The Paeonian

The main character, Teres, a Paeonian mercenary, reaches the shores west of Kemet (Egypt) as a rower on a galley that carries contingents set to attack the wealthy kingdom on The Nile. He had met and fallen in love with an Achaean slave woman, Pherenike, who was gaving out the meals to the ship crew, but had affronted her in a fit of jealousy. After spending long days drilling his company as a newly promoted commander Teres decides to return, accompanied by his friend Piha, to the civilian camp and face Pherenike once more before he goes to war.

“Good evening, Pherenike,” Teres said to a squatting girly figure next to a small fire. She did not react. He stepped closer and swallowed to steady his voice.
“Nike, this man is looking for you,” her companion, one of the three  wenches from the ship , raised her voice behind the Paeonian.

Pherenike turned and stared in silence. She looked emaciated and sickly, but her eyes gave out the same vigor and alertness.

“Good evening, Pherenike,” Teres repeated looking anxiously for her reaction.
“Good evening to you, Teres,” she answered and nodded to her friend. “We’ll tend to your needs while you stay with us”.

Teres and Piha surrendered the load of blankets to Pherenike and watched silently the two women furnishing a low shelter with them.

“We have only bread and salted fish,” the other girl, named Iokaste, said sheepishly.
“That is plenty,” Teres said absentmindedly as he watched Pherenike walking away. “Please, stay. I come to speak to you.”
Pherenike returned obediently and sat by the fire.
“How many civilians follow Pylaeus?” Teres broke the uncomfortable silence and almost choked with a lump of gritty bread.
“Thirteen women with two old Pelasgian guards.”
“Where are they? The guards, I mean,” he asked after he drank stale water to clear his throat.
“Enjoying themselves around the camp, I guess. They rarely show up.”
“With your permission I will go to sleep, lord Teres,” Piha intervened. “Here, some dry horse dung for the fire.”

The Lukkan took out a small bundle wrapped in a cloth from his bag. He stood up and headed for the shelter.

“Iokaste, you are free to leave,” Teres said. “And thank you for the hospitality,” he added when he saw the girl’s worried glances towards her friend.

Pherenike took a couple of chunks of dry manure and placed them carefully in the small fire. She stirred the embers with a crooked stick staring at the flames.

Exasperation crept in and swiftly freed Teres’ mind from the grip of the nervousness and hesitation. He thanked Dyalus for his newly found courage and promised himself not to retaliate against any harshness from her.

“I don’t have much time. I am a company commander now and if I survive the war Pylaeus has agreed to give you to me.”
“Why?” she asked with a hard voice.
“Because I asked him. You will be mine,” he replied with the same tone. “I will treat you well and will make sure you’re well. That is if I survive the war.”
“Did you come only to tell me this?” she asked and stared at him.
“Yes,” he said after a moment of hesitation.
“Thank you.” Her tone was candid and warm. Teres’ bitterness evaporated. He held her hand and took a deep breath.
“I want to take you to Paeonia and make you my wife. I have plans-”

Pherenike rose on her knees and silenced him with a kiss. She led him by the hand past his shelter to a small hovel. She ducked in and after a few moments came out and pulled him in.
Teres tried vainly to discern anything in the darkness. His head was pounding and his arms were trembling. Pherenike’s hands pressed him gently to the prickly mats on the ground. For an instance she pulled away and left him longing and impatient. When her naked body huddled back in his arms he groaned.

“I stink,” he managed to say with a shivering voice.
“Be quiet.”

The darkness span and all his thoughts melted into a warm blur.

Teres held Pherenike in his embrace long after she had slumped relaxed on his chest. He fought his heavy eyelids to relish a few more moments of completeness and serenity.
“I will take you to Paeonia and will make you my wife and queen,” he whispered.
“Lord Teres,” she said slowly as if trying to get used to the words. “I heard the Lukkan. You have a very well-mannered companion.”
“Another friend I am about to let down.”
“War is a game that men play for the pleasure of the gods. Few good things come from it. All you can do is try to stay alive and mend what is shattered.”
“That is the second good advice I receive these days and I failed to follow the first one,” Teres said amused.
“What was the other advice?”
“To keep away from the woman I want and focus on the war.”
He listened to her ringing laughter and his heart sank at the thought that he would have to leave her in the morning.
“Let’s stay awake all night.”
“This is exactly why you got the first advice,” She said and chuckled as her head pressed against his chest.

Teres woke up and judging from the sunlight outside he knew he had overslept. He found Pherenike and Piha outside talking and packing their gear. They drank desert brew and Pherenike walked them to the western end of the camp.

“Don’t worry about me. Stay alive,” she said and kissed Teres quickly by the cheek. “Good luck to you, dear Piha. Hope to see you again.”

Teres and Piha waved and walked away with the vigor of men late for an appointment. The Paeonian forced himself not to look back before they were well away from the camp. War would be his only thought for days to come.

4 thoughts on “The Paeonian

  1. johnsonofdaw says:

    This is a colorful scene. Your writing is a mixture of excellent and awkward passages. Eg.

    “Pherenike took a couple of chunks of dry manure and placed them carefully in the small fire. She stirred the embers with a crooked stick staring at the flames.

    Exasperation crept in and swiftly freed Teres’ mind from the grip of the nervousness and hesitation.”

    The first two sentences use words and images very economically to create a picture of what’s going on. Then I’m thrown out of the flow by the next sentence: Who was exasperated, Pherenike or Teres? Can exasperation creep? Was Teres’s mind freed of nervousness and hesitation or of what made him nervous and hesitant? What does “grip of” add? I can work it out, but it’s awkward. If you could polish it so that it works like the first two sentences it would be a much better read, for me anyway.

    Taking this passage out of context I have to wonder how a slave girl gets to act with quite that much confident self assertion, especially while emaciated and sickly. It would require quite a lot of work setting the character up for this to ring true. There seems to be a trend towards re-writing history in order to establish more assertive and influential female characters, which is good for sexy drama, but it requires some setting up if you want it to feel authentic.

    I think I could get drawn into your novel, it’s certainly got plenty of potential for colourful adventure.

  2. Alex Zaykov says:

    Thank you, Johnsonofdaw,
    Both this comment and the one on my novel opening have been very useful. I consider rewriting the passage about Teres’ exasperation and make it clearer and concise.
    On the slave girl’s believability, and she’s an important secondary character, I have tried to reveal a few key facts from her background into the preceding narrative, namely that she used to live in court and is literate (her father has been a scribe) and that she has been enslaved relatively recently.
    Again, thanks a lot for the insightful critique.

  3. Robert Buchko says:

    Overall this drew me in. The dialogue is formal but that’s what I would expect given their stations and society. There were a few awkward areas that could use some work. For example, I had to re-read, “watched silently the two women furnishing,” a few times. You may want to add some movement/positioning actions between the dialogue, especially when switching to characters who haven’t spoken in a while. It jarred me a bit when I learned Piha was the one speaking after the lengthy back and forth between Teres and Nike, for instance. Some of the atmosphere-setting action might have unintended meaning, such as Teres choking on his bread. At first, I thought he’d been surprised by something. The love scene was tastefully done, establishing the anticipation and excitement without getting into the nitty gritty, which is unnecessary. Nice start!

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