.......................Tales of Hyrkon: book 3 .... CYPRUS VIPERS
Chapter Three

May Cybelle lead us to joys of the blue sea, when ended that retching, metal-grinding shriek of bronze chain against teak and oiled iron. Bow, then stern anchors boyos pawl through their hawse and notch tightly against weaseled oak hull-battens cored to the teak. Landsmen believe you just drop it over the side. Olive oil fills the gunwales; idlers hefting wooden mallets drive in the rowlocks; oars-gate then set fast by thule-pins and hammering enough to make Hephastus deaf … all of which ends with silence. Noise demanding, then wave whisper. It's quiet now.

“I'm fast to leave this pleasant Cretian trap, and hot for the tides of Cyprus.”

Faelon sifts a wrack of banners, bright as gold to … he sours choosing an ancient horned-otter pendant and sends that salt-stained silver-threaded linen up our signal line. “Tides, Sur near Cyprus?”

Horned-otter . . . casting off . . . anyway Faelon concedes only water-walls of the Green Isle sea as tides. Their foamy white outlooks gather above your head like Cyclops one eye, and will eat a boyo just as fast. “Like this, Faelon. Around Cyprus the water rotates north to south, pushed by opposing winds and, thus swirling by the moon both raises the seas and lowers them; such are Cyprus tides.”

“Much speculation, Sur for my poor head.”

“No easier on our Belisama.”

“My Lady Artyphon” ( so Belisamas crew had taken to naming her, accepting nones amusement at their formality and calling forth on the lady such brazen silk Sinope veils and tunics a husband ever forgave ) “whispers ye bard our voyages, making the Argonaut crew pale beside us.”

“Worthy of golden fleece indeed! And what rings false about such?” Helios spatters orange light over noon. I hold to a jib-line recalling such a bold venture we entertained thrusting into Thrypti … or lobster bay as fattened boyos now call it. Rolling combers now enter every eighty heartbeats, splattering rock and raising by two arms depth of the entrance. Well chandlered and mannered by deckmans calls we intending our rowers to drive us upon that swell and hanging alongside the rocks, then sheets stretched tight and singing float out on the retreating riptide. By the time sworling winds fully engage our jibs we need to have got over the reef and into water beyond keel-depth. That - - - or be swung about sideways, hull fluttering, jibs and mainsail luffed allowing the next comber to smash us onto the rocks.

We die! Once I hectored my tutor, asking what the probability of a single, never repeated event? He first beat me with a hickory wand, claiming events never happen once. Then I was to count hawk attacks on passing flocks of birds. Stupid! Every flight within my vision was attacked more than three times. Perhaps then, we and the Belisama must succeed at least the first two exits! As we drift into position I smile at that idea. A bildgeman sounds the brass trumpet, as by ship wealthy and poverties live or die together. Rusa sacrifices a local silver-winged duck to Mykrons bow and uncages the ocelot to set claws into a mastmans leather chaps. Then shouting insults upon the heads of Poseidons slutty daughters we drive for'ard into the rising swell. I jump to a likely oarsmens bench and pull … pull … pull every boyo crying defiance to Ceberus fangs.

Mind you don't spill ale or wine or tumble from the sprint-yard, mastman and Zeus beard paint no leopard on the mizzen-sheet. Mind the fates window opens only thirty heartbeats. Oarsmen feet have repaired, timbers groaning bow lifts on the 2nd comber and settles. Wind still brushes our face, and our Belisama must still claw off this lee side. Wine jugs, barley cakes, a cut of black tar hashish passed my oarsmen break-back to a paeon of Bacchus, and as rocky shoreline fades navigator aligns our tightened sails one-point south-of-east. Open sea. We live.

“Never think about dying, do ya Cap'N?”

“Scared shitless.”

“Me as a young boyo reckless of the northern ocean buried neck deep in swells ice cold and tall as mountains.”

“Sometimes I jump if a sylph splashes water on my knee.”

“Aye Sur, but you mind something else.”

Else. Yes, something else I'd never put a daggers point to it. “I fear my crews death. Some Pontian sheep-farmers believe Heil bounds a massive eagle that buries its beak in the gut of every coward, every man who failed his comrades. Should I need serve Junos cunt till the moon falls back on earth I will not see that eagle.”

Belisama heels from the eastern sirocco and by every tit of Poseidon daughters I'd wear-away north, had we not to first feel over starboard stern the cool northerns thus catching Cyprus circular flow. One days sail in cool rising wind and loose all sheets; mainsail stretches taut as a Baltic shield-skin; jibs snap like fire, on this long reach trade winds over the stern. Artyphon takes to her old couch, bundled among mouldy wool blanket at the foot of our bed. Does she hold to her breast Parthian rites ancient of age and dire of consequence? She writes with a glass on gold leaf and banding, send a hawk to the wind. I think of it; last night made the fifth night of sail since the oarsmans loss and our violent coupling, Venus brashly fleeing a hands-breath into the morning before Helios making off with her.

Crews shift; we expect to raise Cyprus headland clouds tomorrows noon. I walk the quarterdeck arguing a point of clove-hitch knots with old Tar. Rope boys call to dolphins skating atop our bow-wave. Terns followed our stern-trace screaming and diving after our droppings. And always the pair of long thin deadly shapes and dorsal fins shadowing the keel. Perhaps a rope-boy slung pellets against a fin, but men did not care.

“Hull astern,” Kalicrates cry bolts down from the crows-nest. Unexpected. Unseen. Unreal … sharp-eyed men dash for the mizzen mast. Telemydon leather chaps flying explodes from the port hatchway. Standing beside he's peering east, tuning and scanning wave-tops with the glass carriaged as his watch was about to start.

“Hull, Sur, what do you think he meant by that? What hull, what mast, what oars …?”

“Let's gain some height,” I say prodding a rope-boy scampering up with the leathered glass tube. “A log, perhaps or whale, maybe a derelict ...” I think a bit … “if salt is dry maybe a skinned poacher galley trying to get close!”

“Mykron, see to a squad of spear-men. Faelon, the ballistas!” Boyos feet rail our teak decking, ordering themselves in silence as every craft becomes a warrior. Our six best longbows take to the yards, three steeled hatchets guard stern shitholes. Kalicrates races for'ard to throw another jib.

“Three hundred strides, Sur and gaining to starboard. I make a redwood hull sunk deep! No markings.” A quiet, then. “Now I can make brass hoops round the hull, deck strakes with brass hinges on a hatch and a half-dozen helms and shields.”

“All tit and no ass. Any bottom to the hull?”

“None to see; a keel reaches down deep as a Rhodian whores cunt!” More silence then Kalikrates bellows. “ They've a rounded brass snout with Mars griffins blazed!”

Mars! Fucking Troas! “Priams raiders, Sur.”

Shit! Belisamas rail now bristles with shields and spearpoints, and bowmen fill the yards. Orders to the tillermen. “Wear away NaziBu we'll not have a bronze thumb in our butt!” A jib luffs, spills air and we give space.

“Can we out-sail them?”

“If we had half an empty sea, no market to trade … and no waiting bronze pintles.”

“Marking our course , Sur I reckon 100 strides and they have come full astern. Don't see steerage, so it must be underneath, like a fish! If I could find the oars my eyes wouldn't bleed. That's one weird fuckin' galley.”

“Their deck?”

“Still only a half-dozen armored men. Appears to be a stern trace on them, like the flow of a spotted whale. Mebby that Troas turd has a tail and flippers.”

To Faelon. “Send up the Cruiser pennant and Trade Council banner. And assemble a skiff, need we to talk. ”

Flippers - - - “Even in Troy I think so much brass cannot live!” The bronze horn comes up over a rope-boys shoulder. I shout through it in my best harbor Greek. “Cibias declares the Belisama, Hyrkon cruiser sailing under the Trade Council, and a keeper of straight bolts and hard men. See our banners! Back away your dick-faced narwhal or we'll split your guts with our bow-plate.” Of which builders toy we had none, seeing the rounded shape.

Nothing at all, then on their vessel a tall, bald boyo wearing a loincloth joins the six. He does not fear the arrow-point. Following him, a great gush of water formed at the rear. And the craft for tecknos must it respect wore off near 100 strides and having done so rises higher above boiling sea water.

“Tuck in yer bladder, Troas,” shouts an unimpressed seaman. Buoyancy - - not magic any sailor knows that like sucking wine into a flute and blowing it into a whores mouth. With a pinch of rye-rot. She will see Olympus then break your balls. Buoyant! And any sailor knows the distance. For ballista a gamble, a far bow shot, and longer reaching sound.

But, the bald man had a voice like bellows. “Save your bolts for the Mycenii, your enemy as much as Priams. Returning from Egypt our casks fouled, thirst overtakes us and we need fresh water or ale.”

“Ale we have, and water. What have ye in exchanger a trader must inquire?”

A sharp-nosed factor in leather armor beside him trumpets. “Would palm oil or cobra venom be of interest?”

“We do not spare olive oil. Most Hyrkons would rather fry their eggs in the venom than in rancid palm oil. It does for lamps, though, if primed with pitch!”

“Cobra venom will burn also, and kill all that smell! Ha!” All smiles are insincere. “For eight barrels, we offer four fountains of Greek fire, a weapon long feared and name long stolen from Babylon alchemy.”

“Fire? Rockets we know of. The Eastern silk traders carry them to the Caucasus Armenians; such shooting stars are not a respected weapon for mountain warfare. Porting at Tauris we can trade Frisian cod for them.”

“Say you glass rockets, filled with Mars own piss, fuming and fiery one shaft of the fire dashes through planking and sends Mycenii byrhemes to flaming Hades.”

“We don't know those. What hold the piss and what the fire?”

“Glass and glass. You cannot easily see through all its secrets. Even so far we heard the rumbling as gears rose an iron ballista from hold to the Troas deck. It was unarmed, but the bald man now held a long tube covered in waxed papyrus.”

The two ships have drifted together within 100 strides. “Show us !” I went for the walrus-hide nor'land skiff.

“Cap'N pleasure may his head remain joined to his neck,” mutters Rusa. Another. “Snaky bastards Priams people make half the crew of Carthage.” From above. “It's the silver, Sur and what it takes to get it.” From the bilge. “Take two of us idlers, Sur the fat ones tis not important our necks , but our belly takes the spear.”

Down the hatch I toss my ivory hash-pipe. “Keep safe what's important, boyos. Elisedd, set an empty barrel afloat. Mykron, count the ships rocking, in both planes. Artyphon, dear Artyphon my skin feels as tough as walrus, but much more lucky. I'll be back.”

“This”, says Artyphon, looping her dagger about my neck. One step on a hull-plug and I leap to the skiff. Yes, I think about reason and fierce Trojan pride. Push on.

“Safe with us, my Lady, til yer Cap'N returns. Mind you Cibias … Sur … if spears go for the belly, then give it an arm and pitch over the side. We'll grab ye before the dogfish do. And sew you up like a whores knickers. Sur!”

Push on. With the double-handed paddle Nort'mans use and with smooth swells I soon cover these 100 strides. Not much of a craft I see approaching the bronze nose, or a marvel if simplicity ruled. Their vessel a giant trunk smoothed, sliced lengthwise in half, and the halfs carefully chiseled and burned out. Top and bottom, deck and hull that's what remains, to be ground fine then fitted together. Like around ballista vents! I touch the fitting - - - rubber! Ports and hatches have been chipped through and bronzed where needed. I note a ceder plug amidships - - so they can run up a main-mast at wits end.

“A groper,” growls a rough, black-haired seaman. “Worse than Kali around my daughter,” his giant paws hand me aboard.

“What do you call this craft?”

“Dunno Captain, but the tar-buckets call it a marine.”

“Does it always float?”

Interrupting. “When we so desire!!” The tall bald man, cabled muscle with a jade ear-torque. “A marine voyages as it wishes, but you? Sailing to Hellene-infested Cyprus?” Barefoot, his heels scruffed the redwood deck and his voice grew sharp. “You trade with the Greeks, drink their wine, father their pups even though they destroyed Minos.”

Mars loved Troas had never tasted bitter defeat. I say. “Yet Minos survives. I worship Dianna even though she makes their daughters pregnant. “I am Cibias Min, and you are 80 leagues off course if your aim be Troas.”

Another bronze-hinged hatch opens , and a scribe pokes through, writing ... “Cibias, a Hyrkon sailor and trader well spoken of.” He looks back at the ballista. “Not all are.” Then peers at the scribe who babbles unspeakable Hittite. “Latin widow-maker and just bonded by the Trade Council, if the gulls scream wisdom.”

“Wisdom among traders, yes, but none from Carthage.”

“Well they wouldn't, now would they? Not even a city, as men have built them.” He extends a bare hand which I accept. He's a strong grip. “I am Aeneas of Troy, and to half-point on course if Syracuse be my goal.”

“Aeneas, Aphrodites blood messenger some say.” I'm wracking my dead tutors brain. “The wicked say much worse.” The son of a goddess I have never before encountered. I look to the west, where points the long trim deck. And steel up! “So that's how the Messenians got their screaming bitches!”

A threat's there for any to see, but uncaring as a god Aeneas passes a fuming hash-pipe. “Latins wear wolf-pelts; Syracuse is an unruled demos, trading with gods and demons alike! Brazen in teknos; you know they pipe in fresh mountain water to the council chambers? Have you ported there? No? I'd do it once, but have your silver-tax ready! Worse than a physician curing rabies! Yet that's how we get Latium oak spars, with Syracuse tax stamp from a rutty village 100 leagues north and a noons haul up the Tibre River. Troy still fights a raiders war from Pontis islands, so ships we must build and protect those who help us. Will you?”

“Aeneas, is Hyrkon better than the sea lifting our hulls, but smashing our keels?”

Aeneas bald head is wreathed by hash-smoke and his eyes blazing. “Yes and no is better than no. Corinth sends twelve whores to Syracuse temples, and leaded wine-amphora to the bazaar. A childs effort, yet then believe Corinth owns the island. They demand higher trade taxes! Of that arrogance will they be disabused.”

“For which oak you trade Egyptian bronze Bastets!” His confused eyes are experienced liars. Then I step fore and aft, skipping along fitted planks. “A long trip without sails and oars. Have you dealt your daughter to Erebus?” He will never answer. “Have you been attacked between here and Heraclitus?”

“Attacked? Ha … won't waste a bronze arrow-tip on those galleys and tunny-busses. We outran the idlers.” Over the word 'outran' he clucked. “Oh, you mean our …” he chuckles rudely … “how we get around!” Mail corslets of the crewmen shudder. Carthage some say crucifies ship captains with loose mouths. “A trick the Egyptians taught us, pulling water with a screw. Ask your seers to contemplate a frogs tail. You have at least one Syrian glass, don't you, forged from the same Damask hand as we, Orkryzk the Delphian ?”

“Don't know the name, but I understand the trade. Plenty of oak in the Caucus, but you can't get it! Understand Priams pissed off the Hittites, Hector is insane, Paris a kiss and run bitch who left Helen with eunuch priests in Egyptian Thebes. Lots of good that does her.”

“Hittites are pigs with human heads. As for Helen the Greek whore, men believe she sleeps in Troy, under Paris weight. What matters for battle beside that belief?”

I scratch a crusted beard with Artyphons blade. “Are any Mycenii left to fight?” I point to the floating barrel, now fifty strides from the Belisama. One of my crew had attached a banner carrying the Spartan shield.

“Memnon and Hector kill so many it's a wonder any bath-boys live for Corinthians to fuck.” He's looking at the barrels Spartan flag, stripping bare a fat green glass tube and loading it onto the ballista; a brass trap opens and snaps shut. “But for our use still too many.”

“When I fought the Spartans, they died where they stood. Not much for bows, like our Scythian recurves. Their men were brave, our general clever and our horses fast Arabians. They have steel blades and ours bronze, but Hyrkon was quicker that day. Quick as needed today.” I square up to him. “Did you really come from Egypt, or from Carthage?”

“Please step toward me.” Some men give orders, while others just tell you what will happen. You pick the man. Aeneas turns away, grabs a lever to rotate his ballista in line with our floating barrel and trips a pulley. Flash sears my face. It starts, happens and ends in an eye-blink. A roar, torchy fingers pushing the glass tube away from Aeneas craft and toward our barrel. Then the explosion. Shredded and flaming pieces of wood litter the sea. The barrel is no more. Aeneas crosses his arms. “Barrel or hull makes no difference to us.”

What does such a weapon do against the double-straked teak and mahogany of the Belisama? That battle needs wait for another day. “Eight against four, you have a deal.”

A flagon of cherry ferment and amphora of fish sauce float over with four casks of water and four of ale. All we share with flaxseed cakes on a tempered glass plate finished by a plate of honey. That Priam and Minos are blood enemies cannot interfere with a future trade. Our cutter transfers the glass tubed rockets. “Shall we meet again Aeneas?”

“As long as Achilles forswears battle pining for the stolen bitch Agamemnon swives I'll roam our sea like a porpoise. Your image Cibias, a free man under sail bound only by ….” Who can imagine unspoken words, or history that turns upon them? We are four eyes, steel upon steel and mind upon mind when into a growing frothy chop he swings a trident-blade, black-metal pole-ax to the side of my skiff and pushes me off. “Fair well, Cibias may Astarte grant you many children and few wives.”