|The Lady's Not For Spurning|
I can row, boys, I can ream it out,
I can run the roads, I can roar and rout,
I can row, boys, row the brack and brine,
I'm a rower, rowin' down the line...
The voyage from Tenedos to the port of Salamis had a very different feel to Lila than had the voyage from the port of Haniotis to Tenedos. During the earlier voyage, Lila, in the company of Xena, Gabrielle and the Amazons, had labored to near exhaustion: rowing, hauling, rigging, hoisting; whatever had been necessary keep the boat afloat and moving. Lila pitched in and did her level best, winning the respect of the Amazons in the process. But now, as a paid passenger, there was nothing for Lila to do but to sit on a deck chair or to stand by the railing or to hunker below decks with slow, dragging time on her hands and little but fears and worries to occupy her mind: only the endless candlemarks at sea where the movement of day into night and back again were the major events of the voyage, any other event -- a storm, the failure to keep on course, being boarding by pirates -- would be an unwelcome and possibly deadly intrusion.
The freighter sailed due south through the eastern reaches of the Ionian Aegean, skirting the western coast of Lydia and Phocia and then, after an interval of open sea, the snaking shoals and inlets of the island of Lesbos whose capital city, Mytilene, had been founded by the Libyan forerunners of the Hellene and Asian Amazons. Then the course veered west into the heart of the Aegean, with no land in sight for nearly a full day, but "water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."
At last, the ship came under the lea of the island of Scyros where the great burial mound of Theseus commanded a broad view of the harbor, and then there came yet a further expanse of ocean until, near the end of the second day at sea, the ship entered the straits that stretched between the high-walled Caphareus to the north and Geraestus to the south, Scylla and Charybdis lying silently asleep, hardly troubling to rouse themselves at the passage of a mere merchant freighter. Now the course took Lila south of the Attic cape at Sunium, windward of the island of Ceos, and then north into the bay of the Peloponnese past the towering peak of Mount Hymettus to the east and the approach to the majestic city of Athens whose grand Acropolis the ship bypassed as it made for the great port of Salamis, the commercial and military hub that lay at the heart of the immensity of Hellas, the greatest sea power in the known world.
Lila was far from the only passenger on board. She met and mingled with a number of travelers including a prominent wool merchant and his wife. After hearing Lila's sad story about the loss of her young husband on the plains of Ilium and how she was now venturing far from her home in Macedonia to tend to her sick sister in Tiryns during the last candlemarks of her sister's final illness, the nice couple took Lila under their wing, in that way providing her with a bit of a shield against the intrusion of spurious and unwanted affections.
"When you debark in Tiryns, my dear," the kindly wool merchant advised, "do make a point -- after your sister's needs have been cared for, of course -- of going to see the palace. I believe a portion of it may be open to the public one or two afternoons a week. It's a glorious structure. The crenellated walls are bleached as white as a linen sheet, and it sits high on the hilltop overlooking the waterfront. King Eurystheus held court there when he was alive. His daughter, Admete, rules there now. Married a fellow from Athens; Pericles, I think his name is, a clever chap with a flair for making speeches and a knack for coming up with the bon mot on state occasions. I suppose you're aware that the great Hercules once served King Eurystheus. A dozen labors he performed for the King, some of them rather eccentric."
"Yes, I’ve heard something along those lines," Lila and her impromptu chaperones were standing at the railing, looking out at the flat surface of water that was barely stirred by waves under a bright, blistering sun. The breeze, though mild, sufficed to blow Lila's hair forward, against her round cheeks 'til wisps of it wrapped themselves across her mouth and nose, and she had to push them away, wishing she'd thought to have brought a scarf to tie her hair behind her ears. Lila had never seen such a piercing blue sky or a sea so blinding with reflected spearpoints of sunlight. The cold, bare, windy hills of Macedonia at the start of the rainy season were nothing like the sunny, azure climes of the heart of Argos and the core of Mycenae.
"Hercules' service to Eurystheus came about in response to a jealous trick which Hera played on Allfather Zeus. Zeus had become enamored of Alcmene; and when Zeus is rapt with desire for a mortal woman, nothing stands in the way of its consummation. Coincidentally, on the very night that Zeus lay with Alcmene, Alcmene's warrior-husband arrived home and he lay with her as well so that Alcmene bore twins: Hercules who's half-mortal and Iphicles who's wholly mortal.
"When Alcemene's pregnancy had run its course and she was about to give birth, Zeus was so puffed up with joyful anticipation that he couldn't help boasting, for all the gods to hear, 'Today will see the birth of a child of my loins who's destined to rule over his brother!'
"Hera knew that Zeus was referring to Hercules who was about to be born to Alcmene and that Zeus' boast was meant to signify that Hercules was to rule over Iphicles. But Hera was aware of another of Zeus' infidelities which had taken place more or less at the same time that Zeus had lain with Alcmene, and Hera knew that Eurystheus, the product of that dalliance, was also about to be born. So Hera summoned Eileithyia, the Goddess of Childbirth, and had her hasten Eurystheus' birth by a day and postpone Hercules' birth until the next day, so that when Zeus' boast was, indeed, fulfilled, the child to whom it applied was Eurystheus, not Hercules. Zeus, of course, was infuriated by Hera's ruse, but Zeus had made a boast in the presence of the gods and could not afterwards retract it.
"Years later, when Hercules, in a fit of madness induced by Hera's jealousy, slew his wife and children and two of his brother, Iphicles' children and so had to be purified in accord with the laws of gods and men, the Delphic Oracle, mindful of Zeus' prophetic boast, entrusted Hercules to his half-brother, Eurystheus, with instructions that Hercules should perform whatever task Eurystheus might impose upon him on twelve separate occasions."
"One of those tasks was to procure the jeweled belt of the Amazons from Queen Hippolyte for King Eurystheus to give, as a wedding gift, to his daughter, Admete," Lila said.
"Why, yes, that's so," the wool merchant said. "How did you know that?"
"Word travels," Lila said. "One picks up bits and snatches."
"Well, do take yourself on a tour the castle if your time permits," the wool merchant said in his jovial, protective way. "It's a splendid architectural feat. Nothing like the giant walls of Ilium, mind you, but then Poseidon himself constructed Ilium's walls so you'd expect them to be grand."
When the freighter docked at Salamis, Lila, dwarfed by the many outriggers and frigates and amazed at the interlocking of network of piers and wharves and slips and canals as far as the eye could see, began to wander about the port, gathering information. There were so many longshoremen, teamsters, merchant overseers and commercial importers contending with masses of frayed and weary travelers that the sheer number of flowing, pressing bodies offered Lila some de facto protection from potential assailants, though not from the crafty cutpurses who came in droves to search for easy prey. Lila's worldly fortune, consisting of some twenty to thirty dinars, was distributed within the lining of her tunic such that any would-be thief would have to rip her soft leather and buckskin apart to have at them.
It was here, at this huge, central nexus, that connections were made to Athens, Corinth and Sparta, the last of which included a layover at the port of Tiryns. With a few tense turns of the sandglass and some help from a makeshift traveler's aid booth, Lila was able to proceed to the appropriate launch where she purchased her ticket to Tiryns. Then Lila heaved a giant sigh of relief when this second freighter, somewhat smaller than the first, but still much larger than a trireme, at last weighed anchor and set sail. This last leg of the voyage was still a full day's junket to the south and the west, out of the bay again and into the Southern Aegean to round the Cape of Troezen, birthplace of Theseus, and then to progress up into the gulf of the Peloponnese on whose eastern, Argolis peninsula lay the Mycenean city-state of Tiryns, birthplace and home of Diomedes and the gateway to the vast, rolling reaches of rural Arcadia, Sparta's great neighbor to the north.
It had now been nearly three days since Lila had left Tenedos, and she was nearing exhaustion. She had never dreamed of venturing a fraction of such an enormous distance from home. The instant that Lila arrived at the port of Tiryns and debarked from the freighter, within sight of the very peer from which Gabrielle, Xena and Autolycus had sped away on board the Flying Dutchman's airborne craft, her senses were overwhelmed by the sparkling radiance of the port and the city which lay beyond it. The glare of white on white was so bright that Lila had to shield her eyes, even though the day was well past noon and the sun was lowering in the sky.
Lila could see at once why it was called sunny Tiryns. Not only the light but the feel of the air was different here. It was richer and more fragrant with salt and flower scent: hollyhock, morning glory, columbine and eglantine. And up on the hill, pitched and battened on an overarching promontory, was Queen Admete's palace, commanding a wide, spectacular view of the harbor and its many galleries, mezzanines, busy arcades and crowded pavilions. Though too small to be truly grand, the palace nevertheless shone forth above the industry of the coastal city which sustained it. Its turrets and towers and many windows, along with its complex network of balustrades, colonnades and cloisters, suggested a presence that was bountifully expansive, yet carefully watchful. Lila wondered if the monarch who ruled this splendid, seaside city might share a temperament akin to its aura of guarded benevolence and she hoped soon to find out. Lila's itinerary allowed for barely a day's stay if she were going to maintain a realistic hope of accomplishing, in its allotted time frame, the deed she had set out to do.
Lila wandered up the hill from the thriving bazaar that lined both sides of the avenue along the waterfront and then approached the main gate of the castle, the same gate that Xena and Gabrielle had approached coming up on a fortnight ago.
"That's as far as you go, young lady. State the business that brings you here. If you're a tourist, you'll be allowed entry only in the company of your tour group and its licensed agent," a guard, dressed in metal plate and armed with a short sword, stepped across the palace's entrance to bar Lila's way.
"My name is Lila. I'm from a village near Poteidaia, a town on one of the Chalkidiki capes of the Pallene Peninsula in Lower Macedonia," Lila replied. "I've been traveling by boat for three days and two nights to seek an audience with Queen Admete."
"Is this some sort of a social call?" the guard said.
"No, I've come on business," Lila said.
"What's the nature of your business?" the guard grilled Lila.
"I've come to request the jeweled belt of the Amazons," Lila spoke plainly.
"Does the Queen you're coming?" the guard said.
"No," Lila said.
"Then what makes you think she's going to give it to you?" the guard said.
"Faith, trust and hope," Lila said.
"My dear young woman, any number of golddiggers and fortune hunters have come to these walls, seeking the jeweled belt of the Amazons," the guard said. "None have been successful in their pursuit. And some of them, including those whose reputations are known far and wide, why, even the mighty Xena herself, the fabled Warrior Princess, have come away emptyhanded. And you, a nobody, presume to present yourself to the Queen, with neither an appointment nor an introduction, and imagine that you're going to walk away with one of the greatest treasures of the known world? You must be extremely brash or very naive."
"Neither the one nor the other," Lila said. "I've come to restore the belt to its rightful owner. I believe that Queen Admete inquires of each petitioner why he or she believes that the Queen should entrust him or her the belt and that the Queen has indeed agreed to part with the belt if and when the petitioner should rightly answer the question. I've come to give my answer and to let the Queen be the judge."
The guard looked Lila up and down. A pretty but unremarkable maid of no particular distinction. Would the Queen agree to entertain to such a nobody? Why did these curiosity seekers and publicity hounds waste their time and the Queen's only to court inevitable disappointment and come away emptyhanded?
"Wouldn't you rather join a tour group and poke about the castle at a leisurely pace?" the guard said, trying to be kind. "You might even meet the Queen as you stroll about the grounds and briefly shake her hand. And you could head home with some fine souvenirs to show your family as a token of your stay. You say you come from Macedonia? That's peasant country. No insult intended, of course. You likely come from good, solid, rustic stock: farmers, fishermen, foresters, handicrafters. Backbone of the nation and no one would think to dispute that time-honored claim. But this...," the guard gestured at the courtyard and then down the hill to the dazzling white gables and pointed cupolas of this scrubbed and charming port city, "what you see here, if you'll take the time to look, is the heart of old Mycenae, the fountainhead of all our civilization. What we call culture -- polis, civitas -- began right here, you know. Athens is just an upstart even if the City of Cecrops happens to be the home of the House of Atreus, our current claimant to the royal suzerainty over all these seabright isles."
"Your city is very lovely, indeed one of the loveliest I've ever seen," Lila said. "But I've come on a mission. I pray that Queen Admete might hear my petition and grant me an interview. And I'm afraid I've very little time to devote to taking tours and collecting mementos of my trip much as I might like to. In the space of barely twenty-four candlemarks, I'm bound to return whence I've come. Let it not be said that the great Queen and daughter of Eurystheus, liege lord of Hercules, a distinction that no other mortal can justly claim, not even the great Jason of the Argonauts, spurned the prayer of a true seeker after the belt no matter how humble her origin, nondescript her appearance and modest her worldly accomplishments."
"Very well, I'll relay your request to one of the Queen's attendants," the guard said. "Who shall I tell her is importuning at her door? What did you say your name was again?"
"Lila. Sister to Gabrielle, who came with Xena in search of the belt, and friend of Penthesileia, Queen of all the Amazons," Lila offered her credentials.
The guard gave Lila a suspicious look. "Penthesileia, now there's a name I know. A wild woman, a she-witch, a lady centaur. Now how would an Amazon -- a Queen of the Amazons no less -- come to be friends with a soft and feminine lass like you?"
"The world is full of wonders," Lila said, "some of which are to be found on the road that runs from a small, nameless peasant village in the distant Macedonian hills to the great fortress of Ilium and the fabled city of the Amazons."
"That may well be so," the guard said. "Wait here and I'll send word within. Then we'll see what those who are higher up the ladder may have to say about it. We get the most unlikely itinerants coming up to these gates. Just the other day, there came the oddest, roly-poly sort of fellow, with a beard and a bald spot, dressed in ladies' fashions and holding forth that he was, in truth, the Queen of Namibia, forced by the vagaries of circumstance, to earn his -- or her -- daily bread, at least for the time being, as a sometime purveyor of Antiochene chandeliers along with a top-of-the-line assortment of clay bowls and glazed dishes which he'd procured at the pottery works of some industrious little town in the hinterlands whose name just now escapes me. You may take a seat on one of those stone benches if you like. And enjoy the view. Bluest water anywhere in the known world, I'm told, right down the hill from our front door."
The guard began to walk under the archway and into the palace when Lila, on the heels of some offhand impulse, called after him, "Oh, by the way, would be so good as to tell the Queen that I'm... that is, that until just before coming here, I was enaretes kores?"
The guard turned around with a frown of unfamiliarity. "Ennareedies core-ace. Allright. I assume the Queen will understand the significance of that term... if there happens to be one..."
The guard then disappeared within.
"Now why did I say that," Lila puzzled as she settled down to wait. The day was balmy, the scene was lovely and the air was light yet moist with the scent of bursting gladioli from the palace's sunken flower gardens. This really is a beautiful spot, Lila thought to herself, getting drowsy and letting go a giant yawn. She was tired from her travels. All that her body wanted to do, at that precise turn of the sandglass, was to stretch out on the beach and lie in the warm sun and soak in the golden rays. The climate was so different here, so calm, peaceful and serene that you'd never know that on the far side of this not very big ocean, there was a war going on that was more terrible than any war that had been fought in living memory. And Lila's heart -- she felt its faint, persistent ache, just as she was dozing off -- was beating for the losing side.
"Miss? Begging your pardon...," a voice beckoned from a distance as Lila felt a hand jostling her shoulders, "you'd best rouse yourself, Miss. These benches are for sitting on, not for lying down and catching forty winks."
"What's that? Oh, I'm awfully sorry. I must've drifted off...," Lila sat up and tried to clear her head by shaking it and then cranking her neck. "It was a big boat but it had small hammocks."
"I've no notion of what your trade or calling may be, Miss," the guard said, "but the Queen bade her attendant pass along to me word that Her Majesty will see you tomorrow late in the morning after she's finished a round or two of Parcheesi with the Sicilian ambassador. These clever Eye-talians invented the game, and if you want to remain on good terms with them, you've got to give them a good chase around the board now and again. The art of diplomacy isn't restricted to proficiency in throwing the discus and hurling the javelin as it was in the old days. Come back in the morning and the Queen will see you. Gabrielle's sister and Xena's confrere, Her Majesty smiled. I think the Queen's looking forward to making your acquaintance."
"That's wonderful news," Lila let go a huge sigh and some of the pent-up tension in her shoulders and chest came streaming out of her in one long exhalation. Now she'd get a shot at doing what she'd come to do. "If I might make one more request, could you point me to a relatively safe place where I might spend the night? I'm travelling alone, you see, and, unlike Xena and my sister, I'm not terribly skilled in the art of self-defense."
"That's an easy request to fulfill," the guard said. "The place you want to kip for the night is called The Peregrine Pomegranate. That's the inn where most single ladies, when travelling on their own account, are best advised to stay the night. All men out by the stroke of ten, leaving only the ladies to find what beds they can. Can't vouch for the quality of the guests, though. There's some that like to cozy up to other ladies, seeking to thread the needle from spools like themselves if you know what I mean. Otherwise, you're apt to find it safe and sound."
"Thanks, perhaps I'll take my chances," Lila said, her spirit lifted at the prospect of her next day's meeting with Queen Admete. Then Lila wandered into town, found the inn, registered, got a room assignment, arranged for breakfast in the morning and then, as twilight fell, she went on a walking tour of what looked to be a friendly quarter of the bazaar and waterfront, treating herself to a modest but filling supper at a wharfside patisserie: a bowl of barley soup, a small block of cheese and two scrumptious croissants, all at a quite reasonable price. Paid for with stolen dinars, Lila was very much aware of the fact, but the trip was for a good cause, and the meal was no less delicious for the sake of the slightly unsavory method by which it had been procured.
"I believe could enjoy a visit to this place if the circumstances were less urgent," Lila said to herself as she strolled along the balustrade that gave out on a splendid night view of the ships and smaller craft in the harbor, "but I can appreciate its charm nonetheless." Having retired for the evening, in a suite which accommodated three other women as well as one or two of the inn's female staff, Lila did, at one point during the night, roll over to encounter someone in the bed beside her. Her fellow occupant rolled over and put an arm around Lila's shoulder and appeared to be seeking more extensive contact, but Lila said, softly and firmly, "I've just spent three days at sea and I have an important meeting in the morning in preparation for which I need a good night's rest. Also, I'm spoken for, so let's us both drift back to sleep, shall we?"
In the morning, having donned her creme and buckskin, slipped on her sandals and brushed her hair, Lila went down to the tavern to order breakfast which she ate alone by a side window. It dawned on Lila that today was Athenaday and that Hecuba was probably toting the week's laundry to the wash basin in town to kneel and scrub, possibly next to Alexis, who'd no doubt be asking Ms. Hecuba if she’d had any word from Lila.
"Nary a whisper," Hecuba would shake her head as she reached for the scrubber to have at the sheep's blood and goat dung that would have stained Herodotus' britches. Hopefully Lila's sewing job would have held up over these past weeks. That was the main thing: let her stitching hold up well so that her mother, in addition to her many other chores, wouldn't have to re-do the job that Lila had lately done.
Even as Lila was climbing the hill to the palace, the Argive emplacements along the broad, sandy plains of the shoreline at the mouth of the Scamander were staring wide-eyed at the sight of a tall, dark, magnificent woman and her smaller, blonde yet still quite formidable companion who were driving a Trojan chariot into their midst, threatening, with sword and sai and sharp cracks of a heavy bullhide whip to level anyone who dared to be foolish enough to tangle with them. It wasn't long before a hissing trail of sibilant whispers went sweeping through the camp like the crackle of a fire sucking air as it sped in a vortex out of control: "It's Xena, the former conqueror of half the known world, and that must be Gabrielle, the mysterious young woman who'd come raging out of nowhere to tame the great Warrior Princess and turn her from being a force for evil to being an agent for good."
Yet if that were so, why were the looks on their gorgeous faces so troubled and angry and ready, it seemed, to draw blood at the slightest provocation? And why were they mounted on a Trojan chariot. If Xena had truly become a force for good in the world, why did it appear as though she fighting for our enemies and not for us?
"Diomedes has promised us safe passage!" Xena shouted at the soldiers who came to gape at the novel sight of two women warriors suited up for battle. Then Xena gestured over her shoulder in the direction of Ilium's mighty fortress heights. "Give us room if you value your lives and don't get too friendly."
"What brings you here, Xena?" a voice in the crowd shouted. "Your Amazon friends got away -- all but one -- and her life was purchased at a very dear price. She took down thirty good men and true before she fell. At those odds, give us a hundred Amazons and we'll decimate the Trojan army without the rest of us having to pick up a spear or hurl a lance."
The soldiers chuckled. "If you've to come fight alongside us, Xena, we'll only need fifty Amazons," someone shouted and there was heartier laughter among the troops.
"I've come to see if there's any honor left in Hellas!" Xena shouted, wheeling in the horses and bringing the chariot to a standstill. "Or has the House of Atreus so dominated our homeland that we've become a nation of liars, cowards, scoundrels and thieves!"
"Whoa, be careful, Warrior Princess, those are fighting words," someone in the crowd shouted.
"What've you got against our King?" another voice shouted. "Le roi, c'est la patrie. La patrie, c'est le roi! L'un pour l'autre!"
"So says a nation of weaklings, double dealers and slaves!" Xena shouted.
"She's Thracian!" someone else shouted. "And that other one, the blonde, is Macedonian! You country bumpkins would still be slicing meat with your teeth and buttering bread with your fingers if we Argives and Myceneans hadn't showed up in force to civilize you!"
"To bring us to heel, you mean," Gabrielle scowled.
"Where's Diomedes?" Xena called out to the crowd. "We don't have time to trade insults with the riff raff."
"Really, Xena, would you care to run that by Achilles? He's over there playing bocci behind his tent," someone catcalled.
"Achilles has bigger fish to fry!" Xena shouted. "And so do I!"
"A fish that's bigger than the Warrior Princess?" a voice called out. "That's awfully self-effacing of you, Xena!"
"Hold it right there!" Gabrielle shouted at one of the soldiers who'd noodled too close to the chariot in whose car she and Xena were standing. Whipping one of her sais out of its holster, Gabrielle stood poised to strike. "One more step and you're puppy chow! Get back!"
Before any face-saving bluster could further endanger him, the soldier obeyed Gabrielle's wishes.
"If you men have sold your freedom and dignity for a mess of Mycenean pottage, that's your business," Xena cried. "I want Diomedes..."
A handsome, self-possessed commander forced his way through the crowd into the midst of the altercation.
"...And have him I will," Xena vowed.
"No need to carry on, Xena," Diomedes smiled. "I'm at your disposal."
"Good," Xena stared back at Diomedes without the least sign of surprise.
"If you've come to view the bodies, they're laid out on the beach," Diomedes said. "I may temper principles with pragmatism, but I do keep my promises."
"You promised the Amazons safe passage to Tenedos," Xena accused.
"Insofar as I'm capable of keeping those promises," Diomedes continued. "Not everything in my theater of operations is under my immediate control. That's the difference between a general and a warlord."
"Don't lecture me on the difference between a general and a warlord," Xena hissed. "If I didn't already know the difference and respect it, your blood would be soaking into the sand by now and your head, sans helmet, would be sitting atop a very tall spike outside those very thick walls."
"Ooh, big talk, Xena," a face in the crowd bellowed.
"Put your sword where your mouth is, Thersites, and I'll lop your tongue off for you," Xena replied.
The men guffawed and Thersites stewed.
"Allright, Xena," Diomedes said, "begin your process of verification. See if sixty of our men -- sixty good soldiers who let a bit of swordplay get out of hand -- haven't paid for their prank with their lives. Sixty soldiers for one Amazon, not a bad rate of exchange, I'd say."
"Just how corrupt and decadent can you be!" Gabrielle shouted. "Was it a game your men were playing? Is that what this war has become, a diversion, a game of bocci with heads and bodies in place of balls and mallets? What's become of you grunts and corpsmen? A score of young men from my home town are here, under Argive arms, fighting for the worthless House of Atreus: the Poteidaian company of the Pallene brigade of the Chalkidiki regiment under your command, Diomedes, as were the Amazons to whom you promised safe passage to Tenedos. Are my friends and neighbors to come home bitter and cynical, wasted in body and wracked in spirit? Is this what your glorious war does to the men who fight it, destroy their bodies and ruin their souls? You're appalling, the lot of you!"
"We haven't come to verify the body count," Xena said. "I have no interest in seeing more dead bodies littering this or any other shore. We've come to talk turkey. In private. And what I have to say is better said to you alone, Diomedes, not uttered in the presence of your men -- which I will do if you give me no alternative. You know me well enough, I think, to know that I don't call the bluff of the men -- and women -- whom I respect."
"Then let's adjourn to my tent, shall we?" Diomedes smiled. "Thersites, make sure that no one tampers with these horses or fiddles with the chariot while we're having our confab. I've promised Xena and Gabrielle a free trip out and back. I intend to keep my word without any more unfortunate hitches."
Resentfully, Thersites took charge of the horses and chariot and, though seething inwardly at Xena's having humiliated him, stood guard duty with a bit more self-discipline, being, after all, a unit leader in a professional army, than that which Lugnuts and Cesspoulos had been able to muster when they'd been placed in charge of Lila's and Alexis' security at Latrinus' camp, the two of them being little more than marginally employable punks.
"Get it straight, Xena," Diomedes exclaimed with a good deal of irritation when the three of them sat down in the privacy of his tent, "carrying on like a Gorgon's head in front of the men avails us nothing. It further muddies the water and makes extricating oneself from this unfortunate mess that much more loathsome and difficult."
"Diomedes, how could you," Xena looked deeply into Diomedes' eyes, the eyes of a man whose years of military service hadn't utterly hardened him nor turned him callous and indifferent to the massive toll of unwarranted suffering which war, at bottom, meted out to winner and loser alike. "They were counting on you. Yes, Amazons can hold their own in a fight. We all know that. But six Amazons, exposed on an open beach, with no ropes or trees for shelter, no matter how well trained they may be in techniques of self-defense, can't hope to prevail against a couple of platoons of armed men consumed by the fury of blood lust. And don't tell me that because Velasca was able to take down a third of them that somehow the odds were even. Velasca was the best fighter they had. Ephiny might have vanquished a dozen. Amazons are creatures of flesh and blood, never mind what fantasies may abound in men's minds about them."
"What more can I do, Xena. I had all the remaining participants put to the sword. That gambit cost me an ocean of good will. Don't think Agammemnon hasn't noted it on his scroll," Diomedes said. "You know very well that a lot of people feel -- and not just companies of soldiers under arms -- that the only good Amazon is a de-feathered, de-clawed and de-flowered Amazon. And there's some whose humble opinion is even more violent and degrading than that."
"I told you before what you could do but you won't do it," Xena said.
"Resign my commission in the middle of a campaign and retire to my estate to live the life of a gentleman farmer? That's patently absurd and you know it," Diomedes retorted.
"That's not what I was sugges..."
"Besides," Diomedes interjected, "who's to say that a half dozen well-trained and equipped Amazons couldn’t withstand a couple of platoons of armed mercenaries. You stood off the bloody Persian army while your friend here was lying near dead in the loft -- beg pardon, Gabrielle, but you were, in fact, nearly carried off to your just reward by the poison on the tip of the arrow that was lodged in you."
"I recall that unpleasant incident," Gabrielle said with a frown. "You needn't remind me of it."
"That was different," Xena said. "I had props to work with. We were in a confined space. There was time to set traps. Let's not waste words. We've come to make you a proposition."
"I'm listening," Diomedes nodded for Xena to proceed.
"Gabrielle and I are holing up in Troy for one purpose and one purpose only," Xena said. "If and when the time comes -- and we suspect that it will -- we're there to lead as many Trojans as possible to safety. We gained some experience in supervising mass evacuations when we led several large contingents of refugees in flight from Pao Su's forces after she and Ming T'ien had teamed up with Genghis Khan's army. We're hoping that what we learned there will stand us in good stead here. All we want you to do is to mitigate the wanton slaughter of unarmed civilians as best you can."
A pained look came over Diomedes' face.
"You're not a murderer, Diomedes, not in your heart; even though you let Odysseus collar you into killing King Rhesus and taking his horses," Xena said. "I've known men who were murderers. I've commanded men who were murderers. There's a universe of difference between men who have murder in their hearts and those who don't. Unlike the masters you serve, you don't. It's the difference between Marcus and Mezentius, Antony and Caesar. One type can kill in battle when there's no alternative. The other type can kill in cold blood. I know which type you are.
"Help us to evacuate the survivors by doing what you have to do to block those who would slaughter them and their children. That's all I'm asking. If you do, I'll see you in Tiryns when this bloody conflict has run its course and you'll either withdraw from the House of Atreus or face my sword, one on one, in combat to the death, honorably, between opponents who respect and deal fairly with one another. Do nothing to prevent it and after the war is over, I'll hunt you down and give you no quarter, and I'll urge Queen Admete, in the strongest terms, to confiscate your lands and rents and banish your wife and children on pain of death. And if I have to, I'll kill them myself."
"Do you think you could do that, Xena?" Diomedes said.
"Do I think I have it in me? Yes," Xena said.
"Are you threatening me, then?" Diomedes said.
"Yes," Xena said.
"Because Velasca lost her life on account of men's greed, lust and pride?" Diomedes said.
"Because there are too many good men in the world who place their goodness at the service of men who use that goodness for evil purposes," Xena said. "These are the good men who are ultimately responsible for the evil that flourishes in the world because they could battle and win the victory over evil but they choose instead to ally with and accommodate to it."
"And you think it's all a matter of one’s own will," Diomedes said.
"In the end, yes," Xena looked Diomedes in the eye. "You have to take a stand. Something inside has to be the touchstone. Otherwise you just... float. It's your will that's the touchstone. What else could it be?"
"Ask your friend," Diomedes sat back and nodded at Gabrielle.
Xena frowned and Gabrielle scowled. "I'm not the little girl with stars in her eyes that I used to be, Diomedes," Gabrielle said. "I've witnessed a lot of things since I've been with Xena. She and I have been through a lot together, and I've had some tough sorting out of conflicting priorities to do along the way."
"And what's your touchstone, former idealist, former starry-eyed bard, former farmer's daughter from a tiny village near the little town of Poteidaia?" Diomedes said.
"How do you mean?" Gabrielle said, suspiciously.
"Xena's touchstone is the power of her will," Diomedes said. "What's yours? Is it the power of your own will?"
"It is more now than it used to be," Gabrielle said.
"But what is it ultimately?" Diomedes said. "Is it the power of your will, or does the touchstone of your being rest on a different foundation? Something very different from the power of the will? On what will you ultimately stake your life, Gabrielle? No warrior worth his or her salt -- and you're a warrior now -- can fail to confront and formulate an answer that question in the depths of his or her being. Otherwise you're just marking time until some other warrior gets the jump on you and sends you screaming or cursing to the grave. So what's your answer Gabrielle... Uh, uh, you've had your say, Xena. I'm talking to Gabrielle. What's the rock bottom foundation of your life, the base on which all else rests, Little Angel Song?"
"When it all comes down to the barest of bones?" Gabrielle said with neither a frown nor a smile.
"When it all comes down to truth or dare," Diomedes said.
"My love for Xena," Gabrielle said, softly.
Diomedes sat back in his general's chair for a turn of the sandglass of silence. "Did you hear that, Xena?" Diomedes finally said.
"Yes," Xena said even more softly than the tone in which Gabrielle had spoken.
"So you see, Xena, there's a power in life that's just as strong as the power of the will," Diomedes said. "A power that's not answerable to the will, is it?"
"No, it isn't," Xena said and looked away.
"We know what that power's called, but I won't embarrass you by asking you to call it by its name," Diomedes said. "Just to keep it in mind as you deliver your ultimatums."
"I mean it, Diomedes," Xena said. "When I gave up my old life, it wasn't to embrace a life of good intentions without putting my butt on the line to back those intentions up."
"I understand that," Diomedes said. "You've made your point crystal clear. Now you have to trust that I've heard it and that I'll take it into account."
"Trust...," Xena muttered.
"Which would be your Achilles heel, no, Xena?" Diomedes smiled.
Xena looked at Diomedes in deadpan silence.
"You've come a long way since the day I saw you sitting broken and lost in the tavern when I suggested to you how your army might, with ease, have defeated the Centaurs at the Battle of Corinth," Diomedes continued. "You've remade yourself in remarkable ways. With Gabrielle's help, to be sure, but you're the one who ultimately had to do the hard, grinding work. What you struggled with then, you're struggling with now. You'll have to trust me, Xena. And that uncertainty is more rankling -- and, I daresay, more frightening -- to you than the prospect of facing a hundred men, singlehandedly, in battle. That's why my advice to you is to let Gabrielle be your eyes in the darkness. Let her be your sword as you are her shield."
The interview concluded amidst much perplexity, but the lines of future interaction were drawn as Xena and Gabrielle piloted the chariot back to the Ilium's inner sanctum, talking strategy and tactics, the yang and yin of their mutually alternating blindness and sight, balanced in equipoise and forged in the brazier of love and will, binding them in a bond of soul-unity that might well have driven weaker hearts and lesser spirits 'round the bend of madness into the mire of paralysis.
water, water everywhere..." from Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
|Continued - Chapter 65|
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