Read Fall of Kings Online

Authors: David; Stella Gemmell

Fall of Kings (4 page)

BOOK: Fall of Kings
10.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Sheathing the knife, he returned to his seat and filled the silver cup with
water. He drank deeply, and when he looked again at Khalkeus, his eyes were no
longer full of rage.

“The men you insulted,” Helikaon said, “came home to find their wives and
children murdered. And yes, they are not skilled craftsmen or artisans. They are
sailors. I kept them with me today to give them something to do, something to
think about other than the terrible losses they have suffered. You do not
understand that, though, do you? No man who talks of ‘feigned’ sympathy could
understand.”

Khalkeus was about to speak, but Helikaon raised his hand. “No, let us not
discuss this further. I am sailing for Troy tomorrow. You will remain here. I
want the bridge repaired and a new Seagate constructed. Then you can organize
workmen to rebuild the warehouses.”

“I have much work to do back in Troy,” Khalkeus responded. Then he saw the
cold glint reappear in Helikaon’s eyes. “But of course I would be happy to help
here.”

“That is wise of you.”

Khalkeus sighed. “Then they must be the first wise words I have said. You
were correct, Helikaon. I am an idiot. You are the last man I would wish to
offend—and not because I need your gold but because you have stood by me and
supported me when others called me a madman. So I hope that you will forgive me
and that we can put these moments of anger behind us.”

Helikaon’s face relaxed, but he did not smile, nor was there any warmth in
those bleak, violent blue eyes. “We are what we are,” he said. “Both of us. You
are oblivious to the sufferings of others, but you have never burned men alive
and reveled in their screams.”

He fell silent for a moment, then spoke again. “You say the bridge can be
rebuilt swiftly?”

Khalkeus nodded. “It could be functional within twenty days. I doubt you will
want it more than that at this time.”

“Why so?”

“You are a rich man, Helikaon, but your continuing riches depend on trade.
Every gold ingot you use to rebuild Dardanos could prove to be a reckless waste
should the Mykene invade again. And you may need all your gold if this war drags
on.”

“So you would advise?”

“Make temporary repairs, at little cost. And move your treasury from
Dardanos.”

Helikaon shook his head. “The first I cannot do. There is no nation here,
Khalkeus, merely a mix of races who have come to Dardania in search of wealth:
Hittites, Phrygians, Thessalians, Thrakians, and many more. They obey my laws
and pay my taxes because I shield them from their enemies and crush any who
oppose me. If they come to believe that I have lost faith in my ability to
defend my own land, they will lose faith in me. Then I will be facing not only
invasion from the north but insurrection from within. No, the repairs must be
solid and built to last.”

“Then they will be,” Khalkeus told him. “And at the risk of offending you
once more, what of my earlier request? With this war showing no sign of ending,
my work is even more vital.”

“I know. Help my people here, and I shall ensure you have gold waiting for
you in Troy.” Helikaon pushed himself wearily to his feet. “You have great faith
in these red rocks, Khalkeus. I hope it is not misplaced.”

“It is not. I am convinced of it. By next summer’s end, Helikaon, I will
bring you the greatest sword in all the world.”

 

 
CHAPTER TWO
THE MASKS OF PRIAM

 

 

The dream was terrifying. Xander was hanging above a black pit. When he
looked down, he saw scores of blood-red eyes staring up at him and bright fangs
waiting to rip at his flesh. Xander glanced up, seeking reassurance from the man
whose strong hand held firmly to his wrist.

Then he screamed, for the man holding him was a corpse with gray, rotting
flesh peeling back from his bones. The decaying sinews at the wrist and elbow
began to stretch. The bones of the fingers broke away, and Xander fell into the
pit.

He awoke with a start, his legs drawing up in a spasmodic movement. Eyes
wide, he stared around the small, familiar resting room. Slowly his heartbeat
returned to normal, the panic fading.

Xander heard again the words of Odysseus.
“My Penelope tells me there are
two kinds of dreams. Some come through a gate of ivory, and their meanings are
deceitful. Others come through a gate of horn, and these are heavy with fate.”

Xander sat up. Sunlight was bright outside the shuttered window, but the
young healer was reluctant to open it. Once he did so, his time of rest would be
over, and he once again would walk among the dying and the maimed.

“The dream is a deceit,” he whispered. “It is merely a mixture of memories
and fears.” In that moment he pictured again the fury of the storm four years
before, crashing down on the
Xanthos.
Then only twelve, Xander had been
on his first sea journey. Swept over the side by a colossal wave, he should have
drowned, but a powerful hand had grasped his wrist. The warrior Argurios had
hurled himself across the rain-swept deck to grab Xander before the sea could
swallow him.

“Memories and fears,” Xander whispered, breathing slowly and deeply, this
time recalling the dissection of the beggar’s corpse a few days before.

The surgeon Zeotos had opened the flesh of the dead man’s arm, peeling it
back from the elbow. “See,” the old man had said, “how the muscles attach, and
the tendons. Remarkable!” Four healers and five students had attended this
grisly display of the surgeon’s skill. One of the youngsters had fainted,
striking his head on the wall as he fell.

Xander and the other three students briefly had enjoyed a feeling of
superiority over their hapless colleague until Zeotos had sawed through the
chest bone and slit open the cadaver’s belly. Once the intestines were exposed,
the stench that filled the room was beyond bearing, and the young men fled to
the corridor beyond, the sound of the surgeon’s laughter following them.

These two memories—the cadaver and the ship in the storm—had blended to form
the awful dream.

Feeling calmer, Xander rose from the bed and moved to a stone basin set on a
table beneath the window. Splashing water onto his face, he pushed wet fingers
through his curly hair. Refreshed, he opened the shutters, allowing sunlight in.
There was little warmth in it, and the cold breeze heralded the onset of winter.

“Xander!” came the voice of Zeotos. The young student turned to see the
white-bearded surgeon at the door of the House of Serpents resting room. “You
have to return to work now,” he said, his face a mask of exhaustion. Xander felt
a rush of guilt. The old man had worked through the night without rest.

“You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long, sir,” Xander said.

“The young seem to need their sleep more than the old,” Zeotos answered.
“That said, I am now going to steal that bed of yours. There are two men out
there with deep stomach wounds. Keep an eye on them both, boy. If their bellies
begin to distend, come and get me as fast as you can. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

The previous night almost two hundred cavalrymen had been brought to the
House of Serpents under cover of darkness. They all had been wounded grievously
and had suffered greatly in the embattled crossing of the Hellespont and the
long journey to the city from Dardanos. Carried on jolting, overloaded carts and
horse-drawn litters, many had died along the way.

Zeotos lay down on the bed and gave a low groan of pleasure. Xander left the
old man and made his way to the courtyard, where most of the injured were lying
on cushioned pallets under canopies. There was little sound despite the numbers
crowded there, just the occasional groan of a soldier having a wound tended or
the mumbled delirium of a dying man. The smoke from fragrant herbs burning on
the altar of Asklepios helped keep insects away. Xander saw the head of the
house, Machaon, and the three other healers moving among the wounded. Elsewhere
trained servants busied themselves, bringing fresh water, removing soiled linen,
and applying clean bandages.

Xander knew where he was needed most. Those with a chance of life and
recovery were receiving the best care from both healers and servants. The dying
lay alone. Xander moved swiftly to the row of beds nearest the altar. The first
man he came to had been wounded in the chest and lower back. His face was
haggard and gray, and death was not far off.

“Are you in pain?” Xander whispered, leaning over the man.

The dying man looked into Xander’s eyes. “I’ve suffered worse. You see the
parade?” the soldier asked. “Heard them ride by, crowds cheering.”

“I caught a glimpse,” Xander told him. “Hektor rode in a golden chariot, and
the riders followed him in ranks of four. People threw flowers onto the street.”

The soldier’s smile faded. “You can go now, healer. There’s others with
greater need than me.”

“Can I get you anything? Water?”

The soldier winced. “Another year of life would be good.”

Xander moved on. Three other warriors had died quietly, and he called
servants to remove the bodies. The dying watched the departure of the dead,
their faces grim.

Late in the afternoon old Zeotos appeared again, hurrying across the
courtyard. “The king is coming,” the surgeon grunted. “Machaon wants you to meet
him and Prince Hektor at the gates. He himself must perform an immediate
amputation. And I cannot be seen here.”

Xander nodded his understanding. Zeotos had been banished from Troy after the
Mykene attack in which the king’s daughter Laodike had died. Priam had blamed
the old surgeon for her death. Zeotos had traveled the countryside plying his
craft, never straying far from Troy, but had fallen on hard times. Machaon had
heard of his plight and covertly had returned him to the House of Serpents,
fearful that the impending war would stretch their resources beyond their limit.

As Xander hurried nervously to the gates to greet the king, he could hear the
sound of marching feet. Out in the sunlit square a troop of Royal Eagles was
heading toward the temple, escorting a covered litter. Beside them walked
Hektor, still in the ceremonial armor and flowing white cloak he had worn in the
parade. The litter stopped, and Priam the king climbed out. Dressed in long blue
robes, he lifted his arms high and stretched his back.

“A pox on this… moving hammock!” he spit. “I should have ridden my chariot. A
king shouldn’t be carried around like a heap of laundry.”

Looking around, he glared at Xander. “Who are you, boy?” he rasped.

Xander was speechless. He had seen the king before, but only from a distance,
at games and ceremonial events. He was struck now by the resemblance between
Priam and his son, both tall and broad and exuding power. The older man was
slightly stooped, and it was clear he had celebrated his son’s return with
plenty of wine, yet his personality dominated the sunlit square, and even the
heavily armored Eagles seemed diminished in his presence.

Hektor stepped forward. “You are Xander,” he said, smiling.

“Yes. Yes, lord,” the young healer replied, throwing himself belatedly to his
knees.

“Stand up, Xander. You are a friend of my wife, and no friend kneels in my
presence. Now, bring us to our wounded comrades.”

As they passed through the dark gates into the temple, Xander heard Priam
grumble, “Cripples depress me, and there is always a stink around the dying. It
sticks in the nostrils for days.” Hektor appeared not to hear him.

They stepped into the courtyard. There was silence for a moment, then ragged
cheering arose from the sick and broken men. Even those on the threshold of the
Dark Road raised their voices for their king and commander.

Priam raised his arms, and the cheers redoubled. Then he spoke, and the
irritable rasp Xander had heard moments before was replaced by a deep, warm
booming voice that easily reached the injured men at the far wall.

“Trojans!” he cried, and all sound ceased. “I am proud of you all. This
victory you have won for Troy will be spoken of for a thousand years. Your names
will be as familiar to Father Zeus as those of Herakles and Ilos.” He beamed and
raised his arms again to acknowledge the cheers, and then he and Hektor walked
among the beds.

Xander was baffled. Moments before he had heard the king complaining of this
visit as a tiresome duty. Perhaps he had misheard or misunderstood the words.
Now Xander watched Priam speaking softly to the dying, listening kindly to
babbled tales of saintly mothers and wives, even joking with amputees, saying to
each one, “Your king is proud of you, soldier.”

Xander stayed at his side, sometimes translating the mumbled words of a
soldier in his last moments, sometimes lifting a man’s hand so that he could
touch the king’s robes. He stole an occasional look into Priam’s face but could
see nothing there but kind concern and compassion.

Hektor was always a step behind his father, greeting each man by name. As
they slowly made their way around, not missing one bed, the sun moved down in
the sky and Xander saw the lines on Hektor’s face deepen and his shoulders sag.
In contrast, his father seemed to gain energy from the visit.

As the sun disappeared over the houses of healing and torches were lit around
the courtyard, they returned to the gates, where an ornate chariot encrusted
with gold and gems had been drawn up. Priam turned to his son.

“Now let us return to the living and enjoy this day of triumph.”

“It was good for those soldiers to see us together,” Hektor replied mildly.

Priam turned on him with anger in his eyes. His voice again was cold and
rasping. “Never ask me to do that again, boy. A king is not a nursemaid. And the
smell in there was nauseating.”

Xander saw Hektor’s jaw set, but he stepped lightly into the chariot and took
up the reins. Priam climbed in beside him. “You should have left them all on the
beach at Carpea. They would have welcomed an honorable death for their king and
their city,” he said.

BOOK: Fall of Kings
10.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Winter of Wishes by Charlotte Hubbard
The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows
Killer Punch by Amy Korman
The courts of chaos by Roger Zelazny
Nether Regions by Nat Burns