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02 - Shield of Thunder
02 Shield of Thunder 48
“I will, Mama!”
The main doorway to the barn burst open, and torch-bearing Mykene warriors swarmed in. Taking a deep breath, she leaned over and flung wide the stall door, then grabbed the horse’s mane and kicked at his sides. With all the breath in her body Halysia screamed the war cry of the Zeleians.
The horse bunched its great muscles and took off at a run, its huge hooves clattering on the stone floor.
The Mykene warriors shouted out as the horse surged toward them, waving burning brands to frighten it. Instead it thundered into them. One man was hurled from his feet, his head smashing against a timber column. A second went down under the stallion, and Halysia heard the sickening crack of a hoof striking bone. The other warriors leaped aside.
Outside the stable, Halysia made for the Landgate. If it was open now, she could ride straight through and down the defile to the bridge at Parnio’s Folly.
They sped through the great courtyard, hearing the shouts of the enemy soldiers as they realized who rode the horse. An arrow hissed by her, then another. Drawing Dex more tightly to her, she urged the stallion into a full gallop.
The Landgate was just ahead, beyond the next corner. The horse’s hooves skidded on the stones as she turned him.
Ahead she saw that a battle was still being fought. And the gate was closed.
A group of Dardanian soldiers, engaged in a desperate last stand, had formed a shield wall in the gateway. They were close to being overwhelmed.
Halysia dragged her mount to a halt, and there was an eerie pause as the fighting came to a slow stop. Her soldiers looked at her with sudden recognition and wonder, and she looked down with pride at their doomed faces. Some of the Mykene turned and saw her, and she heard a voice snarl, “That’s her! That’s the queen! Get the bitch!”
With the enemy’s attention distracted, the Dardanians drove into them with renewed effort, and she saw many Mykene go down. She knew she had bought her soldiers more time. But now some of the Mykene were racing toward her.
Swinging the great horse, she dug her heels into his flanks. Half rearing, he came down running. Halysia headed him down the stone streets and cobbled alleys leading to the Seagate and the high cliff. She felt a painful blow to her thigh. Glancing down, she saw an arrow there, buried deep in her leg. A dull ache began, then flared into sharp pain.
The Seagate came into view, its huge stone towers looming up in the darkness. The few soldiers around it scattered as the stallion bore down on them. Then the great horse galloped under the stone and marble gateway and out into the night.
Halysia knew she could not keep to the road. It would carry them down to the beach and more Mykene soldiers. Dragging back on the horse’s mane, she shifted her body weight, causing the beast to turn. Its hooves clattered on stone, then slipped as the precipice loomed. For a moment Halysia thought it would fall from the cliff, but it righted itself and ran up the narrow path alongside the walls.
In daylight this ride was perilous, but at night, she knew, only luck and the blessings of many gods would see them to safety.
The stallion climbed on, moving slowly over the broken ground. At the highest point, where Halysia knew the path narrowed, she halted him. The walls towered up on her left, and to her right she could see the star-spattered sea and the Mykene galleys gathered all along the beach.
Then she saw another fleet beating toward Dardanos across the Hellespont. For a moment she thought they were more Mykene vessels, but then she recognized the great bulk of the Xanthos. Exhilaration swept through her.
Her husband was coming home, and now the Mykene would know the meaning of fear. His vengeance upon the enemy would be both terrifying to behold and good to savor.
The Mykene crews on the beach had also seen the Dardanian fleet and were racing to launch their vessels. Halysia smiled. Whether they sought to run or to fight, the result would be the same. They were all dead men.
Relief washed over her. All she had to do was wait quietly beneath the walls until Helikaon came ashore.
Then something hissed by her, striking the stones and ricocheting off them. She heard shouts from above and gazed up to see men leaning over the battlements.
Hugging Dex tightly to her, she patted the horse on the shoulder, speaking firmly and calmly to him. Gently she urged him on. Arrows flashed by her, startling the horse. “Be calm, great one,” she whispered soothingly. Dressed in a dark cloak and sitting on a black horse, she made a poor target for night shooting. Even so, if they stayed where they were, a shaft eventually would strike home. Halysia decided to circle the fortress, outrun the enemy soldiers beyond the Landgate, then make her way to Parnio’s Folly and safety.
The land dropped away sharply to her right into darkness. On her left the walls of the citadel rose like a cliff. The big horse dropped his head and carefully picked his way along the narrow path. At times his hooves slipped on the crumbling rock. Arrows continued to slash by them, but few came close.
When the Landgate came into view, she saw it was still holding. Hundreds of Mykene troops were milling around uselessly outside, waiting for their comrades inside to open the gates. There were cries and curses of frustration, but they were all staring at the walls, at the gates, and had no attention to pay to a woman and a horse quietly emerging from the darkness.
Halysia saw movement in the distance, and a line of brightly armored horsemen appeared there. The Trojan Horse had arrived! The Mykene saw them, too, and began to form a defensive shield wall.
Then someone shouted from the battlements. “The queen is escaping! Kill her!”
There were only a few horsemen beyond the gates, but they immediately kicked their horses into a run.
Halysia heeled the black stallion, and he took off again, racing past the rear of the Mykene forces and straight for the defile. Glancing around, she saw four Mykene riders falling back. The stallion was pounding now at full gallop, and his speed was colossal. Halysia had ridden many horses in her life, but none had had the strength and speed of this huge beast.
She felt the wind in her hair and allowed her heart to lift. Helikaon would sink the enemy fleet, and the Trojan Horse would slaughter the enemy soldiers left on land. All she needed to do was outrun the Mykene riders and she would be safe.
The stallion galloped on, and she saw the defile widen just before the bridge. Only, now there was no bridge, merely a smoking ruin. Its remains hung blackened and charred, dangling from the edge of the chasm. There was no way out.
A group of Mykene soldiers came running out of the darkness beside the defile, sprinting toward her, shining blades in their hands. Swinging her mount, Halysia rode back along the defile, then turned again. The Mykene horsemen were close now, and she heard their shouts of triumph.
“Whatever happens, little Dex, we will be together,” she promised. Then she slapped the stallion’s rump. Startled, he set off down the defile toward the chasm. His speed increased as he thundered on. Halysia held his mane in a death grip. She saw soldiers in a blur in the corner of her eye. She felt a blow in her side, but the spear point ripped through her flesh and did not bring her down. Pain seared through her. Ignoring it, she focused on the horse moving beneath her, the small warm body huddled against her, and the chasm yawning just ahead.
Could even this great horse make such a jump? Halysia did not know. What she did know was that the horse might balk at the edge and throw her and her son to the rocks below.
As they closed toward the chasm, she dug her heels into the horse’s side for the last time and screamed her tribal yell, the sound high-pitched and ululating. The horse bunched his great muscles and leaped.
Time came to an end. The only sound was the beating of her heart. There was stillness all around. She could not feel the horse’s back. She could not feel the boy at her breast. She wondered if her life had ended there and the gods were carrying her away. She even had time to glance down at the jagged black rocks so far below.
Then the stallion’s hooves h
it the ground on the other side of the chasm. The horse stumbled a moment, his rear hooves scrabbling on the lip of the cliff. Then they were over and running free.
Halysia halted the stallion and looked back at the Mykene. Not one of them had had the nerve to follow her, and they screamed insults at her. Then they rode back along the defile. Weariness flowed over her.
“Have the bad men gone, Mama?” Dex asked.
“Yes, they have gone, little squirrel.” Halysia lifted her leg and jumped down from the horse. She cried out as the arrow in her thigh twisted, ripping her flesh. Sitting down on a rock, she released the boy. He did not move away but clung to her. Halysia kissed his brow.
“You are my son, little Dex. And I am so proud of you. Soon your father will be home, and he will be proud of you, too. We will sit here quietly and wait for him.” The child looked up at her and smiled. Such a sweet smile, she thought, like sunshine spearing through cloud.
The left side of her tunic was drenched with blood from the spear wound. She thought to stem the bleeding with her cloak. But then the cloth slipped from her fingers. It seemed to her that the night was growing brighter. Someone was close by. Halysia turned her head with a great effort. The light was almost blinding now. A small golden-haired figure came into sight. Halysia squinted against the brightness and then cried out with joy. It was Diomedes, her son. He was smiling at her and holding out his arms.
Tears filled Halysia’s eyes. Both of her sons were with her now, and the world was in harmony again. In that one blissful moment, as the light faded, Halysia realized she had never been happier.
White long-haired goats were grazing on the cliffs beneath the high walls of the palace called King’s Joy. The animals darted away as Kassandra made her way to the cliff top, and she paused to watch them. So sure-footed, she thought as they leaped from rock to rock. No fear of heights or the sharp rocks so far below. Was it confidence or stupidity, she wondered, or a mixture of both?
Kassandra moved past them, climbing to the highest point above the shore. Hitching up her ankle-length tunic of glistening white, she sat upon a rock and gazed out to sea. There were no ships in sight, and only five vessels were drawn up on the once-busy beaches below. A score of small fishing boats were out in the bay, casting their nets.
Up here, high above the world, all seemed peaceful and serene. Kassandra glanced toward the south. Beyond the line of the Ida mountains armies were moving, preparing for war and death, rape and murder. A brief and ghastly vision of fire and horror swept into her mind, but she ruthlessly suppressed it. Turning her gaze toward the north, she saw again the images of the previous night’s dream, the fortress of Dardanos engulfed in flames.
Thraki was lost, and soon the Mykene would be crossing the straits into Dardania. From the north and south the enemy would come, their armies closing like a great fist around the golden city.
Then the peaceful beaches below would play host to a fleet of ships so large that not a speck of sand would be seen between their hulls. Kassandra shivered in the bright sunshine.
A moment of brilliant doubt touched her then. All these visions might not be true.
Slowly she pushed herself to her feet and edged her way to stand above the awesome drop. To test the truth of them, all she had to do was take a single step forward. If she fell to her death on the jagged rocks, then they were false, for there would be no winter journey to Thera, no flight into the midday sky, no roaring thunder and the end of worlds. Troy might survive, and Hektor might live to be a great king.
Just one step…
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and stepped forward.
Rough hands grabbed her, hauling her back from the precipice.
“What are you doing?” asked a young shepherd boy, holding tight to her arms.
Kassandra did not answer him.
The journey to Thera would be long—and full of perils.
David Gemmell, 02 - Shield of Thunder
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