Solstice Encounter

by Nancy M

The characters in this story, with the exception of Perthidius and the bad guys, are the property of Universal/MCA, and Renaissance Pictures. I am using them without permission and with gratitude for their creation.

This is a kidís story. My friends at Tavern Wall say it reminds them of Disney. Whatever. There is no sex in this story. Sorry, but theyíre only kids. There is some violence, but less than the average video game. Itís a story about where courage comes from, and where dreams are born.


The Warrior and the Winter, a scroll by Perthidius

I know we all decided not to tell anyone what really happened, but I felt like I would bust, so Gabby told me to write it all down. She said she wished she could, but her father's been keeping a pretty close eye on her lately, and she doesn't dare, because he might find the scroll. And then she'd really be in trouble. Even more than she already is. Which is plenty.

Anyway, we had the afternoon off from school. With Solstice coming up, old Plostes lets us kids go real early. I think he just wants the time himself, but none of us is going to complain. A lot of us were working on Solstice presents for our families anyway.

Perdicas and I had finished ours already. I had done some chores for Andros, the miller. The gears in his grist mill are always getting busted, and since I'm still small, and pretty good at figuring things out, he has me climb inside and replace them. The last time he gave me a nice leather pack, which I'm going to give to Perd for Solstice.

I'm wasting scroll space talking about Solstice. Gabby will be mad. She says words are precious and shouldn't be wasted. (I think she really means scroll paper is precious, since I've never known Gab to be spare with words.) Anyway, back to the story.

Plostes let us go right after lunch. It wasn't too cold yet - there wasn't any ice on the pond. But the sun didn't warm us any. Gab wanted to go to the upper meadow beyond the siege lines to get some dried flowers or weeds or something for her mother's gift. Now usually it's just Gabby and and Perdicas and me that stick together. We've been thick as thieves ever since Perd was old enough to be trusted to look out for us. (I wish our folks would trust me to be in charge once in a while, but Perdís older, and he always will be.)

That day Gab's father wanted us to look after her sister so their mom could have a few hours off. So we had to take Lilla. She's not so bad. She's just awful young.

And then there was Seraphin. Iím not sure how we got stuck with her that day, but we did.

Maybe I should introduce us.

I'm Perthidius. I'm eleven, and my big brother Perdicas is thirteen. He's already getting broad in the shoulder, and his voice squeaks sometimes. We laugh at him about it, but he's pretty good-natured.

Gabrielle is our best friend. She's eleven, like me, but she's really adventurous for a girl. She's not real big, but she's solid. You can count on her to not let go of you when we swing each other down cliffs and stuff.

Her little sister is Lilla, and like I said, she doesn't usually hang out with us. Her mother keeps her close to home.

And then there's Seraphin. She's only a year younger than Gab, but she doesn't have half the sense. She'll believe anything. If a stranger told her that the sky was falling, she'd run outside with a bucket to catch the pieces. My Dad says she'll be knocked up by the time she's fourteen, whatever that means.

So we started out the road toward the north hills. Potidaea is on a narrow peninsula between the seas so when we go out of town we either go south toward Mende, or we go north, toward the siege lines.

Us kids can get away with stuff the adults donít dare try. The Athenians have been laying siege to Potidaea for over a year now, and theyíd kill any man who dared go past the lines. But they donít seem to mind kids. Maybe they miss their own children and like to watch us play. We even got to know some of the Athenian soldiers who regularly patrolled our part of the plains. Mostly they ignore us, but sometimes if we bug them enough, theyíll call us Potty heads (because weíre Potidaean), and throw pebbles at us to drive us away.

It was our own Potidaean sentries that we had to worry about getting past. Theyíd tan our hides if they caught us out beyond the siege lines. But me and Perd and Gab had found a shallow gulley that gets us up to the north meadows, through the woods, and out of sight.

So that day we snuck up the long gulley through the woods, being real quiet, until we got to the edge of the meadows. We stayed low for another few hundred paces, until we were well out into the meadowís tall grass.

Seraphin had started to pepper us (me mostly) with constant questions, and Perd and I were wondering how we were going to keep this excursion from our parents. But then again, no one believes anything Seraphin says anyway. Gab wanted dried flowers, and what Gab wants, Gab is gonna get, with or without us. So we kept on.

Seraphin was getting real annoying.

"I wanna go back now. Can we? Huh?"

I told her no, not Ďtill Gab got her stuff.

"Itís cold."

I gave her my jacket.

"What happens if I yell real loud?"

I quick shushed her. We were out of sight of our sentries, but not out of earshot.

"Can I play with your knife?"

"No."

"Can you play piggy back with me?"

"Not now."

"Why donít you like me?"

I sighed. "I like you, Seraphin. But we have stuff to do right now."

"Important stuff?"

"Yeah." Iíd swear the kid had busted sprockets on the wheels in her head.

Perdicas had chosen to be our lookout, watching to make sure no Potidaean soldiers saw us. We didnít pay any attention to the Athenians.

Gabby went about her business with her usual enthusiasm. She was looking for one particular herb that had a purple flower. I hadnít ever seen anything like that, but she was sure there used to be some up here, so we stayed as the afternoon went by, while Gab poked in every ravine. I was daydreaming, picturing Androsí mill and trying to figure a way for his gears to fit together better. I knew that Iíd be too big to crawl in there pretty soon, and it would be good if Andros didnít need them fixed so often.

After a while I realized that Seraphin wasnít bugging me anymore. Lilla was still nearby, tossing pebbles at a ring of sticks she had made, and I could see Gabby well below us on the slope, picking over some grasses she had found. Perdicas lay on his stomach on a knoll, watching to the south, and looking ever so responsible.

Then I heard voices behind me. They were laughing and making crude comments in their effete Athenian accents. I poked my head up.

"Look at the little Potty! Doesnít she look sweet!" one said.

"Yeah. Sweet enough to eat," responded the other.

At first I was just mad at Seraphin for being stupid enough to go up to strangers. But then I realized that I had never seen these particular Athenians. They were probably fresh replacements who might not feel the same way about kids that our regulars did. Thatís when I started to get worried.

Seraphin was just walking right up to them, wearing that empty-headed dopey look of hers. I gave a hawk screech, which is Perdís and Gabís and my signal for trouble. They both looked toward me, and I pointed to Seraphin. Lilla came over to me and I pushed her down in the tall grass.

"My what plump young arms she has," I could hear the first Athenian continue.

"Yeah. Youíd think the Pottys are eating pretty well in spite of our siege." There was real evil in the second manís voice. "Maybe theyíre just trying to keep the breeding stock healthy."

"Hey little girl, want to a really big sword?"

The other man laughed harshly, although I didnít see anything funny.

Seraphin smiled up at them, and reached out her hand. "Sure mister. My Daddy has a sword too."

Both men laughed. My skin crawled. I was frantic, trying to think of a way to warn Seraphin without giving the rest of us away.

"Yeah. Itís big. Iíll show ya," the soldier said, and started to unbuckle his sword belt.

You know how sometimes when something big happens, the image of what you see is sort of frozen in time, and locked in your mind? I remember the slate gray sky looming lower over us. I think I actually wondered at that moment when the sun had disappeared. Funny the things that go through your mind in a split second. The trees across the meadow were almost bare, just a few brittle leaves hanging on to rattle ominously. And the air smelled like snow.

In the middle of this were the two Athenians, leering at Seraphin and fondling the hem of her skirt. She just stood there, dopey and smiling.

I saw Gabrielle off to my left, working her way up the slope, and Lilla looked at me with big eyes.

Suddenly the grass about ten meters from the soldiers exploded with a brown streak. Before I could catch my breath Perdicas slammed headfirst into the man closest to Seraphin. The manís breath rushed out with as mighty "oomph" as he was knocked off his feet. Perdicas stayed with him, pummeling him with his fists. For several moments Perd actually had the better of him, fueled as he was by his fury, and the soldier being surprised.

The other soldier turned his attention from Seraphin to watch his partner. "Hey Posnius! Looks like weíve got another one! And this one is more to your tastes." He started to reach over to grab Perdicas by the collar and lift him off Posnius.

Just then another streak burst from the grass. It was Gabrielle! She rushed at Seraphin and grabbed her by the arm. When the girl didnít follow immediately, Gabby just picked her up and started toward Lilla and me.

"Hey!" the second man shouted. He had hauled Perdicas to his feet while Posnius was standing up. "Stop right there, you little Potty bitch!" (I know Iím not supposed to use bad language, but I wasnít supposed to be there in the first place, and I want to tell the story the way it happened.)

That didnít stop Gabrielle. She was trying to run, carrying Seraphin, but she wasnít getting away near fast enough. The Athenian caught her and knocked her down with one backhand swipe. Gabby didnít yelp. She just started backing up on the ground, staring at the man with pure venom in her eyes. Iíd never seen that look on her before, and I hope I never do again.

"This blond bitch is more trouble than sheís worth," the man said as he began to draw his sword.

"Donít be too quick, Armacles. I still wanna have some fun first," Posnius said. He had Perdís hands gripped in one of his, and was lifting him by his shirt front with the other, breathing close into his face. "I wanna hear this one squeal."

Armacles had caught Gab up, and started to kick at Seraphin. For once in her life the girl had the sense to run. Of course she ran in the wrong direction, but I guess any direction away from Armacles wasnít really wrong. I stood up and rushed at Armacles. I figured maybe I could busy him enough so that Gab could get away too.

Thatís when all Tartarus broke loose.

Now Iíll try to describe everything, but so much happened so fast that I might get it confused.

First we heard this really weird yell, like a banshee, or maybe one of those Arabian women. It certainly wasnít like any battle paean Iíd ever heard.

The Athenians jerked their heads up. Whatever it was, it was the last thing Armacles ever saw. There was a whoosh sound, and the next thing I knew Armacles was on the ground next to Gab, clutching at his throat while his blood ran out.

We Potidaean kids have seen plenty of death, what with a year-long siege. But this was a bit more close-up than we were used to. Instead of running, Gab just stared as the light left the manís eyes. I was rooted where I stood, doing the same thing. I hoped Lilla was still down in the grass where she couldnít see.

None of us saw where the woman warrior came from. She was just suddenly there. Perdicas had taken advantage of the distraction to break free, but instead of running, he was pounding on the man again. (I know this was pretty stupid on Perdís part. The man wore battle armor and all Perd had were his bare fists. But he was plenty mad and that must have kept him from thinking.)

Anyway, this tall woman warrior is suddenly just there. She grabs Perdicas by the hair to haul him off the Athenian. Perd must have thought she was the enemy too, Ďcuz he starts swinging at her. She just holds him off by his hair, so heís almost on tip-toes, and calmly draws her sword. Perd turned white, thinking heís about to die, but instead she turns to Posnius.

"Draw your sword. Iíll not kill you in cold blood, but, by the god Ares, I will kill you," she snarled.

Perdicas had stopped flailing at the air. Without even looking at him, she tossed him aside, and he scrambled over toward me. We backed into the grass and hunkered down, peering out between the stalks.

The Athenian Posnius now stood with his sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. He had an evil smile that showed rotten teeth, and I think he was thinking it would be easy to take out a woman. Boy was he wrong.

The woman warrior was almost casual. I took a good look at her for the first time. She wore light armor over a leather tunic, and had a cloak. Her hair was jet black, and Iím sure she wasnít more than twenty years old. She had an arrogant, sinister air about her. She had just saved Gabís and Perdís lives, but at that point I wasnít at all sure she was a preferable fate.

"Like to mess with kids, do you?" she growled.

Posnius shook his head back and sneered. "Whatís it to you, bitch? Got a soft spot for the little brats? I suppose you have one of your own, back at home?" He lunged, and the warrior dodged it.

"Yeah. Something like that," she answered. Her voice was a tad less sinister for just a moment.

By now Gab had crawled over to Perd and me. Lilla had stayed safe where I left her, bless her heart. Gab was watching this exchange with more intent than Iíd ever seen. And thatís a lot.

Posnius took another lunge, and the woman dodged again. Even Perd and I could see where she could easily have run him through as she spun, but she settled for slitting the inside of his thigh, just below the tunic, stopping short of his groin. Perdicas and I looked at each other. She was playing with him! Just like a cat plays with its prey. We shivered.

"So maybe youíll want to show that scar to your next Ďconquestí, huh?" she said as the Athenian spun away.

The man clutched at his leg, and all trace of smile disappeared from his face. She lowered her sword, inviting him to attack again, but he had learned, and circled warily.

"Or maybe you need a few less teeth." In a single move she gathered herself and vaulted over his head, neatly catching his mouth with her heel as she flipped.

The manís head snapped back but he managed to keep his feet. He stared pure hatred at her as he spat out two teeth.

"So youíre the goody-two-shoes of Chalcidice, huh," he barked. "Out to rid the world of all us nasty bad Athenians."

"Thatís where youíre wrong," she answered. One lightning jab and she had sliced the manís cheek. "I have nothing against Athenians. Some of my best friends are Athenians. And I am most certainly not a goody-two-shoes." Another jab sliced the other cheek. "My army goes where it wants, plunders what it needs, and crushes any who stand up to us. So no." She emphasized this with a backslash that opened the manís right arm from elbow to wrist and left it dangling. "No, I am not a goody-two-shoes."

The Athenian dropped his dagger and took the sword in his left hand. All trace of reason vanished from his eyes. "But you are a woman," he said raggedly, "and Iíll not be bested by f***ing c*** [very bad words here]!" He charged again.

This time the woman didnít toy with him. She feinted left to throw him off balance, then swept his knees. As he spun toward her she slid her sword neatly up under his armor into his lung.

She pulled him up to her, and held him about an inch from her face.

"Yes. I am a f***ing c**t, and you are a f***ing child molester who will never, ever," (this was punctuated by a dagger thrust to the groin that made me and Perd groan) "touch another child." The man died with her fury filled face filling his vision. She lowered him to the ground and slid her sword and dagger out of his body. The sword made a scraping, sucking sound as it withdrew. She actually smiled as she heard it.

I realized I had been holding my breath, and released it with a whoosh. It smoked in the cold air. Perd sucked his breath a few times and stood up. He was trembling, but started to walk toward the woman. She stopped him with a glare.

I would have expected that Pericas to wilt under that glare. But he stood his ground. I was never so proud of him. "I was just going toÖI wantedÖto thank you," he stammered.

She looked him up and down, then spared a quick glance at Gab and me. Lilla was still laid down in the grass.

"Donít thank me," she said, her voice real level and sort of mean. "I didnít do it for you. I did it because I hate what they are." She glared at the bodies on the ground.

Gabrielle had been silent the whole time. Something made me look at her just then. It was spooky. She was watching the warrior with a mixture of fear and awe and respect and something that made me think she had found an idol. I didnít like that idea one bit. I made a note to ask her about it later.

"So go on," the warrior snarled at us. "Go home. And stay away from soldiers until you learn how to fight like one."

I pulled Lilla to her feet and the four of us started backing away.

"Arenít you forgetting something?" the woman growled. "Your little friend who ran away? I wouldnít go home without her." And with that she turned and trotted off, disappearing over the knoll.

We must have stood there for two or three minutes, just catching our breaths and trying to stop shaking. As hard as we tried to avoid looking at the dead Athenians, there they were, bigger than life. Or death. The icy wind blew down the meadow and rustled the grass.

Finally Perdicas straightened up. "IíllÖIíll go find Seraphin. You guys head on back and wait for us at the gulley." Perd always took charge.

Gabrielle cocked her head and glanced in the direction of the woods. "Do you think itís a good idea to split up?"

Perdicas paused for a moment, looking at Lilla. She was shivering and there was a haunted look in her big eyes. "I think we need to get Lilla out of meadow as soon as we can. Wonít do her any good to run into any more Athenians, either." He paused again, looking squarely at me. "Perthidius can take care of you. I know he can."

His confidence stunned me for a moment. I wasnít at all anxious to let Perd out of my sight, but I drew myself up. "Makes sense. Weíll meet you at the gulley."

Gab thought for a minute too, then nodded. A big snowflake drifted down, brushing her face. "Yeah. Okay. Perdicas, you be careful, hear me?"

Perdicas gave what he probably thought was a reassuring nod, then turned and jogged away in the direction Seraphin had run. She had laid the grass down pretty good in her haste, so we figured it wouldnít be hard to find her.

The snowfall was rapidly increasing. Lilla was shivering, so Gab and I didnít waste any time. I figured once we got to the gulley weíd be out of the wind while we waited for the others.

We started across the meadow. It was getting tough to see. The tree line had disappeared and with no sun it was hard to tell direction. The wind had been at our backs when we started, and we tried to keep it there, but the swirling gusts made it difficult.

I knew Gab could take about anything. Weíd been in enough scrapes and stuff, and sheís never complained, never panicked. Sheís tough. One time the three of us were sneaking down a steep ravine, pretending we were attacking a bunch of Trojans. The shale gave way and we slid down a long way, ending up in a heap at the bottom. All of us were cut up, but Gab had torn all the skin off her elbow and it bled like a stuck pig. She never whimpered or cried or anything. It mustíve taken us hours to climb back out, and we werenít even sure we were gonna make it, but she just kept on plugging, like a real trooper.

So I wasnít worried about Gab. It was Lilla. She was cold and hungry and scared, and had seen stuff no kid ought to see.

We had to slow down more and more as we picked our way through the tall grass. The snow was wet and stuck to the grass, which pulled at us as we pushed through it. And our feet were wet and cold.

Finally the trees loomed in front of us. We were pretty relieved when we huddled down behind a big oak to collect ourselves. Lilla was shivering so bad her teeth clattered, so Gab gave her her cloak. I had already given my jacket to Seraphin.

After a few minutes we knew it was time to move on. We stood up and Gab looked at me kind of funny.

"Perth, which way is the gulley from here?"

Now I really didnít know. That question had bugged me ever since we got to the trees and I hadnít recognized any of them. I was kind of hoping Gab knew.

I looked at her, wishing like all Tartarus I knew the answer. She has these clear hazel eyes that can see right into you. Her cheeks were ruddy with cold, and a nasty bruise was showing on her jaw where Armacles had smacked her. Still, she was so pretty.

"Uh, Gab, Iím not sure." Wasnít any use lying. Good leaders donít lie. They just look confident no matter what. "But I think if we go downhill we should get to it."

She nodded once. "Makes sense. You want me to go first?"

"Nah. You stay behind Lilla. Iíll keep an eye out for Potidaean sentries."

"Are you looking to avoid them, or to find them?" Gab asked skeptically. "In either case, I donít think theyíll be on the lookout to catch a bunch of delinquent kids in this storm. Or that they would care."

We trudged away, keeping the meadow in sight to our right so as not to get lost deeper in the woods, and heading downhill. It was getting later and the gloom closed in. The wind whipped through the treetops, but we walked in a sort of unreal calm on the forest floor. The snow kept falling, and the flakes were big. First one knuckle deep, then two. We started having to pick up our feet.

At last we could see a gulley ahead. We almost ran the last ten paces, and jumped down into it. In no time we had a little spot cleared, and Gab dragged some branches over to keep the snow off us. We hoped we wouldnít have to wait long for Perd and Seraphin.

We hadnít talked much during our earlier stop. Just things like "Iím really cold," and "Donít you have any jerky left?" I wanted to talk to Gab now about what had happened, but I wasnít sure how to start off.

She solved that problem real quick.

"I just canít believe that warrior woman. She was so awesome."

I looked sideways at her. I had expected her to be thinking about the guy who died right in front of her with his throat cut. Or to talk about what she was thinking when she charged out of the grass at him. But I guess the lasting impression was about the warrior.

"Yeah. She was pretty awesome alright," I answered. "And pretty scary too."

Gab wasnít looking at me. She sat with her knees pulled up under her chin, nodding to herself.

"I want to be like her," she stated matter-of-factly.

Now I turned and looked straight at her. "You canít be serious," I said, trying to sound grown-up and mature. "Sheís a killer, Gab, ruthless. Didnít you see the way she played with that guy? Made him suffer?"

"He deserved it," she spat. "And besides, it wasnít like he was defenseless or anything."

I really didnít like what I was hearing.

"Gab, just what about her do you want to be like?"

My friend didnít hesitate. "Sheís brave. She wasnít scared of anything. She was in control of everything, all the time."

I released the breath I had been holding. Maybe this wasnít as bad as it might have been. I had been afraid my best friend wanted to be a ruthless killer when she grew up.

"And she ran her own life! Perth, she said she has her own army!"

"Oh, so now you want an army?" I retorted sarcastically.

"No, silly. But she didnít have any man telling her what to do. I didnít know women could do that! I thought I didnít have any other choice. Get married, have kids, run the farm or the inn or whatever. Perth, I can do anything I want!"

Uh oh, I thought. This is Potidaea. Getting married and having kids is all she can ever do here. And sheís better get used to it. "Gab, whatís so bad about getting married and having kids? Our mothers seem pretty happy."

She spat in the snow to show her contempt for the idea. Itís a habit sheís been using lately and I wish sheíd break it.

"I want to have adventures," she went on wistfully.

"What do you think this is?" I asked, trying not to sound sarcastic again.

"No, I mean real adventures. Where I could be brave and save people. Where folks would admire me. Where I could travel to all kinds of foreign places and learn about different ideas. Where I could learn to be a warrior if I wanted to. I want to have that kind of courage."

It was getting really dark now. The snow was drier and colder. For the first time I felt a twinge of fear that maybe we just wouldnít get home from this. My first time being in charge might be the end of our lives.

"Gab," I said, "thereís all kinds of courage." I wanted her to think about the courage she had when she rushed at Armacles. Or the courage it took to keep walking in the cold. Or the courage it was going to take to face our parents when we got home.

"Yeah, I know," she said in a voice that told me she really didnít know how brave she already was, and how much I admired her for it.

The three of us huddled together for warmth. After a while Gab and I had to admit what we already knew in our hearts.

If Perdicas and Seraphin hadnít reached the gulley by now, they probably werenít going to.

I had a really sick feeling in my stomach, and Gab just got very quiet. We didnít want to think about where they were now, what they might be thinking as they shivered in the snow, or even if they could still think. I squeezed Gabís hand and she squeezed back.

I knew we had better get moving or we wouldnít get home either. Gab agreed in a small voice. She got up and reached out to Lilla.

Iíve got to hand it to the little kid. She was scared to death, and cold and wet. But she took Gabís hand and we set off again.

The gulley seemed longer than I remembered. At least we werenít all crouched over, trying to hide from the Potidaean sentries. At that point we would have welcomed a sentry, despite the painful consequences.

But we were alone. Gods, I never felt so alone. Maybe it would have been easier if Gab and Lilla hadnít been there, and I didnít feel so responsible. But the three of us were in it together, and Perdicas and Seraphin were out there somewhere too.

We pushed on, stumbling in the dark, and trying to feel our way. Things are always different in the dark, but more and more landmarks were unfamiliar. We crawled over a big oak root that I was fairly certain hadnít been there that afternoon, and when we got to a washout filled with boulders, I knew for sure.

We were in the wrong gulley.

At first I kept it to myself. No point in worrying Gab, and besides, everything led downhill to Potidaea or to the sea on either side. We couldnít miss. If we stayed alive in the cold long enough.

But eventually there was no more pretending.

"Gabrielle," I started, "I think weíreÖ"

"Shh. I know. Just keep going."

"ButÖ"

"I told Lilla that home was just around the next bend. And it will be. Wonít it?"

She emphasized the last sentence with a poke in my back. I got the picture.

Home wasnít around the next bend. Or the one after it. Lilla didnít say anything, but she knew. She slowed down. Her little legs just didnít want to go anymore.

We agreed to stop for just a minute and she sank down. I heard a sniffle.

I tried my best psychology on her as we squatted in the snow. "Lilla, you have to be brave. Like a big girl. Like that warrior we saw today."

Wrong tactic.

The events of the afternoon pounced on the poor kid all at once and her sniffle turned to sobs.

Gab and I stood together, not knowing what to say, both of us scared to death but not daring to show it to Lilla, or even to each other.

I tried again. "Lilla, we have to go. Now get up. Right now." No response, except to back into a crevice between the boulders. Stronger language maybe? "Dammit Lilla, we need to get going, so get off your butt and move!"

That approach earned me a smack on the thigh from her tiny fist.

The good news was that my frustration with Lilla was winning over my fear. The bad news was that her stubbornness gave me more reason to be afraid. Going on without her was absolutely not an option. And staying put would almost certainly mean our deaths.

We tried force (you try to get a stubborn nine-year-old out from a hole), we tried humor. We cajoled, we hollered. Nothing worked. Lilla stayed where she was, wedged in the hollow behind the boulder.

Maybe because she was her sister, or maybe because she was a girl too, Gabby finally found a way to reach Lilla.

Greed.

"Lilla, if youíll keep going, Iíll give you my solstice present."

I watched in amazement as Lilla lifted her head. "Really?"

"Really," answered Gab.

"Promise?"

"Promise. ĎHope to die if I lied,í" she recited.

"Spit on it?"

"Spit on it." Gab hocked one into her palm and so did Lilla and they shook. Girls can be so gross.

And with that, Lilla crawled out and stood up and started down the gulley ahead of us.

Gab and I exchanged a glance and a shrug. If there had been more light I expect I would have seen her smirk.

I was right about the gulley. It spilled onto the east beach just north of town. The wind whipped at us out in the open, but we knew where we were now, and that home wasnít far away. We were so happy we that for a few minutes we almost forgot about Perd and Seraphin.

I guess we were both thinking the same thing, looking forward to a warm fire and dry clothes and the loving embrace of our parents.

Hmm. The last part hit us both at the same time. There wasnít any way we could sneak in as if nothing happened, like we usually did after a trip to the upper meadows. If we were real lucky, our parents would be so glad to see us that they wouldnít be mad. If we were lucky.

Or not.

"What are we gonna tell Ďem?" I asked Gab. Sheís the story teller in our group, and it was important to get our stories straight.

"We shouldnít tell them any lies. But maybe we donít have to tell them the whole truth."

We decided to tell them we went through the woods to find some stuff for our Solstice presents, and it got late, and then we got lost on the way home. This was all true. We got separated from Perd and Seraphin, and spent a lot of time trying to find them. True. And if anyone asked about the bruise on Gabís jaw, we could honestly say some soldiers up near the siege lines had caught us, and smacked her to make a point. Very true. Our parents would be too embarrassed to ask the Potidaeans sentries about that.

I took Gab and Lilla home first. I know Gab was scared to death to go in, but after the day weíd had, Heroditusí wrath seemed minor. I said goodnight and wished them luck. Our own joy had worn off and we were all thinking about Perd and Seraphin. Gab gave me a little hug as she went in the door.

I walked slowly toward my house and the snow settled on my shoulders. How could I tell my parents about Perdicas? I was full of dread and grief by the time I got to the gate.

In the darkness, and with the snow swirling, I almost didnít see the figure lurking under the olive tree. I stared at the murky shadow for a second, but there was no mistaking him. It was Perdicas, waiting outside for me!

We hugged and pounded each other on the back. I had not realized until that moment just how much I loved my big brother.

"We waited in the gulleyÖ" we both said in unison, then paused.

"Wrong gulley?" Again in unison.

We laughed and nodded.

"Is Seraphin okay?" I asked.

"Oh yeah. She doesnít have brains enough to know how much trouble we were in. But at least no one will believe her if she starts talking about it. How about Gab and Lilla?"

"Cold and wet and scared, but okay."

Perdicas had only been home a few minutes. He hadnít even gone in the house yet. Like me, he had dreaded telling our folks what had happened to his brother. I told Perd what Gab and I had decided to say when we had to tell what had happened. He agreed with a shake of his head and a grin, and we went inside.

So thatís the story of our great adventure with the Athenians and the woman warrior and the snowstorm.

Despite our sanitized version of events we were all in pretty big trouble anyway. I think Gabís grounded until sheís eighteen, and Perd and I are collecting firewood for the whole neighborhood for the rest of the winter. Dadís logic was it would help us to know our way in the woods better. We didnít argue one bit.

But we all learned some other lesson about ourselves, and none of us is disappointed with what we found. Perdicas, who always wanted to be brave and never thought he was, found he had courage to spare. I learned what it was like to take responsibility and live up to it.

And Gabrielle learned to dream about a world beyond Potidaea. I donít know if sheíll ever go away for real, but her imagination is free now.

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