gift for Hippolyte, an Amazon queen whom Ares was courting much as he was later to court Xena. Hippolyte is – that is to say, she was – Penthesileia's older sister. Hippolyte was a magnificent queen as were her two older sisters, Antiope and Melanippe. But they're gone now – each one to an early grave – leaving Penthesileia to inherit the mantle of Queen de la Queen of all the Amazon queens."

"So Ares is mucking around at the bottom of this," Lila said. "It figures."

"For as long as Hippolyte had the belt," the Felafel Man said, "the Amazon tribes spread their wings until their villages stretched far and wide, from their homeland in Libya to their great stronghold along the broad delta of the Thermidon in central Pontus and into the Scythian wilds; from the gates of Palestine to the halls of Mesopotamia, then north to Anatolia, westward to Mycenae and, most recently, into these northern climes of Thessaly, Illyria, Chalkidiki and Central Macedonia."

"So Ephiny's tribe – Gab's tribe – is a pretty new tribe," Lila said.

"But its roots lie deep in the soil of a glorious past," the Felafel Man said.

"A past that they say is being threatened with extinction," Alexis said.

The Felafel Man nodded. "They're neither Greek like us nor Phrygian like the Trojans, the main body of the Amazons. Still, whether African, Asian, Persian or Hittite, those women whose hearts are brave and souls are pure can become Amazons if they feel the call to serve the Amazon nation and thereafter prove themselves worthy in battle. And now the Amazon elite goes to fight as allies of the Trojans in their zeal to avenge Hippolyte's murder and the theft of her precious belt."

"The belt that Gab and Xena have gone to get," Lila said.

"The very same," the Felafel Man said. "Honor, glory and vengeance, the three in equal measure, these are the spoils of Amazon war. Penthesileia has vowed to slay Achilles on the field of battle and so to deliver the forces of Agammemnon into the hands of King Priam and all his noble house. Before the bloody deed is done, however, the Great Queen will determine what's to become of Ephiny and those who are loyal to her. If Penthesileia’s judgment should go against them, Velasca, a Lydian by birth and Melosa's adopted daughter, stands to reign unchallenged, along with her chiefs, in these northwesternmost marches of Amazon settlement."

"But Achilles is fated to fall by an arrow shot from Paris' bow. Everyone knows that, even Achilles," Lila said.

"Quite so," the Felafel Man said. "But such is the courage and majesty of Penthesileia that she's prepared to defy the Fates themselves in her mission to right the wrong that was done to her sister – and to the Amazon nation – when stealth and deception stole what honor and valor could not obtain."

"Who stole the belt? Autolycus?" Lila said.

"None but the very best of men," the Felafel Man said. "It was Hercules himself."

"No!" Lila recoiled. "That's not possible. Herc would never act with stealth and deception. Herc's a hero with a heart of gold."

The Felafel Man smiled. "It would seem that there's more afoot under Helios' fiery orb than has yet been compassed by the eye of our resident bard's little sister."

Lila shot a quick glance at Alexis who shrugged and said, "It's all Greek to me."

"Are you sure you aren't making this up?" Lila scowled at the Felafel Man.

Aping Alexis, the Felafel Man shrugged. "I'm only repeating what's been passed along to me. Take it with a grain of salt or, better yet, run it by your sister the next time she and Xena come breezing into town. Anyhow, I'll have to beg you kind ladies to excuse me. I see the lunch crowd milling about in the square. Pocket sandwiches, one dinar! Tahini extra! Halvah at a steal! Come and get it!"

The Felafel Man began to bang his metal spoon on the lids of his pots and tureens with such a deafening roar that Lila flung her hands to her ears and shouted at Alexis, "Good gods, let's get out of here!"

Lila and Alexis walked quickly to the far side of the marketplace where choice cuts of meat and ripe bushels of produce were being parsed and sold. Idling about the hawkers' carts, they picked out various items which they plopped into their expanding fishnet bags.

"I can't believe that Herc would steal from anyone, least of all from the Amazons," Lila shook her head. "And Iolaus, who's such a gentleman."

"People do strange things," Alexis said. "Xena did before she changed – if she really has changed."

"Oh, Xena's changed allright," Lila examined a ripe avocado and tossed it into the bag. "Xena isn't the screaming banshee she used to be. Xena's like Herc. Herc sticks up for the little people. So does Xena. I'd bet my life on it."

"You don't have to," Alexis picked out some fruit of her own, "Gab's beaten you to it."

Quintus Smyrnaeus' The Fall of Troy: Book 1, lines 909 - 913

Continued - Chapter 7

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