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“Cease! Cease! The omens portend murder this day! The gods are displeased!”
“No shit really? Of course, there’s going to be a murder. There’s going to be a ton of them. There’s a bloody war going on!”
Hippolytus, the High Priest of Apollo, looked miffed. “Listen,” he said, “I know your job is to charge out the gates and start hacking a bunch of filthy, sheep shagging Greeks to death and not to say, think or reason, but just give me a moment to explain.”
Strax grunted and spat at his feet. Generally, most priests would consider this an assault on their august body and therefore subject to the harshest punishments that their simple little minds could think of. But Hippolytus was a former soldier with the Prince’s Guard. He simply spat back and continued.
“Stop the duel!” He walked out onto the parade ground. Or what was left of the parade ground. Twelve years of war had reduced it to a flat piece of dirt, strewn with bits of battered bronze and dead grass. The Greek warriors that assembled for the contest began murmuring amongst themselves.
“What’s all this about?” This was Menelaus, the Spartan king and impotent bastard who had started this war. “I came here expecting some black Trojan blood to be spilled.” Cheers greeted his pronouncement. My own entourage started hissing and booing. Strax spat again, the thick yellowish wad flying high into the air then landing on the grass a few scant feet from Menelaus.
“In fact, I think your vaunted warrior is afraid to face Greek weaponry!” More cheers. “The mighty Achilles, known from the Pillars of Hercules to the gates of the Hellespont for his bravery will-”
“Oh shut it,” Hippolytus said. He hobbled over to the Greek contingent. His bad leg always troubled him this time a year. The cold contracted the metal pins in his leg; more of Kalkeus’ wizardry.
“Now listen. Haul out some of your effete boy humping priests and they’ll concur. The omens are all wrong. Blood is going to be spilled, but not in sacred combat. It’ll be in defiance of the gods’ will for those on earth. Someone who the gods decreed to live will have his cord cut short by the hand of the Fates.”
Now Menelaus began to look concerned. He inclined his head minutely at a subordinate who ran off back towards the Greek camp. It occurred to me that in the epics, the speaker would just skip ahead to the next bit of action. Not so in real life. The two camps stood there in silence. Hippolytus leaned heavily on his staff to keep the weight off his bad foot. The Spartan king inclined his head again and a coterie of slaves hurried to set out chairs, a table, and a small feast in front of him and his retinue. He gave no indication that the lame priest of Apollo should join them, or at least sit down.
“Strax, grab my weapons.”
“Axe and spear, sir?”
“I think those shall suffice.”
“Yes, sir.” The grizzled old warrior shouldered the burden. His eyebrows went up when he saw me grab three stools and the sacrificial brazier. We walked over to Hippolytus and I arranged them around the brazier. A few strikes of my fingers set it smoking again. Hippolytus sat down gratefully. Strax rummaged in the pack and brought out a thick loaf of field bread.
“Daphne claimed she put some hazelnuts in it,” he murmured as he pulled the bread into three pieces. We ate in silence. There were hazelnuts in the bread, not many, but enough to remind me of a time when they were plentiful. Before the siege had started.
“Hippolytus, are the omens really that bad?” I asked. He stopped chewing and stared at me. He was a gray, thin man with wispy hair that settled around his head as if attempting to hide his baldness. Green eyes stared at me from under the bushy eyebrows and weathered skin of a former soldier.
“By the golden hairs on Apollo’s shiny ass, there are going to be some very bad days ahead of us. Not just murder either. Something much more terrible unless action is taken.” Strax swore under his breath and made a sign to ward off evil. Then he resumed eating.
“That bad, eh?” He leaned forward towards me.
“Send your family away from the city. Send them to Egypt or the Punic colonies. The Greeks have long since given up on the blockading anything but food caravans. Daphne too, Strax. Send her as a handmaiden to Helen or Cass. A small band with a few guards will have no trouble slipping past the lines.”
Strax made to say something, but a commotion from the Greek contingent interrupted him. “Make way for Lord Achilles!” These Greeks with their insistence on having heralds to shout their names for the whole city to hear every time they stepped outside to check the weather. Not to mention all the standard bearers and people to carry their armor and weapons.
I had Strax. We split the equipment between us, and if we needed to move through a crowd we just shoved them aside.
The twits at Menelaus’s table scampered to their feet as the Greek warrior approached. Achilles may have been the ugliest man alive at that time. The bastard had a face like a bullfrog and the physique of a bull. He was quick, I’ll grant that readily, but he was built like a stonemason. His face had been boyishly handsome once. These days it was like the wreckage of a once fine galley: all broken and battered by time and relentless fighting. His hair was vaguely blonde with thick gray tufts infesting it.
He was a few years shy of me yet his pallor and stoney demeanor gave the impression he was far older. Scars crisscrossed his arms where they showed from the armor; including a few from me. He was not the best swordsman out there, but he was unrelenting in his attack and completely impervious to pain. These days his face held a permanent scowl. It only deepened when he saw the scraps from the Greek table. Menelaus attempted to meet his gaze, but had to look away after a few moments.
“The Lord Hercules deigns us with his presence,” Strax muttered.
“Careful, that man is a demon,” Hippolytus said. He was walking towards us now.
One of his party hastily fetched a chair from the table for him and he sat down heavily. One of Menelaus’s servants brought him a platter filled with food.
“This is what they eat at the tents of the great lords,” he said, “I prefer simpler fare.” He let the plate fall to the ground. I glanced at Strax, who shrugged and rummaged in his pack once more. This new field loaf was divided into four pieces amid much muttering from Strax. Achilles contributed a small skin of Cretan wine. I wasn’t concerned if it was poisoned. The man was not subtle enough for something like that.
Hippolytus went through the proper rites and we fell to our food. This may seem odd, that mortal enemies such as we would sit and eat together, but it was not so uncommon in those days. The cycle of war and peace meant men were foes one day, friends the next, depending on whose client you were. I had fought alongside many of the besieging Greek lords on more than one occasion and I was confident it would happen again.
A few minutes of uneasy silence pervaded while we ate. Strax and Hippolytus kept glancing at me. What they were looking for was beyond me, but every so often they gave each other knowing looks of intrigue. Finally, Achilles belched and brushed the stray crumbs from his armor.
“What’s this I hear about the omens being wrong for a duel?” he asked bluntly. An arrow wound to his throat had reduced his once fine voice to a rumbling croak. My brother was never the best archer. Or the bravest warrior, since he had shot it from the walls instead of venturing into the field of battle. By some great miracle Paris had been able to find his mark from such a great distance. It was by an ever greater miracle that Achilles survived it.
“Our good priest of Apollo has seen ill omens,” I replied. He nodded sagely.
“The omens are a tricky business. I couldn’t rouse any of the priests from their mid-afternoon slumber, but I am inclined to believe you. Something is wrong in the air. Some foulness pervades this land.” He looked over the now desolate parade ground as he spoke and let his gaze settle on Menelaus. The Greeks had all forgotten their own meal and were now unashamedly watching our little picnic party. From the ramparts on the walls behind us, Trojan heads did the same. I could spot the Royal Family despite the distance. They were decked out in all their finery and attended by a small horde of servants. The throne of the King had even been hauled up atop the walls. It sat beneath a brilliant reproduction of the banner of our long lost homeland, Gnosis. Or what we assumed to be the banner of that lost city; the shroud of time obscured the true origin of the design.
The King seemed absent, but I spotted my garishly dressed prophet siblings, Helenus and Cassandra. Both had declined to utter a single prophecy about this duel; instead they had muttered vaguely about the will of the gods above and below. They were strange pair; how Helenus could be made Chamberlain was beyond me. The King seemed fond of him though.
“That could be the latest cycle of dead,” Strax said. “You Greeks didn’t bury them deep enough, and the scavengers have gotten to them.” Achilles’s laugh was a low rumbling gurgle that seemed to resonate from the disfigured scar on his throat.
“Ah, Strax, when this unpleasantness between our nations is over I look forward to beating the war drum again with you. But no, not that. Not anything tangible.” He scanned the skies over us as if watching for an omen from the gods. After a moment, he shook his head.
“This duel has to happen soon,” he said. “Agamemnon is losing his grip on the assembled nations. The only thing keeping them tied together is his promise to loot your treasury and the thought of seeing your blood on the sand again.”
“I’ve already consented to this duel, despite the protestations of my closest advisors, I might add,” I replied. “But who understands the will of the gods? Hopefully the sight of me cutting your head from your shoulders will finally convince your kings to go home.”
“We shall see. That dog Menelaus wants it to be as soon as possible, no matter what the gods decree.”
“Then perhaps he should fight it in your stead.”
At this Achilles laughed again; I shuddered at the noise. “I would be your sword bearer and strap your armor if it meant getting to watch you gut that pathetic little lizard. If only. No, it must be we. You and I. My people require it of me and your honor of you.”
“Then we must not delay it too long. We shall take augers again in three days. If the gods are pleased then it shall go forward.” Hippolytus concurred with my plan. It was best not to bug the gods too many days in a row. Achilles rose from his chair and stretched.
“Well, time to get out of this armor. Keep your boys inside the wall and I’ll restrict mine to the camp,” Achilles said. “That should help keep the peace until our duel can be arranged.”
“Agreed.” I inclined my head minutely to him; he did the same then turned on his heel and walked away. I didn’t see any point in staying either. We shouldered our burdens and marched back to the gates. I banged on the tiny portico and a nervous looking guard finally let us in.
“M-m-messge for you m-m-m-my Lord,” he sputtered. I couldn’t blame him for being scared. My appearance did that to a lot of people. Where my right arm should have been was instead a bronze limb stretching up into my greave. I would have to discuss more natural features with Kalkeus at the temple. There had to be some way to cover the metal mechanisms that allowed me use of my right arm. At least the armor covered the worst of my legs and back. The wreckage of my spine was enough to unnerve the toughest of men.
I glanced at the message and cursed. The King wanted to see me immediately in the throne room. This didn’t bode well for me; the duel had been touted as the final battle of this miserable siege. A great banquet had been planned and many of our last food reserves had been broken into to prepare the King’s feast. The city was already draped in the bright finery to prepare for my victory. The King had proclaimed the end of the war.
My brother, King Paris of Troy, did not like to be wrong.
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