Soldier of the Mist


Page 34




" ... and intercede for us, great Leonidas, intercede for us, all you heroes, when we must recount what befell the slave, Latro. For you know there was no true victory upon him, nor did he carry the favor of any god." This he spoke, and as he said "god," the sacred knife entered the bullock's neck to speed it to Leonidas.
Surely no one could have resisted such a moment. As I stepped into the firelight, I announced, "The gods say otherwise, Pasicrates."
Unable to recall my past, I cannot say whether it has held many such culminations, but I doubt it. To see these men, so hard, so strong, so prideful in their hardness and their strength, with their mouths gasping like children washed the last fatigue from me.
I said, "You were permitted to throw me so that I might speak with a certain Nereid. Thoe is her name. Now I have returned, ready to resume our match. When the others wrestled, it was for three falls - not one."
For an instant there was a hush so complete the crackling of the fire on the altar seemed the burning of a city. Far up the mountain they call Kallidromos, a lion roared. At the sound the men of Rope roared too, so many and so loud as to silence the waves and the grieving wind.
Before their shout died, Pasicrates and I were locked more tightly than any lovers. I knew his strength then, and he knew mine. He sought to lift me, but I held him too tightly, and slowly, slowly, I bent him back. I could have broken him then if I had wished, snapping his spine as a soldier mad for blood seizes his enemy's spear and breaks it; but I was not mad for blood, only for victory. I threw him to the ground instead.
Io rushed forward, laughing like a lark, with a jar of wine and a rag for my face. A Rope Maker did the same for Pasicrates. Another, perhaps a year or two older, asked, "What of the sacrifice? Surely this is sacrilege."
Pasicrates answered, "We give our might to Leonidas, just as might was offered to Patroklos. The winner will complete the sacrifice."
When we closed again, his strength was twice what it had been. For what seemed a whole night we strove together, but I could not throw him, nor could he throw me.
There came a moment when my face was to the fire, and he met my gaze. The lion roared again, nearer now, and loud as a war horn over the shouting of the men from Rope. Pasicrates stiffened.
"There's a lion in your eyes," he gasped.
"And a boy in yours," I told him; and lifting him over my head, I carried him away from the altar until the waves licked at my ankles, and I cast him into the sea. The lion roared a third time. I have not heard it since.
Chapter 37 Leonidas, Lion of Rope
"Hear our prayer," I intoned, dressed again in the chiton Io had kept for me, crowned with a few wildflowers and girded with my belt of manhood. "Accept our homage!" Moved by I cannot say what spirit, I added, "We do not ask for victory, but for courage." With that I cast the bullock's fat and heart into the fire, and the men from Rope sang a marching song.
The sacrifice was complete. Half a dozen slaves fell upon the bullock and hewed it to bits with knives and hatchets. Soon everyone had a stick with a gobbet of meat at the end of it. There was wine too, barley bread, hard cheese, salt olives, raisins, and dried figs.
Io said, "This is the best meal we've had since we've been with these awful people, Latro. You're lucky you don't remember what we've been eating."
"This is good enough for me," I told her. I was so hungry I had to force myself to chew, so as not to choke on the meat.
"For me too. But don't ever, ever try their soup. We have, and if somebody was going to pour that soup down my throat I'd cut it first." She went to the carcass and got another bit of flesh to put on her stick. "This is as good as dining with Kalleos, and I don't know anything nicer you can say about a meal than that. If you want some more meat, though, you'd better get it. There isn't much left."
I shook my head. "I'll have something else. Meat alone upsets the digestion."
Io giggled. "And to think Drakaina's missing it."
"She is? Where is she?"
"Still on the ship." Io pointed toward the bay, where our ship rode at anchor in the moonlight.
"Pasicrates thought the reason you never came up was that she'd put a spell on you. Or anyway, that's what he said he thought. If you ask me he was looking for somebody to blame, and he picked the right party. So she's back there with her hands tied behind her and a clout over her mouth so she can't work any more magic."
"I must speak to him about that," I told her.
With what remained of my loaf in my hand, I went to the fire at which he sat and seated myself beside him, saying, "Greetings, most noble Pasicrates."
"Ah," he said. "The victor. Yet a slave. Still a slave. I should not have demeaned myself, and the gods have punished me for it."
"As you say. You are our commander, the master of our ship and all on board. But if I'm a slave, I no longer recall whose. Your servant - I will not say your slave - has come to beg you to release the woman called Drakaina. She's done me no harm today. Has she harmed you?"
"No," he said. "We'll free her in the morning."
"Then let me swim to the ship, and I'll tell the watch you've ordered her freed."
He looked at me quizzically. "You'd swim there yourself, if I permitted it?"
"Certainly."
"Then you won't have to." He turned to one of his companions. "Take the boat and a couple of seamen, and tell them to free the woman. Bring her back with you."
The man nodded, rose, and vanished into the night.
"As for you, Latro, I want you to come with me. Do you know what this place is?"
I said, "They call it the Hot Gates, but I don't know why. Since we sacrificed to Leonidas, I suppose he's a hero and that he's buried here."
"He was," Pasicrates told me. "Our people dug up his body - what they could find of it - and sent it back to Rope. It had been hacked to bits." He spat. "The Great King paraded Leonidas's head on a spear."
As we walked on, I asked him what it was I smelled. It was like the stench of a bad egg, but so strong it overpowered even the tang of the sea.
"The springs. They boil out of the ground, not pure and cold like other springs, but steaming and reeking, sickening to drink and yet a cure for many ills. Or so I've been told. This is my first visit to this place, but they say in Rope that's why it's called the Hot Gates - it's the way to those boiling springs."
"Is that where we're going?" I asked him.
"No, only to the ruined wall. My men and I went to look at it by daylight, before you came out of the sea. Now I want to show it to you, and tell you what happened here. You'll forget, but I've begun to think that's because you're the ear of the gods; they hear, instead of you, or they take the memory of what you've heard from you. This is something the gods should know."
"There it is." I pointed. "Where that man sits combing his hair." I could see him plainly in the moonlight, naked and muscular, plowing his long dark locks with a comb of pale shell.
"You see a man dressing his hair?"
"Yes," I said. "And another - now he throws a discus. But this can't be the wall you're looking for. It isn't ruined."
Pasicrates told me, "Those must be ghosts you see. Here Leonidas and his Rope Makers exercised their bodies before the battle and readied them for burial. You and I are alone, and the wall lies in ruins before us. The Great King destroyed it so his host could pass."
I said, "Then Leonidas was killed, and the army of your city destroyed."
"He had no army, only three hundred Rope Makers, a few thousand slaves - he was the first to arm them - and a thousand or so unreliable allies. But the judges had instructed him to hold this road around Kallidromos, and he held it for three days against the Great King's host, until he and every man who'd stayed with him were dead. The Great King counted three millions all told, about half of them real fighting men and the rest mule drivers and the like."
"Surely that's impossible," I said. "Such a small force could never defend this place against so many."
"So the Great King thought." Pasicrates turned suddenly to face me. "That was a tear, I think, that struck my hand. You're no Rope Maker, Latro. Why do you weep?"
"Because I must have seen this battle," I said. "I must have taken part in it. And I have forgotten it."
There was a narrow gate in the wall, and as I spoke it opened and a gray-bearded man in armor came out. As he drew nearer, I saw he had only one eye. I described him to Pasicrates and asked whether it was Leonidas.
"No. It must be Leonidas's mantis, Megistias, who spoke the tongues of all the beasts." Pasicrates's voice was calm, but it was the calm of one who uses all his will to hold his fear in check.
In a moment Megistias stood before us. His face was pale and set, his single eye fierce in the moonlight, the eye of an old falcon half-blind. He muttered something I did not understand and passed his hand before my face.
Then he was gone. I stood in the front rank with other men, men armed as I was with two javelins, a helmet, back and breast plates, and a rectangular shield.
Turning to face the hundred, I shouted, "While the Immortals are gone, we could have no higher honor than to be the protectors of the Universal King, the King of the World's Four Quarters, the King of the Lands, the King of Parsa, the King of Media, the King of Sumer, the King of Akkad, the King of Babylon, and the King of Riverland. Let us treasure that honor and be worthy of it." Yet I paid little heed to the sense of what I myself had said; it had been in my own tongue, and knowing that my comrades understood it made its cadences more lovely to me than any music.
When I turned again, I saw why I had spoken. A knot of men was breaking from the melee, cleaving a path through the levies driven forward by their officers' whips; but there was small cause for fear: they were no more than thirty at most.
At my command, we cast the first javelin together, then the second. Our javelins were not like the light arrows of the archers; they had weight as well as speed, and they transfixed the hoplons of our enemies and pierced their corselets. Half a dozen fell at the first cast, more at the second, when every man drew his sword.
Another command; we locked shields and charged, the slope of the ground being with us. " Cassius! "
The man who opposed me was taller than I, his helmet high-crested and his battered armor traced with gold. He thrust for my eyes; but his own blazed not at me but at the Great King, who sat his throne on the hill behind us. I was only an obstacle that barred his way for a moment, then would bar it no more.
I wanted to shout that I was no less a man than himself, my honor and my life as precious to me as his to him. But neither of us had time or breath for shouting.
I swung my falcata with all my strength, and the downward cut bit deep in the rim of his hoplon. Its bronze gripped the blade and held it, conquered in its conquest; a twist of his arm wrenched the falcata from my hand.
Disarmed, I barred his way still, blocking each thrust with my shield, giving way one bitter step at a time. The man on his right died, and the man on his left. I fell, tripped by what I cannot say. He rushed by me, but I slipped my shield arm from the leather loop and still half-recumbent hurled my shield at his back.
Except that it was not my shield, only the cloak in which I slept. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, my ears still ringing with the din of battle. The bodies of the slain drank their own blood, becoming only sleepers, living men who breathed and sometimes stirred. Leonidas was but the dying fire. I rose and saw the army of the Great King, proud horseman and cringing conscript, melt into the slopes of Kallidromos.
I could not sleep again, nor did I wish to. I built up the fire and spoke for a while with Drakaina, who was also awake. She says Falcata is the name I give my sword and not its kind, and that it is a kopis.
Then, recalling the map drawn by the captain of our ship and the way I had wrestled on the deck with Pasicrates, I wrote of those things here, and of Thoe the Nereid, my dream, and all the rest. Now Io has risen too, and she has read the writing on the columns to me. There are three.
The first:
"Redface Isle, four thousand bred;
Three million scorned, till all were dead."
The second:
"The wizard Megistias's tomb you view,
Who slew the foe from Spercheius's ford.
This greatest seer his death foreknew,
Yet sooner died than leave his lord."
The third:
"Speak to the Silent City,
Saying that in her cause,
We begged no tyrant's pity,
And fell obedient to her laws."
A sailor who heard Io read said these verses, which Io and I agreed in thinking very fine, were put here by an old man called Simonides; but he does not know him personally.
Chapter 38 Wet Weather to Sestos
Waves broke over the bow all day, while the wild wind the sailors call the Hellesponter laid the ship on her beam ends. If it truly blew from that part of the world, we could have done nothing, as the captain told me, for it would have come across our bow with the waves. It did not, but in fact blew out of those northern lands that are said to be rendered uninhabitable by bees. Thus, by pulling the sail to starboard as far as we could, we plunged across the pounding sea as if our fat, rolling Nausicaa were a racing chariot, passing the island the sailors call Boat a little after dawn.
If it is a boat, it is a burning boat; for it is here, they say, that the Smith God has his workshop, and the sail of Boat is in fact the smoke that rises from his forge. They say too that this god once built a metal man to guard the Island of Liars, but his wonderful creation was destroyed by the crew of a ship from Hundred-Eyed.
Save for the captain, a few sailors, and myself, everyone fell prey to the sea disease. The captain assured me it was not serious and would cure itself as soon as the sea was calmer, it being no more than a sleight of the Sea God's to preserve the rations of good ships by ensuring that their greedy passengers eat no more and offer all they have already consumed to him.
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