Several months earlier ...
Skedesa was closely hugging her beloved Zipper, and she was reluctant to leave him. She was permeated by inexplicable love and attraction to that man, and she did not try to figure out why. She enjoyed making love with him in the open, close to nature. She had deliberately brought him here, high up in the mountain, near the seven crystal clear lakes, for here she felt a surge of energy and happiness.
Zipper was the best warrior of their tribe. They belonged to the Bessi tribe. Most of the Bessi settlements were in the Rhodope mountain, the mountain of Orpheus, but their settlement was a little further northwest, at the foot of the Roula mountain. Ancient Thracians had given it the name of Donouka, but some called it Dounax or Dounkas – which meant “the mountain with the most rivers and lakes”. From there took its source the Iskar river which the Romans had named Eskus, and also the Maritsa and Mesta rivers. Rivers replete with fish and fresh cold water. Blessing for humans and animals alike.
Summer was in full swing, and although they were high up in the mountain, the air was balmy and crisp. They were lying on a carpet of forest flowers and herbs she had painstakingly laid out. His gaze roamed the infinite sky over them, and he thought that somewhere there, beyond the limits of his look, was the realm of the great god Zbelsourdos – the stream of light! The god who, when he got incensed with people, cast fiery lights with which he set fire to everything.
In two days’ time they got back to their settlement huddled between three hills. There was also a small rivulet, and the rivers around abounded in game and fowl. There they were secure. At least they thought so. In the past years the Romans had regularly invaded Thracian settlements in the plains. The legions ruthlessly looted and set fire to their villages.
“Skedesa, Skedesa, come here!” her aunt called her anxiously as soon as she saw her.
“What’s the matter?” the girl asked, embarrassed.
“Your grandfather is unwell. He wants to see you.”
They entered the palace built from stone pillars and walls on which ritual pictures were painted, and headed for the priest’s chamber. He was lying there, visibly pale and sickly, but when he caught sight of her he smiled. She knelt by his bed and he stroked her on the head in a fatherly manner.
“Leave us alone!” he ordered the servants.
When everyone was gone, the priest said:
“Skedesa, my dear girl, I will soon embark upon the road to infinity, but before that happens, I would like to share something very important. About fifteen years ago, I and other priests were invited to consecrate a temple to the god Zbelsourdos with the Thracian tribe of Medi. They live around the banks of the Stroum river, at the foot of the mountain. We had finished the feasts, when all of a sudden Roman armies attacked us. We all fought bravely, but they were numerous and killed everyone, one after the other. When we took flight to save our lives, I and the priest of the Medi ran across two children. One was a boy aged around three years, and the other was a girl aged about two. You were the girl. We came to terms over the children. He took the boy, and I took the girl, that is, you. And because in that battle I had lost my daughter and my granddaughter who had lived with the Medi, I resolved to raise you as my own granddaughter. We had given one of our daughters to become the wife of the elder son of the Medi’s priest, in token of friendship and amicability. When I got home I told everyone you were my granddaughter now, for my daughter had perished. You belong to the Medi tribe.”
Skedesa looked at him with unbelieving eyes, and she was at a loss what to think. She loved the priest and she knew he was her grandfather. She knew her mother had perished far away from their village, but no one had told her when, how and where that had happened. They told her they didn’t know. Not even her grandfather dwelt on the subject.
Skedesa herself had grown up among fearless warriors, and the priest, having noticed her brave spirit and the flame in her eyes, had ordered that she be trained to shoot with a bow, throw a javelin, and fight with a sword and with her bare hands. She defeated most boys in fights and in competitions with a bow and a sword. She had even participated in a real fight with warriors from enemy tribes on several occasions.
The old priest frowned. He was clearly in pain. When the pain wore off, he uttered in a feeble voice:
She lowered herself to his ear.
“There is yet another thing,” he started. “Some time ago, a messenger from the lands of the Medi arrived. He told me that their priest, my friend, had risen in heaven to join his ancestors, but before that he had ordered him to come and tell me a very important story.”
“It turned out that the boy he took back then, when I took you, is your brother. But what is more important, you were five children. Three brothers and two sisters. Your parents perished, and most of your relatives also perished during that attack of the Romans. A long time passed before a man came who told him about you. Your eldest brother’s name was Dzaibalos. The name means “warrior of God”, but everyone in Rome and everyone around the world know him under the name of Spartacus! You are his sister.”
Skedesa stood rendered speechless by the astonishing story of the priest. Several years before word had spread over their lands of the great gladiator Spartacus and his warriors with whom he had organized the largest uprising in the world! Legends were narrated of his bravery and valiance and of his numerous battles and victories on the gladiator arena.
“So Spartacus is my brother!” she said to herself, full of admiration.
“He was a small boy when you were born, and you will hardly remember him,” the priest said. “When I took you from the village, Dzaibalos – Spartacus hid in the mountain together with other villagers. In a couple of months they put up a rebellion and managed to wreak considerable damage on the Romans. Then their invasions continued, and thus they gradually regained their territories. Angered by that, in Rome they took a decision and sent punitive legions led by Sulla. He managed to smother the rebellions, and in one attack they took Spartacus captive. But owing to his incredibly strong body and good martial skills, they decided not to kill him, but rather to train him and turn him into a gladiator.“
“In the last battle of the gladiators against the legions of Marcus Crassus, the rebels were defeated. Almost all of them were crucified along the entire road leading to Rome. But Spartacus’s body was never found. God did not allow that his warrior be desecrated!”
Suddenly Skedesa’s mind was deluged with memories of the mysterious dreams she dreamed from time to time, and she could not figure them out. These dreams were confused and unclear. But she often saw herself as a small baby, two strong hands took her up from the cradle, raised her and then threw her high up, and she laughed and enjoyed the flight. The youngster also laughed and told her something but she could not make out his words. His eyes shone like stars and warmed her.
“Wasn’t that Spartacus, my brother?!”Skedesa thought.
“Daughter, when I shall have passed away, Augur shall take my position. I have instructed him to guard you and take care of you, but I do not put much trust in him,” the priest uttered, interrupting the memories she was sunk in, “so I would like to unravel one more secret for you. You certainly know, you have heard of the ancient Thracian sanctuaries, haven’t you?!”
She nodded affirmatively and uttered a soft “yes”.
He unfolded his robe and produced several rolls of hide. Then he beckoned to her, inviting her to come still nearer, and whispered into her ear:
“These are maps with designations of the places where the ancient Thracian sanctuaries are. In several of them there are really precious statues and gold and silver objects. There are weapons as well. May Zbelsourdos and the stream of light protect you! Believe in yourself and in him only!”
On the next morning the news was spread that during the night the heavenly forces had taken him to their better world.
As soon as Skedesa met the eyes of Augur, the new priest, she immediately knew how eagerly he had awaited the death of her grandfather. However hard he tried, he was not able to conceal his joy on account of the fact that he was to be the priest and the leader of the tribe
Late in the night he called her to himself.
She went, but she did not kneel, as was the custom to do in front of the priest of the tribe. She stood and met his eyes with a proud stare.
“I can punish you severely for your boldness,” Augur said, “but I will not do that. I know quite a lot about you and about your grandfather. You have known him as a caring and affectionate grandpa, as he treated you well; but in fact deep down he was a rather sly and scheming person. He kept secrets that he should have shared with me, but he did never do that.”
Skedesa did not respond, but the slander against her grandfather filled her with fury, and she felt she started to feel a surge of resentment towards Augur.
“Did he tell you of the ancient Thracian sanctuaries? Did he tell you where they are?” Augur asked.
“No, he did not,” Skedesa said with confidence.
Augur approached her, and he almost pushed his face against hers. She saw the two hairy warts on his cheekbone and by his left nostril, and she felt his repulsive breath. She shrank back at once and took a deep breath.
“I know you are lying,” Augur said with venom. My loyal people told me they heard your grandpa share with you knowledge on ancient sanctuaries.”
“So it turns out this traitor has spies?! Did they see how grandpa handed me the scrolls?!” she wondered. “They could hardly have seen us. If they had, now he would demand them in plain language!”
She looked at Augur, straight into his eyes, and confirmed:
“Yes, that’s right. Grandpa tried to tell me something, but he did not have the strength. Just when he started talking about that, his voice was gone, and he passed out. I waited for him and hoped he would recover, but that was in vain. You know the rest, in the morning he had already departed to join the great majority in the skies.”
Augur pierced her with the look of his black and malicious eyes, trying to penetrate through the membrane of her thoughts, but she kept looking back at him with an equally strong piercing and unwavering stare.
“You know what,” he said in a softer and more amicable note, “I thought as much, you and I could be on good terms. You are pretty and brave. You are a seasoned warrior! I intend to marry you to my eldest son. In years, he will be the new priest. And I even thought of making you the priestess of the goddess Kibela.”
Skedesa thought over his words. The priestess of Kibela had an enormous power over the tribe. It was almost equal to the power that the supreme priest had.
“Beware of treachery and slyness,” her grandfather’s voice echoed in her mind, as if coming from the kingdom of the dead.
“Well, would you like to become a priestess?” Augur asked.
“Yes, I would,” Skedesa said.
“OK, but you should tell me where the ancient sanctuaries lie. I am certain your grandfather told you. On that condition only.”
The anger that was raging in her heart grew even stronger, and she had to summon all her efforts to suppress it.
She wanted to be a priestess, but not at that cost. And, of course, she had no wish at all to marry his son!
“I don’t know where the sanctuaries lie!” was Skedesa’s reply, almost a cry. “And I do not wish to marry your son!”
“OK, but then another woman shall be the priestess of Kibella!” Augur uttered spitefully.
“If she does not want to tell me, I will have to give her the herb of truth”, he thought. “With a little wine and a little potion, she will start talking. But I had better be careful. A lot of warriors like her, and as far as I know, she is in a relationship with our best warrior, Zipper.”
“Very well,” he said. “Be that as you wish. But you’d better think about that, and if you decide to tell me, then you will be a priestess, immediately! I like you. I would not like to be bad to you. You know I can have you tortured, and then you will tell me what I need to know, but I will not do that. You are the granddaughter of the late priest, and your authority in the tribe is great.”
Skedesa kept silent. She had noticed the vile sparks in his look, and she was on the lookout. She sensed he was scheming something, and he was not willing to give up his intentions to wring out the truth about the sanctuaries. She should learn in detail about his methods and approaches he resorted to. It occurred to her that the herb gatherer could tell her about him, as he often visited her.
In the evening, she met Zipper and told him about the talk she had had with the new priest.
Finally he asked:
“And do you really know where those sanctuaries are?”
She sensed something in his look. It was something that embarrassed her and made her be alert. She was scared, surprised and perplexed.
“Can it be that my lover, the person I have given my body and soul to, could be involved as well?! Could the priest have forced him, threatened or tempted him in some way?”
The doubts stabbed her heart.
“Grandpa mentioned something, but he did not manage to finish,” she said, having decided to be cautious and test Zipper’s love.
“Trust yourself and Zbelsourdos only”, she heard the words her grandfather had uttered.
In the next couple of days, Skedesa was constantly on the lookout. She behaved naturally, but she followed Zipper’s actions closely, and noted where he went and whom he met.
She saw him talk to the priest’s son several times. That was the man they wanted to marry her to. Her apprehensions of a plot and treachery soared. Finally she decided to ask Zipper why he met the priest’s son.
“He wants us to go hunting, to sacrifice gifts in honour of the goddess Kibela,” he explained.
“And when are you planning to go hunting for gifts?” she asked.
“In a couple of days, when the moon is full. He wants us to go just the two of us, to the gorge where boars gather at the watering place. You remember the place, don’t you? We, you and I, went there once together. There is a small stream and a marsh. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” she said, and she wondered: “Why should he want them to go there, just the two of them?” Could it be that the priest’s son wanted to kill her lover?!
The very thought of that alarmed her, and she asked:
“Why are you going there just the two of you?”
“I cannot tell you,” he said.
“You can’t? Why can’t you tell me?” Skedesa raised her voice.
“These are men’s deals,” he replied, in a firm and final tone, which meant to show her she should ask no further.
“Something is wrong there,“ she told herself. “That should be a trap, and they must be scheming to kill Zipper. I will have to follow them.”