When her sister Arge drops to the floor in convulsions and dies at her wedding, fifteen-year-old Martis, a young poet and bull leaper in training, is certain she was murdered. The prime suspect is the groom, Saurus, from the Greek mainland, but when Arge’s shade visits Martis, swearing Saurus is not the murderer, Martis vows to uncover the truth.
As Martis begins asking questions, she discovers that while Arge may have had no secrets, many of the people around her certainly do.
“This complex, character-driven mystery is loaded with fascinating historical details”
~ Kirkus Reviews
Saurus was clad, not in a colorful loincloth, nor in the robe Cretan men wore for certain rituals, but in his leather armor. His wavy black hair spilled over his shoulders, un-oiled. And he carried his weapons, long knives in their scabbards, at his waist. His one attendant, his friend Kabya, stood behind him, dressed in like manner. Gasps of condemnation sounded through the crowd.
‘Does he think he’s going to fight someone,’ Mother said in angry disapproval.
Saurus looked around at the crowd, his eyes narrowed, and then he lifted his chin defiantly. Although I didn’t like him, I recognized his uncertainty. He knew we despised him and his barbarous ways.
When Saurus had first come to the palace, I’d been prepared to accept him. He knew my mother’s brother and had come with news of him. Like my uncle, Saurus was also a trader. At least he said he was, and we welcomed him into the house.
My dislike dated from that first day, before I knew he would take Arge from us. He examined me and my sisters with careless lechery. I’d just come from acrobatics and wore a boy’s loincloth. As his gaze swept over me, I shuddered with a strange prickly hot feeling. And then he dismissed me with a quick, indifferent turn of his head. Then the flush that burned through me was one of anger.
Despite my feelings, and his awkward broken Cretan, he’d quickly charmed all my sisters. And although Mother frequently eyed him with reserve, I saw them laughing together more than once.
At first, he’d spread his easy compliments among all my sisters – though I was invisible to him – but soon he paid more and more attention to Arge. A knot of worry formed on my mother’s forehead.
Several months after Saurus’s arrival, Arge announced she planned to marry him.
There was Arge now, in front of the mound of ash left by previous sacrifices. Against the deep purple of her jacket, her skin looked deathly pale. She’d pressed her mouth into a long thin line. Was she regretting her decision now? I looked up at the sky, so dark the stars spangled the expanse with flecks of silver, and sent another fervent prayer heavenward – ‘Please, Lady of the Animals and of Childbirth, stop this marriage. I will offer you all the honey from my bees.’
The High Priestess with her nine attendants suddenly appeared from the shadows, stepping through the trees into the torchlight. Their eyes sparkled and one of the attendants stumbled. They were drunk on the sacred liquor, a mixture of beer, wine, fermented honey and herbs. The priestesses wore the sacral knot tied at the nape of their necks, above the tight jackets. to show they were in service to Her who gave us life. Some of them wore doves on their heads, live doves tied to the headdress by the feet, for love. Three of the women carried baskets.
Instead of a dove, the High Priestess carried snakes in her headdress, living snakes that coiled as high as they could from the bindings, flicking their tongues and hissing. Snakes to promote fertility in this new marriage.
As the High Priestess approached the altar, a soft moan of anticipation whispered from the crowd. The goats began struggling even harder against their bonds as they caught the scent of the snakes. The Priestess, who did not seem to notice the throng of people standing on the other side of the altar of ash and bone, turned to the first attendant. She took away the lid and removed the large heavy snake from the basket to coil it around her waist. The remaining two baskets yielded additional snakes. Chanting sonorously, she allowed the snakes to twine up her arms.
I could not repress a tremor of remembered fear and my mother glanced at me. Only nine at Opis’s wedding, I’d been so terrified by the snakes that Arge had had to carry me from the ceremony. I looked at Arge now. Her expression was fixed in a grimace of pain.
Suddenly she fell to the floor, writhing in convulsions and spilling bloody vomit from her mouth.
For several seconds no one moved. The Priestess’s chant continued, then lurched to a stop mid-syllable. Pandemonium erupted. Screaming, Mother ran to her daughter and fell to her knees beside her. After a moment of frozen disbelief, Opis and Nuia followed at a run. I couldn’t move. I stared in horror at Arge’s body lying on the stones. What had I done? I’d pleaded with the Goddess to halt the wedding and She had. But why this way? Why kill Arge, the sweetest and most unassuming of all women? Raising my face to the sky, I began to sob. The stars in the sky blurred together into streaks of silver. ‘Why?’ I asked the Goddess. ‘Why?’
This was my fault: the Goddess had answered my prayers.
Excerpt from In the Shadow of the Bull by Eleanor Kuhns. Copyright 2023 by Eleanor Kuhns. Reproduced with permission from Eleanor Kuhns. All rights reserved.
Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America first mystery prize for A Simple Murder. That was the first in the Will Rees series. She went on to write ten more.
In the Shadow of the Bull is the first in the Ancient Crete Mystery series.