23: Fateful Meeting

Late one afternoon, less than three moon cycles before my vows, I stepped from Kishar's door to find a dark sky threatening Knossos's first winter rain. A cool and moist southern wind whipped my robe around my ankles. Ordinarily I'd have remained hours more to enjoy the fellowship, but my current duty required that I be in the bakery before sunrise. I flipped up my cloak's hood to keep the cold off my neck and set out, my thoughts on my dedication. My pace was brisk and my heart joyful. Only a few weeks more and the goal of years would be achieved.

A pomegranate orchard lay both left and right, and I'd just crossed a planked bridge over a stream when a fat raindrop tapped my cheek. The Temple lay a full hour ahead. The sky hung heavy with its burden. I hurried forward and had passed the dirt road leading to the hamlet of Kulos when the sky burst. My sandals quickly soaked through. How fortunate that, at this point, the Phaestos road was still paved! Otherwise I would be wading in mud.

A shout caught my attention. Peering through heavy sheets of rain, I saw a horse standing in the road a short way ahead and, beside the horse, three men in a circle. Horses were used only during military parades or by Temple messengers, so I assumed one of the men was a messenger. As I drew near and saw what they were doing, an icy chill ran along my skin. The three were beating a boy who lay on the ground. I'd heard the rumors recently about attacks on Temple messengers. No one was as yet certain who was responsible.

As if lightning flashed through my mind, I remembered that day on Alyris when my mother's houseboy and I had come across an outlander beating a woman. Not since then, not in all my years on Keftiu, had I ever seen one person strike another.

I ran toward them. The man kicked the messenger, and the boy let out a pitiful cry.

Looking toward me the kicker yelled, "Hey, look at what's a 'comin!"

"Stop!" I shouted, my pulse pounding so hard I could barely hear. A second brute kicked the messenger in the back. The other two turned toward me.

I tried to push past the largest man, my thought to throw myself over the boy, but a hand the size of a lion's paw wrapped fingers around my upper arm. The man yanked me toward him so hard I lost my footing. He grabbed my other arm, lifted me off the ground, shook me like a doll. My head snapped back and forth, my feet dangled.

"S-st-op!" My protest shook in the air like my body.

My head spun. I thought I heard running feet. Then suddenly the villain dropped me. I fell onto the road on one ankle. Pain shot up the calf of my leg, and I realized someone had struck my attacker from behind.

Above me two men struggled, entwined like wrestlers. The dolphin and sacred horns on my rescuer's scarlet cloak marked him as a Keftian naval officer. I curled into a protective ball, but another blow sent a ripping pain from my back to my chest. I gasped for breath.

The two men spun halfway around. I saw my rescuer's face. Had I been the object of his fury, I'd have fainted with terror. His grimly twisted mouth and clamped jaw signaled a rage eerily absent from his hard, empty eyes. He raised his fist like a club-an enormous club-and brought it down onto the side of my attacker's head producing a sickening crack.

The brute slumped to the ground.

I lay in a pool of water expecting my attacker's friends to come to their companion's defense. Instead I heard the splashing sound of retreating feet.

Every breath caused fire to flash in my chest. Kneeling in front of me, my rescuer put the palm of that same enormous hand lightly on my side. His eyes caught mine. Rain had matted his hair. Water streaked down his forehead, over high cheekbones, and off a square chin. Only moments ago his eyes had been frighteningly cold and dark. They still held only neutral interest. But I knew those gold flecks.

"Are you all right?"

With age his voice had changed. It had a deep, resonating quality, as if the sound were coming from the depths of a mysterious well. And I'd heard those very words from his lips once before. With a thrill of recognition, I felt a warm ball of light explode in my heart. Alektrion!

I willed my face to hide my swirling emotions and said," I'm not entirely sure." I started to ask about the messenger, but again heard the sounds of running steps, now coming toward us. Panicked, I whispered, "They're coming back."

I began to uncoil, to stand. Stabbing pain struck my chest again.

"If you hurt, don't move suddenly," said Alektrion of Kalliste. "Those bilge slugs aren't coming back. These are my friends."

A confident, smooth but higher pitched voice said, "The demons got away, Scorpion."

Scorpion was the name of the aide to the admiral, Sarpedon. Could it be? If so, I, myself, had just seen the famous Scorpion strike. And I knew him. I eased to a sitting position in the middle of my puddle.

"Too bad you've killed the other one," continued the same smooth voice. "We're not going to get anything useful out of him."

"Kokor's breath, Anchices. I barely tapped him. How's the messenger?"

Alektrion was speaking to the taller of his two companions, and with a voice of authority that surprised me, because both men were older than he and their tunic insignia indicated they held higher rank. The tall one, Anchices, reminded me of a very hungry cat.

"Badly hurt," he said in that refined voice. "Looks to me like they intended to kill him. These filthy Poseidonists are becoming more vicious. He needs a healer's attention. Quickly."

Alektrion addressed the shorter man. "The horse?"

This man's nose was twisted as though broken many times; and three large scars, jagged for lack of proper treatment, marred his brow and chin. One eye was missing, its lids sewn shut. So ugly was his face that I couldn't suppress a shiver.

"Leg's broken. I'll put her down," said the old boar-in a whispery voice that hinted at still more horrors in his life.

Alektrion nodded. The man strode toward the stricken animal. Both men looked to Alektrion for direction. If he were the Scorpion who stood next to Sarpedon, his half-breed origin would certainly explain his lower rank. And if he were that warrior-but how could such a thing be?-it would explain their deference to him.

Alektrion turned to me. "Can you stand?"

"Of course." But when I tried again to move, I couldn't keep a grimace from my face.

"Where do you hurt?"

I reached across my chest to touch the focus of my pain, a place high on the ribs on the left side of my back. "Uugh," I said, struggling to smother another grimace.

"Let me see if anything feels broken." Without asking permission-as a civilized man would-he leaned forward and slid his hands under my cape and over my thin linen gown feeling through it and my corset for my ribs.

A delicious liquid fire raced over my skin. I looked deeply into his eyes wishing I might melt into them and disappear, but he looked straight ahead as he felt gingerly over my sides. He doesn't know me!

"Nothing's broken, but you're badly bruised. You're going to be very sore for a few days. Here. Let me help you stand. It's urgent we get the messenger to the next inn."

He slid his arm around my back, strong fingers grasped my waist- the fingers of the fist that had just killed with a single blow. I reached across his chest to hold his free arm, and when he tugged me to my feet, arm muscles like tough cords of leather tightened across my back.

I settled to my feet, and a sharp band of fire seared my left ankle. I jerked my foot up and moaned. Alektrion shifted so the length of his body supported me. I sagged against him. "I've also hurt my ankle."

I glanced around. The one-eyed man was wiping his knife blade, red with the horse's blood, on the saddle blanket. The horse lay in the road, its legs still jerking. The messenger lay on his back, his eyes closed. Anchices pulled the body of the dead attacker to the roadside.

Appalled by so much violence, I swallowed hard. "Leave me," I said. "Take the boy to the inn."

"Rig a field litter, Talos," Alektrion commanded the ugly man. "I'll stay with the woman."

Talos nodded. He and Anchices strode into the orchard.

"I can walk," I insisted, determined to do just that. I pushed myself from Alektrion's body, amazed at how much doing so drained me. "There's no need for you to stay."

"Let's see you walk."

He released my arms-freedom from him felt like being lost. I took trial, limping step, bit the inside of my lip to hide the pain. "See," I muttered. "I'll just come along behind you, slowly."

Anchices and Talos reappeared, each carrying a thick pole.

With one swift move Alektrion picked me up, again without asking permission. Either he didn't understand convention or he chose not to follow it. Either way, I should have found his impudence upsetting. Instead it intrigued me. He carried me toward the low stone wall circling the orchard. "You'd never make it to the inn."

He plunked me down, then turned and strode to his companions. Together they used the two poles and their cloaks to fashion a litter. They lifted the messenger into it, and the two soldiers took off at a splashing half-trot through he rain toward the inn. Alektrion strode back to me and I stood up.

I didn't like having separated him from his companions. "Perhaps a farmer will come along soon with a cart. Perhaps you could go on."

"Not likely. It's too late in the day. Where were you going?"

We stood face to face, both soaked to the skin. My gaze dropped and lingered on the large, beautifully shaped-and deadly-hand. Then I studied his face again, its bones starkly emphasized by the rain. Nose straight and finely sculpted. High cheekbones. High, intelligent forehead. His eyes were the same gold-flecked color I remembered, but what lay behind them now wasn't the curiosity or gaiety of childhood or even that cold rage sparked by a fight. Indeed, I'd taken training on reading mood in the eyes and, with a pang of disquiet, I realized I could read nothing in Alektrion's. What could have happened to turn a gentle boy who loved to talk to spiders into a man-killer named Scorpion?

"We know each other," I said.

One eyebrow went up. "I don't think I'd forget you."

I remembered my years of yearning, my pining over Alektrion, and a sudden, terrible disappointment clutched my throat. He clearly didn't remember me. Better to let the past be past. Before I could stop myself, though, I covered the scar on my cheek.

He seemed not to notice. "Our Mother was watching over you," he said. "I and my friends were late coming here. I've no doubt those Poseidonist scum would have killed the boy. And probably hurt you badly."

Why was he on this road? Where had he been these many years? And most of all, what had taken the light from his eyes?

"You can't walk to the inn." He glanced down the road then back to me. "We certainly can't spend the night in this rain. My friends and I were heading to a shepherd's hut. Much closer than the inn. Are you expected somewhere?"

As I was wearing street clothes, Alektrion couldn't know I was a novice-and for some impulsive, inexplicable reason, I didn't want to tell him where I was expected to sleep. Twice I'd spent the night unexpectedly at Kishar's, so my failure to return to the Temple wouldn't cause any disturbance.

"I'll not be missed."

"No husband or children waiting?"

I shook my head. Alektrion picked me up again, this time with noticeable gentleness, and plodded back toward the lane to Kulos. I clung to him, wishing myself lighter, acutely aware of his heart beating not far from mine.

When he carried me through the door of what appeared to be a humble shepherd's hut, his mud-caked boots touched a fine wood floor. How peculiar that Alektrion and his friends were meeting so far from Knossos in a shepherd's hut that was, in fact, furnished more like the home of a prosperous tailor or carpenter.

I said, "We're dripping and making a mess."

The house wasn't so fine that it had running water. He carried me through a small common room. The pantry floor was of flagstone. He sat me on a tall stool beside a finely hewn table. "I'll find something for us to wear."

He removed his boots, then I listened to the pad of his bare feet in the common room and the opening and closing of chests. I shrugged out of my soggy cape and dropped it to the floor. Alektrion returned with two simple tunics of fine, light-brown wool-a much better quality than I would have expected from a shepherd's family-several belts of different lengths, and two towels. He put the tunics and towels on the table. "Get into one of these. I'll start a fire."

I untied my skirt and then reached behind to unlace the strings of my girdle. A stabbing pain shot up my back. I sat breathing shallowly for a few moments, then tried again with the same result. My pulse raced. I couldn't undress myself.

In the other room, a log thunked as it was dropped onto the hearth. Footsteps. Rustlings. Flint being struck several times. Footsteps in my direction.

"Are you changed?"

"I ... well ... "

He walked into the pantry. My face flashed hot with indignation. For all he knew, I could still have been undressing! In many situations, to be seen undressed would be quite natural. To be intruded upon when one is in the act of undressing wasn't. Alektrion seemed not to care.

"Shouldn't you ... " I began, but caught myself and said more firmly. "You should have waited before entering."

"Can't you undress?"

More heat rose to my cheeks. "It seems not."

"I'll help."

I clung tightly to the seat of the stool suddenly reluctant to have Alektrion's hands moving over my body. "No," I whispered, so softly I don't think he heard.

He walked behind me and his fingers tugged on the corset's laces. My waist relaxed and the pain lessened.

"That should make your breathing easier. Stand." He moved beside me and slipped his arm under mine.

I stood on my good leg. With his free hand he dropped my skirt, pulled the girdle free from under my blouse, and began to loosen my inner skirt.

Though I knew I had to get out of the soaked garments, my mind shouted, Stop him!

But too late. My inner skirt joined the outer one on the floor and my blouse fell partly open. I snatched it closed, so aware of my half nakedness that flesh pebbled over my chest and belly.

Again he moved behind me. He reached over my shoulders to the front of my blouse as if to remove it. "Let go," he said, his tone sounding amused.

My fingers seemed to have become woven into the blouse's fabric. Warm hands skimmed my collarbones, rested on my shoulders. He turned me to face him. Gold-flecked eyes held my own captive. The sound of my anxious beating heart filled my head. He loosened my fingers, and a warm palm brushed over one of my nipples. He peeled the blouse back, slipped it down my arms, and dropped it to the floor.

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