|Come All You Bare And Slender Ladies|
Straightway fell she down into the dust of earth,
the arms of death, in grace and comeliness fell,
for naught of shame dishonoured her fair form...
Even as Achilles and Ajax arrived at the scene of the battle, Xena was storming across the plain, leaping twenty feet in the air, doing multiple backflips. She might have gotten to the battlefield more quickly if she'd have saddled Argo and ridden out from one of the open gates, but horses were falling as heavily as men amid the tumult and charnel screams of bloody combat, and Xena refused to put Argo's life at risk.
Into the fray, sounding her lurid war cry, Xena plunged headlong on the right flank where Troilus' forces, though still advancing against Nestor's salient, were now being bombarded more heavily by the Argive artillery than were Paris' forces on the left flank. Swinging, kicking, slashing, thrusting, Xena began to carve her way toward the center where Memnon had driven Diomedes back from the line of chariots and was on the verge of wearing down his strength to the point of defeating him and sending his soul winging off to Hades' dark realm.
Suddenly, a great, booming voice cried out above the din, "Diomedes, back off! Ajax, step in!" Agammemnon, roaring out his tent, plumed like a lion and hoary as a bear, came to tower over the field as he ordered Ajax to relieve Diomedes in man to man combat with the grandly girded Memnon.
"It's my battle, sire!" Diomedes cried out. "Ajax is fresh. Memnon is as worn as I am. Let the one earn the victory over the other, fair and square, and none shall afterwards have cause to complain!"
"What you say is true, Diomedes!" Agammemnon, in the fullness of his breadth and girth, cried. "But you're too valuable an asset to be lost to us so quickly. Hellas has yet to produce a finer general or a better strategist, save only Odysseus and possibly myself. Stand down and let our next best warrior, second only to Achilles, spell your flagging arm and boost you sagging shoulder!"
"I am loathe to slay you, Diomedes!" Memnon bellowed. "Though I have the clear advantage of you, you are brave and resourceful and not mean-spirited. Would that you were fighting for the better side!"
"Trojan hound! Taste of death and savour its sweetness!" Ajax unsheathed his sword and leaped into the skirmish, brushing Diomedes aside with a hefty slew of his immense arm.
"Ajax!" Diomedes cried. "If you will contend with this Trojan champion, allow him to refresh himself as you yourself are unmoistened by the sweat of battle and wax keen for its dampness."
"What say, sire?" Ajax turned to Agammemnon. "Shall this devil of darkness take his ease for a time, with a morsel of cake and a flagon of ale, and then be free to hack and slash to bloody corpses a score or more of good Argive men? Or shall I promptly make puppy chow of this mangy cur come from Ethiope's kennel?!"
"To the deed, at once!" Agammemnon ordered. "And let the blackguard sprout wings and fly hence to his African veld if he esteems his princely life more highly than a servile death upon the barren plains of Ilium!"
"But sire...," Diomedes broke in. "The fight and its prize lie between Memnon and myself. Ajax has the entire field to harrow with the might of his stout right arm. For fairness' sake, I urge thee..."
"You who, with Odysseus, slew King Rhesus as he slept are squeamish when men in armor, with weapons crossed, contest in broad daylight?" Agammemnon cried out to Diomedes. "A pretty distinction on the part of one whose devotion to duty so recently overrode all sense of moral delicacy. What occasions this present bout of conscience in the midst of guts and gore?"
"I'd lost my conscience. Then Xena found it and returned it to me," Diomedes said.
"The fell Warrior Princess?" Agammemnon drew his sword and, eyeing Aeneas in the near distance, prepared to give the Trojan champion chase. "I see where even now she approaches," Agammemnon pointed with the tip of his blade to the narrowing space of ground where Xena was ripping up the opposition as she battled closer to the all-important center. "Take thy sword and proffer the double edged steel thereof unto your erstwhile conscience finder. Perhaps she'll make profligate use of it."
Agammemnon bruited away, and Diomedes prepared to cross swords with Xena if need be. Then Ajax lit into Memnon who now had the harder going of it as Memnon was tiring from his contest with Diomedes.
But Memnon was a ferocious fighter, and he summoned his deepest reservoir of strength so that, pressing a ferocious onslaught, he began to beat Ajax back and, in so doing, pried an opening in the Argive line through which the Trojan advance began to pour like grains of slow but building sand through a funnel. Though no man had so much as nicked Ajax' skin in battle, so quickly did he lay his opponents low, Memnon managed to swipe the edge of his blade across one of Ajax' massive biceps between armguard and bracer so that the mighty Argive champion winced as the blood spurted from his burning wound.
"Aie...!" Ajax cried and staggered backwards, managing to stay on his feet.
At the sight of his friend's distress and hearing Ajax' unaccustomed cry of alarm, Achilles lifted his lance and was about make the cast when Xena leaped over Diomedes' head to land within twenty paces of the battling swordsmen.
"Achilles, stop!" Xena shouted as loud as she could.
Heedless of Xena's cry, Achilles let fly with a mighty hurl of his terrific lance, and the giant blade pierced Memnon's breastplate as easily as though the iron mail were the sheerest gauze to accessorize, with its gathers and puffs, a lightweight enareti kori dress on the eve of a thesmophoria skit in the torchlit telesterion. The shaft hove through the bone and buried itself in the great king's heart, the tip passing through rib and muscle to emerge out his back. Wordlessly, his voice gone, Memnon staggered backwards, two steps, three, and then sank to his knees and collapsed on his face, death taking him before he hit the ground. Then, with an angry roar, Ajax rushed over to the fallen Memnon and, without pausing to remove the slain king's helmet, Ajax raised his mighty sword, brought it down in a fury and severed the vanquished monarch's head from his body.
Xena and Diomedes, several swordlengths apart, stood aghast on the field of blood. Then, the fury rising in her craw, Xena drew her sword and shouted, "Swift Achilles, fleeter than either fox or hounds that were let loose to chase him, is there no honor left in Hellas that such a warrior as yourself has become a lisping snake who must slither through the grass to venom an opponent by stealth and then slide free of the fall? Is mighty Ajax so weak and green that he needs you to step in and fight his battles for him? I call you coward, Achilles! I call you vile and of no worth to the race of men!"
"Be careful, Xena, lest, in the fall of the next sand grain, you join your royal cohort on the dusty deck of this dung-covered earth," Achilles called out in his mellifluous baritone. "It matters not to me whether my friend be a mighty warrior and a hearty bibber of spirits or a prissy mouse and a nervous teetotaler, and I number both sorts among my friends. I'll not stand by and see a friend fall. Nor, I'm sure, would you. This is war, Xena, not an Olympiad. Life and the riches with which to enjoy it are the prize here, not a crown of laurels and a sonorous ode of Pindar."
"Without honor, life's no prize while riches serve only to oppress their possessors," Xena shouted back.
"Who taught you that, Xena?" Achilles cried out in the smiling gleam of his pride. "A porcelain statuette from far away Chin with the quick-wristed knack of whipping sharp, little daggers into the breasts of those who annoyed her? Or was it a precocious farm girl from a dull, coastal village who bamboozled the warlord-manquée with her quick-witted pretentions to the point of convincing her that the two of them were bound for all eternity as soul mates? Give it up, Xena. Your pedestrian notions of fairness and justice do you no credit. Honor lies in living life to the full with neither apology nor regret and then, with no complaint, bidding life farewell at the turn of the sandglass ordained by fate."
Xena's eyes flared with rage and, losing her temper, she was about to vault over to where Achilles stood and to light into him with everything she had, though doing so would surely have been her final, heroic act. But just before Xena could make that leap, she heard a tremulous voice in her ear that said, "Don't do it, Xee."
Xena turned to see Aphrodite standing at her side, looking ridiculously out of place in her pink, see-through lingerie in the midst of a vast and bloody field of piled up corpses.
"I know he's a twit. I don't like him either," Aphrodite said, curling one of her blonde ringlets around a long finger that sported a brightly polished and well rounded nail. "But he'll kill you if you take him on, hon. It's not his time yet. He knows it and so do you."
"Aphrodite, what are you doing here," Xena scowled. "This is no place for you. All this blood and gore, it'll only get you upset."
"Aw, you're a sweetie," Aphrodite smiled at Xena. "But I hadda come 'cause I know how super bummed Ree would be if anything bad happened to you."
"Gabrielle knows that some things are worth giving up one's life for," Xena looked past Aphrodite toward the thick of the battle where the Amazons were hardly visible in the clouds of dust that masked from view their path of sword and slaughter. "Honor, justice, redeeming the sins of the past."
"But give your life up for him?" Aphrodite said with a sour look at Achilles. "Ree set out to bring your body home once. Do you want her to have to go through that a second time? All that pain and heartache? Just ‘cause Achilles behaves like a jerk?"
Xena shook her head.
"Then let discretion be the better part of... Ohh, look at that poor man, his head and helmet have been lopped clean off..." Aphrodite turned away with a shiver of revulsion.
"Why are you doing this, Aphrodite?" Xena said. "You know I don't care a fig for the gods."
"Yeah, but you and Ree are among my faves," Aphrodite said. "I don't want to see you getting carved up into Xena de fois gras. Not by that horrendous hunk of mean machine. I'd miss you guys something awful. Really, I would."
"Okay," Xena said, "but you'd better clear out of here. Ares and Athena can hack this stuff, but it's bound to leave you depressed and having nightmares."
"'Kay, snuggums, you just make sure you get back to Ree in one Warrior Princess piece. Later...," Aphrodite vanished in a radiant tinkle of light.
Xena put up her sword as she heard Aeneas calling her name. With a non-committal look at Diomedes, a quick connecting of the eyes just so that they might remember, as the future unfolded, that they had once faced each other as opponents, not enemies, and had held but not crossed swords on the bloody battlefield of Ilium, Xena leaped into the air and came down in the maw of the heaviest part of the fighting where Aeneas and Agammemnon were hewing and hacking at one another, surrounded by the forward, thundering press of the Amazons as the Trojans gained ground, a handwidth and footpace at a time, over the bloody, treacherous dunes, edging ever closer to the waves.
"In through the opening, Xena!" Aeneas cried, parrying a thrust from Agammemnon's powerful sword. Menelaus was no slouch in battle, and Agammemnon, Menelaus' older brother, was an even more formidable contestant. The House of Atreus may have been arrogant and unscrupulous in its dealings with those whom they were determined to crush, imposing needless hardship and excessive suffering on those whom they chose to tyrannize, but its champions were stalwart in battle. "Take command of the beach and force a widening of the gap if you can!"
Xena's initial impulse was to belay that order and to team up with Aeneas in the hope of running Agammemnon through with the shaft of her sword or at least to shatter Agammemnon's sword with a fast fling of her chakram. But, with admirable self-discipline, Xena fought off the urge, knowing that those who would give orders must also follow them. Gritting her teeth, Xena poured into the opening, battling and laying low the Argive regulars who were trying but failing to hold the line, even as Xena hoped that the young, male bodies stacked up around her were not attached to the Poteidaian company of the Pallene brigade of the Chalkidiki regiment and did not include Perdicas and Andros who, Xena wished, might, by now, be far from the day's bloodshed. Likewise, if any might be present, the enlisted men and conscripts from Amphipolis.
At last, Xena fought her way to the shore and was the first one to slog from the beach into the calm, lapping tide. Feeling the wash of the waves sucking the sand out from around her boots, Xena turned and cried, "Men of Ilium! Press hard! Force a clear lane and hold!"
Inspired by Xena's bold cry and seeing her at the pinpoint of their goal of re-claiming their sandy shores for the first time in a decade, the Trojan line poured oil on the fire of their determination and beat back the superior Argive forces in an effort that was, fingerwidth by toelength, nothing short of heroic.
The key to success boiled down to the Amazons. Could these fighting daughters of Ares drive the heart of the Argive command from the field and thus ensure that the breach in the line would remain open? If the Amazons could only hold the opening, even for a little while, it would give Paris on the left flank and Troilus on the right a chance to press out and back, like the handles of a pair of shears slowly closing, the handle loops, moving farther from the centerpoint but narrowing, so that, in a tightening V, the troops could pour en masse through the gap and thus cut the Argive line in two.
Then the surging marauders would have to trench for all they were worth to shelter themselves from the Argive bombardment, but that they could do if they might only broaden a sufficiently wide channel over the dunes, down to the beach and out to the ocean waves. The channel needn't be terribly wide, and Xena was already firm in the breach, directing the in-rushing traffic. Meanwhile, the Trojan cavalry, having suffered the loss of Memnon, was beginning to fall back; though, surprisingly, Helenus' artillery was doing a better job than expected of harrying Odysseus and the Argive artillery. Thankfully, the Trojan infantry units on the dunes and down at the beach were thus taking lighter hits than Xena had anticipated, even as Aeneas and Agammemnon were battling to a draw while waves of the Trojan rearguard were keeping Ajax tied down by an extremely costly but unfortunately necessary diversion.
All that now stood between the brave, outnumbered hosts of Ilium and an amazing upset victory over the Argives was Achilles and his Myrmidons who faced off against the Amazons.
As Aeneas, at the height of his fury, slowly managed to edge Agammemnon away from the breach in the Argive line, Penthesileia and the Amazons grasped at the opportunity which the force of their arms now afforded them. If they could only keep the narrow burst in the Argive dam from closing for the brief time it would take for the Trojan forces to flood it, victory might yet be theirs.
"Now, ladies!" Penthesileia cried, the shaft of her sword and the tip of her spear besmirched in Argive gore. "For the honor and glory of our sisters, now and in the future, let's show our adversaries the stuff that true Amazons are made of!"
The fast moving Clonie was the first of that brave band to hurl herself into the vortex. She cast her spear and laid Menippus low. The agile Derinoe was hot on Clonie's tail and winged her spear into Laogonus' breast, killing him before he hit the ground. Iphicles' cousin, Podarces, darted to the side for a clear shot and flung his lance home to pierce Clonie's midriff just below the edge of her cuirass. With a horrid cry, Clonie fell backwards off her horse and her guts gushed out on the ground, the first of that noble Amazon company to fall.
Penthesileia saw her fair-faced sister caught up in her terrible death throes, and, with an angry bellow, she flung one of her javelins the impact of which was so forceful that Podarces' severed trunk, when he hit the ground dead, was already a partially visible skeleton.
Idomaneus' spear came sailing out of the fray to find a home in Bremusa's breast. That fine lady toppled with a wailing shriek, the second brave Amazon to fall. The powerful Meriones cast his spear through sweet Evandre's heart, and she fell, the third Amazon casualty, and was trampled underfoot before she expired. The mighty Themodosa had already slain four of her opponents, but now she was surrounded and forced to battle three Argive swordsmen at once. Not even Thermodosa's great strength could prevent Meriones from driving his sword, with a lightning stroke, between her wide hips and disemboweling her where she fought, the fourth Amazon to give her life in the service of her queen, though not before Penthesileia had avenged her by hurling her second javelin into Meriones' neck and nearly decapitating him as he stood, bloody sword in hand.
Fighting their way through the carnage, eager to quell the vicious Amazon onslaught, Diomedes and Ajax came, at last, within the circle of sword and spear at the heart of the Trojan breakthrough.
In a sacrificial effort to hold Ajax back, Derinoe rushed at him, sword flailing, to be hewn down by Ajax' spear cast into her throat, breaking her neck on impact. Down she went, the fifth Amazon fatality. Alcibe likewise tried to keep Diomedes at bay but she was no match for his strength and speed, and soon she became the sixth Amazon to have her lifeblood drained away on the awful field of battle. The lovely Derimacheia, who'd delighted her sisters in their leisure candlemarks with oils and scents and massages and the warm caresses of her beauteous hands, struck at Diomedes, but, when Diomedes struck back and opened her breast with the sharp edge of his thrusting sword, Derimacheia struck no more, the seventh sister of Penthesileia to fall.
With her sword and lance, Penthesileia avenged death for death, laying low one Argive soldier after the next, some of them young and rosy-cheeked whose names were not recorded on any scroll and who perished on the points and edges of Amazon steel far from home and the comfort of family and friends.
"A ruin of splintered stems and shattered sprays; so the great Danaan host they lay, dashed to dreary dust by doom of Fate and Penthesileia's sparkling spear..." was how the bards were to tell it in later ages.
Six Amazons remained. Argive bodies rose around them as the rocky berm of the beach was theirs within shouting distance of Xena and the in-pouring of the Trojan forces made possible because of the great number of Argive soldiers that it took to fend off the fierce Amazon attack.
But now, at the last possible turn of the sandglass, the might of Achilles leaped into the fray. With a loud cry and his jeweled sword blazing, Achilles sprang into the Amazon midst and, in quick succession, slew Polemusa, Antandre, Antibrote and Hippothoe, the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh of the Amazon host to give their lives for the sake of Ilium and the noble House of Priam. Finally, in desperation, dark-eyed Harmothoe, who loved to draw Penthesileia's bath and to set the stars in her hair, flung herself upon Achilles with her sword flashing; and Achilles, deftly turning the sharp shaft aside, wrung her neck as easily as if it were a hen before the feather plucking and the boiling in the pot. Down she fell on top of her sisters, the twelfth Amazon to die that day.
With all her sisters gone and two dozen or more Argive soldiers sent winging on their way to Charon's skiff by the hand of the Amazon queen, Penthesileia at last faced her nemesis within earshot of Xena and the lapping waves of Ilium's great objective. With her visor drawn down over her face, which had the effect of causing her voice to sound even deeper than its rich, natural alto, Penthesileia cried, "Prepare to meet your doom, Achilles!"
Achilles responded with a loud laugh. "What presumptuous Trojan youth dares to mew at the roaring lion with the vain and silly bray of the sheep? The reddening hue upon your silver armor and the gore astride your saddle tells me that you have fought well this day, lad. Be content with your winnings and retreat to join your compatriots whose force of arms is a credit to the name of Ilium. Though the Danaans greatly outnumber the Dardans, man for man, the Trojan host has achieved in boldness what it may lack in brawn."
"Nay, Achilles, I shan't return to the mighty walls and splendid gardens of Troy, nor shall the lovely, Phrygian vales and breathtaking fells of Pontus be mine to see again lest your severed head adorn the pike outside my tent," Penthesileia shouted in a low voice.
"Be not so hasty to attack, brash Trojan lad," Achilles shouted. "Know that I'm not fated to fall by any hand of man this day."
"Then perchance a woman's hand may contrive to slay thee," Penthesileia called across the blood-soaked field above which, in maddening glee, the black-winged harpies flew.
"In my bath when the battle's done, perhaps," Achilles laughed. "Though if any maid save Xena and those dead Amazons were to strive within a dozen leagues of this vast plain of agony, I should escort her gently hence and roundly cadge her for her girlish folly. Let ladies tend to their dainties and leave warrior's work to men that have both need and knack of it."
"Then die, Achilles, and may the passionate hand of Ilium strike a mortal blow against the arrogant breast of Argos!" So saying, Penthesileia cast her weighty spear full force at Achilles. And though the hurtling projectile would have cloven most other men's armor and torn sinew and bone to the quick, Achilles easily brushed the deadly blow aside.
"Tempt me not further, lad," Achilles let fly a chary warning. "Withdraw now while my humor still favors thee, for I see thou hast a noble bearing and the blood of warriors in thy veins."
"Never 'til I've avenged my fallen comrades and bested thee in battle," Penthesileia cried and, brandishing her spear, she charged Achilles, all the wealth and energy of her protean soul gathered to a last, gushing fountain spray of pure, homicidal purpose. "Defend yourself or die where you stand, foul beast!"
Achilles' eyes grew wide, his nose flared and cheeks reddened as Penthesileia, in all her majesty, fueled by sorrow for her sisters slain in battle, spurred on by rage at the deaths of Polly and Mel and Cyane and Melosa and Velasca and all the great and noble company of the sisters who'd gone before her into the depths of Claw Mountain; and driven, not least, by the grief of a love so lately come into her life which her commitment to what she took to be her destiny of sacrifice and redemption would now deprive her of, rode with the full force of her battle fury straight at the mightiest warrior of the Argives whose very name struck fear into the hearts of any and all who dared oppose him.
"I tell thee, lad, thou has proven thy manhood sufficient unto the day. In the name of the gods, I bid thee turn back!" Achilles cried.
But Penthesileia drove onward with bloody sword held high.
"Then, foolish youth, come and meet thy fate!" Achilles cried and let fly with a might cast of his spear.
High upon a windy promontory, within a sheltered cave near the summit of Mount Olympus, the Fates wove the thread of mortal life, patiently, unerringly, their pace and rhythm never wavering as the earth spun indifferently on its axis and day succeeded night in a perpetual cycle of stellar silence. Clotho spun the length of thread, Lachesis measured it, Atropos closed the shears and, speaking the name, "Penthesileia", cut the thread as the great spear of Achilles entered the neck of the horse that Penthesileia rode, its impact hitting with such force that the sharp-edged tip slammed out the back of the horse's neck to continue on its fatal path into the lovely, bronze breast of Penthesileia. The deadly spear hit with such force that the point pierced not only her heart but her spine which cracked as the spear emerged nearly a forearm's length out her back. Darkness surrounded her as Penthesileia, the Queen of all the Amazons who'd come to the defense of Ilium in its candlemark of need, fell dead in a heap before she'd landed on the ground.
In the Hall of the Fates, Ares turned away in wretchedness and looked through the open casement at the jagged, ice-encrusted peaks of Olympus. "She was the last of the great," he muttered. "But for Xena, there will be no others."
From her post on the shore line, Xena looked up to see, high overhead, in the stark, seamless, blue dome that tented the day's bloody contest, a blazing flash of light. It could have been the reflection of the gold of Phaeton's car or the white of Icarus' wings. Yet in that flashing instant, even as the command for the men to hold their positions streamed off her tongue, Xena knew. The shining light of the Amazons had left this world, and the land of the living would never be as bright.
"Safe journey, my sister," Xena said aloud, and then the blue-black smoke of battle rage began to rise up and enfold the aura of the Warrior Princess. Xena went charging up the beach toward the spot where Penthesileia lay in a pool of blood, thinking to hurl herself and her sword upon Achilles and let the Fates do with her as they pleased. But as Xena battled along the bloody way, cutting down opponents left and right, she slowed her pace and, when she'd attained the rise on the dune above the beach where the Amazons had made their final stand, she stopped and held her sword motionless in her hand.
Achilles had gone over to the foolish, fallen youth and, curious to see the face of the bold, determined lad who'd recklessly flung his life away in a vain effort to lay low the greatest of the Argive champions, Achilles had knelt down and removed the lad's helmet only to gasp and then groan with the ache of sudden surprise as tears of contrition and regret came to gild his vainglorious and self-centered eyes.
Achilles turned his head to gaze at Xena and, in a voice of tender reticence, he said, "The lad is a woman. By the gods, a woman. So lithe, so lovely, so bathed in the freshness of her youth. So very like Patroclus in the grace of her aspect. Look at these eyes, Xena. How large, how pure they are, how they change colors in the light even though glazed with the pall of deep-devouring death. Such arched brows, such lovely lips, such fine bones, such frame and posture. She could be Artemis sleeping or Demeter seated upon a stony heath in winter, lost in sorrowing thought of dear, departed Persephone. Surely, she was made a wonder of beauty... even in her death."
Then Achilles gently laid Penthesileia down on the gore-soaked ground.
"I could have borne her home to Phthia to be my royal bride," Achilles said. "She is flawless and divine in every respect."
"Don't defile her body with your touch," Xena said coldly. "Let her be brought back to Ilium for a proper burial."
"Who is she, Xena?" Achilles raised his eyes and, perhaps for the first time, those eyes lacked their customary look of arrogance and mastery which had come so easily to Achilles in the world of men at arms.
"An Amazon queen," Xena said.
"And these dozen fierce fighters who dared to hold even mighty Ajax at bay and nearly succeeded in such a desperate undertaking. Under the visors of their helmets? Are these Amazons as well?" Achilles said.
"Yes," Xena nodded.
"But why, Xena?" Achilles said. "What good did they hope to accomplish by riding to their sure and certain deaths?"
"You haven't got much time left on this earth, Achilles," Xena offered her reflection by way of indirection. "You'll have to make a choice and then put that choice into action. What's worth giving your life for? Is it the glory and fame that your ego craves? Or might there be something higher and better to live and die for?"
"I've never thought of it in those terms," Achilles said. "I've always done what's been expected of me. I could have lived a long and prosperous life had I chosen the path of quiet anonymity. But I chose a brief life of achievement and acclaim."
"Are you satisfied with that choice?" Xena queried.
"I thought I was. Now I don't know," Achilles said. "You're saying there's something higher and better. What could it be?"
"Sheathe your sword and stay out of the battle for a time," Xena said. "Gaze at her face as you ponder that question. That's where you'll find an answer."
Then, as Achilles cradled the body of the fallen Penthesileia, Xena spirited away to reconnoiter with Aeneas who was still battling Agammemnon to a draw, neither chief able to get the better of the other.
Xena stood on a small bluff overlooking the shoreline where the Trojan forces were striving to hold their hard-won beach head. But the fall of the Amazons had turned the tide of the battle. The sheer size and weight of the Argive forces were slowly but trenchantly beginning to wear down the momentum of the Trojan offensive. Though Xena had never warlorded on such a grand scale, her instincts told her that the forces of Ilium, valiant though they might be, would not prevail that day.
Despite the loss of its monstrous siege engine and the initial setback which had brought Ilium's forces careening all the way down to the sea, the depth of the Argive reserve force was simply too great. Soon it would rally to press the Trojans back from the beach and onto the plain where the battle, in its final stages, could turn into a rout and ultimately a massacre. Perhaps if the Argive leadership had been mediocre and the Trojan leadership brilliant, Ilium's forces might still have carried the day by delivering fast, selective strikes and engaging in quick, carefully timed diversions. But the Argives had three first rate strategists in Agammemnon, Diomedes and Odysseus whose absence from the field in no way diminished his effectiveness as he'd managed, during the past candlemark, to outmaneuver the smaller, less experienced Trojan artillery and, while holding Helenus at bay, to give much needed relief to Nestor on the Argive right flank.
Xena darted across the sands to Aeneas who had fought Agammemnon to a standstill, the two leaders having called a temporary hiatus to break for a brief rest period and a re-evaluation of the progress of their troops in battle.
"Your assessment, Xena," Aeneas said. "Be brutally candid. Can we hold the beach?"
"No," Xena replied, gazing at the shrill hand-to-hand combat being waged along every lapping wave of the tidewater. "We can take the beach but we can't hold it."
"As I feared," Aeneas said. "And Penny and her sisters?"
"Gone to glory with honor. All of them," Xena said.
"Then I shall do no less and battle Agammemnon to the death," Aeneas resolved. "Let no one walk the last league for us and leave us not having walked it ourselves."
"No, Aeneas," Xena spoke firmly and held the flat of her sword out to press him back from the ring. "It's not given to you to slay or to be slain by Agammemnon. For you, the Fates have another destiny in mind. My job is to see that you fulfill it. I can't let you trade your life for glory this day."
"Who told you this?" Aeneas said.
"Cassandra," Xena said.
"I might have known," Aeneas said with a sad, thoughtful smile.
"But I know it for myself in spite of what Cassandra may have related to me," Xena said. "King Priam is old. Ilium needs a leader. You're the one who needs to step in, draw the people together and lead them on the next leg of their journey."
"To where, Xena?" Aeneas said with a tone of near despair.
"We're working on it, Gabrielle and me. Come on," Xena took off in the lead with Aeneas following, the Trojan chief having extended his apologies to Agammemnon’s page for the discontinuance of the swordfight. "Sound the retreat. We've done our best. There's no shame in that. And there's no point in going down to needless defeat and leaving those at home to be slaughtered in the streets with the survivors then bartered and sold."
"The Argives will pursue us across the plain as far as the walls, and our blood will be many times spilled before we enter in the gates," Aeneas said.
"No, it won't," Xena and Aeneas heard a voice behind them and turned to see Achilles in the majesty of his strength and prowess. "Arrange the cease fire and I'll guarantee the truce. There'll be no pursuit of Ilium’s retreat. Your men -- and women -- have fought honorably, Aeneas, and their reward will be to return to your city unharmed."
"How can you be sure?" Aeneas said to Achilles, prepared, if necessary, to draw his sword, do battle with Ilium's great adversary and die.
"No one will cross me," Achilles spoke with utter self-assurance. "No one would dare."
Then word went out from command central. The trumpet sounded. The cry of "Cease Fire! Hold Arms! Stand Down!" boomed across the contending lines; and, in a few turns of the sandglass, an eerie quiet came to reign on the now stilled battlefield.
"Men of Troy!" Aeneas cried across the bloody stretch of sandy dune and dusty plain. "For as long as men...," Aeneas looked out on the sea of haggard faces, and Xena happened to catch his eye, "... and women... shall know the name of Ilium, the jewel of Phrygia in its glory and splendor, they will know how valiantly its brave, determined hosts acquitted themselves on the bloody field of battle this day!"
"Men of Argos!" Achilles, stepping up to Aeneas, cried out. "Honor lies not in defeating a smaller, less numerous foe in battle but in saluting his bold effort and in not pressing an advantage that will compromise his dignity. Let the Trojans retreat to their walled city so that ultimate victory or surrender may be a noble conclusion to our long and bloody contest!"
As the orderly retreat began, Xena paused in front of Diomedes who stood with his bloody sword in hand. "Render up the bodies of the Amazons, place them on a bier and bring them in wagons across the plain to the gates so they might receive the honors due their names."
"Still giving orders, Xena?" Diomedes bit back a smile. "Even though you're wielding your sword for the House of Priam and have wrought a burden of deadly grief upon well nigh a hundred Argive households?"
"Do it, Diomedes," Xena said, brooking no objection.
"All but that one," Achilles indicated the body of Penthesileia whose face now appeared to shine radiantly beneath her uplifted visor. "That one stays behind."
"What do you mean?" Xena snapped. "She's the queen. She's to be buried with the highest honors in the bosom of her people."
"We'll see, Xena," Achilles said. "I may choose to keep her."
"And do what with her!" Xena let loose in anger.
"I don't know," Achilles said. "Follow your recommendation and gaze at her, perhaps. Keep watch. Think. Ask for answers."
Mindful of the retreat and the fact that the promises of the House of Atreus ordinarily meant nothing, Xena felt constrained to bite her tongue. Let the troops get safely back to the shelter of Ilium's thick walls, and Xena would return later that night to claim Penthesileia for the Trojans and the Amazons.
The defeated though not humiliated Trojans crossed the wide plain, courtesy of Achilles' sponsorship. Deputations from both sides gathered the bodies, separated Argive and Trojan, then carted them to their respective mortuaries for dressing and disposal. Other carts came to collect weapons and armor. Only Penthesileia remained in Argive custody to serve as a trophy of war or, perhaps, an ensign of war’s apotheosis. Xena would need to confer with King Priam, Aeneas, Gabrielle and Joxer. And she'd have to break the news to Lila.
A hundred leagues to the northeast, on the shores of a great inland ocean, the lit wicks in the lamps at Themiscyra flickered, and their flames hunkered low and guttered even though no wind had come slithering through the cracks to shake them.
Quintus Smyrnaeus' The Fall of Troy, Book 1, lines 846 - 849
Quintus Smyrnaeus' The Fall of Troy, Book 1, lines 669 - 671
|Continued - Chapter 73|
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