LONDON, MARCH 1939
Frank Bentley hurried along the railway platform at Waterloo station, scanning the few remaining people standing about. The train from Dover must have come in a half hour ago at least; had he waited? Or grown impatient and decided to seek out a hotel for the night?
He slowed his steps, looking more carefully, wishing he had more than just a casual description to guide him.
His eye suddenly caught sight of a tall man, swathed against the evening chill in a greatcoat over his uniform, the brim of his military cap pulled low over his eyes, the glow of a cigarette in one hand, a suitcase and a bulging satchel huddled by his legs.
It must be him ... there was no one else. Bentley walked up and smiled a little too brightly.
The man flicked his cigarette to the pavement, grinding it out under his shoe. "Yeah." He held out his hand. "Jack Skelton."
Bentley introduced himself, apologizing for his delay, then picked up the suitcase as Skelton took the satchel. "My motor's parked a couple of streets away. Bit of a walk, I'm afraid."
"I'll be glad of the chance to stretch my legs."
Bentley glanced at Skelton surreptitiously as they walked down the platform; his entire department was abuzz with rumors about this man. "Enjoyable sea voyage?"
"It was shorter than some I've taken," Skelton said. He lit another cigarette, holding out the pack to Bentley who shook his head.
"First time in London, is it, sir?"
"You've been here before?"
Skelton smiled wryly at the surprise in Bentley's voice. "It wasn't in my file?"
Bentley flushed. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to pry."
"It was a very long time ago, Bentley."
They were out of Waterloo station now, and Bentley nodded to their left. "The motor's down this way, sir."
But Skelton had stopped, and was looking northwest to where the great dome of St. Paul's rose black against the evening sky.
"Sir?" Bentley said, wondering at the bleak look on the major's face.
Skelton turned away from the cathedral, his features settling back into their previous studied neutrality. "Memories, Bentley. Now, where's this motor of yours?"
BENTLEY DROVE SLOWLY, CAREFULLY, HUNCHED over the steering wheel as if he was shortsighted. "Would you like a tour of the city, sir? It's nice at this time of--"
"No." Skelton had huddled down into his seat, his cap even further down over his eyes, the collar of his coat turned up about his neck and cheeks.
Bentley drove a little further in silence before his natural garrulity reasserted itself. "Your quarters won't be ready until tomorrow, sir. You'll be staying with me tonight. Hope you don't mind."
Skelton's head tipped a little in acknowledgment, which could have meant anything.
Bentley shifted in his seat. "Got a nice little place in Highbury with my wife Violet. We've only been married six months. All still a bit of a novelty, sir. Awful lot of fun, though. Are you married?"
"Well, sir, I have to say that I can heartily recommend the institution. And I can't think that a handsome fellow like yourself wouldn't have had an opportunity or two in the past--"
"My wife died some time ago, Bentley."
"Oh crikey, sir, I'm sorry. Sometimes I do run on a bit. Get myself into some awful scrapes."
There was another silence which Skelton spent smoking, and Bentley peering anxiously over the steering wheel, searching for something else to say.
"Violet's looking forward to meeting you, sir. She's always dreamed of visiting America. I don't doubt that she'll bombard you with questions."
Skelton shot Bentley a dark look from beneath the rim of his cap.
"Ahem. Well then, sir, if you don't feel like talking, perhaps after supper you'd like to listen to the wireless with us? There's a jolly good show on the BBC at eight. Unless you're tired from all your travelling, sir. I'd quite understand if you want to retire early."
"I think I'll go out for a walk after dinner, Bentley. Renew my acquaintance with the city."
"As you wish, sir."
Bentley finally fell into silence.
MESOPOTAMA, WESTERN GREECE
NINETY-EIGHT YEARS AFTER THE FALL OF TROY
TROY FELL WHEN MY SIXTH FOREFATHER was a youth, and thus consequently I had only ever known Trojans as slaves. A defeated, despondent people who I noticed merely as obedient drudges creeping about my father's palace. I paid them little attention; they were but slaves after all, and moreover, they were the sorry remnants of a people who had caused my fellow Greeks much trouble and sorrow. It was not so much that I despised them, for I did not, it was just that they were a people who had caused their own misfortune and who thus needed to have no sorrow, no pity, and certainly no hatred wasted upon them.
So I paid them no regard. I spoke to them only to speak a request (and even that rarely, for my nurse and companion Tavia was the usual intermediary between my wants and those who lived only to attend to them) and I occasionally nodded absentmindedly at one or another of them if they performed me a particular service. That was the entire limit of my involvement with Trojans. They were constantly about me, but they were all but invisible.
I was Cornelia, only legitimate child of the great Pandrasus, king of Mesopotama. Mesopotama was not a particularly notable city, I grant you, but it was important and rich enough, and was one of the very few survivors of the Catastrophe that had rocked our world for the preceding sixor seven generations. Other cities may have succumbed to conflagration and earth tremors, or to the swords and hate of the tribes who took advantage of the turmoil in the Aegean world to invade, but Mesopotama continued as if charmed, serene and safe on its tranquil bay on the northwestern coast of mainland Greece.
There was only little contact with the outside world, and I existed virtually unaware of even that small degree of contact. There was my father, who adored me, and there were the joys and pleasures of my father's court from which I rarely strayed.
Why should I have? My father's palace contained everything I could have wanted. Everything was mine for the asking: rare fabrics from the far east, the most tempting of morsels from the kitchens, jewels as I wanted for my neck and arms, the admiration and attendance of all who beheld me.
The last began to amuse me more and more, particularly once I passed my fourteenth birthday and became a woman. I was my father's heir, and whoever bedded and wedded me had not only my undoubted physical charms to enthrall him, but the throne as well.
I taunted my male admirers, naturally. When my father held court in his megaron, every man who had a desire for the throne (and that was most of them) allowed his eyes to stray to me. I would smile, and straighten my shoulders, allowing them a full view of my breasts. We followed the old Minoan fashion here in Mesopotama (one of my foremothers much removed had come from Crete, I believe, bringing the fashion with her), and all noble unmarried girls displayed their breasts above their tight-waisted flounced skirts and between the flaring stiffened lapels of their heavily embroidered jackets. I was glad that we still kept to this custom, for it gave me ample opportunity to tease and tantalize, watching all the while the lust for power (and for me, of course!) flare in the eyes of men.
Sorry creatures that they were! I teased and I flaunted, but it was done only for trivial amusement. I had alreadysecretly chosen my husband--my comely sixteen-year-old cousin Melanthus--and in that winter of my fifteenth year I fully intended to drive him to such distraction that he would not hesitate to take my virginity the instant I offered it to him. Then we could use my swelling belly to persuade my father that Melanthus was a good enough catch for me (it was irksome that he was but a third son, for I knew my father would despise that ... but if I was caught with child, then my father would surely be so delighted he would deny me nothing).
My life was full, it was good, it boded nothing but blessings.
That is, it boded nothing but blessings until Hera spoke to me.
Hera, most lovely of goddesses, and queen to Zeus, had been my personal deity ever since I was old enough to choose one. To be sure, the power of the gods was a faint thing (or even a nonexistent thing if I listened to Tavia, who had said that while the gods were now all but dead, many generations ago they had intervened in most aspects of mortal life, and had even the power to stop the sun and raise the seas) but Hera, at least, was a comforting if distant presence in my life. To her I confided all my secrets in the dark womb of the night when Tavia lay snoring at the foot of my bed; to her I recounted all the happinesses and intrigues of my day; to her I prayed, I begged, that Melanthus should be mine, and hopefully without any significant delay.
She did not reply, of course, although occasionally I thought I felt such a soothing presence beside me that I believed her truly with me. She was my friend, and so it was, I presume, that as my friend, and even as weak as she was, Hera made that single stupendous effort to warn me of what approached.
It was a night like any other. Tavia had made sure of my comfort, and had then lain down on her pallet at the foot of my bed.
Snores had soon issued forth from that darkness beyondmy feet. (The snores once had irritated me beyond measure, until I realized that they informed me of when the night was mine to confide either in Hera or in my dreams as intimately as I wanted.)
I lay quietly, a smile on my face, my hands on my breasts as I thought of Melanthus. Tavia--and her snoring--would have to find somewhere else to sleep once he was my husband.
At that thought my smile increased, and I wriggled in my bed, a vague, unknowable wanting deep within my body making me restless. I was about to whisper Melanthus' name as a mantra (the more I spoke it, then surely the sooner he would be mine) when suddenly ... suddenly ... I was no longer within my bed, nor even within my home.
Instead I stood on a blasted rock, the sea churning about me, drenching me with its waters. Above me wheeled immense black birds, screaming and shrieking so horribly I put my hands to my ears and cried out in terror.
"Beware!" spoke a voice, and I spun about, almost losing my footing on the treacherous rock.
A woman, wraithlike, so insubstantial the waves cascaded straight through her, stood a pace away at the very edge of the rock.
"Who are you?" I whispered.
The wraith reached out a hand, and as it neared my face her flesh solidified so that warm flesh touched my cheek, and I knew instantly who it was.
"Beloved child," she said. I saw in her newly fleshed face that her lovely eyes were awash with tears. "Beloved child, beware, for you have a great enemy."
I put my hand over hers, and pressed it more deeply against my cheek. "Hera," I whispered, so overcome with her presence I paid virtually no heed to her words. "Hera ..."
"A great enemy. The Horned One. Asterion. He will hunt you down one day, Cornelia. Be prepared."
"Asterion?" The name was vaguely familiar, but I forgot anything I might have known about it as the import of Hera's words finally sank into my consciousness. An enemy, and one who sounded so malevolent? My fear, initially comforted by the goddess' presence, now reasserted itself, and I sobbed.
"The Bull. The Homed One. Keep watch for him, Cornelia. He hunts, and he will hunt you."
"What ... who ... what do you mean?"
Hera's other hand lifted, and for one blessed moment she held my face cradled between her two hands. "You are so beautiful," she whispered, and I wondered that she, the most lovely of goddesses, could say this. "So beautiful, and you must learn also to be strong, and courageous, for nothing else will stop him."
"No. I am dying, and I am among the very last of my kind. I have not much longer before the waves of the Catastrophe engulf me completely. Comelia, listen. The Game has been stolen from us, but it will find you again. When it does, my dear, learn it. Learn the Game, child. Learn the Game. It is all that can save you--and through you all of mankind--from Asterion."
I had no idea what she meant. "Hera--"
"You shall meet a distant sister of mine, sad and weary, and damaged by Ariadne's viperish curse as well, but far more cunning than I, and whose well of power has not been destroyed as has ours. She will aid you. She is all that is left, now."
Her hands dropped away from my face, and she stepped back, and her form became insubstantial once more.
"Hera!" I cried, reaching out to her.
"Farewell, beloved," she whispered. "Farewell."
And she was gone.
I WOKE, FULLY CONSCIOUS, INTO THE DARK OF MY bedchamber.
Tavia snored on, unperturbed.
"Asterion?" I whispered. I lay awake a long time, then drowsiness overcame me, and I succumbed to sleep.
I dreamed again, but it was of Melanthus, and its effect was such that when I woke into the bright daylight with Tavia bustling about the chamber, I remembered almost nothing of Hera's visitation.
WITHIN THE MONTH WHAT I WOULD LATER REC-ognize as Ariadne's curse reached out and overwhelmed me, and the Catastrophe finally, calamitously, lay waste to my entire life.
Copyright © 2003 by Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty, Ltd.