Fiction: Charity – Part Four

Charity Part Four

Hour by hour, Ariadne watched the day pass over the top of her embroidery, over the vegetables in her garden, over her dinner plate, over the hearth fires. She waited. Hands busy in her work, she forgot for moments at a time, and remembered, and gently let herself forget again before her lungs caught on her ribs. Hour by hour, she let the day slide past her, and thought about nothing at all until the sun set and the rest of the palace tucked themselves under the covers for the night.

In her rooms, she blew out the candles and stood in the cool dark, blinking. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the starlight. Her big square bed suddenly turned snow-white. The corners of her clothes chest gleamed. The rug under her feet turned gray and silver. Her dress glowed like ice all the way down to her toes.

She went to her chest. Stripping out of her clothes, she pulled two darker, sturdier dresses off the bottom of the chest. She yanked one over her head, tied it tight around her waist, and stuffed the other into a sack. Every piece of jewelry she owned, she threw in on top of it. Pinning her cloak around her shoulders, she picked up her sandals and slipped out the door.

Melitta was already in the kitchen, bent over the cupboards. She started when Ariadne slipped through the door, stood up straight and with her hand clapped to her mouth. Her cloak was folded back behind her shoulders in the leftover head from the ovens. Her dress was dark brown and stiff around her legs.

Ariadne smiled at her thinly.

Melitta smiled back, breathless.

Bending down, they both pulled bread out of the cupboards, and packed it away in their sacks.

Phaidra and Kleio arrived next, half a dozen full wineskins tied to a line and thrown over their shoulders. They set them on the floor to escape the weight for a moment, and split ways to dig other precious things out of the kitchen: dried meat, salt, nuts, and olives. Astraia, Xanthe, and Oinone arrived with more sacks. Aigle and Chryseis came in time to tie the food into tight bundles. By the time the rest of the girls slipped through the door, the kitchen had been picked clean of everything that would travel.

They split the supplies between them. Then, for a moment, they all looked at each other, sandals in hand, hair braided tight, dark cloaks on their shoulders.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Melitta asked Ariadne.

Ariadne looked around the uneven circle at her friends. “I can’t stay now.”

“Your father would forgive you eventually,” Kleio said.

“Would he?” Ariadne asked. She met the other girl’s eye boldly.

Kleio hesitated. She nodded, but she looked less than sure.

“None of you have to come,” Ariadne said. She looked from one friend to another, all the way around the room until she had held each of their attention, scanned each of their faces. “I wouldn’t blame you for staying.”

“Oh, we’re all going, and you know it,” Phaidra said. She bent to pick up the wine off the floor while Ariadne blinked and the other girls covered their mouths to hide their smiles. “Do you want to make more a speech, or should we just get on with it?”

Melitta grinned and ducked her head to soften it. Putting a hand on Ariadne’s shoulder, she pressed her toward the door. “Let’s go.”

They slid out into the yard, padding across the paving stones as quietly as they could. They echoed as they moved, slowed and sped, and carefully crossed to the other side. They slipped into the shadow of the maze wall, and hesitated.

“We have to open the doors,” Ariadne said.

“Now?” Ianthe asked.

“Now,” Phaidra said.

They lined up, three to a side, and pulled hard. The door scraped, too loud in the silent night, but moved. The girls opened them wide.

Melitta caught Ariadne’s arm when she started forward.

Ariadne smiled at her. “I’m going to wait on the stairs. The rest of you should stay out of sight.” When Melitta didn’t let her go, she squeezed her hand where it rested on her elbow, then gently pulled her fingers away. She slid forward, took the first three steps, and sat with her hands around her knees. For a few minutes, she listened to the others situate themselves outside, whispering, and then they fell quiet as well.

In the dark, her breath curled in front of her, and faded as the breeze dragged it up. When the cold numbed the tips of her fingers, she knotted her hands in her cloak, pressed her knees and ankles together. The maze yawned under her, the mouths of the each tunnel black and still. When an hour passed, she considered going down to see where Theseus had tied the thread. Her gaze flickered from one tunnel to the next, wondering which one he had taken.

Another hour and she wondered if the thread had broken. She thought of running down the stairs, finding the thread and following it herself. She had never seen more than these stairs and those three tunnels bent around each other.

Ariadne had imagined what it looked like inside, the tangle of paths with their shifting shadows. It was her last chance to see what they looked like, she realized. She wasn’t sure whether that made it more important, or more distasteful to her. She stood, carefully. She put out her foot, and slipped down another step. The next piece of stone seemed colder under her feet. She took another step, and stopped, hearing one of the girls shift behind the upper wall.

And then something shuffled beneath her as well. Heavy steps thudded against the stones directly beneath her. She moved to the edge of the stairs and looked down.

The bull’s horns gleamed in the dark. His breath curled in front of a long nose. He limped as he moved out of the tunnel beneath her, gold thread caught in its fingers. Three more steps and he turned, snorted, looked up at her as if he had known she was there.

Ariadne froze.

The bull held her eye for a long moment, then turned in an instant and rushed up the stairs.

“Ariadne!” Melitta shouted.

Ariadne tried to pull a breath into lungs that had forgotten how to move, and the bull barreled toward her. He didn’t stop until she threw up her hand. He ran into her spread fingers, and stopped as if she were made of iron.

Ariadne stared. The hair of his chest was coarse, gritty under her palm. His horns cast shadows on her shoulders. She took an unsteady breath that was almost a sob, and carefully met his eye.

“Do you remember me?” she whispered.

The bull didn’t speak. He looked at her with wide black eyes, and his hot breath rolled through her cloak, into her skin. She could see his teeth, yellowed near the gums, and too square to be human. But there was no red in them, no flesh caught in the gaps. She glanced down at his hands. He had dropped the thread and there was blood smeared up one arm and deep in the palm of the other hand. But there wasn’t any under his wide nails. After a moment, she dared to tilt her head back to look at his horns. They were clean as well, mottled white and tan, curved up to dangerous points.

Theseus was still alive. Or the bull carried enough thought to use the knife she had given him. Had been human enough.

More girls rushed in behind her, but didn’t come down more than one or two of the steps.

“Ariadne,” Phaidra said, warning and question wrapped tight together.

“He didn’t always live down there,” Ariadne said without turning. “Give him a moment to remember.”

The bull snorted again, hot on her cheeks.

“Do you remember me?” Ariadne asked again. “Brother?”

He leaned into her hand. Warm. Soft muscle beneath her fingers.

“Ari,” he growled, the syllables caught on a tongue too thick to make them.

She wanted to smile at him, but her chest seemed too tight for it, and she coughed out something that was almost a laugh. “Will you come away with me?” she asked.

It took a long moment, but the bull ducked his head, touched his nose to her shoulder. Ariadne leaned slid her hand to his shoulder, looped it down through his arm, and ran with him to the top of the stairs. The other girls skittered back, then forced themselves to stop, to stay near. They stood shoulder to shoulder with each other, but they steadied, and Ariadne looked at them gratefully.

Melitta pulled and oversized tunic out of her sack, helped Ariadne lift it over her brother’s head. They all strapped their sandals to their feet, ready to run, only a few steps away from the edge of the echoing stone yard.

“Where are we going?” Aigle asked.

“The prince’s ship is in the harbor,” Ariadne said. “And he doesn’t need it anymore.”

She glanced at the others, checking that they were ready, and then led the way.

The girls ran up the stairs at the edge of the yard in their dark cloaks. Wrapped in the quiet, they moved on quick feet, and quicker heartbeats. The bull ran in front of them. On the wide hill, the soft grass swallowed the sounds of their footsteps and they cast smiles from one to another, light sacks hung over their shoulders.

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