On a good day they were bullies, drunk they were much worse. They were always drunk, and they usually meant trouble for Okyrhoe, especially Hippolytus their ring leader. He had singled her out as his property.
This particular afternoon as Okyrhoe was on her way to the spring with her hydria to fetch water for Stilbe. Hippolytus and his gang waited for her on the road just outside of town. Unfortunately they had spotted her first. She rejected his advances and when he wouldn't take no for an answer she had given him a bloody nose.
They pursued her intensely, cutting off any escape into town or retreat to Stilbe's cottage. Hippolytus was not exactly the forgiving type. Her water jar had been smashed in the struggle, soaking the hem of her skirt. Okyrhoe could tell they had been drinking. She fled into the forest heading toward the thicket bordering centaur territory, this was the most dense part of the forest; perhaps she could lose them there.
Glancing behind her and unable to locate her pursuers she paused to catch her breath. They were close she could hear them shouting to one another.
"Hippolytus, over here." one of the men had spotted her. He was shouting and waiving his arm in her direction.
She took off running again almost blindly as she dodged the tree branches that whipped past her face pulling at her hair and skirts; she slammed into something hard knocking her to the ground.
Bracing herself a moment with her head in one hand she let the dizziness pass. A shadow passed over her and a pair of hooves padded the ground at the edge of her field of vision. She looked up, shielding her eyes from the sparse sunlight that peeked through the leafy canopy over head, and found herself staring back at a centaur. He was tall with perfectly tan skin and long dark hair. His hide was a bronze hue, not quite as dark as his hair, that blended beautifully with his tan skin. In his hand he held a bow and arrow; Okyrhoe guessed he'd been in the forest hunting, though she had never heard of them hunting this far beyond their borders. The centaur cocked his head at her and raised an eyebrow curiously. His eyes were deep and intense.
Hippolytus and the other men crashed through the trees behind her, almost falling over each other. They halted immediately when they saw the centaur standing over Okyrhoe.
The men stood in silence, eyeing the centaur with mixed expressions of worry and alarm. Drying blood soaked the front of Hippolytus' tunic.
The centaur looked down at the small human girl. The idea that she was responsible for the blood amused him. She was breathing heavily. How long had they been chasing her? He wondered, watching as she glanced nervously at the tall man in front then back at him.
"Humans hunt their women now?" Mockery in the centaur's tone matched the expression of contempt on his face as he addressed the men.
"This doesn't concern you, four-legs." Hippolytus glared clenching his fists. "We just want the girl."
"No," he stepped between the men and the girl, muscles rippled beneath his skin. "I think I'll keep her as consolation for startling my game."
Hippolytus bristled. "There are five of us and only one of you, which makes ten legs against four. By all accounts you are outnumbered."
The centaur stood his ground, unthreatened. His tail whipped slowly from side to side.
Eubouleos, Hippolytus' right arm and usually the closest thing to a voice of reason among them, inched closer to Hippolytus.
"There could be others, Hippolytus, let's get out of here." The men were growing uneasy. Hippolytus didn't move.
"Give us the girl and you won't get hurt." He insisted.
The centaur laughed and lifted his bow and arrow carefully taking aim. "How many of you did you say there were?" he asked emphasizing the last word.
"Come on, Hippolytus, she's not worth it." The thin wispy- haired man took Hippolytus' arm. Hippolytus shook Eubouleos off.
"The girl is mine." He spat.
"Yet she flees from you." The centaur pointed out. "And it doesn't look to me as if you are capable of handeling her. Unless you are going to tell me one of your friends bloodied your nose to get at her himself."
Hippolytus was fuming. Okyrhoe had never seen anyone stand up to Hippolytus and get the better of him. Had she not been in the middle of it, she might have found the situation more entertaining.
The centaur took a step toward Hippolytus, his weapon fully drawn. "Leave now human and I'll let you keep what little blood you have left."
The other four men fled. Ignoring the arrow pointed at him Hippolytus growled at Okyrhoe; then turned reluctantly and left.
The centaur kept his attention riveted on the trees, listening intently. Okyrhoe could feel his alert, keen senses as they penetrated the forest. Could he hear the pounding in her chest; her labored breathing, she wondered? His stillness made her feel as though the slightest movement would betray her.
When he was confident Hippolytus was out of sight the centaur lowered his weapon and turned to the trembling girl. At least those pathetic humans had good taste. Long golden hair hung about her shoulders still half tied with a ribbon. She wore a simple peplos that caught the breeze and danced around her slender figure. Had it not been for the humans he might have sworn she was a daughter of Nereus himself; though a Naiad would not so easily have been chased by humans, especially not across land. They're as difficult to hold in your hand as water. There was only one way for a mortal to ensnare one of the Nereid; obtain a piece of her clothing.
The wind pulled loose the ribbon from her hair. She made no attempt to recover it but remained motionless with anticipation.
And that fool of a human, the leader, she meant more to him than just a drunken reverie or he would not have been so defiant while his friends cowered. He had not wanted to leave the girl. He smiled with satisfaction at the memory. The fool would be back though; it was unlikely he'd give her up that easily, he was too cocky. She couldn't possibly be interested, else why had she fled, why the pursuit?
Despite his having saved her from Hippolytus and his gang, Okyrhoe was not entirely sure her predicament was any better. They were wild creatures, centaurs. Carrying off women in their drunken reveries, and stealing their virtue was common practice among their kind. Few were like the noble Cheiron. Stilbe had told her of them, and some of the women in town reported stories of their husbands and sons encountering the centaurs. Though she had never before met one, the stories alone were enough to make any girl uneasy. His self-assured composure seemed to expose her nerves. His equine quarters rendered him an air of impenetrability; staunch and immoveable. This had been in her favor standing between her and Hippolytus; however, now that he stood between her and home she was less inclined to think his size was to her advantage.
He stood watching her for quite some time, without saying anything. The intimacy of his gaze startled her and she dared not move. There was something in his eyes, the way they smiled at her that made her pulse quicken. Anxiousness to be at home where it was safe overwhelmed her.
She shook off his gaze and stood self-consciously. Her peplos was torn and disheveled and she had lost the ribbon from her hair which now blew lightly across her face in the afternoon breeze.
He stepped close enough to touch her. Her breath shortened with the distance between them.
"Are you hurt?" the centaur asked finally offering his hand.
"No," she stammered, stepping away from his outstretched hand, "I'm fine."
"Very fine indeed, my lady." His gaze traveled the length of her figure slowly as if to emphasize the pun. Her knees felt as if they would betray her.
"This Hippolytus, he is your mate?" he asked.
"Hardly." She scoffed.
"He pursues you quite determinedly."
"Yes." She admitted with a sigh.
"Then you do not return his affections?"
The satisfaction in his countenance was unmistakable. Wanting desperately to flee but knowing, should he pursue, she could never outrun a centaur. She added defensively:
"Nor shall I return the affections of any who would force his attentions on me."
He laughed but did not move.
"I have no intention to bleed today, milady."
She eyed him shrewedly. Was he mocking her?
No, there was not contempt upon his face, only amusement and curiosity, she thought she might have preferred contempt.
"I must go." Her desire to escape pushed the words past the building pressure in her chest.
He stepped aside, though only slightly, for her to pass.
Cautiously she slid past him and hurried off as quickly as she dared, stopping only once to look back. He hadn't moved. There was no hint of any intentions to follow her in his expression. He simply watched her go, the same curiosity lingering in his eyes until she had passed beyond his sight. Only then did she run.
He heard the sound of her footfalls quicken. A long thin ribbon hung tangled in the branches of a nearby tree. He retrieved it. The wind picked up carrying her scent which he followed to the edge of the woods.