[ This chapter went between the chapter where the Arab army breaks into Jerusalem, and the following "The Palatine Hill, Roma Mater" chapter ]
A sound woke the Queen and she let her eyes open slowly. The tiny cabin at the stern of the Helios was rocking from side to side. A copper lantern hung from a hook on the ceiling. Its finely cut mica panels were rattling against their fittings as the lantern swung back and forth. The Queen rose from the plain wooden bed without sound, drawing up her dark cloak around pale white shoulders. Her body, revealed for a moment in the moonlight, was slim and hard. No one could account her voluptuous, but the sinuous grace of her movements lent a heart-stopping beauty.
Her feet padded quietly on the deck as she moved among the sleeping figures of the Walachs. They were curled up on the slatted flooring under the interleaved rowing benches, sleeping on plaited mats of sisal or straw. Thin woolen blankets covered some of them, but their fine nap-like fur protected them from the cool air.
Summer nights on the Greek Sea were very mild. The Queen’s cloak trailed like a wing as she passed to the forecastle of the ship. There, she stepped up onto the railing, one slim-fingered hand resting on the curved prow. It hooked up behind her shoulder, a curving line like a bulls’ horn that pointed back towards the stern. In this gently rolling water, the dull metal sheen of the bronze-plated ram winked up at her between the waves.
The moon was riding low in the west, near to setting. A hand drew her cloak over a bare shoulder while she looked out, her head bent as if listening, upon the barren sea. The rock of Thira rose to the north, three or four miles away, darkness upon darkness. The Sisters of the Order valued their privacy, hiding all lanterns, torches and fires within their caves or the sheltered waters of the hidden bay. Only the pale glimmer of moonlight on the basalt cliffs betrayed the islands presence.
The water told a different story and the Queen stepped onto the ram, her pale feet shining white in the water. The soft touch of the sea spoke volumes and her nostrils flared, anger sparking in eyes filled with shadow.
“Fools,” she hissed at the night. “Why not turn for home, your own dear land? Why must you set a course down for the House of Death? Do you yearn for Persephone’s white arms and her soft breath upon your cheek as you lie down to sleep for the last time?”
Angry, she strode back the length of the slim black-hulled ship. As she passed, the Walach woke, stirred by her unrest and scrambled to their benches. She said nothing, yet they raised their oars as one, and held them poised for the stroke by the time she reached the after-deck. There the stern rose, curving out over her head like the branches of a slim tree, reaching towards the bull’s horn at the prow. She gathered her robes around her, standing on a deck of polished white pine. Great shields were hung from the railings on either side, covered with cowhides mottled white and brown. Each was ribbed with oak and pinched at the middle like a timing glass.
“Speed us on the nighted sea,” called the Queen, raising her hand. “We must make the City in haste, for doom is riding up out of the south. There is very little time.”
With that, the Walachs bent their hairy arms to the oars and they dipped into the dark water. Pale foam spilled around the prow and the beaked ram and the light ship turned to the north and east. They would swing wide around the hidden shoals and reefs of Thira.
At the steering oars, the Queen stood, casting her thought forward among the moving waters. Zephyrs played in her hair, swinging to the south to help drive the ship homeward. She had tarried here long enough, resting in the mild sea and waiting for a small measure of revenge. Such things could wait, though it had eased her mind to be under the open sky again.
“Home and ruin,” she muttered to herself, changing the angle of the steering oar. “Fire and bloody smoke, as it has always been.”