Settings

02 Shield of Thunder 32


  “We thought you might like our company on the road,” Kalliades said.

  Piria gave a shy smile. “I would like that… my friends,” she told them.

  Banokles strolled away to the room he shared with Kalliades. There he donned his old cuirass and strapped his sword belt to his side. This night they would leave Troy. The thought hung heavily on him. He pictured Big Red as he had last seen her, sitting in an old wicker chair in her small garden. She had been mending a tear at the hem of a gown.

  She looked up as he prepared to leave. “You have cake crumbs in your beard,” she said.

  Banokles brushed them away. “See you tomorrow?” he asked.

  Red shrugged. “The games are over today,” she said. “Everyone will be leaving.”

  There had been no hugs, no farewell kiss. He considered going back to the lower town and seeking her out. But what would be the purpose? He didn’t want to say goodbye to her. With a sigh he left the room and strode through the palace. There will be plenty of women in the countryside, he told himself. With luck he could buy some slave girls to tend him.

  Curiously, the thought saddened him.

  Andromache held tightly to the bronze rail of the war chariot as Cheon guided the vehicle along the paved roads of the city and out toward the open land leading to the farm. The chariot, drawn by two bay geldings, was of flimsy construction: a narrow wickerwork base of heat-molded wood strengthened at the upper rim by copper wire. There was a rack, which would normally hold four javelins, and two bronze hooks for stowing a bow and a quiver of arrows. There was scarcely room for two people on board. But then, the vehicle was built for speed and maneuverability on the battlefield, to bring an archer into range of the enemy and away again before a counterattack could be mounted. Cheon had commandeered it at the palace, since all the passenger carts were in use and Andromache had been eager to return to the farm.

  Andromache glanced at the handsome, dark-haired soldier. His helm was hanging from the bow hook, for he was still sporting the laurel wreath of victory he had won at the archery tourney. Along the way he was recognized by the crowds on the streets, and they cheered him loudly.

  Once they were clear of the city, the crowds thinned, and Cheon allowed the geldings to slow to a walk. Andromache was relieved, for the vehicle had juddered alarmingly on the stone streets and her knees ached from trying to remain upright.

  “I am sorry to have missed your victory,” she told the young soldier.

  He grinned at her. “I was lucky that Meriones did not have his own bow. I have practiced with mine for almost a year. Yet he came close to beating me with a weapon he had never handled before. And as for regret, nothing can match mine, for I was in the palaistra being massaged when Hektor defeated Achilles. You must be very proud.”

  Andromache did not reply, but the question echoed in her mind. Was she proud? Was that the feeling she had experienced as the two champions had pounded their fists against one another, splitting skin and spraying blood? Was it pride that had caused her stomach to turn so that it required all her will to prevent herself from vomiting? She had turned her eyes away during much of the contest, watching instead the reactions of the men surrounding her. Priam had at first seemed unconcerned, merely waiting for the inevitable victory. Slowly she had watched his confidence fade. The man seemed to age ten years in a matter of heartbeats. Only at the end, as Achilles fell for the last time, did he surge from his seat.

  Yet despite her revulsion at the brutality of the fight, Andromache was elated by the outcome, especially as she gazed upon the stricken face of Peleus, the Thessalian king. This was the man who had raped Kalliope, ripping her childhood from her. This was the wretch who had left his daughter damaged beyond repair. Even in the sanctuary of Thera, where men were forbidden, Kalliope would wake screaming, her body bathed in sweat. Then she would fall into Andromache’s arms, weeping at the awful memories.

  With the fight over, Andromache had returned to the king’s palace with Hektor. He had said little during the walk. His breathing was labored, and he held his left arm to his side. Andromache had been with him when the physician came. Three ribs were broken, and several of his teeth had been loosened. She had sat with him for a while, but then he had patted her arm.

  “Go back to the farm,” he said, forcing a smile. “I will rest here awhile.”

  “You fought well,” she told him, “with great courage.”

  His reply surprised her. “I hated it,” he said. “Every brutal heartbeat of it. It hurts me to think of what Achilles must be feeling at this moment, his pride in the dust.”

  She gazed at him, at his bruised face and his bright blue eyes. Without thinking, she lifted her hand and gently stroked the golden hair back from his brow. “We are what we are, Hektor. You need have no sympathy for Achilles. He is a brute, from a family of brutes. Come to the farm when you can.”

  His huge hand reached out, and he took her fingers gently and raised them to his lips. “I am glad you are my wife, Andromache. You are everything I could ever have desired. I am sorry I cannot be—”

  “Do not say it again,” she said, interrupting him. “Rest now and come to the farm when you can.”

  Leaving the room, she had walked out onto the gallery beyond, her eyes misting with tears. Sadness clung to her. It struck her then that Hektor and Kalliope were not so unalike. Both had been damaged. Both, in different ways, had been cursed by the Fates.

  Servants moved by silently, and she could hear the sound of raised voices from the megaron below. Priam’s voice suddenly boomed out.

  “Are you insane? She is the wife of my son.”

  Andromache moved away from the balcony to the gallery rail, staring down into the columned megaron. Priam was seated upon his throne, facing the Mykene king, Agamemnon, and some of the kings of the west. Andromache recognized the vile Peleus and Nestor, Idomeneos, and Menestheos. Helikaon, Antiphones, and Dios were standing alongside Priam.

  “You must understand, Priam King,” said Agamemnon, “that there is no intent here to cause undue offense. You sanctioned the marriage of Paris to the woman Helen. This was not your right. Helen is a princess of Sparta, sent here by her father during the recent war. My brother Menelaus is now king of Sparta, and Helen is his subject. He has decided, in the interests of his people, to wed her.”

  Priam’s laughter was harsh. “Menelaus led a Mykene army into Sparta and killed the king. He seized the throne and now faces insurrections. In order to bolster his fabricated claim to the crown he seeks to wed someone of royal blood. You think I would send Helen home to rut with the man who murdered her father?”

  Agamemnon shook his head. “You have no choice. All of us here are allies, and we are allies because we have agreed to respect each other’s rights and borders and internal laws. Without such respect there can be no alliance. Let us suppose that one of your daughters was to visit a kingdom of the west and that the ruler there suddenly married her to one of his sons. What would be your reaction? And what would you expect when you demanded her return?”

  “Spare me the clever words, Agamemnon. You desire a war with Troy, and you have been seeking allies in that venture for years now. I tire of your duplicity, the fair speeches that cloak foul deeds. Let me make it simple for you. Helen remains in Troy. The alliance is at an end. Now get you gone from my city.”

  Agamemnon spread his arms, and his reply was full of regret. “It saddens me to hear you speak in this way, Priam King. However, as you say, the alliance is at an end. You may come to rue this decision.” With that he turned and strode out, followed by the other kings.

  Back in the present the voice of Cheon cut through her memories. “Do you wish to stop by the shrine to Artemis?” he asked as the chariot neared the little stream.

  “Not today, Cheon. Take me home.”

  The journey seemed interminable, and the afternoon sun blazed brightly in a cloudless sky. By the time they reached the old stone house, Andromache felt weary beyond belief. Th
ey were greeted by Hektor’s housekeeper, the elderly Menesthi, a Hittite woman, whose true age was a mystery. Cheon maintained she was the oldest woman alive, a claim Andromache could well believe, for the old woman’s face had the texture of pumice stone.

  Inside the main building Menesthi’s husband, the equally ancient Vahusima, prepared a bath for her. Shedding her yellow gown, she stepped into it, laying her head back on a folded towel. The feeling of the cool water on her overheated skin was exquisite. She called Menesthi to her to remove the gold wire that bound her hair, then ducked her head below the surface.

  Menesthi brought her fresh clothing, a simple loose robe of white linen. Rising from the bath, Andromache stood naked, allowing the warm air to dry her body. Then she moved to the rear window and stared out over the fields toward the wooded hillside.

  In that moment she saw two men duck into the trees. It seemed to her they were acting furtively. She stared out, seeking another glimpse of them, but there was no further sign of movement. The first of the men appeared familiar, but she could not place him. He must be one of Hektor’s woodsmen, she thought.

  Donning the robe, she walked back through the house. Cheon was sitting on the porch in the shadows, watching two youths leading a powerful gray stallion around the paddock. The beast was high-spirited and nervous, and when one of the boys tried to mount him, he reared and threw him to the grass. Cheon laughed. “He has no wish to be ridden,” he said. “Those lads will have some deep bruises by this evening.”

  Andromache smiled. “I see you are still wearing your laurel crown. Are you intending to sleep with it on?”

  “I think I will,” he said. “I think I will wear it until it rots and falls off.”

  “Does that not seem a little vain, Cheon?”

  “Entirely,” he agreed with a grin.

  Andromache seated herself beside him. “The farm seems deserted.”

  “Most of the men went to the city for the last day. They’ll be getting drunk about now. I doubt we’ll see them until tomorrow, when they will drift in looking sheepish and bleary-eyed.”

  As the light began to fade Andromache moved back inside. Menesthi brought her a simple meal of bread and cheese and a dish of sliced fruit. Andromache finished it and stretched out on a couch, resting her head on a thick cushion.

  Her dreams were confused and full of anxiety, and she awoke with a start. Suddenly she remembered where she had seen the man in the woods before. He was not one of Hektor’s men. She had noticed him as she had stood with Kassandra on the day Agamemnon arrived in Troy.

  The man was a Mykene soldier.

  Fearful now, she rose and went toward the main rooms. Perhaps they were assassins come to kill Hektor, not realizing he had remained at the palace. She needed to find Cheon and warn him.

  As she neared the front of the house, she saw a red glow through the window. Pulling open the door, she saw old Vahusima and the two boys running toward a blazing barn. From within the building she heard the sounds of terrified horses and ran out to help them just as Cheon emerged from behind the house.

  One of the boys suddenly stumbled and fell. Vahusima reached the doors of the stable and struggled to lift clear the locking bar. Then he cried out, and Andromache saw an arrow jutting from his back.

  Dark figures came rushing from the shadows, swords in their hands.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  BLOOD FOR ARTEMIS

  The moon was perfectly round, its edge sharp as a knife, as the three companions made their way out of the twilight city.

  They left by the East Gate and crossed the fortification ditch in the shadow of the great northeast bastion, then headed north. The way was easy, a gentle walk through rolling hills and meadows, and they traveled quickly. They carried with them all they possessed, for they did not expect to return. Kalliades had the sword of Argurios at his side. Banokles was carrying a small sack of provisions on his shoulder, including a heavy pottery jug that glugged a little as he walked. Piria, in her hooded cloak, carried only Andromache’s bow and quiver.

  Her thoughts were in chaos, and the easy walk did nothing to calm them. Had she been still on Thera, she would have run on the black sandy beach or across the barren hilltops until her body hurt, exhaustion purging her fears for a little while. Or she would reach for Andromache, who could always calm the turmoil in her heart.

  Yet now it was thoughts of Andromache that caused her fear. For the past season her only ambition had been to reach the woman she loved. Her entire will had been engaged in achieving that one goal. But now, at the end of her journey, she was overwhelmed with doubts.

  What if Andromache no longer wanted her?

  Her treacherous mind played out possible scenes. She saw Andromache standing at a farmhouse door, her face stern, her eyes cold. “What are you doing here?” she would ask. She would reply: “I have traveled across the Great Green to be with you.” Andromache would say, “That life is ended. You are not wanted here,” and the door would close firmly in her face.

  She tried to recall the joyous scene she had nursed in her heart for so long: Andromache running into her arms, confessing she hated her husband, Hektor, begging Piria to take her away from Troy to a life of quiet bliss together in a small village overlooking the sea. But black doubts now assailed that pretty picture. How would you live in this village? they demanded. Raising goats, or sewing garments for peasants, or making bread? The pair had no such skills. Two princesses, hunted by their families and by the great powers of Troy and Thera, living unrecognized in a quiet country retreat? She knew now that it was impossible. So what would they do? The thought brought fresh despair, and she sighed.

  “You seem troubled.”

  Kalliades had dropped back to speak to her as Banokles strode ahead. She could find nothing to say. He did not press her, and they walked on in silence, following Banokles’ long moon shadow up a gentle hillside.

  The two years she had spent on Thera with Andromache had been the only truly happy time she could recall. I should have stayed on the Blessed Isle, she thought, seeing again the farmhouse door closing on her and her dreams.

  She realized that she had stopped walking and that the two men were looking at her curiously.

  Her breathing was shallow, and she felt the beginnings of panic, a trembling in her hands, a tightness in her belly. They had reached the brow of a low hill, and ahead by the roadside she could see a small white shrine shining in the moonlight. Not wanting her companions to see her distress, she walked over to it. The bones of small creatures lay at its base, and the statue of a woman with a bow had been placed in an alcove.

  The statue was of the huntress goddess Artemis, who despised men. On Thera there was a temple to her on the highest point of the island, a spur of limestone rock standing proud of the rest of the isle. She and Andromache had often climbed to that temple to walk the sun-drenched corridors and hear the wind whistle among the white columns. They both felt safe in the halls of the moon goddess, who welcomed men only as sacrifice.

  Piria looked at the bow in her hand, feeling the leather grip smooth against her hand, just as it had nestled in Andromache’s hand perhaps days before.

  There were many small offerings on the shrine: wooden figures of pregnant women carved without skill but with great care, bronze arrowheads, colored pebbles painted with images of the goddess, and many clay animals: deer, hounds, and quail.

  “O Lady of the Wild Creatures,” she whispered, “I have nothing to give you.” She had only her shabby tunic and her sandals. She held the bow of Andromache and the dagger of Kalliades. She had nothing of her own. Even her blond hair she had hacked away.

  She stood before the shrine with its offerings of wood and clay and bright bronze. “I have nothing to give. I have nothing to give,” she repeated.

  Suddenly she took the knife from her belt and stepped toward the shrine, arm raised. “Accept my blood, moon goddess,” she whispered. “Accept this offering.” She felt a hand on her arm and spun
around, eyes wide and angry.

  Kalliades said gently, “Artemis does not seek the blood of women.”

  “I have nothing else,” Piria said, tears flowing.

  He stood for a moment, then slowly lifted his left palm toward her. She looked into his eyes, her brow furrowed.

  “The goddess will accept my blood,” he said softly. She hesitated for just a moment, then made a small cut in the flesh of his hand. Moving to the shrine, he clenched his fist above the statue. Crimson drops splashed down, dark against the white stone. He moved back and glanced at Banokles.

  Mystified, the big man looked from one to the other, then shrugged and stepped forward. Gently, Piria nicked the side of his left hand, and his blood joined that of Kalliades.

  Piria spoke. “Artemis, virgin lady, moon goddess, I give you this offering of the blood of men. Give us your light in the darkness and bring us to our hearts’ desire.”

  Suddenly the woods and fields around them were plunged into silence. The small breeze dropped, and all sounds—the rustle of leaves and bushes, the night noises of small creatures—suddenly ceased, as if the world were holding its breath. The moon seemed huge in the still, dark sky.

  For the first time in days Piria’s heart calmed. She smiled at the two men. “Thank you,” she said. “I am ready now.”

  Banokles cleared his throat and said gruffly, “If you find you are not welcome… well… you could always come with us, you know. With Kalliades and me. We are going south. To the mountains.”

  Her vision misted, and she nodded her thanks to him, not trusting herself to speak. Kalliades leaned toward her. “Let us find your friend, and then you can decide where your road will lead.”

  They returned to the road. As they approached the crest of the hill, Piria glanced at the two warriors beside her. A sense of peace and security, lost to her since she was twelve years old, flowed over her. She was with men whom she trusted and in whose company she felt safe.