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02 Shield of Thunder 44


  CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

  THE BATTLE OF CARPEA

  Peleus of Thessaly had never believed in the principles of heroic leadership, where the king fought in the first rank among his men. It was simply stupid, for a stray arrow or a lucky javelin could then alter the whole course of the battle. It had nothing to do with cowardice, he told himself. The king must keep himself in a position close enough to the battle to make decisions based on events but out of harm’s way at all times.

  So it was that he sat back on his tall white horse, surrounded by his elite bodyguard of three hundred heavily armored foot soldiers while his Thessalian warriors and their Idonoi allies charged at the Trojans on the plain of Carpea. It was the perfect battleground, wide and flat, no high hills for the enemy to hold, no woods for them to escape into. Only grassland and the sea beyond. Even the small settlement offered no secure hiding places. Carpea was not even a stockaded town.

  In most circumstances, Peleus knew, Hektor would have withdrawn to more suitable ground against an army well nigh four times his strength. But he could not on this occasion, for drawn up on the beach were the barges he needed to escape from Thraki.

  A lesser commander would have withdrawn anyway, knowing his cause was lost against twelve thousand enemy soldiers. But Peleus had guessed correctly that Hektor’s arrogance would lead him to risk all on one last great battle. Only, now he had no woods to hide his cavalry, no time to plan elaborate traps. His forces, less than three thousand men, were fighting for their lives.

  Peleus began to feel gleeful as the battle progressed. From his vantage point he could see the Trojan line being forced back. The enemy was fighting mostly on foot, though a small force of Trojan cavalry was riding on the right, holding back the Idonoi horsemen who sought to cut in and attack the enemy flanks.

  Hektor had adopted a phalanx formation, three blocks of some nine hundred men each, armed with long spears and tall shields. It was a fine defensive maneuver for an outnumbered army. Peleus knew it might even have succeeded against a foe with only twice the advantage in numbers. But the Thessalian force was far greater than that. At any moment now one of the three Trojan lines would crack, and his soldiers would stream around the enemy, forcing them in on themselves, limiting their ability to move and fight. That was when the slaughter would begin. And that time was not far off.

  How wonderful it would be to see Hektor’s head on a spike. The bliss of the moment would wash away the gall he had tasted these last few years.

  Peleus had always been proud of his son Achilles and gloried in his achievements. He was renowned as the son of Peleus the king, and the triumphs of the son had shone upon the father. Then had come a change, unwelcome and bitter. The brilliant Achilles, master of war, had begun to radiate his own light. And somewhere along the way the fame of Peleus dimmed, save that he was father to the hero.

  The words should have meant the same: son of Peleus or father to Achilles. But the emphasis had changed. This had nagged at Peleus. With each new victory Achilles was growing more famous. The conqueror now of Xantheia and Kalliros, the liberator of Thraki.

  In a bid to wrest back his rightful share of fame Peleus had led his own army against the city of Ismaros. Odysseus had been given the task of blockading the port. Then the Ithakan king had led a night raid, his men scaling the walls and opening the gates for Peleus and his Thessalians. The city had been taken. And whom did men acclaim?

  Odysseus, the Sacker of Cities. Cunning Odysseus. Clever Odysseus.

  But not today. This triumph would be for Peleus the king, the battle king, the conqueror of the mighty Hektor.

  Some way ahead the Trojan phalanx on the left looked about to break. Peleus watched the scene with eager eyes. His triumph was coming, and the taste of it was strong.

  Then he saw Hektor, in his armor of bronze and silver, surge to the front of the faltering line. His men gathered around him, their courage renewed.

  A little longer, then, to wait. All the better, Peleus thought. The anticipation will make the victory more sweet.

  His breastplate was tight and chafing at the neck. In the last few years his weight had been growing steadily. It was good for him to come to war, he realized. He could become strong again and lean as he once was. Like his children.

  He thought then of Kalliope. She was slim, and he had so loved to hold her to him when she was a child. So like her mother.

  But just like her mother, she had turned on him. Treacherous, deceitful girl. Had she not been raised in privilege, wanting for nothing? And how did she repay him? By flaunting herself naked and seducing him. Yes, that was what she had done. Turned him into a Gyppto, lusting after his own flesh.

  It should have come as no surprise. All women were sluts. Some could disguise it better than others, but they were all the same.

  Now she was dead. Which proved that the gods were just.

  Kovos, the general of his bodyguard, approached him. The man was a veteran of many battles and a good soldier, but he had little imagination. “We should move forward, lord. They are ready to crack.”

  “Not yet, Kovos,” Peleus told him.

  “If we hurl ourselves at the center, we will break through. The Trojans are exhausted.”

  Yes, and I would have to move in with you, Peleus thought, close to the slashing swords and plunging spears.

  “We move when I say,” he told the general. Kovos moved back to stand with his men.

  He should be grateful to me, Peleus thought. He does not have to face death. But then, he is a stupid man without the brains to appreciate his good fortune.

  Beyond the battle Peleus could see the huts and shacks of the fishing village and the barges pulled up on the beach behind, the barges that would now allow his army to cross the narrow straits into Dardania. Peleus had feared he would be forced to ride those ghastly, low-lying boats. But now, basking in the glory of the defeat of Hektor, he would be able to return to Thessaly in triumph and let Achilles lead his men across the sea.

  Returning his gaze to the battle, he saw that the losses endured by his men were heavy. Apart from his bodyguard the Thessalian force was armored lightly in padded leather breastplates that offered little protection against the heavy spears of the Trojan Horse. But then, breastplates of bronze were expensive and men were cheap. The Idonoi were also being cut down at a rate of three to every one Trojan. The tribesmen were less well protected even than his own men. Many of them had no armor at all.

  It mattered not. The battle was almost over.

  Then he saw the men of his bodyguard swinging around to stare back toward the west. Peleus turned.

  A line of horsemen had appeared, lance points glinting in the sunlight.

  Peleus called out to Kovos. “Send a messenger to them. Tell them to attack on the flank.”

  “They are not our men,” Kovos said grimly.

  “Of course they are our men. There are no enemy forces behind us.”

  “Look at the man at the center,” Kovos said, “on the gray horse. He is wearing Trojan armor.”

  “Plundered from the dead,” Peleus said, but a small worm of doubt gnawed at him.

  The man on the gray horse drew two swords and held them high.

  Then the horsemen began to move, slowly at first. The thunder of hooves sounded, and they swept toward the Thessalian rear.

  “Form up!” Kovos bellowed. “Turn, you dogs! Death is upon you!”

  The three hundred men of the king’s bodyguard carried no spears, only short swords and long shields. Hastily they tried to re-form, facing west. Peleus backed his horse through them, terrified.

  He could see the man on the gray horse clearly now. He was broad-shouldered and blond-bearded. He carried no shield. In his right hand was a cavalry saber, in his left a stabbing sword.

  He must turn, Peleus thought. No horse will charge into a wall of shields.

  But the shield wall had not formed completely. The rider found a gap and powered into it, his saber slashing down a
nd opening the throat of a guardsman.

  All was suddenly chaos. Peleus did not even draw his sword. Panic swept through him as he watched his battle line being sundered. All he could think of was flight. Heeling his horse, he forced his way through his men, scattering them and further widening the gaps in their ranks. Then, on open ground, he kicked the stallion into a gallop. The guardsmen close by, seeing the king in flight, followed him. Within moments the battle became a rout.

  Peleus did not care. His mind was no longer functioning save for the need to run and run and never stop. To find some hiding place. Anywhere! Behind him he heard the screams of dying men.

  The stallion was at full gallop now, heading west, along the line of the sea.

  A spear hurtled past Peleus, then another. Glancing back, he saw that four of the enemy riders were closing on him. Then a spear went between the legs of his mount. The white stallion stumbled, pitching Peleus over its head. He landed hard, rolled, and came to his knees, the breath all but knocked out of him. The horsemen rode up, surrounding him.

  He struggled to his feet. “I am Peleus the king,” he managed to say. “There will be a mighty ransom paid for me.”

  One of the riders touched heels to his mount and rode forward, his lance extended. He was fair-haired and lean, and there were blue streaks on his face. “I am Hillas, Lord of the Western Mountain,” he said. “How big a ransom?”

  Relief swept through Peleus. He would be taken to Hektor, who was a man of honor and understanding. Achilles could pay the ransom from the plunder of Xantheia and Kalliros.

  Then the rider on the gray horse appeared. “What’s going on?” he asked.

  “The king here is talking of a golden ransom,” Hillas said.

  “Just kill the cowson. The battle’s not over yet.”

  Hillas grinned. “As you say, General, so let it be.”

  Peleus heard the words but could not believe them. “I am Peleus!” he shouted. “Father to Achilles!” The blue-streaked rider heeled his horse forward, his lance leveled. Peleus threw up his arms, but the lance plunged between them, ripping into his throat.

  Choking on his own blood, the king fell to his knees. Then his face struck the ground, and he could smell the scent of summer grass.

  “Come on, you sheep shaggers!” he heard someone cry. “Kill them all!”

  CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

  DEATH UPON THE WATER

  Overcome by a blissful weariness, Kalliades sat down in the shade of a rock wall close to the beach. The wound was still troublesome, though it was healing well. The real damage seemed to have been the tear in the chest muscle, which restricted the movement of his left arm. The blow to the head still caused him occasional dizziness, but the injuries he had suffered could not dampen the euphoria he had experienced since surviving the attack on the pass.

  It seemed to Kalliades that a new world awaited him, one filled with light and color and scent that had somehow been lost to him. It was not that he had never appreciated the brilliance of a summer sky or the magnificence of a crimson sunset. That appreciation, however, had been cool and rational. The glory of the world had not touched his emotions as deeply as it did now.

  Even the barges on the beach, flat-bottomed and ungainly, had a sturdy beauty, the sunlight causing their oiled timbers to gleam like pale gold. Everywhere there was noise and confusion, but this spoke of life and movement, bringing with it a sense of joy.

  Banokles came to him there and slumped down. “Apparently I shouldn’t have killed the king yesterday,” he grumbled, pulling off his helm and laying it on the sand.

  “I did not know it was you who killed him.”

  “Well, it wasn’t me, but I ordered it. Hektor’s generals said we could have used him to force the Thessalians from Thraki.”

  Kalliades shook his head. “Achilles would not have agreed.”

  “That’s what Hektor said. His generals don’t like me. Cowsons!”

  Kalliades smiled. “You won the battle, Banokles. One crazy charge.”

  “What was crazy about it?”

  “It should not have succeeded. You attacked the strongest force—the Thessalian royal guard. If they’d had a braver king, they would have withstood the onslaught and then cut your riders to pieces.”

  “Didn’t, though, did they?” Banokles observed.

  “No, my friend, they didn’t. You were the hero of the day. Banokles and his Thrakians. What a story that will make.”

  Banokles chuckled. “Yes, it will. In some ways I am going to miss them.”

  “Miss them?”

  “They are being left behind.”

  “Why?”

  “Only around forty barges. Not enough to take everyone in a single crossing. Hektor is taking the Trojan Horse across and leaving the wounded and the Thrakians. Says he’ll send the barges back tomorrow. By then it’s likely there’ll be an enemy fleet in the straits or another cowson army on the horizon.”

  “Where does that leave you?” Kalliades asked.

  “Me? What do you mean? I go with the Horse.”

  “You and I have fought in many battles. How would you have felt if one of our generals had decided to cut and run and leave us behind on some enemy shore?”

  “Oh, don’t you start on me. I knew I shouldn’t have come to see you. Cut and run? I’m not running. I am a soldier of the Horse, not a cowson general.”

  “You are a general to them, Banokles. They trusted you enough to follow you into battle.”

  Banokles stared angrily at Kalliades. “You always take the simple and make it complicated.”

  “That’s because nothing is ever as simple as you would like it to be. Anyway, I’ll be staying with the wounded. And as you pointed out, we are sword brothers. We should stick together.”

  “Pah! Sword brothers when it suits you. Didn’t suit you back at the pass, did it?”

  “I didn’t want you dead, my friend. This is different. Those Thrakians revere you. They are pure warriors, Banokles. They’ve suffered defeats and seen their pride ground into the dust. You’ve given it back to them. At the pass, when they routed their enemies, and yesterday, when they killed one of the kings who brought ruin to their land. You are like a talisman for them. You’ve rescued the sons of their king and made them feel like men again. Don’t you see? You can’t leave them now.”

  “I did all that?”

  “Yes.”

  “I suppose I did.” Banokles paused. “I guess I could stay with them at least until Troy.”

  “That would be good.”

  “I have to admit I was wrong about them. They can fight, those boys.”

  Kalliades laughed. “They fought for you, General.”

  “Don’t you start calling me that! I’m warning you, Kalliades. I’m sick of it. And Red will chew my ear off when she hears. You see if she doesn’t.”

  Kalliades grinned and gazed around the deserted settlement. There were some twenty shacks and several tall huts for the smoking of fish. “Where have all the people gone?” he asked.

  “They took their fishing boats and traveled across the straits,” Banokles said. “Didn’t want to be here when the enemy arrived. Don’t blame them. I don’t want to be here when they come again. How is the chest wound?”

  “Healing well. Beginning to itch.”

  “That’s a good sign,” Banokles said. He sighed. “I hate being a general, Kalliades. I just want somewhere to sleep, some good food in my belly, and a jug of wine by my side.”

  “I know, my friend. Once we get back to Troy, it will all seem simpler. The Thrakians can choose their own general, and you can return to whoring and drinking and a life without responsibility.”

  “No whoring,” Banokles said. “Big Red would break my face. But the rest of it sounds good.”

  Smoke from the funeral pyres out on the plain began to drift over the settlement. “How many did we lose yesterday?” Kalliades asked.

  “I didn’t ask,” Banokles said. “Judging by the size
of the pyres, it must have been a few hundred. The enemy lost thousands. That’s the trouble when you break and run. My lads kept killing them until their arms got too tired to lift their spears. Even so, I reckon a few thousand of them escaped. They could re-form and come back.”

  Two men approached them. Kalliades glanced up to see a tall warrior with fair hair and blue streaks on his face and the stocky, bald Vollin, who had served with him at the pass. Both looked angry.

  “We are to be left behind?” the tall man asked.

  “Until tomorrow,” Banokles said, “when they send the barges back.”

  “They are leaving us here to die,” Vollin said. “This is betrayal.”

  Banokles pushed himself to his feet. Kalliades levered himself up alongside him. “Hektor is not a betrayer,” Kalliades said. “The barges will return.”

  “If that is so,” Blue Face asked Banokles, “why are you leaving with them today?”

  “I am not leaving. What sheep-shagging cowson said I was leaving?”

  Kalliades saw the two Thrakians glance at each other. Then Vollin spoke. “Your three men, Olganos and the others. They have already boarded the barges. We thought you would be going with them.”

  “And leave you lads behind? How could you think that? After all we’ve been through.” The men both looked shamefaced. Then the tall one spoke.

  “If you are staying,” he said, “then I will believe the barges will return for us. They would not leave you behind otherwise.”

  “Good,” Banokles said. “Then that’s settled.”

  “I’ll send scouts out,” Vollin said. “At least then we’ll have some warning if the Idonoi come back.”

  Most of the barges had been launched, and Kalliades watched the oarsmen struggle in the strong currents. Although the coastline of Dardania could be seen clearly across the straits, the currents would sweep the barges southwest to land farther along the coast. Out on the straits three Dardanian galleys waited to escort the fleet.

  The last of the forty-one barges, packed with troops and their mounts, was hauled off the sand, the fleet strung out in the narrow straits. The sky was clear, and there was little wind, which was a blessing, Kalliades knew. Overladen as they were and wallowing in the blue water, it would not take much to cause a disaster. A brisk wind, or a storm, or even panic among the horses. The distance between the upper timbers of the hulls and the water below was less than a man’s forearm in length. If a barge tipped even a fraction, the water would flow in, and it would sink like a rock. The heavily armored men aboard would have no chance of survival.