“As would any shyling who knows first his mothers warm breast.”
PI rages red-faced. “Would you have as sucklings such helpless starving tit-beggars? Can you remember how in clouds of fleas and vermin they sobbed … ‘ give us your sandals, for you wore them in, while our dancing and cavorting will will wear them out!’ ”
“Saints of a camp,” drools Gamma whose wealthy family owned him not.
PI stern. “I’d do again what I did before. Split the forehead of the front-most with my ax.” Gammas face sags in pain. PI has lived hard by reason and shows the life.
I try moderation. “Among people who work, wealth is shared by trade. Among royals, wealth is shared by money-tax. Among feckless adventure wealth is shared by pillage. Only among Bogge, our Minoan histories relate, was wealth shared by gift, free or otherwise. What happened to the Bogges? Starved? Enslaved. Frozen out of … of time? They basically died off! A remnant cling to nordland ice-caves and their mushroom & sour-rye memories. Such will be the fate of Cufamabo.”
“Tis an academy,” Artyphon mutters, “ that village and this venture to Damascus if you think on it humanly.” I don’t! Delta says the only warmth in Syria is the drop of venom at the tip of a cobra fang. Delta … Delta and Gamma compete with their offered nibblings, assuring if I eat more I will shiver less.
“If the springs water tasted less salty … perhaps,” I champion the rational at one of the villages. Long horned cattle herds drink the brine without effect. Yuur has imposed upon us a potion - - thick and vile and bitter - - but, we shit less than our new companions. Yes, men do come here, Spanish traders and travelers and Parthian shaman and warlords dragomen and Tin Isle miner; bands and klans and ventures yet none move alone. Do we ride through Syria, as all blue-water traders agreed or do we tread Mitanni rooted though their palaces be or Canaanite Babylon?
Artyphon lectures a shrill Berber loomist. “All names are used by some … The Hyrkon Trade Council reserves special names for ego-stroking letters of query, while its merchants, sailors and caravaneers use , but one. Do you so mind a sound, working from rubble-laden Ugarit?” Fat, veiled matron growls, but neither her camels nor ours are about to part company. Schooling cut-throats will quickly slaughter six isolated riders … so bickering, scattered travelers make their own phalanx!
The Jordan River runs high, from early rains. Merchant masons and carpenters from nearby villages have driven two dozen 10-arm posts into the riverbed and roped them together. Riders might safely ford; three bronze obols per animal are demanded, and so isolated sits the crossing noone wishes taking on the few thick-wheeled chariots and sturdy bronze-capped boarshead.
By then a hundred riders beside us; experience leads, the best armed trailing. Farther east we thread rough warrens of slit-eyed stone villages occupying cliffs and stony manse. Twas paradise surprised, the Barada River valley as we trekked the last dry ridge. Do maidens greet us, from great Babylon or Summer? Howling blood camel flaring raiders swoop the column; our archers - - longbow, recurve and the menacing cross-arm bloody their chests and drive them shrieking the black stones mercy.
"Damned be camels," curses Elisedd as the last of the raiders vanish. "See, I have but four shafts remain. Happy I am to see the last of it." .
"Last, dear Elisedd? Last man of the first evil wave! Perhaps the first by Cybelles tit. We are not visiting mages and oracles." .
Our animals lunge for the river. Damascene hangs like a amethyst gracing its eastern spill. So close now - - by a night and a day - - metal tang scratches my nose hinting a world-striding city come as no surprise. Far off hammering sounds of brazen Damascus sword-smiths ring from encroaching stone cliffs. Scrub and thistle-baked hillsides curve north-west of the plain, and when beyond an apricot orchard Damascus walls appear we enter unthinking and - - excepting ever-trailing raiders - - un-noticed.
“Ho there villians, can ye pay or can ye labor,” calls the gate guard.
“Might we trade our womens labor?”
“No comparison, outriders, for a Damascene whore fucks with the teeth and ass of a weasel. Both hot and cold just incomparable!” Thin silver for Damacen princes and two bronze coin per camel or horse pay these plate armoured gate watchers.
Artyphon throws back a half-carved Cilician dildo. “They learned all from Parthian haetera,” she snarks we passing under the cement and stone ramparts. “Measure they do, a man clients pleasure in a tin plate!”
I have learned minding my tongue near Artyphons jealousy, and meekly kiss her neck. A good first lesson. We do not enter with gay joy; joy in Damascus means wealth, and thieves quick as they are wary would have cut our throats. Even the King of Damascus, a Syrian these days, but last year a Hittite or Summer or Elomite, does not travel his own city at night. Tis closer an ocean voyage with all threats of waters great void … this venture from Damascus western to eastern walls … than a camel smoothed outing between manse and market. Most other voyagers move on after a tipped wineskin. What is east of Damascus? The rivers of Babylon, the mages of Babylon, the gods of an age when the world was empty, my tutor said.
Minos curse … “Recover Hyrkon honor and the blood of its agent,” rings between my ears. An empty world has nothing to do with me. “First the physician, master,” Artyphon nudges her hand covering the blood-soaked silk bandage.
Delta and Gamma lead us, clever as the Kings awaiting factors. Hyrkon royals 2nd sons, and thus without land they take to adventure boldly. We seek to become dim crawling wormlike deep into Damascus, within spider-works of whitewash walls, limestone, cropped tight and windless as a merchant might expect. While NaziBu finds a wealthy whore for our companions, I do see a physician named Jesse consulted years before by King Minos. He’s old now … bearded, and swears I shall die screaming. His black haired daughter, a wise ruthless virgin beauty as Artyphon was jams a metal tube into the fresh bleed and pumps in a purple-greenish slime. Rot the bones of an orgre and she also awaits my shouts … when I do not plead mercy her father takes a burning knife to the wounds surface while Yuur crams between my teeth a wine and drug-soaked leather strap. The old Hebrews wife is a herb pharmacy and bread-maker; Jesse mixes bread-maggots with sea-moss from Yuurs kit and stuffs them into my opened wound; all three sew me up as if competing for the dullest needle and thickest ferment-soaked thread. I do not scream … but Artyphon has soaked by mouth in poppy-juice and before oblivion I see only sky-piercing mountains and feel goddess breath behind my eyes.
Salt sweat and death … tell me high-booted traveler they have never been your companions. Artyphon and I sleep near the pharmacy two nights, in a 3rd story grainery free from rats. My fever is less, I think waking to a moon-filled open window till Artyphons heat sucks away my breath. Have you experienced, reader how a man recovering from illness does not become Apollo? Time to leave sickness behind. Silver strips from and winds to my traders staff, as I have transported a sour wound, while Artyphon a glass pellet containing Gaulish barley ferment to the Syrian physician. Yuur gifts a potion of willow-bark and receives a phifter of silver-mercury. Self-imagining I have become three-parts-of-four again the ships captain.
We brazen the cobbled streets, walking where most ride and riding among merchant carts yet the city oppresses. Every corner sports a flame-spouting forge or water-loom, as Damascus floats on seas of aqueducts and tubed vapors. Windows freely display wire cages of poisonous snakes and scorpions, for alchemists and physicians rashly attack any illness. A tight-nippled whore fronts one-such and assures us her alchemist will implant an mixed mud of cobra and scorpion venom into a solid breast cancer .. once the tumor cut open and exposed. Thin and pale-faced she brightly displays her own scar and claims to have lived two years past fourteen when the tumor was first discovered. Upon inquire we learn she is the physicians daughter.
No man squeezes more narrow streets or stones tighter than a Syrian merchant so we hide beneath dark reach covens of trade. We seek the maker of bronze northing mechanisms. Displaced, as a man once of property he lives a waterless, hollowed out part of the city wall, meant for those unable to pay last years tax-farmer. NaziBu tracks down the farmer, pays with a Trade Council stamp and breaks the necks of two foragers sent after him. Elisedds backtracks and his arrow slits the tax farmers brow and recovers our gold stamping. As Damascus hides the dead. All three rogues are pitched into a clay oil-of-nitre pit meant for tanning hog-hides. I have become hard.
Whore and slave-servant we play. Yet I feel obvious as a candle sputter .. sputter … obvious … oppressed. Artyphon warns me. “Be strong,” she pleads, “as you become more certain to succeed. You are not a man to enjoy this mission.” While the Syrian mechanic works on the new northing we six play as travelers, move to a watered date and pomegranate orchard taking up in the adjoining stable and shift of modes . Silks and sable we don’t see, but the linen and wool of a solid merchant class forms out our stable-mates. All together tis named RESH, after the horse-god, and a torchlit bronze sign marks the popular stopping point, where merchant camels and scout guard horses feed as freely as their riders meals in common. A few almond trees scatter among the outdoor watering troughs. Flickering oil-lamps fail to brighten the courtyard. Certainly the owners seek a better class. As we!
Artyphon - - whore now gold-crusted hetaera for whom I am the sword-arm ... Alpha and Beta as Artyphon has so cleverly tagged us with stolen Hellas names . Elisedd a half-helmed hoplite clothed dimly in raglin. The second slave, the forge-mans apprentice now the horse-tender. NaziBU and Yuur gruff-spoken masters.
We shop our selected goods in the daytime Damascus markets: locals see us as antiquarians carrying little wealth, but racks of curious crafts and tasty ferments. Berbers would trade us a bone large as an elephant tusk, but a desert-found whale-rib by their stories. From Indus traders we are offered a silvered ruby which emits more light than is shone upon it; trickster merchant! And an southern Oasis water-farmer offers a bottle of pure fire he claims distills from ponds of salted oil. Yes I have seen such ponds afire, but a bottle of pure fire ? We give as well as we get; from guardsman to jeweler city-dwellers with whom we daily eat bread and dates are free with local craft and gossip.
Sleeping quarters and a blind for waiting merchants gossip provides. The Street of Horses runs cross-city, in a furrowed way of excursion. And every cobbled step paid and guarded. We find a straw-clean hostle with adjoined stable but two blocks from a shuttered spring on a venue reaching across and away from city circus and courts; another two blocks west and sinister beneath shading fig and walnut sits Melquarts workrooms and warehouse. Reaching north on the cobbled road Bachus revels a wine-bibbers room at the turn of our street. Above the ground floor tables a second floor spreads wide with cots and lounges for whores. We can hear the drunks, their wild crashing about at the corner and restless unsatisfied fucking overhead; fights too over the women. One man thrown from a 3rd story window … another cut to pieces in the street, as we watched – an oxcart collects both bodies. Even in this rheumy part of Damascus far from the wealthy plazas a week of common wages barely can pay for a womans night. Workmen huddle cold in a stench of sour wine. Hashish and beer cloth this street like a robe torn and moth-eaten. Two buildings away we settle.
Horses, sheep, goats, mules, camels and ox … a royals two penned falcons … the liveryman keeps a brace of badgers to attend any cobra that might wander in from grassyards and pens in adjoining blocks. For a Hyrkon electrum we are given two rooms behind the stable stone fireplace and we become warm enough to sleep in the stable. Alpha insists she bed with her bare ass against my belly and I on my expense penetrating her, for casting our neighbors rudely she fears sudden rape. Not all a husbands duties weigh heavy; the Goddess is owed this coin. I have rented a clean lambskin cover. We lay quietly - - that first night - - bound together on a woven leather cot, as years before … childhood years one of my mothers serving-women had taught me and tonight Alpha takes her pleasures in all nine parts. I don't know whether we sleep again tonight.
Dinner comes late, as the blacksmith and son with whom we share a wooden table are hammering horse-shoes well past dark. It's warmer for the forge. Still, we cower inside our wool cloaks sampling from a vast warm iron pot of brown porter and toasting bits of lamb-shank over the charcoal fire. That itself is unusual, a charcoal braiser the size of a Hittite shield and we have the smithing to thank. Find ye may not a hardwood tree for fifty leagues that can service a fire … you can find a lamb … an emerald or the family virgin more easily.
Others carry more cheer and spank their wenches in public for what man does not delight in a red, wet rump? The royals are three such Egyptians, wearing gold torques and peaceful smiles. Only leather-strapped, glittering handaxes and needle-like dirks warn the prudent. Their females all speak four languages, and brazenly flash to the observant as much as they dare. “Skinny, each of them,” huffs Artyphon while pulling tighter her silk thong. Under a huge sheep-skin a Babylonian scribe snores in the corner. He hides a boy beside him … strange and provoking … I think - - had thought all court scribes were castrated royals. His tall Negro guardsman stands over them holding a bronze headed hatchet. Every shadow hides the assassins blade.
Street of the wool-carders … lane of date-wine .. way of Eritrian whores, street of copper … street of sand, street of rock this far inside the city walls they all smell of piss and rotted food and until you rise above, to a windy third story terrace Damascus streets carry the stench of uncollected dead bodies. Such we wait for the desert-spanning caravan and Melquarts adjoined convoy. Subtly, we wait to join the expected caravan, to the dryland north-east and passing the estate of Melquart.