They dodged and jumped and weaved their way through Potadia, down the wide main street past bored peddlers and kiosk owners sitting in little groups gossiping or napping, all their customers on the edge of town watching the race. The merchants showed only a mild curiosity about the two women racing past. At the south end of town they found their horses patiently grazing under the towering elm they had tied them to on long lead reins. Quickly they had the animals under control and were mounted. A look back at the village, however, revealed no one after them, at least for the moment. The women relaxed and caught their breath.
"All right," Keola said, taking the olive wreath off her head and hooking it over the dispatch cylinder hanging by her leg, " what was that all about?"
"You probably dont want to know," Oresta answered with a wry smile.
"Oh yes, I probably do," Keola insisted.
Oresta shrugged. "I keep telling you, Amazon, attitude and presentation. We needed Pharon and Telemechus out of the way. The kindling was already laid between them. I just went over and added a few sparks, with attitude and presentation, to get the fire going."
"And so you " Keola said leadingly.
Oresta could not stop the smile that came to her face, though she tried.
"So I told them I was a worshipper of Eros. And that the God came to me in a dream last night and told me to take the wearer of the olive wreath to my bed tonight and initiate the noble winner into the Gods sacred secrets of love and pleasure, as a sacrifice and tribute to Him."
Keola burst out laughing so hard her whole body shook. Oresta leaned back on her mount, hands folded in front of her, a pleased 'cat who caught the canary' grin on her face.
"I dont believe you," Keola said finally, taking a deep breath to control herself. "I dont believe any of this. I cant understand why I let myself get involved."
"I know why," Oresta said.
"You do huh?" Keola answered.
"Yep," Oresta nodded. She turned her horse south, toward Athens. "Because, "she said with a wink, "its fun, and you dont have enough fun in your life."
She dug her heels into her mount and galloped away. Keola watched her go. For a moment the Amazons face was serious as she considered the words. Then a smile came to her face, one that resembled slightly the smile she had seen a lot the last few days. She tapped her horses flanks and galloped after.
The boy awoke with a start.
"Get the others up and dressed, son, hurry," a deep voice ordered, stress unmistakable beneath the commanding tone. "Weve been betrayed."
The man disappeared from the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Alexander, heart pounding, roughly shook the smaller boy next to him.
"Philip," he hissed, "get up. Get dressed. Were going. Right now!"
Philip, just turned eight, sat up.
"Going?" he said sleepily. "Where are we going?"
"Get dressed I said," Alexander answered. He threw his brothers worn tunic in his face. "Get that on right now!"
Alexander pulled up his breeches and slipped on his sandals. He raced across the room.
"Beatrice, Serif, Serena," he shook each girl hard on the shoulder as he said their names. The three children, curled up together like kittens in the bed, looked around with bleary, questioning faces. Beatrice, the oldest at seven, rubbed a sleep-encrusted eye with the heel of her hand.
"What is it, Alexander?" she asked anxiously. "Whats the matter?"
"Get your sisters dressed, Princess," Alexander ordered, consciously trying to sound commanding and controlled, the way his father always did. "Were leaving. Hurry up."
The boy went back to his bed and pulled out the long sword from underneath. He threw the carrying strap over his shoulder and straightened the blade on his back as Philip watched wide-eyed while pulling on his boots.
"Im going to check on Father," he said. "Help the Princesss get ready."
Philip nodded as Alexander rushed out the door, closing it behind him. The boy helped Beatrice pull embroidered silk smocks over the heads of the five-year-old twins and tie thin, finely worked leather belts with gold tassels around their waists.
An angry, deep-throated shout caused the children to start and tremble with fear. Serif and Serena instinctively wrapped each other in a white-faced hug. There was another shout, a different, higher voice, an obscenity, then the unmistakable ringing of sword on sword. Fast. Furious. A short strangled scream assaulted their ears. Tears of overwhelming terror filled Beatrices eyes and began sliding down her cheeks, though she did not move a muscle or make a sound. The door burst open. Alexander flew into the room, propelled by a powerful unseen hand, landing on all fours at Philips feet. Immediately behind a tall, thick man with a full black beard down to his chest and a lions mane of hair framing his face entered and slammed the door shut. Breathing heavily, blood flowing from a cut above his eye, red liquid dripping from the long blade in his hand, he slid the iron bolt at the top of the door into the notch in the wooden door post.
Alexander scrambled to his feet. "Father I "
A fiercely waved hand silenced him. The man pressed his ear to the door.
"This way! This way! The bastard went down the hall!!"
Father let out an angry hiss between his teeth.
"All right, Alexander," he whispered, "just as we
practiced. Get everyone out."
"Father " the boy answered, arms out and wide, pleading.
"Now," the man ordered, leaving no further room for argument.
Alexander obeyed. He grabbed a small iron hook hanging from a stud by the fireplace and pulled up a cut out square of the wooden floor. He lowered his brother by the arm into the blackness of the cellar and let him drop to the floor. Serif and Serena were next, Philip grabbing their legs and easing them down, just as he had been taught. Alexander was lowering Beatrice when the door rattled, then shook as a shoulder slammed into it.
"Here! This door! Theyre here!!"
Alexander let go of the girl and looked up. His father was at his side.
"All right, boy, you next," the man said.
He grabbed his sons arm. Their eyes met. Impulsively he caressed the boys face.
"Im sorry, son," he whispered, "the burden is yours now. You must be a man and a warrior and do the best you can. Your duty is to the Princesss. Never abandon them. Do I have your word?"
The boy let out a trembling breath, his heart pounding so hard it was painful in his chest. There was a dull crash as more shoulders slammed into the door.
"Damn it!! Bring something to break down this door!!"
"You have my word, Father," Alexander whispered hoarsely.
The man nodded. "Thats enough then."
Before Alexander could say another word he was jerked into the opening and dropped to the cellar floor.
"Alexander, Philip, I love you," Father called down.
The square of floor was fitted back over the opening, leaving the children in darkness. Above they could hear something heavy smashing into the door, men shouting to try again. Alexander forced himself to move. He had promised. He found the wall with his hand and felt along it till he came to the board that stuck several inches out from the rough masonry. He pulled it and a section of rock fell with a hollow thump to the hard packed earthen floor revealing a hole several feet across. The tunnel led a dozen yards before coming up in a stand of thick forest that grew behind the large manor house.
"Come on, lets go, lets go!" Alexander ordered.
The children obeyed, crawling one after the other into the narrow space, as they had practiced a dozen times. As Alexander entered he heard a terrible crash and the splintering of wood, then shouting and the ringing sound of blade on blade. "Oh, Father," he whispered through a throat constricted with emotion, his body trembling as he disappeared into the darkness.
Oresta drew the bowstring back to her ear as her mount raced along across the pasture at a head down gallop. She released the arrow. The shaft buried deep into the trunk of a towering oak thirty yards away. Expertly she turned her horse, using only her knees, as she pulled another arrow from the quiver on her back and fitted it on her bow. She raced again past the tree and let fly. The arrow struck half a forefinger above the first. She galloped past again, this time leaning low, close to the animals neck, bow parallel to the earth. The arrow zipped true through the still air and buried two fingers width to the left of the first. She straightened and brought her horse around, still using only her knees to guide the animal. She pulled up beside Keola, who was sitting quietly astride her bay gelding watching. The Amazon shook her head and let out a low whistle.
"That was pretty damn impressive," she said sincerely.
Oresta smiled her mischievous smile.
"It was, wasnt it," she said. "Sometimes I impress myself."
Keolas eyes narrowed.
"Careful," she said.
"Youre going to break your arm patting yourself on the back," the Amazon rumbled.
Oresta shifted and straightened on her horse, face serious.
"Well, Ill admit, it can be a dangerous thing for beginners," she said. "I certainly dont recommend it to the young and inexperienced. But Ive spent years perfecting my technique and I can now say with perfect confidence that there is very little risk of injury when I pat myself on the back."
"Uh huh," Keola replied through pursed lips, "Im glad to know youve taken the art of self congratulation so seriously. A lot of people might consider that a waste of time and effort, but when I see it practiced with such grace and elegance, by an obviously talented artist like yourself, I begin to appreciate what a beautiful thing raging ego mania really is."
Oresta bowed formally.
"Thank you, warrior," she said solemnly, "I seldom have the pleasure of talking to someone who truly understands the subtleties of my gift."
"Im sure you dont," the Amazon answered through a wry smile.
Oresta laughed, and as she did she felt again that warm surge of curiosity and emotion as she looked into Keolas clear brown eyes. Eyes so beautiful, intelligent, direct, penetrating, caring, friendly. The eyes of someone you instinctively trusted. She blinked and turned her head. She bit her lip in that nervous habit. Only the dead can be trusted. The ancient saying did not offer the comfort it usually did. Some part of her shriveled and wished it were not true.
"Ive never seen a bow like that," Keola said. "I cant believe how fast those arrows came off the string. May I see it?"
Oresta handed the Amazon the weapon.
"Its called a composite bow," Oresta explained as Keola examined it. "Its made from bone, wood and sinew clued together. Its much more powerful than the simple birch bows they make in the Amazon valley. Ive seen an arrow from one of these bows go completely through a wooden shield and into a mans skull. I dropped two deer with it once. The arrow went through the neck of one and into another standing behind her I didnt even see. Killed them both. I had more meat than I knew what to do with."
Keola shook her head as she pulled back on the string and felt the tremendous tension.
"Where did you ever get such a thing?" she asked.
"Well," Oresta smiled, "thats a rather interesting story." She patted her mount on the neck. "The man I stole this horse from, my husband, made it for me."
Keolas eyes crinkled with surprise. "Husband?!"
"That was nice" Oresta said, mock hurt in her voice. "You make it sound like its a shock anyone would want to marry a bitch like me."
"I didnt say that," Keola smiled, "I only thought it. And Ill thank you in the future not to read my mind."
Oresta snorted. "Believe me, Amazon, its not that hard. In fact its easier than it should be."
"Okay." Keola said, eyes narrow, "what am I thinking now?"
"That Im the most beautiful and interesting woman youve ever met," Oresta grinned.
Keola laughed sarcastically. "Amazing. Exactly right." She sighed theatrically. "Gods, its sad to think how many ugly, dull women Ive been around all my life that you should be the most beautiful and interesting."
"I dont care about the quality of the competition, Keola," Oresta said, "as long as Im first. Being second just means youre first loser."
"Gods, you really are something," Keola laughed. "Im not sure what though."
The two women smiled at each other. Smiles of genuine pleasure. Keola felt the pull again. A desire to reach out and touch this woman, to run her hand over smooth skin. To communicate the affection she felt at this moment. But she held back. Would Orestas shield come up again if she tried? The Amazon did not care to find out. Her smile faded as she took a breath.
"A husband?" she asked hesitantly. "Really?"
"Really." Oresta answered, some of the relaxed good feeling leaving her face. She shifted a bit nervously on her mount and patted the animals neck. "Its a long and fascinating story, full of twists and turns and battles and escapes, one of my greatest adventures," she said grandly, but it was a pompousness that seemed forced. There was tension in Orestas voice. She looked at Keola, face questioning whether she should continue.
"Dont stop," the Amazon said with a raised eyebrow. "Im all agog to find out who this unfortunate creatur uh this brave man was that took you as a wife. Tell me everything."
Oresta ignored the dig with a contemptuous crinkle of the nose. She settled back on her horse, one hand unconsciously twisting and untwisting a lock of bristly mane.
"All this happened five years ago," she began, "in the spring. I had finished my travels west, seeing Rome and Carthage, Iberia and Gaul. I was in Antioch, doing a little of this and that," her mischievous smile appeared, "whatever I could, when I met a fat Persian merchant named Balthazar who was organizing a caravan to go east to Chin."
"Chin?" Keola interrupted.
"Chin." Oresta repeated. "The fabulous land on the other side of the world, full of flying dragons, where everything is made of ivory and jade, even the humblest peasant hut. And the people all walk around with gold dust sprinkled in their hair and on their clothes as simple glittery decoration. And its protected by a hundred foot high wall a thousand leagues long and only the great Emperor of all Chin has the keys to the single great gate, keys as tall as a tall man, made of solid silver encrusted with diamonds and emeralds."
Keola cocked her head and blew out a dismissive little snort of doubt.
"Hey," Oresta smiled with a shrug, " Dont give me that look. Im just telling you what people told me. But it is pretty intriguing dont you think? I thought so anyway. Balthazar was looking for some mercenaries to hire as protection. I knew a few people so I introduced him to an acquaintance of mine, Paulus Tiberium, who commanded a company of former Roman legionaries. I signed on as second in command of the company, and collected a nice fee for bringing the two of them together, of course."
"Of course," Keola nodded.
"There were almost a thousand of us all together," Oresta continued, "between the mercenary company and the camel drivers and a few tourists, "she grinned at Keola as she used the word, "who came along like me just for the chance to see the other side of the world. It was quite an undertaking. Three hundred and fifty camels loaded with trade goods and perfume and jewels to purchase silk and spices that can only be found it Chin."
"All right," Keola said, a look of vague disgust on her face, "Im sure youll laugh at my ignorance, but what the hell is a camel?"
"Laugh, I wont laugh." Oresta replied. "That would be so rude." She turned her head and put her hand over her mouth and unsuccessfully tried to suppress a snicker.
"Fine, fine, fuck you too," Keola said. "Now when you get finished laughing tell me what a camel is."
"Sorry, Im weak sometimes" Oresta shrugged with a smile. "A camel is a horribly disfigured horse. It has long skinny legs and a long neck and a head that sort of floats out in space at the end of the neck, like an afterthought of whatever drunken god created the mess. Theyre taller than horses and have a big hump in the middle of their backs. They can go several weeks without water and are perfect for traveling the long distances over the great dry steppes you have to cross to get to Chin. They are also the most dirty, disgusting, smelly, foul tempered beasts you can possibly imagine. They like to bite you when your back is turned and if they cant bite you theyll spit on you."
Keola shook her head, incredulous. "They spit on you?"
"One of them got me in the eye once," Oresta laughed. "It was all I could do not to get a club and beat the bastard to a pulp. Its like being around a pack of surly, disrespectful children. Gods do I hate camels. If I ever see another one it will be too soon. Anyway, where was I?"
"You had three hundred and fifty camels going to Chin." Keola reminded.
"Yes, okay," Oresta said, "so we got started late in the spring. We crossed over the Bosporous and went north around the great Black Sea and then turned east. Balthazar didnt want to risk crossing through the Parthian Empire. Theyve been known to seize a caravan if they decide they could use a little extra money in the treasury. We wound our way through the Caucausan Mountains, although its generous to call those low scrubby hills mountains, and came out onto the great flat plains that lead to Chin."
Oresta shook her head, eyes distant as she remembered the sight.
"Its an incredible thing, Keola," she said. "The land is flatter than the surface of a pond on a still day. And it seems to go on forever. At night the stars come right down to the horizon everywhere you look. You feel like a bug trapped under an upside down bowl. There isnt any road to follow, just endless waves of grass rippling with the wind. Its like being on the ocean. Balthazar had navigators who knew how to plot the stars and determine our course each day. All I can say is we kept going east every day, day after day after day. One of our tourists, Lyceum was his name, went mad with the overwhelming emptiness of it. The last I saw of him he was on his knees in the grass, all you could see was his head, weeping hysterically and rocking back and forth asking everyone as they passed if they knew where his house was, he couldnt find it. It was sad but he refused to get up and no one could carry him. We had to keep moving. You only have so much time to get to Chin before winter sets in. You cant let anything slow you down."
Oresta paused and took a swallow from her skin of water while Keola did the same from hers.
"It was a little past midsummer," Oresta continued as she put the cork back in her skin, "Balthazar had just told me that morning that we were more than half way to Chin, when it happened."
Keola leaned forward, curiosity building.
"I was with the rear guard, plodding along through the heat, trying to fight off the damn insects that seemed to swarm everywhere, when one of my men started pointing behind us. We all turned to look. There, half a league back, were a dozen horsemen, ponies painted red and blue and orange, all of them naked to the waist, their long black hair twisted into elaborate ponytails "
"Like yours?" the Amazon interrupted.
Orestas eyebrows shot up in surprise. She made a quick jerk of her head that snapped her long blonde ponytail around her shoulder where she could examine it. She made a little snorting laugh through her nose.
"You know," she said, "Ive been braiding it this way so long its second nature now. I dont even think about it anymore, but yes, Amazon, just like this. Except this is pretty plain. I cant do much, braiding it myself. Those warriors had braids that were breathtaking in their intricacy and beauty. Their women do it for them. Its a great art and source of pride among those people."
"Maybe you could show me how its done?" Keola asked simply.
Oresta looked at the Amazons open friendly face, eyes clear, bright, curious. Her heart thumped a little harder. She swallowed and shifted on her mount, suddenly uneasy at the feelings that were rising in her chest. Only the dead can be trusted. The thought sounded even more hollow than the last time it had run through her mind.
"Uh, sure," Oresta said quietly, "that would would be really nice. Theres a lot I could show you."
Keola nodded and smiled. Oresta cleared her throat.
"Now, if you could stop interrupting," she said, a hint of exasperation in her voice, "Ill get through this story before we die of old age. Where was I?"
"Warriors were behind you," Keola reminded.
"Yes," Oresta resumed, "a dozen warriors were trailing us. I sent a man up to fetch Balthazar and Tiberium, who were at the head of the caravan. When they arrived we started together toward our shadows. They sat their mounts watching us till we were a quarter league away, then they all turned together and galloped off till they disappeared behind a low swell of ground. When they were gone I looked over at Balthazar." Oresta snorted. "Let me tell you, Amazon, the look on his face is not something you want to see when youre alone in the middle of nowhere like that. He looked like he had just seen demons from hell invite themselves into his house. So who are they? Tiberium asked. I swear, the mans whole body was trembling when he said the word. Huns.
Keolas face tensed. She remembered well the last time she heard that word. It was in a tent behind the Zama ridge, as a frightened young mother, baby suckling on a breast and two small children clinging terrified to her legs, answered questions from a group of angry, exhausted, battle shocked Amazon warriors. Sometimes the image came to her in her sleep, the fear on those little faces. It was a memory that made her cringe with disgust. It felt like a stain on her soul she could not wash off, that she had helped create the terror in those tiny, helpless hearts.
"Ive heard the name before," Keola said. "Do you think those warriors were part of the same people that drove the Samnites from their land?"
"I know they are," Oresta replied. "The Huns are made up of many clans that usually roam the plains alone, so they dont overburden the land. But they are one people and one culture, and when trouble, or opportunity, arise, they come together as one army. They are the rulers of the great ocean of steppe from Germania to Chin."
"Anyway," Oresta continued. "I knew from Balthazars reaction we were in it deep. He said we had to move and move fast. That maybe the gods were with us and that the Huns we had seen were only a stray group of hunters, that there were no clans close by big enough to threaten us." Oresta smiled grimly. "Needless to say, after word got around that we had been spotted nobody complained when we doubled the pace of the march. The next day I took a couple of men and started making long circles around the caravan, looking for trouble. About midday it found us. I came to the top of a low rise and there in the far distance, at the edge of the horizon, we could see them, thousands of them, loping along at an easy trot. At the front of the column were men holding long poles with multicolored banners stitched with strange symbols flapping stiff in the breeze. All of them had small round shields on their arms and helmets with horsehair plumes that flew behind them as they rode and long bows, like mine, hooked over a shoulder, the ends bobbing above their heads. Im sure they could see us, silhouetted against the skyline, but they ignored us, too insignificant to bother with. But I tell you Amazon," Orestas eyes sparkled with the memory, "it was one of the most impressive sights Ive ever seen. The speed and power and effortless arrogance that army moved with is something Ill never forget. Chills of awe went up my back." Oresta smiled wryly. "And maybe a little fear." She shifted on her mount. "They were moving parallel to us. Obviously intending to cut us off."
"When I reported to Balthazar he immediately veered the caravan south. He said there was a river a days march away with steep banks. Natural earthworks we could use to shelter the animals and make a fight of it. He said Huns have no patience and dont carry supplies with them. If we could hold them off a few days they would get bored and hungry and drift away. I asked if there was any chance of negotiating with them. That maybe we could buy them off. The man looked me in the eyes and said "the Huns have a saying, its easier to bargain with a corpse, it gives you what you want and never complains about the price." Oresta bit her lip and took a breath. "I found out later he got the saying wrong. It goes, a weak man bargains and complains about the price, a strong man takes what he wants and complains about the stink of the corpse he left behind."
"A harsh people," Keola said with quiet disapproval.
Oresta nodded. "Yes, harsh," she agreed. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. "Anyway, we marched hard all night without any sign of the them. As dawn broke everyone was feeling better. We were going to make it. We crested a rise and there in the wide shallow valley was the river, steep banks on either side. Perfect cover." Oresta sighed. "And lined up along our side of the river, at least two thousand Huns waiting for us. They had anticipated the move from the start." She spit disgustedly. "Assholes." She shrugged helplessly. "That was the end of us, and we all knew it. We circled the camels on the rise and had them sit down. Camels are strange that way. Theyll sit on their bellies with those long legs all folded up underneath. We turned them into a living fortress. We put the horses in the center and waited. It wasnt a long wait. A little before noon the column I had spotted came galloping over the horizon from the north and joined the group already there. I dont know, there must have been eight, ten thousand of them all together, maybe more. They were so certain they had us that they stopped for a nice long noon meal and then spread their blankets out and took an afternoon nap, every warrior with the reins of his horse tied around his wrist." Oresta smiled. "Gods, you did have to admire the gall of it. Finally, in late afternoon, with the heat of the day at its hottest, they formed to attack." She paused, a wry look on her face. "You know what I remember most about waiting that long afternoon?" she asked.
Keola shook her head.
"I remember wishing the bastards would come and kill us before the damn mosquitoes ate us alive. The nasty things swarmed in clouds in the afternoon heat. Most of us waited for death that day hiding under blankets trying to escape them. Isnt that the stupidest thing? Who would think thats what you would be most worried about on the last afternoon of your life?"
Keolas eyes became wistful and sad.
"I spent the last night of Saras life bitching at her," she sighed. "She was always a heavy bleeder. She started the day we were making camp on the Zama ridge. A big stain of blood down the leg of her breeches. She was in a panic. You know what bad luck that brings, to face the enemy with your own blood showing."
"There was a shallow, muddy, ice cold stream at the bottom of the ridge. I went down with her and slid around in the muck helping her wash them out and get them dry. I came back up the ridge filthy, wet, cold, exhausted and let her know all about it. I was still angry when I left to return to my company." The Amazons body sagged as she rubbed her face. "I never saw her alive again." Her eyes shifted to Oresta. "I dont think theyll sing any heroic songs about Keola and Sara in a muddy stream in the middle of the night washing the monthly blood out of a ragged pair of breeches while snapping at each other like bitches fighting over a bone." She shook her head ruefully. "I miss Sara every day. Every damn day. What a terrible joke that my last memory of her is something as asinine as that."
Oresta stared into space, eyebrows knitted in dark concentration.
"It is a joke," she said in a barely audible whisper. "Its all a joke. We just dont know it till its too late to laugh."
The Amazon looked at her uncomprehendingly. A slight smile crossed Orestas face.
"Isnt it amazing how life always seems more dramatic when we remember it than when were living it," she said. "Thats why the poets and storytellers are all old I suppose. The further away you are the more dramatic things become. The mosquitoes and the bloody breeches disappear. One day, Amazon, if we live long enough, well ascend to Olympus on the myths we create out of our memories. Wont that be quite a joke on the people we tell our stories too."
Keola shook her head. "Player, adventurer, and philosopher," she smiled. "Cant cook though. You ruined those fish I caught yesterday."
Oresta frowned. "I like my meat well done."
"They were burnt to a crisp," Keola chided.
"Very well done," Oresta answered.
"You didnt eat any."
Orestas mischievous smile appeared. "I wasnt hungry."
"Uh huh." Keola grunted
"Now," Oresta said, "are you going to let me finish my story or keep bothering me about your finicky taste in fish?"
"Finish the story," the Amazon replied.
"Thank you," Oresta said in mock exasperation. She paused a moment to collect her memories. "It was late afternoon when the Huns formed to attack. They split into two groups and came galloping past us north and south, about a hundred yards out. Arrows rained down like a terrible hailstorm. They attacked the horses first, poor things. The ones not killed outright started bucking and screaming and trampling people. It was a bloody chaos till they all finally collapsed, a dozen arrows sticking from their flesh. The Huns turned and raced past again, closer this time. They went after the camels. Some were killed. Others tried to get up, peppered with arrows, but their drivers cut their throats to keep them in place. They were the only protection we had besides our shields. Things got really ugly after that. They started to circle, only a few dozen yards out, trying to annihilate us as we huddled behind our shields. I had a bronze shield, like the rest of the mercenaries, but the drivers only had cheap wooden ones. They werent warriors. The man next to me died when an arrow pierced his shield and his skull." Orestas eyes were dark. "It was incredible how powerful those bows were. Id never seen anything like it. Finally it stopped. I peeked out to see why. The Huns had drawn off a few hundred yards. They were gathering to charge and finish us." Oresta took a breath, it came out with a slight tremble. "There werent more than a few hundred of us left. The drivers decided not to wait. They were praying and crying with terror. They started killing themselves, stabbing each other or falling on their long daggers. I saw Balthazar put his blade through the young servant boy that traveled with him then fall on his sword." A disgusted snort came out of her throat. "I thought more of him than that."
There was a pause and the Amazon watched Orestas face grow more serious than she had ever seen it.
"I dont like Romans," she said. "Theyre arrogant and boastful. They honestly think theyre superior to everyone else. That the gods have chosen them to rule the world. I spent as little time with them as possible. But looking around that butcher yard I saw Tiberium was dead, an arrow through his neck. For what it was worth I was in command. I stood up and went to the center of our fort, stepping over the pin-cushioned bodies of men and animals. I called for the legionaries to rally to me and form ranks. Every man that could stand came and took his place in the line. No one cried for his mother or pissed down his leg or prayed to his gods to save him. There was perfect silence and discipline. They stood shoulder to shoulder, shields up, swords in their hands and stared into the mouth of hell without flinching." Oresta swallowed. "I could never live with Romans. But I could die with them without complaint. Death loses its terror when you have true warriors to face it with, Amazon."
Keola looked into Orestas dark eyes and nodded. They shared a moment of perfect understanding.
"The Huns charged and it quickly turned into a melee, then a massacre," Oresta continued. "There were just too damn many. I killed two and hamstrung a third. The Romans around me were already down. I knew I was next but I was in such a berserk battle rage I didnt care. I just wanted to kill as long as I could. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a Hun gallop up, slide gracefully off his horse and charge at me at a dead run. Gods, Keola, I swear the man was as wide as he was tall, a marble block of solid muscle. I turned and swung my sword at him. He blocked it with his shield, put a shoulder into me and knocked me flat. I thought Id been run over by a bull. I couldnt breath for a moment. He put his sword to my throat. I waited for him to finish it. He just stared down at me with black almond eyes. It pissed me off to think he was playing with me so I spit at him. Then the most bizarre thing happened. He took his sword away and reached down and yanked me up by the arm and started yelling at the Huns around us. A lot of them gathered yelling back at him. Some even shook their swords at him. And they were a very unhappy group of barbarians. Especially the Hun I hamstrung. He was lying a few feet away screeching at me, holding his leg where I had cut him to the bone. He even tried to pick up his sword and stab me till the Hun holding me kicked him in the head." Oresta smiled a disbelieving smile. "It was something. Finally Subatio, that was the Huns name who knocked me down, dragged me over to his horse. He tied my hands behind my back and threw me up on the animal and led us away, some of the Huns still yelling at him. The rest were too busy looting the dead, men and animals alike, to notice us one way or the other. Subatio didnt seem interested in looting. Only in getting us out of there."
Oresta took a breath and absently played with her mounts mane.
"Over the next couple of days the Huns stripped the caravan and divided up the booty while the naked bodies bloated in the sun and the scavengers feasted. The noise of the vultures and hawks and crows screeching and cawing at each other, fighting over the meat, is a sound Ill never forget. Subatio made his camp out away from the main camp. He never left me for an instant. I got the feeling after awhile that he wasnt afraid I would escape. He was protecting me. Sometimes Huns would come over and talk to him. They always gave me an evil glare. And usually the discussion would end up in a yelling match with a lot of waving arms and angry looks. Finally the army broke up, the warriors heading home in smaller clan groups. Even then Subatio hung back at the end of the column, keeping me away from everyone." Oresta paused. "You know, Amazon, every night I expected him to try to rape me. And every night I was ready to bite and struggle till he had to knock out all my teeth or kill me. He never tried. It was such a mystery. I couldnt figure it out."
"We reached his village after four days. He immediately took me to a yurt. Thats what they call the round hide tents they live in on the steppe. I was in there two days. Women would come bringing food. They never spoke to me and seemed to be very unhappy to be around me. Subatio never visited and to be honest I missed him. He was the only Hun Id met who didnt seem to think I was completely revolting. On the morning of the third day a short round old women with mean little pig eyes and two younger women came and woke me up. They stripped me naked and scrubbed me like they were trying to scrape off my white skin. I was red and raw by the time they finished. Then they sat me on a stool and the old one, Sensua was her name, may the rats eat her flesh," Keola took in a tiny, surprised breath at the deep genuine hatred she heard in those words, "braided my hair in the most beautiful, elaborate braid Ive ever seen. I was dressed in blue silk robes stolen from some caravan headed west and gold rings were put on my fingers and a perfect pearl necklace was put around my neck and beautiful white steppe flowers were laced in my hair. I was led out of the yurt and across the village to another yurt. People looked up from what they were doing and watched me with open mouths, like they couldnt believe their eyes. The yurt was crowded with people. An old shaman was sitting cross-legged opposite the entrance. Subatio was kneeling in front of him, dressed in silk robes as well, his long straight black hair done in braids almost as elaborate as mine. His bow and quiver were on his back and his sword hung at his hip. I looked around the yurt. Most of the people in it were men. And it was obvious they were his brothers. You couldnt miss the resemblance. None of them looked happy to see me." Oresta grinned her mischievous grin. "Youd think the arrival of such a beautiful bride would have been the cause of at least a little celebration."
"Or maybe," Keola said, "Subatios brothers had a firmer grasp on reality than he did."
Oresta waved her finger at Keola with mock menace. The Amazon smiled.
"Anyway, smartass," Oresta continued, "the shaman chanted some mystical words to the Hunish gods, sprinkled us with water, wine and earth and I was a married woman. The brothers, five of them, just grunted and shook their heads. Sensua stabbed me with those nasty little pig eyes. If I knew then what I know now I wouldve stomped on that poisonous little blood boil like a cockroach right then and there. The Huns are a short people, even Subatio was half a head shorter than me, and Sensua was small even by their standards. That woman was a malignant dwarf, she was was" Orestas cheeks reddened with emotion as she spluttered for words.
"Subatios mother," Keola completed the sentence.
Oresta blew out a harsh breath. Finally the color drained from her face, replaced by a slight smile. "Howd you know?"
Keola shrugged. "Lucky guess. I have to say, Im impressed with how perceptive this Sensua was."
"Oh?" Oresta frowned.
"To hate you at first glance like that. The rest of us have to get to know you a little before we hate you," Keola grinned.
"No," Oresta replied, "that little wart wasnt perceptive. She was just certain her son was bewitched by a xia shen."
A wry smile came to Orestas face. "Its hard to translate exactly. The sense of the word is defiled Amazon warrior bitch."
The Amazons eyebrows came together in a frown. Orestas ironic grin widened.
"The Huns know of the Amazons too," she continued. "Their legends say Amazons wander the steppe in packs, like wolves. They attack without warning and the men they cant kill in battle they seduce with witchcraft and wild naked displays of their bodies, like bitches in heat. They keep the man under their depraved spell until theyre pregnant then they slit his throat in the night as he sleeps. Female babies are kept to be raised as Amazons. Male children are sacrificed on blood soaked altars to the Amazons bloodthirsty gods."
The frown stayed on Keolas face. "She really thought thats what you were?"
"She didnt think it," Oresta replied. "She was certain of it. Still is Im sure. I havent heard of any earthquakes out on the steppe recently, as the earth opened to swallow her down to hell, so I assume shes still among the living."
Keola shook her head ruefully.
"Since Ive been out of the valley Ive heard other stories about us," she said quietly. "We always seem to be hateful and bloodthirsty. Or evil and treacherous." Keola gazed questioningly at Oresta. "Why is everyone so afraid of us?"
"Because people are people," Oresta replied, contempt tingeing her words," frightened of half the things they know and terrified of everything they dont. They know Amazons exist but they know almost nothing about you, that makes them afraid. And they know you live in a society without men. That makes you different. People instinctively hate anyone whos different. It implies that there are other ways to be and live besides their own. They hate that others might be good and decent and not think what they think and believe what they believe. No one wants to hear they arent the best and most perfect people possible. So Amazons get the best of everything human, Keola, fear and hatred."
Oresta took a breath, face dark.
"The trick to survival, Amazon, is seeing things as they truly are. At the core of every person is a furry little animal, frightened, unreasoning, dangerous, like a badger backed into a hole. As long as you know not to get too close or turn your back in this world you can make it."
Keola shook her head, jaw unconsciously flexing.
"And is that what you are?" she asked. "A frightened badger in a hole?"
Oresta smiled. "Absolutely."
"You werent afraid when that caravan was wiped out," the Amazon said.
"Its not death Im afraid of," Oresta answered. "What backs us into the hole is different from person to person. But the cause isnt important. Its the feeling of fear that we have in common. Its fear that bends and shapes us. And how we handle fear. If you want to know someone Amazon, find out what theyre afraid of. Then you will know who they are, and what to expect from them."
Keola was silent a moment. Her eyes fixed on Orestas.
"Yes, we all have fear," she said finally, "but I know theres more to us than that. Love, reason, hope, anger, desire, joy. I dont believe were animals, Oresta, even though we behave that way sometimes. Theres a spark in us somewhere. A tiny piece of the divine that raises us out of that hole you have us cowering in." A slight smile came to Keolas face. "Maybe its blind faith, but I know theres more to you than a frightened badger."
Oresta did not smile. She shook her head slightly, dismissively.
"There arent any divine sparks, Keola," she said evenly. "No gods, no devils. No spirits haunting us for the crimes we commit. No life after this one. Were only animals like all the other animals on this spinning ball. Struggling in the dust and mud to survive as long as we can. The Romans have a saying. I didnt exist, I existed, I dont exist. Who cares."
Keola did not answer. She stared a long time into the hard, weary blue eyes that stared back at her. Finally she took a breath and blew it out with an exaggerated huff.
"Damn youre depressing," she said with a slight chuckle. "I think just listening to you snuffed out whatever divine spark I had."
Oresta let out a surprised guffaw. The smile returned to her face.
"And what the hell is this spinning round ball stuff?" the Amazon continued. "Are you saying the earth is round?"
Orestas smile broadened. "Yep," she nodded. "Round as a childs ball."
Keola snorted derisively.
"Thats the dumbest thing Ive ever heard," she
laughed. "Whered you ever get an idea like that?"
"Its not dumb," Oresta protested. "A philosopher in Alexandria explained it to me. He said the earth is round and spins. Thats why the sun comes up and goes down and crosses the sky like it does. He showed me a parchment at the Great Library covered with all kinds of mathematical formulas that prove it. He even knows how big the earth is. Its twenty two thousand leagues around, give or take a little."
"And you believe that?" Keola asked incredulously.
Oresta hesitated a moment, then her eyebrows came together and she nodded decisively.
"Yes, I do believe it," she said. "Why not? Why cant the earth be round? I saw some amazing things at the Great Library. Like water running uphill and steam doing the work of five men. Wonders youd swear had to be magic, or the work of gods. But they werent. They were things people learned how to do using their brains. If they can figure out stuff like that why should I doubt the earth is round?"
"Sounds like you spent a lot of time at this Great Library in Alexandria," Keola said. "I didnt know philosophers were so keen on gambling."
Oresta let out a rush of air through her teeth as her head cocked to one side. "Damn youre a smartass," she smiled.
"Its my most endearing quality," Keola grinned.
"As far as I can tell, its youre only quality," Oresta replied, "and its not usually considered a quality, or endearing."
The Amazon gave Oresta a dismissive crinkle of the nose. They burst out in a laugh. After a moment Keola looked at the bow in her hand. She ran her fingers over delicate intricate inlays of decorative ivory in the grip. Mysterious symbols and patterns etched the wooden shaft. It was a beautiful weapon.
"Subatio made you this bow?" she asked.
"Its a magnificent work of craftsmanship," the Amazon admired.
"Yes," Oresta said quietly, "he worked on it all winter, every day, so it would be ready for spring hunting. He taught me how to use it properly from horseback." She patted her mounts neck. "He helped me break Farsala here and taught us how to become one with each other."
"Farsala?" the Amazon said, surprised. "You named her
after your village?"
"I guess I guess out on that vast ocean of grass I needed something to remind me of another place, another life, so the land didnt swallow me completely."
Keola gripped the weapon tighter.
"Subatio must have thought a great deal of you, to make you such a bow," she said.
Oresta rubbed her cheek absently, eyes distant with memories.
"I suppose he did," she said.
Keola studied the blondes sad, perplexed expression.
"I dont understand," she blurted suddenly, "why did he marry you? You were his prisoner. He could have done anything he wanted with you."
Oresta returned from her reverie. A slight ironic smile crossed her lips.
"Well, not really," she said. "The Huns have ancient customs that govern the disposition of booty taken in battle, human and otherwise. When a Hun army makes a conquest the loot is divided evenly between all the clans present at the battle. The clan elders then distribute the proceeds to individual warriors according to the prowess and courage they demonstrated in the fight. Male prisoners, if they arent tortured to death for amusement, are sold and the money given to whoever took him. Female captives are considered property of the whole clan. By day they are slaves of the women, doing all the heavy menial tasks and beaten if they are slow or clumsy or just because some woman has had a bad day and feels like beating her. By night they are passed among the men. Needless to say, they dont last long. I saw two women brought to Subatios clan while I was there. One just lay down and died after a few months. Her body was dragged outside the encampment with the rest of the garbage and left to rot. The other, a girl younger than you, drowned herself after a week, in a creek we were camped near."
Keola looked at Oresta with hard, almost angry eyes. Oresta nodded in understanding. She unconsciously patted Farsalas neck.
"That would have been my fate as well, if Subatio hadnt saved me," she continued. "When he knocked me down and had his sword at my throat he invoked his right of qui su om."
" Qui su om?" the Amazon questioned.
"Its one of the oldest traditions of Hun warfare," Oresta explained. "Many generations ago, when the clans fought mostly among themselves instead of combining as one army to fight outsiders, a warrior who killed another in fair combat had the right to claim his victims women as his own. Not as slaves, no Hun can hold another as slave, but to marry the widow, and the daughters too if they were of age, or raise them till they were old enough and then marry them off to others in the clan, at a nice profit when the bride price was collected."
"Of course Subatio was stretching the custom past the breaking point when he declared me his qui su om wife. After all, I was both the warrior conquered and the woman being claimed. Hardly the way the tradition usually worked. And I was an outsider, a zic sen." Orestas smile broadened. "And believe me, you dont want to know what that word means. Its what Huns call all outsiders and its a long way from polite. And worst of all I was some freakish warrior woman. A xia shen witch. Thats what all the angry shouting was about. All the warriors in Subatios clan were certain I had put some spell on him. They were screaming for my blood. Telling him to kill me before my magic became too powerful to break. If it had been anyone but Subatio someone would have disputed his claim of qui su om and I would have died that day, probably by slow torture as they skinned me alive and then burned my body to destroy my evil spirit. But no one was foolish enough to challenge my husband."
Keolas ears perked. What was it she heard in those last two words, pride?
"Well," she said after a moments silence, "what can I say? Thats definitely the most unusual story Ive ever heard about mates coming together. Discovering each other must have been quite an experience."
Oresta laughed heartily.
"Oh yes," she chuckled, "thats what it was. Quite an experience."
She cocked her head to one side and put a finger by a small lump on the bridge of her aquiline nose.
"Our second night together he broke it." She pulled the hair back from above her left ear to reveal a short thick white scar. "Hit my head on a rock after he knocked me down. I kept bleeding and bleeding. He turned paler than me. He thought I was going to die."
Oresta laughed again. Keola shook her head, un-amused.
"I dont get the joke," she said.
"Oh, dont be so damn serious," Oresta scolded playfully, "it takes two to fight. You should have seen Subatio after Id give him a black eye. Hed walk around the camp for days with his fur cap pulled down over the eye trying to hide it. He was so embarrassed. It was hilarious."
Oresta laughed one more time as the Amazon shrugged her incomprehension. Finally Orestas laughter eased into a smile.
"Besides, that part of our life didnt last long. It just took some time for us to understand each other. To learn what we would accept and not accept. What we expected from the other. Poor Subatio. It was hard on him, all the adjustments the stiff-necked bastard had to make to get along with me. But he made them. We finally had peace in our yurt. It turned out that marble block of muscle had something of a poets heart buried in that thick chest. And he was a good teacher. I learned a lot as a warrior. In fact I surpassed him as an archer and horseman. The men would have contests of skill with a bow. Subatio would insist I be allowed to compete. I often won. The losers would all give me evil glares, convinced it was witchcraft. But Subatio would have such a look on his face, like he " Orestas voice suddenly lowered to a distracted whisper, eyes distant and unfocused, " like he was proud of his wife."
There was a long silence. Oresta cleared her throat and shifted uneasily on her mount, embarrassed by the words and the emotion they contained.
"Can I ask you something?" Keola said finally, a slight hesitancy in her voice.
"You can ask," Oresta smiled.
"You were mates, I mean, man and wife, so you must have, sometimes " Keola paused.
"Yes Amazon," Oresta grinned, "we fucked. Sometimes like overheated rabbits. The only thing stiffer than Subatios neck was his cock. Theres not much to do when youre trapped in a yurt by a three-day blizzard than eat, sleep and fuck. The exercise is great for keeping you warm."
Keola relaxed and smiled as well.
"I know of course it takes male and female to create life," she said. "Ive just, you know, always kind of wondered how what that was like. What its like to "
"Its nothing," Oresta interrupted suddenly, forcefully, tension in her face, voice. "Nothing for you to worry about. Its a man grunting and making idiotic faces. It means nothing to him but a momentary pleasure, then he rolls over and goes to sleep. Dont let your curiosity and imagination make it into something its not." Her eyes bored into the Amazon. "Did you love Sara? Did her touch, her body, give you pleasure? Could you feel her heart beating when you were in each others arms?"
"Yes," Keola whispered nodding.
"Then hold on to that, Amazon," Oresta said. "Treasure that feeling, that emotion. Dont ever let it go. Its the best you can hope for. Dont waste any time wondering how a man might feel between your legs. A cock is just a piece of flesh. It has no love in it. Find a person to love again, Keola. Dont worry about the fucking. Itll take care of itself."
The Amazon looked away. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. Find a person to love again. How do I do that, Sara? When I can still smell your breath in my nose, taste your tongue in my mouth, hear your whispers of love in my ear? I still love you, my beloved. How can I ever let someone else be so close. I dont want to lose your taste, your scent. I dont want to lose what I have left of you. Oh Sara, it still hurts, every day it hurts. She took a deep breath and let it slowly leak out. Oresta watched in silence. She knew pain when she saw it. Finally Keola forced herself to think of other things. Her gaze shifted back.
"It sounds like you had quite an interesting life out there on the steppe with the Huns and Subatio," she said. "Why did you decide to leave it?"
Oresta snorted. "Do I really look like someone whos going to spend her whole life in a yurt in the middle of nowhere chasing after a dozen screaming children. I dont think so. I was there a year and a half. And I only stayed that long because I didnt know how to get away. There isnt a road or trail anywhere, just endless expanse of grass and sky. I had no idea how close or far I was from anything. I was adrift on the ocean with no land in sight. Then one early fall day I was out with a hunting party when we came across the unmistakable sign of a caravan, camel dung. But it was at least five or six days old and there were no clans anywhere close. The leader of the party, Ansutio, Subatios youngest brother, decided to ignore it. The caravan was too far ahead, headed west. They would be into the safety of the Caucasan mountains before an army could be gathered to catch them. We went on with the hunt then returned home. But I knew this was my chance. When Subatio finally fell asleep, and after the skin of rot gut blackberry brandy I made sure he drank that night he was more unconscious than asleep, I snuck out and took Farsala here," she patted the horse on the neck, "and two of the best horses from Subatios string and raced out of camp. In the morning I found the caravan trail and headed west as fast as I could go. I must have covered two hundred leagues in three days. I left those two ponies exhausted by the trail but I finally made the mountains. I caught up with the caravan a few days before it arrived at Baku, the first Greek colony on the Black Sea. Id returned to civilization." Oresta grinned. "To my great disappointment no one seemed to care much. In fact, not a single person was at the gate of Baku to greet me. However, my first day there one gentleman did offer me a job in his brothel, while another tried to steal Farsala. I said no to the first and killed the second."
Keola shook her head with bemused amazement.
"You were right. That was an incredible adventure." She regarded Oresta a long moment. "Im curious. Why do you think Subatio let you live that day?"
Oresta let out a long breath, blue eyes veiled and dark. Keola saw a dozen emotions play over her face. Finally she gave a slight shake of her head.
"I dont know, he never told me and I never asked. All I know " Oresta sucked in a gulp of air through her teeth " all I know is, in a world full of cruelty Subatio didnt know how to be cruel. Maybe he just didnt want to kill me and that was the only thing he could think of to save me. Or maybe " she bit her lip in that nervous habit of hers " maybe Sensua was right. Maybe I am a xia shen. A witch who put an evil spell on her favorite son." She paused. "Anyway, I hope my husband has found himself a new wife. A good Hunish woman who will fill his yurt with sons. The sons he so desperately wants. Shell be a fortunate woman to have him. Ill always wish him well."
Keola nodded thoughtfully. The two women sat in a long silence, occupied by private meditations. But also they each keenly felt the presence of the other. A presence that was comforting, pleasant, warm to the senses. A presence that pushed loneliness out to arms length.
"Well, were burning up the day," Keola said finally, looking up at the late morning sun. "We should get going. I want to sleep tonight in Athens. I have to admit, Im excited at the prospect."
"You should be," Oresta smiled. "Its a fabulous city. Your first sight of it will be something youll never forget. I think it really is the center of the civilized world, much more beautiful than Rome will ever be."
"Then lets go," Keola grinned back, "the sooner there the better."
Oresta reached out for her bow. "Let me unstring that first. The bowstring keeps its tension longer if you dont keep it strung all the time."
The Amazon slid off her mount. "Let me do it," she said. "I thought you were going to bust a gut or something when you were stringing it. Ive never seen so much straining and struggling."
"Ha, ha," Oresta huffed. "Youll find out smartass. The tension on that bow is incredible."
Keola put one end of the bow on the ground and took a firm grasp of the other. She sucked a small breath and gritted her teeth. The bow bent slowly, steadily, without a single tremor as the muscles stood out on her forearm and biceps. She easily slipped the string out of its notch with her other hand. She looked up at Oresta. "Of course maybe you still want to do some shooting today, I can string it back if you like?" she said, voice perfectly nonchalant and conversational as she continued to hold the bent bow motionless in her hand.
"No, Im quite done, thank you," Oresta replied sarcastically, to hide her chagrin.
With a sly little smile Keola let up on the bow and handed it to Oresta.
"If I didnt know better, Amazon," Oresta said, "Id think you were showing off."
"Dont say that," Keola frowned. "You make me sound like you."
"Oh, dont worry," Oresta replied. "Youll never be me. Ive set the standard way too high. A pale imitation is all you can hope to be. But still its inspiring to see someone striving for such a lofty goal. Even if they are doomed to failure. I congratulate you on your ambition."
"Uh huh," Keola said with a slight nod, eyes narrowed.
They both laughed.
The ten ox pulled carts were loaded with chickens, two or three fat cackling hens stuffed in a wooden cage, a dozen cages piled in each conveyance. An overworked, underfed slave, dressed in a dirty shapeless gray smock bunched around a narrow waist by a flax belt, plodded wearily alongside each lumbering animal, yanking on a rope around its neck if it tried to stop to graze on some of the succulent green grass rippling in the breeze beside the dusty road. Keola and Oresta followed the caravan of poultry astride their horses. Between them walked Theocle, a middle-aged man, gray sprinkled in his black beard, dark semi-circles of sweat staining his light blue linen tunic under the arms. The rounded potbelly of affluence that bulged in front of him gave assurance that he was the owner of the chickens, the carts, the oxen and the slaves. Curiosity had brought him from the head of the column to the rear to inquire who these strange women armed as warriors were. He had greeted Keolas reply that she was Amazon with a start of surprise and then a smile of genuine pleasure. A long boring trip to the Agora, the market place of Athens, from his Attic farm had suddenly become anything but routine.
"Yes," Theocle pointed, "at the top of that next hill youll have a wonderful view of Athens. Ive seen it many times of course but I still enjoy that first sight of the city in the distance. Its a magical moment. No other city is as beautiful as Athenas favored."
"Oh," Oresta said, the end of her mouth curling, "youve seen the other cities of the world, my friend, to know Athens is the most beautiful?"
The man glanced up at Oresta with a slight frown.
"I dont need to see any other cities, young warrior," he huffed. "The divine Athena would only give her patronage to the worlds most beautiful city. Thats proof enough of its place."
The corner of Orestas mouth edged higher. She was about to speak when she was startled by a kick in the knee. She looked over to see Keolas eyebrows arched together with a why are you looking for trouble? expression. For an instant a spark of irritation flared. She was not used to being kicked or having her intentions criticized. But gazing at the Amazon the ember quickly died, replaced by a smile and an I dont know shrug. Shes telling me what to do and Im letting her. Why? Whats happening that I care what she thinks?
"The great Dionysian Festival starts in two days," Theocle said, looking up at Keola. "You picked a perfect time for your first visit. Thats why Im coming to market now. The city will be crowded with worshippers coming to participate in the procession and to view the games and the theatrical and musical competitions. After I sell this lot," he waved his hand at the caravan, "Im going to stay for a week and enjoy everything. I love to go to the theater for the comedies. Aristophanes has a new play this year." The man laughed heartily at a prized memory, white teeth flashing through black beard. "I bet he gives it to Pericles again," he lightly tapped his forehead with a closed fist, "right between the eyes. Serves the old bugger right. Him and his whore have been running things far too long. Were going to end up in a war with Sparta soon if were not careful. And from what I hear he doesnt intend to defend Attica at all. He wants to just hole up behind the city walls and wait them out while they burn the whole countryside down, my farm included."
The mans face became hard and angry. He pounded a fist into his other hand.
"The bastard better watch out," he mumbled.
Keola looked questioningly at Oresta, then Theocle.
"Theres going to be a war between Athens and Sparta?" she asked.
The farmer snorted with amused surprise.
"By the gods, you do come from the edge of the world," he said. "Of course theres going to be a war. At least there will be if Pericles remains as First Citizen. He thinks the fleet can control the ocean and keep our trading empire safe while he slowly starves the Spartans with a sea blockade. But the Spartans are crazy. Fanatics. They dont think like rational people. What do they care if their women and children die of hunger? They only care about destroying their enemies, whatever the cost. If the last Spartan died stabbing the last Athenian in the heart they would consider the war a glorious success. The First Citizen and the first slut will be safe in their Temple to Athena on the Acropolis, protected by the city walls. But what about me and my friends out here? Well lose everything whether the war is won or lost. I tell you, Amazon," a red tinge came to Theocles cheeks as his voice rose, "that mans arrogance is going to be the death of us all."
Keolas face was attentive and concentrated, soaking in every word, eager to learn all she could about the workings of the world she was discovering, especially its people and politics. Oresta half heartedly feigned interest.
"Why do the Spartans want a war?" Keola asked.
"Because Spartans live to fight," Oresta interrupted, exasperated with the conversation, "the same as Athenians live to argue politics and philosophy. People must be true to their nature, just as animals are. Therell be a war because thats what humans do, they war on each other. Its useless to ask why. It only gives people with nothing better to do something to chatter about. Now, Amazon," Oresta motioned with an impatient jerk of her head, "if were going to sleep in Athens tonight we need to get going. The sun is three quarters across the sky and we still have a good six or seven leagues till we reach the Dipylon Gate."
"Okay, okay," Keola answered apologetically, "were going."
She reached an arm out at the farmer. He hesitated uncertainly. Men did not clasp the arm of women. But the friendly confident smile that beamed at him was too much to resist. Instinctively he reached up and took the offered arm of polite fellowship before he could think of a reason not to.
"A pleasure to meet you, sir, safe journey," Keola said.
"Safe journey, Amazon," Theocle replied. "A great pleasure to meet you."
As Keola and Oresta passed his clucking caravan at a trot and disappeared down the road the man scratched his beard thoughtfully.
Not at all what I expected. The wife will think I dreamed the whole thing in a drunken stupor after betting on the chariot racing all day. He reached down and rubbed his crotch, feeling the hard erection in his wool trousers. Nope, he chuckled, she was real. Im past the time when drunken dreams will produce such a reaction.
The air was forced out of the Amazons lungs like a boulder had landed on her chest. She took a slow deep breath to fill them again. She ran her hand through her thick auburn hair and shook her head in silent wonder. Oresta watched through half-closed eyes, head turned slightly, the edge of her mouth curled up in amusement.
"I didnt lie did I?" she said.
"Nope, you didnt lie," Keola answered. "Its bigger and more beautiful than anything I ever imagined."
In the distance the red tiled roofs of Athens sprawled across half a great open valley. In the center of the ochre ocean a steep sided hill erupted, an island of marble that glistened in the late afternoon sun. A half dozen separate structures could be made out through the dazzle of light, each one majestic in its columned perfection. But most incredible, towering head and shoulders above the tallest white gleaming temple was a statue of divine Athena, golden helmet resting lightly on brown tresses that flowed down to her shoulders, flesh painted face calm and commanding as it gazed out over her great city. She appeared so lifelike from the distance that for one brief instant Keola imagined she saw the goddess move. As if she were about to turn her head to examine this strange warrior from a far off valley who was about to visit her beloved namesake. It sent a chill of awe up her spine. The gray line of a wall with a dozen watch towers circled the city. Behind in the far distance, at the edge of vision, was the sparkling blue green of the ocean with the dark shapes of islands jutting up. Outside the wall was a band of what looked like huts, roofs of brownish thatch or faded yellow straw. Thin lines of white and brown and black smoke drifted up everywhere in the still air merging into a haze high in the atmosphere.
Keola looked at Oresta with a grin of pure thrilled anticipation. The blonde could not help a smile of her own at the beauty of that eager face.
"Well," she said, "I see we better get going before you pee down your leg with excitement"
The Amazon stuck her tongue out with a pppppfffft! noise. With a laugh she put her heels into her mount and started down the hill at a trot, Oresta scrambling to catch up.
At the bottom of the valley the dirt track changed to crushed rock covered with fired brick, a paved road. Keola leaned over to examine the source of the unfamiliar clicking sound, hoof on hard surface. She straightened without comment or change of expression. Oresta rubbed her nose to hide her smile. She swallowed a superior remark as a long forgotten memory floated up of a hot sunny day just inside the walls of Delphi when a hairy, overweight cobbler, ragged and sweaty, sneered contemptuously when asked by a callow young blonde if horses should be walked beside a paved street instead of on it because the bricks must be hard on the animals feet.
"Country bumpkins!" he snorted unpleasantly to the man seated under the shop awning next to him. "She must have just crawled out from under a rock in the Stygian forest."
She had not been back to Delphi since, in case a fat, sweaty cobbler with two missing front teeth was still sitting in his shop just inside the gate. Delphian courts were notoriously unforgiving to troublemaking outsiders.
Halfway across the valley the olive groves on either side of the road were replaced by small one and two room, mud brick, thatch roofed hovels crowded haphazardly together. Some leaned ominously as if about to fall. All had the appearance of being hastily, carelessly built. Keola looked down narrow dusty lanes with open sewers meandering down the centers. Naked children, skinny mongrel dogs and barefoot, emaciated adults hopped back and forth across them as they picked their way down filth dotted streets. Dirty, ragged people sat on their haunches in open doorways waving at swarming black flies, staring with hollow eyes at the strange women passing. As the sun steadily sank in the west the gloom of dusk thickened. Most of the traffic on the brick highway was out of the city. Crowds of laborers, young and old, male and female plodded on tired feet to their shanty neighborhoods after a days work that stretched from sunup to sundown. The sound of their conversation, so many talking at once the words were indistinguishable, was an unfamiliar buzz in the Amazons ears, ears used to the silence of the country. They crowded themselves to the side without complaint to allow the two armed, mounted women pass. Only warriors and the rich had horses and both were best left alone. Keola observed everything, head on a discreet swivel. Finally she could not stop herself from putting her hand to her nose. She leaned toward Oresta.
"Gods the smell," she said under her breath, trying not to be rude to the people passing, although there was no reason to think they would be listening. "Corinth had this smell too. But not like this. This is overpowering."
"I know," Oresta nodded. "The more people you pile on top of each other, the worse it gets. This is nothing compared to Rome. If the wind is right you can smell that dung heap ten leagues before you get there. Humans are easily the vilest smelling creatures youll ever come across. Makes you long for the fragrance of a good pig sty back in the valley doesnt it?" she smiled.
The Amazon grinned and nodded.
"Dont worry," Oresta continued. "In a day or two your nose will adjust. Either that or fall off. Either way the smell will disappear. If not Ill buy you some perfume from an alchemist I know in the city. He conjures up the most exquisite aromas. Aspasia herself buys from him. Some of the rich women even have a jar of his perfumes buried with them, so theyll smell sweet for Hades. They say he has a special fragrance he sells only to his best customers. An aphrodisiac so powerful nothing can resist. Sprinkle it on and men, women, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, donkeys, everything will be trying to get in your breeches."
"Have you ever tried it?" Keola asked.
"Dont need to," the blonde replied, "donkeys already like me."
The Amazon laughed. "Im sure they do. If I was a donkey Id like you to."
Oresta made a slight amused bow at the compliment.
Keola looked around at the trudging stream of humanity passing and the reeking, filthy slum they were disappearing into.
"Who are all these people?" she asked seriously.
The blonde glanced about.
"Some are slaves," she said. "Most are village people trying to find a better life in the city. They break their backs working on the temples and public buildings Pericles is always putting up. You said it yourself. The world is filling up. In the old days they would have gone out as colonists and founded a new city somewhere. Now they live like this. Ants in an ant hill, crawling all over each other." She shook her head. "Just too damn many people."
After another quarter league the slum ended suddenly, as if brought to a halt by an invisible barrier. Half a league away the thirty-foot high wall of the city loomed, stretching in either direction as far as the limited field of vision allowed. Square watchtowers jutted out at evenly spaced intervals, giving defenders an enfilade to shoot arrows down the walls at attackers. The colorful canvas awnings that roofed the towers, protecting the watchmen from the strong Mediterranean sun, flapped in the freshening evening breeze flowing in from the ocean. The wide Dyplon gate, indented twenty feet into the wall so defenders could rain destruction from three sides on anyone foolish enough to try to force the entrance, stood open and unguarded. A long ornate fountain, built into the wall to the left of the gate, had a ten foot high statue of Athena pouring a steady stream of water from a half turned pitcher held at her waist into the trough of the fountain. Dozens of people crowded around drinking from cupped hands or splashing the cool water in their faces, getting the days dust out of their eyes and noses before heading home.
The strip of land between the shantytown and the defensive curtain was filled with construction of a different sort. A dozen small but ornately decorated concrete and marble temples, a statue of the god each honored placed on a pedestal on the portico in front, were scattered randomly on either side of the road, surrounded by lawns of green grass. Sheep in small clumps grazed quietly, oblivious to the noise of the crowded road, contentedly performing their duty as groundskeepers. Keola recognized only a few of the statues. Some seemed so bizarre in appearance it was hard to believe they could even be Greek gods, but she resisted the urge to ask Oresta about them. It was tiresome and annoying to seem ignorant all the time. To the right a large building sat alone off the road, the roof supported by elegant fluted columns. A painted stone fresco of athletes in action, throwing javelins, boxing, wrestling, racing chariots, ran around the red tiled roof. Jutting from behind it was visible the end of a paved running track. Two small square buildings of poured concrete were at the end of the track. Naked men could be seen emerging to be immediately wrapped in towels and dried off by waiting slaves. Saunas to sweat out the bodys impurities and bad humors. In a grassy park in front of the building, sitting on marble benches placed against the pedestals of statues of Hercules and Hermes, gods the Amazon recognized, or lounging in the soft green grass, were clusters of young men with bodies developed and sculpted like the athletes she had seen in Potadia. They seemed to be relaxing, enjoying the sunset. Some groups had a wineskin that was being passed around. A half dozen men, lying on their elbows closest to the road, noticed the women slowly riding past and that Keola was eyeing them curiously.
"Hey there, sweetie," one called with a wave. He grabbed his crotch. "Its been a long day and Ive got an itch you could scratch. Whatd you say?"
There was a murmur of laughter among them.
"That looks like a big sword," another called. "Be sure to use both hands. Dont drop it on your foot. Let me show you how to use it sometime. I work cheap." He puckered his lips. "You can pay me in kisses, beautiful."
There was more laughter.
The look on the Amazons face hardened. Her brown eyes became narrow slits, body tense.
"Theyre just smart mouthed boys, Keola," the blonde said looking straight ahead. "Ignore them."
One of them sat up and looked at his friends.
"Ho, did you see that face," he said with a snarling grin. "A she wolf if I ever saw one." He stood up. "And Im just the man to tame the wolf and bring her to heel." He waved a beckoning hand at the Amazon. "Here, bitch! Heel!!" he shouted to more laughter.
Keola pulled her mount up sharply. She started to turn the animal around. Oresta grabbed the horses bridle and jerked its head roughly back.
"Dont be stupid," she hissed with quiet intensity. "If you fight him youll have to kill him. He wont quit in front of his friends. And then theyll kill you. Youre not in the valley anymore, Amazon. Out here you walk away from trouble till it jumps on your back. Only then do you pull that sword."
Keolas head snapped around. The look in her eyes startled the blonde, eyes that glowed like two iron bars heated red-hot. "I dont tolerate rudeness," she rumbled ominously. "Didnt you just tell me I needed to earn respect for an Amazon warrior."
"I told you you needed to be tougher, meaner, and smarter than your enemies," Oresta answered. "This isnt smarter. Youre picking a fight with a gymnasium full of Athens best athletes and warriors."
Keola turned back to the men in the grassy park. The look on her face ended the laughter. The man who shouted stood a little taller, eyes narrowing in acceptance of the insolent, unafraid challenge he could see there. A friend stood up beside him, equally stern and ready.
"I dont turn my back on trouble," Keolas voice was low and angry, "all my scars are in front."
She started again to pull her horses head around. Oresta yanked it back so hard the animal shook and reared in surprise. Keola had to grab a handful of mane to keep her seat.
"If you call me a coward again you wont live long enough to fight that overgrown, overfed child," the blonde snapped, but there was an icy control to her demeanor that belied the passion of her words. "Now listen to me damn it. No one respects stupidity. They only laugh at it. I know you can kill him. You know you can kill him. Proving it wont gain anyones respect here. Theyll mourn the fallen hero, who died at the hand of the crazy Amazon bitch, with a big funeral procession, games and speeches. Theyll throw your mutilated corpse in a potters grave to be forgotten. If you dont have any scars on your back, Keola, its time you started to collect some." She leaned toward the Amazon, blue eyes intense. "Turn your back and walk away, pick your fights better than this," she hissed through a clenched jaw.
Keola glanced again at the athletes, who were all watching her warily, tense and expectant. She turned away and forced out a long breath, forcing out her anger as well.
"All right," she said finally, "lets get out of here."
Return to The Bard's Corner