I think about it, what the Royals court letter required of Festa. “Rusa, splice two reef-flares and when we come across a rise send them straight up, will you now?”
“Thought they were skeeters for the young-ones.”
“Yes, in a manner of speaking they are.”
“And those, Yes!”
“Aye Captain,” snaps Rusa and we are back under a lee-shore dodging enemy ballista fire.
My hash-pipe had not yet lit, when a hill appears and soon after flares stripped from a pack-horse and tarred together go flashing in the hazy blue sky. Up and up to a bright red explosive flash.
“Gyrgya clings to his horse, like a cub to mother bear. “An eastern ta ta toy, Cibias,” he manages to stutter?
“By Zephyrias hem their women use it to signal lovers when a husband leaves for business.” Gyrgya blanches. “Trust me pup, before wooden hulls turn to iron we will bed almond eyed wenches redden their ass during the Bacchus.”
“Iron hulls? That's madness as are torch-lightening women. All know iron does not float.”
“An Assyrian cone-Helmut will not float?”
Gyrgya stalks away. Neither has the boy seen well beaten gold leaf float on a clear water pool. Some Median warlords even pool honey atop the gold leaf and setting sail have their harem fish for a nights pleasure. I look upwards at the flares, smoky and dispersing remains. Such shooting stars the Easterns callrockets , they will be a weapon some day. I estimate height, distance and angle - - - what far-away persons might see - - - “Well done, Rusa.”
“Mistress Isocleas will be ...”
“She will be just fine, and wearing your torque. Mark me! We move now, Rusa and may Hecate chew the hand of my next salute.” A sailor boyo I think is always too busy obeying his Captains last order to punch his own belly.
“Out front,” cry the pups Ajakas and Gyrgya, Ajakas sparing with his fresh semi-broken mount?
“Within sight you young knaves, but set a frisky pace. Be off! I'll flog the one whose chest catches an arrow.”
They laugh and scream and thunder into the front haze. Incautious poorly describes their fly vests and hair. We five trot our mounts with care, for the rabbit hole infested grass sits waist high. Can such a vessel as ours sail this devil-ridden sea? Foolishness I tell myself. And crossing the ridge in the distance see troopers riding away from us.
Past lunch and we push on hard, to make the farm before Hesperis twilight. Hours turn the chariot fire of heaven, across an unending plain. How may Isocles have food for seven, or shall we thunder across her vegetables spearing fawns? My thoughts wander. “We farm water, you know, dig it out of the ground like a turnip and roll it about. What say your mages, Artyphon?”
“Like the Babylonians have done since the ice-walls were new. Do you build dams?”
“Closer to a ditch than a dam,” I say jokingly. “They quench water flow and soak the ground when rain does come. Our trail wanders this grove and should we continue south angles down to a harbor. Ha! A beach, small and so gravel-strewn a twelve-oared tunny-boat can breach shoals only with the greatest care. Fish smoke and dry on the racks by Neptunes mercy and wind-driven wooden blades that hunt approaching gulls. The fishing sheds sit nearly out of sight far below my fitted-stone farm buildings.”
Pain on her face, for by my small holdings Artyphon appears forsaken. “But, your slaves watch carefully.” She now is sniffing the smoke laden air.
“Dear one I own no slaves … except for young Misa bound to Isocleas like a daughter and Pitheus the Ionian Corcyran, but he is blind, a carver of small devices and machines little appreciated so setting him free is sending him to his death.”
Artyphon huffs. “A rulers plantation and no slaves? Valets, villians, thralls, hunchbacks, serfs, peasants, knaves, labors, millmen, miners … I grant you any name for the toilers, even that of landsmen. My family owns a thousand. But for you who plays the taskmaster?”
“Your family,” I say with great quiet “tried to own you.” Artyphon returns cold silence. “Froken you make me the least of both ruler and plantation. It's two-hundred hectare if you count the verticals.… plus shared winter pasture through which we have just ridden. The farm and we all eat as do the Belisama ships crew if you think of landsmen as sailing their fields of grain. Profits for each are decided after the trading season and after crop harvests. And when tools are shared, profits are shared with neighboring farmers. Consider your own belly. Both farmers and sailors look to their own tasks when not disturbed by foolish masters.”
Any sailor believes distance is time, like any fork in a road. Our Kings Road dwindles , weeds for stone and swale for water-carrying ditches. Hours along I know it; there's a dip, and valley and ravine with a copse of yew atop the rise and a sea beyond. Riding side-saddle, Artyphon has sharpened both her dirk and short-sword. The pups return.
“A farm Captain Cibias , reaching down to the south.”
“Well done. String behind us now, so a raiders arrow does not find our asshole before we find a spring.”
As they filter to the rear my thoughts filter what lies ahead. My homestead looks out leagues of leagues to the invisible African desert. Rusa jokes that on queer afternoons my glass can see across the water into Carthaginian bath houses. Carthage women are notoriously thin, as they may eat only fish and the spare game native hunters sell them. Fat sheep they would love, but no reservoirs no water, no water no grass and no grass no sheep. Yes, the game plays like that and Hyrkon trickles over-priced food to Carthage and Utica like ravens feeds a tree-snake. Philosophers may sleep and think together.
Yes, though through a dream I do hear Rusa speak. Two years ago I last visited. Now our horses trot through a rocky canyon the swampy rice patch beside a windmill stinking of rabbit fat, still as I then built, but blades catching the sirocco grind both a steady gush of water and thin wet airborne fingers of rain spattering all still announces property ancient of custom and brings joy to my heart.
Horses shudder with their riders since he speaks for all. “And should raiders appear,” warns a new militiaman?
“Then we ride them down.” Bold. Chancy. Bloody-handed. Losing, I think later. But, now I survey with awe. Two leagues away and higher a stand of ancient green giants bloc sky blue to the west. “Gather this my friends. We are home.” Six men surround uncertain. What are we doing?
Artyphon awakens me. “So you do have water.” She can be so funny. She now is sniffing the smoke laden air , air thick with the tste of cooked meat.
I feel the cold slap of spattering rain, a horror beyond the tot red grasping fingers of a deep-water reef. Hoofmarks litter the mud. Must I awaken again and catch my companions eyes? Unthinking I mutter. “This my friends is a yeomans farm.”
“The burnt smell, Cibias” queries a pup ? Both boys itch at their swords.
“Charcoal! A summer forge melts bronze so Isocleas must be burning wood for charcoal.” Damn lies. Again cold sweat covers my back, but a shy captain will command a dead crew. I snap. “A yeomans farm lacks silver faucets and wood toilet-seats. It produces charcoal, pigshit, food and water, though of fresh water you have seen all, but the last of it.” I play the travel guide wiping rain from his cheeks. “This point is second highest on the farm; our windmill drives a screw which lifts water from below ground, then copper pipes take it from here to the homestead buildings. Hyrkon plateau sits seven-hundred cubits above the sea and my farm sits half way up in this shallow cleft. Hills rise, you see on both sides while our orchards cling to the ravine.”
Twilight now, and we shift west toward the shadows of stone buildings. It's quiet as a dead anchor, without birds or insects singing or laboring plows. Native forms shadow us along a parallel line of walnut trees, and I warn our klan against touching any weapon. Artyphon will not be satisfied. “Besides all that my dear one local fishermen and landsman share a dozen hectares as a commons berry patch. What better to bind land and water?” We splash through the shallow pools backed up behind newly repaired stone and clay culverts. “My sister-in-law Isocleas and her children manage the farm.” Unworthy to labor her effort as she strives in pain.” Isocleas husband , the Kings brother got run through by a Mycenii spear at Argos and she in morning, refusing her wit and body to another. How I have begged her not to embrace a youth dried out and alone; by threats I extracted a promise in one year she will sail to Delphi and there heed the oracle. Delphi priestess are known to favor men.
“A better option she has,” Rusa grunts, then retires to the militiamen.
Both pups have come for'ard and ride either side of Artyphon. Ride, bind and protect, though her short-sword would be savior to both in an attack. Suddenly, from behind a copse of broad-trunk chestnut trees our horses iron shoes find round-stone and we are among four granite building and one is burned to the foundation. New built my last visit it held ewes and their spring lambs, more the wool sheared from more living. Oily dead sheep embers wink blue and spit black. Guttering fire still smokes and licks along the base-beams.
“Cibias!” Five men appear, most bandaged blood-red and all carrying strung bows. My sisters thirteen year old son leads them. How the boy has stretched out .... and slinging a leather sword-carrier about his shoulder.
Leaping from my horse I bite down on fear. “Krotes, you look smacked around.”
“Them's worse, he says half drawing his bloody blade.”
“Served 'em hard,” grunts the man beside him, grabbing a rip in his triple-sheathed leathers and tearing it away. “Served 'em bones and necks.” A piles of bodies are stacked against one limestone wall. “WE lost three men and two wounded near hopes end. Our farmers get the coin when burned, but raiders and forever swim naked and unsuccored the dark river.
“Who are the blackmen?” I survey the bone-pile.
“Carthage started hiring the desert tribesmen, archers and horsemen slinger as soon as their purse grew plump. About half the cavalry were such and their slings will find an eye faster than a cobra spits.”
Behind them, un-warned a scatter of people appear about the main-hall and our grove is filled with childrens shouts and the sounds of their stumbling feet.” Cibias … Cibias … is that you. Yes, yes you've come home ...” Ten bow-men who had shadowed us dodge out from bushes to stand at our rear.
Isocleas appears in tunic and leather chaps frozen to her main-house doorway, arm bent resting against the oak frame. Her neck is bruised. Rusas emerald torque has been cleaved and chipped, where a blades pity was queered slashing against Isocleas throat. Blood seeps from her bandaged head and she carries a Sythian crossbow. Rusa slides from his horse darting toward, and noone interpose. He goes to a knee and smiling sadly her hand rustles his hair. She looks up to me approaching. “Our bolts scattered them, but twas the fire of Nepenthe scared them away. Was that you Cibias?” She measures Rusa charcoal streaked face. “Yes, by Cybelles mercy it was you, you and Rusa.” She does not collapse, but Rusa standing taking her limp body within his arms. “Medicine, pups on the 2nd packhorse,” he growls and with Artyphon beside him returns Isocleas home out of the twilight.