The Sacred Land
H. N. Turteltaub
H. N. Turteltaub is a pen name of Harry Turtledove
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are either fictitious or are used fictitiously.
Copyright 2003 by H. N. Turteltaub
Map by Mark Stein Studios
The „Hellenic Traders‟ Series:
Over the Wine Dark Sea
The Gryphon‟s Skull
The Sacred Land
Owls to Athens
The Sacred Land is dedicated to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, in friendship, with much appreciation for his enthusiasm about the adventures of Menedemos and Sostratos, and for being everything an editor should be.
A NOTE ON WEIGHTS, MEASURES, AND MONEY
I have, as best I could, used in this novel the weights, measures, and coinages my characters would have used and encountered in their journey. Here are some approximate equivalents (precise values would have varied from city to city, further complicating things):
1 digit = 3/4 inch
4 digits = 1 palm
6 palms = 1 cubit
1 cubit = 1 1/2 feet
1 plethron = 100 feet
1 stadion = 600 feet
12 khalkoi = 1 obolos
6 oboloi = 1 drakhma
100 drakhmai = 1 mina
(about 1 pound of silver)
60 minai = 1 talent
As noted, these are all approximate. As a measure of how widely they could vary, the talent in Athens was about 57 pounds, while that of Aigina, less than thirty miles away, was about 83 pounds.
Something between drizzle and light rain pattered down out of the sky onto the city of Rhodes. Every time a raindrop struck the flame of the torch Sostratos was carrying, the drop hissed out of existence. “Hymen! Iô, Hymen!” Sostratos called as he and his father led his sister‟s wedding procession through the streets toward the house of Damonax son of Polydoros, Erinna‟s new husband.
Lysistratos waved his torch, too. “Hymen!” he called, as Sostratos called. Then, in a lower voice, he grumbled, “Miserable weather for a wedding.”
“Winter‟s the most auspicious time,” Sostratos said, “but it‟s the rainy season, too. Chance we take.” He was a tall, gangling fellow in his
mid-twenties who, unlike most men of his generation, let his beard grow rather than shaving in imitation of Alexander the Great. He‟d studied at the Lykeion in Athens and thought the beard lent him the appearance of a philosopher. On a good day, he was right.
Relatives and friends capered in the procession. There was his cousin, Menedemos, only a few cubits away, calling out to the god of marriage just as if he didn‟t enjoy adultery more. Menedemos was only a few months younger than Sostratos, the son of his father‟s older brother, Philodemos. Sostratos was most of a head taller than his cousin, but Menedemos was handsomer and more graceful.
And people like him, too, Sostratos thought with a mental sigh. He knew he perplexed people himself; he thought too much and felt too little. He read Herodotos and Thoukydides, and aspired to write history himself one day. Menedemos could quote long stretches of the Iliad and Odyssey, and of Aristophanes‟ bawdy comedies. Sostratos sighed to himself again.
No wonder people like him. He entertains them.
Menedemos, swaggering along with a wreath of ivy leaves and bright ribbons in his hair, blew a kiss to a slave girl carrying a jar of water up the street. She giggled and smiled back. Sostratos tried not to be jealous. He didn‟t have much luck. If he‟d done that, odds were the
girl would have laughed in his face.
“May the marriage bring you grandchildren, Uncle,” Menedemos told Lysistratos.
“I thank you,” Sostratos‟ father answered. He gave Menedemos more leeway
than Sostratos was in the habit of doing. But then, Menedemos had been known to complain that his own father held Sostratos up to him as an example of good behavior. That made part of Sostratos—the philosophical
part—proud. It embarrassed the rest of him.
He looked back over his shoulder. There was Uncle Philodemos, not far from the ox cart that carried Damonax and Erinna. Like the rest of the men in the wedding procession, Menedemos‟ father wore garlands in his hair and carried a torch. Somehow, though, he didn‟t look as if he was having a good time. He seldom did. No wonder he and Menedemos have trouble getting along, Sostratos thought.
Damonax dwelt in the southwestern pan of the city, not far from the gymnasion. Since Erinna, after the death of her first husband, had been living in her father‟s house near the northern end of the city (and the northernmost tip of the island) of Rhodes, the parade went through most of the polis. Plenty of people had the chance to cheer and clap their hands and call lewd advice to the bride and groom. Knowing his sister, Sostratos was sure she blushed behind her veil.
With a final squeak from its ungreased axle, the ox cart stopped in front of Damonax‟s home. His mother should have received Erinna into the household, but she and his father were both dead, so an aunt did the honors instead. The men in the procession trooped into the courtyard. His slaves had wine and olives and fried squid and barley cakes and honey waiting in the andron, the men‟s chamber, where the rain couldn‟t spoil them.
The wine was fine Khian, and mixed no weaker than one-to-one with water. People would get drunk in short order. Sostratos took a long pull at his cup. The sweet wine slid down his throat and started fighting the chill of the day. He wondered if the Aphrodite or one of his family‟s other ships had brought it back to Rhodes.
Before long, someone out in the courtyard called, “Come on, everybody! They‟re going into the bedchamber!”
“So soon?” someone else said.
“Would you wait, on your wedding day?” a third man asked.. “By the gods, did you wait on your wedding day? “ Raucous laughter rose.
Chewing on a tender little fried squid and carrying his winecup, Sostratos left the andron. Sure enough, Damonax had opened a door and was urging Erinna through. When she went inside, her new groom turned back to the feasters and grinned. “And now, my dears, I‟ll see you later,” he told them. “Much later.”
People laughed some more and cheered and clapped their hands. Damonax
closed the door. The bar thudded into place inside. Along with everyone else, Sostratos began to sing the epithalamion. Presently, he heard the bedframe creaking through the words of the wedding song. As was proper at such times, he shouted obscene advice.
When he turned to go back to the andron for more wine, he almost bumped into his father. “I hope she‟s happy,” he said.
Lysistratos‟ smile was wide and a little silly; he‟d already drunk a good deal. “If she‟s not happy now, when will she be?” he said. Sostratos dipped his head in agreement; he certainly didn‟t want to spoil the day by speaking words of ill omen.
Behind him, somebody said, “Will he show the bloody cloth?”
“No, fool,” someone else answered. “It‟s her second marriage, so that‟d be hard to do unless her first husband was no man at all.”
Inside the bedchamber, the creaking grew louder and quicker, then suddenly stopped. A moment later, Damonax called, “That‟s one!” out through the door. Everyone whooped and applauded. Before too long, the noise of lovemaking started again. A couple of people made bets about how many rounds he‟d manage.
All the numbers they argued about struck Sostratos as improbably high. He looked around for Menedemos, to say as much. Of course, his cousin was as likely as not to boast that such numbers were too low, not too high. And Menedemos was as likely as anyone to make such a boast good. But Menedemos didn‟t seem to be in the courtyard. Sostratos wandered into the andron looking for him. His cousin wasn‟t there, either. Shrugging, Sostratos dipped out more wine and picked up another squid with the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand. Maybe that creaking bed had inspired Menedemos to go looking for some fun of his own.
As Menedemos made his way up Rhodes‟ grid of streets, a ribbon on the
garland he was wearing fell down in front of his face. It tickled his nose and made his eyes cross and reminded him he still had the garland on his head. He took it off and dropped it in a puddle.
His feet were muddy. He didn‟t care. Like any sailor, he went barefoot
in all weather and never wore anything but a chiton. An older man with a big, thick wool himation wrapped around himself gave him an odd look as they passed each other on the street, as if to say, Aren‟t you freezing? Menedemos did feel the chill, but not enough to do anything about it. He‟d drunk enough wine at his cousin‟s wedding feast to want to get rid of it and paused to piss against the blank, whitewashed wall of a housefront. Then he hurried on. Daylight hours were short at this season of the year, while those of the nighttime stretched like tar on a hot day. He wouldn‟t have cared to be on the streets after sunset, not without the torch he‟d carried in the wedding procession, and not
without some friends along, too. Even in a peaceful, orderly polis like Rhodes, footpads prowled under cover of darkness.
He hoped Damonax would make a worthwhile addition to the family. He‟d liked Erinna‟s first husband well enough, but the man had seemed old to him. That‟s because I wasn‟t much more than a youth myself when she was wed then, he realized in some surprise. Her first husband would have been about thirty, the same age as Damonax is now. Time did strange things. Half a dozen years had got behind him when he wasn‟t looking.
His father‟s house and Uncle Lysistratos‟ stood side by side, not far from the temple to Demeter at the north end of town. When he knocked on the door, one of the house slaves inside called, “Who is it?”
The door opened almost at once. “Did the feast break up so soon, young master?” the slave asked in surprise. “We didn‟t expect you back for awhile yet.”
That almost certainly meant the slaves had grabbed the chance to sit around on their backsides and do as little as they could. Nothing was what slaves did whenever they got the chance. Menedemos answered, “I decided to come home a little early, that‟s all.”
“You, sir? From a feast, sir?” The expression on the slave‟s face said everything that needed saying. “Where‟s your father, sir?”
“He‟s still back there,” Menedemos said. The slave looked more astonished yet. Usually Menedemos‟ father was the one who came home early and he was the one who stayed out late.
He walked through the entry hall and into the courtyard. Angry shouts came from the kitchen. Menedemos sighed. His stepmother and Sikon the cook were wrangling again. Baukis, who wanted to be a good household manager, was convinced Sikon spent too much. The cook was equally convinced she wanted him to pass the rest of his life fixing nothing but barley porridge and salted fish.
Baukis stalked out of the kitchen with a thoroughly grim expression on her face. It crumbled into surprise when she saw Menedemos. “Oh. Hail,” she said, and then, as the slave had, “I didn‟t expect you home so soon.”
“Hail,” he replied, and shrugged. When he looked at her, he had trouble thinking of his father‟s second wife as his stepmother. Baukis was ten or eleven years younger than he. She wasn‟t a striking beauty, but she had a very nice shape: a much nicer one now than she‟d had when she
came into the house a couple of years before at the age of fourteen. Menedemos went on, “I didn‟t feel like staying around, so I came back by myself while it was still light.”
“All right,” Baukis said. “Do you have any idea when Philodemos will
Menedemos tossed his head to show he didn‟t. “If I had to guess, though,
I‟d say he and Uncle Lysistratos and Sostratos will all come home together, with some linkbearers to light the way for them.”
“That sounds sensible,” Baukis agreed. “I really do want to talk to him about Sikon. The insolence that fellow has! You‟d think he owned this place instead of being a slave here.” She frowned so hard, a vertical line appeared between her eyebrows.
The expression fascinated Menedemos. All her expressions fascinated him. They were part of the same household, so she didn‟t veil herself against his eyes as respectable women usually did around men. Watching her bare face was almost as exciting as seeing her naked. He had to remind himself to pay attention to what she was saying, too. He‟d given his father plenty of reasons to quarrel with him—and had
also got plenty of reasons to quarrel with his father. He didn‟t want to put adultery with his father‟s wife on the list. That might be a
killing matter, and he knew it very well.
Most of him, at any rate, didn‟t want to put adultery with Baukis on the list. One part did. That part stirred. He sternly willed it back to quiescence. He didn‟t want Baukis noticing such stirrings under his
“Sikon has his pride,” he said. Talking about quarrels in the kitchen might help keep his mind off other things. “Maybe you would have done better right from the start if you‟d asked him to be more careful what he spent than marching in there and giving him orders. That puts his back up, you know.”
“He‟s a slave,” Baukis repeated. “When his master‟s wife tells him what to do, he‟d better pay attention, or he‟ll be sorry.”
In theory, she was right. In practice, slaves with special skills and special talents—and Sikon had both—were almost as free to do as they
pleased as were citizens. If Baukis didn‟t know that, she‟d lived a sheltered life before she was married. Or maybe her parents were among the folk who treated slaves like beasts of burden that happened to be able to talk. There were some.
He said, “Sikon‟s been here a long time. We‟re still prosperous, and we eat as well as a lot of people who have more silver.”
Baukis‟ frown got deeper. “That‟s not the point. The point is, if I tell him to do it the way I want, he should do it.”
A philosophical discussion—that‟s what this is, Menedemos realized. I might as well be Sostratos. I‟m having a philosophical discussion with my father‟s wife, when what I want to do is bend her forward and. . .
He tossed his head. Baukis glared, thinking he disagreed with her. In fact, he did, but at that moment he‟d been disagreeing with himself. He said, “You ought to see you haven‟t got anywhere by charging straight at him. If you compromise, maybe he will, too.”
“Maybe.” But Philodemos‟ wife didn‟t sound as if she believed it. “I
think he just thinks I‟m some fool of a girl trying to give him orders, and he doesn‟t like that at all. Well, too bad for him.”
She might well have a point. No Hellene would have wanted to obey a woman‟s commands. Sikon wasn‟t a Hellene, but he was a man—and Hellenes
and barbarians agreed on some things.
“I‟ve talked with him before,” Menedemos said. “Would you like me to do it again? With a little luck, I‟ll get him to see reason. Or, if
I can‟t do that, maybe I can frighten him.”
“I haven‟t had much luck with that, but then I‟m only a woman,” Baukis said sourly. After a moment, though, her face lit up with hope, “Would you please try? I‟d be ever so grateful.”
“Of course I will,” Menedemos promised. “Nobody wants to listen to quarrels all the time. I‟ll do the best I can.” Maybe I can slip Sikon silver on the side, so we‟ll eat as well as always but Baukis won‟t see the money coming out of the household accounts. That might work. “Thank you so much, Menedemos!” Baukis exclaimed. Her eyes glowing, she impulsively stepped forward and gave him a hug.
For a moment, his arras tightened around her. He held her just long enough for him to feel how sweet and ripe she was—and, perhaps, for
her to feel him stirring to life. Then they sprang apart, as if each found the other too hot to bear. They weren‟t alone. In a prosperous household like Philodemos‟, no one could count on being alone. Slaves saw, or might see, everything that went on. A brief, friendly embrace could be innocent. Anything more? Menedemos tossed his head again. Baukis said, “Do speak to him soon, please.” Was that all she‟d had in mind when she hugged him? Or was she too making sure the slaves would have nothing to tell Philodemos? Menedemos could hardly ask. He said, “I will,” and then deliberately turned away. Baukis‟ footsteps went off toward the stairs that led up to the women‟s quarters. Her sandals clacked on the planks of the stairway. Menedemos didn‟t watch her go. Instead, he walked off to the kitchen for what he knew would be one more futile talk with Sikon.
“good day, my master,” Sostratos said in Aramaic. He was a free Hellene. He would never have called any man “master” in Greek. But the tongue spoken in Phoenicia and the nearby lands—and in broad stretches of what
had been the Persian Empire before Alexander‟s great campaigns—was far
more flowery, more formally polite.
“Good day to you,” Himilkon the Byblian replied in the same tongue. The Phoenician merchant had run a harborside warehouse in Rhodes for as long as Sostratos could remember. Silver was just beginning to streak his curly black beard; gold hoops glittered in his ears. He went on, still in Aramaic, “Your accent is much better than it was when you started
these lessons a few months ago. You know many more words, too.”
“Your servant thanks you for your help,” Sostratos said. Himilkon‟s dark eyes sparkled as he nodded approval. Sostratos grinned; he‟d recalled the formula correctly.
“Sailing season comes soon,” the Phoenician said.
“I know.” Sostratos dipped his head; he had as much trouble making himself nod as Himilkon did with the Hellenic gesture. “Less than a month to go before the ... vernal equinox.” The last two words came out in Greek; he had no idea how to say them in Aramaic. Himilkon didn‟t tell him, either. The merchant‟s lessons were purely practical. With a little luck, Sostratos would be able to make himself understood when the Aphrodite got to Phoenicia. He had more doubts about whether he would be able to understand anyone else. When he worried out loud, Himilkon laughed. “What do you say if you have trouble?”
“ „Please speak slowly, my master.‟“ Sostratos had learned that phrase early on.
“Good. Very good.” Himilkon nodded again. “My people will want to take your money. They will make sure you follow them so they can do it.”
“I believe that,” Sostratos said in Greek. He‟d dealt with Phoenician traders in a good many towns by the Aegean Sea. They were single-minded in the pursuit of profit. Since he was, too, he had less trouble with them than some Hellenes were wont to do. Sticking to Greek, he asked, “But what about the loudaioi?”
“Oh. Them.” Himilkon‟s shrug was expressive. In gutturally accented Greek of his own, he continued, “I still think you‟re daft to want anything to do with them.”
“Why?” Sostratos said. “The best balsam comes from Engedi, and you say Engedi is in their land, I‟m sure I can get a better price from them than I‟d get from Phoenician middlemen.”
“You‟ll likely pay less money,” Himilkon admitted. “But you‟ll have more aggravation—I promise you that.”
Sostratos shrugged. “That‟s one of the things a merchant does—turns
aggravation into silver, I mean.”
“All right. Fair enough,” Himilkon said. “I‟ll remember that and remind
myself of it when I run into a Hellene who‟s particularly annoying—and
there are plenty of them, by the gods.”
“Are there?” Sostratos said, and the Phoenician nodded. Isn‟t that interesting? Sostratos thought. We find barbarians annoying, but who would have imagined they might feel the same about us? Truly custom is king of all. Herodotos had quoted Pindaros to that effect. Himilkon said, “The gods keep you safe on your journey. May the winds be good, may the seas be calm, and may the Macedonian marshals not go to war anywhere too close to you and your ship.”
“May it be so,” Sostratos agreed. “By all the signs, Antigonos has a pretty solid grip on Phoenicia and its hinterland. I don‟t think
Ptolemaios can hope to take it away from him. No matter what they do to each other elsewhere along the shores of the Inner Sea, that seems a good bet,”
“For your sake, my master, I hope you are right,” Himilkon said, falling back into Aramaic. “Whether the elephant tramples the lion or the lion pulls down the elephant, the mouse who gets caught in their battle always loses. Shall we go on with the lesson, or have you had enough?”
“May it please you, my master, I have had enough,” Sostratos answered, also in Aramaic.
Himilkon smiled and clapped his hands. “That is perfect—pronunciation,
accent, everything. If I had another half a year to work with you, I could turn you into a veritable man of Byblos, may a pestilence take me if I lie.”
“I thank you,” Sostratos said, knowing he meant it as a compliment.
The Hellene tried to imagine himself a member of a folk that knew not philosophy. What would I do? How would I keep from going mad? Or would I see what I was missing? A man blind from birth doesn‟t miss the beauty of a sunset.
He got to his feet and left the Phoenician‟s ramshackle warehouse.
Hyssaldomos, Himilkon‟s Karian slave, stood just outside, chewing on some brown bread. “Hail, O best one,” he said in Greek.
“Hail,” Sostratos answered. He switched to Aramaic: “Do you understand this language, Hyssaldomos?”
“Little bit,” the slave said, also in Aramaic. “Himilkon use sometimes. Greek easier.”
That probably meant Greek was more like Hyssaldomos‟ native Karian. Sostratos didn‟t know for certain, though. Rhodes lay off the coast of Karia, and Rhodians had been dealing with Karians for centuries. Even so, only a handful of Karian words had entered the local Greek dialect. Few Rhodians spoke the tongue of their nearest barbarian neighbors, and he wasn‟t one of them. But more and more Karians used Greek these days, either alongside their own language or instead of it.
Now that Alexander‟s conquered the Persian Empire, the whole world will have to learn Greek, Sostratos thought. In a few generations, wouldn‟t his language replace not only local tongues like Karian and Lykian but also more widely spoken ones like Aramaic and Persian? He couldn‟t see why not.
The Aphrodite lay drawn up on the beach perhaps a plethron from Himilkon‟s warehouse. The merchant galley‟s planking would be good and dry when she put to sea. Till it got waterlogged again, that would give her a better turn of speed.
A gull swooped down by the Aphrodite and flew away with a mouse struggling in its beak. One little pest that won‟t make it on to the ship, Sostratos
thought as he walked toward the merchant galley. He was a neat man and didn‟t like dealing with vermin at sea. A couple of years before, he‟d sailed with peafowl aboard the akatos. They‟d done a fine job of eating roaches and centipedes and scorpions and mice—but they‟d also proved
that large pests aboard ship were worse than small ones. Sostratos laid a more or less affectionate hand on the Aphrodite‟s flank. Thin lead sheets nailed to the timbers below the waterline helped shield the vessel from shipworms and kept barnacles and seaweed from fouling her bottom. Rhodian carpenters had been over the repairs they‟d had done in Kos the summer before, after a collision with a round ship that came wallowing out of a rainstorm. The workmen on Kos had also been repairing Ptolemaios‟ naval vessels at the time, so they should have known their business. Even so, Sostratos was glad the work met Rhodians‟ approval. His own polis, in his biased opinion, held the best and boldest sailors among the Hellenes these days.
One of the harborside loungers—a fellow who would do a little work now and then, when he needed a few oboloi for wine, or perhaps for bread—came
up to Sostratos and said, “Hail. You sail aboard this one, don‟t you?”
“I‟ve been known to, every now and again,” Sostratos said dryly. “Why?”
“Oh, nothing,” the other man replied. “I was just wondering what she might be carrying when she goes into the sea, that‟s all.”
“She might be carrying almost anything. She‟s taken everything from peafowl and lion skins and a gryphon‟s skull”—Sostratos‟ heart still ached when he thought about losing the gryphon‟s skull to pirates the summer before, when he was on his way to show it off in Athens—”to
something as ordinary as sacks of wheat.”
The lounger clucked reproachfully. He tried again: “What will she have
in her when she goes to sea?”
“This and that,” Sostratos said, his voice bland. The lounger gave him an exasperated look. His answering smile said as little as he had. His father and uncle‟s trading firm was far from the only one in the city
of Rhodes. Some of their rivals might have paid a drakhma or two to find out what they‟d be up to this sailing season. Men who hung around the harbor could make their money without getting calluses on their hands. They could—with a little help from others. Sostratos had no intention of giving that kind of help.
This fellow, if nothing else, was persistent. “You know where you‟ll be sailing?” he asked,
“Oh, yes,” Sostratos said. The lounger waited. Sostratos said no more. The other man took longer than he should have to realize he wasn‟t going to say any more. Muttering unpleasant ties under his breath, he turned away.
I should have answered him in Aramaic, Sostratos thought. I‟d have got rid of him quicker. Then he shrugged. He‟d done what needed doing.