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02 Shield of Thunder 9


  “A pox on your stories!” came a voice. “How about a little help?”

  Odysseus glanced to starboard. The listing war galley was close now, the mist swirling around it. On its prow stood a heavily bearded figure garbed in black.

  “I might have known it was you, Meriones,” Odysseus called cheerfully. “You couldn’t sail a twig across a puddle without it sinking.”

  “Good to see you, too, you fat braggart!”

  The sailor beside Odysseus looped the rope around the prow, then threw the coil across to Meriones. The war galley had been holed on the port side. Most of the crew had gathered to starboard, their combined weight helping to keep the hole above the waterline.

  With the rope fastened, Odysseus ordered the crew to reverse oars, and slowly they hauled the crippled vessel toward the shore.

  The mist was thicker now, and Odysseus made his way along the central deck to the rear. He could see no signal fires, but he could hear the faint sounds of shouting from the distant beach. They were using sound to guide him in, chanting “Penelope” over and over again. Following the sound of her name, the Penelope slowly backed water until the first glimmerings of the fires could be seen. The Mykene warrior Kalliades had set a line of small blazes on the hillside in the shape of an arrowhead.

  Bias grinned. “That was good thinking,” he said.

  Odysseus nodded. “Once we’ve beached, get everyone forward to haul on the rope. We’ll bring her in alongside us.”

  “Looks like there’s been quite a battle,” Bias said.

  Odysseus remained silent. The battle would have been with a pirate fleet. No single vessel would have dared attack Meriones. His reputation as a sea fighter was second to none, save perhaps for Helikaon. But why attack a Kretan war galley? It would be carrying no wealth.

  The stern of the Penelope grounded on the sand. Bias called out for crewmen to take up the rope, and the war galley was pulled alongside. With the two ships safe Odysseus jumped down to the beach. Men clambered down from both ships and waded to the shoreline. A tall man in battle armor and helm strode toward Odysseus and halted before him. “My thanks to you, Ithaka,” said Idomeneos, the king of Kretos, his voice harsh and grating. Before Odysseus could reply, they were joined by the black-bearded Meriones.

  Odysseus chuckled. “So what happened, Meriones? Hit a rock, did you?”

  “You know good and well what happened,” Meriones answered. “We were rammed.”

  “Cursed pirates,” Idomeneos said. “You’d think a king could sail his own seas without such insult. I swear by Poseidon that once I’ve returned from Troy, I’ll bring a battle fleet into these waters and butcher all the scum I find.”

  “How many were there?” Odysseus asked.

  “Six galleys. We sank two but lost one ourselves,” Meriones said. “It was a merry time for a while there: flaming arrows, boarding parties, slashing blades. You would have enjoyed it.”

  “I’d have enjoyed watching it,” Odysseus said. “The Penelope is no warship. There is no ram on her keel. You think they’ll still be hunting you tomorrow?”

  “No doubt about it,” Idomeneos put in. “They know who I am. They also know that every king around the Great Green is heading for Troy about now. This was a ransom raid. They thought to capture me and sell me back to my sons.” He glanced across the beach and saw Nestor walking toward them. “Ah, this is a fine turn of events. Three kings on a beach and not a warship among them.”

  Odysseus directed them to the main fire, then waited as injured men were helped from the damaged vessel. It was true: A ransom raid was the most likely explanation for the attack. He chuckled. Not that anyone would pay a copper ring to get Idomeneos back.

  Recognizing one of the rescued men, Odysseus walked to where he sat slumped on the sand. “Thought you’d be dead by now,” he said. The white-haired sailor had a deep gash on his shoulder and a second puncture wound above the hip. The cut on the shoulder was bleeding badly. Bias came up with a needle and a ball of thin twine.

  The wounded man sighed. “Damn, but I’m sick of stitches, Odysseus. Even my wounds have had wounds.”

  “Then what are you doing still at sea, old fool? Last I heard, you had a small farm.”

  “Still have. I’ve also got a new young wife and two young sons.” The sailor shook his head. “I’m too old to take the noise and the constant demands.”

  Odysseus grinned. “So fighting pirates was preferable?”

  “Who would have thought that any pirates would be stupid enough to go against Meriones? Gods, man, we must have killed seventy of them today. Mind you, we lost thirty good men in the doing of it.”

  “What happened?” Odysseus asked as Bias threaded the needle.

  “We were sailing for Kios. Pirate fleet came from behind a headland. Six galleys. I thought we were finished for sure.” He glanced across at the kings by the fire. “We had Meriones, though. Best fighting sailor on the Great Green. Gave us an edge. Not much of one, mind. We were boarded. Hand to hand then.” The man gave a wry chuckle. “That’s when old Sharptooth laid into them. Man, you should have seen the shock on their faces.”

  “Sharptooth?” Odysseus queried, pinching two flaps of skin together so that Bias could pierce them with the needle. The old sailor winced.

  “King Idomeneos. We call him Sharptooth. He doesn’t mind. Truth to tell, I think he likes it. He’s a fighter, that one. Mean-spirited as a skinny whore and cold-blooded as a snake, but when it comes to fighting… Man, he was in among them so fast, shouting war cries and insults. It was a sight to see. Gladdens the heart to have a brave king.”

  “The gods always bless a man with courage.”

  “I hope you are right, Ugly One. But we were saved by the stamping feet of the gods. When the sea started to tremble, the pirates called off the attack. They will still be there tomorrow, though.”

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  CIRCLE OF THE ASSASSIN

  Odysseus moved to the fire and sat down alongside the sleeping Ganny. The dark-garbed Meriones was slumped down on the sand, rubbing at his eyes. The man looked exhausted, Odysseus thought. Meriones was strong but no longer young. The battle with the pirates and then the long struggle to bring the ship to safety had drained him. Nestor came and threw brushwood on the fire, then eased himself down, favoring his left knee. The old king’s joints were stiffening, Odysseus knew, and pained him greatly. Nearby, King Idomeneos removed his sword belt and laid it on the sand. Odysseus glanced at him. He, too, was past forty. The whole world is getting old, Odysseus thought glumly. Idly he patted the pig, then lifted the borrowed cloak over its flanks. Ganny gave a little grunt, and his eyes opened. His head lifted, and he nuzzled Odysseus’ hand.

  “There just has to be a story there,” Meriones said with a chuckle.

  “I am in no mood for stories,” Odysseus grunted.

  “Oh, then I’ll tell it for you,” Meriones persisted. “Odysseus obviously sailed back to the Witch Queen’s island. You’ll recall it was there some years ago that all his crew were turned into pigs, or so he tells it.”

  Odysseus smiled then. “Ah, but that was a good yarn. And you are right, Meriones. You remember my crewman Portheos?” He patted the pig again. “He just couldn’t resist the Witch Queen’s beauty. Everything was going well until she caught him gazing at her tits. I tell you, my friends, it is not a wise move to gaze at a witch’s tits. And this is the result. We kept him on the crew out of loyalty, though he’s as much use as a fart at a feast.”

  “What was her name again, that Witch Queen?” Meriones asked.

  “Circe. The most beautiful woman you ever saw.”

  Meriones laughed aloud, then pointed at the brush enclosure where the other pigs were sleeping. “And who are those unlucky fellows? Did they all stare at the queen’s tits?”

  “I fear they did,” Odysseus told him. “Apparently they are all kings from distant isles, beyond Skylla and Charybdis. Each one of them came to the queen’s island to woo her.
Their missions were doomed from the start, for the queen had already lost her heart to a handsome sailor, a man of great wit and charm and sublime intelligence.”

  “And… that would be you, of course?”

  Odysseus chuckled. “Did the description confuse you? Of course it is me.”

  Nestor laughed. “You know why she didn’t turn you into a pig, Odysseus? It would have been an improvement.”

  “Enough of lies about pigs,” Idomeneos snapped. “What shall we do about the pirates tomorrow? I have less than a dozen men able to fight, and you have a crew of thirty. One small galley against four rammers.”

  Odysseus sighed and swung toward the king of Kretos. “Why do your men call you Sharptooth?” he asked. “I see no jutting fang.”

  “I’d like to hear the answer to that,” Nestor put in.

  “Are you both moon-touched?” Idomeneos grumbled. “There are more than two hundred fighting men waiting to come against us, and all you can think about are pigs and nicknames.”

  “No one is coming against us tonight,” Odysseus told him. “We are three kings, sitting by a warm fire. When golden Apollo rises in the sky tomorrow, that will be the time to concern ourselves with pirates.” He called out to one of his crewmen to bring food for his guests, then lounged back, his arm over the drowsy black pig. “So, Idomeneos, favor us with the tale.”

  Idomeneos rubbed at his face, then removed his helm and laid it on the sand. “They call me Sharptooth,” he said wearily, “because I once bit off a man’s finger during a battle.”

  “His finger?” Nestor exclaimed. “By the gods, man, that makes you a cannibal.”

  “One finger does not make me a cannibal,” Idomeneos objected.

  “Interesting point,” Odysseus mused. “I wonder how many fingers a man has to eat before he can correctly be called a cannibal.”

  “I didn’t eat the finger! I was struggling with the man, and my sword broke. He had a knife, and I bit him on the hand as we grappled.”

  “Sounds like cannibal behavior to me,” said Nestor, straight-faced. Idomeneos stared malevolently at the old king, and Odysseus, unable to hold it any longer, let out a shout of laughter.

  King Idomeneos looked from one to the other. “A pox on you both,” he said, which brought more guffaws, until crewmen brought them food and they settled down to eat.

  “I wonder what has made the pirates so bold this season,” Nestor said as they laid their empty platters on the sand.

  “The death of Helikaon, I shouldn’t wonder,” Idomeneos told him.

  “What’s that?” Odysseus said, his belly tightening.

  “Did the news not reach Ithaka? He was stabbed at his own wedding feast,” Idomeneos said. “By one of his crewmen, a man he trusted. Which is a damn fine reason to trust no one, I say. Anyway, news of his death has spread around the Great Green these past weeks. Helikaon’s fleets are not sailing. So no one is hunting the pirates. And you know how they feared Helikaon’s ship.”

  “And rightly so,” Meriones put in. “The Xanthos terrified them, with its fire hurlers. You still hear men talking about the day he roasted the pirate crew alive.”

  Odysseus pushed himself to his feet and walked away from the fire. Random images flashed across his mind: the youth Helikaon diving from a cliff top in Dardanos, the child Laertes dying in the Plague House, the older Helikaon on Blue Owl Bay, smitten with love after seeing Andromache. More and more memories flooded him.

  Finding a spot away from the crew, he sat down, staring out into the mist, thinking back to the death of his son and how it had clawed his heart—how it still did. He had not realized until this moment that his feelings for Helikaon were so entwined with that loss. The youngster he had taken aboard the Penelope had been all a man could wish for in a son, and his pride in the boy had been colossal.

  Helikaon’s father, King Anchises, had believed his son to be weak and cowardly, but he had been wrong. Helikaon had proved himself true. He had fought pirates and sailed through storms without complaint. All he had needed was a mentor who believed in him rather than a merciless father with a desire to destroy him. Odysseus had been that mentor, and he had grown to love the lad.

  Indeed, that love had led him to take a great risk, one that, if discovered, would have left Odysseus a marked man with powerful enemies.

  How could it be that a valiant young man like Helikaon should be dead while old men like himself, Nestor, and Idomeneos still joked around campfires?

  With a heavy sigh he rose and walked farther up the cliff. Reaching the top, he saw more campfires on a beach to the north, where four pirate vessels had been drawn up. He stood watching them for a while, his thoughts dark.

  He heard a noise and turned. The black pig, trailing its yellow cloak, had walked up the cliff path to stand alongside him.

  “I lost my boy today, Ganny,” he said, kneeling down and patting the beast’s flanks. His voice broke, and he fought back tears. Ganny nuzzled him. Odysseus drew in a deep breath. “Ah, but the gods hate a weeper,” he said, a touch of anger in his voice. Rising, he stared balefully down at the pirate camp. “You know who I am, Ganny? I am Odysseus, the prince of lies, the lord of storytellers. I will not weep for the dead. I will hold them in my heart, and I will live my life to the full in honor of them. Now down there are some evil cowsons who tomorrow will seek to cause us harm. We don’t have the swords or the bows to outman them, but by Hades, we have the guile to outwit them. Ganny, my boy, tomorrow you will be taken away by Oristhenes to a life of idle shagging. Tonight you can come with me, if you have a mind to, and we’ll have an adventure. What say you?” The pig cocked its head and stared at the man.

  Odysseus smiled. “You are wondering about the danger, I see. Yes, it is true they may kill us. But Ganny, no one lives forever.”

  With that he began to stroll down the long hill toward the pirate camp. For just a moment the pig stood still, then he trotted after the man, the yellow cloak dragging in the dirt behind him.

  Kalliades finished helping with the wounded, then sought out Banokles, who was sitting a little way from the main campfire, watching the three kings talking together. The big man looked dejected.

  “I think we angered one of the gods,” he said sourly. “We haven’t had any luck since we sailed back from Troy.”

  Kalliades sat down beside him. “We are alive, my friend. That is luck enough for me.”

  “I’ve been trying to think which one,” Banokles persisted, scratching at his thick blond beard. “I’ve always sacrificed to Ares before a battle, and occasionally to Zeus, the All Father. I once took two pigeons to a temple of Poseidon, but I was hungry and traded them for a pie. Maybe it’s Poseidon.”

  “You imagine the god of the deep has been nursing a grudge because of two pigeons?”

  “I don’t know what causes gods to have grudges,” Banokles said. “What I do know is we have no luck. So someone must be in a shitty mood.”

  Kalliades laughed. “Let us talk of luck, my friend. When you surged up the stairs to face Argurios and Helikaon, you should have died. By all the gods, they are the two most ferocious warriors I have ever seen. Instead you stumbled, took a blade through the arm, and survived. Me? I am skilled with a sword—”

  “You are the best,” Banokles interrupted.

  “No, but that is not the point. I, too, ventured my blade against Argurios and took a cut to the face. So we both lived. Even then we should have been doomed. When we were surrounded by those Trojan soldiers, there was no way out for us. King Priam let us go. What is that, if not luck?”

  Banokles thought about it. “I’ll grant our luck has not been all bad. But fashion something good now. A single ship—and not a warship—facing four pirate vessels tomorrow. What chance do we have?”

  “We could stay on this island and let the Penelope sail without us.”

  “Wouldn’t that be cowardly?” Banokles asked, suddenly hopeful.

  “Yes.”

  “What do you mean,
yes? You’re a clever man. Couldn’t you find a reason to stay behind that wasn’t cowardly?”

  “I suppose I could, if I could be bothered to try,” Kalliades told him. He glanced across to where Piria was sitting, her cloak tight around her shoulders.

  “I think you like her,” Banokles said. “At least I hope so, after all the trouble she’s caused us.”

  “She has no love of men in her,” Kalliades replied. “But you are right. I like her.”

  “I liked a woman once,” Banokles said. “Or at least I think I did.”

  “You have rutted the length of the western mainland. What do you mean you ‘liked a woman once’?”

  “You know! Liked. Even after shagging.”

  “You enjoyed her company?”

  “Yes. She had green eyes. I used to like to look into them. And she could sing, too.”

  Kalliades sighed. “Somehow I can tell that this story is not going to have a happy ending. What did you do? Rut with her sister? Eat her dog?”

  “Slavers took her from our village. Most of the men were up in the hills felling timber, gathering dead wood for winter fires. They took twenty women. I met an old friend from our village a couple of seasons back. He was a crewman on a trade ship. He came across her in Rhodos, wed to a merchant. Four children. He said she seemed happy enough. That’s good, eh?”

  Kalliades fell silent for a moment, then he clapped Banokles on the shoulder. “We could stay behind because we are passengers and we did not name a destination. Therefore, we could make this our destination, which means we do not have to fight pirates alongside Odysseus. How does that sound?”

  Banokles looked glum. “Still sounds cowardly.” He glanced up. “Where is that pig going?”

  Kalliades swung around to see the pig in the yellow cloak wandering away from the fire and starting up the cliff path. Odysseus was nowhere in sight, and the other kings were settling down beside the fire.