On a cool, breezy day in late summer, a small sailing vessel, indistinguishable from most of the craft moored in the marina, docked at one of the piers in Poteidaia's calm harbor. A woman of average height alighted from the vessel and drew the hood of her dark wool cassock over her head to cover her long, brown hair and obscure her face which, though still handsome, was now etched with the lines of middle age. Breathing the salt air and feeling the tang of these chillier, more northerly climes, the woman stood on the dock for a long turn of the sandglass, her glance fixed on the crisscrossing catwalk of steep stairs whose rickety flights were enclosed with swooping rope handles.
As the woman waited, a second woman, a good deal younger than the first, came walking down the stairs and crossed the dock. She wore a blue mantle whose robe and cowl hid a brown and buff tunic, a short, suede skirt and a tumble of long, dark, abundantly flowing hair that rolled with just the slightest hint of a wave. When the second woman had come within a dozen paces of the traveler who'd just disembarked, she stopped and gazed at what she could see of the traveler's face and dress. Standing quietly and still, the traveler returned the gaze. Then the two women closed the distance between them and extended their arms in a formal, efficient embrace.
Their faces shrouded, they left the dock, climbed the stairs and walked discretely through the town square. Then they slipped gingerly out the main gate and continued walking north along the dirt road toward the acacia grove and the waving meadows that were now ripe with a rich fall harvest of wheat, rye and barley. When the outlying village had come into view, the women turned left and sunward to seek out a less-traveled, more circuitous path that lazed through a wide stand of tamarack and banyan. In little more than a league, the path came to an end in a curly copse of laurel bushes through which, its vestibule dappled with trellises of hollyhock and morning glory, a small hut stood isolated on a rocky cleft of land whose curtilege was marked by a well-tended vegetable garden, a pile of split kindling and a fountain whose fine spray shot up and over the rim of the ewer held on the shoulder of a nude, granite nymph to fill and then drain from the fountain's circular catch basin.
The women strode side by side up the stubbled path that ran between the hedged garden plots. They entered the hut via a rear door which led to a small chapel. At that point, they turned to face one another. The hostess whose hut they'd entered slipped the cowl off her head and onto the shoulders of her mantle and, with a warm smile at her guest, she opened her arms and said, "Come."
The guest, slightly taller and more slender, slid the hood off her sleek, brown hair. With a smile that was equally warm, she crossed the space of floor between them to embrace her hostess. The women hugged, then kissed long and deeply on the lips, then hugged and kissed again.
"It's been nearly six moonmarks," the hostess’ opalescent blue eyes twinkled in the dust-moted light that poured through the high, slanting ridges of the window panes.
"Five moons and a quarter but who's counting," the guest replied with a smile, looking around the tiny chapel. "This is just the way I remember it. The altar, the sanctuary, the little apse. It's so lovely the way you’ve laid it all out, Lila. No, it's something else. It's sacred. This is a sacred spot, my dear. I can feel it, and I assure you I don't often feel such things in the throne room and chapels of Tiryns."
"You're kind to say so," Lila said. "But if what you say is true, I'm afraid I can't take credit for it. My predecessor devoted herself to making this spot and the grounds which surround it beautiful and peaceful. It will take me many sunmarks to achieve anything comparable."
"But you have," Lila's guest went to the window and looked out at the front yard. "That gazebo is new and so are the additions to those lovely flower beds. And what's staring at me from over by the fringe of woods? A little sheepcote, is it?"
"It’s a pig pen," Lila chuckled.
"No...," Lila's guest raised a curious eyebrow, then turned away from the window and smiled. "Seriously? You’re raising pigs, are you?"
"Not really. He's a pet," Lila said, "who has no compunction when it comes to eating me out of house and home and who squeals like the dickens whenever he feels like it and behaves abominably when I change his water and rake out the slops; and I love him madly and not a day goes by when I'm not both incensed and delighted at some further outrage that he's managed to commit against my ingrained sense of propriety and decorum."
Lila's guest laughed heartily and looked lovingly at Lila. "Then I'd say it serves you right, and I’m sure you must warrant every last outrage that your freeloading boarder chooses to heap upon you."
"Admete, come," Lila smiled. "Let me show you what I've done with the living quarters and the fireplace and the closet where the things you left are hung and freshly laundered."
Lila escorted Queen Admete to the bright, airy kuzeena with its combination cooking, dining and sitting area where a kettle filled with spring water sat on a trivet waiting for a fire to be lit so that it might noisily creak its way to a boil.
"You remember the bedroom, don’t you?" Lila said. "See how I've redecorated it. And there's something else that's new," Lila pointed to the far side of the hut’s open interior. "A little workroom I use for a study, an office, and a place for overnight guests to say."
Admete wandered over and peeked inside. "How cozy! There's piles of cotton batting and scrap material on the table. Do you sew a great deal?"
"Not very often," Lila said. "My mother left those remnants piled up on the table. She comes in the late afternoons on days when she can get away. She likes to make little rag dolls to sell at flea markets and county fairs. The hut’s become her little hideout. My father built the addition. He and Clenesthides, Alexis' father. You remember my friend, Alexis."
"The wild-looking redhead with the adorable six year old," Admete said.
"And another one on the way," Lila smiled. "Here, sit down. You've had a long voyage on that anonymous boat, and I'm determined to feed you something nutritious while I fill you up with numerous cups of my specially blended, herb tea."
Admete did as Lila bade, and soon the ladies were seated at the table by the window where they warmed to the afternoon sun that spilled through the wide, mullioned panes.
"By the gods, I'm so happy to see your face again," Admete reached for Lila's hand and affectionately stroked it.
"And I yours," Lila said softly, returning Admete's affection with a look of her lovely blue eyes.
Lila and Admete spent the afternoon catching up on the events that had gone on in their separate lives since the biting, springtime winds of their prior visit. Admete had juggled her duties so as to arrange for a week's vacation, and it took a bit of royal maneuvering for her to find a way to travel in cognito to Poteidaia where she could spend several days relaxing and as many nights being held and gentled in her lover's arms.
Shortly before suppertime, the door banged open. Lila and Admete, who were lounging on the sofa, sat bolt upright at the sudden intrusion.
"Lilander!" a sharp but kind voice cried from the doorway. "Next time knock before you go rushing in unannounced! There might be penitents inside who've come for healing or confession!"
A freckle-faced six year old came blasting into the hut's living quarters. He had wide cheeks, bright green eyes, a curvy mouth, crinkly, reddish hair and a face that was rippling with mischief.
"Auntie Lee!" he clambered onto the sofa and plunked himself down on Lila's lap, indifferent to the strange lady who was sitting next to her. "Auntie Anike says I have to go home, but I want to stay and have supper with the two of you!"
A lovely woman about Lila's age, whose long, dark hair sparkled with smooth, blue highlights and whose face had a natural beauty that reflected from every well-formed curve, came darting, with a spry step, into the light-filled room on the heels of her rambunctious, young charge.
"You know that you mom's doing her reserve training at the Academy this week. Your dad's left the counting house early so he can get supper out on the table for the two of you," the picture-pretty woman pulled up short. "See? What did I tell you? Lee, I'm terribly sorry. We were picking blackberries down at the brook, and Lilander bolted and came steaming up the hill!"
"There’s nightcrawlers down there! Tons of ‘em!" Lilander enthusiastically showed Lila his fistful of wiggly earthworms.
"They’re magnificent! I’ve never seen them so big!" Lila let out a rich belly laugh.
"They are rather splendid," Admete followed suit.
"But see here, young man," Lila's eyes twinkled with unabashed affection for her godchild, "you should mind Anike when she tells you it's time to be on your way home for supper. Your dad will miss you if you turn up late."
"Auntie Anike and me are gathering berry vines for Hades' crown," Lilander turned around and looked with admiration at Auntie Anike, the lady in charge of the biggest, most mysterious building that Lilander had ever seen, much bigger and more mysterious than Auntie Lee's little hut. "These viney things have thorns on them and they’re sharp and they can prick you, but we’re going to weave them together so they won't hurt anyone, aren't we, Auntie Anike?"
"He's a brave fellow to cut those vines and offer to help make circlets out of them," Anike smiled.
"Of course, he's a brave fellow. He’s a trooper like his mama," Lila propped the young urchin on her lap. "Lilander, I want you to meet a very nice lady. This is my friend, Admete. Admete, this is Alexis’ little terror and her fondest pride and joy."
"Hello, Lilander," Admete smiled and extended her hand.
"Hi," Lilander said and then turned back to Lila. "Can I stay and have supper with you and Auntie Anike, and can we play Dungeons and Dryads after?"
"I'll tell you what," Lila ran her hand through Lilander's hair and pulled some grassy twigs out of it. "You head home with Auntie Anike and have supper with your dad, and perhaps before you go to bed, Anike, Admete and I will come and sing a song and tuck you in and say goodnight. Ah, ah...," Lila held up her hand as Lilander began to fuss, "we can't not go home for supper just because an interesting guest has come to visit. We'll come by later and see you when it's time for bed."
"Promise?" Lilander pouted.
Lila shot a quick look at Admete who smiled and nodded.
"Allright, young man, we'll come see you after supper. In the meantime, you go dig out those dryad bones that Uncle Herodotus carved out of wood for you," Lila lifted Lilander off her lap and setting his feet on the floor.
The promise of an after supper visit from his two favorite aunts along with this strange, pretty lady seemed to delight the young man who instantly became more pliable as he scooted over to the table and perched on a chair, wheeling around to peek through the slats at the grownups.
"Anike, you remember Admete, don't you?" Lila said.
"Welcome. I heard you were coming. It's nice to see you again," Anike reached out an arm which Admete grasped. "I hope you had a relaxing trip."
"I did as a matter of fact," Admete said. "It was smooth, serene and uneventful."
"I want to run something by you when you’ve got a turn of the sandglass," Anike said to Lila. "The enaretes kores. They've got some ideas about how they'd like to jazz up the thesmophoria skit. I think most of them are allright, but some of the girls want to work one of those off-the-wall, hip hop routines into the dromena, which I’m hesitant to okay because I don't think quite jives with the spirit of the thing. Plus you can hardly understand a word they're saying."
"Anike's in charge of our thesmophoria celebration in the telesterion. Which means, among other things, that she selects and oversees the enaretes kores," Lila explained. "As you can see, I have a much easier time of it. I only have a modest sibyl’s hut to look after. Anike's got a large temple to administer."
"You're the hierophant?" Admete looked at Anike with a glint of admiration. "Aren't you rather young to be the chief priestess of a major shrine? Goodness, you must be quite talented."
"She’s very talented," Lila looked with pride at Anike who, in response to Admete’s compliment, blushed and looked down at her leather-stained hands, reminders, to anyone who might happen to notice, that this willowy priestess had been no stranger, in her youth, to rounds of backbreaking labor in a tannery.
"I'm inclined to go along with the changes," Anike looked affectionately at Lila, "but I thought I’d sound you out about them first."
"You'd like me to come eavesdrop on a rehearsal? Is that it?" Lila said.
"If you wouldn’t mind," Anike said.
"Consider it done," Lila smiled.
"Allright, Mister Wizard, let's get you back to your dad's," Anike gestured to Lilander to follow her out the door. "Auntie Lee and Quee... and Ms. Admete will drop by later."
"I'm an elf, not a wizard!" Lilander proclaimed as he leaped off the chair. "Elves are way cool. Wizards are only semi-cool."
"If you're not out the door and on the way down the path in the next turn of the sandglass," Anike warned as she got up and rolled her eyes in Lila's direction, "you'll be a troll chained to the rack in Hephaestos’ underground mines!"
Thus warned, Lilander dashed out the door and zipped down the lane with Anike hot on his little elf heels.
Admete, laughing, watched them go. Lila laughed too and, once again, they embraced and warmly kissed.
Later that night, after they'd had supper and enjoyed a friendly visit with The Big O whose skillful management of the counting house had begun to attract to Poteidaia the investment capital that was making it possible for the pottery works to compete in the large, regional emporia at Amphipolis and Thessaloniki, Lila and Admete returned to the hut where Lila's wide bed welcomed them with clean sheets and crisp blankets.
Spreading her legs wide and lifting her hips to ensure Admete’s tender hand the fullest possible entry, Lila climaxed almost instantly in Admete's strong, loving arms and climaxed again soon after and again soon after that. Admete's heart was so flooded with joy to feel so intensely loved and desired that Lila needed only to suck Admete's nipples lightly and to massage her moist receptiveness gently in order to guide Admete to overflowing fulfillment, once, twice, then a third time.
Afterwards, lying in a trickle of moonlight that slinked through the uncurtained window, the bedroom mildly illumined by several tall, orange candles that dripped in their holders -- orange for the late summer’s incipient longing when Persephone would again be departing from her mother's doting care to winter, under the name of Koré, with her Lord Hades in the nether world -- Admete broached the subject that she'd raised the last time she'd come, under wraps, to visit Lila.
"You know I'll never force the issue, my love," Admete spoke softly as she twined a length of Lila's long hair around several of her love-scented fingers, "but my offer still stands."
"To return with you to Tiryns and the dazzling sunlight that comes caroming off the bleached, white stucco layered in tiers up the hillside from the harbor," Lila lay on her back, close Admete's side, with Admete's arm around Lila’s shoulders and Lila playing with the long fingers of Admete's hands so skilled in the art of love. "To spend my days occupied in various activities at the palace and my nights as the Queen's consort. The thought is extremely tempting."
"Your friends would always be welcome as would your parents," Admete said, her eyes on the candle flickers, her hand looping to linger on the stiffened nipple of one of Lila's excited breasts.
"You've been incredibly patient with me," Lila said. Then, turning her neck to look at Admete's face, Lila added. "Five sunmarks is a long time to wait for the love that you’ve needed. Yet you’ve courted me with a gentle persistence that has never made me feel pressured even though I made no promises. Was it terribly hard, waiting all that time? Was it made easier by your sense that I was slowly falling in love with you?"
"Oh, yes. Very much so," Admete responded. "But I never took your love for granted, Lila. Not even on the night when I held you in my arms for the first time and thought that I'd die, in the next turn of the sandglass, from the sheer, ineluctable joy of it. You were everything I could have wanted in a lover. To think that such a precious treasure would deign, at last, to give itself to me..."
"Hush, you treat your love too lightly and I won't let you do that," Lila placed a loving finger on Admete's finely crafted lips. "Yet I have a life here. Family. Friends. Troubled souls that come to see me. New parents bring their daughters here, and I consecrate them to Demeter or Artemis or Athena or Aphrodite. Sometimes teens come or even young adults who seek advice on whether to quit school or to run off and get married or to have secret abortions or to go chasing off to the seductive glories of war. I listen and reflect back to them what my spirit tells me is rooted in their hearts. It's a good life. Yet there's a part of it that's incomplete when I'm here and you're far away. It's then that I want you to abdicate your throne and hop on a freighter that Salmoneus might charter for the purpose and arrive here as you did today and come and live with me and be my love and let me bathe you with care and devotion."
"Would you like me to give up my throne for you, Lila?" Admete said. "You've only to say the word."
"I would never ask that of you," Lila said. "You're a queen. Your place is with your people."
"Yes, it is," Admete said. "But if my heart should one day triumph over my sense of duty and if I could dispose honorably of my responsibilities, I should like nothing better than to come here, to this tidy, light-filled hut, and count myself the Queen of the Known World for the privilege of dumping your soiled blouses and dresses into that large straw basket in the anteroom and lugging them into town once a week to scrub and drub at that huge circular stone basin where the ladies go to wash their clothes. Oh, Lila, I'd cook and clean for you. I'd sew. I'd garden. I'd give you a child if I could."
"And I would joyfully bear your child," Lila drew Admete's lips to her own and kissed them long and true with deep, rousing feeling.
"Speaking of children," Admete gradually regained her senses after another soft round of climactic love-making, "what have you heard from Xena and your sister lately?"
"Ephiny keeps me posted," Lila said. "She and I have a standing engagement to share a meal once a fortnight. I venture up to the Amazon village or Ephiny comes here to the hut. I take it you know that Xena had a baby."
"Yes, all of Mycenae and the Peloponnese has been talking about it," Admete said. "But who's the father? There's been no end of speculation."
"Xena's been very closed mouthed about that," Lila said. "All she'll say is that except for Gabrielle, she's been a love-free zone for as long as she can remember."
"I'm told they're living at the Amazon village near the Centaur Warrior Training Academy," Admete said.
"That's their home base, though they still do quite a lot of traveling," Lila said.
"Dragging the baby from place to place?" Admete said.
"Eve," Lila said. "You may have heard that Gabrielle bestowed upon Eve her Right of Caste of Royal Amazon Succession, though that's become purely symbolic now that the United Amazon Councils have formally abolished the queenship. But Eve's been turning into quite a little warrior princess all on her own. When she gets bigger, everyone's expecting her to put Xena's accomplishments to shame, which is just fine with Xena."
"Not in the warlording department, I trust," Admete cautioned.
"Not if Xena and Gabrielle have anything to say about it. But I think it's doubtful that Eve would trend in that direction," Lila said. "It seems that those particular sins of the past have been redeemed at any rate."
Lila and Admete, chuckling at the thought of Xena mère et fille, drifted off to sleep in one another's arms.
A candlemark or two later, in the depths of the night, Lila awoke and, for a time, she lay quietly, listening to the soft, rhythmic breathing of the woman she'd grown to love and, had their lives and duties permitted, whose lifelong partner she would gladly have become.
Unable to ease her way back to sleep, Lila slipped gently out of the bed, tossed a robe over her shoulders and ducked out of the room into the wide kuzeena where the night's pots, pans and dishes had been neatly washed, dried and stacked. Then Lila crossed the open space in the darkness and, via the small door at the top of a short flight of stairs, she let herself into the chapel from behind the altar, the same door through which the sibyl had entered the chapel on the day when Lila had come to learn the tale of Hippolyte's belt and, in so doing, had received a premonition of her own future course in life.
The chapel was dark except for a small object, the size of a peach pit, that glowed with a silvery twinkle at the center of the altar even though no moonlight fell through the high, narrow casement to sheet the floor or swab the walls. Lila knelt down behind the altar in the spot reserved for the sibyl, the spot which she now claimed as her rightful place. In the pitch darkness, Lila picked up the glowing object. It was cool to the touch and its many facets gleamed with a brightness from within that cast gauzy, elongated, diamond-shaped shadows on the walls. At the center of the throbbing gem a tiny rune was visible: a labrys and a pelta surmounted by a band of seven stars.
"My darling," Lila whispered in the chapel's empty space with her eyes fixed on the brightness that shone within the heart of the rune, "you once said to me that when love came and found you again -- the day that I came along -- you at last understood, after so many sunmarks of loneliness and longing, that the love which comes later neither cancels nor betrays the love that came before. Never having loved, I couldn't grasp what that meant. But now I understand, as I couldn't have understood then, that your love for Hippolyte was in no way diminished by the love you felt for me and that you knew, in your soul, that Hippolyte would be smiling on our love and wanting you, while you lived, to have love in your life again.
"Now I, like you, have come to know that one love doesn't exclude another. I love Admete, my darling. I didn't go looking for love or try to force it in any way. I didn't seek out her love as a consolation for having lost you. In some ways, the love I feel for Admete lacks the passion and, perhaps, the power of the love I felt for you. I haven't been swept off my feet the way I was with you. I've decided not to follow Admete home to her throne, though I miss her when I'm not with her. Yet I love her for her goodness and faithfulness and quiet strength of character. I've given her the gift of myself as she's given the gift of herself to me, and, in her arms, I feel doubly blessed.
"And still I say, with all my heart, that I love you, my darling, and that I always will."
Lila replaced the radiant gem on the altar, rose from her knees, let herself quietly out the door of the chapel and, without making a sound, slipped back into the bedroom, climbed out of her robe, slid under the covers and, in less than a turn of the sandglass, lying snug against the warm presence that lay silently beside her, fell deeply and dreamlessly asleep.
There’s a legend that’s been passed down of old to the effect that were the twin diamonds that adorned Hippolyte's belt ever to be recovered and brought together in a single setting, the Amazon nation, as the world once knew it, would be re-born. Other legends tell that the Amazon nation never passed from the earth but has continued to exist, down to the present day, in ways that differ greatly from what it was in the past. And the old crones, deep in the woods, by the low, hunkering blaze of the campfire, say that when two latter-day Amazons meet, they instinctively recognize one another no matter how dissimilar they may otherwise be.
It's not known what may have happened to the diamonds that adorned Hippolyte's belt after they passed from Lila's and Ephiny's possession and made their way to the wider world. But in public or in private, they may yet be shining with a light that the darkness of no external or interior night might ever hope to extinguish.
In the course of the sunmarks that followed, much befell Lila, her family, friends, townsfolk, acquaintances, all those who came to her for hope, solace and healing. But those trials and adventures are matter for another tale. Still, one further item may be of interest to the kind and patient reader who's perused the current tale to its conclusion.
When Xena and Gabrielle departed the earthly realm for larger life, Lila was left behind for a time before she, too, journeyed on to meet them. Though rumor has it that, to this day, no one knows where Xena and Gabrielle are buried or if they were buried at all, no one having seen the bodies, Lila selected a spot in the garden, between the hollyhocks and the morning glories, in which she erected a small shrine to their memories. Adorned with flowers in season, Lila inscribed these words on the smooth marble stone that marked their memorial:
In vale and valley, dale and dell,
in hills and haunts where women dwell,
a thousand suns, the bards still tell,
of Xena and her Gabrielle
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