The Liliad
Chapter 71
Boomboxes And Battlefields


The sun nudged over the horizon. Aeneas rose up in the saddle. Behind him, the troops were massed and ready. He sat in the midst of a dozen mounted Amazons with Penthesileia right beside him. Paris held the left flank. Troilus held the right. Memnon's cavalry was between them and Helenus' artillery was to the rear. Xena, Joxer and Cressida waited at the entrance to the tunnel. Gabrielle took up her position on the parapet. Lila stood in the turret window overlooking the plain. Cassandra materialized on a portiere near King Priam's quarters across from Lila's turret. The King came out to the balcony and raised his hand in a symbolic gesture which authorized Aeneas to give the signal when ready.

Throughout the streets, avenues, alleys and byways of Ilium, one could have heard a pin drop. On the height of Olympus, Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo and Hephaestos squared off against Athena, Artemis, Poseidon and Hera, the opposing partisans of the Trojans and Argives respectively, each side ready to hurl its lightning bolts and fireballs at the other while Hades mobilized the entire bureaucracy of Tartarus and the Elysian Fields for the processing of an unprecedented number of new arrivals. Only the stern command of All-Father Zeus prevented the heavens from erupting in a cataclysmic storm, so intently on the edge of the heights were the passions of the gods at the instant of the showdown that was about to take place on the soon to be bloody plains of the Xanthus and the Scamander.

Then a lone voice shattered the silence as Aeneas cried, "For honor! For glory! For Ilium!" A drawn sword struck fire in the day's new light. The trumpet sounded. The gate flew wide. And off they went, rampaging across the barren plain, thousands strong, the armed might of Ilium’s hosts in their brave, desperate, life-or-death, do-or-die struggle to break, by force of arms, the Argive stranglehold on the greatest, noblest, fairest city of antiquity.

Leagues across the barren plain, having just washed his face in a porcelain basin and scraped his cheeks smooth with the honed edge of a long, metal razor, preferring, unlike the other members of the Argive high command, except for Achilles, to be smooth-shaven, Diomedes raised his head and heard what he thought was a faint rumbling in the distance. Then he saw, along the eastern rim of the pain, in the direction of Ilium's barely visible walls, a thin haze wafting up from the hard clay of the sere plain. Yet there was no mist in the sky nor fog lifting off the banks of the Scamander where the thread of that great river flowed in its winding course to the sea. And the sun shone customarily bright in the onset of the frosty time of the year before the rainy season would come to muddy the flats with rills, creeks and lake-like puddles. Strange, Diomedes frowned. What could be raising the dust like that or making that faint, distant rumbling sound like a slow, languid, onrushing wave unless it might be...

The intuitive reflexes of the seasoned soldier and experienced campaigner instantly came to the fore. Flinging his towel onto the washstand, Diomedes shouted to his aides, "Surprise attack! Able! Baker! Charlie! Blue team! White team! Go team! Operation Wind and Fire! To arms! To horse and chariot! To sword and spear and axe! The final battle is underway!!"

Along the line of the Argive encampment, for leagues along the beach, came the roar and rousting of men at arms, marshalling into formation as the massive entrenchment of troops came alive and began, like the discretely scattered bones and joints of an ancient, pre-historic fossil, to lumber into skeletal assembly in preparation for its mammoth lashing out at the smaller, quicker prey which had come to attack it as it slept. Quick, agile, well-trained and focused on its limited objective of clearing a sustainable lane of passage across the plain and the dunes, from the city walls to the lapping surf, the Trojan forces were honed to a precision as sharp as Diomedes' razor which was still damp with the traces of soapy lather as it lay discarded on the wooden table next to the wash basin.

But the Argives, too, were skilled in arms and, in the professional ranks, were no less brave, inventive and determined to achieve their objectives. They had the advantage of numbers as well; and, among their top ranking officers, the greater wealth of experience and talent. Aeneas alone among Ilium's high command could claim the status of a top-flite general. The Argive high command boasted three such world-class commanders: Agammemnon, Odysseus and Diomedes. And of the four remaining senior staff on either side of the conflict, the combined force of Memnon, Paris, Troilus and Helenus, brave and bold as that force may have been, was no match for the god-like strength and power of Achilles and Ajax assisted by Nestor and Menelaus. Which left Penthesileia and her dozen Amazons the superhuman task of attempting to make up the difference.

One fortunate break for the Trojans: Achilles and Ajax had risen early that morning and had gone hiking out on the rocks several leagues south of Ilium where the shoals rose to form a spray-bathed jetty which extended a good distance into the bay. This was a stark, meditative spot, austere in its ocean-pounding beauty. Achilles loved to venture far onto the rocks and to peer, for long turns of the sandglass, into the gray-green sizzle of the waves as they lashed the stout boulders scored white and brown with chinky barnacles and long, slimy ribbons of seaweed. Alone and in a contemplative mood, Achilles spent a good deal of time, these days, communing with his mother, Thetis, the nereid, who'd borne him of a mortal father and had managed to confer upon him the gift or burden of immortality -- almost. Today, in the first nippy chill of autumn, Achilles had packed a picnic lunch and had brought Ajax along, thinking the pair might spend a few delightful candlemarks cavorting about the rocks and, when Helios' chariot had risen higher in the sky and the air had grown warmer and the wind milder, stripping off their garments and bathing nude and intimately at ease in the restful wash of the tide.

Thus, when Diomedes sounded the alarm, Achilles and Ajax were some two leagues away from the battleground, and their armor was back at their tents.

As the Trojan forces came thundering across the plain, horses and riders in the lead, the Argive counter-offensive came swarming out to meet them. Menelaus on the right flank countered Paris on the Trojan left flank, the two contestants for the hand of the dark and lovely Spartan queen once again readying to square off and battle one another to the death, though neither man was destined to fall by the hand of the other.

Nestor on the Argive left flank met Troilus on the Trojan right flank while Diomedes, riding at the head of the Argive cavalry, stormed out to clash with the mighty Memnon who commanded the Trojan charioteers. Odysseus coordinated the Argive artillery whose firepower would soon, unless the Trojan blitz were quickly to succeed, overwhelm Helenus' smaller store of catapaults, flamethrowers, debris hurlers and their inventory of rocks, boulders, uprooted tree trunks and rotting cow carcasses flying through the air to the accompaniment of a deadly hail of arrows.

As pre-arranged, Aeneas and the Amazons took deadly aim, in the very center of the conflagration, at Agammemnon's headquarters, the nerve center of the Argive command. Neither Aeneas nor Agammemnon were fated to fall that day, but the courageous Trojan leader was determined to avenge the death of Hector by crippling if not slaying the Argive Allied commander or, unless the gods were to intervene on Aeneas' behalf, to part with his own life in the effort.

"Amazons!" the Argive mercenaries and hoplites cried in a sudden, blasting jolt of crippling terror when they beheld the spectacle of the twelve mounted furies and their leader bearing down upon them with wind, fire and sword. And for the very last time, the cry of "Amazon!" struck deadly fear into the hearts of men.

The instant the Scaean Gate had swung open and the trumpets of Ilium had sounded the charge, Xena had cried, "Now! Run! For all we're worth!" And off she'd gone, storming across the flat, in the shadow cast by the great wall, hoping to reach the marshy cover of Scamander's tall rushes before getting picked off by a sniper's poisoned dart shot from a cross- or double-strung bow. And, as had happened on previous outings, most notably when Xena had sent him to fetch the Hind's Blood dagger from its hidden cache in the rocks, thereby outsmarting Callisto and the priests of Dahak who didn’t dream that Xena would have entrusted him with such a crucial task, Joxer rose to the occasion and, with Cressida beside him, flew like the wind, a step behind Xena, two steps ahead of the barrage of arrows that sailed like handfuls of pebbles and sand in their direction to land all around them.

Into the thick glades they scrambled and then it was a mad dash for the hidden boombox as they stumbled through the stalks and reeds careless of the burrs that clung to their clothing and the thorns that pricked and stung their skin.

"Joxer, prime the plunger!" Xena cried. "Cressida, be ready to strike the match! I'll hook the wire up to the metal strip! The snipers are hot on our tail. We'll get only one try, and the timing's got to be perfect. Then we'll have to fight our way out."

Thrashing through the fronds that masked its hiding place, Xena uncovered the box just as a beating in the nearby bush announced the imminent arrival of the Argive patrol armed with machetes and long swords.

"We've got less than the drop of ten sand grains before they're on us. Do it!" Xena commanded.

Demonstrating keen skill, under immense pressure, Joxer delicately inserted the spring mechanism into the box. Then, with iron concentration, he calibrated the torque to the precise ratio of volume and pressure required to force the flame from the match to attain the temperature needed to cause the charge to race along the fuse wire and hit the sulfur trigger inside the lead tub of the black powder. The ratios had to be exact if the blast was to detonate. Too low a charge and the trigger would fizzle, too high and the trigger would pop a dud.

With the Argive patrol mere footpaces away, Joxer leaned back and said, "Got it... I think..."

At a look from Xena, even as the rushes parted to admit the Argive patrol, Cressida struck the match. As the first of the snipers burst in upon them with his sword upraised, Xena's eyes must have played a trick on her because, just as she shouted, "Now!" and the match, leaving Cressida's hand, began its free fall into the chamber, Xena beheld, kneeling next to her, not the feisty teenager from Ilium, who reminded her, in many ways, of Tara before Tara had straightened herself out, but the shimmering form of Ka’o Hsin whose hands reached out and melded into Xena's hands and whose face and torso entered into Xena's aura, yet remained distinct so that, as the sniper's sword came swinging down to sever the box in two, Xena and Cressida became one in the instant of drop and plunge such that the execution was exquisitely coordinated and the flame hit the wire with perfection even as the box shattered into a thousand splinters and the firing mechanism became, in the instant, a springy pile of useless junk.

"Duck and roll!" Xena shouted as she simultaneously hit the turf and whipped her sword out of its scabbard with balletic grace. One sword slash from the snipers nearly took Joxer's head off as Joxer rolled just in time to evade the blow. Another sword slash almost sliced Cressida in two as Cressida dove and landed a thumblength free of the swipe. That was all the time that Xena needed. Those were the only swings of the sword that their half-dozen pursuers got to take. The first Argive casualties of that world-changing battle were the members of the sniper patrol that had chased Xena, Joxer and Cressida into the marshgrass in an effort to stop them from carrying out their mission. The blood of the six Argive snipers whom Odysseus had sent to protect the hideous, ten-storey horse which the Argive forces had labored so painstakingly to construct, over many weeks, at enormous expense, now drained from their veins at the furious thrusts that Xena's sword inflicted upon them and was the first reddening fluid of the day to be carried out to sea by the lazy drifting of Scamander's blue-green current.

As though in slow motion, even as Cressida looked at Xena with a troubled expression on her face, wondering, "What just happened? Was I you? Were you me? Did we just have sex and come together, united into one being in some strange, intense way...?", just as the first of hundreds of Argive and Trojan swords were the drop of a sand grain away from crossing and clashing while grunts and cries of battle-driven warriors had risen in the throat but hadn't yet emerged on the tongue, the air and the light all around the great, flat, sandy plain, from rocky beach to stone-reinforced wall seemed, in the instant, to coagulate with a great in-sucking of energy that immersed the entire field in a silent and deathly void, causing all motion to freeze in place.

Then came a snap and then a crack and then a thud and then a rumble and then a roar and then a bang and then a blast and then a mighty, thunderous, reverberation that made the ground quake and the earth shriek and the hills cry with a deafening shout that dwarfed the puny contest now taking place on this tiny, circumscribed field of ego, pride and vanity: a bellow from the heavens that made men sink to their knees and loosened their bowels and made even the bravest of them huddle in terror as a great eruption, by the mouth of the Scamander, sent a forest of debris swirling and spiraling a league into the air with fire, smoke and furnace belch as though the forge of the gods had ripped open a volcano to spew the earth with coke, lava and ash.

The flying uproar, winging on the wind as far as the field of battle, rained down hunks of wood and chunks of metal and slews of ships' spars and shreds of tree trunks and guards' helmets and scraps of scaffolding as one of the greatest feats of free-standing, civil engineering that had yet been undertaken, anywhere in the known world, came tumbling down like a slain giant, even as bits and pieces of it blew as high as the trailing clouds overhead, as though the gods on Olympus had spoken, through fire and smoke, proclaiming to foolish mortals, "This high may you climb and no higher!"

At ground zero of the blast, on the charred remains of a poured platform as wide as the largest loading pier on the island of Tenedos, the gargantuan monstrosity, the horse that had stood as high as the top of a ship's mast and had been as vast within as the precincts of Hera's grandest temple, lay burnt and in shards, its smoldering body reduced to rubble sufficient to ape the excavated ruins of a small city destroyed by an angry volcano.

"We did it! We did it!" Joxer cried with superlative glee as he grabbed Xena around the shoulders and danced in a wild embrace.

"We did it! Xena and Joxie and me!" Cressida cried and grabbed Xena joyously around the middle.

"Yeah, we did it," Xena smiled, warming to her cohorts' hugs, thinking not only of them but of Gabrielle and Ka’o Hsin and Lao Ma and Callisto and Ephiny and Hercules and Cyrene and Lyceus and Solon and a hundred other people and places from the many sins and as many redemptions of the past.

"That was a bigger boomer than the one we pulled off in Chin!" Joxer cheered, getting goofy again. "Ya know, maybe we oughta think about taking out a patent on this stuff."

"And fling some fireballs at Ares if he ever shows up to wiggle his butt in our faces again," Cressida tossed out the suggestion.

"Nice job, guys," Xena wiped her sword with the spongy leaves from of a waving stand of marshflowers, "but the battle's just begun. Jox, you and Cressida head back to the gates and check in with Gabrielle. She may need you to head up some of the local defense units. I'm going to try and team up with Aeneas."

"Xena," Cressida said as the three of them hustled back to the walls of the city, the incendiary pall of smoke and skittering flame left to peter out as the toppled wreckage curled its chary warning aloft into the blue of the alien sky: Look upon me, chevaliers of the earth, and tremble in your splendor; for I am felled in the might of my strength and all the hands of man cannot resurrect me, "what went on back there? For the fall of a sand grain, I felt like you and me were one in hand and heart and breath... and will. Did I space out back there or did something really happen?"

"A great person once taught me that to get beyond the limitations of the physical world, you have to stop desiring and become one with your desire," Xena said.

"Huh?" Cressida turned up her nubby nose.

"We had to execute that maneuver perfectly," Xena explained as they got to the edge of the marsh and made ready to scoot pell mell across the sandy flat to the entrance to the tunnel that would take them under the gate and back into the city. "To do that, we not only had to coordinate out efforts smoothly, we had to become one with the match, the plunger, the spring, the wire and -- most of all -- the flash of fire and light that unified them. To do that, we had to become one with each other. That's only happened to me three times in my life: with Gabrielle when I was dead... sort of; with my teacher, Lao Ma, and with her daughter -- one of them -- whose name was Ka’o Hsin. You're in special company, Cressida."

"Wow," Cressida said, feeling, for the first time, a trifle in awe of this mystifying Warrior Princess. "But I still don't understand. Maybe we're just a good fit, you and me."

"Cressida, when the war is over, I want you to think about something as you enter into adulthood," Xena said. "'The hawk and the dove must be made one with the wisdom...' It's a mantra. I want you to mull that over from time to time."

"What wisdom? What hawk? What dove?" Cressida said, perplexed.

"That's what I want you to think about," Xena said. "Think about hawks and doves and what they represent. Where's the hawk inside you? Where's the dove? Bring them together and see what happens? Blend them together with the truth that lives inside you 'til you become a pure vessel of that truth. Then you’ll be able to vanquish monsters without the aid of the black powder."

"You talk in riddles, Xena," Cressida frowned.

"Maybe a little," Xena grinned.

Cressida shook her head. This talk of hawks and doves sounded pretty hokey. And it still seemed hokey after the three of them had sprinted across the flat and regained the safety of the tunnel at which point Xena went to join the battle while Joxer and Cressida went to find Gabrielle. Still, Cressida was aware that in a way that she may not have fully understood, her life had changed indelibly in the course of that curious soul-melding, in the instant when the sniper’s sword was in the act of coming down a bare thumbnail's width from her and Xena’s unified heads as a light had flashed simultaneously within the box and within her soul.

Moreover, though Cressida may have remained every bit as much of a teeny bopper who, eyeing Joxer, thought that the perfect coda to a day spent detonating explosives would be to spend the night in similar, if less debris-scattering detonations, something inchoate in her consciousness realized that the Cressida who'd trotted back to the tunnel with Xena and Joxer wasn't the same Cressida who'd gone racing out of the tunnel with them a scant candlemark earlier. Cressida was happy with the success of their efforts. They'd done something brave and heroic. Why, then, was she just a tiny bit sad and in pain in the aftermath? How can you be happy and sad at the same time? How can the hawk and the dove share one heart and be forever joined at the breast?

By the time the Argives had rallied to counter the surprise attack, the Trojan onslaught had nearly breached their positions on the dunes above the beach. The Argive lines now began their advance but not in time to prevent the clash from occurring a mere javelin's throw from their encampment. With a mighty roar, the Argive cavalry, under Diomedes' command, came swarming out to meet Memnon's chariots as the twin flanks, under Menelaus and Nestor, charged their Trojan counterparts. Yet just before the battle was joined, a thunderous eruption from behind the sheltering stand of trees that fronted Scamander's brackish marshes, riveted both Argive and Trojan in their tracks. In terror, men with spears, shields and armor fell to the ground and wailed like lost children, never had they heard such a deafening blast as though the gods themselves had come down from Olympus and taken the field. And then, above the treetops, a massive panorama of scorched metal, burning wood and the pulverized spars and masts of stripped ships unfolded as the sky filled with a column of fire and a cloud of smoke.

Then an immense cheer rose up from the bellies and sounded out the mouths of Ilium's hosts as joy filled their hearts and new strength rippled through their limbs.

"She's done it!" a thousand voices cried. "Xena! She's pulled it off! The Warrior Princess has brought down the haughty engine of destruction! Agammemnon has slain his thousands but Xena has slain her ten thousands! Death to the House of Atreus! Death to the ignoble invaders! Their hobby horse has fallen, has fallen, has fallen; their hobby horse has fallen to rise no more!"

Emboldened by this drawing of first blood, the Trojans, though badly outnumbered, set upon their adversaries with a vengeance.

Now the mighty armies rushed together like the current of a raging river whose opposing forks meet to form rapids and eddies as the waters crash together in a blind, furious pouring down to the sea.

Memnon's cavalry in the Trojan van wrecked bitter havoc on the Argive's center as Diomedes sought, without success, to drive the Trojan horsemen back. It was here that the Argive forces sustained their heaviest losses in the early going. Had it not been for Diomedes' skillful maneuvering and his keen ability to make use of both inner cordons of the infantry as an effective screen, the Argive cavalry might well have been lost, and the tide of battle might have turned decisively against the Argives as the Trojan infantry sought to carve a narrow passage across the dunes to the beach. But rising to the challenge, Diomedes was not easily bested. He hove his main force nimbly to one side and, in a deft counterattack, came at the opposing cavalry from the side, inflicting the first sharp casualties on Trojan horses and riders.

Nonetheless, Memnon's sword was devastating at close quarters. He slew many an Argive youth that day; and many an Argive mother and father, an ocean away from the scene of the carnage, had occasion to wail and mourn the loss of their fair sons cut down in their prime. At closer range, Memnon also felled some of the more seasoned Argive officers. So ferocious was Memnon in battle that the cry went up amid the thrashing of swords and the hurling of lances, that the Trojans had unleashed a black Achilles against them.

"My sword!" Diomedes shouted to his seconds as the veteran Argive commander, his heavy slasher now in hand, leaped from the moving car to roll and tumble on the ground.

"Memnon!" Diomedes cried. "Have at thee, fiend! Man to man, as leaders of these gallant horsemen! Let the winner claim the field!"

"Don't be a fool, Diomedes!" Memnon cried from his perch on his battle car. "I have greater size and strength than you! We're not evenly matched! Victory is sweet but only when fairly won!"

"Still, I vaunt thee!" Diomedes cried. "Long life is to be treasured as a gift from the gods, but I'll cut mine short to spare further loss of my men!"

"If you so will it, let it be!" Memnon leaped from his chariot to square off, one on one, with Diomedes who crashed and rattled and battled him with his brain no less than his arm, so that Memnon had repeatedly to back off and re-group, ever on the offensive, yet never able to pin Diomedes down or to strike the coup de grace.

Both of the Trojan flanks drove hard into the Argive defenses but, as Aeneas rode to and fro, surveying the battle scene, the drive wasn’t yet hard enough. Paris had Menelaus pinned against the boulders that angled down to the beach, cutting off the Argive right flank and rendering it unable, for the time being, to function as one arm of an effective pincer; but Paris' troops weren't able to move in for the kill while Troilus' forces, though beating Nestor's ranks back toward the beach, lacked sufficient strength to turn the Argive left flank sideways, thus forcing its files to fight perpendicular to the beach and thereby rendering an opening through which the Trojan center might pour and clamber down to the breakers along the shore. Man for man and car for car, the Trojan cavalry was driving the Argive cavalry into retreat, the surprise of the day; Aeneas hadn't counted on his smaller cavalry to turn in so sterling a performance.

Despite these initially encouraging signs, Aeneas had his misgivings. For the attack to prove ultimately successful, the Trojan forces would have to take the beach quickly and thereafter hold it solidly against subsequent ground and aerial bombardment. Achilles and Ajax, the mightiest of the Argive champions, hadn't entered the fray but were hurrying back from their morning jaunt; and Odysseus' artillery hadn't yet mounted its full scale defense, though Aeneas was hoping that the loss of his monstrous war machine -- you came through for us wonderfully, Xena, as I knew you would -- might diminish Odysseus' ability to inflict damage upon the Trojan ranks. But speed -- fleet Hermes, of only we had your winged sandals! -- speed was of the essence.

"For Hector! For Priam! For Laomedon! For the race of the Dardans, our glorious ancestors!" Aeneas shouted as he bucked and reared, on horseback, to rally the troops. "For our wives and children and the honor of our homeland! Those who fall this day will be numbered among the saints of our people and their memory will be honored and never forgotten!" And then, to make good his words, Aeneas tore through the line, searching for Agammemnon, prepared to issue his challenge and to take the bull of the House of Atreus by the horns of his arrogant majesty and then to cast the hated Argive crown in the dust of ignominy and disgrace, though the effort cost him his life.

As Aeneas ripped into the very center of the conflagration where blood and steel strove and struck most mightily, he encountered the Amazons who, from the first, had driven into the thick of it. With Penthesileia in the lead, thrusting with the double bladed labrys and fending off blows with the leatherbound pelta, the troop of thirteen Amazons could have been a platoon of sixty, so forcefully did they stream ever closer to the rocky shoals of the beach; honing, like a stream of bees chasing the fleeing marauder from the invaded hive, for Agammemnon's stronghold, going right for central command to deliver the knockout blow.

Agammemnon's elite guard, composed of the finest Argive regulars, came out to meet the Amazon charge. The battle was joined in a fury while, overhead, the Harpies cackled and screeched with glee as mounds and rivulets of gore began to pile up and flow along the dust of Scamander's wide plain.

Battling toward the nerve center of the Argive command where the fighting was thickest and most deadly, Penthesileia became transformed in a way that Lila would never have recognized. The bubbles in her warrior's blood began to roil and then to sizzle as only the blood of Ares could, no matter how great the passion with which the daughter may have despised and despaired of the father. Penthesileia's skin began to redden, the bronze deepening to a maroon color that made her skin appear to be burning with an inward blaze sufficient to scald the smooth, clear-complexioned surface. Her eyes, too, in their mutable magnificence, began to redden as the bloodlines on the white portion of those eyes began to branch and ripple like multiple strokes of vesseled lightning. Even her hair took on a red-violet sheen as her girth expanded in her saddle and the battle madness overcame her spirit, heating her soul to the fervor of a berserker, a Cu Chulainn of the Amazons, a wailing banshee of blood-possession more terrible than the fiercest Trojan defender or the stormiest Argive aggressor.

"For Polly and all our slain and slaughtered!" Penthesileia unleashed a lurid cry and then, at the head of her sisters, she rammed full force into the very pit of the Argive resistance. With her proud and flashing sword, she took down Molion, then Persinous, then Eilissus, the Antitheus, then Hippalmus, then Elasippus. Six of Agammemnon's crack guards fell by Penthesileia's hand before her sisters had even poured into the breach which Penthesileia had forced in the very center of the strongest part of the Argive line.

Into that tiny opening forced by Penthesileia, like a pinprick at the inverted apex of a paper funnel, Aeneas was first Trojan to smash through the Argive line, howling for Agammemnon to meet him man to man on the rocky beach, the two commanders evenly matched in the strength of their arms and the skill of their resourcefulness in battle. And just then, when it appeared that the Trojans might be close to taking the beach against overwhelming odds, Achilles and Ajax arrived on the scene, suited in their armor, their weapons gleaming and their voices bellowing like thunder to their comrades, urging them to take heart and lay low these snarling Trojan dogs.

Ajax was a giant of a man. His arms were cudgels, his legs truncheons, his chest and back massive, his waist enormous, his head huge. It was rumored that his father wasn't a man but a mountain and that his mother was the rolling plain of the Peloponnese. Ajax could stride across the battlefield, laying low a score of the enemy with swings as mighty as the arms of a windmill. Men swore that his footfalls shook the earth. Bearded, dull-featured, his nose a potato, his eyes cabbages, Ajax was a homely, lumbering man of brute strength and no subtlety. He took orders from Agammemnon, counted Achilles his friend and listened to Diomedes and Odysseus whose opinions he respected because he knew they were far brighter than he was. Give him a sword and a club, point him in the right direction and turn him loose to mow the opposition down was Ajax' most effective battle strategy.

Achilles was likewise a huge man but splendidly proportioned and finely featured with a magnetism in his face that couldn't be accounted for by good looks alone. His eyes were sparkling black and, what surprised everyone who had occasion to approach him, they were also playful and keenly perceptive. His square jaw was strong, his cheekbones high and prominent. His flaring nose had a grace and dignity that well matched his lofty forehead and long, slender neck. From years of rigorous training, his firm body rippled with muscle whose bulk in no way compromised his speed, coordination and sense of balance, so that his skill, unlike that of Ajax, wasn't simply martial but athletic. He was the swiftest runner of the Argives and by far the best weapons master. No man, let alone woman, could hope to withstand him in battle. Had Hector been a Argive commander, he would have ranked third in military prowess behind Achilles and Ajax, superior to Diomedes, Ulysses and Agammemnon who, otherwise, were the greatest of the Argive warriors. Yet Achilles had easily defeated Hector in single combat outside the city walls with all of Ilium looking on, so mighty and unsurpassed in valor was proud Peleus' son.

And there he stood, calmly amidst the hubbub, on the field of battle, a smile spreading slowly across his handsome face now that the candlemark of his glory was upon him.

Continued - Chapter 72
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