Golden Age (The Shifting Tides, #1)(8)

Written By: James Maxwell

‘Captain,’ Chloe said.

He glanced up, surprised to see her.

‘A warship has been sighted. My father says to bring as many men as you can quickly gather to the embankment.’

Ever the professional, Amos simply nodded. ‘The men are in the mess. We’ll come immediately. Tell your father.’

Chloe ran back to the embankment, where the seaward side of the agora dropped down to the shore in a sloped defensive bastion. She was soon standing beside Aristocles and the other consuls as they watched the strange ship approach.

Her first thought was that it was obviously damaged. It listed to the side and appeared difficult to maneuver as it navigated the harbor and headed for a bare patch of shore at the small bay’s far end. The sail was down and it was moving through the water by oars alone, while to Chloe’s eyes the mast was at a strange angle. The tide was coming in and pushed the ship almost into the rocks at the headland, before a burst of speed from the rowers nudged the vessel past danger.

Chloe’s next thought was that it was undoubtedly a warship. Though the ship was a galley, it was unlike any galley she had ever seen. Oars jutted out on both sides, more oars than she would have believed possible to fit into a ship of its size, and she realized that it actually had two rows of benches, one row on top of the other. Each tier was open at the side and she saw rowers moving back and forth in laborious unison. Above the top level of rowers was a deck that formed a roof above their heads.

Soldiers stood on the top deck: leather-armored marines, swarthy men with spears and triangular shields. An eye was painted on either side of the warship’s prow, which curved out in a bowsprit and then back under the water in an iron-tipped ram just below the waterline. The ship flew a strange flag, a solid orange circle on a field of yellow.

Her final thought was that she’d never seen such a large warship. It was at least eighty feet long and must have employed well over a hundred men in its service. It made the Phalesian war galleys, presently pulled up on shore, appear puny in comparison.

‘Back! Everyone back!’ Chloe heard Amos’s voice.

The crowd moved back from the edge of the embankment to let the soldiers gain access to the set of narrow steps leading down to the shore. Each hoplite looked resplendent in his short skirt of leather strips, leather breastplate, and leather helm, while Amos’s helm was made of shining steel, crowned by a crest of horsehair dyed with indigo. Captain Amos and his subcommanders all wore blue cloaks, and Chloe counted ten units in total, which meant that a hundred men were soon assembling on the beach under the captain’s direction.

Finally, Amos turned back to face Chloe’s father, his head tilted back and legs apart as he looked at the embankment high above and waited for orders.

‘It must have been damaged in the same event,’ Consul Nilus whispered.

‘Who are they? What flag is that?’

Chloe watched as the warship left the deep water to enter the lighter blue of the shallows. Phalesia’s harbor was a crescent-shaped beach of smooth white stones with headlands and cliffs at both ends. It was large enough to easily accommodate Phalesia’s entire fleet but not immense, its size making for easier defense, for any enemies would have difficulty making a secret landing.

‘Captain!’ Aristocles called down to Amos. ‘Move to intercept their men as they disembark, but greet them with civility before you bring their leader to me. Respond to force in kind.’

‘At once, First Consul,’ Amos said.

The captain led his men along the beach until they were ranged above the high-water mark, showing discipline as they formed up one after the other, turning to wait in a wide phalanx. Chloe watched the warship beach itself before the rowers jumped out the sides, plunging into water up to their waists. They hauled the vessel higher and higher, timing their movements to a coordinated grunt.

Finally, with the warship hauled above the tide line, a ramp marked with regular steps slid down from the top deck. With long practice the dark-skinned rowers leaned the gangway up against the pebbled shore.

A solitary man left the upper deck to descend the ramp. He was too far away for Chloe to see much of his features, but she gained an impression of a warrior’s physique contrasted with opulent orange robes.

Captain Amos went down to the end of the gangway. He removed his helmet to offer greeting as the newcomer reached the land. For a time they spoke together.

Amos then called out to one of his officers, evidently instructing them to wait as he led the foreigner along the beach, toward the steps to the embankment, while the rest of the soldiers remained to watch the warship.

Chloe saw her father exchange glances with the other consuls before speaking. ‘Consuls,’ he said, ‘come.’

Aristocles walked to stand at the top of the embankment steps that led down to the shore. There were so many consuls that it took time for them to get into a semblance of order, but finally they stood in a mass vaguely resembling a half circle, ranged around the first consul at the midpoint with Consul Nilus at his side.

Moments later the newcomer and Amos crested the embankment steps and Chloe now had her first good look at the stranger. He was swarthy, with olive skin darkened by exposure to sun and sea. A curled beard glistened in the light and she guessed it had been oiled, along with his hair, a heavy mop of dark locks. His upper lip was also mustached, but unlike his beard it was neatly trimmed. He had black eyes and faint scars on his face and hands; Chloe’s initial impression of a warrior was confirmed. Amos was not a small man and had an athletic build that reminded Chloe of the statues of the gods. Yet the foreigner was bigger still.

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