The ground continued to tremble as if they walked a terrible battleground of the gods. Women and children raced down the marble stairs to the top of the cliff path—a path they had not traversed since their first arrival. Tasia Olympus hurried after them, still counting heads.
A long crack opened in the steps down the slope. Children screamed. The acolytes only used this stairway to leave their requests with the sailors below, or to pick up the supplies the men hauled up for their use. Her maidens had not talked to men since they’d been brought to the temple.
As Tasia watched, loose rocks fell loose from the bluff’s edge and tumbled to the sea below. They would all be flung to their deaths if they did not hurry.
“Where is Khaos?” Tasia asked urgently when her count came up one head short.
“She ran back to the schoolroom. I do not know why,” called Daskala, shepherding the youngest to the last set of stairs to the bluff. “She is old enough to find her own way.”
Not if a pediment fell on her. Torn between carrying the precious chalice to safety and leading a single—very mischievous—child behind, Tasia wished for the late priestess Alexandra to tell her what to do.
The rumbling abruptly ceased, but Tasia knew it would return—bringing worse destruction if her vision was to be believed. Lacking any other knowledge of their fates, Tasia had to trust her interpretation.
The chalice must be saved at all costs, but she could not leave a child behind. And she could not send one of the women in her care into danger. Although as leader, she should be the first to share words with the men to whom they never spoke, Tasia still could not give up the child.
In desperation, she handed the sacred vessel to Charis, the small woman who acted as caretaker for the priestess.
“Please, if they ask, you must tell the soldiers to man both boats and fill them with supplies. I will be right back.”
Short, dark, and cross-eyed, humble Charis looked stunned and awed to be given such responsibility, but Tasia had grown up with her. Charis had never let her down.
Another pillar in the temple above crashed as Tasia lifted her best tunic and ran back up the cracking stairs. For her inaugural ceremony, she had been wearing her newest sandals, the leather still stiff and difficult to tie. Grabbing stone walls to keep from sliding, she prayed to Aelynn that the ties wouldn’t come undone.
Below, she heard masculine shouts as the soldiers saw the vestals pouring down the bluff from the temple high ground. The women never descended to the shore. There were strict rules keeping the sexes apart. She needed to be there to keep order. By all that was holy, why had Aelynn taken Alexandra and left the burden in her inexperienced hands?
Tasia kept running uphill against the recurring tremors. She gasped at the stitch in her side, and then in relief. Seemingly unharmed, Khaos rushed toward her, carrying heavy burlap sacks over each shoulder.
Not wasting time asking questions, Tasia took one of the sacks from the thirteen-year-old. “The boats cannot hold much,” she warned.
The ground began to shake again, harder this time.
“The roof fell. I could not leave the scrolls unprotected,” Khaos called over her shoulder, leaping down the steps with the sureness of a mountain goat.
The stairs over the bluff and down the cliff had never been even. Now, the stones had cracked and parted with the earth’s tremors.
They did not speak again as the ground did its best to heave them airborne or bury them in boulders and dust. Women were screaming and men shouting by the time Tasia slid the last meter or two to the sand.
She twisted her ankle and stumbled trying to right herself from her undignified fall. A tall soldier with fair hair darker than her own caught her. His big, callused hand was foreign to her, and she jerked away as quickly as she could.
He wore a short jeweled sword and dagger in his belt, and she shivered at his masculine touch. She had not seen a man since her father had left her with the priestess years ago, when she was scarcely old enough to remember. She had not spoken to a man since. Her tongue was tied.
Not suffering the same impediment, he steadied her elbow. “Let me take that.” He heaved the heavy bag over his shoulder. “You are the priestess?” he asked, apparently identifying the purple and gold belt girdling her midsection. “I am Nautilus, captain of your soldiers, at your command.”
The soldiers guarded the island, providing the island’s only contact with the rest of the world. They prevented worshippers from climbing the stairs and bothering the vestals. They accepted the offerings to Aelynn—and often the unwanted children. They tended the flocks of sheep and goats and fished from the sea to provide food the acolytes could not grow for themselves.
They also sailed the channel to bring back other goods the island could not produce on its own. But the men never spoke with Aelynn’s vestals. This one did not seem bothered by that detail.
The captain was large, so much larger than she had imagined. He smelled…male, not scented as her maidens were. His bronzed bare biceps glistened with the sweat of some exertion—he must have the strength of a god. They would need his strength, so she must not show her fear to one who could break her in two with his bare hands.
As priestess, she was in charge of the women. As representative of the state on the mainland, the captain was in charge of his men. Their commands had never crossed before. She had to assert her leadership now, for the sake of Aelynn. She pictured Alexandra speaking with authority and used the same tone, so as to hide her uncertainty.
“Great waves are coming,” she warned, limping toward the women huddled on the beach, each still carrying what she’d held last. “We must abandon the island and seek safety on the mainland, far into the hills. All the villages on the coast will be destroyed.”
His expression neutral, he nodded acknowledgment of her order. “The sea is restless when the earth trembles. We’ll take your galley.”
“We need both boats,” she insisted, seeing them sitting on the beach. “We must take everyone and everything.”
“We haven’t enough crew to man two heavy boats. Leave your possessions here,” he ordered. He dropped the scrolls and turned away to shout orders.
Tasia picked up the scrolls again. “We take both boats and everything they can carry,” she countermanded. She might doubt her ability to lead, but she did not doubt Aelynn’s order to take all they could carry.
“There is no time,” he argued. “Things can be replaced, not people.”
Tasia had seldom argued with anyone, and most certainly not a soldier who knew a great deal more of the world than she. She could not even imagine how those frail galleys could float on the pounding surf.
But the goddess had spoken and must be obeyed. She’d watched Alexandra for decades and knew how a priestess must conduct herself. This time, rather than acknowledge that she was arguing with a terrifying male stranger, she used the tone Alexandra would have used with a cross neophyte.
“To save people, we will need our things,” she said sharply. “Food, supplies, everything we can fit into both galleys. The goddess commands us.”
“I’ve heard of the great waves following the earth’s quaking,” the captain argued, undeterred. “The sea gods are stronger than your goddess. If they are angry, leaving now is more important.”
Even as Alexandra’s assistant, she’d never been brushed aside so rudely. He rattled her confidence, but she could not let him undermine Aelynn’s orders.
Already, the men were dragging a lone galley to the water. Boys herded goats and chickens to the shore. Avoiding the unfamiliar men, her women filled vessels at the well. So many people dependent on them, looking frail in comparison to the endless surf churning ever higher up the shore.
“The worst quake is far from here. We are only feeling a small part of it,” she told the captain, as if he were a slow student. “The danger is tremendous. Surviving once we reach solid land is as important as escaping the island. Villages will be destroyed. We cannot know how long we will be gone. We need both galleys and all they can hold. The goddess commands,” she repeated with stern emphasis.
He glared, as if he meant to question her visions or the goddess. But duty bound to protect her, he had to accept her insistence on security. Obviously struggling with impatience, he shouted instructions to his sailors, and they raced to haul out the second galley.
Relieved that she did not need to waste more time arguing with a giant of a man whose authority and worldliness intimidated her, Tasia limped up and down the sand, dividing the women and children between the boats. She reassured the youngest and issued quiet commands to the older ones. She lifted a questioning eyebrow to Charis, who nodded at the long boat adorned with the royal purple and gold of the goddess. The chalice was safely inside.
The sunny day gradually disappeared behind thunderous clouds on the horizon. Increasingly large waves splashed against the rocky beach. An earthquake and now a storm…
“We have loaded two days of provisions,” Captain Nautilus said tightly. “Will that satisfy the goddess?”
She shivered in fear as she noticed that the usual noisy seabirds had disappeared from the shore. “Can we load all the food stores?”
“The ships are carrying grain as ballast. We have olives, crates of lemons. Our root vegetables are almost gone this time of year. We have the cargo of pigs and goats we were about to trade.”
“Take anything we can. There will be nothing left…” Her words fell away on a whisper of grief.
Glancing toward the gleaming white temple and buildings on the crest of the high hill that had been her home, Tasia fought back tears. This was the end of the world as she knew it. She tried to memorize each tall palm, every olive bush, the color of the lemons against the leaves…
“It’s a strong temple,” the captain said reassuringly. “It will be here when you return.”
“No, it will not,” she said sadly.