.......................Tales of Hyrkon: book 5 .... Death in Egypt
Chapter Nine


Men speak little of it, who by the goddess miracle escape from sunken ships. They cannot tell you when green swells drive them under, nor later when they first again breath free air should it even be their same life. So now, shedding water and fear I have no speech. There struggles Nykomedes roped to the foremast gagging and spitting rowers-bench orders. Oarsmen have been buckled in, thus rise swearing from their wet graves as the sea washes over carrying away only an unlocked oar.

Old Tar beside me with an iron arm clamped to my waist, … as the Belisama rise its weeping sprityard sending a bow-wave dashing above the crows-nest. Tar has the mad look of a Persephone escaped, but for one foot in Hades and grunts. “That 'll keep a feckin hardon for any tar, by damme Sar if it won't.”

Brine soaks and drips and breathes .. breathing … “What … what hit us?”

“The underworld, Sar from the metal color in the sea reached up a wet snare.” Tar spit out a gob of his black tar hash. “Balaam or Baal or Bile … Belor, bel and Arawan such damned as demand life for a life.”

My fist slams into the wicker thatch of the aft cabin. “Damn your eyes! Where is the goddess mercy or the justice of trade laws guiding men, if you have us ruled by foreign gods?”

“We don't know the bodies you left behind, whose shades call out against us. You seek Diannas rule of the day, Captain and the ash spears of this crew follow your own. But, Gods of the night, Sur that no man dare to taunt as you may have taunted them, the blood-sucking sons of Ra. Royalty they are as rich-haired Rhea bore them so little can a man do … so the crew speak of it who against them rise his shield.”

We are face-to-face. “Guiding by day or night, then chose your god, Tar. I choose … our tiller...” I shout across to the men at that stout thistle. “Half-a-point westing if you've the arms for it and get that fecking drunk yardman to reef the sprint sail.”

“There! Hekateas swilling the Tin Isle ferment. He's drunk as a Gedes whore and pissing on Baals ivory statue he's wrapped in mistletoe. Doom Sar .. life for a life in green wet ...”

“STOP! Burning camel-fat up their ass is what they'll get from me.” I chop at a shroud pulley that has wrapped about my ankle. “You hear that Tar – feckin-A camel fat! Sails-men damn-your-eyes call out,” I shout. Bildge to top-gallant .. pintle to bow all the names , but three return. Crossed oak beams groan … and hold the hatchways. Rope-boys fly a mug of hot ale to every name. Between the swell and wind we speed like Mercury rising and measure sixteen-points-of-sail which beyond fleet Nyaids is not possible.

“Jupiter falling in the west Sur...”

“Very well. Nor-by-north-east,” I call out.”

“Tracking Sar.” the navigator shouts out. “ The compass shows us tracking that to a quarter-point.”

“No fire in the pit. We wait on our chance.”

Six tiller-men hold the cycloid I have plotted out. Venus and Saturn rise over the bow. We make sixty-leagues … no sixty-five this night coming first upon the two islands and when the second watch comes off we eat cold dry beef and raisin cakes. A watch passes without excitement. Vega fades. The sea darkens, debrie from the seas bottom fills the surface from rotted planks of ships long lost to shark-swarmed bones of salmon. Oil too spoken of by desert men of Africa smooths out the silver moon-shine and dampens rough wave-crests and rarely break into tongues of fire leaping skyward. Lights from the Carian vessel have vanished, or perhaps lost among the oil-flames. Shades arise from the dark waves east and west, uncertain, flitting flame-tinged shadows sometimes vanishing beneath a swell while then again shooting up sparkling toward the silver crease in the east.

I feel no safety … I feel in fact a horrible ill-honed blade of danger … but I call for the firepit and hot food. Men gather to watch Hekateas burn a woven grass image of Ra. The watch scuttles round the cookfire for its morning bread and ale and instead of returning to hemp hammocks on the idlers deck find nitches among the yardarms and shrouds. Every man carries his weapon and many sharpened blades as lustful Ananke twists her body about Khronos so at Auges shrill call did daybreak writhe silver slits in the eastern sky over men more willing to live than to be slaves.

A thrumming shakes the air at random intervals; terns and gulls fall from the sky. Taking the southern gale over a reefed mainsail and copper tinged swell over the larboard beam we gather the southern ends of the islands to our charts and a stable breeze off the mizzen enter the passage between Kathos and Karpathos. A sudden movement that, for the islands stretch East-West while we split them northing. Lookouts call the dash of surf from pinnacles reaching up from shoal-water. Tiller-men stone the planking beneath their feet. We have put out a tunny net and fighting gulls mass in our wake.

So threatening and yet so common flys the dark before morning. In the event Artyphon wakes me. Such mist at first light over summer seas I have rarely seen. We have come to the narrows half-day early. First light grays to silver streaks into which pink slowly flows. In that passage half-league wide comes the first shock. We slide northwest, into the divide with Karpathos on our starboard beam, quicker now, she becomes Nymphes bare morning flesh, her caves and shoals dash white below the ceder forest, ravines rippling above casting down their silver streams and all bids well.

But, of Kathos … southron flank riddled by whorlpools of depth no living man has measured … poor meadow be-rilled Kathos a vampire bitch has bitten deeply into her green breast bringing forth the blackness of lower earth and hell flames. That thrumming of the air becomes now strong enough to race our hearts and send ripples around the tightly clewed sails. How the lower earths raging heat chews on her! We see the newly formed volcano cone on Kathos Eastern fringe, and its spitting, smoking fire by which hot fountains of rock are thrust above or rolled red from its split side into the sea.

The volcano cone spewing its fiery mass soars far above our mast-yards like the sons of Cronos , Obriar and Cottu and Gyes breaking the rocks of deep Tartarus to which Zeus had bound them and shooting forth into the freedom of stary air. No longer a darkling kind, but many and among their aether sulfur air exploding liquid sound and liquid rock they boil over the volcanoes lip and flow in hot red streams. Up and up they build while flowing down toward the waters edge. Rock screeches against rock as sides of the cone split and shatter only to be refilled with the flowing red lava. Boiling steam and vile hissing fly from the waters edge – there, hot meeting cold sea-steam showering salt sparks shoot high into the air beside the shore. The air is sulfurous and thick with dust and sparks. What little meadow and what few trees Kathos might boast have all been taken in flame. That much I set down to the log --- with Venus, Saturn and Betelgese settling over Karpathos --- before signing the page, closing its double bronze clips and returning the history to its oiled leather sheath.

Mykron calls out to the ships peril. Officers save Hekateas bound to the tiller have all gathered to the larboard rail. Hephastus has set down his forge beside us and hammers on the fates of humans. Man this, man, its guttural voice proclaims. Our stern trace thrust northward. But, some thought themselves better. Cutting our arced course to larboard and so near Kathos the native forge it had become their own iron might be tempered and raising the paeon to bloody Mars despising the volcano cone raised above their bronze helms came on the Carians.

“Larboard, Sar … slings and tarballs from the larboard.” Whirlpool after another the Carians have dared, using each as a sling-board for their dusty-sided cruiser for how else to explain the braided, but unfired sides of their craft or their swift advance?

“Damme the clever whoreson. Tack to center channel,” Telemydes and let our ballista taste their tillel!” That side of the passage beside the flames the Carians have chosen flying by the hot volcano winds they gain, dashing upon our larboard and so hidden against the hellish landscape none had seen them – till now. So we defend by attack!

“Jiffy the mizzen , and away-ho,” comes the response followed by scurries of caloused feet reaching the stern mast.

Their shield wall re-assembles, yet not before two barbed, oaken ballista-rods have eaten their fill. It stops them not, hull crossing-the arc within a bolt-throw of the rocks! Sound carsair their navigator, for he wears away brushing another whirlpool, then flits afore our beam; Carian black-maple strakes now no more than four ship-lengths aside us, and half that behind. Ballistas may easily make the throw , but both ships pitch so violently in the turbulent waters no fair aim may be assured. All deck crew arm with bronze helms, cuirass and leather bands for the waist; some wear the double-chaps of a forgeman. Mastmen do with boiled leather helmets and breast plate. Reflecting fires, the Carians too are plated in bronze. The cloud of sail they throw out and the volcano fire behind create a silhouette honoring flaming red bats or manta ray from south of the Pillars, monstrous of size, silent in motion and evil of intent. Brazen they come on with high deck and yard-lights rampant and they chant the bloody paeon to Hectors Mars. Flames from their sling-fires glow brightly and in the flames I make out the ballista lining their starboard rail.

Lieutenants gather as possible, strong handed Kalikrates and his mates rattling abacus and plotting on wax sheets one angle after another by his protractor speaking first. “No escape Sur seeing the gauge is theirs. We're on a collision course, their bow across ours.”

Telemedon so quick with the setting and reefing of sail. “Two ways those Carians can engage. They may come up from the stern, daring our ballista till hull-to-hull, and from high above us board by ropes. Would call a storm of arrowheads, then axhead-to-blade … spear-to-trident. Or failing courage for such a maylay, drive their heavy hull scatlings over and through our stern-rail, plundering us under their keel.”

“They outsize us not that greatly.” Teutor.

“It's the feckin-A bronze beak Sar that splinters our keel.”

“Let them come .. let them come, and then from a slingers distance if we may pitch something into their bow-planks ...”

Hekateas. “Let the ballistas pitch 'em a couple sea-anchors.”

“Sea anchors,” I exclaim and consider their risky might. ”Zeus beard the drag of sea anchors!”

“Ey Sar! We done such before, but against their impulse we need to be close. Peg sparkler-rockets aft if you can . If we time it early to drive crafty shanked bolts in deep. When drogues release feckin-A Carians will be one surprised crew of spinning bastards.”

“Will the canvass drouges deploy?”

“Push of the rockets helps; we have six remaining. When the drogue-barrels hit water and lines to the ballista bolts tighten they should shatter and release the canvas; that's how they work! If not it's a fight hull-to-hull and we're screwed! But, if so their bow yanks around by drag, wobbles and swings back behind our stern and even more if we get lucky their tiller-arm breaks.”

“Elisedd. “And after that?”

“After that we can fuck a mermaid and ride the dolphins home.” Tar spit of gob of black hash over the railing. “ Take the mans chance Captain Sar!”

“Do it!”

Two sea-anchors .. canvas buckets thirty-by-thirty cubits of rough sail-cloth were already barrel-packed. Their tops need only be knotted thirty-cubits behind holes drilled through the tail of brass-bound quad-ballista shafts. Sparklers grouved and fitted, barrels are lashed to fat-coated skids on the larboard rail and with a great pawling of lines and heaving of the tiller-men our bow comes across-wind pitching directly for the Carian ship as an arrow might fly toward the breast of a swan. Leather-bound wicker shields aree strapped in place to protect the tiller and quarter-deck and binnacle.

I put my glass on their main-deck and find the Captain. Plain battle-dressed, he sits in a wicker chair on a platform high above the tiller-deck, where the up swept stern post raises the silver banner of Kos. From their vessel comes moments of disbelief and raw decision, as oarsmen ruffled the water uncertainly and sails stiff and smoking from the last whorlpool luff uncertain in their direction. What a bold fellow is that Carian Captain, wearing a silver-leaf cuirass; he cannot swim five strokes before sinking … but he is not a man to consider his own sinking. He had brought his fellows up to his nest and now ale pitchers in hand points a short-spear across the water at our larboard waist. He twitches the spear side-to-side. A clear enough decision … come hull-to-hull and with twice the armed crew, many hoplites trained to close fighting they will drive through the rail shield wall and board us. Damned be the first losses stone-hearted swordsmen will cut their way through slaughter. They spill our blood to Mars as an oxen and keep the ship as prize.

Strategy subtle as that of a white water-bear against an isolated snow-blind kayakr. “Begin the drummers song,” I put down the glass \-- he shall not have it such and motion. Kalykrates shouts,”iron pellets and iron tips to the arrows,” preparing our sling and bowmen for their ordered firing.

Carian archers fire at will. Their mainsail ruffles like a womans chiton spilling wind and slewing by-the-stern across the swells , closing the distance. Arrows now shoot the gap and sling-bolts of lead giving the sounds of ping and crack to every exposed surface. Returning fire brings that awful moment at the very first clash of shield walls when the first man goes down screaming blood with a spear-point in his chest while another heaves a bone-slicing hatchet-face ... A lead pellet pings from the top of my helmet... every man fitted behind his shield and preparing the thrust with his weapon , shitting and pissing and killing with the swiftness of a gull as their starboard hull looms higher and we drive ever-more steeply across their bow.

Three swells away now waiting for the next rise and when it come faces on to a hundred bronze-helmeted eyes of oak skin our ballistas fire that deep-throated cough and whoosh of Corsican maple and yew, the fly of the red-tongued sparkle against iron-throated bolts and singing of hemp cord... and the sudden yank as the fat-slick barrels skid down the planks and into the water and a terrible matter of heart-beats wait … wait … wait till the top of the next swell, watching for the awful Carian prow and the pissing proud bronze-faced shield-wall and from high above men darting, sliding, leaping with ash spears for'ard and swinging down ropes onto the Belisama deck … and there instead ... an empty space … void of enemies … yet bright of sea and sky.

One pillar of sound exits the Belisama. “Eureka”! By the blooded aegis of Mars we yanked them around!

“Jog us Telemydon, half-a-point east and north and east again!” Taught hemp line stretch between the sweeping canvas buckets churning aft and our bolts deep-shafted into the Carian bow-planks. We dodge their return flame-to-orange tarballs.

“Find now a trough like Junos cunt,” I manage that final shout. Their mainsail plasters against the mast, high curving foreyard swinging to starboard as if Poseidon himself defying Boreas stiff breath has taken the bow and yanked it sternwise or a lost navigator blundered into the Sicilian whirlpools … so close to us the Carian sprityard curving high above their fore-deck shifting and dancing the rough waves snaps over and across our larboard shield-wall, its bronze point in agony swinging north to south.

A rotating line of bronze helmed men swing above us. How close does Dianna call the event? Black-hair Carians cling to that yard, darting and thrusting pikes and hurling the lead sling-pellet. Archers in our crows-nests bury arrow-points in two, while five other Carians shaken by the sweeping uneven motion fall off the yard tumbling onto our deck; a sorry bone-broken sight they aspire , but for mercy were pinioned to our deck by boarding pikes in a rubble of smashed chests and spattered brain. And though their hull fierce in heavy ceder wallows above the bronze beak thrusting upward it manages no more damage than scrapings across our larboard scatlings. That bronze horn lusting to rip away our hull succeeds only in tearing a gash across the waist of our thick teak planks never reaching inside to the water tight ceder strake.

A firesling bucket of flaming pitch misses above the tiller deck. Our return fire remains disciplined to the drummers song. Other men discharge their weapons at a distance of forty-cubits sending the arrows, lead pellets and flaming waxed hemp balls into each-other the Carian vessel rising from the swells bottom and the Belisama dropping from the next crest … a dark flock of their arrows and ballista fly over our deck, chipping the main-mast and tearing a fore-sail, but only one bolt splits a man in half.

Entirely the blood-soaked tapestry explodes as now, with bits of lead and bronze and iron and flint filling the air as if every hornets nest of Lesbos had been smoked. That moment arrives when no man may chose on-his-own to live the random arrow deciding then we sweep past them. Carians slew behind us! The scene of screaming fire and death and piss burns itself into your body and brain then vanishes! Swells and wave-caps and wind push us apart, the sea hiding mens worst enemy in its own breast. Our bow again snapping across the wind and leaping for'ard as mast-men throw out the fore-sails, the mainsail clewing around so it also tightens and bellies out , driving away from the steaming, lava riven shore of Kathos for the gap we had always sought. Oarsmen bent their backs and lines tighten on the sails. Men struggle to loose the mizzen reefing.

Behind us the Carian vessel has been swung fore-to-aft by the ballista shafts buried in the bow and the trailing sea-anchors wrapping and confounding all starboard oars. One of our slings has caught fire to rope-coils on their aft deck and men in heavy armor struggle to douse it. Their foresails fly away wildly; the sprityard itself has cracked and dragging from behind. Men scatter about their tiller and hull and spars chopping wildly at the tangled lines, and at the ropes binding ballista bolts to the sea-anchor.

Suddenly pressure seizes the air , as giant hands squeezing my head a shock building … building then bolting through the air, like sound trumpeting through a cave and above the boiling water a single blaze of lightening! The CRACK sounds clear and sharp and separates as a forest giant falling at midnight. Corrupt air about the ship quivers making a sounding-board of the Belisama. Every man about me feels the humm, the cutting whip of air and if our voices find not the scream our faces twist beyond human care.

Every man yearns for a line, a post, a buckle, a wooden seam … I take two turns of a mainmast shroud around a leg and clenched my arm about a ballista. Then the shock slamming air from our lungs, ripping at us all, for behind the CRACK , after it , signifying it the rocky earth of Kathos throws itself upon the air; Kathos exploding! A huge copper-colored wave flees toward us from what had once been Kathos rocky northern shore, but no longer. Shore and rock and wave and steam all one stream. Seams threaded to the earth by Rhiannons silver needle split open spitting out a flying red wedge of Hades … the grey sky above filled with red traces and the volcanoes round top, expanding and glowing like the sun.

Then a rumbling explosion disintegrated the volcano cone. Four … five times the height of our mast it had swollen , a molten bakery. Brightness flooded blinding sight like a dozen mid-days … then the onrush of night. The wave coming from behind heaved up above our stern like a bolt-thrower, lunging us for'ard through the passage rushing us along as a leaf rushes in stream rapids or cast as a storm wave might cast a log or a sling cast its lead. Part air part water part steam that was our element and through it we were flung headlong.

Afterward … for during each man was , but a silver mirror reflecting the horror and no man was aware of during … afterward I say, while the gods will dazzled that of men most of the burning red tracers of rock hung and hung above and fell behind us in a hissing sea-searing cloud. Before that spitting red rolling all consuming storm, under the flaming rocks, ahead of that slug of water catching us by-the-stern and thrusting through us from mizzen to bowsprit launching us like Icarus we fly propelled twenty boat-lengths through the sun-struck aether , a creature not of the sea , but of the sky .... every sense frozen while we travel above how many awells no man can say skating on the bronze edge of our keel. Had our bow ever been thrust under, or the waist pitched about … but we were not … and I cannot say which god flew us straight if indeed Ulir did not grasp us like a dagger and thrust us straight to the heart of Baal.

I watch no such blasphemy, but like a roebuck my head follows the Carian hounds who have pursued us. Water-hounds trancing over these watery fields or as the hammerhead shark is followed by his nemesis the hunting whale of black and white swirls and teeth of the giants. How close a matter is fortune or fact that separates warm life from the eternal cold shades. Busy saving their ship from our attack they mayb have known little such is the gods small mercy till the blast of heat! That same heat-blast, the same wave pitching us ahead had caught flush the Carian bow! Our sea-anchor ploy had caused their ship to rotate stern to bow … turning backward while still moving forward, her starboard side facing the volcano. The force exceeded an iron maul taken to a splinter. Proud Carian first she was a twenty-cubits high, thick-bellied ceder-sided war-cruiser flying the silver banners of Kos. Her sails daily fat with Boreas wind and her decks fast with stout men-of-arms. Her tall oak masts and yards swore vengeance on the enemies of Ions Sea while sharp eyed tillermen and her honed bronze beak promised a warriors death.

Son of Ares … then … in the flash of a gods hunger, for what else may be a volcano ? Screaming death a Gorgons wall of flame and rock and scalding steam overtook her as steel thighed Atlas overtook full breasted Hesperidia ravaging her while she pleaded so became the proud Carian galley, its four layered strakes of oak and ceder, chestnut and yew struck through as say the Etruscans by Vulcans hammerhead leaving nought, but a seared a burning a torn remnant of shattered planks and rope, sail and oars and twisted bodies. Most I pray to Artemis knew and felt nothing , but the girt of their leather belts and bite of a helmets nose-piece … the best must have raised their shields and thrust ash spears toward the gods onrushing fist. The same wave that carried us for'ard had lifted their hull, exposing raw planks where the explosions caught her waist-high driving burning rocks through from bowsprit to rudder and tearing that fearsome pride and warrior guts first to shredded parts and then in a boil of steam to nothing recognized by man.

I see this clearly, as if I stood on their deck not my own. Later I try writing it to ships log, that very act of immolation, but even as an enemy who may raise shield in victory I cannot abide the carnage so roughly fated. Three-hundred men in no way different from myself snatched away by Mars , shades lost forever to roam dis-honored and unmarked. They were torn … three-hundred men neither soul nor flesh nor spirit as the shades would wander in wailing and despair, finally festering into marsh vapor forever to scream, forever to burn, forever to anger without the boat-mans coin.