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02 Shield of Thunder 11


  Odysseus dipped his hand into the pouch at his side and pulled out a finger of solid gold, which he tossed to the nearest man. “Pass it around, lad. But don’t hold it too long. It is cursed.” The seaman looked at it in the firelight, then handed it swiftly to the man beside him. The finger of gold passed from hand to hand, coming at last to Kalliades. He held it up. It was perfect in every way, from the broken nail down to the creases at the knuckle joint. He offered it to Banokles. “I don’t want it,” the big man muttered, leaning back. Finally it was returned to Odysseus, who dropped it back into the pouch.

  “Another tale!” a young pirate shouted.

  “No, lad, too tired tonight. But if you are heading northeast, you can beach with us tomorrow. I’ll likely be in the mood for a tale then. I’ll be traveling with King Idomeneos. He’s also a fine storyteller.”

  “He’s the man we are hunting,” said the first man who had spoken to Odysseus upon his arrival.

  “I know that, donkey face. It is a foolish mission. You think to take him for ransom. And who would pay? Idomeneos has two sons, and both would like to be king in his place. They wouldn’t give you a copper ring. They’d let you kill him. Of course, honor would then insist they brought the entire Kretan fleet in seach of you. Memory tells me it is more than two hundred galleys. They’d scour the seas.” Then Odysseus chuckled. “But I read men well, and I see you already know this. Therefore, your quest is more about blood vengeance than ransom. What did Idomeneos do to you?”

  “I don’t answer to you, Odysseus.”

  “True. You’ll answer to them, though,” he said harshly, gesturing toward the waiting pirates. “They sail for plunder, not revenge. No profit in blood.”

  “He stole my wife and killed my sons,” the pirate said, his voice shaking. “And when he’d finished with her, he sold her to the Gypptos. I never found her.”

  Odysseus was silent for a moment, and when he finally spoke, his voice had lost its harshness. “Then you have reason to hate. No man would deny that. If anyone took my Penelope I would hunt them down and see them suffer. A man can do no less. But it is a personal matter, and the men with you will risk death for no reward. Idomeneos did not take their wives or slay their sons.”

  With that the Ugly King prodded Ganny with his toe, then set off back toward the cliff path. The pig stood for a moment, then ran after him. Kalliades and Banokles followed.

  “That was a fine story,” Kalliades said. “Where did you really get that golden finger?”

  Odysseus looked tired, and his reply was toneless. “It is mine,” he said, waggling his index finger. “I had a goldsmith make a cast for me last summer and then fill the cast with gold.”

  “How many pirate ships will come against us now?” Kalliades asked.

  “Probably two, three at worst,” Odysseus said. “Issopon is a wise old fighter. He heard my words and will draw his galley from the action, I think. Donkey face is another matter entirely. He has a need for blood. And I cannot blame him. Idomeneos always was a cruel and selfish man.”

  Piria slept a little, but her dreams were troubled. She saw again the day she and her brother had gone swimming for the last time in the rock pool beneath the marble boulders. Three years older than she, at fifteen Achilles was already a handsome young man, strong and athletic, delighting in his prowess with javelin and sword. He was also a fine rider and wrestler. Father adored him, pouring compliments upon him and showering him with gifts. Piria was never jealous. She adored Achilles and delighted in his successes.

  On the day of the last swim the shaded rock pool echoed with their laughter. Such sounds were rarely heard within the palace high on the rocky hillside above them. Father was a hard man and quick to anger. Servants and slaves trod warily, and even retainers spoke in low whispers.

  Awake now, in the light of a golden dawn, she felt the dream still clinging to her like sea mist upon rock. Piria shivered. He had not been cruel when she was young. Often he would sit her on his knee, twisting his fingers through her long fair hair. Sometimes he would tell stories. Always they were harsh tales of sword and blood, of gods donning human form to bring chaos and destruction to the world of men. Then a change had come over him. Looking back, she understood now that it had mirrored the pubescent change in her. His eyes were on her often, his manner becoming more surly and cold. Piria had been perplexed at the time.

  On that terrible day understanding had arrived like a lance. She had been sitting naked with her brother when their father had stormed down the rock path, shouting abuse at her, calling her a whore. “How dare you cavort naked before the eyes of a man?” he screamed.

  It was mystifying, for she and her brother had swum naked together throughout childhood. Father’s rage was towering. He ordered her brother to dress himself and return to the palace. When Achilles had gone, he grabbed Piria by the hair.

  “You want to cavort with men, slut? Then I shall teach you what that means.”

  Even now she could not suffer the memory of the rape that followed and closed her mind to it, her eyes scanning the beach, seeking something to divert her.

  Odysseus was talking to a stout merchant who was walking around the pig enclosure, examining the beasts. Kalliades and Banokles were standing apart from the crew, talking quietly. She saw the black man Bias approaching her. He was carrying a breastplate of leather and a round leather helm.

  “Odysseus told me to bring you these,” he said. “There is likely to be a fight, and that will be preceded by a rain of arrows.”

  “Who are you fighting?”

  “Pirates.”

  Fear welled up in her, but she did not show it. Instead, she thanked him, removed the cloak of Banokles, and slipped on the breastplate. It was crudely fashioned, but it fitted her well. The helm was too large, so she put it aside. Moments later she saw Bias take another breastplate to Kalliades. As he donned it, he saw her looking at him and smiled. She looked away.

  Odysseus approached her. “Best you get aboard,” he said.

  “Did you get a fine price for your pigs?”

  “No. Had to pay Oristhenes to look after the wounded we have to leave behind. Idomeneos assures me he will repay me, but the man is a miser with a poor memory when it comes to settling debts. I am still waiting for a wager he lost twelve seasons back.” He smiled and shook his head. “Kings! Not one you can trust farther than you can toss an ox.” He fell silent then and stood staring back at the pigs.

  “I think Ganny will miss you,” she said.

  Odysseus laughed. “He squealed when I took that yellow cloak from him. I think he had grown to like it. I may visit him next time I’m sailing these seas.”

  “He will be smoked meat by then,” she said.

  “No, not Ganny! Oristhenes assures me he will be treated like a king among pigs. He will be happy here.”

  “And you trust Oristhenes to keep his word?”

  Odysseus sighed. “I trust in his sense of self-preservation. I did not sell Ganny to him. Ganny is my pig. Oristhenes can use him for breeding, and for that he will ensure he is well fed. Oristhenes knows me. He will do as he promises.”

  “Or you will kill him, Odysseus?”

  “I would not kill a man over a pig. I might just burn his house and sell him into slavery. But I’d not kill him. But let us talk about you, Kalliope. Why did you run from Thera? It was foolish and beyond dangerous.”

  “You think me some witless girl?” she snapped. “My time on Thera was the happiest of my life. No vile and devious men, no betrayers, no rapists. I am seeking a friend, for a seeress told me she would need me before the end.”

  “The end of what?”

  “I do not know. The seeress saw flames and burning and my friend fleeing savage killers.”

  “And you will save her?” The question was asked gently, with not a trace of contempt.

  “If I can, I will.”

  Odysseus nodded. “I fear the vision may be true. A war is coming that cannot be long avoided. Y
our friend is Andromache. I met her on her way to Troy. Fine woman. I liked her. We made a pact, she and I, that I would always tell her the truth.” He chuckled. “Not a promise I made lightly. Storytellers fashion lies from truth and truth from lies. We have to. Truth is all too often dull.”

  “Did she speak of me?” Piria asked before she could stop herself.

  “She spoke of her love for Thera and how unhappy she was to be leaving. You love her greatly, don’t you?”

  “She is my life!” Piria said defiantly, looking into his eyes for signs of contempt or disgust.

  “Beware who you share that with,” he said softly.

  “Are you not going to tell me that my feelings will change when the right man comes into my life?”

  “Why so angry?” he countered. “You think I will condemn you? Love is a mystery. We embrace it where we can. Mostly we do not choose whom we love. It just happens. A voice speaks to us in ways the ear cannot hear. We recognize a beauty that the eye does not see. We experience a change in our hearts that no voice can describe. There is no evil in love, Kalliope.”

  “Tell that to my father. Tell it to the priests, the kings, and the warriors of this cursed world.”

  He smiled. “Ganny is a brave pig, and I like him. I would waste no time, though, trying to teach him the skills of sailing.”

  Piria found her anger fading, and she smiled at the Ugly King. “Now, that is a good thing to see,” he said. They stood together for a little while, and Piria felt the warmth of the sun on her face and the freshness of the sea breeze in her cropped hair. She turned toward Odysseus.

  “You said storytellers fashion truth from lies. How can that be?” she asked him.

  “A question I have long pondered.” He pointed at Bias. “I once told a tale about a winged demon who attacked the Penelope. I said that Bias, the greatest spear thrower in the world, hurled a javelin so powerfully that it tore through the demon’s wings and saved the ship from destruction. Bias was so taken with the story that he practiced and practiced with the javelin and finally won a great prize at a king’s games. You see? He had become the greatest because I lied about it. And therefore it was no longer a lie.”

  “I understand,” Piria said. “And how can the truth be made into a lie?”

  “Ah, lass, that is something none of us can avoid.” Bending down, he scooped up the small clay plate on which Bias had brought her food the night before. “And what is this?” he asked her.

  “A plate of clay.”

  “Yes, clay. And it was fashioned by the hands of a man, using water and thick earth and then fire. Without the fire it would not have become pottery, and without the water it could not have been shaped. So it is earth, it is water, it is fire. All these facts are true. So is this a true plate?”

  “Yes, it is a true plate,” she said.

  Suddenly Odysseus struck the plate with his fist, shattering it. “And is it still a plate?” he asked.

  “No.”

  “And yet it is still pottery, still clay and water and fire. Do you think I changed a truth with my fist? Did I make it a lie?”

  “No, it was a plate. You destroyed it, but you could not change the truth of its existence.”

  “Good,” he said admiringly. “I like to see a mind work. My point is that truth is a mass of complexities, made up of many parts. What is the truth of you? The high priestess on Thera would say that you are a traitor to the order and that your selfish actions could bring disaster upon the world should the Minotaur awake and plunge us all into darkness. Is that the truth? You would say that you are driven by love to protect a friend and you are willing to risk your life for her. Would the high priestess accept that truth? If I hand you over to the order, the same high priestess will call me a good man and reward me. Will that be the truth? If I bring you safely to Troy—and it is discovered—I will be declared godless and cursed. I will be named as an evil man. Truth or lies? Both? It depends on perception, understanding, belief. So, to return to your original question, it is not hard to make the truth a lie. We do it all the time, and mostly we don’t even know it.” He glanced at the eastern sky. “The sun is up. Time to leave.”

  CHAPTER NINE

  BLACK HORSE ON THE WATER

  The sea was calm and the breeze a light northerly as the Penelope was floated clear of the beach. The last crewman scrambled aboard, and the oars were slid out into the bright blue water. Odysseus stood on the rear deck, watching the rowers. All the crewmen now wore leather breastplates and helms, and beside them as they rowed lay strung bows and quivers of arrows. Odysseus had also donned a breastplate. It was of no better quality than those worn by his men. Beside him stood the brilliantly armored, high-helmed Idomeneos. Nestor wore no armor at all, just a green knee-length tunic and a long cloak of startling white, but both of his sons wore breastplates and carried round shields. They stood close, ready to protect him.

  The breeze was fresh with the promise of rain as the Penelope eased away from the shore. Once they were on open sea, Bias called out a quicker beat, and the rowers leaned more heavily into their oars.

  “You say he had a face like a donkey?” Idomeneos asked Odysseus. “I recall no such man.”

  “He recalled you,” Odysseus told him.

  “You might have asked his name.”

  “If you cannot recall a man whose sons you slew and whose wife you stole, I doubt the name would have helped.”

  Idomeneos laughed. “I’ve stolen a lot of wives. Believe me, Odysseus, most of them were happy to be stolen.”

  Odysseus shrugged. “I expect you’ll be meeting him soon. His face may be the last thing you ever see.”

  Idomeneos shook his head. “I’ll not die here. A seer once told me I would die on the day the noon sky turned to midnight. Hasn’t happened yet.”

  Odysseus moved away from the Kretan king, scanning the sea and the headlands. As he did so, he heard the big man Banokles complaining to Kalliades. “Not much fighting room if anyone boards. And if those pirates are also wearing leather breastplates, I won’t know who I’m killing.”

  “Best only to kill those trying to slay you.”

  “That is a good plan. Fight defensive. I’m better attacking, though. I’ll wager you wish you hadn’t left your armor on that pirate ship. I did tell you. That leather breastplate wouldn’t turn aside a hurled pebble.”

  “I should have listened to your pessimism,” Kalliades agreed. “But then, you are the man who wears armor to a brothel.”

  “A man never knows when danger will strike,” Banokles pointed out. “And I was once stabbed by a whore’s husband.”

  Kalliades laughed. “In the arse. You were running away, as I recall.”

  “I liked the man. Didn’t want to kill him. Anyway, it was just a nick. Needed no stitches.”

  Odysseus smiled. His liking for those two was growing daily.

  Piria was standing at the stern, gazing back at the land. Her shoulders were stiff, her features set. Odysseus saw Kalliades move alongside her. “She is a fine ship,” he said.

  Piria’s reply was cool. “I used to wonder why men say ‘she’ when talking about their boats. When I was young, I thought it respectful. Now I know differently. The boats go where men tell them. They are merely things for men to ride upon.”

  Odysseus stepped in then. “Love plays a part, Piria. Listen to the crew when they speak of the Penelope. You will hear nothing but affection and admiration.”

  “Different truths,” she said, which made him smile. Kalliades looked mystified.

  Odysseus caught sight of a ship appearing from behind a headland to the north, about a half mile ahead. It was a big galley, twenty oars on each side, and there were fighting men massed on the central deck. Bias also had seen the ship and leaned in to the steering oar, angling the Penelope away from them. Odysseus moved past Kalliades, dropped to one knee, and lifted a hatch before lowering himself down below the deck. When he emerged, he was carrying a huge bow crafted from wood, leath
er, and horn. A quiver of very long arrows was hanging from his shoulder.

  “You are privileged today,” he told Piria. “This is Akilina, the greatest bow in all the world. I once shot an arrow into the moon with it.” She did not smile, and Odysseus felt the tension and fear emanating from her. Pride alone was holding her together.

  “I have heard of the bow,” Kalliades said.

  “Everyone has heard of that bow,” Banokles put in. The comments delighted Odysseus, but his attention remained on Piria.

  “Andromache talked of her skills with a bow,” he said.

  At the sound of her lover’s name Piria brightened. “Sometimes she could best me,” she said, “though not often.”

  “Could you use a bow like this? Are your arms strong enough to draw the string?” he asked, handing her the weapon.

  Piria took Akilina from him, stretched out her arm, curled three fingers around the string, then drew back. She managed a three-quarter pull before her arm started to tremble. “That is good,” said Odysseus, “believe me.” Retrieving the bow, he leaned toward her. “If they get close enough to board, I will leave Akilina with you. At that range even a three-quarter pull will punch a shaft through a skull.” He swung to the two Mykene. “You lads will stay close to me and follow where I go.”

  The Penelope surged on, her prow cutting the water. The pirate vessel, with its greater oar power, was closing slowly.

  “Another one!” a seaman yelled.

  A second pirate vessel was coming from the south, some way back. “If the wind wasn’t against us,” Odysseus said, “the Penelope would outsail them easily. As it is, with more oarsmen, they’ll come on swiftly. Best you keep your heads down. It will be raining arrows before long.”

  Kalliades glanced at the oarsmen on the Penelope. They were rowing steadily but with no real urgency. Their movements were smooth and rhythmic, and they did not bother to stare at the two enemy ships. Bias called out an order. The right bank of oars lifted from the water, remaining motionless. The left powered on. The Penelope swung sharply toward the first galley. Odysseus ran down the central aisle and clambered up onto the curved rail of the prow. Straddling the rail and bracing himself with his legs, he notched an arrow to his massive bow. As the two ships closed, enemy archers crowded along the deck of the pirate vessel. Odysseus drew back on Akilina and let fly. The shaft soared through the air, punching into the back of a rower, who cried out and slumped forward. Pirate bowmen let loose a volley of shafts, but they all fell short, splashing into the water off the port bow. Odysseus sent two more arrows into the pirates. One struck a man on the helm, bouncing clear. The other plunged through the shoulder of a bowman. Odysseus threw up his arm, signaling Bias, who yelled out an order, then thrust his weight against the steering oar. The Penelope changed course instantly, almost dancing away from the attacking galley. The maneuver was accomplished with great skill and timing, but even so, for a few heartbeats they were in range of the pirate archers. Banokles, Kalliades, and Piria dropped to crouch behind the stern rail. A ragged volley of arrows slashed across the rear deck, hitting no one but coming close to Bias, who was standing tall at the steering oar. One shaft thudded into the deck rail beside him. Another hit the steering oar and ricocheted up past the black man’s face.