I stood in the bow of the little fishing boat and gazed at the glittering city high on the bluff ahead. Even so late in the day, with the sun setting and the early summer light fading from the sky, I could see how tall the palace walls stood. I marveled at how many buildings clustered at their feet. Only the richest cities were so crowded with houses and shops and temples.
Iolkos! I thought happily. It must be Iolkos. After so many days’ sail from Delphi, the gods grant it’s no place else. My heart beat faster as I scanned the harbor that lay in the shadow of the citadel, seeking one special ship among all the rest. Where was it? Where was the vessel that would carry me off to adventure? Was it that one, with the almond-shaped eye painted in red just above the prow? Or that one, with a swarm of men busily at work, taking down its blue-bordered sail? Where was my ship, the ship Prince Jason was going to sail to the farthest shores of the Unfriendly Sea, the ship of heroes who would dare anything to fulfill the quest for the Golden Fleece? Where was the Argo?
“There she stands, lads, Iolkos!” the fisherman called out to Milo and me from his place at the steering oar, confirming my hopes. “And less than a day’s sail away.” He winked at me when he said “lads,” and I grinned back. Though I wore a boy’s tunic and my skin was deeply tanned from our voyage, I was no more a lad than that man’s daughter.
The fisherman knew my true name and rank—Helen, princess of Sparta, Lord Tyndareus’s heir, Queen Leda’s daughter—but I’d spent so much of our voyage from Delphi teaching him to call me “Glaucus,” the boy’s name I’d chosen for myself, that it came to his tongue naturally. He’d keep my secret. The real question was whether I could do the same. My brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, waited behind the walls of Iolkos, waited to sail with Prince Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. I intended to join them on that quest, but for that to happen they must not recognize me as their sister or my adventure would be over before it began.
I leaned as far forward from the prow as I could without toppling out into the waves. Sea spray was cool and salty on my lips. There was a fine breeze filling our sail, and the sky swirled with squawking gulls. Soon we’d land, and I’d put the next step of my plan into action.
I wasn’t the only one in a hurry. “Is it true?” Milo exclaimed eagerly, scrambling to stand beside me. “Are we there at last?” My friend was not the world’s happiest sailor.
“Soon enough,” the fisherman said. “Tomorrow morning.” He leaned against the steering oar and turned our boat’s nose toward the shore.
“ ‘Tomorrow’?” I echoed. “Why not today?”
The fisherman chuckled. “You know the answer to that.”
So I did. “Always keep the shore in sight,” I recited dutifully. While I’d spent our voyage from Delphi teaching the fisherman to call me by a boy’s name, he’d spent it teaching me the basics of sailing. “A strayed boat’s a doomed boat.”
“And—?” he prompted.
“And only owls and foxes can see in the dark,” I went on. “The wise sailor beaches his boat by dusk.”
“Good. Now come here and show me what else you’ve learned.” He stood to one side and patted the steering oar that guided our little vessel.
“You want me to beach us?” I could hardly believe it. I’d never expected such a privilege. My father could buy a dozen great ships with the oil from just one season’s olive harvest, but for the fisherman this lone little boat was his entire existence, his livelihood, his only way back home.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“I know this shore. It’s friendly enough. Go on, steer us. I’ll mind the sail, but I’ll step in if I see you doing something wrong.”
I said a prayer to Poseidon as I took the steering oar with both hands and braced my bare feet against the boat’s sun-warmed hull. I leaned against the long wooden oar and felt the power of the waves pushing back against me. There wasn’t much resistance, just enough for me to feel the message of the sea: I am immortal, endless, stronger and wilder than a thousand bulls. If you think that you’ve tamed me because you’ve made me carry you where you want to go, you’re a fool. Respect me, or pay for your pride.
Yes, Lord Poseidon, I thought as I turned the boat toward shore. I hear. I know. I ask your blessing.
The god answered in his own way, by letting me beach the boat without much trouble. When I felt the bottom grate along the sand and pebbles, I took a deep breath of relief.
Milo was the first to leap from the boat. “I’ll make the fire!” he called out, racing away to gather bits of wood.
“Helpful, isn’t he?” the fisherman remarked as we dragged the boat a safe distance onto the beach.
“He’d volunteer to kill a dragon if it meant he’d have solid ground under his feet,” I replied.
After Milo got the fire started, we cooked some red mullet we’d caught and ate them along with the last of the bread and cheese we’d bartered for at a small village two days’ voyage south. I was convinced that I’d be too excited to eat or sleep that night. My mind rang with Iolkos! Iolkos! Iolkos! My body had other ideas. I gobbled up every bit of food in front of me and my eyes closed as soon as my head touched the ground.
That night, my dreams were strange and terrifying. I was back in the forests of Calydon, once more running with the hunt for the monstrous boar that was ravaging the land. The beast rushed out of the darkness the same way that he’d come when I’d helped the great huntress Atalanta meet his attack.
In my dream I stood alone.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Nobody's Prize by Esther Friesner. Copyright © 2008 by Esther Friesner. Excerpted by permission of Bluefire, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.