This story has some mild violence and some slightly titillating though not very graphic sex between two horny adults of the same gender. Anyone offended by that should leave immediately. However, if you do, you will miss a good story. So do yourself a favor and stay. Should you discover that you do not like the story you are free to e-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org to complain. You can also contact me if you favor the story and want to praise me extravagantly. I am always open to praise. Either way I always respond promptly to all e-mails. Before proceeding you may want to go back and re-read parts 1 and 2. It has been awhile since I posted part 2. Sorry about that. Anyway, I hope you enjoy.
KEOLA AND ORESTA. PART 3
by Jim Kuntz
The red combed rooster, strutting along the eve of the house across the street, crowed for the hundredth time in the lessening gloom of morning. Oresta rubbed her eye irritably.
“Damn cocks are a curse to this world,” she mumbled.
The bird crowed again.
“I hate fucking roosters too,” she groaned.
She rolled on her back, a slight smile on her face at the joke, wondering if the Amazon had heard. The place next to her was empty. She looked around through bleary eyes. Across the room, in the half lit grayness, a shadowy silhouette danced silently, death her partner. The blonde propped on an elbow and watched spellbound. It was a training drill, performed with a sword, a routine Oresta had practiced a thousand times in the Amazon valley as she prepared herself to be a warrior. But never had she seen it done with such grace, speed, precision, control. The Amazon and her blade moved in perfect harmony, the weapon an extension of her arm, a natural flowing part of her anatomy. Her dance with death had a cold passion that was exhilarating and chilling to witness. You lied, didn’t you Keola. I believe you do make love to that sword at night while I sleep. Oresta laughed at the thought. Keola stopped in mid parry and straightened.
“So, you’re not going to sleep the day away after all?” she said.
“Day!” the blonde huffed. “What day?! It’s barely light enough to see the end of your nose. If it weren’t for that damn bird across the street I’d still be happily wandering the glens of Morpheus’ realm. I sleep when it’s dark, Amazon, as humans do. I’m not a bat or a fox or a…” her eyes narrowed, “a Keola.”
Keola put the point of her sword on the ground, hands resting on the hilt.
“Uh, huh,” she grunted. She regarded the blonde for a long moment. “You do know that you snore, don’t you?” she asked.
The end of the blonde’s mouth twitched up.
“That seems unlikely, Amazon,” she smirked. “Some jackass, animal or human, would have mentioned it to me by now. My lovers have never been known for their manners. I think you’re hearing things. Perhaps if you got more sleep that problem would clear up.”
“Perhaps if the room weren’t so noisy I could sleep better.”
“Fuck you,” Oresta smiled.
“Too tired,” Keola smiled back.
She approached the prone blonde and extended her hand.
“Come on, fence with me,” she said. “I need the work. I feel so rusty and slow.”
“Arrrrrrgh,” Oresta complained through a sour face. The Amazon put on her best doe eyed, wounded puppy expression.
“Please,” she begged. “Please, please, please.”
The blonde groaned unhappily. “Gods I hate it when you make that face,” she grumbled but she took the offered hand and was hauled to her feet. She fetched her sword where it leaned against the wall by the pallet. She did a few stretching exercises then came on guard. Keola did the same. They touched blades. Instantly the Amazon knocked the blonde’s sword aside and had her weapon at Oresta’s throat. Oresta took a step back. Her eyes darkened. Keola lowered her blade as a slight wry smile crossed her face. The blonde came on guard again. The Amazon touched her blade. In three lightning strokes Oresta’s weapon was knocked from her hand and Keola’s blade was again at her throat. Without a word the Amazon retrieved the sword and handed it back. The blonde’s eyes grew darker. She bit her lip. The wry smile flashed again across Keola’s face. Oresta turned and slashed the air furiously, forcing out the last bit of sleep, pumping up her energy and adrenaline. Keola waited patiently. Oresta came on guard, blue eyes focused, body tense. Keola touched her blade.
A half dozen times they started. Oresta had faced men as strong and stronger in battle and lived. She knew a dozen tricks to turn an opponents brute strength to her advantage. To lure them into a fatal mistake. She tried them all. Keola fell into many. But before the blonde could pounce Keola’s lightning reflexes had compensated and the opportunity was gone. And she never made the same error twice, her powers of concentration as formidable as her speed. Each contest ended the same, the Amazon’s blade at the blonde’s throat.
Next Oresta tried jamming Keola, stepping into her at the first blow to take away her advantage in quickness. Instantly she would find herself thrown over a hip or have her legs swept out from under her, landing on her back, the sword again at her throat, although Keola always maintained a tight grip to make sure the landings were not too hard. The consideration only increased Oreata’s frustration and anger. A few bruises would at least have made her feel less like a child being playfully wrestled by a parent. At last she gave in to the undeniable. She had no answer to Keola’s rare combination of strength and speed.
They sheathed their weapons and took a quick oil bath, scraping the sweat off each other. Oresta took a seat on the only stool as Keola brushed out her long yellow hair and braided it perfectly. It was becoming a part of their morning ritual the Amazon truly enjoyed, running the jade comb through Oresta’s fine hair, being close to her, talking, laughing. It always gave her a surge of pleasure to finish and see how beautiful the blonde looked in the morning sun as the ray’s streamed through the room’s open entrance and illumed her face. She seemed to glow in a golden haze. But now Oresta sat quiet, hardly responding to the Amazon’s attempts at conversation. Keola felt the tension keenly enough. She made an attempt to compliment the blonde on the clever tactics that had almost caught her during their fencing. It was met with stony silence. They dressed without a word. Keola found herself growing more angry, almost resentful. What was she supposed to do? Apologize? For what? Doing her best? It was the only thing she knew how to do. It was her and damned if she was going to change. For anyone. A glow came to her eyes as she headed for the door and breakfast. Just as she passed the door post, ‘thunk’. Only inches from her head the knife from Oresta’s belt imbedded deep into the wood. The Amazon showed no reaction, not even an involuntary start of surprise. She looked back at Oresta. The blonde stood by the small wash stand, feet apart, posture erect, the handle of her sword visible over her shoulder, face calm, blue eyes intense, focused.
You can lie to yourself all you want, Oresta of Farsala, but you’re an Amazon warrior, a woman of the blade. Keola pulled the knife out of the door post and approached the blonde, the weapon held tightly.
“You’re a powerful warrior, Keola of Kalvia,” Oresta said in a low voice, eyes riveted on the Amazon’s. “Powerful. But don’t ever make the mistake of taking me for granted.”
Keola looked down at the knife. She flipped the blade into her hand and held the handle of the weapon out to Oresta. Slowly the blonde took it. Keola grasped her wrist and pulled the knife up until the point was pressed against her own breast, over her heart.
“If I take you for granted, Oresta of Farsala, put it here next time,” she said quietly.
Oresta bit the inside of her lip so hard it bled, although she did not feel the pain.
Artemisia sat with Keola and Oresta as the Amazon drank her goat’s milk and the blonde polished off a half loaf of bread smeared with butter and jam. She nibbled on some grapes chased with watered wine. Oresta sat silently as the two Amazons chatted, amiably, about nothing. The ambassador asked no questions concerning her guests activities of the last day and Keola offered no information. Finally Artemisia stood.
“I assume you plan to view the races today,” she said. “It should be quite a sight.”
The Amazon nodded. “We do. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Good, good,” Artemisia answered. “Perhaps I’ll join you later. I have a few things to do this morning. Enjoy the day.”
With that she made a slight bow and was out to the symposia and gone without further explanation. Oresta watched as the Amazon stared after the Ambassador, eyes dark. Suddenly she stood.
“Come on,” she said urgently and hurried out of the room.
Keola followed obediently, curious. Oresta peeked cautiously out of the front door of the house and down the narrow street. Artemisia was already almost out f sight headed toward the Panathenic Way. She looked down the lane in the other direction. As she hoped a group of children played, two boys wrestling each other as the others stood in a circle watching.
“Terzium,” she called.
Terzium turned at the sound of his name. Oresta beckoned with a wave. He ran up, face eager.
Want to make some money, little street rat?” she smiled.
“Yes, my lady,” he answered enthusiastically.
Oresta quickly pulled three dinars from her coin pouch and put them in his outstretched palm, folding his fingers over them. She pointed down the street.
“Do you see the Amazon lady?” she asked just as Artemisia disappeared around the corner.
The boy nodded.
“Follow her today, Terzium, as long as you can,” Oresta instructed. “Tomorrow I’ll ask you where she went. If you can tell me I’ll give you three more. If you stay with her all day I’ll give you five. Just don’t let her see you. All right?”
“Right!” Terzium smiled brightly, already caught up in the excitement of the adventure. “I will, I mean I won’t.”
“Get going. Don’t lose her,” the blonde said as she gave the boy a gentle push down the street. He took off at a sprint and was quickly down the lane, around the corner and gone.
Keola watched him disappear, hands on hips, elbows out, deep in thought. Suddenly her attention focused on Oresta.
“You have imagination and a quick mind,” she said seriously. “And a talent for using what’s available. You could be very useful.”
“Oh,” the blonde said, surprised and perplexed by the tone of the Amazon’s voice and the look on her face. “And what would I be useful for? And to whom?”
Keola looked away, as if a thought had slipped out she had not meant to speak. She smiled and shrugged.
“Useful? I didn’t say useful,” she snorted. “I said useless. You’re completely useless.” She squeezed the blonde’s arm. “Now come on. Let’s finish breakfast and go see the races. I can hardly wait to see Athens sawed off champion in action.”
As Keola went back inside Oresta’s eyebrows twitched together suspiciously. This Amazon so often seemed as straightforward and simple to read as an unrolled scroll, yet there was a mystery about her that floated just out of reach. It was frustrating, unsettling and …and strangely attractive. Solving the mystery of Keola was something the blonde knew she had to do. And she looked forward to it. More every day.
The day was perfect. The mid morning sun blazed unimpeded through a high cloudless azure sky. The aroma of the sea was strong as a steady breeze flowed in from the blue green Aegean and filled everyone’s nostrils with its freshness. A much appreciated relief from the usual smell of human and animal waste and drifting wood smoke. Oresta emerged from a tight packed cluster of men, all of them chattering animatedly at each other.
“I got two to one on Zena,” the blonde smiled.
“Excellent,” Keola said enthusiastically. Then she grinned and shrugged a ‘whatever that means’ shrug.
Oresta shook her head in bemused amazement.
“It occurs to me that the Amazon educational system has serious deficiencies,” she smiled.
“Uh, huh,” Keola grunted. “Or that you spend an inordinate amount of time associating with a disreputable class of people.”
“Well of course. What a quick grasp of the obvious you have. I mean, here I am, spending my time with you. I have no excuse. I’m guilty.”
“Artemis tells us the first step toward forgiveness and redemption is acknowledging our faults,” Keola replied.
“Do you think I can be saved?” Oresta asked, some faint wisp of seriousness mixed with the mocking humor of the question.
“No,” Keola said simply.
Oresta laughed, but somewhere some little part of her dropped like a small lead weight sinking into the dark waters of her heart.
“The weak and helpless need to be saved,” the Amazon continued. “The strong and brave need only change their ways, and do what they know they ought.”
“Sounds easy enough,” Oresta answered. “If you’re strong and brave. I myself am weak and spineless. I’ll need saving.” The corner of her mouth twitched up. “But not just yet.”
“Two dinars! Two dinars! Two dinars for the best view of the races!” the man called.
He was standing back in a wide alley that opened onto the Panathenic Way only a few yards short of where the street entered the Agora. Oresta stopped as she and Keola strolled along with the throng headed for the market place and a seat in the rapidly filling stands. She eyed the man suspiciously a moment. He stood alone in the alley, the high rear wall of the building that faced the Agora on one side, the lower wall of the block of shops that fronted the Panathenic Way on the other. Keola stopped as well.
“My ladies, hurry,” the man beckoned eagerly, spotting potential customers, “hurry before it’s too late and all the places are taken. Only two dinars each for the best view in Athens!”
“Come on, let’s see what this fellow is up too,” Oresta said, “maybe he does have a good spot. I’d rather avoid the stands. We’ll be stuffed like fish in an amphora there.”
“Fine with me,” the Amazon shrugged.
“Two dinars, beautiful ladies, and you have your place,” the man smiled, his hand out as they approached.
Oresta took four coins out of her money pouch.
“I’ve got the silver, where’s the place?” she asked.
The man’s grin broadened. He stood back from the high wall and gave a sharp whistle with two fingers between his teeth. The head of a beardless youth appeared above the crown of the red tiles roof. He disappeared. In a moment the end of a ladder crested the roof, slid down the tiles and off the eve. It jerked to a stop just short of the ground, dangling for an instant till the man caught hold of it. He whistled again. The tension on the rope tied to the other end was eased and he rested the ladder securely on the ground against the wall.
“This is the Philodon, a public building, isn’t it? How can you charge for using it?” Oresta asked, curiosity, not accusation, in her tone.
The man’s face darkened.
“I have my protection, my lady,” he replied a bit ominously.
“Of course,” Oresta answered matter -of- factly, curiosity satisfied. She placed the money in the man’s palm and hurried up the ladder. Keola followed.
“Protection?” the Amazon asked as they walked up the steeply slanted roof, the ladder clattering noisily past them, pulled by unseen hands.
Oresta smiled her best cynical smile.
“Protection means he’s made a deal with Phidipides. Phidipides gets half the money in exchange for taking care of anyone that might object to using a public building for private profit.”
“Take care of? As in…?” Keola frowned.
“No, no,” Oresta laughed. “This is Athens. The center of civilization. The corruption here is much too civilized for murder over a few seats at a race. That would be more Corinth’s style. Or Rome’s. Here the only people who might object and bring the matter up before the Assembly are rich politicians looking to curry favor among the regular citizenry by appearing to look out for their interests. Phidipides would take care of it with a favor or a nice bribe, something of that sort. Stuff like this is just small change. But he controls all of it, and small change adds up. Words to live by, Amazon. An obol here, and obol there, small change turns into real money after a while.”
“I’ll let you worry about the money, Oresta,” she said. “You seem to have a talent for getting it.”
“And for losing it,” the blonde replied with surprising seriousness. “Silver has never found a home in me, Keola. Dinars only use me as a temporary resting place on the way to someone else’s purse. You’ll be much better off keeping your own accounts and leaving me out of it.”
“We’ll see,” Keola shrugged.
As they reached the crown of the roof Keola had to pause and take a breath at the wonderous sight. Stretched out before her was a view of the entire Agora. Wooden stands eight rows high lined the outside edge of the marketplace, erected in front of the buildings that usually marked its outer borders. In front of the stands were facines, thick cut stakes tied in round bundles and laid end to end to form a low wall, scant protection for the spectators against a team of thundering horses straying off the course. The inside of the track was formed by thick galley rope strung chest high from posts spaced thirty feet apart. The course roughly conformed to a capital P. The chariots lined up four abreast just outside the wide Dyplon Gate, at the bottom of the stem of the P. They raced up the long straight-a-way of the Panathenic Way, into the Agora, around the circle of the P formed by the marketplace, then back onto the Panathenic Way for the sprint home. The first one through the Dyplon Gate won.
The stands were half filled as a great part of the huge throng milled about in the open space of the market. The excitement in the air was an almost visible presence, a tingly vibration Keola could feel on her skin. Every roof top with any view of the market place was filled with people. As she looked back toward the Dyplon Gate the roofs of all the buildings facing the Panathenic Way also teemed. In her vision were more people than she had ever seen at one time. It appeared to her incredulous eyes that the entire population of the earth must be crowded together into this one small space. Her heart beat faster at the wonder of it, though she was careful to hide her awe behind a mask of non-chalance.
Several dozen people, all men and older boys, shared the Philodon roof with the Amazon and the blonde. They turned to examine the unexpected newcomers for a moment before turning back.
“Blanket, my Ladies? Only one dinar each.”
A youth of twelve or thirteen in a ragged tunic, a slave, looked up from his seat beside the ladder. A pile of small square plain woolen blankets dyed a deep blue lay in a heap next to him.
“The roof can get very hot as the day goes on, my ladies,” he said. “You should have a blanket to sit on. Only one dinar.”
Keola laughed as she took tow silver spheres from her coin pouch and handed them to the boy.
“We better get a couple. I wouldn’t want you to burn that delicate butt of yours,” she grinned at Oresta.
“It is a nice ass, isn’t it?” the blonde replied, rubbing a hand over a firm buttock. “Maybe my best feature. Subatio thought so. Don’t you think so?” she asked the boy.
“Oh, yes my lady,” the lad responded with an enthusiastic adolescent leer.
“Certainly it’s fortunate you have such a perfect butt,” Keola said.
“Oh?” Oresta asked.
“It draws attention from your face,” she explained.
The boy snickered discreetly. Oresta pulled out coin and handed it to him.
“You have a good eye for ass and know how to flatter a lady,” she said. “You’ll go far with the women one day. Use that to buy your first one a drink,” the end of her mouth edged up in her cynical smirk, “before you rob her of her illusions.”
“Uh…, yes…, okay, my lady. Thank you,” the boy said hesitantly, happy to have the money, uncertain about the rest.
“I guess I don’t know how to flatter a woman then, is that what you’re saying?” Keola challenged.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You were thinking it,” Keola said.
“My thoughts are my own,” Oresta replied.
“Yes,” the Amazon said slowly, voice suddenly so low it was almost a whisper, brown eyes intently gazing into blue, “but I always count myself privileged when you’re kind enough to share them.”
The blonde paused, trapped for a moment in the amber of those brown orbs. The end of her mouth edged up.
“Was that bit of eloquence an attempt at flattery?” she asked.
“Perhaps,” Keola answered, an almost shy smile on her lips. “How’d I do?”
“Pretty well,” the blonde said sincerely.
Keola and Oresta spread their small blankets near the crown of the roof and made themselves comfortable. The boy lowered the ladder several times more and soon the roof was filled to capacity, every square foot covered by a blanket and a butt. Vendors on the ground came by hawking their wares, apples, oranges, grapes, figs, pears, bread, small painted clay figurines of favorite drivers, hard candy. Customers threw down a dinar and the peddler would throw up the purchase, everyone laughing when an occasional errant toss bounced off someone’s head who was not paying proper attention to his surroundings. The Amazon was beginning to get restless, anxious for something to happen, when there was a sudden stir in the crowds milling about the Agora.
“The flag is up! The white flag! The flag is up!”
People were pointing to the west, down the Panathenic Way toward the Dyplon Gate. Keola turned to look. At the top of a long pole that stretched high above the rose colored awning covering the watchtower by the Gate a white flag was clearly visible as it billowed out in the cooling breeze off the Aegean. The throngs on the roofs lining the long boulevard could be seen rising to their feet. The track around the marketplace emptied quickly as most people headed for the stands, which soon filled to overflowing. The rest ducked under the rope around the inside of the course, lining up three deep, small children riding the shoulders of their father’s so they could see. A muffled cheering was heard that rippled slowly along the rooftops from the Gate toward the Agora, people waving and pointing at something on the ground below them.
“The race?” Keola asked Oresta.
The blonde smiled
“Not yet, Amazon. Patience,” she answered. “Now the Priest’s of Athena are marching in Procession sprinkling the track with sacred water to honor the Goddess and to bring down her blessing and protection on the drivers. Behind them come a dozen Sumari with spears walking shoulder to shoulder along the track to make sure everyone is off the course. When they’ve marched around to here where the track enters the Panathenic Way again, after circling the Agora, the officials at the Gate will be signaled and the first four chariots will be brought out of their stables and lined up. There are four races in the morning. Then a long break so everyone can go home for lunch and a nap. Late in the afternoon the four winners race for the laurel wreath. Of course the break also gives the bookies time to set the odds on the final race and collect the wagers. Before the sun sets this day, Keola, rich men will suddenly be poor and poor men rich. Some of the proudest, wealthiest families of Athens have been brought to ruin by one chariot race. Reduced to obscurity in an instant. The entire city and thousands from all over Greece are here today. Only the Olympics at Olympia draws a bigger crowd or more money.”
The Priests finished their holy task of consecrating the course and marched ceremoniously up the Panathenic Way till they disappeared into the opening made for them by the spectators at the far end. They went through and continued to the Acropolis where they mounted the steep white marble steps up to the small Temple of Athena Nike, ‘Athena victorious’, just below the Parthenon, where they sacrificed a young goat to the Goddess to honor her. The meat would be presented to the winner along with the animal’s freshly cleaned and scraped pelt to drape over his shoulders, a divine symbol of Athena’s approval of his victory, for the Goddess loved achievement, the striving for greatness. She loved a winner and had scant regard for losers. Athenians above all considered themselves achievers, winners. The best government, the finest fleet, the grandest architectural accomplishments, the most celebrated artists and writers, the wisest thinkers, the center of the greatest empire in the world, all resided inside their walls. The magnificent Athena, lover of all that was best in human kind had embraced them as her chosen people. The only limits to their greatness would be the limits of their imagination and daring.
The Sumari filed across the Agora into the Strategoi building, squeezing between the bleachers erected in front of it.
“How do we know when the race begins? I can’t see the Gate from here,” Keola asked.
“Don’t worry, you’ll know the instant the starter drops the rope across the Gate,” Oresta smiled. “Look here.” She pointed to the end of the Panathenic Way where the track bent at the top of the ‘P’ as it circled the Agora. “That’s where the race is decided. Whoever gets there first has the advantage of the inside rail the rest of the way around the Agora and back to the finish. It’s very unusual for anyone to lose after they get the inside rail. It’s where great drivers show their greatness. After running head down up that long straightway the teams are wild with excitement. Spirited purebreds want to just stretch out and run forever, till their hearts are ready to burst. But from a full sprint the driver must rein them in and get them turned together into the curve at half the speed they were previously running. And if there’s a jam of chariots reaching the curve at the same time he must out think and out manuever them in an instant, with no room for error, to get the inside position. It’s called Charon’s Corner because more than a few drivers have found themselves suddenly in Charon’s boat headed across the River Styx after making a fatal mistake. It’s not a race for the faint of heart, or nerve.”
The last word had hardly left the blonde’s lips when there was a sudden frantic shout. The Amazon turned to see the throngs on the roofs along the boulevard dancing madly, arms waving, mouths gaping, faces twisted with screaming, as if some mass epileptic seizure had suddenly engulfed them. The noise built like a tidal wave rushing toward shore till it exploded in a violent eruption as the chariots flashed into view below, pounding up the paved street. But the thundering of hoof on stone was quite inaudible, the sound completely swallowed up by the deafening roar of a hundred thousand screeching madmen. The people around Keola were all leaning forward, shouting, screaming, bellowing, not words but some primitive releasing of pure emotion. Even the blonde, who believed in nothing and laughed her cynical laugh at everything human, was on her toes, eyes sparkling, mouth slightly open, face flushed with adrenaline. The Amazon swallowed, throat constricted, breath coming in shallow pants. The noise, the crackling energy, made her skin tingle. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, queer and itchy. Two chariots raced side by side in a desperate sprint for the curve. Streamers of colored cloth, red on the team outside, blue on the team inside, tied to the horses manes, snapped back in the breeze as the teams raced, heads down, nostrils flaring, the red driver frantically cracking his long leather whip, demanding more speed. He pulled slowly ahead. As they approached the curve the blue charioteer suddenly reined back, giving his competitor the road. The red driver hauled back on the reins tied around his wrists and tried to turn the team together into the curve. The horses fought against the sudden unexpected demand. They missed the corner and careened across the track, the outside pair rearing in protest as the inside pair tried to turn. The chariot came to a stop only a few feet short of the facine barrier. The blue driver, horses under perfect control, turned tightly into the corner and continued on around. The two trailing chariots, purple and green, also came around the curve before the red charioteer could regain control of his team and get them headed again down the track. In a few moments the blue chariot finished its circuit of the Agora, hugging the rail, and disappeared back onto the Panathenic Way toward the Dyplon Gate, the purple chariot hot on its tail, the other two fading.
The astounding roar that had drowned out all thought and left only raw emotion coursing through the Amazon’s veins faded away as suddenly as it had erupted, leaving behind an agitated buzzing, like a hive disturbed by a well aimed rock, and a strange ringing in the ears. Keola took a gulp of air to calm herself.
“How do we know who won?” she asked, slightly breathless.
Oresta smiled as she pointed toward the Dyplon Gate.
“Watch,” she said.
After a moment the white flag scurried down the tall pole and vanished. The buzzing noise dropped an octave into a expectant hum. Keola glanced around. Every face was turned toward the west, the Gate, eyes narrow with anticipation. Her own stomach tingled with excitement and she had to suppress the foolish urge to giggle, like a child about to receive her solstice present. A new flag hurried up the pole. The breeze form the Aegean caught it. Blue! Instantly a new burst of shouting erupted, a mixture of happy celebration and vocal dismay.
“That damn Thimisticles is the worst driver I’ve ever seen. I know more about Egyptian Snake Goddesses than that idiot knows about handling a chariot!” a burly man grumbled loudly.
“Then why did you bet a hundred dinars on him?” the man next to him demanded.
The burly man paused. A slightly sheepish smile split his bearded face.
“Well, actually I know quite a bit about Egyptian Snake Goddesses. I figured if he knew half as much about racing a chariot he was a sure thing.”
There was a general snort of laughter around the roof. Keola and Oresta shared a grin. In a few candle marks the white flag again fluttered from the gate pole.
“Zena will run in this race,” Oresta said. “His colors are black. He’s changed his pole horse from last year and looked very fast and in control on the practice track north of the city. His patron Philitatus finally got rid of that Roman fraud Lucius Patelus and brought in Agorix to train the team. Agorix knows his business. He’ll have them ready.”
Keola nodded knowingly, as if she followed all of this, although in fact it was meaningless gibberish. What in Hades name was a pole horse?
The tidal wave of noise burst forth again from the Dyplon Gate and raced toward them. They stood on tiptoe and craned their necks eagerly. A chariot with yellow colors appeared first, followed at some distance by one with silver banners. Next came green closely pursued by black. At Charon’s corner Zena neatly surged to the outside and passed the green chariot, a deft bit of driving. As all four racers disappeared back onto the Panathenic Way the black chariot was in firm possession of….a distant third. The crowd roared and groaned as the yellow banner was hoisted up the flag pole.
“You were right,” Keola said, fighting the urge to laugh. “Changing the pole horse made a world of difference. Zena went around that green fellow like he was standing still. And the way the horses moved as one. A sure sign of an Agorix trained team. Impressive, yes indeed, very impressive.”
The blonde eyed the Amazon. The corner of her mouth twitched up.
“I believe that was sarcasm,” she said. “Sarcasm can be a dangerous weapon when used by an expert. It can slice a person to ribbons or stab them to the heart. I’ve used it myself on occasion to draw blood.” The corner of her mouth edged higher. “How fortunate for me you wield only a wooden blade.”
“Now why would you think I was being sarcastic?” the Amazon asked struggling to keep the smile off her face. “I was trying to be supportive. You know, find the good in a situation. Isn’t that what a friend does? Tell you comforting lies when truth is a club beating you in the head.”
“Uh, huh,” Oresta grunted.
“Uh, huh,” Keola agreed, her bright grin splashing across her face.
The blonde scratched her nose to hide her own smile.
The third race was much like the second, one chariot clearly outclassing the others and winning easily. During the break between races several wine vendors staggered up the ladder, their heavy amphoras full of refreshment, and circulated among the fans on the roof. The increasing heat as the sun approached its zenith made them welcome and they descended the ladder without a drop left in their jars.
As the white flag fluttered from its pole announcing the fourth race the blonde nudged Keola and with a slight nod directed her attention to a young man. The man was the Amazon’s age, lean and athletic, dressed
well with a fine gold chain at his neck and silver bracelets around his wrists, his posture erect, proud, even haughty, expression alert and confident, a son of wealth, probably a member of the elite cavalry of Athens, though he wore no weapon or insignia. Perhaps twenty feet away down the roof he sat staring at Keola. She looked back unblinking, unsure what to make of his expression. He continued to stare. Slowly his mouth opened and very deliberately he ran his tongue back and forth across his bottom lip. The gesture was so unexpected and bizarre that Keola grinned in amused disbelief. The blonde, who had observed everything, laughed her cynical laugh as the man turned away. The Amazon looked at Oresta questioningly.
“You’re not a good girl, are you?” Oresta smiled.
“What?” Keola asked, baffled.
“Dressed as you are he thinks you’re a barbarian or a whore, or both,” Oresta explained. “He’s hoping for whore. That’s why he licked his lip. A decent woman would have turned her head in shame and disgust. Only a whore would have smiled. I’ll give you odds he looks you up after the races.”
She leaned closer to Keola, mock seriousness on her face.
“Don’t undervalue yourself,” she counseled. “Ask for twenty dinars. Don’t settle for less than ten. They like paying through the nose. They think they’re getting something other men can’t afford. The more you ask for the harder his cock gets.”
The Amazon’s face clouded. Her jaw tightened.
“Is that all there is in relations between men and women?” she demanded, her tone wavering between anger, disappointment and disapproval. “Everywhere I go in this world men are buying women. Is there never love between them?” Her eyes bored into Oresta. “How can a woman open her heart to someone whose paid for her? Where is pride? Where is honor?”
The end of the blonde’s mouth curled up in her cynical smirk. Then it slowly edged down. A haunted despair crept into her blue eyes.
“You’ll find out pride and honor are luxuries, Amazon,” she said, voice low. “They’re a conceit only those with a full belly and a warm fire can afford. Life is not sustained by pride and honor. People do what they must to live. You can’t survive on useless illusions.”
Keola grabbed Oresta’s arm, squeezing it in an iron grip so tight it was painful, though the blonde showed no reaction. She leaned toward her, face stern, brown orbs glowing an icy fire.
“Listen to me,” she whispered fiercely. “We are women of the blade, you and I. Amazon warriors. Our pride is mothers milk. Our honor the fire that wards off the coldest chill. Without them life is a wretched pointless wait for death. Animals exist. People must do more. Those ‘illusions’ are what make us human. We can’t live in this world without them.”
Oresta bit her lip hard as she looked away. There was a long moment of silence. Finally she sighed heavily as she turned back to Keola’s stern visage.
“And what is the alternative to existing, Keola?” she asked. “To live in a fantasy world? Only self-deluded, self indulgent fools live there. Grow up, Amazon. Look around. You can accept the world and make your way in it or you can die.” The despair in Oresta’s eyes hardened into defiance. “I’m not a fool. And I’m not a warrior. I warned you about that once. I’ll be who I am and live as I please. I am not Amazon.”
Keola released Oresta’s arm. The iron glow in the Amazon’s eyes brightened a moment, then slowly faded. So many things she saw in the blonde’s beautiful face, pain, weariness, a soul burdened by unspoken sorrows, yet also a dignity, and a spirit unbroken. Any trace of anger evaporated like morning mist. She had only one thought, one desire. To touch. To communicate what her heart felt at that moment. She put her hand up hesitantly, then tenderly caressed Oresta’s check. The blonde did not pull back. Did not move. No wall appeared. She accepted the affection, but she made no effort to return it. Her expression did not change.
“The next race, the next race!” a voice shouted excitedly. “Pelops will be in this one!!”
Everyone around the women stood up expectantly, necks straining to see. Keola and Oresta remained seated gazing into each others eyes. Finally, with an almost visible effort, Oresta pulled herself away and turned her head. She stood up.
“Come on, you’ll want to see this,” she said. “Athens prancing pony of a hero is coming. If he loses women will be throwing themselves off the roofs in despair. That should be an interesting sight.”
Keola took a breath. She felt something in herself coming unstuck, unglued. Deep emotions were stirring. The numb callous of grief that had covered her wounded heart was being pulled back. The attraction of those blue eyes was becoming a longing. A longing for what? Love? The Amazon did want to feel love again. Wanted to put mourning behind her. Her nature was to be optimistic. But was it betrayal, to love again? Weakness to let go of Sara? She did not like weakness. Not in herself. Her heart was waking from its sleep and straining to go forward, the only direction Keola of Kalvia could go. But somehow her deep sense of honor was offended by the notion. Always before when honor had been tested by other passions she had chosen honor easily and without regret. Now those blue eyes were turning the world upside down. Was there no compromise to be found between love and honor? Must you choose one or the other? The tension, confusion, was painful. The Amazon would have wished herself somewhere else, but anywhere without Oresta now seemed too desolate to be contemplated.
The great roar began again, even more frenzied it seemed, if that were possible. The chariots burst into view below. Keola instantly recognized the short, muscular figure of Pelops. As in the parade of two days before he wore only a short kilt around his waist. His darkly tanned body, rubbed head to bare feet with olive oil, glistened in the high noon sun. The Athenian’s orange ribboned team held a half length lead over the black ribboned chariot from Sparta, but the Spartan enjoyed the inside track as the competitors thundered toward Charon’s corner. Pelops edged closer to the rail, but the Spartan, protected by helmet, breastplate and grieves on his shins, as all the other drivers were, refused to rein back and yield. Closer and closer Pelops came to the Spartan’s lathered team till, as they reached the turn, he could have reached out and stroked the white nose of the outside horse whose head was almost over his shoulder. Instead, with a sudden jerk of the reins, he cut sharply to the inside into the path of the Spartan. The roar of the crowd hesitated in a collective gasp. For a moment it looked as if the Spartan’s two outside animals would have to spring into Pelops chariot with him, for they had nowhere else to go. But horses have a fine instinct for survival. The farthest outside horse jumped sideways, crashing into the one next to it. Their legs tangled and both went down in a thrashing heap. The two inside horses were immediately pulled down as well while the chariot bounced high in the air and almost went over the top of the struggling animals before plunging back to earth on its wheels. The man in the chariot however, launched like a stone from a catapult, continued on over his team and almost caught up with Pelops before landing, on his head, a few feet behind the Athenian as his chariot pulled away. He rolled for a dozen feet before coming to a stop, helmet clattering down the track without him. The two trailing charioteers, yanking frantically on their reins, barely avoided the pile of struggling horseflesh in their path as they vainly chased after Pelops, who never as much as glanced back at the chaos he had wrought. Keola was aware of this because she watched only him.
“He certainly has no fear!” the Amazon shouted in Oresta’s ear as the chariots disappeared onto the Panathenic Way.
“Fortune favors the bold!” the blonde shouted back the old saying. “Fortune, however, is fickle,” she continued. “We’ll know when it deserts him because we’ll be able to hear the snap of his neck!”
Keola shook her head in bemused disbelief at such cynicism.
The roar of the crowd became a general howl of approval as the orange flag went up the pole above the Dyplon Gate. It was apparent to the Amazon that the Athenian charioteer’s popularity transcended even the pain of the dinars that may have been lost wagering against him. Does he feel the weight of such unrestrained adoration, she wondered. She made a note to herself that it would be interesting to talk to this man, if the opportunity arose.
The races for the morning were over. The ladder was lowered as the roof emptied, along with the other roofs and the stands as well. Everyone headed to their homes, a light lunch, and a nap, before the excitement of the final race of the day that would decide the winner of the wreath of victory. All the talk among the crowds that Oresta and Keola walked among on the way home was about Pelops. A group of men behind them speculated on how high the Spartan had soared.
“He must have thought he was Icarus,” on sniggered, “but the wax of his wings was melted by the son of Athens.”
“Do you think he’s dead?” another asked.
“Looked like it to me,” someone answered. “He didn’t move when they dumped him on the litter and carried him off.”
“I guess some mother will cry,” a voice said.
“Ha,” came the reply. “Spartan’s have no mothers. They’re whelped by bitches in their barracks. The worse that will happen is some mangy she wolf somewhere will howl.”
The statement was met with approving guffaws. Keola leaned into Oresta as they walked.
“These Athenians certainly have no shortage of pride,” she said confidentially. “But in the contempt in their voices I wonder if I don’t hear a hint of fear as well.”
Oresta smiled. “Remember what I told you, Amazon, men hate what they fear. And the more they fear the more they hate. I suppose they hope that the hate will overcome the fear.”
As they approached the door to Artemisea’s abode Oresta glanced down the street. To her surprise, and some annoyance, she spotted Terzium, covered in dust, sitting against a wall with his sister and another friend passing a large slice of melon back and forth between them, the juice making little rivulets of mud down from the corners of their mouths.
“Terzium!” the blonde barked as she stopped at the Ambassadors door. Terzium gave his sister the melon, jumped to his feet and ran up to Oresta.
“Yes, My Lady,” he said eagerly.
“Well? Did you follow the Amazon Lady as I instructed you?” Oresta asked impatiently.
There was a moment of silence.
“And?” Oresta demanded at last as Keola grinned.
“Well,” the boy began, “she went round to different places, you know, here and there. And talked to different people. Rich people it looked to me like. They all had gold and silver on and slaves followin’em. One of ‘em had no hair on his head at all. And his eyes were painted black, like some of them girls momma is always talkin bout.” Terzium smiled. “Momma talks really bad bout them girls. Tells my sister she’ll sew her up in a sack and throw her in the ocean like a puppy if she ever acts like one of them girls.”
“Did she visit anyone’s home?” Oresta finally prompted, her exasperation and Keola’s amusement rising.
“Uh, yep,” Terzium replied. “She went past the Acropolis and down the Therion to the old part of town near the Pilestra Gate, close to the wall. You know, behind the old Temple of Apollo.”
“I know,” Oresta answered. “She visited someone there?”
“Yep,” the boy nodded. “She went in a door and didn’t come out for a long time. I got kinda, you know, bored, standing around at the end of the street waitin. And the races were startin. I could here the people yellin. And it was kinda creepy with nobody round but me and the other man?”
“Other man?” Oresta asked.
“Yep,” Terzium continued. “He was leanin against the wall by the door the Amazon Lady went in. He kept lookin at me. I tried to pretend I was playin but he kept lookin at me. Then he started comin down the street. It scared me so I took off runnin and came home.”
“Have you ever seen him before?” Keola inquired, the grin gone from her face, expecting the boy to say no but wanting to be sure.
“Yep,” Terzium nodded.
“Where?!” Keola finally demanded as a slight bemused smile crossed Oresta’s face.
“He was one of the men that was sneakin round the Amazon Lady’s door a few nights ago.”
“That you thought were robbers but the Amazon Lady let in?” Oresta asked.
Keola and Oresta shared a look. The blonde’s was merely quizzical but the Amazon’s eyes were dark.
“What did he look like?” Oresta asked.
The boy shrugged. “He was kinda big.” He put his left hand on his right biceps. “He has big arms like the boxers have that fight in the games. But he doesn’t have a beard and his hair is cut real short. He looks old. Too old to be a boxer if you ask me.”
Oresta bent down till she was eye level with the boy. She put her hand over his where it held his arm.
“Think Terzium, were there any marks on those big arms?”
“Yep, on one arm there was. Funny marks. I don’t know what they were,” he replied.
The blonde straightened, pulled her sword and carefully drew several symbols in the packed dirt at Terzium’s feet.
“Did any of them look like this?”
The boy pointed at one by his left big toe. The women again shared a look. Keola took three silver dinars from the coin pouch tied to the strap of her sword sheath and put them in Terzium’s outstretched hand. She tenderly caressed his cheek.
“You did very well young man,” the Amazon said softly. “Thank you.” She bent down to look him in the eye. “Now I want you to take your sister and go home. And I don’t want you to ever play around the Amazon Lady’s door again. Just stay away from this street and play elsewhere. And if you ever see that man with the marks on his arm I want you to run away from him. As fast as you can.” Keola’s face became stern. “Do you understand?” she demanded almost harshly. The boy’s eyes widened. He slowly nodded. The Amazon could see in his expression that he did understand. She tousseled his dirty hair affectionately. “Go on now,” she instructed. Terzium bounded off to his sister and friend who had been waiting patiently for him and quickly the three of them were down the street and out of sight around the corner. The two women waited silently till they were gone.
Keola put her hands on her hips, elbows out, expression thoughtful. It was a natural, unconscious posture she assumed when thinking. Oresta watched intently. There was something about that pose, commanding, almost regal, that the blonde found intensely compelling. So much about this Amazon was attractive. It was hard to be around her and not find oneself constantly wondering what she was thinking, feeling…
“Obviously you have some idea who this man is,” Keola said.
Oresta cleared her throat, suddenly self-conscious about the reverie she had fallen into.
“Who he is I have no idea,” she answered. “But I’m pretty sure I know what he is.”
“And that would be?” the Amazon asked expectantly.
“Ah, ah, not yet.” Oresta smiled. “We’re going to follow Pythagoris’ first rule of investigation. ‘gather all the facts and observations possible before formulating a conclusion’.
“What?” Keola huffed.
“I learned it at the library in Alexandria,” the blonde explained. “It’s one of the rules they use for studying the mysteries of nature. And your Amazon Ambassador is certainly one of life’s mysteries.”
“So what is it you’re proposing?” Keoal asked. “That we go to Alexandria, collect this Pythagoris, and sit around while he ‘formulates conclusions’. Is that as painful as it sounds? Will there be any loss of blood or consciousness?”
“Uh, uh,” Oresta grunted. “You’re so so amusing. I often have the urge to laugh,” the corner of her mouth edged up, “but somehow it passes, you know, like gas.”
Keola crinkled her nose dismissively and the two women shared an intimate smirk.
“No, I propose we go down to the old part of the city behind the Temple of Apollo and find this man,” Oresta continued. “With a little luck he will still be right where Terzium left him and then we will know if I’m right.” She looked in the direction of the Agora. “Of course we will probably miss the last race if we go.”
Keola shrugged. “I’ve seen the races. This is more important.” She smiled slyly. “Besides, the son of Athens shines too brightly for my taste. I prefer,” her eyes focused on Oresta’s golden hair, “a more gentle glow.”
Oresta hesitated, on the verge of responding, then suddenly turned and headed down the street toward the Panathenic Way, the Acropolis, and the old part of the city. Keola fell in quickly beside her.
The blonde led Keola on a long meandering journey that kept them well away from the Agora and the few main streets of Athens. They passed along the north side of the Acropolis walking along the base of the curtain wall that ringed the hill, the last bastion of the city if disaster struck and the outer walls were breached. Oresta knew exactly where she wanted to go and she was anxious to avoid any accidental meetings with Artimisia, who might be out strolling the city again, perhaps to see the last race, or simply returning home. Whatever this game Keola and the Ambassador were playing, it seemed obvious that whoever knew more while revealing less was going to win. And the blonde had chosen her side. She would see too it that it was the Amazon who won.
At last they came to the rear of a rather small building. It was built of marble blocks perfectly fitted together without the benefit of any mud daubing to hold it together. The outside surface of the marble had been polished to a high sheen of white smoothness that was still impressive. But the frieze chisled around the top of the walls was plain compared to the elaborate sculptures the Amazon had seen at other temples around the city and outside the Dyplon Gate. A simple tableau of Apollo being pulled in his chariot by two rather pedestrian horses, the paint that colored the frieze flaking badly in many places. Apollo had a shiny white marble nose sticking out of his flesh colored face and there was a visible crack running from the bottom of his neck down his body and through his chariot to the base of the frieze. There was a smattering of graffiti on the walls, but one inscription caught Keola’s eye. A crude drawing of an erect penis with a man’s head above it, the mouth open as if about to perform fellatio. The inscription underneath read
Son of Zeus, Chariot of Fire,
Apollo goes Round and Round,
But can He go Up and Down.
Oresta saw the look on the Amazon’s face and smirked.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s against Athenian law to deface a Temple with sacriledge. If they discover who did it he’ll be fined, maybe even exiled. Happy?”
Keola shook her head and mumbled something.
“Speak up, it’s a free city,” the blonde demanded. “At least as long as you don’t say anything that offends anyone important.”
Keola hesitated, then looked again at the graffiti.
“Do you think it’s lack of faith or lack of respect?” she asked seriously.
The blonde considered a moment. “Is that really important?” she asked. “There’s no scorch mark on the ground where someone was incinerated after writing it. The words look old and flaked yet the city still stands, as glorious and arrogant as ever. No one has bothered to erase it because they know it doesn’t matter. Most people’s faith in the Gods is about the fear of not believing. They’re hedging their bets. If the Gods exist then better to have followed all the proper rituals so you don’t anger them. If they don’t then all you’ve done is waste some time and a few goats and what the hell, you probably didn’t have anything better to do anyway.”
Keola shook her head again. “You’re wrong,” she said quietly. “You remember your ‘Odyssey’ don’t you. I know you studied it as we all did. Do you remember why Poseidon punished Odysseus?”
Oresta’s jaw tightened. “No, I don’t remember after all these years,” she lied. “I’m sure I was giggling in the back with Ortigya as usual and not paying the least attention to that old cow Theta as she droned endlessly on.”
“Poseidon punished Odysseus for his pride,” Keola said, her penetrating gaze fixed on the blonde. “There has to be something greater than us in this universe, Oresta. It’s not possible that we are the ‘be all and end all’ of existence. How pathetic that would be. That this weak flesh and limited mind of ours is all there is. And how terrible would our arrogance become if it were so.” The Amazon hesitated, her expressive face a mask of introspection. Oresta watched spellbound, suddenly anxious to hear every word. “”I know I struggle with pride. Like Odysseus as he stood surrounded by the flames of Troy, a terror of blood and death produced by the power of his intelligence and will, I feel the, the…”she searched for the right word, “the exhileration, of my own will.” Her intense amber eyes again fixed on the blonde. “Sometimes I truly believe I could cause the mountains to tremble and the seas to boil, if I desired it. But I can’t. It’s my pride that leads me astray. Artemis exists, Oresta. The gods rule over us because some power must. There must be something in this world to tame our arrogance and remind us that in the end we are only humble humans, born in pain and blood, our only certain destiny that one day we will turn to dust.” Keola looked again at the graffitti on the temple wall. “To mock the gods is to hold oneself up as a god. The long plunge to earth for the person who puts herself at such a height will certainly be inevitable and fatal. As is it will be for any who follow her.”
The words left Oresta speechless. Certainly if anyone else had uttered such a speech she would have laughed her most cynical, sarcastic laugh, until the tears came and her side ached. But as she looked into Keola’s brown orbs nothing seemed in the least amusing. She could see in those deep beautiful eyes mountains crumbling and oceans whipped to a violent frenzy. She felt such a strange mixture of contrary emotions that it left her helpless to respond. Attraction, repulsion, fascination, a tingle of apprehension, fear almost, and yet also desire. Not physical desire. Sex had long ago lost its magic. She had known it in all its forms and it had left her empty. Her desire went much deeper. How can you explain the longing to know another human being completely. To know their every thought and emotion. To leave behind the solitude of normal existence and merge oneself into the life of another. As yet the blonde could not have put words to her feelings, they were still in too much of a boil. But she knew that this young Amazon courier, this letter carrier who was the most impressive athlete and warrior she had ever seen, male or female, who was greeted on a first name basis by an important elder of the People, who was fawned over by an ex-slave like she was a royal personage, was the first person she had met in all her travels that she could not ride away from. There was something extraordinary, mysterious, even mystical, in the aura that surrounded Keola of Kalvia, and Oresta of Farsala wanted nothing more than to be close to her and breath it in, deeply.
Oresta came to a corner and stopped. She put out an arm to hold Keola back and cautiously peeked down the narrow street. It was empty. Not even a stray dog could be seen poking through one of the piles of garbage that clogged the deep rut that ran down the middle of the lane. The single story homes crowded together on either side were weathered and graffiti covered, even more than the Amazon Ambassadors neighborhood.
“Take a look,” the blonde said, pulling her head back. “Third door on the left,” she whispered in Keola’s ear as the Amazon peered around the corner.
“So you think this man Terzium saw works with the Roman Ambassador?” Keola asked.
“With, no. For, yes.” Oresta answered
The blonde looked around considering.
“All right, lady acrobat, let’s get you up on that roof across the street,” she instructed. “Hide on the other side of the crown and watch. Tell me what you see.”
Keola looked at Oresta and smiled. The blonde seemed to instinctively know what she wanted. Whatever they could find out about Artemisia’s activities it was important that no one know she was interested. The advantage of surprise must not be lost. The Ambassador must continue to believe her secrets were her own. The feeling in Keola’s chest deepened as she looked into Oresta’s clear blue eyes. As much as she loved Sara there was so much she could never share with her lifelong friend and lover, so many deep thoughts in her active mind that Sara could never grasp or appreciate. Now, in front of her, was a person who understood the situation without a word being spoken and was thinking along with her, perhaps even ahead of her. Without hesitation now she put up her hand and messaged briefly the blonde’s neck with unapologetic affection. Then she winked and with a bound and a powerful spring she leapt up at the corner of the roof and holding on the edge in her iron grip, her chest already over the lip from her jump, she quickly wriggled herself the rest of the way up till she could bounce to her feet and head over the crown. With a wave she disappeared, lying down on the hot red terra cotta tiles to observe. Oresta shook her head with a snort of disbelief.
“Hey!! Roman scum!!” Oresta yelled in her deepest voice, trying to sound male, as she pounded violently on the door with the hilt of her sword. “The only culture you barbarians have you stole form us!! You’ll never be anything but bitches sniffing our ass!!”
She took off in a sprint down the street and turned the corner without looking back. Just as she disappeared the door flew open. A man stepped out in the lane, a short wide sword in his hand. He looked up and down the empty street. Keola, from her hiding place above, noted that his expression was calm and wary, not angry. He wore a loose grey sleeveless wool shirt, a kilt wrapped around his waist, leather boots laced high up the calf. He was beardless, his hair cropped very short. Still, grey could be seen around his ears. He was middle aged, but the stout arms, thick chest and muscular legs spoke of a powerful man. Keola took careful note of his left arm. It was marked on the biceps with the symbol Oresta had drawn in the dirt and two others beside it. The marks were not tattoo’s. They were faded red scars against his deeply tanned skin. The symbols had been burned into his flesh. After a few moments another man stepped out into the street beside the first. The Amazon recognized the Roman Ambassador Oresta had pointed out walking beside Artemisia in the Great Procession two days before. They conversed in a barbarian tongue. The Ambassador went back into his house. The other man went down the street to the nearest corner and looked about, then back the other way and again looked. Finally he returned to the Ambassador’s door and, after a last survey of the situation, disappeared inside.
Keola waited patiently for a candle mark, to be sure she was not caught in a roman ruse, then quickly jumped down from the roof and followed Oresta’s path around the corner. Hurrying down the street she turned the next corner to find the blonde leaning against the wall of a home, arms folded on her chest, squinting at the wall across the lane.
“I can’t quite tell,” she said, pointing at something on the opposite wall, “what does that say?”
Keola looked where the blonde indicated. Like all the walls this one was littered with graffiti, but where Oresta pointed the writing was so small it was impossible to distinguish the individual words. In spite of all the things Keola wanted to discuss at the moment she was caught up in the blonde’s question. What did it say? She took a step toward the wall, then another. She bent over a bit and squinted. Finally the tiny script came into focus. It said.
‘By Athena’s wisdom, don’t you have anything better to do with your valuable time than read stupid messages written by morons on a wall.’
“Uh, huh,” the Amazon grunted as she straightened. She turned to the blonde. Oresta shrugged non-chalantly.
“I know you like to read this stuff,” she said. “I didn’t want you to miss anything. You can never tell what might be important.”
Keola’s eyes narrowed. “Is it ever lonely at the top, being the worlds greatest smartass?”
“Sometimes,” Oresta answered. “But then I look down and see all the little smartasses trying to climb up and,” the corner of her mouth twitched up, “what the hell, I piss on ‘em. Which is a neat trick you can only do if you’re on top, it being very difficult to piss up.”
“So, are you done with your poor attempts at wit? Can I tell you what I saw?”
“Please Keola, tell me everything. I’m a veritable Pandora consumed with curiosity. Tell me, tell me, tell me.”
Keola shook her head sadly. But could not suppress a bemused snort. Quickly she described the man she had seen in minute detail, down to the color of his eyes and the slight hook of his nose. She drew her sword and with point etched the scar she had observed on his arm in the hard packed earth of the street. Oresta carefully erased the drawing almost as soon as it was finished with the toe of her boot.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s head back. We don’t want to be seen here.”
“You know who he is?”
“Yes, I’ll tell you as we walk.”
They left the crumbling old neighborhood the way they had come. People were beginning to emerge from their homes, stretching and yawning from after dinner naps, heading for the Agora to see the final race of the day. Friends and neighbors greeted each other and immediately began chattering excitedly about the prospects for a Pelops victory. Children ran up and down the narrow lanes calling after each other, squealing in high pitched childish voices. After working their way past the Acropolis Oresta led them off the larger streets and down narrow alleys barely wide enough for them to walk side by side. Except for an occasional dog or cat or goat to step over or around they were alone.
“The man you saw was a Legionaire of Rome.” Oresta explained. “He retired as a Centurion from the Tenth Legion. The ‘Fighting Tenth’ it’s called. One of the oldest and most honored Legions in Rome’s history.”
“A Centurion?” Keola carefully repeated the unfamiliar word.
“A Legion is raised from a certain precinct of Rome or a specific province of the countryside. Five thousand men make their mark on the enlistment scroll and join for sixteen years. The old veterans are mustered out with a sack full of sesterces to buy a farm or start a shop and find a wife to produce the next generation of ‘Tenth’ men. The Legion standards and its history are passed to the new recruits. They spend two years in harsh training before they are allowed to approach a battlefield. They’re divided into eighty man units called century’s, led by a Centurion. The Centurion’s from the old Legion stay on for the two years to train the new men and to find and train their replacements as Centurion. To be promoted to Centurion a man has to show himself as the smartest, toughest, strongest warrior in the century and also be someone his fellows respect and will follow. Some Centurions make the Legion their home and never retire. They stay till they’re killed, too mutilated to continue or the Legate, the Legion commander, forces them out because they’re too old to perform their duty’s. The upper officers, the Tribunes and Legate’s, are all from the patrician class, snotty rich boys putting in their time in the army until they’re old enough to go back to Rome and spend daddy’s money getting into politics. They all want to be Senator’s one day, or kill someone trying. A Centurion is a plebian. One of the ‘mob’ as the patricians call them. Centurion is the most important thing he’ll ever be. But they tell me Centurions are the real backbone of the Legion. The saying among the men is ‘the officers decide when, where and who to fight, the Centurions lead the Legion into battle and win the war’. The story is old Severus Paulinus, the most famous Roman general, who won the battle of Pyre a hundred years ago and conquered southern Italia, could recognize and call by name all two hundred Centurions in the four Legions he commanded, and recite their service records and battle honors, but he couldn’t remember the name of his own nephew who served as his chief of staff. That’s why he won they say. Because he knew who was important and who wasn’t.”
Keola, head bent toward Oresta, listening intently, nodded. “So why is this former Centurion in Athens do you think, instead of on his farm or in his shop?’
“A lot of Centurions, after retirement, have no taste left for a settled life. Some join mercenary company’s as officers, for the money and adventure. I learned most of what I’m telling you from Fabio Senta, an old Centurion of the Seventh who was killed with the rest on the steppe halfway to Chin. A rougher, crustier, more obscene person you’ll never meet. But he always looked out for everyone, including me, before himself. And you knew when things were tough you wanted him beside you. In fact he was beside…” Oresta hesitated. Her eyes darkened a moment. She cleared her throat. “Anyway, many ex-Centurions are hired as bodyguards by the Roman Senators. The more scars and battle honors they have the higher the price. The Senators parade around the Forum with them like their wives parade with their jewelry, to show how rich and important they are. It’s not all show though. Assassination is the patrician class’s favorite pastime after the chariot races. A Senator without bodyguards is a man too unimportant to kill. A fate worse than death to a Senator. And often the assassin is a Centurion from another Senator’s bodyguard. Titus Brutus is the richest Senator these days. He has ten Centurions around him wherever he goes. It’s quite a sight to see them pushing and shoving everyone aside so the great man can return home after a day in the Senate without having to speak to any of the mob in the street.”
“So this Centurion is the Ambassador’s bodyguard.”
Oresta suddenly stopped walking. Keola did as well. The blonde stared at the ground a long moment, deep in thought.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “It seems strange somehow.”
“A man like him is expensive,” Oresta speculated. “And I don’t know why Gaius Flavius needs a bodyguard. The Athenians are famous for observing the conventions of Ambassadors. Flavius could murder someone in the street and Pericles would only have him tied up and thrown on the first trireme headed west with a nasty note to the Senate about the quality of its representatives.”
“A personal enemy?” Keola suggested.
“Possible. But I haven’t heard anything. Gaius Flavius likes to gamble and drink at the symposiums around the city. If he has any enemies they are secret ones. And Athens has very few secrets. Drunken men find it impossible to keep their mouths shut.”
Keola put her hands on her hips in that posture Oresta found so strangely attractive.
“A man like this centurion is a weapon,” she said slowly. “If he’s not here as a shield then he’s here as a sword.”
Oresta snorted a bit derisively. But seeing the dark look on the Amazon’s face an uncomfortable feeling of vague apprehension moved over her.
“Assassination in a foreign capitol is serious business,” she said. “It can start wars. I don’t know of any reason Rome wants a war with the Athenian Empire”
The blonde suddenly, unconsciously bit her lip.
“You think…” she hesitated, almost unable to believe the suspicion that suddenly blossomed in her brain, “
…you think Artemisia is involved with something. That she is part of some plot.” Oresta thought she was past being surprised by anything, much less feeling shocked, but at that moment she felt genuine shock. She reached out and grasped Keola’s arm tightly. “Amazons don’t assassinate people, Keola. An elder of the Amazon nation would not contemplate such a thing. Why would you suspect for an instant that she would?”
Keola turned from Oresta and took a deep breath. Slowly, audibly she let it out. Suddenly she turned back, a slight smile on her face.
“Do you think it’s too late to see the last race?”
Oresta released the Amazon’s arm.
“Keola, what’s happening? What’s ….” the blonde stopped in mid-sentence, because Keola was already a dozen steps away down the long alley. The conversation was over. There was nothing to do but hurry and catch up.
No one was home when Keola and Oresta arrived at the Ambassadors house. There was no sign that Artimisia had ever returned since leaving in the morning. It was easy to guess that Tia had left to watch the championship race. Briefly they debated whether to hurry back to the Agora as well but quickly decided that the quiet house, theirs alone without any watching eyes or listening ears for the first time since they had arrived at it, was much preferable to the roar and jostling of the crowd. Oresta retrieved a crafter of dark attic wine from the cool storage room dug into the ground at the back of the house and joined Keola in the symposia. They shared a loaf of wheat bread and some figs and dates, each sprawled on a comfortable couch, an arm over the armrest, heads close together. Keola sipped the wine from her saucer shaped cup. Oresta gulped hers and poured another. The blonde talked more openly than she ever had before about her memories of the Amazon valley. Mostly she told funny, cynical stories about people, with that sly knowing smirk on her lips, then joined Keola in laughing at the punch line of her carefully constructed tales. Finally she lay her head back on the armrest looking up at the ceiling. The Amazon gazed intently at her beautiful relaxed face, more at peace than she had ever seen it. She reached out and carefully, tenderly brushed aside several strands of gold that had strayed in front of her eyes, letting the back of her hand caress a tan cheek. Their eyes met and a shiver ran through the Amazon. Her heart thumped so loud she was afraid the blonde could hear it. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, her face moved down, toward those deep, sparkling clear blue eyes, the red lips. Suddenly Oresta grasped Keola’s wrist. She turned her head away, but she brought the hand to her mouth and lightly kissed the palm. It was an eloquent wordless statement. Not rejection, just a plea, for patience, time. Keola understood perfectly. Which made the moment even more intimate. A new level of empathy, communication, had been reached. They both felt it. It was moving, exciting, soothing. Tension had become understanding. Oresta laced her fingers with Keola’s and let her hand rest on her chest. She looked up again at the ceiling. It was painted dark blue with little golden dots scattered thickly about. In the north corner was the sickle shape of a white quarter moon. A starry evening sky. Not very imaginative, or requiring much skill to create. And the paint was faded and flaking. An old, weary night.
“The scholars in Alexandria believe the stars are just far away suns,” Oresta observed.
Keola laid her head on her armrest and looked up.
“What do you believe?” she asked
The blonde considered the question a long time. “It doesn’t matter what I believe,” she said at last. “They are what they are. Perhaps one day we’ll understand them, perhaps not. But weather we do or don’t they’ll continue to sparkle. As they did long before we came and as they’ll do long after we’re gone.”
“Sara and I,” Keola said quietly, “spent many summer nights down at the bend of the Akelos’ river, on a low grassy hill that overlooked the bluff. We would swim in the late afternoon to escape the heat then…” she laughed happily at the memory, “then make love rolling around in the tall soft grass as the sun set over Mount Abor.” She took a deep breath. “I can still smell the fragrance of the grass, the beautiful bluebells that carpeted the hill. And I can smell Sara, the delicate sweat that came when she was excited. And taste of her, the taste of her mouth, the sweet wetness of her pussy when she reached climax. When we were too exhausted to continue we would lie with our heads together and look up at the stars. Sara believed each star was the soul of an Amazon. That one day she and I would join our sisters in the firmament watching over our people. I always laughed and said there were far too many stars for that to be true. That all the Amazons who had ever lived and died would not take up one small part of the sky. I thought the stars were just little pinpricks in the curtain of the night. That the eternal light of the gods shone behind the gauze and we could see the light through the tiny holes. But one night, soon after Sara died, I was sitting on our hill, weeping out the bitter bile of a broken heart, when I saw low on the horizon a star I had never seen. It sparkles red, red like Sara’s hair. I watched it all night, never sleeping. I came back the next night and it was still there but it had moved. It was higher in the sky. All summer and most of the fall I came back to our hill and the star would move.” Keola looked over at Oresta, face, eyes, bright. “It’s Sara. I know it is. All her life she was like that. Never able to sit still. She was right all along.”
The blonde said nothing, her silence testimony enough of her opinion on the matter. Keola looked up again at the painted sky. The light faded from her face.
“Everyone has to believe in something, Oresta,” she said finally in a near whisper. “They have to. Life would be unbearable chaos without something to hold on to. I…” her jaw tightened. “I don’t know why we can’t hold on to something comforting. Everything in life doesn’t have to be painful.”
Oresta looked at Keola in surprise. It was the most despairing comment she had ever heard from the Amazon.
A sudden roar startled them from their reverie. They hurried off the couches and out into the courtyard to listen. The sound pulsated around them, echoing off the walls and down the narrow streets. A living, breathing presence, almost as loud as when they were on the roof of the Philodon. Suddenly the octave changed, the roar became thin and high, a piercing scream that lasted only seconds before lowering again to a dull roar that finally faded away.
“I’ve heard that before,” Oresta said, the corner of her mouth edging up. “Pelops won.”
She turned to Keola and was startled by the look in her eyes.
“That must be the loudest sound there is,” the Amazon said slowly, a strange husk in her voice. “Louder than the high winter winds through the trees of Mount Abor. Louder even than the pounding of the surf on the cliffs of Amphipolis. It’s incredible that nothing in nature can make such a sound, only humans.” Her countenance darkened as she looked at Oresta. “They say people really can’t make such a noise. That it’s the voices of the furies you’re hearing. That if you truly listen you can hear them ‘speak’.”
Oresta shrugged. “I hear only the bellowing of madmen afraid of losing their bets,” she said. “Do the furies speak to you?”
“Yes,” Keola answered simply, earnestly.
Oresta’s eyebrow edged up along with the corner of her mouth. “What do they say?”
The Amazon started to speak, then a queer smile came to her face.
“It’s a private communication.”
The friends were sitting on a bench against the east wall of the courtyard enjoying the sunset, listening to the buzzing of the crowds walking past the door, sometimes whooping and hollering in their happy excitement, when Tia entered. Her face was still flushed with emotion.
“So, Tia, tell us everything,” Keola smiled.
“Oh, Mistress Keola, you didn’t go see the race?!” What a sight it was! What a sight!”
“Pelops won I assume,” Oresta said.
“Yes, Lady. The great Pelops won again,” Tia answered, without looking at the blonde, her attention fixed on the Amazon as always. “The course was so crowded the only place I could find was standing on a bench outside the Pharides house with some of the basket girls by the Dyplon Gate.”
“Basket girls?” Keola asked.
Oresta snorted. “The whores of the Pharides house are called basket girls because they weave baskets to sell when they aren’t busy with a customer,” she explained.
“Yes,” Tia said, ignoring Oresta, anxious to get on with her story. “I couldn’t see Charon’s corner in the Agora from the Pharides house. We didn’t know what was happening until the first two chariots came racing back onto the Panathenic Way. It was so exciting. The Theban Kritus was first with his team of white horses. Pelops was right behind with his beautiful blacks. I groaned to see it. How could he possibly win. He started to pull out wide, like he was going to pass on the outside. But it was a trap! When Kritus edged over to cut him off Pelops boom!” Tia clapped her palms together, “went back inside and was pulled halfway up beside him before he knew what happened. After that it was a sprint to the finish. Pelops won by a good length of a horses head. I could see it from where I stood. Somebody told me walking home that they could hear Kritus screaming at the officials that he crossed the line first but I saw it,” her chest puffed up with home city pride, “the great Pelops won. The greatest driver that ever lived.”
“I’m sorry we missed such a spectacle,” Keola lied pleasantly.
“Yes, Mistress, it was something I’ll always remember. Athena’s favor was shone us again today.” Tia bowed slightly toward the Amazon, “May I get you something to eat before we lose the light?”
“No, we’re fine, we ate already.”
“Then I think I’ll turn some wool for My Lady and then go to bed.”
“Good night, Tia.”
“Good night, Mistress,” Tia answered as she disappeared into her room.
Oresta bit her lip, a brief sour expression crossing her face. Once again a lowly ex slave had totally ignored her while focusing all her attention on ‘mistress’ Keola, a letter carrier who was obviously her junior. It had crossed the threshold from amusing and curious to rude. The blonde vowed that the next time she was alone with Tia there would be an explanation or else.
The Next Chapters will be sent the last week of May.
Return to The Bard's Corner