A/N: Chapter 5 isn't quite done yet, mostly because I can't decide if I'm ready to start rewrites on 6-10 yet. It's shaping up to be a busy summer so I'll probably focus on current plot. Thank you for the feedback on the last chapter, it's always very much appreciated. This is one of those juicy, eventful chapters. Enjoy!
Chapter Thirty-one: A Woman's War
While the winds of the Aegean did not bring Paris home in time for the birth of his child, they did finally bear rumors of his journey. Spies and messengers arrived from a variety of locations across Achaea, delivering contradictory messages. The Trojan crew had been spotted on the island of Cranae, just a week ago, one announced. Another swore the ships had encountered a storm before they ever reached Sparta, leaving no one alive. The rumors became increasingly absurd as the weeks wore on. Paris had single-handedly sacked Sidon. The angry husband of a maidservant killed him. He had abducted a queen. He was living in Egypt. He would be home within the week—no, the day. He was riding home on the back of an octopus and could spend several more years at sea.
Hector related this last message to me as we walked to the stables, at the break of dawn. With the constant flow of messengers and subsequent council meetings, he had had no time to visit his horses. He woke me before sunrise in hopes that the early hour would allow us uninterrupted time with the beasts. I hoped, for his sake and mine, that he would not be called to the palace to hear yet another ridiculous testament. He was like an excited child as he headed to the stables, walking quickly and then checking his stride so I could catch up. Finally, three months before the midwife predicted my babe would enter the world, I was experiencing difficulty moving. Oenone could not be more pleased.
"The messenger says it is a purple octopus, as big as a ship," Hector said, then paused when he realized I was a few paces behind him. "Somehow I cannot imagine Paris being any happier on an octopus than he is on a horse."
He had learned to disregard all news of his brother's journey, while I still attempted to sift through it in hopes that I would find something of value to tell Oenone. "Why would a messenger waste his time bringing the news if there is no truth in it?" I prodded. Hector kindly did not tease me for my gullibility.
"They are not all messengers," he said in a low voice. "Two of them did not bother to mask their Trojan accents, and this last one staggered in with wine stains on his beard. As for the true messengers, they would be fools to pass up the opportunity. We are desperate for news, and they are aware of it. They know, too, that my father is a generous man. He pays them for their trouble, with food and coins."
"You think there have been no truthful messengers."
He gave a wry smile. "Come, Andromache. Can you imagine Paris abducting a queen or sacking a city?"
I shook my head. "What do I tell Oenone, then?"
We reached the stall of a feisty black stallion, which stamped the ground viciously when Hector unlatched the gate. I backed away nonchalantly. "Tell her nothing," he said, using his smooth, hypnotically calm voice on both the horse and I.
"I cannot lie to my best friend."
"It isn't a lie. There has been no truthful news," he reminded me, slipping into the stall. The stallion did not cease his stamping, and used his sleek black head in an attempt to butt my husband out of his stall. Briefly, I hoped he would succeed, but I quickly banished the thought.
"You aren't listening. She is desperate for any word--" The stallion neighed fiercely, and Hector raised one hand to quiet me, placing the other on the horse's sinewy neck.
While only a few months ago, I teased Oenone for her irrational bursts of anger, I completely understood and supported them now. "Who are you silencing, me or the beast?" I asked shrilly, stomping one foot and creating a tiny cloud of dust. Hector turned to me, confused, an apology probably already forming at the base of his tongue.
"Or am I a beast now? Is it that you would rather spend your free moments with your precious horses than your equally enormous wife?" I was on the verge of tears, filled with a wild fury directed at my husband, who I had been so appreciative of only minutes before.
But I was already waddling away, moving as fast as I could while hindered by my bulging belly. "Off to gripe about me to Oenone, then?" he accused, and I nearly stopped. I had not considered that my time-consuming friendship might hurt him. "Will she be there for you when her husband returns?"
I further increased my speed, swinging my arms for momentum and frightening a stablehand. "Will she?" Hector called, but his voice retained the soothing quality that completely conflicted with his angry words. Of course he would do nothing to frighten his cherished horses, even in an argument.
When I stumbled to Oenone's door, panting and perspiring, I did not have to knock or wait to be led inside. A nervous young maidservant sprinted through the door and clasped both hands to her breast when she saw me. "You were sent by the gods!" she exclaimed, but I paid her no heed. I pushed past her to the bedchambers, using my bulk to fling open the doors impressively.
"My husband compared me to a horse!" I growled, but my anger rapidly converted to worry when my eyes lit upon Oenone's contorted face. Her amber eyes were unfocused, her fists clenched, as if to beat away her pain. I rushed to her side, screaming to the maid. "Fetch the midwife!"
The only response was the rustling of hasty feet in the distance. Oenone drew a desperate breath and loosened her hands. "Hector called you a horse?" she questioned.
I shook my head. "It does not matter now." If she was frightened, she did not show it. She pushed her soaked sheets to the ground with her feet and propped herself up on her pillows.
"There is no chance of Paris returning, is there," she stated dryly.
Biting my lip, I brushed a tendril of hair from her brow. "They say he is crossing the Aegean on the back of a purple octopus."
She considered for a moment, her white hands curling. "Perhaps the wind will carry the sound of my screams to him!" By the time she completed her thought, she was in the grips of a contraction, and her last words escaped her lips as strangled shrieks.
The midwife could not be found. A very frustrated Hecuba, then Laodice, Creusa, and Polyxena carried this message to us. "She will be peddling her skill on the streets by the time your babe arrives, Andromache," Hecuba vowed, her smooth pacing a more feminine version than the pacing of her eldest son. "I only wish we had time to recruit another midwife now."
Oenone gritted her teeth and did not respond. "There is no time. She will come," I answered for her. Polyxena quietly moved to the doorway to watch for her, while Creusa and Laodice appeared to be frozen by the level of tension in the room.
"What did Paris want to name the babe?" Laodice finally asked.
Oenone stared listlessly at the door. "He was supposed to return by now," she answered. "He never mentioned any names."
I hoped thoughts of her absent husband would not hinder her delivery.
"Then you will name the child yourself," Hecuba declared, her eyes fixed on the woman who would deliver her first grandchild within the day. "Paris has no say in the matter when he is across the sea."
Oenone frowned. "He may not like the name."
Hecuba halted her pacing, which did not make her any less intimidating. "He will love the child regardless. Now, what will you name the babe?"
I had to admire her tactic. As she gasped out various names, Oenone seemed to be distracted from her pain, and her breathing became more regular. I watched intently as she grappled with and briefly overcame agonizing pain. She held my hand in an unbreakable vise, her eyes unfocused, spouting out increasingly awful names. She had been blathering on for close to an hour, reaching "Ethylictopoculis," when the midwife hobbled through the door.
Hecuba was like a lioness, using pure restraint to toy with her prey rather than snap its neck immediately. "I hope you'll manage to fit the delivery of the king's first grandchild into your schedule," she snarled. Wisely, the midwife ignored her, lifting the gown of the dazed princess without warning.
"She's not ready," she proclaimed, as my friend let out a squawk of protest. The old woman shot the queen a look that indicated being present any earlier would have been useless. "We must wait a few more hours, at least."
It could have been minutes or years. Time fled that crowded room, edged out by Oenone's breathy sobs, the midwife's raspy voice, and Polyxena's nervous comments. Oenone never let go of me, and while I was honored to provide her with an anchor in her personal waves of agony, I was relieved when my hand succumbed to clammy numbness. Creusa dabbed at Oenone's brow with a wet cloth while Laodice busied herself with rinsing cloths in oil for the midwife. Hecuba and the midwife battled for authority, with Hecuba firing insults to make the wait bearable. Polyxena stayed by the wall, fear and confusion evident on her face. We waited. I remember thinking it was silly to wait when clearly, this exact event had been taking place for all of eternity and would surely continue forever, with different mothers who were entirely alike.
"It is time to push," the midwife informed us at some point. The sunlight was the only thing that had dared enter this cave of women. It lit upon the perspiration on Oenone's brow, illuminating the crown of every mother.
"Push!" Hecuba encouraged her. And we all chanted too, encouraging our sister in a muddle of mixed words. Her shrieks sliced through our clumsy ritual, sharp as a sacrificial knife. In response, we chanted louder, our voices melding together into a single voice, a solitary prayer, destroying the last traces of time and overthrowing any moment but that one, a primeval voice of women that rode the tail of our sister's screams, a terrible, ageless harmony, finally pierced by a commanding male cry.
"Welcome your son," the midwife said, holding up the battered, bluish thing that had broken the spell. Oenone loosed a small sob and reached for him. He squalled and kicked ferociously, as if unsure where to direct his fury at being born. His bloodied fists beat at the air and his tiny chest heaved as he expressed his discomfort in the only way he knew how.
I loved him immediately. A glance at his mother told me that she had never been happier; despite the pain of delivery and nine long months of consistent misery, she was overjoyed. She looked as though she would never unwrap her arms from his writhing body. "He is wearing a golden helmet," she crooned. Indeed, his fine golden hairs were plastered to his head in such a way that he resembled an absurdly tiny warrior. "I will call him Corythus," she announced. "Helmet. Even when he is a grown man, taller than his mother, he will bear the memory of his appearance in his first moments."
She allowed me to take him from her arms to wash him. Hecuba dismissed the midwife as soon as she delivered the afterbirth, leaving us to clean the new mother and son. I gently wiped the fluid from his limbs and he quieted somewhat, wriggling half-heartedly against my immense belly. "He is beautiful," I told my happy friend.
"I will tell the king," Hecuba offered, fondly stroking Oenone's hair. She took her daughters with her, leaving me alone with my best friend and new nephew.
"Perfect hands," Oenone remarked, holding his little fists against her palms. She tore her eyes away from her babe long enough to bless me with a genuine smile. "I cannot wait to introduce him to his father."
Even in his first moments, he resembled his father. His damp hair was the same hue as Paris' when the sun hit it, and his tiny lips had the same gentle curve. He would see the world through the same light eyes as his mother, though. "I must find Hector," I said apologetically. It should have been Paris marveling at the boy, not me.
"Come see us tomorrow," she requested. I left her still cradling her beautiful boy, all memory of her recent pain utterly erased.
It was not as late as I expected. I blinked in the harsh sunlight, one hand on my bulging stomach. The idea of searching for him was unbearably frustrating; just the thought of wandering about on tired feet compelled me to cry. Luckily, he was waiting.
"Andromache," he called softly, and I turned to see him leaning against the opposite wall. Any remaining anger I had dissolved as I waddled toward him, but I could not dissipate the tension that remained. He took my arm and did not complain when I leaned more of my weight than usual on him.
"She had a boy," I informed him. "She's calling him Corythus because his hair stuck to his head like a helmet."
"I know. Mother has asked me to formally acknowledge the child in Paris' place."
"Oh." How had I forgotten? The father of the child had to acknowledge the babe shortly after his birth in order for him to officially join the family. I had hoped that the first babe Hector recognized would be our own.
He sighed and adjusted his arm to take on more of my mass. "I will wait as long as I can, in case Paris returns." I nodded against his shoulder and his hand drifted to my stomach.
"Also," he said, clearing his throat, "I would never compare you to a horse."
"I apologize for overreacting--"
"For one thing, your neck is far too slender. Your mane is much too shiny, and your nostrils are not even one tenth of proper horse size." I was laughing already, but he would not relent. "Your teeth are much too small, your rump too round, your voice too melodious. No, my dear, I am afraid there is no place for you in the stables."
"There is nothing I share in common with a horse? Size, perhaps?" I prodded. Hector pondered, but it was all for show; he would not fall into that trap again.
"There is one thing," he said, and I raised an eyebrow. "Temper."
I swatted his chest and he caught my hand in his own. "Fortunately for me, you do not have a horse's hooves," he chuckled. Grins split our faces until we reached our chambers, where the half-finished cradle in the corner presented too many questions.
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you thought. I'll try to update quickly.