They came after grey dawn had lifted the cloak of
darkness from the
Running feet, thumping and banging, crazed voices,
all superimposed over the rumbling.
Areta could hear them from her bed chamber. She
tighter, clasping her knees with her hands, and screwed her eyes shut.
Not now, not now, not ever. Please.
“Get up Areta. Be quick. We are called.”
Areta opened her eyes. Her mother, the Priestess
Leda, stood over
her, a tall grey form in the sulphurous yellow-grey light, already
clothed for travel in her bell-shaped mustard-coloured skirt, best
geometric patterned apron and sleeved bodice. She had covered her
breasts with a bolero top and wore a woven beret over her raven hair.
“Yes Areta. Come. Your father awaits, for it is
time. The Mountain
Demon is awakened. You know your grandmother, the High Priestess
Jocasta, has spoken and the prophecy is doom for Akrotiri and
Strongyle. It is time to heed her.”
As if to add urgency to her words the house shook as
caught hold of the land and a deep groan issued from far beneath the
earth. An oil jar fell from the stone bench to the floor and shattered.
A frisson of fear ran across Areta’s skin. She flung off her bedcover
and swung her legs to the floor.
“Hurry now. I must find Jocasta and guide her to the
ship. We must
all stick together.”
“He must go with his own family, Areta. We cannot
take him with us.”
“Then I will not go. I will stay here and endure the
wrath of the
Mother-Goddess and the Mountain Demon. Timaeus’s family say they are
not leaving, so I will stay with them.”
“Do not be stupid, Areta. Get your things together.
There was a renewed banging on the door. Leda turned
and swept from
the chamber. Areta sat on the couch, uncertain. She turned her head to
listen to the shouted words as her mother opened the door.
“Make haste Blessed Priestess.” It was Master
merchant from Crete who lived next door. He sounded hoarse and
breathless. “Elder Solonikus has reported a fissure in the direction of
the mountain. It is spouting ash and hot vapours. He says we have very
little time, and if the Mountain Demon should blow, we will face
“We leave immediately, Master Poronius. My husband
is loading the
bulls onto a vessel at this moment. He awaits us at the port.”
“He should forget the bulls.”
“But they are sacred, Master Poronius. They cannot
be left behind.”
It was one of the reasons the family had not yet
island. As Convenor of the Bulls, Leuvenor was responsible for the
sacred herds. Bull Games had been scheduled for the next week and he
had been engrossed in the organisation. The leaping competitions and
acrobatic performances were most popular, and patrons became restless
and noisy if not sufficiently entertained. He had been most reluctant
to listen to a postponement, let alone a total evacuation of the
island. When finally persuaded, his whole attention had been taken up
finding transportation for the animals. There was no way he would leave
them behind. Leda had understood and taken the responsibility for the
rest of the family and the servants.
The other reason was Jocasta. The High Priestess had
remaining in the temple, since proclaiming her Portent of Doom.
“People are more important than bulls,” said Master
ship is loaded and ready to sail, I only have to remove my household to
the quay. You are welcome to come with us if you wish. We meet at Quay
number seven before the sun reaches the zenith. The fleet leaves then
Another tremor shook the house. Something rattled
there was a loud crash from the basement. Poronius departed swiftly and
Leda shut the door. She turned, coughing.
Oh Mother-Goddess, thought Areta, what are you doing to us? Have we
been so decadent that you are punishing us in such a terrible manner?
Did we not make sacrifices to you, and offerings of the finest gold and
silver? Why are you setting the elements against us in such a manner,
releasing the pent-up forces of the Mountain Demon? Why?
“Areta. Place your things on the cart. Limeos will
Areta dressed quickly, taking the initiative from
her mother and
wrapping a bolero around her shoulders and over her breasts. She
gathered up her few treasures - some jewellery, her small collection of
clay figurines, a tablet, a gold votive, some garments she was fond of
- and wrapped them in a cloak. Around her neck she hung the tiny pearl
shell she kept as a talisman. Timaeus had given it to her. When she
wore it she felt his spirit with her.
She put on her outside shoes, sewn from the hide of
a fallen bull,
then placed the bundle in the middle of a bed cover, slung it around
her shoulders, tying the ends across her chest, and crept towards the
front of the house. She would not obey her mother on this occasion.
Leda did not understand. If calamity was about to occur she would face
it with Timaeus. He was her future.
Leda was busy organising the servants. Poor Limeos
around in circles and several of the women were sobbing in alarm. As
Areta opened the door to the street, closing it quickly behind her,
another long rumbling growl came from beneath her feet.
For a moment, as she took in the scene before her,
People had been evacuating the town for the last week, ever since the
High Priestess Jocasta had given her Portent of Doom and the Mountain
had begun trembling. The town elders had been of two minds, for tremors
and rumblings were always occurring on Strongyle, but two days ago it
became obvious this was no ordinary occurrence, for a strange plume of
hot ash had suddenly appeared from the side of the mountain and the
rumblings and tremors had become almost continuous. Then suddenly the
plume had disappeared as mysteriously as it emerged and the activity
beneath the earth had stopped, but orders had gone out to the populace
to evacuate. All vessels at the port had been commandeered.
It had happened this way before. Already there had
major evacuations. Some people had returned when the Mountain Demon had
ceased his demonstration of anger, others had stayed away. Many had
never left at all, believing nothing would come of each emergency,
Areta’s and Timaeus’s families among them. But this time it was
impossible to ignore the High Priestess Jocasta’s portent of doom. Her
word was not to be disregarded.
A large number of the remaining populace had already
set sail for
Knossos on Crete but it was thought they would have a hard sail, for
the autumn winds were now tending to gust from the west. Some thought
to make for the nearby island of Anafi. It was here that Areta’s
father, Leuvenor, was sending the bulls. Areta did not want to go to
Anafi. It was reputed to be backward and poor, and Timaeus would not be
Areta could see things were now far worse than
before. The streets
were thronged with panicked people dragging carts, barrows, any
vehicle, towards the port. Their own cart was blocking half the street.
The two oxen hitched to it, were red-eyed and fidgety, their tails
swishing. A very fine film of grey powder fell on Areta’s uplifted face
as she took in the dull yellow ochre sky, and it was then she noticed
everyone was slightly grimy - garments looked soiled, skin seemed
greasy-grey, faces unwashed.
She must make haste if she was to find Timaeus. She
nowhere without him. If he was to stay behind with his family, she
would remain with him and chance the wrath of the Mountain Demon. If
they were to die, they would die together. Had Timaeus not said this to
her but three days ago?
“Beloved Areta,” he had said, cupping her face in
his hands, “we
will never be parted. Never.”
Timaeus’s father grew wheat, barley and chickpeas on
slopes of the Mountain. He also had a small vineyard and an olive
plantation. His wife managed their merchant business from a house on
the outskirts of Akrotiri, and it was towards this house Areta began
walking. Her progress was difficult. The further she went towards the
rear of the town, the worse was the congestion on the streets. Carts,
donkeys, oxen, frightened children, weeping women, grim faced men, all
heading in one direction.
“You walk the wrong way, pretty one,” said a man. He
shepherding a woman and three small children, pushing a barrow stacked
with boxes and artisan tools. His tunic and apron were dark with grime
and his hair looked like a grey wig. “The port is behind you.”
“I seek a friend,” said Areta.
“Do not seek too long. The Mountain Demon is angry.”
She hurried on. Gradually she eased out of the melee
silent deserted upper streets where the remains of many hurried
departures were obvious - discarded household goods, broken furniture,
cracked jars and pots. Only a few souls were about, attending to last
Areta came to a large square. The house of Timaeus’s
parents was on
the corner, a striking double-storey stone dwelling flanking a small
walled courtyard and garden. She hurried across the square, skirting
piles of rubbish already coated with a film of grey ash, and arrived at
the door just as it was flung open. A woman peered out and squinted at
“Areta? What are you doing here? Why are you not
It was Flota, Timaeus’s mother. “I seek Timaeus. I
will go nowhere
“Fool.” Flota shook her head vigorously and ran her
her hair to dislodge the ash. “He is not here. Come inside, I cannot
stand this filth.”
Areta smiled. Flota was fastidious in her house. It
she drove her servants to distraction with the cleaning. Areta
momentarily upwards and received a fleck of dirt in one eye. She
followed Flota through the doorway, blinking furiously. The speck felt
as big as a stone. The eye immediately watered and tears fell on her
Flota misunderstood. “Stop crying child. Last night
I sent him to
the fields to get his father. He should have returned by now. Have you
eaten? I have fruit and curd.”
“I’m not crying... Thank you, I left without taking
food. Perhaps a
Areta set her bundle on a stool. “You have decided
to leave?” she
asked Flota as she ate from the bowl set before her.
“Well, I would be anywhere but in the middle of this
seems worse outside now. But my husband is set on finishing the grape
harvest. I hope Timaeus can persuade him to postpone it until we can
“The Elder Solonikus has reported a fissure in the
is supposed to be worse than the last. We are all told to depart
“And the High Priestess Jocasta? She is still
“I am afraid so. My mother has gone to fetch her
from the temple.
Jocasta says she must stay until the last.”
“You should have gone with your mother.”
“I will wait for Timaeus.”
Flota sighed. A deep rumble came from afar and
seemed to roll
towards them. As it passed beneath the house, the place shook as if
gripped by a monster. A zigzag crack appeared in the stone wall behind
Areta with the sound of a whip. Both women cried out in alarm.
Flota went to the doorway once more. She had a
opening the door for it was stuck in one corner. A rush of warm air
flowed inside bringing with it a cloud of grey ash. Areta scraped a
small piece from the floor with her finger. It was warm to the touch.
She joined Flota at the doorway. The older woman seemed fixed to the
“Look,” Flota said and pointed.
The street leading from the square faced the open
fields beyond the
town. Away in the distance should have been the Mountain, starkly
outlined against a blue autumnal sky. But it was completely shrouded
with a pall of what looked like smoke. Just a vague suggestion of its
shape could be seen. A huge billowing cloud of ash was rising high into
the sky. As they watched, an errant gust of wind blew the cloud away
from the shanks of the Mountain and they saw the grey-white plume
issuing from the fissure.
“Oh great Mother-Goddess,” whispered Areta. “Jocasta
Akrotiri is doomed.”
“Where can those men be?” Flota tried to slam the
door. She had to
push it closed, for it seemed not to fit so well any more. Areta was
thinking of the shrouded Mountain. If they were still on the farm, they
could be in trouble from the gathering ash. It would be much worse
closer to the fissure.
“Are you packed and ready to depart?” asked Areta.
She could see no
“I am taking nothing,” Flota said, “except the gold,
and my jewellery. We must wait for the men to help carry it.”
They settled down to wait. Flota started to cough.
She left the
room and returned with drinking water and four strips of cloth. “We
must tie these around our mouths and noses to keep from breathing in
It seemed like a good idea. They became glad of it
by the time the
sun had reached its zenith and Timaeus and his father had still not
appeared. Fine ash was beginning to infiltrate the room. Areta was
beginning to feel very anxious. Her mother would be frantically looking
for her, of that she was sure. She heartily wished she had mentioned to
someone where she was going. All the remaining boats would be loaded
and ready to leave by now. Maybe waiting for Timaeus had not been such
a good idea. After all, she could have met him in Knossos when they
were all safely there. And anyway, they would be returning to Strongyle
once the Mountain Demon had done his worst. Surely it could not go on
like this for long.
A heavy thumping on the door made the women jump.
But no, it was the local Elder, Phidrus. He stumbled
inside. He was
caked with ash. Even his eyelids were grey with it.
“You should be long-gone Madam and Mistress. I am
doing a last
check of my area to make sure everyone has left for the port. I will be
on the last ship with the rest of the Elders. Why are you still here?”
Flota explained they were waiting for their men.
“Wait no longer, lady. Elder Solonikus says the
fissure has widened
and poisonous gases are escaping. Also the ash is now burning. See, my
cloak is smouldering.”
Sure enough, tiny holes dotted the garment and wisps
of smoke came
from it. Flota looked at Areta and saw the panic in her eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “Come, Areta, we must set out. We
can stay here no
“Have you water?” asked Phidrus.
Flota pointed to the well in the courtyard. Phidrus
showed them how
to wet their cloaks before putting them on, and made them all drink.
They tied the strips of cloth around their faces again and Flota showed
them the parcels she had made ready. With Areta’s bundle they were
mightily laden, for much of Flota’s goods were heavy. Phidrus led the
way out the door.
Areta was staggered when she saw the situation outside. Already the
whole square had partly disappeared under ash. The pile of odd rubbish
was no more than a large rounded hump. The roofs of the houses were
uniformly grey, everything was grey, her feet sank into grey sludge to
her ankles and grey dust fell and swirled around in eddies like
“Hurry,” said Phidrus.
They needed no urging. At one point Areta had to
stop and put down
her burden while she pulled her cloak further over her head to protect
her eyes. When she reached for her bundles, they were sunk into the
ash. Smouldering embers burnt through the diaphanous material of her
bolero so she had to clutch the cloak further around her breasts.
Several times the women fell, their feet catching
projections under the ash cover. It became difficult to get up again,
and the ash swirled around them causing them to cough and choke despite
the masks. They reached Areta’s house. She banged on her door and cried
out. Nobody came to answer it.
“All gone,” said Phidrus.
Surely not, thought Areta. They would have left
someone behind to
lead her to the port and the ship. Her mother would not abandon her. It
occurred to her that she herself had abandoned her family, and her
mother would have no idea of her whereabouts. Perhaps she would have
remembered Areta’s taunt about staying on Strongyle with Timaeus’s
family. But if that was so, surely she would have sent a servant after
“Come, hurry,” said Phidrus. “It is no use wasting
Besides, it is getting hard to see. We do not want to get lost.”
This was true. Visibility was becoming very poor.
There was a
strange odour too. It smelled like something rotten. They started off
once again, as quickly as they could stumble. Flota fell and they had
to stop to help her. She had great difficulty standing up. She was
panting now, her breathing ragged.
“Go on without me,” she wailed. “I only delay you. I
at my own pace.”
“No! We go together, Flota. Here let me take more of
Flota had already abandoned some of her burden but
she clutched one
parcel to her bosom and would not let go of it. Areta thought it must
be the gold. She cast her own bundles to the ash and seized it from
Flota. It was very heavy.
“Hold on to me, Madam. I will help you along.”
Flota keened some more but did as she was told and
on. Another tremor shook the ground, longer and fiercer and accompanied
with a grinding rumble that set Areta’s teeth on edge. It sent them
sprawling into the ash once more. By the time they had righted
themselves she was exhausted. She put her hand to her bosom and
clutched at the pearl shell. Timaeus, my love. Protect me. Help me.
“There is the port,” shouted Phidrus. “We are nearly
As they came out onto the quay, the wind shifted
disclosed a scene of chaos. Abandoned goods, carts and barrows, smashed
pots, jars and vases and discarded garments littered the area.
“Where are all the boats?” gasped Flota.
They stood still, aghast. The large evacuation fleet
There was one ship out on the bay about to turn in the direction of
Anafi - the ship bearing the Elders? Far out to sea they could just
make out tiny sails disappearing over the horizon in the direction of
Crete. They’ve abandoned me, thought Areta. I said I would stay and
they believed me.
Phidrus pointed to the far quay. A boat was still
tied to the
wharf. It looked pitifully small and low in the water.
They tried to run towards it, but Flota had sunk to
her knees and
by the time they got her to her feet again, they could see it had
“Run,” said Phidrus, gasping. “You are the youngest.
Stop it if you
Areta whispered a prayer to the Mother-Goddess. She
took off as
fast as she could, screaming. The heavy parcel weighed her down so she
raced to the edge of the quay and threw it into the water. Then panic
took hold of her feet and she raced, jumping obstructions, waving her
arms, yelling at the top of her voice.
“Wait. Wait. WAIT.”
A figure appeared on the quay. It was staring in her
There was a flurry of activity on board the vessel and the sail was
The shout drifted towards her. “Yes,” she screamed.
The figure began to run towards her.
“Areta, oh Areta.”
The figure came close, and as they met, swept her
into his arms.
“Timaeus. Oh my love,” she whispered, exhausted. “We
“I went directly to your house,” he said. “Your
mother had gone to
collect the High Priestess Jocasta from the temple. The servants were
ready to take your cart to the quay and load the boat. They said you
had gone ahead, so I went on to the quay. I couldn’t find you anywhere.
Your mother said you must have gone to look for me, so I stayed. They
could wait no longer so have set off for Anafi and we are to follow.
Our Captain was about to hoist sail as you came onto the quay.”
“I was waiting with your mother for you and your
Phidrus came and helped us get to the quay.”
“My father did not arrive?”
“He was to collect my mother and bring her here.”
“Well he never came.”
“The fissure. He went to look at the fissure.
Something must have
At that moment the wind changed. It blew up from the
Crete, and for a moment the ash was driven northwards. Phidrus and
Flota finally reached them and Timaeus helped them to the boat. The
sail was hoisted once more and the ropes let go.
Areta stood at the rail and watched as they moved
swiftly away from
“Master Timaeus?” It was the Captain.
“I do not think we should head for Crete, or for
“But we are to follow the High Priestess Jocasta to
“If the Mountain is to truly erupt, as Elder
predicted, the prevailing winds will send the smoke, ash and
debris to the Eastern edge of the sea, across the near islands such as
Anafi, to Assyria and Egypt, and maybe to the South. I think we should
travel North. I tried to tell the Priestess, but Leuvenor was intent on
following the Sacred Bulls. North of us are many islands and we can
move between them in easy stages. There is an island called Melos where
we could shelter. Then maybe we should head for the Peloponnisos. Or we
could follow the others to Anafi at a later date...”
They stared out across the water. They could see the
clearly now, the shroud of the huge pall of ash, lifted. A large new
cloud of white puffed from its side at the position of the fissure and
a few seconds later they heard the huge rumble of an explosion. Areta
clutched Timaeus’s arm. They could see rock and something else,
something red, flung into the air. The wind changed. The ash cloud
moved slightly to their right, in the direction of Anafi. Would they
ever see Akrotiri and Strongyle again?
Timaeus folded Areta into his arms.
“All speed, Captain. We go where you take us...”
The ship heeled as it turned north.