|An Offer You Can't Re-Fuse|
The moon set as dawn began to band the horizon. Penthesileia and Lila left the flower garden and said their farewells.
"The part of you that remains behind will be in my arms this night," Lila said.
"And the part of me that goes forward will carry you in my heart forever," Penthesileia replied. "When I lost Polly, I thought I'd never love again. You showed me that wasn't true. Let your grief run its course and let love find you again as it did me. Then I'll rejoice with you and forever be a part of that love."
A kiss, an embrace, hands separating and their touch lapsing in the darkness. Then Penthesileia withdrew to join her sisters and to arm herself for battle.
Thirteen Amazons gathered in the armory where they'd stowed their gear when they'd arrived in Ilium. Silently, as though they were flowing through the patterned movements of a ritual dance learned from the Corybantes, they dressed in their funerary raiment.
Penthesileia, tall and leggy, stripped to her silken underwear and camisoles. She slipped on a thin tunic that covered her lean, wiry frame from shoulder to knee and then drew on a thin pair of sturdy, cloth trousers into which she tucked the tails of the tunic. Then came the brazen greaves attached to her shins from knee to ankle. Then the thigh guards and hip protector above which she fastened an iron-scrolled corselet topped with leather epaulettes. Then she wrapped the stiff, leather bracers around her biceps and forearms, fastening them tightly with cords of buckskin cinched through tiny eyelets. She bunched her coarse, black hair together, wound it twice and pinned it in a bun at the back of her head. Then she donned the helmet of ivory and silver with its long mane of bristling, golden hair that extended halfway down the narrows of her back. The visor was raised to her forehead and would be clamped down over her face when the battle began. And on her feet were boots of scrolled, Moroccan leather.
Now Penthesileia strapped to her back the scabbard which held her heavy sword. Then she lifted the glazed pelta, the crescent-shaped shield of the Amazons, between whose rear leather straps she inserted a long forearm. And with her free hand, she selected two short javelins and then the mighty labrys, the double edged battle axe that only the most skilled arm could wield to lethal effect.
Here was the Penthesileia that Lila had never seen and might not have known despite the bond of intimacy that had sprung up between them: a warrior skilled and mighty, a warrior mighty in battle, infused with a spirit of blood and glory that shone from the light around her exquisite body like the fiery corona of the sun. She was, after all, Ares' daughter and, though mortal, the plasma of the God of War trilled in her veins.
One by one, Penthesileia embraced her sisters and thanked them for the gift of their love and friendship. Then they gathered in a circle and Penthesileia led them in prayer: to Artemis, to their ancestors, to those who'd already crossed over: may these twelve courageous warriors with their radiant queen, the last and, some said, the greatest of the lineage of Harmonia, Otrere and Lysippe, find welcome on the far side of Claw Mountain and be re-united forever with their Amazon sisters.
"Ladies," Penthesileia concluded, "it's a good day to die for a worthy cause."
Then Penthesileia led the Amazons to the paddocks where they put the blinders on their armored steeds and then mounted, riding bareback as Amazons were trained to do. On horseback, they proceeded to their lead positions, flanking Aeneas, behind the massive portals of the Scaean Gate.
From her perch on the balcony, high on a turret of the tower that looked west over the staging grounds, Lila beheld a vast array of the assembled troops: footsoldiers, archers and hoplites; mounted cavalry in chariots and smaller cars; artillerymen, corpsmen and ordnance crews; behind them, assistants, replacements, provisioners, quartermasters and then, finally, the ranks of the civilian home guard -- row on row, wave after wave.
Lila had never seen such a massive display of manpower geared for war, an army that easily dwarfed the population of Poteidaia and her surrounding villages, that was larger than the town of Amphipolis, larger, even, than the city of Thessaloniki, lower Macedonia's metropolis. At the same time, Lila was keenly aware that the combined Argive forces, across the plain, spread along the leagues of sandy beach, were more than twice as vast. It seemed as though all humankind were massing in this blood-curdling theater of the gods for one, great, earth-shattering cataclysm brought on for reasons that Lila could barely begin to fathom but could only gasp at in awe: "How small and insignificant a thing is a human life; of less consequence, under the dome of heaven, than a pebble on the beach which will remain to greet and part from the tide long after the blood that's spilled on the battlefield will have soaked into and vanished, without a trace, from the gritty tissue of the earth."
Lila craned her neck in an effort to spot Xena's face in the crowd. It seemed natural to Lila that if a gargantuan battle was to be fought, Xena would be the one to command the troops and lead the charge. But not this time. Xena was nowhere in sight. She'd gone underground to do the work of a saboteur and would emerge on the field later on, when the deadly contest would be hanging in the balance.
Lila felt an arm on her shoulder and, her reflexes jerking with surprise, turned to see Gabrielle standing beside her, gazing down at the broad plazas and grand pavilions as the telesteria, amphitheaters, drill sheds, and parade grounds disgorged their hordes of combatants who pressed, with ever greater force, against the cordons that held them back from the enormous gate.
Lila smiled a sad smile and put an arm around Gabrielle's waist, holding Gabrielle close and feeling her sister's weight as they stood together on the little balcony. Suddenly it occurred to Lila -- what an odd time to notice such an offhand detail -- that she was a shade taller than Gabrielle and slightly larger boned. Somehow the size difference didn't make sense. Gabrielle was older and more assertive than Lila, and so, by rights, in Lila's mind, ought have been taller and larger. Gabrielle was lean. Her muscle tone had always been tight and wiry, not an ounce of flab anywhere. Also, fighting alongside Xena in the course of recent sunmarks had served to harden Gabrielle within as well as without. I wonder, the thought jumped into Lila's brain on the brink of a great, world-altering battle, if me and Gab will have the chance to get to know each other again and if things between us will be the same as they once were, though, at the same time, of course, they'll be tremendously different.
"What do you think Mom and Dad would say if they could see us now?" Lila said, her gaze following Gabrielle's down to the huge, impromptu stadium.
"I think they'd want to tan my hide for dragging you into this mess," Gabrielle slipped her arm off Lila's shoulder and swept it around Lila's waist.
"Maybe once but not anymore," Lila said, not knowing why she was so sure of her opinion. "I think they might say, 'For our roisin ban, we chose Perdicus; for our roisin dubh,we chose Andros. But they had choices of their own to make, and the world had other paths for them to follow and other destinies to fulfill."
"Do you really think they'd say that, Lee?" Gabrielle said. "Sometimes I think they'll never forgive me for the way I ran away."
"They have forgiven you, Gab," Lila said. "I see it in Mom's face every time she sets the table for supper or clears the dishes away afterwards and won’t let me help or settles down to work on her little rag dolls. She loves you. Her love has never wavered, not for the fall of a single sand grain. And I see it in Dad too. Dad's pride is giving way to something finer and larger, I think. He's getting a bit more humble now, and it's making him braver and wiser and... more loving. They're coming to see Xena as a member of the family, not as someone to be feared or resented or looked at with suspicion."
"I hope you're right," Gabrielle said. "Maybe it's your forgiveness that I need the most. Do you think you could ever forgive me, Lee? For not being the perfect big sister?"
"You have only to ask," Lila squeezed Gabrielle affectionately around the waist.
"The life we lead, me and Xena, it's very much from day to day," Gabrielle said. "But there are times when I stop and remember that I'm still the girl from Poteidaia, the kid with stars in her eyes, who was scared to hoist myself onto Tippany's back when Dad first brought her home and told us we now had a pony to look after."
"And remember how I wouldn't get on at all the first few times?" Lila said. "Didn't Dad finally give her away?"
"To Democles or Trachis, I think; or maybe it was Tasso who took her," Gabrielle said. "Somebody who had boys who were anxious to learn how to ride."
"I hope he didn't hand her over to Canty," Lila said with the hint of a grin crinkling her eyes.
"I thought Canty had a draft horse that her old boozer sometimes cozied up to at night," Gabrielle said.
"You know that story?" Lila raised an eyebrow.
"About Canty's old man coming home drunk one night and mistaking the horse for her and vice versa?" Gabrielle said. "'Why, blimey if I wouldn't rather be cuddlin' up astride a horse's head out in the stall than lyin' beside a horse's arse in the bed...'"
Lila roared with laughter. "Canty told us that story on the day that Dad and the guys took me and Lexie to the pub, the day that Lexie socked it to a pair of Latrinus' goons," Lila said. "How'd you get wind of it?"
"I went bopping into Canty's with Perdicus once," Gabrielle said. "We got carded, and Canty gave us the boot ‘cause we were underage. But she made it up to us by telling us that silly story."
Lila thought for a turn of the sandglass, and the look on her face turned serious. "I'm going to have to tell them about Penthesileia. Mom and Dad. I couldn't not tell them. It wouldn't be right."
"I'm so sorry it has to end like this, Lee," Gabrielle looked down at the continuous influx of troops from all parts of the city. "I only wish that the two of you could ride off together into the sunset if that's what your heart desires."
"It does," Lila said. "At least I'm clear on that. And there's some consolation in being clear about it."
Gab smiled and gave Lila a squeeze. "You've grown up so fast, Lee," Gabrielle said with an echo of admiration in her voice. "Where did the time go?"
"I don't know," Lila looked down to the center of the raging throng where Penthesileia, in all her glory, was seated on her mount beside Aeneas, the final, noble hope of Ilium, the man who, at this turn of the sandglass, was being asked to do the work of a god. "Here, there and everywhere, I guess."
Sister mine, hearts entwine, pawns of what the Fates design? No, Lila shook her head; that she wouldn't believe; that she wouldn't accept. A flower might be crushed by nature's uprooting blast, but no bird on the branch owned its fragrance, no bee on the bush could compel it, against its will, to open its petals and bloom. They could take your life... look at them down there, thousands strong, armed to the teeth... but they couldn't deprive you of your dignity. In the end, she and Gab were solid, let the breeze of man's folly and the wind of woman's longing blow them through what hills and valleys of the spirit they may.
"I gotta split," Gabrielle said. "I've got a command post I need to be stationed at. Why don't you go wait in the King's quarters for the battle to be over. That's where you'll be safest if..."
"If what, Gab?" Lila said when Gabrielle’s voice trailed off in mid-sentence.
"If the ocean waves come roaring through those gates with blood and fire and sword," Gabrielle said.
"Do you think Xena would let that happen?" Lila said.
"This is one battle whose outcome Xena can't control, Lee," Gabrielle said. "This thing is bigger than Caesar. I know it's hard to imagine but Xena's only one person."
"I guess that's what makes Xena a hero, then," Lila said. "A greater hero than any god."
Gabrielle grinned and nodded. "Xena tried to get the belt. We both did. But you succeeded where we failed. So if Xena's a hero, what does that make you?"
"A girl who did what she felt was right," Lila said.
"Another word for that might be... a hero, yes?" Gabrielle smiled. "Did Penthesileia leave you the belt?"
Lila lifted the hem of her buff and brown tunic. The belt sat like a girdle around her hips, gleaming urgently in the day's early light. "She wants me to take it to Hephaestos' forge when we leave here. She wants it to be given back to the earth. Except for these..." Lila pointed to the large, twin diamonds at the buckle. "I'm to take one to Ephiny and the other..."
Lila paused when her voice began to crack with emotion.
"The other one, Lee?" Gabrielle said with soft compassion.
"Is for me to keep," Lila looked into Gabrielle's eyes as her own eyes began to fill with tears.
"What about Ares?" Gabrielle said.
"If Ares tries to stop me from carrying out her wishes, I'll resist him the best I can," Lila said. "Look what his selfishness has gotten him. By sundown, all the Amazons he fathered will be dead; and Xena, whom he wants more than anyone, despises him."
"He could have had her once if he’d known enough to let her go," Gabrielle murmurred. "I'll be at Home Front headquarters. If we end up having to swing into action, I'm not sure where I'll be, but I'll come find you at the palace as soon as it's over. And if anything... terrible... should happen," Gabrielle flung her arms around Lila and, for a brief turn of the sandglass, held her close, "remember what I told you on the night I left home to follow Xena. I love you, Lee. Never forget that. Of all the sisters in the world, I am so tremendously blessed to have you for mine."
"I love you, too, Gab," Lila replied just as she'd done, how many sunmarks ago was it, when Gabrielle, late at night, in her blue blouse and long brown skirt, had slipped out the door of their parents' cottage and entered into the embrace of a new and challenging life. And just as she’d done on that dark night long ago, Lila watched Gabrielle fade from view, in the bright light of morning, as the wide-eyed waif from Poteidaia, who'd flinched at the thought of climbing onto the back of a pony, was now a military commander who went to ready herself for what might be a key role in a battle that could well alter the course of history.
Dawn found Xena at the mouth of the tunnel where she was expecting to rendezvous with Joxer and then for the two of them to sneak out of the city, dash across the open stretch of plain, dip into the marsh and then, uncovering the plunger box where they'd buried it in the brush last night, to complete the demolition of what Joxer had taken to calling the Trojan Donkey.
"It's a horse, Joxer," Xena had told him. "Odysseus isn't going to go to the trouble of putting up something this monstrous only to have it be a donkey. Besides, it's Greek. It's the Greek Horse."
"Greek Donkey, Trojan Horse, big deal," Joxer had said. "Let's just blow the darn thing like we blew the pants off Ghengis Khan's army and sent Pao Su and Ming T'ien packing back to Tartarus. I'm tellin' ya, Xena, Meg oughta see me now. No more serving up those blue plate specials at the crowded lunch counter for me, thank you, now that my modus has finally got its operandi in gear."
"Your modus is gonna explode us if you don't pay more attention to your operandi," Xena had given Joxer a sharp look as the flicker from a carelessly lit torch whose tightly wrapped, cotton wick had been slicked with oil for the purpose of blowing incendiary jets of flame into the startled faces of unrepentant bad guys began to wander dangerously close to one of the open containers of recently scumbled black powder.
"C'mon, Jox, it's getting light out...," Xena tapped her toes and picked the dirt from under her nails as she began to grow increasingly impatient. Fortunately, Joxer, who had to begin each day, no matter what, with a shower, at last made his appearance, bumbling down the dimly lit, subterranean corridor with... oh, no... the indefatigable Cressida dogging his steps.
"Joxer! What's she doing here when we've got a crucial mission to accomp... No, let me re-phrase that," Xena gritted her teeth at Joxer's approach as the chakram on her belt hasp began to pulse with irritation. "How is it that Cressida -- good morning, Cressida -- has decided to accompany you on what we had planned to be a two-person job, one of the persons being you and the other person being... not Cressida."
"Well, ya see, Xena," Joxer adjusted the earflaps on his kettle-shaped helmet, "I was washing up in the water while the bathroom was running..."
"I woke him up, otherwise he would have overslept," Cressida said, dumping a heavy sack at Xena's feet.
"I was having this dream about Jett and Jayce, and it was in color!" Joxer explained. "'Ah get eet almost every night... when dat ol' moon gets-a beeg and bright..., eet's a super-na-choo-role delight...,'" Joxer started gyrating around the entrance to the tunnel. "Eff'rybody's dancin' in da moon-lite, (dancin' in da moon-lite...)"
"Joxer!" Xena had to slap him around a bit to snap him out of it.
"Ya know, with Jett doing ninety-and-nine on the hard rock pile," Joxer reflected, "maybe I oughta head down to Athens when this Trojan gig is over and try and hook up with Jayce and maybe the two of us oughta just hang for a while and I could check out what the gay scene is like down there. I mean maybe there's more to my twin brother than at first eyes the meat, ah, meets the um, the um..."
"We have a little job to do in case you disco ducks may have let it slip your minds since late last night when Cressida nearly got her head taken off by one of the guards at the gate," Xena scowled at the pair.
"Guess it's time to go play Demolition Derby, Jox," Cressida reminded him. "I brought the stuff you said you were gonna need," Cressida pointed to the sack.
Xena opened the sack and found the parts required to install the plunger box's firing mechanism.
"Who got this stuff together, you?" Xena raised a scorching eyebrow as she looked at diminutive Cressida who was dressed in the same sheer white blouse and plain blue skirt that she'd had on when they'd gone to the marshes last night. She'd since slipped on a hairband to keep her long, slightly frizzy streams of reddish-blonde hair from falling into her pretty face.
"Somebody had to," Cressida said.
"Cressie's a pretty with it chick, Xena," Joxer said, spacing back in to attend to the task at hand.
"Who do you think whipped together the black powder in its final stages?" Cressida looked at Xena.
"You did?" Xena said in amazement.
"Xena, c'mere," Cressida motioned for Xena to step into the dark passage, a little ways out of Joxer's hearing. "I don't know if you've ever balled Joxie and what it was like for you when you when the Jox man found his way to your G spot and drove you to your orga..."
Xena's eyes widened as she rapidly took several steps backward in alarm. "Eeeeee...," her inward-gasping breath made a high, squeaking sound as she shook her head violently back and forth and jammed the trembling index fingers on her two hands together, one vertical, one perpendicular, as though she were fending off the approach of a stir-crazed vampire.
"...But even though Joxie's like super-amazing in the sack, it does take him a while to, um, recover and get ready to go ‘round again." Cressida placed the back of her hand against one corner of her mouth to muffle the sound of her voice. "Of course, I do seem to have the knack of wiping out most of the guys I shack up with, so maybe it's only to be expected, but Jox hangs in there better than most. You gotta give him credit for that. Anyhow, there's your hookup. I guess you two are ready to roll."
Quickly recovering from what struck her as a most unpleasant activity to contemplate, Xena had an idea. "Once we get the plunger mechanism put together, it's gonna to take two pairs of hands working in concert to blow the thing. We'll have only one shot at it, and we can't afford to mess up. There's got to be precise timing between the one who drops the flameball into the slot and the other one who hits the plunger with the just the right amount of pressure. There's no margin for error if the charge is gonna to make it all the way down the conducting strip with just enough strength to set off the lead tub of black powder and kick off the chain reaction. How good's your hand/eye coordination?"
"Not bad. It's like rackin' in the sack with a guy who flicks your Bic," Cressida fluffed her long hair back behind her shoulders with a sweep of the back of her hand. "You speed up or slow down to get in tune with each other’s rhythm. The important thing is that you wanna pace it so you go over the top together. Yeah, no sweat. I can go where you wanna go and make sure I get there with you."
"I'm not talking about going to bed together, Cressida," Xena said. "I'm talking about you and me getting in sync to blow up the mother of all siege engines."
"Then I'm your girl," Cressida said, with complete confidence in her pyrotechnic abilities.
"We'll see what happens when we get there," Xena said. "But you need to understand something. If you're gonna tag along with us and be a part of this operation, you need to be aware of the risks involved. We could be walking into a trap, and I don't know that I can guarantee your safety."
"My uncle Chalcas runs those kinds of risks every day," Cressida said. "He's only pretending to be a double agent, you know. He's been feeding the Argives all sorts of misinformation, and if they ever catch him at it..., skhhhttt...," Cressida raked her finger across her throat. "But for now, he's Aeneas' eyes and ears outside those walls. What we set up last night, we’re gonna take down this morning, right?"
Xena grinned. The kid was spunky. A bit like a junior Gabrielle when Gabrielle and Xena were starting out together. But balling the Jack, er, the Jox? And liking it? That's where the resemblance ends, thought Xena.
"Okay, we'll head out, the three of us," Xena said, looking back toward Joxer who was dancin' in the torchlight: smoky, guttering, barely whitening the walls of the tunnel to a bleak, ashen gray. "But I'm in charge of this operation, and you absolutely have to follow my orders and do exactly what you're told the instant you're told to do it. If you can't swear on a sacred scroll that you'll fully abide by that iron-clad rule, then head back down that tunnel right now and don't come."
"I can follow orders," Cressida said as a sexy grin slowly spread across her face. Then Cressida stepped up to Xena, the crown of Cressida's head barely reaching the height of Xena's collarbone and Cressida’s build being a good deal slighter than Gabrielle's, and she boldly wrapped an enticing index finger around the circular brass flange that held the left and the right sections of Xena's cuirass together at the very center of Xena's breasts. Before Xena could resist, Cressida pulled Xena right up close to her until the two of them stood a bare thumblength away from each other, Cressida's nose at Xena's boob level.
"And after we blow that ugly hunk of scrap to a zillion cartons of toothpicks," Cressida looked up into Xena's eyes with eyes the exact color of Callisto's, "maybe you and me oughta hunker down together and have ourselves a mid-morning siesta back at the hacienda. I don’t bunt with just one bat, you know. I can lay ‘em down from either side of the plate."
"And I'm sure you must get on base a lot," Xena gently removed Cressida's finger from the little brass link between her Warrior Princess breasts. "But we've got a battle royal to fight today, and taking time off for a rest period doesn't look to be in the cards."
"Oh, well," Cressida sighed, backing off. "if Joxie's hung up on that blonde sidekick of yours and Troilus keeps bugging me about wanting to date other people, I guess I'll always have Paris."
With Cressida and Joxer following behind ..., "Eff'rybody here is outta sight, dey don't bark, and dey don't bite, dey keep things loose, dey keep things...," Xena ducked out of the tunnel into daylight and..., "Would you park it, Joxer!" began the final trek out to the target with only one thing in mind: to wipe the infernal contraption off the face of the earth.
"Dancin' In The Moonlight" by King Harvest
|Continued - Chapter 71|
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