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02 Shield of Thunder 45


  “May Poseidon grant calm seas,” he said.

  Banokles suddenly swore. “Never mind Poseidon,” he said, and pointed up the straits toward the northeast. “Worry about those cowsons!” Rounding the headland behind which they had been hiding, a fleet of black galleys was heaving into view. Kalliades counted twenty ships.

  Kalliades suddenly felt cold. The packed barges were defenseless against war galleys. They would be rammed and sunk long before they could reach the safety of the shore.

  Olganos had never been a good sailor. It was a source of embarrasment to his family, who were Scamander fishermen. Even on balmy seas his stomach would rebel. His father promised him that the sickness would be short-lived, that his body would acclimatize to the motion of the sea. It never did, which was why he was the first of his family to join the army.

  The moment he had boarded the flat-bottomed barge that morning the nausea had begun. Justinos had clapped him on the back and chuckled.

  “Hades’ balls, boy, we are still on the beach, and already your face is gray.”

  Olganos had not replied. Instead he had gritted his teeth and prepared for the ghastly ritual of giddiness, surging heat through his belly, and the inevitable retching. The rope at the front of the barge tightened as the Dardanian galley hauled the vessel off the beach. Olganos gripped the deck rail and stared down at the sea. The barge lurched, then floated clear.

  Olganos stared now around the flat-bottomed vessel. Eighty men and twenty horses were crowded on its deck. The warriors around him were carefree and happy, for they were leaving behind the benighted realm of Thraki and heading home to loved ones and the security of Troy. Olganos belched and tasted hot acid in his throat. In that moment he hated the sea.

  The eight bargemen on either side had little room to work their long oars, and they swore at the soldiers jostling them. At the rear of the craft the two steering oarsmen laughed at the chaos.

  Olganos gazed gloomily back at the beach. He would have preferred to remain there with Banokles and the Thrakians, but it would only have delayed the crossing.

  The last barge was being launched, and Olganos watched it bobbing and wallowing. He closed his eyes as a fresh ripple of sickness caused his belly to lurch.

  “Perhaps they’ll take us all the way back to Troy,” Skorpios said.

  Olganos felt panic overwhelm him at the prospect. Then common sense asserted itself. The barges had to return for the Thrakians and Banokles. He glared at Skorpios, who was grinning at him.

  “Very funny,” he managed to say.

  “Doesn’t the swell of a boat make your heart leap?” Justinos asked Skorpios. “As it bobs and sways and bobs and sways.”

  Olganos swore at them, leaned over the side, and emptied his belly into the sea.

  It did not help. The nausea remained, and now his head was pounding.

  As he straightened, he saw a fleet of black ships rounding the headland to the northeast. For a moment he thought they were Dardanian. Then reality struck him.

  Alongside him Justinos muttered an oath.

  The three Dardanian galleys had seen the enemy fleet and were turning to face them. The current was swift, and the Mykene galleys bore down on the slow-moving barges with murderous speed.

  A Dardanian warship managed to block the first of the galleys. Three more swept past. Olganos watched horrified as the last barge was rammed amidships. The timbers cracked, and the barge tilted sharply. The Mykene galley backed oars, leaving a gaping hole in the stricken vessel. The sea rushed in, and it suddenly tipped. Horses and men were hurled into the blue sea. The horses began to swim, but the heavily armored Trojan soldiers struggled desperately to stay afloat. They began crying out for help. Olganos watched their heart-wrenching battle for life. One by one they sank below the surface. Eighty men were dead in a matter of heartbeats.

  “Get out of your armor!” Olganos shouted at the men around him as he tore at the leather straps holding his cuirass in place.

  “Not me,” Justinos said. “I can’t swim.”

  “I’ll keep you afloat, my friend.”

  Justinos shook his head. “The moment the bastards ram us, I’ll climb aboard their ship.”

  Olganos dumped his cuirass to the deck. “You won’t have the chance. They’ll ram and then pull back. Trust me.”

  Skorpios also had stripped off his armor. Most of the other men were doing the same, and the barge rocked ominously.

  A Mykene galley closed on them but was itself rammed by a Dardanian warship. The men on the barge cheered, but the sound died away swiftly. Another Mykene vessel slammed into the Dardanian ship, splintering its hull.

  The rowers on the barge were powering their oars furiously, but in their panic the rhythm was lost. Slowly the vessel swung, the current hitting the port side of the stern. The overladen barge was now broadside on, presenting a wide target. Olganos crouched down and removed his bronze greaves, tossing them to the deck. He straightened just in time to see the looming prow of a war galley. Its ram thundered against the timbers of the barge. Men were hurled from their feet. The horses panicked as the deck tilted, rearing and kicking out. Then they lunged through the mass of warriors and leaped or tumbled into the sea. The barge lurched dramatically as the galley backed oars and pulled away. Water gushed up through the deck timbers.

  Then the barge tipped forward. Olganos was hurled against the deck rail and cartwheeled into the water.

  As he surfaced, an arrow slashed past his head, slicing into the water and bobbing up alongside him. Sucking in a deep breath, he dived down. When he came up for air, the black galley was moving away in search of fresh kills.

  He heard someone cry out and saw Skorpios holding on to Justinos, whose heavy armor was dragging them both down. Swimming swiftly across to them, he helped support the powerful warrior while struggling to untie the straps of his cuirass.

  More arrows slashed by them. One glanced from Skorpios’ arm, ripping the skin. Olganos had managed to loosen Justinos’ cuirass, but there was no way to remove it.

  “You will have to duck out of your armor,” he told his friend. “Sink below the surface and push it away.”

  Justinos’ eyes were wide and frightened. “No,” he said.

  “You must! Or you’ll kill us all. I won’t let you drown. I swear it!”

  Justinos sucked in a great breath, then lifted his arms—and sank.

  As Skorpios dragged at the armor, Olganos dived below the surface. The heavy cuirass came free, but Justinos suddenly panicked and began to thrash out madly, bubbles of air whooshing from his mouth. Olganos dived deeper, grabbing hold of Justinos’ shirt and kicking out for the surface. But the weight was too much, and they both began to sink. Then Skorpios dived down alongside him, and together they pulled Justinos’ head clear of the water.

  “Calm yourself and breathe!” Olganos shouted. Justinos took in great gulps of air.

  Just below the surface the body of a soldier floated past them, an arrow through his neck. Another Mykene galley was closing in on them, and Olganos could see a line of archers on the port bow. Some of them were grinning as they notched arrows to their weapons. The only way to survive was to dive deep, yet the moment they let go of Justinos, he would drown.

  Justinos understood this and said grimly, “Save yourselves! Go!”

  Then Olganos saw something dark flying through the air toward the galley. It was a skull-sized ball of dried clay. It struck a bowman and shattered, spraying what appeared to be water over the man and those around him. Then another hit the deck.

  Olganos twisted around and saw a massive golden ship with a black horse sail bearing down on the Mykene. Archers were massed along its deck, and they sent a hail of fire arrows at the enemy.

  What happened then made Olganos gasp. He expected the arrows to smolder, perhaps even setting fire to the Mykene sail. Instead the entire deck burst into flame. The archer who had been struck by the pottery ball was ablaze from head to toe. Olganos saw him leap from the
ship. When he surfaced, his body was still burning, his screams awful to hear.

  The golden ship thundered into the Mykene galley, splintering its hull. From the upper deck Olganos saw more pottery balls sail out toward other enemy vessels.

  Black smoke was pouring from the stricken galley, and the bowmen, who only moments before had been preparing to use Olganos and his friends for target practice, were leaping into the sea. Elsewhere Olganos could see the Mykene fleet desperately swinging away from the pursuit of the barges as more and more Dardanian galleys bore down on them.

  A Dardanian ship drew alongside the men in the water. Someone called down: “Who are you?”

  “Three Trojan Horse,” Olganos called back.

  Ropes were lowered. Justinos grabbed the first and hauled himself up to the deck. Skorpios followed and then Olganos. A stocky sailor approached them, offering Skorpios a cloth to bind his wounded arm.

  Olganos walked to the rail and watched the sea battle unfold. There were six Mykene ships ablaze, four others rammed and sinking. The golden Xanthos continued to rain fire down upon the surviving vessels. The strong current that had swept the Mykene toward the barges was now their most powerful enemy. Their rowers, tired after maintaining ramming speed to intercept the Trojan fleet, had little strength left to escape from the avenging Dardanians. A group of archers pushed past Olganos, then leaned over the rail. In the sea below Mykene sailors were shouting for help. They received only death.

  By late afternoon the battle was over. Five Mykene vessels managed to escape to the north and one slipped past the Dardanians, heading out toward open sea.

  Dusk was approaching as the Dardanian ship carrying Olganos and his friends crossed the straits and beached close to the barges.

  Once ashore, Olganos, Skorpios, and Justinos made their way to where the Trojan army was gathering. Despite their escape, the mood was somber among the survivors. Almost two hundred men and sixty horses had been lost in the crossing.

  Food fires were lit, and the soldiers gathered around them. There was little conversation. Olganos stretched out on the ground, enjoying the warmth of the blaze, and slept for a while.

  When Justinos nudged him awake, it was dark. Olganos sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes. All around him men were hastily putting on their armor and gathering horses. Olganos climbed wearily to his feet.

  “What is going on?” he asked.

  “Fires to the south. Dardanos is burning,” Justinos said.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

  TRAITOR’S GATE

  Earlier that afternoon the Mykene admiral Menados had sat on a hillside, gazing down at his army camped on the beach below. But he was not thinking of his mission or the capricious nature of war. He was thinking instead of his grandchildren. During forty years of warfare Menados had learned that often, when faced with a particularly complex problem, it helped to close one’s mind to it for a time and summon other, happier thoughts. And so he relived his last visit to his son’s farm and the chase through the woods, the children squealing with mock fear as he pretended to be the monster pursuing them. Menados smiled at the memory. When he had caught little Kenos hiding in a bush, the boy suddenly had burst into tears and cried out: “Don’t be a monster anymore!”

  Menados had swept him into his arms and kissed his cheeks. “It is only a game, Kenos. It is me. Grandpapa.”

  Now, in the afternoon sunshine, his army and fleet hidden in a secluded bay only a short march from the fortress city of Dardanos, the old admiral allowed the happy memories to fade back into the scriptorium of his mind. He sighed and focused once more on the bleak prospects facing him.

  Every martial instinct now told him he would be best advised to get his men back on the ships and transports and sail for safer waters. Unfortunately, as a longtime follower of Agamemnon, he also understood that matters martial were inextricably linked with politics.

  Agamemnon had ordered him to take the fortress of Dardanos and kill Helikaon’s wife and child—retribution for the savage attacks on the Mykene homeland. This raid was to be combined with an invasion led by the victorious Peleus. What a fine plan it had sounded. With an army rampaging across the Dardanian countryside and the fortress held by loyal Mykene troops, Dardania would fall. That would give Agamemnon a good land route to Troy.

  Menados scratched at his black and silver beard. A fine plan, he thought again, save that Peleus had not followed it. The last he had heard, before this day, was that the Thessalian king was leading an army in pursuit of the fleeing Hektor. Now, according to the traitor within the fortress, Peleus was dead, and the war fleet of Helikaon had been sighted heading into the Hellespont. Menados had no way of knowing how many of the Trojan Horse had survived the battle with Peleus, but based on the numbers of barges the traitor claimed were being used, he assumed there would be at least two thousand. Helikaon himself was known to have around fifty ships. Another two thousand fighting men at the very least.

  Soon the Mykene would be facing a battle on two fronts, against the Trojan Horse on land and Helikaon’s war galleys out beyond the bay. Taking the fortress was not a problem. They could hold Dardanos for a while, but with no food and no means of supply, they would be starved out by the autumn.

  Yet if he slipped away and returned to Agamemnon, his decision would be made to seem cowardly rather than practical. The vile Kleitos would say: “Let me understand this, Admiral. You had a man inside the city ready to open the gates to a fortress containing no more than two hundred Dardanians. Yet you, with your three thousand men, decided to run?”

  Agamemnon would be furious. Menados would not survive his anger.

  So, sadly, withdrawal was not an option. The message from the traitor had been specific. Attack tonight! The Seagate will be open!

  But what then?

  With the queen and her son dead, he could try to hold the fortress and send his fleet to Ismaros, requesting more men and supplies. Menados dismissed the thought. For reinforcements to reach him, the fleet would have to battle its way past the dreaded Helikaon. It would not survive. Most of his sailors were recruits, the ships newly launched, the crews untried. The Dardanians would destroy them.

  Equally, the men of his army were not the finest. Agamemnon had scoured the mainland for troops, and the soldiers under Menados’ command were of mixed quality: mercenaries from the high country, former pirates from the islands, robbers and brigands. All of them served for gold alone. Menados had no way of knowing if they would hold when the battle turned grim. What he did know was that they were hard, cruel men, pitiless and violent.

  The officers were little better, save perhaps for Katheos and Areion. Katheos was young and ambitious, determined to seek the favor of Agamemnon and rise through the ranks. He had shown himself to be skillful and resourceful. That went some way toward offseting the fact that he had been selected for this mission to spy on Menados. Areion was an older man who had served with him for close to twenty years. Unimaginative yet solid, he could be relied on to obey any order and see it through.

  Menados ran through all the possible outcomes of an attack on Dardanos. There was no doubt they would take the fortress, but was there any way to hold it? Peleus was dead, but there would still be forces at Ismaros. Perhaps by now Achilles was there. Would he gather men swiftly enough to make the crossing and attack the Trojans? Unlikely. His father slain, Achilles would now be the king of Thessaly. Custom and honor would dictate that he take his father’s remains home for proper entombment.

  At last Menados was forced to the only decision that made sense. He would take the fortress this night and torch the gates and the warehouses and all the buildings of timber. That would render Dardanos useless for months. Then he would withdraw and sail for Ismaros, having at least completed the main part of his mission, the murder of Halysia and the boy.

  Walking down the hillside, he called his officers to him. From his tunic he took the drawings the traitor had supplied of the defenses inside the city and the place where the
queen and the child were likely to be found.

  “It is imperative,” he said, “that the traitor is not accidentally slain when we attack. He is a senior officer. We want him to survive and rejoin Helikaon. He will be wearing a white tunic, no armor. He will have two swords belted to his waist. Make sure that every man knows this description.” Swinging to a gaunt young officer with deep-set blue eyes and a forked chin beard, he said: “You, Katheos, will lead the attack through the Seagate. Hold the gatehouse until reinforcements, led by Areion, arrive. Once they are with you, send a swift force into the palace to seek the queen and the boy. The rest will close in on the defenders and burn every building they can.”

  “Are we not to hold the fortress?” the gray-bearded Areion asked.

  Menados shook his head. “It seems that our Thessalian ally Peleus got himself killed. No reinforcements are coming from Thraki, and the Trojan Horse is likely to be here soon. So now it becomes a punitive raid, and then we get out and sail for Ismaros. We need to cause as much damage as possible. It is possible we could return this season. If so, we want Dardanos crippled when next we face it. Douse the gates with oil; pile them high with bracken and dried wood. There is also a bridge close to the fortress that cuts the journey to and from Troy. We will burn this also. The success of this raid,” he went on, “depends on discipline and speed. Make it clear to the men that there is to be no rape and plunder.”

  “I am not sure we can stop them, Admiral,” Katheos said. “They have little loyalty to the king. They are ruled entirely by lust and greed.”