The Liliad
Chapter 60
There Is Nothin' Meana' Than An Aggravated Xena


Gabrielle came tearing down the marble staircase from the balcony. She burst through the door of the palace's guest quarters and raced across the mall and courtyard. Then she tore through the alley alongside the high palisade to the staging area behind the Sceaen gate where Xena was howling, white with rage, the blade of her sword pressed tightly against the throat of an Argive charioteer whose neck she seemed about to sever at a stroke. Behind the chariot, drawn by a leather hitch, was a two-wheeled trailer which carried a bier on whose flat surface a body was lying under a pile of woolen wrappings. An agitated crowd had gathered around the scene of the ruckus, and Gabrielle had to fight her way through the milling spectators to get to Xena.

"Xena!" Gabrielle cried when she saw the murderous look in the Warrior Princess' eyes. "Stop! What are you doing!"

"Filthy scum! Diomedes will pay with his life for this act of treachery, and so will his men, starting with you!" Xena wailed. Her fist clenched tightly on the hilt of her sword, ready to drive its deadly blade deep into the charioteer’s throat.

Gabrielle had seen Xena maniacally infuriated before but never, with the possible exception of the time they'd encountered The Horde, had Gabrielle seen flames of murder leaping in Xena's eyes. Biting back the urge to panic, Gabrielle flung herself forward and screeched, "Xena, what's gotten into you! Grab hold of yourself before you slaughter this man in cold blood!"

Xena tried to speak but couldn't. It took all the force of her immense will to prevent her hand from plunging the sword through the charioteer's neck and down though his innards to protrude through the pit of his belly. Xena's eyes shot fire at the bier which lay in back of the wagon, and Gabrielle, with a dread frown, her intuition alerted to something terrible that was waiting there, walked over to the bier and drew the wool coverings away. Her jaw dropped as she stared, for a long turn of the sandglass, in wordless horror.

"No...," Gabrielle said low and slowly shook her head, "Oh, no... It can’t be. No... No!!!"

Then Gabrielle whipped around, her eyes blazing with fury and incomprehension. "No, this can't be! I don't believe what my eyes are telling me! They’ve got to be lying!!" Gabrielle's hands flew to her face and began to gouge her eyes as though to punish them for their ugly, deceptive trick; but her will restrained her hands before they could do any damage as she turned back to the gruesome sight which lay on the bier now stripped of its bunched coverings. "No," Gabrielle reached out to touch the folds of the woolen shroud which she drew down to the foot of the bier until the weight of the gathered material caused the shroud to slide off the bier and fall to the ground, "this can't be. This thing... it can't be..."

Gabrielle leaned over the wretched sight and tears began to spill down her cheeks. "How could this be? How could this possibly be? Oh, my sister, where are your arms? I see one of them, but where's the other? And those caverns of grime and gore. Weren't those your breasts? And... oh, gods, there's a head atop your shoulders but no neck. What did they do with it? Where did they put it? I see a head but no face. They took your face. And...," looking the length of a body that was hardly a body any longer, so mauled, mangled, torn apart and desecrated it had become, "your belly, your womb, the sweetness that lay between your legs, all gone. There's nothing here but putrefied sinew and bone. This was Velasca...," Gabrielle turned around and addressed the crowd. "I know it was Velasca because this is her sword," Gabrielle lifted Velasca's sword off the bier and held it aloft for all to see. Then, with a loud roar of rage and grief, Gabrielle gave the sword a mighty swing and brought the shaft down, with all her force, on the top of the large iron wagon wheel. The blade shattered and then landed, in pieces, in the dirt. "And by the gods, no one will ever wield this sword again."

"Hold your hand. Don't kill him, Xena," Gabrielle turned away from the bier and flung the sword's hilt to the turf. She went up to the charioteer and said on a low, icy voice, brutal with clarity, a guttural voice that startled Xena as she had never heard Gabrielle speak in such a tone before. "Spare his life because he has something to tell us. Who did this deed?" Gabrielle looked, with calm rage, into the frightened man's eyes. "What are their names? To which platoon, company, brigade and battalion do they belong? What are their ranks and serial numbers? I want to know for the purpose of being able to notify their next of kin when this poker...," Gabrielle withdrew one of her sais from its holster, "has torn their rib cages open from throat to stomach and this thruster...," Gabrielle withdrew the other sai from its holster, "has ripped their bowels out so that their guts will dangle to the ground from the iron mast hooks on top which their torn-open bodies will be hanging by their severed necks."

The charioteer looked in terror at the drawn sais.

"Their names! Their ranks and serial numbers! Every last one! So we only grind the guilty to powder and pulp!" Gabrielle cried in an implacable fury.

"I can't tell you their names, ma'am," the charioteer whined, "but it don't matter none 'cause you're too late to do ‘em no harm. You and this hot-headed, crazy woman here. The ones that chopped up your friend have already bit the stone-fried potato. You might get a hold of their dead bodies and set 'em up for a skeet shoot, but there ain't no life left in 'em. Them fellas what done this deed have already had their throats slit with a whole lot bigger nick across the jugular than what you can get from the blade of a safety razor."

"What are you saying?" Gabrielle spoke, cold and mean.

"Let me finish him now, Gabrielle," Xena said. "Piece by rotten, rancid piece."

"Wait," Gabrielle said, looking at the charioteer. "Explain."

Raised nearly off his toes by Xena's iron grip, the charioteer struggled to get the words out.

"Let him go," Gabrielle said to Xena. "Listen to me," Gabrielle glared at the frightened charioteer. "You go back and tell Diomedes that we will loose such butchery upon the doers and witnesses of this deed that no man, Argive or Trojan, will ever dare to raise a feather, let alone a sword, to an Amazon again. Is that clear?! Is that a message you think your cowardly captains have the capacity to understand?! Now speak on pain of your life!"

Gabrielle turned and looked again at Velasca's cruelly dismembered corpse above which a swarm of flies were aloft in its foul stink. "Oh...," she bit back another sob, "you that I had only so recently embraced and called sister, you whose friendship and esteem I would so gladly have treasured. A warrior may fall in battle, may even be slain by treachery, but no brave warrior... no vile and murderous criminal even... deserves this..." Then Gabrielle turned back to the frightened charioteer and said, with the fire of rage engulfing her eyes, "Start talking."

Free of Xena's grip, the charioteer, an Argive surrounded by a crowd of hostile Trojans and two wild women who were apparently Amazons, gasped sharply for breath.

"No one's going to lynch you," Gabrielle said, then shouted at the horror-stricken crowd, "No one's to lay a hand on this man. You're to leave him to Xena and me. Now talk!"

"I never saw what went on," the charioteer said. "All's I can tell you is what got passed along to me when my c.o. said I had to load the body onto this here wagon and bring here to these walls 'case there was any next of kin who might be wantin' to bury it. And that's what I done, just like I was told to.

"There was a half dozen or more women in bird suits -- I guess they was Amazons -- come ridin' into camp, brung in on two chariots. Well, the boys' attention got roused, as you might imagine. It ain't every day that a passel of skin tight women with swords and knives and bows and arrows and one of 'em carryin' a big old axe come roarin' in to camp to say howdy do. And there's a lot of the men haven't seen hide nor hair of their wives and sweethearts for a whole lotta moonmarks, and these particular Amazons, I’m told, were mighty fine lookers once you closed in and got a good close bead on 'em.

"Still, they was Amazons. They wasn’t normal women, and the sight of a’ Amazon can stir up simmerin’ pot of feelin's in a feller: desire 'cause they're awful pretty to look at and built like a brick shipyard but fear and suspicion, too, on account of how a' Amazon can hack a man to death with a sword or pin-cushion him with mess of bows and arrows or stick a poor bugger when he ain’t lookin’ and do it so quick and silent-like that the starry-eyed choker don't know what hit him 'til his guts is lyin' spilt on the ground.

"But them Amazons that come in this mornin', it seems they was Greek ones or maybe they was Massatronians, and here they been rubbin' elbows or shoulders or maybe their hind parts here in Troy with some of these others who don't mean us Greeks no good. Now y'all may be nice folks -- you Trojans here -- and you look like you come from good stock, but fraternizin' with the enemy, now that's a whole 'nother barrel of salted pork ribs, and the men over there.., well, they didn't take none too good to the sound of it.

"And then them girls -- them ladies, 'scuse me, Ms. -- well, them Amazons, at any rate, they gone stealin' down to the beach where they was bent on makin' off with some boat that wasn’t theirs and didn't belong to 'em. Turned out, of course, that the boat got left there for their use, but the boys that seen 'em comin' didn't know that at the time. So up jumps one of the pack and up jumps another, and sure as the sound of rimfire echoin’ down a hollow draw, they go ‘round and rally the rest of 'em, and then they all start in to hollerin', 'Them Amazon bitches always be givin' us no end of trouble. Don't nobody forget the time they gone and teamed up with the Hittites and the Persians and come near to burnin' down the Acropolis back when old Theseus was king. 'Cause that's what you're lettin' yourself in for when you make a' Amazon your queen and go makin’ nice with her in the bed. And now here’s these other Amazons, in all their shameful exposedness, been mixin' it up with them wife-stealin’ Trojans that give us such a heap of trouble now and in all these years past...’ That’s what the boys was shoutin’, Ms.

"So off they run fast as their legs can carry ‘em can down onto the beach, hopin' to get their hands on them boat-stealin' Amazons and then, who knows, doin' this or that with 'em. I can't tell you how many there was or what they was intendin' to do to those girls, to gut ‘em or what. Maybe they was just gonna rough 'em up a little and take their bras and panties off and maybe violate their virtue a little.

"But there was one of 'em, that one," the charioteer nodded at Velasca's barely recognizable body, "done turned on the men with a ferociousness that could've scared the fleas off a dog, and the fellers that was chasin' after them Amazons, fifty good old boys, sixty of ‘em maybe, all pulled up dead in their tracks just long enough for them other Amazons to get in the boat and paddle free of the shore. And then the boys sprung to and come chargin' down on the one remainin’ Amazon, her that stayed behind, so's it was one against what could as well have been an army, that was how bad that one, lone Amazon was outnumbered on the beach.

"But she did a credit to her name, that lone Amazon, whalin' away with her long-bladed slasher like some kind of a demon possessed, swung that blade near as good as Achilles himself, there was some declared. She took down five. She took down ten. They swarmed all around her and she took down fifteen. They closed in with their swords and knives and spears and clubs, and she took down twenty. And even after they cut and stabbed and slashed and gouged her and run her through with their sharp pointy jabbers, she kept goin' and goin' and never give out 'til half that entire company had tasted of her cold, flashin' steel. I never seen nor heard of nothin' like it. One lone Amazon got the better of thirty men. Think what two or three of them fightin' Amazons could have done in the same amount of time. She died a hero, Ms. She give her life so them others could get away. You can't do no better in the eyes of the gods or of your fellow man than that."

"But what they did to her then," Gabrielle growled. "The way they've desecrated her once beautiful body. There can no excuse for that. Their crime is unforgivable."

"When Diomedes got wind of what was goin' on down at the shoreline, the man come roarin' through the dune grass like a bull on wagon wheels," the charioteer said. "I never seen a man so fit to be tied. It was Diomedes who give his word that them Amazons could make their way through camp and sail off in that the boat, and it had all worked been worked out in advance, and the fellers that rode ‘em in on the chariots was supposed to turn ‘em over to the MP's who were then supposed to guard 'em down to the beach 'til they was on the boat and paddled out of there. But the drivers just plopped 'em in the middle of the crowd and they never got brung over to the MP's that was supposed to be guardin' 'em. So they was left on their own and that was when they got attacked.

"Well, Ms., it didn't take Diomedes no time at all to get his motor movin', lemme tell you. He done got hold of them two chariot drivers and run 'em through with his bare hands like they was strips of bacon sliced off a pork belly. And then he rounded up all them others, all the ones who'd had a hand in the shameful killin' of this Amazon lady; and one by one, he stuck 'em with his very own hand 'til there was a hill of corpses if there was a one piled up on the beach. And then he burnt ‘em.

"Them names and addresses you said you wanted, Ms., I reckon you can have 'em, but all's you can do is tell their ma's and pa's and wives and little one that their daddies were nothin' but sheep-shearin' cowards who give their lives for no better cause than that they ganged up on a' lone Amazon in feathers and a bird mask; 'cause Diomedes, you know, he don't take kindly to havin' them who he give safe passage to cut up into little pieces and scattered on the ground.

"So alongside this sad body, Ms., Diomedes wants you to know... are you Xena?"

"No, she is," Gabrielle gestured at Xena.

"You're Xena," the charioteer said. "Okay, Diomedes says to tell you that you can come and see for yourself if what I'm tellin' you isn’t the rock hard, dead-even truth. You don't got to take his or nobody's word for it, Ms. You got the promise of a safe ride out and a safe ride back."

"Like the Amazons were promised," Xena let go a cold smirk.

"Well," the charioteer said, "the general's just wantin' you to know... you and Ms. Gabrielle, I guess she’s the other one... the Big D’s wantin’ you to know that he done the right thing once he got wind of the masa-cree. He's been sayin' as how he should've made the pickup himself and would have done it if'n he didn't have a hundred other things to attend to. Anyhow, he was figurin’ as how you might be wantin' to know that all the culprits is all dead, though if you wanna take your sword and head on out there and carve 'em up a little just get your licks in, I don't reckon as how Diomedes is apt to object."

"You take this message to your general," Xena said as cold and sober as she had it in her power to be. "You tell him that a hundred Argive mercenaries are going to pay for this crime with their lives. Some by my hand, some by hands other than mine. And you tell him to remember what I told him before. Great men have been ruined and brought to grief by lesser men who've used and betrayed them for their shameful purposes. When this war is over, Diomedes can do the right thing and shatter his sword like Gabrielle just shattered Velasca's and never pick a sword up again. Or he can sheathe his sword and the next time he draws it, it will be to do battle to the death with the Terror of Amphipolis. You tell him that Xena told you to tell him that," Xena grabbed the charioteer by the collar and glared into his eyes. "Do you understand?!"

"Yes'm," the charioteer nodded as he stared back into the deep and frigid pools of Xena's furious blue eyes.

"Now get out of here. Fast!" Xena made a threatening gesture. Only too eager to comply, the charioteer hopped into his car, flicked the rains, shouted at the horses and, Gabrielle having already gotten some of the men to drag the bier off the wagon, the driver swept around in a wide arc and then went careening out the gate, with the empty wagon trailing behind, on his praise-the-gods-I'm-still-in-alive-and-in-one-piece return trip to the Argive lines.

Gabrielle swallowed hard and looked at Xena who was still too enraged for words or tears. "I've got to go get Penthesileia," Gabrielle said.

But Gabrielle didn't have to budge. Behind her, from the door into the keep below the guest quarters, Penthesileia emerged, all in white, simple in dress and elegant in bearing, with her black hair falling long and unadorned below her shoulders, her bronze skin as smooth as a tanner's well-beaten hide. Without a word, her face an utter blank, Penthesileia floated through the parting crowd and approached the bier now covered with its layers of wool sheeting.

She paused to look at Gabrielle, and the look on Gabrielle's face confirmed what Penthesileia's inner voice was shrieking and her heart lamenting. "It's her, isn't it? The mightiest of all my warriors."

Gabrielle nodded and the blue-green radiance of her eyes was low cast down.

Penthesileia walked up to the bier, raised the woolen shroud, gasped, faltered, held steady on her feet, placed the shroud to one side and knelt down on the ground beside the bier. In a silence so still it rang in every ear, Penthesileia leaned over the bier and stared long and motionless at the hideous sight.

"When you were little more than a child, you came to dance your cotta's for my sister, the Queen," Penthesileia began at a slow, mournful pace. "I said to her afterwards, 'Keep your eye on that one. There's fire in her heart and passion in her soul.'"

Penthesileia took her hand and reached down through the flies and the stink into the bloody gore that was the moldering tissue and fascia of what had been Velasca, all the way down to the exposed and now decaying organs and fetid body fluid. She gathered up a handful of Velasca, lifted the horrid gore in the palms of her hands and smeared her cheeks and neck with it, running her long, svelte hands down the bodice of her spotless white tunic, staining it forever a rotten scarlet and murky indigo.

"I watched you grow to be a woman, fine, comely and grand. I beheld your radiance and smiled in my heart," Penthesileia reached again into the bloody mange, gooped up more of Velasca and smeared herself a second time.

"And when I saw you, at festivals and ceremonies, I felt, each time, the heat of the flames, and I knew, in my soul, that the Amazons had been thrice blessed to call you daughter, sister, friend. Oh, Velasca...!" Penthesileia, besmirched in foul-smelling gore, raised her beautiful, stricken face and craned the back of her neck to look high to the heavens, "had I been forced to do so, I might have chosen Ephiny or Gabrielle or even Xena to be queen, but of all my precious Amazons...," and then the tears spilled forth, torrid, gushing fountains of them, "I loved you the best."

And then, sending up a lurid wail that could be heard to the farthest stretches of Ilium's vast lanes, tracts, gardens and orchards, Penthesileia pitched forward and hurled her face and breast onto Velasca's mutilated corpse and buried her sobs in the rot of its pestilent ooze.

At length, braving the malodorous stench and the threat of disease, Gabrielle and Xena went over and lifted Penthesileia up from the bier and the awful sight that begged, for the sake of modesty and rest, to be covered.

Through a film of tears, permitting herself to be led away, Penthesileia said softly, in the slightest lilt above a whisper, "Her death will be avenged."

The Trojan women whose job it was to see to the dressing of bodies in preparation for burial took Velasca inside one of the wings of the palace and fitted her out for the pyre, wrapping her tightly from head to toe in starched white sheeting. Penthesileia insisted on hewing the wood and building the burial mound with her own hands, a task which kept her occupied through the long, silent day. At nightfall, in the slanting rays of the setting sun, on a low hill outside the city walls, near the tomb of Laomedon, first ruler of Ilium and King Priam's father, they set Velasca on the funeral pyre. Penthesileia lit the torch and placed it against the leaning tower of sticks on which lay the wrapped body of one of the most fearsome Amazon warriors who had ever lived. As the blaze crackled and then roared, sucking air like a furious wind tunnel through a narrow defile in the mountains, Xena sang a low, haunting dirge, Gabrielle stood with mournful composure between Xena and Penthesileia, and the Themiscyran Amazons gathered around their queen with an air of stoic, silent respect.

Velasca's ashes were brought back to the Amazon village in the hills of Macedonia where, amid her adopted sisters and tribe, she was laid lovingly and honorably to rest.

Continued - Chapter 61
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