Authors: Judith Tarr
There was power in these ancient rituals. But could the girl control it? That had always been the danger. The omens had warned against it, and every prognostication Nikandra had ventured gave the same result.
In Samothrace they embraced it. And maybe, Nikandra thought, that would do what all her efforts had failed to do. Maybe, if Polyxena had a careful fraction of what she thought she wanted, it would be enough. She would not go seeking any more of it.
The Mother Herself had guided Polyxena toward this path. Nikandra had to trust in Her.
The wind was brisk, striking foam from the faces of the waves. King Arybbas' ship danced on them, looking ahead with the bright eyes painted on its prow. The striped sail was as full as a bearing woman's belly; the oars were shipped and the oarsmen sprawled at ease, basking in the sun and spray.
Polyxena knelt as close to the prow as she could get, right above the painted eyes. Cold spray stung her cheeks and stiffened her hair.
Close against her breast, the little snake coiled tightly, hugging her warmth. It had no comprehension of all this strangeness, and no power to understand.
It was remarkably like the queen's maids. They yearned audibly for their familiar place, for earth that stayed mostly still and sky closed in by palace walls. Polyxena could no more understand them than the snake could understand her.
Poor things, all of them, not to know the joy that filled her. It was wonderfulâglorious. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back and grinned at the sky.
She was as free as a woman of this world could be. Her sister sat under the canopy amidships, comforting her maid Merope, who was miserably seasick. The other four clung to anything they could find, in terror of this leaping, surging motion.
Most of the sailors were king's men; when they reached the island they would become guards, ready to defend the queen and her women to the death if need be. They were strong men, well built and good to look at. If the world and its wonders had not been so engrossing, Polyxena would have been content to sit and stare at them.
She had never been outside of Dodona before. After her sister gave her the news, she had been too full of excitement to eat or sleep. The queen's preparations had been breathtakingly briefâonly a day and a nightâbut Polyxena had counted every breath and every hour until the king's house and the grove and the temple were behind her.
She had more than half expected that the priestesses would try to stop her at the last, to bind her forever to a place and a priesthood for which she had no calling. But no one barred her way. No stern face watched her from the temple or the grove, and no voice called her back. Even the sense of being watched was absent, as if whatever it was had elected to let her go.
There had been no farewell from within the temple. Polyxena had not expected one.
She supposed she was in disgrace. She did not care. She turned her back on the grove and the temple and let the brown mule carry her as far away from it as she could go.
As they rode out of the steep valley with its lowering mountains, down to the river and the ship and thence to the sea, Polyxena drank in every sight and sound and smell. From mountain tracks still marked by scars of the wrath she had brought on them to fertile valleys to stony shores and the crash of waves, she committed each step to memory, to bring out later and cherish. Even the ship was a wonder, because it was not Dodona.
Everywhere she went, the Mother was. She had been taught as much, but the truth of it was stronger than she could have imagined. Sometimes she was so dizzy she could hardly stand; other times she had to swallow broad grins or gusts of laughter that her companions might take for hysteria.
Where they were going, her sister's women had assured her, this near-ecstasy was nurtured and encouraged. She pressed them for more, but that was all they knew or would say.
“It's a Mystery,” said Deianeira before seasickness silenced her. “When we come back, we'll know, tooâbut we'll have sworn terrible oaths never to tell.”
Secrets, thought Polyxena. She wanted to hug herself. Mysteries. Ecstasies. If she could have put on wings and flown, she would have done it, to be there all the sooner.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The isle of Samothrace rose sheer out of the sea. It was as mysterious as Polyxena could have asked for: a landscape of stark cliffs and wind-whipped greenery, dashed about its feet by wine-dark waves.
They came to harbor late in the long summer day. The walled town climbed the hills above them, humming with people like a meadow with bees. They disembarked shaky-legged on the stony shore and saw their ship drawn up and secured amid a throng of others greater and lesser. Theirs was not the greatest or the most splendid, but it was not the smallest, either. Some of the boats were hardly bigger than a cockleshell.
There were people waiting, a man and a woman in long tunics of plain white wool, with their feet bare and their hair unbound. The offered the queen no obeisance.
She however, with wisdom that Polyxena had learned to admire in her, bowed to them as she would to one of the priestesses at home. They inclined their heads in return and beckoned the newcomers to follow.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
That night the travelers from Epiros spent in the city in a hostelry for those who would be sworn into the Mysteries. They had come just in time: tomorrow was the great rite, and every room was full.
The queen was separated from her guards, as men and women lodged apart in this place. Troas lost none of her serenity, even when she was crowded into a barracks of a room with a chattering phalanx of mothers and small children surrounding her. Far down the length of the room, over by the wall, sat a woman decked out with gold enough to fill a temple, attended by a flock of all but naked slaves.
“That's a pirate queen,” one of the young mothers said while a fat infant sucked at one ample breast and an equally fat girlchild of some three or four years took her turn at the other. “They say her husband is a eunuchâand she's praying the Great Gods to give her a son.”
“She'd do better to pray to the nearest pirate,” said her neighbor, grinning.
“I daresay she hasâbut as far as her husband will know, when the baby comes, its father is a god.”
They all nodded at that, down the row of cots and pallets. Not, thought Polyxena, that any of them looked as if she needed to feign a miracle. Maybe they had come to ask the gods to shut the door on their manifest fertility.
“There's a real king here, too,” said a woman farther up the hall. “The King of Macedon has come with his Companions to worship the Great Gods.”
“Ah,” said her companion. “That's not much better than a pirate. They're all raised in a barn up there.”
“It's not so bad now,” a third said. “He's been pulling them out of the cow-byres, they say, and turning them into an army. He's even taught them to speak Greek.”
“Has he taught them to bathe?” the second woman inquired.
“I was downwind of them,” said the first, “and they weren't any worse than anyone else. He's a good-looking man, is Philip.”
The second sniffed. “I suppose so, if you like big and brawny. I lean more toward a smooth young thing, myself.”
“And that's why your husband is a hairy old goat,” said the third.
That won a screech and a leap and a scuffle that ended in scratches and pulled hair and sullen silence. Polyxena was careful not to let them see her smileâor they would have turned on her.
Fortunately she had a pretext for turning away: Troas called her to lend a hand with the evening's tasks, setting up the beds and fetching the ration of bread and oil and sour wine that was all any of them was to dine on. Some of the more toplofty pilgrims objected, but the pirate queen took her share with good humor and ate it without complaint.
The bread was hard and full of grit, and the wine was almost vinegar. Polyxena chose to follow the pirate queen's example. As wretched as it was, it tasted better than it lookedâand that maybe was a lesson.
As she sat cross-legged on her pallet and ate her dinner, she filled herself with this crowd of humanity as she had with earth and sea and sky. Women of every rank and station were gathered here, eating as she ate and waiting as she did for the great rite and the Mystery. There were slaves in sackcloth and fisherwomen knotting nets to keep their fingers busy, veiled citizens' wives from Athens passing round a jar of smuggled wine so strong the scent of it had made Polyxena dizzy when she passed by, and brawny warrior women from Sparta who looked as if they had left their armor just outside the door.
Polyxena listened shamelessly to the babble of voices. Some she could barely understand, so thick was their accent; others were not speaking any language she recognized. She had thought she knew how wide the world was from seeing the pilgrims at Dodona, but here they were all piled together, high and low, rich and poor, from the sun-shot cities of the south to the chilly sheepfolds of the north.
They were all here for the same reason. Tomorrow, at the dark of the moon, the Mysteries would begin. None of them professed to know what would happen, although there was speculation enough.
The air crackled with excitement, anticipation, and no little apprehension. This Mystery was twofold, said those who seemed to know the most. The first was simple enough, and one might stop there and present one's respects and go away initiate. But if one truly wished to gain what one sought, one would stay and suffer the secondâand that was a deeper, darker, stronger thing.
Polyxena was not here to sing a song and wear a garland and pour a cup of wine on the ground. Whatever she was meant to do, the Mother had brought her here to discover it. She would stay for all of it, no matter what it cost her.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In the morning the priest and priestess in white came to guide them all through the city and out past the walls to the holy place. The excitement of the night before had given way to a spreading silence. Even the children were quiet, clinging big-eyed to the hands of mothers or nurses.
The men had come out from another door and fallen into the column beside them. Polyxena could see only those who were closest. There was nothing remarkable there, though a few had handsome faces. Children walked with them, too: boys and young men, too manly to cling to anyone, though some of their elders walked arm in arm as lovers might.
They passed in procession through streets that had seen a thousand years of their like. Polyxena smelled baking bread, spilled wine, a waft of perfume.
Faces peered over walls and out of doorways. Had any of these people gone to the Mysteries? Or were they like the people in Dodona, too familiar with their miracle to find it interesting?
Her stomach growled. They had been given nothing to eat this morning, and only water to drink.
She had fasted often enough in her training, but the first day was never easy. She swallowed the hunger and dedicated it to the Mother. It still gnawed at her, but the sense of virtue softened the pain a little.
The place of the Mysteries lay just beyond the westward wall. There the mountain descended in three narrow terraces, each divided from the other by the steep banks of a swift river. It was a wild place despite its closeness to the town, a place of rock and water and swift-scudding cloud, bounded by the mountain and the sea.
As Polyxena crossed the worn stone bridge onto the first terrace, she nearly fell to her knees. For all the crowd of people around her and the weight of the town behind her, she felt as if the Mother's eye had fixed on her and her alone.
She glanced to either side. No one else seemed unduly disturbed. Some were frowning, some smiling; many looked about, wide-eyed with curiosity.
Polyxena shut her eyes and let the current of the crowd carry her onward. The scent of thyme was everywhere, green and strong, and the humming of bees, and far away the roaring of waves. The wind was cool on her cheeks; the warmth of bodies surrounded her, keeping her safe. She was as well warded here as she had ever been in Dodonaâand that was a thought she needed to ponder, later, after this was over.
She passed over the river onto the first of the terraces, treading a path that feet had trod for time out of mind. The memory of those older pilgrims was all around her. If she sharpened her senses, she could see and feel and smell them, and hear their voices speaking, echoing down through the years.
They had all come for the Mother, because She had called them or because they had need of Her. Polyxena would have liked to kneel on the Mother's own earth and dig her fingers into it, but the current of people was too strong.
It surged like water onto the first terrace and spread toward and around a hollow paved with hewn stones. In the center stood an altar. Men and women in white waited there, with their heads covered and their faces veiled.
The altar was banked with garlands of flowers and greenery, piled high on the stone table and tumbling over the sides to the pavement. Acolytes in short tunics gathered them up and passed them to the pilgrims.
The one that came to Polyxena was of myrtle, deep green leaves potent with fragrance. She breathed it in. It was sacred to Aphrodite, who was one of the many faces of the Mother.
The priests at the altar raised up a milk-white lamb and a night-black kid. Neither struggled: they rested at ease in the priests' hands. Their blood sprang across the pale stone of the altar and stained with vivid red the last of the garlands.
As the smoke of the sacrifice rose up to heaven, a priestess with a deep pure voice began to chant a hymn to the Mother. It celebrated Her as ruler of the wild places, mountain goddess, Lady of lions. Then it shifted, turning to a wilder mode, to sing the praises of Her son who was also Her lover, god of wine and laughter, brother of panthers.
There was a strong rhythm in the chant, the beating of the heart and the heat of the body as it moved to match the pulse of the ancient words. This rite worshiped Her with dance, and its words and music were meant to stir the blood.