“It’s a squadron of triremes—but we can’t be sure whose—and we don’t know if they’ve sighted us yet, either.”
Leonidas looked across the convoy of cripples. Both Corinthian triremes were keeping station to eastward, because they had expected the danger to come from that direction. Maybe it still would. Who was to say these weren’t Ionian rebels or neutral ships heading north for some legitimate reason? But he didn’t like it. There were too many of them. All warships, from what he could see. He went back to the ’tweendeck “cabin” and woke Prokles. “Come on deck.”
Prokles didn’t ask questions. He came on deck. The Corinthians again pointed out the fleet. Prokles glanced at the stump of the mast left by the storm and then back at the fleet moving north. After a moment he he grabbed the secured but useless halyards and scrambled as high as he dared go. Given the and loose tackle, that was risky enough. He hung precariously in the rigging, one foot hooked around the lines, and focused his attention on the distant ships. When he returned to deck he announced, “Phoenicians. You can tell by the formation.”
“Signal the Liberty and call all hands,” Leonidas ordered, and went below deck to wake the other marines.
They took their panoply on deck and, lacking attendants, helped one another into it. Meanwhile, a signal flashed to the Liberty from a lantern shielded on three sides. It took longer than Leonidas liked to get her attention, but eventually the Liberty spun about and raced around the tail of the crippled convoy to surge up on the westward side of the Golden Dawn. By now, however, four of the Phoenician triremes had swung about and were making straight toward them. There was no need for silence anymore. The salpinx howled “alarm,” and the captain of the Golden Dawn shouted across the water as the Liberty came alongside: “Phoenicians to windward! Phoenician triremes!”
They could see Erxander run to the far side of the deck and heard him start to shout orders furiously. All across the little convoy, they were calling “all hands” and the marines on all the ships were stumbling onto their respective decks, responding to the Spartan salpinx. Meanwhile, the Harmony pivoted sharply in place and shot through the convoy in a masterful display of seamanship. She fell in on the Liberty’s flank as the flagship swung her bows toward the Persian ships and surged forward with impressive determination.
The Corinthians were boiling through the water, leaving clean wakes in the starlight. All three banks of oars were working in unison with the precision of a Spartan phalanx. Not one oar was out of alignment or missed the timing by so much as a heartbeat. The oars swept forward and then dipped down into the water with an audible hiss. The two Corinthian triremes had set a course to intercept the Phoenicians and cut them off from the merchantmen—and they were rapidly closing the distance.
Leonidas wanted to watch the encounter. He longed to see these ships go into action, but he had to drag his eyes away and concentrate on his own task. The other merchant ships were closing on the Golden Dawn, while her own crew was handing sail and preparing to throw grapples to the others. Meanwhile, the foundering ship was abandoned altogether. Contrary to orders, the Orcelle bore down on them, too, only to swing into the wind, her sail slack, as she came within hailing distance. “What are your orders?” Lychos shouted across the water.
“Flee!” Leonidas answered.
Leonidas could see Lychos turn to look over their flank, and he followed the gaze. The Phoenicians were shifting course, trying to slip past the Corinthian triremes, but Erxander adjusted for each movement perfectly. If the Persians turned to starboard they were headed away from the quarry, and if the turned to port they exposed their more vulnerable broadsides to the vicious rams of the Corinthian triremes. The sound of distant shouting and a faint clatter reached them. “Persian arrows,” Prokles murmured into Leonidas’ ear.
Lychos was calling, “I’ll send my marines over!”
“No! You may need them! Set sail and flee!”
Leonidas could see how reluctant Lychos was, but he didn’t have any more time for him. To starboard the first of the other ships had had been made fast, and another was nestling her prow between the two sterns and making fast in this position, with the fourth ship beside her. Further away, with a resounding, deep-timbered thud followed by a wrenching and whining as if the wood itself were alive and screaming in pain, the Liberty smashed into one of the Phoenician triremes. Moments later the Harmony struck a second. Yet already the Liberty had extricated herself from the damaged Phoenician, pivoted, and turned her dangerous ram on a third Phoenician. The latter, however, took flight. Liberty gave chase. The fourth Phoenician was making straight for the float of merchantmen at a terrifying speed.
Leonidas called for his marines to line up along the exposed side of the ship nearest the Phoenicians, but Prokles grabbed him by the arm and hauled him back. “Draw your line of defense here!” He indicated the Golden Dawn. “Now that we’re lashed together, the other ship’s not going down regardless. She’s low in the water anyway. Whatever damage the ram does, you can repair it just by dumping some of the cargo. Fight here, and you increase the range for the Persian archers and make the Persian marines come to you! They’ll either have to stop their archers or be killed by them!”
Leonidas had no time to argue. He changed his own orders and deployed his marines, Spartan and Corinthian together, along the side of the Golden Dawn, with the sailors behind them.
The Harmony was completely entangled with the Phoenician ship she had attacked; both ships appeared to be drifting, slowly spinning around like lovers locked together, while hand-to-hand combat flowed and ebbed across both decks. The Liberty was still chasing the third Phoenician, preventing it from engaging; while the first of the Phoenician ships, down by the bows and listing to starboard, was advancing at a slow but steady pace toward the float of merchantmen.
The fourth Phoenician smashed into the outer ship of the float with the distinctive thump, squeal, and crunch that Leonidas had heard for the first time only a few minutes earlier. This time it was much louder, and the impact sent all the men on the deck of the Golden Dawn crashing to their knees or backsides.
Barrages of arrows fell onto the deck ahead of them, but only occasionally did one fall among them. Then the first of the Persian soldiers scaled up over the side of the far deck, expecting immediate resistance, and hesitated at the sight of the empty deck. For a moment the Persians seemed to think the ship had been abandoned. Possibly they did not realize, given the darkness, that there were five ships lashed together in a giant float. In triumph, one of the leaders raised his arms over his head and shouted. From behind Leonidas one of the Corinthian marines released a single, well-aimed arrow. It went straight into the man’s heart, and he crumpled onto the deck.
His dramatic death alerted his comrades, and they saw the line of marines defending the next ship in the float. They howled and rushed forward. Their approach took Leonidas by surprise. He had never fought Persians before, and he had no idea from which of the many nations that made up the vast Persian Empire these particular men came. They were not any of the subject Greeks, nor were they Egyptians; but they might be Medes or Babylonians, Lydians or Phrygians, or peoples from the eastern edges of the Empire whose race and country he had never heard of.
What struck him was that they rushed forward as individuals rather than forming into a unit. They were shouting rather than silent, but the Argives had been vocal, and the Corinthians all around him were whipping up their courage with shouted insults and taunts. The clothing of the attacking men was, however, incomprehensible. They had covered their legs in cloth—which made no sense to Leonidas, since cloth provided no protection, but could get in one’s way, or soak with sea water, sweat, or blood to weigh one down. The tunics they wore over their trousers were long-sleeved, and on their heads was a strange, close-fitting cloth hood. Except for their shields—odd-shaped and apparently lightweight—they had no protection for their vital body organs. Since their clothing was light, they advanced rapidly; but without any protection, they fell beneath the Greek spears like fish in a barrel.
In just minutes, a heap of corpses was piled so high on the deck of the other ship that the men coming after had to climb over the bodies of their comrades to reach the unbroken line of hoplites. Meanwhile, the archers had left the deck of the Phoenician trireme and started advancing, firing volley after volley almost on the level. The arrows generally stuck in the massive aspis, but here and there came clear through. Leonidas felt the prick of an arrowhead and the sticky flow of his own blood from the back of his left forearm. To his left, one of his men went down with a horrible involuntary cry when an arrow found its way into his eye. It was madness to just stand here and take this. Leonidas ordered the advance.
This was not simple. They first had to clamber up over the side of the Golden Dawn, and then step across the gap between the ships onto the slippery, unsteady heap of corpses on the other ship. Only beyond the human mound was there any chance of solid deck and the prospect of something steady under their feet.
Before they had made it that far, however, a shout of alarm from the sailors warned him that the damaged Phoenician trireme had swept around the stern of the float and was preparing to board them from the other side. That threat had to be faced, but to turn and face the new onslaught meant exposing their backs to the archers. Leonidas saw no alternative but to split his force. He ordered the Corinthian marines and the sailors to face the new threat, while he took his Lacedaemonians up over the side of the Golden Dawn.
Despite the unusual circumstances, thanks to a lifetime of keeping contact with their rank-mates and endless drill in adjusting their own movements to those of the men left and right, the Spartiates crossed onto the other ship in a line without serious gaps. That proved to be enough. When the archers realized that the wall of bronze was moving toward them, they broke and ran. Only the fastest made it. Anyone who slipped and fell on the bloody deck or tripped over rigging and scattered weapons was stabbed mercilessly by the “lizard stickers” of the Spartan spears.
When the line of bronze shields and scarlet cloaks appeared along the side of the ship, the Phoenician captain shouted furiously and the trireme backwatered wildly, pulling itself free of its victim. As it withdrew, the Corinthian merchantman settled into the water and started to list noticeably. Leonidas turned and led his men up the incline, to get back to the fight that was taking place at the far side of the float.
By the time they were back aboard the Golden Dawn, the enemy was pouring over the railing on the far side. There were bodies strewn across the deck of the far ship—Greek bodies for the most part. Arrows were pouring down on them again. It flashed through Leonidas’ mind that he might die right here, along with every Lacedaemonian under his command. He could clearly expect no help from the two Corinthian triremes, which were both fully engaged. The sailors were proving surprisingly poor soldiers—something he hadn’t expected, since they were defending their own ships and lives and had nowhere to escape. But there was no point thinking about it.
He called a halt to dress their lines. They were two men short—the man with the eye wound and someone else. No time to identify the casualties. At least they were on a level deck now and they could advance across it at a steady pace, drawing on their discipline and training.
The second Phoenician hadn’t rammed, forcing the soldiers to climb over the bows one or two at a time, but had come alongside. The enemy troops poured over the gunnel along the whole length of the ship. Fortunately, they were the same poorly armed and unarmored men, and were just as undisciplined as their countrymen.
Oddly, there seemed to be more of them, and the hindmost men were stabbing the men ahead of them in their backs! They were Greek marines!
At last Leonidas’ brain registered that there was another ship beyond the Phoenician trireme—the Orcelle!
The fool! But at the same moment, Leonidas felt such a rush of gratitude for the crippled Corinthian that it was as if he’d just been reinforced by the Guard. He increased the pace. Step and thrust, step and thrust. The enemy was going down before them with very little chance of defending themselves. The trick was to ignore the arrows, Leonidas decided. Raising his spear arm for the thrust, the man beside Leonidas took an arrow in the armpit and crumpled to the deck with a croaked-off wail. The man behind closed the rank with Leonidas without missing a beat. Step and thrust. They had cleared the deck of the Golden Dawn.
Ahead was a confused melee of sailors and an exceptionally large number of marines from the Orcelle, mixed with enemy archers and enemy marines. The sun broke over the horizon, and for the first time Leonidas could see that the Persians wore clothes of yellow and purple in bizarre stripes and chains of diamonds. It was the gaudiest sight he had ever seen in his life—all liberally splashed with red. And just beyond, the sun glistened blissfully on a calm and enchanting seascape.
By the time Leonidas made it aboard the Phoenician trireme, he realized that the Greek sailors had gained full possession of her after slaughtering the Phoenician crew. They cheered him and his marines as they crossed the trireme, heading for the Orcelle. Lychos was hanging over the side of his ship, clutching the rail. He was dressed in full panoply, and Leonidas knew that it must have half killed him just to put it on.
Leonidas shoved his helmet back and grinned up at the Corinthian from the deck of the captive trireme. “You stupid fool!”
“It worked, didn’t it?” Lychos grinned back at him. “I think the Phoenician captain died of pure astonishment when he realized a freighter was attacking him!”
“It helped that my marines are first-class archers and sent him to Hades with an arrow in his throat.”
Leonidas threw back his head and laughed, then thought to ask, “Just how many marines do you have on board?”
“A lot. My father still won’t let me go anywhere without all the protection he can buy.”
“He’ll wring the marine captain’s neck when he finds out what you did!”
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