He had been playing an ivory flute, but seeing us tucks it beside his short-blade and from-the-waist bows formally, a court bow and mummers must prank that from childhood. Cold false-light wind carries his voice. “Cybelles pleasure, Cap'N!”
“Best mornings Nephil, to a musician who plays late yet rises early. Ninurtas favorite as I see!”
His arm grasps the vixen in pleasure yet scowls. “Two days out of Salamis and the copper bite will not leave my mouth. Has your woman an elixir to scrub metal from flesh?” Nephil, up before dawn and his flame-haired Nordic whore, Viiva red-cloaked wrapped about him both clinging twenty hands above-deck to a mainmast shroud. I note, clinging as well ye may. Gusts tear at her red cloak, reveling an ivory handled loin-dagger.
Some slave, I ponder … waving hand-signals my call returns. “Our doctors know of a brine slush that does. But, it quickly rots out a mans stomach!” Nephil shrugs as I explain. “Minos sets criminals and assassins to work Hyrkon metal-smelters. Guildsmen and wealthy judge their few allowed slaves too valuable and smelter-men die lingering, drooling deaths.”
“As everywhere,” flame-haired Viiva brashly shouts.
Then Artyphon. “Heils forge-workers them … lame and empty-minded as the god himself. Hecate is judged unwilling to tolerate their drear confused thoughts.” Then she holds up her tea-mug, and as-if silent speech passes between women Viiva digs Nephil in the ribs and shimmies down the rope ladder fast as ye may. Artyphon trips stairway waiting for her on deck – waiting - there occurs a moment of intense beckoning , they had spent the previous night together while Nephil and I made due with yardarm hammocks and sealskin yet they greet now as between newly met foreign men. Such men most likely would just expose their wares – nonesuch here, but touch then stroke hair despondent about some curled trifle, blooming trousers wrinkled such-and-so then throwing cloaks about each shoulder Viiva and smiling Artyphon slide to the below-decks firepit; food, warmth and adoring crewmen with questions of lost sailors love await their service, I think. Nephil laughing shakes his head.
“At the end smelter-mens' food costs more than their work produces.” I shout against wind. “When dead, island mages speculate them as slaves of Hephastus. Posidons trident and Zeus iron-mongered lightening bolts forever need repair.” Hyrkon parents are known to threaten their misbehave sons thusly. Tired threats, but must having caught a claw for Nephil points to the water-framed bow and I come off the quarter-deck to meet him.
By Zeus beard brazen feetAmphitritedoes throw upon the waves … wind runner taking gusts over the starboard waist and columns of forge-smoke at the horizon her bow-wave throws an alabaster wall around the ships forebridge … rope boys huddle there between runs up the shrouds and the rare top-master come down to cook a horn of hashish by the white arse sculpt of brazen Cyclade, famed thatch haired Rhodian hetaera and her stern ruled a path straight as Egyptian hypotenuse. Our three-membered mainmast groans in pleasure. The strapping hemp square bellies and its lines and fore-stays draw taut as zither strings. Such strain bears watching, lest a ships bow dip briskly, but never rise. Ten times a thousand morning suns dive over our rudder.
Nephil is a strange fellow. He slides on Phonetician leather chaps and wristlets yet 13-hands tall he wears a Northmans tight seal vest and Cythian charioteers gold and linen headband. He obviously stood night watch on tiller and mainmast, yet rubber-striped half-leathers bind his feet: both common and extravagant Yes, I well remember the Indian rubber-trees from months trading the Ganges as rope-boy. Damme the fat Maharish chased my young ass brashly as their palace-maidens, but our bearded, leathery Captain would allow only young women access to our hammocks. I'll be fucked if I shouldn't understand my crew, and snatch two mugs as our cookie weaves about-deck.
I can serve Nephil a teamug when he bounces home. “Pleased with the tiller, Nephil?”
“A joy and a sorrow,” he coughs taking half the mugs tea in one gulp. “A joy compared to the mule-boats I have guided down the Tigris with a pine-blade, and sorrow because I cannot live at the tiller of such a vessel as Belisama.” He looks about at the dimming stars. “You sail paradise, master.”
“Master? None such live aboard a lawful trader.” Nephil seems confused, an issue of Ashurs household … I survey what might, but Zeus beard cannot be. “Apprentice tillerman I will enter in the ships log.”
“So be it, on my hearts blood,” returns Nephil and we clasp forearms. He then surprises. “My musicians wit betrays my shopkeeper skills, Captain, but I detect we visit Amathus not for the seams of copper, nor pots of bronze nor exactly for a craftsmans hammer … but for another seam of less weight, but greater travel!”
I laugh. “Do you count your empty silver purse already or scribe papyrus ledgers? What a trader you will make!”
“Instead my Captain, I think on the seam of silk so often imagined, but so rarely seen flowing from the central mountains of Cyprus. Silk that bends a traders mastyard and fills with silver his Damascus bank - when woven into a sail and sold. Silk sail envied by Pharaoh and that powers even the long-strider warhull such as that of Doron.”
“Silk is everywhere from the eastern caravans.”
“Soft precious and priceless silk from the yellow-man. Yes, yes I have seen their wares and observed them visiting palace of the King … may Ashur Dan live forever.” The product woven into Dorons sheets was of a ruder, but stronger variety. Looking close at a bamboo g rove you can even spy a few worms and their oversized cocoons. Silk no doubt yet I believe produced also on other islands in Our Sea.”
Dissembling. “Islands like Cyprus?” My own tea vanishes with a hunger, but the questions … you visited the harbor in Salamis? Noticed the bastard … notice us?”
“Friend Captain, your round-bow Belisama cannot hide from even a flutist!” Nephil claps his hands as if applauding. “A mummer, a musician like myself wraps on silk like a flatbread wraps olive oil. Then, when we see it we imagine where it takes the owner and wonder if we also ought to travel that new path.”
Fuck yes I am getting itchy, when all-but-stranger questions my travel plans so acutely. I think of a parry. “True enough Nephil; never just one reason for a trading route.”
Stretching the back of his headband Nephil wonders “Perhaps word from one of Minos sons … what are their names now … Didykas and … and ...”
“Yidini, the younger and more reckless.”
“If whoring the fleshpots of Lesbos with you is reckless, then surely Yidini wears Hyrkons crown. You two needed fight your way out of the last one, slaughtering one thugee after another when slave owners styled a kidnap. I imagine ...” Nephil sniffed the growing wind. “I imagine his fathers language tutors were not pleased.”
“If he or they knew ...”
I waited for the worst, broken confidence and disclosure. Nephil leaped, while the Belisama twisted against a crosswind, landed softly and broke into raucous laughter. “Parents are never distressed by what they do not know. Bards already sing well of the brothers … and of you, Cibias dealing both loyalty and mischief. Tis only a breath, mind this story heard among rabble that amused Babylon stable youth and the royal palace vixens they fucked between straw bedding stalls making them envy for such an older friend as you.”
In its way worse than a gossip –- Nephil an all seeing silent conspirator. How can I match? This comes ... “My memory is vague of that night, and the ruffians Yidini and I disposed. Yet look here, Nephil we all travel … your flame-haired beauty, Viiva, not exactly a hometown girl from Nineveh. Didn't snatch her from crocodiles along southern Nile banks. Unhampered, she will ripen like an Argot fig! From what longaway mothers breast did you snatch her”?
Nephils lips loose their curled smile. He shuffles to a side-rail and hangs on as we pitch through foam of a rogue ocean wave. “Twas her sister beloved and she, affections entwined.” The eastern silver sliver at the horizon has grown to a glowing melon-slice I think through which thin wafer if warmth is music Orpheus delight will soon pour. Nephil. “My father excursioned with Apal-Ekur, across the Black Sea marauding Cythians. They do it enough to our northern sheep-herders and this venture was payback. After a night-time raid destroyed a strong-arm of tents, among the burned-out wool huts were twin girls chained to a calf. They had slaughtered the calf and climbed inside to protect from the fires. They lived! Brave girls you say?”
“You were there?”
“I was six summers, a puke chopping weeds and slinging cobras in the family melon patch. But, because of my fathers brave service he was gifted the two girls … they were considered Rus slaves captured by the Cythians.”
“Likely as not. Overland traders say the tribes of Rus are well-disciplined, but not inclined to expand territory. So others ill-intentioned come looking ...”
“Indeed, but the girls were not Rus slaves! They had been traded as future wives by river traveling Norse coming to the Black Sea. Red hair gives them away, red hair and a Baltic amber haircomb. Hair red and amber yellow no less than the Bogges!” We share a secret smile that only Alrek would understand. Such knowledge does this youth musician carry, casual as a grace note. He continues. “No doubt our Kings councilors thought them a warriors playtoy, but father had different plans. He raised and trained them with my older sister as family blooded free women, but separate from my brothers.”
“And from you.”
“Yes, and away from me. Assyria does not change in that observation, that a womans will needs tempering before her choice of mate. But, they were trained in the ancient warrior skills women practiced before this corrupt age of faggotry and treason and guile. Women faire of face, weaving goat-hair, purify water and pluck out your eye at sixty paces with a Syrian recurve.”
“So as master you took them.”
Young man Nephil was tiring, such an elaborate bard. “Backwards my friend. So from the liberty of free women they gifted flesh and service to my fathers son … to me. Blade and short-spear razored they shared my travels and trials. Only Hecates cruel death could part us, as it has now. Viiva remains, comforts me and she will bear the son due her sister.”
Nephils voice had turned hammered bronze. I motioned below. “Well served musician. Get to the porridge pot, then your hammock and beyond sleep the Belisama will take you up into her sails with sturdy companions.”
Second morning I awake to a mizzen-mans call. Lookouts have found two sail astern and chasing, but we buried them , the lateen-sailed Cretan jackals and setting a topsail to the Cilician gale that broke over larboard as we could have buried twenty more and screaming along high on the rudders edge carry Helios early to his appointed round of the sky. Bronze ballast yokes shuffle into place. Sails were set bow-to-stern and lines tightened till the winds sang them. As the Cyprus coast is a vipers nest we skirt the fangs. Turquoise Rock and the Arch of Nyx have buried more bones than all sea-battles fought by the worlds kingdoms. Yet the spice of flight hangs just above the blue-green swells. Sailor boyos lust for those gale-swept moments. Crewmen strap themselves with leather bands to the shrouds that they may fly as the Belisama flew with our keel balanced against a mainmast equally dividing sun from sea and, should the Fates decline pleasures vengeance bring wild stories of ninety-league days to their own fireplaces.
In all that play of sea and wood and sail and men Belisamas ironwood hull and teak deck reached for the hunting goddess and Dianna of golden hair and fair breasts sheltered her own. While tars drove the hull west they practiced the firesling and ballista. And the metal horn poured by our forgeman. It's a mongrel weapon: half-bell half-drum half-firesling and not fired of bronze, but of something he calls brass, formed by a strange, shiny, smooth-faced metal oar found mixed in lead-pits north of the Cilician gates. Melts like iron not copper, but holds copper liquid in pouring and mixing. Our brass weapon skin sets 2-fingers thick, resists rust and once fired and hot stays hot, so its smoking mouth needs swabbing and the redwood-carved perch must be constantly watered. Such is our new weapon.
At first it belches clouds of sulfer-charcoal, but by the 3rd day firing swarms a swatch of white-hot metal stuffing 200-paces from its mouth; should an oak barrel await the swarm its planks scatter like butterflys from a burning tree. Should men intercept its path they will be slaughtered.
We sail patient, for fame and bleached bones anoint the ragged coast of Cyprus southern shore. Vapors too peal off the dry land. One tiller-man from Egypt falls to lemon-fever. His teeth drop away and despite Artyphon spooning ground lemon-peel down his throat he dies in terror face clenched by rage. How one man faces the gods colors the fates of all around him; any sailorman believes that! We cannot bury him justly, so with his eyecoins we cramp his body into a bitumined barrel and burn it floating, floating ashes to Jove. It does you no favor, Amathus.
One-hundred leagues of spotless breakers hide the spot of low-slung moles and breakwaters shouldering Cyprus circulating white-tipped combers from the peaceful strip of fishermans warfs , washways , docks that snuggle beneath Amathus over-reaching plateau and the leach of cobblestone streets and whitewash thatch spreading up that curve. It's a cosy, mankilling fucker, that leeside.
On the fourth morning just as Altair set in a sea got up large with southern swells tall whitecaps mark the north-most mole; I give over Belisama to the grizzled navigator. Telekydes strips the mainsail and sheetmen grapple that hemp canvas to the lower yard. At the moment mizzen and foresail luff to the timing drumbeat. Men too tired to vision sea-anchors and men who have slept at their benches eating date and barley-cake suddenly arise pounding yew oars into the keening surf, prodding our resin-bound hull to wear away, prodding the lesser sheets to snatch air and carry a sunrise wind backing across the Amathus breakwater stern-before-bow and singing the paean to a long slumbering Cyprian Aphrodite.