“Aye Sar .. the beam is too narrow … too slim by a half-dozen cubits, like its been adzed outside or had extra beams within.”
“Whoots a luggar, Sar,” scraps a rope-boy just years from his mothers tit.
I shake him by an ear. “Luggar … a Green Isle devil! Imagine a hole in deep water caused by a huge, hollowed-out and trimmed tree-trunk. Got that? A trunk hollowed out so men can live inside. Chiseled flat at the stern - - most are - - and bow sharpened to a ball or point. Its keel and rudder simply lead-filled main-branches; its mast an opposing member fitted with a yard.”
“I’ve set a yard before, sur ...”
“Betcha have. But, luggars have no slots in the hull for oars … most of ‘em and few pawls for lines; they’ve a rear paddle men can turn to grip ahead! Slowly! They wallow in swells and get knocked flat by an unexpected wave. Unstable … get my drift? Steers from inside.” Fuck you do that? “Tatooed buggers use them only for raiding between their land and Tin Isle.”
“Ever seen one on Our Sea, Cap’N?”
When I wore a stolen chami vest, captained no crew, no contracts and no Belisama, but two coppers rubbing together and would risk them both in a 70 oar Rhodian longboat. “Priam used one at a siege of Afytos. Troy even covered the deckwood with a thin bronze hide, so Greek fireslings could do no mischief.” I laughed as men stamped by us, the idlers rushing to the bowsprit. “’Course that extra top-weight made the luggar roll over, lose its ballista and drown half the crew. ‘ I reach again for the boys ear he jumps away. “Aren’t gonna drown yerself are ye?”
He dashes for a rope ladder. Faelen brays: “More on the ship Sar. Three or four figures on the decks flat part … it’s eights-deck,” he snarks. “She’s minding her trade pendant … Bey of Baal … no weapons exposed, but yet without the trade council pendent-badge.”
“ Have they forbidden that'?
“Running for your life … lots is forbidden. They look so! Gaff-rigged main, hemp not linen and nearly worn clean through, that and the jiffied jib. She's a worn sea-cow sar, but hauling ass ...”
I shout back. “Only the paddle can do that … with many men at the turning wheel.”
Piped commands by her women, Artyphon has flown up to the quarterdeck. “You know Azmel always sails with his daughter. ” She is pinched right against me, scratching the codes on her waxed tablet that I can see. The bow-wave flares over the approaching hull. Azmel … might she be at that? I shout to Faelan send up a code and send Artyphon below. I jump the main-deck, run up to the bowsprit and out the yard finding the cutter to larboard and putting my own glass on it. Yes, half-a-point to larboard, a small laggard crew; two men lounging in the crows-nest … two men on the jib, another two on a aft-sail pawl . Impossible. No cutter works its sails with seven men. The cabin is small and cast up and for'ard at the bow and from the hatch and window-port I see turbaned heads. There is shoulder and arms of a veiled figure come through the rear hatchway; it is surrounded by dark stain and face down it does not speak till the mirror-codes start to fly.
Bare feet rushing to stations drummed on the deck behind me. “Damn clever of her to sail aligned with an island. “Tar,” I yelled, “man ....”
“Eye sur and all slings be manned ...” shoots back at me. A bonnet of older men grace each sling with a nest of flint hornets.
“Bey of Baal? Faelan,” I shout across to steerage, “ run up the Dolphin and signal-set two: The geometries.”
“Aye sur.” Flags are clipped to the lines; wooden wheels screech against bronze pins. “Flags aloft.”
The afternoon breeze snaps them straight. A second man appears at the Bey of Baals stern, and two duck under the larboard bow-wave. There is a moment when anything might be true. I have laced the shrouds about my traders staff and lean outward catching the bow-waves watery film. Crows-nest lookout calls down. “Two signalmen at the larboard rail. Pennants up. Fast bugger that one, she responds immediately Sar and has matched figures.”
Matched … square to square, circle to circle … “A half-point northing, Hekateas,” I shout to the steersman and men swarm the mainsail lines to clew them over.
“That's good news, right Captain,” shouts Telemydon from the mainsail yard.
Good news … good for the rip of blood that pounds through my heart. The blood in my hands turns to ice. “Clew up on the larboard,” I bellow at the main mast-men. “Give me another half-point of starboard oars Brogue.” Then I fly up on Nykodemes arm … and am pushing people about the quarterdeck, but that will not do. Water cuts across our sloping deck like a mountain blizzard across a roof. Over the rail and down to steerage I take at three steps to the tiller.
“Sar we must come about ...”
“Steady on the tiller. Hold course.”
“But, Sar they will strike us amidships!”
“Strike hard as well they may, vastly so such a sharpened hull … but not this one. Bring us roughly along-side and throw our bow to their waist!” While the breath was in him Azmel still sails with his daughter and she has attached a wood shaft to the tillarpost and wears back her hull … falling … falling into our stern-trace. I shout “Sea anchors away ...” … and they fly like moths behind the Belisama hull with just enough for’ard makeway, while ladders cross the two hulls.
Telemydon is strapping on my cork waistband and Artyphons wax tablets … fitting the Troas bronze-skinned leather helmet back from my forehead. He mutters, “buggers took her alongside like butterflies float! Aye they did ...” says he with respect only another sailor knows.
“Prepare to hold us steady,” I shout to crewmen already already binding heavy leather belts. I have signaled Teutor – his prime hoplite guards are strapping bronze clamps over connecting leather braids. Fecking-A yes I think we will bring Bey of Baal under our wing. Ten turbaned boyos crowd their deck working the sling, for so will we be shot between hulls. Azmel – his daughter - his number-one find the highest point across the choppy water while grizzled tecknos tune mechanics. You get, but one chance! Then we seat … seat, strap and fly across the bridging hemp ladders. … me shouting old Crete “By the horns, boyos, give us a shot!”
In an eyeblink men sprung to their shroud and yards, and we tumble into furry nets of yew and hemp. Strong arms grab ours before we can rebound. The angle between our two vessels swings wider and the rope ladders for the moment released. “They are wearing away Sur,” shouts Telemydon. Shall we rig our sling?”
“No sling,” I shout for the talk has got hot fast as the shooting chairs. The women embrace warmly, brows firm while exchanging code tablets. They wish their men not to die, so I take it. Azmel bent aged and worn into a smaller iron tong grips my forearm and pounds my back. “Have you stolen another six iron yokes from the Gauls?”
“Enemies cramp now not stretch. Do you know Melquart?” Ferment bites like a eel.
“No … and neither should you. He offered six pieces of a date & honey & fig trade with Priam … and my factor ran like Ceberus bit his ass.”
“Fearless Melquart .. among weaponless jewelers.”
“I feel our loss.”
“Twill be redeemed.”
May Bes save your Minoan hide Cibias; for safety avoid Byblos. Melquart splits time between Byblos and his Damascus workrooms. And Byblos … by-Zeus beard a riot-torn bloodbath. Judges murdered, insurrection by power-mad scribes and invasion by the sea people. We are fleeing the rabble ourselves. But the prince will soon enforce a hard hand. ”
“Who made your luggar?”
“A few island geometers and Numidians still hovering inside caverns they carved. Not so easy keeping it afloat in choppy water.”
“Waxed surface … do you wax the gearing?”
“Tut tut, Cibias kiss and tell - - but truth is we use boiled auroche fat! You ought to ask where did the original log come from. It’s seamless with 1400 rings! But share this drink … blue I know, and of a thousand year vintage.”
"Like to know how many Numids drive the paddle ... or if any do. That steam pouring from the stern reminds me of .... ,” and Azmel will hear no more of my speculation.
Artyphon sips, and I snort the resin fireball remaining. Azmel giggles. Pointless chatter will kill us all. I snap. “Ships repair and my launch toward Damascus allow no prudence or option.”
Yoked chairs have been brought to the stern, and we are all-but strapped in for the chop. “Byblos metaphysic not your speciality anyway!” Azmel daughter raps. “Eleven leagues south you will find a fishing village, Cufamabo. They are hidden by marsh, employ shipwrights for their sardine busses, forge bronze and won’t steal nipples from a blind whore. Helps that a dozen privacy seeking Phonecian royals and their Hebrew militia have villas on surrounding dunes.”
Half-truths speak well. “Cufamabo … never heard of it. Moles and quay for hull repair?”
“Worked quietly into the marsh … and cleverly at that so mainmasts look like dead ceder stork nests. Merchants have missed no opportunity, gating and cementing and flowering town center - - Morrocan whores crowd hotels and chandlers abound. No problem renting horses and mules for your … inland venture. ”
“Free then of insurrection … this worldly Cufamabo ... ”
Azmel laughs with joy. “Au contraire dear Cibias … the outre cabal of Hebrew scribes, nor’ard sardine fishers and homeless sea floaters first conquered without bloodshed at Cufamabo. First foreign ships appear. As supplicants they appeal, but producing tools soon act the equal. Then ruling council choses quickly increased city population by four, and city income by eight within months of the first sea people attention. From rail to rail council chambers were spread with papyrus sheets, juggling the fractions.”
His daughter pours the blue dregs. “Fishermen and mechanics are a practical lot. But mind, admit no trader, though traders ye be. Instead display your guild-craft and seamans tools and carving. Such personal voices are counted rare as Athenas bare breast and much approved of seaward invaders. They are called landward disposed by sensitive souls … and lomm owners looking for cheap labor. Up is down if you mind my directions!”
“But, how can a workman prosper when all is given away?”
“Strange times indeed dear Artyphon. Brighter lights prefer buyers and workers than ship-sailing enemies; the sea-people burnt Ugarit not pose any merchant will tell you. Old stuff to them now, the insanity … you will see.”
“What’s this?” A teak ball and brass chain now grace my neck. Hand on my shoulder: “In Damascus you will need the code embedded in the teak.”
Time has become expensive. Looking down, dories have been exchanged , though a fragile hull between two sucking Goliaths does not sooth me. We prepare to separate. “Where will you go now? King Minos has always allowed refuge in Hyrkon for an exposed agent. And being a merchant, Cyebelle may roll your bones.”
Azmel laughed. “My daughter has become comfortable in world cities; few to choose, but I cannot deny her.” Looking at Artyphon now watching the Belisama re-approach. “You must travel another 8 leagues south, to a shell-fish haven called Dnarnya finding people set ends-to-means. May Mercury grant foot-speed … and for Zeus beard prosper for your family.”
Braided leather-ropes feel strong and tense. Sitting-the-sling-chair, before catapult. Artyphon. “I know this insurrection. Some Parthian mountain villages were infected after a mis-read Zorast text promised heaven for feeding the worthless.”
“But, any egg-seller knows better, who must rise early to gleen the hens.”
“Princes and scribes do not gleen eggs, master. Yet you see the truth; Parthian winter brought harsh death. Ceberus howled.”
Return crashes us into our own ropy hemp buffers. On the Belisamas deck a skeptical Telekydes has me out-of-sling & over his back, cursing . “I hope your bitch Artyphon knows more about Damascus.”