Tag Archives: Mythic Fantasy

Blessings by the Shade

They still tell stories about the day I was born, of how a lilac comet streaked across the stars and the volcano ceased spitting fires to the heavens. They call it omens but I call it a conspiracy of convenience. This is what made me High Priestess, because I am blessed. The volcano is Lua Pele and Lua Pele is the volcano, and only the High Priestess of Lua Pele can soothe her. She gives us ebon earth for sustenance; she takes our lives with vermilion lava.

The Altar of Lua Pele is not ordinary. While the High Priestesses before me have studied it for lifetimes, I stand before it but once a day. It is not marble, because what marble glistens like the flesh of dew-drenched coconuts? They have only given me the knowledge I need. I am to go to the altar once a day, they whisper, and no more. To my left, on the altar’s top face, are hieroglyphs wrought in bronze; those are for the incantations and they are always first. For the sacrifice a spike rises from the middle, pale as the rest of the altar and thin to a point beyond my observation; that is for the sacrifice’s head and not the heart. The altar needs no cleansing. Its surface drinks like a stranded mariner. I never could find out where all the blood went. The basin to my right is for washing my hands last, its waters redolent of ‘?helo berries that replenish without human touch.

There is a legend of a High Priestess once who had cleansed her hands, made the sacrifice, and then chanted the incantation. On the panel that faces me the altar’s seamless surface has the thinnest crack dark as charred kukui oil. It is the altar’s only flaw. The High Priestess vanished by night, but the legend says no more. I would that I could be so bold.

Sometimes my sister visits me in the night. I have guards and priestesses to keep my privacy, but she enters my chambers unannounced. Even though she is only Queen and I High Priestess, they follow her orders before mine. There were no comets and the volcano did not stop when she was born.

“Sweet sister,” she asks, resting her face next to mine on the pillows, “whom have you sacrificed today?” She knows the answer, but she asks all the same. Her crown is a chain of polished aventurine links, wrapped around her skull thrice, and from it a single black pearl the size of an eye dangles over her forehead.

I tell her. It was the merchant who charged too a high a price for lapis lazuli sweet sister, it was our cousin who tried to usurp you one time too many sweet sister, it was the baker who burned your bread sweet sister. And while she asks for details, she runs her fingers through my hair. Mine is soft and long as hers and the strands shimmer jet violet in the candlelight because we are of the same seed, the seed of Lua Pele, and we are blessed. She strokes my cheeks and rubs her thumb to my lips and nothing more follows when I am good. She does not mind my shuddering.

“Good, sweet obedient sister, blood of mine by half,” she whispers when she leaves, still with the moons high in the sky or as night gives way to dusk. I draw the curtains around my bed to lie still and weep. To her I am always half-sister and never elder-sister.

Pythia – Part 2

Are you looking for Part 1? Click here to go back and read Part 1 of Barry King’s novella Pythia.

Deception is the way of serpents. In memory, I walk with the old Pythia. She tells me her name is Amantaeia. I give her the name Khalkis gave me: Spazakia. She snorts, finding it funny, but says nothing. We tread the steps of a hidden stair behind the temple. There are two points where the path seems to move on to the left, but she takes me down an animal track to the right, each time, and we find another hidden stair.

Reaching the crest of the ridge, she explains the need for such secrecy.

“Look down there, Spazakia. What do you see?”

I tell her. “The north road. It comes into the vale directly ahead. It would lead up here if it did not bend to the west and lead up to the sanctuary.”

“And down the slope? What do you see?”

“Trees. They are thick. They lean over a gully.”

“And in the gully?”

I squint against the harsh sunlight.

“Nothing. It is bare, like a dry stream.”

“It was never a stream. That way is cleared every winter, while we are in Eleusis, tending to the mystes there. Servants of this sanctuary keep it clear of all obstructions.”


“Look up there,” she says, and points to a crag above. I see that the top is levelled off and great stones, squarish, somewhat rounded, rest there. “If I was to go up there, and lever one of those stones off and into the gully, it would roll all the way to the road and down the road for several stades.”

“But that would kill anyone on the road!”

“Yes!” she says, grinning, and draws herself up with a look of vengeance in her eyes. “And if the road was filled with a thousand hoplites, neither bronze nor bone could stand.” Again I see the dramatic flair in her delivery, and realize that despite my horror at the idea, I can imagine myself breathless, watching the great unstoppable stones crashing out of the forest, bloodthirsty as charging elephants, tearing into serried ranks of men.

“Hundreds would perish,” she continued, “and they would be routed. Furthermore…” she says, pointing at spots below the forest canopy, “Men of brass and great engines would be released, and a vast horn would trumpet. It would seem as if the god himself were at war upon them. They would flee, and never return.”


She lets her poise settle. “Deception, my little Spazakia. Deception has defended this sanctuary against the pillaging horde in the past, and it will again. How do you think we can live here at peace with half the world’s treasure in our vaults? The sanctuary is defended. Perhaps not by the god, but defended it is.”

“But it is a lie.”

“Is it? Is it any more a lie than a bit of doggerel that may kill a man as well as save him? More of a lie than the love of the god himself, who turns his lovers into bushes, or fountains, or mad things that no one will believe?”

I shiver at her words. Again, I see the distorted face, the pale eye of the monster that I fear I am. She speaks of me. Of my kind.

Quietly, almost like a concerned mother, she takes me in her arms. “Please, little Spazakia. Trust me in this. Do not strip us bare of our deceits. It will be the end of the sanctuary.”

I know she speaks for her family, for the priests, for the great wealth of Delphi. I pull myself out of her arms and look out on the plain below. I notice for the first time that the north road continues a ways, and joins an east-west road. The roads follow ridges, and the ridges converge on the sanctuary. She follows my eyes.

“Yes, you can see it only from up here. Those roads meet at the wound the god made in the earth on the fourth day of his life. It was there that the he forced his arrows into the navel of the earth. All the earth cracked around, and the dragon was pierced, and tore the ground around him. Since then, the dragon obeys. He speaks for the god.”

She turns, addresses me with her eyes cast down, her voice gentle, intimate as between two sisters. “Or so I am told. The dragon does not speak to me. I wonder if he speaks to anyone. I wonder if all our deceptions hide only a deeper deception. One that we have made for ourselves and have fallen for.”

I shudder, my arms prickling with gooseflesh. I also turn my face downward, unwilling to give her a glimpse of the dragon that may still linger in my eye. She leans in close, whispering in my ear.

“You know, girl, I have travelled and I have seen this with my own eyes: If you cross the sea towards the rising sun, you will come to another temple, far older, far greater, to the god’s sister. There is a navel there also, and all who dwell there say that is the true centre of the earth. And again, if you go south to the island of Crete, there is another navel to the earth where the god and his sister are holy and all who dwell there say that is the world’s centre. There are others. Many others. The earth must have many mothers to have so many navels!” She smiles at her jest, raises my face to look into hers. “So tell me, Spazakia, who is the real deceiver here? Would you be able to tell?”

I shake my head, as much to free it from her fingertips as to admit my ignorance.

“There is a reason the Oracle doesn’t interpret her own prophecies, girl. I hope you never have to learn that reason.”

But I have learned it all too soon. Sardis is burning.

I rage, shaking the bars of my tripod, trying to break it. I reach for the dragon, a thousand vicious claws at his throat. “You let me send Sheep-beard to Sardis, and now Sardis is burning!”

That was your choice.

“No!” I shout. The dozing mystia, who was waiting for me to speak, jumps up, her tablets and stylus clatter to the floor.

“Sister?” she cries out.

I do not know if I speak to her. Whatever comes from my mouth, she is frightened by it and runs out of the room.

“Do something!” I scream at a god who does not hear me. I beat the cage beneath me with my cracked hands. My hands, my arms are so thin, so wiry. In my imagination, I see Sheep-beard and his Oxana standing in the fire, calmly watching me as they are consumed like figures of melting gold withering into the coals. They dwindle to nothingness in my mind.

I reach out to the dragon again. My heart is full of vengeance. “Show them to me.”

But instead, I see the Mule-king’s bearded son, the new King of Kings, on a disc of gold, like the coins in Sheep-beard’s hand. He fires a great bow into the sky, piercing the sun. His promise of vengeance is terrible to feel. It ripples from horizon to horizon, echoing with the tramp of five million marching feet. Even the dragon is taken aback.

“Daughter?” It is Amantaeia. She is in a rumpled, hastily-donned gown. She approaches me, squats to look at me better. “Daughter, what is it?”

I try to form words, but I cannot get them to fit around the vast misshapen feeling in my chest. My mouth moves like a fish. “I killed him.”

“Killed? Who? How?”

“My step-father. I sent him to his death. With my words.”

Her face grows still, and a great sadness comes over her. With halting movements, she lifts me from the cage and holds me, but without warmth. I look up into the sad steel of her eye and I realize where her sorrow comes from. I return her cold embrace with my own chill. We have both spoken our heart in the name of the god, and felt the cold bite of our own venom.

I resolve then never to listen to my own prophecy. Never to winnow out meaning from the dragon’s words. I am the liar now. A woman deceiving the girl she once was.

Pythia – Part 1

The words of the god beat their fists on my teeth, my tongue tickles with the honey of them, but I will not speak these words of joy and hope for my enemy, the Lacedaemonian. I refuse them. I will not betray my mother, my promise, nor the years of my service by speaking them.

My face, the good side, is pressed to the hot brass bars, good eye closed against the stinging fume. The open cage swings in a gout of dragon-breath, suspended as it is from the crux of a tripod.

“Sister?” the young mystia asks, her voice muffled by the wet sash over her mouth. I hear her concern distantly—disconnected from meaning. It pulls me from the myriad cracks of time to the here and now, wakes me from my half-dream, from wandering the dragon-mind labyrinth.

I peek, squinting in the hot acrid air rising from below. She is bent forward, golden tassels in her headdress rippling in the updraft, lamplight quivering in watery motion. Her hands quiver also, the wax writing-board and stylus shaking in her delicate, pink hands. Hands that may one day be as grey as my own, cracked, the cracks limned by the ash of the dragon.

The dragon’s eyes close. The earth itself quivers as he breathes in… breathes out.

Speak. His voice is deep as chasms.

The verse bursts from me in a torrent of words. I gasp for breath after every line, each acid breath tears through the passages of my throat, burying its barbs within me. I dictate the words my enemy has waited long and travelled far to hear: By his hand, he will end the bitter feud which drove him from Lacedaemonia on the Laconian plain, the city we Euboeans call “Sparta”.

Tiavviastis of Laconia, be glad you tended
Your shining locks, for you have earned rewards
So long deserved. Go forth to conquer your foe;
Your name will be spoken in Attica for all the years
That stone shall prove mightier than rain

The dragon leaves me, and I abandon myself to silent tears. In the end, I have betrayed them all.

I am Pythia. A word with split meanings: a title and a place. It also means “I stink”. Thinking on this makes me smile. I do stink. Everywhere is the sulphur-smell of the dragon. In my clothes, in my hair. My poor hair. My once-dark, pitch-bright hair is grey, brittle, ragged. Uneven across my eyes. Moons of grey grime line my yellowed fingernails and moons of black ring my mouth and nostrils. I am burned and battered.

But I do not break.

Like water, I do not break, but flow.

A memory, Sheep-beard says to me “You can break a pot, not its water.” He clung to that thought, in exile, far from his beloved Sardis. I had broken an amphora that bright afternoon, trying to carry it despite my shaky knees. Spilled water roused the colour of sunlit stonework in the courtyard. Gentle vapour rose as he spoke.

I love the memory of his voice. Kindness and patience in that voice. But listen, Sheep-beard, if you can hear me: The sun is too bright. I cannot gather the water back. Can you?

But he was not thinking of me as I am now, spread wildly as I am. He was thinking of his city, and how his city was once-broken like my amphora, all its people flowing away, spilt water flowing across the baked Lydian landscape in the shattering that came with the Medan Mule’s iron shoes.

The serpents warned them, those men of Sardis, boiling out of the earth and across the battle-plain in anticipation of Cyrus the mule’s armies. Oh, yes. Serpents always warn, but their cloven tongues form split meanings. And the dragon, King of Serpents, betrayed old Croesus of Lydia; betrayed him to the “King of Kings”. There is a third King of Kings, now. Grandchild of Cyrus; grandchild of a mule, so no heir of his grandfather’s loins. Xerxes is indeed coming, with five million in his wake to wreck the walls of Athens.

My hand is trembling. I am flowing beyond the cracks of my own soul’s amphora. I reach out to the dragon in the depths of the earth. He slumbers: a chance for respite. I am tired, slipping away, draining out into the place where there is no gulf between yesterday and tomorrow, no space between myself and another….

No space between myself and the dragon. The dragon promised me payment in kind, after the duty is done. I think he has forgotten his promise….

Promises are to be kept; I dream of the girl that is my distant hometown, and how she slips through the cracks of Gaia to come to me still. She has not forgotten Spazakia, “little cracked-pot”. Every month she comes, to give me her cold, sweet kisses to my face and cleanses me of the ash, of the duty. I need only hold my shards together for a little more. It grows harder, month by month, and memory of past and future presses upon me like a leaden fist.

I let go, spill out of myself.