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02 - Shield of Thunder
02 Shield of Thunder 46
Menados considered this. “You are correct, Katheos. Tell them that a portion of Helikaon’s treasury will be shared among them. That will take the edge from their greed. Tell them also that any man found on a personal raid will have his guts ripped out and tied around his throat.”
Katheos nodded and gave a grim smile. “That will help a little, Admiral. But some of them, like wild dogs, will follow their murderous natures. Speaking of which, we none of us know what the queen looks like, nor her brat.”
“Our man inside has told us where they are likely to be found. The queen should pose no problems as to identity. She is young, golden-haired, and beautiful and will be dressed in clothes befitting her rank.”
“That may well be true, Admiral,” Areion put in. “But once she knows we are coming, she could change clothes and flee with the other women. Surely Agamemnon King will desire proof of her death.”
“The traitor will identify her body and that of her son,” Menados said at last. “But you make a good point. We will not have long in the fortress and cannot risk their escape. Every woman with pale hair and every small child must be put to the sword.”
The forked-bearded Katheos looked uncomfortable with the order. “A problem, General?” Menados asked.
“Only with the timing, Admiral. We have one night to kill the Dardanians, take the fortress, burn the gates and the buildings and the bridge, and then board our ships. Scouring the area for every child and pale-haired woman will divert us.”
“Organize three death squads, ten men in each. Give them the order to hunt through the fortress buildings. Now, dusk is approaching. So let us move.”
The old general stepped from his dark apartments and squinted into the low light of evening. Storm clouds lay heavy above the high fortress, but the westering sun shone like a golden shield on the horizon. Pausanius paused for a moment before firmly grasping his black wooden staff and setting off for the Seagate.
The pain that nagged at him constantly had eased a little. It had troubled him for more than a year now, eating deep into his back and groin. The physician had given him a series of increasingly disgusting potions.
“And these will heal me?” Pausanius had asked him.
“Only the gods could heal you, General,” the man had answered. “My potions will take away much of the pain, though not all.”
In the last few days the pain had increased, making it hard for him to think of anything else and forcing him to stay in his rooms. To piss was almost impossibly painful and difficult, and when urine finally dribbled out, it was dark red with blood. A shiver of fear went through him each time he saw it. However, a little while earlier he had stood bent over the piss pot and finally had managed to empty his bladder. The relief had been immense.
Pausanius saw that it would be a moonless night. Looking down from his chamber balcony a few moments earlier, he had seen two new ships arriving. They are cutting it fine, he had thought, wondering where they came from. He had decided to find out.
It would annoy young Menon, he knew. The boy had become increasingly concerned for his uncle’s health. “You need rest,” he had said earlier that day.
“I have a feeling I will be resting more than I would like soon enough,” Pausanius had grunted. “Fetch me some wine, would you, boy?”
Menon had laughed. “If you feel like wine, you must be improving.”
They sat together then and talked for a while of the problems they faced. Pausanius gazed affectionately at the young man, the sunlight glinting on his red-gold hair. So like me, he thought.
“What are you thinking, Uncle?”
“I am proud of you, Menon. I know it has not been easy to walk in my footsteps. But you have it in you to be a great man and to help save this kingdom. I hope the gods bless you, as they have me.”
Menon blushed. Like Pausanius he was obviously uncomfortable with compliments. The old general chuckled. “Am I sounding maudlin?”
“Not at all, Uncle. Rest here today and gather your strength. Tomorrow, if you are feeling better, we will ride together.”
But Pausanius no longer felt like resting. For nearly sixty years he had been charged with the safety of the fortress, and few visitors arrived of whom he was unaware. So he plodded on toward the Seagate.
The fool Idaios worried him. Did Priam have so little faith in the army at Dardanos that he thought a moron like Idaios could be of any help? Idaios had been given the Seagate to guard. A simple task—let no one pass this gate bearing a weapon. But Pausanius doubted he was up to it.
As he walked, his mind drifted back to his conversation with the queen four days before. He regretted criticizing her treatment of the boy Dexios. She has enough problems to contend with, he thought. Adversity was a harsh tutor but a good one. Perhaps the boy was too sensitive and needed to find some backbone. Pausanius dismissed the thought almost instantly. Dex was only three years old, unloved by his mother and raised by servants. On the rare occasions when Helikaon was home, he would talk to the boy and take him riding or fishing in the sheltered lake. There were few such opportunities when the king was absent.
It had heartened Pausanius to see young Menon playing with the child a few days back. The young soldier had perched Dex on his shoulders and run around the courtyard, making neighing sounds like a horse. The child’s laughter had been joyous to hear.
Pausanius thought of his own son, dead these thirty years. When he had first heard the gorge called Parnio’s Folly, he had been offended, as if a joke had been made out of his private tragedy. But over the long years his grief had been washed clean by the relentless waves of time.
He pressed on. Crossing the busy stable yard, he walked with care down the sloping stone roadway to the Seagate. When he arrived there, Pausanius was surprised to see the gates open. They were always closed tightly before sunset. Who had opened them? He looked for the guards but could not see them. A maggot of fear wormed into his heart.
As he stood there unnoticed, an old man with a staff, a troop of soldiers came running up through the gateway and past him. Pausanius peered at them, his vision blurred by his eighty years and the light of the low sun. By Ares, they are Mykene, he thought. Mykene soldiers in the fortress? For a moment he thought the pain was making him hallucinate and recall the invasion three years earlier.
Another troop of Mykene in their distinctive bronze-disked armor charged unchallenged through the Seagate and up into the fortress. From far away Pausanius heard the sounds of combat beginning, screams and shouts and clashing metal.
Confused and uncertain, he stumbled forward, leaning heavily on his staff. Through the open gate he saw Mykene troops still pouring off the two ships and climbing the hill to the fortress. More ships were beaching, soldiers leaping to the sand. A group of Mykene officers stood outside the gates a few paces away, talking casually. They glanced at the old man but ignored him.
The gate guards lay dead. On a sagging wooden table beyond the two bodies Pausanius saw a sad pile of old swords, knives, and battered clubs confiscated from visitors during the day. As Pausanius had feared, the fool Idaios had no system for dealing with the weaponry. It was just dumped in a heap and guarded by two bored soldiers. Two dead soldiers now.
The body of Idaios lay with them, a great wound in his throat.
Traitor! Pausanius thought with rage. I believed him to be just a fool, but he was a traitor, too. He opened the gates for them, then was slain by his new masters. A fool and a traitor both.
One of the group of Mykene officers noticed him and said something to the others. They all turned to look at the old general struggling toward them. Some of them smiled. One man dressed all in white stepped forward, two swords belted at his side.
Flame-haired Menon spoke. “I am sorry to see you here, Uncle.”
The shock was almost too great to bear, and Pausanius groaned as if in pain. Dead Idaios was not the traitor. The man who had delivered the fortress to the enemy was his own flesh and blood.
?How could you do this?” he said. “Why, Menon?”
“For the kingdom, Uncle,” Menon said calmly. “You said I could help it be great. And I will. As king. You think Dardania and Troy can withstand the might of all the western kings? If we continue to resist Agamemnon, the land will be laid waste, the people slaughtered or enslaved.”
Pausanius stared at him, then at the Mykene officers close by. In the distance the sounds of battle echoed through the fortress. “People who trusted you are being slaughtered now,” he said. “You have broken my heart, Menon. Better for me to have died than to see you as a traitor and a cur.”
Menon flushed and stepped back. “You never did understand the nature of power, Uncle. When Anchises died, you could have seized the throne. That is how dynasties are born. Instead, you pledged allegiance to a simpering woman and her get. And look where it led. To a war we cannot win. Go back to your apartment, Uncle. You do not have to die here.”
“Of course he has to die,” said a Mykene officer with a forked beard. “He knows you, and once we have left, he will tell Helikaon of your deeds.”
“Best listen to your master, little dog,” Pausanius said contemptuously. “When he says bark, you bark!”
Menon’s face turned crimson. Drawing one of his swords, he stepped in. “I did not wish to kill you,” he said, “for you have always been good to me. But you have lived too long, old man.”
The general’s body was ancient, but it remembered sixty years of battles. As the sword swung down at his neck, wielded with casual arrogance, he lunged and head butted the younger man. Grabbing the front of Menon’s white tunic, he dragged him forward, then curled his hand around the hilt of Menon’s second sword. Blood streaming from his broken nose, Menon wrenched himself clear of the old man’s grip. As he stepped back, he failed to notice Pausanius pulling the sword clear. The old general stepped in with a straight thrust that stabbed through Menon’s jugular. Blood sprayed over the white tunic. Menon gave a gurgling cry and staggered back, his hands clamped around his throat, seeking to stem the gouting flow.
Pausanius fell to his knees, his strength suddenly gone. He heard the sound of running feet and felt a blow, two blows, to his back. All pain ceased. Menon collapsed before him, his head drooping onto Pausanius’ shoulder. The old general looked at the dying Menon as his own vision blurred and darkened.
“I… so loved you… boy,” he said.
THE RIDER IN THE SKY
The little boy awoke with a start. Rubbing his small fists in his gummy eyes, Dex sat up and looked around him. It was dark in the bedchamber. A single candle guttered low in the corner, and by its dim light he could see that Gray One was not in her bed. He was alone.
He remembered leaving his bedroom after a nightmare and coming crying to Gray One’s room, tapping lightly on her door. She had opened it and, as she always did, had chided him gently for his fears. She always relented, though, and the previous night, as usual, had carried him to her own bed, laying him down beside her. “Sleep safely, little Dex,” she had whispered. “I am with you.”
But she wasn’t with him.
Muffled sounds came from outside the room, both in the courtyard below and on the stairs outside the door. There were harsh shouts and hard clanging noises.
Unused to being alone in the dark, the three-year-old was frightened. Gray One was always there when he woke up. She took him to the kitchen for breakfast.
Pushing his feet out from under the warm sheet, he slid to the edge of the bed and climbed down. Padding across the cold stone and the soft rugs, he dragged a wooden stool to the open window, then climbed up to peer down into the courtyard. It was dark outside as well, but he could see fires, and the smell of smoke drifted up to him, tickling his throat and making him sneeze. He could see the shapes of men and women running about and hear their cries.
The sight of the fires made him think of breakfast again. Gray One would toast yesterday’s bread and smear it with honey. He climbed carefully down from the stool, pushed open the heavy door, and slipped out into the corridor.
Outside he saw someone lying on the floor. By the light of a flickering torch on the wall he could see it was Gray One. She was lying huddled, knees drawn up. Her eyes were closed. He squatted down beside her for a while, but she didn’t wake up. Wondering what to do, he patted her hand uncertainly.
“I’m hungry,” he said, leaning close to her ear.
Just then he heard the sound of running feet coming toward him. Had Sun Woman discovered he had left his room? Would she be angry with him? On an impulse he ran into a dark corner and hid behind a heavy curtain masking a window.
The curtain did not quite reach the timbered floor, and he lay flat, staring out through the gap. A group of soldiers ran into sight. He liked soldiers, but he didn’t recognize any of these men and decided to stay where he was.
They ran past him, their hard metal greaves glinting in the torchlight, their heavily sandaled feet noisy on the timbers. He could smell their sweat and leather.
“Find the boy!” one shouted, his voice bouncing off the corridor walls. “He wasn’t in his room. He must be with the queen.”
When the soldiers had passed, their footsteps echoing down the staircase, he made his way out into the small courtyard. Staying in the gloom of the courtyard walls, he edged toward the stables. Dex liked the stables. It was never quiet there. He liked the sound of the horses’ heavy breathing and the shuffling of their hooves on the stone floor.
Dex didn’t know why, but he knew he was in trouble. Gray One had gone to sleep in the corridor, and Sun Woman had sent angry soldiers to find him. Keeping to the shadows, he saw more soldiers with swords race past him toward the tower. Then someone he knew, the man who put him on the pony sometimes, ran out into the courtyard. He was limping, and Dex was about to go to him when the man fell down. Two soldiers came up behind him and stuck their swords into him as he lay on the ground. He screamed and screamed and then was still.
Terrified now, Dex cringed into the shadow of the wall. He heard a woman cry out and could see flames coming from the kitchen, leaping high into the night, bathing the courtyard in an orange glow. Two women ran from the kitchen doors, pursued by more soldiers. The soldiers were laughing and waving their swords.
Dex closed his eyes. He could feel the heat of the flames.
He opened his eyes to see a soldier he knew. He had a red beard, and he made Dex laugh when he carried him on his back. The man snatched him up and held him close to his chest. Dex felt a surge of pleasure and relief, although the man’s armor was hard against him. He tried to tell the red-bearded soldier about Gray One lying down.
“Hush, boy, I’ll see you safe,” the man said.
He sprinted across the courtyard toward the stables. There were bodies everywhere, servants and soldiers. As they passed the kitchens, Dex could feel the heat against his bare legs and smell cooking meat. He pushed his face into the soldier’s chest.
The soldier ran into the stable, then put him down. Kneeling down, he took hold of Dex’s shoulders. “Listen to me, boy. You must hide. Like you always do. You know? Find a place in the straw and burrow deep.”
“Is it a game?” Dex asked.
“Yes, a game. And you must not come out until I come for you. Understand?”
“Yes. But I am hungry.”
“Go now and hide. Do not make a sound, Dex. Just stay hidden.”
He pushed Dex away, and the boy ran to the last stall and ducked inside. The stall was empty, and straw had been piled there. Dropping to his belly, Dex eased himself into the center of it and sat, hugging his knees.
From within the straw Dex could just make out the image of the soldier. He had drawn his sword and was standing quietly. Then more men came, and there were angry shouts and the terrible clanging he had heard earlier. He saw one soldier fall down, then another. But then the friendly soldier also tumbled to the ground. Other soldiers ju
mped on him, hitting him again and again with their swords.
Then they began running through the stable, looking in all the stalls.
Dex stayed very quiet.
Halysia had always been told she had courage. By the time she was five she had tumbled from her old pony many times. Her father would tend her bumps and scrapes and once a broken arm, and as she suffered his rough care, he would look into her eyes and tell her how brave she was. Her brothers would laugh at her and put her on the mare again, and she would laugh with them and forget her injuries.
When, at seventeen, she had been sent to wed Anchises, she had been terrified at first of the old man and the dark foreign fortress where she must live and of the perils of childbirth that had claimed her mother and her beloved sister. But when she was frightened, she would remember her father’s dark eyes on her and his words: “Have courage, little squirrel. Without courage your life is nothing. With courage you need nothing else.”
Now, some way past her thirtieth year, she no longer believed in her courage. Whatever strength she possessed had been ripped from her during the attack on Dardanos three years before. No night had passed since then when she had not been ravaged by fears. Her sleep was broken by terrifying visions in which her son Diomedes fell in flames from the cliff, his screams terrible to hear, and she felt the pain and humiliation as the invaders held her down and brutally raped her, a knife at her throat. She would awake sobbing, and Helikaon would reach for her in the darkness and hold her in the fortress of his arms. He told her time and time again that she was a brave woman sorely tested, that the fears and nightmares she suffered were natural but would be overcome.
But he was wrong.
She had known the invaders would come back, known with a certainty that was bone-deep and had nothing to do with her fear. She had always received visions, even as a child among the horse herds of Zeleia. Her simple predictions about the foaling prospects of a young mare or the illnesses that struck down the wild horses in the wet season always came true, and her father would smile at her and say she was blessed by Poseidon, who loved horses.