Authors: Judith Tarr
“What name does it please you to give him? Mother's son, great Amon, Father Zeusâyou are all of them, just as I am the Mother. So are all men and women who love one another.”
“Not like us,” he said.
She smiled. She reached for his hand and laid it on her belly.
His brows rose.
The light in him was so sudden and so bright that she blinked, dazzled. She had expected joy. But this was more.
He had forgotten the Mother's children in the prospect of his own. They dived beneath the blankets as he swept her up and whirled her around the room.
That was a wonder and a delight, but Myrtale had to say it. “It's not your first.”
“It will be the best,” he said. “Don't tell me you don't feel it.”
“From the beginning,” she said. “You can. You really can see.”
She thought to deny it, but that would not be the truth. “You're so much a man of this world. Even with the MysteriesÂ â¦ I didn't thinkâ¦”
“I never do the expected thing,” he said.
As in war, so in all else. She nodded slowly. He had given her a gift of sorts.
They came to rest beside the bed. He set her lightly on her feet; she rested against him. He was not a tender man, but he held her for as long as she wished to be held, and that too was a gift.
When she withdrew, he lifted her and laid her in the bed. Then he lay beside her, propped on his elbow, and drank her in.
Both of her. As fleeting as that might be, she basked in it. She had earned itâand so would the son they had made.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The next morning, men brought in a new and larger bed, which nearly filled the room. With it they brought a brazier and a boy to tend it, and a chest full of gifts: chitons and mantles and veils, and a box so heavy it took two men to lift, full of golden ornaments.
A pair of maids came with the rest. No witches these, and no slaves, either; they were free Macedonian women, well trained and apparently well disposed toward the king's wife. They seemed to find it more amusing than not that the king was so besotted.
“He likes you,” said the elder of the two sisters. Her name was Phryne; the younger was Baukis. “Mostly, he only likes women to make sons withâeven if they wear armor and best him at the hunt. You, he respects.”
From a Macedonian, that was high praise. Myrtale let herself bask briefly in it before she took thought for the consequences of Philip's extravagance.
She could not send the gifts or the maids awayâthat would offend him beyond forgiveness. But she had to live with her sister wives. Even Philinna might not take kindly to the favor shown Myrtale, when she had borne her husband a son to much less fanfare.
But if Myrtale divided the gifts, she would seem either ungrateful or arrogant. Philip had left her with a dilemmaâdamn him.
She would carry on as always. No apologies. In this world, one ruled or one served. Generosity was a virtue, but first one had to have the gifts to give. And for that, one had to rule.
This morning, at last, Erynna professed herself willing to teach her pupils to fly. They were all there but Philinnaâshe had a winter rheum, Audata said. That was unfortunate: she had been the most eager of them all. But no one was minded to wait for her.
The secret proved rather disappointing. It was an ointment made of olive oil and sheep's fat and a mixture of herbs. The art was in the mixing, and in the words one spoke as one did itâand, Myrtale could see, the power one brought to the work.
Erynna had a small quantity of all but one of the herbs; that one, she declared, had to be gathered with a golden sickle by the first light of the new moon. Without it, the rest was no more than a vaguely astringent, rather unpleasantly numbing salve.
“In the spring,” Erynna promised, “when the earth comes to life again, we'll finish this. We'll fly against the moon.”
She was full of promises, that one. Myrtale packed away her little jar of ointment, useless as it was without its final tincture.
She had been careful to wash her hand where it had tested the mixing, but the numbness lingered. As it was now, it was a rather nasty poison. She had her doubts that, once finished, it would be any less dangerous.
Did the witches really fly, then? Or did they leave their bodies in a fever dream, and only return by the Mother's mercy? How many of them died of it?
Magic did not frighten Myrtale. This made her wary. She thrust the jar deep in her chest of belongings, down at the bottom, and resolved to forget it existed.
Philip came late to Myrtale's bed that night, but he did come. She woke from a doze to find him warm and heavy against her, snoring softly. She thought of waking him with kisses, but it was pleasant just to lie there beside him and listen to the wind.
It was wailing tonight, promising another storm before morning. Myrtale shifted carefully, so as not to wake Philip.
She was warm and comfortable and safe. And yet she could not stay still. The wind's wailing rose in pitch until she stuffed the blankets into her ears; then it filled her head from within.
It was not the wind. Philip stirred beside her and sat up, blinking and scowling.
Myrtale was already on her feet and wrapped in a mantle. She snatched up the lamp and shielded the flame as she peered out into the corridor.
It was full of shadows: people running toward the outcry. Philip pushed past Myrtale and flung himself into the current. She half ran in his wake.
The wailing came from the women's hall. Philinna crouched there, clutching a bundle to her breast, rocking and keening. Servants struggled with her, trying with varying degrees of gentleness to take the bundle away, but she only clung the tighter.
Myrtale stepped around Philip and knelt beside Philinna. Her eyes were almost completely empty of sense, but as they fixed on Myrtale, slow recognition dawned. Then her clasp loosened enough so that Myrtale could see what she held.
It was her son Arrhidaios. His body was limp; his head lolled. His lips were blue.
He was still warmâwith his mother's warmth? Myrtale laid her hand against his cheek.
Life slept deep within him. It was rapidly growing cold. “Philinna,” Myrtale said. Then louder: “Philinna!”
Her sister wife stopped rocking and wailing. “He's alive,” Myrtale said. “Do you hear me? You have to let him go. If I can helpâ”
Philinna thrust the child into Myrtale's arms so suddenly that Myrtale nearly dropped him. He was a surprisingly heavy weight, slack and barely breathing. But he was breathing.
She had never studied this kind of magic. It
magic and not only poisonâshe could taste it, thick and bitter on the back of her tongue. She had only what she knew, and what her heart told her.
She sank down to the floor under the weight of so much treachery. When the magic came out of her, it came in a wordless song, a melody such as a mother would sing to lull her child to sleep. It seemed right that she should rock Arrhidaios as she sang, cradling him while the wind howled beyond the walls.
Winter had set in fast and hard. It was sunk in the child's bones.
The life in him burned low. What was a bright flame in the rest of them was pale and cold in the child. Myrtale fed it with her own fierce heat.
It warmed a little, but it had burned down too far. She could keep it alive, but only just, for all her singing and wishing and, as the magic drained out of her, praying.
She looked up from his lolling head to the ring of staring faces. Some had turned hostile. She felt rather than heard the word they whispered, like a gust of foul air in her face:
That was true, but it was not her witchery that had felled Arrhidaios. Her eyes found the witch in the shadows beyond the crowd. Erynna was smiling.
The sun was out of reach, but the moon rode beyond the clouds. Its borrowed light lacked the strength to do real harm, but a lash of it could sting.
Erynna went down, convulsed. Myrtale put her out of mind. “Philinna,” she said. “Take him. Keep him warm and pray. I've done all I can do.”
“That's more than enough,” someone muttered. Myrtale could not see who it was.
It was not one of her sister wives, and it was not Philip. They were all who mattered. Myrtale returned the child to his mother, who had come to herself somewhat, and rose stiffly.
She felt cold and ill, and her bones ached. The working she had done, for as little good as it did, had drained her. That was Erynna's darker magic, sapping all else of strengthâand Arrhidaios most of all.
“Will he live?”
Myrtale stared without recognition. Slowly it dawned on her that the man who spoke was her husband. Equally slowly, she mustered a response. “That is with the Mother.”
He swayed; his face blurred. Myrtale reached, perhaps to steady him, perhaps to catch herself. His hands were strong and familiar. She let them hold her up.
Everything was floating, and it all seemed very far away. She had never felt quite like this before. There was more to it than magic. Was she ill?
The one clear thing in this world of mist and shadow was fear. The child within her, hardly more than a sparkâif he died because of thisâ
The Mother's arms closed about her, even warmer and stronger than Philip's. Myrtale clung to the fear, but it slid away in spite of her, melting between her fingers. When all of it was gone, there was sleep, sweet and deep.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
For nine days Arrhidaios lay between life and death. His mother and his nurses kept him warm and massaged his limbs and fed him sops of milk and honey. His father sacrificed a new lamb to Hera and a white bull to Father Zeus, for such good as they might do.
To the Mother Philip would give nothing. “This is Her doing,” he said to Myrtale.
He was still coming to her bedâwhich surprised her somewhat. But his anger did not seem to have extended itself to her; he was one of the few of whom that could be said.
On that night, the ninth night, he paced the room, even as small as it was. His shoulders were hunched; his shadow leaped toward the ceiling as the wind of his passage made the lamp's flame burn tall. His voice was a growl. “She did this,” he said. “She hates me because I won't crawl at Her feet. My gods are younger gods, stronger gods. Gods who wield greater power in this age of the world.”
“No one is stronger than the Mother,” Myrtale said, “and She had nothing to do with this. This is witchcraft, plain and mortally simple.”
“I don't believe in witches,” Philip said. His voice was flat.
“You should,” said Myrtale. “I saw the witch gloating over her handiwork.”
“They say you did it,” he said. “You poisoned him to protect your own interest.”
Her heart went still, but her eyes held steady. “Do you believe that?”
“I believe you would do anything to get what you want. But this? It's too petty. You'd kill him outright, and get rid of his mother, too.”
“I wouldn't trouble,” Myrtale said. “She has no ambition. He might, if he grows upâbut I think he'll make a better servant than king.”
“A king needs good servants,” Philip said. He reached for her in sudden hungerâno Greek nonsense after all; his child in her made him want her more than ever. But before he took her, he paused. “Who is it? Who's the witch?”
“Where do witches come from?”
He pulled back, scowling. “You'd mock me with riddles now?”
“You sent me a servant,” she said, “but since you don't believe in witches, I suppose it didn't occur to you that a woman from Thessaly might be more than a bold-eyed maid.”
His back stiffened. “I'll kill her. I'll throttle her with my own hands.”
“Don't,” said Myrtale. “Leave her to me.”
“No,” Philip said. “Not this one.”
“Yes,” she said. It was hard: he had power in his presence, and it pressed on her. But she was stronger than he. She stared him down.
He disliked that intensely, but it excited him, too. He pulled her to him, hard, and made a show of taking her by storm.
Even in grief and anger, he could make her smile. But she had not forgotten a word they had said.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Myrtale bided her time. If Erynna had expected to be caught, each day's passing would have lulled her further into complacence.
On the day after Myrtale spoke to Philip, Arrhidaios began to wake. It was slow; he was weak. He seemed to recognize no one, not even his mother.
It was as if he had returned to infancy and must begin all over. All his bright quickness was gone. He was alive, and he seemed contentâif nothing else, he could smile, and he seemed to take pleasure in such life as he hadâbut he was a broken thing. Neither medicine nor magic could mend him.
His father sent for physicians from Athens and Corinth. His mother called on every herb-healer and hedge-witch and diviner who could be found in the dead of winter. She even sent messengers to Persia to find someone, anyone, who might heal her child.
Philinna had hope. Myrtale almost envied her. The truth was a bitter draught.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
No one said anything, but the lessons in the room of the Egyptians had stopped. The door was shut and no one passed it. The little bits of songs and spells that had followed the witch's pupils about the palace were silenced; the potions were poured out and the herbs scattered on the wind. It was a repudiation in every way, but done in silence, with no words exchanged.
Erynna seemed to have vanished, but Myrtale could still smell her. She was somewhere in Pella.
Myrtale hoped the witch was living in dread of the king, but that was as unlikely as Arrhidaios' return to the child he had been. Erynna was not done. Whatever she was plotting, there was more to come.
Carefully and with utmost discretion, as winter warmed once more into spring, Myrtale wove protections for herself and her husband, and upon reflection, for her sister wives, too.