Settings

02 Shield of Thunder 42


  “Yes.”

  “Good. I’ll relieve him in a while.”

  “How is Ennion? You think he’ll be able to travel tomorrow?”

  “He is already traveling,” Banokles answered. “He’s walking the Dark Road. His horse is in better shape than the others. Let the fat old nurse ride him. You should take his sword. Yours is looking battered and likely to break the next time you use it.”

  “By Ares, you are a cold bastard,” Olganos told him.

  “He is dead. We are not. We leave at first light.”

  The boulder-strewn road leading up and through the high pass of Kilkanos was littered with the debris of a departed army. Broken swords lay among the stones. A shattered helm glinted in the early-morning sunshine. Discarded items that had once been of value now gathered dust. Here and there Kalliades could see splashes of dried blood where the wounded had been tended. The pass itself was narrow and winding, climbing ever higher into the mountains. Kalliades and his three hundred volunteers had taken up a defensive position some eighty paces below the highest point, where the pass narrowed to a mere thirty paces across. Towering rock faces rose on either side. Kalliades placed his hundred archers on the higher ground to the left and right, where they could find shelter behind rocks. The more heavily armored infantry was stationed at the center. The men were all Kikones with nowhere left to run.

  Scouts had warned Hektor that an Idonoi army some seven thousand strong was marching toward them. They were close and would be in sight before noon.

  Kalliades had volunteered to remain with the rear guard for the two days Hektor had requested the pass be held. Hektor had urged him not to stay. “I will need you in the days to come, Kalliades. I don’t want you dead on some Thrakian rock.”

  “If you know of a better man to plan a defense, then let him stay,” Kalliades had said. “The Thrakians are good fighters, but there is not a strategist among them. And you need this pass held. We can’t afford to have armies coming at us from two sides.”

  Reluctantly Hektor had agreed, and they had said their farewells that morning.

  The Thrakians were grim men who had fought well during the long campaign. It irked them that it had all ended so badly. Hektor had offered them the chance to come with him back to Troy, but they had decided to stay and fight on against the invaders.

  Kalliades moved among them, giving orders. They responded with instant obedience but little warmth. Though they trusted his judgment and respected his skills, he was a foreigner and a stranger to them.

  A foreigner and a stranger.

  It suddenly occurred to Kalliades that he had always been a stranger, even among his own people. Climbing to a high rock, he sat down and gazed back down the pass. When the enemy came, they would be tired from the climb. They would be hit with volley after volley of arrows and then, when closer, bronze-tipped javelins. The sheer walls of rock would compress their formations, making it difficult to dodge the missiles. Then Kalliades would attack them with his heavily armored Thrakian infantry, forcing them back. They would retreat and regroup. He had no doubts the defenders could hold for several charges. But they would take losses, their arrows would soon be exhausted, and concerted attacks by an enemy with the advantage of numbers would wear them down. No matter what strategies he concocted, the result would be the same. If the enemy forces were determined and brave, they would break through before dusk.

  Hektor had understood this. The rear guard was doomed. It was unlikely that any of them would leave the pass alive.

  The face of Piria appeared in his mind, sunshine glinting from her shorn blond hair. In his memory she was standing on the beach, laughing as the men of the Penelope struggled to catch the errant pigs. It had been a good day, and it had taken on a golden hue these last three years.

  Then the image blurred, and he saw again Big Red standing in the doorway of his small house, wearing robes of scarlet and black. It was the day before the army was due to return to Thraki for the spring campaign. Kalliades had invited her in, but she had stood her ground.

  “I will not enter your home, Kalliades. I do not like you, and you have no affection for me.”

  “Then what are you doing here?”

  “I want Banokles to come home safely. I do not want him drawn into your need for death.”

  The words surprised him. “I don’t want to die, Red. Why would you think that?”

  She looked at him, her expression softening. “I have changed my mind. I will come in. You have wine?”

  He led her through to the small garden at the rear of the house, and they sat together on a curved bench in the shade of a high wall.

  The wine was cheap and mildly bitter on the tongue, but Red did not seem to mind. She looked him in the eye, her gaze direct. “Why did you rescue the priestess?” she asked.

  He shrugged. “She reminded me of my sister, who was killed by violent men.”

  “That may be true, but it is not the whole reason. Banokles talks of you with great respect and affection, so I have heard all the stories of your travels. I am not young anymore, Kalliades, but my wisdom has grown with the years. I know men. By Hera, I know more about men than I would ever have wished to know. So many of you are quick to notice flaws and weaknesses in others while being completely blind to your own faults and fears. Why do you have no friends, Kalliades?”

  The question made him uncomfortable, and he began to regret inviting her in. “I have Banokles.”

  “Yes, you do. Why no others? And why no wife?”

  He rose from the seat. “I do not answer to you,” he said.

  “Are you afraid, Kalliades?”

  “I fear nothing.”

  He could not escape her gaze, and it disconcerted him. “Now, that is a lie,” she said softly.

  “You do not know me. No one does.”

  “No one does,” she repeated. “And you are wrong again. I know you, Kalliades. I don’t know why you are the way you are. Perhaps a favorite pony died when you were young or you were buggered by a friendly uncle. Perhaps your father fell off a cliff and drowned. It doesn’t matter. I know you.”

  Anger surged through him. “Just go!” he said. “When I need the wisdom of a fat whore, I’ll send for you.”

  “Ah,” she said, no trace of anger in her voice, “and now I see that deep down you also know. You are just too frightened to hear it.”

  In that moment he had wanted to strike her, to wipe that smug look from her face. Instead he had stepped back away from her, feeling trapped in his own home.

  “Tell me, then,” he demanded. “Speak this dreadful truth. I do not fear it.”

  “The dreadful truth is that deep down you have one great fear. You fear life.”

  “What is this nonsense? Have you been chewing meas root?”

  “You saved a woman who meant nothing to you and faced almost certain death as a result.”

  “She was worth saving.”

  “I’ll not disagree with that. On its own it was a fine deed. Heroic. The stuff of legends. When Odysseus walked down to face the pirates, you went with him. You told Banokles you wanted to see what would happen. You are an intelligent man. You know what should have happened. They should have cut you to pieces. Banokles thinks you are a man of enormous courage. But I am not Banokles. There is a part of you, Kalliades, that yearns for death. An empty part with nothing to fill it. No love, no intimacy, no dreams, no ambition. That is why you have no friends. You have nothing to give them, and you fear what they could give to you.”

  Her words cut through his defenses like an icy blade. “I have known love,” he argued. “I loved Piria. That is no lie.”

  “I believe you. And that is how I came to know you. You are close to thirty years old, and you have had one great love. How curious, then, that it should have been for a woman who could never return that love. A woman you knew could never return it. Shall I tell you what you saw in that frightened, abused, and doomed girl? A reflection of yourself. Lost and alone, friend
less and deserted.” She stood then and brushed the creases from her robes.

  “Banokles is my friend,” he said, hearing just how defensive those words were.

  She shook her head, dismissing even that small attempt to stand his ground. “My Banokles is not a thinker or he would have understood you better. He is a friend to you, yes, but in your mind, whether you know it or not, he is no more than a big hound whose adoration allows you to deceive yourself, to let you believe you are like other people. He saved your life, Kalliades, and you have dragged him into every dangerous folly. Friends do not do that. The day you finally decide to die, do not allow Banokles to be beside you.”

  She had walked away then, but he had called out to her. “I am sorry that you despise me, Red.”

  “If I despise you,” she had told him, sadness in her voice, “it is only that I despise myself. We are so alike, Kalliades. Closed off from life, no friends, no loved ones. That is why we need Banokles. He is life, rich and raw, in all its glory. No subtlety, no guile. He is the fire we gather around, and his light pushes back the shadows we fear.” She had fallen silent for a moment. Then she had looked at him.

  “Think of a childhood memory,” she said.

  He blinked as an image flared to life.

  “What was it?” she asked him.

  “I was a child, hiding from raiders in a flax field.”

  “The day your sister died?”

  “Yes.”

  She sighed. “And that is your tragedy, Kalliades. You never came out of that flax field. You are still there, small and frightened and hiding from the world.”

  High in the rocks Kalliades pushed thoughts of Red from his mind. The men had lit cookfires, and he was about to stroll down and eat with them, when he saw riders in the distance.

  At first they were little more than specks, but as they came closer, he recognized the glint of Trojan armor.

  On the far side of the pass he saw that his archers had also spotted the group and were notching arrows to their bows. Calling out to them not to shoot, he climbed down and walked out to meet the small group.

  Banokles came riding up toward him, then lifted his leg and jumped clear of the weary gray horse he was riding. “Good to see you,” he said. “We’ve rescued the sons of Rhesos, and now you can take charge. I’m sick of command.” He gazed around. “Where’s the army?”

  “Heading for Carpea. I am in charge of the rear guard.”

  “You’ve not enough men. We caught sight of the Idonoi horde. They’re close. Thousands of the cowsons.”

  “We only have to hold them for two days.”

  “Ah, well, I expect we can do that.”

  “There is no ‘we,’ Banokles. This is my duty. You must take the sons of Rhesos on to Carpea. Hektor will be glad to see them.”

  Banokles pulled off his helm and scratched his short blond hair. “You are not thinking clearly, Kalliades. You’ll need me and my boys here. These Thrakian sheep shaggers will probably run at the first sight of a painted face.”

  “No, they won’t.” Kalliades sighed and thought back to his conversation with Red. “Listen to me,” he said. “This is your troop. Ursos told Hektor he had placed you in command. So I am now ordering you to ride on with them. I’ll see you at Carpea or over in Dardania if you have already crossed the Hellespont.”

  “Have you forgotten we are sword brothers?”

  Kalliades ignored the question. “Stay wary as you head east. There are other, smaller passes through the mountains, and there may be enemy riders out there.”

  “I take it you won’t object if we rest the horses for a while,” Banokles said coldly. “The climb has taken it out of them.”

  “Of course. Get yourself some food, too.”

  Without another word Banokles led his horse up the pass. Kalliades watched his riders follow him.

  It was close to midday when they rode away. Banokles did not say goodbye or even look back. Kalliades watched as they cleared the crest of the pass. “Farewell, Banokles, my friend,” he whispered.

  “I see them!” an archer shouted, pointing down the pass. Kalliades drew his sword and called his infantrymen to him. Far below he saw sunlight glinting from thousands of spears and helms.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

  THE RELUCTANT GENERAL

  Banokles was still angry as he led his small troop over the crest of the pass and down toward the wide flatlands below. After all they had been through together, why would Kalliades have treated him so curtly? It was hurtful, and it confused him.

  The old nurse Myrine urged her horse alongside his. Untrained as a rider, she looked uncomfortable on Ennion’s bay mare, clinging with one hand to the reins, with the other to its mane. Her face was red with the effort of maintaining her balance. “Is it far to Carpea?” she asked.

  “Yes,” Banokles told her.

  “I don’t know if I can sit this horse for much longer. I have bad knees, you know. They pain me.”

  Banokles didn’t know what to tell her. She was too old to walk to Carpea. “It’ll get easier,” he said, though he didn’t know if that was true. Wheeling his horse away, he rode back to where Justinos and Skorpios were bringing up the rear. “You know how far it is to Carpea?” he asked Justinos.

  The big warrior shrugged. “A few days, I guess. Perhaps four. I didn’t count the traveling days when we set out.”

  “Me neither.”

  Skorpios spoke up. “Olganos says it will take us around three days.”

  “I vote we put Olganos in charge,” Banokles said. “He seems to know what he’s doing.”

  Justinos shook his head. “Too young. We’ll stick with you. The old woman looks ready to fall off the mare.”

  “Bad knees,” Banokles said.

  Skorpios touched heels to his mount and rode over to her. Banokles and Justinos followed. The youngster dismounted and held the reins of the mare while Myrine eased her right leg over the beast’s back until she was sitting side on. “Ennion’s horse is a gentle creature,” Skorpios told her. “She will not be startled or throw you. Is that easier on the knees?”

  “Yes,” the old nurse told him, settling Obas more comfortably on her lap. “Thank you. You are a sweet boy.”

  The afternoon sun was strong, but a cool wind was blowing through the mountains as they rode on. The land was wide and open, rising and falling through gentle wooded hills and gullies. High above Banokles saw a flight of geese heading north toward a distant lake. He had always liked geese, especially roasted in their own fat. His stomach churned.

  The dark-haired young Prince Periklos brought Kerio’s mount alongside him as they approached a small wood. Banokles glanced at the lad. His pale tunic was edged with gold thread, and there was more gold in his belt than Banokles would earn in a season.

  “We should find you a sword,” Banokles said, “or perhaps a long dagger.”

  “Why? I could not defeat an armored foe.”

  “Perhaps not,” Banokles said, “but you could slash off his balls as he killed you.”

  Periklos grinned. It made him look even younger and more vulnerable. “I’m sorry about your father,” Banokles said. “People say he was a great man.”

  The boy’s smile faded. “What will we do in Troy?” he asked.

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Will I even be welcome there? I have no lands, no army, no fortune.”

  Banokles shrugged. “Neither have I. Maybe you could train to be a metalsmith. I always wanted to do that when I was young. Melt metal and bash it.”

  “Not me,” the prince said. “They all become crippled. My father said that heating the ore makes the air bad. All the smiths lose feeling in their fingers and then their toes.”

  “You are right,” Banokles said. “Never really thought of it before. Bad air, eh? Never heard of that.”

  Periklos leaned in. “We have deep caves in the mountains where the air is really bad sometimes. People go into them to sleep and then just die.
When I was small, some travelers took refuge in just such a cave. Five men and several women. A passer-by found them all dead and ran to a nearby village to alert the headman. They returned to the cave, but it was night, and they were carrying torches. The headman went into the cave, and there was a sound like thunder and a great brightness. The headman was hurled from the cave, his eyebrows and beard singed off.”

  “Was he dead?” Banokles asked.

  “I don’t think so. After that no one went near the caves. They say a fire-breathing monster lived there.”

  “Maybe he liked the bad air,” Banokles offered.

  Periklos sighed. “What is Troy like?”

  “Big.”

  “Do you live in a palace?”

  “No. I did once. For a while, anyway. I have a house with my wife, Red.”

  “You have children?”

  “No.”

  “Maybe Obas and I could stay with you. Myrine could cook.”

  “The cooking sounds good,” Banokles said. “Red is a wonderful woman, but the food she prepares tastes like goat droppings. Except for the cakes, but then, she gets them from a baker she knows. Anyway, I expect Hektor will give you rooms in his palace. Have you met him?”

  Periklos nodded. “My father likes him a lot.” His head bowed. “Liked him, I should say.” His expression hardened. “One day I will come back with an army, and I will kill every Idonoi. There will be nothing left of them. Not even memories.”

  “Always good to have a plan,” Banokles said.

  “What is your plan?”

  Banokles grinned. “To get home and snuggle up to Red, put my head on the pillow, and sleep for several days. After getting drunk, of course.”

  Periklos smiled. “I was drunk once. I crept into Father’s rooms and drank a cup of wine without any water. It was horrible. The room spun, and I fell. Then I puked. I felt sick for days.”

  “You need to work at it,” Banokles told him. “After a while you find the golden moment. That’s what my father called it. All worries cease, all problems shrink, and the world just seems… seems happy.”

  “What then?”