David Gemmell: Lord of the Silver Bow

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Troy – Lord of the Silver Bow


To sleep is to die.

So he clung to the driftwood as the raging seas hurled him high, then plunged him deep into the storm-dark valleys between the waves. Lightning flashed, followed by deafening thunderclaps. Another wave lashed him, spinning the driftwood, almost tearing him clear. Sharp splinters pierced his bleeding hands as he tightened his grip. Salt spray stung his swollen eyes.

Earlier in the night, after ferocious winds had swept the galley against hidden rocks, splintering the hull, four men had grasped this length of shattered deck.

One by one the storm had leeched away their strength then plucked them loose, their despairing death cries swept away by the wind.

Now only the man called Gershom remained – thanks to arms and shoulders strengthened by months of labour in the copper mines of Kypros, wielding pick and hammer, and bearing on his back sacks of ore. Yet even his prodigious strength was failing.

The sea lifted him once more, the length of decking pitching suddenly. Gershom hung on as a wave crashed over him.

The sea no longer felt cold. It seemed to him like a warm bath, and he could feel it calling to him. Rest now! Come with me! Sleep now! Sleep in the Great Green.

To sleep is to die, he told himself again, squeezing his bloodied hands against the jagged wood. Sharp, lancing pain cut through his exhaustion.

A body floated by head-down. A wave caught it, flipping the corpse. Gershom recognized the dead man. He had won three copper rings on the Bone Game the night before last, when the galley had been drawn up on a small stretch of beach below a line of towering cliffs. The sailor had been happy then. Three rings, though not a princely sum, was enough to purchase a good cloak, or hire a young whore for the night. He did not look happy now, dead eyes staring up at the rain, mouth slack and open.

Another wave crashed over Gershom. Ducking his head against the planking he hung on. The wave carried the dead man away, and Gershom saw the body sink below the water.

Lightning ripped across the sky once more, but the thunder did not come immediately. The wind eased, and the sea calmed. Gershom hitched himself across the driftwood, managing to lift his leg across the broken planks. Carefully he rolled to his back and shivered in the cold night air.

The rain was torrential, washing the salt from his face and eyes and beard. He stared at the sky. A shaft of moonlight showed through a break in the storm clouds. Looking left and right he could see no sign of land. His chances of survival were bleak. All the trade ships held to the coastline. Few ventured out into deeper water.

The storm had arrived with sickening speed, strong winds gusting down from the high cliffs. The galley had been making for a bay where they would shelter for the night. Gershom, rowing on the starboard side, had not been worried at first.

He knew nothing of the sea, and thought this might be normal. Then, seeing the anxious looks on the faces of the rowers, he glanced back. The ferocity of the gusts increased, heeling the ship sideways, and driving it further from the shore. Gershom could see the headland which marked the entrance to the bay. It seemed so close. The rhythm of the rowers began to fail. Two oars crashed together on his side, throwing the line into disorder. One broke away. With the oars no longer working in unison the galley turned beam on to the wind, driven round by the rowers on the port side.

A large wave broke over the side, swamping Gershom and the starboard rowers. The heavily laden ship began to tip. Then it slid into a trough, and a second wave swamped it. Gershom heard a rending sound as planks gave way beneath the weight of the water. The sea surged in, and driven down by the mass of its copper cargo the galley sank within moments.

It occurred to Gershom, as he clung to the ruined decking, that he himself had probably mined some of the copper that doomed the ship he sailed on.

The stern face of his grandfather appeared in his mind. ‘You bring your troubles on yourself, boy.’

That was certainly true tonight.

On the other hand, Gershom reasoned, without the back-breaking labour in the mines he would not have built the strength to endure the power of the storm.

No doubt it would have pleased his grandfather to see Gershom working the mine in those early days, his soft hands blistered and bleeding, to earn in a month what he would, at home, have spent in a heartbeat. By night, in a filthy dugout, he’d slept beneath a single threadbare blanket, as ants crawled upon his weary flesh. No servant girls to tend his needs, no slaves to prepare his clothing. No heads bowed now as he passed. No-one to flatter him. At the palace and the farms his grandfather owned all the women told him how wonderful he was, how masculine and strong. What a joy it was to be in his company. Gershom sighed. On Kypros the only available women for mine workers said exactly the same – as long as a man had copper rings to offer.

Lightning lit the sky to the south. Perhaps the storm is passing, he thought.

Thoughts of grandfather came again, and with them a sense of shame. He was being unfair to the man. He would not glory in Gershom’s downfall. Any more than he would have taken pleasure from the public execution he had ordered for his grandson. Gershom had fled the city, heading out to the coast, where he took ship to Kypros.

He would have stayed on there had he not seen a group of Egypteians in the town a few days before. He had recognized two of them, both scribes to a merchant who had visited grandfather’s palace. One of the scribes had stared at him. By now Gershom was thickly bearded, his hair long and unkempt, but he was not sure it was enough.

Gathering the last of the copper rings he had earned in the mine he had wandered to the harbour, and had sat on the beach, staring out at the ships in the bay.

A bandy-legged old man approached him, his skin leathery, his face deeply lined.

‘Looking for sea work?’ he asked.

‘I could be.’

The man noted Gershom’s heavy accent. ‘Gyppto are you?’ Gershom nodded. ‘Good sailors, the Gypptos. And you have the shoulders of a fine oarsman.’ The old man hunkered down, picked up a stone and hurled it out over the waves. ‘Several ships looking for men.’

‘How about that one?’ asked Gershom, pointing to a huge, sleek, double-decked galley at anchor out in the bay. It was beautiful, crafted from red oak, and he counted forty oars on the starboard side. In the fading sunlight the hull had a golden gleam. Gershom had never seen a ship so large.

‘Only if you yearn for death,’ said the old man. ‘It is too big.’

‘Too big? Why is that bad?’ Gershom had asked him.

‘The great god Poseidon does not suffer large ships. He snaps them in two.’

Gershom had laughed, thinking this was a jest.

The old man had looked offended. ‘You obviously do not know the sea, young fellow,’ he said stiffly. ‘Every year arrogant shipwrights build larger craft.

Every year they sink. If not the gods, then what could cause such catastrophes?’

‘I apologize, sir,’ said Gershom, not wishing to cause further offence. ‘But that ship does not seem to be sinking.’

‘It is the Golden One’s new ship,’ said the man. ‘Built for him by a madman no-one else would employ. It won’t have a full crew. Even the half-witted sailors around here have refused to serve upon it. The Golden One has ferried in seamen from the outer islands to man it.’ He chuckled. ‘Even some of them deserted as soon as they saw it – and they are known to be morons. No, it will sink when Poseidon swims beneath it.’

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