NaziBu wakes in his saddle and quips. “Butchered and roasted yer know, a worn out horse by the same woman that rode him. That be your desire?” No response being possible he slouches low into his woolen robe. Four horsemen bracket the women and we move through sullen streets dead and cold as limestone coffins. Worry? Our guard is experienced, as does not humble itself before the cities night corpse. Yet easy passage itches on my sailors intuition.
Artyphon and I ride bracketing a Carian bowman sharing sips of bitter black coffee ferment; at rear guard we seek the main chance. I think on the confines of Crete or those binding more tightly on Hyrkon and imagine that here we are alone forever on this road – skulking madmen without city or family or so much as a bag of dried beans. Will breath be in us traveling homeward? That ! Other skulking shapes appear … those of wolves and those shapes of hidden men less-than wolves. We might have been eighty camels and as many horses. Mules and wagons by half again. Troopers now ride in mail and no mans hand fails his weapon. Still we lag – alpha, beta, gamma & delta fretfully poor horsemen – lagging toward the caravans tail.
“Think, Artyphon none know when Damacene was born or who birthed her. Or how she travels through time on her wealth and wit.” The Carian between us mutters he is not paid to write the constitutions of the cities her defends.
Artyphon. “Were a single man and women to create the city, I believe it dies swiftly. Around my families home in Parthia dozens of ruined cities litter the mountainsides. Were they less devoted than we or less able to bring neighbors to their support ? I believe Damascus has been birthed and nursed by the world. And as we do now, the world flows in and out leaving food by which the city lives.”
Three figs spring into the Carians hand, at such wit and I find ferment dregs to match it. Briskly the caravan winds its way out of Damascus, through the city wall , past guard-houses and elevated ramps for ballistas and turning aside from the river winds up and out, westward into a parched country-side … it's sudden really when brick ends there begins the hydraulic culture of palm and grape and almond orchards … out out and still out along the Street of Horses. We are a snake of frosted breaths. Whitewashed walls give away to brick, then intervening fields and waterways and finally the open sparsely covered farmlands. A bright moon showed some sheep still at pasture with their shepherds lonely gray cutouts against the cold light. Why the well-crushed stone road and how the oilstone torches seep glimmer into the dark none say.
Hours of riding sends the moon to hid, leaving us near midnight and leading us into foothills scattered with streams and woods. Nobody explains why we move at night. A wind has got up from the desert south, cold enough to freeze tears on your face. Fog comes with early morning. The caravan sleeps around breakfast fires only long enough for the guards-men to eat and their wine-bowls to empty. More fog whips in from the desert and we ride all day under its blanket. Hills throw wooded crests on every side and become steeper. Outriders appear to the west, circling in from a small valley. There are two riders and two Hyksos chariots. I'm guessing a small band of cut-throats, because more would have struck in the dark, all long shanks and swords glittering moonlight and thrusting death and in chaos ridden us into the dust. The guards captain sends a Sergent for me. We consult the Captains compass and map. The brigands are two points north of west and the valley they ride from is really a box canyon into which no man rides expecting to return.
Clever cut-throat bastards … we oppose them with armed horse – fifty shields and spear-points – leaving an equal numbers hidden behind wagons and camels. Trap-for-trap we have laid; they do not come on, but rattle bandit insults; they will carry away our women and our gold and vanish, leaving the men alone. They will cleave our phallus with their swords and burn them to dark Yagas honor. We find a camp-following cur and spit it to a lance , holding it high while blood spurts and life quivers out of it. We shout back whoresons may have all of that blood they can carry away. Night-camp is made, we prepare to fight. The guards Captain assures us Hyksos desert raiders have not done well against Syrian troopers the last two years. They bark like desert pig-hounds bark, yet are simply hungry dogs. I have seen boars torn apart by such dogs; I don't feel better. We can see their scout fires on surrounding hills; we do not sleep. A dozen bow-shots come over our lines, which we return but the men never come down shield-to-shield against us. Are they fat and wealthy? Cowards? Have they lost men and can afford no new wounds? Or are they men like us, balancing value against justice for whom the match must be too close a thing?
We break a cold camp next morning, sharing barley cakes and grey-white Auges frost while Eurus breath races the sunrise; our caravan Captain believes dark is a threat the raiders will not accept. I am chosen one of the scout party … I have fought in the dark. We push ahead finding nothing, but a still smoking camp-fire and butchered horse and a body stripped naked with an arrow-bolt through its right eye. I think one man less to send his dart toward my throat. The dark road strains steadily upward, into a territory of well-stoned keeps. Windmills turn on the highest hills and sunrise paints them pink. One hill lifts to another more green. Stone arch bridges have been thrown over bubbling creeks, and its a shock to pass the first walled villa which sports a water-wheel and from whose walls two young woman call out … but will not join us though a young camel driver climbs up to them with a bouquet and vial of Libyan orchard perfume.
The land grows more fertile at every turn from water-works leading in from the west. Mountain winter snoes allow this life. Our caravan is sliding along a valley now dotted with walled estates and cloaked in lemon and olive groves. We wind up a steep, forested hill … Cedar and pine roots nearly erase the road. Aanjar is close; I can smell the copper kilns. It's dusk before we reach the top of that steep rise. On this plateau dim city walls and the tower-lights … all those man made items of pleasure raising Astartes oil-sacrifices flicker to the west. It's leagues away, yet to believe anything breaths in front of you is to doubt your own breath.
Off the trail and above us by four stories sits an entrenchment, a stone signal house. A public tripwire. Wine, whores, beds and … information of those closest to MelQuart. Its second story casts a rim of light about which the caravan spreads out. There's a well and barn. An outdoor fireplace glows spreading smells of baking bread and roasting lamb, and draws the caravan people to a flowered wicker gallery Two mercenary soldiers ride the edge. 'He doesn't need to be close, does he, ' I think and pry into the distance. Each caravan stirs its own broth and he can smell it! Down, down far down there … rolling sequestered hills threaded by a cobblestone path. Melquarts keep, black as basalt to the top floor of white limestone and silent as a dagger. He has chosen well, a keep-safe spaced between two cities , but free from casual molestation. Three massive chestnut trees overhand a sandstone cliff. Moonshine glints from the rear pond, that guarded by date and olive orchards. A rise just before the villa protects from flash rainstorms and probably cuddles a small stone-banked stream. From an upper portal of signal-lens get busy flashing high above yet along a pair of cobbled road leading down to the north. We remain on the dark rim, while we eat. Melquarts troop mingles … on a foggy street they would cut your purse and throat in a race of heartbeats. Here - - quail baked, mutton braised and the bounty passed around. Then satisfied that the caravan supports itself, their Lieutenant passes to the signal house where disarming, many-colored codes pass to Melquart.
They are ready to move out, drivers remounting with the pair of wagons , four pair of camel and six horse. Far below us the lights of a small village and large tree-lined villa-house twinkle. Two great flashes – blue and white – light up the villa. Then Melquarts troop roll off the hilltop following the cobbled way; the escort leader gallops up to bid them farewell and all speed, yet throwing away incantations about night spirits. A tall lightly dressed Berber removed a glass lamp from his robe finds the flame and flashes signals three times flipping the lamp light-shade. Each time the villa-house responded , giving in return a set of flashes.
I think that was enough and we will have our chance. Now. We wait until wagons rumble into the darkness, and until night and distance grays-out the main caravan. The caravan master has drifted behind with me; as his horse pulled close he passed between our hands two small silk packets.
“May Cebylle choose white ,” he says quietly before chasing his horse after the last wagon.
“What are those Master,” snips Gamma?
“Assurance of a good life.”
“Do we pray to the Goddess?” Mumbles fill the silence. “But we may be killed horribly, and wise men say you live well only if you die well.” His voice is now making a choked sob. Hiss hiss. “What if we are captured?”
“No we will not be captured. Do your task.”