.......................Tales of Hyrkon: book 4 .... AMATHUS
Chapter Five


“Like mating turtles you say? HE He he ...”

Artyphon finds hilarity in my trope. Listen well boyo, what a man dares reveal to his woman.

“Hardshell, dear love.” Artyphon is laughing to fall from a horse, after I repeat that warning … and have her watch the cloud. “That's what I shall call you during love! Hardshell! Like a Parthian turtle-hunter checking his traps while a cave bear sneaks upon him!”

Damn my eyes, for serious business tends her. “Hardshell indeed,” I mutter, “turning a hot ass with bare icy hands?”

She, cantering her mare and scoffing. “Lowlander cold threats do not shirk a woman of Parthia, whether from bandit or thief-of-hearts! Carpathe summer mountains freeze salmon as they swim upstream. We plucked them out and preserved by drying them on willow stakes!”

“Bold words from a bedmate who does not dry, but clasps belly to wet warming belly each night.”

“Turtles have a belly also ; it's called their shell!” Such a proud chef, her cheeks smile for a fillet of wordplay. Artyphon leans off her saddle to bite my neck. “How men must prattle, husband. Brassy cleverness, words slippery as a clam may brighten your trading room Cibias , but will not boil a shank rocking hammocks wool.” She bounces a quirt off my leather helm , and laying it against her horses flank puts silver spurs to the withers.

“Brassy wench. One night in a tight-slung hammock will find you humble!”

“As ever ye may, master.” A lightening bolt, she wheels her mount through the surf and gallops off toward Viiva. “Watch clouds by yourself,” calls back.

Zeus beard may I imagine a women general, she a dual of Myrine ? Snyde for certain, and am taken back immediately. 'One voyage teaches as a dozen tutors,' I recall King Minos advising. Hummm. Tin Isle and Sythian tribes carenot for the sex, but for the faceless valor of their warchiefs! My kany known such a hectoring Artyphon would deal. Ah well we are masked also, overhung by grass and shadowed by mountain pine eloped to the beach, our little van. Sailors waterspouts are not landsmens dust-devils. “Dim she vexes me,” I mumble while my roan paws at the surf.

“Vexed, again,” laughs NaziBu from ahead, “but care for the shoreline!” Invisibility and the stink of seaweed find their end at one of many sharp-faced canyons. Shoreline pushes out, while our path curves inland. I gallop to his side venturing this new sight.

“Not much for the ruler,” I say with eyes visiting the windy trail. While the sea-facing plane has been dusty and dry this fracture discharges a tumble-down stream, with the Limasol peninsula, breaker of ships and wrecker of crews raising its granite teeth to our south. The boys point up this gentle bushy hill. No damned mystery we are exposed. Except for thickets of bay laural we are protected only by two lines of spare, twisted juniper trees that follow bubbling waters.

Here I call the men about me: NaziBu and Mykron and Nephil. Their mounts paw the sandy ground and eyes sweep back to the sea. “Well boyos if any mistrust itches intuition then nows the hour to scratch it.”

“Another wineskin would have been prudent, and a lighter weave to our linen tunics.”

“Glue for my bones this damned swayback jars apart.”

“My tender ash flute the mule carries, and it will surely stumble.”

Brave words as a voyage begins I know too well. Around the circle a wineskin travels, and a poppy-pipe follows. Men laugh yet I must form them up to certainty. So I shout! “Bones are rolling fair companions.” I point back toward Amathus. “ Once along this dry hill a single hour no run for the Belisama is possible, should Waries assault.”

NaziBu raises his arms; in one huge paw sits a Belisama woven of died red silk and starched white linen, while the other holds Hyrkon electrum. “Nothing left behind, sur while profit before us calls.” A shout, catching up the boys and women ahead and sending us to the gallop upon this shallow stream.

Yet, the stream is surprisingly brash. As our horses pick their way north, on a red clay forested with smooth round stones they forage upward. One bend shows a riot of white daffodil, the next carob, the third feral olive trees from a long renounced orchard. Poseidon teaches wise ears; our tumbling creek rushes away, hardly seeming to grow less, nor the stream-side grass become less green - - as both would being created in-large by many small feeder springs.

But no! We lunch eggs and smoked beef under four top-heavy pines to the bubbling echo of our companion. Shadows cloak Mesembrias smile. Then we push on, climbing the mountainside single file dodging a switchback and crossing the stream till Mykron - having point - makes a dashing return to the van.

“Pray us a boat, Cibias” he shouts. … and his horse shakes spray at every stride. “Water ahead Cap'N,” water and marsh and waterfall!” His gallop slows pulling up before us. Dampness beads on his oiled chaps. “Half-mile above, there's a whole marsh blocking our path. It runs straight north to a waterfall. Sturdy work,” he grunts, tipping an offered wineskin far above his head. “Above the falls, well that's in-the-small hidden , but the large forms … a warren of ridges, while below, cross-swamp east broods a cluttered tree-line. Scares white piss outa me, Cap'N; Bisu his-self can't see a damned thing under that canopy.”

“Can we bridge it?”

“If ye be Cyclops or Titan!”

“Take your leisure, Mykron. Only work lays before us.” We advance upward, trading surmise. Another short stone bridge , smooth by ancient and by many horse-shoes crosses us to the waters western side. I turn toward the boys, mood fouling .... “So you know it!”

Itis no mystery. Phaphos simpers. “Beggin' yur pardon, sire yes of certain … I mean no … no man does … the knowing I mean of that swamp. Water springs all flow in from the east, under the pines where bear-tracks wander and the mud and quicksand wallows cannot be measured.”

Takkoi shuts his mouth with a glare. “Dull mirror my companion, yet night-trailers abound in these waters; our parents avoid them. Should Hydras' sister Tylii live there nones the wiser; trapper-men come to trade beaver-skin, wildmen they claim her beauty. Much talk is made of her night-skills, but noone can prove her favors.”

Each boys face is clean, if not smart, and they appear threatened as only an honest man can be. So I've learned to separate guile from a mastmans true knot. Nephil appears unworried, and canters his Arabian roundwards to confide. “No doubt, Cibias water's gaining in the soil. Not clean, like your sea; smell the rot it causes!”

A deep breath … and I sneeze! “Like a shithouse.”

“So Ishtar breeds her young on old bodies … and Venus something similar.”

I ask. “Do we follow?”

“It's clean rot I believe.” Then touching his short-sword Nephil snaps . “Tis the boys neck to trap us.”

Damme I think, pushing my roan for'ard Nephil flashes hard like a water-screw when plans are threatened. Our trot turns to canter and a faster resolve. Settled firm the trails last half-mile flattens, crow-berry rows thicken, roebuck jump ahead, under NaziBu arrow and a swinging sun touches softening ground. Over a rise, indeed swamp not lake our van encounters, a rolling unstable green plane, flowered by strawberry trees, puffed up by water-lilies, cut by clear channels and bound by 20 fathom northern waterfall and muttering wet forest to the east.

Breeze off the waterfall spawns a circling ripple. “Damme it's a sight.”

“Trust we alone are seeing. A mysterious beauty indeed,” NaziBu whistles. Mossy fringes fall away, before clear water sparkles. NaziBu splashes in first, then lurches back his spear buried in the green muck. Raised, the bronze point holds a blunt-faced viper, pierced, fangs extended in a death rattle. “Did you see any brothers of this pest, Mykron?”

“None at all. Cap'N sur I went belly deep, with the horse before suck took his hoofs and I turned back.”

“A freak then, that viper and twist of Fortunas cunt!” It's sea I miss, only to find an ocean. How to set a jib …? I say. “Sailors not knowing a bay or gulf are known to explore … those not overly shy.”

Takkoi gasps. “Shy sur? Explore the swamp? Men have tried, from east and west. In flat-bottom boats, on logs, and even in air-blown pork-bellies. Men have trialed and men have not returned from their trial! For as long as any remember. More than one viper nests here. Now, a few trappers work the edge, but even they tell dark tales of night-prowlers and snakes attacking an eagles bower. ”

“Panther, I imagine,” putting a good face on my uncertainty. I am reaching toward my sword-hilt. “So … so leading us this way is a fools travel.”

Here, we can see into and far enough across the swamp to have gloom dim our vision. Phapos leans for'ard, about to speak, but Takkoi smacks him in the head. “Presume no guile in us sire.”

“Lambs of the swamp, then,” I laugh.”

“Dullards of desert exile,” Phaphos labors “if we find you not to our masters table.”

“True traders, if that ye risk,” I say returning the sword blade to rest. “ Lokis Mysterium at least.”

All serious the boys have become, siting straight to their saddles. “Servants of Sur Price and Council, guides to your van.” Dammee, first I'd heard of Council. Have they a Demos brewing? Then Takkoi. “Fools only for the watcher, sir, and not for the honest traveler. What prowler spies us? Our city sleeps peacefully above this, no Bogges does it hide.” The joke fails. Then: “It's weaving we country people stick to, and leave the swamp to its creatures, as a block and protector.”

“See how we escape!” Phapos points south over a sharp hillside crowding us even now. “Instead of swamping, we wear above the edge.”

Takkoi. “Path's a willow of stone-laid paths, be it flagstone or cobble. Well footed and westerly. It's but half-a-day around and above the swamp, and into a forest cool and nice.”

Yet before us the swamp stretches its proud skin. I mumble to Artyphon. “Misty lil' bastard, for noon-day. What I wonder watches back.”

Nephil gamely follows NaziBus green slime trail, scanning across the grasses, with his green glass to those taller, moss-hung , far out where water channels deform twisting into the far dark ceder-wood wetlands at the end of vision. It's a scouts view, and a commanders … and Nephil returns to our front row of visitors. Says simply: “Perhaps two bowshots to the trees?”

“Three.” I think about it. “Send a scout.”

“A water-scout pipes Nephil.” He's reached an ash-handle hatchet from our pack-mule. “Not for shy men of-course, but a few ceder trunks, a yew-spring and woven juniper deck will get two men far as they wish to venture.”

“Not two that expect eating evening porridge,” Phapos says with a chill.

“Perhaps an 8-armed squid we grill!” I jump at the evident challenge. “Not a wave or swell in sight. Let's have at it; you can swim master Nephil?”

He grins at the formality and doffs his cap. “Swim? Ha! Only when the Tigress runs foaming, and our horse-skin rafts are tossed like grouse-eggs in a sandstorm.” He unhorses and wades into the bog. “Where's the mud,” he exclaims?”

“Above sir,” perks Phapos, “it's a bedded forest, trees and rocks equally. Precious little mud to wash over the waterfall.”

Takkoi horse shifts uneasy. He says, “that's an ill-advised exploit surs. The swamp is older than our home village and the weavers and tradesmen. Paddling beyond channels – if you can get a raft that far – paddling into the forest dark. Would you ask safety of Dianna, in the depth of Her forest? What might you look for?”

Damme .. laughing … “as she would, I'd run from the cave bear!” But , I would think on the cloud. Outloud I shout. “Let's chop those cedar; Artyphon and Viiva and NaziBu weave us a perch of juniper and willows and splice-in a few dart-holders.” And Nephil reads my mind.

“We look for those looking back. Perhaps only the rainbow at those falls,” he points, “or a misty cloud. Yes, only a cloud,” and he is grinning like a mummer fondling wild Cythian queens gold pouch.

Trunks chipped, cut, measured, trimmed times us one trees shadow onto the next. Fixing the broadly woven basket takes half. The boys have carved a pitchy pine paddle and loomed two wickish shields to cover a kneeling man. We strip to trowsers and tunics; the women share a brazen whistle. Two spears are two poles; both recurves, shafts and 4 bronze-tip darts accompany us while a four arms push sends us skimming.

“Pray the Belisama does not envy this launch,” snipes Nephil. I paddle while Nephil poles. Green bog separates into a clear shallow channel. From behind, calls of good-fortune die smoothly. Tuffs of swamp grass rise above our heads. A fish-eagle lifts from the tree-line, diving for a fin. We're farther now and deeper and more alone , with speckled fish flashing and spears of two-strides feeling down to their leather grips.

“A man may become lost in this parlay.” Vine ties between ceder and willow-weave stretch and groan. We are spread across them front and rear, reach and push. “What have you?” I've pried at them, with my feet, this vessel of despair; two ceder logs and a yew cross-brace will not yield. Nephil imagines out loud. “Our King – may he live a day – swears he will build across the Tigress plain stone spline markers, every 50 leagues. His merchants and mages cheer, while his generals point to the mountain tribes and swear destruction on those making the curving path straight.”

“Our sea curves forever, thus the sun-stone. And noone may follow without the speed.”

“You brought one, Cibias? “May I see? … yes, ah yes the gods are clever.” Nephil manages to twist about on one foot, such are mummers. “Yes, just north of east so the pattern weaves no man may be lost.”

“Even north and south, one known.” I stare past Nephils face into the tree-line. Has a branch shifted? “Some say even far to the south floating ice reappears and from those white islands eyes abound.”

“Work in a sandstorm I wonder, or southern blizzard?”

Who can reject a travelers barding as who has been everywhere? Storms and battles and caravans we exchange, as men will on a journey. We poll like demons, from the bright clearing swamp center, where salmon sweep butterflys from the air toward the darker fringe. A fury of splashes bloody the surface, as a large cruising salmon is taken by a monstrous pike. From the sun-misted water cedar and pine trucks grow up their stain seeping into the liquid surface making it smoother. More quiet. More peaceful, as any laying in ambush would have it.

“Surely Nephil, the king will remand you to the sea. Join our crew, for you don't fear the edge, a man after our hearts! Take the wind as your new music and the Belisama as a new lyre. Seize your bold soul-mate and from the curve of Amphitrites breast to the edge of the world shall we trade!”

“Friend, dear companion Cibias, should the king ever be so merciful ...”

Our eyes share different sides of a coin and seek forward, into the gloom and tangled, mossy, leafless branches without finding. Now there's a sea-born look-outs mystery, but our ears … ahead some pine branch yields and splinters when it cracks twisting in complaint. Like a cold whore who can never finish her pleasure. Nothing like an oak stave snap or redwoods growl … nothing like those at all. Or like a yew or ceder –- a restrained crush, snow under-foot and yawn releasing a seaman hears his yards complain. Not this pitchy snarl. Nephil rests his spear and reaches for a shield and dart. Tree shadows loom above.

Only 25 paces from the forest edge and the first quarl flys inward. Its' bronze-gilt blade cuts into the shields tough hide and thin-woven juniper layers, twists sideways and slicing breaks in half about Nephils double leather forearm band. Blood seeps, but his eyes wide open have sought into the tangle.

He starts in a fury! Arm raised his dart whizzes away, on a return trip to the arrow source. Nephil is so quick at it I still grasp my pole. Stunned! A mans howl splits the quiet, and while pulsebeats count a body above and behind one or another pine splashes into the water. We spot the waves.

Seeing my astonishment he coolly evaluates. “In the Kings Assyria even girls are taught the dart.” Rising, he dares another attack. “Now, I'd see my enemy,” he snarls. “There, by the mossy hang, a turban!” His arrow chases it, and his shield catches the return.

Men in light infantry combat have always earned my respect –- slash and run, dashing and darting , flinching and bowing –- advance and retreat, but one strategy. Yes, I believe them insane ! “We saw ten pitchy black hulls and ran from the reefs of western Cyprus. To fight here against an entire forest?”

Nephil commanding. “None can stand before us!”

I scream, “Yet by Zeus beard none to support us.”

A moment passes when anything may happen. Then: Nephil in anger near stands on his spearpoint … “may Diannas cunt be too tight to fuck them,” he blasphemes and pushing for'ard on his spear drives us to reverse. Back, back … our raft shudders, retreating. I take his left side with my shield and spear. Escaping, another bolt chips the rafts ceder-log, arrows whistles above and a slingers pellet cracks into my shield. “Damn fine lacing by the boys,” Nephil goads.

I fire an arrow at a branch that may have moved. “Take that you bastard bough-riders,” and indeed a bolt-pierced body tumbles from the dark. My chest heaving, … yet the silliness of this combat breaks out my laugh.

“Brave man, to laugh at an unseen enemy,” Nephil snickers. Another five strokes of the pole and the slinging stops. I drop the shield and drive hugely onto the other spear; pushing, pushing we're faster now, faster and farther from the gloom. We watch the last arrow fall behind in our slipstream.

But, the eagle fortunes less. An arrow has rudely taken him, and sky-fallen thrashing he floats toward the eastern bog.

“No way for a warrior to die,” snaps Nephil.

“It's a way of the sea.”

“Not mine!” He hefts a bronze-tip dart and balancing drives it 40 paces into the eagles heart. Smashes down the proud hunter, and there the warrior flails talons once and sinks beneath sight. “A warriors eyes are his coin,” Nephil says. Which I have never heard of the unforgiving River Styx.

“If the gods are just.” I am thinking for a musician he has seen this hard death too often, but say nothing as he broods in silence. I raise the sunstone and scan. “That way!”

We cross the clear flowing deep, paddle supporting spear-point in thrust. Out this far we feel the fine mist never abandoning the surface. Then after working a sweat, on the far mossy bank a shield wall greets us. “Are ye well, mates,” NaziBus voice booms like a drum carrying over.

“Fluttering birds,” cries Nephil and shoreline spears rise among a burning talis.

“Any injury?”

“None, but for Shus son.”

“What's that bloody wrist and neck, a kiss from the night wailers?”

Bloodied, I had felt nothing. Cramped by the basket I wanted nothing, but to reach shore. Artyphon ministers, while Mykrons hashpipe fumes pain. Yet I can allow no rest, in such an exposed water-side. We get out of that swamp camp fast as ye may. Riding, Nephil holds up an ambush arrow that had pegged into the ceder. “Olivewood.”

“Three are worth a mans wool robe.”

“Except in Syria, where craft-guilds own olive farms.”

His stallion trotting beside my roan. All listen. “Not bandits then, or thugs from a wrecked grain-buss gone native.”

“Or natives! What's this mark, beneath the burnt ironwood tip? Wait, its a cobras stretched head and fangs.”

Caught up I stumble for words. “Ironwood you say, not bronze for the tip? Lend it here. Hummm … no arrow-maker picks that choice since HEPHAISTOS gifted flint” … and skin grown cold I think of one guild that does. “That cobra, an Egyptian makers-mark if memory serves.”

“After you,” Nephil queries?

Do I detect his grin? “A kings bastard is never popular.” I look up. “Let us away from them.” I call to our guides.

“Follow us, sires,” shout the younglings in return. So all may hear makes an unwilling guess, us winding sideways across the hillock.

“This new trail, Takkoi, trader built!” The swamps dark edge holds my eyes. None can I tell, but the land has a weakness to it, like the Hebrew hills once forested and moist in my boyhood, but now dry and barren. A kaleidescope dawns at visions edge, leaching blood of ages past. Demanding blood of today. Does battle with my reason – I fight going down that vari-colored tunnel. Bright. Yellow sun. Reason. Egyptians stripped away all the cedars for the alters and coffins of wealthy scribes. What trades for one desert tree? Weakness I say, like now my eyes , but forcing … forcing I rip them away from swamp darkness.

Artyphon watches me. “Who guides the traders?”

“Dianna mostly, most certain mistress, “ pipes Takkoi shocking me awake. “Proof simple; her shells are spread around the path, sea animals are imaged in stone and her hymns sing through the guideway.” Turned to me. “But we helped build: think us not living poor master Cibias; our traders canny, loomers fat, and our women nibble to remain thin; our men burn for them.”

“You have been practicing, then “ I snark?

He blushes, avoiding … “Some do say that Lena flew among these hills, and planted forest trees to cool her swamp at sunsets ...”

Phapos roughly eyes Takkoi and blurts out. “NO! No not never! Our tutors beat us for blaming the gods while mans and earths mischief is enough.” He looks about. “I'll tell the Sidonian tutor if you keep beating me.”

Nephil come beside, his stallion sweaty and tired smiles quietly. “So your tutors are mostly atheists … people who believe in no gods concern for or power over men?” Phapos blushes and goes silent. Takkio makes to slap him again, but Nephil snatches away his arm. “Think this –- weak defeats strong as a sponge covers rock.” Takkoi backs off. Nephil wonders out-loud. “If no god can help a man, certainly the King can provide nothing of value. Why would subjects respect or obey such a king?”

And noone ever have an answer for that mystery, as my tutor had taught before Poseidon dashed his queried head against the western reefs of Crete. Quiet returns and we follow the boys. That path above the swamp; as man-made and functional as a Lesbian dildo. It's narrow. NaziBu doesn't like it. “Minotaurs shithouse”, he ranks.

But, the trail then widens to a dirt floored course, rolling, weaving and thickening into a layered forest, dense and obscure and unexpected. We pick our way among boulders thrown out from a frantic pins match among the gods. Tree trunks quiet the air, carrying sharp smell of crushed berry and leaf. Tall pine bowers fence with the sun. Above, where our horses rest another creek flows, rich with land-trout and crayfish. Its' spillways scatter sunlight and tumble along a limestone ridge. Below forest thins, running downward past the swamp in that rocky earth , darkening and fining out growth beneath till fields of sea-oats and the salty dune-lines pushed them back, water running up at storm-tide and brine cutting a channel and scattered scree along a path of hard-packed sand while at storm-height beach sheeted against bedrock reaching scrabbled stones. We may admire the whole damned mountainside … and damme the cloud.

Artyphon thinks it beautiful. Seeing the ridge and the stream our guides trick becomes clear. From the harbor we had traveled east skirting the coast while Kalavasos was due-north. Now we swing east, up and heading over the range of steep hills that force the main rock-paved road from Amathus to Calavasos to Tamassos far to the north. Behind that shear sea-facing cliff many valleys break through into the central plateau. No doubt we will approach behind Tamassos along one of those valleys … approach, but never arrive.

“Yes Artyphon , we spend the night here. No, unless they fly the villains attacking me will not follow.” We're a horse-race higher than the waterfalls rainbow, at a spring camped between swamp tucked far below and the plateau ridge perched far above. Still … quickly agreed without fire we sponge cold and eat dry cod. One wax candle glows at the camp center, as an adventure will chase them. Guards rotate and all sleep.

But, not a peaceful sleep as Pan beside Nymphe. Horses saddle before false dawn while we chew salted beef. A cold tinge braces the air, and smells of juniper thickets draw us into Eos thread, a silver dawn. Nephil and Viiva have slept apart from us; I can only imagine her dryland lusts. He again falls behind, as we canter a quiet rear-guard to whom we can promise no safety. Narrow, steep ravines multiply, in this forest of nothing. Three leagues pass before ale-bags empty. A large boulder and copse of oak allow us to fire flatbread and boil grouse-eggs. The pines house a much weathered stone stella that forks our path. Ancient Minoan lettering warns the traveler to beware of Egyptian cut-throats. And excepting the boys nothing surprises us more than the two light-armoured archers with leathered mounts trotting into the mess.

“Hold the longbow, sir, my wife has yet to deliver our first child.”

Mykron retires. Zeus beard tis not our land.

NaziBu comes out first, with an aleskin and ships talis. “Have ye enough for the second, riders of surprise?”

Discovery continues a pace. Hearty, thoughtless men these speaking a traders Minoan. Wearing both cotton and sturdy linen weave, merchant factors must trade both Egypt and Gaul, or perhaps into the cool Black Sea. Not expected, or mentioned by the boys, but possible. I feel such archers may be trusted. “The Senator and squire Price set us watching till you arrive,” yaks the first. He is a ruddy, fair-skinned Gaul, mailed shoulders of oak whose official presence between Cyprus mountains spins my imagination.

Thin as rolled-oats the other, baring a jeweled thumb-ring for his bow-cord. “We figr'd your van last night, sar, even warmed the ale, but your guide-boys are young, only their second trial and must have trotted their nags instead of running them.”

“Our van had a run-in with bandits, below the falls.”

The Gaul flexes a double-layer longbow, of yew and black-pine. “Devil the miscreants! We ride along; you're in safe hands now.”

Both archers bard of a well-maintained stone warren built into the steep southern ridge-side, watered by a spring, manned by local mounted militia and Captained by a Carian mercenary. “No bandits ever try the keep bow-slits or rocky walls, and better for them,” says the jeweled thinner man. No local farmboy with a bucket of blueberries I'd grant him that. I send NaziBu up the northing trail ahead of us and we ride on.

Sun-seeking hot air races the path and we soon remove our vests. Life on the hillside grows richer in the thinning juniper forest. Ancient cleared coves dazzle awash in buttercups and orchids. Mast-high strawberry trees scatter along the stream-bank and the higher we climb the more space they share with bristly pines, low-slung and heavy with pitch. Grouse hold to those pines till our riding through scatter the flocks. Thick as fall leaves they fly in a thunder of wings and feathers. On Diannas breeze we ride into paradise.

When we catch up to NaziBu returning he has four grouse tied to his sling-bag, and rides bent low over his saddle. His eyes a grey lynx-trap survey us. Quietly he says,” four-hundred-paces,” and points right to a dry stream bed. “We're tight as the belt on Diannas girdle, but we are not alone ....”

Nephil has caught up to our van. “You have been watching the cloud,” he asks carefully?

“More companions ...” I motion at our two archers.”

“Wolfpack,” comes NaziBu guttural response, a sound rocking with blood lust. “You see 'em also?”

Nephil nods as NaziBu spews detail. “ An organized lot, black belted leader afore, trailers and mules lag a bowshot. A pack with jaws – that's free advice – for the fauns neck and a nose up our ass. If allowed, they will come first and hard.”

“So so shall not allow,” Nephil turns toward me? No question. Grown hard seemingly since we first heard his lute, Nephil keeps a steady voice. “I climbed an oak; other side of this ravine the cloud follows like wolf-clan follows a wounded fawn.” Nephils eyes then glitter. “Wolves they may be, but fauns they will not find.” He draws the short-sword scabbard over his shoulder, loops three place sized bladed discs to his belt and hobbles his Arabian. “Second sight makes first sight easier.”

Ask yourself this, boyos when before battle do you choose not to run? Speak not of bravery, but of interest. Mixing shy to bold we dismount, strip shiny half-helms for shaggy cotton rags and crawl to the top of our narrow ravine. Such layers of shiny green and shade dark do the ravines pander by cartload, eyes sweep clean the hillside. Finding … then … there ... two hillsides over, something beyond two bowshots and lower under junipers bower finding a troop of cavalry. They wind spaced, colored and share-not between mammoth bushy trees, bent to weeping and such riders become nearly ghosts. Evening sun just catches the white forelocks of their horses. Such stealthy rovers could have been wind ripples in the forest, bending to soft Notus wearing black thorn-beaters about their legs and patched brown and green leather jerkins. Bark and leaf color gauntlets and saddles smooth into the ridge which growing steeper caught more rain and grows more color at this height. Thick grass covers the path and trees grow a darker closer tint.

Grazing red deer watch us and them from rocky swales. Measuring men I decide careless thugs have no place in this trooper; each man rides a long maned African horse, wears a conical bronze helmet and straps a short horn-tipped recurve bow of the Hittite mercenary. They ride saddles leaning low and for'ard, but bows and spear-tips rise above their metal-crossed leather cuirass.

'Add it up,' I think. Horses easy gait … riders casual lean … an oddly spaced ribbon of the troop … and no crashing outriders; it speaks guildsmen, professional villainy. “Do you see their leader?”

Nothing … “Bandits...” I whisper to NaziBu. He shakes his head NO. We count forty – fifty – scouts – a front band ... leaders … trailers …. that subtle betraying dust cloud hangs over the ravine they have chosen; smart villainy.

“There, at the rear,” snaps Nephil. In black, mountain raiders fearless and witless drowning in poppy soaked Hashish to drown carelessly in blood of another or of their own. One rider has broken discipline, and his hash-pipe smokes. But, these riders prepare as brothers. Each carries a sack of grain, leather strap of bladed throwing discs and a long-armed pointed dirk.”

“So their arms are meant for short range combat,” I whisper to Nephil. “Gift raiders arrow through the window or blade fist-to-chin.” I share Nephils glass; Another dozen, though I do not recognize their reputation.

“Not shy men to trifle nor unskilled third sons,” Nephil whispers.

“You've fought them?”

Silence of the bees and butterflys follow piny windsong. Then. “Yes, I've fought the type -- hashish haradins. Poppy proud. Bitter rye wranglers. All that mind-cloud and more.” He thinks on it. “We beat them, in the kings own seraglio. At Assur, his summer estate and for bold women a favorite with visiting satraps. Two had arrived from Troy. Assassins must have known, for expecting debauch the rascals threw themselves at our throats. From whores to musicians to eunuchs all fought them.

“Your women?”

“Yes Cibias, twas there first I encountered them, Viiva and her sister , village beauties recently joined to the harem. Experienced court hataera hated their intrusion.”

“Just so much attention to share round, hehe” I chuckle.

Nephil tries a canny aside. “Our King, may he live forever never needs measure his effort, for Venus strengthens him.” Pops a chestnut from our fire and stares at sparklers. “How those sisters fought. At first danger they snatched gilt willow spears, mere toys from the eunuchs and silk tunics flying dashed against raiders first over the wall.” He's watching my repose, response, fear ...” Well you know Cibias skin combat against leather pelts fails, but for the most impudent! So then wonder, as those unexpected spears bloodied startled marksmen. Leaving impaled spearpoints, both women retreated behind my posh of companions. Let Mars judge my words for truth black linen-wrapped assassins screaming hashish dreams followed, but two steps behind.”

“But, the womens for'ard bought you time.”

Nephhil pounds my shoulder in glee. “Exactly! My dagger slit ones throat, deflected a second and I used his currass; sharp as a razor. Bastards had dressed as labor and as evening approached climbed palm trees to the top balcony. They carried fat coin-pouches to Hades, as palace guard burst upon them all died and we fed bodies to spirit infested pigs.”

“How curious,” I mutter under-breath. Musicians in the Kings harem; never just happens for a man with balls between his legs, unless he climbed up beside the assassins. These men before us retrieve my attention. The hetaeras glass marvelously picks out the raiders; I may follow the line of horsemen. From past to present they were not so much trying to overtake us, as seeking only to move in parallel, keep astride, as if they knew our destination. Gently turning the brass slip I can focus … they wear rubber soled leather boots, and shorty-robes striped inside and out … boiled boars-hide I'd wager a foresail.

“Death-dealer; remember them well,” whispers Nephil. Had they been boated in just for us? I feel the cold in my belly, and strike of fear well appointed assassins earn … merciless as a lion pride stalking and then striking a klan of gazelle!

Our two Cyprian archers motion a retreat. They too had seen enough to know the enemy. Taking a faster pace with our horses we climb near the ridge-crest. That rocky backbone stretches out among a forest first scattered now dark between thick yew trunks for two leagues till a gap breaks through on our left. It's a jumble of boulders falling down off the ridge a natural chaos till a no nonsense stone keep bristling with crossbows looms from the trees. Behind it and higher vine-covered ballista mounts and scorpions cover the flanks. Between the rocky fall and arching pine a well laid roadway appears among the wilds. The mountain Cyprians consult, and another two light archers join us. We pass beside a watermill iron bar windows already closed and cross over to the north side overlooking a plateau. Wooded green, its repose broadening away and out of sight of the sea.

Old Cyprus, as an ancient explorer might have found it. By the sea dry, yet wet by springs where cautious eyes might advise an inland empire as lazy scattered copse of a green canopy sweep a cloud-streaked pale blue sky. Wet cold winters devil Cyprus, and we may find snow on north-facing canyons if we try. Close … close to here we will meet our assassins, for so I now think.

Archers leading we recross the ridge. Two leagues on we camp that night beside red-barked giants twice two men 'round near springs at the very peak of the ridge. Man could prosper on such land. Yes. Had I ruled a tribe or klan or village desiring peace I should have chosen such a plateau against tides of blood; let Greeks butcher clams; allow the Phoenicians to slaughter seagulls! A plow to each ox. Every ridge and pine copse I would have clasped as a seaward barrier.

“Bastard Cibias!”

And that … my fine Hyrkonian trader I spoke to myself was as complete a set of treasonous thoughts a Cretan corsair might ever seek to claim. Councilors send my tarry hands to the rope and my head to the ax!

“That's the Captain approaching. He believes stupid seaman respond only to noise!”

Ale set warming, root-tubes and a spare grouse toasted Artyphon tries putting the boys to bed; they refuse all honor bound and protesting to hide and listen from the shadows while we plan. We share last of the food and ales with Carian Captain Zotra and his keep commander, an island man Lieutenant of many races on oath, his own Scythian tinged name Trokikas a tongue-splitter.

Like my father, Zotras blade straps to his back. “You've come to trade? Not a common sort, then.”

I try to discern them, Zotra above, a political factor while Trokikas local, if unhappily confined to officers under him. Must there be others in this ring of power? Little said is best. I say, “Traveling from Amathus, Captain. Your factors approached us there.”

Zotra spit. “Our factors … our factors are too old to lift their dicks pissing, say nothing of a shield and hatchet.” He takes from the hash pipe and passes it on. “What do ye bring so worthy?”

“We bring transport, Captain, of your sailcloth to Egyptian buyers. Our ship, the Belisama ...”

“Belisama eh … sounds like a kind of overused Tyrian asshole. Sailcloth, eh. You must damned well see over the horizon to claim such a delivery.”

“Sailors do!”

Again he spits out a last grouse bone.”They … the bandits … the raiders .. “ … he stares curiously at Nephil … “the assassins … the ass-buggers … they expect to find your van sleeping here, curled about the fire when they come howling out of the mist.” Zotra chips pine-seeds into the firepit.

I imagine. “But, they can't get horses over the ridge-crest from the ravine they followed upward. ”

“No need, when they attack in numbers while you sleep. Stealth and shock, hand-ax and darts and hatchets have always served such assassins. Hittites you say, likely … ”

“Yes indeed, men of the iron blades. So we will not be here … ”

“Yes, we will not be here,” he laughs. “For you and your party I'll leave an officer, a lookout and six of our armoured spearmen” He chews on the hash plug. “You fight where we sit now.”

“Believe they have enough for a fair fight,” snips Nephil, smiling cruelly.

Trokikas rudely. “If our archers report with open eyes. Yes.”

What cannot be true has always amused me. “I am a sailor boyo, whose enemy first appears four leagues beyond the bow. This rabbit-trap... what madness here?”

“Should they pluck you like hawks do sparrows, from above and behind?”

“We run.”

Zotra laughs roughly. “They run faster, and into our pastureland. Beyond and behind our keep.” He kicks at a burning log. “Do you choose to fight them at your back or before your face and shield and spear?” He eyes us cautiously no friend of the coward. “We leave two dogs... and you keep your own guard. The assassins, they will come on rapidly once they locate the firepit exactly, moving in three semi-circles, first with the disc throwers, then two rings of twenty men. The second line are spear-carrying light armour, then the supporting twenty peltast with bows, slings and perhaps dart-throwers. So do light armed men fight in forests.”

One of the young boys had crawled away to vomit beyond the fires bright flickers. Time passes. The boy returns, drinks ale and again vomits. Drink again and remains stolid, pale drained face squared to the fire. Artyphon has held him, then saying coolly as women will distract against adversity. “Such an array of blooded assassins against peaceful spear-bearers .. . the ten of us, you say.”

“Yes. And you ten must hold against the first thrust. Keep your heads down against the disc throwers till they rush with short swords. Beat them muddy before the twenty spears are upon you; the arrows will fly mostly overhead. We will leave you leather armour and twelve-foot Thessalian shafts. Our shields are brass-bound, but small and hourglassed in the older , failed fashion that allows a mans belly ripped open to a well cast dart … sorry. Their first rush must stop against those bronze spear-points.”

“And then?”

Trokikas. “I have twenty men myself and beside the keeps watch that's all. We guard the keep oathgiven to the death. Other scout troops have moved to night-watch barrens farther north, and any fire-signal alerts the enemy; be certain, he will return more spiteful! Save your own life right here. After you have stopped the first thrust, we will hit them equally from both flanks, shocking their spirit and putting them hopelessly between two fires.”

Zotra finishing his ale. “Their lines collapse and we butcher the brave, run arrows through the white spines and brains of those who run.”

So Zotra has ordered. Had we been Hector and Polydamus clothed in Hephaestus armour I would have still grieved for the unequal numbers. Nephil has been gently teasing his flute, but now tucked it beside his short-sword and piped up. “How will we know when you attack?”

Trokikas face reddens, quizzing the musician, but sees no shyness and he spits tar. “Don't ask for what I can't know. Fight .. fight to the death.” He turns from Nephil, hands me a plug of black tar hashish. “For the boys. If you are still breathing when we strike their flanks that is enough.”

To struggle without hope is enough … I hear that. Did that feeling infest Minoan citizens as the volcano struck them down? Volcano – that's an Etruscan word as they plant grapes on powdered slopes of such a monster. So our histories said, they died first in the red burning rock that flows like milk. They should have hidden!

So we prepare to defend by obscurity and then of-a-sudden violent strike deal pain. We cut and lace round our canvas tenting a knee-high wicker of vines, birch and pine branches, that might reject a poorly shot arrow. We fire-harden and drive ninety larger pointed elm uprights into the damp clay, seventy at the rim and twenty inside, and the entire affair stretched twenty-strides across. Ferns and brush to our waists we leave uncut.

Artyphon beside me, I approach Nephil and Viiva. “How shall we fight, warrior,” for musician I no longer believe.

“Captain Cibias, of defense ornaments and the shield wall I have nothing to teach you, nor of the bow. Allow my flute to whistle a tune.”

“Ha! Play your flute, Nephil while I tell you how I fight. Yes, that's a fine tune, a sailors song while the oars bite deep into writhing green water. “So Viiva and Artyphon I see the helmed man rise before me. I raise my ax, dodge his sword-thrust and swinging strongly wisk off his head. Surely I have become general.” I turn, walk to the forepit returning a pitcher of warm ale. “On the Belisama, a prowless vessel we play shy. I drive keel over an enemies larboard oars and pass. We're behind them, tack, and coming round to pepper their tillermen with ballista.”

“A shy and modest tale, Cibias indeed. But, see here, bards sing of your lancers move, a bold stroke you driving hull and deck through-the-waist of a Messenian raider. Drove them sinking to wet Hades. Did I mis-hear? A forest battle works just like that!”

Humor fails me. “Desperation … an imprudent oncer … Zeus beard you shrive me Nephil, but where's your hull?” Away I stalk. Vexed by ignorance I did not mind Nephil and the womens cruel grin.

We join into the van around our firepit. The boys nibble dried plums, drink ale and fall fast to sleep. NaziBu sets a roaring fire; a guardsman spits a pig-haunch. And while boys snore men sharpen blades and tell of brazen shield walls held and torn, arrow-storms sweeping away fields of horsemen and sturdy phalanx shining bronze in Spondes sun wrestling bloody ax-upon shield for a line they have held fast.

Anatoles first light finds all men awake and mailed. Gentle Notus breath whispers up from the far-away sea. Fog settles over the copse as the moon falls. NaziBu has plaited an ivory-shielded rider and horse from dewberry vines, and woven it into his leather neck-guard. He and I walk a short circle of the camp during that daybreak and returning find Artyphon with the fire already cleverly built and she nesting beside a strung Syrian bow honing arrow points with a flint. Viiva rucks her own spearpoint.

Knowing her least, I must go to her, kneel beside for face pale she is most alone. My head bends to her ear. “If all fails, woman of Nephil I will see to your coin.”

She nods. Preparations continue. Caped straw-heads swing from two dozen trees as if the shaded rose in our support. A white slash, a satyrs mouth paints the pole-tops. Swinging plated shields also, for who can predict an arrow? We build up the wet wood fire, billowing smoke and rigged over green saplings and wet leather such as to be a one-time fire-sling. Ale heated releasing its sharp ferment airs and a small bronze pot boiled porridge and beans. So did we make ourselves known. The two boys woke last and clear-eyed and quiet cinching chest-leathers, filing their short pointed blades and strapping bronze over Egyptian leather helms. Best for us.

We meet our enemy not as an open fielded wall of shields, but within a shifting, smoke and fog bound illusion. Under the tent canvas, keeping out of sight we twelve were awake, lashing armour and helmets to our companions and sharpening spear-points and blades. Yet all must appear unprepared! The firepit glows; we eat flatbread, toast lamb and drink hot ale; I pass round the hashish, dark sweet smoke hanging low and thick and the boys take their first draughts nicking sweet at their brains. Hearts hammer hot blood through hands cold as frost. Uncertain hearts.

Till the lookout rockets down a knotted rope strand and dogs started howling it could have been a bacchanal. “Three lines Sar,” the lookout breathes to his officer. A flurry of stars and disks wiz overhead, striking the faux heads and pole-faces. Rabid chanting blood-red rolls before rude, untimed head and leg and chest images of the attack.

“Nephil. How many discs?”

“Sixteen,” he whispers. “And these darts.” Each a stride long, he has fixed a half dozen into a wood pegboard. From his saddlebags he removes light leather armour with bronze stripes, a wicker shield bound in boarshide and a bronze Tiara that covers his cheeks, but not his mouth. Green and brown and orange linen stripes hang from his belt and helmet while Areas spear prods bronze-tipped ash three-arms before him.

This. Now! So imagination fails when he and Viiva and Artyphon - got up together in copper disked leather helms - followed in a step by Takkoi and Phapos long-spears for'ard dash before us into the underbrush there was not one moving object, but many as he had got up a hull bold as himself.

“Artyphon … Viiva … Nephil ...” the words clot in my throat.” Five darts they dare hasty, tussling ferns and vanish into the fog. My legs will not move to follow.

“An assassins assassin,” rasps the Cyprian Sargent. “I seen his eyes go red bewitching the boys!”

“Fuck them's the bastards,” pointing NaziBu hatchet-handed, “and mebby he's one o' 'em.” NaziBu growls, “at the juniper, there, there's a pair, and the mistress...”

She had gotten low in the brush, under them and while cursing, slicing fern with steeled stars, now here now in another direction Artyphon has got between. Her cape spins and spearpoint leaches blood from one mans neck. A short-sword rips up, but Artyphons knobbed bronze end-weight smashes anothers face. Only a pithy pine separates the three yet from below she becomes a wraith.

“Seen it work in Aleppo, against the satraps guards,” spits the Sargent. He's of no mind to move or argue argue, the ground sacred beneath his feet. “ 'Course we were covering them with yewish longbows.” Young pines rustle and snap over bodies tossed by violence extreme and unwary. Both boys are unseen .. toothy hedgehogs, but not the pain between their spear-shafts. Screams snicker reason away before the breath has finished. “Swing the spears sideways, ye sons of whores” calls a bowman. He is looking for a raised, dodgy head and he finds one, planting his bolt midway through the conical cap. A womans voice taunts, and our bowmen respond. “Give me another, bitch, and I'll pledge your marriage dowers.”

“You trust the Parthian witch just because ya fuck her?” A hundred sounds layer themselves in the brush before us. NaziBus feet grind on the turf … he's ready to dive in, breaking our shieldwall. Then from thirty paces into the bramble Nephil rises, shoulders strained like 1st-Y in a yew trunk, a helm less darter transfixed from ass to chin by his long-spear – Nephils gift and he howls to a god of southwind more ancient than I know. Shapes and colors dim in mornings silver air, darting from one tree-trunk to another and closing on our own standfast.

One scream then another ricochet in the saplings thirty paces afront. Harsh, rasping Hittite commands joined a clash of metal and gurgling cries of death. An arrow flies high overhead, released unwillingly and splitting the branch of a small poplar. Our archers launch two arrows at forms crashing through the bushes and two arrows return, splitting the air over NaziBu head and thumping into the beech trunk behind him. They bracketed one of the archers faced away from the attack, and he had already swung up behind me to launch an arrow at a helmeted face dashing through tall hillside ferns bearing just east.

More screaming and rousts, bellows of death and thrashing in the thick brush swatch chosen by Nephil and his forest hull. Yet raiders push for'ard. In smoke and fog, two of their flyers blunder into our line and long shafted spears left and right burst through their face guards making the screams die in bubbles of blood and brains.

Two whirling discs thud into the shield beside me. I see an arm raise with another and then fly away as a sword stroke whips it off. Blood spurts. They dash into use , hissing the dark paeon to Yaga and outlined in white by the new rising sun at their backs. In the open brush and fern before our barricade I count five advancing ahead and twenty black-bearded and black-faced spear, hatchet and sword carrying peltasts. That line holds a tight formation, shield to shield with space between only enough to move legs making all speed, racing toward our position glowing with the killers advantage of numbers and sharp bladed surprise.

Tunnels in the bracken; hands and feet, four long strides brings Artyphon back among our line, herding the two boys and Nephil covering her flank with an arrow lanced shield. His nose-guard is smashed into his cheek and the dart holding left hand bloody.

“Viiva,” I shout? “Vivva?”

“Lost,” comes Nephils response.

Takkoi. “Sword and scythe-play with a quick devil I saw, before they sank into mud.”

“Fucking cheap Syrian swords. No wonder Argos drives under the Phrygians at Troas!” Nephil has two disc remaining, and three short darts you could take for drumsticks. His short-sword was broken just beyond the hilt. “I'll have the forge-mans head!” He snatches a flint-tipped long-spear shaft from the earth. “Messed their first line well and proper,” Nephil shouts.

We have reformed our shieldwall and await the second line, the spearmen. “Better his daughter, while he works the mines!” I swear at them. Again. “Where is Viiva,” and have taken two strides toward the approaching spearmen?

“A scythe took her in the throat.” The musician bitterly drives his useless hilt into the ground.

“She was battling,” sobs the boy.

Nephil slaps his chin, hard enough to remember. “Hittites! Let that be your dieing curse.”

Artyphon has not a scratch, but kneels breathless beside a round iron-bossed shield six auroche-hides deep; at her waist a Hittite steeled sword. “They can see nothing, but the moon,” she says of the disc throwers, wiping blood from Nephils neck where it freely runs. “They run less freely now!” I cannot raise the paeon to such bravery.

They're upon us Cap'N grunts Mykoron, both raising my blood and deflecting overhead a flint-tipped reed dart. Attackers, I wonder browse so soon for weapons? Nephil and the women have crippled the light armed advance yet the rest are take up dark Yagas paeon. Discs and darts slice through cover, clipping posts below and cutting branches above, but already I believe surprise has turned.

Forty paces of uneven ground the attack needs to cover. Had the disc throwers come upon us unobserved they would have raked a crossfire upon our line. But, they themselves are taken unawares. Striking first, Nephils hull had raked them, stripped them of surprise and bowmen take the offered blood. Our archers launch three cycles of shafts into the first line when none had been expected. Seven of those ash-shafted arrows have driven home bronze heads tearing the life of man; bodies not human lay screaming and twitching among the bloody ferns. Morrigan heckles among them.

But, behind, next, in 2nd-row enemy archers twist and jog sideways to make harder targets, yet untended they would shoot fewer and less well aimed bolts. First row defeat exposes and our arrows tend them. I see two drop guttering with arrows in their throats, another bolt finds an eye, forth and evil the arrowhead chooses middle of a darters forehead smashing through a thin helm and sucking out screams and screams that never end.

“Will a man cut his throat”, one mailed militia archer shouts.

“You're welcome to advance mercy, sides-man japs.”

“Might be you, ye feckin-A pounce,” japs back, and the two brothers release arrows together, splitting and pinning broken skull of a black-toweled raider into a juniper trunk.

I am dodging a thrust, and drive the spearmans retreat. His companions sword nicks my helm and I too retreat in NaziBus shadow. Shafts from the attacking second line of archers find the emplaced elm posts, bouncing away sometime clipping blood from a few of us, but failing the mailed leather armour and taking none down. Such did surprise blunt surprise. Do Rhys and Price people loom their mail as they loom silk and linen? A sling-lead holes my shield, advising I think less.

Grunts and curses … I can feel how close the raiders press us, yet we have been patient. As the remaining spear-men draw close I snap the cords holding in place the firepit and a thick wad of burning wood, a rain of fire and hot coals takes down the two mid-pair attackers and sends two more, coals burning beneath their armour, screaming to the rear. Fourteen remaining come on uncertainly … stumbling upon raspy vines too close now for their own archer support and meet our nine ash spears, two bows and Nephils darts. Our spear-shafts reach three feet longer than their own. That insane stinking moment sweeps toward you , insane, when thrust passes thrust just before the spear points seek an uncovered body. An instant later comes the screaming, vomiting shitting, howling chaos, fueled by hashish and ferment, fear and anger and a battle lust when bronze and iron shattered, or slash deep into lemon-wood and boars hide oak … and men rebound from the slam of one weapon upon another … one line falls upon another, face-on-face, bronze-on-steel. `

Impact, ye war gods can you not the human breast feel? I shrug a spear-thrust and beneath hurl and hand-ax. Thudding … a mouth pleads. Around me vacant, for a breath, to grasp a lost dart. The young boy Phaphos and one of the archers steps away fly backward with spears thrust through their chests!

A man come upon me ax and war hammer filling both hands. The ash dart I had retreated behind my shield and he thinks himself swift enough. His right arm reaches long slamming the war hammer into my shield, gaining all attention while the sharp bladed ax comes whizzing low on the unguarded side. For which no defense may be wrought, excepting my suddenly thrust – darting - which wicked bronze carries the length of his left arm from wrist to shoulder reaming muscle and bone and sinew. I end his screams crushing mouth and face and nose with heavy head-iron of his hammer. Yet another longsword drives me to my knees, but Nephils thrust of a dart busts a spray of brains from the grey bearded attacker.

A quiet washes over, like a sea-swell, as nests of spears seek each-other, and armored line falls upon line by accident. So also four of the spearmen stumbled, arms flung away with blood spewing over trim black beards. Men grapple for their short swords and blade fractures against blade. Tis a timeless melee of many widows, I perceive. In time arms tire of heavy shields and men stake their lives on a bare thrust. Yet times justice awaits … for our general instructed us just to survive and by Venus cunt so we have. Just as lines reform of slashing points and blades comes the retching and time of terror screams from behind.

Shouting “Drive home your spears men of Tomassas,” Trokikas and his Lieutenant have attacked the second line of assassins, sweeping in from swale north and south of the hillside.

Combat has pruned away brush. At one-hundred paces I can see to their last line, see to eyes widen in fear and confusion. All mind retreat before the desperation of iron blades slashing and bronze speartips thrusting ahead. Moments of terror end with pain screaming loudest in the Hittite gutteral; Trokikas has broken their flank and assassins scream for their mothers tit. Destruction looms and weaves; surprise means that much in a forest battle. Trokikas had hidden, and restrained his men till strides only separated them from the enemy and a peltasts rush of darters, slingers and broad headed ax-men could not be caught by a bowman; three Cyprians wielding the short bronze Minoan sword have swarmed a blood-path, companions widened and their Lieutenant carving both to left and right covers the race with gore and shattered weapons. Concentric rings of attack fail in mad confusion. Trokikas swordsmen slice through half the archer line, bronze butchered yew sweeping in from the sides.

Seven of eight remaining spear-men at our front turn to run; the eighth, darked masked spearman charges shaft level to my chest. At angle, my shield deflects the iron point upwards, and grunting I slice beneath it. Sure of the blades path to his knee. But, my curved blade shocks, finding not soft flesh, but instead a brass boul, the end of his short-spear nicely dropped into a defense. So begins our dance, as tutor would have it on his quarterdeck.HES THRUSTING DOWN ON YOU i still remember. So I whorl, swinging the blade wildly and driving aside his spearpoint. Facing, crouched opposite his black mask and trowsers to-the-knee have been torn away. Blood streaks his black cheek. He scans quickly, and seeing no safety mutters a curse or prayer a trader knows as south Egyptian , but does not understand. Then his coiled legs drive him for'ard.

Tis the short-spear solid brass boul that catches my shield-tip, dragging it down, pathing clear for the iron tip, but again my cuirass deflects. I roll to my back and jump up. Can't see him, hop right, but nothing, then spin … and the long low wail sends me to a knee. There! Backed away ten paces the black stands on his toes, the short-spear griped for throwing - spearing me through the back – and a feathered ash arrow piercing his left eye-socket; its bronze point still quivers broke through his skull.

Our faceless archer has already turned, joining his arrow to the zip of bolts following to Styx retreating spearmen. It's low carob bushed that trip them; Nephils darts and our three archers pin arrows through as many spines. All becomes slaughter in a past just fought; twenty paces behind, their archers are trapped, between our barricade and the fires devouring their flanks hand-to-hand with bronze swords. Mercy they did not presume , their hurled shafts and maneuver never-ending and while bolts find two lost eyes they become as outcropped trees in a meadow: searched, identified, targeted and cut down half-helms chipped, dirks in hand cut clean to the last mans blood.

When has the fighting stopped? I lay on the forest floor half-covered by a green-leathered darter slain on his final cast. He came from the side, wounded, I side-stepped and plunge my dirk in his chest. Prying loose the dart from his hand I push myself standing. A scatter of fighters, our men wander the death-scene dazed senseless as only live men may. I count fast; fifty … fifty-five enemy dead, while four five six … of our own. Artyphon fought beside NaziBu and her wicker and lemonwood shield holds four arrow points. Ten of her own arrows have been shot. Nobody sings that paeon shit, for none smell of anything, but blood. A great victory for those burning the fat of oxen.

NaziBu cynic shouts, “All praise to Mars bloody brow,” and no man will dare his bitter face. Our van still bleeds, and Artyphon sews up many a deep wound. She does not hector the wounded, for defying Odin and Baal with their tears, but slips blue cones of poppy and hash between their lips. Most are clean wounds, as weapons formed up sharpened at a distance. Ale-skins pass about. The blood turns dark in one of our wounded, and Artyphon must ease his final path with a mountain herb she powders and callsHAPPY mixed in poppy-juice.

“Not dead, faires the trade master Cibias,” snarks Zotra who has been sifting the field. “These raiding party actions happen every month, and new-promoted officers are grateful for them. We'll search the field again, lookibng for stringers, idlers and their horses. They didn't ride fucking Satyrs into this mess.” His scribe tails along and talks. Six – six of our own. Those yeoman able form up scouring beyond the battle-site, and there slingers find another. Newly a man, mostly a child this Hittite mercenary was left with their horses .. a sharp brief chase pins him against a canyons wall where he curses our cowardice. “May bastards die, king of whores!” We crack his brain with slings and throw his body down a cave-shaft.

So ends the engagement, though scoffing Trokikas could not be convinced to call it other than a scouting exchange. Even at sea, too much after remains, after conflicts not desired and never-ending; what must the gods think of rotted Titans blood, or the children of Bogges? Trumpets blow for guardsmen. Three missing, they announce and we search again for our own. Ferrymans death-coin must be regarded. During this search we strip enemy bodies, but not do not defile. Mykron steady eye visions Freya as their judge. While blood is warm, we stack them on a pyre of ceder with our own losses so recently found and lamented. In that search I come upon Viivas body, one leg crooked in the stream. Even in death the pale skin seems warm. Near decapitated by her enemy , she has left him grimacing at her side, a spear punched through his leather breastplate. Stroke for stroke has the warriors game stolen their breath. Yet, no women ever is burned as a warrior; even Amazons are sunk in a tarpit. I cannot fathom, cannot make mercy follow truth, as I will aboard the Belisama. But, I can do what is proud. Viiva takes on the raiders body armour, helm and capes; I pay her coin and carry both emptied hulls bound and wrapped in cotton rag as a cold enemy to our battle fire. Upon those branched oak and barked ceder logs I do rest her body.

Men gather. The paeon sung. Juniper resin alights. Carob beans scattered as is customary in mountain Cyprus and fire brightens the hillside. We troop away from the smells. A horse-race distance men pitch a second camp. Fires lit all wonder on our destroyed enemy.

Who were they? The race of Hittite is obvious, beside two Egyptians and two Syrians. Were they the leaders? Who paid them. Their belt pouches hold only hashish and poppy-gum; only their Egyptian Lieutenant has six Egyptian stators sewn to his belt and a gold seal of the cat-bitch Bastet. Clear enough. Bleeding wounds will be remembered. Men judge Phapos the dead boy to have fought as a warrior, so is assigned an enemy shield for his family and given Charons coin … burned with his companions.

Burned to grey. Alrek tells of some northerns, wicked men and violent, but believing warriors battle-bled are revived by their god to fight and revel in tranquility. Imagine: fight and die. Restart life and revel. Each new day brings a shield-wall, yet at night ferments raised and women shared warriors gloat among re-animated fallen enemy afterwards forever. Paradise. Our gods fail such wisdom. Zeus will flail your gizzard for a bit of wisdom restored. Baal temple pyramids smell of death. Nut forgets her sex. Even Artyphons Zorast brightness Ya'veh' pesters merciless and beyond human strength their heroes Job and Jonah. What tutored man believes human ignorance becomes a gods excuse? I'll not have it among my children. Such slaughter of peace did waring Nergal never produce. Hesperus long shadows cool us. Our van re-assembles under Trokikas with enemy spoils loaded on their horses, but this evening we do not depart.

Nephil has stripped to goatskin, climbed an oak and buries his head in a bowl of black-tar hashish. I've taken a stump, chipping an ivory tusk I chip when art deserts me. Artyphon gathers my arm. “She had his child waiting in the 3rd month.” Winter has come for her. Artyphon do not despair for ours. Artyphon tend our evening fire. Artyphon do not leave. Say you boyo. Have you a clean heart and busy father? Tend his craft. Build a guilds keep, bud a maid and do not leave your village.

Messengers have galloped in … and away carrying script to-and-from lands beyond. Columns of heavily armed scouts roll through: questioning, scribing, collecting and spreading out beyond the southern ravines below us. All movement stops, and our van confined to our tents. Crap. While fires burn , and grouse roasts beside wild onions we wash in the stream.