Empires of Bronze: The Shadow of Troy - The Prologue
A Lion in the Grass
Winter 1262 BC
‘Faster!’ yelled Troilus, gripping the sorrel-red stallion’s neck and leaning forward in the saddle. As the steed burst into a gallop along the frost-jewelled Silver Ridge, the morning wind roared in his ears. His mop of tawny curls snapped behind him like a banner, the coldness stung his lips and nostrils and brought tears to his eyes. He sucked in a breath and tasted the earthy, sweet scent of the Scamander plain. ‘Faster!’ he cried again, his young voice shrill. ‘Yes… faster than the arrows of Apollo!’
Hooves thundered up by his side. Polyxena flashed him a devious grin. ‘But not as fast as me, Brother,’ she cackled, then with a ‘Ya!’ drove her steed on ahead towards the low winter sun, dazzling on the eastern horizon.
Troilus exploded with an indignant cry that broke down into laughter. ‘Ya,’ he geed his horse on after his sister. With the stallion’s every stride, he felt a tap-tapping on his bare chest of the wolf’s-tooth necklace the strange easterner had given him years ago. Take this, the towering warrior had said, and always remember that you are a Prince of Troy. It made him feel like a man, like his older brothers. A hero!
After a time, the siblings dropped into a canter and ranged together, side by side. They slowed to a walk, picked their way down from the Silver Ridge and onto the frost-sheathed river plain. Curlews trilled in the air around them as they entered this sea of grass and winter wheat, the icy tips of the tallest stalks brushing against their ankles.
He gazed southwards, across the dips where mist lay in thickly-whipped folds, picking out a distant smudge of marble, gleaming in the morning light. The Shrine of Apollo, perched on a knoll where the Thymbran stream bled into the River Scamander. He patted the sack hanging from his saddle: grapes and small pots of honey. The yearly ritual had always been carried out this way: a prince and a princess of Troy would travel alone to take a winter offering to the ancient shrine. His father, his brothers, the priests – everyone – had said that it was too dangerous this year, that it could not be done… but Troilus knew that it could. A tingle of excitement scurried across his skin. He clutched the wolf’s-tooth necklace again: this was his time, at last. After all, the seers claimed that he would one day be Troy’s hero: when he reaches his twentieth summer, Apollo will grant immortality to Troy. So why wait seven more years to become that hero? Why not now?
He glanced at Polyxena from the corner of his eye. She wore a look that summed up the way he felt: devious, excited. Nobody had seen the two slipping out of the Dardanian Gate that morning at the change of the guard. They would be done with this offering and back to announce the heroic deed before anyone had even noticed.
When a crow cawed suddenly, Polyxena yelped. Fear fizzed in Troilus’ gut. Both slowed. He thought of their older sister Cassandra and the visions she had spoken of, so different to the other seers.
A lion stalks the plain near the Thymbran track, mane and face stained red with blood, meat hanging from his fangs.
Troilus gulped a few times, then gritted his teeth, eyes combing the way ahead, ears hearing every whisper and crackle from the long grass. He loved his sister, but not her gloomy divinations. In any case, Chryses the Priest had dismissed her mutterings, as he always did. He sat tall in the saddle, fighting away his fears. No lions here, he thought. With a click of the tongue, he bade the two horses onwards.
The gentle burble of the Thymbran stream rose from just ahead. Troilus lifted a hand to shade his eyes, regarding the stream’s meandering path towards the shrine. He noticed Polyxena fussing over her steed.
‘We should water the horses here before we go on,’ she said softly.
Troilus patted his stallion’s neck – damp with sweat from the recent gallop. The waters were always the sweetest and purest here at the edge of the plain, especially in these winter moons. ‘Aye,’ he agreed.
They slid from their saddles and thudded onto the hard ground. It became softer near the stream, dampness seeping between their bare toes. At the water’s edge, the two horses drank. Troilus gazed into the waters, spotting cobalt fish darting around under the surface.
‘The way the stream sparkles in the morning light,’ Polyxena sighed, ‘it makes me think that there is still magic in this land.’
Troilus half-smiled. ‘They cannot rob us of that,’ he said. ‘They may plague our countryside like locusts… but they cannot take away the magic of the soil, the air, the rivers.’
‘Can they not?’ Polyxena answered. ‘What use is magic out here when we live out our lives trapped inside Troy’s walls?’
Troilus threw out his hands. ‘Trapped? Not today. Today, we are free to roam.’
‘So too are the Ahhiyawans.’
Troilus snorted. ‘The plain is empty. I see no smoke of their plunder nor hear the ugly yap of their tongues.’ He had stolen those very words from one of Hektor’s recent rallying speeches to the allies, but she didn’t need to know that. Regardless, he thought, she was right. Life had never been the same since the Ahhiyawans came. Six years ago their black boats had sliced across the Western Sea, churning onto Trojan sand like axe blades. Six years during which the air had carried a constant odour of pyre smoke.
He squinted and looked to the east and the highlands there. Some way far beyond lay the mightiest empire in the world. Troy’s best hope. As a boy, he had seen them come from that horizon – tall, fierce-looking, their long dark hair tagged with amulets and animal teeth. It was their famous leader who had bequeathed him the wolf’s fang necklace.
‘The Hittites are not coming,’ Polyxena said quietly, reading his thoughts.
His nose wrinkled. ‘They are delayed, that is all.’
‘Delayed?’ Polyxena scoffed. ‘In the six years since we called to them for help, they could have marched to our aid and back ten times over.’
Troilus gulped. It felt as if he was trying to swallow a stone. ‘Have faith in our oath of alliance. Troy has called for help. The Hittite Army will come.’
But Polyxena was not listening. Instead, her eyes darted, tracking a wagtail as it sped from a spot in the rushes downstream. ‘We should move on,’ she said. ‘Something doesn’t feel right.’
Troilus glared at her, annoyed that she had barely listened to him. ‘Very well, to the shrine,’ he grumped, leading his horse from the stream. ‘But you’ll see. The Hittites will come. Twenty thousand strong. When they do, they will trample the Ahhiyawans like twigs, drive them back into the sea like-’ The words stuck in his throat as if a hand had gripped his neck. What was that noise?
A rapid crackle of breaking reeds.
His head snapped round and his eyes latched onto the shuddering stalks… and at the thing in there, ploughing towards them. His heart pulsed as he saw what it was.
The nightmare. The bane of Troy and her armies.
‘A… Achilles,’ Polyxena shrieked.
‘Ride,’ Troilus half-croaked, half-screamed.
First, he bundled Polyxena onto her saddle, then slapped the beast’s rump, sending it off at a mad gallop. Next, he vaulted onto his own horse, yanking on the reins and jabbing one heel into its flank. ‘Ya!’ he screamed.
The horse bolted and Troilus clung on. Glancing in his wake he saw the enemy champion: bare footed for speed, wearing just his helm and kilt, he moved like a great cat. Like a lion. This one had slain more Trojans than any other of the Ahhiyawans. Always, men said, he left his opponents looking ungainly and slow-witted. Not this time, he mouthed, seeing Achilles fall back and slip from view, beaten for speed.
He looked ahead, seeing Polyxena at the shrine, dismounted and seeking the protection of Apollo. He yanked the reins to steer his horse there also. Safety, he thought as he sped closer, sanctuary. For no man, Ahhiyawan or Trojan, would dare desecrate a shrine to the Sun God.
At just that moment, the mist in the nearest dip puckered and swirled. Achilles lunged back into view, running almost level with his horse. With a zing, the killer’s sword was free of its sheath.
Troilus knew he was barely capable of fumbling his own sword free, let alone fighting with it. Crazed, he lifted his baldric over his head and tossed it away, shedding the weight in hope of a dash more speed. Next, he pulled on the sack hanging from the saddle, letting fall the offerings of grapes and honey intended for the shrine. The grapes pattered and the honey urns smashed in his wake. Lighter… faster?
The answer came in the form of a violent jolt as his head snapped backwards, his flowing curls seized by the leaping Achilles. He uttered a choked cry, falling from the saddle. The stallion rode on while he and Achilles came crashing down in a heap, tumbling along the frosty ground.
Achilles rose to his feet, yanking Troilus up by the hair again, onto his knees, then rested the edge of his long, straight sword against the base of his neck.
Troilus’ eyes rolled up at the Ahhiyawan champion. His mouth flooded with words – pleas for his life, threats, inhuman screams of fear.
Achilles’ cerulean eyes drank in Troilus’ features, recognising them. A group of less impressive Ahhiyawans emerged from the mist and wheat, eyeing the champion’s prize. ‘It is him. It is Prince Troilus,’ said one.
Achilles smiled thinly. ‘No twentieth summer for you, Son of Priam… and no immortality for Troy.’
The sword sliced through Troilus neck. In his last whispers of life, he heard Polyxena’s scream and felt his head being hoisted high like a trophy. The last thing he saw was the lesser Ahhiyawans falling upon his decapitated body, clawing at his possessions to take as their prize.