EATING US OUT OF HOUSE AND HOME
Sailors say there’s nothing that beats flying over the waves with the sail stretched tight and the breeze blowing steadily behind you. The great eye painted on the narrow sail stares ahead, the salt air braces you, and the feel of the ship under your feet is like a living thing. Horsemen say the same thing, except that they really have a living thing gripped between their thighs. I know, because I can ride. All Amazons can. But for me, there’s nothing better than driving a four-horse chariot at speed along a good paved road like the one into Phaistos, with the early morning sun warming you and the cool air massaging your bare tits.
That’s one thing I like about Cretan court dress with its open bodice. A woman with a good pair of tits can show them off, and I have a good pair. Since I became a potinía through marrying Aito the merchant I’m allowed to wear court dress. It’s a lovely dress, long skirted and all sewn with silver and gold thread, and with a soft round hat to match. When I was a slave, all I usually ever wore was a schenti--a loincloth--and showed a lot more of myself, chest, legs, bottom, arms, and shoulders. Funny, the men usually took no notice of me then, because I was only a slave. Since I became a potinía they can’t keep their eyes off my assets. So I often wear my "Amazon" tunic to cover them up. There’s a pair of cross-gartered sandals to go with it, and it’s as much like real Amazon dress as my schenti was like court dress, but the Cretans, bless ’em, think Amazons dress like that and I haven’t the heart to argue. Besides, my husband, Aito, bought it for me and I love him to bits, so I wouldn’t dream of gainsaying him. But anyway, "Amazon" dress shows off my legs, which go on forever if you’re over four cubits tall like me. If you measure by using your feet, then my height’s more than six of them.
When I lived in Pontos, Amazon country to you, I usually wore trousers like the women of Persia, a land to the south of my old country. But I’m rushing ahead into all sorts of explanations and I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Hero and I come from Themiskyra, the capital of Pontos on the coast of the Black Sea. I’m an Amazon--yes, we do exist, although if you’re a Cretan you’ll find that hard to believe--and there’s already a story going ’round about me and how I was enslaved, fell in love with the master, married him, fought battles, and went all over the world with him. Someone else told that story, but made me sound like some kind of goddess, which I’m not, so I thought I’d tell you a bit more about myself and how I went back to my roots, reconciled myself with my mother, met my aunt--the best warrior in Pontos, which is saying a lot--and got embroiled in more adventures.
Embroiled. That’s good. I didn’t always talk like that, but since I married Aito I’ve made every effort to improve myself. One big advantage is--I can read and write. I learned that in the temple when I was a slave there--not a temple prostitute, mind you. I never went in for that. I worked as a scribe until the High Priestess sold me to her sister, Ariadne Potinía. She’s lovely, and I really enjoyed being her handmaiden until things happened to me that you may already have heard about.
Anyway, as I say, there’s nothing like driving a four-horser at speed and that was what I was doing one summer morning. We’d got back from the ends of the earth, the Tin Isles where Aito had hoped to get a foothold in trade. The great eruption occurred just after we got back, and nearly killed us, but once things had settled we made our way home to find out how everyone was. Aito’s estate at Zakro had suffered from the ash fall and the staff had fled to his town house at Phaistos. Our ship, the Daphnis, took us to Phaistos and we hired a chariot.
I had Marita with me. She was the household nurse and a friend of mine when I was a slave, but I’ve promoted her to be my handmaiden. I like her. She’s good company and quite clever with herbs and medicines. She’s small and pretty, with a narrow waist, and she looks good when she wears her handmaiden’s long dress, which is a bit like mine. A good-looking handmaiden’s important to a potinía. You never see a lady with an ugly maid. Marita likes me and we’ve got thick as thieves lately. She was holding a parasol over me as I drove. I told her not to bother but she insists on doing things properly. She’s always going on at me about keeping out of the sun to look pale like a lady, but she’s got a hope. I’m naturally light brown because I come from the Asian side of the Hellespont.
Of course I had Aito with me, too. I still can’t really believe I’m his wife. He’s absolutely gorgeous, nearly as tall as me, bronzed, muscular with his long black hair--blacker than mine--falling in the most fashionable tresses over his shoulders and nearly down to his sword. He’s a real hunk and great to be with. Good in bed, too, and he’s taught me a lot about that side of things. Like all Amazons, I was brought up to distrust men, but more of that later.
Aito was happy to let me drive, because Amazons grow up with horses and I love charioteering, seeing as I learned to drive as a girl on my mother’s farm in Pontos. He was balancing himself against the rail, and every time I looked ’round he was smiling at me. If Marita hadn’t been with us I’d have pulled up and ravished him on the spot, but I made myself wait for it, till we got back home.
Entering the suburbs of Phaistos, I kept over to the left, like everyone else. Once upon a time, you kept left because if you wore a sword it was good to have the sword in your right hand and the wall on your left. Assuming you needed to use the sword, of course. But the ninety cities have been at peace for generations now. Still, we keep left out of custom, so I did the same but I was damned if I was going to slow down. There was nobody about because they were all at the market. You could hear the noise of it long before you got there, but we weren’t going to get there, because there was an ugly-looking mob in the way.
They had staves and knives and looked like trouble, so I pulled up in case they went at the horses. I’m never without a weapon, and I had a hunting knife stuffed down the back of my cummerbund. I eased it up as the chariot stopped, but kept it out of sight while Aito spoke to the mob. Marita, behind me, slipped a hand round my waist. I patted her hand but said nothing as I stared the mob down. Aito says it’s my eyes that do it every time. They’re very dark, black almost, and what with having battle experience and turning a bunch of slaves into a fighting force in Mycenae I suppose I do glare sometimes.
Anyway, the mob started shuffling a bit and glancing at each other. Aito stared them down even further.
"What do you want?" he asked.
The mob leader, a burly man, took a step forward, but no more than one.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"If you’re Asijaka the joiner then you know who I am," answered Aito.
"Master Aito!" exclaimed Asijaka. "I didn’t recognise you. We’d heard--well, never mind. We didn’t expect you back, that’s all."
"What’s going on?" asked Aito.
"Refugees. We thought you were refugees. They’re eating us out of house and home."
"Even here?" I said.
"You’ve met some--Potinía?" asked Asijaka. He was uncertain now, desperately trying to fit my face into an accustomed place in his memory. He knew me, had seen me before, but not dressed the way I was.
"We’ve seen refugees at Knossos," I went on. "Master Aito and I helped as best we could with clearing up after the great eruption and the inflow of the sea."
"Was Knossos swamped?" someone asked as they crowded closer. Once they recognised Aito, it was amazing how their mood changed. Aito’s one of the prosperous merchants of Phaistos with an estate at Zakro in the east, where he was rawaketa, or people’s representative. We’d come home after the goddess Diktynna made the volcano erupt and heap ash on the northern coast of Crete a month earlier. Then came great waves that drowned thousands. Aito and I were lucky to escape in one piece.
"Knossos is safe," said Aito, "but a lot of the coastal villages and farms were swamped. We’ve just heard about Palaikastro."
People joined us from the market, every face either dark with anxiety or alight with curiosity.
"What happened at Palaikastro?" asked someone. "I’ve got relatives there."
Aito shook his head sadly.
"I hope for your sake the Goddess was merciful to them," he said. "The whole city was hit by three or four gigantic waves, much worse than what hit us near Amnisos. Palaikastro is rubble now, I fear."
The other man’s knees seemed to lose strength and he caught at our chariot.
"Destroyed?" he croaked.
"All of it. The wave that hit us was bad enough, but it seems to have been worse towards the east."
"Gournia?" came a question.
"I don’t know about Gournia, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope for that town either."
"Where were you?" asked Asijaka.
"At the Dolphin Inn near Amnisos. I nearly lost my own life when the waves swept the two of us off the terrace." His arm went ’round my waist and I snuggled up to him. "Like a true Amazon, Hero kept my head above water until we reached safety. I thank the goddess I married her."
Diktynna! I must have turned as red as the chariot we were driving. Marita smiled as though she was my sister, and all at once everyone took their eyes off my tits and noticed the marriage bracelets on my bare arms.
"She’s a slave," said somebody, but he soon shut up when Aito just looked at him. I whipped up the horses while the crowd fell back.
"He’s gone and married his slave!" came the voice again, finding courage once we started off.
If you’re from the islands you may not understand why they were so astounded. In Crete, if a woman marries and is taken out of slavery, her children can’t inherit and are held in dishonour, a problem we would face one day, and we had no solution to it.
As we drove, the street suddenly filled with men and youths running out of side streets and doorways, all heading in the same direction, back to where we’d been stopped.
"Trouble," I said, and drove to a square where we could turn. The chariot squealed and rumbled in the tightest circle I could manage, and we headed back.
In the market square a family stood bewildered, with people crowding towards them shouting abuse and threats.
"They’re strangers to Phaistos," said Aito.
It was their children that I felt for. They were clinging to their parents, crying loudly at the anger of those around them.
"Tell them!" shouted a woman to Asijaka. "Tell them to leave. There’s not enough food for us now, what with them coming here. Tell them to get back where they belong!"
The mob advanced menacingly and the family retreated.
"For the love of Diktynna," pleaded the father, a respectable-looking man. "We need to eat. The volcano---"