This is a semi-uber story. Anyone who has read my other stories knows my affection for our sheroes Xena and Gabrielle. But I decided I wanted to create something of my own. This work is intended to become a full novel that I hope might one day be published. Im putting up the first eighty pages here because my much loved and appreciated fans have been asking me what Ive been doing lately and I thought it was about time I showed that I havent been slacking off entirely. The story takes place in Ancient Greece and is about many things, including love. Love between two Amazons. It has many names Ive stolen from my previous stories and from XWP because Im a fan and want to show my appreciation for the start in writing the show and LL and ROC gave me. But dont look for Xena or Gabrielle, they wont be found. Instead please let yourself be drawn into this world Ive created and take it only on its own terms. For those who want to read the rest of it as I go please let me know and Ill send it to you as I complete every forty or fifty pages. And please give me your opinions on whether you like the characters and the storyline. I very much want to know what you think. Is it capturing your imagination? I can be found at my usual haunts. Aleckk1@hotmail.com So, I hope you enjoy and want to read more. Here it comes ready or not.
Keola and Oresta
by Jim Kuntz
The room smelled of smoke, burned meat, stale Theban beer and unwashed bodies. A half dozen men, and one woman, huddled in a corner throwing dice against a wall. With each throw they oohhed, aahhed, grumbled, laughed and mocked each other, all between swigs of cheap ale from undecorated clay cups. An unnoticed stranger, graceful and athletic in movement, collapsed wearily onto a bench set against the wall opposite the gamblers. A child of eight or ten, stained faded blue smock draped loosely over narrow shoulders, black hair long and uncombed, feet bare, approached. She squinted with red rimmed eyes through the smoke at the visitor to the little tavern.
"What would you like, uh " the girl hesitated, surprised, unsure what to make of her new customer. The stranger was obviously a woman, young, attractive, of middling height, dark auburn hair falling thickly around her face framing tan, regular, pleasant features and brown, clear, intelligent eyes. But the clothes were hardly those of any woman the girl had ever seen. Brown woolen trousers and calf high leather boots covered well formed sturdy legs, while a loose light green cotton tunic, tucked into the breeches, and a short, fleece lined tan jacket, proof against the cool spring weather, wrapped around strong shoulders. The handle of a sword, polished silver knob at the end, peeked over her right shoulder. " uh, maam?" the girl finally stammered.
The stranger smiled a friendly, relaxed smile with a mouth full of straight, white, ungaped teeth.
"Ill take a beer, little miss," she said, "and some bread and cheese if you have it."
"We have it," the girl smiled back. She left to fetch the order.
Keola leaned against the rough plank wall, stretched her legs out and moved her head in slow circles, listening to the crackle of neck and spine as she worked out the uncomfortable tightness and kinks of a long days ride. Her eyes lazily examined the room, peering through the wispy haze of wood smoke from the large fire burning in the open hearth a few dozen feet away against the wall. Several old men sat at a table close to the fire, soaking up the warmth as they quietly sipped beer from tall flagons and talked. Farmers, Keola guessed, looking at their patched clothes and weather beaten faces. One of them kept glancing at her curiously. She smiled. He looked away and leaned closer to his friends, whispering. At another table, in the center of the room, four middle aged men, shopkeepers, or artisans, with woven cotton shirts and stitched breeches, clothes purchased from a tailor rather than homemade, played a spirited game of dominoes, faces concentrated, eyes darting as they intently followed the course of the game, oblivious to everything else. In the corner the gamblers became louder and more animated. One of them, a young muscular man with a black curly beard and long unkempt hair, a laborer or blacksmiths apprentice, he was too young to have become a full member of the smithing guild yet, suddenly stood up and glared furiously at the woman kneeling bedside him.
"I dont know what youre doing, but I dont like it, bitch!" he shouted angrily, loud enough for everyone in the tavern to hear.
Keola could only see the woman he was berating from behind as she looked up at her accuser. Long blonde hair, twisted into an unusually elaborate ponytail, spilled halfway down her back. A loose, ill fitting, roughly made wool smock, pulled together at the waist by a rope belt, covered her slender body. Keola could see the dirty black soles of her bare feet as she sat back on her haunches. A slave, given the evening off by her master, or the village whore perhaps. No respectable woman would be throwing dice in a tavern. The tension in the room was palpable as everyone turned to watch, but cooler heads among the gamblers prevailed. The angry young man was soothed by quiet words from his fellows. Finally he knelt again to continue the game.
The young serving girl returned with a tall cup of strong smelling local brew and a thick slab of rye bread, a large slice of goat cheese on top. Keola took the cup and laid the bread and cheese in her lap.
"How much?" she asked.
"A dinar," the child answered.
Keola fished in a pocket inside her jacket and pulled out one small silver coin. The girl bit it, to be sure it was solid silver, not copper coated with silver. A copper obol was only worth a tenth as much as a silver dinar, and you could never be too careful about such things. Keola grinned to see such savvy in one so young. The girl put the coin in her mouth, a safe place till she could give it to her father, leaning on a plank stretched between two empty wine casks near the door, gossiping with regulars of the establishment. She took a step back but hesitated, head down, eyes peeking curiously from under half lowered eyelids. Keola took a sip of the warm beer, then smiled her easy, friendly smile.
"Nope," she said, "not from around here. Im from the Amazon valley. Many leagues to the north."
The little girls head came up and her eyes widened. She took a step back and swallowed.
"Are are you an Amazon warrior, who kills men and eats them for breakfast?" she stammered.
Keola chuckled. "Well, little miss, I am a warrior. But usually I dont eat anything for breakfast. Not even men. I prefer a big cup of goats milk to start the day. Eating men gives you terrible heartburn."
The girl relaxed a bit. She smiled shyly. "You dont seem like a warrior."
"I dont huh," the Amazon frowned. "How do warriors usually seem, little miss?"
The girls face clouded with anger and fear.
"Warriors are always men," she said, "with big swords, and helmets that cover their faces, and scars on their arms and legs. They push people around and take things without paying." The girl scowled. "I dont like them. They scare me. Im glad when they leave. So is my father and everyone else."
Keola sighed. Her eyes looked past the girl to some distant image.
"Ive met warriors like that," she said quietly. "They scare me too." Her gaze focused on the green eyes staring at her. "But warriors dont have to be that way, little miss. Where I come from warriors learn a better way. They learn to respect other people. An Amazon warrior doesnt steal or bully. And Im an Amazon warrior."
The girl smiled a hesitant, uncertain, doubting smile.
"Zeus can damn me to hell!!"
Everyone in the tavern looked over at the gamblers in the corner. The young man with the black curly beard bolted furiously to his feet. He grabbed a handful of the womans smock, dragging her up with him. He turned her toward him. Keola caught a glimpse of the womans face. An astonished puff of air escaped her lungs.
"You cheating bitch!" the man yelled, veins bulging purple in his neck. "Nobody throws five winners in a row. Ill beat you into a bloody lump on the floor before I let you take one damn dinar from that pot!!"
The woman spread her arms, palms open, eyes wide, as if about to plead for her life. Suddenly her knee snapped up into the mans crotch with such force it lifted him to his toes. A shocked gasp exploded from his mouth. He grabbed his groin with both hands and collapsed to the floor quivering. For a stunned moment everyone froze in the silent room. Then another of the gamblers, a stocky man in a ragged tunic and patched, faded black trousers, jumped up and threw a punch at the womans head. She expertly sidestepped and caught his arm, using his momentum to throw him over her hip. He landed on his back with a breathtaking thud. She followed with a vicious heel to the throat that left him choking for air, semiconscious. Before she could turn back however she was tackled by the other four gamblers and dragged down into a thrashing pile of flashing fists and kicking feet.
The man on top of the pile, a skinny fellow with a big nose and few teeth, was trying desperately to get in his lick at the woman on the bottom when someone grabbed a handful of hair and snapped his head back. "Excuse me," Keola said blandly as her fist crashed into his face. His body went limp blood spurting from his broken nose. She rolled him off the struggling heap. She grabbed the next man by the foot and dragged him away from the pile. As he rolled over to see who was so rudely interrupting his fun a thick-soled hobbled leather boot smashed into his mouth. He rolled back on his stomach spitting blood and teeth. The third man sensed something happening behind him. Thickset, balding, middle aged, he scrambled to his feet, fists up.
"Who the fuck are you?" he growled at Keola.
Before he could react the Amazon landed a foot to the side of his knee. He fell howling in pain, grabbing the dislocated joint.
"Nobody you want to know, Im sure," Keola said quietly.
The Amazon did not so much as glance at the fourth gambler. She knew the man already had more than he could deal with in the form of two strong hands locked around his throat. Desperately he tried to break the iron grip throttling his windpipe, face turning a deepening shade of scarlet. Finally he slumped into unconsciousness. The woman threw him off with a grunt. She kipped gracefully to her feet. "Hey, wait up," she called to Keolas back, the Amazon already halfway across the room to the tavern door. She wiped her bloody bottom lip with the back of her hand and spit out more blood. Quickly she collected the small pile of dinars in the corner by the wall and slipped them into a pocket on the front of her smock. She looked down at the young man with the black beard, balled up in the fetal position, hands covering his crushed testicles, vomit on his lips and on the floor around his head. She jabbed him in the ribs with her toe till his eyes shifted to her.
"I didnt cheat," she said forcefully, a hint of righteous outrage in her voice. A wide, mischievous smile slowly spread across her features. "This time," she winked. She hurried out of the tavern after her benefactor.
Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang!
Keola emerged from the tavern into the dusty lane that ran around the edge of the grassy village common. A few dozen sheep, and several old milk cows, grazed quietly, ignoring the noisy commotion of the village warning bell. The Amazon looked across the wide park. On the other side the little serving girl pounded insistently on a brass bell with a wooden mallet, attached to the bell by a length of rope. A cluster of men, some armed with clubs, spears or old swords, gathered around her in answer to her summons. More arrived by the moment, coming at a run.
Keola calmly untied her bay gelding from the hitching ring imbedded in a post supporting the awning over the tavern entrance. Grabbing a handful of mane, she pulled herself up onto the blanket covering the animals back.
"Come on, wait up, Ill go with you," the tall blonde gambler called from the door.
Keola looked at the woman a moment, taking in the high cheekbones, narrow aquiline nose and round, firm chin, but said nothing. She turned her mount and, with a touch of her heels, started south down the Athens road at a trot.
"About as friendly as a damn badger in heat" the blonde woman muttered under her breath.
She looked across the common. The little band of citizen militia had grown to a dozen and was starting across the park to deal with whoever was disturbing the village peace. With a slight smirk of disdain she hurried into the alley beside the tavern and disappeared. The men were halfway across the common when she appeared again atop a tall brown mare with white forehead and ankles. The shapeless smock she had been wearing was crumpled in a ball in front of her, revealing a light gray sleeveless linen tunic and tight tan breeches pulled up to the knees. The body they covered was lean, lithe, athletic. An ornately carved ivory sword grip could be seen over her shoulder, the thin brown leather-carrying strap from a sheath running across her chest. An unstrung bow and quiver of arrows was tied to the blanket over the animals rump. She pulled the horse up in front of the tavern and grinned.
"Sorry to be a nuisance, boys," she called cheerily as she threw a half dozen dinars down into the dirt, "the drinks are on me."
With a wave of bravado she put her heels to her mount and galloped out of the village.
Half a league out of the little town she pulled her mare up beside Keola, who had slowed to a walk. She settled herself a moment on the horses back after the hard gallop, then looked over at the young woman beside her with a friendly smile. Keola stared straight ahead.
"Uh, Id like to say thanks for the help, Amazon," she said.
Keola said nothing, not even glancing at the woman speaking to her. The smile slowly disappeared from the blondes face. Anger started to build in her eyes as the silence lengthened.
"Rudeness is not something you usually find in an Amazon warrior," she said finally, an edge to her voice. "Perhaps you were sick the day they taught that the polite response to thank you is youre welcome."
"And what would you know about Amazon warriors?" Keola said evenly.
The woman blew out an angry breath. "A hell of a lot more than you it seems. An Amazon warrior has she " her voice faded away, blue eyes becoming dark, distant.
"I was telling that little girl in the tavern that an Amazon warrior isnt a thief and bully," Keola said, reproach and a hint of bitterness in each word. "Next thing I know Im beating up a bunch of farmers and tradesmen to save a dice cheats ass. Its not something I want to say youre welcome about, Oresta."
Orestas head snapped back as she took in a shocked breath.
"You know me?" she asked.
"No, it was a lucky guess," Keola replied sarcastically as she turned her head to stare at the woman beside her. "Or maybe all women warriors who cheat at dice are named Oresta."
Oresta ignored the sarcasm, eyebrows knitted together in concentration as she frantically searched her memory for some clue as to who this warrior was before her.
"Did you cheat Phendra when you won that sword?" the Amazon asked cuttingly, glancing at the blade on Orestas back.
"Keola," the blonde whispered under her breath. "Keola of Kalvia," she said louder, memory suddenly exploding with a thousand half forgotten images. Her face darkened like a building thunderstorm.
"You know damn well I didnt cheat her," she said, voice lowering with anger. "You and your pain in the ass little friends were there when I put that arrow through the ring. I won it fair and square."
"Yea, and how long had you been practicing that stunt before you suckered Phendra into thinking it was something you just made up on the spot?" Keola challenged.
Oresta started to speak angry words, hesitated, then leaned back as a mischievous smile spread across her face.
"Only all summer," she laughed. "I was still only hitting it eight out of ten times. I was pretty nervous when I drew back the string on that bow. I really didnt know if I could pull it off. But Gods I wanted this sword. Its the most beautiful weapon Ive ever seen. Its never let me down." Oresta laughed again. "I wonder what Phendra would say if she ever found out I didnt own that big brown stud I bet against the sword?"
The Amazon shook her head disapprovingly. "Seven summers gone since I saw you last and you havent changed one damn bit. Still a smug child trying to put one over on the world. No honor, just cleverness and vanity. Oresta gets the last laugh, no matter what."
The blondes humor disappeared.
"I see you havent changed either, Keola," she said. "You still have the same smart mouth and holier than thou attitude you always had. I could never understand how a girl of only thirteen summers could be so fucking certain she had the world all figured out. More than once I had to keep Ortigya from knocking your teeth down your throat." Oresta paused to let out a disgusted snort of air. "If my friends and I were such an abomination, why in the Gods did you and your little twerp buddies follow us around at every Founding Day Celebration and Holy Days Feast in Farsala?"
"Because," Keola shot back, brown eyes flaring, "you were the best example in the Amazon valley of how not to do things, and I always try to learn from the best."
Oresta looked away to the purple Thracian hills on the horizon, face flushed, struggling to control her temper. Keola watched with narrow, disdainful, challenging eyes. If you still think Im that skinny thirteen year old you pushed around, youre about to find out different. Oresta did not reach for her sword however. Or put her heels to her mare and gallop away. She took a couple of deep breaths and blew them out. The color in her cheeks slowly receded. Finally she turned back to the Amazon, features composed, blue eyes calm, subdued.
"Do you ever see Ortigya?" she asked quietly. "How is she?" The timber of her voice had a touch of weariness, and a genuine desire to hear news of an old friend.
Keola examined Orestas face a moment. The challenge left her eyes. The woman she saw looked tired, withdrawn, perhaps a touch lonely, although Keola knew that might be her own prejudice coloring her perception. Still, how could a woman raised as an Amazon not be lonely separated from her people. Some of her righteous indignation melted into sympathy. The truth was Keolas tender heart was always stronger than her sense of rectitude. She just did not like to admit it to herself, or have anyone discover that it was so.
"Shes fine," she answered, looking down the rutted brown road, "I see her often in Farsala. Shes a scribe for the Queen. Handling all the Governments official correspondence. And shes a member of Farsalas village council. Shes going to become an important person among the Amazon people. A leader." Keola stole a quick glance at Oresta, then smiled to herself. "She grew up." As soon as she said it she regretted it. It was a bad habit she wished she could break. Always having to put one last sarcastic needle into a conversation.
Oresta did not hear the sarcasm. Her mind was fixed on a friend of long ago. A friend she had shared everything with. A friend who had become her first love. A friend who seemed so far away, in more than just distance. She shifted uncomfortably on her mount as too many memories began to creep out of the shadowy corners of her mind. She blinked and shook her head and forced them back into the dark. She swallowed and turned her eyes to Keola.
"How are those two shadows of yours?" she asked. "I never saw the three of you apart." Her face scrunched up with concentration. "What were their names? Uh Sara, the one with the big butt and the pox scars on her face and and the one with the red hair and freckles who was always giggling?"
"Arista," Keola answered. "Shes well. Shes living in Kalvia with her mate, Nurisa. Theyre wood workers. They have their own shop making furniture. Theyre both very talented. Women from other villages come to barter chairs and tables and bedframes from them. And they just adopted their first child. Sula." Keola smiled. "Shes a dream. Two years old. She calls me Aunt KiKi." The Amazon laughed. "The little devil knows she has my heart. She gets away with murder when I baby-sit."
The happy feelings slipped away. Oresta watched Keolas face darken, her jaw muscles unconsciously flexing.
"Saras dead," she said finally, a slight rasp in her voice. "She was killed last summer on the Zama Ridge fighting the Samnite barbarians. She died beside Queen Melosa, part of her bodyguard. I uh " the Amazon cleared her throat raggedly, "I found her myself, lying on top of the Queen. She told me the night before the battle she was going to find glory or death the next day. My brave Sara ," Keola turned her face from Oresta, sniffed, rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, then straightened and turned back, "my brave Sara found both. She wasnt anyones shadow. She was my candle in the darkness."
Oresta looked off into the gathering dusk, sun hanging low over the western mountains, the tiny, white capped point of Olympus rising above the other peaks. Memories of the Amazon valley flooded over her, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, people, faces, voices. The music of singing at a joining celebration, the wild high pitched yipping of two hundred warriors as they welcomed newly initiated members into the village company of warriors. The blonde suddenly gulped a breath of air and forced her mind to turn from the memories. Memories now so alien they seemed like they happened to a different person. She glanced at Keola. The Amazon stared straight ahead, eyes hooded, jaw set, lost in memories her own. Oresta cleared her throat.
"Ive heard rumors about a battle in the valley last summer," she said. "Just vague stories without any details. There are so many stupid legends and twisted half truths floating around about the people that I gave up believing any news I heard about the Amazons years ago."
Keola nodded slightly without taking her eyes off the road.
"It happened in early summer," she began quietly, "almost a year ago now. The Samnites tried to push through the narrow pass over the Zama Ridge, at the north end of the valley. You know where I mean."
Oresta nodded. Keolas jaw flexed with unconscious tension.
"They came at us in waves, howling like starving wolves that have picked up the scent of fresh meat. We were dug in just below the crest. The strongest defensive position you can imagine. The slope was so steep they had to leave their horses behind and attack on foot. Only maniacs would have attempted it. But up they came. Wed throw them back. Up theyd come again. We killed them by the hundreds. Then the thousands." Keola swallowed. "Late in the day I started to see women, young boys, old men struggling up the slope with the warriors. Some of them didnt even bother to pick up a weapon before they threw themselves on our line. It was like like the whole Samnite people were committing suicide on our swords. As the sun started to set we were completely used up. All of us were hurt," Oresta noticed the Amazons hand rubbing over a thin white scar that ran along her forearm, "so many were dead. But up the bastards came again. The line started to break. First a few, then all of us were running. We just just gave up hope. And without hope what is there to do but lay down and die, or run away."
"Old Queen Melosa was too crippled with rheumatism to fight," the Amazon continued. "Shed spent the whole battle hobbling up and down behind the line with her walking stick shouting encouragement. When we broke she rallied her bodyguard and a few dozen others around her at the crest of the ridge. She picked up a sword and led them in a charge right into the middle of the enemy. They were swallowed up the way a rock is swallowed by the water when you drop it in a pond." Keola took a breath as her cheeks colored. "To see their courage, it made the rest of us ashamed to still be alive. We stopped running and got ourselves into a line and charged after them. The Samnites nerve finally failed them. They turned and fled. We chased them down the slope slaughtering everyone we could till we overran their camp. There was no one left alive but a few mothers and a lot of frightened little children crying and hiding under wagons and in tents and under piles of blankets and clothes they had pulled over themselves. We had annihilated the Samnites."
The Amazon absently rubbed her cheek as images of death she could not stop invaded her brain. Finally she shook her head and cleared her throat.
"We found out they had been driven from their land by another barbarian tribe they called Huns. They were completely terrified of these Huns. Called them demons on horseback. They had decided they would conquer us or die, but they wouldnt go back and face the Huns."
The two women rode in silence for some distance, thinking private thoughts. Keola took a breath.
"The people have never been so close to extinction as we were that day," she said slowly. "The Nation needed all her warriors."
The meaning of the words was plain enough. Oresta looked at Keola darkly.
"Im not an Amazon warrior," she said testily.
Keola looked back just as darkly.
"You could have been," she said. "Ortigya told us what happened, that you had completed all the years of training, passed all the tests and trials. Then the night before you were to go through the final initiation and take the warriors oath you packed up and left. Snuck out of Farsala like a thief and never returned."
Oresta shifted on her brown mare, body hard.
"I dont owe you any damn explanations," she growled. "Youre not my mother or my conscience."
"No, Im not," Keola growled back. "But you owed Ortigya an explanation. Even at thirteen I could see how deeply she was hurt. Seven years later and she still carries the torch for you. You dont treat people that way, Oresta. You dont cut their hearts out without even an excuse me. If the truth was pathetic then you at least owed her a good lie."
Oresta let out an angry breath.
"That mouth is going to get you in trouble again, warrior," she spit, leaning toward Keola. "I remember when you and Sara got the hell beat out of you behind the old mill because youd been mouthing off about something. If Arista hadnt come running to me and Ortigya to intervene youd have some big gaps in those teeth of yours right now."
"There was five of them and they were all older and bigger," Keola flared back, leaning toward Oresta till their noses were inches apart. "They had been picking on some girls for not being Greek and having accents. I dont tolerate bullies. Anywhere. Ever. And I dont tolerate rude behavior. If you think Im wrong about what you did to Ortigya you go ahead and reach for that sword."
Oresta pulled her horse up with a jerk of the rein. Keola did the same. They glared at one another in the fading light, angry blue eyes into angry brown. Finally the blonde took a deep breath and leaned back, slightly. The Amazon hesitated a moment, then straightened. Her instinct was always to let her adversaries back out as gracefully as possible from a fight. As long as it was they that did the backing. Keola of Kalvia did not know how to back up.
Oresta bit her lip with tension. Something strange was going on inside her. Her heart was pounding and she could feel the heat of her face as the blood rose in her cheeks. Her instinct to fight or run from the painful things in her life was suddenly failing miserably. Keolas infuriating, unbending belief in decency had her trapped like a lion in a pit. Somewhere in the deepest part of herself she understood that even if she ran halfway around the world those unyielding brown eyes would still be there, demanding an accounting, an explanation. This one time she had to explain herself. At least she had to try, so those eyes would stop boring into her, searching through her for her soul.
"I " she hesitated and let out a slow breath as she struggled to find words that would communicate her swirling jumble of feelings, "I never intended to hurt Ortigya. What I did had nothing to do with her. But she could never have understood what I was thinking, feeling. If Id told her I was leaving, things would only have gotten ugly. I didnt want it to end that way between us."
Oresta turned her head and stared at the sunset as the last sliver of shimmering yellow star disappeared below the rim of the earth, leaving glorious, glowing orange streaks of light on the high cirrus clouds that hung above the horizon. Keola looked with her.
"Do you know where that sun is going?" the blonde asked quietly.
The Amazon shook her head.
"Its dropping into a blue green ocean that stretches as far as the eye can see from the highest hill," she said. "And on the other side of that ocean is awe inspiring Rome, so large you can hardly ride around it in a day. And beautiful Carthage, a shimmering pearl of white marble that sparkles in the sun when you see it from the sea. And the flat Iberian plain, with orchards and vineyards and flocks of sheep so vast that the earth looks like its made of white wool. The Pillars of Hercules are there, off the coast." She looked at Keola. "Sailors say that past them is the end of the world. That if you sail further youll go over the edge into an endless, godless void. A pit so deep youll starve to death before you hit bottom." She took in a breath. "Ive seen it all. Except the void. I dream about it sometimes though." She bit her lip. A nervous habit. "I was eighteen years old and I knew there was a world outside the Amazon valley. I was eight when I was brought to the Amazons. I could remember that something besides the Amazon people existed. Ortigya was a baby when she was brought to the Nation, like most Amazons are. She could never imagine, understand, that there was a greater world than her little valley. If I took the oath of a warrior, to put my sword and my life between the people and our enemies, I wouldve had to stay. I " she swallowed, face serious, "I just couldnt. I had to know what was on the other side of the sunset. I couldnt let my life escape without exploring the world I knew was out here." She looked at Keola, looked deep into clear, intelligent, sensitive brown eyes. "The world is an immense place, Amazon. It can make you feel very small and insignificant. You can lose yourself in it and disappear like you never existed." She paused to bite her lip. "I I have need sometimes just to disappear," she whispered.
Her head snapped away as her cheeks flushed. How had those words escaped? She never revealed herself to anyone. She took a breath to calm her pounding heart and rubbed her face. Why was this near stranger from the past having such an effect on her? Suddenly she wished desperately that she had gone north instead of south out of tavern. She peeked through her eyelashes at the Amazon without turning her head, trying to gauge if her unintended words had produced any reaction. Keola watched the sky steadily darken and the first faint stars appear, deep in thought. Finally she let out a long breath and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand.
"Ive wondered too, sometimes, whats on the other side of the sunset," she said thoughtfully. She looked at Oresta, eyes penetrating and intense. "I know the world is immense. That it contains more than I can possibly imagine. But I never want to be eaten by it. We make the world as much as it makes us, Oresta." She grinned a sly, self-assured grin, a smile so knowing and almost wicked that Oresta found herself smiling as well. "Im too hard and prickly a nut for this earth to swallow. Itll spit me out in disgust, the way old Bertina used to spit out the wines she didnt like at the wine judging every year on Founding Day. Remember?"
Oresta laughed loudly at the memory, her anxiety melting away.
"I know more than one wine maker had to be tackled before they ran up on the platform and strangled her," she said. "Shed spit the wine out like she had just taken a swig of donkey piss. Ortigya and I used to laugh till we cried watching the crazy faces shed make."
Keola laughed and nodded, but as she did a brief, hidden flash of concern crossed her face. What deep, secret pain did she sense? As much as she tried to portray herself as hard and unbending, she was helpless against her powerful ability to feel the hurt and need of the people around her, and try to help. It was a gift, and a curse. It had given her deep satisfaction, and searing heartache. But what could she do? It was her.
The laughter died away into a pleasant silence.
"So," Oresta said finally, absently smoothing over some windblown tufts of hair on her mounts mane, "whats an Amazon warrior doing so far from home? Are you trying to find whats on the other side of the sunset?" She smiled sweetly at Keola. "If so youre going in the wrong direction."
Keola narrowed her brown eyes.
"Ortigya must have loved your smile," she rumbled, "because it wasnt your sense of humor."
Oresta made a that wasnt very nice face.
The Amazon leaned back and settled herself on her horse and patted a long wooden cylinder hanging by her leg.
"Im on my way to Athens," she said, "to deliver dispatches to our Ambassador."
"Ambassador!?" Oresta gulped, genuinely shocked.
"Yep," Keola smiled, seeing Orestas face. "The Amazon Nation has an Ambassador in Athens, and Corinth too. By next summer we should have ones in Thebes and Delphi as well."
Oresta shook her head in questioning astonishment.
"Were no longer isolated in our little valley," the Amazon explained. "We learned our lesson on the Zama Ridge. The world has filled up and now its pounding on our door. Our remoteness wont protect us any more. If were going to survive we need to know whats going on around us, no more surprises. And we need allies. After the battle the village councils elected Chief Ephiny of Pyra the new Queen. Shes young and full of energy and new ideas. Shes doing incredible things for the people. I support everything shes doing, although a lot of the older women bitch and moan about tradition being violated."
"You sound like youre some kind of damn politician or something," Oresta smiled, but there was a hint of suspicion, as well as needling humor, in her words.
The Amazon gave a slight shrug.
"I try to keep up with things. Whats wrong with that?" she said defensively.
"Nothing, nothing." Oresta said quickly, putting up an open palm as a sign of peace. Then her mischievous smile slowly spread across her face. "So, youve become a tourist then, since this great opening up of the Amazons to the world."
"A what?" Keola asked.
"Its a city word," Oresta replied. "It means someone who wanders the countryside seeing the sights."
"Well, I dont think Im any damn tourist," Keola wrapped her tongue awkwardly around the unfamiliar word. "Im on official business for the Queen. Ive been to Corinth twice already delivering dispatches and now Im on my way to Athens."
"Oh," Oresta said, a gleam in her eye. "I thought you might be a tourist since you were headed down this road. Theres certainly a beautiful Temple to Aphrodite in the next village. And some Priests and Priestesses who are eager to share their knowledge of the Goddesss love making techniques with tourists who make a donation to the Temple. And after that is the famous hotsprings of Deliphis, where people go to soak in the medicinal waters. They say its great for gout or the shingles. And if you soak your head it will cure your dandruff, clear up your sinuss and sweeten your breath." The corner of Orestas mouth curled up. "That can be so embarrassing, dandruff and bad breath."
Keolas eyes were narrow, suspicious.
"Yea," she said slowly, "and after that is Athens."
"What makes you think Athens is after that?" Oresta asked innocently.
"I can read a map." Keola growled, unhappy she did not know where the conversation was going.
"Oh," Oresta said again, and the Amazon cringed inside to hear the condescending fake sympathy of the sound. "Well, Im sure thats a very useful skill. And uh how old is your map? If you dont mind my asking?"
"How the hell should I know how old it is." Keola snapped as she unconsciously touched the wooden cylinder where it rested.
"Well, I only mention it," Oresta said, "because you might want to make a few changes on it. You know, erase a line here, move a line there."
"All right, I cant wait forever," Keola grumbled, "it will be full dark soon. Whatever you have to say, say it."
"Well, its just," she shrugged nonchalantly, "after Deliphis the road becomes a little more challenging. However Im sure you and your horse are strong swimmers. You should have no problem."
"Yep," Orestas grin broadened. "Its only about a three league swim. The road ran for years right along the ocean between Deliphis and Potadia, the shoreline eroding closer every year. A couple of summers ago a big storm came and finished the job. Theres no road between those villages anymore. Just the sea pounding against the high cliffs." She pointed toward the fading sunset. "You have to take the old Thrace road west of here around the Theban hills and then back to Potadia to get to Athens."
Keola eyed Oresta suspiciously.
Oresta shook her head. "No bullshit."
The Amazon let out a disgusted sigh. "Damn." She looked around at the unfamiliar countryside disappearing into darkness. "Well, its too late to do anything about it now. I guess Ill find some shelter and camp for the night." She looked at Oresta and shrugged slightly. "Company is welcome" she said noncommittally, "if youre headed toward Athens."
Oresta was headed for Corinth, to view the Scared Processional to Apollo, and enjoy the drunken, orgiastic bacchanalia overseen by the Priestess of Apollo in the Sacred Grove outside the city, and to do some serious gambling on the chariot races held in Apollos honor after the Processional. She had been trying to increase her stake when she found herself on the bottom of an angry pile of dice players in the last village.
A slight smile came to her lips. "As a matter of fact, I was headed for Athens. A long ride is always shorter with some company."
Keola nodded in agreement.
Keola sniffed the strange object suspiciously.
"Just delivered from the groves of Judea, young lady," the wrinkled, gray haired old woman encouraged. "Theyre impossible to find out of season. Youll love them. You should buy a dozen at least, before theyre all gone."
The Amazon glanced at Oresta.
"They do smell good," she said.
"They taste better," Oresta reassured. "Theyre called oranges, my favorite fruit. Trust me, you want one."
"Trust you?" Keola scoffed with a grin. "Youre not afraid to ask for the moon are you? It probably tastes like cow dung, or else it gives you the runs. Still," she took another whiff of the sweet orange aroma, "it does smell good."
"How much?" Oresta asked the fruitseller.
"For two such beautiful young ladies," the old woman flattered, "my special price, five dinars."
Keola let out a gasp of air like she had been punched in the stomach. Orestas eyes narrowed at the old merchant.
"One" she said.
"One!" the fruitseller snapped in practiced outrage. "The young warrior is trying to take advantage of a poor old woman." After waiting a moment to see if her plea of poverty had any effect on possibly gullible strangers, her eyes narrowed like Orestas and she got down to business.
"Four" she said.
"One" Oresta answered.
The merchant shook her head disgustedly. "Three and five obols."
"One and a half." Oresta answered.
The woman pursed her lips. "Three," she said reluctantly.
Oresta hesitated, then raised two fingers. The fruitseller shook her head determinedly. Oresta took the orange from Keola and handed it to the old woman.
"All right, all right," she sputtered, disgust thick in her voice, refusing to take the fruit, "two."
Oresta reached for the coin pouch tied to the sheath strap where it hung low close to her hip, but Keola quickly had two silver coins out of the pocket inside her jacket and gave them to the merchant.
"May Athena bless you both," the old woman muttered with a distinct lack of sincerity, before biting each coin.
As they walked away from the small fruitstand Oresta handed Keola the orange.
"Two dinars for one orange," Keola frowned. "Thats pretty outrageous isnt it? You can get a bushel of apples for two dinars."
"The old lady is right," Oresta shrugged, "theyre hard to get. Ive paid more. You shouldve let me buy it."
"I pay my own way," the Amazon said firmly. She looked at the orange, then brought it to her mouth. Oresta caught her wrist just before she took a bite.
"Uh, no," she grinned. "You dont eat it like an apple. Here," she took the fruit and using the knife from her belt quickly quartered it. She handed a piece to Keola. "Take a bite of the innards and suck on it. Throw away the skin."
The Amazon examined the succulent inside a moment, then did as instructed.
"Mmmm, gods, that is good," she purred as she discarded the empty peel.
Oresta laughed at the juice dripping off the Amazons chin. "Told ya."
She handed Keola the rest of the orange. Keola handed back a quarter. Oresta shook her head no, but finally took it when the Amazon insisted with a frown.
They strolled slowly along through the throng of people crowding the central thoroughfare of Potadia. The Great Procession honoring Demeter, goddess of the earth and the harvest, was over. The chanting and prayers and sacrifice of several sheep and goats by Demeters priestess in the common of the large prosperous village had gone well. The omens read in the entrails promised a good growing season. The crowd of farmers and wives and swarming children were in a happy mood, spending dinars freely at the hastily erected little kiosks put up along the side of the road by enterprising merchants from Athens, twenty leagues distant. The warriors reached the large rectangular park in the center of the village. They went to a tall shade tree at the edge of the common to escape the hot noon sun and sat down to enjoy the orange and watch the comings and goings.
Circles of mothers and children were scattered about the grassy park, gathered around acrobats doing flips and cartwheels and tossing one another in the air, or jugglers with knifes, or a trainer with a troupe of performing dogs. At one end a large group of men, all with a cup of wine or beer in their hands, cheered and catcalled and argued over the cock fights, all of them an expert on which preening, crowing bird was going to win and why. Between the islands of people packs of loose children, many of them naked in the midday heat, raced about rolling hoops with a stick or bashing each other with wooden swords, shouting childish warcrys. All of them were streaked with dirt, sweat dripping off laughing faces. Keola watched intently, soaking in every sight, every sound. Oresta leaned back against the comfortable old elm, eyes half closed, enjoying the relaxing moment.
The Amazon shook her head. "Im still not really used to it yet."
Oresta opened her eyes. " Used to what?"
Keola smiled. "Im not used to seeing so many hairy faces and flopping cocks," she chuckled. "The only cocks you see in the valley are under rams and bulls and stallions. Not on people. Im still not used to seeing so many males."
Oresta laughed. "Well," she said, "Ive traveled a lot the last seven years, and it turns out half the people in the world have one of those. The chief advantage seems to be that you can pee standing up. Im sure that must be a great thing if you ever find yourself too crowded to squat. Otherwise it seems like they would be very annoying flopping around loose when you were doing something athletic." Her face became serious as she turned toward the Amazon. "But let me give you a piece of advice, Keola. A mans balls are his most sensitive spot. If youre in a fight, smash one the first chance you get. Itll put him on the ground faster than stabbing him in the heart. And never hesitate to grab him by the balls if you want to settle him down. Hell follow you like a whipped puppy if you have a tight grip on them."
Keola nodded gravely, tucking the information in a safe place to be used if needed.
"Ive never really known any men," she said slowly. "What do you think of them?"
Oresta could see on the Amazons face that it was a question of great concern. That Keola wanted a serious answer, not a flip remark. She leaned her head against the tree and her face darkened as she carefully considered her reply, while deep, painful emotions rose up that she wished she could purge, because she knew they clouded her judgment. Finally she let out a long breath and shook her head.
"Ive known a few good men," she said quietly. "Men Id trust to watch my back. Men Id stand by through anything. Friends." Keola noted the sound of that word. She understood instinctively that it was a word Oresta used to refer to only a very few special people. "But for the most part, dont trust them. The great majority have their brains in their cocks and all that flopping around has them addled and stupid. And the ones who dont have their brains in their cocks are even more dangerous, because you cant even begin to guess what theyre thinking. Except that its probably selfish or evil." She rubbed her face thoughtfully. "I dont know, Keola. My experience of men has not been the best, Im probably being too harsh, but " she looked at the Amazon, "youll never go wrong if you approach every man you meet like hes a mountain lion youve trapped in a cave. Dont take your eyes off him, dont turn your back, and no matter how much he purrs or rubs against you with that soft shinning coat, never forget he has fangs that can rip your throat out in a heartbeat, and he wont hesitate to do it if he gets the chance."
Keola nodded as she examined the roiling crowd. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to see if she could spot the mountain lion in the laughing, shouting faces of the boys that ran past, and the young men who walked by stealing glances at the two strangely dressed, attractive women with swords on their backs and a confident, warrior look in their eyes. She was not sure she could see it. The children just looked like children, and she loved children. And the young men, with their curious eyes and half smiles that seemed intended to attract her attention, hardly seemed threatening. What danger was one callow farmer or apprentice to a warrior who had faced ten thousand howling barbarians in a war of extermination and lived to tell of it? She determined that she would heed Orestas words, for the time being, but that she would give these unknown people, these men, a chance to show themselves for what they were, and she would withhold a final judgment till she knew them better.
The warriors sat for a half dozen candlemarks, enjoying the beautiful day and the bustle of the crowd. Finally a young peddler with a large urn at his hip carried by a strap over his shoulder and two cups dangling by a string tied to the handles of the urn came by.
"Wine," he called, "wine from the vineyards of Attica. The best in Greece."
Oresta motioned him over. He came up and smiled a slightly wolfish smile.
"My, you ladies look very lovely sitting under this tree," he said. "A cool cup of my delicious wine would certainly make a fine day better." He looked up. "This shade you have is very nice."
Keola smiled her friendly smile. Oresta did not smile.
"How much?" she asked.
"Four obols a cup," the peddler answered, grinning back at the Amazon.
Oresta pulled a dinar out of her coin pouch and flipped it up to the young man.
"Two cups," she said. "And if you dont invite yourself to sit down you can keep the change."
The man frowned a disappointed frown, but quickly deposited the coin in his pocket and expertly filled the two cups and handed them to the women. They drank the sweet nectar in one long, refreshing gulp. It was excellent wine.
"Thank you," Keola smiled as she finished her drink.
"How about another," the peddler asked quickly. "For you only half "
"Goodbye." Oresta said loudly and forcefully.
The young peddler looked at the warriors face. He sighed a disappointed, disgusted sigh and walked away without another word.
"Ill pay you back when I have some obols," Keola said as she watched the man walk away. "All I have now are dinars."
"Dont worry about it," Oresta answered. She looked at the Amazon curiously. "How did you get any money anyway? Everything was done by barter when I lived with the Amazons. There wasnt a dinar in the whole valley."
"The Queen has opened some trading contacts" Keola answered. "Weve been selling wool and olive oil to Corinth for hard money. We have a treasury now." She laughed as she leaned close to Oresta. "Its a box Queen Ephiny has buried around her hut somewhere," she whispered through a smile. "Shes the only one who knows where it is."
Oresta laughed as well.
"The Queen gives a dispatch rider a stipend of dinars when we go on a mission, to pay our way," Keola continued. "Its been an education learning how much things cost. But Im getting the hang of it I think."
"How much do you get?" Oresta asked.
"Damn youre nosy," Keola said. "Twenty dinars if its any of your business."
"And how many do you have left?"
The Amazon frowned and turned her head away. "Enough."
Oresta nudged an elbow in Keolas ribs.
"How many, exactly, is enough?" she chided.
"Well," the Amazon replied, very reluctantly, "the last time I looked, enough was equal to six."
Oresta snorted loudly.
"Youre not even to Athens yet and youre down to six?" she snickered. "What were you going to do on the way back? Eat grass?"
A touch of anger crossed Keolas face. "If I have to," she said defiantly. "Ive got a strong back. Im sure some of the taverns and inns along the way home will pay a meal for a cord of wood chopped or a room swept out. A little hard work never hurt anybody."
"Never helped anybody either," Oresta answered. Her eyes swept around the common full of farmers and farmers wives. "Take a close look, Keola. These are people whove worked hard all their lives. They look the same wherever you go, from one end of the world to the other. Wrinkled, used up, worn out, broken down, old before their time. The gods gave you a back and a brain, Amazon. If you depend on your back, your brain dies and your body with it. If you depend on your brain your back stays straight, your hands dont curl up with rheumatism, and life can be a pleasure instead of a burden."
Keola looked at Oresta, brown eyes narrow.
"You didnt learn that garbage in the Amazon valley," she said reproachfully. "Hard work is what gets things done. Nothing is created without it. Its what gives life discipline and purpose. You cant appreciate anything till youve paid the price in sweat it took to make it."
"Maybe," Oresta replied. "But youre an Amazon warrior. Not a slave or a serving wench. If you want people to fear that sword on your back youd better make them believe youre smarter, tougher and meaner than they are. A warrior with a broom in her hand is a laughingstock."
"I dont want people to fear me." There was anger in Keolas voice.
Oresta shook her head sadly. "You dont have a clue do you?" Her features hardened. "You dont just represent yourself out here, Amazon. You represent the whole Nation. Youre the only Amazon warrior these people have ever seen, maybe ever will see, the same in Athens and wherever you go. If you want the outside world to respect the Amazon people, if you want friends for the Nation, then youd better demonstrate that an Amazon warrior is a fearsome foe, and a valuable ally. Not a good chopper of wood and sweeper of floors."
The Amazons eyes flared. "If you mean I should act like the warriors that frightened that little girl back at the tavern, a bully and a thief," her voice began to rise" never, Oresta, never! Ill bury this sword first. Im not a thug!"
Oresta gazed into Keolas angry brown orbs, and the iron conviction in them made her heart tremble for an instant. Something was deeply disturbing about this young woman. A small voice in Oresta said it was time to leave this naive, contrary twerp behind. To put her back into the past where she belonged. But not a single muscle responded. For the first time in a very long time the little voice of her cynicism and distrust was over ruled by louder voices, ones from the head, and the heart. The drifting emptiness she felt, that sometimes was overwhelming in its desolation, seemed completely foreign to this stubborn, willful Amazon. What secret did she possess that made her so certain of right and wrong, a line that wavered like a desert mirage for Oresta. She found herself attracted and intimidated and infuriated and and completely unable to do what she did best, leave. The feeling was so astonishing and unexpected that for a moment she was speechless. Finally she cleared her throat and swallowed.
Yes, well," she said a bit haltingly, "thug or not youre going to need more than six dinars to finish your mission." She looked around at the crowd and took a deep, exaggerated sniff of air. "Somewhere in this village is opportunity. I can smell it. All we have to do is track it down, seize it by the throat and make it give up the dinars it owes us."
Keolas anger faded away, as it always did. She glanced at the milling people, then back at Oresta, face questioning and suspicious.
"Im not sure I like the sound of that," she said. "Im not going to have to beat up any more farmers am I?"
Orestas mischievous smile appeared.
"Maybe," she snickered. "But lets hope not. Fighting your way out means you screwed up. Its," her grin broadened, "unprofessional. A good player takes the money and leaves them smiling, or at least sullenly accepting. Its all in the attitude and presentation."
Keolas eyes narrowed doubtfully.
"Forgive me if I havent been too impressed with your attitude and presentation so far," she said.
Oresta laughed. "So thats it then," she pleaded, "no second chances? Things go bad once and Im condemned for life? You know thats not fair. Youre a much better person than that. Youve told me so yourself."
"Yes I am," Keola replied, face serious, but a smile in her eyes, "Im such a good person Im going to ignore your weak attempt at humor and give you another chance. Just out of mild curiosity I want to see a player in action. It should be worth a good laugh if nothing else."
The two warriors wandered slowly through the village. Keola enjoyed the invigorating newness of it all, new sights, new sounds, new smells. So many things in her life had changed in the last year, since the great battle on the ridge. Sometimes she felt like a child, every day a breathtaking voyage of discovery into a world that kept expanding with no end in sight. Growing up in the safe tranquillity of the valley it never really crossed her mind what might be beyond its high mountain walls. Her world was big enough, and what did it matter. She would never see the rest of it anyway. She was content. But after two trips to Corinth, and now Athens, city of myth and legend, the center of Greece, the center of civilization, just over the horizon, her curiosity was growing like a shoot of spring wheat bursting up to the sun. It was becoming a hunger, a thirst. "I had to see what was on the other side of the sunset." Orestas words ran through her mind as she listened to two men in brightly colored barbarian clothing sing in an unfamiliar tongue a languid love song, while accompanying themselves on strange stringed instruments. The exotic beauty of it touched her deeply. When they finished the small crowd clapped and threw obols and dinars into the cap on the ground in front of them. They bowed and smiled through tightly ringed and waxed black beards while saying thank you in accents so thick you could barely distinguish the words. Keola smiled to herself. She had the sudden urge to ask these strange, interesting men if they came from the other side of the sunrise or the sunset.
"Oresta, I " the Amazon was suddenly aware her companion was not beside her. She looked around in surprise. She was nowhere to be seen. A chill of anxiety appeared in Keolas stomach. The muscles of her jaw flexed. She turned in a circle, examining every face. "So, have you run out on another Amazon!" The anger she felt startled her. Oresta owed her nothing, yet it was truly upsetting she was gone.
"Hey," a familiar voice called. "Are you going to stand there mooning over a couple of moth eaten Persian singers all day? My infallible nose has found our opportunity. Hurry up!"
Keola turned to see Oresta waving at her through the crowd a dozen yards away. She approached, but hardly in a hurry.
"So whats wrong with you?" Oresta asked seeing the Amazons face.
"Nothing," Keola snapped. Her look lightened. "So, whats this great opportunity youve blundered across?"
Oresta stood a moment, perplexed at this unexpected moodiness, then dismissed it with a shrug.
"If I remember right," she said, "you almost won the last Founders Day foot race I saw in Farsala. And you were only thirteen. Youve filled out nicely seen then. Did you get any faster?"
Keolas eyes narrowed. "I won the last couple," she replied suspiciously. "So?"
Oresta erupted in her glorious, mischievous smile. "Perfect." She grabbed Keolas arm. "Now come on, we havent much time."
Like a tide the people of Potadia were flowing slowly but steadily toward the north edge of the village. Keola could see something was drawing them there as the two warriors weaved hurriedly in and out through the throng.
"So whats happening?" she called as she ducked between a man and his wife and children.
"A race of course," Oresta answered without looking back, exasperation in her voice at such a stupid question, "what do you think?"
"I dont know," Keola answered, slipping past a man leading his prize milk cow from the milking contest in the opposite direction, "I thought maybe you were asking me if I could outrun the howling mob youre about to create with whatever harebrained scheme it is youre going to try."
Oresta laughed. "You dont have to have any confidence in me, Amazon," she said. "Just act like you do. Remember, its all attitude and presentation." She smiled to herself. "And knowing when to run like hell," she muttered under her breath.
At the north edge of the village was an open, undulating field of knee high grass, about two hundred yards wide, that ended in a bare, rocky ridge that rose steeply two or three hundred feet. At the top were several knarled, misshapen, stunted olive trees, their branches just beginning to leaf. People were filling the pasture, except for a lane fifty yards wide marked by two parallel rows of stakes that ran from the village to the ridge. Keola could see children clamoring up the rocks of the hill, apparently looking for a good perch to view the race. A length of rope stretched between the first two stakes closest to the village, the start line. Behind it milled a group of young men, most stripped to the waist and barefoot, bending, stretching, hopping up and down with nervous energy, talking and laughing like they were simply enjoying the moment. The Amazon noticed however, at the end of the start line, two young men who did not seem to be enjoying the moment. One sat naked on a stool while an older man, his father perhaps, for there was some vague resemblance, vigorously rubbed his legs and calves with olive oil, an old woman standing at his side pouring out the oil from an urn into his hands as he needed it. The young man seemed of average height, brown hair and beard cropped short, but his body resembled the statues of Hercules Keola had seen in Corinth. His head sat atop a thick bull neck while his arms and chest bulged with muscles. His thighs and calves were thick and developed as well. The Amazon snorted derisively. She could see why he was being so carefully massaged. His legs looked like a cramp waiting to happen. A dozen feet away another young man prepared. He was nude as well, the way Olympic athletes competed. He was tall and lean, the muscles finely chiseled on the long bones of his frame, black hair falling in a thick mane to his shoulders. He was bending easily at the waist, his legs straight as arrows as he grabbed the bottoms of his feet to stretch his hamstrings. Four or five men and boys were crowded around him with serious faces as they talked. He seemed not to notice, his eyes distant with concentration.
Oresta grabbed Keolas arm.
"Im going to get you in this race," she said quickly, "so do what you have to too get ready. Were about to make some serious money."
Keola shook her head in disbelief.
"Youve lost your mind havent you?" she said. "Youve absolutely lost your mind."
Oresta smiled. "Maybe. But remember what I said. Attitude and presentation. Just pretend to trust me and get ready. Ill be right back."
Before Keola could say another word the blonde was gone, running toward a clot of men gathered at the end of the start line. The Amazon looked around, wondering if anyone noticed how stupid she felt. A few people were glancing at her curiously, but most seemed more interested in watching the two athletes at the other end of the line get ready. She walked over to an empty space near a stake close to the start line and took off her sword and jacket and unlaced her boots and pulled them off. She always ran barefoot. She sat down and spread her legs and grabbed a foot and began bending and stretching her back and hamstrings, bending so far her forehead touched her knee. People close by, behind the stakes, began watching her, mystified. Who was this strange woman? Did she think she was going to compete in the race? No women ran in Potadias annual spring race. A small naked child, a girl of two or three, with an apple half as big as her head wandered out and came and stood between Keolas legs, peering at her curiously as she took a bite of the apple.
"Hello, little miss," the Amazon smiled. "How are you?"
The child said nothing, slowly chewing and staring. Keola leaned closer.
"Im making a terrible mistake," she whispered through a grin. "Ive fallen in with bad company and Im going to wind up beheaded or chained in a quarry somewhere. Dont you do the same, okay little miss? You listen to your parents and stay away from lost souls like me."
The girl giggled and offered her apple. Keola laughed and took a small bite. She caressed the childs cheek. "Thank you little sweetheart."
A large woman with a florid face and wide hips came and gathered the child up. The girl threw her arms around her mother in a hug.
"Im sorry if she was bothering you," the woman apologized.
Keola looked up. "She wasnt bothering me. Shes beautiful. She can come and visit me anytime."
The woman smiled at the compliment. She knew she should leave but her curiosity was too much and she had never been accused of being shy about talking to people, even strangers.
"Uh, if you dont mind me asking," she began, "some of the other people were saying you must be an Amazon. Are you really an Amazon?"
"Yep," Keola answered.
The womans eyes widened. "Oh, a real Amazon," she whispered under her breath. Her eyes narrowed. "Uh, what are you doing?"
"Getting ready for the race," Keola said matter of factly.
A shocked puff of air escaped the womans lips. "Women dont run in this race."
"Today will be a first then," Keola smiled.
The easy, friendly confidence that radiated from the Amazon made the ridiculous prospect of a woman competing in the race seem suddenly almost plausible, even normal. Of course she was going to run. The woman looked down confused and speechless. The world was suddenly a different place. Keola grinned to see the womans face.
"Could you tell me," she asked, "how long is this race? Where do you race to?"
"Oh, well, uh," the woman gathered herself from her surprise, "you race from here up the ridge to the top and then back down to here again. You take a stick with you and when you reach the top of the ridge you have to touch one of the old olive trees with the stick before you come back or youre disqualified. They have judges up there to make sure everyone does."
Keola shook her head quizzically.
"Ive never heard of a race like that before," she shrugged.
"Oh, well, its an old tradition here in Potadia," the woman explained as she settled her daughter on her hip. "It started hundreds of years ago, when barbarians and warlords still wandered through Greece raiding and burning. Dry kindling was always kept heaped around a tree up on the ridge. Every year all the young men of the village took part in a race to see who could get up the ridge the quickest with a torch to set the tree alight. It was the warning signal for the whole valley. During the day you could see the smoke and at night the fire from almost anywhere in Potadia valley. It was a great honor for the winner to be the official bearer of the warning torch for a year, till the next race." The woman took a breath and shifted the child to a more comfortable position. "Thank the gods those terrible days are long past. As part of the Athenian League we havent had any war or raiders here in anyones memory. Now the race just marks the end of our annual Procession honoring the goddess Demeter. The winner gets a olive wreath crown and a pig to cook for his family and friends and five great jars of olive oil." The woman looked over at the knot of men at the other end of the starting line and her eyes narrowed disapprovingly. "What its really become is an excuse for the men to gamble, as if the cock fights werent enough. They all bet on whos going to win, or reach the top of the ridge first, or anything you can think of. I swear some of them bet on how many drops of sweat will drip off the winners nose." She shook her head with disgust. "Of course my stupid husband manages to lose more than we can afford. The chicken brain couldnt pick the winner of a race if there was only one person running."
Keola bit her lip to keep from laughing. She glanced at the two nude young men preparing for the race.
"Those two at the end there," she said, "they seem to be taking this pretty seriously."
"Telemechus and Pharon," the woman said with a distinct lack of affection. "Telemechus is the beefy one sitting on the stool. The two greatest athletes in Potadia." She shifted her daughter to the other hip. "Pharon is a runner, Telemechus a boxer and wrestler. Theyve both been to Athens to train for the Olympics with professional trainers. The only two athletes from our town ever to do that." A dismissive snort came out of her nose. "Its because their families are the richest in the village. Only rich families can afford to have a strong young son do nothing but train to play games." The Amazon did not miss the envy and bitterness in those words. "Pharon actually went to the last Olympics, although he didnt win anything. They and their families have always been rivals, but after Pharon was selected by his trainer to go to Olympia and Telemechus wasnt it went past rivalry to real hatred. Pharon has won the last four races here, but Telemechus came within a few strides of winning last year and hes been training like a mad man every day for weeks now, just to win this race, to humiliate Pharon by beating him at his own event." The woman turned her head and spit. "A pox on both of them as far as Im concerned. Their stupid competition is dividing the village. Everyone cheers for one or the other. It gets ugly sometimes. We almost had a riot last year after Telemechus came so close to winning. Who knows what will happen this year." The woman let out another snort. "I shouldnt say that. I know one thing will happen. My pea brained husband will lose more money."
A tall skinny man, deeply brown from long days in the fields, a loose sleeveless white linen shirt hanging from his narrow frame while tight faded brown breeches ran up his calves, showing dirty bare feet, emerged from the knot of men at the other end of the start line. He hurried toward Keola and the mother and child.
"Henna," he called, black eyes shinning with glee. He seemed not to notice the Amazon sitting on the ground as he approached his wife and daughter. "Youll never believe whats going on back there." He grinned a lopsided grin that revealed several missing bottom teeth. "A warrior woman, big sword on her back as big as youve ever seen, says she has some girl she wants to run in the race. Says this girl is going to win and she wants to bet a hundred dinars on her. A hundred!" The man let out a disbelieving rush of air through the gaps in his teeth. "And she has it too. Megakles made her count it out for him right there in front of everybody. We all stopped laughing when she hit fifty and kept counting. She really thinks this bitch of hers is going to win."
Keola chuckled to herself and shook her head as she stretched forward, arms out, till her forehead rested on the ground. Henna made an embarrassed shut up, fool face. The man ignored her, too enthralled by his story to notice anything around him.
"We all started betting on whether this girl is going to finish last, next to last, finish at all or what."
He glanced at the men getting ready for the race, some of them obviously drunk. His eyes narrowed contemptuously on a stout young man with a cup of beer in his hand.
"I bet our eight dinars that shell finish next to last. That fat pig Aristen will be puking up his guts halfway up the ridge. I hope she steps on his head as she goes by. That stupid ram he sold us must like to fuck other rams or something. He hasnt gone near a ewe since we ow!!!"
Henna let go of the twist of arm hair she had yanked on.
"Why cant you ever stop talking, Lisander?!" she demanded. "You just talk and talk and talk and "
"Its because" Lisander growled, "if I stop talking you start. And itll be next year before I can get in another word, you old witch."
Henna ground a heel on her husbands toes. He glared at her without reacting.
"Ill let you know when it hurts," he sneered.
"Im sure you will," she sneered back.
She lifted her foot. Instantly her look changed from angry contempt to one almost of affection.
"Now go get your son, you old fool," she said quietly, "we have to find a good place to watch the race before theyre all gone."
"All right, all right," the man answered, his face a mirror of his wifes, "which way was he headed?"
Henna pointed. Her husband ambled off, neck craning as he searched the gangs of racing children for his own small barbarian. The woman glanced down, a brighter tinge coming to her already red cheeks.
"I, uh," she stammered, "my fool husband didnt "
Keola looked up with a smile.
"Better hurry and find your spot," she said. "Its going to be some race." Her smile broadened. "If I get a chance Ill step on Aristens head."
Henna burst out in a long, heartfelt laugh. She leaned toward Keola, looking her in the eyes. "May Athena smile on you, Amazon," she whispered.
"Thank you," Keola nodded.
As the woman walked away the child on her hip giggled and waved her apple, eyes bright and dancing. The Amazon waved back.
Keola looked up from a stretch to see Oresta rapidly approaching. Beside her walked a middle aged man with a sprinkle of gray in his black, carefully trimmed beard. He had on a finely tailored cotton toga and soft, hand rubbed leather boots. His eyes were small and sharp. Keola kipped to her feet as they drew near. The man examined her suspiciously. He looked up at Oresta, half a head taller.
"The most beautiful woman I ever saw," he said, "was in an Athens brothel. She turned out to be a man."
Oresta smiled. The man did not.
"Before I take this bet," he continued, "I want to know youre not trying to run something on me. I wouldnt like that."
The hint of a threat hung in the air. Oresta looked at Keola uncertainly. Suddenly the Amazon seized the mans hand and pressed it against her breast. Startled, he started to pull away, then seeing Keolas steady gaze he let his fingers feel the full round firm flesh through her tunic. She released his hand. He let it fall.
"All right, shes a woman," he said, satisfied.
"A hundred dinars, at five to one," Oresta said quickly.
Demeter snorted derisively.
"I wouldnt give you five to one if you were betting on my dead mother to win this race." He glanced up at Oresta, one eye squinted almost closed. "Three to one, take it or leave it."
Oresta sniffed condescendingly.
"I thought there were some men with balls in this village, but I sure as hell cant find any." She let out a disgusted sigh. "All right, three to one."
She offered her arm. He took it. They both nodded, sealing the bet. He walked away toward the group of men who had been watching their every move. They erupted into excited smiles and laughter as he rejoined them.
"A hundred dinars, huh?" Keola grunted, smirking at Oresta. "How many will you have left if I lose?"
"Enough," the blonde replied.
"And how many, exactly, is enough?" the Amazon asked.
The corner of Orestas mouth twitched up. "Three."
Keola laughed as she put her hands on her hips, elbows out, her habitual pose. "So, you must know some great recipes for grass, since you dont like to work."
"I do as a matter of fact," Oresta said.
Keola looked down the start line at Pharon and Telemechus. "Well, you better get ready to fight with the cows and sheep for the good stuff because those two down there "
Oresta put up her hand for silence as she followed Keolas gaze.
"I know all about them," she said nonchalantly. "Dont worry. Im going to take care of that problem right now." Her eyes shifted to Keola. "Do you know the course? Are you ready? Youre not nervous are you?"
"About losing your money?" the Amazon smirked. "Hardly."
Oresta smiled. "Im glad to see that leaving me destitute doesnt put any extra strain on you."
"Not a bit," Keola grinned with a shake of her head.
The two women laughed, and as they did their eyes met. For a brief moment they both felt something surprising. The warm rush of sharing an instant of time, an experience, with a sympathetic spirit flowed between them. And they both understood that the other felt it as well. Keola had a sudden urge to reach out and touch the tall woman in front of her. To squeeze her arm or hold her hand. She was about to do it when Oresta cleared her throat and shrugged her shoulders and took a half step back. Keola could sense the shield Oresta had put up between them, as if she were trying to protect herself from attack. What are you afraid of? Is my friendship so unappealing? For an instant the Amazons emotions wavered between anger and the sinking feeling of rejection. Before she could decide Orestas mischievous smile appeared.
"Time to take care of Potadias young stallions," she smirked.
Keola forced the feelings out of her consciousness. Oresta can chose her friends as she pleases. Im not a child who needs her approval. She looked over at Pharon and Telemechus.
"And how do you intend to do that? Youre not going to kick them in the balls are you?" she asked, uncertain if her question was a joke or not.
"No, nothing as obvious as that," she said. "I already told you, Keola, attitude and presentation. Now get ready to win some serious money while I practice the art of attitude and presentation on those fine young men."
Keola watched intently as Oresta approached Pharon and the men clustered around him. She slowly circled him, her body suddenly feline in its grace, a cat rubbing herself against her owners leg. The Amazon could see her lips moving, the men around the athlete grinning hungry, unpleasant, leering grins as they nodded knowingly at each other. Pharon, however, seemed completely oblivious to whatever Oresta was whispering in his ear. He stared straight ahead, eyes dark and concentrated, never acknowledging her presence.
Next the blonde glided up to Telemechus. She placed a hand on his thick, muscular shoulder and let the tips of her fingers slide along his back to the other shoulder as she moved behind him. Keola could see she was speaking. From the wolfish grin on the bearded athletes face as his head turned from one side to the other following her motion it was obvious she had his complete attention. The man rubbing Telemechus legs looked up expressionless as Oresta walked away, but Keola chuckled to see the deep scowl and glaring eyes of the old woman at his side.
"Runners come to the starting line!" a distinguished looking old man in a white toga called loudly as he walked along in front of the rope. Behind him came a boy with a bundle of sticks held in the crook of his arm. As the competitors came to the start line he handed each a stick, the symbolic torch to be touched to a tree at the top of the ridge. Keola found a place in the middle of the line, which quickly became crowded with young men pushing and jockeying to get right up to the edge of the rope. The man in the toga passed, then the boy with the sticks, putting a branch in each outstretched hand. As the Amazon reached out for hers the boy stopped, startled. He looked around uncertainly.
"Life is full of surprises, isnt it?" Keola smiled. "Now you better give me a stick and hurry along before you fall behind."
The friendly self assurance was more that the boy could resist. It must be all right for her to run. It did not seem possible it could be otherwise. He handed the Amazon a stick.
"Thank you," she nodded.
The boy smiled and started to move on.
"Hey, get back here!" a harsh, slightly thick tongued voice demanded.
A thickset, bare chested young man in ragged brown breeches, smelling of beer, forced his way between Keola and the man next to her, giving her an elbow in the chest as he did.
"I need one, damn it," he said as he grabbed a stick out of the boys hand. The child recoiled, frightened. The man stepped back, elbows out, shoving Keola off the line as he tried to make a place for himself by brute force. "Excuse me," Keola grunted as she pushed his elbow out of her chest. The mans head turned sharply.
"Fuck you," he growled, eyes dark. "What do you think youre doing anyway? Get the hell out of here."
He turned back. Swiftly, violently, he was spun around. Before he could react two strong hands exploded into his chest, sending him reeling backwards, feet flying up as he landed on his back, head bouncing off the grassy earth.
"Excuse me," the Amazon said blandly.
The man staggered up, face reddening with fury, fists clenched. At the end of the line Oresta rolled her eyes and sighed, then subtly shifted her shoulders, to make her sword more accessible. The man took a step toward Keola, but suddenly his instinct for survival rose up to stop him. The clear brown eyes he glared into were not just unafraid, or even disdainful. They were quietly amused, a she wolf who has just disciplined a misbehaving pup and now is laughing at the petulant little growl she is getting for enforcing the rules. The man let out an angry breath, but did not move.
"All right, Perseus," a voice said finally. "Get in line or get the hell out of the way. We want to start the race today."
Perseus dark eyes darted around self consciously. He stalked down the line a dozen paces, pushed his way between two runners and disappeared.
"So," the man next to Keola said, "has Perseus charm and gentle manners won you over?"
"He was drunk," the Amazon shrugged.
"Drunk or sober," the man continued, "Perseus is Perseus." He smiled. "Anytime you want to knock him on his ass again, feel free. No one will stop you. In fact, if you tell me in advance Ill sell tickets and well make some money."
Keola shared the mans smile.
"Runners ready!" the white togaed man called, arm raised. The racers edged to the start line, leaning forward, knees bent. "Go!!"
After a hundred yards Pharon, Telemechus and Keola had separated themselves from the other runners. The Amazon began edging toward Telemechus as she raced. At a hundred and seventy five yards Pharon had a ten yard lead on Telemechus, and five yards behind him, following in his footprints, ran the Amazon.
Pharon reached the rocky slope of the ridge and began scrambling up. Telemechus reached the hill a few yards away, but there was no scrambling as he started up. It was quickly apparent that he knew every rock and crevice, had rehearsed to perfection every step and hand hold to the top. Five yards in his wake Keola, anticipating just that, followed like a shadow, every step and reach a copy of his.
Telemechus touched the knarled, ancient olive tree with his stick a sharp breath before Pharon, a member of Potadias village council sitting on a rock nearby watching intently to see that they both did so. Telemechus turned to plunge back down the ridge, and almost ran headlong into the Amazon, who had to jump nimbly aside not to be run over. It took Telemechus and Pharon an instant to recover from the shock of seeing this apparition from nowhere, this woman, racing them stride for stride. But only an instant. Recklessly they threw themselves down the ridge, the Amazon close behind, as completely heedless of safety as the men, caught up in the white hot excitement of the competition. The other runners, left hopelessly arrears, gave up the race and cleared the way, finding a good rock to sit on to view the incredible sight and cheer madly along with the rest of Potadia.
As the runners neared the bottom of the ridge Megakles, standing beside Oresta, nodded knowingly.
"Pharons going to win again," he said.
"Oh?" Oresta answered. "Telemechus is ahead."
"Not far enough," Megakles explained. "He needs a bigger lead. Pharon will catch him as they cross the meadow." The gambler smiled a satisfied smile. "I knew Telemechus was wasting his time. Pharons just too fast. Im about to make an obscene amount of money." He glanced around at the cheering crowd. "These rubes just dont understand how to handicap a race. They bet on their emotions instead of their common sense. Fools."
As the runners reached the bottom of the ridge, Telemechus in front, Keola and Pharon side by side ten yards back, Megakles looked up at Oresta.
"I have to admit," he said, "your Amazon friend is some athlete. Shes going to finish a close third. Im impressed."
Oresta peered down at the man. The corner of her mouth twitched impishly up.
"Youre going to be more impressed when she wins."
Megakles guffawed loudly.
With a hundred yards left Telemechus could see Oresta and Megakles waiting at the finish line. Then Pharon appeared at his side, long powerful strides eating up ground. Ten more yards and Pharon was two steps ahead, pulling away. Suddenly, unbelievably, Telemechus threw himself forward, arms out, and tackled his rival. They hit the ground together, skidding and rolling in the knee high grass. Instantly Telemechus was up running, but so was Pharon, a few steps behind, face twisted with rage. In ten yards he was close enough to jump on Telemechus back, arm around his neck, riding him to the ground. As they disappeared into the grass Keola, eyes wide with surprise, sprinted past.
As the Amazon crossed the finish line only a few people seemed to notice, or care. She looked back to see what had the makings of a first class riot. Telemechus and Pharon were being pulled apart, screaming obscenities at each other. More and more people, mostly men, were running onto the course, gathering into two increasingly hostile mobs around the principals, shaking fists and shouting insults. Megakles, slack jawed with shock, started toward the chaos. A hand around his arm stopped him.
"Pay up first," Oresta demanded, "then you can worry about your boys."
The man looked up, face blanched white. He swallowed and took a deep breath. Some of his composure returned. His eyes narrowed.
"You did something didnt you?" He wagged a finger as color came back to his cheeks. "You fucking did something!"
Orestas eyes hardened. She leaned forward. Megakles leaned back.
"Yes, I did," she rumbled, "I bet a hundred dinars at three to one on the winner of the race. Now pay up you over inflated little toad. Right now!"
Megakles shifted on his feet and spluttered unhappily, cheeks puffing in and out. But as desperately as he tried, he could not think of anything that would get him off the hook. Whatever the bitch had done, he was stuck. Hand trembling, he reached inside his toga and pulled out a leather pouch. Oresta yanked it from his grip. She jingled it up and down and carefully calculated the weight.
"Ill trust this is the money I saw you count out." Her mischievous smile appeared. "I know a keen judge of runners and odds like you would never cheat a rube like me."
Keola, standing next to Oresta, hands on knees, gasping for air, laughed. Megakles, growling an obscenity under his breath, turned on his heel and stalked away. The man in the white toga who had started the race approached as Megakles left.
"Well, uh, young woman," he said to Keola shaking his head, "I hardly believe my eyes, but, you won. Congratulations." He held out a beautifully woven olive wreath. "To the winner belongs the wreath of victory. You also get a fat roasting pig and five large urns of olive oil to use or sell as you wish."
Keolas acceptance speech was short. "Thank you sir" she smiled as she took the wreath. She looked quickly over toward the side of the racecourse where she had sat to do her stretching. After a moment she spotted who she was looking for. Lisander was staring sourly out at the course, shaking a dismissive hand at his wife, who seemed to be giving him an earful. Henna, daughter still on her hip, paused in her lecture on the stupidity of gambling, or at least her husbands stupidity, to glance up. She burst into a wide smile and waved back at the Amazon who was waving at her.
"Do you see that woman with the beautiful little girl who just waved at me?" Keola asked the man in the white toga.
"I want you to give her the pig and the olive oil. Tell her its a gift from the Amazon people to a friend." Keola chuckled. "Tell her Ill step on Aristens head next year."
"As you wish," the man shrugged, past being surprised by anything on this incredible day.
Keola looked at Oresta, face suddenly serious.
"There are many ways to make friends for the Nation," she said quietly.
Oresta shook her head wonderingly, and emotion rose looking into those clear brown eyes. Desire welled up. Desire to know so much more about this remarkable person. Desire to know everything. But then she blinked her eyes and turned her head. She looked out at the course. The village elders, putting themselves between the two angry mobs, had finally restored some order and calm. The two groups, each led by their bruised and bloodied champion, began to walk back toward the village. Oresta could see both young men staring at her. Her mischievous smile appeared. She took the olive wreath from Keola and placed it on the Amazons head. She hurriedly picked up the sword and jacket and boots she had collected for Keola during the race and pushed them into her arms. Suddenly she put a hand behind Keolas neck and, pulling her close, kissed her passionately. Finally she let the shocked Amazon pull her head back.
"The time has come," Oresta said with a wink.
"What time?!" Keola gasped.
"Time to run like hell!" Oresta called over her shoulder as she took off at a sprint into the village.
The Amazon only hesitated a moment before joining her in full flight.
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