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Authors: Christian Cameron

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BOOK: Poseidon's Spear (Long War 3)
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I gave him some water when his eyes opened – they were just slits.

He punched me as hard as he could in the nose – my recently broken nose.

He roared some sort of war cry, and Skethes pinned his shoulders and Nestor rammed my loincloth into his mouth.

The guards, watching through the palisade, laughed.

Fuck them
, I thought. I had found a way to rebel. I went back to washing the brutalized man.

The three of us got him cleaner, and we dripped some water into him, and when the sun rose above the rim of the world, we fed bread to him, too. By then, he knew where he was. He didn’t
speak. He was, in fact, in shock.

As soon as the light was strong, we could see the bodies. Six of them. The two girls, the other Illyrian nobleman, two Illyrian servants or slaves and one of the oar-master’s bully-boys,
all dead in the sand, with a lot of blood around them.

The oar-master woke the slaves with cold water, and ordered us to bury the bodies.

‘You useless fucks,’ he went on to his guards, ‘can watch them, and you can think about how I’m going to take the price of two blond slave girls out of your pay.’
He hit a guard.

The guard flinched.

‘Useless coward,’ the oar-master said. ‘And one of them escaped. So we won’t get all their tin, and their war party will come. Your fault!’ he screamed. He looked
at Kritias. ‘If my contact here is killed, I’ll sell the lot of you as slaves.’

Really, you have to wonder that someone didn’t kill him. But I caught that. I’m still proud I did – neither hate nor shock nor the will of the Gods plugged my ears. Dagon had a
contact among the Illyrians.

I must have seemed to be listening too closely.

He struck out with his stick and hit me.

I didn’t make a sound.

The guards stood over us and prodded us with their spear points while we dug in the sand. Planting corpses in sand is useless – an offence to gods and men, an invitation to scavengers. But
he didn’t care, and the trierarch was silent and withdrawn.

We were down into the gravel layer under the sand, and making heavy work of it – we were digging with bare hands and no shovels – when the trierarch came up, stroking his beard.

‘A little hasty, attacking guests,’ he said. His voice trembled. He was speaking to the oar-master, but since no one on the beach was making a noise, his voice carried. He spoke in
Greek, accented, but clear enough.

‘You think so?’ said the oar-master. He sneered. ‘Don’t be weak. We need slaves. That’s what we are here for. And now we don’t have to pay for the tin.’
He looked at the wood line. ‘Besides, you know as well as I,
my lord
, that his uncle offered us—’

The trierarch spat. ‘We are here for iron,’ he said primly. ‘Not tribal feuds.’

‘Bullshit, I’m here for slaves and tin.’ The oar-master smiled. ‘And we’ll get more. The same way. Epidavros has promised.’

‘We let them approach as guests,’ the trierarch said.

‘Don’t be weak,’ the oar-master said. ‘We need Epidavros.’

There was a long pause. I had to assume that Epidavros was the oar-master’s contact.

‘Why were the women killed?’ Hasdrubal asked.

The oar-master shrugged. ‘My people got carried away,’ he said. ‘It won’t happen again.’

‘See that it doesn’t. Now I want out of here.’ Hasdrubal gestured at the ship. ‘They’re too weak to dig gravel with their hands. Leave the bodies. Let’s be
gone.’ He paused, his fear showing even in the way his right foot moved on the sand. ‘One escaped. They will attack us.’

The oar-master shrugged his infuriating shrug. I could tell that he, not the trierarch, was actually in command. And the name
Epidavros
stuck in my head. There’s a town of that
name on Lesbos. I met Briseis there, once. At any rate, he smiled insolently. ‘Epidavros won’t attack us,’ he said. ‘Even if he wanted to – it’ll be days before
he’s finished off their relatives.’

The Carthaginian trierarch turned and looked at those of us digging. ‘I want the men who killed those women to pay,’ he said. ‘Those women were worth the value of the rest of
our cargo.’

The guard next to me kicked me. ‘Work faster, motherfucker,’ he spat. He knew his turn was coming, so like a good flunky, he passed his anxiety straight on to a slave.

Hasdrubal pushed us back onto the ship. He switched any slave who was slow getting aboard, and he ordered the oar-master, in a voice suddenly as strong as bronze, to flog the last man on his
bench, and when that order was given, we went like a tide up the side and almost swamped the ship.

The Illyrian man could barely walk.

The oar-master ordered me to carry him, thus guaranteeing I would be the last man up the side. And I was. I was naked, my loincloth lost in the night, and he shoved me over a bench and caned me,
his stick making that dry, meaty sound as he struck me.

Then he put his head close to mine. ‘I can read your thoughts, pais. You take good care of the Illyrian slave. Show me what you are made of. The more you care for him, the longer
he’ll live for me.’ He smiled and let me up. ‘He called me a coward, do you know that, pais? So I’ll keep him alive a long time, and show him what a man is.’

Somehow, I got the Illyrian onto a bench – the starboard-stern thranite’s bench, that had been mine. Lekythos, the biggest guard, pointed at it, and then put me in the bench
above.

Now I noticed that a third of the benches were empty. The mad fucks were killing oarsmen and not replacing them.

All we needed was an Illyrian pirate. At worst, he’d kill the lot of us. I really didn’t care.

Time passed.

I cared for the Illyrian a little – not really that much. I had to survive myself. I’d like to say the Thracians and the Greek helped, but I never heard a word from them. They were
somewhere else – funny that, in a hull only as long as a dozen horses end to end, I had no idea where they were. They weren’t among the twenty men I could see when I rowed, and the
others around me were silent and utterly broken. In fact, one died. He just expired, and his oar came up and slammed his head and he didn’t cry out because he was dead.

I managed to get to the Illyrian in the evening, when the oarsmen were rested, and in the morning, before we began to row. We were off the coast of Illyria now, and we stayed at sea, and every
islet on that coast – seen out of the oar-port of the man in front of me – seemed like a potential ship. But our pace never varied, and we rowed on and on. We never raised our boatsail,
the small sail in the bow, and we seemed perpetually in motion.

And we never landed.

After a week, the food failed. Suddenly, there was no more barley, much less pig or thin wine. The guards complained and hit us more often.

My Illyrian awoke from whatever torpor had seized him and was given an oar.

We continued north. I assumed it was north – I could seldom see the waves.

The Illyrian didn’t know a word of Greek. I tried to teach him, in grunts and whispered bits, but he wasn’t listening: he didn’t care, and, after a while, I gave up.

The oar-master came to him every day. Stood over him and laughed, and called him a boy and a coward, and told him that he would be sold in Athens to a brothel. But the Illyrian was too far gone,
and spoke no Greek, so he endured the abuse.

Another day, he was told he was rowing out of time and beaten, and then beaten for crying out.

You know that feeling you get in the gut, when another man gets what should be yours? That feeling you have when you hear a good man abused? The feeling between your shoulders when a woman
screams for help?

When you are a slave, all that happens. For a while. But by taking away from you your ability to respond to these, they take your honour. After a while, a man can be beaten to death an
arm’s-length away and you don’t even clench your stomach muscles.

On and on.

We rowed.

We rowed all the way up the coast of Illyria and Dalmatia, and men continued to die, and we rowed without food for a while, as I say. It’s hard to tell this, not just
because it’s all so low and disgusting, but because there’s nothing on which to seize. Abuse was routine. Pain was routine. Men hit us, and we rowed. Our muscles ached, and we rowed.
Sometimes we slept, and that was as good as our lives ever were.

We came to an archipelago of islets, and they had small villages on them. Finally, we landed. None of us was allowed ashore, and all I can say is that after a time, a dozen slaves and some food
came onto the ship and some copper was unloaded.

And then it all happened again.

My Illyrian was moved out of the stern-post rowing station, and I was moved back to the upper deck, and we rowed. There was food. That seemed good.

We rowed.

We made another landfall, and were beached again. This place had a ready-built palisade for slaves, and we could see it was full from our benches, with forty or fifty male slaves waiting to be
sold.

Our Illyrian looked at the beach and wept.

We were pushed ashore, roped together and put in the palisade. By luck, I was roped to the Greek, Nestor.

After darkness fell, and the guards went off to fuck the female slaves in another pen – I call these things by their proper names, children, and may you never know what slavery is! –
we lay side by side, and whispered very quietly.

‘Still alive, brother?’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I said.

He nodded in the dark, so close I could feel it more than see it. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘I was thinking,’ he went on. ‘Arimnestos is an odd name. Where you
from?’

Where was I from? May I tell you the truth, friends? I hadn’t thought of home, of
anything
, for weeks.

‘Plataea,’ I said, and it was as if a dam opened in my head and thoughts poured in. My forge, my wife, the night she died, the fire.

The
Pyrrhiche
and how we danced it. The feel of a spear in my hand.

‘You are Arimnestos of Plataea?’ he asked. ‘By the gods!’ he muttered. ‘I’m a man who’s been a slave his whole life, but you! A gent!’

‘I’ve been a slave before,’ I said.

‘Ahh,’ he said, and nodded again. ‘Ahh . . . that’s why you are alive.’

We ate better after that port. We were also a lighter ship by the weight of our Cyprian copper, and we had forty more rowers, fresher men who hadn’t been abused. Indeed,
there were too many for the oar-master to ruin them all at once, and we had easier lives for a week.

We rowed.

Not one man died that week. That’s all I can say.

We made one more port call. None of us was allowed on the beach, and we picked up women – twenty women, all Keltoi with tattoos. They were filthy, hollow-eyed, and the first night at sea
the oar-master discovered one was pregnant, and he killed her on the deck and threw her corpse over the side. I don’t know why, even now.

The bully-boys forced the slave women every night. Sometimes these acts happened a few feet over my head. The despair, the sheer horror that those women experienced was somehow worse than any of
the blows I had received because it was all so casual. They were used like . . . like old cloaks to keep off rain.

And none of us could do a thing.

Or perhaps what is worse is that we
could have
done something, if we had been willing to die. Die without revenge – die nameless, achieving nothing, our bodies dumped in the sea.
That would have taken a special courage I didn’t have. But it took yet more of my honour. I was a
slave.

Then we turned south. I was moved to a stern oar on the top deck, and I, who feared no man in war, was terrified to be so close to the oar-master. Indeed, I was just a few steps from him at all
times.

Luckily, he was mad. So mad, he’d forgotten me and the Illyrian both. He hated women – all women – far more than he hated us. So while I had to witness his brutal degradation
of the slave women, I was merely beaten occasionally, as an afterthought. Tapped with his heavy stick when he was bored.

After some time – by Zeus the Saviour, I have no idea how far south we’d come – the oar-master cut the throats of a pair of the women in a sacrifice. He did it in the bow, and
I never knew exactly what happened. But after that, the other women stopped being alive. That is to say, they were still warm and breathing, but they were dead inside. A few days later they started
to die.

The trierarch simply let it happen.

Sometimes he reacted in anger and hit a slave, but mostly he just fingered his beard and watched the heavens. His two helmsmen said little.

From their stilted conversations, I gathered that we were on our way home, and that home was Carthage.

And I began to learn other things.

I was a good navigator – my best helmsman and friends had taught me well enough – but the Phoenicians have secrets about navigation, and they hold them close. They use stars and the
sun. All of us do, but they do it with far more accuracy than we Greeks. Now, since Marathon, we’ve taken enough of their ships to enslave a generation of their navigators, and we have all
their secrets, but back then there were still tricks we didn’t know: the aiming stick for taking the height of a star, or the secrets of the Pleiades and the Little Bear. Ah – I see
that the lad from Halicarnassus knows whereof I speak!

But the helmsmen and the trierarch were careless. They took their sun sights and their star sights a few feet from my silent back, and they discussed their sightings. Hamilcar, the younger
helmsman, was obviously under instruction and very slow. I think – I will never know – that he was so deeply unhappy with the life he was living that his brain had shut down.

And Hasdrubal, the trierarch, used him as his scapegoat. Every wrong answer was punished with a blow. His every thought and opinion was ridiculed.

Another week at sea, and the new slaves began to be broken. Our rations were cut – I can’t even remember why, just the satisfied voice of the oar-master telling us that we deserved
it.

We rowed.

Another week.

But the navigational lessons at my back had begun to keep me alive. They gave my brain something on which to seize. And Hamilcar’s obstinate ignorance became my closest friend, because my
understanding of the Phoenician tongue – bad to start with – became more proficient, and because Hamilcar needed everything repeated two or three times, three days in a row. Bless
him.

BOOK: Poseidon's Spear (Long War 3)
11.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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