Now I’ll tell you about another kind of love. A kind of love that some farmers made with axes.”
“First tell me about Muhammad, my historian. Was he a good man?’
“But the devil was about in Arabia?”
“I think so, yes. In the desert of Arabia the holy man Muhammad heard a voice and believed.
“He united the tribes and they worshiped the one God. Yet under his successors the name of Allah was to justify the slaughter of men, the rape of women, and the enslavement of their children. Omar sent from Hispania to Arabia thirty-thousand virgin children for concubinage after he had killed or enslaved their parents.
“Then Satan laughed a cold hard laugh.”
“Yes, Dearest. Now I will teach you how men make love with axes.”

Along the shore of North Africa rough men put their boats to sea. Three times in ten years they had raided the Aegean
islands and each time escaped before the garrisons of the forts located there could save the tiny villages.
On Karpathos the captain of the guard at a small fort midway up the eastern coast waited. His name was Leontius. The next time the pirates came would be different; he had sworn it to the villagers and to himself.
One village was Elymbos. It was not much; hardly worth the effort of the pirates. Even the church was nothing special with little gold or silver. The only thing of value that Elymbos had to tempt them were its children. Leontius had looked into the eyes of parents whose children were in whorehouses now and seen…nothing. He had children too. A son and a sweet daughter only a two-day journey away on the coast of Thracia. He hoped to see them again.
If warned in time parents could hurry their children to the fort or at least onto the mountain that rose sharply behind the little hamlet. The pirates dare not follow very long there lest they be caught by the hard-eyed troops of the Byzantine emperor. If that happened Leontius would take no captives. A quick death in battle would be all that they might pray to Allah for.
Indeed no pirate would have dared stand against the armored cavalry of the empire but because Karpathos is an awful place for even the rugged mountain ponies of Greece, the garrison troops on it were infantry, less mobile than the pirates but armed with two javelins, a sword, bow, mace, and sling.
Leontius thought about his own children. Honorius would become a soldier like himself of course; and in time, God willing, little Anna would marry the son of Paulo the priest. She was not strong and Leontius worried about her health. Both he and his wife prayed constantly for her both at Eucharist and in their hearts. It was good that Paolo accepted the girl’s weakness, not many fathers would be so understanding. But their children had already been together almost from birth, playing in the churchyard and planting and tending a garden when they were tiny. Even now, when most boys spent hours each day with other boys, the priest’s son would sometimes slip off to be with his Anna and her mother or call the girls to join his coterie in their confabs. That was not right but they did not care. It was all so natural and healthy that, strangely, neither did the elder men seem to care either though some old women always hung reproachfully about the pair.
Leontius missed his family. There was a road, or rather a trace, on Karpathos so that a courier could race the length of the island to alert the forts. For a moment he fantasized that he could take the road right over the mountain, find a boat, and go home. Others had done it and they had not always been punished. It wasn’t like deserting one’s comrades in battle. It was his fantasy but just a fantasy; Leontius was a soldier and an officer of his Sacred Majesty. He would never do it; not really. Reluctantly he dragged his mind back to reality. A figure was approaching along the road, On foot and seemingly in no hurry. The figure grew slowly clearer until in time Leontius recognized the gait of a friend, the monk Thelonius. Thelonius had been nearly the first to greet him when a squadron of Imperial dromons had left Leontius and his troopers at Delfani across the mountain from Elymbos on the opposite side of this long, thin, isle. He had watched with interest and admiration as the captain put his soldiers to work rebuilding weak spots in the old fort. It had been hard heavy work and Leontius had pressed local farm boys into gangs to help raise stones again where an earth tremor had tossed them to the ground. These young workmen were as hard eyed as the guard captain for all had lost childhood friends or sisters and brothers; and although they were neither masons nor carpenters they knew what they were about in the simple job of rebuilding walls and they understood the importance of their work.
In time the walls were rebuilt. Then timbers cut from local pine were thrown across old guard rooms and barracks and new roofs were constructed of fireproof masonry. These were finished only just before winter came down hard upon the island. There could be no raids in such bitter weather but there could be little building either. Instead there had been training. For both the garrison and the peasants there was much marching and practice with weapons. By day they had all practiced archery, swordsmanship, thrusting with the pike, and shattering with the ax. At night when the locals rejoined their families the regulars practiced ambushes and tested each other in near real encounters in the dark. And for them there was more marching, marching, marching; marching over the rocks, sometimes for the whole night. Leontius was determined; Karpathos would not lose one child because his men must wait for daylight. Night would not be a friend of the bastard enemy.
On Sundays those who could rested. The short brutal winter quickly ended and sometimes on God’s day Leontius would absent himself from his men in order to give them relief. He would climb the mountain to the monastery of S. Georgios where his new friend worked and prayed. Today Thelonius was returning the visit and the captain went out from the small fort to meet him on the path.
“Thelonius, my venerable friend. What brings you down the mountain today? What can I do for you?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. We are doing fine. But I have need of rest from rest. May I accompany you for awhile, most excellent of men?”
“Flattery is unbecoming in you, Brother, but yes. Let me show you how well your islanders have rebuilt the fort, and in just a few months too. But don’t tell them I said that; it would destroy my reputation.”
“Truly, we mustn’t have that happen.” Thelonius smiled. “The brothers have been busy working with the farmers. The stables are ready at Elymbos and Avlona. Boys are ready to ride and give the alarum at any time, and if there’s trouble at night there will be the big fires as you ordered. Some shepherd will always stay near the mountaintop to light one there and relay the warning to you. Our children keep piling up mountains of twigs. The littlest are so serious, so sweet and serious.” The monk smiled the littlest of sad smiles, but a smile none-the-less. “We are as ready as possible.”
Leontius could not return the smile though he tried. “Now the waiting begins. If they bring their boats where we can get at them, we’ll use the fire bombs. Ah, but they probably won’t…Still I would like it. I suppose you’ve never seen our fire used. It burns on water and if we had a dromon we could even spit it right into their faces. I was in the capital when the Bulgars attacked. Our ships made a hell for them right there on the water. My place was on the wall, of course, but from there I could see most of the fight. My men never did any work at all. the dromons just burned ’em out and sent them to hell.”
“Rather, may God have mercy on them.”
“Hah, they attacked us. Anyway, they worship devils.”
“It is their way, my friend, and the way of their fathers. Besides we’ve done our share of murdering too, whatever the lords may say. We all need God’s mercy.”
“And the slavers?”
“They’re different. Besides they’re here. I can’t feel as charitable toward them. But I should…I wasn’t in Constantine’s City when the Bulgars attacked it. But…May God have mercy on them.”
“Yes. God forgive them and me…and the heathen pirates too if they die here. But it is not good for a soldier to dwell on these things. I have my duty and that duty is to our Holy Emperor and those who serve him on this island.”
“And to Christ the Ruler of us all, including the Bulgars and the Arabs. Someday they too shall be brought within the fold.”
“I hope the Bulgars bathe first.”
The two men sat down to rest and admire the wall. Leontius wondered. “Why does a man become a monk, brother?”
“Why that depends, my friend. I suppose for many of us its just the chance to get away. Get away from family or responsibility; from temptation, or even from the law. For others it’s a vocation. We hope it’s from God but I think that sometimes it’s from the devil.”
“From the devil?”
“Its hard to tell. Sometimes a man is pregnant with love of God and seeks out a lonely spot to meditate on that love. But others do what they think is holy but for the wrong reasons; and of course a lot of monks are just mad. Surely we must blame the devil for that. God doesn’t make men mad.
“Is there not a holy madness, a madness for God.”
“Sometimes there is a great devotion and a determination. Such men are saints indeed; but the holy madness that fools speak of? No. We must pity those men and women and help them lest they harm themselves.”
“Some men go to great lengths to be holy. Are you saying that they go too far? After all our Lord Jesus died in a terrible way.”
“Yes Leontius, but he died because he was holy, not to become holy. One may wonder why those saints who went out into the desert or up on a pillar worked so hard at it; Jesus didn’t.”
“No; the chaplain often reminds us that God was the most normal of men. But even he went into the desert and fasted for forty days. Still, you are right; he did not fast for forty years or injure his body.”
“Anyhow, the monastery is a way to get away from worries and troubles. When you have nothing you can’t worry about it. I have food and a place to sleep and good friends who never argue because they never talk.” Theolonius bent to hide his face then peeked up smiling. “I have my garden and I have my prayers. I think even the worst monks, like those who take to the cloister to escape something…even they are very serious about their prayers.”
“I would hope so. After all, you’re monks.”
“Yes, and very scared monks at that. Tell me, Leontius, which is better; to die of some disease that a demon brings or even just from the cold or old age; or to die under a heathen battle ax when they attack a monastery? Surely the latter, don’t you agree? We trust that though God may not save the soul of a man who prays when he is sick, surely he will save a man who prays when he is not sick and is killed because he is just a helpless monk defending a gold chalice.”
“So it’s yourself you think of.”
“Of course. One needn’t have a halo to be saved. One only has to be a good man. A saint need not live in a monastery and most monks aren’t saints. I know; many monks think that a monastic life is the only way to be sure of salvation, and they are very worried, They reason that if, indeed, the end time is near than complete devotion is all that they should aim at. For men so concerned about their own salvation though, they are often very loud in their condemnation of those who still live in the world. But Christ didn’t live in a monastery and he did not tell others that they must do so to gain eternal life. He only said that we must keep the commandments, and especially that we must love one another.” Brother Theolonius paused. “Men do God’s will because they are afraid. If they are scared enough and unsure enough of their virtue, or want to be absolutely sure that they will not go to hell; then they become monks.”
“You’re being very hard. Monks do much good for the world.”
“Yes, it helps us to be brave.”
“Then you are no better than other men, at least no better than the priests!”
“Each man must try to reach heaven. It is easier to do that in a monastery. Outside one cannot concentrate on just that. It is easier at S. Georgios and that is all.”
“You say that you are not brave, Theo. I don’t believe you. The slavers will come, if not this year, then next year, or the year after. They might not attack your monastery. It’s so high on the mountain, but even so there are safer places than Karpathos. You could go to Rhodos or even to the City. There are plenty of monasteries in the capitol, though I fear you’d not get along with the other monks there.”
“No. I am not brave but I will not hide. If the children must be here…” He paused a long while to formulate a dangerous thought in an orthodox manner. “If God would forgive me my sins for defending a holy chalice…I don’t care what others say…The cup of Christ’s blood is beyond all valuing but a child is more. Jesus would have said so.””
A voice from the fort interrupted Theolonius and frightened him. “A sail has been sighted! And its not one of ours.”
The monk ceased his brave talk. Leontius ran to the fort, his friend beside him. It was time.
There could be no night ambush. The enemy came ashore at dawn in the northern harbor miles from the nearest fort; and though a boy had ridden his heart out galloping across the mountain on an exhausted mount it was many hours before Leontius appeared with his troops on the heights above Elymbos. Yet the pirates did not have the easy raid that they expected. The farmers and shepherds were no longer the brave but undisciplined mob of earlier years and their weapons were not just slings and farm tools but included pikes that they were trained to parry an enemy’s lance or sword with and then thrust right through his lungs. Outnumbered, they met the enemy on the shore and held him there while their children ran for safety, only slowly falling back and drawing him along the coast away from his boats.
Then the regulars came down the mountain behind him.
Now the battle was short and terrible with axes and maces as the dominant weapons. No songs were written about it, nor stories told in the schools of Constantinople about the heroism that day. There was neither the coordinated beauty of a cavalry charge nor the disdainful slaughter of distant archery. Instead there was the brutal and methodical efficiency of infantry. The imperial troops carried bows but their pirate foe was too scattered for these to be effective and so closely engaged by villagers that an arrow might as likely strike down a parent as a raider. Leontius was not going to make the children of Elymbos orphans by his own attack. He led his soldiers shield-to-shield like their Roman predecessors in close rank down the beach. At one point the men of Elymbos were able to briefly disengage and there the Byzantine squad threw javelins into the pirate mass. Many did not carry shields and they died first. But none escaped. If they faced the heavy infantry they had peasants behind them with hate in their eyes and pikes and farm axes in their hands. Those who turned to face the farmers had Leontius’ killers at their backs. Soon the fight was scimitars against imperial maces while the now-exhausted farmers fell back to give the soldiers room; but with their pikes and axes they continued to block the retreat of the doomed pirates.
That evening Leontius could report to Constantinople that though the pirates had fought desperately to disengage and regain their boats, God had given the field to his Sacred Majesty. It was not necessary in the formal dispatch about a minor police action against an annoying but petty enemy to add how when it was over the women of Elymbos had torn at the slavers’ corpses and defiled them; or how, while still wrenched by hot tears and cold anger, they had gathered their own dead and the parts of their dead. Some had vomited there and added to the stench of the field; others had entirely hid their feelings and under the repetitious prayers that they murmured. The monk Theolonius had been there too, praying over the bodies together with the local priest. For a time anger at the horrid evil men who had come to befoul and rape his island home and those he loved who dwelt upon it had driven charity from him. Anger had made him as brave as any trooper. But now Christ recalled him to duty. Though he still wore a borrowed mail shirt, he had dropped the ax which had made him look every bit the fearsome veteran which he had now become. He prayed aloud for the dead villagers, silently for the deluded miserable men who followed the prophet of Mecca and, it was said, still worshiped a stone.
On the next day the children returned from the mountain. In the church, very slowly and solemnly and without any prompting each knelt and kissed the broken skulls and torn bodies of their heroes. Many had need to cry. For them the dead included fathers and brothers and cousins. But they would live in peace and safety for two generations.”

“That’s a sad tale.”
“Most people have lived lives of tedium only relieved by hard work, my Love. For the farmers that was probably their one great adventure.”