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02 Shield of Thunder 38


  “Another victory,” Ursos said, as Banokles sat beside him. “Beginning to lose count now.”

  “Lost my horse,” Banokles grumbled. “Old Arse Face was a good mount.”

  “Could be him cooking there,” Ursos muttered. “No meat on the wagons. Just more damn oats.”

  As they were talking, a rider came thundering into the camp. Men scattered before him. The man dragged his horse to a halt close to where Hektor was sitting with his officers and leaped down.

  “This looks important,” Ursos said, rising and walking across to listen to the message.

  Banokles remained where he was. The night was cool, the fire warm, and the smell of roasting meat intoxicating.

  Ursos returned a little while later and slumped down. “Well,” he said, “that robs today’s victory of any value.”

  “Why?” Banokles asked.

  “Achilles has invaded with the entire Thessalian army and has taken Xantheia. Rhesos has been driven back to Kalliros in the mountains. Perhaps worse, Odysseus has taken Ismaros, and enemy galleys now block the sea.”

  “Doesn’t sound good,” Banokles agreed.

  Ursos stared at him. “You don’t know where these places are, do you, or why they are important?”

  Banokles shrugged. “Friendly cities or enemy cities. That is all I need to know.”

  Ursos shook his head. “Xantheia guarded the Nestos River. Our supply ships travel that river, up to the old capital at Kalliros. With the city taken, we’ll get no supplies. And if Kalliros falls, we’ll have armies on three sides of us. North, south, and east.”

  “And we’ll crush them all,” Banokles said.

  “I appreciate your optimism. But we started out with over eight thousand men. We now have around three thousand. The enemy gets stronger every day, Banokles. With Ismaros in enemy hands, the seas are clear for Odysseus. His fleet could sail to Carpea and sink our barges. Then there’ll be no way home.”

  Banokles didn’t feel like arguing. He had already forgotten the names of the cities Ursos had so carefully described. As far as he was concerned, they had won a battle, had eaten good red meat, and were being led by Hektor, the greatest general on the Great Green. They would fight on and win. Or they would fight on and lose. Either way there was nothing Banokles could do about it, so he pushed himself to his feet and went back to the cookfire for another slab of horse meat.

  The interviews with the prisoners had yielded little Kalliades did not already know. The men were Idonoi tribesmen from the cities of the far west. The defeat would set them back for a while but do nothing to end the rebellion.

  He wandered away from the captives and stood staring up at the Rhodope Mountains. There was still snow on the peaks, and dark rain clouds were gathering.

  How many more battles could they be expected to win? Four hundred eleven men had been killed that day, with more than two hundred suffering wounds that would keep them from fighting for some while. Of the rest there were few men who hadn’t suffered some injury, from bruises and sprains to concussions and minor breaks of the toes or fingers.

  Western Thraki and the lands of the Idonoi were lost to them now and would not be retaken. Beyond the line of the Rhodope Mountains the land was seething with discontent. To the south only the broad river Nestos and the citadel at Kalliros prevented the enemy from sweeping into eastern Thraki and cutting off the Trojans’ escape route. And now Achilles had taken Xantheia.

  A chilly wind began blowing down from the snow peaks, fluttering Kalliades’ cloak. When Hektor had presented him with the garment a year earlier, on the day he had become an officer, the cloak had been as bright as a sunlit cloud. Now it was a murky gray, stained with dried blood. An aide brought him a plate of meat. Kalliades thanked the man and walked away to sit on a fallen tree. He had little appetite and ate mechanically. Some distance away he saw Banokles sitting beside a fire, chatting to the lantern-jawed Ursos.

  Kalliades missed the big man’s company. He thought then of Piria and sighed. Three years now, and still her face haunted him. The weight of grief at her loss had never abated, and Kalliades knew he could not face another such burden. Better, he decided, never to love and to avoid comradeship.

  The moment of decision had come at Banokles’ wedding. He had been standing by the far wall of the garden, watching the dancing and listening to the wine-fueled laughter. Banokles had been capering around, drunk and happy, Big Red watching him fondly. Kalliades had suddenly felt like a ghost, separate and disembodied. The joy of the occasion had floated around him, never touching his senses. He had stood quietly for a while, then slipped away, walking back along the broad avenues of Troy. A whore had approached him, a thin woman with yellow hair. Kalliades had allowed her to lead him to a small house that stank of cheap perfume. As if in a dream, he had removed his clothing and climbed with her to the bed. She had not taken off her yellow gown, merely hitched it up so that he could enter her. At some point he had whispered: “Piria!”

  “Yes,” the whore had replied. “I am Piria for you.”

  But she was not, and Kalliades had shamed himself by bursting into tears and sobbing uncontrollably. He had not cried since he was a small child, sitting beside his dead sister. The whore had moved away from him then, and he had heard her pouring wine. He had struggled to stem the flow of tears, but he did not know how.

  In the end the whore had leaned over him. “You need to go,” she had said. The lack of compassion in her voice cut through his sorrow. Reaching into his pouch, he had pulled out a few copper rings and tossed them onto the bed. Then he had dressed and walked out into the sunlit city.

  Now, sitting on the fallen tree, he heard someone approaching. He swung around and saw Hektor. The prince was carrying two cups of watered wine, one of which he passed to Kalliades before sitting down alongside him. “A cold night,” he said. “Sometimes I feel summer has no place in these mountains. As if the rocks hold winter deep within them.”

  “It always seems cold after a battle,” Kalliades said. “I don’t know why that should be.”

  “Nor I. Somehow, though, it seems appropriate. I take it the Idonoi prisoners gave nothing away?”

  “They did not. Nor did I expect them to. Once they realized they faced no pain, their courage flowed back.”

  Hektor gave a weary smile. “You are not alone in requesting torture, Kalliades. Many of my officers have urged me to harsher treatment.”

  “They are right. As I recall, last year we found one of our scouts with his hands cut off and his eyes put out. The rules of behavior you insist upon are costing us lives.”

  “Yes, they are,” Hektor agreed, “but I will not allow my actions to be swayed by the enemy’s malice. It falls to generals to look beyond the events of today or this season. Why do you think the rebellion has gathered such pace?”

  “The death of King Eioneus,” Kalliades answered. “When he fell from his horse at the wedding games.”

  “He did not fall,” Hektor said. “He was struck by a stone hurled by a slinger in the pay of Agamemnon. But his death alone is not why we are fighting here. When Eioneus invaded and conquered the Idonoi homelands twenty or more years ago, he butchered the royal line: men, women, and babes. He slaughtered cities, cutting the right hands from men who fought against him. Others he blinded. He cowed the people with a display of terribly savagery.”

  “And he won,” Kalliades pointed out. “The land was unified.”

  “Yes, he won. But he planted the seeds of this upheaval. There is not an Idonoi family without a martyr, without a relative who suffered horribly. Idonoi children have grown to manhood nursing deep hatred for the Kikones tribe. That is why Agamemnon found it so easy to inspire rebellion. One day, and I hope it is soon, Troy will need to make treaties with the Idonoi, perhaps future alliances. We will need to become friends. So I will not follow the path trodden by Eioneus. No man will say that the Trojans butchered their children or raped their wives and mothers. No blinded man will say to his sons
: ‘Look what they did to me, those evil men!’”

  Kalliades looked at the prince. “You are wrong, Hektor. This a war with only two possible endings. Either Agamemnon triumphs and Troy is a fire-gutted ruin or we destroy Agamemnon and his allies. If torturing a prisoner means learning of the enemy’s plans, we have a greater chance of defeating them. It is that simple.”

  “Nothing is that simple,” Hektor told him. “In a hundred years what will victory or defeat here have meant?”

  Kalliades was confused. “I don’t know what you mean. We won’t be here in a hundred years.”

  “No, we won’t. But the Kikones will, and the Idonoi, and the Mykene, and hopefully the Trojans. What we do here now will have meaning then. Will we all still hate one another and yearn for vengeance for past atrocities? Or will we be at peace as neighbors and friends?”

  “I don’t care about what might happen in a hundred years,” Kalliades stormed. “We are here now. We are fighting now. And we are losing, Hektor.”

  Hektor finished his wine and sighed. “Yes, we are. You think torturing a few prisoners will change that? With Ismaros fallen, the enemy will swarm along the coast, cutting us off. With no reinforcements, no food supplies, and no fresh weapons, we risk being cut to pieces. As a general I know we should pull back to the coast now, get to Carpea and the barges, and cross to Dardania. Thraki is lost, and we should save the army. But as Hektor, son of Priam, I cannot follow my own advice. My father has ordered me to defeat all our enemies and reestablish Rhesos as king of a united Thraki.”

  “That is impossible now,” Kalliades said.

  “Yes, it probably is. But until defeat becomes inevitable, Kalliades, I must remain. I will ride to Kalliros and support the young king. With luck we will crush Achilles and his Thessalians and gather a new force to retake Xantheia.”

  “You know we will not,” Kalliades said. “At best we will hold them back for a few months.”

  “Anything can happen in those few months. The heavy rains of autumn will slow their supplies and open up the sea to us. A fierce winter will sap the morale of the besiegers. Priam could make peace with Agamemnon.”

  Kalliades shook his head. “That last will not happen. You are right, Hektor: We are soldiers, and we have a duty to obey. The orders, though, are senseless now. They were given when there was some hope of success. Now, if we follow them blindly, we face our doom.”

  “Yes, we do,” Hektor admitted. “So will you still ride with me, Kalliades?”

  “We’ll all ride with you, Hektor. Whether it be to victory or to ruin.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

  ORPHANS IN THE FOREST

  For six days the army of Hektor moved south through the Rhodope Mountains. The journey was slow and fraught with danger. Somewhere behind them an Idonoi army was marching hard, seeking them out. Ahead was the broad river Nestos, where Thessalian troops and a second Idonoi army were facing King Rhesos at Kalliros. All the men knew there was likely to be a major battle as soon as they sighted the city.

  There were no supplies reaching the Trojan army now. Rations were short, and teams of hunters rode out daily seeking deer and game. Even when they were successful, the result was pitifully inadequate to feed three thousand men.

  Banokles, on a new mount, a dappled gray with a mean eye, was riding with Ursos and twenty other men ahead of the main force, scouting for enemy troops. The long lances had been left behind, and the riders now carried Phrygian bows as well as their sabers. Their orders were specific: Avoid direct conflict and upon sight of the enemy send a rider back to report.

  Ursos had been placed in charge of the troop, and the responsibility had made him surly. His mood was not improved by Banokles’ constantly calling him “General,” a title swiftly taken up by the other riders.

  In the course of the afternoon a young horseman named Olganos spotted a wild pig in a thicket. He and Justinos and Skorpios set off in pursuit of it. Ursos ordered a halt while the hunt continued, and the rest of the troop rode into a stand of trees and dismounted. They had seen no sign of enemy forces, though earlier that day they had spotted some woodsmen felling logs above a river. The men had been Kikones tribesmen, and they had told Ursos they had hidden from an Idonoi raiding party two days before.

  Olganos and the hunters returned triumphant, carrying the dead pig. It was a scrawny, thin beast, but they gutted and quartered it, built a fire and carved a spit, and settled down to wait while the meat cooked.

  Banokles walked to the tree line and sat down, scanning the land to the south. It was green and verdant, with rolling hills and wooded valleys. Good farming land, he thought. Not like the parched farm on which he had been born, his family scratching a living, always hungry. He pictured a house on the hillside below. There was a stream close by. Cool water in the summer, a gentle breeze blowing through the trees. A man could raise horses or pigs or sheep. All three, perhaps. He wondered if Red would like to live in the mountains, far from any cities.

  Then he saw the smoke on the horizon, huge plumes rising from beyond the distant hills.

  Banokles pushed himself to his feet and called out to Ursos. The troop leader walked over and stood next to him, staring silently at the smoke. “Forest fire, you think?” he asked at last.

  Banokles shrugged. “Could be. I don’t know what’s beyond those hills.”

  The other men gathered around. Olganos, a hawk-nosed young man with black curly hair, voiced the concern they all felt. “According to the Thrakian scouts, we should be reaching Kalliros by tomorrow. What if that smoke is the city burning?”

  “Don’t say that!” Ursos hissed. “If Kalliros has fallen, we are all dead men.”

  “Speak for yourself, General,” Banokles snapped. “I promised Red I’d be back, and no sheep-shagging Idonoi is going to stop me. Nor any other sheep-shagging bastards from any other sheep-shagging country.”

  “The mind of a philosopher, the language of a poet,” said young Olganos with a smile. “Is there no end to your talents?”

  Banokles did not answer him. The distant smoke had darkened his spirits.

  Moving back into the trees, the men ate their fill of roast pork, then mounted their horses and continued south.

  They rode warily in a staggered skirmish line, for the land was broken by sudden dips and gullies and stands of trees that could hide enemy warriors. Several of the riders had bows in their hands, arrows notched to the strings. Banokles, who was far from a skilled archer, remained alert, ready to charge his horse either at or away from any enemy who came into sight.

  It was close to dusk as they rode up the last hill. Ursos called a halt below the crest, and they dismounted, moving cautiously up to the rim. Their worst fears were realized. Below them the fortress city of Kalliros was aflame, and they could see enemy warriors outside the walls, carrying plunder. By a huge campfire Banokles saw a group of warriors holding long spears with heads impaled on them. Around that grisly scene were cheering crowds waving their swords in the air. Banokles scanned the open area around the eastern wall. Several thousand fighting men were in sight. Many more would be inside the city and encamped by the western wall, beyond his line of sight. Out on the river beyond there were scores of ships.

  Ursos moved alongside Banokles. “How many soldiers, do you think?” he asked.

  Banokles shrugged. “Anywhere from ten to fifteen thousand. Many of them are not Idonoi. No paint. No leggings. I’d say they were Thessalian or Macedonian.”

  Ursos swore softly. “Look at the river. More galleys coming in. If they move on to blockade the Hellespont, we won’t get home even if we reach the barges at Carpea.”

  “Well, it’s no use sitting here,” Banokles said. “We should get back.”

  Ursos pulled off his helm and ran his fingers through his long black hair. “Hektor will need to know how swiftly they get on the march again and in what direction they head. They could move east to block us or north to meet us in the mountains.”

  “Or both
,” said Olganos, who had been listening.

  “Yes. Or both.”

  “And there is another Idonoi army somewhere behind us,” Olganos pointed out.

  Ursos turned to Banokles. “You stay here with five men and watch where the enemy marches. I’ll take the rest of the troop back to Hektor and stop the advance. Once the enemy is on the move, you head north to join us as fast as you can.”

  “Why don’t you stay behind?” Banokles asked.

  “Because I’m the bastard general, as you keep pointing out. I am leaving you in charge, Banokles. Don’t do anything reckless. Just gather the information and move out when you have it.”

  “Oh, you don’t want us charging the fortress and taking it back, then?”

  “No, I don’t.” Ursos sighed. “Just keep yourself safe.” Then he swung to Olganos. “You stay here, too, as second in command.”

  “Second in command of five men? I’m not sure I can handle such responsibility.”

  “And I’m sure you can’t,” Ursos snapped. “But you’ve a quick mind,” he added, his voice softening, “and you have nerve. I’ll leave Ennion, Skorpios, Justinos, and Kerio with you. Any problem with that?”

  Banokles thought about the question. Kerio was a troublemaker, a sly man who constantly sought to irritate him. But he was a good fighter and a fine archer. “No problem, Ursos,” he said.

  “You might want to swap Ennion’s mount,” Olganos put in. “He’s older and slower than the others, and we might need speed tomorrow.”

  “Good thought,” Banokles said. “I always like to have someone around to do the thinking.”

  The moon was high above the forest, but Skorpios could not sleep. He’d had enough of battles and war and wished with all his heart he had not run away from his father’s farm to join the army. He still recalled the bright morning two years earlier when the recruiting captain had arrived in the settlement, his armor gleaming, sunlight glinting from his helm. He was, Skorpios had decided on that day, the most handsome man he had ever seen. The officer had dismounted in the market square and called out to the men gathered there. “Your nation is at war, Trojans. Are there heroes among you?”