Alcidas didn’t murder Phrynus, merely lopped off his hand, but that was a show of weariness, not mercy. Cutting the throats of 200 mariners was exhausting business. “Just cripple them,” Alcidas gestured at the twenty or so still left, Phrynus among them, and stumbled drunkenly away. Lying on the dock afterwards holding his stump, Phrynus knew the greater mercy was a throat cut. When he caught up with Alcidas, he would provide that.
Alcidas and his Spartan pirates took off the next morning, where, no one knew, and Phrynus was thrown in the hold of a merchanter that made its cautious way out of Myonnesus. The pilot feared what had befallen Phrynus’ ship and, consequently, made a roundabout, slow return to Athens. By the time they docked, Phrynus was the only one of his maimed compatriots still alive.
And barely that. He was comatose from the raging infection in his left hand and could not tell the compassionate, but practical, pilot who he was or where to take him so they left him at the spring of Asclepios. The acolytes bathed Phrynus’ stump daily until the putrescence subsided and hard scarring formed. At some point, he came awake and, at a later point, left, thanking the acolytes and promising a substantial sacrifice of gold and crowing cocks when his fortunes returned. The acolytes shrugged and went back to work; a one-handed rower had no prospects of fortune.
Phrynus negotiated the Parthenon and the crowds of refugees escaping the Spartan scourge, careful to avoid the filth of their camps and the contentious groups demanding release to attend farms that were, no doubt, already burned. It took him until nightfall to reach his own house and he walked straight in, startling Hestia, who thought him a shade come to complain about his lack of burial. After finally grasping the situation, she wished he had been a shade. “How will we eat?” she wailed, pointing at his handless left arm. The children joined her, knowing they would soon have to cull the trash heaps outside the refugee camps and along the Long Walls to find food and would become the laughing stock of their former friends. Phrynus looked at her, thinking how ill named she was, and left.
He made his way to the other side of the Parthenon where one of Lysias’ smelters was located. Cyril, a particularly adept greave maker, worked there. Cyril was at the forge pouring bronze when Phrynus approached. “Rower,” Cyril greeted.
“I want you to make me a hand,” Phrynus held up his stump.
Cyril’s eyebrows rose. “Misfortunes of war?”
Phrynus nodded. “I want to replace it.”
“Best you pray that Zeus grow you another. Or find a trireme intent on making circles,” Cyril chuckled at his own witticism.
“I want you to make me another hand.”
Cyril eyed him. “I could. It would be a thing of beauty. But there is no way to attach it.” He pointed at Phrynus’ stump.
“Attach it the way you would a greave.”
Cyril considered that and nodded. “Seven drachmas.”
Phrynus swayed at the expense. “Three drachmas, three obols,” he countered.
“You understand the craftsmanship involved?” Cyril feigned insult, “Five drachmas, one obol.”
They settled on four drachmas and two obols, a little more than half a week’s wage for Cyril, quite satisfying to him, and the last of Phrynus’ savings, which was not. “What are you doing?” Hestia cried when, at the end of the agreed upon week, he withdrew the coins from the floor trap and prepared to meet Cyril. “We will starve!”
“We will not,” he said to assure her, leaving out that starvation depended on the fit of the new hand and the willingness of a pilot to take on a maimed rower. Good chances for both, considering Cyril’s reputation and the casualties suffered this far.
Cyril met him at the entrance, “I am a humble man,” he said while Phrynus kept a straight face, “but this is a masterpiece.” He flourished a box of acacia, a nice touch, Phrynus had to admit, and opened it. A hand of bronze lay snug in wool, cords wrapped around it in a pleasing manner, the fingers of the hand gathered at the thumb in a closed circle. “Let me show you,” Cyril took it out and turned it onto Phrynus’ stump, cold against the flap. Expertly, he wrapped the cords about Phrynus’ chest, gathering the ends about the opposing elbow. “You can loosen or tighten the cords as required,” and Cyril showed him how- lift an elbow to tighten, flip the stump to ease. “Practice it,” Cyril ordered and Phrynus did, alternately pulling and loosing the cords until he could keep the hand snug against his stump even during the wildest of maneuvers. “It will hold either oar or spear,” Cyril said and showed him the most clever of innovations- the closed circle of the hand popped out, the bronze circlet dangling from a hidden chain, adjusting the hand to different shafts. “Wrap the chain when you hold a spear,” Cyril warned, “or your stabbing will drive it out.”
“It is a thing of beauty,” Phrynus could barely breathe.
“As I said.”
“You have made me a whole man.”
“In only your eyes.”
Phrynus nodded, gave the coins to Cyril. “It is all I have.”
“I would give you more…”
Cyril smiled. “Tell the other maimed. That’s worth a drachma in itself.”
Phrynus headed towards Piraeus. He got there in the late evening and slept on a dock until morning. He asked a netter about Admiral Paches and got directions. The admiral’s pilot was standing next to the piers, supervising the ship fittings. Shouts of men combined with the wash of triremes just pulled from the depths. Phrynus nodded approval. Clean vessels were fast vessels.
“Do you seek Alcidas?” Phrynus asked.
“We do,” the pilot, Teutiaplas, said. “He goes to Patmos.”
“Do you leave for there?”
“We will try,” he eyed Phrynus. “This is your concern, how?”
Phrynus raised the bronze hand. “He did this to me.”
“I was there,” Teutiaplas said, “I was one of Alcidas’ captains. He turned out a poltroon,” he gestured at Phrynus’ hand, “so I left him to aid Paches.” He paused. “I am sorry for your hand. Had I known his intentions, I would have intervened.”
“That you are here speaks of your honor,” Phrynus said, “so, on that honor, I ask a favor.”
“Take me on your fleet.”
Teutiaplas was appropriately startled. “You cannot row.”
“I can.” Phrynus fetched an oar and locked it in the hand. Several gathered to watch as he stood on a piling and commanded the oar. “You make odd movements,” Teutiaplas observed.
“It’s how I keep the hand tight to the oar, by shifting the cords.”
Teutiaplas shook his head, “It’s unnatural. You’ll throw the other rowers off rhythm.”
“I will not.”
Teutiaplas said nothing and Phrynus saw the rejection. “I must find Alcidas.”
Phrynus merely looked at his bronze hand. Teutiaplas frowned. “You’d visit the same on him? Vengeance, citizen? That way is madness.”
“But it is a way.”
Teutiaplas regarded him. “Paches is not here. He’s in Mytilene, attending to business. We go to Patmos after we have offloaded the slaves and cargo and cleaned the remaining ships. You may help with that. It may you will earn passage. It may the hard work burn out your rage, too. Three obols a day.”
“The standard is a drachma.”
“But you can only do half the work.”
Phrynus stilled. He was a practical man and accepted circumstance, no matter how unjustly brought- a headwind preventing landfall, a spoiled cargo- things that, through no fault of his own, reduced expected wages. He recovered circumstance through his own efforts, not wailing to the gods, and had earned enough respect for that to ensure future berths. It’d be the same now. “If I show that not to be true, will you adjust my pay?”
He was assigned to a gang unloading Mytilene loot from one of Paches’ triremes. When emptied, the ship would be stripped and scoured and refitted. A week they had, so the foreman, Erabulus, shrugged and threw Phrynus on the ropes. If Teutiaplas was reduced to hiring cripples, he was not one to question it. The other dockmen stared at the bronze-handed man and gave him room, should the bad luck clinging to him like the recent plague rub off. Phrynus pulled and hauled and eventually convinced them he would not be a hindrance.
“Move off there!” Erabulus called to the gang sometime after the noon meal and Phrynus joined them at the other side of the cleaning dock. “What’s going on?” he asked a caulker, who shrugged, “They bring out the last of the treasures.” Must be valuable, indeed, to get them to stand aside, and Phrynus used his bronze hand to ward a place up front. Guards stood on the dock while an official escorted two beautiful women, dressed in house cloth, down the plank into the midst of the soldiers, who arrayed about them protectively and marched away. Must be Paches’ household, Phrynus concluded and, impatiently, waited to see what else offloaded. But Erabulus yelled, “Back to it!” and the men, sullen, flowed to their places. Phrynus stopped the caulker, “I thought there was treasure.”
“You just saw it.”
The caulker spat and made a sign invoking luck, “Those two women, Helenais and Lemaxis. Paches had their husbands killed on Mytilene and took them for himself.”
Phrynus was shocked. “That is an evil thing.”
“It is,” the caulker said and spat once more and invoked more luck and joined the gang. Phrynus did, too, stationing himself at the strongest rope to ease the trireme down into the depths.
The day longed and Phrynus was in the numb state that served him well as a rower, where thought and pain gave way to the rhythm. It was the same at the end of an oar or rope and Phrynus heard, in his stupor, the sounds of grudging admiration from the gang. That drachma would be his by the end of the week.
It turned out sooner. “To me!” Teutiaplas called and the gang formed about the pilot, who was standing on a crate and holding a parchment. “Men of the docks,” he said, “we have need of that trireme now.”
Erabulus was astonished, “But, pilot, it has just been settled in the bottom mud!”
“I know,” Teutiaplas nodded, “but still.”
“It has to be scraped and sealed.” The impossibility was evident. Even counting the time for the seawater to clean the decks, there were the tasks just named.
“I know,” Teutiaplas was sympathetic, “but she is the fastest of the fleet and for this order,” he rattled the parchment, “we need all speed.”
Erabulus folded his arms, “Three days,” he said.
Teutiaplas frowned and the argument would have started but Phrynus stepped forward. “One,” he said.
There was a collective gasp. Teutiaplas stared at him in astonishment while Erabulus did so in rage. “For two drachmas per worker,” another collective gasp and Erabulus went purple, “with five for him,” Phrynus pointed at the foreman, who was greatly mollified by that. “And one,” Phrynus tapped his chest with the bronze hand, “for me.”
Everyone held their breath. Teutiaplas gazed at the sun’s reach for the west and pointed at it. “By this time tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Phrynus said.
The gang all looked at Phrynus and then at each other and, with a roar, rushed back to the dock, Erabulus shouting orders. “You get me five drachmas for this,” he pushed his face into Phrynus’, “and I will cut a dove for your hand at Hephaestus’ shrine.” Phrynus grinned and found a place on a rope, the men gladly allowing him slack to wind it about his stump.
All through the night, a frenzy of hauling and scouring, the caulkers pouring new oakum while Phrynus and the others ranged the trireme peeling off barnacles and blading out the lower decks of what human waste the seawater missed. By noon, the trireme was on its final side with hot tar running across it and, by mid afternoon, it was being painted and refitted. By the time Teutiaplas remounted his crate and measured the sun, they were pulling the trireme into its lock. As the last cable was cinched in place, Teutiaplas stepped off the crate and boarded, while the men fell down, almost dead, at their stations. Some time later, Teutiaplas emerged and stepped to the prow where he could see over the exhausted, panting, now mostly asleep, crew. “It is ready,” he said, admiration deep in his eyes. The men just grinned at each other, too beat to even cheer, but many at least slapped Phrynus on the shoulder, some touching his bronze hand in reverence.
“Make way,” Teutiaplas called and the crew dragged themselves to the other side of the dock. Coming down the pier were royal thranites, holding their polished and gleaming oars aloft while they marched in phalanx step down to the gangplank. Their eyes remained aloof, ignoring the gang of wharf rats strewn about the dock, panting and, watching with envy. Just as well; Phrynus did not want to be recognized. He knew most of them, and didn’t want tales of his fall spread about the fleet.
“All thranites?” the caulker whispered. “For all three decks?”
“They must want great speed,” Phrynus whispered back. “Why?” the caulker was perplexed. “What’s so important?” Phrynus gestured to the middle of the parade, where a messenger, in the whitest of tunics, held before him a gold parchment box. “The message being delivered.”
“It is an execution order,” Teutiaplas, who was close enough to hear them, said, without turning around. “The Assembly wants all the males of Mytilene dead.” Some of the crew gasped at that. Phrynus did not. He stared at his bronze hand. “Good.”
Teutiaplas looked at him, “Vengeance, rower, is a never ending storm.”
“They’re backing Sparta, aren’t they?” Phrynus spat.
Teutiaplas said nothing as the royal crew took possession of the trireme and prepared. Phrynus’ arms ached with memory as the oars, in precision, rose, disappeared, then reappeared through the locks in unison. Call from the master and the first stroke, over half on time, backed the trireme out. Phrynus was impressed. “They are very good.”
“Cleon’s own,” Teutiaplas said unnecessarily because Phrynus recognized the livery. He’d tried for that stable but he wasn’t quite the rower as these. He looked at his hand. Now, he’d never be.
“You’ve all done a magnificent thing,” Teutiaplas announced and began walking down the prostrate crew, shaking some awake to pay them. Erabulus grinned as the five coins dropped into his purse. “I want him with me all the time,” he said, pointing at Phrynus, “as a full paid dockman.” Teutiaplas agreed, dropping two coins, not one, on Phrynus’ lap. Phrynus held them, gratitude showing on his face. He would not starve. Hestia would not lose her home.
“Be here tomorrow,” Teutiaplas said and walked away and the crew, those who had not passed out, made their various ways off the dock. Phrynus went home, placing the coins on the table and then curled up on his couch, barely registering Hestia’s weeping of relief.
He was up at cockcrow. “Where are you going?” Hestia was preparing cakes from the flour the coins had gotten her last night. “I am now employed,” he said, tightening the straps of the hand, “as a porter and fitter.” She began to weep, as did the children who envisioned again the ridicule at their lowered status. Phrynus stared at them and pointed his bronze hand at the cakes. “You will eat. You will have a place to sleep. And you can proudly say,” this for the children, “that your metal-handed father does twice the work of fleshed ones.” And he left, appreciating Zeus’ struggles with Hera a bit more.
He was at the dock as the sun fulled and walked up to Erabulus, who laughed and assigned him to a rope detail. They had three triremes to unload, sign of Alcidas’ absence from the trade routes and Phrynus asked one of the merchantmen if they had news of the Spartan butcher. “Somewhere off Patmos,” the Thracian shrugged, looking at Phrynus’ bronze hand with distaste. So, nothing new. “Who pursues him?” Phrynus pressed but the Thracian walked away. Teutiaplas, who was standing close by, frowned but said nothing.
There was a flurry and bustling at the top of the pier and everyone stopped. Another contingent stood there, with a tall, angry man standing in the middle. “Cleon!” a roper exclaimed and Phrynus stared at the strategos. Why would he be here?
They soon found out. “I need rowers!” the red-faced madman bellowed, the force of his voice almost knocking them to the wharf.
“There are none here, strategos,” Teutiaplas bowed and spoke softly, “these are all wharfmen.”
“They’ll do,” Cleon glowered at him. “I don’t need thranites, just a couple of dozen thalamites to fill the benches.” Cleon’s voice rose to its typical raging level as he walked into the midst of the astonished workers. “I will pay my standard rate of two drachmas a day!”
A gasp and a rush on Cleon as the wharfmen fought for position. Even Erabulus was in there, no doubt thinking what a lucrative few days this had become. Phrynus snorted because Cleon paid his crew a talent for each voyage and, when everything was settled, the average was considerably more than two drachmas. Cleon was getting a bargain. But what was this? Cleon had dispatched his best crew on the best ship just yesterday.
Odder, Cleon was bypassing the most obviously fit wharfmen for older, spindlier, more broken-down ones. “You, you, you,” he pointed through the gang, ignoring the quite healthy Erabulus, which confused the foreman. Cleon almost missed Phrynus then caught the gleam of his bronze hand in the morning light. He stared at it. “Can you row with that thing?”
“Yes,” he said guardedly, giving Teutiaplas a warning look.
Cleon smiled. “You, too,” and there was a strange light of triumph in his eyes that made Phrynus suspicious. But, a trireme! He stepped into line with the old men, the soaring relief and sense of return balancing out his concerns.
Teutiaplas eyed the selected crew and the grinning Cleon and voiced his own suspicion, “There are better men, strategos.” The strangeness of the picks offset Teutiaplas’ relief that those better men were left to him.
“They’ll do,” Cleon warned the pilot and turned to his newly assembled crew. “Athenians!” he announced, “I need your best time and effort to overtake the trireme that left yesterday for Mytilene!”
All of them should have burst out laughing at the sheer ridiculousness. A day’s head start and the best crew on the Greek Sea? Sure. But Cleon’s murderous eyes kept them silent. “I have another order,” he flourished a parchment, “that offsets the one sent yesterday.”
The gang looked puzzled but it came clear to Phrynus and, by his cleared brow, Teutiaplas. Of course. The Assembly had suffered a pang of conscience over their murder decree, so they ordered Cleon to countermand it. And he would go through the motions, even to the point of committing the remainder of his livery to the effort. If they didn’t quite get there in time, well, too bad, it was the manpower shortage that forced Cleon to use untrained and unskilled thalamites, including a one handed rower, for Zeus’ sake.
Phrynus almost smiled. It was masterful, typical of the duplicitous Cleon. And Phrynus gets on a crew and back into his profession…
…until the general ridicule of the failed mission became legend, and then he would never be allowed to look at a trireme, much less crew one. In his mind, Phrynus saw Alcidas slipping out of his grasp.
“Strategos!” he called out. Cleon, already tending to details with Teutiaplas, turned, frowning. “Yes?”
“If we are able to do such a feat,” Phrynus began, and here Cleon almost laughed outloud, “will you not reward us?”
The newly hired crew leaned forward eagerly and Cleon looked at them shrewdly. “If you are able to overtake the first order,” Cleon could not keep the mirth out of his voice, “what would you want?”
Phrynus made sure to raise his bronzed hand to Cleon’s view, “A crew talent.” Your standard rate, Cleon.
The crew gasped and made swift calculations and realized how much more was involved and looked at Cleon eagerly. Teutiaplas whispered in Cleon’s ear and the strategos peered at Phrynus. “Yes,” he said after a moment, “yes, now I recognize you.” Phrynus waited. He had banked on that, could almost see Cleon’s swift thought- do you see how I tried, Assembly? I even hired a newly unemployed rower, a good one! That he was bronze handed had nothing to do with it!
It only took a moment. “Done!” Cleon called and the crew cheered and scattered to make ready. Cleon smirked at Phrynus and turned away. He did not see Phrynus smirk back.
The arrangements were quick and a harbor crew brought up a trireme. Phrynus frowned at it. Older, heavier by the keel, lots of dipping down and the wind would be a problem. Okay, so, the first stroke would have to be a dig and a pull-up, followed by a swift skimming row, one two, one two, like that. “Listen to me,” Phrynus said quietly to the others, and he explained the method. One of the oldest stared at him, round eyed, “You can show us?”
“Yes, after we are underway. But don’t reveal what you know. And, when we start, be as clumsy as you can.”
“I don’t think that will be difficult,” the oldster laughed and the crew joined in. “Will we win the talent?”
“Yes, if you follow my lead.”
“But the other trireme…”
“The problem with elite crews,” Phrynus whispered so Cleon couldn’t hear, “is their ego.” The oldster nodded, understanding. The other crew would fight among themselves, slowing down the ship.
“Load!” Cleon called and Phrynus led the way on board and down the ladders to the lowest level. He quietly showed everyone how to sit, what angle to hold the oars, how to move their feet. Phrynus took a middle lock so he could control the maximum number of thalamites. The oldster slipped in next to him, “I think I’ll row with you,” he said, grinning, “you have a lucky hand.”
“You may not like it,” Phrynus warned, “I have to make wild adjustments and I will bump you.”
“Then bump me,” the oldster shrugged, “just do it with the bronze hand.”
Phrynus laughed. The oldster introduced himself, “Carpides,” and Phrynus helped him adjust.
“Zygites!” a voice called from outside and Phrynus watched between the boards as the next level up marched on and took position. They looked competent.
“Hey!” there was a shout and a scrambling and Phrynus looked across the row. A couple of the crewmen was scrambling out of a urine stream coming from the zygites above. That amused the rest of the zygites and they added their own streams, which Phrynus expertly dodged. “Is this normal?” Carpides said, wiping his face, not being so expert a dodger.
Phrynus nodded, “And worse to come.” Carpides rolled his eyes, realizing what Phrynus meant. “But, they’ll get it from the thranites above them.”
“Which means we will, too,” Carpides muttered.
Phrynus chuckled. “That’s why you want to be a thranite.”
“Phrynus!” a voice called from the zygite level and he peered up into a pair of mocking eyes. “Nicon,” Phrynus said evenly.
“I see you have come down in the world,” Nicon’s mockery bellowed through the deck.
“And I see you have not gone up,” Phrynus replied, which got several others laughing through the two decks, a baleful look from Nicon, and probably a good defecation on his shoulders later.
“Cast! Off!” the master called from the top deck and Phrynus cocked his head to listen. Oars were locked and lines tossed and he stood. “Watch me!” he called and slipped his bronze hand down the oar, pushing it level. Everyone followed suit, even the normal thalamites, who realized they were in the presence of a veteran. “Strike!” the master called and Phrynus slid the oar out and down, watching with approval as his charges more or less copied his movements. Phrynus felt their bank of oars hit the water within an acceptable time of the zygites. “How do you know what’s going on?” Carpides was amazed, “I can’t even see the water.”
“You get a feel for it, the rhythm,” Phrynus said and set his oar and began to match the strokes of Nicon above him. Not that he liked the blowhard, but Nicon did know his stuff and had an eye on the thranites, so he’d do as a marker. Phrynus looked over his charges and saw the uncoordinated efforts. “Like this!” he called and led the proper sweep of the oar, the back and forth on the bench.
“My ass!” one of the others groaned and Phrynus smiled. “Yes,” he said, “you will get giant ass blisters. But think how much salve your share of the talent will buy.” They laughed and joked at that and Carpides said, “Could use a seat cushion.” Yes, they could, and Phrynus saw their absence as another Cleon sabotage attempt.
Hiring Phrynus, though, was probably the better attempt. Phrynus quickly discovered the bronze hand and its tack required a lot more adjustment then he originally thought and he was throwing Carpides way off rhythm, which, in turn, threw off the opposite bank. Some of the zygites began to snicker at him and he saw Nicon’s mocking eye through the plank. “Carpides,” Phrynus said, “plant your shoulder against mine, and match my movements. It will be uncomfortable, but we will synch and we can get the whole bank in order.”
“I’m used to discomfort,” Carpides said and latched onto Phrynus’ left side. After a moment, the whole bank was in stroke and Nicon’s mocking turned to anger. “Think you can follow?” he yelled and sped up, as did his deck, but Phrynus, coolly, picked it up and translated it down the row. “Yes,” he smiled at Nicon.
“What’s going on down there?” the pilot yelled, “Stay with the count!” Irritably, Nicon returned to the Master’s call and, soon, all three banks were in synch. Phrynus was satisfied.
But only for a moment. He frowned and counted the strokes. They were just slightly off sea pace and he knew, instantly, what was going on. Cleon had ordered the Master to a less than optimal count. No one would complain; it was an easy enough rhythm that wouldn’t tire too much while giving the illusion of speed. If they happened to get there a day late, well, it wasn’t for lack of trying, was it? Cleon gets his way. And saves a talent. Phrynus couldn’t allow that.
Subtly, he pulled a second ahead. Carpides caught up and then the whole bank did and they were now outstripping the zygites. Phrynus watched them carefully, saw Nicon and the others exchange glances then pick it up a bit. Quickly enough, the thranites did, too.
“Stay with the count!” roared the Master and everyone dropped back. Damn, he was good. Needed another tactic.
“We are better!” Phrynus sang out, and the thalamites all chuckled. Nicon glared at him, “If you were better, you’d be up here!”
“We are better,” Phrynus insisted, “we can outstroke any count you make.”
“Ha!” Nicon and the others laughed and one of them deliberately aimed a piss stream at an unfortunate thalamite on the other side. “A cripple and a bunch of ancient wharf rats! I think not!”
“Want to bet?”
Nicon blinked, “A bet?” and he looked among his fellows, the shared avarice lighting their eyes. “How much?”
“Deck portion of the talent.”
Everyone gasped, the zygites in astonishment, the thalamites in dismay. Whoever lost was essentially working for free.
Carpides stared at him. “What are you doing?” he whispered. “Bear with me,” Phrynus whispered back, and then called out to Nicon, “Well?”
“Sure you didn’t get a bronze heart along with that hand?” Nicon insulted Phrynus’ intelligence and the zygites laughed. “You are crazy, one hand.”
“What’s the matter, afraid?” Phrynus sneered, “we are, after all, wharf rats and bronze handed.”
Nicon gritted his teeth and Phrynus felt it, the sudden lurch in speed. “With me!” he called to the thalamites and paced and felt the zygites pick up another stroke so he adjusted and they were in rhythm and the thranites matched…
and they were flying across the water.
“Get back on the count!” the Master called down.
“Jump over the side!” yelled Nicon and all three decks roared with laughter and bent to it and the Master had lost control of the ship. Happened before. And if a Master didn’t want to end up swimming home, he went along.
“You’re a genius,” Carpides puffed.
“We’ll see,” Phrynus replied grimly, because the effort was already showing. The cords cut into his shoulder and side and his arm went numb and he could see the gasping mouths and pooling sweat of his charges. They’d be dead in an hour. “Leave yourselves!” he called out. They looked at him in puzzlement. “Like the day and night we spent preparing the first trireme,” he reminded, and they knew. Minds emptied, jaws slacked, and they became a mass of scooting, pulling, burning automatons.
And they just flew over the water.
Day somehow became night and there was no let up. Phrynus no longer saw the hours but only counted strokes, a part of him watchful for any slow down; Nicon and the zygites were continually dropping off this punishing pace. Phrynus was, too, but motive trumped exhaustion and he adjusted the count back up, even if it took him a few moments longer to realize the change.
“I. Cannot. Continue!” Carpides gasped between strokes.
“Two. Talents!” Phrynus gasped back and that became their oar song. “Two talents, two talents!” chanted among the thalamites, and the zygites, realizing the implications, also picked it up and soon, the entire ship. Even the Master joined in, no doubt convinced they would not make it, even at this rate, so he would keep his job. And his head.
Dawn came, a gradual lightening and Phrynus was in another place. He had reached oneness with the gods, where his strokes were sacrifice and a gloriously golden Zeus stood above, laughing and showering him with wine. Maybe it was piss and sweat from the zygites, but it didn’t feel like it.
“Look!” someone called from the upper deck and that was so startling the oars locked and bumped each other as they all stared out their ports…
On the horizon. Lesbos.
A cheer went through the entire crew, talents lost or won not in consideration. They had broken a record held by a very celebrated ship, one of Pericles’, no less. They were now famous. They would be recorded in halls of heroes, their names sung at festival. But they were not there yet.
“To it! To it!” Phrynus choked through cracked lips, pushing at Carpides and the others and soon they were underway, the rising sun silhouetting their target. In hours that were eternal, they rounded the head and were in Mytilene harbor…
and saw the other trireme, Cleon’s best, still off loading.
A wild cheer broke out and made their strokes frantic and, impossibly, they picked up speed. The Master roared, “Back off!” because the speed would carry them through the dock and they reversed oars, the sudden lurch throwing Carpides from his seat. Phrynus grabbed the old man’s oar to prevent backlash but that took them off line and they made a sloppy entry, the side of the trireme sliding hard against the planking. The piermen at the other trireme stopped, stared, and ran for their lives. But the dock held and the trireme braked, stopping short.
There was a scurrying from the top deck and Phrynus saw a messenger leap off the side, white toga flying, a parchment held high before him. He ran to the astonished piermen and there was a quick conversation with fingers pointed up a hill. The messenger pelted off.
They had done it.
Phrynus slipped off the bench and folded into the passage, He was unconscious in seconds.
Someone shook his shoulder. “Bronze hand,” a voice said gently.
Phrynus opened his eyes. It felt like a Boetian had worked him over with a hammer. His throat was sand and his lips would not part. He couldn’t see, either, so, on top of everything he was now blind but, no, no, it was just dark. Evening.
“Bronze hand,” the voice said again and shook him again.
Phrynus located him. “Carpides,” he croaked.
The old man smiled and lifted a skin to Phrynus’ lips and he tasted wine. “Don’t gulp,” Carpides warned as Phrynus did just that, choking himself. The old man patiently offered more and Phrynus regained his senses. He was still in the passage, exactly where he had collapsed.
“Feeling better, bronze hand?” Carpides hovered.
“My name is Phrynus.”
“Not anymore.” Carpides helped him up and, together, they stumbled across the floor and up the stairs and were on the open deck where the rest of them lay. As soon as he appeared, the crew stood and gave a rousing cheer, lifting him up and bringing him to a stew pot. Hungrily, Phrynus reached for a cup.
“Amazing, just amazing,” the Master stood to the side, shaking his head.
“Have we not killed you?” Phrynus was wary, presuming the Master would gut him.
“So you figured it out,” the Master’s eyes narrowed. “I thought so. But, don’t worry about your little revolt there, bronze hand. The fame of it saves me.”
Phrynus nodded. Even Cleon wouldn’t touch a man who had beaten the previous record, no matter how much it cost politically.
“Uh, Phrynus,” Nicon shuffled up, looking worried. Phrynus immediately understood why. Nicon and his zygites had just broken a record for free.
Phrynus sipped lamb stew and gathered strength. He looked at Nicon and his worried zygites, the triumphant thalamites, and the impassive thranites, who waited for the inevitable battle. They would throw in where the advantage developed.
“Phrynus,” Nicon’s voice was a plead, “we won’t get paid until we get back. And then you’ll take it and we’ll have nothing to show.”
“Then you shouldn’t have bet!” shouted a thalamite and there was a mutter of agreement or rage, depending on whether you stood to gain or not. The battle was moments away.
Phrynus held up his bronze hand. “We are all a talent ahead, aren’t we?” Everyone looked at each other and nodded. “Isn’t that better than originally hoped?” Another general nodding.
Phrynus pointed at Nicon, “Didn’t these worthies help us get it?” There was silence as the point sank in. The thalamites looked at each other, frowning. The zygites looked hopeful. “Then, we all share. We still get our portion of the talent. And we get new brothers. What say you?” this to the thalamites, who took in breaths to protest, then considered. Saying no would mean fighting and half of them would die and the bad feelings and vendetta would follow for years. But say yes, become richer and obtain the chance at additional jobs.
“Cheers for bronze hand!” Nicon called at the sense of it and the rest hurrahed and backs were slapped and hands clasped and, yes, there were still hard feelings, but those would be paid later, individually.
“You should be in the Assembly,” the Master chuckled as he handed Phrynus a skin of better wine while celebration took over the ship.
“No thanks, want to see an old age,” Phrynus said as he took the skin and drank deeply.
“Boat coming,” someone called and they all looked. A skiff was pulling for them from the opposite side of the harbor. One of the thalamites dropped the ladder and the skiff tied off. Some soldiers came up, followed by officers. In their middle stood a tall man, imperious, robe pulled tight, armour on but helmet off, carried by a lackey.
“Paches,” the Master bowed low, and they all followed suit.
“I understand,” the admiral looked them over, “that you have established a new record?”
“We have,” the Master bowed again.
Paches looked at him sourly, “Then you have saved me from a grave error. The execution order against the Mytilenes has been stayed. Although,” Paches smiled without humor, “there will be reparations of a sort.” He blinked at the Master. “You are to be congratulated. And rewarded.”
The words did not match the look, and Phrynus wondered at the disconnect. He seemed to be the only one noting it, though, as the crew jumped eagerly at the idea of further reward. The Master smiled greedily and looked up, his eyes falling on Phrynus. He hesitated. He could take full credit, but the mood of the crew and Phrynus’ sudden popularity might undo him. Phrynus saw the instant calculations in the Master’s eyes and almost smiled when he said, “It was not all my doing, admiral. One of our thalamites helped spur us.”
“A thalamite?” Paches was taken back. “Who?”
The Master gestured and the crew parted until Phrynus stood apart in their middle. Paches gazed at him. “You have a bronze hand,” he said wonderingly as the torchlight sparkled on it.
“I do,” Phrynus held it up, “in the service of Athens, admiral.”
“Was it service to Athens that prompted your effort, thalamite, or service to Plutus?” Paches grinned, again humorless, and Phrynus felt the insult. So did the others, who started a bit. “We have earned a talent, General, that it is true,” he said, dryly, “and other rewards to be determined, all well deserved,” the crew murmured in agreement, “but I seek Alcidas.”
“Alcidas?” Paches’ brow furrowed, “he is making his cowardly way down the coast. He was just spotted off Clarus.”
“Fleeing for home,” Phrynus nodded, “do you pursue?”
“I do not. I am recalled.” And he stared at Phrynus, something unreadable on his face. Phrynus was puzzled. Who would recall such an effective soldier? Something stirred, the memory of the two women off-loading and the words of the caulker and his own reaction. It came clear. Paches was called to account, and it probably wouldn’t go well for him. There were still Mytilene sympathizers in Athens. No wonder his face offset his words.
“Eurymedon here,” Paches gestured at another officer, who stepped up, “is going after the Spartans, though.”
Eurymedon was smaller, darker, looked almost Persian. “What is your business with Alcidas?” he asked Phrynus.
Wordless, Phrynus nodded at his hand. Eurymedon stared. “Alcidas did that?”
Eurymedon and Paches exchanged looks. “You mean,” Paches said, “you spurred this crew to these efforts because you thought I was attending Alcidas?”
Paches was speechless for a moment, then burst out laughing, real humor this time, if dark. “By Zeus,” he wiped his eyes, “the Furies settle on this one and I am undone. The gods and their surrogates,” and he shook his head.
The crew muttered at that and moved away from Phrynus, making the signs against evil. Amazing how quickly one turned from charm to spell. “Do you seek Alcidas?” Phrynus ignoring them, spoke to Eurymedon.
“I do,” the admiral was guarded. “But I am in need of spearmen as well as oarsmen.”
Phrynus looked around and saw a lance lying by one of the benches. He flipped out the inner circle and, hefting the lance, feinted at the ocean. “I can do both,” he said.
There was a murmur of appreciation from the crew but Eurymedon’s look did not change. “We are leaving in the morning. You will not have time to get your talent share back in Athens.”
No doubt, Eurymedon shared Paches’ conviction that greed overwhelmed justice. Phrynus glared at the admiral and turned to the Master. “For 1 percent of my share, will you deliver the rest to my lady?”
The Master blinked and did not hesitate, “Surely!” He’d be a fool not to. And with so many witnesses, he’d be a fool to cheat.
Phrynus cocked his head at Eurymedon, who shrugged. “All right. You seem to have a black luck about you.” He stared pointedly at Paches, “And probably best you not be on the return journey.” Paches snorted in agreement, eying Phrynus murderously.
Phrynus gathered his bag and went down the ladder into Eurymedon’s launch. He was surprised to find Carpides and Nicon there, too. “What about your talent share?” he asked.
“Made the same arrangements with the Master,” Nicon said.
“You’ve got Hermes’ hand on your shoulder. We’ll probably double our earnings going with you,” Carpides piped enthusiastically.
Phrynus chuckled. Eurymedon, who stood nearby, overheard and pointed at the bronze hand. “Are you sure that was a misfortune?”
Phrynus considered. “That one god soothed the abusing of another doesn’t absolve Alcidas.”
Eurymedon shook his head and stared at Phrynus. “We Greeks savor the vengeance in our hearts,” and he turned away.
Wasn’t vengeance the spur to justice? Phrynus would have asked it out loud, but no need. Eurymedon was a self-refute. He was gathering a fleet to pursue the Spartan pirate. And there were dead Mytilenians who might contend with the admiral’s lofty sentiments.
Besides, Mars was ascendant and the Furies attended, while Fortune reaped and sewed. Phrynus watched as the fleet loomed and soldiers bustled on the flagship to receive the skiff. The play of it stretched before him like a frieze, and he gasped because there was war and blood and drowned ships across the Greek Sea, even to the colonies. Years and years, all lost, ending in a blur in a great harbor.
“Are you all right?” Carpides asked.
Phrynus looked down at his bronze hand glowing in starlight, restless, itching now with lust. “I will be,” he said.
NOTE: On the lists of Athenian dead from the battles around Syracuse, are the names Carpides, Nicon, and Phrynus. That is all we know.