Brax snorted and stamped, his bony knee grazing my ear. I sat back on my heels and pushed the damp hair off my forehead. “Hold still,” I said. “How do you expect me to do this if you kick my head in?”
“Sorry,” Brax said. I could tell that the thorn in his belly was more annoying than painful, but centaurs are not known for their patience. It must be the horse half of their nature that makes them impatient—and always hungry—and until I removed the thorn, Brax would be irritable and my skull would be at risk.
My nails were bitten down to the skin, and every time I tried to seize the small thorn I only pushed it farther in. I parted Brax’s stiff dark-brown hair again and took a deep breath so I wouldn’t have to inhale his horse-scent at close range during the operation. I caught the tiny sliver between my teeth and eased it out, then spat it on the ground.
“Hey!” Brax turned, and I dodged just in time. “I wanted to see that!”
“It was only a thorn,” I said. “There’s not even any blood.”
Brax snorted again. “Thanks.”
I nodded, the taste of horse sweat still on my lips. Being a centaur has its advantages—speed, strength, and especially the company of girl centaurs—but it must be frustrating not to be able to reach back far enough to pull a thorn out of your belly or scratch your hind end without a branch.
I got to my feet and dusted off my knees. Now we were going to be late. Our friend Damon, who had overheard two girls at the well making plans to meet at the beach for recreation, decided that we would certainly find it recreational to watch them. But then Brax had blundered into the thornbush and refused to go on until the annoyance had been removed. He couldn’t canter to make up time, since the way to our girl-watching spot was rocky and his hooves slipped on the uneven surface, so I was able to keep up with him.
We took the last bit slowly. I crouched down so I would be less visible through the brush, but of course Brax couldn’t do that, so we had to trust to luck that the girls wouldn’t look in our direction until we were settled behind the boulders that shielded us. He hunched his broad shoulders and bent his long legs, but it didn’t make much difference in his height.
As I flung myself down on my stomach next to Damon, he whispered, “What took you so long?”
“Had to perform surgery on Brax,” I whispered back. “Thorn in belly.” Damon grimaced sympathetically.
Brax had dropped to his knees and was wriggling forward. He flattened himself as much as he could behind the tallest rock as I settled into the warm sand behind a shorter one. The sun was brilliant and the day even smelled hot. The waves lapping on the rocks of the shore sounded intoxicatingly cool.
“All clear?” Brax asked Damon in a low voice.
He nodded. “They haven’t looked up here once.”
I raised myself enough to peer over the rock, and there they were. Brax’s sister Saba, with her honey-colored back and flanks, was mincing forward into the water. Her hips swayed as only a horse’s can. “It’s cold!” she squealed to the two other girls (both human), who hesitated on the shore. Ignore her, I thought. Fortunately, they did, and Charissa waded in, hoisting her white linen skirt to just below her knees.
“Oh gods,” Damon breathed. Glimpses of girl ankles were rare. Charissa walked in farther, her hips shifting as she stepped on the uneven rocks. “Lift it higher,” he urged under his breath, and, as though hearing him, she raised the now soggy hem a bit more. She was deeper in the water, though, so we had to be content with the wavy view of her calves through the ripples.
“It’s not that cold.” Charissa had a musical voice. She caught up with Saba, and they linked arms. I’ve seen vases painted with huge centaurs, their backs as large as horses’, but of course this is nonsense. A centaur stands no taller than a human, and the horse half is only the size of a donkey. The two girls stood shoulder to shoulder, their backs to us. Charissa turned and beckoned to the plump and rosy Kyra. She joined them, squealing as the little ripples struck her thighs and waist.
Together the three girls advanced, splashing their own arms and then one another. Damon and I forgot ourselves and half rose to gaze as they laughed and ducked and played. I longed to join them in the cool water, but they would only run and tell someone and we would be severely punished, or at least Damon would. Worse, our hiding place would be exposed.
Brax watched us with a little grin on his sunburned face. He didn’t mind that we were ogling his sister. Centaurs don’t care about those things, and besides, he always thought it was funny that the sight of girls got us so excited. For centaurs (and satyrs too) it is the scent of female that is interesting, not the sight.
The girls were facing out to sea. They had wrapped their arms loosely around one another’s waists and were singing a spring song, their shoulders undulating. Beneath the water their hips must be swaying too, but the bright light winking off the surface made their lower halves invisible, even Saba’s. This added to her appeal, at least for me. I’ve always had friends among the centaurs and satyrs and have never called them hairy-backs or other insulting terms, but I prefer human girls. Not that I’d turn up my nose at a pretty nymph, of course.
“Do you think they know we’re here?” Damon asked, settling back on his heels.
“Of course they know,” Brax said.
“What?” I was shocked. Girls are supposed to preserve their modesty. Human girls, anyway. Surely Charissa and Kyra would never behave like this if they knew we were there.
“Why did they leave their clothes on, then?” Brax asked. “Don’t they usually take them off to go swimming? And why did Charissa lift her robe if it was going to get wet anyway?”
Silence while Damon and I digested this thought. Brax added, “Do you think it’s an accident that Damon overheard them at the well?”
The girls had finished their song and were dipping themselves into the water.
Damon squinted up at the sun. “I’d better get back.” The regret was plain in his voice. His gentle father wouldn’t beat him or even rebuke him if he found the plow lying where Damon had abandoned it, but he would pick it up and finish the field himself, tired as he was from his own work. This would reproach my friend more than a thrashing. He rocked back off his heels to a seated position and stretched. “Telemachos, do you have to go home too?”
I shrugged. “My mother didn’t say anything.”
Damon grunted and stood, brushing sand off his clothes. He sighed. “Your sister is lucky.”
Brax and I looked at him in surprise. “I don’t have a sister,” I said. Damon knew that as well as I did.
“Just what I mean,” he answered. “That’s why she’s lucky. She’s lucky she was never born. Your mother would keep her locked in the house and not let her spend her day at the beach.”
This was true. My mother thought that a boy—especially a prince—should do what ever he wanted, at least most of the time, but that girls had to preserve the old traditions. “You’re right,” I admitted. “Mother says that when her sister Aglaia was a girl she was so wild that their mother kept her chained to her loom all day to force her to do her weaving.”
A tale about a girl being chained and imprisoned would normally have drawn Damon’s attention like a bee to nectar, but a sudden burst of noise from behind us made me jump and reach for my knife. Damon spun and stood half crouching, at the ready to defend us from whoever—or whatever—was pounding across the rocks.
He lowered his arms as a small figure shoved its way through the brush.
It was his younger sister Polydora, who had been a nuisance to us ever since she could walk. Now she stood, sweating in the heavy weaver’s smock she wore over her clothes. One of her black braids had come undone, and she held Bito, Damon’s youngest sister—he had three—on her hip. The little girl had a finger in her mouth and looked at me with the same accusatory glare that Poly was fixing on her brother.
“What do you want?” Damon asked. “And what are you doing all the way out here without Father or me?”
“You’re here,” she retorted. Damon sighed. It was no good reminding her that young ladies don’t travel by themselves. Poly always did what she wanted, regardless of propriety. I hadn’t seen her for a few months, but in that time she apparently hadn’t learned to do what was expected of her.
I left them to their family quarrel and glanced without hope over the edge of the rock. Sure enough, the girls must have heard us. They had dried themselves and were rearranging one another’s hair. I knew they couldn’t have helped hearing Poly’s approach—for someone so small, she made a lot of noise—but I had been hopeful that I would catch them still in the process of drying off.
Polydora followed my gaze and then shot me a look of scorn that would have shriveled me if I hadn’t been accustomed to it. She turned back to her brother. “You have to come home and finish your work. Father will be back soon, and if he sees the plow—”
But Damon wasn’t listening to her. He was staring into the distance, not where the girls had been bathing, but farther out.
“Telemachos.” His voice was tense. “Look out there.” He pointed straight into the swath of bright sunshine.
“Where?” I squinted. Brax shaded his eyes with one hand and looked out. Poly, still holding Bito, moved closer and leaned over the rock, her black eyes squinting against the sun.
“Move over this way,” Damon said. I leaned against him and lined my gaze up with his. My vision was less sharp than his, and Brax wasn’t paying much attention, so it took me a few seconds to make out what he was seeing, but then Polydora gave an exclamation and I too finally saw it.
Excerpted from King of Ithaka by Tracy Barrett.
Copyright © 2010 by Tracy Barrett.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.