Chapter One – Travellers
“We passed through innumerable villages on that long journey north to the Dorias Mountains. Some of the farmers recognised us, but, for the most part, the arrival of my phalanx was met with casual indifference. These are people whose only link to the outside world is through their infrequent trips to the closest polis. They are far more concerned about not having enough grain to survive the winter than the distant threat of a tauran herd.”
Elena needed a drink.
Not wine necessarily; that particular vice was bound and gagged deep in the prison of her mind. She could still perceive its weak struggles or hear its faint whispers calling to her as she lay awake at night on her bed of grass and leaves. But she was in control now, the only one with the key to the thing’s freedom, and she was determined to let it rot. With a bit of luck, it would eventually starve to death, and those distant murmurs would fade into comforting silence.
No, what she wished for now was a pewter cup of cool, fresh water. Elena and her two companions had been on the road north towards Dimmani for six days now, and foraging for supplies was becoming increasingly difficult the further they were from Thena. The blazing summer sun had turned its burning gaze on the serpentine streams that meandered across the grasslands, draining all the liquid from the soil and leaving behind dry, cracked earth. What little water remained was warm, brackish, and tasted of mud.
Elena sighed. All this thought of water was making her throat itch. She focussed instead on the dusty road before her, stretching away from her battered leather sandals towards the distant horizon, as if it was leading her straight into the heavens. She scratched at a black stain on her chiton. A piece of pitch, smeared onto the fabric by basileus Letho shortly before their flight from the palace. She shuddered at the memory of his two mangled stumps, weaving back and forth frantically as he pleaded with her to run. To run and leave Dexios to his fate.
A rasping cough from behind her made her turn. It was Graycea, her wrinkled face scrunched up in pain. She spat into the dirt and drew a bony hand across her chafed lips. Makar towered over her, his gangly frame shading the old priestess from the worst of the sun.
“Hera’s saggy tits,” Graycea croaked, wiping her palm on her chiton. “How much further? Every breath feels like a tauros hoof to the chest.”
“I’m … not sure,” Makar admitted, squinting at a nearby olive tree as if it would offer up the answer. “We must be close. Give me a minute to get my bearings and pray to Hecate for guidance.”
Elena watched him stride confidently off the path, his gestures precise and economical. A far cry from the bumbling ephebe who used to trip over his own sandals. Physically, he remained unchanged, his spindly limbs devoid of fat and muscle. Only now, he seemed to have discovered what to do with them rather than just letting them flop around aimlessly.
“He cries out in his sleep, you know,” Graycea said, finding a chair-sized rock and sitting down with a groan. “Cries out for his father.”
“I’m sure he does. He’s grieving. Losing someone—”
“Hades. One of the Ruined.”
“To you, maybe, but to Makar, it was the person who raised and cared for him. He had no siblings. No mother. Desha was his entire family. Imagine having so much pain and responsibility thrust upon you almost simultaneously. If it had been me, I would have dissolved into a blubbering mess.”
“Hah! I doubt it. You’re one of the strongest women I know. After myself, of course,” Graycea gave a mischievous chuckle that transformed into another jarring cough. “Gods! I really felt that one. I’ll not last much longer on pond water and berries. We should have prepared better.”
“We did, remember? Desha … I mean Hades had that box full of jewellery.”
“That is now a charred stain on the cobbles, along with his corpse. We needed to … what in Hera is that boy doing now?”
Makar was trying to grab their attention from his vantage point, a grassy knoll that protruded out of the plains like a pimple. “CART!” he yelled, waving his arms in the air. “FROM THE SOUTH!”
“What should we do?” Graycea asked, looking back down the road.
“Why are you asking me?”
“Well, I’m not taking orders from a boy half my age—”
“Half your age?”
“—and I’m certainly not going to be making any decisions, so it looks like you’re in charge.”
“Great,” Elena said, her voice laced with sarcasm. She tapped a finger against her cheek, weighing up their options.
“How many in the cart?” she called up to Makar. He raised a single digit.
A teacher, a priestess and a … God. Surely that was more than enough to take on a single farmer, even if it did sound like the opening line of one of Galleas’s jokes.
“We’ll stay on the road,” she decided, beckoning to Makar. “Maybe whoever’s driving that cart can help us.”
A pair of oxen soon lumbered into view, pulling a rickety wooden wagon with wobbly wheels. A large Tyrrean sat perched on a sack of grain near the front, the reins held in one meaty hand. He slowed the oxen with a series of clicks and a twist of his wrist, bringing the cart to a rattling halt.
“Hera protects,” he said in greeting, smiling down at them amiably from his roost.
“Apparently,” Graycea muttered back.
“Thank you for stopping,” Elena added hurriedly, nudging the old priestess in the ribs. “We’ve been walking for days without proper food or rest.”
“From Thena?” the man replied in surprise. “Without supplies? What in Hera made you do that?”
“The city has fallen. Tauros.”
The farmer laughed loudly. “Tauros? This far south? What sort of fool do you take me for?”
“It’s true,” Makar said, his eyes burning. “The tauros have brokered an alliance with Ruxia. Their strategos, Polydius, now holds the palace. We have seen it.”
The man started to laugh again before something in Makar’s febrile gaze made him pause. “You’re … serious, aren’t you? That’s … impossible. Where will I take my harvest? Who will buy my crop?”
Elena frowned. Hundreds of Theneans were dead, and all that bothered him was the loss of a few drachmae.
“Perhaps you could sell it to Ruxia,” she said in disdain.
“Eh? Never! Those who have turned from Hera’s light deserve to starve.” He patted his sack of grain. “I’m heading to Dimmani. Food for the garrison. You’re welcome to ride in the back of the cart if you like; there’s plenty of room.”
Elena glanced over at Graycea, who nodded wearily.
“Thank you, that’s very kind,” she said and pulled herself up beside him. “What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Ephialtes,” Elena said, settling against the seat. Makar climbed up into the rear and held out his hand to Graycea, who accepted gratefully. The farmer sent the cart trundling forwards with a snap of the reins and another series of clicks.
The rhythmic creaking of the wheels was strangely relaxing to Elena, who found herself fighting off a fresh wave of fatigue. With a mumbled apology to Ephialtes, she left the driver’s seat and lay down next to Makar and Graycea. Both were already asleep, the ephebe’s head resting against the older woman’s shoulder. For the first time since the death of Hades, he looked like he was at peace, the worry lines around his eyes smoothed by the comforting dullness of slumber.
Elena yawned, her thoughts drifting to her own family; the father she had never known and the mother she had rejected. Her mother … Gods, what had they even been arguing about? It had seemed so important at the time, so life-changing, but now, ten years later, it was all a blur, hazy and undefined like the memory of a wine-filled evening at the taverna. And in any case, did it really matter? Her gaze wandered to Makar and Graycea, huddled together like mother and son. She missed that. That closeness. That complicity. Destroyed by a single moment of anger.
Lost but not irredeemable. Just dried up, like the streams and lakes of Tyrris, suffering in the heat of summer until the rain returned to restore them to life. Perhaps it was time for a reconciliation. To put an end to the drought. It was never too late.
Elena smiled to herself and let the rocking of the cart lull her to sleep.
“Elena, something’s wrong!”
She felt a skinny hand shake her awake.
“Mmmpf,” she said, blowing at the length of blonde hair that had somehow worked its way into her mouth. “Where are we?”
“That’s the problem, Mistress,” Makar replied in a hushed tone. “I don’t know.”
Elena peered bleary-eyed over the edge of the cart. The same nondescript terrain rolled past, sun-scorched grass and skeletal olive trees.
It all looks the same, she thought. There are no recognisable landmarks. We could be anywhere. Gods! You’re supposed to teach Geography; how can you not even know what polis we are in?
Then it came to her.
“The sun,” she said.
Makar nodded. “Dimmani is north-east of here. It’s late afternoon. Why is the sun straight ahead of us?”
“We’re going west.”
Elena was now very much awake. She prodded Graycea with a sandalled foot. The old priestess batted it away lazily. “Five more minutes.”
“Shut up and get up.”
“Why, you little—” Graycea caught sight of their worried faces. “What?”
“He’s taking us the wrong way.”
“Hera’s tits, girl, you woke me up for that? It’s probably just a short cut. Leave me alone.”
“A shortcut in the opposite direction?” Elena stood carefully, doing her best to anticipate the bumps and jerks of the cart.
“Ephialtes?” she called out. “Is everything all right?”
“Nearly there,” the burly farmer replied without turning, pointing further down the road to where a trio of white-washed buildings bordered a small grove of oak trees. “We won’t make it to Dimmani before nightfall. If what you say is true and tauros are abroad, we would be best to hole up here for this evening.”
“Oh … of course,” Elena said, ignoring Graycea’s venomous glare.
They stopped near the largest building, which turned out to be a stable of sorts, now empty of horses. Ephialtes jumped down from the cart. “Janus! Nimo!” he bellowed.
The door opposite them banged open, and two men emerged from the interior. They could not have been more different. One was as thin as a rake, his beard barely thick enough to hide his pointed chin. He had a squint so pronounced it made him appear cross-eyed, as if he were constantly trying to look at the tip of his nose. The other man was fat and bare-chested, sausage-like rolls of flab spilling over a grubby loincloth. He was chewing nosily on a chicken leg, seemingly unperturbed by the morsels of skin and meat stuck in his bushy beard.
“We have guests!” Ephialtes exclaimed, beaming. “Let us do what we can to make them feel comfortable.”
He turned to Elena. “All that remains is to settle the matter of payment, and we’ll find you all a nice refreshing kylix of watered wine.”
Elena felt a flutter in her belly. “I’m afraid we have nothing to offer you … as we’ve already told you, we were forced to flee Thena in great haste.”
“Ah, yes, your ludicrous tale of a tauran invasion.” Ephialtes was no longer smiling. “I’m not quite that gullible. What are you hiding?”
“No … nothing!” Elena took a step backwards and felt a cartwheel press into her legs, blocking her retreat. “Please!”
“She’s telling the truth,” Makar said, coming to stand beside her. “We have no drachmae to pay for food and lodgings. Perhaps you would allow us to sleep here in the barn? We’ll leave tomorrow at first light.”
“Hmmm,” Ephialtes mused, rubbing his chin. “I suppose that could work.” He shot a sly look at his two companions. “You still owe me for the cart ride, though.”
“I told you, we have no money.”
“I heard you, boy. There are other ways to pay.” He reached out to touch Elena’s cheek, and she shied away in disgust.
“How dare you—”
His backhanded slap caught her by surprise. She was spun around by the force of the blow, cracking her head on the side of the cart as she fell. Warm sticky liquid filled her mouth. Her tongue felt like it was on fire. She was vaguely aware of Makar tackling Ephialtes to the ground, punching and pummelling.
Graycea rushed past, a wild scream on her lips. She pounced on the two men writhing in the dirt and, for a moment, seemed to gain the upper hand, but then Janus and Nimo arrived, subduing the priestess with a kick to the face and prying Makar off Ephialtes. The ephebe struggled furiously, but his captors held him fast.
Ephialtes stood with a moan, his tongue probing the inside of his mouth. He winced and spat something small and yellow into the palm of his hand.
“My … tooth,” he growled. “Little bastard broke my tooth.” He staggered over to Makar and slugged him hard in the stomach.
“You should’ve killed them on the road,” his big bare-chested companion complained. “It’s always too much hassle to take them alive.”
“They’re worth nothing to us dead, Janus. I know a slaver in Lendes who’ll give us a good price for the boy. And the parthenos … well, if the daughters of Aphrodite won’t take her, maybe I’ll keep her for myself.” He leered at Elena, revealing a bloody hole where his tooth had been. “Gets mighty cold up here in the winter. Especially at night.”
“What about the old whore?” Janus asked. Graycea was on her hands and knees, spluttering.
Ephialtes sniffed dismissively. “Too old for the slave market. Too ugly for the daughters. Probably best just to slit her throat and dump her body with the others. Janus, I need—”
“You have sinned.”
It took Elena a moment to realise that it was Makar who had spoken. He sounded different somehow, his voice deeper and more commanding.
“Those who sin will not walk this land unpunished. Those who sin must face Judgement.”
He bowed his head. His entire body began to spasm; shaking and jerking as if it had been struck by lightning.
“I am Judgement.”
Janus and Nimo could no longer maintain their grip on Makar’s convulsing form.
“I am Punishment.”
The flesh of his right arm writhed, the skin flowing and contorting like liquid wax.
“I am … Retribution.”
Four long talons erupted from his fingertips with a wet, squelching snap.
Nimo was the first to die. A single claw sliced neatly through the skin of his neck and the carotid artery beneath, showering all those nearby with a spray of crimson droplets. Ephialtes staggered backwards, wiping feverishly at the blood on his face.
“Stop him, Janus!” he yelled. “Rip his arm off!”
His porcine companion advanced with a snarl. He was at least two feet taller than Makar, hiding a core as strong as a rock under all that blubber. One enormous fist swung ponderously down to clobber the ephebe’s fragile skull.
Makar gave Janus a contemptuous look and cut through the man’s forearm as if it were made of butter. The severed limb hit the ground with a dull thump, fingers still opening and closing reflexively. Janus screamed, clutching at the ruined stump of his right arm with his remaining hand, desperately trying to stem the flow of blood and ichor that was pouring from the wound onto his loincloth and sandals.
“The honourable man should not fear Charon’s embrace,” Makar continued in the same strange voice. “For he will be rewarded with a place in the golden fields of Elysium.” He stalked after Janus, who fled before him, cursing and mewling.
“Only the hearts of the wicked should be sick and swollen with fear. For their shades will know no peace. No respite. No mercy. The fires of Erebos are ever-burning.”
“Please …” burbled Janus, his skin becoming paler and paler from the loss of blood. “Please …”
“No mercy,” Makar repeated solemnly and drove a talon into one bulging eye, boring through the soft brain matter and exiting through the back of the skull. Janus collapsed, twitching.
Elena looked on in horror as Makar calmly flicked his wrist to remove the gore from the tips of his claws. The kind, courageous young ephebe who she respected and cared for had just butchered two men in less than a minute.
“Stop it, Makar,” she shouted, flinching as the sound of her own voice made her head throb. “That’s enough!”
He cocked his head, puzzled. “But why, Sophistes? These are evil men. Just like the man who killed my father.” He walked over to Ephialtes, who was sitting in the mud and straw of the barn, rocking back and forth. “Look at him. He is a rapist and a murderer. Do you really believe he deserves to live?”
Elena tried to piece together her scrambled thoughts. She teetered unsteadily on tired feet and took a half-dozen shaky steps to stand between Makar and Ephialtes.
“Run,” she said to the whimpering thief. “Run now, as fast as you can, and do not look back.”
Ephialtes bounded upright like a frightened rabbit, his soiled chiton wet with urine. He burbled a half-mad cackle and fled back towards the main road. Makar watched him go with a furrowed brow.
“I … cannot comprehend why you are doing this for him.”
“I’m not doing it for him. I’m doing it for you, Makar. You are standing on the edge of an abyss, one so deep and so sheer that if you fall in, you will never be able to claw your way out again. And you are so close to falling. So close …”
He paused. A silent war was being waged behind his eyes. The taloned hand began to rise, slow and deadly.
Elena slapped him hard across the face.
An ephemeral grimace of rage contorted his features, there and gone again in an instant. Then there was only Makar. Tired, scared, confused Makar, the tears on his cheeks mixing with the blood of the men he had killed.
“What have I done?” he whispered in despair. “What in Hera’s name is happening to me?”
Elena took him into her arms and held him close.
“I have no idea,” she said. “But I know who does.”