In answer to the daily prompt Set for Solstice http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/set-for-solstice/
“Cassie, open the door.”
“Iffie leave me alone.” She wanted to be by herself; she needed to get ready.
“Please please let me in.” She sighed. She could never say no to her sister; even when she wasn’t standing right in front of her Iphigenia’s voice was as compelling as that of her patron god. She might have been the choir of his muses almost hypnotizing and she knew Cassandra could never resist the song.
“Fine. Come in.” She turned as her younger sister entered; with her red hair and green eyes she was a smaller representation of their mother, both of them rarities in the world.
“Can I come with you?” Iffie asked shifting from one foot to the other.
“You know you can’t Iffie. You’re too young.”
“But if He calls you I won’t see you after.”
“He may not call me.” Her sister screwed her eyes shut tight. They both knew it was a possibility; few children were born on the noon hour of midsummer day and she was. “He usually doesn’t call his future satrap.” That was true too; no satrap had ever been called to serve.
“You’ve always heard His voice. I know that. And I don’t.”
“Our brother may…”
“No… he’s a boy. It’s always a girl. You know that. I do too.” Iffie reached and embraced her. She knew… The midsummer ritual would probably end in the way her sister expected. She knew it even though she didn’t understand why. “It’s not fair.”
“Ah Iphigenia. Not everything is fair.”
“You’re only fourteen.”
“Yes… And others were called a lot earlier than me. The priests have waited for our father’s sake.” And the children’s. When their mother died Cassandra had taken on the duties of the house; her father’s will to live hadn’t been particularly strong and he was sick for the most part of a year. For that they had waited. They had allowed almost three years to pass before they heeded the god’s demand and requested that she be presented at midsummer to the god. Apollo’s calling was best heard on the day he ruled the longest as midwinter was when Artemis’ most powerful priestesses were called. But Apollo was the god of vision and on midsummer day he called one of his daughters to be his oracle. It had been centuries since one of the satrap’s family was born at noon on midsummer day but she was. And she probably was going to be called. “Fine, I’ll help you hide in the group of my maids but you must be discreet promise.”
Iphigenia’s eyes lit up; with mischief but also something else.
“Promise. You let me help you dress your hair?”
She smiled in turn; they had almost two hours before the priests came to fetch her. She awoke early today… So Iphigenia brushed her long dark blond hair while she faced the bronze mirror her hazel eyes looking at her sister’s reflexion. She let her sister hum even as she separated her hair in six locks which she braided into a coil and pinned.
“That’s beautiful Iffie.”
“It shows your neck; since they’ll put a veil on your head, it’s best you have all your hair up.”
“For someone who doesn’t hear the god’s voice, you know an awful lot about his priests’ ways.”
“I thought it would be me one day… I look like her after all.”
“You do. And I have her name.”
“Do you think Mother knew?”
“I don’t know.”
The procession following her impressed her; never had she seen such a rally of people around the midsummer festival. Of course it was celebrated throughout the satrapy but never so many had made the trip to Delphi. Was it because she was the satrap’s daughter? The sun shone above already warm despite not having reached its zenith yet. That would be when she entered the cave and heard the voice of the god or not. She shivered in the warm sun as they paused with something that felt like recognition and warning: something was coming. Not for her, not now: it was more than that. Suddenly she felt a shadow over her.
“Be not afraid,” one of the priests said to her kindly. He was young only a few years older than her.
“I’m not.” But that wasn’t true; she wasn’t afraid of being called but rather of that sense of impending doom that she’d just felt. Or maybe she was afraid; afraid that being the god’s chosen she’d have to spend all year but a month in Delphi when her siblings remained in Pellas. She felt like Iphigenia; sorrowful to be parted from the ones she loved. But serving the god was a good calling too: but she was too young. And yet most girls had been serving since they were ten; she had been given more time with the ones she loved than many. But she wanted more. Might the day not stop? Would it not stop now that hour before noon where she could remain a child?
Suddenly a bell was rang and all came to a stop; old Calchas spoke to them all.
“Today we celebrate midsummer. Apollo, Lord of the Sun, we bring you one who was born under your most benevolent sight,” it was not always benevolent, Cassandra’s curse was proof of that, and Daphne’s, “at the apex of your power on midsummer day at the noon hour when you see all that there is to see in the world and beyond.” But these were the ritual words, the ones she heard every midsummer when a girl was presented to the temple and tested by the god. She knew some who had not been recognized; they had come out blind. It didn’t matter that Apollo was still mistrusted in much of the empire because of his rebellion against his father. It didn’t matter that almost everywhere his oracles were shunned though he was the only god of vision. Today in Delphi where he first came all the people came to witness the power of the god and praise him.
She looked up to the skies; the sun seemed to be smiling upon her like a benevolent father expecting his daughter to come home. She felt home… And so she entered the temple when the priest touched her shoulder casting one last glance towards the group of maiden that had walked with her; veiled like the others Iphigenia waved her hand slightly and she smiled back. The wait would be long for her sister who was always challenged to stay silent and put for more than a few minutes. Today she’d have to stand in the hot sun of midsummer until she came out at sunset. Two of the young girls entered with her; they would make it until the final chamber where she would enter on her own.
She stopped at the first altar and taking it from one of the girls hand made an offering of wheat she cut at sunset the night before. She burned some laurel retrieved the previous morning from the gardens and offered thanks to the god. The girl remained there in prayer after she and her other companion moved onto the second altar where she lay a cluster of grapes before burning bay leaves. Here she prayed for vision and answers before moving on as her second maid knelt and continued her prayers.
She entered the inner chamber of the temple and the sun came down onto the main altar from an opening at the top of the mountain; it was noontime. The stool where she would sit if she were called was there, but she didn’t belong on it yet. She might not ever… not if the god wished it not. So she knelt and prayed. The fumes in the chamber surrounded her and she found it hard to breathe. She knew what they were meant to do and achieve. Despite the sense of suffocation she took deep breaths waiting for the uncomfortable feeling to subside. Time seemed to stop as she remained in meditation and prayers. And yet for what seemed a very long time she heard nothing, felt nothing. Her knees started to hurt, her head to ache, her heart to wonder. It appeared she had hoped the god would find her worthy even as it frightened her.
So when she heard his voice resonate within in, she trembled with fear, excitement, expectation and awe.
“You have finally come child of mine. Late…”
“It was…” She started.
“A gift,” his voice answered. “I know. For the loss of your mother. But you were always mine. My daughter, my heir, my oracle. Without you the empire is blind. Come to me daughter mine that you can embrace your gift. Come find the answers.”
She stood… and approached the chasm from which the fumes emanated. The smoke seemed to gather around her as she breathed in. Suddenly it all seemed to come into her, in her open mouth, through her nostrils. But she wouldn’t cough it out; it was the god’s essence come into her. And suddenly myriads of images swirled in front of her eyes; from the past and into the future though she didn’t know enough yet to identify which they were or what they meant.
“Zeus might have condemned us to blindness but on this day every year you will see and hear me. Even if you can’t for the rest of the wheel of the year, always and ever I’ll be with you daughter mine.”
Suddenly the voice was gone and she leaned dangerously over the chasm at her feet. Gasping she took a step back looking up where the sun still shone. How was it possible? Turning she stumbled; the images were still here and voices rose around her that she couldn’t quite understand. Answers to questions that she hadn’t hear yet. But she made for the entrance of the inner chamber where the young girl was still kneeling.
“Daphne,” she murmured. The maid looked up and nodded. Within moments the old priest and the one who had spoken to her before she entered came and knelt. She would rule here… but not in Pellas.
“Lady Cassandra,” the old man murmured, “will you see them?”
Of course… that was why they had come. There had been no oracle for a long time.
“Let them in.”
She retreated into the chamber and sat on the stool. It was long before they came through but the images she had seen were answers to questions that were asked. The supplicants would have to make their choices for she could only offer the beginning of a reply. For much as she knew, ever the future could change. Those who came must interpret her visions… By the end she was exhausted but she’d seen many people. How many? She didn’t know. When she came out the sun was setting. How long had the day lasted? Did time really stop? There were still many people down the hill.
“Are they still waiting to see me?” She asked the old priest who smiled shaking his head.
“Yes. But not for your vision.” He looked about and the young priest spoke.
“The god has called his daughter. We have a Pythia. Let it be proclaimed Cassandra of the Pellas House has been called to the god.”
She heard the gasp among the maidens’ procession; she met her sister’s emerald gaze filled with tears. This midsummer wouldn’t be one of celebration for Iphigenia. But it was as it must be. Tonight she would stay at the temple… And her father would hear the news in Pellas since he didn’t come, honouring the god with celebrations of his own in the capital city where the King’s eldest son resided for this year. She sighed; she had liked Hephaestion and would have enjoyed knowing him better.