Brauron is the smell of grass and the touch of sunshine and everything free and good in the world after Tauris. Iphigenia feels it to be true all the more with every day she spends here, having shucked off the skin of the princess of Mycanae with all its accompanying blood feuds in exchange for her Lady’s bear-coats. A curious custom, but there’s reason for her Lady’s whims, Iphigenia knows; to claim otherwise would be to deny there was a reason for pale hands to lift her from the altar, to bind a deer there instead, to fling her on the back of the wind towards a faraway land peopled by brutes.
Her Lady always knows best. This much is true.
When Iphigenia was a girl, she was always obedient. She span faster than any of the other young women, she always wore her veil although it itched, and she kept the kitchen’s accounts with the utmost skill. Nothing gave her more pleasure than to coax a smile from her father of the heavy dark brows, a laugh from her wan sisters who drifted halfheartedly through the weaving rooms, a gurgle from the baby prince that lay in swaddling-clothes by the hearth.
“Such sweetness is unheard of in the women of Sparta,” her mother would tease, gathering her up into her arms and tweaking her nose, but it was that very sweetness that made Clystemnestra hold her so dear that the loss of Iphigenia could only be repaid in blood.
Iphigenia always did precisely what she was supposed to, and all it gained her in return was the honor to be sacrificed, whether to the lusts of Achilles or her father’s best bronze knife—it hardly mattered in the end.
Iphigenia was obedient at Tauris, too. She collected the tributes to the goddess and calculated when more was due, withhold name and identity from prisoners, and murdered sacrifices when she was told. When a stranger with her brother’s name and birthright swept her away, she followed in his train, even when he bade her marry his friend, the friend his own eyes followed so intensely.
This is Artemis: in her dreams, at Tauris and perhaps even in Mycenae, though she'd never admit it, Iphigenia runs, heart pounding, lungs painful, brow sticky with sweat, and all her being focused on the tautness of her bowstring, of the stag that races ahead. Beside her someone laughs, a low, rich sound, and it would make her breath catch if she had any to spare. Iphigenia doesn't dare look; to gaze upon the gods unguarded is to invite disaster, and her Lady is never so much herself as in the hunt.
Later, when the prize is caught and her Lady's silver knife flashes across the stag's throat, Iphigenia steals a glance. Her Lady is bright-eyed, face rosy with triumph, and Iphigenia will never see such a beautiful sight. Not even the shores of Tauris instead of dread Hades. Not even the first sight of her brother's face.
It's why they all follow Artemis, why they swear to such terrible oaths--and terrible they are; even Iphigenia has heard of the grisly fate that befell the last woman who broke faith with her Lady--for a smile, a clap on the shoulder of approval, for that burning bond of camaraderie between them. Men must know this world so intimately. In her dreams and with her Lady is the only way Iphigenia can claim it.
No. That's not right.
It's just that--the other gods sit enthroned, silent and remote, on great Olympus. Artemis races beside her. How could there be any choice?
On her deathbed, after a lifetime of silence, Iphigenia roars. There is no one these days but her Lady to hear her. Her voice is guttural and utterly unbefitting a princess, and it snarls but one word: Why?
Somewhere far in the night sky her Lady laughs. How else would you have learned?
Some nights in her dreams, or perhaps in truth, in Brauron, Iphigenia lies beside her Lady, staring up at the night sky. "There's the moon," says Artemis, lifting up Iphigenia's hand to point, "Selene's had me take out her chariot more times than I can count since she's had to tend to that fool shepherd of hers. I daresay she'll leave it all in my hands before I know it." A movement to the side, and: "There's the pole star, and there--" a slide of the hand along the stars that frame the North Star "--and there is--"
Artemis breaks off, but Iphigenia knows the story already. Mother whispered it to her, a cautionary tale. Poor Callisto, seduced and tricked by Zeus, subject to her Lady's rages and transformed into a beast, only to be near-killed by her own son and swung into the sky so far her tail stretched out behind her as as a last indignity on Artemis's part. She can guess, too, why her Lady speaks no more; betrayal always lingers close to the heart.
But then, for the first time, Iphigenia thinks to wonder, that the center of the glittering sky, among the stars that first caught to the human eye, could hardly be a place of disgrace.
At Brauron, Pylades comes to claim her. At first they had sent her away from Myceanae because alone of the children of Agamemnon, Iphigenia had dared to mourn her mother. A retreat, Orestes and Elektra had agreed, would calm her spirits. Besides, said Elektra, the rites must be observed. Iphigenia had brought her goddess with her from Tauris, and now she must bid farewell to her, in her own time.
Brauron when she had come to it had been abandoned and virgin; she had carved bow and arrows from a fallen tree with her own hands, formed a shelter of stones to grace the goddess without any one else’s help. She raced behind the creatures of the fields, only bringing down as many as she needed for her meals, and her hair had whipped out behind her.
The bear, the bear alone she kept as trophy. At first when it had crashed out of the undergrowth, mad-eyed, she had lowered her bow. Even Iphigenia before Aulis had known the bear was sacred to her Lady, after all. but even before piety, the bear had not retreated, and Iphigenia had known that no matter how much she loved her Lady, she loved life more.
The arrow had shot straight; the bear had collapsed to the ground. Later she had skinned it herself, leaving the meat as a sacrifice to the goddess. She curled under the bearskin that night, underneath the moonlight and the stars.
So Iphigenia had won her bear-drapes, but now she must be brought back into the world by the man promised her hand, and her children, and all that she was and will be.
(She thinks of Pylades, of Orestes's obvious affection for him; forces herself to think of raising his household, weaving and sewing her clothes, bearing his children. She does not does not does not think of how it makes her stomach turn.)
Pylades steps out of the boat, studying her as if trying to find the lines of Orestes’s face in her cheekbones. He is not a bad man, she knows; but still Iphgeinia retreats under the great fur she wears, covering bride with bear. He extends his hand to her in silent command—
(oh Lady save me now)
And Iphigenia opens her mouth, and says, for the first time she can remember: ”No.”
Pylades gapes. He argues, and stammers, and says more things, many more—but Iphigenia is drunk on her refusal, and, like a child only just learning to speak, she hums, “No, no, no” to everything he says.
Pylades leaves at last, Iphigenia still singing her denial like a madwoman. Orestes follows only days later, indignation making his face so childlike she has to smother the urge to smooth his curls down as she did when he was a baby.
”Why—“ he says, and “What were you thinking?” and “Sister, you could have been a princess—why be a madwoman instead?” and "If this was all you were good for, I should have left you on Tauris."
His parting words are that she’ll never see him again, or anyone else from the House of Atreus as long as she lives.
She ought to have considered that he always kept his promises.
She had only not expected that her Lady would abandon her, as well.
At the end of her life, at Brauron, after half a lifetime in isolation, all Iphigenia has to say to her Lady is: “Why?” Piety has its own rewards, but its own burdens too, and at last Iphigenia is tired of bearing them.
In the corner of her mind, Artemis laughs again in silver tones. “I wanted you to learn how to say no, my child, even to me. If this was the only way, then so be it. I laid a harsh calling on you, my child. It was yours to reject.”
”Another curse,” Iphigenia spits on the ground, or tries to. She is very weak these days. “You should have just had them slit my throat all those years ago and be done with it.”
”A blessing,” corrects Artemis. “But not so dissimilar.”
Her Lady's eyes grow distant, and through them, for an instant, Iphigenia sees another woman running alongside Artemis, with coppery hair and a steady arm. And her Lady steals glances sideways just as the stranger does at her, and they laugh together. It must be at the beginning of the world, for her Lady to appear so young; or perhaps it's only the happiness that runs through her that causes the effect. When the vision ends, Artemis droops, weary and ancient once more.
"After what befell Callisto, I swore on the River Styx that never again would I allow any of my maidens to suffer so. The best way--the only way--I can affect that is to teach you the right of your refusal and let you exercise it as you see fit." Artemis closes her eyes. "It was the least I owed her."
As though to herself, her Lady murmurs, "I never forget any of you, as long as I endure past you. You are all always in my heart."
This is too much to bear, with years of resentment clawing at her throat, recoiling at the goddess's sincerity. Iphigenia gets to her feet instead, bones aching. "And is that what you would ask of me? To teach it to all I meet?"
"And have them teach those that follow," confirms her Lady,"and then, my darling, I promise you the swiftest and gentlest of my arrows to lead you to the Elysian Fields."
"Very well," says Iphigenia, "very well."
In the days of Attica, they brought their daughters to the sanctuary of Brauron, there to play the bears to please the goddess before they must leave their childhood homes behind for their husbands. No one is quite sure why it must be bears in particular; perhaps a hunter offended the goddess by shooting first at her quarry and his sister volunteered to replace it, or perhaps it had something to do with poor Princess Iphigenia who lived and died there after sacrificing her life and happiness to the whims of holy Tauris.
There the girls roam free and unrestricted before they must return and wed; after all, Brauron is all sunshine and green grass and clean air, with no aunts or neighbors to cast aspersions on unladylike behavior. And in dreams, they say, if very lucky, a huntress speeds through their dreams at night, laughter echoing behind her, and the word no sing-song on the wind.