Thankfully, the arrival of our enemies meant that I didn't have time to think overlong about the strange dream and its implications. Many things needed to be done to prepare for war and I had to warn my sisters at the temple of what had transpired so that they wouldn't be caught unawares and captured. After dressing and grabbing a piece of bread and meat from the kitchen in lieu of eating in the dining hall as would be the norm, I ate whilst running to the gates that the guards were closing behind the legions of soldiers leaving to defend their home.
"I need to warn the clergy of Artemis. There are virgin women and girls out in the temple who do not know what is happening" I explained hurriedly and, though their reluctance was clearly written on their faces, the guards permitted me exit and agreed to leave two of their own outside the walls to notify the rest when I returned. With a promise to make haste, I thanked them profusely then took off at a run into the wilderness. Time was of the essence and the temple was situated far from the city. If I didn't hurry, by the time I returned with my sisters, the entire place could very well be swarming with enemy soldiers assessing the strength of the walls and we would be killed or, worse, captured.
So focused was I on getting there in time to make it back to the city that it did not occur to me that we would have been safer in the temple. Only later, when I sought shelter there after the city was naught but smoking ruins, would I realize just how naive I was about the whole situation. In my haste; I also failed to think about the more immediate danger facing those in the temple of Apollo, the consequences of which would haunt me for a very long time afterward.
"ALTHEA!"I started hollering as soon as the temple came into view and, not a minute later, said priestess emerged, her face clearly displaying her disapproval at having been interrupted. But that expression changed to one of immense concern once she saw me, for she knew that I would never come to the temple thus without good reason. My hair was sticking out of its neat plait, my clothing was dusty, sweat was pouring down my face and neck and my arms were scratched from running at top speed through the trees.
My muscles burned and I slid to a halt in front of the stairs, gasping for breath "the Greeks are here. I saw the ships myself and King Priam has given the order to close the gates. We must get everyone into the city at once!".
"Do we know how many have come?"
"The exact number is not known but horizon was full of ships..." I managed to say before her face paled and she turned abruptly then disappeared into the temple and I followed her. It did not take us long to clean out the treasury and, once all fourteen women and six girls gathered at the front of the temple, we began the journey back to the city with Althea and I at the head.
The guards saw us coming, thankfully, just as they began to close the gates entirely and they paused, directing tense smiles at the high priestess as we walked past. Althea knew the city well and so she continued to lead the women onwards as I stepped to the side to make sure everyone was with us. Many of them smiled as they passed and thanked me for being their guide, for not abandoning them. As if I ever would have. Despite my short temper at times, loyalty was always one of my better traits.
With a heartfelt thanks to the guards, I then followed in the rear to an old abandoned temple near the city walls where the coins and jewels were placed in my care. Then I gave Althea the coins to distribute among the women as she saw fit, so that they could buy food and other essentials for the coming days.
After the temporary shrine was finished and the temple thoroughly cleaned, we gathered in a circle and held a candlelight vigil for Troy.
It was near to the evening when I said my farewells and finally made my way back to the palace, weighed down with more jewelery than I had ever worn in my life. It was decided, or - rather - Althea had decided, that I would take the most valuable things and hide them in my closet until the danger had passed.
So it was that, under the cloak she had given me, I had at least twenty necklaces around my neck and a few more tucked into the top of my dress, bracelets on my ankles and up to my elbows on both arms, innumerable earrings and brooches fastened to the inner lining, and rings almost covering all of my fingers. I was understandably nervous, carrying about fifty years worth of offerings on my person, but it was necessary and all I could do was walk slowly and pray that no one touched me until I had put all of the jewels safely away in my room.
As soon as I arrived, I noticed that the palace was in an uproar and I saw several maids in tears as they passed. So the war had officially begun. My face was concealed so that no one knew who I was and, at that moment, no one appeared to care.
At least, that was my first impression.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CANNOT FIND HER?" Hektor's voice boomed out, making me jump, and I heard a guard stammer his response.
"Your highness, the last I saw her this morning, she was going towards the gates but the outer guard would not have let her pass. We have searched the city far and wide, my lord, and there is no trace of her anywhere"
I groaned inwardly, remembering that I had not told anyone where I was going that morning before I had left for the temple. They were looking for me. Andromache's gentler voice was almost lost in the fuss but my keen ears picked it up nevertheless "she cannot have gone far. She was one of the first to see the ships and she knows how much danger we are in...perhaps more than we do"
Hektor sighed "search the city again and if she is not within..." I heard his voice crack "then we will prepare a funeral. She would not have allowed herself to be captured alive".
Mindful of the things I was carrying, I almost ran the rest of my way to the rooms "I have to appear soon or they are going to think I am dead" I muttered under my breath. I did not want Hektor or my cousin to worry unnecessarily about me, they had far too much to concern them already.
I undressed quickly and put all of the jewelery into a bag in my closet then slipped into a more appropriate gown of fine white linen shot with silver beads about the neckline and waist before brushing my hair and securing a simple chain with my religious pendant on it around my neck. A hasty look in the mirror told me that I looked presentable as I slipped on dainty leather sandals and then swiftly left my room.
However, I only made it about halfway down the hall before I had to plaster my back to the wall to avoid being bowled over by about two hundred pounds of supremely pissed-off armor clad prince.
Hektor saw me and I took a short break from my minor heart attack to nod at him affirmatively.
I did not have much time to recover though, for his hands gripped my shoulders and he glared at me, leaning down so that his nose was only an inch from mine. He resembled an angry bear and the look was one that undoubtedly scared his enemies halfway to Hades and back. But I was not frightened. Well, for the most part. I knew why he was angry and it warmed my heart to know that he cared so much as to worry about me, even though I felt guilty about making him do so in the first place "by the gods, woman, where were you? The guard couldn't find you and we were convinced you had been carried off or killed!"
I shook my head "No, no. Thank the goddess, I am alive and well. I went to empty the temple and bring my sisters into the city to safety, as per Artemis' instructions. I am surprised the guards didn't say something as they guarded the gates until I returned" I explained.
His face immediately softened and I could see that he understood my reasons. He, too, was a leader and knew the responsibilities that I had to the other priestesses, for they were the same as the ones he had to the soldiers under his command.
His grip lessened and he backed up a step or two then looked me over critically, wanting to make sure I was truly alright. I smiled reassuringly at him "I am well, do not worry" I managed to get out before he pulled me to him and hugged me tightly, almost crushing me again. But I didn't mind. Better him than that strange man from my dream.
"When I returned from the first battle, none of the maids could find you in the palace and Paris said the last time he saw you was this morning when you were on your balcony. Andromache told me you had gone to put the baby down for his nap and didn't return for the midday meal. We had men out searching the whole city but none could find you and father was pacing the reception room because he thought he had driven you to flee the city altogether. Do not ever do that again"
I had the decency at this point to blush, but thanks be to the gods that he could not see it. I would never have lived it down if he found out that Paris had seen me half naked. "I won't" I promised and hugged him back just as firmly.
We pulled apart just as Paris, Andromache, and Helen rounded the corner and Andromache's eyes grew wide then she handed the baby to Helen before running to me.
Within moments, my arms were full of my older cousin and she was holding me like her life depended on me. Little did I know that such a thing would come to pass.
"Where were you? We were so worried!" she said softly and I smiled again "I was bringing my sisters into the city from the temple so that they would be safe. We also emptied the temple of anything that could possibly be stolen" I replied in a gentle tone.
Astyanax let out a mighty wail to remind us that he was there, and Andromache pulled back, a mischievous glint in her eyes "even my son was worried. He began to fuss just after breakfast when you didn't appear for your daily walk in the gardens and hasn't been content since" she told me, looking rather amused.
"He missed his pretty nurse" Paris added with a smile, his eyes twinkling, as Helen timidly held the fussing child out for me to take him.
"Oh, there, there now" I cooed as I cradled him against me with one arm and he stopped crying as soon as he heard my voice then stared up at me with big dark eyes. I tapped his nose gently with one finger and he giggled then brought his little hand up and took hold of the neckline of my dress. His eyes stayed on mine as he tugged on the embroidered edge and he smiled endearingly, a smile that had every maid in the palace falling for him very shortly after his birth.
I raised an eyebrow at that "He is definitely his father's son" I snorted with a teasing look at said prince "only five months old and already making eyes at every pretty dark-haired maiden in the palace". Hektor chuckled and shook his head as a suspicious flush darkened the skin beneath his beard while Andromache nodded in agreement then grinned at her beloved. My cousin was very lucky and she knew it.
Then, just like the other night when Hektor and I had been drunk off our behinds, the mood changed.
Feeling suddenly uneasy, I looked up at Hektor then over at my cousin and my stomach twisted. His smile faded and there was a shadow behind his eyes, the shadow of one who had lost something precious, and my arms tightened around the baby.
"We should go" Paris piped up, looking over at his brother "dinner will be served soon and I daresay that we could use some food and drink after today, Especially you, brother"
"That sounds good" I agreed "I ran ten miles through the forest in the blazing sun today...not that I am complaining. At least I wasn't wearing a man's weight in armor"
I then raised an eyebrow at the crown prince and remarked "however, perhaps we should go a bit easier on the wine this time, yes?" . The two of us exchanged somewhat embarrassed smiles while my cousin and Paris shared a laugh at our expense then we all went down to the dining hall for dinner.
Paris was wise enough not to comment when I once again took the seat next to Cassandra, embracing her and explaining my absence as best I could. Perhaps he was being civil because we were at war or because of his confession to me the previous evening but either way, I was glad. I did not feel like fighting with anyone tonight.
The feeling lasted an entire ten minutes because, once everyone had come in and taken their seats, my eyes scanned the faces at the table and my brow furrowed. Hektor's face and posture were so tense that I swore he was about to explode while Paris sat stiffly beside Helen, both of them looking suitably morose. King Priam was picking at his food, an odd thing for someone with a normally robust appetite, and Helenus and Polyxena hadn't touched their plates at all. The room was eerily quiet, the only sounds being those of plates being moved, goblets being set down, and wine being poured.
Cassandra's hand gripped my arm suddenly and with surprising strength "someone is missing" she whispered urgently, her tone colored with dark shades of dread. With a slow nod of agreement, I turned towards the king and my voice emerged with a strange cadence, as if it were not really me who was speaking.
"Your highness...where is Briseis?"
Silence reigned for several moments and, deep down, I knew the answer before anyone spoke.
"The temple of Apollo was attacked and ransacked this morning. By the time our men arrived, the priests had been murdered and most of the priestesses had been abducted. We were unable to find her" Hektor ground out.
There was a soft choking noise beside me and Cassandra bowed her head then began to weep. She had known. In what was probably one of many inevitable personal firsts, I said nothing. No cursing, no pointing fingers, no glaring or shouting at Paris and his wife while in the grip of an explosive fit of temper. Nothing.
A deep cold rage welled up within me and turned my heart to ice and I felt Cassandra withdraw her hand from my arm. When I looked at her, her face was streaked with tears and yet she wore the strangest expression. As if she saw someone else in my eyes, someone more dangerous than I alone could ever be.
I looked at every person at the table, noting the empty seat across from mine for the first time, then finally met the dark gaze of Hektor. In his eyes, there was a single underlying sentiment. An almost tangible grief mixed with white-hot fury. My appetite gone, I nodded my agreement then rose and left the room without a word, knowing that I would see him after dinner.
Dark thoughts crowded my head, pushing out all notions of civility, and, in my mind's eye, I saw blood on sand, vultures, and the skins of men drying on poles in the late afternoon sun.
They would pay.
Opening my door, I stepped inside and stopped dead once I saw the man standing by my vanity. What in the name of...?
However, the events of the day had put me in a mood so foul that I did not retreat as any normal person would have and , instead, I practically snarled at him. He was wearing gilded armor, a red and gold kilt, and a strange looking helmet - the origin of which I could not even begin to guess- that obscured most of his face. But I couldn't have cared less. I had just found out that one of my closest friends had been taken hostage by the enemy and my patience was disappearing rapidly. If he took so much as one step in my direction, I would lose it completely.
"Who are you and what do you want?" I demanded sharply, fingering the handle of my knife, while my mind was busy assessing the best way to bring him down. The armor looked impenetrable but there was a fairly large gap between it and the helmet, and his arms and lower thighs were bare which left me a multitude of weak spots to choose from.
One large but slender hand rose and pulled his helmet off and I unconsciously took a step backwards, my hand still on the door, as the beautiful arrogant face of my nocturnal tormentor was revealed. My eyes narrowed "you!" I hissed "who are you and what in the blazing pits of Hades are you doing here?"
A chill went up my spine when he smiled, sharp as knives, then began to disrobe right in front of me. Off came the breastplate and gauntlets and my hand tightened on the knife even though I suspected it would be useless to defend myself. No warrior would have dared to disarm himself unless he was sure that his life wasn't in danger which meant that I really posed no threat to him regardless of what I was holding.
That assumption turned out to be more correct than I could have ever guessed because, once he was down to his kilt, he came at me and, before I could blink, threw me across the room. I landed face down on my bed and had only a second to turn over and grab the knife under my pillow before a heavy weight landed atop me, pushing the air out of my lungs, then I saw stars.
Suddenly, it clicked and I realized that he was no man at all, but a god. Men simply could not move that fast but there was no god I could think of having even accidentally invoked...except one. I cursed inwardly and tried to move but he was too heavy, making it increasingly difficult for me to even breathe.
"You know who I am" a smooth deep voice said next to my ear " and, as for why I am here...I have come to visit my bride". He then lifted his head and, judging from the fire burning in his blue eyes and the smirk on his lovely face, I was in very serious trouble.
~ What do you think? Who is he? Bonus points go to those who can guess where my inspiration for the god's appearance came from ~