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The Best School
Xena and Kala stepped into the clearing, back from the hunt. Each carried a bow, and the game they had shot; while Lyceus, bearing their sheaves of arrows, followed behind. And there, left to keep careful watch on the camp, and the pot in which boiled away their supper - was Philos.
Sound asleep, and snoring merrily.
"You see - I told you so!" declared Xena disgustedly. Philos stirred a little at this, but did not waken.
"You can see how useless he is!" she went on. "At least for what I'm talking about. And as for Toris ... well, he isn't much better. Maybe even worse. What a ... a ... weenie!"
"Now Xena," began Kala, with a certain amount of tired exasperation, "what you need..."
"No!" retorted the girl. "What I need now ... is to learn how ... to FIGHT! Like a warrior."
At this exclamation, aimed partly in his direction, Philos gave a start - and sat up quite suddenly, staring with wide eyes. As if a whole horde of things had just shown up to fight.
"But you're still young ... you're only fourteen ..." observed Kala reasonably.
"And I'm big for my age!" replied Xena. "Plus - I'm sure they start teaching Amazons even younger!"
"Ha! I knew it"
"But look, I've shown you how to use a bow, in hunting. That's certainly a weapon!"
"Yeah. And just try using it - when a robber comes in. Right next to you!"
Ah! Now he could see what this was about, thought Philos.
One of the outlying houses in the village had been robbed last week, by strangers who had come and gone before anyone had even known of it. The whole family of Gordius the brewer had been taken by surprise, then bound and gagged - though fortunately had come to no great harm. After the crime was discovered Lord Aleus had sent his men in pursuit of the miscreants. But by then it was, of course, too late.
In fact, lately there had been more reports of such crimes in all the villages around them, more than anyone could remember from times past. For some reason.
"Well, okay; maybe there's something in what you say," answered Kala slowly. "Maybe there is. So pay attention. And I'll teach you the first part of what you need to know." She paused a moment. "About survival."
His sister was listening with rapt attention.
"Number one. If you can run ... then run."
He thought a quizzical look came into Xena's face at this.
"Number two. If you can't run - surrender. And then run."
Now her face had actually fallen.
"Number three. If you're outnumbered, let them fight each other. While you run."
In fact, his sister's features had become a portrait of disgusted disappointment.
"Number four ..."
"More running?" interrupted Xena calmly. In a tone so flat the contempt in it could almost not be heard. Almost.
"No," replied Kala. Equally calmly. "That's where you talk your way out of it."
She continued to gaze at the girl for a few moments before sighing.
"Though I suppose it works better when you're actually willing to talk."
As Xena evidently was not. In fact, she spoke not another word during their noon meal. Eating his perfectly good stew. In cold silence.
It was not until afterwards, when they had packed up and started on their way, that his sister said anything again. Kala had just set off ahead of them, when he heard her mutter something.
"Are you sure ... you're really an Amazon?"
The words were quiet but unmistakable. He only hoped Kala hadn't heard them.
At least she didn't give any sign of it.
They had stopped to rest from their march for a little while, in a clearing in the woods, when Xena spoke for the second time. Strangely, she seemed to be in a better mood now; in fact, there almost seemed to be the faint trace of a smile on her lips.
But he had seen such smiles before, on occasion. And almost wanted to shiver a little.
"Okay," she announced. "Now I know how. To get you to teach me."
And at that instant she rushed at Kala like a fury.
The Amazon had been standing with her back partly towards them, and so perhaps was taken a little by surprise. Nevertheless, she did something as Xena closed with her, he couldn't see quite what; his sister continued right on by, to fly through air and come down hard to the ground.
Somehow Xena managed to roll when she hit, with surprising quickness getting back to her feet. The Amazon merely stood and watched her warily.
"What are you doing?!" snapped Kala. "I could have..."
"Just what I told you," interjected his sister. "I'm making you teach me. How to fight."
Her opponent could only stare.
"Learn - by - doing," she added. Then suddenly came at Kala again.
This time Xena met the earth somewhat harder - and got up a little more slowly. But the look in her eye seemed only to glint with a harder brightness. And she still had the little smile. Which had now turned even more deadly.
"Stop it!" commanded Kala. "If we really got into a tussle, I could hurt you..."
"Good. Then I'll find out how to hurt THEM."
This time Xena actually managed to take hold of the Amazon when she hurled herself at her. They grappled for a moment, but then in flash of motion the result became the same. Except only worse - for this time when Xena tried to rise, she gave a stifled groan. And could only get to one knee.
"Well. Now you're learning something," announced Kala. She spoke coolly - but her face was strange, emotionless, as she stared down at her disabled opponent. "Now learn something else. That this is not a game. There are no rules. Look at yourself: you're down, hurt. So now it's over...
Suddenly Kala's foot lashed out with a vicious kick. His sister tried to avoid it but was too late, flying backward in a heap.
" ... with a quick kill."
Amazingly, after a long moment, Xena started to get up again.
"You're the enemy. In which case, the object isn't a fair fight. But to kill you as quickly as I can. In any way I can."
His sister slowly got back up on one knee again, grimacing, her eyes not seeming to focus on anything.
"That's the way it is when you decide things by force - there's a winner and a loser. And in our little disagreement, it looks like I'm the winner. Doesn't it."
There was no reply.
Only heavy breathing.
"I'll MAKE you ..." came the harsh, terrible yell - almost a scream - as with an unbelievable leap, Xena suddenly sprang at her opponent. Then he could see fists lash out, and heard a dull thwack.
His sister dropped face forward to the ground like a stone. And then he saw that a little blood was now trickling down from Kala's mouth.
He was rooted to the spot. It was as if time had stopped, that nothing could possibly move so much as a fraction of an inch. Young Lyceus stood beside him, staring with eyes as wide as saucers; he wondered when he was going to start to cry.
After a moment to wipe the blood from her mouth, Kala finally spoke again.
"Okay, come on. Get up now."
No response from the still form lying on the ground.
"Come on, I didn't hit you THAT hard. Get up. Only a loser stays down."
"Xena. Come on now, Xena ..."
With these last words, he thought he could begin to hear some concern in the Amazon's voice. And when he looked at her eyes: he thought he could see fear. At which he himself was suddenly filled with a terrible fear.
Kala had now stepped over to the prostrate form, and began to bend down to examine it.
At which his sister's hands suddenly shot out. To take hold of the Amazon's ankles, and yank back viciously on them.
Falling backward, Kala managed to do a little sort of flip, and landed back on her feet - mostly. Albeit a bit unsteadily. His sister looked up slowly from where she lay.
Then her head fell back down again. As this time she truly fell unconscious.
Kala put a wet piece of cloth against Xena's forehead as she lay back against the tree.
"Well, nothing broken or any teeth knocked out," she observed quietly. "Nothing that won't heal up. Soon enough."
Then she felt at her own split lip and winced slightly.
"In fact, it looks like you managed to mark me up a bit. What were you trying to do - mess up my girlish good looks?" Actually, in spite of her ironical tone, Philos thought they were indeed girlish good looks. And certainly didn't want to see them messed up.
"No," answered Xena calmly. "You know what I wanted. Still want."
Kala watched her silently.
"And you also know - I won't give up."
The Amazon sighed and shook her head.
"What I know is that you're tough. Very tough. To the point of being sort of thickheaded. And a fighter, too - a natural one. Not many could have laid a hand on me that way." She touched her split lip again. "To think a crazy kid did this..." Her voice trailed off.
Xena made no comment.
"Well, okay - and I liked that last part at the end," admitted Kala finally. "A nice touch. You almost had me there."
Xena still had nothing to say.
"Okay, okay. Fine. I give up. I surrender. You're too much for me - way too much." The Amazon sighed again. "You win."
The slightest of smiles seemed to make its appearance on the mouth of the silent one.
"I'll teach you how to fight. Like a warrior."
"With a sword - and everything!" shot back his sister immediately.
"Yes. With a sword. And everything."
Kala paused a moment, as if considering something.
"And I don't suppose that anyone I've ever taught came to it more naturally. Or was more meant for it. But still..."
She seemed to gaze at Xena very carefully. As if trying to find something in her.
"Just one thing. That perhaps, in the fullness of time, a certain day will come to pass. And on that day, I only hope that you will not curse me. For this."
She gently touched Xena's cheek.
"Remember that Kalathara spoke these words."
Actually, Philos was not at all certain that she would remember. In fact, within a few minutes, he could have sworn that she had forgotten them entirely.
But not Kala. He could see it in her face. Something very sad.
Of deadly things done, that could never be undone.
There in her eyes.
To willful men
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters.
-- W. Shakespeare, "King Lear", Act ii, sc. 4, l. 305
He hazardeth sore that waxeth wise by experience.-- Roger Ascham, "The Scholemaster"
It came to them, one day, when they least expected it. (Though of course that's the way such things always seem to come.) As they fretted and puzzled and plodded, with all the everyday business of the inn, it suddenly arrived in the form of a messenger. Who bore a ring.
And such was this ring, that in the next few minutes they found themselves at the distance of a very fast march from the inn.
They met her in a secluded little grove off of the main road. And yes, just as Philos had predicted, she had somehow become even more beautiful - in ways that could be seen, but scarcely understood. The one whom they had met as a girl, and had now become a young woman of sixteen years; just as he, and Xena, were now also leaving behind their childhood.
Their old friend, Helen.
They had heard the story, of course, of what had happened after their first meeting with her. Of how King Theseus, Helen's abductor, had been forced to honor an oath to the man who had helped him carry out his outrage - which finally ended by sending him to the depths of Tartarus. Of how Helen's brothers, at the head of an army, had then rescued her from the Athenians. And of how she had lately been married to Menelaus; that Menelaus who was the brother of no less than Agamemnon, Lord of the house of Atreus, Ruler of Mycenae, King of the Kings of the Greeks. Which had made Menelaus himself King of Sparta. And Helen, as his wife, the Queen.
Thus Xena's advice of hope for the future seemed to have been very wise indeed.
Helen was in high spirits; her marriage at a young age (though not such a very young age, as these things went), seemed to have agreed with her. She chattered on excitedly, almost in a sort of fever, recalling their first meeting in that dark loft of the inn. When everything had seemed so different.
"I'm so happy now - it's actually hard for me to believe it." Her face seemed to literally radiate her joy. "And it's all because of you. For otherwise, if you hadn't stopped me, I would have ... well, have ..."
Xena stopped her with a sign.
"Yes. I know," Helen continued. "It's all in the past now, not something to dwell on. I know that's what you'd say. Because you see, after all this time I haven't forgotten anything about you. I don't ever want to forget you. No matter what will come for any of us.
"And that's why I stopped here, on my journey - so that I could meet you one more time; and you could see why I have so much to thank you for. I can't stay long, because we must be on our way as quickly as we can. I just wanted you to know how happy I am. Now that I'm finally with the one I love. Paris, of Troy."
They stared at her in sudden befuddlement.
She reddened just slightly. "He couldn't be here now - as I said, we have to move on as quickly as we can, and he had some things to attend to..."
"But we thought ..." began Philos, "that is, everyone heard -"
"That I'd married ... Menelaus?" She had reddened perhaps a little more. "Yes, that's true."
They could only continue staring.
"It's true, I married him - but it wasn't actually a real marriage. It wasn't real at all. Because you see, it can't be a real marriage, not without love. That's what Aphrodite said."
Aphrodite - said? The actual ... literal ... goddess?
Yes, there'd been rumors about Paris, and a contest between goddesses, but just how high...
"We were brought together only because of politics and power - because I brought the man who married me the throne. And, well, maybe some other things. But not love. Never love!"
Philos could scarcely believe what he was hearing.
"At first I accepted it well enough. I mean, I'd never known anything better - and now at least I had a place in life, a high and honored place as the queen. But then one day a traveller came to stay with us. Who was the son of a king himself. The son of Priam, King of Troy.
"Actually, when I first saw him, I didn't think that much of our meeting. Handsome though he was renowned to be, and surely is. But then, later, after we came to know one another, it was as if ... I can hardly describe...
"Well, let's just say I knew. Knew then what love was. For the first time."
Helen seemed lost in thought for a moment. With a little smile that was fond; but also, perhaps strangely, rather sad.
"Anyway, I knew that what everyone called my 'marriage' couldn't go on any longer. It just couldn't. So when Paris had to leave, he asked me to go with him, and ... well, there was nothing else I could do. Except say yes."
Which was followed by silence. Only to be broken by -
"But maybe there was."
The first words his sister had spoken so far.
"What?" asked Helen, a little startled.
"Maybe there was something else you could have said. Besides yes." Spoken in that cool, even way she had.
"That's right - you don't. I don't think you understand anything about this."
"But ... but ... how can you..." Helen was now getting a rather high flush in her cheeks, the natural result of both embarrassment and anger. Though most certainly ... she was very beautiful when angry ... thought Philos...
"You can't do this," continued his sister, completely unperturbed. "Because you are Helen. And because you are a Spartan - Queen of Spartans. And because it's against all honor.
"Menelaus won't simply let you go. He can't. What you've done is too much of an insult - to run off like that, with his own guest, from his own house. It's too much of an insult to his honor as a king and a warrior, to much to ignore, no matter what his personal feelings. So he'll have to try to get you back; and his brother will have to try to help him, for the sake of his own honor. The honor of the King of Kings. And I don't think you're so silly that you don't know what that means."
"How dare you!" cried Helen. "How dare you speak to me that way! Because you're right! I am a queen! Not to be spoken to that way by ... by a ... peasant!
Xena only smiled, very slightly.
"Peasant? Yes. But maybe even a peasant would know that it's not right to run away like this. Like a thief. Rather than stay, and try to work out a better course. Because even if dangerous and difficult, it would at least be better than living a lie; better for everyone. And certainly better than losing your honor."
Helen's cheeks were now a flaming scarlet, her whole body trembling with indignation. For a moment it looked as if she was going to try to say something, but didn't (or maybe couldn't); she only made a strange little choking sound instead. Then suddenly whirled on her heel and stalked off rapidly, in the direction of a carriage they could see at the edge of the trees.
Philos thought she had only become more beautiful than ever.
"Helen! Helen I..." His sister started to call out as their friend strode away, though her words soon trailed off into silence. But in a moment she added: "Don't forget! Don't forget that we'll help you, if you ask for it!"
It didn't seem that Helen paid any attention. But just before she was about to step into the carriage she slowly turned; and gave a tentative little wave. Then got into the carriage, which immediately started off down the road. And soon disappeared from sight.
Xena now seemed to have a very puzzled frown on her face. "You don't think I was a little too ... blunt ... with her? Do you?" Evidently she asked this of Philos (for there was no one else present to answer). "Though I don't see how. I only spoke the truth!"
"Well ... I, um..." This sort of thing could quickly get dangerous. But luckily she plowed right on without him.
"I just thought that there might not be anyone else who would tell her something like that. Obviously no one had."
"Yes - that's true!" agreed Philos enthusiastically. "In fact .. I'm certain of it!"
Very certain indeed.
Afterwards, when they went over for their studies with the wise woman, they told her all about what had happened. At which she became very thoughtful, and immediately commenced to consult an old scroll she had tucked away in a corner. Meanwhile they could only look on in expectant silence.
"So it begins," she finally muttered, seeming to have finally come to some conclusion. Though she wouldn't tell them what that might be.
In fact she kept muttering the same thing, again and again, over the next few days.
A week later the news reached their village.
"It's terrible! Terrible!" declared a traveller, who had stopped one day at their inn. "Helen - beautiful Helen, Queen of Sparta - has been kidnapped! Ravaged! Carried off by a Trojan dog!"
Needless to say, they were utterly astonished by this.
"Yes, the hospitality of good King Menelaus has been repaid - with treachery! By the abduction of his beautiful wife! So now his brother Agamemnon has issued a call to all the other kings, who owe fealty to him - to call up their best warriors, and prepare for an expedition of war! To gather up their ships and set sail! For a war with Troy!"
Evidently this news was so terrible that the fellow needed more than one mug of mead to calm his nerves. "We'll show 'em!" he finally took to shouting, somewhat the worse for wear. "We'll show those Trojan dogs!"
Later, when they presented this news to the wise woman, her reply consisted only of mirthless laughter.
"But it's not true!" protested Philos. "Helen wasn't kidnapped! She wasn't kidnapped at all!"
"Yes, I know," answered their teacher. "But you see, there are two kinds of truth. One is the simple, plain sort. That's good enough for the likes of us. But then there's another sort - for those who rule. And it's much fancier; in fact all embellished, you could say. Because that's the sort fit for a king."
And it was strange. But the difference had never occurred to him before.
"Say, what do I care about Napoleon. What do we care what they did 500 or 1000 years ago? I don't know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across there (to England) and I don't care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we make today...
"The men who are responsible for the present war in Europe knew all about history. Yet they brought on the worst war in the world's history."
-- Henry Ford, from an interview by Charles N. Wheeler in the Chicago Tribune - May 25, 1916
What experience and history teach is this - that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.-- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, "Philosophy of History", Introduction
And Why Do the People Imagine a Vain Thing?
They sat there under an oak tree, high on the hill. As the great white clouds scudded across a brilliant azure sky; stretching along it like vast fleet of ships, strung all across the sea. The last bright sky of summer.
"Well, how's this?" began Philos:
"Torch-bearing, her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty's face to be:
That face, of Love's all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle --
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery."
"Well, it's okay," answered Xena, after a moment. "I guess."
"Yeah, I don't s'pose you'd be thinking of someone in particular there ... would you? Like someone in particular - who just ran off to Troy?" Or so sayeth young Lyceus. Who suddenly broke up into a fit of laughter.
"It's - it's just an allegory!" declared Philos. "A poetic allegory!" Though it would seem that poetic allegories had a peculiar effect on him: of bringing to his face a definite tinge of scarlet.
Then Xena suddenly jumped up from where she was sitting. For she never seemed to want to sit in any one place, for any great length of time.
"Something more ... exciting! Heroes ... and great deeds ... and battles! That's what we want!"
"Yeah!" chimed in Lyceus. "Yeah!"
"Hmmm ... well. Okay," he agreed. "Here's something. A new one:
"Resistless thro' the war Camilla rode
In danger unapall'd, and pleas'd with blood
One side was bare for her exerted breast;
One shoulder with her painted quiver press'd
Now from afar her fatal jav'lins play
Now with her ax's edge she hews her way.
Young Ornithus bestrode a hunter steed
Swift for the chase, and of Apulian breed
He clenched within his hand an iron prong,
And tower'd above the rest, conspicuous in the throng
Him soon she singled from the flying train
And slew with ease; then thus insults the slain:
'Vain hunter, didst thou think through woods to chase
The savage herd, a vile and trembling race?
Here cease thy taunts, and own my victory:
A woman warrior was too strong for thee.
Yet, if ghosts demand thy conqu'ror's name,
Confess great Camilla, and save thy shame!'"
"Now that's more like it!" cried Xena. "Warriors fighting ... to be the greatest. For glory!" She had picked up a good-sized stick, and started slashing with it through the air in the latest sword drill she'd been taught by Kala; her long black her flying about her, executing the moves with a smooth and impressive efficiency.
"Hurrah!" cried Lyceus, who had started clapping with delight at the sight of this exhibition. "You know - you know, they should have you there! With them! At the war for Troy!"
Just then, finishing a final lunge, Xena paused for a moment; the tip of her weapon finally falling toward the ground. And slowly straightened to her full height.
"Yes," she announced quietly. "There, at Troy. That's where I ought to be."
"What?!" exclaimed Philos, unbelievingly.
She seemed to be paying no attention to him. "It's too late now, they've already left. And I'm going to miss it - the whole thing. When I could be there. To help Helen."
"Xena..." he tried to interject. But no, she continued right on. As usual.
"I'm missing it all. My chance. And all the great warriors will be there - it'll be tremendous! Fighting as heroes, to do the most glorious deeds! So why - why couldn't I have...
"XENA!" His shout finally brought silence. As the other two turned to stare at him.
"I mean, I ... well ..." he stuttered on; though now more quietly. As Xena, in particular, held him with an unnerving stare. Though one that actually seemed to hold more astonishment than wrath, to tell the truth.
"I mean - that's crazy!" he tried to add in explanation.
She still had nothing to say.
"You don't even know which side to fight on, you don't even know!" he finally got out, all in a rush. "Helen is on the OTHER side. She wasn't really kidnapped - she joined the Trojans. So you'd be fighting against Greeks!"
"So?" answered his sister, flatly. "And what would I care about that?"
Even Lyceus seemed to be taken aback by this.
"But ... Xena ..." their younger brother began plaintively.
"I've sworn to help her." And that seemed to be all that was needed for Xena. Her last word.
"Well, okay," admitted Philos. "It's true, she's our friend. And we're all joined together, I know. I could never forget that. But even so, it's just that..."
"You see - I don't think it would all end up ... well, not quite the way you think it would."
She merely continued to watch him silently.
"All these stories, about heroes, and glorious wars, and noble deeds in battle - maybe they're not quite true - not all the way. I mean, sort of exaggerated. You know, like poets do all the time. Like even I do, sometimes. Making things more wonderful and glorious than they really are. To make them nicer to hear about.
"Because, well, I don't know ... but somehow it seems like this kind of thing might be very ... bad. The fighting and killing. Maybe it really isn't glorious, after all. Just think, what if something happened to one of us? In something like that? How horrible it would be! And when someone else is hurt, no matter what side they're on - maybe there are others who would be very sorry about that, too.
"So it all ends up being sort of, well ... evil ... in a way..."
Xena seemed to consider this for moment; actually taking his words seriously.
"Still. Sometimes you just have to do what needs to be done." Such was her conclusion.
Followed by another silence. Which was soon broken when Philos - never much of one for silence - all at once started up again.
"Well, here's another one, then. See what you think. Maybe it's even better:
"Those years, so long ago, beginning to fade;
when her friend will tell her fantastic tales,
and together they will rejoin the fight,
standing firm on some distant field.
And they will relive the stories
of adventures and battles won, of people
and gods, of friends and enemies, all thrown
across the landscape of a warrior's life.
And for a fleeting moment, she will again feel
the cool steel in her hand as she grips the memory."
"That's as much as I've got, anyway. So far."
"Not bad," answered Xena, "not bad"; as she stared dreamily in the direction of the hills to the east.
"Anyway ... you don't have to worry. It will all be over soon. And Troy is a long way off - a very long way.
"It will never have anything to do with us."
And so it truly seemed, in that place of peace and simplicity in which they lived. In that place they had known ever since their births. In the last golden days of summer.
"Why do the nations so furiously rage together,
and why do the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take
counsel together against the Lord,
and against his Anointed."
-- Psalm 2: 1-2
and section 38 of "The Messiah", by George Frederick Handel
Notes on the Poetry Appearing in this Chapter
The first section of poetry, "Torch bearing her sweet ministers compel...", is from "Astarte Syriaca", by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, written to accompany his painting of the same name. (D.G.R. was one of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a painter/poet in the tradition of Blake, though in his case the emphasis was more on painting.)
The second section of poetry, "Resistless thro' the war Camilla rode...", is actually from Book Eleven of "The Aeneid", by Virgil, in the translation made by John Dryden. (Those who care to read more of Camilla will actually find as much 'colorful' savagery in her story as Xena displayed in "The Price". I do not exaggerate.)
Finally, the third section of poetry, beginning with "Those years, so long ago, beginning to fade...", is from "Battle On" - a work by none other than Tim Wellman, Xenite extraordinary. This is my favorite piece of Xena poetry; in fact, I would say a work of the highest caliber, by any standards. But judge for yourself.
When age has dimmed the bright spark of battle,
the clash of swords ringing only in Gabrielle's stories,
will Xena stoke the fire softly and remember?
The light in her eyes, dimming slowly to embers--
but will the battles still rage in her heart?
To Gabrielle she will say, "We had some times, didn't we?"
her voice, weak, but still enchanting,
those years, so long ago, beginning to fade;
and Gabrielle will tell her fantastic tales,
and together they will rejoin the fight,
standing firm on some distant field.
And they will relive the stories
of adventures and battles won, of people
and gods, of friends and enemies, all thrown
across the landscape of a warrior's life.
And for a fleeting moment, Xena will again feel
the cool steel in her hand as she grips the memory.
"We had some times," Gabrielle will say,
as they cling to each other for warmth
in a world too cold for their years.
-- a poem by Tim Wellman (and used here with his kind permission)
Home Is Where the Heart Is
"Damnation! By the blisters of Hades' behind! By the..."
All this, and worse, suddenly came to their ears as they walked along the path that skirted the old olive grove. But not only did the words convey exasperated sentiments - they also seemed to betray some sort of need for help. And furthermore sounded a little strange. Almost as if they issued from some place far below, perhaps where Hades himself might indeed be found.
Which turned out, in a way, to be pretty near the case.
They came upon it so suddenly, just on the other side of some bushes, that they almost tumbled in too. A dark hole in the ground - from which came more declarations like the ones they had just heard. Only now more desperate in tone.
"Help! Please, if anyone can hear me! For the love of Zeus, help..."
There were the remains of splintered boards around the hole - old, rotten-looking boards, that might originally have been laid across it, many years ago. And getting a better look at the opening in the ground, it now appeared as if it was actually an old well. Into which someone could have fallen, when they stepped on the boards and they had suddenly given way...
Both he and Xena bent down to peer down into the well. There was just enough light to make him out - a man, caught part way down. Over the years some tree roots had grown into the well and he had somehow managed to get hold of one of these, his feet braced against the crumbling surface of the shaft.
"Don't worry!" called out Philos. "We're here! We'll get help!"
The man suddenly looked up. "No, wait!" he yelled. "I can't hold on much longer! You've got to do something quick! Or I'm done for!"
Philos looked over at his sister. "There's no time to get help," she said coolly.
"We need a rope, then!" he declared. "That's what, a rope!"
"We don't have one. Or time to go back to get one, either."
"But ... but ..."
While he dithered, his sister looked down for a moment; and then seemed to think of something. "Here - I'll tear," she directed. "And you'll tie."
They both took hold of the makeshift rope, and pulled for all they were worth.
"Come on!" yelled Xena.
Grunting and straining and pulling, they dragged their way onwards, with the man in the well helping as best he could, pushing off with his feet against its walls. He had grown too tired to climb out by himself, even with the rope, so had tied it under his arms; and now they were pulling him out. Or at least trying to.
On and on they both pulled, straining forward. Well, maybe Xena was actually doing a bit more than half the pulling, he thought; she was even stronger that she looked. Though she certainly looked strong enough to begin with.
This was so hard, so very hard ... how long could they keep on? Just how far down could that man have been - and just how heavy could he possibly be...
At long last, a pair of hands appeared at the well's edge. And as they pulled, with one great final effort, the man managed to heave himself up and out. To safety.
All three simply sat there on the ground for a little while, exhausted. Breathing hard, not quite even able to speak.
Then the man raised his head. And as he took a good look at his two rescuers, there came over his face an expression of complete surprise. One of the most wide-eyed, slack-jawed looks of surprise that Philos thought he had ever seen.
After which the man threw his head back. And started to laugh.
"What's this!" he shouted, between gusts of laughter. "Oh, it's too much! Too much!"
He laughed on and on. While the two of them merely looked at one another.
"There I am. In as bad a spot as ever I've been in. And who rescues me from dire peril ... but you two! Yes, the mighty warrior - saved by a young girl! And a boy!"
"Hey!" protested Philos. "Not that young! We're seventeen! Well ... just about any day now."
But far from having the desired effect, this only served to provoke another fit of laughter.
Finally, as his last guffaws died away, the man got to his feet. "I'm sorry," he declared. "Very sorry. I don't mean to seem rude, but ... well, anyway - I am very grateful. Very grateful indeed. Here, let's be friends. Let me shake your hands."
He and his sister now got to their feet themselves. Upon which a second - and somehow even greater - look of surprise came over the one they had rescued.
In particular, his gaze seemed fixed upon Xena.
"What's - what's this? Some new fashion? That I never heard of before?"
His sister looked down at herself; and a little smile appeared. "Well, not exactly," she answered. "I guess things got cut a little short. By an emergency."
Yes, the new shift she was wearing - the long, bright blue shift, lately a gift of Aunt Agina - was newly abbreviated. Up very, very far past her knees.
Well, it was true his sister's legs were long. But still - there weren't as long as a freak's, or anything! What was the fellow staring for?
Then the man glanced down at the makeshift rope that he still held. The rope made of bright blue cloth - in long, torn strips that had been knotted together. And realization dawned...
"Oh ... by the heavens! Now I see..."
"Yes, that's right," answered Xena. "My clothes were of the traditional length. A nice long length. Before."
"And now they're ruined!"
"Oh, don't worry about it," she assured him. "I really don't care much about clothes. It's my mother who's always fussing about them - she's the one who made me wear this. In fact, this thing was really pretty stupid, you couldn't even run or jump in it properly. Though I guess she's going to be a little upset ... it was a gift from my aunt ... and, well, it's a long story...
For a moment an astonished Philos almost thought his sister was actually going to tell that story. She, the one who could go for a whole day without speaking more than two words. If that! And here she was, almost ... well, almost ... chattering...
In fact, the words themselves were a little strange. In a way, kind of nice. And soft. And happy-like. And when, in his amazement, he took a closer look at her - suddenly received an even greater surprise. For she was truly, actually, sweetly ... smiling! With all those white teeth of hers! And then smiling some more!
Good heavens! What was wrong with her? Or was it...
Some strange portent? Or omen?
Her glance seemed to keep straying to the man they had rescued, so Philos decided to take a closer look in that direction too.
And before him he saw, well ... a man. Sort of old. In his late twenties, even. Otherwise pretty average. Except sort of tall. And maybe athletic looking. Tanned, moving easily, like someone who spent a lot of time outdoors. The clothes he was dressed in were dirty and a bit torn up now, but somehow did seem to fit him pretty well. And were made of a the finest fabrics. With a gold pin on his tunic, shining with jewels...
Speaking of shining, those eyes of his - now those were unusual. The way they looked at things, almost ... piercing, you could say. As if whatever they were looking at was the most important thing in the world. And they did seem to be looking in Xena's direction most of the time.
At any rate, it turned out that the man had originally had a horse with him; so they all set off to search for it. And all the time they walked through the old grove, the conversation between Xena and the stranger continued on - except perhaps even more lively than before. While Philos listened intently.
Yes, Xena chattering on. And Philos remaining grimly silent.
What was wrong with this picture?
Fortunately, it turned out that the horse hadn't wandered far - a big animal of fine lines, which the man seemed very happy to see again. Xena evidently liked the horse too, a very beautiful one, of a golden color that Philos had never seen before. His sister held the reins as the man mounted up; then asked about the direction in which in which he was headed.
"If you need someplace to stay, our mother has an inn at the village -"
"Why, thank you!" laughed the stranger, interrupting her. "That wouldn't be Cyrene, would it? Cyrene, innkeeper of Amphipolis?"
"Yes, it would!" came the surprised answer.
"You know, I'm sort of tempted to take you up on that offer. But I'm afraid that it just wouldn't go over too well. With my father, that is - I'm expected to stay with him, after all."
"Yes, Lord Aleus. Didn't you know?"
They both could only look at him with astonishment. Aleus was the lord of Amphipolis and all the villages around it and ... and everything ...
"Oh, I'm sorry - but that's stupid of me. Of course you wouldn't know me, seeing that I've been gone for so long. And only stayed for a short while the last time I was here. Well, anyway, I'd better be going now, my father will want to see me right away. And thanks once again - I've got to say that I've never been rescued by anyone half so beautiful..."
He blew a kiss; then started to ride away.
Well, at least he could have remembered that Philos had been pulling on that 'rope' too!
A few yards away, the man suddenly reined the horse up, and turned to them again.
"Oh, about that dress - don't worry, you'll be sent a new one, of course. And I noticed how much you admired my horse, and how well you got along with him. Do you ride much?"
After a moment his sister seemed to snap out of whatever strange trance she was in. "No ... no, I take care of horses ... at our stables. The ones the travellers have. But we could never afford one for ourselves ... so I don't get to ride much ..."
"Ah, ha!" cried the stranger. "Well, never fear, we'll make a horsewoman of you yet - I can see you have the bearing of a fine one. Just stop by the stables at the manor tomorrow, and we'll have a horse for you to ride. Tell them that Borias sent you! Remember that - Borias! Now don't forget!"
And with a final wave, he galloped off into the distance.
Though, seeing the way in which she kept staring in that direction for some time after he had disappeared - Philos didn't think it likely that Xena would ever be liable to forget.
The events of this chapter were partly inspired by an episode from a novel by Thomas Hardy, "A Pair of Blue Eyes".
Regarding that novel, I once saw a paperback edition that had been packaged very much like a romance novel (it does indeed seem to have the kind of title one might find on such an item of literature). Very enterprising on the part of the publishers - since this work is of course in the public domain! The blurb on the cover described it as "The unforgettable novel of a beautiful woman's rise to power - and her fall from grace ... by the world-famous author of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles". The only problem with this description is that the heroine, Elfride Swancourt, neither rises to power - nor falls from grace! Otherwise it is perfectly accurate.In any event, I can only imagine a romance novel reader coming to the end of the thing, and encountering the strange black comedy of its final scenes. (I must admit that after the initial shock of reading it, I actually laughed out loud.) In other words, most assuredly like no romance novel that has ever been written.
WARNING: The first part of this chapter contains some rather graphic depictions of death and suffering. This is the first time I have had to issue a warning of this nature, but I thought it would be advisable.
XENA THE CONQUEROR
The Shape of Things that Came
A trip to inspect one of Lord Aleus' more distant forest holdings - that is how it had started. For Kala, as keeper of the woodlands for his lordship; and Xena, and Philos, and Lyceus, as her travelling companions on this journey. Up in the green wilderness of the hills.
But then had come the column of smoke, reaching far, far up into the sky, on the other side of the line of hills they were travelling through. Its origin appeared to be somewhere on the plain to the east - in the vicinity of a hamlet they'd heard of, but only Kala had visited. A little place called Philippi.
What could it be, wondered Philos - a bonfire? A signal of some kind? In any event, Kala immediately wanted to investigate, though she remained very mysterious as to her reasons. In fact, she even attempted to send the three young people home; though of course they would have none of this. In the end, she satisfied herself with issuing them careful instructions - to remain very alert, to keep an eye out for any kind of trouble. As they all descended down the wooded slopes of the hills into the plain.
So they were to keep an eye out - but for who exactly, or what? And actually, that was the strange thing. For as they came down out of the hills, they met no one. Not even a solitary shepherd in the upland pastures. And when they came down into the lowland, with its groves and tilled fields, the absence of any inhabitants became even more ominous; where were all the men and women who worked every day out on the land? The deserted countryside was the oddest thing Philos had ever seen.
It turned out that they smelled the village even before they saw it. An odor of smoke, mixed with ... other things. Things that Philos could not quite identify. Though they seemed distinctly unpleasant...
As they neared the outskirts of the settlement, Kala made them stop, detouring from the road to a little stand of trees. And there ordered them to wait, until she returned from making a brief visit of reconnaissance - instantly overriding all their protests with a few sharp but well-chosen words. She even gave them an order to leave for home as fast as they could if they heard that strange signal cry of hers, a high-pitched warbling yell (that Xena had been trying to practice of late). But as to how seriously such an order might be taken...
And so they waited, all alone in that dark little grove. The air hanging utterly still around them, not a sound to be heard; not even the birds, he finally realized. As all the while that strange smell remained, inescapable. After which they waited some more ... and then longer yet. Where could she be, he wondered anxiously? What could be going on in that village?
Fortunately, Kala returned before they attempted anything inadvisable (though it seemed no more drawn out than another age of the world. Or two). Back safe and sound, and all's well. Except for one thing.
The grimmest look that he thought he had ever seen on a human being.
They all stared at her, unable to speak. No, not even on his sister had he ever seen so dark a look; and certainly not with that strange, underlying note of ... sadness.
Then, after a moment, Kala finally began to talk to them. Very quietly.
"We're going into the village now." Somehow it almost sounded like a pronouncement. Of some kind of end of things.
"Though the only reason that we're not going to turn the other way, and head back for Amphipolis this very second, is that ... well ... I think you might be able to help. In spite of what you're going to find here. And whatever help you can give will be badly needed.
"Plus, I suppose it might also be just as well. For you to begin to get used to ..." Here her voice trailed off for a moment.
"Well, no matter. We'll speak more of that. Later."
Then she took them back to the road that led to Philippi.
As they approached the place, she began to speak to them of strange things he didn't quite understand; though it seemed clear she was trying to prepare them for something very ... serious. Even so, as they came around the stand of cypress at its border, and looked down the main street of the hamlet...
There were piles of rags, lying here and there, all askew in the dirt of the street. Then, taking a closer look, he slowly began to realize that they were ... bodies...
The fire that had swept through the place was mostly spent now. Only smoke still rose from the charred sticks and embers, which was all that remained of most of the buildings; the flames having done their work. And gone.
He stood there staring. Unable to move so much as a fraction of an inch.
"Come on," he suddenly heard Kala saying. Her voice brisk, cool. Commanding. "Those out there, in the street ... well, there's nothing we can do. But there are others we can help. I know Xena's had training, from that wise woman; now we can put it to use. And Philos, you've learned a little of the healing arts too, so you can assist her. While Lyceus can go with me..."
So it began. With Kala organizing it all and getting them started, as if it was just another task to be done. On just another day.
And in fact, after a while he did start to become used to it. Or better yet, numb; as if he was a part of something mechanical. A system.
They had set up in an empty storehouse, one of the few buildings that survived the flames. And as each of the victims was brought in Xena would look them over. Then decide their fate.
In the first category were those with severe wounds, who his sister thought she could probably help. These were attended to as swiftly as possible. In the second group were those whose injuries were not immediately life-threatening; they were given a place where they could lie down, and would be treated when time permitted. Finally, there were those who, though still living, had been so badly harmed, that no effort ... no human effort ... could ever hope to change anything. So were simply made as comfortable as possible. And left in peace.
Later on, it was these last that he found would never leave him.
A man, his lower abdomen sliced open. A sight out of a butcher's shop - part of his entrails hanging out of the wound. Everything was put back as best as could be managed, and the terrible cut was even hastily stitched up, as some others helped to hold him down. But after this he was given a place among the dead. For though he might live many days yet, it was inevitable. A kind of mortification would always set in, with such a wound; the flesh would actually start to putrefy, with a deathly stench. As the victim died in horrific pain.
Whether the man knew his fate or not, Philos could not guess. He was alert, in fact kept talking and talking, though he must have been in considerable pain. It was soon learned that he had been the miller for the village, having also branched out into other areas of commerce, and in this manner had built up quite a thriving operation. Fortunately, his wife and daughter had recently left on a visit, and thus evidently escaped harm - the knowledge of which seemed to put him into almost a cheerful mood. Since at one point he even made a little joke, about the damage done to his 'extensive holdings' ... in property and person.
A woman of the village had come to assist them, one who knew something of herbs and medicines, and some time later Xena spoke to her about this man. "When the pain becomes too great", she directed, "give him this"; then described a particular preparation.
The woman stared at his sister wide-eyed for a moment - muttering "but so much would...". Then stopped. And after a moment, slowly nodded her head.
"I know this all looks very bad," murmured the miller to Philos, when the latter had stopped to rest for a brief moment. "But don't worry. It will all come right." He almost seemed to be trying to comfort the one who was caring for him. "All the things we worked for. All those years. What we built - they'll build back again." His expression at once distant. And sad. "The others - they'll do it. They'll build it all back."
And so Philos came to know. That he also knew.
Kala and Lyceus kept bringing new ones to them, sometimes by themselves, sometimes helping others. Brought them in, in every imaginable state of suffering and injury. But was there no end to them? How could there be so many? Each new one laid first in front of his sister, for her to decide what to do; perhaps to work frantically, Philos helping as best he could...
Another was brought in, on a makeshift stretcher. A little girl, lying there, moaning with every motion of the boards she had been laid on. And when she was set down in front of them, one thing surprised Philos, as he stared at her - that she hadn't been screaming in agony, rather than giving those little moans.
For a few seconds he had been puzzled; what was wrong with her? She looked so strange, sort of dark, almost roughly crackled-like, all over. Then he realized that her whole body was covered, almost from head to toe ... with the most horrible burns.
That she was alive at all was amazing. But probably not for too much longer. That he could see from his sister's face, as she looked down at her. And indeed, Xena quietly directed the bearers to take the girl off to the side. With the rest of the living dead.
"What ... what are you doing!" cried a frenzied voice. "Aren't you going to help her?"
It was a woman of middle years, with some of the last freshness of youth still remaining; probably the girl's mother. Her strained, haggard face was streaked with tears. "Can't you see how bad it is? She needs help! You've got to help her! You've got to help her now!"
"Yes, I can see," said Xena coolly. "But right now others need me even more." And indeed, two more victims of the endless stream were already being brought in. "Still. I suppose there's one thing..." She looked at the woman steadily. "One thing can yet be done."
"Which is ... ?" asked the woman, a note of hope in her voice.
"To make a prayer." His sister's words were almost gentle now. "For an easy journey."
The woman stared blankly for a moment. "No!" she wailed, almost screamed. "NOOOOOO! No no no no no..." There was a wild look in her eyes; her whole body trembled violently.
After which she rushed over to where the girl lay. To collapse into a heap of tears.
It was shortly after this that the men of Lord Aleus arrived.
With their arrival finally came relief - as the efforts of himself and his sister were taken over by the newcomers. Though, ironically enough, the worst was now already over. With most of the wounded having been cared for in one way or another.
As his lordship's retainers went about their work, he happened to notice some of them whispering to one another. Pointing at himself and his sister, and saying something - something about "those kids". But by this point he hardly cared.
Because it was hours since they had begun. How many hours he did not know. Though for some reason he could hardly seem to stop his hands from trembling.
Then a sudden cry was heard. Piercing through the endless hubbub of moans and voices.
It was the mother of the burned girl.
"Come here!" she cried. "See, look here!"
She was gesturing at her daughter. The girl's eyes were wide open - she seemed alert and awake now.
"See, see!" said the woman, joyfully. "You're wrong - she's going to be all right! She's going to get better! She will! I know she will!"
And indeed, as Philos watched, the girl looked at her mother once. But then somehow her eyes didn't seem to focus on anything any more.
Upon which he began to hear a sound. A strange sound, very low; a little like someone panting, or breathing very rapidly. When all at once he realized it was the girl herself - her small body, badly hurt as it was, beginning to shake. Then convulsing, more and more violently. As she kept making that noise, now higher and higher - a horrible kind of noise that an animal might make, not like anything human at all. Rising, and rising, into a deafening scream, that drowned out every other thing that existed, all around it...
As if a single note of protest. Against the world itself; and all the meaningless of life in it. Of its fear. And the end of things. And pain.
Then suddenly it stopped. Just like that. And like a sack, which had suddenly been emptied of its contents ... the girl lay still.
As now it was all quite still; a scene frozen in an instant of time. His sister, just standing there. A stony expression on her face. Utterly impassive. While the mother was now almost as still as her daughter. Staring. Staring and staring.
At which point things started rushing around him. Very, very quickly. With a loud roaring noise, as the room became very dark...
And he remembered nothing more.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw Kala's face above him. She seemed pleased, for some reason. "Ah! It's good to have you back," she said softly.
He was a bit puzzled at first. Where was he? The light was very dim, from a single candle, which revealed the interior of some kind of little hut. Perhaps a shepherd's hut. He was lying on a small bed; and when he turned his head he could just see the sleeping forms of Xena and Lyceus, lying there on the floor.
He tried to rise, but when he did so everything started to swim before his eyes, and he faltered. Then he felt Kala take hold of his shoulders and gently push him back onto the bed.
"Come on now," she said. "You've still got to rest. That was quite a bump you took on your head."
Bump? Then he began to remember. The floor rushing at him, at the end...
"Yes, it's time to rest now. Because you did well. All of you. Very, very, well."
And truly, the idea of rest seemed to be a good one.
But then a question came. A question he'd been wondering about for so long, but had never had the opportunity to learn the answer of...
"What ... what was it?" he whispered. He didn't want to wake the others. "I mean, what happened? What caused it all, back at the village?" Kala seemed to hesitate for a moment. "Please - I've got to know!"
"Well," she answered quietly, "you heard about the raiders, I guess. From those you helped. And later, I learned all that I could from the people I talked to.
"From what I discovered, I would say there weren't that many in the attacking party - maybe thirty or forty. But they were well organized, and struck very suddenly. One minute people were working, walking along outside their homes; and almost the next, the place was in flames.
"Other than that, I really couldn't tell you very much. Except that among the attackers was one who was very obviously their leader. And even that was strange - because as it turned out, none of those who saw him could tell me what he looked like.
"For he wore a mask. A mask all of gold, that completely covered his face. Though some did hear him called by a name. A strange name.
The next morning they set out on the journey home. And at first, they mostly remained silent; for somehow, no one really wanted to speak.
Until, strangely enough, Xena began.
"So. When will it happen?"
Which was all the stranger; because up to this point, he hadn't heard her say anything. Not a thing, all that morning. Nothing at all.
"When will it happen again?"
Kala stopped, and looked at her carefully. "So you've guessed already," she finally replied.
What could they possibly be talking about?
"It just seemed obvious to me," was his sister's succinct answer.
Well, thought Philos - I just wish it was obvious to ME. Drat these mysterious females...
"You're right," continued Kala. "Just when, I couldn't say. But yes. It will happen again."
After which his sister and the Amazon fell silent for a while. And a while longer.
Until he couldn't stand it for another instant -
"Okay. Okay, I give up! What? What is happening AGAIN?"
Everyone turned to stare at him
And then he slowly put his arms back down at his sides. For he suddenly noticed he'd been waving them.
"Another attack, of course," replied Kala. With quiet patience. "The raiders will be back, to strike again. I'm certain of it."
Something very cold seemed to pass through him then. A sort of a shudder.
There under the hot sun.
"I didn't want to tell you so soon, considering how much you've just been through. But since we're on the subject... Well, I guess you do have to know. Sooner or later."
And perhaps just as well sooner. For the possibility hadn't yet even occurred to him.
"You see, I think that what happened at Philippi was only a kind of a ... test. A dry run. They didn't stay very long - only enough time to run in, slaughter anyone at hand, loot what few valuables they could find, and set fire to everything else. Strictly hit and run, to test the defenses, to see what kind of response they'd get. Which I'm afraid wasn't very impressive. Considering how long it took his lordship's men to get there. So next time..."
Next time? No...
"... they'll want to get more."
"But - but what ..." interjected Philos incredulously. "What more ..." His voice trailed off.
"Slaves." An answer of a single word. Which held so many more.
"That's right," she went on. "What else would the farm villages in this area have, that would be worth the trouble of taking? Certainly little silver and less gold - and generally not much more in their storehouses than the people need to feed themselves. Their animals might have some value, but these raiders certainly aren't herdsmen. And would hardly want to be saddled with them for long.
"So what's a raider to do with such a village, if he has the time and the opportunity? Well, it's simple. First he kills all the men, and the old and the useless. After all, they're not worth much, and only mean trouble - and maybe he can even have some fun with it. Then he rounds up all the women and children, like so many cattle, and ships them off. To be sold for as much gold as he can get, or to be put to work for him directly. Except, of course, for the prettiest. Who will be used personally. At least for a while."
"But no! No, not here!" he protested. "We're Greeks! Ruled by Athens, and the Great King!"
"Yes," she observed quietly. "You've lived very peacefully here, haven't you. In a sort of bubble, really. Here in this quiet place. A far-off colony of prosperous Athens; on the good land of the frontier; far distant from all the troubles.
"But there are other places in this world. About which I'll you a little story.
"Some years ago, I travelled down the coast of Asia, and saw the cities on its shores. And they were great cities - of importance and wealth, and ancient histories. Beautiful places, in many ways, filled with wealth from trade, each with its own temples and palaces and markets and homes, each beloved by its people. Strung along the shores of the Aegean, like so many pearls... As the poets would say.
"And then, not too long ago, I returned. But the cities I had known were gone. And in the place of each one were ruins, burned and razed; sometimes a pathetic collection of ramshackle huts squatting on the remains. Because you see, they'd all been sacked. One by one. By the kings of the Greeks.
"Yes, those are the highest words of praise for one of your kings - aren't they? "Sacker of Cities". For the great leader who goes over the seas with his ships and soldiers; and brings back gold, and treasure - and slaves.
"And that's something else I've seen, too. Down in all the cities of your homeland; at Argos, and Tiryns, and Pylos, and Mycenae. They're always there, not far from the great palaces, in their rows and rows of hovels. Whole cities of them. Women working at the loom, and at the potter's wheel, working sunup to sundown to make fine things of value - in return for a dole of grain that's barely enough to keep them alive. Yes, alive, but far from the homes they once knew, and which they will never see again. For now they are slaves. Brought back from those wonderful cities of the coast of Asia as loot, the personal property. Of the kings of the Greeks.
"So, thinking about it, maybe that's what the leader of these raiders really wants. He wants to be a king. So he's simply decided to make himself one, by doing the very same things a king does. Not a bad plan, in its way.
"True, a place like Philippi is only small change. But you've got to start somewhere."
Philos could hardly believe it. He was hearing Kala's words, but could hardly understand them...
"But they'll stop this!" he declared. "This can't go on! Athens will send an army here! They'll send more troops!"
"Not a bad idea," she replied calmly. "Except that I think just the opposite is going to happen. That they're going to take troops away from here."
He could only stare at her.
"Yes", she went on, "I know that Amphipolis and the villages around it are a colony of Athens. And normally, you'd be right - they'd send help. But the problem is this: that all the help is gone. Gone over the seas.
"You see, a very great gamble has been taken here. A gamble taken by Agamemnon himself, King of the Kings of the Greeks. And the prize is truly a royal one: the last of the cities of the coast of Asia, the largest and richest of them, so powerful that it has stood, untouched, where all the others have fallen. The greatest prize of all, filled with wealth beyond all measure, gatehouse to the fabled trade route through the Hellespont. At the place called Ilium; the city of Troy.
"So when it turned out that Helen, wife of the Great King's brother, had been taken off to Troy's gates... Well. It seemed as if the moment had finally come. For now Agamemnon could make use of the sworn loyalty that the lesser kings owed him, and could compel them all to join his expedition. Even the most reluctant, like Odysseus.
"Yet, as I said - it remains a gamble. Not only the war with Troy itself, but the fact that so much power has been taken over the sea to fight it. Because now the cities of Greece are vulnerable to enemies in neighboring lands. Or to would-be kings - who might see a chance to start dynasties of their own. After all, it was not so many years ago that Pylos itself was founded by an upstart, an able warlord who saw lands weakly held, and used naked force to take them for his own. Now his royal line is honored just as much as any of the others - which is fitting, because actually, they were all founded in pretty much the same way.
"So, will Agamemnon be able to take Troy, before disaster visits him at home? He seems to think he can, moving the heavens and earth to do it. Maybe literally so. Did you know that he sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, to the sea-god Poseidon? That he gave her life to the god, so that he would have a safe journey across the sea? Yes, that is the kind of thing he would do.
"So tell me. What do you think a far-off little colony like Amphipolis could possibly mean to such a man? An ambitious man, a desperate man? Who plays for stakes like these?"
The only answer was silence. For of course there was nothing to be said.
Yet there had to be a way, some way -
"But what can we do?" asked Philos. "There has to be something! There has to be be!"
"Well, yes," replied the Amazon. "In theory, at least. We could start organizing a defense of our own. First and foremost, by putting up a wall around Amphipolis - a good palisade would be the most important thing we could have to defend it. In fact, if our defenses turned out to be strong enough, and we looked like we meant business, there might never even be an attack. Because raiders are after loot, after all. Not an inglorious death in attacking a well-defended place. If they find a town is too strong, they'll go elsewhere.
"That's the theory, anyway. But the facts are these: that we don't have a lot of time - and a tremendous effort will be needed from the people to build a wall, on top of all the work they otherwise have to do. So it's not going to be easy to persuade them. And worst of all, I don't think his lordship is even going to try to persuade them - he's never agreed with me about the seriousness of the situation. Not to mention that he's too proud to admit that his forces won't be able to handle the threat of these raiders. So his troops are going to keep dwindling in number, through losses and withdrawals back to Athens - while the raiders are going to keep getting stronger and stronger. With each passing day.
"Listen - I'm going to do whatever I can. No matter what it costs. But the trouble is, who are the people going to listen to? Lord Aleus, their leader for these many years, their ruler by right of birth? Or a crazy wild Amazon woman? And a bunch of kids?"
Again, there seemed to be nothing to be said.
So once more silence reigned, now without interruption, as they all plodded along the dusty road to Amphipolis. One fevered idea after another sped through his brain - wild schemes, fantastic plans of salvation - only to be discarded almost as soon as they were considered. He still could hardly believe that anyone could do such a thing, to attack a peaceful village and kill and enslave its inhabitants. How could anyone be so horrible and vicious? Yet before him was the evidence of Philippi. Which could hardly be denied. And even worse, there finally came before him the sight of Amphipolis itself - and his own family - under the sword of the marauders...
There had to be some awful mistake here. There had to be! The destruction of Philippi was so cruel and pointless - there had to be a some kind of dreadful misunderstanding. Some way of turning this Cortese onto another path. Especially if, as Kala said, he might ultimately want to be a king...
For a moment he glanced beside him, and saw that Xena was thinking very intently too. Though her thoughts were perhaps different. And of what he dared not guess.
For her eyes were hard. And cold. Not even like anything human, he thought; but rather like the eyes of a statue. One of those statues ... that they made of the gods.
As hard, and cold, as flint.
Later, on the evening of that day, they finally made their weary way home. Where, to his complete astonishment, it turned out they were greeted like heroes - many of their friends and neighbors having gathered to welcome them at the inn, alerted by a messenger that had preceded them. Philos could scarcely make heads or tails of it; what glorious deed had been done? That day at Philippi had only been exhausting and dirty and sickening. That and nothing more.
Shortly afterwards, he noticed that his sister had disappeared. Of course, she was wont to do so, from time to time; but on this occasion something seemed to worry him, more so than usual. Almost as if, with all the horrible things that had happened lately, something in him didn't want to let her out of his sight.
So off he went to look for her.
Actually, his search didn't take him all that long. For again, he somehow knew just where to find her. In that special place they had always had.
He made his way up the ladder and through the loft door as quietly as he could, even though he knew it would be impossible to actually sneak up on her (as many times as he had tried). No, he simply didn't want to disturb her, since she had obviously gone off by herself for a reason.
And yes ... as soon as he got into the loft, he saw it. A faint glimmer of candlelight, down at the other end. Tiptoeing forward, he made his way around a few high piles of sacks, and peered around some more to catch sight of her. Standing there. At their place.
She was facing away from him, her forehead against the great wooden post that rose to carry the roof above them. And held aloft in both hands, just above her head, was the bright metal circle: glinting high in the candlelight. Almost as if in supplication of something. Or of someone.
He watched for a few moments, but all the while she simply remained there, leaning against the post. What could this be about? It was very strange; especially because he was certain she knew he was here. After all, she always did...
Then he heard something - a noise from her direction? A strange noise. Almost like ... a sob. Though at first he could hardly believe it. And then he saw her shoulders heaving, ever so slightly.
Yet could it be true?
For he had never seen his sister cry.
Not even once, in all the years he had been with her. There might have been some time, when they were both very little, but that could scarcely be remembered. No, not even on that day...
When all he had seen was that stony mask. So cold and efficient.
He crept back out of the loft, as quietly as he could.
And made his way back down to their friends and family.
Some notes from the author -
A few months ago I decided to take a look at the site of Amphipolis in my good old (and ever massive) Rand McNally International Atlas. There is nothing to denote the ancient town on the map, of course, since it has for centuries been nothing more than an obscure ruin (you generally have to consult an historical atlas to find it); but I wanted to get some idea of the surrounding topography. And there, in the valley just to the east, on the other side of the line of hills anchored by Mt. Pangaeus, I found it. A symbol denoting an historical site, labelled "Filippoi".
Filippoi ... Philippi!
The same Philippi that in 42 B.C. was the site of one of the strangest (and most decisive) battles of the ancient world - and was already a deserted ruin, even then. The event that unfolded around it was a peculiar half-siege, half-battle, in which the forces of Marc Antony and Octavian defeated the combined army of Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Julius Caesar. An exceptionally confused affair, during the course of which Cassius committed suicide, evidently by mistake(!), in an episode which has been the object of much conjecture ever since.
BRUTUS: Well; then I shall see thee again?
GHOST OF CAESAR: Ay, at Philippi.
Or so sayeth Shakespeare.
And so it was that the scene for the events of this chapter became a foregone conclusion.
To Be Continued
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