Her name was Helena. When she turned thirteen her parents sold her in marriage to a man who, on their wedding night, broke her leg because she cried when he tore her skirt from her body. He locked her in a small cellar for the next two weeks, with just enough water and stale bread to survive. She splinted her leg with strips of her wedding blouse and pieces of wood from beneath the stairwell. The bone healed wrong anyway, leaving her with a limp and pain for the rest of her life.
For three years she suffered in silence, enduring vicious beatings and rape almost every night. Then one evening he put his hands around her throat and didn’t let go. When she woke up hours later, unable to swallow and with a familiar soreness between her legs, she stumbled the three miles of dirt road to her parent’s small cottage.
On her knees, she begged them for shelter. They told her to return to her husband before he noticed her gone. She lifted her blouse for them to see the mottled skin, darker bruises shadowed by healing marks. They shoved her into the street and shut the door.
She returned to her husband’s house, took the largest of the three knives from the kitchen, and stabbed him through the neck while he slept.
On the day she was to hang, a strange procession rode through the small farming village. Threads from the noose were cutting into her already bruised skin as the horse-drawn coach drew to a halt. Six guardsmen dismounted and fanned out around the door, which was opened from the inside.
A dark-haired woman emerged, stepping delicately onto the muddy ground. Helena’s first impression of her was that she was very tall. As she walked with sinuous grace toward the crude gallows, the townspeople began to murmur. Several men—brothers of the victim—moved quickly to bar her way. The men were twitching on the ground within moments, the guardsmen having knocked them senseless.
“What is your crime?”
The words were spoken with a smooth, rolling accent. She had pale green eyes beneath straight black brows. The bones of her face were too severe to be beautiful; she was radiant, unearthly. Helena decided she was already dead and the woman before her was an ancestral goddess, come to deliver final judgment on her soul. It proved true, in a way.
“I killed my husband,” she said. One did not lie to goddesses. Pale eyes flickered to her neck and the bruises beneath the noose. And downward, to her bare legs and the scabs, old scars, and blood there.
The goddess gave a small nod to one of her guardsmen. He stepped up onto the narrow platform and cut the noose from its support beam. As he gently lifted Helena into his arms, several more townspeople rushed to stop him, including Helena’s parents.
The goddess spoke a word—magical, flashing—and the sky went dark.
Helena awoke next inside a moving coach. Her muscles were loose and warm. A blanket was around her shoulders, another over her legs. Someone had washed her face and hands. The goddess sat across from her, pale eyes fixed on the landscape outside the opened window. It was spring and the air was sweet.
“I am Ataena, the Lady of Elx,” she said softly. “What is your name?”
Those eyes turned, looked within to her mind and heart. “I am just a woman,” she said.
Helena would be forever convinced of the opposite.