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02 Shield of Thunder 27


  Returning to the cool of the main room, Gershom saw Helikaon sitting forward, elbows resting on his knees. He looked tired and troubled.

  “Why do you not wish to see Odysseus?” Gershom asked, seating himself alongside the Dardanian king.

  “I will see him, but I need time to prepare my thoughts.” Idly he rubbed at the healing wound beneath his arm. Then he leaned back. “When Attalus was dying, he spoke to me. It is a strange thing, Gershom, but I think his words were more poisonous than his blade.”

  “How could that be?”

  “He told me Odysseus paid to have my father murdered.”

  The words hung in the air. Gershom knew little of Helikaon’s past save what the sailors had spoken of. A sad and lonely childhood redeemed by two years with Odysseus on the Penelope and in Ithaka. Upon his return to Dardania his father had been murdered, and Helikaon had refused the crown, instead offering his support to his half brother, the child Diomedes, and the boy’s mother, the king’s widow, Halysia.

  Assassination was common enough between rivals and enemies, but even Gershom, whose Egypteian heritage had involved little education in the ways of the sea peoples, knew that Ithaka was far distant from Dardania. There was no reason for enmity and apparently no cause for Odysseus to desire the death of the Dardanian king. Where would be the profit in it?

  “Attalus was lying,” he said at last.

  “I do not think so. That is why I need more time to prepare myself for a meeting.”

  “What would Odysseus have gained from such an act? Was your father blocking his trade routes? Was there ill feeling from some act in the past?”

  “I do not know. Perhaps when they were younger there was a feud.”

  “Then you should ask Odysseus.”

  Helikaon shook his head. “Not as simple as that, my friend. I swore an oath on the altar of Ares that I would hunt down and kill the man responsible for my father’s murder. If I ask Odysseus outright and he admits it to be true, then I will have no alternative but to declare him my enemy and seek his death. I do not want that. Odysseus was more than my friend. Without him I would have been nothing.”

  “You loved your father?”

  “Yes, though he did not return that love. He was a hard, cold man, and he saw in me a weakling who would never have the strength to rule.”

  “Does anyone else know what Attalus told you?” Gershom asked.

  “No.”

  “Then let it go. A man who despised you died. A man who loved you lives. Surely even your gods would understand were you to renege on your oath.”

  “They are not known for their understanding of mortal dilemmas,” Helikaon said.

  “No,” Gershom agreed, “they are more interested in disguising themselves as swans and bulls and suchlike and rutting with mortal men and women. Or feuding with one another like children. I have never heard of such an unruly bunch of immortals.”

  Helikaon laughed. “You obviously do not fear them.”

  Gershom shook his head. “When you have learned from childhood of the horrors of Set and what he did to his brother, your gods seem no more worrisome than squabbling puppies.”

  Filling a cup with water, Helikaon drank. “You make it sound so easy, Gershom. But it is not. I was raised to believe—as all our noble houses teach—that family and honor is everything. The unity of blood. It is what binds us together. An attack on one member of a family is an attack on all. Enemies, therefore, know that if they seek to harm any one of us, the rest will descend on them with swords of fire. Such unity offers security. Honor demands vengeance on any who seek to come against us.”

  “It seems to me,” Gershom said, “that you sea people spend a great deal of time talking about honor, but strip away the high-sounding words and you are no different from any other race. Family? Has Priam not killed wayward sons? When a king dies, do his sons not go to war with one another to succeed him? Men speak of how you reacted to your father’s death. They say it was amazing, for you did not order your little brother’s execution. Your race thrives on blood and death, Helikaon. Your ships raid the coasts of other nations, stealing slaves, burning and plundering. Warriors brag of how many men they have killed and women they have raped. Almost all of your kings either seized their thrones with swords and murder or are children of men who seized power with swords and murder. So put all this talk of honor to one side. The only fact I know about your father is that he sought to dispossess you, declaring your brother to be his heir. Odysseus, you tell me, helped make you a man and asked for nothing in return. Do you see any balance, any harmony, in killing your friend to avenge the murder of an enemy? For that is what your father was to you.”

  Helikaon sat silently for a while. Then he looked at Gershom. “What of your family?” he asked. “You have never spoken of them. Would you forgive the man who killed your father?”

  “I never knew my father,” Gershom said. “He died before I was born. So I cannot answer your question. The fact is that you believed Attalus—Karpophorus, whatever his name was. If he was telling the truth, then it could only be a part of it. Odysseus has the other part that can make it whole. You have to talk with him.”

  Helikaon rubbed at his eyes. “I need to rest, my friend,” he said, “but I will think on all you have said.”

  After Helikaon had taken to his bed, Gershom left the palace building. Two men were loitering close to a well on the other side of the avenue. Gershom wandered over to them. Both were lean and cold-eyed.

  “Anything?” Gershom asked.

  “Three came today,” the first man answered. “They walked around the palace, staring at the windows. I followed them to the palace of Polites. They were Mykene.”

  Gershom returned to the palace, moving through the lower levels and checking the locking bars on the shuttered windows. There was little point in such activity, he knew, for the shutter locks were flimsy and not intended to prevent a determined intruder. A dagger blade would lift the locking bars with little difficulty.

  Back in the main room Gershom lay back on a couch and closed his eyes. He had taken to sleeping in the afternoon and then remaining awake and watchful through the night. He slept a little, but bad dreams haunted him.

  He was awakened just before dusk by a servant who told him that Prince Deiphobos had arrived to see King Aeneas.

  Bleary-eyed, Gershom sent the servant to wake Helikaon and walked out to greet the slim, dark-haired young prince. Dios seemed troubled but said nothing as they returned to the main room. Another servant brought a tray of food and a pitcher of watered wine. Dios refused both and sat quietly.

  When Helikaon entered, Dios rose and embraced him warmly. “You look better each day, my friend,” he said.

  Gershom sat silently as the two men chatted, but there was tension in the air. Finally Dios said: “Odysseus is to be declared an enemy of Troy.”

  “What?” Helikaon exclaimed. “Why would he be an enemy?”

  Dios seemed surprised. “For ordering the murder of your father, of course.”

  All color leached from Helikaon’s face. “Priam ordered this?”

  “Yes.”

  “How could he know?”

  “He came to see you when you were sick and delirious. You told him about Karpophorus.”

  “I have no memory of it,” Helikaon said. “And this is the worst news I have heard in a long time. Priam is about to make a terrible mistake and one he will come to regret unless we can get him to change his mind.”

  “On that day the sun will turn green,” Dios said. “But I don’t understand you, Helikaon. What mistake? Odysseus had your father killed.”

  “Only according to Attalus,” Helikaon replied, desperation in his voice. “We should at least give Odysseus the opportunity to deny it.”

  “Hektor urged exactly that,” Dios said. “Father would not listen. However, such thoughts are academic now. You believed the assassin, and you passed on that belief to Father. He will not be swayed, Helikaon. Honor dem
ands vengeance, he said. Blood must avenge blood.”

  Gershom needed to hear no more. Rising from his seat, he left the two men alone and wandered out into the fading light.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  A QUEEN OF POISON

  Hekabe the queen felt like one of the gods aloft on Olympos as she gazed down upon the two bays far below. From her high vantage point at King’s Joy she could see to her right the shallow Bay of Troy, its water brown and brackish, churned by ships still jostling for beach space. To her left was the deeper Bay of Herakles, the water there sparkling and blue. Even there she could see scores of ships, the beaches being swiftly filled. Hekabe seldom smiled now, but the thought of all those angry ships’ captains and flustered beachmasters brought a dry chuckle to her throat.

  Pain, sharp and hot, began to seep through her belly and into her lower back. These days she thought of herself as a vessel that was filled each day with fresh agony. With trembling fingers she reached for the medicine phial, running a sharp fingernail through the thin wax that sealed it. Once it was opened, she lifted it to her dry lips, then paused. Not yet, she decided, for she could still see the ships in the bays and the people swarming across the beaches. Once the opiates began their work, those ships would become great monsters, the people merely magical insects flying and swooping across the line of her vision. Despite the temporary relief from pain, Hekabe loathed those moments when her mind was dulled and confused. Age and illness wrecking her body she could tolerate, but not this. Her fame had once been based on her beauty, but during these last twenty years she had become known, revered, and feared for the power of her mind: her ability to outwit, outplan, and outmaneuver the enemies of Troy. To see dangers almost before they arose and nip them out like pricking weeds from a garden.

  She sat very still and sought to detach her mind from the agony of the spreading cancer, allowing her thoughts to drift back to her childhood, to her early glorious years with Priam, to her son’s wedding in just a few days’ time. Her work was almost complete, and the prophecy was about to be fulfilled. Once Andromache was pregnant, Hekabe could die at last, the future of Troy secure.

  The crocus-yellow canopy raised above her head to shade her from the bright morning sun gave everything a garish, violent hue. Hot knives began to pierce her belly, causing her to cry out. Taking a deep breath, she reluctantly lifted the phial to her lips and drank. The medicine was bitter, burning her tongue. Then the pain began to fade a little. When first she had been given these phials, they had eliminated the suffering altogether. Now the cancer was stronger, and nothing could entirely mask its effects. She could hardly remember a day without suffering.

  From time to time slow figures crossed her vision. Sometimes they seemed to swim in the air. She had no idea who most of them were. People spoke to her, but their voices were hollow and distant. She ignored them.

  A figure moved across her, blocking the sun. Irritably she blinked and tried to focus. She started to speak, but her mouth was as dry and crusty as an old sandal. The figure came closer, a hand extending a goblet to her. It was filled with cool water. Hekabe drank gratefully, the taste of the medicine washing away. Her vision cleared, and she saw the visitor was her new daughter, the flame-haired Andromache.

  So like me, she thought, fierce and proud and full of life and vitality. She gazed fondly at the girl. “Andromache,” she whispered. “One of the few visitors I can tolerate.”

  “How are you today, Mother?” the girl asked.

  “Still dying. But by Hera’s will and my own strength, I am making Hades wait for me.” Hekabe took another sip from the goblet. It writhed in her hand, becoming a sharp-fanged serpent. Hekabe held fast to its throat. “You will not bite me, viper,” she told it. “I can still crush you.”

  Andromache gently took the serpent from her. “Be careful, girl,” the queen warned, “its bite is deadly.” Then she saw it had become a goblet again and relaxed. Andromache kissed the queen’s dry cheek, then sat down beside her. Hekabe reached out and patted the girl’s arm. “So alike, you and I,” she said. “Even more now.”

  “Why now?” Andromache asked.

  “My spies tell me Priam has taken you to his bed. I told you he would. Now you have experienced the joy that has been denied me for so long.”

  “It was not joyous,” Andromache said. “Merely necessary.”

  Hekabe laughed. “Not joyous? Priam has many faults, but being a bad lover is not among them.”

  “I do not wish to talk of it, Mother.”

  “Soon you will be pregnant, and the child will ensure the future of Troy. The prophecy will be fulfilled. Another son for Priam,” the queen said with satisfaction. “The people will love the boy because they will believe he is Hektor’s son. They will call him Lord of the City.”

  She looked assessingly at Andromache. “Hmm. You are slender, like me. Childbirth is never easy for us, not like the big-hipped women of the countryside. You will suffer, girl, but you are strong. I bore Priam eight children. Each one of them I wrestled into the world with blood and pain. Each time I was victorious. Now look at me…”

  Her voice drifted away, and she sat in silence for a while. She saw the dark figures of gods stalking across the horizon. There were horses and bears walking with them and a great horned creature she did not recognize. She could feel the vibrations of their footsteps tremble through her spine.

  She leaned toward the girl, her voice low and insistent. “The house of Priam will go on for a thousand years, and I played my part in that. I played my part well. I did what I had to do.” She nodded to herself, remembering that day nearly a year ago, the slender Paleste writhing in agony on the floor of the queen’s apartments, her vomit staining the rugs, her screams muffled by an old shawl.

  Her thoughts floated free, and she returned to the days when she and her lord had sailed the Great Green. They had lived aboard ship, and her memories were sea-green, the taste of salt upon her lips. Young and in love, they visited verdant isles and cities of stone, meeting kings and pirates, sleeping in beds of ivory and gold or on cold beaches under the stars. She tried to remember the name of the ship that carried them, but it was out of reach.

  Unaccustomed sadness touched her.

  “Scamandrios!” she said suddenly. “That was it, Scamandrios.”

  Andromache looked curious. “Who was that, Mother?”

  Hekabe shook her head, confusion fogging her mind again. “I don’t remember now. Perhaps he was a king. We met so many kings. They were like gods in those days. They are small and petty men now…

  “Tell me of the games,” she said, rallying, her mind fighting the dulling drugs. “What is the gossip? Are these small kings killing each other yet? A good games always ends with some deaths. A few minor thrones change hands. It is the way of the world. I hear the king of Thraki is dead already. Agamemnon’s responsible for that, I have no doubt. Have you met Agamemnon? He’s not the man his father was, they say.”

  “The games have barely started,” Andromache said. “I have not heard much gossip. Although,” she said, smiling a little, “I heard Odysseus lost the archery tourney. He was not allowed to use his own great bow, and the one he was given broke. He was said to be very angry.”

  Hekabe felt a surge of anger in her frail breast. “Odysseus,” she said malevolently. “He will not see Ithaka again. I will see to that.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Hah! Odysseus the tale spinner. Odysseus the buffoon. That is how people see him these days. But I know him of old. He is a cold killer. He paid an assassin to murder Anchises. Blood kin to Priam.”

  “How can you know this?” The girl’s face looked sickly under the yellow awning. “Not Odysseus.”

  “The assassin, the same one who wounded Helikaon, told Helikaon so with his dying breath. And Helikaon himself told Priam.”

  “It is nonsense,” Andromache said. “What would Odysseus have gained from such an act?”

  Hekabe leaned back in her
chair. “That is what Priam wonders. All his advisers are mystified. They talk of ancient feuds and trade agreements. Stupid men! The answer is there for any with the wit to see it. Odysseus loves Helikaon. Perhaps the boy was his catamite. Who knows? Anchises loathed the boy and dispossessed him. I knew Anchises. He was a sound ruler and a man with no sentiment. It was probable he would have had Helikaon quietly murdered. Odysseus is wily, and he would have guessed this. So, to save the boy, he had the father slain.”

  “He did it to save Helikaon’s life?”

  “Of course.”

  “Why should that make him an enemy of Troy?” Andromache asked. “Helikaon is our friend, and if you are right, Odysseus saved him.”

  “I care nothing about the murder of Anchises,” Hekabe answered. “Neither does Priam. But before this war begins we must be sure of our friends and eliminate all possible outside threats. Odysseus’ part in the death of Anchises has given us the opportunity to kill him without alienating our allies.”

  “I do not understand,” Andromache whispered, obviously mystified. “Odysseus is neutral. Why would he be a threat?”

  Hekabe sighed. “You have much to learn, child, about the nature of politics. It is not about what Odysseus is now. It is the danger he represents for the future. If his lands were closer to Troy, we could bind him to us with gold and with friendship. But he is a western king with close links to the Mykene. And yes, there is a small chance that he would remain neutral. But we cannot risk the future of Troy on a small chance. The truth is that once the war became inevitable, Odysseus had to die. Agamemnon is a man of battles and will be a worthy foe, but we can defeat him. But Odysseus is crafty and a planner. More than this he is a charismatic leader, and where he leads, other kings will follow. We cannot risk him joining with Agamemnon.”