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The children all sat at their places in the oak tree, like jackdaws in a row, and chattering about as loudly. This was their headquarters, their gathering place, the huge old oak by the river.
Its great leafy canopy gave welcome shade in the summer - as on the present torrid day - but also did not hinder any cooling breeze that might happen to come along. The numberless huge branches provided more than enough clefts and crannies for good spots for everyone, and if you wanted to be by yourself - well, you only had to go a little higher. And one old branch even went right over the river, where it served as the very best diving spot. Right into a deep, clear pool.
In short, it was the center of the whole world.
One who sat on the biggest branch was rather quieter than the others - this being Xena, daughter of the innkeeper Cyrene. She was working away patiently, smoothing a long pole of ash wood. And not far from her was one who was perhaps the most voluble of all, in the person of her twin brother, Philos.
" ... Nestor could alone rival him, for he was older," went on Philos in a sing-song voice. "With him came fifty ships. Ajax brought twelve ships from Salamis, and stationed them alongside those of the Athenians. The men of Argos, again, and those who held the walls of Tiryns..."
Suddenly he was interrupted by a shout from below.
"Hi! Hi! Hi!"
It was little Flora.
He bent over to address her, down on the ground where she stood beneath them.
"Hi Flora! he replied. "I can't come down now - I'm working on my ship list."
"What?" she asked.
"You know - all the ships the kings have. They use it in the poems. I'm memorizing it!"
"Oh," came the disappointed answer. "Well ... then maybe ... maybe ... I'll come up there." She walked over to the trunk of the tree and began to attempt to scale it.
For the first time Xena looked up from her work, noticed Philos. With a sidelong glance, she seemed to be following Flora's progress.
Or rather, lack of progress. As had happened so many times before, she could not make it up the tree, eventually reaching a point where she could climb no higher.
"Please," she called out plaintively. "Please help me up. I'm almost there, this time."
Philos looked over at his sister. He knew he daren't act on his own in this matter; for Xena was the accepted arbiter of all the long-established customs of the Tree.
In fact, his sister had become the de facto arbiter of many things. Their natural leader. All the children looked up to her, to some extent or other, even those who were a couple of years older; and none seemed to look up to her more than Flora - who virtually worshipped her. She tagged along whenever she could, at least when Xena was on the ground, following whatever she did with fascinated admiration.
Xena had now gotten up to move over on the branch. She reached a point just above Flora, and then stretched out her hand.
"Do you see this, Flora?" she called out. "See how close you are? Just an arm's length."
Flora reached out her little hand, toward Xena's. And just as she was about to take it -
Xena suddenly drew her own hand back.
"You've got to have faith, Flora," she said evenly. "You've got to have faith."
Flora actually seemed surprised at this result, for some reason - though this was by no means the first time that such a thing had happened. Then her hopeful expression fell, and little tears started to make their way down her cheeks. She began to sob quietly.
Philos looked closely at his sister. Her expression was set, calm. It seemed not to make the slightest difference to her that she had just made a little girl cry. One who admired her, above all things.
He decided that in some ways, he would never understand her.
Oh, well. Perhaps even the gods couldn't understand some things, either.
He started to climb down the branch and made his way to Flora, helping her make a safe descent to the ground. And then, when she started back to the village, walked alongside her.
After a time her crying ceased; at which point she suddenly began to talk.
"Did ... did Xena really do what you said, when she was little?"
"What's that?" he asked, a bit surprised at this question.
"You know - kill that wolf. A black wolf. That's what you said."
"Yes, it's true." Even though their mother had never really believed him.
"Well I ... I just wish ..." Her voice had now become very soft, so soft that he could barely hear it. "I wish I could do something like that. Then she'd like me." Her voice trailed off into nothingness.
"But you see..." Whatever could he say? "It's just that ... she's a princess, you know. A princess. And a princess can do these things. That other people can't."
"A princess," murmured Flora. "But how did she get to be one?"
"Well, it's because ... I think ... our father is a king. But someone had taken his
throne, so he had to keep it a secret. And then he had to go away, to get it back."
Flora considered this thoughtfully.
"At least that's what I think," added Philos. "That's the way things always happen in the stories, why the king goes away."
"Oh, but that's true," declared Flora, now becoming more animated. "And ... maybe that's why my father's gone, too!" Yes, Flora also did not have a father. Though he had overheard, from a grownup, that he was thought to have been killed. On the last expedition against Argos.
"Maybe he's with your father - maybe he's right beside him!" she continued joyfully.
Indeed, thought Philos. Maybe that was true. For all anyone knew.
Now they were drawing near the village, and Flora, once again her usual cheerful self, began running the rest of the way home.
"Xena is a princess!" she cried out as she ran. "Xena is a princess!" Watching her, he knew that everything would now be okay.
And also knew she would try again to climb that tree. Someday soon. That she wouldn't give up.
Which perhaps Xena knew also, he suddenly thought to himself.
As perhaps she'd known all along.
A Final Note -
The "Ship List" appears in Book 2 of the Iliad, and is evidently a very ancient part of the poem - a sort of 'fossilized' oral formula that originated long before the time of Homer, in the age of Mycenae itself. Many places mentioned in it, in fact, were no longer to be found in Homer's era, much less in that of classical Greece. But modern archaeology has located more and more of these places, just in the kinds of spots where the poem indicates they might be found.
Xena sat stiffly in the chair, looking quite annoyed. She wasn't used to being indoors on such a fine day.
Well, thought her mother, this term of trial had only just begun.
For shortly would be seen the ascendancy of Agina.
Her older sister Agina had arrived a couple of days ago, from a village a few days journey distant. As usual, she had arrived unannounced. And also, as usual, had immediately commenced to set right everything that was wrong with her younger sister's situation. From her point of view, that is.
This was all the more impressive in that Cyrene was hardly known as a shrinking violet in her own right. Her opinion on almost any subject was immediately quite clear to all. But compared to Agina...
Oh, well. She would just have to bear it as best she could; as she always did. And on one point, at least, she really couldn't argue with her sister much. Since that point was quite obviously a sore one indeed.
Namely ... Xena.
Now, Xena did do her share around the inn; that much had to be admitted. Like her brothers she helped to look after the business of the place - most particularly in caring for the visitors' animals. She especially seemed to love horses, sometimes remaining in the stables for hours, seeing to it that they received the very best of care. But as for the rest...
Well, there was really no other way to put it: she didn't behave like a girl. Or at least she didn't know all the things that a proper girl should. She didn't know how to weave at the loom; she didn't know how to cook. She didn't know how make or mend clothes, how to bake bread, how to do the washing. A list that went on and on.
Needless to say, as soon as this situation was apprehended, the result was an utterly scandalized Agina. How could her sister have let this happen? How could such a thing have ever come about?
It was unheard of!
And yes, she had to admit, Agina did have a point. But even admitting that, granting it in full - what else could have possibly been done? How could things have turned out differently?
Agina didn't have to carry on by herself, to shoulder every responsibility alone. She didn't have to run an inn, with its burden of work that never relented - so that her family might thereby have food, and shelter, and clothing. She didn't have to raise four children in the midst of all of this...
And here it lay. Her greatest regret. That there had never been enough time, never enough time for the children. In the way she might have wanted; in the way they might have especially needed it. Yet the very sundering of the family, that had created such a special need ... had also ensured that it was impossible to be satisfied.
Such was the way of things.
But now all reflection quickly came to an end - as the imminent approach was heard. Steps came to the doorway...
Upon which followed an entrance like a ship in full sail, high and billowing, all obstacles parting before its unwavering course. The good ship Agina. And in the wake of the great vessel, carrying a box, was Toris.
Ah. Poor Toris. The oldest, forced to grow older than his years. So that he might help
where he could in caring for the others. And seeing them together ... how much like Agina he had come to look...
Her sister sat down regally, for all the world like a great lady at Knossos or Mycenae. Cyrene could barely restrain a smile. Then Agina inclined her head toward to Xena.
"Well, young lady. Do you know why we're all here today?"
"No." Xena's attention seemed to be elsewhere; she often appeared to be a little out of sorts or inattentive in situations like this, at least when Philos wasn't present.
"Come, don't you know what's been lacking in your education? Not that I'm here to place any blame."
Oh no, certainly not.
"Don't you know what we're going to do today?"
"Waste time indoors?" This reply was delivered in so matter of fact a fashion, however, that no sarcasm could be immediately detected.
"What? Of course not!" Cyrene had to restrain another smile; things were certainly getting off to a good start for Agina ... "In fact, since you're so concerned about wasting time - we shall begin at once!"
Her sister turned to Toris, who was standing patiently beside her, and retrieved some materials from the box he still held.
"There's much to be done, I'm afraid. So very much! But even the longest journey begins ... with packing your clothes. Or was that it? No matter! We'll start with something simple. Here!"
She produced an embroidery hoop which had some cloth in it.
"Come here, Xena! Sit beside me! I will demonstrate to you the basic stitches! Something every girl should know!"
Xena got up and approached with enthusiasm - as much as would be exhibited by any condemned prisoner marching to the block.
Then Agina seemed to notice that Toris was still present beside her.
"Oh, you. You can go now. This is no business for men! Go out and do whatever it is you do!"
But just before he left, Toris turned to look upon the scene, and his sister, once more.
And upon his face there must have been the widest smirk a mortal had ever displayed.
Yes. How truly sweet was Revenge!
Philos crept quietly down the hallway. He had been given explicit instructions to stay away, not to bother his sister - but he could hardly bear it. He had to at least have a look.
Today they had again taken her into the parlor, to learn some sort of strange female knowledge. But this time all the others had quickly left, leaving Xena alone. To do whatever it was she had to in solitude.
But whatever could this be? When he had questioned her last evening, about the previous session, she had refused to say anything - only glowering at him fiercely. (Which, of course, was very fierce indeed.) Perhaps it was some strange secret that these females had. Some secret rite ...
He peeked around the doorway, as slowly and carefully as he could. There was Xena, sitting in a chair, her back to him - looking down and working at something in her lap. But he couldn't see what it was.
He started to move to the other side of the doorway, to perhaps get a better angle. He had to see! But as he began to tiptoe forward...
In a flash of motion, Xena suddenly turned around to face him. Something was hurled - Philos ducked back for all his life was worth - and an object rocketed into the hallway.
Philos stood back against the wall, his heart in his mouth. The thrown object bounced along the floor to his feet. He stared at the thing curiously - amazed to discover what it was.
Wow, that could have hurt!
So. Maybe Xena, herself, wasn't too anxious to be bothered by him, either.
It was now the third day. The third day of whatever strange thing was going on. Philos sat quietly in his chair, looking on the scene before him with wide eyes.
Xena was sitting on the other side of the parlor, with a folded piece of cloth in her lap. Arrayed around the rest of the room were his mother, Aunt Agina, brothers Toris and Lyceus, and himself. Like some kind of audience.
"Well, everyone - here we are!" announced his aunt. That much seemed obvious. "As you may know, after I arrived here I discovered that an alarming situation had developed - in regard to my niece Xena. But never fear; we have begun to take steps to correct the situation! An emergency program of instruction has been commenced!"
Philos looked at his sister closely. Her face was utterly impassive, devoid of any hint of emotion; though of course that was not completely unusual. But what was that, did he actually see it - some sort of strange little gleam in her eye?
"As the first step of our program, Xena has been given a project to complete," continued his aunt. "A project that will demonstrate her new abilities in a simple, yet time-honored and feminine skill. Namely: embroidery." What?! Did he actually
hear that correctly? Was that what she had been working on, all this time? Not fletching an arrow, or making a new snare?
"And now the time has come - the proud moment - when we all shall witness the result of her labors! Come, Xena! Show us your handiwork!"
Without a word his sister unfolded the cloth in her lap, holding it up for everyone to see.
At which Philos - and all the others - could now only stare.
In utter astonishment.
It was certainly spectacular; he had to admit that much. The epic sweep of the thing, the bright colors ... the liberally displayed blood, and gore...
"But ... but what is it?" murmured Cyrene. Had she become noticeably paler?
"Don't you see!" cried Xena. "It's the 'Seven Against Thebes'!"
Ah! Now Philos recognized the incident...
"It's the great battle," continued his sister with amazing enthusiasm. "See here - Amphiaraus has just cut off the head of Melanippus. And now Tydeus is about to split open the skull. And gulp down the brains!" She looked upon her work with very real satisfaction - smiling brightly to all of them.
The subsequent reactions of her audience seemed to vary.
Lyceus was greatly impressed - his round little eyes were wide open, and he laughed with glee! Toris, on the other hand, was stupefied; whatever the true depths of his feelings, they could scarcely be gauged. While their mother simply sat quietly, perhaps even a little paler than before.
As for Aunt Agina...
Well, he never did find out exactly what she thought of it. Because the last he saw of her was her retreating form, hurrying out of the room.
And then the very next day she happened to leave for home.
Quite early in the morning.
A few days later he found his sister in the parlor again. He had been searching all over for her, and was amazed to find her back in this place at midday.
In fact, she was even stitching at another piece of cloth in the embroidery hoop.
"Um ... what are you doing, Xena?" he asked, a little tentatively. One could never know what reaction such a question might receive. But she actually seemed to be pleased by his inquiry.
"Ah, look at this!" she declared, holding up the hoop for him. "I'm starting the 'Battle of the Gods against the Titans'!"
Philos decided that indeed ... his sister possessed many skills.
A Final Note -
The reader might find it interesting to know that the famous Bayeaux Tapestry - which depicts William the Conqueror's invasion of England and the battle of Hastings - is not a tapestry at all. Instead, it is actually an enormous piece of embroidery. So Xena's efforts in this regard are obviously not the only ones to be found in the course of history.
Also, anyone who doubts the goriness of Xena's version of the battle of "The Seven Against Thebes" need only consult section 106.j of Robert Graves' volume on the Greek Myths. It will be found that she did not exaggerate in the least.
Stranger in a Strange Land
They continued on into the heart of the woods, Xena and Philos, carrying the baskets in which they would bring back the herbs they had been sent to gather. The trail had now become quite narrow, the high branches of the forest looming darkly all above them.
"... the sun rose on the flawless brimming sea, into a sky all brazen ... all one brightening for gods immortal and for mor- ... awwk ... spllt..."
Xena had suddenly placed her hand over his mouth, putting a spluttering end to his recitation.
By the gods...
Everyone was a critic!
His first indignant attempt to respond to this heavy-handed commentary ended quite suddenly, however - when he caught his sister's look.
Those ice-pale eyes flashed a dire warning. He became very still.
He did not see, as yet, exactly what was meant here. However, past experience had also taught him that it would be best to pay close heed.
Satisfied that he would now remain silent, Xena took her hand from his mouth, and pointed to the sky.
And there, in an opening through the branches, he could just barely see it.
The faintest tendril of smoke, rising lazily against the azure blue.
They squatted right next to one another, staring through the little openings between the leaves. While before them, in the clearing, was the stranger.
She was an odd looking woman. Well, not really odd, thought Philos, more in the way of ... unusual. She was dressed in a plain leather tunic and boots - he had never seen a woman dressed that way before. A golden fall of hair was drawn back behind her, setting off features of a cool, chiseled regularity; from which gazed gray eyes. Gray,
searching eyes. The kind of eyes that never missed anything, he could almost believe.
Her back was now facing them, as she knelt down by a little fire, stirring something in a pot. This was the source of the smoke that Xena had seen. She brought her wooden spoon up to have a taste; and then:
"Well, I believe it's done. You can come and have some now."
What ... who ... could she be talking to, wondered Philos - with sudden terror. Surely not...
She suddenly stood up, unexpectedly tall and looming as she turned slowly to face them. In fact, she seemed to gaze directly at it - at the place where they were hidden. Staring with those hard, gray eyes.
Oh no no no, thought Philos. He had TOLD Xena - told her they should go back to the village - let the people there know about the fire - not gone ahead - not gone ahead by themselves...
He now noticed one thing more about this woman, since she had just moved her hand near it. Something he had up to now missed, though he didn't for the life of him know how. Namely, that she was wearing ... a black sword...
Suddenly, Xena stepped forward, marching directly out of the undergrowth and into the clearing.
To stand there as boldly as if on her own ground.
A little yelp came out; he couldn't help it. But then, almost reflexively, he quickly came up too. As always, following in the wake of his sister.
Following without thought, to tell the truth.
"Who are you?" demanded Xena suddenly. "What are you doing here? What do you want? These woods belongs to our village!"
No - no - he couldn't believe it -
"And we don't like strangers." No, no!
"Or beggars," she imperiously concluded.
The woman continued staring for a moment (though her hand had not yet touched the sword hilt, noted Philos).
After which she threw back her head ... and laughed.
The biggest laugh he thought he had ever heard.
In fact she seemed to be taken with a fit of laughter, almost coming to double up with it. After a while it slowly lessened, even pausing for a moment; then she took another look at the two of them. Upon which it resumed even more forcefully than before.
Rocking with laughter, she eventually fell back on her posterior to the ground. It was a few minutes before she began to become quiet again.
By this time Xena's face had become very red indeed.
"Hmmm ... well ..." began the woman; a few lingering chuckles still had to be suppressed. "Okay. Okay." Hands clasping her knees as she sat there, she seemed to shake herself a little; and then became as serious as she could manage.
"First, as to who I am. Well, a stranger. That's true, at the moment. And a renegade too. Yes, a renegade - you missed that one, somehow. But a beggar? No. At least not yet, anyway.
"Oh, and my name is Kala. Short for Kalathara. So there, I'm not such a stranger anymore, am I."
"But ... where do you come from?" asked Philos. He could scarcely believe he was actually speaking to her; then again, it was perhaps difficult to be terrified of anyone who could laugh so hard.
Xena, on the other hand, remained stony faced and silent.
"Well, you see, I'm what you would call ... an Amazon," she slowly replied.
"Oh!" exclaimed Philos. "The daughters of Ares! 'Who love grim war, and take delight in dark and bloody deeds'!" Oops! "Er, well ... some of them, anyway ... or that's what they say ... the poets ... some of them ... I mean..."
"That's all right," she laughed again. Then she seemed to become a little more serious. "Some of us follow Ares. And then again - some of us don't."
"In fact, that has something to do with why I'm here. Just a bit of a disagreement - well, only a misunderstanding, really. Making my welcome at home not as enthusiastic as it would normally be. So for the time being I've decided to take a little trip."
A real, live exile! Right here in front of him!
"I think I've travelled enough now, though. And this certainly looks like a very pleasant piece of countryside. Very quiet. Plus, I hear that your local lordling is in need of someone to look after his woodlands. For which I could fit the bill pretty well - if I do say so myself."
She paused to consider something for a moment.
"Just one thing, though. I know I could never feel comfortable in a place ... where I had enemies. You've got to be able to sleep at night."
She slowly stood up again, and faced Xena.
"Here, now. I know I'm a stranger and all. That maybe I've got no right to be in your woods. That I own scarcely more than the clothes on my back. So that was the truth in what you said.
"And I know, for certain, that I would never want to have you for my enemy." She said this quite seriously, looking straight at Xena. "Not one like you."
His sister still had nothing to say.
"So, I would ask this of you. Could you find it in your heart to grant fair
hospitality? To such a rag-tag wanderer as myself? And if you don't, I won't kick - I'll just pull up stakes and move on."
Xena continued to frown darkly. He knew she had no great regard for glib words. He saw her move a little...
As she slowly extended her hand - and opened it.
Holding it out to the one who called herself Kala.
"Okay, then. Let's shake like warriors," said the Amazon. She showed Xena what she meant, and they grasped one another's forearms. Xena actually began to smile a little at this.
"And you too," she then said to Philos, motioning him to come forward. "You look like sort of a tricky one - I want you on my side too!"
And so they shook as well. He found her grasp to be firm, but gentle.
"Here's one more thing - do this." She held both hands high over her head, each tightly gripping the other. "That's how you say to an Amazon: 'I'm a friend. I come in peace.' A good thing to remember!" Both of the children followed suit.
"Well, that's all right then!"
Afterwards, Kala insisted on sharing her simple meal with the two of them - during which she and Xena commenced a discussion about the state of the surrounding woodlands, and what would be needed to keep them in order. A long discussion, full of all sorts of obscure woodsy details. Still, it was good to see Xena talking so much, and even with enthusiasm. Now that there was someone with whom to talk of such things.
And while the two talked, Philos found that he was the silent one. Most unusual. Though truth to tell, he really did not mind this.
For it gave him an uninterrupted opportunity ... to watch Kala. Kalathara. Her proud but graceful, in fact even regal bearing; those clean, wonderfully sculpted features; the candid wisdom and courage to be seen in that calm face.
All traits one might imagine for royalty, he thought to himself. Or even a goddess.
Such beauty as he could watch forever.
"A stranger in a strange land, what am I to hide, what am I to speak, O Master, before a man who will be swift to think evil? Be thou my guide: his skill excels all other skill, his counsel hath no peer, with whom is the sway of the godlike sceptre given by Zeus..."
-- from "Philoctetes", by Sophocles
I have been a stranger in a strange land. -- Exodus II, 3
Well, I must admit it - the final few lines for this chapter may have been inspired by my experience at the recent convention in Burbank. To the side of the table where Lucy Lawless signed autographs, a little area had been been set aside for photographers. And as a friend of mine took pictures, I stood behind her - watching LL as she sat there, only a few feet distant, signing away. I quietly watched those wonderfully astonishing features for some minutes, utterly lost; my reaction perhaps very much like
Continued - Chapters 9-10
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