Sweet Star of Mine
There were knots hidden everywhere in this blasted home. Kalliopi exchanged a glance with Ophelia as they both drew their swords.
“Eileithyia, help us,” Ophelia breathed when they heard a cackle outside and then another.
Kalliopi studied the room as the pregnant teenager screamed on her birthing litter with a cluster of family and a midwife around her. One woman hung back, tying knots into inconspicuous clothing around the room. Kalliopi started screaming at the woman even though she couldn’t hear her.
“This idiot is calling them in.” Kalliopi nudged a knot with her sword.
Ophelia’s mouth dropped open. “You’re joking. What is wrong with people?”
Kalliopi shouts in the ear of the mother-in-law. “That woman is poisoning your daughter! Get her out!”
“You know that never works.”
Another two cackles drew their eyes to the windows. The pregnant woman howled with another contraction. The screams always enticed the mormones when they were near. Ophelia pressed her forehead to Kalliopi’s.
“Eileithyia, be with you.”
“And with you.”
“And with the mother and child,” they intoned together.
The mormones started scratching at the doors. Ophelia and Kalliopi stationed themselves between the window and door and the laboring mother. Then the mormones burst in. They were a hideous group, covered in dripping rags like the decay of a forest floor.
Their faces were hidden behind a wild mess of dirt-matted hair. The scent of rotting flesh always choked them.
Kalliopi hated them. Hated them for stealing mothers from their children and children from the mothers. Hated them for even existing.
Her sword danced in to meet the nearest mormo as she began to sing:
While you live, shine.
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while
and Time demands his due.*
Ophelia whooped at how Kalliopi’s voice creating a countermelody to the young mother’s battle cries. The priestesses and mormones fought without touching the mortals: except for the mother and her unborn child. They simply flowed through the people as if they were mirages. Even the furniture only shivered a little. Kalliopi and Ophelia cringed when the woman howled in agony outside of her usual contraction. A mormo had simply brushed its hand along the mother’s foot.
“Get it out!” the young woman screamed.
“There are too many,” Ophelia shouted above the cackles.
She was right. Kalliopi could hear more coming as the traitor tied more secret knots. The mormones’s talon like fingers pulled her away. She looked to Ophelia, who was standing over the mother, severing arms and hands, anything that got in the way. With a cry of fury and tears, Kalliopi tore herself free. Her sword clattered to the ground. She drew her dagger, stabbing and slicing. Finally, she made it to the mother just as the mormones drug Orphelia down. Two mormones had their hands wrapped around the mother’s neck. Kalliopi sank her dagger into their hands. If she could keep their hands off her in death, the poor woman wouldn’t join their ranks. They tried to pull Kalliopi away, but then she watched the mother breathe her last, free of the mormo’s touch.
The woman surged from her body, howling in pain and grief. The mormones all cackled in victory and loss. Their eyes then turned toward the corpse’s swollen abdomen. Instinct, even now, drove the young woman to fall over her body’s belly, protecting the unborn child with her own essence. Kalliopi and Ophelia and the mormones stared at her. Few ever became that cognizant after death. Then Kalliopi saw the dress pin at her shoulder. It was the burning torch of Eileithyia. The teenager turned her eyes up enough for Kalliopi to meet them.
Kalliopi growled and started swinging her dagger, voice rising in song again. Ophelia tossed Kalliopi the sword which she caught and spun to take the head of the nearest mormones. Passing the mother a dagger, Ophelia fought hard around them.
Then wailing mother-in-law shakily checked for a pulse. When she found none, she nodded to the midwife who began cutting into the woman’s belly. Within moments, a child’s wail pierced the air. The mormones shrieked in defeat. The three women panted as the mormones fled.
Kalliopi and Ophelia watched as the mother wept into her hands. She was young. Too young. Womanhood came too quickly for any woman who was not of Sparta. At least there, they waited long enough for the girls to become young women. In Athens, as this young mother was from, girls weren’t so lucky. They didn’t even feed them properly to make them strong enough for childbearing.
The mother stared at her baby, a girl. A smile twitched at the corners of her lips. “She’s beautiful.”
The mother-in-law shook her head, shoulders dropped in defeat. From outside her son rushed in to greet his child. His eyes fell first onto his wife’s body and then onto the baby. The woman leapt in front of her husband.
“Don’t expose her, Hilarion.”
“Give her to the servants.”
“No!” The mother screamed and wailed, following the servant out the back door. “No! Let her live! Let her live! She’s our daughter, you bastard!”
Ophelia winced and rushed after her.
Kalliopi couldn’t stay with the teenager as her child slowly died of starvation. Though animals did come to investigate, Animals were always aware of their presence and didn’t like it. Kalliopi did her part by keeping a wide enough berth to discourage any intrigue on the animal’s part. Ophelia stayed and helped welcome the girl’s tiny spirit into her mother’s arms. Once the child was reunited with her mother, the priestesses escorted mother and daughter through the nearest Gate to the temple.
There were priestesses bustling about the stone buildings. Kalliopi nodded a greeting to a few. Inevitably their eyes would go to the new pair. She tried her best not to look too deep into their eyes and the judgment there. They had failed to keep both alive which meant they failed. Life was the only true success.
“We must take you to Eileithyia.” Ophelia rubbed her back. “She will place you into service properly.”
The mother nodded, staring down into the squinty, blue eyes of her baby. “What will become of her?”
Kalliopi exhaled. “Eileithyia will do no harm to the child.” It was the first time she had spoken to the mother since death. “She’ll treat with you fairly. Do not be afraid.”
The young mother, perhaps no more than fifteen in death, looked up into Kalliopi’s eyes. She gave the priestess a grateful, tearful smile and kept following onward.
Eileithyia sat at her usual desk, reading over scrolls, when they entered with a bow. Her eyes went to them, first resting on the mother and child who knelt before her. She cut her eyes to Kalliopi and Ophelia who dropped to one knee in greeting.
“Hello at last, Agathe.”
Agathe looked up from the floor, tear-stained cheeks plumping into a smile. “My lady Eileithyia.”
She smiled at the baby, caressing her mass of black hair ever so tenderly. “She is so lovely, asteri mou*.”
Agathe beamed and sniffled, fighting against the tears.
“It will take adjusting. Ophelia, let’s find her and Efthalia a proper residence.”
“How did you know that was her name, my lady?”
Eileithyia smirked and touched her pin. “When you came to me that day, your prayers centered on two names. Zopyros for the boy and Efthalia for the girl.”
Kalliopi’s eyebrows raised. Mothers never named the children.
Agathe’s cheeks reddened as Ophelia pressed her hand to Agathe’s back and led her away.
Eileithyia’s eyes followed the young woman until she and the baby were out of sight. Then she turned her gray eyes on Kalliopi, her smile diminished. “What happened?”
“Someone tied at least fifty knots into that room. Mormones were pouring in from every direction.”
Eileithyia sighed and closed her eyes. “Was it the blonde woman? Young?”
Kalliopi nodded, eyebrows meeting. “Yes, my lady. I saw her tying even during the labor when everyone was distracted.”
“Then barren she’ll remain.” Eileithyia glared over Kalliopi’s shoulder. “She’s remarkably composed for a new priestess.”
“She sat up, took one look around, and fell over her belly to protect the child even while the infant was still in her body.”
Eileithyia turned back, mouth agape. “Truly?”
“It shocked all of us as well. Gave us enough opening to save the baby.”
A slow exhale accompanied her eyes’ closing. “They exposed her.”
Kalliopi could only nod. It should’ve been illegal to kill off the only possible offspring of a dead woman just because that offspring was female. Kalliopi grasped her woven bracelet. The initials of each of her five sons and her only daughter were woven there. Ophelia made it for her just after their first assignment together. Eilethyia squeezed her hand, wincing her understanding.
“Coming too close, this one did.”
Tears filled Kalliopi’s eyes, unable to look her liege in the face.
“You fought honorably, Popi. You and Ophelia always fight our enemy with more zeal than any other.”
She could only bow her thanks for Eileithyia’s approval.
“I have word.”
A lump constricted her throat, and a stone settled in her gut. Already she had visited two of her sons in Elysium. Spartan men did not always live long.
Her chest heaved in air as Eileithyia pulled out Kalliopi’s own torch pin or at least the one she wore while giving birth to all her children. “Is she pregnant?”
She nodded. “Her husband just died.”
Kalliopi’s eyes went round. “Please, tell me that it was his.” The husband’s father may have exposed the baby if there was a chance it was another man’s.
“The baby is his. There is no doubt.” Eileithyia winced. “She’s only just praying to me. I believe it’s because she’s afraid. Now that her husband was brought in on his shield.”
Kalliopi couldn’t breathe. “Her new family?”
“Honorable. Your husband married her well.”
“Please, my lady. Let me—"
Eileithyia gave her a tender smile as she raised her hand. “There is no doubt who will protect her.” She kissed Kalliopi’s forehead. “I want to hear your song rise up as your grandchild is born safely and your daughter’s laughter as she holds her child.”
Kalliopi’s eyes shifted out of focus as she remembered the last moments of life where she held her tiny girl for the first and last time. As with every pregnancy, she made Chariton swear he would not expose a daughter if they ever had one. After Kalliopi died, Chariton had wept over her body and then kissed their daughter.
“Her name is Tamma, latria mou.*” He had kissed Kalliopi’s lifeless lips. “She is the fulfillment of my vow to you, my sweet songbird.”
Kalliopi had burst out into breathless weeping, mourning the loss of raising her own daughter as she had so desperately wanted but also soaring in triumph for her husband’s loyalty.
Eileithyia hugged her tight and close, like she could hold Kalliopi together.
“How far along?”
“She’s progressing well. Into her seventh month.”
Kalliopi nodded. “Thank you for telling me.”
Her eyes creased into a tender smile. “She is healthy and strong. Just like her mother.”
Kalliopi laughed and rolled her eyes.
“If not for your heart, you would’ve given birth to many more sons and daughters, asteri mou.” She rubbed Kalliopi’s arms and returned to her desk. “Begin preparing our Agathe for priestess training.”
Kalliopi nodded, unsurprised that Eileithyia had chosen her to protect their charges from the mormones as they too had once been guarded. “Yes, my lady.”
With a bow, Kalliopi departed to find Ophelia and Agathe. She found them in Agathe’s newly assigned quarters, nursing Efthalia.
Kalliopi smiled at the sight of Ophelia helping yet another young mother. Ophelia was not like other women here. She was a midwife. She was also barren in life. Upon her death, she retained her gray hair and wrinkled face with the vitality of a teenager. It made her exotic in a sea of youthfulness. Kalliopi herself was no spry chick, but Ophelia was much older and proud. She had died because she stayed with a mother giving birth during a siege. The soldiers had killed them all. Ophelia died and now lived helping and saving mothers. In truth, Kalliopi was blessed and humbled to have her as a partner.
Agathe beamed when she looked up from having successfully latched Efthalia all by herself. “I did it, Kalliopi.”
Kalliopi smiled. Her own breasts, long devoid of milk, ached in sympathy and memory. “Congratulations, my dear.”
“Soon Efthalia will be filling out properly,” Ophelia laughed with a kiss to her hair. She turned her eyes to Kalliopi. “What did our lady say?”
“That Agathe will become a priestess.”
Agathe sat straighter. “Like you all?”
She nodded. “You’re natural at it.”
The young mother’s lips twitched into a smirk. “I’m no warrior like you.”
Kalliopi gave Ophelia smirk. “Well, we Spartans know anyone could die by the sword. But you will be trained well before heading to the field. We’ve been unofficially assigned as your guardians for now.”
Her shoulders relaxed as she settled back into her chair.
“For now, rest. Everyone is given a transitional time before training begins. Thankfully, you’re not going to be as exhausted from ailments and even nursing here. You and your daughter will be able to recuperate from the events of the last few days.”
Ophelia kissed the top of Efthalia’s head. “Our quarters are just down this hall, two doors on the right. Not far at all. Just call if you need us.”
She nodded and waved as they exited.
After the short walk down the hall, Ophelia held open the door for Kalliopi’s quarters and just stared at her.
“What happened? You’re never this nice.”
Kalliopi rolled her eyes.
“Now. Out with it.”
After several silent moments, Ophelia crossed her arms and leaned against the wall.
“Fine.” Kalliopi sighed and looked down. “Tamma’s pregnant.”
Ophelia gave her that knowing smile. Pregnancy on this side was both praised and lamented. It was a woman’s war and, as every priestess of Eileithyia knew, not everyone survived. There was a constant conflict between honoring the Spartan way and mourning the deaths of their loved ones, between pride and shame. Kalliopi had never seen the benefit of being proud of an honorable death. Death was death. By sword or old age, on a shield or on a bed, death was just death.
“You and I have watched her. She is a strong young woman.”
Kalliopi exhaled. “Her husband died.”
Ophelia winced, rubbing Kalliopi’s arms. “Your husband will protect her. He always has.”
“I hope so.”
“We’ll keep a tighter eye on her.”
Kalliopi nodded, eyes unfocused. “How did I miss her pregnancy?”
“You’ve been all over Greece, Kalliopi, protecting our sect from turning into mormones.” Ophelia sat her in a chair and started on a cup of tea. “Now that we have a ward, we’ll be better able to keep a watch over her.”
Kalliopi held the hot cup in her hands, staring into the steam billowing into her face. She had been able to visit her daughter whenever they were in Sparta or on leave. The last time she saw her was as Tamma was marrying her now dead husband. She and Kalliopi looked so much alike it was uncanny. Chariton and his new wife, the hag, had been there. She could follow Tamma for hours, but watching Chariton with another woman was too hard for her. She hadn’t even bothered to learn the hag’s name. But he had at least waited until Tamma was nearly of age before remarrying, and he made sure that the woman was outside of bearing years. He could’ve fathered a dozen more children, but he didn’t. Every time she visited, he was holding the pin that Eileithyia had shown her, the one he must have given their daughter. She had missed it, missed celebrating with her daughter, missed everything.
Curse those mormones to bowels of Hades!
Kalliopi, in the following days, went from cursing the mormones to cursing anyone who dared to spar with her in training. But she couldn’t keep away from Agathe and Efthalia. She couldn’t bear to go without Ophelia though, which made the older woman smirk at her friend.
“It’s Popi’s turn,” Ophelia announced one day as she danced the baby into Kalliopi’s arms.
“Oh no, no. Really, Lia.” Kalliopi’s eyes went round as plates when Efthalia was placed in her arms. As a rule, Kalliopi kept away from any mothers and babies who had died together.
Efthalia snuggled back to sleep against Kalliopi’s breast as all her sons had done. But the child she saw nestling the most against her chest was Tamma, wailing but breathing and healthy. Over her bed, Kalliopi sang the song she often did to all her boys. Before she knew what she was doing, she was singing to little Efthalia:
Sweet star of mine, sleep well and deep.
Sweet star of mine, do not cry or weep,
For I am near. You need not fear.
Sweet star of mine, sleep well and deep.
Kalliopi blinked as her own voice triggered her reality. She swallowed hard, smile fleeing. With several long blinks, she returned Efthalia to her mother. Kalliopi glanced at Ophelia who was giving her a smile. Then she left. As soon as she was out of the room, she ran as hard as she could to the training grounds where other priestesses were sparring or training their wards. She grabbed a sparring sword.
“Someone fight me.”
They all turned and looked to her, eyebrows meeting.
She attacked the closest woman who yelped but immediately fought back. Before Kalliope knew it, she was fighting another three priestess-warriors. Though her body healed within seconds of each blow, she still could not relent, not until a sharp pain on the back of her head sent her to her knees and then into darkness.
Ophelia was there when she woke. Her gray hair and wrinkled face hovered over her. Kalliopi closed her eyes to take stock of her injury.
“I knocked you out.”
Kalliopi glared at her before looking away.
“You were going to hurt yourself and others.”
Kalliopi sat up and rested her arms on her knees. She exhaled and hid her face in her hands. Tears poured from her eyes. She didn’t sob, but her hands shook as she alternately stared at them and then hid her face behind them. When her emotions were spent, she looked up to Ophelia, drying her eyes.
“I must apologize.”
“For what?” Ophelia laughed and waved Kalliopi’s words away. “You showed them they need to work harder.” Her hand slipped into Kalliopi’s. “I told Agathe about Tamma being our next assignment.”
Kalliopi’s mouth dropped open. “No. I...”
Ophelia glared her into a slow silence. “It’s best she knows. Now, she wants to start training.”
“Absolutely not. Her time is not complete.”
“She’s asking Eileithyia’s permission now.” Ophelia pulled her partner to stand. “Now, gird yourself. Our ward is ready.” She pointed toward the training ground gates where Agathe was running as softly as possible with Efthalia latched to her front.
“She’s agreed!” Agathe shouted with a quick hand wave.
The two partners exchanged looks. Kalliopi sighed and wiped her face. She nodded. “Fine. Let’s get started. You’ve got a lot to learn.”
Ophelia helped Agathe remove Efthalia from the sling. “Come to Lia, asteri mou. You’re such beautiful girl.”
Agathe hurried to join Kalliopi whose lips were thin and brow was furrowed. Kalliopi handed her a practice sword, and the young mother held Kalliopi’s hand for a moment. “I’m going to do my best to help you protect your daughter, Popi.”
She couldn’t speak as the girl, by most standards, held fast to her hand with the same blazing passion from when she protected her unborn daughter. Kalliopi could only nod once.
“Let’s start with the basics.”
Kalliope placed her in just the right position for a ready stance, showing her how to block.
“The mormones can no longer kill you or turn you. But they can injure or cripple and abduct you. Make you wish you could die all over again. And rescuing you would take a full assault from dozens of priestesses.” Her eyes bored into Agathe’s. “That means hundreds of women will be defenseless to other mormones’ attacks. All because you got captured.”
Agathe swallowed hard and nodded. “I understand.”
“We died in our war, and in death, we continue waging that war. We protect our sect. We keep them from the insufferable pain of not only separation from their children but from becoming their children’s nightmares.” She stabbed at Agathe to teach her to block.
“That is your new eternal battle. It is a war we cannot lose. Those women, knowing or not, need us. And it is our duty to protect them through our deaths.”
Agathe inhaled and exhaled, eyes dark with concentration. She nodded. “I won’t let you down.”
“No, you won’t let them down.”
Kalliopi was pleased in the coming weeks: whenever Agathe was not tending Efthalia, she was training. Agathe immersed herself in her new position as priestess-warrior. She was a natural with the bow and two long daggers. In coming years, she would indeed be formidable.
As the time for Tamma’s battle drew near, Kalliopi finally decided to visit her. She felt her palms sweat when she approached her daughter’s new family home. Kalliopi saw Tamma’s mother-in-law ordering about the servants in anticipation of dinner. She saw other women bustling around the house, but Tamma was not to be found. Her heart raced, and her stomach clenched. Perhaps she was at home.
A quick jog took Kalliopi to her home in-life. So much was the same. Chariton was still limping about in the garden, tending his few vines behind the house. Kalliopi dared to stand beside him as she used to. Her eyes went round when he started humming one of the songs she used to sing as if he were singing to his grapes. She felt her shoulders drop. He never did that before.
“Oh Popi.” He exhaled as he caressed a cluster. “You should see our daughter. But I’ve a feeling you’re keeping an eye on all of us. She’s getting so big. Almost ready to pop.” He plucked a grape and tossed it into his mouth. Then he went back to singing.
Her eyes feasted on his now wrinkled face, his withering hands. How she longed to have been able to grow old with him. Her fingers slid to his, passing through to hold the bunch of grapes. While he hummed, she sang, both their eyes fixed on the grapes as memories of their life together flickered unquenchable flames. She gave the fruit a gentle squeeze and shake like she used to. He gasped and dropped his hand. Her eyes went round too. Never had she manipulated anything in the mortal realm that the living could see.
He seemed to be staring right at her. “You’re really here, aren’t you.”
Kalliopi gasped, one hand covering mouth and the other fighting to move the grapes. As usual, it felt as easy as moving mountains as to move those grapes.
“I miss you, Popi.”
Kalliopi cried, fighting to caress his face. “I miss you too, Chariton. So much. So much.”
His eyes closed as if he imagined she was touching his face. “I still and always will love you, my songbird.”
Kalliopi was weeping as he walked right through her. She dropped to her knees from the pain. After a few moments, she rose, collecting herself with each step, and went in search of Tamma’s room. It took Kalliopi a long moment to realize that she was staying in Kalliopi’s old office where she used to conduct business whenever Chariton was away. But there she was, her round belly riding low. Tamma grimaced as she stood to gaze out the window into Kalliopi’s old garden. The new wife was there now, tending as the old once did. Kalliopi swallowed hard. Tamma was so beautiful it made Kalliopi’s heart ache. With a trembling hand, she rested her hand against Tamma’s stomach. At once, the baby kicked his or her grandmother’s ethereal hand. She laughed a little as did Tamma.
“You are already strong, agapi mou. May you not be so big that I can’t push you out.” Tamma laughed hard for a moment before her quivering hand rested against her abdomen, just inches away from her mother’s hand. “But I will do all I can to make sure you see the stars and that I might teach them to you.” She sniffled. “You must have at least one parent around.”
Kalliopi exhaled and nearly sat just to stare at her, but Tamma took her cloak and departed for what Kalliopi realized was a walk. Her eyebrows met when no one noticed her leaving not only the house but the grounds. At once, she fought to shake something, overturn a pot, anything to call attention to Tamma’s departure. No use. No one paid either any mind.
“Where are you going?”
She ignored her mother, naturally, in favor of taking the bleeding road out of the town. What was wrong with this girl?
“Do you not know how dangerous this is, young lady? You go home this instant.”
Again, Tamma simply continued her walk as she had done every day of her pregnancy when she was no longer able to run. She
continued this way for several minutes, twirling a stick as she went. Kalliopi was quite nearly ready to lose her mind with worry. She couldn’t go anywhere without leaving her daughter alone when she was due at any minute, so she started monitoring her daughter closely. Every so often, Tamma would stop and wince, trying to straighten a bit to alleviate the pain in her lower back. Those stops started to become a bit too predictable. Kalliopi felt her stomach bottoming out.
“Go home, Tamma. Go home now.”
Her words were drowned by Tamma’s yelp and groan.
“Oh no you don’t, little one. This is not the time or the place. You do not want to make your sweet mama do this in the bleeding woods.” Kalliopi took a moment to feel her daughter’s belly. Head down low. A contraction rippled Tamma’s belly. By Eileithyia’s torch, that baby was coming.
She breathed through it. “Well, little one, that was uncomfortable. I think it’s time we head back.”
They didn’t get more than a hundred feet before a contraction halted her. It was so strong she had to stop and grip the boulder she was near. A shriek ripped out of her as her water broke.
“Oh sweet Eileithyia, I think I just peed myself.”
A different kind of shriek sounded in the distance, one Kalliopi could hear but Tamma couldn’t.
“Get up, Tamma. You have...” Kalliopi cursed as she looked around them. A willow shaded the stone, and its branches were twisted together into tangled knots. The knots were like beacons for the mormones, and they weren’t always looking to convert a woman. Sometimes it was just time to torture and eat.
“Look.” Kalliopi used all her strength to shake the knots around her daughter. It was impossible. “Tamma!” Kalliopi screamed, tears racing down her cheeks.
Tamma’s head jerked toward her mother. Kalliopi froze when Tamma looked right at her. But from the way her eyes only rested on the branches around Kalliopi, she knew her daughter didn’t see her.
“Knots.” With a growl, she heaved herself up, legs shaking from the effort. She was smart enough to keep a knife on her.
“It won’t matter you have to untie them.”
She realized this after cutting one down and staring at it. Another contraction sent a howl out of her. It was all she could do to keep on her feet and stagger to the boulder.
“Eileithyia, I need some help here.” Tamma ground out the words from between her teeth. “Mama told Papa that she trusted you. I don’t understand. You failed her. But I’ve got no one else to turn to.”
Kalliopi stared at her daughter for a long moment. “I’m here, Tamma.” She touched her contracting belly. The baby kicked against her hand.
Another shriek sounded in the distance but much closer.
“You have to keep moving, Tamma. Keep moving.”
Tamma took another ragged breath and pushed herself from the boulder. She made it a few hundred feet before having to stop again. With a closing of her eyes, Kalliopi realized she had probably been having contractions for a while already. No one started progressing this quickly with their first child.
The cackles and shrieks were closer now. She could distinguish perhaps three different calls. Anytime Tamma would have a break she would try to walk a little more, and Kalliopi couldn’t help but feel that she wasn’t moving far or fast enough. Shadows moved in the distance, flitting from tree to tree. She shoved her tears away at the sight of their enemy.
“A little further, Tamma. Right over there.” She kept her hand on her daughter’s belly to help guide her. It was the only place Tamma would be able to feel her. She caressed her belly tenderly. In eighteen years, she had not been able to touch a single part of her daughter.
“Whose hand is on me?” She grimaced with each step, hand over her mother’s. “Perhaps Mama was right about you.”
Kalliopi allowed a small smile, watching the approaching shadows from behind and the somewhat defensible rock ahead. “Just to the rock, Tamma.”
The timing was right for another contraction. Tamma rushed to the boulder and lowered herself just as the contraction twisted her body. Kalliopi caressed her stomach in circles, singing softly despite the cackles approaching. She winced from her daughter’s screams which seared her eardrums. The gravel crunched, and someone panted.
Kalliopi turned, blade leading. She took the head of the first mormo who was poised behind her. All she needed to do was hold them off until Eileithyia sent Ophelia. With a grim nod, she began to sing her song as her blade spilled the inky blood of her daughter’s enemy.
“While you live, shine.” She severed an arm.
“Have no grief at all.” Kalliopi spun under a grab and drove the spike on the sword’s pommel into a mormo’s face.
“Life exists only for a short while.”
Tamma let out a battle cry to drive away the pain.
Kalliopi’s final swipe decapitated the final mormo. “And Time demands his due.”
The screams and battle were drawing more moromones from the forest. In the meantime, Kalliopi kicked away the bodies and parts away from her daughter. Then she sheathed her sword and turned to massage her daughter’s belly.
“You’re back,” Tamma said with a manic laugh.
“I’m always here, asteri mou. You can do this.”
Tamma started singing rowdy drinking songs to herself, making Kalliopi laugh. Her mirth was short lived. Cackles were coming from behind the boulder. She hated the mormones. The stench of their decay was enough to tell her of their nearness. She drew her sword with one hand, and with the other, rested it against her stomach so Tamma would know she was not alone.
The next assault was harder than the first, several fighting to come around from behind the boulder. But Kalliopi was no novice on her first protection assignment. She sliced through the five without fail. Just as the last corpse fell, Kalliopi spotted another six coming from the forest and could hear more from behind the boulder. Prayers for help flowed ceaselessly. No sooner had the thought formed in her brain than a Gate opened to the right and out steps Ophelia and Agathe.
“Gods above,” Ophelia breathed when she spotted Kalliopi and Tamma.
“Lia, thank Eileithyia you’re here. I need you to get her father.”
“Do you not see that horde?”
“Now. She’s not got long. We have to get her away and fast.”
“And how do you purpose do we do that?”
“Animals. Get every animal in that house to follow you here.”
Ophelia’s back straightened. “That might work. But Agathe—"
“She doesn’t know where the house is. Go. Now!”
Her partner ran.
Agathe stood beside Kalliope. “What do we do?”
“They’re coming in waves with ever increasing numbers. We have to be the rocks they dash themselves against.” She drew a line in the dirt and put her toe to it. “They don’t get past this.”
Agathe’s nostrils flared from the stench as the mormones began running at the sound of Tamma’s war cries. She nodded once.
Kalliopi wondered if they were as hideous to Agathe now as they were upon the young mother’s death. But Agathe was born with more resolve than most. She planted herself and did not shutter when the battle began. Kalliopi sang of death and dealt it to her adversaries. Agathe was silent as a wraith and just as fatal. The mormones were throwing themselves at them, fighting over the bodies of their companions. Kalliopi wondered if their bodies would wall the three in. In the midst of a particularly heated bout, the ground began to shake. Tamma even sat a little straighter and looked toward the city.
A stampede of chickens, a cow, pigs, two horses, one of which was attached to a wagon, and a limp-running Chariton came barreling toward them. And there was Ophelia on the wagon, steering as best she could. She saluted Kalliopi with a grin and leapt down. Chariton let out a yelp and managed to kneel beside his daughter. Tamma laughed.
“Am I hallucinating?”
“Tamma! Gods above! Are you in your time?”
“What...how...What’s going on?”
“We have to get you home. Hurry. Before you can’t move.”
Kalliopi kept both hands on her daughter’s stomach, trying to bear some of the weight.
“Someone’s touching me, Papa.”
He laughed a little, brow furrowed. Then he heaved her into the wagon. Kalliopi and Ophelia joined her in the back while Agathe started shooing the animals back the way they came. Chariton turned the cart and horse around.
Ophelia and Kalliopi both began massaging her stomach when another contraction slammed into her. It took longer for it to pass.
“Who’s with you?” she asked Kalliopi.
“It’s just me.”
“No, someone is rubbing my stomach, Papa.”
He jerked his head to look back. “What?”
“I think Eileithyia is with me. Someone else is with her too.”
Chariton’s eyes filled with tears. “That’s your Mama, asteri mou. She’s with you.”
Tears sprang into her eyes. “Is it true? Are you here?”
Ophelia grinned at Kalliopi, who started shaking, and pulled her hands away so that only Kalliopi’s were there. Kalliopi pressed her
lips to her daughter’s stomach, rubbing even her face against her. Tamma wailed and laughed at once.
“She’s here. Mama’s here.” She screamed as another contraction hit. They were coming so quickly now. “She...she’s pressing her face to my stomach.”
“Eileithyia be praised. What a blessing.” Chariton laughed and drove the horse on relentlessly.
Ophelia helped her partner massage through the contraction until they were finally at home. Kalliopi yelped in relief when Cadmus and Bion rushed out to carry in their sister. She ran with Chariton into the house as Tamma screamed.
“Mama, where are you?” She wouldn’t still until her mother’s hands were back on her stomach. “Don’t leave me. You have to get me through this.”
“I will, asteri mou. I am not leaving.”
“Who is she talking to?” Bion asked their father in a whisper.
“Her mother,” snapped the new wife. Kalliopi glared at her when she entered, hands freshly washed. “Now shut it or get out, boys.”
Tamma yelped and screamed when Dorcas felt for her dilation.
“Thank Eileithyia. You’re ready to push.” She stared into Tamma’s eyes. “Listen. You’re going to push. You feel Kalliopi touching your belly?”
Tamma’s round eyes blinked. “Yes.”
“She’s only able because you’re pregnant. You won’t feel her after the baby’s born. Kalliopi, you need to say your goodbyes until the next pregnancy.”
Kalliopi stared at this woman whom she had hated until that moment. Tears dripped from her eyes as she hugged as much of her daughter as she could. Tamma wept, trying her best to hug her back.
“I love you,” Kalliopi whispered to her daughter’s stomach.
“I love you too, Mama.” She cried and screamed and cried. “I have to push. I don’t want to, Mama. But I feel like I have to push.”
Kalliopi patted and rubbed her belly, hoping she understood that she needed to do what her body told her.
Dorcas got her onto the birthing stool. Kalliopi held her daughter for another hour before Dorcas cried out in joy.
“The head. The head.”
After the shoulders, the entire baby emerged, howling at the top of his impressive lungs. Kalliopi’s hands passed right thought her daughter like air. Mother and daughter cried for only a moment.
“A boy!” Dorcas announced with a laugh, swaddling and cleaning as best she could.
Kalliopi beamed as she stared down into the crimson and furious face of her grandson. She had been there for all her other grandchildren’s births. Tamma’s felt just as special as the first. Not for the first time did she wish she were alive and able to wrap her daughter and grandson in her arms, shower them with kisses and hugs.
“He’s beautiful, Popi.” Chariton stood across from her with their daughter and her son between them. “You are a warrior, asteri mou.”
He kissed his daughter’s forehead.
Kalliopi looked to Agathe and Ophelia as they flanked her.
“He’s adorable, Popi,” Ophelia laughed. “Look. He does that same scrunch of the nose you do when you’re mad.”
Kalliopi let them both hold one of her hands. She tried hard not to cry more.
“Dorcas, is she still here?”
“Oh yes.” Dorcas smiled. “I noticed her earlier today. She’s with you more than you realize.”
Tamma’s chin trembled. “How do you know?”
“We are priestesses of Eileithyia.” Dorcas shrugged. “It’s a thing we have.”
She nodded, eyes searching for her mother. Tamma opened her mouth to speak but stopped herself. Dorcas took the moment to have Tamma finish with the afterbirth, before reuniting mother and son and allowing her to rest in bed. Kalliopi sat beside her daughter and grandson while Agathe and Ophelia stayed outside. She pretended she could run her fingers through her daughter’s hair. With a sigh of utter contentedness, Tamma began to sing.
Sweet star of mine, sleep well and deep.
Sweet star of mine, do not cry or weep,
For I am near. You need not fear.
Sweet star of mine, sleep well and deep.
Kalliopi cried, remembering all the nights she sat beside her daughter and sang that very song. None of the boys did that for her, and Chariton was never a singer. She smiled down at her child laying beside her own child.
“Mama, I’m going to name him Hesiodos,” Tamma whispered, her words slowing with exhaustion.
“It’s a good name.”
“Thank you for saving me and my son today.”
Kalliopi pressed her lips to her daughter’s forehead, pretending contact actually happened. “Rest, my warrior. Know that I love you.”
Then she went to find Chariton. He was sitting with his eyes fixed on the fire in the hearth. She stood beside him, quiet and still. A smirk filled his face.
“You’re still here, aren’t you.”
She laughed a little with him.
“Thank you. I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you’ve saved her.” His chin trembled. “I love you, Popi.”
“I love you, Chariton.”
“Come back soon.”
She kissed his cheek, and he leaned in like he could really feel it.
The walk to the Gate was both heavy and light. Agathe and Ophelia gave Kalliopi her space to revel in her time with her family. She exhaled once they were through.
“So, maybe I was wrong.” She looked from Ophelia to Agathe. “Maybe Dorcas isn’t a hag.”
* Oldest recorded Greek composition called the Seikilos Epitaph
* asteri mou: my star
* latria mou: my darling or one whom I worship
* agapi mou: my love