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The Best of Black Ships

A reader asks, "Which is your favorite book?"

That's impossible to answer! I love all my books, like a mother loves all her children. I'm coming up on number eighteen published, but I can't possibly choose which one is my favorite.

I do have favorite parts of each. This is my favorite part of Black Ships, a scene I return to again and again.



As I watched the ships making for Pylos in the morning, I did not curse that I could not run. I cursed that I could not fly. It would take me half the morning to get to Pylos, down the mountain and around the road, following the sweeping bend of the river, to the city gates.

My feet were swift upon the track. I had been this way many times, and if my twisted foot did not let me run, it hindered me less than it used to.
The road was dust. The flowers beside the road were gone to seed, yellow and brittle.

Hurry. Hurry.

My mind was flying ahead, as though I had launched myself, swift as a black winged gull, from the mountain road, soaring over valley and stream. They would see the ships now, less soon than I did, without the height and the sun at my back. Such men as were left in town would rally. Idenes was not there. How should he be? He and his warriors were up the Illyrian coasts, harrying people who had never harmed us.

The shade was welcome where the road passed beneath the trees along the river. I was hardly conscious of my body.

My gull's eyes could see the black ships beaching, the quick and furious fight along the wharf, the blood staining the stones of the harbor, pouring out like the libation at the Blessing of Ships.

Hurry. Hurry.

That ragged sound was my breathing. The sun was climbing up the sky. The track was rutted from animals and chariots. Here, just here, one had rolled over my leg so long ago.

Hurry. Hurry.

Now I could see a column of smoke rising. Something in Pylos was burning.
A gull could turn on the ocean breeze, see the fight moving toward the square, uphill toward the palace, slide through the rising smoke on tireless wings.

Hurry. Hurry.

The landward gates were open. Just inside lay one of the youngest warriors of Idenes' house. He had taken a sword thrust to the stomach, and his entrails were spilled in the dust, mangled where he had rolled in his agony, but his eyes were open.

I cannot spill blood or see it spilled, some part that was Linnea whispered in my head. I ran to him and knelt in the blood.

His eyes widened, and I knew what he saw, Death, with her white face and long cool hands. He tried to speak, but he could not. I put one hand against his forehead. "Let go, sweet boy," I said, and he died.

I closed his eyes.

I could hear the shouting. They were near the palace. A long column of smoke rose from the market stalls near the harbor.

I rose and I was wind. She filled me like a vessel brimming over. I ran down the street.

A knot of defenders had drawn back before the palace gates, which were open and broken. They had breached them, then, and the men of Pylos had counterattacked. There were bodies in the street, soldiers, and two of the palace menservants who had taken up swords. Shouts, curses, the ring of sword upon sword. The screams of the wounded.

A boy in a blue tunic stood beside the wall, where the vines overhung in flowering abundance. There was a sword in his hand, but he handled it awkwardly. I knew him. It was Aren.

His opponent had the better of him, a young raider with long black hair, shirtless in the sun, his shoulders gleaming with oil. He was inside Aren's guard. His sword rose, knocked Aren's sword to the side, returned for a swift upward stroke.

In a whirl of black like the flurry of wings I was between them, the blade tip almost grazing my stomach.

"Stop!" Her voice burst out of me, pitched for festivals, to carry over musicians or screaming warriors. "Lay down your swords!"

The raider's eyes widened. The sword slipped from his hand into the dust. Behind me I heard the thunk as Aren's dropped as well. The raider sunk to his knees beside it. "Great Lady," he said.

"Lay down your swords!" I shouted again. A burly raider with a cut bleeding across his cheek threw his down, fear and awe competing.

"On your knees to Death!" I shouted, and they went down like a wave, warriors of Pylos and raiders alike, all across the square before the palace, across to the Temple of the Lady of the Sea, like grain before the wind.

There was no sound except the moaning of the wounded, the slapping of my bloody feet on the stones as I walked forward.

Wild elation filled me, fury and power.

His head was bent, light brown hair pulled back in a leather thong. He wore a leather breastplate such as fighting seamen wear. His sword was worked with silver and lay by his hand. "You are their king, Captain of the Seven Sisters," I said, for I knew him. I had seen the stars on the prow of one of beached ships, and I had seen his face in dreams before. "Why have you come to Pylos?"

He looked up, and he flinched. "I am not a king," he said. "But I am their captain. We have come for the captives, for our wives and children taken in slavery, for the women of Wilusa. We have come to raze Pylos as they razed Wilusa."

And I realized that I was speaking his tongue, the first one that I had learned with my mother's milk. He was not surprised. Does not Death speak every language?

I reached out my hand, stained with the blood of the young guard, and touched his hair. He recoiled, then stopped himself. "You have come for the captives?"

"Yes," he said. "For those women brought here by Idenes, King of Pylos from the sacking of Wilusa."

I pitched my voice so that it would carry, speaking first in the language of Wilusa, then in the language of the Achaians. "Enough blood has been spilt here today. The Shades are satisfied, and the dogs of the Underworld have drunk their fill. You have pled your case before the Lady of the Dead, and she finds merit in your claim. You, boy!" I turned to Aren, who knelt still by the wall, eyes as blue as the sea. "Go to the place where the women work flax beside the river, and tell the women of Wilusa to come forth, all the women of Wilusa with their children, bringing food and whatever belongings they have. Tell them that I command it."

Aren leapt up and ran, his feet pounding in the dust. It would not take him long to reach the river, young and swift as he was. And he knew well where to go.

One of the palace servants knelt nearby, trying to stifle a moan as he held a long cut down the length of his arm. Across the square, in the high seaward gallery, I could see the women of the temple looking out, Cythera's white veil stirring in the breeze. "You," I said to the servant, "Get up. Go into the storerooms and kitchens of the palace. Fetch out the women of Wilusa. And tell the others to come, that the injured might be tended."

I turned to the Captain of Seven Sisters. "You will have your kin, and no more blood will be shed in this town. Tell your men that."

"We have not touched the temple," he said. "We are Her people."

"It is good that you remember that," I said.

The captain stood. "We are to have our kin," he said. "We are under truce, by Her will and in Her hand."

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
geonncannon
Jan. 16th, 2014 04:04 pm (UTC)
I feel bad because I actually DO have a favorite book of mine. ;D
rolanni
Jan. 16th, 2014 09:25 pm (UTC)
I have a favorite book of mine, too; but it keeps changing...
jo_graham
Jan. 22nd, 2014 12:42 pm (UTC)
Sometimes my favorite is whichever I'm working on right now....
jo_graham
Jan. 22nd, 2014 12:41 pm (UTC)
I can't pick. Which of yours is your favorite?
geonncannon
Jan. 22nd, 2014 03:59 pm (UTC)
Mine is The Rise and Fall of Radiation Canary. It has so many elements I wanted to put into a novel, and it all hangs together so well. I'm very happy with how it turned out, and it turned into the kind of novel I really wish I could read more often. It also just happens to have my favorite cover. ;D
jo_graham
Jan. 22nd, 2014 08:54 pm (UTC)
It is an awesome cover and an awesome book! Though I am partial to Railroad Spine.
geonncannon
Jan. 22nd, 2014 08:56 pm (UTC)
That's a good one, too! ;D

Right now I'm prepping RC for its hardcover release. My first hardcover! Very exciting. ;D
atriel
Jan. 16th, 2014 08:47 pm (UTC)
This is my favorite scene from Black Ships and the one that's inspired the Gull fragrance that I want to make so badly.
jo_graham
Jan. 22nd, 2014 12:42 pm (UTC)
I love that scene. And I'd love to see (or rather smell!) the Gull fragrance. You should absolutely do it!
atriel
Jan. 23rd, 2014 01:12 pm (UTC)
I will start on it this weekend!
jo_graham
Jan. 23rd, 2014 05:28 pm (UTC)
I can't wait to hear how it comes out!
atriel
Feb. 26th, 2014 01:25 am (UTC)
I have something kind of worked out. I'm waiting for my bottle of seaweed absolute to get here for the true sea salt air note.
I think (hope) that you'll like this!
tricksterquinn
Jan. 16th, 2014 10:52 pm (UTC)
This scene has always brought tears to my eyes, and still does.
jo_graham
Jan. 22nd, 2014 12:42 pm (UTC)
Oh. I'm so glad you love it.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )