User:Michael Bard/Mythic Journeys - Part 1
- 1 Chapter 1: Explorations
- 2 Chapter 2: Poseidonus?
- 3 Chapter 3: Primitive Answers
- 4 Chapter 4: Medusa
- 5 Chapter 5: Flight
- 6 Chapter 6: Rebirth
- 7 Chapter 7: The Passage of Time
- 8 Chapter 8: The World Outside
- 9 Chapter 9: Plans and Politics
- 10 Chapter 10: Homecoming
- 11 Chapter 11: Vengeance
- 12 Chapter 12: Escape
- 13 Chapter 13: Pursuit
- 14 Chapter 14: The Hunt
- 15 Chapter 15: Messages from Beyond
- 16 Chapter 16: Persistence of Revenge
- 17 Chapter 17: Healing
- 18 Chapter 18: Pursuing Thoughts
- 19 Chapter 19: Vengeance
- 20 Chapter 20: Aftermath
- 21 Chapter 21: Healing
- 22 Chapter 22: Revelations
- 23 Chapter 23: The Price
- 24 Chapter 24: Miracle
- 25 Chapter 25: Madness
- 26 Chapter 26: The Pythia
- 27 Chapter 27: Prophecy
- 28 Chapter 28: Forgotten Betrayals
- 29 Chapter 29: Dominance
- 30 Chapter 30: Sobering Up
- 31 Chapter 31: Gifts
- 32 Chapter 32: Barbarians
- 33 Chapter 33: Preparations
- 34 Chapter 34: Acheans
- 35 Chapter 35: The Achean Camp
- 36 Chapter 36: Trojans
- 37 Chapter 37: Spoils of War
- 38 Chapter 38: Reasons and Rationales
Chapter 1: Explorations
"There!" I called, my voice distorted and ducklike from the helium.
My earphones crackled. "We can't make it out." It was Dr. Palmer on the surface.
Just then I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. The same kind of thing I'd been seeing for the last couple of days whilst out in the depths. I spun around... Nothing! Always nothing! The only thing I could see was the helmet lamp of John, my partner on the bottom, in the distance.
"Stephan?" crackled in my ears. Still Dr. Palmer.
"Sorry. I just... nothing. Give me a bit to move closer." Saying that I carefully swam towards what I'd seen, using a slow frog kick to not disturb any silt. I watched John's light approach as I shone mine back and forth along the object. It was a pillar, smooth, round, and brightly painted in red with human figures in other bright colours. "Can you make it out?"
"Definitely from the Thalassocracy period. I need you to get closer -- the figures will help date it. And look at the condition!"
I couldn't believe the condition either.
"I can't believe it..." John's voice squawked in my ear. "It's like it was painted yesterday." His words were punctuated with exhaled bubbles.
Pressing my gloved hands up against it to cancel my forward motion; my lower body sank into the silt which rose in faint cloud. I leaned down and allowed the camera to examine the painted woman leaping over a bull...
A living girl appeared in the corner of my vision. What the hell?! Spinning around, I saw... nothing. Quickly everything changed into a dim yellow glow as John and my helmet lights bounced off the clouds of silt and silvery bubbles from our exhaled breath.
"God damn it Stephan! You have to be--"
Dr. Joyce's voice broke in. "Stephan, John. Mark it -- you've got to get back to the bell."
I felt a hand on my left shoulder and spun around to see who the hell it was -- only to recognize John through the bubbles from his exhaust port. What was wrong with me? The rasp of my rapid inhales, the roar of my burbling exhaust as I exhaled, all was loud in my ears. Something flickered in the edge of my vision on my right and I resolutely ignored it.
Johns voice burst into my speakers as I watched his stream of bubbles: "What's going on?"
"Scrap that! They're predicting another quake, a big one," came from the surface.
"Shit," was John's response.
Distinctly put. I felt around my waist for a rope and flag to tag the find.
"Don't Stephan," John said. "We'll find it again."
Already he was pulling me away. "It's not worth it."
I sighed, my sigh transformed into a stream of bubbles that danced through the clouds of silt and up towards the surface far far above.
Dr. Joyce: "Get a move on!"
For a moment I had no clue as to which way to go. All around was a yellow glow from John and my lights -- and nothing else. Calm. Slowly, carefully. Never hurry. I forced my breathing to slow. Don't panic -- air wasn't a problem, it was supplied from the bell which was supplied from the surface. Idiot! I started carefully coiling my umbilical just as John was already doing. It led back to the bell.
The image again, a woman in the corner of my eye -- I could almost see it... No!
Move, slowly, carefully.
Dr. Joyce: "Get a move on!"
We were out of the silt, and the only thing around us was cold water illuminated by our lights, and the bright orange of our umbilicals. Both of us kicked hard against the current.
Faintly I heard, "Holy fuck! Look at the damned needle!"
Neither John nor I paid any attention to the shouts from the surface. The first thing I felt was a low rumble through my body, and then I heard groans and pops and whistles over the roar of my breathing. John spun away from me, vanishing to a pinpoint of light as I furiously kicked after him. Small pebbles drifted down and clattered off my hardhat or thudded off my body or clicked off my pony tank, but my only thought was to reach John. Suddenly the current whipped like a drunken centaur and my umbilical was yanked out of my hand. I was swept down current, my bubbles sucked down in front of me, as helpless to escape as I was. "John! Are you--"
"I'm alive. What the hell's going--?"
"The water has to be draining somewhere -- maybe the quake opened into an airpocket beneath the Mediterranean. I don't know!"
"Just stay calm." We were both ignoring the shouts and screams from the surface. The bell alone could keep us alive and could decompress us and take us to the surface if necessary. "Try climbing up your umbilical."
"I've got nothing better to do." The current was still pushing me downward as our weight pulled the bell off of the direct vertical. I could feel myself gently swaying back and forth, like a flag in a strong wind. For an instant I saw the glow of John's light. Slowly, gloved hand over gloved hand, I began to pull myself up the umbilical. It was rated for far more force than I could exert on it so I wasn't worried about it breaking--
A face appeared before my eyes.
What the hell?!
Her face was upside down -- she must have been holding onto my hardhat and looking in through the plexiglass -- but why couldn't I feel anything? Stopping my climb, I examined her carefully and realized that the face wasn't human. Almost human, but a human face tinted blue-green with stands of hair that were too thick to be real hanging around her face oblivious to the current I could feel streaming past me. Bubbles from my exhaled breath seemed to slowly roll along the edges of her face, clinging in defiance of the water rushing pass. Clenching one fist tight to my umbilical, I reached up to touch her...
It was like touching a bubble. A moment of tension, and then water. Instantly she flowed away, bending in ways a human never could.
She was gone.
"Stephan, you still there?" It was John.
"You all right?"
"I think so."
"I think the current is slowing. We shoul--"
And then my headphones went dead as all tension in my umbilical vanished as the current swept me downwards.
For a moment I couldn't breathe, not because of a lack of air -- the pony bottle kicked in automatically -- but because of absolute terror. Somehow I started breathing again, not that it mattered.
I was dead.
The pony bottle would last me maybe 10 minutes at this depth. And there was no way in hell I would get back to the bell in 10 minutes. Not with this current.
I watched the torn end of my umbilical sweep by.
What had happened? A falling rock maybe? It couldn't have been the force of my dangling at the end. Could it?
Did it really matter?
The weight of my useless umbilical started to pull me around.
I was dead.
We knew this was dangerous. There'd been arguments when a routine sonar scan after a large quake had detected irregularities. We all knew that Santorini was always grumbling. Yes, the remotes kept malfunctioning -- all we ever got were tantalizing images of intact statues and buildings in miraculous condition. One badly distorted picture showed some jewellery and armour perfectly preserved.
John and I had volunteered.
Had a minute gone by?
I looked up at the faint glow of the surface, unreachable. Even if I could swim up to it in time I'd die from the gas bubbles that would grow in my blood.
There was a timer on my wrist but I didn't really want to check it. I didn't want to know how long I had to live. To save air I stopped swimming and just let myself drift with the current into the depths.
Would a future archeologists find me and wonder? I--
She was back. This time a metre or two in front of me, drifting in the current, looking at me. A hallucination? Was my air mixture off? Possible. Did it really matter any more?
Soon my breaths would come harder and harder as I sucked at an equal pressure pony bottle. I'd struggle, lose consciousness, and never wake up.
I didn't want to die!
Whatever she was, she flowed towards me. She didn't move her limbs; she didn't swim. She just got closer. In the yellow light of my headlamp I could see others hovering around us. Circling without moving their limbs.
She was upon me and I felt a slight pressure, like stepping into a bathtub where the water was the same temperature as the air. Her face was against my faceplate and the air bubbles of my exhaust caught in what seemed to be her hair. It became harder to breathe... Not yet! The bottle couldn't be empty!
Unless the current had sucked me very very deep a part of me whispered.
I felt the breathing cup pull tight against my mouth and nose as I sucked at nothing, and then exhaled a few lonely bubbles.
The figure outside in the deep watched me with emotionless eyes through which I could dimly see the others moving.
I tried to inhale, short panting breaths, a little air, a few bubbles... I was hot, feverish... My vision grew distorted. Was that singing I heard? My body felt like it was changing, compressing, flowing over its bones.
My vision changed to a tunnel of yellow light. Her face was distorted, bent as though behind a fishbowl.
I exhaled a last time, my body following my breath through the valves, through the passages. It was a long exhale, slow, continuous, an endless breath that passed my form through and away from my bones and out through the valve into the warm, welcoming sea, a friend, a provider, home to my Lord Poseidon...
Turning, I watched an empty suit sink into the depths, only bones inside, a few bubbles drifting through the exhaust port. The umbilical snaked around it as it vanished into the dark.
Soon all that was left was myself and my sisters. Together we flowed through the water that was us, and was apart from us. Mindless, I followed and they led, away from the current, around rocks coated with debris and ooze, around boulders that were still drifting downwards ever so slowly. Through cracks and tunnels and up into a sunlit world. Up into our home.
We were foam, mingling and bubbling and laughing, swept back and forth in the waves, in and out of one another. Smashed against pebbles and shattered coral, and then flowing back into the sea.
The sun rose and set, the moon change from full to new and back.
Chapter 2: Poseidonus?
The sea is a place of timeless peace, ever changing and ever staying the sae. I and my sisters played in the crests of the waves, passing in and out and through each other sharing what we knew. I forgot myself, lost myself in the timelessness. Sometimes something would call us and we'd go out through the tunnels and cracks and into the deep darkness and our number would grow. I think that some were divers, but others I didn't recognize. Some were hard metal which we played with. A toy of which we eventually grew tired because it wouldn't respond. I don't know how many I changed.
We were all playing in the crests in the sunlight, stretching ourselves into bubbles of foam and riding the wave when our Lord called. He didn't call everybody, he just called me. A part of me couldn't believe the honour of it, another part tried to flee and hide expecting something horrible, but most of me just obeyed. With His power I felt myself sucking more and more water into my body, along with pieces of coral and stone. I stretched until I was many times the size I'd been even as a human, and then I began to harden. The stones and corals compressed into bones, stretching and entwining. Wave foam hardened into a cloud of fine hair along my head and neck, and even into a tail that I'd never had before. Fragments of onyx gathered from their lairs along the beach and mobbed my hands and feet, hardening into four hooves. Weak, frightened, I tried to stand, stretching my now elongated head out above the waves as the rounded pebbles slipped and rolled around me.
My sisters had long fled.
Heavy with water I lowered my head almost to the surface and opened my mouth as gushes of water and gore fled up my throat and sprayed out dragging sand fragments along my inside. First I screamed my agony, and then I snorted the last drops out nose. Inhaling for the first time in who knew how long, I found the air cold and thin, a nothingness that had been foreign but was now necessary. The air strengthened me as knowledge of my new body filled my mind. I stood up, salt water first pouring and then dripping from my hide. Rearing, I shook my now hard and clenched hands through the waves that hovered around me. I screamed and nickered and momentarily fought to resist the call.
It was irresistible.
Screaming my rage I galloped out and onto the shore on my four onyx hooves and then up a rocky path and across a field of oh so sweet smelling grass.
Dust and pebbles scattered behind me as my lungs heaved for air and my heart pounded and foam spattered from my nostrils. Before my life had been a cold sameness, now it was a hot rush. Before I'd lived in a formless softness, now I raced across an irregular hardness, covered in scatters of grass and clumps of fragmented rock. Soon I could see a huge hill looming, and the call pulled me up a rock-strewn face towards the top. My master was there. Screaming out my joy my hooves pounded on rock that twisted underhoof and was kicked out behind. I should have fallen, should have stumbled, but a fraction of Poseidon's divinity was inside me. I would have kept galloping, but He wanted me to stop and so I did. Holding my head high, I panted for breath, though I knew I could have run for eternity.
I looked around, blinking my eyes against the dust my arrival had brought. There were three figures, one was my master. Massive, yet gentle, towering above me with a sharp glow in his eyes that was both horrifying and loving. Opposite him was a woman, as tall as he, and with the same glow about her eyes. She was armoured in polished bronze with a helmet of boars tusks and a figure 8 shield. Both I recognized as Mycenean in design. In her hand was a long spear with a polished bronze head. A third figure, small, mortal, stood between the two divinities. Below his waist he had the twisting body and tail of a massive green splotched serpent, but above he was human. His chest and shoulders were clothed in course wool with fringes dyed bright colours, his head was topped with a leather cap. In his hands he carried a short throwing spear.
"My gift!" Poseidon boomed. "A friend to bear you, a servant to work for you, and a companion to be with you!"
The mortal slithered over and then slowly around me as I turned my neck to watch him. He was clean, smelling of clover and oil, and faintly of sweat and dirt. On my far side he stopped and carefully held his hand out towards me. Stretching my head I inhaled his scents, one of sweat, of work, and one a slight trembling of fear. I watched as he backed away between the two divinities.
"A fair gift Poseidon." The mortal did not look down or avert his eyes, instead he looked up and into Poseidon's. "He will aid me in this city in many ways." Then he turned to the woman. "And what is your gift Athena?"
She spoke, her voice soft, melodious, yet hard as flint. "My gift is far simpler Kekrops, and a child of the earth you came from. Behold!" And with that she raised her spear and threw it into the earth point first. So mighty was the throw that almost half its length vanished from sight in the soil. For a moment nothing happened, and then the visible half of the spear shattered, transforming into branches and leaves. Slowly at first, and then faster and faster, it grew into a tree that loomed over all of us. Buds grew and changed into small green and black fruit that ripened in an instant. One fell, landing in Athena's outstretched hand. It was small and innocuous, yet she handed it to Kekrops.
"The olive. It is food, and from it you can get oil. In time you will find other uses. You will trade it and through it your city will grow wealthy and wise. This is my gift."
Kekrops looked at it, turning it around and around. Sniffing it, he finally tossed it in his mouth where he chewed it, first slowly, and then with eagerness. He turned away from Athena towards Poseidon. Before speaking he finished chewing and swallowed. "Oh Poseidon, though your gift is wondrous, Athena's gift is even more so."
Athena smirked as Poseidon frowned.
"I must choose her gift over yours."
For a moment the sky darkened, but then the clouds that were gathering parted. "As Zeus proclaimed, your judgment must be accepted. The horse is no longer your gift, but a gift to all. My gift. And I offer a blessing and a curse: by my sea shall your city become great, and by my sea shall it be brought to heel." Then he turned to me and I looked up and into his face. "I give you the freedom of the land. From the sea you came, and with the sea shall you breed. Your children will fill the earth and eventually bring this city of Athens low. You are immortal, semi-divine. Live well!" And with that he vanished.
I was free! For a second I looked back to the remaining two. Kekrops was picking another olive, and Athena ignored me. It didn't matter. Turning, I leapt down the slope and galloped through the grass. Miles passed beneath my hoofs, grass, rock, mountains, sandy slopes. Nothing could hurt me. When I felt the urge I nibbled at dry grasses on rocky slopes, or on rich grasses near burbling streams in hidden valleys. Mostly I galloped, caught between the emptiness of the sky and the hardness of the earth.
I galloped and ate and galloped some more until the sea called...
Chapter 3: Primitive Answers
The sea, always the sea. It had cast me out -- why was it calling me again? I tried to resist, galloping higher and further, but I could always feel its call. It became like a drug, a need, a desperation. Galloping as far as I could, as fast as I could, galloping to the top of the furthest mountain I could reach, the call was as strong as ever. Finally I stood at the edge of a cliff of unbelievable height, and at its base, invisible beneath the layers of cloud, was the world circling sea. A snake that curled upon itself and entrapped everything.
I was hot, sweaty, nervous, irritable. I wanted to flee, but I couldn't. Rearing I screamed my hatred and fear, but suddenly a prisoner in my own body I leapt off and into the sea far far far below. The fall was long, possibly endless. Was it gravity or the sea's call that pulled me down? Too soon and too late I reached the water and it embraced me, loved me, gently held me. It pushed me to the surface and gently carried me away from the cliffs and towards the gentle beaches. But that was not all it did.
I had started a man, I had become an elemental force with the appearance of a woman, and finally been changed into the form of a horse. Not a male horse, but a mare. Not a free semi-divine being, but a creature to create a race. I was in heat, and only the cooling waters of Poseidon's domain could press in and cool my fire. Screaming my rage and terror I tried to flee, but I was out too far; shoving my muzzle into the water I forced myself to inhale it, but as it passed my nostrils it became air. Helpless I felt the water push itself into me womb, changing, shrinking. A pair of eggs met the water as it divided and I knew that I was pregnant with twins -- one male, one female.
When it was finished, the sea thrust me onto the beach. I lay there, on my side, sucking in gulps of air and feeling nothing but betrayal. I'd been used.
But in that betrayal my mind snapped and reformed. And I remembered.
Forgetting what Poseidon had gifted me, I clumsily staggered to my hooves, and then fell onto the rounded volcanic pebbles as I tried to walk. I tried again, got up faster, got a step further, and then fell again. My hate grew, as did my memories of what had happened to me.
Days passed. Falling again and again I learned to walk, and then to gallop. Always my flesh remained undamaged. Not scarred, not scratched. Even when I tried nipping my pale blue-gray hide, my teeth could not break the skin. Grabbing the white hairs of my tail in my mouth, I could not even pull one out! Even refusing to eat or drink didn't work because I remained stubbornly healthy.
Months passed. Where once I'd galloped, now I wandered. Even though I remained stubbornly healthy, I always felt thirsty and hungry. Finally I gave in and ate and drank.
Months passed. The sun rose and fell. I was a horse, a mare, and now I had nothing but time. Lots of time. Time to think, time to plot.
My name was Stephan Kratousa. I was born in the outskirts of Athens in 1973. I'd attended university where I specialized in early bronze age Mediterranean culture and history, and the classical myths my father had taught me to love that derived from that period. Early I'd learned that I either didn't have the intelligence, or maybe the mindset, to put the pieces together in new and more likely ways. But I knew my stuff. Instead I specialized in the grunt work, the gathering, the digging. Jobs were tight, so being physically inclined I learned to dive, and specialized in that. The mysteries off of Santorini had been a godsend, perfect for me. John... did he survive? He'd been the technical specialist, I'd been the archeologist.
What had happened?
Was I dead?
My death was possible, even likely. Yet, I couldn't accept it. I felt too alive, even as I became more and more bloated. Had I been recovered and even now lay in a delirium in a hospital somewhere? I couldn't believe that -- I had no evidence, but I just knew it was wrong. So what was going on?
Just then one of the twins kicked, and I nickered from the pain and the joy my body felt.
No! It was not joy! I refused to feel joy!
I'd been used!
But by who?
Could the classical divinities be real?
I refused to believe that. What then? Aliens? But why would they be doing this?
By Poseidon... No! By God I'd find out! But how?
And then I felt the first pain. In the middle of endless grass I stood, my legs quivering ever so slightly. The divine horse engulfed my mind, my memories fled. I stood and squeezed and squealed in pain and joy as my first children were pushed out, one after another. One was as black as night, the other a light bay. I licked them clean, and then let them suckle, at peace with the world. My mind was all horse.
More time passed. My children grew as I remained unchanging. They learned to eat grass, to flee from predators. They became adults.
And the sea called again.
Again I struggled but to no avail. The sea reeled me in, and again it impregnated me. Again it was the shock of that which brought my human memories back that had been submerged in the process of giving birth. But this time they came harder, slower. I fought for them, clinging tightly to them. More time passed, more births, and then the return to the sea, impregnation, a fight for my memories, pregnancy, and birth. Year after year. As my progeny grew into the hundreds and then the thousands I learned to hide my memories, to keep them safe, to keep them always mine. Only when I was pregnant could they appear from their hidden places for too short a time. For a few days a year I could actually think. And then I hid them away again as the cycle continued.
But, even with everything I remembered, and with all my plotting, I gained nothing. What could I do? How could I escape? Ages passed and nothing changed. I needed help -- but who? Not the gods. I hadn't believed they'd historically existed but I couldn't argue with what I saw. But, there was Kekrops. Were there mortal men and women? Could I seek them?
More impregnations and births. I wandered, searching. Finally I found primitive huts and towns. Not Mycenean, far too early for that. But I recognized the trends.
When I approached they all fled from me.
I needed someone special. A being believed to have powers. It was risky, but I was getting desperate. Given the time period I would need a priestess -- the male dominance of the classical Greek myths was thousands of years in the future.
But then why had I already been at the mythological founding of Athens?
I shook my head and searched, wandering the land in my lucid moments between impregnation and birth.
And finally I found what I was looking for.
In my mind I remembered the likely historical story of Medusa. Once she had been the primary earth goddess. The snake had symbolized female wisdom and mystery, the cycles of time, the cycles of life and death. She had been isolated, feared, yet needed. Cycle after cycle searched for her until finally I found her.
I picked my way across the broken rock and sacrificial bones. Keeping my head low to avoid the faint mist of volcanic vapours drifting along the ceiling, I walked into the cave. Torches lit it, and animal hides hung as doors one after the other. They kept people from looking upon the vessel of divinity. I passed one and another and another, and eventually the last. With each passing I had to force down the fearful mind of the horse as it threatened to engulf me.
The final chamber was large, a cathedral-like space encircled with stalactites and stalagmites, most of which had met in mutual embrace. In the distance I could hear the dripping of water. She was before me, sitting with legs crossed on what I thought was a bearskin, fur up. Her flesh was covered with a greenish mud cracked from her movement, and even her hair was covered in the green mud and divided into thick strands that hung down her back. Her only other covering was wings made of bones tied together with leather straps and covered in feathers that sat on her shoulders and stretched out a metre to either side. A mask was over her face. It was carved, or rather constructed, of bone, tiny fragments somehow cemented together to appear like scales, and then shaped and carved and assembled into a fanged face of horror through which her eyes peered as shadows.
"You seek answers from Medusa." Her voice echoed through the cavern.
I tried to speak, but all that came out was neighs, knickers, and snorts. I screamed out my anger and frustation.
"You want to know what is going on."
I screamed again, hating my inability to talk. Yes, somehow she knew. She was human, but she was more. I could sense power, ancient knowledge. Around us the torches flickered and dimmed.
"This is a place of memory, a vortex of human dreams."
What? It came out as a loud and long nicker.
"All around is dreams. The rocks remember, the earth. The vines and plants. Their power gathers, swirls, remembers, seeks."
Involuntarily I took a hesitant step backward, ending with one of my forelegs still raised.
"The memories need a mind to exist. For ages they were formless, quiet, dark. But then humanity came near enough. Their minds were weak, they'd forgotten other than memories they didn't know they had."
She stood up, still wearing the mask. The wings, more real now then created, settled behind her back and the mud looked more and more like actual scales. I stepped backwards to keep my distance.
"One came, the first one. From him the dreams gained existance. They gained power to drag others down. They gained life!"
I was pressed back against a cage of calcium pillars as she grew taller and darker.
"They can't let you escape!" Her voice turned into a hiss, the mask became slick as though alive.
I fought to remember the tales, the truths behind the myths. They'd never been my strong point but they'd been discussed. There were symbols of power, statues, carvings...
Masks. If I removed the mask, I would remove her power!
"This place is your dream!"
With that I lunged forward, curving my long neck to grasp the edge of the mask in my teeth. It was no longer bone and paint, it was alive. It was warm and pulsing. I could feel the fangs that had once been painted dig into my lips and pump out their venom. Rearing up I yanked the mask away; stumbling backwards, falling, I landed not on the slick rock floor but on a single stalagmite that pierced me like the ocean had. The mask twisted itself onto my face and I screamed in fear and panic.
Medusa, averting her face, screamed with me.
The torches went dark and the cave plunged into blackness.
I could feel the stalagmite changing, transforming from rock to flesh. I could feel the mask stretching. It surrounded me, engulfed me. It began changing me.
A form, glowing, hovered before me. I recognized it through the narrow eyeholes of the mask. It was Athena, the same form that had planted to olive tree and claimed the city.
"Stephan!" Her voice echoed off the walls and in the distance I could barely hear Medusa whimper in fear. "You dare rape my priestess!"
Rape? What?! And then I remembered. Zeus had overthrown the old Medusa goddess by consuming her. What Medusa had represented had been reborn as Athena. Still, that hadn't been enough. The cult was still active, and hence Medusa was changed into a hideous creature eventually to be killed by Perseus. One of the later myths held that Medusa had been a mortal who was raped by Poseidon in a temple of Athena. Athena had blamed Medusa and cursed her, transforming her hair into snakes and her appearance into something so horrible that anybody who looked upon her would turn to stone.
Symbolically I was Poseidon, his creation. And by tearing off the mask I had raped Medusa just as her temple had raped me.
Most primitive rites had treated sex as a source of power, and it seems that I was trapped and surrounded by that power which seemed to exist in this place and time.
"Stephan, you hate your life, so I free you from your form!"
I felt myself continue to change, shrinking. My hind legs were sucked into me, my fur and mane fell out, and I writhed in pleasure and pain pierced by the now living cave. The mask engulfed me, fighting to take over my mind.
"I curse you. You will become so horrible that nobody can look upon you, lest they turn to stone! You shall be forced to hide, to eke out an existence. Shunned, hated!"
My forelegs stretched, split, become scaled reptilian hands as my body stretched and grew. My mane twisted, entangled itself, changing into hissing snakes that curled and snapped. Snakes had been part of the symbology of the original Medusa. The shedding of their skin had represented death and rebirth. When her cult had been deposed, they had changed into symbols of evil and death.
Like I was changing.
Athena turned from me. "And you, the fault is not yours. You shall replace what Stephan had betrayed. You shall become Poseidon's creation and continue His will."
A horse screamed, hooves clattered. I heard the creature gallop and then the sounds faded in the distance.
"Stephan, live your curse!" and Athena vanished.
My changes ended. The cave changed back to rock, all except the stalagmite that continued pumping into me. I writhed, trapped, unable to escape.
On my head my hair hissed and snapped, fangs ripping into my neck and arms, leaving behind blood and scraps of flesh that bled, and then healed.
Chapter 4: Medusa
My life became a living hell. My lair was the cave that the other Medusa had lived in, but for her it had been a shrine, a sacred temple. For me it was a prison. Constantly my hair was ripping chunks of flesh from my back and from my face, and even ripping out my eyes.
My nerves always regrew.
Food was nearly impossible to get. Any living thing that saw me, even trees and plants, turned to stone. If there was the slightest light, there was instantly a new rock.
I couldn't eat rock.
The only thing that kept me alive in the early days was the stalagmite in the blackness of my cave. Sucking at it yielded a hot salty goo that I often couldn't force myself to swallow. Trying to suck it made the snakes that grew from my head even more active.
The only real solution was to pierce my womanhood, snakehood?, on it and, somehow, that sustained me in a kind of half life.
Hell passed. I got used to my chthonic existence hiding in the cave and learned to come out only on black moonless nights. Eventually I found fallen branches that were dead, and being dead they remained as wood. Using that and sinew from the bats that laired in my cave and that my hair caught in the blackness, I was able to make a crude bow and some arrows.
Years of practice improved my skills, and years of living in blackness improved my senses. Eventually I could hunt in pitch dark, sensing my prey by heat and its sounds of movement. I learned to pierce my flesh to tip the flint arrowheads with my blood which was a hideous acidic poison.
With time I only needed one shot.
After each kill I had to fight the snakes on my head to consume it. As I raised the flesh they would strike down and clamp onto it with their fangs and try and rip it away. Usually they got most of it, and eventually I just let them have all of it. My stomach always rumbled its pain, but at least it helped sustain me as the snakes were of my flesh.
I just wished again and again that I could control them.
Always they were snapping. If not eating flesh I killed, they were eating me in a self-destruction that never seemed to work. I have vague memories of smashing my head against a cave wall time and again, beating the snakes into a pulp, cracking my skull until I could feel my brain dripping down along with my blood.
The next day I'd healed.
The only way I could gain a semblance of time to think was to carve a mask from deadwood I dragged from the woods below the mountainside that held my cave. Crude flint tools allowed me to shape the wood and eventually I had a crude approximation of the mask I'd ripped from the other Medusa to protect my face from the snakes. At first I had to hold it as my skin excreted a corrosive slime that quickly ate through any grass or sinew I tried to tie the mask with. I had to press it against my skin to keep the snakes off me. With time I learned to twist leather straps together into a heavy rope that lasted for a while. It would eventually break from the corrosion and need to be rewoven, but it was the best I could do. Eventually the mask would break too, both from the slime and from the attacks of my hair.
But it gave me some time.
Medusa had said that this world needed dreams. Before them it had been formless, without purpose. To gain life they had had to steal them from a human. In ancient times could this place have been above the surface, a shrine, a place of power, before Santorini exploded? Could this place be the source of the classical myths? How many others beside myself had this place ensnared?
Did it really matter?
Eventually I decided that I had to escape, and my current form was not the way to do it. I tried willing a change, but nothing happened. I tried praying to the classical Greek divinities, but I never got any kind of answer.
Given my origin as Medusa I hadn't really expected one. Or maybe it was because I couldn't speak, just hiss.
With time I decided to simply wait for my death. I knew the myth of Perseus, the final destruction of the cult of Medusa by the religion of Zeus. Perseus comes, kills Medusa, and takes her head. From Medusa's blood rise two monsters, the first Pegasus, and the second Chrysaor. Given the choice between a winged horse and a warrior giant, my preference was easy.
The question was how?
Pegasus was also said to be a son of Poseidon, through Medusa. That suggested that my existence as the first horse might help guide my soul into the desired new body.
If it worked that way.
As I waited I took to carving replacement masks in the shape of a stylized horse, with feathers scavenged from the ground spreading out from the sides to represent wings. I had no idea whether this would work or not, but my only other options were becoming a giant, or simply dying.
Eventually a third possibility occurred to me: barter. There were creatures with the power of divinities in this place. If the Perseus myth was true here, and everything that had happened to me so far suggested that it was, then if I could kill, or threaten to kill, Perseus, I might be able to bargain. I practiced with my bow.
Years passed, though it was hard to keep track in my eternal darkness, before somebody came. They came with a torch, dressed in crude furs with leather wrappings around their legs and armed only with a flint-tipped wooden spear. Could this be Perseus? Oddly, though I could see him in the light, he remained flesh. Did the victim have to see me? It fit the myth. Remaining in the blackness I readied my bow and my first arrow went through his leg. I slithered back into the darkness and waited.
Nothing happened except his screams. Time passed and his torch went out and eventually his screams stopped.
My hunger wanted me to eat the corpse, but I couldn't. He was human, I was human. At least in mind I was. A day passed? My mask fell to pieces and I was driven to slither by him to hunt food I could eat, and to find more deadwood.
My snakes had other ideas and struck out at the corpse and began tearing off chunks of cold flesh. Some just held on so that all I could do was drag the corpse along with me. Eventually I gave in to the inevitable and let them eat.
Was this cannibalism? My body was not human, but was my soul? It seemed that it was as I became nauseous, and then sick. But all that I could vomit up was a thin gruel as the snakes gorged themselves. By the time they were done all that was left was bone.
At least they stopped biting me as they digested.
Years passed. Others came. Each one I crippled with a single shot and they lay there until they died. Each one I eventually let my snakes eat. It seemed that the snakes had some control over my body and though I often resisted until I fell asleep, I always awoke beside the corpse with the snakes gorging themselves.
Eventually I gave in to the inevitable and let the snakes eat right away.
Every time I vomited up what little was in my stomach.
More years passed, my mind wandered around and around, learning nothing new. My movements wore down the rock, changing the cave into a labyrinth of curving corridors. And eventually Perseus came.
How did I know it was Perseus? I just knew -- I can't describe it any other way. Somehow I could feel that it was him, that the gods were with him. That my day had come.
By now my horse masks were exquisitely carved, my bow and arrows deadly and sharp. Part of me wanted to not resist, but the snakes wouldn't let my body wait for death. I went on the hunt.
The hunt lasted far longer than any of the others. I could see his torchlight reflecting from the wet ceiling, I could hear his bronze panoply gently rattle as he moved. Because of these I could ambush him, or so I thought. No matter how hard I tried, how carefully I planned my surprise, somehow his shield was always in the way. Just before I fled each failure I could sometimes see his face, its fear, its hope. A fear and hope that echoed mine. Slowly I was forced further and further back as my arrows ran low. He cornered me, and I saw his form as he looked at me in the polished surface of his bronze shield.
His first arrow struck me in one eye, shattering the mask which clattered to the floor. His second in struck me in my other eye. I screamed in pain in my blindness. The pain burned through me and yet a part of me listened as he approached. My snakes hissed and struck at his spear which he let them wrench from his hands.
Finally, a single stroke of his bronze sword cleaved my head from my shoulders.
Even through the pain I exulted, and I feared. I focused my thoughts on the blood, and on Pegasus. He clasped me by my snakes which hung limp and dead, and behind me I heard my body writhe as it died.
But no blood. No changes.
I tried to hiss out my rage. My mouth opened, but no sound came out.
I could feel him toss me into a course sack, and only then did I feel a single drop of blood ooze from my severed throat. Desperately I thrust my mind into that blood. All sensation vanished. I had existence but nothing else. More blood dripped, my body grew larger.
My body collected, slipped through the material. I forced myself to ignore everything. To feel a link to Poseidon. To remember the horse I had been. To dream of wings. That last dream I held on to like a terrier. I refused to let go. I felt my body coalesce, gather, grow, as more blood splattered on the ground.
Nothing happened and I despaired. I almost lost the dream. But then, a miracle!
My body stretched, it pulled air into me, it drew upon the soul of all the masks I'd carved. A spring burst from the ground and fresh water filled me like the ocean once had. My body grew, my liquid form lightened to a mist that emulated flesh and blood. Feathers burst from my shoulders; hair from my head, neck, and rear. In an instant I had eyes and I could see Perseus staring at me, the bag with Medusa's head dropped on the ground. Between us were currents, movements of air. My body changed and stretched, I screamed in joy. But, I never became solid. I was a creature of mist, not of earth, not of blood, and not of flesh. I realized that I controlled my very being -- I could solidify and walk as solid on solid; I could drift through the air as a creature that belonged there. Always I appeared as a winged horse.
And best of all, the pain, the eternal pain was gone!
I let myself coalesce standing in the water of the spring that had formed with my birth, not quite touching the rock beneath, and let Perseus approach.
Chapter 5: Flight
I stood there, not really floating in the water, but not standing on the earth either, as Perseus approached. The water felt odd, it felt a part of me, and it felt separate. It was like two liquid mediums that touched but did not mix. I could feel the rock, and I could feel myself pushing away from it.
And then Perseus touched my shoulder.
His touch was odd. Not like the touch I'd felt from other horses when I'd been a horse. Has hand felt hot, and painfully dry. I could feel my skin ripple like water, and it seemed as though my skin was an elastic wall containing my mass. I turned my head and looked at him. He stopped, so I took a step forward.
I heard a voice, and from his reaction I would guess he heard it too. It sounded to me like Athena. "Take her..."
Her? I had hoped... instead I treated it philosophically. I lowered my head inviting him aboard. I knew the myth, and I couldn't see any harm in letting him fulfill it now. A short trip, an adventure, and then I might be able to escape!
And suddenly he was on my back. I'd never been ridden before, and I had to force down an urge to buck, though I did stumble sideways and onto the rock beside the spring which then began burbling forth more water.
I could feel my body changing, hardening, at least around him. To compensate my head and neck grew less dense. Not much, but enough.
And then he kneed me.
I reared, screamed my displeasure, and Perseus almost fell off. In fact he would have if he hadn't grabbed my mane which hurt! Instead of lowering my fore body, I tried pushing with my mind and succeeded in raising my rear body as I stretched out my wings.
He patted me on the neck. "Go girl... Go!"
I rolled my eyes and floated over towards where he'd dropped the bag with my former head. As I rose out of the water, it rolled off me like oil off of a slick plastic. Stopping beside the bag I nickered.
I just snorted.
He quickly swung off, grabbed the bag, and then leapt onto my back. This time I was ready and kept from rearing. Then he kneed me again, the bastard, and again I reared and leapt into the air.
All around me were transparent streams of air patterns. Long splotches of transparent oil floating in clear water. Twisting my head, I made a course around them, pushing myself along with each stroke of my wings. The wings didn't keep me aloft, it was the nature of my body. I was air and water, and it was easy to push away the elemental earth. A last glance behind at my prison showed Chrysaor in his polished bronze waving his sword and cursing. The myth stated that both of us came from the blood.
And then we entered a cloud. It was a cold mist that called to me, and I let particles be pulled into my body to mix with my mass. Another stroke of my wings and we were above and I heard Perseus whoop for joy. I screamed with him.
Jopppa? I heard a voice in my head: It's across the Aegean.
Athena? I thought.
Only silence greeted me. The voice had sounded like her, but purer. I couldn't be sure. Still, it was likely as Athena had been Perseus' patron in the myths.
I read the air, felt the pressures of the earth, and turned myself to the west. Was this how birds did it? Or was this simply the magic in the myth? Who knew, and at this point I didn't care. Stretching my neck forward I beat my wings faster and faster, joying in the streaming of air past my nostrils. Perseus gripped my mane and I neighed in pain and laughter as he began to struggle to hold on. I just went faster. The clouds became a blur--
The same voice in my head: If you drop him, your eternity as Medusa will seem an instant of pleasure...
I slowed down to a more sedate pace and felt Perseus relax.
There are various versions of the Perseus myth, and not all involve him using Medusa's head to defeat Poseidon's sea monster. In some he sues for Andromeda's hand, and uses the head to defeat King Cepheus' guards. In others he uses it along the way to defeat other horrible monsters.
I wasn't sure which version I wanted. Up to now you could consider me as a loyal hero devoted to Poseidon with Athena as an enemy. Yet now I was helping Athena, possibly against a creature of Poseidon's. I didn't want to offend Poseidon, yet what choice did I have? And if I was in the myth where Perseus defeated a monster about to eat Andromeda, a monster created by Poseidon, Poseidon would not be pleased with me.
Or was I reading too much into the whole thing?
Again in my head: Turn south Stephan.
I did so, and let myself fall through the clouds until I could see what I guessed was the eastern coast of the Aegean below me.
It couldn't be the Aegean though -- I was in a god damned cave! Yet, that is what it looked like and I had to treat it as such. Even if this place was from human dreams, it had rules, and it seemed that I was bound to them.
"There she is!" Perseus yelled.
From the corner of my eye I could see him pointing and I followed his gaze until I saw what I had most feared. A woman, naked, tired to a rock outcropping surrounded by crashing waves. And, in the depths I could see a massive greenish head. Whipping my wings down I reared and stopped where I was.
"It's all right girl -- I won't let the beast hurt you."
I beat my wings and drifted backwards, my head raised high.
Athena: Stephan, you know what you have to do. Do it!
I swallowed, yanked my head even higher, flapped my wings, and moved further away.
"Andromeda! Close your eyes!" Perseus shouted.
My worst nightmare. Whipping my head back and fourth frantically looking for an escape, I felt Perseus struggling to hold on. Below me the water boiled and a serpentine head broke the surface and reared upwards. It was smooth, a medium green lightening down the neck. It's scent struck me, hot fetid breath of decaying meat. And age. Incredible ancient age. Through the water I could see its legs, or rather fins, and its long sinuous tail. A plesiasaur?!
Athena: Stephan, if Andromeda dies...
What the hell was I supposed to do?!
Well, if I was in the myths... I shouted out: "Poseidon!" though it came out as a horse's scream.
Athena: Take Perseus closer!
I pulled my wings close to my body and began to drop like a rock. Perseus grabbed my mane and managed to stay on. Maybe if I got close enough to the sea Poseidon would hear me.
"Pegasus, just bear me this once and I'll grant you your freedom. Andromeda...!"
A few hundred metres above the water I stretched out my wings and caught the air. "Poseidon!" I screamed again.
By now the plesiasaur had humped its body up onto shallow rocks and I could see water rolling off its back. It's head reared back and saliva dripped from its jaws to splash into the surface below. All around was a piercing scream from the tied up woman, not that I could blame her.
The clouds cleared and beams of sunlight bounced off the waves below me. I stroked again, getting higher, getting closer to the creature's jaws.
Stephan... Athena's voice was getting angry.
I could feel Perseus struggling, raising his hand to hold the sack up high. He let go of my neck and clasped the blood soaked bottom of the bag and preparing to yank it.
"Posedion!" I screamed again.
If Perseus falls off Stephan...!
What was I supposed to do? Had Poseidon abandoned me? Did he consider my visit to Medusa a betrayal? But according to the myths he had raped her which had started the cycle!
I looked up. The plesiasaur was lunging at Andromeda, though it was watching us too. It was a beast. Andromeda was a human.
I knew what I had to do.
With a slow downbeat I held myself steady and closed my eyes. Flicking my ears backward to cup the sound from the sack I heard it slither off my former head. There was silence, even the ocean seemed to be waiting. Then a reptilian scream followed by the roaring cracks of rock shattering under immense stress. Opening my eye on the opposite side from where Perseus was holding Medusa's head, I watched the craggy rock outcropping that had once been a plesiasaur collapse into the angry waves.
I screamed out, "Poseidon! What was I supposed to do!?"
Only the hiss of the waves greeted me.
Fine! Still keeping my right eye closed, I beat my wings slowly, gently drifting to where Andromeda was tied to the rocks. I could hear Perseus fumbling with the sack and hoped he wouldn't take too long. In the distance I heard a voice, shouting. Twisting my ears I caught hints of sound. I glanced towards the walls of the city and saw warriors armoured in leather with bronze helmets readying bows. An older man was standing amidst them clothed in Tyrian purple and pointing at me and Perseus. King Cepheus! Hoping Perseus wouldn't fall I whipped myself around and sped towards the wall, moving at an angle along it so that Medusa's head was in clear sight.
There were no arrows, just the sound of a statue toppling off the wall and falling, bouncing off the cliff on the way down and shattering at the bottom. Turning the other way I let myself look. A line of archer statues, and a shattered statue of a king being consumed by the waves.
Finally Perseus got the head back in its sack. "It's all right Pegasus, it's all right," he whispered as he leaned close to my ears. He patted my neck. "Can you take me to Andromeda?"
Gently I flew us over to the rock outcropping and let Perseus get off. Still hovering, I watched him draw a bronze dagger and start cutting her ropes as she sobbed.
"I free you Pegasus," he whispered. "Go."
I was free! Free!
Athena: You can't escape.
Screaming defiance I beat my wings and flew higher and higher. Going through the sea would not work for my escape, but there was the ceiling. There could be cracks, tunnels, caves. Possibly volcanic tubes leading to Santorini. That was my hope, but most of me didn't care. I was free of Medusa, free of darkness and pain.
I was free to fly!
Like a rocket I burst through the clouds and into the glittering sunshine. The earth began to curve below me but I pushed away from the earth harder and beat my wings faster. I would see the whole world that trapped me and I'd escape! With each beat of my wings I flew higher, further from the hell I'd been in. The world curved more and soon I could see the ocean glittering around everything. Higher, higher! The world below me began to distort, as though seen through a funhouse mirror. It twisted and bent. Portions began to swirl as though caught in a whirlpool. First slowly, and then faster. The air grew thinner, and warped. Electricity danced amongst my feathers and sudden gusts of wind tried to thrust me down. The wind grew stronger and spun me around, slowed me down.
I wouldn't be stoped!
I was tired now, tired for the first time in this body. The air swirled around me. Balls of lightning burst in my feathers, on my hide, burning, piercing the thin film of my skin and ionizing the liquid inside me before I could heal.
The air was a howling gale. Below me the world was now whirlpools of colour that slowly moved around each other in complex randomness. There was no order in them, just swirls of colour. I could see the vortexes stretch, change.
The wind howled, lightning flashed. Ozone tinged my nostrils with every breath. Hail began beating against my wings pressing me down. A black and angry tornado caught me and whipped me around and sucked me down but I fought it. I angled my wings and the wind shoved me out and up before it could adjust. Lightning was all around me, the world below was nothing but a swirl of colour. Wind beat upon me from all directions, the hail thickened, beating on my wings. If I had bones they would have snapped but I was made of air and mist and I laughed at the storm's fury. The wind howled, roaring out its anger. Lightning roared continuously.
Still I pushed myself higher.
The air changed, it beat on my from all sides, always pushing me down, or trying to. It spun me around, flipped me over, but I refused to let it win. Ages passed as I fought it, my lungs gasping for air in the howling gale. Electricity dancing along my mane and tail and body, stinging where it touched even though there was no where it could have grounded.
I pushed myself higher still.
And suddenly nothing. It was black, silent. Below me was only a dim angry glow. My body twisted, began to collapse. I was not alive and where I was now would not let me live. Helpless I began falling but I looked upward as long as I could and saw only twisted dry rock...
I don't know how much time passed. The next I knew I was of standing just above a field and nibbling on the tips of the stalks of grass. It seems that I'd survived my fall.
According to the common myths Pegasus was never slain, and had no offspring. He flitted around, was tamed by Belleraphon using a magic golden bridle from Athena, and eventually Pegasus threw him when he tried to reach Olympus. Then Pegasus became the lightning bearer for Zeus, and was eventually transformed into a constellation.
This yielded no way out, and an eternity of boredom. Possibly becoming a constellation would kill me as there were no stars above, just naked rock. I really didn't want to find out. As far as I knew I was trapped. I couldn't escape in this form and I couldn't escape from this form.
Time passed. I was unchanging, eternal. I never flew that high again though I tried once or twice. Each time my body revolted and went back down on its own. I tried flying over the ocean, and diving into it, but I found that I couldn't break its surface. I tried from greater and greater heights. Eventually when I hit I splashed into a puddle of liquid that floated on the surface. Days passed before I coalesced back into a Pegasus form.
No gods ever spoke to me.
More time passed and I just flitted and ate and cursed my fate. Eternal life, eternal boredom.
Why was this happening to me?!
I searched the lesser known myths, the uncommon myths, the alternate myths. Eventually I remembered one, or a fraction of it. The most common story told that the centaurs were the children of Ixion and a cloud which had been made to look like Hera. Ixion had killed Eioneus to avoid paying him the bride price for his daughter Dia whom Ixion had married. No man or god would purify Ixion of his crime of murdering kin, but eventually Zeus decided to and brought Ixion to Olympus. Ixion attempted to seduce Hera, Hera told Zeus, and Zeus transformed a cloud into Hera as a test which Ixion failed. The children of Ixion and the cloud were alternately the race of centaurs, or the individual Centaurus who then birthed the centaurs upon the Magnesian mares. I vaguely remembered a third version involving Pegasus but couldn't recall the details. Possibly Centaurus had mated with Pegasus. I couldn't remember.
I clung to it though. After all, what did I have to lose?
I started flying and nibbling around the base of Olympus and waited. Years passed.
I thought about what I'd seen. Obviously I couldn't exist as a magical entity beyond this place, whatever it was. There was a definite border, maybe not visible, but present. I couldn't fly out. The only reason I had the one time was because my magical nature allowed me to fight for all the time it took. But once beyond my magical form could no longer exist. That meant that I had to escape by water.
And what had I seen? Were there regions of myth that interacted? Could I move from one to another? Were they sentient? I wish I knew.
Time passed as I thought and eventually Ixion was taken to Olympus and I watched from a distance and waited. The cloud was transformed and Ixion doomed himself. A few days after the mating the cloud birthed what I assumed was Centaurus.
I;d never read a description of Centaurus, and maybe what I saw was the reason. He was not a centaur, not a man, not a horse. If anything he was a man-shaped air elemental. His human body formed from mist as did his chest, and then both faded into a cloud sort of like the body of a centaur.
I could have fled. Part of me wanted to. But Centaurus represented escape.
As far as I could tell he wasn't intelligent, just a force. I had to woo him, tease him by flying round him and zipping through the tenuous outer portions of his rear body. He could move only slowly, unless the wind blew him. Ultimately I had to fly into the center of his body, at speed to pierce the shell around him that was similar to the shell around me. Inside was not a cloud but a thick cloying mist that felt like a bath of clinging oil and smelt like a sewer. A drop forced itself into my womb. And then more, and more. I coul feel myself bloating, expanding like a balloon. Screaming, I flapped my wings and forced my way out through the molasses of his body.
I was free of Centaurus, but was I free of my prison? Not yet. But something was happening. I could feel it. The thing inside me felt like a rock weighing me down. Flight became effort. I took to standing in springs as whenever my hooves touched the earth water sprang forth. I could feel the thing inside my womb dividing, changing into two, each growing.
It was my chance.
I prayed to Poseidon, I thought of myself in one of the bodies, I willed my soul to move into one of the forms. Suddenly the light was gone, and all that was around me was darkness. I couldn't move, couldn't breathe, but I didn't need to. I and my twin were squeezed together between walls as we slowly grew and changed. Rages moved through my body, hatreds, angers, arrogance. Remnants of the cursed spirit of Ixion. Eventually I could move, and I could tell that parts of me were flesh and parts were bone or hoof. My body shaped itself and grew. Eventually, as the darkness came close to driving me mad as it summoned memories of Medusa, I felt pain. Incredible pressing pain. I was squeezed, crushed, and slowly pushed. My twin was expelled first, I had to wait. The pressure intensified, it crushed my form, changed it, squeezed it and then squeezed harder. A pause and a squeeze. Pause, squeeze. Pause, squeeze. A biting coldness and goo all around me. A pause, and a last squeeze that sent me slipping out and onto the cold hard ground.
Chapter 6: Rebirth
I don't remember much of my early colthood, just impressions and feelings, and a sense of loss for memories that I had to find. I remember coldness. I remember warm liquid and warm feathers. Pegasus must have nursed me. I remember learning to make sounds. I remember chasing my sister around through the grass and stubbing my toe. And I remember being found by proto-Scythians.
I think some explanation is required. On classical greek pottery centaurs were depicted in three manners. The oldest depiction was a human with a horse attached to the rear. Thus the forelegs were fully human legs, and the rear legs fully horse. A short lived middle depiction had human forelegs but with hooves instead of feet. The last depiction was with all four legs being horselike. Since I was the earliest centaur, whatever controlled this place must have picked the earliest form out of my mind.
There were some advantages... It was slightly easier to climb very rough surfaces than when I was pure horse. I had a better feel for the ground, even through the thick calluses that developed, and I had a better chance of avoiding dangerous holes and logs and preventing injury. It also made mating a more personal thing since the sexual organs were fully human, and in the human location. Otherwise the design left a lot to be desired. It was much harder for the woman to bear. The form was slower than a more pure form. And, at least until my foster parents made thick leather pants for my forelegs, they were always scratched and often bleeding. I endured.
My foster parents belonged to a culture that would eventually be known as the Scythians. Always wandering, they moved through the great grasslands north of the Black Sea in small groups. Their diet was bland, consisting mostly of vegetable stews and fermented mare's milk, but they did hunt for meat occasionally. And they loved colour, both in cloth and on their own bodies.
I have no conscious memories of the actual transference from the care of Pegasus to the care of my foster parents, Madyes and his three wives (Athea, Sauli, Skunxa). Madyes told me that he had found me and my sister at the Idanthyrsus watering hole, surrounded by hoof tracks that I guessed belonged to Pegasus. He gave me the name Scylurus, and he named my sister Philya.
I grew swiftly, faster than a human child, and learned the javelin and bow with ease. The bow skill came from my sub-consciously remembered imprisonment as Medusa, the javelin I can't say. My father had tough boots made for me but I could never wear them. They protected my feet, but they just didn't feel right. Still, I kept them, and other pairs as I grew, for ceremonial use. What I did wear was the heavy hide pants common to the culture. I tied them around my ankle in the gaelic style and my legs had far fewer scratches and bruises. The rest of my body was generally clothed in dyed linen and hide, the material covered in zigzag patterns and stripes. The shirt ended beneath the top of my trousers, and the combination hid my personal bits from prying eyes. Unfortunately my hair continued down my upper spine like a mane and was imprisoned inside the shirt. It always itched. A colourful blanket was strapped over my lower back, and the distinctive Scythian fox-hide cap was over my head.
Philya, I learned later, was treated far differently. The proto-Scythians were an extremely male dominated society though a strong-willed women could join the men in the hunt and in war.
Philya was not strong willed.
She was always cloistered, hidden in the tents with Modyes' wives and other female children. They always pampered her, and her forefeet grew soft and she was forced to wear thin souled leather shoes the rare time she had an opportunity to gallop. Like me she hated the shoes, but unlike me she didn't have a choice. Women's clothes were similar to men's, but lighter and more colourful, and Philya wore the same style as the rest of the women. The main difference was that her pants were tucked into the boots she was forced to wear.
We grew up and I was accepted as part of the tribe, both for my skill as a hunter and as a warrior, and for my merger with the creature these proto-Scythians worshipped above all others. The horse. Philya was rejected. There were no suitors for her hand, and Scythian law forbade me from taking her. I knew that we had to have some genetic relation through Pegasus, but given the disparity in forms compared to our parents I wasn't sure how dangerous that could be to our children.
Eight years after my adoption, I underwent the rites of adulthood. The ceremony was long and complex, and consisted mostly of my being tattooed. The men loved tattoos, and their bodes were covered with them. To my dismay I had a lot more surface to be covered. I became drunk on fermented mare's milk, draped in gifts of gold, another love of the culture, and my body was covered with the tattoos of adulthood. My human body followed the pattern of hunters with images of sexual prowess over women, all intermingled with religious signs. For my horse body, they ended up doing the same thing, but replacing all the humans with horses. At the point where my human back met my horse's back they did a complex, and explicit, tattoo of a man mating with a horse. After I finally saw it in a polished bronze mirror, I always made sure to keep that portion of my anatomy covered.
The final stage of the rite of adulthood was to spend a week journeying through the grasslands alone. Normally one could only drink his mount's blood, but in my case I was given a mare for that purpose. My only weapons were a javelin and my bow, and my only clothing was a pair of pants and boots. I went without the boots. The tribe would wait for me at the Idanthyrsus watering hole where'd they found me.
For the first day I galloped west, towards hills I could dimly see in the far distance. I didn't meet anybody. Though there were many tribes, the grasslands were unimaginably vast. The mare had no trouble keeping up with me and the first night was quiet and peaceful under the stars.
It was during this trip that my memories of my past started returning. The stars were the catalyst. Proto-Scythian religion had them as the souls of the blessed dead, but suddenly I knew that they weren't real. That none of this around me was real.
It was like a dam burst. Memories of lifetimes tumbled into me. I remembered my original name, Stephan. I remembered being a human, a Nereid, a horse, Medusa... I remembered the Greek gods, and especially Poseidon and Athena. On the second day I walked, working through my memories, organizing them. Thinking of what they all meant. I lost track of time and it wasn't until nearly sunrise that I stopped and collapsed from exhaustion near a small spring.
And, across from me, a patch of darkness in the dim eastern glow, was a winged horse.
Her scent was odd, not horse but instead horse mixed with salt and ozone. I looked up and she looked down. I couldn't see them, but I knew the instant our eyes met. She did too. Her memories of me were dim, but still buried. Was my soul still within her? An echo of my soul? She nickered and took a step through the spring towards me. I wanted to approach her but was too tired to stand. She took a couple more steps and then her warm breath brushed my forehead. Remaining still, I let her sniff my face, and then lick it.
Sister? I heard my voice in my head, and I knew that it wasn't me, it was Pegasus.
With that I remembered Philya. Through my youth I'd accepted her cloistering as right, as her choice. The fact that she did not fight it meant that she wanted it. That was how it had always been done, and how it would always be done. With the deluge of my memories I'd forgotten about her. Pegasus made me remember. I thought as response: She lives. She--
Watched. Never see.
She's safe. She's kept hidden. I asked myself how I could have let them do that to her.
Frowning, I bowed my head. I can't.
She's safe! I see her--
BRING! Her teeth grasped a clump of hair on my head and tore it out in a spray of flesh and blood. BRING HERE!
There was a rush of feathers, a splash of water, and then silence. Pegasus was gone.
All my new memories fell aside as I thought about the problem, cursing myself. Sure, I'd been taught that it was the right thing to do, but it wasn't! I knew that now. I could have done something. I should have done something. I--
In the distance I heard hoofbeats. Another horse, just one. Not a gallop, but a fast canter.
I forced myself to my feet and hooves in the pool and readied my bow.
The sun was higher now, everything was still in shadow but I could begin to make out details. At first I thought it was a horseman, but as he got closer I recognized that it was another centaur. Not Philya. The shape came even closer, and I saw that its forelegs were identical to a horse's. Huh?
That was when the attitude my proto-Scythian parents had drilled into me took over. If you were not one of the tribes, you were the enemy. My sister and I were the only centaurs. Aiming my bow at the intruder's human chest I pulled the arrow back. I paused. No. I wouldn't fire. It wasn't right! This was another centaur and I needed to know if there were others.
And I might need him to save Philya.
He must have seen what I was doing for he suddenly stopped about 100 metres away. I couldn't make out details, but watched as he slowly spread out both hands to show that he was not readying any weapons. Then he shouted out, in Greek. At first I didn't understand him, but then memories of my prior life as Medusa clicked in and I knew what he was saying.
"I come in peace!"
I waited, my mind full of questions. Another centaur, one who spoke Greek.
And spoke it with what I would swear was an English accent.
Chapter 7: The Passage of Time
Without lowering my bow, I shouted out, "Approach slowly!" Watching him as he walked towards me, I waited until he was about 20 metres away until shouting, "Stop!" He did.
He called out, "I'm looking for somebody like me. Have you heard of any such?"
Centaurs? Why was he looking for centaurs? Was it me he was looking for? "Don't move!" I slowly walked out of the spring feeling the water wind down my legs, and drip off my pants. Keeping my bow ready I stopped 10 metres in front of him. By now the sun had risen enough that I could see him as more than a shadow, and evidently he could see me too.
With my bow ready I asked, in a normal tone, "Why are you looking for people like you?"
"Your kind yet is not..." he muttered. Then he jerked his attention back to me. "Kindly lower your bow, I'm not going to hurt you. I've come too far to find, I believe, you."
I held my bow steady. "Why?"
"Because I was told to. Can you kindly put that bloody thing down!"
A large part of me wanted to fire, another part refused to trust him. And yet, my soul said to do so. His colouring was dark, his flesh darkly tanned. His hair was pale, and flowed into a mane down his back that matched the colour of his tail. The only clothing he wore was a floppy hat, sort of like a cowboy hat but with a wider brim that I recognized as Thessalian, bags strapped to his horse's body that contained what looked like javelins poking out, probably with other stuff, and a scabbard with sword suspended from a belt over his shoulder. "Drop the sword, and toss your packs away from you."
"My but you're touchy..."
He grumbled, but did it. I waited as they thudded into the dew-soaked grass.
"Walk away from them."
He slowly did.
He did. Only then did I lower my bow and slip it back into its case. My right hand slipped the arrow back into its quiver and pulled out a javelin and held it ready, but in a relaxed position.
"What is your name."
"About time," he muttered. "Ephebos. Now--"
"Why are you looking for me?"
He rolled his eyes, "Bloody... I asked the Oracle at Delphi how to avoid my fate at the hands of the Lapiths."
Lapiths? Was there... a wedding! "Why didn't you just not go?"
"Because I will be invited, and I won't have a choice. Fate and all that blasted stuff."
He sighed. "Because the Oracle told me:
Seek the soul older than yours Daughter of water; daughter of blood Son of air
Go east across the green sea that is not wet Seek he who is your kind, yet is not Find him
Then shalt thou be free
"I don't know what it all means, but the green sea was obviously glasslands, and the 'who is your kind' is obviously a centaur. Our differences explains the 'yet is not'."
Only part of me paid attention to what he said after the prophecy, though it was more instructions than a path of the future which was unusual though I didn't notice it at the time. The first stanza suggested that it was me he was looking for, daughter of water probably referred to when Poseidon changed me from a Neriad to the first horse, daughter of blood was probably when I burst into Pegasus from the blood of Medusa. Son of air must refer to my current body being the child of Pegasus. But what about the 'soul older than mine' bit? No... Could he be somebody from the outside? The accent?
"Are you from London?"
He frowned. "London? Well... Blimey! You are like me! Originally I was from Bristol."
I put the javelin I was holding back in its case. "What year is it?"
"That I couldn't tell you. When I left t'was 2109 by common reckoning."
2109? Had it been that long? Years, possibly centuries had passed for me, but it didn't feel like that long. It felt like passages in a story, but the time had been real. 2109. "By Poseidon," I whispered, "the date I remember is 1997..."
"That does explain the first stanza..."
Over a century... "How the god forsaken fucking hell did you get here?!"
"Swam? Swam?!" I remembered watching my umbilical, the certain knowledge that I was dead. John...
"Why? WHY THE HELL DID YOU COME HERE?!?!" A century... "WHY?! Why?"
The next thing I knew he was cradling me in his arms. The sun was up, though it was starting to look like rain. Nearby I could see the mare I had been given calmly grazing. Had she followed me? On small things is sanity built. Gently I pushed him away and then turned to look out into the wilderness. "What is the real world like?"
"The real... Of course you wouldn't know. Do you mind if I start a fire? It's a long story. I've some dried meat in my bags, some dried onions, a pot. I can--"
I wasn't supposed to eat food from others, it would spoil the rite. The rite? What did I care about a primitive rite created by dreams. Dreams that held my sister! Dreams, everything was just dreams!
Before I consciously realized anything, I'd spun around and had my bow up and ready. He'd just leaned down to open one of his packs. Stopping, he held very still. I forced the tension out of my body and lowered the bow. "Do it. Set the fire. I need..." What did I need? I had no clue. "I need to think -- I'll be back."
He nodded and slowly leaned down. I guess he didn't trust me, and who could blame him?
One hundred and twelve years.
I heard him gathering brush and branches from behind me as I wandered towards the mare. I might as well check her condition.
Over a century.
She didn't shy away. Instead she lowered her head almost in a bow and I heard a voice that I somehow knew was hers in my head. She said one word: Father.
I collapsed in a tangled heap in the grass. What in Poseidon's name was happening to me?!
Chapter 8: The World Outside
The mare walked over and started licking my face.
She backed away, lay down on the ground and grabbed a mouthful of grass. As she chewed she watched me.
What was going on? Father? Maybe... In a sense I was her mother, or my soul was. Damn Poseidon! Focusing my attention on her I looked into her eyes as she stopped chewing. "Technically I was your mother."
No longer, I heard in my head as she nickered out loud.
Of course, I could be insane too. Still, if I was going to save Philya, being the demigod of equines would be useful. "Why didn't you talk to me before?"
Did. Didn't listen.
Damn the gods and their games! The words were only part of what she said, there were emotional overtones, hints of meaning. I knew that she meant that she'd talked to me. I had just never recognized it. Why now? The memories? Did I have to find my soul? I remembered that the horses owned by my tribe had always been nice to me, they had never bit, never kicked. At least me. They'd done it to others. It had been believed their behaviour was because I looked like them, but...
"The other horses with the tribe. Are they my--?"
Yes. I could swear she laughed.
If this wasn't my imagination, it could definitely be useful. "I'll be back. Relax, you've earned a rest."
She nickered in thanks and went back to the grass.
Slowly I pushed myself back to my hooves and feet and turned back to the pool. It was almost like I was one of the greek heroes. Special birth, divinely gifted powers, a revelation when I was ready...
I frowned. Too close. I WAS a greek hero. It all fit. Had I been so absorbed into this place that I was creating my own stories?
I needed answers, and Ephebos stated that he had some. But, was he lying? How could I know? Could I trust him? I could see more details now. He human half was definitely darkly tanned, his horse's body a dark chestnut with black splotches at the bottom of each leg. His mane and tail were both a pale ivory. He was like me, except my body was a light gray-blue where his was brown. His beard was long, pale like his hair, and his face was old and wrinkled. Already he had a fire going and looked to be boiling some water.
Could I trust him? His story bugged me. If he'd been a native of this world, an actual Greek, I would have believed him. His position fit the culture. Yet, I'd never heard of the Oracle to give instructions like those he related. Of course, I only had the myths and classical records for guidance, but still... He could have stayed away. I could have. Or could I? I remembered Athena telling me not to drop Perseus or else. Could they have a tighter hold on him?
The mare nibbled on my tail and I yanked it away from her. She nickered.
Trotting back to the pool, I saw that Ephebos was tossing something, grain it looked like, into the pot. The mare snorted behind me, stood up, and went back to the grass. The fire stank, like my tribe he wasn't burning wood but instead dried dung.
I stopped a few metres away and looked down at him. "Okay Ephebus. How'd you get here?"
Slowly he turned to me, still stirring the pot with a wooden stick or spoon. "I told you, I swam." He certainly didn't sound happy -- maybe I was getting on his nerves. Good.
"I was almost 200 metres down when the Nereids got me. There's no way you could--"
He threw down the stick. "You arrogant bloody bastard! You think nothing changed in a hundred years? That the whole world is your personal domain?!"
With an effort I kept from readying my bow. Instead I put both hands on my waist. "Then tell me about your world."
"I couldn't..." Sighing, he leaned over and got the polished stick he'd been using and resumed stirring the grain stew he was cooking. I could see some bits of dried meat bobbing around in the water. "You don't... you couldn't..."
I started tapping my left forefoot. "Try me."
"Maybe I should just let you kill me. It's better--" He was silent for almost a minute. "Fine! Whatever. The world I came from was incredibly different from yours. Have you heard of the vanishing point?"
Vanishing point? "In geometry..."
"Bloody... Fine. From the beginning then. Ever since the industrial revolution, technological change has come faster and faster. It could be graphed as an ever steepening curve. You've heard the theory?"
"Blasted ancient... Never mind then. I think it was originally from a 20th century novel by somebody, Vernor Vinge, Marooned in Realtime, I think... Nevermind. By the mid 21st century we had cheap fusion, AIs, nanomachines, biotechnology, colonies in the L4 and L5 points and on the moon. We were terraforming Mars and studies were underway to do the same for Venus."
"Sounds like paradise."
"Paradise?! Hah! All the power was controlled by barely 1% of the world's population, all descended from the idle rich and the upper management levels that controlled the big corporations. The rest lived on handouts as they couldn't afford the education and biotech enhancements to join the cutting edge of a world that changed ever faster. The important people lived in arcologies, sealed off from the world they'd wrecked. The rest of us survived as best we could in the wasteland outside. Always hungry, cold, sick. And dying. Bodies on top of bodies--"
I didn't want to hear anymore about that. "That doesn't answer--"
"You uncaring bastard!"
I turned away. "I'm sorry." I'd seen death, Greeks, Hitites, the odd Egyptian, all hunted and killed by the proto-Scythians. And yet it had been in battle, honourable. "I can't comprehend a life like that. Please go on."
"The reward had-- The problem was that even with all the tech available they still needed biomass to create planoforms for Mars and oceans. Asteroid mining was starting, but too freaking costly. The machines were too expensive. It was cheaper to convert the dying outside the arcologies."
"Of course bloody me! England had collapsed into anarchy when the oil supply collapsed. In fact most countries did. The middle east more or less nuked itself. We were all freaking barbarians looking into a golden land we couldn't have. Of course I volunteered! Everybody did, or tried to.
"They take you and they don't care. No anesthetics -- too expensive. Quick and dirty nanite cell chromosome purification/replacement. The antibiotics stopped working in 2020 or so. They grow cybernetic enhancements throughout your body, neural interface nets throughout your brain. They don't bother testing, if the standard insert pattern fails, they grind you up and reprocess you for the interior gardens and use another poor bastard. I was one of the lucky ones.
"Then they force feed you. You learn the machinery you need to tend, problems that can occur, dangers of the environment. Everyday a headache that burned in my skull; every night bloody dreams of critical system failures. They teach you nothing else. By the time they finished I was little better than a biobot. Conditioned. Dedicated. They took us out in a refitted oil tanker and dropped us in the water at each site. Probably a third drowned when their implanted symbiotic gills failed. Mine didn't. The water was warm, oily, dead. A bitter concoction that I had to live in."
"So you escaped?"
"Not likely, your time had left nothing to chance you stupid bastards. By my time there was nothing edible left in the ocean, everything that did still move was so full of toxins it'd fall apart if you touched it too hard. No, the bleeding hearts that had the wealth didn't condone slavery. Of course, you only counted if you survived all the changes in the first place. I guess they never asked about the failures. I was paid, and had opportunities to better myself. Saving up, I got my cybernet upgraded, and started to learn offshift. Nothing technical, the bastards won't let you near that! The cost has to be higher, they claim. It has nothing to do with keeping it out of the reach of us. All I could learn was history, philosophical ideas. Fourth and fifth wave sociological conceptions. And the vanishing point."
"You still haven't told me what this 'vanishing point' is."
"It's a memotic belief with a growing number of followers. If the technological advancement curve continued steepening, eventually it would become vertical. A discontinuity. What would happen at that point -- who the hell knew? Suddenly society would know all that was knowable. Would it evolve? Move to another reality? There was no way to know. It terrified a lot of people.
"I worked on the ocean floor for 15 years, becoming more and more active in memotic discussions on the planetary net. A lot of us became terrified. As many were actually full members of society, we started making plans to form our own isolated community. If a discontinuity was reached, we didn't want any part of it."
"And you came into this place as refuge? How'd you find out about it?"
"That was simple -- it was all on the net. Seismic studies in 2031 discovered the cavern we're in. Statistical analysis of events in the region flagged a higher than average level of disappearances going back to the end of the 20th century. Study was harder. AI controlled probes searched for the entrance in the Mediterranean and were all destroyed. Probes tunneled from the surface nobody could interpret what they saw and complex space/time changes rapidly destroyed them. Remote non-intelligent bioprobes lasted longer, but their information didn't make sense.
"One of the members of our meme volunteered to go in through the ocean after the appropriate aquatic planoforming. He vanished. More volunteers, all bored upper class, followed. Finally one managed to make it out as an entity of living water. He escaped the guardians, and somehow translated a partial account of this place to a bioremote that was waiting for anybody to return. Then he disintegrated."
I started pacing back and fourth. Escape as a Nereid was impossible, but I'd figured that. It had to be something that could survive in the normal world. But, according to Ephebos nothing could anymore. Wonderful. Damn you Poseidon!
"By this time the leading edge of the fifth wave was conducting high energy experiments on Ceres to manipulate space/time and allow FTL travel. There was a continuous ring of stations and refineries all around Earth's equator. A second beanstalk was under construction. More and more humans were downloading their minds into AI networks, becoming machine intelligences. Nanite technology had become so cheap and efficient that the dying masses outside the arcologies were abandoned. Nobody cared about them anymore -- they were insignificant to the majority of the population. Some memes developed cheap techniques to 'snatch and grind' them. Remotely controlled robots were go outside, grab the living they found, and drag them into quarantine areas. There, the meme would copy the victim's minds into memory cores, and then grind up the body for raw materials. The victims lived, but most couldn't adapt to the reality. The poor bastards went mad until they were re-written to be productive members of virtual society."
I didn't understand half of what he was saying, but I was afraid of what he'd tell me if I asked for clarification.
"As a whole, my meme decided to immigrate into this place. Anything was better than what humanity was turning itself into. I know that other memes did the same thing. As a group we swam here and here I am."
It was all so incredible, so inhuman. A bad SF movie. Yet, I could see it happening. Ephebos certainly seemed to believe it.
I turned away. A hundred years. Could so much have changed? Why would he lie? Yet, something wasn't right. I think I could have refused to go to the Lapith Wedding, or would refuse if I ended up being invited. Some centaurs had lived -- Chiron had. I started pacing back and forth, from the fire to the pool and back.
I could see Ephebos stirring the stew viciously, I could see the anger and hatred all through his body. He at least believed what he'd told me.
But if escape was impossible, what reason did I have to go on?
I didn't want to die.
Did the outside world even exist in a form I'd recognize anymore?
Why had this happened to me? WHY?! Poor John -- had he escaped? Was he dead? An echo in the memory of a computer somewhere?
Then I realized something. None of this mattered right now. If I found a way to escape I'd remember, but until then the outside world didn't matter. At least I knew others had come in from the outside. I wasn't the only real living human being here.
It was strangely comforting.
Thinking of John reminded me of my training. If a problem seems insolvable, break it down. Solve what you can, and then worry about the rest. Escape was a distant possibility. Others from outside this place might come in. If any of them still lived. None of that affected me right now.
The first thing was to save my sister.
She was a prisoner because she'd never have a husband. My foster brothers always ridiculed them -- I'd beaten them up time and again when we were young but it never seemed to help. My foster sisters tittered at her. A spinster.
Pegasus, I, was right -- she had to be saved. And, to be saved, she needed a husband.
I looked at Ephebos and smiled.
The rest of the world could wait. I would deal with it one thing at a time.
Chapter 9: Plans and Politics
He flinched, and then spun his upper torso at the waist to face me. He stopped stirring.
"I need to ask a favour."
"After all the bloody--" He stopped and looked through me for a moment. "Is it about your sister?"
How'd..." "Well, yes."
"About bloody time! What's the plan?"
Had I mentioned her? I could have when I was in his arms sobbing. Remember Stephan, one thing at a time. "It's time you became a husband."
"A bloody husband?! Now just--" He flinched, and jerked his hand away from the pot. "Just temporary, right?"
"Unless the two of you wish otherwise."
He sighed. "Yea, I'll help. What else can I do?" Carefully he put his hand back on the stick, pulled it out, exhaled on it, and licked some of the broth. "Breakfast is ready. Not my best cooking, but it'll do."
It smelled good. Rich and with a hint of spice. I walked over through the now dry grass and lay my lower body down. "I really shouldn't--"
"Oh come on! My ruddy cooking isn't that bad!"
"I'm not supposed to eat anything except what I hunt, and mare's blood." I looked over my shoulder. "No offense!"
"Great, another wacko, if--" he muttered, his voice fading below what I could make out. Then, at a normal level again, "You could say you successfully hunted me! And here I thought Thracian barbarians were bloody paranoid!" He grinned.
"It does smell good..."
"There you go! I've got two bowls somewhere, and spoons. Just give me a second." He started to get up, and then stopped. "You aren't going to shoot me in my bloody back, are you?"
"My future brother in law? Poseidon forbid!"
"Just thought I'd check."
I watched as he got up, rooted through his packs, and pulled out the promised bowls and spoons. Each was a single piece of polished wood, unpainted and unvarnished. Of course, I remembered, they didn't have varnishes in the classical world. The stew was actually quite good, though a bit watery for my taste. I thought the meat was boar, though it might have been cow or ox. It was dry and tough, even after being boiled in the broth. He tossed me a wineskin and I took a gulp -- bitter, bitter stuff -- to wash out my mouth.
"So, what's your plan?"
I explained why I was out here. "You'll have to come with me, otherwise they'll just kill you. Do you understand Scythian?"
"A few words."
"I'll have to translate for you anyway. I don't think anybody knows Greek, so let me do the talking. You're a foreign noble who heard of a hidden woman of surpassing beauty and you've been searching for her for years. The elders love that kind of thing. Do you have any gold?"
"A bit of jewelry for trading. A couple of necklaces, a bowl..."
"It'll have to do for a dowry. Modyes, my stepfather, will be happy to get rid of her but he won't let on. After you take her with you, I'll go on a hunting trip and meet you back here. We can discuss our future plans."
"You're that willing to leave?"
I thought about it. Part of me refused, but most of me, the part that returned with the memories, just wanted out of this barbarous wasteland. " I should have taken my sister and fled years ago. Anyway, I have to be gone for a week, so we can't go back for another five days. We might as well just stay here and relax. I'll do some hunting."
We stayed at the pool for another 5 days. I never saw another person, but I did take down a wild deer. There were lots of wild horses but when they all call you father they're hard to kill. Finally it was time to return.
The trip back took longer than I'd thought. We didn't get back until halfway through the 8th day since I'd departed. I must have wandered longer than I'd thought. The scouts saw me a long ways from camp and at first hurried to greet me, but then stopped and stayed just in bow range when they saw that I wasn't alone.
I'd known it wasn't going to be easy.
Just as the sun was lowering below the western horizon, Ephebos and I entered the camp proper. All of the warriors, except those patrolling around the camp, were there waiting for me. The women and children were hidden in their tents but I'd expected that.
With my mare beside me, I stopped and let my father approach. The shaman was behind him. As I bowed they stopped in front of me. "Father, I return an adult."
He stopped and I waited. Time passed. Too much time. Then he motioned me up.
"Welcome Scylurus. I--"
The shaman, Palacus, cut him off. "You're not alone."
"No shaman. I encountered another of my race and I name him friend. He has sought a rumoured woman of unsurpassed beauty for years. He wishes Philya's hand in marriage."
"He's a stranger! He must--"
"Palacus, " my father broke in, "Scylurus is my son. He's a man and a member of this tribe! He wouldn't bring one who would harm us as friend."
Palacus turned and glared at my father, the horse tail tied to his waist almost falling off from the force. My mare nickered in laughter only I understood. "Look at him!"
"He was accepted by all of us! Now he is a man and I will stand beside him!"
I may not have liked stepfather's ways and the way they treated Philya, but I'd always believed he loved me and now I knew. It was a warm feeling.
"You just want to get rid of that extra mouth!"
I couldn't believe Palacus had said that! Nor could most of the other tribesmen. I'd earned my place. Though as a child I'd never been the most popular, or the most loved, I'd earned respect. I'd fought for it. Always I'd fought fairly and only when provoked. The adults in the tribe knew.
I could see the anger in my father, and I think he would have challenged if the shaman hadn't been sacrosanct.
Palacus seemed to realize that he'd crossed a line and thought carefully before speaking. "I acknowledge that Scylurus was adopted into the tribe, and that he is an adult according to our laws. He can... he can offer guest rights." Palacus slowly turned to me. "The gods welcome the return of Scylurus. Adult and warrior!"
The other warriors shouted out their approval, but all the horses neighing and screaming overwhelmed them.
There was an awkward silence which I quickly decided to fill. "I have extended the status of friend to Ephebos, a centaur from the tribes of Thessaly. I hold his honour and accept responsibility for his behaviour."
Palacus spoke the response, though grudgingly. "The tribe accepts Scylurus' guest and welcomes a friend." He leaned to me and whispered, "And you better watch carefully, boy, when he screws up your head is mine."
Why did Palacus hate me so? I hadn't noticed any sign of it before I left on my journey. Could he know that I'd changed, regained my memories? That made no sense! I couldn't afford to think about it now. So I called out in Greek, "Ephebos, come and meet my father, Modyes."
I winced as Palacus glared at me and I knew that he understood the Greek I was speaking.
Slowly Ephebos trotted over and bowed. "I honour the father and household of my friend." I translated his words and my father smiled.
Palacus, on the other hand almost melted from the heat of his hatred.
And why did I smell fear on him?
Chapter 10: Homecoming
Dinner that night was a big celebration. They'd had time to prepare as the scouts had passed back news of my return. Being mounted the scouts were wide ranging. The pending marriage was simply another reason. It hadn't taken long to arrange, I think my stepfather would have taken nothing for Philya as he was certain a proper marriage would make her happy. Palacus was nowhere to be seen all evening, and I realized that some of the other warriors had started avoiding me.
I'd always known, at least in this incarnation, that I hadn't been fully accepted. I'd had to fight for my position, and I always had to stay on the proper side of the line. Palacus had never trusted me, but he'd never shown outright hatred.
I'd always accepted my distance from the rest of the tribe. I was different. I was special Madyes had always told me. I believed that he believed, and now I knew that I was special, at least in this world. Keeping an eye on Ephebos, I took the fermented mare's milk he and others offered me. Every so often I engaged in the odd physical contest and tried to make it look like I had had to work to beat them. I'd always been significantly stronger than anybody else, and faster unless they were mounted.
Ephebos had no such restraint as far as I could tell, yet he did appear to struggle in contests that involved only his human strength. In hitting targets with his javelins he was almost hopeless.
Nobody challenged me to that contest as I hadn't lost in years.
Slowly, just pleasantly buzzed, I drifted away from the center of the camp towards where the horses were kept. Individual steeds lived in the tents of the owner, but the tribe's common herd was allowed to graze separately, watched over by young boys on their colts. In moments the horses were all crowded around me, bowing, sniffing my face, calling me father...
It was embarrassing, even though other people couldn't understand them.
As the night grew darker, I felt woozy. I had trouble standing. Had I drunk that much?
Daddy? a colt asked as he looked up at me, licking the side of my horse's body as my lungs there heaved in and out. The other horses crowded around, surrounding me with their warmth and companionship.
A wave of fatigue swept through me, so strong I only remained standing because of the pressure of the horses around me. What was wrong? Drinking had never done this to me before. I screamed like a horse, pushing out my anger and fear, and the horses around me echoed the shout.
Then the odd fatigue took me.
I'd always had trouble sleeping standing up, but had never really been comfortable lying down. That night was the best sleep I'd had in years. I woke up in the pre-dawn light with the herd still pressed against me.
Something was wrong. I didn't know what, but I knew something was. And I knew that if I didn't leave soon, I never would. Gently I pushed my way out of the herd, patting some, gently pushing others aside, nodding at their greetings. The colt that had licked me last night remained the longest and I finally had to order him to go.
When he was gone I felt guilty.
The fires in the main camp had burned down to coals, and a number of warriors were asleep on the ground. Many were snoring. I smiled -- any excuse for a party. Ephebus wasn't in sight so I carefully made my way to my father's tent, the dew cold on my bare forefeet. It wasn't a single tent, but a complex of tents that interlinked when setup. The smallest and richest portion was where my father and I and my stepbrothers had lived. The larger portion was for the women, and my sister.
Untying the flap I stepped in and, as my eyes adjusted, saw my father and most of my younger stepbrothers, all asleep and silent. The other children were off with the herd or performing other duties, and my adult stepbrothers were sleeping it off outside. Ephebos was in there, collapsed against one of the posts holding up the tent. His weight had pushed the post off the vertical but it somehow was still supporting the roof. My father's horse lay still on the ground. As I moved in I stepped in something warm and sticky. Blood.
The tent stank of death. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
Turning to my father I consciously realized what my unconscious had recognized. He was pale, almost white. There was something dark congealing on the furs on which he slept. Blood. I rushed to his side and I knew.
He was dead.
I looked around.
They were all pale. They were all dead in their own blood. Everybody but myself and Ephebos.
Chapter 11: Vengeance
Forcing back hot tears, I leapt over bodies and burst through the hide that separated my father's part of the tent from the women's quarters.
More blood. More dead. And over the stench of the blood an odd tang. Something that shouldn't have been there. Poison.
I saw Philya standing in the shadows, and I heard her sobbing. At least she was alive. In an instant I was beside her.
"Philya?" I whispered.
"Scylurus, oh Scylurus!"
Suddenly I knew who'd done it. A word whispered in my mind: Palacus. He knew all about herbs and assorted natural poisons. Nobody else did. I knew without a doubt that he'd done it, just as I knew without a doubt that I would kill him because of it. As shaman his person was sacred, but it didn't matter to me. He'd gone too far! His unreasoning hatred, his insults of my father. And now this.
"Philya, what happened?"
"I don't know!" she whispered. "Everything was fine, and then we all started to feel woozy. I watched them collapse, one after the other. Then I collapsed. When I awoke they were all dead, everybody but Ephebus and me."
I remembered how I'd collapsed during the night. The mare's milk! The strong taste would have covered almost any poison. But why were I and Philya and Ephebus still alive? Because we were different? Because we were larger? Because Pelacus wanted us to survive? I knew it was the last. But why had he done it? Somehow he must have known I'd changed, and when he'd decided to kill me he'd set up things to ensure that I got the blame. Planting the seed of distrust upon my return. Hesitating to accept the stranger. And then the murders. Who'd believe me? In the best case they'd exile me if Palacus urged mercy. Fat chance. The traditional death was to have the victim ripped apart by horses, but the horses wouldn't do that to me. The tribe would probably kill me with arrows, or rip me apart themselves.
If they let me live long enough to get judgement.
And, no matter what, Palacus would get off free.
I refused to let that happen.
My voice was cold. "Philya, gather your things and find supplies for a long trip but don't leave the tent."
"Palacus has killed our family. Everybody. Modyes is dead. Our brothers are dead."
"And we'll join them if we don't escape. Nobody else knows, most are still sleeping off the party. We don't have much time so go!"
She swallowed and nodded.
I turned, trying to avoid the pools of blood, and made my way back to my father. He was where I'd left him, still in death. His sleepless eyes staring into forever. Forcing myself to swallow, and blinking back tears, I whispered, "I'm sorry. I should have been here. We should have talked. I will avenge you." Then I closed his eyes.
I heard Ephebos stirring behind me. "Scylurus--?" he began, his voice groggy and full of fatigue.
"Be quiet! My sister is packing supplies so we can live. I have one errand and then we have to flee. Don't say a word, do whatever she says. We don't have much time and I pray you have more skill than you exhibited when we met."
"She's in the back -- go!"
He turned and stumbled away.
I hurried to the back of the tent and took my bow and arrows, and pulled out my father's bronze sword. By law it was mine now as the oldest male member of the household.
And it was fitting that it killed Palacus.
Belting it around my waist, I cantered over to Palacus' tent. It was off from the others, dyed a solid bright red unlike the bright patterns on the other tents. He had no guards, no family, just one apprentice who must have helped him. That apprentice was sleeping in front of the door and I slid my sword into his chest and twisted. The only sound he made was a faint gurgle.
I'd never killed a human before in this life. But these deserved to die. I just wished I'd time to give them a shadow of the pain I felt before they passed on.
The doorway was tied shut and I ripped it open and burst through. Inside it was dark, the only light a few red embers from the fire pit and the dawning sun silhouetting me. Palacus was asleep on his furs.
I walked over until I was standing over him, the blood of his apprentice dripping off my sword and onto his body. He just snored and turned away. With gritted teeth I leaned down and grabbed him by his neck in my left hand and yanked him up.
His eyes flashed open.
"You bastard! You've hated me all along, but why Modyes? WHY MY FAMILY?!"
"Don't you dare play the innocent! Don't you Poseidon damned fucking dare!" I blinked tears from my eyes. "Is it that I threatened you?"
"Scylurus, put me down. I didn't do--"
"THEY'RE ALL DEAD! AT YOUR HAND!"
"By your poison!"
I could barely speak through the anger that spilled through me. "You lying bastard!"
I shoved my father's sword into his chest and through his right lung.
Chapter 12: Escape
"I didn't do it," he whispered, blood colouring his lips.
"Don't you lie! DON'T YOU POSEIDON DAMNED FUCKING LIE!"
"Didn't trust you. Vision -- you destroy tribe. I warned -- Modyes ignored, convinced others."
"I don't believe you. I REFUSE to believe you!"
"Vision warned. Warned you...death. You brought..."
His eyes glazed over and Palacus was dead.
I let go and his body slipped off my sword which I sheathed. Vengeance had been fulfilled, now I had to live. Turning around, I galloped back to my father's.
Just in time for one of the scouts to return.
If he sounded the alarm... I didn't want to... I had to! Ixion's blood rose in me. In one smooth motion I had my father's bow in my hands, had it strung, and an arrow protruded from the scout's eye. As he thudded to the ground I recognized him as Skunxa. One of the few who'd actually liked me.
Poseidon damn you to all eternity Palacus!
I made it into the tent and Ephebus and Porto were standing as far away from the corpses as they could get. Ephebus had his packs on, and Philya was dressed in clean leathers with a furred cap. Over her human back she had slung a bag which at contained arrows.
Ephebus was the first to respond: "What in bloody hell is going on?"
"We're leaving now." I walked over to Philya. "He's dead. The man who killed our family is dead."
She nodded. "I grabbed arrows, all that I could. A few days worth of dried food. Water skins, some thread-- I couldn't..." She started sobbing.
"I'm sorry Philya, you can't cry now. Niether of us can. After we've gotten away we can sing their souls to heaven as they should be. We have to leave, and we have to leave now."
She sniffed. "I know... It's just..." She forced a smile. "I'll be all right."
I patted her on the back and turned to Ephebus. "Ever used a bow?"
"Sorry, no. What happened--", he motioned around.
"The shaman poisoned them all, and we're going to be blamed. We have to get out of here while we can."
"Both of you follow me, let me do the talking. Ephebus, help my sister as best you can. She'll be the slowest of us. We don't--"
A scream echoed from outside. Somebody had found one of the bodies. Forcing down my sadness I opened the door to the tent and led the others out.
It was Skunxa's wife. And my arrow was in her hand.
Each warrior makes their own arrows, and each warrior has a distinctive colour pattern for the feathers. I knew that she knew where the arrow had come from. And the blood on my feet, hooves, and legs, and on my arm from Palacus, didn't help.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. Turning, I stretched into a gallop, glancing behind me to make sure that Ephebos and Philya followed. It was only a few moments before Philya grew tired and I reduced our speed to a canter.
From behind I heard the long low sound of a horn. The camp was being alerted, and soon they'd start pursuit. We passed the limit of the camp patrols and I saw one of the scouts in the distance turn and head inwards. Soon all the warriors would be after me. Each one come with their horses and their remounts and they'd run me down like an animal. I had to do something...
Then I had it!
"Philya! Ephebus! Keep going. I'll be back, I have to do something."
"Scylurus don't..." burst from Philya.
"Philya, I have to. Don't wait I'll catch up." I turned away without giving her a chance to reply.
It didn't take long for me to reach the horses. They were still clumped together where I'd slept with them, out in the open. The horses were part of the tribe and the idea of tying them down was as foreign as the idea of tying down one's brother so that he didn't wander off. The horses were loved and always stayed on their own.
The colt was the first to notice me. Father!
"All of you, come with me. I need you to come."
They looked at me and there was some hesitation. I was asking them to leave those whom they knew loved them.
"I need you to come. Otherwise they'll use you to come after me and try and kill me."
Shock flew through the herd. Those still lying down stood up and they all moved towards me.
I turned and made my way towards Ephebus and Philya in the distance and the herd followed.
How had this come to be? I'd never wanted to kill anybody! But what else could I have done? There was a darkness in my soul, and I hadn't known was there. I should have expected it though. I was a child of Ixion.
A couple of days passed. The threatening rain never really came, though a few sprinkles fell. We moved at a good rate even with Philya slowing us down. It was going to take us longer than I thought to reach the spring. I had some of the horses stay further behind to keep an eye out for pursuit. I knew that pursuit was going to come, I just hoped we could stay ahead of it. I wasn't sure though. I had the horses, but in my youth I'd always been the one to slow down the others. They'd had remounts, I hadn't. Even on foot they could often out pace me over the long term.
We'd stopped to rest and sleep around a small fire. Ephebus and Philya were both asleep but I was still awake, I couldn't sleep. I was looking out on the trail we'd made when I saw the shadow of one of the mares I'd sent to keep an eye on our rear galloping towards me. I stood and moved to meet her and she stopped in front of me, panting for breath.
How in Poseidon's name had they gotten mounts? Then I realized that the how didn't matter, just the fact. I looked at Ephebus at the fire and Philya asleep. None of them could fight.
They had to get away!
Philya! Ephebos! Get up!
Philya groggily stood up but Ephebus was quickly on his hooves and looking at me.
"Somebody's following us. Ephebus, take Philya to that spring we met. I'll hold them off and rejoin you."
I galloped over beside my sister and pulled her to her hooves and feet shaking her to get her up. "You have to get going!"
I horse neighed behind me and I turned at my waist to see.
Looking at Ephebos I asked, "Can you get back to the spring we met at on your own?"
"I would bloody well think so!"
"Good. Take Philya to the spring and wait a week. If I'm not back, take her home with you. If others approach, try and flee." I closed my eyes. "Please help Philya be free."
"Thank you." I walked over to where Philya. "Go with him."
"I trust him, you should too. We need to trust him. You have to go."
"I..." her voice fell to silence. "Okay Scylurus."
I lightly kissed her on her forehead. "Both of you get going!" Turning, I made my way back to the mare. "You go with them. They'll travel slowly, you can keep up. Keep them safe for me."
The other horses crowded around.
"Please." I scratched her between the ears. "I may have to fight and I won't risk you, and of you, getting hurt."
With you, a couple nickered.
"I need you, all of you, to keep my sister safe. Please."
Slowly they all nodded and nickered their agreement.
Turning away, I walked into the darkness. Behind I heard them moving off.
It was long into the night before I could hear the low sounds of other horses in the distance. Around me was a number of low rises. I climbed up the nearest one until my head could just see over the crest. Hours ago my eyes had gotten used to the starlit darkness and I could just make out shadowy mounted forms walking along the beaten grass left by me and Ephebus and Philya. Where had they gotten the horses? And why so few?
Probably I could have made the trail they were following easier to track but it wouldn't have been easy.
I hoped that Palacus was roasting in some deep, dark, very very hot hell. Remaining still I watched as the pursuers wove their way amongst the hillocks. It was faster to weave between them than to climb one after the other. I could see that there were 10 of them, one on each horse. From the stink of the horses and the men I knew that they'd been traveling hard and fast. But why no remounts? Was this all the horses they could get together? Possible. There were other outriders... It made sense and I couldn't think of any other way they could have gotten the horses.
Of course none of that helped with the immediate problem. I could kill them, or most of them. They appeared to have no idea I was nearby. A few silent bowshots and... No! I had no regrets over Palacus' death, but I hated what I'd been forced to do to Skunxa. No more, at least not if I could help it.
So what to do?
One thing at a time. If I could deprive them of their horses they would lose the ability to move and fire arrows. And hopefully I could outdistance them. I wasn't certain though, in foot races I'd always lost in the long term. But then I hadn't been desperate. I hadn't had the life of my sister at stake. It was time to see how loyal the horses were to their riders.
"Children! Throw your riders and come with me!" I yelled out. Turning, I fled in a pounding of hooves and feet. Behind me I heard squeals and neighs, and then shouts and curses. Soon there were ten mares galloping to catch up. Each came near in turn and rubbed their heads against my chest before making room for the next.
At that point part of me wanted to leave, to just go after Ephebos and Philya and the herd, but another part of me didn't think it safe. I examined the thought, afraid it was the some echo of Ixion's dark soul that had driven me to kill Skunxa. It wasn't. So I slowed and circled and finally stopped surrounded by ten horses. I knew they'd alert me so I tried to rest but I couldn't get to sleep. I didn't know if it was fear or bloodlust, or maybe just adrenalin from the risk I'd just taken. Finally I was able to nod off, surrounded by the occasional shuffle of a horse and the faint hiss of the wind.
I was jerked awake by Atheaxa, one of the mares, nipping my shoulder. They come.
I hoped I could outrun them but I wanted to make sure. Maybe they had more horses. By now a sliver of moon had arisen and a dim silver light glittered across the grass. Pushing my way through the herd, I walked up to the top of hillock and searched. There, in the distance -- a line of men jogging.
A chill swept up and down my spine as an old memory exploded into my brain.
Once I'd read something about comparing the long distance movement of a horse and a human. Yes, the horse was faster, but only in the short term. A fit human could jog for hours or days, wear down the horse, and eventually catch it. Could my hunters do that? They were fit, but the had always beaten me in foot races. So the memory was true. A could chill swept down my long spine.
My hunters were coming like wolves. Slow, easily outran. But relentlessly coming.
And eventually they'd win.
Chapter 13: Pursuit
Dawn was still hours away, and I didn't know what to do. I really didn't want to have to kill them. Did I have any choice? Two of them had been my friends, the rest companions. God damn you Palacus!
Could I talk to them? If that failed I could outdistance them in the short term. I had to do something. After telling the horses to stay away, they were too noisy, I carefully circled around behind my former tribesmen. I wasn't sure exactly where they were, but I knew which way they were going, and had an idea how fast they were going. Or at least I thought I did. It required a fast canter for a surprising amount of time to catch up to them.
And I had to get closer than I liked, but that was the only way they could hear me.
"Idonthyrsus!" He was Skunxa's oldest brother. "IDONTHYRSUS! I WANT TO TALK!" As my voice faded I could hear them moving, splitting up. Please Poseidon, let me talk them out of this. I don't want to kill them.
"Scylurus? Is that you?" It was Idonthyrsus.
"I JUST WANT TO TALK!" I started circling slowly to my right, gradually spiraling outward.
"By Papay, WHY'D YOU KILL HIM?!" Papay was the Scythian Sky God.
"I DIDN'T MEAN TO! I DIDN'T RECOGNIZE HIM UNTIL IT WAS TOO LATE!" I thought I heard somebody moving through the grass to my right so I trotted to my left.
"AND WHY MODYES?! HE TOOK YOU IN!"
"I DIDN'T KILL HIM! I DIDN'T KILL ANY OF MY FAMILY!"
"WHY'D YOU RUN?!"
"I... I WAS AFRAID. WOULD YOU HAVE LISTENED TO ME?"
"THEN WHO DID IT?"
"PALACUS! I TOOK THE RIGHT OF VENGEANCE ON HIM!" Some sixth sense caused me to leap into a gallop just as an arrow went speeding past my head. While galloping, I drew a javelin.
"I JUST WANT TO TALK!"
"YOU KILLED THEM ALL YOU MOTHERLESS BASTARD!!"
This wasn't going to work. "IDONTHYRSUS, PLEASE BELIEVE ME!" I saw a glint of moonlight off a javelinhead and spun around and galloped towards it. The only reason I lived was because it was Scyles. I could smell his fear as he hesitated, hesitated just long enough for me to reach him and release my javelin into his chest, the force of its movement snapping the wood as Scyles fell backward onto the ground.
Only as I leapt over him did I recognize him.
"POSEIDON FUCKING DAMN YOU PALACUS!"
Why did it have to be Scyles?! He was the youngest, the kindest, the most beautiful. He was like a little brother to the entire tribe.
Turning, I fled into the night, my vision wavering through tears. Behind me I heard a scream of anguish and knew that they'd found his body.
They stayed behind me for hours. I don't know how they managed it. At first I kept my distance easily but then I had to slow to a trot and I heard them coming. With my lungs burning I forced myself back to a gallop. Again they faded, but I could hear them gasping for breath as they ran. Circling around a hill I let myself slow to a walk and gulped down some water I was carrying, splashing more on my forehead and human chest. Behind me there was a shout and, dropping the empty skin, I fled.
A short while later I heard another shout behind me -- they must have found the skin.
Hours passed, the moon slowly set. My vision collapsed into a glimmer of reddish grass surrounded by a burning dark. Only my will kept me going, my refusal to die. Slowly I circled back to where I'd left the horses, and slowly the Scythian cries faded into the distance. Each breath became a burning necessity, a drawing of coolness into a gaping maw of need. Sweat poured from both my backs and I slipped on the grass in the predawn light again and again. I forgot my name, forgot what I was doing. All I could think of was to inhale and exhale, to move one leg after the other in the complex pattern of a gallop.
As dawn rose above the grass I was down to a canter. I couldn't gallop. My mouth was dry, heat wavered from my body as I forced it to keep moving. Consciously I passed out but the machine that was my body kept going. I was still staggering in a clumsy walk when I felt others supporting me and through my salt encrusted eyes I saw the horses I had taken from my pursuers.
The horses pushed me, their bodies holding me up, and I didn't stop until I reached one of the small springs scattered throughout the plains. I didn't know which one, the horses had led me. Collapsing into it I gulped down some, the coldness burning down my throat, but then forced myself to stop. Too much could kill me and I refused to die.
I would bring Philya back to Pegasus. No matter the cost.
Saulius, one of the horses, nibbled on my horse back and I pulled myself up to my feet and hooves as he held still. The other horses were drinking from the pool around me. In the distance a hawk screamed and I knew that I would have to become the hawk.
Nine were pursuing me now.
I didn't know how far back they were, but I knew that they wouldn't stop. If it had been anybody else I'd killed they might have, but it was Scyles. It had to be Scyles I met.
Kneeling down I slowly sipped some more water.
I'd have to kill them all.
God damn you Palacus! GOD DAMN YOU!
With enough strength to think and plan, though my lungs still heaved, I walked out of the pool. Pulling off my pants I tossed them into the grass. They were soaked, damp with water and blood. They would chaff and slow me down. Pulling off my beaded shirt I tied it around my waist and over my human crotch. I needed my human back free to sweat.
My quiver could hold 50 arrows, it had 15. I had one more javelin. I had a sword and a knife.
It would have to do.
Chapter 14: The Hunt
I needed to maximize my chances of victory.
The spring the horses had led me to was roughly north of my pursuers. Heading off to the east at a slow trot I planned what I'd do. I wanted the sun behind me. That would give me easy shots, and them hard shots. I really didn't want to kill them but there was no way around it! I could shoot for the legs and arms, but they were very hard targets and I didn't have any arrows to spare.
It'd have to be the chest.
What else could I make use of. I had a larger body, but at least my human chest contained almost nothing but muscle. Wounds there would likely not be fatal, unlike human chest wounds. I had superior speed in the short term, inferior in the long term. That meant I could ambush, and then flee, and then ambush again. Unfortunately I'd only get one easy shot. Also, I had the horses. I could use them as decoys, as...
There would be more than enough death today. This was my fight, not theirs.
I had circled around to the northeast when one of the horses galloped up. Men approaching.
"All of... you. Go... to the... east."
No! Atheaxa neighed.
"You have... to! I'll... I'll be... all right." My breath was getting short. "Go!"
The horses turned and moved off to the east as I heard a shout from behind. My pursuers had heard my ragged shouts.
Looking around, I saw only low hills, and, a few minutes away a large cluster of rocks. Forcing myself to a gallop I made my way towards them and, although I stumbled on fragments and gashed my ankle, I made it. Ducking behind a large fragment with a clear view I waited and listened. At first I couldn't hear anything over my heaving breaths, but with rest I was able to quiet down and have a chance to hear something as I strung my bow.
There was another reason I'd kept my bow and not taken my fathers. My upper body strength had always been vastly superior to the rest of the tribe, and I'd made my own composite bow to take advantage of that strength. None of the others could pull it, and it gave me extended range and accuracy. I could have used a heavier bow, but the one I had was the strongest I could make. Stringing it, I waited, forcing my legs to stop quivering from fatigue. This would be my one best shot.
Around me everything was quiet except for the eternal hiss of the wind in the grass. I could smell its sweetness, and the dry sandy-ground beneath. Then I heard something faint -- a foot step? A thud of a body, a muffled curse. At least they were exhausted too. A long silence. I readied my first arrow. A different hiss of the grass...
Rearing up so that my upper body was above the rock I got off two quick shots. They were maybe 100 metres away. I let my forefeet thud to the dusty ground just as I heard the first scream of pain. I reared up again -- one seemed down, nobody else affected. Another arrow, and then I dropped as two shots clattered off the rock as somebody else screamed. One more? Yes, the voice was different. I moved to the left and leaned around and fired once more. Two were down, and hopefully a third.
Then I turned and leapt into a gallop, my hooves clattering on loose pebbles. Behind me was another scream.
Four arrows, three down, six remaining. I had 11 arrows.
Another arrow sped over my head but it was a shot made in frustration -- they only had glances of me in the rocks.
Then I was amongst the grass. Leaning my human body forward to let the stalks conceal me as much as they could, I raced towards the southeast. There was no sound of pursuit.
One bonus of a chest shot is that it's not immediately fatal. Just debilitating. The strength of my bow ensured that almost any shot penetrated far enough to ensure eventual death. I'd seen one tribesman on the ground, dead or nearly so. A second had feathers sticking out of his left breast. Not immediately fatal, but he wasn't going anywhere.
Slowing down to a walk I listened, but couldn't hear a thing over the desperate pounding of my heart and the panting of my heaving lungs. Even a walk was hard to maintain and, sooner than I'd have liked, I reached the horses that had been waiting for me. I really wished they'd gone further, but I doubt I would have made it back to them if they had.
Leaning on two mares, I asked, "Atheaxa?"
She was beside me. Was she smarter than the rest? I didn't know, but I thought she was. I remembered as a colt she was always getting into trouble.
"I need you to stay behind us, but not too far."
"Yes. If the humans come, get back here and tell me. Don't go near them."
They won't hurt I.
"They won't." I patted her on her muzzle. "Thank you. Go."
She turned and trotted off. I could tell that she was tired, that all the horses were tired. She'd do the best she could and I only hoped it as enough.
I let the horses practically carry me slowly towards the east. There were always two of them, one on either side of me, leaning inwards to keep me upright. When the sun was halfway to noon we reached a small muddy spring, almost dry. They let me greedily drink before they lowered their muzzles and I was too thirsty to argue. When I was finished I wanted to roll in the grass, the best way I'd found to deal with the drying sweat that made my back itch like a thousand ants were crawling on it. I couldn't as I didn't know if I had time to take off my weapons and get them back on. Instead I tried to ignore it.
We were still at the spring when Atheaxa galloped up, almost skidding to a stop in front of me. The others were still drinking. They come, she nickered, between great gulping breaths. Soon you hear them.
Looking around I saw nothing. Not a hill, not a tree, not a rock. Just flat grass as far as the eye could see. By Poseidon, it would have to be here! "How many?"
Fewer, she snorted.
Oh well. I had almost twice as many arrows as pursuers, even if they'd left nobody behind with the wounded. I could afford a few long range risky shots. At the rocks I'd fired at close to my maximum effective range.
"Go to the east," I hissed to all the horses. "I'll catch up to you."
They just remained clustered near me. Damn them. Damn Palacus for forcing me to this.
"At least wait behind me."
Grudgingly they moved off to the east, maybe 50 metres. I didn't have time to argue. After wiping the sweat off my forehead and out of my eyes, I strung my bow and held it loosely. The wind had died down from earlier today and there was barely a breeze. Still enough to affect an arrow at the range I'd be shooting.
If Zeus had been my father instead of Poseidon, if Poseidon actually was, I'd have prayed for better conditions. But Zeus wasn't so I'd have to live with it.
In the distance I could see something. A darker smudge, slowly moving towards me. I couldn't make out figures so I just waited, nervous. I'd never gone on hunts as only adults could, but I'd practiced. The elders had told me to be calm, but how could I be calm at a time like this? And my lower back itched.
They stopped. Had they seen me? They were still too far away for any kind of shot, maybe half a kilometer. I could make out figures. Five of them. They must have left somebody behind with the wounded. I wasn't going to complain.
I waited, nervously moving from left foot to right foot, keeping both hooves planted on the ground and batting my rear hips with my tail to try and deal with the itch.
They spread out and began moving through the grass towards me. I couldn't see them, just the shadow of their movement. They must have been crouching in the grass which wouldn't make things easier.
I stood quietly letting them approach. Hoping they'd stop and try to talk, but knowing they wouldn't. They didn't. Four hundred metres. I don't know if they could see me or not crouched as they were in the grass, but they didn't stop. At least the sun was mostly behind me. Three hundred metres. Grabbing an arrow I pulled it back, guessing where the nearest would be when the arrow reached him. I adjusted for the wind and released. The arrow fled into the distance and arced down and into an empty spot in the grass. Two hundred fifty metres. Soon they'd be within their maximum range. I decided to risk another arrow. The wind suddenly paused and I loosed. This time I fired it low, no arc and--
Suddenly Atheaxa leapt into me, shoving me aside and rearing over me.
An arrow from my right appeared in her neck just below her head.
Spinning around and grabbing another arrow I saw Anacharsis in the grass, maybe 50 metres away. I loosed, realizing that they must have seen me before I'd seen them. They'd sent Anacharsis to sneak ahead. Their own ambush.
Two men screamed, almost simultaneously. I'd gotten lucky with my long range shot. Atheaxa was slumped over my lower back, blood and foam bubbling from her mouth.
God damn them! GOD DAMN THEM ALL!
She looked up at me. Did good?
I scratched her on her head between her ears. "You did good."
The horses were around me, nipping at my flanks, pushing. Flee! Flee! they all screamed out.
I had to. By Poseidon I had to. There were at least four left and I saw that they were running towards me.
Loosing another arrow I turned and fled, letting Atheaxa slide from my back and onto the ground.
She didn't make a sound. Not even when I saw my pursuers hack her head off with a knife when I glanced behind.
It was the middle of the day before I let myself slow down. Winala, another mare, pushed her way so that she was in front of me. I knew what she was offering. "Thank you." Drawing my knife I opened a small cut in her neck beside the scars of others and sucked at the blood. It was hot, salty, but it was all I had.
The others leaned against me offering their support.
Why did it have to be this way? I had been happy. Why did I have to remember? Why did I have to kill and kill again. A nearly forgotten memory rose in my mind. A quote from something. 'We know the name of everybody we kill.'
"POSEIDON CURSE YOU TO AN ETERNALLY BURNING WHEEL PALACUS!"
A flight of birds leapt into the air, startled by the loudness of my voice.
I needed time to sorrow but I knew I wouldn't get it. There were four left. I had to kill them. I'd killed too many already, but I had no choice. No Poseidon damned choice!
In the myths hero after hero fought their enemies and brought them low. How did they do it? How could they live with themselves as the bodies piled one after another? A month ago I would have gloried, but my civilized memories were a curse. Death after death. As Medusa I'd no choice, my body had driven me, my pain had blinded me. Each kill was impersonal. It was the fault of my curse, my horror. But now I knew that wasn't true. I'd killed then, and I was going to kill more.
And the cost!
I couldn't let us stop and, barely sated, I forced myself to move to the south. The herd followed. Going east now would curse me with the sun glare.
At least it seemed that this would be over by sunset one way or another.
Chapter 15: Messages from Beyond
I was forced to let the horses lead me. Two were always on either side, and that was the only thing that kept me from collapsing. The other eight walked alongside, nibbling on the grass half-heartedly. Their heads always hung low and they all stank of sweat and fatigue, just as I did.
I tried to send them off. I begged. I ordered. I screamed at them.
They ignored me.
The day grew hot and muggy as thick clouds built up. The rain that had been threatening for days seemed imminent, but stubbornly refused to come. I could smell the rain that refused to come. Humidity rose and sweat poured off me. The horses weren't much better but they said nothing. Around the middle of the afternoon one of the mares, Anthalas, offered her neck to me.
"No," I refused.
"I can't...! You deserve it more."
I turned my head away. Hadn't I hurt them enough?
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Anthalas looking at me. She turned away and I sighed with relief but then Ganlicus dug her teeth into her neck drawing blood. Anthalas then pushed herself against me.
I wanted to resist. They needed it far more than I did, but they left me no choice.
Hours passed. Every so often another mare would offer her neck. I refused the second and again a wound was opened and I was forced to accept the offering. The third time I sighed and drew my knife and took the gift.
The horses led me to another spring and I drank as greedily as they did. I wished I'd kept my wineskin. Holding my bow aloft I let them splash my horse torso by pushing waves of water over it with their bodies.
I was just starting to relax and sigh in relief when Ganlicus looked at me.
They come. She turned her head and, following her glance, I saw figures in the distance. I looked at the herd. "Since you refuse to leave me look around -- make sure that's," I pointed, "all of them."
Four horses moved off.
Continuing my sweep I didn't see anybody else, just the figures in the distance. There looked to be four.
I had 8 arrows left.
Anthalas came back. All together, she nickered.
I guess they too were too tired to be fancy about things. The only reason I was still standing was because of the two mares who pressed themselves against either side of me. "Go. Go away before it's too late!"
As one they screamed their response: NO!
"Get out of here!"
They ignored me.
I tried pushing Coranas, one of the mares holding me up, away but she dug in her hooves and leaned hard against me. Tulanth, the mare on my other side, nipped the side of my human half, just breaking the surface of my skin.
We stay. STAY!
The humans were less than half a kilometer away.
Paletheaxm just snapped her teeth.
I wiped the sweat off my forehead and swallowed. I didn't deserve this. I was a murderer who didn't deserve loyalty. Still, I appreciated it. It seemed that there was some horse in me after all because the herd fed me strength. I would defend them. They deserved it.
Wiping the tears out of my eyes I strung my bow. "IDONTHYRSUS! I DON'T WHAT TO DO THIS! GO HOME!" I remembered how he'd always stood by me. I didn't want to kill him!
My voice echoed across the grass, and was followed by a low rumble of thunder from overhead.
The storm had to pick this time to break. Of course it did. Once it started raining my bow would become useless, but so would theirs. I might be able to get one in a charge, but the three others would overwhelm me if I tried to use my father's sword.
"JUST GO AWAY!"
They broke into a jerky run towards me, crouching low in the grass.
I backed into the spring until the water was just lapping over my lower back. It was the only cover I had. The horses followed me, crowding around. I could somehow feel their love and devotion swirling up and over me... And that offered more support than their physical presence holding me up.
One of my pursuers stopped and fired an arrow high. It might be able to reach me, but a hit would be in the hands of the gods. Of course with 10 mares...
Dear god! Four horses had left, only one had come back to report. "NO!"
Winala must have been laying in the grass as I suddenly saw a chestnut form leap up and race towards the archer. He heard her as he turned and fired and I knew his arrow had hit. He fired again, and the mare staggered but somehow kept going.
I started firing arrows one after the other at the distant figure. Even through my rage and horror I kept my arm steady, and my arrows flew true. It was hopeless though. At this range I had as much of a chance of hitting the mare as hitting the figure.
Just as I got my third arrow off Winala reached the figure and they both screamed together and fell into the grass.
Neither got up.
The last three figures were still running, though slowly now. Dimly I could hear them gasping for breath. I had five arrows left and one after another I fired them at the nearest figure as he got closer and closer. Somehow the third shot passed through his leg and he staggered. The fifth shot went through his neck.
The other two had stopped, both about 100 metres away. They were crouching down, and each began firing arrows in rapid succession. Of course they couldn't know that I had none left.
Adrenalin pumped through me, the love of my children filled my veins. Together we screamed our hatred and burst out of the water and galloped toward the last two humans. Beside me Paletheaxm went down but I was behind caring.
Hot rage and hate filled me as Ixion's blood took my mind. I'd never wanted this, I shouldn't have to do this. It had been thrust upon me. Hot energy filled me as I galloped through the grass, my children beside me. My bow encumbered me so I threw it down. An arrow thrust itself into the left side of my chest in a cold screech of pain but I barely felt it.
Drawing my last javelin I stretched my arm back and then threw it with all my strength and speed. Lightning burst from the heavens and boomed into the earth, its light glittering off the polished bronze head. The sharp scent of ozone and charred grass and ground followed. The clouds opened up and the sky filled with pouring water. My javelin sped on regardless, as though guided by the hand of the gods, and pierced its prey through his left shoulder, its hungry bronze point springing out the other side in a spew of crimson blood. I turned, and beside me Caranas leaned down and ripped his throat out in a spray of crimson as he thrust his glittering bronze dagger into her neck.
I didn't care. Only one was left. One enemy, one victim. I drew my father's sword, its gleaming metal hungry for blood. Another burst of lightning broke and faded leaving a winedark afterglow. The rain poured down heavier and horses squealed and slid as the grass bent down to kiss the earth under the rain's weight.
The last human threw aside his useless bow and drew a javelin and threw it towards me, its bronze head hungry from my blood but I ducked and it went shooting by, its hunger finally filled by one of the mares behind me. Lightning crashed through the heavens again as Idonthyrsus drew his sword and stood, legs spread.
His hair was black and slick against his rain-soaked body. His eyes glittered but in their depths was a spark of fear. He knew he was going to die this day. In the rain. Cold, wet, forgotten, failed in his task to avenge his family. But he didn't run.
There was no grace in my first blow, just speed and strength as I sped past him. Our bronze weapons kissed one another, clanging their hunger and frustration. Idonthyrsus staggered, forced to his knees by the force of the blow, but he didn't go down. Skidding to a stop I turned around. Only three mares were left, none near me. Another bolt of lightning hissed into the spring behind me and in the sudden day I could see them galloping towards me.
Slowly, carefully, wiping the rain off my face, I walked towards Idonthyrsus. His body gleamed in the rain and he held his sword steady. I could feel the hunger of his bronze but I knew it would avail him not. Adjusting my grip so that both hands were on the sword I accelerated into a trot and screamed as our blades met.
This time my stroke was clean. His weapon glanced off, digging into my arm, but my blade carried on into his chest, hungrily drinking the spray of blood and gore. Idonthyrsus fell to the ground.
Unlike the others he didn't scream.
A redness lifted from my eyes like a veil.
What had I done? WHAT HAD I DONE?!
My father's sword fell from my hands and I knelt beside my closest friend, holding him as he struggled to breathe.
"Idonthyrsus..." I whispered. "Why couldn't you listen..."
He spoke, his words only a whisper as blood gurgled out of his mouth. I leaned over to try and hear.
"I begged you to leave. I--"
"I hear... listen!" he hissed, and then coughed a spray of blood. "When... found you. Palacus said you bring death. Didn't believe him, Modyes didn't..."
I tried to hold his blood in but it just oozed around my fingers.
"Too late... Listen!" His voice grew fainter and I pressed my ear against his mouth to hear his final words. "I hear Palacus.... hear the dead..."
"No...," I sobbed out.
"It wasn't you. It wasn't him."
The surviving mares pressed their bodies against mine but the rain washed away any joy they brought.
"What?!" Idonthyrsus coughed up blood and it soaked into my hair to be washed away by the fading rain. Thunder rumbled faintly in the distance.
"Ephebos killed your..."
Idonthyrsus relaxed in my arms and fell silent.
Chapter 16: Persistence of Revenge
It was dark by the time I could drag myself away from Idonthyrsus and start the burials. Fortunately one of the tribesmen had a shovel as I hadn't had time to get one when I fled. First though I had to pull the arrow in my chest all the way through to get the head out. Cold water from the spring washed the dirt out from that wound, and the sword wound in my arm. I hoped it was enough.
One of the mares, Anthalos, wasn't dead. However she was wounded in the neck, and one leg was broken. Through her gurgling knickers and snorts of pain I listened to her request and obeyed it.
I chopped her head off in one stroke.
From the distant pass I remembered hearing that when the guillotine was used in France, the odd time the shock of the decapitation did not kill the person. Instead their head rolled into the basket still alive. The mouth would move and try to scream, and the eyes would blink.
The same thing happened to Anthalos and I held her head and scratched her between her ears before oxygen starvation finally sent her to her rest.
Proto-scythian burial practice was to bury the rider with their horse, the rider above the horse. Instead, I buried each separately. Each had fought on their own for their own reasons.
Each deserved the honour of the burial.
It wasn't until dawn that the last of the mounds was made and I let myself collapse into sleep near the spring with the last three horses.
That night I dreamed. Ghosts were around me. Friends, youths I had grown up. Mares who had given their lives for me. They didn't accuse me, they didn't hate me. Instead they forgave me and licked my face and scratched my back and fed me sweet meats.
I hoped it was real. I hoped their spirits had come and offered comfort.
It was late afternoon when I awoke, and a thin drizzle was dripping onto the grass. The last three mares also woke and I packed the stuff I'd taken from the dead.
The tribe had always been practical. They would understand.
I had arrows, almost a full quiver. Two javelins that were still usable. Waterskins and rations. My bow had been trampled and shattered in the rain so I took Idonthyrsus'. After all, there was still one person I had to kill.
Idonthyrsus had told me that Ephebus had killed my family. Did he? Or did Idonthyrsus lie at the end? This time I would not let rage take me. I would talk to Ephebus and find the truth. And then, if he was guilty, I would kill him.
I would not shed any more innocent blood.
I could only pray that it wasn't Ephebus. Not because it would erase the horrible fate that had led me to kill and kill again.
Because he was with Philya.
If he had killed my family, he could kill her. He could rape her, torture her. He could--
I refused to think about it.
The mares and I left the spring and moved off in my best guess as to the right direction. Rain and time had erased the trail left by Idonthyrsus and the others so I had to guess. One of the mares claimed to know the way. I was too tired to argue. Her name was Anarcharax and I let her lead. I prayed she knew the way as I had only the vaguest idea.
At nightfall we stopped and made camp. I offered the mares some of the water from my skin and we lay down together for warmth. At dawn we were up and on our way. Anarcharax led me to a spring where we drank and I refilled the one skin I'd emptied. Both my wounds were red and puffy, and my arm hurt whenever it moved. I did the best I could to wash out the sores, but I knew it wouldn’t enough.
As long as I lived long enough to catch Ephebus, find out the truth, and deal justice, I didn't care.
Night came and we collapsed into sleep. My lower back was stiff and the dried sweat cracked as I walked but I was too tired to try and wash or roll it off. In a couple of days it wouldn't really matter. The only reason I was able to sleep was my utter exhaustion.
The third day I forced myself to my feet and hooves, and had to use my good arm on each of the mares in turn to keep me upright. The day became a blur. It was all I could do to move one foot in front of the other, one hoof in front of the other. I think we stopped at another spring as I vaguely remember coldness piercing through the heat, but I was never sure.
Near dusk my mind forced itself through the fever in desperate recognition. I knew where I was, I knew how to reach the spring where Philya was. Where Philya had to be. We were almost there and justice would be served. I hoped. Dusk fell, and only the mare's help kept me stumbling forward. The moon rose, approaching full. It was the right spring!
The mares nickered nervously as we approached
I could see that the horses were there, laying on the ground, asleep.
Then the stench hit me.
They weren't asleep, they were dead. All of them.
The only sound was the buzz of flies around their corpses.
Staggering forward I splashed into the spring and looked around through fevered eyes.
Death, nothing but death.
Like a madman I dashed and stumbled from body to body. Horses, horses. Dear Poseidon nothing but dead horses! I stopped at the corpse of the colt who'd slept with me before the killing started. He'd been so full of life and now he was on the ground dead.
And Philya and Ephebus were gone.
Chapter 17: Healing
Drink, I heard nickered to me.
I was laying half in the spring and half out of it. When my eyes were open all I could see was a blurred glow. Or I was hallucinating? Even the spring wouldn't cool me anymore.
Oh Philya, Philya...
Something pressed itself against me, against my mouth. Something else shoved its way underneath my head and lifted. A liquid touched my lips, something warm, thick sweet. I remembered it from long ago. When everything was warm and simple and Philya was alive.
Was I dreaming? Was this Elysium? Would I even be let into the Elysium fields?
Something, maybe me, maybe something else, moved my head so that my mouth was around something warm that felt like a water-filled balloon. Another drop of the remembered sweetness dribbled into my hot and dry mouth. It felt cool, refreshing. Moving my lips I started sucking. Sweet, warm, liquid, and then a coolness that drifted languidly out from my horse chest.
I woke up again and opened my eyes. Even though I was still burning I could think. The pain no longer overwhelmed me. Was it the rotting stench from all around that had awakened me? No. I looked up and saw that Pegasus, me, my mother, was standing on top of the spring water. I was in the water, half submerged. The surviving mares were around me. Pegasus lowered herself into the water and I recognized the teat I'd been suckling at. I was an adult... I...
Drink. It was Pegasus.
Without conscious volition I drank.
It was late afternoon. My wounds ached, but it was a slight ache, a healing ache. Stumbling to my feet and splashing the dirty water all around I stood up. I wavered a bit, and Anarcharax leaned into me. The heat of her body pressed the last of the fog from my brain.
That and the stench.
It was so bad that I wanted to vomit. I didn't, not because I forced my stomach down, but because I was physically incapable of such an action.
Thinking clearly I looked around. Beside me I could feel Anarcharax's body shivering from the horror around us. The other two mares, Sauliux and Modyexa, pressed themselves against me, trying to hide from the piles of dead. I could see now that the scavengers had been at them. Bodies had been dragged, legs ripped off. Corpses half eaten.
There'd been almost a hundred.
I wanted to bury them, but it was impossible. There were so many it would have taken me weeks just to dig the holes. The bodies had already begun to putrefy, and the once clean spring was dark with blood and gore. I shivered and the mares shivered with me.
Must go, Anarcharax nickered. Away, far. Pegasus meet.
"Pegasus..." I couldn't think clearly with the stench.
Sauliux nipped my lower back as Anarcharax pushed. I took a step forward.
Clean water. Close, she neighed.
Swallowing down bile I let them lead me through and away from the horror. There was no clear path, the bodies were everywhere. Crows flapped into the air, cawing as we approached, before settling down behind us. I don't know how long we walked out of that charnel house. Even now it's a blur. An endless horror that it hurts to think about. I force myself to remember though, it's all I can do now.
We moved away and into the grass and accelerated to a trot. All four of us stayed pressed together, needing the physical contact to remind us that we still lived. The stench followed us. Even when the spring was lost in the distance the whiff of death still drifted through the air. Reaching another spring we drank the clean water as the sun set. I could still smell the death if I thought about it.
One of the mares raised her head. She comes, Modyexa nickered. Pegasus.
Looking up I saw her drifting in the moonlight towards us. With a gentle stroke of her wings she slowed, and one of her hind hoofs touched the ground and a burble of water sprouted up and then faded. Gently, each hoof touch leaving a ripple that spread and faded, she walked across the spring towards me. I could feel her warm breath on my face when she stopped.
Stephan, she neighed. It's alright.
Wrapping my arms around her neck and squeezing her like a hot water bottle, I pressed my face into her fur. All the horror of the hunt, of the murder, of the death, poured out of me. She just stood silent, lipping at my mane. Standing there as I poured out my grief.
The moon had arisen before I let my hands slide down and looked up at her through a tear-blurred haze. I looked at her and she turned her head and looked at me and our souls, hers an echo of mine, met and touched.
"Why?" I whispered. "Why does the world have to be like this?"
It's all right, she nickered. What's done is done. You did what you thought best.
"I killed them! All of them!"
Stephan! she screamed. You didn't!
"I failed them!"
She nickered gently. A sound without meaning meant only to comfort
"I should have saved them."
How? You did what you thought was right. Your soul pains, I feel your horror. But there's still Philya.
You have to rescue her.
I looked up at Pegasus, blinking away tears. "She's still alive." I couldn't believe it, and at that instant I don't think I did believe it.
Ephebus hasn't killed her.
Turning away I looked at my reflection in the rippled water. Somewhere I'd lost my shirt. My body was scarred and streaked with blood. My legs were dark with bruises and sores buried beneath patches of dried blood. Only some of it was mine.
"Where are they?"
Pegasus nipped my shoulder. You can't leave yet -- you need time to heal.
Pushing my way past her I stalked out of the spring. My legs were sore, stiff. I forced them to obey me. My voice was cold: "Which way?"
Pegasus walked until she was once again standing in front of me, her hooves just touching the tip of the grass. Two days, she neighed. You need to heal or you'll never catch them. Trust me...
I looked at her, looked at my soul reflected in her eyes.
Anarcharax stopped beside me and snorted onto my back. You kept us alive. Rest.
Pegasus nickered, Let my milk finish your healing...
Turning away from both of them I looked off into the distance. Faintly I could still smell the stench from the dead herd.
There was a splashing as Modyexa walked around and through the spring beside me. She stopped, and looked up at me.
Last time I'd rushed off, for all the good reasons. For all the same reasons as now. There was no time to waste. I couldn't give them time to organize. I couldn't wait. I sighed. Look where it'd gotten me. Looking into Modyexa's eyes, I moved my hand up and started scratching her behind one ear.
"She's alive and okay?"
Behind me Pegasus nickered, Yes.
"Two days then. No more."
There was a faint flap of wings and then Pegasus was hovering above me. Drink son, she nickered. Drink and be strong.
I turned my head upwards and she lowered until I began sucking the hot sweet milk.
I forced myself to stay and rest for two days. It took hours to wash the gore off my skin and hide but I did it. I don't think I've ever felt anything as good as when I rolled back and forth in the dry grass. Pegasus created another spring that night when she arrived so we'd have fresh water. I didn't eat any food, I drank almost no water. Instead I lived off my mother's milk as I'd done so long ago. I don't know whether it had magic, antibiotics, or what, but it healed me. It cured the infections, it kept me sane.
I didn't have much in the way of supplies left. Water had destroyed Idonthyrsus' bow and javelin. The rations I'd grabbed had been left behind with the dead, soaked in water and blood as I lay delirious. All I had was a dagger and my father's sword. The scabbard was wet, but the sword had let it keep its shape and it would serve.
On the third day I and the three mares started after Ephebus and Philya with Pegasus coming each night to guide us.
Chapter 18: Pursuing Thoughts
Days passed as I and the mares trotted across the Sea of Grass. Each night I would drink Pegasus' milk and fulfill my needs for food and water. My body changed, became sleeker, faster. Gradually I and my mares moved quicker.
Unfortunately Ephebus had over a week's head start and Philya had been toughened up enough to not slow Ephebus down much. Or he wasn't letting her slow him down.
We were gaining but slowly.
Each day's walk was a dream-like daze. There was little conversation. The mares were wonderful company, and they could think to a point, but they couldn't hold abstract conversations. Instead all I could do was plan, and remember what had happened.
Every dawn for the first two weeks I would remember the dead and wake up screaming and shivering with the mares leaning against me. Time passed, the dreams faded. But I refused to let myself forget. That would be the ultimate betrayal.
I had lots of time to think about how I was going to take Ephebus down to talk to him before I ripped his bloody head off.
It wasn't going to be easy. There was nowhere to hide on the plains. He'd see us coming long before we could reach him. I had no ranged weapons left, and even if I had there would have been a danger of hitting Philya. I doubted I could approach as a 'friend'. Ephebus' murder of the herd at the spring and his flight strongly suggested that he would know that I knew.
I and my herd followed Pegasus' lead and pursued Ephebus and Philya day after day, each day running into the next. At first the only difference was weather. Some days were cool, some warm, some dry, some wet. Gradually the land began changing. It became rockier. I could smell salt in the air.
As I walked my mind wandered. Increasingly my thoughts formed images of what might be. Of the things that Ephebus could be doing to Philya. I pushed myself harder, stopping only out of concern for the mares. Pegasus told me that we were getting closer, but we never seemed to catch him. The pursuit was never ending. An eternal dream between crashing events.
More days passed. It seemed we were approaching a coast, and I thought it was of the Black Sea. But I wasn't sure, and even my guess assumed that this place somehow contained an image of the real world. Could it? Could it warp spacetime that way?
Again, there was no way I could know so I let my guess stand. Soon enough I'd see.
On a night when the moon was only a sliver, Pegasus came as usual when I and the mares stopped to rest. I wasn't tired at all, hadn't been at the end of a day for weeks. The mares were and it was for them I stopped.
Pegasus halted in front of me, not quite touching the ground. When I moved towards her, she pulled herself away from me so that I couldn't suckle. For a moment she looked at me, and then she spoke in nickers and soft neighs: You've almost caught up to them. If you go on, you'll catch them tonight.
Turning, I looked at the mares. They were exhausted, so exhausted they'd collapsed onto the ground. I could count their ribs. Had I been pushing them that hard? How?
You're different now. Go, I'll watch them. Bring Philya back.
Philya. Yes. Turning, I slowly walked away, and then accelerated into a gallop when I was far enough that the sound wouldn't waken the mares. Memories of Philya bubbled through my brain. Soon I would see her, soon she would be safe. Soon I would have answers.
Galloping through the night, I was tireless. The moon crested and began to set and I felt no fatigue.
What had my mother's milk done to me? And how permanent was it? I didn't know. And, at that point, I didn't care.
I could hear waves shushing against the coast. I continued to gallop. I could hear waves rattling across pebbles. Cresting a rise I stopped and looked out on a dark sea and, on the beach, a camp.
There was a fire, dim and reduced to coals. Beside it were two centaurs.
Ephebus and Philya. It had to be.
In the darkness I couldn't see any details, and they both looked asleep.
I had a choice: I could try and move in quietly, or I could gallop straight towards them. The former gave me the possibility of surprise. If Ephebus was asleep. The second gave up surprise, unless they were both asleep. Its advantage was that it minimized his time to react.
My heart pumped faster with fear and rage. I'd been pursing him too long. Remembering the images my mind had conjured, I took a stop forward. Images of hideous tortures. Of rape. Of all kinds of abuse. Of other things I won't talk about. My nostrils flared.
Tonight it would end. One way, or another.
I drew my father's sword and held it for a moment. Scanning the ground I looked for traps, looked for branches or rocks that could trip me. Nothing.
I waved my father's sword above my head and screamed a warcry as I bounded down the hill.
Chapter 19: Vengeance
My feet and hooves slid and clattered on the pebble-strewn sand as I fell down the slope more than galloped down it. I could see Ephebus stumbling up onto this hooves. Had he been asleep? Philya just lay on the ground.
Vengeance, soon vengeance!
At that I wanted to stop but I forced myself to continue on. Ephebus was fumbling around for a javelin but he still looked confused. I should have tried the sneaky approach.
By then I was off the steep slope and on the pebbled beach. Each rock was wet and smooth, and I slipped and skidded but kept my balance. Ephebus seemed to have no problem. He threw his javelin and it wobbled through the air. Did he have no clue how to use it? His javelin clattered onto the beach.
And then I was upon him. I could see Philya partially awake just before my mass thudded into Ephebus' and we both stumbled down the beach and into the edge of the water. Behind me she screamed, but I had other problems. The moon had passed behind a cloud and all I could see of Ephebus was a shadowed outline surrounded by specks of a deeper black. The crest of a wave sparkling with phosphorescence passed beneath him and then crashed into my forefeet and the shore
Kill him! He killed your family!
You need to talk to him! What if it's a mistake?
Staggering, I forced down Ixion's blood and let my father's sword drop into the edge of the surf. It clattered on the rocks and the water burbled and hissed around it. I could hear it calling me, crying for me to give it vengeance. It wanted blood and I refused to feed it.
Ephebus reared above me, my only warning a spray of cold water as he kicked at my head. Ducking, I thrust myself beneath his legs and stood upward. He leaned down and grabbed my hair and yanked as I pushed.
Both of us fell into a wave and tried to scramble back up. I was coughing and gagging.
"Scylurus?!", he spit out, "What the bloody hell are you doing?"
Screaming, I crouched down on my hind legs and leapt at him. I didn't know if he was telling the truth. I don't think I really cared. He tried to rear up but he was too late. Landing on him, I pushed him down and further out into the sea. With pebbles twisting underhoof, I went down on top of him.
The slope from the beach was not too steep, and the water was only a metre or so deep. Still, we rolled around, four limbs flailing and kicking off the rocky bottom when they could, two limbs trying to grab a handhold. Gradually the sea grew angrier, the waves higher. Sometimes I was on top of him, other times he was on top of me. I tired to suck in air only when I thought I wasn't under the water, but failed.
Finally I had to push myself away from him, find my feet and hooves, and hold my head above water. I was gasping for air, coughing and gagging out water.
Ephebus was gasping for breath too, but didn't seem to be coughing.
"What the bloody fuck are you doing Scylurus?!"
"I'm going to beat the god damned truth out of you!"
"What truth? I did what you asked me too. I waited--"
"You god be damned fucking liar! You set me up! You killed my family and you made me cover your god be damned tracks!"
By now the water was up to my human waist, and each wave rolled up to my shoulders. As each one passed it lifted my fore body up off the bottom, my weight keeping my hind hooves submerged. Slowly I stepped backward as Ephebus followed, seemingly unbothered by the waves.
"I didn't do anything! I waited for you and finally left! Just as you told me to!"
"And what about the horses! You killed them just as you killed my family!"
"I thought you were dead!"
Screaming incoherently, remembering the stench of the dead, I leapt almost out of the water and landed on top of him, pushing him under. I was certain he'd killed them. The bastard had killed every last one of them! I managed to suck in a lungful of air before he dragged me under.
Then it was a blur of bubbles glittering in the moonlight, of twisting bodies, of kicking hooves, of pebbles and grit. At one point I could swear that light glistened off his teeth as he smiled! I'd just gotten my arms around his lying neck when I had to let him go and struggle back to the shore to breathe.
That was when I discovered that centaurs were so top heavy with their human torso that they really couldn't swim. Somehow I managed to roll, tumble, and stagger back until I could stand.
The waves were tall now, almost a metre, and each pushed me backwards. One after another they rolled up and slammed themselves against my mouth, grasping and pulling themselves down my throat. Coughing and gagging I backed even closer to shore until I could breathe.
"Are you having any problems Scylurus?"
With water still gurgling in my lungs I looked out and saw him floating on the waves. How the hell was he keeping his balance?
"Why don't you come in? I can help you."
Poseidon damn him! No remorse, none at all! Gulping down breaths I staggered deeper into the water. I wanted to kill him! I wanted to wring his lying neck and let his body drift away and rot.
He was there waiting for me. Bobbing like a Poseidon damned duck!
No longer capable of any kind of rational thought I kicked and swam through the water. I found that by leaning forward and beating the surface with my hands I could keep from rolling over.
He just laughed!
Pulling myself forward with flailings of my arms I finally touched his shoulder. I stretched myself forward and wrapped my fingers around his lying neck.
Before I could grab a breath, both of us were sucked under. Was it a current? An undertow?
Letting go of him I tried to struggle to the surface but he grabbed me at my waist, hugging us close as we got pulled further and further out to sea, and got sucked deeper and deeper.
Somehow he spoke, "Dear dear Scylurus! You found me out."
By then I was frantic, oblivious to almost everything but the need for air, the need to get to the surface.
"Oh yes, I killed them. I killed your family, and I helped kill your herd."
He had killed them. He'd killed them! That revelation killed my desperation to breathe. I no longer cared if I lived or died. If he was intent on drowning, then by Poseidon I'd make sure he drowned. Ignoring the red pain in my lungs I wrapped my hands around his neck and squeezed.
That was when he began struggling and we both began floating up towards the surface. He kicked as I squeezed. I was able to wrap my forelegs around his forelegs pinning them and keeping us together. We rotated upside down and my chest bumped into his and I could feel pulsing flaps of skin.
Gills? He had gills?!
I almost let go but a small fire in my mind kept my hands clenched tight.
Our legs broke the nearly calm surface and we bobbed up and down as our heads and human bodies hung in the depths. His struggles were beginning to weaken, and mine weren't much better. Bubbles slithered through my nose as water dripped into my lungs. A burst of air slid past my mouth before I forced my lips shut. In the flickering moonlight I thought I could see his mouth gaping open and closed like a fish drowning in air. My hands loosened and I felt water pour down his throat.
No! I would not let him live! I WOULD NOT!
A waved passed, we bobbed up, and then down, and I felt the pebbles of the bottom slam into my head. I had a chance!
More bubbles burst from my mouth as my lungs fully emptied, providing a moments release from my desperate need. An idea burst into my feverish brain! For an instant I let go of his neck and then I grasped his chest, my arms brushing his gill slits as they pulsed open and closed, water finally flowing through them. With my hands I dragged my body around, rotating us both sideways. I could feel him move, I could feel his arms grabbing at my legs. Pushing myself up and away from him, I kneed him in the mouth and then let go.
My head burst through the surface and I sucked in air, the gas rasping down my desperate throat. At the same time I wrapped my human legs around his neck, crossing my ankles and squeezing. He was almost sideways, his hoofs kicking up clouds of foam as his arms grabbed at my legs. He dragged me under as I tried coughing out water and it was only by the grace of the gods that I burst to the surface as I inhaled. My hooves scraped against the gravel and I let the water help me stand up as I struggled back towards the shore.
And then he began to change. In the moonlight, through the shattered surface of the water, his body squeezed into itself. His tail stretched. As his legs pulled into his body his hair floated to the surface so that I caught only glimpses of scales growing. Coiling, his body pressed against the bottom trying to pull us out to sea. His head rose up into the air and I saw a massive snakehead pressing against my chest. A forked tongue slid out and between my breasts, and then snapped back in.
Fortunately his pressing upward also pressed my hind hooves downward, and I began dragging us both slowly into shallower and shallower water. Always I kept my forelegs wrapped around his neck, squeezing tighter and tighter as I gulped down breath after breath of lifegiving air.
The water was maybe half a metre deep when he changed again. This time his body sucked in on itself. Legs burst from his sides, short hairy legs, and I found my legs pressed outward as the snakehead grew into the massive furred head of a bear. He reared upward, saliva dripping from his fangs. With all my will I squeezed tighter. His head lolled backward, his tongue rolled out. His struggles weakened as I refused to let go.
Until he stopped. He was dead.
Still gasping for air I loosened my forelegs and--
The bear sucked in air and roared, his head snapping at my arm as I yanked it away.
What in Poseidon's name did it take to kill him? I tightened my legs, ignoring the pain in my muscles. His neck was so thick that my ankles couldn't cross! As his forepaws dug into my lower chest ripping the flesh, I forced my legs together with all the muscles the long chase had earned me.
With an audible crack, his neck collapsed. My ankles crossed and I squeezed. His claws flailed, more flesh was torn from my lower chest. In the moonlight I could see blood staining the water.
He changed again. This time his head stretched upward as his neck healed. His eyes rose until they were even with mine, and his face stretched outward into the muzzle of a stag. Below, his body burst outward and hair floated thick around us. I crawled up his neck with my knees. I would not make the mistake of letting him go again! Foam splattered from the stag's mouth as it sucked in a breath, and another, before I again pinched his neck shut. More foam dribbed out, his nostrils pulsed as his lungs tried to heave.
I squeezed harder.
Again his body flowed. A wave washed his short hair off his naked flesh and his antlers fell out. His skin roughened and burst into thick scales. His legs shortened, his hoofs fell off as toes burst out and lengthened into clawed webbed toes. Tail lengthening, his body shrank smaller and smaller.
I was holding a crocodile that twisted and whipped its tail around, beating the water behind him into foam. His massive jaw opened and I looked down into hundreds of teeth that tried closing around my chin. The stench of his breath made my eyes water.
I had just enough time to lean my head backwards and away as his jaws snapped shut. My legs squeezed harder.
He began to shrink, his tail sucking into him. His legs stretched out, brown fur burst out around his body. Ears stretched, and then flopped down and my legs slapped together as the rapidly shrinking body slipped out between them.
He'd turned himself into a rabbit.
Leaping backward, now almost completely out of the water, I grabbed his furred neck in my hands as the rabbit inhaled. My fingers wrapped around and squeezed as I staggered further out of the water and onto the pebbled shore. Spittle dripped onto my hands, and then his body began to grow.
His ears shrank, his muzzle grew into a human nose as a human face burst out around it. His body stretched backward, a pair of hoofed legs burst out of his chest and his hair above those legs began to fall out. Behind, his tail grew out into a horse's tail as his legs stretched and his toes vanished beneath flesh. Hooves grew and soon Ephebus was the centaur I'd first met.
He was limp as I dragged him further ashore by his neck and a part of me loosed my hands just enough to let a trickle of air out of his lungs, and then back in.
He didn't struggle.
I was fully ashore now, and the low waves barely reached up to the tip of his tail which stretched out behind him, wet and limp. Still panting for breath, I let go of his neck. His lungs heaved, fetid hot air burst out, and more air was sucked down.
Before he could even move I wrapped one arm around his neck and grabbed my wrist with my other hand. I could now, in an instant, yank my one arm tight.
"Try anything and I'll kill you! Any damn thing!"
He coughed and gagged up some water and glared at me.
I pulled my arm tighter around his neck.
He spit in my face, and then coughed again as I waited for him to get his breathing under control. I could hear Philya stumbling over the pebbles but I focused all my attention on Ephebus. No way in hell was I going to let him go now. His breathing slowed from frantic to desperate.
"What the hell did you?!"
"I.... I... was just... paying the price..."
"Price? What price?!"
"Poseidon... I had... had no choice..."
"What did he offer?!"
"I came... told you... thing of water... tortured by others... stretched, twisted. They... they flowed in me, piercing me. They wouldn't even let me scream!"
My experience as a Naiad hadn't been like that.
"Poseidon came... offered a way... a way out."
I just stared at him.
"Told me... He told me I had to... to bring you." Ephebus' body shook as he began coughing and gagging.
I loosened my grip slightly, but not enough to allow him to pull his head out, ignoring the blood streaked water that splattered onto my chest.
"It was the price!"
"The price of what?!"
"To free me from... from the endless torture! He... he made me into... a, a centaur, like you. Told me... told where to find you."
"Why'd you kill my family?! WHY THE FUCK DID YOU KILL THE HERD?!"
"He gave me the poison... poison to kill them, not... not you. He... he told me what to do. Told me to kill them all... all of them. He took... took the life from the... the horses. He wanted everybody dead... everybody except you and Philya. I had to bring you back..."
"To Greece... you had to be there!"
"He didn't say!"
"And what the hell else you told me was lies? How did you change?"
"A gift he gave me. It was... was to let me find you. I waited... waited until you were alone. The rest was truth, the bloody truth!"
A memory of his description of the hell he'd lived in flashed into my mind. Could the world have gong to hell like that? "The world outside couldn't be the way you said. It couldn't!"
He laughed, and then coughed again. "Oh it was. It was and worse. You can't hide here, none of us can!"
"But why the horses?! They were Poseidon's children. They were MY CHILDREN!"
"Because they'd betrayed Him. They follow you, not Him!" He smiled and began laughing. "You're doing what He wants you know--"
"You fucking bastard!"
The crack was loud as I snapped his neck.
Chapter 20: Aftermath
As Ephebus' life slipped from his body, I collapsed to the beach.
"Scylurus? Is that you?" It was Philya.
I blinked my eyes and looked up at her. "You're alive..."
"Dear Poseidon, it is you!" She leaned down and hugged me... and then let go and backed away.
What the hell...? "Philya, it's over now. You're safe. He's dead."
She sniffed, swallowed, and then spit out, "Good!"
"Philya, what did he do to you?"
"The bastard raped me!"
Huh? "Err..." I swallowed. "I'm not being insensitive, but is it physically possible that he raped you? You don't... err... fit together..."
"Oh Scylurus! I missed you so much!"
"Philya, what's wrong?"
Ignoring me she instead asked, "Are you okay? He didn't wound you too badly, did he?"
"I'm okay. It's all right. I need to rest. I'll be fine..."
She leapt to her feet and hooves in a clatter of pebbles and started throwing pieces of driftwood onto the fire. It took her less than a minute to blow the smoking coals into a roaring flame. I blinked at the sudden brightness. Then she turned around and, even though I could see only a silhouette of her against the fire, I could see that she limped with her hind legs as she made her way back to me.
She stopped, standing over me, shivering a little. "Let me help you up." I could see her trembling.
Groaning, I let her pull as I stumbled to my feet and hooves. I had to grit my teeth to keep from screaming. The world swirled around me and I was barely able to keep my balance. I think Philya pulled me stumbling close to the fire and then I collapsed and screamed from the pain.
"What did that bastard do to you?" she asked, but I was in no condition to answer.
She pushed me onto my side and I sort of nodded off. It wasn't really sleep, it was more an almost conscious state interrupted with random periods of light sleep. She prodded me, I think she screamed and cursed. I remember something tearing, and I think I screamed as something was yanked out of my lower chest. Maybe she rolled me over at some point too.
It was late the next day when I came to something resembling awake. The fire was low and a big pile of driftwood was piled neatly beside it. Philya was laying against me, her head resting on my lower chest. Finally I could see what Ephebus had done to her.
Her human half was untouched, unwounded. But her hind quarters... It was almost like a wild animal had attacked her. The flesh of her upper legs was covered in scars from what looked like claws. Her anus was torn and ripped, and I could see streaks of dried blood all through her tail.
Well, at least that answered the question of how he'd raped her.
Suddenly she jerked away from me. She looked sorry, horrified, and tried to hide it by stretching out her arms and yawning as she staggered to her feet and hooves.
I thought about telling her about Poseidon. Telling her that he was the one ultimately behind our pain. I decided not to. I would deal with him later as Philya needed me more right now. Something was badly wrong and I would give her all the time she needed to tell me. "Do you have anything to eat?"
"I think there're some rations left. Let me go and check."
"You're staying right where you are! Those wounds need at least a little time to heal. I managed to sew the worst ones shut, but you aren't moving!"
"Yes indeed! Now let me see what we have..."
I watched her as she limped over to the bags I'd given her and Ephebus when we fled the camp. She also gave me a good view of what Ephebus had done.
Damn him! And damn Poseidon even more!
I thought back to the myths. In the Trojan War, Aphrodite had meddled on the battlefield and she'd been wounded by a mortal arrow. I remembered Chiron. He'd been immortal and when poisoned he'd been in pain but couldn't die.
I couldn't kill Poseidon, but by Poseidon... I WOULD make him hurt!
Philya turned and slowly walked back, holding some dried meat. "Here, it's the best I have."
Reaching out to take it from her hands, I winced as she flinched away. She turned her face away and her hands shook when they touched mine as I took the dried meat.
"Philya, what's wrong?"
"I can't-- Damn him! Damn him!!" She spun around, the motion causing one of the scabbed over wounds to ooze blood, and galloped over to the far side of the fire. She collapsed, sobbing.
Gritting my teeth, I pushed myself up to my feet and hooves and managed not to scream as the wounds in my lower chest tore and blood oozed into the wrappings she'd gotten around me as I'd slept. Slowly I walked to stand beside her. I reached out to touch her and she flinched away. Swallowing, I let my hands fall to my side.
"Philya, please talk to me. You know I won't hurt you--"
"I know! Of course I know!"
"Then what's wrong?"
"I can't... By Papay..." She turned her head away from me. "Damn that Ephebus!" Her voice lowered to a whisper: "It's not the pain, it's the humiliation. I've never felt like this. We, you, never did before we came to this place. It's a female thing, I guess. I don't know... Contact, any contact. It... terrifies me. I can't... I can't!"
It was a good thing Ephebus was already dead.
Chapter 21: Healing
Sighing, I slowly walked in front of her. She didn't look comfortable until I was almost a metre away.
Comfortably out of contact range.
Lowering her head into her hands, she started sobbing.
I took a deep breath, struggling to compose my thoughts. "Philya. I've been through what you've been--"
"No you haven't! Not even close!"
"Philya... You soul's an echo of mine. We were born twins from our womb when the soul we shared was Pegasus. Do you remember?"
She sniffed and nodded, still refusing to look at me.
"These bodies were born when Centaurus raped us. I, you, as Pegasus didn't want to mate with--"
"It wasn't the same..."
"Earlier... We were the first horse that Poseidon created. Year after year we were dragged back to the sea and raped by the water. Do you remember that?"
"We had no choice! Poseidon compelled us then. Centaurus compelled us. They were gods!" And then she turned and fled off down the beach.
I started after her, and then stopped. She needed time. And it seemed that my first method of attack didn't work. There was a second...
As the sun set I stood and waited, nibbling on the hard meat she'd offered me. I checked through her baggage and found a half-empty waterskin and poured a bit of it down my mouth. Then, as I ate the rest of the meat, I looked around the beach until I found the javelin Ephebus had thrown. I needed something to try and hunt with. A bow would have been much better. She still had the arrows but... I'd have to make a new bow.
The sunlight was dimming by the time I returned to the fire. Philya was waiting for me.
"Scylurus. I'm... sorry. I wish..."
"Philya, it's not your fault. You did--"
"I let him! I let the bastard do it!"
"You resisted--" It was obvious from her wounds.
"I... I did... but I gave in. I could have beaten him--"
I forced down the urge to grab her. "I barely beat him! You've nothing--"
"It's me! I wanted it! Secretly!"
"Philya!" I slapped her. Not as hard as I could, but still hard. The sound echoed in the distance.
She glared at me.
"Shut up and listen! It is not your fault!"
"It isn't! Now, listen, just listen. Please..."
"Okay..." Her voice was small and lonely.
"Philya, why are you afraid of me? Think. Is it because you're afraid I might rape you?"
"Philya..." This would be so much easier if I dared touch her. "Philya, if you know I'd never do anything to you, then why are you afraid. What do you feel when I touch you?"
"I feel... no I know. You're going to do it. I know you're not but..." Her body was shaking, trying to flee and trying to stay.
"Philya. Why do you remember our past?"
"I-- When you came back with E... Eph... him, I suddenly knew. I, I guess I saw it in your eyes. It... Dear Poseidon! Why? Why?!" She started sobbing again.
"Philya. I remembered when I was alone. Like it was fated. If we share the same soul, then my awakened memories must have awoken the same memories in you. Does that make sense?"
"Philya! Concentrate! Don't think about me, think about what I'm saying!"
"I... shared souls. That... makes sense. It's possible, I guess."
"Okay. Think back. Think before we were born. Before Pegasus. You're a horse, the first horse. Do you remember?"
"I... I was... You were... We ran. We-- We had children... I was raped! God damn Eph... him!"
I ignored her contradiction of my not knowing what it was like to be raped. "Why were we raped?"
"We were... I was the first. I was the mother..."
"And I was you. I was the mother too. I was a female! Like you are--"
"Yes... that makes sense. But... But you're my brother. You can--"
"Philya, later we became Medusa. Another female. How long were we, was I, female?"
"I don't... A long time..."
"And when Perseus killed us, we became Pegasus. Again female. Do you remember?"
"I... I remember. I was, you were..."
"Think of me as a female. Picture me that way. I'm your sister, I can't hurt you. Just like you couldn't hurt you."
She began using the female form of my name: "I... Oh Scylura, Scylura!"
I held her as she threw herself into my arms and sobbed out the pain, really sobbed it out. I held her shaking body and rubbed her hair and mane as the fire died to coals and darkness fell, muttering sweet nothings.
Eventually we fell asleep in each other's arms.
The next day was cold and windy, specks of water blew off the waves and onto our bodies. The fire was long dead, and Ephebus' body was beginning to smell ripe. I probably should have buried it yesterday but I had refused to then, and I refused to now. Again it was late afternoon. I guess we both needed our rest.
"Philya?" I whispered.
She sniffled and looked at me. "I'm sorry. I--"
"Philya, I've been there. You need time. You know that I would never hurt you."
"But-- Somebody else might! I... I have to always think of you as a sister. Otherwise--"
"Philya, if it works then don't be afraid. We should get going. The body is going to attract--"
"Scavengers. I know."
"Get your stuff and let's get going. Pegasus is waiting for us, and the herd--"
Her body stiffened.
"Philya, there's only three left. They're all mares. There's nobody who can hurt you."
She relaxed, but only a bit. "I don't know if I can face..."
"Philya, let me pack. Go and wash the dirt and... dirt off you."
"But Scylura, your bandage. You come too."
"No. Not the ocean."
"Go, I'll pack."
She swallowed and turned away. As she moved off I watched her body relax more and more the further away she got. God damn Ephebus, and god damn Poseidon who'd sent him!
As most of the supplies were still in the packs I only had to pick them up. They were supposed to go on my horse's back, but each time I moved I could feel twinges of pain from beneath the bandages. She'd have to carry them. I ended up organizing the packs a bit better as time passed. I was still trying better ways to organize them when she came back. Turning, I called out: "I'd carry them, but I don't think it's wise," as I motioned to my bandages.
"That's all right. Let me."
"I did pack them a bit neater." Helping her strap them on, I carefully kept my hands away from her front and her rear. "Can you manage some more weight?"
"I want to put in some driftwood so we can have a fire tonight." I gathered a load from the pile she'd brought and started putting what would fit into the one nearly empty pack. "Let me know when you think there's enough. I wouldn't want to overburden you."
She glared, which I thought was good. A little anger should be good for her. She ended up letting me fill the bag completely.
"Are you sure that's all right?"
"Of course it is! I'm just as strong as you Scylura."
"Let's take it easy tonight. We'll just go up onto the plains and go west for a while, get away--"
She shuddered and spun her head away from me.
Damn it! I had to remind her! Shaking my head I sighed. "You can set the pace..."
"You'd better..." The fire was gone from her voice.
I clenched my fists to keep the anger out of my voice and tried to keep a light tone. "You won't be able to keep up..."
She spun around. "Of course I-- Scylura, you just walk slowly. You need to heal."
"As you command."
I started walking up the slope, hoping she'd come up beside me. Instead she stayed behind. At least she followed.
It was a relief to get off the pebbles and onto the soft soil and amongst the grass. Getting up the rise had torn something but I was able to keep silent. The bandages would have to be changed, but not yet. Then I turned northwest and slowly walked. We walked until the moon rose and I could only smell the cursed sea.
"Philya, I... I need to stop."
"Scylura? Are you all right? Let me check--"
"I'm fine. I'm fine, really." I didn't want her to check. Her hand might wander, might touch my manhood...
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. Let me unload you and we can get a fire started. We'll have to look for water tomorrow, and maybe I'll be able to bring down some game." A javelin wasn't the best tool but it was possible. It I was lucky I might get a rabbit.
"Well, okay. If you're sure."
I pulled out the driftwood and piled it, and then lifted the packs off her, careful not to touch her skin. While she kicked and stomped the grass with her rear hooves to create some bare ground, I whittled away at one of the smaller driftwood pieces carving off some kindling. She started the fire easily with flint and tinder, and soon a small blaze was going.
While we were doing this, I realized that this couldn't continue. Philya was fragile, a piece of thin porcelain. I needed to get her back to Pegasus as I could feel my chest wounds going bad, and I feared that her wounds were too. Plus we needed fresh water. Right now I was afraid that Philya would flee when she saw the mares. When she saw anybody.
"Philya?" She was crouching down by the fire.
Turning her head she looked at me. "There's a little bit of ration left. Do you want--?"
"No. We need to talk."
"Philya. You know I would never hurt you, right?"
"I'm you're sister, right?"
"Err... Yes! Yes you are!" Her voice flew loudly into the darkness.
Walking over, I lowered myself onto my horse belly beside her, clenching my hands to keep from screaming from the pain. Then I looked into her eyes, willing her to look only into mine, as I gently reached for her hands. She didn't flinch when I touched them. "Philya, not all men are bad..."
She ripped her hands away from my touch. "Yes they are!"
"Philya. I... we..." I'd never had a wife. Some flings in university, but never love. I closed my eyes, inhaled, and then exhaled. "Philya... we both know what love is. Do you love me?"
"I... well, yes, I guess so. As a sister..."
"The other kind is said to be better."
This time I shuddered a bit. She needed to be shown that it wasn't all pain, she needed it proved to her. But she was my sister! But we weren't born naturally. Maybe... But she's my sister!
"Scylura? Are you all right?" This time it was she who touched me.
Then I knew that for us it was right. We were the only two of our kind. We were divine, or at least semi-divine. The Greek gods were believed to have been perfect physically, other than Hephastus. We were born by the will of divinity from the water. And Philya needed it. That last was what decided me, I think. "Philya... I... Well... Do you trust me?"
"Of course Scylura."
"Let me show you what it can be."
"Show you what love can be. Trust me."
She turned away.
"I'm your sister, remember? You know I would never hurt you. Your soul is my soul. Search it. Would I hurt you?"
"Philya, you have to face this now. If you hide then Ephebus wins."
Reaching out I put one hand on each side of her head and slowly turned it to face me. "Philya. You need to do this. Search inside yourself."
"But... we're sisters... we..."
"Are we? I've thought about it. We're all there is of our kind. We were born from the ocean by divine will, and then changed and moved from body to body by divine will."
She shuddered and I could see the revulsion behind her eyes. We were twins, and that made it wrong.
But, I knew it had to be done. Maybe it was the gods telling me, but somehow I simply knew. I knew it would be all right. I knew that good would come of it. "Philya, all the gods were brothers and sisters, yet they married and mated with each other. Divine blood is in our veins."
"I... Oh Papay Scylurus! What's happening to me...to us..."
"Philya, let's deal with what we have power over. We have to live as best we can one day at a time."
"I... I'm not ready--"
"Philya! The longer you put it off, the harder it'll become!"
I would have preferred to simply stand up like a human could, but my four legged stance forced me to leap to my hooves and feet. I had to let go of her, back up a bit, and then stand up. When she saw what I was doing, she did too.
"Philya. Trust me. Trust me this once."
"I..." She didn't say anything, but instead untied her shirt and threw it to the ground. And then untied the waist of her pants and let them fall. "Do it. Do it now. I don't know if I'll be able to get this far again if we stop..."
"Shhh...." I pushed her hair from her forehead and kissed her there. She stiffened. Then I let my arms fall down her human back and clasped my hands together. I held her, gently, giving her time to back out or to continue.
"Sculurus... It's so hard."
"I know. Just trust me."
It was awkward. Not because of the darkness, not because of our wounds, but because neither of us really knew what to do. Finally we figured it out. She winced a little as I pierced her for the first time, but after that it was good.
If only the price hadn't turned out to be so high.
Chapter 22: Revelations
We woke up shortly past dawn and started packing everything. I used some of our remaining water to wash off, and gave the rest to Philya. My wounds felt better as she'd removed the bandage and replaced it with cloth torn from her shirt and soon we were on the way, me leading, towards the spring where Pegasus was waiting. Or at least I hoped I was heading there.
We didn't touch each other, but Philya didn't flinch either. Had it worked? Or had I simply driven her soul closer to destruction? She looked much better, yet...
Ahead I heard the sound of galloping hooves getting closer, and I motioned Philya to crouch down. Slowly I moved forward, holding the one javelin ready to throw. It wasn't much, but I refused to go down easily.
Then I recognized them. Three mares. Anarcharax, Modyexa, and Sauliux. I couldn't see Pegasus, she'd probably come at nightfall. Lowering the javelin to a ready position I waited. Inwardly I braced myself -- they'd be angry and rambunctious. The three of them skidded to a stop in front of me, Anarcharax leading.
Walking up to me, she snorted, and then nipped my arm. You should no leave us!
I reached up to scratch between her ears but she pulled away.
Not again leave! Never! You do, we leave!
The others nickered their agreement.
"I'm sorry. I had to do it alone -- you'd make too much noise, slow me down."
We keep up! Modyexa snorted.
Then Sauliux broke in, her nickers quiet and amazed: You mated Philya?
How'd they...? So much for cleaning up.
Philya over there! Modyex neighed. They turned towards where she was hiding.
They did stop and, as one, turned to glare at me.
"She... she had a rough time. Go to her slowly, give her time to get used to you."
The mares started slowly walking.
"Philya! They're friends. They're the mares I told you about."
Turning, I watched as she stood up. She was quivering a little, I think. She just stood there, her tail pulled against her rear as they approached. The horses stopped a couple of metres away and Anarcharax slowly approached Philya. She sniffed at Philya's human crotch between her human legs and pressed her nose into the dirty cloth of her pants. Philya pushed her away.
He did! neighed Anarcharax.
Good for him, Souliux snorted.
Gently Philya rubbed Anarcharax between the eyes. The others walked to her sides and started nibbling at Philya's horse back pulling out flies and ticks. She relaxed as Anarcharax pushed her head closer until Philya's hand was between her ears, her favourite spot, and, closing her eyes, she nickered in pleasure.
Philya was certainly better than she had been.
With the mares busy, I slowly made my way towards them and soon Sauliux was nibbling at my back. I hadn't realized how bad it'd gotten. I just sighed, and then reached to scratch Anarcharax between the ears.
My hand touched Philya's and we both yanked them away. Rising my head I looked at her, she looked back at me. Our eyes met.
Anarcharax flickered her tail in my face. What about me?
Shaking my head, I stated: "She's annoyed that we're not paying her any attention."
Philya shook her head.
I moved my arm up and touched Philya's. This time neither of us flinched. Together we resumed scratching Anarcharax in her favourite spot.
It was late in the afternoon before we moved on. With Anarcharax's permission I nicked her neck and sucked at her blood, and then did the same for Philya from Sauliux. By nightfall we weren't so hungry, though we hadn't reached the spring yet, but it turned out that we didn't need to as Pegasus landed and made a spring for us. Walking into the spring to wash, I let Philya and Pegasus get reacquainted.
I was standing there in the deepest point where the water reached halfway up my lower chest soaking my healing wounds when I heard the soft whoosh of Pegasus' wings. This time, rather than hovering, she settled to the water like a swan, folding her wings to her sides. Philya's asleep, she nickered.
"You looked her over then?"
She'll be okay. None of the physical wounds were deep.
I think you did the right thing.
"But it was wrong! It was unnatural!"
Was it? Am I natural? Are you natural? She needed it desperately. And if you hadn't--
Pegasus snorted and leaned down and sucked a couple mouthfuls of water. She seemed as hesitant to talk about it as I was. More echoes of my soul. I watched her settle noticeably deeper into the water.
When she finally raised her head, water dripping into the spring, I asked: "What are you talking about?"
About what you and she...?
You know what Ephebus did. I've been told by Apollo that Poseidon helped him.
My voice was cold. "Yes."
Do you know why?
"The why doesn't matter. He killed my family and I will make him pay."
Well I do know, or know some of it anyway. He's afraid of you. He has been ever since you tore the mask from the Medusa priestess.
"Why would I scare him?"
He believes that you will change the world.
Chapter 23: The Price
"Me? Change the world?"
That's what Poseidon believes, Pegasus nickered.
I don't know. I don't know if he knows. You know from the myths what prophecies are like. 'He will destroy a great Empire'.
I remembered that prophecy. It was given to King Croesus of Lydia when he asked whether or not he should attack Persia. Croesus assumed the prophecy meant the Persians would lose and hence attacked. Instead he lost and his empire was the one that fell.
You should know the excuse that Poseidon used to send Ephebus after you. And why I'm here.
"I thought you wanted to see us."
No. Zeus has ordained that you and Philya will mate. I would have done it peaceably. Poseidon stated that you needed to be forced back to Greece as your child needs to go there.
Your child has a destiny. He'll be born in a year.
You'll know what to do. Now I must go.
I could only come because I was the god's messenger. The task is done and they're calling me And with that, Pegasus spread her wings and leapt into the air, flapping hard. Too soon she was gone.
Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Answers that generated only more questions. I was to change the world? How? You'd think that Poseidon would know that a prophecy couldn't be stopped. Or had Oedipus not happened yet? Assuming Ephebus' goal was to get me free from my tribe, and to make his position as strong as possible, then his tactics made sense. But why did he try to rape Philya? He had to know that nothing would happen. He had to know it wouldn't enrage me so that I would make mistakes as I wouldn't even know until he was dead. So why?
I never did get an answer to that one. With the questions still buzzing around in my head I got out of the spring and to sleep.
The next day I asked the mares what was around us. I had a dagger and a javelin, and Philya had her pants, her packs, some arrows, a waterskin, her sewing kit, and flint and tinder. That was it. We couldn't even trade for supplies! Well, there were other ways. Philya and I needed time to rest and heal and soon she wouldn't be able to travel anyway. So, we remained at the spring.
I had no wood to make a bow. The best wood was traded from the Greeks and Thracians and passed further and deeper into the grasslands. We didn't need the arrows. With the three mares we had a ready supply for dung that would dry and could be used for a fire. The spring would start to attract wildlife which would serve as food, for a while. So I cut Philya's packs into leather strips, and used them with the arrows to make snares. Meanwhile, Philya wandered around with the horses and gathered wild grains and roots. After a month she and I started working the hides and furs into some basic clothing and larger packs for both of us. As the time passed, all of our physical wounds healed though my lower horse chest remained mostly bare skin.
At first Philya seemed like she had been, but with time I realized it was a shell. Her eyes were haunted, and I could see madness at their edges. Neither of us spoke about that one night, and the horses stopped talking about it when I continually ignored them. Each day we were busy surviving and preparing to travel, and each night we collapsed into an exhausted sleep
I was never able to sleep well; I always had nightmares. Most were about the humans I'd killed, some about the mares that I 'd let die. But there were horrible nightmares about Philya giving birth to hideous monsters. Greek mythology was full of them. The minotaur had came about because Minos' wife had mated with a bull. Rationally I knew nothing like that could happen because of our genetics, but I also dreamed of centaur abominations. Things born without legs, things born with no head, things born with horrific deformities. The dreams slowly grew worse and more frequent as time passed. Intellectually I knew that none of that would happen. Zeus had wanted the child, and he would make sure the child was born right. That didn't mean that it couldn't be a mythological monster. It just meant that it wouldn't be a genetic abomination.
Some nights I was awoken by Philya sobbing in her sleep and I knew that she wasn't sleeping well either. She never told me if it was because of Ephebus, or because of what she and I did. And I never asked.
After two months we packed our supplies and started a slow walk to the west. We didn't talk. The mares were sullen. Philya didn't understand them and I ignored the questions about my child that they kept asking. Philya said very little at first, but eventually said nothing. My mind drifted, the puzzle pieces moving around and around but never fitting. Ephebus, Poseidon, Pegasus, my child.
After a month of wandering we encountered a tribe of proto-Scythians. A different tribe than the one that'd raised us. We'd set aside as much of the furs and hides as we could for this potential meeting and I was able to trade them for a bow and some arrows and a pair of javelins. It wasn't a good bow, but I could use it. The javelins were fine. We parted, and Philya and I and the mares continued our way west.
Two weeks later I was able to bring down an antelope. I didn't know what species it was, but I knew of it from my father. Philya and I spent a few days skinning it and gorging ourselves on the meat. We dried what we could quickly. It wouldn't last as long as properly prepared rations, but it would last for a couple of weeks.
Weeks passed. I brought down game as we needed it. Each day I could see Philya's condition becoming more and more obvious. I don't know when she realized she was pregnant, probably before we encountered the tribe, though fortunately she was still relatively sane then. Day by day I watched her sanity go. First she reverted to calling me sister and Scylura. Her mind became more and more childlike, and often she would dance off to see something interesting and I would have to chase her down.
We traveled slower and slower, both because of her condition, and because of her mental state. At first I'd though we'd reach Thracia long before the child would be born, but now I doubted it. Another month passed. My dreams worsened, and Philya never seemed to sleep at all. She never spoke. She'd only let the mares near her, and I had to get them to chase her down when she wandered off as she'd flee if I approached her.
One morning I awoke and found them all gone. Philya had galloped off shortly after I got to sleep and the mares hadn't been able to stop her. It took me almost a week to catch up to them, and the only reason I did was because Philya had collapsed.
She had attempted to claw open her womb with her fingernails.
The mares had kept her from doing much damage, though her chest was covered in wounds that never properly healed.
I asked the mares to take us to the nearest spring. Anarcharax led, the other two restrained Philya between them. I couldn't get anywhere near her.
Close to a year had passed since I'd saved her and I was no closer to a solution to help her. All I could do was worry.
One night I made a permanent camp and, when Philya was asleep, I hobbled her. Two days later her labour pains started.
I don't know why, but as the pain of her labour worsened, her mind cleared. Was it blessing, or a curse? The mares huddled around her. I didn't know what to do. I started pacing around her. After a short while I would stop and look at her, then spin around and pace around her the other way.
Night had fallen. It had rained on and off all day, and a storm was threatening. There was no moon, just the starlight and the light of the coals in the fire.
"Scylurus?" she asked, between pains, between screams.
Instantly I was beside her. The mares made room. "Philya?"
"It hurts. It hurts so much!" Her hands grabbed mine and her fingernails dug into my palms drawing blood as she screamed.
"It'll be all right. Soon it'll be over."
"We shouldn't have done it. We're cursed." She screamed again.
Her eyes were haunted and her face was white and pale. Hours passed. Finally I couldn't look into her haunted eyes and looked down in time to see a human head pushing its way out. It was small and red and wrinkled, and covered in blood. I could smell blood and the dense musk of horse from the child.
"Oh god, oh god!" Her fingernails dug into my palm.
The head slowly pushed out and then stopped. Her fingernails dug almost through my palms as she screamed a final time, her voice harsh and hoarse. In front of me her body tore open. Tiny blood covered shoulders thrust out into the air.
I forced myself to look back at her face. "It's going to be all right."
She was panting, gasping for breaths. With each exhale blood splattered on her lips. "No, it isn't. It isn't!" She screamed, spraying blood all over my face. "We have to kill it! It's an abomination!"
She let go of my palms but I grabbed her lower arms. She strained against me, but I held her away from the child. Her arms were damp, sweat soaked. So was the rest of her body.
She screamed, louder than before. Her body shook and she ripped her arms out of my grasp. Fearing for what she'd do I looked down just as her body ripped itself completely open pushing the child out. Lightning flashed in the heavens and I could see that it was a centaur like us. Its forelimbs were human.
And that was when I realized the true horror of our form. Philya's forebody was human. Her womb was human. The opening was human.
A centaur is much bigger than a human.
Blood gushed out, and then I felt Philya's hands grasping mine.
"Scylurus, Scylurus, I'm so sorry!" Her grip was weakening fast.
I tried to get up, my head whipped back and forth, left and right, looking for something, anything, to try and staunch the wound.
With a sudden inhuman strength she pulled me close to her. Her eyes looked into mine. "Care for him Scylurus. Raise him." Tears were falling down her face. Her body shook with pain and terror and she coughed up globs of blood mixed with saliva.
The child sucked in its first breath and screamed its need to the world as Philya died.
Chapter 24: Miracle
The sky opened up and rain deluged down. A little part of my brain thought, insanely, that it was Zeus trying to help clean the child...
I just lay there, Philya in my arms dead, her blood still oozing out onto me. The child was heaped on the ground, crying. Slowly my arms slipped away until the child grabbed one finger and shoved it in his mouth and started sucking. Of course, nothing happened.
Oh god, what was I supposed to do?
Gently the mares pushed past me and one bit through the birth cord as the others started licking the afterbirth off the child. At least they knew. But that didn't help the immediate problem. The child was hungry. Its lips pressing on my finger confirmed that it was toothless. It needed milk and I was woefully incapable of providing that milk.
Oh god, what do I do?!
Philya had the milk. I'd watched her breasts swell in recent weeks. But she was dead... But...
No! I couldn't!
But I had too.
Swallowing, with my other hand I gently squeezed one of Philya's breasts. A bit of milk dribbled out to be washed away by the rain.
"Forgive me. Please forgive me..."
Holding the child's head I gently pulled my finger out of his mouth, holding back his head as it tried to follow. I lifted him up, careful to hold the human upper body and the head. I managed to crawl sideways, dragging my scars across the grass. It was hard, but I couldn't get up holding the child. Putting him down, I guided his mouth to one of Philya's breasts as I pulled her upper torso around by her shoulders.
The child started suckling greedily.
The milk wouldn't last long. If only somebody else was here. If anybody else was here...
Anarcharax turned her head and pressed it almost into my face. Rain thudded down on her muzzle and she snorted out some water. Us feed.
"How?!" I screamed out.
You our god. Make one ready. She sounded quiet, certain, confident.
"But it won't work! It can't! I've got-- he needs-- Oh god... oh god...!"
Angrily she nipped me on the shoulder. Do it.
What the hell? It couldn't hurt, it wouldn't take long. It wouldn't work, it didn't have a hope of working. God damn it all, what else could I do? I refused to let the child die.
Anarcharax's teeth broke my skin.
Angrily I pushed her away, her teeth tearing flesh from my shoulder. "It won't work!"
"Fine! Fine then!" My voice turned sarcastic. "I, your god and creator, say you have milk."
Her eyes flashed angrily and she snorted. DO! IT!
Can! Touch teats. Rub. Massage. Call milk! Angrily she leapt to her hooves and then thudded down onto the ground with her teats almost in my face.
"It's not going to god damned well work!"
I rolled my eyes. "Fine! Whatever you say!"
Reaching out I felt her nipples through her hide. They were warm, and very very dry. I tried squeezing them, squeezing them far too hard, but Anarcharax only snorted. Nothing came out. Of course nothing came out.
Turning her head she looked at me. She wasn't angry anymore. She was desperate, eager. And, above all, she was worshipful.
Why me? WHY ME? I wanted her to have milk. I needed her to have milk. Rubbing below the teats I imagined her breasts filling, bulging. I moved my hand up and along them wishing that milk would follow. Gently I squeezed the teats. It wouldn't work, I knew in my soul that it wouldn't, but the desperate father in me hoped.
And then the miracle happened.
With the tip of my finger I felt liquid. Warm liquid.
No... Not possible... It was the rain. That's it, the rain. Nothing else.
But if only...
With one hand sheltering the other I pinched again, and then I leaned down and licked my hand.
I'd done it.
No, Anarcharax had done it. I'd only provided the motivation.
But it couldn't happen spontaneously! Given a little time maybe, but not like this!
The storm was dying. Turning, I looked and saw that the child was desperately suckling at Philya's other breast but somehow I knew that nothing was coming out. Modyexa and Sauliux were looking at me. They'd licked the child clean and were resting their heads on him to keep him warm.
Turning at my waist I gently pushed my hands around and under the child and pulled her away from her dead mother. He turned, looked at me. He smiled. I smiled back. Then I turned him away and gently moved his mouth to Anarcharax's dripping teats which he thrust his head against eagerly.
Making sure the child wouldn't fall over, leapt to my feet and hooves and spun around. The rain had stopped and a man was there. Clean shaven, dressed in pure white linen and with a halo of golden hair. Over his shoulder was a pale leather quiver for a massive bow and long arrows, all in a case was sealed against the rain. His eyes were golden, and a bright light, painful to look at, shone in their depths and all around him.
"Who are you?"
"Ah Stephan. I'm surprised you don't recognize me." He bowed. "Apollo at your service."
The Greeks never bowed when they worshipped their gods, and I felt no need to.
"What do you think of our little Chiron?" He pointed towards the child, still suckling at Anarcharax's breasts.
"Chiron?" I remembered the legends of Chiron, the immortal divine teacher centaur. According to the myths he'd been the child of Chronos and his niece Philyra. One story said that Chronos had been searching for Zeus who was preparing to free Chronos' childen. Chronos came upon Philyra and desired her. She transformed into a horse and fled, but Chronos became a horse too and chased her and caught her. The other story was that Chronos fell in love and transformed himself into a horse as he mated with her to hide the act from his wife Rhea. Regardless, Philyra was so horrified by what came out of her that she called upon the gods to transform her into a tree. They did and Apollo adopted the child and raised him and, with Artemis, taught him.
"You know what I must do."
"No!" Behind me I heard a sudden groan, and then the cracking of wood and rumbling of ground. Knowing what I'd see I turned and saw that where Philya's body had been was a linden tree.
"I'm sorry, but it is the will of Zeus."
"How can he be Chiron?! I'm not Chronos! This isn't the Golden Age! And I definitely haven't been deposed by Zeus!"
"The myths you know are not the truth. They are images, distortions and explanations of what has, and what will happen. I must take Chiron."
"I have no choice, you have no choice. You'll see him again, and again."
Slowly I walked over to where I'd stored my supplies and pulled out a javelin, it's bronze point glistening in Apollo's glow, the bright metal hungry for blood. Turning back to face him in a cold voice I said, "You won't take him."
"Stephan, you can't stop me. Not now."
I drew the javelin back for a throw. "You will not take him."
He muttered, "I should know that a prophecy cannot be changed."
He reached one arm behind him and untied his quiver and pulled out the bow. It was massive, black, heavy. The most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. But, his momentary distraction could give me a chance. Leaping forward, I threw the javelin. It flew true, quivering its hunger...
And Apollo caught it in his other hand.
He squeezed, and there was a snap as the wood shattered in his grip.
Turning to face me, he strung his bow and pulled out a long black arrow. "I'm sorry Stephan. I knew this would happen, but I hoped. I can't kill you for today you can't die. When you find my bow come to Delphi."
And, in one smooth motion, he drew the arrow back and released it. It flew straight and true, passing into my left eye. It didn't hurt, it didn't draw blood. It passed through my flesh as though it was water and lodged itself in my brain.
It killed my sanity.
Chapter 25: Madness
To a madman, everything they do makes perfect logical sense. I knew I was mad, but I also knew that my condition was right and proper. Everything I did made sense. Fleeing from Chiron into the night, galloping until I collapsed from exhaustion. Then it was the right thing to do.
All the mares except Anarcharax followed me and easily caught up. I stopped and let them get close, and then I spun around and lashed out with my hind hooves before racing off. I could hear them speaking to me, but their words didn't make sense. This happened again and again and it wasn't too long before the inevitable happened and my kick snapped one of Sauliux's hind legs.
She fell to the ground screaming.
I stopped. Was it a new game? I walked up and she snapped at me but I slapped her in her nostrils. Modyexa was screaming something at me, but I just laughed.
Then I leaned down and touched my hands to Sauliux's snapped leg and felt a warmth flow through me. Before my eyes the leg healed.
What a great game!
I raced away again, and they pursued again. Twice more I badly wounded them. Modyexa in a fore leg, Sauliux in the head. And both times, hurt that they'd no longer play, I healed them.
It was sometime near dawn that I collapsed in exhaustion and when I awoke the mares were gone.
How dare they?! I wanted to play and they left! Oh well, I'd have to find some more.
Years passed as I wandered through the grasslands. When I was hungry I would graze on wild grain or chase after a deer, take it down with my bare hands, and eat the meat raw. The first ones didn't expect me to kill them -- I must have smelled like a horse. But eventually they seemed to learn and that just made the game better. I had to be cunning. First I'd join a herd of wild horses. They'd always accept me, worship me as was my due, rub and care for me. I never hurt them. I'd live with them, roll in the dirt with them, nibble at their backs as they nibbled at mine. Slowly I'd move towards a herd of deer, acting as one of the herd, letting the herd gain the deer's trust. Then I'd leap out and wrap my arms around one of the deer's necks, and snap it. The rest of the deer would flee, and the horses would mill around nervously.
I don't know why but other than that first night I never hurt a horse. I never ate a horse. Maybe it was my initial madness, but that fact was one of the few things that kept me from trying to kill myself when I was sane again.
Sometimes I'd encounter bands of humans. I'd never let them get close, acting as skittish around them as a wild horse. For weeks or months I'd observe their strange and incomprehensible habits. Why they covered themselves I had no idea. How could they merge with their horses and then detach? I couldn't do that. One night I stole a knife from one of the camps and tried to cut my horse self off of my human self and succeeded.
When I awoke the next morning, I was healed.
Once, a tribe hunted me. They'd shoot these birds at me, some of which hit and dug into my flesh in bites of pleasure. Then I'd roll around so that the birds could wiggle inside me. The hunters came closer and threw javelins at me. What a wonderful gift! A new source of pleasurous pain. When I got to my hooves and feet and tried to thank them they fled. The next day the wonderful pain was gone and my body healed.
Most of the time though I was alone. I'd sleep when I was tired, and walk and gallop when I wasn't. I'd eat when I was hungry and drink when I was thirsty. I think there was a drought one summer as I remember not being able to find water for a long time. That made me angry, very very angry. I was thirsty, hot, sore. The world wavered in my eyes. I could only walk, not having enough energy to gallop. But I didn't die. Eventually I found a lake surrounded by kilometers of dried mud flats. I threw myself into the remaining water joyously. I even breathed it, sucking it down into my lungs in exquisite agony. I lay on the bottom, the last blurps of air slipping up through my nostrils.
But I didn't die.
Instead I wandered along the bottom, eating fish when I could catch them. One time I saw some things floating on the surface and swam up to see what they were. They were humans! I pulled one boat over and dragged one of the humans down to play with. He bubbled and struggled and finally went still. I threw him away and he sank to the bottom.
Eventually I walked out, but this time into a sea of vibrant grass. There were no dried mud flats. The rains must have come. Water gurgled out of my lungs tinted with blood and I rasped in air for the first time in who knew how long.
More years passed, slowly I drifted westwards. The land became rockier. Once I leapt off a cliff thinking I could fly. The next day I woke up undamaged on the rocks below. Humans were sparse and avoided me. Once I saw some centaurs, not quite like me. All four of their legs were hoofed. They babbled at me, all going bar bar bar, and I tried to duplicate that sound but never understood it. That was when they offered me a new and wondrous liquid. They had it in a sack of somekind and I gulped it down greedily. It filled my body like a golden nectar and when the others imbibed they joined me in my gleeful madness.
I stayed with the centaurs for years. An icon I guess. Humans fought us and we struggled. I always fought with my bare hands and feet and hooves, and I always won. But, there were so many! Centaurs died, and the humans always came back. I always healed, but the scars remained. My human torso became covered with them, and my horse torso crisscrossed. Then something happened, and I couldn't fight anymore. My centaur friends wouldn't let me. Nasty centaurs!
A year passed. The herd started growing again. We stayed near a cave where the greatest of the elixir was stored. One day visitors came, two centaurs and a human. One of the centaurs was like me, with feet instead of forehooves. The other was a monster. He was hairy all over his body, even his upper body, and kept his upper half wrapped in a feathered cloak. His head extended outwards like a horse's and twin horns, like those on a deer, extended up from his head. A man was beside the two centaurs, even bigger than the weird centaur. He wore a lionskin and carried a big stick and a bunch of little sticks. The man wandered off and into the cave and there were loud bar bar bar noises.
It was the centaur like me that drew me. I knew him. I remembered him. He must have noticed me because he turned and stared, his eyes moving down past my centaurhood which dangled loose and over my human legs. The centaur like me turned to the monster centaur and went bar bar bar.
And that was when the elixir was opened.
As I turned towards the cave entrance, I heard centaurs galloping from all over. The man roared and burst out of the cave, the elixir dripping from his mouth. The keeper was behind him.
The other centaurs attacked and I leapt to join them. The man was amazing. A centaur tried to gallop over him and he threw the beast aside like it weighed nothing. I tried to grapple with him but he burst my arms apart. Nobody had ever done that before.
From behind, I heard a scream. It was the centaur like me. The human pushed me aside and I fell onto the hard rocks. He was past me, rushing towards the scream. I pushed the other centaurs aside and saw the human shooting sticks at the centaurs that were swarming the monster centaur and the centaur like me.
Sanity burst into my mind like a flood.
Dear god... Pholus. Heracles. Chiron!
I knew how Chiron would die. Just as Heracles was drawing his arrow to shoot, I leapt into him.
In a distance I heard somebody scream, "NOOO!"
Heracles and I both fell in a tumble and as he threw me away I watched the arrow I had caused Heracles to fire pass through one centaur and nick Chiron on the leg.
I knew that the arrow was poisoned. All of Heracles' arrows were. He wouldn't have missed. It was I who made him miss!
My momentary sanity vanished, buried in terror, and I fled away into the mountains.
Years passed. I avoided all contact. My madness was dark and self hateful. I threw myself off cliffs, but was always alive in the morning. I drowned myself in rivers, but eventually walked back onto shore. My mind had long fled. All I knew during that time was that I was cursed. I didn't know why.
On day I was on a cliff looking down at a marble temple. Small. Vaguely familiar. Humans were praying. I felt dizzy. Standing there I looked at the cliff. I sought the pain, but I knew it wouldn't do any good.
Somebody was beside me and they said something to me. Bar bar bar.
Panicked I spun away to flee, but instead he was in front of me. And, over his shoulder, was a great black bow, strung and ready.
I recognized that bow. And the divinity holding it. The god was Apollo. And the bow was his too.
Sanity came crashing down upon me.
Chapter 26: The Pythia
My lips quivered with sorrow. "I killed him."
Apollo just stood there.
"I killed him. YOU DIDN'T EVEN LET ME HELP HIM GROW UP!!"
Apollo sighed. I thought about leaping off the cliff and taking him with me but the memories of my madness told me how useless that would be.
My voice turned to a whisper as I choked back tears. "Why?"
"You must know the legend of Oedipus."
"Of course I do!" Oedipus' parents received a prophecy that their son would kill his father and marry his mother. They exposed him and he was raised by shepherds. Oedipus discovered that he was prophesied to kill his father and fled his stepparents, thinking them his real parents. He met his biological father on the road and killed him in an argument, saved Thebes from the Sphinx, and as a reward married his mother. By trying to break the prophecy, his parents caused it to happen.
"Chiron died because he was fated to die. When you're there again you'll understand."
I trotted over to him and started beating on his chest with my fists like a petulant child. "God damn you all! GOD DAMN YOU!"
"Stephan, the world needs to change. It's what you'll do. All this happens because it happened. Time twists and bends upon itself, things happen over and over again."
"Stephan, you're not the one cursed! We are!"
"Stephan, it happened because it happened. You'll see Chiron alive, just not yet."
"BUT HE'S DEAD!"
"STEPHAN!" His hand slapped my face and pushed me to the ground at the edge of the cliff.
I glared up at him through my tear blurred vision.
"I did what had to be done. Just like you must do what you have to do. Go to the temple. Ask how to kill Poseidon."
"I can't kill Poseidon. I can't kill you. I can't even kill myself!"
"There is a way, for we're damned and you're free." He pulled the strung bow from over his shoulder, and the open quiver from his back. "My gifts." A heavy gold cup appeared on the ground in front of me. "And this for Gaia."
A wall of heat roared over me and turning, I saw Apollo's chariot and its fiery horses. They both turned their heads and bowed to me, before leaping into the air pulling the chariot which Apollo had leapt onto, off into the distance.
Holding my head in my arms, I sobbed out my grief. I'd promised Philya. I'd promised I'd care for Chiron. I'd promised I'd raised him. And now Chiron was dead. Her son, my son. Dead and all because of me! Dead... dead... Philya, forgive me! Please forgive me!
I never even knew him...
I don't know how long I lay on top of the cliff sobbing and moaning. Certainly days. I know there was rain at one point. Still, even my grief couldn't last forever. It faded, though it never went away. I was thin, starving, thirsty, by the time the grief faded to something a mortal could bear.
Chiron was dead. It was done. Nothing could change that.
All that was left was vengeance.
Poseidon. Because of him Chiron had been born in forbidden love, in hate, and in desperate anger and fear. He'd been born because Philya needed me. There had been no love, just a desperate passion.
I didn't hate Apollo, just like I didn't hate Pegasus. They were messengers, nothing more. Neither had wanted to do what they'd done.
It was Poseidon who'd twisted it.
Staggering to my feet and hooves I leaned down and picked up and unstrung Apollo's bow. The rain hadn't done any it harm. The bow was made of what looked like smooth black ivory, it felt warm and alive. Placing it in the quiver with its arrows, I tied the flap shut. The quiver itself was plain worked leather and had a bronze decorated leather strap that felt snugly over my shoulder. I picked up the cup Apollo had left me and gulped down the rain water left in it. The cup looked like a single piece of gold. At one point was a handle, and from that handle centaurs with four hoofed legs faced in each direction. They were intent, quiet. Each looking for wisdom. I followed one line around the cup and saw that opposite the handle was a centaur like me.
Dropping the cup, I closed my eyes and fought to hold back tears. All the centaurs on the cup were looking up to Chiron. The cup clattered on the rocky ground and rolled almost to the edge of the cliff before stopping.
I wanted to leave it. I really wanted to. But, Delphi needed an offering and I needed answers.
And there was a kind of symmetry of offering an image of wisdom in order to attain wisdom.
Still weak with hunger, I carefully leaned down and picked it up again. The fall hadn't damaged it. At least--
A hare burst out of the underbrush and stopped, staring at me.
I was so hungry.
Slowly, making no sudden moves, I untied the flap of the quiver and pulled out Apollo's gift. The hare just stood and watched. Carefully I strung the bow. Chiron's cup I shoved in where the bow had been so it wouldn't drop. Pulling out one arrow, I slowly aimed and drew. The rabbit watched. The bow had a strong, a very strong, pull. Strong as though made for my divine strength. With a snap I let go and the arrow sped into the rabbit.
My mouth was salivating as I walked over to pick it up. Removing the arrowhead, I discovered that it was completely undamaged. I wanted to eat the hare, I didn't care that it was still quivering as it died. It smelled warm, rich with blood and fat...
By god I was a thinking being! A may have been an animal in my madness, but I refused to be any longer!
It took me most of the rest of the day, but I finally got a fire going by rubbing two sticks together. The rabbit I skinned using one of the razor sharp arrowheads and by sunset I was wolfing down the succulent roasted meat.
For almost two weeks I hunted and gathered, regaining my strength. Delphi was a center of power, and I would go to it in glory and might. Not as a dirty barbarian. As for the cup, I discovered that the quiver had a puch that just held the cup and I dutifully stored the cup there.
During that time I picked my way down Mt Parnassus and into the valley on its slope that contained the temple. It wasn't large. Just a small circular outbuilding, a ceremonial stone pool, and a rough cave entrance and nearby were a number of rough huts and other structures. It would be centuries yet before it attained its classical glory. Had Apollo even taken it over yet? I wasn't even sure. And hadn't he said something... He'd called the cup a gift for Gaea which meant that the temple was still dedicated to her.
It was shortly after dawn when I arrived.
I'd washed in a small creek as best I could, but I could smell the beast on me. My hair was rough and tangled, but I hadn't anything to comb it with. I couldn't help but smile - I probably looked like one of the Gallatian gaisatai which were due to sack Delphi in 279BC.
As prepared as I could be, I entered the valley and stopped before the pool and waited. It wasn't long. A woman, dressed in clean linen dyed an earthy brown-yellow, left the small temple and walked towards me. Her feet were bare, and her red-brown hair was long and flowed down her back.
I waited as she walked up, my arms hanging loose at my side, and as she came closer I realized that she was nervous. I just hoped she would accept me as a pilgrim. She stopped and I waited for her to speak.
Her nervous voice squeaked on the first word, but then calmed into the ritual cadence. "Do you seek the wisdom of the Pythia?"
"Do you bring an offering?"
"I do." Untying the flap I pulled out the golden cup and handed it to her.
She looked into it, her face reflected in the polished gold. "The offering is accepted."
As I watched she turned and walked towards the pool and I followed. Two acolytes, they must have been in the shadows, walked out pulling a leashed goat between them. Both were naked, but clean and washed. The priestess stopped in front of a large flat rock beside the pool that was stained with dried blood and kneeled. The acolytes let go of the goat and it walked over to the altar and lay down upon it.
I could feel the earth and the heavens watching. Was it always like this? Or was it that I was different?
The priestess withdrew an ancient flint knife from inside her robes. The blade was highly polished, and a deep green-black. It was old. Very very old. As I watched, with long practiced moves, the priestess slit the goat's throat, and then cut open its chest releasing a bitter smell. The goat's blood poured out onto the stone and into the pool as the beast's entrails burst out.
For a moment the only sound was the dripping of blood as the priestess examined the entrails. Then she spoke: "Gaia will speak through the Pythia this day."
With that I heard the sound of bare feet on rock, and turning I saw the Pythia leave the cave. At first she was in shadow, but as she passed the tall cone shaped stone that marked the entrance the early morning sunlight touched her.
She was young, almost a child and her skin was dark, but with an odd reddish tinge. Her hair was drenched in reddish mud and hung down her back in thick strands, and I could see that each strand was tied at the end with strips of leather. Still, it was her face that drew me. Not because I could see it, but because of the mask she wore.
I stared at it. At the fragments of bone that made the horrific expression.
At the exact same mask that Medusa had wore.
My body quivered in fear and my tail swung back and fourth.
Oblivious to me the Pythia slowly walked into the pool below the altar until the bloody water was up to her waist. She ducked under and then burst upwards through the densest cloud of blood and gore. Bloody water streamed off her, streamed along the cracks between the bone fragments that made up the mask that hid her face, streamed down the thick strands of hair that clung to her back. Stains of reddish mud mixed in with the blood as the priestess poured more blood from a clay vessel over the Pythia's head.
She must have scooped it from the altar stone.
The Pythia turned to face me.
Something touched me and I jerked. I spun my head -- the acolytes were on either side of me, and each had brushed against my horse half. One was holding a scrap of parchment, and the other another clay bowl of blood. In the bowl was a copper stylus. I looked at them only for a second, and then I turned back to face the Pythia, my eyes drawn by the mask.
"Write your question," the priestess intoned.
I had to close my eyes to free them and didn't open them until I was looking down at the bowl. My left hand fumbled for the parchment which was thrust into it, and my right hand, shaking, drew out the copper stylus.
Blood dripped from its tip.
There was power here. Ancient power. It knew who I was and what I'd done. I could feel the pressure of its gaze.
With my hand shaking I dredged ancient written Greek out of my scholarly memories.
I found that the blood dried fast. It was thick and sticky, almost a tar. Had they added something? My letters were crude, ill formed, barely legible. I had to write large and had room for only a single short phrase: HOW DO I KILL POSEIDON?
The acolyte with the blood gently removed the stylus from my hand and handed both it and the bowl to the priestess who then poured the remainder of the blood over the head of the Pythia. The other acolyte gently pulled the parchment out of my grasp.
The Pythia hadn't moved. She stared at me. The mask hid her emotions, but not the power hidden within. Its scales glistened in the blood and water, and seemed to slide one around the other.
She turned and walked the rest of the way out of the pool, blood and water slithering down her back, dripping from between her crotch and backside, coiling down her legs and gathering in pools after each footstep.
By then the sun was higher, and saw a faint wisp of mist rising from the entrance of the cavern as the Pythia walked in and vanished in the darkness, followed by the priestess.
I just stared, unable to look away from the hole into the stygian depths of the earth.
Another touch and again I jumped, my hooves clattering on the rocks as I landed. This time it was only one of the acolytes. "Come," she said. "You should rest. I have wine and meat."
Unable to say a word, I just let her lead me off.
From the cave burst an inhuman ululation that rose and fell, echoing off the sides of the valley.
Chapter 27: Prophecy
All day the weird inhuman cries came from the cave and bounced from cliff to cliff before fading into inaudibility. Sometimes they seemed to be words, but words that could never quite be made out. Other times it was more the growling of an animal, or the grinding of one rock on another.
The priestess had followed the Pythia into the cave for she was the one who would interpret the insane cries. I was led by an acolyte, not into the small temple, but instead into an open area nearby. There a fire had been lit and the goat had been skinned and its meat was roasting over the flame. Gaia had the blood, the flesh she left to her worshippers. First the heart was put over the fire and cooked. As the honoured guest it was offered to me.
It was so hot it burned my tongue, but I ate it all for to fail would cast a shadow on the entire prophecy. The heart was gamy, tough, and greasy.
By the time I finished the beast had been skinned and the rest of the edible meat was being cooked by the other acolytes. We were silent until it was ready for consumption and then it was shared amongst all of us. We ate it slowly and respectfully. Upon finishing the meal the others left so that the first acolyte and I were left alone. She'd been left only water fresh from the earth, I'd been left wine.
I nervously tried a sip as I'd never had any before when I was sane. My memories of the myth and my insanity made me nervous. Opening it carefully, I held myself ready in case the scent overwhelmed me. It didn't. Certainly it smelled like wine, but there seemed nothing special about it. I took a sip. It was cold, salty, almost bitter. A warmth came from it, a gift, a promise... Fortunately the promise was weak. I let myself take two swallows, ended up taking three, and then managed to let the cup slip from my hands and shatter on the stony ground.
"Is the wine all right?"
"Don't worry, it's fine. It's, I don't... ah trust it."
She nodded. "Let me share my water then."
We sat there in silence, she on a chair, myself on the ground, alternately sipping from the same cup. Both waiting. Time passed. The sun rose to the top of its arc and then started sinking lower and lower.
"Does it usually take this long?"
She jerked. "What?! Sorry... It takes as long as Gaia needs."
"Well, does she usually need this long?"
I couldn't say much to that so I just lay there. Most of the time I thought of Chiron. The momentary vision I had of him just before the arrow was clearest. He'd looked healthy, happy. And he'd looked old. "What year is it?" burst out of me.
"It is the 312th year of the Oracle."
Then I remembered that the Greeks did not have a common calender. One of the big problems of bronze age archeology was dating -- each state tended to say 'in the year of King X'. "Who is the King in Mycenae?"
Agamemnon. Madman, general, murderer. A dark figure. Chiron was dead. Time had passed. According to the myths Chiron had taught Achilles, amongst others. If Agamemnon was king..."
"Has Agamemnon gone to fair Ilium?"
"Two years gone." She looked directly at me. "Our kings did not leave us defenseless."
"You have no need to fear. I've been wandering the wilderness for a very long time."
Suddenly there was only silence from the cave.
"Gaia has finished. Let us go and meet the priestess and hear your answer."
Nodding, I clambered to my feet and hooves and followed the acolyte back to the altar. The sun had almost set and torches had been placed at the entrance to the cave. Slowly, moving in a trance, the Pythia walked, no glided, out of the darkness and into the flickering orange light. The acolytes didn't know what to do, the priestess at the entrance tried to grab her, but the Pythia's body twisted out of the way as she paced towards me. I stood in place, watching the Pythia approach with the priestess helplessly fluttering after.
They both stopped in front of me. The Pythia was drenched in blood and clay, but her mask glistened cleanly. Scars oozing blood streaked her chest and arms. She looked at me. Cold. Distant. Then she said two words. "I remember." Turning, she pushed her way past the priestess, and vanished into the darkness of the cave mouth.
For a long time there was silence, except for the crackling of the torches. In my mind I watched again and again as I pulled the mask away from Medusa with my teeth.
The priestess broke my reverie. "Listen to the words of Gaia."
Blinking my eyes I forced my attention onto her. I watched as the pupils of her eyes expanded until all I could see was two black pools in her face. Her gaze passed me and focused on something in the infinite distance and with a loud low voice, a voice that sounded like rock dragging along rock, a voice utterly devoid of emotion, she spoke:
Around the sea, but not across
The coin you must, twice it toss
The second time your first will be
The first one second time will flee
When in war you first will fail
There your gift will turn you pale
If you'd learn to do the deed
In death the answers will be freed
It is in peace that you will take
It's with the sea that you will make
And only then shall all partake
Then she blinked, her eyes returning to normal. The acolyte that had been with me appeared beside her and offered her a drink from a polished granite bowl.
I started chanting the verse to myself, I didn't want to forget it.
The first line was easy. I had to go around a sea, but not travel across it by boat. Given the relationship Poseidon and I had that was simple prudence. But what was all this first and second and twice? And the 'in death'? Did I have to die? I couldn't die, I'd become a god. But then, Poseidon couldn't die either. But death would have to give me the answers--
The priestess' voice was harsh. "You must go. You have what you asked for."
Her voice became a screech: "Never return to this place!"
Medusa suddenly appeared in my mind. Turning, I fled, galloping into the darkness.
Sometime in the night I stopped and, by the light of the moon, made my own fire. I couldn't sleep, I had too much to think about. Some parts of the prophecy made sense, some only hinted. In a war I would fail to kill Poseidon. Kill Poseidon... my hatred for him burned cold in me. Was that what it meant? It said that I 'first will fail'. Obviously I had to try twice. What war was going on?
The War. The Trojan War. The war that anybody who was anybody went to.
I had to get there, and by land, not by sea.
Could I go alone? Better not. Poseidon would be there -- he was on the side of the Greeks because he and Apollo had not been paid for their building of Troy's walls. And there were certainly instances of truce within the war. Was that what was meant by 'in peace'? But the prophecy had been specific about 'in death'.
There were a number of myths where heroes had gone to Hades. Orpheus had visited Hades, but he knew where the entrance was. Odysseus had been told to talk to the blind prophet Teiresias in Hades and had been given clear directions by Circe, but I had no idea where her island was. Aeneas had been led into Hades by a Sibyl after he'd arrived in Italy. Was it possible the entrance was there somewhere?
There was an alternate possibility for death. In the Trojan War there was lots of death. Could death be another clue that I had to go to Illium? It was possible, and it was supported by the War reference. I also remembered that there were fragments of other myths about Troy lost to history. One of them hinted that centaurs had fought on the side of the Trojans. In other words they fought against Poseidon.
That decided it. I would gather the centaurs I'd fought beside in Thessaly and together we'd enter the Trojan War. If some of them died, well they were partially responsible for the death of my son with their wine and drunkenness. I wouldn't miss them. To get to the war I'd travel north around the Black Sea.
I would not cross the wine-dark sea, but I would seek my vengeance beneath the walls of fair Illium! And beneath those walls I would kill Poseidon.
Chapter 28: Forgotten Betrayals
The next morning I was up with the dawn and on my way. Originally the centaurs had lived in Thessaly, but after the war with the Lapiths, they were 'driven off'. Given the medieval references to centaurs at Troy, this suggested that they'd been driven eastward. And since I had to go that way anyway...
Each day I arose with the dawn and traveled until late afternoon, gathering olives and grains as I passed. Then, using the miraculous bow I'd been given by Apollo, I would hunt small game. When I had some I would light a small fire, skin it, roast it, and eat it. Each time I would save the furs.
At first I used one of the arrowheads to skin and cut the meat. But, as I passed through small villages, I would trade for small things. The first being a knife. Later flint and tinder, packs, and supplies so that I could travel faster. Often I was greeted with suspicion and ended up shouting over wooden or earthen walls and taking only what they offered. I would ask about the centaurs and I'd always be told they had gone westward a generation ago.
At least I was on the right track.
Traveling on, I passed north from Greece into Macedon, Macedon into Thrace, and from Thrace into the endless grass sea. But that time I was supplied and provisioned, and well dressed against the coming coolness of winter. Game and food grew scarce but by skirting the Black Sea I was able to bring down seabirds and old bones and driftwood along the coast served for fuel for my. I missed the company I'd once had from the mares and often I wondered what had happened to them. Throughout my first months in the grass sea, I never saw any horses. But then I never saw any tribesmen either.
I was alone with my memories, my dreams of what could have been, and with my hate.
One day I came upon a winter camp of proto-Scythians and they hid before I could coax them out. After all, I was a stranger. However the horses recognized me, and their comfort finally brought the humans out to talk, or one of them might have recognized that tattoos that still covered my body. The language had changed, but I could understand them and they could understand me. I ended up trading the few furs I'd saved while I crossed the grasslands for a pair of mares. They'd allow me to travel faster, and they'd provide some company. The first mares the tribe tried to show me bucked and held back. I didn't understand it, nor did they. One after another they tried, but always the mares would back away and have to be caught, and when caught they struggled. Only two remained quiet. They were always in front. They always pushed themselves towards me but the humans held them back.
It took most of the day before the proto-Scythians finally gave in to the inevitable. With regret they sold me the two mares, telling me that their names were Raparthax and Philyanax.
Each time the horses that refused were led back and a new pair led forward, I talked with some of the other tribesmen about other things, keeping it general. I made sure not to tell them who I was, and I never used my proto-Scythian name. When I asked them about others like me, I was told they'd seen them traveling west a few days ago.
I was definitely on the right track.
When the two willing mares were finally led to me they nickered to me that they knew who I was. They said that traveling with me would be a great honour. But, they wouldn't say anything else and I didn't want to speak to them with the proto-Scythians around. It was only after I'd left and set camp the next day that I was ready to talk to them.
Before I could speak, Philyanax spoke: Great mother told us.
It took a second for that to sink in. "Who do you mean?" I could see that Raparthax had walked over and was looming over me.
Want know why. Philyanax snorted. She want know why. Her spirit wants know why.
All their spirits, Raparthax neighed.
Odd as it may seem, I started getting nervous. "I don't know who you're talking about." It wasn't denial, I really didn't know.
Raparthax's head nipped down and ripped a chunk of flesh off my human shoulder.
Shocked, I took a step backward. "What are you doing?"
You remember! Philyanax screamed.
"Remember what?! I don't know what you're talking about! Who was your great mother?!" I refused to let myself force my will on them. I could feel the power. In my madness I would have, but now... No! Not now.
Anarcharax! Philyanax screamed.
Sauliux! Raparthax screamed.
Oh dear god... It couldn't be... I looked up and right in front of me there were two forms, ghostly, transparent. Horse spirits. All that was left of Sauliux and Modyexa. I remembered what I'd done to them. I remembered snapping Sauliux's leg, and then cracking her skull. I remember snapping Modyexa's leg.
I started sobbing into my hands.
Chiron had paid the price of my madness. My promise to Philya had paid the price. And, the three mares who'd stood by me through so much had paid the price.
And I'd completely forgotten about them. God damn Poseidon!
I could feel the two living mares nipping at my horse flanks, and then the spirits, cold and warm, wet and dry, slipped past and through my hands and pressed into and through my eyes.
The ghosts were me, and I was the ghosts. They were all that was left of the mares I'd betrayed.
Why? They both wanted to know. Why? Anarcharax had stayed behind to nurse the child Chiron and they'd never seen her again. They wanted to know why. But, most of all they wanted to know why I'd betrayed them.
They didn't understand.
They'd trusted me and I'd let them down.
I could feel their souls in my head rooting around, searching for answers, and I let them. They deserved answers.
While they searched their memories flashed through me. Hot bursts of sudden pain. The shock of sudden betrayal. The moment of love and pride at the birth of their god's son. The soft velvety feel of the child's flesh as they licked it clean. The warmth and love and respect they had once had for me. Times of joy as they galloped with me, times of fear as they searched me out when I snuck away.
And long years of cold betrayal as they wandered alone together.
They'd been old, far older than horses usually were, when they finally let a group of proto-Scythians take them. They were tired of the cold and the loneliness and wanted some companionship before they died. The few children they bore in the tribe's herd had been wild, untamable, but stronger and bigger than any others. The humans had kept the children and bred them amongst themselves, and with others. All their children too were larger and more powerful. Most had been traded to other tribes, kept to improve the breed but never to be ridden. They were revered by the tribe, and only the age of Raparthax and Philyanax, and their sudden docility, had let them be sold to me. The horses had all backed away at their request because they had the clearest memories of who I was.
When they'd recognized me, that recognition had brought the remnants of the two mares back.
The two mares that had died, but could not rest. My betrayal was too deep, too sudden, too inexplicable.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. "So, so sorry..."
I don't know why, but their spirits forgave me. In my head they said that now they understood. They knew that I wasn't to blame.
But I was weak! I failed my son, I failed you!
How could you fight the power of a god? they asked in my mind.
And then their warmth flowed through me erasing all doubt.
In the morning I woke up and the two mares were on either side of me. One was gently nibbling at the spine of my horse half, and the other was rubbing her muzzle up and down along the front of my human half.
And, inside me still were the two ghosts. They were small, a fraction of what they'd been. But they were there, a source of toneless warmth and love that would never leave me.
They're still here...
It was then that Philyanax jumped to her hooves and screamed out loud: Centaurs!
Startled I turned to where she faced and spotted them in the distance galloping towards us.
Chapter 29: Dominance
I leapt to my feet and hooves. Raparthax and Philyanax clambered up and stood beside me. Then we waited.
The group of eight centaurs stopped about 50 metres away. They were all of the classical design, a human torso on the body of a horse. All but one had chestnut horse bodies with dark hair and mane, the other one was a light bay. In all cases their skin was dark and tanned. They were armed with bows, crude ox or horse skin shields, and carried short heavy spears.
The bay walked forward. All were panting for breath. He stopped in front of me and I waited for him to speak.
"It can't be..."
"What can't be?"
"We've tales of a great warrior like you, but he couldn't talk. And he left us when we needed him most!"
Did I want to admit to being the madman who'd fought beside them? There would be benefits, and problems. No, it was me, and I refused to hide it! "That was me. I've changed." Poseidon had changed me, had forged me.
He spit on the ground in front of me. "And why should I believe you? Why shouldn't I just kill you now? You've been following us!"
I looked at him calmly ignoring the mares as they bared their teeth. "I've been seeking you for a long time. And you haven't the skill to kill me."
"Then come with us, if you dare. The eldest was a colt when the great warrior was among us. He'll recognize you, or not." With that he turned, kicked a tuft of grass in my face, and trotted over to the others.
"No, not now," I whispered to the bristling mares. Stay with me, but don't attack until I tell you to." It was too late to keep them out of danger. I called to the centaurs: "Lead the way!" They were the first step to the fulfillment of my vengeance.
There was a whispered conference and then the whole group turned and leapt into a fast gallop. I struggled to follow but slowly fell behind. It was one of the curses of this variant form. Fortunately it wasn't far, but I was still almost half a kilometer behind them when I saw their camp.
The camp was small, with maybe a hundred centaurs in it. There were a few tents, and they seemed to be used only for storage. Scattered amongst them were a few dung fires, and I could smell roasting horse.
Raparthax snorted beside me.
All the centaurs that I could see in the camp bore weapons, and there were no colts.
The group we'd been following stopped and, as I galloped towards them, the bay shouted, "Hey 'warrior'! Had trouble keeping up?" The entire group burst into laughter.
I clenched my hands but forced myself not to react, though I was close to being pushed too far. I'd killed too many already. Stopping beside them I stated: "If you wish to announce me, my name is Stephan."
I think it was the coldness of my voice that made them pause in their laughter. But, after an awkward moment, the bay stated, "The madman has a name." A couple of the others snickered. "Follow us down if you can." Turning away, they all moved towards the camp at a fast trot. I almost had to canter to keep up.
As we closed the stench of the camp reached my nose. There was no cleanliness, no fixed area to eliminate waste. One had to watch where one stepped. As they saw us the others dropped what they were doing and cantered and galloped over to watch. Every one I saw was a male.
I knew that some females were mentioned in the myths, and on pottery. But, I was getting worried that I couldn't see any.
The crowd milled around mumbling, and then cleared a path. An old centaur, ancient, white as ivory, slowly walked towards me holding a staff he obviously needed for support. I waited patiently, putting each hand on one of the mare's heads to hold them back. The old one's hide was scarred, and there were patches of naked skin. His tail was short and ragged, and his mane was almost non-existent. I gave a small bow of respect as he stopped in front of me.
"I recognize the scent," he whispered. "If only I could see..."
He looked at me and I saw that his eyes were pale spheres.
Slowly, the one hand that was not clenched around the staff reached up and moved itself along my face. The fingers were rough, the skin cracked and scarred. I stood as still as I could as he read my face and then moved down along my chest. He traced some of my tattoos and some of my scars.
Suddenly he backed away, almost falling down but managing to hold himself upright with the staff. "It's the mad one returned!"
There was an ugly murmuring in the crowd. I backed away a little bit to allow the old centaur some room. One of the others, the youngest I'd seen, trotted forward and helped the old one away.
"Why'd you abandon us?"
"You let us die!"
"How dare you return!"
Another centaur, larger than the rest, walked out of the crowd towards me. The others bowed their head but I remained standing. The large centaur was a dark brown, almost black. White socks embraced all of his legs, and a massive scar ran along the left side of his horses body. It was not the only scar, just the biggest.
"So, the great warrior has returned."
The bay who'd met me spoke up: "He's the one who's been following us Gryneos. I led him here because I thought you'd want to see him."
"Doesn't look like much, does he?" Gryneos asked. "Deformed, can't gallop. Useless. He deserves death."
The muttering grew uglier.
It seemed that all they respected was strength and age. I didn't have visible age, so strength it would have to be. "Useless?! How many Lapiths did I kill while I was with you?"
"You left us you bastard! They lured us with a 'wedding' and then slaughtered us!"
"Where were you when we needed you?!"
Gryneos stopped right in front of me, his hot breath rustling the hair on the top of my head. He was nearly a foot taller than I was, and built like a draft horse. "He can't be the legend. Look at him! He's weak. Look at those horses with him!" He spit out the last.
Only the pressure of my physical touch kept Raparthax and Philyanax from leaping at him.
I tried to keep my voice calm. "If you think you're stronger, then take me." All around I heard knives snicking from scabbards. "Or do you need their help," I sneered
There was silence.
"You seem to need," his voiced turned disdainful, "horses to hold you up."
"Raparthax, Philyanax move away."
"This is between me and him. You can't interfere."
"Oh no! How noble! The big brave monster won't let his food interfere." The sarcasm and hatred rolled off each syllable.
Why was he forcing a confrontation? Still, if he wanted one, Ixion's blood in my veins would give him one. My hatred of Poseidon would fuel my strength. "Gryneos, you have this one time to apologize. Otherwise this will end in death."
"You're not worthy of an apology," he spit out. With that he screamed and reared, yanking a thick spear from his back. Around us the others were backing away to form a circle about 20 metres in diameter.
Think! part of my mind shouted, but I was beyond thought. I had only a hot rage. "Raparthax, Philyanax, stay back!" I roared. I didn't have a spear, and there wasn't room for Apollo's bow. And as I'd never had enough furs to trade for a sword, the only weapons I had were javelins and I had only three. With a long practiced motion I drew one from where it was slung over my back.
"Look at that baby little spear!"
With my blood pumping hot inside me I whipped my arm back and threw the first javelin forward with all my strength. It sped, its bronze head quivering in its hunger. Somehow, Gryneos spun in place and the javelin sped off and impaled one of the bystanders. He fell to the ground screaming. The others backed away and my two mares screamed in triumph. I reached behind for the second javelin.
Gryneos' spear was too heavy to throw, he'd have to attack me like a lone hoplite. It seemed that he knew that so he dropped the spear and drew his heavy bronze sword.
Shock poured through me. I recognized that blade. It was my father's sword, lost in the Black Sea so long ago. The sudden recognition didn't cool my rage, it made it hotter. Poseidon must have arranged this.
With sword in hand, Gryneos advanced. He was cautious, hesitant. I circled away from him. A javelin is an excellent throwing weapon, but, though it can be used in melee, it far less useful than a sword. Dimly I could hear the crowd jeering at me, but, though I was angry, I wasn't stupid. Gryneos had proven his speed. I had to wait.
His muscles tensed, and he leapt towards me. And, when I saw the tensing I let the second javelin fly. It flew true, hungry, but Gryneos saw it. His momentum kept him from spinning out of the way but somehow he managed to throw his arm in the javelin's path and partially deflect the hungering bronze. It opened a long wound along his off arm which began oozing blood, before wobbling off and thudding to the ground.
I had just enough time to duck underneath his swing and bound past him.
Both of us spun, I drawing the last javelin, he turning to face.
He had to force the combat before he weakened. And, this javelin I couldn't throw as it was the last I had. Shaking my head to get my sweat-damp hair clear of my eyes, I determined to end this. Now.
Gryneos was moving cautiously, not pushing the attack. That didn't make sense, he had to be weakening from moment to moment. The sane part of me said to wait, to circle and let him bleed. Ixion's blood made me refuse. I'd have one chance--
Without any warning he suddenly leapt into a gallop and shoved his body on top of mine. His sword hadn't moved, but his mass and his momentum bowled me over and I rolled onto the ground. As I fell I shoved my last javelin, its bronze head hungry to avenge the failure of its compatriots, into Gryneos' horse chest. He started swinging his sword around for a death blow even as it tumbled from his suddenly weak grip.
I held the javelin as his momentum carried him on top of me, the avenging bronze ripping his chest open and burying me in a pile of blood and guts.
He screamed, and I screamed as I staggered to my feet and threw his dying body away from me. Drenched in blood I reached down and wrenched my father's sword from where it quivered in the ground, point buried.
All around was silence.
"I CLAIM THE HERD!" I don't know where that came from, possibly the mares that shared my mind.
There was muttering, and then the bay who'd found me spit out, "Only a true blood can rule!"
"A true blood?!"
"Look at your legs!"
"My legs?!" My blood pumped hotter. I had won and they dared, DARED, refuse! I needed them for my vengeance and I'd have them, no matter the cost. "If my legs are the problem, then watch!"
With that I walked over to Gryneos' body. He wasn't dead yet. I pressed one foreleg onto his human chest and pressed it backwards until his spine snapped. And then I kept pressing to keep him from moving. Two quick snicker-snack strokes and I'd severed his two forelegs at the upper thigh.
"Watch! All of you watch! If you want a true blood, then you'll get a true blood!" I screamed out.
And with that I reared up, and holding my father's sword in my right arm, I chopped off my left foreleg. Blood sprayed out and red hot pain spread up and through me but I didn't care. Limping, leaving a trail of spurting blood, I took a step and leaned down and pulled Gryneos' severed left leg off the ground.
Rearing, and then staggering backwards to remain on my hind legs, I shoved the stump of the dying leg against my crimson stump and screamed from the pain. From deep within I summoned a healing warmth and forced it down and into my new limb. Cells that had once belonged to Gryneos fought me as they died, but I forced my will, my blood, my cells to replace them. Muscle swirled and grew, my new leg bound itself to my body.
I collapsed down onto my new leg. It was longer than my human leg, but it held my weight though the muscles and bone were still growing. All around there was silence as I staggered over to the other severed leg. Gryneos had fallen silent. Switching my father's sword into my other hand, I reared up and chopped off my other human leg. My vision started to blur. Again I leaned down and this time I grabbed the other leg. Again I reared and staggered backwards as I shoved it against my stump and willed the healing to make it mine!
And again the muscles, screaming in pain and hate, grew and twisted and joined with the foreign flesh, and then corrupted it into my own. With the muscles still growing, I let myself fall onto my two fore hooves. My new legs were longer, my human body was raised higher. The warmth swept through me and my hind legs thickened to bear the new weight distribution.
"I! CLAIM! THE! HERD!"
Through gritted teeth and force of will I remained conscious, slowly turning around as each centaur bowed.
Only when the last one acknowledged my dominance did I let myself collapse into unconsciousness.
Chapter 30: Sobering Up
I woke up late the next day. A roof had been erected over me, and Raparthax and Philyanax were standing guard. All around I could hear movement.
Had I actually done what I remembered doing?
A quick look down at my new forehooves confirmed that. They were dark, much darker than my rear hooves. The fur on my forelegs was still black, and there was a sudden transition to my normal ivory colour where my forelegs merged with the rest of my body. Looking over the rest of me, I could see that my body had thickened, not in the barrel, but in the legs and both hips. I wasn't as bulked up as Gryneos had been, but significantly more than I had been.
With a groan I heaved myself up onto my forehooves, and almost fell again. How had I walked yesterday?
Like this, a voice in my head said. A voice that I recognized as Sauliux. Let me share the memories with you, she continued. With that thoughts poured into me, memories, the sensation of muscles moving, of hooves pounding on the earth, of walking and trotting and cantering and galloping. Though it seemed much longer it took only an instant add immediately my body felt more right.
Still being careful, I made my way slowly out of my tent as my new body was different from my old, and from the bodies the mares had had. The main difference was that my forelegs were longer than my hindlegs and thus the gaits were different. At least I didn't keep trying to put my ankles down on the ground. Raparthax and Philyanax followed behind me, staying close.
The bay who had found me was waiting. "So, the no longer mad one has indeed returned."
I looked at him and he almost immediately backed down. "My name is Stephan," my voice came out as a raspy croak and I tried clearing my throat. It didn't help much. "Water. Now."
He bowed and turned and galloped off. I stood and waited.
All around me the camp was quiet. Most of the centaurs lay on the ground and I could smell wine in the air. Everybody that I could see was adult, and scarred. And most were past middle age. Nowhere was there any sign of females.
The bay clattered to a stop in front of me with a huge skin tied shut. I took it from him and opened it and--
A wonderful scent swirled up, calling me--
Before it possessed me I threw the entire skin to the ground. The bay tried grabbing it but I shoved him aside, and then crushed the skin with my left forehoof until it burst, spraying red all over the grass. I could scent it calling, but I refused to let it claim me. A silence swept through the few who were conscious and they started to move towards me.
"I said water, I meant water." It probably would have worked better if my voice was something more than a croak.
"Stephan," the bay kicked the ground with his forehoof. "We don't have water."
I closed my eyes. They didn't have any water. None. Well, it was time for a change.
I turned and looked at Philyanax as I drew my knife. The knife I'd completely forgotten about in my rage when I fought Gryneos. "Philyanax, may I drink of your blood?" Lowering her neck she agreed. I accepted the gift and cut into the flesh and took what I needed. When I was done I cleared my throat twice more until it felt almost normal. Licking the blood from my lips, I wiped the blade of the knife on my new left foreleg as there was nothing else handy. Then I scabbarded it.
I turned to the bay centaur. "What's your name?"
"Doryalos, where are the women and the children?"
"There are none."
Closing my eyes I lowered my head. I heard hooves shuffling on the ground all around me. I opened them and asked, "What happened?"
"The Lapiths killed them."
And so the centaurs disappeared from mythology. "And because of that you waste the rest of your lives leaving in drunken squalor?"
A few turned away from me shamefully, most didn't.
I could feel my anger rising. My anger at Poseidon, my anger at this tragedy, my anger at fate. "I want all the wine in the camp here. And I want it now." Some started moving off. "Wake up those still sleeping it off! And if anybody thinks to hide any, I'll kill them."
A single flinch went through those listening.
Turning, they fled. All except Doryalos.
I looked at him. "You don't have any?"
"I did," he swallowed, "until you..." He pointed downwards.
"Well then, you're the first to enter the new order."
"I'll tell everybody when they're back."
"Will you really kill--"
"Yes." Crossing my hands behind my human back, I waited for the others. "Doryalos, how many are left."
"One hundred and eighteen."
"How certain are you?"
"I was taught by Chiron."
Chiron... "He was my son."
"It's past now." Chiron's life, his death, his goodness. My love and happiness.
He nodded and waited with me for the others.
They came a couple at a time, each carrying one or more skins. One actually had ten. Their horse halves were mostly chestnut with a scattering of black, bay and one white. Every last one, even the old centaur who'd recognized me, had wine. They were all scarred, tired, dejected. Most had white in their mane and tail, but all except the one who'd recognized me were still fit.
There were almost 300 skins on the ground in a massive pile in front of me by the time they were all back. Then, with my hands still behind my back, I walked back and forth in front of the pile, pushing them away with the mass of my body. When they were 20 metres away I stopped. Going back, I pulled one skin from the pile, a big one, and then trotted out until was halfway between the pile and the herd.
I untied the wineskin.
Then, holding it in one hand, I held it upside down and let the wine start dribbling out. I could here it crying in my head, begging me not to destroy it. I refused to listen.
The herd pushed and muttered, some reached out hands, but I moved the stream of purple liquid out of their grasp.
"Listen! Listen all of you!"
I had to raise my voice to be heard over their muttering.
"LOOK AT YOU! Once you had promise, once you were noble. You fought and slowly lost, but you fought as Greeks! What have you become? You've become ruined shadows, creatures without hope. Barbarians! Do you know why? DO YOU KNOW WHY?!"
One, a young adult, crept out of the herd and started sneaking towards the pile behind me. I dropped the nearly empty skin I was holding and made sure to step on it as I headed him off.
"YOU IDIOTS! It's wine that's done this! It defeated you, not the Lapiths!"
The muttering was getting ugly. I didn't care. Maybe I'd read too much of the classics in school, but I refused to let the race I'd become die like this. I refused to let them die in ignominy, forgotten and sneaking off into the far corners of the world to pass away in a drunken stupor.
"IT STOPS NOW!"
The young centaur, a dark chestnut with brown mane and tail, made a run for the pile. I caught up to him, and grabbed him by his tail and ripped almost ripped it out as I skidded to a stop and yanked him to a stand still with me.
"YOU GOD DAMNED IDIOTS! DO YOU WANT TO DIE LIKE THIS? FORGOTTEN?"
He was just standing there, blood dripping from ripped flesh around his tail. A knife was thrown from one of the others and sunk into my hind quarters but I ignored it. Crouching down I got my hands under his horse belly and lifted, staggering forward back onto my hooves, and then lifting him over my head. I could feel him struggling to breathe, he kicked me in the head drawing blood so I squeezed my hands into his chest.
He screamed from the pain.
Holding him aloft, I slowly turned towards the rest, who had started backing away. "THERE WILL BE NO MORE WINE!" And then, I threw the centaur into the crowd. He screamed, and the others tried fleeing but were thrown to the ground when the body landed on top. I heard at least one bone break.
"DORYALOS!" I roared. "I WANT TORCHES, WOOD! I WANT THEM NOW!" I drew out Apollo's bow which was still in its quiver over my shoulder and strung it. A pair of blacks made a run for the pile of skins.
I shot them both in their rear hips and they fell stumbling to the ground, screaming.
"WHERE ARE THOSE TORCHES?!"
Doryalos galloped through the mob and handed me a pair of torches, unlit. "I WANT WOOD, ALL THE WOOD IN THE CAMP BROUGHT HERE! NOW!" Another centaur, this one a light chestnut with four white stockings, made a gallop for the pile of wine and another arrow sent him screaming to the ground.
That broke the mob and they fled off in all directions. I could see a few, Doryalos amongst them, grabbing coals from the few fires, wrapping them in damp furs, and bringing them towards me.
The torches had their ends wrapped in cloth and they lit fairly easily. I recognized them as proto-Scythian make. When they were lit I stuck each in the ground. I grabbed one skin and sprayed its contents over the others, and did the same with another, and then another. I went through ten in all. A few centaurs had returned, and I had to shoot one more in his human half when he tried to grab a skin.
The wine didn't burn well, but there was enough alcohol to at least get it started, and as the coals and dried dung and later bones were piled on, it all went up in smoke.
Chapter 31: Gifts
After my demonstration it seemed that all of the fight had gone out of the surviving centaurs. The ones that had been wounded had been left to lie. I'd walked over and, one at a time, pulled out the arrows and successfully healed most of them. It seems that they were horse enough for my powers to work. Or at least their horse body was horse enough. The one I'd shot in his human half I couldn't do anything for.
I'd turned back to watch the dying fire, when a flame slowly fell from the heavens and landed. It was the two flaming horses pulling Apollo's chariot, and Apollo. Appearing beside me, Raparthax and Philyanax snorted at the two flaming horses who didn't react.
"I see you've been busy," Apollo stated, motioning to the fire. The light from his eyes outshone the flame.
Doubt swept through me, momentarily overpowering the hatred. All the pain I'd caused... The centaur I'd thrown had died before I could get to him. I'd pushed the pain back because I was afraid to show any weakness before the herd. "Did I do the right thing?"
Apollo turned and looked at the fire. "Did you? I don't know."
"And you call yourself the god of prophecy!"
He spun around. "You may be divine, but that does NOT give you the right to insult me. I'll forgive it, once."
I glared at him. The mares glared at him.
Suddenly, he laughed. "There is far too much hate in you Stephan."
I put my hands against my sides. "Why are you here?"
"I have a gift. I'd have preferred to deliver it in a flash and a celebration, but that isn't going to happen tonight."
He turned, and walked over to his chariot and pulled out a heavy wrapped bundle of bronze. It was almost as big as he was, yet he carried it ease. Precariously maintaining his balance, he lugged it over and let it fall to the grass in front of me.
I looked down and realized it was armour.
"From the forges of Hephaestus?" I asked in an awed voice.
Quotations from the Illiad starting flowing through my mind:
He left her thus, and to his forge return'd;
The bellows then directing to the fire,
He bade them work; through twenty pipes at once
Forthwith they pour'd their diverse-temper'd blasts;
Now briskly seconding his eager haste,
Now at his will, and as the work requir'd.
The stubborn brass, and tin, and precious gold,
And silver, first he melted in the fire,
Then on its stand his weighty anvil plac'd;
And with one hand the hammer's pond'rous weight
He wielded, while the other grasp'd the tongs*
The first thing I picked up was the shield. It was not quite as complex as the one described in the Illiad. Okay, not even close. My shield was not made of bronze and it did not show two cities down to the level of every individual citizen and at first I thought it was identical to those in common use by Mycenean warriors, leather stretched on a light frame, but it wasn't. Although it was a massive figure eight shield covered in ox hide, the back was not just a wooden frame, but entirely constructed of close-fitting oak. A human could have lifted it, but they could never have used it. With my strength it was perfect. Also, unlike Mycenean shields, the entire rim was polished bronze.
After the shield came the armour.
The shield completed, vast and strong, he forg'd
A breastplate, dazzling bright as flame of fire;
And next, a weighty helmet for his head,
Fair, richly wrought, with crest of gold above;
Then last, well-fitting greaves of pliant tin.*
Unlike Homer's description, my armour was massive plates of Dendrite panoply. Dendrite panoply essentially consists of curved plates of bronze held together by leather thongs. In my case there were two sets of armour. The first was similar to what a human would have worn, and covered my human body. In historical Dendrite armour, there were curved plates for the front, and for the rear, but for my armour the front plates were almost the same, going down just past my waist, but each of the rear plates were actually two smaller plates, one for either side. Not only was there a small gap in between them for my mane, there was only one piece below the shoulder which made sense given that I had a horse's body sticking out of me. There was also Dendrite style armour for my horse's body. This consisted of a series of roughly half-circle plates that ran along my horse's spine to the midpoint of the hips of my rear legs. Historically, Dendrite armour was worn over a thick linen shirt. However, my armour had leather padding of some sort sewn on the inside. I don't know what the padding was made of, but it was amazingly tough and amazingly soft.
For my head, there was a massive bronze plumed helmet. It was typical noble Mycenean, consisting of a bronze cap, two hinged bronze cheek pieces, and a bronze fin along the top to support the plume which was of horsehair died a solid blood red. There were also four greaves, two for upper portion of my forelegs, and two for the lower portion. As was typical for the Mycenean period they tied to the leg by leather straps wrapped around their outside and they were also padded like my armour. They would not cover my entire leg, but left room for my knee and hip to move freely.
The final items were the weapons. There were six heavy javelins, each with an ornate bronze head. To hold them there were two sets of three slots. The entire assemblage sat overtop of my horse back but under the armour, and could be secured by ties. A javelin went into each slot. There was also an ornate bronze scabbard that attached via brackets to my left waist. The scabbard was unadorned, although a red ceramic was somehow bonded to the wide flat edges. There was no sword.
All over the armour were fine silver images of centaurs in battle. All were unarmoured, and all were anatomically perfect and exquisitely fine. The centaurs were large, and most pieces had two rearing centaur stallions facing the center of the armour plate. The helmet was the exception, it had one horse mare on either side of the cap, again rearing, and with each facing towards my face.
I put the last piece down. "I don't know what to say."
"It's a gift from myself and Athena."
"Isn't Athena on the side of the Greeks?" I knew that Apollo was on the side of the Trojans.
"She wanted this for you. If you're so insistent on dying gloriously, then you should at least look the part."
"I thank you both, and I thank Hephaestus. But I do have one question."
"Why is there no sword?"
"You have your father's sword."
I shook my head. Of course the gods would have known of my preference, my obligation, to use my father's sword. "Thank you."
Chapter 32: Barbarians
The day was sullen and overcast, which matched my mood. The armour still glowed though, which said much of its constructions. The centaurs were still there, hating me, resting me. Well, FINE! I grabbed one of the javelins that had come from Hephaestus and turned to look at them.
"Look at you! Look at ALL of you!"
They flinched at my voice.
"You had the glory of the divine in your veins. And you GAVE IT UP! And, for what? WHAT? A liquid, a MORTAL creation!"
My mind was working ahead. I would not end things like this. I WOULD NOT. And, I would NOT let my race DIE this way!
"You, WE, are all that's left." I trotted towards them, around them, circling and circling, herding them together as I beat it into them. "By the rites of combat, I am your leader. And yes, we are dead. Our RACE is dead. Nothing can change that.
"Look at me, damn you all! You are going to listen to me, and you are going to learn! We are not animals! NONE OF US ARE! Yes, we are dead, but, we will die with HONOUR! Because we are CENTAURS!"
A few of them looked at me, the fire growing in their souls. The fire that burned hotter and hotter in mine. The blood of Ixion.
"What we are going to do, what ALL of us are going to do, is to go. Go to fair Illium. Not across the wine dark sea, but around it. It will give us time. Time to prepare. Time to learn, to grow. We will go, and we ill fight, and we will be remembered.
"Though our race will die, our name will not through all time!"
I stopped sides heaving. My blood was hot, my soul heavy with hatred and anger. Anger at Poseidon. Anger at the world.
The centaurs did not share it. A few did, the youngest. But, even in them if flickered, an ember of what it should be.
I could smell the wine still on their breaths, the desire in their souls, even as Raparthax and Philyanax trotted beside me.
The herd, MY herd, glared at me with hate. With need. Well, that was good enough for now. It seemed there was only one thing they would understand.
What could have been…
"What WE are going to do, is to go to Troy. We will WALK to Troy. All of us. I will teach, you will listen. You think you know pain now?" I pointed to one of the ones I'd healed. "I can break your legs, hunt you down, shove a javelin through your heart. And, you know what? You won't die. You'll feel pain. By the Gods you'll feel pain! And when I think you've learned, then, and ONLY then will I yanked out the shaft of piercing wood, and then and ONLY then will I heal you. You KNOW I can."
If they were Barbarians, then I would go to them, and then drag them all kicking and screaming back to sanity!
One of the older ones, who'd been quiet, who hadn't said a word or fought or even surrendered wine looked at me. I stared at him, forced my eyes into him. He flinched, turned. Others shied away, instincts warring with their minds. Then he fled, galloping for all he was worth. For a moment I watched, the herd, MY herd, flicking their tails, pressing against each other. Their instincts wanted them to follow, to panic and flee; their instincts wanted them to stay with me, their leader. I could smell the fear.
Without moving more than I had too, I spun at my waist, and then spun back, the javelin leaving my hand. It hummed through the air, its glittering bronze hungering as it sped towards my victim. Its sharpened blade pierced the soft flank, tore its way through skin and sinew.
The centaur screamed his pain, slammed onto the ground from the force of the blow. Thudding to the ground, he lay there, screaming, shouting.
I ignored him and turned to the others.
"You are mine. ALL of you are mine. You will follow me, do what I do, do what I say. You will learn from me, and I will rebuild your souls. You'll hate me, by GOD you'll hate me. But--" I stepped forward, ignoring the screaming in the distance and they all stepped back. "--in the end you will live FOREVER!"
Doryalos looked at me. Glared with hatred as the screaming faded in the background to a dull whimpering. The others looked away.
I shoved my way through them and went to heal the one who'd fled.
I would save them, whatever it took. I would save ALL of them.
Chapter 33: Preparations
It took us six months to make our way around the far end of the Black Sea. They would only listen to force, so that was how I lead them. I don't think I was completely sane after all I'd done to win them. I don't think I was completely sane until after I died.
We traveled slowly, scouts hunting along the way. There were a lot more mouths to feed than just mine. Based on my experiences we kept the furs and traded them for bows and equipment from Scythians we ran into. The centaurs wanted to kill the first group we encountered as there were only 50 or so, but I refused. I had to shoot down two to stop them.
That was the last time they ever refused to listen to me.
I'd discovered that the centaurs carried heavy thrusting spears, and a few had daggers or knives in addition. As soon as we'd traded for some bows, I started training the herd in their use. When we encountered a stand of trees where a river emptied into the sea we stopped for almost a month constructing javelins, arrows, and shields. Fortunately, for mass combat extreme accuracy wasn't needed. By the time we rounded the eastern end of the sea and were heading west through the Hittite Empire, they could all at least shoot and throw straight. Those that showed promise I drilled endlessly into small skirmisher groups of six to ten centaurs.
Only after everybody was armed with bow and javelin did I start trading for swords. Sword fighting is not an easy skill to learn. There is no time to think, one just has to do as an individual. The first swords I got were passed around, and those few who showed a natural skill I letkeep the blades and made them part of my unit. They couldn't hope to stop any of the Greek heroes, but at least they wouldn't just be killed.
There was another reason I left the sword to last. Tactics. The Scythians were almost entirely horse archers. In combat they would break into small units of ten to twenty individuals that would circle the enemy. If the enemy was mounted and tried to charge one of the skirmishing units, that unit would evade away, whilst the others would continue the missile barrage. In addition, a few small units existed equipped for close combat that would charge and break enemy units once they were pinned or disordered by missile fire. My plan was to have the rest of the centaurs be the missile skirmishes, whilst I would lead the single close combat unit.
No, I'm not a tactical genius or anything. Yes, I picked up some from the Scythians. Most if it comes from my youth though. I'd always been interested in Greek history and even while my education was specializing towards Mycenean archeology, I was participating in both historical miniatures games, and various hoplite re-enactment groups to get a hands on feel for how it might have been. Sure, it was all fake, but we tried to be as realistic as possible. I never did find a Mycenean era reenactment group.
I also tried to instill in them some idea of what it all meant. Of the difference between civilized and barbarian. I told them the myths I had studied so often, except for those involving the Illiad and the Odyssey. In this place those hadn't happened yet. I told them of why Achilles choose to go to Illium, of his choice of eternal glory over a long and happy life. I told them of Hercules, Theseus, Perseus. I told them the legends of Pegasus and Bellerophon. I tried to make them understand why and how they should fight at Illium in the Trojan War.
Most of my knowledge of the Trojan War I had from my studies. Some knowledge was mythological, some was historical. Troy had either been a Greek city allied with the Hittite Empire, or an outpost of the Hittite Empire. If there was a Helen, she was probably just an excuse for the Achean Greeks to invade, likely for control of access to the Black Sea. As a ten year long siege was patently impossible, it had been believed that the Greeks roamed through the near east burning and pillaging. I expected to encounter the raiding parties long before reaching Illium.
Travelling to Illium, I made sure we stayed along the southern coast of the Black Sea. This avoided the mountains and, though nominally a part of the Hittite Empire, was actually unclaimed.
The last thing I wanted was to run into the Hittite Army.
After almost a year of travel we reached the Bosporus without incident. At that point we were getting close to Illium and I broke our march down into the units that would be used in combat. I'd already made the old centaur who'd recognized me, Thaumos, the herd's 'supply clerk' and Doryalos was my second in command. Thaumos kept track of how many arrows were present, how many each unit had, how many were lost during practice and hunting, and that kind of thing. Doryalos I kept as my second in command. The youngest and fastest centaurs were messengers to carry my orders to the various units.
In the Bosporus, I wore my gleaming bronze armour each day. Up until that point I'd only worn it for combat practice, otherwise keeping it bundled in bags over the back of either Raparthax or Philyanax. The armour made by Haephaestus was wonderfully comfortable, but it was still heavy sheets of bronze. On the nights we camped by a stream, I washed and polished it, and washed what sweat I could out of the padding. The armour was heavy, and I doubt a mortal centaur could have managed it. By the end of a day I was exhausted. The weakest part of the whole panoply were the greaves. They worked, about as best as one could hope, but they were painful to wear for hours of walking. Eventually I left them off.
On our third day of travel into the Bosporus, Amycos, one of the younger centaurs who traveled with the scouts as a messenger, galloped up to me.
"Stephan... Ularius sighted... smoke. To the... south east."
"What did he think it was?"
"No campfire... something bigger..."
Raparthax had moved adjacent to me and I pulled a waterskin from her back and offered it to Amycos. When he'd finished I told him, "Tell Ularius to approach the smoke cautiously. I'm bringing the rest of the herd up. Go!"
Amycos turned and galloped back the way he came.
"Acheans?" Doryalos asked. He still didn't like me, but his fear made him obey.
"Likely. Send... Bianar and Cyllaros out after the other two patrols. Tell them to hold their position but remain on watch. Tell Thaumos and the reserve to proceed after us. We'll use them for a fallback position. When that's done, form the rest up by unit. I want Orios and Hodites to advance in front."
"If there're too many of them?"
"We'll fall back. Ularius should give us enough warning. I doubt there will be though."
"As you wish." I watched him instruct and send messengers to transmit my orders.
The centaurs had, at first, resisted my imposed structure. But, when I'd taken the few who agreed with me and trounced all the rest of them in a mock combat, they at least agreed to listen.
It didn't take long for the final forming up to occur, with my assault unit around me and a cloud of bow armed messengers just behind. Then we moved off. I'd set the scouts about an hours walk in front of us, and we made that distance in about three quarters of an hour at a trot.
Amycos was waiting and galloped up when he saw us. "Ularius says it's a small raid on a settlement. The raiders were gone before he arrived, the cowards. He couldn't find any survivors."
"Does he have any idea of the composition of the raiding part, and how far ahead they are?"
"He did see chariot tracks, and evidence that they were laden with booty. We missed them by a couple of hours."
It was late afternoon. We should be able to catch them near dusk. Or we could attack at night, or the next morning. I chose dusk. They wouldn't be expecting trouble, and they'd already be exhausted from combat and from carrying their booty. "Amycos, tell Ularius to go after them, but to try and remain unnoticed. I'm going to try and take them tonight."
"Yes!" Amycos spun around and was off in a flurry of hooves.
"Stephan?" Doryalos asked. "How do you know they're Acheans? If we're going to help this Illium, we don't want to attack them--"
" Illium controls this part of the world. Why would they be burning their own settlement? Besides, I'll have a better idea when I see their armour."
Or at least I hoped I'd have a better idea. Some historical theories had the Trojans as just another Greek city state. If that was the case, then they'd be equipped the same. Regardless, it just didn't make sense for the Trojans to burn their own settlement!
We proceeded at a trot, no sense becoming exhausted before combat. The sun was settling on the horizon before us, making us shade our eyes, when I saw a silhouette approaching at a gallop. Sending messengers to the other units to tell them to prepare for combat, I advanced to meet the enemy. It turned out to be a centaur, and again it was Amycos.
He stopped in front of me, panting for breath. "Ularius was... seen, they... they sent... chariots... Ularius falling back..."
"Five. One six spoked."
Archeological evidence suggested that Achean Greek chariots had used four spoke wheels, except for the nobles which had used six spoked.
I should have given orders to Doryalos to pass on, but I was too eager. "Isoples! Go to Nedymnas and Rhoetus. Tell them to move off to the right. When they see the chariots they are ordered to attack them, bows only. Hodites! Go to Cyllaros and Peukadia and tell them to move off to the left, and do the same."
The two named messengers galloped off.
"And what about us?" Doryalos asked.
"We'll be the bait. As they approach we'll withdraw and remain out of range until the archers engage. Then we'll approach and charge, on my order."
Doryalos motioned around and lowered his voice. "They won't want to fall back."
I raised my voice. "They will. The first one who breaks ranks I'll kill!"
Turning away, I looked into the sunset and could barely make out a haze of dust rising in the distance.
Chapter 34: Acheans
I motioned my elites to a rest and shaded my eyes whilst the Acheans approached. The sun was on the horizon and, unfortunately, I couldn't think of a way to avoid it. Stupid!
If I circled around, they'd turn... But at least the sun wouldn't be in our faces.
Turning, I cantered off to the north and the rest of my unit followed me. I could see the chariots turning to intercept.
I turned from northward to north-eastward and my unit turned to follow. Thank god nobody turned off on their own. "Give it time! There'll be enough blood for everybody soon enough."
The chariots were closing now, I could see their horses galloping towards us. Flecks of foam splattered there muzzles, and I could see sweat soaking through the heavy cloth that covered their backs. Where were the arch--?
And then I saw Hodites' squad galloping towards the chariots from the north. They started whooping like Indians and I saw shadows arcing through the air towards the chariots. One of the horses screamed as she collapsed to the ground and the chariot she was pulling slammed into her and her companion. The two Acheans somehow held on and survived. One staggered out, the setting sun glinting off the shoulders of his armour.
God dammit! I'd forgotten the horses!
I skidded around and burst into a gallop towards the four chariots still charging towards me. Orios' group appeared in the distance and I knew they'd open fire as soon as they were in range.
Fuck! How could I be so stupid?!
Raparthax and Philyanax were galloping beside me, but I was falling behind the others. They weren't burdened in armour after all. Panting for breath I managed to keep up with them.
What the hell was I doing? I didn't know how to do this! Playing was one thing. This was REAL.
I could see now that the chariot warriors were armed with javelins. Screaming out their own battle cries, they threw them towards my unit, one at a time. They had a bunch inside the body of the chariot so they could afford to hope for a lucky shot.
In front of me Rhoetus screamed and went down, a blood soaked gleaming bronze head thrusting itself out the back of his human half.
One of the Achean drivers went down to arrows, but the warriors seemed unhurt. Likely because of their armour.
Part of me wanted to stand off and fire arrows, but I'd have to slow down to string the bow, and by the time I did, the rest of my unit would be amongst the Acheans anyway. Instead I drew out one of my javelins and threw it at the warrior in the lead chariot. Its hungry bronze whipped through the air, humming its need. The warrior tried interposing his shield but the bronze passed through the layers of hide and into his flesh. Screaming he went down.
The rest of my unit had reached the chariots. Lycotos was going too fast to dodge and he and a pair of chariot horses collided in a pile of bodies. The chariot's wooden shaft shattered under the stress and the chariot body bounced over the pile of horses and centaurs. The wheels seemed to explode outward in fragments, and the light hide covered wooden body crumpled into a tangled mess. The driver screamed as his momentum sent him flying forward to impale himself on the snapped piece of shaft still tied to the horses. The warrior took my second javelin through his neck as he staggered out of the wreckage. Gurgling in pain, his crimson soaked bronze glittering in the setting sun, he collapsed onto the pile of wreckage.
Hodites' group was almost upon the tangle of chariots and centaurs, and I saw them throwing one of their two javelins. Another horse screamed, and two more drivers went down, but too many javelins went unfed as they quivered in the ground, in wood, or in hide. One of the Achean warriors tossed his shield away. It was useless as a javelin hung quivering from it.
Orios' group had stopped firing, at least they'd remembered that, and were still closing. I just hoped that Hodites remembered to stand off and use javelins and bows and not leap amongst the chariots.
The chariot who's driver had been the first killed suddenly turned sideways. Something must have spooked the horses. The body flipped over and dragged the horses down with it. Doryalos shoved his heavy spear through the warrior's eye, and dragged him across the ground until the Achean's head yanked itself from his shoulders in a fountain of gore.
I could see now that the leader was still alive, with his driver. He threw a javelin and it sped into Epheklas' horse side and he went down gurgling blood, the hungry bronze buried in his flesh. His driver handed the leader another javelin and he turned as I threw my javelin at him. The gods must have been with him for he saw my third javelin as it sped for his throat and managed to interpose his curved tower shield. My javelin deflected from it, its deprived bronze ricocheting upwards into the sky. Instead of drawing my fourth javelin I drew my father's sword, for I knew that I would be upon him before I could throw another. He threw the one his driver had handed him, its gleaming bronze point glittering in the fading sunlight. Ducking to the side I interposed my figure-eight shield and it thunked through the hide and into the heavy oak at an angle, and then glanced off, the hunger of its head unabated. The Achean leader drew his sword. Before he had it fully out I was galloping past him, swinging my sword down and into his shield. It pierced the layers of hide and caught on the wooden rim. I almost lost my grip on my sword, but I managed to keep it. His shield was spun around, and then yanked out of his grip. Its shoulder strap tightened and he was pulled backwards, staggering. Then the leather cord snapped with an audible twang, whipping around. I stopped, ignoring the snap of it on my armour, and let the ruined shield fall off my sword.
The Achean was hot, sweaty, gasping for breath, but he somehow managed to keep his voice steady. "I am Ctesippus, son of Iphicles, of Athens. I would know who I am about to kill."
"I am Stephan, son of Centaurus and Pegasus, father of Chiron."
"Old man, I will agree to burn you with honour and coin, if you will do the same for me."
All around us I could hear horses and centaurs and men screaming, the thunk of weapons into the ground or into bronze. Yet, somehow, it all seemed distant. Secondary. Deep inside, the core of me didn't want to be here doing this. But my blood was high, and the rage of Ixion filled me. I didn't respond to Ctesippus, instead I screamed and leapt towards him, my sword raised above my head, my shield held in front of me.
He didn't flinch. He angled his sword and my blow scraped off it and away from him. Somehow a dagger appeared in his hand and he twisted, shoving it towards my side. We were in dusk now, and the hungry bronze was dull. I managed to push my shield into it. His dagger pierced into the wood, but not through. Putting my weight behind my shield, I shoved it into him. He had no chance, and fell to the ground. Although he tried rolling away, I reared upward faster, and my forehooves landed on his chest. Below them his blood-splattered bronze creaked, and then bent under my weight. My hooves pressed down towards the dry earth and blood oozed around the bronze and them.
Somehow he choked down a scream and thrust upward with his bronze blade. It slipped past my shield, below my armour, and pierced me between my two forelegs. I was beyond pain as he pulled it out, blood dripping from its length. With both hands I gripped the hilt of my father's sword and then shoved it point downward into his chest. The blade pierced his panoply, passed through his chest, out the other side and into the earth. Thudding to the ground, his sword fell from his grip.
With one hand he loosed the strap holding on his helmet and pushed it off his head. He no longer had the strength to throw it away. His face was young, his hair blond and soaked with sweat. Other centaurs crowded around me, their hooves pressing the helmet's once noble plume into the blood soaked earth.
He spoke, each word more a gurgle than speech. Blood sputtered out of his mouth, and rolled down his chin. "You're not... not like... Chiron. Like... like the... rest. I..." He coughed, spraying blood up and onto my chest as I'd lain down to hear him as the wound he'd given me healed. "I... I'm glad he can't," he coughed again, "see you..."
His eyes glazed over as his soul passed from him.
All around there was a moment of silence, an instant of respect. I closed his eyes. And then it was broken as one of the chariot horses screamed in pain.
I'd thought of the rest of the centaurs as barbarians. Was I any better?
Chapter 35: The Achean Camp
Was I any better than a barbarian? By God I was!
Looking around, I saw that the other centaurs had finished off the last of the Acheans. Most of the chariot horses were down, it looked like half were dead. I remembered a quote from before I came to this place: 'My job is to look after the living.' The living first.
I turned to Doryalos. "Have the unit commanders tally up their wounded and dead. I'll do the best I can." He nodded. "They can loot the dead, but they are not to maim them!"
I sighed. "Doryalos, we are not barbarians, and we will not act like barbarians. For a moment I forgot. All of the dead, ours and theirs, will be cremated together."
"Tell them to do it! Have one centaur tend each wounded. Send Bianar back to bring Thaumus and the rest up. Thaumus is in charge of looting and clean up. I want an inventory of what we can salvage, and what we can use. Our unit has priority for the armour. The rest are to gather wood and prepare the pyres. I want it all done before moonrise, and tomorrow I want to go after the Achean foot. With their chariots destroyed they shouldn't be a problem."
"Stephan, they won't--"
"I DON'T CARE! If we're doomed to pass from this world, then we will be remembered in honour and glory! DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?!"
He looked down and kicked at the dirt with his left forehoof.
"And Doryalos, the horses are part of the dead. I will see each and either heal them, or end their lives. And, the dead will be burned with the others as warriors. You got that?"
"I don't care! Carry out my orders."
Doryalos reared up, and then turned and trotted away.
There was some grumbling but the clean up continued at a reasonable rate. We managed to salvage thirty javelins, including two of mine. I took one from Ctesippus as a replacement. About 100 arrows were re-usable, but our stocks were down as the Acheans hadn't carried any. Of the ten chariot horses, four were dead, three were wounded so badly that they wished for death which I gave them, the last three I managed to heal. There were three centaurs that were dead, another eight with minor wounds of one kind or another that I could heal, and five more that were wounded in their human half and would have to heal naturally.
I helped the others gather the wood, build the pyre, and place the bodies upon it. Ctesippus was placed on top, his warriors and the dead centaurs below him, and the horses at the bottom. Each figure had a silver coin placed in his or her eye to pay the ferryman as the Acheans had been carrying looted coins. Then, after a moment of silence, I threw a lit torch into the tinder in the center of the pyre, and the other centaur commanders did likewise. The wood caught and the flames rose higher and higher, curling around the bodies and freeing their souls from flesh and bone.
I didn't realize it then, but I do now. In that place there was a mixture of reality and myth. The reality of Mycenean funeral rites were that the bodies were buried. Cremation was described by Homer and belonged to the period in which he lived, two hundred to four hundred years later. The exact number depending on which dating system one accepted. Given Ctesippus' request, I did do the right thing, and other pyres I witnessed confirmed that.
Once the pyre was burning hotly, I told the others that we would make a brief camp about a hundred metres away. Watches were set, and I made sure that everybody knew we were going to hit the rest of the Achean force at dawn. I was able to sleep a little bit, but most of the other centaurs couldn't at all. All through the night the pyre burned lower and lower, and when we prepared to move in the pre-dawn light, the wood was still crackling and smoking.
Ularius led us to the Achean camp. He'd visited it while we'd tried to sleep and it hadn't moved. I guess the Acheans assumed the pyre was for Trojans and was set by their own chariots. The camp had been made on the coast, in a clearing defended by a low rise to their west. This time Ularius had not been seen, or so he swore, as he'd only gone close enough to make sure that the camp hadn't moved from when he'd first found it. We could all see the dim glow of their fires.
Given that the entire Achean force was foot, there was no need to assault them. In fact, such an assault would be bloody and give them the advantage.
"Stephan," Cyllaros said, "with surprise we can get in amongst them. It'll be a slaughter!"
I looked around, and through the shadows recognized the eagerness in their bodies. "Ularius, what do you estimate their numbers to be?"
"As I said, 250 close order spearmen, and another 100 skirmishers. They've prisoners, about a hundred men, women and children."
"Cyllaros, there are less than a hundred of us. If we can surprise them before they form up, then we could slaughter them. But, we would still take significant casualties. If they do form up, then they can anchor their close order body against the sea and the rise and any attack we could make on them would result in our slaughter."
Rhoetus burst in. "They're humans! Look what we did to their chariots!"
"Rohetus, we outnumbered them almost twenty to one. There were five warriors. We lost three, and have five wounded. We would need over 6000 centaurs to have the same advantage, and even then we'd take around 200 casualties." I stopped, and looked around at them all. "Who won? You or the Lapiths?" I paused, and then stated, "We do it my way."
After that they listened.
My plan was to have half of the archer skirmishers, those under Cyllaros and Rhoetus, circle around the Achean camp, and fire upon them from the top of the rise. The other skirmishers under Peukadia and Nedymnos were to advance from the Achean east and south respectively and attack with bowfire, but were also to fall back if the Acheans advanced. My unit and the elite skirmishers would be the assault reserve. Although the close order body of Acheans would have archers in the rear rank, they'd likely use their skirmishes with javelin and bow to run forward to drive us off. I'd attempt to charge them, and make sure not to pursue them if they evaded backward and sought shelter behind the close order infantry block. If the Acheans were not formed up, I'd lead an assault into the camp, but I made sure everybody knew that I would flee from a body of men, and that they all should too.
There weren't enough of us left to take avoidable risks.
My signal to begin the attack would be drawing my sword and advancing. I'd twist it around to get the rising sun to glint off it so that all would see the signal. I also made sure to have messengers with me to carry the signal manually as a backup plan.
It wasn't until just past dawn that the units moved off.
By the time I started approaching the camp, the Acheans had armoured and formed up. Their spearmen were ordered eight deep in front of a four deep rank of archers. The rise was less steep than I'd thought, and a large group of Achean javelin armed skirmishers had been placed on the top of the slope. The rest, primarily bow armed, were positioned in front of the main Achean body. I could see the Trojan prisoners in a corner bounded by the rise and the sea, and guarded by a reserve of spearmen.
I'd have to remember to allow more time for deployment.
It's possible I should have sent a herald, or gone myself, but it was too late for that as my advance would be taken as the signal to attack. Instead I could only wait as the messengers returned to indicate that everybody was in position. When the last one came I raised my sword and turned it around as we advanced. The skirmishers in front of the main Achean line advanced slightly to meet us, and got off one round of bowfire before I led a charge against them. They fled back through gaps in the Achean line and I, expecting this, halted the pursuit short and rallied back out of range of the massed archers at the rear of the Achean unit. This happened again and again. A few Acheans died to arrow fire, a few centaurs went down to return fire.
Although the exchange rate was in our favour as we possessed superior numbers of archers, it was rapidly becoming a situation of seeing who ran out of arrows first.
I pulled back and sent messengers to Orios and Hodites to continue skirmishing with the Achean lights. I had an idea.
Once I was out of sight behind the archers I turned to Doryalos. "Doryalos, I'm going to take ten with me and break their lights on the slope and hit them in the rear. I need you to stay with the rest here. Be visible, but don't take risks! When, and only when, I'm in contact with their rear should you advance. Go for a flank, or a disordered section, not for prepared spears. Do you understand?"
"I'm going with--!"
"Doryalos, I'm taking the three who are now armoured, myself, and the seven best. I need the armour for a front rank. If you had some, I'd take you. You don't, so I need you here!"
He motioned around at the mares. "You're taking them."
"Because they won't leave me."
"You're taking all the glor--"
"No I'm not! I'm the best one for the initial assault and you know it! There'll be more than enough for you, fear not."
"You're in direct charge of Orios, Hodites, Peukadia and Nedymnos. Don't you dare send them into the ordered ranks! If you do I'll come back and kill you, if you survive. And if you do, nobody else will. Do you understand?!"
"No god damned buts! All we've got now is a battle of attrition, and it's possible that there might be more Acheans on the way. We do NOT have time for this! Do what I've told you and nothing else!"
With my longer forelegs I stood taller than him and I stepped forward almost into him, glaring down as he looked up. It didn't take long until he backed down from the challenge.
"We'll do it your way."
"Good. Be ready, there won't be a signal other than my charge. Watch for it!"
I quickly pulled out the ten I had in mind and led them at a fast canter around to the south. I'd like to have gone faster, but the three armoured ones weren't used to the weight of the ill fitting panoply on their human half. I also took half the available messengers, eight, with me because I figured I'd need them. Two I sent ahead of me to alert Cyllaros and Rhoetus. Now I wish I had somebody else there. I'd put them there to try and keep them from assaulting, but now...
It didn't take long to circle around behind the ridge. Cyllaros met me, and I could see Rhoetus charging the skirmisher. I just hoped to god he remembered to pull back.
"Cyllaros, I need both you and Rhoetus to charge the skirmishers together. Force them onto the slope. As soon as they have, fall back and I'll lead my centaurs between your two bodies and into them. When they break I want you two the grab the ridge and shower the Acheans with arrows. You got that?"
He rubbed his hands together and nodded.
"Remember to fall back damn you! You have to make them think there is no imminent attack or it will fail. And only advance when I've reached their main infantry block." I paused and looked down at him, like I had to Doryalos. "Do you understand?"
He nodded. "I understand Stephan."
"Good. I'm putting you in charge of Rhoetus for now. Go with him and set this up. Send a messenger when you're ready. We'll follow behind you and charge the instant you pull back. Be ready for it, and make sure that none of your or Rhoetus' centaurs follow us. If any of them do the Acheans will kill them. Now go!"
He turned and galloped off, his centaurs forming around him.
For almost a year I'd drilled them. Taking the chariots down had been easy and uncomplicated. Now I'd see if they'd learned anything. If they had, we'd win. If not, then they'd all be dead by sunset.
Epheklas the Younger galloped up and stopped in front of me. "Cyllaros is ready. He and Rhoetus will advance when you advance."
I nodded. "Nedymnas, Isoples, Bianar, you're beside me and the mares." They were the armoured ones. I knew the mares wouldn't leave me and I didn't even try to ask them. "The rest stay behind. Be careful on the slope, we'll need to spread out. Once we're on it don't stop for anything. If I go down then keep going! Form!"
We formed up. I wished I'd had a chance to train them to form a wedge, but it was too late now.
"Epheklas, tell Cyllaros we're ready. We'll advance at a walk right after you go."
"Yes!" He leapt into the air, and then galloped over to where Cyllaros was waiting. I advanced at a walk behind him. Cyllaros and Rhoetus advanced in front of us. I accelerated to a trot to close the distance."
"Lycotos!" I turned to another messenger, not the centaur who'd died yesterday. "Tell Cyllaros that we're ready. He can set the pace, we'll follow. The instance he starts to fall back we'll break into a gallop. And tell him to double the gap between him and Rhoetus. Go!"
He turned and galloped off. I watched as he reached Cyllaros. There was a hurried conference, and then Cyllaros advanced at an angle as he and Rhoetus accelerated to a canter. We matched their speed. Soon Cyllaros stopped his angle and paralleled Rhoetus.
That was when the centaurs in front of us starting whooping and screaming. They pulled out their bows and sent a rain of arrows away to the front. Javelin armed skirmishers were far superior to missile armed troops in melee, but didn't have the range for a missile engagement. Faintly I could hear shouts from in front, and then a single voice, loud and decisive. God dammit! The Acheans were counter-charging! Cyllaros and Rhoetus had gotten too close, they had to fall back now! And, there was nothing I could do but wait and--
In an irregular mass they turned and began galloping towards me, but not all of them. Cyllaros and his centaurs had charged into the charging Acheans. God damn it all! That left me with no choice.
With that I drew my sword and leapt into a gallop, my centaurs with me. We passed through the gap and were upon the Acheans before they had a chance to turn and flee. Two strokes of my sword and we were through them. From behind I heard the pounding of hooves and I hoped it was Cyllaros and Rhoetus advancing to finish off the now disordered and confused skirmishers.
Then we hit the slope. It consisted of scattered outcroppings of shale and rough gravel, all anchored by patches of scab grass and sand. I couldn't stop if I'd wanted to, and I heard more than saw Melaneos go down when he tripped and slid on a patch of rounded stones. Fortunately he wasn't one of the three with armour. The rest of us survived and we hit the rear of the archers that were part of the main body before they even knew we were there.
With Ixion's blood high in me, screaming, I burst into them. My mass and momentum shoved the first two ranks I hit underfoot and I stumbled as my hooves squished into flesh and crunched into bone. Beside me Styphelas screamed, one of the archers managed to hamstring him, and he collapsed onto the archer still lashing out with his sword. All around me human bodies pressed tight, fighting to turn or flee as my weight pressed against them. Screaming, I slashed with my father's crimson soaked sword. Rearing, I lashed out with my hooves, the stolen nail digging into the flesh of the unarmoured archers. I could see the line trying to turn, trying to deal with the threat that had appeared inside them. Humans pressed around me, broken spears stabbed into my armour. Splinters of wood and bone dug into my hind legs. I let myself fall down onto my forehooves and crushed an armoured spearman face down into the rocky sand. Swords thudded off my shield, a handful of arrows passed overhead. Raparthax went down, her teeth ripping the face off an Achean as she died. Bianar the Pale and Ularios the Elder went down under the Acheans that were all around us.
There was no thought in what I did. Only a mindless animal rage. I screamed , the sound of a horse and not a human. I kicked and bucked. My sword slashed left, and then right, each stroke piercing the unarmoured neck of an Achean still trying to turn around and figure out what was happening. One leapt onto my shield, almost pulling it out of my grip, but Philyanax clamped her teeth around his arm and pulled him away as she kicked at another Achean. I felt a sword dig into my left flank past where my armour ended and I kicked out with both hind hooves. The crunched into armour, and squished into flesh.
That was when Doryalos led the charge into their disordered front and the Acheans broke.
We slaughtered them as they fled.
Chapter 36: Trojans
As the Acheans broke, it was I who led the pursuit against them. They'd dropped their shields, their spears, and they died in droves as javelins and swords and hooves slashed into their backs. I remembered reading accounts of casualties of ancient battles. A hundred on one side, five thousand on the other. These lopsided results occurred because two armies in good order caused few casualties on one another. It was only when one side broke that the slaughter began.
As I kicked and slashed and slaughtered the terrified enemy, other battle accounts flashed through my heads. Marathan, Platea, Magnesia...
It was the last that brought me to my senses. In 190BC, Antiokus III of the Seleucid Empire faced off against a Roman army. He led a mass charge of his cavalay and routed one legion and then chased it off into the sunset. The surviving Romans destroyed the rest of his army before he got back. I was potentially doing the same thing, if there were Achean reinforcements on their way.
Unfortunately, an army in pursuit is hard to stop.
"DORYALOS!" Looking around I spotted his bay form near the front of the pursuit. Panting for breath I forced myself to catch up to him. "DORYALOS! STOP!"
He was too intent on the chase to listen.
As he slowed to slash a fleeing Achean, I had a chance. As the human fell to the ground dying, I galloped into Doryalos and bowled him, and myself, to the ground. All around us centaurs screamed, leaping over our forms, or twisting to avoid us. A lot, recognizing my armour, broke off the pursuit and galloped towards me to see what had happened.
Blinded by the dust, Doryalos struck out at me but I caught his arm and held it. His head turned to see the foe he'd struck at and he recognized me. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!"
"THEY'RE BROKEN! WE CAN KILL THEM! WE CAN KILL THEM ALL!!"
"LET THEM GO!!" I pushed Doryalos aside and struggled up to my feet. "LET THEM ALL GO!" I recognized Nedymnos approaching. "NEDYMNOS! FORM UP YOUR CENTAURS!" I grabbed another centaur beside me. "Isophelas! Find the rest of the messengers, and send them to find all the unit leaders. Tell them all to get back here!"
"DO IT! If the Acheans have reinforcements nearby they'll wipe us out if we pursue!"
With the side of my sword I swatted him on his behind and he yelped, and then galloped off.
Every other centaur that wasn't part of my unit I gave the same orders and sent off and when Doryalos got up I had him form the assault group around me. By the time I had some sort of order, the wound in my left flank had more or less healed. I sent Isoples with half the surviving members of my unit to check on the prisoners. All of the others except Doryalos and Nedymnos I sent to make sure that all the dead Acheans were actually dead. Doryalos I sent to start sorting out the injured, calling me in an emergency. I kept Nedymnos with me and trotted around on my own saving who I could. Raparthax was dead, Philyanax was nearly so but I got to her in time. Melaneos and too many others I couldn't help. It wasn't until close to noon that things settled down.
I was exhausted, and so was everybody else. We'd had next to no sleep all night, and we'd fought two battles in less than a day. I sent Younger Orios off with his scouts to patrol the outskirts of the Achean camp, and had Doryalos pick a handful of the mostly conscious to guard the prisoners and the camp while the rest of us collapsed into sleep.
Doryalos shook me awake sometime late in the afternoon. He looked asleep on his hooves. "Younger Orios has found no sign of reinforcements. He's back now and Amlaneos and his squad are patrolling the outskirts. I found Cyllaros, he's dead. I promoted Melamnos into his place."
I yawned. "Any kind of casualty count?"
"Not of the Acheans, it's over a hundred. There are fifteen of ours dead, three unaccounted for. I need to sleep."
I caught him as he started to wobble over. "Sleep. You did fine."
"Good. You were right Stephan, we were Barbarians..." He started snoring and I lowered him to the ground, healing all his small wounds as I did so.
Getting back up to my hooves, I looked around. Snoring centaurs were scattered about the ground haphazardly. The Achean dead had mostly been piled off to one side. I'd have to detail a group to gather wood when there were more awake, and to gather the rest of the dead. Leaning backwards I stretched my arms outward and yawned again. My armour clanked as I moved, I hadn't even realized it was still on. Spotting Amycos, I trotted over and drafted him to help me get it off. The bronze was drenched in blood and gore, and some of the leather thongs were knotted so tight that he wanted to cut them loose but I wouldn't let him and helped him work the knots loose. Together we managed to get it all off. I didn't like it, but as I had too much to do I told him to wash and polish the armour for me. I walked forward with my forelegs and arched my horse's back, and then let myself fall to the ground, leaned forward, and rolled around in the dust. God, but it felt good.
I glared at the snickering Amycos as I clambered back up onto my hooves.
I was dirty, dusty, itchy. My hide was caked with patches of blood that had oozed through the armour, and scabbed with old wounds and tattoos. I needed a rinse but that would have to wait. Shaking my head to try and bring some order to my hair and mane, I trotted around the piles of snoring bodies towards where I could see the black form of Isoples watching over the Trojan prisoners.
He heard my approach and turned. "Stephan? You should be resting."
Involuntarily I yawned again, and then rubbed my eyes.
He snorted and responed with, "I'm fine," and then he yawned too.
"Isoples, go and get some rest. I've already gotten some -- I want to talk to them anyway." I motioned towards the prisoners.
"As you wish...." and he yawned again. "I don't think they like us. Every time I've tried to talk to them, they've just backed away."
"It's my problem now. Go and sleep."
He looked me up and down. "You're welcome to try..."
He turned and totted off a short distance, stopped, and then collapsed onto the ground. Instants later he was snoring.
As I watched Isoples, my stomach grumbled and I wished I'd taken time to grab some food and water. Looking around, I spotted the messenger Lycotos dragging an Achean body onto the growing pile. At least some centaurs were doing things on their own. "Lycotos! Grab me some food and water!"
He dropped the body.
"AFTER you finish with that one."
"Got it Stephan!" Without a complaint he leaned down and grabbed the body under the shoulders and continued dragging it over to the pile.
I turned back to the Trojans and trotted closer to them. A few of the women screamed, the children sobbed, and the men looked at me. I looked back at them. Why were they so afraid? And then it hit me. Here I was, a massive beast out of their legends. A drunken animal. My body covered in dirt and blood and Scythian tattoos and scars. My hair thick and greasy and sticking out in all directions. Shaking my head I laughed to myself. Cleanliness could come later.
Stopping about ten metres away I searched through my mind for the pure Greek as opposed to the guttural, equine accented Greek the centaurs used. "We mean you no harm. In fact we've come to fight for you."
They just glared at me.
That was when I realized that they hadn't even been untied yet! Somebody was going...! Oh god, the others probably couldn't even approach them. As I was preparing to draw my knife to cut them free, whether they liked it or not, I heard hoofbeats behind me. Turning, I saw that it was Lycotos with some smoked meat and a waterskin. We'd never had any time to smoke anything so I guessed it was from the Achean supplies.
He stopped in front of me and handed them over.
"Lycotos, go and see who's awake. Tell ten or so to go off and see what animals they can kill. We need to get some food cooking. Tell them that if they see any Acheans they're to get back here at once. Got that?"
"Yup. Don't worry about it, Doryalos sent out hunting parties before he woke you up."
"At least somebody's on the ball here. Get back to work then, and if anybody's looking for me tell them that I don't want to be disturbed until the fresh meat is ready to eat. Got that?"
He turned and went, and I turned back to the Trojans. First I untied the waterskin and took a big drink from it, almost half its contents. I tied it shut and tore off a big hunk of the smoked meat and started chewing it. The Trojans would have to wait... Then I had an idea. As I was chewing I walked towards the prisoners, drew my dagger, and flung it straight down into the soil so hard that only the hilt was showing. I put down the waterskin beside it and then carefully backed away, swallowing the first mouthful of meat. "Take that and untie yourselves. I really don't mean you harm. Share the water too. There should be some fresh meat ready by sunset.
I stopped about twenty metres away and watched a male, he looked older than the others, crawl forward and pull the knife out by gripping its handle with his teeth. He crawled back carrying it and then held it steady whilst a younger male rubbed his wrists along the blade until the rope parted. It didn't take long after that.
As they freed themselves and then shared the water, I examined them. There weren't many, I counted eighteen. Three men, ten women, five children. There were no babies, and no old men or women. They were all partially clothed in ripped and torn finery, except the children who were naked. By the time they'd all untied themselves and shared the water, I'd finished the meat.
"Do you trust me enough to talk yet?"
The oldest male, the one who'd gone for the dagger, stood up and tried to brush the dirt from his clothes. "What are you going to do with us?"
"I'm going to escort you back to Troy and join your side against the invaders."
"Sure you are!" one of the other males said sarcastically.
Putting my hands against my sides, I asked, "Well then, what do you want me to do with you?"
"Let us go!" one of the women shouted.
"And if I do, what if you encounter another group of Acheans?"
"We'll kill them!" the youngest male answered.
I took a few steps forward. "Fifteen of you?! All you've got is my dagger. The five chariots we killed yesterday would wipe you all out without you killing a single one! There are what, 10,000 Acheans burning and pillaging through the countryside?"
"It's a trick! You just want to gain our confidence so you can betray the city!" That was the other male.
There would only be twenty or so Acheans needed in the horse, but I saw no need to mention that. They'd probably disbelieve me like they'll disbelieve Cassandra. "That's for Hector and Priam to decide. If you want to go on your own, I'll give you enough supplies to reach the city. We'll be behind you, but probably not close enough to save you. We will try to avenge you if we can."
A female voice burst out: "Oh let's just go with them! What can they do to us that hasn't already been done? If they try rape they'll rip us apart in the act!"
"Phillipa! Don't even think that! Ctesippus wouldn't let his men--"
"Because he wanted us for his own! You've heard about their camp. What those monsters Achilles and Agamemnon do!"
"At least they're men! These are drunken monsters!"
"That's just an excuse and you know it! If you want to go and die, then go and die! I'm staying with the only people who've shown us any decency since the Acheans invaded!"
I finally saw the woman speaker as she pushed her way out through the mass of Trojans. She was tall, thickly built, and with fire red hair. All she was wearing was the remnants of a fine cretan bell-bottomed dress that looked to have been a pale blue. It was tied at her waist with a scrap of dirty white linen. Her breasts had been painted, but were now smeared with streaks of copper, blue, and red.
A woman grabbed at her. "Phillipa, don't--"
She spun around, her long hair whipping through the air. "Mother, I'm making my own way! By the goddess look at us! We've nothing left! These centaurs are our only hope."
"They're our death!" the eldest male burst out.
"They've shown us nothing but decency!" She ripped herself from her mother's grasp. "If you want to die, then go off and die!" Spinning around, she stalked over until she stood beside me.
Oh my! I looked at the leader. "What's your name?"
"Pelius of Iscapus, beast."
"Well Pelius, I'll give each of you rations from the Acheans for a week. Will one waterskin each be enough?"
"You'll probably poison them!"
I forced down my anger. "You can fill them yourselves then."
I turned around ignoring Phillipa, looking for the nearest messenger. "Oriolas!" I called, and he galloped over. "I want you to get two others. Bring these Trojans," I motioned behind me, "a waterskin each, and a weeks worth of rations each. Did the Acheans have any beasts to carry their supplies?"
"I don't think so... Or not any that we've found. Do you want it from our supplies?"
"Give them the Achean stuff. Grab the cleanest packs from the Acheans you can find, one for each. Oh, and give them each an Achean sword. At least it'll give them a chance."
"But I thought--"
"They're not our prisoners, and they've decided that they prefer to travel on their own. Make sure they're not bothered. They're your responsibility until they've left the camp."
"And what about the girl?" He motioned at Phillipa.
"She's decided to stay with us. I'll take responsibility for her. Are the hunters back yet?"
"Hadurios brought back three deer, they're setting up the fire now."
"Good." He stood there. "Go!"
He looked at the girl. "But..."
"I've told you what to do. The girl's my problem. Understood?"
"Yea Stephan, I understand."
I leaned down to him and whispered, "If you tried to take her you'd rip her in half. So keep that crap out of your head."
He gulped, turned, and galloped off.
Chapter 37: Spoils of War
Unfortunately Oriolos wasn't the only one who thought I'd taken the girl to rape. It was understandable, with no females for years there was tension. I'd seen some things at night that I've tried to forget since. However, as long as such activities didn't occur between guards on duty, didn't cause lasting physical harm, and didn't prevent the centaurs involved from being ready for duty the next day, I ignored it. I believe that Raparthax and Philyanax had helped relieve some tensions, but they kept it out of my sight and I didn't see any need to bring it up.
If you know that you're the last members of your race, does it really matter?
It certainly didn't help that I was the only one who could, theoretically, have raped Phillipa. At that point I had no plans to, the thought of the possibility hadn't even entered my mind. Fortunately, a year of strict discipline had engrained habits that kept anything beyond rude comments and disgruntled expressions to a minimum. I'd had to explain things to two others before another potential disaster arose.
I should have thought of it, but I didn't. The first clue was when I saw Peukalos, the dark chestnut who'd first run for the wine when I destroyed it all, galloping off with shouts of glee towards one of the piles of Achean supplies.
Of course the Acheans would have wine.
"Phillipa, you'll have to catch up to me. I've got a problem." Before she could respond I turned away from her and leapt into a gallop towards the rapidly growing mob of centaurs. Even before I reached them I could smell the ambrosial aroma. Fuck! "STOP!" I screamed as I shoved my way through the mob. I had to grab two by their necks and yank them and out of the way. Hodios was apparently the youngster who'd recognized the skins and he sheepishly backed away as I took the open skin from him and twisted the top to cut off the scent.
Turning, keeping the bag of supplies to my rear, I watched as almost the entire herd looked at me. A few stragglers were still waking up, and then everybody would be present except for Amlaneos and his squad. Phillipa remained behind the crowd a safe distance away.
Above the whispered questions about what had happened and confirmation of what had been found, I shouted, "YES THERE IS WINE HERE!"
Half the crowd pressed tighter towards me, the rest started backing away.
They all stopped and looked at me, in fear, in terror, in anger, and in hope.
"Today you defeated a superior foe. They were well equipped, they were in a prepared position, and they outnumbered you. But, TOGETHER we defeated them!"
Some lusty cheers greeted that.
"Do you remember when you fought the Lapiths?" Most nodded. "Did you ever beat them when they outnumbered you? NO! NEVER! But NOW YOU DEFEATED A NUMERICALLY SUPERIOR FOE!"
They cheered and I waited for it to quiet down.
"I could give lectures over what went right, and what went wrong. But I won't. You won, and you deserve to enjoy it! So, the wine will NOT be destroyed!"
"Tonight it will be shared, an equal portion to each, with a double portion to each of the wounded."
A half-hearted cheer.
"I wish there was more, but there isn't. And, even if there were, I would still ration it out! Do you remember what you were when I found you? You were lost, without direction. The wine controlled you! Now you can make your own destiny!"
I paused and looked around. Most looked thoughtful, hopeful.
"Together, we will fight the Acheans on the side of Troy! We will show them that we are NOT barbarians! That we are better than them! WE WILL BE REMEMBERED!"
And that was somebody started the chant. I think it was Doryalos, but I was never sure. He at least never admitted to it. "Stephan! Stephan! Stephan!"
I let them go on for a bit, feeling their emotions roll over me. It was a good feeling. Finally I raised my arms and the chant quieted.
"The Trojans prisoners are to be given food and water and let go. They've decided to proceed to Illium on their own. They're think we're barbarians."
"NO!" the herd screamed out.
"As civilized beings we must respect their choice. Phillipa," I pointed, "has decided to trust us. The first of many. She will guide us into the city. Treat her with the respect due to a guest. That is how I shall treat her!" I could smell the meat starting to cook. "Now, we need to get back to work. Those who were preparing the meat, we're all waiting for your pleasure. Younger Orios, go and relieve Amlaneas...," he and his unit groaned, "...AFTER you've had your share of the meat and the wine!"
A lusty cheer.
"And now, let's CELEBRATE!"
"Stephan! Stephan! Stephan! STEPHAN! STEPHAN! STEPHAN!"
It felt good.
Chapter 38: Reasons and Rationales
Before the party, of course, we had to light the pyre for the dead. Through the day the dead centaurs and Acheans had been stacked and prepared. Wood had been gathered from what the Acheans had handy, and chopped from a stand of trees near the mouth of a stream a short distance away. Raparthax was placed at the top of the pyre.
The final preparations and moment of silence left more than enough time for the meat to get well and truly done and then the party started. It was a celebration of life, a remembrance of the dead. Although there wasn't enough meat for everybody to gorge themselves, not that I would have let them, with grain and other supplies the Acheans had taken from the Trojans there was enough to make it festive. I and Doryalos oversaw the wine. With 300 Acheans there was a fair amount, but only enough for about half a skin a centaur. Enough to treat the pallet, but not enough to even begin to get drunk. Doryalos and I made sure that the scout units were kept ready, and made sure things didn't get too rowdy just in case of attack. Given that the patrols had found no sign of other Acheans throughout the day I wasn't too worried, but there was no sense in taking chances.
Philippa stayed close to me throughout the evening. I don't think she fully trusted the others and I really couldn't blame her. Even unintentionally, a ton of happy centaur could kill or badly maim a human. I checked with Oriolas and confirmed that the other Trojans had been provisioned as promised, and had fled our camp. I made sure he got a fresh slab of meat when the third deer was ready. After that, to get some quiet, I took Phillipa out to the piles of booty the Acheans had taken to help her find a dress to replace the torn rag she was wearing. That was when we finally had a chance to talk.
As she was looking through a sack of dresses, she asked me, "You're going to present yourself to Priam aren't you?"
"What? To ally with him and--"
"I mean why are you going to help us?"
"Pelius' reaction will be typical you know."
Why was I going to help the Trojans? Originally it was because I needed to get close to Poseidon to kill him. I could have joined the Greeks -- it would have made getting closer to Poseidon easier. But, until now, that had never entered my mind. Was it only the myth of the centaurs fighting on the side of the Trojans? No... It was something else. Something deeper, and something that I hadn't even realized until then.
Oh, the burning need for vengeance, the deep seated hate, all that was still there. Don't get me wrong. But there was something else too. Pride? Partially. A sense of duty in that by becoming the leader I'd made the centaurs my responsibility. Certainly. I could almost feel a genetic need to protect the group. How much of me was horse now? But there was another, deeper reason, I realized. The original reason. The tales I'd read from Homer had been from the Greek point of view. Other writings by Euripides, Virgil, were different, but they were not the Illiad. I'd always admired Hector. He was a hero, not a monster like the so-called heroes of the Acheans. He fought for his city, not for himself, not for glory.
I realized that Phillipa had stopped and was looking at me, waiting for an answer.
"I guess it's Hector. I've heard stories of the Acheans, prophecies of what they'll do and what'll happen to them. They'll all eventually pay for what they do, either in death or in years of travel and trials. But Hector... he doesn't deserve any of this."
"What have you heard about our prince?"
"I've always heard that he fights for Illium. He doesn't fight because he wants to, or because he wants to be remembered. He doesn't fight to conquer or steal. He fights to defend his family and his people. He fights because he has to, and then he fights as civilized as he can."
"I think your opinion of our prince is awful inflated." She turned around and started rooting through the sack again. "I hope he doesn't disappoint you."
I looked away from her and up into the heavens. Part of me knew it was all fake, but I'd found that the longer I lived in this cave, the harder and harder it became to believe that. The constellations were above me, bright, twinkling. I wondered if Chiron had been put up there yet. "I've been alive too long to expect pleasant surprises. If Hector is half as good a man as I've heard then I'll be happy."
"I guess that's all any of us can expec-- Ah hah!"
"I knew I'd seen somebody grab it!"
I walked over until I was just behind her. "What did you find?"
"Everything a woman needs to look nice."
She pushed herself up, holding a small chest under one arm. "Can you watch over me while I get washed up? I'll redo my breasts and face in the morning."
"You look fin--"
"I do NOT look fine! My hair is a mess, my breasts are a disaster!"
"I'll show you the way and give you some priv--"
"Oh no you won't! If you're going to meet King Priam you can't look the way you do now! Don't you ever wash?!"
I sighed. "The ocean and I don't get along."
"That's why we'll do it in the stream dummy." She walked up beside me. "Now, are you going to come peaceably, or do I have to use force?" Her arm whipped out and pinched my ear.
"Ow!" Where was Philyanax when I needed her? I think she was still sleeping off the healing. I raised my hands. "I surrender! If you'll follow me I'll let you get cleaned up."
"You don't get out of it that easy Stephan! When I'm done you're next!"
How did I get into this? "I don't need--"
I snorted, turned towards where I'd been told the small stream was, and trotted off. I could hear Phillipa hurrying along behind me. The stream wasn't too far, and there was a small pool just before the stream tumbled over rocks and burbled into the sea. It was like it'd been designed for bathing. I stopped and Phillipa put the chest down, untied the cloth around her waist, and tossed her dress to me. I just managed to catch it. It smelled... sweet.
Twirling in the moonlight she asked, "Do you like?"
Her body was indeed well formed, and her hair swirled around hiding and revealing her curves. There was a small scar on her right thigh, but other than that her skin was smooth and muscular. I also realized that that was one of the questions to which there was no real right answer. "Ummm..."
She stopped, hands on her hips, facing me. Her hair settled down on top of her breasts before sliding off and hanging at her side. "You don't like it?"
"Errr... We are different races..."
"Above the waist you are very nice though..."
"That's better!" With that she opened the chest and pulled some things out. "I won't be long!" Then she ran over to the edge of the pool...
...and screamed. "MOTHER!"
Her dress fluttered from my hands and I galloped over beside her. Under the branches of a tree, partially hidden in driftwood, was a human body, female. Looking around I could see others partially covered--
Philippa spun around and threw herself against me, punching her fists into my chest again and again. "You bastard! You god forsaken bastard! YOU PROMISED! I let myself trust you!" Sobs broke out and she hit me harder.
I reached out to comfort her, "Philippa, I didn't--"
"Get away from me you lying monster!"
I stopped, letting my hands fall to my waist as she ran to her mother's body. Crouching on the ground she lifted her mother's head into her lap and gently brushed her mother's hair with her hand, sobbing.
What the hell had just happened? I'd told Oriolas--
Over the faint sounds of singing from the camp behind me, I heard something burst out of the water and I spun around. It was a human figure, naked, wearing an Achean boar's tusk helmet. His face was in shadow and in his hand was a bronze-tipped javelin dripping water.
Before I could move the figure threw the javelin. It hummed through the air, eager, hungry.
Its bronze point pierced my human chest just below my left breast, the point stopping just as it burst out my human back.
- Quotations from The Illiad are from the translation by Edward, Earl of Derby, available via the Guttenburg Project.
- Quotations from Ovid's Metamorphosis from the translation by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al