Binyamin struggled to maintain his composure. He could not let the crew see him come unraveled by the massive trireme bearing down on them. They were the closest thing to family that he had, and their opinion of him mattered more than anything else in the world, even his own personal safety. If any of them were to survive this sudden and dramatic reversal of fortunes, the next several moments would be critical.
He had watched in horror as the City Watchmen descended on his two crewmates and the Crotonians that were waiting for them on the beach. Daryus never stood a chance, though Hanno had struck at least one watchman before he too was overwhelmed. Their apparent leader, wearing an imposing crested helm, still stood thigh deep in the water, watching the Heron intently. Binyamin had seen him wrestle Daryus under the water, never to resurface. Behind him, his men were both pulling the rowboat full of wine onto the beach and retrieving the corpses in the shallow water. Smuggling was a risky business. Any one of the unscrupulous merchants, spies, information brokers, or fellow smugglers who formed the network through which deliveries were arranged and contracts sealed could have turned them in. The circumstances of their betrayal would never be known to Daryus or Hanno. Binyamin hoped that the unknown traitor’s soul would burn one day for causing the deaths of the two good men.
Binyamin could already the faces of the archers stationed at the mighty warship’s prow. It was coming on too fast, propelled forward by what had to be two hundred rowers straining as one beneath the tall ship’s deck. He could see that there were fifty or more oars on each side of the massive ship as it cut through the waves and receding mist like a knife. Their fluid movement, coupled with the large, stylized pupils painted on either side of the ram made for an intimidating sight. Binyamin struggled unsuccessfully to keep images of the ram smashing into the side of the Heron from his thoughts.
Worst of all, there was nothing more Binyamin could do with his sails. The main sail was flapping feebly, while the supplementary one that aided in steering was barely catching anything. The futility of his efforts gnawed at his insides as he struggled to think of a solution. In a few more minutes, the Greek ship would be close enough to attempt to ram them or pepper them with flaming arrows until they would be forced to surrender. Binyamin silently promised himself that he was not going back to prison. He felt useless. Worst of all, what little wind there was came from the east, which would push them back if they tried to flee directly away from the coast. Instead, they had to tack and wait for the trireme’s to reach them.
Thraxos bellowed orders as men scrambled to unfurl sails. Brondan cut the anchor line with his axe, while the other smugglers unstowed the galley’s oars below deck. The Heron only had one-fifth of the compliment of oars compared to the approaching trireme. There was almost no wind for Binyamin to capture with his sails, though he tried desperately to coax even a little speed out of the Heron with the pitiful amount that barely managed to move the sails. Slowly, the Heron began to move through the water. Binyamin gave the captain a look of resignation. They both knew that they could not hope to build the speed they needed in time.
The sun was coming up now, but the color was slightly off. The usual oranges and yellows were muted by a large group of clouds to the east. Binyamin had spent almost half his life on the water, and he could tell when the rising sun was obscured by a bank of storm clouds well before the wind inevitably picked up or rain began to fall. Like a bolt of lightning, inspiration struck. The plan was desperate, but no one else in the crew was a strong enough swimmer to even consider it. There was a slim possibility that this oncoming storm could be used against the warship. The chances of him living until the sun was fully risen were small, but this might buy time for his crewmates to escape.
“Vertus, I need you to take over the mainsail,” Binyamin shouted as the Illyrian ran by. Vertus stopped and gave Binyamin an incredulous look as he grabbed the line Binyamin was holding without complaint. “The wind’s coming over your left shoulder. Keep the sail flush to the wind even if it changes direction. I need to talk to the Captain.” After a cursory inspection to see if Vertus was managing the sails correctly, Binyamin scrambled back to the rear of the ship, grabbing a long coiled rope as he went. Anech, who in many ways was more of a father to him than his own had been, gripped the rudder, face grim.
“Binyamin, what are you doing? We need more wind in those sails,” the Egyptian shouted as Binyamin approached him, rope in hand.
“We both know it will not help,” Binyamin said, glancing back at the oncoming trireme. “I am going to try something. If it works, the rest of the crew will escape. If it does not, we will all be dead anyway,” he continued as he knotted the end of the rope around his waist. Anech had always looked out for Binyamin, and the young Hebrew could see the look of concern on his mentor’s face. He had been part of the crew since he was a small boy, and Anech never neglected an opportunity to teach the Hebrew everything he could about the smuggling business, much as a father would teach a son his trade.
“The Heron has never let us down before. Some god or another will smile on us before much longer,” said Anech without much certainty in his eyes.
“We do not have any other options,” Binyamin replied, securing the other end of the rope to the back rail of the Heron. “If I make it, I will head for the shore and lie low. After I jump, cut to port as hard as you can.”
Anech looked at Binyamin for what they both knew was probably the last time. “You’ve always made me proud, boy.”
Binyamin nodded back, “The gods want us to make our own luck today.”
Another volley of arrows rained down on the Heron, causing the two men to duck. Near the front of the ship, a man screamed in surprise and pain. It would only be a few more moments before the Greek warship was close enough to ram, bombard, or board the much smaller Heron. Binyamin took one last look around the ship that had been his home for more than half his life. He knew every nook, cranny, patch, and contour of the sleek craft, and this could very well be the last time he ever saw it. Thraxos noticed the activity at the rear of the Heron and ran to where Binyamin and Anech were crouched. His eyes grew wide when he saw the rope tied to Binyamin.
“You’ve always been a crazy bastard, Hebrew,” he shouted as yet another volley of arrows peppered the deck, sending the few men that were not manning oars below decks scrambling for cover. He flashed a smile, “If you pull this off, Poseidon will have no choice but to welcome you into his halls, whether you believe in him or not.”
Binyamin returned the smile. While he and Thraxos did not always agree with one another, they had a great deal of mutual respect. “You keep those scrolls of mine safe and dry. I will be wanting them when I get back.”
Thraxos shook his head, “No one would want them even if we did try to sell them. I’ll guard them as long as I breathe, though it might not be for much longer if they catch us,” he said, motioning at the oncoming trireme with his head.
Anech cut Thraxos off. “May your God protect you son, as he has thus far. We will be back for you, so keep an eye to the sea and watch for us.”
Trying to look more confident than he felt, Binyamin looked at the two men one last time before vaulting over the edge of the Heron. The water rushed up to meet him, and Binyamin fought his body’s sudden urge to expel his breath as soon as he hit the cold water. The crisp noise of the world above the surface was replaced with the strange muffled sounds of the sea. He kicked his legs and pulled the seawater behind him with his arms, propelling himself deeper into the black depths. The disorganized splashes of the Heron’s oars were replaced by the rhythmic crash of the trireme’s oars as it cut through the water close behind. The shadow of the warship blocked out the feeble morning light as it passed over Binyamin’s head. Though out of reach of the oars, the oars’ collective current still buffeted Binyamin’s compact frame. Fighting the urge to panic, Binyamin floated beneath the surface, trying not to imagine the jaws of some monstrous sea creature closing around his helpless body. Just as his lungs began to scream for air, he felt the tug of the rope wrapped around his waist. He was now being pulled through the water by the Heron.
As his body began to convulse from lack of air, Binyamin clawed his way to the surface. The light of the surface came closer as Binyamin’s vision grew darker. His head finally surfaced, and he choked down several breaths of fresh air before he could see and think clearly. Once he gained his bearings, Binyamin saw that his plan had worked well so far. Anech had turned the Heron sharply away from shore at just the right time. The trireme was now interposed between the Heron and himself. Binyamin watched in abstract fascination as the uniformed crewmen scrambled to match the smaller, nimbler ship’s tight turn. In doing so, the warship was forced to slow, which in turn allowed the Heron to pull Binyamin closer. The sensation of cutting through the water with little to no effort was very odd, and the rope rubbed painfully around Binyamin’s waist. The rear of the warship loomed up before him, and Binyamin tried to angle his body so that he could hit the ship as close to the rudder as possible. As the rope dragged him closer, a portion slipped underneath the rear left side of the ship. Thankfully, it did not become tangled in the ship’s rearmost oars.
The rear right side of the trireme loomed before Binyamin like a wooden wall. He had judged the speed of the ship perfectly; he would strike the ship between the last bank of rowers and the right rudder. This close, the sheer size of the warship was impressive. Three banks of oars made the current almost irresistible. Binyamin knew the oars on the other side of the ship must be reversing course to allow the ship to turn more easily. From the water, Binyamin could see the last several banks of rowers straining at their task. Fortunately, their eyes were focused away from him, either marking the cadence of a drummer that could be heard from further up the ship or on the drama unfolding through the oar ports on the opposite side of the ship. Binyamin began to fumble with the knot around his waist moments before hitting the side of the ship. The rope fell away and he hit the wooden side of the ship with a wet smacking sound.
Unlike the Heron, which had one rudder, the Greek monstrosity to which Binyamin now found himself clinging had a rudder on each side of the back end of the ship, enabling it to turn relatively well for such a long craft. To his right, a veritable forest of oars splashed rhythmically into the water. To his left, the flat wooden rudder creaked under the strain as it guided the trireme into a tight left turn. Like most ships’ rudders, the design was not intricate. A long pole was bolted to the side of the ship in such a way that it could swivel freely. Above deck, a perpendicular handle allowed an operator to turn the flat rudder in the water. Oftentimes, the left and right rudders were attached so that they could be used by one crewman. Looking down, Binyamin could see that the submerged portion of the rudder was the size of a large table and belted in iron.
The pole attached to the rudder was as big around as his forearm, so Binyamin had no problem finding purchase. Binyamin climbed up the rudder hand over hand, using the crossbars that secured it, or the side of the ship to support most of his weight. After what seemed like an eternity, he reached the railing and looked over. As he suspected, the two rudders were attached to one another by a jointed metal bar. The helmsman was pulling on both rudders at once, trying to bring his ship back in line with the fleeing Heron. The rowers were all below deck, where they would be protected by arrow fire, and the few crewmen and marines on deck were mostly clustered farther up the deck observing the Heron. While he had been climbing, the ship had successfully turned and was once again beginning to gain on the Heron. A man who was obviously in charge due to his ornate armor and imposing helmet had just finished barking orders to the helmsman and was making his way back to the archers at the front of the warship.
Binyamin dropped his head back behind the rail to quickly formulate a plan. The layout of the ship was still clear in his mind. If he could overpower the helmsman before the rest of the crew reacted, his plan might work. After taking a moment to collect himself, he pulled himself over the railing and padded towards the helmsman, bare feet slapping the deck. When Binyamin was only two steps away, the man began to look over his shoulder. Binyamin seized his helmet and lifted it off his head, bringing it back down swiftly. The helmsman crumpled to the ground, barely making a sound. For the moment, Binyamin was in control of the ship.
He kept the ship’s course steady. There was almost no wind in the Greek ship’s sails either, but that would soon change if his guess was correct. The sail was unfurled, with two very slack ropes keeping it more or less perpendicular to the ship. Binyamin knew that he would have only one chance to attempt his plan. He kept quiet and prayed that the men on deck would continue to focus on the Heron and not look back to see who was now piloting their ship.
His breathing quickened as he saw a ripple play across the surface of the water. There it is! It was time to act. Using all of his weight, Binyamin pulled the metal bar that attached the two rudders, causing the ship to turn right, back towards the shore. The deck lurched under the crewmen at the front, knocking several off their feet. One of the archers lost his balance and fell off the front of the ship. Below deck, the rowers shouted in alarm. Several oars slid out of their ports into the sea as oarsmen jostled one another. At the front of the ship, several of the crewmen were already regaining their feet, shouting in anger at whatever idiot was steering the ship so poorly. Their anger turned to surprise, and then back to anger as they realized that a smuggler had somehow made his way onto their ship and worse, was now steering it back to shore. The ship’s captain, ornate helmet askew, began gesturing wildly at Binyamin. Four or five archers took aim while several others scrambled to recover their bows.
They never got a chance to fire. After its violent turn, the trireme was in a very vulnerable position. It was perpendicular to the steadily increasing wind with a fully unfurled sail. The first powerful gust that heralded the oncoming storm was caught in the sail, causing it to twist so that it was now running parallel to the length of the ship. The deck began to lurch beneath Binyamin’s feet. At first Binyamin and the crewmen preparing to pepper his body with arrows tried their best to maintain their balance, but the angle of the deck soon became too extreme. One enterprising sailor attempted to grab a line to pull the sail so that it was not catching the full force of the sudden gust of wind. Too late, the crewmen scrambled to regain control of the sail and the line flew from his grasp as he too began to tumble overboard. The oarsmen below decks panicked first. Some scrambled above deck, while others wasted no time in wriggling their way out of the holes cut in the ship for their oars. The men above deck, Binyamin included, were now sliding toward the edge of the ship as the deck tilted under their feet. Binyamin grabbed ahold of a spare piece of rope and saw the unconscious form of the helmsman hurtle past him into the water. The man’s armor was heavy and he sank like a stone, with only a few bubbles marking his passage.
With a mighty smack, the ship’s large striped sail hit the water. The cloth spread out enough to stop the ship from fully capsizing as the thick mast creaked and groaned under the strain. Feeling vulnerable and exposed dangling from the now vertical ship’s deck, Binyamin let himself drop into the water, careful to avoid entangling himself in any ropes or knots of frantic sailors. An accomplished swimmer, he had no problem moving his arms and legs in such a way as to keep his head above water. All around him, men struggled to stay afloat. It was clear that some men were able to swim quite well, while others were far less skilled. The lucky ones were able to cling to the edges of their ship.
The armored marines were fighting to remove their greaves and breastplates as quickly as possible before their strength failed them and they slipped below the surface, though most were no more successful than the unconscious helmsman had been. Regardless, any attempt to apprehend Binyamin was, for the moment at least, completely forgotten. Binyamin knew that this state of affairs could not last long. As soon as some modicum of order was restored, the sailors would begin searching for the man that had all but destroyed their vessel. As if he needed any more convincing, a quick glance out to sea showed that the source of the sudden strong gusts of wind, an ominous bank of dark storm clouds was moving towards the shore. Worse yet, he could see flashes of lightning within the clouds, though the cacophony around him prevented the sound of thunder from reaching his ears.
Binyamin looked skyward and murmured a quick prayer to his peoples’ God, entreating him to grant the crew of the Heron safe passage through the onrushing storm. Through his actions, his brothers were spared from death or capture at the hands of the men now struggling around him. It would all be for nothing if the Heron floundered in heavy waves and sunk. Binyamin stopped reflecting on his friends’ potential fate when a massive forearm closed around his neck, nearly dislocating his jaw in the process.
Down Binyamin went, into the depths of the sea. Blood rushed in his ears while his lungs screamed for air. The oarsman, he had to be an oarsman due to the size of his arms and lack of any cumbersome armor, continued to squeeze the life out of him. With his last measure of strength, Binyamin drove his elbow into the man’s stomach, forcing him to expel a massive quantity of air bubbles that floated upward into the vanishing light. Taking advantage of the man’s temporary disorientation, Binyamin spun around without fully breaking the man’s embrace. He looked into a pair of angry eyes that stared back at him from within a dark, bushy beard that covered most of the man’s face. Even though his vision was blurred by the sea around him, there was no mistaking the murderous intent behind those eyes. Binyamin seized the man by the beard and smashed his forehead into the man’s nose repeatedly until the oarsman’s grip weakened. The blood that filled the water around his head was warmer and thicker than the seawater around the rest of his body. The oarsman continued to sink deeper into the sea and his ruined face continued to glare up at Binyamin until his form was swallowed up by the blackness. Binyamin frantically clawed his way back to the surface. His vision narrowed until he felt like he was looking through a knothole in a piece of wood. Still, he kicked and pulled the water downward with his arms until his head finally broke the surface. Whether from the desperate underwater scuffle or the ensuing frantic effort to get back to the surface, Binyamin’s shoulder screamed in agony every time he tried to move it. He glanced about at his surroundings and noticed that a sizable portion of the crew had successfully scrambled onto the half-capsized hull of their once proud ship. Most of them were staring out to sea at either the vanishing Heron or the approaching storm, faces filled with a combination of rage and dread.
The storm was moving toward the stricken ship at a seemingly impossible speed, and Binyamin could now not only hear the sound of not so far-off thunder, but see the shapes of individual storm clouds. Even unhurt, Binyamin knew that he had no chance of reaching the shore before the storm hit. After looking about for a scrap of wood or oar that he could use to keep himself partially afloat and finding none, Binyamin began the laborious process of swimming toward shore. To conserve energy and avoid straining his injured shoulder, Binyamin swam on his side, legs kicking like those of a frog’s, while one arm reached forward and pulled the water past his body. He had barely made it two ship lengths when he felt the first drops of rain hit his skin. The waves would come next, long before he could reach the dubious safety of the rocky shore.