The wind beat upon her as she slowly made her way up the goat trail, her small slim fingers finding purchase in the cracks of the rock face. Xanthe was barely above the foot of the great mountain but so much time seemed to have passed. Had she really thought she could climb to the top in one day? Her satchel carrying her food and her offering was tied around her shoulder and bounced against her waist. She would have to stretch her rations; she might not be home until tomorrow, or maybe even the next day. Nobody knew that Xanthe was here; this was between her and the Gods. Bandit Mountain, as it had been known for a long time, was said to be the spot where a horde of bandits had hidden their loot before descending upon the city. The Arcadian army met the bandits and slaughtered them to a man, leaving the treasure undisturbed, hidden somewhere on the mountain. That was one of Xanthes favorite stories. On rainy nights when the Gods were arguing, Father would tell it to her. It was a silly story, but when she was little she would meet her friends outside of town and they would visit the mountain and search for treasure while they played soldiers and bandits at it's feet. Now that she was older - eleven seasons - it all seemed so silly. But while her memories of childhood diminished with time, the mountain loomed as large as it ever did.
Her foot slipped on a loose jutting rock and she instinctively clawed for the rock face, wincing as her shin scraped on the sharp rocks of the narrow trail. Mountain goats can run up this trail as fast as a horse. She wished she was a mountain goat right now, but the Gods weren't up to doing her favors lately. The Gods were the reason she was climbing this mountain. Bandit mountain was the tallest mountain near the city. It wasn't the mighty Olympus in Athens, but it would have to do. Perhaps one of the Gods of the Pantheon would see her calling from upon this mountain and listen to her prayers. She had been memorizing what she would say to them. She wanted Father to come back. He had left to Crete with the army last spring and had not yet returned. Soldiers would still return to the city from time to time, and every day she hoped to see him. She was beginning to forget what he looked like. She could remember the smell of him and his big hands, hands that would tousle her hair and pull her in for a hug, but his face was becoming hazy in her mind. Mother had to sell all of their possessions for food and had even wanted to sell Xanthe's necklace, but Xanthe told Mother she had lost it. Some nights Mother would leave and not return until morning. Sometimes she returns bruised and scraped. She cries in her sleep a lot lately. Xanthe had always honored the gods like Mother taught her to, so they should listen to her. Xanthe had never asked them for anything.
She made her way up, careful not to slip in the loose crumbling rocks at her feet, small hands seeking purchase as she ascends the trail. She looks over her shoulder and down and there is a moment of disbelief, then wonder as she surveys the panorama below. Everything looked so small, like the straw houses she used to build at home, but much, much smaller. The light was starting to fade as the sun reached the tip of the mountains on the other side of the valley. She could look across the plain, over the city and could see mountains beyond those. The world was larger than she had thought! Her new perspective was a revelation and it took some effort to turn around and continue climbing. She found a grassy outcrop with a small crevice hidden by some bushes. It seemed like a good place to stop for the night, so Xanthe pulled what grasses and bushes she could and bundled then into a crude pallet to lay down upon. An owl hooted in the approaching night and she could not help but think what other creatures might be stirring in the dark as she curled up against the cold rock, the night's chill descending on her. Sleep did not come easy. She thought of Father, and how Mother must be worried for her.
Xanthe awoke to the sound of pebbles falling on stone. She brushed her straw-colored hair from her face and rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she stretched, her arms hitting the cold stone of her crevice. She scrambled out to meet the morning, the clouds were the color of rose quartz and carnelian - two of the many types of colored stones that made up the necklace she carried in her pouch. The necklace from Father, that she would offer in return for his safe homecoming. After relieving her bursting bladder and eating a piece of dry bread to ease her rumbling belly, Xanthe continued her journey up the trail. The way ahead widened and narrowed, and was sometimes so crumbled and broken that she had to climb onto the rock wall and ease her way across until she reached safe footing below. On one such climb she reached over to the next hand hold and a small rainbow landed on her arm. She stared at it for a moment and a glint of sunlight above her head caught her attention. A cluster of crystals was jutting out of a rock as big as her two fists. Xanthe reached up to touch them and the rock came loose in her hand. She brought it to her face and was so mesmerized by the smooth, clear crystals that for a moment she forgot where she was and almost lost her footing. Xanthe was able to tuck her treasure into her bag before descending to safety. Xanthe chewed on a piece of tough bread while she squatted down, her back to the stone as she inspected her prize. The crystals were bigger than her fingers, like pure ice. She laughed as a stray sunbeam would poke from the clouds and scatter rainbows at her feet. Oh how she would love to show her friends her new find; Mother could probably get enough food to last a fortnight! But she would not be bringing them home. If she added these to her offering then the Gods would be more likely to answer her prayers. It was a grown-up decision and she was proud of herself. She was pulled from her musings by a low rumble. She looked up at dark, swollen clouds drifting her way. Had those been there a moment ago? She tucked away the crystals and continued with a new sense of urgency.
The rains came as the trail ended. Xanthe's cold, wet frame rounded a corner, hugging the rock wall, and she was met by a sheer cliff. The trail had either been washed out long ago, or had never been at all. Xanthe fought the urge to cry in the stinging rain, her lip trembling. She looked for another way up but could find none. The mountain side next to her ascended vertically, several man-heights tall. She could not see what was beyond the ledge. Xanthe screamed into the storm, yelling and cursing. Despair gave way to anger. Mother always told her that the Gods favored those who endured hardships and the challenges set before them. Xanthe would not be turned away. The Gods WOULD listen to her. She squared off against the rock wall, with it's rivulets of rain water running down, splashing at her feet. Dusk's fading light showed her where she might find purchase on the rough wet stone. Xanthe scrambled up onto the wall, her wet leather sandals gripping the cold stone and her cold numb fingers clawing for a hold. She inched her way slowly upward, the rock was jagged and rough despite being wet. Her cold wool clothes stuck to her skinny frame and leeched the warmth from her body as she cursed the storm and climbed. A man-height away from the ledge, Xanthe sputtered as loose gravel fell upon her head and shoulders, stinging her eyes. She spat grit out of her mouth and blinked her eyes; she dare not take her hand off the rock to rub them. The gravel continued, then became rocks as she was pelted about the head and shoulders. Xanthe cried out, losing her grip. her arms flailed wildly as she fell backward, her chest peeling away from the rock.
Xanthe thought of her parents as she lost her grip. Her fall was arrested by something grabbing her wrist. She looked up, but the rain and wet hair in her eyes made it difficult. She smelled wet wool and sheep. Panic suddenly set in as she was hauled up, her free arm and legs scrabbling as she ascended. What matter of monster was this? Would she be eaten whole or spit and roasted over a fire? Xanthe started to struggle as she was heaved up and over the ledge, landing on wet gravel. The figure loomed above her and she saw in the flashes of lightning that it was no monster. It was a man. He reached down and offered her his hand. With a wave of relief rushing over her, she took his hand and he hauled her to his feet. she took a few wobbly steps and then the world went dark.
Xanthe awoke with a start to the smell of smoke and meat. She was naked and nestled in a pile of lamb skins in a strange house. No, not a proper house, but one of stone, like a cave. A warm fire burned in the back. Her clothes were spread out before the fire and so was her satchel, her necklace and crystals next to it. Xanthe scurried over to them and quickly got dressed, putting her offerings back into her leather bag. Slices of meat sizzled on rocks near the fire and her stomach growled at the sight of it. Her clothes were almost dry and the smell of wet wool was in her nose as she made her way to the opening, a rectangle of sunlight in a wall made of piled stones. Xanthe stepped out into the blinding light of day, the sun high in the sky. She stepped out onto grass and did not believe her eyes. There was a field of grass and dozens of goats and several sheep grazing. a small ewe made its way to her, bleating and nuzzling up to her leg. She reached down and scratched behind it's soft wooly ear. "She likes you." The deep voice startled Xanthe as she jumped and turned to see who spoke. Leaning against the wall by the doorway was a large man dressed in wool and leather, his balding head was close shaved and he was chewing on a piece of meat and drinking from a wine skin, grinning at her. His smile and his eyes seemed friendly enough. "I am Xanthe, what are you called?" He took a pull of wine and she licked her lips as she was reminded how parched she was. The shepherd handed her the wine skin and she took a long pull. Had she ever had wine this sweet? it tasted good on her dry tongue. "You can call me Nestor. What are you doing on my mountain?" He asked her. Xanthe told him her reasons for coming and he didn't interrupt her. He just stared off into the mountains as she talked. When she had finished, he bowed his head and wiped a sleeve at his red eyes. "You are very brave but very foolish, Xanthe". Nestor said. Xanthe looked up and realized there was nothing but the open sky. "Is this the top of Bandit Mountain?" She quickly asked, her eyes going wide. "It is, and this is my home." Said Nestor. "I never knew people lived on the mountain!" Said Xanthe, surprised and in awe. "That is because I do not let others know about it. I enjoy my solitude. I would ask you not to tell anybody." Replied Nestor, his eyes growing serious. "Which way is Athens?" She asked, a frantic desperation in her voice. Nestor gave her a puzzled look. "Which way is Olympus?!" Shouted Xanthe, the flock shied away from her as she gave Nestor an imploring look. Nestor's eyes softened. "Athens is to the east. That way." He gestured to the east and Xanthe quickly fumbled for her offerings and kneeled to the ground. She placed the crystals and the necklace before her and touched her forehead to the rocky grass and mumbled her prayers. When she had finished, she stood up. "Nestor, please make sure the Gods get my offerings?" She asked. Nestor nodded, a lump in his throat as he swallowed. "I will." he replied in a hoarse voice. He straightened and beckoned her to follow him into his house. "You might as well eat and rest for the night before we get you back home." Xanthe thanked him. It sounded like a good idea to her. Xanthe enjoyed Nestor's company. He served her meat and cheese and sweet wine and played his flute for her. He offered her his pallet and curled up on the other side of the cave in a pile of goat skins. As she drifted to sleep, she prayed the Gods would accept her offerings.
Nestor woke her in the morning. He stoked the fire with sticks and droppings from his herd and offered her more meat, cheese and wine. Xanthe looked out onto the cold morning. She walked out onto the edge of the plain and could barely see a corner of the city below, the rest obscured by the mountain. Remembering her necklace and crystals, she walked over to where she had placed them. They were still there. Xanthe covered her face and wept. The Gods did not accept them. She bent down and picked up her rejected offerings and placed them into her bag. Nestor came and put a large, comforting hand on her shoulder and she leaned into him, her tears soaking into his tunic. When she had finished, Nestor escorted her down the mountain. There was another trail that none but him knew, he told her. He made her promise not to reveal it to anybody. She promised. Nestor's way was much faster and safer than the route she had used. If only she had known about it! They stopped to eat, drink and relieve swollen bladders at mid-day. She could see all of the city below. Looking up she could see no sign of Nestor's house or his flock. After their brief meal they continued down the trail. By dusk they had reached the base of the mountain. Nestor's trail entrance had been obscured by trees and thick underbrush. The long orange and purple shadows, like the carnelian and amethyst beads in her necklace, signaled Apollo's retreat over the hills, his flaming chariot giving way to night. Xanthe thanked Nestor and promised to speak nothing of him or his trail at the top of Bandit Mountain. She turned toward the city as he melted into the shadows of the underbrush. It was fully dark when she reached her door, pushing aside the wool curtain as she entered. Her mother sat on her pallet, poking a dying fire with a stick. She looked up at her and sprang to her feet. "Xanthe!" Mother took her in her arms and caressed her gritty hair, crying. After Mother calmed down she asked Xanthe where she had gone. Xanthe told her that she went to the mountain to pray and had gotten lost. Xanthe opened her bag and reached in to give Mother her necklace and the crystals. Mother took them and stared at them a moment, then set them aside. Xanthe's satchel was still heavy. She reached in and her fingers brushed against wool. She pulled out a small bundle; it was heavy for it's size. She bounced the lambskin in her skinny hand and heard a tinkling sound, like the bells that girls put in their hair during summer festival. The bundle shifted as she opened it and the contents spilled onto the packed-earth floor. Coins and gems fell at her feet, glittering in the dying fire's light. She knelt down and picked up a large gold coin, it's markings were not Arcadian or Athenian. Mother's eyes went wide and a cry escaped her lips as she stared at the treasure. "Xanthe! where did you get those?!" Xanthe could not hold back the grin that spread across her face. "From the Gods." She replied.