|Gently Down The Scream|
The women rowed in silence. When, at last, they were far from land, Ephiny roused herself and, with the tears still streaming down her cheeks, she hoisted the sail which caught the breeze and sent the craft skittering rapidly over the waves. The combination of the sea billows and the cranking oars allowed the craft to make good time across the water, and the women could fairly well count on arriving at the marina on the eastern coast of Tenedos before nightfall.
Solari shipped her oar and went to the stern to sit beside Ephiny who was steering their course in line with the rising moon. Solari sat quietly while Ephiny held the main sheet with one hand and worked the tiller with the other. Then Solari looked out over the calm sea, flat and glassy under a tremendous sky. Sea and sky stretched serenely on forever. What, in the scheme of things, was a single life or, for that matter, a thousand? A fleck of foam, bristling for an instant in the radiant sunlight and then, the gleam gone in a flash, sluicing down to nothing.
"It makes no sense," Solari said, staring over the gunwale at what she thought was a fish's fin but wasn't.
Ephiny shook her head.
"It was all so quick and crazy. I can't figure out what happened, can you?" Solari said.
Ephiny shook her head.
"Can I get you some water to sip? A rag to wipe your face with? Anything?" Solaris implored.
Ephiny shook her head.
"She was just coming back to us, wasn't she?" Solari said. "She was going to be part of our family again, wasn't she?"
"It was your doing," Solari said. "You reached out to her. You kept faith with her."
"It wasn’t just me," Ephiny said, softly. "It was her. She reached out too. It cut both ways."
Solari nodded. "To have to leave her there. To not be able to bring her back..."
"I know," Ephiny said and her tears started flowing again.
"If you want to switch and row for a while, let me know. I'll come spell you," Solari said.
"Thanks," Ephiny said.
A turn of the sandglass went by in silence. Then Solari started to get up. "I guess I'll get back to the oars."
Ephiny nodded and Solari began to make her way back to her seat.
"Solie...?" Ephiny called. Solari stopped and turned around. "Thanks."
"Sure," Solari nodded with tears in her own eyes as she took her place at the oar.
A few candlemarks into the strait, Ephiny and Solari switched places. Ephiny turned around to check in with Lila who was rowing on the seat behind her. "How's it going?"
Lila nodded. Lila's back and shoulders were aching from stroke after stroke and never stop. Whatever Lila's potential strength and endurance might have been, she hadn't had the fitness training that the Amazons had. Even Thelestria, smaller and thinner boned than Lila, was all leanness and hard muscle from endless days of body building drills.
"Can you steer?" Ephiny said. "You could take the tiller for a while."
"I wish I could," Lila said. "This is only the second time I've ever been in a boat."
"Then be sure and take a break when you feel you need one," Ephiny said. "I mean it, Lila. Don't feel you have to keep up with the rest of us. We know you're not an Amazon. We don't expect you to become one overnight."
Lila raised an eyebrow. "Why, do you think I could?"
"Could what?" Ephiny said.
"Become an Amazon," Lila said.
Ephiny thought for a turn of the sandglass. "If that was your heart's desire? Yes, in time I think you could," Ephiny said. "But you'd have to know what you were getting into. It's not an easy life."
Lila nodded again. "Ephiny...," she said, tentatively.
Ephiny looked at Lila. Ephiny's strawberry blonde curls were nearly as long as Lila's thick, dark, straightish hair.
"I'm so sorry about Velasca," Lila said. "I can't believe it. It doesn’t seem real."
"It will," Ephiny said with a sad smile as she turned around on her seat and began to row in time with the others. "It hasn't hit home yet, but it will."
Lila did break for an occasional rest. But they were short ones; and, after each one, she was back at the oar so that she barely availed herself of the splendor of the sea as the craft made its way west by southwest in line with the angle of the moon. The waterskins were frequently passed from hand to hand and, at the five candlemark point, when the chalice'd moon was low in the sky in front of them, the women took a light meal of the bread, salted pork and fruit they’d carried with them. Then came four more candlemarks of rowing and tacking, muscles battling fatigue and spirits wrestling with anger, confusion, grief and monotony, until, at the nine candlemark when the sun, leisurely chasing the moon, was low in the sky, they made landfall at the eastern shore of Tenedos.
When land had come within sight, Ephiny went to the tiller, took command of the craft and addressed the others. "Regardless of what happened back there and no matter what may be going on in our hearts, we've got to keep our wits about us. We're going to be sticking out like sore thumbs, and don't forget that we swiped a boat when we shipped out of here, and it won't be hard for its owners -- or the law -- to spot us, although King Priam told us that the boat got brought back. Even without Velasca and Xena and Gabrielle, we're a magnet for male attention, not all of it friendly. So I have a suggestion. It’s not one that I’m inclined to make easily because it rips against the grain, but frankly, I don't see a better way. If any of you do see a better way, please speak up, so we can be clear about what we're going to do once we land and beach this craft.
"We have the letter from Diomedes. And there's at least one merchant captain on this island who'll vouch for us as a good, hard-working crew. I propose that we approach the first Argive commander we see and seek to place ourselves under his protection until we can get off this island and head back to the mainland. Maybe there's some small shred of decency left among the Argive muckymucks."
Ephiny's suggestion rankled. Amazons placing themselves under the protection of men of the ilk who'd just murdered Velasca for their sport and who would gladly have gutted them all? Would Xena place herself under the protection of men like that? Would Gabrielle? Would Velasca have done so? The women's insides burned with shame at the very thought of it.
Ephiny saw the looks of resistance and resentment on her sisters' faces.
"When Velasca and I went to say our farewells to Penthesileia yesterday," Ephiny said, "we told her that we were ready to stand with her and our Themiscyran sisters, even if it meant going to our deaths in battle. We're Amazons, and Amazons don't chicken out of a fight. Standing and fighting has always been a measure of Amazon courage. Recall what we did when we stood fast before the advancing legions of Brutus' army. Remember how we stopped them at the Strymon Road and sent their forces into retreat. It took the Amazons, fighting alone, with only Xena as an ally, to halt the Roman march through Macedonia. No men's army had been able to do that."
"That's right!" Solari shouted.
"And it wasn't like they didn't try!" Eponin chimed in.
"That's one kind of courage," Ephiny continued, "the courage of sword and spear, the courage of spirit and blood. Penthesileia was aware of that. She knew we would fight by her side if she asked us to. The swords were just the symbol. It was our lives that we laid at her feet. But she asked us to consider that there might be another kind of courage: a stickier, messier, more galling and harder to swallow kind of courage; the courage to live with the bitter bile of compromise, the courage to sometimes forego the outward, more noble and satisfying gesture and to make the inner, less obtrusive, more plodding one. For the sake of the greater good. The courage to let the skulk of the fox rule the pride of lion on occasion, as much as doing so might prove a bitter draught for us to swallow."
"Show our courage by selling out our principles?" Elana called from her seat at one of the oars.
"Be brave by backing down and slinking away from a challenge?" Oriena cried.
"Is that what we are, sunshine Amazons, who go running indoors to huddle under the roof as soon as the rain starts to fall?" Thelestria added her voice.
"I know it may sound that way," Ephiny responded. "The only thing my guts want to do right now is to strike a blow for Velasca, to wield my sword like a lightning bolt as a way of screeching 'No!' to all this rotten horribleness, to give the lie to this ugly, phony war in the loudest, wildest way I know how to and then... to go home and just... bury my head in the sand and forget it ever happened.
"But this isn't just about us. Our sisters are waiting for us to come home. They miss us and need us and love us. Velasca asked me the other day what it was like to be a mother. I told her that it's been teaching me the hardest, most humbling lesson I've ever had to learn, something I get to think about every day as I grope and stumble and sometimes fall. It has to do with placing another's needs above your own. And right now I think we'd be doing our sisters a poor service if we were to let our pride get the better of us, much as I want us to be proud of who we are. Believe me, for Velasca's sake -- and Penthesileia's -- I don't want to humble myself. They deserve better. We all do. But there may be times when having courage means swallowing our pride and letting our guts heave in protest if that's what it takes for us to do what's best for those who look up to and depend on us. And if that means asking protection of those who scorn and despise us, when we know how easily we could rip three or four times our number into satisfying shreds and teach them a lesson they'd never forget, I'm willing to go through with it even if it means that a part of me will hate myself for it."
The women mulled over what Ephiny had just said.
"What would Xena do?" a voice wondered. "Would Xena hand her sword over to a glorified warlord masquerading in the uniform of a general? Would Xena humble herself before the leader of a goon squad who isn't fit to lace the thongs of her leathers?"
"May I say something?" Lila piped up from her seat beside her oar.
The Amazons turned to look at Lila, and Ephiny nodded for her to speak.
"You ask what Xena would do. Would Xena humble herself," Lila said. "When Xena and Gab went off to Britannia, which is almost as far away as Chin, all we knew, my parents and I, was that Xena was out for revenge. Xena had a grudge against Caesar, and she wanted to make him pay. Gab went with her because wherever Xena went, Gab went. My parents were up in arms. I was too. Xena saved us from Draco's slavers, and we were grateful to her for that, but the price she was exacting, by taking Gab away and putting her in danger, was too high.
"Then Gab came home. By herself. There was no Xena following behind. We asked Gab where Xena was and why Gab wasn't with her, but all that Gab would say was that she'd missed us terribly and that she was glad to be back home. Travelling with Xena was a phase she'd gone through, and now that Gab had gotten the wanderbug out of her system, she was eager to get back to being a part of the family again. That was music to our ears. Our parents were ecstatic, and I was overjoyed to finally have my sister back, and, as a bonus, Gab had never been more affectionate and attentive.
"And then, out of nowhere, like a dark cloud sweeping across the sky and blotting out the sun, Xena showed up, looking for Gab. My Mom and Dad didn't welcome her. I wasn't glad to see her. 'Go away, Xena,' we said, 'leave us alone.' Gab came in from the byre where she'd been feeding Gida, our goat, and when she saw Xena, she asked Xena to leave. We felt vindicated, my parents and I. We were never happier. 'Gab is ours, Xena, not yours. Now please go away..,' is what we were feeling. And we didn't hesitate to let Xena know it.
"And do you know what Xena did? Xena bowed her head and gave in to our wishes. 'I'm sorry for the pain I've caused you...,' is what she said, and then she left. We'd won. We'd scored. We'd triumphed over the Warrior Princess, something that even the mighty Caesar and his vast armies hadn't been able to do.
"What we didn't know was that while we were glaring at Xena in our instant of triumph, Gab was standing in back of us, glowering at Xena in her instant of triumph as well. Only it wasn't Gab. It was Hope. But we didn't know that. Xena knew it, but we had spoken what was in our hearts, and Xena wasn't going to humiliate us by exposing our pride and ignorance, even though she knew that our lives were in grave danger and that we didn't realize it.
"And when the real Gab came home, disoriented, confused, shaken to the core after falling into and somehow surviving the abyss, needing Xena more than anything, even more than she needed us, Xena's only concern was to protect Gab -- and us -- from Hope and the Destroyer. And when it was finished and Hope and her demon offspring had at last been laid low, Xena offered to leave and not to trouble us again and not to pressure Gab -- the real Gab -- to go with her if that wasn't Gab's true choice.
"Xena humbled herself before my parents and me, to the point of being willing to say goodbye to the person she loved most in the world, if saying goodbye might ease our pain and bring my parents' anguish to an end. Never mind that Xena and her armies may have conquered half the known world before Xena saw the light and began to turn her life around; it was only then that I saw Xena's true courage and greatness of heart. And the best part of me has known ever since that Xena took the harder, less glorious road and laid it all on the line as bare as bare could be. And if you know Xena, you know that backing down from a fight -- in this case, the fight to justify the right that she had earned to be with the one she loved -- couldn't have been easy for her."
No one said a word for a few turns of the sandglass until, at length, Elana spoke up and said, "Ephiny, if you think what you're proposing is the best way to go about it, then I'm with you."
"I don't want to die, Ephiny, but even less do I want to live as a coward," Oriena said. "If what you're saying isn't just an excuse for backing away from a challenge, then I'm with you too."
"This is different than what I thought an Amazon was supposed to be," Thelestria said, "but I guess it makes no sense to go out in a blaze of glory unless you've got something glorious to go out in a blaze for."
"Nobody wants to take crap from punks and pissants," Eponin said. "But maybe sometimes you need to bite the chobo for the sake of what Ephiny's talking about."
"Looking weak for the sake of acting strong. Did Tyldus ever drill us on those sorts of skills and exercises at the Training Academy?" Solari said. "If not, he ought to refund half of our tuition."
"We didn't fork out any tuition," Eponin said. "We were the Academy's glamor girls, remember? Tyldus let us come for free so long as we agreed not to go cracking skulls for the sheer, ripping Hades of it."
"Then maybe we ought to loan him Amarice for a semester," Solari said. "Eight hours of Amarice in the classroom and eight more out on the parade grounds and Tyldus'd soon be longing for the peace and quiet of the Battle of Corinth."
"Bwa-ha-ha...!" went Eponin, and the others joined in. Ephiny tried to stifle a chuckle but she couldn't, and, as a light lilt of laughter escaped from her lips, though it was the lightest of feathery lilts, Ephiny's spirit, though weighted down under a monstrous boulder of grief, was able, nonetheless, to re-claim, if only by a little, her membership in the ranks of the living. And though they all knew that it wasn't right to be making fun of poor Amarice, who was back at the village trying so hard to do everything right and actually making great strides at it, to the point of having recently had a civil conversation with Armand that had ended neither wildly in bed nor wildly outside the novice hut with her daggers drawn, Amarice -- that is, her image -- had just, unwittingly, done yeoman service to bring the shadow of a smile to Ephiny's face. The gift of renewed commitment to life which the shadow of that smile bestowed on the face of their de facto leader was, perhaps, an eloquent acknowledgment that Amarice had already secured a permanent place in the hearts of her adopted community into whose fabric, day by day, she was becoming ever more firmly knit.
The group thus resolved that upon docking the craft in the slips along the pier, they'd swallow their Amazon pride and humbly look to place themselves under the aegis of the nearest Argive commander and then to await the first freighter to the mainland on which they could barter their muscle for steerage. Even more humbly, they resolved not to let themselves respond to any attempts to provoke them with careless words and foolish insults, even to the point of ignoring the rash fool who might be so suicidal as to pinch their bottoms in the teeming crush of the market square.
Fortunately, they were able to moor the craft and clamber onto the dock without incident and then to make their way up the hill nearly to the square before attracting the crowd's somewhat scandalized attention. There was no way that six striking women in Amazon feathers and tights, armed with bows, arrows, swords, daggers, labryses and chobos and carrying huge bird masks under their arms weren't going to be the objects of gasping comments and outraged whispers. Lila, dressed in civvies, was less immediately noticeable, but even if she weren't traveling in the company of the Amazons, any woman making her way solo at a huge, military installation would soon be the object of visual examination and soft-voiced speculation.
"Hey, babe, you wanna boogie?" a large character, suited up in mail and plume, strode up to Solari and sought to block her way.
"You can boogie woogie with me," one of his companions stepped up to Eponin over whom he towered.
Ephiny saw the cold, impatient looks on her sisters' faces. These were just the kind of basted turkeys whom the Amazons felt a near-holy obligation to take down and bounce a few times on the cobblestones. Ephiny shot Solari and Eponin a sharp look. Hold your fire and don't break ranks, even if they grope you. Let this be a test of our resolve.
"Why, you naughty girls!" Lila bulled forward and, with a huge scowl on her face, forced her way between Solari, Eponin and their potential assailants. "I been lookin' high and low in windows and doorways for you two... Kindly excuse me, gentlemen... Didn’t I tell you poor, sufferin' street sprites just this mornin' that you wasn't done with your confinement? These ladies of the evenin’ got another two days of treatment at the clinic ‘fore they’re done, and I thank you noble warriors for your bravery in detainin’ ‘em.
"Th’ain’t no good excuses for you to be solicitin' the affections of these good warfarin' men. Step to. It's back to the dispensary with you..." Lila began shoving Solari and Eponin toward the more crowded portion of the square, and the other Amazons followed behind. "And you’d best be on your guard, gentlemen," Lila warned the pair of bullies, "’cause just ‘cause you can't see 'em or hear 'em or smell ‘em or taste 'em don’t mean that them sneaky little STD’s can’t slap the clap on you worse’n a siege engine mounted on a hillside. Shoo! Back to the wards to take your medicine and leave these patriotic sons of freedom alone."
"The, um, clap, did you say?" one of the boogie woogiers raised a worrisome eyebrow in Lila's direction.
"Make the shaft of your old slasher fall clean off and leave you holdin’ for dear life onto the hilt," Lila commiserated. "War heroes such as yourselves are veritable magnets for hussies and harlots what come bearin' down on you like bugs in the bedroll. I wouldn't lay so much as a metal glove upon these girls, sirs; not if you value your...," Lila looked down at the creases in their crotches, "most precious weaponry."
The soldiers gave Solari and Eponin looks of aversion and quickly melted into the crowd.
Ephiny came charging up to Lila as the women continued on their way. "Lila, I ought to knock you upside the head for pulling a stunt like that."
"Won't do you any good," Lila shot Ephiny a wicked grin. "There's nothing in there to get knocked around."
Ephiny flung an arm around Lila's shoulder, gave Lila a rough, affectionate hug and guffawed in spite of herself.
A few more turns of the sandglass and the women happened upon a promising lead. A tall, imperious dragoon, in a captain's uniform, was supervising a platoon of recruits, assigning them various kinds of shore duty. When the Amazons approached him, his first reaction was to look at them with mild curiosity as opposed to drawing his sword or rallying his troops to swashbuckle first and ask make introductions later.
I've got ten sand grains to make my pitch, Ephiny guessed.
"Kyrie, Filos kai Polemistis!" Ephiny stepped up and addressed the captain, banging her left breast below the collarbone with the fist of her right hand, then shooting her right arm out in a stiff, bracing salute. "For Valor! For Honor! For Hellas and the House of Atreus!"
The captain gave Ephiny a questioning look. "You address me as a soldier and a friend," he said. "Yet you're either a troupe of entertainers, a pack of streetwalkers, or a company of Amazons."
"We're Amazons, traveling under the protection of Diomedes, Supreme Commander of the Army of Northern Hellas," Ephiny said. "Perform a service for your country and escort us to your commanding officer."
The captain grinned. "I do a lot of things in this man's army, but one thing I don't do is take orders from Amazons."
"Not an order, a request," Ephiny said. "We've been to Ilium on official business. We're on our way home, hoping to make the journey without incident. Diomedes knows all about us, and we're proceeding with his explicit endorsement."
Ephiny removed her scabbard from the back of her shoulders. She offered the scabbard, with her sword sheathed within it, to the captain. "We'll be leaving on the first boat that will take us to the mainland. Until then, we humbly seek your generosity and protection."
The captain scrutinized Ephiny and her sheathed sword. "Amazons submitting themselves willingly and without a fight to an organized military presence? After what they did to Brutus and his legions of bloodthirsty centurions at the Battle of the Strymon Road which I'm sure you must have heard about? What's wrong with this picture?"
"They say that discretion is the better part of valor," Ephiny said. "Our presence here is provocative. We know that. In exchange for safe passage through these straits and channels, we agreed to abide by the rules of engagement and to submit willingly to the governing martial authority. We're not looking to make trouble. We only want to go home."
"You say you're travelling under Diomedes protection," the captain said. "Show me the proof."
Ephiny produced the letter which the captain skimmed and then handed back to her. "This communiqué may or may not be authentic, but never mind. That's for others to sort out. Allright, turn over all your weapons, including your breast and boot daggers."
The captain whistled for his subordinates to gather up the Amazon's impressive array of combative hardware.
"And you?" the captain looked at Lila. "What might you be carrying concealed in that creme tunic fringed with buckskin?"
"Nothing," Lila said. "I carry no weapon."
"Then you won't mind if we see for ourselves," the captain had one of his underlings perform a fairly thorough pat down which Lila, grimacing, endured.
"Allright," the captain said. "Come with me, all of you. There's obviously more going on here than meets the eye, but that's for the higher ups to piece together. Personally, I wouldn't trust an Amazon for love nor money."
"I doubt that the former is likely to trouble you or the latter likely to burden you," Ephiny muttered under her breath.
"What was that?" the captain said as the group left the main square and headed in the direction of the military barracks which formed a quadrant of the huge naval installation.
"I said that perhaps a positive interaction of this nature might be a first step toward encouraging you to re-evaluate any bias you may be harboring toward Amazons in general," Ephiny spoke up.
"Not likely," the captain said. "But you never know. You're women. It’s your nature to cause trouble. Yet in every age, one, two, even a dozen of your sex show themselves capable of accomplishing significant things."
"Maybe it's just as well that Velasca isn’t here," Solari said quietly as the group arrived at a long wharf on which were located a huge hangar full of nautical equipment and, opposite the hangar, a quonset which served as the base of operations for the quartermaster's corps. "She'd ram the blade of her sword so far up this condescending prig's backside that we could be roasting wieners on the tip of his tongue."
Ephiny let go a sad chuckle and exchanged glances with Solari. The loss of Velasca wouldn’t really sink in until they'd gotten back to the village. Maybe it was better that way. They had a long trip ahead of them and had to keep clear heads on their shoulders. The captain ushered the women into a large holding area where wooden benches and trash cans lined the walls. There they sat and waited for more than a candlemark as twilight gave way to the first shadings of night. They were hungry, having eaten, since they'd left Ilium that morning, only the tiny rations they'd toted in their pouches. And the need to find facilities where they could relieve themselves was growing ever more urgent. Tired, bored, reeling from the horrid death of Velasca, the Amazons and Lila were compelled to draw upon all their reserves of patience and self-control to remain civil and suppliant when the commander of that wing of the base at last came to question them and they ended up having to rehearse for him exactly what they'd told the captain, silently putting up with the same air of petty, blasé superiority on the part of a man who'd never be a hero and might not recognize one if one were to pass him on the street -- or save his life in battle.
"How do you propose to get from here to there?" the commander, also decked out in mail and plume, inquired. "Do you really intend to sail the many leagues to the Chalkidiki capes and then to hike the rest of the way to the hillbilly country above the Pallene peninsula?"
"The skipper of one of the freighters that runs the sea road between here and the port of Haniotis will speak for us," Ephiny said. "We crewed for him coming over here."
"You girls want me to believe that those of you sitting here can man a ship?" the commander said.
"We already have," Ephiny said.
"Hm, Amazons from Macedonia not far from Thrace," the commander said. "Are any of you, by any chance, familiar with Xena, the famous Warrior Princess?"
"We've heard the name," Lila spoke up.
"I hear she's over in Troy these days, her and some sai-wielding friend of hers, offering aid and comfort to King Priam and his vile band of Trojans," the commander said.
"There have been rumors to that effect," Lila said.
"Rumors?" the commander leered at Lila. "You were there. You ought to know if Xena’s on the prowl or not."
"Troy's a big place," Lila said. "There could have been lots of people there whose presence would have been unknown to us."
"We were there on official business," Ephiny said in a mollifying tone, placing a surreptitious hand on Lila's knee and giving it a light, cautionary squeeze. "We... didn't get much chance to look around."
"Let me have another peek at that letter of yours," the commander stuck out his hand and Ephiny handed him the document. "'The bearers of this directive, eight in number, shall pass unhindered from the island of Tenedos to the port of Haniotis or as close to said destination as may be practicable. Witness my seal: Diomedes, Supreme Commander of the Army of Northern Hellas.' This memo says eight. I count seven."
"We lost one of our company on the way," Ephiny replied.
"What, she fell out of the boat and couldn't swim?" the commander said.
"Unfortunately," Ephiny said.
"And you didn't stop to pick her up?" the commander raised an eyebrow.
"By the time we'd brought the craft about, she'd been sucked under," Ephiny said.
"And you girls say you can crew?" the commander said.
"Crew, not skipper," Ephiny said with a sharp look to the left and to the right, her eyes flashing at Lila and the Amazons, through bared and clenched teeth, "I know..., I know... He's a raving jerk. Just suck it in and hold it."
"If this letter's a forgery," the commander said in a cold, spiteful voice, "it will be little enough trouble to rig up a gallows on the wharf and set seven Amazons a-dangling to join the eighth."
"And if the letter turns out not to be a forgery and you hang us," Ephiny said, "you'll have disobeyed and expressed your utter contempt for a direct order of your supreme commanding officer."
The commander scowled, clearly peeved that his ploy hadn't discomfited those whom he was having the pleasure of bullying.
"There's a watering hole nearby where the merchantmen bib their grog while their cargoes are being hoisted or unloaded," the commander said. "I'll have one of my chargés wander over there and see if you're telling the truth. And may the gods help you if you aren't."
|Continued - Chapter 62|
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