“Fire”, bellows Rusa: from our launch in a steam-cloud roars another Aeneas rocket, while from four-man ballista both bronze-headed shafts loose. All three rutting killers, smashing through hands-breath ceder strakes leaving fractured bleeding holes. As their hull relaxes, passing, those holes tunnel into the sea and fountains of water and gore spout above their deck-rails. Rusa below counting cadence behind the drumbeat. “Steady, steady … fire ya whore fucking bastards!” Flocks of our flint-tipped arrows mate with enemy deckmen so few among bleeding bodies will try plug their hull and many doing so stumble madly into the hungry sea. Water surges. Our scorpions hammer. They are dying as a wounded panther dies biting its own blood.
Still deadly. Darts shatter against our bronze and boar hide shields. A ballista shaft catches the man beside me, ripping a red splatter through his mailed throat and carrying him away across the deck and over the larboard hull. His oars-mate vomits and my shield covers the hole. Desperate, yet instants later Helios rising, flaring bright a fire race flew from our weapons pallets. Pitching up, up and still higher Astaroths entire exposed tar sealed larboard hull roars skyward in flames. Ten oilpots exploding against , punching through her weeping ceder strakes and all the oceans of Poseidon may not quench that flame of pitch and tar and phosphor of nitre. Another swell brought the smoking galley into view, swirling green and orange flames engulfing the entire deck.
“Sails on the starboard bow, Sar ...”
“Wear away,” west by south,” I cry to the tillermen. We can out-sail an entire army of such single masted rowed galleys. Mars paeon has become ours, a gods mantel of glory yet I savvy glory fails as victories brother. In that evening-long running battle they drive us back from the southern passage. We pay with a splintered foremast yard which redwood I thought to last forever, nine cracked bones and five of my tars dead bearing arrows in their throats. The seas clear of attack as a new eastern moon calls awake southerning Rigil.
So does dark Yaga drink his fill. Our crew swells with the blood-rage, but war-council says 'enough'. I must agree, seeing no profit in blood-drenched pride. We run to the north-west nursing wind which had gone against us backing over the Phoenician mainland. Had the Egyptian schooners come for us? Didn't matter when the rover hulls over-matched us three-to-one. We may no longer sail directly to Amathus on Cyprus southern coast, and so take northing leeway the wind gives us. May the goddess be pleased. On the eighth day after leaving Temple of Storks, and eighteenth since departing fair Hyrkon, the moon rising just south-of-east with Scorpion beneath us I sign and date the log.
Belisama shoulders white-caps off heavy green seas; raider galleys foundering in sharp choppy swells drop behind; may their throats feels the copper blades of western Cyprus savages. This night we bury our comrades at sea. Two born dark lowlanders from Tigress swamps, and Urshanabi their ferryman demands a hand ax for passage rights not a coin. Such we form from ballast-rock and fairly clothed we send them on to the grey caverns where, but for the most evil all humans find their rest. You think you're a tough sailor boyo, stealing shark-guts from a squids beak till you strap two lead weights to a friends cold feet and slide overboard the linen bag with his body sewn-up inside. That ax, that silver coin in his mouth will never again make his blood boil, no poncy Rhodian whore ever again feels his rough sympathy. Picts in the crew strip to their blue tattoos and play bloody wild feckin' windbags calling their Sluag hosts to reeve fear into enemies and idlers off watch drink hot ale till they piss red.
So begins the forced long reach north , sailing the narrow curved tube where Cyprus extends sharply drawing toward the ragged Syrian coastal hills. Island may it be , but one of its Asian homeland. Three days then of beating up to the wind till after a final short vicious evening battle against gales flowing down the steep Cilician Gates - - its swirl producing a north-running chop - - we may throw bow-sprint across the western stream of Harpys face.
How glorious to feel wind streaming over the larboard stern. How different the northern and southern passages, one still feeling the icewalls breath while the other gentled by the eastern pine forests. We come round that low Syrian hill country with mainsail billowing to Eurus at Cyprus dagger-like eastern point. It's dry here, from the Asian winds and even from a league off-shore we do see rolling grey cloud and red-tipped fingers of a monstrous range-fire sweeping north-to-south. Heketeas mutters evilly about burning omens and himself weaves a dog-size laural of Hephastus and baiting it with sardine on a bone hook tosses git flaming over the stern. It costs the shark that strikes his life, bone snagged bloody snout torn apart when he cannot not dive.
Well before daybreak when Auge silver slit first forms in the east a thin dark hull passes, of bowed Egyptian form dark as Ceberus should the black river he forsake to poach among the living. Fortunate sailors tell stories of such vessels all mates , but one taken down to the unsee-able depths, claimed of Poseidons aborted daughter whisper ancient tillermen . A seaman does not casually pass on this horror. By us it passes within bowshot sailing east. Sheets are rigged fore and aft, its tack crisp and mizzen reefed. The masts carry no light and make the best of clewed linen sail and a steady thrum of sixty oars. A bronze warriors beak rides just below the sprityard and faintly catching starlight, but the hull is taken low by the stern, quarterdeck awash between crests and by discipline citizen sailed. Not always demon Pazuzu have I seen before, similarly darkened in a south wind, but such a cautious, long striding vessel-of-state with two grave forms melded into the tiller. Creepy bastards! They are wearing to starboard, but may come about in heartbeats.
A golden eyed rope boy sizzles down a shroud with the sighting. “Call out the first watch and light us up, Kalicrates. Show them our heat!”
Seventy bare feet pound the deck and leap to shrouds and masts. From stern post to top gallant to sprityard oil-lamps are primed and lit; our trade-banner stained and sparkling of dolphin, bull and snake rides just above quarterdeck; we glow like a bronze-shelled firefly. Torch lit ballista and spark flashing slingpots glow , their manning signaled by sparks from fifty hash-pipes showing we are no easy fat-belly merchant. Binnacle, tiller and quarterdeck lamps blaze. I do not know how to declare more, beside an act of war.
Perhaps it is enough; we watch for a sign. Quiet says the night air. Corsair trace runs straight and sheets do not flutter; they perhaps have had a maw full of fight, their masters bound for repair and captain bound to Mars, but pleading Taras wisdom flashing back from its binnacle lamp only the signal'Keftiu' and passing us by. I do not believe in omens, but even less in the tip of Cyprus. Our fluorescent trace and theirs mingle, the join uncanny and smooth as Cybelle thigh. We put to the masts every patch of canvas we can muster and run down the isles long western finger in a course wild and plunging between rocky, cave-ridden shore and flocks of triangle-sail fallucas, faint as ravens luffing air to the south-east, fallucas stuffed with brass hatchet-heads and hawk-eyed Syrian pillagers.
It had got beyond mid-day; deck-tar melts between planks. Farmer cottages dot the starboard rail and above them a scatter of roundhouse stone bastions build by the old ones and now occupied by stronger klan families able to defend more than one wall and one field; from my grandfathers library etchings or as any may see competition for life on Cyprus neither began nor ends.
“See their disrespect? They are sucking us in,” Artyphon observes. For days she has kept to a small womans room deep in the hull with her maiden, another sailors widow who tends the rope-boys and two short-sword armed Lesbians who bleed as females, but trade as men.
“We have committed to the rudder bronze.”
“Pray my masters skin is not so treated.” Moods of Artyphon I may measure in words - - she being wife and lover and council when words fill with numbers, games or silly allusions while she plays widow beneath MASTERS halter. I pray she forbear.
“Then you must hold me closer at night to ensure Bogge-spirits do not seize me.”
“Damn your Bogges, husband and your risks.” She has gone below and I follow.
A captains bed holds few secrets, when lookouts freely rap on the teak door. Mirror signals are tracing our approach as do outriders bearing Salamis banner of copper, horn and olive ; troops harry our stern trace from one lordling to another. I have returned to deck. Our ballista follow their intent, though even if desired their bolts could never reach us. Belisamas crew curse them. Teutors bowmen deviled by the heat kill a pair of their horses throwing bowed riders into the surf. Horses are expensive and followers now keep to the dunes.
We have no such escape. True, Artyphon has saved the lemons, and so our teeth, by a veined ceramic that cools inside as salt water evaporates from it's surface. But, the Belisama leaks as any bucket. Tar, bitumen and the stinking pitch drip painted every surface from shrouds to oars to mens soles and legs the liquids burning uncovered shins. Boiled water kept below-deck . . . that greens in a day I ration to a bamboo mug per watch.
“Fire away,” comes the call. Between the Myceneii Chersonese and the Green Isles I can count twenty charted watch towers and nine light houses. So at the worst of time shouts of joy echo from lookouts. There, at our crows nest horizon hangs the yellow lighthouse tower astride Salamis sandstone breakwater. We wear south behind Eurus strong breath that throws white spray high over the sandstone and passing dive straight toward the yellow-pine and pitch moles of Salamis, coming up on the larboard in a scorching sun too bright to see. A rope-boy on look-out comes rocketing down a shroud. “If the captain please all lookouts see smoke beside the harbor.”
“So this is … Alashiya,” says Mykron folding over an ancient Minoan parchment map. “All Asia is divided into three parts, and those three parts change with every trading visit.”
“Ptaw,” spit Tar chewing on his ivory hash pipe. “There's more peoples beyond the coast ain't never changed since the Bogges!” He calls for a rope-boy to bring a skin of ale. “That smoke is probably from a forge.”
“Or from the last raiding party … whomever got their teeth,” I say reminded of its loss when Crete burned. “You know the pirates along this coast.”
“Greeks looking for cheap copper.”
“Or Troas looking for cheap Greeks,” carps Mykron laughing wickedly. “Dagon is a hungry half-fish bastard .”
The boy blushes and runs back up the shrouds only to shout down again.” Buildings burned!”
I spit overboard. Even now loss of Cyprus tastes bitter to Hyrkon traders as our fathers fathers ne grandfathers had brought to them our jewels. Primative natives wallowed in copper dust, smelting the odd lump with roast duck! Minoan traders brought the anvil, the forge, the charcoal furnace … all men now call the working of metals. “Not all children of Minos serve their kin,” I scoff to Artyphon.
Artyphon rolls her eyes. “A father who never carried a whip!”
“Feckin-A Hittites,” spits Mykron and pads away to the foredeck and up to adjust sprityard lines. We have passed the break-water and shattered lighthouse glass dome; Telemedons crew have clewed the jiffied mainsail fore and aft. We step along on spanker and jib and a dozen oarsmen, ready to come-about should the moles prove hostile. Two dozen men have armed below-decks, and cross-bows drawn and bolted. One of our cooks prowls the sprint-yard in seers mantle, a relieving vision for armed harbor defenders and small loss should an arrow find his one eye.
I pace the quarterdeck. Mainmast watch has got round to a pair of young Balearics, one of whom blond hair flying behind comes rocketing down the shrouds. “Alaine, if the captain please. Forty hoplites armored and armed on the mole,; there's slingers and archers behind … and a catapult waiting for us. If it please the captain... and there's a black banner atop the foremost tower.”
It feckin-A pisses off the captain mightily. “Only forty, Alaine? No cross-bowmen?”
He knows he missed it, and it takes away his breath without a word coming forth. Tar Avelon had advanced from the tiller. “ Their helmet style, boy … what be the helmet style?”
“Like a bees nest, a conical helm, and rectangular scale chest armor,” the boy puffs looking first to toothless Tar and then me. “Curve helmet and scale corslett so they must be Assyrian.”
I suppress a laugh. “So says the new captain,” I bark at Tar; he has been tutoring the boy. “Well damme we shall certainly beat them out of it if they are not!” The boy blushes red. “The young captain surely knows if they carry sapara?”
Flustered, but fighting back, he says . “They … they carry spears … spears Captain, and the points are dull not shiny.”
Oh for the childs eyes.... “We'll take that for free, and nothing lost, Alaine. Go now. Waste not a moment! Get back up to your mate.” He scurries away. I think of him as a razor spear-point needing only the thickened ash shaft. Assyrian my ass … who goes to battle with a dull spear I ponder then call my first mate. “Hear that Rusa? No shine to the iron spear-points. Has sand left the sea or fish-oil the fish? Must mean that the Captains are poor … piss poor.”
“Hittites, then Captain and they're re-using the Assyrian armor .”
“Exactly. Damn their eyes … probably stripped from dead bodies. Only change changes in Cyprus.” I was spewing venom. “What's the black flag?”
One of the cities three stone battlements lay in a jumble of stone on the gravel beach. Its open firing slits had been hooked by ship cranes and torn down. Another still thrust out from the quay, and atop that battlement flys a wind-whipped black flag. Firm pointed breasts aside, a naked hag hangs emblazoned on the linen fabric.
“The plague flag,” mutters Rusa. “Haya the bitch goddess.” Rusa was first son from an ancient Cretan family of the inland city Phaestos. They were of the palace ruler cults and not traders. “My brothers ship put into such a city once – Nicomedia in the Bosporus – and left with half his crew dead. Anyway it stinks like barnyards.”
“Reef the mainsail,” Telemydon. Get the mizzen clewed around”. We will get no closer than needed. City stench soaked into the harbor. “That's not the plague smell Rusa, but cattle-piss for the forging and that's never changed.” I slap his leather armed shoulder. “The outer city we'll not enter. Our business is there ...” I point larboard to a narrow turret-lined channel. “That's the inner city and shipyard! For all I care they can collect Minervas sweat in a thimble. But the scale armor … for men in the towers layer upon layer, you can't get an arrow through the best of it.”
“Hungry bastards need feeding.” Mykon had just come down from the crows-nest and he was strapping on a bronze short-sword. “Let's make sure it's not us they chew on.” Now he laces a hip-protector of triple-layered boiled leather. “I know about the feckin-A bronze pintles, but do we really need to put into this vipers-nest?”
“Do we want our rudder rotting out of the tiller-mans hand?” We pass a forge drawn down to the waters edge; bellows heave into it's concrete belly and the brick smokestack belches a swirling gray column. “Yes,” I exclaim. “Now get to feckin-A careful work fast as bees buzz before these mongrel savages cut our throats.” We intend to re-mast with three bolted, fitted and glued triangular yew sections forming the mast so bending in any direction was opposed by compression of two grains. Then bronze plates and bolts will be laid deep into the hull and along the thick stem of the mainmast. Below deck we have set a root, a bracing system should we try to raise a second mast. Finally at the cost of lives and peace and a redwood basket of Hyrkon electrum we need bronze fittings, pintle and main-pin for the rudder and tiller.
We come into the channel slowly under a trade banner, of Sinopian silk silver-threaded on gold an image of one Hyrkon electrum. Belisama slips past city moles and the hoplites towers, and passing sunk wreckage and keel boards raised by the stern above the surface of two black-tarred galleys. Damage days old … behind us three green flags snap in the breeze having been raised and knotted to a dock whose deck timbers are charred and poles smashed … it had once been a defensive log fort built on a raised sandbar, but no longer. The flags warning away from an attack ... the fearsome banners of Enyo, Phobos, and Deimos. Now the source of the smoke becomes clear. The fishing village outside the town walls had recently been burned. Two walled defensive earth-mounds had been breached and ballistas atop them smashed. Such had been homes and watch-towers and workrooms, now nothing , but charred beams and ash right down to wooden pilings. What petty viciousness had brought the raiders to destroy top to bottom … thatch, walls and foundations. Zeus beard are they being warned away from us? Thirty … forty homes … shops .. storage … flowers newly cut, ribboned and bound to poles with ashes of two dozen funeral pyres are scattered throughout the wreckage, and whether the plague has attacked before or after the pirates made no difference to the dead.
Exposed and standing up to the rail I shout out, “Mycenae?”
From a keep high on the stone wall an arrow whistled its path thumping into the hull-plank beneath where I stood. “Keftiu!” , comes the returning shout. Lie … a damned lie... I raise my traders staff, but no further response comes. Bad fortune! Sea raiders had surprised the town, a night attack perhaps that was clear, for the attackers were not recognized. But while fishermen had been burned out the town walls and bronze-bound gates held.
Tar stumbles beside me . “Our own people Sar …!”
“Never!” I spit and turn away surveying the damage. Unmarked also the channel catapult towers , excepting the first that had been hooked by a ships crane and pulled down into rubble. “Carthage would know that method,” I mumble to noone and Tar spits his chew returning to his tiller post.
What ploy I think is worth the loss of two galleys? Was sickness in the city known and weakness assumed? This far and no farther came the rovers … approaching the inner city and shipyards. A troop of horse trails us along the bank. We glide by them staying to center channel along a marshy stand of piney fir and redwood that guilds-men preserve. Past the brick chain-towers the air tastes of metal, brine water thickened and turned a dirty green color. But no stench of sewers or boat bilge. Three plagues in memory had culled the townsmen, and oracles blamed poisoned bile of Syrians. There after city sewers were run into the boiling sloppage from bronze cooling pits and iron forges. The plagues ceased as metal dazed and broken men abounded. Not a boats-width separates us from the iron fanged towers. We creep alongside with their windmill arms and iron buckles thick as a mans thigh welded to the dragging bronze chain, then over the chain and into the waterway connecting the grizzled, rock-walled shipyard.
“Pray they welcome money not yet contracted,” snipes Artyphon. “It's a grey place, no smile every cheats the rule.” Yes, I think. So like the inner courtyard of a satrap, husbanding his power no burned towers or broken brick mark an attack. Raiders have not tried their fortunes against the seafaring warlords. Artyphon goes below, to find proper dress, but arches back a word. “Fortunate dear Master Cibias that we are fat, not thin.”
I consider: Salamis fat reputation fills it belly. Five other vessels precede us: three Latin sardine buses from the much worn fleet that works north of Rhodes, an oak-framed Nordic vessel-of-state it's iron fixtures rotting, and the tall bow cut and sleek well-yarded masts of an open sea sixty-oar bireme. It wore the silver tree banner of Ionian Silene much beloved by the bankers of Syrian Byblos. Crew swarms the decks and yards. Our ocelot climbs the sprityard and screams at a brace of wolfhounds chained larboard to a bireme shroud thimble. Their warhorn crashes a harsh iron greeting; a respectful greeting I believe they had prepared for worse than us. The heart pine hull had been recently scraped and the foremast sports new bronze pulleys. Jiffied mainsail and oarsmen breaking back it was ready to leave and doing so in all haste.
'Doron' , I think. His catcall voice. “Cibias, still sucking the Nerites tit I see.” NaziBu pissed over our larboard rail “Water water everywhere … the gods await your speed,” came shouting across from the bireme foredeck.
“The Syrian nymphs demanded our service, when our bows crossed the eastern point; was your daughter among them as I believe …?”
The wind stiffens and I catch only ..”... whales fucking your asshole...”
We signal. “Who fought?”
The shout returns. “Men!”
I spit. Rusa comes beside me, hard-faced. “He's one of ours, isn't he?”
“So the King says … flying a Byblos flag, but with the cut of a Spartan Greek. I didn't see him at the trade council meeting.” I look over and wave at the departing bireme. “Whales you say, Don't run over a fluke, Doron, but by all means try to run through a sperm whales jaw.”
There … gripping a bronze braille on the fore-mast … Doron. I put the glass on him. Same cruel scar on his cheek, same cap and huge emerald. He shouts through a brass tube. “Bitter, captain. We have a hold of Gaulish oak to reach Egypt far before yours. Our price will be the Pharaohs youngest daughter. And yours …?”
They had lifted anchors and under stay-sail and oar wear down the channel, their rudders just passing our bow. I go forward to the cage holding our ocelot and unlatching allow the cat to leap upon my shoulder. And call out. “We will have their Bastet cat goddess fucked like she's never been fucked before!”
“You will get the cat-bitch you deserve,” his voice booms. Then he spit through the rail and two of his crew piss over the hull beside him.
More than enough of an open challenge. Beyond landfall two well-armed ships would have settled matters, but fighting in a foreign harbor can only bring ruin to both. Sailors feel it, gather larboard and I with them … how sweat drenched you, yet it put a chill to our bones from a curse laid on you by a fellow sailor. May sharks chew his cold bones. Them fading … the four banks of oars dashing a steady beat to their drummers call. The ancient boatyard harbor coming before us, ruint marble facades and crumbling stella old before the Minoan story-tellers returned to our mountain-top temples reciting memories of their grandfathers mothers witches.
A dark omen laid for the Belisama final building, but the afternoon sunny. Soon my crew becomes more taken by the harbors ancient bones , a mute cold story-teller itself in limestone and granite before men for whom ancient meant before the Bogge. Nothing from those silent bastards the Bogge who lived without understanding and so left no record. Traders records say this much: said at a time of rain when ceder wove rough-bark thatch through what is now desert , beaten gold sheets record guilds of bronze-men having pledged nine-hundred winters before Minoans built the wall. Some records said there were caves known to miners when copper first was tunneled out that showed the old painting, of creatures that could not be – the long-fanged tigers, crocodiles and elephants and the god-like silver crusted men who painted, but I'd never seen those paintings.
Two dozen times I'd ported a ship in Cyprus … more than enough to send me looking for the long past, for the paintings in my mothers library scrolls and I had found nothing! What had been and was no longer – I found pits dug out with the walls of copper ore and sent to the sky burning. Now faces curse us … they want our coin , our ships and tinned-silver gears, but they don't want our ballista.
Men will fight when they may or when they must, and for Salamis I need make both options sour. NaziBu stands beside me scanning the high walls , working a gob of black-tar hash and plating a bracelet of summac-berry between horns of shark-teeth. “Not fit to rule a Theban whorehouse, those men-at-arms I'd feed their guts to Cerberus.” A bowman on the wall pissed over the side laughing with spear-throwers on either side. NaziBu spit, “I'd fix 'em good one man at a time.”
My fists have come clenched; so corrupted and misused has all Cyprus become. “Smile at them NaziBu. We don't need Lachesis deciding today is our last day.” Since Artyphon shares my bed she has accused me of striving, of being a prig whose pleasure was to see others unsatisfied. For a Parthian and a Jew she is far from a simple women, yet … yet … I am watching sparks and smoke from the forge-pits hanging low and sullen and dirty over the water. “Just four weeks, Mykon. We've got to earn our welcome and stretch it out to four weeks .”
“My boyos can shift out a rudder in four days,” boasted NaziBu.
“Shift you could,” I say harshly, “after the bronze is measured out , forged and cured. You could work it out in repair time. I have”. But, NaziBu has one time right; four days was also the time required to get a fast cutter from Cyprus to Egypt. The Egyptian factors of Heryklites and in particular the harbor-master Amum would have plenty of warning we would arrive. But , would he have time to consult upriver with his masters in Thebes. My face shadows ...
NaziBu reads my mind ...”if Thebes still rules the delta, eh Cap'in. We don't know if royal scribes can over-rule the Carthaginian factors in Heryklites. RAs own bugger he is, so put to his own devices Amum would be waiting .”
Mykon points to the war towers bracketing the quay. Massive ballista sit atop each. “If they get Europas bug up their asshole, and we get those burning copper rivets into the hull I'll give us four hours.”
“There, port-side,” hisses Faelon, “ beside the signals mast. Is that a tower or a chimney? One tube out the side, but …. call to the lookout.”
“Quick enough a shout returns. “No opening in the tower roof Sar. But there's a metal tank attached to the farside. Don't think it can move.”
“If it can't rotate, then its not a ballista, whatever comes out the tube.”
“Mebby it's deception,” japs Tar. They wait till yer right in line, like a man waits fer an uppity whore ta bend over … he he...”
“Any ideas what might come out of such a tube?”
“Ink like a squid, poison like a cobra or boiling water, like those seaside volcano cones off Naxos?”
“I seen … seen fire like a spray come from a pool in Lybia,” Drest manages. “There be salt water and oil mixed in that pool and sudden like the flame erupted right up through the middle. Toasted the oil skimmers that's for sure. Nothing like this tower though …. ”
The tower holds its secret and boyos eyes widen as we pass under it. A new enemy weapon we did not need. Quiet words seem best. “Yes I fear deception, but like all men they fear the man who pays them even more than the man who feeds them. Unlike Egypt they have to trade.” There!” I point. “Bastards set new moles and pulley chains since the last time we docked here. Even with those weapons looking straight down our throats, they need to do business.”
Two skulls come out to inspect our hull, rowing around, looking for signs of plague or leaking oilpots or iron helmed raiders packed tight below decks. One stinking pockmarked rat tries climbing into a hawse hole, and for his trouble gets pitched into the harbor . I had sent ahead by Carian messenger forty gold stators and that gold from a Captain who would return had lowered the waterway chain. Such bribe get us in. Negotiations for getting out start before the first longboat touches water.