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02 - Shield of Thunder
02 Shield of Thunder 16
She looked to the south, to the verdant slopes of Mount Ida, the sacred mountain where Zeus had his watchtower. Beyond the Ida mountains, unseen, lay Thebe Under Plakos, where her father was king.
Andromache reached the end of the walls at the great northeast bastion. The tower, wider and more massive than the others, faced the northern plains and the lands of the Hittites. Beyond it were horse pastures and the fields of grain that fed the growing population of Troy.
At the moment, in the meadows close beneath the city, rows of sturdy benches were being built and areas of ground paced, measured, and roped off to form running tracks and horse-racing circuits for the imminent wedding games. Andromache watched the preparations thoughtfully, then turned and looked to the south of the bastion, where other teams of men were still working on the fortification ditch around the lower town. Not for the first time she thought how odd it was that the western kings who had been invited to the games were the same warriors the ditches were designed to keep out.
The light was beginning to fade, and Andromache headed for Hektor’s palace.
As she walked past the House of Serpents, the temple to Asklepios, the god of healing, a young man ran out. Andromache smiled as he approached her. “Xander, I scarcely recognized you. You’re so much taller. I thought you would have returned to Kypros by now.”
The youngster seemed to have grown a handbreadth since she had seen him last. His chest and shoulders were starting to fill out, and she could see the man he would become. But when he grinned, his freckled face still showed the near child he had been on the voyage to the city.
“Machaon is teaching me the craft of healing. It is very difficult,” he confessed. “He told me that the lord Helikaon was wounded and that you are nursing him.”
Andromache’s smile faded. “The wound does not heal, and the fever will not subside.”
The youngster was undismayed by the news. “He is strong, Andromache. A great warrior. He will recover. They say he stood with Argurios and killed a hundred Mykene. Such a man will not let a small wound slay him.”
“It is not a small wound, Xander,” she said, holding back her anger. The boy worshipped Helikaon but had not seen him since the attack, the flesh melted away, bones jutting from fever-hot skin. Death was close, and when it came, something in Andromache would die with him.
“What happened?” Xander asked. “Machaon said he was stabbed by a crewman from the Xanthos. That seems impossible.”
“It is true. A crewman named Attalus. Helikaon took a liking to him. He was standing close by when Helikaon walked out to announce his marriage to Queen Halysia. Suddenly he darted forward and plunged a knife into him.”
“Attalus stabbed him!” Xander’s face was aghast. “Attalus helped rescue me from the sea. And he saved Helikaon’s life in battle.”
“Does the world of men ever make sense?” Andromache snapped. The sharpness of her words surprised the youngster. Andromache reached out and drew the boy to her in a warm embrace. “It is good to see you, Xander. It gladdens my heart.”
They stood together for a moment in silence. Then she stepped back. “Helikaon was stabbed twice,” she said. “First in the chest, although the blow was turned by the reinforced shirt he wore. That wound has closed well. Then Attalus stabbed him in the armpit. The blade bit deep.”
“Was the dagger poisoned?” Xander asked.
“Machaon says not. But the bleeding inside will not stop. Queen Halysia sent him here to Troy in the hope of a cure.”
“Can I see him?”
“You will need to prepare yourself, Xander. He is not the young god you remember.”
They walked together to Hektor’s palace and climbed to a high chamber on the east side of the building. It was light and airy and overlooked the Street of Bright Dancers and the barracks and stables of the Heraklion regiment. Machaon had told her it was good for recovery to face the rising sun, and he believed the sounds and smells of the horses and the daily commotion of soldiers arriving and leaving would be stimulating to the stricken man.
They were met at the doorway by a powerful black-bearded man who grinned widely when he saw the boy. “Xander!” He reached out and grabbed Xander in a crushing embrace. Xander, red-faced and pleased, said, “Gershom! I thought you would be on the Xanthos.”
Gershom shook his head. “No, boy. Helikaon needs a guard, and I never liked rowing, anyway. Have you come to visit him? He will be glad to see you.”
The bed was wide and draped with white linen. Beside it sat a pregnant young woman working on a piece of crumpled embroidery.
Helikaon was deathly pale and asleep. Andromache glanced at Xander. His face, too, had gone pale as he saw the true condition of his hero. Sweat glistened on Helikaon’s thin face, and the closed eyes were sunken, the skin around them dark. There was a smell in the room of putrefaction and decay.
Xander stood silently, and Andromache saw there were tears in his eyes. The young pregnant woman was staring up at the youngster.
Andromache said, “Xander, this is Helen, a princess of Sparta who is now the wife of Prince Paris.” For a moment he seemed not to have heard her; then he took a deep breath and tore his gaze from the stricken man.
Helen smiled shyly. She was a plain girl with fair hair and warm brown eyes, and her smile lit up the sickroom.
Just then the sick man cried out. “Argurios, to your right! Good man! Dios, another sword!” He sat up in bed, his stick-thin arm waving at unseen enemies. Gershom and Andromache pushed him gently back, and he was instantly asleep, the shadows under his eyes dark against the white sheets.
As they walked out of the chamber, Andromache said, “The nights are bad, when the dead parade before his bed. Zidantas, and Argurios, and his brother Diomedes. And others whose names I do not know.”
She saw Xander staring at her and regretted speaking so openly. “You look tired, lady,” he said gently, and the kindness in his tone almost made her weep.
When he had gone, escorted from the palace by Gershom, Andromache returned to her own chamber and threw herself on her bed, her body gripped with dread, eyes dry and staring at the ceiling.
She thought back to the day on the beach after the siege. It had been the last time she had seen Helikaon well and whole. They had agreed they must part, that Andromache must stay and marry Hektor, that Helikaon must return to Dardanos and take up the burden of kingship.
He had said to her, There is nothing on earth I want more than to sail away with you, to live together, to be together. They both had known it was impossible then. Now she wished they had left together at that moment, throwing the call of duty to the four winds and sailing far from the woes of the world.
She rested there for a while, then rose from the bed and returned to the sickroom. Helen stood as she entered and hugged her briefly. Helikaon was asleep, his breathing ragged.
“I must go,” Helen said. “I will return tomorrow.”
Alone now with Helikaon, Andromache sat by the bed and took his hand. The skin was hot and dry. “I am here, Helikaon,” she said. “Andromache is here.”
Gershom bid a cheerful farewell to Xander and watched as the youngster ran off toward the House of Serpents. Only then did the appearance of good humor leave Gershom’s face.
Helikaon was dying.
There was no doubt now in Gershom’s mind. The wound would not heal, and only the last vestiges of the man’s enormous stamina were holding him to life.
So it had to be tonight. Gershom stood for a while in the moon shadows of the palace gateway. Cthosis the Eunuch had given him directions to find the Prophet, but they would take him through the Egypteian quarter of the city.
“If you are recognized, my prince,” Cthosis had warned him back in Dardania, “then nowhere will be safe for you. And there are many there who will have seen you in your grandfather’s palace.”
“It may not be necessary,” Gershom had replied. “They have great healers in Troy.”
is so,” the slender merchant had said, “then you should remain in Dardania, where there are few Egypteians.”
“Helikaon is my friend. I will travel with him. This prophet is a desert dweller?”
“A prophet of the One. He is a harsh man. And, as with you, the pharaoh has spoken the words of his death.”
“You have met this man?”
“No,” Cthosis had replied. “Nor do I wish to.” He lowered his voice. “He had a servant once who displeased him, and with one gesture he turned him into a leper. You must understand, my prince, that he hates all Egypteian nobles. If he guesses who you are—and he may well, for his powers are great—he will curse you, and you will die.”
“It will take more than a curse to kill me,” Gershom had told him.
Now, standing in the shadows, Gershom was not so sure. He had no doubt that many of the stories Cthosis had told him of the Prophet had been exaggerated, but even so, the man must have some magic. And to reach him Gershom would need to walk through the eastern quarter, an area teeming with Egypteian merchants and envoys. Any who recognized him could claim his weight in gold as a reward.
A foolish risk to take for a dying man, whispered the voice of reason.
“Not if his death can be prevented,” he said aloud.
Lifting the hood of his dark cloak over his head, he set off through the moonlight, skirting the Street of Bright Dancers and heading down the long hill toward the eastern quarter. In the distance he could hear the sounds of hammers as workers continued under torchlight to complete the buildings for the games. Not for the first time Gershom considered the bizarre nature of these peoples of the sea.
All the enemies of Troy invited to attend a wedding. And while they were there they would be protected by Trojan soldiers, as if they were friends. Where is the sense in this? he wondered. Enemies should be cut down, their bones left to rot. Instead they would bring their retainers and play games, running and throwing, wrestling and racing. And the prizes these men cherished above all others? Not the riches of victory, the gold rings, or the silver adornments. Not the ornate helms, the cunningly crafted swords, or the glittering shields.
No, the warriors longed for the small circlets of laurel leaves brought from the trees beneath Mount Olympos and placed on the heads of the champions.
They struggled and fought, and sometimes died, for a few fading leaves.
Pushing thoughts of such idiocy from his mind, Gershom strode on.
Unlike the upper city, with its fine palaces, courtyards, and gardens, the lower town was cramped and crowded, the stench of urine and excrement hanging in the air. The streets were narrow, many of the buildings squalid and poorly built. Gershom moved on. Several women accosted him, offering him “favors,” and several young men, their faces painted, called out to him. Gershom ignored them all.
Coming at last to the Street of Bronze, he cut right and began searching for the alleyway Cthosis had described. As he scanned the buildings, a heavily built man approached him. “Are you lost, stranger?” he asked.
“No, I am not lost,” Gershom told him. He saw the man’s eyes flicker to the right and heard sounds of stealthy movement from behind.
Gershom suddenly smiled, feeling all tension leave him. Stepping in swiftly, he grabbed the man before him and spun him into the path of the man behind. The two would-be robbers collided and fell heavily before scrambling to their feet. Gershom stood, hands on hips, and observed them. The second man had a dagger in his hand. Gershom did not draw his own. “You are not very skillful thieves,” he said.
The man with the dagger swore at him and charged. Gershom swatted the knife thrust aside and hammered a thunderous left into the attacker’s jaw. The man hit a nearby wall headfirst and sank to the stone unmoving.
The first man stood blinking in the moonlight. “You do not seem to be armed,” Gershom said. “Do you wish to retrieve your friend’s dagger?”
The robber licked his lips. “Is he dead?” he asked.
“I do not know, nor do I care. You know this area?”
“What? Yes, I know it.”
“I am told there is an alley near here where they have a small temple to the God of Deserts.”
“Yes. Not the next turning but the one after, on the right.”
The man on the ground groaned and tried to rise. Then he slumped back.
Gershom walked on. He felt better than he had in days.
The alley was dark, but farther down he could see lamplight shining from a low window. Picking his way carefully along the narrow way, he came to a gateway and a small courtyard. Five men were sitting there on low stone benches. They looked up as he entered. They were wearing the pale flowing robes of the desert people, garments Gershom had not seen since leaving Egypte.
“I am seeking the Prophet,” he said. No one spoke. He repeated the statement in the language of the desert.
Now they stared at him, but still no one spoke.
“I have a friend who is dying,” he continued. “I am told the Prophet is a man with great healing power.”
“He is not here,” said a young man, hawk-faced and stern. His dark gaze was cold, almost malevolent. “And if he was, why would he see you, Prince Ahmose?”
The other men rose smoothly and spread out to form a half circle around him.
“Perhaps out of curiosity,” Gershom replied. “When will he be back?”
“I had a brother,” said the first man, his voice trembling. “He was flayed alive. And a sister whose throat was cut because she looked up into the face of an Egypteian prince. My father had his hands cut off for complaining that there was not enough straw to make bricks.”
“And I had a dog that fell down a hole once,” Gershom said. “Such a shame. I loved that dog. But I didn’t come here to listen to your miserable life story or mourn with you the ill luck of your family.” The young man tensed, his hand moving toward the hilt of a curved dagger at his belt. “And if you draw that weapon,” Gershom said, “some other member of your blighted family will be telling the terrible tale of how you ended up wearing your balls as a necklace.”
The dagger flashed into the young man’s hand. His comrades also drew weapons. Gershom stepped back, his knife now in his hand. His mind was cool. When they attacked, he would kill the youngster first, then hurl himself into the group, slashing left and right. With luck he would down three of them swiftly and then make a break for the alley.
Just as the young man tensed for the attack, a commanding voice rang out. “Yeshua! Sheathe your blade! All of you stand back.”
Gershom saw a tall man standing in the doorway of the small temple, lamplight shining on a beard that was thick and white.
“This man is the enemy, holy one,” Yeshua called out. “It is Ahmose!”
“I know who it is, boy. I have been expecting him. Come through, Ahmose. Yeshua, bring food for our guest.”
Gershom sheathed his knife, though he noted the others still held their weapons in their hands.
“Do some of you yearn to be lepers?” the old man asked, his voice cold. Instantly the blades vanished, the men returning to the stone benches. Gershom walked past them. As he approached the Prophet, he saw that despite the white beard, the man was not so very old, probably in his middle to late forties. He, too, was wearing the long robes of the desert dweller. The width of his shoulders showed him to be a man of great strength. He was as tall as Gershom, his eyes dark beneath jutting gray brows. There was a glint in those eyes that was not welcoming. In the moment their gaze met Gershom knew he was not safe from danger, for there was a burning hatred in the man’s dark eyes. The Prophet gestured for Gershom to precede him. Gershom smiled.
“After you, holy one,” he said.
“Wise to be wary,” the man answered, turning on his heel and marching into the building. The room inside was circular and devoid of decoration. There were no statues, no mosaics, merely a few chairs and a small, plain rectangular altar of stone with blood channels at the corners.
Several lamps were burning, but the light was not strong.
The Prophet moved to a simple rug before the altar and sat down cross-legged upon it. Gershom sat opposite him. Neither man spoke. Yeshua entered and laid a bowl of dried figs and nuts baked with honey in the space between them. The Prophet took a handful and began to eat. Gershom also dipped his hand into the bowl, taking only a single nut, which he ate swiftly.
“So,” the older man said. “You have a dying friend. Why do you think I can help him?”
“A follower of yours told me you were a great healer.”
“You speak of Cthosis. He spent too long in the halls of your grandfather. His mind is full of superstitions.” He shrugged. “Yet he is a good man in his own way. You saved him from Rameses, I recall. Why did you do that?”
“Must there always be reasons for our actions?” countered Gershom. “Perhaps I just didn’t want to see a slave killed for so small a slight. Perhaps I simply disliked Rameses. In truth I do not know. I have always been subject to whims.”
“And the royal guardsmen who attacked one of our women? You slew them. Also on a whim?”
“I was drunk. And I didn’t know she was a slave.”
“You would have acted differently?”
The Prophet shook his head. “I think not, Ahmose.”
“I am called Gershom now.”
The older man laughed. “How apt that is. You chose a word known among the desert folk, a word for ‘stranger.’ A man with no home, no place in the world. No tribe, no nation. Why did you do that?”
“I did not come here to answer your questions. I came to ask for your help.”
“To save Helikaon.”
“Yes. I owe him my life. He plucked me from the sea, where I would have died. He gave me a place among his followers.”
“Do you not find it strange, Gershom, that the only two good deeds of your life should have been on behalf of my people and that the name you chose also comes from us?”
“More questions? Is this the price I must pay for your help?”
“No. The price I demand will be high.”