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02 Shield of Thunder 13


  A pox on examples, he told himself. I am the king. I do as I please. With that he stretched himself out, laid his head on his arm, and slept.

  Toward midafternoon, the last of the clouds disappeared and the sky blazed with a brilliant blue. There was no breeze, and the heat increased. A section of old sail was raised to create a canopy over the port side of the Penelope’s stern deck. Nestor, his sons, and Idomeneos rested there.

  Piria wandered to the prow and gazed out over the blue water. Sharp pain spasmed through her lower body, the agony so great that she almost cried out. Instead she closed her eyes, seeking to steady her breathing and ride the pain, blend with it, absorb it. It did not pass completely; it never had since the savagery of the attack on her. It merely ebbed and flowed, sapping her strength.

  It has only been a few days, she told herself. I will heal. They will not break me. I am Kalliope, and I am stronger than any man’s hate. Yet the pain was worse than before, and it frightened her.

  Opening her eyes, she tried to concentrate on the brilliance of the blue sea, sparkling with sunlight. It was so peaceful now that the events of the morning seemed almost a dream. She had killed men this day, sending sharp arrows to pierce their flesh, just as they had pierced hers. She would have thought that the slaying of pirates by her own hand would have been somehow fulfilling—like a just punishment. Yet where was the satisfaction? Where was the joy in revenge? Piria even felt a little sadness for the death of the young man Demetrios. He had not spoken to her, but she had observed him with his fellows, seeing his shyness and sensing that he felt inadequate in the company of such veterans. She had not seen him die but had watched as they laid his body alongside his seven dead comrades. In death he seemed little more than a child, and the expression on his face was one of utter shock.

  Do not pity him, cried the dark voice of her fears. He was a man, and the evil of his gender would have shown itself as he grew older. Do not feel sympathy for any of them! They are all vile.

  Not all of them, she thought. There is Kalliades.

  He is no different! You will see! His kind words mask the same savage soul, the same need to dominate and possess. Do not trust him, stupid girl.

  She saw him walking toward her, and the twin curses of her need and her fear clashed inside her. He is my friend.

  He will betray you.

  Kalliades smiled a greeting, then looked out over the water, as if seeking for something. She turned to lean on the rail, and the pain subsided a little. The relief almost brought tears to her eyes. Kalliades continued to scan the water. His expression was serious, yet again she thought that he did not give the impression of a man of violence. There was no suggestion of cruelty in him.

  “You do not look like a warrior,” she said, the words slipping out before she could stop them.

  “Is that a compliment or an insult?”

  “Merely an observation.”

  “Meriones was impressed with your bow skills. I would guess he didn’t expect you to be a warrior, either. Though obviously Odysseus did.”

  “An astute man,” she said.

  Kalliades laughed. “Astute he may be, but he’s terrifying to fight alongside. Twice he nearly took my ear off. I think I spent more time avoiding his wild slashes than I did fighting the pirates.” He fell silent for a moment, and she glanced at him. “It made me proud when Meriones praised you,” he said.

  The dark voice in her head cried out triumphantly, You see! His pride. Already he seeks to own you. Anger flared. “What right do you have to be proud of me?” she stormed. “I am not like a horse of yours that has won a race.”

  “That is not how I meant it. I was just…” He glanced down, and his face changed. “You are bleeding,” he said. “Are you wounded?”

  Piria felt the trickle of blood running down the inside of her thigh. The sea breeze had flicked open her torn gown, exposing the scarlet stain. Pain tore through her, almost beyond bearing. Am I wounded? Stupid, stupid man! My body has been ripped and torn, my flesh pounded and bruised. My heart and soul have been assaulted and defiled.

  Are you wounded?

  Outrage spilled from her like floodwater bursting through a riverbank. Her eyes filled with tears, and her vision misted. The figure before her was no longer Kalliades. In that moment he became the father she had loved, who had betrayed her, the brother she had adored, who had spurned her. Hatred and despair vied for control.

  Angry words poured from her in a torrent. “You think I don’t know what you really are?” she cried. “Your soft words are lies! Your friendship is a lie. You want what all men want. I see it in your eyes. Come on, then. Beat upon me with your fists, bite my flesh, curl your fingers around my throat and choke off my breath. Then you can step away from me and say: ‘Look what you made me do, slut!’” Her breathing ragged, she backed away from him. In the silence that followed she became aware that her outburst had been shrill and that crewmen were staring at her. Kalliades remained where he was, and when he spoke, his voice was soft, his tone conciliatory.

  “I am sorry, Piria. I—I will… leave you for a while. We can… talk later, if you like. Or not.”

  Once more the pain subsided. She saw him turn away. Suddenly terrified to be left alone at the prow with all the men’s eyes on her, she called out to him. “There is no need to go,” she said, her voice breaking. “I… am sorry.”

  He hesitated, and she saw him glance toward the crew, noting their interest. Then he walked back to stand between her and their curious gaze. “It is I who am sorry—sorry for all that you have suffered,” he said gently. “I will never harm you, Piria. Never cause you pain. Try to hold to that thought.”

  She looked up at him. “Are you in love with me, Kalliades?” The question was out before she could stop it, and she silently cursed herself for her stupidity. Either way she did not want to hear the answer.

  He looked into her eyes, and she felt the power of his gray gaze. “My feelings are my own,” he said at last. “All I know is that you are sailing for Troy to be with someone you love. If you will allow me, I will see you safely there.”

  “I could never love a man in the way that he would desire. You understand that?”

  “Have I asked you to love me?” he countered.

  “No.”

  “Then the problem does not arise.” Movement out on the waves caught his eye, and he turned. “Look there!” he said, pointing to starboard. Three dolphins, sleek and gray-blue, were leaping and diving through the waves. “I have always loved watching them,” he said. It was a clumsy change of subject, but she was grateful for it.

  “They are very beautiful,” she told him, then glanced up at him, wanting to offer him some indication of her trust. “My true name is Kalliope,” she said at last.

  He smiled. “We are well named,” he said. “Beautiful Voice and Beauty Hidden. Your voice is good on the ear. And my name becomes increasingly true with every new scar.” He paused then. “I take it that this name should remain secret?”

  “Yes.”

  “I thank you for trusting me. I will not betray you.”

  “I know that, Kalliades. You are the first man I ever met I could say that about.” They stood in easy silence now, watching the dolphins, listening to the oars striking the water and the slow, lazy creaking of the timbers. Banokles joined them. He was still wearing his heavy breastplate, and his face was smeared with blood.

  “Are we all friends again?” he asked.

  “We are friends,” Piria said.

  “Good, for I have news!” Banokles grinned at Kalliades. “We can enter the games to be held in Troy for Hektor’s wedding. There will be wrestling, fistfighting, races—foot, horse, and chariot. There will be an archery tourney and a javelin competition. I’m going to enter the fistfighting, and with the gold made on wagers we can live well for a good while. Maybe even buy some… some…” He glanced at Piria and cleared his throat. “Some horses. Anyway, what do you think?”

  “A good plan.
” Kalliades nodded. “With a few flaws. First, we represent no nation or city. Second, we were last in Troy as invaders and might just be considered unwelcome if we make ourselves known. Third—and this, I think, is the most important—you are a brawler who did not reach the final of the contest to find the best boxer in our company of fifty. As I recall, Eruthros defeated you.”

  “All right,” Banokles said grudgingly, “I might not become champion, but I’ll win a few bouts. So we could still earn gold. And what about the footraces? Was there anyone faster than you in our company?”

  “No, but again, there were only fifty men in it.” Kalliades sighed. “Let us say I agreed that we could take part. Whom would we represent?”

  “Aha! I have dealt with that,” Banokles said triumphantly. “I asked Odysseus if we could be Ithakans.”

  “And he agreed?” Kalliades asked, surprised.

  “Not entirely. He pointed out that Leukon was representing Ithaka in the boxing and that he was the best fistfighter on the crew. He said I could be an Ithakan if I beat Leukon tonight at the funeral feast.”

  “And how does Leukon feel about that?”

  Banokles grinned broadly. “Happy as a pig in shit. He says it will be good to have a practice bout. Apparently no one else on the crew will practice with him.”

  “Have you considered why that might be?”

  “Of course. I imagine it’s because he hits like a kicking horse.”

  “And that doesn’t worry you?” Piria put in.

  “I’ve been kicked by a horse before. I got up. I always get up. When I win, will you agree to join me for the games?”

  Kalliades glanced at Piria, who was smiling. “What do you think?” he asked her.

  Piria looked toward where Leukon was rowing, then back at Banokles. “I think that horse you spoke of must have kicked you in the head,” she said.

  Odysseus watched his three passengers talking together at the prow. The woman, Piria, was calmer and smiling now. A rare sight. He recalled his visits to her father’s palace. She had been younger then and withdrawn, her face always serious, her blue eyes full of suspicion and mistrust.

  “Who is she?” Idomeneos asked.

  Odysseus shrugged. “Just a girl taken by pirates. They raped her. Kalliades and his friend stole her from them.”

  “They’ll not get much of a price for her. Too loud. Any slave spoke like that to me and I’d have her thrashed.”

  “They are not intending to sell her or keep her.”

  “Then why steal her?”

  “Why indeed?” Odysseus said.

  Moving to the starboard rail, he leaned out and gauged their progress. The wind had picked up, and Humpback Bay was close by off the port bow. The long crescent beach of Apollo’s Bow could be seen in the distance. Several ships already had beached there.

  Kalliades left the prow and made his way along the central deck to join him. “May we speak, Odysseus King?” he asked.

  “Words cost nothing,” Odysseus replied.

  “Your man Leukon is a skilled fistfighter?”

  “That he is.”

  “Banokles is not,” Kalliades said. “He has a great heart and courage like a mountain.”

  “Then Leukon will fell him like a tree.”

  “No, Odysseus King. Leukon will drop him, and Banokles will rise to be struck again. He will continue to rise as long as his heart is beating. He will fight on until he is crippled or dead. That is the nature of the man.”

  “I take it you are telling me this for a reason.”

  “I tell you because it may have seemed an amusement to allow Banokles to believe he could become an Ithakan. This fight will not be an amusement unless your joy is derived from blood and suffering.”

  “Your man requested this,” Odysseus said. “His fate is in his own hands. Should he wish to withdraw, I will think no worse of him.”

  Idomeneos, who had been listening, stepped from beneath the tent canopy and joined them. “That is a fine sword you are wearing,” he said to Kalliades. “Might I see it?”

  Kalliades drew the weapon, reversed it, and handed it to the Kretan king. The pommel was a lion head of bronze, the hilt leather-bound, the blade sharp and true. “Good balance,” said Idomeneos. “Made by a master smith. Not a blade to let a man down in battle.”

  “It was the sword of Argurios,” Kalliades told him. “A weapon to cherish.”

  “Would you consider trading it?”

  “No.”

  “For the sword of a hero I would pay well in gold.”

  “I will never trade it,” Kalliades said.

  “A pity,” Idomeneos said, returning the weapon. The offer made Odysseus uneasy, for he saw the hungry look in Idomeneos’ eyes.

  “The fight,” he said, “will be conducted under Olympian rules. Once a fighter has been knocked from his feet five times, I will declare his opponent the victor.”

  “I thank you, Odysseus King,” Kalliades said.

  CHAPTER TEN

  THE HAMMER OF HEPHAISTOS

  The sun was setting as the Penelope was beached. Several cookfires were lit. Then the crew moved off to gather wood for a large funeral pyre, upon which they laid the eight bodies of their dead comrades.

  Three other trading ships were also beached on Apollo’s Bow, and their crews watched as the men of the Penelope gathered around the pyre. Odysseus spoke of the dead, of their loyalty and their courage, and he called upon the great god Zeus to guide their spirits along the Dark Road. A large amphora of oil was poured over the pyre. Four men approached Odysseus from a nearby campfire. Traveling bards en route to Troy, they offered to perform the Song of the Departed. Odysseus thanked them and stepped back to sit with the crew. Two of the bards carried lyres; a third held a rhythm globe of dark wood decorated with strips of bronze. The fourth man had no instrument. He was older, his neatly trimmed beard shining silver.

  Silence fell over the crew as the bards began. Music from the lyres rippled out, the notes sweet and pure. The slim red-headed man with the rhythm globe pressed thimbles to the fingers of his right hand and began to drum out a slow, insistent beat. The voice of the silver-haired bard rose above the sound of the lyres, rich and powerful.

  The crew sat listening to the familiar lyrics of the Song of the Departed, and such was the skill of the bards that the lament seemed fresh, created solely for that one night. Some among the men shed tears, and all were moved by the performance. When the song was over, Odysseus approached the men to thank them and gave each a silver ring. Then he lit the funeral pyre. The oil-soaked seasoned wood flared instantly, the blaze so fierce that the crew had to move back from it. Most stood in silence as the fire lit up the beach, each lost in memories. Others, their wounds bandaged, sat upon the sand.

  Odysseus strolled over to where Kalliades, Banokles, and Piria were standing by the water’s edge.

  “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked Banokles. “I once saw Leukon punch a bronze-reinforced shield and split it down the center.”

  “Was the shield punching back?” Banokles asked.

  Odysseus chuckled. “No,” he said, “it wasn’t.” He looked long and hard at Banokles. “You’ve the size for a fistfighter, and your friend tells me you have the heart. I’ve watched you move, and all your strength is in the upper body. A good fistfighter punches from the shoulder. A great one punches from the heel.”

  Banokles laughed. “This is another tall story. Fists in the feet.”

  “No, lad. It’s the plain truth. The great fighters twist their whole bodies, bringing all their weight into a blow. Leukon is a great fighter. I expect him to reach the final in Troy and bring yet more glory to the Penelope and to Ithaka. So there’ll be no shame if you decide not to fight him.”

  “Why would I do that?” Banokles asked, scratching at his thick blond beard. He made a fist. “I call this the Hammer of Hephaistos,” he said proudly. “Bring me a shield and I’ll crack it in half.”

  Odysseus transferr
ed his gaze to Kalliades, then shook his head and wandered away. “He was trying to shake my confidence,” Banokles said. “Confidence is everything in a fighter, you know.”

  “Well, you are not short of that.”

  “That’s true. But you believe in me?”

  Kalliades laid his hand on Banokles’ broad shoulder. “I have always believed in you, my friend. I know that if even the gods lined up against me, you would be there at my side. So when is this bout to take place?”

  “Odysseus said it would be after the Xanthos gets here. He says Hektor never likes to miss a fine fight.” He lowered his voice even though no one but Piria was close. “You think he’ll remember us from Troy? I’ll never forget that big bastard tearing into our boys as if they were children. The only time in my life I’ve ever been frightened was when I saw Hektor attack. And I don’t mind you knowing it, though if you ever mention it to anyone else, I’ll call you a liar.”

  “I won’t mention it. I felt the same. For a time there I almost believed he was the god of war himself.”

  The evening breeze was cool, and the trio wandered up from the beach into a stand of trees where they gathered dry wood. Returning to the rocks, Kalliades lit a small fire. Piria sat quietly with her back to a boulder. Somewhere close by the bards began to sing at a different fire. It was an old song about love and loss. Kalliades shivered and drew his cloak about him.

  As the last light of day faded from the sky, he saw the Xanthos appear, its great black horse sail furled, its two banks of oars beating slowly as it edged toward the beach. Banokles had stretched himself out on the sand and was asleep by the fire. Piria also watched the great ship. As it came closer to the shore, the crewmen surged into their oars, the prow grinding up onto the sand. Weighted rocks, attached to thick ropes, were hurled from the stern to splash into the water below, holding the rear of the vessel steady. Then the crew began to disembark. Kalliades saw Hektor clamber over the prow and leap down to the beach. Odysseus walked over to him, and the two men embraced. Hektor also greeted King Nestor and his sons warmly. Then he clasped hands swiftly with Idomeneos. Although they were some distance away from where he sat, Kalliades could tell there was no love lost between Hektor and the Kretan king. It was not surprising. Even Kalliades, who had not been privy to the councils of generals and kings, knew a war was coming between Troy and the armies of Mykene and its allies. Idomeneos was a kinsman of Agamemnon’s and had allowed two Mykene garrisons on the island of Kretos. Little wonder that Hektor greeted him coolly.