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Authors: Laura Gill

Tags: #Erotica

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BOOK: Claiming Ariadne
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Why that prospect didn’t fill her with utter revulsion, she didn’t know. Still, she didn’t need him to make this decision. “I know what he would say. Send the goods to Tiryns.”

Chapter Three

 

It took a stern woman to handle the serpents in the Snake Goddess’s shrine. Never smiling, Potinia was just such a woman. One of the many priestesses who served the Mistress of the Animals, she presided over this serpentine aspect of the goddess and maintained the shrine within the little network of sanctuaries just west of the Central Court.

She also kept the keys to the Pillar Crypt.

As a child, Ariadne often wondered why her mother didn’t like her. Potinia didn’t come often to the nursery; when she did, it was with a grim countenance and unending criticism. What love the young Ariadne knew came from the wet nurses and servants who looked after her, but she always craved the approval of the ageless, regal woman who tended the snakes and guarded the entrance to the Underworld.

Now as a priestess and mother, Ariadne understood better. Priestesses served the gods first and their own needs second or not at all. Ariadne’s own firstborn daughter, now six, knew the High Priestess of the Great Mother only as a beautiful lady who sometimes visited. Sasara knew that she’d already been consecrated to the service of the Mother Goddess. Perhaps when she was old enough, Ariadne would tell her why.

The girl would never know who her father was beyond that he had been a Sacred King. Somewhere, his name was recorded. Ariadne certainly didn’t remember it.

Snakes were the messengers of the gods. They burrowed into the Great Mother’s womb, they communicated with the dead, and they alone of all creatures transcended the mysteries of life and death by shedding their skins. At each full moon, Ariadne offered a bowl of milk to the sacred house snake along with her prayers.

Potinia received the offering and bore it into the shrine. In the innermost sanctum, exquisitely painted vessels held measures of olive oil, milk, and grain. Some held serpents. These were harmless creatures, brought out for rituals. Only the sanctuary’s resident house snake was left in peace.

As Ariadne watched from the doorway, Potinia set the milk on the floor near a cavity in the protruding rock and uttered the customary prayers. Once the sanctuary was dark and quiet, once it was empty, the snake would come out and drink. According to the acolytes, it was a very shy creature.

Ariadne didn’t expect to linger, yet as she turned to go, her mother called after her. “I will walk with you to the sanctuary.” Just as easily as that. Not a polite request to stay, but a naked statement, behind which was the frosty expectation of a priestess accustomed to instant obedience.

Potinia led her from the shrine, with its many potential eavesdroppers, and across the Central Court. Passing beneath the Great Mother’s sanctuary, she descended into the light-well of the Grand Staircase. At the bottom, it remained cool and gloomy even at high summer, but Potinia wasn’t a woman for sunlight and fresh air, or for wasting time on pleasantries. “You are no longer as slender or high-breasted as you once were.”

Ariadne bit her lip at this sudden, unwelcome criticism. “I am consecrated to the service of the Great Mother. You know what that means.”

And it is your own doing
. Potinia had chosen to dally with a man at the spring equinox; no one forced her. He must have been a priest, a man Ariadne probably saw every day, but it did no good to ask her mother. Potinia might have drunk so much wine that night she might not even remember who had lain with her. Not that it mattered. When a woman lay with a man at the Great Marriage, she was free to enjoy herself, knowing that what resulted was strictly between her and the Goddess.

“It means you’ll have your first gray hairs by twenty-two. Perhaps it is time to begin training a successor.”

Ariadne didn’t relish setting a twelve-year-old girl up in her place. The new High Priestess was always a virgin, always newly bloomed into womanhood to reflect the Goddess’s maiden aspect. It made no difference that girls consecrated to the Great Mother had served her from a young age, or that the girl chosen was carefully prepared and told what to expect when a man came to her, she couldn’t truly understand what she hadn’t experienced. Sex meant blood and pain. “I thought I should wait until I turned twenty to step down.”

“This new Sacred King is an affront to the gods.” So now Potinia came to it, the underlying reason behind this conversation. She wanted to harp on the subject of Taranos as though criticizing a potential son-in-law. “He is an Achaean, and far too old.”

“Tell that to the priests who found him suitable. I had nothing to do in choosing him.”

Potinia stiffened at her harsh tone, yet said not a word in rebuke. “It’s unfortunate that you cannot take the medicine.”

A woman serving the chthonic powers of the Earth wouldn’t suggest that option so lightly. Crops would fail and mothers would lose their babies. “At least the Mother has blessed me with healthy, living children. I don’t want tempt her anger by ridding myself of her gifts.”

In fact, she’d observed her cycle with particular care since the equinox. Three weeks. She ought to begin bleeding any day now, yet until her moon blood failed to appear, until she showed the other signs, who could say that she wasn’t already carrying a Goddess-child?

“Men don’t think when they arrange these matters with the Great Mother,” Potinia said. “What did the priests think would come of their choice?”

This Sacred King would bring vigorous offspring and bountiful crops. Kitanetos had already confessed as much.

Ariadne, growing more uncomfortable by the moment,
decided to take her leave. “I pray the Snake Mother’s messenger carries our prayers for a good growing season. I would stay longer, but there are rituals I must observe in Mother Rea’s sanctuary.”

No sooner had she reached the second landing, than she encountered yet another unwelcome face.

What is he doing up here?
Elaphos, junior priest of Poseidon, served under Aktaios, who typically spent this part of the morning in Poseidon’s sanctuary. Elaphos assisted in those rites and had no reason to be here, unless Aktaios sent him to fetch something or the man was shirking his duties.

“High Priestess,” he said, nodding, “what a lovely sight you are.”

Thirty years old with gray hair thick at the temples, Elaphos wasn’t a handsome man. Even when he smiled, he wore an air of dissatisfaction. Ariadne might have forgiven that grim cast had his eyes twinkled with genuine merriment, had he exuded warmth as well as dignity. Some older priests like Kitanetos could set aside their gravity when it wasn’t required. Instead, Elaphos took after the dour Aktaios.

Ariadne wished Elaphos wasn’t standing two steps above her. “I am wearing neither jewels nor paint.”

“You do not need them, you are so beautiful.” Elaphos claimed her hand as she ascended, and brought it to his lips.

I just realized your lips are even more luscious by day, and how much more beautiful you are without all your paint
. Taranos somehow made a similar comment work magic upon her; his words turned her into a blushing, stammering maiden. And yet Elaphos, a year younger than he and a far more suitable partner for a priestess, turned her stomach, compelling her to snatch her hand away. “You forget that I belong to the Sacred King.”

Consternation furrowed his brow. “This man from Tiryns behaves shamefully, seizing you in public and kissing you like a lowly concubine.”

You would do the same, only in some dark corner where no one might see
. Why did he persist when time and again she made her disinterest so plain? Elaphos wasn’t the first man to desire her, just the only one who didn’t respectfully withdraw when she rebuffed him. “Kitanetos and Aktaios found him worthy enough to stand for the ritual combat. Perhaps you should complain to them—or better yet, since you object so wholeheartedly, perhaps you should challenge Taranos in combat next year.”

Elaphos neither feigned humor at the barb nor showed any other emotion. “The gods will punish him by sending a better man to stand as Sacred King.”

“And you would object to that man also.”

For a moment, his face fell, revealing sad desperation. “Ariadne, you won’t be High Priestess forever. Once you are free to choose...”

High Priestesses sometimes took husbands or even married into the royal family once they retired. Many entered the service of Eleuthia. Others left Knossos entirely to serve in the smaller shrines and sanctuaries scattered throughout Crete.

Just before the equinox, a marriage offer had come from the royal kinsman governing Phaistos. What would Elaphos say when he heard that a prince had asked for her hand?

Elaphos would criticize the Minos himself. Ariadne held her tongue. She wasn’t interested in the king’s brother any more than she wanted the prince from Tiryns. She’d had enough of strange men in her bed. “Elaphos, stop.”

“What will it take to make you want me?”

She climbed the stair above him. “I’ve already told you: I want no one.”

When pleading didn’t work, he resorted to his familiar spitefulness. Elaphos had treated Pelinos no better. “Is that why you’ve been seen walking and talking freely with the Achaean?”

She stiffened then turned her back and began climbing the stairs once more. “The Sacred King is not your concern.”

“He isn’t worthy of you!” Elaphos’s reply echoed down the light-well, where anyone could hear.

Pausing, she stared back at him. “Perhaps,” she said quietly, almost hoping he would take the hint, “you should say that to his face and see what happens.”

* * * *

Covering her face with her hands, Ariadne wept. In the chamber pot beside her lay the remains of last night’s meal. Her moon blood had never arrived.

She was pregnant. Again.

Even muffled, her sobs carried. At last, as dawn broke and the household stirred, her distress brought the novices. She never, ever wanted them to see her like this: disheveled, in a rumpled, vomit-stained shift, and weeping uncontrollably. Not when her fertility was supposed to be cause for rejoicing.

Because she didn’t send them away or issue orders, the maidens clamored gawking in the doorway until the priestesses dispersed them. Erika, the most senior priestess, took charge like a domineering grandmother; she sent the girls scurrying for warm water, linens, and a clean shift while she, assisted by a plump, apple-cheeked priestess named Pemo, helped Ariadne back to bed.

“It will be all right,” she said. “You’ve done this before. You know it will pass. Some herbs and honey will settle your stomach. Nopina can preside in the sanctuary today, and when you feel better you can make an offering downstairs.”

Ariadne sniffled, wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and let the women remove her stained shift before drawing up the heavy woolen blanket. “I had hoped this year might be different.”

Erika, mother of nine children, patted her hand. “It’s in Mother Rea’s hands, and this year’s man is very strong. Perhaps once you’re feeling well enough, you can see about choosing and training a new High Priestess. After four babies and one more on the way, no one can say you haven’t done your duty.”

Right now, the mere thought was too much.

Potinia came that same morning to pay her respects. From her bed, where she lay curled on her side watching patterns of sunlight and dappled blue shadows play on the wall, Ariadne heard Erika in the courtyard three stories below formally thanking the Snake Priestess before hustling her on her way. Ariadne smiled in gratitude. She didn’t think she could have endured her mother’s company, much less the covered jar she would have come with.

Potinia maintained that pregnant women and serpents were natural allies. Once the baby quickened, she’d insist on Ariadne spending a full moon night in the Pillar Crypt. She would place a coiled female serpent on her daughter’s womb to determine the child’s sex. A forked tongue licking the air, cool, dry scales rasping over warm skin, a soft hiss—the serpents never gave a wrong sign. Ariadne shuddered. Like others, she didn’t mind the presence of the holy house snakes. She even welcomed their oracles, as long as she didn’t have to touch them.

BOOK: Claiming Ariadne
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