National Novel Writing Month – Chapter 2 of Son of Helios
Okay, here’s the raw writing as it comes off the presses. Fighting my way slowly and behind schedule to 50,000 words.
Chapter 2 – Death of a God
The sun gleamed off the waters of the Saronic Gulf, and Peleus stared as the oxen strained and pulled along with dozens of slaves to pull a trireme from the waters. The ship creaked as it slid up on the great wooden platform on its massive rollers. Water dripped off the sides of the vessel.
He wanted to be among the slaves for reasons that he was sure would cause his honor to be questioned. Although he was soldier of Corinth, a hoplite, armed with a bronze chestplate, a fine round shield emblazoned with a gleaming golden sun on a red background, a mighty spear, and a Corinthian helm with a horsehair crest painted in red and yellow, he longed to be among the slaves, pushing a ship across the Diolkos, the great paved path that stretched from the Saronic Gulf in front of him to the Gulf of Corinth to the west. It never failed to awe him when a ship sailed the Diolkos, when a vessel meant for the sea crossed land. He felt it made Corinth special, gave his city-state something that neither Athens nor Sparta could match. Only Corinth carried ships across land.
A strong hand clapped him on the shoulder. “The harbormaster needs you if you are done staring at the ships.” Achelos laughed softly. He was a sun-bronzed man, and while it was doubtful that he was the equal of legendary Achilles from the Trojan War, the hero that he had been named in deference to, he certainly cut a formidable figure. Even though Achelos’ dark curls fell on his shoulders, his beard was thin enough to be that of a boy instead of a man. He was also Peleus’ oldest friend.
“What do they need? There are plenty of soldiers about,” said Peleus as he heard the great wooden rollers moaned again under the weight of the ship. The prow was shaped in the image of the god Poseidon, and Peleus could make out its mighty trident.
“They need someone to speak with an Egyptian merchant. They don’t need your skill with the spear, just your gift for languages. Believe me, if it had to do with fighting, I would have handled it.” Achelos said with a smile that reached his eyes.
The mention of a foreigner drew Peleus’ attention. His mother had taught him the languages of the Persians, the Egyptians, the Etruscans and even some of the mysterious words of the Northerners. He loved learning languages, and his ability had enabled him to make a living working for the merchants. He always took any opportunity he could to speak to travelers from the distant empires and learn their ways.
Achelos was still talking. “Of course, if I was fighting a Cyclops or something, I’d come get you. I’m only named after a hero. You on the other hand, are the son of the titan Helios himself.”
It was Peleus’ turn to laugh. “If only I were the true son of Helios, rather than just one of the hundreds of children of the gods who live in Corinth.” Something bitter came out in his voice, and he saw the fun teasing fade from Achelos’ eyes. It was true that Peleus, like so many men and women who had no fathers, was one of the children of the gods. In his case, his mother claimed that Helios had visited her from his temple high on the great Acrocorinth, but he had heard her curse his father who had abandoned her before he was born. He only knew that the man was a soldier, and that he had probably died in one of the endless wars between the Spartans and the Athenians or in combat on the far frontiers in one of the colonies. He wondered if the man had been a foreigner. He hoped that his true father wasn’t a Persian, but the few times he had asked his mother, she had told him nothing.
Of course, she had been a priestess of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and he knew, as the rest of the world knew that the priestesses of Aphrodite received many donations from thankful men who enjoyed the blessings of the goddess during a night with her priestesses. His mother had gained enough funds during her career to support the two of them without having to return to being a priestess after his birth. Now she was a weaver of some note, a career path that Peleus felt had much more longevity.
“She did say that you were a son of Helios instead of Aphrodite. I’m not sure what that means, but I’m sure it’s worth something,” offered Achelos. “I’ll show you where the Egyptian is.”
“It may be, but there are so many who want us to give up the worship of Helios and recognize him as Apollo instead.”
“Jealous Athenians and Thebans who wish Corinth hadn’t sided with the Spartans years ago, that’s who I think they are. True Corinthians believe in Helios. You know, Helios is still worshipped in Rhodos as well. Don’t worry about what the poets and travelers say about the Olympians defeating the Titans. I suspect that they are all being paid by priests at Olympia.” Achelos made his way down the rocky path to the water where Peleus could see a number of men gathered.
The harbormaster and a number of Corinthian soldiers face a large group of mercenary hoplites while an Egyptian man gestured dramatically at the mercenaries. Peleus didn’t like the way the mercenaries gripped their spears.
“I can speak Egyptian,” shouted Peleus as he came close.
“Fine,” said the harbormaster, a middle-aged man who had long lost his hair and had a bit of a belly beneath his tunic as a sign of his wealth. “I want to know what this Egyptian is saying.”
An older mercenary warrior stepped forward. His voice contained a hint of gravel. He had hard gray eyes, leathery skin and more than a few scars, but he had a full head of yellow hair. Peleus himself had light brown hair, but it was not often that he had seen a man with yellow hair. A muscled bronze chestplate provided his protection and he was tall, about the same height as Peleus. The way the others stepped aside for him left Peleus with no doubt that he was the leader. The man spoke, “You can’t trust Egyptians. He’s spreading lies because he’s concerned that our ship will cross the Diolkos before his.”
The Egyptian turned to Peleus. He wore a golden ankh and his hair was shaved. His robes were white with blue edges and many golden and bejeweled rings glittered on his fingers. “These men are pirates that attacked and sunk three of my vessels. Only my greatest barge made it to Corinth ahead of them,” he said in Egyptian.
Peleus nodded, then turned to the harbormaster and spoke in Greek. “He says these mercenaries are pirates. I recommend we check their holds for Egyptian goods before we allow them to the cross the Diolkos.”
At the mention of piracy, a murmur had gone up from the men of Corinth. Little was worse to a nation of merchants who made their living by the sea than the thought of piracy. The clattering of shields and spears from the mercenaries left Peleus with little doubt that the Egyptian’s accusations were true.
“By Zeus’ thunderbolt, do you dare accuse my men of piracy, boy? We have goods from Egypt, but we earned them in raids on the coast by the strength of our spears and the might of our shields. This Egyptian wants to steal our treasures for himself, and you have probably been bribed by him.”
Peleus turned in surprise. His face flushed bright red with anger. He didn’t expect to be accused of anything. He swallowed. “What city are you and your men from?”
“We call no city our home. I was born in Macedonia ages ago, but spent time in Thebes, Olympia and Ephesus herself.”
“I would have your name,” said Peleus.
“Iphicles, son of Telemon.”
“Well, Iphicles, I am Peleus, son of Helios, and citizen of Corinth. I will have no man accuse me of accepting bribes. So, either take back your false words or be prepared to accept the point of my spear.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Peleus regretted them. He didn’t know what possessed him, but he wasn’t willing to have a group of mercenaries accuse him of taking bribes to lie to the harbormaster. Bribes alone were one thing, and Peleus knew many soldiers who would be willing to accept payment to allow rules to be bent or broken. To accuse him of lying to a leader of Corinth was another matter entirely. All of his life, Peleus had needed to earn the respect of others around him, for his sake and his mother’s. He didn’t have a powerful and well-respected father’s deeds to grant him a station. He had earned what he had through valor on the battlefield or his efforts translating for merchants. Still, he wasn’t completely sure that he was ready to die here over the dispute between this Egyptian and these mercenaries.
“Boy, I’m more than ready to deal with you. Let the gods judge you by your skill with weapons. I doubt you’ve seen much battle.”
“Wait,” said the harbormaster, but it was too late for that.
“I’ve fought Athenians,” said Peleus.
Iphicles laughed. “You’ve got to do better than that. I’ve battled Spartans.” Without saying anything more, he threw down his spear, drew his blade and lunged for Peleus.
Peleus didn’t have time to don his helm, but tossed it to the side along with his spear. His shield deflected the older man’s thrust, sending it off to the left, and Peleus gave him a hard kick in the leg as he drew his own blade.
To Peleus’ surprise, no one else interceded in the duel. He slashed at Iphicles, but the mercenary parried and countered. Fortunately, the counter-thrust only clanged against the bronze rim of Peleus’ shield. Unfortunately for Iphicles, the element of surprise had faded.
Peleus found his balance and caught his breath. He stopped thinking and simply fought. As a boy without a father, he had trained himself as hard as he could to learn to fight. He had asked soldiers to show him how to hold a spear and a blade, and for as long as he could remember, he had practiced with whatever he could find. Thousands of shadows had died on the end of broken branches in his hands or even fought with him while he held nothing but air. He had asked warriors from the ends of the world to show him how they battled when he was a boy. Most had thought nothing of showing off for a lad, but he had watched, memorized and returned home and practiced. When he had earned coins enough for weapons of his own, he had trained all the harder. Those that had seen him in battle against the Athenians might well believe that he was, in truth, the son of a Titan. Certainly, Iphicles, the mercenary, was unprepared for Peleus’ onslaught.
Their swords caught, but Peleus swung with enough force to throw the mercenary off-balance. A breath later and his blade went through the man’s shoulder. A blow from Peleus’ shield to the face of the mercenary was enough to drop him, and then the point of his sword pierced Iphicles just below the breastplate. When Peleus withdrew his sword, it was bright red and a crimson puddle spread on the ground beneath Iphicles’ body.
“I am slain. Avenge me,” he called out.
Peleus looked over at the mercenaries. They moved back and away from the Corinthians. Iphicles chuckled.
“Betrayed so soon,” he gasped. “It’s what I should expect.” He coughed and flecks of blood and white foam sprayed on his beard. “Peleus, I ask a boon.”
The mercenary muttered something. Peleus leaned close, watching the man’s hands to make sure that he wasn’t trying to take Peleus down to the realm of Hades with him.
He whispered. “Boy, there is a woman, a priestess of Aphrodite, named Dione. I once gave her a chest of coins because she was the finest woman in all the world. Tell her that her sun god never made it back to Corinth.”
With that, Iphicles died.
As Peleus stood, the world started to spin around him. He felt a terrible twisting inside his guts, and though the harbormaster and others began talking, he couldn’t hear them. All he hear were his own thoughts, repeating his mother’s name. “Dione, Dione, Dione.”