At the steepest side, north, our rabble advances. Over this slab-like meadow green as water curving from base to temple rocks the torch-bearing women, servants and horsed pups, tambourine sated lever, crossbow and ballista loaded wagons troop straight up. Only the youngest have stayed behind; cripples armed with crossbows hang from wagons. An oxcart also carries a launcher and our four remaining flares. I have sworn Rusa to the side of Artyphon and Isocleas, requiring only that he not allow their capture. Rusa bit his lip till it bled; the women defiant in bronze mail green and worn. All knaves struggle, high as the smooth surface allows they grind upward stakes driven in hold slippery wheels. Hephaestus at his monger could not have ignored the column. Above, at the temples edge a shield wall thickens. Probing horsemen are greeted by longbows and men drop from their horses sprouting oaken feathers and screaming unknown prayers.
On the eastern side, following the windy hammer-stone temple road march to drums and wailing flutes our best armed hoplites. Four wax and pitch torches announce them. We have stripped bodies, opened graves and ruint marriage dowers to cloak each infantry with helm, corslet, belly-leathers or mail and bronze greaves. Each fighter carries shield and spear and short-sword. Here also a dozen long bowmen support at the rear. Formidable, should they hold discipline. They chant a death-song and stride for'ard, head above shield. This bronze column mean well. A single iron Spartan column would slaughter them into rat-food. Half way to the temple jeering ranks of Carthage hoplites block their path.
But truly, all this foil for our true blade. On the west a jumble of massive rock pillars laid down by the titans ( or said my tutor the ice-walls ) scatter among a steep smooth gravel field. Black pine and brier grow here, short and stubby avoiding the desert siroccos and stealing moisture from beneath the pillars. Might as well be the walls of Troy. It can't be climbed for the pillars or walked for the round gravel-stones; the briers will rip out your eyes and only this way do we see hope of attack. Our other two movements are chimera and by no means are they to force contact. Defend if they must, annoy if they can and await our slithering, snake-like movements upward among the pillars. Pickets we can see above, but not many pickets, poorly candled and most show a gait as dismounted bowmen not hoplites.
We are twenty, the most able and carry dirks, light throwing spears and short bows. Our strikes must hit every feature of the temple grounds. Only that taking in the rear by us will confound them. Only trickery allows our other two spear-blades, east and north to advance upon the temple putting confused Carthage raiders between three fires. Night-hawks wing on either end of the temples funneled ceiling. It's cleaver masonry with bronze cylinders supporting marble triangles. Should one of those hawks notice - - - snarling pups Gyrgya, Krotes and Ajakas form my guard, with the two militia troopers completing our first line. Reaching the temple this first lines throws itself upon the pickets, while the following two lines begin shearing blood from the air with yew staves and bolts. Chanting ripples down from the temple and military commands. What's a fortified temple to do with werewolves circling? I pray their fear. We have begun the shuffle upward , amid a scurry of pebbles when Ajakas hand snatches my sandal.
“Master Cibias, Do you know a Kings militia named Festa?”
How well fares the joining, when warriors have met before. Our lines have doubled with Kings militia feathering into our formation. Festa has trained them well, seen them fed, but thinks much less of me. “We waited a whole fucking day for you pig-sloppers to arrive. What were we supposed to think, thirty against two-hundred?”
“Carthage put in that many, two-hundred?”
“Too few coins for those bastards to count. We've seen a few riders in woodsmen clothes: tunics and robes and chaps. Bushmen gone over to a real set of thieves.” Our upward scramble never stops; arms, feet, thighs. From pillar to pine to pebble field. Then repeat. Ever so still. “Course if the Carthage ever found them thieving their heads aren't worth Junos cherry.”
“How did you know … the Kings message?”
Festa grunted. “A Kings whisper like a Kings piss remains private. But, no mystery your stroke, Cibias. Once we found the temple, and watched the Carthage hasty retreat into its columns I knew you had to guess and follow.”
“You knew how?”
“By your betrothed, Artyphon. You're quite the pup yourself, drooling all over her. It's a wonder she doesn't cut you in half, plant parts in sweet potatoes and have Thessel priestess grow her a pair.”
Festa would harass Loki. “My warrior spirit surges ahead!”
“Fuck the spirit. With so few neighboring farmers, we figured this your only plan: distract their front while climbing up their azzhole. Waiting … waiting … thought you might have got between them and the temple and been slaughtered.”
A larger pebble is dislodged and tumbles against a pillar. Pickets come forward watch, throw torch-light and ease down the gravel. Now from across the temple grounds the sound of sword and spearpoint on shield. Carthage have begun coming after the farce. If only we are fast enough ….. One hoplite slips on stone and falls on his face. His Lieutenant swears and howls with laughter. Orders him across to the fight. They are , but twenty reaches above us. Our lines have closed and the striving quickened. We are fifty now and fifty men think they may again drink and screw their neighbors daughter. Ten reaches now, five, then I brace and leap for'ard on the first picket who has seen me, formed sound on his lips and raised his spear. My dirk catches him between chin and gullet and he goes down backwards in a grout of blood. I jump up, betrayed by temple light, squaring feet and readying a shaft. A fully armoured hoplite appears, faces up to me death-dealing and at twenty paces I drive the shaft through his mouth, scattering teeth and teasing screams of lost life. There-after only pounding steel do I remember. .
Every ten paces down the line of fifteen Carthage and Hyrkon repeat my initial contact. No wanders among our enemies. They are paid, hardened mercenaries, quick and merciless who have killed and killed again. Our unconstrained advantage is utter surprise and the violence of our initial thrust. Ten of the pickets go down with daggers in their throat. Two others gut their unarmored Hyrkon opponent and retreat to a circle of shields. Our ash throwing spears pierce that circle and another ten Carthage fall grieving. Our entire force has broken through to the temples white marble pillars and stone floor. We are singing Mars paeon. A second rut of spears turns temple ground to chaos while Festa forms our lines into a phalanx. And we drive into the confused ranks of deadly horsemen now waving their cutlass at sprinting shades of hell. Carthage goes down fast and goes down in a gutter of shrieks and pleading for which no mercy abounds.
In battle gods grant a middle-time. A time when victory uncertain belongs to one side. What face does it show? At sea I know the doomed hull, shattered by a bronze nose or wrestling spilt wind, but on land? Is a wall of arrows sufficient, or a hatchet-blow to the war-leader? Is a child warrior successful against an old torque-bound lion? Such a time comes for us. On our side, above gravel and pillars we have forced shield-less bowmen into circles easily penetrated by our atlatl-hurled shafts.
Carthage troopers protecting the other two temple sides have retreated to stiffen their troop-mates and face us, only to be over-run from behind in wild melee by our crew of hoplites spurting from the road, and led by the flaming flesh-scouring red flares a wild bloody storm of bolts, fires , arrows, spears, stones, children, women and slaves who have come to the front hilltop behind that flood of killing points. Swordplay develops between some Festa men and grizzled Carthage hoplites, but it's not that kind of battle. Any two men are surrounded by flying death and quick as a sword-thrust one must fall. Once a shield-wall breaks the battle is lost; only slaughter remains. Carthage horses have been picketed to a fountain and noone will slay them. Wails of the wounded - - if Carthage the sword puts them in Helheim. Resistance ends. The pups have survived, though all bloodied. Krotes may lose fingers. No woman should care. I walk through the swords labor, kicking aside bodies and slitting leather sacks. Krotes appears.
“A few gold coins in a hoplites leathers.” He shakes out a pouch, and the Barzca-headed gold minae shines.
“That's Himilcars family coinage. Didn't think they settled anyone in Carthage yet.”
“AS you storied, some of Bastets screaming bitches also. Unfired. They spread their money around.”
“Yes writing, commands, orders, codes, maps, names . . . ”
“Can they read?”
“Think that way for long, Krotes, the last thought you have. Carthage is wicked smart as honors their snakish fathers.” I look for wisdom among the living. Two tens of Carthage prisoners wear bronze badges; officers, merchant princelings, spys. I think each may be ransomed worth a years village labor. King Minos treasury will negotiate. Won't help everyone, even those still alive. The temple priestess lays on the altar, her bloody mouth chanting drool and a bronze Carthage sword slit through her pregnant belly.
“Who did this,” I shout. “Who or by Junos cunt I'll kill the lot of you!” Festa moves to calm, but none support him.
A tall Negro points at a badged Carthage officer. In good harbor Egyptian. “He fucked her for the gods favor and slit her belly for his wives honor.”
“Who votes for a trial?” Spears and swords crash against shields. I walk over to the prisoners, yank out the officer and stiff-armed take his head with a hatchet blow. Bald head and body they squirt blood and fall together. “Box him up in honey and ship him back to his wife.”
Fire and blood and death - - - and the temple scents of spice. Rivers of Styx could never compare. All hands for our wounded and they are many. A few woman have surrounded the altar and the priestess. I move through. Nobody has removed the short-sword fixed to her belly; I pull it out, toss it clanging against a limestone column. She screams. I shout. “Artyphon. Poppy!” What has died of the priestess never found a chance to live. And what lives?
She bleeds now, a bubbling blueish blood. “That you, Cibias I can smell the salt on your ass.”
“You didn't wait for us.”
“Traders luck. Carthage gold was sooner and Carthage dick faster. Remember that next time.”
I shake my head. “Your threads slip away.”
She hectors a grimace, after Artyphons potion and her eyes go elsewhere. “Would you have fucked me Cibias, fucked me on the stone altar before Artyphon to appeased the goddess?”
No hesitation, for since the raid I have thought of little else. “Diannas bow has become bloodied and her knife thick with the marl of innocents. Zeus take the lash to her breasts, such a fouled virgin no infant does she nurse; she need not be appeased.”
“Care ye not for blaspheme,” cackles an ancient hag?”
“For ancient laws I care, not fickle sorcery be it human or goddess.” Two vines I remove from my travel bag. “From duty, you of unknown name and corrupted soul, you will bind us. Rusa. Isocleas” I call. The vines I force into the priestess limp hands. They snatch at the weeds. Our women are near. I tie the wrists of Isocleas and Rusa, then mine and Artyphon. “Speak the chant, you traitorous bitch and pass on to the demon wolf may he tear at your shade forever. No coin will your eyes get from me.”
A woman spills wine into the priestess mouth. She gargles laughing blood and wails:
stell'bsna shugg syha'h
-nyth fm'latgh gnaiih
“Is that the right prayer or the only prayer,” chuckles that same hag. But, the priestess face has gone limp. Smiling. We are bound to a dead woman. Artyphon is frozen. “I've burned stillborn lambs before,” says Isocleas, rips away the vines and tosses them in the nearest fire. “I bow to thee my husband,” her eyes lowering toward Rusa. He grasps her fingers and she leads him away.
“Festa, Festa there you are. Will you take the prisoners. Third share of ransom for the farmers? Good!” I look for the pups. “Burn the bodies - - it's time you learned what battle means. Sharpen your swords first as stragglers may abound. Then see the temple to order. Help from anyone?” A younger pack of pups gather. I flip a gold coin Krotes way. “Buy what you need.”
“Where do we sleep, Cibias?”
“AS does any victorious army, under stars, on the blood-ground of their beaten enemy. Isocleas ..” She has gone out of sight. “Artyphon!” Later, I tell Artyphon I thought my voice sharp and hard, a sophists voice or island geometer without mercy or love, and what ought to have shaken my heart has been cut away.
She has placed silver coins over the priestess eyes. See her burnt, too, with respect unless I know her not. What takes a womans mind without an infant at her tit, or a lover at her knees? Artyphon is bustling about the altar, and has gathered a basket for remains of human sacrifice. She observes my retreat into confusion and blank-face watch. Fire and ash must bitter her heart, but now sweetnes and healing flow. Artyphon. “Tomorrow, my love, show me the ocean of your trade.”