Authors: David Gemmell
Shield of Thunder
with great love to Stella for
the journeys across the desert,
for the waterfall at La Quinta,
and for sailing the Great Green
through twenty priceless years
of joy and friendship.
Beneath the Shield of Thunder waits
The Eagle Child, on shadow wings,
To soar above all city gates,
Till end of days, and fall of kings
—THE PROPHECY OF MELITE
Grateful thanks to my editor, Selina Walker; my copy editor, Nancy Webber; and my test readers, Tony Evans, Alan Fisher, Stella Gemmell, Oswald Hotz de Bar, Steve Hutt, Tim Lenton, and Anne Nicholls. The description “test readers” does not convey just how vital the role is. Throughout the creation of the
series narrative threads and characters have been developed and enhanced, and scenes cut or expanded, following comments from the “team.” I am enormously grateful to them.
A cold wind blew down from the snow-covered mountains, hissing through the narrow streets of Thebe Under Plakos. Snow was falling in icy flurries from the dark clouds massing over the city. Few citizens were on the streets that night, and even the guards at the palace huddled close to the gate, their heavy woolen cloaks drawn tightly around them.
Inside the palace there was an air of increasing panic as the pain-filled day drifted into a night of screams and anguish. People gathered, silent and fearful, in the cold corridors. Every now and again there came a flurry of activity as servants ran from the queen’s bedchamber to fetch bowls of water or fresh cloths.
Close to midnight the hooting of an owl could be heard, and the waiting courtiers glanced at one another. Owls were birds of ill omen. All knew that.
The cries of pain began to fade to soft moans, the queen’s strength all but gone. The end was close. There would be no joyous birth, only death and mourning.
The Trojan ambassador, Heraklitos, tried to maintain an air of heavy concern. It was not easy, for he had not met Queen Olektra and cared nothing if she lived or died. And despite his ambassador’s robes of white wool and the long sheepskin cloak, he was cold, his feet numb. He closed his eyes and tried to warm himself with thoughts of the riches he would earn from this journey.
His mission in Thebe Under Plakos had been twofold: to secure the trade routes and to deliver gifts from Troy’s young king, Priam, thus establishing a treaty of friendship between the neighboring cities. Troy was growing fast under Priam’s inspirational leadership, and Heraklitos—like many others—was growing wealthier by the day. However, many of the most valuable trade goods—perfumes, spices, and cloths embroidered with glittering gold thread—had to be carried through war-torn eastern lands ravaged by roving bands of brigands or deserters. Outlaw chiefs held the high passes and demanded taxes from caravans traveling through. Priam’s soldiers had cleared many of the routes close to Troy, but to the south, in Thebe, beneath the shadow of mighty Mount Ida, it was King Ektion who ruled. Heraklitos had been sent to encourage the king to gather more troops and campaign against the brigands. The mission had been succesful. Even now Ektion was raiding deep into the mountains, destroying bandit towns and clearing the trade routes. All that remained was for Heraklitos to offer congratulations on the birth of the new babe, and then he could journey back to his palace in Troy. He had been away too long already, and there were many pressing matters awaiting him.
The queen had gone into labor late the previous day, and Heraklitos had ordered his servants to be ready to depart early this morning. Yet here he was, at midnight on the second day, standing in a drafty corridor. Not only had the promised babe failed to arrive, Heraklitos could tell from the fearful looks on the faces of the people around him that a tragedy was looming. Priests of Asklepios, the god of healing, had been called for, and they had scurried into the royal apartments to aid the three midwives already in attendance. A bull was being sacrificed in the courtyard below.
Heraklitos had no choice but to stand and wait. To leave would be seen as a sign of disrespect. It was most annoying, for when the unfortunate woman died, the city would go into mourning, and Heraklitos would be obliged to wait days for the funeral.
He saw a hawk-faced old woman staring at him. “A sad, sad day,” he said solemnly, trying to muster a tone of infinite sorrow. He had not seen her arrive, but she was standing now, leaning on a carved staff, her expression set, her eyes dark and fierce, her white hair uncombed and framing her head like a lion’s mane. She was wearing a long gray robe, an owl embroidered upon the breast with silver thread. A priestess of Athene, then, he thought.
“The child will not die,” she said, “for she has been blessed by the goddess. Though the queen will if these fools do not call upon me.”
A thin, round-shouldered priest left the queen’s bedchamber. He saw the hard-faced woman and dipped his head in greeting. “I fear the end is close, Great Sister,” he said. “The child is breeched.”
“Then bring me to her, idiot.”
Heraklitos saw the priest redden, but he stepped back, beckoning the woman forward, and they returned to the bedchamber. A tough old crow, Heraklitos thought. Then he recalled that the priestess had spoken of the babe as “she.” A seeress, then—or believed she was. If she was right, then the wait was even more galling. Who cared if a girl child lived or died? Or even a boy, he thought glumly, since King Ektion already had two strong young sons.
The night wore on, and Heraklitos and some twenty others waited for the inevitable sound of wailing that would herald the queen’s death. But then, just as the dawn broke, there came the birth cry of a newborn. The sound, so full of life, brought to the jaded ambassador a sudden sense of joy, an uplift to the spirit he would not have thought possible.
A short while later the courtiers, Heraklitos among them, were led into the queen’s apartments to greet the new arrival.
The babe had been laid in a crib at the bedside, and the queen, looking pale and exhausted, was resting against embroidered cushions, a blanket across her lower body. There was a great deal of blood on the bed. Heraklitos and the others gathered around silently, holding their hands over their hearts in a gesture of respect. The queen did not speak, but the priestess of Athene, her hands caked with drying blood, lifted the infant from the crib. It gave a soft, gurgling cry.
Heraklitos saw what at first appeared to be a smear of blood upon the child’s head, close to the crown. Then he realized it was a birthmark, almost perfectly round, like a shield, but with a jagged white line of skin running through it. “As I prophesied, it is a girl,” said the priestess. “She has been blessed by Athene. And here is the proof,” she added, tracing her fingers across the birthmark. “Can you all see it? It is Athene’s shield—the Shield of Thunder.”
“What will be her name, Highness?” asked one of the courtiers.
The queen stirred. “Paleste,” she whispered.
The following day Heraklitos left on the long journey back to Troy, bearing news of the birth of the princess Paleste and the more important tidings of a treaty between the two cities. He was not, therefore, present when King Ektion returned and went to his wife’s bedside. The king, still in battle armor, leaned over the crib and reached inside. A tiny hand came up toward his. Extending a finger, the king laughed as the babe gripped it tightly. “She has the strength of a man,” he said. “We shall name her Andromache.”
“I have given her the name Paleste,” his wife said.
The king leaned down and kissed her. “There will be more children if the gods will it. The name Paleste can wait.”
∗ ∗ ∗
For Heraklitos the next nineteen years proved rich and fulfilling. He journeyed south to Egypte, east to the center of the Hittite empire, and northwest through Thraki and Thessaly and down to Sparta. All the while he grew richer. Two wives had borne him five sons and four daughters between them, and he had been blessed by the gods with good health. His wealth, like that of Troy, had grown steadily.
But now his luck had run out. It had begun with a steadily increasing pain in his lower back and a hacking dry cough that would not leave him even in the warmth of the summer sun. His flesh had melted away, and he knew that the Dark Road was approaching. He struggled on, still seeking to serve his lord, and was called one night to the royal apartments, where King Priam and his wife, Hekabe, had been consulting a seer. Heraklitos did not know what the man had prophesied, but the queen, a fierce and ruthless woman, seemed in a high state of tension.
“Greetings, Heraklitos,” she said without any reference to his weakness or concern for his health. “Some years back you were in Thebe Under Plakos. You talked of a child born there.”
“Yes, my queen.”
“Tell me again.”
So Heraklitos told the tale of the babe and the priestess. “You saw the Shield of Thunder?” asked Hekabe.
“I did, my queen, red and round with a white streak of lightning through the center.”
“And the child’s name?”
The question took the dying man by surprise. He had not thought of that day in years. He rubbed at his eyes and saw again that cold corridor, and the lion-haired priestess, and the pale, exhausted queen. Then it came to him.