I appeal to all of you as huntsmen. You know that feeling, that time does not flow evenly, but expands and contracts to fit our needs? We often discussed it in my youth, sitting at the feet of Herakleitus, and he would ask each of us to describe an occasion at which time ran very quickly, and another very slowly; in time he led us to incidents where it ran slowly for one boy and quickly for another.
His point was that we cannot be sure that time, as we assume it to work, is even real. Or any more real than the rest of our perceptions.
I leave that to wiser men. But the five hundred paces that separated me from that other trireme were a clear demonstration of the way that time passes, because I believe that I lived a lifetime in those heartbeats, and I had the time to consider many things that I had done ill, and to regret them. Not my various failings as a man; not the way I treated a woman as a chattel, or killed men and took their goods. Those are thoughts for different times, dark nights under starlight.
What I thought about was all the mistakes I’d made in the last few days, and paramount among them was hubris.
In my haste to prove that we were better men than the Medes, at least at sea, I had dismissed any thought of defeat. And here I was, in a fog, committing my four mismatched ships to a fight with an unknown number of enemy ships with the only intact squadron capable of defending Ionia. And I hadn’t taken the trouble to send a messenger boat south for Archilogos, which, as we closed, seemed to me more and more foolish. I had taken a risk, and compounded it with foolishness.
Is self-doubt the coin of age? I never used to have these thoughts as a younger man.
The doubt was so powerful that twice my mouth opened to order Nicanor, who was now my helmsman, to turn to port.
I didn’t. I still wonder what it might have been like, had I done so.
# # #
The fog, or rather the low cloud, was so thick we could barely see the wave tops ahead of the ship.. Sometimes I had trouble seeing Aten’s signals from the bow.
I leaned down to Poseidenos. ‘Check the oars,’ I said. I said it softly.
I had an idea. It was odd, how that idea cut through my own fog of doubt. I prayed, quickly, and watched the oars come up to the check, the top of their rotating motion as the rowers came back.
We glided silently in a world of ghosts. Somewhere above us was the sun; it was brighter above, and a puff of wind touched my face, moist and cold. I could smell the seaweed and the sea; somewhere off to my port side, gulls cried.
I could hear another ship rowing. I could hear the timoneer, ordering the stroke, and another voice, cursing ineptitude.
And the crack of a whip, so loud that it sounded as if it was next to my ear.
‘Two points to port,’ I said to Nicanor in a conversational voice.
I leaned well out, looking astern.
There was Gad’s Fortune, glowing red in the strange light. I could see Ariston, now Parmenio’s marine captain, in the bow, leaning on his spear, watching the sea. I felt another puff of breeze coming off the land and I heard the gulls, and based on these table-scraps of information, I made my guesses. I guessed that we were crossing the great bay that pointed like a finger up into Hephaestia on Lemnos; perhaps close in among the tiny islets of the east side.
I guessed that my squadron was brining up the wind and the sun, too. I had mere heartbeats before the low cloud burned away. It was already lighter.
I guessed that my enemy was cruising in a column, or perhaps a double column; seven or eight ships.
If Artemis was at my shoulder, we were coming up behind the last ship.
If I was mad, and wrong, we were coming up behind the lead ship.
I made a motion with my hand; the knucklebones of fate cast. It was too late to turn away; if I declined the engagement, I’d be pulling upwind to a potentially hostile beach.
I was in my armour. I took my spears from a stand by the helm.
‘Nicanor, listen to me,’ I said.
He nodded, intent on his blind steering. He was a fisherman’s son, in a position of immense responsibility. There are many heroes in the world; he lookedc concentrated, and afraid, but he was also determined.
‘In a moment, the clouds will break,’ I said. ‘Put the beak into the stern of the ship that will appear dead ahead.’
‘Aye, lord,’ he said.
Just that. No doubts that there was a ship dead ahead. I envied him that.
If that enemy ship had spotted me, he might have turned to port or starboard; he might be setting up to ram us this instant.
But I could hear him, and that whip-crack…
The sky grew lighter directly overhead.
I ran forward. it was much easier on the new Raven, with her solid deck over more than half the ship. I paused by Nestor on the command platform amidships.
‘I intend to take the ship just ahead,’ I said. ‘The moment we board, you sheer off and try for an oar rake on the next ahead. It’s your fight after that.’
I slapped his shoulder. ‘I need to wet my spear,’ I said. A younger man’s words, but true; I had already had my fill of sending other men to do my dirty work.
My archers were ready; Nehmet, high above, leaning into the slight breeze like a very intent cat’ Ka, in the bow behind the marines, in much the same posture.
I had never ordered silence, and yet they were all silent. The grunting of the oarsmen as they pulled was less, too. I was almost to the bow, where Styges crouched, ready like a lion to leap on his prey. At his shoulder, Leander stood like the figure of Ares on a vase.
Dead ahead in the murk, I heard, ‘I can hear the gulls on dog island,’ and another voice, with a Persian accent, say ‘very well.’
All doubt fell away, as it always does.
Another puff of breeze, and a flaw in the over present fog, and there she was, the sern arching high like the breast of a swan, and the helmsmen standing on either side. She was painted a dark red, and she wasn’t Ionian. We were some degrees off a ramming course, but before I could say anything, Nicanor, true to his choosing, flicked the oars like Harpagos or Stefanos might have, and our bow settled in to line up with our enemy’s stern as if we were both settled into the stone grooves of the old chariot roads.
‘Ramming speed!’ I roared.
I stepped forward, taking my place behind Akilles, who shot me a glance and wriggled, as if to let me take his place; I had time to put my hand on his shoulder. I knelt.
I put my spear between the left side and right, splitting the marines in two sections. Herakleitus and Hipponax were on the right, with Arianus. ‘You stay here.’
Herakleitus glared at me.
Too damn bad.
Our oarsmen may have gotten in four full power strokes, and we struck. Bow to stern is a difficult strike, but the very safest for the attacker.
Poseidenos roared ‘Starboard side oars in!’
Next to me, Ka rose to his full height, grunted as he pulled his heavy bow, and loosed, all one beautiful, fluid motion, his black skin glowing with the first kiss of the sun.
I flipped my helmet down over my face and settled the hinged cheek plates.
The ram strike went in just forward of the stern, to the portside aft corner of the enemy rowing frame. Because both ships were moving forward, the impact was minimal, initially. We scraped down their side, but we were moving faster; almost twice their speed, and our bow was crushing the oars against the hull and splintering them against the softer flesh and bone of the humans who drove them, and the ship seemed to scream.
I was scarcely paying attention by then. Ka’s first arrow took the nearest steersman under his outflung arm and he was dead before he fell, the whole arrow through his unarmoured body, and Akilles and Leander were already on the helm platform. Leander killed the other helmsman before I made the leap.
I landed well, got both feet under me, my only wound the bite of my left greave into my instep as I landed, and I went forward onto the deck, having kept enough balance to kneel, wager a glance forward, turn, and go, with Diodoros at my shoulder. There was a long catwalk, almost a central deck, down the middle of the ship over the rower’s heads; a Sicilian or Carthaginian design.
I started along it. The oarsmen were mostly African; I could see them under my feet, even with my helmet closed; but there were some who looked like islanders. Slaves? Captures?
On the port side, men were writhing in agony or screaming as their oars were ripped from them or into them, the bow of my Raven ripping through their oar loom like an angry horse through a pile of twigs.
No time to think.
I have a bad wound, an old one, and I don’t run too well. Sometimes, though, when the gods allow, or the spirit of a fight is on me, the lameness seems to fall away, and I run like I ran as a young man.
In a ship fight, there are two ways to win. One is that you fight your way through the ship, an exhausting slog, the agony of repeated combats wearing you down. You hope that you and your friends are stronger, because in a ship fight, there are usually only winners and dead people.
The other kind can only be achieved in the first clash; it has to be as if Zeus threw you from his hand, a thunderbolt of steels and bronze, so that men who ought to make a fight of it simply drop their weapons.
It is really the only part of the fight that I remember perfectly; my bare feet slapping against the trim, almost-white planks of the catwalk, my breath coming in long, slow bursts. Like the approach in the fog, it seemed to last a very long time.
The Mede, or Persian, officer amidships had a long spear in both hands. He stepped out to meet me with the confidence of the well-trained man, and the spearhead stayed low as he watched me run.
I threw my javelin.
He tried to bat it down, a flick of his long spear, and too late he realized that it was too high for him.
I took the head of his spear on my shield, already slowing. I remember that it punched through the bronze face and stuck. By then I’d seized my second spear from behind my shield, and I swept it across the face of my aspis, head down, snapping his spearhead clear of the bronze, sweeping the spear to my left, powering forward with my right leg as I rotated my shorter spear, so that the saurauter went in just over the top of his beautiful scale corselet. It skidded along his neck bone and through the skin and muscle where the shoulder and neck come together. I slammed my shield rim into his head and down he went, sliding off my spear, and I went past the Greek trierarch, who sat against the mainmast bolster with my javelin in his guts. I killed him with a flick of my right wrist and went to the bow side of the command platform.
The enemy marines were frozen in the bow of their ship. We’d just killed the entire command crew.
‘I am Arimnestos of Plataea,’ I called. ‘Surrender now and you will live.’
Sadly, this was not the day for the thunderbolt.
The marines charged me.
That’s the part I don’t remember; from the moment where I realized from one man’s facial expression that he had to make himself charge, to the moment when I realized, in a good deal of pain, that I’d fallen halfway off the catwalk and it felt as if I’d been kicked between my legs.
I remember an impact; using my spear to fend off blows; the relief as someone’s aspis pressed inot my back, the stinging pain as I took a spear through my foot, the fall, and then…
And then it was over and I wasn’t dead. Again. I just had a spear wound straight through the top of my instep and my foot had already swollen like a melon. How does the skin do it? It looks tight enough ordinarily, and then…
Zeus, I remember the foot, swollen and feeling like it belonged to someone else.
And Leander leaning down, his face a mask of fatigue under his helmet. ‘Now what?’ he asked.
‘Get me up,’ I muttered, or something like. I got an arm over his shoulders and went aft to the command deck, and leaned out over the rail, all my wait on my arms.
Below and to my left, just at the edge of my peripheral vision, I could see the heads of the port side oarsmen. A lot of heads were hanging slack. There was a lot of moaning.
Out to port, it was almost a clear day. How long had we been fighting? To starboard there was a retreating wall of cloud, but above me the sky was blue and the sun was bright.
My foot hurt as if I’d dipped it in molten bronze.
I suspect that I swore a good deal.
But ahead, on the port side, Nike’s Wings was just passing us, pulling at ramming speed. Just beyond, but to the starboard of our bow, was another ship, not one of ours, with no oars out on it’s port side, drifting, it’s bow rising and falling on the swell. And beyond that…
An island and a long line of rocks. Towards which the fresh breeze was pushing us. Not fast, but inexorably, like the hand of a god.
I sagged. For a moment, the will to fight on left me, and I just sagged over the rail, unable to even contemplate the next step. I looked back, saw that all my marines were looking at me. Styges was straight as an ash tree; Leander was cleaning his spear.
They weren’t done.
The problem was that most of them, good men as they were, were not actually sailors. If I’d had Hipponax…
What I needed was sailors.
I took a few deep breaths. I remember thinking of Briseis. Men claim they think of their loves in a fight; I think they’re liars. But it did occur to me that if I didn’t move myself to some serious action, I’d be dead, and that made it unlikely that we’d ever make love again.
Call it what you will, it got me moving.
‘Styges,’ I said. ‘Leander. I need you to sort out which of our oarsmen is dead or badly hurt. I need new oars served out to the men who can wield them.’ I leaned out from the catwalk, and my foot screamed. Maybe I did too.
‘There are spare oars,’ I said, pointing to a narrow space under the catwalk.
‘Don’t be gentle,’ I said. ‘We don’t have time for a mutiny.’
I leaned down. ‘Listen to me!’ I shouted. ‘If you don’t row, we all die. If you row, I promise you your freedom. Simple choice.’
Some faces turned to look at me.
Some of those men had already had enough. Some wanted to kill me.
I looked at Ka. ‘Anyone here speak your language?’ I asked.
Ka shouted something.
No one twitched.
‘No,’ he said with a shrug. Then he tried again, rattling off something staccato. Many heads turned to him.
‘He looked at me, and shrugged. ‘I don’t know, Ari. I only speak a little. It’s a trade tongue that the mgeni use. Far from my home but…’
‘Tell them that if they row we all live and I’ll let them free.’
Somewhere behind me, a hollow pounding began. It wasn’t my ship. It was…
He shook his head. ‘I don’t even know the word for row.’
He shook his head again, and barked something.
Two of the oarsmen shouted back.
Ka raised a hand. He ducked down into the thranite frame, which was no small trick for a man as tall as he. He spoke very carefully, enunciating each word.
The two men shouted back, and then fifty men were shouting, insisting, every one trying to speak at once.
Ka took his long knife off his hip and slammed it into the oar frame and left it there, vibrating.
Leander chuckled. ‘Well played,’ he said.
Ka spoke the same words, one more time.
I looked over the side, and the line of rocks was much closer. The ship ahead of us was already on them, pounding rhythmically against the islet. Men were screaming.
‘Give them oars,’ I yelled.
Leaner pushed past me. Ka picked up a spare oar and thrust it, not bery gently, at one of the two loudest men.
The man took the oar and started to feed it out through the frame.
Poseidon. I had no oar master, no sailors, and no helmsmen.
I still remember trying to walk aft. I had time to see that my Persian wasn’t dead; time to pull my spear out of his neck and use it as a crutch.
I needed them to reverse their oars. That is, I needed them all to turn around, settle on the bench behind them, and pull.
I had heard the timoneer, who lay dead just forward of the helm, call out to them in Greek.
I prayed to Poseidon. That’s mostly a lie. I cursed, and almost fell, twenty times.
But by the time I’d wiggled and hobbled and cursed my way to the steering oars, Leander and Ka and Styges had pushed oars into fifty pairs of hands.
I could barely see and I wasn’t sure my voice would hold, but there wasn’t really anyone else just then…
…Except my useless cousin Akilles,. Not really useless. He was good at killing.
And he’d apparently been paying attention for three years at sea.
‘Want me to beat the time?’ he asked.
‘Good lad,’ I said.
I grabbed the steering oars, as much to hold myself upright as to steer.
‘Reverse your oars,’ I croaked.
Thank the Gods, Akilles repeated it in a young man’s braying roar.
‘Tell me when they’ve done it.’
‘They’re doing it!’ he called.
I went out for a moment. I swear it; it all went black. The pain just ate me.
Akilles screamed something.
I pulled myself together. I looked forward as best I could.
‘Stroke,’ I muttered.
Akilles called ‘Stroke,’ and slammed the butt of his spear into the deck.
Our bow struck the dying ship ahead of us, and Akilles’ saurauter bit so deeply into the deck that he couldn’t pull it out.
Bad luck. He wrestled with the spear instead of calling the stroke and our rowers fell into confusion, and the current began to pull us into the rocks.
We were so close.
‘STROKE!’ I roared. It came from within me and left like a lion pouncing.
The oars rattled along, ragged as new ephebes at their first spear drill. I don’t think the ship even moved.
‘Check!’ I called. I could only really see the Port side rowers. ‘Pull!’ I called when most of them were up and ready. At least the poor bastards were obedient.
Akilles had it. He left his spear in the deck and leaned down. ‘Pull!’ he called, on time.
I motioned to Diodoros. ‘Sing!’ I called.
‘What?’ he asked, and then realized it didn’t matter. I thought he’d sing Homer, but what we got was a drinking song.
The girl in the golden sandals
Has hit me with the sloppy grape of her love
I was drunk at a party
and I couldn’t even move
See, I can still sing it. It was quite popular then, a play on old Theogenos.
You don’t care. Anyway, he sang. And the rhythm picked up.
For ten strokes, nothing much happened. We bumped the wreck again, and we were right in the kelp. There was a rock the size of a house an oars length off the stern, and we were done.
And then we weren’t. Suddenly we were sliding away backwards. We were, if anything, gathering way, and I had to steer, and suddenly….
Suddenly I realized that I was aboard a captured ship in the middle of a battle.
We weren’t done yet.
# # #
It is an axiom of sea fights that captured ships cannot be trusted to fight. There are dozen of reasons, and we exemplified them; angry oarsmen on the verge of open revolt, unfamiliarity with the ship and rig, insufficient prize crew to fight and hold the oarsmen down.
And that made me a spectator.
As it proved, my captains had all read my last moment plan brilliantly; or perhaps each of them innovated from what they were given, as I had.
So, as the low cloud cleared, we took the last ship but one in a long column. There was, it turn out, another ship behind us, as Amaranth discovered. Neoptolymos was last in our column, and he guessed at where he was supposed to turn, and ended up passing the stern of another ship in the fog; at the last moment he realized it was not Nike’s Wings and turned, coming up on her starboard side in a hail of thrown javelins.
The lifting of the murk showed me Amaranth and another, lower ship, long side to long side, their marines locked in combat.
Forward, over the bow, was like a different world.
Nestor had oar-raked the ship ahead of the one we’d taken, leaving her to be sucked into the rocks where we’d rammed her inadvertently. She was being pounded to death against the rocks, and there were already men like seal crawling out of the water on the islet. That was a stade ahead of me, and slightly to port, and the whole of the bay beyond was appearing as the sun burned off the last of the morning fog.
By the grace of the Gods, Nicanor had turned the Raven to starboard. Judging from where I could see my ship, three stades away and south, she must have missed the rocks by an oar’s length.
And she’d tackled another ship. They were locked together in a death grip, so close they looked like one thick hull, turned half away from me.
Parmenio had done something extraordinary. He’d apparently turned to starboard earlier; perhaps he’d crossed our stern in the fight. I had no idea. But he’d come in from the south, from the starboard side, and rammed a ship; I could see it’s hull, upside down, with swimmers clinging to it, and the long vermillion hull of Gad’s Fortune. At first she appeared motionless; a moment’s attention suggested that she was backing away from her kill, and her oars flashed in perfect unison.
If I had almonds, I could show you more clearly. In short, my little squadron had attacked the rear of their column, and the front half of their squadron was turning back on us, oars flashing in the new sun.
The enemy ships were all spread out over stades of ocean; it’s very difficult to keep station in fog.
But we were in a great deal of trouble. Two of my ships were still locked in their fights, and win or lose they weren’t going to be fit for more. Only Gad’s Fortune was untouched, her marines just visible crouched in the bow. Nike’s Wings was close in to the islet, pursuing a fleeing trireme. I cursed because Damon was headed the wrong way to help the rest of us, but he was also new to command, and I’d expected a great deal of my trierarchs that day.
I had five marines and a good archer. A great archer.
And spirit is everything. Sometimes, you can break men’s spirits without fighting to the death.
It seems like a very long story, but in fact, I took it all in one long glance, and it took me as much time as a hymn to Artemis to make my decision.
Hymn to Artemis
I wanted to go to Raven, but she was past the rocks and the islet, and the drift of the hulls and the wreck of the dead trireme combined with my fractious crew to render that too far and too hard.
Amaranth, on the other hand, was perhaps ten ship’s lengths away.
I leaned on my port side oar to take all the weight off my wounded foot.
‘Prepare to turn the ship to starboard,’ I called out.
Akilles repeated as if he’d been born to be a timoneer. He even raised his hand in the air, showing me that he was watching the oarsmen to make sure that the starboard side oars were reversing.
I watched as a wave of nausea came over me. The pain in my foot was remarkable; I’d fought with worse wounds, but the amount of pain, and it’s pulsating nature, was making me unsteady.
I leaned on the oars.
Akilles waved his hand.
‘Turn to starboard,’ I called, and Akilles ordered the oars into the water.
It was pitiful, compared to the old Lydia, or Athena Nike or even my new Raven. I swear that no two oars struck the water together; the hull was full of curses. Do you know what happens when oars cross in a trireme? If you catch a crab, or miss row, you risk slamming the butt of your oar into the man in front, or you own head. Oars are heavy and neatly balanced; throw that balance off on the thole pins and the oar becomes either a terrible labour of a weapon the sea can use against you.
We had seats for a hundred and eighty oarsmen, more or less, but at least twenty were dead or too badly injured to row. Of those remaining, almost all the starboard side rowers were alive with intact oars; call them eighty.
But on the port side, where Raven had raked her way down the side, their were perhaps forty oars in the water, and they were ragged and poorly handled.
We turned well-enough. It wasn’t pretty, but we got around in good time.
It was when I ordered us forward that the wreck of the oar loom showed. We immediately began turning to port instead of going straight; even leaning the steering oars all the way, I couldn’t compensate, and we swayed like a drunken man.
‘Cease rowing! Rowed of all!’ I called out.
I didn’t have the energy or the foot to climb down into the hull. ‘Akilles! I need the same number of oars each side. Pair them; the men able to row on the port with someone on the starboard. Everyone else must stow their oar.’
Akilles looked at me with a little fear and a fair amount of incomprehension.
Why hadn’t I brought Hipponax? Or Herakleitus? He might be a soft handed Ionian boy, but he’d been brought up to ships. Akilles was a Boeotian bumpkin like me.
We were beginning to drift.
‘I need to oarsmen to be balanced,’ I said, as slowly as I could make myself speak. ‘We can’t have more oars in the water on the starboard than the port side.’
Akilles blinked. And nodded.
He went into the oar frame, already snapping orders.
I looked out over the port side, towards the enemy ships. They were coming straight at me, bow on; four of them.
Well. I had my aspis, dropped when I took the oars.
I had sunlight.
I hobbled to my aspis and lifting it was like Atlas taking the weight of the world on his shoulders.
I flashed it.
I flashed again.
Come on Parmenio!
But why should he look as us? A capture? He’d be looking to Raven for orders.
‘Ready, uncle!’ Akilles shouted.
I turned back to the job at hand.
‘Give way, then,’ I said.
It was still pitiful. It took ten or fifteen strokes to feel the bite of my steering oars to have enough way to develop any confidence in the ship.
We were now headed due south, because of the false turn; almost tangentially away from the line of ship combats.
‘Prepare to turn to starboard,’ I called, and the rowing was no better. We turned very slowly; worse, if anything, then before.
Was that a flash from the east?
I took the chance and picked up my aspis again. I flashed it, and Gad’s Fortune flashed back immediately.
Flash-flash-flash. Form line
Pause. We were done our turn.
‘Prepare to give way!’ I called.
An answering flash from Parmenio. Understood.
I held up the heavy aspis again. Flash-flash. Flash-flash. On me.
Another answering flash from Parmenio. Understood.
I dropped the aspis as if it was hot, because my left shoulder has taken too many hits over the years and I was about done. I got back into the steering rig. I could see the thranites looking at me expectantly.
At least they weren’t in revolt.
‘Give way, all!’ I called. Diodoros began to sing, and he slapped his hand on hsi aspis for rhythm.
We began to move; a wounded water insect creeping over the waves towards where Amaranth and her enemy were locked in deadly embrace. Ten ship’s lengths; no distance. You could walk it in the time it takes to put a bridle on a horse.
Now time hobbled like a man with a wounded foot.
But we had steerage way, and I pointed the bow at the open side of the enemy trireme. There was a huddle on her deck; men fighting. It was Chians against some other Ionians; every man had his own device on his shield, and I didn’t know any of Neoptolymos’ marines well enough to know who was who. Or who was winning.
We limped along, closer and closer.
When we were two ship’s lengths away, I called Leander and the rest on deck. Zephyrides and Kassandros, who was wounded; Akilles and Diodoros, Leander and me; Ka as an archer. That’s all we had.
I nodded to Ka and he spat over the rail. ‘Who do I shoot?’ he asked.
He had a point. I was used to Ka’s archery making all the difference in ship fights; not here.
‘We have to look dangerous,’ I said.
Six tired men. And me. Kassandros had a spear straight through the muscle of his left bicep, over his shield; a wound I’ve taken and given. I was hobbling like an old man, and I couldn’t imagine getting from ship to ship, although the swelling was less.
‘Oars in!’ I called. ‘Look sharp, there.’
They did that well enough, pulling their oars aboard and stowing them under the opposite bench; every oarsman fears that moment of impact.
We ghosted along. Leander turned, straightening.
‘Go,’ I said to Akilles. ‘Kassandros, stay with me.’
Close in, I could make out the fighting. Neoptolymos had rammed bow to stern, as we had, and cleared the helm and fought his way down the ship to the command platform, but this ship’s marines were better trained or just better led, and the fighting was right there, at the stump of the unset main mast. Neoptolymos had emptied his ship; I could see him, the helmet back on his head, directing his sailors, who were working their way down the oar frame, trying to envelope the enemy marines, but the enemy ship had some fighters, and their sailors were fighting back.
I touched my steering oars. I wanted to kiss their bow, just where the rowing frame started. I pointed, and Leander nodded. He had three marines. But he was going into the back of the enemy.
I hate sending other men to do something I should do myself.
Just then Zephyrides smiled, tossed me a casual salute with his spear, and popped his helmet down over his face. He looked like a rested athlete, ready for a run.
He said something, and Leander laughed, and Akilles laughed. In the bow, the sun sparkled on their bronze, and they looked like gods, and I wasn’t going with them.
I missed my mark be six fee or so, because I’m not Harpagos. But glory tot he gods, my new ship’s oar frame caught on theirs, and the two ships began to drift together, and Akilles tossed a grapple and so did Ka, and they had no men to spare to cut free.
No one was there to contest his leap, and then they were all three aboard, and men were looking over their shoulders, and Ka, standing amidships, loosed his first arrow, sure of his targets now.
Whether it was the man pounding down the gangway at them, or the arrow that had just punched through an aspis to send an enemy marine gasping to his knees, it was the end of the fight. The enemy turned; there was shouting…
Neoptolymos, bless him, was not in the thick of it, not in the battle rage. He told me later that he’d fought from the first, taken a wound, and fallen back, as men do; so now he was clear of the action and he saw when the enemy sailing master motioned that he would surrender.
Neoptolymos roared for his men to fall back, and they did; puzzled, like dogs pulled off a dying stag; they fell away; their ferocity dissipated so that from my distance I could watch the change from killer to tired man; the slump of the shoulders. Ariston, in the thick of it, shoved an adversary, shield to shield, making the man stagger into his fellows, but Ariston kept his head, flicked his sword in a kind of salute, and held his ground.
The enemy marines were down to five; two on their knees.
For as long as it took to watch that, my foot did not hurt. Make of that what you will.
‘Neoptolymos!’ I croaked. Kassandros had handed me his canteen, full of wine; I took a long pull, and felt immediately better. I poured a little to Poseidon and drank another mouthful. ‘Neoptolymos!’ I managed, louder, and he turned his head.
‘Form line on me!’ I called. I pointed at the four warships coming down on us. Parmenio was coming up like a racehorse; behind him, on the far side of the rocks, because of wind and current, Raven was locked with her opponent.
‘Prepare to turn the ship about!’ I called. ‘We will turn to port!’
No one to repeat, now.
And I had no marines. None.
The gap was already too wide for Leander to jump. He stood at the side, looking at me; Akilles was at his shoulder, and the three of them watched as we poles off and turned away. The rowing was better, and I wished above all for Diodoros and his singing.
Instead, I picked up the splintered shaft of a spear and tapped the rail with it.
And we turned.
Behind me, Neoptolymos was already back aboard Amaranth. He was shouting.
I was turning to port, away from his capture.
But he’d left someone competent aboard the capture; there was a lot of yelling, and my three marines vanished like something in the machine in a play in Athens.
We were turning.
Did I mention that in trireme combat, everything is about being twenty heartbeats ahead of the action?
My bow came on line with the onrushing enemy. The first of them was alone by a five hundred paces. He’d already passed Raven and was headed for us.
Parmenio and Gad’s Fortune appeared to be flying from him, but Parmenio was at a good cruising stroke, and would reach me first. Not by so very much.
We were bow on.
Ka picked up his quivers and walked forward, the only fighting man left on the ship. If the rowers chose to rise off their benches, we were dead men.
‘Prepare to give way,’ I called.
It was a very small miracle. But as I later discovered, a little group of starboard side oarsmen had moved to port side benches, laying their wounded mates in the centerline. They took spare oars, or starboard side oars, and as a result, I went for about forty oars a side to about sixty, and it showed.
We began to creep forward from the first stroke. At the time, I assumed that it was because I had the wind at my back. Or Athena, her hand on my stern.
We went forward.
Behind me, Neoptolymos had Amaranth turning away from his capture, using the force of polling off to turn her bow to the north and get her around as his well-trained Chain fishermen revered her from the starboard side. She turned like a shark scenting blood, much faster than we had, and started forward…
And slowed, tucking in an oars length from the tips of our oars, as we’d practiced.
Parmenio was flying at us, and I thought he was cutting it too fine, but a hundred paces away his starboard side rowers backed oars and his whole ship turned so fast that the sides churned the water, the red ship bobbing unnaturally and leaning as she turned, and she began to slide backwards from what had been her original momentum.
It was one of the nicest pieces of ship handling I’d ever seen, because as Gad’s Fortune glided to a stop, we came up to her, and she went from backing to rowing forward smoothly, and we were a line of three facing one opponent, with me in the middle.
He turned away.
We continued to creep forward. I couldn’t raise sail and leave my own ship alone to them; Raven was still fighting, three stadia away upwind.
We had to get past the islet and the rocks, as well.
I turned a little, cheating my bow seaward, to the south.
We kept our line.
This is why you practice.
South and east, the foremost adversary who had turned away met up with his companion and they formed on each other.
I looked aft.
Neoptolymos’s capture had a low hum, painted a grey-blue the way pirates often paint their ships. Trickles of blood were showing amidships, dark stains on the pale hull.
But she was turning.
We crept forward.
The third enemy ship joined their line.
And the fourth.
We went at them at a walking pace.
The new capture began to come up. She was rowing as few oars as I was, and not with a will, and I had to assume that my marines and Neoptolymos’ marines were in her oar decks, inducing unwilling men to row. Ugly work.
It was all ugly work.
I kept my little group at our slow pace. Slow, but direct; we were now going straight at the other ships, bow to bow.
The capture caught us up. However unwilling the oarsmen, she was beautifully handled; Neoptolymos was not short of helmsmen. They joined our line and slowed to our ponderous pace, and there we were, ten stades south of Lemnos, the mountains of the island rising like the shoulders of gods behind me, the sky clearing, the sun beautiful on the water. Our opponent now had the wind on their starboard bows, and we had it on our port sterns.
At about a stade, Ka stood up and loosed an arrow. He didn’t shoot at the ship directly opposite, but diagonally down wind so that he had the wind directly behind him, and he loosed a flight arrow, very high; a short arrow like a dark launched off a sort of stretcher, a wand carved to fit.
One tiny arrow.
I won’t try to convince you that he hit something at a stade. Perhaps the little arrow fell into the sea, unnoticed. Perhaps it struck the enemy navarch in the eye.
Actually, I’m sure that latter didn’t happen.
But what did happen is that before I could draw another breath, all four enemy ships began to turn, end for end.
I admit it. I fell to my knees and gave thanks.
# # #
And we still weren’t done.
Parmenio went dashing south, the moment we were sure that our opponents weren’t going to return. He went to rescue Raven.
I hadn’t had time, since the first shock of combat, to consider all that I had risked until then. But as we lay alongside Amaranth and she sent a helmsman and three competent sailors aboard, then I had time to consider. Time to think about what we’d won, how close we’d come, and what a fool I’d been to engage at all.
I might have considered that Herakleitus was there with Hipponax, in the thick of the fighting, with Nestor and the rest.
My gut churned. My joy in victory abated and was replaced with dread, and I wasn’t even thankful when Amaranth’s third helmsman took the oars from me. All I could do was watch.
Gad’s Fortune had killed her prey with her ram, and her marines were untouched, and so Parmenio went for the enemy ship on its unengaged side. But the enemy ship didn’t wait for them.
I could see them moving. The shivering of their hull, even at that distance, showed that men were running on the deck. And then they were poling off, leaving the Raven.
I’d taken half the marines out of my Raven. And Ka.
The gap between Raven and the enemy ship grew, and the enemy got their oars out. Raven just rocked on the waves.
Parmenio had elected to turn, to come up on the enemy’s unengaged side, and that cost him time, and the enemy ship was under way and pulling well; an excellent crew.
Gad’s Fortune came about, brought her bow into line…
And coasted to a stop by Raven.
It was the right decision. I agreed with all my heart. The enemy ship rowed for as long as a priest might recite the morning hymn, and then suddenly her boat sail went up, opening like a flower, and she was running downwind, due south.
None of us were going to catch her. I was already sitting on the helm-bench while one of Neoptolymos’ sailors with a good repute as a leech was cleaning my foot wound, manipulating it and making me howl.
That feeling just wouldn’t leave the pit of my stomach. Part of it was that in watching that last ship run, and I worried that the luck had shifted. I kept turning, despite the pain, to look south, wondering if they were coming back; five fit ships to five tired ships. Worse than that, actually, as two of our ships were captures.
But by the time Parmenio was alongside Raven, I could also see Nike’s Wings nosing around the islet with a third capture. And now, five to seven, I no longer thought our opponents might come back at us.
I ate some sesame and honey, and drank too much neat wine, and it went to my head, and didn’t make me feel better.
I knew where there were two hundred good oarsmen to make up my crews, and a beach where it was safe, and I only needed to know whether Raven was fit for three hours rowing. I lacked the necessary signals. We only had six.
So I watched as my marines came back from the recent capture; watched as a dozen borrowed seamen from Amaranth, good boys from Chios, threw the dead over the side on my new ship and then went below to fetch the dead oarsmen.
There was some shouting.
Oh, Zeus, here we go I thought.
Ka and Akilles went below into the oar frame, and Ka came back.
‘They want to bury their friends. At least, that is what I think they say. They say, not in water, no spirits. I think.’ He shrugged his long-armed, eloquent shrug. ‘Ari, they make no trouble. They rowed for you. Can you give this?’
‘Yes,’ I said. Somehow it animated me, and I’ve seen this before, too; the troubles of others give me the spirit to help them, even when I’m too tired to help myself. I looked at the middle-aged man who’d just finished swaddling my right foot and was lacing a sandal to the bandages.
He met my eye.
‘Will you see to my oarsmen?’ I asked. ‘I have some injured men down there; broken ribs, broken heads.’
He sighed. But he got to his feet. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said in his Chain accent.
‘Double share,’ I said.
His face became animated. ‘Now yer fuekin’ talkin’, mate,’ he said. He trotted forward and went down into the rowing frame.
I tried putting weight on my foot and it was better. Much better. Almost incredibly better. I knew he’d poured water and then wine on it; he’d cleaned it, and he’d put some sort of resin or pine-sap on it, but…
It just hurt. Just a normal hurt.
My oarsmen were no longer muttering. The day was looking up, and I leaned back, took another mouthful of wine, and then shouted directions to Neoptolymos, who told me to suck eggs; I was giving navigational instructions to a man who lived just over the horizon.
Parmenio was returning, and Raven was getting under way behind, her oars moving competently; better than mine were likely to manage.
It is an oddity of war at sea that if you fight with your ram, you tire your rowers but your marines are untouched, and if you board, your marines are exhausted but your oarsmen are untouched.
I got us under way even as Simonides, the leech, worked on injured men. Ka and Diodoros were lifting men up and brining them up to the catwalk.
I was having a look around this ship. It wasn’t Carian, and it wasn’t Phoenician. The commander had been a Persian; I’d forgotten him but now I whimpered my way forward and found him, still lying in his beautiful corselet, at the structure in the deck that held the mast, when it was up.
I put a hand on his forehead, and then leaned down, reminded myself that I’d taken a blow to the groin by trying to crouch too fast, and then I saw his chest go up and down. There was fresh blood at his neck. He had a good sword, a Greek sword, and I took it, just in case he awoke and was tempted.
My borrowed sailors were quite adept. No one needed me, and I sat beside my wounded Persian. I gave him some shade with my chlamys, and then I rigged it to cover him, and woke him for a mouthful of water.
‘Good day to you,’ I said, in Persian.
‘The blessing of the sun on you,’ he said. And then groaned.
I got the leech for him when he came up from the oar decks, and with Leander to help they stripped his armour and his robes and washed the blood away.
We had rounded the great southern headland of Lemnos and we were already coming up on our friendly beaches; hardly even a voyage on a normal day, twenty five stadia all told.
I liked that the Persian had lived. I Liked Persians. And I liked having a prisoner, who might tell me something about why there was suddenly a Persian navy in the North Aegean.
I took no part in the landing except to make sure that my prisoner was treated carefully and taken to a boat sail awning ashore. I was trying not to fall on the rough sand when I saw Hipponax, shoulders down, his right arm crusted in dried blood, and they were carrying Nehmet into the shelter.
Damon came up with them, his eyes like bruises in his shockingly fatigued face.
‘Sir,’ he said.
I was watching Nehmet. He’d taken three bad wounds, any one of which might be a death blow, and he was being laid gently by my Persian, and then Ka burst past me to see to him.
‘Give me a moment, here,’ I said. ‘This man has been my archer and friend for years.’
He was going. it was obvious from the way his skin was losing its lustre, turning almost grey. But he reached up to Ka, and they clasped hands.
Ka knelt by him. I’d bought them all on the docks in Sicily; Numidians from south of Aegypt. I’d freed them of course; slaves don’t fight well, for obvious reasons.
It occurred to me then and there that I had once offered to take them home. And now Nehmet wasn’t going home, or he was going very fast, depending on what you believe.
I fell to my knees in the warm sand by Nehmet. He’d always been the silent one. I knew he didn’t speak much Greek. I knew that he was expert at anything to which he turned his hand.
I hadn’t lost a good friend in a while, and you forget too quickly.
‘Ari,’ he said. He sucked in some air, looked at Ka as if to say something, and he was gone.
Ka sat on his haunches a moment. Then he took his knife and laid it on Nehmet’s chest, and took Nehmet’s knife and put it in his own belt.
Then he sat back and gave a yell, a ululating scream not unlike the ancient war cry.
Two of the helots were carried in.
‘They grabbed spears with their hands,’ Damon said. ‘They tried to fight with bow staves against spears.’
Hipponax sank to the ground by me. I went over his body’ he had cuts, and they needed to be cleaned, but no serious wounds.
Damon said, ‘sir,’ in that exhausted tone.
I realized that Herakleitus wasn’t there.
I looked around for him. I saw Nicanor and a young oarsman carrying Arianus. they had him on a cloak between two spears, and his right leg looked as if it had been shredded by some horrible machine.
He managed a smile through the pain.
I looked at Damon. ‘What happened?’
‘They had a deck full of marines,’ he said. ‘Twenty? Thirty?’ he shrugged. ‘Our sailors fought, and fought well; Nestor held the amidships and we…’ he looked away. ‘We held the helm. In the end, the oarsmen were coming off the benches to save the archers.’
Arianus gave a choked scream as someone poured a canteen of watered wine over his leg. There was an older woman with iron grey hair; probably the healer form the village, or a midwife. She wasn’t afraid of blood, or giving orders to men; midwife, then.
She was organizing the wounded.
Damon wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘All my fault,’ he muttered.
‘No one’s fault but mine,’ I said. But where is Herakleitus?
The iron-haired woman knelt by Arianus and poured mor ewater on his leg. Now I could see that it had been hacked; blows had gone through his greave, as if someone was using an axe.
‘You should see the other guy,’ he managed in a croak.
The woman glanced at a sailor by her side and started talking to Arianus, and sat up a little to answer. He didn’t see the sailor, who suddenly, and with real strength, pulled the ruined greave off the leg.
‘Oh, GODS!’ Arianus screamed.
The woman had his hand.
‘I can save your leg,’ she said to him. Perhaps five times, she said it, until he was calm.
Damon looked back at me. ‘When Parmenio came for us, I knew we’d make it. More and more oarsmen were joining in, and the enemy were slipping away. I think we killed their captain, or one of their heroes. Arianus here put a sword in him, and the others broke.’
‘Well struck, I managed, or something like. There was bad news coming. I could tell.
Hipponax looked at me. Herakleitus fought like a daemon,’ he said. ‘And then…’
Damon shook his head. ‘They gave way, and Herakleitus said, ‘we can board them!’ and leaped onto their deck.’
‘Oh,’ I groaned, like a defeated man in a play.
‘They were polling off.’ Hipponax looked at me. ‘Pater, I was too far from the rail to jump. I was! Zeus, I …’
Young men’s guilt.
‘No blame to you,’ I said. ‘Or you, Damon. They killed him?’ I asked, with a calm that surprised me.
Damon shook his head. ‘No. No, I don’t think they killed him. I think they took him.’
That feeling in my gut sharpened to pain. Briseis’ son, in the hands of the enemy.
‘Well,’ I managed. ‘We’d best take care of our Persian, then.’
# # #
One of the very worst aspects of leadership, and one that is seldom discussed by philosophers, is how hard it is to sit feeling sorry for yourself.
I wasn’t immediately panicked by my son’s capture. He was rich and well-armoured; if he survived the combat, I was sure we could trade him for something or someone. I was far more concerned that he was simply dead, and I was having a hard time imagining facing Briseis and telling her that I’d last her son–our son.
That I had, in fact, lost him without a thought, because…
One of the things that makes me effective as a killer of men, is what I don’t think about. There are a great many things I don’t think about in action; and it’s not as simple or foolish as being ‘without fear.’ Fear is good. Fear keeps you alive. I’ve also come to think, over a life of conflict, that fear is the salt on the meat; if you weren’t afraid, then survival and success are not as delicious. Is that a terrible thought? Yet it is the overcoming of fear that makes for courage, not its absence.
As usual, I’m rowing away from my point. At the point of action, I don’t consider who is my son and who is not. I don’t reckon on how long I’ve known Nehmet, and whether I like his silence better than Ka’s humour. I don’t reckon who goes to the most dangerous post, and who stays behind, beyond the simple needs of the moment. I mean, I have; I have done such a thing. But I needn’t. When I wear the persona of the commander, it is like one of the actors at the Gods’ festival wearing a mark; I put it on, and those other things are no longer my problems.
So I left my two sons, and Nehmet, to fight on Raven, and I took Leander and Diodoros and Kassandros and Zephyrides to follow me, in a sweep of my spear. And now I was paying the price, and I could never explain to Briseis why. There was no why. I had given an order…
I might have sat in the sand and drunk too much and thought of all the things that I’d done wrong, but then, as I said, no one gives you time to wallow in self-pity when you are in command.
I was trying; and I was leaning on my beautiful spear, the Persian spear I’d taken at Plataea, inlaid in gold. I’d stuck its end into the gravel and I was leaning hard against it, and trying not to weep. I’d wandered away from the beach fires to sulk like Akilles –not my cousin, the one in Homer–but I didn’t get far enough.
Of course, the man who had the courage to follow me was Styges.
He put a hand on my shoulder, spun me around, and said, ‘I’m sorry.’
I shrugged. ‘Not your fault.’
‘Maybe it is,’ he said. ‘I lost sight of them.’
I remember sighing, or maybe forcing a smile. What I said was not too bad. ‘You can’t be everywhere, Styges, and even you can’t kill all the enemies.’
He nodded. ‘I’m not really here about Herakleitus. I’ll pray they took him prisoner. I’m here about the… Africans.’
‘Africans?’ I asked. Nothing was really penetrating. I find that one of the earliest effects of age is this inability to change topics, to adjust suddenly. Africans? What Africans?
‘You captured that ship.’ He pointed. You have to imagine Styges, covered in cuts, with brown-black stains and his fighting chiton all but glued to his hips by dried sweat. He actually swayed when he talked. But he was still performing, still an officer.
I remember that I actually had to turn my head and look. I was that tired. Right. That ship. That ship over there. Half the oarsmen were Africans. Right, right. Got it.
‘They don’t speak much Greek,’ I said. ‘Ka managed to communicate with them.’
Styges nodded. Looking at him, I knew what he’d look like when he was old. As I, in the arrogance of middle-age, still thought of him as a ‘youth,’ it was shocking to suddenly see him as my own age or older, with deep lines in his face. The man was at the end, and still functioning.
I was twenty years older than Styges, and I didn’t yet feel like I was at the end. I think this is why we Boeotians don’t put the best Ephebes in the front rank, the way the Spartans sometimes do. Age brings a different strength to men and to women too, I think.
Styges shook his head as if to clear it. ‘They’re angry,’ he said. ‘I’m…’ he met my eyes. We’d been through a lot together, and his lover had been Idomeneaus, who was the greatest killer of men I’d ever known. Mad as one of the God struck, brave as a titan. But the advantage of my having known Styges since he was a small boy was that he didn’t have to prevaricate.
‘If they make trouble,’ he said, ‘the marines will kill them. We’re too tired to…’
‘To tired to negotiate.’ How well I knew what he meant.
I turned away from my own daemons out there at the edge of the beach, and went to meet the Africans.
One of the most interesting aspects of life with triremes is that they have big crews, two hundred men each, and it’s an old and painfully accurate joke in Athens that in the hull of a trireme you can find almost any skill and almost every crime.
We had four crews on the beach, and another of stranded oarsmen from the original defeat, which felt as if it had happened in the ancient Trojan War, for all that it had only been a week. So we had almost a thousand men on two big beaches, and it turned out that among them we had not one but four men who could communicate well with the Africans.
None of us could speak their language, but most of the Africans could speak at least some Aegyptian. Demotic Aegyptian, that is.
Of course, one of the men who could speak to them was Aten.
They had three representatives, or leaders. They are all tall; you could see why someone had purchased them as rowers; long limbs like Ka or Nehmet…gods, I was going to miss Nehmet, for all he was usually silent.
They didn’t stand like slaves. They stood like gods; heads high, all but looking down their noses at us, one hand on the hip, the other loosely by the side; an orators pose, or a warriors.
One of the men who spoke Aegyptian was Bastos, or Vastos; a half-Greek-half Aegyptian captured at Artemesium, and now a free oarsman, he’d apparently married a Chian girl and rowed for Neoptolymos. He and Aten were engaging the Africans, whil Neoptolymos and Parmenio and I listened and talked among ourselves.
‘Where is that ship from?’ I asked. ‘Carthago?’
‘I think she’s a privateer out of Cyrene,’ Parmenio said. ‘With a Persian commander.’
‘They’re buying pirates?’ I asked and realized that I had absolelutely no right to moral outrage. The whole original Ionian revolt had been directed by pirates of one flavour or another.
‘Whereas the ship you helped me take,’ Neoptolymos said, graciously, ‘is a pirate from Scyros.’
‘And the ship I sank was Carian,’ Parmenio said.
This may surprise you, but this was the best news of the day. A scratch squadron cobbled together from the desperate men of three nations… that was much better news than some bottomless well of naval manpower that the Great King had suddenly tapped. In fact, once I looked at the evidence, it was obvious.
At that moment, Aten beckoned me. ‘You will want to hear this,’ he said, and he was excited.
‘Lord, this is Rigura,’ he said. The broadest-chested man inclined his head. I bowed mine, Courtesy never hurts.
‘This is Mera,’ he said, and again, the bow; a shorter, very powerful man.
‘This is Ole Llurin.’
Llurin looked like… a titan. His face had a slight cast to it, that made him look inhuman; he was as black as night, and his muscles shown like polished ebony, or black iron. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man with such a superb display of musculature, even among Olympic athletes.
I inclined my head again.
Aten turned to me. ‘Lord, I have heard you say, many times, that you wanted to go south from Aegypt. To coast the Red Sea.’
I nodded. ‘There’s good iron and steel down that coast,’ I said. ‘I met traders…’
In the course of speaking, I used the Aegyptian word for worked iron bia, for no better reason than that’s the word you use when buying it.
All three Africans turned their heads at the word.
I had assumed that Rigura, who looked every inch a prince or king, was their leader. But Ole Llurin smiled. ‘Ah,’ he said ‘Bia.’
What I had not seen, when I looked at his muscles, was the gleam of his eyes. Under that strange face was brilliance; as soon as he spoke, I could see the intelligence. It burned there.
‘I think Llurin may be a title,’ Aten said in his sing-song voice. ‘I may be wrong. But they are iron workers. Or traders. Perhaps both.’
He said something to the three of them; not a sentence but a long speech in Aegyptian. And Bastos added, using different words; I didn’t know what they were saying, but I could tell that Bastos was cooperating with Aten, smoothing out his sentences; I heard later that Aten spoke a very formal, priest-bound version of the language from the Nile Delta, and of course these men spoke a southern, inland dialect.
‘They are steel makers,’ Aten said. ‘Or rather, Ole Llurin is a steel maker. Rigura is perhaps a trader. Or a soldier.’
I nodded. I was fascinated, but at the same time, I was too tired for all this. ‘Listen, Aten,’ I said. ‘Ask them what the problem is right now. Tell them that we are tired, that food is coming, and that there will be wine.’
Rigura nodded to me, a good nod. A man-to-man that said, without language, ‘I see you have problems of your own.’
But Ole Llurin was not to be put off. He said something with force, all but spitting into Aten’s face.
Rigura put a hand on his shoulder.
Mera looked around, as if looking for help.
Aten didn’t back away, the measure of the man he was becoming. He managed a smile–good, I had taught him something.
‘Llurin says he is prepared to fight to the death right now, right here, on this beach. He will not be a slave again.’
On the one hand, that seemed like a ludicrous threat. There were five armoured men close by, and more within call. On the other hand, most of us were dead tired ,and many had stripped off their panoplies, and it is very difficult to summon the spirit of war when once you have let it slip. And Llurin looked very dangerous indeed.
Sometimes, as I probably say too often, you have to take things at a rush, or very slowly indeed.
I walked right up to Ole Llurin, and handed him my beautiful Persian spear. I put it into his hands, and then I was unarmed and he was armed.
‘Tell him he is a free man,’ I said. ‘Tell him that it is my custom to ask captured slaves to row for one summer in my service to cover their ransom; tell him he can find fifty men on this beach who will speak for me, that I am a man of my word.’
Ole Llurin was looking at the spear with something akin to lust.
So was Rigura.
Curiously, it was Mera who was unimpressed.
Aten translated, and I waited.
Then I raised my hand. ‘Tell them I have been a slave. I have rowed for the Carthaginians. Tell them I will speak to them a length. Tomorrow. That now I have fought a battle and I am too tired to be…’ I was out of words. ‘Too tired. To negotiate. Let the spear make them free men.’
Aten spoke it all. I’m guessing he spoke it twice, because he went on too long, and Mera said something, and then it seemed to me he said it again.
Ole Llurin nodded. And then, with immense dignity, he kissed the spearhead. And with no more words, he turned, carrying the spear, and walked back to the circle of his people.
‘That man is an iron smith?’ I asked.
Styges, at my side, put an arm around my shoulder. ‘And you are a bronze smith,’ he said. ‘Perhaps we’ll start a guild.’
# # #
The next day, we filled our benches from the men of Lemnos and Tenedos still willing to volunteer, and moved our wounded to houses in the easternmost town. Alexanor, Polymarchos’s brother, had taken two wounds, one of them quite serious. Across the fleet, we’d gotten off lightly, because victory never costs as much as defeat, but we’d lost a dozen marines dead, and as many more wounded, and we had the usual butcher’s bill of wounded oarsmen and sailors as well. We did our best to close our ranks with Lemnians, but I balked at taking their upper-class men as marines, and left those billets empty.
I promised the new oarsmen Athenian rates of pay. We were short on marines and archers, but not deck crew or officers, and I felt that it was enough for what I had in mind.
I made sure my Persian officer was receiving the best medical treatment, but he was withdrawn and anxious, and turned his head away when I spoke to him in Persian, and answered only in grunts.
I called my captains together on the beach, well after dawn; I didn’t see any reason to keep pirate hours when men were so tired. Thank the gods, I hadn’t lost any important officers; so I had Parmenio and Neoptolymos, Damon, now a trierarch, and Hipponax, who I’d promoted on the spot to command my new capture, whose name, according to the Africans, was ‘Apollo’s Serpent.’ Serpent was a good name for her, she was so long and low, and the pale-grey-blue of her hull made her seem even more serpentine.
By the time we’d crewed the captures, examined our oarsmen, and looked at the state of our ships, we only had six; one of the captures had her keel cracked in the fighting, and without a complete rebuild in a proper yard, she was firewood, and that’s what she was going to be the moment we sailed away; the local shepherds were already eyeing her.
Our other capture that was still afloat was a fine, if somewhat heavy, Greek trireme; Theseus from Skyros, with a heavy deck, almost but not quite a triemiola like my Raven. The Skyrians are notorious pirates, who will serve anyone for silver. When questioned, the oarsmen, who were for the most part free, told us they were fishermen from Skyros; I knew I couldn’t trust them at sea and replaced them with Lemnians. Neoptolymos put in some Chians, as he’d taken the ship, and he put his cousin Ion in command. Ion and Hipponax were of an age, and I suspected there would eventually be drama, but for the moment I had six good ships under my command.
The only good thing I learned from those Skyrians was that the ship that had escaped us, with, I devoutly hoped, my Herakleitus aboard, had also been Skyrian.
So, the morning fire crackled, burning driftwood with that salty tang that driftwood fires have, and there were clouds over towards Asia, but otherwise the world was beautiful. I looked around at my captains; Parmenio, tall and blond and calm, and Hipponax all but bouncing on his toes in pride and nerves; Ion, constantly touching his face, as if to make sure it was still there, and Neoptolymos, who wore a tired smile, and Damon, who had dark circles under his eyes and probably hadn’t slept.
As my teacher used to say, War is the king and master of all; some men makes kings, and others, slaves.
Never more true than the day after an action.
‘When everyone has had some bread and opson, I said, ‘we’re going back north, to scout the estuary and look into Doriscus.’
Parmenio nodded, but Damon looked away, and Neoptolymos looked… thoughtful.
‘Let’s run the numbers,’ I said. ‘The Persians had ten ships…’
‘…Or eleven,’ Damon said.
‘Or eleven,’ I said. ‘We’ve taken three and sunk two. At best they have six. We have six.’
Damon nodded. ‘You intend to fight again today?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I intend to watch any enemy we meet scuttle away. There’s no way the three ships that escaped yesterday are back in Doriscus. They sailed south.‘
Neoptolymos nodded. ‘And at least one will run for Skyros,’ he agreed.
‘That leaves the Persian captain three ships. If they can’t take us nine to four, they can’t take us three to six.’
Damon nodded slowly. ‘Some of us have done enough fighting for a whole summer,’ he said.
I looked them over. ‘I agree,’ I said. ‘And the marines have it worst of all. Despite which, it is my intention to put to sea this morning and scout the enemy coast, if for no other reason than to rub his nose in his defeat.’
I wasn’t saying what I really thought; that the other ‘three’ enemy ships were shadows; that I suspected that they were either badly damaged or full of worm or had mutinous crews. Otherwise, they should have been at Lemnos the day before, facing us in Poseidon’s dance. I would be surprised if our adversaries had any more ships.
I’ve been surprised before, though.
# # #
We came off the beach in sun, but a light rain came off Asia and the breeze died, and we rowed north along the coast.
I didn’t try for Doriscus in one day. Instead, with our limited supplies, we landed on Samothrake and bought sheep and bread, and ate well. The rain continued long enough to soak through my cloak, but it was going towards high summer and it was merely uncomfortable.
The next morning, we launched as soon as there was light enough for a man to see his oar. We pulled away into a deep fog; the oars squeaking away against their thole pins, the ship’s ‘speaking’ as the rigging and the wood moved with the movement of the sea.
The rising sun brought us a brighter grey light. The sea was almost flat calm, and the sun seemed very distant, an odd day, and not one to raise the heart. But it was an easy day for oarsmen, as the flatter the sea is, the easier it is to row, and we whisked across the seventy or eighty sea-stadia at cruising speed and we were in with the estuary, sea birds and land birds filling the sky around us.
I left Raven and the other triremes on the beach outside the estuary, with a watch kept on the little sand bluff to watch the last stretch of the river, and I went aboard my capture, the Serpent, because she was shorter and lower and probably more manoeuvrable, and we went up stream, rowing only one deck at a time to save energy, because we were all aware that we might have to run in a hurry if we discovered that my guesses were wrong.
But we needn’t have worried. We rowed slowly upstream with the mainmast up, and Ka perched high above us, on constant watch for movement from the other side of each long spit of land as the river proceeded, itself a writhing serpent, back and forth, back and forth. We passed the landmarks of the former combat, and found the charred remnants of a trireme, burned on a mud bank; abandoned and burned after we’d damaged her, I hoped.
It was almost evening when Ka warned us that he could see smoke, and we could all smell the town. We crept closer; we heard the alarm ringing off the hills to the north. We’d been spotted.
But they should assume we were a friendly ship.
We turned the last sharp bend in the river and found ourselves in a bay, or perhaps more properly, a small lake, with a muddy, reedy shore on the south side and a line of wharves and a town on the north side, climbing away up a hill that grew increasingly steep until it rose to a fortified acropolis at some height. It lacked the majesty of Mythymna, but it looked very strong, and it was far larger than I’d anticipated, and there were tilled fields stretching away up the river valley.
There was a fine sand beach right against the town, and on it were two military triremes and a third under construction.
Only now that we’d turned the last bend in the river could we see the camouflaged tower that stood among the trees. I glanced back at it, and then at the citadel high above.
‘Prepare to about ship,’ I said to Hipponax.
‘We could burn the triremes,’ he said.
I nodded. ‘Except that we don’t have a fire lit,’ I said, ‘and they have a garrison, and probably a system of coded signals we were supposed to…’
I was still speaking as the first arrows began to fall.
Hipponax leaned forward. ‘About ship!’ he called.
The rowers knew their parts; we were turning before he was done with the order, turning like a water bug, on the spot.
The arrows were well launched, plummeting almost straight down; heavy bows, more than two hundred paces away. An oarsman, a Chian veteran acting as the number two, died instantly when one of those plunged right through his head.
I dragged him clear of his oar, lay him in the middle space, and pulled his oar in lest it foul the next man.
More men were hit, and the sailors rushed to get the heavy canvas screens up, but we were around, our bow pointing towards the exit from the little lake, and Hipponax had the stroke. We received five or six more arrows, and we were away; two dead, six wounded, for a few seconds in full view of the town and fortress of Doriscus.
Two men died so that I could look at the charcoal fires burning on the hearths of the town. But I had seen a great deal on the few minutes we’d been in the basin; I’d seen the size of the town, the wealth of its agriculture; the ships and warehouses, and the sheer number of Thracians gathering at the waterside, immediately identifiable by dress, by posture, byt the sheen of distant tattoos.
Worth men’s lives?
I can’t be the judge. But ignorance kills more people than knowledge, and those three triremes didn’t trouble us that summer.
That’s another story, as you’ll hear.
# # #
We call Samothraki the ‘Island of Winds,’ and there are some old sailors who believe that all winds originate there. Certainly, the next morning, when we came off the beaches of the Evros, we caught a fine wind blowing out of the Thracian mountains, and it wafted us south, hungry but safe, across the Dardanelles.
Between the straights and Tenedos we found a clump of grain shops waiting for the wind to shift; big round ships like the Poseidon I’d ordered built the winter before, carrying Black Sea grain and probably fish oil, too, homeward bound for Athens or Sicily. I boarded the largest with Leander at my back, and the captain was obsequious, assuming we were pirates.
I was tempted. I was a rich man by then, even by the standard of Athens, but I was spending enormous amounts of my own money on the Ionian war, making Briseis the most expensive bride in Plataean history, I suspect. It was tempting, but all five ships were Athenian, except for one Corcyran, and I’ve never stooped to seizing allied ships.
I did hear their tales, though; that there were Carian in the straights, and that they feared the Persian squadron at Doriscus. I gave them reassurances and sent them on their way unplundered. Grain is the life’s blood of Athens; she needs grain from Aegypt or the Euxine or preferably both to keep prices low at home, because Attika doesn’t produce enough grain to feed Athens at the best of times, and in the summer after the battle of Plataea, there were burned homesteads and fallow fields everywhere in mainland Greece.
Then we turned south, taking the wind with us, and sailed for Mythymna, which we raised the morning of the second day.
This time, there was no Briseis waiting on the beach; no ceremony of welcome, and no feast. I was landing, full to the brim like a bride’s wine cup, with news and victory, and Mythymna was virtually empty of listeners.
They’d all rowed around to Mytilene.
Because Pausanias, Cimon, and Aristides, and the whole allied fleet, were on the beaches of Mytilene.
I stayed the night, despite my various causes for anxiety. I paid off my rowers out of the funds Briseis had left at Mythymna; I saw to it that all the former slaves got a wage, and I sat with the Africans under the trees by the beach and heard their tales of sailing coasts I’d never seen or even heard of, with Aten and Vasos translating and drinking my wine.
Rigura especially was good company. And I was putting off having to tell Briseis.
# # #
It was the work of a few hours to row around from Mythymna to Mytilene, and our reception there answered all expectations. I had time to think while we worked our way around the long headland at Sykimenea. Time to wonder what it meant that the Allied fleet was here. Had they taken Cyprus?
Had they failed?
As soon as I saw Cimon on the beach I knew they’d failed. He embraced me, hugging me hard, and Aristides was practically at his shoulder, pounding my back. This sort of reception is the result of men who’d been shaken; I could read it from the slight fropwn on Aristides face to the raucous cheers of Cimon’s oarmen.
And there was Archilogos. He didn’t look happy to see me, but that turned out to be a misinterpretation; in fact, he just had bad news to deliver.
‘I hear you swept the Medes from the sea,’ he said.
I shrugged. ‘We did alright,’ I said, wary of his look.
‘We’re to disband the Ionian fleet immediately,’ he said.
I rolled my eyes, but there was a great deal going on and I was busy embracing other captains and enjoying praise, which, I confess, I’m prone to do.
There was Lycon, one of my few Corinthian friends, commanding Penelope, and there was the Aegentinian navarch, Polycritus.
He managed a thin smile, pointing at my little squadron. ‘I hear that you captured them all yourself,’ he said.
‘Not quite by myself,’ I said.
‘Better than we managed,’ he remarked with some bitterness. ‘Half my oar-benches are empty.’
I looked back at Aristides. ‘Was there a sea-fight?’ I asked.
Lykon looked over his shoulder. ‘No,’ he said.
‘The furious arrows of the Lord Apollo,’ Cimon said. ‘We were hit with disease. We had to abandon the camp, it was so bad. My oarsmen got it too.’
‘All told, we lost a thousand men or more,’ Aristides said.
Let that put our casualties into perspective; win a naval battle, lose thirty men; scout a fortress, lose two men. Rot on a beach in a siege, loose a thousand men to disease.
‘That’s bad,’ I said.
I could see from their faces that they had a great deal more to say.
‘Where are the Spartans?’ I asked.
‘Camped on the other beach, other side of the town,’ Cimon said. He didn’t sound angry, just tired. ‘The beach with the better breeze, and the better access to water.’
‘And Pausanias negotiated for a market, and grain, for his ships,’ Lykon said. ‘But not, apparently, for ours.’
‘I can get you food,’ I said.
I found the man I sought on the waterfront; my friend Socrates.
‘I think we need Theophilos,’ I said.
Socrates scowled. ‘Nice to see you, too, Arimnestos,’ he said with a little sarcasm. And then, because he really was the most helpful man I’d ever met, he said ‘I know where to find him,’ he said. ‘Good to have you back. Some of these folk don’t know what they’re doing.’
I was drinking bad wine in the shade of Aristides’ awning when Theophilos sent word that I could meet him in the agora. ‘He’s overseeing a law-court,’ Socrates said.
I rose. Aristides raised an eyebrow. ‘Of course you know the archon,’ he said. ‘But it this wise?’
I shrugged. ‘You gentlemen need a market, and grain,’ I said. ‘Don’t you?’
Cimon was looking out to sea. ‘We do. But we don’t need to further antagonize Pausanias.’
‘The man’s impossible,’ Lykon said.
‘Not impossible,’ Aristides said. ‘Just shockingly tyrannical, even for a Spartan.’
‘It’s as if he’s afraid,’ Cimon said. ‘The victor of Plataea. What can he be afraid of?’
‘Are you gentlemen coming?’ I asked. I gathered my stool and Aten, and finished my wine. It was mid-afternoon, which in summer is just the time the law-courts reconvene. ‘If not, save me a space.’
Aristides frowned. ‘I’m trying to decide whether I do better to attend you, and keep you from some polemic speech, or remaining here, so that I’m not involved.’
‘Zeus,’ I spat, ‘all I’m doing is requesting a market on your beach. At your request, or so I thought.’
Cimon shrugged. ‘Fucking Pausanias has made us all cowards,’ he said.
Aristides looked at the town. ‘Listen, my friends,’ he said. ‘Athens and Sparta, yoked together, can defeat the Great King. Not alone. We cannot afford to provoke the ephors or Pausanias.’
Cimon looked as if he disagreed, and Cimon was a great admirer of Sparta.
Aristides picked up a chlamys and threw it over his shoulder. ‘Very well,’ he said.
So it was Aristides, Lykon, and Cimon who came with me to the agora. I sent Aten to find Briseis with directions for Socrates, because it was clear that there was a great deal wrong, and I was already in over my head. And Briseis was to politics as I am to a phalanx-fight.
I got some of it on the walk from the waterfronts into the twisting streets of the town, up and through the grubbier residential area, with mud-brick houses and wooden structures to hold merchandise and some cheap wine shops for sailors.
The longer they’d been on the beach at Amathus, according to Cimon, the worse Pausanias and the Spartans had behaved, demanding the first fruits of any raid, taking the fresh water, demanding the best spots on the beach for their ships.
‘Pausanias has taken Agamemnon as his guide,’ Cimon muttered.
Socrates led us, greeting people as if he was an old citizen, but he was an easy man to like and he’d no doubt already made a place for himself.
‘And why does he continue to disband every Ionian squadron?’ I asked.
‘He maintains they are untrustworthy and illegal,’ Aristides said. ‘He claims that all these islands remain the property of the Great King, and that the only acceptable solution is that the people who wish to be free of the Medes must sail west and found colonies in Italy or Iberia.’
‘That’s insane,’ I said. ‘I can form a larger Ionian fleet then you have right here.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ Cimon said. ‘Pausanias says it will turn on us as soon as it is superior.’
‘Mad,’ I said.
By then we were shouldering through the gathered spectators at a civil law court. Aristides’ eyes flicked to me. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I think he has his orders.’
Cimon frowned; I could tell there was something between them.
I was worrying about Briseis. Fleets and armies and Spartans and disease are all very well; I had a report on a Persian outpost, I had won a nice little victory…
none of that would matter to Briseis. Or, actually, it would all matter to Briseis; but in the market-scale of our lives, the loss of Herakleitus was likely to outweigh everything else.
That’s what I was thinking when the archon’s long staff slammed down three times on the marble paving of the law-court stoa, just ahead of me, and declared a case complete.
I met his eyes across the heads of two prosperous fishermen who were, neither of them, happy with the verdict. The archon was not happy–nor could I expect him to be, with sixteen thousand oarsmen and marines wandering his waterfront looking for wine and trouble.
‘Navarch,’ he said.
I bowed. ‘Archon,’ I said. ‘May I have a word?’ I asked. I felt as if I was an actor, playing Militiades, because he remained my model of how to do this; threat, bluster, praise, and flattery. And a little bribery when required. Miltiades had all the old skills.
We stepped back under the portico into the deep shade among the columns.
‘How can I help you?’ he asked, his formal mask giving way to an equally false look of beaming delight in seeing me. ‘I gather that you have won a famous victory.’
‘A very small victory,’ I admitted. ‘But better than defeat, and the shores of Lesvos are safe, at any rate.’
He nodded, his eyes on the law court. I didn’t blame him. The law court was an immediate problem, and the Medes were far away. Politicians have to live for the moment, like a swordsman in a desperate fight.
‘I gather that the Spartan Navarch asked for a market over on his beach,’ I said. ‘On the north side.’
‘He did. And I suppose you want your own?’ he asked.
‘Well, the Athenians do,’ I said. ‘I thought you were allied with Athens.’
He shook his head slightly. ‘We are,’ he said. ‘Your fool of a Spartan tried to give a speech yesterday, ordering the people to move to Italy.’
I ran my fingers through my beard.
‘I’ll do my best to get you a market when the law courts close,’ he said. ‘I’m sure the farmers want your business. I’m just not sure I can afford to have my town be the base for the Allied Fleet for very long. Can you help with that?’
‘Perhaps,’ I said, because that was the sort of policy commitment I wouldn’t make without Archilogos and Briseis to advise me.
He leaned close. ‘Remember what I told you about factions int his town?’ he asked me.
‘The aristocrats are distinctly offended by the tone of the Spartan. And his demand that we disband our squadron was a direct insult. Some of our people lost their whole families to the Persians.’
I nodded. ‘I need to market,’ I said. ‘You need the Athenians.’
He had already taken a step back to his law court, but now he paused and looked back. ‘What are you saying?’
‘You need the good graces of the Athenian fleet,’ I said.
‘You think they’d leave us?’ he asked. ‘Perhaps that’s best. We can defend ourselves.’
‘Perhaps,’ I said. I kept the sarcasm out of my voice and I didn’t say, You did such a good job the last time. Instead, I said, ‘But ideally, it would be the Spartans who sailed away, and left you with the Athenians and the Aegentinians.’
He nodded. He may even have nodded enthusiastically. ‘Yes,’ he agreed.
‘So help me,’ I said.
I touched his shoulder, and turned away, looking for Cimon and Aristides. And I saw them; they weren’t twenty paces away.
They were talking to Pausanias. He had four Spartiates at his back, and there was a circle around them.
I looked back at the Archon. He was staring angrily at Pausanias.
‘Because he’s armed?’ I asked the archon.
He used a very derogatory term for the Spartan navarch. He was flushed with rage; to walk about armed in someone else’s city, and by armed, I mean in your panoply with a spear, is tantamount to declaring yourself the conqueror. In fact, it is literal hubris.
By contrast, Aristides and Cimon and I were dressed like country gentlemen, in chiton and chlamys. I had a sword under my chlamys, and anyone who wanted to see that probably could, but it wasn’t obvious and it wasn’t going to scare a housewife.
Pausanias looked at me.
I smiled with as much meaning as the archon had offered me, and pressed forward to Pausanias.
‘I’m quite certain that I dismissed you from my fleet,’ Pausanias greeted me.
I shrugged. ‘But now you are in my city, navarch.’
‘Your city?’ he asked.
‘I am a citizen here,’ I said. It was true; I’d been a citizen of both Mythymna and Mytilene since the first revolt. Unless they’d revoked it. it was the reason I could trade hides here, among other things.
Pausanias paused, looking at me. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I gather that, against my orders, you raised a rabble of pirates and attacked some locals who support the Medes.’
It’s very difficult to be civil when you don’t particularly like a man, and think he’s a fool, and he is actually trying to provoke you. On the other hand, I’m a contrary man at times, and Pausanias and I had at least shared a battle and some politics. I thought I knew him.
‘My rabble managed to defeat a squadron provided by the Persian governor at Doriscus,’ I said.
‘Oh, now it’s a Persian squadron,’ Pausanias said. ‘By which standard, the pebble in my sandal is a great mountain.’
I shrugged. I was aware that shrugging has the same effect on a Spartiate as it does on a parent. Do you recall, when you were an ephebe, how your father felt about that shrug?
‘Zeus,’ he spat. ‘None of you so-called Greeks has the least sense of discipline or obedience.’
I leaned in close to him ignoring his soldiers. ‘You never ordered me to do anythign except leave your camp.’
‘You were ordered to go home!’ he said, growing truly angry.
‘I went home,’ I said. ‘I went home and fetched my wife, and we came back…’
‘Damn you, Plataean! You have made a great deal of trouble.’
‘On the contrary, Navarch, I have saved northern Lesvos from a major raid that would have been an embarrassment to the Allies and would have set you back…’
I was in mid-sentence when it all came together for me. The boldness of the Persians. The anger of the Spartan. The gold and the Samian spy. The Spartan emissary.
Someone had promised the Persians a free hand here.
I understood it, or rather, I read it in his anger. Pausanias knew that I had won a victory, and that victory wasn’t just a personal affront. Pausanias just wasn’t that petty.
My little victory had spoiled a piece of Spartan diplomacy.
In one moment, I saw the strategy and its fruits. I saw that Brasidas was doomed to failure in Babylon.
I saw that the Spartans were no longer attempting to save Greece. I suppose I’d suspected before, but now the proof was on the face of a man who’d won the greatest victory in Greek history, but lacked the depth to wear the laurel well.
‘Disband your ships,’ he snapped. ‘And silence your wife. You should be humiliated that a woman of yours speaks so much.’
‘Does she remind you too much of Gorgo?’ I asked.
The knuckles on his spear-hand grew white. ‘You dare!’ he said.
Aristides attempted to stop me, but I was through with Spartans. ‘I dare, Pausanias. Get you gone. And don’t return into this place in armour, or with weapons, like a conqueror.’
‘All these islands are either slaves to the great King or Spear Won,’ he spat. ‘I will go armed where I please.’
I shrugged. ‘You lie from ignorance,’ I said. ‘But you lie. These islands are free. they have fought to be free since you were born.’
Pausanias was at the edge of unreasoning rage, but as at Plataea, he held himself back. He glared, and then he mastered himself. ‘You are like some insect created to disturb me, Plataean,’ he said.
I nodded. ‘That may be fair, Navarch.’
He took a deep breath and let it out. ‘Rumour is you took a Persian prisoner,’ he said.
I nodded agreement.
‘Give him to me,’ he said. ‘That is a direct order.’
I considered a number of alternatives in less time than it takes Father Zeus to flash his lightning, but in the end I concluded that my son, if alive was on Skyros, not in the hands of Persians. ‘Very well,’ I said. ‘As long as you admit that this Persian indicates that I fought a Persian squadron.’
‘Do not provoke me, Plataean,’ he said.
Aristides took me by the cloak. ‘Come away, Arimnestos,’ he said.
Pausanias shook his head. ‘The three of you think you are a different fleet,’ he said. ‘Trust me in this; I will teach you to obey. Aristides, you and Cimon claim to admire Sparta, and I say this; our greatness is based on obedience. You will learn to obey me. Only then will we be allies.’
I smiled. ‘That’s funny, Navarch. Ally has a very different meaning in Plataea. It implies equality, and shared risk.’
‘Sparta commands and others obey. That is the only form of alliance that Sparta tolerates.’ Pausanias nodded, and turned away.
The people of Mytilene made a road for the armed men, a tunnel through the crowd, and the Spartans strode away, their red cloaks vaunting behind them.
‘I’m sure you meant well,’ Aristides said.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked him.
I realized that I couldn’t make my accusation without backing, in a public market. And anyway, I was in Mytilene; I needed to see my wife, and I needed to talk to my princess of spies, Alysia.
‘Meet me for dinner tonight,’ I said.
I clasped their arms, and then went to tell my wife what had happened.
# # #
Telling Briseis that I’d lost her son–our son–went almost exactly as I’d imagined, because I knew her so well.
She looked away, her face carved beautifully of iron. ‘I see,’ she said quietly, her voice firm. Not disinterested. I knew that this was Briseis in deep emotion.
‘I’m sure that…’
‘I have friends on Skyros,’ she said. ‘I’ll send letters.’ She glanced at me. It was not an unfriendly glance, but neither was it what you might call ‘loving.’
‘We will ransom him,’ I said with a confidence that I felt. Mostly. Except in the dark moments when I thought…
‘We may have to outbid Artaphernes,’ she said. ‘By quite a bit. In one purchase, he can avenge himself on us both.’
I had thought of this. ‘I doubt he’ll even know for weeks. We should have the boy home and dry before the satrap even knows…’
‘He’ll know,’ she said. ‘I assume he has a spy in this house. And a spy in your crew, and a spy, a dozen spies, on Lemnos. Artaphernes pays gold for news. His father always did; that’s how he did so well as satrap.’
I looked at my sandaled feet. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘You should be,’ she said. ‘And then, I’m utterly unfair, am I not?’ She smiled, and she was the mercurial woman I’d known as an adolescent. ‘It’s not that you lost him, my dear. It’s that this is what women dread every time our sons, our lovers, go over the horizon; that you will not come back, or you will come back forever changed. Wounded, angry, sad, in love with someone else, or dead and rotting…’
She lowered her head and pulled her veil of fine wool over it to cover her face. ‘I was better at this when I was young/. I told myself that I cared nothing for any of you. Believe me, it’s a better choice for a woman than giving love.’
I sat on her kline and put my arms around her. She leaned back against me. I could feel her pregnant belly, which seemed to be growing every day.
‘I’ll be old soon,’ she said. ‘This will be my last child,’ she said. ‘And then I won’t bear you any more. I want a daughter.’
‘I approve,’ I said. ‘Daughters are the best.’
‘I want a child who won’t go off to dip their hands in blood as soon as they’re old enough,’ she said. ‘Perhaps she’ll be a poet or a priestess.’
‘Perhaps she’ll be the Helen of Troy of her generation, like her mother,’ I said.
I felt her stiffen. ‘No,’ she said, fiercely. ‘Perhaps you think that was funny, but it wasn’t. It’s no life for anyone.’
But as if to give her words the lie, she snuggled back against me. ‘I don’t mean now,’ she said. ‘But there have been some trying times.’
After what seemed to me a reasonable length of time, I said, ‘I have invited Aristides and Cimon for dinner.’
There was a pause, and I heard her take in a great breath.
‘Of course you have,’ she said, and rolled to her feet, still graceful despite the lateness of her pregnancy. She was due in early autumn, and she was just getting to the hard part.
I realized that I had offended. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘But there’s a great deal going on.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘And we have a house. And someone has to feed the richest two men in Athens their diners or the poor things will starve.’
‘You like Aristides!’ I said.
‘I’ll go arrange dinner,’ she said. ‘How many did you invite?’
‘Cimon and Aristides,’ I said. ‘But I’d like to have your brother, and perhaps Parmenio, and Lykon.’
‘We need to talk about Ionia,’ I said.
She nodded again. ‘I’m finding that the freedom of Ionia may be too expensive,’ she admitted. ‘I’m going to go back to Plataea for the birth. I don’t…trust… everyone here.’
I nodded. ‘They’re afraid,’ I said. ‘I have another favour to ask.’
Briseis sighed. ‘Yes?’
‘I need you to invite Alysia,’ I said.
‘She’s not a dancing girl. You can’t order her to perform for men.’
‘I need her views on the Spartan herald at Sardis.’
Briseis nodded slowly. ‘I’d hate to think of her being tortured by Artaphernes because one of your friends spoke too widely.’
‘Put her in a veil,’ I said.
# # #
Briseis didn’t join us for dinner, and we sat on our kline in a fine, mosaic’ed room, eating red snapper fresh caught that day, and drinking too much wine. It wasn’t a pleasant meal, for all that; courtesy kept us at it without discussing the war, but we all knew that as soon as the dishes and side tables were cleared, we’d be at it.
Briseis came in when the food was being cleared. A pair of slaves brought her a heavy chair, almost a throne, and set it by my kline.
She sat, swathed in wool veils.
Archilogos, her brother, came and sat on my kline, beside her.
‘So,’ I said. ‘Let’s get this started.’
Aristides lay back, looking at the beautifully coffered ceiling and holding his wine cup on his chest.
Lykon rolled over and propped himself on his elbows, hands under his chin.
Parmenio took a barley roll, spread honey on it, and smiled.
Cimon lay back and nodded. ‘I’ll start,’ he said. ‘Pausanias has to go.’
Aristides winced, but didn’t disagree.
‘He is no more popular with the Corinthians than with the Athenians,’ Lykon said. ‘Which, considering we are Peloponnesians and members of the league, is perhaps the more telling.’
Archilogos nodded. ‘He humiliated the Ionian squadrons that went to join the fleet,’ he said. ‘And he referred to my ships as ‘pirates and rebels,’ as if our being in rebellion against the Great King was something of which he disapproved.’
‘It’s not Pausanias,’ I said. I looked at Aristides. ‘I’m sorry. But what you are up against is the policy of Lacedaemon. The Ephors. Pausanias is both conservative and very much a member of the ‘Sparta First’ faction. But he would not be misusing the allies unless he had orders to that effect.’
‘You think that he has orders to misuse us?’ Aristides asked.
‘Far worse than that,’ I said. ‘I believe he is supposed to see to it that the Great King regains Ionia.’
Aristides almost spat his wine, but he was a veteran symposiast, and he swallowed.
Cimon sat up.
Only Briseis was unmoved.
‘What’s your evidence?’ Aristides asked.
‘A month ago, there was a Spartan herald, a Spartiate, at the court of Artaphernes, Satrap of Lydia,’ I said. ‘More recently, there was a squadron in the north Aegean, acting with confidence against Lemnos and Tenedos, as if they had every reason to believe that their activities would not be contested. There’s been quite a campaign of Persian gold seeping into these islands; the Great King is trying to brew a counter-revolt and Sparta wants to see to it that this happens.’
‘Why?’ Cimon asked, but I suspected he already knew why.
‘Because Themistokles got the long walls rebuilt,’ I said. ‘Taller and stronger than ever before, isn’t that so? And now we have Piraeus, a larger port then Phaleron! And the navy is also larger. Athens is recovering from the great war, and is now preparing to have an empire. Of course the Spartans want to stop you.‘ I looked around the room. ‘There was a party in Sparta even as the Persians pushed into Attica who were cheering them on! There were always voices in Sparta supporting the Great King or at least praising the results. The ephors felt cheated over the Long Walls. In Sparta they no doubt say the walls could only have been built to secure Athens from siege…by Sparta!’
Cimon nodded. ‘I have heard those very words,’ he said.
‘And so the ephors feel justified in reaching out to deprive Athens of Ionia,’ I said.
‘Athens does not own Ionia,’ Archilogos said.
‘That’s how Sparta sees it,’ I said. ‘So Pausanias took the Allied fleet to Cyprus to further the policies of Sparta’s Cretan allies… and to keep the Greek ships in the south. But we’ve been active and lucky; we burned ships at Tyre, and defeated a squadron in the northern waters, and so the Persian threat to Ionia has not materialized.’
Aristides shook his head. ‘I find it difficult to believe that Sparta would enter into negotiations with the Great King less than a year after the death of Mardonius.’
I pointed at Eugenios, and he stepped out of the room and returned with a figure shrouded in blue-grey wool from head to foot; beautiful weaving, an enormous veil six feet wide and as long as a boat.
I recognized Alysia from her walk; and I had sent for her, after all.
‘Despoina,’ I said, ‘These gentlemen find it difficult to believe that the Great King is negotiating with Sparta.’
She shrugged. ‘I cannot prove the Great King is negotiating,’ she said. ‘But the Satrap of Lydia has had Spartan officers at his court for almost two months.’
Aristides lay back as if he’d been hit in the head.
Cimon sighed. ‘And the cream of the jest is that this evening, Pausanias ordered us to prepare for sea, because we’re going to lay siege to Byzantium.’
‘Byzantium!’ I said.
Lykon laughed. ‘Not even part of Ionia,’ he said.
‘Ah,’ I said, thinking of the grain ships. ‘Brilliant.’
‘Brilliant?’ Aristides asked.
‘A Spartan tyrant sitting in Byzantium can close the Euxine grain trade as will,’ I said, ‘starving Athens.’
‘Athens has Aegypt,’ Cimon said.
‘Not it the Great King chooses to impose the embargo that he’s long promised!’ Parmenio said. ‘I see it now, Ari.’
Cimon rubbed his beard. ‘I’m worried that I also see it now.’
Archilogos asked, ‘What can we do?’
Aristides shook his head. ‘Nothing. If Pausanias goes on like this, the Alliance will collapse anyway. And that might be best for everyone.’
‘Best?’ I asked.
Aristides nodded at me. ‘If the Spartan-led alliance collapses because of actions the Spartans take, then something can be build on the wreckage, like using old temple foundations after an earthquake. ‘
‘You are suggesting we do nothing?’ Archilogos asked. ‘You are suggesting that we just beach our ships and let the Carians attack our islands?’
Cimon ate a barley roll. It was still bulging in his cheek when he spoke. ‘I suggest,’ he said thickly, ‘that you beach your ships and overlook half a dozen privateers who can cruise your coasts. Launch them yourselves and pretend you have no idea who they are. Otherwise… I hate to admit that Aristides is right, but he is. Pausanias was the most famous man in Greece last autumn, and before his year is out, his reckless hubris will have cost him all he gained. Stay by your ships.’
I leaned over. ‘If you put twenty ships in the water after Pausanias is gone, there’s nothing he can do to stop you.’
‘And in the autumn we’ll make a different set of alliances?’ Archilogos asked.
Aristides looked at him, and then at Briseis. ‘Yes,’ he said. Just one word.
Archilogos looked at his sister, and he intended to protest, but for the first time that evening she spoke. Her voice was quiet, and throaty. ‘I see a different future,’ she said, and she sounded more like a Sibyl than my wife. ‘Keep your ships near to hand. Watch the coast of Asia. And if the Just Man says that we should wait for Athens, then let us abide.’
She sounded unearthly. And more to the point, later she claimed not to have spoken at all, and when I told her what she’d said, she tried to deny it.
‘A woman doesn’t speak in such a situation!’ she said.
‘You did,’ I chided. In Croton and other cities of Italy, and on Sicily, and other places I’d been, women sat with men. I took Briseis advice all the time; possibly more often than she took mine.
But then, she doesn’t spend as much time laying siege to things as she might. I’m good at siege work. As you’ll hear.
# # #
In the morning, I walked my Persian prisoner across the peninsula that held the acropolis and citadel of Mytilene, and walked down the steep street to the beaches that Spartans and their allies had taken. My Persian was a little more garrulous that morning, and I pointed things out to him; Mytilene is a beautiful place with two remarkable harbour-beaches, and the fortress is as old as time himself.
‘Do you feel better, going to the Spartans?’ I asked.
‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘I’m sure that they’ll see me home.’
Then he looked at me as if he’d said too much, but I looked away and began to prattle about the fineness of the homes. In fact, you could see fire-charred timbers where some of the best homes had been burned by the Persians back in the year Phillipus was Archon Basileus of Athens, but I didn’t point that out.
I tried to get him to admit that he’d expected to land on Lesvos, but he shook his head. ‘I really can’t say,’ he said, and other evasions.
I was conducted directly to Pausanias, and met him in a fine, probably captured, Persian tent. He had one side rolled up and he was seated on a camp chair, gazing out to sea.
‘Ah, the Plataean,’ he said.
‘I brought you a Persian, for good measure,’ I said.
He nodded, and a Helot handed me a wine cup. He gave another to my Persian, who took it and bowed.
Pausanias accepted his how like a man for whom other men bowed every day. ‘So,’ he said. ‘Are you prepared to obey me, Plataean?’
Sometimes, it’s better to just lie. So I lied. ‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Well, then,’ he said. ‘You may rejoin.’
This is the ‘artfulness’ of Pausanias. He assumed in his arrogance, that I wanted nothing more than to be back with the Allied Fleet. And he assumed that, when I rejoined, the fledgling Ionian fleet would collapse without me.
Ionians have had fleets since the Greeks went to Troy. Archilogos most certainly didn’t need me.
But I didn’t tell him that.
Instead, I said, ‘Are you aware there’s a Persian governor at Doriscus?’
‘Where’s that?’ he asked, and I explained, with the help of some almonds.
I watched him very carefully. I also watched my young Persian. Sadly, either I’m easier to fool than I thought, or there was nothing to see.
‘Interesting,’ Pausanias said. ‘But not for me. We’ll go to Byzantium, and if you and the Athenians will obey me, we’ll take it.’
I had been offered a seat. Now I took it, and leaned back as if Pausanias and I were old comrades which, in a way, we were. Comrades are not always friends.
‘Perhaps this time you’ll ask us how to conduct a siege?’ I said.
He made a face, as if there was something strong in his wine. But after a long pause, he said, ‘Perhaps so. If I do, it won’t be in public and I won’t be humiliated.’
I nodded. ‘Ask me to your tent, then.’
‘You’re not my type,’ he said.
I was tempted to make a Plataean comment about Spartans and their small boys, but I let it pass. ‘Speak to Aristides or Cimon, then,’ I said.
‘Would you believe,’ he said slowly, the way Laconian gentlemen usually speak, ‘that I prefer you?’
It was my turn to make a wry face.
He smiled. ‘Thanks for bringing the Persian without a fuss,’ he said. ‘There’s more going on than any of you know.’
Today, it was hard to see him as the scheming nemesis, the tyrant of Greece. He seemed much more like the competent Spartan prince who’d won the Battle of Plataea.
I nodded and rose to leave, and he spoke.
‘And Plataean,’ he said. ‘Silence your wife, before she does harm.’
And suddenly, it was not so hard to see him as the tyrant.
# # #
When I tell a story, I always tend to make it sound like a salmon line stretched taut behind a boat, the big fish already hooked, so that when you listen, you say ‘yes, we’re listening to a tale that will end with the Battle of Marathon’ or suchlike. And when I tell a story that way, there’s a way in which the stretched line is a lie; when you are in the story, you have no idea whether there’s a salmon hooked on your line of a piece of kelp. And there are many lines; in fact, there’s a net of lines, and no man or woman can easily tell which little line will yield a fish and which will come back empty, or wrap around your ankle and pull you in…
I think that my allegory is getting away from me. Suffice it to say that while this is a story about the Second Ionian Revolt, there were other lines in the water, and I was involved with them.
So, for example, while we were in Mytilene, I had the first of many conversations about a voyage down the Red Sea and along the east coast of Africa. Indeed, then and for a year after, I was almost as interested in hearing everything Rigura and his friends had to say. It was difficult to find the time to talk to them, because the meetings were constant; generally I find assemblies a waste of time, but when we had, as the ‘leaders’ of the nameless faction that found itself opposed to the Ephors policy, when he had, as I say, decided to take no immediate action, we then had to convince fifty trierarchs and ten times that many marines and officers that we were right in taking no action.
It was interesting, from a political point of view, that Pausanias, by his arrogance, had united the Corinthians, who generally loathed Athens, with the Athenians and the Aeginians. The men of Aegina had been brilliant at Salamis and at Artemesium; their navy was second only to the Athenian navy, and they were old enemies.
Bear with me a moment. Just consider that if you were Aeginian, in three summers you’d passed from a state of war against Athens, to an alliance with Athens against the Great King, to a loose coalition with Athens against Sparta, or near enough.
My point in all this is that I had precious little time to sit under an awning with a cup of watered wine and hear about the navigation of the Red Sea, despite that being one of the most interesting tales anyone could have told me. And these Africans had not only done it, but were good sailors who knew the technical details.
First and foremost, as we paid off the Ionian ships or consolidated them into a secret ‘privateer’ squadron under Archilogos, I kept the Cyrenean ship for my own, and crewed her, too. I promoted Rigura to helmsman; he was obviously capable of command. I left Hipponax as the trierarch and provided him with the best marines I could find.
Damon kept our first capture, mostly crewed by Ionians, but, but some careful manoeuvring, and using the departure of Xanthippus and three other Athenian triremes as an excuse, we had him listed as an ‘Athenian’ ship.
And the Raven was now a stout ship with a good crew. I moved some oarsmen about…
You don’t care. But these are the things that occupy you in the face of action. So I had precious little time to talk to Ole Llurin and Mera and Rigura. But as all three were now deck hands or officers, all of the Africans seemed more satisfied, and a few drachma and some wine went a long way to evening various scores. I heard their stories; They’d brought a cargo of worked iron up the red Sea to the Aegyptian ports, and then been convinced by a pair of priests to take their cargo overland to Memphis on the Nile.
No one had dealt fairly with them, and at Memphis the priests seized their cargo and enslaved them and their entire crew. After several revolts and the death of their captain in captivity, they’d been sold to a slave merchant in Cyrene.
They’d been rowing for a year, and only a little good fortune amidst all the ill had kept them from Salamis.
What could be worse than to die, a slave, in someone else’s battle for freedom?
But as day led to day and there was no open revolt, even when Pausanias released my Persian prisoner to be rowed across the channel to Asia, I spent more time with Rigura and his friends. Rigura’s Greek was already better, and I suspected Ole Llurin had more Greek than he let on, but Mera was the most fluent. With Aten and Vogas to translate and support, we managed to stumble along, and the challenges piled up It was, in effect, impossible to sail the red Sea without the support of the Aegyptians, with whom we were presently at war.
I mention this because, when I heard that my Persian had been released, I seriously considered leaving Pausanias and trying Africa then and there.
But the very next day, things began to move in ways that suggest that the Gods do take a hand in the affairs of men. First, my son Hektor sailed into the harbour in a deeply-laden round ship, full of Aegyptian grain, which he and Sekla had negotiated and purchased despite all the bans of the Great King. They’d already made the run to Athens, back to Aegypt, and into Mytilene. The fleet paid ready cash and bought the entire cargo, which did a lot to restore our fortunes and allowed Pausanias to declare a sailing date.
Hektor and Sekla brought us Onisandros, who had been my oar master for years; I’d last seen him bouncing a baby in Plataea. And with him was Polymachos, the athletic trainer and sometimes one of my marines.
I had to tell Polymachos that his brother had been gravely wounded at Lemnos and was there in the care of the local people.
I also tried to reach Pausanias to ask that something be done about Doriscus, but no one was interested.
Regardless, when he set the sailing date for Byzantium spirits rose. Every man in the fleet knew that they had been beaten at Amathus, and they were eager to make something out of the summer. We had three days to prepare, and we spent those days in a flurry of cleaning and polishing, loading food stores, and arranging resupply. For my part, I sent fifty oarsmen into the hills above the town with permission of the town council, and they cut wood.
The wood they cut, we sharpened into long stakes and heavy cross pieces; an easily erected palisade, with all the parts numbered. I’d seen it done by carpenters in Athens, and it worked well enough, in the end. We filled half the round ship with our palisades and we filled the rest with water, wine, and grain.
I left the round ship to Sekla, although he looked longingly at Apollo’s Serpent.
‘That’s a nice ship,’ he said.
‘You can have her when we’ve taken Byzantium,’ I said.
He nodded. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Except that I can’t afford to keep a trireme.’
I leaned over. ‘When this is over, we’re going to sail the Red Sea.’
His eyes moved slowly around the horizon and then met mine. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘Now you make me smile. I’ll have to fetch Doola, though. The Red Sea? When?’
I shrugged, and introduced him to Rigura.
# # #
I’m sure I’m leaving out a hundred details; trying to prepare for a major siege with an overall commander who is completely disinterested in the preparations is challenging, to say the least.
I think this deserves a little explanation.
As a group, the Spartans look forward to war as a contest. I suspect that they are as prone to fear as other men, but their whole way of life is directed at subjecting that fear to nobler virtues of loyalty to comrades and fear of the humiliation of failure.
But despite all that, the war for which they train is a contest; their strength and prowess against that of an enemy. I think this is why they detest a siege. Sieges aren’t won by prowess or strength; they are won by cunning and luck. The best way to take a city is to suborn a traitor inside to open a gate; the traitor’s hand is the most effective weapon. Second to that is disease; the poisoned arrows of Lord Apollo have settled more sieges than any other cause, and it is a matter of Moira, the fortune of the Gods, which side fails first under that deadly barrage.
The two virtues most likely to succeed in siege warfare are cunning and patience, both of which the Athenians have. And I’ll add to that another element, a sly one; Athens is a city of tekne, of craftsmen, great and small; and from marines to free oarsmen, the crews of her triremes are a cross-section of her crafts. Carpenters and miners, stone masons and ironworkers are all essential in a siege. Sparta had all these skilled craftsmen; but they mostly disdained to bring them to war, and in fact, the only ‘Spartans’ in our fleet were a hundred or so Spartiates with Pausanias. The rest of the Peloponnesian force was men of windy Pilos and sun-drenched Mykenae, Hermione and Corinth and the other sea-girt cities of the Peloponnese.
Hektor and Hipponax were inseparable, and had endless questions about the siege, its expected duration and the needs of the fleet. They were intelligent boys and they’d already worked out that Byzantium would be like Troy; that is, we’d have to keep the fleet and marines supplied for weeks from Lemnos, Lesvos, and Chios.
Having heard them out, I sent to Athens and Plataea for Megakles and Leukas, asking them to come out with round ships and to purchase grain. At the same time, I suspected we could get grain from the trade passing down out of the Euxine; that inland sea was ringed with golden grain, a byword for wealth in Athens. If I couldn’t have a life of piracy, I could at least make a healthy profit selling the Allied Fleet their grain.
And wine, which I recommended Leukas load in Sicily.
Neoptolymos, now ‘dismissed’ from service, offered to take all my messages to Athens, as he was going to run a cargo of mastic to Athens; just the sort of high-value cargo that a trireme could make a profit carrying. Mastic only grows on Chios, and everyone uses it.
The last night, Briseis arranged a dinner. We had Cimon and some of his officers, and Lykon, but for the most part, it was my people, all gathered. Instead of lying on couches, we sat on benches in the courtyard of our rented house under the spreading olive tree and ate tuna and wild boar and stacks of bread and salted oil, and we drank twenty big amphorae of wine. Onisandros had brought us word of all the preparations in Plataea; of temples being rebuilt, and our house nearing completion.
‘I’m going back,’ Briseis said. She began to outline to me her plan to gather all of our friends that autumn for a great dinner in Plataea.
‘You are needed hear, surely,’ I said.
She shrugged. ‘Until the Alliance rejects Sparta,’ she said, ‘there’s little I can do. I want to get news of Herakleitus. Then I’ll gather my household and go to Plataea.’
‘Pausanias will think that I silenced you,’ I said.
She leaned over and brushed my lips with hers, something that has always inflamed me. ‘Let him think what he will,’ she said. ‘Pausanias has become a character in tragedy. He is the tool of his own destruction. As he is a great man, the process is sadder than I had expected.’
Then we passed the wine bowl and told tall tales.
And the next morning, we sailed for Byzantium.
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