02 Shield of Thunder 26

Dressed in a long robe of white and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, Odysseus traveled to the stadium in one of Priam’s chariots. He was greeted there by Priam’s son Polites, a shy and dull young man of limited conversation. The prince led him to an enclosure where he found himself in the company of Agamemnon, Peleus, Idomeneos, and Nestor. The Mykene king nodded in greeting. “I hear fortune did not favor you at the archery tourney,” he said.

  “Bow snapped,” Odysseus answered, trying for a lightness of tone, as if he cared nothing for the result. It did not fool Agamemnon, he knew. The man had a mind as sharp as a viper’s fang.

  Out in the stadium a dark-haired young soldier wearing a cloak of gold was pacing out the running track. Three hundred long paces, imitating the stride of Herakles, who had established the first known sprint race generations back. “The Lord of the Games should be of noble birth,” muttered Idomeneos, “and not some peasant in armor.”

  Odysseus let the comment pass. The grandfather of Idomeneos had been a peasant warrior who had seized a section of Kretos and declared himself king. Nestor looked at him, raising an eyebrow. He, too, knew of Idomeneos’ ancestry.

  Once the track was established, the turning posts were carried out, then hammered into the ground. Across the field the first of the athletes were leaving the palaistra and moving into position. Odysseus saw Kalliades swinging his arms and loosening his muscles.

  “I know that man,” Agamemnon said. His expression darkened. “He is a Mykene renegade.”

  “Which one?” Odysseus asked innocently.

  “There! The tall one,” Agamemnon said, pointing at Kalliades again.

  “Member of my crew,” Odysseus said. “He runs for Ithaka.”

  “The man with the sword of Argurios,” Idomeneos added.

  “Another traitor,” Agamemnon snapped.

  “The world is full of traitors,” Odysseus agreed. “So how is it you know this man?”

  “He killed Kolanos, a loyal follower, and was sentenced to death for it. However, he escaped justice and fled… to you, apparently.”

  “Had I but known,” Odysseus said. “Naturally I shall dismiss him from my crew when the games are over.”

  “He should be dragged out now,” Agamemnon maintained. “I shall send word to Priam.”

  “That might cause a problem or two,” Odysseus said. “I seem to recall that following the attack on Troy last autumn King Priam released all prisoners. It is said he requested they kill the general of that raid, a man who had offered to betray his king.”

  “A foul Trojan lie!” Agamemnon snapped. “Kolanos would never have betrayed me.”

  “Even so, the killing of Kolanos was ordered by Priam. You can hardly ask him to punish a man who carried out his order. And on the surface at least, Kolanos had already betrayed you by attacking Priam, who was—and remains—your ally.”

  Agamemnon hesitated. “Your words are wise, Odysseus,” he said at last. “It saddens me that we are not allies. Surely you can see the threat Troy poses. You think Priam, with all his wealth and his growing armies, has no designs on the lands of the west?”

  “I do not know the mind of Priam. I think, however, that wealth is all he desires. And he has no need to invade others to see it grow. Troy sucks in gold by the day, in every ship, in every caravan.”

  “I have agents here in Troy,” Agamemnon said, keeping his voice low. “Priam recently purchased a thousand Phrygian bows, and he is shipping copper and tin to his armories. Breastplates, helms, shields, swords. If we do not deal with this man now, he will descend on us all.”

  Odysseus smiled. “I am the man with no enemies, Agamemnon. Not Troy, not the Mykene, not the Hittites or the Gypptos. My ships are welcome in all bays and all ports.”

  Agamemnon appeared to relax. “I appreciate your frankness, Odysseus. I shall be equally forthright. When the war comes—as it must—then those who continue to trade with Troy will be considered enemies. There will be no neutrals.”

  “It is getting dangerous to be neutral these days. Old Eioneus was neutral. I hear he fell from his horse and died.”

  “A tragic loss for his people,” Agamemnon said. “And I fear he will not be the last. I am told that another of us is to be declared an enemy of Troy. Whoever it is will be lucky to leave the city alive.”

  “You are suggesting Priam killed Eioneus?”

  “I had no quarrel with him. Perhaps he was preparing to renounce his alliance with Troy.”

  Odysseus did not believe the lie for a moment, but he kept his own counsel. “And who is this other enemy to be named?” he asked.

  “I don’t know. I wish I did. It is a most odd story.”

  Just at that moment there came a great roar from the crowd as the runners were called to the starting line at the western end of the track. The Lord of the Games lifted his arm. The vast crowd fell silent. “Away!” shouted the lord. The twenty runners sped out, sprinting toward the finishing post. Several judges were waiting there to note the first five to cross the line. They would progress to the next round.

  Kalliades finished second. Other races followed. Odysseus watched them, sometimes wagering with Idomeneos and Nestor. Then he left the enclosure and walked around the stadium to where the later rounds of the javelin were being contested. Bias was throwing well, but Odysseus saw the black man rubbing at his shoulder. He looks weary now, Odysseus thought. By the later rounds his shoulder will be a sea of pain.

  Then, some distance away, standing close to Priam, he saw Helikaon. His heart lifted, and he waved to catch Helikaon’s eye. He was convinced he had, for the dark-haired young man glanced in his direction, though he then turned away. Odysseus watched as he eased his way back through the throng until he was out of sight.

  The boy looks thin and weary, he thought. And with so many Mykene in Troy, he should not be out in public. But I will lift his spirits when we speak. Helikaon would be glad to know that supplies of tin from the Seven Hills had exceeded expectations and the profits from the last season had been enormous.

  Hungry now, Odysseus made his way to a food stall, where he stood in the shade munching on a Trojan delicacy: meat and herbs wrapped in a broad leaf that had been marinated in wine. Then he walked back around the stadium, coming at last to the enclosure where Agamemnon was standing with King Peleus and his tall son, Achilles.

  Odysseus looked at the fleshy king and thought of Piria and of how she had hacked away her blond locks as a child. He knew, as did many of the kings of the west, of the man’s abhorrent sexual tastes, but he knew now of one more evil committed by him.

  Now look what you made me do, slut.

  Appalling enough to have raped the child, but to make her believe it was somehow her fault was vile beyond belief.

  “Well met, Odysseus,” Peleus said, thrusting out his hand.

  “You must forgive me,” Odysseus replied, avoiding the handshake. “I have been munching on sweetmeats, and my hands are sticky with honey.” He swung to Achilles. “Good to see you, lad. The word is you will be champion of the games.”

  “There is no real competition,” the young man said sourly. “Save perhaps your man, Leukon.”

  “He is a canny fighter.”

  More races began. Peleus and Achilles wandered away to stand with Idomeneos and the Athenian king, Menestheos.

  Agamemnon leaned toward Odysseus. “You are not overly fond of Peleus?”

  “I hardly know him. So tell me of this enemy of Troy.”

  “I have the story in fragments only. Given time I will learn more. You recall the assassin Karpophorus?”

  “By reputation only.”

  “He died stabbing the ghastly Helikaon. He did not die immediately, however. It seems that Karpophorus was also responsible for the murder of Helikaon’s father.” Odysseus felt suddenly cold, and his belly tightened. “What is it?” Agamemnon asked, his dark eyes watching the Ugly King.

  “Too many sweetmeats,” Odysseus answered. “Go on.”

  “There is l
ittle more that I can tell. Karpophorus told Helikaon the identity of the man who ordered his father’s death. Helikaon passed the information to Priam. As you know, Priam was blood kin to the father. Cousin or suchlike. So honor demands he declare the man who hired the killer an enemy of Troy. Now, I doubt the man is a mere merchant, so it is likely he is a king. The question is, Who? Anchises was not an enemy to the Mykene. There is a dark mystery here, I think.”

  Odysseus saw that Agamemnon was staring at him intently. “I don’t doubt light will shine upon it soon,” he said, moving away. Then he caught sight of Kalliades and Banokles strolling close by. Stepping out, he called the two friends to him. Banokles had a swelling under his right eye and a cut lip, but he was in a fine mood.

  “Did you see me, Odysseus?” he asked. “Downed that Hittite six times.” He lifted his fist. “Hammer of Hephaistos!”

  “You did well,” the king said. “Are you returning to the palace now?”

  “No,” Banokles said. “I’m off to the lower town to meet a friend.”

  “I’m heading for the Penelope. I’d be grateful for your company,” Odysseus said, staring at Kalliades. The warrior’s eyes narrowed. Then he nodded.

  “And we would be privileged to walk with you, Odysseus King.”

  “We would?” Banokles queried.

  “The Law of the Road,” Kalliades told him.

  “Stay close and watchful,” Odysseus said, setting off toward the upper city. The two warriors fell in behind him.

  As he walked, a cold anger began in Odysseus, far more powerful than the volcanic rages for which he was renowned. It ate into him, burrowing deep, awakening thoughts and feelings he had put behind him almost fifteen years before.

  Priam now knew that Odysseus had hired Karpophorus to kill Helikaon’s father.

  As a result, he was to be declared an enemy of Troy. This in itself would have been a matter of great regret for the Ithakan king, but it was understandable.

  But Priam had not been satisfied with the honorable course, summoning Odysseus to the palace and banishing him from Troy. Instead he had set out to humiliate and shame him. The icy anger swelled, seeping through his body. What had to follow now was obvious. During the games Priam would set out to divide the kings of the west, to bribe and coerce the weaker or greedier elements. He could not allow Odysseus to leave Troy alive to ally with Agamemnon. Priam would know that Nestor of Pylos and perhaps even Idomeneos would be swayed if Odysseus joined the ranks of the Mykene plotters.

  As Odysseus walked, he watched faces in the crowd, seeking any sign of tension, anyone who looked too long or too hard at him. Glancing to his left, he saw Kalliades doing the same. To his right Banokles was walking warily, also scanning the crowd for signs of trouble.

  Pushing thoughts of assassination from his mind, he returned to the larger problem. There has to be some way to resolve this, he thought. You are Odysseus, the thinker, the planner. You are known for your cunning and your stratagems. One by one he considered courses of action. What if he went to Priam and tried to set the matter right? Priam would not listen. Odysseus had caused the death of blood kin. Blood demanded blood.

  What else to do? He could gather his men, slip out of Troy at dawn, then make his way back to Ithaka on the other side of the Great Green. And then what? Live the rest of his life in fear of assassins sent by Priam? Then there was Helikaon. The fact that he had gone to Priam meant that he, too, would declare Odysseus an enemy. The dread Xanthos would sail the Great Green hunting down Ithakan ships, as would the other fifty galleys under Helikaon’s control. If they blocked the trade route to the Seven Hills, Ithaka would within a year—two at the most—be poverty-stricken and ruined.

  Face the truth, Odysseus, he told himself. Priam’s decision to make me an enemy has left only one viable choice. You are like a ship, being driven by storm winds you cannot control toward a land of hatred and blood you have no wish to visit. The realization of it grieved him. He loved Helikaon and felt great fondness for Hektor and his new wife, Andromache. In the war to come his every sympathy would lie with Troy. He disliked the megalomaniac Agamemnon and loathed the ghastly Peleus. He had contempt for the mean-spirited Idomeneos and felt no warmth toward the Athenian Menestheos. In fact, of all the kings of the west, he felt affection only for Nestor. Anger swelled again, cold and all-consuming.

  Odysseus gazed up at the towering walls and the mighty Scaean Gate. He saw the hilltop palace of Priam and the buildings on either side of the narrow, twisting streets. He no longer viewed them as impressive works of architecture. Now he saw them through different eyes. Coldly he estimated the numbers of men needed to scale the walls and pictured the streets as battlegrounds.

  As they eased their way through the crowds, Kalliades leaned in to him. “Four men,” he said. “Following a little distance behind. They have been with us since the tourney fields.”

  Odysseus did not look back. Neither Kalliades nor Banokles was armed, and Odysseus carried only a small curved knife in a jeweled scabbard. The weapon was useful for cutting fruit but little else.

  “Are they soldiers?” he asked.

  “Perhaps, but they are not wearing armor. They have knives, not swords.”

  Odysseus pictured the route ahead. Soon they would leave the main concourse and move through narrower residential streets. Pausing by a market stall, he picked up a small bracelet of silver inlaid with opal.

  “A fine piece, sir,” the stallholder said. “You won’t see better anywhere.”

  Odysseus replaced it and walked on. “Two of them have cut through the alley on the left,” Kalliades whispered.

  “They know we are going to the ship,” Odysseus told him. “There is a small square with a well close by. The road we are taking intersects with the alley there.” He glanced at Banokles. “You have the Hammer of Hephaistos ready?”

  “Always,” Banokles answered.

  “Then prepare to use it.”

  Odysseus swung on his heel and walked back the way he had come. Two men, both tall and broad-shouldered and wearing long cloaks, suddenly halted. Odysseus strode up to them. Without a word he clubbed his fist into the first man’s face. Banokles leaped at the second, downing him with a ferocious right hook. The first man staggered back. Odysseus followed in, kicking his legs out from under him. As the man fell, Odysseus dropped to his knees, wrenching the man’s knife from its scabbard. The victim struggled to rise, then subsided as his own dagger blade touched his throat.

  “You want to say anything?” Odysseus asked.

  The man licked his lips. “I do not know why you are attacking me, stranger.”

  “Ah,” Odysseus said with a smile. “Now I know you are lying, for you were in the crowd at the archery tourney, and you know I am no stranger. I am Odysseus, king of Ithaka. And you are an assassin.”

  “That is nonsense! Help!” the man suddenly shouted. “I am being attacked!” Odysseus struck him. His head bounced down against the stone of the road. He groaned once. Odysseus clubbed him again. Then there was silence.

  Odysseus rose and, gesturing to Kalliades and Banokles, approached the road leading to the square. Behind them several people from the crowd had gathered around the fallen men. Tossing the stolen knife to Kalliades, the king set off down the narrow road. Banokles, armed with the second man’s knife, took up a position on his right.

  “Keep the weapons in clear view,” Odysseus said. “I want the other two to know they are in for a fight.”

  They walked on, coming at last to the small square and the well. The remaining two assassins were waiting there. They looked across at Odysseus, noting the knives his companions carried. Then they looked past the trio, seeking their comrades. Odysseus glared at them and continued walking. The assassins glanced at one another, then turned and moved away.

  “You want us to follow and kill them?” Banokles asked.

  Odysseus shook his head. “Let us get back to the ship. I need to think. Hekabe the queen has asked to see me lat
er. I’ll want you both with me for that.”

  Helikaon did not remain for the full afternoon of games. His strength was all but gone as he and Gershom moved back through the crowd toward the waiting carriages. Helikaon stumbled, and Gershom caught his arm. The heat from the sun was intense, almost as great as on a midsummer day, and Helikaon was sweating freely.

  Climbing into the six-seat chariot, Helikaon slumped down gratefully. Gershom sat opposite him, scanning the crowd, his hand on his dagger hilt.

  Helikaon smiled. “I doubt even Agamemnon would seek to kill me in front of Priam.”

  The charioteer flicked the reins, and the two-horse carriage moved out. The ride was bumpy across the newly broken ground outside the new stadium, but soon they reached the road. Gershom relaxed a little as the chariot picked up speed but still kept a wary eye open for bowmen or slingers.

  “We shouldn’t have come,” he grumbled. “All men can see how weak you are. It will encourage them to try an attack.”

  “They will attack anyway,” Helikaon answered, “when they perceive that the time is right. And it will be while Agamemnon is still in Troy. He will want to rejoice at my death.”

  The chariot clattered on through nearly empty streets. “Odysseus was there,” Gershom said. “He waved at you.”

  “I saw him,” Helikaon said. “If word comes to the palace that he wishes to see me, make some excuse.”

  “He is your closest friend,” Gershom said.

  Helikaon did not reply. Pulling a cloth from his belt, he dabbed at his sweat-streaked face. Gershom looked closely at him. Helikaon’s color was good, his skin having lost the ashen texture it had acquired during his illness. He was close to recovery, needing only to rebuild his stamina.

  The carriage moved down through the lower town until it reached Helikaon’s palace. Two armed guards stood there, drawing open the gates to allow entry. Once inside the building, Helikaon walked through to a large room and stretched himself out on a couch. A servant brought a pitcher of cool water and filled a cup for the Dardanian king. Helikaon drank deeply, then closed his eyes, resting his head on a cushion. Gershom left him there and strode through to the rear garden, where two more guards were patrolling. He spoke to them for a little while, then returned to the palace. The guards were for little more than show. It was not a building to be easily defended. There were windows on two sides leading to the streets, and the walls of the gardens were low. Assassins could force entry in any one of twenty places without alerting the sentries. And sometime during the next five days they would do exactly that. A sensible plan of action would be to leave and return to Dardania, but Helikaon would not hear of it.