Welcome to “Wayfaring Princess.” This sweet, romantic sword and sorcery tale will run for 20+ weeks and come to a conclusion, I promise.
The stone tiles of the temple courtyard burned in the summer sun. Mountain air swirled through the open doors and surrounding columns, carrying the scent of pine. Ada knelt before the altar. By law, it should have been dedicated to Zeus and depicted his victory over the old gods. It didn’t. The geometric patterns etched along its side had never been stained with blood. In her eighteen years, no one had told her what they meant.
And she never asked.
Ada’s toe tapped the ground. She took a deep breath to stop herself from fidgeting. Sometimes, the Oracle took all morning to prepare a scroll, and longer if she tried hurrying him. Let’s go! she wanted to yell. Princess Chloe was waiting for her, and Ada couldn’t wait to see her.
The Oracle emerged from a chamber under the marble awning. A point of light shone on his clean-shaven head. Even though his weathered, deep brown skin carried the weight of a century, he looked young.
He smiled warmly, and Ada smiled back.
“I dreamed about a bird.” He knelt facing her, and his smile faded. “I watched it live on the wind, and I watched it die. Something terrible will happen in the villages to the north and east. Find out what, and hurry back.”
Ada straightened with a start. She didn’t have time—this wasn’t what she came for. “The scroll—”
“The Princess can wait,” said the Oracle. “I informed her men an evil portent is delaying your visit.”
“They know?” She drew in a sharp breath. The scrolls were banned from the palace, and helots were hung for less.
“Worry not,” said the Oracle. “The Princess has many friends, and they will not betray you.”
Ada hadn’t meant to lead a double life. When her archery student, Princess Chloe, asked her to carry a message to the Oracle, she was happy to, even if it broke the law. But when he asked Ada to take an enchanted scroll back, she heard her calling—Chloe was meant for great things. She needed the Oracle’s magic to do them.
Ada slumped, just a little. “I’m happy to help.”
“I know.” The Oracle stood slowly, and Ada rose with him. His himation hung open. Ribs pushed against his skin. “Artemis watches over you. Nonetheless, take care and return safely.”
“How will I know what I’m looking for?” asked Ada.
He shrugged. “You have good eyes.”
A gust of wind shook the trees and whistled through the temple’s tower. Loose strands of her long brown hair pulled free from her braid. “I will see what I can see.”
Ada turned and left the courtyard, walked down a short hallway, and stepped through the heavy oak doors at the front of the temple. Birds sang in the nearby trees. Her pack, quiver, and leather bow case rested against a marble column. She slung them over her shoulders, donned her straw hat, and walked down the steps to the trail below. Her chest tightened at the thought of being late to see Chloe. Hopefully, she would understand.
Tall mountains peeked over the tops of the conifers. She walked a short way down the trail. A long-limbed man with fair, olive skin climbed towards her. He wore a bronze sword and the traditional Histrian blue cloak, signifying his citizenship.
Ada stepped to the side and looked at her feet. Had he killed many of her people, or only the one the law required? Her nails bit into her palms. Her hand brushed the hilt of her knife.
He passed and paid her no attention. If they weren’t on the Oracle’s sacred mountain, would it have gone differently?
Ada sighed, out of relief or disgust, she couldn’t tell. Even if the King favored her village, this one citizen-soldier wouldn’t know her from any other helot.
Halfway down the trail, an animal path cut to the left. Ada followed it into the trees and climbed a shallow rocky slope to the valley below. She moved quicker as she descended, making space between her and the soldier. Short quick steps turned into long strides. The sooner she got back, the sooner she could see Chloe.
A deadly adder snake crawled under a rock beside Ada’s foot. She gasped, jumped forward, and caught the low hanging branch of a plane tree.
“Gods,” she whispered. Snakes were the least of her worries.
Ada swung from the branch to land a safe distance away. She jogged a few steps, sat, and buried her head in her knees. It would be safer to change into the palace clothes Chloe had given her. If she ran into another Histrian in helot land, maybe he would leave her alone…No. She couldn’t risk getting them dirty. Ada brushed the pine needles from her undyed, knee-length chiton.
The loose threads reminded her how little her family had.
She stretched her arms and stood. Clothes didn’t matter. Danger didn’t matter. Chloe and the Oracle were good people, and if they needed help, Ada would be there.
Ada walked through the day and most of the next, eating dried fish, flat bread, and wild grapes. She thought of her family, her brother, and Chloe often, but as she left the road farther behind, she became wary. A broken twig here. An overturned stone there.
Someone had come ahead of her—strange, as these hills were usually deserted.
The afternoon sun approached the mountains. Ada looked toward the next peak. Thick forest gave way to spotty pine. A natural, winding slope, shallow enough to run, crested the mountain farther east and led into the next valley. Whoever had come before would have seen the path of least resistance. Did they have something to do with the Oracle’s vision?
Ada took her four-foot oak bow from its case. She strung one end, planted it firmly against her foot, and bent it until she could loop the string over the other. Weapon in hand, Ada jogged toward the mountain.
A goat watched her warily from the top, shook its head, and disappeared over the northern side.
She lunged between the flat stones and firm ground on the rocky hill. Bushes scratched at her legs.
Torn blue fabric clung to a bush near the base of the mountain. Ada skidded to a stop, kicking up loose dust and gravel, and knelt to pick it up—a piece of a Histrian cloak. Ada recoiled as if it were a snake. Ares, God of War, demanded each of Histria’s men kill in secret as a coming-of-age ritual. Could one more murder be what the Oracle had sent her to see?
Maybe this time, it could be stopped.
Ada ran up the mountain, slipping on loose stones like ice. Gravel rolled down the trail behind her. Sharp rocks cut her hand. She hugged the wall where the trail narrowed but didn’t slow down. The run was harder than she had expected. Ada scrambled up the steepest part of the slope and gasped for breath as she crested the top. Her legs trembled.
In the valley below, mudbrick houses with thatch roofs sat amid small gardens and rows of olive trees.
A woman cried out in anguish.
The door of a home on the nearside of town swung open, and a blue-cloaked man sprinted out toward the orchard, holding a sword. There was no doubt what he had accomplished. He limped, holding his stomach, trailing blood.
More people poured from the village. Bronze knives and iron sickles caught the sun’s light.
She turned in a quick circle, looking for other Histrians by their blue cloaks, but found none. If another Histrian saw her help these people, she could never go home.
Ada gave chase. She ran headlong down the hill. The ground was slick and the angle sharp. Her feet slipped. She fell on her hip and slid. The gravel and broken ground scraped her bare leg.
The Histrian looked her way. He was the sparrow, and she was the hawk. Her foot caught solid ground. She leaned into the slide, stood, and kept running.
A warm trickle ran down her leg. She swatted it and checked her hand. Not much blood. Good.
Ada followed the path to a ten-foot drop and leapt. Her feet touched down on the loose earth of the lower slope, but she leaned back and slid until she found her balance. Her stomach turned. The run was brutal, but she would sooner die than let him escape.
The Histrian was only a hundred feet away. He wobbled on his feet. Blood ran freely from his clothes.
Ada stopped, took a fist full of arrows from her quiver, and nocked one. She gulped deep breaths, chest burning and lightheaded.
Two young men, and a girl rushed ahead of the other helots. They would be on the Histrian soon. Hurt as he was, he still held a sword.
Ada drew back the bow and took aim. The world faded as she focused. She could almost hear the beating of his heart.
He shielded his stomach as he fell to the ground. “No, please no.”
Before her finger reached the corner of her eye, he dropped his sword, and she knew she couldn’t do it. To stop him, maybe. To keep him from hurting anyone else, certainly. But revenge wasn’t for her. Ada relaxed. Let her bow straighten. Forced herself not to look away as the young men jumped on the Histrian and beat him with their fists
Ada slumped to the ground, sucking air with deep gulps
“I said don’t kill him!” The woman’s voice was unmistakable. Moments ago, her crying had filled the valley. She pushed her way into the crowd. Her long, grey hair hung loose. A balding, old man took his place beside her. Both were soaked with blood. She grabbed one of the younger men by the arm and jerked him back. “Get off of him!”
Everyone backed up and the circle widened.
The grey-haired woman stood over the Histrian, tears streaming down her face—the look of a mother. “Go get the others. Tell them it’s time.” The harshness of her voice chilled Ada. Histrians might have ruled here, but they took a risk when they came alone in the name of Ares to become men. Why were they keeping the killer alive?
Ada stood and steadied herself as her vision momentarily darkened. She had run so hard and missed him by minutes. It made her sick. She dropped her pack, unstrung her bow, and put it back in its case.
The villagers searched the Histrian for weapons. They stripped him naked and dragged him into the shade of an olive tree. He curled around his wound and trembled.
“Who is that girl?” The grey-haired woman stalked toward Ada. The old man followed behind.
Ada stood, and her stomach rolled. “My name is Ada. I was—” Her eyes locked with the grey-haired woman’s. “I was tracking the Histrian, and I’m so sorry—”
“My name is Helena.” Her face softened. “And he killed my boys.”
Ada’s chin quivered. “I am so sorry.”
Helena took Ada’s hand and turned to the others. “Get this girl some food and a place to rest.”
A few of the villagers walked back to town while others gathered around their captive.
Tears fell from Ada’s eyes. Helena wiped a tear from her own.
“I tried to get here as fast as I could, but I didn’t know—”
“You did everything you could,” said Helena. “I am a seer, and I sense something strange about you. Tell me, do you have lightning?”
Ada shook her head. If only she did. Helena kept staring.
“The Oracle sent me. He said something terrible was going to happen but didn’t know what,” said Ada. “I’m sorry I failed you.”
Helena released her hand and walked away. “Get her some food and get her out of here.” She spit the words like a curse.
“Come on,” said the old man with a soft voice.
Ada’s hands trembled. She rubbed her arm above the elbow and watched the ground as she followed, unsure what to say. Why did Helena get so angry? Was it only Ada’s failure, or the Oracle’s? Helena’s children were dead, and there was blame enough to go around.
A candle burned on the wooden table, illuminating the only room in the windowless, mudbrick home. Ada sat at the dining bench and bit into a piece of bread dipped in olive oil. People comforted one another in the street, but when Ada had tried to join them, they told her to go back inside. She dipped the bread again, nibbled on a hunk of goat cheese, and rested her head on the table.
No prayers had been said for the dead. Helena’s sons had both been killed by the Histrian, but no sacrifices to the gods were made. No fires lit. The killer lived, and his whimpering haunted the hot, still air. It was perverse, and it turned Ada’s stomach.
A girl near Ada’s age came inside and closed the door so gently, it didn’t make a sound. Dirt and blood streaked the girl’s puffy face. She dusted off her undyed himation. Her knuckles were deeply bruised. Maybe her hand was broken. She must have hit the Histrian, hard.
“Hail,” Ada stood to greet her. “Well met.”
“Well met, Ada. My name is Rhode.” She sat at the table and gestured for Ada to do the same. “Are you still hungry?”
Ada shook her head. “No. It is delicious, and I don’t mean any disrespect—”
“Good,” said Rhode. “You should go.”
“Of course.” Ada stood sullenly and picked up her pack. If she had run faster, maybe she could have… “And I’m sorry.”
Rhode grabbed Ada’s upper arm. “Helena’s son Jason was my fiancé.”
Ada’s eyes flashed wide, but she didn’t pull away.
“I loved him more than anyone, and I don’t hold you responsible, at all. I saw how you collapsed on the hill. You did everything you could.”
Ada’s chin quivered, and she fought back the tears. “I really tried.”
Rhode pulled Ada into a warm embrace. She dropped her pack and held Rhode for a long time. They wept together.
“It’s not your fault,” said Rhode. “But listen to me. Something is going to happen soon. You shouldn’t be here to see it. Helena won’t break the law of hospitality, but you aren’t one of us.”
“Even if I’m from Nysa, I am a helot—”
“I don’t mean that. I mean—one of us.” Rhode held Ada by the shoulders. “Don’t make me say anything else. Please, go, and forget you were ever here.”
Ada picked up her things and walked out the door.
The village was silent as Ada walked to its edge. Why did Helena and Rhode want her gone? Far to the east, the twinkle of many torches marched toward the mountains. Maybe the Oracle didn’t see the murder, and something worse was still to come. Ada quickened her pace to follow and slipped into the orchard, letting the moon light her way. Beyond the olive trees, rocky fields gave way to deeply uneven ground, hills, and mountains.
Sparse vegetation left her feeling exposed. She used the hills for cover as she followed the twenty or so torchbearers from a safe distance. Their path led to a trail that ran into a river valley’s thick forest. If they crossed the river first, she might never catch up.
Ada said a prayer to Artemis and jogged ahead. She stood on the riverbank and found nothing. No bridge. No boat.
Ada took careful, quiet steps into the cover of the plane trees. Occasionally, a voice, a painful cry, or a twinkle of torchlight would reach her through the forest. She crept toward the torchbearers, certain they didn’t intend to cross the river.
The forest lit up over the next hill. Ada stopped and knelt. The firelight grew brighter, and distant voices louder. She pulled her bow from its case, strung it, and crawled to the lip of the hill.
A bonfire burned between a pair of rocky outcroppings where a dozen men and women in dark himations stood. Their hoods cast deep shadows, hiding their faces. Near the fire, a stone slab waited in the middle of a circumscribed, seven-pointed star that had been drawn with salt. Two of the black-clad men dragged the writhing Histrian to the circle’s edge. They picked him up, carried him to the center, and dropped him on the altar.
His naked body slapped the stone. He groaned as the back of his head hit with a dull thump. They returned to the rocks with the others.
The Histrian deserved death, and Ada was certain the Oracle didn’t send her here to save him. Go, see, and hurry back, he had said. This had to be why she was here, but Olympus demanded swift death. This was perverse.
Only her eyes poked above the hill. Their voices barely reached her, but the night was unusually quiet, and the wind grew still.
Seven more cultists emerged from the forest and took their places around the circle.
The cultist at the pinnacle threw off her hood. Helena. Six other cultists gathered around the star with her.
A man stood to Helena’s right, cloaked in shadow. “I don’t know if I can do this.” He had a young, shaking voice.
Helena faced him. The air seemed to darken around her. “You can, and you will.”
The cultist across the circle shook his head. “Maybe your magic will come back one day.”
“You know it won’t.”
Ada narrowed her eyes and tightened her grip on the bow. Their profane ritual made her skin crawl. Lightning was the only kindness the gods had ever shown her people, and they were sacrificing it? Was that even possible?
“They have to pay.” Helena walked to him and grabbed his wrist. “We need you.” Her voice trembled.
“Did our magic save my children?” asked Helena. “Or your brother? Or his wife?”
“Then what good is it?” She turned her head to the dying Histrian. His blood ran over the edge of the altar. “Magic is the curse of hope. Damn the gods.”
The young cultist bowed his head. “You’re right.”
“Go on,” said Helena.
The chirp of insects grew louder. “I give it—all of it—freely.”
The Histrian curled into a ball, guarding his wounded gut. “Zeus help me.”
“Your gods have abandoned you.” Helena released the cultist’s wrist and returned to the apex. “Ready yourselves. It is time.”
She opened her palms and called forth a ball of lightning. It writhed in her hands like a snake. “Give all. Hold nothing back.” Could Helena really drive out the spark Zeus had placed in her before she was born? A bright blue light flashed within the lightning. Maybe she could.
Ada squeezed her eyes. Helena must be in so much pain, but losing her magic was nothing compared to losing her children.
The other cultists followed Helena’s example. Each conjured a ball of lightning, bright with the wholeness of their power. They murmured prayers and sacrificed more than blood.
“Be of one mind.” Helena raised the lightning high above her head, and the others followed. “Justice for our families. Revenge for our subjugation. Pestilence for Histria.”
The seven globes floated over the Histrian and joined to form a pinpoint of blinding purple light. Helena drew a sacrificial dagger.
“Set, we give you this murderer. In return, give us revenge.”
“Please.” The Histrian struggled to speak through a mouthful of blood. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I.” Helena jammed her knife deep into his chest. She wrenched the blade back and forth, unable to pry it loose. He shuddered and whined with pain.
The others joined in, cutting and tearing. Helena released her knife and stood.
“No,” whispered Ada.
As the Histrian died, the purple light expanded and dimmed. It changed into the twisted form of a man—a demon made of smoke and shadow. Dark tendrils grew from its back and danced over the altar. Cautiously, the cultists backed away. Only Helena held her ground.
“Go,” she said, “and carry our vengeance with you.”
“I go, but first I need more.” The demon’s many voices were a chorus.
It moved with incredible speed, whipping through the air like dust in a storm. The demon appeared beside a cultist who had watched the ritual from the rocks. It impaled him on a long spike, blacker than night. His body hung limply.
Helena covered her mouth.
Ada nocked an arrow and stood while the cultists screamed and scattered. Before she raised her bow, the demon vanished into the forest and took the body with it. Two cultists scrambled past her and ran down the hill, back the way she had come. Her breathing shallowed. She narrowed her eyes and stared into the dark forest.
The demon appeared beside the salt circle.
Ada jerked back, lifted her bow, and loosed an arrow in one fluid motion. The arrow passed through the demon. A tiny wisp of shadow vanished into the air. The demon moved like running water, speared another cultist, and fled with its body. Ada loosed again. Her arrow disappeared into the deep shadows of the forest.
Torches scattered through the night. Terrified screams filled the woods. Their cries dug into her skin, making her shake.
Ada scrambled down the hill. A large, knotted oak tree’s base had rotted, leaving a hole large enough to climb in. It would make a good place to hide, but Ada trusted her legs. Thankfully, her gods saw fit to make the night clear and bright. She ran hard into the forest.
Screams pierced the still air. She ran until her lungs burned. Her leg ached from her fall, but she kept going. The woodland had its spirits, but the demon was unlike anything she had seen. The wind blew, and Ada startled at the moving shadows.
The night wore on and the forest grew quiet. Exhausted, she collapsed into a shallow ditch in a mountain valley and hid behind the shrubs.
Sleep came quickly.
Ada knelt on the stone tiles before the Oracle’s altar. Her braid hung loose. Dried blood caked her leg. She hung her head and felt the warm noon sun on her back. Could creatures of darkness appear in daylight? She hoped not.
The Oracle entered the courtyard, walked with folded hands between the stoas, and knelt facing her. He thanked the gods she returned safely, and Ada told him all that had happened.
“Set is the god of death and desert from my homeland, but my people believe he is a god of Pella. This is the first I’ve heard of your people worshipping him,” said the Oracle.
“I had never heard of Set either,” said Ada. “But who could blame them for losing faith in Olympus.”
“They said they want pestilence. I have to warn Chloe.” What if the demon made her sick? Ada stole a look at the door. “If the King learns what’s happening, won’t he send the army? They’ll kill everyone.” The King had done it before—sent the worst of his citizen-soldiers to shed blood for even a minor slight against the gods.
The Oracle nodded. “Right you are. I have prepared a scroll for the Princess, but before you go, will you perform one more task?”
“Of course, anything.”
He stood and took a scroll from the altar. “An immortal, Pallas the Swordbreaker, hides from the gods in a sacred grove only days away. Even if he turns you away, don’t give up. I believe he will help you.”
Ada held her breath and rubbed her arms. She had never carried a scroll for as long as he asked, and every day made letting go harder. “Days away, but not toward Histria?”
He traced a finger along the edge of the scroll. “Not directly, I’m afraid.” Lightning jumped from his finger and surrounded the scroll in a halo of light.
“I’ll find him.”
When she left home, all she wanted was to stand in the sun and shoot arrows with Chloe, the most beautiful woman in the world. If a demon brought pestilence to Histria, would Chloe be safe? Would Athena protect her?
If Ada had to hold a scroll for a week, she would. She couldn’t turn her back, no matter how much the scroll hurt.
Ada opened her mouth and looked to the sky. The Oracle touched the scroll to her lips, and it changed to pure lightning. It climbed down her throat. A tremor cut through her whole body. Her shaking foot rapped the floor. Stinging pain pierced her muscles, but the feeling faded. The energy of the scroll vanished into pleasant warmth.
She looked back at the altar, feeling a profound sense of peace as the scroll’s knowledge penetrated her heart. The geometric patterns etched into the altar told a story—wandering stars, the petals of a flower, and how we were all one people—helots, Histrians, and all of Pella.
Chloe needed the scroll. It would hurt to give it up, but Ada was eager. Love like this could change the world.
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