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Odyssey of a Slave, Book II

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Chapter 1

Sprawled on the cobbles, the girl was staring in horror, but not at us.

For some reason, she was looking up at a fruit seller, a greying man with gentle eyes. When the Greeks had emerged from the alleyway a moment ago, they must have startled her. A group of bronze-hard Greek soldiers could do that. Coming up behind them, I'd entered the square just in time to see her leap back in surprise. Struggling for balance, she had staggered into a rickety cart. It had toppled over, sending pears rolling across the cobbles.

Now, a shocked silence had fallen across the busy square. "Please …" she began, her eyes pleading. I watched, wondering what she was so afraid of.

The fruit seller shook his head, his expression sorrowful. "I can't change the rules, young lady, no more can you." He reached down to help her up. "Perhaps … it won't be too bad."

A breeze stirred his hair and he stiffened. "Best to go now, then. You don't want anyone else blamed, do you?"

She bit her lip. With a last despairing look around her, she turned to trudge off toward the high castle on the far side of the square. People stared at their sandals as she passed.

Something was terribly wrong here. I'd felt it since we'd landed on the island that morning. Something about the way the townsfolk kept their heads and voices down, avoiding attention. Or perhaps it was the street vendors, holding their wares up in an eerie silence. Even the insistent breeze that had followed us up from the harbour seemed unnatural, snuffling beneath our tunics like a suspicious dog. And now, to my amazement, instead of running off with the spilled pears, the street urchins nearby were neatly piling them back on the fruit-seller's cart.

I bent to help. "So what's her problem?" I asked one of the boys, trying to sound casual as I nodded in the direction the girl had gone.

He looked sideways at me, the whites of his eyes showing like a terrified horse. "Get away from here," he hissed. "Before you get us polished along with her." He put his pears in the cart and disappeared into the crowd.

We had sighted the island that morning, six days after our escape from the Cyclops. With our water cisterns empty, there'd been no choice about landing, and the sight of a sheltered harbour with proper wharves for mooring had made the decision easy. To avoid alarming the islanders, Lopex, leader of the Greeks, had taken a delegation of five men to visit the castle that we could see on a hill in the centre of the city. I was pleased that he'd included me. Officially, I was just a slave, and a boy besides, but since I'd proven myself as a healer, and again while fighting the Cyclops, it was clear Lopex had begun to see me as something more. My chest puffed out a bit at the thought as I trailed behind the Greeks, now heading through the crowded square toward the castle.

Up close, it was even larger than it had looked from the harbour, topped with a bronze tower pierced by four large, perfectly round holes open to the four winds. The girl had come this way only moments before, but there was no sign of her now.

"So, Alexi? Are you coming?" Lopex was waiting for me to follow, a wry expression on his face. I smiled as I realized he'd called me by name again and hastened to catch up. The other Greeks were already heading through the large doorway behind a servant who had come out as we approached. As I passed porters in the hall, I couldn't help wondering what their life was like. Their bare feet said they were slaves, but they still looked better fed than I'd been as a free orphan on the streets of Troy.

I twitched at the memory. I tried hard to avoid thinking of that life, but unguarded thoughts sometimes broke through. Troy, the city I had lived in all my life, until a few months ago. Until the Greeks got in. After ten years of war, they'd somehow broken through the wall, killing everyone I knew and taking me as a slave before sailing for home. Soon afterwards, their own healer had been killed in a raid and they'd forced me, son of a Trojan healer, to take his place. That was probably what had kept me alive so far. And if they'd known I was really fifteen, they would have killed me before we'd even set sail. For once in my life, I'd been glad to be short for my age. If only my sister Melantha -

Those thoughts were even more painful. I'd seen her die myself that night, been sure of it, until my fellow-slave Kassander had said she was still alive. I just wished I could believe him. I forced my thoughts elsewhere by looking around the room we'd been brought into.

"Welcome, travellers." The voice was husky, with a slight lisp. I peered between the broad backs of the Greeks in front of me to see who was speaking.

"I bid you welcome to my land, the kingdom of Aeolia. I am Aeolus, the king." The king! I wormed forward to see a puffy-faced, shrunken man wrapped in a cloak much too big for him, sitting on an ornate raised chair. He raised a frail hand in a languid half-wave. Nearby, a knot of brightly-dressed courtiers clapped obediently. I peered at the king, puzzled. Surely he wasn't what everyone was afraid of.

The king gestured vaguely and the clapping trailed off. "Come over here, young man, and tell me who you are."

Lopex approached the foot of the throne. "My name, your Majesty, is - "

"Majesty? Majesty?" A frown spread across the king's face like a cloud. "We don't use that title here. Call me 'Your Inclemency.'" He made that gesture again and the courtiers clapped once more, their elaborately styled hair bobbing like birds. "Now, go on."

"My name, your - Inclemency - is Odysseus. Of Ithaca. Son of Laertes. I bring you gold and silver plate, ten fine bronze tripods, and able-bodied slaves as a guest gift."

Odysseus! I'd known his real name ever since he'd shouted it to the Cyclops, but hearing it again was still a surprise. Meanwhile, the king just looked at him, the silence stretching so long I thought he'd fallen asleep. At last he spoke. "Son of Laertes, you say. A credit to your ancestors, you are." He paused again, nodding to himself. "Indeed, your ancestors." He sat up suddenly.

"Yes! Let us dine together. The men in your ships, summon them. They may dine - " he broke off, sniffing delicately in our direction. "They may dine in the old barracks."

Lopex bowed. "You are very generous, Your Inclemency. But you may not be aware that my ships hold over two hundred men."

The king's bushy eyebrows went up. "Aware? I assure you, dear boy, I know everything that passes on the ocean for five days' wind in any direction, including the strength of your company. It is no issue." He beckoned to an attractive slave girl nearby. "My dear, take our guest to the blue chamber. Bathe him well and dress him for dinner."

He tottered down the steps to take a seat on an ornate wooden litter nearby. Four husky slaves hoisted it to their shoulders as he waved gently to the room. The courtiers clapped once more as he was carried out.

That evening I ate at a small table in the corner of the kitchen with two palace slaves. Across the table was a heavyset boy about my age with dark hair, and on the bench beside me, a twitchy, anxious-looking boy a year or two younger. As the guest, I was invited to give my story first. By the time I had finished telling them about the Cyclops they were leaning toward me, round-eyed, to catch every word.

"After we escaped it, we sailed for five days without sighting land. We spotted your island at midmorning today." I dipped two fingers in a pot of their garlic houmous paste and smeared it on a piece of bread. "Now it's your turn. What's everyone so afraid of here? I saw a girl in the market square today, she was terrified. And your king - what's his problem?"

A look passed between the two of them. The nervous boy shook his head. "We … shouldn't talk about that," he mumbled, his eyes darting around anxiously. A momentary breeze from the hallway stirred his hair and he gave a violent twitch.

I frowned. "What's with you?"

The fattish boy shook his head. "You don't get it." He tried to lean across the table but couldn't reach. "Stelos, you tell him." The boy to my left leaned in reluctantly and cupped his hands around my ear. "The king listens," he whispered. "To the winds."

I tugged away to stare at him. "Listens to the winds? The wind from his own gloutos, maybe - " I broke off as the fattish boy leaned across the table and pressed a hand hard against my mouth.

"Don't," he hissed. "I'm not kidding." He stood up. "Stelos, let's get out of here."

I grabbed Stelos by the wrist as he got to his feet. "Wait!" I said. "What's going on?"

The noise was beginning to attract attention from the kitchen servants. The boy glanced around nervously as he tried to tug his wrist free, but I wouldn't let go. Finally he stopped. "Not here," he whispered, bending toward me. "Meet me tomorrow, after breakfast chores." I let him go and he almost ran out of the kitchen.

The next morning, I spotted Stelos carrying steaming plates out to the nobles' dining room. After the dishes were washed and the day's grain had been delivered to the slave girls for grinding, he nodded hesitantly in my direction. I followed him up two flights of stairs - more than I'd ever seen in a single building - to a store room filled with badly tarnished armour, and over to a window on the far side. From up here I could see the entire square in front of the castle. Yesterday, it had been packed with people, but now it was completely empty.

Or almost so. In the dead centre of the square stood two bronze posts, each about a man's height, with a silver manacle on a chain hanging from the top. A stray dog lay between them, gnawing on a polished white bone.

I turned back to Stelos. "What are you showing me? Those whipping posts?"

He shook violently. "Not … whipping," he whispered, looking down.

"Then what are they?" I asked. "What does this have to do with the girl from the market?"

There was a noise from outside, and I turned back to the window. Below us, two thickset eunuchs were leading someone out of the castle. As she looked fearfully at the sky, I recognized her as the girl from the marketplace.

The two eunuchs shackled her to the posts and retreated quickly into the castle. Stelos tugged my sleeve and pointed. "It's starting," he whispered.

I looked but could see only a tiny dust whirlwind scudding across the square. "What?" Stelos led me to the far side of the room and plucked a long thread from his tunic. "It's okay," he breathed, peering at the thread as it hung motionless between us. "They're distracted, for now."

I frowned. "Who? And what's going to happen to that girl?"

His eyes flickered to the thread, still motionless. "Listen to me, Greek. The sooner you leave, the better," he breathed. "They're everywhere. Listening. Even in the castle. Haven't you noticed, there are no doors or shutters here? Nothing to block the winds. And they listen to him too."

This wasn't making any sense. "What's going to happen to that girl?" I asked, losing patience.

He shook his head. "There was a time when the king was fair, they say. Back when he was younger. But not now. The winds are worse now. No one even dares to get angry any more. Step out of line and get … polished."

I grabbed his shoulders. "Polished? Someone else said that. What is it?"

"Those posts. That's where it happens." His voice faltered. "People get chained there. Then the winds come." He squeezed his eyes shut. "My own brother," he said, his voice breaking. "I saw him, after. The winds, they …" he broke off, burying his face in his hands. "Don't make me say it," he whispered. "But Ameera - they're coming for her."

"What?" I blurted. "It was an accident. We startled her! Can't we tell the king?"

He shrugged helplessly. "How? His court, they keep the people from him. Now he hears only the winds." He glanced up. "Listen." From outside the castle came a low, whistling moan. "They're coming."

I shoved him aside impatiently and darted from the room to leap down the stairs. Speeding past huddled knots of courtiers and slaves in the hallway, I ran for the open front entrance and shot out into the square. Ameera was standing between the two posts, her arms held above her head by the silver shackles. Whirlwinds of dust and sand flickered across the courtyard. Her hair was whipping back and forth in the rising wind.

"Ameera?" I called as I approached. She lifted her head in surprise. Her face was streaked with tears and dust.

"Who are you?" she said. "You're not from here. Get back inside!"

I stopped before her. "It wasn't your fault!" I said urgently. "We scared you yesterday. We need to tell the king!"

She shook her head. "The king doesn't listen any more. Not to people." She looked up and her face fell. "Sweet Demeter," she murmured. "It's too late."

A dark, swirling funnel was descending from the clouds like the finger of Zeus. "I don't understand," I shouted over the rising wind. "What will it do?"

"Don't you see?" she shouted back. "I'm to be polished." She looked around. "There." She nodded toward a white bone lying against the palace wall. "The wind does that. It picks up the sand, and … polishes. When it's done, there's nothing left. Just bones." She squeezed her eyes tight. "Sweet Demeter," she called. "Please don't let it hurt, not too much. I've always saved my best offerings for you."

The chain rattled in the rising wind as I reached up to examine the manacles. The mechanism holding them closed was a simple clasp, but it took two hands to undo.

"What are you doing?" Ameera shouted over the wind as she saw me reach up.

"Getting you out of here! You didn't do anything! This is insane!" I shouted back.

"It's too late! Look!" she shouted, pointing up. I quailed as I saw the approaching finger of cloud, now nearly level with the tower atop the castle. The first manacle popped open as I twisted it and I moved to the second. The wind was shrieking now, tearing at my clothes. Sand whipped into my eyes, stinging my cheeks painfully. I closed my eyes and groped for the manacle by touch. The clasp was stuck, and as I worried at it with my fingers the roar from the wind took on an angry note, as if it knew it was being cheated. The clasp popped open and I pulled Ameera's slender wrist from it to haul her, stumbling against the wind's lash, across the courtyard and into the palace.

Somehow the wind knew it couldn't enter. We could hear it roaring in disappointed fury behind us. "It's no good," Ameera panted. "He'll just send me out there again. And this time you'll get it too."

"We have to tell him he's wrong," I said, tugging her along the hallway toward the throne room. Astonished faces peeked out at us from doorless entranceways to either side as we rushed past.

The throne room had no doors, and I burst in with Ameera in tow. The king was sitting on his gold-inlaid chair against the opposite wall. Two lumbering servants moved to intercept us but we dodged around them.

"Most regrettable, I know, but order must be maintained," he was saying to Lopex, seated on a divan nearby. "Otherwise the people would do what they liked, and then where would we be?" He reached for a gold goblet on a side table, but stopped as he saw us standing there, surprise in his filmy blue eyes.

"What? What is it?" His face took on a slow frown. "You're the girl with the pears, aren't you? Why aren't you outside?"

He tilted his head for a moment, eyes closed, mumbling to himself. Opening his eyes again, he turned his head to look at me, his expression clouding over. "You did that? You freed her?" he asked.

I nodded. "Yes, Your Inclemency," I answered carefully. "But for a good reason. She - " He held up a hand. "Tut, young man," he said. "Slaves answer only what was asked."

"But she didn't do it! It wasn't her fault!" I blurted.

The king tilted his head and closed his eyes again as though listening to a voice only he could hear. "Young girl of dark eye moved backward into market table," he murmured. "Pears spilled over ground, confusion, many stepped on. She stands before you now." He opened his eyes again. "I'm afraid, young man, you've made a mistake, and now I fear you must take a polishing with her." He leaned down from his throne and patted my shoulder. "It lasts only a short while," he said gently. "And then you may rejoin your friends. We bear no grudges here." He sat back with the air of someone who had cleared up a misunderstanding. The courtiers clapped.

I looked at him as he turned toward Lopex again. Rejoin my friends? What was he talking about? "NO!" I blurted.

The king turned back to me. "Young man," he said coldly, "I don't know where you come from, but in my kingdom, slaves speak only when spoken to. Now, you really must do as I say or it will be the worse for you." He turned back to Lopex. "Your slaves, are they all this troublesome?"

Lopex spoke from the divan. "I have found that when this boy speaks, his advice is often worth listening to, Your Inclemency. What did you want to say, Alexi?"

I hesitated, trying to understand. "Sire?" I asked. "Have you ever seen someone get - polished?"

"I? Of course not, boy. Not for many years." He tugged his cloak around his shoulders. "The winds were milder, and I was stronger. Now I am content to stay in the castle. My four winds, they tell me all I need to know."

An idea came to me. "Sire? May I have permission to leave for a moment? There is something I must show you." The king nodded absently. I grabbed Ameera's hand and we ran off for the exit.

Behind me, the king was remarking to Lopex, "Excitable, isn't he, this slave of yours. What do you think he wants to show me?"

Ameera had the same question as we ran through the castle hallways. "Where are we going?" she panted.

"To the pillars!" I stopped at the front entranceway to peer up at the sky but the dark clouds had disappeared, the swirling finger gone as if it had never been. "Bones!" I shouted as I ran out into the courtyard. "Grab whatever you can find!"

We darted around the square, snatching up the few polished bones that hadn't been carried off by dogs, and returned to the throne room. The king peered curiously at us from under his bushy eyebrows. "Young man, I must tell you that I am losing patience. Why are you bringing those into my throne room?"

"Please, sire," I said. "Do you remember who you last sent to be polished?"

His eyebrows went up. "Of course. A king's duty is to remember. It was three halfmonths ago. A boy, younger than you. He kept talking back to his mother. We couldn't have that, could we?" The king shook his head as if in reply. "But his mother was soft. "When I sent him for polishing, she began to scream. I should have had her polished along with him. Perhaps I am also too soft."

I dropped my armload of shining bones on the floor, and Ameera dropped hers beside mine. "I don't think so, sire," I said quietly. "This is what was left of him, afterwards."

The king peered down at the pile of bones, blinking. "Bones? Now why would that be?" He looked up at me. "Once again, young man, you are mistaken. Those are animal bones." He waved me away. "Mark him for extra polishing. He has wasted my time."

Two round-shouldered eunuchs appeared from somewhere and began to drag me toward the door, but Ameera darted in to pluck something from the pile. "Sire, look at this!" She held the bone out to him. "A jawbone. Not an animal's - a child's!" The king took it wordlessly, turning it over in his hands for some time before looking up, his expression puzzled.

"This bone," he said. "Where did you get it?"

"Outside. Near the pillars. They're always there, after … someone is polished." At his uncomprehending look, she went on. "The winds do it. With sand." She faltered. "This is all they leave."

He looked at her, then back to the small jawbone in his hand. Most of its tiny teeth were intact. The blood drained slowly from his face. He turned toward the courtiers, now huddled in an anxious knot.

"Did you know?" he whispered. They said nothing. He frowned. "You knew? Why did you not tell me?"

Someone gave an uncertain clap but stopped. A young man was pushed forward by the others. His hair was carefully sculpted and tinted to look like a bird of paradise. "Your magnificent inclemency," he murmured hesitantly, bowing low. "We … had no idea." As the king's brow creased, he added quickly, "That is, we had no idea that this was not your wish."

"My wish? This?" He looked up at Ameera. "How … how many of my people have had … this?" He held up the jawbone.

Ameera shook her head. "Sire, I don't know. Ever since I can remember."

The king stared at her. "That long?" he breathed, his rheumy eyes clouding. "My people. They believe I could do this?"

The young courtier stepped forward, his ornate sandals clicking on the hard floor. "Sire?" he began, his voice sympathetic. "How terribly upsetting this must all be for you." He pressed his fist to his mouth, thinking. "I have it, Sire - a long, refreshing bath! That's what you need. The very thing for days like this." The courtiers behind him murmured approval.

The king had begun to get to his feet at the young man's words but stopped. His expression slowly shifted, grief giving way to a growing anger that creased his brow like a gathering storm.

"A bath, Thalpius? You think to wash this away with a bath?" The young man stepped back uncertainly. The king's gaze swept across the other courtiers. "All of you," he growled, sitting up on the throne, swelling and filling out his robes as though taking strength from his fury. "This!" he shouted suddenly, shaking the jawbone at them. "This is your doing! Too fearful to tell your king the truth. Afraid for your status."

He threw the jawbone to the floor where it shattered, sending teeth and bits of bone skittering across the tiles. "Get out," he hissed, his voice shaking with rage. "Leave my palace, or by the power granted me by Zeus, you shall feel the bite of the winds yourselves!" The huddled courtiers paused uncertainly, then darted for the doorway in a clatter of sandals.

He turned back to me, his eyes blazing. "And you, young man," he began, his fury out of control now. "How DARE you contradict the King? Do you know the punishment for that?"

He frowned at his words, staring at the shards of jawbone on the floor. "Contradict me. Indeed," he added, his voice softer. "There is not a soul among my people who would have dared." His blue eyes stared at me for several moments. "And yet you did. For that, it seems I must thank you." He gestured to the two eunuchs gripping my shoulders. "He may go."

As Ameera and I headed for the door, I heard Lopex speaking. "Your Inclemency, I truly regret that your winds have run wild. But if it is within your power, I believe I know a way to punish them and help me on my journey at the same time …"


END OF CHAPTER I

Author's note: Cursed by the Sea God will be available from Ronsdale Press in Spring 2013 (sorry about that - there have been some production delays). The old title was The Sea God's Curse, but it's the same book. The first chapter has changed completely as well, as I've rearranged the chapter order to be purely chronological.
This preview is copyright Patrick Bowman, 2012. Please share it with anyone you like, but please leave my name on it. The text may change a bit from what you see here, but I hope you enjoy it anyway!