>Temple of Thorns

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He sat on a rock to consider his options, opening the captain’s pouch to count his spoils. The pouch contained “fingers” of bronze, a few twists of gold and a ring of dubious silver but the jewels were disappointing: small garnets, indifferent carnelians and some bright blue stones that looked like lapis lazuli but which, on closer inspection, turned out to be dyed faience. The forgers of Egypt particularly specialised in faking jewels from glass beads. The best piece in the pouch was the necklace that he himself had given the captain in payment for passage.
He enjoyed the stability of the land as he was a poor sailor. The sun warmed his skin and sent light skittering off the surface of the sea. He sighed, picked up a stone and tossed it into the sea where it fell with a plop, and was swallowed up immediately. He had no idea at all where he was. Somewhere, there would be a small harbour for fishing vessels and coastal traders—even the meanest island boasted that. He could choose a direction at random and start walking around the coast but, given the indented nature of Aegean coastlines, it was likely to be a long hike. He decided to walk inland instead as the island was hilly and he should be able to find a vantage point from where he might search for human habitation.
A breeze stirred along the water, curling around him, cooling his skin and bringing the smell of cypress from the island’s slopes. He could smell nothing man made, no wood, no smoke, no human smells at all. He stood up and attached his helmet to his sword harness then he strode purposefully back into the trees across ground that was dry with large areas of bare earth and scrubby bushes. He walked for some little time before he fancied that he heard the ring of a goat’s bell in the distance, but it never came again so maybe he had imagined it.
Soon, he had a more pressing need, water. You can smell water, if you need a drink badly enough and he was very thirsty, so he sniffed the air. He turned right, following a faint scent even though it took him far uphill.
The island was silent, except for the faint rustle of trees stirred by the wind and the occasional bird cry, so he heard the stream long before he saw it. He also heard a woman scream and his sword came free with a metallic hiss. He ran toward the sound, further cries guiding his steps, until he burst upon the scene, sword raised. There, he doubled up with laughter.
Satyrs surrounded a young woman who beat ineffectually at them. The diminutive goat-men danced in a ring around her on their unsteady, backward-pointing legs, taking turns to dart in close to stroke her hair and body. As fast as she swatted one away, another took its place.
The girl was clearly not an islander as she was far too tall, with hair blacker than a raven’s wing and smooth pale skin. She also wore an expensive, white, shining dress made of linen rubbed and washed in perfumed oil, indicating that she was someone special.
“What are you doing, Princess?” he asked, in Achaean. He tended to call all noble women princess—actually, he tended to call tavern girls princess as well as, in his experience, a little flattery was never wasted on the fairer sex.
“What does it look like, oaf? Do something. Ow!” she replied in the same language. A satyr sneaked in to pinch her bottom while she talked to Perseus. She dealt the goat-man a vigorous clout around his pointed ear that knocked him over.
Perseus laughed until he cried, placing her immediately by her accent. She was Maryannu, a descendent of the charioteers that had conquered their way down the Lebanese coast. They were cousins to the bronze-clad Achaeans who had turned west into the Aegean when the Maryannu clans had driven south, lured by stories of the wealth of Egypt. He bypassed the scrum to drink deeply out of the stream, splashing cold water onto his face and neck and gasping with enjoyment at the shock.
“Pass me my wand, you idiot,” she said, pointing. A slim length of hazel poked from a pack lay by the stream. The creatures must have surprised her while she drank.
“This wand, Princess?” he asked, pulling it from her belongings.
“Of course that wand!” she said.
He slapped two of the creatures away and passed her the polished wood. She raised it over her head and chanted something softly in Maryannan. The wand described an arc, sparkles trailing in the air behind it. He smelt acrid fumes, like those left in the air after a thunderbolt and fear spread like a contagion among the satyrs who fled squealing. One tripped over Perseus’ foot and it rolled in front of him, terror in its eyes. It scrambled along on all fours before vanishing into the bush.
“What did you do to them, Princess?” he asked, amused.
She smoothed down her dress with a fluid motion. “I made them see that which they most feared.” The princess shrugged. “I’ve no idea what that might be.”
“A lion, maybe,” he said, thoughtfully. It took considerable magic power to weave an illusion so real with just a few passes of a wand.
“Thank you for all your help,” she said, making a final, and quite unnecessary, adjustment to the hang of her clothes.
“My pleasure, Princess,” he replied, ignoring her sarcasm. “I suppose that you really are a princess?”
The girl elevated her nose a little higher. “My father is King Cepheus of Joppa. And you are?”
“Prince Perseus, at your service lady,” he said, bowing.
“Prince Perseus of where?” she asked.
“That’s a little complicated,” he said.
“I see,” she replied, lifting an eyebrow.
He doubted that she did, but he let it pass. She hefted up her bag and started up the hill.
“Where are you going?” he asked, falling in beside her.
“And when did that become your business?” she replied.
He laughed. “I’m just making conversation. It is a little unexpected to find a princess of Joppa roaming around alone on the islands.”
She turned and faced him, hands on hips, dark eyes flashing. “You don’t believe me do you?”
“Oh, I believe that you are a Maryannu lady, no one else would mangle Achaean quite so prettily, but a princess normally has a retinue.”
“I did have a retinue but I lost them.” She actually stamped a foot.
He pulled a branch back for her to pass. “That seems careless. How did it happen?”
“It was the first night after we landed. A spearman woke me saying that we were being attacked. There was a lot of yelling in the dark and Mattra, that’s the commander, told me to run into the trees so I did, but no one came after me. I looked for my men in the morning but they were gone.”
“Dead?” he asked.
“Just gone, leaving me alone” she said.
She was making an effort to be brave but he saw her lower lip quiver. She was by no means as assured as she pretended.
“I suppose we could travel together,” he said, gallantly.
“I suppose we could, if you are going my way.” She spoke formally, but she flashed him a smile of gratitude.
“Which is your way?” he asked, surveying the countryside.
“Up the hill but I am not supposed to tell you any more,” she said. “I am on a secret mission.”
“A secret mission, no less,” said Perseus, smiling.
“Now you are laughing at me,” she said, biting her lip.
“Perhaps just a little, Princess, but you look so solemn.” He held up his hand in supplication. “I intended to climb the hill a little higher anyway so we may as well go together for the company.”
They moved through the heat of the late afternoon and as they walked she chattered non-stop about the landscape, life in Joppa, and her family, until he soon thought that he knew a great deal about her. Normally, he found chattering women irritating but she was pleasant company, if charmingly naïve, so he enjoyed the journey, rather to his surprise. The trees thinned out to be replaced by bushes and, before long, the sun was low on the horizon.
“We should make camp for the night,” he finally said. “Do you have any food?”
“A little bread,” she replied. “You have brought nothing?”
“I have this,” he replied, unlooping a strip of linen from his pouch. “Wait here for me and be very quiet.”
Mercifully, she sat down without arguing. He stooped and picked up a round stone that he placed in the centre of the strip of cloth. He walked silently to the edge of a clearing and waited for rabbits emerging to feed as the sun set. A movement caught his eye and he whirled the stone over his head and released, the missile making a clean kill. Perseus retrieved his game and retraced his steps, dropping the dead animal in front of her.
“Clean the bunny, lady, while I get a fire going.” He pushed a dagger into her hands. Perseus skilfully kindled the fire but when he looked up, she was still poking tentatively at the rabbit with his knife. “You haven’t got very far with that,” he said.
“I don’t know how to, Perseus. I’m not a scullery maid.”
He was about to scold her for her arrogance when he realised that she was almost in tears. She really had no idea how to prepare food. Taking the knife, he quickly cleaned and skinned the beast, showing her the technique. He fixed the meat on sticks to roast over the campfire before settling down beside her.
“That man who was captain of your bodyguard, Princess.”
“Mattra?” she interrupted.
“Yes, Mattra. Known him long?” he asked, casually.
“All my life,” she replied. “He was often the spearman on guard outside my door in the palace.”
“I see,” he replied, neutrally.
“How did you get that scar?” she asked, pointing. “It looks like a thunderbolt.”
“I had an accident when I was young.” He rubbed his forehead self-consciously. “I have no idea when it happened. My mother said it was the price we paid the Gods to escape Argos.”
“Where did you learn to use a sling?” she asked.
“I learned from the shepherds of Seriphos. My mother, Danae, was exiled there and the king, Polydectes, married her. A princess of Argolis is a prestigious consort for a minor king and mother’s options were limited so she agreed to the match. Unfortunately, Polydectes acquired me as an unwelcome addition to his household so he encouraged me to spend as much time as possible up in the hills with the flocks.”
He rotated the sticks to cook the rabbit meat evenly.
“I decided to travel abroad once I reached my maturity. The king was so delighted that he actually gave me gold to speed me away.”
“Polydectes was not your father then.”
“Good grief, no.” He shared the rabbit out. They were both hungry and devoted themselves to the meal but, once it was over, she wanted to talk.
“So who was your father? I sense a palace intrigue,” she said, stretching her legs out languidly.
He found himself looking at her slender outline through the long dress, which shone red and orange in the firelight. A whisper of wind carried a hint of perfumed oils from her body.
“Zeus,” he replied, succinctly.
She laughed.
“No, really,” he said. “My grandfather, King Acrisius of Argolis, had shut my mother up in the palace as a punishment, when Zeus came to her as a shimmer of gold in the air and I was the result.”
“So who was your father really?” she wheedled.
“The Argolis has dual kings and the other one was my grandfather’s brother, Proteus. The reason that my mother was in disgrace is that she had been caught in bed with Uncle Proteus, so you work it out, Princess.”
“You Achaeans have such deliciously convoluted family scandals,” she said, giggling.
Her face shone bright in the flickering firelight.
“It’s late,” he said. “We should sleep.”
They settled each side of the fire, which flickered low. An animal howled somewhere out on the island startling her. She shot over the ashes and snuggled close to him.
“I’m cold,” she said, defensively.
He rolled over and put a strong arm around her. “Sleep well, my lady,” he said.
She fell asleep immediately but he lay awake a little longer. She smelt fragrant from the perfumed oils rubbed into her hair and skin. He breathed her scent in deeply, identifying hyssop, cypress and sweet sage. She snuffled gently and snuggled close to him, her body warm against his.
He was not unduly concerned with wild animals. He slept lightly, from long experience of the wilderness, and his bronze sword was close by his hand. He drifted into sleep with her scent in his nostrils, making him dream of exotic palace ladies, hearing the clang of their jewellery, the tapping of their boots on the stone floors and smelling the rich scent that followed them.
****

In the morning, Perseus found a rocky outcrop that gave him an unrestricted view over the trees so that he could see along the entire arc of the coast but there was no sign of human activity.
“What are you looking for?” the princess asked, from the bottom of the rock.
“A village where I can find a boat,” he replied.
“The only one on the island is over there,” she said, pointing in the opposite direction to the path they had taken.
He jumped down and glowered at her.
“Well, how did you think that I got here?” she asked, defensively.
“I didn’t like to ask. You being on a secret mission,” he said, sarcastically.
“You could stay with me,” she said, hesitantly. “In return, I could give you passage on my ship.”
“Why would you want my assistance?” he asked, warily.
“I’m scared,” she said, with disarming honesty. “I have never been on my own in the wilderness and . . .” She paused and looked at him with dark eyes shadowed with kohl, so strikingly different from the blue-eyed Achaeans. “I trust you.”
He did not know how to answer that as his own life had not inclined him to be overly trusting. He adjusted the hang of his shield to give his hands something to do. “You should not be so accepting of people, Princess. So why have you come here?”
“Up there,” she pointed up the hill, “is a ruined temple to one of the old gods. It contains a great treasure that I intend to claim for Joppa.”
“A great treasure,” he repeated, thoughtfully. “Perhaps I shall accompany you. No doubt Joppa would reward me handsomely, for seeing you and the treasure safely home.”
“Oh yes,” she said, happily.
They continued to climb but the way became steeper and rockier and they were soon forced to scramble. The girl was fit; life in the rich splendour of a Maryannu palace had clearly not spoilt her, but even so, she eventually tired. He halted to allow her to rest and drink. Naturally, she asked questions.
“How did you end up here, Perseus, with not even a water skin for refreshment?”
“I had to leave my ship rather too quickly.” He laughed. “The captain liked to play dice but he was a poor loser.”
“Did you win much?” she asked.
“Everything he had,” he said, with a grin. She laughed with him, showing even white teeth. “I am surprised that your father sent you so far from Joppa on such an errand,” said Perseus. “Hasn’t he any sons or heroes to call upon?”
“Daddy thinks that I am attending a ceremony up in the hills behind Joppa.” She giggled happily. “The queen, Cassiopeia, chose me for the task. She’s my stepmother and she thinks daddy cossets me too much. The temple is magical, you see, and I’m good at magic.” She tried to speak matter of factly but her tone betrayed her pride in her skill. “So you had to leave all your belongings on your ship?” she asked, adroitly switching the focus of the conversation back to him.
“I had nothing on the ship other than what you see,” he said, bowing. “I lost all else when I had to leave Siffa in a hurry.”
She clapped her hands with pleasure. “Your life is full of fast exits, Prince Perseus. Do tell me the story.”
“It was all caused by a bad oyster,” he said, solemnly.
“A bad oyster?” she repeated.
“The army commander had one for lunch and was obliged to go home early. I was the captain of mercenaries guarding his villa. Unfortunately, when he burst into his bedroom, which was on the way to his personal privy, I am afraid that he caught me bodyguarding his wife’s body rather closer than he thought necessary. The lady screamed ‘rape,’ of course, so I had to leg it out of the window, taking her necklace with me tangled up in my sword belt.”
“You kept your sword on,” she said, faintly.
“I was on guard,” he said. His tone suggested surprise that she might doubt his commitment to duty. “Anyway, I thought it wiser to head straight for the docks and find a ship leaving immediately rather than go back to the barracks for my kit.”
“I see,” she said, biting her lip. “I think we should go as there is still a way to climb.”
She watched him carefully as he stood up. “Was she worth it,” the princess said, abruptly. “The commander’s lady, I mean.”
“Oh yes,” he said, adjusting the weight of his shield evenly across his back. “She was worth it.”
The princess was rather cold with him after that, speaking only in monosyllables. He gave up trying to talk to her and concentrated on finding the best route, which turned out to be a steep, rocky path that had probably been made by goats. As they climbed, he pondered on her strange behaviour, which reinforced his view that women were odd creatures.
“Does your stepmother have any daughters?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Why do you want to know?”
“No reason,” he said. “And you are the daughter of the old queen, so the inheritance passes through you?”
“My husband will be king one day.” She looked at him with open suspicion.
“Unless something happens to you first,” he pointed out. “In which case, your stepmother’s eldest daughter inherits.”
She looked at him and bit her lip again. In his opinion, Queen Cassiopeia was right to consider that her father had given her far too sheltered an upbringing. Achaean princesses absorbed palace politics with their mother’s milk but this girl seemed to be entirely ignorant of the realities facing those born in the shadow of a throne.
The path disappeared at the base of a rock, which he examined carefully. It was worn and cracked by the sun and rain, offering plentiful handholds. A small overhang near the top presented the only real challenge. “I want you to go up first, Princess. Don’t worry, I will follow close behind.” He smiled, reassuringly.
“Not too close, I trust,” she said, tartly. She sniffed, packing a world of meaning into the sound, and swung herself up, moving across the rock wit graceful agility.
He smiled to himself and followed her up, watching her closely, a duty that was not wholly distasteful. At one point, she slipped, stones scrabbling from under her and he slammed an arm across her back, holding her against the rock.
“Careful, Princess,” he warned.
She nodded and resumed climbing, while he watched her admiringly. He had come to the conclusion that she really was a plucky little thing.
“I can’t go any further, Perseus,” she said, clinging to a ledge. The overhang loomed above. He climbed alongside her and round her, being careful not to knock her slight body off the rock.
“Wait here,” he said, reaching up over the protruding rock and grabbing for a handhold. When he found one, he pulled himself up one-handed, until he could also grip with his other hand and scramble onto the top of the overhang. The summit of the island was flat with grass and trees. Insects buzzed, and the sickly aroma of decay filled the air.
“Perseus, are you still there?” Her voice wavered slightly.
He lowered himself onto his front and hooked a leg around a convenient tree. Then he pushed himself out over the overhand, taking a firm grip on the rock with his left hand and reaching down with his right.
She stretched up for him but their hands did not quite touch.
“Push off the rock and jump towards me,” he said, encouragingly.
She stared at him and reached again, her hand shaking, but it was too far.
“Have courage, Princess. Only a little jump and I will catch you.”
She closed her eyes and leapt. His hand slapped smoothly onto her wrist, holding her tight. She swung for one heart-stopping moment in mid-air, before he pulled her up beside him. He rose to his feet, lifting the princess onto hers, but she continued to cling to him.
“What’s that smell?” she asked.
Before he could reply, she fainted away, becoming a dead weight in his arms.
****
“You pig,” she said, hitting him in the arm. “So I don’t like heights.”
He held his arms up in supplication. “Peace, Princess. I was only teasing. It was very brave of you to jump into space.”
“I told you,” she said, turning brown eyes on him. “I trust you.”
“So you did, lady.” He concentrated on watching his surroundings as they walked. The high plateau stretched before them but it was thickly wooded in places, which prevented him from seeing very far. The Achaean automatically eased his sword in its sheath, assuring himself that it would slide smoothly free in an emergency.
“So what was that foul odour?” she asked, plodding beside him.
“A dead goat,” he replied, succinctly.
She digested this, chewing her lip in what he realised was a characteristic habit. “That’s a good sign, surely. If a goat was up here then there must be an easier way off this plateau than that overhang.” She shuddered at the memory.
“That’s true,” he said, flatly. “But I would like to know what killed the beast.”
He held a branch back for her and she ducked under his arm.
“Why are you so frightened of heights?” he asked.
“Because that’s how my mother died,” she said, unemotionally. “They made me watch when they threw her off the citadel walls.”
“I’m sorry, Princess. You should have said and I would have found some other way up. Of what crime was your mother accused?” he asked, carefully, because the official charge against a disgraced queen rarely bore much relation to her true offence, assuming there was one at all.
“She was not being punished, as she had committed no crime. It was a matter of blood. Joppa is cursed by the Gods and only the sacrifice of magical blood from the royal line protects the city from destruction. It should have been me, you see, that was the gift but my mother chose to sacrifice herself, instead.” A tear rolled down the girl’s cheek. She wiped it away, angrily.
He had underestimated this princess as her life had clearly not been the smooth voyage that he had assumed. It was not unknown in Achaea to “gift” a royal female child to the Gods. Now, he understood why King Cepheus held his daughter so closely. She must remind him of his dead queen and he wondered how the new queen felt about that. They emerged from a thicket to find a building so ruined that walls were barely waist high, except for a corner piece.
“That doesn’t look like a temple,” she said, doubtfully.
“Far too small,” he agreed. “But it was built of stone, like a little palace. Maybe it was a priest’s house, in which case the temple ruins can’t be far away.”
Something moved on the edge of his vision. The Achaean’s reflexes had been honed by years of living by the sword. He pushed the princess back against the high wall with his right hand and, in the same motion, swung the shield off his back and onto his left arm. The Achaean grasped the metal grip on the rim and thrust the shield against the dark shape that sprang up at him. The central bronze boss hit something hard with a thud, knocking it to the ground. He drew his sword and stabbed downwards, the point spitting the animal before it could roll back on its feet. It yelped and died, voiding its wastes onto the ground.
He could see that it was a dog. More prowled around the couple, rattled by the pack leader’s death, keeping their distance while trying to build up courage for an attack. The Achaean picked the largest animal out, advancing on it in three long strides. The animal stood its ground, growling and crouching down to pounce. The long bronze sword curved a glittering arc that ended on the dog’s head, the heavy blade near splitting the skull in two. The beast dropped without a sound, breaking the pack’s resolve and the rest fled.
“That was so fast,” the princess said, wonder in her voice. “You killed the first one almost before I knew it was there.”
“How do you think our people conquered the world, my lady? It wasn’t just the power of our chariots and the magic of our women. The strength of our warriors had a little to do with the matter.” He grinned at her, while carefully wiping his weapon on a carcass.
She curtseyed. “My hero,” she said in a mocking voice, but her eyes shone when she looked at him. “I have never seen a sword used like that before. You cut at the second dog as if you had an axe.”
Perseus showed her the sword. “This is a Sherden weapon from Italy. See how the blade is wide and heavy right down to the pointed tip so I can slash with it as well as slab.” He made a few passes around her, the bronze flashing in the bright Mediterranean sunlight. She smiled indulgently, standing still and demonstrating total trust in his skill.
He sheathed the sword. “At least we know what killed the goat,” he observed. “And that no people come up here.”
“How do we know that?” she asked, puzzled.
“The wild dogs had lost all fear of man,” he replied. “Well, they fear me now and I fancy that they will leave us alone in future. It’s not as if they are short of food.” He gestured at the dead dogs and she gave a moue of distaste. “If you are ready, Princess, we can proceed?”
The temple lay a short distance away, as ruined as the house. The roof had fallen in and the structure was overgrown with climbing plants. These old temples fascinated Perseus because his people did not build them. Achaean palaces had areas set aside as shrines for religious ceremonies and even the meanest dwelling would have a small corner dedicated to the Gods. “Imagine the effort and organisation needed to build something this size?” he said, marvelling at the stonework.
“It is difficult to see how such a small island could manage it,” she said. “It must have consumed the entire energy of the islanders for decades.”
“It didn’t do them much good,” Perseus said. “Cycladians might still rule the Aegean if they had they put their energy into fortifications rather than religion.”
He and the Maryannu princess exchanged the half smug, half guilty, expressions of the descendents of conquerors.
“Was it dedicated to Dionysius?” he asked, studying the profusion of vines.
“No,” she replied. “To Hekate.”
“Ah, the moon lady,” he said. “We Achaeans call her Artemis, the Huntress of the Night, the Queen of Magic.”
“Did you know that Hekate’s symbol is the dog?” she asked.
“No I didn’t,” he replied. “Artemis’ symbol is the deer.”
“Symbols are what you make of them,” she said.
They walked around the ruin until they found an entrance consisting of two huge standing stones surmounted by an equally massive lintel. The doorway itself was intact, but all inside was tumbled stone and earth.
He sighed. “I fear your quest is fruitless, my lady. If there ever was a treasure within, then it is lost forever.”
She pulled her bag off over her head and delved inside. “Not so, Perseus. It will be safely hidden. Now my work starts. Can you make me a fire, please?”
He kindled some wood and, by the time he had finished, she had set up a small tripod and a bowl of dark grey metal, which he examined carefully. “Is this what I think it is?”
“If you think it is starmetal, then you are right.”
“Iron,” he said, reverentially. “I have never seen so much before.”
She sat cross-legged before the fire and set the tripod over it. “I intend to use molly, Perseus, so you should move upwind. The narcotic vapours can be upsetting for the untrained.”
He hastened to follow her instructions as magic was tricky stuff. She sprinkled small flakes of a dried herb into the bowl where it curled and smoked on the hot iron. She sat upright with crossed legs, arms extended out in front of her with the palms up, chanting softly in Maryannan. He caught the repeated refrain, “Come to me, Hekate. Open the door for I give you my blood. Come to me, Hekate.” She leaned over the vapour and inhaled deeply then, taking a small knife in one hand, she cut the base of her thumb while holding it over the bowl. Drops of blood fell onto the hot iron with a hiss.
The drone of insects died away and the air was heavy and still. He saw her as if she was at the bottom of a deep lake. She moved her arms slowly against some invisible resistance, like an underwater swimmer. This was no market-place magician’s trick, like the spell that had scared the satyrs. This was sorcery of the highest calibre. A deep rumble sounded and the very ground beneath his feet trembled. Grinding noises, like heavy stones dragged over solid rock, sounded from the temple entrance.
She slumped forward, her head resting in her hands. He moved to her slowly, as if though treacle, to gently lift her up.
“You never cease to surprise me, Princess,” he said.
Extract from: “Temple of Thorns”
by John Lambshead
Published by Universe Magazine, February, 2008