ONE, smoke and dreams
“There now, you’re safe,” Hecuba whispered, standing in a pool of silver moonlight. A cool breeze fluttered the privacy draping surrounding the royal balcony. Heavy with child, she craved the cool night air on her face and against her damp skin. “If I should lose you, my heart …” The baby kicked at her protective hands.
Reaching for the polished stone railing, she leaned into the night. Hecuba scanned the entire skyline of the Trojan citadel, reaching far into the blackness of the night. Throughout the city, the orange glow of oil lamps broke through the black night, dotting windows of merchant shops and citizens, reassuring her that Troy was at peace. The child stretched as the pull of the Moon Goddess stirred her unborn child. She closed her eyes to the city. By all the gods, I beg you, let this child live.
When Hektor came to the light, she rejoiced in his black curls and hazy blue eyes. She’d kissed each finger and each toe. It was the only time she’d ever seen her husband weep. Hektor was the Golden Prince of Troy. The beloved son. She quickly conceived again, but the joyous birth ended in mourning. And then again with the third. Hecuba, grief stricken and desperate, routinely made sacrifices to Apollo and Artemis. She’d even set up a private shrine to Eleithyia, Goddess of Childbirth, in her private quarters. But not until now had her womb quickened for a fourth time with the king’s seed.
Hecuba rubbed her naked belly again, and ran her hands up to cup each aching breast. Beneath the inky blue sky dusted with stars, she prayed. Please. What must I do?
Only recently had she even dared to believe that this child would come to the light as another proud young prince or princess for Troy. But as soon as she embraced the thin hope of happiness, the gods sent her a troubling vision. The jumbled images held no clear meaning, but try as she might, she couldn’t dismiss them. The figure of the foreign warrior, armored all in gold, haunted her even in the light of Apollo. “There can be no promises between lions and men.”
A light caught in the corner of her eye and she turned to see the dark outline of her husband’s body as he slid from their bed, holding a small oil lamp in his hand.
“What is it, Hecuba?” King Priam’s voice, rough with sleep soothed her from across the room. The king came up behind her, pressing his warm, naked skin against her nude backside. He set the lamp on the balcony railing.
Hecuba shrugged. “It’s nothing, my love. The child is restless.”
Reaching for her himation draped over a sitting bench, he wrapped the finely spun cloth around her shoulders. “You and our son will catch a chill.” Priam’s hands slid down the familiar curves of his wife’s widening waist, then up to the sides of her heavy breasts. His lips brushed against the nape of her neck, his warm breath raising the fine hairs along her arms. “You’re too tempting without a covering.”
She took his hands in hers, placing them on the widest part of her belly. “Surely, one of your concubines would please you more than I. What if it is a daughter?”
King Priam chuckled. “I love all our children.” He gently nipped Hecuba’s neck with his teeth. “You know there is no one I desire more than you.”
She swatted at his exploring hands. “Leave me be.”
He gently pinched her nipples, until they wrinkled into tight buds. “We’re no strangers to these discomforts are we, my love?”
Hecuba reluctantly accepted the tradition that as Queen of Troy, she’d never be the only woman in her husband’s life. After the loss of two heirs, the king’s councilors urged Priam to take other wives and concubines. Custom, after all, decreed that the King of Troy should have as many children as possible, securing the royal line and breeding strong, valiant Trojan commanders and warriors. When Priam had agreed, Hecuba realized for the first time what it meant to truly be queen. The king would be her whole world, but he’d enjoy a life separate from the one he shared with her.
In these moments of weakness and self-doubt, she reminded herself that he’d chosen her for love, not simply duty or lust. He proved his loyalty to her by sharing the royal bed only with her, his queen, every night without fail. No concubines or other wives desecrated their private chambers. Priam had never remained long in the arms of another woman after mating, always returning to her freshly bathed. She’d never caught the lingering scent of another woman on her husband’s skin or dress. But, from time to time, she’d catch sight of a beautiful woman with a rounded belly. And soon, little children with dark curls and dimpled chins ran about the halls and courtyard. Hecuba knew in her heart they belonged to Priam, but she could never voice her agony or speak of betrayal. The king would do what he must for the city.
“Why are you standing here, naked for all of Troy to see?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
Priam sighed. “Is it the vision?”
Hecuba nodded. “I can’t forget it.” She pulled his arms tighter around her. “It frightened me,” she admitted. “I hear that warrior’s voice roaring in my head. No promises between lions and men. What does it mean? We’re at peace, finally. Aren’t we?”
“War is inevitable, Hecuba. I know why you’re fearful.”
“It means nothing, sweet wife.”
She shivered in his arms. “But the warrior—“
He leaned his cheek against hers. “Consult Iphicrates in the morning, if it will ease your mind. Now, come to bed, wife. I grow cold.”
Hecuba turned in his arms, catching the mischievous gleam in his eye. “You will keep me with child until I am old and grey.”
Priam stung her buttocks with a firm slap. “That would not be such a bad thing.” He swooped up his pregnant wife, protesting and laughing, and carried her to their bed. The himation slipped to the floor. Despite her growing belly, she wrapped her legs around his still narrow waist. He growled into her neck, biting and kissing her.
Hecuba nipped the square of his chin, and then grabbed his curly black hair at the nape of his neck, pulling his head closer so her teeth could find his earlobe. She kissed softly down his neck.
Untangling her legs from his waist, he positioned her against the pillows. “You’re a playful woman,” he laughed. “And you’ll pay for teasing your king with such kisses.”
Hecuba cocked an eyebrow. “How shall I pay you? I have no gold or silver, my lord.”
The king knelt between her legs; his eyes burned with passion. “You have buried your treasure and …” Priam bent down, ***EDIT sex scene*** (Sorry, it was a good one, too)***
Hecuba wrapped her legs around his thighs, digging her heels into his upper thighs. “Priam, by Apollo … now.”
When her pleasured moans echoed across the chamber, Priam roared his release over hers. They collapsed together, their legs tangled in the bed linen. With a contented sigh, Priam collapsed on his side and fell back into an easy sleep.
Hecuba stared into the dark for a long while, until sheer exhaustion pulled her into the restless world of nightmares.
APOLLO’S LIGHT, FLASHING off the golden helm and shield of the foreigner, blinded Hecuba as she gazed down from the dizzy heights of Troy’s southern wall. The stranger caught her stare, his eyes flashing blue fire, chilling her to the bone. She pulled her dark veil tighter around her face. The warrior hefted a bronze-tipped spear, leveling it at the man armored as a Trojan warrior. His helm hides his face. But I know him … how do I know him? It’s not Priam. But who?
From below, the foreigner’s voice thundered through the air, shaking the stone foundation beneath her feet. “There can be no promises between lions and men!”
Hecuba watched in horror as the golden armored man charged with shield tilted and spear leveled for a fatal strike. We are not at war? How can this be? The men crashed into one another, splintering their shields, tossing the remnants to the ground. With a roar, the tall, golden warrior circled and attacked like a lion. Death sang clearly in the clash of their silver swords. The queen’s heart pounded frantically, knowing one of them would surely die.
The queen opened her mouth to scream the burning questions: Who are you? Why do you fight? But, the words dusted on her tongue. She clasped her hands beneath her heavy belly. Not now. Not now. Dust swirled about the combatant’s feet, as they danced to their death. The shining warrior lunged with grace, his spear finding the soft flesh beneath the Trojan warrior’s shoulder. The foreigner laughed as the spray of blood splattered across his armor. The man whose face remained in shadow dropped hard to his knees, his chin bobbing close to his chest. Is he dead? Who are you? Why are you here? In that moment; Hecuba realized she stood alone on the rampart. Where is Priam? She turned to see smoke rising from the citadel. What is happening? Priam! Priam! Where have you gone? Why have you left me alone?
Warm liquid trickled down her inner thighs. Hecuba glanced down to see a pool of blood at her feet. Her fingertips bled as she gripped the edge of the stone wall, bracing for the birth. I cannot have the child on the wall. A searing pain tore through her, dropping her to all fours. Not yet. Not yet. She placed a trembling hand to her sacred opening, feeling for the baby. Her fingers touched a rounded object emerging. Screaming, she pushed for relief. In triumph, she pulled it forth, only to find she held not her long-awaited son, but a burning log. She dropped it, screaming and running from the wall.
“MAMA? MAMA, WAKE up now.” Little Hektor peered over the edge of his mother’s bed, placing his chubby hand on her arm. “Mama?”
Hecuba opened her eyes to see her eldest child. Hektor was a glorious boy. His eyes shone like two polished stones of lapis lazuli, a gift from the gods. The rest of him exuded Priam’s stock—the black curls framing a handsome face, the slight dip in the middle of his tiny chin, and the bump of Priam’s strong nose. Hecuba loved her son’s contagious lopsided smile the most. Whenever Hektor asked his father why they both shared the same chin, Priam regaled him with the story of how Zeus touched the chin of all those of royal Trojan blood. “It is a mark of honor,” he would say. “A mark of the princes and kings of Troy.”
The queen gently placed her hand over her son’s. “I am awake now, Hektor. Tell me, what have you been doing all morning?”
Hektor’s eyes rounded with excitement. “I was in the stables with Xenos,” he took a big breath, “helping with the horses.”
“As a Trojan prince should. What else did you do?”
Hektor’s face beamed. “I rode Ares for the first time.” The young prince loved his horse. Priam had purchased the stallion as a colt from the southern Troad where the finest war horses were bred. The colt’s sleek obsidian coat and the luminous white crescent stamped on its forehead set him apart from all the others in the royal stable. Hektor and Ares had become inseparable. Life existed this way for the princes of Troy. The Trojan tradition of breaking horses was a gift admired far and wide, reaching even across the storming seas. Some worlds revered their fast ships and others their monuments stretching toward the heavens, but the Trojans venerated their magnificent horses. A warrior’s worth extended to the mount he rode into battle, honor and nobility bonding the rider and the steed. And for a chosen few, the god Apollo gifted the ability of communicating directly with the majestic beasts by whispering secret words into their ears. The gift had not come to Hektor, but Hecuba hoped it might be granted to the son she now carried.
“And how is Mighty Ares?”
“He grows strong, Mama. He ate all of the oats I carried to him.”
Queen Hecuba sat up, pulling the boy to her side. “Did you ride long, then, this morning?”
“Yes.” Hektor’s gaze fell to his hands. “But I fell off.”
Hecuba tilted her son’s chin up. “Xenos tells me all warriors fall off. Even princes and sometimes, even kings.” She tapped his nose. “With my own eyes I have seen your father tossed more times than I have fingers.” She held up both hands showing all ten fingers, wiggling each one for emphasis.
Hektor squinted in disbelief at his mother. “My father fell off that many times?”
“Yes,” the queen laughed. “Breaking horses is difficult when you do not grow up together as you and Mighty Ares have. Some horses never feel the weight of a man until they are already grown. They are wild, free spirited beasts.”
Hektor shrugged his little shoulders. “Someday, I will break the horses.”
“Yes, I am certain you will.”
Hektor’s eyes sparkled with the anticipation only an innocent could have. “And learn to fight.” He spoke of war as a game he’d play, running safety back to his mother’s arms.
Icy fingers squeezed the queen’s heart. Her dream of the foreign warrior, lunging gracefully with a spear poised for a lethal strike loomed behind her eyes. His voice thundering, ”There can be no promises between lions and men.” Hecuba willed the image to a shadow with a shake of her head. She recalled what Priam had said about war being inevitable. Was it a god-sign? A warning? A mother’s fear? Looking at her little boy, her heart ached. She wanted her husband to be wrong, to believe that war was an invention of greed that diplomacy and honor could wipe from their world.
The moment passed as quickly as it had overwhelmed her. It’s a woman’s burden knowing men will one day go to war. Since girlhood, she’d been raised knowing this was the way of life, but now, as a mother, she agonized over it. Men wished to be proud warriors, heeding the call to battle, holding their shields and spears aloft, and roaring their blood lust for battle to Ares as they charged headlong into the face of possible death. Fathers raised sons, and those sons raised more sons … all glorifying the field of battle and the dark God of War, Ares, for honor and song.
All women, even queens, faced the agonies of war’s aftermath. Bodies broken beyond recognition, bloody wounds requiring a steady hand to stitch them closed, and ruined minds to mend. All that paling in comparison to washing and dressing the dead for the funeral pyres, and when the smell of burning flesh filled the air, men swore under their breath it would be the last. Until the next season brought new challenges, and it all began again.
Hecuba pulled Hektor’s little head toward hers and kissed him on top of his curls. He smelled of hay. “You will be a great warrior someday, my little Hektor, breaker of horses, my golden prince.”
Hektor wrinkled his nose at his mother and crossed his slender arms across his chest. “I’m not little.”
Hecuba pinched his cheek. “Only to me, sweet boy.” Hektor leapt into his mother’s bed. She tickled him under his arms. Rounds of cheerful giggles bounced across the chamber, echoing out the open windows. Hecuba forced all of the frightening prospects of the future from her mind. She poured her affection and joy into the moment with her son laughing next to her.
He put his hand on his mother’s rounded belly. “Is he truly inside of you?”
“Yes, he is,” Hecuba said. “But, don’t be disappointed if it’s a girl. Kings need daughters, too.”
Hektor laughed. “I can’t break horses with a sister. I see a brother for me. We will ride together. Fight together.”
Hecuba’s eyes filled with tears. “Then, a boy it must be.”
HECUBA’S VISION DISTURBED Priam more than he allowed her to believe, stealing his peace with each passing day. When the priests summoned him, he traveled alone cloaked through the city he loved, the stone streets winding toward the citadel’s center where Apollo’s temple stood. The city’s inhabitants regaled their patron god’s part in building their fortress home in songs, holding many festivals in his honor.
Apollo’s temple dazzled with marble pillars towering to dizzying heights set against the expanse of the heavens. Paintings of gods and goddesses and their heroic deeds spiraled every marble column from cap to base around the outer perimeter of the temple. On each corner, a magnificent sculpture of Apollo held up the temple’s roof with the structure resting on each statue’s shoulders. A carved relief depicting Apollo and Poseidon building Troy’s great ramparts adorned the immense pediment above the temple’s entrance and black marble paved the entry.
As Priam passed beneath the great triangle, entering Apollo’s sacred space, he thought of his legacy, his immortality. For him, it lay in the hope that his sons and grandsons depicted his life in some glorious measure on a wall or column or in a song of his great deeds. Trojan kings may rule the city, but in the end it was the city itself that was the true inheritance of all Trojan kings. He must protect it.
The king walked to the cella, the sacred chamber, readying his offering on the plinth stone. Setting down the small basket of pearls and the shimmering gold crown of laurel leaves, he wondered if it was enough. In the morning, I will bring a fatted bull as well.
An errant pearl slipped through the basket, bouncing behind the wall of blue curtains where Apollo’s secrets floated as whispers into the ears of eager priests and priestesses. Sheer blue fabric shielded the sacred adyton from the direct gaze of supplicants, preserving the sanctity and the mystery of the god. Priam heard the pearl roll to silence. I have not brought nearly enough. I cannot carry the entire treasury on my back. Why was I summoned? Was it Hecuba’s vision?
A priestess with hair as pale as summer honey emerged holding the lost pearl in her palm. Her dark grey eyes looked on him with pity, as she placed the gem in his outstretched hand.
Priam placed it back with the others. “Gratitude.”
When her steady gaze probed his face, the black ice of her pupils pierced through all of his fears. “You are troubled, King Priam.”
“It is not every day one is summoned to the god.”
The priestess nodded. “That is true.”
“Why am I here?”
“Apollo demands a great sacrifice. Troy must be saved.”
King Priam shook his head in confusion. “But we are not at war?”
“The city will fall before a descendant of Aeacus, unless the boy dies.”
“Troy has no quarrel with the western tribes. Pirating along the southern Troad coast has died down to nothing. We bear the west no ill will,” Priam argued. Then … “What boy?”
“Your unborn son.”
Priam’s knees buckled and he caught himself on the altar’s edge. “It is a boy?”
The king’s mind reeled. “I cannot kill my own child. My son.” How could I do such a thing? How would I tell Hecuba?
“Then, Troy will perish.”
“Why does Apollo punish me with this task? Have I not made all of the offerings? Does Troy not venerate the Shining One above all others?”
The priestess folded her hands. “Do you remember your sister, Priam?”
Guilt surged through Priam’s heart. “I lost my entire family the day Hesione was taken from Troy. How could I forget?” The image of Hesione’s pale blue gown fluttering in the wind, her head bowed low, as Herakles dragged her off to his ship still haunted him all these years later. “Priestess, Apollo must know what happened to Hesione was not my fault. My father—”
“Your father’s legacy is yours as well. A royal daughter of Troy now lives among the Greeks. What was it, Priam? Cowardice or greed?”
Priam clenched his jaw, his face flushed with frustration. “I had been away. I am not responsible for my father’s dishonor. What else could I do in that moment?”
“What could you have done? That is what Apollo wishes to know. Gods test mortals in many ways. And you doubted Apollo.”
Priam’s face shook, the vein on his forehead bulged. “Where was Apollo when Herakles and his Greeks came to Troy? What happened was not because of me.”
The priestess remained unmoved. “Unless you obey him, Troy will be burnt to ashes, wiped clean from mortal memory. The wall will crumble to ruin and dust. The sand will drink the blood of Trojan warriors. And its women and children condemned to slavery. Is refusing this sacrifice worth the lives of thousands upon thousands?”
Priam’s hope of saving his unborn son slipped from his fingers. “Is there no other way, Priestess? I beg Apollo to take my life in his place. Just let my son live.”
“If he lives, Troy will burn. It’s that simple. There can be no oaths between lions and men.” She disappeared behind the blue veil.
Suddenly, it struck him. He’d heard that warning before in Hecuba’s vision. “Wait! What does that mean? About lions and men?” But the priestess was gone and he dared not follow her.
Priam’s heart sank, knowing Apollo refused a compromise. As the king, there would be only one choice, and as a father it was no choice at all. Priam understood, now, his complicity in the episode looming before his family and city. I was a coward. And deeper yet, he knew he craved the power of kings. I have brought this on myself. Hecuba … she’ll never forgive me. Perhaps he would yet find a way around this. Maybe Apollo tests me again? Maybe he will stay my hand in the final moment? There was time to win Apollo’s favor.
“WHAT NEWS FROM Apollo’s priests?” Hecuba could stand the silence between them no longer. “We keep no secrets between us.”
Priam stared into the hearth fire.
Hecuba could see the flames reflecting in his stony dark eyes. “Priam?”
“They say the babe must die, or Troy will fall.”
The words pierced Hecuba’s heart, stealing her breath away. Tears burned at the edges of her eyes. “Surely, you don’t intend to listen.”
Priam turned his wounded eyes to his wife. “I don’t know what I intend. If Apollo does not relent, I must choose between one life and thousands.”
“But it’s our child.”
Priam’s nostrils flared and his chin shook. “Do you think I am unaware of that? That I haven’t grieved in my heart for our lost children? Do you think I want this?”
Placing her hands on her rounded middle, Hecuba choked down her tears. “I beg you, make more sacrifices. Whatever Apollo wants, give it to him.”
Priam took a long drink of his wine. “He asks only for our son, nothing less.”
“Is there … no hope?” Tears fell from her eyes like summer rain.
“Hope.” He drained his cup. “That’s all we have left to us.”