“ Young mastmen reports the clash of iron swords,” I snipe to Elisedd, who has crawled up to deck from the rowing benches.
“Ashur and Achen having it out on bleeding streets,” Elisedd grinds “And steel swords not bronze,” he plucks at his leather plates and scoffs. “Big dogs only in this fight.”
“I savvy. But, see here, company approaches!” Achens man, the City tax-farmer has taken strides up our gangplank, has-pipe billowing and makes clear we are countryside rabble.
“You are called to council and trial at court, better known as Master Achens keep. Well maintained stone, for the unwary! Over there, see, right on the harbor quay.”
“And if I spit in your eye?”
He points to the first tower, and the riviting iron tube protruding. “Haste in judgement, my dear Cibias obscures all plans; including breath.” He turns away and marches dockside. “You are expected before Mesembria falls. Morning has sprung clear and crisp from the rains, but by every hint not enough to please Achen. “He vexes all, stalking his chartroom and cursing cold ale. Be early, Cibias.”
NaziBu scribes the gold-leaf message and Faelans falcon arrows it skyward. "Enough warning, I think" and Elisedd agrees. So washed in an ale-cask we appear to Achens court. All wear silver leaf-mail under workman deer-hide jerkins. “Half-helms are for the stray arrows and slingers. Pissed off, and hurling so even injured we dodged hailstones every street.” I remove my helm and place it on Achens limewood deck. “Haven't trained the peasants very well in the arts of war.”
He kicks my helm to the rug. “You, Cibias are debauched by the witches, stink ferment and spewing traitorous fumes. Reports are false … eyes bright and feet nimble … what damage I see is from drinking and whoring, if your little shekat is obliging. You Cibias are very much alive.” I still wear a heavy bandage on my left shoulder where a blade bit through leather plates and where Artyphons catgut stitches itch. “Patch on the head also. A slingers pellet? I didn't know you wore helms.”
“Unseasonable rainy weather favors the villain. Skulking you know ...” Achen waits, to see if I understand, then turns on his heels looking to the harbor. “Was the Hittite Captain smuggling Samarian emeralds? What did you carry to enrage bandits lust?”
“Bandits you say? Perhaps we carried Minervas Wisdom.”
“Fuck Minervas tits. Against such attacks Salamis has a hundred stator bond posted to Trade Council bankers in Damascus. You lost seaman, correct? Yes, nine of your own and a few of Ashurs. For deaths banquet they will hound me like a rabid fox. Bankers will say 'pay what thou owest'. Bastards! What conciliatory reason do I suggest to them?”
“Rovers harry, the cutpurse stalks. Do the drug-addled need a reason?” Achen grunts, and feeling his discomfort I ply his shoulder playing the sophist. “Such treasure … Medusas head, golden Scythian fleece and the pearls of Atlantian Demeter.”
“Damnable fabling,” Achen snarls, turning on me. “Had you such, Troys own swords would have sought your throat, lest ye be Hyrkons Hector! Did you enjoy the slaughter?” I spit a plug of worn hashish into his brass pot. Yet restraining offense he lightens, seeing his own involvement exposed and squirts a wineskin stream into his mouth. “Haha allow my jest! Astarte will not see your thread snipped till she drinks her fill. Ha haha!”
Fancies himself fate, I see … I am fully strong, save three fingers on my right hand; Artyphon torments them; Achen deserves no less. “Consider our ballista bowstrings before you consider Clothos threads.”
He madly sputters. “An acorn teaches the oak? Salamis is a wild city. You carried gold or precious jewels perhaps from your not so secret meeting with Ashur. What did you expect?”
“Every trader expects the city keep its own peace under Council Laws. Your city laws, your men at arms. I expect payment in Egyptian silver to families of the dead. Payment, unless you no longer need our ships ...”
Stalking the floor wild-eyed Achen rushes from door to window to cabinet yet with us refusing negotiation nothing proves escape. He blanches at last over a bowl of grape spirits he has not offered. “A thousand pardons eminent Captain. Yes , yes my factors will see to it this very day. I forgot you have just been elected a Trade Council member, but then no matter your bond is paid! Paid that is unless you were transporting a person of value. Kidnap is not an insured vice!”
I match his unblinking snake eye. “Artyphon may be worth fifty women of Cyprus.”
A coughing fit takes him … buried in a wineskin … sniggering. “You would think of that Parthian bitch, wouldn't you. Her family owns orchards, not cohorts! Yet even for her kidnapping is not covered by bond.”
“You should be a Greek, Achen, worms eat your sophists mind. But, there's no bond on my blood. Nor on your own.” We turn to leave. “Have a signed statement on-the-dock before mullet swarm the shallows!” His two guardsmen finger their weapons, but I have brought Belisamas four best swordsmen with me; we drink none of the offered amphorae and oak doors of Achens keep groan swinging shut behind us.
“That victory was quick.”
“Feckin' snake. Tis a Krait-snake in the eastern jungle, will bite walkers four times befor your eye blinks. Each bite a death.”
“See we're prepared, NaziBu! And much of the chandlering still to be done,” NaziBu hisses as we cross the stone courtyard.
“Elisrdd, make them fill the brine pork barrels before your very eyes. Trade stamps bind Achen, should he ever wish another council ship.”
“As ye say, Sar ….. I think we'll never see him again.”
“Aye mate, not if e' can 'elp it, before he's beured our asshole.”
I never did see Achen again, even a day later, on the bright cloudless morning when newly woven hemp lines wound to pawls and bound fresh linen sheeting stretched from the yards. After they made-right tavern bills I brought my officers aboard. We had paid chandlers bills, spit out the copper taste in our throats and set the aft anchor till the last of our water barrels came aboard. At evenings horizon Helios burned red throwing shadow along the harbors moles and channels and launch ramps. No shadow grew longer than that single tube high on the tower. Its snout seemed to align with our stern, squaring to the channel; grey steeled iron long and thin I imaged it spewing a stream of oil and pitch
… “Man two ballista and put them on the snout of that damned tube,” I mutter to Elisedd, imagining a ship carrying such a weapon. But, what would make it squirt instead of just burn fire? “Better still, arm tiller and sprityards men with bows and leather helms.” Below decks they could not be accused of provocation. So prepared, and without obvious threat I call our forgeman who chatters like a raven.
“Still soaking the charcoal with fat. Be another hours ...”
“Never mind a hurry, Procon. Can you make me a bell … ?”
“Small as a maids nipple or large as Cybelles tit?”
“Six cubits length, my brazen fellow! Bronze work, thick in the base, with two short supporting arms, but tapered at the end. Leave out the clapper; it's empty till I fill it with … well I'm not quite sure what an ambitious sailor would choose. ”
“A solid base sar? As for a stuffing, cotton soaked in pig-shit and peckered with toasted apricot pits. Hard to keep sealed though, oh my how the fumes seep out before ...”
“Yes, yes do all that . Smooth bottom, mind except for a thin hole founded at the top and bore straight into the end of the empty volume.”
Thick armed, slow witted his voice could not suppress the bawd. “Sounds like a Lesbian dildo Sar, they make it from silver with spurs on the spout, but if yer be needin it ...”
My stream of curses and blasphemy drove him back to his wax tablets and fire, but the story of cold sex flew shipwide, lightening a crew wound tight. Hostile, Salamis harbor lay quiet as a Parthian tomb. All preparations made we lifted anchor and oarsmen edged the hull for'ard. Some endings and some beginnings are featureless. Our mainsail ripples into a weak eastern breeze. Crablike we approach the channel: sails softly luffing, bronze fitting ticking the masts and pawls moaning as new hemp lines stretch. We are making way slowly, for a hands-breath line tangled in an abandoned anchor makes us a cripled duck for any passinf fox. From the bank shadows cast half-way. Approaching the last mole a three man scull shoots from a shadowed gangway with rowers oars boiling the water.
“The feckin-A drummer.”
“Waited till the last second , Sar.” NaziBu has the glass on them. The scull approaches the Belisama angled away from the tower, on a path to intercept us, firing sparkler rockets booming silver and red sprays high over our mainsail. “Our drummer sar,” snarked NaziBu, “and the best music he ever made.”
“Does he fear being trapped in this Hades forsaken harbor as much as we do?” Every ploy of this strange brazen jack-a-lack floods my thoughts. “Mykron, cover the scull with three archers, and get a rope boy high on the sprityard.” A line of pelicans ducked beneath our bow. Then ...
“Rowers abaft the stern!” shouts the mizzen lookout. “Three points to larboard.” I scamper ten pulls up a mainmast shroud. Over tillermens heads I can see shadowed outlines of three twenty man tolvaers darting from a larboard channel. Their fresh pine hulls glisten with pitch, and sharp prows waste no bow wave, so narrow and shaved to a right angle were they … nothing for the sea, but inside a harbor they streak toward a victim … birds of prey.
“They mean to cut us off from the scull,” bubbled Tar who had appeared beside me, hanging like an old leather vestment. “See how they bisect the angle between us and the scull?” He spews a stream of opium laced smoke toward Nephils craft. “No trader him, but some music the blackhead must play ...”
“I'll ask …!” Tar is right. A flight of arrows launches from the tolvaers falling a stones throw short of Nephils scull. “Fire!” Microns first bolts wear windward across their bows. The swiftly rowed attackers mean to intercept Nephil before reaching Belisamas lee. “We'll cut faster than they can! Another half-point south of east,” I shout to the tillermen, and the command is relayed across by a string of rope boys. Two arrows chip below into the mainmast. “Shave off their heads,” I shout to the larboard ballista. One of three bolts does just that, to a rower and gore spouting chicken-man pitches into the harbor. Our oarsmen have taken up the loss of wind bending their yewsticks to the drum and our track sharply bends southeast, closing on the musicians scull and dividing off the attackers.
A BOOM, burst of flame and wormlike smoke exit from the tube atop the stone tower. 'All Achens play', I think, weighing myself in silver. Like a flock of angry wasps the glowing projectiles course to larboard less than a boat length. “Meant for us, the bastards,” Rusa curses, “catching us between two fires.” NaziBu tillermen strike to starboard and Rusa snarls, driving his ballista team as they work the pawls through another blast. Fortune smiles; striking behind us the metal skinned bolts skip and sizzle and spatter.
I look up to see starlets, as we have fought through the early evening. “Fire ye Phrygian bastards,” I shout to Rusas ballista men. Two firebolts thrumm out, curve up and away from our foredeck. Both striking high, bracketing the tube. A firesling basket strikes far low on the tower, and only two or three men can reach it with longbows.
“Fire at will,” I shout into the wild melee. All ballistas and fireslings had been manned. The scull has come within hailing. Nephil exchanges bowshots with the tolvaers while his two red headed female rowers stroke like heathen oracles. I see three arrow strike home among the chase; their oarsmen wore leather headbands, but the archers Egyptian bronze half-helms; oak shafts now pepper our hull. A flaming bolus from our firesling has struck the foremost tolvaer, transforming hull, archers and oarsmen as bodies and wooden beam shatter to screaming human wreckage. Our slingers blizzard lead pellets, but cannot prevent an arrow taking Nephils redheaded bow rower in the throat; blood fountains, her body slumping over the gunnel, just before the scull passes under our sprityard safe to starboard. Nephil rattles up the hull like a salted mastman pulling a trousered woman roped behind him.
“I must have played a rhythm one beat fast,” he snipes. Then thoughtfully apprising the tower. “So like the Byzant Hellenes … can you still those bastards?” Bolts from the tolvaers archers thump into our hull and whistle overhead. Casually he looses another arrow at the reckless attackers turning directly toward us. “Don't let the womans body be taken,” he murmurs; we send three fire arrows into the scull, and NaziBu tosses a jar of pine pitch which boils the craft in a cloud of flames. An arrow pierces a rope boys eye and he hangs from the mizzen shrouds till a mastman cuts him away falling into the harbor. But, revenge is certain at one hundred steps. Cloud of our bolts strike bloody slaughter inside the attackers thin hulls and a ballista shatters strakes on another prow; our slingers make target practice of the oarsmen clinging to the timbers.
High on the stone tower the iron tube belches again; This time the single barbed missile flies over the bow. A strike would hurt us. I say. “Achens feckin' iron prick! Lucky for us his geometry is both too slow and too fast. My seven ballista say yes we can stuff him!”
“Fast as a drummers stick.”
Belisama turns briskly to starboard and another tower projectile cuts a stern rope and sizzles along the larboard hull till our bow wave quenches the shaft. It's a burning scar long remembered. In replay, one of our ballistas strikes beside the tube, entering its cut in the tower wall; then with proof of range a firesling bolus explodes directly on the tube. A huge gasp of flame and smoke belches from the tower hole … a man tumbles out flaming … burning figures appear along the ramparts. After our strikes, something takes fire inside making the tower a giant cooking oven. Achens tube will shoot no more; boyos weep with joy, howl the paeon to Ares and weapons stand down.
Tolvaers and stone tower burn behind us, our surgeons cut at arrowheads and the Belisamas hull snickers for'ard among the clotted, weedy brine. Nephil is laughing, as a man laughs knowing happiness. “Honor to the great Captain, who slays on land as on sea. Thank Zeus' beard I was not along to fumble battle plans. Even the stars must respect such a hero and bards sing his life.”
“Crap,” I say, handing Nephils redhead over the rail! Could the assassins really have expected him, and who would care? “You scull well, Nephil as a flutist plays the pipe. And those rockets? Eastern traders say the slants use them in war … damme we could have used them against the tube, but I'm sure you wouldn't know … by Zeus' beard a drummer are we now ...”
His windburned face pulls my focus from a battle won to a strangers power … the bluff and lean body well dressed in a linen tunic and Egyptian style loin robe. “And drummer I be till Enil turns the blue sky red! But, why surprise? Men of Assyria sail the Tigris in horse skins and wattle, even when winter snow melt flays the river to white caps.” He laughs looking about and balancing on one toe. “You sail a cradle, a floating palace fit for the King!”
Artyphon has taken the woman below. I grouse. “Answer naught, musician! Kings enough we have. They sell us the bronze … and steal it back, or are they after more elusive horns.” Nephil smiled through my stare. “Achen risks his cities entire trade attacking us. Was Ashur safe when you left him? Do new messages arrive from Egypt? Can you row?” Nephils dis-concern prods my confusion dribbling away … I pass him a wineskin.
He snickers. “Ashur will be bedding his whore, if I mistake not, who sucks him dry as desert wind a cattle skull. Imagine, Lempta cares only for pleasures of Lesbos!” If the world be a diamond, then Nephil takes his fill from a pot of warm ale. Our ocelot has come by his leather shoulder patch to clean its teeth and rest a furry face. “The satraps Assyrian swordsmen would make minced pie of unsupported Egyptians and Achen knows it. Ashur watches; he expects you to sail as I can row … like a demon … as if archers ran across the Tigris on the backs of Kassite mules.”
“Ashurs expectations, but not yours,” I imagine quietly and Nephil begs leave to his lady below-decks. Both watches have maned oars and yards; no pursuit appears from the slips surrounding Achens keep. Few will sail a narrow channel in twilight; fewer will follow after a lost battle ... Altair and Vega lead us along the easting channel, but wearing to the open sea Scorpius rising behind Rigel and Hadar will render south where Antares chases Rigil.
“Drum stroke boyos and bend your backs,” bellows Telemedon!” Swamp vapors mist the channel. Then we swing to the wind, lifting the sea-anchor, foresails touched a breeze quartered on the starboard rail, sails quicken and new bronze fitting snug to their studs, shims and shrouds. “Vast heaving on the starboard.” Mykron also has joined his crew pawling starboard lines. The mainsail tightens. We crawl to the breakwater, where tangled shrouds or luffed sails would have brought even in twilight a dozen armed galleys snapping at wreckage.
I shout. “Pray us Aphrodite fortunes song.” A long-armed mastman straps to a yardline and begins his piping. Lively, bold, aluring it's a sailors chant needing a lyre for covering, but Aphrodite may have recklessly rewarded the flutest. A mouth-harp joins then a two-string bow. Artyphon drops her veil and joins Celtic oarsmen jigging on the quarterdeck; I will not stop them. But, others notice. Corseted archers crowd city walls. They jeer and throw rotton fruit, but none looses a bolt and better for them. Though behind us smoke stills pours from the tube tower behind us, and a war-barge trails, outer-harbor fishermen care not of our inner harbor battle. Hesperis uncertain evening wind flutters into the open sea.
I release a phoenix dove; it circles once flying landward. Kind men might have declared enough fire. Artyphon conjures, and NaziBu has fashioned a scorpion weed bird, rich in death oils he promises and near to exploding. “Achens vulture fails twice to clip your wings,” Artyphon ventures, “hawk though you be and talons command. Show the dove mercy.”
“False oracle!” Elisedd will have blood. “You stumble, witch, for Bellona knows neither pity nor your lovers mercy. Choose a slinger mast-man instead or stand aside.” Officers rumble. Elisedd s long recurve bends: his fire arrow arcs after the fleeing bird, splitting its breast to die as a wispy, fluttering blue tinged vapor among the newly bright stars.
Don't imagine Artyphon discouraged. She. “Nephils whore is heartbreak, at her sisters death.” I am supposed to recognize a fact. “How she tore his heart and would have owned his child. Your bed will suffer naught, Cibias if she will stay with me tonight.” She and the red-head sister walk the Belisama from bow-yard to bronze steerage shaft, share wine bowls with a circle of ropeboys and tearfully go below.
“As the King wills”, I think. “Briskly, now on the staysail, Mykron. Waste not a sigh, so men to the top-gallant yard.” Sailors dream, Neptune approves in all voices.
“I call the trumpteeer: "Say this: all officers to nights watch." The crew will sleep in peace for they have had none these 4 weeks. "Elisedd, yes you with the muscled arms you can still climb a rope ladder. Take Faelan the lazy pounce and shake out the jib.”
“Tighten the leach-pin.”
“Untangle that feckin' yardline! Zeus beard pull up that dangling bastard rope-boy by the ass.” Snapping to the wind Chloris gives herself, wanton gift that bitch-of-winds and we blow out from the harbor, running before the spice-tainted seductive Asian breeze for ancient Amathus as fast as ever we may.
Sharp salt sea breath stings my nose and the pen-nib rustles in my fingers. Steady Cibias and set a hammock to the mizzen. Pray Bheur restrain her ice-formed hand and Aphrodite prepare our sight. Cibias testifies, Captain of the Belisama in the fifth month, twenty-fifth day beyond winter solstice of the ninth year since King Minos raiding the plains of Sparta wore his helm in victory. I sign and date the log.