A free-spouting whale pod, fin-backed and grey in texture follow us ninety leagues from Amathus. Behind and before the bow-wave they race , twice our speed if needed dodging sailors filleted fish to which they display no regard. Ten or one-hundred pod members unknown, as they dive deeper than a sailors depth-line can follow. Eastern bards recall Cliraptus, who tied himself to a Blue-whales tail, trailing the Athirats own depth-line … and brave fool he was never again seen.
These pod members are less than the huge Blues, but faster. Our navigator and tillermen dodge their careless flukes and spouting heads set us running before Boreas wild north wind. Flukes and jaws and grey curved bodies razor the mast high swells and more than one watchman comes eye to eye with a leviathan streaming out of a green bellied trough. “Leviathan does not fear us,” I proclaim steeling up uncertain crew from lowest stinking stern bilge to the spray laced sprityard, for all must see. From the swaying top gallant leaning far over hullside our lookouts can stare straight down on spouting males and darting infants.
I lean over the larbord rail, with Artyphon strapped into me; from a trough two youngling roll upward and brush Artyphons hair with their fin. “For'ard bastard,” I declare annoying her women who assert both males in animal homage had extended their sex. Damnable I say yet shout. “Ran and Aegir run beside us. Brave as whales, how can we fear?”
We feared. Morning has come on. Young legs and bright eyes of the dawn watch replace battered nightmen. Winds have blown unrelenting now for most of the one-hundred twenty leagues between Cyprus and Egypt; these three nights where hazards of stupendous free floating logs and quartering rogue waves must be felt not seen only old, salt crusted seaman I trust. A silver slash disrupts the dark eastern horizon. Leaden seas hammer the hull while whitecaps wash over the rails. The whale pod had just released us wearing west and we sail alone.
A bronze frame has cracked on the mizzen and forgeman calls for all idlers; Leaving Mykron solid on the quarterdeck I leap below and put arm to the steeled hammer. Red-burning bronze plate will yield the needed curve and cover a leather apron with burning shards. Rool-in for the strike then stand away as sparks fly seems the meat of it. My jousting with bronze just as Belisamas rudder cuts the top of an enormous swell lookouts bellow the warning call.
How high we are raised up I fear to say, yet rope-boys now gifted with the ships run compete for highest rafters, and a pair chortal: “Mast ho on the larboard bow.”
“Jester...” I blurt out. And wonder we aren't the only floating fools! Artyphon is strapped beside me, her weight thrown against one arm of an iron tong .
Her leather framed quartz eyeglass reflecting embers and sparks showering her leather apron, scoffing: “We sea kings find equal folly at last.” With Artyphon I wrestle forge tongs bracing pieces of a fractured bronze bolt on white hot anvil iron while smithy welds together the pieces with his hammer.
Those two young screeching voices again. “Sails a tatter … Sar!”
Damme. Artyphon and I release, and twisting madly climb above to the Captains cinch. More than a jest and folly. “Never reefed a sail, did they Mykron? Will they indeed teach us?”
But, somebody sails out there. While the Belisama plows steadily southward, waves rage above the mast-yards. Three unrelenting days … from the bottom of a swell you may not see sky, but how casually the gulls follow to those depths slashing the deep surface with their beaks for unwary mackerel or plucking from the air flying fish glistening with salt and when swell throws you up to a peak you look down on terns and hawk and wheeling lines of pelicans. Below in the pit … above on the crest swirling dark winds tear from you fear stinking, so brave your voice boyo in a winehouse tallow lights. For these three days we are trapped inside two smooth-sided bowls one green and one of blue. Officers have not slept since we left Cyprus.
Now a sharpfaced voice from the crows-nest. “Signal mast banners aloft!” Hekateas has the tiller. “Both mizzen and top gallant lookouts report, Sur.”
“Fuck we do! Eye ye scaly peacock , Captains pardon” echoes the return. Better part of a day we have nothing , but rope-boys imagined sea-slag. But, now from Teuter: “... and bastard Egyptian schooner it be.”
“Egyptian? Bearings ya lubber,” I shout darting up from the firepit. Not another one, I thought … no, two ships cannot fight in sea scaling the mast yards thirty cubits high, but a Captain fanatical and hashish- addled driving a mountainous hull might attempt running us down … I reach the deck, now pitched for'ard racing the southern face of the swell and grapple for ....
“Righting … righting … it's righting toward us? Are they mad!” It's Faelon standing ice-straight on the sprint-yards beaky prow. “I measure it Say. Bitch schooner should slide by four bow length to larboard.”
“Wear away Sar … comes the shout from master tillerman ?”
“No we shall not run from a ghost! And if you piss go out on a yard!” I had got to the crows nest and take two wraps of line beside the brute Syrian oarsmen at station. There away, yes, south of us the schooner shedding hemp bound wedges of hull, twisting larboard / starboard wet as a rug and fractured deck timbers pitching stem to stern. Twas a yielding ships last curse raged at the sea. My glass finds sail-stripped orphans scattered about the deck.
Now the Syrian lookout is screaming into my ear. “Signal mast pennants Sar begging water and poppy, no officers alive and one of the steering oars cracked off. ”
Through a rope boy I pass word. “Faelon ...”
A message already moves up the shrouds. “Flags put to the signal mast, Sar. 'What are you doing here?' “
Signal flags flashed. “Sailed from Alexandria, slaves for Carthage, plague killed most.”
The Syrian grunts. “Who wants a plague ship Sur? I'd burn 'em!”
I relay. “Return to port!”
Pennants claw hopelessly at the wind. “Egypt will not have us.” I wait a moment while the reading continues ...”there Sar” says Faelon … say the pennants 'A fever came with the Amorites. Sick as we are willing slaves no city will give harbor …' ”
Young voices burrow through pounding waterwalls and the screaming of the sea. “Wearing east , four points north of east, Sar and wallowing like a forest of burned sticks!”
Burned? “What cities flag?”
Silence while the sea roars, then … “Uticas silver horse banner Sar … horse and chains so a slave ship.” More silence, then: “Wear away wear away ye all. Their signal mast shows the black pennant of plague … Sar!”
Plague .. the word freezes every-mans tongue. Tongues and breath of mastmen worn nearly beyond hope. One man shouts. “Should we run!”
Another. “Amends damnme Sur, it's lost a topmast and starboard keel-shaft!”
Messages buy useless time and I slide down a line to the quarterdeck. Waves block our sight, yet on cue passing we slip into the same swell them not three boat lengths away a billowing wreckage of torn hull, shattered masts and thrashing tiller. Bodies litter torn decking and shredded cabins, all somehow still bound together and floundering before the wind and some men cling to the pieces, their plague swollen black faces screaming without words. A tormented sailor has the speaking trumpet. “Cybelle mercy ya Cretan bastards and see us dead,” he bleats in the trumpets metal tones. “Sink us for Zeus sake!”
“Sail east and beach your hull,” I have our trumpet man shout.”
“Captain murdered and navigator drowned. I'm the blacksmith.”
“Dead men, Sar,” Mykron offers coldly. Hekateas has twisted a squid from laural vine and tosses it into the firepit. Artyphon clasps a horn of ferment into my hand and I drink it. Mist will not hide the mans pleading face. Other men of the schooner clasp the rail as we wash by … and throw themselves to the sea.
Men fear plague. I have burned with it … chewing willow bark and soaked moss … burned and lived when others died. Only the kaleidescope my mind hides remembers. Their foreign trumpeter raises his hands in despair. On no order one of our boltmen fits a ballista shaft that whistles between ships and shatters the smiths head; a second archer splices a coin to his arrow and buries it in their deck … should the ferryman take pity on one man and then pealing north under walls of green combers they are vanished.
Turning... “Artyphon, I...”, but the slave women observing no pity have taken her below. Turning … to the ballista I wave one arm. Two flaming shafts spit-out toward the schooners bridge. Where one rudder still prods down biting into the sea.WHOSH how quickly fire catches, among smashed willow-weave and oiled rags.
“Best death for that bugger,” Tar offers, shaking out a plug of Parthian poppy gum which I refuse. “If the hatchways hold it's all we can do to keep breathing.”
Death and life move apart. We fight to live that day, in early evening throwing a spinnaker and wearing west under Mercury and Mars. I lose a grizzled rope-master during the first dog-watch. A rogue night wave snatched that black toothed Sardinian from the sprint-yard and broke the arm of his yardmate. I grieve for him not knowing if Pharaohs Ra has seen into my heart, and jealous for Egypt extracted a blood-price before we reach the Nile. He had not earned Sekhmets vengeance, but sailors die and if not casual I have become callous. To me the doomed plague ship and lost Corsican have become one long cry of despair. Most crew curse the plague ship, and pray a hard passage to Cybelle when such a good man as ours is lost - to be taken faceless beyond landfall and without the boatmans coin or your brothers hand burning lambs white fat to Aphrodite. Such lonesome death men judge the most evil of fortune. I sign and date the log.
Tillermens eyes avoid mine … weakened … as Moiraes unbending will was seen behind the loss of a man who could wax and braid his own twelve-stranded cable. Fates hand reaches beyond the strong arm of your deck mate , the dark land chaos reigns and Captains humbled.
But, seamen before us saw an even lonelier sea and now are become arrogant creatures who drunk or sober will swear to a fucking uneven battle waged by bronze bodies when bitch Goddess Gaia must snatch away your will to grant her the Laural. Steal your breath She will while you man-of-Hyrkon need only continue breathing. Men must have been hard men while the icewalls loomed south, or before the Tin Isle channel formed or even as some say before Our Sea spilled over Hercules Pillars, before our cities and ports and councils and law …. a man viewed only his own heart and clasped only his ashen spear. Bakk! Live men tell such stories about themselves. Brave comrades are swept away; what heroic ballads could they sing of boyos hiding in the ballast weeping for their mothers tit while Badb-hardened silent men rope-ensnarled hack away at twisted shrouds or a shattered top-mast. .. which wrapped them coldly and snatched living from them far far down to the seas shell-strewn sandy bottom … what stories those shades would tell.
Would the third day ever end? From the quarterdeck I see these long rumbling green combers fall to an uneven chop before nightfall; Teuter and Kalicrates carry me below ... without being aware. Artyphon speaks roughly. “I have been watching you pounding guilt from a deck, where only the ways of matter and wind control. Gods write their laws not men. You could not save the slaves and you cannot save all of your own men. Why you saved me I will never know.” How I wanted then to strike her. She must hector the man to whom she gives her body; I am too tired to fight. She strips me bare for a scrubbing; pumice and lathered sponge all , but ripped the skin from my chest. Then she plunged an opium-soaked barley-cake between my teeth. I push her away, bitch, fight her … curse her … then all light dim, unaware crashing through nightmares of giant beaver and seal and sea-bear, thrashing on my cot while ceder planks of the hull groan, squirting water from seams all around. I am alone, entwined by the linen covers .
Artyphon knees beside me awakening me and she whispers. “Pelusium lights to the east. So the Black-Sea ancient ones first saw, paddling their burnt-out logs and praising the lights of Zorastii. We're passing the northern mouth of the Nile.”
Egypt. I smell jasmine and have a short violent dream, where Nile crocodiles follow dead bodies wrapped in jasmine vines floating out to sea and discovering us try climbing the Belisamas sides. Spears bounce away from their rough hides. Roaring and thrashing the muddy water their snouts would not … would not drive away … when I shot up screaming.
“They cannot know .. they cannot ...” The broken rainbow, the kaleidescope shatters my vision, becoming all of it triangles, squares, pentagons all of Median mages stretched away from me. I cannot hear and outside my eyes cannot see … cannot bend my left arm, but feel only vision, feel broken colors smearing like raindrops. Pounding pounding heart and the bitter crease with my head drown my sense … Artyphon covers my mouth with hers and hangs on me … I feel her naked breasts, warm rough and smooth. Away I see, then beside me hearing then sight return; she wipes away cold sweat.
Have the crew heard my screaming … dark as shadows dropping to the Captains hold below then darting up a ladder we slip outside to the quarterdeck. Shuffle and strain of steers-men, snap of untrimmed canvas and whiz of night-sea along the hull dominate deck sounds. Such common sounds of seamen working their trade. Seamen with oaken skin and glint moonlit eyes shake their heads and smile brown puffs of hash-smoke around their pipe-stems. Our own pitch-lamps are lit and coffee burned over and bitter so catching me out was the infinite glimmering.
Egypt. My first thought imagines an ocean of fireflies. Dove winged hulls mark by mast and binnacle lights … swift torch-streaming Rhodian galleys in pairs striving for advantage in trade, huge Egyptian schooners speckled with oil-lamps, flocks of sail … sardine buss scowl, clouds of cod-buss nursing damaged prows from the ice-islands yet blazing stern lantern … you will find iced-fish beside frozen netmen in some.
Entire migrations of candle-lit luggers streaming like fireflies dipping their sheets to Eurus eastern wind filled the off-shore reaches of the Pelusiac Nile. How dry air strokes our torn skin, how warm the flow. Yet salt-water crocs sail these waters and a trailing arm is a lost one. Setting a triangle the northern mouth mouth lay five leagues behind us. Telemydon has already clewed the mainsail fore and aft so we will sail to port unannounced.
Such traffic falls to our stern us coming about on a south west starboard reach, and in time most companions are low black smugglers hulls … creeping to the oarsmens beat … I set lamps at the for'ard yard and at our waist pawls. Fifteen leagues we make that entire night. Lookouts raise temple lights of Heraklitus, just as the moon come full and watches are changing at the midnight before our fourth dawn. The storm has blown itself out over the warming Nile delta, and men surrounding our fire-pit for fresh roast tunny were the first dry watch eating hot food since we left Amathus. Men have lived these four days strapped by leather ropes to their stations as mountainsides of water crashed over the hull and boiled cross-deck like so many wet daemons scolding the Belisama as badgers gritty teeth scold a swans neck. Salt sores bled on many a boyos back and our physician stay busy. How strange it is sailing : an ocean of Nile mud below , yet above us desert winds. The air now dry and warm from a southern gale which blows along the Nile and filled with the white warm fluffy down of migrating geese.