AN OATH SWORN
A hidden cave, Morocco 1232 BC
General Adrastus Augustus of Lixus tugged hard on the large sack filled with gold, silver, and other treasure he’d managed to snatch away from the Carthaginians currently looting his city. Sweat ran into the creases of his brow as he pulled the last of his massive fortune into the mouth of a cave, relieved to have snuck right past the Carthaginian guards posted at the harbor.
His vessel was tucked into a small lagoon not far away, and the general had already determined that he would wait until nightfall, in a few hours or so, to load the treasure onto his boat and sail away, with no one the wiser.
The general had discovered this small cavern after first arriving on the beaches of Morocco when he was a boy, during the time his father had ruled the great city of Lixus. He remembered climbing the large rock wall down the beach only to discover this hidden cove and, at the opposite end, another rock formation.
Curious, he’d come to this side and found the small and somewhat shallow cave with the most astonishing secret: in the back wall of the cave was a skeleton, set into the rock as if somehow the very stone had formed around it. How the bones had become encased in solid rock was a mystery he’d long wondered about; what truly fascinated him was that they were clearly human. As he knew the bones to be a secret--no one had ever mentioned them, and bones encased in stone would be something worth talking about in Lixus--he thought this the perfect place to hide his wealth until that evening.
With a final tug he lugged the last sack close to the seven others he had already laid at the foot of the bones, and sat down to wipe his brow. It was while he was catching his breath that something quite extraordinary happened: as if by magic, the wall that held the skeleton disappeared, and the bones that had been entrapped by it clattered to the ground at his feet.
“By Zeus!” Adrastus exclaimed, jumping up in utter amazement. But he was even more astonished when he saw that on the other side of where the wall had been stood a beautiful woman with her arms crossed over her chest, and eyes that seemed to pierce his soul.
For a long moment he stood gaping at her, and it wasn’t until she lowered her arms and bent over slightly that he realized the woman was gravely injured. Blood seeped through a wound in her side, and she shook with the effort to maintain her posture.
“My lady!” Adrastus gasped, leaping forward to catch her as her legs gave out and she fell into his arms. “What wickedness has befallen you?”
But the lady did not answer him. Instead, her trembling fingers pulled off two large bronze cuffs that adorned her wrists, and she pushed them into his chest. “These belonged to my husband, Iyoclease,” she said, her voice barely stronger than a whisper. “And now they belong to you, General Adrastus of Lixus.”
Adrastus eyed her closely. He was quite certain he had never seen her before, because he would have remembered a lady so lovely. Still, as he lifted her in his arms and gently eased her over to one of his sacks of treasure so that she could lean against it, he asked, “Have we met before, my lady?”
The woman coughed and a small bit of blood appeared on her hand when she covered her mouth. “No, General, but in the next few hours before my death, we shall know each other quite well.”
Adrastus removed his cloak and covered her. “I must find you a healer,” he said, thinking perhaps the lady’s condition was making her a bit delirious. “You have lost much blood, my lady. If you are brave enough to sit here for a bit, I shall go in search of a healer immediately.”
But the woman only clasped his arm tightly and said, “Please, General, do not waste what little time I have left with such a noble but fruitless cause. You must sit with me and I must tell you a tale and then I will ask something of you, something of the greatest importance.”
The general had no intention of allowing the beautiful creature to fade away when he was certain he could find a healer. He was about to gently protest and pry her hands off his arm if need be when she said to him, “My name is Laodamia of Phoenicia. I am an Oracle of Delphi and I have seen the way of things, General Adrastus. I know that you will grant me this wish, so perhaps you will agree to listen and allow me to get to my tale?”
The general gasped anew. “My lady,” he said, “you do not wish to imply that you are the Laodamia of Phoenicia? The greatest Delphian Oracle the world has ever known?”
The pale features of the lady’s countenance lifted in a sardonic smile. “Yes, General, I do mean to imply that very thing.”
Adrastus looked at the place where the wall had been and back at the woman before him. He remembered a coin given to him by his mother for good luck. It had been engraved with the great Oracle’s face, and he could clearly see the resemblance to the beauty on his coin, but his mind was having difficulty believing what his eyes beheld. “But, my lady, how can this be?”
Again the woman pushed the bronze cuffs at him. “Here,” she said. “Take them, General. They are key to opening the portal at will. Use them to help you on your journey, and to help the United find each other.”
Adrastus stared down at the cuffs, still reluctant to take them, but Laodamia would not give up until he had donned them. To his surprise, they fit perfectly.
“When you want the portal to open, merely cross your arms over your chest and think of the next place you must go. The portal will act as both guide and protector. You will need it to act as such in order to stay alive, General. And do not take these words lightly, my friend, for they will mean the difference between the salvation of mankind and its utter annihilation.”
Laodamia was breathing heavily, and Adrastus could see now that her wound was mortal; how she found the strength to speak at all was quite beyond him.
Yet speak she did. She spoke of things nearly beyond his ability to understand, but he took in every word with rapt attention, and then, when the day had grown long and she was finished, she said this to him: “So you see, my champion--for that is what you will be to me, Adrastus of Lixus--I and the United desperately need you to carry out a mission. Momentarily, my protegee and dearest friend, Adria, shall be arriving. . . .”
At that very moment Adrastus could hear the faint clop, clop, clop of hoofbeats approaching from the far end of the newly enlarged cave.
“She will need some of your silver, my friend,” Laodamia added, “to fashion the boxes which I have requested of her, but which could not be made until now. She is also bringing the prophecies to be stored in the treasure boxes, which she has kept hidden for me in her father’s home.”
“Prophecies?” Adrastus asked, anxious to learn everything before the great Oracle’s strength gave out.
Laodamia offered him a weak nod. “Yes. Prophecies which will likely make no sense to you, my dear general, but which are of the greatest importance to the One and the United.”
Adrastus remembered from her tale who this One was, and he hoped he would have a chance someday to meet this greatest Oracle of all.
“The contents of these prophecies are to be kept secret. No one can know of them. You must be my Secret Keeper, and swear an oath to me that you shall deliver the boxes to their proper hiding places and never allow them to pass into the hands of our enemies.”
Outside, the sound of hoofbeats drew even closer. “I swear, my lady,” Adrastus said, taking her hand formally, bowing his head, and placing his free fist across his chest. “On my life, I swear my allegiance to you and this cause. I shall be your Secret Keeper.”
When he looked up again, Laodamia’s pale face was stained with falling tears. “Thank you, General,” she said, “and forgive me for what I am about to say to you. . . .”
At that moment the hoofbeats outside came to a stop. “Mia!” a woman’s voice called.
But Laodamia did not answer; instead, she held Adrastus’s gaze and said, “There will come a day, shortly after you pass through a bright green door on your way to hiding the final box, when you shall be tempted to betray your oath to me. I cannot tell you why; this is what I have foreseen. The full consequences of that betrayal are beyond my sight, but know this: they would be disastrous. So I will only ask that you weigh your decision carefully, bearing in mind what I have said to you here today.”
“Mia!” the other woman’s voice exclaimed, and Adrastus looked up to see another incredibly beautiful woman standing over them, holding several scrolls in her arms.
Laodamia regarded her visitor with calm dignity. “Adria,” she said, “meet your future husband, General Adrastus of Lixus.”
General Adrastus thought he had been shocked as much as he could be until he heard the Oracle utter those words. “Future husband?” he and Adria said in unison.
The Oracle took a ragged breath and a tiny smile formed on her pale lips. “Yes,” she said. “I have foreseen it, and it will be a most happy union, I can assure you.”
Adria dropped to her knees and set the scrolls aside. “By Zeus, Mia!” she exclaimed as she took in the condition of her mistress. “Forget such talk and tell me, what has happened to you?”
But Laodamia ignored her and pulled the cloak about her more tightly, concealing her wound from her protegee. “Adria, I am fine. You do not need to worry about me.” She then turned again to Adrastus. “I beg of you another promise, General.”
Adrastus could see the light dimming in the great Oracle’s eyes, and he felt a deep pang in his heart at the thought of her death. He knew her from legend, of course, but now that he had sat with her for a time, he found he was oddly heartbroken by the thought of losing her after even so brief an encounter. “Anything,” he told her, wanting her final moments to be spent in peace. If there was something he could do, another promise to make or oath to take, he would do it.
Laodamia held his hand and closed her eyes. “I wish for my funeral pyre to be lit on this beach,” she said. “Do it when the night is upon you, then take your treasure and the first box Adria crafts, which will contain my second prophecy, to a cave in the foothills of the mountains. The journey there will be long and arduous, but you will escape notice. I have foreseen it, so go there with confidence. Your treasure will be quite safe hidden deep in the cave you choose, but mark the route as I have instructed you, so that those who need to find the Star you wear about your neck, and the box, will see the way.
“When you return, Adria will have finished the rest of the boxes and I will have been reduced to ash. Bury my remains next to those of my beloved, then take Adria with you through the portal to begin hiding the rest of the boxes.”
Adrastus opened his mouth to protest the last bit, and he noticed that Adria was about to do the same, but at that moment Laodamia’s eyes flew open and she looked at each of them sternly. “Vow this to me!”
Adrastus looked at Adria and something passed between them. The general couldn’t have explained what it was, but he suspected it was the first hint of a deeper bond to come. Still, he lowered his gaze and considered for a long while what the Oracle was asking of him. He had accepted the earlier vow because the city he had loved and was bound by oath to protect was in his enemies’ hands. There was nothing left for him there, and he could hardly return to Greece; the shame of losing Lixus to the Cartha-ginians would be too great.
Being the Oracle’s Secret Keeper was just the cause he needed, and her faith in him seemed so absolute that he found his spirits lifted and his purpose renewed by accepting the charge. He also felt no pangs about leaving his treasure behind for a time. If the greatest Oracle the world had ever known had stated that it would be safe, then he believed it with absolute certainty. He could always return to retrieve it, and with the cuffs to open the portal any time he commanded, he could move his treasure freely anywhere he chose after his mission was complete.
But bringing along this woman, Adria, well, that was another matter entirely. She was beautiful, of that there was no question, but would she become a burden to him? Not only that, but Laodamia had said they would actually marry! Even though his faith in the Oracle was absolute, this one prediction he chose not to accept.
Adrastus of Lixus was a bachelor at heart, and he had no plans to marry anyone. Ever.
But did the Oracle need to know that? Laodamia was not asking him to marry the woman now; she was merely asking him to bring Adria along. And that was a charge he felt he could accept, especially when he remembered that the cuffs would allow him to open the portal at will. If she became too much of a burden, he would simply open the stone wall and push the woman through.
With a sigh, the general resigned himself. “I vow this to you, mistress,” Adrastus finally said, and he heard Adria say the same words at the same time, which he found quite remarkable.
When next he looked at the great Oracle of Delphi, her eyes were still open but no longer stern, a beautiful smile was held across her lips, and the life within her was gone.
Excerpted from Quest for the Secret Keeper by Victoria Laurie. Copyright © 2012 by Victoria Laurie. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.