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02 Shield of Thunder 21

Olektra had looked momentarily uncertain. Then she had smiled. “You’ll understand when you are older and wiser.”

  “But do you understand, Mother?”

  Olektra had hugged her close and whispered in her ear. “Perhaps I will when I am older and wiser.”

  Andromache smiled at the memory.

  From the upper city she could see all Troy laid out before her, the shining roofs of its carved and decorated palaces, its wide streets, its high golden walls and towers, the Great Tower of Ilion dwarfing them all. Beyond there was the lower town, and beyond that the Bay of Troy, crowded with ships. To the southwest she could see Hekabe’s summer palace, King’s Joy, shining whitely in the sunlight. In the distance she could just make out the black dots that were galleys on the Great Green.

  She glanced at Cheon. Although the square around them was not busy, one hand lay on his sword hilt and his eyes constantly watched for peril.

  Her stomach moved with nausea again, and she stood quietly for a moment until the feeling ebbed. Then she set off, striding quickly toward Priam’s palace.

  The place was in turmoil, the red-pillared portico seething with people. Royal guards—the King’s Eagles in armor of bronze and silver—were questioning them, then letting them in one at a time. Andromache slipped through the line of warriors, smiling her thanks at the armored Eagle who recognized her and stepped aside, ushering her in. The megaron beyond was more crowded than she had ever seen it. Merchants and petitioners waited in huddles, watched by soldiers; slaves ran around on errands; and scribes moved back and forth, their wicker baskets filled with soft clay tablets. There were royal courtiers, counselors to the king, foreign visitors in outlandish costumes, and soldiers everwhere.

  “Shall I stay with you, lady?” Cheon asked, frowning at the throng.

  “No, I’ll be all right. Go and get something to eat. I’ll be here awhile.”

  He dipped his head and moved back toward the megaron entrance. She knew he would be there waiting for her when she came out, whenever that was.

  Andromache looked around for someone she knew. She saw the king’s chancellor, Polites, coming down the stone steps from the queen’s apartments and tried to move through the crowd toward him, but a portly merchant stepped on her foot and she nearly lost her balance. She scowled at the clumsy fat man, but he, not knowing her, merely glanced past her.

  Then came a welcome voice. “Sister, let me get you out of here.”

  “Dios! What a bear pit this is!”

  Hektor’s half brother smiled at her with genuine affection. She was reminded of their first meeting, when he had confronted her on the royal beach, accusing her of immodesty. “Prince Deiphobos” he had insisted she call him, standing on his dignity in front of his courtiers. Then had come the day of the siege. Dios had changed that day, as had so many others. Guarding the stairs, placing his body and his life in front of his king, he had grown in everyone’s eyes. Now he was less arrogant, and his ever-present mob of lickspittle flunkeys and courtiers had melted away. He had become a good friend to Andromache during the long winter.

  “Come out into the gardens,” he said, taking her arm. “It’s not so bad out there. Where is your bodyguard?”

  “I sent him away. I thought he would not be needed in here with all these soldiers.”

  He shook his head and laughed. “Andromache, why do you always seek trouble? You are surrounded by a press of people, so you send your guard away. It is true that if you were attacked, about a hundred Eagles would fall on the attacker and kill him, but that might be too late for you. It was almost too late for Helikaon, remember?” His face sobered. “How is he now?”

  “Better, much better. He has returned to the House of Stone Horses and will go back to Dardanos soon.”

  “I am glad to hear it. Now, why are you here?”

  “Priam wishes to see me.”

  “Does he?” A cloud passed over Dios’ face, and she felt his concern. Does everyone know of Priam’s intentions for me? she wondered. Dios said, “He has been closeted with Agamemnon for most of the day. You might have a long wait.”

  “It is the king’s privilege to keep his subjects waiting,” she said, but in her heart she was angry at Priam’s games. Bile rose again in her throat, and she swallowed it down.

  Protected by high walls from Troy’s ever-present wind, the royal gardens smelled of fragrant flowers and salt sea air. On the far side of the gardens Andromache spotted Kreusa, Priam’s favorite daughter. The dark-haired beauty saw Dios and, smiling, started to walk toward him; then she noticed Andromache and scowled, turning abruptly back the way she had come. Not for the first time Andromache wondered about Kreusa. Where had she been on the night of the siege? It was said that she was at a friend’s house, that she was late leaving and was warned of the attack before she reached the palace. Priam called it the mercy of the gods. Andromache called it highly suspicious.

  “I hate to leave you here, Andromache,” Dios said, “but Polites and I must attend the king. Can I have some food or drink sent out?”

  She declined, then watched him walk back into the megaron.

  The afternoon passed slowly into evening, and torches were lit in the gardens. The crowds finally drifted away. The air cooled, and Andromache wrapped her green shawl around her. The moon rose above the palace roof, and still she sat, her anger simmering. She thought of returning to Hektor’s palace but knew Priam would only call her out in the depths of the night instead. So she waited, quelling the rage in her heart and the nausea in her belly.

  At last she saw a tall Eagle walking toward her through the torchlight.

  “The king will see you now, lady,” he said. “He is in the queen’s apartments.” His eyes shied away from her. It was common palace knowledge that Priam used the apartments for assignations with women, be they palace slaves or noblewomen.

  She followed the soldier back into the megaron and up the great stone staircase. She had not been to the queen’s apartments since the night of the siege. The remembered sounds of battle echoed in her mind: the clash of metal, the grunting of the warriors, and the cries of the wounded. She passed through the room where Laodike had died. It was empty now, cold and silent. A single faded rug lay on the stone floor, and dust motes swam in the air, swirling in the light from the torches.

  The Eagle led her to a large room draped with heavy tapestries. There was a wide bed, several cushioned couches, and a table heaped with sweetmeats. It was warm and stuffy. Servants were clearing away food and bringing fresh flagons of wine. Priam sat on one of the couches. He looked tired and much older than when they had first met, she thought.

  “Andromache. I am sorry to keep you waiting.” He gestured to a couch, and she sat down, looking around her.

  “You entertained Agamemnon here?”

  “Man to man,” he said, shrugging. “We quaffed wine together and laughed. If I greet visiting dignitaries in the megaron, they feel immediately subordinate.”

  “What is wrong with making Agamemnon feel subordinate? I hear he is a snake.”

  “Oh, yes, he is a snake. But a dangerous snake.” He smiled wearily. “So I charm him and play him sweet music. Until I am ready to cut his head off. Will you take some wine?”

  “Water would be good.”

  He stood and served her himself with a goblet of water. She noticed that the servants had all left the chamber and they were alone.

  “You visited Hekabe yesterday,” the king said. “How is she?”

  Andromache thought of the ruin that was the dying queen: yellow skin stretched like thin papyrus on brittle bones, a voice like the rustle of dead leaves on an icy pond, feverish black eyes that pierced you like a spear.

  “She is determined on seeing her favorite son wed,” she answered. “I have no reason to think she will not do that.”

  “Is she in pain?”

  Andromache raised questioning eyes to the king. “Have you never asked that of anyone before?”

  “I cannot chat abou
t the queen’s condition with anyone passing through the palace. That is why I ask you.” Priam’s face showed sadness. “You must understand, Andromache, she was a woman I honored above all others.”

  Then, thought Andromache, you should show that honor by visiting her in her dying days. She bit her lip and remained silent.

  Priam took a swig of wine and leaned toward her, looking into her eyes. “Why do you think I summoned you here tonight?” he said, changing the subject.

  “To ask after your dying wife?”

  Priam flushed. “Your thoughts are like ice, and your words a spear. That is the reason I value you. One of the reasons,” he added, smiling a little. His eyes strayed to her long strong legs and slender hips. “You are a beautiful woman, Andromache. Most men value golden-haired milkmaids with simpering smiles and buxom hips. You have the stern beauty of Athene. It fires my blood. You know this.”

  Andromache was too tired to play his games. “I will not be your mistress, Priam,” she said, standing, hoping he’d let her leave.

  “I think you will.”

  “Never. I am to wed your son Hektor. I do understand the nature of duty. I will be a dutiful wife.”

  He sat back, smiling and relaxed again. “Sit down, girl. I will not touch you until you invite me to.”

  “And that will be never!”

  “Then I shall amuse myself by telling you a story. You might enjoy it, for it is about you. Many years ago—long before you were born—I visited Thera with my young and lovely queen. We were traveling to Kretos to see the king of the day, Deukalion, father of this braggart Idomeneos. There was a terrible storm at sea. It was feared the ship would founder. Hekabe was pregnant and sick. I don’t remember which child it was. We survived the storm, but we had to put in to Thera for a night. We offered pleasantries to the chief priestess, a hachet-faced woman, I recall. After the dreary duties were done, the queen wished to be closeted with a young seeress she knew from her days there as a priestess. The two spoke for hours, well into the night. Then the seeress—her name was Melite—walked with Hekabe to the prophecy flame. When the fumes overcame her, Melite fell to the floor and began to shout. Much of what she said was lost on Hekabe, for Melite shrieked out words in tongues that were unfamiliar to her. But just before Melite lost consciousness, her voice changed, becoming that of a young child. She then spoke a pretty verse. You want to hear it?”

  Andromache was silent for a moment. Her interest was piqued. She, too, had known Melite and recalled only too well that the old woman had prophesied her departure from Thera weeks before the ship arrived with the message from Hekabe. “Yes, I will hear it,” she told him.

  “I think you will find it interesting,” said the king. “Beneath the Shield of Thunder waits the Eagle Child, on shadow wings, to soar above all city gates, till end of days, and fall of kings. Hekabe was very taken with the verse, but the meaning was hidden from her. For years she consulted mystics and seers. Then, in late winter two years back, she encountered a Hittite soothsayer. He finally interpreted the verse to Hekabe’s liking. The Shield of Thunder, he said, was not an object but a person. A woman. The Eagle Child would be born to her. As you know, the eagle is the symbol of kingship. So, this woman would bear the son of a king. To soar above all city gates means he will never be defeated in battle, and till end of days means his city will be eternal.”

  “Even if the prophecy is a true one,” Andromache said, “there are hundreds of kings and thousands of young women who serve Athene. All of them would at some time have stood before her statue and effectively have been beneath the Shield of Thunder.”

  “Indeed so.” Priam leaned forward. “But how many of them were born with the image of the shield upon their heads?”

  Andromache sighed. “I was told of my birthmark, but that is all it is, lord: a patch of red skin with a slash of white upon it.”

  Priam shook his head. “My ambassador, Heraklitos, was there that night. He saw the shield and heard the words of the priestess. But there is more. When Melite was babbling on Thera, she spoke of a woman with the strength of a man. Hekabe remembered that, albeit not swiftly enough. Your father’s people came from across the sea, and with them they brought many words of the western tongue. Andros for ‘man,’ and machos for ‘strength.’ Your name is derived from these two words. You are the Shield of Thunder, Andromache, and your child will be the son of a king. He will make my city greater, eternal and undying.”

  “Suppose it is true,” Andromache said, rising, “and I do not believe it is, what makes you believe that you will be the father? You could die, Priam, and then Hektor will be king, and his son will be the Eagle Child. Had you not thought of that?”

  “Oh, there is little in all of this that I haven’t thought of, Andromache. But you can go now. We will talk again once Hektor returns.” Turning away from her, he filled a goblet full of wine and drained it.

  “Might I ask one question, sire?”

  “Make it brief, for I am tired.”

  “If I am the Shield of Thunder, why, then, did you send for my sister Paleste to be wed to Hektor?”

  Priam sighed. “A stupid error of Heraklitos. He told us that Paleste was the child who bore the shield. He was very sick then, and his mind was not what it had been.”

  “He was not wrong, lord. At my birth my mother named me Paleste, but my father changed it when he returned from his campaign.”

  But Priam was not listening. Taking the jug of wine and the goblet, he walked back through the apartments to the bedroom, pushing shut the door behind him.

  Andromache felt the nausea strike once more but swallowed it down. Sweat was on her brow as she left the apartments and made her way down to the megaron. A servant brought her some water, and she sat quietly, waiting for her stomach to settle.

  She thought then of shy and gentle Paleste. How awful the workings of this city would have been to her. Did Priam seek to seduce her? Was she awed and frightened by the dying Hekabe? She suddenly shivered as the full import of Priam’s careless words struck home. Paleste had been “a stupid error.”

  How convenient, then, that innocent Paleste, trusting and sweet, should have sickened and died.

  Andromache rose from her seat and walked out into the cool night air. Cheon was waiting for her. As he approached her, Andromache fell to her knees and vomited on the path. The soldier was instantly beside her, supporting her. Twice more Andromache retched; then her head cleared and her stomach ceased to cramp.

  “Do you need a physician?” Cheon asked, concern in his voice. Andromache shook her head.

  They walked slowly through the empty streets, and Andromache felt stronger by the time they reached the gates of the palace. Once inside, she ordered a servant to bring her some bread and cheese, then went to her rooms.

  Kassandra was sleeping on a couch, but she awoke when Andromache entered. “I was dreaming of dolphins,” the girl said, yawning.

  Andromache sat beside her. “You spoke earlier of my sickness. You said it was not the fish.”

  Kassandra leaned in and smiled. “It is the Eagle Child,” she whispered. “The son of Helikaon.”

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  THE DEATH OF A KING

  The palace Agamemnon had been assigned overlooked the temple of Hermes and the bay beyond. The location was excellent, but the standard of workmanship, Agamemnon saw, was not of the highest quality. The finish on the dressed stone was clumsy, and many of the carvings seemed to have been completed in haste. Also, the architect must have been a man of little imagination, for huge windows had been set in the main apartments upstairs, facing west into the setting sun. In the height of summer the rooms would be like ovens.

  Agamemnon sat now in the spacious walled garden, three guards close by, as his men searched through the fifteen rooms. The Mykene king did not expect them to find assassins hidden anywhere, but the search alone would keep his men focused on the dangers he faced. All the food in the kitchens had been removed and dumped, the wine p
oured away. Fresh food was being purchased in the market. Agamemnon gazed balefully over the garden. Garishly colored flowers had been planted, and their scent would draw insects.

  “Whose palace is this?” he asked his aide.

  “The king’s son, Polites.” Kleitos winced as he spoke, lifting his hand to massage his jaw. Three teeth had been broken when the renegade Banokles had attacked him. Two had been successfully pulled, but the third had snapped off at the gum line. The angry stump ached constantly.

  A soldier wearing the long black cloak of a Follower entered the garden. “The rooms are clear, Agamemnon King.”

  “Check the roof,” Agamemnon told him.

  “Yes, lord.”

  Kleitos waited until the man had left and then asked, “You think Priam would hide an assassin on the roof?”

  Agamemnon ignored the question. “What did you find out about Helikaon?”

  “He is recovering, my lord. He is at his palace in the lower town.”

  “And well guarded?”

  “First reports are that he has nine servants, all men. But no Trojans guard him, and he brought no Dardanian soldiers with him to Troy. He has one companion, a big man named Gershom. It is said he’s a Gyppto.”

  Agamemnon leaned back in his chair. How many assassination attempts could one man survive? Kolanos had had him trapped at Blue Owl Bay, but Helikaon had slipped by the killers dressed as a simple soldier. Then, the previous autumn, a group of warriors had confronted him in the grounds of the temple of Hermes. Helikaon had survived that, too. Now even the dagger of the legendary Karpophorus had failed to kill him. “He is blessed by luck,” he said.

  “It is said that he is the son of Aphrodite herself,” Kleitos said, in a low voice. “Perhaps he is protected by the goddess.”

  Agamemnon controlled his rising anger and waited for several moments so that his voice would appear calm and controlled. “His mother was a madwoman, Kleitos, who chewed too much meas root. She threw herself from a cliff top and was killed on the rocks below. And do not tell me the story of how she was seen flying from the cliff to distant Olympos. I have spoken to a man who gathered up her remains for burial. One eye was hanging from her shattered skull, and her jaw had been torn off.”