The air was heavy, the sun was beating down on us mercilessly, I was sweating, and the pins in my hair were digging uncomfortably into my scalp but nothing, save death, could have pried my eyes away from the battlefield.
From my vantage point, I could see that Hektor was attempting to keep the Greek warrior away from the walls of our city; a symbolic gesture, at least to me, that he alone stood between us and our enemy. His position, though noble, had one dire consequence - which was that the sun was reflecting off of his opponent's armour and straight into his eyes. Still, he held his own for long enough that a flicker of hope flared up in my heart. A tiny flame that was promptly extinguished when, his eyes burning from the heat and sun, Hektor stumbled backwards after one particularly brutal thrust. He soon righted himself but the momentary slip in his stance gave his opponent the opening needed to overpower him and there was sharp clang and a glint of steel as his sword was knocked from his grasp.
A cry of anguish split the air and I did not realize that it had come from me until a hand touched my shoulder and Paris appeared beside me, with a look of such disbelief on his comely face that I couldn't even find the words to protest his invasion of my personal space.
My attention returned to the warriors below and my heart almost stopped beating when I saw Hektor on his knees. No, please...he did not know it was your cousin that he killed. He is a good man and his son is still a baby my mind was screaming but I had not the breath to form words. Even if I had, it would not have mattered in the slightest and, only a moment later, I swore I could feel the spear penetrate his armour and my entire body was shaking as I slowly bowed my forehead to rest upon the stone barrier. Everything around me seemed to fade away until all I could feel was the pounding of my heart and the air filling my lungs as I gulped in deep breaths and tried not to vomit.
The fates had snipped another shining thread and our beloved crown prince was no more. When the heaving stopped and I could both breathe and stand on my own two feet again, I rose to look out over the plain and heard soft footsteps as, one by one, the royal family came to stand beside me. The warrior bent near Hektor's ankles and I had to squint to see that he was tying them together. Dread lodged in my throat and my heart dropped into my feet. Surely he wasn't going to...
He took the other end of the cord and tied it to his chariot then turned around and raised his head.
My posture was ramrod straight and why he singled me out among the rest would forever remain a mystery but, nevertheless, our eyes met and blue clashed with green. The plain was utterly silent, as though the entire world and its creatures were holding their breath, while we stared each other down. But this was a battle he would not win, for I had held my own against Ares and no man's stare could compete with the flesh-and-soul piercing scrutiny of a god. There was no smirk on his face nor smugness in his gaze at having defeated our Crown Prince and avenged his cousin's death. Instead, he looked as conflicted as I felt and yet I recognized that the man in that chariot was different from those I had encountered thus far - including Hektor.
"He is human, but not mortal" the words left my lips on the smallest of breaths and, slowly, he closed his eyes and bowed his head for the briefest of moments before turning away and urging his horses forward. Several gasps sounded and there was a choking noise on my right as Achilles rode away, dragging the body of our crown prince behind him. A glance to my right revealed that the king's face was ashen and he was trembling as if in the grip of fever while a soft sobbing behind me signalled my cousin's loss of composure. Priam's head turned and we stared incomprehensibly at each other as if caught in a bad dream then I became vaguely aware that my hands were clenched into tight fists and my palms were sticky and wet.
"Ismena, you are bleeding" my subconscious recognized the voice as that of Polyxena. As if it mattered who had spoken. "I know" I didn't have to look down to see the red liquid seeping from beneath my skin and dripping onto my gown.
I should have brought my bow...if only to fire an arrow or two to break that rope I thought I should have done something.
My face was so tense that it hurt, my skin felt too tight - like a water skin filled to bursting, and the pain of my injured hands was nothing compared to that of my broken heart. But if I was hurting, I could not even imagine what my cousin and the king were feeling at the moment. Stiffly, awkwardly, I turned around and my gaze turned murderous when I saw Helen attempting to comfort my cousin. As if sensing my anger, the blonde looked up then scrambled to get out of my way as I crossed over to Andromache and put my arms around her.
She didn't care that my hands were bleeding. In fact I don't think it even registered that I was injured at all because she clung to me and buried her face in my shoulder, her slender body wracked by violent sobs. The part of me still able to see reason was grateful that the youngest princess was holding Astyanax, though she was also weeping, but then I realized that someone would have to tell Cassandra that her brother was dead. Just as she had predicted.
"Come, cousin" my voice sounded foreign and strange even to me "you and the baby can stay with me in my rooms for now, if you wish". I then hazarded a glance at Paris, who was staring across the platform but seeing no one, his lips parted in shock as a single silent tear trailed down his left cheek "Paris, Helenus, your father needs both of you now and your mother needs to know about Hektor" I said softly. After nodding at Polyxena to indicate that she should follow us, I shot a cold look at Helen "you...had best stay with your husband" I hissed then gently steered my cousin into the palace.
Neither my cousin nor I would never remember how we ended up in the family wing but somehow, I was lucid enough to slow my pace when we came close to Cassandra's door "I have to tell her, Andromache. This is not the time for us to become divided by differing views on illness. Cassandra is a princess of Troy, your sister-in-law, and my dear friend and she has committed no crime to deserve the punishment of being banished from her family. She did not bring every soldier in Greece to our doorstep and Hektor visited her as often as he dared while he was alive. She will be as devastated as we are and no good person should have to grieve alone" I pointed out as gently as I could when my cousin opened her mouth to protest.
In spite of the intense pain she was feeling, my cousin managed to not only absorb what I said but also to understand how I felt and why and Polyxena nodded her own agreement when I looked to her. "You are right" Andromache conceded "it is my responsibility as her sister-in-law to tell her, especially because I know the king will not, and it would be cruel make her endure her grief alone".
As expected, Cassandra started to weep as soon as she saw us standing at her door and I embraced her then extended the invitation for her to join us in my rooms. Relief displaced some of my sorrow when she accepted then opened her arms to Andromache, who embraced her for the first time in years, and they held to each other for a short while. Perhaps some good can come of this I dared to hope and closed Cassandra's door then the four of us, five including Astyanax, continued to my rooms.
The rest of the morning passed in a daze. Once away from prying eyes and ears, my cousin had promptly collapsed and Cassandra and I half-carried her over to my bed, where she cried herself into a near catatonic state. "Polyxena, please go to the physician and get a sleeping draught. I have to get her to calm down or she is going to injure herself" I requested and the frightened princess handed the baby to Cassandra then ran out of the room. Taking care of my cousin distracted me from the grief that was slowly burning a hole in my chest and, under my breath, I prayed for the gods to have mercy on her. Cassandra and I were already cursed so all of my concern was for Andromache and Astyanax now.
Polyxena returned with the draught and I checked to make sure it was the right one before persuading my stricken cousin to drink it. After she had done so and cried herself to sleep, I went and hailed a couple of servants to bring the baby's cradle into my room. I did not think my cousin could stand to be alone surrounded by Hektor's things so she would probably stay in my rooms for that night and the next. Maids brought the midday meal to my door but none of us were hungry so I told them to divide the food amongst themselves but for the bread. I did not think I could stomach anything but water and bread just then and, judging by the faces of the two sisters, the feeling was mutual. None of us wished to wake Andromache and so we ate and drank as quietly as possible then Polyxena went to her own rooms to take a nap. I lulled the baby to sleep, set him in his cradle, and made sure the door was locked before Cassandra and I went out onto my balcony to get some air, leaving the doors partially ajar in case my cousin woke.
News of Hektor's death had obviously spread quickly because the city had never been so quiet in the afternoon as it was that day. The streets were nearly deserted, but for a few solemn women hanging their laundry and the odd person walking, and I exchanged uneasy looks with Cassandra, who seated herself on one of the two chairs I had put out for the days I liked to sit on the balcony and read in the sun. Those days have come to an end I told myself, taking the seat next to her, and clasped my hands in my lap. We stared at each other for several moments until the silence became oppressive "I want to cry, to scream, to be sick" I told her, staring at the braided straps of my sandals "but a cold numbness has seeped into my body and robbed me of feeling. I saw him fall with my own eyes but I cannot believe he is gone until his pyre is lit. Which may never happen because Achilles took the body back to his camp and gods only know what sort of indecencies have been wrought upon it".
A shudder ran through me and I looked up then wished that I hadn't. Cassandra's eyes were far too old for the young body they inhabited, the eyes of one who saw more than any person should have been privy to, and she stayed so still that her face appeared to be carved of stone.
"Tonight, when the sun sets, you must go into the gardens and bring your bow and a single arrow. A visitor in the guise of an old priest will be waiting for you but do not let yourself be fooled. He is no priest and comes bearing a divine message for you. He will also tell you what to do with the bow and arrow" she told me distantly, her voice a near whisper, and, again, I silenced the voice in my mind that told me she was lying.
I nodded absently then my gaze fell upon my wounded hands which, strangely, Cassandra had not noticed and I had not bothered to bandage. My sharp nails had left crescent-shaped wounds in the flesh of my palms, which were scarring over, and the insides of my fingers were stained with dried blood. There was blood on my hands, blood on my dress, blood on the stone tiles where I had stood that morning, blood on the armour of countless men who had fought and died thus far, and blood on the ground where Hektor had fallen. I closed my eyes and bowed my head in sorrow.
Freedom, honour, loyalty, love. All were noble sentiments. All were paid for in blood.