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The Child Eaters

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Learning to love Electra, Pylades thought, was the most dangerous adventure he’d yet embarked on. But it had the potential to be the most glorious as well. Not that glory was forthcoming at the moment, crowded into the bottom of a swift-oared ship, winging its way towards the Symplegades.

It was briny, and breathless, and cramped. Not what he had been lead to believe. he had been raised on tales of the thousand ships that sailed for Helen, but if they were ships like this, and this keel had once rested on a Trojan shore, not ten years past, then he could not imagine how their proud fathers had borne it. Phocis was a country of pastoral hills, and he had never set foot on a seafaring ship before Menelaus’ grudging loan had sent them off, out of Mycenae, out of Greece, as good as banished. Only Orestes believed this was anything but a voyage into exile, and Orestes - proud, principled Orestes, his cousin, the best of his friends - Orestes was mad, an inconstant murmuring shadow of the man he had grown up beside.

They leaned against him, he and Electra, one on either side, keeping him warm and dry from the sea-spray, and they talked, to comfort their brother and drown his portentous muttering. Pylades recalled to him the adventures of their youth, triumphant and inglorious alike - the shared laughter of failed hunts, the gold shine of the firelight at feasts, the warmest of memories, to soothe him.

Electra spoke of history and justice.

“The House of Atreus has always eaten its young,” she said. There was a snarl in her voice that never went away. Every word she spoke had been wrought of grief and hate for so long that even when she rejoiced, there was something guttural lurking in her throat. It alarmed him, sometimes, but he didn’t fear it. It was admirable. It was her determination, bright-beaten bronze and sharp as any sword.

“A curse and a sin, but not a mortal one. Our thrice-great grandfather is Kronos, who feared his children and devoured them. Even his father Ouranos tried to re-womb the Hecatonkheires, and hurled them into darkness when that failed. Great-great grandfather Zeus, who set down the laws, still permitted Zagreus to be torn to shreds and eaten, still flung Hephaestus from the heights, and himself gulped down Athena.

“But still, when Tantalus offered up Pelops as a feast to the Olympians, they despised him, mortal son of their king, and in the name of justice pieced Atreus together again and made him live. When Atreus punished the traitor Thyestes by feeding him the flesh of his sons, the son that survived sought vengeance against our father, Atreus’ son, blameless Agamemnon. And even he - he, Orestes! - gave our sister Iphigenia to the gods. If they feast on the cattle we burn for them, did they not then feed on the flesh of Tantalus’ line again?

“As Zeus overthrew Cronus, as kingship passes from father to son, it’s the way of the world for the old to give way for the young. Their labors, their legacy, is meant to feed us, not the other way around. Even the criminals who destroy their children call it injustice! So that unnatural mother who would have had you killed in your cradle to appease the defiler of our father’s bed - she deserved the fate of Tantalus, or the fate of Kronos. You did no wrong. Send the Furies back to the line of our grandfathers if you will, but be mine, be Orestes, again.”

“What of Hermione?” Orestes answered, and shuddered, and looked away. Pylades wrapped an arm tighter around his shoulder.

“Hermione lives,” he said, which was truth, but he felt a guilty twinge nonetheless. Hermione lived, but her life had been the price that bought them exile, and not death. Her survival had been the first bright point amidst darkness and turmoil, a hesperine star. Some of that darkness had been passed down as a dark inheritance, as Electra described, but some of it they had wrought.

No, that was not fair. There, too, Orestes was innocent. He and Electra had done that. It was Orestes, and his madness, that had saved them.

***

“The fever will break,” Electra murmured, running the corner of her peplos over his brow, already damp with dew and sweat, impossible to tell the two apart where they sat in the hollow of an untended grove. “The nightmare will end. Dawn will come for you as you came for me, Orestes. You don’t need to fear anything, not you.”

Those were the first words Pylades heard when he returned to them, and they all but stopped his heart - not the pleasant jump he felt when Orestes called him brother, or when first Electra’s downturned mouth and shadowed eyes had smiled at him, but a dull silence between beats, the end of this day prefigured. To hear Electra’s growl become tender, that smoky rasp softened, was a joy, but he could hear already the catscratch her voice would become when he broke the news to her. And he had neither cause nor right to wait, not now.

“The verdict’s returned,” he said, drawing their eyes to him - wide and hopeful, and neither, perhaps, more lucid than the other. Both of them lived in other worlds, both for good reason.

“Did Menelaus’ words sway our jurors to pity?” Orestes’ voice was all but indifferent. To one suffering the punishments of the gods, the verdicts of man meant little. He sounded weary, that was all, already but a shade of the Orestes Pylades had known.

“Ask rather, did they bring them to clarity?” Electra asked, but Pylades was already shaking his head.

“Menelaus did not speak,” he said, voice taut, trying to convey the news without trembling. “Menelaus never showed himself. He provisions his ships, and his wife and daughter take their repose in the empty quarters most befitting their station. I pleaded, and some others… but the verdict is death. They would have come to deliver it themselves, but you have this much dignity granted: we can end things ourselves, together, rather than by their hands.”

“Ourselves?” Orestes’ gaze sharpened, and he opened his mouth, but Electra spoke first.

“You stood no trial; you were sentenced to nothing. If the Argives condemn us rather than wreathing us in laurel, you should never suffer for it.”

It was the tenderest sentiment his betrothed had expressed, and it softened Orestes’ frown, and for even that moment of surcease, Pylades was tempted.

“No. Survive the calamity that claimed my brother and my bride? I would be ashamed. I would be desolate. Tried or not, I have stood with you in every moment. Let no-one say I shied now, or feared the price, or doubt that I still believe in your rightness.”

“The gods do not believe,” Orestes husked.

“Apollo gave us every omen,” Pylades countered, and looked to Electra. She could convince her brother, where he could not – perhaps because familiarity lacked authority, where memory granted it. She was still new to them both, and captivating. But it was also true that she, terrible as any Fury Pylades imagined, could brook no doubts. Whatever tormented her brother, she did not believe it was the Kindly Ones.

“You are not some Hyperborean barbarian-prince, to stand hesitating when the divine call for is clear,” she said, leaning in near to him and nodding. “She killed our father. Failing to avenge him would bring divine vengeance, if any action would so stir them from their complacent audience. If mere audacity roused them, if slaughter touched their hearts, we would have seen it long before.”

Pylades nodded, then blinked as she rounded on him, his heart stuttering.

“But you must live. You must. If every fruit on the tree we’ve watered is bitter, then someone must survive to tend it. My brother’s sword will do for us, Pylades, but for you, your own sword has better purposes. Whether we slay ourselves or not, this verdict was wrong. It is no suicide, and no execution. It is murder. You must not let this verdict go unavenged.”

“One man against a city? If there were seven of me, I could not avenge you. I can do more for you by raising the temper of Phocis against this injustice than by any act, any word, and nothing will strike them as strongly as the death of their prince. They cannot fail me. And I cannot fail you.”

“Not the Argives,” Electra said, tautly dismissive. “Nor our grandfather, grieving his daughter, who drove them to it. Foolishness and spite cloud them, but they have tried to do right. It is Menelaus who has sinned against us, Menelaus who forebore to say the word that would have stayed our sentence, Menelaus whose wife and daughter now rest in our beds. He has chosen his own profit over duty to family, when his family has given all for him. Faithless, reneger of debts, he must not be allowed to forget our deaths even if all others do. ”

“What would you have me do?” Pylades asked, stricken, rhetorical. “What sensible course can I take to right your memory among the living? What options offer themselves, that are worth shunning death to pursue? Should I wait for some other miserable course to be plotted and laid down by Apollo? Should I kill Helen, who began Achaia’s grief?”

***

He had weeks on the ship to reflect on what they had done. Electra grew more proud, Orestes more anguished, but Pylades only felt puzzled. Each of them was certain of what had befallen, and he stood between, sorting their accounts. It had been a mad plan, a bid for life that he was only too happy to embrace, watching it bring hope back into these two dear faces. Enter the palace; kill Helen, seize Hermione, threaten to kill the girl too and burn all of it down if they were not granted safe-passage and one of Menelaus’ freshly provisioned ships.

It was their first true battle, and truthfully, on the whole he preferred murder. The house had been in chaos. Helen’s foreign armsmen had been caught off-guard, beaten back or slain with easy strokes of the sword meant for them to end their lives. Electra’s eyes had kindled at it, unafraid, and he had marveled at her. They had found Hermione, but no sign of Helen, and as they split to quarter the building and secure the doors, at each new turn Orestes bore new report of the gods’ will. They pressed onward. Pylades brought Hermione to the roof, where Orestes waited with a vision from Apollo - that truth-telling god whose advice had brought them only confusion and grief. But he could not say it. Not while they had purpose to hold them fast against despair. He had given the girl to Orestes, watched in fascination the shouted negotiations with baffled Menelaus. And then...

***

“I’m putting down the sword,” Orestes said, wary-eyed, and didn’t, letting the tip waver and stray like an autumn leaf trembling in the wind. Cautiously, Hermione lifted a hand to his wrist, pushing at it stiff-fingered until there was space enough for her to step away. One step, two, and then she ran, and he laughed, light-headed and nervous.

“Olympian Gods,” Pylades breathed, gratefully. “All alive. Alive and redeemed.”

Electra stepped up behind the pair of them, wrapping one arm around each in an embrace as tight as a serpent’s coil. “We did it,” she said, low and fierce and satisfied. “At last, at last we’ve won.”

“Alive and victorious,” Orestes answered them both. “But not yet free.”

***

As they sailed, Electra let her hair grow long, leaving her mourning behind her. Her fierceness did not dim, but she smiled more often. She mapped the line past which her utterances would make the still-fragile Orestes tremble, and once mapped, she did not cross it before him. With Pylades she was bolder. She had so much to say held behind her lips, years of living with her father’s killers having taught her to temper, but not silence, her opinions. He would not for the world have denied her the freedom of her tongue.

Orestes still insisted this journey would carry them home, triumphant, once they had retrieved some lost image of Artemis’ that had made its way to Tauris’ barbarian shore. Apollo had vouched for it, he said, trusting, in those calm moments where he remembered the face of the god and forgot the whispers of the Furies that he also still heard, hounding him onward. Pylades and Electra exchanged glances over him as they played nursemaid. They would not deny him, either, held in tension of his duty for so long and now released of it.

In bleaker moments, it struck Pylades as comic that Electra, who never for a moment had doubted the rightness of their cause or their course, was as skeptical as he of unseen Apollo’s reassurance. But her long years of restraint had taught her to doubt the authority and the justice of the gods, and seeing Orestes now was reason enough not to regain faith with their vindication.

As they approached the straits of Bosphorus, and the great dark rocks of the Symplegades, frozen now and forever but still enough to incite sailors to fear, Pylades found Electra beneath the deck, sawing through a lock of hair with a bronze dagger, and for a moment he despaired. Then she saw him, and smiled her narrow smile again, and lowered the knife.

“I have no home in which to host the feast, no father to grant me to you, no mother to prepare me, and my sisters are far away,” she said. “So the feast will be here, and I will prepare myself, and grant myself, and dedicate myself… at the temple in Tauris, once Orestes believes himself absolved. I have a brother, and I will have a husband, and I mean to see both well, and both mine, as you should have been long ago.”

“You’ll have everything you were denied,” he told her

“Yes,” she told him. “We all will.”

He clasped her hands, and when the white-horned curve of Tauris’ sandy shores rose on the edge of the world before them, he stood between, and clasped both their hands, and hoped for their hopes.