The Pirate Who Got Away
Copyright William Schaill
I floated, hanging on to a piece of planking from my ship's side and cursing everybody from Mithras – although everybody knows only a fool curses a god – right down to our Admiral. I watched the Romans ram and board our ships, cutting down my shipmates and friends with their swords and spears. My leg throbbed from where a Roman spear had punctured it. Despite the pain, I considered trying to get back to my ship but decided that was a stupid idea. She would be sunk and the entire crew massacred long before I ever reached her.
I might be in water over my head but I'd been very lucky. I'd been awake and on watch when the first Roman ship had charged into the anchorage and attacked us. I'd been stabbed and shoved overboard almost immediately thereafter. Everybody had been too busy to notice my drifting slowly away into the gathering dusk. If anyone had noticed they would undoubtedly have assumed I was dead.
It was a disaster almost from the start and it was all the fault of our Admiral. The minute we'd captured him months ago that cocky Roman devil had announced that he'd been captured and ransomed by another of our fleets four years ago. If the Admiral had any brains, and weren't so greedy, he'd have killed the bastard immediately. But no, he'd insisted upon doing business as usual. We've always sent most of our captives – Egyptians, Greeks, Syrians and low-born Romans – to the island of Delos to be sold as slaves. Primarily to Rome. That's why the Republic has never attacked us; it needs an endless supply of slaves for its farms and its gold and silver mines and to build its great public works. We Cilicians supply that need. The wealthier captives, including that arrogant, big-mouth patrician who is, at this very moment, destroying our fleet and killing my friends, have always been ransomed.
This misbegotten whoreson of a Roman – he's some sort of junior official – reeks of arrogance the way all true Romans do. When the Admiral reminded him the going ransom price for people like him is twenty five talents he laughed and said the Admiral obviously had no idea who he is. He told the Admiral to demand fifty for him and not accept a talent less. While we all waited for the return of his messengers with the ransom, the Roman acted as if he were the Admiral. He organized the men's games. He criticized their work when they were careless or sloppy. He ate and drank with the Admiral and did his very best to make him look like a fool – which wasn't hard. Throughout it all, the Admiral clapped him on the back and laughed through that immense mustache he wears. And every time that Roman said, laughing, that once ransomed he would return and hang every last one of us, the Admiral laughed right along with him. Even I laughed at the time. I couldn't imagine why Rome would wish to disrupt a system so necessary to the Republic and beneficial to us.
As it turned out, while Rome did not wish to mess with the system, this particular Roman was willing to bend it a little. And, floating in the dark sea, I was now witnessing the result.
I started to shake. The water was cold and I knew perfectly well that Roman fiend wouldn't be satisfied by just sinking our fleet. If he suspected any had survived he'd hunt us down.
Holding tightly to the plank I began kicking. Long before I was able to reach the questionable safety of land I realized the battle was over. Then, to my horror, I realized that the demon – Caesar was his name, Gaius Julius Caesar – had sent boats and ships to search the waters for survivors and escapees. I kicked harder, hoping the fast-approaching night would protect me.
Just when my aching legs began to feel as if they were being thrust into a fire I spotted the shadow of a small, single-banked galley. It was headed right toward me. I spotted its bow wave and felt more than heard the dull throb of the drum being beaten to set the pace for the slaves pulling the oars. Any temptation I might have held to crawl on top of the plank evaporated with the same finality that shades of the night sometimes do. Shaking even harder I twisted my head and shoulders to look behind me. Yes, I
could make out the thin, dense line of the shore but it was still an eternity away.
I turned back and watched the galley turn and stop beside another mass of wreckage. The galley's commander was clearly concerned about damaging his oars because he kept his ship about forty feet from the wreckage. There was a shout on the deck of the galley and the starboard oars backed while those on the port side stroked ahead. Holding my breath I pulled myself up a little above the plank to watch as the galley approached another mass of wreckage. I gasped when I realized that I could make out some sort of movement on top of the wreckage. The fool, I thought! The fool! He should have stayed in the water. Unless he was a Roman. There were more shouts on the galley. The oars lashed the dark waters again, the galley twisted and the wreckage disappeared behind her. More shouts. The oars churned again and the galley backed away from the now-lifeless wreckage and turned towards me.
I hung on to the top of the plank with one hand while I found a handhold on the bottom. I could hear the splashes of the oars as the galley approached. I grabbed my handhold and forced my legs to rise until they were just underwater. Then, lying on my back, I pushed the back of my head down until my mouth and nose were just above the surface. I lay there, praying to every god I could think of and listening to the galley approach. Closer, closer. I couldn't see it but I could feel the water flowing past me as the galley backed its oars, stopping on the other side of the plank. I was holding my breath without even realizing it.
At first I didn't even notice my salvation. When I did, I didn't believe it. By lifting my face slightly and turning my eyes I could see a yellow glow coming from where I assumed the galley was stopped. Almost immediately there was shouting, then the glow disappeared. Praise be to every god worshipped by every race on earth! Praise even to the Roman gods themselves! Some utter fool of a Roman had lit a torch on deck. Now, unless they came around to the other side of the plank, it would be almost impossible for them to see me until their eyes had time to adjust to the dark.
There was more angry shouting, then splashing. After many shallow, trembling breaths I collected up my nerve and looked over the plank. The galley was showing her stern to me, headed back toward the tangled mass that had once been our fleet. I swept the waters around me with my eyes, now stinging from the salt, to insure that no other galley was sneaking up on me. I then threw both arms over the plank, leaned back and started kicking toward shore.
I nearly cried out with joy and relief when I first felt the stony bottom of the near-shore under my bare feet. I might be on land but my problems were far from over. In the distance lay a small village, one in which I knew a number of my former shipmates had families. I could get food there. And shoes. I could also very easily fall into the hands of that madman Caesar. After catching my breath I headed inland.
By dawn I'd struggled over the ridge between the shore and the first of those bone-dry, rocky valleys that we call farmable. Ahead lay a small farm. The farmer was far from friendly at first, which was understandable. The people with whom I'd been sailing had a reputation of grabbing whomever they could, even other Cilicians, when the demand for slaves exceeded the supply. Once he understood that I was offering the silver coin on the necklace hanging around my neck to pay for something to put on my feet his attitude changed. While his wife rummaged through their hut, he offered me bread and water, both of which I gratefully accepted. I was soon on my way again wearing an almost new pair of sandals.
My family, including my relatively new wife, live on a farm several day's walk inland. Once home, I decided to return to the farming life, hard and unrewarding though it might be. At least for a while.
In time, the details of my shipmates' fate filtered in. Caesar had taken his captives to the city of Pergamon. There he'd demanded that the Roman governor hang them all. The governor had refused. He didn't want to endanger the slave trade and also felt it would be most profitable to simply ransom the pirates. Caesar then proved beyond doubt that he has no more respect for the laws and customs of his own people than he does for those of others. He took it upon himself, without any authority whatsoever, to not just hang my shipmates but to crucify them, too.
Understandably, this news made the life of a farmer seem all the more attractive. In time, however, the farming life became old. I missed the action, the adventure and the money. My parents' carping and my wife's nagging became vexatious. I felt, once again, the call of the sea. Hardening my heart to the laminations of my wife and mother I trudged back to the coast in search of a pirate fleet to join, my own, of course, having been destroyed.
The various Cilician pirate fleets feel neither love nor trust towards the others. For every occasion in which two may have cooperated with each other there has been one in which one fleet attacked another. It was with very good fortune, or so it seemed at the time, that shortly after my search began I met a captain named Perfidiosus. He seemed more than pleased to take me on as an officer, just as I had been before.
The morning after I joined Perfidiosus's ship we were underway with three
others, headed toward the Aegean. Had I been alert I might have realized the rest of the crew was behaving strangely toward me. Staying away, whispering and staring. Only when Perfidiosus ordered a course change away from the other three ships and toward a speck on the horizon did I begin to feel uneasy. And then it was too late.
Perfidiosus must have given some signal because all of a sudden four of his crew pounced on me and bound me. One watch later we were alongside a Roman galley and I was being dragged aboard. "Why do you bring me this man," demanded the Roman officer. His distaste for Perfidiosus was all too obvious.
"He's one of those who kidnapped the noble Caesar. I bring him to you certain that your governor will wish to reward me for capturing him."
The Roman replied with a laugh that sounded more like a snarl. "Much to the governor's relief, Caesar has returned to Rome. The governor has no interest, at the moment, in prosecuting you Cilician hounds. He would rather buy from you. And so would I. My father in law, who is a senator, has directed me to keep an eye out for slaves he can acquire at bargain prices. Do you have any?"
"I'm sorry, My Lord," replied Perfidiosus in a most humble tone. "I have no slaves on hand, at the moment, except this man you've rejected."
"Yes, he's too skinny. But those other two men with you. They look quite stout."
"They're my crew, sir."
"What of it? This man thought he was part of your crew."
"Please, sir. Let's not joke in this manner with my men listening."
"Very well. I think my father in law would be equally pleased for me to deliver you to him. You seem healthy enough although a number of severe beatings will undoubtedly be necessary to set you on the right course."
Perfidiosus was cringing in anticipation of what was to come and his men were edging toward the side of the ship until they edged into the cordon of legionnaires that surrounded us.
"Very well, you scum," said the Roman finally. "None of you are fit to be sold into slavery. Not even for the mines. Get off my ship immediately!"
Perfidiosus dragged me back aboard his ship and threw me below. My bindings were removed and I was chained to an oar, doomed to the living death of a galley slave. And there I would have ended my days had not Perfidiosus's crew taken to heart the Roman officer's suggestion that their leader might very well betray any of them for a few ounces of silver. In due course I was put ashore along with the lifeless body of the faithless captain. I remain, to this day, a most contented farmer. Contented with my parents, my wife and the fate the gods have bestowed on me.