One at a time, the ornaments came out of the ivory trinket box: golden hoops, glass paste beads in shades of turquoise and indigo, rosettes on delicate chains, carnelians and amethysts the size of lentils, agate bangles, and diadems. “Which ones will you have today, Mistress?”
Ariadne selected a gold signet ring and allowed the novice priestess to choose the rest. Amaja had much better taste than she did. Today of all days, it was essential she wear just the right jewels.
Another novice painted her face, laying down a chalky foundation of white lead oxide before outlining her brown eyes with smoky galena and kohl. Carmine stained her lips pomegranate red, and with the rounded end of a stick, Sopata painted suns on the High Priestess’s cheeks, brow, and chin: scarlet circles haloed by dots.
Seeing her wavering reflection in the mirror Sasi held for her, Ariadne thought she looked like a goddess in a shrine and nothing at all like the nineteen-year-old woman she was.
A third novice combed and coiled Ariadne’s long black hair into ringlets and fixed a golden diadem across her brow before tying the ends. Sopata dabbed her throat and wrists with costly oil of iris. Amaja looped strands of gold rosettes and carnelians about her neck; they felt cool against skin bared by her ritual open bodice. For this occasion, Ariadne would walk among the worshippers, naked breasts glistening with olive oil and still firm even after four pregnancies.
Sasi held up the polished bronze mirror again. “How do you like it, Mistress?”
Ariadne gave the wavering image of herself a long, careful glance before rising from her chair. Her blue and yellow flounced skirts flowed around her. She sucked in a breath at how tightly Sopata had cinched her girdle while dressing her. At least this year she wasn’t recovering from childbirth. “Tell the priestesses I am ready.”
From her chamber in the House of the Great Mother, she and her most senior priestesses made the short walk north to Poseidon’s sanctuary. Assembled by the altar, all sixteen priests wore full regalia: blue fringed cloth wrapped around pristine white gowns. Circular polos hats crowned the two most senior priests.
Kitanetos, the High Priest of Poseidon, bowed deeply to the High Priestess and her attendants before yielding the right of precedence. As she took her place at the head of the procession, Ariadne sensed the weight of the sacred double-headed axe the man carried. Today, the labrys would bite into human flesh. Today, the horned altar would drink deeply of a year-king’s blood.
Today, she must give her blessing. Tonight, she would give her body.
Almond blossoms and ribbons garlanded the porch where she and the High Priest would watch the ritual combat. All around, on verandas and steps surrounding the vast Central Court, every resident of Knossos who could attend gathered to mark the vernal equinox and watch the drama of the year-king’s death and rebirth play out.
Two men stood alone in the sacred space. Floored with sand brought up from Katsambas six miles away, this was the Bull Court, where the lithe young bull-leapers honored Poseidon with their blood sport. Yet it was also used for other rites, including the contest to become the year-consort, the Sacred King.
Ariadne avoided looking at them, Sacred King and sacred challenger. Their faces, their bodies, their names meant nothing to her; the Sacred King was an ideal, an embodiment of the Great Mother’s young lover, not a real man, not her legal husband. Ariadne never had time enough to get to know the young men who won the right to bed her. And, knowing they were all doomed to die, she never experienced any desire to do so.
An early spring chill clung to the air. In her open bodice, Ariadne shivered and marked how her nipples hardened into reddened pebbles. It still felt like winter.
At last, she had to acknowledge the two men. Pelinos was willowy and fair, his first beard fuzzing his cheeks. For two years he’d held the title of Sacred King. He’d spent two years at the High Priestess’s side and fathered a child with her, but from the moment Ariadne stepped onto the porch, she knew there wouldn’t be a third year or a second child with him.
For the moment Ariadne set eyes on his opponent, she knew Pelinos was going to die. She wished she had liked him better.
Tall and dark-haired, with a closely trimmed beard and broad shoulders, the sacred challenger was much older than she expected. Most men who challenged the Sacred King for the right to bed the High Priestess were young. Pelinos was now eighteen—a mere boy compared with the man facing him. Ariadne couldn’t judge his age, except to guess he must be at least thirty. She could only mark the pink scars standing out against the sun-browned flesh of his arms and torso and know this was a man who’d been in battle many, many times.
So what did a warrior want with the title of Sacred King? The privilege of spilling one’s seed inside the Great Mother’s designated priestess brought no political power. It was an ephemeral honor that inevitably ended in his death.
Ariadne glimpsed her mother among the other high-ranking priestesses. Fine spidery lines fanned out from the corners of Potinia’s eyes and painted mouth. She hadn’t been young when she bore Ariadne. She’d been born ageless, as some women were, so when others stooped and became gray at forty-eight, Potinia still stood proudly erect, formidable, and unreadable.
Even when Potinia smiled, her eyes remained cold. Ariadne glanced away, toward the opposite platform where the king sat with his queen and eldest children.
All Knossos awaited her with an anticipatory hush.
Lifting her arms, she spoke, and her words echoed throughout the courtyard. “Great Mother Rea, gaze upon these two men who come to compete for your favor. This day, one shall spill his seed in your hallowed womb, and the other shall spill the blood with which you gave him life.”
Beside her, silver-haired Kitanetos raised the labrys so it glinted in the sunlight, a signal to the combatants to begin.
There were no rules, except that one man must die. Each was armed with a dagger and his fists, but the method of death didn’t matter.
Pelinos made the first move, lunging in and sweeping with his dagger through the empty air where his opponent’s belly had been. Seeming hardly to move, the man inched back; his abdominal muscles rippled as he sucked them in.
At this, Pelinos hesitated, then paced a wary circle around the man, who circled with him. Pelinos waited, and then lunged in as the man appeared to move to the right. A clever feint. Instead, the man jerked to the left and kicked Pelinos to the ground with a sudden leg sweep. Pelinos landed heavily on his right side. The dagger went flying.
A perfect moment to tackle an opponent and stab him, but the man didn’t oblige. As a dusty Pelinos scrambled for the dagger and struggled to his feet, the man watched with his hands firmly planted on his hips.
Ariadne narrowed her eyes. She’d never seen a man show off during sacred combat as thoroughly as this one did. Why did he just stand there and let Pelinos retrieve his weapon? Why didn’t he just end it? Laughter, mingled with a slight undercurrent of impatience, erupted from the audience. A few catcalls, directed at both Pelinos and his reticent opponent, swiftly subsided.
“He’s getting angry,” Kitanetos quietly observed.
Ariadne had no doubt whom the High Priest meant. Pelinos, red-faced and breathing hard, began shouting curses at the other man who merely stood his ground and smiled. His bovine indifference reminded Ariadne of the idiots who sometimes performed menial tasks in the temple workshops, and for a moment, she experienced a twinge of fear that the priests had chosen just such a man for the ritual.
When he saw the man wouldn’t fight him, Pelinos dipped, scooped up a handful of sand, and flung it toward his face. The man sidestepped the throw at the last second so that the grains showered off his elbow. The mild disinterest melted from his strong, square-jawed face like a mask. Hardness narrowed his gaze, his jaw clenched, and his lips curled back in a feral grin: the mask of a warrior who’d been toying with his younger, inexperienced opponent and was now about to end the game.
Ariadne swallowed convulsively at the change, for she knew in her heart, as she had known from the moment she first set eyes upon the man, that come twilight he’d be in her bed, where he would deal with her as brutally as he was about to settle with Pelinos.
In his fury, Pelinos couldn’t see the game his challenger was playing. When he dove in again, the man grasped him about the shoulders and pulled him into a macabre embrace. Fingers clamped tight around the wrist holding the dagger. Ariadne heard bones crunch, a sharp cry of pain, and saw the weapon tremble in a loosened grip. But no, the man shifted his hold and clamped down on his opponent’s knuckles so Pelinos didn’t drop the dagger. A deft twist and Pelinos wobbled. As his knees gave way, he slowly sank to the ground.
Ariadne didn’t see what had occurred until Pelinos pitched backward onto the sand. Eyes open, staring skyward in frozen shock. His own dagger, buried to the shaft in his breast, which rose and fell with his ragged breaths. A few seconds later, blood began trickling from his mouth.
It was over.
Ariadne, beating her breasts with both fists, sucked in a great breath and screamed. So did her attendants. From the surrounding tiers, hundreds of keening female voices added to the High Priestess’s ritual grief. Echoes carried their mourning cries throughout the Central Court long after the women themselves stopped screaming.
The High Priest waited for absolute silence. Murmuring from the tiers replaced the last doleful reverberations, then even those ceased. Holding the labrys in both hands, Kitanetos descended the side stairs to the courtyard floor, where the victor awaited him. A second collective hush fell over the audience as the new Sacred King raised the double axe and, without a moment’s hesitation, brought it down on the dead man’s exposed neck. At the crucial second, Ariadne glanced away.
Priests scurried to collect the blood in bronze vessels to scatter in the fields and anoint the horns of consecration throughout Knossos. Within the knot of their bodies, Ariadne saw very little. Pelinos would be taken to the cemetery south of Knossos and interred with all honors. She would never set eyes on him again.
But when the priests parted ranks, and she saw the victorious new year-king and the grisly trophy he dangled by the hair, her stomach turned. Most of the young men who won this combat never touched the corpse, much less picked up the severed head; they were too busy retching into the sand after ritually dispatching the victim.
This one, however, had no fear of death.
And then, to her horror, his gaze traveled upward and for the first time he acknowledged her. In his dark eyes, she perceived his bloodlust and naked desire. Trembling, knowing she couldn’t abandon the porch prematurely, Ariadne forced herself to complete the ritual.
“I am Rea, the Great Mother.” She lifted her arms, palms facing outward to channel the divinity’s presence. Her voice carried throughout the Central Court. “Who claims the title of the Sacred King, the Priest-King, the Year-King? Who claims the Goddess as his consort?”
Handing the head off to a reluctant priest so he could wipe his bloody, sweaty hands on his kilt, the man answered. “I am Taranos, son of Kretheus, prince of Tiryns.”
Ariadne caught her breath at his next gesture. Sweet Goddess, did he just wink at me?
So he was an Achaean, an insolent foreigner from the mainland. Ariadne’s gorge rose, her throat convulsing around the rejection she wanted to utter, yet she dared not. Any man found worthy enough to fight the Sacred King had already passed the other ritual tests. This man was now her consort. Whether she liked it or not, she must welcome him.