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02 Shield of Thunder 18


  “I will come when you call, Prophet. I am a man of my word.”

  Andromache stared at the two men, sensing that this moment had importance and not knowing why. It struck her then that they were very similar in look, both powerfully built, deep-eyed, and stern. They could have been father and son.

  The Prophet glanced at Andromache. “In the desert life is harsh and dangerous. Men yearn for women of strength to walk beside them, fearless and proud. You would do well in the desert, I think.”

  With that he strode from the room. “I think he liked you,” Gershom observed.

  “What did he mean about your promise?”

  “It is nothing,” he told her.

  Later that day the physician Machaon came to the palace. He was a round-shouldered young man with receding dark hair and a permanent air of weariness. Andromache greeted him warmly, then led him to the bedside.

  “He still clings to life?” he asked.

  “Better than that,” Andromache told him. “The wound is clean and sealed.”

  Machaon looked doubtful but followed Andromache to the sickroom and examined Helikaon. Andromache saw his amazement.

  “This is not possible,” he said. “The wound was rancid and beyond healing.”

  She told him about the Prophet and the maggots. He sat unbelieving as she described the process.

  “He is lucky that such a ghastly nonsense did not kill him,” he said. “There must be another reason. Has he eaten anything or been given potions I have not been made aware of?”

  Andromache stared at him. “Nothing he has not had before. I do not understand you, Machaon. Your own eyes have seen the efficacy of the treatment. Why, then, do you doubt it?”

  Machaon looked at her pityingly. “Maggots are creatures of foulness. I can understand how some barbaric desert dweller might believe in them, but you are an intelligent woman. I can only assume that exhaustion has dulled your senses.”

  Andromache felt a cold anger rise in her. “Oh, Machaon, I did not expect you to reinforce my belief in the stupidity of men. I thought you different… wiser. Now I have a question for you. There are many treatments for illness and disease. How many of them were created by you? What cure have you discovered in your time as a healer?”

  “I have studied all the great works—” he began.

  She interrupted him. “Not the works of others, Machaon. Tell me the cures you have devised.” The young physician remained silent, his expression tense. “And that is something to consider,” she said witheringly. “There have been no potions, Machaon, no secret elixirs. A man came and explained that maggots ate rancid flesh. I did not believe it, but I have seen it to be true. He had a cure not written down in your ancient scrolls.”

  His face darkened, and he rose to his feet. “Helikaon is beloved of the gods,” he said. “What we have here is a miracle. I will give thanks to Asklepios and to the goddess Athene. I have brought healing potions that I will leave with you.”

  Gershom stood aside in the doorway, allowing the physician to depart. Then he looked at Andromache and smiled. “You were hard on him. He is a good man, and he works tirelessly for the sick.”

  “I know. But he is arrogant. How many wounded men will die under his care because of it?”

  “You should get some rest,” he said. “I’ll sit with him. Go and sleep. You will feel better for it.”

  Andromache knew he was right. She was almost reeling from exhaustion. When she reached her rooms, a young servant girl asked her if she wanted hot water brought for a bath. Andromache shook her head. “I need to sleep,” she said. Dismissing the girl, she walked into the bedroom, threw off her clothes, and stretched out on the broad bed. A cool wind blew through the open window, and she drew the covers across her body.

  Yet sleep would not come. Images swirled in her mind: Helikaon on the beach at Blue Owl Bay, young and handsome; Kalliope laughing and dancing in the moonlight. All her life people had talked of the wonders of love, the joy of it, the strength of it, the music and the passion of it. She had perceived love then to be an absolute: unchanging and solid as a marble statue. Yet it wasn’t. She had loved Kalliope, luxuriating in her company, in the warmth of her skin, the softness of her kisses. And she loved Helikaon, yearning to be with him, her heart beating faster even as she sat by his sickbed, holding his hand. It was very confusing.

  Bards talked and sang of the one great love, the meeting of souls, exquisite and unique. The seer on the beach at Blue Owl Bay had talked of three loves, one as tempestuous as the Great Green, one like the oak, solid and true, and one like the bright moon. Helikaon was the first, for he had been the man with one sandal. When she had asked about the others, the seer had told her that the oak would rise to her from the filth of pigs and the moon would arrive in blood and pain.

  None of them was Kalliope.

  Yet I do love her, she thought. I know that to be true.

  Her thoughts drifted, and she saw the isle of Thera and the great Temple of the Horse. It was almost midday now, and the priestesses would be preparing the wine to offer the Minotaur. Twelve women would walk to the trembling rock. They would chant and sing, then pour the wine into the hissing crack, trying not to breathe the noxious fumes that rose from below the ground.

  The hot breath of the Minotaur.

  Kalliope might be with them. The last time Andromache had taken part in the ritual, Kalliope had winked at her and been rebuked by the high priestess.

  Alone now in her bed, Andromache closed her eyes. “I wish you were here,” she whispered, thinking of Kalliope. Then Kalliope’s image blurred, and once again she found herself picturing the brilliant blue eyes of Helikaon.

  For Helikaon the world he had known no longer existed. He floated wraithlike through a chaotic jumble of dreams. Sometimes he was lying in a broad bed by a magical window that flickered in a heartbeat between sunlight and moonlight; at other times he was standing on the deck of the Xanthos as it sailed the Great Green or on the cliffs of Dardanos, watching a fleet of ships, all burning, the screams of the sailors sounding like the cries of demonic gulls. Images shifted and shivered. Only the pain was constant, though it was as nothing to the agonies he suffered when the visions came.

  His little brother, Diomedes, was playing happily in the sunshine. Helikaon looked on, hearing the boy’s merry laughter, then noticing that an edge of the child’s tunic had begun to burn. He cried out to warn him, but the boy went on playing as the flames roared about him. Helikaon tried to reach him, but his limbs were leaden and every step forward only served to increase the distance between them. Diomedes’ skin blackened, and only then did he turn toward his brother. “Help me!” the boy cried. But Helikaon could do nothing but watch him burn.

  Then he was on the Xanthos again, standing alongside his old friend Ox. Sunlight was bright, the breeze fresh. Ox turned toward him, and Helikaon saw a trickle of blood like a thin red necklace around Ox’s throat. Helikaon reached up to touch the wound—and the head came away in his hands.

  His eyes opened, and once more he was in the broad bed, moonlight shining through the window. He heard movement and saw Andromache’s face above him. Her hand was cool on his face. “Come back to us, Helikaon,” she whispered.

  The plea confused him. From where should he come, and to where? He was already everywhere, sailing the Great Green; walking the Seven Hills with Odysseus and Bias, the black man complaining about the midges coming off the marshes; standing on the battlements of Troy, looking out over the sunset sea; riding with Hektor against the Amorites. All the events of his life playing again and again, from childhood fears and the suicide of his mother to adult tragedies and the deaths of those he loved.

  Now the sun was shining, and he was walking with golden-haired Halysia toward the palace. She was to be his wife, and he knew she was happy now. The previous year the Mykene had killed her child and raped her, leaving her for dead. Her life since had been one of sorrow and fear. Now he would protect her—even if he could not
love her. He felt the warmth of her hand in his, her grip tight, as if afraid he might pull away from her. As they approached the crowds, he saw Attalus step out. The man darted forward, a knife in his hand. Instinctively Helikaon tried to block the blow, but Halysia, in her surprise at the sudden movement, held to him even more tightly. The knife plunged into his chest. Tearing himself loose from Halysia’s grip, he threw up his arm. The blade tore into his armpit. Then men surged around him, bearing Attalus to the ground. Helikaon saw one of his bodyguards thrust a dagger into Attalus’ belly, ripping it up through the lungs. Helikaon pushed himself through the mass of men and dropped to his knees beside the assassin.

  “Why?” he asked the dying man.

  “I… am… Karpophorus,” Attalus told him. “It is… my holy duty.”

  “You killed my father!”

  “Yes.”

  “Who hired you for that?”

  As the killer whispered the name, Helikaon cried out, and the scene darkened. A hand was stroking his face, and his eyes opened once more. Moonlight was shining against the dark frame of the window, and he could see patches of clouds in the night sky. “You must live, Helikaon,” said a vision that looked like Andromache.

  “Why?” he answered wearily.

  And now he was fighting on the stairs once more, Argurios beside him. He was so tired, and the Mykene kept coming, surging up at them. A hand touched his arm, and a voice said: “Walk with me, Golden One.”

  “I have to fight,” he shouted, plunging his blade into the neck of an advancing soldier.

  “The fight is already won,” said the voice of Argurios. “Come with me.” The world spun, and Helikaon was standing alongside the great warrior, looking down at the fighting, seeing himself, blood-spattered, struggling on. Then he saw the vile Kolanos draw back on his bow. And he knew the arrow was aimed at Argurios, knew that it would punch through his broken cuirass.

  “No!” he shouted. “Argurios, beware!”

  “I am here,” said the Argurios who was standing beside him. “The arrow has already flown. You see?” Helikaon looked at him and saw the shaft buried deep in his side. “You cannot stop what is to be, Helikaon. This was my time. Walk with me.”

  And then there was sunshine, the glory of an autumn sunset. They were in a garden, watching the last light of the dying sun fade in the west. Argurios was dressed now in a simple tunic of white, his face bronzed by the sun. Gone were the signs of struggle, the deeply etched lines, the dark circles beneath his eyes. “Go back to the world, Helikaon. Live,” he said.

  “I don’t know how,” Helikaon replied.

  “Neither did I—for all but the last few days of my life. We are tiny flames, Helikaon, and we flicker alone in the great dark for no more than a heartbeat. When we strive for wealth, glory, and fame, it is meaningless. The nations we fight for will one day cease to be. Even the mountains we gaze upon will crumble to dust. To truly live we must yearn for that which does not die.”

  “Everything dies,” Helikaon said sadly.

  “Not everything,” Argurios said. A shaft of sunlight illuminated a white stone bench at the end of the garden. Helikaon saw a woman sitting upon it, watching the sunset. She turned to him and smiled. It was Laodike. Argurios walked away from him to where Laodike sat and kissed her. Then the two of them sat together on the bench arm in arm as the light faded. Helikaon felt lost and alone. Argurios turned toward him. “Go back,” he said. “She is waiting!”

  His mind flickered, and his eyes opened. He was lying down now and could see the enchanted window to his right, bright stars shining in the sky.

  “Come back to us, my love,” whispered a vision of Andromache.

  Helikaon felt the warmth of a naked body slide alongside his, her arm over his chest, her leg touching his thigh.

  “Andromache?” he whispered. It did not matter that she was a phantom. The moon shone brightly, and he saw her face, her beautiful green eyes looking down into his.

  “Yes, it is Andromache,” she said. Her lips touched his, and he felt his heart quicken. Her hand moved down over his belly, and he groaned as arousal stiffened his loins. Her lips parted, and the kiss became more passionate. The pain from his wound faded. This was a new dream! A part of his mind expected her to burst into flame or the scene to shift to one of horror. But it did not. The warmth in him grew, his heart pounding. His good arm circled her back, drawing her down and across him. Her thigh slid over his hip, and now she was above him, straddling him.

  The nightmare visions had no claim on him now. He felt the soft, wet warmth of her and surged up to meet it. She cried out as he entered her, then pressed down upon him, her hands cradling his face, her lips pressed to his.

  Deep within him something awoke, and he felt it grow. It was a yearning for life, for joy. The phantom above him began to shudder and moan and cry out. The sound filled him. Then white light exploded behind his eyes, and he passed out.

  He awoke to birdsong and the bright light of day.

  Helikaon took a deep breath and could taste the salt upon the air. A plain-faced woman was leaning over him. He struggled to remember her name. Then it came to him. She was the Spartan princess, Helen, and he had seen her with Paris at the palace of Hekabe.

  “How are you feeling?” she asked him.

  “Hungry,” he told her. He struggled to sit, and she helped him, lifting the pillows behind him.

  “I have some honey water,” she said, “but I will fetch you some food.”

  “Thank you, Helen.”

  She smiled shyly. “It is good to see you recovered. We were all very worried.”

  He drank some honeyed water, and Helen left the room to fetch him breakfast. Leaning to place the empty cup on the table beside the bed, he winced. The wound under his armpit was still painful. He glanced down at his chest and arms. So thin, he thought, touching the jutting collarbones and tracing the lines of his ribs.

  The door opened, and Andromache came in, carrying a bowl of fruit. She was wearing a long dress of shimmering scarlet, her red hair held back from her face by a headband of ornate silver set with emeralds. She looked thoughtful and concerned as she laid the fruit bowl beside the bed. She did not sit beside him but stood watching him.

  “It is good to see you,” he said. “By the gods, I feel I have been torn back from the grave.”

  “You were very sick,” she said softly, her eyes on his.

  “You need have no more fear for me,” he told her. “My strength is returning. I slept last night with no dreams. Well, save one of you.”

  “You dreamed of me?”

  “I did, and it was a fine dream—a dream of life. I think it was that dream that cured me.”

  She seemed to relax then and sat down by the bedside. When she spoke, her voice was cool, her tone distant. “Everyone thought you were dying, but Gershom found a healer. He cleansed your wound. Once it is fully sealed, you will need to swim and to take walks to build your strength.”

  “What is wrong, Andromache?” he asked.

  “Nothing is wrong,” she replied. “I am… pleased you are recovered.”

  “You talk like a stranger. We are friends, you and I.”

  “We are not friends,” she snapped. “We… I… I am to be wed to Hektor, and you to Halysia.”

  “And that means we cannot be friends?”

  “I do not see you as a friend, Helikaon. I cannot.” She looked away, staring out of the window.

  “You know that I love you,” he said softly. “As I have never loved another woman. That will always be true.”

  “I know,” she said, her voice bitter. She swung back toward him. “I feel the same. And that is why we cannot be friends. I cannot sit with you and make idle chatter and laugh at silly jests. You fill my mind, Helikaon. All the time. Even in my dreams.”

  “I told you I dreamed of you last night,” he said.

  “I do not want to hear it,” she told him, rising. “Gershom is waiting to see you. And Antiphones. Xander c
ame yesterday, too. He said he would return.”

  “Where is Hektor?”

  “He sailed with the Xanthos in search of pirates. He is expected soon.”

  Helikaon looked into her face. “I thank you for saving me, Andromache,” he told her.

  “It was not me. I told you. Gershom found a healer.”

  “No,” he said sadly. “It was you.”

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  BLACK GALLEYS IN THE BAY

  Andromache strode out into the long garden behind the palace, her bow in her hand, a quiver of arrows slung across her shoulder. Targets of bound straw had been set by the far wall, cunningly crafted in the shapes of deer, boars, and men. Andromache notched a black-feathered shaft to the string, drew back, and loosed it.

  At a distance of thirty paces the arrow tore into the straw deer at the belly. It was a poor shot. Had it been a real animal, the arrow would have ripped through its guts, causing an agonized death and ruining the meat. With a deer, she knew, the arrow needed to pierce both lungs. Death would then be swift, the meat tender. Calming herself, she sent four more shafts into the target. Those were better aimed.

  “You are a fine shot,” came the voice of Antiphones. Andromache swung toward him, masking her irritation at having been interrupted.

  “You are looking well, Antiphones,” she said. He was still colossally large but had shed a great deal of weight since the autumn. His face now looked healthy, and he no longer wheezed as he moved.

  “Still fatter than five pigs, but I am working on it,” he replied. “As you know, Father has given me command of the Ilos regiment. By next spring I’m hoping to be able to mount a horse and ride out with the cavalry.”

  She smiled. “I am glad he rewarded you, Antiphones. Had you not discovered the plot, we might all be dead now.”

  His face stiffened, but then the smile returned, though a little forced, she thought. “Yes, Father was grateful. I have discovered, though, that his benevolence is always short-lived.”