In flickering torchlight, Xena stood on the colonnaded belvedere that overlooked the mall and courtyard. Night had fallen on Ilium. Dull, yellow light from oil lamps shone in many private windows and public doorways. Glassy lantern flame glided along the curbs of wide avenues. Families had gathered to mourn the loss of fallen loved ones. Dispensaries were crowded with the sick and wounded. Laughter and merriment had concealed themselves and could not be coaxed out of hiding. Sounds of music and dance had fled with the Corybantes. Cybele, the Phrygian Gaiamitros, had gone on holiday with her lovers, leaving the land barren and wasted. Like the Rose of Sharon shriveled in a chink of stone or the Lily of the Valley besieged by drought in a crevice, Ilium, the flower of Asia, had withered in the final petal-twinkling of its glory.
Gabrielle stood silently by Xena's side. A turn of the sandglass passed and then another. "You’ve got something on your mind," Gabrielle said, softly.
With her eyes on the broad avenue and the distant telesteria, her voice dreamy in the darkness, Xena said, "I was just thinking of the day that you got kidnapped and I got blinded and had to drag that headstrong, young Palaemon around by the collar to be my eyes. Do you remember way back when?"
"How could I forget," Gabrielle grimaced. "That wretched Apex forced me to marry a dead king, then went and stuck me into a casket and tried to crank me into the oven."
"While I couldn't see two paces in front of me," Xena recalled with a plaintive smile.
"You could have lost your sight forever by not going after the antidote," Gabrielle said. "Yet you chose to risk giving up your sight in order to rescue me."
"And remember when they hung Meleager on the scaffold and then they pulled the lever and down he went to find himself wobbling on my shoulders where I was hiding under the platform?" Xena chuckled. "We lived pretty close the edge in those days, didn't we?"
Gabrielle nodded. "And the time I went to see Mnemosyne and waded through the River of Wailing and the River of Woe with Ares on my tail every step of the way, trying every trick he knew to get me to abandon you."
"Do you think those experiences have made us better people?" Xena turned to Gabrielle with the smile still lingering on her face.
"I'm sure of it," Gabrielle put her arm around Xena's waist. "They've made us stronger and more committed to each other."
Xena nodded and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. The two companions stood quietly under the wavering pall of the torches, staring out at the long, dark night of Ilium.
"Where's Lila?" Xena said after a silent interval.
"Down in the garden. She said she needed some time to be alone," Gabrielle said.
Xena nodded and looked out over the dimly lit city. "It's quiet out there. Too quiet."
"Any idea what’s going on?" Gabrielle said, noticing how wide the market square was now that it was bare of vendor's stalls, clothes racks, bakery carts, ceramic displays.
"I'm not sure," Xena said. "But I definitely have the feeling that something's up."
Just then, Joxer and Cressida came tripping along.
"You guys up for a game of Hearts?" Joxer's face brightened when he saw Xena and Gabrielle. "Tonight’s my big chance to stick Gabby with the Queen."
"I think you did that when you asked me to show Jace around Melodia after I busted out of the cage that Draco locked me in," Gabrielle said.
"Ha, ha; aren't you a card," Joxer made a peevish face.
"Ssh," Xena held up her hand, sensing the silent movement of a huge presence advancing in the darkness toward the city. "They're coming."
"Who's coming?' Gabrielle perked up her ears but was able to detect only the slight, wispy, unremarkable sounds of the night.
"The Argives are on the march," Xena said.
Gabrielle listened again. "You sure? I can't hear a th..."
Xena again put a finger to her lips. "They're not wasting any time. If they're gonna strike, and I’m sure they are, they know that now's their best shot. C'mon, we've got to kick our evacuation plan into gear."
"But even if they sneak up and surround the city walls, how're they gonna force their way in?" Gabrielle wanted to know. "Give Aeneas and the Trojans a couple, three days to get back on their feet, and maybe we can focus on what comes next. You said these guys did great out there today." "They did," Xena said. "That's why it makes good sense for Agammemnon to make his move now."
"And try and knock down the walls? Or storm the turrets?" Gabrielle said. "If Agammemnon’s forces could've done that, they'd've busted these big, heavy gates down a long time ago. And the three of you just blew up their top secret weapon."
"I know. That's why I figure that something we haven’t planned on is starting to roll in at this very turn of the sandglass," Xena said, becoming alert and decisive. "Quick, get Lila. Joxer, get ready to move people into the tunnels."
"What about me, Xena?" Cressida said as Joxer took off down the wide stairwell to begin rallying the marshalls.
"Go help Joxer. If anybody has a problem with that, tell ‘em I've made you Joxer’s second in command," Xena barked her orders.
"Got it," Cressida said and took off down the stairs.
"Are you sure you wanna have her do that?" Gabrielle looked questioningly at Xena. "That's a lot of responsibility for a boy-crazy teenager."
"I'm starting to think that Cressida's got potential," Xena said. "It was Cressida who blew up the horse."
"That hip hop groupie who thinks that Jox is the cat’s pajamas?" Gabrielle's eyes got wide. "You gotta be kidding."
"Well, it was her and me together, I guess. But at the very last fall of the final sand grain, just as the blow from the sniper’s sword was swinging down to smash the box and the detonating mechanism into a zillion pieces, I had the weirdest feeling that Ka’o Hsin was there; blending into Cressida and me and then the two of us into one another," Xena said. "Cressida felt it too. I see a different look on her face and in her eyes now. More serious. More grounded. Anyhow, we gotta move. I've got to check in with Cassandra. If what I’m sensing turns out to be true, we're gonna have to hit the exits running and we won’t have much time to clear the zone. Mobilize the defenders and meet me at ground zero."
"You’re on," Gabrielle took off down the long, deserted corridor.
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted after her.
"What...!" Gabrielle stopped and whirled around.
"Have the unit leaders report to Joxer and have him to report to you. I want you to take charge of the evacuation like you did in Chin," Xena called out.
"What will you be doing in the meantime?" Gabrielle back.
"Going to get Helen once I've checked in with Cassandra. Don’t forget: after you've busted out of the underground, run like the wind and keep heading east. Don't turn south."
"Roger!" Gabrielle shouted and took off to sound the alarm.
As Xena scurried along the balustrade and then through the hallways of the royal apartments, searching for Cassandra's suite, she began to hear a faint, moaning sound coming from outside the mighty gates. At first, it was a low hum. A single syllable, round and steady, going "Ohhmmm...," just... "Ohhmm..." Xena dashed over to a skinny, rectangular, tracery window in the body of the castle wall and looked down at the surrounding plain, trying to make out the source of that round, enveloping sound. In the intermittent moonlight, scrimmed by long, flat, rapidly passing clouds, Xena caught sight of a vast company of enemy troops, veering in a broad sweep around the circumference of Ilium's massive walls, weapons in hand, armor in place. An entire division must have assembled on the west face alone, files that were twenty deep in wide, endless ranks.
From her prior reconnaissance, Xena was aware that the Argive forces on the dunes and beaches of Scamander's sweeping delta numbered nearly six divisions with another four divisions packed together like sardines on Tenedos awaiting transport to the mainland and the broad plain below Ilium. Ten divisions! To take a single city! All the armies that Xena had ever commanded or, for that matter, the armies of the warlords with whom she'd contended, including Tyldus' crack Centaur units at the Battle of Corinth, probably added up to little more than a division. That's how vast was the sea of men under arms who'd responded, in this tenth year of unrelenting warfare, to the call of the House of Atreus to join in the campaign to topple and plunder the might of Ilium, the gateway to the east and the guardian of the pathways to riches far grander than might ever be contemplated by King Minos of the Golden Hand on the far away on the island of Crete.
From this enormous outpouring of knights and squires and vassals and pages of the realm came the gradual, building, rolling sound of "Ohhmmm...", its vibrations surrounding the giant walls, erected by Poseidon himself, enwrapping them in an unrelenting wave flow of echoing sound growing louder and more insistent with each passing turn of the sandglass.
All over the city, from the most modest peasant hovel to the royal residences, people came wandering out of doors with stunned or troubled looks on their faces. What was this wild, maniacal sound that had come to envelop them so that, turn wherever they might, the identical vibration, always mounting, ever burgeoning, was ringing, pounding, crashing in their ears? No variation, no alternation of rhythm, no aspirating pattern of a chant: only an endless "Ohhmmm..."
Xena came, at last, to Cassandra's quarters where she found the prophetess standing calmly on the balcony, her lovely neck and round shoulders, above her scant, slanted peplos open to the night air as the volume and persistence of the unending, churning "Ohhmmm..." continued to diffuse through the darkness and the dreadful, moonlit night of Ilium on the day of its valiant defeat. Never had Cassandra looked more lovely, her skin as smooth as ivory, her strawberry blonde hair loose below the nape of her neck, her jeweled earrings and necklace gleaming, the small, well-proportioned features of her very pretty face composed as though waiting patiently for the arrival of a fair and noble lover who'd braved the ignominy of death just to kneel at her feet and beg to caress her hand.
"Tell me what's happening," Xena burst in abruptly to find Cassandra glowing in the moonlight. "Gabrielle's sounding the alarm to begin the evacuation. I need to know if the time has come to light out for the plains and the forest."
Cassandra turned and smiled at Xena, her eyes glowing amber, like a cat's, in the silver shards of moonlight. And then, as though Cassandra were communicating telepathically, an echo of her previous warning sounded a deep reverberation in Xena's spirit: Beware the horse that has no rider. Beware the bow that has no arrow. Beware the sound that makes no noise.
Xena's eyes spoke to Cassandra's. The horse that had no rider must have been the monster contraption with which Odysseus had hoped to fool the people of Ilium by loading it full of Argive troops who might be dragged through the open gate and into the unsuspecting city. The bow that had no arrow must have been the bow that Philoctetes had prevailed upon Lila to bring to Diomedes in fulfillment of the prophesy that Ilium could not be taken until Hercules' bow had found its way to the Argive camp on Scamander's hard-packed plain.
"But what’s the sound that makes no noise?" Xena's ice-blue eyes sought out Cassandra's warm amber glow. "All I hear is the strange, uproarious din that now bathes the city."
"Think of the cracks in the walls deep within the city's foundation, Xena," Cassandra spoke in her deceptively youngish girl's voice. "Do you recall their mysterious pattern?"
"My notes and charts showed them to be shaped in human form," Xena moved onto the balcony to stand next to Cassandra.
"The outline of a homunculus," Cassandra had to raise her voice to be heard. "A pictorial representation of man's inner being. The correspondence works by sympathetic magic. Prick the doll and the skin will bleed. Split the foundation and the walls will topple. Split them the way you'd spilt a man. How would you split a man, Xena?"
"With my sword or chakram," Xena shouted in the face of the tremulous fury of "Ohhmmm..." that was ricocheting beneath and around them.
"Magically, how would you do it?" Cassandra said.
"I don't know. Lao Ma never taught me magic," Xena cried.
"Yet you shattered vases," Cassandra said. "You shattered a vase for Ka’o Hsin as a way of demonstrating for her that Lao Ma's power was still alive in you. What did you focus on when you shattered the vase? Was it the vase itself?"
"No," Xena said. "In the beginning, with Lao Ma, it was; but then I stopped willing the vase to shatter."
"And what did you do when you stopped willing the vase to shatter?" Cassandra said.
"My will became one with the emptiness inside the vase," Xena said, "and I drew the vase's emptiness out of it."
"And what happened then?" Cassandra said.
"Then, when the vase had been emptied of its emptiness, its shell imploded because there was nothing there," Xena said.
"And what was the sound of the vase's emptiness being emptied?" Cassandra said.
"Silence," Xena said.
"So beware the sound that makes no noise," Cassandra said.
"Because at the instant of silence, the vase -- the city walls -- implode," Xena said.
"And if the city walls rest on their foundation," Cassandra said, "and if the foundation is in the shape of a man and if man, foundation and wall are magically joined..."
"Then the walls cave in when the vibration of the sound attains the frequency of the souls of the men and women who live and love and laugh and cry within those walls," Xena said.
"And the sound that vibrates with the wavelength of the soul," Cassandra said, "and can thus shatter the body as though the body -- its walls, its foundation -- were nothing but an imploding vase..."
"Is silence," Xena completed the thought.
"So that when the sound attains the silence...," Cassandra said.
"The sound actually goes infinite and becomes a deafening roar," Xena said.
"And...," Cassandra said.
"The walls cave in on their foundation," Xena said.
"Hear the loud roar, Xena," Cassandra looked out over the moonlit plain. "Hear how it builds in breadth and intensity."
"But how do they know how to do this?" Xena had to bellow to be heard.
"All that you have from Lao Ma, in the end, is the hard-earned, freely given gift of love," Cassandra shouted. "Achilles was given the secret all at once and gratis when he chose a brief and glorious life. As soon as this roaring blast attains the silence, Achilles will die, but you, Xena, will live to a glory that cannot die! Lao Ma loved you as you loved her!"
Just as Cassandra spoke those words, the deafening barrage of the penetrating "Ohhmmm..." suddenly ceased, and a dread silence reigned throughout the length and breadth of Ilium. Then, breaking the silence, came a fierce, lurid wail from down in the courtyard, a loud, disconsolate cry that pierced Xena's heart. The high screech, followed by the long, palavering shriek, gradually tailed off into the silence.
"Achilles has fallen," Cassandra turned and spoke softly to Xena, "taken treacherously from behind by an arrow shot from Paris' bow."
At that instant, Diomedes raised and drew back the heavy string on Hercules' bow and let fly with a poisoned arrow that struck Paris in the side and spelled, shortly thereafter, Paris' own death. Again, a loud cry split the silence.
"Go to Helen. Quickly," Cassandra said. "Entrust her to Deiphobus. He'll look after her on the journey. Who knows but if Deiphobus' love should prove strong, selfless and true, Helen might one day requite him of it."
"Come with us," Xena said. "Join us in flight until we’ve had the chance to collect ourselves and think of a way out of this mess."
"No, Xena, my place is here until the end," Cassandra said.
"I don't want to leave you behind," Xena pleaded. "Stay close to me. I'll shelter and protect you."
"I know that you would do that," Cassandra said. "But the Fates have decreed a destiny for each of us. Mine is to fall by the hand of Clytemnestra, the Queen of the House of Atreus, after having given birth to twins fathered by Agammemnon who will take me for his mistress, as spoils of war, and will impregnate me shortly after. My death will presage his own death at the hands of his queen who will then fall when her son, aided by her daughter, avenges their father's death. Thus will fall the House of Atreus to be buried forever in time's merciless rubble.
"You have a different destiny, Xena. Yours is to set those who survive this night's carnage on a new path to a new beginning in a new home. And you're to be known hereafter as kyria kardiamegalos, the great-hearted lady who repented of her evil ways and devoted the remainder of her life to doing battle on behalf of the good, the powerless and the just, you and your courageous companion. Go, Xena. Don’t delay. Take Aeneas, even if he resists and thinks he wants to play the martyr. From his loins will spring the seed of Ilium that will grow to become a great nation."
"What of your father, King Priam?" Xena said.
"The King will not make the journey with you," Cassandra said. "Here he lived in the modest splendor that befit a kind and noble ruler. Here will he die in the turmoil of his city’s destruction."
The walls began to shake. The floor began to shimmy. All around them came the rattling of stone and the crumbling of mortar.
"What's happening now?" Xena looked around in alarm.
"The voice of the victors has meshed with the vibration of the human configuration of the cracks in the city's foundation," Cassandra said. "That's why we're hearing the illusion of silence. The emptiness of mortal pride and human folly has been withdrawn from the city's soul, and the glory that was Ilium is imploding like a delicately painted, porcelain vase. Go, Xena. You haven't much time."
Then the walls began to shatter and the mouldings along the ceiling began to fall and crash while the bracings which held the roof in place began to crack and splinter.
"In a mere turn of the sandglass, the hosts of the enemy will be fighting their way through the rubble, along streets and alleys, putting every living thing to the sword save those whom they choose to sell into slavery or keep for playthings. Go, Xena, now! Hye! Kye! Chairetismata!"
Though she desperately wanted to rescue Cassandra from certain slavery and death, Xena never lost sight of her duty to the King and the people. With a cry of love and affection for the doomed prophetess of Ilium, Xena went tearing through the quaking, twisting wreckage of the grand palace a bare step ahead of the falling rafters and cascading walls to arrive at the mall and courtyard where Gabrielle, Lila and Joxer, assisted by Cressida, had assembled the squads of bewildered and frightened civilians and soldiers along with their loved ones and children.
"To the tunnels! Now!" Xena cried as leaping pillars of flame began to break out in various quarters of the city's marketplaces and residences, from the central square of the sprawling commercial district to the surrounding telesteria now deserted of troop movements, athletic contests, dramatic performances, seasonal fairs and weekly socials. "Alpha through Lamda, follow Gabrielle and Lila underground to the Tymbrian Gate! Mu through Zeta, follow Joxer and Cressida through the opposite passages to the Ilias Gate! Use your waterskins to dampen the cloths you'll need to cover your faces for the smoke! When you get to the exits, hit the open plain running! Head for the fringe of woods nearest the city walls and don’t look back! Where's Deiphobus?!"
"Gone to get Helen!" Gabrielle cried.
"Saves me a trip! What about Troilus and Helenus?!" Xena shouted even as the porches and arcades with their teetering columns began to wobble and fall.
"Gone to see to the King!" Cressida cried.
"Go!" Xena hollered above the obstreperous din. "Don't wait for me! I'll catch up with you later! Keep heading north and east once you clear the gates! And run for all your worth!"
The evacuation began in earnest as the people of Ilium, after ten long years of courageous struggle through which they'd managed, in spite of all difficulty, to maintain their high spirits, good humor, unobtrusive generosity and warm love of life, fled through the dark, subterranean maze with their pursuers hot on their heels even as the city which had been their home came shattering down around them. The armed soldiery brought up the rear with Gabrielle swinging her sais and taking command as they fended off their attackers, getting some badly needed assistance, now and again, from the clogged shafts and crumbling tunnel walls that seemed to be chasing the fleeing Trojans a mere step -- yet ever a life-supporting step -- behind them until finally, with pinpoints of heavenly light visible in the distance, they attained the opening onto the wide plain where an even greater danger awaited them, through the dark travail, in the form of the horses and chariots of the striking Argive cavalry.
As Xena ran across the tree-shaded parterre to the royal suites and meeting rooms, she encountered Deiphobus leading a frightened Helen through the cacophony of spilling debris.
"Xena!" Helen cried in her sweet, youthful voice, her brown skin gleaming, the black, loosely coiled ringlets of her long hair sitting on her bare neck and resting on her covered breasts. "I'm so ashamed. I never meant for all these terrible things to happen!"
"It's not your fault, Helen. None of this is your fault," Xena cried. "Go with Deiphobus. Into the tunnels. Quick!"
"What’s happened to Paris? I heard he'd been shot," Helen cried, gripping Deiphobus by the arm.
"Paris is dead, yes," Xena said.
"Paris has long been dead to me," Helen said as smoke began to rise around them.
"I know," Xena said softly. "Helen: you've got to decide. Do you want to go back to Menelaus? He'll take you, no questions asked. You'll be safe with him. He's at the gate, calling your name."
Helen shook her head. "I’d rather die with the rest of you."
"Then run for all your worth," Xena said. "Deiphobus, do you know the way underground to the Tymbrian Gate?"
"I do," Deiphobus, very focused and prepared to defend his beautiful charge to the best of his ability, looked Xena squarely in the eye.
"Then fly like the wind," Xena said. And to Helen. "He's a brave soul. Let him guide you."
Helen took a deep breath, grabbed hold of Deiphobus' arm and together they lit out for the tunnels.
Knowing that she was about to be surrounded -- and discovered -- by a greater number of Argive marauders than she could hope to fend off, Xena fought down a very unaccustomed urge to panic; and, mindful of the duty for which she'd volunteered, she bulled her way through the mounting detritus of crumbling walls and fractured buttresses to the royal apartments where she found Aeneas engaged in fiery combat, laying low, with the might of his arm, one Argive invader after the next.
"Aeneas!" Xena cried through the dust and debris. "It's too late to make a stand! Our only hope lies in flight!"
"Wretches and cowards!" Aeneas cried. "They have no honor, Xena! They’ve cut down women and children! Slaughtered them in cold blood!" Aeneas rammed the blade of his sword into the belly of an Argive contender who fell dead at his feet as his guts spilled out on the floor. "Ajax has raped and flogged the beautiful Cassandra and has borne her away as a bauble to crude Agammemnon to use as his sex toy!" Aeneas' blade sheared the head and helmet from another Argive attacker. "In the sight of his wailing mother, Andromache, the Achaean swine hurled Astyanax, Hector's son, from the high battlement where his little body shattered to bits on the ground!" Aeneas drove the tip of his sword into the side of yet a third oncomer, carving his heart out of his breast and leaving him leaning lifeless against a post. "And Neoptolemus, the foul vermin of Achilles' loins, has mercilessly slain the King where the fond old man had taken refuge on the altar of Cybele! Let's battle our way in there, Xena, and hack the stinking coward to bits!"
It stung Xena's heart to hear how King Priam had met his end. The finest king she'd ever known, a monarch -- and there were precious few -- whom she could respect as a daughter might respect a wise and caring father.
"I share your rage, Aeneas, believe me, I do!" Xena cried, drawing her sword and getting ready to take her own swipes at the Argive onrush. "But we've got to go! I can't allow you to martyr yourself!"
"Why not!" Aeneas cried, battling. "I'll go down fighting as the commander of his troops ought to do in the candlemark of their defeat! Better to lose one's life than lose one's honor!"
"Agreed!" Xena cried, now parrying and thrusting alongside Aeneas, the two of them standing off the better part of a platoon. "But you're fated to lose neither life nor honor this night! Cassandra told me to take you with us! A great nation is destined to spring from your loins!"
"A great nation -- the one I care about -- is falling all around me!" Aeneas cried as another Argive charger bit the dust. "Let me give my life for it as Hector did!"
"It takes a brave man to fight and die for what he believes in, no argument there!" Xena shouted, reverse thrusting and skewering the ribs of the attacker who'd run up behind her. "But it takes an ever braver man to struggle to live with grief and sorrow. Your people are crying out for a leader. Don't desert them in their candlemark of need!"
Xena's words at last struck home, and Aeneas began to retreat into the arcade with Xena at his side, the two of them, coordinating their hacks and thrusts, strewing the tiles with the sliced bodies and spilled blood of their opponents.
"My father," Aeneas cried, "he's hidden himself within. If I'm to go, I can't leave him behind."
Aeneas ducked into a side chapel and barged through the door of the sacristy where his grayhaired father, Anchises, was hunched under an altar whose flat stone had thus far protected him from the falling capitals and collapsing pediments of the surrounding loggia.
"Come, father," Aeneas reached out to gather the ailing Anchises into his arms. "Xena says it's time for us to go. Though we're stumbling badly this night, our race is not yet run, though only the gods know where the next leg of it might lie."
Anchises rose and tried to walk but faltered and nearly fell, his legs weak and his mind hazy in the midst of choking dust and nattering debris. So Aeneas, sheathing his sword, swept his father up from the floor and mounted him on his shoulders to follow Xena, who led the way as their escort, toward the tunnels. It was slow going, and, at one point, their progress was impeded by a bank of Argive mercenaries with swords drawn and spears at the ready.
"Well, Xena and Aeneas, what a lucky find. Say your prayers, losers. You belong to us now!" the Argive leader grinned. "Use your head and surrender, and you’ll spare yourselves an instant death, the two of you and that old man. Agammemnon will be pleased when he sees the treasure we've brought him, and we'll be rewarded well for our efforts this night. Your sword, Xena, hand it over."
Eyeing the precarious balance of the roof beam and seeing that the apse of the chamber was about to come crashing down, being held aloft by a single, remaining roof joist, Xena snapped her chakram off her belt and, shouting, "Sorry to disappoint you, boys...!", flung it up to the ceiling where it split the main support, caromed over to the joist that was holding up the apse, rent the arch in two, then bounced off the pillar nearest to their would-be captors, causing the pillar to wobble off its base and then to teeter and fall with a crunch, burying the Argive mercenaries forever under the tonnage of the roof that came kabooming down on top of them.
"Come on!" Xena hollered as she stuck the chakram back on her belt. Then the three of them dashed onto the landing and down the last functioning stairwell that took them to the entrance to the tunnels. Thus, regarding Aeneas, was fulfilled the words of the bard, echoing down the ages, "Of arms and the man, I sing, who, upon his shoulders, from the burning walls of Troy, did his father, the aged Anchises, bear; forced by fate and cruel exile to flee his beloved Ilium, scion of a brave and noble race..."
Even as the walls of the great city toppled to be overrun by the invading Argive host, to the shrill accompaniment of the slaughter and rapine of the defenseless hordes within, many of whom, if spared, were taken captive and ferreted away to slavery and destitution, the survivors who’d managed to escape scrambled out of the labyrinthine tunnels onto the broad plain of the Scamander under the rippling light of the full moon occasionally shrouded by rapidly passing clouds.
"Run for it!" Gabrielle cried, rallying those who'd made it through the tunnels, the laggards having been lost to volleys of Argive swords and spears in the dark, twisting passageways. With Gabrielle and Lila, Joxer and Cressida leading the way, accompanied by Deiphobus who was urging Helen to scamper; also Troilus and Helenus who'd been unable to battle their way into their father's quarters in time to save the old King and so, reluctantly, had had to turn back, the fleeing Trojan remnant dashed across the plain, easy pickings to be massacred by the Argive cavalry whose horses and riders, weapons brandished in the silver sting of the moonlight, came bearing down upon them just as Xena, with Aeneas, carrying Anchises, came popping up, like groundhogs, out of the farthest tunnel.
"Try and catch up with the others," Xena commanded Aeneas. "I'll stand these rumbling chariots off for as long as I can."
Aeneas scurried ahead, and soon the mass of Trojan survivors were dashing across the windy plain as though walls of water on either side of them had parted to let them scurry through. But there were no walls of water to rush in on the hot pursuit of the Argive cavalry as the horses and riders of the enemy bore down upon them; and there was no way that even the swiftest of the men and women of Ilium who were now running for their lives could hope to reach the cover of the forest in time to save themselves.
Gabrielle, Lila, Joxer, Cressida and the entire body of fleeing, Trojan humanity were racing defenseless across the plain about to be encircled and cut down by the thundering hooves and grinding wheels of the relentlessly looming agents of wanton death and merciless destruction.
"Is this what's it's all been for!" Xena shrieked inwardly as she drew her sword and turned to face the oncoming host. "Ten long sunmarks of struggle. The loss of so many good and brave souls: Velasca, Penthesileia, a dozen bold Amazons, Memnon, Hector, King Priam. Cassandra taken captive. The jewel of Phrygia gone up in smoke and flames. To have endured all this only to die like dogs at the very end, trapped on the open plain with no way to cover the final hundred paces to the forest and the least shred of a hope for another day's safety. For Agammemnon? For the House of Atreus? For the glory of an empire founded upon oppression, slavery and theft? The gods aren’t simply unjust, they're beneath contempt!"
The Argive horses and chariots closed in and were about to begin the casual slaughter of the fleeing remnant of Ilium when suddenly, in a swirl of moonlight, the lead car came whipping past Xena on the verge of entering the midst of the running mob only to wheel around, without a lance being thrown or a sword being slung, and then to come galloping back toward Xena, the entire field thrumming with the fierce echo of horses' hooves and squealing chariot axles. The lead car, the swiftest of all the thundering chargers, came bearing straight down on Xena and, at the last instant, the expert driver turned aside, and Xena saw, raised up to his full height, the plume, mail and colors of Diomedes, the commander of the Argive onslaught.
In that split fall of a sand grain, as the moon slipped out from behind a cloud, Xena's eyes, as she stood alone and defeated on the vast nighttime plain, and Diomedes' eyes, as he boldly commanded the grand, victorious rout, locked and clenched and, in the instant, were joined, as one, in the fleet, vanishing flicker of their gaze.
Then Diomedes' voice boomed across the plain, even as his swift war car veered around in a tight radius to cut off the lead chariots whose spearmen and swordsmen were a mere turn of a sandglass away from quenching their hot lust for blood.
"Hold your arms, men! Stay your lances! Sheathe your swords! These are naught but capless widows and shoeless children and doddering spinsters whose laces are all undone! There be not a stout arm nor a bold hand among them! It would be a blot upon our honor as men and warriors to slake our thirst on such meager refreshment! Let them run like rabbits to the cover of the woods there to be set upon by bears and wolves, foxes and squirrels! Let the dense copses of fir and fern devour them at their leisure! Come, we've got juicier fare awaiting us within the burning walls where, even now, Xena and Gabrielle, Aeneas, Troilus and Helenus, not to mention Helen of the Dark Cheeks await our cars and capture!"
So scrying to his men, Diomedes rallied the Argive onslaught which headed back to the torched gardens and blazing gazebos of Ilium without landing so much as a single blow upon the backs or breasts of the fleeing Trojans. An instant later, so quick was the cavalry's retreat, the plain was once again drenched in moonlit silence as the exhausted survivors stood stunned, choked, shuddering in their boots and sandals, amazed at the sudden turn of events which had miraculously spared their lives.
"Thanks, Diomedes," Xena said in a low voice as she watched the horses and chariots fade into the distance. "I guess that makes us even."
Then Xena cried, "Don't just stand there! Move it! Into the woods as fast as you can!"
At last, the ragtag band of refugees covered the distance to the thin margin of temporary safety offered by the woods, knowing, to a man, woman and child, that, should the Argive forces have a change of heart, their horses and riders could return to slaughter them wholesale.
"Gabrielle, Lila, Joxer, Cressida, start looking after these folks," Xena instructed her core team of assistants as the survivors, lost, weary and frightened, in shock from grief, fatigue, thirst and lack of nourishment, milled, in a daze, between the trees, the season’s gathering cold beginning patiently to court their shivering bodies. "Gabrielle and Joxer, you remember how we set things up in Chin when Pao Su and Ming T'ien, with Khan's army, had us on the run. Form up units and assign tasks. Let Troilus and Helenus take charge of the details once you've got the basic structure in place."
For just a turn of the sandglass, though, while the moon once again slipped behind a cloud and the long night was far from over, it was enough for most of the survivors to catch their breath and huddle together and thank their lucky stars for the gift of their lives even as they mourned those who were left behind to perish in the flames, under the rubble or on the tip of an invader's sword or to be led captive to a life of endless drudgery and degradation. There was no guarantee that these refugees would survive for any length of time. Most of them were gentle, city folk not used to a hearty life of wits and scramble and gnawing hunger as they sought shelter in the spare, indifferent woods. And who knew what portion of trouble or ration of woe tomorrow might contrive to bring.
"We really fooled 'em, didn't we?" Joxer grinned, the ear flaps on his helmet batting up and down, as though they had a mind to wiggle of their own.
"Fooled who?" Xena surveyed the cluster of trees, trying to discern, in the dead of night, the best place to make camp until daylight.
"Those guys on the horses and chariots," Joxer moonfaced. "You know, Diomedes and his gang of goombahs."
"No, Joxer, Diomedes wasn't fooled at all," Xena’s night eyes hunted for a glade, a clearing, any break in the forest.
"But didn’tcha hear him shouting how Xena and Gab and Aeneas and some of these other dudes were back in the city when you guys were here all along?" Joxer said. "Guess Diomedes didn't know Tupperware from Teflon after all."
"He knew," Xena spotted a promising rill about fifty paces away.
"He knew?" Joxer’s eyebrows twittered up and down as though being operated by a hidden puppet string. "Ha-ha-how'd he know?"
"He knew," Xena picked out the place in the forest where the distracted survivors who would quickly have to be whipped into a resourceful army on the move might gather and huddle for the night.
"B-but how...?" Joxer stammered in disbelief.
"Trust me, Joxer, he knew," Xena moved toward the center of the milling crowd and did what she did best: take command and dish out orders, bucking up people’s courage and rallying their hope; and, in doing so, she began, as she so often did, to cut people's self-pity and self-doubt off at the knees, before their budding sense of failure and despair might have a leg to stand on.
"Well if he knew," Joxer called after Xena as she disappeared into the nearby ring of trees, "then that Diomedes must be one heck of a smart rounder not to wanna run the risk of tanglin’ with you, Gab and Joxer the Mighty."
allusion to the first verse of Vergil's Aeneid, somewhat modified from the original
|Continued - Chapter 75|
|Return to The Bard's Corner|