Authors: Judith Tarr
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The palace had escaped destruction. There was ash on the floors, jars of wine and oil broken, and men limping or nursing bruised or broken limbs, but the walls had held. In the queen's house, Troas' ladies swept and scrubbed and made the rooms clean again.
Few of them were hurt. The Mother had protected them.
The queen sat in her accustomed seat with a basket of wool and a spindle. She looked flustered, as if she had just sat down.
She smoothed a stray curl off her forehead and smiled somewhat shakily at Polyxena. “You're well. Good. Go and get clean, then help me spin. No matter how angry the gods are, we still need clothes on our backs.”
She was wise. Two of the queen's ladies took Polyxena in hand and carried her off to the bath.
The water that streamed down her body was black with ash and mud. Her hair was clotted with it. Troas' women scrubbed her until her skin stung, then anointed her with sweet oils and dressed her in soft clean wool.
She only stirred when they tried to take the hatchling's pouch away. She snatched at that and glared until they sighed and let her keep it, though she had to hold it in her hands while they washed her breast and shoulders. She did let them string a new, clean cord through its neck, blessing the snake's stillness through all that upheaval. When it was safe around her neck again, it stirred and stretched before it went back to sleep.
While her two attendants plaited her hair with deft fingers, she caught herself sliding into a doze. She blinked hard, willing herself to stay awake. Of all things she dreaded, sleep was among the worst. In sleep she might dream, and in dream she might finish what her folly had begun.
Luckily for what peace of mind she had, she was soon done. Clean at last and fit to keep company with a queen, she walked back slowly to her sister's hall.
She felt most peculiar. The oil was sweet and her gown was soft. She could not remember when last she had been so clean.
This was luxury, and she was born for it. She was not made for raw wool and bare feet. She saw beauty reflected in her sister's eyes, and Troas' wonder and surprise andâjust visiblyâher envy.
Polyxena had beauty to spare, if the queen of Epiros could see her as a rival. The thought made her smile, though she hid it quickly.
She sat on the stool that had been waiting for her and found another spindle in the basket. It was simple work on the face of it, but it took skill to do well. On that day, she was glad of it.
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No one came from the temple to drag Polyxena back to her cage. When night fell, there was a bed for her in the queen's chamber.
Troas asked no questions. She was neither dull-witted nor a fool, and she had always known when to let be. There was ample to do in this world she lived in, though Nikandra might sneer at it.
Nikandra had no use for women who, as she put it, made themselves willing slaves of men. She would never reconcile herself to the way of the world.
Polyxena not only could do that, she would make it serve her. She flinched a little from the thought that followed, that forcing the oracle to do her bidding had had dire consequences. That was as much Nikandra's fault as anyone's, for not warning her that such a thing was possible.
Her dreams that night were quiet, ordinary, without power or terror. She spun wool, wove a war-cloak, heard a sweet singer playing on a lyre.
The end of the dream was as vivid as the waking world. She felt life swelling in her belly, and she saw a shadow at the door. Its shoulders were broad and its step heavy.
Just before she saw the man's face, she sprang awake. That was the Mother's jest: to torment her with foresight, but to snatch it away before she saw anything useful.
Maybe it was a true dream. If it was a mere and mortal fantasy, she would cling to the hope it gave her and pray the gods to make it true.
“The Mother and the Son.”
Promeneia spoke the words slowly but distinctly. Her voice startled Nikandra, who had dozed off at the eldest priestess' bedside. She had been dreaming that Promeneia had died; it was not far off the truth.
Promeneia lay as still as she had lain for the past three days and nights, gaunt and shrunken in upon herself. The powers she had raised had drained her dry. It was a wonder she had the strength to speak.
Nikandra was exhausted with prayer and invocations of those same powers which had served and nearly destroyed Promeneia. Timarete had given up the fight; she had fallen asleep across the foot of the bed. There was only Nikandra to hear the words that Promeneia spoke.
The old woman said them again. “The Mother and the Son. That is your answer. Let the child seek it there.”
“But,” said Nikandra stupidly, “where? There are so many placesâthere is so muchâ”
Promeneia did not answer. Nikandra began to wonder if she had imagined the voice and the words. They were as vague as the oracle could be, hovering just past the edge of meaning.
Her mind was fuddled with the aftermath of her niece's eruption of power. She still had not focused enough to understand what all of its consequences would be, though the guilt was clear enough. If she had not shielded the child from the knowledge of what she was, this would not have happened. No matter that her fears had been manifold: of the girl's own immense power, of powers in the world that would seize and wield that power for their own purposes, of wrath and destruction and the toppling of empires. By keeping Polyxena in ignorance, she might well have assured that all those things would come to pass.
She rose swaying. As she looked down in the lamplight, she saw the gleam of eyes beneath the withered lids. A third time Promeneia said, “The Mother and the Son. Her destiny is with them.”
Nikandra laid her hand on Promeneia's brow. It was cool; not quite as cold as death, but life was ebbing from it. “I have to sleep,” Nikandra saidânot an answer exactly; more of an explanation.
Promeneia lay silent, breathing shallowly. Nikandra laid a blessing on her and murmured a scrap of a charm.
Maybe it was useless; maybe not. The powers of earth were listening. They might choose to honor the invocation.
Nikandra had forsworn hedge-magic and the workings of common witches when she swore herself to the temple. There was darkness in that path, and loss of will and disciplineâall things she had abjured to follow the Mother's path. She was no wild-eyed witch of Thessaly, all filthy rags and matted hair, flying like a bat against the moon.
But she had the magic. The power was in her, if she chose to acknowledge it.
It was remarkably easy to find that way of thinking again, to remember the words and the rituals, the herbs and the smokes and the bones that rattled as if in mockery of the oracle in the Mother's tree.
None of them had anything to do with a dying priestess or a child with more power than any mortal should have had, and no useful awareness of that power.
Nikandra had meant to protect them all, and Polyxena not least. She should have known that such protection was never a wise thing.
Too late now to undo what she had done. At best she could hope to remedy it, and pray the remedy did not simply make matters worse.
Exhaustion dulled her wits and clouded her judgment. She shook from her head the memory of love charms and petty curses, and invoked the Mother's grace on Promeneia.
The air seemed a little lighter for it. The rattle of breath was the slightest bit steadier. Nikandra did not dare to hope for a miracleâmiracles were for men's gods, gaudy things that they were. But her despair was somewhat less than it had been before.
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The Mother and the Son.
The words followed Nikandra from sleep into waking. They were persistently, preternaturally obscure. It was not that she knew too little; she knew too much. There were half a hundred places and things to which one could attach that meaning, and she could not choose among them.
Nikandra was not one to wallow in remorse for doing what had to be done. She could force her way past this confusion of the spirit.
Here in Dodona, the Mother ruled with Her consort, whom the men did their best to transform into the king of gods. In other parts of the world, She shared the mysteries with Her son, the first and most beloved of Her creation.
Those rites were wilder than the ones Nikandra celebrated. They struck closer to the body's passions. Nikandra would not say she disapproved of them, but they were not the rite she was born for.
Polyxena had that bent of spirit, the wildness that these gentler observances could not satisfy. There was real danger in this: that in the wine and the singing and the ecstatic dances, not only she might find the way to her power; others would find it as well.
That was the danger. That was the reason Nikandra had hidden her for so long, even from herself. Nikandra had to pray that when Polyxena's body awakened, it buried the magic deeper, until there was nothing left to find.
Nikandra left the priestesses' house in the full light of morning, passing by the pilgrims who had waited in vain for four days while the priestesses tended their eldest sister. They reached out, calling after her. Their hands plucked at her skirts.
They called down prayers on Promeneia, offering blessings and wishing her well. Nikandra would not have paused for beggars, but for blessings she would be less than gracious if she pushed on past. She had to stop, answer their crowding questions and reassure them as best she could.
That was not very well, but they were glad of any crumbs she could spare. It touched her heart to see that they were not simply blind mouths and greedy hands. Who knew? Maybe their prayers would move the Mother to heal Her eldest priestess.
As Nikandra passed through the last of them, she met a handful of women coming out of the town. They were plainly dressed and affecting no estate, but Nikandra knew the queen's face too well to be mistaken.
Nikandra looked on her in newborn respect. Troas recognized it for what it was. Her brow arched.
Nikandra caught herself flushingâa rarity, and not one she was glad of. She covered it with brusqueness. “The girl? She's well?”
“My sister,” said Troas, “is well cared for.”
Nikandra nodded. “I thank you for that.”
“No need,” said Troas. “Blood cares for blood.”
That was a rebuke, though gently spoken. It stung as it was meant to.
Troas smiled faintly. “I've always been invisible to you, aunt. It seemed to me you only saw her. Now I wonder. What do you see? Are we real to you at all?”
Nikandra's spine had gone stiff. “Is that why you came, lady? To give me the sharp edge of your tongue?”
“I thought I might speak the truth,” Troas said. “My sister was never meant for this place. Perhaps I might have been, if you had seen me; but I'm content with the lot that's been cast for me. I've spoken with my husband, and he has a solution to suggestâif you are capable of hearing it.”
Truth had a bitter taste. Nikandra had heard that said but had never understood how bitter it could be. She swallowed it along with her pride, though it gagged her, and said, “Tell me.”
“The Mother and the Son,” said Troas. “When the earth tried to break, those were the words I heard in it. When I repeated them to my husband, he recognized them. âThose are the Mysteries on Samothrace,' he said. He was initiate there when he was young.”
Nikandra stared at her niece. There was the answer. It should have been obvious.
The past days had robbed her of any wits or learning she had had. Or had her mind been deliberately fuddled? Were the omens of Polyxena's birth coming true at last? Were powers gathering that would transform her into the weapon that Nikandra had foreseen?
Who, then? Who would, or could, do such a thing?
As with Promeneia's prophecy, the answers were too many. It could be any one of a hundred rivals of Dodona's priesthood, or even someone whom Nikandra did not yet know: some enemy so well hidden that there was only the whisper of a prophecy to mark him.
Nikandra shook herself hard and made her mind focus on the moment, on the thoughts that were safest to think. “Samothrace,” she said. “Of course.”
Troas nodded. “The king has agreed to send a ship to the isle with a cargo of offerings and such of our people as wish to go. I've asked to be among them.”
“And your sister?”
“Yes,” said Troas. “We'll sail as soon as the ship is ready.”
Her face was tight; she looked as if she was braced for a fight. Nikandra might have offered one, but she had too much to ponder. All the certainties that had bolstered her mind and spirit had crumbled; there was little left to lean on.
This much she could do. “Guard her well,” she said. “Never let her out of your sight, unless someone you trust is guarding her. Let no one near whom you do not know or trust. Will you promise that?”
Troas studied her with dark and steady eyesâremarkably like Promeneia's, if Nikandra would face the truth. “You have reason to fear for her?”
“I might,” said Nikandra.
“Is it anything she knows?”
Troas nodded slowly, as if something she had long suspected had come clear to her. “Someday soon, she will have to.”
“But not yet,” said Nikandra.
Troas might have had more to say, but she forbore to say it. She turned instead and made her way back to the palace.
Nikandra stood on the edge of the grove and watched her go. It would be a while before she understood fully all of the emotions that stirred in her.
Regret, yes. Guilt. Resignation, perhapsâthough that would be slow to grow.
She had done the best she knew how. If Polyxena could be content to live as a pampered princess, then the rest of it might sink beneath the surface again.
The Mysteries in Samothrace would suit her. They were rites of the deep earth and the wine's ecstasy; they celebrated the body's passion and reduced the mind to wordless desire. They were made for Polyxena.