Gabrielle and Xena stared at one another under the rising moon. On the eve of the battle that would determine Ilium's fate, Lila had unexpectedly returned. Given all that they had to do, how would Xena and Gabrielle look after Lila if and when the need arose?
"The thing about expecting the unexpected," Xena said as she and Gabrielle headed for the rear loading docks to meet up with Joxer, "is that the unexpected then becomes the expected, which, because it’s expected, you don't expect."
The path took them down to the dark gaps of Ilium’s subterranean passageways until they came to a tunnel which let out from under the walled fortifications to the wooded cover of the riverbanks.
For the two days that Lila had been on board the warship on her return to Ilium, Xena and Gabrielle had been putting the finishing touches on the city's evacuation plans.
The first step had been to place Deiphobus in charge of sounding the alert, which had required taking him into their confidence.
"Your father has asked us to try and save as many lives as possible should the Argives succeed in breaching the walls," Xena had told him. Deiphobus had begun to panic when at last he realized that Ilium might indeed fall to invaders who were capable of indulging in the wanton slaughter of civilians. "I realize that the pressure on you, as the head of internal security, in case we have to take flight, is enormous; but you've got to pull yourself together and keep a cool head for the sake of the many lives that may be at stake."
As usual, Xena would be the point person if the plan were to go into effect. On her mark, if necessary, the evacuation would begin. Families would assemble in designated shelters and exits. Their movements would have to be carefully timed and coordinated. A cordon of deputized marshalls, at strategically located checkpoints along the evacuation route, would need to keep the flow of refugees orderly and moving. If there were fires raging throughout the city, as Xena was sure there would be, a watery path, on both sides of the escape route, like a wall of waves bracketing the littoral sprint of a fleeing nation, would need to be maintained until those who were fleeing from the burning wreckage had fought their way free of the collapsing inferno. As they fled from the roaring blaze, families would need to tote as much water as possible in every jug and skin they could carry, and their clothes would need to be soaked, their scarves and handkerchiefs dampened continuously to ward off the smoke from the flaming timbers.
Xena had mapped out the underground escape route which would take the fleeing refugees out of the city to Ilium's vast agricultural fields on the eastern, sheltered side of Scamander's sandy plain. At that point, a second, two-pronged danger would no doubt rear its head. The populace, fleeing on foot, would be vulnerable to attack from the pursuing Argive cavalry. Out in the open, unarmed women and children, along with the few men who might be among them, some possibly wounded and hobbling, would be easy pickings for the marauding soldiery hunting them down in chariots and on horseback. But even if there were only a negligible pursuit, one which Xena and Gabrielle might possibly stave off, there would be the icy wind and enervating cold with which to contend, hypothermia striking quickly on the barren plain with no slope or rampart to absorb the fierce gusts that would buffet them.
Assuming that those in flight might overcome these hindrances and attain the cover of the wooded hills to the northeast -- and assuming no further pursuit on the part of the bloodthirsty victors -- there would now be the demons of hunger, thirst and inadequate shelter to cope with. Selected contingents could be drafted to construct lien to's, gather wood for small fires and forage for game. A makeshift encampment could be erected to serve as a temporary tent city while scouting companies began to chart a further course east toward the high Phrygian steppes where the scattered Trojans might, at last, be safe from the marauding Argives.
When the crisis of fire and sword had finally begun to fade and the refugees might begin to breathe more easily, growing less apprehensive, at each turn of the sandglass, for their immediate safety, then would come the most difficult and demanding phase of the evacuation -- the long, debilitating trek. Somehow, the mass of homeless itinerants would need to congeal into a civilian army on the move, finding the means to survive as they sought a new and, sadly, less auspicious homeland amid a more stony, hostile and unyielding environment of harsh wind, little water, baking sun in the summer and frigid snows in the winter. If they could make it as far across the Anatolian prairies as the fir-thickened valleys of Pontus, the Themiscyran Amazons at the mouth of the Thermidon, on the southern shore of the Black Sea, would likely offer them what assistance they could, while Oteri's and Yakut's Amazons of the Central Anatolian hill country would surely lend a hand. Thus might the legendary saying of the Amazons come to pass: "Scythia and Persia were our fathers, Hellas and Ilium our mothers."
The logistics of these arrangements had fallen to Gabrielle who'd proved, in the past several days, to be a talented engine of organization and delegation. She'd been receiving reports from every quarter of the city, at the turn of almost every candlemark, about the state of people's preparedness. Gabrielle's sure instinct for knowing what needed to be done guided her judgment so that crucial steps, taken now, would save precious time and resources later on when each turn of the sandglass -- each dropping of a sand grain into the bell of the glass -- might mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of souls.
Gabrielle's knack for effective administration was everywhere in evidence, and Xena marveled at it. The determined little adventuress from Poteidaia, arriving in Amphipolis at the instant when a repentant Xena had cast her sword away and had all but invited the furious townsfolk to lynch her, the diminutive blonde hitchhiker, who’d come breezing in to leap in front of Xena with a slick jawboning finesse worthy of Salmoneus at his finest, to shield her from the violence of the encroaching mob until Xena had had the chance to prove herself worthy of regaining their trust by besting Draco, in hand to hand combat, on the wobbly pile of stilts, had blossomed into the de facto commander of a garrison with the cool-headed skill and canny foresight of an experienced general.
Give me a half-dozen Gabrielles and, were we fighting for the Argives, Ilium would have been reduced to rubble by now, Xena had thought to herself as she'd watched Gabrielle take charge of entire battalions of the home guard and whip them into a fast-moving, well-coordinated unit so that, if flight should become necessary, the civilian population would be ready to spring free of the city walls on a mad dash for the protective embrace of the dense, inland hills. Yet that hadn't been an accurate comparison either, Xena acknowledged, as Gabrielle's proficiency as a leader enabled Xena to concentrate on her work of ballistic espionage. Ilium would not have been reduced to rubble. Gabrielle would have routed Ilium's defenders allright, but rubbling the city upon its surrender would not have been in her nature. She was much too noble a soul to indulge in base retaliation as a means of punishing a vanquished opponent.
While these evacuation contingencies were being put into place, Ilium's soldiery, under Aeneas' command, was massing in the city's telesteria. The intense drilling of the infantry, which Thermodosa and the Amazons had undertaken during the current cease fire, had paid off handsomely. The troops were relaxed and confident. They knew their weapons and their plan of attack. The intensified practice exercises of the past several days had gone exceedingly well. Though the Amazons lacked experience in open field combat and the pitched battles of trench warfare, their fighting skills having been developed and honed in wooded and mountainous terrain, and though, as a result, Aeneas' staff officers had stepped in to oversee the final days' marshalling of Ilium's armed forces, to the Amazons went the credit of prepping the men to the point where the regimental and divisional maneuvers required in the next day's blitz on the plain would likely run smoothly and had thus imbued the men with a sense of pride and hopeful anticipation.
Indeed, had the conflict simply been a contest between competing infantries, Ilium, though its forces were a good deal smaller in number, might yet have hoped to prevail despite the immense toll on their brigades that Achilles and Ajax would personally have wrecked in addition to losses suffered at the hands of the Argive army as a whole. The Trojan regulars were superior in skill, training, strategic positioning, tactical maneuvering and were, to be sure, far more highly motivated. They were fighting to defend their city whereas many of the Argive soldiers were draftees who had nothing personally to gain from the war and its carnage. Penthesileia and her dozen Amazons could be counted on to take out an entire company of Argive hoplites, much as Ephiny and her Amazons had fought Brutus' legions to a standoff on the Strymon Road, thereby halting the Roman advance through Macedonia at the news of which, on the plaza in front of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, Caesar's maniacal fury had erupted in a violent and embarrassing, schoolboy tantrum.
But though Ilium's infantry was strong and poised for a grueling battle, the cavalry was inferior to and its artillery no match for that of its immense opponent. The gap in the cavalry strength might be bridged somewhat by King Memnon of Ethiopia, recently arrived with several companies of charioteers and horsemen, who’d come to fight alongside his old friend and ally, King Priam. At King Memnon's arrival, voices had cheered and hearts had lifted in the dizzy lightness of fresh hope. Memnon was a tower of a man who could meet Odysseus, Nestor or Menelaus on the field of combat and would almost certainly emerge the victor. Only Achilles and Ajax could be sure of besting him one on one in battle. Diomedes, the most intelligent and resourceful fighter among the Argive senior staff, could perhaps have battled Memnon to a draw.
Memnon's skin was coal black, his girth enormous, his sword arm mighty. His personal affect was upbeat and cheerful. Wherever he went, people opened their doors and hearts to him. His air of jovial optimism was catchy. The Amazons cooed and sizzled in his company. His effervescent charm even brought a temporary smile to Penthesileia's quietly resolute face. Aeneas was grateful to have him on board.
"Who says those boys can’t be whipped?" King Memnon smiled broadly at dinner on the night he'd arrived with his troops. "The bigger they come, the faster they turn tail and run..., isn't that right, Xena? I take it you've all heard the story of how Xena took down her old friend, Goliath, with a little bit of help from that limp-wristed, young Israelite fellow. Didn't you topple that gruff old giant, Xena?"
King Memnon had slapped Xena on the back, accidentally shoving her, with a roar of infectious laughter, forward over the table and causing the mead in the mug she'd been holding in her hand to spill over the brim and soak the tablecloth. Gabrielle's eyes had gone wide with amazement, fully expecting, in the next fall of a sand grain, to see the blade of Xena's sword buried up to the hilt, at an obtuse angle, in the folds of King Memnon's portly gut. You don't do something like that to Xena and expect to see the next morning's sun rise. But with a lightning fast reigning in of her will, Xena stifled her cat-quick impulse to make cold cut slices out of King Memnon, partly for the sake of the greater good of the war effort and partly because, like the rest of the evening's company, she truly warmed to the good-hearted, affable King.
Yet as the moon lifted higher in the sky and Aeneas was assembling his core staff -- Paris, Troilus, Helenus, Memnon, Penthesileia, Xena -- for their final meeting and a review of tomorrow’s sally into the ranks of the foe, all hearts knew that nothing could make up for the loss of Hector, their great champion, whose death, at the hand of a rapacious Achilles, had quite possibly dealt a death blow to Ilium's hope for victory over an army that could likely have given the Romans a run for their dinars had the powerful legions of each been pitted one against the other.
The plan of attack began at the Scaean Gate, to be followed, in quick succession, by the opening of the Dardan and Tymbrian Gates, out of which would pour the line of attack in an inverted V, the center in the lead with the left wing, under Paris' command, and the right wing, under Troilus' command, flanking Memnon's cavalry between the two wings, backed up by the continuous discharging of the artillery under Helenus' command. At the heart of the center of the charge, the Amazons, roaring forth on horseback, would be the first to hit the enemy lines with Penthesileia at the apex of the V, the first of the Amazons to draw fire and blood as Argive and Trojan swords clashed and shields shattered in the climactic battle of this long, belabored, soul-depleting war.
Xena would be the floater. If, at the moment of attack, all went according to plan, Xena and Joxer would blow sky high the mighty, multi-storied, horse-shaped contraption that the Greek artillery had devoted the wealth of their considerable resources to constructing, out of sight of the walls of Ilium, no doubt as their great secret weapon. If catapaults and siege engines were to be mounted within and on top of that wood and iron behemoth, their range would pose a lethal threat to Ilium's megalithic walls, the city's ultimate defense.
So far, the giant structure had remained vacant as though waiting to be filled by things other than rocks and boulders and immense firing mechanisms. Odysseus, who'd been in charge of its construction, was a wily one. Who knew what sorts of tricks this master of deception might have up his crafty sleeve. Who knew, for that matter, that this monstrous engine might be an elaborate decoy or, better yet, designed as some sort of an offering to the gods. Whatever it was, it had to be destroyed, and the lot had fallen to Xena and the mysterious black powder to accomplish this crucial objective. After having completed her assignment, Xena would seek to join up with Aeneas on the sandy plain and, freelancing being Xena's preferred fighting style, roam about the battlefield wherever she might be needed.
To her great chagrin, knowing, as Xena herself knew, that she had earned the right to fight by Xena's side, Gabrielle's assignment was to remain within the walls during the battle, commanding the skeleton force left behind to defend the city from within. "Women and children duty," Gabrielle disdainfully called it as the greater good called upon her to grit her teeth and paste a compliant smile on her face. If the tide of battle were to turn against the Trojan forces and if the Argive counterattack were successfully to storm across the wide, sandy plain to breach Ilium's walls with fire and sword, someone in authority, with proven battle skills, had to be there to shore up the rear and coordinate the final, hand to hand resistance.
King Priam couldn't do it. He was too old. The years weighed too heavily on his magnanimous spirit. Some kings proved great in times of war and hardship, yet were ill fit to rule a kingdom in times of peace, prosperity and cultural flowering. King Priam proved the opposite. A largeness of spirit and the acquisition of a modest wisdom that had learned that he or she who rules with the lightest hand also rules with the firmest touch had rendered him the great king of a sparkling jewel of a city, a spirit of vision and grace in a world too often immersed in the smoke and cinders of darkness. But the qualities that made the old King a beacon light in times of peace and prosperity did not endow him with an equivalent greatness in times of war and disaster. His courage hadn't deserted him, but he was not a knowledgeable and decisive commander in times of sword-clash and bone-rattle when blood and fire ruled the field and a quick mind and a sure arm frequently spelled the difference between preservation and extinction.
And Deiphobus, though staunch in his way, had no proven ability to exercise leadership in a crisis.
So, as happened at the Battle of the Strymon Road, if fell to Gabrielle to take charge of the reinforcements. Her role was to command the reserves and to be the neap of the wave that swept the tide of battle onto the field. Besides, as Xena explained, if Gabrielle -- or Joxer -- were to be captured by the Argive forces and conveyed to the Argive high command, and if evidence were to surface that they'd been active in the defense of Ilium, the two of them, as Macedonians, could be summarily condemned to death, and Diomedes himself might not be able to prevent their execution. Xena might be able to intervene by pulling off a dramatic rescue on the gallows as she’d once managed to save Meleager from a similar fate, but, in the current instance, one against an Argive division on the battlefield of Ilium offered considerably smaller odds of success than one against a Persian platoon in a deserted barn in Tripolis on the rocky road to Marathon.
On the other hand, if the Argive forces were to invade Ilium and then to take Gabrielle and Joxer captive but had no evidence that either one of them had been collaborating with the Trojan war effort, the only offense with which they could reasonably be charged would be fraternizing with the enemy against which charge they might have a credible alibi. Gabrielle was present in Ilium on Amazon business and Joxer was present in Ilium because... well, because he was Joxer, and everyone knew what an airhead Joxer supposedly was. "Oops, must’ve taken the wrong fork at the crossroads when I wandered away from Meg's last week. Isn't this, um, Corinth...?"
For their own protection, then, Gabrielle and Joxer had best not play a visible role in the fray. Xena's situation was more nuanced. As a Thracian, Xena was officially the subject of her recently despatched King Rhesus who had allied the Kingdom of Thrace with Ilium. If Xena were to be captured, she might properly be regarded as a prisoner of war, not as a traitor and thus not subject to summary execution. But as a Greek Thracian from Amphipolis, a Greek town on the Macedonian border, Xena's status was ambiguous, and she might, for all she knew, be regarded in much the same light as a Macedonian would be in her situation. If so, she'd have to fight her way out of a jam or die trying.
For the past two days, Xena and Gabrielle had been lugging buckets, cannisters, tubs and drums of black powder through the maze of underground passageways to the cache where these items were being stockpiled. Lest they call attention to what they were doing, they rarely took the most direct approach which meant an even greater burden of lifting and carrying.
"This is a lot harder job than Autolycus and Salmoneus had when they cleared out the warehouse at the pottery works," Gabrielle had observed at one point, pausing to wipe the sweat from her brow.
"This is the easy part," Xena had grimaced. "The hard part comes when we transport this stuff out to the target site."
"How did Pao Su get all those black powder crates stacked up in one place when you and Ka’o Hsin caught up with her and let loose with Lao Ma’s fireballs on the weapons depot?" Gabrielle had wanted to know as she and Xena were making their way back to the kitchen lab.
"Pao Su had an army," Xena had said. "We have Joxer."
"Ah, good point," Gabrielle had nodded as they climbed the back stairs to the rear of the refectory where Joxer had been in the final stages of drying and sifting the last of the black powder.
Now, as night dripped like a nearly smothered candle toward the guttering flame of dawn, Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer faced the crucial test of their week-long preparations. The dozens of black powder containers, of various weights and sizes, crammed into their secret caches, were ready to go. The heavy spool of tightly wound fuse material was there too. So was the little black box that Xena had constructed based on diagrams that Dedalus had sketched, a design for a device that Herc had convinced him, for the sake of the greater good, not to produce. The box contained a mechanism which permitted a spark to ignite a flammable, flint-like substance with sufficient heat to cause combustible material like the black powder to chain-react at a distance. By this ingenious means, a single plunge of the plunger could set off an explosion to rival the blast of a hundred fireballs. Xena planned to destroy the diagrams as soon as the mission was accomplished lest power-hungry kings and princes, like Creon of Thebes, might one day get their hands on them to devastating effect.
The trio scurried through the underground passages to arrive at the hidden cache. A little ways beyond the cache, a tunnel led to an opening outside the city walls. The three of them dragged the containers out of the cache and massed them under the stars. Now they needed to tote them, without being detected, across the flats, through the marshy brush and up to the huge staging area where the monstrous, horse-shaped war engine stood in the moonglow of all its unearthly glory. Then would come the trickiest part of the job: taking down the troops who were guarding the beast, then rigging it with detonating charges placed at all its joints and ribs.
"Get down!" Xena cried, in an urgent whisper, when she heard a rustling in the brush near the exit of the underground passage.
Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer ducked behind a bush, there being no other cover. The containers of black powder stood in plain sight on the ground beside them. If this were a Trojan patrol, they'd have to jump the men, tie them up, gag them and stuff them into the cache at the far end of the tunnel. There would be no time to explain and no justification for compromising the secrecy of the mission.
The rustling gave way to a clacking and clopping sound as Xena smelled the approach of a horse pulling a wagon filled with fresh straw. Xena parted the tangles of the bush and beheld a young woman, riding alone, mounted on the buckboard with the reins in her hands. "Of all the idiocracies, it's Cressida!" Xena whispered with exasperation.
"Hey-ee, Cress-eeee...," Joxer popped up with a big, fat grin on his puss.
"Joxer, would you stay down and keep your trap sh..."
"So there you guys are," Cressida reined in the wagon. "Joxie, I've been huntin' all over creation for you, y'ornery ol' muskrat."
"Cressida, what in the name of the furry pom poms on the toes of Aphrodite's pink bedroom slippers are you doing here!" Xena rose up in a snit. "This is no time for fun and games. We've got some serious business to attend to. Get back inside the walls. It's not safe out here."
"We could dig a hole and bury her in it," Gabrielle looked daggers at the pretty young woman and then at Joxer. "I thought you told her to wrap it up and Fed Ex it."
"Well, if you guys wanna lug the black powder all the way across the flats and through all that tall mushy grass, I guess nobody's stopping you," Cressida said. "But I thought you might like to have some easier way to get it over there. Gee, Joxie, your friends aren't very friendly, are they? Well, you don't have to load the cans and barrels onto this empty wagon if you don't want to. Or the fuse spool or the detonating box either."
Xena's jaw dropped and Gabrielle's eyes flared.
"Don’t look at me. I didn't say a word," Joxer protested. "Not about the black powder, not about the detonating fuse, not about anything. Isn't that so, Cress. I never told you that Xena and Gab and me are saboteurs who are planning to blow to smithereens some crazy, Argive war machine that's getting built in secret out there by the river flats, did I?"
If chakrams could talk, Xena's would have muttered, "Bounce me off the crowns of these two numbskulls, would you, please..."
"It's true. Joxie never said a thing about what he just said," Cressida spoke up. "You're not the only one who knows about that giant Argive moneymaker, Xena. My uncle, Chalcas, even knows what it's for. It's for hiding soldiers in so they can get dragged on narrow, wooden tracks, hidden in the dirt, right up to the gates of the city without anybody knowing they're inside. I thought maybe I could help you guys incinerate the thing before it gets any farther off the ground, but if you don't want my company, I guess I can wheel around and head back the way I came..."
Sulking, Cressida flicked the reins and the draft horse started moving. "And you," Cressida snapped at Gabrielle, "what're you jealous 'cause your hunky boyfriend thinks I'm cute? I don't see any signs that you’ve been treatin' him all that good. Hyahh!"
Then Cressida started to pull away.
"Cressida, wait!" Xena called. "I'm... sorry we gave you a hard time just now. It's just that things are moving really fast and we haven't got time to fool around."
Cressida stopped the wagon and turned around in the seat.
"It's good of you to want to lend a hand," Xena said. "Come on. But be alert 'cause we'll be walking smack into trouble."
Cressida thought for an instant and said, "Okay, I’m game. But tell Blondie over there not to keep saying mean things to me."
"I won't say any more mean things to you, I promise," Gabrielle said, gritting her teeth. She hadn't meant to hurt Cressida's feelings over the course of the past several days, but it had been imperative, for security reasons, to keep her far from the black powder and even farther from Joxer who could not always be counted on, when starry-eyed, to keep a secret.
With the wagon and an extra pair of hands, the loading went more swiftly, and soon the four of them were creaking across the open flat and into the cover of the marsh. A few turns of the sandglass later, the huge siege engine or war machine or multi-storey conestoga came into view over the tops of the reeds and catkins where it stood on its raised platform close to the shore.
The foursome quietly pulled the wagon into a clump of brush, got down and sneaked a little ways further through the brambles until they spotted a pair of sentries lounging at the base of the gabled monstrosity.
"Say, fellas. Either of you sexy hunks happen to have a match?"
The sentries were startled out of their snuffling semi-stupor by a sweet young thing in a low cut blouse and a full, sweeping skirt who'd silently approached them out of the shadows. Eyeballs went on red alert. Nobody ventured this far from camp at night. Who would want to hike through all that muck and yuck only to get their duds muddy to the knees? Pulling guard duty out here was a drag: a long night's struggle to stay awake and no extra pay or rations in the morning.
"Now whut's a cute little sweet p'tayta like you doin' moseyin' all way out here so far away from every little thing?" one of the guards got up from his haunches and smiled at Cressida who stood with her hands on her hips and the moonlight playing off the slightly frizzy tips of her lazy, strawberry blonde curls.
"Honey, I'm more’n happy to give you whatever your little heart desires," the other guard, grinning from ear to ear, came over.
"Thank you, boys," Cressida demurred. "But all I need's a match."
"What you need a match for?" the guards inquired.
"To light up one of these," Cressida showed them a tiny candle-like object.
"Whuzzat you got?" the guards got curious.
"It's a Roman candle," Cressida told them.
"Them Roman’s got candles?" the guards bent over to inspect the novel gismo.
"First you strike a match, then you light it up, and then, after a few sand grains go fallin' through the glass, the darn thing goes boom; and unless you've tossed it quite a distance away from you by then...," Cressida said as the guards hovered around the firecracker, giving it their full attention so that they failed to notice Gabrielle and Joxer sneaking up on them from behind, both carrying a full canister of the black powder which they raised, in tandem, over their heads, "...the lights go out." Prrannggg!! Gabrielle and Joxer brought the canisters down on the pointy tops of the sentries’ helmets and they hit the deck, out for the count.
"Go take care of other two while I get things started," Xena whispered from behind.
"The other two what?" Gabrielle, Joxer and Cressida said.
"The other two guards. Over there, on the far side of the platform, snoozing," Xena gestured with her head and shoulders.
Off they went while Xena began to unload the tubs and buckets from the wagon. When the trio got back, Xena had the containers lined up by height and weight.
"We'll start at the top," Xena told them. "At each corner, wherever you see a post joined to a beam, stick one of the bigger sized ones and, in between, where the boards line up above the joists, stick one of the smaller sized ones. And these four huge tubs go at the four corners along the base. I'll follow behind, unrolling the spool and tying off lengths of fuse."
Up they climbed to the highest tier, hauling the buckets and canisters up with ropes and pulleys. The upper levels required the lightest weight containers, so the job went fairly quickly. The mid levels, along the scaffolding, were longer and wider and took some of the larger buckets. The largest containers were packed into crucial junctures at ground level. Xena helped with the heaviest stuff, handing the fuse spool to Cressida who seemed to be a pretty quick study when it came to wiring explosives.
"Looks like you've got a knack for blowing things up," Gabrielle said, trying to find a way to give Cressida a compliment.
"And I'm only seventeen," Cressida shot a look at Joxer. "Imagine how I'll be setting 'em off when I'm twenty-one and on my own."
In little more than a candlemark, the group had the huge structure packed to the gills with the black powder and the containers wired as tight as a spring. Now came the payoff, the part of the job that everything was riding on.
"C'mon, let's get back to the wagon," Xena collected the others. They wended their way back to the high, marshy grass, hiding the little metal conducting strips with which they coated the unrolled coil of trip wire. "Wind it good and tight and make sure it's lying flat on its strips and that nothing's obstructing it," Xena said. "It's got to be a straight shot right to the lead tub. Once that one blows, it'll juice the others and, one by one, they'll all go."
"What if the lead bucket turns out to be a dud?" Gabrielle asked the dreaded question.
"Then, after we've crucified Joxer, we rush the thing with lit torches and hope we can get the Hades out of there quick enough so we don't go up in smoke along with it," Xena said.
"Sheesh, don't go blaming me if something goes wrong," Joxer whined. "Besides, we already did the crucifixion thing, remember?"
"Just clear a path so the line of fire can race along these metal strips without being interfered with," Xena said. "As soon as we come to the end of this dry shelf above the marsh, we'll hook up the box."
Which they did at the spot where the cover of the marsh gave way to the open space of the sandy plain that extended a half a league to the north wall of Ilium and the network of passages that wove for long, twisted distances beneath the Chetas Gate. The box contained an iron cylinder into which a lit wick, drenched in oil, was to be dropped. The plunger, attached to a lid, was immediately to be depressed, forcing the volume to contract and the pressure and temperature to rise. The fire would eat up the compressed air in a flash. Through a tiny hole at the base of the cylinder, the flash would force the metal strip to glow with intense heat but only for a fraction of a drop of a sand grain. But that instant of combustion, travelling at an incalculable speed along the metal conducting strip, would, if the gods were willing and the marshy crick didn't rise, ignite the crumb of sulfur that poked, like the head of a groundhog, a thumblength into the air out of the midst of the initial tub of black powder. And that flaring crumb would then hopefully cause the biggest boom that the House of Atreus and those who fought under its banner had ever heard.
But for the nail the shoe was lost; but for the shoe, the horse was lost; but for the horse, the battle was lost; but for the battle, the war was lost... Never mind the nail, Xena thought to herself as she put the finishing touches on the blasting box. Tomorrow, when Aeneas sounds the charge, it's all gonna come down to a tiny little paper match being dropped into a tiny little hole in a box. And one shot is all we're gonna get.
With everything now in place, the four members of the night's impromptu bunko squad hastened back across the flat to the entrance to the tunnel from which they'd emerged. Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer dipped back into the underground, covering their tracks as they worked their way closer to the surface and Ilium’s main avenue along whose broad midway and rotundas the troops were now assembling in the telesteria, gathering in disciplined formation to await their orders. Tomorrow, no doubt, would be a good day for fighting and, for some, dying.
Cressida brought the empty wagon around to the Tymbrian Gate and called to the sentries to lift the massive bar and let her pass through.
"How do we know you ain't a decoy, sent here by that crafty Odysseus feller, to come sneakin' in and makin' no end of mischief 'til we catch you at it and hang you high 'pon the gibbet?" one of the sentries called down to her.
"My name is Cressida!" Cressida shouted. "My uncle is Chalcas, and my soon to be ex-boyfriend is Troilus! Open up! I'm a local girl and I've got a sketched i.d. to prove it."
"Local girls, that's what all the spyin’ tarts from Hellas like to call themselves," the sentry shouted down from the parapet. "For all we know you could be a bloody Rahab, lyin' up with your Argive paramour and lookin' to do your own people dirt the very first chance you get."
"Will you open the gate already! My bum’s getting chapped, sitting here on this freezing buckboard with nothing but a light cotton dress on!" Cressida shouted.
Catching wind of the disturbance, Xena dashed over to the parapet and looked down to the spot where Cressida was shivering on the seat of the wagon and stamping her feet in consternation.
"Let her in," Xena snapped at the sentry. "Quick, before some Argive sniper puts an arrow in her breast."
"Sorry, lady, but I got my orders," the sentry said. "My c.o. says nobody's to come ridin' nor walkin' inside these gates unless I'm knowin' personally who they be and can vouch for 'em on my own recog-nizigence. That girl beyond the gate ain't no acquaintance of mine. I never seen the little hussy before. And her pullin' an empty wagon. It's all very irregular."
"Open the gate or your jaw will be very irregular," Xena glared at the sentry in a way that communicated her culminating impatience.
"Very well," the sentry snarled, "but I intend to report this infraction to Aeneas."
"Do that. Just don't keep her sitting alone in the wagon out there," Xena scowled as Gabrielle and Joxer came along behind her.
The sentry opened the gate and Cressida meandered into the city atop the horse and wagon.
"P'takh!" she growled, the tips of the fingers of the back of one of her hands sweeping up the line of her throat and flicking in the air, making a gesture of contempt at the sentry as she began to navigate toward the livery alongside the stables.
"What'd she say?" the sentry turned to Xena.
"She just cursed you in Klingon," Gabrielle explained.
"Forget it. Get back to your post," Xena barked.
The sentry went away grumbling, and Cressida turned the buckboard around. Seeking out and at last finding Joxer's eyes, she made a little moue with her pretty mouth and said coquettishly, "My, what sacrifices won't a girl make for love..."
Either from too much hyperventilating or an overdose of instantly induced bliss, Joxer went weak at the knees, his eyes rolled and he nearly keeled over backwards.
"Put your tongue back in your pants... er, your pants back in your boots," Gabrielle elbowed Joxer in the ribs. But Jox, smitten, was feeling no pain. All Hades might break loose at dawn, but, in dread darkness, tonight -- like every night -- belonged to lovers, the night -- oh, yeah -- belonged to love.
Meanwhile, in the flower garden within the palace’s enclosure, below the nearly empty guest quarters, on a stone bench between a row of blue delphiniums and orange marigolds, Lila and Penthesileia sat silently holding hands. Words and kisses of farewell having been exchanged, there was nothing to do but silently to wait and pray.
|Continued - Chapter 70|
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