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02 Shield of Thunder 37


  At the mention of Astyanax his expression softened. “It was always intended,” he said, “that Kassandra would serve the Sleeping God. Her mother Hekabe wished it, and Kassandra herself foretold it.”

  “You never believe Kassandra’s predictions,” she said angrily.

  “No, but you do.”

  Andromache knew that was unanswerable. She had spoken to Priam in the past about the accuracy of Kassandra’s prophecies. She could not now argue that the girl was wrong.

  “She will be escorted to Thera by Helikaon’s fleet,” Priam said, “early next spring. Nothing you can say will alter my decision.”

  A slight breeze was blowing through the balcony window, and Andromache rose from her couch, stretching out her arms. She heard a sound on the terrace behind her and turned, expecting to see Kassandra, but saw instead the dark-haired Prince Dios step out from the shade of the palace.

  “Dios!” She almost ran to greet him, and he held both of her hands in his. “You are back quickly. What news from Thebe?”

  “Your father is well, Andromache. And your brothers. They are preparing for war, but they are all safe as yet.”

  “Is there news of Hektor?” she asked. “I inquire every day, but no one seems to know.”

  “The situation in Thraki is confused by the civil war,” he said. “And it is hard to estimate the truth of any information we receive. Hektor and the Trojan Horse were fighting in the mountains the last we heard.”

  “How can the Thrakians be fighting among themselves when the threat from Mykene is so great?” she said angrily. “It is so stupid.”

  “How much do you know of Thraki’s recent history?”

  “Very little,” she admitted. “King Eioneus was a good ruler, and there were no wars. Now the land is beset by rebellion.”

  Dios sat down on the couch and poured himself a goblet of water. “Shall I tell you of Thraki, or shall we talk of happier matters?”

  “Matters more seemly for the ears of women?”

  Dios laughed. “You are not like most women, Andromache, and I will not be drawn into such a pit of scorpions.”

  “Then tell me of Thraki.”

  “The problem is both tribal and historical,” he replied. “There are several tribes occupying Thrakian lands, but the two most prominent are the Kikones and the Idonoi. Before you were born, Eioneus—a Kikones king—conquered the eastern tribes of the Idonoi, absorbing their lands into a greater Thrakian federation. To ensure his success he slaughtered thousands. Most of the Idonoi leaders were executed, and the royal line was wiped out. Eioneus tempered this savagery with generosity to the captured cities, allowing them some self-rule. And he also established profitable trade routes that brought wealth to the Idonoi, thus securing an uneasy peace for a generation. However, Eioneus’ death in Troy during your wedding games unleashed old tribal rivalries. The Idonoi are now backed by Agamemnon and, spurred by him, have risen against Rhesos, seeking to win back their ancestral lands and be free of Kikones domination.”

  “To be replaced,” Andromache said, “by Mykene domination.”

  “Indeed, but old hatreds sit deep.”

  “Hektor speaks highly of Rhesos,” Andromache said. “Surely the two of them can conquer?”

  Dios considered the question. “Rhesos is a fine young man and would be a good king if his people would let him. But even without outside agitators and Mykene reinforcements the civil war would have been hard to win. And with enemy troops pouring in from Thessaly and Makedonia, his situation is dire. Already loyal troops are outnumbered five to one. Hektor wants Rhesos to hold the plain of Thraki and the land east of the river Nestos as a buffer between the Mykene and the Hellespont. But it is looking increasingly impossible.”

  “Hektor is known for achieving the impossible,” she pointed out.

  “Indeed he is. The sad truth, though, is that Hektor could win a score of battles and still not win the war there, whereas he only has to lose one and Thraki falls.” He smiled at her, and once again she saw the resemblance to Helikaon. Their fathers were cousins, and the blood of Ilos ran strongly in both. As she thought of Helikaon, her mind went back to the sleeping child, and as if he read her thoughts, Dios said, “Now let us talk of happier matters. How is the boy?”

  “Come and see,” she said. They walked together into Astyanax’s room, where the red-haired boy was awake and fretting, anxious to go out to play. Naked, he squirmed from the small bed and, dodging around his young nurse, ran out onto the terrace, his chubby arms and legs pumping as he tried to escape.

  The nursemaid called out to him in vain, then Dios said firmly, “Astyanax!”

  The child stopped instantly at the deep male voice and turned back to look at his uncle. His mouth open, he stared at Dios in wonder.

  Dios picked the boy up and swung him around high in the air. The child gurgled, then screamed with delight, his piercing cry echoing in their ears. Dios, with no sons of his own, grinned at the joyous reaction from the boy. As he put him down, Astyanax reached up his arms to be spun around again.

  “He’s a brave one,” Dios said. “Truly his father’s son.”

  He swung the boy again, higher and higher. Watching their noisy play, Andromache did not see Kassandra quietly come onto the terrace. When she spotted the girl, she turned to her with a smile. Kassandra stood with her hands behind her back, her face half-hidden, as usual, by her long black hair. She wore a drab dark robe, unbelted, and her feet were bare.

  “Kassandra, I’ve not seen you for days. You wanted to speak to me?”

  Dios put the boy down and went to embrace his sister, but she moved away from him into the shade of the building.

  “You tried to stop me going to Thera,” she said to Andromache, ignoring Dios and the child. Her voice was trembling.

  “Only immediately, while there is a war on,” Andromache told her. “Once the Great Green is safe again, you can go to the Blessed Isle if you still wish to. There is plenty of time. You are only fourteen.”

  “There is not plenty of time,” the girl said angrily. “I must go there. I have no choice. Father is right, Andromache—you are always trying to interfere in other people’s lives. Why don’t you leave me alone?”

  Andromache said, “I am only trying to keep you safe, Sister.”

  Kassandra drew herself up, and when she spoke, the shrillness had gone from her voice. “You cannot keep other people safe, Andromache,” she said gently. “You should know that by now. Have the last few years taught you nothing? You could not save Laodike or Kalliope. You cannot guard this boy from the world’s hurt.” She gestured at the child, who stood silent, staring at the girl with wide eyes. “You cannot keep his father safe on the Great Green.”

  “No, I cannot,” Andromache said sadly. “But I will try to save those I love. And I love you, Kassandra.”

  The girl’s eyes narrowed, and she said, “Mother tells me you loved her, too.” Then she swung on her heel and left the room.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

  THE TROJAN HORSE

  A cool breeze was blowing through the Rhodope Mountains, shimmering the long grass of the Thrakian plain and whispering through the tops of the trees that flanked the high hills beyond.

  Hidden beyond the tree line, Banokles sat on his mount and waited, along with a thousand other riders of the Trojan Horse. On the plain below fifteen hundred Trojan soldiers appeared to be preparing for a midday halt, clearing areas for cookfires. Three hundred Thrakian cavalry were with them, along with some two hundred archers. Banokles had little interest in strategy. Either the enemy would march into the trap or it wouldn’t. It didn’t matter much to the big warrior. If not today, then they would crush the rebels tomorrow. Or the next day.

  He glanced at the rider to his left, the slim, yellow-haired Skorpios. The man had removed his helm. He was unnaturally pale, and there was a sheen of sweat on his face. Banokles looked along the line. Everywhere there were signs of nerves and fear. He couldn’t understand it
. We are the Trojan Horse, he thought. We don’t lose battles. And Skorpios was a fine fighter and a superb horseman. So what was he worried about?

  It was a mystery, and Banokles did not like mysteries. He promptly put all thoughts of Skorpios from his mind. There were more important things to think about.

  For one, he was hungry. The food wagons had not reached them, and there had been no breakfast. That was intolerable to Banokles. No one should be asked to fight a battle without breakfast. The wagons that had come over the high pass had carried spare swords and a supply of arrows. This, while welcomed by those soldiers whose blades had been ruined by the battles of the last few weeks, had been a disappointment to Banokles. Supplies of cheese and dried meat had run out, and the men had eaten nothing but crushed oats soaked in water.

  An itch began in Banokles’ armpit. That was especially irritating, as the armor worn by Trojan Horse riders was intricate: small, overlapping bronze disks, like fish scales, that covered the chest, belly, and lower throat. It was impossible to reach inside and scratch.

  Banokles’ horse shifted under him, then tossed its head. Idly he patted the beast’s black neck. “Steady, Arse Face,” he said.

  “By the gods, why don’t they come?” said another nervous man to his right, a heavyset warrior with a carefully trimmed trident beard. Justinos dragged his helm clear, then pulled a cloth from his belt and wiped the sweat from his shaved head. Banokles did not know how to answer him. How in Hades would he know why the enemy hadn’t arrived? “I hate this bastard waiting,” Justinos added.

  “We should have had a better breakfast,” Banokles said.

  “What?”

  “Those oats make a man fart all day. Red meat before a battle. That’s how it should be.”

  Justinos stared at him for a moment, then donned his helm and turned away.

  Glancing along the line of riders, Banokles saw Kalliades dismount and walk to a tall tree. He removed his sword belt and helm and climbed up through the branches, seeking a clear view of the northern slopes. It was days since they had spoken, and even then it had been only a few words concerning where to picket the horses. Kalliades was an officer now and spent little time mixing with the men. Even at Banokles’ wedding the previous spring he had seemed distant, withdrawn.

  He had never recovered from the death of Piria. That was what Red said. Kalliades had closed himself off. Banokles didn’t understand it. He, too, had been saddened by the girl’s death, but in equal measure he had been happy to have survived the fight. Hektor had rewarded them with gifts of gold and appointed them to the Trojan Horse. With the gold Banokles had bought a small house and persuaded Red to join him there. It had taken some doing.

  “Why would I marry you, idiot? You’ll only go and get yourself killed somewhere.”

  But he had worn down her resistance, and the wedding had been joyous.

  Banokles loosened his saber in its scabbard. Kalliades climbed down from the tree and spoke to his aide. Word was passed along the line.

  “They are coming.”

  Banokles leaned forward, trying to see through the trees. He could make out the lower slopes of the Rhodope Mountains but as yet could see no enemy infantry. On the plain the Trojan soldiers were moving hurriedly to form battle lines, bumping into one another in an appearance of panic. He saw Hektor riding along the front line on a pale horse, his armor of bronze and gold gleaming in the afternoon sunshine.

  “You think the supply wagons will have gotten through by now?” Banokles asked Skorpios.

  The blond warrior paused in the act of donning his helm and turned to gaze at him. “How would I know? And why would I care?” he answered. “Any moment now we are going to be surrounded by blood and death.”

  Banokles grinned at him. “But after that we’ll need to eat.”

  Through a break in the trees Banokles saw the first ranks of the enemy move into sight. There were some heavily armored warriors carrying long shields, but the mass of men around them were rebels in breastplates of leather or padded linen. Their clothes were brightly colored, from their cloaks of garish yellow and green to their leggings of plaid and stripes. Many of them had painted their faces in streaks of crimson or blue. Their weapons were spears and axes, though some carried longswords with blades the length of a man’s leg.

  A ululating battle cry began from the enemy ranks, and they broke into a charge toward the Trojan lines. Hektor had dismounted and now stood, shield ready, at the center of the front line.

  The rebel horde was in full sight now, and Banokles scanned them. They outnumbered the force on the plain by at least ten to one. Twenty thousand men racing across the open ground, screaming their battle cries.

  A volley of arrows ripped into the charging men, but it did not slow their advance.

  The men on the Trojan front line braced themselves, leaning in to their shields, spears drawn back. Just as the enemy was upon them, the Trojan veterans surged forward to meet them. The sounds of battle were strangely muted within the forest. Banokles gathered up the reins of his mount in his left hand, the heavy lance sitting comfortably in his right.

  “At a walk!” Kalliades shouted.

  A thousand riders nudged their horses forward. Banokles ducked beneath an overhanging branch, guiding the black gelding out through the trees. Bright sunshine shone down on the armored riders as they moved out onto the hillside.

  The rebels had not seen them yet, but they would hear them soon enough.

  “Close formation!”

  Banokles kicked the gelding into a run, and the thunder of hooves sounded on the hillside.

  Hefting his spear, Banokles nestled the haft alongside his elbow, the point aiming forward and slightly down. The gelding was at full gallop now. Banokles saw the rebels on the flank turning to meet the charge. He was close enough to see the panic in their painted faces.

  Then the Trojan Horse slammed into the horde. Banokles rammed his spear through the chest of a powerful warrior. As the man was thrown back, the spear was wrenched from Banokles’ hand. Drawing his saber, he slashed the blade down, cracking the skull of a rebel. All was chaos now, the air filled with the screams of the wounded and dying. Banokles drove the gelding on, deeper into the ranks of the enemy. An ax blade cut through the gelding’s neck, and it fell. Banokles jumped clear, launching himself at the axman. There was no time to bring up his saber, and he head butted the warrior, sending him staggering back. Another warrior thrust his sword at Banokles, who parried it, then sent a reverse cut slashing through the man’s throat. Justinos charged in, scattering the enemy around Banokles. Then other riders closed around him. Banokles saw a riderless horse and ran across to it. Just as he reached it, the beast reared, then galloped away. Two rebels rushed at Banokles. The first swung an ax, which he tried to block with his saber. The blade shattered. Banokles hurled the hilt at the second man, who ducked. The axman raised his weapon again. Banokles charged him, grabbing the haft and ramming his head into the warrior’s face. The warrior fell back, losing his grip on the ax. Banokles swept it up and with a bellowing war cry leaped toward the second warrior. The man’s nerve broke, and he tried to run. Skorpios came alongside him, his lance plunging through the warrior’s back.

  Banokles ran to a fallen rider. Dropping the ax, he took up the man’s saber and hurled himself back into the fray, hacking, slashing, and stabbing. The enemy forces were hardy and tough, but they had no training. They fought as individuals, seeking space to swing their longswords or use their spears and axes. But they were being crushed together in a mass by a highly organized army of veterans. Desperate to find room to fight, the warriors began to peel away, running for open ground. The Trojan Horse cut them down as soon as they moved clear. Banokles knew what had to happen next. He had seen it a score of times. The horde began to scatter, the army sundering like a smashed plate. With no organized defensive lines to oppose them, the heavily armored riders surged in among the enemy and the slaughter began.

  Panic swept throug
h the Thrakians, and all across the battlefield the rebels began to flee. Horsemen rode after them, cutting and killing.

  Horseless, Banokles remained where he was. Hektor came striding toward him. His helm and breastplate were smeared with blood, and his sword arm was crimson from the wrist to the elbow.

  “Are you hurt?” he asked Banokles.

  “No.”

  “Then help with the wounded,” the big man said, moving past him.

  “Any sign of the supply wagons?” Banokles called after him. Hektor ignored the question.

  Banokles cleaned the sword and slid it back into his scabbard. Then he gazed around the battlefield.

  The victory had been complete, but the losses had been high. He worked alongside soldiers and stretcher bearers until almost dusk, by which time he had helped to carry at least a hundred corpses. In all, more than four hundred Trojans had died that day. It mattered little that the enemy dead were in the thousands. There were thousands more waiting to take their place. Armor and weapons were stripped from the Trojan dead, and soldiers gathered around to replace broken swords, smashed helms, and ruined breastplates. Banokles himself acquired a short sword and an ornate scabbard. The saber was a fine weapon when hacking down from horseback, but once one was afoot, it was not as deadly as a good stabbing sword.

  Off to the right he could see a group of Thrakian prisoners being questioned by Trojan officers, Kalliades among them. Banokles watched, and though he could not hear what was said, he could tell by the surly faces of the captured men that they were giving little away. Hektor did not allow torture of prisoners, which seemed to Banokles to be foolish in the extreme. Most men would tell you anything you desired to hear if their hands were being held in a fire. And how could a warrior like Hektor be so squeamish? Banokles had seen him ripping into the enemy like an angry lion. The minds of generals and princes were a mystery to Banokles.

  The supply wagons arrived just after dark, and Banokles joined a group of warriors around a cookfire. Bald Justinos was there, and Skorpios, his long blond hair tied in a ponytail that hung between his narrow shoulders. Three of the men were unknown to Banokles, but the last was a slim, round-shouldered rider named Ursos. He and Banokles had trained together back in Troy.