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02 Shield of Thunder 47


  Now, as she sat on the great carved chair of Anchises in the megaron, her hands gripping the wide wooden arms in a death grip, she knew that once again her visions were true. Mykene soldiers were inside the fortress.

  Thoughts swarmed like bats through her mind, images flaring. Helikaon had sent word to beware of traitors, to watch for strangers. But it was no stranger who had opened the Seagate. One of her soldiers had seen Menon walking with Mykene officers.

  Menon! It was almost inconceivable that he could have committed such a dark and terrible act. He was always charming and thoughtful, and Halysia had believed he was genuinely fond of her. To sell her for rape and slaughter was beyond understanding.

  More than three hundred Mykene soldiers had entered the citadel, scarcely hindered by Dardanos’ depleted garrison. The Mykene had known exactly when to come. They had slipped in on unguarded seas on the one day she had sent—on Menon’s advice—Dardania’s small remaining fleet to Carpea to escort the fleeing Trojan Horse.

  Surrounded by her personal bodyguard of twenty, she sat silent as a stone statue in the megaron as they all listened to the sounds of battle outside. Through the high windows she could see the flickering light of flames. She could hear screams and shouts and battle cries. She trembled so badly that her teeth chattered, and she clamped her jaw tightly so that the men would not hear.

  The bodyguard, handpicked by Helikaon, waited grimly around her, swords in hand. She shook her head, trying to shake free the terror paralyzing her mind.

  A young blood-covered soldier ran into the megaron.

  “They have taken the north tower, lady,” he said between labored breaths. “The kitchens have been set afire. The eastern barracks have also fallen. There are more Mykene outside the Landgate, but they cannot get in. We are stopping the invaders inside from reaching it.”

  “How many more outside?”

  “Hundreds.”

  “Where is Pausanius?” she managed to ask, surprised that her voice sounded firm.

  The soldier shook his head. “I have not seen him. Rhygmos commands the defense of the megaron. Protheos is holding the invaders from the Landgate.”

  “What of the boy?”

  “I saw him with Gradion at the stable, but there were Mykene soldiers closing in on them. Gradion took the boy inside. I had to run then. I did not see what followed.”

  She stood on leaden legs and turned to the captain of her guard, clasping her hands in front of her to stop them from shaking. “Menesthes, we always knew the megaron could not be held. We cannot waste life defending it. We must pull back to the eastern tower.”

  Just then the double doors to the megaron crashed open, and Mykene soldiers streamed inside. Menesthes drew his sword and rushed at them, followed by his men. Halysia knew they could not hold for long. Then Menesthes shouted back to her. “Flee, lady! Flee now!”

  Halysia gathered up her gown and ran across the great room, pushing open the door to the antechamber, which she barred behind her. It would not stop determined men armed with axes and swords, but it would delay them.

  She paused for a moment, fearing she would black out from the terror in her heart. Forcing her legs to move, she ran up the narrow stone staircase to her bedchamber. Its door was heavy and cross-grained. It would take them a while to batter it down. She closed it behind her and placed the solid wood locking bar across it.

  The room was lit by low candles. There were soft rugs on the floor and jewel-colored tapestries on the walls. She paused for a heartbeat, breathing in the light perfume of roses on the night air, then walked out onto the balcony.

  Helikaon had planned for this moment for three years. He respected her visions, and the warrior within him believed even more in Agamemnon’s desire for vengeance. Shortly after the last invasion, Halysia’s bedchamber had been moved from its old place in the north wing to these rooms high above the sea behind the megaron. It boasted a wide stone balcony overlooking the west.

  The queen walked to the end of the balcony and thrust aside a hanging curtain of creeping plants. Looking down, she could see the first of the short wooden bars set into the stone of the outside wall.

  Under cover of renovations to her new apartments, lengths of seasoned oak had been set deep into the stone, descending to an overgrown garden overlooking the sea. No guards or palace servants were permitted to enter the garden, and it had been allowed to grow wild with roses and vines. The work had been skillfully done, and it was hard to discern the handholds from the ground even if one knew what to look for.

  The craftsmen responsible for the work had returned to her brother’s tribe in Zeleia, heaped with honor and silver and sworn to secrecy.

  With Helikaon absent, only two people in the fortress knew of the escape route besides herself: Pausanius, of course, and his aide Menon.

  Menon, the betrayer!

  She hesitated in an agony of indecision, looking at the escape route into darkness. What choice do I have? she thought. I cannot stay here and wait for them.

  She bent over the balcony wall and listened, trying to calm the thumping of her heart. She could hear nothing in the undergrowth below. All was still.

  She hurried back to the door of her room and listened there. She heard the distant pounding of metal on wood as they battered down the antechamber door.

  Moving to a great carved wooden chest, she yanked open the heavy lid. It thumped against the wall. Pushing aside embroidered shawls and gem-encrusted gowns, she pulled clear an old servant’s tunic of dull blue and a hooded cloak in dirty brown. Rummaging deeper, she found the scabbarded dagger her father had given her on her fifteenth birthday. It had a handle of deerhorn and a curved blade of shining bronze. She slipped off her dress of white linen and donned the drab tunic. Then, taking a deep breath, she unbarred the door to her room and opened it a crack. From below the sound of splintering wood was loud in her ears. She could hear the grunts and shouts of men struggling with broken timbers.

  She stood calmly and thought her plan through one more time. Then she carefully placed the locking bar against the wall and opened the door wide.

  Pelopidas the Spartan ran up the narrow stairs, his bloody sword in his hand. He knew what he would find. One more locked door, which the axmen following him would splinter in a few heartbeats. The queen would not be inside. She would have taken the secret climb to the garden below, where more of his men were waiting for her. Or, he thought with quickening desire, she would see the men below and climb in panic back to the bedchamber. Pelopidas hoped that was true. Far more comfortable to rape her on a bed. Easier on his aging knees.

  A veteran with graying hair and beard in long braids, Pelopidas reached the top of the stairs and saw the door was open. Stupid bitch, he thought. In her terror she had made it all the more easy for them. He was followed by three other men, all sweating and cursing the splinters in their hands from breaking down the lower door. They went straight out onto the narrow balcony. Pelopidas thrust aside the tattered curtain of plants, tearing them down.

  “You two,” he said, gesturing at his men. “Follow her down. When you catch her, bring her back here. I want her first.”

  The two soldiers looked doubtfully at the narrow handholds and the drop into darkness beyond, but they followed his orders, as he knew they would, climbing swiftly over the stone wall and lowering themselves down.

  Pelopidas grunted and returned to the bedchamber. The last soldier was standing by the bedside, rummaging in a jewelry box decorated with ivory. “Leave that, you cur,” Pelopidas said. “You know what the general said about looting. Get below and find that damned child. There’s twenty gold rings for the team that brings his head to Katheos.”

  “How are we going to find him?” the man answered. “The stable was empty. He could be anywhere.”

  “He’s three years old and alone. He’ll be huddled somewhere weeping and shitting himself. Now go!”

  The soldier lingered for a moment, looking around the bedchamber at the soft gl
eam of gold and jewels all around. Then he ran from the room.

  Pelopidas sat down on the soft bed and rubbed at his left knee. There was swelling there, and the joint was stiff. Stretching out on the bed, he caught the scent of perfume from the pillow. Arousal swept through him. It was said the queen was slim and beautiful, though past thirty now, golden-haired and sweet of face. He chuckled. It wasn’t her face that interested him.

  The bitch had to die and die slowly so that the Burner would hear of it and know it was vengeance for his raids on the mainland. Pelopidas felt his anger rising at the thought of the villages burned and sailors drowned by the vile Helikaon and his crew. Those crewmen would lose many of their loved ones before this night was over.

  The Spartan took off his helm and dropped it to the floor. Rising from the bed, he stepped over to a flagon of water on a small table and took a great swig. Then he poured some over his head, shaking his braids.

  He looked around assessingly at the bedchamber, its soft draperies and the gleam of bronze, copper, and gold in every corner. He breathed in the scent of flowers. Lifting the carved ivory box that the soldier had been searching, he saw the dark sparkle of jewelry. Reaching in, he pulled out a handful of gold and gems, scarcely glancing at them before thrusting them into the leather pouch at his side. There was a heavy gold bracelet worth a year’s pay, and he slid that into the pouch, too.

  His eyes alighted on the huge wooden chest, its lid flung open as if left in haste. Inside, among folds of embroidered cloth, he could see the gleam of gems. Dragging out the top garment, he found it was decorated with gold wire, amber, and carnelian. He hesitated, wondering what to do with it, then snorted with laughter at himself. He could hardly carry a woman’s dress on campaign.

  Filled with good humor, he bent down to delve deeper into the chest, searching for hidden jewelry. Suddenly he detected a movement deep in its depths, and in the heartbeat it took him to react, a face, white and ghostlike, surged up toward him. He felt an agonizing pain in his throat and fell back, blood gouting out in front of him. Panic-stricken, he clutched at his throat, trying to stop the fountain of blood. A small golden-haired woman climbed from the chest, a gory dagger in her hand.

  Pelopidas struggled to his knees and tried to call out for help, but pain seared through his severed vocal cords and blood gouted between his fingers. The woman was staring at him with wide eyes. He felt his limbs weakening, his life draining away.

  His head struck the floor, and he found himself staring at the pattern of deep red swirls on the rug. It seemed then that the rug was melting, crimson fluid spreading across it. A great calm settled on him. Something warm flowed across his leg, and he realized his bladder was emptying.

  Have to get up, he thought. Have to find…

  Halysia stood very still, watching the dying man thrash on the floor, his blood pumping over the ornate rug. Her thoughts fluttered like moths around the flame of reality. His throat was severed. She had killed him. But all she could think of was that the rug had been a gift from her father on her wedding to Anchises, embroidered with eastern silk. The blood will not come out, she thought.

  Forget the blood, came the harsh voice of reason. Halysia blinked and took a deep breath. The warrior’s leg twitched. Then he was still. Stepping back from the body, she sheathed the dagger.

  You must get out! They will return!

  Donning the brown hooded cloak, she ran down the steps and through the shattered remains of the anteroom door. Pausing at the entrance to the megaron, she peered inside. All was silent. Her bodyguards lay slain, more than thirty enemy dead around them. The stone floor was awash with blood, the room thick with the smell of death.

  Fear struck her anew, knotting her stomach. She wanted to run as fast as she could and put this scene of nightmare behind her. Failing that, she needed a place to hide, some dark and gloomy hole the enemy would not find.

  Then the face of her son appeared in her mind. She was shaken by the image. Instead of seeing, as she usually did, the living proof of her rape and the constant reminder of the murder of her beloved Diomedes, she saw now his large imploring eyes and the sweetness of his mouth, so much like hers. Halysia gave a soft groan. At least Dio had known the love of a mother. He had been held and nurtured, caressed, and told many times how much she loved him. Little Dex, as Pausanius had so accurately pointed out, had been starved of her affection.

  And now cruel men were seeking to kill him.

  Instinct urged her to run out of the megaron to the stables in the hope that Dex was still there. Reason told her she would never make it. A running figure would be spotted. Halysia decided to make her way through the side entrance of the megaron, pass by the kitchens, and reach the stables from the back.

  Determination fueling her courage, she made her way to the side door. She could hear shouting from beyond it and saw movement as a shadow crossed the doorway. Crouching down behind a column, she waited, not daring to breathe. Then there was silence. Carefully she rose and peered around the column. Whoever had paused in the doorway had moved on.

  The kitchens beyond had been destroyed by fire. The wooden buildings must have gone up like tinder, she thought, but now the fire was largely over. A pall of thick choking smoke lay over the vegetable gardens in front of the building. Halysia slipped into the smoke, disappearing like a wraith in sunlight.

  She could hardly breathe and dropped down to her hands and knees, hugging the stones, where a carpet of fresh air flowed gently beneath the smoke. Carefully she crawled along the path to the stables, her knees snagging in the drapes of her tunic and cloak. Along the way she passed many bodies, some dead, some mortally wounded.

  Ahead she glimpsed movement and lay still. Mykene soldiers, some coughing and sputtering, came striding toward her. Pressing her face to the earth, she lay as one dead, eyes closed. Feet pounded close by, and then came a sharp command to halt.

  A foot slammed into the back of her thigh. The soldier stumbled and swore. The pain made her bite her lip, but she made no sound.

  “Damned smoke all over the place,” came a voice. “Can’t see a thing.”

  “It’s no use running around in this,” said another. “Let’s get to the Landgate, kill the bastard defenders, and let the Atreans in. Then we can loot the place and get out.”

  “Shut your mouth,” a third voice said irritably. “That boy’s head is worth twenty gold rings. Now, keep looking.”

  The men hurried off. Halysia remained where she was until the creak of leather and their grunting breaths passed from earshot. Then she got to her feet and ran for the stables.

  It was pitch-dark inside, and she could hear the horses moving anxiously, smelling the fires. She walked among them confidently, speaking quietly to them, patting the solid warm horseflesh that bumped gently against her as she felt her way through the stable.

  “Dex,” she whispered into the gloom. “Are you here? Dex.”

  She could hear nothing but the sounds of horses and the far shouts of men. Then she heard a command that caused her heart to beat wildly. “Fetch fire. If he’s hiding in the stables, we’ll smoke him out.”

  The horses shifted and whinnied around her but soon calmed as she walked among them. Only the great black horse carried on clattering in his box, banging his flanks against the wooden sides and kicking out against the barred stall door.

  “Dex! Dexios. Are you here?” she whispered urgently.

  Suddenly she stopped. Standing motionless in the dim rays filtering in from the entrance to the barn, there was a small figure, hands to his face. Motes of straw whirled in the heavy light around him. He was quite still, quite silent. For a heartbeat mother and son stood looking at each other.

  Then a small voice asked, “Are you angry with me, Mama?”

  She knelt down and opened her arms. “I’m not angry with you, Dex. Now we must go. We must run away.”

  He ran to her then, and his small body hit hers with the force of a battering ram, almost knocking her over
. She felt his arms around her neck, his wet, grubby face against hers.

  Picking the child up, she ran to the front of the stable. If she could just make it down to the outer wall and the hidden postern gate, she could carry Dex out into the countryside and hide in one of the many caves.

  Looking out, she saw a group of enemy soldiers running toward the building, flaming torches in their hands. Hugging the boy to her, she fled back to the rear entrance and peered though a crack in the door. Just paces away she saw a burly Mykene warrior. In one hand he grasped the hair of a young horse boy. In the other he held a blood-covered sword, which he slashed across the lad’s throat. The towheaded boy twitched as his lifeblood ran out. The soldier dropped him to the earth and turned toward the stable door.

  Quelling her panic, Halysia carried Dex back through the stable and stood holding the boy, eyeing both entrances. Hefting the child into one arm, she backed up against the stall where the black horse was fidgeting and clattering.

  There was no way out now, and within a few heartbeats the enemy would find her and her son.

  “Not this time!” she whispered. “Not again!”

  Reaching behind her, she opened the door of the stall and slipped inside. The huge black horse regarded her with a wild eye but made no move. Putting Dex down, she moved to the horse and took his head in her hands, resting her cheek against his dark face, feeling the hot breath.

  “I need you now, greatest of horses,” she whispered. “I need your strength and your courage.”

  Patting the horse for reassurance, she picked Dex up and set him on the beast’s back. The horse shifted about but then was still. Levering herself against the side of the stall, she climbed up behind the child. Putting her face close to his ear, she said, “Courage, little squirrel. Be brave!”