I record an enemy scattered. Rings of fire have engulfed Melquarts stronghold. We see … from the last ridgetop his villa vanish in an upward tongue-of-flame licking at stars wet light, but streaming bolder. The tree-lined moat boils with fire-tongues leached from the bridge, and from the tanks of pure oil at cliff-top shattered by our rear-attacking ballista. A string of horse-ridden torches … pinpricks … circles beyond that.
I record what’s expected among the Hyrkon allies. Riders galloping through report perhaps 10 dead raiders … 8 bodies recovered so coin may be granted. But, ten of sixty … Mercury has not failed us. All hated the Carthage faction and responded to their ally Melquarts murder-by-proxie of blameless Asu. Fully half these men will vanish into the Syrian hill-country, as coastal traders they remain at heart. We will never see them again. Parallel to our caravan following path, two other small warrens will move seaward, toward Aanjar where joining us proceed to a coast village. We will try catching a local sail from such village to our ship and companions docked in Cufamabo.
Five hours later our horses ridden to a bloody lather cross-over the caravans path. Another group of six riders has joined us, led by NaziBu. “Went back to look for ye Sar, when like Lokis fool you recrossed the bridge. All six stink like slaughtered pigs and red-eyes of terror mark every man. “They surrounded us, Cap’N, 20 or more but we bust through with a flaming cart.” Delta and Gamma share a ferment amphoria while leading them gently into the van.
Nymphe passes and we do not clean, but a vial of burning pitch glows red marking the last traders wagon-wheels. Morning air has turned wet, cloying. Artyphon troubled. “I have calculated master, that we fought three hours at Melquarts keep. I do not remember those three hours.”
Bloody faced NaziBu. “Remember not, mistress.” Distress will not delay our trackers. I press a bronze cup into the soil and my ear presses to the bronze can hear the faint, dolorous thunder of hoofs. They devour our trail and we push our exhausted van for’ard.
Aanjar city walls rise from a cliff one league dead ahead. Caravan pickets circle the top of a small plateau outside the walls just north. My signal is returned, while the two vans of parallel riders have joined, us, collapsing together . Behind us, in no order, but boars-head first then the body pursuers come on; they lag by parts of an hour, gaining, their numbers wearing us down, bleeding us. It is like a storm at sea, beating on a hull for days and while the proud oak refuses to fail not so the sailors despairing of safety throw themselves to death rather than bear a wet uncertainty. Insane you say … . I have seen a ships hull empty suchlike and tied myself to a mast to do otherwise such desperation comes to a man at whom deaths finger points. So do pursuers flee restlessly toward their victim. We cannot stop to piss, we have lost control even of our bodies.
Yet in hast they have lost more. We have planned this well and this far. Fertile valleys lay behind. Already most trees have been swept from the terrain; warrens of bushes cover the rocky hillsides. The land is both more concealed for those who hide and more open for those who move. There are no villa or farms gracing this wild land, as it is a playground for the worst of rabble and the deadliest of brigands. Rain spits from a dark starless sky, as if forgotten and restless spirits curse our fortune. I make a final signal to the camp; we move off trail south, along a steep goat-path and into a deep ravine. I fear the horses thunder behind us will never stop till their spears have pierced us. We block the trail with cut thorn-bush, dismount and lead our horses along the sandy rill black as Tyrian pitch and yet widening, perhaps a lost sheep pasture or the site of a forgotten massacre. Rain slaps from the night sky, muffling our steps yet our ravine amplifies the insistent thunder of galloping hooves.
They are coming on and may Mars slaughter them! From above our ravine comes the shout of challenge, curses rising, the zip of slings and arrows whine. Shouts of rage, screams of pain, armor clashing against armor. Bellowing cries of wounded horses rise where spears have found flesh. Steel rings against bronze. At our distance their deaths become abstract yet without doubt our pursuers have blundered straight into the circled, armed and prepared caravan. The camp thinking them bandits. Melquarts men thinking to scare us out like braces of quail. Instead of slaughter by their own arms , their horses enter a cross-fire. Powerful cross-bows and pikes are cutting them down.
A retreat horn is sounded. A slaughter has begun and ended, Ceberus feasted in the time a man takes to drink a bowl of wine. Imagining a tortured retreat is bloody-handed; Shades of the defeated randomly stagger about us hurling slings and cursing Dianna - - the lead pellets whine above our heads - - such fiends we cut down in the scrub.
A spear-point sides by me, and I slap it away. A young Semite voice. “Why do you hector us villain!”
The hatchet-end follows driving me to the mud. “We birth an empire!”
Semite, his bronze has sheared bloody leather and tin chain. “To honor Hyrkon, assassin and butcher her enemies.” My short-sword slashes upward into bare flesh. He grunts like a Hebrew grunts fucking a Moroccan whore.
“We curse your heart of Hellas!” A bolt wizzes my ear and thuds into armour. I can make out nothing further, as the vague enemy falls twitching into silence. I pick myself up, taste the blood; not much. So close I could spit on him another of Melquarts troopers fall to NaziBus bolt. I can reach out and kick his face. Gone. They will not come our way, if any live. All sound and vision vanish in a blaze of lightening bolts, rattling thunder and a shuddering downpour turning each dried thorn-bush into a tambourine while NaziBu drags me away.
Time … time is money, time is a bugle sound ringing from Aanjar; gates creak open. I think a heavy armed troop has left the city, but their story or the caravans is not our own. Time is our own. In time we move deeper into the rain, west-by-South-west, one goat-trail laying across another and by Zeus beard I pray my memory holds.
“There!” In Boreas gray rain-soaked Dysis gloom just before dark seizes all I catch glimmers of light and we find it it. Outside a ceder plank protects a lantern. Plastered rock … thatch … a warped wooden door all together little more than a shepherds hut. Meadow ceders have closed it off and made it hidden not more than a bow-shot outside the shadow of city walls.
Artyphon sniffs. “Cybelle must make it home.”
“Quiet now,” I caution. “If we have been covered we'll find new horses and food.” Shaded candle-light from within a lean-to marks the wattle sides in dim early morning.
“Or find our throats freshly cut.”
I am unwary as a satisfied cock! Three horses are tethered inside a lean-to. No guard. I step inside as the first man , considering our good fortune and freeze as a ring of spear-points snaps down around me; Artyphon and NaziBu blunder in behind. The trap … sounding no more than that of a door-latch. Hooded faces are as dark as the bronze points shine. The circle of thick arms and sharp bronze unbroken. Fog! I hear my own gasp, and two others that all stop short – catch – hold. There is no escape to make, no foolishness. It's deaths door, one heart-thump and you face the dark river. We go back-to-back, hearts beating from our chests, dirks out and so prepared to pay our way in blood to Charon.
There is a moment of muffled laughter. They are laughing at us, easy marks for their warrior badges, and cheap practice in arms. Behind the ring of spear-points is a fire and an iron pot. Mykron, Tar Hekateas and Elisedd splash smiles behind a row of steaming ale-mugs.
“Dirty as squid-ink,” simpers Artyphon.”
“Squid for sure. I've never seen nor smelled fish like these,” carps Mykron.
“And the four-legged beasts! We ride mermaids,” says Tar-of-Avelon, “not sea-lions. Can you eat them?”
“If he clews the mizzen and foresail like he bound those nags we are overdue for the rocks of Messina, snaps Hekateas.”
“Ha ha ha what do you make of the clothes?” Elisedd bubbles. “I've wrapped fish-guts in better rags.”
We are between earth and sky, collapsed to the sandy floor. Stories become rude. Strong men cry for lost companions. Mykron and Hekat pull off robes; sheepskin wraps about me. The others, I think … the others … a moment when I am not yet recovered as captain and for that time I cannot move.
“We have waited two days Cap’N. Feared Melquart proved a lee shores long reach.”
“We beat them,” I mutter. Mykron has clamped a mug of hot poppied ale in my hand. “We escaped,” I say. Our lives could be bleeding into the sand. “Our money buys only good fortune; we had bought the caravan master.” I sleep all day on that sheepskin and when it peals away Artyphons bare skin peals with it.
Dark now outside our bolt and thunderstruck. Tar has pulled over a three-leg tub; Elisedd has boiled ashes and lamb-fat into a soap, and with other riders I stand outside in the rain pouring buckets of steaming foam on those near. Steam over icy sleet. Lightening slashes a near-standing pine, displaying as I see dancing satyres while rolling thunder shudders our very lungs. Should we become saytre plied forever by silk-cunted Dryaids? Eyes closed I spill water into my face, scrub salt into my mouth. Where is the tin-paste Artyphon uses? Womans work! Zeus beard what would a temple priestess think?
“Artyphon,” I shout. Inside again black tar hashing abounds wrapping warm around the fire. I wrap the old Minoan strap of fresh cotton, outside half-robe and finding my consort lean against Artyphons leg curled about a stool. A basket of almonds, dates and figs passes around. The fire-place sparkles carrying poppy dreams. And I have come cold hearted into sense.
Artyphon says to me. “The Aanjar council collected thirty-four bodies from the caravan; bodies of those who attacked and were killed. Ammorite mercenaries all and two were captured alive. The caravan says no members are missing … and no brigands escaped. ”
Elisedd has been preparing a bird, band and a message. All released and shaking rain from his hair he has just come inside. “What did the prisoners say?”
NaziBu stomps merrily. “What all prisoners say. They were innocent guards on an estate far to the east. That estate had been attacked by bandits and their master killed. They had tracked the bandits to the caravan and sought revenge.” Artyphon continued. “The Aanjar council didn't believe them. They were tortured and as their story never changed, burned as highwaymen.” Feet shuffle. “One or two councilmen were skeptical, and wanted to seek you out, but they were over-ruled.”
“Bought off ,” I ask? Artyphon says nothing. Clever and fast … yes she is. I say. “So we are still unknown … can we rest here another day?”
“The deed is known.”
“Have we bought supplies?”
“Delta and Gamma and Kalikratus returned from Aanjar with ten hard-breads, a bucket of barley-paste, two rolls of onions and carrots and a whole lamb, ceder-planked and smoked in peppers and sage.”
Kalikratus. “Rumor washes the town, of grand plots waged about their walls. Carthage, Damascus, Troy … and King Minos are all mentioned, but with no thread connecting them to a rover band such as ours. Mequarts troops were bitterly hated for violating Aanjars caravan truce. Trade alone quickens the cities blood!”
I ask. “But, such speculation unconnected to Hyrkon policy?”
Artyphon gulps, as if I had taken her breath. “Unconnected? As if a caravan often used by Hyrkon traders splits off a deadly viper, and yet is not considered its nest?” Young Gamma nods beyond his ken.
“Traders come and go … as a womans desire!”
“And not as the ten generations of children my mages have promised from your lust! You,” she exclaims! “This is not the council to decide if you are discovered. Of more importance, men watched us ride out from Byblos. Why tarry?”
The black tar hashish has drown me deep into her coils. Fuck! I shout to myself Byblos we shall never find! Does the wench lack another silk girdle? Openly … “Brazen is not the word for a woman threatening her mate and then ordering him to action.”
Such warning takes her aback and rivers of dashed spirit pour from her eyes. Wine pours into Delta and Gamma and they drift away. Evening deepens and our bolt-hole warms as freezing rain turns to patter. NaziBu quivers on his mat, falling deeply into the shallow dream-sea of Ur. I will not revive, while Artyphons breasts and thighs will not see me cold. Her skin becomes mine.
Tis mornings porridge pot. Night has taken four companions, slipping away to their own keep-safes or adventures. Two men I knew, Hebrew traders no doubt returning to their routes and exchanges between iron-works west of Jerusalem. Eleven of us now with half old Belisama hands. We move out, eight horses, six camels and two mules. Chipped in body and spirit not broken. Cold rain never stops; sinkholes wash out the trail and we loose two horses with broken legs. Water kills scorpions, but cobras coil beside their flooded holes. We kill nine with slings. We also crack-the-spines of two armed watchers whom we flush afoot from nearby hills, and as daylight runs into grey evening run down two horsemen whose mounts throw them after an exchange of arrows. They are without excuse, as skild of a local warlord and we without mercy.
Eriknois cursed, as he first grew before wanton slaughter I think my guilt for having killed both a fiend and an innocent man makes me want no witness to our retreat. Artyphon says I need to get laid violently. I cannot find her alone, maddening but would break her spine across my lust. I am so tired. Ridges layer upon ravines upon mountainsides. This grinding voyage takes away two broken-leg horses and thirty-six hours , for us to split the Syrian coastal hills and file through coastal cedar forest. From below, only a silver morning allows us to spy smoke columns from kilns and thus find the shit-hole fishing village leagues south of Byblos.