"I thank RenPic and all the initials in NZ for letting me use Xena and Gabrielle in this story. Ive used our sheroes rather much lately so this story will give them a break and not demand too much of them. Im sure LL and ROC could use the break as well. Especially LL. Welcome to the world little Julius.
There is very little violence in this story and some sex between Xena and Gabrielle. I apologize to those who may find the sex in this story gratuitous but its my story and I can be gratuitous if I want too.
I always want feedback people. I love hearing from my friends and readers and look forward to your comments good or bad. Its just nice knowing you are out there. I can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
So, without further disclaiming, I give you my belated Christmas present to the Xenaverse. Its not "A Christmas Carol" but I hope you enjoy and find it an uplifting experience.
For those coming to our story in the middle Keola is a scout in Princess Ephinys Amazon cavalry, badly wounded in the Battle of Zama Ridge. Some weeks after the battle she has been invited to Queen Gabrielles Royal Residence for dinner. An invitation that a lowly scout from the little village of Kalvia finds quite inexplicable. For those interested in Keolas experiences in the battle refer to Ashes on the Wind. For the rest I present.KEOLAS STORY
By Jim Kuntz
There was a light rap of knuckles on a wooden door.
"Yes?" Gabrielle called.
The door opened halfway and a helmeted head appeared.
"Keola of Kalvia is here my Queen," the guard said.
"Wonderful," the Bard replied with a smile. "Show her in."
Gabrielle quickly rolled up the scroll she was reading and laid it on the small table beside her chair. She got up and approached the door just as it opened to reveal Keola in the entrance. The young Amazon, only nineteen, was of middle height, with dark auburn, almost black, hair pulled back from her high, intelligent forehead and brushed down carefully around her shoulders. Her eyebrows were thick and black; her broad strong nose hovered over a mouth with thin lips and perfect white teeth. The skin was tan and unmarked. The body trim, sturdy, powerful. A natural athlete.
She was wearing the best clothes she could borrow from her friends; a tan wool cloak, trimmed in beads, thrown around her shoulders against the late fall chill, a blue cotton tunic and green woolen knee length skirt held by an embroidered leather belt.
Gabrielle took all this in with a glance but there were two things that fixed her attention. First were Keola's lively brown eyes. They sparkled with a pleasing, youthful arrogance. Not threatening or boastful but a complete confidence that she could handle whatever came her way without anyones help. Second was the wooden crutch under her left arm and below the bottom of her skirt the white cloth bandage carefully wrapped and pinned around the stump of her left leg where it ended three inches below the knee.
"Welcome Keola, welcome," the Bard said extending her hand and flashing that smile that instantly made people her friend.
Keola took the hand and bowed.
"Thank you for inviting me, my Queen," she answered in her most serious formal voice, keenly aware she had probably already made a dozen grievous errors in manners as she addressed the Queen in her private quarters.
"Please come in and join us," Gabrielle said as she moved around beside the young Amazon and took her arm. "Youre a little early. The Princess hasnt returned yet with dinner from the food hut."
Keola reddened. The Bard could feel the tension in her guests arm.
"I apologize, my Queen," the young Amazon grimaced. "I must seem so rude. I can wait outside till things are ready."
"I dont think so," she said patting the scouts arm. "Once youre in our little lair here theres no escape. You have to stay till dinner is finished like it or not."
The Bard led her guest through the front sitting room into the family dinning area. The long polished oak dinning table was set at one end with five place settings. Keola tensed at the sight. She had been assuming that she had been invited, along with many other warriors, to some sort of formal state occasion, not such an intimate gathering. The mystery of her presence here with the royal family deepened. At the other end of the table Herodotus and Xena sat across from each other, both of them concentrating fiercely on a strange square checkered board with wooden figures scattered haphazardly about it. Gabrielle stopped and cleared her throat reproachfully. Xena looked up, then stood up with a slight smile.
"Hello Keola, welcome," she said with a friendly nod.
Herodotus turned in his chair.
"Keola, what a pleasure it is to see you again," he said, his eyes obviously pleased with the sight they beheld. "You look wonderful. A beautiful young woman indeed." His face became serious. "Certainly better than the last time we saw each other. What sad days those were."
"Thank you, sir," Keola smiled. The Amazons face then clouded as well. "Yes, those were hard days," she said. " Im surprised you remember me, sir. There were so many of us. But I want to thank you for the kindness that you showed all the other warriors and me. You made things much more bearable for "
Herodotus interrupted with a wave of his hand and a shake of his head.
"I did nothing," he said. "It was the courage of you and your friends that made those days bearable for me. And how could I forget the young warrior who only two days before had gone through such agony yet on the trip to Kalvia she held a badly injured friend in her arms and sang and laughed and did everything possible to lift her spirits. Anything I did pales in comparison to the sacrifices you made. I count myself privileged to have been there to be of some small help."
"Keola, sit," the Bard said, indicating the chair next to her father with a gesture of her hand. "Ill explain this game my rather rude family is so engrossed in while we wait for the food."
Xena narrowed her eyes at her mate. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes back . Then they shared a small smile.
Herodotus helped the Amazon ease into a chair while Gabrielle took the crutch and leaned it against the wall. Keola felt herself blush at all this attention from people she should have been attending. Why am I here? I wish the Princess were here. At least I know her a little and could ask her whats going on without feeling like a complete fool.
The old farmer resumed his seat and his concentration. Xena sat as well. Gabrielle stood behind Keola with her hands on her shoulders. The scout could not help noticing the gentle, soothing quality of the Queens touch. The friendly, enveloping concern was unmistakable. Keola felt herself relaxing in spite of herself.
"The game is called chess," Gabrielle said. "The Warleader brought it back from our trip to India a few years ago. Its a wargame of course," the Bard chuckled. "What else would the Great Lion bring back."
Xenas eyes shifted from the board to her mate and she crinkled her nose dismissively.
"The object is to capture your opponents king," the Bard continued. "Although in our house weve made a slight modification and call the king the queen and the queen king." Gabrielle laughed. "It just seemed appropriate considering our situation here."
Keola laughed too although she was not really sure she understood the joke.
"Ive played the Warleader often but so far Ive only won once." Gabrielle leaned down closer to the scouts ear. "I made sure our daughter Sula was in the room and whispered in her ear to sit in her moms lap as much as possible. You should have seen the Lions face when I said checkmate. Thats what you say when you capture the Queen and win the game." The Bard began to giggle. "I only wish an artist had been here to capture that moment forever."
"Some people have no conscious about cheating," Xena rumbled without breaking her concentration on the board.
"It was not cheating," Gabrielle protested, wounded innocence in her voice. "It was clever strategy." She squeezed Keolas shoulders. "The Warleader only appreciates clever strategy when its her own. If someone else uses it its cheating."
"Uh huh," the Lion grunted.
Gabrielle laughed again. "Anyway, now Xena will only play me after Sula is safely in bed. Unfortunately shes a fast learner."
A slight smile came to the Lions face. "Cheaters never prosper," she said without looking up.
"And some people could learn to lose more gracefully," Gabrielle grinned.
Herodotus hand hovered over one of the wooden figures on the board. After a moment he picked it up and moved it to another square. The look of concentration on the Warleaders face deepened.
"My father and mate have been playing almost every day now for some weeks," Gabrielle continued. "Xena always wins but Ive noticed that each game gets longer and more fiercely fought. The Lion hates to lose of course, but at least shes honest about it." The Bard leaned close again to Keolas ear. "My father on the other hand," she said in a loud stage whisper, "pretends he doesnt care about winning or losing but in his heart hes as wildly competitive as she is."
"Xena." Herodotus said.
"Im sorry I wasnt able to break Gabrielle of this habit of endlessly talking when she was a child. Now its too late Im afraid," he said without taking his eyes off the board.
"You tried," Xena replied. "Thats all any parent can do."
The Bard and scout looked at each other and laughed.
"Were back," Ephinys cheery voice came from the front room.
Sula quickly came marching into the eating area with a large straw basket filled with loaves of warm bread.
"I carried it all the way myself," Sula announced proudly as Gabrielle took the basket from her and placed it on the table.
"Very good, sweetheart," the Bard cooed as she tenderly stroked her daughters ebony cheek.
Ephiny and three attendants from the food hut entered each carrying a large earthenware bowl of food. Steaming slices of mutton. Apples. Carrots. A freshly made pumpkin pie. A jug of wine.
Keola popped out of her chair when she spotted Ephiny and made a slight, formal bow. She then tried to help put the bowls out on the table. The Amazon Princess put her hand on the scouts shoulder.
"Keola sit down," she commanded. After the warrior sat she smiled a friendly, pleased smile. "Its good to see you. Im happy to see that youre bouncing around with your usual vigor."
"Thank you, Princess," the scout said. "Its nice to see you too. Im feeling well."
As Ephiny and Gabrielle helped the attendants arrange the dinner Sula ran to her Grandpa and tried to climb in his lap. Herodotus welcomed her with a big smooch on the cheek and rubbed his gray flecked beard on her smooth young skin, eliciting a squeal of delight as she threw her arms around his neck. After a good hug the old farmer whispered in his granddaughters ear and put her down. She immediately went to Xena and put her arms out as a sign she wanted to be picked up. The Lion eyed her daughter suspiciously for a moment then slowly reached down and gathered her up.
"I believe, Little Panther," she said as she rubbed her nose on Sulas, "your Grandpa is using you against me. What a cowardly thing for him to do, dont you think?"
The child put her arms around her mothers neck.
"Grandpa said I should distact you with a big kiss," she said with a giggle as she gave Xena a kiss.
"I think cowardly was a little harsh," Herodotus said, his eyes not leaving the board. "You told me yourself you patterned your tactics at the Zama Ridge after Hannibals battle at Cannae. I was just using a proven strategy. I would have thought a great general like you would be impressed."
"Apparently the cliché is true," the Lion rumbled. "Like father, like daughter. You should both be ashamed."
Herodotus glanced up. "Im only ashamed of losing, Xena. And today Im not. Mate in three moves."
A slight smirk came to the Warrior Princess lips.
"Im not ready for the world to end, old man," she said. "Well see."
"Well see later," the Bard interrupted decisively. "Its time to eat and our guest came here for dinner, not to listen to you two hector each other. Lets take our places shall we."
As the attendants politely bowed and left Herodotus arose and offered his arm to Keola and helped her move several chairs down to her setting. Xena went to her place and sat with with her daughter. As usual with ancient families Sula had no separate place at table but sat in her mothers lap and ate from her plate. When she reached age five or six and took on greater responsibilities around the house she would be honored with a place of her own. Gabrielle and Ephiny took their seats and then Herodotus took his place. Seeing the old farmer sit Keolas nervousness and mystification grew. She had been invited, alone, to an intimate family dinner. If it was a state occasion Gabrielle would have sat at the place of honor with Ephiny and Xena on her left and right. Now Herodotus, patriarch of the family, sat at the head of the table with his daughters on either side of him. Only trusted friends were invited to share the table of a Greek familys private dinners.
Why am I here? Keola sat up as straight as her backbone would allow, her hands folded in her lap, afraid to touch anything till someone gave her permission. Why would the Queen have any interest in a crippled warrior from Kalvia? What stupid thing have I done that I cant remember?
Herodotus looked down the table to Keola.
"Would our honored guest please begin," he said with a dignified nod.
The Scout let out a little breath.
"Thank you for inviting me to your home. I am honored beyond words," she said with a wane smile.
She filled her plate with food while Ephiny poured her a cup of wine. When she was done everyone joined in filling their plates. After a few moments of general chatting the old farmer cleared his throat.
"Ive been reading an interesting scroll by a young thinker named Phides of Athens," he announced rather grandly, "in which he points out the many advantages of democracy in achieving good government and social stability as opposed to monarchy or dictatorship. His arguments seemed quite sound to me."
The topic of discussion for dinner having been set the debate began immediately. Keola sat back, eating slowly and listening with growing wonder. The debaters each argued their positions with passion and clarity, quoting from memory long passages from different writers and philosophers on the subject while adding their own thoughts and opinions. The young Scout found it all incredibly stimulating, and intimidating. All Amazons were taught reading and writing and some basic math. But scrolls of learning were incredibly expensive and the villages of the Amazon valley were fortunate if they had a small library of basic works in history and philosophy and general useful knowledge about farming and husbandry. And only those with a real interest took the time to read them. Time spent reading was a luxury most hardworking Amazons could not afford. Now the young warrior listened in awe as these four people quoted from the works of authors she had never heard of much less read.
As she listened it became quickly apparent that Xena and Ephiny had little trust that something as important as government should be decided by so unruly and untidy a method as voting. Good government came from strong decisive leaders making clear judgments unencumbered by the whims of an uninformed, unthinking mob. Herodotus and Gabrielle felt the opposite, arguing forcefully for the participation of as many citizens of a state as possible in the affairs of government. The more people that were included the more devoted to the state they would be and thus the stronger and more stable the society.
Keola followed the debate in rapt attention. But as it went on her eyes settled on the Warleader. With growing fascination she watched as Xena participated in the discussion. The Lions blue eyes were fiery and alert, completely focused on the subject and the other debaters as she argued. But her hands seemed strangely detached from her otherwise strong, muscular intimidating body. They moved unceasingly over Sulas small form, rubbing, massaging, caressing, all with gentle tenderness and obvious love. It was hard for the young scout to reconcile the hard, demanding, uncompromising warrior and leader she admired, and feared, with those gentle hands. She smiled to herself as she watched Sula finish eating and lay back against her mother, drifting off to sleep as her body seemed to melt into the Warleaders. It was as if they became one, completely, contentedly absorbed into each other.
"Keola," Herodotus said.
The Amazon snapped her attention to the old farmer with a slight start.
"Our guest has not expressed an opinion about our subject tonight," he continued. "What do you think, young warrior?"
"Well, uh," Keola said hesitantly.
Gabrielle frowned. She started to speak, to take the scout off the hook. She did not want her guest embarrassed.
"I think its a complicated question," Keola continued before the bard could speak. "On a battlefield I dont want anything to do with democracy." She smiled. "If we would have taken a vote just before the Carthaginians attacked us at the Zama ridge it would have been nearly unanimous to run like Tartarus. Thats how I would have voted." Everyone at the table joined her smile. "An army needs a leader it trusts completely and that leader must do the thinking for everyone. I know I never doubted we would win because I knew the Great Lion was smarter and tougher than anyone the enemy had. I was grateful she was doing all the thinking."
Keola paused and bit her lip for a moment concentrating.
"But but I think when it comes to just running things in everyday life I like the idea of everyone having a say in things. I mean, I think people should be held responsible for what they do. But to hold them responsible you also have to give them some control over what happens to them. Otherwise no one can be held accountable can they? I know the Queen has done a lot giving the Royal Council more power. I like that. I have a friend that wants to be elected to the Council from Kalvia someday. She likes talking all this politics stuff. Its fun to see how excited she gets."
The scout took a breath and realized it seemed like she had been talking a long time. She smiled an embarrassed, nervous smile.
"Anyway," she said after clearing her throat, "thats what I think."
A broad grin slowly spread across Herodotus face. He looked at Xena and gently squeezed her bicep.
"Give it up, woman," he said. "The future is with me. Youre living in the past."
The Lion looked back with narrow eyes, then her gaze shifted to Keola.
The Amazon swallowed, but then the corner of Xenas mouth curled up and she winked. Keola could not help a sigh of relief.
"I think," Gabrielle said, standing, "it is time for a tired little girl to go to bed." She looked at Keola. "If youll excuse us well be right back."
"Of course, my Queen," the scout replied with a nod.
The Bard and Xena disappeared into the bedroom, Sula snug in the Lions arms. When they were gone Keola turned to Ephiny.
"Shes a beautiful little girl, Princess." she said. "Everyone in Kalvia has been gossiping about the Queen and the Lion adopting her. It was so sad though, the little thing losing both parents in the war."
"Yes," Ephiny sighed. "It was very sad. And very hard on us all. Sula was so grief stricken and frightened and unhappy the first few weeks here. She didnt sleep, didnt eat, cried all the time, was wetting the bed when she did sleep out of total exhaustion." She looked at Herodotus. "We were all worried to death." The old man nodded gravely. "But Gabrielle and Xena were never more than ten feet from that girl the whole time. They hugged her and squeezed her and reassured her and stayed up all night with her. They willed her back from the Tartarus she was in." Ephiny smiled." It was frustrating sometimes. I thought I might have to knock one of them out so I could have my turn holding her." The old farmer chuckled while Keola grinned. "Finally about three weeks ago she started coming out of it. Thank goodness children are so tough. Shes really been blossoming back to her old self. Shes so naturally bright and energetic and full of love and fun. Shes a pleasure to have around. And theres something about her. You feel it when youve been with her awhile. That she could be something truly special."
Herodotus nodded. "Yes, I feel it too."
"And something rather magical has happened." Ephiny continued. "I think for just the second time in her life our Warleader has truly lost her heart. She adores that child. I dont think shes ever been as contented as she is right now. Theyre both so happy its kind of," Ephiny laughed, "annoying."
Herodotus and Keola joined the Princess laugh.
Xena and Gabrielle returned to their seats. The Bard smiled.
"Everyones laughing. Im sure its at our expense," she said.
"Of course." Ephiny replied.
The Bard looked at her mate. "Somewhere we lost their respect didnt we?"
"Speak for yourself," the Lion grinned. "I havent lost anything."
Gabrielle straightened her chair and leaned over, elbows on the table so she could see the young scout.
"I think its time we discussed why we invited Keola to dinner tonight," she said, eyes fixed on her guest.
The Amazon took a breath and pulled herself up erect, brown eyes serious and alert.
"We invited you, warrior," the Lion began, "to ask a favor."
The scout nodded. Favor, what favors have I to give. I dont even own the clothes Im wearing.
"When I was in Chin years ago," Xena said. "I saw warriors like you, who had lost a leg below the knee. But Chin woodworkers had fashioned them a wooden substitute for the part of the leg that was missing. Those warriors had thrown away their crutches. They were moving and walking as if they had two good legs."
Keola took a surprised breath at even the hope of such a thing.
"Unfortunately," the Warrior Princess continued. "I was young and stupid and didnt pay attention as I should have. I didnt investigate how this wonder was done. How the wooden leg was securely attached to the real leg and how it was shaped and cushioned where the flesh and wood met. We have eight other warriors just like you in the Nation, Keola. The Queen and I want all of you walking again." Xena looked at her father-in-law. "Herodotus is one of the cleverest people I know and a great tinkerer for solving problems like this. He would like to see if he couldnt figure out how to match those inventors in Chin and make you a leg that works." The Lion looked back at Keola with serious blue eyes. "What we hope is that you will agree to go to Potadia with him in the next few days and spend the winter so he can experiment on you. If he can solve this problem hell come back here after spring planting and make a new leg for all the others who need one." A bit of a smile crossed the Lions face. "I have a lot of confidence in this old man. I think he can do it. I hope youll agree to go."
Keola looked around the table at all the serious, intense eyes watching her. A smile slowly spread across her face till all the straight white teeth showed. She shrugged.
"Of course Ill go," she said. "Im sick of that stupid crutch. Ill do anything to be able to throw it away."
Everyone at the table took a breath and smiled. Princess Ephiny looked at Herodotus and Xena and gave them an I told you so wink. The old farmers face became serious.
"Keola," he said. "May Xena and I take a look at your leg? Id like to hear her memories again and her opinion on how best to proceed."
The Amazon bit her lip and shifted uncomfortably. "Sure," she said as her cheeks took a red tinge, "if it will help."
The man and woman came around the table and knelt in front of Keola as she turned her chair around. Xena carefully unwrapped the leg to reveal the stump. A white vale of scar tissue had grown over the raw wound and rounded it off. But the surgery was still too fresh for the skin to have thickened or callused.
The Lion lightly touched the scarred flesh.
"Can you feel that?" she asked.
Keola said no with a slight shake of her head. The red in her cheeks deepened. Suddenly soothing hands were messaging her neck and shoulders. For a few moments Herodotus and Xena talked quietly as they examined the Amazons injury, discussing possible solutions. Finally Gabrielle leaned close to Keolas ear and whispered. She laughed. The old farmer and the Lion exchanged a glance then went on talking. The Bard leaned close again and Keola snickered louder.
Herodotus looked at Xena. "She must be laughing at you," he said. "My daughter has too much respect for her elders and her father to make fun of me."
The Lions eyes narrowed.
"Im her elder too," she said," and her mate. She knows better than to make fun of me. I know every ticklish spot on her body. She knows shell suffer. Besides," the edge of Xenas mouth curled up, "youre so much easier to make fun of."
"Oh," Herodotus said suspiciously. "How so?"
"Look at you," the Lion said. "Youre old and wrinkled and the only man in thirty leagues. I can think of a dozen jokes right now," Xena glanced up at Gabrielle with a smile in her eyes, "and I dont even have a sense of humor."
"Uh huh," Herodotus rumbled. "Well daughter, dont tell us any of the jokes. Theres no need to confirm the obvious."
Gabrielle, Ephiny and Keola enjoyed a good laugh while Xena and Herodotus smiled slyly at each other. They finished their examination and Xena expertly rewrapped the leg. They spent a few more candlemarks discussing the trip and making plans. By then it was getting late and the candles in the room were burning low. The Queen and Warleader escorted Keola and Ephiny to the door of their quarters. The Scout was to stay with the Princess for the next couple of days till it was time to leave. After the good-byes the two Amazons walked through the chill night to Ephinys hut.
"That was so incredible," Keola said. "Eating dinner with the Queen and the Great Lion and their father. I never thought anything like that would ever happen to me."
Ephiny smiled and nodded. The Scout looked at the Princess, a vague appearance of surprise in her face.
"But I have to say this, and I hope it doesnt sound disrespectful or anything, Princess," she said." But I really liked Gabrielle and Xena."
The Amazon Princess put her hand on Keolas shoulder.
"So do I, warrior," she said. "So do I."
Herodotus was standing by the front of his wagon. He warmly shook Princess
Ephinys arm and invited her to visit an old Potadia farmer any time she wanted,
especially in the fall during harvest he winked. She laughed and said she hoped she could
come and visit, but it would not be in the fall. He took Xenas hand in his and
squeezed it tight for a long moment as he gazed into pale blue eyes. The Lion nodded once.
"Well be there in the spring," she said, a slight thickness in her voice. She smiled. "Dont feel you have to save any work for us."
The man smiled back.
"Therell be plenty of work, woman. Youll get your fair share," he said. "It builds character. You could use some."
He put his other hand over hers and squeezed hard.
He turned to Gabrielle and gathered her up in his arms. They held each other tightly a long time, the Bards face buried in her fathers chest. Finally he stroked her fine redblonde hair and they reluctantly pulled apart.
"Ill see you in the spring, daughter," he whispered as he caressed her cheek.
Gabrielles emerald eyes shimmered through a veil of water. "Yes, the spring."
As the old man picked up his granddaughter and snuggled her cheek and tickled her small ribs the Bard went to the back of the wagon where Keola had just tied her horse Luka and was waiting patiently for the Royal Family to say their good-byes. She purposely kept her back between Herodotus and the young Amazon as she reached in a pocket on her green skirt and pulled out a small brown pouch. Keola could hear the jingle of coins coming from the leather container. Gabrielle handed it to the Scout, who looked at her questioningly.
"Put this in a safe place," Gabrielle whispered. "Its money I owe daddy but if I try to give it to him now there will just be a scene and well fight about it. Give it to him when you reach the farm. Tell him " the Bards throat tightened and her face clouded with emotion.
Keola put the pouch in the pocket of the fleece coat Ephiny had given her.
"Ill tell him," she said quietly, "that the Queen loves her father very much."
The Bard blew air out of her cheeks and swallowed. "Yes," she nodded. "Yes, tell him that."
After a moment her eyes brightened and fixed on Keola.
"And tell my mom and sister Lila I love them. I think youll like them, warrior. Theyre nice people," she said. "And when I see you in the spring I dont want to see that crutch under your arm anymore."
The Scout smiled.
"Ill do my best to obey the Queens orders," she said.
The Bard gave her a hug, then Xena and Ephiny shook her arm and with a powerful spring off her one leg she was up on the wagon seat beside Herodotus and he chucked the reins and they were started on the four day journey to the Potadia valley.
After two days of moderate weather the third day grew progressively colder. A steady north west wind brought in low scudding clouds that promised rain, and maybe snow, after sunset. Herodotus looked at his passenger.
"We wont camp tonight," he said. "Well stop in Sirrus and get a room. The Inn has a decent restaurant. I stopped there once before."
"You dont have to stop on my account, sir," Keola said as she pulled her wool cap down over her ears. "Im fine."
The old man chuckled.
"Yes, well Im not," he said. "This wind bites old bones like mine. I hate being cold. Well stop."
"Okay, sir," Keola smiled.
Sirrus was a medium sized village, well kept and prosperous. Herodotus pulled his wagon up in front of the Inn as the sun was setting.
"Ill check for a room," he said as he climbed down with a grunt and crackle of cold joints. In a few moments he was back.
"Got the last one," he said, looking up at the Amazon. "Well stable the horses and then order a good dinner." A slight smile crossed his face. "After being cold the thing I hate most is my own cooking."
Keola jumped down and helped the old farmer get Luka and the matched draft horses comfortably settled in the well kept stable next to the Inn. As they passed the wagon on the way to the front door of the establishment the Amazon reached in the back and pulled out her sheathed sword and quickly had it cinched by its strap onto her back in usual Amazon fashion. Herodotus frowned but said nothing. He had quickly learned in his time in the Amazon valley that no one told a warrior when or where she should take her weapon except the Queen, Princess or Warleader and he was none of them.
The Inn was warm if a little smoky. A large fire crackled in the hearth on the far wall, a small boy turning a great shoat pig on a spit over it. Kettles of thick vegetable soup bubbled on bricks set close to the fire. Short, stout loaves of wheat bread were piled on a table beside the boy. The large room had a dozen square tables scattered about it, and in one corner two big wine kegs set on thick sturdy legs. Keola took a deep breath and enjoyed the roasted pork smell mixed with the smoke.
A short, gray-haired woman in a greasy apron came up and led them to one of the only empty tables left. As they made their way to it Herodotus noticed that every face in the room was turned toward them, or more accurately, toward the young amazon with only one leg showing below her calf length wool skirt, crutch under her arm and sword on her back. He ordered two cups of wine to go with the pork, soup and bread as they sat. The woman returned shortly with the food and drink, though to the old mans growing annoyance most of the people in the room continued to stare at Keola. As she set out the order on the table the waitress glanced several times at the Scout. Finally she straightened and summoned her courage.
"Uh, young miss," she said. "I dont mean to be nosy or rude but are you Amazon?"
"Yes maam," Keola nodded with a slight smile.
"Yes, well," the woman continued while wiping her hands nervously on her apron, "would you have been at the great battle at the Zama Ridge weve been hearing about? About how you Amazons drove back the Carthaginians. If Im not being too nosy I mean."
Herodotus noted the room was silent, everyone listening intently to the conversation at his table.
"I was there," the Scout said quietly, "but we didnt do it alone. Our ally the great King Odyseus and his Ithacans fought with us."
"Yes, but we heard you Amazons did most of the fighting?" the old woman persisted.
Keola answered with a modest, noncommittal shrug. The lines in the old womans face became softer, along with her black eyes.
"Is that where you lost your leg, young miss?" she asked.
Keola bit her lip, her eyes dark.
"I know Amazons who lost much more than me," she said in a low voice, "I was lucky."
The waitress sighed, her face sad. Impulsively she reached out and touched the Scouts shoulder.
"Youre the first Amazon warrior Ive ever seen," she said. "Weve heard lots of stories over the years, so many different tales who could tell what was true. But I want to say thank you, young miss. We Greeks fight a lot among ourselves but we dont need any foreigners in here giving orders. You and your people did all Greeks a great service chasing those Carthaginians back. I want you to know people appreciate what you did."
There was a general murmur of approval among the patrons and some them lightly tapped their tables to signal agreement with the womans statement. Keola gazed around in surprise and a red blush came high up in her cheeks. She looked at Herodotus hoping he would tell what she should do. He smiled broadly and shrugged.
"You did well, warrior," he said. "You deserve the thanks. Now wave at everyone and then lets eat. Im starved."
The Amazon raised her hand and made and embarrassed little wave. People nodded back and then the two hungry travelers tried to enjoy their dinner. But like wildfire word of an Amazon at the Inn, a veteran of the Zama Ridge, spread through the village and soon people came crowding into the building. Many, especially the women, came in just to stand against the wall and stare wordless for a few moments at this legendary being before leaving. But some were bold enough to walk up and offer an arm or pat the scout on the shoulder and say what a pleasure it was to meet a true Amazon warrior. A few even put a coin on the table as they left. Keola was too polite, and dumbfounded, by it all to turn anyone away. She gave up trying to eat. The always practical old farmer collected the dinars in a pocket to give the Amazon later.
As the evening wore on the excitement subsided and the room slowly cleared. As it did Keola noticed a tall skinny boy, a few years younger than herself she guessed, with a scruffy adolescent beard on his face and nervous, uncertain, flicking eyes that always darted away when she looked at him. But she knew he was watching her intently as he slouched against the wall by the doorway.
On the opposite side of the room Herodotus began to watch two men who sat at a table against the wall. Some invisible force seemed to surround them that repelled everything. The old waitress never went to their table, while people passing by seemed to make a conscious effort to give them as wide a berth as possible. The farmer began to wonder if they had fallen in sheep dip. Certainly the look on their faces as they watched the goings on around them seemed to indicate they had captured the market on sullen. They each went several times to the kegs to refill their tall cups with wine, faces becoming steadily more flushed with drunkenness.
When the room was finally almost empty the proprietor, a thick man with a beg belly full of his own cooking and red face behind his white beard, came to Keola with a fresh bowl of soup and loaf of bread.
"Youre welcome here, Amazon," he said in a gravely voice, "dinner for you and your friend tonight is on me."
"Thank you, sir," Keola nodded. Then her eyes glanced at the young villager by the door. The man followed her gaze then smiled a gap toothed smile.
"Thats my cousins boy, Aesop. He wants to talk to you miss but hes too shy. Hes a strange one. Likes to read all the time and make up stories he tells to the children, but he gets around a female and he goes stiff as a board. Do you mind, miss?"
"Well I, uh," Keola shrugged helplessly, "sure, but I dont know what hed want to talk to me about."
The proprietor waved a hammy hand at Aesop.
"Come over here, boy," he said heartily. "Come on. Dont stand there like a damn statue. She wont wait all night on you."
Aesop blushed and for a moment it looked like he might bolt but then he took a breath and summoned his courage and came over.
"Ah, hello," he said uncertainly, "my name is "
"Aesop," the Inn keeper interrupted. "I told them that already, boy." He clapped the young man on the shoulder. "Im going to get their room ready now so youre on your own." He grinned his ragged grin. "Shes a warrior, boy. Dont say anything shell make you regret."
He walked away chuckling while Aesop reddened.
"My names Keola," the Amazon said with a friendly smile. "This is Herodotus," she nodded at the old farmer.
"Its a very great honor to meet you, both of you," Aesop said. "Ive read so many stories about the Amazon Nation. Im sure most of them are just fairy tales. I would love to talk to you for awhile, if its all right, about your people. If you not too tired." Aesop shifted uneasily on his feet. "If Im being rude or anything just say so."
Keola let out a little sigh, then smiled.
"Ive never had so many people interested in talking to me. Its a very strange feeling." She shrugged. "But if you dont mind me eating while we talk, why not."
"No, no, of course not," Aesop enthused.
He grabbed a chair from an empty table and was pulling it over to Keola and Herodotus table when the larger of the sullen men from the corner walked past, obviously headed for the back door and the latrine. He brushed past Aesop using a forearm to push him out of the way without so much as an excuse me. Keola watched him go with narrow eyes and a stern face.
Aesops questions were many and all accompanied with an enthusiastic smile. It was quickly apparent that inside this shy, awkward youth was a very bright mind. Keola found herself thinking that he reminded her of Herodotus and the Royal family with his great desire to learn more about the world. But also there was something a bit unsettling about him. As they talked his pale blue eyes watched her with such intensity, as if he were memorizing everything about her, her face, her body, every expression and movement. The Scout had never been looked at like this and she was not sure what to make of it.
Keolas eyes shifted to the sullen man as he re-entered through the back door.
"Im really interested in the tactics you used in the battle," Aesop said.
"What tactics?" the sullen man sneered in a thick voice as he walked behind Aesop. "They all squatted to piss at the same time and the Carthaginians tripped over them as they charged."
Color exploded into the young mans cheeks as he sprang from his chair and turned.
"That was ugly and rude, Marius!" he said heatedly, the angry adrenaline in his system making his voice crack. "You owe her an apology!"
The man stopped and drew himself up in front of Aesop. They were the same height but he was easily twice the young mans bulk and weight.
"Ill apologize when pigs fly, you skinny little mamas boy," he growled. "You better crawl back to her tit while you still got legs to crawl on."
Aesop stood his ground.
"Everyone is sick of you and your brother "
Marius thick arms shot out and shoved Aesop, sending him flying backwards till he crashed over a table and hit the floor. Before the he landed the end of Keolas crutch bit deep into Marius kidneys. He doubled over with a surprised grunt of pain. Instantly the Amazon twirled the crutch like a staff and brought it down with all her strength on the back of his neck. It snapped in half as he smashed face first onto the floor.
Herodotus tackled Marius brother as he rushed toward the Amazon. They were up immediately off the floor and traded several punches before the much younger man landed a powerful front kick to the old farmers chest that slammed him against a wall. For a moment he was stunned and helpless. His opponent was about to finish the fight when Keola snarled,
The man turned in time to see the heel of the Amazons hand just before it broke his nose. His head snapped, blood spurting. His body went limp, skull bouncing on the floor when it hit.
"Are you all right, sir?" Keola asked, face dark, eyes blazing.
Herodotus took a couple of deep breaths, till his lungs were full again.
"Yes, yes, Im fine," he gasped.
Keola turned and hopped over to Marius, who was up on one knee, struggling to rise. She shoved him over on his back and in less than a heartbeat her sword was out of its sheath and the razor sharp point was pressing into the fleshy bottom of the mans neck. He looked up with wide, frightened eyes.
"I dont like bullies," the Amazon said in a quiet, menacing growl. "I dont like drunks." The point of the sword began to cut skin. A trickle of blood spilled from the mans neck. "And I dont like you."
Herodotus knelt beside the terrified Marius and firmly grasped the Scouts blade. He looked up into a dark, angry face. Darker than he had imagined Keola capable of.
"Are you going to kill him, Keola?" he asked simply.
She took a breath and looked at Marius stricken face, eyes white, lips trembling. She let out the air.
"Ill do what you ask me to, sir," she finally whispered.
"Let him live," the old farmer replied.
She let the pressure off her sword. Immediately Herodotus pulled it away from the mans neck. He grabbed Marius by the front of the shirt and pulled him to his feet and rushed him across the room and flung him out the door. Limp with relief he made no effort to resist. Herodotus turned to find the Innkeeper had one arm of Marius brother and was pulling him up. He went over and grabbed the other arm and together they got the groggy man, blood flowing freely from his nose down the front of his shirt, to his feet. He half stumbled and was half carried to the door and shoved out into the dark road where he landed at the feet of his brother.
"Dont come back, Marius," the Innkeeper said matter of factly. "You and Clitus arent welcome here anymore. If you do Ill go to the Council and have you banned from the village. You dont need that kind of trouble. Now go home and sober up. Be thankful youre still alive."
Marius helped Clitus up and they staggered into the darkness.
"I guess every village has to have a couple like them," the Proprietor said as he watched the brothers disappear into the night. "Theyve always been bad blood. A year ago they joined a mercenary company for the Spartan campaign against Dacia. We thought we were finally rid of them, but they came back three months ago spouting off about battles and sieges and the glorious deeds they had done. We all noticed though that they didnt have a scratch on them. Myself, I figure they just deserted when things got tough. But theyve been strutting around like they were military experts," the man blew out a dismissive burst of air through his nose, "true warriors." He looked back into the room at Keola, who was standing perfectly balanced on her one leg, sword in hand, watching intently in case there was more trouble. "Its not hard to see what barking baboons they are compared to a real warrior."
Aesop stood slowly up rubbing a sore shoulder, his eyes fixed on the floor, face rigid with humiliation. Keola turned and looked at him a moment as she slid her long blade neatly back into its sheath.
"Uh, could I have a little help here," she smiled, "Im sort of stuck without my crutch."
Herodotus snorted to himself. He had watched her walk three times around their camp the night before on her hands just to burn off some energy after a long day of sitting. She was hardly stuck.
"Oh, uh, sure, sure," Aesop mumbled and he quickly set up a table and chair and drew close to the Amazon, who put a hand on his shoulder and hopped over to the chair and settled in.
"Now," she said as she made herself comfortable, "what were you saying when that useless drunk interrupted?"
Herodotus watched with growing admiration as Keola gently massaged a young mans wounded pride until the enthusiastic grin was again on his face, his eyes sparkling and intense as before.
I can see why Ephiny is so anxious to have you on your feet again. You are an impressive young woman. A leader.
Finally the old farmer suggested it was time for some sleep. Aesop was up instantly offering Keola his shoulder. She accepted with a grateful smile and was helped up the flight of stairs to the room while he told one of his favorite stories. By the time they reached the door she was laughing uproariously.
"It was a great pleasure meeting you, Aesop. Thanks for the help," she said as she squeezed his shoulder.
"It was my honor to meet you, Keola," he answered, and his eyes looked at her with that devouring intensity she had noticed all evening.
Keola and Herodotus rose with the sun and dressed quickly, an early start would get them to the farm before sunset.
"Ill meet you in the stable, sir," Keola said. "Nature is calling rather loudly."
"Are you sure you can make it that far without your crutch?" Herodotus asked doubtfully.
"No problem," she said as she opened the door.
"Aesop?!" she blurted in surprise.
The young man jumped to his feet from where he had been sitting on the top step leaning against the wall, dozing. He rubbed his face and blinked the sleep out of his eyes.
"Morning, good morning," he stammered.
"Have you been there all night?" Keola asked as Herodotus joined her at the door.
"Oh, uh, well, yes, most of it," he said. "Marius and Clitus are the type to try something cowardly, seeking revenge. I didnt want you to be surprised. And," he reached down and picked up a crutch lying on the stairs, "I brought this. My uncle hurt his leg a few years ago and used it till he was healed. Its been under his bed ever since." He handed it to the Amazon. "Hes taller than you. I cut off the end. I hope its right."
Keola fitted it under her arm.
"Its just fine, Aesop, thank you," she smiled. Her face became serious. "But youll have to excuse me, nature is really screaming in my ear. Out of the way. Out! Out!" She gently pushed Aesop aside and hurried down the stairs.
Herodotus watched as the young man stared after her.
"Shes a beautiful woman, isnt she?" he said quietly.
"Yes," he nodded. " Very beautiful."
"Shes also a tiger, Aesop," the old farmer said. "Only the bravest hunters have the courage to hunt a tiger."
Aesop took a long breath and let it slowly out, his eyes distant.
"Yes, but Ive heard it said that a man with a tiger at his side has the world by the tail. It will give him whatever he wants, as long as he is true to fierce spirit that walks beside him."
"I hadnt heard that before." Herodotus said, his head cocked a little to one side as he examined Aesop.
Aesop looked up with a slight grin. "I know. I just made it up."
The old mans eyes smiled as he nodded. "You may be right, young man, you may just be right."
Keola gave Aesop a squeeze on the arm and said thank you again for the crutch. She sprang up on the wagon and Herodotus chucked the reins and they were off. As they passed the edge of the village she looked back to see Aesop still standing in the road, watching. She waved, he waved back. He turned slowly and walked away, his shoulders noticeably slumped.
"He was a really nice boy, wasnt he?" Keola said thoughtfully.
"Not all boy," Herodotus chuckled. "Hes at that awkward stage of being half boy and half man."
The Amazon bit her lip and sighed.
"He had the most peculiar way of looking at me. Like I was lunch and he was starving or something."
"That was the man, my friend," Herodotus said. "A man looking at a woman, and liking what he saw."
The Amazon unconsciously rubbed her injured leg.
"Dont know what hed look at," she murmured. "Theres nothing here to see."
Herodotus gazed at his passenger for a long moment as she stared out at the countryside with sad eyes.
"Youd be surprised what people see in you, Keola," he said finally. "I know what Princess Ephiny sees. She sees her new 2nd Lt."
The Scouts eyebrows beetled together in surprised disbelief.
"Did you think it was the luck of the draw that you were chosen to come with me?" the old farmer continued. "The Princess is promoting Turista to 1st Lt. in the cavalry to take poor Darias place. She needs a 2nd Lt. Youre it, if we can make this new leg work."
The Amazon took a breath, face serious, doubtful.
"I I dont know," she said. "Ive never thought of myself as a leader, being responsible for other people that way. Surely theres a better choice than me?"
"Maybe there is," Herodotus shrugged. "But Princess Ephiny impressed me very much. I think Id be inclined to accept her judgment on such things. She seemed to think you are the only choice."
Keola took a slow breath and did not say another word till noon, lost deep in her thoughts.
Keola pulled her cap down over her ears against the bite of the cold north wind. The previous night had seen a couple of inches of powdery snow fall. Now she was walking back to the warmth of the farmhouse after checking on Alpha and the sheep in the north pasture. Lila hugged her coat tighter, then wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
"Gods, I hate cold weather," she said, her breath visible in the chill air. "I wish Apollo would keep the sun high in the sky and the days long all year round."
Keola put her arm around her friend and pulled her close.
"Stop whining," she laughed. "Look around. Enjoy how white and beautiful everything is." She took a deep breath and let it out in a great cloud. "The air is so clean and crisp, how can you not like winter?"
"Easy," Lila answered sourly. "When my face goes numb and my toes start
to ache I know I dont like it."
The Amazon threw her other arm around Lila and picked her up in a bearhug.
"How about I turn you upside down and dump you on your head," she said in mock anger. "Maybe with a white sky and blue earth things will look different?"
"Put me down," Lila said as she squirmed, "right now. Put me down!"
The Scout placed her back on her feet with a grin. Lila did not share it.
"Keola, youll hurt your leg doing that." She scolded, concern on her face.
Keola picked up her half flesh, half-wood leg and shook it, then put the knobbed end back down into the snow.
"Its fine," she said. "Your father really got it right this time. No pain, no blisters. Sometimes I even forget its there. Its going to work, Lila.
She smiled a brilliant, happy smile.
"Im going to burn my crutch tonight in the fireplace. Lets cook one of those fresh sausages your mom made over it. What do you think?"
Lilas smile was even bigger than the Amazons.
"And well heat up a jug of cider with it. Mom and Daddy love hot cider. Well all celebrate tonight."
As soon as they arrived at the farm Herodotus went straight to work. He spent every evening in the barn after regular chores working on Keolas wooden leg, crafting, shaping, smoothing, experimenting with different straps to attach it to her leg. The first few nights the Amazon wandered in to watch and try to help. She was shooed out with a stern look and a rumble in the throat. The old farmer brooked no interruptions when he was concentrating. Lila thought about telling the Scout this but decided experience was the best teacher about her father. Lila also decided she liked this Amazon warrior with the easy, friendly, confident smile and the intelligent brown eyes. It was not hard to do.
When Herodotus first introduced Lila and Hecuba, they both politely avoided looking at or mentioning Keolas missing appendage. Their tender hearts went out to a young warrior who had obviously suffered much. And listening to Herodotus the first night home tell his stories of the horror and pain of war had only increased their sympathy. When Hecuba gently asked about Keolas experiences she was answered with a shrug and shake of the head that said it was not worth the hearing or the telling. But their assumption that the Amazon was a cripple in need of care was immediately dispelled the next morning. She followed everyone around trying, almost desperately, to make herself useful. Trying to the point of being a nuisance. Finally a slightly exasperated young farm girl stamped her foot.
"Look Keola. If you do all my chores, what am I supposed to do?"
"Well," the Scout answered slowly, a sly look in her eyes, "you could supervise. You could tell me to do things this way and that way, and then Id do it the right way, the Amazon way, and then wed get a lot of stuff done."
Lilas eyes narrowed and her nose crinkled up. Then a giggly laugh came out and Keola knew she had a friend. And the more time she spent with Lilas sweet, caring nature and uncomplicated innocence the more she wanted to be a friend.
After a week Herodotus had the wooden leg ready. Everyone sat eagerly around the big fireplace on a cold evening as Keola, for the first time in front of Lila and Hecuba, unwrapped her stump. She quickly fitted on the leg. She tightened the straps and stood up. Gingerly she took a few steps as everyone held their breath.
"Well?" Herodotus asked.
The Scout responded by marching around the room, the leg rhythmically thumping on the floor as she walked. Hecuba let out a happy sigh as Lila laughed her excited, giggly laugh. The old farmer though showed no emotion, but watched Keolas every movement with narrow concentrated eyes.
That night Keola plopped down on her bed, the Bards old bed, as Lila folded her clothes neatly at the foot of her own bed and jumped under her big down comforter before the cold could nip at her naked body. The Amazon carefully loosened the straps and removed the leg, then began undressing.
"Keola, Im so happy for you," Lila enthused. "It was absolutely thrilling to see you walk."
"It was pretty special wasnt it," the Amazon smiled. "Im so sick of that crutch. It felt fantastic to stand up and just feel balanced. You know, natural." She took a deep breath and let it out. "Im so grateful to your father, Lila. This means so much."
"I know Daddy is as happy as you are," she said. "He isnt much for showing it, but he loves to solve problems, and solving yours means a great deal to him."
The Scout finished undressing, blew out the candle on the table between the beds and crawled under her comforter. There was a candlemark of silence.
"Keola?" Lilas voice sounded in the darkness.
"I hope now that you can walk youll be able to sleep better."
"What?" the Amazon said, surprised.
Lila rolled toward Keola and propped her head up on her elbow.
"Well," she said quietly, seriously, "I wake up sometimes in the night, and look over, and it seems like youre always awake. I can see you sitting up over there in the dark. I I feel bad knowing youre not getting any sleep. Maybe now that you dont have to worry about whether youll walk again you can sleep better."
After a silence Lila heard her friend sigh.
"Maybe," she said in a small voice.
A cold little shiver attacked Lilas stomach.
Ive never heard you sound like that, Keola. Something is really wrong, more than just your leg. I wish youd tell me.
"Uh," Lila hesitated, "Gabby is always telling me to talk about things. She says it helps to talk. I guess she knows from experience. We were never much for talking in our family. I think " Lila swallowed, "I think that was a heartache for all of us. We didnt know each other the way we should." Lila lay back on her pillow. "But things have gotten so much better the last few years. Since Gabby and Xena married. Daddy and Gabby seem like different people when theyre together now. They dont act like they hate each other anymore. Its so nice to " Keola heard Lila sniffle, "to see them smile at each other."
The farm girl rubbed her eyes and cleared her throat.
"Anyway, maybe we could talk about things that are, you know about things were thinking about?"
There was a long silence. Lila felt the weight of it. It pressed on her chest like a boulder. She knew she did not have the courage to try again. Gabby, I wish you were here. Youd know what to do.
"I dont remember my father," Keola suddenly broke the silence, her voice so low Lila strained to hear. "I remember my mom a little. She had black hair and a nice smile." Lila heard the Amazon shift in her bed. "I can remember her smiling but I cant I cant remember her name. Just mom I guess." Keola took a breath. "I can remember my brother. Stephano. He was older and he took care of me. I can remember playing ball with him. Throwing it back and forth. And he was always wiping my runny nose with his sleeve. I remember that so clearly." The Scout laughed a hollow laugh. "Funny what stupid things stick in your head."
"What happened to them?" Lila asked.
"They all died in the plague summer in southern Greece, fifteen years ago, when I was four. I remember being scared and hungry. I remember grownups with with terrible, frightened faces. Someone, I dont know who, brought me and a couple of other orphaned girls to the Amazons"
"Did you find a new family? Like Sula has with Gabby and Xena?" Lila asked.
"No," Keola said. "There were so many girls brought to the Nation that year. More than there were couples to adopt them. So me and half a dozen other girls were put together in a large hut with an old matron to look after us. We were called village girls because the whole village raised us." She chuckled with genuine humor. "I dont think there is an adult in Kalvia that didnt give me a whipping at some time or other. I was a hellion growing up."
"It sounds, I dont know," Lila hesitated to use the word, "lonely."
"No," Keola said quickly. "I dont think it was lonely. I always had friends around. But it did make me "she considered carefully "independent. I learned to rely on me. It makes you strong growing up that way. I take care of myself, no one has to carry me. I like it that way."
Lila lay silent awhile, thinking. Finally she rolled again toward Keola, head on her elbow.
"I guess Im not very strong," she said. "Im glad I have Phillip to lean on."
"You havent told me," Keola said. "How did you meet your future husband?"
"I didnt leave anything to chance about it, thats for sure," she said. "Phillip is from Astiar, in the next valley. The youngest of four brothers. His Uncle, on his mothers side, had a farm on the other side of Potadia valley. He and his wife had three daughters who all married and moved away. When he died last summer Phillips Aunt invited him to move in with her and work the farm. When she dies hell get the land. Its the only way a youngest son like him has a chance to get his own farm."
Lila took a breath and smiled.
"I knew I wanted to meet him the first time I saw him in the Potadia market buying supplies. There was something about the look on his face, his eyes, the sound of his voice as he talked to Lucia the fruit seller. I knew I had to meet him. So I took the direct approach." She laughed. "I accidentally on purpose ran into him and dropped my basket. I introduced myself while we were picking up the apples."
"Not subtle, but effective." Keola smiled.
"I cant believe I did that," Lila said. "Im usually so shy. But I couldnt let him get away. And now I have him. Hes truly mine. Im so grateful sometimes I want to cry. Its wonderful to have someone, Keola. Someone to depend on. Someone to help when you need it."
"Im sure it is," Keola said, but Lila could tell from the sound of her voice that the Amazon was only being polite.
Keola put her crutch under the bed and attacked the work around the busy, prosperous farm with happy enthusiasm, glorying in the sensation of walking across a farm yard with both hands wrapped around the handle of a fresh bucket of goats milk. However Herodotus it seemed was always around somewhere, silently watching. After a week he followed Keola and Lila into their bedroom after dinner, as they prepared for bed.
"I noticed you were limping a bit and fidgeting with your leg today," he said. "I think its time I took a look at how youre doing."
"Im doing fine, sir," Keola answered quickly, and perhaps a little defensively Lila noticed. "Dont worry about it. It was just a bit itchy."
"That may be, Keola," the old man said firmly, "but I still want to take a look. To admire my handiwork if nothing else. Now please sit down."
The Amazon reluctantly sat on the edge of her bed. Herodotus grunted down on one knee and loosened the straps on the leg and removed it as Lila held a wavering candle close.
"Damn it!!" the old man exploded.
"Ooohh, Keola," Lila whispered in shock.
Lines of ugly, bulging blisters wrapped around the Amazons leg where ever the straps had touched her unscarred flesh. The skin around them was red and raw.
"The straps are too loose, theyre tearing up your leg," Herodotus glared angrily at the Amazon. "Why didnt you tell me!?"
Keola shrugged, face set and hard.
"You worked hard to make it," she said quietly, "I was just glad to be walking."
Herodotus leaned back on his leg and let out a disgusted burst of air.
"Well it was wasted work if its going to do this. We have to get this right, woman! You have to tell me if its hurting you. If I cant make it comfortable on your leg its useless!"
A hand appeared on Herodotus shoulder.
"Enough yelling, dear," a calm, gentle voice said. "Keola isnt deaf."
The old man looked up.
"Yes, yes, all right," he said testily, but the anger receded from his eyes.
He stood up with the leg in his hand.
"You still have your crutch, right?" he asked sternly.
The Scout nodded. Herodotus brushed past his wife to the door but stopped and turned as he reached it.
"Im tired of that crutch, Keola," he said, eyes intense. "Im going to see you throw it away before the winter is over. I swear you will." He was gone.
Hecuba knelt in front of the Amazons leg. She had a clay bowl of water in her hand, along with her sharpest kitchen knife, towels rested on her shoulder. Keola looked at her questioningly.
"I was at the door when Herodotus took off the straps."
She started to work, opening each blister, letting it drain, carefully washing and drying the leg. Lila held the candle close so old eyes could see. As she started to wrap a fresh cloth over the injury she looked up for the first time at her patient.
"My husbands bark is worse than his bite," she said. "He was angry that his work was hurting you. He wasnt angry at you." Hecubas eyes were soft yet firm. "My Herodotus is a gentle man."
"I know he is, maam," Keola answered. "I saw what he did in the valley for our warriors, after the battle. He did everything humanly possible for us. All strangers to him. He worked until I thought he might collapse." The Scout paused and swallowed. "I respect your husband very much, maam. As much as I respect his daughter and her mate."
The glint of pleasure Keola saw in Hecubas eyes made her heart swell to have brought it there. Hecuba patted her leg as she stood. "Ill be back at bedtime tomorrow to check your leg," she said.
"You dont have to "
"Ill be back tomorrow," Hecuba interrupted and she was gone.
She came in every night to check Keolas leg before she crawled into bed. The Scout was embarrassed at first at the attention. It made her feel like a child and she hated imposing on an old womans time. But while she was there Hcuba would listen to Keola and Lila banter at each other and smile. Sometimes she would join in for a moment and laugh. Keola liked to hear her laugh. She wished that she could hear this nice old woman that hardly spoke laugh more often. Finally she realized she wanted Hecuba to come every night. That it pleased her in ways she could not even understand to have this mature woman pay attention to her, touch her with gentle hands, talk to her, listen to her, care about her. Those few moments with Lila and Hecuba became a precious time of day for the Amazon.
After five days of working late into the night in his woodshop in the barn Herodotus presented Keola with a new and improved leg. The softest, fluffiest lambs wool had been glued to the inside of the straps, and he had Hecuba wrap cotton cloth around the stump and up over the knee before she put it on. A week later, the old woman checking every night, there was not a hint of a blister. Lila walked by the kitchen one afternoon and heard her mother humming. The way she did when Gabrielle and Xena were home. Her heart leapt to hear it.
Keola came around he corner of the house from the barn and stopped in her tracks. On the porch Lila was wrapped around a young man who was returning her embrace.
I sure hope thats Philip or hes going to be very disappointed.
"Keola!" Lila cried excitedly on seeing the Scout, "come here, come here and meet Philip."
As she approached the porch Keola sized up the man waiting for her. He was a few inches taller than her, strongly built with a thick chest and shoulders and large callused hands. Curly black, shaggy hair spilled out from under his wool cap, over his ears and down his neck. His black beard was clipped close to his face and still had the soft downy look of youth. He was only a few years older than her she guessed. His nose had a curve to it, almost roman, and his black eyes were wide and expressive as he looked at her.
Not the handsomest man Ive seen, but not unpleasant.
As Keola mounted the steps to the porch his eyes narrowed, a hint of suspicion in them.
"So youre the Amazon warrior Hecuba was telling me about. The one staying the winter." His voice was neither friendly or unfriendly.
"So I am," she said evenly.
Philip cocked his head a bit to one side.
"Ive heard that Amazon warriors eat mens balls for breakfast every morning to give them strength."
Keolas eyes narrowed, her head cocked like his.
"Youre close," she said. "Actually we eat them for dessert every night to help us sleep. I like mine with butter and milk." Her eyes narrowed more. "But yours are safe. Lilas told me she wants many children," Lila blushed red, "and I would never do anything to hurt her."
"Humph," Philip grunted. "Well, maybe we do have something in common, Amazon. I would never hurt her either."
His eyes shifted down to her legs.
"Did you keep it for a souvenir?" he asked nonchalantly.
"Nope," Keola answered. "It got buried with a dozen other arms and legs." She thumped her wooden leg a couple of times on the porch. "I like this one better anyway. It doesnt get cold and a pair of shoes lasts me twice as long now."
Philip stroked his beard thoughtfully a moment.
"Im not going to have to haul your butt up out of the mud because you sink everyday am I?" he grumbled.
"Maybe," the Scout said.
"Yeah, well Im not," he huffed, "so well have to figure something out about that. Maybe put some planks down across the barnyard to the barn. Everyone pulls their weight on a farm, warrior. No excuses."
"Dont worry farmer," Keola said. "Ill pull my mine, and yours too."
Philip nodded skeptically, "Well see."
"Dinner," Hecuba called.
Philip burst into a smile.
"Yes, dinner," he enthused. "Ive been looking forward to Hecubas cooking for a month." He looked at Lila. "Come on sweetie, lets eat."
"No, uh, you go ahead," she said, a shocked look on her face.
"Okay, hurry up," he said and he disappeared inside.
Lila looked at Keola, eyes wide, speechless. Finally the Amazon shrugged.
"Keola, Im so sorry," Lila apologized, "I thought you two would really like each other, I never thought "
"Lila," the Amazon interrupted, "what makes you think I dont like him?"
"Well, uh," she stammered.
"Lila," Keola smiled as she took her arm," you really need to open your ears. I dont want to spend the rest of my life listening to peoples fake sympathy. Philip just told me to pull my damn weight and hed help me when he could. What more can I ask from anyone. I dont want anymore than that from anyone." She squeezed Lilas arm. "You may have a keeper there friend. Now lets eat before he gets it all. He looks like he has a healthy appetite."
Lilas eyes glistened.
"Oh, he does."
Philip slept on a pallet in the common room. The days were filled with the endless chores of a successful, prosperous farm. The evenings were spent around the fireplace for warmth, Herodotus reading scrolls or just sitting, thinking, Hecuba sewing, Lila, Philip and Keola talking or playing games. The Amazon and the farmer quickly developed an intensely competitive relationship, trying to out do each other in everything, work, play, even competing for Lilas attention. A fact she enjoyed immensely.
One day Philip brought up that Keola seemed to know how to work a farm but he knew nothing about being a warrior. Maybe the Amazon could teach him some things. Lila smiled excitedly and seconded the idea, saying she wanted to watch and see how real warriors trained for war. Very reluctantly Keola agreed.
After that every evening was spent in the hay loft of the barn, where the hay spread out on the wooden floor made the landings a little softer. Keola showed Philip different throws and punches, although she steadfastly refused to teach anything to do with weapons. They would spend long candlemarks throwing each other around the room till they had worked up an exhausted sweat, even in the cold, while Lila watched wide eyed, applauding the most spectacular moves. Keola had to admit to herself that Philip learned quickly and had talent, and that she enjoyed the workout. It felt good to be fit and ready for anything again.
She was walking beside the house, coming in from the barn for dinner when she heard Philip and Herodotus on the porch.
"That was a good suggestion," Philip said, "getting Keola to teach me her warrior training. Its bee a real pleasure watching her improve on that leg every night. She really has her balance now. And let me tell you, its amazing how quick and strong she is," Keola heard him chuckle. "Youre on the ground before you have a chance to think sometimes."
There was a slight pause but before she could move or speak Philip continued.
"I really like her. Theres no slack anywhere. She never complains or makes excuses. She just keeps pushing herself. And I like that whats it called?...that warrior bearing she has. Always so straight and proud. I respect that." Philip took a deep breath that came out in a sharp, dissatisfied sigh. "Certainly shes done more and seen more in her life than I have in mine."
Keola knew she should move, make a noise, announce her presence. But something, a foreboding, held her. She bit her lip and continued listening.
"I like the training weve been doing," Philip said. "I think Im getting pretty good, although Keola would never admit it." She heard both men laugh. She could her Philip take another deep breath. "I dont know, Herodotus," there was a hesitancy in Philips voice that caused the Scouts stomach to instinctively shrivel.
"Aunt Sara and I are so broke. There are things that need fixing and equipment that I cant possibly make that needs to be bought. I want our farm to thrive like yours. I want Lila to have a decent life, like she has here." He paused. "Athenian recruiters were in Potadia a few weeks ago. Theres an expedition going to Arcadia to destroy a nest of pirates in the spring. If I train hard with Keola maybe I could sign up as a full hoplite pikeman. Theres a 50 dinar signing bonus and 10 dinars a month. Enlistment is only a year and Id send all the pay here for you to hold. When I got back Id have the money to get Lila and me started right."
Herodotus cleared his throat in a low rumble. Keola did not have to see his face to know the disapproving look that went with that sound.
"Well, Philip, youre a grown man," he said. "Youll decide whats best for yourself. But I can certainly help with getting the equip "
"No, no, no," Philip interrupted, an edge to his voice. "Lila and I will make our own way in life, just as you and Hecuba have. Im not going to start my life with her living off her fathers sweat. Ill carry my own load."
Keola listened no more. She turned and walked quickly toward the barn.
"Keola!" Philip called.
His head appeared at the top of the ladder leading up to the loft.
"There you are," he said, annoyed. "Are you deaf, Amazon? Dinners ready, come on."
Keola stood up from the bale she had been sitting on, her face in her hands. She forced a smile.
"Come on up," she said. "I want to show you some new moves."
"Now!" Philip answered incredulous. "Hecuba has one of her great meals ready. Im hungry, lets "
"Come on," Keola said, challenge in her voice, "itll only take a moment to learn and you can impress Lila with it after dinner. Shell think for a moment youre more than a clueless farmer."
The challenge brought a smile and a glint to Philips eyes, just as Keola knew it would. He needed no more goading. He hopped up on the loft.
"Well see whos clueless, Amazon," he said as he assumed the defensive fighting stance she had taught him. "So show me this new move."
Keola circled slowly around him, her body relaxed, a smile on her face, as he tensely tracked her.
"Are you ready?" she said finally.
"Ready," he replied, muscles taut.
With a harsh scream Keola executed a savage front kick to the mans chest that sent him smashing against the wall. All the air was compressed from his lungs. Flashing bits of light sparkled in front of his eyes. It felt as if his chest had been crushed against his backbone. Before he could draw a breath Keola had his wrist and with a pull and a twist she flipped him head over heels onto the floor, his head bouncing on the wood. She turned the over till excruciating pain shot all the way down his arm into his chest. He opened his mouth to scream in shock and pain but before the noise could escape the nob of Keolas wooden leg pressed down on his windpipe, cutting off all sound, and air. He tried to struggle but he was helpless, pinned like a fly to the wall. Blackness started to descend over the sparkling lights before his eyes. Fear welled up. Fear that he was about to die.
Suddenly Keola released her grip and pulled her leg away. Philip gasped desperately for air. The fear ebbed away as he got his breath back. Finally he sat up rubbing his sore, constricted neck and flexing his still throbbing arm. After a ragged, throat clearing cough he looked over at Keola, sitting on a bale of hay, with stunned, hurt eyes. She looked back unblinking, her face stern and cold, body tense and hard as stone.
"Today Philip," she said slowly, "the lesson is about being a warrior. What weve been doing before was just acrobatics, gymnastic tricks to amuse Lila." She took a breath and let it out. Her brown eyes bored into the farmer. "Being a warrior is about pain. Inflicting pain on others. Surviving the pain they inflict on you. And there are so many types of pain. More than you can possibly imagine." For an instant Philip thought he saw Keolas chin quiver. "I could break things on you that would have you howling like a whipped dog. I could smash things that would make you cry like a baby. I could kill you in a heartbeat. Before you even knew you were in danger." She paused and blew a rush of air out of her cheeks. "I know because Ive done it." Her eyes wandered from Philip and became round and full. He could see that she was struggling with some overwhelming emotion that threatened to swamp her. But she took a deep breath and found some way to control herself. Her face became stone again.
"Im a warrior because my people cant survive without warriors. And Ill do whatever I must for my people. Ive been training to fight since I was nine years old and the village elders picked me out because I was stronger and faster and tougher than my friends. Ive studied with the best fighters in the Amazon valley, and that means in Greece. Theres no one in this world I fear with a sword in their hand except the Warleader. I can kill with the best. But Philip, I swear " Keolas chin began quivering, her voice thickened, "I swear I dont like I I dont like it. I dont." She swallowed and took a breath, composing herself. Her eyes fixed on Philips and they were soft, almost pleading.
"There are enough warriors in this world, Philip. This peaceful, fertile valley,
under Athens protection, doesnt need any warriors. It needs farmers. Good
farmers who can make the land produce in abundance." She came and knelt beside Philip
and put her hand on his shoulder. He could feel it trembling with emotion. "And Lila
needs her husband. So she can produce too, the children she wants so much. And a good
farmer, who brought so much life into this world would always have my respect. And I would
always be so proud," she gently caressed Philips cheek, her eyes glistening," to
call a man like that my friend."
Philip took a deep breath and swallowed the lump that had suddenly come to his throat.
"Ill Ill think about what youve said," he whispered.
Keola nodded. She stood with her hand out. He took it and was pulled to his feet.
"Im starved," Keola said quietly with a slight smile, "lets eat."
As they reached the ladder Philip stopped.
"Amazon," he said with narrow eyes, "were going to keep training, because when Im good enough I owe you a serious ass kicking."
Keola laughed. "Farmer, Ill reach down youre throat, grab you by the balls and turn you inside out."
A rhythmic animal grunting sounded in her ear, bristly whiskers rubbed against her cheek, the smell of sweat and stale wine assaulted her nose. Rough hands clawed her thighs and pulled her legs up. The urge to vomit was overpowering. She fought to hold it back. She felt as if she were suffocating. She wanted to scream, breathe, fight. But she was helpless, bound by invisible chains that held her tight. She was frightened. Help me!! Please Artimis!! Somebody!! She could hear the words. She was certain it was someone elses voice. She knew she would never scream like that. The cries sounded so desperate. Her heart raged to hear it. "Stop it!! Stop hurting her, you bastard!!" she yelled. The grunting in her ear got louder and louder. Then it was a long, satisfied, contemptuous pig snort that made her skin crawl. She knew she could not hold it any longer. She bolted upright and started to vo
Keolas eyes flew open. She sat up, her heart pounding so hard in her chest she could feel it throbbing. Trickles of sweat tickled down her back and between her breasts. She put a hand to her face and forced herself to think. Im awake. It was a dream. Im awake. Calm down.
Suddenly her senses came alert, her muscles rigid with tension. It was that sound. That grunting sound. No. She was mistaken. It was not that horrible sound. The sound that haunted her dreams. It was a sighing. A pleasant, gentle sighing. She recognized two separate sighs, one lower, one higher. Two people in a perfect rhythm of ecstasy. Keola listened motionless, transfixed by the beauty of it. It was love made perceptible to the ear. It was a sound that washed over her like an easy tide, swelling and ebbing. A cleansing, purifying sound. The Amazon wanted to sit and listen till that horrid grunting noise was flushed forever from her ears, her brain.
"Aaaahh, sweetie, that feels so good," Lila whispered through soft panting breaths.
Keolas face blushed crimson.
What's wrong with you. This isnt for you to hear. This belongs to Phillip and Lila. What kind of monster are you to sit hear stealing from them like this.
The Scout tried to shut her ears. She looked around desperately for a way to quietly escape. After Hecubas great lunch she had come to the barn to brush down Luka and spend some time rubbing the bays muzzle and feed her some carrots. Caring for Luka always relaxed her when she had things on her mind. The horse seemed to know when her mistress needed some extra nuzzling. But when she was done the Amazon felt an extreme weariness. She was often tired these days. So she snuggled back into the fresh clean straw of the empty stall closest to the barns big double doors with the intention of resting her eyes, but a short rest had immediately turned into a deep sleep.
Keola crept silently to the front of the stall. She knew from the sound that her friends must be in the empty stall on the other side of Luka. In the gloom of the barn they must have walked right past me, distracted by each other I suppose. One of the double doors of the barn was half-open. If she could just make it to the opening without being discovered she would be out and safe. She pulled herself up by the slates of the stall and picked her way toward the door, carefully placing each step to make no noise. She was almost to the door and breathing easier when she shifted her weight onto her wooded leg and the floorboard underneath let out a horrendous creak. Instantly there was the sound of rustling straw.
"Whos there?! Who is it?!" Phillip demanded his voice somewhere between anger and panic.
Keola immediately turned and took a step back into the doorway to look as if she were just entering instead of leaving.
"Its only me, Phillip," the Scout said, trying to sound surprised and annoyed at the tone of his voice. "Whats the problem? Are you expecting an attack from a Roman Legion?"
She grinned to hear Lila giggle.
"Youre so funny, Keola" the young farmer answered dismissivly, but the edge was gone from his voice. "Just stay there, okay. Dont come in."
"I dont know," the Amazon said. "Im a scout, Phillip. Its my job to find out what people are hiding. I think Ill just have to come in or Princess Ephiny will give my job to someone else."
"Yeah, well you may see more than you want to see," Phillip replied. "Of course if you saw it you would never forget it."
"Phillip!" Lila blurted. There was the sound of a slap.
"Ouch!" the man whined. "That hurt! Youre going to pay for that woman. I know all your ticklish spots."
Keola smiled to here her friends wrestling in the straw as Lila squealed with laughter and begged Phillip to stop. Finally there was a breathless silence, then Lilas quivering voice.
"Well be out, Keola. Just give us a moment."
"No hurry," the Amazon replied.
After a candlemark, as Keola leaned against the barn wall, the young farmer appeared out of the stall tucking in his rough woolen shirt.
"You know, Amazon," he said, looking at her with narrow eyes. "You should try knocking before you go barging into places."
Keolas eyes narrowed back.
"Nobody knocks on barn doors farmer," she said. "You should have better things to do this time of day than rolling around in the hay scaring my horse anyway."
After eyeing each other a moment they simultaneously stuck their tongues out, then laughed. Phillip walked to the doorway, stopped and touched Keolas elbow.
"Im going home for a few weeks to get things ready for winter," he said quietly. "But Ill be back for Solstice. Is there anything you think Lila might like for a gift? Im terrible at things like that."
"Yeah," Keola said. "Shed like you back as soon as possible."
Phillip smiled, then his eyes were serious.
"Is there anything you want, Amazon?"
"Yes," the Scout nodded. "I want you to have a safe trip home and back."
Phillip squeezed her arm and with a nod was out the door and gone.
Keola looked to see Lila emerge from the stall brushing straw from her skirt. She smiled sheepishly. The Scout burst out laughing, after a moment Lila joined her and they laughed long and loud till they had to stop to catch their breath.
"Im sorry I ruined things," Keola said finally.
"Oh, dont worry about it," Lila smiled, then her eyes narrowed and gleamed with the conspiratorial light of a secret being shared. "There have been plenty of times when no one interrupted."
Keola could not stop the grin that came to her face.
"Lila," she said quietly, "Its not a secret you and Phillip have been together. I imagine your mom and dad have known for some time. They just dont care. They like Phillip."
Lila let out a disappointed sigh.
"Are you sure?" she asked doubtfully. "I thought we were being so careful."
The Scout shrugged. "Pretty sure."
Lilas shoulders slumped and she shook her head.
"Phillip says the same thing but I was sure we had everyone fooled." She looked at the Amazon. "I hate it when hes right," she smiled.
Keola grinned back but Lila could not help noticing a shadow in her friends smile, a strange look in her brown eyes, an intensity that seemed mixed with sadness. Something was certainly going on behind those eyes.
"Im tired," Lila said suddenly. "Lets sit down."
She grabbed Keolas hand and pulled her over to the bench that rested against the wall of the barn.
"We havent talked for awhile," she said matter-of-factly. "Lets talk about something."
Keolas eyebrows beetled together.
"Like what?" she shrugged. "I dont have anything to talk about. Youre the one with a boyfriend. All the excitement is happening in your life."
"Oh, come on, Keola" Lila said reproachfully, "you were in a battle for Gods sake. What an amazing, exciting thing to happen. Nothing like that will ever happen in my boring life. Tell me all the incredible things that happened that day."
The Amazons face grew dark, her body hard. She turned away from Lila and there was a long, suddenly tense silence.
Youre so stupid. Cant you ever think before you open your mouth? She lost her leg that day. Of course she doesnt want to talk about it.
Lila put her hand on Keolas elbow.
"Im sorry, I didnt mean to "
"I cant talk about that, Lila," the Scout interrupted, stress in her voice. "I cant talk about it. There are some things that are theyre just too " her voice faded away into silence.
Lila rubbed her friends arm, her face a mask of concern as she reproached herself for bringing up such a painful subject. Yet why did she still feel there was something in Keolas eyes. Something troubling her that was on the edge of being spoken. The girl agonized. What to do? Keep asking? Let her talk when she was ready? I wish Gabby was here. She always knows how to help. Why did she get all the brains and not me? Keola needs help and I dont know how.
"Lila?" the Amazons voice was low and serious.
Lila squeezed Keolas arm. "Yes."
"What does it feel like to have a " the Scout hesitated and swallowed, "whats it like to have a relationship, I mean uh a physical relationship, with a boy?" Keola turned and looked at Lila with dark eyes. "What do you feel, Lila?"
The farm girls eyes widened with surprise but the look on Keolas face told her it was a question of incalculable importance.
"Well uh, Keola," she took a deep breath and collected herself for a moment. "Thats kind of tough " she took another breath and tried to concentrate, "Im not sure I can "
Keolas eyes bored into her, almost pleading. Lila took a last moment to think.
"Well," she began finally, "Ill just tell you whats happened to me, okay?"
She settled against the wall, making herself more comfortable. A slight, embarrassed smile came to her lips.
"Philip isnt the first boy Ive been with Keola. Milo was my first real boyfriend. A couple of summers ago. He was the one I first had, you know, sex with." She whispered the last two words. "Hes the son of Mendius, the miller in Potadia." Lila shrugged. "I dont know, I guess I thought I loved him. Or maybe I was just lonely and wanted someone to be interested in me. Anyway he finally talked me out of my skirt and we did it. Out in the woods north of the pasture." She giggled. "I got some terrible chigger bites on my back."
Keolas face lost none of its dark seriousness. Lila swallowed to see the expression. The Amazon usually smiled so easily.
"Anyway," she continued, "we kept meeting through the summer. It seemed like we had sex every time we were together. He was nice enough, I mean, it wasnt like he was forcing me or anything. But" she frowned deeply, "when we were done he would jump off me like I was burning hot or something and start getting dressed. I mean Id be lying there naked feeling sticky with sweat, his and mine, it was hot that summer, everyday hot, and the male juice, whatever you call it, would still be dripping off his thing and hed pull his clothes on and mumble something about needing to get home and away he went. He wouldnt even look back. I always watched to see if he did."
Lilas frown deepened to an angry scowl.
"It made me feel bad, Keola. Really bad. Sometimes I cried after he left. I felt " she sighed. "I felt worthless. I dont know, like I was an animal, a pet he kept around. Hed throw me scraps of himself and use me and then leave me chained in the back while he went on about his business." Her shoulders slumped. "By the end of the summer I had had enough. Lonely or not I didnt want him around anymore. I kind of gently suggested we should take a break. Not see each other so much. He just said whatever and never came back." Lila smiled weakly. "Guess I wasnt the love of his life huh?" She shrugged. "He got married to a village girl last spring. I didnt go to the wedding, although everyone in the valley is always invited to all the weddings. I dont think he missed me."
There was a moment of sad silence as Keola watched intently while Lila pushed the painful memories back into the dark spaces of her mind. Finally she brightened.
"Then this spring I met Philip," she smiled. "Well, you know that story. But Keola," the grin broadened till it was ear to ear her eyes sparkling, "its so different with him. It was midsummer before he even tried to get anywhere, you know, with sex. I was afraid he wasnt really interested in me, but hes just shy and very thoughtful. He didnt want me to think that was all he was interested in. He loves me." She said the last three words with a touch of grateful wonder. "I sure wanted to have sex with him though. Sometimes I could hardly keep myself from jumping on him." She giggled. "Now we do it whenever we can. Hes a very healthy man, let me tell you," she rolled her eyes. "Wed be doing it everyday if we could find the time and privacy."
Lila paused and took a breath while she collected her thoughts.
"I cant say if its the same for all girls, Keola. Maybe this is just me. But sometimes I really feel in the mood for Philip. I want him so much and when hes inside me it feels so wonderful I cant even describe it. Its just," she shook her head, "overwhelming. I want to I feel like Im exploding or something and I just want to hold him so tight and scream it feels so good." She grinned at the Amazon. "I never scream though. I think that would scare us both." The smile faded. "Other times, I dont know, Im not so much in the mood for some reason. But I go along anyway, not because he insists or anything, but because I like pleasing him. I like doing things that make him happy. And its no sacrifice, believe me. Because when were done the best part of sex with Philip happens. He doesnt run away. He wraps me in his arms and we talk about what we did that day, or what were going to do when were married, or just anything. And sometimes he falls asleep. I like that best I think. He has his arms all around me and I can feel his breath on the back of my neck and I feel so completely comfortable and happy and loved. I know thats where I want to be Keola. The rest of my life, in Philips arms with him breathing on the back of my neck. I know its my place in the world."
Lila sighed contentedly. After a moment her face became serious and she leaned closer to Keola.
"Of course all this sex does make babies. You do know about that, right?"
Keolas dark expression did not change. Lila leaned back, a little chagrined she
"Well, sure you do," she sputtered uncertainly. "Anyway I was pretty stupid with Milo. I guess the Gods just watched out for me. Thank goodness. But with Philip, I dont care. I kind of hope I am pregnant. I know the man he is, and the father he will be. I can hardly wait to hold his child in my arms. I know hell be with me and well be loving it together. I know mom and daddy will love it too." Lila grinned. "The way daddys always talking about Sula Im kind of jealous of Gabby and Xena."
She paused and reached out and touched the Amazons hand.
"I hope that answers your question. At least a little. Its the best I can do."
Keola nodded. But her dark face did not change. There was something in the her expression, in the eyes, something inside her was bursting to get out. Lila could see it struggling to escape.
"Keola, I think theres something you want to tell me," Lila said softly, her black eyes wide and tender. "Please just tell me."
The Scout took a deep breath and licked her lips. Her mouth started to form a word. Suddenly she looked away and her body tensed till she was hard as a marble statue.
What can I do? What can I say?
Lilas shoulders sagged with helpless frustration.
A long hissing breath escaped the Amazons lungs.
"I Im pregnant, Lila," a hollow, disembodied voice said.
The farm girl sucked in a shocked gulp of air.
"Oh," she squeaked, stunned.
There was a trembling moment of silence. Lila put her hand on the Amazons forearm.
"Are you sure?" she whispered.
Keolas head moved slowly up and down once.
"Yes," the sound was flat, emotionless. "I should have started my bleeding yesterday. This is the fourth month Ive missed. And Ive been feeling sick in the mornings. Sometimes I throw up. And Im " a slight sigh escaped her lips, "yes. Im sure"
Lila rubbed her friends arm while taking a deep breath to steady herself, eyes wide with shocked sympathy and concern.
"How I mean, who?" she stammered. "I mean Keola, tell me what happened."
The Amazon took a long, slow, deep breath, her expression frozen like granite. But her eyes blazed a terrible intensity. There was a long silence that grew more oppressive by the moment. Lilas stomach curled up like she was waiting for the healer to come out and tell her some terrible news about someone she loved.
"A month or so before the battle at the Zama Ridge," Keola broke the silence, voice taut and thin, "Princess Ephiny and the Warleader sent me to Vonitsa on a scouting mission. I was honored they trusted me with such an important assignment. I still am."
She paused and swallowed.
"When I got there I sold Luka to a farmer a couple leagues outside the city, with the intention of stealing her back when I was ready to leave. I used the money to buy some ragged old clothes and a sack with more clothes. I wanted to look like a poor peasant who had just hiked to the big city from her farm in the middle of nowhere."
"The gates were closely guarded by Carthaginians with a lot of suspicious questions for strangers. I was sitting on a tree stump a hundred yards from the gate, the sun was just setting, trying to come up with a plan for getting in when Artemis showed me the way. Three Carthaginian officers came out of the gate and went into the tavern built against the city wall."
A slight, contemptuous smile came to the Amazons lips.
"You can tell Carthaginian officers by the red plume on their helmets and the arrogant swagger in their walk. I memorized the face of the one who did most of the talking and gesturing. I knew he had to be the highest ranking one. Shortly after moonrise he came staggering out with a little blackheaded woman," Keola bit her lip, "really a girl, younger than me I think. They went down to her hut. There were twelve, thirteen huts, thrown together from driftwood and odd lumber and whatever they could find to build with. Built against the wall. Huts for the whores that worked the tavern. I was still sitting on the stump at sunrise when he came out and went back in the gate."
"I spent the day watching mercenary cavalry drill in a big field east of the city. Gods were they a sorry lot. But as the sun set I hurried back to the main gate. I was gambling that my officer was a regular at the tavern and he didnt disappoint. Out her came with his two companions. I followed him in the tavern so close I almost stepped on his heels."
Keola shook her head slowly.
"Id never been in a place like that. It was dark and smoky and dirty and crowded and loud and the smell, sweat, ale, beer, smells I didnt recognize terrible smells. I almost gagged. The officers went over to a table in the corner. The men already there got up and let them have it without a word. The black headed girl came over and jumped in the head officers lap and sucked on his mouth. At least thats what it looked like to me. Then she got up and went to the bar to get drinks. While she was gone I went over to the officer and rubbed myself against him. He looked up like he was disgusted and started to push me away but I leaned down and whispered, I can give you something she cant. He said, Yeah what? I said My virginity."
The Amazon sucked in a slow breath while Lilas face sagged, eyes horrified.
"The black headed girl came back and pushed me hard on the shoulder and yelled, get away from him, bitch, hes got a woman!! I knocked her out with one punch. Probably broke her nose too. She was just a little girl. It wasnt hard." Keola sighed. "Just a bully," she whispered, the distress in her voice painful to hear, "and I hate bullies. I never thought I would be one."
She took a breath.
"The officer was impressed. I told him I didnt want to work in a tavern. That if he took me in as his only girl and kept me fed and sheltered he could have me, that he wouldnt regret it. He looked around at all the whores working the room with contempt in his face. It would be nice to have a fresh woman for a change, he said. He stuck his hand under my blouse and felt my breasts and ran his fingers down my ribs. Youre sturdily built, if you really are a virgin its a deal he said. Then he pulled a knife from his belt and put the point under my chin and pressed till he drew blood. If not Ill cut your throat. "
There was a long pause. The Amazons breath came in short, shallow gulps and for an instant her chin trembled. Lila gently rubbed her arm wishing desperately that she knew how to ease all this anguish.
"He, uh he seemed very satisfied with the blood between my legs," Keolas voice quivered. "He threw down a pallet and some blankets in a corner of the room he had commandeered for himself from some Vonitsa family and the deal was done.
"He was 1st Lt. of the third phalanx of Carthage. He was gone all day with his official duties then he went to the tavern to drink. When he came back late at night he was always drunk and Id push more wine on him while holding him off. Hed pass out in my arms without anything happening between us and hed be gone in the morning without saying a word. I suppose he just assumed he was getting his moneys worth even though he couldnt remember. After a few days everyone in the Carthaginian army seemed to know I was the Lt.s whore. I could go anywhere without being challenged." The Scouts lips curled up in a humorless smile. "I found out all there was to know about the bastards."
"After five days I had learned all I could. I was going to spend one more night then slip out after he left in the morning. Shortly after sundown I was checking to be sure there was a full jug of wine in the room when the Lt. returned with another officer. I think he was the commander of one of the other Carthaginian phalanxes. They had both been drinking but they werent drunk."
Keolas face reddened.
"It quickly became apparent what the Lt. wanted. He wanted to suck up to his superior by sharing his fresh young whore. It was it " Lila could feel the Amazon trembling with rage. "I tried to talk my way out. Get past them and run. The Lt. finally sensed what I was doing. He blocked the door and backhanded me across the face. Youre here to open your legs, not your mouth, he said. The anger and contempt in his eyes were " A hissing sound came out from Keolas clinched teeth. "I could have killed them, Lila. I could have killed them both. There was a good dagger within easy reach on a table. Im not bragging when I say they were no match for me. But " she shook her head, "there were guards just outside the door, and a thousand Carthaginians within shouting distance. If one of them had let out a yell before I finished him, well, they wouldnt have taken me alive." Suddenly Keola turned to Lila, expression desperate, eyes pleading. "But the Nation didnt send me there to die. I was sent to bring back information that would help us survive. I had a greater responsibility than myself. Do you see that, Lila? I couldnt think of myself then. I couldnt fail the Princess and the Warleader. Do you see?"
Lilas eyes filled with water as her head bobbed in a tiny up and down motion. Keola turned till her back was to her friend.
"So I, uh " her voice was thick in her throat, "I just closed my eyes and pretended I wasnt there. I wasnt there, Lila. I wasnt."
Keola reached up and fiercely wiped away a tear that had formed in the corner of her eye.
"Im not going to cry," she whispered to herself. "Im stronger than that."
Lila, however, had no desire to be strong. She only knew her heart was breaking. She put her arms around Keola and laid her head on the back of her shoulder and let the tears come freely. Someone had to cry for the Amazon warrior too strong to cry for herself.
After a candlemark of staring stoically into space, her mind struggling to force back the memories, sensations, that flooded over her, Keola made herself think again. The sound of Lilas quiet weeping touched her deeply. She had not intended for anyone else to feel her pain and humiliation. She just knew she could not keep her condition secret forever and she was too honest to attempt lying about it. Amazon warriors did not hide behind lies.
"Dont cry," she said soothingly as she turned to her friend. "Dont give them the satisfaction of tears."
"I dont care about them," Lila answered, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "Im crying for you."
"I dont need your tears, Lila. I dont deserve them."
Lila put her hand on the Amazons cheek as she looked into her eyes.
"Yes you do," she whispered.
Keola took a breath and looked away.
"I think," she said, voice trembling, "thats the nicest thing anyones ever said to me."
Suddenly she stood up and began pacing back and forth in front of the bench, her wooden leg making a hollow thump on the floor as she walked. After a few moments a short derisive snort came from her throat.
"Ive told you all this, more than I really intended," she said without looking at Lila, "I guess I owe it to you to finish the story."
She paced again.
"In the morning, after they left, I packed some food and made one last tour of the city before slipping out. I stole Luka from the farmers barn, he was out in the fields harvesting with his family." Keola shook her head, eyes dark. "A bully and a thief. I never thought I could be such things. Things I despise." She rubbed her eyes and continued pacing like a caged tiger. "The battles were they uh " she let out a deep sigh of air, "they werent what I thought war would be. I thought I was brave, tough, ready for anything. But I was scared, Lila. Most of the time I was really scared. We all were scared, though we tried out best to hide it from each other. Only Lt. Daria and the Princess and of course the Warleader werent afraid. They arent afraid of anything. I admire them so much. But then Daria was killed and we were more scared. It seem impossible someone as hard and strong as her could die. It made us all feel more vulnerable. Like any moment could be our last."
Keola stopped and swallowed, eyes vacant as they examined her memories.
"But you know what scared us all the most?" she asked absently.
Lila shook her head.
"That we would fail the Princess. She always led from the front and not one of us had the courage not to follow. None of us were that brave."
Keola started pacing again and there was a long silence punctuated only by the soft thump of her leg.
"I killed men, Lila," the Amazon said suddenly, quietly, a hollow distance in her voice, as if some stranger was speaking through her. "I cut mens throats who didnt know I was there till they felt my blade slicing their jugular. I killed men face to face, shield to shield, and saw the shock and fear in their eyes when they knew I had killed them." The Amazon started to gulp air, like she could not catch her breath. "And I stood in the battleline and listened to Arista, one of my friends from Kalvia that I knew my whole life, scream my name as the Carthaginians butchered her at my feet, and I couldnt do anything to help her. I had three of the bastards in my face trying to kill me and all I could do was listen to her scream till the screaming stopped."
Keola halted and closed her eyes.
"But Lila," she whispered. "The screaming never really stops. All I have to do is close my eyes and listen and there it is. Sometimes " Keola swallowed painfully, "sometimes I get so angry at Arista. Why couldnt she have a little consideration for others while she was having her intestines ripped open? Why couldnt she die more quietly?" Lila watched, transfixed by horror and sorrow, as Keola laughed a harsh, humorless laugh while a single tear fell down her cheek and dripped off her chin. "The thoughts that go through your mind. The terrible thoughts. You start to resent having feelings, Lila. They seem to be good for nothing but pain. Perhaps wed be better off without them."
The farm girls face was a mask of anguish. She started to reach toward Keola but the Amazon leaned back as if the fingers were red hot pokers about to burn her. She lowered her hand.
"I think," she said hesitantly, gazing into Keolas eyes," that we need our feelings. There cant be any joy in life without them. But some memories dont need to be remembered. Some things are best forgotten, Keola. We forget things all the time without trying. Maybe some things can be forgotten on purpose?"
The Scout took a short, sighing breath.Continued - Part 2
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