The villa of Gaius Octaviuus, proconsulate of the province of Macedonia.
“Tell your protégé Skedesa not to approach our kids so much when they play outside!” Gaius Octavius’s wife said in an annoyed tone.
“You don’t need to be malicious,” Gaius said. “She is a good warrior, and I trust her.”
“You believe her, but I see how I look at her and your eyes widen whenever you see her,”his wife thought.
“It would be best to hire a Roman woman,” she offered. “There are very good weapon handlers among them, and I will be calmer.”
“A Roman woman? Hardly worthwhile. I don’t know a Roman woman with such battling experience and spirit as Skedesa. And even if we find one, it will cost us too much.”
“In fact, why do we need a woman guardian?”Gaius’s wife asked. “Men are good at that.”
“Good at that, you say?” Gaius repeated and looked at her askance.
A loyal servant of his had told him that while he had been absent for a couple of months, they had seen his wife hugging a man who was covered in a cloak all over and his face could not be seen. Gaius could have asked her at once, but he knew she would deny, and that was why he had simply ordered his men to follow her closely.
“We are not going to comment on that any more” Gaius said sternly. “Skedesa remains!”
His wife was apparently angered, but she said nothing. She started making up plans of how to discredit her, and why not even kill her.
“Yes, with poison ... no one will find out,” she thought.
She only had to contact the local women who were expert on poisoning, or she could send someone to fetch her a poisonous mixture.
“Tomorrow I am going up the river,” Gaius said. “For a couple of days.”
Then he went out.
He saw Skedesa in the yard; she was playing with the small Augustus and with several more kids, the kids of the prefect and the tribune.
“Tomorrow I am going up the river,” he told her. “I rely on you to look well after the kids.”
“Can I come with you, master?” Skedesa asked suddenly.
Gaius eyed her inquisitively and with growing interest.
“Why do you want to come?”
“I have relatives in those parts,” Skedesa replied. “I can meet them, and I can also help you, I know the area.”
“I’ll think on that,” Gaius said. “If I decide to take you, I will let you know tomorrow.”
Then he mounted on his horse and rode away together with two squadrons.
As if the proconsulate’s wife had waited for that moment, for she appeared and took the kids with her. She looked at Skedesa nd her eyes burned with resentment.
Skedesa had noticed that a decurion, a commander of a horse squadron, had been eyeing her with interest for a couple of days. Much as she resented such wooing games and felt an aversion towards them, she decided to admit him closer to her in order to try to find out where they had sent Zipper.
“What a nice horse,” she said, coming closer to the decurion.
“Magnificent,” the decurion confirmed. “He saved me many a time in periods of predicament. Once I galloped on his back for half a day to get rid of my persecutors in the German forests.”
“Can I have a ride on him?” Skedesa asked in a soft voice.
The man looked at her and gave her a smile. Then he thought for a second or two, but said: “Yes, OK, but don’t go far away.”
Skedesa mounted on the horse with a light jump, like she was born on horseback. She pulled the reins, and the splendid animal took off in a light trot. That impressed the man and this time he grinned widely.
The Thracian beauty rode the horse for some time and then came back.
“Wonderful horse,” she said. “And very clever, too. Immediately obeyed the commands I gave him.”
“That’s right,” the decurion said, pleased with the praising words.
“Thanks for the ride,” Skedesa said. “Few would let someone else ride their horses.”
Then she turned round and departed.
“Wait a little,” the man hurried to stop her.
She turned and looked at him.
“Do you want us to go to a very nice place? There is a small waterfall and pretty flowers. I will get one more horse and we’ll have a ride.”
“Yes, that’s what I wanted,” Skedesa thought. “Clearly he was hooked, and he thinks he can have a nice time with me. Even though he saw me fight, and he saw how I defeated men much stronger than him on the arena. He must have other methods of seduction. And he hardly thinks he can get me by violence. Either he is very self-confident, or he is rather sly, or just very naive!”
“Very well,” she agreed.
In a couple of minutes he brought another horse, just as strong and beautiful as his.
They went out of the camp and made eastward. In half an hour they reached the Stroum river and then turned southward. And indeed, in a couple of minutes they found themselves by a small river huddled in the forest and joining the Stroum. They also saw the waterfall which was about two metres high and which the man had called a “small waterfall”. There was a small pond formed beneath it, and the vicinity was virtually dotted with a plethora of beautiful flowers. There was a pleasant scent wafting around. Skedesa remembered the times spent with Zipper, and the memories filled her with tenderness, but at the same time she was angered. Then she concentrated and jumped off the horse.
The man jumped down too, and approached her. It was clear he intended to have sex with her at once. He stretched his arms to hug her, but she shrank off and offered:
“Why don’t we have a bath in the lake?”
The man looked towards the lake, nodded and said, “Yes, perhaps that will be better.”
“Well then,” Skedesa said. “Take off your clothes and get in. I will go to the side to do something, and then I’ll come.”
The man smiled voluptuously and started undressing.
Skedesa went a little aside and hid behind a large tree. She watched him from there. When the man was in the water, she approached and took his clothes and weapons. She jumped on her horse and took his horse by the reins.
The man saw her do that and asked, in a perplexed voice:
“What are you doing??
“Nothing. Leaving,” she replied nonchalantly.
“How come? Weren’t we going to bathe?!”
“We were, but you are rather voluptuous and insolent,” Skedesa said. “You wanted to use me without asking me!”
“But you agreed to come here?!”
“So what?! Because I agreed to have a walk with you, that doesn’t mean I want to be with you!”
“You are a despicable barbarian!” the man cried.
“And you are a despicable Roman man!” she cried in return.
“Look now. I can tell Gauis Octavius that you cheated me and brought me here to rape me. Believe me, he will not be very pleased! And yet I may not tell him anything, provided you tell me where they took the Thracians captured from the upper mountain settlement that you attacked a month ago.
“Aaaaaaaa, so that is what it was all about,” the naked man said and slapped the water with his hands. “Well, I don’t know where they took them.”
“Well then. I’ll be going,” Skedesa said calmly and departed with the two horses.
“Wait, wait,” the decurion cried behind her. “I know where they are.”
She stopped the horse and waited.
“They are in Athens. That is where they took them. They are going to train them as gladiators, and the best ones may leave for Rome.”
“Look here,” Skedesa started. “If you are lying, I will make up such a nice story to tell Gaius Octavius that he will kill you immediately! Think very well. Are you telling the truth?!”
“Yes! I’m telling the truth! I give it to you, you are perfidious like an upper class Roman woman. I didn’t expect such cunning from a barbarian woman!”
“Well,” Skedesa said. “I’ll leave you the clothes. I’ll leave the horse and the weapons after I reach the Stroum, the large river. I’ll tie him somewhere there.”
Then she departed.
While she was riding, she was thinking on whether she should leave for Athens at once, or she should remain until the next day, to see if Gaius Octavius would decide to take her with him. Although the decurion had told her where they had taken the captured Thracians, she still doubted in that. It might be some dated information, or he might have lied to her, despite the circumstances. She had to remain in the camp.
On the next morning Gaius told her she could go with them. Three squadrons of horsemen as well as about fifty other soldiers set off.
They were following the coast of the river, and they took breaks from time to time. Gaius was talking to some of his subjects, and they were discussing something.
“What are they looking for?” Skedesa asked herself.
Before long she was to find out. In fact Gaius Octavius wanted to choose some place by the river, in order to build a fortification and also his own villa. The site should be nice, but also well concealed and protected by a hill or hills.
It was noon, and they decided to stop to have a meal. The soldiers made a makeshift camp, put up a tent for Gaius and then sat down to lunch.
They had almost finished eating, when all of a sudden Thracians attacked them. The Romans organized themselves quickly, and they repulsed the first attacks, but the Thracians were numerous and were coming in waves. Skedesa did not wish to fight her own tribe, and that was why she simply stood next to Gaius with her sword taken out and ready for fight. She had decided that in spite of everything she would defend him. There were also some other centurions around them. Suddenly Skedesa caught sight of a hill on which there was a stone resembling a flower. A large flower. She remembered she knew the area. Nearby there was a cave with two entrances. She could lead Gaius Octavius there and hide him.
“Come with me, master, I know where we can go, so that I can protect you, and you will be in a safe place there.”
He looked at her with eyes in which there was a large dose of suspicion, but when he met her gaze something prompted him that he could trust her.
They fought their way through the battle scene, and they started sneaking among the trees. Suddenly three Thracians jumped out. One hurled his spear right into Gaius, but Skedesa was quick to jump forward and put her shield on its way. The spear hit the shield with a scraping sound. Then, unexpectedly, it somewhat dived aside and scratched Skedesa’s thigh. She felt the pain, but she remained ready to fight. She was enraged, and attacked the three Thracians together with the other centurions. They soon coped with them and resumed their progress.
“You are wounded, there’s blood streaming,” Gaius said when they were safely away from danger.
“It’s nothing serious, master. I am used to that,” the Thracian woman said.
“Very brave, standing on the way of the spear that was aimed at me! You defended my life! I won’t forget that!” Gaius said.
Soon they reached the cave. They entered and lit torches. It turned out that it was a large and deep cave, with a number of galleries.
“Let’s go down,” Skedesa said. “We will have to reach the bottom, and from there take the way through a gallery to get out on the other side of the hills. Then we’ll get back to the camp.”
They progressed slowly. When they reached the lowest level, there were several passages in front of them.
“Which one shall we take?” a centurion asked.
Skedesa didn’t know. She had passed by there once, but she had been accompanying Zipper, and he had led the way.
“We’ll stay here, and several soldiers can go and study the galleries. The one that finds the exit will give us a signal,” Skedesa offered.
Two soldiers went to each gallery. The rest of the warriors sat down and waited. Skedesa looked around. On one of the walls she noticed a multitude of drawings. Ancient drawings left by their ancestors. Drawings thousands of years old. They depicted people with bows, chasing animals, and there were drawings showing how a group of many warriors with spears in their hands stood and looked up at a large circle – the Sun.
Suddenly, there was a blood-freezing roar from one of the galleries, and then strange noises. Clinking of weapons and more horrifying screams.
Everyone looked at the others with frightened eyes.
“What’s going on?” Gaius asked.
“I don’t know,” Skedesa replied.
“Check there immediately!” Gaius ordered.
Several soldiers made for the gallery from which the screams had come, but even before thet reached the opening the cave started to fill up with dense fog, really fast.
“Come with me, master,” Skedesa asked Gaius at once and led him to a gallery that seemed familiar to her. There was a moment that emerged out her memories, of how Zipper and she had taken the lowest gallery. The one in which one had to progress really bent down.
While they were going, she thought: “There must be some spirits, evil nymphs or satyrs, living here. I hope I remembered right, and this gallery will take us outside!”
While they were sneaking forward, the moans and ominous cries behind them were continuing.
Several more soldiers had joined them.
In about then minutes Skedesa saw light in front of her. That made her happy. Soon they went out of the cave and took a breath.
“What was that, there below? Did someone see?”
“I just saw how the soldiers dropped, felled by some force,” a centurion said. “As if there were invisible demons.”
“Buck yourselves up! Gaius said. “Demons, nonsense!”
“But master,” another soldier spoke, “ I didn’t see anything either. Only the roars were blood-curdling.”
Gaius Octavious said nothing. He looked at Skedesa and asked her, “Did you bring us to that cave on purpose?!”
“If that was so, do you think I would have told you to follow me?!” the Thracian woman asked.
“You are right; I don’t suspect you, but I had to ask anyway,” Gaius said. “And do you have an idea, what or who attacked us?”
“There have been creatures that we call “forest monsters”, roaming the area for years. Neither people nor animals. With long arms and really hairy. They move lightning fast, and hardly anyone can see them.”
“It looks like a horrible fairy tale for kids,” a centurion remarked.
Gaius Octavius looked at him and said:
“And perhaps they were simply bears sleeping inside, and we disturbed them?”
“Yes, they must have been bears,” several soldiers agreed unanimously.
“Very well. The sun is setting,” Skedesa said. “We’d better go. It’s a long way.”
While they were going through the forest, Skedesa approached Gaius Octavius and asked him:
“Master, I have a great request to beg of you.”
He looked at her and nodded.
“When you attacked my tribe, your soldiers captured several brave warriors. One of them is my brother. I want to ask you to show mercy to him and set him free.”
“What’s his name?” the Roman asked.
“OK. I don’t know their names. I saw how they brought them, but then we sold them to a person who runs gladiators’ schools. When we get back, I’ll order my people to find out where they are now.
“Thanks, master,” Skedesa said and nodded.