We went south, but we navigated a round-about course, one meant to confuse watchers and keep out of the sight of the Great King’s agents. You might think that was impossible with a fleet of twenty ships, including those we’d picked up from Lesvos, but we sailed down the west coast of Chios, stopping for mutton and wine at Mesta, where my son Hector ran an errand for me and came back with three donkey loads, and where we touched up our supplies of grain and salt fish, and then back south and west to Mykinos, where we found a dozen merchants out of Athens, and no news of Pausanias or the Allied Fleet putting to sea. After a day of rest, Sekla had a little luck, and found a merchant who traded into the Nile Delta who gave us his route in exchange for two hundred drachma in silver, paid on the barrel. We paid it and Sekla’s informant gave us a detailed sailing instruction, including some descriptions of islands and even a dozen little pictured carved in the wax of a pair of tablets.
I knew most of the route, and so did Sekla; there was a part in the middle we’d never done before, and I suspected very few other ships had tried it. But none of the trierarchs made a fuss, and Cimon simply gave a shrug. So we went to the temple and made sacrifices, and then we gave our sailors and oarsmen another night of sleep, through which I admit I fretted, took too many walks, and drank too much, and then we were away south on a sweet wind that saved our oarsmen a great deal of rowing, and we had a long day, from sunrise straight through the night with the worried oarsmen pissing over the side and being careful with the water, watching the command deck and the helmsman and whispering. I could hear Poseidonos reassuring the poor bastards, but they weren’t used to my navigations and they weren’t the veterans who’d been to the Hesperides and Gaul and out the Gates of Herakles.
It’s very lonely in command. I’m sure other men have noted this, and it’s nothing new, but out in the very middle of the Inner Sea, under a wheel of stars, even with a fair wind and a following sea, without so much as the notch of an island all around the compass circle, it is very easy to doubt your wisdom.
Listen, I’ve become a fairly competent navigator. But remember that I didn’t really go to sea until I was Archilogos’s slave; that most fisherman use the sea from age ten or so, and they know the wheel of stars and the smell of the surf. I came late to the knowledge, and Paramanos was my first teacher, and then Sekla and Megakles, who was under my lee, about half a stade away, and tempting me to signal him.
Of course I had doubts. Mykinos to Astypalaia, which Athenians call Chora, is more than 600 stades by my dead reckoning. And we hadn’t seen a sign of land since we sunk Amorgos astern.
Still, hundreds of other captains with less experience than I had made this route work, and I had brilliant stars and a fine wind.
The problem with command is that you worry anyway. Nineteen ships behind me in two long lines, sailing along, and if I missed my measure, we’d run aground and be broken for firewood in five hideous minutes, because we were running fast in the dark, in a world where most captains either beached for the night or laid to.
I poured a cup of wine and poured it out to Paramanos, and another for Poseidon.
Damon, my new helmsman, stood by me in the darkness without complaint. His wake was near-perfect; I went astern a few times to check it, just to make sure that some secret change of tide or current was ruining my dead reckoning. You really don’t want to hit an island in the dark.
Nestor son of Dion came aft, and turned our sand-glass, and marked the time on a wax tablet, and I sent him forward to throw a line and mark the log. These were techniques that the Greeks had learned from Phoenicians, or rather, that we’d learned when we were Dagon’s slaves; the secrets that the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians used in long navigation, allowing them to at least guess at their speed and drift. And I had an advantage they lacked; a little geometry with Pythagoras’ daughter, Myaia. And geometry allows you to calculate the third side of a triangle if you know the first two and some of the angles. Even if you have to guess at the sides; the rate of drift in a light breeze, and the rate of your travel through the water; even if you have to guess the angle of the wind against your ship,(not so difficult, with a bit of old linen in your hand), your answers give you an approximation.
I’d learned is all years ago. I’d practiced it out on the western Ocean and brought my ships through alive, all the way to Alba west of Gaul.
So when my prayers to Poseidon were done, and Nestor had brought me the results of heaving the log, I did my calculations, found them reassuring, and went forward among the whispering oarsmen. I went to my command post in times of combat, the platform where the mainmast was mounted, and I called out, loud and clear.
‘Listen up, lads,’ I called.
I ignored him. ‘I hear whispering like a wind across the bow; I know you’re worried. There’s nothing about this you need to worry about. We’ll be on a beach in six hours. When the sun rises, you’ll see the mountains of Astypalaia, dead ahead over the bow, and we’ll be drinking some new wine before the suns is directly overhead.’
Poseidonos made a circle with his thumb and forefinger; a sailor’s indication that I’d struck the gong.
I went back aft to the helm and ran all my calculations again.
# # #
Rosy fingered dawn, and never was there a happier phrase, touched the eastern horizon with the dawn; the chilly grey of the wolf’s tail was driven into the darkness, and Dawn herself came up. East was east, the sun was in the right part of the sky, and south-by-east was my course, and there, not quite over the ram of the bow and the marine box, were the five peaks and twin islands of Astypalaia. My dead reckoning had been out by several degrees, and we had to make a slight turn, which Damon did without an order, bless him, correcting our course as the sun rose so that the oarsmen, craning their heads round, never saw that I’d been off by a bit.
Of course, in an ocean, a bit becomes quite a bit very quickly. But dead reckoning is an approximation and you are a fool if you expect otherwise.
By mid-day, we were indeed enjoying the very limited pleasures of a fishing village with perhaps five hundred inhabitants. We probably drank all the wine on the island, and we bought a boatload of salt fish.
I had a long conference with Cimon and Megakles and Sekla in a wine-shop, because from here on, we were at the mercy of our purchased navigations, which was nothing but a series of island names and tiny pictures. I wanted as much light for navigation as I could get, so we left the beach long before darkness, to the utter disgruntlement of the oarsmen. They were further put out that with a perfectly good breeze and the mast already raised, we used oars as we crept along the coast.
I had only my wax tablets after this.
So I aimed the ship south and east again, with the setting sun in the west as my guide. I aimed for the tiny islet of Syma, a single peak sixty stades away and still visible. In fact, it was almost exactly as described, which raised my heart.
Three hours later, as full darkness was falling and the moon was rising, we were skirting Syma, have passed between the ‘Dog Rocks’ exactly as Sekla’s pilot had reported’ two small spires of rock about three stades apart.
South and east of Sym we passed Plakida, just keeping her in sight on the port side, as our merchant had advised.
And then darkness feel, and we were back under the wheel of stars.
Sailors are odd cattle. Apparently, because I’d done it all the night before, they had no further concerns, so while I kept my command deck for the second night running, my head pounding with fatigue, Nestor in the steering harness amidships, my oarsmen snored away without a care in the world. I had the odd temptation to wake them all and tell them that tonight, I was headed for an island I’d never seen before, without anything but dead reckoning to measure, and the word of a man only Sekla had met.
He said somewhere around two hundred and fifty stades. We had a fine wind blowing almost straight over the stern, and we had both sails rigged and the ship was as steady as a trireme with a narrow entry and a ram bow could be in the middle of the Inner Sea, hurtling along on a starlit night.
I sent Damon into the bow, and then I woke Brasidas and had the marines stand watches, listening for surf, watching for anything… anything at all.
Brasidas poured me a cup of wine and handed it to me without any words.
Nestor smiled. ‘I’d take some of that,’ he said.
I gave him half the cup. ‘It’s just his Laconian way of telling me that I’m fretting and I should calm down,’ I said.
Eventually I managed three hours of sleep, and I woke to Leander shaking my shoulder.
‘First light,’ he said.
I sat up.
It was an odd dawn, with the promise of rain; clouds off to the east, and the smell of water.
There wasn’t much to be seen for some time, which didn’t prevent the marines on watch, Zephyrides and Kassandros, from talking constantly. Actually it was mostly Kassandros, watching gulls.
Nestor gave me the steering oars and stretched. ‘Getting old for this,’ he said. ‘You do a lot of Deep Blue navigation, eh, sir?’
I shrugged. ‘On this trip we’re taking some risks.’
‘A big blow would scatter the fleet and wreck us,’ he said. ‘No offence.’
I nodded and poured him some water from the jug that the boy had left.
‘We can’t afford for anyone in the Great King’s employ to see us,’ I said.
Nestor nodded. ‘Fair,’ he said. ‘I can take the steering back.’
I was just out of the rig when Kassandros hailed.
‘Land,’ he shouted. ‘Like a wall, all the way south.’
I ran forward along the amidships catwalk and climbed over the marine box into the bow, touching the timber from the old Lydia for luck as I went.
There was the isalnd, as predicted. ‘Best two hundred drachma I’ve ever spent,’ I muttered.
We were east of Crete, north of Aegypt, and we’d hit a long, narrow island in the middle of nowhere. I’d never been here; we were not on any trade route. All the big ships hit Crete; the little fishing vessels crept from island to island, and Karpathos, if that was the island’s name, was off the tracks. I’d coasted it twice before, however, headed for Cyprus back in the Ionian Rebellion, which made this part nostalgic. I’d coasted the southern beaches, but this time I touched at Saria, the spur at the northernmost tip, a small island. There was a deep cleft in the island; no beach to speak of, but space for twenty triremes and three round ships to drop their stones and heave to. We cooked a meal on our sea stoves and ate; the round ships boomed us water out of their holds; we shared out sausage and honey.
And then we turned east. Due east, for Cyprus. Eighteen hundred stades of blue water sailing.
It wasn’t nearly as terrifying; it was merely hard. For one thing, the coast of Asia came into sight early, the great mountains of Caria poking up over the horizon to the north. But the shipping would all be in with the coast, and we were out here, where no one would notice us, I hoped.
Rain came up from astern, and the wind rose, and we lost sight of any other ships except Moire’s Black Raven, who we could see from time to time when there were gaps in the rain. South of us was Africa; the Nile Delta and all the fascination that held for me. I still wanted to go into the Red Sea and find out where the good iron came from, south of Aegypt, and now I had an excellent route into the Delta without having to touch at Crete.
And I was remembering how much I loved to be at sea.
Day dawned on our second day out from Karpathos, and the rain let up. We were all soaked, even with the awnings up over the oarsmen, and we rolled them back, dried the ship, bailed her dry, and rowed, because when the last rain died, so did the wind.
We rowed all day, as we rowed, we picked up our friends. We never lost Black Raven, as I’ve said; but before mid day we had Ajax in sight, and then we found the rest fairly quickly. I had to pray no one had run in with the land, but sadly, our ship out of Naxos had done just that, checking his navigation when he was alone in the rain.
He hailed me and owned up, and I had to shrug it off. One sighting of one warship. That shouldn’t have alerted the Great King’s Navarch.
Sunset of the second day out from Karpathos, and we were deep in the empty triangle between Crete, Cyprus, and the Nile Delta. The rain had pushed us farther south; now we were runnign along without even a line of mountains on our north.
Nothing. Nothing out to the rim of the world in any direction.
‘Tomorrow dawn should see Paphos Rock,’ I said with more confidence then I felt.
But I was wrong.
# # #
Diodoros was in the bow, singing softly to himself. He had an excellent voice, and he was singing something I didn’t know; a scene from Iliad, I assumed, because Ajax the greater was in it, but not something I knew. That was no surprise; as a well-traveled man, I already knew that there were ten of more versions; local heroes emphasized or turned into traitors, Achilles made a milk-sop, a comic figure, a coward…
Sebastos sat with him, curled into the curve of the bow, playing on his kithara, which I suspected was a beast to keep tuned on the sea. They were, and they played well, and then…
Diodoros looked out over the bow, stiffened and pointed wordlessly.
I was watching them because of the singing. It’s probably all that saved us.
‘Hard to starboard,’ I said. I picked up a stick I’d used to practice my cuts early in the night and tapped Poseidonos, none to gently. ‘Oars! Awake!’
The old giant was awake instantly.
So was Leon, who sat opposite him, the senior thranites.
‘Awaken all the oars!’ I yelled.
Damon, my helmsman, was leaning so far out that I feared he might go over the side, trying to turn the ship.
I ran forward.
Waves show oddly in the dark. If conditions are just right, the wave-tops almost glow with a light of their own; it can be quite eerie.
About ten ship’s lengths off the bow, there was a line of surf.
‘Sails down!’ I roared.
Nestor was awake, a knife in his hand and I gave him a nod and he slashed the heavy cordage that held the yard aloft and was tied off to the port side rail.
The yard crashed to the deck, waking any laggard rowers. But it saved us; even as I cut the same line on the boat-sail mast forward, the yard’s tip went over the side, and the mass of the sail dragged like a sea-anchor, and we were turning rapidly to starboard, as fast or faster than the oars could have carried us.
‘Lantern in the stern!’ I roared.
Fire aboard a trireme is a very carefully managed thing. In my ships, the fire pots for food and emergency light were kept amidships, two big, heavy iron pots with heavy forged covers. Leander probed one and lit a taper, and dashed aft, even as Dion began shouting in his deep voice for the ship astern of us, Moire’s Black Falcon, to turn.
A big signal lamp went up the swan’s head on the stern.
Off to port, a voice roared, ‘Hard to Port!’ in Athenian Greek.
As soon as I knew that the port column of ships was warned, I turned to the other problem; namely, that now we were being sucked into the breakers and we had no way on us anymore. The surf seemed to be right next to us; I swear I could feel the spray on my cheek.
Rocks. A line of rocks like an ugly fence, marching away into the darkness.
I cut the mainmast yard away myself, and the whole of Raven seemed to bounce, a bird ready to take wing.
‘Oars out!’ roared Poseidonos.
A surprising number of oars came off their notches and out. Oars are stored inboard; in a veteran ship, and thanks to the Gods ours was in this respect, the oarsmen cross their oars inside the hull, so that the blades are just barely out the thole pins and the butt, or hand holds, are tucked under the opposite bench.
It means that in a crisis, the oar can be taken up and fed out the oar-port in seconds; even faster for the top-deck thranites.
‘Give way, all!’ Poseidonos bellowed.
It was ragged, but not so ragged that anyone missed their stroke or got the butt of an oar in their teeth.
This is where your veterans count. This is where everything is details.
Like Megaros, a steady man, thranite port side, waiting patiently to push his oar out, waiting for the pull so that he wouldn’t foul anyone else, calm and steady as a good hoplite in a battle line.
Like Leon, his anger leashed, pulling like any other two men.
Like Cleontos, a very young fisherman from Eresos, cutting the boat-sail yard free after tying a pair of spare oars to it. Because that way, we’d find it easily, and the oars would float. An amazing piece of crisis-thought, given the situation.
In three oars strokes, we had some way on us.
After the fourth, Dion roared, ‘She steers!’
And he turned us to starboard again.
For three strokes, it was touch and go. I considered the obvious; order the port side rowers to check or even back water, and we’d turn in out own length.
But not if they made a mistake.
We were perhaps half a stade off the rocks, and any error and we would strike. We might not sink, but once you get into a tide-race amidst rocks, even with brilliant oarsmen, it’s very hard to claw off.
By Artemis, my friends.
For three strokes, it was all in balance. I couldn’t see any gain; I wondered if Dion had been too optimistic in claiming that he had steerage way.
But then I saw the stars move at the bow; I could see the bow moving…
I looked out to port. The stars were there, innocent, glowing against the vast black-blue of the night sky, but below them, the waves lashed on the ugly broken teeth of a coast.
Where in Tartarus was I? How wrong had I been?
The stern was perceptively pulling away from the surf.
I foudn that I hadn’t been breathing, and I took a deep breath, and the aqir shuddered in my throat and I wanted to shout, to dance, to kiss Briseis on her lovely neck…
I wasn’t going to die.
When you get right down to it, it’s a miracle that I’m still alive. I’ve gone spear to spear and helmet to helmet a hundred times; I’ve been through a dozen storms at sea; I’ve ridden a dis-masted trireme, been lashed out of sight of land in the western ocean…
Fortuna. Tyche. Moira. Call it what you will…
I’d survived again.
I leaned out to starboard and watched Moire get Black Raven around, and the next in line, Ariadne was making her turn with two stades to spare, and just visible in the moonlight, another ship, possibly Gad’s Fortune had her oars out and her sails already down.
Brasidas came back along the deck and handed me a canteen full of wine.
‘That woke me up,’ he said.
# # #
We had to lie to until morning, our fleet a huddle of ships, oars in, anchors down, with a dozen men on every ship watching the coast.
Morning broke, grey and dull, and as the light grew, the sun refused to appear; a leaden day, heavy with moisture that refused to fall.
The sea was flat and dull.
I really had no idea where I was, and the growing light did nothing to help me. When it was light enough that I couldn’t wreck us, I got under way, and we reformed our two columns. First we went inshore and fished up our boat-sail mast and our main mast; a nasty process that took us hours, with a dozen swimmers in the water.
Cimon went north, and Moire went south, and both of them returned about mid day, when we were trying to manage the great flapping, soaking mass of our mainsail, which was like a gigantic dead jellyfish on the surface of the water and kept trying to slip away and sink. Finally we stretched it between us and Ariadne and we folded it away.
Every time another ship came close enough, I shouted my apologies. There’s nothing else to do in such situations; I’ admit I’ve seen some fools pretend various things, but really, when you make a mistake, it’s best to just own up.
Megakles came over, his ship stern to stern with mine, and watched the coast.
‘South coast of Cyprus,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t tell you just where.’
‘I screwed up,’ I said.
He shrugged. ‘Eh,’ he said. ‘A little more wind, a little less wind…’ he looked at me. ‘Sailing at night is very risky. You are used to being the darling of the Gods and we all almost paid for it.’
He stepped up close. ‘Cimon won’t take you on because he needs you, and Sekla worships you.’ He held up his hands to show he meant no harm. ‘But I helped teach you to be a captain, so I’m here to say…’ He looked away, and then back, so that his brown eyes were locked with mine. ‘…That was fucking stupid.’
Well, well. There I was, with more than forty years, and I was like a god in war, and men trusted my words in almost every situation.
So let’s thank the real gods that I still had friends who would tell me these things.
Of course my first reaction was anger. Anger at Megakles, for telling me what I had known since the first breaker appeared off the bow. That this was truly my fault; that I was rushing headlong when that level of haste was too dangerous. I knew who was to blame, and that made Megakles’ comments even harder to listen to.
And so I turned away, lest I lash out. I walked to the rail and looked out to sea.
And then, thanks to Athena, perhaps, whispering in my ear, I said,’ I know.’
Megakles nodded sharply. ‘Good,’ he said.
He didn’t stay to mollify me or make me feel better. He nodded again, his face set like stone, and he leapt back aboard his own ship and fell back to his place in the line.
We had the sail aboard, and I was considering my nautical sins, when Cimon came back.
‘Kourion, just down the coast,’ he called. ‘No Persian garrison, and the council will let us land.’
I let him lead us along the coast, rowing slowly so as not to tire our oarsmen. And we landed on a broad beach, leaving two ships out as guards; more to keep the Cypriotes from leaving then to prevent any sudden attack.
We gave our people a day and a night; we paid hard silver for meat and cheese and wine and oil and fresh-baked bread, because a good meal makes all the difference when you are going into action.
We were five hundred stades from Tyre, which was south-east of us, straight down wind, twenty hours away.
# # #
Like most things in war, out attack on Tyre was going to be a nice mixture of luck and skill.
The beach at Kourion was mostly pebbles, smooth as old linen, kind against unsandaled feet. There were wine shops up in town, but they would have prying ears. The beach was ours; there wasn’t a stranger on it.
More importantly, we’d told our oarsmen to expect action in the morning, and they’d had a big meal. And while we didn’t tell them the target, there was an obvious one; Amathus, the Persian royal capital of Cyprus, just a half a day’s rowing along the coast. They went off to spend their drachma and tell their tales, and we settled down to plan; twenty captains and twenty helmsmen, and a dozen marine officers. A big crowd, but in a show like this, having all your people know what you are doing is much more important than perfect secrecy.
We had a good fire; even though Africa was just over my shoulder, it was cool on that beach. Aten moved around the circle with a dozen other servants, making sure that men had wine. There was a low murmur of talk, and some grumbling.
‘Good evening,’ I said. The fire snapped and crackled, and they fell silent. ‘The target is Tyre,’ I said.
That brought me absolute silence; a quiet so profound that someone in town shouted drunkenly ‘Artemis’s tits!’ and the sound carried right among us.
I smiled. ‘I’ll take that as an omen of good fortune,’ I said. In Ephesus, where I grew to manhood, people used to touch the goddess’s breasts for luck.
I had drawn a picture in the sand, based on Alysia’s description.
‘Anyone been to Tyre?’ I asked.
Ephialtes raised his hand.
Helikaon stepped forward, and Parmenio.
‘Describe it?’ I asked. Helikaon looked around, but the others deferred to him.
‘Before the war, I traded on the Phoenician coast,’ he said. He was a handsome man, for all that his hair went in every direction and looked like the nest of some deranged bird. He had a fine sword, which I’d noticed before; short, like a Spartan ‘sword,’ in a fine red sheath. It was strapped high in his armpit for a quick draw, the way I wore mine; the way he wore it spoke of years of experience, and the sword hilt was good African ivory, slightly yellowed with age, and a band of fine gold on the pommel.
He knelt in the firelight. ‘The drawing is correct,’ he said. ‘This line is the coast; the old city is here and warehouses all along here.’
I had drawn Alysia’s triangle, with the long side facing out to sea, so to speak, and he cut indented beaches into the two short sides for the harbours.
‘I’ve only been to the Harbour of Sidon,’ he said. ‘The southern harbour was military only, and there were a lot of rules about entering it. I had to have a special permit even to trade there; the law is that only Tyrian hulls can trade from Tyre.’ He shrugged. ‘There are ship sheds here, all along the northern harbour, and sixty more on the south side, or so I’m told. The prevailing wind is from the southwest this time of year. It’s a bad coast to be caught against; that’s why Tyre is so important; there aren’t many harbours.’
He glanced at me for approval and I nodded.
‘We need luck,’ I said. ‘And the aid of the Gods. My intention is to aim a little south of Tyre, perhaps as far south as Akko. We make our landfall at last light and come up on Tyre in the dawn.’
Megakles raised an eyebrow. ‘Five hundred stades of open water and you think that you can raise Akko on demand?’ he asked.
‘Can you?’ I asked.
They looked at each other.
Parmenio raised his hand. ‘I can,’ he said. ‘I’ve made this run before, in a round ship. With less room for error than we have here.’ He spoke with confidence.
I wanted to believe him. I really wanted to believe him.
I didn’t know him well, and I looked him over. Tall, blonde, with pale blue eyes; not anyone’s picture of an Ionian. He spoke softly, but he wasn’t soft.
Well, confidence is a blessing. He was confident.
‘You lead, then,’ I said.
Cimon pointed his cornel-wood walking stick at the drawing. ‘Let’s say we pull it off; we are coming up from the south on the morning breeze as the sun rises. What then?’
‘Your call, son of Miltiades,’ I said. ‘What do you think?’
He threw his scarlet cloak back over his shoulder, and tapped the sand with his stick. ‘If the god’s favour us, the ships will be in the outer harbours, or here, along the mainland beach, refitting,’ he said. ‘If the gods are against us, they’re all still in their ship-sheds, ignoring the Great King’s orders. And if the gods hate us, they’re all fitted out and crewed, two hundred to our twenty.’
Cimon and I had already made our plans, so I knew what he’d say.
‘As soon as we can see, we’ll know. If they have their boat-sail-masts in, they’re rigged, and we’re fucked. We put our helms over, pick up the coast wind, raise our mainsails and run. No fighting, no nothing.’
‘We’ll lose all the wages of our oarsmen!’ Herakles of Mythymna said.
‘You’ll be alive to recoup your losses another time,’ Cimon snapped. ‘If the Phoenicians are ready for us, we run. With an hour’s head start, we’ll outrun them. But listen well, my friends. No one takes their mainmast down until I signal. You’ll need your mainsail to win this race.’
Many heads nodded.
‘If they are still in their sheds,’ he said, ‘then the harbours are at our mercy, if we’re fast. We’ll have to be fast; we know that they have harbour defences and marines and archers.’ He looked at me.
‘Then we’re cutting out any merchant that’s at anchor,’ I said. ‘That is to say, Cimon and his column are cutting out merchants. My column is watching.’
‘And everyone shares,’ Cimon said. ‘Those that capture and those that watch.’
‘If we aren’t threatened, we take everything in the harbours, put the most valuable cargoes in a couple of round ships, and burn the rest,’ I said.
‘When we’re seriously threatened, we run. Sidon can’t send a squadron south if the wind’s blowing from the south west; so if there’s not Phoenician fleet in the roads, odds are no one can get to us.’
‘I like that option,’ Herakles said.
‘Trouble is,’ Cimon smiled like a fox. ‘Trouble is that we’re patriots, not pirates. We want to hurt the Phoenician fleet, not just harm their commerce.’
‘If their ships are still snug in stone sheds, there’s not much we can do,’ I added.
‘So,’ Cimon said. ‘Option three. The gods love us, and the Phoenician fleet is out in the roads and harbours, but their masts aren’t in and their crews and running tackle are ashore.’
The fire crackled. Aten asked Cimon is he wanted more wine.
‘Then it is no holds barred; the final match. A huge risk. If I signal ‘general engagement,’ every ship grapples an enemy and sinks it. And then another, and then another. If you sink three, you will have the praise of all Greece; sink four, and you’re a hero. Sink five and you are with the gods.’
I spoke up. ‘Sink five and tow one away, and the Gods are with you.’
‘Not much profit in that option,’ Herakles said.
‘Your children will never again be troubled by the Great King,’ Cimon said. ‘Isn’t that a profit?’
# # #
Moire and Sekla and Ameinias of Pallene, trierarchos of Parthenos and a veteran of Salamis stayed with Parmenios when the others were gone, and with Megakles and Damon, laid out the courses by star sightings they took with straight sticks on the beach. Cimon and I worked out the orders of sailing and the loading.
To reach the coast of Syria at Akko, we needed about twenty hours, if the wind didn’t change.
So many ifs.
Twenty hours sailing in the darkness; the very thing that had almost killed us the night before.
If we left our beach at dawn, we’d reach the coast of Syria about four hours before dawn the next day.
Worst case, we’d be slower than our expected cruising speed under sail, and we’d arrive off the coast in broad daylight, and messengers would ride.
It was all a risk, and Megakles shrugged. ‘We have to land in the darkness,’ he said. ‘I don’t see any other choice. But we have a few hours of extra time. How about, midnight tomorrow night, we shorten sail and row?’
That seemed a sensible way to handle the risk. And it meant that our sails would be down if the dawn caught us still out at sea.
‘Excellent idea,’ I said.
‘Dawn,’ I said.
# # #
We loaded our ships in the dark; twenty low black shapes, bows out into the low waves. The oarsmen went aboard in orderly rows and sat, careful not to tip the hulls. The smell of fried fish and olive oil filled the air from the early breakfast we’d all eaten, almost four thousand men on one long beach.
My son Hipponax and my foster-son Hector were dressed as marines now. The round ships would stay here, under their usual commercial captains; if we didn’t return in three days, they had a series of rendezvous for which to aim, retreating back into Ionia.
I’m sure you are all eagerly awaiting my description of the raid, but I have to explain why using round ships for resupply is so difficult.
Oared ships and round ships only share one point of sail; when the wind is almost dead astern. As soon as the wind shifts to the aft quarter, the round ship has an advantage. Place the wind side on, blowing over the rails, and the round ship wallows on, albeit not so speedily, but the oared ship had to take down its sail and row.
Now place the wind anywhere forward of amidships, and the world changes again. The oared ships row steadily on, making say, twenty stades an hour. But the sailing round ships can no longer go forward at all. They have to make long boards, long passages across the wind, turning as sharply as the round tubs can manage and coming back, sometimes traveling ten stades north and another ten south just to make two or three east, for example. And in some winds, they can’t make any progress at all.
And in a calm, the round ship floats, trapped in a circle of its own filth. The oared ship makes it’s steady progress.
So while it was innovative and vital for sea-dogs like Miltiades and Cimon to use round ships as supply ships–after all, they held fifty times as much cargo as an oared ship, and had very little crew to consume food–despite the utility, we usually had to plot alternate courses for them. In this case, sailing from Cyprus into Tyre was to sail into what is, to all intents, the world’s deepest bay, and ran the risk that they wouldn’t get out again until high summer, if ever.
So we sent them north, and we had to carry all the food and water we’d have for three to five days. All the old captains knew what this meant; just two years before, Sekla and I had raided Samos and we’d endured three days with almost no water to escape the Red King’s wrath.
No one ever talks about food and water. It’s always helmet to helmet, the fighting, the blood. I promise you, my friends; war is about food and water. The rest is a mere matter of rowing.
Where was I?
Ah. The dawn. An ugly dawn; another leaden day, with no bright sunlight to raise a man’s heart. But the waves were almost flat and the wind was just as we wanted it, cool and fresh out of the mountains of Cyprus. We whispered away, our sedate pace barely raising bow waves. And on that morning, my Raven was in the middle of the right hand column. Parmenio’s ship, Gad’s Fortune, led the column with Moire’s Black Raven second and Ephialtes’ Ariadne third.
Have you ever seen a squadron of ships in line ahead? It raises the heart. You know what Sappho said. And I’m sure she was praising some lover, but I think that she was wrong; a squadron of warships is the loveliest thing.
[Arimnestos is referring to Sappho’s poem now known as Fragment 16, in which she says ‘Some say a squadron of horseman, others say a phalanx, yet others say a fleet of ships is the finest sight on the dark earth, but I say it is whomever one loves.]
And there we were, sailing out on the wine-dark. Twenty ships against the whole might of the Great King.
Or, looked at another way, twenty veteran ships against the remnant of whatever we hadn’t killed at Artemesium and Salamis and Mycale.
I grinned. I sacrificed a goat on the beach, a spurt of blood and a favourable omen, and then I threw a silver cup and a dozen good pearls into the sea off the beach, for Poseidon and his lovely daughters, and we were away.
The day passed slowly. Twice we sighted ships, their sails nicking the horizon to the south; traders out early in the season, trying to be the first into the Nile Delta, or running a cargo of cedar out of Sidon, slanting away on the opposite tack. Both ships vanished as soon as they sighted us; any merchant worthy of the name would run the moment he saw twenty warships.
But none of them were placed to run south and east.
Mid-day saw a weather change, and a wind change.
In an hour, the wind was blowing over the starboard bow and we were rowing. The wind was a light breeze; it held no rain, and we rowed easily, making good time over calm seas. At that speed, we could row with just two-thirds of our people, and let a third rest. We’d had days to work up; our people had hard hands.
Now they earned their drachma.
In late-afternoon, the wind began to increase, and it was coming off Africa, far to the south; hot off the sultry sands, and carrying a few grains of sand along. Not like autumn, but still, enough to sting your back and hurt your eyes. The deck crews rigged the awnings, and we rowed on, into rising seas.
The worst of it was that we were rowing south and east, and the wind was coming from south and west, almost broadside to us. Triremes are marvellous ships, and their design is tried and tested, but there’s one thing none of them excel at, and that’s crossing a rising sea, with the waves coming at the long side of a narrow ship that can be a might top-heavy at the best of times.
I sent my marines below, all the way to the lowest rowing tier. the thalamites. I needed to keep all my weight low, and I was lucky in my marines. Arius and Phillipos immediately took oars and began to row, which won them praise from all the oarsmen; marines generally behaved as if they were a race apart, and it was good to see them row.
The inner sea doesn’t get a long rising swell like the Western Ocean does, but we had some waves, and every tenth or twelfth rolled into the lower oar ports, soaking the rowers and putting water in the bilges. It wasn’t dangerous–yet–but it was uncomfortable.
I scratched a stay and whistled for the wind to change, and made another prayer to Poseidon and threw a gold spoon I got from the spoils at Plataea over the side.
Poseidon is one of the less responsive gods, I find.
The wind continued to rise, and it brought more sand.
Still, I could see eight of my ten ships, and four of Cimon’s. I wasn’t afraid yet; we were still making good time, and we were, by my count, halfway there, or more. The new worry was that, in addition to the sheer danger of the cross-sea, we were making lee-way, which is a fancy nautical way of saying that our nearly-keel-less ships were being pushed sideways almost as fast as we were rowing.
It was almost as if Parmenio could read my mind, because fifteen minutes after I came to that conclusion, he turned three points to starboard, almost due south. He was guessing that we were making a lot of leeway, and he was doing the nautical equivalent of what a boy does, when he aims ahead of a running rabbit with his rock. Or rather, imagine that you are swimming a river with a swift current, and you want to land in a particular place on the opposite bank; if you swim directly for your chosen landing, you’ll be moved downstream, yes? So you aim upstream of your target.
Parmenio’s turn had another happy consequence; we were now taking the waves a quarter off the bow, rather than broadside on. Everything improved, including morale.
But the calculations of our distance traveled became very difficult indeed. I had Damon throw the log while I took the steering oars, feeling my long, narrow ship shudder under the pressure of the waves. This was her worst point of sailing or rowing, except taking waves broadside, and her narrow entry and deep ram, vital for warfare, were against her here, so that every wave wanted to push us off our chosen course.
My shoulders were taking a bruising from fighting the steering oars.
And we were still taking water.
Giorgos, formerly one of my oarsmen and now a trusted deck-man with good armour and a steady sense of humour, came and took the steering oars, and I drank a little wine and water and went amidships to look for the rest of the fleet. The sun came and went through the clouds, spray, and blown sand. An odd day, and when, later, the sun began to set, it set red as blood and huge on the western horizon.
But as the sun set in the west, we were still together. My ship, perhaps the narrowest, was struggling the hardest, and we’d fallen astern of Amastris and Light of Apollo so that we were last, by a dozen ship’s lengths. And as night fell, all the captains spaced out, both fore and aft and side-t-side, because no one liked to run afoul of another ship in the dark.
But despite losing ground, I could see my squadron, and I could see a gleam of red from Cimon’s Ajax and blue from his brother’s Dawn, and I was satisfied, or as satisfied as a man can be when his beautiful ship is behaving badly and taking water, when the weather is turning bad and everything is going wrong.
# # #
Darkness fell and the wind rose.
It wasn’t even a storm. I’ve seen far worse, and so had many of my people.
It was just bad enough to wreck our plans, and maybe wreck our ship. An hour after full dark we lost sight of the stern lamps on Amastris, and before the hour glass turned again, we lost Light of Apollo.
We were alone in the dark on the great ocean, and our oarsmen were getting tired. We had the wind on our starboard bow, and we needed to row to keep it there. We had water in the bilges, and we had six sailors at the slide-pumps, and all the marines who weren’t rowing were bailing and hurling the water over the side.
We had to keep rowing, because as the wind and the wave height rose, we were in more peril. If we stopped rowing, we’d turn broadside to the waves, and if we did, they’d roll us over or just push us down.
Here’s the measure of our fear.
I’ve mentioned that every trireme is held together by a heavy cable of woven ropes that run down the middle of the ship. The twisted heavy cable is called the hypozomata and it keeps the ship stiff, but allows it to flex in heavy seas.
That night, I could hear it move. The ship would go over a wave and stretch the cable as the waved came amidships and for an instant the bow and stern were in the air. And then we’d go into the trough, and the bow and stern would fold slightly, and the hypozomata would relax like an arm muscle, or an unstrung bow. And then we’d go up the waver and it would stretch and make a snapping moan.
A terrible sound. Because sooner or later, the joints of the ship would stop bending, and some would break. And we’d spit out the oakum between the main seams and take on water.
Poseidon. I needed a miracle.
I took all the rest of my pearls and put them in my old cow-horn cup. It wasn’t made of gold, but then, the Earth Shaker would know that I loved that cup. Leonidas of Sparta had drunk wine form that cup. So had Paramanos. So had Lydia. And Gaia. And almost all my friends, my lovers, and even a few enemies.
I poured it full of my last pearls, and hurled it into the black night and the roaring waves.
Below me, Poseidonos roared out the stroke, and we pulled forward. I had two decks rowing, and we didn’t have to go fast, we just had to keep the bow up to the waves.
I’d done this before.
I knew that the night always ends, if you keep rowing.
But after an hour, the wind rose again, and I had to commit my reserves and order all three decks to row.
We weren’t winning.
I went down and rowed a while, taking Poseidenos’ place. I noted that every one of the marines was rowing, and I loved them. I also noted that my sailors were also rowing. I could see a handful of my veteran oarsmen; Sikli, and Eugenios, and other men, their backs lit by a flickering oil lamp hang from the rowing frame, not because it was necessary but because it was good for morale.
On, and on.
I almost felt as if I was rowing for Dagon. If you haven’t been sitting here and following this story, I was a slave for Carthage for a while; I rowed as a slave for some years. Dagon was the trierarch, and a worse man I’ve never met. I’ve had some enemies, but for the most part, they’ve been men like other men; I’ve gone sword to sword with Cyrus of Persia, and I couldn’t ever hate him. A far more honest man then I’ll ever be. But Dagon was bad to the core of his heart and bones, rotten like an old apple tree. He liked to hurt us; He enjoyed breaking our bodies.
And that’s what the sea could be like, too. I rowed in Poseidenos’ place, and I felt as if I was rowing for Dagon. I hope that does it justice.
I rowed as long as I could; perhaps two hours. I felt weak when I gave the oar back to Poseidenos, but he grinned.
‘You can pull an oar,’ he said. ‘Now talk to the boys.’
He was right.
I walked, bent over, along the narrow catwalk between the Thranites. I touched each man on the shoulder and spoke to those whose faces seemed to need a response.
‘Three more hours,’ I said.
I made that up. I had no idea how long we had to go until morning. No idea where we were. I just lied.
‘Three more hours, friends,’ I said.
Then I dropped down the short ladder to the Zygian deck. ‘Three more hours,’ I said, walking along the planks. Because of the hull shape, it was even closer and narrower here. And damper. I could smell the bilge. In a heavy pull like this, men had to piss from their benches. You don’t want the details, right? You row naked…
I watched the rowing frame bend as we topped another great roller, and winced.
‘Three more hours,’ I said.
I got all the way to the stern and then I dropped down to the thalamites. The lowest of the low; the worst oarsmen, men being punished, men who weren’t strong enough for the upper oar looms.
All my marines were now rowing with the lowest ranked men. It brought tears to my eyes. There was Brasidas, pulling without even a grunt; there was Leander, and Arius, Zephyrides and Kassandros, Diodoros and Sebastos. Ka was pulling an oar, and so was Nehmet, his rail-thing body moving as if he was made of muscle, which, of course, he was.
‘Three hours,’ I said.
After Nehmet, I could see that the bilges were overflowing. Looking down, I could see the hull flex, and I could see water coming in.
But we weren’t done yet.
I went back on deck, up to the command platform a little above the marine’s catwalk.
Forward, all I could see was darkness.
Aft, the same.
I found Old Nestor and sent him forward to cast the log, and then I stood in the sandy rain and calculated. I’d never before had the experience of doing geometry that made my heart race with fear.
No stars. Nothing to sight.
I worked it twice and got the same answer both times.
‘We’re going fast,’ I said. ‘Cast again, this time over the starboard side.’
‘Aye, Navarch,’ he said, and went back forward.
He came back with his rope and his log and his calculations and told me his answers.
We were rowing into a wind. We were rowing fast into the wind, and I couldn’t measure the drift, but it had to be fast.
I went aft to the helm, and altered course. Immediately, the ship was easier, as we put the bow into the waves.
Fifteen minutes later, the wind turned, coming from almost due south.
I turned again, putting the bow into the wind, Damon grunting.
But I prayed. Literally.
‘I sing to Poseidon, the Great God, mover of the earth and the sea, god of the deep who is also Lord of Helicon and wide Aegae. A two-fold office the Gods allotted you, Earth Shaker, tamer of horses and saviour of ships!’ [Homeric Hymn to Poseidon, Hymn 22.. the real thing.]
And the wind howled. There was a spurt of sand, like I was breathing wet desert. The ship shuddered.
Suddenly, we were rowing in a calmer sea with longer, lower swells. It was a sudden transition, and we went up a long wave and never seemed to come down, and the rowers were at the catch, and Poseidenos was singing the hymn, and most of the oarsmen knew it, They roared the hymn as the oars lashed out into the dark water and the bow cut it, and we were flying into calmer water.
It was raining; not a hard rain, but a light rain, as the wind fell away to be a zephyr from the west.
We were saved.
Except that it was still dark, and we had no idea where we were, or where the rest of the fleet might be.
But my oarsmen were singing, and by the Gods, we weren’t finished yet.
# # #
There’s an old song in Boeotia of our hero Orion; in the war of the Titans, Orion fought alongside Hera and Zeus, and in one of the early battles he fought alone, surrounded by foes, into the night, alone against a hundred titans, and his mighty spear slew them, and with every blow he cried ‘Day will come again!’
[Yes, this is a Tolkien homage. Author’s privilege!]
So when my oarsmen were done signing the hymn to Poseidon, I roared out ‘Day will come again!’
And they roared back.
By the gods. The Argo never had such a crew.
About an hour before dawn, the rain lightened, and stars began to appear. I knew the constellations as soon as I had a patch of sky bigger than my hand, and after a consultation with Damon and Nestor, I ordered the ship to turn to port, several points. I was now heading in with the coast of Syria, or so I hoped. Remember that we should have reached somewhere close to Akko just after the middle of the night.
The sun rises in the East, and that morning it rose, pink and beautiful, on a new world with a calm sea and a nice southerly breeze, a true Notos without the sand. It was so gentle that it didn’t raise a whitecap.
And there was the coast, spreading along before us.
As soon as the word spread, men cried aloud, or laughed, or grunted. I ordered the rowing rate slackened, and gave everyone a rest, and we turned broadside to the gentle breeze and floated, rocking gently, while I went up the lines that held my mainmast. I was not as spry as I had once been, and climbing a rope took time and all my concentration, and Aten could have been up and down twice in the time it took me to go up once, but I had to see for myself.
You may remember that I’d put a wood-and-leather bucket, a sort of nest, at the top of my main mast. And you’ll pardon me if I explain a little more of Miyai’s geometry to you, or that of her father Pythagoras. But from the deck of a trireme, where you stand about twice the height of a man above the water, you can see about 7 stades, but if you’re looking at a ship with masts ten times the height of a man, you can see them almost 20 stades away. And if you can climb to the height of your own mast…
Well, you can see farther. I’ve never had the time to test it, but my little experiments on the coast of Galle suggest you can see thirty stades or more, depending on weather and clouds and wave heights.
I rolled into the leather cone, already a little queasy. At deck level, we were rolling gently. Up here, the mainmast was moving through a long arc, and I’m not my best at heights, let me say.
And despite that, what I saw raised my heart a little.
Off to the south, I could see a smudge of smoke. By Poseidon, I could even smell it; the charcoal burning smell of thousands of women starting their day and making food; of bakery ovens baking bread. And something else;
I watched a while, and it seemed to me that I could see the loom of land there; a promontory. y first thought was that I was looking at Tyre, the island off the coast, but as the sun rose, I was more and more certain that I was looking at a long promontory stretching out form the land.
No idea where I was. Not my coastline.
But if that was the bad news, there was good news to balance. Because even as I watched, the western horizon began to lighten as the sun rose farther out to sea, and it lit the bare poles of ships; not just one or two, but six ships. That they were triremes became obvious very quickly; the placement of the masts, the fact that their hulls remained invisible.
The longer you spend at sea, the better you become at identifying other ships at long distances. It’s a little like spotting your best friend in the agora, or your wife among other women at the well-head; you can’t say exactly what it is about that shape that’s definitely Briseis, but you know her from fifty paces away, in a crowd of women, all wearing wool veils.
‘I can see Black Raven, I called down. ‘And Ajax. And Athena Nike.‘
The closest in was a puzzle; I didn’t know her well, but the more I looked, the more certain I was that I was looking at Gad’s Fortune.
‘Turn to starboard. Cruising speed. Another point, there. Very well; hold that heading.’ I called all these commands down to the deck until we were pointed straight at the ship I took to be Gad’s Fortune. Then I grabbed the main stay that held the mast to the deck, wrapped my legs around it for good measure, and slid down, burning the backs of my legs in my enthusiasm to get onto the deck.
I was fairly confident in my identification, but just after I got to the deck it occurred to me that I was running down on a Phoenician trireme and taking for granted that she wasn’t an enemy; my mast was still up, and my marines weren’t armed.
And that’s how disaster strikes you.
It was a useful lesson, but not one, thank the gods, for which I had to pay that day. Because five stades later we had her hull up and turning towards us; Gad’s Fortune in all truth, and Parmenio leaning out from the amidships rail to yell a greeting. In minutes we were stern to stern on the gentle swell, a dozen cursing deck crewmen polling us off while Parmenio leaped aboard my ship.
‘Where are we?’ I asked by way of greeting.
‘That’s Zeus Point,’ Parmenio said. ‘And that’s Mount Carmel; and there’s Shikmona, that the Phoenicians call Efa.’
‘So we’re south of Akko,’ I said.
Parmenio shrugged. ‘Well south,’ he said. ‘It was always a risky passage. I’m sorry…’
‘Don’t be,’ I said. ‘A brilliant piece of navigation. How far do you guess, to Tyre?’
‘Two hundred stades?’ he shrugged and looked pained. ‘I’m sorry, Navarch. But we’re too far south and it’ll take all day…’
‘Except that we have the wind in our favour,’ I said. ‘Follow me.’
‘Yes, sir,’ he said, and we clasped hands, and he leapt back onto his own stern.
It was not yet quite dawn. And if I could just make out the coast of Syria–or perhaps this was Judea–there was little chance they could count our masts.
‘About ship,’ I ordered.
We only had two decks rowing, and they responded like heroes, for men who’d rowed all night, and we turned end for end in less time than It would take to sing an epitaph, and then I raised a bronze shield and a red flag on my stern.
‘Mainsail,’ I ordered.
The deck crew got the sail aloft, and Aten climbed the mast to make sure the stopped went all the way over the masthead. It went up fast, and the breeze strengthened slightly. Almost directly astern; a trifle over the port quarter.
‘Make her tight, there,’ Nestor called. ‘Tight! Haul!’
Suddenly we were flying.
‘Oars in!’ I roared, because Poseidenos seemed to be asleep.
He turned and looked at me sheepishly.
The ship heeled slightly as the breeze freshened, as if Poseidon, having punished us all night, chose now to make it up to us.
‘Cast for me, Nestor,’ I begged, and I took the steering oars to feel her under my hands and to give Damon a rest.
He showed me his result. We were making something like twenty five stades an hour, allowing for all sorts of errors of calculation.
Eight hours to Tyre.
I turned to Damon, who was rubbing his shoulders.
‘What do you think of the weather?’ I asked.
He looked aft. ‘More wind out of Africa,’ he said. ‘A three or four day blow.’
‘What do you think of running out to sea and lying to until morning?’ I asked.
He shrugged. ‘If it blows, we’ll be in Caria in the morning,’ he said.
So. Now or never.
And I agreed. Last night had been a taste of heavy weather. Spring could be beautiful or brutal, in the eastern seas.
I cheated the helm west, standing a little farther out to sea, and gradually edging towards Cimon’s Ajax. I came up with him after about two hours of sailing, and by the time we were running along, side by side, I could see at least three more sails on the western horizon, and maybe five; it was an odd, bright day and the horizon was the same colour as the sea.
When I coudl see him, I went up on my port side rail, wrapped an arm in the rigging, and leaned out. I still had to roar as if we were in a storm.
‘Today or never,’ I called.
Cimon nodded and pointed at my signal, still visible on the stern, and he nodded emphatically.
That was our command conference.
Another hour, and Ariadne emerged from the horizon and fell into line. She brought with her the two other captures from Lesvos, and now we had nine ships, and at least one more out to the west.
As the sun climbed in the sky, I ordered Nestor to slacken sail and brail up. We re very fast on this point of sail, but not everyone was, and I wanted a squadron, not eleven individual ships.
Gad’s Fortune came into line behind me, and Black Raven, and Megakles in Amastris. Cimon had Ajax and his brother followed him in Dawn and then Ameinas in Parthenos. Ariadne was coming to join with the Lesbians. I thought that I could just make out Lykon in Penelope, well ahead of us; his gilded stern swan glittered ten stades away.
As the sun reached the middle of the sky, we came up with Lykon, and he fell in to the shorter column, behind Ajax. I thought we might have two more on the horizon, but we had a dozen ships, and we were an hour from combat.
I stripped naked. ‘Get my armour and my best chiton,’ I called to Aten. ‘And oil.’
I turned to Nestor. ‘Give me a rope over the stern,’ I said.
I dove over the side from the bow and swam easily as the ship assed me. Men waved out the oar ports and the rowing frame as they passed, and I caught the trailing rope and hauled myself up the side, dripping like a Triton. Aten had a linen towel; I used a strigil to oil myself like an athlete, and then I put on my best chiton, red, embroidered all over with ravens and sunbursts.
Aten clipped my greaves to my legs and then combed out my hair. There wasn’t as much of it as there once had been, and I laughed.
There was a lot of hair in that wooden comb.
I used it to comb my beard while Aten pinned my bronze thorakes closed. Then he held my sword belt over my head until I liked the way it hung, tight up into my armpit, the hilt protruding slightly, and I drew it, performing one of the shorter Lacedaemonian pyricche forms to train men to draw their swords and return them in combat.
Aten had become quite adept. I could remember when he shook with fear on the morning we fought off the coast of Attika; only two summers before. Now he was almost as tall as I was, and he had his own armour.
Hector and Hipponax came up, looking like gods in bronze. Like me, they wore full panoply; thigh armour, shoulder pieces. Ship fights aren’t like land fights. They are short and sharp, and you may have to fight by yourself.
Looking down the deck, I could see Brasidas and Leander, Arrius, Zephyrides, Kassandros, and Sebastos, all armed, and then the deck crew, most of whom had more and better panoplies than rich hoplites in Athens; Giorgos wore all bronze, and so did Old Nestor. I was thinking of mocking him for his white beard, but I’d noticed, when I combed mine, that grey hairs were coming out in the comb, and I thought perhaps I should keep my views to myself.
And there was my ‘new’ archer, Vasilieus, who was older than I was, stretching his shoulders, and Ka and Nehmet, rolling knucklebones for who got the ‘honour’ of climbing the mast to shoot down from the little nest.
I waved to Ka, and he came aft.
‘Go up the boat-sail mast,’ I said.
‘Main mast taller, boss,’ he said.
I shook my head. ‘It’s coming down in half an hour,’ I said.
He nodded. ‘Sure,’ he agreed.
And just before I ordered us to turn east, towards the land that was almost invisibly to starboard, I ordered our mainmast down and stowed. We turned slightly more due North so that the wind was dead aft; the mast came down as sweetly as a baby laid in a cradle, and I had the pleasure of watching the operation repeated all along the two columns.
Now we were two meters off the sea; low and dark.
‘Turn to starboard,’ I said. ‘There. That’s your heading.’
I sang the hymn to Poseidon quietly, and made a sacrifice over the stern, and when I turned back, I could see the coast of Syria as plainly as the nose on my face.
Just over the port bow, I could see an island, and a smudge of smoke, and a low line beyond.
Before I was sure, I heard the whoop of joy from the next ship behind me, and there was Parmenio, waving.
So it really was Tyre.
I called all my marines and deck crew together amidships so that they didn’t throw off the rowers.
‘Here we go,’ I said. ‘If we have to run, I want all of you out of your armour and ready to relieve oar stations. Otherwise listen for Brasidas or me. I want to take one with us; the rest we burn. Ka?’
‘Ready,’ he said, and pointed aft, to where three of his former helots had lit a line of fire pots, all clay. We had a dozen.
‘Amidships is the best target,’ I said. ‘If a ship is empty, we go alongside and you take torches and set her alight by hand. If she’s manned, we use the fire pots. Clear?’
Brasidas looked bored.
No one else did.
I’ve no doubt said this before, but battle has a strange way of changing time. By Artemis, even hunting does this; surely you have felt it; three hours of waiting in a hide for a deer to walk down your trail passes like three days, and then you are standing over the cooling carcass of your dear, your spear in your hand, and you can’t even fully remember how those last seconds passed.
So after a night that had lasted an eternity, and a day of sweet sailing and relative boredom, we turned in for the coast of Phoenicia, and Tyre was twenty stades away. And the waiting seemed the worst of all; armoured and ready, and Tyre was creeping over the horizon, too far away to see if there were ships in the channel behind the island, or whether they had their masts in.
Half an hour, and no change. The sun went down behind us, halfway down the sky; by luck and good planning, the sun would be low enough to blind a sentry on the walls as we closed.
Luck and good planning.
And then, suddenly we could see that the inner harbours and the channel between island and mainland were crowded with ships, dozen of ships, hundreds of ships, and most of them were low tot he water and didn’t have a mast. We closed, our hearts high, and we could see that the enemy ships rode well out of the water; newly launched, without stores aboard.
I laughed. I drank off some wine with Brasidas and hurled the cup into the sea; at this rate, I was going to be drinking wine from my bare hands.
I didn’t care. There was Tyre.
I went down onto the catwalk of the top section of the rowing rig, where I could lean down and be heard by all my oarsmen.
‘All the fish are in the barrel,’ I called. ‘There’s going to be a lot of finicky manoeuvre in a tight harbour. Listen for orders. We won’t wear you out, but we will change directions. Attention to your orders and we’ll all be heroes.’
Just a murmur and a growl.
I altered course slightly, cheating a little further south. I wanted to come in at the southern end of the channel that ran behind ‘New Tyre.’
Time seemed to speed up. It always does, the sands of Chronos’ water clock gurgling, running faster.
I could make out individual ships. We were opening the bay behind the island now, and we were south of the island and the mainland warehouses. We were visible to anyone who looked out to sea.
Too late to turn back now.
Cimon raised the two bronze shields on his stern. ‘General Engagement.’
All the way. We were going for the whole prize.
Our two columns were well closed up, each ship about half a ship length back from the one behind it, and our two columns were like a battering ram headed for the south end of the Tyrian harbour. The closer we got, the more obvious was their degree of preparation; there were ships fitting out before our eyes. In the southern, or Aegyptian, harbour, I could see cranes like those at Piraeus swaying a mast into a trireme that was alongside a stone pier. I coudl see open ship sheds…
Too close to waste time on the ‘Harbour of Aegypt.’ Suddenly everything was going to happen at battle speed…
An idea began to form in my head.
We could see a big trireme, a heavy ship, dead ahead. She was anchored well out, and already had her mainmast aboard and her boat sail mast up, but if there was a crew aboard, we didn’t see them.
‘Pass her by,’ I said to Damon, and he tapped his steering oars and we swept past, rowing steadily.
Then another big trireme, and a third, and fourth, all anchored in a line. If I was going to take a ship, one of these would have been perfect, but unfortunately, the beginning of the action wasn’t the time to start towing a hulk.
We passed them by, leaving them for the last ships.
On the beach, just a stade away, people were cheering.
There were people cheering on the pier in the naval harbour, too.
Why in all the cold hells were people cheering?
I had to ignore them. The cruising speed of good oarsmen on rotation is about twenty stades an hour; a little faster than a good distance runner. You seem to be moving quite slowly…
Until you’re in a close-packed enemy harbour.
We were sliding into the deepest part of the outer harbour. I could see the bottom, only perhaps ten or twelve paces deep, and rocky. I chose my first target at random. It seemed to me that they fitted out their warships and then sent them to the outer fringe of the harbour to wait in the water, and that the inner harbours held the most vulnerable ships.
I threw caution to the winds. The cheering suggested that they still had no idea who we were; that, or Phoenicians have a different way of showing aggression than Greeks.
‘There’s our prey,’ I said to Damon. ‘Turn into the Harbour of Aegypt.’
Right into the lion’s den.
The harbour entrance was only about a hundred paces wide, and there were fifty ships waiting to get their masts and oars. They were all about the same, except for a big round ship in the midst of them, low in the water.
‘Her,’ I said.
There were men aboard; they were waving. Someone on the headland, fifty paces away, was shouting in Phoenician Aramaic. Not one of my languages.
‘Lay us alongside,’ I said.
To Brasidas, I said, ‘Cut her cables and set her afire.’
He smiled. ‘Fire,’ he said, in his Laconian drawl.
Damon laid us alongside with a gentle scrape down the side, the Phoenician sailors aboard the round ship cursing and yelling. I know a sailors curses when I hear them.
Brasidas gave the word, and Leander and Hipponax leapt together.
The sailors on the round ship never knew they were in a fight. Brasidas, a merciful man, threw them overboard, and then came back to the rail.
‘Pitch and spars!’ he called.
‘Fire,’ I called back, and he waved. Diodoros threw a torch down the main hatchway, and Arrius dropped one aft and then the other marines fired the sails and rigging and they all piled back aboard and we cut her loose.
The southerly wind was a light breeze inside the arms of the inner harbour.
‘Hard to starboard,’ I said to Damon. The rowers were ready; the oars shot out and we were turning, turning away from our deadly companion.
We backed water at Nestor’s command and then shot forward. I coudl see a low hull, long and lean; a big ship, as big as Gad’s Fortune or even longer, and we ran through the anchored hulks, my archers putting fire arrows and fire pots into them, and then we went alongside the big trireme, a heavy ship in the Corinthian style, meant to carry a lot of marines. Just possibly a capture.
The round ship was a roaring titan of fire, and she’d run into three other ships, and they were moving together on the light breeze, a column of fire raising like a morning sacrifice on Kitheron.
Consternation on the pier and on the headlands, and still not a single archer.
Again my boys leapt onto the enemy deck. This one was completely deserted, and they fired her without opposition and came back aboard, unexpended spirit making them a little too sharp.
There were a line of fires across the harbour, and the round ship was bow the center of an inferno that was burning so hot that we could feel the heat where we were.
‘Take us out,’ I said. ‘About ship.’
We rotated end-for-end in place as the long trireme burned, and then we ran free, almost brushing the northern headland as we left the Harbour of Aegypt. Aside from a scorch mark on the port bow, we were unscathed.
And there were fires burning all across the harbour, a chaos of fire. I counted forty ships afire, and I’m sure there were more.
‘Let’s get some treasure,’ I said to Damon, and he grinned, his teeth shining in the sun.
I had time. I told Nestor to keep the rowers slow, and we pulled at a restful pace north, looking at the chaos and the burning ships.
I was making this up as I went, but when Ajax came out of the smoke behind me, I knew I wasn’t the only old pirate left on the seas.
We’d listened to what Parmenio had said. The south harbour for warships…
The northern harbour, the Harbour of Sidon, for trade.
We rowed north, and I drank water and handed some to the marines.
Hipponax grinned. ‘Aren’t they going to fight?’
‘Thanks the gods for their hubris,’ I said. ‘If we don’t have to fight, all the better.’
We rowed far enough along the island to open the northern harbour, and we could see into it. It wasn’t crammed with ships; too early in the season. But there were a dozen merchants of all sizes; a sweet little round ship, the kind that could carry perhaps 600 transport amphorae, or more, in her holds, and still take a nice cargo of linen. There were bigger ships in the harbour, but this one appealed to me, both as an owner and because she looked to me as if she was in the Aegypt trade, and low in the water; not unloaded.
‘Take me that ship,’ I said.
For the third time, my marines went over the side. The deck crew was Aegyptian, because I understood their surrender, and Aten went with Brasidas to ensure compliance.
‘Tell them to set sail and follow us out,’ I called, and I left them Leander and Arrius to make sure they complied, and two of my armoured sailors to make sure the ship was handled well.
We turned again. Ajax had a big grain ship and another, smaller ship already, and there were finally soldiers on the wharves, and arrows began to fall on us. But we picked up an Ionian loaded with Phoenician goods, and made him rue that he hadn’t sailed that morning; I left Zephyrides and Kassandros and two more sailors with them, and we followed Dawn out of the Harbour of Sidon.
The whole reach of the inner road was full of smoke.
It was like a dream.
I turned to Hipponax, who was steering to give Damon a rest. ‘Look at that,’ I said, or something equally banal. ‘They’ll never forget this.’
‘Tyre is finished,’ Hector said.
I shook my head. ‘They’ll rebuild,’ I said. ‘They’re tough. But I’m guessing that they believed their own crap that we couldn’t sail east of Delos. Surprise! We can. And Tyre will never send their full compliment of ships anywhere again. They’ll have to defend all this.’
The stolen merchants turned north of the open sea.
We lingered in the smoke, eyes watering. I confess it; I was looking for a fight.
Cimon formed up on me, and then Gad’s Fortune came up, and Black Raven.
I couldn’t see much through the smoke, especially south. But I knew that there was weather coming, and the afternoon was getting on.
I laid out the signal for retreat.
There was shouting in the smoke, and I saw the flash of oars before I saw the ship.
And it wasn’t one of ours.
The Phoenician came out of the smoke and then there were six of them, all together, in a well-formed line except the last, closest to me, who had to leave his line to get around the burning wreck of a merchant that was drifting afire down the channel on the brisk south wind.
You always think you want a fight, right up until you realize what a stupid notion that was. Now I had a fight; we’d caught a lion by the tail.
There were more behind the first six. Three more…
‘Starboard,’ I called to Hipponax. He was still in the steering rig. ‘Beak to beak.’
We aimed straight as an arrow at the end Phoenician, the one who’d turned to get out of the way of the burning ship.
Nehmet scurried up the boat-sail mast.
The Phoenician was coming around.
‘Now, my lads!’ I called down into the rowing decks. ‘All you’ve got.’
To Hipponax I said, ‘Put us between the wreck and the Phoenician, and go for their bow. The cathead. Strike…’
Far too late, they realized that we weren’t one of theirs; that we were in earnest. Their captain was good; he turned in place to get his bow on my bow, and I missed the perfection of Harpagos. We didn’t do his little trick of ramming the enemy cathead. Hipponax was too inexperienced, and he aimed too far aft, still compensating for his turn to pass the burning ship which was so close to our own port side that we were no doubt scorching our paint.
But we didn’t need to have a perfect strike. We went down their side after slamming into their ram, so that both ships shuddered, and they still had oars in the water when ours were already in. We did them little enough damage and shot by, having crushed perhaps a dozen oars on their starboard side.
Naturally, in the way of things, they turned sharply to starboard, because the side we swept was in chaos and the port side was still rowing.
But the hand of the gods was there, and as they turned, they struck the burning wreck as we vanished, having threaded the needle between them, and I slapped Hipponax on the shoulder.
‘Drag the oars,’ I called to Poseidenos.
‘Hard to starboard,’ I said. ‘Put the oars over hard. Port side oars, back!”
We turned in place. It seemed slow…
Ajax was locked, broadside to broadside with a Levantine trireme, and I could see the marines fighting above the heads of the oarsmen. The Ajax was on the far side of the enemy ship, so her flank was turned to me. An easy kill.
But I doubted that Cimon would thank me. I suspected he had his capture planned, and I had my oarsmen row soft, headed east towards the mainland beach, invisible in the smoke of a hundred burning ships.
We got around the stern of Ajax’s foe, and there was another Phoenician, just backing water after going bow to bow with Amastris.
‘Ramming speed!’ I bellowed.
And then we saw what Raven was made of. She leapt like a cat’s pounce; slow crawl to ramming speed in two ship’s length, and our ram crunched into the naked flank of the Phoenician, the beam reinforcing the ramp riding up over the gunwale and then forcing it down and we could hear the screams of the oarsmen and the explosive cracks as the beams of the rowing frame shattered. Our bow pressed her down, and she tipped and began to fill.
‘Back oars!’ I roared.
Poseidenos ordered them to reverse on their benches, and then we felt the drag.
The ram was caught.
‘Pull!’ Poseidonos cried.
The oars beat the water to a froth.
The big Phoenician was sinking, and our stern was starting to rise, I could feel it in my feet. By the Gods, we were going to be sink by our first kill.
And then there was a gentle pop underwater, and we slid free, the stern coming down with a slap and we drifted a few paces.
‘Water coming in the bow,’ Ka called.
Militarily, we’d won a clear victory, and even if we all died here, we’d done the damage we came to do. But I had not planned to sacrifice myself or my ship and crew, and now I cursed myself for wanting a fight. Fighting is chancy; people can die.
‘Back water,’ I ordered. My rowers were already reversed, and with the bow damaged, it was possible that backing water was going to be our best point of rowing.
I ran forward, wishing that I hadn’t sent Nestor away.
And there was another Phoenician. He came out of the smoke in the middle of the channel, ad made for us, but we were backing water at a steady state.
To the east, Gad’s Fortune was already turning, and Amastris had made another kill.
Ajax was turning end for end.
‘Time to go,’ I said. I raised the signal for retreat just as the two ships from Lesvos and the Naxian Ariadne appeared to the west, close to the island of Tyre.
Dawn was backing water the way I was. Of course, we’d all done it at Artemesium; done it for stades and stades. Cimon’s brother probably thought it was a tactic I was using.
Then Parthenos emerged form the smoke to the east, also backing water, and Ariadne ran down at ramming speed, slowed, and turned in place…and began backing water. It was a pretty manoeuvre, but it was not the rapid retreat I wanted.
And still my Phoenician was stalking me, as if he knew my bow was damaged.
I called to Brasidas.
‘We need to take him,’ I said. ‘Grapple and board.’
‘Of course,’ he said.
I ran back to Hipponax. ‘I need you to pretend to go bow to bow,’ I said. ‘But just shave down her side. Do you want me to do it?’
Hipponax looked at Damon. Damon looked at me. Then my son gave me one of those looks sons give fathers. I’m all grown up and I can do this for myself.
I wanted Damon at the steering oar. Or better yet, I wanted it to be me. If the Phoenician caught us dead on our damaged bow, we’d sink on the spot; I was willing to wager a krater of solid gold against a sea shell that we’d lost our bronze ram.
But then, sooner or later, they have to be men. And they have to be confident, and lead others, and believe that they can do things.
I’ve heard that supposedly great men rarely have great sons, and I think this is the heart of it; some men can’t let go.
‘Damon, command the oarsmen,’ I said. ‘We need to get our oars in at the last possible heartbeat.’
‘Sir,’ he said.
‘I’ve got it, pater.’
I nodded. ‘Very well.’
I picked up my favourite spear and went forward to where the marines waited amidships. Sailors knelt with grapples ready, and the marines were kneeling in two ranks.
An arrow came off the Phoenician.
And then Nehmet began to loose from the boat-sail mast. He had two quivers, and he said afterwards that he emptied both of them as we close, all in the last seventy paces or so. We didn’t charge the enemy ship; we merely slowed our retreat and let him catch us. But that had its own dangers as our line matched our speed, and suddenly we were bringing on an other engagement, with more Phoenician ships coming out of the smoke.
We were out in the channel by then, rowing in among more completed warships, already four stades north of Tyre, with a patchwork of warehouses and waterfront dives visible on our port side, on the mainland.
We were backing down a line of competed ships, and my eye was caught by a pretty Triemiola. It’s a bastard rig, much favoured in the western parts of the inner sea; a trireme with a slightly more robust build and permanent standing masts. A sort of compromise.
It was love at first sight. She was probably Carthaginian or even Sicilian…
North of us, the coastline of Asia stretched away, and the open sea beckoned to the west, and to the south, there was fire and smoke, and possibly a storm brewing over the Nile Delta.
Hipponax left it very late, touching the oars a little.
Nehmet shot and shot.
And some of his arrows were going home.
The last seconds were a blue. In five heartbeats, the Phoenician tried to make a hard turn to starboard and my son tried to turn a little to port and then back to starboard.
But one of Nehmet’s arrows went into the enemy helmsman, and he died atop his starboard side oar, and their ship tilted, turning too sharply for their speed, and our ram-less bow slammed into their port-side bow with a sickening crunch, and we all fell, and Nehmet was thrown from the boat-sail mast and all the way over the side of the enemy ship, flung a full fifty paces into the water.
Now all of our marines had expected a long-side engagement, and we were in the wrong place, and we rose and ran forward. The enemy archers were shooting, but our archers shot them flat in a few arrows; Sebastos took an arrow through his foot below the greave and went down, but the rest of us went over the bow.
She was sinking. My beautiful Raven‘s bow was crushed.
She wouldn’t sink fast. But now we had to take the Phoenician, or die trying.
I wasn’t in front. I had Brasidas and Hector in front of me, and they were the first on the enemy deck, going into the rowing frame.
Phoenician oarsmen are mostly slaves.
Thank the Gods.
I looked down at a thranite in the bow, and he looked terrified, but not dangerous, and I put a foot on the rowing frame and made the leap for the amidships catwalk, a dance I’d danced twenty times before. I landed, made sure of the three oarsmen behind me; then saw in a glance that as Brasidas and Hector went forward toward the command deck, the enemy marines were behind us, in their armoured box over the bow, just turning to come back at us.
An archer loosed at me, perhaps fifteen feet away, and I took his arrow on my aspis and it exploded, the spray of splinters in my throat and shoulders.
I killed a Phoenician as he tried to get his balance, and I kicked his dying body into his mate, sweeping my spear like a broom at head height, punching with my aspis. I caught the edge of his aspis with mine, and pushed it down and got in close, and then I ignored him and threw my precious gold-inlaid spear into the man behind him.
Never get attached to a spear.
He tried to push with his upper body, and I rolled his shield down and stabbed him in the neck, overhand, with the sword I’d just drawn from under my arm; high to low, the blade following the line of my thumb over the top of the shield I’d just frozen in a vulnerable place with my own.
Arrows sprouted like new growth in springtime, and the next two fell, one with Ka’s black arrow and my gold inlaid spear. They fell over the side and vanished into the wine-dark, and then Kassandros locked his aspis to mine and took a spear on it, and Giorgos rifled his long spear between us and took another, hitting the man so hard in the helmet that he fell like an sacrificial ox.
There were only four of them remaining, and they were brave enough, but when two thirds of your marine contingent dies in twenty beats of your heart, you hesitate. They pressed forward, not with determination but with Phoenician fatalism, and they died for it. The biggest one tried to press my shield down, as I’d killed his mate, and my deadly xiphos licked out like an adder striking, under his shield, cutting one thigh and biting deeply into another I could see his eyes ion the eye-slits of his helmet; they were green, and deep, and he set his shoulders and didn’t know that he was already dead until the power left his legs and he fell, his eyes still alight with war-fury.
And then I was breathing like a bellows and there was no pressure on my back, and I turned.
Brasidas had cleared the enemy command deck.
‘Take command!’ I called to Brasidas. It was all a matter of timing. ‘Get Nehmet out of the water!’
I jumped back aboard Raven. She was going down by the bow, but slowly.
Men in the bow were up to their knees in water.
‘Listen to me!’ I roared, pulling the helmet off my head. My hands hurt; my aspis shoulder burning; I had no idea if I’d taken a wound.
‘Listen up!’ I roared. ‘We can’t take this ship home!’
I ran aft, almost tripping headlong over one of the many lines from our mainmast.
But the benches were still reversed…
The plan came together in my head as I reached the command platform.
‘Damon!’ I called. ‘They have to row! I know she’s heavy and sinking. Twenty strokes!’
I ran to the stern as I heard the first orders from under my feet.
I pointed at the triemiola, rocking gently on the waves, five hundred paces aft.
‘Put the stern into her side,’ I said/.
Hipponax couldn’t see over the rising swan’s breast of the stern, so I gave him a heading by laying a spear on the deck in front of him.
We were under way. I could feel it.
Ajax had the retreat order flying, and we had nine ships in line abreast. They didn’t know I was sinking, and now the Phoenicians were coming after like wolves. Wolves are cautious until they’re sure they have the upper hand.
They came on, and we retreated.
‘Waters gaining,’ Poseidenos shouted.
‘Pumps!’ I yelled, but of course, most of my marines were gone, and half my sailors.; I regretted my early captures. Never take prizes until the fighting is done; a mistake I’ve made before and would make again, but one I don’t recommend.
‘The Thalamites can’t row!’ Poseidenos called. I looked down, and the water was rising, and the poor bastards were so well-disciplined that they were sitting in the rising water.
‘On deck!’ I called. ‘Thalamites! Come up! After first. Come on!’
As they came on deck, I put them to work on the pumps, simple wooden devices that shot water over the side. Too much water. Frankly, it was as much to give them something to do as because it would save us.
Ten were on deck, then twenty, then thirty. They would have made us top heavy, except that all that water was already ballast.
My beautiful Raven was dying, but she was game, and we were backing, the zygian mid-deck oarsmen and the upper deck thranites pulling like heroes. I could see Leon’s oar bending with every mighty stroke, and Poseidenos’ on the other side, as if they alone would get us home.
I ordered all the thalamites with no pumps to come aft, and the bow rose a little. Not much, but it might buy us a little time.
I got up on the rail and looked aft. We were less than two hundred paces from the trihemiola.
I jumped down and moved the spear. ‘Just thus,’ I said.
Hipponax moved, perfectly aligning the ship. It was so hard to turn that he grunted.
‘She’s a slug,’ he said.
My poor Raven.
I looked down.
There was a lot of water there, and I suspected that the damage we’d taken in the open ocean had come home to roost, so to speak. My beautiful ship was opening at the seams.
A hundred paces.
Seventy five paces.
‘Listen up!’ I called, my voice already hoarse. ‘We’re changing ships. We’re going to ram a ship stern first. Giorgos leads the sailors; put grapples in her and bind her fast. Then the thalamites go over the side and go straight to their benches on the new ship. Then the zygians, and then the thranites. Marines last. Got that?’
I hoped that they had it.
Hector made a face. ‘What if there’s a crew aboard?’
That was the last thing I heard before we struck, a gentle bump as the way had been coming off us for ten strokes as the Raven began to settle.
I was the first. I leapt, landed on her rowing frame forward, and then leapt again fro her main deck and made it.
The benches were empty, and so was the command platform. Aft, where there was a full deck over the rowers, I saw two men and a woman. They were… very surprised. But not so surprised that they wanted to be dead or slaves, and all three dropped over the side into the water as I ran to the helm.
She was anchored bow and stern. There was no way I could fetch the stones aboard and make it off before the Phoenicians came up with me.
I took my sword and started sawing away at the aft anchor cable, even as Giorgos went for the bow, and my thalamites were going obediently into the lower rowing deck.
She smelled of new wood. The deck under my feet gleamed like ivory, and the rowing frame was cedar.
We had a little more luck, because as the thalamites and marines crowded aft of an almost empty Raven they pushed the stern down and the bow out of the water, but by then, many of the seams were going, and she was going down. By the time that Hipponax and Hector were the last two men aboard, the nearest Phoenician was only half a stade away and the deck was awash.
Hector said something.
Hipponax was getting free of the steering rig.
Hector ran aft, one lone figure of bronze who appeared to be running on water. In fact, I knew that the buoyancy of the wood would keep her at the surface for hours, until the wood waterlogged.
Hector ran to the bow, and found the long strip of painted wood from Lydia. And he tore it loose, and ran back, waving it like a prize. He gave his brother a hand, and Hipponax made it over the side, and then Hector was on the deck, and Giorgos and I began to show the flexibility of the triemiola.
We didn’t have an oar to put in the water. they were all right where they ought to have been; stored amidships, lengthwise between the benches. A mere quarter of an hour to serve out.
Giorgos and one of the boys climbed the mainmast shrouds, and with two flicks of their knives they cut the yarn holding the sails against the yards.
The mainsail came down with a whisper and a rustle, and I belayed it, alone, moving as fast as I could.
The same wind that had fought us all night, the wind that blew the smoke in our faces, now filled the triemiola’s mainsail.
We began to gather way, even as Damon and Hipponax threw themselves at the widely separate steering oars; a different arrangement. Everything was different. We were barely controlling chaos, living one heartbeat at a time, but my people were aboard and the lead Phoenician was perhaps ten ship’s lengths away, and her archers were loosing with the wind behind them. Thanks to the Gods, we had the high sweep of our stern timbers between us and the archery.
The archery was odd, though, as if the enemy archer didn’t want to hit us…
I can be slow. I realized that I was seeing our capture, with Brasidas on the command deck, and Nehmet losing arrows to make the other Phoenicians believe they were allies.
Brasidas had promised the rowers their freedom, of course.
They just weren’t the best rowers, and they weren’t going as quickly as I would have liked.
But they were moving, and the wolves behind were closing in on me.
Our sail was full and drawing, and Giorgos and two other men got to the forward mast, a mast a little bigger than on a trireme, and they loosed the foresail.
A distinctly better motion, as if pressing her bow down made all the difference.
Well, every ship is different.
To my port and starboard, there were our ships, still backing oars, but all of them were getting their mainmasts up. Cimon raised a signal and every ship began to turn in place; port side oars going all out, starboard side oars dragging.
The Phoenicians went to ramming speed just as Brasidas came up abreast of us.
‘Hello!’ he called. He was smiling.
I waved and leaned out to watch the Phoenician dead astern. I was hoping…hoping,,,
I whispered another little prayer.
And she struck the wreck of the Raven. She was awash, her rowing structure a palm’s breadth under the water, and remember, our boat-sail mast snapped and through Nehmet when we broke our bow.
Nothing to show.
Raven was dead, but she took one more enemy with her. The Phoenicians ram ripped into the sinking oar-rig and tangled; their rigging all came down, and they were unprepared, and…
The south wind filled our sails and we turned for the open sea.