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02 Shield of Thunder 19


  “My own father is the same,” she said. “Perhaps all kings are. They feel they have nothing to be grateful for. People are born only to serve them; therefore, those who do so faithfully are only behaving as expected.”

  “Well, at least he has taken a liking to you,” Antiphones said, easing himself down onto a stone bench in the shade of a flowering tree.

  “It is not affection,” she told him. “It is merely lust—and a desire to have that which has been refused him.”

  Antiphones shrugged. “You can continue to say no, Andromache. He may be many things, but he would not force a woman against her will.”

  Andromache shook her head and laughed. “How naďve that sounds, Antiphones. What you mean is he would not force her down with the strength of his arms. You think the palace girls he beds or the daughters of the nobles spread their legs for him because of his charm? His golden hair is streaked with gray. He is old, Antiphones. Young girls do not clamor for the old. They share his bed because they must. Because he is the king and they are afraid of his wrath.”

  “But you are not afraid of his wrath?”

  “I fear no man.”

  “Then you are safe from his advances.”

  “Yes, but I still feel his eyes on me. I can almost hear his heartbeat quicken when I am close. I imagine it will stop when I am Hektor’s wife.”

  “It hasn’t stopped him with other men’s wives,” Antiphones said softly, looking around in case any servants were close by.

  “There are no whisperers here, Antiphones,” she said. “Surely he will stop. Is not Hektor his favorite son? Even Priam would not risk angering him.”

  “Yes, he is the favorite,” Antiphones replied without bitterness. “For years that was hard for me to swallow. Harder for Agathon, for Polites. Hard for all the sons. How could any compete with the mighty Hektor?”

  “Do you hate him?”

  “Father?”

  “No. Hektor.”

  Antiphones shook his head. “No one ever hates Hektor. Even Agathon, who I discovered hated just about everyone in Troy. Including me, and I was his brother as well as his friend. Why do you ask? Do you dislike Hektor?”

  “How can I dislike someone I have never really met?”

  Antiphones looked confused. “But Hektor has been in Troy throughout the winter.”

  “Yes, and somehow rarely where I am. Strange behavior for a man soon to be my husband.” She felt anger rise and tried to quell it. “But then the daughters of kings are merely breeding cows sold to the highest bidder. Why should a man wish to speak to a breeding cow?”

  Antiphones chuckled. “I have never known a woman like you, Andromache.”

  “A compliment, I trust?”

  “You know, I am not sure. I was raised to believe women yearned to be subservient and longed to be dominated.”

  “Had you been raised by Priam alone, that would be no surprise, but Hekabe is not a subservient queen, and I would imagine no man ever dominated her.”

  “That is true,” Antiphones said. “Priam and Hekabe, passion and poison, strength and cruelty. She would eat her young for the sake of power.” Antiphones sighed. “What a loving family we are.”

  Stepping away from him, she sent an arrow flashing down the garden and into the straw boar. Two more shafts sliced into the target.

  “I notice you don’t shoot at the man,” Antiphones said, pointing toward the tallest of the straw targets.

  “I don’t hunt men,” she said.

  “Yet you killed the man trying to stab Father.”

  She swung toward him. “I can hit a target eighty paces distant one hundred times in a hundred. Do men say, What a fine archer? No. Kill one assassin a mere thirty paces away and they are so impressed. What is this link between men and death, Antiphones? Why did I have to kill to become respected?”

  “You do yourself an injustice, Andromache. It is not about killing. The man was running at Father, a spear in his hand. You had a heartbeat to react. You did not recoil. Fear and shock did not stiffen your limbs. You acted swiftly and surely while others froze. And your arrow was true.”

  “As I said, a simple shot. Did you see Helikaon?”

  “For a while. Then he fell asleep. He looks better today. There is color in his cheeks, and the fever has broken. He will recover. And he will need to… rather swiftly.”

  “Why?”

  “The city will soon be filled by warriors from the west, come to take part in the games. Helikaon is hated by them. Agamemnon has ordered his death. It is almost certain there will be more attempts on his life.” He drew in a deep breath. “And not just Helikaon. Many of the kings loathe one another. Before long the streets will be crawling with assassins.”

  “But the games…” Andromache said. “By the laws of Olympos, any city that stages games in honor of the gods is neutral. All enmities are put aside. There will be a truce.” Antiphones was looking at her quizzically. “What is it? Am I suddenly speaking in a foreign language?”

  “Almost. You are a curious mixture, Andromache. One moment you are speaking with authority about the nature of kings, and the next…” He hesitated, then shook his head. “You accused me of being naďve. Surely you must understand that the truce is illusory. Everyone knows it. Priam will have soldiers everywhere. All the family will walk surrounded by bodyguards. Agamemnon will have his Followers with him at all times, hands on daggers, ready to strike down anyone who gets too close to their king. It will be a time of tension and menace. Helikaon will be a prime target. Of that you can have no doubt. Once he is stronger, have him taken to his own palace.” He pushed himself ponderously to his feet.

  “Perhaps he should go back to Dardania,” she said.

  “He won’t do that. That would signify weakness to his enemies.”

  “And seeing a stick-thin man tottering around in the sunlight will make them gasp at his strength?”

  Antiphones laughed with genuine good humor. “You have a tongue on you like a whip. I am chastened, and I flee from your company.”

  Andromache smiled. “It was good to talk with you, Antiphones. I hope you will visit me again. As long, of course, as it is considered seemly for a future brother to attend me in the absence of my betrothed.”

  “Oh, no one will worry about me,” he said brightly. “It is well known that my tastes have never been for women. Pies, pastries, and handsome young men. No, Andromache, we do not have to concern ourselves with seemly behavior.” Stepping forward, he kissed her lightly on both cheeks. “And remember what I said. Speak to Gershom. He is a fighting man and will know how to protect Helikaon.”

  The whore known as Big Red watched the rising pandemonium on the beach and laughed. A fistfight would break out soon, maybe several, she thought as the beachmasters fought a losing battle to organize the incoming galleys. The other whores who had gathered were not amused. Bad tempers meant poor business, and the women had believed there would be gold and silver rings to be earned with so many ships arriving together. In fact, as Big Red had surmised almost as soon as she had reached the beach, there were just too many ships. Few of the sailors and even fewer of the passengers were in any mood to let loose the one-eyed snake.

  Red moved away from the line of whores, looking for a spot in the shade. Later that night there would be gold aplenty to be made in the streets of Troy. For now she might as well rest and enjoy the entertainment. Reaching a low stone bench, she brushed her hand across its surface, scanning it for bird shit. Her red gown was new, and she had no wish to see it stained. Satisfied the bench was clean, she eased her considerable weight down onto it. The relief was instant. Her left knee had been paining her recently, and long periods of standing caused the joint to stiffen and swell. Comfortable now, she watched the chaos on the long beach.

  As far as the eye could see in both directions the Bay of Troy was packed with vessels large and small, and scores more were gliding in quietly through the afternoon mist. There was no room for them all, and the beachmast
ers, backed up by soldiers, were forcing some boats off the sand to make way for incomers. Those leaving were impeding those rowing in, and the clash of oars and cursing of sailors echoed around the waters.

  She heard the angry complaints of fishermen, furious at losing berths their families had used for generations, being forced to travel far up the Scamander to beach. Foreign captains shouted scorn at the beachmasters when told to disembark their important passengers and then return the way they had come to beach in the Bay of Herakles, far from the city. Merchants and peddlers who had just arrived were milling about, uncertain where to go, anxious about their cargoes in the heaving throng.

  Red found it all highly amusing. Clouds of flying insects from the low marshes about the bay were buzzing around the sweating, red-faced beachmasters, who were trying to maintain order and placate tempers while rapidly losing their own. Red was never troubled by insects. They did not like the heavy perfume with which she doused her henna-dyed hair.

  “You poxy son of a river rat!”

  Red watched with delight as a Gyppto mechant took a swing at the beachmaster Dresos. Fat Dresos tried to dodge but lost his footing and sprawled in the sand. Soldiers stepped forward and prodded the furious Gyppto back to his ship at spearpoint.

  Others joined in the laughter as Dresos got to his feet, but he swung angrily on the red-headed whore.

  “Shut your mouth, you filthy bitch!”

  This just made her laugh harder, but one of the young soldiers stepped over to her.

  “Better get back beyond the wall, Red. Likely to be trouble before long. Wouldn’t want to see you get hurt.”

  “Sweet of you, Ipheus,” she said, and felt a sinking of the spirits. The young man had treated her with polite concern, but there had been no hint of desire as he spoke to her. He had not looked into her violet eyes and blushed. He had not licked his lips or shifted from foot to foot, awed by her sensuality. Red glanced down at the flowing crimson gown she wore to disguise her growing weight. Once—and not so long ago—she had been desirable. But those had been the days before she became known as Big Red. She sighed.

  “Are you all right, Red?” Ipheus asked.

  “Come ride me and find out,” she replied with a practiced wink.

  The soldier laughed. “Couldn’t afford you, Red,” he said, then moved off toward another group of angry men.

  The young man’s compliment did not lift her mood, and Red decided to go home and drown her sorrows in wine. She never had been beautiful. Her large and powerful frame precluded that. But there had once been power in her violet eyes, in the days when the gods had blessed her with radiant youth. Now that youth was passing. Many of the older whores sought out husbands in the autumn of their careers: old soldiers or lonely merchants. Red wanted no husband, as she had never wanted children.

  She began the long walk up toward the city and paused. The noise on the beach had faded away. All argument and cursing had ceased. It seemed even the seabirds had stopped their screeching. The crowds on the beach were all looking toward the bay. In the ominous silence Red realized she could hear her heart beating.

  Three black galleys were moving slowly through the mass of ships. Oarsmen on other vessels hurriedly backed up, making room for them. No one complained or shouted insults as the galleys headed for shore, ahead of those which had been waiting impatiently since midday.

  As the first galley closed on the beach, black oars were raised. The ship glided on for a few heartbeats, then the keel bumped quietly on the sand.

  Red walked back down to where Ipheus was standing silently, his expression tense.

  “You’d think the god of the dead was arriving,” she said.

  “And you wouldn’t be far wrong. Those are Mykene vessels. Agamemnon is here.”

  Agamemnon, a long black cloak over his thin shoulders, his black chin beard jutting like a sword blade, stood on the prow and gazed up at the golden city of Troy. His dark, brooding eyes scanned the high walls, his expression unreadable. Beside him stood the fleshy, dissolute Peleus, king of Thessaly, and his son Achilles, a huge black-haired young warrior dressed in a white knee-length tunic edged with gold thread.

  “See how they fear you,” Peleus said enviously. For a moment only Agamemnon had no idea what he meant; then he realized that the crews of the waiting ships had fallen silent and no one complained as the galleys of Mykene eased through to the beach. He was not uplifted by the knowledge. It was no more than he expected.

  On the beach Agamemnon saw courtiers waiting to greet him, but he did not move or acknowledge them.

  “Strong walls,” Peleus said. “Impressive. You’d lose men on a ratio of ten, maybe fifteen to one trying to scale them. Better to breach the gates, I think. You have been here before?”

  “My father brought me when I was a child. We walked the walls. They are weakest in the west of the city. That is where Herakles breached them.”

  “He had the war god Ares in his ranks, they say,” Peleus remarked.

  Agamemnon glanced at him but said nothing. Always men spoke of gods walking among men, but Agamemnon had never seen such a miracle. He believed in the gods, of course, but he felt them distant from the affairs of men or at least indifferent to them. His own armies had conquered cities said to be protected by the gods, and none of his men had been struck down by the lightning of Ares or the hammer of Hephaistos. His own priests were, in the main, dissemblers. If the army suffered a reverse, then it was the will of the gods. If a victory, then the will of the gods. It seemed to Agamemnon that the gods favored the men with the sharpest swords and the greatest numbers. Even so, he sacrificed to the gods before every battle. He had even taken to following the old Hittite practice of human sacrifice before particularly important conflicts. Whether this aided him supernaturally he neither knew nor cared. What was more important was that such disregard for human life caused fear and panic among his enemies, as indeed did the practice of slaughtering the inhabitants of towns and cities that resisted his ambition. Other cities then surrendered without the need for lengthy sieges, their lords pledging undying allegiance to Mykene rule.

  On the beach the courtiers were still waiting, their long white cloaks fluttering in the faint breeze.

  “Are you feeling strong, Achilles?” Agamemnon asked the young warrior beside Peleus.

  “Always,” Achilles answered. “You think Hektor will take part in the games?” His dark eyes gleamed as he asked the question, and Agamemnon saw the longing in him for combat and glory.

  Agamemnon thought about the question. It was an interesting one. King Priam would be seeking to impress the kings of the west with the power of Troy. How better to show that power than to have the mighty Hektor humble the champions of those kings? And yet… what if Hektor did not prevail? What if the ultimate champion of the games was from the west? He looked at Achilles. The man’s strength was obvious, his shoulders broad, his muscles finely honed. He had proved himself in battle and in bouts, where his massive fists had pounded valiant opponents to the dust. Could Hektor defeat Achilles? Would Priam risk such a bout?

  Would I? he wondered.

  But then, I am not Priam, he reasoned. The king of Troy was addicted to risk, and he wondered if Priam’s vanity would dictate that Hektor would stand with the athletes. He saw that Achilles was still waiting patiently for his answer.

  “No,” he said, “I do not think Hektor will take part. But it could be we might engineer it. We will see.”

  “I pray that he does,” Achilles said. “I tire of the stories of Hektor the man killer, Hektor the hero. Whom has he fought? What men of worth? A few skinny Gypptos, a handful of Hittite rebels. Thrakian renegades, ill armed and poorly led. His legend is built on straw. I will tear it down for him.”

  “Ha!” Peleus said with a broad smile. “There speaks a prince of Thessaly! By the gods, Agamemnon, my son will humble that proud Trojan.” As he spoke, he clapped Agamemnon on the shoulder.

  “I have no doubt of it,” the Myken
e king replied, masking his irritation at the touch. One day, he thought, I will take great pleasure in having hot irons thrust through your eyes. His loathing of Peleus was absolute, though he never allowed it to show. Peleus was important to his ambition, and that was all that mattered at this time. The attack on Troy, when it came, would need huge numbers of warriors, and Peleus had eight thousand fighting men under his command and a son worth a hundred more. For those men Agamemnon could bury his hatred beneath smiles of comradeship and promises of alliance. He could ignore the gross excesses of the man, the rape of children and the casual murders of female slaves, tortured and throttled. Peleus was a brute who killed for pleasure. Agamemnon would wait. When Troy was his, Peleus would be the first to die. The first of many. For a moment only the festering hatred he felt for his brother kings surged to the surface: the spindly Nestor, the braggart Idomeneos, and the ugly storyteller Odysseus. And more. He swallowed hard, licking dry lips with a dry tongue. All enemies will be dispatched, he told himself, but each in his day. Today was not the day to think of the vile Peleus or any of the other kings of the west. Today was about Priam.

  Once more he glanced up at the golden city. A chariot decorated with gold and drawn by two pure white horses emerged. It was being driven by a broad-shouldered man in a tunic of pale blue and a white cloak embroidered with silver thread. His long golden hair and close-cropped beard were streaked with white. Priam was growing old, but still he radiated authority. Crowds drew back, and many cheered as the king rode his chariot down to the beach. Agamemnon felt his emotions surge, a heady mixture of hatred and admiration. Even strangers to this city would be in no doubt they were in the presence of a king as Priam steered his chariot through the throng.

  Agamemnon was well aware that he himself did not look mighty, with his rounded shoulders, slim frame, and ungainly gait. Nevertheless, despite this drawback he had made himself the most famous warrior king in the western world. He knew exactly why. What he lacked in physical majesty was more than compensated for by his utter ruthlessness. Enemies died. Their families died. Their mothers, their fathers, their uncles, and their friends died. Agamemnon engendered fear. It enveloped his opponents like a sea mist. And he could plot a campaign or a battle and wage it mercilessly and brilliantly until it was won.