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02 - Shield of Thunder
02 Shield of Thunder 36
Menon, a handsome young general who was increasingly taking the burden from Pausanius’ shoulders, said the chiefs of the five settlements had been sent both light armor and arms: bows, spears, swords, and shields. The local chiefs had been given total freedom regarding the distribution of the weapons to their people.
“If the Mykene come, they will be useless,” Pausanius said grumpily. “A few hundred armed villagers against thousands of fighting men.”
Menon smiled. “I know this, Uncle, but if you were threatened by a thousand armed men, would you rather face them with a sword in your hand or naked and defenseless?”
The old man nodded in reluctant agreement. Halysia heard Idaios breathe in, about to speak, and held up her hand. “I don’t want to hear it, Idaios. I have no doubt that you and your comrades consider this a flawed plan, that these people should not be armed for fear they will use their arms against us or against each other. That might well be true in times of peace, when a Phrygian might kill a Thrakian over the ownership of a cow. But with the threat across the Hellespont constantly in their minds, they will be grateful to be armed and will repay us with their loyalty.”
Idaios took another breath. “Tell me,” she said, cutting him off again, “you have been placed in charge of security on the beach. Are all visitors to Dardanos being searched and disarmed as I ordered?”
A discontented look came over his face. She knew he resented the role she had given him. Confiscating old wooden clubs and blunted swords from visiting seafarers, then returning them to the right owners when they left, was beneath his dignity.
“Yes, lady,” he said, “it is being done. Although—”
“Good,” she said. “This is a vital task. Do not underestimate it.” She stood up before anyone else could speak. “General Pausanius, please walk with me.”
They moved out through the sunlit courtyard and beyond to the bustling stables of the royal guard. Halysia raised her face to the sun and breathed in deeply the smells of horses, sun-bleached straw, and leather. She moderated her pace to allow the old soldier to keep up. She was saddened by his increasing infirmity. In the three years since the attack on Dardanos, his age seemed to have weighed ever more heavily upon him.
From the stables came the sounds of stamping hooves, then angry neighing. Halysia entered the wooden building. With Pausanius behind her, she walked to the farthest stall, where a huge black horse was rearing and bucking, his hooves thundering against the walls, causing them to creak and shudder. As she approached the stall, the beast caught sight of her and lunged, eyes wild and nostrils flaring. His massive chest hit the stall door, cracking the top timber. Unflinching, Halysia stood her ground and spoke quiet words to the animal, which glared at her, then backed away into the shadows.
“I don’t know why you keep that creature around,” Pausanius grumbled. “We brought him up here because he was causing havoc down in the paddocks. Now he’s upsetting the guards’ horses instead.”
“I thought being away from the mares would calm him down,” she said. “He’s always so angry. I wonder why.”
“He’d be less angry if we cut his balls off,” Pausanius offered. “Then he might settle and become a good mount.”
“Helikaon thinks he will make a fine stud animal and create a new breed of warhorse.”
Pausanius shook his head. “Too much spirit to be allowed to roam free. You know he almost crippled one of my best riders? Threw him, then stamped down on his legs. Broke them both. He’s wrong in the head, lady.”
“Open the stall, Pausanius.”
The old man stood his ground. “Please don’t do this, my queen.”
She smiled at him. “He is merely a horse. Not some savage killer. Do as I order you.”
Pausanius stepped forward and lifted the locking bar, pulling the door open just wide enough for Halysia to enter. She saw him draw his sword and knew he was ready to cut the beast’s throat if it threatened her. “Put that away,” she said softly, “and lock the stall behind me.” Stepping inside, she began to hum a soft, soothing tune, then slowly and smoothly lifted her hand and gently stroked the stallion’s neck. It pawed the ground, its ears flat against its skull. “One day,” she whispered, pressing her face against the horse’s cheek, “you and I will ride out into the meadows. You will be a king among horses, and the mares will flock to you.” Taking a handful of straw, she brushed the stallion’s broad back. After a while its ears pricked up, and it turned its head to look at her. “You are so beautiful,” she said. “So handsome, so strong.”
Dropping the straw, she walked slowly back to the stall door. Pausanius opened it, and she stepped out. As the locking bar fell into place, the stallion suddenly reared and lashed out. Pausanius stumbled back and almost fell.
Halysia laughed. “He will be a fine, fine horse,” she said.
“I do not know how you do that,” the old general said. “I’d swear he understands you when you speak to him.”
Outside, Halysia turned to Pausanius. “Will you ride with me, General?”
“I would be honored, my queen.” He called out to a stable boy to fetch mounts. The youngster brought out Halysia’s old bay gelding, Dancer, and a gentle swaybacked mare Pausanius had recently taken a liking to. They rode through the stable yard and down to the Seagate, overlooking the harbor. Halting their mounts on the steep rocky incline, they stared across the narrow ribbon of sea to the shore of war-torn Thraki.
Pausanius voiced the fear she felt. “If eastern Thraki falls, both the armies of the west and rebel Thrakians will arrive on that shore in the thousands.”
She turned and looked at the Seagate. Helikaon had ordered the gate towers reinforced and the stone entrance faced with green marble brought from Sparta. The steep gradient from the harbor would make it nearly impossible to force the gates. An enemy laboring up the hill would lose many men to bowmen safe on the high walls.
“With enough soldiers we could hold out for months,” she said.
The old man grunted. “Enough would be five times what we have.”
Without another word Halysia turned her horse and rode up along the narrow rocky trail around the outside of the walls, past the highest point of the cliffs, called Aphrodite’s Leap. She smiled as she thought of the old general following her. The ground was uneven, and in places the trail was so narrow that her outside foot hung over an awesome drop to the rocks below.
Pausanius did not fear the dangerous ride, but he feared for her. He could not understand her desire to take such risks. Halysia did not try to explain. Out on the plains of her youth there had been many summer fires. They would blaze in the dry grass, the winds fanning them, driving them toward the settlements. The only way to combat them was to set controlled blazes ahead of the inferno so that when the blaze reached the burned-out areas, it would have nothing to feed on and die away.
These perilous rides were for Halysia a way of containing the greater fears she suffered by enduring a lesser fear she could control.
Eventually they reached the wider path leading to Dardanos’ second great gate. The Landgate was the oldest part of the city, built by ancient craftsmen whose names were lost to history. It was a massive bastion facing south toward Troy, the walls deep and solid, the two sets of gates narrow and high. Yet the land outside the gates was wide and flat. An invading army could camp there in safety for a season and attack at will.
From the Landgate a narrow road crossed the dry plain, then dipped through a long steep defile. The two riders followed the road downward toward a deep crevice crossed by a narrow wooden bridge with a permanent guard stationed at each end. The road to Troy flowed from it toward the south. The horses’ hooves clattered on the timbers as they rode across. Halysia glanced over and down. The drop was dizzying. On the far side she reined in her mount and glanced back, marveling at the skill and courage of the men who had built the bridge. Although it was no more than three spear lengths across, it would have been no easy feat preparing the ground. Cross
-timbers and joists had been set deep into the rocks below the bridge. Men would have had to hang from ropes and hack away at the stone to create deep indentations: the kind of work her brothers were famed for.
Away from the city Halysia breathed in deeply, enjoying the scent of the damp earth and the summer grass and the feel of a breeze unhindered by walls of stone. The light was beginning to fail when Pausanius said: “We should be getting back across the Folly. I have no wish to be riding the high roads after dark.”
Halysia reined in her mount. “The Folly?”
“I meant the bridge, lady.”
“Why do you call it a folly?” she asked. “It shortens the route to Troy, cutting off a day’s travel for merchants.”
“The place had the name long before the bridge was built. Only old men like me use it still. Parnio’s Folly.” Pausanius sighed. “A young rider made a wager with his friends that his horse could leap the crevice at its narrowest point. He was wrong. It took two days to bring up his broken body. A few years later the bridge was constructed above where he died.”
“You knew him?”
“Yes, I knew him. A vain and reckless boy. But there was no malice in him. He thought, as all young men do, that he was immortal. Had he lived, he would have been sixty years old now, white-haired and long in the tooth. He would have railed at the recklessness of youngsters and told us all how it was different in his day.” He glanced at the queen and smiled. “How strange it is,” he said, “that I can remember the old days so clearly, and yet I cannot recall what I had for breakfast this morning. I fear I am becoming increasingly useless, my queen.”
“Nonsense, Pausanius. I rely on your wisdom.”
He smiled his thanks. “And I rely more and more on young Menon. You will, too, when I am gone.”
“You are fond of the boy, and it shows,” she said.
Pausanius grinned. “You won’t believe it, but he looks just like me when I was young. He is a good lad. Constantly in debt, though. Loves to gamble. Which was also my curse as a youngster.”
“Will he be as truthful with me as you are?”
Pausanius’ face stiffened. “I am not always as truthful as I would wish to be. It has been bothering me of late. We are alone now, with no one to overhear. So if you will allow me, I will speak my mind.”
“I had hoped you would always feel able to do so,” Halysia told him.
“On matters martial I have. But this is not about soldiering.”
“Speak on, then, for I am intrigued.”
“You care for that wild horse, and you struggle to understand its pain and its anger. When you stroke it, the beast calms, for it senses you have affection for it. Yet there is another little horse, starved of affection, longing to be stroked and loved. And this one you ignore.”
Anger rose in her. “You of all men should understand my revulsion. The child’s father was an evil man who murdered my son and planted his vile seed in me against my will.”
“Yes, he was,” Pausanius said. “And Helikaon nailed him to the gates of his fortress to die a wretched death. But the boy is not his father. He is the son of Halysia, a queen of courage and dignity, loyalty and compassion. He has her blood and her spirit.”
Halysia raised her hand. “You will speak no more of this. You were quite right, General, to hold those views to yourself. Do so in future.”
Swinging her gelding, she rode back to the citadel.
Andromache awoke from a dream and lay still, trying to hold on to its fleeting fragments. Kalliope had been with her, and Laodike. The three of them had been sailing together on a great white ship. There were no oars or sails or any crew, yet the vessel had glided on toward a distant island, bathed in the gold of the rising sun. Andromache had been happy, her heart freed by the presence of her friends. In that moment of the dream she had not recalled the fate of the two women.
Then a fourth figure had joined them, a young, dark-haired woman of dazzling beauty. There was something familiar in her cold gaze, but Andromache had not at first recognized her.
“And here you are,” the woman told Andromache. “Sailing with those you have slain.” They were all standing very still now and staring at her. A red stain began to seep through Laodike’s pale gown, and a black-shafted arrow appeared in Kalliope’s chest. The dark-haired young woman stood before her, saying nothing. Then her skin began to age and draw tight over her face, and Andromache saw that she was Hekabe the queen.
“You deserved death,” Andromache said.
“Was I wrong, Andromache? Has not Odysseus proved a deadly enemy?”
Andromache awoke on a couch on the eastern terrace overlooking the barracks stables. The sounds of the horses—their gentle whinnying and the clop of their hooves—came to her ears mixed with the distant shouts and oaths of the soldiers. The dream clung to her with misty fingers, bringing guilt and sorrow.
Beside her couch her servant Axa was sitting in a straight chair working on a piece of embroidered linen, squinting from time to time at the tiny stitches. She looked up. “Oh, you’re awake, lady. Can I get you anything?”
Andromache shook her head and closed her eyes again. Was there no escape from such guilt? she wondered. I could not have saved Laodike; the wound was too deep. But then Kalliope’s face appeared in her mind, and her heart sank. When she had seen the assassin draw back on his bow, she had thought the arrow was aimed at her and had flung herself to the ground. If only she had called out a warning, Kalliope might have avoided the speeding shaft.
Opening her eyes, she sat up and took a deep breath. The truth was that guilt was ever present, and not just for the loss of her friends. It seemed that it was a cloak suited to every occasion. She even felt guilty for the joy in her life. In spite of the war and the fear and deprivation it was bringing to Troy, in spite of the fact that the two men she loved were away fighting, in spite of the fact that her family in Thebe was under threat—in spite of all those things she was happier than she had ever been in her life.
The cause of that happiness slept in the room behind her. Astyanax lay, she knew without looking, on his back with his arms and legs flung out like the starfish they had found together on the beach one day. They had brought it home in some water, but it had died and the child had forgotten about it, but Andromache had hidden it in a box of discarded jewelry and still took it out from time to time as a reminder of that happy day and the toddler’s breathless delight at finding the tiny sea creature.
The mere thought of the boy made her chest close up, and she fought down an urge to rush to him and hold his sleeping body, warm and milky, against her own.
The birth had been difficult, as Hekabe had predicted. Andromache’s narrow hips had seen to that. The labor had taken most of a night and the following morning, the pain harsh and rending. Yet it was not the moment when they laid the babe in her arms that always brought a lump to her throat when she recalled it. It was the time, some days later, on a bright cool morning, when he had looked up at her. His eyes were a brilliant sapphire blue.
Axa’s voice cut through her memories. “Kassandra was here to see you,” she said.
“Kassandra? Where is she?”
“You needed your sleep. I didn’t want to disturb you. So I sent her away,” Axa said, a little defiantly.
“You sent her away?” Andromache almost smiled. The princess Kassandra, daughter of the king, sent away by a servant. Then a small fear struck her. “If King Priam hears of such an affront, he is likely to order you beaten. Send a servant to ask her to come back. No, better still, go and ask her yourself.”
Axa, looking contrite, gathered up her sewing bag and left the terrace. As she went, Andromache heard her mutter, “She won’t come.”
Andromache thought she was probably right. Kassandra had been difficult as a child. Her feyness and gift of prophecy had always made people shy away from her. Even those who loved her, like Andromache and Helikaon, feared her uncanny ability to predict
the future. Now the girl was fourteen, and since the death of her mother she had turned in upon herself, becoming quieter and more reserved. As a child she had always spoken up boldly; now she guarded her words with a care that was almost painful to watch. She stayed in the shadows of the women’s quarters and the temple of Athene, and Andromache saw less and less of her.
It was Kassandra who had sparked Andromache’s most recent argument with Priam. The king had announced that the girl was to be dedicated to the isle of Thera, as her mother Hekabe and Andromache herself had been. Kassandra had accepted the decision without complaint, but Andromache had been furious when she heard.
She had confronted Priam in the megaron, the scene of so many of their battles. He had watched her as she walked the length of the great hall to stand before him, his eyes roving over her body. She had heard the king was ailing, but he looked strong, though he wore a wine-stained robe and his eyes were unnaturally bright.
“Andromache,” he said, “you are a stranger to my palace these days. But I can guess why you are here. You have not come to pay respects to your king. Interfering, I suppose, as always.”
“I heard Kassandra is to be dedicated to the Blessed Isle,” she said quietly. “I thought you might seek to consult me, as I spent two years there.”
He laughed. “And what would you have said, Daughter, had I consulted you?”
“I would have said, Father, that the journey to Thera is too dangerous. I had a friend who suffered the horror of rape and the threat of death from pirates. And there are now enemy fleets in those waters.”
“A friend?” He sneered. “You talk of Kalliope the runaway, whose treachery to her calling created the need for me to send my daughter to replace her. Still, what else could one expect from the daughter of Peleus—a family steeped in treachery and vileness.”
Andromache’s response was instant and icy. “Had it not been for the treachery of Kalliope, I would now be moldering in a tomb, and my son would never have opened his eyes on the world.”