Tuesday , January 25 2022

A voluntary sacrifice meets an unexpected end

The beast’s lair was a full three days of travel from her city, but the journey was pleasant enough. They rode on open carts softened with hay-stuffed woolen pillows, and the late summer heat was mitigated by a soft breeze that swept up from the sea, sowing their hair and clothes with the scents of salt and the warmth of the olive groves that lined the hills below the road.

The road cut an uneven path along the high ridges of the rugged countryside and from this height Caliope could see a thin line of pale bluish green shining out in the hazy distance framed only by the pale sky and the heavy green of the rolling hills.

The girl sitting across from her started crying again and was rewarded with a weepy hug from a similarly swollen and red-eyed girl. She looked away, back to the rolling hills and shifted uncomfortably.

Calliope had joined the group two days ago, and they’d done nothing else but weep since she’d been there.

There were two carts rocking gently along the road, both could hold ten passengers, and very nearly did. A small guard accompanied them on foot, led by a stiff necked captain who rode ahead on horseback. They weren’t there to protect the cargo of women so much as prevent them from escaping.

She grimaced. She’d been trying to distract herself with the blue sky and scented breeze, but the grim soldiers and the incessant sobbing kept pulling her back to the present dilemma. Well perhaps not a dilemma, so much as a terrible and hopeless situation. She’d volunteered to be part of the tribute, to save her family the loss of her more promising sister, who, even at 19, already had numerous proposals. There were tributes every five years, sometimes gold, sometimes livestock, and every town gave their part. This year the creature had demanded young women.

She repressed a shudder. Most of these girls hadn’t volunteered, they were the youngest marriagable daughters in their households, all from prominent families with more than three daughters from different towns. The councils of each city had decided that this was the fairest way to choose the women. It would have been too much to bare to make the parents, mothers and fathers, choose among their own beloved children, and there would be a riot if they asked such a price of the poorer citizens, who already suffered enough.

She raked her gaze silently over them for the hundredth time in the last two days. Two or three sat more or less stoically, already resigned, as she was, to their fate. One near her prayed softly to Artemis to protect her. No one spoke much.

Another breeze swept over them carrying the Mediterranean on its wings, as if the south wind himself was lending them what little comfort he could. Her stomach began to cramp into a small knot and she gave in a little to her fear, praying along silently with the pleading whispers next to her. The young woman next to her was begging protection from the maiden goddess Artemis. Caliope prayed to Athena. Not for protection, but for wisdom and for courage. For strength.

None of them knew their fate. She assumed death, it made it easier to deal with. Though some might disagree, she felt it was truly the worst fate. If she expected death and got something else, well then she was ahead wasn’t she? She was not too proud to save her life though slavery or servitude.

She sighed out loud and turned away from the swollen eyes and watched a young shepherd guide his flock over the rocks of a nearby hill. He paused to watch them, squirming lamb under one arm. She lifted a hand, and he smiled, lifting his free hand in response. Suddenly she felt calmer, more centered. It would be okay, everyone would be okay.

For her family it would be as though she were married to a man who lived in a distant land. They would suffer no great loss. She thought of her sister’s tear streaked face as she left with the soldiers and touched the silver serpentine bracelet on her arm that she had been made to take with her. Her sister’s bracelet.

She fought the sorrow that welled up in her chest and wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her bare skin.

In the distance the thin blue line had widened to an ever growing expanse. They were nearly there. They paused at one more town, the last one, and witnessed their final heartbreaking scene of a family forced to part with their child. The girl was lifted gently by guilty looking guards onto the second cart. She was beautiful, despite her reddened eyes, and she waved tearfully. Only her father waved back, her mother and sisters having already collapsed in grief and mourning into the dust. Calliope watched the man as the cart rolled forward, standing like a statue, frozen with cold misery, one hand raised, his family in a heap at his feet. She pushed her own family out of her mind again and took deep breaths. Whatever else, she had her honor left, and what little composure she was able to muster.

Not far from the village, maybe an hour’s march, the road tapered off, and they were unloaded and led through a prettyish woods which opened up into a rolling pasture land dotted with grey rock and framed beyond by the sea which crashed slowly and rhythmically against the low rocky cliffs. Under any other circumstance she would have been moved by the beauty and serenity of the place. Now she felt only dread.

One cliff rose up into a rocky spire before them and where the grey stone met emerald grass, a black opening rose up into view.

Caliope was seized with sudden fear and stopped short instinctively. She wasn’t the only one. The guards let them stare a moment before prodding them forward like skittish ewes. The cavern loomed overhead, as high at least as five tall men. She had heard that the creature was a giant. Some said he was a titan who escaped Zeus’s fury, others that he was a Cyclops. One even said he was a great serpent like the one Perseus slew.

As they entered the cave she inhaled. The air was surprisingly dry, and smelled only of the sea air, not death and rot as she had expected.

The guards paused them at the entrance, most of them glancing anxiously around, nervously fingering their hilts. From somewhere at the back of the great cavern a man appeared. He was average looking, at least, that is, there was nothing strange or monstrous about him, even if he was a bit rough and worn around the edges. His squared jaw was shadowed with the hint of a beard and his hair was longish and loose, the ends brushing his sturdy looking shoulders. He nodded with familiarity to the captain who eyed him suspiciously, but nodded back.

There was a guard near her standing close to the back. She leaned closer to him and whispered “Who is that?”

He leaned forward, his mouth near her ear. “The creature’s servant.”

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