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02 Shield of Thunder 40


  “Did you drag the body back into the forest?” he asked.

  “No, you oaf. I nailed it to a tree with a sign pointing this way,” Kerio answered, lifting his leg and jumping to the ground.

  “You should do something about that nosebleed,” Banokles said.

  “What nose—”

  Banokles’ fist slammed into the man’s face, hurling him from his feet. His helm was knocked clear and clattered against a tree trunk. Kerio hit the ground hard and struggled to rise, but Banokles reached him first, grabbing him by the hair and hauling him upright.

  “I’m going to ask you again,” he said. “Did you drag the sheep-shagging bastard back into the forest?”

  “I did,” the redhead answered, blood dribbling from his broken nose.

  Banokles released his grip on Kerio, who slumped down to the ground. Then he walked over to face the remaining three men. “Any one of you drooping cow turds want to call me an oaf? Come on! Speak your minds!”

  Ennion stepped forward and stood quietly, tugging at his chin beard as if in deep thought. Finally he spoke. “In truth, Banokles, I do not need to be included in this debate, since I have already called you an oaf on many occasions. The last time, I recall, was at your wedding, when you decided to dance on the table, fell off, and got your foot stuck in a piss pot.” The men all laughed.

  Banokles’ anger ebbed away, and he grinned. “That was a good day,” he said. “Or so I’m told. Don’t remember much.”

  Justinos rode into the camp. “More men on the road, Banokles,” he said. “Looks like they are searching for something or someone. We need to move.”

  “Who in Hades are they searching for in the middle of the night?” Banokles muttered. “They ought to be celebrating their victory.” Olganos tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the old woman and the two boys. Banokles walked over to where Myrine was sitting. “They are looking for you?”

  “Yes, sir, I fear they are.”

  “Why?”

  “These boys are the sons of King Rhesos. The Idonoi will want them dead.”

  Banokles helped the old woman to her feet. The chubby boy started to cry again. Olganos approached the nurse. “Let me have him,” he said softly, lifting the boy into his arms. “We are going for a ride on a magic horse,” he told him. “Have you ever seen a magic horse?”

  “Where’s the magic horse?” the child asked, instantly distracted.

  “Back in the trees. We’ll ride him, and if any bad men come, he will sprout wings and we’ll fly away from them. What is your name?”

  “Obas.”

  “A fine name,” Olganos said.

  The group moved back beyond the abandoned shack to where the horses were tethered. Banokles lifted the old nurse to the back of his dappled gray, then swung up behind her. Glancing around, he saw Kerio staggering toward his horse. “Hey, Broken Nose, take the other boy with you.”

  Kerio hauled himself to his horse, then reached down and swung the dark-haired prince up behind him. In the distance Banokles heard men shouting and guessed they had found the body of the Idonoi killed by Kerio and Justinos. Touching heels to his mount, he led the group deeper into the forest.

  “Will we be safe, sir?” the old woman whispered.

  Banokles did not answer her.

  They pushed on through the night, struggling up steep, rocky hillsides and through dense stands of trees. The going was slow and hard, and the riders dismounted often, leading the horses, to rest them. Banokles’ mount was tiring fast as dawn approached. The old nurse Myrine had been too weak to walk the slopes, and the gray had carried her constantly.

  As the first light showed in the east, Banokles called a halt. They had reached a wooded hilltop high in the mountains, and from its vantage point they could see the drifting smoke still rising over the distant city of Kalliros. Below them lay the woods and slopes they had passed through, still shrouded in the last of the night’s gloom. Banokles could see no sign of human movement but felt in his heart that the enemy was still pursuing them.

  While the others rested in a hollow, Banokles strolled up to the edge of the trees and sat down to watch for pursuers. There was no way to escape, not with the old nurse and the children. The only choice was to leave them behind. The thought sat uncomfortably with him. During the ride through the night the old woman had constantly thanked him for his heroism. Truth was, Banokles had been feeling uneasy about his leadership role and had decided to attack the Idonoi to relieve his stress. Fighting always calmed him, made him feel more in control somehow. He didn’t understand it or question it. But then, Banokles was uncomfortable with questions. What he did know was that the previous night’s skirmish had not calmed him. He had broken the nose of one of his men and had landed himself with three unwelcome burdens.

  The nurse had called him a hero. At any other time that would have been pleasant. It was good to be considered a hero, especially in the comfort of a drinking hall, with wine flowing. After the rescue of Andromache, he and Kalliades had been lauded throughout the city. It was months before Banokles had been asked to pay for a drink or a meal.

  Banokles didn’t know much, but he did know that in times of war heroes were usually idiots. More important, they also died young. Banokles had no intention of dying at any time. No, he decided, the children and their nurse had to be left behind. It would be uncomfortable, though, telling the old woman. Then a bright thought occurred to him. Perhaps the riders could slip away quietly while she and the boys were sleeping.

  Banokles swore softly as the face of Kalliades appeared in his mind. He knew Kalliades would never leave them, but then, Kalliades would come up with a brilliant plan to save the children, the nurse, all of his men—and probably the entire Trojan Horse.

  Pulling off his helm, Banokles leaned back against the tree. “May the gods bless you, dear,” the nurse had said. A pox on blessings, he thought. Just give me a fast horse that doesn’t stumble and a blade that doesn’t break.

  Olganos joined him at the tree line. “Any sign of pursuit?” he asked.

  “No.”

  “We’re being forced northwest,” he added.

  “No other way to keep hidden,” Banokles pointed out.

  “I know, but we can’t keep heading this way.”

  Banokles nodded. “We’ll cut back to the north when we’ve lost our pursuers.”

  “We may not have time,” Olganos said. “Ursos will have reached the army by now, and the chances are they will head east, toward the pass at Kilkanos. You agree?”

  Banokles had no idea where they would head. He hadn’t even remembered the name of the pass. “Go on,” he said.

  “We know there was an Idonoi army pursuing them. If we don’t reach the pass soon, the chances are that the Idonoi will be there first. Then we will have an enemy behind us seeking the children and an army ahead of us pursuing Hektor.”

  “You have a plan?”

  “Yes, but you won’t like it. We need to ride fast. We cannot do that unless we lose our pursuers. We need to move on alone—unencumbered.”

  “You want to leave the children?” Banokles asked, his mood lifting.

  “No, I don’t want to. Listen to me, Banokles. I know you have the reputation of a great hero. You fought pirates to rescue a princess, and you fought off twenty men who were trying to kill Hektor’s wife. But this situation is different. The truth is, Kalliros has fallen, Rhesos is dead, Thraki is lost. It no longer matters that the children are royal. They have no army, no leverage, and no value. All they can do is slow us down.”

  “They will indeed—” Banokles began, but Olganos cut him off.

  “I know what you are going to say. So let me say it first. Yes, they will slow us, but heroes do not abandon those in need. And yes, I feel bad about it.” Olganos reddened. “It is just that I am trying to think like a soldier, Banokles.”

  “Nothing wrong with thinking like a soldier,” Banokles told him.

  Olganos swore and turned away. Whe
n he spoke again, his words were full of regret. “Now you are just trying to make me feel better about my cowardice,” he said. Then he sighed. “Heroes shouldn’t be frightened of dying for what is right. I couldn’t see that last night, when you risked your life for those children. I see it now, and I burn with shame.” The young man looked Banokles in the eye. “Forget what I said. I’ll stand with you.”

  Banokles was lost for words. What in Hades was he talking about? Then he saw movement in the far distance, around the city. “Your eyes are keener than mine, Olganos. Can you see men marching?”

  Olganos shaded his eyes with his hand. “Yes, heading south, it looks like. That will take them down toward the coast.”

  “Away from us, anyway,” Banokles said.

  “For a while. If they turn east, they’ll cut across Hektor’s line of march and catch the army as it comes down from the mountains. We need to get to Hektor and warn him.”

  “I agree,” Banokles said. “How many would you say are in that army?”

  “Hard to judge. They are still leaving. Five, perhaps six thousand.”

  “The Trojan Horse can beat that many without breaking a sweat,” Banokles said.

  “Are you not forgetting Ismaros?”

  “What about it?” snapped Banokles, who had indeed forgotten the port city.

  “Odysseus has taken it, which means there will be another army on the coast. If they link with this one, there could be twice as many foes.”

  Banokles fell silent. All those damned places were a mystery to him. Armies marching hither and yon, south, north, east, heading for areas he did not know and passes he could not remember. Ursos had done this to him on purpose. It was revenge for calling him “General.”

  “Keep watch on those slopes,” he told Olganos, then walked back into the trees and down the short slope into the hollow where the group was camped. The old nurse was sitting apart from the soldiers, the boys close, little Obas in her lap and the taller Periklos beside her, his arm on her shoulder.

  Banokles smiled at her, but she gazed at him suspiciously. The men gathered around him, their faces stern.

  Black-bearded Ennion spoke first. “Did Olganos speak to you about the… the problem?” he asked.

  “Yes, he did. You want to add something?”

  “We’ve been talking about it, Banokles. We want you to know we are with you.”

  “With me?”

  Ennion looked uneasy. “I know we joke with you and appear to mock, but we are all proud to fight alongside you. None of us would have rescued those children the way you did. And we all know how you attacked the assassins and saved the lady Andromache. We are none of us great warriors, but we are soldiers of the Horse. We won’t let you down.”

  Banokles glanced at the other men. “You want to keep the children with us?”

  Skorpios nodded, but Justinos rubbed his hand across his shaved head and looked doubtful. “I have to say I think Olganos is right. We’ll probably not make it with them. But yes, I am with you, Banokles. We’ll bring the children to Hektor or die trying.”

  It was like a bad dream. Banokles swung toward Kerio. The man’s eyes were swollen and black, and there was dried blood on his nostrils. “What do you say?”

  “You don’t need to worry about me,” Kerio answered. “I’ll stand.”

  Olganos came running down the slope. “Some twenty warriors,” he said. “And they are not far behind.”

  Banokles walked across to where the old nurse was sitting with the boys. Periklos stepped to meet him.

  “We will not leave her behind,” the boy sternly said. “Take Obas with you, and I will stay with Myrine.”

  “No one is being left behind, boy,” Banokles said sourly. “Stay with the horses. If you see Idonoi coming down that slope, then ride like the wind.” Turning back to his men, he called out, “Fetch your bows!”

  Olganos moved alongside him.” We’re going to fight them all?”

  Banokles did not answer him but ran to his horse and grabbed his bow and quiver of arrows. Then the six warriors ran back up the slope and crept through the undergrowth to the edge of the tree line. Carefully Banokles eased back the branches of a thick bush and peered down the slope.

  Some way below he saw a ragged group of Idonoi warriors moving out onto open ground. There were twenty-two of them. In the lead was a thin man in a cloak of faded yellow. He was following the tracks of the horses.

  The slope was steep. Banokles gauged it at around three hundred paces. “You see that little group of boulders on the hillside?” he asked his men. “We’ll hit them when they reach those rocks. If they’re gutless, they’ll break and run, and we’ll fade back and ride on. If not, they’ll charge, and we’ll keep hitting them. When you see me drop my bow and lay into them, you follow hard. Now spread out. Not too far.”

  The five warriors eased their way back, then crept to better shooting positions.

  Banokles felt calmer now. There were no more decisions to be made. Notching an arrow to his bow, he waited.

  The twenty-two Idonoi were approaching the boulders. They were closely bunched and talking to one another, obviously not expecting an ambush. They would have seen the tracks and known there were only six horses. Outnumbered more than three to one, the Trojans would have to be fleeing before them.

  The thin man in the yellow cloak moved past the boulders and glanced up. Banokles came to his feet and sent a shaft at him. It missed and slammed into the thigh of the warrior behind him. Five other arrows slashed into the advancing men. One warrior took two in the chest. Then a second volley hit the Idonoi. Again Banokles missed his target, the shaft striking a boulder and ricocheting up into the air. Seven of the attackers were down.

  Banokles prayed the rest would turn and run.

  They charged.

  Drawing back on the bowstring, Banokles let fly. This time the arrow punched through the skull of a running warrior, who fell back, then rolled down the slope. Two more of the enemy fell to well-aimed shafts. The Idonoi were close now, no more than twenty paces from the tree line. Banokles shot one last arrow, dropped his bow, and drew his saber and short sword.

  With a bellowing battle cry he surged out of the undergrowth and raced toward the twelve surviving warriors. A tall Idonoi with a painted face leaped at him, swinging a longsword. Banokles ducked under the blow, plunging his short sword into the man’s chest, then hitting him with a savage head butt. As the warrior fell back, the sword tore clear of his body. Banokles lashed out at a second man, his saber slicing through the flesh of the warrior’s forearm.

  Banokles saw Ennion and Kerio charge in, and two more Idonoi fell. Then a blow struck his helm, spinning it clear. Banokles swung around, half-dazed, and launched himself at his attacker. The two collided and hit the ground. Banokles scrambled up, then drove his saber into the man’s skull. The blade stuck fast. Letting go of the hilt, Banokles spun around just in time to parry a thrust from a spearman. Grabbing the spear with his left hand, he dragged the man toward him and kicked the warrior’s legs from under him. As the man fell, Banokles leaped on him, plunging the short sword into his neck. An Idonoi warrior loomed over him, sword raised. The man suddenly gasped, blood spraying from his throat. As the warrior slumped to the grass, Banokles saw the blond Skorpios behind him, his blood-smeared saber in his hand.

  And then the remaining five Idonoi fled the battlefield. They were running so fast that two of them fell on the steep slope and lost their swords as they rolled down.

  Banokles pushed himself to his feet. Olganos brought him his helm. Justinos called out to him, and Banokles saw that the warrior was kneeling beside the fallen Kerio. Banokles looked around for the other men. Ennion was sitting down. There was a long cut to his head, blood flowing over the left side of his face. Skorpios was moving around the battlefield, dispatching wounded Idonoi. Olganos had several cuts to his foreams and was bleeding freely.

  Banokles walked over and knelt beside Kerio. The man was dead, his throat
torn open.

  “Strip his armor,” Banokles said.

  Then he walked among the Idonoi dead. Two of them had been carrying packs. Banokles searched the first and found several loaves and some dried meat. His mood lifted. Tearing off a chunk of bread, he took a bite. It was flat-baked salt bread, which had always been a favorite of his. Putting the pack down, he opened the second.

  Inside was more food and a small wax-stoppered amphora. Breaking the wax seal, he lifted it to his nostrils. The glorious scent of wine came to him. Banokles sighed. Olganos came alongside him.

  “Now, this,” Banokles said, hefting the amphora and drinking deeply, “was worth fighting for.”

  CHAPTER THIRTY

  THE TEMPLE OF THE UNKNOWN

  Helikaon stood at the stern of the Xanthos alongside Oniacus at the port steering oar. The long journey around the western coastline had been largely without incident. They had seen few ships, and those they had had been small trading vessels that had hugged the coastline and sped for land the moment the Dardanian fleet was sighted.

  No war galleys, however, had patrolled the seas, and that worried Helikaon.

  By now Agamemnon’s fleets were huge, and the uneasy question remained: Where were they?

  The rocky coastline of Argos was close off the port bow, and the fleet sailed on past small villages and ports, cutting toward the east and the islands southwest of Samothraki.

  Toward dusk they spotted a high-prowed trading galley heading east. The ship made no effort to evade them, and Helikaon signaled two of his flanking galleys to intercept her. The trader complied, edging his vessel alongside the Xanthos.

  Helikaon strode to the starboard rail and gazed down onto the decks of the trader. The rowers were sitting idle now, their oars drawn in. A fat-bellied merchant wearing voluminous robes of bright purple looked up at him. The man had long dark hair and a beard that had been curled with hot irons in the Hittite manner. “We travel under the protection of the emperor and have no part in your wars,” he called out.

  “Where are you headed?” Helikaon asked him.