02 Shield of Thunder 41

  “Through the Hellespont and home.”

  “Come aboard and share a cup of wine with me,” Helikaon said. A rope was lowered, and the chubby merchant heaved his way up to the taller ship, clambering over the rail red-faced and breathing hard. He gazed around with interest.

  “I have heard of the Xanthos, King Aeneas,” he said. “A very fine vessel.”

  “My friends call me Helikaon, and I have always been a friend to those who serve the emperor.”

  The man bowed. “I am Oniganthas. Last year I could have described myself as a rich merchant. These days poverty beckons. This war of yours is ruinous to trade.”

  Helikaon ordered wine brought and led Oniganthas to the high rear deck. The merchant sipped his wine, murmured appreciative comments concerning its quality, and then stood silently, his large dark eyes watching Helikaon.

  “Where has your voyage taken you?” Helikaon asked.

  “From Athens along the coast and up to Thraki. No trade there any longer.”

  “So you sailed down to Argos?”

  Oniganthas nodded. “And sold my cargo at a small loss. These are not good days, Helikaon.”

  “And what news did you carry to Argos?”

  “News? I carried spices and perfumes.”

  “Let us not play games, Oniganthas. You are a neutral vessel. Were I one of Agamemnon’s generals or admirals, I would seek to use such a vessel to carry information. Have you been asked to perform such a service?”

  “We must be wary here,” Oniganthas said with a sly smile. “Many people will talk on beaches or at ports, but as a neutral it would be ill advised of me to offer my services to one side or the other. That would make me an agent of one of the powers, and my neutrality would be forfeit.”

  Helikaon considered his words. On the surface the argument seemed reasonable enough, but neither Agamemnon nor his generals would respect the neutrality of a Hittite vessel unless it suited their purpose. The only way Oniganthas could sail safely through the war zone would be if he carried evidence of Mykene safe conduct. With trade so savagely disrupted, the Hittite merchant was probably supplementing his income by relaying messages to and from Mykene generals.

  “I can see,” Helikaon said at last, “that you are a man of subtlety.”

  The merchant drained his wine and handed the cup back to a waiting sailor. “As all merchants must, I seek profit. There is no profit for me without neutrality. With it I am free to conduct business with any of the city-states or nations around the Great Green. Indeed, it has always been my hope to strengthen my dealings with Dardania.”

  “And no reason why we should not,” Helikaon said. “I have been looking for a man of enterprise to hold some gold for me against such time when I might need that gold.”

  Helikaon saw the glint of greed in the man’s eyes. “How much gold are we speaking of, Helikaon?”

  “Enough, were it to be used so, to build several trading galleys, and certainly enough to offset a poor trading season.” Helikaon paused, watching the man and allowing the lure of the suggested bribe to work on him.

  “And this man would merely hold the gold for you?” Oniganthas asked.

  Helikaon smiled. “Or perhaps make it grow to our joint advantage.”

  “Ah, you seek a business alliance, then?”

  “Indeed so. We should talk more of this. Perhaps you would stay with us for the night.”

  “I would enjoy that,” Oniganthas said, “for I have been starved of intelligent company recently. Most of my nights have been spent listening to Mykene sailors and soldiers and”—he looked into Helikaon’s eyes—“their endless talk of wars and victories and plans.”

  The fleet beached on a barren uninhabited island, and Helikaon, Oniganthas alongside him, watched as Oniacus and several of the sailors brought out items they had plundered during their raids. There were cups and goblets of gold inset with gems and heavy jewelry of Mykene design. Everything was laid on a blanket on the sand.

  Oniganthas knelt to examine the pieces in the fading light. “Exquisite,” he said.

  While the cookfires were being lit, Helikaon led Oniganthas away from the men, and they sat and talked until they were called to eat. Later, as the merchant slept, Helikaon walked away from the campsite and up to the crest of a high hill. What he had heard from Oniganthas was dispiriting.

  Gershom and Oniacus joined him. “Did you learn much from the merchant?” Gershom asked.

  “I did, and little of it good. I need time to think. Let us walk awhile.”

  The island was rocky and inhospitable, but on a nearby hilltop someone had built a temple. Moonlight shone on its white columns.

  “I wonder who it is dedicated to,” Oniacus said.

  Helikaon did not care, but he strolled with the others to the deserted building. There were no statues around the perimeter and none inside. The dust of centuries lay on the stone-slabbed floor. Part of the roof had collapsed, allowing moonlight to shine through. They searched the building but found no carvings, no implements, no broken cups or lamps.

  Helikaon knelt and brushed away the thick dust from a section of the floor. Beneath it was a deep curved line carved into the stone slabs. Gershom and Oniacus joined him, and together they scraped back the dust from adjoining slabs. The symbol they revealed covered the entire floor. There were two circles, the larger enclosing the smaller, and a diagonal line cutting through them both.

  “What does it mean?” Oniacus asked.

  “It is an ancient symbol,” Helikaon told him. “You can find it on old maps. Merchants once used the symbols to mark areas of trade or military power. The outer circle, if broken, means there are no hostile forces. A broken inner circle means little trade exists in the area. Unbroken circles mean the opposite: strong defenses but good trade.”

  “And a line like this, running through two unbroken circles?” Oniacus asked.

  “It means the area has not been scouted. It is unknown.”

  “So,” Gershom said, staring down at the carving. “Someone came to this barren rock and built a temple to the unknown?”

  “It would appear so,” Helikaon answered. “How strange. They would have had to transport the marble and timber across the Great Green, then haul it up here. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of workers and stonemasons constructing a building no one would visit on an island without a settlement.”

  Gershom laughed. “I think it is a grand jest. We all worship the unknown and the unknowable. That is the essence of our lives. All we can ever know is what was, not what will be. Yet we yearn to know, to understand the mystery. Whoever built this had a fine sense of humor and an eye for the future. A temple to the unknown, built by someone unknown, for an unknown purpose. It is delightful.”

  “Well, I think it is nonsense,” Oniacus complained. “A waste of good marble and labor.”

  When they walked back out into the moonlight, Helikaon stared out over the starlit sea. Gershom said: “Are you ready to talk about what you learned?”

  Helikaon took a deep breath. “Ismaros has fallen, as has Xantheia,” he said. “That leaves only Kalliros. The fortifications there are not strong. So we must assume it will be under siege or lost by now.”

  “But Hektor is in Thraki,” Oniacus said. “He never loses. He will crush the enemy.”

  “According to Oniganthas, Hektor has won several battles, but more and more enemy forces are pouring in from Thessaly and Mykene lands. The last reports said Hektor was in the Rhodope Mountains, facing three enemy armies.”

  “He will fight them and defeat them,” Oniacus insisted.

  “Perhaps,” Helikaon agreed, “but small victories will mean nothing. Thraki is lost. I think Hektor will try to get his army back to Carpea and the barges, then cross to Dardania. It is his only hope of survival.”

  “What about the fleet of Menados?” Gershom put in.

  “Either they are heading into the Hellespont to intercept Hektor or they are planning to raid Dardania. If it is the former
and Hektor’s barges attempt to cross the channel unprotected, they will be sunk.”

  “You will forgive me for pointing out,” Gershom said, “that there are a number of assumptions here. Hektor may not be heading for Carpea. He may have gone to the aid of Kalliros. And even if you are right, he may already be at Carpea and preparing to make the crossing. There is no certainty that we will be in time to help him.”

  Helikaon walked away from them both, leaving them arguing. He needed time to think.

  If he sailed for Carpea and the Mykene admiral Menados attacked Dardania, the slaughter would be great. If he sailed home to defend his lands and the Mykene destroyed Hektor and the Trojan Horse, the war was lost.

  And there was another nagging thought, one that he had no intention of sharing with his lieutenants. The fortress of Dardanos could withstand a siege unless the enemy was sure that the city gates would be opened to them. Agamemnon was a cunning enemy and had already used traitors once against Troy, when he had bribed Priam’s son Agathon to rebel against him. What if he had agents within Dardanos?

  He thought then of Halysia. The last time the Mykene had attacked, they had raped and stabbed her and murdered her son before her eyes. Will you see her put through that again? whispered a voice from his heart.

  Not a man given to passionate outbursts or foul oaths, Helikaon suddenly swore long and colorfully. His two companions fell silent. “There is no rational way to reach a decision,” he said at last. “There are too many imponderables. Menados may already be in the Hellespont, or he may have landed an army in Dardania. Hektor may be fighting at Kalliros or battling his way to the coast. Then there are the fleets that Odysseus used to attack Ismaros. Where are they? We know nothing.”

  “Then we are starting from the right place,” Gershom said, glancing back at the moonlit temple.

  Banokles edged his gray clear of the trees and rode out onto the downward slope. Behind him came Justinos, with the young Prince Periklos sharing his horse. After that came the nurse Myrine and the child Obas, riding Kerio’s mount. Skorpios and Ennion followed them. Banokles glanced back. Skorpios was carrying his bow. Ennion, his head wound still seeping blood through the stitches, looked all in, his shoulders hunched and his head bowed.

  Some way ahead Banokles saw Olganos dismount just before the crest of a low hill and creep to the top, peering out over the open land beyond.

  The midday sun blazed down from a clear sky, but a cool wind was blowing through the mountains. Banokles was sick of being in command, and a dull headache was throbbing at his temples. He had no idea where they were heading, save that Olganos had talked of a high pass. Banokles recalled traveling through such a place but would not be able to find it again if his life depended on it.

  Which, of course, it did.

  The throbbing increased. Banokles pulled off his helmet, allowing the breeze to cool his sweat-drenched fair hair.

  Justinos drew alongside. “Ennion is suffering,” he said. “That blow may have cracked his skull.”

  Banokles donned his helm and heeled the gray into a run up the hillside. Reining in alongside Olganos’ mount, he crept up to crouch alongside the young soldier.

  “See anything?” he asked.

  Olganos shook his head. “I think we are close to the pass,” he said, pointing to the towering snow-capped mountains forming a massive wall across their path. “We have to cross that dry valley and the hills beyond. There are stands of beech and pine along the way that could hide an army.”

  Banokles peered down into the valley. There was no sign of horsemen or soldiers. However, as Olganos had said, there could be men hidden from view within the trees. Olganos voiced the same concern. “Once we move into the open,” he said, “we will be spotted by any enemy scouts within the tree line.”

  “You have a plan?” Banokles asked hopefully.

  “We don’t have a choice. We must reach the pass.”

  Banokles was relieved. He didn’t want any more choices. “Good,” he said. “Can we make it by dusk?”

  “On fresh horses, yes. Ours are tired, and once we come out of the valley, the land rises all the way to the pass.”

  Rising to his feet, Banokles waved the others forward, then mounted his gray and led them over the crest.

  As they approached the valley floor, the heat began to rise. The horses plodded on, heads down, their hooves raising small plumes of dust, sweat streaking their flanks. The valley was dry and hot, with little vegetation.

  The going was slow, and the afternoon wore on. Then Skorpios called out. Banokles looked back to see that Ennion had fallen from his mount. Calling a halt, Banokles swung the gray and rode to where the wounded man was struggling to rise. Banokles dismounted and walked over to him, taking hold of his arm and hauling him to his feet. Ennion’s eyes were glazed, his face ashen. Suddenly he doubled over, fell to his knees, and vomited.

  Banokles stepped away from him, then looked around at the small group. The horses had little more in them, and the men were exhausted. “How far to the pass now?” he asked Olganos.

  The young man shrugged. “In the state we are in? Not before nightfall, I’d say.”

  Off to the right was a thick stand of beech trees. “Ride in and see if you can find water.”

  “If we don’t reach the pass ahead of the Idonoi…”

  “I know what might happen,” Banokles snapped. “Now go!”

  Olganos rode off. Banokles helped Ennion to his feet and lifted him to his horse. “Do not fall off again. Hear me?”

  “I hear you,” the warrior mumbled.

  “Let’s get into the trees,” Banokles told the others. “It will be cooler there.”

  Olganos found a hidden glade and led the group to it. There were boulders of white marble and flowering bushes sprouting between the stones, their crimson blooms trailing down into a wide rock tank full of cool water. The tank was fed by a stream that gushed down over the boulders in a succession of tiny waterfalls. There was good grass there, and the glade was of such beauty that Banokles could almost believe that nymphs and dryads were hidden close by.

  The old nurse limped to the waterside and eased herself down, splashing her face and hair, then drinking deeply. The two princes went with her. Justinos and Skorpios helped Ennion from his horse and sat him down with his back to a tree. Banokles filled his helmet with water and took it to the injured man. Ennion drank a little. His face was still gray, but his eyes were less glazed. Banokles examined the man’s head wound. The long cut to his skull had been stitched, but the flesh was now swollen and discolored. Head wounds were always problematic. Banokles once had known a man who had taken an arrow through the temple and survived. Another soldier, a tough, burly man, had been struck by a fist in a tavern fight and had died on the spot.

  Leaving Ennion to rest, the others saw to the horses, using dried grass to wipe the foamy sweat from their flanks. Once they were cooled down, the beasts were led to the pool and allowed to drink their fill.

  As the men settled down in the shade of the beech trees, the horses cropping the rich grass nearby, Banokles stripped off his armor and jumped into the rock pool. It was deeper than he had thought, and he sank beneath the surface. The water was cold, the feeling as it closed over him exquisite. All sounds faded away, as did the headache he had endured for most of the day.

  Coming to the surface, he swam back to the bank and hauled himself clear of the water. He saw Olganos and the slender blond-haired Skorpios sitting quietly together. There was no sign of Justinos. Banokles dried himself off and walked over to the two warriors. “You lads should take a swim,” he said.

  “What if the enemy comes?” Olganos asked.

  Banokles laughed. “If they send an army, you’ll be just as dead whether you’re hot and stinking like a pig or cool and refreshed.”

  “Truth in that,” Skorpios said, rising to his feet and unstrapping the ties of his cuirass.

  “Where’s Justinos?” Banokles asked.

?I told him to wait back in the trees, watching the valley,” Olganos replied.

  “Good. While he’s doing that, I think I’ll take a nap.”

  Olganos and Skorpios leaped into the rock pool with a mighty splash, and Banokles walked over to sit beside Ennion. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

  “Better. Head feels like there’s a horse trapped inside, trying to kick its way out. Shame about Kerio. Miserable cowson, but he could fight.”

  “The time to think about the dead is when you are safe back home,” Banokles said.

  “You think we’ll get safely back home?”

  “Why shouldn’t we?”

  Ennion smiled. “It doesn’t bother you that we’re outnumbered and trapped in an enemy land?”

  “Never saw the point in worrying about tomorrow,” Banokles told him. “At this moment we have water, the horses are resting and eating, and I’m about to have a blissful sleep. If the enemy comes, I’ll kill as many of the cowsons as I can. If they don’t, well, we’ll ride on, find Hektor and the rest of the lads, and then go home. Get some sleep, man.”

  “I think I will,” Ennion said. Suddenly he chuckled. “All my life I’ve wanted to do something heroic, something to be remembered for. And now I’ve rescued two sons of a king and fought off twenty enemy soldiers. It feels very fine, Banokles. Very fine. Everything I could have hoped for—except for this bastard headache.”

  “It’ll be gone by morning,” Banokles said, stretching himself out on the grass and closing his eyes. Sleep came almost immediately.

  It was dark when he woke, bright stars shining in the night sky. Sitting up, he glanced at Ennion. The warrior was lying on his back and staring up at the stars.

  “How is the head?” Banokles asked.

  Ennion made no reply. Banokles passed his hand over the warrior’s face. There was no response. Leaning over him, Banokles closed the dead man’s eyes, then pushed himself to his feet.

  Olganos was swimming, Justinos sitting beside the pool. The old nurse and the boys were asleep. Olganos climbed out of the water. Banokles strolled over to him. “You put Skorpios on watch?”