|Light My Pyre|
When the gates had swung open and the troops who'd survived the bloody ordeal had come straggling back in, Gabrielle knew at once that Ilium's fighting forces, however valiant they may have been in combat, had not been able to win the day. Gazing down from the parapet that ran the length of the castle wall above the giant staging grounds, Gabrielle's heart beat so rapidly that she became lightheaded and had to hold onto the railing for support. In all the crush and flow of the returning units, where was Xena?
I'm telling you, Xena, Gabrielle's mind started racing, I've had it with having to stand by and sweat out these large-scale battles, not knowing, from one candlemark to the next, if you're going to be coming back to me. I'm sorry but sometimes the greater good is going to have to depend upon a more selfless, idealistic nature than mine. My place is beside you now, not hanging back in safe shelter when you go out to face death and devilry in the midst of a heated field where an enemy's sword, arrow or well-thrown lance could take your life and cause you suddenly to vanish from mine. A part of me died inside on the day Callisto flung your old chakram and shattered your spine and left you lying helpless in the dust, broken, crippled and in pain. Someone else will have to be the captain the home guard in the future, and I don't want to hear any more of this reasonable talk about the greater... Thank the gods! There she is! No, not thank the gods. We don't owe the gods a blessed thing. Xena, I’ll die by your side, preferably in battle, but I don't intend to get left behind and live my life without you.
Gabrielle raced along the balustrade and dashed down the steep flight of stairs to the flat, open ground by the Scaean Gate to force her way through the mass of slouching, limping bodies until she'd found her way to Xena around whose sweaty, aching shoulders Gabrielle flung her wide open arms.
"You're alive! You're back!" Gabrielle cried and tears of joyous release began to flow down her cheeks. "All we could see was smoke and dust rising up from the plain, and the only sound we could hear was the constant, steady roaring and rumbling that dragged on for what seemed like forever, but no matter: you're back! And you're walking, not limping, and... you look to be in one piece. You're covered with grime but you don't appear to be bleeding or wounded."
Xena returned Gabrielle's hug. "No, I'm fine. Not so much as a scratch. To tell the truth, I spent more time directing traffic than doing any actual fight... Gabrielle, what is it? Pull yourself together."
"I don't know why but for some reason it was different this time," Gabrielle sniffled. "Maybe because of how enormous this war has gotten to be. Maybe because I know we're fighting for a lost cause. Maybe because it was Aeneas and not you who was going to be in charge. Knowing that you'd be taking orders from someone else. You don't do that often, take orders from people, and... if the truth be told... you don't do it all that well."
Despite Xena's fatigue, her heavy heart and her fear for the people of Ilium, and knowing, as she did, that the foiled Trojan attack would not go unanswered by the Argives, Xena couldn't help letting go a light laugh. "It’s true, I don't take orders very well. Except from you sometimes. What's been going on in here while we’ve been out there, battling Agammemnon and his crew?"
"Nothing. That’s what’s been so nerve-wracking" Gabrielle said. "Nothing’s been going on here. We've been on stand by all day, waiting to hear something. How bad did we get beat? It was pretty bad, wasn’t it?"
"It was incredible," a fire of enthusiasm lit up a portion of Xena’s spirit in spite of having little cause to rejoice. "These guys fought like wildcats. We took the beach. I didn't think we would. But there was no way we could have held it. Too many Argives, not enough Trojans. But man for man, Gabrielle, if the odds had only been even, we could have pulled it off. And you know who knocked my greaves off? Helenus and the artillery. Odysseus was eventually going to get the upper hand, but Helenus and his armored units came through and did a great job of slowing Odysseus down. And the cavalry, even without King Rhesus' horses, was super. Memnon was a roaring tiger out there."
"Where is he? I don't see him," Gabrielle said. "Those cars and chariots look pretty banged up."
Xena shook her head. "Ajax and Achilles brought him down. It was two against one after Memnon and Diomedes had been going at it for most of a candlemark like a couple of hungry hounds fighting over a kill. I would have taken Achilles on myself, I was so ripped at the way he cheated, but Aphrodite showed up and talked me out of it."
"Aphrodite?!" Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Showed up on the battlefield? In the midst of all that blood and gore? Aphrodite can't stand being around that stuff. Hostile vibes make her ill except when she's trading insults with and flinging fireballs at Discord."
"Well, it was a good thing that somebody talked some sense into me, and unfortunately, you weren't there to do it," Xena said.
"Next time, Xena...," Gabrielle said in a warning tone that let Xena know that, in the future, there was to be no more Gabrielle-hanging-back-from-the-action to look after this, that or the other thing.
The troops were making their way to the telesteria to disarm and then, after reuniting with their families and loved ones, to assemble in the grand mall and courtyard to hear Aeneas' instructions.
"The wagons are gonna come rolling in soon," Xena said. "There's been big time casualties."
"Penthesileia? The Amazons?" Gabrielle said.
"All of them? Every one?" Gabrielle said.
Xena nodded again.
"Poor Lila!" Gabrielle groaned.
"They fought magnificently," Xena said. "They managed to keep Achilles pinned down long enough for the advance wave, led by Aeneas, to take the beach. They brought down waves of Argive regulars before the last of them fell. Penthesileia alone must have sent an entire platoon chasing off to Tartarus before she rose up in the saddle to face Achilles."
"What about you?" Gabrielle said. "How many troops did you take down?"
"A lot," Xena said. "Do you remember how we vowed that a hundred would fall to avenge what they did to Velasca?"
"I think we may have come close," Xena said. Then a shudder passed over Xena's face and made her body tremble. "Some of them suffered, Gabrielle. Clonie took a terrible hit in the belly and was lying there screaming in agony. It took Thermodosa a long time to die. And Derimachaea, the really pretty one? They hacked her to pieces. Aeneas had me take command of the troops that broke through the Argive line. There wasn't much I could do for the Amazons at that point.
"What went on out there wasn't like any warlording I ever did. It wasn't even like the time when we were battling alongside Ephiny and the others on the Strymon Road and finally got our hands on Brutus. This was much bigger. We were up against incredible odds. They had the numbers. And Achilles is unstoppable when he swings into action. He doesn’t rely on cleverness and guile the way Caesar did. I'm deeply disappointed in him, but I can't bring myself to hate him. When it comes to battle, Achilles is fast and agile and immensely strong. He knows just what his opponent's going to do, and when he lets fly with that monster spear of his, they guy’s incredible; he never misses. However he ends up falling by Paris' hand, it won't be on the field of battle."
"How did it end for Penthesileia?" Gabrielle said.
"She did what she came here to do," Xena said. "I've got to find Lila."
"I'm coming with you. I need to be there when you break the news," Gabrielle said.
Xena and Gabrielle entered the palace, strode through a couple of vestibules and walked along several corridors to the royal residence where Lila had waited out the battle in the company of King Priam and the members of his family circle. At one point during the morning's lull in the battle, the King had invited Lila to join him on one of the broad balconies that looked out on the vast, rolling farm acreage that lay quietly undisturbed to the east of the city.
"The land looks so soft and peaceful at this time of the year, doesn't it?" the King had gazed patiently, if not serenely, at the gardens, meadows, crop enclosures and fallow fields that extended for leagues toward the wooded border that defined the perimeter of the forest that lay beyond. "For yet another sunmark, the earth has labored to feed and clothe us. Now she's resting. Do you know what they used to tell us about the earth and the sky when we were children, Lila?" the King had turned and looked kindly at the young Greek woman who'd come to wait with him through the long, slow passage of Ilium's darkest candlemark. "They used to say, when we were little, that when the sky is gray and white, as it will be for the next two moonmarks before the bright sun peeks out to illumine the snowfields with their stark cold, brilliant glaze, they told us that those straight, flat, white and gray clouds up there, in their unruffled texture, were the blanket that the sky draws over itself when it lies down after its labors and goes to sleep."
"Your city is the most beautiful place I've ever been, Your Majesty," Lila had said. "My own village is modest farm country. We’ve just finished bringing in the last of the summer's wheat, rye and barley. We have good sized fields to harvest but they're as nothing compared to these."
"I helped to clear those fields, Lila," King Priam had said. "I know it's hard to imagine when you look at me now, but I spent much of my youth behind an ox and a plow. Those fields you see were all forest once. We dug up the stumps and hefted the stones a day... a moonmark… a sunmark at a time. Many of the rocks and boulders we hauled away now lie within the foundation of these walls, gates, avenues and plazas. And the stumps, over the course of the decades, have rotted to a rich, earthy mulch. My father, Laomedon, built this city, and I expanded it to its present size. That may be one of the reasons why I've always felt a strong bond of kinship with Penthesileia. Her mother, Lysippe, built the Amazon city of Themiscyra. A marvelous woman, Lysippe was, a fountain of industry and energy all her days until her heart gave way and broke. She was a daughter or Ares, you know. Had five children by him. She’d've been proud of Penny. I wonder if Penny ever realized how very like her mother she was."
"And now the last of Lysippe’s children passes into glory today," Lila had said softly and had looked away in sadness as tears reamed the lower lids of her eyes.
"Lila," the King had reached out and, taking Lila by the chin, had turned Lila's face toward his own. His eyes, like his voice, like his touch, were kind. "You're to remember something. Penthesileia is... was... a queen. As such, her life wasn't her own. She wasn't groomed for queenship. No one expected her to be queen. She herself didn't expect it. But when it fell to her lot to claim the responsibility of queenship or to run from it, she found the courage and resolution to do the right thing. In so doing, she had to place her preferences and desires to one side, as Hippolyte did, as Melanippe and the others did. I visited with her while you were gone to Queen Admete on your errand. She loved you, Lila. You inspired her."
"She told you that?" Lila had said, taking the old King's hand.
"She told me that you had made it possible for her to take that final step, as you say, into glory," King Priam had said.
"I did? How?" Lila had wondered.
"By restoring joy and meaning to her life," the King had said, "and by demonstrating for her, at the instant when her will had begun to falter, what, precisely, her intended sacrifice was meant to be about and why she had determined to make it. Your love gave her the strength she needed to ride out there today. Your love made it possible for her to see beyond herself and so to give herself for the sake of others."
Lila had nodded faintly. "To conquer yourself... is to know the way," she'd murmurred.
"I'm sorry, child, what did you just say?" the King had said.
"Oh..., just a slogan I picked up from Xena," Lila had said. "But what of my sacrifice? What of what I’ve had to give up to help make her sacrifice possible?"
"Do you think she lied to you?" the King had said. "Did she deceive you in any way?"
"No," Lila had said. "She was clear and truthful and very loving."
"Would you rather that her love had not come into your life, child?" the King had said.
"No! Never!" Lila had snapped reflexively. "If I had it to do over again, I'd bury myself in her love and I'd give her all of mine if only for a day... if only for the sweep of a blue, silken scarf around her lovely neck and the brief scent of a gardenia in a glass bud vase on her table and...," Lila began to weep, "the softest brushing of her lips on mine, the lightest tracing of her fingers on my cheeks, the exquisite gleam of life and passion that shone in her incredibly beautiful eyes."
King Priam had reached out his arms to enfold Lila in his embrace as she wept. Soon afterwards, they'd walked back inside his royal apartments and there, some two candlemarks later, after they'd paid their respects to the King, Xena and Gabrielle found Lila sitting quietly by the rear portico.
"Walk with us back to our quarters," Xena said to Lila. "The three of us need to touch base with Joxer and Cressida."
When they'd left the King's suite, Xena having promised to return to see the King later on, Xena, Gabrielle and Lila paused in the loggia by the rippling water fountain whose sandstone basin was crowded with a welter of wide green fronds. Xena turned to break the news to Lila with Gabrielle standing beside her.
"Lila," Xena began, "I just want you to know that..."
Xena paused and, by the force of some unanticipated instinct that took command of her, she opened her arms to Lila and said, "C'mere..."
Lila rushed into Xena's arms. Out came a torrent of tears as Xena held Lila tightly in her powerful, Warrior Princess embrace. Lila's sobbing filled the loggia and rattled along the cloister. Gabrielle stood by ready to add her embrace to Xena's. Tears trickled from Gabrielle's eyes and Xena's eyes were glazed with tears as well.
"She loved you, Lila. Hold fast to that," Xena said softly as she rocked Lila gently from side to side.
"Did she suffer terribly? Just tell me that," Lila formed the words through he tears.
"No. It was over in a flash," Xena soothed a shaking Lila, stroking her hair and holding her gently. "She may not even have known what hit her."
"Tell me everything that happened," Lila said, snuffling. "I want to know every last, little, excruciating detail."
"She fought bravely. You absolutely need to know that," Xena said. "She took down ten, twenty, maybe thirty opponents until, at last, she came face to face with Achilles. He tried to put her off. 'I don't know who you are, Trojan champion,' he called out to her, 'but I see that you've fought courageously this day. Retire from the field and live to fight another day.' Then she charged, vowing that the day would claim Achilles' life or her own. Then Achilles... did what he felt he had to do. One cast of the lance and she was gone before she hit the ground. If you have to go, Lila, there's so many worse ways... I mean there was no shame, no degradation, no pointless agony, maybe not even any pain or only for an instant. She died as she lived: with loftiness, nobility and grace. I was there, Lila. I saw it all. I'm not lying to you. That's exactly the way it happened."
"Thank you, Xena," Lila leaned back and looked up into Xena's eyes. "It means a lot to me that you would tell me that. Gab...," Lila reached out and Gabrielle moved in to embrace her.
"What do you need to do now, Lee?" Gabrielle stroked Lila's cheek.
"Mostly be with you and Xena," Lila said.
"C'mon, then," Gabrielle took Lila's hand, and they headed for the guest quarters where Joxer and Cressida were temporarily indisposed.
"I guess we've pretty much wrapped things up here," Xena said, noticing how quiet and empty the suites and corridors were now that all the Amazons were gone. Having finished with the black powder, the kitchen and refectory looked deserted. All of Ilium had fallen silent in the aftermath of the battle. "I'll go look in on Argo. Then I've got to huddle with Aeneas and see what comes next. Grab Joxer when you can, and we'll meet up later."
"We ought to leave a tip or something for Sargon," Gabrielle said. "He's done a nice job of looking after us: sheets, towels, late night snacks."
While Xena went to rendezvous with Aeneas, Gabrielle and Lila strolled through some of Ilium's loveliest flower gardens, gathering a bouquet of late-bloomers to leave in an amphora with a note saying thank you to Sargon and to Deiphobus too. How odd, Gabrielle and Lila remarked to one another, to be picking flowers for a bouquet, in the Tuilleries of Troy, on the very day that Ilium had suffered the defeat in battle which, in effect, had lost the war.
Later in the afternoon, the wagons brought the bodies in. The corpses were heaped on carts and biers. Some had gone stiff and were beginning to emit a terrible stench. Crews were already at work, outside the Tymbrian Gate, where the sun was least direct, digging graves and constructing mausoleums. Gabrielle had the bodies of the Amazons delivered to the undercroft of the palace's guest wing where the Trojan women laid them out for burial. Then Gabrielle, Lila, Joxer and Cressida, assisted by a deputation of volunteers, ventured outside the gate where they collected the wood they needed to construct a huge pyre. Xena found them busily at work when the ad hoc, Trojan war council adjourned.
"Where is she?" Lila was alarmed. "I've counted twelve, but where's Penthesileia?"
"She's with Achilles," Xena said. "I'm going over there to try and talk Achilles into parting with her."
"She's with Achilles?" Lila's eyes grew wide with wonder. "What for?"
"He insisted on keeping her as a condition for an orderly retreat," Xena said.
Anger bordering on rage flashed in Lila's eyes.
"We had no choice, Lila," Xena said. "We couldn't have gotten the troops back here otherwise. We'd have had to dig in on the beach until the troops would eventually have been massacred. Agammemnon isn't honoring the rules of engagement. I'm sorry. I did tell Achilles that I’d be going back for her."
The instant of rage that seared through Lila was like a lit fuse that exploded a keg of grief and blew to bits the wood, metal and stone of some huge beast of hesitation and passivity. A change came over Lila's features, posture and voice as a core of hidden strength and resolution burst though the shell of her previously wavering will.
"I understand, Xena. You did what you thought best," Lila said in a voice of great calm. "Now I have to do what I think best. You're not going after her. I am."
Xena gave Lila a confused look. "What did you say?"
"I will go to Achilles and bring her back for burial," Lila said.
"Lila...," Xena cautioned.
"Lee...," Gabrielle seconded Xena.
"It's the least I can do," Lila said.
"You've already done a great deal, Lee. You got the belt from Queen Admete," Gabrielle said.
"Let me go reason with Achilles," Xena said. "He knows me. I think he respects me. At least he won't be surprised to see me. I'm sure he'll let me have the body."
"Xena," Lila said, "Gab mentioned that on the night when the two of you showed up at Latrinus' camp, after they'd forced me to leave Lexie there alone, you went to check up on her before giving Latrinus the rope he needed to hang himself when you made him think that you and Gab were going to help him burgle the pottery works in order to ensure my safety.
"As I heard it from Gab, Lexie said that she'd been throwing up in the mornings. In fact, she'd thrown up that very morning when Septix came to escort us to Latrinus' hut. And then, Gab was telling me, you got to quizzing Lexie about her sex life, if she'd been lovers with anybody, because it sounded to you like Lexie having bouts of morning sickness might mean that she'd gotten pregnant."
"Yeah...," Xena wrinkled her brow.
"If Lexie's pregnant," Lila said, "she's going to have to tell her folks about it because, sooner or later, they're going to find out for themselves. And when Clenesthides hears that Lexie not only got knocked up but that it was The Big O who knocked her up, he's not likely to be very pleased. Lexie's already in the doghouse for having clocked two of Latrinus' goons on the day the men were chasing them through the square, which partly caused us to get kidnapped in retaliation."
"What's this got to do with going to get Penthesileia's body, Lila?" Xena said.
"Lexie's going to need to face up to things. She may be facing up to them right now. I'm not there to lend my support at a time when Lexie might be needing my support. My not being there is going to inflict a bit of a wound on our friendship no matter how understanding and forgiving Lexie might be. I'm her friend and my not being there when she needs me is letting her down."
"But that's not your fault, Lee," Gabrielle said.
"I know, but Lexie and I were in this thing together," Lila said, "and now I'm not there for her. All of which means that in the end, Lexie needs to fight her battles, supported or alone, and I need to fight mine. I'm going after the body. Yes, Achilles knows you, Xena, but it's important that he knows me too. It's important that I'm the one to whom he returns the body. And I'm going to bring her body back for a proper Amazon burial."
Lila spoke with authority and Xena felt it. "Are you sure about this, Lila?"
"Absolutely," Lila said with firm conviction. "You may go or not as you choose, Xena, but either way, I'm going."
"They could take you prisoner," Xena said. "You're a Greek civilian under martial jurisdiction the instant you step over the Argive lines."
"They could do a lot of things to me," Lila said. "They could hang me if they so choose. That's the chance I've got to take and the risk I need to run."
Lila left to arrange for a car and driver while Xena and Gabrielle exchanged troubled looks. I guess she's made up her mind. I guess she's gonna go.
"Should we quietly tag along behind?" Gabrielle asked Xena.
Xena thought long and hard. "No," she finally said.
"No?" Gabrielle raised an eyebrow.
"I think Lila may be right," Xena said. "More that right, I wonder if Lila might be wise."
"You mean it?" Gabrielle said.
"Put it this way," Xena said, "if Lila approaches Achilles with the composure and certainty that she just expressed to us, I don't think he'll be able to say no. In fact...," Xena paused, "I think Lila has every right to claim Penthesileia's body; and, if her mind's made up, I don't think she's going to let Achilles stand in her way."
Xena having given the nod, Aeneas assigned a bier and driver to accompany Lila to the Argive camp. Gabrielle embraced Lila and begged her to be careful. Xena volunteered to accompany her, but Lila declined the offer, saying that this was an errand to which she had to attend alone. The gate opened, and Lila, standing next to the driver in the car to which the bier was attached, rode out onto the bloody, death-drenched plain.
"There!" Lila pointed to Diomedes' pavilion as the car and wagon made its way through the crush of the dead and wounded and at last closed in on the Argive positions that had since been reinforced with fresh troops arrived from Tenedos. The camp’s atmosphere was tense. The Argive soldiery were bent upon erasing the humiliation which the Trojans had not only inflicted upon their lines but had accomplished by means of the mysterious sabotage which their spies had wrecked upon the monstrous battle engine designed and constructed to scale or enter, by stealth, into Ilium's massive walls.
Curious looks on the faces of the Argive soldiers followed Lila as she climbed the dunes toward the rise on which Diomedes grand tent was pitched. "Excuse us, please. Would you kindly clear a space for us to wedge our way through, please. We're here to claim the body of one of our war dead."
"Why, that's a Greek lass!" one of the soldiers cried. "A Macedonian! I can tell by the accent. What in the name of Bacchus' backside is a Macedonian wench doin' ridin' out from Ilium's stone-sealed gates? And what do you mean one of 'our' war dead? Whose side are you on, girl? You can't be one of Helen's handmaids. They all hail from darkest Afri-key. Are you a Greek slave in the royal household of Priam like old Joseph, the Israelite, when he gone down to Pharaoh’s house in Egypt's land? Did the Trojan scum swipe you from the cradle as a babe and raise you up to be thinkin' you were one of 'em? Nay, it can't be. You were born and weaned in Ma-ce-do-ni-yar as sure as I'm a sailor what were knowin' the difference 'tween an oar and an oarmaster!"
Lila's interlocutor let out a loud, battle-weary laugh and the other veteran fighters joined in.
"I don't deny that I'm a Greek or that I hail from Macedonia," Lila cried. "I know little of your war or the reasons for it. I've simply come to claim a body to return to Ilium for a proper burial."
"Wherefore were you in league with these Trojan swine, maid? Wherefore ridin' in a car what were flyin' Ilium's tawny colors?" the crowd around the bier began to demand an explanation. "Do you know the fate what were like to befall whores and harlots what betray their native land and give aid and comfort to the enemy? Would you rather get banged by the gang of us, lass, or take us on one at a triflin' time?"
"I've come to claim a body. That's all I’ve come to do," Lila said, oddly unafraid of these admittedly brave yet, in some ways, gross and pathetic men who'd departed -- or fled -- their families and villages, leaving them, for an extended period of time, in the care of women, children and old men who, in turn, due to these men's absence, had to contend, often in deadly peril, with parasitic warlords like Latrinus.
"Maybe we'll be claimin' us a body as well, and it won't be a dead one. Leastwise, not at first," one of the soldiers guffawed and some of the others followed suit.
"You'll claim neither more nor less than is justly your due as soldiers pledged to uphold the dignity of the House of Atreus," a deep voice rang out behind the gathering crowd. "A good supper, a warm bed, a night's well-earned sleep and report to duty first thing in the morning. That and nothing more."
Heads turned to see Diomedes coming down the rise from his tent. Though worn out to the point of exhaustion from the day's hard fought contest, Diomedes had lost none of his air of authority as he approached the funeral wagon.
"I believe we dined together in my tent last night," Diomedes smiled at Lila.
"And a fine dinner it was," Lila acknowledged Diomedes' greeting. Despite the pain in her grieving heart, Lila's battered spirit couldn't help feeling slightly soothed by the gentleman commander.
"I must say: you seem to share with Xena and your sister a facility for showing up in dangerous times at dangerous places," Diomedes smiled. "Fortunately, you possess a charm equal to that of the Warrior Princess and her dear companion. But now that hostilities have re-commenced, Lila, I can't insure your safety should you continue to traverse this open, bloody plain."
"Xena, you say? The lass were acquainted with the Warrior Princess?" the soldiers' eyes widened with a respectful demur as they stepped back to give Lila and her driver some breathing space.
"I daresay quite well acquainted," Diomedes said. "What brings you to us on the heels of the day’s hard-fought battle, Lila?"
"I've come for the body of Penthesileia, to unite her with her sisters in a proper Amazon burial," Lila said. "As I'm led to believe that I'm under your sole jurisdiction, Diomedes, I request that you accompany me to Achilles' tent and support my plea on behalf of all that's decent, just and worthy of honorable men in battle."
"Achilles keeps his own counsel," Diomedes called to Lila who was perched on the car's platform. "He’s not under my command. He answers only to Agammemnon."
"Then I shall plead with him myself," Lila said and gave the driver the order to turn the wagon around and proceed further down the beach to Achilles colorful pavilion.
"Lila," Diomedes called across the dunes, and Lila had the driver rein in the horses. "I'll have a patrol accompany you. I want no repetition of the ill fortune that befell the Amazons when I'd promised them safe passage to Tenedos. And you may tell Achilles that I've approved your request and that I urge his compliance."
"Thank you, Diomedes," Lila called back as a dozen men queued up to escort Lila to Achilles' tent. "Perhaps one day, in Tiryns, at Queen Admete's hall, we'll meet again."
"I look forward to it," Diomedes smiled.
"And one thing more," Lila said as a bare afterthought. "You have, in the Poteidaian Company that's under your command, four young men: Perdicas and Andros, who are cousins, and Galen and Menarchos, who are brothers. Would you happen to know if they survived today's bloody contest?"
"If you’ll wait for just a turn of the sandglass," Diomedes replied, calling for one of his adjutants to hand him a scroll which he unrolled and scanned. "I don't see those names listed under the members of the Poteidaian Company who fell today... or, let's see, the Pallene Brigade... or, let me check... this will take a few falling sand grains... the Chalkidiki Regiment... No, I don't see them listed among the dead. Of course, the scroll may be incomplete."
"They're good men," Lila said. "They come from good families. Poor but honest peasant farmers. The salt of the earth. Just thought I’d mention."
Then Lila went on her way, and though her presence provoked stares and occasional catcalls as the bier bumped along the grassy dunes, she arrived at Achilles' grand tent without further incident.
The tent was a large, canvas-sided hut supported by multiple poles and stakes that divided the interior into rooms: a spacious entrance and quarters for eating, sleeping, bathing, even a room for massage which led out back to a sweat lodge in whose dark interior hot water was poured over heated stones to create a dense and cloudy curtain of steam.
Lila got down from the car and, instructing the driver to wait, she approached the entrance to the tent whose wide, parti-colored flaps were open and, oddly, to Lila's mind, unguarded.
Lila paused at the threshold and peered inside. Lost in thought, a huge, beautifully sculptured man, well-proportioned in every line and curve of his body, each well-defined muscle distinct and gleaming, was seated on a low divan covered with the fur of wild animal pelts. His arms were bare to the shoulders and his torso was covered only in a loose, white mantle which exposed his sides and a good portion of his back. He wore leggings of a thin, mauve-colored pongee material through which his knees, thighs, even the outlines of his large and, Lila couldn't help but notice, lovely genitals were visible.
Reclining at what looked to be his ease, though even while seated, he was plainly of a tall and immense physique, this statuesque presence was perhaps the handsomest man that Lila had ever seen. His body was scented with pleasant herbs and aromatic oils. His long, light brown hair, with a light curl at the ends, was brushed and combed. He had obviously just bathed. Lila stood at the tent's entrance slightly in awe of the silent, peaceful reverie within and of the man whose stature radiated that peaceful silence, upon whose brow Lila could easily visualize the crown of laurels awarded to those who'd proved most swift, strong and graceful on the battlefield or in the athletic stadium.
"I can sense your magnetism from twenty paces away," Lila spoke.
Achilles looked up, then turned his head in the direction of Lila's voice. Calm, serene, outwardly untroubled, here was a man who looked to have all the time in the world and who need never fear sudden intrusion nor undue surprise.
Achilles sighed and returned his gaze to the object, wrapped in white linen sheeting, upon which he'd previously fixed his contemplative gaze. "Be not deceived by appearances," Achilles said in a voice as rich in suggestive nuance as were his face, body and casual, offhand gestures.
"I'm usually not," Lila held her ground.
"A woman and a Greek," Achilles said with just the hint of a smile. "And one who isn't Xena."
"Are you surprised?" Lila said.
"There's little that surprises me any longer," Achilles said. "Although today carried its share of unforeseen encounters."
"You look rather young to sound so jaded," Lila said.
"Youth is a relative term," Achilles said, still seated. "Measured by the interval which extends from the cradle to the grave, I'm a very old man. And if the span of mortal life be three score and ten, then the lifeless form that lies before me aged a full two score and more in the course of a single day."
Lila looked at the mass of linen sheeting that lay on low stretcher in front of Achilles. "May I see her?"
Achilles nodded and motioned for Lila to approach. Lila walked forward on spongy legs and when she arrived at the edge of the stretcher, her knees gave way. She sunk down and might have collapsed on the floor but for the easiest gesture of her host whose left arm reached out and effortlessly supported her weight as he guided her gently to a crouching position.
Lila stared for the fall of two, possibly three sand grains at the face and neck and shoulders which she'd known so briefly, yet felt she'd known so well. Then a wave of intense pain rolled up through her throat from deep in her belly. "Ohhh...," she moaned. "Ohh, yes, it is you. Oh, my lady. Oh, my love..."
Then tears clouded Lila's eyes as she reached out her hand and swept it gently along the curve of the beautiful, bronze cheek and along the straight, proud jaw, then the long, glorious neck and down to the breastbone and the V between the linen coverings that shielded her wound and her modesty.
"My darling...," Lila whispered through her tears, "my queen."
Then Lila buried her head on Penthesileia's breast, the right breast, the remaining breast, and wept while Achilles sat as still as a stone, making safe the space around her.
A turn or two of the sandglass later, Lila looked up through a film of tears and ran her hands along the contours of the body under its linen wrappings. The body hadn't stiffened, nor did it omit any odor other than the oil and balsam in which it had been bathed. Then Lila rose up over the face, leaned down and kissed Penthesileia on the lips.
"Would that you might return my kiss, dear one," Lila said softly. "Then let my kisses suffice for us both." And Lila kissed the fallen queen again.
Lila turned to look at Achilles. "Xena told me she didn't suffer, is that true?"
Achilles nodded. "I snapped her like a twig, not knowing it was a her. A bold lad, I thought, who'd disported himself well in the midst of furor and thunder. I urged him to beg off, cajoled, pleaded. Yet he... she... was determined to make me the instrument of her death. Why?"
"She made you the agent of the ultimate act of dignity that it's been given to mortals to perform," Lila said, quietly. "To defy the Fates in the name of freedom."
"And to go down to dusty death in the process?" Achilles said.
"If need be," Lila gazed at the face of her beloved and, moving gently, spoke softly so as not to awaken her from her peaceful slumber.
"She’s very beautiful," Achilles said. "I believe I saw her eyes change color as a cloud passed across the sun."
"You did," Lila said. "Rest, my love," Lila spoke to the body that had been Penthesileia, "and may you even now be rejoicing in the loving arms of your sisters."
Then Lila and Achilles sat together in silence while the tent flaps rattled lightly in the breeze.
"May I take her now?" Lila said after the turn of several sandglasses.
Achilles nodded. They rose and Achilles swept Penthesileia up in his arms and carried her out to the bier where he laid her tenderly on the pallet which Lila had prepared to receive the body.
"Xena hinted, in the midst of the battle, that there might be something higher and more noble to give one’s life for than a measure of honor and glory," Achilles looked down at Lila whom he dwarfed with the ease of his gracious might. "She said I might learn what that something was by gazing on the face of this beautiful Amazon queen. Such a notion goes against the grain of my upbringing, I who fear no man, not even the one who's destined to slay me. But I have a question for you, although I don't know your name or how you've come to be here. Would you have died for her this day had the choice been yours?"
Lila closed her eyes and thought. "Yes and no," she finally said.
Achilles sighed. "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is the code I've always lived by. Now I'm not so sure," Achilles said as Lila climbed aboard. "You'll bury her with honors?"
"The highest," Lila said.
"Go, then, and be safe," Achilles said. "But attend to it quickly. Who knows what manner of mischief the coming night may forebode."
With those words of warning ringing in her hears, Lila brought Penthesileia back to Ilium's walls to join her sisters in death.
The heavens were red and gray when the funeral cortege assembled outside the gates to light the immense pyre on which a dozen plus one brave Amazon fighters were to be cremated. Their ashes were then to be interred in the tomb of Laomedon with Ilium's greatest heroes.
The eulogies for Penthesileia were brief.
"I couldn't have loved her better if she'd been my own daughter," King Priam spoke from the dais.
"She set an example of the greatness of soul to which a queen -- or a king -- might aspire," Xena spoke next.
"Her love was a gift that I'll cherish forever," Lila spoke last.
The King lit the pyre and, as it burned, Xena chanted a slow, haunting dirge. When the crackling flames were at their height, Lila stepped forward and approached as near to the pyre as she could. She took from her pocket the necklace of thin, golden filigree on which were strung the seven kernels of corn, the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual bond that had bound her to the enaretes kores through the years of her blood and soul innocence. Along with the delicate diadem of seven bright stars which she'd removed from Penthesileia's brow, Lila tossed the necklace onto the roaring inferno. "Eirineo...," Lila whispered as she felt the two bright diamonds at the buckle of the jeweled belt she was wearing begin to pulse in tandem as though, through their mutually reinforcing agency, they had just miraculously germinated and come alive.
When the blaze had at last extinguished, several candlemarks into the night, and the area around the pyre, as wide as a small hay meadow, had cooled down, Lila picked through the charred remains, gathering a portion of Penthesileia's ashes into a small, clay amphora to be brought to the Amazons of Themiscyra so that they might scatter them over the pores of what was left of their earth like salt in the wounds of bitter grief and burning sorrow.
|Continued - Chapter 74|
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