An extract from ‘Imperatrix’

67 A.D.

Sparta

‘It is an honour that she’s been chosen!’ His voice was muffled by the wall of her bedroom, but Lysandra could hear the anger in it.

‘She is my child, Arion!’ Her mother sounded fraught with tears.

‘She is my child too, Kassandra. And it is not the Spartan way to go against the will of the ephors, let alone the gods themselves. Your tears are shameful! This is an honour,’ he said again as though trying to convince himself. ‘And you have always known this day was coming.’

Lysandra could not understand why they were arguing. Ever since she could remember, her parents had told her that she was more special than the other girls with whom she played. She had been chosen at birth by the Goddess Athene to be her priestess – a fact that the goddess herself had confirmed many times in her dreams. And this, the eve of her seventh birthday, marked the day before she would have to leave home and serve in the great temple on the acropolis.

Her parents continued to argue in the gynaikon – the women’s room – next to her own. This was her mother’s private abode and it was odd that her father was trespassing there. Still, Lysandra supposed, it was an important day for them too and all she wanted was for them to be proud of her. She rolled out of bed, rubbing her eyes and opened her door, padding across the floor to her mother’s room. ‘I cannot sleep,’ she announced as she walked in causing her parents to stop in mid-flow.

‘Get back to bed!’ they ordered in unison – as was the way of parents.

‘I cannot sleep,’ she said again. ‘You are making a noise – and you told me that I had to go to bed early because tomorrow is a big day and I needed to be strong and not cry. How can I sleep if you are going to keep me awake by shouting next door?’ Her gaze challenged them both and she saw the ice-coloured eyes of her father soften and the skin around them crinkle.

He laughed then. ‘It has always been the way of Spartan women to upbraid their men! Would you carry on that tradition, Lysandra?’ he asked crouching down and opening his arms to her.

She walked to him and put her arms around his neck. ‘Rub your beard on my face!’ she said. She loved the rough, scratchy feeling of it. Her mother got to her feet and joined them, putting arms around them both. ‘Do not cry, mother,’ Lysandra said. ‘I want to go to the temple.’

Her mother just kissed her over and over again. Eventually she said, ‘I know. But we will miss you.’

Lysandra squirmed out of her father’s grip and transferred herself to her mother’s arms. ‘I will miss you too, but when I come home I will be grown up and have lots of stories to tell you. And I will have my grown-up teeth.’ This was important: having grown-up teeth was proof that one was indeed an adult.

‘You see, Kassandra,’ her father said. ‘The child has no fear of this and we should have none either. Now it is late . . .’

‘Can I not stay up with you?’ Lysandra hedged. She was awake anyway and it would now be impossible to sleep. ‘Or at least play in my room?’

Her mother placed her down on the floor and kissed her again.

‘It is late,’ she repeated her father’s words. ‘You must get to bed.’

‘But you said you would miss me!’ Lysandra challenged, teasing her mother’s long, coal-coloured hair. Parents always said one thing and then told her to do something else, which she felt was entirely unfair.

‘And I will.’ She put Lysandra down and tickled her under the chin, making her giggle. ‘But, still – it is way past your bedtime.’

‘But . . .’

‘Bed!’ they both said at once, pointing at the door. Lysandra tutted. ‘All right,’ she sighed and turned, stamping just a little so they would know that she was displeased. She was special, she thought to herself – she should be allowed to stay up late. As she climbed into her cot she determined that she would stay awake anyway and eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.

She strained to hear what they were saying, but they were now making a point of speaking quietly and then, quite suddenly, she closed her eyes and knew no more.

***

The dawn was grey and cold and misty rain drifted from the sky, the sort that you could hardly see yet somehow seemed wetter than normal rain. Lysandra and her parents stood by the gate of their home, watching the lone rider approach. All three were soaked through, both Lysandra’s and her mother’s long black hair plastered to their heads, her father’s beard sodden and dripping.

Her mother gripped her hand squeezing tight and Lysandra glanced up at her and gave her a smile. She could see the tears on her cheeks despite the rain and there was a small part of her that was embarrassed by this. She was instantly ashamed of this thought and squeezed her mother’s hand back.

Slowly the rider descended into the small valley that surrounded the house like a bowl and now Lysandra could see that she wore the long, red cloak of a Spartan priestess, her head encased in a red-crested helmet that covered her entire face – it had a thick nosepiece

and flared cheek guards – Athene herself wore similar and soldiers in the old days used to wear them too. It looked most impressive.

Finally, the rider drew up to them. ‘Greetings Kassandra,’ she spoke to her mother first as was the Spartan way. ‘Arion,’ she inclined her head. ‘And you,’ the helmet tilted towards her, ‘must be Lysandra. I am Halkyone.’

‘Greetings, Halkyone.’ Lysandra stepped forward.

‘What is in your satchel?’ The priestess gestured at the small bag Lysandra had slung over her shoulder.

Lysandra hesitated, fearing the worst. ‘Some toys,’ she replied. ‘A writing tablet and some fruit.’

‘You will have no need of those things,’ Halkyone confirmed Lysandra’s fears. ‘Bid your parents farewell. Be quick about it.’ Abruptly she turned her horse’s head and walked him away, affording them some privacy.

Feeling somewhat forlorn at the loss of her toys, Lysandra handed the bag to her mother who started to cry anew: she crouched down and embraced her as did her father. Ashamed, Lysandra found herself crying too.

© Russell Whitfield