“Will ye not stop Carl,” the girl grimaced. “Hard enough for a women out here to find her loyal bedmate. Your farm becomes home to grasshoppers without children to carry on.”
He flushes, sputters then pushes on rudely. “But the boys, they first found a lion pair, and drove them from the flocks. Then a fall viper mating they discovered, covering on entire ravine and burned a dozen nests. Then, two months ago they sighted quick, fifty oar galleys running in from the south. Marauders they be, hiding sail and every farmer knew it.”
“The rovers hit Getaas mill in west valley. It's a strong big family they, held out for two nights and slipped away on the third. A pup scout found them in a fighting retreat against six archers; surprise saved their lives and left two of the Carthage manglers dead with arrows in their bellies.”
“But that sent all to flight,” says the girl. “Our pup ranger did good – I even fancy one of them.”
“Carthage. Not just pirates?”
“No sir. Carthage for sure ; each carried Baals brass bell and a dagger. Failed attackers are crucified by Carthage warlords - - stories tell - - so if lost better to die by your own hand. “
“A suicide? Then best they all make that decision saving Hyrkon grieving widows. Brought here then, your scouts all refugees? ”
“Traveled not brought Cibias,” says a slinger in homespun and leather breastplate. “Think of us as plain, not simple.” Artyphon pulls me away from arrogance. “Plans we had, and messengers so the pups served again. Raiders made that grand mistake, of arrogance, giving us time. All that could packed mules and horses and set sail for Isocleas, cloaked by the pups cavalry. With farmer and guildsmen spread about, Krotes had about fifty boys of his own kind, rash and forward by this time. We dribbled in, the last arriving yesterday morning.”
“Just before the raiders hit. No sigh of the militia guildsmen?”
Carl spit, and his sturdy white teeth bite into a hashplug. He shouts. “Anyone see a Kings guildsman?” Silence. More silence. He continues. “Before that sir! The straggling wagons were harassed by Carthage horse till the very walls of Isocleas berry fields. Her two ballista surprised them.”
“Numbers sir, pure numbers. Call them a hundred horsed besides three-dozen men-at-arms, spears afront in a shield wall. Pups fought them from horses, arrow against arrow preserved from flight by a few old retired knights from the Kings guard. Scattered us, but with reserves we fought in flight. peck peck peck we put our sling-shot and bronze points into them. No casual rabble the Carthage pikers and horse. They came orderly wave after wave. Rest of us, we fought with bows and slings from the buildings, walls and tree-lines. Pike and sword and slingshot we fought morning till afternoon. I was inside the sheep barn when the armoured phalanx broke through.”
“Mail, greaves, helms and shields.”
“From where. Wagons?”
“Noone we saw. Perhaps Baal blew them over on a thundercloud. But metaled they were, howling above the drumbeats and twas life and death to oppose them. I beheaded two with my hatchet, a tight space within the barn where grit counted, before the fire drove us all into the courtyard. Then the shooting star exploded blood red, and Carthage well-titted on magic signs withdrew suddenly west onto higher ground and into the suns glare.” He wearily leans on a broken lance. “As ye find us here now, by Zeus beard and the grace of Junos cunt.”
“Eat and rest as ye may my friend. Later I'll walk watch and see to whatever well-being I can. I must now see to my sister.”
“You are the bastard then,” Carl grunts. Watches. Thinks. A smile flickers across a burned face. “King made a good 'un.” he says hunching shoulders and walks back to his companions.
Isocleas courtyard is a bazar, with the constant coming of travelers, farmers, woodsmen, trappers, merchants, pilgrims and scouts all snared in fear of the Cartage rovers. I count the new swords while running to the main-house and break through a knot of women cramping the doorway. The smell and cries of wounded men scuttle the entry.
“Yes we're more than I thought.”
“You met the Kings guild and they loan you bowmen.”
“Strange, is it not?”
Isocleas demures. “A landman sees you helpless as a pogie upon our grassy sea.”
“Frolick with words, my dear sister and I shall give you no time for surrendering to Rusa. I have come to beg my sisters love, and bind that of Artyphon in temple marriage. Rusa ..” I laugh “Rusa came to pray you into his bed and the pups ride for adventure.”
I hesitate. “For the King. He wishes Cybelles grace on me.” And to bind up his prize councilor I do not say. “Did you not first cleave to your husband at Tantalus? What if Rusa desires you spread upon the alters smooth and ancient marble?” Backing away. “I trill the pitched flute and draw Bacchus veil over my young eyes dear sister.”
She raps me solidly to the ribs. “He would not dare ...” she exclaims flushing from forehead to bare ankle. She pummels my face, before splashing water across tearstruck eyes , and finding serving trays for hot ale and flat bread sets the liquid and dough to sizzling. It's a break observed in Helheim and not wasted.
Rusa and the pups have been sand-waring in a large curved grinding bowl - - stones and wood-chips and bronze coins. Now all five approach us. Krotes speaks. “ Very clever the African bastards.”
“I knew that. Have some hot ale.” Pups dive for the bread. “Did Titans not sandwar against their offspring. Much good it did them.” Artyphon has returned to the entry, as a wounded man screams. I am alone against newly blooded young men.
I do not impress the pups. Gyrgya knows the sea. “Planing avails, Cibias, refuting the Mycenii tragic poets your voyages have thrown up to you. I've held the tiller northing against a spring tide. ”
“Have you read also, or only repeat tales.” I snatch a glance at Isocleas. Her husband died, but in his silent court men of means now clash, among rude unsanded tables and heavy couches where before only cubs suckled.
Krotes. “Ale mother does not yet permit, that, to her I bow, but not to this. See how the lines of strategy join?” I glance toward the sandpit. I like maps. “Carthage vanguard took the high ground, Cibias, took it before coming here and returning after leaving here - - - took, that is if they ever lost it. A living power guided by knees that never close. ”
Such is war in a bucket I imagine. “You mean what,” I snip with anger.
Artyphon has returned and hides to a dark corner. She has gathered her vials and jars and packets, avails more from Isocleas and they hover together, grinding and mixing. I leave the pups drinking their ales and stand near. Artyphon weeps. “The one man, with a wife who cares not for his burns but for his heart; he Fortuna may save. I have a salve and Isocleas the grape mold over which prayer the gods may show mercy. But the other, pain gigging at his heart, with deeper, bleeding burns around his neck no prayer avails. The dark river will take him by morning.”
Of the medicines I see on the table, juice of poppy, fungus rye and powdered mountain flower I have seen before. “Will he sleep? And dream?” The mixing continues till two liquid vials warm and honey covered a raisin size nut. Then the women leave.
Back with the pups. They have been reworking the sandpit. Impressed Ajakas pipes. “Relent Cibias your pups have grown. Consider. Carthage raiders possess temple Tantalus, four sides to the sun, but only three fit for climb. This Carthage seized at least, and most likely the temple gold and its whore as well. With all her gifts, prayers, runes, fables and oracles. She gives her body not just for pleasure, but for power.”
“Will they pray spear-tips do not run through a fool?”
“My spear quickens.”
“Like this?” I whip my short-sword toward his groin.
Krotes blocks with his staff. “Three together, with the speed of four.” It's touchy for an instant, when the question of test becomes one of control. I bow to young warriors, and a tankard of ale appears in my hand. Gyrgya smirks. “Your bare back will be as well watched as a Cilician tin-queen. Their batch tubs you know are built of pure tin from their mines.”
As I traded last year. Pups. From the shadows Rusa joins. “Carthage raiders possess a league of high ground from which to rake an attacking flank with ballista. The temple doesn't sit on a pinhead. Then scothing flanks they may drive in any shield wall center with phalanx. No wonder they brought hoplites as well as cavalry. As for the whore, Goddess of Temple Tantalus she may be, blushing Juno with her prayers, but traitor to Hyrkons King without question.”
Traitor. Violent unseemly death to a traitor, man or woman. No Median silk damps their female screams, but spurting blood from a swords edge. And so mind racing with trader ploys my heart chills. For without the temple whore no temple marriage may be vowed. My vow to King Monos proven a lie, to him and to a Goddess easy cursing vengeance and hard to pray mercy. Hope has gone. I speak plainly without hope. “Carry us for'ard Rusa. What lays beyond?”
Krotes interposes. “We hit them quiet, hit them hard, and hit them now. Your band of travelers , our farmers and their pups. Fishermen and miners. Us!” He reaches for a hashpipe and returns Isocleas gasps. Ajakas plugs an almond size fill and Gyrgya lights it. Krotes takes his due and passes it around. Amusing, before battle I think finding a quick and just master is no small find. Krotes tempers his place. “No time to send for dozing militia, eh Cibias. Easier to snatch zucchini blossoms . Instead gather every man here with a trued weapon. Advance by shared horse. Night covers our flaws and multiplies Carthage fear for temple Tantalus belongs to Hyrkon. Stain of the old ones drains a warriors resolve.”
“Spoken as a warrior,” I prattle. Are we more tired than they?”
“Can we refuse an enemy should they be less tired.”
“At sea the weaker can always throw sheets at the wind and pray to Mercury.”
Krotes looks me dead straight. “Horse skirmishes and bow matches, I have not fought on sea and land as you have Cibias. What if the militia returns to make us stronger? What shall we do?”
Pups no more. I set to the hashpipe, for a man can no more think without his plug than a nymphe satisfy pilgrims without opening her knees. “At sea a Captains wiles avoid hazard. Crew and cargo bind my energy unless an enemy may not be avoided. Better sail an extra day, than sail to the bottom. But, a day will come for war. Moires promise if only that her Fates may fondle threads. Do yer all see?”
“Watch your ass,” comes a call from a growing pack at the rear. New men. Sailors misjudge this, for bodies sink not sprout from the green hungry waters. But, the soil - - - from mine or pasture or woodlot I did not know the tall-grass plains held so many wanders. Their wounded companions either treated or dead, they seek their own fates.
I shout back. “Just so! Then, as I fought outside a Sardinia harbor I directed Belisama center on to the enemy hull. Straight for'ard. We put down that Messenian hull and drove her companions from the sea. Now so different? Your farms and your livestock. Your grain and your vines … and your women. You claim the power. If you have the belly for it drive with all speed for your enemies center and cut them down.”
All prattle damned by Diannas grace and pup Krotes knows it.