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02 Shield of Thunder 22


  “Yes, my king. I was only repeating what I had heard.”

  “Is the Thrakian here yet?”

  “Yes, my lord. King Eioneus arrived yesterday. He is lodged in a palace on the outskirts of the city. He brought two warhorses with him and desired to be close to the open hills so that he could ride them.”

  “How many retainers?”

  “Thirty soldiers and his son, Rhesos. There is also the Thrakian contingent for the games—some twenty men.”

  Agamemnon considered the information. “Eioneus is a man of routine. Have him watched, then ride out over the route he chooses. There will be a perfect spot somewhere for a man to lie in wait.”

  “We have some fine archers with us, my lord. Okotos can hit a bird on the wing.”

  “No, not a bowman. Use a slinger. Eioneus is an old man. A fall from a running horse could kill him. Even better if the stone strikes unseen by those with him. His death would then seem ill fortune.”

  As the light began to fade, Agamemnon rose and entered the palace. Lamps had been lit, and he could smell roasting meat from the kitchen. A soldier brought him a goblet of watered wine, and Agamemnon drank sparingly. Some time after dusk King Peleus arrived. The man was angry, his face flushed.

  “By the gods, they have given me a hovel,” he complained. “Close to the dyemakers. The stink is stomach-churning.”

  “Where is Achilles?”

  “He and two of his companions are out running in the hills.”

  “Do they have guards riding with them?”

  Peleus laughed. “You think anyone would be foolish enough to attack Achilles? He would tear out their lungs.”

  “Or an arrow could pierce his,” Agamemnon pointed out.

  “You think Priam would break the truce?”

  “Not all men are as honorable as you and I,” Agamemnon said.

  Day by day Helikaon’s strength grew. On his return to his own palace in the lower town he had barely been able to climb the stairs, and then only after stopping several times to catch his breath. His once lean and powerful frame was now skeletally thin, his muscles wasted. However, the absence of infection allowed his appetite to return, and Gershom supervised the preparation of his meals. There were no sweetmeats, no wines, but an abundance of fruits and fresh meats. “My grandfather was a great warrior in his day,” he told Helikaon, “and he was wounded more than twenty times. He maintained that an injured body needed simple fare: water to flush through the system, fruits and meats for strength. And like a fine horse the body needed to work in order to grow stronger.”

  Soon Helikaon’s skin began to lose its ghostly sheen, the dark rings under his eyes disappearing. Gershom borrowed two horses from Priam’s stables, and the two men rode bareback over the hills. The ride tired Helikaon, and Gershom led them down through several fields to a farmhouse where a well had been sunk. Tethering their mounts, the companions sat in the shade of the house. Helikaon was holding his hand over his wound. There were no bandages now, and when he raised his arm, the deep scar was red and vivid.

  “How is the pain?” Gershom asked.

  “Almost gone. But the wound itches.” He glanced at Gershom. “How could you allow a stranger to cover me in maggots?” he asked with a weary smile.

  “I was bored,” Gershom told him. “I thought it would be entertaining.”

  Helikaon leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. “I have had no dreams since that last night,” he said. “In a way I miss them. It was as if I could float across the world in an instant. I thought the room was enchanted. Day would pass into night and back to day in a heartbeat.”

  “From what I heard, when you were delirious, your dreams were all of blood and death and pain.”

  “Mostly they were. But I also dreamed I saw Argurios and Laodike. That was like balm upon the spirit. And I…” He fell silent.

  “What?” Gershom asked.

  Helikaon sighed. “I had a healing dream. Andromache was in it. It felt as if I were being lifted from a dark pit into bright sunshine.”

  Gershom glanced at his friend. Helikaon was staring into the distance, and Gershom could feel a sense of sadness emanating from him. Why this should be was mystifying. Helikaon had returned from the shores of Hades. He was a young king with everything to live for. He had a beautiful wife waiting for him in Dardania and a fleet of ships to sail the Great Green, bringing him wealth. Yet not once since he had begun his recovery had he laughed or made a jest.

  A growl sounded from close by, and a large black hound came padding around the wall, lips drawn back, teeth bared. The horses shifted nervously. Gershom’s hand moved to his dagger.

  “No, my friend,” Helikaon said, “do not harm it. The hound is doing what it should, protecting its master’s home. Ignore it. Turn your head away and do not stare into its eyes.”

  “So that it can take a bite out of my rump?”

  Helikaon slowly reached out his hand, softly clicking his fingers. The hound stood still, but the snarl remained and the hackles on its neck were raised. Suddenly Helikaon snapped his fingers and called out. “Here! Come!” Instantly the hound padded over to him. “You are a fine, brave fellow,” Helikaon told it, slowly raising his hand so that the hound could sniff at it.

  “And you, I fear, are an idiot,” Gershom grumbled. “With jaws like that he could have taken off your fingers.”

  “You know the problem with a royal upbringing in Egypte, Gershom? You can look, but you do not have to see. Slaves everywhere to do your bidding, bring you food, lay out your clothing.” The hound wandered away, padding back past the well, where it slumped down in an area of shade. “The hound is an old one. Gray around the jaws. It is not young and reckless. People will visit this farmhouse all the time. No farmer would keep an ill-trained guard dog unleashed.

  Daylight visitors will generally be welcome. Had we come at night, the story would have been different. And then there are the horses. If that dog was in a killing mood, they would have sensed it and panicked. Instead they merely shifted a little and grew wary. Therefore, we were in no danger. All we had to do was show the dog we had no evil intent.”

  Gershom shook his head. “You do not convince me, Helikaon. You rationalize your actions, and because the end result is favorable, you become right. However, the dog could have been suffering with toothache or been rabid and therefore would not have acted according to its training. The horses might not have scented its purpose. Horses are not generally considered to be great thinkers. Your method of dealing with the situation involved danger. Mine—to stab the beast—would have achieved the same end result with no risk.”

  “Except you would have killed a fine dog,” Helikaon pointed out.

  “It is not my dog.”

  As they were speaking, two men came walking in from the fields. Both were broad-shouldered and redheaded, though the first man was older and there was gray in his hair.

  “You seeking me?” he asked.

  Helikaon eased himself to his feet. “No. We were merely riding and sought to rest here awhile.”

  “Ah, well, you are welcome,” the farmer said. “Lucky, though. Cerberos there took a lump out of the last traveler who arrived unannounced.” Gershom’s laughter boomed out. “It wasn’t amusing,” the farmer grumbled. “Cost me two sheep in compensation. He’s getting old and forgetting his training. Are you heading up to the city?”

  “Yes.”

  “Best avoid the low woods. Been an accident there, and there are soldiers swarming everywhere, stopping travelers and asking questions.”

  “What happened?” Helikaon asked.

  “Some foreigner fell from his horse and died. Important man. Come for the wedding feast, I expect. Anyways, I am losing daylight standing here, so you’ll need to excuse me. Here, Cerberos,” he called, and the black hound padded after him as he walked off.

  “Do not say a word,” Helikaon warned Gershom.

  “What could I say? I who was born in a royal palace and look bu
t do not see?”

  Helikaon sighed. “How long are you going to hold this over my head?”

  “Difficult to say. Most of the summer, for sure.”

  Helikaon laughed then and swung onto his horse. “For that you can eat my dust all the way to the palace,” he said, heeling his mount into a run.

  Gershom set off after him. Both horses were powerful and fast, but Gershom was considerably heavier than the Dardanian king and could not close the gap. Only as they came closer to the city did Helikaon slow his horse and allow Gershom’s mount to canter alongside. There was good color in Helikaon’s cheeks, and his mood seemed to have lifted. As they crested a hill, the bay beyond came into sight, brilliantly blue in the sunshine. A light breeze was blowing over the hills. Helikaon reined in his mount and sat staring out over the sea. Gershom saw his mood change once more, his expression hardening.

  “What is it?” he asked.

  “There is a man coming to Troy whom I have sworn to kill.”

  “Well, your strength is returning fast. A few more weeks and you will be able to challenge him.”

  Helikaon said nothing more and heeled his horse. By the time they reached the palace, his strength was gone, and he took to his bed. Gershom returned the mounts and while at the stables heard that the king of Thraki, Eioneus, had been the man killed in the fall from the horse. He had been riding ahead of his companions, and when they rounded a bend in the path, they found him sprawled on the ground, his horse standing close by.

  The death was considered an ill omen for the coming wedding, and an evening of tribute was being arranged by King Priam, to be held in the temple of Poseidon in five days, when all the kings of west and east were hoped to be present. The Mykene king, Agamemnon, had volunteered to speak the words of praise for the departed.

  The awful knowledge that she was pregnant filled Andromache’s days and sleepless nights with anger and self-loathing. How could she have done something so stupid? How could the gods have punished her so harshly?

  She tried to convince herself she had slid into Helikaon’s bed only to follow the advice of the Prophet, putting a warm body next to the dying man to draw him back to life. But Andromache had never been swayed by self-deceit. Almost from the moment she had seen Helikaon on the beach at Blue Owl Bay, she had yearned to be close to him, naked, skin on skin. Even now, with the dreadful consequences of her action hanging over her like a storm bird, she felt the thrill of that moment.

  Her maid, Axa, was moving through the apartments, chattering as she gathered up discarded clothing. She was in a happy mood, as she had been throughout the winter. Her husband, feared dead with Hektor, was home again, and Axa’s joy was complete. Her babe was healthy, her man was alive, and the world shone with delight.

  “Perhaps the saffron gown today,” she said. “The sun is shining, and I could braid your hair with golden wire. That would catch the light.”

  “I want no braid today,” Andromache said. “And the yellow is too bright. Bring me the pale green.”

  “You always wear green,” Axa complained. “Did you see the Xanthos on the bay yesterday? Perhaps the lord Hektor will come to visit now. The yellow gown will dazzle him.”

  “I do not want him dazzled. And he will not come.”

  Axa looked puzzled. “You think not?”

  Andromache turned toward her. “How many times has he visited his own palace since I have been here?”

  “Several times. I saw him once.”

  “He came to see Helikaon, and always when I was absent.”

  “Oh, I am sure he—”

  “Please, Axa, make no excuses. This is an arranged marriage that Hektor obviously does not want. My guess is he will go to his farm and I will not see him until the wedding feast.”

  Axa’s face fell. “Oh, you mustn’t think that, my lady. Hektor is a wonderful man. Mestares worships him. He told me Hektor thinks you the most beautiful woman.”

  “So beautiful that he cannot bear to spend time with me. Enough of this. You are right—let it be the saffron gown.” Andromache had no wish to wear such a bright color but knew acquiescence would deflect Axa. The plump maid beamed happily and rushed off to fetch the robe.

  Andromache walked out onto the balcony. It was still in shadow, but she could see sunlight dappling the city and hear the sounds of workmen preparing the games area. Farther off she saw men building an embankment along the length of the hippodrome, where the chariot and horse races would be held. The city was becoming filled with travelers and contestants eager to win gold in the games. The plain to the north had become a city of tents and hastily built huts.

  A feeling of nausea swept over her, and she took a deep breath.

  Back on Thera she had walked with the other priestesses on the slopes of the angry mountain, chanting hymns to placate the Minotaur rumbling beneath the ground. She felt now a similar danger. On the surface she was Andromache, virgin princess of Thebe, about to wed the heir to the throne of Troy. But growing within her was her own Minotaur, whose presence, when known, would bring about her destruction.

  When Priam discovered her infidelity, he would have her killed. The king, despite his desire for her, could be ruthless. He had in recent years ordered the deaths of several wayward sons. And with her his rage would be towering, for she had spurned his advances on what he would see now as merely the pretext of honor. She would, in his eyes, have sought to fool him. Priam’s ego would not tolerate that.

  So what can I do? she wondered. Go to Helikaon? Tell him his dream was no dream at all? Her heart sank. He would seek to protect her and earn the enmity of Priam. Could Dardania’s small army stand against the might of Troy? She knew the answer.

  Andromache thought then of Hektor. She could try to seduce him. If she was successful, he would believe the child was his. Even as the thought came to her, she dismissed it. All her life she had believed in honesty, especially between lovers. Andromache had never lied to Kalliope. How, then, could a marriage begin with such a lie? It would sit like poison in the heart. No, there was only one honorable course—go to Hektor, admit everything, and accept what followed as the will of the gods.

  Axa returned and helped her into the saffron gown. It was a beautiful dress threaded with delicate golden wire and silver embroidery.

  “I am going to take a walk,” she said as Axa knelt down to tie the thongs of her sandals.

  “Shall I come with you?”

  “No, Axa. I will not need you anymore today. Go home and see your babe.”

  “He is growing well,” Axa said, “and he is going to be handsome like my Mestares, not dull and plain like me.”

  Andromache stared down into Axa’s moon face and felt a lump in her throat. “Axa, you are not plain. Everything you are shines from your face: your strength, loyalty, love, and courage.”

  Axa blushed. “You say the strangest things sometimes, my lady,” she said. “Now, what about gold thread in your hair?”

  “No, I shall let it fall free.”

  Axa rose and stared at Andromache’s flame-red hair. “The sun has caught it,” she noted critically. “There are golden streaks in it. You should wear a veil more often.”

  Andromache laughed, her mood lightening momentarily. “You are never satisfied, Axa. One moment you want to put gold in my hair, and then you complain because it is already there.”

  “You know what I mean,” Axa argued. “Only peasant women have such streaks in their hair, because they are out in the sun all day.”

  “Then I must be a peasant,” Andromache said. “Now be off with you.”

  At the palace gates she saw Cheon sitting quietly on a bench, his glittering bronze helm beside him, his breastplate gleaming in the sunshine. He rose as she approached.

  “Are we going to the tomb?”

  “No. We are walking to Hektor’s farm.”

  “It is a fair distance in this heat, lady. Shall I call for a chariot?”

  “I like to walk.”

  He said no
more, and together they strolled out into the city. Cheon donned his helmet. It was a full-faced helm that, happily for Andromache, made conversation nearly impossible. Cheon led the way through the crowds in the city center, and then through the Dardanian Gate and onto the stone road beyond.

  Cheon was right. The walk was long in such heat, and by midday they were still far from their destination. Andromache’s pride would not let her admit her error, and she strode on, sweat staining the saffron robe, her sandals chafing her ankles. Cheon glanced at her.

  “If you do not object, lady,” he said, removing his helm, “I would appreciate a halt in the shade.”

  She looked at him and smiled. “You are a gracious man, Cheon, and there is not a bead of sweat upon you. And yes, thank you, I would really like to rest awhile.”

  He grinned at her, then pointed to a small stand of trees. A white shrine had been set there. Within an alcove there was a statue of a woman holding a bow. Dried flowers bedecked it. Reaching out, Andromache stroked the statue and smiled. It reminded her of Kalliope. Just behind the shrine she heard the sounds of running water. She moved through a screen of bushes and found a stream bubbling over white stones. Kneeling down, she cupped her hands and drank. The water had an indefinable aftertaste that was not entirely pleasant. Cheon stood by, his hand on his sword hilt.

  “You are not drinking?” she asked him.

  “I am not thirsty.”

  She dipped the sleeve of her gown into the stream and dabbed some water to her face, then rose to stand beside him in the shade. “Whose shrine is this?”

  “The mother of the wrestler Archeos built it to honor the goddess Artemis. It is said Archeos won more games than any man living.”

  “He was a Trojan?”

  “No, lady. He was from Samothraki.” He tugged at his ear and seemed about to speak. Then he drew in a breath and stepped away from her.

  “What is it you wish to ask?” she said.