Today I’m taking part in the blog tour for Athena’s Champion by David Hair and Cath Mayo, published by Canelo on 8th November 2018. More about the book later, but first I’ve got an extract for you.
The preparations are brief, and simple. Doripanes takes me to a small chamber where a copper bowl has been filled with water from the nearest, most sacred spring. I strip and wash to cleanse myself before being presented to the Goddess, then pull on a borrowed knee-length tunic. After that I’m made to kneel before an altar crowned with a rough statue of the Goddess that’s old, darkened by ash and smooth from decades of hands. An open chalice of scented lamp oil burns slowly, filling the air with fragrant smoke.
Then a hissing voice whispers. ‘Odysseus… Odysseus,’ it says. ‘Man of fire…’
I startle, and Doripanes looks at me. ‘Prince?’
‘Did you hear that?’ I begin, but it’s clear he’s heard nothing.
He touches my shoulder. ‘Come, the Pythia awaits.’
My rational mind has never quite believed this coming ceremony isn’t mere formality, more elaboration than truth. False seers plague Achaea, the kingdoms of the Greeks, and I’ve heard Father and others often talk of this experience as being solemn, but not in any way uncanny. To believe in distant gods, whose lives barely touch a man’s except in such huge incidents as storms, earthquakes and plagues, is quite different to believing they are watching me, and examining all the strands of my future. Despite the ominous pressure I’ve felt all day, it’s solid and tangible things I usually fear – war, piracy, assassination – not the mystical.
I set my jaw and concentrate on bearing myself with dignity, rejoining my family but not looking at them as I follow Doripanes down curved stairs into a deep chamber, a circular subterranean vault around twenty feet in diameter. In the middle, oil lamps have been placed around the great central cleft in the rock, from which a vapour rises, drifting around the Pythia as she sits on a large bronze tripod. The rest of the vault lies in semi-darkness.
The old woman before me in her purple and white robe is no longer my grandmother Amphithea: she’s entirely the Pythia, voice of the Goddess, heir of a tradition of prophecy to whom even kings bow. Every few moments she lifts her veil to catch the steam, inhaling it deeply and moaning as she does. Behind her, in the shadows, a half-dozen shaven-haired priests are arrayed: thin, insubstantial figures, like ghosts haunting the chamber.
Doripanes takes me to stand before the Pythia. ‘Remain standing,’ he whispers. ‘I’ll do the talking.’
I nod, and glance back at my family: Mother and Ctimene are huddled together, with Laertes slightly apart, next to Eurybates, watching gravely. Eury gives me a reassuring nod, but my nerves only tighten.
That slithering voice whispers again: ‘Odysseus… Fire…’
The walls of the chamber change, mottling like snakeskin and moving, contracting around us. The air thins and I’m sure there’s something poised behind me, its breath cold and stale and rotting. I flinch, wanting to spin round to confront it, but afraid to shift even my gaze. The Pythia coughs as she inhales more of the noxious vapours.
‘Great Goddess! Hera Parthenos, Hera Basileia, Hera Khere!’ Doripanes calls loudly, invoking the Virgin, the Queen and the Widowed Aspects of Hera. ‘We come before you, seekers of truth and wisdom! We bow before you! We worship you and thank you!’
The Pythia takes yet another deep inhalation of the vapours that swirl around her before parting her veil to reveal her face, the wrinkles deep-etched in the lamplight, her eyes rolling back in her skull. ‘Who comes?’ she rasps, her voice a full octave lower than her speaking voice, a low rattle filled with menace.
‘Odysseus, Prince of Ithaca, as a supplicant to your Holiness!’ Doripanes announces. ‘He comes before you humbly, purified and desirous of knowledge. His family await your judgement! Upon his line rests the peace and prosperity of his homeland! Will the kingdom of Ithaca pass into worthy hands? His parents have given consent, for he is their legacy, their heir! Will you walk the Viper’s Path with him, and measure his worth?’
The Viper’s Path? The phrase shocks me, alarmed already as I am by the slithering voice, and that monstrous serpentine presence I sense. The walls of the chamber seem to throb.
The Pythia’s orbs turn a glowing white and pierce me through. My muscles clench, as if to prevent me from being blasted backwards by that empty, harrowing gaze, the air crushed from my lungs by the twin weights of tension and fear. Part of my brain, the emotive part, the boy inside the man, is struck dumb; but the rational part is even here trying to guess how this might be contrived… The vapours, strong and heavy, what are they?
Then the Pythia speaks, obliterating all thought. Her voice is at times shrill, at others a low growl, her face staring into a void, looking past me, looking through me.
‘Purified? Where is the purity? He came to be purged yet he has been touched by another! Another? Nay, by two! Spawned in fire, born of lust, the renegade, the trickster, eternal traitor, eagle’s prey! Who dares! This is my place! Mine!’
There is a collective gasp at each raving ejaculation. The Pythia is no longer seated but standing, her feet straddling the steaming fissure, her eyes still blind but her face enraged. And when she looks at me with those blind eyes, her whole face is overlaid with some kind of serpentine visage, with massive fangs and hooded eyes. The fingers she jabs at me are virulently accusing.
‘Wit before wisdom! Concealed hands and hearts! Faithful yet false! Loved and loathed! Touched, more than touched: claimed, by another! I see you, False Daughter, the owl that swoops! But this one is not for you! Tainted chalice! Envenomed blade! Honourless, perilous! Lost wanderer! Twin-finder! And dangerous: yes, most dangerous! Wall breaker! Lock picker! True-hearted deceiver!’
I stare, petrified, as the Seeress sways towards me, holding her hands high as if admonishing the heavens, then twisting to hurl imprecations at the enclosing shadows. My mind is roiling: is this normal? Is it genuine, or some kind of performance?
Then she spins to leer into my face.
‘I see you, cuckoo’s egg! Seed of the cursed! Rotted fruit of the tainted seed! I see you: son of Sisyphus!’
The chamber is utterly quiet, the stillness broken by an awful sound – the startled sob of the woman I love most in the world: my mother, Anticleia. But I can’t look away from the hooded, pupil-less eyes of the prophetess, her bared teeth a hand’s breadth from my own, as the true horror of her words sinks in. Then I reel as the old woman gives an ear-splitting shriek and collapses to the ground.
The priests, led by an ashen-faced Doripanes, hurry to the Pythia’s aid as I stare at her prone form, momentarily paralysed. Anticleia has fallen to her knees, staring open-mouthed at the crumpled figure of her mother, and Ctimene has dropped to hold her, her face upturned to see the reaction of Laertes, her mouth moving but no words coming out.
Cuckoo’s egg… Seed of the cursed… Son of Sisyphus…
‘Mother?’ I croak.
The wretched look on her face tells me the rest. She’d resisted coming here because she’d feared this very moment. Her final words before we entered the shrine take on new resonance: ‘We all have secrets…’
My father… No, not my father… King Laertes is staring at me as if Hades himself has risen to claim him. His normally stolid face is torn open with anguish and rage.
Mother slept with another man… and the two of them, clasped in adultery, conceived me…
Anticleia crawls to her husband, tries to seize his knees. He bends and catches her arms, lifts her, and for a moment I hope for some kind of understanding.
Then Laertes’s right hand cracks across Mother’s face and she’s sent flying, sprawling on her back, her head striking the stone floor. I rush to her side.
Her cheek is split, she’s been struck senseless, but she still breathes. ‘Mother, wake up,’ I cry, ‘Please, I beg you! Wake!’ Then I look up. ‘Father?’ I plead.
‘I’m not your father,’ Laertes croaks. The King rocks on his heels, almost falling before he regains his balance. Then he turns and strides to the stairs, taking them at a run, and vanishes.
Athena’s Champion, by David Hair and Cath Mayo is published by Canelo on 8th November 2018.
The first in a thrilling new historical fantasy series; Odysseus must embrace his secret heritage and outwit the vengeful Gods who would control or destroy him…
Prince Odysseus of Ithaca is about to have his world torn apart. He’s travelled to the oracle at Pytho to be anointed as heir to his island kingdom; but instead the Pythia reveals a terrible secret, one that tears down every pillar of his life, and marks him out for death.
Outcast by his family, hunted by the vengeful gods, Odysseus is offered sanctuary by Athena, goddess of wisdom, and thrust into the secret war between the Olympians for domination and survival. Only his wits, and his skill as a warrior, can keep him ahead of their power games – and alive.
When one of Athena’s schemes goes drastically wrong, and the young Helen of Sparta is kidnapped, Odysseus must journey past the gates of Hades to save her. Falling in love with a Trojan princess, a bewitching woman who poses a deadly threat to both his homeland and Athena, won’t make his task any easier…
Drawing from classic Greek mythology, Athena’s Champion, first in the epic Olympus series, is perfect for fans of Madeline Miller and David Gemmell.
David Hair is an award-winning New Zealand YA and Adult fantasy writer, and the author of sixteen novels. He’s joined his considerable skill and expertise with Cath Mayo to create the Olympus Series, an adult historical fantasy drawing on ancient Greek Mythology, following the adventures of Odysseus as he navigates the dangerous world of the Greek Gods.
Cath Mayo is a New Zealand YA, Children and Adult fiction author. Her two published YA historical novels are both set in Ancient Greece and her first novel received a Storylines Notable Book Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2014. She’s joined her considerable skill and expertise with David Hair to create the Olympus Series, an adult historical fantasy drawing on ancient Greek Mythology, following the adventures of Odysseus as he navigates the dangerous world of the Greek Gods. @cathmayoauthor