|Pilgrims And Strangers|
Within the chancy shelter of the woods, Xena gave the frightened refugees four commands. The first was to keep very quiet. The Argive marauders might come streaming into the forest at any time to wreck death and destruction upon the fleeing survivors, or they might simply set the woods on fire and burn them all to death. The second command was to share their waterskins and to make sure to keep hydrated even if they weren’t thirsty. The third command was to keep as warm as possible and to cuddled up together since hypothermia could creep up on them unawares. The fourth command was merely to hold hands and to hug each other -- the men as well as the women -- and to breathe -- just breathe -- until the morning light. Xena gave this last command because she knew how easy it was for people who'd just lost everything to lapse into deadly shock following severe emotional trauma. The best means of averting this tragic consequence was close physical contact.
So the refugees huddled together, in silence and darkness, through the long, agonizing night as the wind slid through the trees, causing the shaggy, green branches to yawn and sway.
When the first glow of dawn appeared in the gradual bluing of the indigo sky above the forest glade, the refugees, clambering, a few at a time, onto a westward facing lookout, were in for yet another shock, this one only slightly less traumatizing than their night flight across the parched plain.
Two leagues to the west, beyond the stretch of brown, barren ground across which they'd fled for their lives, Ilium lay smoldering in ruins, its mighty walls caved in, its gates toppled, its turrets fallen, its towers crushed. Smoke rose from the smoldering timbers. The jewel of Phrygia had been reduced to ash, rust and charred cinders under a sky of indifferent blue and a sun that shone exactly as it had on the previous morning. When Xena received the head count from the various unit leaders, she estimated that a bare quarter of the population had survived the carnage. Three out of every four Trojans had either been rounded up and taken prisoner to be sold as slaves or had been massacred and now lay dead in the ruins.
"We've got to keep these folks busy," Xena told Gabrielle, "Or many of them will literally lie down and die of pain and grief."
There were a hundred things that needed doing all at once. Xena had to set priorities and then stick to them in the face of random outbursts, among the refugees, of panic, rage, lamentation and confusion, not to mention the occasional eruption of sudden, unanticipated cries of anguish and deep despair.
Xena dispatched a search party to find a suitable locale in which to set up a temporary camp. Several squads of the most able men and women were sent to hunt for food -- primarily to keep them busy given that food sources, in this fringe of woods near the sandy plain, weren't apt to be plentiful. What few supplies they'd managed to bring with them had to be inventoried, and the more suspicious or independent natures had to be persuaded that survival was not an individual matter but a group effort. Share and share alike was a stark necessity now. From each according to their abilities, to each according to their reasonable needs had to be the rule of life from here on in; and those might have found such an outlook on life to be contrary to their liking had no choice but to make a rapid adjustment or perish. And tools, they needed tools with which to cook, build, blaze trails, sew clothes, carry wood, haul water.
Despite the refugees’ contention that Xena was needed close at hand to oversee the initial recovery effort, Xena determined that she had to undertake a dangerous mission and that she had to do it solo. There was little choice but to return to the razed city, across the plain that offered no camouflage, in order to scavenge for some of the implements they would need if they were to have a fighting chance to survive in the wilderness, the first few days being the most critical.
Up to now, Xena had fairly well been able to keep Argo out of harm's way, but now Argo, too, had to be pressed into risky service. To transport items back to the shelter of the woods, they'd need a cart, a chariot, something on wheels. If they were spotted and had to make a run for it, a horse could traverse the gap faster than any man or woman on foot. Gabrielle bravely volunteered to be the one to go, saying, rightfully, that the people needed to draw courage, strength and the will to persevere from Xena's leadership and visible presence among them. But though Gabrielle and Argo could, by now, work well together, no one could ride Argo like Xena. She would have to go alone and leave Gabrielle to supervise the home base in conjunction with Aeneas while Joxer, Lila, Cressida, Troilus and Helenus assisted as captains of the various unit heads. Deiphobus was available to assist as well, though much of his attention was devoted to helping Helen cope as best she could with her new and difficult surroundings. To her credit, Helen pitched in and did whatever was asked of her, requesting no special favors or concessions.
Xena threw a long cloak over her brass and leathers to conceal her sword and chakram as she ventured out of the woods onto the flat, brown, sky-widening plain. "If I don't make it back," she said to Gabrielle who'd come to see her off, "take charge of these poor, hurting people and be gentle but be firm."
"Is your stomach churning?" Lila said to Gabrielle as they watched Xena and Argo venture slowly out of the tall, thick stand of fir trees and descend to the empty stretch of dirt plain beyond which lay the seared wreckage of Ilium.
"It’s nothing we haven't been through before," Gabrielle said. "I used to spend entire days and long nights waiting for Xena to get done with whatever dangerous mission or risky errand she’d embarked on, in the days before she started taking me with... in the days before I insisted that she take me with her, and my heart was always in my throat. I've gotten used to it, but I can’t say that it’s gotten any easier."
Then Lila recalled the sibyl's words: "I'm sure you realize that when one opts to travel with Xena, one foregoes the luxury of living a trouble-free life."
"Let's pray she makes it back okay," Lila placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Good idea," Gabrielle reached up and gave Lila's hand a squeeze.
Fortunately, Xena was in little danger. She approached the ruined city from the north where there was no discernible Argive activity. The victors had nearly completed their looting and had carried off the main body of captives to the slave ships now arriving in droves from their naval base on the island of Tenedos. The movement of goods and people was all to the west and south. Apparently, the Argives had dispensed with the notion of pursuing those who'd fled, possibly because, thanks largely to Diomedes' merciful deception, Agammemnon and his generals may have been led to believe that no Trojan commanders or persons of significance had been part of the ragtag exodus in the night.
Many of the bodies that lay on top of or were buried amid the rubble were too badly mangled to be identified. As far as the Argives were aware, Aeneas, Deiphobus, Troilus, Helenus, Cressida, Helen, even Xena and Gabrielle might very well be lying among the obliterated dead. Excellent. The House of Atreus could not only claim to be the victors in the longest, most brutal war ever fought up to that point in time, its minions could also claim to have done what not even Caesar at the height of his power had been able to do: finish off the Warrior Princess once and for all.
A tiny dot on the plain, Xena's passage to the toppled walls and broken gates went undetected. Only a small patrol of Argive sentries had been posted at this remote cachement area of the city; and Xena, having entered the winding passages of the now exposed underground, was able to dispense with them without difficulty. It was an easy task to find useful implements lying in the wreckage, harder to locate a way to load them up and carry them. There were large-wheeled carts but their sides and bottoms, made of wood, had burned to a crisp. At length, Xena managed to track down a small, bronze war car which the looters had neglected to appropriate because the haft of its harness mount was badly warped and thus rendered the car ineffective in battle where the need to execute fast, angular maneuvers had been essential. But the car could still be rigged up for transport.
"Sorry, girl, I know it's a pain in the butt," Xena said to Argo as she hitched the car to Argo's haunches via a heavier tack than Argo was used to, "but there's no way around it. We’ve got to bring back as much as we can carry."
Argo shook her golden mane, craned her tawny neck and gave Xena a look that said, "You're always pushing the limits, aren't you? I know, I know: it's for yet another good cause. Oh, well..., it's a good thing I like you."
Having collected as many useful things as the car could hold subject to Argo's ability to pull it, Xena mounted up and the two of them started back across the plain. In case they might be pursued by hidden attackers, Xena could whip out her chakram and, with its sharp, rounded edge, slash Argo free of the harness’ tack. The haft would fall. The car would topple. They'd lose their precious goods. But they'd have the chance to spring free and not be taken captive. Yet, as though to compensate the refugees by means of returning to them the merest pittance of the incalculable immensity of their loss, the gods appeared to smiled on Xena's effort and, within three candlemarks of her departure, she came back to the bristling hubbub in the forest with her vehicle full of life-saving items: knives, axes, pots, pans, utensils, metal grills for boiling things over fires now made possible by the flints that she'd found, clay pots and vegetable seed that had miraculously been sustained under the blast, needles for sewing, clamps for holding things in place, even some bandages and disinfectant and precious oilskins for keeping things dry from the dew and the rain. And, miraculously, several sacks of flour and wrapped yeast cakes.
"She's back!" Helen cried from the spot at the forest's edge where she was cutting brush with the blade of a soldier's sword while dressed in her gauzy, jewel-studded gown. "Look! Coming up the slope! It’s Xena and she’s towing a loaded wagon!"
The mass of refugees left off their tasks and ran to where Helen was standing in time to see Xena dismount and lower the haft of the war car from Argo's withers. A great shout went up from the crowd. She did it! She came through for us! She's not going to abandon us in our candlemark of need! She's our friend, our hope, our guide, our leader! Xee-nah! Xee-nah! Xee-nah!
The spontaneous cheer that leaped from the throats of those who, mere candlemarks before, in the dead of night, had lost everything and were ready to lay down and die was the turning point. The will to survive sparked into life and coalesced around that handful of simple, household implements. The desire to live and not to die attained the upper hand in the echo of that joyous shout. Hope was reborn and, with it, a flicker of determination. And in that instant, a confused and desperate band of helpless refugees became transformed into a community of men, women and children who had just suffered catastrophic devastation and the loss of home, family, fiends, loved ones but who were not, for all that, defeated. They might not survive -- it was too soon to tell -- but at least they wanted to. That was their first and greatest victory. The rest would depend upon luck, pluck and raw, aching persistence in the face of tremendous though not necessarily insurmountable odds.
"Gabrielle, help me get this thing unloaded," Xena shouted. "Joxer, Cressida, Lila, Deiphobus, give me a hand pushing this baby up the slope and let’s get her into some cover. No point in calling attention to ourselves."
A little while later, the community gathered to break bread, and Xena addressed the group. She told its members how brave and bold and fine they were. She said that if they stuck together, they could see this thing through, with honor, to a happy outcome. Though nothing could make up for all they'd lost, where there was life there was hope and where there was hope there was the promise of joy. "Hunkered together in this clump of trees, not knowing it we'll be alive tomorrow, things might seem pretty bleak. But though it may sound crazy to say, having only the shirts on our backs right now, and there’s some who don't even have that, I believe that one day the world will look back on those who survived the fall of Troy and will say, 'That was a race of heroes. We won’t soon see their likes again.'"
"You're too kind, Xena," Aeneas called out. "It will be more than goodly recompense if we simply take things a day at a time and let history sing whose praises it will."
Then they took a silent turn of the sandglass to remember their departed loved ones and their slain king before eating their first meal seasoned with the bitter herbs of loss and sorrow.
The scouting patrol had returned to report that they'd found a wide clearing by the bank of a rippling stream a little more than two leagues to the east that might be an excellent spot for a temporary shelter. Hunting parties would need to amass what game and pelts they could while the women, using whatever materials were readily to hand, would need to cut and stitch clothing, tarps, coverings of various sorts while tending to the cooking and baking. Meanwhile, the men would chop and split firewood and board lumber for constructing huts and lien-to's. This impromptu arrangement might suffice in the short run, but winter was coming, and, in the windy, rugged steppes to the north and east of Ilium, they'd need more durable clothing and shelters not to mention a way of preserving their meat and extending, with various plant and herb supplements, their meager store of yeast and flour. At least they'd have a plentiful supply of water and, in two moonmarks hence, a sizeable quantity of snow for insulating cave-like structures.
The refugees spent the first full day of their wanderings on a trek into the forest until they arrived at the clearing where they began at once to hack and dig and slash, making camp and getting oriented to the woods which, as they began to learn its language, would be speaking to them in a thousand helpful ways, offering them countless clues that might permit them not only to survive but eventually to thrive. That night, at supper around a small network of campfires, it may have been too soon to give thanks for anything but the gift of a chancy postponement of the fate which had befallen their less fortunate friends and colleagues, but small rations, complemented by the lean but still nutritious flesh of a few captured rabbits and squirrels, went a long way toward easing the gnaw of famished tummies and the clutch of aching hearts.
Xena made the rounds to each of the campfires, addressing people by name, praising their courage and resourcefulness, nurturing the least hint of optimism, shoring up their will, telling them, again and again, that they had what it took to make a go of it, that patience and persistence could move mountains and that Xena knew whereof she spoke because mountains that Xena had once thought insurmountable were now lying as flat and low as the plains of the broad Scamander; yet in the beginning, when she'd taken only baby steps toward atoning for the sins of the past, she'd never dreamed that those peaks of guilt and ridges of shame might ever be surmounted and leveled.
Later that night, as movement and noise around the perimeter of the camp began to dissipate even as guards were posted to keep watch in the event that the Argives might yet be persuaded to pursue the fleeing Trojans, Xena eased herself down by the campfire and unlaced her corset and boots. It had been a long, hard, backbreaking day. Gabrielle, Lila and Joxer were staring into the orange pall of the low, hunkering flames that came lolling off the sizzling black surface of the scored logs. Cressida was walking a little ways into the dark with Troilus. Back in Ilium, she'd been planning to break up with him, but that plan was now on hold as nothing about the future, for either of them, seemed certain. Maybe Cressida’s feelings for Joxer amounted to little more than a teenage crush, or maybe there was something more to those feelings, not that Cressida might have been aware of what that "something more" could have been, unless it might be some kind of a heavy, long-lasting infatuation, the kind that people who get married, make babies and live happily in cottages -- or palaces -- often appear to have.
"How about a neck rub," Gabrielle squatted down behind Xena.
"That’d be fantastic," Xena leaned back and eased into the grip of Gabrielle's strong hands, letting herself relax as Gabrielle, supporting Xena's back, kneaded the kinks out of Xena's tired neck and shoulder muscles.
"My head's swimming. So much has happened so fast," Gabrielle said. "And if my head's in a dither, I can only imagine what sort of a bumpy ride these poor people must be having."
"It's funny," Xena exhaled long and slow, "I’m feeling like I've come full circle. This is how all that wretched warlording got started. A mass of homeless, displaced, dispirited men with no land, no jobs, no opportunity: they needed whipping into shape. Needed someone to do their thinking for them, to show them how they might hope to make something of themselves. There was a leadership vacuum. So I stepped in to fill it. And once they started following me, it was so easy to slide down the slippery slope after I had them eating out of my hand." Xena turned to face Gabrielle. "Of course, I relied on more than just my hands to secure their loyalty and obedience. Sometimes, I won them over with a sword, sometimes with a pillow. As weapons of conquest, I’d say the two ended up being equally effective."
"Kiss 'em or kill 'em," Gabrielle chuckled as she churned Xena’s tight tissues and tendons. "Do you ever miss those days? The thrill, the challenge, the wild fury of it all?"
"No, not even a little. Can you believe it? I seem to have lost the knack -- the taste -- for it," Xena said. "But what we were doing today and tonight reminds me of it. Taking a bunch of dispirited, disjointed, homeless people and whipping them into something substantial, fashioning them into a fighting force with a purpose and a means to achieve it. Like casting pots or bowls from heaps of clay thrown and spun on wheels at the pottery works. You start with a blob and end up with something that has size, shape, weight, function."
"When me and Lexie were being held hostage at Latrinus' camp, Latrinus told us that you were a general who'd never made the transition to emperor," Lila said to Xena. "He said you could conquer but not rule, that you might die famous but you'll never die rich."
"Latrinus said that?" Xena turned her head to look at Lila.
"When he was holding forth on the fine art of warlording," Lila said.
"Well, that conniving sucker was dead on about one thing, then, wasn’t he?" Xena cackled. "The only way I'll die rich is if Autolycus kicks off and leaves me a boatload of dinars. Not that I’m holding my breath and waiting for that to happen."
"Is Autolycus as loaded as he likes to make out?" Lila inquired.
"Nah, Autolycus is a real softie," Xena said. "Autolycus goes in for thieving because he’s good at it and it gives him a sense of accomplishment. Plus he lost his older brother to a crooked mobster when he was little more than a kid. Gabrielle remembers when we put the screws to that guy."
"The time Autolycus got busted for supposedly swiping a huge statue from the waterfront," Gabrielle recalled.
"But notice how Autolycus only zeroes in on the rich and the greedy," Xena said. "Autolycus gives away most of what he makes off with. He’s quite a generous guy, actually."
"What about Salmoneus?" Lila said. "Salmoneus is such a goof."
"Salmoneus is definitely a fruitcake," Xena agreed.
"But he's a decent fruitcake," Gabrielle added.
"Yup," Xena said. "Salmoneus has always been a very decent fruitcake."
"And now he's the Queen of Namibia," Lila giggled.
"And you know what he’d have to have in order to be King," Xena said.
"Not another dress," Lila said.
"No, it’s not another dress," Xena said and let go a big yawn.
The three of them fell silent for a while. Xena, sighing and cooing, and was putty in Gabrielle's able hands. A thousand thank you's, my love. That feels so incredibly good.
"Lila?" Xena said after a few quiet turns of the sandglass.
"Yeah?" Lila said, staring into the fire.
"How're you doin'?" Xena said.
Lila hesitated, then said, "Not great."
"Trying to make sense out of everything that's happened?"
"I guess," Lila nodded.
"You know, Lila," Xena said, "your sister isn't the only one among present company who admires you."
"Admires... who, me?" Lila raised an eyebrow in the dark.
"When I felt myself starting to have strong feelings for Lao Ma," Xena said, "I panicked. I ran straight to Borias' arms and got knocked up almost at once so I wouldn't have to deal with it. But you faced the forest of those feelings without flinching. You didn't up and run like I did. That's why Admete gave you the belt. I'd bet Gabrielle's life on it."
"Hey!" Gabrielle dropped her hands from Xena's shoulders in protest.
"Okay, Joxer's life, then," Xena chuckled.
"Hunh, whuzzat...?" Joxer roused himself from where he’d been dozing, mesmerized by the glowing embers of the campfire.
"It's okay, Jox, go back to sleep," Xena said.
"Wow, I just figured it out," Joxer said. "I've been puzzling over it all day."
"What's that?" Gabrielle said.
"How you can prove that if x plus y equals z, there aren't any numbers such that x raised to the nth power plus y raised to the nth power will equal z raised to the nth power for any value of n greater than two," Joxer patted his shirt pockets. "Gee, I wish I had something to jot that down with."
"We're going to want to make contact with Oteri and Yakut," Xena said as Gabrielle left off her neck and shoulder rubbing and plopped herself down beside Xena, taking one of Xena's arms and draping it around one of her own shoulders so that she and Xena ended up snuggling. "It's two hundred leagues to Themiscyra through some pretty rough country. I could probably make it there in five days if it was just me and Argo. But I expect that Oteri and Yakut are closer."
"What're you thinking Oteri and Yakut might do?" Gabrielle said.
"These people are going to need a place to settle down and begin rebuilding," Xena said. "There's no good land for settling east of the Anatolian steppes, except in the foothills of the Caucasus. That's Scythian country and the Scythians are pretty rough. Their men mate with Amazons, and they get along okay when they're not hurling spears and shooting arrows at each other."
"So that's where the custom of kissing 'em or killing 'em comes from," Gabrielle said.
"Pretty much," Xena said. "The Trojans could put some new roots down out there, provided they could find a way to survive. The climate's a lot harsher than it is here on the coast, but there's loads of room to move around in and there are plenty of wild herds. They'd have to learn to be crack horsemen, though, but that could be a task for the next generation."
"It would be such a different life than the one they're used to," Gabrielle said. "Do you think they can make the transition?"
"They'll have to. What are their options?" Xena said. "The Amazons know that Penthesileia and the others gave their lives in the struggle to keep Ilium from falling to the Argives. I’m sure they'll help."
"Penthesileia believed that the Amazons are going into decline," Lila said, "that the nations of the world are either going to expel, eliminate or absorb them."
"I think she was right, Lila," Xena said. "Penthesileia could foresee the day when the Amazons will no longer be a separate nation or even a distinct tribe anymore."
"Will they eventually get swallowed up, do you think?" Lila said.
"Maybe not entirely," Gabrielle said. "Speaking of which, how does the belt feel? Are you aware that you've always got it on?"
"I'm getting used to it. Sometimes I can feel it pulsing," Lila said.
"Do you know how to ground the energy when it does that?" Xena said. "You have to exhale it into the earth."
"Maybe I should go with you to the Amazons, Xena," Lila said. "I should be the one to tell Penthesileia's sisters how things ended for her and the others."
Xena thought for a turn of the sandglass. "This camp could be a staging area for about a month until winter sets in. In the meantime, an advanced party could head east to set up something more permanent with help from the Amazons. We'll be in Hittite country soon, passing through the hills and vales of the Anatolian outback where we can make contact with Oteri and Yakut."
"And tell them that these refugees are pilgrims and strangers, wandering in a strange and fearsome land," Gabrielle said.
"Exactly," Xena said. "With any luck, they'll soon be an army on the move, hopefully able pass through others' territory unscathed until they've arrived at some yet-to-be discovered land flowing with Hittite milk and Scythian honey. Meanwhile they’ll have to hunt for food and barter for supplies and other essentials. No one wants to live on charity, but sometimes there's no choice but the begging bowl until you’re able to get back on your feet again."
"What about warlording: burning, looting, marauding, swooping down on defenseless villages? Is that an option?" Lila said.
"As a last, desperate resort, it might be," Xena said, "but they'll have to learn those skills from somebody else."
It was time to turn in. Xena, Gabrielle and Lila fed the fire and settled down on the ground to cover themselves as best they could. Joxer kept staring into the crackling blaze, not moving, barely breathing, as though he were hypnotized.
After a few turns of the sandglass, Gabrielle hoisted herself onto one elbow and said, "Jox? Are you okay?"
"What? Oh...," Joxer looked over at Gabrielle. "I was just thinking that if Eli had had the black powder and could've blown Ares away -- like the way we blew up that horse thingie back there -- maybe that non-violence stuff he was preaching might have worked."
For the next several days, the refugees worked their fingers to the bone, putting up shelters, foraging for food, altering their clothing for chilly nights in the wooded clearing. Xena took charge of security measures, waiting to see if the Argives might return.
On day three, Xena went to reconnoiter the Argive encampment. The fringe of the forest sloped down to the rushes along the banks of the Scamander where Xena was able to re-trace her steps past the ruined platform where the scorched remains of the Trojan Horse were still smoldering. Eventually, she came to a small rise at the north end of the beach through whose tall, reedy grasses she was able to observe the troop movements on the beach.
Agammemnon's forces were disembarking in earnest. The Argive ships, loaded with soldiers, slaves and booty, had begun a large-scale evacuation. To all intents and purposes, the conflict had ended, and the Argives had come away with total victory. Ilium had fallen to rise no more. The Straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, the gateway to the Caucasus and the vast land mass of Asia, were now in the hands of Hellas with the Athenian League of Attica and Mycenae being the most prominent and the House of Atreus being the undisputed ruler of that mighty federation. The seed of Byzantium had been planted to bloom a thousand years hence.
Xena was surprised that no Argive search parties had come to scour the woods, if only to search for Helen. Xena had always believed that Menelaus didn't care enough about Helen to incur major inconvenience in what might turn out to be a futile search for her, and now she felt justified in her belief. How ironic: neglected in Sparta by a husband more than twice her age, having been a mere teenager when she'd arrived from her Egyptian homeland in an arranged marriage designed to cement commercial relations between the Houses of Atreus and Raamses, Helen had been further neglected by her Trojan paramour for most of the decade that she'd spent at Ilium, her beauty notwithstanding. Xena's heart had gone out to her. Helen was a good kid, far from home, who hadn't gotten the chance to blossom. She had no African friends or family with whom to commiserate. She was alone in a foreign land. Fortunately, there were men like Deiphobus who loved her -- or who at least had the capacity to love her. But she needed time to develop and mature. Hopefully, now, she might have it.
Xena returned to the refugees’ camp by the stream, one of the many rills and freshets which fed the Scamander's wide forks. Her eyes had confirmed what her mind had been telling her. Ilium had indeed fallen and would rise no more. The survivor’s future lay far to the east.
The plan, then, was for Xena, Gabrielle and, at her own insistence, for Lila to head east on what Xena estimated would be a grueling four day trek to the Anatolian heartland where they'd have their best chance to track down Oteri, Yakut and the hill country Amazons. They'd bring news of Ilium and Penthesileia, and they'd take what steps they could to arrange aid and relief for the refugees who’d soon be facing the onset of a more cruel and harsh winter than any they'd previously had to cope with.
The round trip might take up to a week during which time the refugees would be building durable shelters, bulking up their food supply and finding ways to stay warm, dry and as free as possible from ticks, fleas and disease. Xena left Aeneas in charge to be assisted by Troilus, Helenus, Joxer and Cressida. In another day or two, teams of survivors could likely emerge from the woods and venture across the plain to the ruins of Ilium to scavenge what useful things they might dig out from under the debris. They might even find a way to shelter there for the winter if necessary. Presumably the Argives would be gone, believing that what few survivors there might be would likely perish of starvation and exposure in the deep, endless forests that stretched from the Ionian coastline hundreds of leagues inland to the dark foreboding, Anatolian steppes and vales.
On the night before the trio was to set out on its junket, Xena took Gabrielle and Lila deep into the forest glade away from the refugee encampment. They lit a fire and, while Gabrielle and Lila drummed with fallen tree limbs against the flat surface of a large rock, Xena danced into a frenzy, whirling and shaking, writhing and moaning, until, at last, she collapsed on the earth, and her spirit flew forth from her third chakra in the seat of her solar plexus. The bursting of Xena's spirit out of her body left the slightest, purplish trail in the darkness that Lila couldn't see but that Gabrielle, who'd taken part in these shamanic trance journeys when she'd sought to protect Eve’s soul from Alti's otherworldly incursions, could make out the faintest, rippling trace of.
At that instant, nearly two hundred leagues to the east, deep in the forest of the Anatolian heartland where rolling groves and thick copses alternated with stretches of open plains and piney scrub, Yakut, lying on her back, wrapped in a blanket of skins inside the communal Amazon hut, jerked suddenly awake as though she'd been banged on the chest with the spongy but forceful side of a rousing fist. Her body flailed once, twice, a third time which sent one of her arms flying to the side to slam the back of her hand against Oteri's cheek, rousing Oteri from her slumbers.
"Yakut, what is it?" Oteri whispered in the darkness, their hearth fire long quelled to ashes for the night.
"It’s Xena. She's coming," Yakut replied in her sweet, girlish voice.
"She is?" Oteri raised herself onto one elbow. "Passing through on her way to Chin?"
"No," Yakut said. "She's coming to us."
"What for?" Oteri said.
"It's urgent. She needs our help," Yakut said.
"Is she being chased?" Oteri said. "Is Gabrielle in trouble?"
"No," Yakut said. "Xena has a heavy heart. Many tears that can't be shed. Not yet."
"What about Gabrielle?" Oteri said.
"Gabrielle is with her," Yakut said. "And there's a third who has the heaviest heart of all, a heart that shines with pain and gleams with sorrow. Three are coming. Hundreds remain behind."
"What does Xena want us to do?" Oteri said.
"Head west along the wooded ridges," Yakut said. "As quickly as possible."
"Anything else?" Oteri said.
"Yes," Yakut said. "Xena wants us to forgive her."
"We've already forgiven her," Oteri said.
"She needs reassurance," Yakut said. "And she begs that Anokin might try to find a way to forgive her."
"But it was Alti who killed Anokin, not Xena," Oteri said.
"Xena feels responsible for Anokin’s death," Yakut said. "If Xena hadn't become lovers with Anokin as Alti had planned, Alti wouldn't have killed Anokin to spite Xena."
"What should we do?" Oteri said.
"Set out at once," Yakut said. Then she added, "Oteri..."
"Yes?" Oteri responded in the dark.
"This is something big," Yakut said.
Then the Amazon queen and her shaman went back to sleep, knowing they'd need their rest to sustain them in the morning.
When the first slices of sunlight came lacing through the tops of the fir trees, Xena, Gabrielle, Lila and Argo were ready to roll. Quick farewells, promises to return within the week, saddle bags packed, supplies at hand, off they went into the forest, facing the morning, resolved to push themselves as hard as they could in an effort to keep the pace they'd set for themselves. Lila hoped she was up to the challenge and prayed that she wouldn't slow them down.
For three days they trekked. The woods east of Ilium soon gave way to green and splendid panoramas of buttes, velds, rippling forks that accompanied their climb higher into mountainous country. Lila had never seen such breathtaking landscape: wild, virgin and beautiful. They camped by running streams and forded gushing brooks, wading into and out of ravines where gnarled tree trunks suspended sideways from the overhanging rock. Then they entered the forest again and made good time along wide barrows that formed a natural road arched by the touching brushes of the tall, curvaceous trees along the sides of the wooded path.
"So this is how the two of you live when you travel," Lila said to Gabrielle when they'd made camp on their second night. "Under the stars, by sparkling waters, roasting the game you've caught, communing with the spirits of the land."
"Well, some of that. Not entirely," Gabrielle said. "It depends. But yeah, a lot of the time it's really awesome and beautiful. But sometimes we get attacked and have to fight. Two women alone in the wild, living largely by their wits, attracts its share of unwanted attention."
"I can't imagine that Mom and Dad could have any idea what this is like," Lila said, struck by the grand expanse of the starlit sky above the steady roar of the nearby rapids. "Even I had no idea, and I often wondered about it. Gab, not to pry, but you love Xena, and Xena loves you, right?"
"Yeah, you could say that," Gabrielle replied, her brow wrinkling to hear Lila put it so bluntly.
"Somehow knowing that makes me feel really good. I can't say why exactly, but it makes my own load seem lighter." Lila raised her arms wide to the gala spread of the stars in the clear black enormity of the sky. "I never knew what this was about. I never knew how vast and alive and intensely present this all was."
With a draught of the elixir of the boundless night sky, camped under the stars near a stream in the mountains where no hand or foot of man or woman had left its mark for days, the healing of Lila’s heart had at last begun.
On the third day, they entered a vale where the trees grew sparsely on the rocky ground that sloped down to heavier growth between lower lying dells. Large stone faces broke through the earth in many places. Cornflowers and aster sprouted here in the spring; coltsfoot and larkspur in the fall. Not much else could take root and thrive in such shallow soil. It was a barren, magical heath full of shimmer and twinkle.
"They're close," Xena said. "I've been sending signals, and Yakut's been honing in."
They entered a stand of tall tamarack to the side of the hill's brow where, almost at once, the familiar ropes fell like diving snakes from high in the camouflaged tree limbs and, an instant later, the Amazons came sliding down to surround them.
Xena! Gabrielle! Oteri! Yakut! Warm arms hugged and held.
"You've come so far in three days," Oteri embraced Xena, then Gabrielle.
"Oteri, it's good to see you," Xena warmly returned the embrace. "Yakut!" Another embrace.
"And this is...," Oteri looked at Lila.
"Lee, my sister," Gabrielle said.
"Welcome," Oteri extended a hand.
Yakut turned to greet Lila with a smile, but her eyes grew wide, her jaw dropped and her body immediately started to shake. "This one bears an object of power," Yakut grabbed her rattle and started shaking it. "There’s darkness in it. There’s death. There’s lust. There’s love that's twisted and gone awry. She’s the keeper. On pain of death, take not her burden from her. It’s hers to carry to its appointed end."
All eyes stared at Lila.
"Lila has Hippolyte's belt," Xena said.
"Admete gave it to you," Yakut said.
"Yes," Lila said.
"What will you do with it?" Yakut said.
"I want to take it back to where it came from," Lila said.
"At whose request?" Yakut said.
"Penthesileia's," Lila said.
"You will encounter opposition from its giver," Yakut said. "Once his eye has fallen upon it, let his hand not touch it."
"What happened to Penthesileia? She went to Troy to fight beside King Priam. We haven't gotten any word since," Oteri said to Xena.
"She fought bravely and died a credit to her throne," Xena said.
"And the others?" Oteri said.
"The others too," Xena said
"All of them?" Oteri said.
"Then the new way has begun," Oteri said.
"What new way?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Our camp lies over the crest of that knob," Oteri pointed to the far side of the vale. "Come, we'll form a circle and join in a meal. Then we'll explain."
The reunited company gathered around the welcome circle and joined hands in a formal greeting. Then, as they partook of wild greens and venison, Oteri said, "Penthesileia left instructions at Themiscyra that upon her death, all the Amazons were to meet in a great council to take stock of ourselves and to plan for the future. She further wrote that the time may have come when we're no longer to be ruled by queens, that we might place power in the hands of the community and seek to govern ourselves by consensus. And now, with my sisters' permission, and with Xena as my witness, who brought devastation upon us and then, her heart purified by the light that shone in Gabrielle, sought to atone for that devastation by setting the captives free, I hereby lay aside my queen's helm," Oteri raised her large, beautifully constructed raptor's mask above her head in sight of the assembled company and then set it down behind her, outside the bounds of the circle of sisters, "and take my place as one of you, neither more nor less, a joined hand in a circle of hands that can never be broken."
Then the Amazons, with Xena, Gabrielle and Lila, joined hands and chanted, "One is all and all is one and one is one and all in one!" To which declaration Lila added a silent, "Hye! Kye! Chairetismata!"
Late into the night, Xena, Gabrielle and Lila related to Oteri, Yakut and the Anatolian Amazons all that had befallen the great city of Ilium and its proud people: how Penthesileia and the twelve had met their valiant death in battle, how Velasca had fallen defending her sisters from cruel, cowardly attack, how the Argives had sundered the city’s walls with sword and fire, how the greater part of the Trojans had been taken captive or slaughtered outright, how a remnant, holing up in the woods, a journey of nearly two hundred leagues to the west, had been left to face the grim task of surviving the oncoming winter and then of migrating to a distant land where they might hope to find a new home.
"Will you help them?" Xena put the question. "The Amazons are their only hope. They need a place where they can wait out the winter. They need food and fuel and skins and shelter. They need to know they're not forgotten. And when spring comes, the ed to find their way to a place of warmth and welcome."
The Amazons lowered their voices and spoke among themselves.
"We'll do all we can," Oteri spoke for the group. "We'll send messengers to Themiscyra in whose surrounding hills they might find respite for the winter. We'll urge our fathers, the Hittites and the Scythians, not to attack and destroy them but to permit them live at the far eastern edge of Pontus where few have settled as life in those airy climes is more harsh and demanding than it is elsewhere. Are they a hearty people, these defeated and homeless Trojans?"
"They have the capacity to adapt," Xena said. "In one or two generations, they should prove strong and able in the high, forbidding hills."
"Very well," Oteri said. "Then we will assist. Draw your sword, Xena."
"Everyone place her hand on the blade," Oteri looked around the circle. Then the Amazons crowded around, joined by Xena, Gabrielle and Lila. "By the power of the three realms -- that which girds us, that which binds us, that which frees us -- we pledge that the people for whom our great queen and her closest sisters have given their lives shall find help and welcome among us and will afterwards be our friends, neighbors and earth-sharers. In the name of she who guides, protects and watches over us. Hie!"
"Hie!" the group responded.
It was decided that Xena, Gabrielle and Lila would return to the refugees and would select fifty of the most able-bodied men and women to make the journey east into Amazon country where the Anatolians and, most likely, the Themiscyrans would join in providing them a place to set up winter quarters and would then render what assistance they could. Then, before the snows would come to blanket the inland forest two moonmarks hence, the remainder of the company would follow, hunting and foraging and making camp as they undertook what would probably be a two to three week excursion given their larger numbers. By that time, some of the Amazons would have joined them along the way as guides and helpers to make their trip less onerous.
"Perhaps some of their women might like to become a part of our tribe," Oteri said. "Though we won't entice any. That's not our way."
"There's one among the Trojan women who might be interested," Xena looked at Gabrielle. "I believe she's got the makings of a potentially feisty addition to the Amazons."
"Are you thinking of Cressida?" Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "Or have you got Helen in mind?"
"Hm," Xena stroked her chin, "make that two possible additions."
Xena, Gabrielle and Lila spent the night with Oteri and Yakut, then departed in the morning for their three days' journey back to the refugee camp two leagues east of the smashed skeleton of Ilium. In all their trip had taken exactly a week, and the refugees, hard at work, were happy to have them back.
Xena convened a camp-wide meeting that night and laid out the course the refugees were to follow. There was great sadness and weeping at the prospect of bidding farewell to their razed -- though still beloved -- city and the fair land of their birth in which Mother Cybele had tended them with her loving presence until the coming of the heartless conquerors. But there was the strength of new resolve as well, the dignity and the self-possession that would enable the refugees to endure the most dreadful privations as they learned, by trial and error, to craft new lives for themselves in a new land where they would ultimately become a new people.
Some of the more proficient would remain behind to superintend the welfare of the large majority while Xena and Aeneas, with input from the mass of the people, selected the advance contingent of the fifty souls who, under Aeneas' command, would forge ahead and break new ground in the wilderness with the help of Oteri’s Amazons. When the council had made its selections, Troilus and Cressida had each been chosen to be among the first wave of pioneers to set out, on the following morning, for the new country.
That night, around the campfire, though Joxer was happy to re-connect with Xena, Gabrielle and Lila, he lingered a bit forlorn, doodling with numbers and letters in the dirt with the snapped tip of a thin tree limb. At one point, there was a shuffling in the brush behind him. A petite figure emerged, no longer dressed in a light skirt and blouse but in a sturdy tunic over rugged leggings. Her blue-green eyes were sweet in the firelight which gave a mild sheen to the crinkled ends of her long, strawberry blonde hair. "Cressie!" Joxer sprang to his feet with a broad, friendly grin.
"Hi, Jox. I, um, came to say goodbye," Cressida said, acting uncharacteristically shy. "It looks like we're gonna be heading out in the morning."
"Yeah, Xena was just saying," Joxer waved his stick and then, tossing it away, nearly poked Cressida in the eye.
"Well..., see ya ‘round, I guess," Cressida dropped her eyes and poked at the ground with her toe.
"You're gonna do real good out there," Joxer said. "I know you are."
"I'm gonna miss ya, Joxie," Cressida said.
"I'm gonna miss you, too, Cress," Joxer felt a tug in his gut as he bit his lower lip.
"There was some real bad stuff that went down with the guys getting beat in battle and all," Cressida said, "but we had some good times, didn't we, Jox?"
"Yeah, Cress, we did," Joxer began to blush.
"And we blew up that horse. You, me and Xena," Cressida said.
"Yeah, we did," Joxer blushed harder.
"Jox?" Cressida said in a little voice.
"Yeah?" Joxer said.
"I gotta go." Cressida suddenly stood on tiptoes, brought her face up to Joxer's and gave him a peck on the cheek. She turned around and, biting back the tears, ran a few steps away from the perimeter of the campfire, then stopped and whirled around and cried out, "If you're half as good on the battlefield as you are in bed, Jox, you can tell Xena and everybody else that you really are Joxer, the Mighty!" The tears of parting dampening her cheeks, Cressida fled forever into the sheltering cover of the woods.
Meanwhile, Xena and Aeneas were taking their leave.
"I can't thank you enough for all you've done, Xena," Aeneas warmly gripped Xena's arm. "My father thanks you too. He wouldn't be with us tonight if you hadn't..."
"Don't mention it," Xena tried to sidestep Aeneas' show of gratitude. "I did what I felt was right, that's all."
"Did you see the King before the end came?" Aeneas asked.
"Briefly, but I never got to say goodbye," Xena said.
"He was very fond of you, you know," Aeneas said. "You and Penny both. You had a home in his heart as well as in his city."
"I know," Xena said, softly.
"If the gods are willing, perhaps we'll meet again," Aeneas smiled. "I'd love to be able to host you and Gabrielle as guests worthy of a place of honor at the head of our table."
"Lead your people well, Aeneas," Xena said, "and you'll always have a place in my heart."
"Take care, then," Aeneas gave Xena a warm hug, "and go with the... Well, go with good friends on the road and good cheer in your soul."
Through the long night, the camp rang with sounds of weeping and farewell. But it wasn't the disconsolate knell of grief or the wailing shriek of sorrow that wouldn't or couldn't be comforted. It was the mournful cry of letting go of grief and bidding farewell to sorrow for the sake of the joy -- or the lightest anticipation of it -- that might be waiting in the morning.
The day dawned fresh and clear. The first adventurous band of the Trojan remnant to strike out in the hope of finding renewed life in the wilderness broke camp and, amid an outpouring of well wishes, turned to face the forest and the rising sun as they ventured on their way. Those who remained behind prepared to put in a long but satisfying day of learning new skills and accomplishing fresh goals.
"I guess our work here is done," Xena, hitching up Argo, said to Gabrielle, Lila and Joxer who were loading up their few belongings, ready to begin thinking about their own journey home. "Might as well go out to the plain and head down to the beach."
"And then what?" Gabrielle said. "Swim for it?"
Xena shrugged. "I guess we'll cross that ocean when we get to it."
For want of a better plan, the party of five bushwhacked through the woods and arrived at the broad plain within sight of the ghost of the ruined city. For the next candlemark, under the broiling sun, even though it was well into the fall season, they trekked down to the dunes and then over the rise, where so much blood had recently been spilled, to the deserted beach with its ribbon of rocky shoreline just above the high tide marker. For the first time in a decade, the coast was clear except for the occasional swooping of shell-seeking gulls. Lila looked out at the implacable peacefulness of the ocean waves and listened to the pounding of the surf and felt, once again, how paltry and pretentious a thing was the self-inflicted strife which so pridefully -- and needlessly -- afflicted gods and mortals alike, joined at the hip, as they were, by the glue of their merciless, unrelenting egos.
Off in the distance, barely visible from the tuft of sea grass on which they were standing as they surveyed the wide expanse of the vacant beach and shoreline, a small, curved object made of wood appeared to be lapping in the tide. Xena called the group's attention to it and, not knowing else to do, they wandered along the beach toward the cove where the breakers came sweeping in and went rolling out in a lazy, gentle, endless wash. When they got closer to the cove, they saw that what they'd taken to be a large chunk of driftwood lilting in the tide was actually a little dory replete with a mast, a rolled sail, a rudder and four oars that could be plied through four oar-holes in the hull.
"A boat," Xena puzzled. "What's a boat doing all by its lonesome on this empty stretch of beach when every last thing's been evacuated, even the mounds of junk that could have been left behind?" Xena shot a fast look to her left and then to her right in the event that some unforeseen foes might be hiding in the tall dune reeds, ready to spring an ambush. But the beach and surrounding plain were silent and bereft of any movement save the flight of the wave-skimming cormorants where the sea met the land.
With a deep frown etched between her brows, Xena approached the little skiff and examined its interior. It appeared to be a seaworthy craft and, in fact, it looked to be in tiptop shape, certainly adequate to make the crossing to Tenedos on the heels of a day's sturdy rowing. Then Xena climbed over the gunwales and examined the sheets and the boom. There she found a torn piece of scroll attached by a leather thong to a cleat in the furled sail. Xena ripped the scroll from the rigging and read these few scrawled words: Thought this might come in handy.
Xena slapped the scroll against her thigh, looked out across the waves toward the ocean horizon and hissed, "Diomedes!"
"What did you say?" Gabrielle poked her head up from beneath the hull where she'd been checking the vessel's underside for leaky spots but hadn't found any.
"I think we may have found a way out of here," Xena said, her eyes still scanning the distant sea lanes which were as still as a mountain slope in winter after a heavy snowfall.
"Whoa, stroke of luck!" Joxer cried with glee. "Boy, fortune favors the fair, doesn't it," Joxer strutted about, primping and, apparently, restricting the category of the "fair" to himself.
"No, not luck," Xena said, suppressing a wizened, almost peevish grin. "A guardian angel left this one-way ticket home for us to accidentally stumble upon."
"You mean we’ve got a sugar daddy that we don't even know about?" Joxer grinned his pancake face grin.
"Looks like," Xena removed her scabbard, its sword within, and dumped it into the boat.
"How do you know we didn’t just happen to luck onto this wooden bucket?" Joxer wanted to know.
"'Cause a little birdie just whispered in my ear," Xena said. "C'mon, Gabrielle, Joxer, Lila, toss your stuff in and let's shove off. If we bust our humps, we might make it over to Tenedos by nightfall, and the place will likely be so packed with partygoers now that the war's over nobody'll know or care that we're there."
Then Xena helped Argo climb aboard for yet another long day at sea in a boat, the loyal mount forced to endure the company of a garrulous hoot owl and no less than three ragged and worn out pussycats.
|Continued - Chapter 76|
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