© Columbine 2017
Two Sisters, both as fair as the face of the sun at dawn, set out into the wilderness along with their most loyal and dedicated guard. The eldest, tall and regal in bearing, wore Her veiled radiance like a sheath of silk, flowing against Her divine frame in waves of glory. The younger was of a more modest countenance, shrouded in a dark veil of mourning, for They had fled Their homeland, and She mourned for the loss of all that They had ever known.
Living in the borderlands between two realms, the Sisters had learned much about the lands upon which They now travailed. Stories of the great Gods of the High Mountain were abundant even among the wild folk whom They encountered. The lovely spirits of the wood would speak not shyly of encounters with the High King– the mighty Lord of the Heavens. He was called Zeus, the Thunderer, and He had an insatiable appetite for youth and beauty and mystery.
“Sister,” the younger spoke softly, pulling her shroud close to conceal Her moving lips, “how shall we survive in this foreign land? The people of the land have no use for the knowledge we bring, and the people of the teeming cities, with their great temples, have all that they need given to them by the native Gods who dwell in the sky, and the sea, and the rumbling earth.” She let out a careful sigh, one which served to convey the depth of Her concern, and the growing fear within. “We will be found, and we will be brought back to answer for our flight, and to live the lives chosen for us.”
The elder took Her Sister’s warm hands in Her own, holding them securely, as if to spread Her growing resolve. “I took you away with me, for I could not leave you behind. Dear Sister, know that I have a plan to ensure our safety and our freedom in this good, green land of many Gods. You may believe that we have nothing of value with which to balance our presence here, but that is not true. I shall gain us a great position, one that can not be so easily undone, should our pursuers find us here. But we must make haste, for the time draws near, and there is much yet to do.”
The younger Sister, having come so far under the strength and guidance of the elder, nodded solemnly, in deference to the words thus spoken. The two, and their faithful retinue, continued on the journey toward the High Mountain, the abode of the Gods of this land.
Upon Mount Olympos, White-armed Hera, Queen of the Gods, stood looking out upon the blanket of clouds that forever obscured the lands far below the home of the Theoi. Iris, the Queen’s messenger, had come again on a trail of rainbows with news of great concern for Her Mistress.
Iris told tale of two Goddesses, unknown to all who revere the names of the mighty Olympians, wandering through flock and field, over road and rocky hillside, through cities both large and small. They were fair and well-bred, and eloquent of tongue– and everywhere They went, They sought knowledge of the High King, Hera’s own Husband.
After listening to the tale, lovely Hera’s voice rang out with the pride of Her station. “Where the Newcomers walk, our people are led away into the wilds, it is said, to convene in rites never before known to them– ecstatic, flesh-rending rites attended by wolves when day becomes night.” She turned Her head, and waves of dark curls fell away from Her bare shoulder. “Or so I have heard from others who bring similar news.”
Iris inclined Her head and averted Her eyes. “The people would not follow if they did not feel the depth and the pull. What is new can be welcomed or shunned, based upon the conditions and hearts of the people, not upon our desires.”
At this, Hera frowned. Were not the people satisfied with the glorious Theoi? Had They not inspired just laws and governance? Did They not bestow earthly riches and ripening grain? What then, did the people need that the Theoi had not provided? And why were these new, young Goddesses so set upon the Person of Her Husband?
“Tell me this,” She spoke, widening Her arms, as if to embrace the Heavens encompassing great Olympos. “To what end do These search the name of Zeus? To what purpose, and design?”
Iris answered Her immediately. “The purpose is yet unclear, my Queen. Everywhere They ask and receive answer, save for in the temples of the King Himself. They have avoided all contact with the Thunderer, choosing instead a secondhand knowledge.” Hera’s messenger hesitated for a moment then, crafting Her next words very carefully. “However, for all that we do not know, I can tell you this. Their wandering is not of a random inclination. It would seem They are headed toward this Mountain, and toward your ire. Or your benevolence,” She concluded with a bow.
The Queen of the Gods pursed Her lips together tightly. This, She had known. This, She had expected, all along.
As the veil of stars began to fall over the sky, the elder of the wandering Goddesses threw off Her own, and with it Her many pretenses, revealing long waves as fine as spun gold, and as luminous as the sunset escaping into the west. Her radiance poured out into the wooded alcove, whereupon the gathering spirits let out their cries of joy and ecstasy. The wolves paced ’round Her, daring to lick at Her divine fingers as She held out Her hands in waiting.
“Hear me,” She spoke, “for I am the darkness void of fear. I am the breath of new life, fresh from the womb. My voice is the potential which survives within the dying prey, and the sharp wind causing all creatures to flee in the night. I am She who respects Herself, and She who lauds Her Sisters in Their might. From me, you will learn true pride, and you will learn the wild law, which is peace through the culling, and the careful maintenance of strength.”
So said the Goddess before whom the spirits and people bowed, and She bared Her teeth at them for this display of subservience.
“Mine is a love that can not be curried by such feeble gestures,” She roared. “Bow before me, and I will take you as prey. You will stand in my presence, and be counted among my loyal train.” She gestured to Her Sister beside Her, and to the spirits behind. Then, She pointed straight ahead, toward the darkening path. “Or flee now, and hope the wolves tear your flesh before I reach you.”
The many gathered took to their feet and straightened themselves immediately, most compelled forward into the retinue, but others pressed backward by fear. Those turned their backs and ran, seeking escape, but there was no escape. From the moment they had come into Her presence, they had woven their lives in Her power. For She was the one who compels, and the one who chases, and in the wolflight, the chase had begun.
When the Goddesses and Their host host had at last spread out into the wood, a lone figure was left behind. One solitary wolf, with a growl like rolling thunder, paced and sniffed at the ground were the elder had stood to speak. And when it was done, satisfied with its examination, the wolf did not follow after the great host, but trotted its own way into the wood, and vanished.
For weeks, They had traversed these lands, these great civilizations, as well as the deep wildernesses. Now, They deigned to climb the High Mountain itself, and to see with Their own eyes what awaited Them at the summit. The elder Goddess had taken Her Sister’s hand, intending to again lend Her strength, but it was now Her Sister’s strength which was needed, and the touch was as a spring from the earth, a little water to quench the thirst that had taken hold.
It was slow going, up the mountainside, a careful and thoughtful climb. As They ascended, She thought of the many things She should say to the one who waited for Her. Her arguments were all very reasonable, very logical, but She wondered now if reason and logic were all that would be required to ensure a place in this land for Herself, and for Her Sister.
“What will you say to Them when we arrive?” Her Sister asked.
“Something indisputable,” She squeezed the younger’s hand. “Something that can not be overlooked,” She took a deep breath, “and something of value.”
“It seems a lofty task.” The younger stopped the elder then, and waited a few moments to allow some of Their train to pass before Them, up the mountainside. When they had gone far enough, She spoke again. “We do not have to do this. We could go away from this place, before we anger someone, or offend with our presence. Are you certain? Are you absolutely certain?”
She could not be certain, of course, but neither could She tell Her Sister otherwise. “Do not worry. All will be well.” She smiled, reaching out to tuck a stray lock of fair hair away, back beneath Her Sister’s shifting veil. “But we must do this. We must have a home, and we must stop running. Now is the time. Here is the place. Trust me,” She said.
And so, Her Sister did trust Her, and together They continued the great climb toward Their destiny.
Hera sat upon Her throne, casting a glance toward Her Husband’s next to Hers. The King’s throne was empty, for Zeus had such concerns that took Him away from Olympos that day, early, before first light. She reached for, then sipped wine from Her kylix, swirling it in Her mouth to reveal its flavors. Before, it had been a bitter consolation, but as time passed, She came to appreciate the depth of a krater of wine shared among Family, while the King spent His days and nights far gone.
Zeus often left the day to day administration of His Kingdom to Her, and She rather enjoyed the responsibility. Even so, it would be good to have the King make longer and more meaningful appearances. She chuckled to Herself, a small smile tugging at the corners of Her pursed lips. Perhaps there was a way to lure Him back into His duties.
She was well aware of the train of spirits climbing toward Olympos, led by the two Newcomers. They had cut a clean path to the High Mountain, never stopping save to rest, or to hold Their wild rituals in the night. Curious that They should travel so far, Hera again wondered if Their purpose was that She had surmised.
She set Her kylix down, standing to traverse the length of the great room where sat the other Theoi upon Their thrones. They watched with interest as the Queen strode upon the open balcony, but with a hand, She signaled for Them to remain seated and in Their merriment. But Foam-born Aphrodite would not remain seated, and would not keep to the delicious distractions of wine and court pleasures. She alone followed steely-eyed Hera, as the others were content to observe from afar.
“Glorious One, who rules with wit and wisdom,” Aphrodite addressed Her Queen, “I sense what you have sensed– the approach of One who contends for the heart of Zeus.”
Hera looked out upon the cloud tops, waiting for the first visible signs of the band forthcoming. “Zeus’ heart is of a fickle nature, and can not be captured so easily. He may be enticed, but never has He been kept by any but myself. And even I, His Wife and Queen, bound by the Law of Olympos, do not want Him quite so much as He had assumed upon our marriage oath.” Her lips turned upward. “But, is it so? You are the arbiter of all desire. Is it true, then, what I have felt encroaching upon my territory?”
“I believe it is,” answered the Fair One. “But it does not have to be an encroachment. This could be advantageous to your position, should you choose to accept it. For there are many outcomes waiting on the horizon, my Queen. There perhaps is even one you would welcome.” Aphrodite smiled, knowingly.
“Perhaps,” said Hera, as She caught sight of two veiled figures, and many more, piercing through the clouds’ apex. “It depends on the answers I am given today.”
As the gate to the great heavenly city drew nearer, the Newcomers felt a sense of dread befall Them and Their retinue. High above, upon the parapets, awaited the guardians of the city gate, those Goddesses who would let none pass who were not worthy. Their names were unknown to the Sisters, but collectively, were called Horai, the seasons, and the conditions which govern the fates of mortals throughout the year. All the spirits in the long train stopped when the Sisters stopped, and they were quiet and still.
“Tell us,” called one of the three upon the parapets, “who approaches the gate of Olympos, that we might know the Person whom we shall send falling, back down the mountain?”
“And tell us who, in their arrogance, would seek counsel with the Theoi who dwell here in harmony?” The second of the Horai spoke, leaving only one of Their number silent.
The Elder of the Sisters stepped out from among Her spirits, releasing Herself from the loose veil once draped upon Her head. Her golden tresses caught the sunlight brilliantly, and Her own radiance shone out in all directions. The Horai watched Her, enchanted by Her calm, and by Her bearing. But They did not open the gate.
“A fine sight, are you, who travailed the mountain. But what is your finery in comparison to this?” The Horai spread out Her arms to indicate the greatness of the city beyond the gate.
“Such purpose has brought you here, but what is that purpose but a kind of self-aggrandizement, leading you toward the natural end of all who come to flaunt Themselves before the thrones?” Asked the other.
Again the third Horai was silent, listening only. Weighing. Judging.
“Speak, whoever you are. Speak now, and let your answers decide the fate of all who follow in your train,” said the first of the Horai.
The Elder Sister took a breath. She had been sure of Her value in the months that led Them to this place. She had known what gifts She brought with Her. But now, as She stood before the very gate that was supposed to usher Her toward destiny, Her surety left Her in a billowing breeze.
Yet had She come this far. There was no way out now, but through.
“I am called Leto!” Her voice was firm, and carried with it all the hopes that had seen Her and Her Sister through Their many months of exile. “And with my Sister, I have come from the land in the north!”
“Why have you come here, Leto of the northern lands, bringing with you these who follow so blithely?”
Here, she must be truthful, and yet not reveal so much that would straight away trigger Their expulsion from these lands. Without a hint of hesitation, Leto answered.
“I have come seeking the favor of the Queen! She who is wise beyond measure, and practical in Her cultivation of this most glorious land!”
The silent one among the Horai leaned back, angling Her head slightly, as if to listen for words from another. When Her attention returned to the Newcomer, finally, She spoke.
“And what use would the Queen have of you, ignorant as you are of our ways? What great gifts do you bring to the Court on Olympos, that Her Majesty would consider an allowance of your presence?” The Horai came closer to the edge of the parapet, looking down upon the Elder Sister, not with disdain, but with anticipation, despite the cruelty of Her words. “Tell us, what is your potential, Leto of the northern lands?”
Leto was beginning to see the truth of this questioning, so answered in keeping with Her regal bearing. “I have always known my worth,” She said, “and it is this worth that has compelled me to brave the unknown in my journey here. In my Homeland, my worth would be squandered and used up for the many pleasures and benefits of a higher station than my own.”
Her hair, wafting on the cool mountain breeze, was a sight of beauty, with a touch of terror, and the Horai listened in the stillness of another’s command.
“But here,” Leto continued, “I could achieve the highest station that one such as myself could ever bear.” She held Herself high, in showcase of Her stature, looking past the Horai toward the hidden one beyond the gate. “And I could bear it in dignity, and with purpose.”
“And what could you bear?” The Horai spoke again.
Now, Leto was the measure of confidence as Her voice rang with future triumph. “Glory, and Power, and Beauty,” She answered.
“You will be tested, for the Queen tests all who believe They are equal to the Theoi, and even those who know they are not. Only through trial will your true worth be discerned.”
“I accept this,” said Leto, but through Her facade of grace, She knew straight away that a new and pressing battle had begun– one of wills and wiles. Now it was Her turn to push forward in the dance. “I have but one condition upon which the trial shall commence, Your Majesty!” She appealed directly to the Queen of Olympos, whom She knew was present beyond Her view. Leto waited, while Hera decided if She would acknowledge Her, and thus recognize the station for which She was in audition.
The Queen stepped up onto the parapets, allowing Leto and Her entourage a glimpse of the truly royal air that was Her magnificence.
“And what would this condition be?” Hera spoke, amused by the forwardness of this Goddess.
Leto answered. “That you take my Sister, Asteria, into your care, even and especially if I should fail. Though I will not fail,” She added, and Her confidence did not falter.
From behind Leto, Asteria stepped forward to be seen by Hera and the Horai. The Sisters had known this might happen, so were prepared, and yet the strain of separation did tug at the threads of love between Them. The Queen looked Asteria over for a time, then nodded to one of the gatekeepers. Soon, the gate was opened for Her only, and She was beckoned within the great city’s walls.
As She passed through, twisting to look back at Her beloved Sister, Aphrodite exited the city, coming to stand before Leto with a length of golden cord in Her hands.
“A gift for a gift,” said the Goddess of Love and War. “Know that the Queen has given Her word. Your Sister will be well cared for, and given an honored place amongst the Theoi. However,” Her hands caressed the cord, twisting it around Her lovely, slender fingers, “Should you fail in the task before you, perhaps She instead will receive what you have sought after. And perhaps such is the least desirable outcome for all.”
Leto breathed deeply, taking in all that She had heard, and all that She had pieced together. “I understand,” She answered. Aphrodite then began to loop the golden cord over Her shoulders, under her breasts, and around Her waist, tying it tightly in place.
“I’m sure you won’t need it, but…” She whispered into Leto’s ear. “Your return will please the Queen, and when the Queen is pleased, all is harmonious among the Theoi. Never forget this.”
And so it was that Leto of the northern lands set out upon Her trial, leaving behind Her retinue, and Her younger Sister in the care of the Queen of Olympos. Should She be victorious, the two Sisters would have Their place secured, and Their futures set upon the richness of this land. But should She fail, She alone would be cast out of here with the spirits that followed Her, and Asteria would remain a hostage to the throne, subject to the whims of the King, and more.
Leto steadied Her mind in the face of Her goal. She could not think of failure, or of regret. It was true, She alone had brought Them here, and She alone would ensure They both remained.
To Be Continued…
© Columbine 2017