“See, look, Renae, he’s a smart boy!”
“Sure, he is,” she mumbled.
The kitten followed closely, now and then batting at the bottom of my stola as I walked, then rushing over to jump on the unsuspecting puppy. I couldn’t stop smiling. Whatever dark game my husband was playing, gifting me with these sweet pets would help me make it through. Perhaps he thought he was merely appeasing me, but my strength of mind rose tenfold with the addition of these innocent companions.
When we got to the doors and I pushed them open, my entire face lit up at the sounds of birds chirping and singing their mismatched songs. Butterflies of every glorious color glided over flowered bushes, and dragonflies chased one another, their shimmering bodies and wings zipping past. My puppy and kitten raced out, the cat disappearing into the bushes.
“Yes,” I breathed. This is what the place needed.
“Here you are then.” Renae set the tray down at a marble table with four round, marble stools around it. “I’ll be inside. Enjoy.”
“Thank you.” I listened to her clomping away and watched the heavy doors slide shut. The puppy sat near my side, looking up at me. One of his long ears was flopped backward. I righted it with a smile.
“What sort of creature do you think Renae is, boy? Something with hooves?” His head tilted, and I giggled. “What shall I call you?” I pulled the shining lid off the tray and plucked out a piece of sausage. One bite for me, one bite for the puppy. I had to be careful not to feed him too much fat and hardly any grains. Mostly lean meat, fruits, and vegetables. When we’d both had our fill, he ran into the maze of bush creatures and lifted his leg for a long while on the depiction of a minotaur—half bull, half giant man. When he finished, he peered up at the sculpted bush and growled, then barked, his tiny hackles raising.
I laughed, smacking my legs. “Aren’t you menacing? Maybe I’ll call you Mino since you’re willing to battle the mighty minotaur.” He came running at me. I moved to the ground where we could play together, laughing. The kitten came from nowhere with a sneak attack, joining the fray.
“Look, Mino, it’s our own little Sphinx!” I was tickling the kitten’s tummy when a sharp sting caught my ankle. I sat up and slapped the spot, then felt another, higher up my leg and stared down to see hundreds, perhaps even thousands of red ants covering my legs and the ground around me. All at once, my legs and feet were on fire. I jumped and ran from the spot, smacking at my skin and then bending to lift Mino and Sphinx. I didn’t see any on them, thank goodness, but I was still crawling with ants.
I rushed farther away, up the hill where I could set down my animals and thoroughly strip off my stola. Gods, they had made their way beneath my dress, biting the skin of my thighs and lower stomach. I swiped down my skin, crushing them beneath my feet. Immediately, my lower body began to burn and throb. As I stood there completely naked, trying to catch my breath and taking stock of my tender, stinging skin, I heard Mino let out a string of yips.
My heart seemed to stop as I sighted not one, but two fully grown mountain lions at the crest of the hill opposite us. A male and female. Deep Hades. Slowly, barely breathing, I bent and picked up Mino and Sphinx again, grateful they hadn’t run off. Then I stared at the massively powerful hunting cats. My heart would not settle, it only thundered harder behind the confines of its cage in my chest.
What had my husband been thinking? Or was this part of my punishment?
“Gods, help me,” I whispered. When my young pets began to squirm, and Mino started barking again, I tried my best to shush and calm them. To my horror, Sphinx clawed her way free and took off toward the forest. And worse, her fleeing caused the pair of mountain lions to snap into prey mode.
“Noo!” I screamed and charged down the hill, feeling awkward and slow with Mino in my arms. Sphinx was fast, disappearing into the trees. Which way did she go? Oh, Hades! I was going to have to climb a tree, naked, with a dog in my arms! But couldn’t mountain lions climb too? The realization threatened to turn my innards into liquid. This could not be happening. The mountain lions were only two trees away, moving like grace on paws. I stupidly peered around for a loose branch to fend them off before remembering these trees did not shed branches. The ground covering was neat and perfectly litter free.
Before I could despair another second, a set of branches swooped down and wound around me, lifting me off the ground. The mountain lions leaped upward, swiping their sharp nails through the air. They were so close I felt the movement of air against my hot feet. I watched, fighting to breathe, as roots shot up through the ground, thin and gangly, but strong, and formed a barrier around the snarling animals. They roared and hissed, pacing in circles around their cage.
I couldn’t help it—I burst into tears. I even kissed the branch that held us, muttering, “Thank you, thank you,” over and over. Mino’s ears were back in fear, and he dared not try to wiggle from my arms now.
“I have her,” a deep voice said. A moment later, I was being passed by sturdy branches into the open air. I braced myself and the puppy for the imminent fall, but felt strong arms surround me. I heard his fingers snap, and Sphinx climbed the tree, prancing out to the limb and leaping onto my shoulder.
“Keep your hands on the pup,” he said. “Do not accidentally touch me.”
I buried my face into Mino’s furry back to keep from looking down as my husband flew us over the hills and back to the grounds of his estate. The moment he set me down, I curled in enough to make sure Mino was covering my nakedness.
“We could have been killed!” I screamed. “Is that what you wanted? To see me shredded?” Betrayal filled my soul, though I knew it was a pointless thing to feel.
“The trees would have never allowed that.”
“Well, what if I hadn’t gotten to the trees in time? You obviously wanted to see me terrified and suffering. I knew it was only a matter of time before your cruelty showed!” Gods, it hurt, making me realize I’d let my guard down far too much.
The doors burst open and Renae’s clomping feet and worried noises filled the air. She threw a blanket over my shoulders and I set down the puppy to wrap myself in it. I glared at the space where I knew my husband stood.
“Your legs,” I heard him whisper. I didn’t have to look down to know they were bright red and swollen. Now that my blood was not pumping as hard, the pain returned with vengeance.
“I asked a helper to fill the estate with human bugs and animals, as you asked.” His voice was terse. “Clearly I should have been more specific.”
“Clearly,” I responded, though my anger was weakening, giving way to the physical sting left from the ants.
He let out a growling sound of exasperation, muffled as if he were rubbing his face. I would not feel bad for him.
“Come, Mino. Come, Sphinx.” I turned and climbed the massive marble stairs to the doors, hoping my pets would follow, which they did. But every step hurt. I could feel my pulse in my ankles, which appeared double their normal size. Dizziness washed over me as I peeked downward. So swollen. I had to steady myself against the wall.
I was not happy when I felt myself being lifted and carried.
“I can walk.” I elbowed his chest weakly, and he held me tighter.
“Be still, Psyche. You need healing.”
“Why are you here in the middle of the day?” I wondered, as a delirious fuzziness began to set in.
“You prayed to the gods for help, and I was sent.”
Interesting. Overwhelmed with pain and ant poison, I tried to be still and to remain alert. My legs began to crawl again.
“They’re on me…”
“They’re still on me!” I kicked my legs and my husband ceased walking, lifting us into the air and flying the rest of the way to my chambers.
He set me on the bed and my eyes fluttered, the room going dark, then light, and dark again. I barely felt his ministrations along my feet, ankles, and legs until a huge bout of unbearable heat had me struggling to sit up, yelling.
“Shh, lay back. The poisons are burning off.”
I gritted my teeth against the horrible sensation. The door opened, and a basin of water on a tray with cloths and a bowl of ointment settled beside me.
“There now,” came Renae’s voice. A cloth dipped itself into the water, rung out, and moved to cover my forehead. I gasped at the wonderful coolness. With each gentle wipe of my face, the stinging of my legs lessened, and my body became heavy. Renae’s footfalls moved to the closet and she returned with a loose, silk gown, lowering it over my head.
“I will handle the rest,” my husband said.
Without a word, Renae left us. The bowl of yellow ointment lifted, and I sat up, grabbing it from the air.
“I can do it,” I said. “Leave me.”
“I allowed you to order me away once,” he said, snatching the bowl back from me. “But that is not happening again.”
With a softness that didn’t match his gruff tone, he scooped out the ointment and rubbed my feet and legs. I kept a scowl on my face, refusing to show any appreciation, which was difficult since my body begged to sink back in relief and pleasure.