Okay, I am a firm believer that writing over long periods has more to do with sleep management than anything else (except for time sitting in front of a keyboard). Anyway, I got some sleep and finally started catching up. To quote one of my favorite people “Allons-y”!
Chapter 5 – Leaving Corinth
Peleus caught his breath as he passed inside the long walls of Corinth proper. Since he had woken in the eastern port on the Sea of the Ionians, he had paused only to dress, tell his commander that he had served his time guarding the Diolkos, and then run the miles to Corinth proper.
He needed to find his mother. He had to know the truth about what he had done. Had Iphicles been his father? Did Macedonian blood flow through his veins?
Would the Furies come for him?
Once his throat felt as if his heart was no longer pounding inside of it, he pressed on. The Acrocorinth loomed above him, a great rock upon which stood the mighty temple of Helios and the temple of Aphrodite herself.
It did not take long to arrive at his mother’s workshop. Slaves aplenty were already bringing in wool and dyes, and a gray-haired Phoenician and his entourage were negotiating with Peleus’ mother.
“Peleus!” she shouted as she saw him. She waved her hands quickly. “Fortune favors us, my friends. My son has arrived, and his command of your language is far better than my own.”
Peleus saluted the visitors as he took a steadying breath. He wasn’t sure if his heart beat because of the speed which he had crossed the isthmus or out of anticipation of confronting his mother.
“Has there been an attack?” asked the merchant in Phoenician, directing the question to Peleus.
Peleus was surprised by the question. He gripped his helmet tightly as he held it under his arm, aware of the horsehair crest against his skin. “An attack?” he replied in Phoenician. “No.” He paused, “Why do you ask?”
“You seem out of breath. Since you are a soldier, I thought that there might have been an attack. My apologies, but it seems that you Hellenes are always fighting wars. I have trouble keeping track of the alliances. Corinth remains allied with Sparta, doesn’t it?”
“We have been allied with Sparta in the past against Athens, though some would say that Sparta was fortunate to have Corinth as its ally. They may have strength on land, but only our warships can challenge Athens. However, we don’t support their recent attacks against Thebes nor their willingness to lead expeditions into Persia herself,” said Peleus, feeling a sense of pride in his city, but wishing that he knew how to say something than sounded less like the words of a strategos and more like the intelligent response of a diplomat. “But, my apologies for being out of breath. I was in a hurry, as I have some news for my mother, but it will wait. How may we help you?”
His mother glanced at him, obviously able to follow the conversation. He knew she wondered what news he might have, but she was willing to let it wait.
“Ah,” said the Phoenician, now only interested in business, “I have some expensive dyes to sell, and I think that with the announcements regarding the temple, your mother will have the opportunity to make a good profit off of them, as I’m sure that there will be a festival.”
“What announcements?” asked Peleus in Phoenician. Before the merchant could answer, Peleus looked to his mother in surprise and asked her in Greek. “The merchant speaks of an announcement regarding the temple.”
Peleus’ mother looked concerned, but spoke plainly. “Word has come from Delphi that the Oracle has said that the one who we worship as Helios is not a Titan at all. The priests say that Apollo himself watches over Corinth, and the temple will be rededicated and the priests shall offer their services to Apollo instead of Helios.” She added, “I will speak to you about it more, but it means that the sun on your shield represents Apollo himself.”
Peleus fell silent. The Olympian, Apollo, worshipped instead of Helios? The priests said that in the days before Corinthos himself, when the mighty city-state had been but a collection of villages, still men had gathered on the Acrocorinth to sacrifice to Helios and praise the sun. This was a ploy, a lie, a grab for power by Delphi, perhaps engineered by the corrupt leaders of Athens, the jealous merchants of Argos or even vain Sparta. The affairs of cities and countries were not something he could change, but now, they affected his god, his father.
He felt his face flush, but he let his breath out slowly, forcing himself to become calm. There was a merchant here, and he managed a smile. “Indeed,” he said in Phoenician, “the Fates weave many opportunities.”
The conversation continued through dyes and fabrics and turned to the delivery of shipments and the exchange of gold. For Peleus, the talk gave him a chance to let his emotions subside and gave him time to think about the revelations of the morning and the day before. He had no answers, but he felt that he might be able to let reason guide him instead of his passions. Finally, the Phoenician departed, seeming pleased, and he was able to retreat to a back room in the workshop and speak to his mother.
“Thank you, my son. If you didn’t have to spend so much time behind your shield, you would earn great wealth for our family. You have such a gift for speech and for reading and writing. You know, I was often told that you should join the priesthood.” Her voice was soft and she gently touched him on the shoulder.
“You mean the priesthood that has betrayed my father, Helios, and given over all of his works to Apollo at the behest of some drug-ridden priestess from a far off land?” Anger filled his words, and he regretted the tone immediately. He didn’t want to vent his anger or even his fear upon his mother, but something inside him inflamed his tongue and forced the emotion out of him.
“Peleus, I know that you understand that Helios isn’t your true father. All the boys without a father are said to be sons of Helios, just as all the girls are said to be daughters of Aphrodite.”
“And what of a Macedonian mercenary named Iphicles who once loved a priestess of Aphrodite named Dione? What of him?”
The silence was dreadful. Peleus felt as if Zeus himself had thrown a thunderbolt down in the room, yet there was no sound at all. His mother’s face was strange, as if she were a statue and the sculptor who carved her had not known what expression to create and had tried to show everything and nothing at the same time.
“How do you know of him?” she whispered. She blinked several times, and her eyes became wider with each blink. “How? Was he involved in the incident yesterday?”
“Yes,” said Peleus, now blinking himself. His words came out more slowly now, though his face flushed again. “As was I.”
“I feared you might be, but after all this time, I’m not going to close the workshop to find out if you were hurt every time blood is spilled on the Diolkos. Is he…?”
“He is dead.”
She gasped. “No.”
“I killed him.”
“What?” She flew to her feet. “You killed him?” The strange lack of expression was now replaced by the most terrified look Peleus had ever seen.
“I killed him.”
“Peleus, he was your father!”
“Mother, Helios is my father! He has always been my father. He is the only father I ever knew.”
“No, no, no,” she said.
“Why didn’t you tell me his name? Why couldn’t you have warned me?” he asked, gesturing dramatically. His helm fell from where he had held it beneath his arm with a clatter. “You knew! I didn’t.”
It was as if his mother had aged decades in moments. She kept shaking her head. “Aphrodite, why have you let this come to pass? What curse have you placed on me for leaving your service? Why didn’t you torture me? Why did you let this horrible thing happen to my son, my only child, my baby?” She leaned her head back and gazed at the ceiling. Tears swam down her cheeks. “Why?” She started choking and coughing, and then slipped slowly down into a heap on the floor.
Peleus bent down to her. “Mother, what is done is done. I am so sorry. I am so sorry. Last night, a dream came to me, a terrible horrifying dream that seemed as real as you are now.”
She continued to sob. If she heard him, she gave no sign.
“Mother, the Furies tried to take me.”
A sob caught in her throat. “The Furies? No! Aphrodite, no! Son, you cannot escape them. You know the stories of their unquenchable thirst for justice. You will die for your crime, a crime that I could have prevented. He didn’t know. I thought he must have been killed, but now, I have killed you both.”
Peleus knelt down in front of his mother. He tenderly embraced her. “Mother, dear wonderful Mother, I do not blame you for what has happened. The strands of my life are woven by the Fates. We cannot change the past. I know the stories, and I know that many men have fled the Furies.”
“But none ever escaped.”
“Perhaps there is no escape forever, but the thought of traveling to other lands, to use my gifts and experience the world has an allure to me. I will take the time that I am given, but I am not so sure that the Furies are unstoppable. If my crime is killing my father, then I will argue with my last breath that I am innocent. Helios has always been my father. He is the one I spoke to in my heart when I struggled. When I stare at his statue, I feel his inspiration. I have tried to prove worthy of him, just as any son wishes to make his father proud.”
“Helios cannot protect you.”
“He already has. I called to him in my dream, and he drove off the Furies.” Peleus squeezed her a little more tightly, careful not to press her too hard against his armor. “Helios will protect me.” He chose not to mention the woman who spoke Egyptian. “Mother… did you love him? Iphicles?”
A bitter sound came from his mother. “We loved, and he showered me with gifts and fortune, but then he left and he never returned. I loved that he gave me you, but if I had loved him, truly loved him, you would never have doubted who your father was.”
“I never have doubted who my father is. I know.”
They both stood. She wiped her tears away. Resolve filled her face. His mother had always been strong and now, she was so again. “If you are to flee, you must do so. The Furies will not hesitate, they will not pause, and they will pursue you until the ends of the earth, until the end of your days. I will give you gold, but I don’t know what else I can do.”
“I’ll gladly take the gift of gold, and I will carry with me my provisions and equipment from campaigning. Please explain when my time of service comes and I am not found that I will return to serve Corinth when I am able. I love my city, and I always want to know that I could return. And I will return.”
“Aphrodite took Iphicles because I told her that I would leave her service. Now, she takes my son.”
Peleus decided not to argue. All of the talk of the gods made him think of his dream and the lashes of the Furies. It was time to leave. He picked up his helm.
His mother gave him a pouch of coins, all marked with the Pegasus of Corinth. Peleus briefly wondered if such coins would become strange to him after years of travel, but he quickly dismissed that thought. This was the time to flee the Furies, not to contemplate all that he was losing.
He said farewell to some of the slaves who he respected and liked. He considered that he was not much different from those whom the Fates had placed on the wrong side in the wars with Athens and her league. He shared a last embrace with his mother.
“I love you, Mother. I will return.”
“I love you, my son. May the Fates be kind.”
He walked the road back to the sea of the Ionians. He had passed out of the gate of Corinth proper, when he encountered a familiar figure.
“Thank the gods that I didn’t have to scour the entire Peloponnesus for you. Was there a problem at home? Is your mother okay?” asked Achelos. “Or were you trying to explain that you killed a mercenary captain? You know that I’m sure she had heard already.”
“Achelos, we have been friends all of our lives,” Peleus started, continued to walk along the road.
Achelos joined him and sighed. “Yes, well, that’s true, but I’ve never really liked you.”
Both men laughed.
“That man that I killed yesterday wasn’t just a mercenary captain.”
“I know. He sired you, and you killed him.”
Peleus stopped. “How did you know?”
Achelos looked down and cleared his throat. “I realize that you were unaware of anything but your duel, but I was next to you and I did hear him whisper the name Dione when he was dying, and I know your mother’s name, oh, and then there was the way you didn’t speak or say anything afterward and returned to the eastern barracks and went to bed though it was barely afternoon. Now, I understand that I might not be a great philosopher, but I’m not an idiot either.” Despite the hint of a mocking smile on his face, Peleus saw nothing but concern and sympathy in his friend’s eyes.
“I need to find the Egyptian merchant.”
“That’s easy enough. So, are you going to be okay? I mean, considering what normally passes for okay when it comes to you – practicing overly hard against invisible opponents while trying to make up words so that even Persians pretend to understand you, and staring with wonder and amazement at ships moving across the isthmus, that sort of thing.”
“I’m doing my best,” answered Peleus.
The two men walked together beneath the blue sky, past green scrub and brown hills. They said nothing, but Peleus found Achelos’ presence reassuring. They reached the port, passing the Pillar of Theseus which marked the separation of Ionia and the Peloponnesus, all too soon.
“I need to go. The gods spoke to me. The Furies pursue me. I have to leave Corinth, even Hellas itself. You don’t have to come with me, Achelos.”
“I know I don’t have to, but we are friends and well, I found you and dragged you into this mess. There’s the Egyptian ship ahead. The gold has been returned to them, but I think most of it went into warehouses. Some, of course, will be used to pay for our services in protecting him from the pirates.”
“What happened to the mercenaries?” Peleus asked.
“A few were sold into slavery, but most are going to stand on the border. Things are growing worse with Sparta. Thebans came to speak to our leaders and you know their opinions of the Spartans. We might even ally ourselves with the Athenians before all is said and done. The Persians are said to approve of an alliance between ourselves and Thebes. They haven’t forgotten the tales of Leonidas and the 300 any more than we have.”
Peleus sighed. He understood why the Phoenician merchant couldn’t keep track of the alliances of the city-states. He wasn’t sure if anyone could.
“I’m going to Khem.”
“May the gods watch over you. I’m sure the merchant will take you.”
“Are you coming?”
“Of course, I’m coming. As you said, we’ve been friends forever. I can’t leave you.”
“Achelos, you don’t have to do this.”
Achelos smiled. “You’re right, and I’m sorry, but I’m not. I’m not going. Just a last joke. I want to come with you, Peleus, but Furies? Egypt or Khem or whatever they call it? They have people there with animal heads. I’d be lost. Besides, I’m a Corinthian. I’ll be here, but I will promise to do one thing for you. I’ll watch out for your mother.”
Peleus chuckled. He wanted Achelos to come with him, but he understood. Leaving Corinth was madness. “Thank you, Achelos. I’ll miss you, my friend.”
The two men grasped forearms. “We are soldiers, we are brothers, we are Corinth,” they said together, repeating one of the many phrases said by the phalanx.
Peleus finally turned away and headed for the Egyptian ship. It was time to leave.