My newest short story is another new one inspired by this week's prompt in my short story group: "Paris". As usual, I went in a slightly different way than most of the people did with the prompt but I liked the idea. I hope you will enjoy the story too. Feel free to send me some feedback and let me know what you think!
The First Mother of Paris
by James J Meadows III
A queen owes a responsibility to her people and her family. She must protect them against all threats, especially when enemies encircle her kingdom on all sides like rabid wolves, sniffing the air for the slightest trace of blood to pounce upon. Any vulnerability, weakness, or opening which might provide her foes the slightest edge becomes a beacon of dark light hailing the doom of her kingdom and those who dwell within its walls; all of whom will die should those walls fall.
She knew it. And she knew she needed to act. But some actions were easier spoken than taken.
Hecuba stood staring at the face of the small baby lying in the cradle before her. Beautiful blue eyes looked back, gleaming sapphires surrounded by a milky white ocean whose mesmerizing depths drew her in until she could hardly bear to remove her gaze from them. With an effort, she wrenched her face away from the innocent stare of the little child and turned her eyes instead to the knife clutched tight in her hands as though it were the only cord binding her to reality in this otherwise surreal situation. She took another look back at the little one. Hecuba knew it must die. Still, how could she kill her own son?
Darkness settled upon the room as the fire in the distant hearth momentarily dwindled. She glanced into the open flames. A collection of long wooden logs provided the fuel for the only source of warmth penetrating the cold night air flowing through the open windows. There was nothing particularly unique or impressive about the logs. Yet, somehow, as she watched, they seemed to alter in shape, taking the form of tall stone battlements and houses, all burning beneath the fiery torches of rival armies.
One of the logs, roasted by the flames building within its interior, broke apart, releasing a fresh burst of heat. The fire rose again, growing taller as its flickering strands swept over the embers, greedily consuming every trace of life that once lingered within its shattered hull. The snaps and pops mingled with the sound of distant human screams and cries which, though muffled, seemed to reach her ears from the depths of the flaming inferno. She knew it was all in her imagination. Still, the visions refused to let her be. They were dying. Everyone was dying.
Hecuba spun away from the fire and toward the window on the opposite side of the room. Tears blossomed in her eyes as she gazed at the quiet homes of the city beyond. Were they all destined to be destroyed? Was every one of her subjects, friend and foe, adult and child, master and slave, noble and pauper, all destined to die because she didn’t have the strength to save them?
She gave another look at the baby. Its eyes began to close as it drifted into a quiet slumber within the shelter of its crib and the warm blankets around it. It was so small, so helpless, so sweet and beautiful.
The knife rose in her hands as her footsteps carried her closer and closer to the wooden bed. She could kill it while it slept. It would never even know that something was happening. One swift, well-aimed strike could forever end the danger he posed to the kingdom and ensure the safety and welfare of her people for generations to come. This was the moment to strike. This was the time. This was the moment of truth for which all the successive generations throughout all of history would judge her. The knife rose. It didn’t fall.
For nine months she had carried this baby snug within the warmth of her womb. For nine hours she had labored through the day and well into the night to grant the first sweet breath of glorious life to the lungs of the tiny infant who relied upon her for the protection, love, and affection which every child is supposed to receive from its mother.
How could she betray the trust and faith of motherhood? How could she destroy the gift given to her by the gods and forsake the responsibility to nurture, provide, and adore the little one placed into her care? At the same time, how could she betray the trust, faith, and responsibility owed to the hundreds of children and babies not belonging to her, which had also been placed into her care by the gods, who had made her the daughter of one king and the bride to another?
She had to protect her people! Still, the knife did not fall. Hecuba spun around in frustration and humiliation. A tray covered with apples rested on the table beside her and she swatted it with all her might, releasing her rage and self-loathing upon the helpless fruit with the furious scream of a tortured soul, unable to endure its suffering for another minute.
Apples flew into the air, scattering in all directions, as they bounced against wall, table, and floor, propelled into a chaotic retreat from her violent outburst. One of the apples, the largest, roundest, and easily most beautiful prize of the bunch, struck the top railing of the crib, bouncing inside where it landed within reach of the tiny babe, whose precious little fingers stretched out unconsciously to grip the small brown stem and cling tightly to it like the comforting hand of a beloved friend.
Her head drooped against her chest in defeat. She lifted it again to stare out the window. A small light shining in the distant temple revealed that the priest Aesacus was still awake and milling about its halls. She had gone to see him early the previous day, before going into labor. She had sought his advice regarding a series of bizarre nightmares that had haunted her sleep. He had told her the dreams were a prophecy, foretelling the doom of all of her people and her kingdom, a fate which would be brought upon them by this child. The kingdom could only be spared if her baby were to die.
The peaceful hum of the baby’s snores interrupted her reflections. Maybe the priest was wrong. True, he was the greatest prophet in the whole kingdom. And, true, he had never been wrong before. But maybe this time; perhaps this once, if only this once, he was wrong. The gods often revealed their secrets in riddles, and it was possible, however improbable, that the meaning of their message was confusing and the insights misunderstood.
Even as she reflected upon this seemingly reasonable argument, she knew there was no truth to it. The prophecy wasn’t wrong. The words weren’t confused. Her vision wasn’t a lie. She knew all of it was true. She also knew she couldn’t do it.
The door to the chamber creaked open and the queen’s most loyal confidant, the priestess Herophile entered the room.
“Is it done?” She asked.
“No, it isn’t done,” Hecuba snapped. She threw the knife with all her might against the floor, where the point buried itself into the wood. “And if you want it done so badly, you can do it yourself. Otherwise go tell his father that I couldn’t do it, either. We’ll just have to find some other way to fix this mess.”
Though the priestess gave Hecuba a derisive look, Hecuba noticed the priestess made no attempt of her own to harm the baby. Instead, she turned around and hurried from the doorway. Hecuba turned her eyes back toward her baby, fresh tears blooming as she struggled with the horrible curse overshadowing what should have been a joyous occasion for the whole kingdom.
She reached out to pet the head of the sleeping baby, then, quickly withdrew her hand. She feared growing too attached to the beautiful boy. It was torture not to touch the one thing every atom in her body wanted, more than anything else in the world, to hold tight against her bosom and never let go. Instead, she turned her back to him and crossed to the door. She took one last look over her shoulder at the crib and wiped away a tear.
“Good night, my sweet Paris,” she said. With these words, the queen of Troy left the room, the apple, and the baby behind in the warm glow of the firelight.