The ship was not a happy one. She left the port at the crack of dawn, to catch the offshore breeze, she tried to push her great weight through the water. The Hera, as the ship was named, had been built by farmers, not sailors, and her main purpose was to hold grain. She was a silo, first and foremost. Somehow the engineer that designed her had only given perfunctory thought to her even floating, and then only through some detached mathematical formula that ensure she would not sink when fully loaded. Nonetheless, she was stoutly built, But despite her shortcomings, the Hera knew she was a ship, and the men on board sacrificed a black and a white kid to Aphrodite, to bring her favourable winds and gentle seas, and, with a determined effort, the galley slaves below decks, bent to the oars and pulled her out into the Nile channel and the red river current carried her out to sea. She drifted with the muddy Nile waters, and, as the westerly Mediterranean current caught her bow, sailors scrambled to haul the yards to catch the wind. It was Typhon, not Aphrodite who answered the sacrifice they had made on launching, and the hot dry breath of the Saharan khamsin wind, heavy with red dust, rolled across the waters and enveloped them in a red cloud of dust and sand that hissed against the wooden hull and filled the canvas. As the sail billowed out and the oars pulled in, like some swollen and pregnant leviathan, the Hera ploughed through the warm waters, and, running before the red wind, her prow pointed north northwest, made good speed.
The dust in the air was so thick, the sailors could barely make out the water that passed beneath the Hera. There was no turning back; they had to run with the khamsin. Though the wind was with them, and the surface waves sprayed westward, the current pushed from the west against the wind, and as they gained deeper water, the waves grew higher and the ship pitched with deep groans against the onslaught of wind, dust and water. The mainsail was dropped and they ran only with a foresail and top gallant, but still the red khamsin wind pushed them violently northward. The ship groaned deeply under weight and the ocean, and the captain decided to run for Sicily instead of following the currents to Cyprus and past Rhodes and Crete through the Aegean islands.
Miri crouched despondently in the cramped cage, her arms wrapped about Akivai and Sarai, She had not unbent her legs for considerable time, and her joints, muscles and bones ached and her heart grew heavy. Chained and caged, her children trapped with her, she had lost her resolve, and tears flowed copiously from her beautiful eyes. She could not even wipe the teardrops that fell upon her children’s faces, for there was no room to move, and the sand assailed them, driven like tiny needles in the wind. Miri wrapped her cloak about Sarai and Akivai, but it became terribly hot and stuffy under the protection of the wool robes. Propped against Miri’s back, Martha shifted painfully. Yusef was squashed against the wooden bars. Towards the brilliantly orange sunset, Maximinus, braved the khamsin to check upon his charges, and seeing the green colour of the children, he opened the cage and allowed them out.
“Thank you!” said Miri. Martha scowled at Maximinus for she was not one to easily forgive. Especially that to be grateful for a small mercy shown when a more severe transgression still had not been resolved, would condone the greater evil. As well, as in all things, she was rather slow to turn a corner.
As Yusef unfolded to leave the cage. Maximinus pushed him back.
“You” he said firmly, “Will have to stay!” He closed the cage and chained and padlocked it with a military ring key. “Walk with me,” he said to Miri.
“Of course!” said Miri, not having anything else she had to do except escape custody. She lifted Saria to her shoulder, and Akiva held fast to her skirts. Martha followed behind so that nothing untoward would happen to her aunt and cousins.
Maximinus was quiet for some time, and Miri sensed he was trying to frame his speech before he spoke.
“Do you know the Emperor?” he asked finally.
“No, I knew his brother Germanicus and corresponded with his sister-in-law Agrippina.”
“Ah!” said Maximinus, as though knowing Agrippina explained the Emperor’s interest. “What do you know of him?”
“Nothing!” said Miri.
“And Agrippa Herod?”
“I met him in Tiberias,” said Miri, “He seemed to feel no responsibility for his own financial security!”
“How un-Jewish of him!” said Maximinus. He smiled at his own bon mot, but seeing Miri was not particularly amused, his smiled faded uncomfortably.
“I believe it is at his behest that you have been arrested,” said Maximinus. His eyes darted about to ensure none were in earshot. “There are some Jews who believe your husband will return from the dead, and depose him! Is that true?”
“That they believe it or that he will return?”
“Don’t play with me!” snapped Maximinus angrily. He stopped along the promenade, and gripped her arm. “Is your husband returning from Tartarus?”
“Of course not!” retorted Miri, her own hackles raised, “Let go of me!”
He did not release his grip, but tightened it and jerked her forward,
“Don’t lie to me!” he hissed, “When is he coming back?”
“You’re just saying that so we cannot prepare for his coming!”
“That is your own thought, not mine!” replied Miri, “If he returned reborn, I am sure that neither you nor Rome would recognize him!”
“Then it’s true!” declared Maximinus, “He rose from the dead?”
“No!” said Miri, “I took his body from his tomb myself!”
“And where is it?” asked Maximinus.
“It is lost!”
“Lost? How could it be lost?”
Miri suddenly realized Sarai had been quietly listening, and amidst everything she had told them, she had never told them about losing their father’s body. She had always told them that he stood near them, and whenever they were afraid or sad, they should remember their father was always at their shoulder.
“I can say no more!”
A heavy thump interrupted their standoff, and Maximinus released her as Martha screamed.
Sobek had suddenly flicked his tail against the deck floor, and now struggled against his bonds. The Romans had swaddled him with cloth that he would be unable to injure himself, for a reptile of his great size was worth more than their wages combined, and they were sure the Emperor would pay a princely sum for the animal. Caligula had a great number of animals in his Imperial zoo, but there would also be a great prize for an animal like Sobek for the games.
“His wounds fester,” said Martha disgustedly, “He will die soon!”
Maximinus was instantly concerned that his prize would die and rendered useless, except for a curiosity.
“What are you talking about?” he asked nervously.
“His wounds need to be washed and bandaged,” said Miri. “Do you not have a physician aboard?”
“No! Of course not!”
“Then you have brought him this far for nothing!”
“I shall perform a sacrifice for him!” said Maximinus.
Miri laughed. “You need to wash his wounds and throw away the water.”
“But he will die without water!” said Maximinus.
“Nonsense!” said Miri, “Just wash him down! But in standing water, the poison from the wounds will gain potency and he will die from the infection!”
“You can cure him?” asked Maximinus.
“Of course!” said Martha, “All he needs is tender, loving care! But I wouldn’t expect a Roman to know anything about that!”
“You will tend him then!” replied Maximinus, and he called to guards lolling on the deck.
“Chain her to the beast!” he told them, and then turned to Miri. “You will assist her!”
Before she could react, he pulled Sarai from her arms and pushed Miri back. Her feet caught on roped coiled on the deck, and he strode away with her children. Though they were rapidly separated, she and they cried out with one voice, and as Miri struggled to get up, a javelin pointed at her throat. Two soldiers stood over her. Through their legs, she watched in agony as Maximinus threw them back into their cage. Their voices cried out to her, and their arms reached despairingly for hers and her heart cracked. From nowhere, the soul of the leopard took hold of her, and she rose slowly and carefully from the deck, and glared at the men holding their weapons to her breast. Faced by her fury, they momentarily lost their resolve, and stepped back a pace.
Maximinus returned, and inspected Marta’s bonds. She had been chained to Sobek’s cage, and Miri recognized the controlled anger in her sister’s trembling, and smiled. There was no doubting they were related.
“You will have to lengthen her chains!” said Miri, and she and Martha locked eyes. “She will need to move the entire length of the beast!”
Maximinus acknowledged the sense in her words, and the chain was lengthened.
With her niece and children as hostages, Maximinus had no need to ensure Miri was attached to any part of the boat, and she soon realized she could requisition whatever was needed to tend to the crocodile.
Though Sobek tended to lash about when surprised, as long as they kept a cloth covering his eyes, he remained quite still. There was no doubting that the stillness was not a placid calm, but the tense balance taught muscles ready to spring. But Sobek suffered their ministrations. They washed the wounds with seawater, and then wiped him down with fresh water. Miri asked the cook to prepare porridge for him, but though the chef was not aware that the crocodile was not fond of grain, he complied, and Miri fed the bowl to Sarai and Akivai, and she, Martha and Yusef shared the meal together. She had time to wash her children through the bars, and look after her family’s needs under the guise of caring for Sobek.
She informed Maximinus that they would have to put into port to have enough water to keep him hydrated. The ship’s captain was standing with Maximinus.
“We are putting into port in Crete!” he said to the captain, to Miri, “You can bring on water there!”
Miri was buoyed by the layover. There was nowhere to flee custody when they were out at sea, and thoughts of landfall formed hopes for escape within her breast.
“How much water will we need?” Maximinus asked.
Miri started, as her thoughts had so consumed her with fancied opportunities for escape, she had, for a moment, forgotten the world about her.
“Oh, uh, for each day, three amphorae,” said Miri, “And two for drinking. He will need to eat at the least two times a week!”
“Is it true he must be fed a virgin child?” asked the captain. Miri was horrified, for she knew that men, and Romans especially were quite capable of tossing a human sacrifice to Sobek. She realized the captain was merely expressing his dissatisfaction with having to change course when the winds were ideal for a quick push for Rome.
“Fish will do for now!” she said sharply.
“Any kind of fish?”
“The larger the better!” said Miri, “And as fresh as possible!”
“I’ll catch a fish!” said the ship’s carpenter who happened to have caught the end of their conversation. He was, it turned out, a terrible fisherman, but others gave him enough advice that Sobek soon was thrown fish for supper. It seemed great sport for the men to release Sobek’s jaws, and them dangle the fish in front of him, but the resultant strike shattered the side of the wooden cage and, jaws wide open, and, for almost an hour, Sobek remained at large on deck and hissed terribly at whoever approached him. Though he was still bound, his huge flexible body thrashed about, and shattered a marble statue, as well as tipping over several amphorae of olive oil. Martha barely escaped with her life, but it was she, spurred by the fury of her ignominy and exasperation at the folly of men, who fashioned a looped roped and slipped a noose about the crocodile’s terrible maw and snapped it closed. The deck, slick with the spilled olive oil, turned the entire episode into a mad merrymaking. Almost everyone on board fell to the oil covered deck after a masterful display of flailing arms and legs. Once down, most had difficulty gaining enough traction to stand. Those who had not fallen prey to the oil slick were soon called over by their mates so they too could put on display their ability to remain upright when no traction was to be found beneath their feet.
Order was finally restored and the deck washed down with wine, but the mood on the boat lightened considerably, even amongst the people trapped in their cages. The brief skirmish of Sobek with freedom, had bonded the captive humanity with the giant reptile, and he had won the respect and amity even of the sailors, and almost everyone who could presented the crocodile with offerings. Sobek for his part, as most gods, simply ignored the supplications. His eyes revealed no recognition, nor affection to the humans who brought him presents, and their prayers for protection.
Martha, chained to Sobek’s cage, suffered from lack of sleep.
“He just stares at me!” she complained to Miri, “That animal has no soul!” She shook imperceptibly, but being so close to an animal who outweighed her by a hundredfold and saw her only in terms of food was beginning to take its toll. “If the rope about his snout should ever break, I shall be swallowed like a little lamb in the jaws of a lion!” Tears welled in her eyes.
“I will speak with Maximinus!” promised Miri, but Maximinus had no intention of releasing Martha from her duties. The rolling of the ship meant that most of the captives were seasick, and they had no vessel in which to vomit, and they were becoming terriblyt fouled. Miri did what she could to help them stay clean, but she could not requisition enough water and food to make their lives tolerable. But such was the stench in the cages, the ship’s captain agreed to her ministering to the human cargo. The Romans, with their usual callous utilitarian attitude, decided the slaves would be easier to clean if they were stripped, and set to pulling the clothes and robes from the captives. The tunics were simply cast overboard, and buckets of seawater were thrown over their charges to clean them. This caused great hilarity amongst the freedmen sailors, but the sport was mean spirited and Miri objected. They reacted by threatening to throw her overboard, and only the authority of Maximinus and his Imperial Warrant prevented them from fulfilling their threats.
For some reason, and to most people, the obvious reason, that the captain had been smitten by Miri’s beauty, he took her into his confidence. Miri realized he presented himself as more important to the Empire than a ship’s captain, but he was obsequiously charming, and she welcomed his adoration for he was in position to render her assistance. Not having much else, he plied her with dates and sweets which, she, with a penchant for prestidigitation, secreted under her robes while appearing to eat far more than any sane woman could consume. The captain, whose name Odysseus was an obvious misnomer, was oblivious to her subterfuge, and happily supplied her with dates, of which he had a shipload.
She then supplemented the wheaten gruel of the captives with dates and sweets. The reaction from the captive slaves was mixed. Some resented her freedom and others were thankful for her efforts. She found it strange that people in their predicament would refuse a kindness, but some adamantly refused her offerings, as if they would be contaminated by consuming the delicacies. These, led by a strange bearded man called Iraneus, seemed to believe they gained merit by their suffering. She also managed to talk Odysseus into adding several links to Martha’s chain, to allow her to sleep on bales of linen, away from the cage. Despite being allowed to move about during the day, Maximinus escorted Miri every evening back to the cage to join her children and Yusef for the night. She managed to secure the twins a diurnal freedom by agreeing to take only one or the other with her when she moved about the deck, and she was allowed the option of trading one for the other during the day. Both Akivai and Sarai were so effervescent during their promenades along the deck, and their curiosity so infectious, Miri’s heart could not fall into deep despair when she was with them. Yusef, however, remained incarcerated, but he bore his captivity with a stoic heroism.
On the fourth day our, they finally sighted land. The ship, for all her gallumping form, reached Crete in reasonable time, and it turned out fortuitously, as the wind had almost completely swung against them, and now blew down from the northwest. The Hera sailed leeward of the island, and by great fortune, by dropping sail and rowing hard, they were able to make the beautiful natural harbour of Phoenix. It had been named Phoenix by the Greeks and Romans as a way of making the Levantine name of Phoenicia more politically correct. Once inside the bay, they dropped two bow anchors and were met by a harbourmaster who rowed out with seven gallants. The port fees were argued about, finally established, paid, and when the harbourmaster heard about the crocodile, he asked to see it. So excited were he and his shipmates, Miri suggested to Maximinus they charge an admission to see the reptile to pay for the water they would have to procure.
He was delighted by the idea, and covering the cages of human cargo with canvas to keep them out of sight, he made arrangements to load the Hera’s skiff and advertise the exhibition in the port. The showing was a great success, and they not only made enough to purchase the water, but covered most of the harbour duties as well. They received a report of the winds from the local fishermen, and they were still blowing hard from the northwest beyond the cape. The captain called a meeting, and some wanted to wait out the heavy winds and others voted for a southwest tack. There was also a group that wanted to run east behind the island and then cross towards Greece, and try island hopping through to the Adriatic Sea.
Odysseus was convinced they could tack due west and pass south of Sicily past Malta, and, if the gods were with them, catch a Sirocco wind north and sail to the west of Corsica, and then haul south again into Ostia on the Mistral. They voted to wait for a day in hopes of the Etesian wind blowing through the Dardanelles from the Caucausus. They could cross the wind at a favourable angle, and speed up their passage. They all agreed to run short tacks against the wind all the way to Puteoli and pass through the Straits of Messina would be almost impossible, and the constant changing of the yards and sail would tire them before the first day out, but the discussion continued incessantly, and even when the dialogue ebbed, it would erupt again on some other part of the ship between some other sailors. They general consensus was that they would head out from the lee of the island and then let the gods decide their course. This seemed to be the best course of action, and they all agreed that it was always best to allow the gods to speak, and then act as they dictated. They would sail at dawn.
The next day, a storm reared over the island and they hunkered down under cover as rain washed over them for the whole day. Everything on board was soaked and the dampness pervaded every porous surface well after the storm passed, and they spent a miserable night wrapped in dank woolens that seemed to be either to hot or too cold. The lack of stretching space left them all quite cantankerous by the time the sailors began to prepare the ship to loose her moorings. It was still quite dark as it was the new moon, but the tide was high, and it was time to take advantage of the high water.
Sometime in the darkness before dawn, Miri awoke to a scrambling along the side of the ship, and she could hear the ship’s skiff and oars banging against the ship’s hull. Her own chains clattered as she grasped the cage bars and pressed her face against them to get a better look as several men she didn’t recognize climbed aboard. Odysseus greeted the strangers and after a low discussion and the shaking of hands, the strangers disappeared into the passenger compartments. There was not much else to see, so Miri opened her blanket and pulled Sarai in towards her. Akivai slept on top of Yusef, in the manner of a cat sleeping on a tree branch.
By the time she awoke, they were already at sea. She could tell from the smell, the winds had changed and they were at the edge of the ship’s grasp of the northwest wind to keep a southwest tack. The helmsman and his mate were hard pressed to keep the ship on the southwesterly heading, and they had rigged pulleys to keep the rudder hard against the wind.
Maximinus did not appear to release her from her cage that morning, so they all stayed still with their eyes closed trying to lose themselves in sleep. Yusef, having been constrained so long, spent most of his time genuinely asleep, but as the sun approached its zenith, they were all awake when two new passengers emerged from their cabin on deck. They were dressed in Eastern robes as opposed to Roman. Their turbans suggested they were Nabatean, but she could not tell from which tribe or area from which they might have come. They kept to themselves, and paced back and forth in a small area near the cabin. It seemed they were avoiding coming into contact with the prisoner’s cages, but at one point, she got a better view of them. Miri was not sure exactly why she decided the figures in the distance were familiar, but as soon as the tallest turned about, she recognized him immediately.
“Redbeard!” she cried out, but he shot her a quick glance that told her she should not call again. And he smiled. Her heart could not stay still beneath her breast. She grasped the wooden staves of the cage and stared at the great broad back of her friend. As the island of Crete slipped away from the horizon, and Africa, unseen, came closer, her situation seemed to have improved, so much that her excitement pushed every ounce of fear and desperation from her mind.
Maximinus finally showed to release her to tend to Martha and Sobek. Sarai was feeling a little seasick, and did not feel like going with her, so she took Akivai in hand and unfolded from the cage. As they approached Martha, Maximinus seemed to notice the length of Martha’s chain, and, though he could not quite place the difference in her bonds, he bent to inspect them. He passed the links through his hands for inspection, and just as he was about to reach Odysseus’ extension, the lookout called out.
Maximinus immediately dropped the chains, and the crew dropped their chores and ran to the side.
The word spread like wild fire through tarred wood. The sails were still far off, but the triangular sails showed the pirate ship would outmaneuver them in the strong headwinds. They were now in a race for their lives. The other ship was running toward them from a slightly upwind bearing, but it did not seem to be gaining in a significant way. There was no time to drop the yard and throw on a larger mainsail, but Odysseus immediately ordered the topsail unfurled to gain more wind. Their only hope was to reach a port before the pirates reached them. Odysseus prevailed upon his first mate to bring a port list. They discussed turning about and running due south for the North Coast of Africa. With the wind at their back, they could add sail, and perhaps out run the pirates, but they ran a good chance the Hera would run aground on shoals along the coast.
They decided to beat for Sicily. The closer they came to Rome, the more ships they could hail along the way. There was a good chance the Hera could join a convoy and escape the pirates’ clutches. Odysseus set lookouts in the crow’s nest so that they were facing every direction, to keep an eye on both the pirate sail and signs for friendly sails. It soon became evident that though the pirates remained in sight, they were not gaining sea.
The Hera was definitely being shadowed. The mysterious ship remained tantalizingly off her portside stern. Each morning, it seemed to be closer than the previous evening, but in the light of day, the sails receded to a distance was too far discern the vessel’s identity. There was some speculation that it could simply be a Nabatean trade ship destined for Rome. But if that were the case, it would probably not care about keeping such a distance between ships. However, no one aboard wanted to approach the other ship and discover its captain’s intent. In that time, Redbeard made no attempt to contact Miri, but she was convinced he was connected to the ship off their portside, and that a plan was afoot to rescue her.
The triangular sails of the pirate ship gave her and advantage over the Hera, who could not tack as close to the wind, and for the next day, the red sails definitely grew closer. The pirate ship was finally making its move. It closed with amazing rapidity. Before the end of the day, the pirate ship would have them alongside. Maximinus commanded only a small escort of sixteen armed men, and he immediately knew it would not be enough to deter an entire crew of pirates. Half of the force were returning to Rome after recovering from malaria, and were not in good fighting shape. He immediately set upon a plan of increasing the show of force. He broke out several crates of Cypriot kitchen ware, copper pots, and arranged that every sailor place one upon his head, and he armed them with stevedore pikes, and lined them along the portside rail.
He then had his master at arms run them through the war cry of the Third Legion Cyrenaica. The first cry brought a shock to Miri’s system for, though she did not consciously recognize it, it was the legion that had slaughtered her parent’s upon her birth. Her entire being shuddered at the repetition of the cry which became louder and more assured. The men involved treated the exercise as a game, but Maximinus hoped to convince the pirates the ship was transporting a full cohort of the Cyrenaica. The captain requisitioned a bale of woven reed mats that approximated the size and shape of the scutum, the standard legionaire’s shield, and they were set before each man along the portside rail. With the sun behind them, and below the shade of the sail, the illusion would be convincing enough they hoped, to deter the pirates.
Odysseus released two prayer doves as an offering to Aphrodite. As they took wing, they fluttered upward, and miraculously, Aphrodite answered their supplications, and the first gusts of a sirocco pushed out Hera’s sail and stretched her rigging. The ropes creaked, the masts groaned and the wide ship heeled slightly to port, causing the men along the rails to steady their stance, and Odysseus ordered them over the keel so their mass would not weigh down the leeward side of the ship. Maximinus realigned them, and all eyes turned to the pirate ship.
She had three triangular sails set, and was running fast toward them, and gained sea quickly.
“How many men have served as milites?” demanded Maximinus.
Only three sailors put up their hands. Maximinus turned to his own men. “Whoever has extra equipment, arm these three!” he ordered his own soldiers. “At least we will have twenty trained men!” He split his force in three and placed them at the flanks and centre of the lined sailors. The sailors, armed with stevedore pikes, would fight if forced, but the soldiers in the strategic positions, trained to fighting could be counted on to lead the mariners in a melee. But he hoped his the appearance of the crew would be enough to deter the pirates from boarding, and discourage any thought of banditry.
Miri was heartened by the growing red sails, and craned her neck for signs of Redbeard, but he and his companions remained within their cabin. Maximinus had ordered them below decks for he had the natural Roman superstition against easterners, and, as the travelers were Nabatean, he also had connected them with the Nabatean sail on their stern. He had to waste two soldiers to guard the cabin, and he crossed his fingers in hopes his subterfuge would be enough deterrent to the approaching ship.
He had expected to be detained once the ship closed on the Hera, but his companion, like a lion set upon its prey, and armed with the wickedly curved sicarii, muttered in Aramaic, ready to leap upon the Roman guards in an instant. Neither had expected Maximinus to set out the sailors, and he knew the approaching ship was not manned enough to face a cohort of trained, or seemingly trained, legionaires. The plan to rescue Miri and her children would fall apart. He could not tip their hand by a preemptive strike, for he and his friend were outnumbered on the deck. His companion was peering through a crack in the cabin wall. Redbeard pushed him aside and looked through the gap between the boards.
The pirate ship was a fine vessel, sleek and fast, her red sails fully filled, she was bearing down quickly upon the Hera. Soon the crews of each vessel were visible, and at a word from Maximinus, the crew of the Hera began the war chant of the Third Legion Cyrenaica, marking time by pounding their makeshift javelins on the wooden deck. The rhythmic chant bolstered the men’s spirits, to the point that, for the moment, they felt as though they were a true cohort of the Roman legion, and the chant was quite convincing, for the pirate ship suddenly heeled to the North, and the crew of the Hera cheered and jeered at the retreating pirates.
Redbeard swore. He could think of no way to signal his confederates on the pirate ship without tipping his hand. “Time for the three steps of Plan Beta!” he muttered.
“What is Plan Beta?” asked his companion.
Redbeard counted the three steps on his fingers. “Sit and wait. Be brave. And watch for the signs!”
Maximinus had to impose a strict order on the crew. As soon as the pirates withdrew, the mariners had broken formation and he had to physically push them back into line, for no trained legion would have broken ranks so quickly after a feint and retreat. His own men had remained at their posts for he had given no order to stand down.
“We need men to trim the ship!” said Odysseus. “We cannot run without a crew!”
“Take half the men you think you need and double their duty!” said Maximinus.
“That’s ridiculous!” complained Odysseus.
“Do as I say or we will die!” said Maximinus, “If those brigands are worth their salt, they will see our supposed cohort dwindling to man the ship, and they will see through our deception. And they are experienced, for they have not retreated, only withdrawn to a safe distance to weigh their options! Most pirates are cowards and will run if the pickings are not easy! It is our task, first and foremost to convince them they will pay for our cargo with their lives!”
Maximinus turned to his defense force, and ordered them to set up the Cyrenaica war chant to challenge the pirates to fight. The chant, a magical incantation to Mithras, proven so powerful that that, on the field, the words caused cowards to scuttle for the hills and the courageous to hurl themselves upon the Roman swords. There was no answering cry from the pirate ship, and Maximinus knew his enemy. Unless they overwhelmed the victims, they would not come alongside to board. He guessed the crew of the pirate ship at about fifty fighting men. The standoff continued for the rest of the day, and though the men gumbled, they all knew, as taxing as standing for hours on the deck was, their only alternative was to engage a band of wild cutthroats.
Maximinus was pleased, and he smiled at Miri as he passed by, but his smile was not for her, but of his sense of victory, and he held his head as though Minerva and Nike had placed a wreath upon his head. Later, he released Martha and Miri to prepare food and serve them men where they stood on deck, as the ship’s cook was now one of his legionaires. The standoff was brought to a halt as another sail appeared north of the Hera. It was another ship, and a large one, and as the Hera turned toward the distant sail, the pirate ship crossed astern and drifted away to the south, but did not disappear from view.
Miri, taking advantge of her role as a maidservant while Martha cooked, brought a tempting porridge to the guards on the Nabateans’ cabin, and, after making sure they had all they needed, disappeared, and returned with a tray for the Nabateans. The guards, not sensing anything amiss, stepped aside to let her in. As soon as she was inside, before her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she called out in Aramaic for Redbeard.
“Miriam!” he whispered, and handed her a pair of iron pincers wrapped in linen. “For the chains!”
She slipped the pincers into her sleeve.
“Make sure the chains are loose enough to flee!” whispered Redbeard.
At that moment, Maximinus entered the cabin, and they fell silent. Miri distributed the food to the Nabateans.
“You are a Celt, are you not?” asked Maximinus, suspiciously.
“I served with the Second Augusta,” replied Redbeard, “My grandfather served with the Second Gallica.”
In the next instant, Miri almost gave her connection to the travelers away. She recognized the hand that took the bowl from her, and her heart stopped and she gulped loudly for air. The man before her was Eleazar!
Maximinus stared at Miri as she quickly set down the food tray on a chest.
“Excuse me!” she said quickly and backed quickly from the cabin. Once outside, she grasped the doorpost with her left hand and held her right to her breast to cover her heart and protect herself while she regained her breath. Eleazar was alive!
“The you served under Germanicus, no doubt!” asked Maximinus suspiciously. He pointed to Miriin the doorway. “This woman also knew Germanicus!”
She turned immediately to face Maximinus.
His dark eyes burned with intense suspicion and the air hung motionless about the group. No one moved. Maximinus slowly placed his right hand on the hilt of his gladius, while he continued his questioning. His tone was now forcibly conversational, and everyone in the room now seemed to engage in a strange stage play.
“I have never seen her!” replied Redbeard.
“She was a personal friend of Agrippina,” said Maximinus.
“I was a soldier, and knew my tent mates!”
Miri could not breathe, and fled to the rail across the open deck.
She could hear Maximinus and Redbeard speaking, but the words were muffled. She wanted to rush to Martha and Yusef to tell them Eleazar was on board. As her senses came back to her, she debated whether she should tell her family Eli had come aboard. It could affect the way they behaved, and further exacerbate Maximinus’ suspicions. She decided to keep his presence a secret.
The iron pincers weighed her arm down, and almost slipped from her sleeve. She managed to catch it before it fell, but the metal jaws had bitten through the cloth and ripped her sleeve. She glanced about the deck, but as far as she could tell no one had seen it. She walked stiffly up the deck to the cage that held her children and Yusef. Yusef awoke as Akivai and Sarai greeted their mother. She slipped the bundle containing the pincers through the bars to Yusef.
“Break the links where they will not show!” she whispered, then stood up. There were no guards about. Maximinus appeared from the cabin, glanced for a brief moment in her direction and, seeing the approaching square sail from the north, ordered the mariners to stand down from their posts. He immediately set six men to guard the cabin. Odysseus assigned two slaves to gather the copper pots and mats that had served as armoury for the mock militia, and divided the grudging crew to tasks that had been neglected during the standoff with the pirate ship. The approaching sail was the Minerva, loaded with amphorae, and the mariners on each ship saluted the others. A gallant from the Minerva tossed a wineskin across to the Hera, and the Quartermaster of the Hera hailed the Minerva and warned them of the red sail, and the Minerva changed course to the south east to avoid the pirates. They were not to concerned about the pirates as they had a full two cohorts fresh from the fields of Campagnia bound for duty in Syria.
Neither ship stopped but the brief contact with the Minerva buoyed everyone’s spirits, but the Minerva soon disappeared to the south east, and her passing left all on board melancholic. All except for Yusef. He was brought to life by bending open the links on the chains in his cage. He opened adjoining links so that a sharp tug and twist would open the chain. Normal use would not cause them to fall apart. He was convinced he would escape soon.
Miri held her tongue and said nothing of meeting Eleazar. As she was returned to her cage, a call came from the lookout, and men rushed to the port stern. They were bearing down on a Roman navy ship, a three master, a large Greek-styled trireme style.
Odysseus changed course to intercept the Perseus, and pulled alongside.
“The Perseus!” said Maximinus, as he spied the stern adornment of the trireme. “Of the fleet at Misenum! I think we shall have an escort to safe waters after all!”
They lowered the skiff, and through a fair swell, a crew rowed Maximinus across to the Perseus. He returned with two soldiers from the Perseus. They carried a large rope with them, and soon rigged a bosun‘s chair with pulleys between the two ships, and, one at a time, landed several more soldiers to the deck of the Hera using the precarious rigging. It was a wild and precarious crossing for the men, but they engaged in it with great gusto and sporting spirit. Each man was cheered and jeered according to his progress, and the closer each man came to the ocean waves, the greater the cries from the ships’ crews. Soon, Maximinus had an intimidating contingent aboard, and he smiled confidently.
“The Perseus is landing in the South Harbour of Malta,” he told the crew, “We will continue on with her to Marsaxlokk there, and I will transfer to the Perseus with my captives. Form there it will be safe to sail to Puteoli. And I will take my prisoners by road to Rome from Miseneum.”
Miri was devastated. There would be no rescue from the trireme. Every single man on board was A Roman soldier or marine.
“We must escape before we reach Malta!” she whispered to Yusef, “Once we make land, we will have to break out!”
“Break out?” asked Akivai.
“Yes!” whispered Miri, “It’s a secret! You can keep a secret, can’t you?”
“Like daddy’s name?”
“Yes!” said Miri, closing the ties on Akivai’s tunic, “Just like daddy’s name!”
The sun sank to the west, the world turned golden, and despite their cage, and despite their chains, Miri’s family, wrapped together, were calm and content. Diamonds sparkled on the waves, and showered them with golden sparkles, and as the sun sank, the moon appeared faintly in the still blue sky. The sky transformed itself into a beautiful pink blanket, and the thin clouds across the horizon blossomed a bright pink, turned purple, and beside the moon, Ishtar shone brilliantly white.
“Inanna!” whispered Miri, “Star Light. Star Bright…”
Sarai and Akivai joined in the familiar prayer. Yusef’s deep voice completed the harmony of spirit, and range of voices, and their combined souls formed a perfect chord, their souls in perfect accord.
“First Star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish you might, grant the wish I wish tonight!”
With that they all kissed their open palms, and passed their secret wishes into their palms and then blew them as a kiss to Inanna.
The guard, assigned to them overnight was overcome by the moment. “The Sabines have a prayer to Venus,” he said in a very heavily Romanized Greek. “It is a wish to have your future love be revealed! What is your prayer?”
“It is for a blessing!” replied Miri.
“By Jove, we all need to be blessed!”
Yusef started at the name so close to the Roman form of Yahweh, and for a moment he realized he had called upon the ancient goddess through the child’s nursery rhyme, and he shook his head. It was a terribly difficult thing being a faithful Jew in an overwhelmingly Gentile world. And with that thought he fell asleep, his arms wrapped about Sarai. Miri remained awake and stared at the stars above her head. The Milky Way, the spilled and nurturing milk of Galactia ran through the heavens, and the galaxy Scorpius seemed to stand out. Perhaps because she knew its shape.
“What are you looking at, mama?” asked Akivai sleepily.
“Scorpio!” said Miri, “Do you see that star there? And there? And the tail that crosses the Via Lactea?”
“Are we going to die?”
Miri’s heart cracked, and she could not answer her son.
Instead, she picked at the thread that hung from the rip in her sleeve cut by the pincers, and wrapped the thread about her fingers.
“Here!” she said to Akivai, and wrapped the thread about his left hand. “You were born in the town of Bethlehem,” she said as she wrapped the first part of the red thread about his delicate wrist. “There is in that town, the tomb of Rachel.” She wrapped the second course about his wrist, “And the people pray there to ask her to protect their children.” She gave the thread a third turn. “And as a reminder of Rachel’s protection, especially protection from jealousy, envy and the evil eye, they take a red thread,” She wrapped a fourth time about his wrist, “And they wrap it seven times about their wrist.” She wrapped the thread a fifth time. “And as they do, they light a lamp and ask her blessing!”
“We have no lamp!” said Avikai nervously.
“But we have the stars above us as our witness,” said Miri, “And they will burn each and every night without need for lighting!”
She wrapped the thread another turn, but Akivai was not convinced, and was about to protest when a great green streak appeared in the sky. It lasted several seconds, and everyone who was awake on the deck stood to watch. And Miri wrapped the thread about her son’s wrist a seventh time.
“And when this bracelet falls off, you can make another,” said Miri as she snapped the cord from her robe and tied off the bracelet on Akivai’s bracelet. “When you do, you must pledge to her to do good to the end of your days, in exchange you must ask Our Mother, Rachel Emeimu for protection!”
“But you are my mother!” protested Akivai.
Miri smiled and hugged him tightly.
“Of course I am,” she said happily. “But Rachel is more than just your own mother, she is the mother of us all!”
“But she is not here!” said Akivai, “So I shall pray to you!”
Miri took Akivai’s angelic face gently in her hands. “Akivai, I will not always be here for you in the flesh, but I shall watch over you even if you cannot see me!”
“Then I shall pray to you always!” said Akivai.
They snuggled down as best as they could, and Miri laid her head on Yusef’s shoulder, her head beside Sarai’s and content in the goodness of her kin, fell asleep.
The next day, with Sarai in tow, Miri took it upon herself to deliver the food to Redbeard and Eleazar, but the sentry at the door barred her way.
“I am delivering their food,” she said sweetly.
The man, faltered briefly at her advance, but remained adamant. “I have orders no one is supposed to speak with the foreigners!” he said.
“Are they under arrest?” asked Miri, trying to peer past the sentry’s broad shoulders, “Surely there is no harm in my bringing them food?”
“I can’t really say,” replied the sentry, “But your name was mentioned specifically as one of those especially not allowed to speak to them!”
“Then I shall not speak!” replied Miri, “There would be no harm in that, surely, if I were to remain mute?”
The sentry frowned. “It is worth my commission if I were to let you in,” he replied.
“I will take the tray, Mama!” piped in Sarai.
“The tray is to heavy for you, sweetie,” said Miri.
“I’m a big girl, I can carry it!”
Miri did not want to let Sarai take the tray in case she recognized Eleazar, and let the cat out of the bag.
“I will let the girl take it!” said the sentry, as he began to become suspicious of Miri’s continuing insistence to take the tray in herself.
“See!” said Saria, stamping her little foot imperiously. She held out her hands to take the tray. It was more than she could bear, so Miri had the sentry hold the wine jug while Sarai carried the food inside. She remained within for a long time, Miri held herself taut, expecting, at any moment Sarai’s excited outburst when she recognized her cousin Eleazar.
Instead, Sarai appeared calmly at the door.
“Wine please!” she demanded calmly. The sentry handed her the wine jar which she clutched in both arms and disappeared again. This time she was gone an excruciatingly long time, and Miri began to pace about the deck in front of the cabin. Sarai appeared with the empty tray, and walked away without acknowledging Miri at all, which Miri found, not just strange, but incredibly irritating. “Sarai, wait!” she called out.
Sarai stopped and looked back at her mother, and with a quick jerk of her head, ordered her mother to follow her. Miri glanced at the guard, who eyed her suspiciously. He glanced at Sarai, who, her back to both of them, walked toward the starboard railing. Miri smiled apologetically at the guard, and hurried after her daughter.
“What is going on, young lady?” asked Miri in her best mother’s in charge voice, and turned Sarai about to face her. Sarai immediately held the tray between her and her mother, and the bottom of the tray was covered in Hebrew writing.
“I brought you a message from Uncle Eli!” said Sarai.
“You saw him?”
“Of course!” said Sarai, “He was kind of hard to miss! He’s my uncle!” She was so calm, the conversation seemed otherworldly, and Miri felt a little dizzy.
“Are you alright, Mama?” asked Sarai.
Miri clutched the tray to her breast and sat down. Sarai immediately sat on her lap.
“Aren’t you going to read it? Sarai asked,pulling at the tray.
“In a minute!” said Miri. “In a minute!”
At that moment, the lookout called “Land ho!” and there was a flurry of feet as the crew scrambled for a look for land below the gathering clouds where the lookout now pointed. It took some time before the crew could see the land of Malta, but soon the cliffs shone before them and as they approached the island, the South Harbour soon became clear, and smoke from a temple on the promontory was visible, and the captain dropped the mainsail. The trireme, also dropped sail, and as all three banks of the oars were locked into place, the majesty of the Pereus filled every heart with awe. The rums sounded and under a loud blast from a ceremonial trumpet, and a shout from the crew of the Perseus, the oars in unison dipped and heaved the trireme forward. The chants of the oarsmen as they kept time with the oars filled Miri with their power, and she stared in awe as the trireme surged forward.
Soon it was their turn, and the crew of the Hera scrambled to follow the Perseus. The bowsprit sail was left up, as the single row of oars of the Hera was as powerful as the crew of the trireme, and their efforts would not be strong enough to overcome the wind and turn the sail from a propellant to a resistant drag. By the time the Hera dropped anchor in Marsaxlokk Bay, the Pereus had already been made fast further into the cove, and the crew breaking to make camp ashore. The Hera, however, would have to wait for the harbourmaster and a check to ensure there was no disease or contraband aboard.
And the harbourmaster, in the way of men who are given a little power and wish to weild it in the most annoying manner possible, delayed his inspection, in order to prove his importance to the captain and the crew of the Hera, for the better part of the day. Finally, he sent his assistant, who apologized profusely when he discovered Maximinus aboard, with the news he was too busy and would come to inspect the ship at cock;s crow the following day. The assistant, for his part, had no wish to annoy the Imperial agent on board the Hera, still took his time returning, as he knew Paulus, the harbourmaster would become apoplectic at discovering he had inconvenienced an Imperial agent through his vanity, and would drop everything to scramble to clear the ship before nightfall. With an eye on the sun, and calculating his return so that an inspection would not be possible that day, the assistant stood by the rail, content that the delay would keep Paulus up all night sick with worry, and admired the view.
By chance he stood beside Martha chained to Sobek’s cage and Miri and Sarai, and struck by Miri’s beauty, he decided he had a second reason for remaining.
“You are a slave?” he asked glancing at Miri’s chains.
“I am to appear before the Emperor,” she replied, not wishing to answer the question directly.
“My name is Sidonius,” said the customs official affably. “I am a freedman.” He smiled. “I was once a slave, son of a slave.”
Miri realized he was simply trying to ease her fear, but, despite her chains, despite her children in chains, she did not wish to contemplate a life in bondage.
She pointed to a temple on the promontory to the northeast of the harbour. “Who is worshipped there?”
Sidonius kissed an amulet hanging from his neck and touched it to his forehead. He stared at the temple with great sadness. “The fires of the great mother have burned out!” he said with a trace of fear. “Since the beginning of time her flame has been burning on the hilltop, but a hundred years ago, the Roman Praetor Verres removed her greatest treasure, the tusks of Masinassa.”
“What is a Massinassa?” asked Sarai at Miri’s knee.
Sidonius smiled. “He was the king of Numidia. The tusks are named after him, but they were in the temple long before that. They were the height of two men and curved into a sacred spiral. When the people of Carthage and the people of Rome first came to blows, Massinassa, king of Numidia took advantage of the chaos, and landed in Marsa Xlokk. His generals pillaged the temple, and when he discovered the spoils had been taken from the Queen of Heaven, he sent them back with a ransom of gold, ivory and silver, and made arrangements to rebuild the temple. This was done, but by then the Romans had taken Sicily, and they took possession of the temple and changed the name of Rabat Astarte to Juno, just as the Greeks had changed the name to Hera.”
“Rabat Astarte?” asked Miri, her heart fired suddenly by the name of the true goddess used within her own nation. “You speak Canaanite?”
Sidonius looked about to make sure no Roman was nearby. “It is outlawed here by the Roman governor, but my mother spoke to me in her native Punic tongue. All the books had been burned but we kept speaking the language for it allowed us to speak to each other without the danger of being eavesdropped by our masters.” His eyes flickered about, “Though it is worth forty lashes less one to speak it, I swore to her I would teach my own children and pass the stories on to them, but my only son was sold before I gained my freedom.”
“I am sorry,” said Miri, and his loss became her own, and she wrapped her arm about Sarai. The sound of their chains clashing brought Sidonius’s loss even closer to her own heart. His eyes locked with hers for a moment, and in an instant, they knew each other’s thoughts. The close connection suddenly became more than ethereal, and she seemed to noticed for the first time how attractive he was, and in the same moment realize he was attracted to her.
They both looked away.
“I did not marry his mother, and after she gave birth, the master sold them both! I don’t know where they were sent.”
“And was she also Canaanite?”
“M’laat!” he said, “The same as me. Our families have been enslaved since the invasion of M’Allat, but there are not many left. Most have either died in captivity or been sold overseas. There are still a few who remember the old ways. On days of the sun, there are still those who meet at the temple. Farmers and fishermen. But the priests and priestesses have all gone, And no one knows the rituals. Still, the Romans could not stop the worship, and simply built their altar to Juno over the old temple, just to make sure there was a safe place to keep their plunder, or at least until Verres ransacked the temple before the privateers were cleared out!”
“Privateers?” asked Miri.
“After the Punic wars, the Carthiginian sailors were out of work, and the Romans sank their ships wherever they could, and so they plied the waters in search of plunder, and the Roman cargo ships were slow and clumsy, and made perfect targets. Eventually, they settled for a ransom, and allowed the traders to go on their way. There are mariners throughout Our Sea, who have been marginalized by the Roman trading companies and merchants, and fishing just doesn’t cover the crews’ wages.”
“You seem surprised. Rome has imposed her will upon every nation of the world at the point of the sword. Her friends fear her power as much as her enemies, and as long as her back is turned…” His voice trailed off.
“One man’s revenge is another man’s provocation,” said Miri, a touch more primly than she had intended. She was suddenly aware of her age. Somehow, in her life wrapped about her children in the farmlands of the Delta, she had not noticed she was aging, but here, on the rail of the Hera, beside a younger, very attractive man, she came face to face with her matronly status.
“Tell me more about the temple,” said Miri, “Is it still considered a sanctuary?”
“It has been abandoned for a hundred years.”
Miri was disappointed for she had briefly thought it might be a place to run, if they made their escape. She was not sure of how dedicated Maximinus was of the gods, but, for the most part, the Romans recognized the authority of their own gods, even when they desecrated the shrines of their enemies.
It seemed that Sidonius had read her thoughts. “There is another place, further to the North that would be a wonderful hiding place. Along the road to the Town of Rabat, there is a ruin, and below that ruin is a temple to the old goddess. No one dares go there, not even the rats! It is the great shrine of the First Mother, we call her Rabbat, and her sanctuary is M’Allat”
“They are all Canaanite names,” said Miri in surprise.
“Of course,” replied Sidonius, “The temple was built by the Phoenicians, but before them, another temple was built, and before that, this island was a tall mountain, one of three: Gozo Comino and M’Allat along pastoral highlands that stretched north to Italy itself, and there…” he pointed at the temple, “Was the sanctuary of the Great Mother, and the mountain was called M’Allat which means Sanctuary. And out there…” he pointed at the sea, “…was a valley filled with rivers and lakes. And the children of the goddess hunted and fished and carved their homes in the sides of the mountains.
They say that the herdsmen turned away from the Great Mother and began to worship only those aspect of her that they liked, and they ignored the parts of her that they did not, and soon that which they worshipped left them blind to her true nature. And there was in the high place, a priestess, Rabat Donatia who slept in the sanctuary, and there received a dream from Astarte. And the dream was this.
The great mother’s son Yam, who was the great ocean beyond the land, was growing and needed a place to spread out his arms, and she could not stop him from growing. Her daughter Arsia held him now in her arms but he was too large for her to hold. And her twin daughters, Padria of the clouds and Tallia of the dew were sucking as much as they could of him into the sky, but soon they would not be able to hold him either. Baal, the god of rain tried to help them, but it was of no avail. Soon none of them could keep their brother Yam from growing. By the next time that the moon was full, said the goddess, Yam would burst through his sisters’ arms and flood the valley below, and that the people must gather there on the great mountain of the sanctuary, or they would be drowned in a great flood.
The first signs would be the opening of the skies, and within weeks, the waters would fill the Great Valley of Paradise.
And so Rabbat Donatia awoke and proclaimed to the people that they should gather together their belongings and the animals, and bring them to the three mountains, and upon each mountain, a priestess was there appointed to welcome the people, and help them pray for deliverence from the deluge. As well as Donatia, Hurria took in people on the mountain of Gozo, and on the peak of Comino, Rabat Pigat was placed in charge. And on Comino the faithful brought small animals like rabbits and the like. And on Gozo goats and sheep, and to M’Allat they called for the larger animals, but only a single herdsman brought his cattle, three cows and a bull named Wenzu, Only he headed the call of the Priestess Donatia, as his faith was greater than his fellows who had turned away from the Great Mother. In their honour, he declared, he would name each of the cows he owned after the three priestesses, Donatia, Hurria and Pigat.
And the moon grew from her darkness until she was full, and at the second quarter, the rain began to fall from the belly of Baal and the arms of Padriya of the clouds and Talliya of the dew, and still many did not heed the call of Donatia. And even some returned to the valley to fish, for the fishing on the lakes was better in the rain. But there were still a few who stayed in the sanctuary and waited. Then at the full moon, the Earth began to shake, and many buildings fell, and many were killed and injured, and more fled from the mountain into the valley, but still the faithful remained, for they heeded the words of the Priestesses of Astarte.
And before long, the rivers were swollen and gushed in torrents to the North, and raced past around to the South, and poured into the lakes, and the rivers began to rise. Only then did people heed the warnings, but it was too late. They could not ford the raging rivers, and three days after the rumbling of the Earth, Rabbat Donatia realized that the earth shaking was the breaking of the fingers of Arsia, Daughter Earth under the pressure of holding back her brother Yam, and his waters crashed into the valley, passing as a great wave from the west that crashed into the highlands and swept many from the sides of the mountains, but he could not reach the top of M’Allat, nor Gozo, nor Comino, and he was pushed back. But soon the valley to the west filled, and began to pour into the eastern valley, and there, the waters rose and pushed back many to other highlands, where they formed the nations of Afrika and the Levant, and only the people of Crete and Cyprus were remained of the faithful, as well as the people of M’Allat, but they were trapped on the islands for aeons, not to be reunited with their brethren until the coming of the Canaanites!”
Martha had remained adamantly silent, for she was not given to stories of fancy. “The flood covered the whole of the Earth!” she said suddenly.
Sidonius tilted his head thoughtfully. “I think not! I have been in the sanctuaries, and they have never been flooded, though fishermen have reported seeing buildings under water off the shore.”
Sarai piped in, “Perhaps we all have different ideas about the same thing!” She jumped from Miri’s lap. “It is Akivai’s turn!” she said.
Sidonius looked quizzical.
“I can only have one child with me at a time!” explained Miri.
“Hostages!” said Sidonius, and frowned, “How efficiently Roman!”
She took Sarai’s hand and they walked back to the family’s cage. Though they had already opened the links on the chains, they went through the charade of having the guard lock and unlock their chains. Akivai was elated at being released, but he managed to control his excitement long enough to hug Sarai, and kiss her on the cheek. She accepted his embrace and quietly sat beside Yusef.
“Would you like to stretch out, Uncle?” asked Sarai.
Yusef smiled weakly at his great niece. He had grown listless, and his hope was fading. “You’re an angel!” he whispered, and tears welled in his eyes at her kindness. Miri grasped his hand.
“Soon!” she whispered to him, and he closed his eyes, and pushed his feet against the bars to stretch his leg and back muscles. Without the others in the cage, he had more room, but he still could not stand or stretch out to his full length. Sarai had squeezed to one side to allow him to stretch. Miri’s heart cracked watching her innocence and kindness in such a horrible situation, but she had no time to slip into such thoughts for Akivai had already begun to move off.
She followed and he climbed the rail.
“Be careful!” she cried out.
“It’s alright!” he shouted back, as he stood up, balanced himself and began to walk along the rail. “I can swim!”
“Get down from there!” commanded Miri.
He turned for a moment to taunt her, and at the same instant, he lost his balance, and arms flailing, began to tilt toward the ocean.
Instantly Sidonius lunged and caught him.
“Akivai!” Miri screamed, and everyone turned towards them.
Thankfully Sidonius had caught Akivai, and hauled the him back on board.
Miri was on them before Akivai’s feet hit the ground.
“What were you thinking?” she cried at him.
“I can swim!” he retorted stubbornly.
She grasped the chain stretching between his hands, and attached to his feet, and yanked on them. “With these on?” she demanded, “You would have sunk like a stone!”
Her words struck him hard because he had not thought of the weight of his shackles, and his faced went white. She could not stand his sudden understanding of his danger, and instantly clutched him to her breast. She growled into his hair, out of love and frustration, and he growled back, because he loved being her little cub.
Ursus Maximinus made an appearance, and he looked about officiously. He did not appreciate chaos.
“Is there a problem here?” he asked.
“No,” replied Miri, “Everything is fine.”
He glanced deprecatingly at Sidonius. “You have duties to perform aboard?” he asked the customs agent.
“I will have to check the manifest,” replied Sidonius. “You have warrants for the prisoners?”
Maximinus was irritated. “Of course!”
There was a brief silence.
“May I see them?” asked Sidonius.
This irritated Maximinus even more, for he did not have the papers handy. They were in his travelling chest. “Ready the skiff,” he ordered the bosun, “I have business ashore!” He glared at Sidonius.
“Follow me!” he said and turned on his heels. Sidonius made a face to Miri and followed the Praetorian.
“Who is that?” asked Akivai.
“The assistant harbourmaster!”
He seems very nice!” said Akivai.
“Yes!” replied Miri, “Yes, he does!”
Ursus Maximinus went ashore in the same boat as Sidonius and his men. He did not need to bear the added expense of boarding his men ashore at the taverna. He ordered the skiff to be readied for the morning. As the sun settled into the west, the sky faded to black, and lamps and fires on the shore twinled over the calm waters of the harbour. A light breeze descended upon the water from the hillside, and mitigiated their cramped quarters. Slowly the men aboard fell asleep, one by one, lulled by the almost imperceptible swaying of the boat on the harbour swell.
“We have to go now!” whispered Miri,shaking Yusef awake.
“Now?” he asked groggily.
“Yes!” she whispered, “Tomorrow will be too late!” She tugged at her opened links and they pulled apart. Akivai and Sarai were wrapped in the deep slumber of children, and Miri snapped their chains. Yusef, not quite conscious had not moved to free himself and seemed unable to help himself, and Miri shook him.
“Yusef!” she said, “Move it! We’re going!”
He finally seemed to understand, and pulled at his chain vainly. “It’s stuck!” he said plaintively, “Leave without me!”
“They will torture and kill you!” whispered Miri, “Pulle harder!”
She grasped his chain. He had been pulling at the wrong link and she snapped the cut links with a sharp tug.
“You have the pincers?” she asked.
Yusef tapped his waistband. They were tucked in.
the guards were asleep. They had no reason to suspect anything amiss and they were ustill in their sea mode. No one could escape from a boat. Until now, that is.
Miri set Akivai on his feet, and he stood blearily on the deck. She helped Sarai from the cage. She was more alert than her brother, and when Yusef found he could not move easily due to his long confinement, helped her mother unfold him. She found a stevedore’s pike and put it in his hands. Miri put her fingers to her lips and pointed at Martha asleep by Sobek’s cage and her family pattered on bare feet to release their aunt.
Miri slipped beside the cabin that held Redbeard and Lazarus. The guard at the door snored, but awoke the instant she arrived. Immediately, his javelin dropped to her belly, and Miri froze.
“Oh!” she cried in feigned surprise, “You startled me!”
“What are you doing here?” he demanded gruffly.
“I’m just out for a walk,” she said lightly, “It is so cramped where I am sleeping!”
It worked. He was so used to seeing her out and about during the day, in his half alert state, his mind accepted her suggestion. His javelin put up, and with a great thud he fell to the floor.
Redbeard stood in the doorway, a large table leg in his hand.
“Good timing, lass!” he said. Eleazar pushed past the Celt and hugged her.
“Let’s go!” she said, “The boat is to the stern!”
Redbeard ran to the stern rail and peered over the rail. The skiff was there, but no oars. He glanced about but could not see them. Time was of the essence, and rather than search for the oars, he threw a rope ladder over the side and it rattled against the wooden hull. He lifted Sarai, then Akivai over the rail and the scrambled and from the ladder. They were not used to climbing such a contraption, and he realized they would soon fall. They cried out and he sushed them and began to haul them up. He had only just brought them back to the rail, when a cry went up.
“Runaways!” called a shrill voice, “Runaways!” It was Iraneus crying from the slave cages. His cry was taken up by the others, for an escaped slave only meant torture and death for those left behind after an escape. Rome had passed a lwa after the great revolt ofd Spartacus that any slave who aided another to escape, or witnessed the escape without informing the master should be tortured for information and then crucified in a prominent place.
“Jump!” ordered Redbeard, and his Akivai immediately leapt from the rail and landed in the water. Sarai, who could not swim, held on to the ladder.
“Go!” roared Redbeard, but he was set upon by armed guards. Sarai screamed and struggled with the rope ladder, but managed to begin a tangled descent toward the dark waters of the harbour.
Eleazar and Miri were still freeing Martha when the alarm was sounded. As her chains fell to the deck, she resisted Miri’s pull.
“We must free Sobek!” she insisted.
“Free him?” asked Miri, “There is no time!”
“He shares our fate!” insisted Martha. “If we go free, then so shall he!”
She glanced up at Eleazar.
“You have a knife?”
“Of course!” he replied, and produced it hilt first.
“When I tell you, pull off his mask!” said Martha, and pulled the gate on Sobek’s cage. Inside, she cut his bonds deftly, for the dagger as from Damascus and as sharp as an eagle’s talon. As she sawed the cloth from his limbs he growled a deep rumble that shook the deck planking. He flicked his tail, almost throwing her off balance, but she held the cge bars, and turned to releasing his final bond. As quickly as she had slipped into the cage, she escaped the prison.
“Free him!” she commanded Eleazar, and he snapped the blind fold from Sobek’s face. The huge reptile exploded instantly, his huge jaws opened wide and thrashed his head from side to side, The cage didn’t collapse, but it bent back and forward, and like some scaly insect emerging from its cocoon, he dragged himself from the cage. The slaves screamed for they were very close to the great crocodile and feared for their lives. His release immediately changed the focus of the crew, who had more of a duty to their own survival than the escape of captives.
Eleazar, Martha and Miri reached Redbeard as he freed himself of his adversaries, and under cover of the battle between Sobek and the crew, Miri and her family pushed off from the Hera. As Redbeard had noted earlier, they had no oars, nor was there a sail. They were adrift. Keeping the fire lit in the ruins of the temple of Juno to their right, they took turns paddling toward the shore. Finally redbeard and Miri slipped over the sidesand clutching the gunwales, used their legs to propel the skiff forward. Shouts still echoed across the water from the Hera, mixed with the angry roar of the crocodile.
Finally, the noise died down.
“I hope he’s alright!” said Martha, staring back at the Hera. “I thought he might escape!”
“He’s a fearsome animal!” said Redbeard, splashing alongside.
“He is more than that!” said Martha, “We cannot escape without him!”
“And are we to go back for him?” asked Redbeard, his breath running short.
“Of course not!” said Martha. “That would be stupid!”
They reached shore and rested on a rocky shore below the town.
“What now?” asked Eleazar.
“There is a sanctuary inland where we can hide,” said Miri.
“How in the great Mother’s name could you know that?” asked Redbeard.
“It’s on the road to Rabat!” said Miri, ignoring his question.
“We can’t hide forever!” said Eleazar.
“We won’t have to!” said Miri, “Just long enough for the Hera to leave port. Then we can come out of hiding and find a ship!”
“We have no money!” said Eleazar.
“Oh, ye of little faith!” said Miri, “You think we have come this far to perish on this small island?”
“We shall go!” said Yusef, his mind clearing of the fog he had acquired while he had been incarcerated. He looked at Sarai as he stood up. “You ready for a piggyback ride?” She squealed in delight. He swept her up onto his shoulders.
Unfortunately, his captivity had fused his joints, and he faltered and almost dropped the little girl. Sarai squealed again, thinking it was part of the fun, but the look of shock on Yusef’s face was palpable. Eleazar noticed the pain in his grandfather’s face, and took Sarai from Yusef a moment before Yusef lost his grip on Sarai.
Eleazar pulled her close, and wrapping her a great hug. Yusef was in shock at his lack of strength, but Miri, her heart still beating from the rush of maternal alarm, gripped Yusef, for he seemed to be about to collapse.
“Forgive me!” he said weakly.
She squeezed him tight, and she was surprised at the meat he had lost from his frame during the voyage. “I will help you!” she said, “What else is family for?”
He was embarrassed by his infirmity, and manfully tried to better it.
“Let’s go!” he said, “It will be light soon!”
The walk was pleasant because the moon was high and bright enough to light the road. They stopped in order to allow Yusef and the children to rest. The entire island was asleep, and they met not a soul nor guard post along the way, and, just as the birds rose from their nests and began to sing their whereabouts to the world, they reached the ruins Sidonius had described. They scrambled over the rubble, and, with the guidance of the first rays of the morning sun, Akivai finally found the underground entrance. It was intensely black below the surface, and they decided to remain underground by the entrance for as long as possible to see how much light would filter down to them.
“It smells funny in here,” said Akivai.
“It’s old,” said Sarai, but Miri found the smell vaguely familiar, but they were all exhausted from their flight. They huddled together, and fell into fitful sleep.