Wooden Horses

by J. Brooks

Alternate Universe

Notes: This was a response to a challenge to drop the Seven in the middle of a favorite book. I picked the Iliad, but you don't really need to know much about the book or about Greek mythology to follow along. It's mostly just a chance to let the boys run around and hit people with swords.

The Scene: Asia Minor, 13th Century B.C. The ninth year of the siege of Troy. The greatest of the Greeks, mighty Achilles, has quit the battle and now sulks by his ships. The other war leaders are wounded, dispirited or dead. The Trojans hold the fortified high ground and show no interest in returning Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, whose elopement with the Trojan prince Paris sparked the war. In the midst of this chaos, seven warriors come together with a plan . . . .

"Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures . . ."

- Homer, The Iliad, Book I

Chris Larabee snarled at the four men trying to take his head off. Ducking under a swinging blade, he pivoted and sank his sword to the haft in the attacker's side, then spun again to parry a spear thrust with his upraised shield. He risked a quick glance around the battlefield. A sea of Trojan uniforms surrounded him. How had he cut himself off so completely from the black-armored ranks of his own company?

He paid for that moment of inattention with a glancing sword blow across his shoulder. The swordsman paid for his poor aim with his life. More Trojan infantry pressed around him. Larabee felt the blood running down his arm, slicking the pommel of the sword. Slowly, he began to give ground, swinging at anyone fool enough to come within striking distance.

One huge mercenary, emboldened by the sight of blood, sprang forward -- and collapsed dead, with an arrow through his neck. Larabee whirled to face this new threat, only to see two more of the enemy crushed beneath the iron wheels of a war chariot.

"Need a lift?" An archer leaned over the side of the carriage and hauled the dazed soldier in by his good arm. They fell to the floor as the horses bolted, chased by a hail of poorly aimed spears.

The charioteer handled the reins with one hand and a long spear with the other as they crashed through the encircling ranks and galloped back toward the Greek lines. Even with the din of battle and the clatter of their headlong flight over rocky ground, Chris could hear him invoking the gods in a highly uncomplimentary fashion.

"Nice timing Ezra, Vin," Larabee yelled into the wind. Vin grinned back at him, gripping the side of the swaying vehicle in one hand, his longbow in the other. Ezra kept his eye on the terrain as they careened between the Trojan ranks.

"So glad you approve, sir," he yelled over his shoulder, turning the team toward the Greek fortifications. "If you'd like return the favor, perhaps you could explain to the king of Ithaca why I absconded with his chariot in the middle of a battle?"

"Shoot, Ez," Vin said. "He wasn't using it. And it was sort of an emergency."

The horses slowed as they approached the Greek fortifications, skirting the spiked trenches and passing through the gated wooden walls that guarded them and the ships that had carried them to this distant land. Vin and Chris relaxed their grips. Ezra, as always, simply adjusted his stance, keeping his balance effortlessly in the swaying vehicle.

"What happened to Odysseus?" Chris asked, wrapping a scrap of cloth around his wound as they slowed to a stop in front of the stables reserved for the kings and noblemen.

"Healers just pulled a spear out of his side." Vin hopped to the ground. "King Agamemnon's down too. And Diomedes. Even the head surgeon caught an arrow." He pulled his helmet off and ran his fingers through his sweaty hair.

"Put that back on," Larabee snapped. "You want someone to recognize you?" Vin pulled a face but replaced the helmet with its elaborate face shield. Chris turned to Ezra, who remained in the chariot. "Put that thing back where you found it and meet us back at camp."

"We act tonight, then?" Ezra lowered his voice.

"We're as ready as we'll ever be," Larabee nodded. "Bring the horses back with you."

Ezra saluted, then started the chariot toward the stables. Vin and Chris headed toward the piece of ground that had been their home for ten years -- an unattractive patch of scrub where the camps of four war leaders intersected.

+ + + + + + +

"Gods, Nathan! If you wanted to take his arm off, you could have cut it off. You don't have to scrub it off!"

Larabee, already forced to submit to the indignity of medical intervention, glared up at the man hovering over him in a show of mock sympathy.

"Go away, Buck," he gritted through his teeth. Nathan, his eyes fixed on the wound he was cleaning, nudged Wilmington with a foot until he longer blocked the firelight.

"No can do, pard. Need you to take a look at the finished product," Buck stepped back to reveal the means by which they planned to breach the gates of Troy and end this misbegotten war.

A wooden cart.

Josiah, JD and Vin, who were loading vats of olive oil and crates of fresh vegetables onto the contraption, paused and looked up at Larabee expectantly.

His eyes narrowed as he studied their wooden creation. "Perfect," he decided.

"The cabbages are a marvelous touch," Standish agreed, moving into the circle of firelight, leading two horses.

Larabee looked around at the mismatched group. He and Wilmington wore the black armor of the kingdom of Argos. Ezra wore the bright scarlet of Ithaca under the gaudiest armor Larabee had ever seen. Nathan, who bore the slit earlobes of a former slave, wore the colors of the king of Pylos, who freed him and allowed him to study as a healer in his service. Josiah wore the priestly vestments of whichever god currently held his favor.

Vin stood with a battered lion skin cloak wrapped around his undecorated armor. Once, he had worn the distinctive uniform of the Myrmidons, the elite fighting force under the command of Achilles -- until his king quit the battlefield and ordered his troops to idle away their days gaming and relaxing by their ships. Unable to stand by, Vin slipped away to rejoin the fight, fully aware that he would be executed as a traitor if his former comrades ever caught up to him.

JD had strapped an ill-fitting leather jerkin over the tattered tunic he was wearing when he stowed aboard one of the Greek supply ships, hoping for fame and glory on the field of battle. On his head, he wore an elaborate brass helmet, topped off with a nodding plume of horsehair. The boy turned his head to say something, smacking Buck across the face with the plume.

"Would you take off that stupid helmet?" Buck spluttered, spitting out horsehair.

"What's wrong with my helmet? It's a good helmet," the kid replied. "It's just like the ones the kings wear."

Buck rolled his eyes. "It's a GIRL hat."

"Is not!"

"Is too. I saw you take it off that Amazon myself."

"Gentlemen," Ezra cut in. "Perhaps you'd like to postpone this stimulating philosophical discussion until after we invade Troy?"

Nathan tied off the bandage and patted Chris on his good shoulder. Larabee glanced at the moon to gauge the time, then around at his men.

"Let's go."

+ + + + + + +

Dawn brightened the sky and illuminated the narrow mountain pass below the three men watching from a high ledge. In the distance, they could see a convoy of wagons snaking toward them.

"I hate this plan," Ezra Standish grumbled, pressing closer to the ledge.

On either side of him, Chris and Vin turned to stare incredulously.

"This was your plan," Larabee hissed. "You said this plan was fool-proof."

"You said this plan was flawless," Vin added. "A 'plan of breathtaking genius,' you said."

"That was before I found out I would be the one riding inside that wooden hulk," Ezra shot back, edging back from the cliff and dusting off his disguise. Like the other two, he wore a stolen Trojan uniform. "That was never part of my plan. No plan of mine would have ended with me locked inside a wooden decoy with nothing but cabbages and the good sirs Wilmington and Jackson for company."

"The plan's fine the way it is, Ezra," Larabee said, leading them back down the path toward the wooden cart.

"At the very least, I should drive the cart. I speak the Trojan language fluently," Ezra pressed, trailing behind them as they rejoined the others, who were waiting by a rock ledge, just out of sight of the road.

"True, but your accent is atrocious, brother," Josiah said, leaning smugly against the cart, dressed in the garb of a simple hill farmer. JD, in a similar costume, perched among the crates and barrels. "Most folks can barely understand you when you speak Greek."

"The Ithacan accent is acknowledged throughout the civilized world as a hallmark of culture and good breeding," Ezra snapped, then picked up his argument as if there had been no interruption. "But surely I should be the one to take out the guards . . ."

"Yeah, and if we'd used your dice when we rolled to see who got to walk and who had to ride, you would have been," Nathan Jackson's muffled voice echoed out of the cart. He popped his head through the false floor they'd built into the vehicle. "Now get your ass in here with me and Buck before we decide to stuff you in a barrel of olives instead."

Grumbling, Ezra moved to the cart and tossed his weapons inside, grinning when Nathan yelped. He sketched a salute and slid out of sight. Larabee closed the trap door on him before he could change his mind. He could hear Ezra throw the bar to lock the opening from the other side. Josiah and JD shifted the cargo back into place.

There was a soft hiss from Vin, who had moved closer to the thick scrub that screened the road from sight. Soon, the first of the supply wagons trundled past on its way to Troy. The Greek army had never been able to cut all the supply lines to the besieged city, although they raided the wagon trains occasionally when they felt the urge, or when their own stocks were running low. The Seven had studied the mountain passes for weeks, looking for the perfect ambush site.

As the last wagon passed, Chris and Vin stepped out smoothly and intercepted the two soldiers guarding the rear of the convoy, dragging their bodies back under cover. With a click of his tongue, Josiah started the team and moved the heavy cart into place at the end of the line. Larabee and Tanner fell in behind.

Ahead, a blonde woman, driving the second-to-last cart, glanced back at them and winked. The little boy by her side bounced excitedly for a moment, until his mother urged him to hush. Josiah smiled. Apparently, kindness to the impoverished residents of the Greek-occupied villages would not go unrewarded.

+ + + + + + +

Oh, this was too easy.

Chris Larabee stood in the shadow of the great walls of Troy while the guards made a cursory search of the wooden cart. Beside him, Vin winced as one of the soldiers jabbed his spear into the barrel of olives, then waved Josiah and JD toward the storehouses. Chris and Vin followed, threading their way through the crowds of people who had come down to meet the supply trains. In the besieged city, any contact with the world outside the walls was an event to be celebrated. Larabee spotted the blonde and her son being caught up in an embrace by an older couple. She was whispering urgently in the old man's ear. He scowled and walked a little faster.

At the warehouse, Josiah and JD set about unloading the cart while Chris and Vin loitered nearby with the air of soldiers assigned the most tedious duty imaginable. After a careful glance around, Josiah rapped a signal on the side of the cart. One by one, the three men slipped out of their hiding place. Buck and Ezra joined Chris and Vin. Nathan pulled his Trojan helmet lower to hide his face and replaced them at the guard position.

"It's almost time," Larabee said, nodding farewell to the priest, healer and kid. "Finish unloading and get in position by the gate and wait for us to bring her down." The others nodded reluctantly and murmured good wishes as the four moved off.

They kept to the alleys and shadows as they crossed the besieged city. Everyone they saw seemed frightened, hungry, weary. Ezra watched a group of filthy children arguing over a rat they had trapped beneath a basket -- arguing about who got to take it home for their mother to cook. He turned his eyes away and focused on the eastern wall and their best hope for ending this horror.

Every afternoon, Helen of Troy, strolled the eastern battlements in full view of the army that waited to take her home. Her long white robes would catch the wind and billow out behind her like doves' wings. Sometimes she dropped perfumed veils over the walls, which were duly recovered by Greek runners and turned over to her jilted husband, Menelaus. The king of Sparta would press these favors to his cheek, weeping and bemoaning the cruel fates that had torn fair Helen from his side. Then the other Greek kings would rally around him, renewing their vows to raze Troy to the ground and return his runaway bride.

It was on one of these missions to retrieve Helen's hankies that it hit Ezra like a bolt from the blue. If Helen was the sole cause and justification of the war -- the face that launched a thousand ships -- what would happen to that war if she were returned? He mulled the idea as he recovered from the arrow that also hit him like a bolt from the blue on that job. Helen, he knew, was just an excuse the kings used to legitimize their attack the wealthy Aegean trade port. But without her, it was possible that their alliance would fall apart. Certainly his lord, Odysseus, would leap at any chance to return home.

Returning Helen might just end the war. Or at least end the stupid handkerchief retrieval missions.

The sun shone directly overhead as they reached the eastern wall. Time for Helen's constitutional. They slipped up the stairs, pleased to note how few guards were about. With no battle looming that day, most of the soldiers in the city appeared to be off duty. They ducked into an empty guardhouse and waited for the peerless beauty to appear.

"Think anyone would mind if we just shoved her off the wall and picked her up on the way back?" Larabee asked. The rank and file in the army did not share their kings' boundless affection for Helen.

Except Buck, of course. "Now, that's no way to talk about a lady," he said, watching eagerly for the approach of the most beautiful woman in the world. "And speak of the lady, here she comes."

A vision in white approached, gauzy veils fluttering as she glided along the path. Alone.

Oh, this really was too easy. Larabee reached out and snagged her as she passed, clamping a hand over her mouth as he pulled her inside the guardhouse. Instead of squirming or trying to scream, Helen stood calmly in his grasp. Buck, Vin and Ezra were staring at her, mouths hanging open in identical expressions of shock. Dang, Larabee thought. The woman must really be gorgeous.

"Don't make a sound. We won't hurt you," he whispered. She nodded under his hand. Cautiously, he loosened his grip and turned her to see . . .

"Helen?" he asked, dubiously. The girl in his arms snorted and brushed one of the dangling veils away from her face. It was a young face, pretty enough in its own way. But it was not the sort of face that launched ships.

The girl lifted her chin defiantly, guessing his thoughts. "I'm Helen today," she replied, in his own language. "Yesterday it was my sister-in-law. Tomorrow, my mother may take a turn."

"What?" Larabee's fingers tightened on her shoulders. "Where is the real Helen? Tell us, girl!" Buck stepped in and placed a silent, warning hand on his shoulder. Ezra drew the girl out of his bruising grip. She turned large, dark eyes on the trickster.

"Helen's not here. Helen has never been here."

"My dear," he said gently. "We know young Paris absconded with the queen. We know the prince is here. Where else would Helen be?"

"Egypt," the girl replied, unable to stop a small smile at the expression on their faces. "She and Paris sought sanctuary in Egypt. When Pharaoh learned what they had done, he took custody of Helen until her husband could come and collect her."

"Why didn't you just tell that to the kings when they showed up?" Vin asked quietly.

She scowled. "We did. They didn't believe us. And they threatened to kill the Trojan prisoners of war unless we gave them daily proof that Helen was still alive and well." She tugged at her costume to illustrate the point.

"You expect us to believe that cock-and-bull story, darlin'?" Buck asked, still leaning an arm over Larabee to stop him from lunging at the girl.

"Cassandra is telling you the truth," a new voice spoke up. Larabee's sword whistled through the air, stopping just short of the speaker's throat. The man standing in the door gulped, but stood his ground.

Larabee glared. "I saw you at the gate, old man."

"My name is Travis. My daughter-in-law has told me of the help you've given her and the other villagers," the old nobleman reached up a finger and delicately eased the sharp blade away from his throat. "I came to warn you, and to help you escape."

"Escape? Why would we need help--" Larabee broke off as trumpets began to blare, sounding the alarm.

"The Greeks are attacking," Travis yelled over the noise. Larabee looked down at his Trojan uniform, then up at his companions.

"Aw, Hades," Ezra spoke for them all.

+ + + + + + +

Once again, a sea of Trojan uniforms surrounded Chris Larabee. This time, he was part of the sea, idling in formation as he waited for the commanders to swing wide the city gates and order the attack.

His men flanked him, three on each side. JD and Josiah were wearing the spare uniforms Ezra had insisted they pack, "in the event of exigent circumstance." Larabee adjusted his grip on his spear and sent a silent curse out to meddling kings who led unscheduled attacks in the middle of what was supposed to be a day of rest for both armies.

Up and down the Trojan ranks, gruff officers began shouting orders and soldiers beat their spears against their shields as they began the march. The Seven joined in, charging through the gates and across the plains toward their own army.

The two sides met with a crash. Larabee laid about with the flat of his sword, trying not to kill too many of his own countrymen. Josiah and Nathan held up their shields to cover JD, who was stripping fallen Greeks of their armor and tossing pieces to anyone who had a hand free.

Buck fell to his knees with a howl, an arrow sticking out of his thigh. Vin grabbed him and hauled him back behind the shields. Ezra sprang up behind a Trojan charioteer and pitched the confused man out of the vehicle before he had time to figure out why his own troops were attacking him.

Larabee worked to loosen the leather bindings of his breastplate. He had the Trojan armor halfway off when he caught a flash of motion out of the corner of his eye. He spun awkwardly, tangled in the uniform, only to be knocked off his feet by the body that threw itself between him and the descending blade.

"Gods! Ezra!" Larabee screamed, arms going around the man, trying to stanch the blood. The sword stroke had sliced through the shoddy armor and into his side. The nameless Greek soldier raised his sword again for a killing blow. Josiah let out a roar and skewered the man with one thrust of his spear. Ezra lay stiffly in Larabee's arms, eyes wide with shock, breathing in shallow gasps. Nathan scrambled over, dodging arrows.

"Get him away from here!" Larabee ordered, releasing his hold on Ezra as Nathan closed in. The healer nodded and lifted the smaller man into the stolen chariot, wadding up his cloak and holding it against the massive wound. Josiah jumped in and whipped the horses into a flat run toward the Greek lines.

An arrow buried itself in the ground at Larabee's feet, pulling his attention back to the battle. He whipped his shield around, knocking a Greek charioteer senseless. He leapt into his place and turned the vehicle back to his remaining men.

"Buck!" he yelled, hauling the horses to a stop in front of the injured man. Vin and JD bundled Buck inside, stripped off the last of their disguises and hopped in behind. The overloaded chariot took off across the plain.

+ + + + + + +

"You're going WHERE?" Buck yelled, clutching at his old friend's arm. He lay in the hospital tent, surrounded by groaning casualties. JD hovered nearby, watching Larabee with wide, incredulous eyes.

"Egypt," Larabee repeated, easing Buck back to the bed. "We're going to haul her back here by her hair and put an end to this forsaken war. Lord Odysseus granted us leave and ordered a ship supplied and ready."

They had spoken with the king of Ithaca, who was recuperating in a private tent nearby. As Ezra had predicted, Odysseus jumped at the chance to return home to his wife and home. But there had been a gleam in his eye as they left that Larabee hadn't quite liked. He shook off the unease and turned back to Buck.

"Vin and Josiah are coming with me," he shot a glare at JD, daring him to protest. The kid's mouth shut with a snap. "JD and Nathan will stay here to keep an eye on you and Ezra."

Buck blew out a sigh, fighting exhaustion. "How is he?" he whispered.

"Nathan's doing everything he can," Josiah spoke from the shadows where he and Vin stood with their traveling gear piled at their feet. His moved to the bed and crouched down to touch Buck's shoulder in farewell. Vin leaned down to grip his arm. Both looked up to share a small smile with JD.

"We'll be back," Chris promised. Then he turned and led the way out of the hospital, between the rows of wounded, dying men.

+ + + + + + +

"Tell me how you did it," Odysseus' eyes glittered as he leaned over the wounded man. Nathan tensed as the king roughly shook Ezra until his eyes fluttered open and fixed on him. "By what trick did you gain entry to the city? By what means did you succeed where the greatest army in the world failed? Where I failed?"

Ezra stared mutely at his king for a moment, then smiled. It was a smile that would have sent any sensible man scurrying away, hands clamped protectively over his wallet and anything else he valued.

"W-wood . . ." he breathed. Odysseus bent forward to catch the words. ". . .all you need is . . . wood and . . . horses." His voice trailed off and he slumped back on the pallet. Nathan hurried to his side, elbowing the king out of his way without a second thought.

"Wooden horses?" Odysseus muttered, glaring down at the unconscious man. "Wooden horses? How under the heavens could you enter the city in a wooden--"

He broke off abruptly, the strangest look crossing his face. Then he turned and limped quickly away without another word.

Nathan watched him go, uneasily. "Hurry Chris," he whispered, holding a cool cloth to Ezra's forehead. "Hurry back."

+ + + + + + +

The ruins of Troy still smoldered. From the prow of his warship, Larabee surveyed the destruction, wanting to throw back his head and howl, wanting to pound his fists into the decks, wanting to turn and give chase to the entire Greek army. Behind him, he heard Vin's muttered oaths and Josiah's whispered prayers. He turned and met three pairs of eyes -- two anguished, one indifferent.

Helen stood before him, a diaphanous robe of Egyptian linen wrapped around her fair shoulders, a sullen pout marring the flawless beauty of her face. She glanced at the beach, empty now of Greek ships, and cocked a sarcastic eyebrow at the warrior.

He turned his back on her and signaled the ship's captain. "Put us ashore. Then take her back where she came from."

Helen gathered her finery about her and stalked back to her cabin in a huff. Her honor guard followed, dark, silent Egyptians with shaved heads and kohl-lined eyes. Some of them glanced toward the ruined shore and gripped their long spears more tightly.

The beach was littered with the debris of the departed army. They could see the great grooves where the war ships had been beached, the abandoned fortifications, the faint outlines of thousands of tents in the earth. The hills in every direction bore the blackened scars of funeral pyres.

The three moved slowly through the eerie shell of the encampment, looking for any sign of life. Vin clambered up one of the watchtowers for a better view.

"Anything?" Chris asked.


With a frustrated growl, Josiah heaved himself up next to Vin. "EZRA!" he bellowed. "NATHAN! BUCK! JD! WHERE ARE YOU?"

Vin winced and slid back to the ground, ready to deal with any unwelcome visitors who might be drawn by the noise. Above, Josiah shouted himself hoarse; his calls for his lost brothers echoing unanswered over the Trojan plain.

Finally, Larabee climbed up to get him. "That's enough for now, Josiah," he said. The big man slumped to the floor, his posture one of utter desolation. He looked up at Chris, unshed tears shining in his eyes.

"Ah, Josiah, I know," Chris sighed, sliding down to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with him, facing toward Troy. Oily smoke curled through the shattered mortar around the gates. He wondered idly how the Greeks had managed that trick. The mightiest army in the world had hurled itself against those walls for years without making a dent in the Scaian Gates.

Gods, he thought. How soon had the city fallen after they left? And how? And most importantly, where were his men when all of it had happened? Guilt gnawed at him. They should have stayed together, seven strong. Stayed together here, or gone together to Egypt -- for all the good that had done.

Vin joined them, easing himself down on the other side of Josiah. The priest was weeping openly now. He had worked so hard, argued so persuasively, to convince Pharaoh to hand Helen over to their custody. He had been so sure they would be returning as peacemakers. So sure. They had been gone less than two months. How could the war they had fought to a draw for ten years end in a span of weeks?

For a while, they simply sat and stared at the toppled towers of Ilium. Finally, Josiah sat up, wiped his cheeks and wordlessly headed for the ladder, ready to continue the search.

A head popped through the trap door, grinning at them.

"Gah!" All three soldiers leapt back, grabbing for their weapons, colliding, and collapsing in a heap -- at eye level with JD's disembodied head.

"There you are! We've been looking all over for you!" JD beamed at them, before disappearing from view. "HEY! I FOUND 'EM!! They're up here! Hey, you three coming down or what?"

Larabee found himself shoved nose-first into the plank floor as first Vin, then Josiah, trampled him in their headlong rush for the exit. He scrambled to follow, hearing the shouts of reunion starting below.

Before his feet hit the ground, somebody caught him in a rib-cracking hug and spun him in circles, whooping in his ear.

"Damn, it's good to see you, Old Dog," Buck was holding on to him like his life depended on it.

Chris laughed and pounded him on the back. "Damn good," he agreed. Over Buck's shoulder, he could see JD frisking around Vin like a puppy. Nathan had all but disappeared under one of Josiah's bear hugs.

Larabee broke free and held Buck out at arm's length, studying him critically. No bandages. Buck rolled his eyes and broke into a dance step. No limp.

Larabee froze. He looked back at the others, who had re-formed into a many-armed group hug that was slowly working its way over to them. He counted arms. Eyes widening in dismay, he looked back at Buck.

"My, my, this is a touching sight," a voice drawled behind him. Larabee felt his heart start beating again. Ezra Standish leaned against one of the tower supports, looking a little too pale and a lot too thin, but very much alive. "Truly, there is something about the reunion of old friends that warms the cockles of my--awk!"

His words choked off as Chris grabbed him. Buck shrugged happily and threw his arms around both of them. The group hug finally worked its way over and piled on. From somewhere in the heap, Larabee could hear Nathan mumbling something about sutures. Chris ignored it and held tight to the only people he still gave a damn about in the world.

+ + + + + + +

They camped on the slopes of Mount Ida that night, near the village they had tried to help. It had been burned to the ground, almost as an afterthought, just before the army departed. The surviving villagers were hiding out in caves nearby, sharing their meager supplies with the Seven in return for continued protection.

At the others' insistence, Josiah described their uneventful sea voyage, and the eventful week at Pharaoh's court in Thebes. To be honest, the Egyptians had seemed relieved to see Helen go. Buck complained bitterly when he learned they'd sent Helen back without giving him a chance to introduce himself.

Then Nathan and Buck spun the improbable tale of the fall of Troy. How the Trojans woke one morning to find that the entire Greek army had vanished, leaving nothing behind but a mighty wooden statue of a horse on the beach. How they had poured out of the city, dancing and singing, to pull the great wheeled figure up to their gates and lay it as tribute before the altars of their gods. How they dismantled part of the wall to drag the wooden horse inside -- ignoring the sensible few who suggested they might want to take a closer look at the thing first.

The people of Troy drank and feasted themselves into a stupor that night. As they slept, a door opened in the belly of the beast, releasing the Greek warriors hidden inside. They crept through the city, threw open the front gates to the waiting army and began a wholesale slaughter.

JD and Buck, who had watched everything from the mountain heights, described the end. The elderly king of Troy butchered in temple where he sought sanctuary. Warriors ravening through the streets like animals, raping and killing on sight. Fires. Looting. The last heir to the throne of Troy -- a little boy -- hurled off the highest wall in the city before his mother's eyes. The few survivors led off in chains to a life of slavery.

Reclining comfortably on a heap of blankets near the fire, Ezra finally broke the silence. "I cannot decide which pains me more," he said. "The fact that the Greeks actually acted on my lord's absurd plan; or the fact that the Trojans actually fell for it." His lips curled in an ironic smile, but guilt shone in his eyes.

Josiah reached down and rested a gentle hand on his head. "Not your fault, Ezra."

"Wooden horses," Ezra sighed, shrugging off comfort.

"We had a better plan," JD said. "Ours should have worked."

Vin cocked an eye at the rest of the men sitting around the fire. "So . . . where do you reckon we should go from here?" The others exchanged glances.

"Ships are gone," Larabee pointed out.

"Yup. Last one sailed a few days ago. Lord Odysseus, I think it was," Buck said.

"Damnation," Ezra murmured. "He was my ride home."

Nathan rubbed his chin. "One of the Trojan nobles escaped. Gathered a few survivors and headed west."

"I hear west is nice this time of year," Vin remarked, staring up at the stars.

"Was talking to some of the villagers," Nathan continued. "They want to follow after this Lord Aeneas, if they can."

"Bunch of refugees, moving across open country like that, " Josiah rumbled. "Could be in need of assistance."

"Could be," Buck said.

"Could be," the others chimed in around the circle, except Ezra, who was snoring softly. Larabee took that for a 'yes.'

He felt a small smile tug at the edge of his mouth.

"We leave at dawn."

The End

End note: Mad love and all due credit to the dead poets Homer, Virgil and Thomas Bulfinch. I can't even claim credit for the idea that Helen spent the duration of the Trojan War cooling her heels in Egypt. That was Euripides.

Comments to: JenBr11@aol.com