“Oh by Zeus foot so it may, should a boyo swive enough to earn his spurs Ha haha..” We could be amused, with warbeaks Phonecii and Greek burning from gulfs end to Corinths waterfront whorehouses.
NaziBu plaintive. “Dorians think Troas can't last another year.” Men-at-arms rush toward the door as if following Ashurs words which echo down a history not given me; the women mutter endearments arm in arm till the last moment as the oak doors creak and groan and bearing on it's rollers swings closed.
“She will give him nothing, until he rules her,” snaps Artyphon beneath her breath, tapping her fingers like drumsticks and shaking her head toward Lemtas couch as it vanished in the last squeeze of green light. So quickly women see the cuckolds horns. Ashurs walls pinch behind us.
Outside. Sudden darkness as torches have burned down. Light cold rain drips between the walls. It's so shallow, the crust between a traders warm hull and Diannas native heaven. Hearth I wanted to say, for men perform Her worship circled by lithes on smooth marble or limestone before great iron-gathered fires. Men have never lived without temples, surely not Minos yet Gaia knows them not. Conflict, contradiction, chaos I see – my father once whipped me for such blasphemy and tutor sent me scrambling into a hemp canvas forest to wax the spars, then return over the same slippery oak.
Tightly bundled in sealskin Artyphon whistles:
Oh it's Nephil this and Nephil that
And Nephil sing the news.
But, it's Nephil roll the thunder
When bloody Hector chants 'is muse.
Hoplites manfully break order, banging sword-hilts to shields. “By the gods has she gotten up a good rattle,” NaziBu rants sharply. “Perceptive too. He strikes as a man not to be used.” Pushed beside her NaziBu scrapes from a glass eye, which comes away as their fermentists say a Gaulish jello.
“Yet strikes hard only when needed,” she bawds clawing my ribs as the almond-eye redhead had Nephil lust pouring in through the wounds. “A man best sets his own jib, as my master has said ...”
Lightening strikes near, tickling our feet as it gathers … Pontis island mages say - electros – as a comb gathers them sparking from sheeps wool. Other lightening, also, gathering about Ashur and Lemta, but Artyphons slippery take on drummer-boyo I cannot believe. Having clasped Artyphon close she squirms till my hand makes her gasp.
“Tis him!” And veils her face.
A right powerful villain; such was my last view of the sturdy drummer, a whore-master vigorously proclaiming his determination to mount and sail both a lusty paramour and roiling ships hull. Ambition and arrogance fit for a prince … if not so polished. So men have named their ships after women since Arcane first sailed between the Pillars! So Ashur concocting much gaiety to obtain little, waiting … waiting for the birds that must follow me. Did he already guess the message was from Minos older son in Thebes? My dear firefly Artyphon. She has done well, deceiving the Satrap and his women as a loquacious and flighty slave wench who, amusing before the fireplace should serve even more warmly under a down mattress cover.
Then her eyes gleamed. “What of the message?”
“Message … ,” I smile. “One number chasing another,” I say humorously, dropping her question for another. “Should a lord be jealous … of a drummer?” Should a captain I wonder equally and wink at Artyphon. “Your conquests would embarrass Ashur Dan himself! Poor drummer boy could not remove his eyes from your waist where the belt bares pink warm flesh. Such a ruler of men you are my dear love.” She touched my gift of rubies, flashing red in light where the belt undone. “You are bold to wear a pirates britches.”
Artyphon chattered, flushing. “So master stumbles over water, paying more attention to beach surf than to the human tide. Drummer boy indeed! Did you notice the wooden drumblocks he used beating the skins? The side under each palm held a metal edge … very clever hand axes should a visitor prove a villain.” I shrugged, never having seen a thing. She bantered on. “Phryne thinks Ashur can't hold Crete. Or Syria Rhodes for that matter. Babylon shudders, Phoenicians retreat toward Carthage while Greek states swarm like wasps. Poor Phryne, born the only daughter of wealth and pampered so. She's already shipped her best jewels to Tyre.” She ends where she had started. “The message signature .. not King Minos hand, but one of his sons.”
“As you well know by ...”
“By the number, as you said, but Ashur understood nothing of the ancient Minoan script which forms the code. When writing began, each man is numbered. I know the Kings number … ”
My dear firefly. Action of the gods excluded, each of the real had a number. So many horse, so many pigs, I breath crossing the river … each reality numbered. So men wrote; I can hardly conceal the smile for this women who is mine. “Phryne moves her jewels east? Does she separate pearls and rubies from Syrian stators? If so, then what was Queen Mary thinking, of her western flow?”
“Suddenly seizing opportunity? Perhaps the same as our new companion, a hop, not a flow,” quizzed NaziBu. Under his rain hat, he was puzzling a twist of poison tarric vine. “Ashurs dragoman says poachers have killed all the mountain water cows for shield hides. Farmers cannot run to Syria.” He attached a water cow talisman to warm wax beneath a torch.
“Continue such wisdom NaziBu and the King will call your council. See then if your nights are spent in pleasure, rather than reading the Kings scrolls and Zeus-be-damned if you miss , but one paragraph of eye-watering Babylon scratches! ”
He spit two sips of his brown Syrian hash plug. “Ain't bein' Kings that survives the next hop Captain if hops they be. We sail the entire sea yet must trade from one table to the next.”
Mist shields our faces, yet his mind I feel sweeping all our traders and routes. A man preparing for family thinks that cautious path as if he steps it! Again. “Of all the east and west yet sprouted Captain Cibias I surmise it being Latiums stone cottages one of my childrens children see as home. May Aphrodites joy allow Hyrkon always to find the snake hole.”
Six of Ashurs house-carls provide escort. We have brought wine skins with us, the local red hot and cut with lime juice which passes around on rejoining our escort. Eleven men who brought up, Hittite swordsmen are joined by four horse traders obviously unwilling to see their mounts rented alone into such a dismal van. Four paid bullies follow them, each done out in long hatchets and leather padding which shares strength and cleverness of an ox. Twenty-five guards makes safe; nonsense, but our train appears like a hard-ass marching column. No cut-purse will advance on us. We wind downward through the orchards from the rain swept keep, and patches of glittering stars fall to the mists. Besotted pounded bark trailway exchanges for gravel. Wind swirls the damp misty night through our sheepskins and around our pitch torches and lanterns. On such a night they are no light at all.
Yet the message, that glows like Venus. Oily rogue Didikase, Minos eldest son birding a date, Mechira, two moon-rise to the future, a Nile harbor canal three leagues south of Heraclitus and the name of a women I don't know.
“Not marking ourself too well are we now,” hectors NaziBu, his eyes flitting from the lanterns into the sideways dark.
“Safe as maids in Masters hayloft,” carps Artyphon.
“Should a maid remain,” I snipe.
“Quiet”, growls the Carian officer; listening to wind-drift too long; his Hittite swordsmen form to a triangle. “Mind you weapons,” he snarks moving among us. Looking up at me. “You're a tall target, fucker.” The night grows a forest of dark voices chattering from branch to rock to swale and promising no good for you. Later … much later I imagined such a threat and stopping for the insult.
Thunder has rolled mostly to the west, heavy raindrops tick against ceramic and metal roofs while mist has fallen to earth. Lightening flashes between unseen clouds, brighting olive groves and at times turning the roadway from black to silver. We hunch along, retracing our path entering twisted city streets in a fog so strange and so thick our horses walk behind and our guards crawl from tree to tree. An olive grove at our rear, I have remounted; fog layers above my head. We have just left a join of four dirt alleyways leading into this broad passage, and warmth promises, as Belisama rests safely at the quay ending this cobblestone nightmare. I see this journey ended. Greystone walls converge to squeeze us inward, while rooftop lamps flicker uncertainly. Leather heels and iron horse shoes clip the cobbles. Before us twisting fog declares an oracle, an opening, a cavern populated by dancing, thrusting apparitions.
“Tighten up,” a swordsman shouts.”
“Slap a quarrel into that alley,” a guard beside me blurts to his companion. It's a gutteral speculation followed by his spear rising, a TWANG of crossbow , wet-on-my-face blood bursting between bronze scales spraying my chin as an arrow reams his throat.
“Who's this bitch,” a spearman snarls thrusting his point into a black shadow. On retrieve a mans pierced body staggers gigged like a carp, flopping into the street and screaming helpless for his whores tit.
Another shaft burrows iron head into my leather saddle. Tears through into flesh. “Press them, press them,” I shout. My mount bucks and I slide sidesaddle from the falling horse to the cobblestones with shield and hand-ax and short-sword and bleeding leg and a helmed shadow in full leather chaps appears not 10 steps away with a cross-bow swinging upwards and he will kill me.
“Assassins”, shouts NaziBu, dropping to a knee then driving for'ard while extending a short spear his cloak has hidden. A scatter of masked swordsmen and archers force a stumbling retreat covered by the Hittite Lieutenants slashing steeled longsword.
“Bastard,” I shout coming first with the hand-ax and my attackers face cleaved by basalt edge dies chewing rock while his bolt flies skyward where fog does not end. He comes a step early; now his companions swarm over us.
A blind thought – all's uncertain in this fog. Shall we have mummers? This I think with blood-spattered face, while chanting dark Yagas paean an assassins swarm sweeps directly down the broad passageway. First line of ash spearshafts prods the mist; we are thrust backward into the larger area where many alleys become one. A crazy thought races my action, that at sea boarding attacks come larboard and starboard, but here each alley holds darts, bolts, shafts and blades which dog us unrelenting. From the main road a flight of arrows thrust by thwanging Syrian recurves carries over my head, burying into a van of short spear assassins coming up behind, along the olive groves. Ten men fall spouting blood and three guards drive back their stumbling second line.
Short lived safety; I turn … turn again into a shortspear grazing my shoulder. A shield rams upward into mine, sword seeking the under thrust, yet upwards I leap even higher to drive my spearpoint into an iron socketed eyeball … how blood gushes … more vampire shades, they flit among us and sting with iron fangs. The first guard for'ard has impaled a spearman, who drove his ash weapon completely though the guards chest and they stand impaled together until other men knock them over. The attack of darting shadowy figures hurls itself from the mist between stone buildings so swiftly that three of our guards lay twitching on the cobbles before my sword has cleared a path to its first enemy. “Artyphon to me,” I shout only to find her hand gripping my belt. “At them now ...” A sling pellet grazes my head, a hand ax my foot and I have driven my blade thrusting up spear shaft and under oaken shield, burying into the throat of a bearded attacker.
An ax flickers over the dead mans shoulder; it will my head, but a shield Artyphon has taken from a dead guard deflects it high. I stab my sword at the masked face and feel the sawing of bronze through teeth and jaw and throat. I manage an outraged shout “My life, kitten ...” were she become fury by the ships caged ocelot. Her back slams against mine as she deflects a mist shrouded sword thrust. I swing my blade in a long curve hearing a scream as bone and gristle cleave.
“High,” I scream and stab low our blades spitting the wool-faced assassin for his hand spills the star-cutters of that profession. “Now there,” my arm reaches out ...
Our officers helm is surrounded by a dance of blades and he rages. “By Baal butcher them, by Anus butcher them, by Shaus butcher them ...” Surrounded, yet as we crash into his attackers he cuts himself free, iron clatters upon the cobblestone and men scream. Steeled blades scream on brass greaves; bronze axes shatter ceramic buckles, killing finds a way to soft flesh.
“Behind you Artyphon!” She ducks, I catch the blade tip on an ivory guard and it shatters, but not the sharp of my own sword sliding into the assassins armpit. Screaming … her hand ax cuts his knee to the bone. A slingers lead ball unconcerned for the living splashes into his eye and he silently falls vanishing … dark death never quiet cannot be seen in a wild, mindless night melee.
A horse trader is caught by a steel blade, shoulder cleaved yet without sobbing thrusts his torch into the attackers face; both collapse in a burning pile. More! Nimble. They weave about us thick and snarling as a wolf pack! Arrows and darts catch whom they will, so outnumbered are we and so casual the attacking violence. Yet no pack of bandit dogs are these enemies, as a bronze cuirass sheds my sword stroke. His short spear returns my thrust; I dodge and whipping around me Artyphons dirk finds the mans exposed neck. She has thrust her blade through vein and gristle and flesh and he goes down in a scream of frothy gore.
What can I see, but the man before me. We wear capes and they do not. They wear Median Tiaras thick with wool while our guards wear boiled leather half-helms and an iron strip from spine to nose. Chaos rules and blood and screams and the ripping of flesh. Those vanguard attackers swirl about us, while in the shadows slingers and archers flit darts into the melee. NaziBu has flung his three hand axes and now keeps two whirling pikemen at bay with a Parthian long sword. Two of the horse traders still live, flashing bright curved scimitars and small leather shields from beneath their robes. Still fighting, our van , but it's a desperate, heavy matter of scattered men to breath while two attackers whip blades front and side.
Artyphon and I deflect a mailed red-beard warriors huge iron ax – our bronze blades in ruins. His hands like a cave-bear paws, a silhouette against waves of metal sucking into and spewing from the alleyways. Strapping the ax he turns on us two as to dismember the pair against which prophecy our four hands drive a single twelve-hand ash spear for'ard at his groin. Suddenly a thunder of boot heels echoes from a small alley. Like the first crash of a hailstorm which closely follows, a white pillage against all warrior, ice stones sized as plums and smashing head and eyes and throat ... where a man will have peace and cunning there is no peace; cunning a stout ivory halft. Huge shouting above the phalanx bone-crushing roll . “At them boyos, at them bastards hard,” followed by an explosion of shining long pikes, “ feed 'em the bastards edge, feed it to their gullets” … say the hooked boarding weapons of a ships company. Holding a sheared oak ax-handle I smash a dead mans lemon wood shield into a bearded living mouth, smashing teeth and driving him under as the phalanx breaks for'ard. Stings stings how his axehead sting my waist have I no leathers? Artyphon dives onto him guilt-knife foraging his throat left and right his life spurting away.
Warning screams, curses, threats and orders; I understand the desert Aramaic as their officers try reforming a shield wall. It will not be. A bloody, slaughtering wave washes first over darters and slingers who had from the fringes distressed us so, slaughtered at the end of cold razored bronze. Spreading left and right the column of ash spears clears them away. Then the turning, quick slash , backing off and retreat of the swordsmen opposite us. They rallye screaming the cries of hashish adled and come on a last time singing to dark Yaga, but cannot match the pikes, so they leave a dead comrade for every two vanishing into the mist. Sounds of retreat echo from the cobbles and fade into the fog. Our shipmates advance.
Isolated blades clash, a sling pellet clips a shield rim and bounces away, howling blasphemy one wounded attacker trailing an arm staggers into lamplight to be transfixed by a pike. Surrounded by a fog of hopeless sobbing we have formed up in a knot: Artyphon, NaziBu and I, the two horse traders and five guards. Their Lieutenant lays dead with an ash bolt through his eye. Belisamas night watch outriders certain of victory, but unsure of the net caught us up in a circle of bronze pikes, hatchets and torches pushed close enough to scorch our faces. Rusa storms through the ring. “Sar! Once you vanished from the workshop we have been searching.”
In lantern glow fog shapes the dogs of Hades. Such a breathless piece of stinking death we have wrought. Two wounded attacked have been captured. Bodies shift and gleam and waver. “None to soon. Wine … have you a wineskin?”
One is thrust into my hands. “First we rousted the whorehouses,” Rusa spits. “We feared you'd been murdered, and if NaziBu is too ugly for us to care, then Artyphon phane too faire!”
I stumble between bodies, console him and slap the boars hide shield with my staff. “Just another trade mission good friend, from whence we buy insurance.” Bodies burn, bodies bleed, wounded cry for mercy. Wine pours over my face. I forsake mercy. “Take up our own, kill the others and strip what you may. Tomorrow we report to the city.” Unreal I think … all unreal. I rip the mask off a dead assassin; Syrian by the face, or Berber. Egyptian by body armour.
Mykron holds the lantern closer. “A traveler this one be, with a forge apprentice mark on his neck. We torture these other two Cap'an,” Mykron suggests? “They might know who paid them.”
“Vomit rushes to my throat; I bite it down. “I'll have no torture. Ask as a warrior by promising the Ferrymans coin, then cut their throats.” As all other assassins, both prisoners carry silver Egyptian stators; both remain silent, as would klansmen. They die easy -- honest blood spews -- but their souls will roam forever unwanted and ungrieved. Assassin bodies are loaded onto a cart. A torch wickers in light rain. Shields cover faces of our own dead. After dividing spoils and singing the paeon to Mars, Rusa unhappily scoffs. “We die hard and our enemies easy. Where is justice, where is vengeance?”
“First they pay in blood,” I say pointing to the cart.”
Rusa scoffs, with the madness of battle. “Blood? See my arm Cibias what seeps through the bandage!” He strikes a pike-tip to the cobbles. “Attack on a trader … how many did you lose .. eight? That many lost from the ships table. And families? Forcing payment to families is the Trade Councils power.”
Breathless, blood-soaked and barely alive such threats form the end-skin of most battles. “Under sail we are the Hyrkon council,” I say heavily. Seeking purchase for my feet. “A three month journey to any formal Council authority. They insure cargo … we just insured the skin on our bones.” Among the slaughter laughter abounds … Artyphon plucks at my bloody shoulder and waist. I had not noticed. “Weaker than I thought...,” stumbling ...” Let's get back ...” and then the kaleidescope of color rings across my vision, dark as black and shining as a rainbow flitting across my eyes and into my brain. I … I … word.
“Cibias your sword. Put down your sword!” I try calling out words, but my tongue ties knots.
“Snatch him up, Mykron!”
“His arm, not his belly, Zeus' feckin' blood! Rusa and Artyphon snatch at me, crying and laughing, the muse, the goddess … ; mist darkens, first closing in then rushing outwards …