On Marble Threshing Floors
by Christine Lucas
… and then I saw a barefoot man in splendid garments,
bejeweled like a grouse, lightning in his gaze.
He challenges me to a fight on marble threshing floors,
and whoever wins takes the other’s soul.
—The Death of Digenis Acritas, Byzantine folk song.
* * *
The Antioch region, circa 990 AD.
The boy’s hair smelled of fire. He couldn’t be more than twelve years old, the sole survivor of a bandit raid at a nearby farm. Maximu’s hands twisted the hem of her apron so hard her knuckles hurt. Two women wrestled inside her: the Mother and the Amazon, both urging her to hug the boy. The Mother longed to comfort him in her bosom, the Amazon to smell the blood and fire still lingering around him.
Neither woman won. She placed a cup of water on the table in front of the boy, and he emptied it with large gulps. “Do you have a name, boy?”
“It’s Basil, lady.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Wide-eyed, thin as a twig, his skin and clothes stained by mud and smoke, Basil sat at the edge of the chair, as if ready to dart out at the first suspicion of danger.
“Are you certain no one else survived?” Maximu crossed the room to the hearth, where her son Petros sat. The apelates had grown clumsy in recent years. In her youth, they’d never let a farm boy escape with his life. She wouldn’t. Her fingers tingled, missing the hilt of her sword. She looked away to hide the ghosts of her past life. The choice had been made decades ago.
“How many were there?” asked Petros. He sat with his back straight, whetting his sword.
For a fleeting second, her heart clenched. He had grown too tall for his late father’s shirt. She leaned over the hearth to hide her grimace. Taking arms against the apelates: the honorable, brave—foolish—thing to do. But what chance did a farmer, the son of a farmer, stand against their swords and lances, against their greed and battle-lust? The Fates had not graced her with female offspring to carry her arms. Her boy, blessed be his thick head and big heart, had taken after his father.
Basil looked down, his face pale under the muck. “No more than twelve, but I’m not sure. I—I hid in the barn. I barely got out of there alive when they set it on fire.”
Maximu busied herself over the kettle, her knuckles white around the ladle’s handle. There hadn’t been any raids in this region recently, but she had known it wouldn’t last. The emperor’s focus had turned to the North, to the Bulgarians. The bandits of the Orontes valley were the least of his concerns, and the Antioch Guard had lost much strength. She served her son and the starving boy each a steaming bowl of vegetable soup, along with large chunks of yesterday’s bread. The boy wolfed it down.
She watched him eat while her son picked at his supper, his brow furrowed. The farm Basil had fled from was just one day’s ride west. If the bandits followed the waters of the Orontes, the river would lead them to her home and family. After her nearly fatal injury, she had retired from combat—or so she thought. And now the enemy closed in on them.
Petros pushed his bowl away. “Did they have horses?”
He didn’t even glance at her, but she knew his thoughts: is there time to flee?
Basil shook his head, his mouth stuffed with bread. When he finally swallowed, he said, “Just a couple, as far as I know.” He kept his gaze downwards. “But—but I didn’t take a good look. I ran away as fast as I could.”
Perhaps we should run, too.
Under the table, she clenched her fists until her nails cut into her palms. Flee? Only injury had kept her away from battle. Her shield remained unbroken and her honor unblemished.
She raised her head, her blood racing. “Take Basil to the stable, son, and find him a warm spot to rest. Then check on your wife—my grandchild seems determined to arrive early. Then we’ll talk.”
Once alone, Maximu cleared the table, tossed the leftovers in a bucket for the pigs and sat by the hearth, the weight of her forty-seven winters double on her shoulders. Despite what some folktales claimed, she had not died defending the Iron Bridge of the Orontes river, during the siege of Antioch. Nor had she fallen to the blade of their hero frontiersman, the infamous Digenis Acritas, yielding to him her weapons and her virtue.
She rubbed rough skin over the old wound. It had never truly healed, the scar a merciless reminder of that one arrow and the well-placed hit over her collarbone. Had Theodore not found her, she would have bled out in a ditch. He had taken her in, nursed her back to health; and he had loved her in his own, simple way, despite her fiery temperament. By the time she could once again wield a sword, she was already with child.
So she stayed there, in that lowly cottage and the two-room household, her days feeding chickens and pigs, her nights in the arms not of a hero but a common farmer. Each dawn brought guilt, each dusk remorse, her life caught between love and honor. Amazons lived by the sword and died by the sword, under the shield of the Old Ways and not by the blessings of a younger God.
Maximu turned her gaze to the fire, hoping its heat would dry any tear that dared to flow. Theodore’s death still hurt more than any battle wound. The Fates had not graced him with honorable death in combat. He had withered away in a long, delirious fever five winters ago. Dread gripped her heart. Was she destined to perish that way too? Old and feeble, soaked in sweat and urine, her family strangers to her burning mind?
She marched across the room to her bridal chest, under the bed she had shared with her husband; the bed he had died on.
I am Maximu, the Amazon. I will not await Death in a housewife’s apron. When he comes, I’ll meet him in full armor.
She knelt by the chest. Her knees hurt, the years of fieldwork claiming their toll on her bones and joints. She popped the lid open. This bridal chest held no fine embroidery, neither laces nor veils. She took out the reins of fine, polished leather. Her faithful black mare had long since died, but she kept them along with her armor, a warm memory of a trusted friend. One by one, she took them all out: her cuirass, her helmet, her scimitar and the xipharion, the tip of her lance. The handle had broken years ago, but she could easily find another. Lastly, she took out her small, round shield and held it up to the light.
Who was this stranger reflected in the shiny metal? Her fingers traced her cheek and nose. The stranger did the same. That was her face—her wrinkles, her graying hair, her tired eyes. Where had her beauty gone, the face that had enamored bandits and frontiersmen, Christians and Saracens? She looked away, her sword arm shaking, her shield arm numb. From every corner of the room, her years laughed at her.
What are you planning, silly crone? Stick to your pots and chickens. Your time has passed. Haven’t you heard how the folk songs go? They sing of how the hero Digenis broke your lance and plucked your virginity. You are dead. So stay dead!
Her shoulders slumped. She almost put the shield away, back into the chest, where it should stay until the end of her days. Then the shadows of the room danced, a whiff of honeysuckle brushed against her face and her weapons spoke with the voices of her fallen kin.
Queen Myrine, blessed be her name, conquered Libya and Gorgon. Penthesilia, blessed be her blood, took arms against Achilles, the greatest of heroes. Will you not stand in their midst? They await you in the Fields of Asphodel, beyond the black waters of Acheron.
Shame burned her face. She clutched the shield to her breast, then propped it against the chest, her hands gentle as if handling a baby. She removed her clothes and tossed her apron into the fire. She donned her old breeches, watching the apron burn. Her fingers tingled, eager to close around the hilt.
She put on her bridal tunica and girded it up to her knees with a thin belt, the white linen soft against her skin. The vamvakion, the leather undergarment worn beneath the armor, gave her some trouble, now rather narrow around her chest. Her breasts were larger, having fed three children. The breeches wouldn’t button at the waist, her hips and stomach no longer a maiden’s.
She sat on the bed to put her boots on, when the front door opened wide. Her son stood on the threshold, his face pale, his eyes wild. Behind him stood his wife, Helene, supporting her back with one hand, the other protectively over her belly.
“Mother, no!” He stormed into the room and towered over her. “Don’t be foolish! You haven’t handled a sword since long before I was born.” He knelt before her, his trembling hand cupping her right knee. “Even if we wait until dawn, we’ll reach Antioch before noon. Helene’s family will give us shelter. Please, put this ridiculous idea out of your head.”
“You want me to flee?” Her mouth twisted. “Flee from dogs?” She laced her right boot and put on her left, cursing in silence her swollen feet and tight leather.
“Mother, please! Listen to m—”
“No! You will listen to me. Let the boy rest while you gather whatever you wish to salvage. Then take Helene and Basil, go to town, and alert the Guard. I’ll stall the apelates as long as I can.”
“But they’ll ki—”
“A tigress does not cower before a pack of mangy dogs.” She raised her head, released her hair and picked up her comb.
Helene walked to her husband and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Leave her. Let her do what she must.” Cold fire burned upon her face, the yearning for a path not taken.
Maximu smiled. The Fates had denied her a female child, but had graced her with a daughter-in-law of the same mind and blood. Her youngest son would be in good hands. She braided her hair in the Amazon fashion, so it wouldn’t hinder her vision or let her opponent grab it in close combat, and stood, stifling a curse. Damned boots were too tight. She put on her cuirass, its weight both burden and release.
Petros stood, too. He wouldn’t meet her gaze. She hugged him, the cold iron of her armor between breast and son mocking her last motherly gesture. He didn’t hug her back. He turned and left, his step faltering across the doorstep.
Helene hugged her. “I’ll take care of him,” she whispered in Maximu’s ear.
“I know you will.” Maximu touched the girl’s belly. “Speak well of me.”
Helene smiled. “I’ll name her after you.”
I will not weep. I won’t. Maximu looked away. “Take the donkey. I’ll take the mule. And hurry.”
“We will.” Helene turned and hurried after her husband. Just over the doorstep, she glanced over her shoulder. “May the Virgin steel your sword arm, Maximu … Mother.”
* * *
At dawn, Maximu reached the banks of the Orontes and took the road west. If the Fates favored her, she’d reach the bridge before the bandits did. If they were indeed heading this way, that was the only safe spot to cross the river. The next pass was over the Iron Bridge, too close to Antioch and the Guard.
She shifted in the saddle; the insides of her thighs were sore, her back ached. Her body had not carried the weight of armor in years. The breastplate crushed her chest and chafed the soft flesh around her armpits. The leather gloves hurt her hands, where the cooking oil had left the skin raw. She clutched the reins tighter. She hadn’t had time to find a proper pole for her lance tip, but the broom handle fit well. It would have to do.
A dog howled nearby. In the distance, a rooster called the sun to rise. Perched on pines and acacias, sparrows and robins gossiped. White patches of chamomile flowers lined the path, and the morning air was crisp and cool against her face. All around her, the signs of a land pregnant with spring mocked her death march.
You envied the hero’s death, silly crone? Digenis fought Death himself on marble threshing floors. And you go to battle riding a mangy mule, armed with a broom? You should have brought your pots and pans along, too.
Maximu grunted. Digenis: once her foe, then her ally, a brother in arms in the service of Emperor Nikephoros II. Yes, she had envied his death, the tale of utmost bravery that unfolded in the lines of the folksongs. Death had ambushed Digenis and used a poisoned arrow, according to some versions. Others sang of an epic fight on marble threshing floors, a fight reminiscent of Death’s wrestling with Heracles, another favorite hero of the common folk. But Maximu had heard a different tale from an Arab trader: Digenis had fallen victim to the sweating fever, like her late husband.
When the stone bridge came into view, the sun was still low over the horizon. This bridge was narrow—only one man on horseback could cross it at a time, or two on foot marching abreast. Here she’d make her stand.
Maximu watered her mule and let it graze while she splashed water over her face, its chill welcome against the fire raging within. She paced the length of the bridge a few times, to stretch her limbs, and practiced with her sword. More than once it slipped through her fingers, but she did not give up. Her body had to remember her old trade. The bandits would not cross.
Metal clanked somewhere ahead. Maximu sheathed her sword and mounted the mule. With lance and shield, she awaited her opponents mid-bridge.
They came from the turn of the road like a pack of wolves, some scarred, some injured. She counted twelve of them. Dirty, ragged, wearing mismatched armor, the bandits wielded an assortment of weapons: Saracen scimitars, Byzantine spathia, heavy double-edged swords, clubs and short spears. Three were on horseback, the rest on foot. No bows, as far as Maximu saw, breathing easier. Archery required more discipline and talent than this rabble possessed.
Twelve wolflings and one great wolf—their leader came last, riding a pale horse, dressed in a black tunica—no armor. When the first bandit noticed her, his ratty face twisted in shock. Then he pointed and laughed.
Her grip around the lance tightened. She raised her chin, staring down each man in turn. When she spoke, she managed to keep her voice steady. “Turn back! You have slaughtered and looted enough in these parts.”
More snickering and sneering. At the back, the bandit leader leaned forward on the saddle, not sharing his men’s mirth.
A tall, bulky bandit with a half-healed scar from left ear to chin advanced, hefting his barbed club. “A woman’s voice! Are you crazy, bitch?” He groped his crotch. “Come mount this!” He chuckled, and his comrades cheered.
“I am Maximu, the Amazon.” She pointed her lance at him. “If you value your pathetic life, flee now.”
He opened his mouth to speak, exposing black teeth, but closed it back without one word. Lowering his club, he glanced over his shoulder at his mates and leader. Murmurs rose among the others. Finally, he managed to speak again, his voice slightly faltering this time.
“Maximu? You can’t be her. She’s been dead for years.”
“Set one foot on the bridge and see if I’m dead.”
“I won’t fight a woman.” He spat on the ground. “And a crone at that. Go back to your chickens.”
She raised her chin. “Greater men have crossed swords with me, scum. Turn back!”
“And if I won’t?” He took one tentative step forward.
She spurred her mule. It whinnied, unsure what was required of it. Its nostrils flared, the smell of anger, blood and infected wounds too close for comfort. She spurred it again. Come on!
The scarred bandit advanced with his club high, a wicked grin over his dirty beard. The mule surged forward at the third spur. Maximu lowered her lance, the tip aiming at his ugly face, and braced her back for the impact. She pierced him through his open mouth, cutting his cry short, reducing it to gurgling. The mule reared and she leaned forward, loosing the reins. The bandit blinked, then collapsed. She clenched her jaw and pulled her lance free. Broken teeth and a piece of his tongue scattered beside him.
The mule reared again, and she raised her shield high. “Turn back, or die!”
The bandits exchanged glances, some lowering their weapons, some turning to their leader. He sat still, a thin smile on his pale face, his dark eyes unreadable. He spoke, but Maximu couldn’t hear his soft words over the roar of the Orontes. Still, the breeze carried fragments of his voice over the water, and her heart stirred.
I know him.
Two more bandits advanced. She cleared her mind. One of them brandished a longsword. The other had a scimitar and wore a spiked Saracen helmet. She grinned, more confident now. Her body had remembered. The first man evaded her lance and lunged at her, to pull her down. She kicked his chin and sent him flat on his back. The other raised the longsword with both hands, with the finesse of an anvil. He charged at her, exposing his torso. The lance pierced his stomach, through his leather armor. The sword fell from his hands and he collapsed, clutching the lance handle, blood spurting out from his mouth.
Maximu struggled to pull the lance free, but the tip stuck in the torn leather armor and dislodged from the broom handle, sheathed in the slain bandit’s gut. She cursed through clenched teeth. The other bandit had recovered from her kick and reached out to her again. The mule reared, and she hit the bandit with the handle with all her strength. The impact of wood against the steel helmet numbed her arm up to her shoulder, but the blow sent the bandit over the railing. She tossed the useless stick into the river and unsheathed her sword.
The haughty edge of her voice quickened her pulse. Her back ached, her muscles throbbed, the gloves cut into her skin, but it felt good. It felt right. Her daily chores back at the farm, the easy, comfortable routine of a sheltered life grew distant in her mind, fragments of dreams forgotten at dawn. She raised her sword.
“Turn back, then! Or die like the dogs you are!”
The leader signaled to a young, barefoot lad, and one of the others, a short, stocky man wielding a club, his left thigh bandaged.
She snorted. Boys and cripples? So be it. If they won’t stand down, they’ll be cut down.
The injured man advanced, while the lad climbed on a boulder close to their leader. Suspicion tingled the edge of her consciousness; something was wrong. But the bandit charged with a cry, reaching for the reins. The mule reared in panic. She leaned forward and squeezed her thighs to remain on the saddle. Something hissed through the air, followed by blinding pain on her forehead. Her grip loosened, and she fell, the impact pushing the air out of her lungs.
A sling. Damned boy has a sling.
She shook her head to clear her vision, the mule’s frantic gallop fading away. Blood trickled into her right eye. She pushed herself up on her knees, but her years betrayed her, the weight of her armor slowing her reflexes. The bandit was faster. The blow against her helmet knocked her back down, her head throbbing. Half-blind from the pain, her fingers searched the ground until they closed around the hilt of her sword. When the bandit raised his club for the killing blow, she thrust the blade upwards into his exposed gut, just below his belt. He grunted, and she rolled over just in time to avoid his dead weight.
Panting, Maximu managed to kneel, sword still in hand. Her shield lay a few paces away. She wiped the blood from her face and glanced ahead. The bandits closed in on her, and she forced herself to stand. Her knees failed to support her; she reached for the railing. Another rock hissed through the air and hit her right leg, just above the knee. Grunting, she fell back down on all fours. When she managed to raise her head, she saw that the bandits had stopped their advance, parting for their leader to pass through.
I know him.
Had she met him in the market a week ago? Clad in black, barefoot, he stepped on the bridge and the air around him rippled. The birds fell silent, the breeze ceased, the roar of the river muffled in his passing. He wielded a sword like hers, and raised it enough to scrape the bridge’s railing with its tip, the screeching sound piercing her ears.
The bridge vanished, and blinding white marble spread around her. She blinked, and the bridge came back, the bandit leader closer now. Those dark eyes, that black beard, trimmed in the noblemen’s fashion, those thin lips… He had come to buy eggs and cheese from her, hadn’t he? Asking about her farm, and the farms around the Orontes?
I know him.
He flashed yellow teeth at her. Terror gripped her gut and she shut her eyes, her free hand clutching the dirt. More blood dripped in her eyes, her throbbing head and her years claiming their toll.
She blinked confusion and terror away. When her eyes focused, the bridge had vanished for good. She blinked again and raised her head. She was kneeling in the center of a white marble circle, the breeze cool against her face. Outside the circle, a thin mist covered everything, the outlines of trees hazy in the distance, amidst swirling, whispering shadows.
On marble threshing floors.
She glanced up at the black-clad man, his eyes too dark, his grin too wide to be human.
“Do you yield?” he asked.
“No.” The weight of her armor no longer burdened her, her muscles didn’t ache. She sprang to her feet.
“I expected nothing less, Amazon.”
For half a heartbeat, she closed her eyes, pacing backwards. Santa Penthesilia, steel my shield arm. Santa Myrine, guide my sword.
Across the marble threshing floors, Death awaited.
Maximu raised her sword.