WAIT TO STRIKE
Kassandra took the guard ax stolen from the Cyclops’s den in one hand and the Leonidas spear in the other, watching, waiting for the first to move. The meanest-looking of the thugs, bald with heavy gold earrings and a leather kilt, wriggled a little. When he lurched forward, she threw up spear and ax in an X to block, but the blow sent her staggering back toward those behind. She pivoted midstride to meet the expected attack from that direction, only to see the streaking shadow of Ikaros, swooping down to claw at the eyes of the brute behind her, saving her from his wicked-looking sickle. She swung to face her next attacker, parrying then chopping the ax into his shoulder, cleaving deep and bringing a gout of black blood. The foe fell away and she saw the next coming for her. She bent her body around his sword thrust and jabbed the Leonidas spear into his face. He fell with an animal moan, his head ruptured like a melon. Two more lunged at her now. One scored her breastbone with a swipe of his spear, and the other nearly crushed her head with a heavy iron mace. Too many… and the Cyclops himself was weighing up his moment to strike the killing blow. A Spartan must have the eyes of a hunter, see everything, not just that which lies before them, Nikolaos berated her. From the edges of her vision, she saw something on the Adrestia’s decks: the ship’s spar and the rope holding it in place—one end knotted by the rail. As the two oncoming thugs screamed, she ducked, avoiding their twin strikes, and tugged the ax from the cloven chest of the first she had killed. Rising, she hurled the ax toward the ship. She did not wait to see if her aim had been good, turning to block another attack. The next thing she heard was the thunk of the ax biting through rope and into timber, the groan of wood, the roar of the Cyclops charging at her, his heavy blade tensed and ready to slice across her belly. Then the shadow of something passed overhead. The spar—freed—pivoted around on the mast, the rope flailing past overhead. Kassandra leapt up to grab the brine-wet rope and clung on for dear life, just as the Cyclops’s blade cut through the space she had been occupying.
WINTER 451 B.C.
For seven summers, I carried a secret inside me. A flame, warming and true. Nobody else could see it, but I knew it was there. When I looked up to my mother and father I felt it grow brighter, and when I gazed at my baby brother I sensed its warmth in every part of me. One day, I dared to describe it to Mother. “You speak of love, Kassandra,” she whispered, her eyes darting as if she feared that someone might hear. “But not the kind a Spartan knows. Spartans must love only the land, the state and the Gods.” She squeezed my hands and made me swear her an oath: “Never reveal your secret to anyone.”
One winter’s night during a howling storm, we sat together in the hearth room of our home before a crackling fire, young Alexios in Mother’s arms, me sitting by Father’s feet. Perhaps all four of us carried that same secret flame within? It comforted me to think so, at least.
And then our warm, quiet sanctuary was pierced by the sound of nails scratching upon the door.
Father’s slow, steady breathing halted. Mother clutched little Alexios to her chest and stared at the door as if she alone could see a demon standing in the shadows there.
“It is time, Nikolaos,” a voice like crackling parchment called from outside.
Father rose, sweeping his blood-red cloak around his muscle-bound body, his thick black beard masking any expression on his face.
“Wait, just a little longer,” Mother begged him, rising too and reaching up to stroke his thick, dark curls.
“For what, Myrrine?” he snapped, swiping her hand away. “You know what must happen tonight.”
With that, he swung toward the door, picking up his spear. I saw the door creak open, the chill rain scourging Father as he stepped outside. The wind groaned and thunder grumbled high above as we stepped out behind him—for he was our shield.
And then I saw them.
They faced us in a sickle-blade arc. The priests, bare-chested, wearing wreaths on their brows. The gray-robed ephors—men more powerful even than Sparta’s two kings—holding torches that spat and roared in the tempest. The oldest ephor’s long gray hair whipped in the wind, his bald crown gleaming in the moonlight as he beheld us with bloodshot eyes, his age-long teeth serried in an unsettling smile. He turned away, wordlessly beckoning us in his wake. We followed them through the streets of Pitana—my home and one of the five sacred Spartan villages—and I was wet to my skin and freezing before we even reached the outskirts.
The ephors and priests trooped on through the Hollow Land, droning and chanting up at the storm as they went. I used my half spear as Father did his, like a walking cane, the butt end crunching into the shale with every step. It sent a strange thrill through me just to hold the broken lance: for it had once belonged to King Leonidas—the long-dead champion-king of Sparta. Every soul in Lakonia venerated our family because Leonidas’s blood ran in our veins. Mother was of his line and thus so was I, and Alexios too. We were the descendants of the great man, the hero of the Hot Gates. Yet it was Father who was my true hero: teaching me to be strong and spry—as hardy as any Spartan boy. For all that, he never taught me the strength of mind that I would need for what lay ahead. In all Hellas, was there any tutor who could?
We took a winding uphill path toward the looming gray heights of Mount Taygetos, scarred by plunging ravines, the high crests shrouded in snow. There was nothing about our strange journey that made sense. Something felt very wrong. It had been like that ever since Mother and Father had traveled to Delphi in the autumn, to speak with the Oracle. They did not share with me the great seeress’s words, but whatever she had told them must have been bleak: Father had been tense ever since, irritable and distant; Mother seemed adrift most days, her eyes glassy.
Right now she walked with her eyes closed for long periods, the rain streaking in rivulets down her cheeks. She held Alexios tightly, kissing the small bundle of rags every few steps. When she saw my anxious looks up at her, she gulped and handed the bundle to me. “Carry your brother, Kassandra…” she said.
I roped my half spear to my belt, took him and held him close to me as we climbed the now-precipitous path. The thunder found its voice, pealing somewhere nearby, and lightning shuddered across the sky. The rain turned to sleet and I made a little canopy with the edge of Alexios’s blankets to keep his face dry. His skin—scented with sweet oil and the comforting smell of thistledown bedding—was so warm against my frozen face. His weak hands brushed at my hair. He gurgled and I cooed back at him.
At last we came to a plateau. At the far end sat an altar of blue-veined marble, scarred with weather and age. A sheltered candle guttered there next to a pot of oil, a krater of sleet-lashed wine and a platter of grapes.
Mother halted with a choking sob.
“Myrrine, do not be so weak,” Father snapped at her.
I could sense a fire rising within her. “Weak? How can you call me that? It takes courage to confront your true feelings, Nikolaos. Weak men hide behind masks of bravery.”
“It is not the Spartan way,” Father hissed through his teeth.
“Gather before the altar,” said one of the priests, his bony cage of ribs running with melting sleet. I cared not for the sight of the ancient table… nor for the edge of the plateau and the night-black abyss lurking beyond—a well of shadow plunging down into the guts of the mountain.
“Now, the child,” said the senior ephor, his ring of hair dancing in the wind, his eyes like hot coals. He held out bony hands toward me, and now I understood, a dark mantle of re ...