02 Shield of Thunder 43

  “Then the room spins, you puke, and you feel sick for days.”

  Periklos laughed. “I shall never drink wine again. Even the thought of it makes my stomach tremble.” They rode in silence for a while, then Periklos said: “You seemed angry when you spoke to the officer in the pass. Why was that?”

  “He used to be my sword brother. But when I offered to help him hold the pass, he refused.”

  “Perhaps he didn’t want you to die with him. I spoke to some of the Kikones. One of them was an officer at the palace. He said they were there to fight to the death.”

  Banokles shook his head. “Kalliades will have a plan. He’ll outwit the enemy. He always does.”

  “If you say so,” Periklos said.

  Banokles heeled his horse forward and headed it up toward the top of a low hill. Periklos was just a boy and knew nothing of the skills of Kalliades. Even so, the lad’s pessimism nagged at him. Banokles had seen the Idonoi horde. No way could a few defenders hold them for long.

  Lost in thought, he rode over the crest of the hill and straight into a large group of some fifty cavalrymen, their faces smeared with paint.

  Banokles swore and drew both of his swords.

  Kalliades was once more back on the Penelope, a fresh wind filling the sail. Piria was beside him, staring back at a black pig struggling in the sea. Her expression was one of concern.

  “Can he make it?” she asked.

  “He will outlive us both,” Kalliades told her.

  She tried to speak to him again, but a great wall of noise shrouded her words: the clash of swords, the screams of men. Her face faded.

  Kalliades opened his eyes. He was lying in a group of boulders, his head pounding, his vision blurred. Struggling to rise, he felt a lancing pain in his chest. The sword of Argurios lay on the ground beside him, the blade smeared with blood. Kalliades looked down at his arms. They, too, were blood-covered. Rolling to his knees, he tried to straighten his legs beneath him but fell again and rolled onto his back. Blood dripped into his right eye, and he brushed it away. Dragging himself farther back from the battle, he sat against a rock. His right eye was swollen and closing fast. He remembered then the bronze ax that had hammered against his helm, shattering it and hurling him from his feet.

  Five attacks they had survived. In the first the enemy had not even reached the infantry, forced back by the deadly rain of shafts coming from the rising ground. Then they had regrouped, bringing shield-men to the front and advancing again. Still the arrows had found targets, thudding into legs, arms, and shoulders. Kalliades had led a charge that had splintered their front rank, and again they had fallen back.

  The third attack had come swiftly, showing Kalliades that the enemy general was a man of stern discipline. His troops would not crack. They would pound on the Thrakian lines like an angry sea.

  For a while then the strategy had changed. Enemy archers creeping forward, shooting up at the Thrakian bowmen, pinning them down.

  Then had come a charge of horsemen. Kalliades had ordered his men to stand firm, locking shields. No horse would willingly ride into a wall.

  Instead the Idonoi riders leaped them up and into the massed ranks, scattering the defenders. The fight was short and bloody, the riders lightly armored. Even so, the losses among the Thrakians were high: broken bones from the kicking horses and wounds from lances that had driven through helms and breastplates.

  By the fifth attack the Thrakian bowmen were running out of shafts, and the enemy advanced with great confidence.

  More than half the Thrakians were dead, and now there were barely enough to hold the narrow pass.

  Kalliades gazed at the hundred or so fighting men. He wanted to join them, but there was no strength left in his limbs. A great tiredness settled on him, and he found himself leaning back and staring up at the sky. The clouds above the mountains were streaked with gold from the dying sun. He saw a flock of birds flying there. It was a beautiful sight. How fine it must be, he thought, to spread your arms and take to the skies, soaring and dipping high above the worries of the world.

  The pain in his chest flared again. Glancing down, he saw that his breastplate was torn and blood was seeping over the scales. He couldn’t remember the wound at first. Then he recalled the leaping horse and the lance that had struck him, knocking him back.

  From where he sat he could see the complete fighting line. It was becoming more concave, almost ready to burst inward. At that point the battle would be over. The line would fragment into groups of skirmishers, the warriors surrounded.

  Instinctively Kalliades looked around for somewhere to hide. What are you doing? he asked himself. There is no escape.

  And he saw again the child he had been, hiding in the flax field.

  Red was right. There was a part of him that had never left it. His sister had been the sun and the stars to him, her love a constant on which he could rely. Her death, so sudden and violent, had scarred him more than he could have known. The little boy in the flax field had decided never to allow love into his life again, with its terrible pain, its awful anguish.

  Do you want to live? he asked himself.

  In that moment, with the last of the sunlight bathing the pass, he knew that he did.

  Then get out of the flax field!

  With a cry of rage and pain Kalliades took up the sword of Argurios and forced himself to his feet. Then he staggered forward into the fray.

  As he did so, he heard the thunder of hooves on stone. Turning, he saw a force of some fifty horsemen galloping down the pass.

  At the center, swords raised, rode Banokles.

  The Thrakian defenders cut away to the left and right, allowing the cavalry through. The lancers tore into the Idonoi warriors, cutting them down. Panic swept through the enemy ranks, and they turned and ran back down the pass, pursued by the cavalry.

  Kalliades tried to sheathe his sword, but his arm was too weary, and the blade clanged to the ground. He sank down to sit on a boulder. Curiously, he could hear the sounds of the sea in his ears.

  Then he slid from the boulder.

  When he finally awoke, he found he had been stripped of his armor and the wound in his chest had been stitched tight. Fires had been lit. Banokles was beside him.

  “Good to see you,” Kalliades said.

  “A pox on you, dung brain,” Banokles told him. “You might have said you were waiting to die.”

  “Would you have gone if I had?”

  “Of course I wouldn’t. That’s what I’m saying. Sword brothers stand together.”

  Taking hold of Banokles’ arm, Kaliades drew himself up to a sitting position. “Where did you find the cavalry?”

  “Down on the plain. They fled the fall of the city. I thought they were enemies at first and charged them. But they rode away from me, laughing. Bastards. Anyway, once they’d had their fun, I told them there was a battle coming and led them here. Just as well, eh? Who’s the thinker now?”

  “That would be you, Banokles, my friend. My good, dear friend.”

  Banokles peered at him suspiciously. “I think that crack to your skull has loosened your wits. So how much longer do we have to hold this place?”

  “No longer,” Kalliades said. “To stay now would be foolish and achieve nothing. Leave the fires burning brightly and then lead the horses out as quietly as you can. Bind their hooves with cloth. We’ll slip away in the darkness and make a run for the sea at Carpea. With luck the Idonoi will not mount an attack until morning, and we should be far away from here by then.”

  “That’s more like it,” Banokles said happily. “You rest here. I’ll get Olganos to organize the withdrawal. He’s good at organizing. Did they leave you any wine?”

  “No,” Kalliades said. Banokles swore and moved away.

  Kalliades dozed a little and dreamed once more of Piria. She was on the deck of a dark ship, sailing toward a sunset. He was standing on a golden beach. Kalliades lifted his arm and waved to her, but she was facing the set
ting sun and did not see him.

  The journey east was slow, much of the flatlands marshy and impassable and thick with midges and flies. The allied force of 142 men led by the reluctant Banokles was forced to take a meandering route, seeking firmer ground. On the first morning they had come across six deserted supply wagons. They had been looted, the horses gone. Banokles, on the advice of young Olganos, had horses hitched to them. Some of the more seriously wounded, Kalliades among them, were transferred to the wagons.

  Toward midafternoon they came across more fleeing Thrakian soldiers. There were forty-three infantrymen, well armored, and twenty light horsemen. They were heading from the northwest, where a garrison fort had been taken by an Idonoi force.

  Banokles had hoped Kalliades would be well enough to take charge of the journey, but his condition had worsened during the night. He was now sleeping in the lead wagon, and even when he occasionally regained consciousness, his mind wandered. A fever had begun, and he was sweating heavily. Banokles had stitched the wound in his chest, but there was no way of knowing how deep it was and whether it had pierced any vital organs.

  Olganos sent out scouts to the north, south, east, and west to watch for signs of enemy movement. As the slow journey progressed, the scouts came across more refugee Kikones warriors and sent them on to the main force. By dusk there were more than three hundred soldiers under Banokles’ command.

  “We are attracting them like flies to shit,” he complained to Olganos.

  The young man shrugged. “It makes us stronger if we come under attack.”

  The first good news came in as they were making camp for the night. One of the scouts from the west reported that the Idonoi army at the pass had made no move to march east and was now almost a day behind them.

  As the men rested, Banokles sought out Kalliades. He was awake but weak. Banokles brought him some water. “There’s no food,” he said.

  Kalliades said nothing for a moment. His face was ashen and glistening with sweat. “There will be farms and settlements to the north and east,” he said. “Send out riders tomorrow morning. Gather some cattle or sheep.”

  “Good plan,” Banokles said.

  “And walk among the men, Banokles. Make your presence felt. The Thrakians are proud men, but they are volatile, swift to anger or despair. You need to hold them steady.”

  Kalliades stretched out and began to shiver. Banokles covered him with his cloak. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “You’re tough. You’ll be fine.” Still trembling, Kalliades fell asleep. Banokles sat with him for a while, then stood. All around him men were sitting in small groups. Mostly there was no conversation among them, and an air of dejection hung over the camp. Banokles strolled over to where Periklos was sitting with the old nurse and the sleeping Obas. “We’ll find food tomorrow,” he said. “Farms and suchlike to the east.”

  Periklos nodded, but he, too, looked dejected.

  Banokles moved on. A group of the riders he had brought to the pass were sitting together. They looked up as he approached.

  “Any of you know this area?” he asked. They shook their heads.

  “We are Kalliros men,” said one, a tall man with blue streaks on his brow. Banokles recalled that his name was Hillas.

  “Good fighters, you Kalliros men,” he told him.

  “Not good enough,” Hillas grunted.

  “You gave those Idonoi at the pass a good arse kicking. And you are still alive. By Hades, lads, I’ve been in worse situations than this. And I’m still here.”

  Hillas hawked and spit on the ground. “What could be worse than this? Our families are either dead or enslaved. All our cities have fallen, and we are running for the sea.”

  Banokles had no answer. Then Periklos appeared. “My grandfather took all the Idonoi cities,” he said. “They also were a conquered people. Now look at them. Today is not forever. Serve me faithfully and one day we will return and take back our homeland.”

  The warriors fell silent; then the blue-streaked soldier rose to his feet. “We pledged our allegiance to King Rhesos. It may be that one day you will be a great man like him. But now you are just a boy. I am Hillas, Lord of the Western Mountain. I will not pledge allegiance to a boy.”

  Periklos appeared undaunted by the insult. “You need to look beyond my years, Hillas. My father has an alliance with Troy. As his son and heir, I am that alliance. In Troy we will regroup and gather to us a new army. It will take time. In that time I will grow into a man.”

  “And in that time,” Hillas asked, “who will be our war leader? Whoever it is will seek to establish his own claims to the crown. I see Vollin over there.” He pointed to another group of warriors nearby. “He would not follow me, and I certainly would never ride under his inept leadership.”

  The man Vollin, barrel-chested and bald, surged to his feet, along with his men. Swords hissed from scabbards, and knives were drawn.

  “No one move!” Banokles bellowed angrily. “By the gods, you are a bunch of stupid cowsons. You,” he said, glaring at Hillas. “I don’t care if you are the high pigging Lord of the Western Sheep Shaggers. You rule nothing now. Understand? Nothing. And you,” he snarled at the bald warrior, “you don’t draw your sword on any of my men. At any time and for any reason. What is wrong with you people? Not enough bastard enemies for you? You need to kill each other?”

  “We are not your men, Trojan,” Hillas snapped. Banokles was about to step forward and punch the man from his feet when the young prince spoke again.

  “He is my general,” Periklos said. “And he is right. It is stupid to fight among ourselves. Yesterday,” he went on, turning toward Vollin, “you were preparing to die at the pass like a Kikones hero. Today you are alive. And why? Because another Kikones hero—Hillas, Lord of the Western Mountain—rode to your defense. That is how we will survive and return to conquer. By standing together and putting aside petty differences.”

  Hillas took a deep breath, then sheathed his sword. He glared at Banokles. “How can this man be our general? He is a Trojan.”

  Banokles was about to point out that he was not a Trojan, but the bald Vollin spoke first. “I think it is a good idea,” he said.

  “You would! Because I am against it,” Hillas retorted.

  “That may be true, but what the lad says has merit. There has always been discord between the nobles. Likely there always will be. This is why we need a strong king. If I was twenty years younger, I might try for the crown myself and cut your throat in the bargain. But I am not, and my sons are all dead. With a foreigner as the war chief there should be no jealousy, no vying for position. We can unite behind Periklos.”

  “We are three hundred men,” Hillas said, his anger fading. “We are not going to retake Thraki.”

  “We are three hundred now,” Periklos said. “Yesterday we had less than half that number. Others will have escaped and with the blessing of the gods will make their way to Troy. When we return, we will gather men from the northern mountain tribes and others who will have tired of Mykene and Idonoi domination.”

  “Sounds like his father, doesn’t he?” Vollin said.

  “Yes, he does,” Hillas agreed. “I am still unsure about being led by a Trojan.”

  “He has already led you into battle,” Periklos said. “And to a victory. More than this, though, when I stood alone in a forest, surrounded by Idonoi warriors who were ready to kill me, this man walked out and risked his life for me. I have seen him now in three fights. Each one should have been lost, but Banokles is a great warrior and a fine leader.”

  Hillas suddenly laughed. “When he first saw my fifty men, he drew his swords and charged us.” Banokles felt the mood change like a fresh breeze after a storm. “Very well. I will accept him as general.”

  Banokles walked away, hungry and confused. No one had bothered to ask him whether he wanted to be a general, and no one had mentioned payment of any kind. Not that it mattered, since when they reached Carpea, he would happily pass the problem to rea
l officers.

  A cool breeze was blowing, and Banokles found a spot where a thick bush acted as a windbreak. Stretching himself out, he prepared for a dreamless sleep. He was just floating off when he heard someone approach. Opening his eyes, he saw the youngster Periklos. The boy squatted down beside him.

  “I thank you for your actions back there,” Periklos said. “I fear there would have been bloodshed.”

  “How old are you?” Banokles asked.

  “Almost thirteen. Why?”

  “You don’t talk like any thirteen-year-old boy I’ve ever known.”

  “I don’t know how else to talk,” Periklos said.

  “I meant you don’t sound like a boy. You sound like an old teacher. I fear there would have been bloodshed,” he mimicked. “Boys don’t talk like that where I come from. They talk about games and girls, and they brag about all the great deeds they will do when they are grown.”

  “All my teachers were old men,” Periklos said. “Father did not believe in games unless they served a purpose, like running to make me stronger or maneuvering formations of toy soldiers to better understand strategies. Mostly I spent my days with old men who talked of old wars and old histories and the deeds of the great. I know how deep to build foundations for a house and how to fit dowels into timbers. He was preparing me to be a king.”

  “Did he not play with you when you were young?”

  “Play? No. We spent little time together. Last year, on my birthday, he took me aside and told me he had a special gift for me. Then he took me to the palace dungeons, where a traitor was kneeling on the floor, his hands tied behind his back. Father let me cut his throat and watch him die.”

  “Not exactly what I meant,” Banokles said.

  “I shall spend time with my sons if I live long enough to have any.” He glanced at Banokles. “Do you mind if I sleep here with you?”

  “I don’t mind,” Banokles lied, not relishing the prospect of sleeping alongside a weird youngster trained to slit throats. Periklos stretched himself out, his head pillowed on his arm. Banokles decided to wait until the boy was asleep, then find somewhere else to rest.