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

Belisama crew have already wracked their shields and jiffy the mainsail lines as I pull aboard.. Aeneas Troas vessel grinds away to larboard - - due west - - spewing a bow-wave and to stern retiring a flume of bubbling, sparkling water. Their crew rig a mainsail fore-and-aft; I think on speed. Into the wind their hull cuts clean; they'll soon be out of sight. Rusa follows them with our glass. “Zeus beard how do they tolerate the noise?”

“Same way a slower vessel tolerates fire-slings. Aeneas, he's a smart one.” Rusa must believe it; he continues following the odd vessel with our glass. I'm writing notes, beside our log-book, writing and pondering teknos of ships buoyancy, for what attacks must first float - - or must it? Even should Juno wrest the Fates from Mars steel grip, Ajax and Orestes will not so easily smash down such a sailor.

“Will Hyrkon walls defy when the shield wall turns our way.” Rusa has maintained the glass on Troas log-vessel. “It's an engine , Sur if you mind, an engine run inside by the strength of hands and feet and shoulders. A fleet of those ...”

“Do you know how a screw lifts water?”

“Etchings, Sur. The southern Egyptians have done that for 2000 years. You've seen it yourself. There's only one Nile where the water flows so they build a path between river and grain field. NaziBus built 'em, so he says.”

I call NaziBu down from the sprint-yard. “Seen a Nile water-screw I have, but never manufactured the tool!”

“Well Cap'N, the shave-headed priests are a bit private about their machines. Babylon did it first, yer grace, but curly-locks dams all got smashed by the Assyrians. Dams smashed and the water-mills burned. Now think on this, Cap'N. Carve a slanted, connected cut in a wood shaft, top to bottom, that cut wrapping around the shaft like a snake or wrapping your hand like peel from an apple. “

“What depth and what angle?”

“Couple a' fingers and for angle equal sides will do. Then mount the shaft through a settled sleeve with one end in the river and the other pouring out to the higher field. Loop and tighten a rope over the shaft and set yer slave or ox to rotate the shaft. Up comes the water, from the river below to the field above.”

“What keeps the water from falling backwards?”

“The curve in the shaft, Sur is always pushing and the water below it holding it up. At the bottom the river water holds everything and at the top water pours out of the screw and into the field.”

“What happens if the shaft is rotated the other way?”

“I seen that, Sur it just digs a hole in the river, like a metal screw yur can buy at a Tyrian bazaar. A shipwright won't use 'em cause as our Belisama bends and twists the screw-tips break off and loosen. ”

“Now tell me, how can that action propel a boat?”

“Don't know Cap'N, cause the shaft never moves, like a shaft connected to a hull. Only the water moves, and surely water that moves on wood is different that wood that moves on water.”

Shit. “Those Troas bastards got it to move, but lucky. They can't build a fleet of those cause Priam can't afford it, not with Greek byrhemes between Troas and Cilician silver and Lesbian gold mines. That groaning log carries one-fourth the cargo that we carry.” I pound on the deck. “Hyrkon shall not fear them. Trusting these ever-shifting walls of wood leaves all such enemies impoverished and misdirected.” I was puffing like a bush-viper and knew it! No way to master a ship, no way to understand a teknos, but the advantage of Aeneas craft is so great as to make dust of everything else. Did Mary of Genoa know that vessel? I'm drifting.

“Aye Sur. Wind briskly from the west. Shall we square the sails.”

“Very well, our stern has grown a heel. Patience with the yards, and set the navigators a point north of east. Make it so, Rusa.” Idlers gather at pawls to ship the yards and mastmen take to their rope ladders. Pulley sets loosed, sail comes to the deck, bronze bolts and chamfers taking different bores and rigging reset for different angles of force. Yard-lines restrung. Among 10 straining, cursing boyos I put shoulder to a pawl-batten while the main-mast yard is heaved round. Mizzen men battle to keep Belisama keel downwind. Next I'm beside a mountain-shouldered oarsmen hammering at the sea for sixty breaths on the un-stabled hull. Two bowls of sand are measured before our mainsail bellies deep and wide and idlers carry a side of black steaming lamb off the char-pit.

So evening grows old, Artyphon curious for Trojan thought and ships crew curious with the new weapon. Kalicrates knows more than any, of our rockets, and of these four new also. He has carpentered a frame and grinds smooth a wooden launch shoot. “Liquid, Sur we should shoot them as soon and as smooth as possible. I'd keep the launch wet not greased, for fear of fire.”

“Can we shoot them tomorrow?”

“If we sleep tonight, Sur.”

Altair rising to the east, and the moon high in the south Belisama night watch rattles into place and Artyphon wide awake takes me to our mat with her mind full of kingdoms failed. I dream of Amineas light-filled gardens , and a wave that passes east to west. Surely, Mary of Genoa had seen the sea-spanning westward combers rattling the rocks of Crete. Artyphon will be pleased - - after spinning my head with royal marriages unloved and un-financed and un-permitted - - and I please her. Looking from a south cabin window I see the moon has gone to sleep.

“Smoke to the east, Sur” cry-as-one a shift of mastmen.”

“By land or sea?” Artyphon has ground and boiled coffee-beans and from a small tin cup I am choking down the thick steaming black poison.

“Too far telling.” I strap the glass to a rope-boy and send him scurrying up a line . “Smokey clouds or cloudy smoke our glass shows broken pillars in the sky with nothing, but smoke below. But one pillar of smoke only, Sur.”

“Signals,” Rusa blurts. “Signals from Cyprus edge or a ship on station. Smoke bituman fired, but starved of air; blackens it up when fed wet palm leaves like Hades sunshine.”

“Council, ye hard-footed bastards,” I shout. Sleepers, and such crew as can draw together round a ballista, of twelve stringed recurved double ash and a sheet of re-hammered iron. “Rejoice for your silver, boyos and if master of ports we be pray for the cunt yet mastered. You heard Rusa. We have been discovered by signal - - Pirate, Carthage or Tyrian … and should a single rover forgo his poppy-juice, for our trade we go to war.” The group has swollen and gone silent. “Do any say nay, return to Hyrkon?” Wind and water alone whistle. “Then I record to log, a Captain and crew forged against Mars right arm, a single mailed arm and damned be the beard comes against it.”

Rushed to station I am left alone, the thin king of Cyprus winds. Strange winds, they circle the island as water rushes a hole and riding them a vessel must wear into the curve, with mizzen and jib sheets balancing the humor till a mainsail billows. Or you may plow into the rocks , tear jibs and wallow inside a choppy gale. Salty bastards my crew know this yet even hedged in by marauding hulls , nothing forgives a shy captain. Rubbing my sealskin vest I think on it. My short-sword hacks at a log. I had hoped for another day of free sailing. Now a reek of combat fills the air … that anticipation and fear that reeks unspoken; it filled the places on deck where a man might have found quiet against thick tarred boards. Mail vests are now pinned to those boards and damaged links reaved tight. Boyos braid their shield-mates hair while leather strops work edges into unused blades. Officers and men throw bones and argue; sailing masters hector their cubs.

“It does not matter how round you believe the sky and sea and the earth really are ...” Our navigator Teutor impatiently explains to one of his broad-backed tillermen. “I believe all three are painted on the rock hard ass of a Titanic Ethiopian whore. But, never-mind; if you sail from Hyrkon to Cyprus, you must sail on a curve. See here?”

Across the binnacle Teutor has laid-out a map he sketched on a waxed wooden tablet. “Here, my fine friend. Beginning at Hyrkon, the desert siroccos push us north, toward the butt-fucking Greeks, eh, agreed there nothing mysterious here, but toward the end, even before the line-of-Rhodes Etesian winds drive us south , away from the bronze-hair Rhodian whores. Do you see... north and south will the winds take us and we smooth that off into a broad curve.”

“Bend yur whore any way you wish. I can row faster in a straight line.”

“Land ho, two points on the larboard bow. East by nor-east.”

Sky and sea have become silver blue separating the dark edge of land with its rocky isles and taller headlands which stand out as sentries against the navigator. A rope-boy light and nimble who attended the top- mainsail yard rockets down a shroud his leather mitt smoking. “Respects to the Captain. Brother can see two sails a point to starboard, if the captain pleases.”

“Speak up, boy … are they proud beaked ships of war, nymphs silk sailed fallucas or mule tubs blown from the Pontus? Does Agamemnons bronze helm hang from the top-gallant yard … or a Tarsus whores red ass!”

“I... I … I can't tell yet Sar … Captain … my brother he's too scared to piss!”

“Bottom at two-hundred cubits, Captain”.

“Show me the weight,” ruffled Tar ….”eh, the bottoms still sandy Sar.”

“We've worn less than a league, in dead reckoning,” NaziBu jobbed for his tiller-men. “It's a league or more before a rocky bottom raises up. Then we can sail on beam pitching right up the coast. Wearing to starboard we catch the circling winds and twirl right around Cyprus southern side.”

“By the log eleven marks south-by-east, and Nymphe rising by the glass. It's mid-day Sar before we clew the mainsail for and aft for wind over the larboard bow.”

A sudden gale may snap such twisted yards. “We will do no such thing, while clouds rule Helios and sails a-starboard, but a reef you may take.” I have gone up to the bowsprit-yard and from there seeing the western headland of Cyprus comes easy, as morning clouds hang above them like a mirror. “Kalikrates, take my glass to the top-mast-yard and see what the boy sees. Damned if I expect corsairs with their beaks north of Paphos.”

“Aye Sar, by the Captains leave.”

All for the precious Cyprian bronze pintles … I need remind myself. Our Cretan shipwright had installed bronze guides into the rudder core and tiller-arm. But, three brass hinges and the connecting rod … the center pin that bore all stress … he could do no better than form a third-cubit of fire-hardened ash. It would through most storms and last a year. It has lasted two. A Cyprian piss-bronze pintle will outlast the keel and fear-not slashing Nordland ice-beaks nor boiling volcano waters south of the Pillars nor even the mountainous autumn swells west of the Moroccan isles.

“Cut-throat rovers Captain, they sail for us,” willowed the shot crows nest to fore-deck along the mainmast. Spread by wood and sails and wind every boyo hears. Down the shrouds rocketed Kalicrates laying a smoke trail on his knee-length trousers with the boy on his pigtail. “Islander hulls no doubt among Cyprus warlords, Sar, rovers and cut-throats and prowlers spreading all the sail they have and working all oars.”

“I laugh meanly. “And Ashur was supposed to stop all this pillage. Bet his brother the King meant it!”

“Aye sur if beans are blueberries and every daughter a virgin. But, fact they come upon us fast as any might. Their hulls is done up in black pitch – rakish – tart for blood they mean no good.”

“Thar wearing armor, Captain … helmet and mail,” said the boy. “Shiny tips on the spears and ballista!”

“Kalicrates shrugs. “Black-arsed pricks no doubt. The pup says he sees it , but I can't make them out … best believe him!”

Boarding pikes, I think. They're rovers … swarmers … maulers … not the huge sea-faring byrhemes of Troy or Egyptian schooners. With Cyprus western shore first appearing as a brown smudge in the crows-nest glass, and Etesian winds snapping over our larboard rail, I had hoped to get around the tip of Paphos before dark, then creep up Cyprus south coast … Paphos, Amathus, Salamis …

“Sail off the starboard beam, Captain” came over a shout from the spritsail yardmen. “Zeus beard even for an Egypt schooner it's a big un'..... and an oared galley Sur swimming along its lee side.”

I hesitate, seeing like Cyclops one eye, one mind opposing our transit.; a mind fixed to Hyrkons destruction hull-by-hull of her wooden wall. One after another enemies rise from the south. They seek treasure, the swift black corsair hulls that should have been roosting, biding time in the clefts of Paphos and notch of Kourion, hovering in the swirling winds and mists just beyond trader-route currents like cloud-soaring falcons above doves. Silver and ferments they should seek, while the assassins stench clouds above them.

“Coming for us, aren't they,” whistled a wind burnt mastman scurrying up a shroud with a loop of rope splice and a pulley.” Any trader would find corsairs nesting among the pitiless long-toothed shoals … any trader but us at any time, but now. “Boils me Sar … most wait for a navigators error, but they makes a fight of it here.”

Say what you will about killing men. “Prepare a fire-pot,” I shout to our alchemist.

Here, before the western shoals of Cyprus. Belting the glass I pelt up shrouds to the crows nest and then above the top-mast-yard. Wind has brought seas up and around to the south, and the top-yard pitched far over the water on every roll. Yes, there … a point to larboard, the huge Egyptian. I sketch quick: “Pray for a weakness,” I say and send it down after NaziBu , pinned to a ropeboy.

A monster, I think. The Syrian glass brought every rolled and roped papyrus bundle of its hull into focus. It was a huge, ceder-keeled forty-oared tri-rheem, three straight-shafted steering oars and schooner sails. Above the rowing decks sat a platform for the drum-beaters to whose pounding the oarsmen stroked. Red ochered and tarred papyrus bundles shot thirty feet above bow and stern, with twisted linen cord binding the tips to each side of the hull. Wicker-sided cabins are strapped in at the fore and mainmast and brass-plated fireslings posted bow and stern. She wears papyrus square-sails now, braided among hemp cord coming down on us with the southern wind over her larboard, but from the look of the sprityard she knew how to do more. Fat-bowed, sloppy in her clews and showing a leeward drift fully one-third for'ard a twenty-cubit slab of brass-covered ironwood formed her brailled-up beak and if she got that feckin-A horn into your hull no man or god would save you from the dark river.

AS a gull might tarry, ropeboy hangs from a sky-line beside me. “Respects to the Captain, NaziBu claims such craft must be a Pharaohs barge. Not meant for the seas at all, but fitted with thicker sheets, a deeper keel and extra steering oars. He says it should sink, Sur!”

“A whoremaster,” I mutter, “with Belisama beneath it.” I pass another sketch and send off the boy, scolding him for not wearing a leather helm. Look back to the sea, for the schooner, toward the hull. She was a loose sailing bundle of sticks but, at half-again the height and twice our hull taking her on bow-to-bow the Belisama would never do. And she had the galleys … two … three at least .. trading the lee-side then shooting ahead, their dark scaled hulls glistening like young vipers circling a mother cobra.

Thick scoffing bleats of a bronze Egyptian warhorn flutter across the swells. “Three with the mothership ,” I shout along to a bareheaded mastman who spun down to Rusa now working with four tillermen at the helm. The boyo now helmed and strapping a Syrian shortbow shot back up asking about the others.” Free-booters,” I say, ”willing to take whatever scraps remain.” I leave mastman at the top-gallant-yard and pile down a shroud knotted just above-deck. Elisedd has come up from his rowers bench. “Tell your boyos to stretch their backs. We will see those bastard galleys hull against hull.”

“Oh we'll out-row the galleys , have no mind a' that Sur. Elisedd's plug of black-tar hash was half-spit out between his teeth. “ But, they're Egyptian Sar .. why would those crafty cat fucking buggers come all the way up here … after us!”

“Who says they are after us?” I scoff … wave him back to his rowers bench. “Rusa,” I shout, “ who mans the horns-of- fire?”

“Aye I'll fuck a Cyprian,” shot back from a red-bearded northman. Rape the women, pillage copper plate and burn the hull to waterline.”

“Mind your tongue while ye still have one,” barks NaziBu.

“Beggins' yur pardon Sur! I can boil the eye from Cyclops head,” shouts Caritakos the red-haired Pict working leather bellows, building pressure behind the lead fire-pot, that which would shoot first from behind the sprityard.


“Aye sur,” bellows the man-in-four whose cubit-thick shaft could ream a waist-plank. Well it should, the cross-bow formed from two fingers-breath of yew and ceder making a sandwich then pegged and glued. But, before the glue auroche tendon was stretched and fastened one end to the other between the wood slats . The ballista throw thus came from both the bent wood and stretched tendon. Those cross-bows were fixed to shafts driven deep into knees under the deck planking; three were bow mounted, the other four scattered back toward the stern.

Of death-bringers, altogether we have three slings and seven ballista. Our ten best longbow men nest high on the masts. Twenty-five men spared from the masts and oars, amoured in leather and mail and armed with hooked-beak spears for close killing between hulls gathered below the quarterdeck. “Lieutenants,” I shout falling to the quarterdeck and the captains place in battle!

My war-councilors draw the circle close, clashing silver ale tankards and filling the space with a dark haze of black-tar hash; their decision clear, swift and harsh. Rusa, Mykron, NaziBu, Telemydon, Kalicrates and Teutor … my Lieutenants saw the sea as did I. Either trade laws ruled the sea or Chaos ruled. War lust ruled their eyes.

Nevertheless I say. “We have Proteus own bitch right before us, boyos showing Medusas bronze fangs instead of teats. Force us to battle they cannot ;” I had struck fire to a small pitch torch. “ Shall we light the fires to dark Arawan?”

Rusa roared. “ Our Belisama is no fat-bellied Lesbian grain-galley, nor an Egyptian stick-boat near sunk with its copper billets …” Heaving away a huge slug of ale he points to larboard, where the Egyption mother-ship rose wallowing across the swells, the sea throwing her up and then swallowing the lurking hulk. “We can spin that waddling bitch in circles like a fox spins a goose.”

“Them galley-raiders are no goose,” spit Mykron. “Fifty oars a hull at least .. sixty mebby and they can spin like a top.” His teeth bury into a thick caribou pipe-stem and his hash-plug glows. “'Course the wind is getting up. If we're quick coming upon the raiders two-by-two we can crash our hull between them.”

“They may be bluffing,” offers Teuter in a deep Pictish brogue. “They have easier marks sailing behind us.”

“Bluffing? Faelon,” I call out, “send up the war banners.” He had them ready, gray and black, the dog of fear , cat of panic and red snake of terror. They rose as hawks streaming above the Belisama. I scanned the shaggy ridge of waves before us. “So we drive for'ard, and they wear-away, slipping behind ...” Water no longer slid smoothly along the Belisamas hull, but chopped at the planks sending a dull high vibration throughout the ship. Landsmen among the crew pawling lines show uneasy faces. They want the enemy bow-to-bow at the point of their ash spear-points. Their scowls an omen of sorts to the slack with which I did not trifle. “NaziBu, Teutor, Brogue … that bluff we can test in Junos hurry.”

From the watch. “Both galleys sailing large three points off the starboard bow,” the shout relays down from the top-gallant-yard.

“Can we get between then,” I shout to the mast and tillar-men?

“Fat peg in a thin hole,” returns Kalicrates from the yard above. “Clew the larboard sheets yee bastards! Backs to the pawl!”

To the tillermen I call. “Tack to starboard , south-by southeast!”

We join the pounding of feet across the deck or take to the shrouds. Tiller-men groan and the rudder strains against the flow. Oarsmen half their stroke! The bow snaps cross-wind as top-gallants reef and again fly out with the wind whistling across the larboard beam. Our sprityard which had worn off north claws back another point easting. A bow-wave flying the wind now mists the entire larboard rail. I have run-up shrouds to the crows-nest and listen to the top-yard mans rattle.

“Still nor-by-west, Cap'ain … nor-by … there! There now! The galley .. they peeled off southward, where the other two been hidin'. Lurking lil' fuckers .... and the fat-bellyed sow she's wearing south also and the bundles of sticks don't like it! She ain't got a respectful keel to hold her stiff so she wallows, front and back down, and the waist high to the sky. It's a wonder she don't break in half!”

I watch the Egyptian come about in the rising wind … setting booms fore and aft, reefing the square-sails so she can point up into the wind. It makes no sense. Bearing to the south we will push past her by half a league … what … what … There on the Egyptian foredeck with the glass, lifting as the sea rose aft a dense pack of men about the raised tiller- deck before the high curved stern of the keel board. Their captain has also drawn his Lieutenants to battle conference. Fair enough, but … but where were their deck-men, their shield-wall , their boarders …. A swell that lifted my glass answered that question. When my glass swept across their double masts, the yards, cross-trees and nests, all were filled with archers and darters. Their captain had no intention of meeting us beak-to-beak. He would slip behind us … allow us to advance until checked by his galleys at the south, and approaching our stern his own darters would sweep our decks clean … from behind ...

We have come back up two points to the southern wind, and our oarsmen groan to the drumbeat. A shout from our crows-nest. “ Galleys off the bow Sar ,... on a larboard tack, but they have shipped oars and are really coming straight for us.”

“All three?”

“Two ahead, Sar one lagging to larboard,” cried the crowsnest. “Coming up … coming up Sar and they both have beaks!”

Elisedd shouting up from his row-masters seat. “ It's a rough sea to try, but they intend to shear us port and starboard with their hulls …. shear away our oars. They won't risk a collision with a bigger ship like ours.”

Not unless the Egyptian captain had put an ax beside their necks. I send Rusa above to the weapons deck reminding him one quick unprepared shot was the best he could expect. Assuming the growing swells now reaching high over the hulls gave you an option. The waves have grown so stiff you never saw both galleys at the same time nor may you predict their next wild motion. “South by east tillerman.” To the mastmen I shout, “reef the mainsail and clew mizzens bow-to-stern. Feckin-A ship oars,” The bow shudders, then comes steady along the wind. I shout. “Shields and pikes!”

Bones thrown. I had sent us after the approaching starboard galley … if she still held course. Their bronze warhorn bleats a warbling death. Arrows already fly high above from and into the mast-rigging. Our high bowmen shout they have bolted three enemy lookouts. On deck exposed men slipped quickly into the bronze-tipped wall. Oars notched along the hull, and shields replaced them, and except for the slingers, mastmen joined lining both rails with Gedes scale armour and ash boarding pikes reaching out the length of three men. Hash plugs and ivory pipes spit their venom; some men had pissed in the deck. I move along the shield-lines with a bamboo trunk of ale spilling it into gape-mouthed faces which mixed fear with the lust for blood. No man refused the courage of hot ferment and I pound each between iron-nosed helms, leather shoulders and mail chest. The ballista and fireslings above, brailled to starboard could see better between the white-tipped swells, but at hull-level there was no future, no plan and no awareness save the green face of the last wave …. and above a random wave the bow-spray and dark seeking thrust of an enemy hull. We come willingly into the face of a steep wave throwing bright foam from its curling peak.

Belisamas bow shudders … and shoulders aside boil, its green wash filling ship-waist to our knees, through and over and then down, the hull pitching for'ard bottoming the swell, then rising … rising faster on a sharp-cut path till breaking up ahead of the wave … the black-pitch enemy hull explodes before our eyes, bronze beak ripping at empty water, the roped-in planks of the galley tearing past it's flailing oars and full-belly mainsail filled the entire southern view, sky to sea, eyes of men battle crazed within burnished bronze faceplates catching the sun and recurve bows bending to the foot that bent them beside hungry spear-points all reach of the eye between Helios disk mast-tip high and the green-bodied combers.

The sea and the wind and the ships breathing come on now so fast. “Steady boyos steady...” I rail! “Wait for the top then down their throats!”

“Ballistas ready, Sur.”

First at nothing , but sky so blue against an emerald sea which balances wood hulls throwing up a flashing eye-burning scream of hate. We falling from the wave-top and them rising from below. Faces frozen between dread and the twisted passion to kill. The passing corsair hull slashes near as a young man leaps, close enough to see faces flush with rage, muscles strained with the high-raised battle-ax, arrow-struck boys vomiting.

Sling pellets and bolts rattle fill the mist like hornets. A large ballista strikes high on our hull, splintering a strake and sending teak shards tearing at my spear arm. Teutors covering shield takes the blow. It lashes through six boar hides stopped only by the oak strip catching shield to shoulder strap. Flesh and sails and hull they fill my entire vision and drive away all thought, but that of the smooth-faced and bronze-helmeted Egyptian shieldsmen lining the galley deck. A shout stuck in my throat Belisama sliding... sliding through a wave-top … and deep-throated cracks of sling-lines snapped over my head; our three fireslings and seven ballista launch a streaming wall of smoke, flame and boiling pitch. Archers and slingers too had sent their bolts flying, as had our darters, far more than streams of fire and bronze that willful thrust of one race against another. A few enemy darts clatter into shields and sling-pellets crack the hull. But the bronze, long-tipped arrow-heads … they have become a flock of hungry falcons like their feather-tails zipping and clattering among breastplates. Two boyos had gone down bleeding from the chest and four more where mail has not covered arms. One arrow had taken a man through the mouth, another ripped out an archers throat and he lay silent. And then … nothing, but the driving white-tipped sea.

Nothing at all to be seen of the enemy... or the enemies lost among swells and between wave-crests flinging spray high and thick to the crows-nest and chopping the hull so the rudder-board shrieked and strained oak planks bending them like a bow tensing up then hurling one, now another tillerman tumbling across the deck. Suddenly a red flash and column of smoke burst aft, from the sea beyond the starboard quarter … for nothing more than instants displayed the enemy in flames, blazing galley hull was pitched up atop a wave. For an instant the galley hung on the gods display spilling blood and thrashing its death-throes balanced on the waves curl above our eyes. Two of our ballista had pierced its hull the cracks spreading open to the keel and another had sheared the mainmast. It's deck had gone an infernal hissing mass bleached red-orange, consumed by a green-edged raging fire caught from our slings and from its own pitch-soaked sling-missiles ignited before they could be launched against us. Sails mast, hull, deck, oars … and the men who sailed all melted together in dripping flame and burning oil and burning fat ….. men with screams for faces and fire for legs throwing themselves into the sea.

All that in an instant before my eyes … men shout from the weapons deck above me, cursing the enemy to Cerberus black hell. There comes a single wail of terror from an enemy seeing the horror of death now. Our own lines of shields-men weave and bob following the decks curve and warp yet the bronze spear-points hold silent and unmoving … till the following swell sucked down the rovers black hull. Coins flew from our own … from a few calloused mastman fingers who perhaps had as young apprentices gone down with a hull only to have Poseidon spit them back up to the world of living men.

I shout. “”Brogue, your men to the oars. NaziBu, steering south by south-east. Let's find the next one before its beak runs up our asshole.” Swells have deepened half-way up the main-mast. You can't see a Poseidons trident before it splits your asshole.

Stiff spine sailor boyos move trance-like, as if the Goddess has struck them down and dared the first mans courage. “Sail on the starboard bow, Sar,” came a frightened young voice from the sprityard. “ A galley if you please Sar … and the big Egyptian schooner; it's come round half-a-league bearing from south-west with the galley in tow.”

Down the deck another shout echoes. “Eye Cap'an that Egyptian schooner, big as a mountain Sar it's not ten boat-lengths behind us. Bastard's reefed sails, all oars in the water and bearing direct on our stern!”

The unstoppable springs from the impossible. I stand frozen beside the tiller wondering how that Egyptian bundle-of-sticks can round against the wind to get between us and the Cyprus coastline. Belisama lunges for'ard just to it's larboard. Men are grasping the ship again with the screech of pawls and groan of wood against hemp lines. I start up a shroud to the crows-nest when the shout came down.

“Two of the bastards.” That shout relays down from the top-gallant.

I have a second to decide … to fling us about-faced! ”Starboard oarsmen break your backs! Larboard oars to the locks!” I shout. “Telemydon, Rusa, pitch out our spinnakers and get our bow across the wind, fast as you may then bring us about. Steering north north-east!”

Men throw themselves on the starboard windlass luffing the mainsail. Wind hits our spinnaker and pitched our hull half-way over as we slice about. We cut into two long deep swells rolling up the face of the third as the mainsail clewed to larboard. Then the pounding of drums sweeps over us and suddenly we appear beside the Egyptian monster.

Brogues big voice cutting the noise. “Starboard oarsman heave … heave … to Cerberus teeth bend those yew sticks!”

The bolt fuzzy at speed and throwing a high pitched whine shrieks over the bow sprint, a long shafted bronze arrowed burying itself in the mizzen boom. “A screamer, “ howled Kalicrates. “Bastards whine like slaughtered lambs.”

A leather strapped mass of burning tar and sheepfat buzz over the stern rail sizzling into the water not a dart toss beyond us. “That be nuther screamer,” spit Tar, running back to watch it float away?

“Steady at your stations, boyos,” I caution. “Let the blunders be theirs.”

The wallowing Egyptian schooner lumbers alongside spewing bits of lead and bronze and iron while it pitches a crazy-quilt deck in all six directions, three huge strapped bundles of papyrus reeds flinging sea-water into the air like a raging sweating seaboar ! Those streaming bundles themselves strap into circular strands that tie up together fore and aft by thick hemp cords. Three hulls really, not one and three Syrian ceder keels each too thin for the weight above it and so the entire vessel bends bow-to-stern, yawing and stretching sailors dancing puppet-like with every swell and the three keels rocked beside each-other two down while the third groans upward, the wraps upon wraps of hemp and linen cord holding the heaving yawing mess together. Two stones fly from its slings carrying just over our bow. The Egyptian hull moves more like a living breathing creature tuned to the seas surface than mans hard-beaked thrust upon Poseidon as was the Belisama.

So my heart crashes into my chest, imaging my Belisama crushed beneath her, or my Belisama playing the Nile fox stealing eggs from nested crocodiles … worse! How it overwhelms us in size and weight and arms. Should it's bow been brought around the Egyptian would run over our starboard beam , and drive us under like a giant southern squid horribly grasps the whale calf a pod has left unguarded. But, fire blazes on its main deck and a dozen men on its steering oars cannot turn about its floppy three-keel frame. And the bitch was high hulled as we sail under their starboard hawse ; a fire-edged rocket flies from our port ballista across our deck and exploding through two wet layers of the Egyptian hull, through its heart if a poet would speak to emerge spitting fire over the deck beyond. Ragged sky shows through in that instant and the torn parts of plank and frame and bloody body.

Down then up, pitching for'ard arrows clink against our bronze shields. Our slings and ballista return shots. But, in that instant of surprise the Belisama cuts right alongside the Egyptian shearing-off the entire row of oars and leaving the ship to flounder as waves caught it's starboard side and twisted … Then it dove by us billowing smoke from the mainsail cabin and drunk with the opposed tack of tiller and swells crashed on toward the south-east.

Crewmen first seek their main chance to live , facing that wall-of-sticks yet as discipline returns we flay their stern with ballista fire and sling-pellets and oak shafts as a farewell laying their tillermen in a welter of blood and broken spines. Our bolts and slings send another two-dozen pitch-covered sailors to flaming hades, and drive the rest from the steering-oars. Havoc to the leader destroys their fleet. The galley that had flown their lee-side had got so far against the wind it was stolen away by surf , caught, rolled over and its hull shattered by the shoal-beaks tossing its smashed wooden bones to darkling skies. The third fared no better at an even match. Both of us sailed beam on and at four ship-lengths exchanged our iron-tipped ballista shafts. We cracked their high curved bow-planks so nose-first it took a large swell and never recovered , its beak driving deeper and deeper into the unforgiving water and stern tilting up, rising above then slipping and slipping away down screaming for blood and a vengeance not granted beneath the swells.

The Belisama herself sails no more than a dozen boat-lengths from the small rock islands that scatter along Cyprus western shore; bandit savages line those pebble beaches; their darts and arrows mark our hull like pox a maiden. We return ballista fire, and ripping gore from their line while surf washes flayed bleeding bodies out to the dogfish. Sandbar shallows twice scored the keel , but every man takes to the oars in a grunting, shitting chaos of pain that forces our keel about, out into rip current swells and by damnable Astartes tit the shallows let us pass. Wearing easterly again twice our brass-edged keel bounces from hidden limestone shoals as if Cerberus nine heads have shrunken to four. We drain our ale-casks, swearing the paeon not singing and iron swords we clash on bronze shields and piss in the trace of sunken enemies.