Right, in the absence of a glittering writing career (you may have guessed it’s still slow going!) I’ve decided to give Cleon another outing. We’re back to his POV here as we continue his story – Hope you like it!
Cleon wondered why he didn’t feel more shaken. Another man was dead at his hand after all. Another human life had been snuffed out like a flickering candle and he, a youth who’d never so much as thrown a punch in anger before tonight, had been the one to extinguish that light. But then, he thought, the world was a very different place before tonight. A ten year siege had just was ending in an orgy of fire and blood, and the damnable Achaeans were running riot through the city. His city.
The soldier kept on running through the dark streets of the town, holding tight to Danica’s hand and hoping their new friend would keep up. The woman they’d picked up on their flight was wide-eyed and silent, and Cleon hated himself a little for fearing that she would become a burden. She’s as Wilusan as you are you heartless swine! If you’re willing to protect Danica you should be willing to protect her. He frowned. Danica was someone he barely knew and yet somehow he’d convinced himself he was in love with her and she had shown in that last bloody mess that she had the spirit of a fighter. Probably more than you do. This new woman however was an unknown quantity.
Cleon glanced back at them as the trio sprinted over the flagstones and wished for the hundredth time that he had some kind of plan. So far all he had managed to do was to run blindly from one minor skirmish to another, watching fellow citizens die and trying desperately to keep Danica safe. He kept a tight hold on her hand as they scurried between the buildings like so many panicking rats. But what can I do? The Achaeans are everywhere we turn, where is there that is safe?
He tried to get his bearings as they ran on through the night. They had to be somewhere near Wilusa’s southern wall by now, though it was harder to navigate here than he’d have thought. Cleon had lived his whole life in the city but the mixture of fear and poor light did nothing to help keep him oriented. The night sky was still black and few enough houses showed any lights. Those that were not already ablaze, that is. Every time they passed a side street he caught a glimpse of burning buildings, and his ears would pick up fresh screams from the people or the warcries of the invaders. Even from where he was now he could make out the red glow in the sky that marked where Apollo’s Temple had been set alight. How long had that mighty structure stood there, he wondered? It had been old and revered in his grandfather’s time and likely for long before that. And in one night the savage Achaeans had destroyed all those years of worship. And what is Apollo doing to punish them?
Cleon put the bitter thought from his mind. It was night-time, and the Sun God would not be at his strongest. Come morning his vengeance would be terrible. Wouldn’t it? The young man fumed a little. Odds were that he and his would be long dead before his chariot crossed the sky, and all the vengeance in the world would be small comfort when they were wandering the Underworld.
He signalled a brief rest and all three stopped beside an abandoned bakery. Danica and the older woman were breathing hard, and Cleon mentally thanked Captain Baris for all the training he had forced upon his soldiers. He might have hated it at the time but it meant that even though his heart was hammering, his breathing was slow and even. I wonder if old Baris is still alive? He went off with Danica’s friend last night, maybe they didn’t wake in time to see what was happening?
He shook his head and tried to focus. They needed a plan. Danica was looking at him questioningly and for a second Cleon considered admitting to her that he had no idea of what to do. He was ashamed to do it but better that than keep running blindly waiting to get killed. She was bright enough after all, and capable, she might have thought of something already. After all, some problems that the gods couldn’t solve were small difficulty to the right…to the right goddess!
The idea came to him in a flash and pulled both women into a close huddle. Apollo might not be coming to help them, but the Sun God had a sister.
‘Do you both know the way to the Temple of Artemis?’
The wide-eyed woman just nodded but Danica answered aloud.
‘Yes, if I’m right we are not far from it now.’
Cleon nodded his head.
‘You are right. It should be just to the south and east of us and from what I can see,’ he glanced quickly that way, ‘there are no fires in that direction. We get to the Huntress’ Temple and we shore it up as best we can, gather some locals and sit tight until our soldiery can sort all this out.’
The strange woman bit her lip but then bobbed her head. Danica nodded too but then leaned close to Cleon’s ear. He tried to ignore the scent of her hair.
‘You really think they can? After the barracks…’
She tailed off. There was fear in her voice but she was hiding it well for the sake of their panicky new friend. Cleon tried to keep his own voice confident.
‘We have been caught off-guard but we will prevail, we always have.’
He took care to refer to his fellow warriors as ‘we’ and it seemed to make the women feel better. Either that or they were concealing their fear even better than he was. In truth he had no idea at all what would happen to them, but sheltering in the temple was a damned sight better than running through alleyways and it at least gave them a fighting chance.
The trio nodded their heads to one another once more and then turned to head off in that direction. The wind, always strong at this time of year, picked up in a sudden gust and the smell of thick smoke assaulted Cleon’s nostrils. He tried to take his mind off it by staring at Danica, whose black hair was sent flying past her fine-boned face, and he wondered once again at the games of the gods. He had met this incredible girl, shared his bed with her in a night of passion he’d never have dreamed of, and was becoming increasingly convinced that Aphrodite had brought them together. And yet on that same night Ares had let the Achaeans slip his watch, and now the armies of Agamemnon were destroying his home. It was obscene. It was cruel. It was, well, inhuman.
But if the gods had gotten them into this tangled mess than the gods could get them out of it; and Cleon kept the image of Artemis in his head, and hoped that Danica and their comrade would be praying to her quietly. The Huntress preferred the voices of women to those of men.
They ran on through the shadowy buildings, Cleon trying to ignore the screams that carried through the night. Part of him, a surprisingly large part he thought, wanted to rush off into the city to help whoever was in danger but he knew it would be the worst kind of folly. His sword was the only protection that his little group had from the Achaeans, and keeping them safe had to be his priority. It made sense to say that in his head, but it was not easy to listen to his fellow Wilusans as they suffered, as Achaean soldiers slaughtered them in their beds, or worse. Cleon forced it from his mind and kept on going. They could not be far from the south-east corner by now and Artemis’ temple was…was… it was on fire.
He skidded around the corner of an old potter’s place and saw the little open square that stood in front of the Huntress’ temple. It was packed with roaring Achaeans, all waving swords or burning brands, and those barbarians nearest the building were hurling torches through the doors. In the dark it was hard to tell but the pile of statues near the steps reflected light as if they were gold and it seemed the looting was now over and the destruction could begin. Cleon’s heart sank to his sandals as more torches were thrown inside, and something in there must have caught because orange light began glowing through the doorway. Beside him he felt Danica double over in exhaustion, and heard a single, quiet sob escape her throat. He put his arm around her and kept them both in the building’s shadow. And watched as the invaders destroyed yet more of their city.
The wide-eyed woman just stared at it blank-faced before turning and wandering off in the other direction. Cleon hissed for her to come back but the woman ignored him, and he took Danica by the hand and followed after her. She might be proving to be nothing but a damned liability but he couldn’t let her wander off alone like that. They caught up with her before she’d travelled the length of one building but before Cleon could say anything another sight caught his attention.
They had come to the last houses before the great outer wall and at its base, hurrying back and forth like ants, he saw a group of Wilusans carrying bits of stone. He tapped the woman on the arm and pointed at the wall and didn’t wait for her response before leading Danica there. A brawny fellow with a beam in his hands and fear in his eyes stepped forwards to block his way but Cleon held up his open palms and spoke slowly.
‘We are no Achaeans.’
The big man seemed more relieved than anything else, even when he spotted the sword in Cleon’s belt. He looked beyond him to the people at the wall but it was Danica who asked the obvious question.
‘What is happening here?’
The big man opened his mouth but then another man appeared from behind him. He was tall and lean, with tousled grey hair and a careworn face. He eyed the newcomers uncertainly as he answered.
‘What does it look like?’
Cleon craned his neck to look around him and saw what it was the people were doing. The sloping outer wall had once contained several smaller gates but since the siege of Agamemnon most of these had been walled up. It would seem that where they stood had been home to just such an exit and the people were frantically chipping away at the mortar to haul the stone blocks from the gap. Cleon’s first instinct was to shout at them to stop this madness, but then he remembered that the outer defences were of no use any more, and for all their long service of keeping the Achaeans out, they were now little more than a cage that kept the Wilusans in.
The wide-eyed woman drifted over to join them as the grey-haired man continued.
‘The city is falling and we’re getting out.’
Cleon and Danica both answered at the same time.
They locked eyes in a brief moment of intimacy but it was gone in a second and Cleon turned back to face the man.
‘We have a city to defend! We can’t just abandon her.’
He wasn’t sure how convincing he sounded, even in his own head, and from the older man’s expression it seemed the answer was; not very.
‘The Achaeans are overrunning us. Podarces can stay here and fight if he wants, his damnable son started this after all.’
Even at a time like this Cleon felt he ought to defend his king and former prince. He was a soldier of Wilusa after all.
‘Alexandros made things worse between us and the Achaeans but a blind man could see what Agamemnon is, he’d have come for us sooner or later.’
The grey-haired man frowned.
‘Maybe so. But it changes little enough for us. If we do not run now we will all die here.’ He nodded at the workers, who were hacking away at the stones with what looked like proper mason’s tools. ‘I know the amateurs who made this repair and the work is shoddy, we’ll be through it before long. You can help us or you can run off and find your precious king – see if he’s as fond of you as you are of him.’
Cleon’s fingers flexed nervously and the other man’s eyes darted to the sword still sheathed at his belt. His tone became a fraction more friendly.
‘My name is Leander. I love my home as much as any man but Wilusa is in its people, not its stones. The city itself will survive or fall depending on Aeneas and his army, not on a single soldier stranded in the backstreets.’ He leaned closer to the younger man, his voice low. ‘I am no soldier, and Gaetan here is just a blacksmith.’
He nodded towards the big man with the beam, who was still standing watch over the frantic civilians. Cleon had guessed from the first that he was no fighting man, but then neither was he before tonight. Leander continued.
‘Come with us. Help protect these people from rape and slaughter. If the king prevails we can come back later.’
Even should Podarces and Aeneas fight off the Achaeans, Cleon doubted it would be that simple to just come back again after abandoning them, but that was a worry for another day. Right now he had a choice to make. A part of him wanted to find the other men of his company, to find Baris and Saros and the others and form up to drive these damned Achaeans from their city. That part of him felt it was his duty, before all else.
And yet another part of him thought of Danica, of the people here and, shamefully, of himself. He had to keep her safe, and his duty as a soldier of Wilusa was to defend its people first and foremost wasn’t it? Would it not be just as dutiful to watch over Wilusa’s civilians and lead them away to some safe place? Be honest with yourself Cleon; it is Danica and your own skin that is pushing you to this choice. And it is no choice at all. You have already made it. Cleon bit his lip a moment. It was true. For good or ill he had already made his choice.
He flicked a quick glance at Danica before nodding to Leander.
‘Very well. Your blacksmith’s strength will be better served hauling stones. I will stand guard.’
The black-haired girl stepped up beside him, drawing the knife from the belt she’d taken from a dead Achaean.
‘We will stand guard. And we will come with you to protect your friends when they break through.’
Both Leander and the big man looked at her oddly for a moment but a quick nod from Cleon was all it took to clear their minds. The older man bowed his head.
‘My thanks. We are almost through. You will not regret this.’
Cleon sincerely doubted the truth of those words but he kept his face expressionless and nodded his head once again. Leander nodded back and both he and Gaetan scurried away to help the panicking Wilusans to break a hole in their city wall. Cleon waited a few seconds before whispering to Danica.
‘Are you sure about this? I have no real family but…’
The truth was he knew almost nothing about her but he had to assume she was not totally alone in the great city. A flicker of sadness crossed her beautiful face before she set her jaw stubbornly and spoke.
‘I can help nobody from my funeral pyre, assuming the Achaeans would give me one. We are safest in numbers and we can help these people who need us. That is what matters.’
Whether she was trying to convince him or herself, Cleon couldn’t be sure but he was growing ever more certain that he did in fact love this fearless woman. He nodded his head slowly and said no more on the matter.
He turned his eyes back to the streets, the red light of the fires casting strange, unsettling shadows, and wondered for how long he would be standing guard here, with nothing but fears and doubts filling his mind. But for all their other tortures of tonight, it seemed the gods were feeling merciful on that score. No sooner had he settled into a comfortable watching position than Leander’s voice came from behind him.
‘We are through! Come on!’
Cleon turned and saw the ragged band of civilians struggling through the wall, a gap perhaps two feet wide and twice as high having been cleared for them. Gaetan was busy herding them as quickly as he could, the big man’s nervous eyes darting all around as he did so. Cleon exchanged nods with Danica and started backing towards the breach, his hand ready by his sword and his heart pounding in his chest. What if the Achaeans came upon them when only half of them were through? What if they had men waiting outside to kill them all out in the open? What if as the last man out, as he knew he would have to be, he was caught as he tried to scramble through? What if the wall collapsed on him? What if the king found out and called him deserter? What if…What if…
His mind tormented him with a dozen flashes of things that might go wrong but he ground his teeth together and forced himself to remain calm. The people were moving out quick and quiet enough, and there was no reason for the Achaeans to chase after them now. They had the city. They had already won.
The thought had come unbidden to his mind but once there it was difficult to shake off. They had won. It was true. He hadn’t wanted to admit it but all he had to do was look around. The city was in flames, the soldiers scattered, the people fleeing, and the Achaeans were running riot through the streets of Wilusa. Even if Aeneas and his people managed to regroup and drive them off it was too late. The city-state would never recover from a blow like this, it never could. They had won. And we have lost.
Cleon felt a coldness that had nothing to do with the wind and kept silent as the last of the civilians ducked through the wall. He felt Danica putting her hand on his but the tiny glow of warmth did little enough to brighten his spirits. He followed her to the breach and paused a moment before going through. He had to take another look back. He was a soldier of Podarces; he owed Wilusa the dignity of one final look.
The sky above the greatest city on the Aegean was the deep red of drying blood and so filled with smoke it all but blocked out the stars. Temples and palaces that had stood for centuries were being burned to the ground, their statues shattered or looted, their priests and princes and wise men murdered, and princess and priestess alike facing fates he dared not imagine.
Cleon felt Danica’s hand drawing him into the new-made breach and he shuffled back against his will. This was likely his last glimpse of his home, he ought to be feeling something profound, shouldn’t he? Didn’t heroes always have some great thought at a time like this, something poetic and noble? Shouldn’t something like that be occurring to him even now?
But nothing came to him. Only sadness, weariness and fear occupied his heavy heart as he clambered into the wall. His home; the wonder of the world, beloved of Apollo, the city of the mighty winds, the city of the sloping walls, the city of the many towers, was burning into ash before his eyes. Cleon blinked away a tear as Danica helped him through the wall and thought the closest thing he could to a profound, poetic thought. Now everything will change. The Achaeans are victorious. Wilusa has fallen.