Authors: Diane Stanley
, Judy, Lauren, Margo, Marisol, Marj,
Marty, Molly, Nancy, and Sue
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
THE NEWBORN PRINCE ALEXOS
is asleep in his father's arms. The king does not hold his son tenderly. He isn't a tender man. But he's all the little prince will ever have in the way of parents. Alexos will have to make do.
Strictly speaking, he also has a mother. But having brought him safely into the world, the queen can do no more for him. She is helpless even to care for herself, prone as she is to irrational fears and fits of depression. And though she will live another eight years and bear another son before dying of childbed fever, she'll spend her days in solitude, tended by nursemaids and visited only by the king. Alexos won't remember her at all.
Considering what lies ahead for him, that's probably just as well. Kindness and affection would soften him, and he will need to be tough. Even now, as the
sun rises on the first day of his life, his destiny is unfolding its great, dark wings.
Alexos is carried in solemn procession out of the palace, along the royal road, and into the city, then up the wide ceremonial way that leads to the temple of Athene on the hill. Early though it is, word of their approach has spread throughout the city. A crowd has gathered; they line both sides of the road, waiting.
They are not a handsome people. The ancient justice of Olympian Zeus is written on their faces and their bodies. They are short and scrawny, their clothing shabby. The children are wan and listlessâand those are the healthy ones. The others, the fortunate few who fell to the summer sickness and survived, lean on crude wooden crutches, their legs imprisoned in makeshift braces wrapped with dirty rags. Even here in the great
of Arcos there's never quite enough of anything. It is worse in the countryside.
The crime committed by their ancestors, which so enraged the gods, is long forgotten now. But the punishment lingers on. The kingdom of Arcoferra was split in twoâZeus, the king of gods, did this himself with the flash of his thunderbolt. Then the newly created Arcos and Ferra, on the north and south of that line, were condemned to fight an endless civil war.
They must fight through fierce winter blasts, through floods and droughts and punishing heat; on empty bellies when the crops wither in the fields; and with broken hearts when their children die of the dread new disease that comes every year in the summertime. To make this even harder to bear, Zeus decreed that neither side could ever win. This is the fruit of Zeus' righteous anger.
But Athene, patron goddess of Arcoferra, promised that once her father's rage has cooled, she would send a champion to deliver them. The people have been waiting for a very long time.
And so, on this cool spring morning, like their parents and grandparents before them, they watch the solemn procession with a tiny spark of hope. They kneel as King Ektor passes by, but their eyes are on the bundle in his arms. They wonder: Will he be the one?
The chancellor walks behind the king with a coffer of gold, a tribute for the goddess. Poor as the people are, they don't resent this. If the riches of Arcos will please Athene and remind her of her promise, they will have been well spent. Some have even added gifts of their own. The broad marble steps leading up to the temple are littered with small, shiny objects, the humble offerings of those who have almost nothing to giveârings, coins, copper spoons, precious objects
passed down in their families from the old time, before Arcoferra's fall from grace. No thief would dare to touch them.
The procession enters the temple now. It's dark and cold inside. The chill of stone stings their bare feet as they proceed down the cavernous aisle, moving through gloom toward the brilliance of silver lamps on silver stands that surround the sacred image of the goddess. She looms above them, white as mountain snow, tall as the tallest tree, stern and serene. Beautiful.
The chancellor steps forward and holds the coffer up before the image.
“O wise, good, and most splendid Athene,” he half speaks, half sings, “our patron and defender since ancient times, we bring you this humble gift of worldly riches as thanks for your unfailing kindness.” He sets the coffer down on a corner of the dais, then steps back and kneels, his hands folded.
Now King Ektor comes forward and holds the infant high. “I offer you this blameless child, my newborn son and the heir to the throne of Arcos, to be the instrument of your mercy. If you accept him, I pray that he may be worthy, that he may strive to earn at last the forgiveness of the immortal gods and most especially your great father, Zeus.”
The augur steps forward to join the king. Together
they climb the steps of the dais and kneel at the feet of the goddess.
The augur has done this many timesâhere before Athene and at other temples, too. There are always pressing questions to ask the immortals. But the one they ask today is altogether different. The fates of Arcos and Ferra hang upon the answer. And the augur is afraid of making even the smallest mistake.
His hands tremble as he spreads the pure linen cloth at the feet of the goddess, smoothing out the wrinkles with gentle strokes. They fumble as he pulls open the leather pouch, withdraws eight small golden amulets, and begins to lay them out on the cloth one at a time, in the form of a circle. He takes special care with this. Each amulet has its own particular meaning and its own assigned position. When he is satisfied that he has done it properly, he turns to King Ektor and nods.
The king unwraps the child's swaddling cloth and lays him in the center of the circle. The baby's skin is red and wrinkled, his little umbilicus swollen, wound-like, tied with a golden cord. In this magnificent temple, at the feet of the goddess, he seems a poor offering indeed.
Naked and cold, the little prince stirs in his sleep.
But other than that, he doesn't move. The king looks to the augur, who responds with the slightest movement of his hand:
. So they continue to kneel in silence, listening to the child's soft snuffling breaths and the muted sounds from the city below.
Finally, when the augur feels they have waited long enough, he reaches into his pouch again and brings out a vial of sacred oil. He pulls the stopper and pours the golden liquid over the baby's chest. The oil is cold; the child wakes. His squealing cry echoes off the marble walls.
And at last he is in motion.
The king and his augur lean in to watch as a tiny arm swings upward, sending the first amulet flying. It's a good one,
. There follows a brief moment of joy before the arm comes down again, striking
Strong and foolish
, the king is thinking,
an unfortunate combination
, when the other arm jerks out and two more amulets are chosen. They are the opposites of the first two:
This can't be right. The king shuts his eyes, sick with disappointment. He'd had the strongest presentiment that this child would be the one. But it seems he was mistaken. His son will just be one of those worthless boys who swings with the wind, turning first one
way, then the other. He will never be dependable, will never amount to anything. His strengths will all be canceled out by his weaknesses.
He hears a gasp from the augur and opens his eyes again. The child is still moving. With his left leg he makes a decisive kick, choosing
. Then two heartbeats later he raises his right arm high over his head. His little fingers scrabble at the cloth, searching.
Ektor sucks in a breath and holds it, afraid to move. He knows what this amulet means. Like its opposite, it is placed so as to be difficult, if not impossible, to reach. It's too important to risk being chosen by chance. There must never be the slightest doubt.
But there will be none, no doubt at all. For the little fingers find what they are looking for and grasp it in a tight fist. Then, with a grace and assurance impossible for a newborn child, Prince Alexos lays the golden prize directly over his own beating heart.
He is finished now. He sighs as his arm drops drowsily to his side; his eyes close and his breath slows. Once again he sleeps. And on his chest, in a pool of amber oil, glittering in the light of the lamps, is the amulet for
The goddess has spoken.
ALEXOS HAS BEEN SUMMONED
by his father. As usual, the king is occupied. So the prince waits in the anteroom, trying not to show that he is nervous.
There are two attendants standing guard at each of the doorsâthe one from the hall and the one that leads to the king's reception chamber. They are too well trained to stare openly at the prince, but they watch him out of the corners of their eyes.
Alexos is tall for his age, taller already than his father. He's slender, all muscle and bone, with the long, brown legs of a runner. His narrow face is well proportioned, his eyes large and dark, his bearing princely. The attendants exchange discreet smiles when they think he isn't looking.