1: From Leesandra's Autobiography
Violent and bloody death stripped the innocence of youth from me when I was twelve. Years later I learned that on that same day the Poseidonist Atistaeus of Pylos murdered the oracle of the Great Goddess at Delphi. The Red King then fled to his home city of Pylos and soon launched his brutal campaigns of conquest, while I began a journey that led to this room and painful time of decision.
For me that evil, long-ago day began as one of beauty. A weeklong storm had passed, leaving the sky an unblemished blue and the ocean tranquil. The sea-scented winter air crackled with the promise of delightful discoveries. I fidgeted in the classroom, scarcely listening after having been confined almost a week. My usual habit after morning school was to explore the beaches or foothills of the volcano that gave our island its name, but today I couldn't wait to hike higher up Mount Kalliste to my hot pool. There, while I was alone, the Goddess came closest to me. I'd let my spirit go to Her, and She'd replace my restlessness with harmony.
The teacher finally said the magical words, "Cover your tablets," and I bolted into the courtyard. At the gate shrine I did wrestle my eagerness into submission to do reverence to our Lady: the People are not free to let their own will run unchecked, and I fought a constant battle to keep what my nursemaid and parents called a willful spirit in control.
Two boys also knelt, but were up again too quickly. They couldn't have said the full prayer. How could they be so careless! I heard my nursemaid's voice: "By their obedience to the Laws, the People keep the world in harmony." Alarmed and then angry, I called out, "Come back! Finish the prayer."
A girl at my side lanced me a startled look. I bit my lip. My angry words had only made things worse.
Flushed now with regret, I did the best I could to restore balance: three times more I repeated the thanks for calm seas. At the end, for good measure, I added, "Dear Mother, help me to always be obedient."
I leaped up and set off, heading north, threading Alyris's narrow lanes. At the public shrines the smell of the morning's baking of barley bread mingled with the musky scent of sacramental wine. A maker of giant water storage pithoi gave me a ride in his rattling donkey cart almost to the village of Dallia. On foot again, I climbed a steep trail until one of the Temple meadows stretched before me. A breeze rippled across whispering yellowed grasses. On the other side, a flock of the Lady's breeding ewes was grazing-so far away they looked like white toys. Beyond Kalliste's coast, the Aegean spread like a deep blue bed-cover that, where it was tucked under the island's chin, was trimmed lighter blue and green. Two large rocks, the guardians of my spring's privacy, stood on the meadow's right edge. The pathway I sought was little more than a goat-run behind the two boulders.
At the bottom of a ravine, under an ancient plane tree, I wriggled out of my tunic and waded into steaming water. Using my toes, I felt my way to a submerged stone where I could sit with my shoulders covered. Releasing myself to the heat, I let my mind drift. I thought of my mother's naming day party and my own duty to play my lyre. I wanted to play flawlessly. To see my mother smile, to have my father approve of my progress-that would make the party perfect.
When my skin cried, "Enough!" I climbed out and lay on a rock to dry. For a time I tossed pebbles into the water and pretended I could, like my mother, read the future in the water's disturbed face. Then I dressed and went to my special place, a shallow depression under the plane tree shaped on one side by an exposed root and on the other by a flat boulder.
This hidden place embraced my spirit. Here I communed with the Mother in a way I shared with no one. Indeed, I suspected my behavior, if known, would cause strong disapproval. To be different among people who prize the ability to blend in creates alarm and invites criticism. Often my nursemaid, Heebe, told me, "When a person stands out she breaks harmony." Yet I felt so close to the Goddess here, so much at peace.
I lay down and felt the cool, humid soil, the body of the Great Mother of All. My scalp, shaved of all hair except queue and forelock, prickled. I had once asked Heebe if there was any Law forbidding long periods of solitude.
"No," she said, but added, "Why would anyone other than a holy person want to do such a thing?"
I didn't tell her about my pool.
With open palms I felt the earth. I listened to the rustling leaves as the passing wind tickled them. Here I could become anything. Perhaps a cloud so I could hover over Alyris. No. Today I'd travel with birds' wings to Keftiu. Perhaps even far off Agyptos.
My spirit lifted to take flight, but something warm touched my hand. A boy's voice said, "Are you all right?"
I jerked upright, my heart a knot in my throat. He jerked back.
I recognized Alektrion, a boy three years older than I. He had remarkably fair skin and light brown hair. The forelock and queue he'd worn at school had grown in and become a cap of wild curls. My people are a dark race: olive skin, dark hair, dark eyes. Alektrion's skin and hair had always held attraction for me.
"You nearly scared the spirit out of me," I said.
He grinned. "I'm glad you're not dead. What are you doing?" The sun caught his eyes at a sharp angle, flecking them in an astonishing fashion with gold.
"Resting. Isn't that obvious?" Not for anything would I tell him the truth of my solitary doings here. I suddenly wondered if he'd followed me. Had he been spying on me?
"Sorry if I frightened you. I'm Alektrion. You're Leesandra, Danae's daughter. I've seen you at school. Are you going to be a priestess, too?"
What a dreadful thought! I shook my head. "Never. I love being outdoors. I'm going to raise bees." I didn't add that I intended to make the best honey in the world. It would be boastful. "And of course my mother is a seer, not a priestess."
"Bees?" He laughed. "Pretty odd. Aren't you afraid of getting stung?"
"If you know how to treat them, they don't sting you."
"Perhaps." He stood and, walking toward the pool, said, "I think this place is Goddess touched." He turned and gave me a puzzled look. "I've never seen anyone else here before."
I rose and scrambled after him. "Neither have I, and I come often."
"You do?" He sat by the pool on my flat rock, his tunic hitched halfway up his thighs, his eyes wide with surprise. I sat on the ground, wondering if I should tell him he was sitting on my favorite rock. "That's hard to believe."
He fingered some pebbles. "You come alone?"
Painfully aware of betraying my secret, I hesitated.
He tossed a pebble into my pool. "It's a long way for someone your age to come alone."
"I come alone to commune with the Lady," I said, then sucked in a sharp breath. I'd exposed a part of my secret. I was feeling and speaking quite unlike my usual self.
He said, "I like to swim in the hot water."
"I made the pool."
He grinned, leaned to me and shoved my shoulder. "That's a silly thing to say."
"But I did. I gathered all of those rocks,"-I pointed to the dam-"and put them here."
"You want me to believe a little girl like you made this pool?"
"I don't care if you believe it or not."
He studied me, clearly surprised by so much bite in the speech of a seer's daughter who should know better manners.
Whatever was the matter with me?
"Have you ever talked to a jumping spider?"
I shook my head. Such an odd question.
"Come. I'll show you."
I stood and followed him, intent on the swing of his hips, the easy movement of his shoulders. His curls reminded me that Alektrion observed our customs, not those of the outlanders who didn't shave their children's heads. Though his mother wasn't one of the People, she clearly was among the many outlanders who worshipped the Goddess. I suddenly recalled that my mother would expect me to take leave of this "half-breed" as soon as possible. It didn't matter that Alektrion's father was Keftian. His father, a Bird clan metallist, had married outside the People. Without a Keftian mother there could be no clan membership.
I'd once told my mother, Danae, I thought Alektrion was interesting. She'd said, "All of Kalliste's children must attend school, Leesandra, and though you are to treat all persons graciously, it's not wise for you to associate too closely with outlanders. Or with a half-breed. Make other friends."
We crossed under the aqueduct that carried hot and cold water to Alyris. At the wooden fence beside the Temple meadow, he began searching the posts and rocks. I gazed a moment at the Great Sea and the strangest feeling struck. The sea was calling to me. The sea wanted something.
"Here!" Alektrion shouted.
I couldn't shake off the odd feeling, and for a brief moment a stunning white light blocked my vision. Alarmed, I stretched my hand out to force the light away.
"Don't you want to see it?"
The light disappeared. The spell broke, and I released the moment of fear. I turned. He was on hands and knees, peering intently at nothing. I crouched beside him.
He said softly, "See her?"
I saw nothing.
"See her? Pretty black with white stripes. On the rock. About the size of a periwinkle shell."
Now I saw the tiny spider. White stripes crossed the shiny black body and startling white rings circled a row of four enormous black eyes.
"See how she's moving her front legs."
The spider turned sideways, wiggling several short, leg-like structures beneath the large head.
I said, "She's very elegant."
"They talk to each other with those legs. I've even watched them have leg-waving duels. And they'll come if you call. Watch!"
He leaned closer so his head stopped five hand-spans from the spider. To my astonishment, she turned to face him, and she did seem to peer most earnestly at him with her four white-ringed eyes. Alektrion suddenly made his eyes large and round, and holding his hands below his nose and using his first two fingers, he imitated the spider.
She hopped onto the dirt and dashed toward him. She stopped. I held my breath, thinking it impossible to be more amazed, when the spider made a last dash and, with an astounding leap, landed on Alektrion's nose!
I doubled over giggling.
He held quite still and crossed his eyes trying to see her. I leaned closer. She turned on his nose and gave every appearance of studying me.
Finally he touched his finger to the side of his nose. The spider leapt off and skittered away to hide under a blade of grass.
"Wonderful!" I was enchanted.
Alektrion's face glowed. "I can show you even more astonishing things. An Achean ship-of-war was caught in the storm and nearly capsized. She came into the harbor last night. This afternoon they'll offer gratitude to Poseidon. We can watch their ceremonies in secret."
A chill of excitement ran through me.
Then I imagined my mother's face, her forehead creased, her eyes saddened. I should leave Alektrion, shouldn't I? I bit my lip. "I couldn't be out past sunset. My mother expects me home for omas prayers."
He shrugged. "The ceremony begins around the time of manis. How long can it last?" He stooped and scratched his ankle. "Besides, you can leave whenever you want."
"Maybe we can't get there in time?"
He straightened and caught my gaze as tightly as the weasel catches the mouse's, testing my spirit. "Can you run well? It's downhill almost all the way."
I wanted so to stay with this boy. He had offered to share an adventure with me. I'd certainly never have a chance to do something this exciting again. Pulse racing, I nodded. He turned and loped downhill.
Never had I dashed down Kalliste at such speed. I was determined to keep up. My chest heaved, my lungs burned, and the closer we drew to town, the hotter my curiosity burned. I was afraid now we'd be too late and miss everything interesting.
The Lady's Temple, glowing pinkish white in the afternoon sun, sat overlooking the harbor, its inner world of countless rooms and corridors still a place of mystery to me. The city lay below it. The temple of Poseidon stood near the center of an outlander district. Single-story and somber, of rough-hewn black stone, it sat with its back against a hill.
Instead of heading for the entry, Alektrion circled around and ran halfway up the shoulder of the hill. Beside a boulder he stopped and glanced behind us at the open field, I supposed to see if anyone was watching. I was panting. He was scarcely breathing hard. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled between the boulder and a great bushy clump of sweet bay laurel.
I followed him into a low leafy tunnel. We rose and, bent at the waist, wound our way uphill along a fine red-dirt path. My empty stomach growled. "How many times have you done this?" I whispered.
"Where does it lead?"
"To the temple's north wall. High up on one side. There's a place we can see in without anyone seeing us."
A thorn caught my tunic's hem. I tugged it free, and as I looked for damage, realized my heart was beating not only from running hard, but because what Alektrion and I were doing was ...
Was what? I knew of no Law against spying on outlander temples. But I was suddenly very sure if my parents learned of my spying, I'd suffer at least a day's shunning. I shouldn't really be with this boy. My mouth felt as if it were suddenly coated with the same red dust that clung to my legs and tunic. I'd once suffered a shunning. I'd taken another girl's hoop without asking, lost control of it so that a cart wheel crushed it, and then I lied to my nurse and mother, insisting that I'd never touched it. But I'd been seen by one of my nurse's grown sons. For five days no one spoke to me. Not at home. Not at school. The prospect of enduring the draining aloneness of another such punishment made my knees weak.
I looked up. Alektrion had twisted around to watch me. "Want to go back?"
I remembered the golden glow of his eyes. This most interesting boy would think me a scared little girl. I shook my head, waved him forward. "How did you find this place?"
He continued up the narrow tunnel. I began to think even my brown tunic would show traces of this much dirt.
"There's a no-good thief who steals from people's pockets whenever crowds gather. One day I was practicing bull dancing with friends in the field behind here, and he poked his head out of the spot beside the boulder."
I stopped. Alektrion and his friends had dared to play at bull dancing! To dance with the bull is a sacred test of discipline, strength, and courage. Bull Dancing is restricted to the elite of the Snake Clan, who might be chosen priestesses or priests, or of the Butterfly Clan, who might aspire to high political office. Alektrion's friends were all mainlanders or other outlanders. None would ever be allowed to so much as apply to the Dance Academy in Knossos.
"You shouldn't" I had another thought. What I was doing this very moment was itself questionable. I really shouldn't even be with Alektrion. I bit back my words and followed in silence.
He explained that he hadn't told his friends about the thief but returned later to discover the man's secret. "I think he sells information to a woman from Tyrns who claims to be a seer. My guess is she uses what she knows about the secrets of Achean worship to trick her clients."
A seer tricking people! Surely not. My mother was a seer, with a wonderful gift. Alektrion's dry accounting of a seer deceiving people seemed almost more shocking than that he'd played at bull dancing. I began to feel I'd never had a more shocking day in my twelve-year life.
We stopped three arm-spans below the roof. He squatted and tugged the edge of a loose brick back and forth. The scraping sounded so loud to me that tiny alarm shivers ran along my arms. I heard chanting in Achean, a language I barely understood. He removed four more bricks, then we sat, side-by-side in our dim, leafy tunnel, and peered through a jagged-edged hole.
A rectangular altar of light gray stone, not round like the Lady's, lay below us at a distance of ten oxcarts. I could see perhaps a third of the chamber. People packed the room elbow-to-elbow, and overhead lamps strung in a line led from the altar toward the entry door, beyond my view. The lamps spread so much light that the swaying people and sparse furnishings cast no shadows. Mixed with the balsamy smell of frankincense was the odor of cooking lamb. The smell drifted through our viewing hole, encircled my head, grew stronger. I found the combination unpleasant, but still my mouth watered.
Maybe a hundred people stood in rows facing the altar. A wide path in the middle of them cut down the room's center. A patch of something glistened darkly red on the altar's surface. A chill crossed my shoulders and I hugged my arms.
An undulating, chanting row of priests with shaved heads and floor-length black robes stood in front of the altar swinging silver incense burners. The priest presiding was sashed at the waist in scarlet. Of course male priests conducted Poseidon's worship. I knew that. But seeing so many men and no women was a marvel, exactly the exotic wonder I'd hoped to see. And deep in my bones what I saw felt unbalanced. As if all the people in a small boat had rushed to sit on the same side.
Behind the chanting priests, dressed in light armor and carrying red-plumed boar-tusk helmets, the warship's marines stood stiffly, fiercely at attention. Just looking at these Acheans tickled the hair at the back of my neck. Each held a collared dove. Behind them, arms and chests bulging from the work of rowing, stood the ship's oarsmen. Local residents came next, a few of whom I recognized.
I leaned closer to Alektrion and whispered. "Why do you think the warriors have birds?" His left arm was so close his warmth heated my skin. Strangely, I felt both comforted and alarmed.
"Offerings of thanks, perhaps. Maybe they release them at the end of the ceremony."
My gaze was drawn to the glistening red-topped altar.
Awe warmed Alektrion's voice. "Do you know they have to cut and polish forty whole pairs of boar's tusks to make the flat pieces for just one of their helmets?"
He continued, saying that his father made weapons for the Keftian navy. He began comparing Achean, Keftian, and Kallistan swords. I barely listened, but when he said those of the Acheans were superior to ours, I felt another prickling shock. I couldn't imagine anything Acheans might make that could be superior to something the Lady had given the People.
Alektrion's stomach rumbled. I said, "I smell roasting lamb."
He nodded. "Maybe it's meat for an afterfeast." He shifted a bit, and his arm brushed mine. "See that priest there. The one with the red sash. He came with the ship. They barely made it to the harbor's mouth. That's why the port master let them in." Alektrion continued, his talk now of the ferocity of the Achean warriors, and once again the awe in his voice surprised me. "This ceremony is to thank Poseidon for sparing their lives. They also had victory against the Carians." The tone of his voice shifted to disgust. "The ship carries over twenty Carian slaves for the market at Korinthos."
Well, at least Alektrion didn't admire the loathsome Achean practice of slavery.
The chanting stopped. The worshippers turned to look backward toward the entrance. A new chant began, faster and louder. Down the central aisle two priests approached the altar with solemn stride. Between them, held by his hands, walked a boy of about eight dressed in a short white tunic. Angry-looking red marks circled his ankles. His head turned right and left as, with a sleepy look, he scanned the faces in the crowd. Twice he stumbled.
All eyes fastened on him, as if the people were hungry to see him. How could he feel so tired in the midst of such a big crowd? He was quite pretty, with large dark eyes, a sweet mouth, and a fine complexion.
I asked, "Do you understand what the people are chanting?"
"The priests call out the illustrious deeds of Poseidon, and the people answer with one of his several names."
Row after row that the boy and priests passed turned forward until, at last, the trio stopped at the altar and the crowd faced forward. The chanting had become a roar and in perfect rhythm each person stamped the floor with one foot. The scarlet-sashed priest moved slightly to the side. The noise was so loud my thighs felt vibrations coming through the stone and earth.
The two priests clasped the boy's arms tightly to his sides. Two other priests stepped forward, grasped his legs, and the four men lifted him and laid him lengthwise on his back on the altar. The presiding priest strode forward, pulled a dagger from beneath his robe, and before my mind could accept what my eyes were seeing, slashed it across the boy's throat.
I gasped, then clapped my hand over my mouth. Blood gushed from his neck; his body quivered and lurched beneath the restraining hands. Hundreds of sandaled feet stomped the temple floor. The name Poseidon rang out three times more, and then the crowd fell silent.
Alektrion swore. The smell of the lamb sickened me, my stomach twisted and bile rushed upward, burning the back of my throat.
I turned from the spy hole and vomited. I'd eaten little, but my heaving continued as if the convulsions of my stomach could purge the assault to my eyes. I felt Alektrion grip my shoulder.
He whispered, "Are you going to be all right?"
My heart pounded so hard my head felt as though it would burst from the pressure. I clung to the wall retching violently until at last it stopped. I sucked in two deep breaths, then pushed away from the wall and fled down the dim tunnel through the laurel toward the open field-away from this horror. The sounds of Alektrion's footsteps followed me, loud and close behind.