|Love Among The Runes|
Eight candlemarks of backbreaking labor at the oars got the five of them over the waves to Tenedos where they were able to beach the craft without incident and find a place to board Argo for the night. Unlike the day when they'd arrived in the company of the Amazons, the troupe sticking out like sore thumbs, this time Lila and the others were able to blend into a crowd that was so thick that passersby and members of the shore patrol barely noticed them in the gathering darkness. It also helped that a long cape obscured Xena's brass and leathers and that a creme-colored, leather jacket covered Gabrielle's slinky tank top.
The streets, alleys, wharves and plazas of the little island were teeming with soldiers, merchants, traders, fortune hunters and quick change artists who'd descended upon this busy naval base in the hope of turning a quick dinar. An enormous quantity of plunder was in the process of being looted from Ilium and transported to a variety of destinations. Every hustler and huckster in the known world seemed to have made his or her way to Tenedos in an effort to cash in on the booty. A clever soul, not averse to some enterprising risk taking, could line his or her pockets in a flash if he or she happened to be at the right place at the right time and was fortunate enough to make the right connection at the right price. The gods and goddesses of temptation and deception were having a field day as profit and loss traded places more rapidly than couples twirling in tandem on the dance floors in any of the island's numerous taverns, clubs, bars and night spots. Greed was out in force, with many brushes and an equal number of buckets, to paint the town many coats of bright, burning red.
Tired and famished, the first order of business was to beg, borrow or buy a huge pot of something rich and filling to eat.
"There's a place that looks promising," Xena pointed to the sign outside a large pub with its attached eatery that said: The Silver Dinar: Down Home Kwi-zeen.
"Um, Xena," Lila balked, "do you think we could maybe find some other place to grab a bite at? I don't think I'm up to pigging out on Hash Browns and Home Fries right now."
"Sure, I guess," Xena said. "C'mon, let's see if there's a Greek place where we can get pilafs and kabobs."
Just as the four hungry wayfarers began to stroll further along the crowded drag, a tall fellow in suedes, high-backed boots and a big, round hat came bumbling out of The Silver Dinar and, a bit tipsy, stumbled into the road and accidentally slammed into Xena, sending her skittering toward the curb where she nearly toppled over.
Xena straightened up quickly. Her eyes flared. Her jaw clenched. Her temper bubbled as she growled, "Hey! Watch whose bod you're bangin' into, buddy!"
"Amazella!" the tall fellow lowed with a huge, pie-eating grin on his puss as he beheld Lila dressed in her brown and buff togs. "Why, honey child, it’s been a dawg’s age since the boys in the lounge done seen hide nor hair of your purdy face. Woof, woof. How y'all dewwin', sugar pie?!"
"I'm sorry but do I know you?" Lila backed away as she began to turn a deep shade of crimson.
"Amazella! Honey Lamb! Who could ever forget a shy, sweet thing like you?" the fellow burbled. "Why, I'd know your lovely looks anywheres. 'Amazella's in the cella' with a fella plays the chella'...' When're we gonna get to see you be the openin’ act for Shaniades at the Grand Ol' Acropolis? ‘Man, ah feel like a waw-man!’ And you sure as shootin’ look like one, baby doll."
Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer gave Lila a funny look. Have you, um, run into this guy somewhere?
"'My daddy was a dirt-farmin' hayer, in the hills far away in Po-tee-day-er...,'" the drunken fellow crooned. "Sweet thing, get you a' agent, get you a gig, a ree-cawding contact, you'll be plump as a pig!" Then, with his arms raised in the air, index fingers pointing skywards, hands waving back and forth over his head, the fellow went sashaying on his way, proclaiming to all who fell within the radius of his wobbling perambulations, "’He was a high-rollin’, two-time player; we were broke but I didn’t cay-er...!"
"Lee," Gabrielle turned to look at her extremely embarrassed sister once the inebriated dude had gone lumbering out of earshot, "is there something we oughta know about that maybe you haven't told us?"
"Let's just say that sleeping stones are best left to lie while some dogs ought to remain unturned," Lila said, not quite able to look Gabrielle in the eye.
Gabrielle shrugged and, wisely letting discretion be the better part of valor, she turned the group's attention, with a grateful sigh of relief on Lila’s part, to the business of finding a place where the four of them might get some grub.
They began to cross a wide pier on their way to the next block of eating establishments when the sizzle of frying lamb chops captured their attention. A sizeable crowd had gathered around the iron grill of a long barbecue pit where a roundish fellow in a billowy chef's hat, slightly tilted on his fuzzy skull, was flipping mutton burgers with a wide, metal spatula. In addition to an array of soldiers, merchants, traders and commodities speculators, there looked to be a troupe of strikingly attractive young women, clad in skimpy two-piece bathing suits, whose faces and bodies were drop dead gorgeous except for the slightly protruding incisors that were visible when they smiled and whose eyes appeared to be a mild shade of red with light yellow rings around the irises.
"C'mon, I'm starved. Let's get in line and order something," Xena said, the urgent pangs in her tummy taking precedence over the more patient promptings of her search for a Greek antipasto. As the four of them swung around to face the grill and got a glimpse of the fellow in the chef's hat, Xena's eyes widened and her jaw dropped.
"Xena! Gabrielle! Lila! Um, um..., the one who roams through the countryside and often gets his bottom fried!" Salmoneus greeted his old friends.
'If it isn't Lord Seltzer in the flesh!" Lila's blue eyes twinkled at the surprise encounter.
"What fair wind of fortune blows you guys? Here. Blows you guys here," Salmoneus flipped a patty with one hand and, with the other, he squirt a jet of lighter fluid -- vrooshh!! -- on the burning briquettes that erupted into flame under the greasy grill.
"I was about to ask you that question," Xena stuck her hands on her hips. "What's with the white hat and the button down dickey? Since when have you been a short order cook?"
"Since I promised the maenads I'd host this barbecue they're throwing for their after hours guests," Salmoneus said in a sulking tone, gesturing, with a nod of his head, at the exquisite creatures with the fierce eyes and fangs.
"What brings the maenads here?" Xena said. "And what are you messing with those girls for anyhow?"
"What brings anybody to Fantasy Island nowadays?" Salmoneus dished up a platter of charbroiled burgers and handed it across the grill to one of the en dishabille maenads who'd come over to fetch it. "The hope of instant riches. There are fortunes to be made at the drop of a hat in the bilges and holds of these cargo-laden vessels. It's just a matter of finding the right sock to stick into the right plugget." Salmoneus set down the spatula and picked up a spiny sea conch that was lying on the ketchup and mustard stand next to the grill. "Excuse me, there's a call coming in on my shell phone."
The crowd of hungry party goers, milling about the wharf and the long barbecue pit, began jostling Xena and her companions out of the way, causing some bad vibes as Xena and Gabrielle jostled back.
"I thought I told you I never buy my evening wear from tailor marketing rag traders," Salmoneus barked into the conch, then set it down and began laying a new row of raw lamb patties on the grill. "Did you know that when you sign up for one of these shellular services they make you pay for each call you get as well as for each call you make? Not even the gods get you coming and going like that."
"If you've come here to wheel and deal," Xena said, working her way closer to the grill, "how come you're flipping burgers for the maenads?"
"'Cause Autolycus Wollicus finked out on me on the night of the thesmophoria when Lila and her lexy friend got kidnapped. I promised the maenads the crown jewels of Namibia if they'd spend the night with us and then had to renege, majorly ticking them off," Salmoneus, rather embarrassed, explained as he dug some ears of roasting corn up from the burning coals.
"You and Autolycus were planning to spend the night with a troupe of jewel-hungry maenads?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "Don’t you know that these girls are extremely dangerous?"
"Have you birds totally popped your corks?" Xena wanted to know.
"You're not a guy, you wouldn't understand," Salmoneus crabbed, taking a bunch of buns out of their cloth wrapping and laying them upside down to toast on the grille.
"As between the maenads and the black powder," Xena said to Gabrielle, "I’m not sure which packs the more explosive charge."
"Oh, but in private, under the covers, the maenads can do such things as to make the monsoons that come ripping in off the ocean seem like... drizzle at the ballpark," Salmoneus nearly swooned. "Things that drive men mad and set their farts on hire. They know of secret places to squess and preeze as they make you swiver and shet in the rowing flapids of desire."
"You’re still taking your life in your hands," Xena cautioned.
"They told me they'd let me off the hook for Autolycus' no show if I agreed to work the grill tonight and make sure that everybody gets fed while the maenads peddle their new line of casket cosmetics and post-mortem hair coloring; you know, the kind where only your undertaker knows for sure...?" Salmoneus said. "In the morning, though, I’m shipping out for Thessaly with the crates of dripless wax candles that I purchased at Ilium's going out of business sale in the lighting fixtures department."
"Oh, Sally, Wally...," one of the maenads came fluttering over. "Less chatter and more platter."
Salmoneus re-doubled his efforts to keep the chops and burgers coming. "Did I ever tell you guys the story of how I got my big break back when I cornered the market for those huge, crystal, Antiochene chandeliers?" Salmoneus bellowed over the hissing of the grill as its hot metal grate received a sticky outpouring of raw, red meat. "The world of wax-free, indoor illumination was my bright idea, you know."
While the hungry foursome waited for Salmoneus to dish up their supper, Gabrielle noticed, not far away, the figure of a seedy old beggar who sat hunched up in the folds of a loose-fitting burnoose, his rounded back leaning against a post. The only part of the old beggar that was visible, beneath the shroud, was a scrawny arm that emerged from the burnoose’s looped layers and was attached to a shriveled hand that rattled a tin cup partially filled with coins. "A little something for his pains...," a tepid voice cackled from within.
Gabrielle looked intently at the hunkering form of the old beggar, her eyes narrowing with suspicion. She stealthily approached the covered up waif and hovered over him for a turn of the sandglass, her hands on her hips, her eyes alert, her ears cocked for the least giveaway sound or gesture that might betray the ruse.
The aged denizen of Tenedos' crowded streets must have known that someone was looking down at him as he rattled the cup more forcefully and whined, "Have mercy on the poor, the homeless, the destitute..."
Gabrielle's eyes flared. As quick as a wink, she reached down and grabbed the fringe of the burnoose. "Autolycus!" she cried as she whipped the beggar's covering off and sent the tin of coins spilling across the pavement.
To Gabrielle's mortification, a startled and very scrawny old man, his eyes saucering with fear, sat shivering in his boxer shorts, his arms wrapped tightly around his knees for the sake of having just been exposed to the sudden onset of the cold.
"Oh, dear! Oh, sir!" Gabrielle cried in the scorching consternation of regret and embarrassment as a crowd began to gather, men and women giving Gabrielle hostile looks for having just assaulted a defenseless old man without provocation. "I'm terribly sorry! I thought you were... someone else..."
Then Gabrielle quickly furled the burnoose around the distraught beggar's shoulders, wrapping him up and tucking him in amid many squeals of apology as the old guy huffed and jabbered in outrage once he'd realized that Gabrielle was not, in fact, going to roll him for the sake of his tin cup and its pitifully few dinars.
"I don't suppose you know Autolycus, by any chance," Gabrielle said, feeling terrible for having just wantonly invaded the old gentleman’s privacy.
"No, but if you'll hum a few bars, I’ll see if I can fake it," Gabrielle heard a coy voice behind her and turned to see, in all his green and fashionable finery, the dashing, mustachio'ed King of Thieves.
"Autolycus!" Gabrielle exclaimed in a rage. "Why weren't you hiding under that burnoose!?"
"Let's see," Autolycus considered the question, "why wasn't I hiding under that burnoose? Do I win a free trip to the faraway island of Pulau Pulau if I guess the right answer?"
"You just caused that poor, impoverished old man a great deal of needless embarrassment," Gabrielle huffed and went over to get back on line with Xena, Lila and Joxer.
"I feel like an old sock," Autolycus grumbled. "Darned if I do and darned if I don't."
"Autolycus, what's a high stakes lounge lizard like you doing at a cut rate bingo game like this?" Xena gave Autolycus a blasé once over.
"Aw, c'mon, Xena, where else would you expect me to be?" Autolycus gestured around the packed peer and the crowded avenue that ran alongside it. "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, pigs gotta squeal..."
"And thieves gotta steal," Xena completed the thought.
"You can lead a horse to the glue factory, Warrior Babes," Autolycus held forth, "but if the old mare's determined to win, place or show in the afternoon's final trifecta, it may be a while before she gets turned into a tube of Duco Cement."
When Salmoneus finally got a spare turn of the sandglass, he was able to shovel some plates of supper in the ladies' and Joxer's direction, so that at the end of a long, exhausting day, the four of them finally got something to eat and some tall flagons of mead to wash it down with. For dessert, Autolycus kindly fetted them with a cherry cheesecake which he'd swiped from the pastry case of a Neapolitan canoli importer. All they needed now was a place to kip for the night.
"Wait," a light went on in Xena's brain. "Salmoneus, did I hear you say that you're shipping out for Thessaly in the morning?"
"After I've paid my docking fees. Unless I can slip away undetected," Salmoneus poured a spout of cold water on the hot slab of iron which caused a vortex of steam to rise like a lifting fog bank as he scraped down the grill.
"Think we can hitch a ride with you?" Xena said.
"We're going to Thessaly?" Gabrielle said.
Joxer perked up. "How come we're going to Thessa...?"
"Ssh," Xena scowled. "Can we come?"
"Sure," Salmoneus said. "What's in Thessaly?"
"Mount Olympus," Xena said.
"I mean what's in Thessaly that you guys're heading off to?" Salmoneus began to wipe down the grill with a damp cloth.
"Mount Olympus," Xena said.
"We're going to Mount Olympus?" Gabrielle said.
Joxer raised an eyebrow. "How come we're going to Mount Olymp...?"
"Ssh," Xena frowned. "Can we spend the night on board so we don’t have to hole up in an alley?"
"Sure," Salmoneus said. "What's on Mount Olympus?"
"Hephaestos' forge," Xena said.
"We're going to Hephaestos' forge?" Gabrielle said.
Joxer stroked his chin. "How come we're going to Hephaest...?"
"Ssh," Xena glared. "Can we bring Argo?"
"Sure," Salmoneus started dumping out the trash and stacking the grill racks against the side of the barbecue pit. "Just one thing: I promised the maenads they could throw a bash on board for their prospective clients."
"Not to worry. We'll be sure keep out of their way," Xena said.
"Then make yourselves at home with one of the maenads’ home make up kits," Salmoneus whipped off his apron and got ready to stroll up the gangplank.
It looks like we've gone from the frying pan into the fire, Lila thought as she rocked sleeplessly on her hammock below decks, far into the night, while a troupe of maenads and their suitors partied in the hold and cavorted on the main deck. What Lila was unprepared to view, on the following morning, was the sight of the bodies that were being carried off the ship and dumped unceremoniously into the harbor after having been wrapped in embalming shrouds and weighted down with ropes and rocks.
Joxer had been wary of spending the night on board Salmoneus' chartered vessel in the company of the maenads. He'd recalled the night when Gabrielle had been bitten at the Bacchae party, but now there was no Orpheus on hand who could whip out his lyre and cool out these man-devouring she-demons. Xena had to explain to Joxer that the maenads, though they sprouted fangs and could bite, were more akin to the Sirens than the Bacchae. The Bacchae were aggressive and would attack without warning on the basis of little or no provocation. Sirens, of course, didn't travel. They depended upon enticing men to their reefs and shoals whereupon they behaved much like the Bacchae.
The maenads weren't tied down. They went from place to place. Like the Sirens, men often found the maenads irresistible. The maenads differed from the Bacchae in that, though the Bacchae served a male god, they were homoerotic. Bacchae had no use for men other than as a source of blood nourishment. The maenads were hetero-erotic and, unlike the Sirens, they only availed themselves of blood nourishment during their moon time.
On any given night, then, the chances were better than ninety-five percent that it would be safe to shack up with a maenad. For many men, the maenads represented the height of sensual ecstasy. The maenads were highly skilled in the subtle arts of love and were multi-orgasmic at the slightest touch so that, enfolded in their smooth or downy arms, even the most timid, least self-assured man could feel like a true maitre de chambre. Some men were repelled by the maenads’ red eyes and yellow aureoles and by their fanged incisors, but many more men found these physical features erotically stimulating. Like men who'd lain with selkies in the far islands of Britannia or with the snake-women on the island of Lemnos, many men, having once been lovers with a maenad, lost their desire for other women, including their wives, with the result that the maenads, not being shapeshifters, were easily spotted and frequently persecuted in city, town and shipping port, and had to adapt, many of them, to living life on the run.
But if one happened to lie with a maenad during her moon time, when she was in need of replenishing her supply of male blood, then, after lovemaking, the maenad would overpower, bite and drain the life out of even the strongest man, leaving him dead and desiccated in his bunk come morning. Unfortunately, there was no way to tell when a maenad was on the verge of her moon time, the maenads not being prone to suffer from PMS or other suggestive symptoms. One simply bedded down with them and took one's chances. But it was always the case that one or two unlucky risk takers had guessed wrong and would never wake up in the morning after a night which they might well have wished had lasted forever.
"What a way to go," Autolycus shook his head as the couple, three unlucky souls who’d gotten offloaded from the pier were quickly buried in a sailor's grave. "To die with your boots off and never having fired a shot. With the shooter that you carry in your shoulder holster, I mean."
But the thirty-aught stout and pithy souls who’d survived the previous night's tryst with the maenads and now disembarked from the ship in the tangy salt air of a clear morning sunrise, looked, to a man, to be feeling no pain. And Salmoneus himself was quite over the top.
Xena went to get Argo and, once again, the intrepid band set sail, this time their destination being the very hall of Hephaestos where they intended to commit Hippolyte's belt to the flames in spite of what Xena imagined would be Ares' last ditch effort to foil their attempt.
Lila had thus far sailed on a merchant vessel, a cruise liner and a military transport, and she'd shipped oars on a skiff, a trireme and a dory. Now she got to zip over the waves in a cargo-laden schooner which Salmoneus had chartered in the hope of making a killing, with his dripless wax candles, in towns and cities from Thessaly to Thrace. Xena wasn't entirely pleased with Salmoneus' entrepreneurial ambitions. He was industrious, highly motivated and energetic; and Xena could see the value in those qualities. But it didn't sit well with her that Salmoneus was looking to turn a fast dinar on Ilium's misfortune. But then, Xena reminded herself, so was every other mercantile agent in the Aegean basin as the treasures of Ilium, carried off by the Argive fleet, were making fortunes for their appropriators in the marketplaces of a hundred commercial centers from Sicily to Phoenecia. At least it was only wax candles that had enticed Salmoneus’ cupidity. Plenty of other middlemen were getting a lot richer on far more questionable items of profitable trade such as women and children, stolen art objects, jewels, family heirlooms, weapons and armor.
Though Xena may have wished otherwise, she and her companions were exhausted from their recent ordeal. For the three days and nights it took the bloated craft to cross, under sail, from Tenedos off the Ionian coast to the eastern shore of Thessaly, Xena, Gabrielle, Lila and Joxer, even Argo, did little more than sleep, only waking, on occasion, to eat, drink and pee. They needed the rest, and Autolycus, feeling it safe to be a bit selfless so long as nobody could see him doing it and thus tease him for being a sentimental slob who might actually care about his friends' welfare, quietly made sure that no one disturbed them.
On the third day, they made landfall at Meliboea some fifty leagues south of their destination. This was not a natural harbor like the one at Antissa on Lemnos, and there was no bay here as there were at Salamis and Tiryns. It was a hard, rocky coast open to the winds that came slamming in off the ocean. Large craft had to run the rough channels on narrow roads to a port that was exposed to the weather at a spot where rugged waves crashed against high cliffs.
The seascape was picturesque but not easily negotiated, and that may have been one reason why Thessaly had remained among the wilder, poorer regions of the mainland. This was Achilles' country, the home of the bold Myrmidons who'd fought fiercely at Ilium, sustaining heavy losses over the course of a decade-long combat. But though militarily strong, this broad reach of northwestern Hellas had remained economically backward and politically subservient to the Mycenean states and those of the Peloponnese. In this regard, the Thessalonians resembled the Macedonians and the Thracians. Politically and economically in thrall to the states of the Athenian League, these northerners were thought to be socially interior and intellectually less gifted than their supposedly more cultured counterparts in the south.
Back on terra firma, whipped by a chillier wind than had buffeted them when they'd first embarked on their journey, the fall season now being a moonmark more advanced and the tor of these rocky clefts of land laid bare to the elements, Xena, Gabrielle and Lila, along with Argo, prepared to trek over the barren and often waterless wastes to the base of Mount Olympus and then to ascend its rocky slopes to seek out the caves and halls in which they might arrive at Hephaestos' forge. Autolycus wasn't keen on joining them and didn't need much coaxing to accompany Salmoneus farther up the coast, their ultimate goal being to complete their journey in Thessaloniki where Salmoneus could do his banking and Autolycus might have the chance to rendezvous with some of his lightfingered contacts, the two of them bunking in at the Warrior Training Academy whose fall program was now in full swing.
Joxer wanted to go with Xena, Gabrielle and Lila and had to be persuaded to go instead to Poteidaia and let people know that Gabrielle and Lila had survived the fall of Ilium. The Felafel Man would no doubt have brought word of the Argive victory, and there would surely be celebrations in the offing now that the boys from the surrounding villages would soon be coming home. But the townsfolk would have had no news about Xena, Gabrielle and Lila. No one but Diomedes had spotted them on the night the Argives had put Ilium to the torch. Ephiny and the Amazons hadn't seen or heard from them since the day they'd left Tenedos to complete their journey home. Joxer would be the bearer of welcome news, especially if Perdicas, Andros and Alexis' brothers had already arrived. Being warm-hearted and agreeable, Joxer volunteered to go on ahead and to convey the happy tidings to family and friends.
With the limited supplies that they could carry, then, Xena, Gabrielle, Lila and Argo set out for Mount Olympus.
A bare five leagues inland from the coast, the pitch of the land began to climb and twist and knot itself in steep, knobby bumps of stone liberally interspersed with swollen, protruding boulders. There was a great deal of jagged ledge but little that was green or growing. The air got thinner and the wind swept harder as they climbed. The views were grand yet stark and austere. This was not amenable country and these were not easily traversed hills. The peaks and bare outlooks did not exude friendliness. Progress was slow but steady. Lila took heart to find that she'd gotten better at keeping up with the pace. Xena and Gabrielle didn't have to reign themselves in quite as much as when Lila had first chosen to travel with them, and Lila felt some well-earned pride in achievement. She was toughening up a bit and was slowly earning her warrior companion stripes; Gabrielle, as Lila well grasped by now, having, as far as Gabrielle's own stripes were concerned, graduated from warrior companion to warrior status in her own right.
The foursome spent the night sheltered from the wind in a tight niche up in the high rocks. They were able to scrounge a few stray scraps of wood with which to light a small fire and warm some of the lamb jerky and dried greens they'd brought with them to create the semblance of a meal. The fissure in the rocks provided just enough room for the three women to stretch out on their bed rolls, though the stone beneath them was a good deal harder than their usual beds of soil-covered turf.
"Is this place anything like the gap in the Nemea Pass that we never got to?" Gabrielle asked Xena as the fire died down to a sombre, red glow. "Xena discovered some stone caverns in the hills high above the Nemea Pass when her army was retreating from the battle they’d had with the Centaurs," Gabrielle explained to Lila. "Xena says they're the best hiding places her army ever stumbled upon."
"Also among the trickiest and most dangerous," Xena told Lila. "Remember when we needed Callisto the first time we crossed swords with Velasca? How we had to tempt Callisto with the ambrosia to get her to help?" Xena turned to Gabrielle. "And how Callisto ended up getting buried under that huge rockslide after..., you know...," Xena paused.
"After what happened with Hope and Solon," Gabrielle said.
"Yeah, after all that," Xena nodded.
"Callisto put Hope up to killing Solon," Gabrielle said to Lila. "That was when we lost Serafin to the priests of Dahak."
"The caves above the Nemea Pass are like those, only they're bigger on the inside and stretch farther under the mountains," Xena said. "If the Persians had discovered them and had then managed to occupy them when they launched their big invasion, everything that's happened since that time would have turned out differently and we wouldn't be camping here tonight. We'd be living very different lives, assuming we were living at all."
"We’d be Persian slaves, most likely," Gabrielle said.
"Possibly," Xena said.
"Xena?" Lila poked at the nearly extinguished fire with a bent stick that was too green for burning.
"Yeah, Lila?" Xena said.
"This may be off the subject of Callisto and the Persians and all, but I’ve always wondered how you got your name," Lila said.
"My name?" Xena said, tossing twigs onto the campfire.
"Yeah, what does it mean?" Lila said. "Like Gabrielle means 'Little Angel Song' and Liliana means 'Flower of the Fields', but what does Xena mean?"
"Well, xenos is something foreign and strange," Xena said. "And xena would be the way you’d say it for a girl. So I guess it means a girl who's an outsider, someone who doesn't fit the mold."
"Why would your mother have named you that?" Lila was curious.
"Mom used to tell me I was a strange child, that I marched to a different drum," Xena said. "Toris was older and knew how to handle himself. Lyceus was the baby, and Mom was worried that I might end up being a bad influence on him 'cause I was always kind of wild. We were pretty close, Lyceus and me, until Cortese raided our village and Lyceus lost his life by joining me and the others who’d decided to put up a fight."
"But you and your Mom are real close, aren't you?" Lila said. "I mean from the few times that I've seen you together, you and your mom, I've gotten the feeling that the two of you are… real close."
"Yeah, we are," Xena sighed. "But I was pretty independent. Still, I carried my mom around inside me, and I think she knew it. I resented her for that, and I think she knew that too. One time I shouted at her, 'You've put such a firm stamp on me, how am I supposed to learn to be my own person!?'"
"What did she say when you said that?" Lila asked.
"Just that she was sure I'd find a way to become the person I was meant to be," Xena said. "And when I did, she turned her back on me."
"Because that wasn't who you were meant to be," Gabrielle broke in.
"And after she turned her back on you?" Lila said.
"It was because of what I’d become," Xena said. "I left Draco’s gang and was on my way home, to see if she’d take me back, when I ran into you guys. Gabrielle showed up the next day and sort of broke the ice and then I beat Draco and stopped running away, and then Mom stopped running away when I stopped running away, and then things between us started to get better. I love my Mom, Lila. I haven't always been good at showing it, though."
Lila sat in the deepening darkness, feeling complimented that Xena would open up to her like that. Xena seemed so open and vulnerable these days, not very warrior-like at all. Good thing Gabrielle was there to protect Xena. Xena seemed like she needed it.
"I'm sure your mom must have known all along that you loved her," Lila said.
"She did. She does," Gabrielle spoke from the shadows. "It was written all over her the instant I showed up and still is."
They slept as best they could and broke camp in the morning, travelling the whole day to make, when night fell, yet another cramped campsite in the raw, stubbly hills. There were no towns, villages, outposts, passing traffic. Strangers in a barren land, they honed in ever closer to their destination. The gods, perhaps wisely, had chosen a spot far from the habitations of men to make their immortal home.
"Look," Xena pointed across a wide moon-ridge at a sharp peak that rose, steep and craggy, to the gray, enervating sky. "Remember the time, with Herc and Iolaus, when we unchained Prometheus?"
"When you and Herc fought over who was going to wield the Sword of Hephaestos," Gabrielle nodded.
"It's way up over there. See it?" Xena gestured.
"The dryads...," Gabrielle said with alarm.
"I've been keeping an eye out for any sign of them," Xena said. "I’ve detected nothing so far. I don't think they'll bother us. Not unless..."
"Unless what?" Gabrielle said, with some concern, when Xena paused.
"Lila," Xena said, "have you been getting any signals from the belt?"
"Signals?" Lila said.
"Has the belt been doing anything? Vibrating? Pulsing?" Xena said.
"Uh uh," Lila said. "I can hardly feel it."
"I'm sure he knows we're coming, though," Xena said mostly to herself. "I guess there'd be no point in sending any creatures out to get us. Besides, making use of monster-props has never been his style."
"Whose style, Xena?" Lila said.
"You think Ares wants to get his hands on the belt?"
"If Ares thinks the belt might help him get what he's always imagined he's wanted."
"For you to ride at the head of his army?"
"For someone -- anyone -- to release him from the misery of his existence."
At last, toward noon on the third day, the great mountain of the gods hove into sight.
"So that's what it looks like," Lila gasped. "I never dreamed I'd ever see it. It sure doesn't look climbable."
"It's the highest spot in the known world," Gabrielle said.
The peak, banded with iced snow that never melted, rose to the clouds.
"We don't need to head for the summit," Xena said. "Only Hercules has been to the summit, and that was when Zeus brought him there after Alcmene died. We're looking for the caves where Hephaestos runs his mining operations."
It took several candlemarks of carefully negotiating the pebbly slopes for Xena, Gabrielle and Lila to make their way around to the mountain's most gradual ascent and to find the opening into the subterranean caves where smoke and steam came drifting and whistling out of the cracks and fissures of deep chasms and broad defiles.
With Xena in the lead, one hand holding steadfastly to Argo's reins, the foursome gingerly made its way to the widest of the mountain's porous shafts. There they entered the outer cave, an atrium which had been blasted out of the rock to resemble a grand hall with many lit torches in slanted holders bolted to the walls so that the hall and its adjoining passageways were illumined rather brightly.
"I'll bet Salmoneus would do the tango if he could get a load of this place," Gabrielle looked around the massive hall and its neighboring rooms. "Think of the jillions of dripless candles it would take to light up this place."
"Do you suppose the gods use it for anything?" Lila said. "Banquets? Dances? Meetings? Gatherings?"
"It's mostly been a warehouse," Xena said. "It was packed with weapons, armor and parts for assembling catapaults and siege engines before getting shipped out to equip the Argive forces before they set sail for Ilium."
"You've been here before, I take it," Lila said.
"Mm...," Xena nodded. "Ares brought me here when he outfitted my army. I wonder why it looks so empty now."
"A lull in demand with the war being over?" Lila suggested.
"Maybe but not for long," Xena said as they started down the rear passageway toward an apparent source of heat and flame. "Now that Troy has fallen, there's nothing's to prevent the House of Atreus from mounting a full-scale invasion of the Bosphorus and trying to seize the most lucrative Asian trade routes."
"Even the ones that go as far as Chin?" Gabrielle said.
"All of them," Xena said, "even the ones through Anatolia to Pontus and Themiscyra."
"The Amazons!" Gabrielle’s eyes widened. "Do you think an invasion force might try to wipe them out?"
"I think it's likely," Xena said, "unless some greater force rises up to stop them."
"You mean like you and me?" Gabrielle said.
"No, something much bigger than you and me," Xena said. "something cataclysmic and earth-changing. Something that could -- who knows -- even bring down the gods."
"Fat chance of that ever happening," Gabrielle grimaced.
"Who knows," Xena said in a daydreamy voice. "Somewhere, in some anonymous little hovel, far from the Madding crowd, a child gets born, and the whole world changes."
The long passageway led to a rotunda on the far side of which an enormous interior cavern was filled with forges, braziers, coke furnaces and sizzling water baths. An atmosphere of busy efficiency pervaded this vast underground chamber which looked to be staffed with upwards of fourscore hard-working, fast moving creatures with hairy legs, open vests and long, pointy ears.
"Satyrs?" Lila's eyes widened with alarm. She'd heard of such beasts but had never encountered one.
"Trolls," Xena said. "They work for Hephaestos. You'll never find a satyr here. They can't stand the noise or the heat. And satyrs hate being cooped up in caves."
Amid the banging and clanging that caromed off the rounded stone ceiling and the deep, concave walls of the cavern, creating a constant, raucous and extremely unpleasant din, Xena, Gabrielle, Lila and Argo made their way through the throng unnoticed or, at least, unacknowledged.
"Any idea where we're going!?" Gabrielle shouted at Xena.
"Sort of!" Xena shouted back. "Hephaestos spends most of his time in the lab these days, experimenting with specific gravities!"
"As opposed to generalized levities!" Gabrielle retorted.
"I hear he's been fashioning new materials out of recently developed alloys!" Xena cried over the sound of non-stop hammer-banging and anvil-thwacking. "For swords as light as my chakram. Shields that don't shatter when you smash them with a mace. Lightweight armor that doesn't bog you down on the run."
"That's what the Felafel Man was telling me and Lexie when we saw him in the square on the day that all the trouble started!" Lila burst out. "He said that new improvements in weapons manufacture are making it onto the market every day. So this is where it gets designed and engineered!"
"Yup and there he is!" Xena pointed through the cavernous opening of the smelting works into an adjoining foundry where tools, aprons and little gas torches whose flames had been extinguished were lying helter skelter on long, high, hard-topped, workshop tables. Hephaestos was down at the far end, leaning on his crutch and conferring with several assistants. In another turn of the sandglass, the armorer of the gods looked up and, when he saw Xena, his deeply furrowed brow and pitted cheeks lit up with a broad smile.
"Xena!" Hephaestos cried warmly as he came hobbling over, his free hand wobbling in the air as his body bumbled forward in quick, jerky motions. "What on earth -- or under it, I should say -- brings you here! I’d heard that you'd gone bruiting over to Ilium to offer your sword to King Priam and that you’d fought alongside the Trojans. Bully for you! They could have done with a dozen such staunch allies in the face of that colossal Argive buildup. Pity the way it all turned out, eh? I was hoping the Trojans might have pulled off an upset victory at the eleventh candlemark, and I hear that they nearly got 'round to it. Well, war is Hades as they say. What've we got here? Who are these lovely specimens? Your travelling companions, no doubt."
"This is Gabrielle and this is Gabrielle's sister, Lila. This is Hephaestos," Xena did the intros.
"Nice to meet you," Gabrielle said.
"Likewise," Lila nodded.
"The pleasure's mine. Tell me: are you gals hungry? We're about to break for lunch," Hephaestos said.
"Now that you ask...," the ladies' eyes lit up.
"Soup and sour dough’s on the menu. Come, we’ll head into the kitchen," Hephaestos led the way. "We’ve got a moonmark of back orders to catch up on," Hephaestos declaimed. "Agammemnon’s deluged us with requests to replenish his fighting forces. He depleted much of his arsenal in that grand nighttime attack on Troy, but I guess the move paid off pretty handsomely for him."
"Is this where you make the gods' fireballs?" Lila looking around the giant factory complex, amazed.
"No, I make them fire their balls outside," Hephaestos replied. "Goodness, if they fired them in here, they'd blow the place up."
"She means: is this where you make the gods' fireballs?" Gabrielle said.
"We gods are extremely potent, my dear," Hephaestos smiled at Gabrielle's lovely eyes and facial features, "but even we don't have balls that are made of fire, as heartily as I might wish it on occasion..."
"We've come on a mission, Hephaestos," Xena said.
"Of course," Hephaestos escorted them into the little kitchen area off the workshop where a pot of soup was simmering on the stove and a large straw basket was half-full of light dinner rolls. "Grab some bowls and help yourselves. You'll find spoons and knives in one of those drawers. If I'd've know you were coming, I'd've had them bring some cold cuts. Want butter for the rolls? All we have are those obnoxious little pads with the greasy hats on them, I'm afraid. We get them in bulk. It's cheaper that way."
"Thank you, Hephaestos, I’m sure the soup and rolls will be just fine," Xena said.
"Well, sing out if I can get you anything. Poor 'Dite," Hephaestos sighed, taking a seat beside them, "all she does these days is mope around her temples, feeling sorry for herself. Won't even take out the Golden Apple of Eris that Paris awarded her for being the most beautiful of all the goddesses. She so badly wanted the Trojans to come out on top. And to see so many of them butchered and sold into slavery, it's dampened her spirits terribly. Maybe you could talk to her, Xena, try and cheer her up a bit. I know she thinks the world of you -- and of you, too, Gabrielle."
"We'll bop into one of her temples as soon as we've wrapped things up here," Xena promised. "We're very fond of Aphrodite. Besides, I want to thank her for saving my life."
"'Dite? Saved your life?" Hephaestos said, intrigued.
"She talked me out of doing something that would have gotten me impaled on the tip of Achilles' spear," Xena said. "So I guess I'm grateful."
"Interesting," Hephaestos stroked his sweaty beard. "'Dite seems to have the most extraordinary effect on people. Completely irrational, utterly unreasonable, wholly unreachable at times but a heart that's as big as... well, as big as this mountain we’re under. Now, then, ladies, what can I do for you?"
Xena looked at Lila. "Take it out."
Lila reached under her tunic, undid the belt, slid it around her waist and, removing it, held it up for Hephaestos’ inspection.
"Remember this?" Xena directed Hephaestos' attention to the jewel-bedizened object.
"Oh... my...," Hephaestos sat back and took a long, scrutinizing look at his priceless creation which threw off a thousand gleaming flamepoints of light. "I haven't seen that thing in many a long sunmark. How did you come by it?"
Xena nodded for Lila to answer.
"Queen Admete gave it to me," Lila handed Hephaestos the belt for his examination.
"Eurystheus' daughter. Brown hair. Nice build. A bit tall. Attractive features. Well-spoken," Hephaestos ruminated as he gave the belt a careful looking over. "I heard that Hercules got it for Eurystheus to give to her as a wedding gift. Obtained it from Hippolyte after a terrible row on the docks which ended with Hippolyte’s death and a bevy of her finest Amazons. Done in by Herc himself, I was led to understand."
"It's a sad story," Xena said.
"But now it seems that you’ve got the belt," Hephaestos looked from Xena to Lila. "And you've brought it here to what..., have me autograph it?"
"We want you to destroy it," Lila said.
"What?" Hephaestos raised both eyebrows. "To... break it apart and melt it down? Such a lovely piece? Why? Don't you like it?"
"I'm in awe of it," Lila said. "I think it's beautiful. It may be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Nonetheless, I want you to destroy it."
"May I be so bold as to ask why?" Hephaestos said, a concerned look coming over his rough, engraved face.
"It's brought nothing but grief and sorrow to those for whom it was intended and, in particular, upon someone whom I loved," Lila said. "When Admete said she fancied the belt for a wedding present, Herc asked Hippolyte if she’d be willing to part with the belt, and Hippolyte said yes. Then Hera intervened and tragedy ensued. Admete soon realized that the belt wasn’t rightfully hers and she was willing to give it up. But only to the one who desired it for the right reason.
"Meanwhile, a dispute had arisen over who was to succeed Melosa as queen of the Macedonian Amazons. Penthesileia was asked to mediate the dispute and she did. Xena and Gab went to see Admete, hoping that Admete might give them the belt to bring to Penthesileia on Ephiny's behalf, Ephiny being one of the parties to the dispute. As it turned out, Admete gave the belt to me, and I brought it to Penthesileia whose dying wish was to have it destroyed so that the energy it contains might not be a burden to future generations of Amazons. I've come... the three of us have come to carry out Penthesileia’s final wishes."
"Is it true, Xena, what this young woman has just related?" Hephaestos said.
"I take it you know at whose request this belt was made," Hephaestos turned back to Lila.
"Ares’," Lila said.
Suddenly, Xena became agitated and began to shift restlessly on her seat. The look on her face grew intense and her voice had a sharp edge to it as she cried, "Hephaestos, give the belt back to Lila! Now!"
Hephaestos sat up startled. His hand inadvertently extended the belt over the table as a dusty, golden haze of light filled the room. In the next instant, the suave, muscular, leather-clad god of war stepped out of the golden glow and reached for the belt just as Lila succeeded in snatching it away.
Ares gritted his teeth as his grasp turned up empty. "Smooth move, Xena. I never did master the knack of sneaking up on you. Hmpf, I might have known: the Annoying Blonde. And... who's this?"
"It’s my sister. Back off, Ares," Gabrielle said through gritted teeth.
"So Gal Friday's got a sister," Ares gave out his seductive charm as he undressed Lila with his eyes and communicated to her, with a look, that what he was seeing underneath wasn't half bad. "And Sis looks to have gotten hold of a toy that she oughtn’t to be playing with. Give it here, Sis," Ares held out his hand.
"Kick a ninety yard field goal with a bandage on your broken toe," was Lila's considered response as she coddled the belt close to her breast.
"A bit of bias based on a wealth of misinformation, I see," Ares said with a sour note in his voice. "Then put it this way: hand over the belt and you won't get hurt."
"Stand back, Ares," Xena drew her sword and placed its shaft between Ares and Lila like the lowered gate of a meadow stile.
"What is this," Ares hissed. "C’mon, Xena, you wanna see that sword of yours turned into a barrel full of ten penny nails."
"That'll do! The both of you!" Hephaestos gave the company a cross look. "This is a busy workplace, not a deserted schoolyard in which to indulge in contentious quarrels. So long as you're here as my guests, you'll behave. That goes for everyone."
"I had that belt made as a gift for someone I loved. I have no intention of letting it be destroyed," Ares warned the group.
"Your so-called love has destroyed a lot of lives," Xena looked daggers at Ares. "Not that mortal lives have ever meant much to you."
"Cram it, Xena. Your whining on behalf of the boring lives of tedious mortals is breaking my heart," Ares mocked. "I'll tell you who died, Xena. It wasn’t just Penthesileia or her dozen Amazons or the thousands of Argives and Trojans whose bodies littered the battlefield where they fell. It was also the tough, savvy, challenging Warrior Princess I used to know, a certain Destroyer of Nations who I still miss. Now give me the belt, little girl. I won't ask again."
Lila bravely clung to the belt for the sake of the love she felt for the departed Penthesileia. "I'm the rightful possessor of this belt now," Lila protested. "It can't be taken from me without my consent or the one who takes it will be subject to a terrible curse if not to instant death."
Ares let go a thundering laugh. "And who do you think arranged for that dire curse as a way of keeping unwanted paws off that thing? You pathetic mortals are so naive. Harmonia, Otrere, Lysippe, Hippolyte, they were mine, each one of them, and now they're gone. I might have bestowed my gifts on Penthesileia if she hadn't so hastily rejected them. But she always was a spoiled brat who pouted when she didn't get her way."
"She was your daughter!" Lila, forgetting that she was talking to a god, lashed out in a fury. "Spoiled brat? She was one of the most selfless people whom I've ever had the privilege to know! She loved Hippolyte and would have given her life for her! All you cared about was luring Hippolyte into bed and getting her with child. Your own daughter! No wonder they despised you! Any Amazon with any self-respect could feel nothing but contempt for you! Penthesileia wished for this belt to be given back to the earth so that you couldn't use it to woo and waste any more Amazon queens. And we've come here to honor her wishes!"
"Little bitch. Who in the name of all that’s unholy do you think you are...," Ares growled and lunged at Lila in an effort to wrest the belt from her.
"Xena!" Lila cried. A fraction of a fall of a sand grain before Ares could grab the belt, Lila tossed it to Xena.
Ares whirled around with a roar and leaped at Xena.
"Gabrielle!" Xena cried and tossed the belt to Gabrielle.
In a rage, his eyes a bloody shade of red, Ares spun around and stumbled toward Gabrielle. An instant before he was able to grab the belt, Gabrielle cried, "Lee...!" and tossed the belt to Lila.
Smoke began to pour from Ares' mouth and to rise from his ears as he tried to wrap Lila in his clutches. "Hephaestos!" Lila cried and flung the belt in Hephaestos' direction.
On his feet now and teetering off balance, Hephaestos watched the belt come sailing through the air toward him the bare width of a thumbnail above Ares outstretched hand. Leaning his hip against the edge of the table, Hephaestos opened his free hand as if to catch the belt and, in the same instant, so that it might not interfere, he whisked the crutch out of the way as though he were swinging a club. But the crutch accidentally connected with the belt and swatted it arching through the air where it landed smack on the volatile fuel that fired the hottest forge in the foundry.
Accompanied by a mighty roar, blue-hot flames soared up from the forge, and the heat thus ignited was so intense that it fused the iron tools on the nearby work benches and nearly turned the stone walls to molten rock. Then the area all round the forge lit with a multi-colored shower of light as the jewels which had adorned the belt -- rubies, emeralds, sapphire, jade, onyx -- exploded and burst into a zillion fragments of atomized mist. An instant later, the leather and metal buckle sizzled from liquid to gas and vanished.
"Nooo!!!" Aries cried, thwarted, once again, in his bid to maintain control, via objects imbued with the power of sympathetic magic, of the bodies of the women whose hearts, on account of his greed, lust, pride and insatiable will to dominate, he could never hope to win.
A dusty, golden twinkle of haze lit up the space around them and Ares was gone.
Xena, Gabrielle, Lila and Hephaestos looked blankly at one another. It had all happened so fast. But the belt was gone. Vaporized. Transmuted back to nothingness as though it had never existed.
"Rest easier, my love," Lila whispered and turned to gaze at the forge whose fire now returned to normal. And then, up from the white hot slurry at the bottom of the forge, a mixture of fire, gas and magma hot enough to dissolve a body on contact, there shot two gleaming, white diamonds which sailed through the air to land, like a pair of dropped eggs, on Lila's open palms; and, inexplicably, when the fiery gems made contact with Lila's skin, they were as cool as autumn fruit to the touch.
Lila stared at the others in amazement. "The diamonds from the buckle," she said, looking from face to face. "She wanted me to have one and to give the other one to Ephiny."
"Let me see them, child," Hephaestos reached out and took the huge diamonds from Lila's hands. "Ah, yes, here they are. Come, look. See the runes? Here’s the belt's authentic signature."
Lila directed her gaze to the flat pavilions that formed the center of the faceted diamonds, slanting outward from girdle to culet. The heart of each diamond was etched with a distinctive marking.
"This is the rune for Hippolyte," Hephaestos showed Lila the markings, "and that’s the one for Penthesileia. These diamonds were Penthesileia's gift to Hippolyte when Ares commissioned the belt. I don't think he knew that these runes were on them when I affixed the diamonds to the buckle. And one thing more, which you may not know, which no one but myself may have known. Hippolyte consulted with me before turning the belt over to Hercules. She was willing to surrender the belt, as you know, but not the diamonds on the buckle. Those she wished to keep and sought my expertise in removing them. Unfortunately, she hadn't done so before the unfortunate train of events occurred that led to her murder and the massacre of her most trusted Amazons."
"So she kept Penthesileia's gift close to her heart," Lila said, "and wouldn't part with that token of their love."
"Hippolyte was a queen and a queen's life is not her own," Hephaestos said. "Her life belongs to the people whom she serves and whose hopes and dreams she embodies. But silently, in her heart, though she could no longer show nor permit herself consciously to feel it, she loved Penthesileia as devoutly as Penthesileia loved her. Sister to sister. Woman to woman. Body to body and soul to soul."
"Ohhh...," Lila let out a sound that could have been a moan, a groan or the release of an eternal sigh. "Thank you so much for saying that. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to know that she was loved even as she loved." And the radiantly serene expression on Lila's face bore witness to the truth of her words. A weight lifted off Lila's heart and she felt renewed, buoyant and more alive than she’d ever felt before.
Xena thanked Hephaestos, and, the errand done, she, Gabrielle and Lila went on their way. Night had fallen, and though it took them a while, working their way over the steep, slippery berm, past cairns and ebeneezers which previous travelers had kindly erected to warn of pitfalls and potential rock slides, they eventually found a crevice in which to huddle for the night. Sleep overtook them despite their hard beds and the cold air. Then, in the morning, the sun found them, and the sky was as blue as the color of leaping flames from a fiery, underground forge.
The last leg of the journey home would have gone more quickly if they'd returned to the coast and had been able to book passage on a vessel that might have taken them north by northeast across the Pallene Bay to the harbor at Poteidaia. But the land route home, up through the charming, mystical hill country of Pieria where some of Xena's and Gabrielle's earliest adventures had taken place, seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. They were in no hurry, and they felt they'd earned the right to do some leisurely travelling after the hectic pace of their endeavors over the past moonmark. The waning days of Pyenepsion were giving way to harder chills at night, even frost in the low lying valleys, and autumn in these high hills, just before the dull, enervating gray of the winter fog and rains set in, was lush and frequently breathtaking.
For the next ten days, their path would take them north along the coast, through Pieria, to enter Macedonia from the west and then to dip south until they came to Thessaloniki at which point they'd be a hop, skip and a jump from Poteidaia. And their first order of business, as Xee, Ree and Lee began their homeward journey, was to stop into the first temple of Aphrodite they found along the way and to try their level best to cheer up the goddess of love and help her recover some of her badly battered self-esteem.
"They'll never believe all that's happened since the day we left home," Lila, thinking of Herodotus and Hecuba, said on their first night under the stars when they’d made camp and, as Xena and Gabrielle had done so many times in the past, had caught their supper in the woods, then skinned, paunched, roasted and devoured it. Lila was lying on her bedroll next to Gabrielle who was lying on her bedroll next to Xena, the three of them on their backs, gazing up at the stars. "I’m not sure I believe it myself."
"And you know what, Lee?" Gabrielle turned her neck to look at Lila. "It doesn't get any more believable as time goes by, does it, Xena."
"Does what get any more believable?" Xena said, a mite irritated because she'd just about drifted off to sleep.
"Things," Gabrielle said.
"What things?" Xena frowned.
"Everything," Gabrielle said.
"Quit mumbling and go to sleep," Xena grumbled and rolled over on her side.
"Take that as a yes," Gabrielle winked at Lila and then Gabrielle, too, rolled over and was soon fast asleep.
|Continued - Chapter 77|
|Return to The Bard's Corner|