For once, the weather was dry, though with a brisk westerly wind, when the two men in deerskin led Parlan to the cove. Both were warriors, tough, hard men armed with swords and daggers and little charm, though one smiled grimly as he took Parlan’s dagger.
He never knew their names, these warriors from the south, but thought of the smaller man as “Smallpig”, after the pig iron his father used in the smithy. Smaller maybe, but he was bigger than Parlan, with a moustache that hid his mouth and long, light-coloured hair, stretching almost to his waist in the southern way. The other man, even larger, he called “Bigpig,” though Parlan had little to do with him until he killed him.
As Smallpig tied his hands, he said, “We paid good silver coin for you, and though it weren’t much, it were too much to lose.”
“How much?” Parlan showed no discomfort as Smallpig jerked on the rope, forcing it deep into the flesh of his wrists. “I’m a valuable man.”
“I hope you are, indeed I do,” said Smallpig. “But glad to see the back of ye, she was. Said you were a threat, violent like.”
“How did you learn of me?”
“In the village, a druid. Strange looking sod he was, all white like. Said a slave blacksmith was on the island.” He grinned, bit one side of his lip with dark, scattered teeth and winked. “Don’t you worry my lad, you’ll fetch a good price in the south.”
They reached the cove. Pulled up onto the shingle was a small wooden sailboat, big enough for the three of them but not much more.
“How long?” asked Parlan.
“A moon, about,” laughed Smallpig. “There’ll be no comfort, none of that shelter you been having. Don’t look for no roof.”
The men pushed the boat out into the water and sat Parlan to one side of the bow, his back against a rail that ran around the edge of the deck for the men to grip in heavy seas. They tied his hands to the rail, one each side of his body. He could not move either one.
“How do I piss?” he asked.
“I would not worry about that, blacksmith. You’ll be wet enough,” said Bigpig, grinning across at the other.
They sailed for a day and a night and Parlan found, indeed, he was wet enough—so often soaked in the cold spray that he could piss his breeks whenever he wanted. It was his only freedom.
They ate once. Smallpig, anchored by an arm around a rope where it entered a cleat, fed him with torn-off chunks of raw fish and a little water. It was a risky operation as the small boat bounced across the waves rather than cutting through them and heeled over tightly to gain progress from the wind. Yet Smallpig kept his position deftly, and lost almost none of the fish, despite the spray that soaked him and his prisoner.
“You have been a mariner,” said Parlan, as he chewed. “I had you for warriors.”
“Warrior, mariner, slave; I done it all,” said Smallpig. “Will do more, if the gods allow it.”
Parlan blinked at Smallpig, smiling a little. “A warrior?”
Smallpig pressed his lips together, as if reluctant to hobnob with his captive. He leaned forward to poke more fish in Parlan’s mouth. Parlan reassured him with a grin, the piece of fish held between his teeth.
“Yes, warriors,” Smallpig continued. “Me and me big brother—that’s him at the rudder—we were fostered to warriors, and horrible tough on us they were. We were born to a tin miner see, down in Dumnonii in the far southwest, but he wanted better for us, so he sent us to learn how to fight.”
Parlan nodded to show his interest. “A most exciting life.”
“Oh yeah, exciting all right.” The opportunity to complain seemed to weaken Smallpig’s resolution not to talk. “Bored out of our head for months, we were. Hanging about at the lord’s reach with our mates, then going out to fight some other lads. We’d drop a stone on a pile, then take one when we came back. The stones left showed how many lads we’d lost. We’d try and remember them.
“It were too much for him.” He indicated his silent brother with a thumb. “A bit soft, he is. Doesn’t want to fight, see, hurt people, know what I mean? It eats at him. Me, I just forget it all as soon as I have dinner in front of me; that’s why I’m so cheerful.” Smallpig treated Parlan to a wide, toothy grin.
“A dangerous life…” Parlan chanced a broader smile.
“It were, it were,” said Smallpig. “You can do well at it if you have a good lord—the robbing, the women and what have you. But our lord weren’t good. We were usually thrown back, beat, our lads run through, taken for slaves, some of them. The time we got it, me and me big brother, we were taken—lucky, really, not to get run through.”
“Shut it,” Bigpig called to him from the rudder. “He’s goods. Not for talking to!”
As if he had not heard, Smallpig sat on the deck next to Parlan and continued: “We always fight together, me and me big brother, back to back.” His finger wagged between him and Bigpig. “And we were taken together, forced as sailors. A trading ship it were, carrying tin from Ictis round Iberia it did, through the Pillars of Hercules—at Mons Calpe, you know, to Marsilia. I’ve seen the statue of Hercules, I have, high on the rock at Mons Calpe.”
“The statue of Hercules!” Parlan’s eyes glowed.
“It’s huge, it is. We—me and him—walked up through the town, to the top of the rock and stood right next to it. Hardly came to the top of its sandals!”
Parlan nodded, full of admiration.
“Mind you, it’s huge, but rough like, close up. Scares you stiff from a distance. You think it’ll heave rocks at you. We weren’t scared, not us. We stood by its foot, me and him did, and saw what it were looking at.” Smallpig paused, while Parlan’s eyes grew even bigger.
“Africa! You can see Africa! If that statue threw rocks, like they say it does, it’d sink anything, it would. All the way to Africa.”
Parlan was impressed. “What a life you have led, what sights you have seen,” he said almost breathlessly, his mouth wide.
“I done enough, I’d say. But me, I’m looking for what you had, back there. A nice girl to settle down with, like. Then we’ll have a boy—one like you, perhaps. I’m surprised you let her stay.”
“Jinny has a mind of her own. I’m better off without her.” The face he turned to Smallpig was so open and honest that Smallpig couldn’t help but smile down at him.
“You’ll find another girl, right after we sell you, I wouldn’t be surprised. A fine young lad like you.”
Parlan inclined his head. Then seeing Smallpig begin to leave, asked, “Have you seen more?”
“Ho well,” said Smallpig, settling down again. “We saw the statue of Aphrodite, we did, me and me big brother.”
“Aphrodite?” Parlan gasped as if he couldn’t believe what he heard.
“Ho yes, beautiful she were. The most beautiful woman you can think of.”
“Where?” Parlan shook his head at Smallpig’s good fortune.
“Milos – this little island just off Graecia, it were. There—I didn’t tell you we’d been to Graecia, me and me big brother, did I?”
“What is Aphrodite?” asked Parlan, genuinely ignorant.
“What is Aphrodite?” Smallpig brought his hands to his ears. “I can’t believe it. What is—who is, you mean. She’s the goddess of love, to the Graeci, she is. ‘Venus’, the Romans call her like.”
“A real goddess?” Parlan screwed up his face.
“Nah, you pigeon’s egg. Not a real goddess. Stone, she is, marble like. Smooth marble, with the loveliest little titties you’ve ever seen.” Smallpig looked around, as if, even here in the north of Britain, the goddess might hear him.
“Stone titties?” Parlan looked doubtful. “Aren’t they cold?”
“Yeah, well, they’re for looking at, not handling. She’s a beautiful girl, is that Aphrodite, or Venus if you prefer. The Venus of Milos, they call her.”
Parlan grimaced then grinned at Smallpig. “Stone titties…”
The man and youth laughed together.
“It was nice chewing the cud with yer.” Smallpig heaved himself to his feet. “Time to get some more of that delicious fish and water.”
Smallpig returned a half day later to feed the still jovial-looking Parlan, but the boat pitched and yawed too much for him to hang on with one hand.
“Here,” he said, “You’re just a lad, I know I can trust you. Let me untie one of them hands.”
Parlan nodded, smiling in a friendly way.
Smallpig knelt on the deck and released his hand. The knots were tight, the rope sodden and uncooperative, and he struggled to undo them. Finally:
“There, try that.” Smallpig grinned up at the boy, but found instead a blank-faced man. Smallpig’s kindly smile froze; he lunged at Parlan’s hand to retie it, but the hand brushed past him, clenching into a blacksmith’s fist that smashed into the point of Smallpig’s chin with the crunch of a hammer breaking stones into gravel. The blow forced Smallpig’s head back, there was a snap, and Smallpig fell to the deck, his head twisted like a poorly made statue.
Parlan scrabbled with his foot at Smallpig, trying to hook him and his dagger closer, but he had no time. Bigpig, alerted by the awful snap of his brother’s neck, let go the rudder and yanked at the sword in his belt. The boat, seizing its freedom, yawed along the wave crests, the loosened leather sail cracking in the wind with a snap that echoed Smallpig’s death.
Bigpig raised his sword, and Parlan, one hand still tied to the rail, the dagger out of reach in Smallpig’s belt, swung at Bigpig, kicked at his knee. Bigpig staggered, kept his balance, though the rudderless boat fell sideways into a trough, the mast ploughing into the wave face. The wave crashed across the boat, sweeping Smallpig’s body over the side and submerging them both. Bigpig hugged the mast, his hands clenched together, his sword trapped against his body.
The water fell away and they righted, gasping for air together as the boat, calm for the moment, rested atop a wave. Time enough for Bigpig to raise his sword. Parlan, captured by the rail, lashed again with his feet, but Bigpig, his lips drawn back in a dead man’s grin, eyes alive with certain revenge, avoided the kick and swung his sword. It was a warrior’s sword; bronze, wickedly sharp and weighted to cut though gristle and bone as if through butter. Parlan saw each nick on the edge, each mark on the blade, and as it flowed towards him like a chariot’s scythe, he fancied he saw Jinny’s face on the blade, laughing at his troubles as she used to:
“You’ll survive, Ruffian.”
He jerked towards his tied hand and the blade sliced through the rail, biting deeply into the boards a hand’s breadth from his neck. It lodged there and Bigpig rocked his hand to free it. Parlan grabbed the hand, wrenched it, broke the wrist. With a yowl, Bigpig staggered back, grabbing with his other hand for the wedged sword. Beyond the pain of his wrist, he must have known he needed the sword to live.
A twist of Parlan’s wrist, and the weapon was his. With a stroke, he cut his bonds and jumped free, balancing easily on the wallowing deck despite his long restraint. They faced each other, Parlan’s hand on the rail, Bigpig with a rope gripped in his good hand, their knees bending and straightening as the ship rolled and the sea pushed at them, whipped at them with spray, even swamped them for long moments. Parlan held the blade steady at the warrior’s neck. Bigpig stepped back, let go the rope and cradling his injured wrist with his good hand; he glanced at the broken rail where his brother had fallen, then back to Parlan, a man with no expression, a sword, and every reason to kill him. The revenge in his eyes died.
“I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”
Parlan shook his head. “If you live, I’m renegade.”
Bigpig slumped; he knelt at the broken rail, gripped it with his good hand, and bowed his head for the sword. “We brought a viper aboard.”
Parlan threw his corpse into the sea and pushed the rudder over. Without complaint, the boat gave up its short-lived freedom and turned towards the coast as if it, too, was ready for the safety of land.
“Time to find a nice village,” Parlan told the boat, his expression unchanged since he watched Smallpig untie his wrist.