Alexanor is a man who has seen too much blood. He has left the sword behind him to become a healer in the greatest sanctuary in Greece: he has turned his back on war.
But war has followed him to his refuge at Epidauros, and now a battle to end the freedom of Greece is all around him. The Mediterranean superpowers of Rome, Egypt and Macedon are waging their proxy wars on Hellenic soil, turning Greek farmers into slaves and mercenaries.
Greece needs a champion.
When a wounded soldier is carried into his temple, Alexanor believes the man’s wounds are mortal. But he is not destined to die. But Alexanor must face his own daemons before he can help the hero face his.
Because this is the new Achilles. His name is Philopoemen.
This is Greece’s champion. The last hero. He is the new Achilles.
North coast of Crete and Eastern Peloponnese – 228 bce
The Rhodian grain ship Arktos had endured a bad night, the last and worst of a three-day blow. She wallowed in the swell, her oars taken in, her broken mainmast still wrapped in her fallen cordage over the side, her crew struggling to cut it free in such a way that it could be saved. A relentless wind from the north drove her towards the coast of Crete, just a few stades away under a bright grey spring sky.
She only had a crew of eight and another thirty or so rowers, most of them slaves. None of them were citizens except the captain, who had given up bellowing orders from the foredeck and was now in the water, using a knife to cut the tangled shrouds one by one while his most trusted mate watched the water below him for sharks.
The ship’s passengers lined the starboard side rail, watching the repairs with varying degrees of interest. The Spartan aristocrat, his red cloak flapping in the freshening wind, sneered.
‘A touch of the whip would make them move,’ he said. ‘By the gods, what a useless lot.’
There were two women, from Kos, prosperous enough to have a slave to attend them. They were heavily veiled, their linen and wool forced against their bodies by the wind.
‘You are an expert sailor, perhaps?’ asked the older woman.
The Spartiate ignored her.
An Athenian merchant frowned. ‘If I was younger,’ he said, to no one in particular, ‘I’d get in the water and help.’
The Spartiate glanced at him with contempt.
There was one more passenger. He’d kept very much to himself since Rhodes, and now he stood amidships, looking out into the flat glare of the clouded Mediterranean day under his hand. He was looking south, over the port-side rail, at the north coast of Crete.
‘Is that Knossos?’ asked the younger woman. She was at an age to find lonely young men attractive.
‘I think so,’ the young man said, his voice dull, as if only courtesy forced him to reply. Then he frowned. ‘I think . . .’
He stepped up on the rail, balancing like an acrobat. He glanced back at his fellow passengers, uncertainty written on his features. Then he grabbed a shroud, looked again, jumped back down and crossed the empty benches and the central catwalk to lean over the side where the navarch was sawing away at what he hoped was the last of the movable stay that, in better times, had raised and lowered the mast.
‘Navarch!’ the Rhodian called. His voice was suddenly sharp and military.
‘Soon, citizen,’ the captain called, his voice full of the oil he needed to keep his fractious passengers at arm’s length.
‘There are three boats coming off the shore,’ the Rhodian called. ‘And we’re going to touch on the beach if we keep drifting at this rate.’
Every head turned. Four sailors ran across the deck and the little galley rolled slightly in the water.
‘Pirates!’ yelled a sailor.
The captain swore. ‘I need another man,’ he called. ‘Kephalos, get the boat-sail mast set. The artemon!’
Kephalos waved, and the navarch dived below the wreck of the mast.
The passenger who kept to himself dropped his chiton on the deck, drew a small bronze knife from a sheath at his neck and leapt into the water. His chest was criss-crossed with scars.
The women were watching the Cretan shore now.
First one boat came off the beach, and then a second, full of men. A third boat was being readied.
‘Lady Artemis protect us,’ said the younger woman.
The older woman took a deep breath, but she released it without speaking. Her hands were trembling.
The Spartiate laughed. ‘Perhaps they’ll give this tub a tow,’ he said.
Suddenly the deck began to vibrate like a living thing, and the whole ship seemed to shudder. Then the mast and its attendant wreckage of torn sail and trailing ropes exploded out of the water like the very Spear of Poseidon.
Now the mast floated clear of the wreck. The captain’s head appeared, and he swam powerfully along the side of his ship, ducked under the mast, and looked back.
The passenger surfaced behind him.
The captain reached up, caught the low rail, and hauled himself on board.
‘Get the fucking mast aboard, you whoresons,’ he shouted. ‘You, and Kephalos! Set the artemon. I told you already, you rabble.’ He pointed at another man. ‘Throw the weighted line. Tell me how much water we have under the keel.’
The ship was now moving more rapidly in with the land. The dragging submerged mast had been like an anchor, and free of it, the current moved the ship all the faster.
‘Get that mast aboard!’ he roared.
Then he leapt across the amidships platform, but he could already see the three low shapes pulling towards them, oars flashing as they left the water in perfect unison.
‘Fucking Knossos,’ the captain spat.
‘King Cleomenes has a treaty with Knossos,’ the Spartiate said. ‘I’ll see that we come to no harm.’
‘See how you feel about that when some Cretan’s pole is up your arse,’ the captain said. ‘Sailors, arm yourselves!’
The Spartiate stepped back before the navarch’s vehemence, and the man turned as red as his cloak with anger. He put a hand on the sword he wore.
‘No one speaks to me that way,’ he said.