Found by E. A. Petricone
Everyone agreed the honorable thing was for the healthy men in the village to go and fight, no matter the risk.
With their daughter slung across her chest, Melissai tried to help her husband prepare, assuring him he’d be back before the harvest, mixing extra honey into his porridge, urging Euthalla to look at her brave daddy.
But Lysander resented Melissai on their best days. “Maybe we’ll let the enemy in, let them reunite you with your sister,” he spat as he left.
A winning blow. The memory of Phoibe being hauled onto a saddle by her hair dyed the very air poppy red and black, terror making Melissai’s hands shake so hard she had to stop braiding her dried grapevine rope.
Melissai knew, as every woman knew, that the worst of battle never revealed itself on the field. Knew what would happen if the enemy won. No songs were sung for Melissai’s sister, Phoibe. She was just another taken girl from a taken village.
“Lysander shouldn’t have said that,” said Calyx, the magistrate’s wife. Her youngest wrapped around her leg—his new pastime was making his mother swing him with every step.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Melissai, her hands finding her grapevine rope and resuming the braid.
It didn’t. She wasn’t a very good wife. Her chores often went undone. Instead, Melissai would wander the honeybee nests, dabs of honey shining on her fingertips while bees buzzed around the flower crowns she’d set on her head as offerings.
A thousand bears couldn’t wipe out the legion of nests—the droning organs hanging from tree limbs or tucked inside tree trunks—that separated the village and emmer field from the mountain proper. It was said that Aristaeus had blessed this mountain with extra starfall inside the abundant wildflowers, and so the honeybees thrived.
Messengers had to go the long way if they wanted to reach the other side of the mountain. Anyone who ventured inside the bees’ territory died hideously, swarmed to death.
Except for Melissai. Melissai could enter the bees’ territory freely, approach nest after nest, coax out honeycombs—never too much—without earning a single sting.
Every spare moment, Melissai scoured the forest there and beyond. Even in the dark, she softly tread through the woods, memorizing every sure-hold and slip while Euthalla murmured against her chest.
Melissai and Calyx watched the emmer wave around the backs of the men’s shoulders as they marched farther and farther away.
“Are you ready, if…” Melissai began. If their men lost the battle it would fall to Calyx to lead the remaining villagers to their sister village (where Melissai grew up) on the other side of the mountain, where they had the protection of the alliance. “Do you want to practice the route?”
“Why?” Calyx scoffed. “We won’t lose.”
Melissai didn’t respond to her friend’s easy confidence. She drew her grape vines tighter.
The non-fighters kept busy. Theirs was a newer outpost, a newly molted thing with still-soft skin. No walls, no reserve of men to defend them. The women, young, and elderly took turns filling drinking skins at the lone well. They wrapped blankets, fruit, and grain in sacks that could be picked up quickly. In case.
Melissai laid a honeycomb before the shrine to Demeter, praying that the goddess would guard them from those who would carry them off.
“Bad things will happen,” Phoibe used to say, easy as a comb through oiled hair. “The Hades of this world will always win. But Demeter didn’t let him win and take her daughter the way he’d have liked to. Not entirely. She kept some for them.”
Melissai wasn’t sure. During the raid that day, she and Phoibe had fled into this same mountain, invader hoofbeats thundering not far behind. Phoibe had the feet of a cat and could run through the woods without hesitation.
But in a moment she revisits every day of her life, Melissai tripped into her sister, sending her sprawling into the invaders’ sights. While Melissai blinked in pain, still stunned from the impact of their fall, Phoibe didn’t hesitate, shoving her sister into a hollow beneath a great tree just before the men rode up and snatched her from the earth.
From there, Melissai watched her sister lift from the ground, her grapevine belt swaying over the forest floor.
Melissai remained frozen long after the hoofbeats had faded, a chasm torn through her she knew would never close. She’d resolved to stay in the hollow until she starved to death when a loud buzz interrupted her sorrow.
Deep within the hollow, shrouded in shadow, a solitary purple flower bloomed in a slant of light. Hidden so well, and yet the pollen-padded honeybee had found it.
Melissai offered her tear-dripping hands for the bee to tap with his antennae. Make me like you, Melissai whispered. The bee alighted upon the whorl of Melissai’s fingertip, as though he would hear her plea.
Melissai beseeched whoever would listen: Give me the power to find what I’m looking for too, no matter how far, no matter how buried.
The alliance, late, chased down and killed the invaders before they left the forest.
But Phoibe was never found.
Years later, though she was married and living on the other side of the mountain, Melissai still searched the woods, lifting every rotten log and stone. Hoping, dreading the day she’d unearth a white backbone noosed with a dried grapevine belt.
Below the mountain, the emmer burned.
“He can’t be dead,” Calyx said, looking leveled, wheat stems bent by trampling feet. Calyx adored her husband. She ignored her youngest bawling around her leg, ignored the other villagers clamoring for her attention, her direction. “He can’t.”
“Calyx,” Melissai said, tugging her friend’s sleeve urgently. There was no time to hope for miracles. The burning emmer signaled that the enemy wouldn’t be satisfied with just defeating them. “We have to go.”
We. Melissai and Calyx, their children. Ten elders, a smug of teenagers, more little babies and toddlers and their mothers. Warriors none. Vulnerable all.
Everyone cried their fears at once. They’d be murdered. Enslaved. Worse. Euthalla started fussing at the clamor of voices.
Weight. Melissai tried to keep the thought out of her head, but as the fires pierced the night and Euthalla whined, a dark-winged thing mantled over Melissai’s heart. Her neighbors were dead weight.
On a bloodless day, it took Melissai and Calyx a good hour to go from one end of the village to the other with all her children clutching her or wandering off. Evacuate this group before the enemy arrived? Impossible.
“What’s that sound?” one of the Elpis sisters asked sharply. In the distance, thundering hoofbeats. War cry echoes.
Panic leapt like hot oil, scalding all of them.
“Leave me,” a yiayia begged her grandchildren, pushing them with her cane.
An incredible urge to bolt with Euthalla seized Melissai. Horses. Horses would overtake them, and—
Then Melissai noticed Dodonna, Calyx’s eldest daughter, pulling her siblings close as people jostled their mother.
Melissai flashed to her own big sister, grapevine belt lifting from the earth. Remembered Phoibe’s terrified, desperate eyes meeting hers in the hollow, how Phoibe opened her mouth to call to her, how her fingers instinctively reached toward Melissai for help.
Remembered seeing Phoibe catch herself, determination stomping over her face like a boot over flame.
“Everyone,” Melissai shouted, straightening her back. She didn’t know where the voice inside her came from, but it was commanding enough that even the women and men with years and status above her halted, quieted. Calyx, snapping out of her stupor, focused on Melissai’s face in the flickering torchlight.
“No one’s being left behind,” Melissai declared. She rested her fingertips on Euthalla’s head. “We’ll escape through the nests.”
A chorus of protest. “And get stung to death,” argued Calyx.
“No we won’t,” said Melissai—and the moment she said it she knew it was true, certain as clang through bell. “You’re with me.”
She removed the long length of grapevine rope she’d coiled around her shoulder, tied one end around her waist. “Everyone take hold of this. You’re responsible for the person in front and opposite you. Heron, give yiayia your shoulder. Your sister will hold your bags.”
She assigned a helper to everyone not fully mobile, assigned helping to everyone. “We’ll go as slow as we need to,” said Melissai. “At dawn, the bees will wake, and no one will dare follow us.”
Douse the torches. Hands on. Adjust Euthalla closer in her wrap. Then Melissai, who knew the route through the nests by heart, pulled the rope and began leading the long journey through the night.
Phoibe purposefully screwed her body around in the saddle, yelled and reached in the direction opposite her sister. It worked. The men, taking her cue, turned their horses and pursued, leaving Melissai undiscovered in the hollow.
At first light, the bees’ nests shimmered with activity and the honeybees swarmed the air—but they let Melissai’s head-low followers pass. No hoofbeats echoed behind them. Only buzzing and birdsong.
Calyx shared a tired smile as Melissai performed a headcount down the rope. Everyone trudged, exhausted, grief-heavy. They’d lost so much.
But not everything.
A honeybee settled himself on Melissai’s hand, rode with her while she whispered her thanks and kissed Euthalla’s head.
Phoibe hadn’t looked back, not once. Yet Melissai heard her voice in her head, strong as a honeybee’s drone: Don’t let them win the way they’d like to. Keep some for us.
Melissai squinted as the sun, honey-colored scar, broke through the trees. She’d spent her life searching for her sister. Would until the day she died.
But as Melissai led the young and the old in thwarting the enemy’s brutality, as she steadied their panic and shepherded them from violence to safety, she knew: this was how she found her.
E.A. Petricone writes strange things, obsessively collects post-its and rocks, and when she’s tipsy she sends unsolicited science articles to her friends. Her work has appeared in Apparition Literary Magazine, Slice Magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and other marvelous places. She lives in Massachusetts. You can find her on Twitter.