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The foundations of Carthage

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The sun was westering, sending the long shadow of the galley wavering out over the water. In the prow stood Dido, as far forward as she could go, letting her shadow stream out also. The ship crept along the shore as Dido looked for the little bay, past an inlet, with the hill behind it, just so, just as she'd seen in her dreams.

Behind her, the men were silent at their oars. Her people were quiet on the deck. She might have taken it for anticipation, but she knew they'd settled into grudging, sullen waiting. A trickle of sweat slid down her back, under her tunic, as she mouthed a silent prayer to the goddess. If her vision did not manifest soon, all her sacrifice would be in vain. Indeed, she would become a sacrifice herself, flung overboard for the fish of some properly male god to consume, no doubt.

She knew what had been whispered before she set sail, what would be spoken more boldly one day soon, should the land of her dream not materialise. Dido had been lucky so far, lucky and blessed with the dreams of the goddess, lucky to have the gift of making others believe. She took a deep breath and pushed doubt aside. She would not lose faith now. She let the motion of the ship, the breeze, the gentle slap of the water against the hull, soothe her, and ignored the silence behind her.

She scanned the coast, marking the inlet they had just passed, the long sweep of coast. She put her hand to her eyes and shaded them. The dark blur ahead was slowly resolving into a green hillside, with soft welcoming sand at its foot.

As the oars pulled steadily closer, she felt a rush of joy and relief through her, and a fervent prayer of gratitude came to her lips. Raising her hands above her head, she shouted aloud, a noise of triumph.

"Praise be to the Heavens, for, lo, our City is here!" she called aloud.

Behind her, the ship erupted with noise, with people dancing and celebrating, and the steady movement forward was lost for a moment, as even the unfortunate rowers paused. The news passed swiftly, bellowed from ship to ship in the flotilla, as all enjoyed the first sight of their new home.

Dido kept her eyes fixed on the shore. Having seen it now, she couldn't look away. This was her land, she knew, a place for her to settle and build, where a city would grow under her hand.

The rowers picked up their rhythm again, steady, faster, and the galley slowly fell silent again, in line with Dido's own silence. This was the right place, she knew it, and yet her eyes scanned the shore in desperation, though she didn't know what she was looking for. She wondered if the founding of her city was to be greeted only by the scrape of the hull on sand and the screaming of lonely gulls. It seemed an anticlimax, to start a city with the same tired rituals of setting up camp that they'd gone through on countless other beaches.

She smiled to herself as she thought of it; what was her city, that couldn't be founded the way any other was, by a group of weary stragglers, content to find safe harbour? Sure, her city would rule the world, one day, but not tonight. Tonight they could be adventurers once more, before they turned to the serious business of being founders, planners, traders and kings.

She turned away from the shore and spoke with her people, moving amongst them with soft words, with reminders of long-held plans, with the list of things they'd need to do to build a town against the coming of winter. Her life was a practical thing, in service of a dream.

As the first ship scraped along the sand and men jumped into the water, better to heave it ashore, Dido hitched up her skirts and leaped from the side. As her feet splashed through the shallow water, a squall of rain appeared, as if from nowhere. The sky darkened and the water pelted down, warm and sustaining and fresh. Dido lifted her face up to the drops and laughed. A flash of lightning split the sky and as she blinked away the brightness, the rain eased to fine showers, just enough to delight, and the beach was no longer empty.

Dido laughed, and the goddess smiled, seeming to see to the heart of Dido's joy. The goddess was tall, powerful, as beautiful and unfathomable as the wide open sky. Dido had never seen her face before, only the land she promised, but there was no doubt in her mind, and the goddess's name rose unbidden to her lips.

"Tanith," she said.

"I could not let you found my City as a bunch of weary, adventurous stragglers," Tanith replied. Then she lifted her arms and raised her voice, so that all those coming ashore could hear her. They stared at her, transfixed, as she spoke words of welcome, of praise for their valour, of encouragement for their founding of the City. Behind Dido, pressed together in their eagerness, the people cheered and rejoiced to find the goddess here before them.

Only Dido was silent, drinking in the cool, unknowable grace of the goddess, her passion and fire and strength. And then, with another flash of lightning, Tanith was gone. The sky cleared into a beautiful red sunset, and the promise of her City's glorious tomorrow.

>>>>

Dido stood on the rough stones of what would, one day, be the fitting home of Tanith, Goddess of Carthage. Right now, it was a small, sharp edged thing, though draped in the best of what they had to offer. Thronging the square before the temple were the faithful she'd brought here, locals who had welcomed them, and even a few sharp-faced merchants from Tyre, establishing contact with the colonists. They laughed and shouted and danced as the sun slid westward and Dido waited on the steps.

She was reminded of the scrape of the ship's keel on the sand only a year ago, of the goddess and her arrival, and she prayed that she'd read the signs right, that Tanith would come to them tonight, to signal the start of the rain for their crops.

Dark clouds gathered, slowly, rolling in and dulling the blue of the sky. The people paused below, waiting for the sign, hoping for the sign. Without water, they could not survive here. They all knew it. The desert was close by and ready to swallow them if they failed.

Lightning flashed, once, twice, and Dido found herself holding her breath. The third flash made her blink, and the cheer from the crowd told its own tale. Tanith was as she remembered, but taller, more majestic, and Dido shivered a little inside at her own boldness in standing on the steps of the temple awaiting her. Surely a goddess needed a king, a warrior, a man who was first amongst men? Surely the sacred marriage needed someone else?

As if Tanith had read Dido's mind, she stepped forward and smiled. Her hand, tilting up Dido's face, was gentle, and yet Dido did not doubt the strength behind it.

"Such boldness," she said, "such bravery, to step always into my unknown."

Dido swallowed hard and nodded to her servants. They bought forward the ritual goblets, filled with wine and herbs, the traditional, and a few new ones. Dido offered one to Tanith, relieved when she accepted it.

The ritual words were new, and Dido had laboured over them with the priests - and priestesses now, too - and the scribes. They felt foreign in her mouth, as she knelt before Tanith and spoke of the land, the sea, the ancient promises of the gods to her people. She spoke of their needs, too, and of their devotion. She spoke the traditional words of a supplicant at the feet of Astarte, needing her strength, her passion and her fire. She spoke the new words, to Tanith, of the veil of rain she would pull over their sky, of the renewal she would bring.

Tanith drank deeply from her goblet, and Dido from hers. The world dulled around her, grey, laden with the promise of rain from a darkened sky. Tanith kissed her, and Dido opened her mouth and heart with joy.

The temple was sparse, but Dido forgot all worries as Tanith led her inside. Tanith ripped her tunic in two from the neck, and Dido was swept up in her arms. They kissed, and Dido was lost in the warmth of Tanith's skin, the way she smelled of rain and warm stone, the strength of her arms and the sweetness of her mouth. Dido moved under her, hands sliding over Tanith in wordless praise. She followed with her mouth, worshipping Tanith with her desire, letting her cries of pleasure be hymns of devotion. Tanith was all around her, enveloping her, and Dido gave herself up to the goddess without fear or hesitation. She loved Tanith, loved the hot flame of her body, loved the driving energy of her hands, the sweet release she promised.

Tanith's fingers slipped inside Dido, thumb rubbing over her clitoris, and Dido howled with pleasure, flying higher and higher as her own hands sought to bring equal pleasure to Tanith. She reached her peak and soared, high in the heavens, wrapped in the veil of the goddess, seeing the face of the sky.

Panting, she dropped back against the sheets and opened her eyes to the rudimentary little temple. Tanith kissed her again, sweet and gentle, and Dido could hear the patter of rain on the stone roof.

"Thank you," she said. Tanith stroked her hair and Dido felt a smile, warm and secret pressed into her skin. Then the goddess was gone, and Dido was left alone. She was marked with teeth and fingers, languid and soft, as full of life as she could hold. She slowly made her way off the bed and across the floor, standing on the steps of the temple, with the rain slowly falling. She lifted her face to the sky and let it drench her in sweet thankfulness. The City would prosper under the soft veil of Tanith's care.