Chapter 31

"You cannot intend for me to eat that!" Andromache exclaimed incredulously, making a face at the contents of the bowl before her. "I can barely see the meat for all the gravy!"

Iasemi pulled the dish away and studied it, confused. She held it up to the fading light coming through the window and poked at one of the muttonchops with her finger. "But this is what you ate yesterday!" she protested. "Twice, I might add!"

Andromache leaned back against the decorously arranged litter of pillows. "Well, my stomach will have none of it today," was the testy reply. "Unless you enjoy holding my hair while I vomit."

Iasemi laid a hand over her stomach and blanched, swallowing with some difficulty. "Mistress, you know how easily I can get sick. Just mention the word and I--" She paled even more with mounting nausea.

"Then take it away," Andromache said sweetly, "and bring me something I will be able to keep down."

"I am not even going to try to guess what that might be anymore," Iasemi said, visibly frustrated. "This is all new to me and I was robbed of the...pleasure of tending you through your last pregnancy."

"Just as well you were not of proper stature in Hector's house at the time," Andromache said. "I was quite a trial to those around me. My women in Troy would not believe how agreeable I am today!"

From Andromache's proud, satisfied expression, it was plain to Iasemi that her mistress did not share her own fleeting recognition that these same women no doubt had suffered any number of miserable fates after Troy fell. Yet Iasemi would hold no grudge. Andromache's spirits had indeed been light, considering her massively pregnant state, and Iasemi did not want to dampen her spirits by memories of people it would have taken supernatural magic to save. Not everyone could have escaped through the underground tunnel that ran to the banks of the Scamander, and mention of those left behind would be an unfair accusation of failure.

Iasemi shook off her melancholy when she saw Andromache struggling to lean forward while groping clumsily at the pillows behind her. She set down the bowl and braced Andromache forward with a firm hand on her back while the other dutifully rearranged the pillows.

"You may have to do this again soon," Andromache said from her miserable, bent position.

"I know," Iasemi said, unable to prevent her exhaustion from punctuating her reply with a sigh.

"Be thankful you do not sleep with me, then!" As soon as she spoke, Andromache bit her lip in impatience with herself. "I am sorry. It is so hard to find comfort when carrying...this around." She cradled her belly and allowed Iasemi to gently lay her back against the rearranged pillows. She looked up at the girl with regretful eyes. "I will be in a better temper once I drop this litter."

Iasemi laughed. "From the way you talk, one would think you were carrying kittens! The midwife says you're bearing but one. Even Meton agrees, and you know he is usually contrary out of principle when it comes to another's opinion."

Andromache groaned. "Eudorus wants twins. He hinted as much last night after I ordered him to rub my feet. He was baiting me, I'm sure."

"And what did you say?" Iasemi giggled.

Andromache smiled, pleased. "That I would push one out, but if he wanted the other, he would have to crawl in after it."

"Would that not hurt more?"

"In the thick of Astyanax's birth, it did feel as if a grown man was trying to--" She fluttered her hands in fretful impatience and covered her face in remembrance of past, horrifying birth pains. "Oh, I do not want to think about it!"

"There, there," Iasemi said, stroking her mistress' hair with a soft, soothing hand. "Your day is coming upon you and it will be done before you realize it. Not much longer to wait."

"It seems I have done nothing but wait," Andromache murmured. "He has not come back, no word..."

"Please do not think on it!" Iasemi whispered. "You have much of your own to worry about without adding Prince Paris to your troubles."

Andromache let her hands fall into her lap and Iasemi saw that tears had already formed in her eyes. "When he left," she said, "he was so confident that I nearly believed he would be successful within a month, maybe two. Word would speed on wings to me from him or another that he had seen it through to the end. But he has been gone so long."

"Nearly the length of the babe you carry," Iasemi agreed sadly.

Andromache cast her a reproachful look. "Need you remind me? Seven months. Seven!"

"He will return, mistress. He will!" was the fervent assurance. "Perhaps he's had to bide his time longer than he planned. It was no small thing he set out to do!"

"I know, and he is a grown man." She shook her head. "But I think I will forever see him as Hector's troublesome, hapless little brother. Hector certainly never shed himself of it, try as he might - and at my behest, oddly enough!" Upon seeing Iasemi's eyes widen in baffled loss of advice, Andromache summoned a smile. "Ignore me and my meandering thoughts. I know there is only so much you can do to ease my mind."

She glanced up and started at the sight of Eudorus standing in the doorway of the bedchamber. "And how long have you been standing there?" she demanded.

Eudorus' eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Too long, apparently," he said. "I expected a kinder greeting!"

Andromache took in the sight of him. It was nearing sundown and he looked fresh from the baths. His skin glistened with a thin sheen of oil and she caught a scent of olive on the air. He exuded a calm and rest that she, for all her enforced bed rest and Iasemi's diligent care, had been unable to find. It made her more than a little resentful.

Andromache turned to Iasemi and, unseen by Eudorus, let her features go slack with relief. She would not worry if he had overheard some of her talk about Paris, but the particulars of his absence was a truth she did not want to be forced to explain today. Not until the baby came. The day would come eventually, but...not today! A further glance at Eudorus assured her that he had only heard the innocuous tail of her lament.

"Is she fit to see her husband, Iasemi?" Eudorus asked from his position in the doorway.

"Oh, I should say so," was the cheerful reply. "She has tried me terribly today, so I believe it is another's turn." Giving her bed-bound mistress an encouraging smile, she made to leave, the bowl of refused food in her hand.

"For that insolence," Andromache said, "you can bring me what I do desire to eat!"

Eudorus laughed. "And what would it be this time? Fresh pomegranate juice? Fig seed bread? Something Menesthius will have to find on an obscure rock in the sea that can only be harvested by moonlight?"

Andromache's hurt look was not feigned. "Have I been so difficult?"

Eudorus and Iasemi shared a tolerant grimace.

"Fig seed bread has been the oddest request so far," Eudorus said. "You do realize that it's only made when there's absolutely nothing else to grind? Usually only starving wretches will pounce on it the way you did."

"It is delicious," Andromache said, her pride becoming more wounded by the second. "I make no excuses!"

"I will bring you some dates stuffed with almond and honey paste," Iasemi said gently, her tone unmistakably that of one trying to soothe a fussy child. "Kallisto said she would make some today."

"For me?" Andromache asked warily.

"Yes, for you!" Eudorus said, emphatic. "She's resigned herself to it all. The proof that there is a child is hard to refute now, and nothing dire has come from Agamemnon's direction, so she is becoming content."

"Slowly."

"Well, she is Kallisto," Eudorus replied with a sardonic smile. "Like the earth, she is slow but steady. The earthquakes are violent, but fleeting."

He stopped Iasemi as she began to move past him through the door and pointed at the bowl of chops and gravy. "I will take that."

Andromache wrinkled her nose. "You are going to sit here and eat them in front of me, aren't you?"

He sauntered over to the bed and quickly made himself comfortable, reclining against the pillows. He had to lie quite close to her to do so, and Andromache was torn by the comfort his nearness gave her versus the nauseating proximity of the congealing, lumpy gravy. She looked away and inched closer to him.

"Don't make much noise when you eat them," she said. "You tend to slurp."

He chuckled. "Certainly, your Majesty."

"I have been a monster these past few months! I seem to recall that title spoken just as mockingly when I was in this condition before." She ventured a look at him, keeping her eyes studiously away from the bowl. At least it is getting darker, she thought. The sight is worse than the smell.

"Hector survived that, and I will, too," Eudorus said with a smile as he lightly tapped a chop against the edge of the bowl.

"I daresay you will," she said, eyes dancing warmly. She had to be honest with herself: Eudorus' ability to speak of Hector with only passing pain at first, and then increasing confidence and casualness, had done much to lessen her own pain when she thought about him. She suspected Eudorus knew it, and pressed on for her own benefit despite whatever discomfort it might have caused him.

"You have been good to me," she said, shifting onto her side and cradling her head against her arm. "I am so afraid my more...regal personality has intruded on the soft, gentle flower I normally am."

Eudorus laughed again. "If you say so."

"What?"

"That you are a soft, gentle flower."

She prodded him in the side with a finger. "I will have you whipped for such insolence."

Eudorus dropped the half-eaten chop into the bowl, licked his fingers, and set it aside. "Then I had best behave." He settled a hand over her belly. "How is he today?"

"Twins...a son... You are making a slew of predictions lately."

"I will never be wrong that way."

"But nor will I ever know what you truly think!" she accused playfully.

He massaged her stomach with his broad hand, the calloused skin catching on the fine linen of her bed dress. "I think a child of your body cannot fail to please."

"What flattery! But you had a part to play in it, if I remember so fondly." She watched his hand caress her stomach and suddenly felt a tremble issue from his fingers. She grasped his hand and squeezed it, sensing the cause of his tremor. "Do not be afraid. I will come through it like a sturdy peasant!"

Iasemi reentered with a plate of honeyed dates balanced in one hand while the other held a lit taper. She took in the sight before her and handed the dish to Eudorus before quickly setting about lighting the candles by the bed. As light and fast as Hermes, she was gone.

Eudorus took a date and held it before her mouth. Andromache plucked it from his fingers with her lips and chewed slowly, but there was no sensual calculation to it. Her thoughts were heavy at her imminent reckoning with the childbed, and the trembling of his hand, combined with his silent reply to her own over-brave assurance, indicated that the matter was causing him untold fear as well.

"I am confident, Eudorus," she told him, her voice stronger. "All will be well." She offered him a date and he took it, his eyes searching her face for some sign, however slight, that doubt and fear lingered.

"I will be there," he said, "should you want me."

She leaned forward and gave him a kiss. "The midwife will not have you! But think of me and I will cling to it to see me through."

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and held her close. She returned the embrace, feeling slightly embarrassed when she had to shift herself into some small measure of comfort against him.

"Will you not be glad to finally have your wife back, instead of this fat sack of grain?" she asked once she was settled.

Eudorus kissed the top of her head and chuckled with returning peace.

"Why don't you answer?" she demanded after a curious long time had passed.

"I was still eating."

"Likely excuse," she murmured, snuggling her head deeper against his chest.

She closed her eyes and allowed the periodic, gentle motions beneath her as he reached for and chewed dates to lull her into a light sleep. She was sometimes roused by a different motion: his fingers running through her hair, or the loving touch of his hand on her hip. Was he trying to memorize her in case the worst happened and the gods were not kind?

Artemis' promise to meet again was never far from her mind. Perhaps she had already come as she said she would and had guided her to accepting Eudorus' request to share his bed. Perhaps the promise had already been fulfilled.

No, she would not think on it. She had survived thus far; she would continue to do so, with the help of the gods or without.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~

"Mistress!"

Andromache was jerked from her sleep and opened her eyes blearily. The candles had not burned down significantly. Her sleep had not been long. Eudorus was moving beneath her and she propped herself up and stared, unseeing, in the direction of the door.

"What is it?" she asked, dragging a hand across her eyes.

"There is a woman here," Iasemi whispered. "She demands to see you."

Andromache flinched in surprise. No, it could not be Artemis, summoned into real form simply by her own thoughts. To presume as much was blasphemous. She looked at Eudorus in confusion. "Should we see her tonight, or give her a place to rest and then speak on the morrow? She might have run away from one of your men."

Eudorus hesitated and turned to Iasemi. "Where did she come from?"

Iasemi paused, but she did not look at him. "I think she comes from the south," she told Andromache, the last word drawn out more slowly than the rest.

Andromache's eyes widened, understanding Iasemi's unspoken suspicion.

"Where is she?" she asked, trying to keep her voice calm.

"A guard brought her to me when she said she wanted to see you. I left her in the kitchen with some food. She is nearly starved and looks like she has traveled some distance."

Andromache struggled into a sitting position and was nearly on her feet beside the bed when Iasemi gave a small shriek and whirled around. Standing in the doorway was a slender woman, a ghostly figure in a travel-stained gown. A heavy woolen cloak hung from her shoulders, and it bore the marks of a long and arduous journey. Her face was thin and pale, her eyes shadowed by circles that dipped far too low on her cheeks to have been born from lack of sleep alone. She looked haunted, and hunted.

She ran over to the bedside and threw herself down, the piece of bread that Iasemi had given her still clutched, partially eaten, in her fingers.

"Princess Andromache!" she cried, her throat so dry the words were painful scrapes on the air.

Iasemi quickly went to the girl and gripped her shoulders from behind. "Up, you!" she hissed. "How dare you intrude in here unbidden!"

Iasemi's vicious tone had no effect on the frightened girl.

"I come from Mycenae!"

When Andromache saw the defeated, wary expression on Iasemi's face, she understood that her servant had been aware of the reason for the girl's visit and had tried to extricate her from Eudorus' company with no one the wiser. Like the news that this girl no doubt brought, Iasemi's own plans had failed.

Andromache did not spare another look at either Iasemi or the crouched figure at her bedside. Her eyes went to Eudorus, and his expression was one of fading shock and dawning realization and anger.

"Andromache, do not tell me what I am thinking," he said.

She could no longer look him in the eyes and turned away.

The visitor was oblivious to what was happening above her miserably bowed head. "I was sent here by Prince Paris," she babbled. "He wanted me to tell you that he...he..."

Andromache sat down heavily upon the bed. "Is he captured, then?"

"No," the woman stammered. "Killed...slaughtered by Klytemnestra and her lover, the Lord Aegisthus. He and Agamemnon, both killed..."

This Andromache was not expecting. Nor was Eudorus, who looked to her for explanation but found her just as confused as he.

He reached over from his position and tapped the girl on her shoulder so that she would look up.

"What is your name, girl?"

"Leda," she sobbed. "Prince Paris...he told me...bleeding--"

"Calm yourself," he commanded, the order firm yet kind. "Then leave no detail unspoken."

~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~

Leda was no stranger to the butcher's shop and had seen all manner of creatures meet their Fate at the end of a blade or a pair of powerful hands around their neck, but never had she seen a man so viciously attack another. Aegisthus' fury was short-lived, but lethal all the same.

The bloody damage done, the axe fell from his hands. The blade clattered, shrieked, against the stone floor. The room pulsed with sounds. Agamemnon's life continued to gurgle through his slit throat; Melaina wheezed thinly, hyperventilating, her eyes bulbous and disbelieving; and Leda realized she had clamped a hand over her mouth to stop the screams. She cowered against the wall like a beaten dog, and if she had had claws, she would have tried to dig through it.

Her eyes were fixed on 'Xandros, a bloody, broken mass. He still moved, though barely, but neither murderer seemed inclined to inflict further butchery. He had told her to run and yet she was still here. Why could she not move?

Her concentration was broken was Melaina suddenly loomed before her, gripped her shoulders and shook her roughly. She looked past Melaina and saw that Klytemnestra was busily arranging the scene to imply that 'Xandros had been Agamemnon's assassin. The queen tossed her dagger onto the floor beside him, its blade still wet with Agamemnon's blood.

The feeble gurgling from the tub stopped, and she heard Klytemnestra give a pleased sigh.

"Leda!" Melaina hissed, shaking her again.

Leda's eyes flew to Melaina's face and, even through her own terror, she could see that her panic was not unshared. A thick sheen of sweat covered the woman's face and her breath was coming short and fast.

"Stay here!" she commanded. "Stay here."

She stumbled to her feet and went to Klytemnestra, who issued orders with nothing but sharp gestures. Leda saw Melaina obey unthinkingly, dazed.

Leda remained pressed against the cool wall, her gaze flying around at the painted scenes that surrounded her. There were gorgons, sea creatures, gods and goddesses dispensing their kindnesses and their cruelties. She had no doubt what lay in store for her if she remained.

She had no time to think further because Melaina swooped down on her again. "We are leaving to summon the guards," she said. "You stay here." But the quick glance Melaina gave the window to her left issued another command.

"Is the chit taken care of?" Klytemnestra said, pausing by the door.

Melaina gave Leda a withering glare for the queen's benefit. "Quite," she said. "Frightened of her own shadow."

Then all three were gone. As soon as the door shut, Leda scrambled across the floor to 'Xandros. She paid no heed to the pain that shot through her knees as they scraped on the stone, the thin fabric of her gown doing little to protect her. 'Xandros would die soon, but she could not escape without comforting him. A simple shepherd could not die so wretchedly, so wrongly. The murder of a king would be pinned upon him, and none would dare to question it.

She knelt beside him and could not decide where to put her hand to staunch the blood. There were so many wounds. Finally, she took the edge of his cape and held it firmly against the wound on his neck and shoulder. It seemed to help. His eyes acquired a brightness that implied a returning awareness.

"'Xandros..." she whispered. "What can I do?"

'Xandros' movement was slight, more a spasm than something deliberate.

"Do you have any family?" she went on, her free hand brushing the bloody locks from his brow, a brow now creased deeply in perpetual pain. "They must know..."

"Phthia." The word was a garbled gasp, spat out as if in fear it would be only one of a few breaths granted him. "Eudorus!" His eyes rolled up to meet hers, and when she nodded, his fading, dying body began to tremble, as if in excitement that she understood him.

"The Myrmidon," she confirmed, feeling fresh tears burn her eyes anew. The hope that lit his face when she spoke was agonizing to bear.

He gripped her arm, the blood on his palm hot and sticky against her skin. Each word was ground out between teeth clenched in the throes of death fended off by the natural instinct to live. "His wife...An--And—mache...Troy!" His grip shook manically, sending a tremor throughout her. At first she thought he was succumbing to shock, but when he smiled, she realized he was gesturing at himself, using her hand.

The name that came from his tightly-drawn lips was spoken almost as a shiver, faint and fading. Leda nearly missed it, but her wits were not that crippled by her fright. The identity of the man who was bleeding his life onto the floor around them struck her soundly, made everything clear, her path definite.

By the time she recovered to look at him again with new eyes, Paris of Troy was dead.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~

"I did not want to leave him," Leda said, her voice much calmer than upon her entrance in the bedchamber, "but had he still been alive, he would have ordered me to go. I leaped through the window and fled. It has taken me so long to get here."

Andromache remained on the edge of the bed, her posture limp, weary. "He tried. That is all he wanted to do. Try to be half as strong as Hector."

"He didn't succeed," Eudorus pointed out.

Andromache shook her head and looked at him over her shoulder. A corner of her mouth curved in a sad smile. "He did. He did exactly what Hector would have done. I cannot believe that Hector would have allowed a foe, even Agamemnon, to be murdered so dishonorably."

"I daresay you're right," Eudorus replied with an understanding smile after only a brief pause. Andromache suspected his own eyewitness to Hector's regret upon killing the untried Patroclus had changed his mind.

Andromache turned and stared up at the low ceiling, a plaintive sigh that sounded akin to a harnessed sob wafting gently on the air. Where was the poor, doomed boy now? Abandoned on the banks of the Styx, penniless and denied passage to the other side? Or had he deftly convinced Charon to ferry him across with nothing but a smile and a promise that he would do better next time?

She did not trust herself to smile again. The tears would come quickly after.

And she could not turn into a wreckage of sorrow. There were happier things to contemplate.

Another twinge, and then a larger, spreading pain.

"Iasemi, get the midwife," she said calmly. "It seems someone else is intent on joining us tonight!"

Eudorus straightened from his position on the bed and was beside her before she could draw a breath. Iasemi had already vanished, while Leda still remained beside the bed, her eyes wide in wonder at the sight before her.

"If I have brought this upon you with my arrival--" she stammered.

Andromache eased herself against Eudorus, who enveloped her in a tense, nervous embrace. Despite her own anxious state, she settled steady, cool hands on his arms and felt him begin to relax slowly and reluctantly.

She shook her head. "Leda, you unknowingly served Paris well. He was ever trusting of people, granted, but to entrust you with that knowledge and that you saw it through, he thought greatly of you and I owe you a debt."

She focused intently on Leda in an effort to distract herself from the turmoil that began to twist within her body. The fullness of her attention brought a blush to Leda's cheeks and the girl averted her gaze.

"I--I thought he was only a shepherd," she murmured. "I was fond of him."

Andromache brightened when she saw Iasemi return, cloths over her shoulders and birthing stool in hand. Behind her was the midwife, head bent and intent on her carry-box of herbs and potions.

"Leda," Andromache said, "if you wish to attend to me tonight and ever after, I would be honored. I feel we will have much to discuss in coming days."

Eudorus lowered his lips to Andromache's ear. "Are there not more urgent matters?" he whispered.

She gripped his arms and squeezed them in loving reproach. "You forget, my love, that I have done this before!" The courage to face the coming trial was surging high within her. She would not let it flee.

The pains were quickly coming. It might yet be an easy birth. Astyanax' had been long, agonizing, deadly uncertain. The relief in Hector's face upon seeing living son and wife was not a memory she wanted to relive, knowing the torment he had endured for hours, secluded from her sight, but his ears unguarded against her cries. She would not have another one who loved her endure the same.

Eudorus' warm embrace was only removed after he had helped her from the bed and assisted her onto the stool. A veil was slowly descending over her, and she realized he was gone when the hands that touched her were thin and feminine, the bustle around her knowing and practiced.

"We meet again, little one! I trust I am not late?"

Andromache looked up into the face of Artemis, the youthful visage of the goddess peering at her from the form known to all as the midwife.

The vision was fleeting. Soon the familiar face reappeared, and Andromache would have wondered if she had dreamed it all but for her persistent belief that the goddess had taken an interest in her, a lowly mortal. A royal mortal, but mortal all the same.

Her gown was removed and she shivered in the night air. More candles were lit and she wondered if it was Iasemi, or Leda quickly settling into the new position bestowed upon her. Yes, it was Leda, she decided. The girl had already proven herself strong in hard circumstances. Despite her insistence that she had taken long to journey here from Mycenae, she had done so before the news of Agamemnon's death could come by way of others. The girl was able. Paris had chosen well.

A cup was tilted against her lips and she obediently drank, the potion quickly relaxing her but keeping her away from the brink of sleep. Time may have passed; she was not quite sure. The interior of the chamber was an unending flicker of candlelight, but it was warm, it was calm, it was stripped of the pomp and glory that had intruded upon her in Priam's gilded palace. There were no priests chanting prayers, no army of servants rushing in and out as healers of every station and level of expertise carried out their private, petty wars in their desire to be the one to claim credit for delivering Troy of an heir.

Yes, all that was in the past, never to happen again. She would not miss it.

Troy was gone, the glittering citadels smoke-streaked, its stout walls violated. Gone, all gone. Robbed of its rulers, it lay dashed upon one man's greed. That man was now dead, victim to a war raging inside his own house, the blighted House of Atreus.

A man and woman should expect peace in their home, Andromache thought. Agamemnon did not have it, nor did Hector and I. No ruler of men ever has true peace, and Paris disturbed the peace we had. The Greeks soon followed. I want that peace. I do not want to be denied it again.

She labored. She perspired. She cried. She gripped onto the arms of slave and goddess and bore the force of her want upon them. They absorbed it and did not crumble beneath her crushing hold.

The pain left her with a sudden, liberating blow. The sound of lusty lungs met her ears, followed by the triumphant cries of the three women. She sank forward, and ambrosia-scented arms caught her as easily as one would a fainting child. The lingering effects of the potion nudged her closer to the brink and she gave herself over it, letting the women tend her as small girls would a precious doll.

Despite her drugged state, her consciousness never completely faded. She was aware of motion around her, the tender hands that cleaned her - Leda's mistress, Iasemi's queen, Artemis' mortal curiosity.

Blankets enveloped her, and a fresh linen gown rubbed smooth and welcoming against her skin. A sigh escaped her, of pleasure at a task well-done, of joy at the mantle of peace she could feel invisible upon her shoulders.

"Andromache."

She opened her eyes at the sound of Eudorus' voice and glanced about the room. The women had left, all evidence of her labor vanished.

Except for the large, squirming, swaddled bundle in Eudorus' arms.

He knelt beside her and tenderly cradled the infant between them so both might look upon it.

"A son," he said proudly.

"You say that as if you had allowed yourself only one guess," she teased.

He bent and kissed her brow. "And are you not glad that it is only one? I did not have to go in and get the other."

She laughed softly and gave his arm a feeble, sleepy poke. "Perhaps next time."

Eudorus rose and rounded the bed, setting the baby down beside her. She turned herself over to cradle him from one side while Eudorus laid himself out fully on the other.

They rested, murmuring observations about hair, eyes, nose and fingers. They debated about which family he would eventually most resemble. But they often fell silent, gazing at their child, and each other.

Dawn was still distant, but the candles would fast lose their purpose. The room was already growing naturally light.

It was a new day, and how new they felt.

THE END


There it is. I hope you enjoyed it. It's been 4 1/2 long years of labor and love. Please make my day and review.