Most were hurry-fired, a last curse at enemies filling your gut with their bronze ax. Arrow-points buried bone-breaking distances high on the trunks. “That sir, I shall not do.”
“Sir .. indeed mistress. Husband and consort, wife and lover will ne do ?”
Artyphon mopes … she should be among young vixens not cold shades. Her pale voice. “Spring spills from my steps here, and I see no grace in tree-trunks lanced by mans mischief.”
“Humpp … what you will do for a mans shattered bones and broken spirit you disdain our elder brothers.” Fates may not trace the boundaries of the universe, but measure they do a shields circumference. One hundred paces across the ridgetop moves you from the smell of spring wheat and flowers to the rank putrefaction of bloody, cracked human bone. “Without trees to hold them, tribes of dirt run to rivers silting the salmon runs. After a trimming, it happened on my farms pebbled brook! I pleaded with Dianna, but her price an almond tree gracing every stride of that spring.”
“Oh slippery tongue bard of the moss, Cibias if bard ye must for the shades have moved beyond happiness or care.” Artyphon mounts her mare and trots up and down below green, sharp-edged ridge. After treating the wounded , and b earing my curved vision Artyphon cannot scrub the blood from her fingers. Away, up, over and gone her mount flurries, whisking her though the ridgetop into the plateaus deep fern meadows.
Why do I search among the gore? Looking for Artyphons true heart? Dammee! Harder than a hickory nut she can be, when my soul pains. There, a shiny scrap, then another. Metal foil messages or chandlery or counters? Enough. I stuff them in a saddle-bag slot and follow Artyphons good sense over the ridge-top to a heaven of meadows. There are they; here, I must trick my roan around a barley-plot worth one ale-barrel in the winter doldrums. It's steep and I dismount to walk my horse. Time to eat, time to see. Near the plateau north end, farthest from us looking down another ridge-line reached east to west, and against the ridge are set a string of wooded box canyons. One of those would be ours, or rather Rhys. Yeoman spread about that canyon-land: red hatted cowmen, or herdsmen in blue dyed straw rain-beaters , orchard-men and plowmen and bee-keepers so neither land nor visitor was anyones big secret.
Then again some secrets are best kept small. Our van has spread out, enlarged by four Carian archers for our protection, twas said. Most have dismounted at rest, below my path and stop at a crossroads to eat cold eggs and warm bread. Tempers below grow short among those eight , with NaziBu weaving and burning a grass sail so much have I ceased maintain the good order of my ship. I can tell Watered ale does not satisfy. Then NaziBu and Takkoi ride uphill to deliver a small hand-scripted map which does show our current location, and among rolling hills plots a rough trail to …. to what … appears like a bog Zeus beard not another!
But, Cybelle have mercy. For near a pulley-driven deus-ex-machina appears; a heavy cavalry troop shining silver bits and oiled tooled leather saddles thunders in from the Tamassos Road. These two-hundred men ride casually noble , while sun glistens from polished mail and plate. I think it's a formation only merchants, or a palace courtier would build. Outriders of-course, and trailers far to the rear, but the main divided by two. Three horse-tail helmed leaders guide a fifteen man steel-helmed and mailed front like an bronze ax-head. Following by a melons pitch, 10-times that number of leather-armoured archers, darters and slingers comprise a loose column ready to fan out dealing death by hit-and-run. Free run, yet closely trained they remind of the Kings sailors scampering about cruiser yardarms just before their prow takes a reckless enemy hull midships, boarding crew swinging between hulls on mast-shrouds.
I think, 'three leaders … unless they are fools': the units best swordsman, a navigator and engineer then not least one older man, a citizen born, tutored and tested most experienced in negotiations and battles vagary. Tis the 3rd a command must find, and kill first if battle rages, or bend a knee if 1st contact looses no lives. More or less powerful fails in measurement, recalling a fools match with the snakes lost tail. Every trader knows this. More wealth, allies and daughters husbands are found in ale pitchers respectfully offered than in all the high-blown shield walls ever formed. So here evidently, with Tomassii surrounding, then peacefully mingling with our camped companions. Nephil, perhaps NaziBu and Takkoi also separate to the fringe with two of the horse-tail helmed leaders. I remove my glass from a saddle-sling and find the best image. Short white curly hair and two gold torques – a senator of Cyprus island confederacy with Rhodes – that's him!
His troop had already gathered captured Hittite horses and spoils, as they pass around wineskins and ale-flasks; yes, experienced leadership. I hear pipes and flutes from the dusty van. Horses, riders, envoys … they all mill around in a confused melee so common after Bachus conjures battle into an ale-fest. In such a mix the senators outrider thunders in whispers exchange. Takes little, but elephants shit, riding into the tight ring. Nephil has approached the senator , loosed a wrist strap and showed some kind of seal. This I see. A flurry of calls fly out, to scribes and officers. I believe some men cast to their face, but shouts and they quickly pull afoot! Four broad shouldered swordsmen gazes equally fearless and fearsome surround the drummer, but looking outward for threat their backs exposed.
Then the boy raises a Belisama ships-flag I had made a present; it's arm-size, but whips in the breeze and poinys directly uphill to me. A banner-man, two officers and four hoplites split off running theor horses uphill to intercept me. NaziBu and Nephil now running Moroccan stallions quickly gain the lead.
Close in a cloud of dust. “Yer bastards gone lost,” their Lieutenant shouts.
NaziBu and Nephil now beside me. “Bugger yer damned swamps, “ NaziBU chants in return and hands seek sword-hilts and bucklers. I still bleed under our linen bandages and tunics. But, Tamassos yellow banner of looms and dewdrops fronts with their Captain and senator of milder manner. He stares off their Lieutenant, and curtly examining my passage-writs leads down the ridge-line onto the Plateau where all, but outriders dismount.
This Capitan, an older curly haired senator of ancient Etruscian descent so his shield-boss shouts cannot understand either us, or why he had been dispatched to repel such a small group of raiders. We could haver faced them. “Have you killed them all or have you not.” he asks warily. He waves toward his resting corsairs. “Ten of us are worth 50 brigands.”
“Not the one who payed them,” sniggers Nephil, more harshly than needed.
“You think we need pay,” their Captain chin-to-chin with unarmed Nephil?
Without fear. “I'd pay slackers to watch my back, as my hearty companions watch the trade of your merchants council.”
“Merchants council you say?” And the senator revisits the trading bill I have produced, tugging the woven-silk paper quinting should he see the fibers separate. “Stone carved letters are less easily forged.”
“In the east beyond sunrise tis said entire kingdoms are stored on red scripted stork-feathers.” I have heard no such vanity, but yes should the Titans revive and our world dissolve into an Ionian skeptics atom, money gold and paper will talk light from that darkened sky. Shoes change. “We in the barricade line put down our tormentors,” I growl. We who lived were really cut to Hades bones and blood seeped through my stitches. “Maybe you should beat the thorn bushes.” I think he who directed the assassins never left Amathus.
How change hurries about. “Under duress, all have misjudged all,” snips the senator backing away, scratching his curly greo locks. He passes an ivory poppy-pipe to Nephils hand and units 2nd laughs. “Snarky bitch aren't you. Hyrkons always want the berry, trader boy, without a thorns prick.”
Little he knows us. Then: “You! Hyrkon!” The Senator and two archers bracket me, swords loosed in sheaths and horses face to mane. “Redeem yourself! Move” Nephil and NaziBu seem to find good faith in the man. Damndest offer, in twenty paces the senator yanks his horse against mine. “How did you come to ride with this man,” he demands?
“Who, Nephil?” It's a rattling uncertain council of men. I say. “Fates whimsy.”
“Bullshit!” The senators spits, neck glowing red beneath his shoulder plates. “Astartes pissy asshole, trader! You treat … you address him as a freebooter!”
“As well he may be. Nephil, mummers amusement for Ashur, and a fair flutest for the Belisama. As for preference our ocelot likes him.” I think the senators challenge out of place. Who cares where a drummer rattles his skins?
“His drums thunder rattle the world!” The guardmen about Nephil lean heavily on their spears, while the senator … do eyes fearful I see?”
“You make no sense and worry about who? A bard and drummer. He wished adventure, was willing to sail his keep. Who denies adventure to such a one? And he so skewers the King of Assyria that noone may keep from laughing. Why for example ...”
“Enough blasphemy from you, Hyrkon snake.” The senators face squirrels up and he twists his forked beard staring at me for the least fault. “Ashurs drummer … you fool,” the senator barks, laying his short sword across the pommel and as Nephil approaches us sidles away. “Count yourself lucky to keep head on shoulders,” he snaps returning to his van.
“HA! Get more blood from a thornberry.” Nephil as wine-sloshing free as amused leaping down from his Arabian to exchange open hands. Leathers had got bloody and he strapped them to his back. The winebag races to its circle. There is a grace …. “Artyphon has looked to my wounds,” he says. “After battle they are as nothing.”
Dismounting Nephil, NaziBu and myself … “damn the gods … your throat, Nephil, the linen bandage is stained.”
“Artyphon said moss must draw before it heals,” Nephil murmurs with more affection than I care to hear.
“Warriors speak of battle-fog, as if Tefnut were a spear-carrier and combat were rain?” I am prodding him for a secret I know not what.
“Bloods mist from a cut throat,” he says roughly and out of style.
“You fought like Mars in that brush patch,” I say marveling. “Mummers must have tough customers beside the two rivers.”
Nephil laughs, scorning his own fighting style. “A Euphrates pike would have chewed off my fingers.”
“Yet pike do not drag flutes into strife.” We come face to face. “ What truth may you tell a comrade?”
His chill smile fades. “To the elder goddess Inanna I have prayed. Prayers for the women, as some believe I have strength that she the Goddess return my women, my children and my dreams. Goddess of wizards she answers for a name I do not ken. 'RETURN TO SAND OZYMANDIUS.' Have you heard of such a rattle? Two nights this curse has rolled me awake.”
This curse I learned from my tutor. “An Egyptian Pharaoh, Nephil, so I believe that long-lived name and assigned to a brutal conflict. His chariots came against the Hittites as they first rolled south.”
What man asks that? “As none are and all do – age found him. Egyptians believe they avoid the shades dooming all joy after death and instead rise each morning to ride their chariot with Helios.” Nephils green eyes cut right through me … if only I promised … “Damned if I know, Nephil I pray to Cybelle and Dianna for a mans life and death. If you want more find a mages wisdom,” I advise without the smallest droplet of hope.
Nephil muses a strangely anxious thought, kicking first at this rock, then that bush and when hurries a viper from its nest snatches a rock and side-arming nicks its head. “Music is a strange mistress and the rhythm worst of all. Do you know beside Ur I played in six towns that changed kings every year. Nin Khar at Tal Abed went first, for seducing the chief scribes Hum Babes wife, a poisoner by trade and oft used by wealthy young wives. After that break in morals twenty-four boiled heads were posted at every gateway.” He clasps in each of our hands an Assyrian gold coin, one side exposing a diamond moon and the other a ruby star. “And yet by Hammurabi Law sixty stripes are the price of striking a gentlemen.” He shakes his head laughing softly and says to me. “You fear the tides of water and men perhaps less than do I.”
“Say our venture here? Haha. A dumber Jacki-tar never cracked a clam-shell! Never again will I pilot gamely through moss or into swamp bushes. Show me towering ocean swells. Let the sea soak away my blood if soaking there comes.”
Nephil laughs, stroking his curly beard. “Poseidons choice my friend. Perhaps again we will share the same ship and dare the winds.” Then mounting beside his newly spoken guard he joins the Senators troop.
At the plateau heavy calvary fork east and we continue with only the four light archers. As if a typhoon had taken her heart Artyphon may not stop weeping for the boy. “Why did you join him, join Nephil, dashing ahead?”
“Good strategy, quickly employed. The General Holof ...”
“Enough woman. Would you refuse your husband?”
Artyphon bites off each word, as a honey badger eats a cobra. “Hopeless as the fight, dear husband I could not bear to see both boys die. Too brave too young. The spear-point in Phaphos might have found me rather than him. ”
“And send my life to the shades,” I say in anger, and press on. “A musicians arms raised against assassins … to join you saw more! A man of humor against legions of death? For whom did you take him?”
“In the Pontis, when I mostly child a Lesbian Priestess swore to methe man who cannot find another cannot have served the first women. “A drummer ...” Artyphon laughs. “The scepter of lapis. A skybull, from whose horns a warriors crest is ripened and from whose hide a shield forms. Mercenary Cretan, that tells you nothing!”
She prods her horse ahead of me. No sense could I make of her. 'Do you see' my tutor had once queried me 'how far flying our ships sails fill the western sky yet how empty the world still appears of mercy?' I know Artyphon and Viiva saved our lives -- I know Nephil can command a note for every star in the skybowl, but I cannot understand. A man of local property joins our van and rides beside me, his simple mein no cloak to a wary mind , questioning, testing and then aware consoling Artyphon who will not speak. Our vans ride becomes long and sleepy, full of bees and yellow butterflys. Takkoi appears to nap as we trot. On a rutted cart-trail our van rounds an innocuous stone barn … and ring of beech trees dripping with white flowers into a circle of twenty dunn-colored and well armed local cavalry. Local one may tell from the rude hammered greaves, but those rippled bronze sheets over leather were a warriors protection. The nearest rider canters his tall spotted mare beside us and flips up his visor.
I shout “Rhys!”
Rhys surely! “Make way for Mars fellowship,” he shouts laughing and beating his saddle with the flat side of a war ax. “Cut them down, then grind them up into pellets the bards will sing. How attackers will tremble before us now. But, where pray Zeus are the spoils?”
“Your Captain took them.”
“Mine?” He ponders. “Men from Tomassos no doubt. Well well that explains the messengers new horses. I'll speak to the high councilor of a fair return.” His face has turned ruddy from windburn. We exchange a clasp of open hands despite the horses prancing. “Welcome by the gods red ass and a womens temple when we first heard of the attack we could only burn a fat sheep. By the Titans fear's the worst.”
Friends were we … met by twenty landers against three sea-people … it shouted muddy risk how sailors were viewed. But, Rhys left us our swords. Another two horse sauntered close, and the raised wire masks revealed Seth, my land-poor Egyptian friend from Aminias gather … and snickering Klytus whose ruby rings spoke Greek inexperience.
“So you live, Hyrkon. Fifty enemy you say …,” chuckling grimly … “and all male .. did you cut off their pricks? Ha hahaha.”
“Tame your mouth, Greek. We violated no dead warriors pride. And no I have not said how many,” I respond curtly.
He wipes drooling black hashish from his mouth. “Must then have been mentioned by one of the archers,” Klytus says too quickly. “You surely need others for protection.”
“Battles fortunes are indeed mixed, but every mans lungs needs fresh air, and at that free.”
“Hyrkon bullshit. I don't believe Seth can ever ride free as I , either here or in Egypt. Sand cobras everywhere! I didn't know you could ride at all … or fight, Cibias. Here, have a fig to regain your strength.”
He flips the hard spring fruit at my head; Fortuna smiled and my dagger plucks it from the air. “Minoans have always mistrusted Greeks bearing gifts; let this exception prove the rule.” I carve a slice and feed it to my horse. Eyeing Klytus, “anything less than a cobra is baskets for us.”
Then Price also. He wears only an archers light boiled leather. “Snakes and assassins .... it's all dry work my friends. Fortune smiles and pitchers of ale await us.”
Such a tangle of twisted lanes would do the Minotaur proud; A steady hours trot brings us flush to the venture. Long fingered shadow has not quite vanished by the time we unhorse at a broad country stable, wash dust from our faces and gather round a firepit; worthy of friends in a traders circle.
I almost ask for the flute, forgetting Nephil has taken a different road. Village, hold, villa, keep, castle, warren or fort … any name could be given to this storied stone house. Barns, workshops and graineries discretely scatter around it, among copses of chestnut and walnut trees. Seth it seems has found a place in Klytus swift Bireheam flying east, and found a Cyprian market for Egyptian barley. As would any traders. The joking becomes bawd and price-offers cautious; any serious business will come after drinking pitchers of the pale yellow country ale beneath a very large flowered beech. The unexpected venture spreads on all sides.
“You dare Hephastus,” I say quickly seeingthe washes. Two concrete tubs fill with boiling water, and a third runs ice cold. Redwood decking extends around each with not so much as a canvas banner should a maidens jewels dispose. “And you shame Diannas whispers.”
“Ah yes, Dianna … cold bitch , for Venus and Astarte sing a different song,” chuckles Rhys. “We understand your King Minos hurries your maids to their lovers couch. But, Hephastus?”
“Where do you believe the boiling water springs, if not from the same bowl as the volcanos melted earth? From heat come heat, and from fire, fire.”
“Look here, Cibias look at these few buildings, where building stone is carved from the once deadly melting rock. Fathers before our fathers fathers drew pictures of flowing red rock, and now we fear not as time passes.”
“You believebitchGaia builds just forhuman need?”
“We buildtools for pleasure and sailsfor need; Gaia births rich nature because a good swiving she cannot do without.”
“You have great faith in a womans need!”I point to the the canyons closed rocky end and point. “Pray the fire comes from there!” A few of the building are indeed black square-cut stone of no great weight, but well weathering. Many are the round ridge-stone country dwellings with thatched roof protection. But, not all! They are left-overs. City masons ruled this wild plateau! Most all the building glow pale yellow fire-brick framed in painted Terra-cotta. The south facing windows of the weaving halls are behind and the wooden looms make their own rectangular show-patterns inside. Behind them sit cutting rooms and several multi-story brick-filled, but wooden frame constructs for I imagined the life-size modeling and testing of the sails. The universe inside the ring of walnut trees stands idle as Junos ass on a pleasure couch; leather strap and devices used for its own people; glancing around from my wooden rocker nothing of ours may be seen from the cart-trail.
I was speaking with Rhys. “If they followed from Amathus then their attack was meant for us, if directed so …,” I looked straight at the Greek, “or perhaps just ambitious raiders hi-tailing it for Tamassos. We could have happened on them by accident. ”
Rhys adjures an opinion, but Price admits. “You carry an adventure, from Ashurs household. Musician, dancer, trickster … who may know what mischief he was assigned?”
“None that we ever told,” voiced Artyphon sweetly. When had I ever heard her voice sweet, except when I poached her whiting in pale wine and mulberry sauce?
Price too seems skeptic over Artyphons honey testimony. “Asians anyway,” he says thoughtfully. “Hittites in search of the largest gold coin, Berbers in search of brass pennies or Utica mercenaries exiled by their state; exiled instead of crucified for horse-thieving , any or all a target no matter who mints the silver.”
“They carried no money,” I said speaking the half-truth.” We all were finishing our first cold mugs of ale. “It's another days ride if geography serves and fat keeps and unguarded merchants must be thick near the city!”
The archers Lieutenant speaks sharply. “Unguarded? You have never traded the mountains before , have you?” I admit not. “ The city, yes a full days ride or two ... raiders could gallop blood from their horses running right into Carian hoplites and Syrian archers. We share them you know, all the mountain towns do, sharing out from their own defenses. Tamassos banks hold much of Cyprian gold, and getting it meant to be a tough nut.”
“We met your heavy cavalry and I see such armed force travels where you are not! Is this misdirection?”
“Just so, Cibias. With out fortified cairns, lookouts buy us hours for the defense, and with Carians used to shipboard bloodbaths our little village is a bards stage, and Tamassos fields and villas and walls play to their hard souls like a vacation. We are far less than them, and honor their walls and gods so safer we are to carry on our trade. Mercenary men-at-arms bring their own whores so our country girls have their pick from among the officers.” Price was doing some bragging. “We have dozens of local maids married into wealthy Persian and Mede and Phonecii royal families scattered among these hills. The families pay tax and men all serve in our light horse- archer companies.”
“Not targets of casual raids, then.”
“Casual targets? Our troopers? Only dead men treat our mountain archers casually.”
No question now in my mind that the Hittites had been sent after us alone. “Then your men are more like the ones who greeted us … very clever,” I said with some amazement. “You have light archers for free, and well armoured towns … while real Cyprian industry hides uncovered, yet unseen on byways. Just like this! ” I bow ...”and innocent travelers may find protection where they least expect.”
Price says strongly. “We will not have Ares twins of horror ride the freemans land. But, enough of war. Come … we h ave another hour before candles. Let me show you our manufacture and craft.”
Ale freshing the mugs we get up walking over to the front of a weavers barn. “Brick and glass … not the cheapest way to weave,” I say waving a hand toward the building. “You arrange matters to your own well being … that is all matters excepting trade!” There are five glass and brick buildings laid on the rectangle spread in front of us, foundations tucked into the hill with north side walls buried. Any view pleases, but the biggest wooden window view south and their framing glints from recent paint.
Price croons. “The strongest sailcloth comes from the tightest weave. And while we can afford the best Egyptian looms , sailcloth smoothness requires the most consistent pressure and trim; the best light gives the best texture. Our weavers themselves the most aware are surrounded by light. And even in winter the weaving rooms stay warm behind the glass windows.”
“Yes I see the oak and pines are behind the weaving rooms on the north side.” I take a long drink of the ale, so long and so slow that a faint bitterness tickles my tongue. “Seems like a waste , but do the pines go all the way back to the ridge? Land must be of extreme value on this plateau. You have water, sun, a crisp dryness from the wind … something else could be planted.”
Price laughed. “Wouldn't our farmers love that oh yes. A point worth arguing every year , and every year it's the same. Of-course it's not all one way, as we bleed the pines for pitch, and some of that gets boiled down as a base for paint. I see you noticed the window-frames.”
“Can the value really equal that of a yearly crop? I know some of our Hyrkonian women actually plant and harvest flowers. Safron's the most precious to sell and most difficult to root. So most planted flowers are caught up the best wild-blooms and tamed, taught to like well watered soil. Some women make more money than their husbands sheep! It's a perfume smell and color they can extract with ferment. Nothing like that planned here, 'eh …?”
Price dissembles smoothly. “Far too advanced for our primitive methods. And too expensive. We may aspire to thin the trees next year and pay for preparing the soil. But, how much pig-shit can donkeys haul up the mountain each spring? We certainly will not husband them here, and have escapees root our barley-fields into swamp! A few auroches provide meat at the butchers price … our butchers wear Sinope silk tunics! So you see, each spring the purse shrinks too thin for venture … too thin too thin haha. So it's pretty much trees and pine trees all the way back.”
At that point double doors in a workroom swing open, large doors for the building and rarely used as failing grease the oak pins screeched like bats. A procession of sail-makers exit cradling a leather carry that holds a cut and stitched and beribboned main-sail. They remove and unfold it layer by layer down to the stitched-in leather inlays at the top for reefing to the yards, and at the bottom edges for larboard and starboard clew-lines.
NaziBu amazed. “I've never seen a better sail.” He moves close by to fondle its flawless surface. “Where does it like the wind?”
“Two points larboard,” Price said slyly looking at Artyphon. “Perfect, is it not? Fashioned by our own wit we are proud of such a sail.”
Klytus has followed us out and he spoke an ale-soaked lisp. “New sailcloth has the smooth give and firmess and warmth of a young womans ass.”
With no trace of a blush Artyphon shot back. “And should an edge of sail get loose in a wind it can crack you across the face … remove an eye just as a woman may do ...”
“A dried up prudish women,” Klytus responds quickly.
“Count your own good fortune, Greek. Mature Scythian women pay a silver Troy stator each for pairs of mens balls boiled and dried. They are hung from door-frames … one pair for every man that Scythian woman had fucked to death. Some woman have a dozen … and foreign visitors wonder among a society of young men.”
“And some women claim to have a golden fleece … which men prize though with your midnight black hair that cannot be possible. Your price must be much less as we can discuss later.”
“You have the color right … the color of sunlight on a free womans bed. As my husband , any man who wishes that golden prize must also wish for the womans freedom.”
“Not in a thousand beddings,” muttered Klytus. He returns to the table, prodded amicably by Rhys, stroking the sailcloth.
Price immediately had his place. “A factor must advise well for her … clients. Consider our offer as your masters best with least risk and greatest profit! Our guild has sewn fourteen such sails consigned to an Egyptian traders guild in Heraclitus and for which sails they have paid. They have samples of our sailcloth and have approved. We have their money.”
“How will you install the sails?”
“Buyers have taken all responsibility. We have only to deliver.” Price thought for a moment and said. “I doubt if the sails will be installed at Heraklytus … or ever be stretched on a yard from that harbor.”
“Or ever sailed by Egyptians?”
Price heaves his chest as if lifting a heavy weight. “Rest your mind, Artyphon if you fear the sails falling into Carthaginian hands.” He takes a long quaff from an ale horn eyeing me severely. “Our factors will join the buyers to move the sails far upriver, to a ship building city named Quan. Have you heard … surely! You can guess the rest.”
“Ventured across the Ridge of Caves to the Red Sea. Some say not just sails, but entire ships are moved. Enormous risk means equal value.” Beads on the abacus clicked. “Seventy Hyrkon electrums per sail.”
Price gasped, paled and clasps his shoulders looking straight at me. “Zeus beard Cibias you need not play the stone willed grasper. We imagine the ships are dissembled and moved in pieces and sails trail them as sheep their shepherd. How do you benefit by making sails too expensive to deploy? Each trade means two, then three, then … “ Prices' performance exceeds well staged. He draws deep on a poppy-soaked and cinnamon-flavored reed. “Dear Cibias, Egypts Red Sea trade is difficult and costly even should the ibis fly our sails up the Nile! This bird may charge … twenty-five electrums per sail and sit joyfully on its eggs!”
“While Cyprus mountain factors scramble the other half with hog and safron!”
“Those eggs buys bronze-nose ships for brother Cyprus warlords! Pharaoh prefers to sail Our Sea for his food and oil and tin, and this can never prosper while Troy holds, and now Hectors arms slaughter the Greeks. Since Apollo and Poseidon himself built the walls of Troas who can question their strength ? But, should a Mycenaii champion arise , we fear them as you do, and to fear is to arm, to arm is to buy, which purchase requires we trade at profit. Forty electrum!”
“Fifty-odd , with traders agents advice to shave the final whisker.”
“Very well.” Two scribes make linen cloth smoke, with a mix of purple dye, black octopus ink and sulfured iron powder changing speculation to oath and words to numbers. Finally an offer of trade at a painful yet deliberate cost. Artyphons fingers again fly over the abacus. “And I will deliver, even in this season of storms. The Belisama will leave Cyprus as soon as we can get her stern to the swell and her jib before the wind.” I put my hand on Artyphons shoulder and snicker at Price. “Your factor may discuss lower fees with my trading agent, to the benefit of including our Marsaii ferments in the red Sea shipping .” I dismiss the shocked expression on Prices face. “She has full powers of trade to negotiate … anything she wishes to negotiate.”
“May she write a bond for your spare rudder or … or even sell the Belisama,” snaps the young Klytus from across the table? Surrounded by three rough-bore comrades he ventures any insult. His pox-scared islander face Chestnut branches partially shade. Hard times have set his mouth to a cruel thin curve, berry brown and hard as a nut , but as an infant it might have held a smile.
“Does the Belisama carry a spare rudder to bond,” Artyphon queries him? “The worst of men don't alway look like men … so expect to bond my girdle faster than our rudder,” Artyphon quips and most guilds-men laugh. “I wouldn't trust you with the varnish! What mischief a young man must do out-of-sight of the coast-line, traveling from one pillage to another.”
Traders roar and corked potage of ale tumble between tables and roast duck for all they could not fly wound down the stairway in flocks! Jibes and prattles rattle across the room, as do threats of various subtly. For pirates they were, the entire drinking, eating swearing lot and skinny bastard island traders, liars and cheats and skulky sellers of all they fixed between their lawless paws, and lacking the Minoan sailors tools quite afraid of the open sea. But, as men much worse could be found, so Artyphons accusation among Klytus men stung unsupported honor which is most sensitive.
Klytus spit. “My ships cargo belly is filled with items of trade, as a sharks belly well fed with tunny. But, a mans belly prefers many tastes. Chasing down the odd barbarian wench, who has escaped my couch! Once they have been mastered, of-course they lick my hands like puppies.”
A lighting-bolt of silence cuts through ther mess, and prepared to leap for'ard my hand has loosed sword one-click.
“Puppies? Ask Helen! They are all Greek!” Artyphon yipped at Klytus. “Hyrkonia feeds puppies to big dogs … you throw them bones and listen to the yapping. Cuff their eyes and they slink off. ” A groan passes through the company. Artyphon walks right up beside the Greek. “ You're an islander , aren't you? Samos …”, she queried touching a bronze owls-head medallion high on the traders sword-belt. “Where did you breed?”
“At a shewolfs tit. Islands fall like rabbits! By the sword we took it and by the sword we hold it.” His hand clasped the sword-hilt. “ What is a word against a swords edge?”
“Who holds the sharper edge … yes that is the question,” muses Artyphon. “A mans belt may buckle at the first notch or at the last; he may speak what he heard last or thought first. I hear your Pelops yapping … What other barks have your Phrygian masters taught, or has Piraeus Athens turned you against the goddess already? Do you suppose brave Theseus slew Spartan pederasts as freely as he slew the trapped Minotaur?”
“A womans tongue should stay behind her closed lips.” He reaches out to slap her face … but she dodges leaving a dirks red trace on his wrist. Shaking blood from his arm and growling. “Parthian whore I'll take payment in stripes from your back!”
Artyphon, her face alight with bravery proven standing the line, earning a spearshrust across her knee and a mans respect. “I have no patience with a Mycenii dog!” She scoffs. “My lips open to declare Theseus hiding behind the volcanos flame, fearless against the crippled and paying Kodros painters to show a spear where he held a barley thresher!”
Joy shouts and hissing gasps from the loomers guild, in equal measure. There's bold … and there's brash … it was the victors speech and from a traders view most foolish. In conflict, Laws of Trade allow only the transaction itself to discover a victor while the token of blood swears uncompromised vengeance. Fuck!
“Bitch”! The mans face had turned red … he prepared for revenge, a 2nd strike for insult more foul and for her belligerence more certain. Yet never the coward Artyphons hand had gone to the dirk at her waist. Shouting stopped and the cry of a hunting falcon was the only sound.
NaziBu who all this time has rested peacefully on a folding stool, beneath a giant spreading wing-headed Cyprus tree drinking ale, weaving toy weapons for some local children and singing of heroes sprang to his feet suddenly very aware. I saw then he had also woven a plait of grouse-beaks and salvia vine about his left arm and his war-hatchets rested unbound at his belt. It;s a tender balance as well have called out my sword – and the melee spreads to the destruction of any possible trade.
“Ho there Klytus. Bind you companions steel wit for slaughter will never do for guests at a trading table.” He stops for a heartbeat –- my ruse succeeds. I dart for'ard yanking Artyphon toward me, playing an owner protecting valuable property about to go wrong. “Mind not my Parthian wifes sharp tongue. You suffer it today, while I must pleasure it from one moon phase to another and rarely is she without wisdom.”
The four Greeks had all drawn swords and raised shields, joined with a few rash mountain spearmen forming a boarshead, packed tight and undisciplined unable to do anything , but stand still or rush madly forward. Iron hilts banged on wooden shields. From NaziBu at center our van has formed a shield-wall, retreated a few paces to close with the archers backing us; horsed militia guardsmen and two rank-eleven spear-pods were not favoring the attackers with so much local craft and officer to lose!
Then Klytus breaks from the boars-head rushing directly at me. I respond as to a ramming-beak, break line and rush toward his face. He fancies a straight thrust which I take to my sword-hilt, ram my leather-banded wicker shield in his face and turning against him plunge my bronze short-sword in from the side. His metal-braided shield deflects and we lean apart.
Side-vision shows Rhys and Price have both taken to horse with shields and long, evil cavalry lances that sweep all before them. Klytus sees also and we both look for a sudden end. His steeled blade sweeps from his back heel toward my neck and I, sliding for'ard cut my bronze point behind his arc. Two blades meet between us, in a shower of sparks. His blade like a mirror shatters … mine snaps in half at the point of impact; steel cleaves bronze. We stand breathless, paces away with jagged sordid hilts and red faces. Standoff; companions itch for clash of shields;it’s a close thing, whentwo mountain stallions laced in mail push between us.
“A fair ending, warriors to a royals dispute. Settle your differences over an abacus at the counting table,” Rhys barks.
Price snarls. “Enough of this savagery, or the militia will have their harsh way.”
Eyeing Klytus companions sharply … I call out. “Certainly master Rhys.” Our shield wall sucks me in. “The law of trade does not permit a blood solution.”
“For now you live, Hyrkon mouse,” snaps Klytus spitting and nursing a cut finger. “But, the ocean is small and men must come to land. Look behind you there!”
“By the gods enough! Guardsmen, see to the fires. Lieutenants report to me, for peace will rule our tour.”
Pain of shock still rings in my arm and my neck bleeds. “Stepping forward invites danger,” cautions Nephil smiling. “If Fortuna smiles when steeled blades break bronze pray the luck is never repeated.”
Artyphon shows high temper. “Master Cibiaswishes not to see his own first child, before it quickens,” she snaps and throws down a blooded linen bandage in fury. Then with me in tow we step away to the table and Artyphon addresses the sail-makers. “Now be so kind as to show me your modeling room. I want to see wind blown over this sail and find any stretch or flaw to the stitching!”
Toward evening we sat an out-door meal with the guilds, a full two-dozen men and craft women who would theft Baals third eye if he didn't sit on it. We eat full and well of everything, a meal whose wash of ale, cabbage and roast lamb could not cover the subtle flavor of saffron rice.
At the firepit Seth and Klytus sit together. I loath presenting him the chance for another killing sword-stroke, but matters arise and Ijoin them. Close enough to snip a mutton-chop, the Greek motions me away withhis sword-hilt. Be it so. “What brings you to this company,” I ask Seth from a swords-thrust distance?
Egyptians have great faith in authority,so with guildsmen about he cannot imagine two men exploding.“Oh the barley harvest, Cibias. The Nile ran cubits high this season and we have twice the grain harvest. Barley bread,barley potage,barley perch-stuffing ... even we cannot drink so much beer!”
“But the Greek can ...”
Drunk and staggering Klytus leaps to his feet sword in hand. “Shall a Greek again show a Minoan just what can be done with a sword?” At that instant I notice the bronze Spartan lambda fixed to his leather belt. Now there’s a quiz for Hermes; landlocked Spartan wears away to Samos making his fortune … wealth also for his kin and home cities? I wonder how fast I could drive the iron tip of my trade-staff between his eyes.
Just as suddenly two archers step between us.“Not you two again ... we mind cracking skullsbefore a joint of beefs. Voices aboutseveral fires have stoppedtrade chatter, and I back away into the dark.
Artyphon and I pack our satchels to the rear of a stone shed and share a sleepless night. We leave the compound before sun-rise carrying eleven fists of safron in our saddle-bags traded on margin by an ambitious farmers guild. I pay four Hyrkon electrum guilders in good faith, against the larger profit, though not enough to cover even wasted spice value staining the linen bags fabric. The east side of the box canyon proves a novel outlet, with a cleverly hidden path cut into the saw-tooth ridges.
Twenty mounted archers lead our van this entire different route. It's quartering out trailaway from the mountains, and paying for it with steeper descents. We angle down on well- carved and drained cobblestonelaid zig-zag for the torrents , but straightacrosstheir flows witharchedconcrete andflagstone bridges. Most lengths spread wide enough for two donkeys strapped side-by-side who between them carry one folded and leather-bound sail; for the narrows we clamp them together with leather thongs.That trail leads to a heavily forested cleft between overlaying hills. Borings, miners pits and clay-dumps scatter about the hillside as a thousand years of copper mining left its mark. Mist lays above the well-hidden stream leading to a water-slide plunging straight over the cliff; that water-slide is framed by oiled pine trunks down which the fourteen sails traveled on skids and over which we lowered on rope slings. Paupers pence the word “lowered” earns.
Price has come this far with us. “Demeters speed lead you Captain. And joys to your Lady Artyphon till next time we trade.”
Artyphon blushes through her orange striped veil. I think none before had called her 'Lady' , as if we being acknowledged before the throne a royal couple. “Follow us back to the ship,” I cajole. “No telling what crew goods the officers make free to trade.”
Now Price blushes. “On council orders I travel to the harbor, but I really am a landsman. I cannot imagine sanity with an endless rolling green meadow before me!” He looks over the limestone cliff. “And really, Cibias a farmer ought not to fly!”
“Or tease the mechanism from Zeus!”
“Is that what we do … makes machines? Whatfailswhen they exceed us?”
Artyphon. “A few Parthian mages forsee that, and they say then, we shall all burn!”
“Where and in what fire?”
“They cannot explain, saying what is true exceeds what is known; who will argue?”
“Cibias, might as well let you hear what is true as well as known. we have received a pigeon, before you arrived. The message confirms our trade you undertake, but speaks darkly of men like night fires to be avoided. Your trade council seal forms the crypt! Does this threat make any sense to you?”
A royals warning, I think. “Baffles me also, excepting the 'night fires'; Minos favors those! Our King believes his subjects common and royal ought to spend more fired nights with their women. He wishes realm upon realm of children.”
Mary of Genoa knew as much! Smiling yes, a slouched sad sort of smile Price turns on an unending homeward journey. Leaving us to the cliffs sweet mercy. Smelling warm rushing air has made my blood hot. I have never flown, if any man can. Once beside the great chalk cliffs on the Tin Islands eastern edge I had watched a Pict sorcerer launch from the top and glide on wings of yew, silk and sewn eagle feathers soaring the falcons currents far out into the eastern channel. I know he soared .. swirling upward with the fish eagles and diving beside them as a comet falls from the sky because our galley chased him down and I recovered him breathing from the sea.
Afterward as we filled him with hot ale he spoke of the gods aether holding him up, breathing lift into the air as he glided and even the faster he moved twas aether more active prodding the air surrounding him. “Indeed boyo believe this: the aether provides it weight to air as a lake provides mist to morning.”
Fear I thought is surely the mother of many strange ideas. He was a man as simple as he was brave to float on the aether as a falcon while believing air has weight.
Yet now falling, falling I think of the air holding me up – or was the swift movement pushing me up as a Marsaii pearl-diver once taught me traversing a swift moving channel. Now senses rebel from fear. The wet rope smokes; my cheeks burn in the draft. Comparing small things to large as I lower on the rope sling hawks rise on warm air flowing around me and I think myself lucky to hover beside them. No .. it's not flying … this downhill glide a one-way venture on that cliff and isolated above from below. No such mechanism joins them such as Minoan windmill gears to provide vertical lift to weight. Sea-raiders would never reverse my path. Artyphon said her blood boiled for me as she swept downward, as I well knew that novelty and danger both encourage a womans wild spirits.
Below the air is heavier and foolish thinking does not tempt me. The keep is three-stories rock-faced and protected by a moat. Archers nod solemnly. Another donkey train meets us at the bottom where the cables and cranes and buckets rest on solid earth. The mule-drivers know little and care none who paid them for this travel, but they're a trash-talking hard-bitten crew not likely to be attacked. A dirt road stretches into the thin forest. One single sulfur swamp stumbles our route, but has recently seen new logs fitted to its pathway. Not a cart-axle went bust. Bacchus nymphs perhaps … plodding that straight dusty pike we reach an overlook of the Amathus harbor before 2nd night-fall.
Signal-lamps flash between the high camp and the harbor telling 'alls well'. Our keepers serve a double meal; Artyphon purrs over her approaching familiar bed. I feel Mercurys breath favor a well-chosen trade. NaziBu will have it otherwise.
“Warn't them strange birds, Nephil and Klytus, to appear on the same venture?” Pitch-fire pours from NaziBus ivory hashpipe, as if the black tar resin wanted our attention as well as our imaginations.
“You think them brothers?”
“ Of Cerberus bitch if ye must have that. But, neither runt-of-the-litter.”
“Musician against warrior? How-so the same?”
“Had they both swords in a Norsemans circle ye wouldn't bet on the lost head!”
“And if flutes or lyres?”
“Klytus would have tendons off the wood and about your neck fast as Mercury says boo! Not that he's fast as Nephil, hands or head.”
“Under the ferns, on his knees he speared three assassins … after loosing his helm to an ax-blow,” Artyphon querels. “He fears neither dour man nor shining god.”
“Which makes him …?”
“As strange as Klytus!” NaziBu finishes his pipe. “Faire Dianna gibt me no second-sight, but I feel bones stretch and tendons crack should ye see either again that be courting Medusa.”
At false-dawn a small leopard stalks the camp perimeter, prowling for a loose dog. A slinger clips its nose and the leopard retreats snarling into the pine canopy. Camp breaks at daylight and the cooks morning fire offers hot ale, figs, toasted almonds and bread. From our heights the firepits of a large scattered assembly below set their smoke clouds spiraling toward us. Belisama is too far for my glass, but we race down the switchback as if Cerberus howled at our scent.