“That be all right, Cap'un. It's a hash cloud yer on, and them was tarry gents above.”
“Belay that presume bastard son of Medusa ...” A mesh of paws grip me, lifted up, and I am slung downward, over the hull to another long-armed sailor. He shouts, “Drest give me a hand with the Captain thar ye be take that leg...”
Another boozy voice booms. “Tarry they was, Cap'tun and so's the masters daughter har har har … if yer catch my meaning. Once enclosed, a man could ner escape her!”
Nephil and a pair of foremast stringmen had taken to the sprityard singing sea chanties of old Crete, where dolphins and whales, white bear and leopard seals capered on the same ice. Bodies flash by along the deck. Arms and legs and heads seem tangled in seamans hammocks. Can it be … the couple coupled to the boom, and yet another … Then I fly … to two other men who drop me into a sailors hammock and roll oiled wool over-top. The world coarsens and my head swims, as it swings in the wind. Damme I will not be so bound, wrapped and bundled . I twist, and the swing wraps me about a second time. I am caught up like perch in a net. Then I twist back, around once so I may almost see sky. Does that breeze play on my face so coolly?
How cool the night mist. I doze for a moment or an hour awakening to the moon ... then the wench full of hot future and uncovered white skin slams atop my groin. “Beggins yur pardon, sur, but I believe your belly is uncovered.” She drives air right out of my guts!
“Damme woman,” I grunt, but she is creature of flesh and blood and all for the truth. Like a pike after a perch ... and I cannot bear that feeling. Through the netting I grab her bare ass and squeeze. Hear this lad: truth's a promise when you can only lay flat! Where her bare breasts and bare thighs bore in thereto I wear nothing , nothing but skin.
“That's a par'ful grip, sur all hands un finger no woman may escape,” she giggles springing upright. “And whoots this, yer grace that has got itself all so curious and affected? An eye that's bound to see or a ship headed to port! ” Then she spins my carriage net one more time , breasts and belly and bare thighs flattened against me and prepares to set all sail at first tide.
I believe my head is spinning, for there appears nothing below or above the spar to be hidden from this froward wench. Artyphon … ye gods and devils Artyphon will have my pickled hide nailed to the palace door of Sesros, but this one … she has ripped my belt from the trousers. Her tongue in my ear launching a thousand devils … “I'll launch that mainsail proper,” she tempts. No man of this sea can fight her, and I taste the parting wet ...
…. yet just then she becomes yanked up, blushing madly legs thrashing and tunic billowing free like a wood-nymph Juno had found too strictly attending Zeus and changed to a flamingo! I see her hanging above, and squirming in the paws of Nykomedes. “That will be quite enough trouble for you, my fine maid,” says he. “You'll not stove in the mainmast till the journey's over. What er yer father say!”
The harbor-masters daughter! “Give her back,” I shout springing a leg free from the net and that leg had tangled in hers. “My craft is headed for a noble port!” The bucket of cold harbor salt water slaps me about the face.
“Beggins yur pardon Cap'tun, that ports been visited all night long by every ship on the sea,” roars Mykron. “Better lay out the sea anchor and strap to the mast while this blow passes by!” The Median zither never stopped playing. I'm nearly unraveled. Another womans body snugs against me , hidden, thinner, knowing wrapped in a smooth bright linen cloak slitted for warm arms and hot legs. “There, you see,” said Mykron? “Better fare wrapped in a silver veil – take that song for what it's worth!”
Now I remember; I had tried to buy something. I had tried to buy Druses belief. Those words fit poorly together with the ice cold water and the singing. Colder still as the wind brews up. Pans pipes rattle the still air with their sounds of revel and bodies dance on the shrouds. Am I standing naked wrapped in a a thick cotton towel? I find the dream returning of the harbor-masters daughter and her welcoming ports. A huge fish floats by balancing on the air. Wrapped in the nets and wild imagining I remain sleeping to Artyphons song while night like a willing mistress silently passes over.
I wake straight up to a rolling thrumm of surf. More ferment? May Uror weep! Rumbling pleads not, and its shuddering crash again crash against the breakwater; it shakes right through to the bones and I wonder how mans walls ever stand against the sea. Try to stand; fall back to the goose-feathers warm against Artyphons breast. We rally, pegged to the wharf Belisama hopping like dry beans on a flat-iron. Then the bell-clash and binnacle lights of a chill pre-dawn change-of-guard. How those feet snap casually about pitching shrouds and deck. My cabin smells of the still fresh hull - of Gallic oak, tar, pitch and the half-tanned leather used to sharpen swords. Salt water reek tinges each breath. I still sprawl where Artyphon slept, but shenow has taken the wool rug covered cot at the foot of my bed. I toss off the sheepskin; sheepskin I never rememberpulling on! Beneath I wear a dry linen tunic I do not remember. Cabin-candles flicker; for all my drunken revels Artyphon sleeps quietly in her cot. Outside, guard-steps tick-tick-tick on the fore-deck.
“Shanks a'roasting!” Cookie swings open the lower door; sparks snap from the sandpit. Smells of roast rosemary lamb and bread baking pour through; they are smells of the best kind while Cookie complains sourly. “And if he rises anytime today the Captain may eat toast lamb from last night no matter how long I keep it hot. And cold Egyptian coffee too that eats through the tin pot beggn' the Captuns pardon.”
An insubordinate one-legged bastard Cookie … redwood stump thumping the door-sill. “See to your lamb and I'll first see to my face. A lemon-water sponge nips at my chin. Mumbling, Artyphon turns on her cot, restless, distracted, unhappy sleeping beside her short-sword while I saw to her no pleasures. She has kicked away the silk blanket. Blanket, sheepskin … damme I cover her legs understanding much will demand explaining.
I belt on hemp trousers , tunic and vest, and come through the door, right behind Cookie who was chuffing porridge boil along the quarterdeck to sleepy watch. Browned chops-of-lamb matched a raw gray morning from which the life of the harbor clawed its way. Our daybreak watch had been busy. Torches light the gangway and foredeck where deck-crew work stone over wood. Wooden barrels of salt-beef and glass water-casks thickly plated with silver lined dockside; they would be winched below. Armed watches have taken their lines.
The hetman Zenn chuffed and leather-bound spear-butts claps. “Day-break watch to the Captains pleasure; eight present and able”.
“Very well. Who are the urchins? ”
Zenn, a Caucus refugee and older crew. Beaver-tendon might bind his worn leather tunic, and thosw stitches sewn with splintered elkbone. “As that new man Nephil, the musician from Salamis trotted off toward the quay these two beggers appear.” One of the watch had pulled up with two boys in tow a paw firmly planted in their tousled hair. Dressed as shepherds, a sailor might imagine from wool britches and sheepskin vests; the tow-head was skinny and younger, his robed partner manning out in shoulder and leg. “Warlike parleys abound, and I'd nee have them on my deck!” True, each boy carried a sling and knife, and the guard was prepared to shake them naked.
“Speak up boys or the guard here will toast you for breakfast.”
“We are not beggars, Sire,” squeaks the younger, “but servants of Lord Price.”
“Now it's Lord Price is it...”
From the older boy barks no humble voice. “Takkoi and my cousin Phaphos, your servants Sur.” He elbows the younger and when he cringed speaks himself. “Yur pardun sire we're indeed squired out to master Price, learning a yeomans arms and learning his trade; we come to guide you the path.”
“Takkoi and Phapos, eh,” growls the guard. “Obedient to his orders? HA! Sounds like Narim assassin names to me. Names fit for the yardarm”, and he looks above to a free-swinging hemp rope. “Enough bother already to the Capt'N …..”
But stretching the guards grasp, and digging behind a leather strap Takkoi steps forward. “See here Sur, Master Prices' wax-mark.” Stretched fire and aft he withal hands over a yellow-stained parchment of the highest quality. A wax wrapped peels off.
Reading script in both trader Eguptian and old Minoan.Zeus beard is that my mark also? And seal! “Something about last night,” I say to Faelon. Yes … a business proposal... where again?” I pass it to Faelon, flags officer and man of languages who has come down from his signal post. He reads and nods.
“Yer mark, Sur but ye haven't traded away Artyphon .. hehehe.”
Irish Faelon finds the strangest humor. I pocket the text sceptically and turn to the boys . “You come as shepherds … fully armed.From whom do we hide,” I wonder? I turn back to the boys. “Must we follow migrating Egyptian storks to the werewulf laden dark forest beyond the Gauls?” I prod his shoulder lightly with the traders staff. “Swiftly now … have we even to make a quarter-distance?”
“Bushrangers make the main roads unsafe, while on dirt trails there's the wolves, sir and Mycenneii minding not the natives … coming and going … which we would be hided if some bushman launched an arrow into you .. sir...” He shuffles uncomfortably in his short woolen jacket and leather britches. “My master says you will bring a villein or two from the ship so we brought extra horses.”
“Villein? Hyrkon ships carry no serfs,”I snap. Then realize they were serious as only boys splitting the age of twelve can be. The younger still wears Diannes silver badge of purity. “Oh you would deflect that arrow with your thick hides would you....damme I'd hide you myself if an arrow sought my dry ass.” Thoughts wander, as our Salamis roadway attack screams silent caution to my ears. Faelon coughs and I snap to. “Yes, I can imagine such an attack on Cyprus, but I cannot imagine being the fool to fall into it!”
“We are not all the Goddess servant,” says Phaphos brightly, with new confidence. “Master Price has rented six horses and saddles at the stable sir. Once off the quay we can count on well-covered, but smooth trails and can fly like Boreas.”
Artyphon, who has come-upon the speaking urges me aside. “Ponder this master, do we sail the waves for profit or love?” She takes the signed script, works her small abacus unable to suppress smiling by shaking her head. “Woodlands not swells we travel, dear Master to the joy of six silver Egyptian stators per man.” She is tapping a leather flatheel, but her eyes play no games with mine. Zeus knows what the weavers profit! Decide they say; balance risk within your rule.
Women believe men live such liberty. “Yes,” I say modestly. I hug her. HA ! Such profit will the trade return and a captain refusing such to his crew would be hung naked from the main-yard. Tis a moment of eureka! I walk the Belisamas deck shouting “PLANS CHANGE … PLANS CHANGE.”
“How sur when sur where sur if sur ...” Ale buckets surprise me, but after drenching thirst I call again from the forecabin “PLANS CHANGE …!” Above on the mizzenyard our ocelot tires of vengeful gulls and screams for feeding.
I'm back with Prices' younglings. “Good for you boyos, moma hasn't shrunk your pantlegs.” A look of desperation flashes between them. Which I stop dead. “Drink ale for breakfast yet? Sure ya do, on my boat. So get over to the fire, have an brown ale it won't rough ya over too bad. Ale, bread and a slice of lamb fix anything. Perhaps we'll leave soon. And don't tease the cat he's wild as a drunk bilgeman.”
Eat first then think, Rusa preaches to his sailmen. Sam now. I call Takkoi and Phapos before a rump council of ships officer and sea-worthies. Solid men and worth more labor than words, but like Minoan seaman before them Hyrkon crafts both read and write. You must read your Captains order and must write your name and compelling night-watch murmurs. Men emerge from the lower bunkers who maintain trim, and pumpmen working the bilge, tillermen, sail and mastmen. Every guild on the Belisama. First I tell my drunken revel, sly Druses probing and finally the offer by Price. Then the boys squirming and stuttering before a pack of bladed, crosseyed and one-leg killers relate their family, status and task as guides. The proposed sailmaker trade passes sharp-witted combs with the boys as hostage even if that word grates on a mans vision.
Now our guard was their pal and while they spoke, or rather between they ate honey-bread and lamb together. A trade-staff vote is taken –- with thirteen raven feathers and two owls. We trade Egypt and we grope with the sweetened stew served by Price. Mountain tradesmen though they be, and none of the Trade Council silver enjoys weight. . Very well – I called Artyphon to prepare swords, leather armor and bows. Instead she sipped at a mug of coffee and pulled me aside.
“Dear master of love, what do the soft-chin mountain buggers really want to trade.”
Hummm … I see no guile. “Hillsmen weavers have loomed sails for Pharaohs southern fleet. Sold and woven and looking for transit. That's us.”
“So we don't buy and resell only transport.” Artyphon clicked her tongue. “That removes two-thirds our profit.”
“But, not the profit of a mans open hand.” I did not expect Artyphon to understand, as a well maintained women commands her own heart, yet … “ some spring we will ride a levanter to Genoa, where Queen Mary may explain her friendships.”
Artyphon flushed, teaching freely. “They could find others … those mountain loomers.”
“Yes, yes and might have found another trader, but perhaps they want a look at us, take my measure as you favor.” I had turned away avoiding the rush of heat to her face. Then. “We trade with both Greek and Phoenician. Surely I would want a look at you,” and broadly wink. Artyphones face has deeply flushed to her slim neck … just in time Elisedd bounds up from the rowers benches.
Salvation, while Artyphon storms below. The Belisama still shakes night out of its watch and I follow the new men scrambling into place. Again the slap of spear-butts on wood. “Get on with it, Elisedd you're late!”
“False-dawn watch to the Captains pleasure.” Then a hesitation. ” Waist watchman Drest unaccounted.”
“Unaccounted!” I faced around, stopped to swill at the black bitter coffee. “Hetman Elisedd you say what?”
The hetman has come to stiff attention. “Beggin' yur pardon sur, Drest a carpenter and tanner and value-maker when the pumps need it … open and shut with the water-pump pressure … I could see he was trying to spare me the teknos … well anyway sir he went missing just before false dawn.”
“Gone missing? Damme Elisedd are you saying if you can't see your men they vanish? Or hear them pace on a deck that creaks with every step? And from the ships middle at the gangplank! Did he stand or sit? Must have been ten men near him all night!”
“Yes sur no doubt. Ten men of his own crew … those and the whores ...”
“The whores you say … and what or who were they guarding that Drest should get so close ?”
“Close? Oh the whores, well sur they didn't guard anything. What I mean is when we finished with them we passed them over to Drest. He guarded the middle; he did the escorting, across deck from wherever they were to the gangplank. He takes the whores only that far, marks off the watches wax tablet and turns them over to the man on gangplank watch.”
“Who would see him every time a whore passed off ship. How can they miss each other? Have we one extra whore on board?”
“Well nosur... we have no more whores aboard than … well I see your meaning now sur, how one guard counts another, but the gangplank guard sometimes takes extra time escorting a whore onto the mole. Oh yes sur they respect the ships repose. Examination of a whore for proper dress, or theft or suchlike if you get my meaning sur ... In that case a whore might come to the gangway and leave the ship unseen as also would Drest be unseen for that time of the watch.”
“Of-course Drest could have got into the wine brought aboard, chuffed up a promising wench and just taken it into his head to follow off with her. No chance of that, eh hetman, not a man on this ship who could fuck a decent wench into submission?” I started walking away. “Have you sent men to the whores guild? ”
Hetman knuckled his forehead. “Walking sur … they have not yet returned, sur.” He scratched a short rust-colored beard. “Funny about that, sur. Anyone else and I would have sent Drest by horse … he's a wagoners son ya know and rides better than most of us.”
“I am sure they all will, hetman. All of them. Carry on with you.” I make for the gangway where Artyphon and the Cyprian boys have gathered. NaziBu alongside them hefts three sealskin sailor-bags across his broad shoulders.
Artyphon wears a full veil. “Serving the moment,” she kants, “Master I failed to inquire; does dear Cibias feel better after his amusement last night.”
None escape boyo; remember that to your grandon when first wearing a mans tunic. “Nothing amused me last night.”
“Master is too modest.” Artyphons voice drips poison. “I understand you were just rolling in fresh young bodies .... wrapped up some observers say...”
“Sweet servant of Dianna I wrapped no bodies, young or old, but with revel carrying from rudder to sprintyard I cannot help what cold fish pitch from the seas and flop about.”
“Flopping indeed... master ...” She hold me at arms length, fingering the lace fringe she has sewn into my vest. “A man tangled in his own net has little excuse.” But, somewhere beneath the veil a smile was hiding.
“After moonset you … you carried me to bed!”
“A young wife expects to be frolicked, not weighted.”
“Did I serve?” She brushes my dagger and backs away. I turn brusquely to NaziBu who was weaving a fish talis woven from seaweed. “What are you doing here,” I ask?”
“Drest, Sar … he ain't got back from the whores yet, sez the steer-master and I'm best on a horse besides him.”
“Your father worked livery?”
“Worked so … no he ain't never did that so much.” NaziBu smiled cunningly. “Horses though him being a mountain Kassite thieved them along the coast of Elam. Those lamed or split footed he sold to farmers, but dealt the big-uns, the runners, the corsairs, the man killers hoofs a'scatter … he shipped those over to the western Berber. By the tit of seven demons it's childs work to ride a broke horse at night. Guess I rode fifty before a black head Nippour whore turned in my father for a few gold coins and the city hung him. Me … they put me on a chained galley oar headed for the Red Sea so I went to sea....”
“You lead a charmed life, NaziBu.”
“It be the charms, Sar no doubt in that. I made little baked clay horses and put them next to corral gates while I cleaned up the horse-shit. That was our day-job, cleaning the stables on big farms beside the swamps and hillside villas. Nobody liked working the swampland because of the cobras … but daddy didn't mind 'em.” NaziBu laughed roughly and swung sharply with his right arm. “He collected a hundred cobra fangs if he collected ten! Not for me, though; I'd put a dried wheat-seed inside each clay horse, so it knew the wind would blow it away … that was mhe father and me, the wind ... haha … before the whore did him dirt!”
“By Zeus beard we can use the wind behind us now … let's chuck along and waste not a moment.” I turn to our young guides. “Getting there will take us what … till shortly past noon?”
“The boys looked at each-other. “The ride to Tamassos is actually much much longer than ...”
I have slung two packs and shoulder the swords. “Well yes, distances are always much longer than anything! Certainly longer than anything we imagine. And should we trying running down Artemis we should run til next full moon . And traveling past the Pillars would take us till next autumn.” The boys struggle to keep up, lubbers that they were on the slick wood decking. “But, should we travel half the distance we should use half the time … while a quarter distance takes , but a quarter.”
“Can we admit to a short-cut, sir and nothing else?”
I am about to cuff them soundly. At that moment galloping fills the air. Nephil thunders down the dock on a tall Arabian, silver bit, platter shield and well steeled short sword below his right arm and a leather quarrel bag across the horses flanks. Viiva flags closely to his tail in a set of Spanish leathers I've seen nowhere east of the Marsai land-route. “Ho Cibias; your legs waiver! Never have I seen a man so drunk! We have a mind to join your ramble paying our own way.”
Why am I not shocked? “Expect you'll eat our food.”
“And you listen as we bard. Men and women travelers make such accommodations.”
So came the shot from a clear morning sky. “Musician, sailor and now horseman. Can all this grace a simple mummer?”
Nephil smiles kindly saying nothing. An ax in the back … you never think about it aboard ship, surrounded by only your brothers. “I have a mind to plug your ears,” I snap, but a second strong arm beside NaziBu was no small matter. “You paid for the horse?”
“I won them from a hetaera last night. And this...” He displayes a sliding bronze tubed glass with an emerald eyepiece. “At 3-bones I won her night and her flesh and her vision.” Nephil finds his hilarious fortune. “I hope a child does not find her,” he winces cocking his head: “Of the visions I cannot describe as they came from a mint-leaf and live inside I believe.” Such a quizical look the drummer gave. “But, such a smooth stretched long white back she preferred a green world, tender nipples and red ass.”
“She? With nine parts yes, as with all women,” he observes slyly.
“Served with honor I presume,” and Nephil grins. I test the bronze tube. At my eye the glass world expands brightly if green in ways no real earth might be. I wonder, does our smaller world hide inside the larger shown through glass? Or may it be Lokis pure wit!
“What had you in wager for such an item?”
From a soft leather case Nephil extracts a long thin lapis lazuli rod, polished till the gold flecks sparkle like stars in blue evening. “Fighting Elamite traders, even an Assyrian mummer may chance on wonder.” He bit on his lip. “Perhaps the mountain Cyprians will make an offer?”
“Such a prize won … drummers to the shield front,” I snark?” Nephil bows calmly. Well he might, brazen to the front line greaves strapped and half-helm tight … yes, yes such a young man might chance battle with wonders worth a Kings crown. “And the arms? Nevermind.... why have I become used to a most brazen rattle from you, Nephil? Yet all I can promise is boredom, countrymen bred and loomed to the plow.”
NaziBu turns his head and spits gobs of black-tar into the bush.“Musician, he hisses?”Truth told Nephil impresses me. NaziBu and Artyphon think less well of him. “More is bigger, and bigger more obvious,” complains NaziBu. “Is one sword worth discovery?”
“And you, pukes of snake-infested ravines.“Sketch our trail here in the dirt.” NaziBu had set all sail for a ravage.
Sweat-ice must sting their eyes.The boys faces have both gone pale. “It's our life to say, sir.”
NaziBu spit and fingered the handle of his two-faced bronze hatchet. “And who hears you now, but ravens andthe gulls a’floating.”
“We do not curse a birds feather,” said the older.
I squander a glance at Artyphon and she murmurs return. How Price has frightened sense from the boys. He believes ears are everywhere! Such a young cynic! Our wood-wheeled cart rumbles close carrying the last of supplies. I shake my head, put a hand on the younger boys shoulder and say. “ Your life is it, boy, all twelve years ... or thirteen and you say a man would take it? Surely you wish Pan to see jest.”
“We have spoke out-of-place already Sur,” comes Phaphos admission.
“So my father railed at me, and hurried his leather belt as if kingdoms would rise or fall on my foolishness,” calls Nephil.
“All agree then, Phaphos.” I smack his towhead. “Speak up, to the most powerful, then show them silence. Prove your worth by actions, and your squire will forgive everything.” From the cart I spoon into a bag of nuts. “Damme if I can speak and eat at the same time. Look here, boyos, the honey-trimed figs and dates and pistachio nuts. Barley-carrot bars as well, bound by shreds of dried beef. Load these on the swayback mule and we'll find your path soon enough.”
Missing Drest, NaziBu picks Mykron as companion as he kens both his sling and the stars. NaziBu threads him a flowery waterspout. So eight in all prepared we venture Cyprian mountains. Cobbled roads, a gift of earlier more peaceful times with Crete a mild colossus and Minos triumphant end with the first orchards. Stallions caper while the boys dodge clear fields and circle us across sandy reaches three hours east of Amathus. We gallop a horse-path trending low behind the first dune-line and as dunes belly-off at the top, but drop sharply toward the bottom so we run out-of-sight from the stony fields above while blended into the tall dune grass against the threat of a corsairs sea vision.
Nephil prefers riding as a rear guard, which trailing was not the first choice of a trader, but a warriors pick. In gardens of my thoughts that bloom has grown. Artyphon and Viiva trot shoulder-to-ear as the secrets of civilization pass between and no mans pride is safe when they laugh. By land or sea we are hidden, by every chance yet … to our north east and upslope by two royal league hangs small, tattered smoky clouds in a cloudless sky. I make nothing of it, that a seaman does not make of unexpected clouds, but a landsman might see for riders dust. A forage of red deer seems more likely and as with mating turtles of the Ionian Sea surely none may see or follow us.