The Year-god’s Daughter
Award honoree of the B.R.A.G. Medallion for outstanding fiction
The bull’s horn pierced flesh, caught on a rib, and tossed the queen’s youngest daughter into the air. Time slowed; she watched the ground fall away and felt the beast’s breath, hot against her stomach. But she experienced no pain or fear.
A thousand throats gave voice in a deafening roar as gravity jerked her back to earth.
How many of those in the stands begged Goddess Athene to spare her life? How many hoped she would die?
I failed you, Lady.
She’d expected glory, praise, awe. Not an undignified, sprawling tumble before this vast, shrieking audience who would never forget.
Hands touched her shoulders and turned her toward blistering sunlight. She kept her eyes shut, not wanting to see pity or loathing in the faces of those who bent over her, and her teeth clenched, hoping she wouldn’t throw up.
“Aridela.” She recognized the voice. Isandros, her half brother.
His accusing tone wrenched her out of vertigo’s spin. She blinked and met his gaze, unable to tell if he was angry or afraid.
“Curse you for talking me into this. You’d better not die.”
Agony finally seared as she drew breath to speak. Far worse than the scratch of sand or scorch of light, all she could do in its throes was gasp and send out a short prayer.
Save me, Immortal Mother.
They hoisted her onto a swath of sailcloth. The sensation of being lifted, supported between four strong, sweat-sheened boys, intensified the nausea.
Closer shouts, filtering through the wordless howl from the stands, caught her attention.
There stood the bull, one of a breed called aurochs, so wild and contentious they couldn’t be used for anything outside the ring. Heavy black head lowered, he scraped the sand with one massive hoof. His horn had punctured skin and tasted blood. Now he raged for the mangle of bones and flesh.
Three boys and two girls, clad in white loincloths and bracelets of silver and gold, stretched out their arms and danced around him, risking their lives to confuse him and delay another charge until a ready cow could turn his intent from killing to love.
Her blood stained one of those curved horns. How could this have happened? She was certain that she, the queen’s adored, sanctified daughter, would achieve glory beyond reckoning, beyond any other in history.
“The Lady told me to dance with this bull,” she cried, angry at the weak petulance in her voice. “She commanded it.”
A shadow blocked the glare. Looking up, she met the gaze of the queen’s royal healer, who pursed her lips and glanced, frowning, at the gore wound.
The woman stilled. Her eyes widened then narrowed and grew blank.
Aridela saw what the healer tried, too late, to mask.
Princess Aridela, she who always got her way, who scorned rules and restrictions, who was fathered by a god and beloved of the people, was going to die.
The king of Mycenae sired many bastard children in the course of his long life, but he acknowledged and elevated just one. Menoetius. He who defies his fate.
Now seventeen and in the prime of youthful manhood, Menoetius stood upon Cretan soil for the first time. He savored his anticipation as he placed one foot, then the other, on the sloped, fitted stones of the only paved road he’d ever seen, and turned his gaze southward, toward Knossos.
Soon he would look upon the legendary palace-temple of Labyrinthos, House of the Double Axe. At last, he would learn if the tales about this fabulous structure were true. Supposedly, it contained as many chambers underground as above, and ingenious pipes, capable of providing clean water and carrying away waste. He didn’t want to stand out as a foreigner, and tried to mimic the bland countenances around him, but he couldn’t help a quickening of his heartbeat as he merged with the crowd, leaving the stink and noise of the harbor behind.
He regretted now that he hadn’t paid more attention when his slave tried to teach him the language of the Cretans. But it was hard to sit beneath a tree’s leafy branches learning how to say “octopus” and “bread” in a foreign tongue when his father’s warriors were performing battle maneuvers and shouting for him to join in. It was hard to practice pronunciation when the sun gleamed upon riotous ferns, waterfalls and grottoes beckoned, lions roared in the distance, and new stallions from Thessaly needed gentling.
A goat’s protesting bleat returned Menoetius to the hot Cretan morning and his present path, which grew more crowded the farther south he walked. Merchants, peasants, and livestock vied for space and overflowed onto the dry dirt, raising a dust cloud that blurred the horizon in every direction. Men carrying ornate litters shouted for passage, using whips when needed. Menoetius glimpsed languid women reclining in the litters, dimly visible behind protective draperies. Some were bare-breasted. All were adorned with gold. He’d never seen so much gold in such a short space of time, though he came from the richest citadel ever to be erected on stony Argolis. No surprise that undercurrents of jealousy tinged every word his father spoke concerning this wondrous place.
Peering beyond the crowd toward the dust-soft edge of the city, he discovered one rumor he’d heard was true. There were no walls, gates, or guards to keep out enemies. Well-worn paths meandered from a thousand different sources like the branches on a tree to converge with the paved road. Choosing one of many winding side lanes, he wove among the throng, glancing into workshops where master potters, metal workers, ivory carvers, seal craftsmen and sculptors fashioned the wares that made Crete’s trade ships ride low as they fanned out to every surrounding country. Scents permeated the air—the metallic tang of bronze being cut, the cloying dust of filed clay, the burning smoke of melted tin, gold, and copper being poured into molds, and, in these close quarters, the usual stench of urine, excrement, and unwashed bodies.
The narrow, dirty lanes widened; the crowd thinned. Buildings grew bigger, cleaner, farther apart. The air freshened. Tall dark cypress and olive groves stretched outward, lined between extravagant villas like spokes on a wheel.
Above and beyond flower-draped courtyards and palm trees, Menoetius glimpsed the upper stories of the palace. His slave, a natural storyteller who loved embellishment, possessed a willing listener in the king’s bastard son. He’d filled Menoetius’s head with fantastic tales since the boy could understand simple words. Menoetius grew up with vivid descriptions of bull-leapers flying as high in the air as two spears laid end to end, of mountains so tall they never lost their capes of snow, of gorges so deep they could swallow a city, and the Earth Bull’s terrifying bellow when he caused the land to shudder. But there was one tale he especially loved.
“Once a month, the moon slips away to Crete, leaving the night sky dark. Elemental waters within a concealed cave restore her, giving her the strength to return to the heavens and dazzle us again in beauty. Only the queen of Crete knows the location of this cave, for Crete’s queen and the moon are sisters.”
As the years passed and Menoetius left his childhood behind, he realized his servant had invented those tales to entertain him. Such things weren’t real.
He wished they could be.
The old, cherished stories ran through his mind as he walked. Nearer now, sprouting off the summit of a hill that elevated it above the city, a maze of porticoes, balconies and terraces rose ever higher, story after story. Some dubbed Labyrinthos a palace, a home for Crete’s royalty. Others insisted it was a temple dedicated to Athene, and still others, including Menoetius’s slave, called it a city complete unto itself. Perhaps it was all three.
These multi-storied villas on either side of the road must be the private homes of those in high favor with the island’s rulers. He heard the splatter of a fountain and peered through the stone arch of the nearest into its courtyard. Painted clay pots, bursting with blooms, adorned every corner. Climbing ivy and scarlet blossoms decorated the walls, cooled by shade from the leafy branches of a twisted old plane tree. A maidservant, pulling loaves of bread from ovens built into the wall, tore off a generous hunk and brought it to him. He thanked her in Cretan, and returned to the road.
She probably judged him a beggar, but he hadn’t taken time for breakfast. He devoured the warm bread in two ravenous bites and settled his gaze again on the palace.
Sunlight glinted against terracotta walls, white balustrades, and monumental pillars painted red. Pennants of green, ochre, blue, even opulent purple, fluttered from at least four separate stories, all bearing the famous Cretan insignia of the hallowed olive tree. Subtle lavender shadows beckoned from walkways and overhangs. High above at the edge of an open terrace stood two women, arms resting on a stone retaining wall. One, when she noticed him peering at her, giggled and blew him a kiss.
Menoetius, acknowledged son of the mainland’s most powerful king, forgot his efforts to appear nonchalant. He stopped in the middle of the road and stared like a desert nomad getting his first glimpse of civilization. “As many rooms as there are stars,” he said, quoting a common saying about this venerable edifice, and stiffened when a passerby turned and offered an amused sideways grin.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” the man said, “yet on occasion I still get lost.” His feminine voice and fleshy cheeks marked him a eunuch, and his white pleated robe designated him a priest. Accenting his comment with a lift of his painted brow, he turned and disappeared into the crowd outside the palace entryway.
Two giant pairs of bull’s horns, carved in stone, guarded each side of the narrow avenue. To access the formidable dwelling of Helice, Queen of Crete, one must possess courage enough to venture between them.
Shouting and wails erupted from ahead. Those in front of Menoetius jostled and pushed.
A youth of about Menoetius’s age, garbed in the traditional Cretan loincloth and leather belt pockmarked with bronze studs, muttered an impatient curse as he shoved past.
“Has something happened?” Menoetius seized his arm and spoke in hesitant Cretan. “I am a stranger here.”
“A bull gored our princess.” He frowned at Menoetius, his black eyes made exotic with lavish paint. “They’re bringing her from the ring.” Jerking free, he fought his way through the ever-thickening press.
Menoetius, taller at seventeen than most of the men around him, looked over the horde and spotted a line of women near the corridor leading into the palace precincts. Their layered skirts boasted bright dyes and spangles in sky blue, flashing silver, crimson and purple. Maidservants struggled to keep fancy sunshades propped above their mistresses’ heads as the women displayed their grief. Several seemed on the verge of fainting.
The lad slipped through fissures in the crowd and Menoetius sprinted behind him, hoping the boy would lead him to the source of the trouble.
A distracting profusion of ranks and nationalities surged along with them. Dark-skinned Egyptians in blazing white robes pushed at bronze armored, bearded Achaeans from the mainland, who shoved bejeweled merchants from a myriad of countries.
Menoetius’s soldiering skills helped him absorb all these details while translating the tangles of gossip around him.
“Why was she in the ring?” asked an old-timer, his eyes obscured behind wrinkled skin and thick wiry brows.
The man he spoke to shook his head. “I’ll wager her mother didn’t know anything about it. She dotes on her girls.”
A curtained litter, draped with green pine boughs and woven grapevines, rested on the ground near the hysterical onlookers. Armored men guarded it, the butts of their spears set against their toes, points extended outward. A woman, dressed in amber-colored robes, knelt next to the litter and a man beside her held a large clay bowl, overflowing with bloody cloths. A few steps away two more women clung to each other, weeping. Others milled, scratching their cheeks, turning up their faces, shrieking to the skies.
Since he couldn’t see what lay inside the litter, he observed the two ladies, who seemed to attract sympathy and respect from everyone around them. The younger woman’s dress and hair affirmed her importance. One long black ringlet dangled in front of each ear; the rest was tucked beneath a conical shaped ceremonial hat. Her face was drawn, careworn; when a nearby baby screamed, Menoetius saw her startle.
Picking up on the muttering around him, Menoetius realized he was staring at Queen Helice herself, and one of her daughters.
Bards described Helice as a fierce bare-breasted giantess who, in her youth, entered into battle alongside her warriors and slaughtered her share of Crete’s foes.
His slave chuckled at such stories; he didn’t deny or support them. Looking at her, Menoetius understood why. Helice was no giantess. She possessed the small, fragile bone structure of pure Cretan blood, smooth olive skin and almond-shaped eyes. Her black hair, graying at the temples, fell in loose ringlets but for an intricate knot wound over the crown of her head, proclaiming her special sanctity and connection to Goddess Athene. Gold chains twined with the curls and fell across her forehead to her brows. Wrought serpents with eyes of lapis lazuli wove around her upper arms. A belt, crusted with jewels, cinched her waist and accented a tight, embroidered open-faced bodice framing breasts tipped with rouge. She bore a striking resemblance to the ornamental statues of Athene he’d seen being churned out in the Knossos workshops. Surely this woman was too delicate to have ever lifted sword or spear.
He almost forgot the present crisis as stories and claims leaped one over the next. Here stood a leader, a female at that, whose naval fleet kept the entire arrogant gaggle of war-hungry Kindred Kings skulking on the mainland like punished children. Spots danced through his vision. For a moment, in his awe, he’d stopped breathing.
Then he realized the gored princess must be Queen Helice’s other daughter.
A couple of boys stood nearby, nodding and speaking with excitement. Their dress, the typical loincloth and belt, suggested they were Cretan. Menoetius moved as close as he dared behind them and listened, trying his best to follow the language.
“She’s a baby,” one said as he flung his long, oiled hair behind his shoulders, giving rise to a strong musky scent. “How did she get past the guards?”
The other shrugged.
Laughing, the older boy said, “I wonder if her brother sneaked her in. The queen will slice off his balls and let us all watch.”
A trio of women shoved past Menoetius and between the boys, one shouting, “Was she trampled?”
One of her companions said, “I couldn’t tell through the dust.”
Neither seemed to notice they’d knocked down the younger boy. Menoetius helped him to his feet, brushing dirt off his shoulders and offering sympathy on his scraped knee as the boy screamed curses.
Menoetius gave a polite bow and asked, “Did you see what happened?”
Instantly distracted, the boys scuffled and bawled over each other, each trying to show off superior knowledge. “We were there,” the older boy said. “The queen’s daughter—”
“Aridela—” The younger boy’s eyes gleamed.
“Was gored,” the elder finished.
“How old is she?” Menoetius asked.
“Ten,” said the younger. “Same as me. I could go in if I wanted.”
“No you couldn’t.” The older one cuffed his companion on the head.
Before he could ask if it was customary to send children into their bullring, a woman waded through the crowd and grabbed both boys by the arms. She glanced at Menoetius as she yelled at them for not staying by her side and hauled them toward the city.
Menoetius worked his way closer to the front. He knew something of dressing wounds. Maybe he could help.
He paused beside a woman of about thirty or so, who was crying miserably. Menoetius couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. “Do you know the child?” he asked.
She swiped her hands across her cheeks. “I’ve known her all her life,” she said, her voice catching. “If she dies, everything will change. Everything.”
“I’m sorry.” He didn’t know what else to say.
The man holding the bowl of bloody cloths knelt to accept another. There was a frightening amount of blood in that bowl.
“I might be able to help.” Menoetius started forward.
The woman seized his wrist with surprising strength. “Who are you?”
He shrugged. “No one. I—I’m not from here.”
“Those guards will skewer you if you take another step. That’s the royal healer tending her. If she cannot save the princess, no one can.”
Menoetius gave a reluctant nod and remained where he was.
Two warriors dragged a youth before the queen. His wrists were bound behind his back and dirty tear stains marred his face.
The queen gave the boy such a merciless stare that Menoetius took an involuntary step backward, accidentally trodding on another man’s toes.
“Lock him in the labyrinth,” she said, her voice ringing, for all stopped speaking; even the birds fell silent.
The guards prevented the boy from prostrating himself before her. He cried, “I thought she would be protected, my lady,” but the queen waved and the guards hauled him away.
Menoetius knew little of what happened, but he pitied the boy. It no longer seemed surprising to hear this queen described as a “terrifying giantess.”
“Who was that?” he asked.
“The princess’s brother.” Her brows lowered in a puzzled frown. “He must be the one who got her past the guards. Those two are always getting into mischief.”
Menoetius’s morning on Crete had proved exotic and enticing. Yet an underlying hint of unease nagged his senses. He shivered at the sensation of someone breathing against the back of his neck. Faint queasiness rippled and his armpits broke into a sweat. He took several deep breaths.
“You look strange.” The woman frowned at him. “The heat makes many foreigners ill.”
Menoetius’s mouth was too dry to answer. He felt a confusing need to honor this queen and her accomplishments. An overpowering desire grew within him to kneel before her, to win her approval.
The woman in amber robes stood and beckoned to the litter-bearers. They lifted their burden and followed her up the inclined lane and out of sight, into the palace precincts. Queen Helice, seizing her daughter’s hand, hurried after.
Word flowed over the crowd that the child lived.
Menoetius exchanged a smile with the lady beside him. Her face infused with new hope, she went off; Menoetius watched her enter the palace behind the others.
His gaze lifted to the imposing bull’s horns above the entryway. Drifting wisps of high clouds made them appear to soar, like prows of ships running before sturdy breezes.
Layers of ancient, changeless custom formed Crete and its outposts. The fragile outer crust, first to be seen, dry and crumbly from exposure, excited the senses with luxury and pleasure. Deeper, beneath the shell of wealth and goodwill, something elusive, moist, and old pricked at Menoetius’s instincts.
He glanced up, shivering. Perhaps a storm approached. But the sky remained still and hot. The sparse clouds dissipated.
Closing his eyes, he touched his fingertips to his forehead in homage. “Peace be with thee, Mother Athene,” he whispered in Cretan. “Peace.” Long had he yearned to see this place, the elixir of his inner world. Yet, as he stood before the famed palace, Menoetius struggled with a rush of unexpected disquiet, almost fear.
He thought of other tales he’d heard.
It was hinted that on Crete, there was one blade that opened the veins of neither beast nor virgin. It was reserved for the holiest sacrifice.
He shivered again as his mind formed the words.
This land drinks the blood of kings.