“Dry Rivers” by Athena Andreadis
Aethra had been designated warrior maiden very young, younger than usual. The blank-faced priests had been making their culling rounds for six generations now. The time before lived only in faded stories, fading songs. Then, all had known how to dance, how to set sail, how to wield weapons, how to till the land.
But that had been when the nation had been rich and the enemies few, before the fire from the sea had desolated field and hearth, before the fleet had crumbled into kindling and the windows to the world had closed. Occasionally, people would unearth an exquisite vessel in their ash-clogged fields and look at it in wonder, unable to believe that their ancestors had produced such an apparition.
She went willingly enough. Better to be trained and able to sell your skills, than be bound to the unyielding soil, joylessly producing children in the hope that enough would survive to help with the soul-deadening labor. And she was too young to understand or care about the celibacy rules.
The first years went well. They were useful tools and treated as such – few beatings, good food, no excessive breaking of the spirit. Aethra was taught to fight with sword, spear, knife, bow and arrow, whip, bare hands. Lessons of tactics, strategy, frontal battle, irregular warfare followed. And when her age class finished training, they were gathered outside the shrine of the Goddess.
One of the Elders rose, body and face crisscrossed with scars. For the occasion, the large statue of the Goddess had been carried outside the shrine. The chaste, severe face gazed blindly, a quenched lamp.
“Young warriors, you are gathered here to be welcomed to the ranks of your peers. Much effort has been spent on your teaching. It is our hope that you will show yourselves worthy of such care. Do not forget, She watches, whose example we must follow – She who once was wanton, but now is pure.”
Aethra remembered the vague tales. It was said that once the Goddess was not just a warrior, but that she took men to her bed – with no diminution of her powers! – that she was life and death and rebirth, all in one. Her likeness had been different then, but she had repented of her wild ways and had renounced pleasure, asking the same of her people.
It was soon after the induction ceremony that they were contracted for the war going on between the kingdoms of the East and the South. Now Aethra discovered what real war meant – the endless trudging, the mechanical fighting, till only weariness remained. Blind survival instinct alone overrode the desire to sit down in the middle of the battle and be mercifully sent below.
Two people propped up Aethra’s sagging spirits. One was the titular leader of the band, a wily, accomplished old guerilla from the eastern shores, Tarik. The other was a fellow warrior, Rodhanthi.
Rodhanthi came from the eastern mountain regions. Her people had been nobly born but also poor and stubbornly self-sufficient, even before the Catastrophe. They kept strong memories of the old ways. She told Aethra tales her grandmother had told her – how there had been powerful witches on the island once, who could compel the elements to do their bidding. Or how the old rulers of the island, the anasses, were incarnations of the Goddess and hence always women, and had many consorts… and should any of those consorts lose prowess, the anassa could have him sacrificed to ensure the crops grew – but that she could also restore him to life, if she desired.
Aethra shook her head at the stories: No nation had women rulers. And only men were trained in the magic arts, because they alone had the strength to use power exclusively for good, it was said. Besides, the Goddess was a maiden and retained her power only by staying apart from men.
“Not so,” said Rodhanthi. “When I came of age, my granddam took me to a cave in Dhikte, in the heart of the island… she said that was where the anasses went to talk to the Goddess. The cave was unattended, but my people would still go there to dream and pray, leaving flowers and offerings. She told me that a statue of the Goddess stood there that would keep shifting before your eyes, from maiden to lover to sybil. They called it the Bright Dreamer.
“After the Catastrophe, the statue disappeared and the priests announced that it was a sign – the Goddess had withdrawn in anger or defeat. No one knows where it is now. The people believed the story of the priests.”
These were dark things for Aethra to ponder, but the fighting left her little time. Also, a young independent from an island beyond the Straits had been setting his heart upon her. The restrictions of her culture did not apply to him, and his copper hair and sky-blue eyes troubled her sorely. He was gentle and would often sing to her and tell tales of his own people. Unwittingly, he corroborated one of Rodhanthi’s stories: One of his songs told of a sorceress from Kafthor, that had brightened his tuath after she had vanquished evil in her own land.
Aethra knew now that she had taken the chastity vows without realizing what burden that entailed. Her strength was ebbing fast.
One day, as she walked around the camp leaden-hearted, Tarik called her over. Well did the wise old rascal know what ailed her. He had not been made head of the band for nothing. First he jollied her down from the dark clouds, then pounced when she was basking in the sun and his good fellowship.
“It seems to me, lass, that someone’s eyes have been following you.” She turned crimson with embarrassment and annoyance. “Lass, warrior maiden or not, you cannot fight well with the need so relentlessly upon you. And there is young Arven, lovely as the dawn, come so far from his tuath, who would lay down his young life for a night with you.”
“It would be sacrilege…” she whispered.
“Sacrilege? Surely, you credit the Goddess with more sense!”
“Don’t blaspheme!” she flung at him.
“I am not criticizing Her, my maid, only those who purport to interpret Her wishes. Tomorrow you may die. Would She be so cruel as to let you go to the Dry Land with your lips unsweetened by kissing? This is the real world, we are at war. No one will notice or care if you take the boy to bed. So go unbraid your hair and his, and don’t let me catch you brooding again.”
It might be true that there were no professional spies in the camp. But among her own peers, some had absorbed the priestly teachings more than others. The leaders of her group were informed. For Arven, it was less an infraction of discipline than a breach of morality – a private crime, hence punishable according to the laws of the land they found themselves in.
They happened to be among people for whom pleasure in love was deemed unclean. When they pulled him out of her arms, she wailed… she who had never cried out when receiving a wound. But he only smiled at her. When they had gathered all the mercenaries in a barren field, he said clearly for all to hear:
“Mo chridh’, I only regret having to leave you. Such songs of you they will hear in Tir-na-nOg!”
They stoned him to death in front of her eyes and used the blood-spattered stones for a cairn. Tarik had not dared interfere.
Aethra, by violating her vows, had committed a political crime. They had to make an example of her – and they took her back to Kafthor, where the entire population would witness what came of disobeying priestly rules.
It was late spring. The lilacs were aburst when, in front of all the warriors and most of the populace of Knossos, they nailed her on an ancient olive tree with barely any leaves on its gnarled branches.
The nails burned in her wrists and ankles, but more searing than the pain was the anger. The warriors knew now, from having gone outside the island, that the priests wasted resources on purpose. They were keeping the people hungry and fearful to perpetuate their own rule. They had used Arven, with his hands and mouth made for caressing, as a sacrificial beast to retain their hold… this, this was sin, not what she had done.
And in whose name did they make her people’s life a joyless burden? Look at them, bowed and stooped, cowed into letting others do their thinking. Well, she would give them something to think about. Now, before she choked on her own blood, was her last opportunity to let her people know. Clenching her teeth, because the slightest movement made the nails tear more into her, she cried:
“Goddess of my ancestors! You put undeserved pain upon us! You are not worthy of worship, you abandoned your people!”
Just as she fell silent, the ground shook – only a little, but discernibly. With the tremor, the jewel-laden statue of the Goddess cracked in half like an eggshell. And underneath it, much weathered and scored, unadorned yet shining like silver through tin, stood another. This kept shifting and floating in the beholder’s gaze – sometimes the stern Warrior, lover of the wind; sometimes the laughing Courtesan, lover of the sea; and sometimes the calm Sybil, lover of the starlight.
There was absolute silence in the square. Then Rodhanthi, roused to seize the moment, cried:
“They have been lying to us, warriors! They want us to live in misery! They want to rule with fear and use us against our own people! The Goddess has replied – let us do away with them!”
Aethra limped into the courtyard of the shrine, one sunny autumn morning. She would never be as quick with her hands as before, but at least she still had use of her limbs. When they had cut her down from the tree, no one had expected her to live. But she had clung on, because she could not bear to miss seeing the island recover.
The routing of the priesthood had been swift and complete. Some of the warriors elected to go back to their hearths. Others continued as mercenaries – the nation needed revenue until the harvests and trade stabilized. A few formed a loose and temporary governing body, augmented by farmers and merchants. The neighboring nations had reacted variously, but most waited neutrally: Kafthor would never be a serious threat. Even in its heyday, it had not been a conquering nation.
Aethra lay in the sunlight, to ease the pains of her scars. There Rodhanthi soon joined her.
“The harvest will be good this year, plentiful enough to export some. And we started removing the silt from the harbor. If the Goddess favors us, ships may be sheltering in it come next summer. There will be a fire leaping ceremony, I thought we should revive that, the people need to celebrate. What do you say? Are you listening?”
“Yes,” murmured Aethra, feeling the sun warm against her eyelids. “But I have been spent, Rodhanthi. My active part is done, I am already a memory in the mind of the people.”
They sat together in companionable silence. “I have a mind to travel, when things have righted themselves,” added Aethra. “There is so much of the world that I have always wished to see. Perhaps go to his land, tell his tuath myself… find out if one of us indeed passed through there… see their version of the Goddess…”
“They sing of him, you know, those who were in our band,” mentioned Rodhanthi hesitantly. Aethra nodded. She had heard the songs, too, though she never sang them herself. My falling star, my sweetest spring, how has your beauty set…
“If you go,” continued Rodhanthi, “you will be an exile among strangers.”
“And what am I now, but for you? I may eventually return – the call of home is hard to withstand. And if I return, I wonder what I will find…”
“I wonder, too,” said Rodhanthi, and supported her friend as she made her way slowly back inside, to continue the backbreaking work of rebuilding the nation.
About the Author
Athena Andreadis arrived in the US from Greece at 18 to pursue biochemistry and astrophysics as a scholarship student at Harvard, then MIT. In her research, Athena examines a fundamental gene regulatory mechanism, alternative splicing. Her model is the human tau gene, whose product is a scaffolding protein in neurons. Disturbances in tau splicing result in dementia and cognitive disabilities.
When not conjuring in the lab, Athena writes (and used to review) stories and essays, a skill she developed as an unexpected benefit of chronic insomnia. She has always wondered about extraterrestrial life and the future of humanity. Combining all these interests, she wrote To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek, a stealth science book that investigates biology, psychology and sociology through the lens of the popular eponymous series.
Athena cherishes all the time she gets to spend with her partner, Peter Cassidy. She reads voraciously, collects original art, has traveled extensively and would travel even more if her benchwork allowed it. She can sing on-key in the four languages she knows – all of which she speaks with a slight accent.
Web sites and representative essays: