Octavian knows we are coming for him. This storm is his doing. His power has grown.
He means to catch us in the straits; the storm will shatter us on the rocks.
Enyo chants the stroke as the men row below decks. Our crew is under strength, and so my own hoplites man the top tier of oars. I am at the steering oars, helping Kleos brace them against the swift current. We have the wind with us, that is something. But it is a hungry, angry wind.
“It’s Gods-damn close,” Kleos says. He is much older than I am, and knows the sea better than any man in my company. “The closest race I’ve ever seen, captain.”
“We’ll make it,” I tell him.
I have done what I can on that account. “Should I have given him another goat?”
“Too late for that,” Kleos says and grinds his teeth with effort as the current plays the steerage again. I lean with him and we have neither breath nor attention to waste in talk.
The storm builds at our stern, a wall of black cloud, laced together with purple tongues of lightning. Unnatural.
I look ahead, watching the narrow straits, and the distant bright flashes of sails beyond. Octavian’s ships. They are through already.
Kleos calls to Enyo who relays the order. The starbord benches ship oars for three strokes while the port benches pull for all they’re worth through the turn. Kleos guides the steering oars and I give him my strength. Kleos calls, Enyo relays, both banks of oarsmen dip and strain. I may command these men, but Kleos commands the ship.
We are into the channel, among the rocks. The wind is a constant blast, straining our good Laconian canvas, and giving Kleos not an inch of leeway with his timing. We hit a tight, professional rhythm, supremely focused. Kleos orders the sail furled. The wind is too savage.
Lightning crashes around us, and rain sheets down on the deck. The sea rolls under us, like a wounded bull. Kleos bellows like the Sea Lord himself and the hoplites bark a war chant to keep rhythm. We swing through another turn, the keel scrapes stone, I can feel the good ship shudder.
“Louder!” Kleos says to me. Only then do I realise I am praying aloud. “The Sea Lord won’t hear if you whisper like that!”
Lightning shows me Kleos’ mad grin, and the silhouette of rocks astern. I can’t help but grin back at him. No petty storm will kill us, sorcerous or otherwise.
The next long minutes are lost in rain and wind and sea spume, water-slick decking, brutal work. In this trial Kleos’ voice is to us as the voice of Zeus himself. With his fierce eyes and wild, wet beard and hair, lightning blazing behind him, he rather looks the part.
A few more times our hull scrapes stone. We break oars, but not many. We plow on.
Then we are through. The storm pounces on us in full, but we laugh at it. We are through the strait and the worst danger is past.
His efforts frustrated, Octavian dispells his storm as quickly as he summoned it up. It is unsettling to go from bruise-coloured stormlight to daylight so quickly, but the reprieve is welcome.
Kleos huffs out a long breath in relief. “You were right, captain.”
The first of the ballistae missiles strike us in that moment. Decking and hull splinter under the impacts.
I know what happened. Octavian’s ships have come about and sailed within range while we were at the mercy of his freak storm.
“First tier, ship oars!” Kleos barks, and nods to me.
“Hoplites, to arms!”
They are twenty, all stout sons of Laconia, honed to the razor’s edge of skill. Leaving their benches and oars they don their helmets and take up more familiar tools. Kleos is bringing the ship around to meet the threat, even as the latest volley of missiles thunders down on us. My hoplites meet the deadly rain with shields, but the heavy bolts can still breach them if they hit square. Herodes dies so, pinned to his shield on one side and the deck on the other. Gods’ mercy, at least it was fast.
Kleos has chosen a ship, and commands his crew to frenzied action to guide us in. Unfurled again, the black sail bellies out full of wind and the ship leaps forward like a hound on the hunt.
Octavian knows if we can ram his ships or board them we will win. His crews are sound, and well trained, but they are not Spartans. They were not born and bred to war. He aims to kill us before we get that close. The next volleys are aflame with pitch. With the ship soaked down as it is, the fire is slow to take, but it will not be long.
“At speed!” Kleos cries, and Enyo, “At speed!” The oarsmen’s pace increases.
The sail is aflame. Parts of the deck are aflame.
“Hoplites! Brace! Brace! Brace!”
My warriors take a knee and lean forward, ready for the shock. Their shields are high and steady, their spears to hand.
Another volley of flaming bolts, though we are nearly too close for the ranged weapons. We will strike them within a minute.
The ship bucks under us. I can describe it no other way. It is like being astride a mad horse. She twists and splinters, shuddering in the water. The flames blaze high of a sudden, sweeping the deck. No man keeps his footing. Kleos is thrown and his oars swing out of ailgnment, sending the prow scraping alongside the other ship, instead of against her hull.
This is Octavian’s doing.
We still manage to crush a bank of oars, but that is all. The ship founders, taking on water fast. The oarsmen belowdecks will likely drown.
Halkyone is the first man up again and hauls me to my feet beside him. “Orders, captain.”
“Board them,” I spit. We don’t have much time. Our ship is dead, shattered and sinking and burning prow to stern. If we don’t get aboard the other they will pick us off in the water or leave us in the wreckage, to burn or drown.
My hoplites are up, some still with spears, each still with his shield and blade.
Phaedrus and Ptolemachus die in the first desperate rush. Phaedrus catches the crushing force of a ballista projectile. Takes it on his shield, as he was trained, but even his fair strength cannot match the heavy machine. Ptolemachus misses his jump, and ends up hanging by his shield arm from the rail of the enemy ship. He has his kopis in his free right hand and takes an arm off the first sailor who comes to repel him. The next one rams a spear against Ptolemachus’ helmet, and then through his shoulder into his chest.
I have an instant to see my brother breathe his lifeblood out through his mouth before he falls. Gods rest him.
Halkyone and I board together. Lykos is with us, and Straton, and Theron a moment behind. Butcheirng deck crew is grim work, and without glory. Then the marines arrive to repel us. Here is a worthy fight. I use my shield as much as my sword. I alone carry a gladius. My hoplites disdain the foreign weapon, but I have learned to use it. It suits the spirit of my mission to take it against Octavian’s men now.
Octavian. I could almost forget him for a moment in the rush of combat. He is not aboard this ship. He would not risk himself so. But he is near.
We kill our way aft. Octavian’s marines are stolid, I give them that.
When he sees we are about to take his ship, Octavian simply sacrifices it. He reaches out again with his unnatural power, and breaks its back. He crumples it amidships, lifts it from the waves and smashes it back. He mangles it as a petulant child will ruin a toy.
Lykos and Theron are crushed among the wreckage. Straton is battered senseless and tossed into the sea. Halkyone and I cling to a section of the bow.
Futile rage burns in my heart so hot I feel it must kill me.
Octavian sends another ship, cruising down on us at speed. Archers on deck pick off any survivors in the water. I have to watch them shoot good Kleos, and stalwart Kallodoron, and Nereus, my wife’s cousin, who has the best claim, next to mine, for this ill-fated mission of vengeance.
I am surprised when Octavian’s men drag us alive from the water. I have lost my shield so I go at them with just the gladius. Beside me, Halkyone fights like a devil, until they beat us both near death, held at bay by a ring of spears, and clubbed like dogs. They drag the shield from Halkyone’s arm, throwing it and his xiphos overboard. Our helmets follow.
“I can see I must kill you myself face to face to be sure you stay dead,” a haughty voice calls over the deck. Another surprise, Octavian is on this ship.
“I’m offended you would entrust the task to any other,” I snarl at him, rising to my feet. One of his marines moves to batter me down again, but Octavian stops him with a gesture.
“What have you done to your beautiful hair, brother?” the sorcerer asks.
I have shorn hair and beard in mourning and he knows it. I ignore the question and help Halkyone to his feet, returning his earlier favour.
Octavian is not an imposing figure; short and stocky, his physical strength begining to give over to the plumpness of easy living. He wears a magistrate’s robe, no wargear, only a dagger in his sash and that a showpiece more than a weapon. He picks up my gladius, and toys with it. He will not kill me with that blade.
“Do it then,” I tell him. “I’m tired of waiting. I’ll give your regards to Aides, shall I?”
“So eager for death?” Octavian says, feigning surprise. “Come, brother, speak sense. Give yourselves up, join us.”
Halkyone spits on the deck. “I would sooner forgo the sea and war forever and live as a shepherd in the hills.” I know the depth of that if Octavian does not; Halkyone loves the sea nearly as well as he loves battle. “I would sooner go in chains as a slave.
Octavian signals and one of his soldiers strikes Halkyone across the face so hard my brother staggers. “That might be arranged,” the sorcerer says. “But I think it not in my best interest to keep you alive.”
“I have heard that sorcerers were wise,” Halkyone grins through bloody teeth.
“Last chance my friend,” Octavian says, his soft brown eyes locked with mine. “We could do so much together. My power-”
“Your power was bought with the blood of my kin, betrayer!”
Octavian frowns like a boy who has been denied some petty indulgence. “I am sorry. The powers demanded a price.”
“I will kill you,” I promise.
“No, you won’t,” Octavian tells me softly. “Kill his man.”
Good Halkyone does not scream, even as he goes to his knees with their spears in his belly. I support him as they withdraw and the blood sheets down his thighs and pools across the deck.
“I am sorry, brother.”
“Captain,” he says, his voice firm and quiet. “Send him to us in Aides’ realm.”
Halkyone nods and closes his eyes as he dies. I let him down onto the blood-slick deck. “You have no honour.”
“Honour?” Octavian says “What use have I for honour, when death is all it wins?” He points to poor Halkyone. “You will not join me, though I paid the powers also for your favour. Squander your gift then.”
“I don’t understand you.”
The sorcerer shrugs. “That is abundantly clear. Bind him,” he commands.
I fight them, even though fists and feet are the only weapons left to me. I cannot win, but I will not submit without the effort. I break wrists and arms and one man’s knee. I break the tall one’s neck. But they beat me down again, like a whipped dog. I burn with hate and fury. I am a soldier!
In the end they dislocate my shoulders and secure my arms behind. They roll me onto a wet, heavy cloth. It is our own black sail, ragged and scorched, the proud red lambda darkened to the colour of fresh blood.
“Your honour brings you to this, my friend,” Octavian says, a false regret in his voice. “Here is your shroud. There is your grave.” He points to the sea, among the wreckage and bodies. “An honourable death, yes? That is all you Spartans crave.”
No honour here. No weapon in my hand, no shield, or helm. I should have died in battle. Not like this, not murdered in my failure, drowned like a weakling child.
His men bundle me in the ruined sail of my own ship, weighed down with stones, and roll me from the deck.
All is dark. I try to pray, to Poseidon, to fickle Ares and crafty Athene, to Nemesis… but the black sail and blood-warm seawater smother the words, smother breath, smother thought.