A MINOAN PRIESTESS
But if the town itself was unimpressive, the evidences of Minos' sea power were startling. The small bay looked like a forest of masts. Nearly a dozen of the long, high-prowed Minoan ships were anchored off-shore. To the right of the quay he could see two narrow slots that appeared to be cut into the shore cliffs. In each was a Minoan ship, drawn high up until it rested on dry sand. Crews of workmen were already up and at work on the beached vessels; the slots were clearly shipyards of some sort.
The Crane approached the quay on a long diagonal slant, gliding smoothly across the still waters of early morning. The sun's light was still golden on the water. The ship's master, whose name Theseus knew to be Phaeax, went aft and stood beside the helmsman, occasionally speaking quietly to him for a course correction.
They approached under full sail much longer than Theseus would have believed possible, threading their way through the forest of vessels that lay in parallel rows in the harbor, a white wave still foaming at the Crane's bow.
At what seemed to the Athenian the very last moment, Captain Phaeax called an order to his deck crew, and they quickly loosed the main halyards, dropping the mainsail yard with fold after fold of the mainsail billowing down, covering the odd fixed boom at the sail's foot. The Minoan sailors quickly hauled the yard and boom around to drop into the forward part of the Crane's hold, and began to furl the sail while the ship was still under way.
Three sailors took their places at the rowing bench on the port side, holding the long, ash oars out of the water at the ready. The Crane continued to fore-reach toward the quay, carried by her own momentum. When the bow was only a few dozen yards, a shiplength, from the stone wall of the quay, Captain Phaeax called one sharp order and the oarsmen simultaneously thrust the broad blades into the water. With powerful, synchronized strokes they backwatered on the port side. The Crane slowed and her stern came around to starboard, bringing her hull into perfect parallel with the stone quay. At the exact moment when forward way was lost, the hull touched gently and a Minoan sailor leaped ashore with a mooring line.
In spite of himself, Theseuss was forced to admire the skill of the Minoan seaman. Everything had been done so smoothly, so silently, with every movement timed perfectly to the speed of the ship, the wind, the distance to the quay.
His fellow Athenians had gathered silently at the starboard side, taking in every detail of the harbor, as they had been trained to do. For this group was no willing sacrifice to the Bull of Minos; they had come to destroy.
Silently, Theseus wondered how it would be possible. Fourteen brave Athenians against the power of the Kheftiu, and here, in the heart of their stronghold.
As the Crane was being made fast to the quay, Theseus went forward to the center of his tiny army of seven boys and seven girls. Fourteen Athenians, pitted against the tyrannical might of the most powerful kingdom in the world.
Gathering them around him, he watched their eyes for signs of fear, signs of weakness, and found none. He spoke quietly, but firmly. He did not know but what it would be his last chance.
"If you are imprisoned, make no complaint," he said. "Say nothing, but watch everything. If we are separated and chained, wait. I will find some way to reach you." The Athenians nodded silently.
For a moment, Theseus had doubts. How would he do it? He didn't know. But with the guidance of Aphrodite, somehow he would bring them back together so they could strike. For mortal man it would probably be impossible, but in his veins flowed the blood of Poseidon. He would find a way.
"If you are beaten, do not cry out. Remember that you are Athenian warriors. Never show weakness before the Kheftiu. If they question you about Athens, say you are shepherds from the hills, and know nothing."
"How long before we face the Bull?" said Clymon.
"I don't know," Theseus admitted. "Captain Phaeax said we would be trained. There will be some time to prepare the attack, but I do not know how long."
The Captain had descended from the raised stern of the Crane, and came forward along the half-deck by the gunwales. Theseus motioned for the Athenians to prepare for the landing, and they dispersed to the hold to gather what small collection of personal belonging they had been permitted to bring.
Theseus had grown to admire Phaeax on the voyage. There was no question that he was a superb seaman. He had the clear, piercing eyes of a man who spent much of his life watching distant horizons. He had shown neither cruelty nor kindness to the Athenians. But he had assigned a sailor to see to their needs. Guards there were none, and it never seemed to occur to Phaeax that the Athenians might rebel at sea. Theseus hoped beyond hope that all the Minoan captors would be so careless, but knew it would not be true.
"Well, Athenian," Captain Phaeax said. "Here you are in Kheftiu. What do you think?"
Theseus was looking down the long quay, where three other Minoan ships were already tied up and loading. The quay was lined for hundreds of feet with bales of wool, gigantic, man-sized pots of oil, neat stacks of thousands of Minoan pots, brightly painted with whorls and sea shells, octopus and other natural designs so realistic they seemed almost alive. Lines of bearers clad in white loincloths were carrying goods aboard each vessel, under the watchful eye of an overseer who kept a running tally of the loading.
"I had thought it would be larger," Theseus said, trying to hide his awe.
"What, the island?" Phaeax asked.
"No, Knossos," Theseus said.
Phaeax looked at him in surprise. He put his hand on Theseus' shoulder in a friendly gesture, and laughed with easy amusement.
"This is not Knossos, Athenian. This is Amnisos, the port. Knossos is several miles back in the hills, along the valley."
Theseus bridled internally, embarassed to have made such a provincial mistake. He made up his mind not to say any more than necessary to his Minoan captors. He despised the feeling of being less knowledgable than they. He had practiced a brave and poetic speech to make when they were brought before the tyrant Minos, but seeing the full bustle of the Minoan trade had made him apprehensive, lest he look like some uncivilized provincial. The pride of an Athenian could not tolerate that kind of contempt. A Son of Poseidon could not tolerate it.
"You may disembark," Phaeax said. "Someone will be coming for you soon."
Theseus nodded, and as Phaeax left, motioned his little band to gather around him.
"This is not Knossos," he said. "This is Amnisos, the port. Someone will be coming for us soon. If we are manacled, hold your heads high. If they spit on you, pay no attention and look straight ahead. Do not let them shame you. Remember your discipline, remember your mission. Whatever humiliation they subject us to, remember that in the end it is we who will triumph, and Athens."
As they made their way down the stone quay toward the town, Theseus was astounded by the color that was all around them. The trade pottery on the quay was brightly painted with intricate designs in rusts and blues and reds, with natural forms all carefully drawn and blending into geometric designs on the same pot. Brightly polished bronze cooking pots caught glints from the sun, like the stacks of bronze tools that were being loaded aboard the Minoan traders.
The walls of the town, which had looked white from a distance, were sometimes painted in delicate shades of light blue, and some walls had frescos. Compared to the relatively drab browns and grays and whites of Athens, it was a richness and opulence he had never seen before. As though the Minoans had been here since time began, and all crudeness had disappeared.
Ahead of them, a chariot, drawn by a tall African ass, was rattling down the paving stones, and when it drew abreast, Theseus caught his breath suddenly, and felt himself stagger back as though he had been struck.
In the chariot, the reins in her own hands, was the most astonishing woman he had ever seen.
Theseus knew that however long he should live, whatever victories or defeats he might suffer, he would remember with supernatural clarity the first time his eyes had seen a highborn Minoan woman.
Her shining black hair was elaborately curled, with tiny dark ringlets in a line across her forehead, held in place by a golden diadem. Long curling locks fell down in front of her ears, bouncing gently with the motion of the chariot. Bright circlets of gold that hung from her earlobes nearly to her shoulders sparkled in the sunlight.
Her eyes were heavily outlined with dark, blue-black kohl, and her lips were painted a brilliant, shocking red, like a wound. He had never before seen a woman whose lips were painted.
She wore a short, open bodice of delicate lavender with fine red stripes. The short sleeves left her arms bare, and they were circled with golden bracelets, intricately worked by master craftsmen. A triple necklace of precious stones circled her long, graceful throat -- lapis lazuli, amethyst, and other stones he could not identify. On her left wrist was a small, oval seal-stone, held by a loose cord. With awe Theseus realized that the Minoan woman's jewelry alone was worth more than the property an Athenian might hope to accumulate over a lifetime.
Her waist was incredibly small, and wrapped with a wide belt. The open bodice lifted and framed the perfect, swelling ivory globes of her bare breasts. Her nipples were rouged as brilliant a red as her lips.
A short apron, covered with brightly embroidered squares of different colors, covered the top of her long, ground-length skirt. The flounced skirt was made of many layers, with the flounces curving down to points at the front. Each layer of fabric was a subtly different color, hyacinth blues, light greens, magenta, and the impression was that her perfect breasts were rising from some exotic flower in full bloom.
She halted the two-wheeled chariot at the next vessel in front of the Athenians and dismounted. She descended with the grace of a dancer, and Theseus saw that her feet were bare. She moved with the assurance of an athlete, and the long striding dignity of a man.
A bearer quickly ran forward and saluted her with his fist to his forehead. She gave him the reins and called out to someone on board the ship.
As she turned toward the vessel, Theseus could see that at the nape of her neck was a soft, loose knot nearly as large as her head, made of some shimmering fabric he had never seen before. It was so light and shining it almost did not look like fabric at all, and he realized it must be the almost mythical silk of Cos, which legend said was woven by moths.
Theseus was stunned by her beauty. In all his life, he had never seen a woman like this. Compared with this enchantress, Athenian women were like clods of mud beside gold. Involuntarily he felt an irresistible stirring in his loins, a feeling that he would do anything just to stand beside her, to be in her presence, to touch her, to scent her, to be with her. He was aware that his breath was coming shallow, as before a battle, before love. His heart yearned toward this other-worldly image of exquisite beauty.
The woman spoke briefly with the captain of the vessel, meeting his eyes squarely, with a boldness that would have caused an Athenian woman to be beaten for insolence. Her gestures were free and expressive, and she seemed to speak almost as much with her hands as her voice. At one point they both laughed easily, and the captain nodded reply to some question.
The woman returned to her chariot, and deftly turned the African ass in the small space left her on the quay. As she turned, she glanced at the little group of Athenians.
Theseus stepped forward, feeling proud in his strength, proud in his manhood.
The woman looked him up and down, and Theseus waited for the signs of attraction he always saw in women's eyes. They did not come. The woman appraised him cooly, without expression, then slapped her reins and set the chariot in motion up the long quay.
Theseus almost gasped, feeling as though he had been struck a blow in the stomach. He could hardly catch his breath, and he could hardly believe what had just happened.
She was indifferent to him. She had scarcely noticed him. While his heart leapt at the sight of her, yearned for her with a power he had never felt, she had seen and dismissed him as though he were nothing. He, the son of Poseidon, lover of many women, son of Aegeus, prince of Athens.
Ignored. Worse than ignored. Seen, and dismissed with indifference.
The sudden yearning he had felt for her curdled within him, and a bitter pain lanced through him like a spear point. He clenched his teeth, and anger welled up in him like a fast rising wave. Fueled by his wounded pride, his fascination turned instantly to hatred.
You dismiss me at your peril, beauty, he thought. I am Theseus, son of Poseidon, and by Zeus, you will pay dearly for that slight.
He looked around him at the bustle of port activity, the bearers, the trade goods, the sleek Minoan ships. They would all pay. They would die with the name of Theseus on their lips, and that painted whore would be the first to die.
"Who was that woman?" Theseus asked the bearer who had taken her reins.
"That is the Priestess Megara. She is taking the oracles to Delos this afternoon."
"I will remember the name," Theseus said.