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02 Shield of Thunder 30


  “I thank you for coming tonight,” he told his guests. “Many here have been friends of Troy for longer than my life. Others may become friends. That is my hope. We all of us here have been men of war. Sometimes it has been forced upon us. Sometimes we have sallied out to engage in it in pursuit of glory or riches. War is a noble pursuit and ofttimes necessary to right wrongs against our houses or to deal a death blow to those who would wish the same upon us. Tonight, however, we dine as friends and mourn the passing of beauty. Eat and drink, my friends, and enjoy the entertainments my sons have organized. We have dancers from Kretos, jugglers from Miletos, singers and musicians. This night should be one of joy, in thanks for a life that meant much to me.” Priam clapped his hands, and music began. Servants rushed forward, placing golden platters brimming with food on the table.

  Odysseus ate sparingly, and once the meal was over and the entertainments had begun, he stood from the table and made his way toward the door. He was surprised to hear Priam call out, “Leaving us so soon, king of Ithaka? No words of commiseration?” As the king spoke, the music died away. Odysseus turned slowly into the silence.

  “What would you have me say, Priam King? That I am sorry for your loss? I am sorry for any man who loses one he loves. But I’ll offer no honeyed words to you. Honor and custom dictated I be here tonight. Honor and custom dictate I will attend the games tomorrow. Then I will sail from here without a backward glance.”

  “You will sail from here as an enemy of Troy!” Priam thundered. “As a hirer of assassins and an oath breaker. And when we meet thereafter, be sure to have a weapon in your hand.”

  “I will indeed,” Odysseus replied angrily. “And it will be Akilina and not some ruined twig your lickspittle judges place before me. I had no desire for a war with Troy. You remember that, Priam. You remember that when your sons die and your influence shrivels. You remember that when the flames consume your palace.”

  “I feel my bones trembling.” Priam sneered. “Little Ithaka against the might of Troy. You have a weapon to throw down my walls? You have an army to defeat the Trojan Horse? No, you do not! Not you, nor a hundred like you gathered together, would make more than a flea bite on the body of Troy. A hundred thousand men could not take this city. You have a hundred thousand, little king?”

  In that moment Odysseus realized Priam had engineered this clash in order to make exactly this point to the assembled kings. He stood silently for a moment, then laughed. “I want you to remember that boast, too, Priam,” he said. “I want all the men here to repeat it across the Great Green. Not I, nor a hundred like me gathered together, would make more than a flea bite on the body of Troy. Let the valleys echo to that boast. Let the mountains ring with it. Let the seas whisper it across the beaches of the world.” With that, he swung away and strode through the doors.

  Hearing someone follow him, he glanced around and saw Helikaon. Odysseus felt a great sinking of the spirit. “Make your threat swiftly,” he said. “I am in no mood to tarry.”

  “I have no threat, Odysseus,” Helikaon said sadly. “I did not desire any of this.”

  “A consideration best remembered before you ran to Priam,” the Ugly King replied. “Did our friendship mean so little to you that you could not wait to hear what I might have to say before having me declared a rogue and an outcast?” Caught between sorrow and rage, he swung away from the young man, but Helikaon moved swiftly, taking hold of his arm.

  “It was not as you believe!” he cried. “No man has a greater call on my affection than you, Odysseus. I have no recollection of Priam coming to me. I was delirious, poison in my blood. I scarce recall any conversation then. I drifted in and out of dreams, dreams of death and despair.”

  Odysseus felt the rage seep out of him. His shoulders sagged, and a terrible weariness settled on him. “Best ask me now what you need to know,” he said.

  “Did Karpophorus lie? Tell me that he did, and we can put all this right.”

  Odysseus saw the need in Helikaon for that lie to be true. It shone in his eyes. “It cannot be put right now, Golden One. The assassin did not lie. I paid him a sheep’s weight in silver to kill Anchises.”

  Helikaon stood silently, staring at him, his expression showing his disbelief. “I don’t understand. Why would you do it? You had nothing to gain. My father loathed me, but he had no enmity toward you. Tell me and put an end to the anguish.”

  Odysseus sighed. “I fear it will only bring a different form of anguish, and I would willingly have surrendered ten years of my life rather than have you discover the truth. Even now I hesitate to tell you.”

  “I need to know, Odysseus.” Helikaon looked at him closely. “Though even as I say it, I think I can guess the answer.”

  Odysseus nodded. “On that last voyage, when we sailed to Dardania, we had three passengers: two merchants and a traveler. The traveler was Karpophorus. I recognized him, and I guessed the purpose of his trip. We spoke one night, away from the crew. I made it clear to him that I knew his target, and I made him an offer. He had no choice but to accept, for to refuse would have resulted in his death there and then by my own hand.”

  “And I was his target?”

  “Yes. Anchises had already dispossessed you and declared you illegitimate. He had nominated Diomedes as his heir. But he wanted to be sure you would not cause him problems.” Odysseus sighed. “He wanted you dead. I knew this already because he had offered me wealth to kill you while you sailed with me. I believed, wrongly, that when he saw the man you had become, he would be filled with pride, as I was. When I realized he had hired Karpophorus, I knew he would stop at nothing to see you slain. So I paid Karpophorus to kill him. And even now I don’t regret it.”

  Helikaon walked away a few steps and stood with his back to Odysseus. “Why did you not tell me before this?” he asked. “I would have understood.”

  “Yes, you would. But despite everything you still admired Anchises. I saw no reason to hack at his memory. Now I wish I had.”

  “I need to walk,” Helikaon said, swinging back to face him. “Let us get away from this place, stroll down to the beach, and feel the sea air on our faces.”

  “No, Helikaon. We cannot walk together,” Odysseus said, sadness in his voice. “My bodyguards are waiting beyond the gates. It is possible Priam will have more assassins out to waylay me. As for you, you already know that Mykene killers are seeking you. There will be no more carefree walks for either of us.” For a few moments there was silence between them. Then Odysseus spoke again. “The great war is coming, and we are to be enemies, you and I. That saddens me more than words can convey.”

  “And you will side with Agamemnon? He will drench the world in blood.”

  Odysseus shrugged. “This is not of my making, Helikaon. I did not declare myself an enemy of Troy. And even if I wished it, there is nowhere to run and hide. Priam has sought now to shame me three times. I am a king, and kings do not reign long if they let other kings piss on their shoes. My ships will not attack Dardanian vessels, and I will have no part in any invasion of your lands. But I will bring war to Troy, and I will see Priam fall.”

  “And I will fight alongside Priam and Hektor,” Helikaon said.

  “The only honorable course,” Odysseus agreed. “But get yourself strong again, boy. You are all skin and bone.”

  “What of the Seven Hills?” Helikaon asked. “We built the settlement together, and there are Dardanians and Ithakans working there side by side.”

  Odysseus considered the question. “It is far from this coming war. You can trust me to oversee it and ensure your profits are held for you. I will do my best to see there is no friction between the peoples there. Let us hope that one day we can walk the Seven Hills together as friends once more.”

  “I will pray for that day, Odysseus, my friend.”

  Tears in his eyes, Odysseus drew the younger man into an embrace and kissed his cheeks. “May the gods favor you,” he said.

  “And may they watch over you
, Ugly One. Always.”

  The games resumed the morning after the funeral feast for Hekabe. The sky was clear, a fresh breeze blowing across the hills. Thousands flocked to the hippodrome and the stadium, and fortunes were wagered on this final day. Not one copper ring, however, was placed on Achilles, for none could be found who would bet against him.

  Despite the warnings of his friends, Helikaon walked among the excited throng, watching the contests. The parting with Odysseus weighed heavily on him, and he had no interest any longer in the games. He had come only for a glimpse of Andromache. Gershom was with him, his hand constantly on his dagger hilt, his dark eyes scanning the crowd for signs of assassins. “This is foolish,” said Gershom, not for the first time, as they eased their way through a pack of spectators at the hippodrome.

  “I will not live in fear,” Helikaon told him. “I tried it once. It does not suit me.”

  Wooden bench seats had been set into the raised banks around the racing area, but they were already full. Helikaon led Gershom through the crowd to a canopied royal enclosure, where he was recognized by the two Royal Eagles guarding the entrance. “Good to see you back among the living,” said one, a wide-shouldered veteran with a black and silver beard. The man had been one of the soldiers who had fought alongside Helikaon the previous autumn during the attack on Priam’s palace. Helikaon clapped the man on the shoulder as he walked into the enclosure, Gershom beside him. A servant brought cool drinks of pressed fruits flavored with spices.

  At the back of the enclosure Helikaon saw the slender, dark-haired Dios and the huge Antiphones. They were arguing about the merits of the charioteers about to race. Dios saw Helikaon and smiled broadly, stepping forward to embrace him. Then Antiphones shook his hand.

  “You are looking more like yourself,” Dios said. “It is good to see.”

  “But still a little thin,” Antiphones added. “I think I have lost more weight than you carry, Helikaon.”

  Out on the hippodrome track they saw Polites and some twenty judges walking in a line, examing the ground, searching for small stones that might be lifted by the spinning wheels of the chariots and hurled into the crowd.

  “He has done well,” Helikaon said. “The games have been splendidly organized.”

  Once the judges had completed their examination of the track, the charioteers came out, riding in single file so that the crowd could see the horses, make their judgments, and decide on their wagers. The red-haired Athenian king, Menestheos, led the line, his four black geldings looking sleek and powerful. Behind him was the Lykian charioteer Supolos, followed by the Mykene champion, Ajax. He was the only man sporting a helm and a breastplate of leather. All the other charioteers wore simple tunics.

  Helikaon scanned the line, watching closely the behavior of the horses. Some were nervous, tossing their heads and stamping their hooves; others seemed serene. The black geldings of Menestheos continued to catch his eye.

  “Are you wagering?” Dios asked.

  “Perhaps.”

  “The Lykian, Supolos, has been magnificent throughout. Never seen a team with such speed.”

  Helikaon smiled. “I’ll wager a hundred gold rings that Menestheos and his blacks finish ahead of him.”

  “Done!”

  Having completed a full slow circuit, the twelve chariots were led to their starting positions. The chariots would race toward the first turning pole, spin around it, then thunder back toward the second pole for ten circuits. The starting line was staggered so that the distance to the first pole was the same for all. Menestheos had drawn the outside position; the Lykian, Supolos, the inside. The charioteers looped the long reins around their wrists and waited for the trumpet blast.

  The crowd fell silent.

  The trumpet sounded.

  Forty-eight horses surged into their traces, and the race began. The four black geldings of Menestheos thundered away, cutting across the next team, causing the following charioteer to swerve and haul back on his reins. On the inside the team of Supolos pulled ahead with blistering speed. Supolos reached the turn first, his chariot lifting on one wheel as he reined in the inner pair while the outer increased their speed. It was a breathtaking display of skill, his chariot wheel missing the pole by no more than a handbreadth. Menestheos was just behind him, with the Mykene, Ajax, in close pursuit in third place.

  The crowd was baying now, the excitement rising. Two chariots in the rear collided on a turn. One lost a wheel, and the other spun over, throwing the charioteer to the dust. Soldiers ran onto the course, dragging the damaged chariots clear. Both charioteers rose uninjured.

  By the fifth turn it seemed that Supolos would claim the laurel crown, but Menestheos and Ajax were both driving with skill and nerve, awaiting the one mistake that would allow them to surge through.

  It came on the ninth turn. A moment of misjudgment saw Supolos swing too wide. Ajax lashed his team, seeking to drive through the narrow space he had created. Supolos, recovering swiftly, tried to close him off. Down the straight they thundered, side by side. At the next turn they were too close, and their wheels collided and locked together. The Lykian’s wheel was torn clear, and his damaged chariot hammered into the guardrail. The vehicle shattered, but the horses ran on. Supolos, the reins tight around his wrists, was dragged along the ground. The collision had forced Ajax to slow down, and the Athenian, Menestheos, seeing his chance, lashed his reins and cried out in a loud voice: “Go, beauties! Go!”

  The blacks came out of the turn and powered into a gallop. The hapless Supolos was directly in their path. The outside gelding leaped across his flailing body, but the chariot wheel struck his neck with awful force, and all in the crowd knew instantly he had been killed.

  Menestheos raced to the final turn just ahead of Ajax and executed a perfect swinging maneuver. Then he lashed the black horses into one last surge for the finish. Ajax could not close the gap and finished second, the other seven charioteers trailing without mishap. Only then did stretcher bearers run onto the track to retrieve the body of Supolos.

  “My luck is cursed,” Dios said.

  “Not as badly as the Lykian’s,” Helikaon pointed out.

  “Menestheos could have avoided him,” Antiphones observed. “He only had to rein back and swerve.”

  “Would have cost him the race,” Dios said.

  Helikaon waited to applaud as Menestheos received the laurel crown, then he and Gershom made their way down the columned walkway to the stadium entrance. Gershom continued to watch the crowd around them with suspicion.

  The final of the javelin tourney was under way as they arrived. It was won by a Rhodian with an enormous throw, but Helikaon was delighted to see his old friend Bias finish second. The crew of the Penelope surged around him, lifting him to their shoulders as if he had won. As Bias was being carried aloft, he spotted Helikaon and waved, grinning broadly. Helikaon lifted his hand and smiled back. Sadness touched him. Will we both be smiling when next we meet? he wondered.

  On the far side of the stadium was the second royal enclosure. Helikaon and Gershom eased their way through the crowd until they were close to it. Then Helikaon stopped. Two gilded thrones had been placed at the front, and seated upon them, beneath gold-embroidered canopies, were Hektor and Andromache. Her father, Ektion, a slender man with deep-set wary eyes, was seated at her right, while Priam sat beside his son.

  Helikaon stood silently staring at the woman he loved. She was wearing an ankle-length gown of shimmering yellow and a belt of gold. Her long red hair had been bound with golden wire and was held back from her face by a golden circlet upon her brow. Her beauty struck his heart like a lance.

  “Are you going in?” Gershom asked.

  “No, you would not be allowed to enter. We will stay together,” Helikaon replied.

  Gershom chuckled. “Believe me, my friend, I would prefer you to go in. Walking around with you, watching for assassins, is shredding my nerves. I will meet you here after Achilles has won his bout.”
/>  Taking a deep, calming breath, Helikaon walked past the guards and entered the enclosure. Priam saw him and smiled a greeting. Seeing the king brought back the events of the previous night. Odysseus had responded to the taunts of Priam with words of war. And in that moment, Helikaon knew, the world had changed. He remembered then the vision of his wife, Halysia, of flames and battle and a fleet of ships on a sea of blood.

  A sense of unreality gripped him now. No more than fifty paces distant the kings of the west were in their own enclosure, watching athletes and joking among themselves: Odysseus, Agamemnon, Idomeneos, and the Athenian king Menestheos, still sporting his laurel crown. Close by were Peleus of Thessaly, Nestor of Pylos, Pelemos the Rhodian ruler, and tall Agapenor of Arcadia. These men would leave Troy and sail back to their homelands, there to gather armies and return. There would be no friendly contests then, no competition for laurel wreaths. Armored in bronze, sharp swords in their hands, they would seek to slaughter or enslave the very people who now watched happily as their future killers raced against one another. As the footrace was won by a slender Mykene, the crowd cheered and clapped their hands. They could be cheering the man who would one day slit their throats and rape their wives.

  Helikaon eased back to the rear of the enclosure, where servants stood ready to offer cool drinks to the nobles. Taking a cup, he sipped the contents. It was the same mixture of fruits and spices being served in the hippodrome. Then he saw Andromache rise from her seat and walk back toward him. His heart began to race, his breath catching in his throat, his mouth instantly dry. Andromache accepted a cup of water from a servant, then, without acknowledging Helikaon, started to walk back to her seat.

  “You look beyond beautiful,” Helikaon said.

  She paused, her green eyes observing him gravely. “I am happy to see your strength improving, King Aeneas.”

  Andromache’s tone was cool, and despite her physical closeness, he felt as distant from her as the moon from the sun. He wanted to find some words to bring her close, to make her smile at least, but he could think of nothing. Just then Priam moved into his line of sight. He crossed to Andromache and slid his arm around her waist, broad fingers resting on the curve of her hip. Helikaon felt his stomach tighten at the familiarity and was surprised to see Andromache accept the touch without complaint.