DREAMS OF A PALE-faced woman
arms like white snakes
slithering cool through the leaves like the moonlight from her face.
Mouth a red well.
Her voice, insistent whisper, surrounds him and he lies helpless as the flesh rises like a tide. He’s drawn, pulled in. He looks down, the crimson lips are devouring him and her eyes are slivers of ice. His thrusting hips pump blood, the spray sucked into air, and a crimson stain slowly rises over the floating white cratered features. His glassy eyes hold the image of a red moon, wicked smile tracking the night sky.
Peter’s gut wrenches. The world spins dizzily and the moon’s beneath him—a crimson reflection?—no, pulsing orb blurred deep in black waters, but rising as the sea drains from her shoulders. She’s immense, an iron-red towering mountain of vast thighs, swollen belly, enormous pendulous breasts. And far above him, veiled in cloud, an impassive face stares down as the stone ridges of her thighs strain and shudder with the earthquake, squeezing him, crushing him in toward her core. A heavy beat pounds in his head and loins. He’s trapped between horror and primal lust, and he throws back his head to scream his agony up at her.
The giant stone mask turning down to him has Ariadne’s face, Ariadne’s distant eyes—
Peter bolted upright, sweating, head pounding. He groaned and fell back, stars exploding behind his eyes, pain throbbing upward from his left leg and of all things a raging hard-on.
“Sonuva. . . .” He lay there panting, trying to get a handle on the different agonies, blinking in filtered light. Where the hell was he?
Daylight glowed behind a dirt-encrusted corrugated plastic roof. He was lying on piled straw in a shack with concrete-brick walls. A goat pen, from the stink and the scatter of dried dung on the dirt floor. A thick leather strap was locked around his right wrist, chain bolted into the wall, probably an animal hobble.
Overhead, a whispering patter. Soothing, like surf. He blinked, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling and the spatter of drops on plastic. “Rain?” he croaked.
The effort made his head hurt worse. And his left leg was screaming, somehow heavy and cold and burning all at the same time. He raised himself carefully on his elbows to look under the frayed blanket draped over him. Someone had taken off his clothes and spread what looked like a tablecloth between him and the straw. His leg was propped on a wicker basket, splinted with flattened metal rods that must have come off some kind of machinery, wrapped with rags and duct tape.
“Damn.” He tried to move his foot and felt bones grinding in his calf. He bit off a cry. Sagging back in the straw, he took deep breaths until the pain ebbed.
Hell of a mess all around. Who had him? Did they get Ariadne? Maybe better if they did. Gone berserk. Crazy all along? He was the crazy one, mixed up in this shit, hadn’t he sworn he’d never be suckered again? Fanatics. He wouldn’t think about Ariadne, wouldn’t let himself see her smiling up at him beside the sail, eyes deep and purple-blue clear as the sea. Damn. But there was nothing he could do now, leg broken, he was out of it. And some part of him was relieved.
His hand had crept unthinking over his chest, fingers closing over her quartz pendant.
That was it—he’d pulled the blasted necklace off her. His grip tightened to yank it off. But the slippery planes and etched pattern felt good. Soothing. He closed his eyes and took another deep breath. Rain pattered overhead.
“Food.” The wood door of the hut crashed open and light streamed in. A woman stood in the doorway, rifle cradled in one arm, covered basket in the other. She set the basket down, scooted it toward him with her foot, and stood back warily. “You eat now.”
The English was awkward, intonation wrong, like she was just parroting the phrase. She was a short woman, probably about thirty though her weatherbeaten face looked older. Short and thickly built, she looked strong. She was wearing cross-strapped leggings and a rough wool tunic with an ammo belt. One side of her head had the usual thick dark peasant braid, the other cut short and bristly. Made her square features look lopsided beneath a black headband with a white design of a spiral and a staring eye.
He gritted his teeth and leaned over to pull the basket closer. Ignoring the hunks of bread and cheese, he grabbed the plastic water bottle and took long greedy swallows. He leaned back to catch his breath, eyeing her. Moisture glinted over her hair and shoulders. Clearing his throat, he thanked her in Greek. “It’s raining? That’s good, with the drought.”
She looked startled. “Only a little, a storm from the earthquake.” Then she caught herself, gripping the rifle tighter. “You speak Greek, yet you come from America?”
“Piraeus, now. Where am I? Why are you keeping me here?”
She frowned. “We would have killed you, but we think you’re not one of the mercenaries invading our mountain. You were with Ariadne Demodakis?”
“That’s right.” They must not have found her.
“If we didn’t believe that, we would kill you now. Though she won’t need you when she joins us. We allow men only for the ceremonies.” A cryptic smile. Her head tilted toward his chest. “Did she give you that necklace?”
“I— Yes, she gave it to me.” He realized with annoyance he was touching the polished crystal again, and he dropped his hand onto the blanket. “What do you mean, when she joins you?” Corybantes, that was it, Ariadne had said that . . . last night? He racked his brain. News clips hadn’t said much about them, really. But there was something. . . .
“No more questions.” Her eyes shifted uneasily from the pendant. “Take the food out and push the basket back. There’s pain medicine, too. Your leg is broken, so don’t think you can escape.”
He tossed the basket to her feet. She picked it up and backed to the doorway.
“How long are you going to keep me here? What do you want with me?”
“Rest. You’ll be questioned later.” She started to pull the door shut.
“Damn it, wait! You can’t just—”
“We do what we will, what no man tells us.” She turned back to regard him impassively. “You look like strong stock. If you obey, we might let you recover to be crowned the vine king. To claim the throne and its pleasures for the rest of your life.”
“What?” His head was throbbing again. “Vine king? But you allow no men. . . .”
Again the odd smile, before the door latched shut. “The vine king reigns only for one night.”
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