Authors: Caitlin Sweet
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Legends; Myths; Fables, #Greek & Roman
“Yes,” Pasiphae said, “look at how fine and strong Poseidon’s son is.”
Ariadne shrank back against the column. She wished suddenly that she could do things over—that she could drop the baby on the ground, this time, or cut the horn-nubs from his skull with the bronze axe. For she was nothing now—nothing, next to the bull god’s son. She pressed herself against the stone so hard that she could feel the edges of the double-axe carvings, even through her sleeping shift. The baby’s suckling sounded very loud.
A shadow-smile curved Minos’s lips. He stayed still a moment longer, and then he turned and walked away. Smoke and sparks flowed out into the dark behind him and were gone.
The summer after Asterion’s birth was full of gold and blue. Ariadne remembered it so well, later: the sunlight on the sea below the palace; the pleats of her mother’s skirts and the embroidered sleeves of her short jacket; her brothers’ skin and hers too, burnished and rimed with salt.
The summer palace at Amnisos was even lovelier than Knossos. It was set on a cliff, halfway—she imagined—between sea and sky. Between Poseidon and Zeus, she also thought, and even Pasiphae and Minos seemed to sense this balance. She heard them arguing in Pasiphae’s chamber, but only twice, and both times the shouting eased into murmuring and muffled laughter. It was all quite wonderful: baby Asterion was sickly and weak and hardly ever anywhere but with his nurse, and Minos smiled all the time and called Ariadne “the king’s jewel,” and Glaucus disappeared after Deucalion into the olive groves and didn’t bother her. She turned six, too, in the palace above the sea. Everyone cheered and sang to her, and Naucrate made fig tarts. But best of all was afterward, on her way to bed, when she overheard Asterion’s nurse speaking to someone in a corridor. The nurse said, quite clearly, “Perhaps the princess
marked, after all, for is she not as lovely as if Aphrodite herself had made her?”
Ariadne was happy, that summer.
The day before the royal household was to set out again for Knossos, they all returned to the sacred cave. It looked darker than it had last year. The owl looked the same. It was plump and white, and its round golden eyes were framed with brown, and it sat on its gnarled, leafless branch without blinking even once. Ariadne had reached out her hand to it, when she was only five, but her father had scolded her, and the priest had nodded and stroked his oiled, pointy beard. Now she just stared at it. Its chest feathers were sunlit; its back ones were duller, sunk in the dimness of the cave’s entrance.
“Ariadne!” She turned toward Glaucus’s voice. He was silhouetted on the ridge behind her, waving his arms. “Come back here!”
“You come and get me!” she called and grinned when he put his hands on his hips. He’d been too afraid to come close to the cave last year. She’d already mentioned this today, as they bumped and jostled in the palanquin; he’d hit her in the stomach, and she’d hit him back, and Androgeus had had to wrest them apart.
“Fine—don’t come,” he shouted. “You’ll just miss Androgeus, that’s all.”
She ran up and into full sunlight. People were gathered on the plateau—the palanquin bearers, her brothers, the queen, the king, Pherenike, with her own small, squirming infant—all murmuring and gazing down the mountain slope. She turned to look where they were, her belly already knotting and sick.
“Amazing,” she heard one of the bearers say, “he’s never returned so quickly from the hunt. . . .”
Androgeus’s skin was brown and his curly hair looked like jet and the cloth wrapped around his hips was very white: he shone as he walked up toward them. The stag that walked beside him shone, too, russet and gold. His antlers dipped and climbed. Androgeus’s hand was light and sure on the animal’s neck.
“Amazing,” breathed the same bearer. “Such a size—the biggest yet . . .”
Androgeus’s first animal had been much smaller: a swallow, brought down by a servant boy’s slingshot. Ariadne had heard their father tell the story countless times: Androgeus, four years old, had taken the wounded bird in his hands and bent his head down to it and it had stopped its frantic flapping. Its tiny brown eye had fastened on the boy, who whispered words no one else could hear. It had died quietly, bathed in a silver light that seemed to come from his cupped palms, and everyone watching had known: Artemis had marked him. It had been proven time after time, over the years: he touched animals and spoke to them and they understood; they
if he led. Men had tried to use his gift in the hunt, but from childhood he refused. “He only leads beasts to death for the gods’ glory, or the goddesses’,” Minos would say. “He is the purest of all their children.”
I hate him
, she thought, every time she heard the story—and she thought it now, too, watching everyone watching him.
This beast’s eyes rolled back, the closer it came to the group on the plateau. Androgeus stroked the stag’s thick, burnished neck. Ariadne watched his lips move and heard the lilt of his marked voice, though, as ever, she couldn’t make out the words.
“My King.” These words she did understand; Androgeus spoke them very clearly, when he and the stag reached Minos. “Father. The goddess has blessed us.”
Minos looked solemn, but his eyes were bright. Pasiphae stood beside him, smiling. Ariadne saw with another lurch of her belly that Asterion was asleep on the queen’s shoulder. She was swaying a bit, tracing circles on his back.
“She blesses us through you, my son,” said Minos. “Now come—let us sacrifice to her so that she will know the strength of our devotion.”
Ariadne’s heart began to pound as she followed her family down the slope again. This time was different—this time they walked past the squat, twisted tree and the owl, and past the priest who stood beside them. They walked from sunlit, springy grass to shadowed rock. The stag’s hoofs rang, and its snorts echoed from the walls and low ceiling, but still the party walked. She saw that Deucalion had his hand on Glaucus’s shoulder, but she was too full of frightened wonder to mock.
The king and queen stopped where the last spear of light fell. It was wan and wavering, hardly made of sun at all, but it was enough to illuminate the pillar of stone that rose toward the cave’s roof. The pillar shimmered with crystal—bumpy jewels that made strange shapes and angles—and Ariadne knew that it hadn’t been carved by men.
“The gods and goddesses of this place bid you welcome,” said a priestess. She was almost invisible against the air beyond her; her dress (tight bodice and a cascade of skirts, Ariadne saw when she squinted) looked black. One of her hands was resting on a side of the rough stone wall that enclosed the pillar. Her other hand was raised, its fingers spread wide. “I see you have brought a sacrifice.”
“We have.” Androgeus’s voice leapt from the rock. He sounded like he should be a giant; Ariadne imagined his curls pressing against the cave’s top.
“Then make it now, and well,” the woman said, and stepped away from the low wall with a rustling of cloth against earth.
The stag tossed its head once as Androgeus drew it forward. He murmured and cupped his hand around the animal’s ears, and it lowered its head so far that its antlers scraped the broad, flat stone that lay inside the wall. It stepped once, twice, and blew out its breath. Ariadne thought she understood her brother’s words; she thought she heard, “Gently, gently; don’t be afraid . . .” It bent its front legs and sank to the stone as if it were bowing. Androgeus touched its neck; his hand trailed silver which pulsed and vanished with each stroke. His other hand came up. The knife in his fingers was bronze; Ariadne wasn’t sure which light was stronger. She looked up at her parents and saw that their faces were rippling, and her own hands and arms were, too: silver and bronze, silver and bronze.
The stag angled its head so that its antlers were pointing away from Androgeus. He closed his eyes, for a moment, then opened them and drew the blade in a long, smooth arc across the place he’d been touching. The beast fell slowly, its antlers and hide and spouting blood lit by one last flare of silver. Ariadne smelled something sweet, as cloying as rotting apples. A few breaths later she smelled smoke. She turned and saw it coiling into the air past the wall. The priestess was there, both hands raised. The smoke twisted along her arms and through her fingers; Ariadne thought she looked like the clay goddess with her snakes.
Androgeus slung the stag across his shoulders. Ariadne didn’t see him do it; she saw him only when he was past her, walking toward the priestess. His head was bent a bit, but just because it was so close to the sloping roof. His back was straight, the muscles in it bunched and firm.
Glaucus won’t ever look like that
, Ariadne thought, and felt a surge of triumph.
Minos followed Androgeus, and Pasiphae followed Minos, and the rest crowded after—even Glaucus, though Deucalion’s hand on his arm was probably what made him move. They walked until the smoke stung Ariadne’s eyes and throat. When she had blinked away some tears, she saw Androgeus standing at the edge of the deepest darkness yet. She’d heard her father speak of this place, last summer—“Down there, yes, down even farther, there is a pit for the burning of sacrifices; a wide, deep pit stacked high with wood”—but his words hadn’t prepared her. It was a mouth in the ground: a great, gaping mouth with jagged wooden teeth and a black throat with no end.
Behind her, Glaucus made a strangled sound. She craned over her shoulder at him, whispered, “Quiet, Glaucus, or I’ll push you in.” She caught just a glimpse of his streaming, blinking eyes before Deucalion poked her in the side, hard enough that she sucked in her breath.
“Leave him alone,” Deucalion whispered back at her. “He’s—” but then his voice disappeared beneath the priestess’s.
“Flesh to fire and bone to ash!” she cried. Androgeus eased himself into a squat. At the very same time, it seemed, the stag slid from his shoulders and into the pit.
Ariadne thought as he straightened.
—but it was already there, leaping and dancing, plucking cracks and crystal veins from the rock.
The priest walked to the pit’s edge, holding two torches high. He handed one to Minos and the other to Androgeus.
“A loving death,” the priestess said, more quietly. Minos threw his torch, which flew and fell, trailing flame.
“A death of honour.” Androgeus drew his arm back and his torch traced its own bright, smoky path into the pit. Ariadne heard them both land: wood against wood; crackling pops and hissing.
“Accept our offering, lord of sky and lady of the earth.”
Ariadne glanced up at her mother—
She won’t like that: Zeus but not Poseidon
—and saw that she was leaning her head against Asterion’s, stroking the nubs of his horns with her thumb and middle finger. The firelight made her eyes into wet, glinting pearls. She was still smiling.
The flames grew and grew, blurring the lines of the pit and the stag, but the smoke soon hid all this—hid everything in a thick, grey pall, speckled with sparks and ash. Ariadne felt a hand tugging the cloth of her bodice; she half-turned, saw Glaucus, shook his hand away with a cry that was supposed to be “Let go!” but which came out as a cough. She wrenched herself away from his grip and doubled over. The smell wrapped around her now: burning wood and hair and flesh. Glaucus’s hand was there again, pawing at her; she thrust herself toward him and felt their foreheads knock together. “Coward!” she shouted. “Find Deucalion and leave me alone!” His hand fell away, and the smoky blur of him vanished before she could pull him back—she
to pull him back, because she was beginning to be afraid too.
The smoke billowed around her, smothering and tight. She saw shapes in it: legs, a sandal, the pleat of a skirt—and though this last was as grey as everything else, she knew it was her mother’s and she lunged toward it. She whimpered as her fingers tangled in cloth, and she coughed, and then she was up above the smoke, lodged on Pasiphae’s hip. Asterion was on her other shoulder, writhing and grinding his head against her. His eyes were very wide and rolling in their sockets—up and around, their black centres enormous—but he wasn’t crying. (Pherenike’s baby was, though; Ariadne could tell that was who was making the noise, even without looking. Chara, the child’s name was—and she seemed to do nothing but whine.)
Ariadne stared at his eyes and at the top of his head, where two points of light had begun to glow. Bronze light, dull because of the darkness and smoke, but still visible.
, she thought. She glanced up at Pasiphae, who was looking at the ground ahead and not at him. Ariadne wouldn’t be able to bear it if the queen did look at him because she’d give a joyful cry and thank Poseidon and the Great Mother for their continued blessing, and people would crowd round him and be amazed, just as they had been when Androgeus came up the hill leading the stag.
“Mama,” Ariadne whimpered. “Mama, I’m so afraid”—though she wasn’t anymore.
“Hush,” Pasiphae murmured. Her eyes darted from the path to Ariadne. She didn’t look at Asterion at all until she set Ariadne down by the owl’s tree, and by then his horns were no longer glowing. He started to cry—a thin mewling sound with nothing of the god in it.
She didn’t see
, Ariadne thought.
Only I did, so it’s my secret
. She was so light with relief that she hardly even noticed when Glaucus kicked her shins as he passed.