Spring Equinox Festival
A metallic, wavering note rang out as my partner's and my burnished swords clashed together over and over again.
"Watch your left!" my partner, a long-legged teenage boy with shaggy brown hair, a determined chin, and dark brown, laughing eyes, shouted at me as he lunged to my right.
"Shut up!" I growled, sliding my sword to my left just in time to block his next attack. This force of his blow made me stumble slightly. My opponent pressed his attack with a flurry of rapid blows that left me back-peddling furiously.
"Your left is open again!" he taunted.
"I'm not listening to you!" I shouted back, bringing my sword to the right. Seizing the opening he brought his sword in a crescent moon to cut at my left. The flat of his sword wacked my side, hard. I doubled over, wheezing.
"No fair!" I gasped out.
"What?" he asked, widening his eyes. "I was just warning you!"
"I give up," I proclaimed, collapsing onto my back in the grass. My opponent whooped and ran around the field, cart-wheeling and jumping in a victory dance that best resembled a chicken's sad attempt at flight. I chuckled at his familiar antics. Odysseus and I had been friends since I was eight years old.
My father had decided to take me and my two older brothers along to one of the boor hunts. As it was my first hunt, he told my brothers to watch out for me. So, naturally, they locked me in one the stable stalls with "Demon's Flame." "If you play dead, maybe he'll ignore you!" they advised me, and left with their friends, laughing raucously. Demon's Flame, it turned out, was a charcoal black stallion that, I'll swear to this day, was twenty hands high, had the teeth (and breath) of a lion, and, true to his name, had hungry eyes the color of fire. After 20 minutes of standing stock still, while Demon's Flame nibbled my hair, slowly working his way up towards the main course, the stall door unlatched. A shaggy, brown-haired boy peered in.
"Oh!" he said, raising his eyebrows. "I see you've found a new friend, Micros," he addressed the stallion, stroking its nose fondly. He stuck out his hand, grinning broadly at me. "I'm Odysseus," he said. "How'd you like to go for a ride?" 10 minutes of explanations and hurried plotting later, we were both astride Micros, the Greek word for small, Odysseus explained. The look on my brother's faces when I galloped past them on Demon's Flame, whooping loudly, was the sweetest gift I could imagine.
Although Odysseus was two years older than I, we became fast friends. Since we lived at opposite ends of Ithaca, we saw each other only a few weeks a year—at the week-long hunts or festivals held each season—but it hardly mattered; our time apart just gave us more stories to tell. Odysseus's exuberance was contagious and we never ran out of games to play or pranks to pull.
The sun was low in the sky and mist clung to the streets like a blanket, making me yearn for my soft, so, so warm bed.
"Remind me again why we had to get up so early?" I whined.
"You know the best bakery goods sell early in the morning!" Odysseus scolded me for the hundredth time since rudely dumping me; blanket, mattress, and all from my bed this morning. Yesterday afternoon, after being told by the baker for the third day in a row that they were all out of sticky buns, he'd decided we should get one early this morning. Safe in my knowledge that Odysseus had never voluntarily made it out of bed before noon, I'd agreed to his plan. Never in my worst nightmares did I ever expect to find him at my door at 6:30 in the morning.
"Hey!" Odysseus shouted, breaking through my hazy day-dreaming. "There's the Dhakos!" The Dhakos was a bakery at the other end of town, which, for some unfathomable reason, Odysseus had decided this morning was the only bakery whose sticky buns would satisfy him. Odysseus dragged me around to the back of the bakery.
"What are you doing?" I protested sleepily.
"Shhh!" he whispered vehemently. Then, he crept to the windowsill of the bakery where a tray of redolent sticky-buns were cooling. Grinning wickedly he grabbed one in each hand and motioned for me to do the same. Maybe it was his expectant look, or perhaps it was just the delicious aroma of cinnamon and brown sugar wafting from the buns, but before I realized what I was doing, I'd grabbed two as well. I turned to run…and looked straight into the accusing hazel eyes of girl with wavy brown, shoulder-length hair.
"Shoot!" I swore. I turned to tell Odysseus we should cut our losses and run, but he was already walking towards the girl with a dazed look on his face. "Oh we are soo, soo screwed," I muttered, thoroughly galled. Of all the times for Odysseus to notice a pretty girl, I thought…and, I suddenly realized, she was very pretty.
"Hey," Odysseus said. The girl glared at him and crossed her arms. Odysseus stared at her for a moment and then grinned impishly, "Want a sticky bun?" He asked brazenly, holding out a bun.
Just then, a voice shouted behind us, "Hey! Those are my buns!" We all jumped and turned. The baker was waving a spatula at us, his face bright red. The girl smiled sweetly at the baker, and suddenly darted forward, grabbed a sticky bun from the tray, and, laughing wildly, dashed down the street. A pensive smile spread across Odysseus's face and then we were sprinting after her.
When we finally stopped in a quieter side-street far away, she straightened her skirt and introduced herself. "I'm Penelope," she said, with a shy smile, sticking out her hand. "I'm Odysseus," Odysseus replied and shook it.
Loud shouts floated in through the window. I was nestled in a recess of the library in a hard fought for window-seat, with a stack of scrolls a foot high recommended to me by the librarian. I glanced out the window and briefly considered joining the other boys, who were sword-fighting raucously in the training court. I sighed and quickly rejected the idea.
If I joined them I probably wouldn't have a partner; I'd always been paired up with Odysseus. But more importantly, from the training court I would have a perfect view of the fields where Odysseus and I used to play—where now I knew I'd find Odysseus walking through the daisy-dotted fields with Penelope, giving her flowers, whispering in her ear, and laughing like the best of friends. I had no urge to watch this foreign, grown-up Odysseus flirt with Penelope. I sighed and turned back to my scroll.
The library became my safe haven. After a morning of playing the third wheel, I would break off from the love-birds with a feeble excuse. Petty and craven as it was, I gained a small measure of satisfaction from seeing Odysseus squirm as he half-heartedly begged me reconsider and stay; really, he didn't mind at all, all the while hoping I wouldn't call his bluff. Tempted as I was, inevitably I would decline, and he would feign disappointment. Frustration and jealousy would roar up in my chest, but I'd force myself to smile, turn, and leave.
Then, I'd notice a bright blue butterfly cross my path, a yellow flower by the side of the road, the smell of fresh baked bread, kids playing tag. And gradually, my step would lighten, my pulse would slow, and my body would relax. By the time I'd reach the library, my anger would have cooled to a gentle simmer, and I'd fill my mind with the musty scent of scrolls, the soft feel of leather, and a steady flow of words that need never end.
Then, suddenly, the hunt was over. In a sudden fit of comradeship brought on by the impending doom of work looming all too near, Penelope, Odysseus, and I parted with heart-felt, slightly teary good-byes. And then we went home.
Summer Solstice Festival
I swung my left leg over my horse; a bay colored Skyros, and hopped down. Flicking the reins twice with my left hand to get my horse, Dusty's, attention, I jogged off to the stables. After a quick rub-down, I left him in his stable, happily champing away at some chaff, and trotted down to the sword-fighting field. I scanned the crowd, returning the waves of a few boys I recognized, but Odysseus's shaggy brown head was conspicuously absent. Shrugging my shoulders, I ran to check the kitchens of the castle we were staying at.
However, nearly two hours later, having checked all of Odysseus's usual haunts, I was back to where I started; lounging by field, trying to convince myself he was busy with chores. As I longingly watched a group of chatting boys pass me on their way back to the palace, I overheard a snippet of their conversation.
"Is something wrong?"
"Nah, he's checking up on his family's farms along the Northern border of Ithaca with Lord Laertes."
At the name of Odysseus' father, I started. Odysseus—not coming? My heart plummeted. Suddenly the break for the Summer Solstice Festival didn't sound so great anymore.
I slowly stood up, cradling my stack of scrolls against my chest. I turned to leave, and BAM! My scrolls tumbled to the floor with a crash. I swore, then looked up at the person I'd bumped into. A tall, pretty girl around my age with wavy brown hair just past her ears and hazel eyes stared at me, mouth quivering with laughter. My cheeks burned.
"I beg your pardon for bumping into you, lady," I apologized. The girl burst out into laughter. I frowned.
"L…l…lady," she gasped out. "Amphinomous, don't you remember me?"
"I…uhm," I stared at her blankly for a moment. She looked away and the corner of her mouth dipped downwards. A flash of memory came to me—a sweet smile, wavy brown hair flying around a corner, feet pounding on pavement, and the cinnamon smell of sticky-buns. I slapped myself on the forehead. "Penelope," I said, mentally cursing my stupidity.
She smiled lop-sidedly, "Glad to see I made such a strong impression."
"No! Aw, shucks. Please don't be offended," I said. "It's just your hair is so…your hair!" I added, hand flying to my mouth.
Her hand rose to her hair self-consciously. "It's not that bad, is it? I wanted to try it short…"
"No…it's kinda cute," I said. She ducked her head and I blushed furiously. I hurriedly bent over to pick up my scrolls. She kneed down across from me, tucking her chiton, a long tunic, under her legs and gathered up her scrolls. When my cheeks had cooled, I looked up. Penelope met my gaze and smiled. We stood.
I glanced at her scrolls. My eyebrows raised in surprise. Before I could stop myself I blurted out, "I love that scroll!"
"Excuse me?" she asked.
"Oh, umm, I just really like that author," I rubbed the back of my neck.
"You've read his scrolls before?" she exclaimed.
"Of course!" I said, shocked.
A smile spread across her face. "You have no idea how many people have never even heard his name!"
"But…his scrolls are classics. Have you read…."
We talked all through the morning, ate lunch together at the castle's dining hall, and spent the afternoon in the market. That evening we walked back to the castle through the palace gardens and parted with easy smiles. Filled with the promise of lunch together at a nearby café on the morrow, I flew back to my rooms and into bed, wishing by the hours until noon the next day.
Warm sunlight filtered through the canopy of the forest, pooling in the clearing around me like a pool of silky, warm water. I fidgeted idly with a moist pad of moss, squeezing it and watching the droplets plop to the forest floor to be absorbed by another patch of moss. A thick, musty, sweet smell rose from the crushed moss to mingle with the crisp, spicy scent of pine needles. I smiled. Lazily, I squinted an eye against the sun to gaze at Penelope.
She was sitting with her back against the bole of the tree across from me, her knees curled to her chest around the scroll she was reading. Her chin-length hair shone soft auburn in the sun. Her bangs slowly slid across her eyes. I reached across and tucked her hair behind her ear. She glanced up and smiled at me, hazel eyes sparkling in the light. My gaze was drawn to the curve of her full upper lip. Slowly I leaned in and touched my lips to hers. Her eyes widened in surprise, then half-closed. Her arms snaked around my neck. Suddenly she jerked back and jumped up.
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
"Uh, kissing you?" I replied, with a lopsided half-smile.
"Why would you do that?"
"Because I like you," I said, my smile spreading.
Penelope balled her hands into fists, glaring at me. "It's not funny! A kiss might not mean anything to you, but it's important to me!"
I jumped to my feet. "Oh, really, Penelope!" I replied crossly, weeks' worth of penned up bitterness bursting from my tongue. "You and Odysseus kissed plenty of times and you didn't make a fuss then!"
Penelope's arms dropped to her sides and she lowered her gaze, the fight suddenly leaving her limp and collapsed, like a sail without wind. "Well, that…was before," she said softly and hesitantly. "I thought I could do this and we…could be friends, but I guess we can't." She glanced up at my face once, and I could have sworn I saw tears running down her face. "Please, I'd rather not talk to you anymore," she whispered. Then, she whirled around and ran from the clearing.
"Penelope!" I called, but she was gone. I stared blankly at the gap in the trees where she'd run away. I took a step forward, then another, then another, I broke into a jog. I ran faster and faster until I was sprinting after her, branches lashing my face. Suddenly, I broke through the trees and stumbled to a halt, panting furiously. I glanced around. In front of me was an empty, open. I swore aloud, cursing my bad luck, confusing forests, unmarked trails, my inattention, girls who spoke in riddles, boys who abandoned their friends, and most of all my stupid, wagging tongue. By the end I was screaming. For good measure I turned and kicked a tree—and swore again.
Hopping around on one foot, grabbing the other with my hand, I sighed and took another look at my surroundings. I was just past the precincts of the town. Far across the planed field I spotted a road. I limped off towards it and followed the signs back towards the castle, staring at the ground, unhearing, unseeing.
For the next week I checked the library, the cafeteria, the garden, and all the places in the town Penelope & I had visited, but to no avail. The few times I spotted Penelope she was surrounded by a gaggle of other girls and when I tried to approach, they quickly encircled Penelope and hurried away, glancing back at me frequently and muttering. Not that I had much time to mope during the day—my dad, noticing my glum disposition, sentenced me to three hours of morning training the older boys in their training and sparring sessions with the older guards. In the afternoon, with the festival coming up, I was busy all day running chores for the ladies of the castle, decorating the town, gathering supplies for the myriad of festal rituals we'd perform, gathering fire-wood for the bon-fire, or hunting with the older boys. It was only at night that Penelope haunted me. I would flop into bed late each night, my body exhausted, but my mind still whirring. I'd toss and turn until long past midnight wondering what I'd done wrong, how I'd offended her, whether she'd ever even liked me…or whether we'd always just been friends.
"I will be here a while yet, so you are free to leave. Be back in an hour," my father said, then turned back to the tanner. "Concerning the coarser leather…"
I slipped out of the shop. My father and I were visiting the capital city of Ithaca for the day, so he could commission several items from a well-known tanner. Dull as it sounded, in reality it was far worse. I'd spent all morning staring at strips of leather that I would have sworn were identical, while my father spent minutes meticulously feeling over this piece and carefully sniffing that one, only to reject them both. I shook my head and scanned the road outside the shop. Bevies of men and women bustled by, stopping at the stalls lining the cobbled street to examine their wares or chat with the vendor. The salty sea breeze tingled my nose, vying with the sumptuous scents of smoked meat and freshly-baked bread. I hadn't been in Ithaca since the Summer Solstice festival nearly four months ago and the memories still stung. I sighed.
"Amphinomous!" A voice called.
I scanned the sea of people passing by, my eyes suddenly resting on a familiar figure. Odysseus bounced up and down, waving furiously at me. He cleaved his way through the throng, using his elbows liberally. When he finally reached me, he threw his arms around me in a rough hug.
"Odysseus!" I winged a greeting.
"I haven't seen you in forever!" he said. "How've you been?"
"Good," I said. "And how have you been?"
"Great!" he said, grinning broadly, nearly vibrating with excitement. "Boy do I have news for you…," he checked himself, "but first, how was the Spring Equinox Festival?"
I froze. "Good," I choked out, with a fair approximation of a smile.
Odysseus didn't buy it for a second. "That bad, huh?"
A lie sprung to the tip of my tongue, but I hesitated. "Yeah," I finally said quietly. Odysseus raised an eyebrow, but I shook my head. Odysseus frowned. I sighed, I hadn't seen Odysseus in months, yet it was only two minutes into our conversation, and already the mood was sour. "So," I said, attempting an upbeat tone, "What was your 'big news?'"
Odysseus broke out into a grin again. "You'll never believe it…but I'm betrothed!"
My jaw dropped open. "Are…are you serious?" I asked, "Because, I swear, if you're joking, I will haunt you for the remainder of your life." He shook his head, bouncing on his toes. "Odysseus!" I cried. I grabbed him in a fierce hug.
"So, who's the lucky girl?" I asked, releasing him.
"Who do you think? Penelope, of course!"
My smile disappeared and the blood slowly drained from my face, pooling in my toes, where it froze, rooting me to the ground. Unable to talk, to move; petrified, while my heart and mind raced. Penelope, betrothed? Although I hadn't spoken to her in months—since our fight—I'd somehow assumed we'd get back together. And now—betrothed? I looked desperately for a loop-hole, did I know some other Penelope? Had Odysseus found out about Penelope's and my relationship and was getting revenge on me? Frantically scanning for some signs of ulterior motives, I stared at Odysseus's face.
I expected his excitement, happiness, and even love, but I found no traces of bitterness or anger at me, despite my rude reaction to his statement, only concern. I dropped my gaze, stung. A sudden revelation coursed through me—Odysseus hadn't been a bad friend—I had. From the first moment he'd fallen for Penelope, instead of being happy for him, I'd behaved bitterly and selfishly and been jealous of their friendship. Then, the moment Odysseus had left the picture; I'd flirted with his girlfriend and stolen a kiss from her. Perhaps I could justify my bitterness—Odysseus hadn't been a fair to me, abandoning our friendship entirely for his love, and one could say I deserved a fair chance at winning Penelope. However, now, as Odysseus was filled with concern for my well being and Penelope had long since rejected me, I had no right to object.
"Congratulations on your betrothal," I said. "I hope that you and Penelope have a long marriage together and conceive many more children. You truly deserve one another." And I walked away from the friend who abandoned me, the kiss that wasn't mine, and the woman who couldn't love me back.
Odysseus and Penelope were married on October 16, 1148. Their best man never came.