Chapter 8: Hooves And Starlets

Having made the bulk of their purchases, Lila and Alexis came to the side annex of the marketplace, an aisle that ran beneath the parapet of the town's high, wooden palisade. This shaded arcade housed a number of information booths and news kiosks.

An imposing centaur was chatting amiably with several passersby. A smile lit his aged face when Lila and Alexis came into view.

"Here's a welcome sight," the centaur bowed to the ladies.

"Hi, Chiron," Alexis returned the greeting. "What brings you to town?"

"I'm drumming up business for the Academy," Chiron gestured at the brochures and pamphlets that lay spread out on the table beside him. "We're in the midst of our fall recruiting drive."

"Kewl," Alexis sauntered over to the table where the Academy’s flyers and promo materials were free for the taking.

"I've brought a sketchbook with drawings of our new facilities," Chiron dug a large leather-bound folio out from under the table.

"Your recent fund drive looks to have been a success," Alexis seemed impressed as she thumbed through the album.

"Our backers have given us the go ahead, and with the war now heating up to the boiling point, their approval hasn't come a turn of the sandglass too soon."

"I hear you're accepting girls," Lila glanced over Alexis' shoulder at the drawings.

"We are indeed. In fact, we're doing a promo blitz specifically aimed at young women in villages like these. You got time? I'll give you the pitch."

"You'll have to make it quick. We're on our way to the pub," Alexis said.

"To do drinks with the men," Lila gave her head a shake and rolled her eyes.

"Lee's dad's treat," Alexis added.

"At the inner sanctum. Can you believe?" Lila stuck her hand on her hip.

"Yes, I can," Chiron chuckled. "To commend you on the little caper you just pulled off – with a great deal of aplomb, I might add."

"You saw what happened?" Alexis said.

"I saw a couple of brash young ladies rush out of the crowd to thwart the escape of a pair of snarly pickpockets."

"Don’t look at me. That was Lexie’s doing," Lila said.

"Not entirely. You were there to lend support. Anyhow, what’s your take on these drawings?"

"Perpendicular!" Alexis exclaimed as she turned the leaves of the folio. "Looks like you’ve got scads of new equipment."

"The whole place has been refurbished. Even the siege engines are new. Hephaestos has been experimenting with a host of new alloys. The days of clumsy pig iron shields and swords that take the strength of a cyclops to wield are quickly going the way of the dinosaur. The emphasis now is on lighter, more flexible materials. The use of feet in combat, not just hands and arms. Possibly with some help from... you see these...?"

"Those long pointy things?" Alexis stared at one of the drawings.

"Sai," Chiron said. "Evolved, like so many of our most useful weapons, from what was originally farm equipment. They're like daggers but more versatile and far more lethal."

"Sounds like you guys are on a roll," Alexis picked up a bulletin that listed the Academy's requirements and various course offerings.

"Up to now, our recruiting efforts have relied on word of mouth. There hasn’t been much call for a formalized warrior training program. Lone wolves like Meleager could pretty well see to a town's security needs. But with this Trojan affair in full swing and most of Hellas on red alert, no village or town is as remote as it used to be. So we're looking for new ways to supply the growing need for trained military personnel. And, as you've noticed," Chiron set the sketchbook aside, "the training isn't geared only to men any longer."

"I've heard you've done trial runs with Ephiny and some of the Amazons: Solari, Eponin, Chilappa, Messalina," Lila said, "and the new one, Anne Marie."

"It's not just the Amazons who’ve been the target of our outreach efforts," Chiron said, "though, admittedly, they’re the glamor girls of the lady warrior set. Amarice is who you're thinking of. Great natural ability but a bit flustered when she gets rattled. We've broadened our base to reach out to talented young women who may be looking to break free of traditional molds. With so many young men gone to war, who's left at home to mind the store?"

"Goons like Latrinus and his gang of sleazeballs," Alexis griped.

"Exactly," Chiron said. "Your father's a good man, Alexis. So's yours, Lila. So are many of these hardworking villagers. But they're farmers, laborers, householders. They're not warriors. Fighting isn't their profession. As you've just seen for yourselves, chasing armed men with rake handles and wooden pitchforks can be an intrepid undertaking, but one that’s dangerous and rarely produces lasting results."

"So you’re thinking we might need an armed guard around here?" Alexis said.

"There are things to be said for and against," Chiron said. "But even if the town were agreed upon the need for a professional security force, how are you going to support it? How many dinars do local villages and small market towns have to devote to the training and quartering of a specialized police force?"

"Precious few, I'll bet," Alexis said.

"Few if any," Chiron replied. "That's why we at the Academy think a better idea is semper paratus, numquam afflatus."

"Which means?" Alexis said.

"Better to be found with your belt buckled than to be caught with your pants down," Chiron said. "There's no reason why ladies who's been gifted with the skills and talents necessary for the defense of their communities should be less encouraged to engage in that worthy pursuit than equally skilled and talented gents. I noticed the way the two of you made short shrift of those thieving scoundrels. Quick work you made of it if I may say."

"I had nothing to do with it," Lila gave Alexis a firm look. "It was Lexie all the way."

"Technically, perhaps," Chiron said. "But I saw the look of determination in your eye, Lila. Something inside you wouldn't back down. I daresay you've got some perky resolve locked away in that pretty exterior of yours whose potential is just waiting to be tapped."

"Thanks for the compliment, Chiron, but I think you're talking to the wrong girl."

"Now see here, Ms. Lila," Chiron gave Lila a wry look, "I've been involved in this line of work for a great many sunmarks. Tyldus, Ixionides, myself, Kaliepus when he was alive, other senior members of the faculty, we've seen a fair number of candidates come and go. After a while, you begin to have a sense of things, discern patterns, intuit possibilities. You, my dear, have the makings of someone substantial. I can't say who that someone may be. Nor, I'm sure, can Alexis. Nor, I suspect, can your sister who's already tapping forcefully into her own potential. Nor, at this instant, can you. But that there's a strain of gold to be mined from the lode of fine ore that’s inside you, of that I haven't the slightest doubt."

Lila paused to think it over. "My sister, you say. What does your sixth sense tell you about Gab?"

"Gabrielle?" Chiron reflected. "Well, for one thing, that sister of yours is immensely charming. My instinct tells me that if and when Ms. Gabrielle should decide to establish herself as an entity apart from the Warrior Princess, there's no telling how far she might go. I suggest you not compare yourself to your sister except in the sense that you both hale from good peasant stock. I'd advise you to take Ms. Gabrielle off that pedestal you've put her on. You're not a child any longer, Lila. You're a young woman – and a most attractive one. Lingering in the shadow of other people's accomplishments is the consolation of those who won’t risk stepping out on their own. And you, my dear, strike me as a soul that has the capacity to do quite well on your own."

Lila noticed that Alexis was smiling.

"The Felafel Man was just telling us about the jeweled belt of the Amazons, the one that Gab and Xena have gone chasing after," Lila said. "Queen Admete’s apparently got it under lock and key. What's your take on that?"

Chiron's expression turned dour. "That it's not a profitable topic of conversation."

"The Felafel Man was also telling us that there's a connection between this jeweled belt and an Amazon queen by the name of Penthesileia who's gone with her elite corps to Troy to commit suicide by going up against Achilles. And it was Herc, of all people, so he said, who stole this precious belt from another Amazon queen named Hippolyte, Penthesileia's older sister, and that Penthesileia’s desire to avenge Hippolyte's death is part of the reason why she and her inner circle have gone to fight alongside the Trojans."

"So you've heard the rumors," Chiron looked a bit grim.

"The Felafel Man says they're unofficial," Alexis said.

"That's just to cover his butt," Chiron said. "What he was telling you is more than mere speculation. The powers that be haven't wanted to sound the alarm for fear of demoralizing the public. Winning this war won't come without significant cost. And the cost, I'm afraid, will be tallied in the lives of fine young men from out-of-the-way towns like this one."

"Guys like Perdy, Andros and my brothers," Alexis said.

"I'm afraid so," Chiron nodded. "Agammemnon and his generals are prepared to see this thing through to the bitter end. There's a good deal more at stake in this conflict than the wiles of a lovely Spartan queen. There's trade routes, shipping lanes, control, at their source, of strategic raw materials and vast Asian markets."

"What's that got to do with Gab and Xena and Ephiny, though?" Lila said. "And what about Xenon? Tyldus wouldn't let anything bad happen to Xenon."

"Xenon is safe with us," Chiron said in a tone of mild foreboding. "I can assure you that where Xenon's welfare is concerned, Tyldus is not about to cave in to pressure from any quarter without putting up the fight of his life – the fight of all our lives."

"What is it about Ephiny that seems to draw fire everywhere she goes?" Alexis said.

"If you want to see how a brave woman rises to a challenge and handles herself with grace under pressure, keep your eye on Ephiny, the victor of the Battle of the Strymon Road, at which Brutus’ march through Macedonia was finally turned back. In Ephiny, you'll see courage, loyalty, honor and duty combined in equal measure. And a dash of flinty steel when the need arises. Ephiny may be in over her head through no fault of her own, but you won't see her flinch or take flight on account of it."

"What's Ephiny in over her head about?" Lila and Alexis wanted to know.

"The business of royal Amazon succession. The question of who's going to take Melosa's place as the new queen of the Macedonian Amazons. Your sister and Xena have set their sights on retrieving Hippolyte’s belt in order to present it, as a gesture of goodwill, to Penthesileia who wishes to destroy it. You may have heard that Ares had the belt made for Hippolyte, the Amazon queen, whom Ares was romancing at the time."

"Like Ares once put the moves on Xena," Lila said.

"And to no better effect. As an Amazon queen, Hippolyte was second in greatness only to her elder sister, Antiope, arguably the greatest Amazon queen prior to Penthesileia coming to the throne. For reasons that I needn't trouble you with, Hercules went to fetch the belt from Hippolyte in order to bring it as a wedding gift to Admete, Eurystheus' daughter, Eurystheus being the King of Tiryns at the time.

"Getting the belt wasn't difficult. Hippolyte was more than willing to part with it. She may have imagined that Ares' ardor would have cooled once she'd relinquished possession of the belt. Before Hercules managed to secure the belt, however, Hera intervened; and, as so often happens when the queen of the gods meddles in human affairs, the results, on the mortal end, were disastrous.

"Hippolyte and her high-ranking cadre had been invited to attend a gala celebration, in honor of Artemis Stagslayer, being held at an exclusive, wharfside resort in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos off the Phrygian coast. It was a friendly, outgoing crowd. Everyone knows how the Amazons love a party. The guests danced and drank and carried on into the wee hours when suddenly, without warning, treachery struck. Hippolyte was slain without the least opportunity to defend herself while those in her retinue were massacred.

"Can you imagine what that must be like for an Amazon? For an Amazon queen? To die unarmed, not on the field of battle but at a party, and not to be permitted to wield a blade in her defense? It's one thing to murder an Amazon in cold blood. But to subject her to such ignominy in the process, when the perpetrator knows full well what the Amazon customs are in that regard. The life of an Amazon may be short and sweet – they're prepared for that; their way of life conditions them to it – but to be made to suffer such indignity and for no reason?

"Penthesileia was beside herself with rage when she heard the news. Her fury knew no bounds. She swore vengeance upon the perpetrators. Though Penthesileia and Hippolyte were sisters, the bond between them was of an extremely intimate nature. So passionate was the power of that bond that at the climax of their lovemaking, so the bards sing, the peaks of Mount Thaxos rumbled and cracked, the currents of the Thermidon ran backwards in their courses, and the Valley of the Phrygian Vales was cleft from massive ridges of stone. And word from Ilium's frantic shores is that the great Queen has vowed, upon the forfeit of her life, to enter the lists of battle and not to sheath her sword until she's taken the life of Achilles, though the Fates themselves may be ranged full force against her."

"But how does Ephiny figure into the mix?" Lila wanted to know. "After all, Gab and Xena set out in the hope of assisting Ephiny by getting the belt for Penthesileia."

"Penthesileia is said to be ready to wreck vengeance upon all things Greek save only the thinnest of mitigating threads with regard to her Greek Amazon sisters," Chiron explained. "In Ephiny's case, though, even this thin thread may have been worn to the breaking point by yet a further fraying of the strands.

"For one thing, as you know, Ephiny has borne a son to one of our number. A truce prevails between Centaur and Amazon due largely to Ephiny's efforts on its behalf. But these efforts have not been without opposition on the part of a significant faction of her Amazon sisters.

"Secondly, Ephiny is known to have befriended Hercules whom Penthesileia holds responsible for Hippolyte's death and the deaths of those in Hippolyte's company. Friendship with Hercules is deemed an act of treachery by Amazons everywhere.

"Still, Ephiny's being Greek, the son she bore to Phantes and her friendship with Hercules might yet, for the sake of her many virtues, spare her the anathema which Penthesileia may yet pronounce upon her but for the hottest, most burning coal cast upon the fire that now flames up against her: the blaze of lies and betrayal."

"What lies?" Lila said.

"What betrayal?" Alexis echoed.

"Truly, you haven’t heard?" Chiron looked at Lila; and, for the first time in their colloquy, a deeply troubled look darkened his handsome, elderly features. "Even though such accusations touch gravely upon your sister?"

"Gab?" Lila said with alarm. "What has Gab got to do with some fire-breathing Amazon queen who's got it in for Herc?"

"Your sister has succeeded Melosa to the throne of the Macedonian Amazons, has she not?" Chiron said.

"But isn't that just... I don't know," Lila frowned, "some hocus pocus that Gab cooked up with Xena? I mean who knows what kind of a stew Xena can figure out ways to plop the two of them into."

"But Gab was given the Right of the Caste of Royal Amazon Succession," Alexis said. "Terreis bestowed it on her just before she died. Now that Melosa's gone, Gab's become the queen."

Lila looked at Chiron for confirmation of what Alexis was saying.

"Alexis is right," Chiron said. "Whatever your sister's status as a meek and humble daughter under the thatch of your parents' roof, she’s nonetheless attained the stature of an Amazon queen. Not a major queen, perhaps. Not a queen to rival in power and splendor the throne of Penthesileia, but, for all that, a queen. And Ephiny, loyal and true, queenly qualified though she may be by birth, upbringing, force of arms in war and the kindness of her heart in peace, rules naught but as your sister's regent."

"That's amazing," Lila shook her head. "Gab, who I once beat the tar out of in back of the sheepfold, has become an Amazon queen. Dad would go through the treetops, never mind the roof, if he knew about this. Are you sure that none of this is Xena's doing?"

"Xena's done some regrettable things in her time," Chiron said, "but this isn't one of them. Yet there's a contender for the throne who refuses to recognize your sister's right to reign. This contender believes that she ought rightfully to be crowned queen, and she resents Ephiny's refusal to acknowledge her as such. To this end, she has sent envoys to the banked walls of Themiscyra on the Thermidon, even to Penthesileia herself, requesting the great Queen to intercede on her behalf."

"Who’s challenging Ephiny’s leadership?" Lila said.

"Velasca, adopted daughter of Melosa, who, having slain her ladyship in battle, now claims the throne by right of blood and arms. And there are those among the Amazons who believe that Velasca has the better claim."

"What will happen to Ephiny if Penthesileia's judgement goes against her?" Lila said.

Chiron looked into Lila's eyes. "According to Amazon law and custom, the penalty for usurping an Amazon throne is death."

The word made Lila gasp. "And Gab?" she said, weakly.

"The same," Chiron said softly, not looking away.

"Now hold on," Lila stared at Chiron as though he were the author and not simply the bearer of potentially ill tidings. "By what right does some Amazon queen half a world away presume to pronounce a death sentence on my sister? Who does this lady think she is to even dream of such a thing?"

"Lee," Alexis reached out and placed a caring hand on Lila’s arm, "there's so much about Gab we don't know anymore, not since she's taken up with Xena."

"I don't care! I don't need to know! Gab's my sister! You know what I think these Amazons are? Not Ephiny, Solari and Eponin maybe but a lot of the rest of them?" Lila said, angrily. "I think they like to dress up in leather chaps, feather boas and tight-laced boots, wag their butts, shoot their bows and arrows and think they're really hot stuff."

Chiron looked at Lila and smiled.

"What're you grinning at?" Lila scowled. "Some bimbo in an iron bra pronounces a death sentence on my sister and I'm supposed to like it? If this wingnut imagines for one fall of a sand grain that she's going take out a contract on Achilles and not buy the store, she must be a walking cafeteria, never mind being out to lunch."

"The queen of whom you speak is a lady of truth and honor, I assure you," Chiron said, impressed by the passion of Lila's outburst. "The greatness of the deeds which she's accomplished resides not in her victories in battle, which have been modest, but in the spirit of generosity with which she treats both friend and foe. She's pronounced no judgement yet. Velasca may have the Queen's ear – and Velasca, too, has acquitted herself mightily in battle and boudoir – but the Queen's heart isn't deaf to reason and pleas for justice. Penthesileia loved Hippolyte as a sister and yet more than a sister. She loved her in every flume and falls and swaled conduit of her being, as though their souls were twined as tightly as the rope which, when shanked and lashed, fuses a layer of logs to form the raft which races skittishly over the heart’s rapids.

"Lila," Chiron said in a low, fatherly voice, "until you've been swept into love’s flow as flimsy and powerless to resist its raging currents as a twig snapped from an overhanging limb and tumbled into the wake, presume not to judge such roars and rumbles of the heart, lest such foaming judgment return to swamp you in its swell should the day come when you, too, may be sucked willy nilly into the frenzied tow and thrashed about as wildly in love's torrent as any fallen leaf or windblown stalk."

Lila looked away, feeling vulnerable and exposed. "I only meant to say that I don't want anything bad to happen to Gab. To this day, it escapes me why she had to run off and follow Xena; and now, apparently, she's gone and gotten mixed up with these frenzied Amazons. Why couldn't she have stayed at home and married Perdicas and made Mom and Dad happy and kept on being my big sister?" Then, with a hard look at the kindly centaur: "Why did she have to run away and leave us all behind?"

The aroma of roasting olive oil and sweet basil reached them in the shadow of the palisade, followed, a turn of the sandglass later, by the creaking of the loose wooden axles of the Felafel Man's lunch cart. "Chick peas and tomato slices with onion, topped with a yummy layer of hummus all in a pocket of pita bread, tangy tahini extra...!"

Bedecked in slovenly culottes and a filthy, ruffled shirt, looking perpetually unwashed and his hair ever in need of a trim, the Felafel Man smiled a partial-toothed smile and shot a squinty wink at Lila and Alexis as he came galumpfing by. "Ready for dessert, girls? If they were frozen, you could have some frozen ices if there were ices." Along his way he went, jingling, clanging, grabbing his pots and bowls when the cart's wheels hit a bump or dipped into a rut and the whole shebang threatened to spill off the top of the cart and land with shattering finality on the hard, powdery dirt of the midway.

"He's hopeless," Lila grumbled as she watched the Felafel Man fade into the distance.

The pretty blue of Lila's grumbling eyes made Alexis chuckle.

"What're you giggling at," Lila said in a sour tone of voice.

"You. Who else?" Alexis grinned.

"Got nothing better to make faces at?" Lila scowled.

"Nope," Alexis tried not to titter.

"Then make faces at him," Lila nodded in Chiron's direction.

"Okay," Alexis grinned at Chiron and Chiron grinned at Alexis and together they grinned at Lila.

"Whaaat...," Lila said, backing up defensively. "C'mon, you guys, cut it out."

Grins turned to chuckles as Lila looked away, her face starting to blush as red as a Macedonian rose in these final weeks of a sunny, northern Aegean summer.

"I said to cool it," Lila tried to sound assertive but her insistence came out more like a pretty please.

"Not 'til you've cried 'uncle'," Alexis teased.

"Lexie, you're embarrassing me!" Lila protested.

Chiron laughed. "You have it coming, Lila. You're just as pigheaded – and just as gifted – as your gifted, pigheaded sister."

"Sheesh, you guys," Lila said. "You’re gonna make me laugh. Or cry."

"Go for it," Alexis poured it on.

Lila surveyed the marketplace. Every stall, cart and merchant stand was as familiar to her as the frieze of brocade stitchwork which she'd sewn along the hem of the skirt she was wearing. "No," she murmurred, her voice prescient with sweet foreboding, the soft look in her eyes returning, "laughing and crying are for another day."

Alexis reached out and gripped Lila's hands firmly in her own. "You know what, Lee," Alexis looked into Lila's faraway eyes, "maybe you'd better take to wearing one of those ironclad warrior helmets on days when you come to town, 'cause if any guy – or gal for that matter – should ever have the misfortune to fall head over heels for you, which wouldn’t all that hard to do if you'd just quit fighting it, they're gonna have to club you over the head with a tent pole just to get your attention."

"You really think I'm that oblivious," Lila said.

"Sometimes," Alexis said.

Lila began to release her hands, but something made her stop and wait for Alexis to do the releasing which, an instant later, Alexis did.

"Don't wander off without taking some of these," Chiron dished up some of the Academy’s P.R. material.

Alexis took a flyer but Lila begged off.

Then Lila and Alexis began meandering over to the pub. Two or three steps onto the main drag, Lila paused, turned around and called back to Chiron, "Why don't I, um, just stick one of those brochures in my pocket."

"With pleasure," Chiron came clopping over with a stack of handouts.

"Maybe just to glance at some time," Lila said.

"Any time you like," Chiron said.

"I mean it can't hurt to look, right?" Lila said.

"I've never heard of anyone injuring themselves by looking at a fold out," Chiron smiled.

"Thanks," Lila said and went to rejoin Alexis who sucked in her gut and said, eyes facing the entrance to the pub, "Okay, Lee, we can do one of two things: drink 'em under the table or bowl 'em over the counter."

Then into the pub they went, though not before a pair of shady eyes, belonging to a fellow dressed in leather studs, concealed by the hood of a long, woolen cowl and toting a sharp iron slasher encased in its scabbard, followed their progress along the street until Lila and Alexis ducked through the swinging doors into Canty's Pub which boasted the best blue plate on the Pallene Peninsula – and around whose pushed together tables the men who'd made up the day's impromptu posse, satisfied with their catch and with themselves, were well advanced in their cups, happy hour being nearly a candlemark along and the afternoon slowly edging its way toward evening.

Continued - Chapter 9

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