"COME AWAY - SHE’S DANGEROUS!"
The smell of evening meals began to fill the warm breeze washing over a young slave as she hurried home through the hot streets of Knossos. On her head she balanced a large amphora of cool well water, a red earthenware jar, decorated with paintings of leaping dolphins. Like most Cretan slave women the girl wore only a short white linen loincloth in the Egyptian style, the schenti, worn by women workers and slaves. Her only other items of clothing were a pair of leather sandals and a leather belt.
There were not many slaves in Crete, but this particular young woman was noticeable because she stood a head taller than even the men and therefore many eyes followed her along the street. Despite her broad shoulders she moved with a fluid grace in her naturally long stride and was beautiful to look upon. Her oval face, accentuated by a fine straight nose, bore a grave expression but her dark eyes shone with intelligence, and when she met an acquaintance the gravity dissolved into a smile of good white teeth. Her black hair was plaited down her straight smooth back, where the slanting sunlight highlighted the muscles tautened to balance the clay jar.
It was half a month since the longest day, and the air constantly shimmered before the girl as she walked. As the palace came into view, the shimmer made the solid stone walls seem to waver as though about to fall into ruin. The slave girl reflected that long ago, many generations before her time, the great palace of Knossos had fallen victim to an earthquake. Yet such was the wealth and organised power available to civilised life that it had been rebuilt in even greater splendour. It was now a greater palace than that of the almost legendary King Minos.
The girl turned into a quieter street to take a short cut, a narrow alleyway between blind walls. It was like walking through a smith’s forge. The air was almost unbreathable, and she would not have gone that way had she not been in a hurry. She was not the only person in the dusty, heat-parched thoroughfare, however, for halfway along, round a slight curve, was a group of youths. They were of an age to be still wearing the hairstyle demanded of young people, heads partly shaven with the stubble dyed blue, and long locks sprouting from side and forehead. They had been to the temple to see the bull-leaping, watching young men and women challenging massive steers by somersaulting over their horns in celebration of the goddesses of nature and fertility. Highly excited by the spectacle and the singing, dancing and music that accompanied it, they had a leather wine bottle that one of them was just drinking dry as the girl hurried along. They blocked her path.
"Let me pass, please, my masters," she said, but they laughed and stood firm, grinning up at her. One of them groped drunkenly at her and although her whole body recoiled, she made no attempt to stop him, for a slave should know her place. She merely gritted her teeth, lowered the amphora to her shoulder, and repeated her request.
"Who’s this, then?" leered the leader of the pack, a well set-up youth of about seventeen with a handsome face and fashionably long side-locks. Since most Cretan men wore only a kilt or a loincloth in summer, it was difficult to tell whether he belonged to the wealthy class or not. But his speech proclaimed wealth and position, and the girl immediately knew him as one of what she and her friends despised as the rich dolts who could find nothing better to do than make nuisances of themselves with humble folk. She answered, however, carefully and respectfully, trying to keep the contempt from her voice as she looked down at him.
"I belong to the household of Quadaso, sir. I’m a handmaiden of his wife the potinía Ariadne."
"That right?" slurred the youth. "Well my mum’s a greater lady than Ariadne, ’cause we just got piped water in. What part of the world you from? You’re not Cretan. Too tall."
"I’m from Pontos."
"I’m from Pontos," mimicked one of the others. He made a lunging grope at her. "Wonder how Pontians roast, guys?"
"Hang on," said one. "If this is the handmaiden of Ariadne - "
"So?" grinned another. He nodded at the gang leader. "Kato’s mum’s the lady Daiquota. Daiquota Potinía. Right, Kato?"
The well-spoken youth grinned and nodded. The group closed in. The girl’s heart began to pound. She knew what roasting meant - gang rape. But surely they wouldn’t dare, not before dark. Yet the alley curved in a way that kept the middle stretch out of view of anyone passing at either end. She glanced about for help, but there was no-one except the jeering gang seizing her arms. The dolphin amphora fell and smashed and she was thrust into an alcove, while one of them clamped a hand over her mouth, and Kato tore at her schenti.
Then the one holding her mouth swore loudly in pain as she bit him. Her knee launched a powerful blow into his groin and he doubled and fell. Kato, fumbling at her schenti, got her elbow hard in his ribs and stumbled off gasping for breath. The girl reached behind her and pulled something from her plait of hair, something small that gleamed as she held it to the throat of the youth still holding her other arm.
"Let go!" she said, and jabbed at his face without actually striking. He leapt away, releasing her and leaping further away as she threatened him again. Kato swore as he recovered his breath and drew a long hunting knife from his waist.
"Diwo!" he shouted at one of the gang hovering about twenty paces away. Diwo made no move towards them. The youth swore violently.
"I’ll take her myself." He turned to the girl, his handsome face flushed and his breath quick. "It’s death for a slave to draw blood on me."
The girl coolly looked him up and down and her glance took in his knife.
"That’s only bronze," she said calmly, her heart no longer pounding. "Let’s see what my iron can do against it, shall we?" and met his clumsy slash with an expert parry. He swore and rushed in again. The girl knew that it was a capital offence to strike a freeman, even if she only wounded. She sprang from his slash, parried two more blows, then saw Diwo creeping back. One or two more of the gang were returning. She was outnumbered and could die at their hands if she didn’t do something about it.
One shouted, "Kato! Leave her! Come away. She’s dangerous."
But with a stream of oaths Kato struck at her again and again. She kept him off until his nervous friends were almost within reach, then, seeing no other way out, she flicked her blade in, sliding it along his arm so that his own knife spun away, and he howled and ran back out of her reach, clutching his arm where a red stain trickled from the hair-like cut she had skilfully inflicted.
She kept her guard up, but the gang was broken. Some fled one way, some the other, while the slave wondered how she would face her mistress. She had felt no real fear during the skirmish, for she knew that with her knife she could successfully defend herself. But she feared what her mistress would say. She could have killed the lout, but she’d controlled her blow to draw only the slightest blood. She might die for what she’d done, but her mistress was powerful in Knossos and would surely see her handmaiden’s point of view. There was in any case no escape for a slave. Her very dress proclaimed her lowly status and prevented her from running away. Leaving the broken pieces of the amphora, she resumed her journey home with the sinking sun, reaching the back door to the main courtyard with mouth dry and heart thumping. She kicked off her sandals at the door and entered. The porter’s eyes widened when he saw her empty-handed.
"Hello, Hero, had an accident, have you?"
The girl brushed past him, tears forming in her downcast eyes as she made her way to the stateroom where her mistress would be.
As the slave told her story, the potinía Ariadne drew her eyebrows together in the way her handmaiden dreaded. Tall for a Cretan, still extremely attractive in middle age and without a grey hair in her head, she was wearing the court costume favoured by ladies of rank, a multi-coloured, long cylindrical hooped skirt and cummerbund. Her corseted open-fronted bodice lifted and displayed her magnificent bare breasts to their greatest advantage, while her high fez-like hat made her look almost as tall as the young handmaiden.
"So, Hero," she said, "you were attacked by youths. That much is clear. But why on earth did you use your knife?"
"To save my life, ma’am."
"Surely you could have simply threatened them and made your escape?"
"Perhaps, ma’am, but..."
"Well? But what?"
"My people don’t run away, ma’am. We fight."
"I should never have given you that knife," said Ariadne, half to herself. "But, unarmed, what would have happened to you?"
"I’d have had to break their arms, ma’am. That would mean death for me too."
Ariadne turned away and paced the lamplit stateroom. Hero’s statement was no boast. An Amazon, she had been trained in all forms of combat, armed or not. Ariadne contemplated the brightly-painted frescoes and for a while she gazed at her favourite, a landscape with deer and swallows lighted from the windows by the last rays of the setting sun.
Meanwhile Hero stood with bowed head, the picture of shame. Her mind was in turmoil. She had broken the law and brought discredit on her mistress. Yet she had acted according to her instincts and the training she had received from childhood among her people, the Amazons of Pontos. A scene from her early youth came to mind, a battle against the Achaeans. The Amazon cohorts advanced, the fourteen-year-old Hero in the fourth rank, fully armed with sword, spear and shield. Flint-headed arrows from the Achaeans peppered the Amazon ranks. They whistled over in volleys, the razor-sharp heads capable of penetrating leather breastplates. Women fell, some screaming, others dying in stoical silence.
Hero’s recollection dissolved as Ariadne turned to her. The potinía had the type of dignified beauty which improves with age, and as she slowly approached Hero, the last rays of sunlight flaring on the coloured bands and gold and silver threads in her dress, she was like a goddess. A well-respected figure in Knossos, Ariadne was immensely powerful in the locality, and when she exercised authority people jumped. Hero would not have been surprised to have been struck by lightning from the eyes of her mistress, but the anger was reserved, not for her handmaiden, but for those who had attacked her.
"My dear Hero," she said, "you realise that by striking a freeman you’ve condemned yourself to death?" She shook her head. "I seem to be having a run of bad luck with my handmaidens. Kitane dismissed and sold for stealing, and now you..."
Hero nodded, unable to speak. Her mistress took her hands in hers and smiled up into her tearful eyes.
"But don’t forget my sister Kapatija is high priestess at the temple. Together, we have a lot of influence in this town. From what you’ve told me, and from what I know of you, I believe you. You were in mortal danger and acted to save your life. However, that will not save you from judgement. I know the boy’s mother will certainly press for punishment, but I think Kapatija and I between us can influence the Minos to commute the death sentence to banishment to another part of the island. We can but try, so dry your eyes and don’t give in. You’re always reminding people that you’re an Amazon, so act like one."
"Thank you, ma’am," said Hero.
"Now," said Ariadne, "I have a more practical problem."
"The dinner party, ma’am."
"Yes. I’ll send someone for another jar of water. You’d better stay out of sight tonight. Take over from Karadowata in the kitchen. She will wait on me instead. The potinía Daiquota is supposed to be coming, but I don’t expect her now."
The potinía Daiquota, mother of the injured Kato, did not appear at Ariadne’s dinner party. She sent neither explanation nor apology, and two of her particular friends also absented themselves. News of the incident had got abroad, and, although no-one mentioned it, the usual sparkle was missing from among the guests, despite the lavish menu which included limpets, octopus and tritons among the sea-food dishes, and some beautifully-roasted kid in the main course. Ariadne’s husband, Quadaso, quietly voiced his unease to his wife afterwards.
"A feud with the house of Daiquota?" said Ariadne. "Surely not, my dear. We’ve progressed from that sort of thing in Crete. The Minos will settle the case. My great fear is that the girl will be bound and thrown to die among the bulls. But my sister will appear in court and speak up for her."
The trial took place after three days. The court of the Minos met in the throne room of the great palace of Knossos. Hero had never been inside the palace, with its fifteen hundred rooms, but she tried not to be intimidated by the thronged courtyards, the bustling corridors, the grim sentries and the armed escort who took her through a stone passageway floored with white gypsum. It echoed even to the soft pad of their bare feet, as they went up steps and into the hall of state through a door used only during trials.
The hall was vast and high-ceilinged, brightly illuminated by large windows and with a light-well in the roof. The heat drifted out through the light-well but was fed by more warm air entering through the windows. There was no relief from it and even early in the morning the officials were sweating and wiping their faces. The sunlight threw bright rectangles from the windows on to the imposing wall frescoes. They were of an instructive nature, showing wealthy citizens going about their business. The floor was paved in more dazzling white gypsum shot with intricate dark veins, and the sparse furnishings were designed to impart a sense of solemnity to the court hearings.
Hero was brought to the centre of the room where all could see her. Opposite her sat the Minos himself, an imposing figure occupying a gold-covered throne mounted high on steps.
His title was derived from the most celebrated king of Crete, dead for many centuries. He was about forty, dressed in a starched kilt. His chest and arms were bare, but a sleeveless garment worked in gold thread covered his shoulders. His head was bare, with his hair worked elaborately into long sidelocks. As Hero was brought before him, he rested his elbows on the huge arms of his throne and looked impassively at her. Ariadne and her sister stood to one side of Hero, one in full court costume and the other in the regalia of a high priestess. Kapatija was attended by two young priestesses carrying bronze snakes and smoking censers, symbols of priestly power.
At a distance stood the sullen Kato, his arm neatly bandaged, and a woman whose face flushed with anger at sight of the tall young handmaiden. Like Ariadne, she was a potinía, the warm stale air cloying with the scent of the perfumed oil glistening on her full bare breasts. They drew the gaze of every man in the court, and not a few women, for a corset lifted them high as they heaved with apparent emotion, while a tight cummerbund emphasised a tiny waist. Only the stern Minos fixed his eyes on Hero.
The trial commenced. Kato’s mother, the potinía Daiquota, launched into a tirade of accusation against Hero. Her son was innocent. The slave should have submitted. It was only a bit of fun, after all. Slaves were used to it.
"But, Daiquota Potinía," interrupted the Minos, "your son Kato has appeared before minor courts at least twice, has he not?"
"Only for petty delinquency, Minos," answered Daiquota. Her breasts heaved again, and the Minos turned his gaze away. He had a reputation for passing fair, if stern, judgement, and he was damned if he would let even a potinía, be she never so attractive, influence him in that way. Women exercised a great deal of power in Crete, running the households while the men ran the navy. In Mycenae, part of the Hellene nation across the sea, the women had no power. Cretan women enjoyed freedoms that their Mycenaean counterparts did not, and they had adopted a style of dress which emphasised their fertility and their role in child-rearing. In the opinion of the Minos, they frequently used this costume to exert undue influence on their menfolk. Although the Minos did not in the least mind the display of female flesh in the streets, he found it unnecessarily distracting in court, and he wished that more potinías and lesser ladies would follow the example of some of the older matrons, and wear a white bib under their bodices. Slaves like the accused went bare-breasted too, but that didn’t matter.
He brought his thoughts back to the case in hand. Ariadne stepped forward to speak. Everyone, including the Minos himself, sat up straighter or drew themselves up a little. The potinía and her sister were, after all, direct descendants of the Ariadne, the heroine of ancient times.
"Minos," she said in a sweet, clear voice which deceived the Minos not at all, for he knew that she was perfectly capable of razor-sharp thinking, "Minos, I speak for Hero of Themiskyra, my handmaiden."
"Hero of where?" interrupted the Minos.
"Themiskyra is a city somewhere to the north-east of Macedonia," answered Ariadne. "There Hero was brought up as an Amazon. The Amazons are a race of warrior women who are trained to fight rather than run away. In defending herself against a wholly unjustified attack by young men who should know better, my handmaiden was quite rightly concerned to preserve her life."