Red flames licked the horizon as if chasing the billowing clouds of smoke rising from the carnage. I stood on the roof of a temple. Who it belonged to didn’t matter. Triumph and joy roared in my veins, and I threw my head back and laughed at the moon. The people had prayed. They’d wept and thrashed themselves with palm branches, crying for some kind of turn in this war. When they had let the wooden horse inside their walls, they had gotten exactly what they deserved.
Forget the fates. Forget them all. Drunk on power, I danced and sang, leading the priests in a mocking song to the gods, to anyone who would listen. Other things were at work here; things I had no claim over and no right to say. My gut turned as I watched my past self revel in the destruction.
The cries of the widows rose above the clang of swords and the clash of shields. I’d watched the men pour from the wooden horse, sliding down ropes and ladders in the dead of night. I’d hurried them along, whispered in their ears to run and do their worst.
I’d been foolish. So drunk on my own power and the ways in which I could sway these men to my own will and desires, I didn’t see the generations of pain that I’d caused. For that, I deserved to pay the price.
That was the first time Rota called. It only made sense then that here, it would, once again, make this moment my first trial. No one would judge me harsher than I judged myself.
There, amid the flames, I turned away from the revelry to see a small child peeking around a large urn potted with some kind of fern. Soot smudged her face. She clung to a singed blanket and a doll, so worn and dirty even if I remembered, I couldn’t recognize what it was. If she remained there, she’d die.
No. I couldn’t allow that to happen. My battle belonged with the men, the priests, and the soldiers. Not the children, and yet, that was the one thing I’d forgotten. When war came, it was always the children who suffered. I bounded across the roof. The priests didn’t even notice I’d left.
I drew the child into my arms, soothing her with my words. “Where’s your mother?” I asked. I rubbed her back, this trembling sobbing child.
“Gone.” The child hiccuped against my shoulder. “All gone.”
Dead or simply fled in the melee, I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. “I’ve got you.” And I did. Down the stairs, through an alley, along a building avoiding soldiers and the citizens running for their lives. The child clung to me, my robe fisted in her grubby hands. Her tears dampened my shoulder, and I cursed the day I’d ever unleashed this hellish war upon these people. I’d forgotten. In my rage and my pettiness, I’d forgotten who always paid the price.
“You’re safe,” I whispered as we skirted around the wall. At some prior battle, it’d fallen, a small gap not quite wide enough to allow an entire group of soldiers through. Just one or two, but it was big enough for us.
I ducked through it, the air instantly clearer on this side of the wall. I darted, under the cover of darkness, away from the city, away from the battle that raged. I may not be able to save all of them, but I could save this girl child.
I ran all night. Only my goddess stamina kept me from getting too winded. Each stride took us further from the besieged city. And finally, dawn broke the sky with the pink and orange heralds of the rising sun.
I sat at the edge of an olive grove. A small cistern contained water. I offered a drink to the child, forgetting in my haste to get away from my folly that she needed more sustenance than I.
“What is your name, child?” I asked, touching her chin to lift her face to mine.
“Minerva,” the child replied.
I smiled. “A good and strong name. May your life be filled with good fortune and blessings.” I kissed her temple.
A sheepherder approached with several young children racing down the hill behind him. I smiled, sensing the good in the man. My consort, Aggie, had blessed this man, and I knew the child would have a good, and most importantly, a safe home.
“Good morning,” I called, walking into the herder’s path.
He stopped and stared for a moment at this woman and girl child who appeared in his path. Then, he bowed deeply. “Lady. You bless us with your presence.”
“It is you who blesses me this day.” I gently touched the middle of Minerva’s back, sending her forward. “This child flees from the war to the south. I cannot take her with me. She belongs with her people. Do you have sufficient resources in your village to care for her?”
The man knelt and offered a hand. “What is your name, little one?” Kindness radiated from him, along with a peacefulness that I hadn’t felt, or sensed, for years. I’d been wrong, so very wrong to indulge myself. I may be a goddess, but harming the people who worshipped me crossed a line I’d think about for a very long time.
“Minerva,” she said in a soft, sad voice.
“I have a daughter about your age.” He reached behind him. “Iona, come meet Minerva.”
“Yes, daddy.” A child about the same age as Minerva ran forward. She stopped. “I’m Iona. Did you come all the way from the war?” Her eyes grew wide.
“Want to come play with us?” Iona held out her hand.
Minerva took it and, with a shy smile back at me, followed her new friends.
“Thank you, sir. Her parents…” I shook my head. “I don’t know what happened to them, but I couldn’t leave her. There are so many.”
“Understood, my Lady. They will have a home with us.”
“Then, I return. Look for me in three days.” A plan formed in my mind, a way to somehow atone for the horrible deeds which I’d done.
The carnage which I returned to stopped me in my tracks. A young boy ran past, taking whatever he thought might be of value from the corpses in the streets. “You. Boy,” I called.
He started to race away. Three strides and I caught him by the arm. He swung around, hitting and kicking at me as if I’d been one of the men who’d tumbled out of the wooden horse. And maybe to him, I might as well have been. Certainly, I’d had a hand in bringing them here.
“I’m not going to hurt you. And you’re not in trouble,” I spoke gently, yet firmly.
The boy stilled. “If I don’t get these back, I’m in trouble.” He rattled the small coins in their pouch.
“There is no need for that. You’re safe now.”
He shook his head. “No. My sister is still there.”
“Take me,” I ordered.
The lad took me to one of the few buildings that remained standing. Not far from the city center, it provided the perfect place for the orphans there to huddle and scurry across the city, grabbing whatever they could find. The man sitting by the fire, taking a gold chalice from an older boy, needed no introduction. He was one of those who preyed on the less fortunate. I lacked a weapon, at least one that he’d recognize.
I released his hand and watched him run across an open courtyard, somehow sheltered from the battles that still waged. Though fires no longer lit the sky red, the smoke from them hung in the air and soot covered everything. He found a young girl and ran back to me with her.
“This is my sister, Senna. She doesn’t talk.” The boy passed her hand into mine, as if he were giving me his charge.
“Hi, Senna. I’m Tyche.” I smiled at her. Fears tugged in my mind. There were so many children. Some were barely out of diapers, while others on the cusp of becoming men and women, cared for the younger ones. So many I feared overwhelming the herder.
“We leave when he goes to sleep. He will drink soon. And then he will sleep. He snores.” The boy wiggled his nose. “I have to go. Give the coins up. Then we’ll have food.” His eyes sparkled, and he focused his attention on his sister. “Stay with the lady. She’ll protect you.” Then, he dashed off again.
I waited with Senna until dark. Food consisted of a broth with chunks of what might have been meat. Senna and her brother shared one bowl, barely big enough for one.
The snoring began shortly thereafter, and the boy, true to his word, gathered up the others. The older children carried the younger, and together, we left this place.
As promised, I brought them to the herder, and if he thought I stretched his hospitality, he said nothing. I blessed him and his herd, my atonement for the death and destruction not complete. And yet, it was the least I could do to fix my Trojan mistake.