Rugged? Zeus beard tis a thin rugged coastline, Parthian Sinope. A walled city hugs it … chains its harbor against uninvited guests while walled villas quickly climb to your visions edge. Inshore , eager granite shoals in one-missed-moment will rip the bottom from your vessel and soul from your skin. Altogether more pleasant provincial Trapezius. It’s sandy nook lies to the east holding Japhes orchards among many, craft shipyards , weavers of goat-wool and among oak groves barrel-works.
So we struggled, till a bright, crisp early spring morning found us sailing under stays and mizzen , luffing canvas and coming under the lee of Artyphones family stone quay at Sinope inner harbor. As its namesake obscure, ancient and violent. Never-the-less I had sworn to transport the cherry juice and Belisamas belly was waiting. A cutter had beaten us in, and Japhe waited … with a company of Armenian peltasts. Artyphons mother wore a black wool robe, a morning robe as for death and she keeps her mouth shut.
Japhe and I still like each other. Artyphon … Artyphon vanishes for a week , vanishes from the city to above the tree-line where mountain women and their councils ruled. It was said so by old city women who envied them. Some matter of witchcraft my crewmen mutter, as clever women rank just beside serpents and werewolves as carriers of the mystic. But, Artyphons old mage who seemed not to fear another male observed there were certain drug-plants growing only in the high meadows; among the stunted pines and only there could they be obtained. There was craft to the picking, and some treatment to preserve the sacred element. All that … and I thought she tried to avoid her mothers tongue-lash. Japhe advised patience; he was a good friend and smart captain … and I no longer owned his sister.
Artyphon receives her badge. At full moon, in the presence of her family I unbind my ownership, return her liberty, declare my wife a free Hyrkon citizen signed on the Belisama as an able seaman; a bronze-badged sailor beside all others of my trade. Hated as she might have been, by Parthian hangers-on and by her mother she becomes untouchable.
And we live together outright, as man and woman joined in marriage at a temple of Cybelle not as master and whore or trader and hetaera. Among Median rugs, Militis silk and the oil of a 100 whales we occupy a three-story walled villa that SanJan would have understood. Scribes, should we not read or write. Woodsmen call stag and boar-hunts every week! Burning black rocks fuel our fires. Food and slaves to excess should Artyphon have not retained our early morning gymnast torture.
Sinopes venom transforms. Rather than killing our court breeds scandal for a savage race to feel a traders subtle rejection. Talk starts immediately, to say negotiations though , an awkward speaking of family with a mother who had condemned or a brother who had tried to produce Artyphons death. Anyway my attachment was nearly more than I could either bear or admit.
Afterward Artyphon found reserve to her happiness. “Freedom , so say the wool-carders,” she scoffs. But robins eggs could not now match the skys clear blue or her emerald falcon eyes flashing. “You have of me what you wish , both mind and body. After , but a month of freedom, I should bind my soul again to slavery and and woe to the trusting woman you would take it? For shame … for woe … comes the lash for a womans gentle yielding , while a wound festers for a womans vengeance ….”
Hyrkon as Parthian wives were of-course their husbands property, though by custom held to a gentle binding. Toward the end there comes much celebrating, at a temple dominated by a huge bronze torch and banging of cymbrals whenever Artyphon and I quaff our last ale and leave arm-in-arm for sleep.
I knew Japhes Armenian friend Mythros favored my end at the beak of Trojan galleys and as partner trusted to me only seventy barrels of cherries ; last year I'd mentioned his name and cargoes to a blue-toned Pic raider who years before had rescued my Gaulish lateen from an ice-floe north of Jutland. I had been a damned fool to sail that far north for one sack of the gray metal ore; he had a whale size longboat and yanked me free. I returned twenty copper ingots for my crew. If he “taxed” one of Mythros vessels I would not cry.
Artyphon in her sixth month has finally taken to her confinement. How she hated that phrase. Twas a battle at first, with the mastmen gathering thickly about her when she dared anything above the sprint-sail yard. I dare not forbid her from her own ship, and she always complained about loose-knotting amidships … crewmen would hand her down to deck-plank kindly as it may be with her squirming swollen belly used like a shield against well wishes.
“Unhand me, ye devils lest my strength turn to mush and my wild male child contrive to a suckling Corinthian Greek faggot!”
She first among my crew to call Spartans and Corinthian Greeks. She said Mary-of-Genoa had advised such, as she advised teaching all children to write and figure. How she knew or why she accepted I do not understand - - either of wisdom or sex - - but the Sinope wise-women in the mountain guild of her refuge assured me Artyphon carried a male child. And armed with gilt-silver swords swore me off the mountainside till our childs second month! Were the gods angry? Are they now? Artyphon and I slept together that last frosted night … clutching dearly for all love for such are summer nights on those rocky slopes … and I felt the child kick like a camel in heat.
Many women die giving birth … and many newborns die as well. I will not think about it. Not think! Instead I would act! I will trade the two great rivers on seas north coast. Without Artyphons wisdom and flesh beside me for the next five months I choose that great risk, to play the long game trading riverside among the most wealthy and careless of cultures - - the Scythians. I would earn by daring a fat prize for Artyphon and my son and a crew solidly behind my future plans.
“Your white Cretan ass, trader will end up in dog-fish jaws. That’s what Japhe fears,” comes the first of Quinc many curses before taking to his hammock below.
NaziBu must sacrifice a doves broken breast to the flaming arrow. Japhe shouting over the water. “Stay in Trapezius, trader. Worry my sister from her Zorast heresy. Honor the gods, bring children to our city and cheat the Byzants.” My Belisama tarried not, in its outbound path and you cannot make out among faces bunched thick and misty on Japhes hammer-cut mole.
Parthia slips away while all that ferment appears as the present; who denies a mans family becomes his present yet with the sizzle of wet hull upon water the Belisama rushes south. “I'll buy back the cherries at half-cost. Your father can buy back your bony carcass from Illiums gaols,” Mythros called out. He stood beside Japhe ... in my glass watching our sails fade … “Artyphon will take the widows purse and marry a mountain child. Or me. ”
Now I Captain Belisama out from the Trapezius habor on a mission of trade. I have the horn. “Two months brother, and shall we return.” I had taken to calling Japhe brother after he tossed a flaming-mad druid priest into a barrel of sour ale; priest of Ya’veh he had demanded Artyphons left ear in penance … penance for insulting her family. Penance? Do right and the gods will not demand a Greek bribe!
“You favor his shopkeeper side, Cibias. Nature groans! Parthians are warriors first.”
“Belisamas deck you stand on warriors after Her holds have paid by exchange. Trade pays for honor! Hyrkon carries that wisdom from its Minoan blood. See the shark-fins? There and there …! Would you prefer swimming to the Chersonese?”
Japhes strapping half-brother Quinc stands beside me - - on the windswept quarterdeck - - struggling to get a leather strap about his streaming black hair. He curses Mars, dropping a hand-ax from his belt and mutters what a fool Japhe, his older sibling played by avoid rigors of Scythian trade. His arms flex! “He thinks noone should melt a savage to melt the gold within him!”
“Knitting … Japhe sticks to it!”
“What’s this knitting Japhe knows not a needle from ...” then he curses seeing metaphor above the spoken words.
I laugh. “Live unmelted savages buy more linen halters for their wives, and their wives buy more curried fish and dried cherry!”
“Shopkeepers lingo!” Quinc eyes me wary, spits then spits again. “Next Japhe will want his name stamped upon your child,” he snarls at me. I watch the newly thrown mizzen take its place among the sheets well tightened by the heckling north wind. Bow wave rises above the sprintyard. Though the Black Sea like the Mediterranean is without tides - - unlike the frost wave oceans beyond the Pillars, or those between India - - yet local swells may form from rivers in flood. We have that now, a point east and our tiller-men fight the sway.
I breath deep .. it’s a green breath. Summer mornings Black Sea winds blow from the pine forests and Quinc needs a better mood. See no mans lack that being most untraderly; yet he for adventure, unlike most of his merchantile family and damned be second.
His leathered elbow slams my side and I twist away. “Adventure never follows far behind a trader … and your sister approves. Crew about the quarterdeck chuckle in agreement and Quinc must satisfy himself with a quaff of ferment and amber bowl of hashish.
Did he mean living jaws or dead ones? Jaws of the long thin greys whose dorsal fins haunted our wake, or jaws sitting on a hetmans gold-fringe fireplace … or jaws gracing a Thessalonian limepit … or jaws above a Trojan hetmans doorway … they patrolled the Black Sea too, but without determination other than rolling bones. I am thinking how many. An Egyptian water-jug full of petty cur dukedoms sitting beach-side and sniffing the seas refuse. Dammme … I wave back to Japhe totally invisible among the mists . You don't mock a comfortable barbarian because his couch is bearskin not silk.
I turn to Kalicratus standing beside me. “ He's right you know. Any of them will bite our ass, that is, whomever has long-sticks this month and sharpe hulls in the Chersonese fog banks.”
Kalicrates must have been reading my mind. “Not like flogging raw seals to nekked bog Welshmen, is it Sur?”
Many idlers have gathered round taking interest, as the trading promised great wealth to even the common bildge-pumper. I snap at Kalicrates. “Where do you see a threat arising?” May Baccus piss sour wine on the clever cut-throat lot. I wished a clean break returning west, such a before and after break as we had not found coming to the Black Sea. I say, “take a turn on that line around the starboard fore-sale block, will you now ...” It's like that when you sail away. You focus on small details and polish them to a shine that blinds. You cannot then see the big loses.
I look for cover. From Trapezius we joined a sardine-buss fleet traveling east as far as the Caucas headlands , seen fisherman and a long-legged Gaulish trader sailing an Egyptian bumboat, but in four days sail along the inner sea, none of the sharp hulls appear.
We take three weeks sailing through the fog-bound east. We dodge various black-skulled pirates from the Pontis trade … them, eastern fresh-weater misfits never seen a seal and the Trojans. Luck holds, or the Fates sleep; Aphrodite has blinded them, my entire crew agreed with a soupy Black Sea mist seeping in by day, and rain by night. By Zeus beard we broke knuckles to flog sounding weights and logs. Sardine fishers excepted, few hulls dared sail without the Goddess hand. To honor her we have slain a Caucus ram golden from his spring rut and sent gold-laced rich fat-smoke to Aphrodites blue sky-bound fields. It seemed like the sacrifice of a hundred years. Then near the border of the Chersonese swamp we had to pay an entire camped-out village to pull the Belisama off a sandbar.
That pulling took a week … and weeks or years, smoke brings company and company women. Women brought the whole highly pissed off tribe from which these villagers had formed a fishing companion. My ass was no longer white after swimming in the Chersonese for a two-weeks while we bartered cannibal Scythians for my first mate and a toehead pagan woman, being Nykodemes and the daughter of some local wagon-king. The Scythians are wagon people and the daughter fucked like a Carpathian sable. Nykodymes swore so caught romping naked with the girl in a Varnian bog.
Savages prove far from stupid! Deal or else, their hetmen say. For the Kings gold of which the bastards were not too savage a cannibal nation to measure by the pinhead we got as well twenty pots of transparent milkweed and horse-foot glue. A woman may fuck out your brains, but papyrus sheets must be glued as well as stitched to their hemp spine. No comparison. To Syrian paper-makers it was worth a harems only virgin or four ingots of zinc, or a glass and bronze tool for reading small angles.
“Drill those young eyes into the horizon, boy and call when you catch the first flash of sail.” The boy was eleven, his first voyage under the tradesman staff, full blood Cretan. He had taken a Bzyant arrow in his shoulder, one month before.
“A bird sar,” shouts a top gallent lookout. “Making along our trail sar, but its falling falling ….” into our stern-race and a dogfish jaws.
I slide down a mainmast shroud to the quarterdeck. “Fuck was that?”
“Peregrine … with a darted wing. Brave bird to fly this far from its nest; a warning lost,” pipes ol’ Tar.”
Too busy to care … I clamp a bollard, for pitching over and groaning that mess-of-rope unraveling hemp mistrands like the Fates unwound and whips my face. Wind briskly on the starboard quarter. A rope-boy swings over to bind and tar loose ends hanging above the sharks dorsal fin and hungry bastard at that so I’ll promote him to the stern mast-yard next watch. Our shit has killed more than one hammerhead.
Lines taut … oarsmen just turning out of their hammocks. The smells of hot coffee, and hot ale, bread and peaz porridge flowed from the cook-fire. Navigator, sailing-master and steersmen had clamped to safety-lines, at the binnacle and were comparing papyrus maps. The east Black Sea bitches-a-chop in perfect weather with an eastern wind; reefs and shoals leering out from the mainland like so many teeth waiting for Thessalian wind to catch you a-lee. Watches changed; steersman went to the bow-rail measuring water depth , and mastmen our hull speed. Larboard the depth weight flew out – sunk to the bottom - returned sticky with deep-laying sand and was tossed starboard.
“Smoke Sur, smoke two points east on the laboard bow,” came down the shout from our crowsnest.
“Apamea, Cap'tan,” said Hekateas , “a Hittite town with two walls and a garrison. I’ve traded there before”
“Indeed so? Council?”
“They had the marks!”
“Damme never heard of it. Why should it smoke?”
“Why does any city smoke that smelts iron ore? They fire the smelt with burning black stones not charcoal, which stones they also mine. It's hot as Hades asshole so the iron pours free.”
“You worked there?”
“Iron-monger for a Sidonian Jew. He traded for Syracuse, till the Latins found him out; we escaped together with robes and daggers on a log-raft meant for Tyre. You would think the wood waterlogged on such a plunge, but the desert grows no trees worth cutting for the copper mines. ”
We claw north for two hours till the city appeared wide and clear. Flames appeared leaping over the smoking walls. On one side wooden ramparts had built up and scaled the defense. An ant-like swarm of movement surrounds the walls. One siege tower burns while another has broken through the cities revetment. No attacking ships in view, but they might have been beached and covered in pine. There now could only be slaughter.
Hekateas swore. “It's all feckin-A gone now ain't it. I never worked there, Captain, not at those sweat box ovens where the oar gets limed and mixed and heated. But, as I say the city is Hittite and Spartans weren't happy with their producing iron swords. I sailed with a cutter that smuggled those iron plates down to Militus where the armorers can make the blades.”
“I would think the Hittites and Trojans being brothers would be tight.”
“Not when they compete for the same land and cities. They both burrowed out of the southern desert, so brothers they may be. But, the Hittites can't handle the Assyrians who fear Babylon phynix they have destroyed it twice and none think themselves equal of the Greeks except Carthage. Is that clear?”
Pisses me off! “Have you ever fucked a Gaulish whore, brother? They soak their cunt and ass with steamed flower-sap and you can’t tell one petal from another! Let’s send in a scupper to taste the ash, this burning city smokes,” I say. “Cunt or ass … what can’t be true is always very interesting!”
“Danger sar, danger … From the downwind angle, Sar,” nags Tar and he’s right.
“My sword is yours,” snaps Quinc!
Faelon signals the burning town, and the tillermen reposition our course two points west. Less than an hour underway the winds full belly brought us lined-up to the city . We had made chart-over-chart on the way in. Mast-mates counted knots as the line reeled by. The first number came up. “Mark five.” And a second, “mark six.” From the weather-vane and pendant I figured the wind for mark nine.
The depth came back, “four hulls and sand.” Our loaded hull now sat ten cubits below the surface and that again for the keel. I gave the problem to the rope-boy who looked sad immediately. But, Tar had tutored his numbers. “We sit two hull-depths above sur. ” The sail-masters chart said three.
“Ten khets larboard leeway,” called the sailing master, seeing me come to the navigation table. He had set all good sails; the sky above-deck was alive with the swell and stretch and snap of fine-woven Egyptian cotton. A rocket fires off above the town, exploding in a fanshape green pattern which may or may not have been a signal for our attention. I remember a thin Jewess and her olivewood whore-house in Utica where fountains bloomed from sand and green …
Matters attend quickly. The wind turns offshore, so we can jiffy close to the thin harbor: two bowshots. It's ney trick for a salty boyo. With sails fore and aft we tack shoreward, wind against our boom till that last second. "Put yer backs into it," screams Nikko the white haired northern Gaul, fisher of sole till we took his young sister in trade ... a bronze hair beauty and returned her a virgin. His family exchanged this rude, red-hair brother.
"Mighty heave ye prissy bastards," he squawks in a harbor Egyptian unknown beyond the docs! Boyos flatten against deckwood as across the bowline near right-angle sweeps the 20-armlength oak boom. Belisama groans, jerking it head like a horse turned at full gallop!
“Launch the scupper,” I shout. With foreboom thrown across the bowsprint and canvass snapping like ballista gone mad its piny strakes leap from the stern with twelve study shoulders behind it. Oarsmen sizzle down ropes and pin the scupper, while before crew complaints rouse my guilt wearing , but archers light chest-leathers I jump to the steering oar beside these six sturdy rowers. Unexpected, Quinc well-armed has jumped beside me.
Scupper wallows in the hulls trace ... the suck yee know between hulls ever-so-small or large. Slammed about I shout again. “Pull yee bastards away the Belisama she-cunt; sooner we lads in and out the better. Head for that right-side mole .. it’s the only dock not burning.” Water boils about the oars and more heads and crossbows appear at the shoreline.
Dogfish jaws chew at a raft of bloody floating corpse. One mans conical helm remains fixed to a bobbing bearded head -- a warrior of Carthage. Two fat squat bodies hang from a mole-post. Neither wears armour, but one frozen fist still clutches a curved long-bow. I've seen the style, a years trek into the eastern grassland!
What fits? Putting the glass to it I can make out … trey-of-hearts seen by a gambler. Seen ... I cannot believe the neck-mail or cities brazen shield-marks …
Rowers too are frozen, their short-spears lay at their feet. A shield appears above ... its bronze etched snake, dolphin and bull. Only two more pulls; our scupper nicks mole-posts and three men above throw us a ladder-line. Willing hands reach for ours. "Damme .." I knuckle my fist in salute ... for two bronze-beak and bloody-handed warriors I meet atop the sticky pine posts are … Didikas and Yadini."
"Zeus beard save ye brother," eyes aflash cries my whoring partner Yadini." Didikas stern, ruby-crusted fingers gripping his blade and eyes a-scatter. They fly at me each jamming silver hash-pipes between my teeth and pounding my shoulders with their sword-hilts.
"Stern friend at your back," snaps Didikas admiring a warrior breed. Yet he's too busy for greetings. Quick at nuts he makes query the rowers. Names tumble and swiftly turning the blades against Quinc mail armour King Minos sons slice bronze-chain with steeled iron and bloody-handed run him through!
"Hot work here brother," chimes Yadini cheerfully wiping gore from his sword blade. On orders his chief swordsman lights a torch signaling Belisama. "We feared the shades snatched you in Sinope, or failing that on a dark nights deck! Feared you would not join us alive?" He has already helmed and formed our rowers into his own guards unit. "But Didikas knows more!"
Didikas restraps a knee-plate. "I know the villians name Quinc. Did the birds not reach you, Cibias?"
"One dead within our view, but we could not rescue its message! How long father King would bury you in dark Egypt I had no idea -- how long or why!"
Straining:"Father King wastes little time, his or others as he feels a form looming orhead ... like a new icewall. Thus my stay among hooded ruby-merchants. I learned shit, Cibias of living or dead."
"Who are the strange ones," I say pointing to the stubby, fur-lined bodies."
Didikas laughs loudly, points to the strange mix of Greek, Phonici and barbarian bodies scattered along the mole. "My ideas of strange have grown beyond my mind! Here, all killed all," he spits. "Is such strange?" Two of the ruby rings on his sword-hand are shattered. "Way fecking-long in Egypt, but that's King Minos weight on his son." He embraces me. "I've understood whatever lives long enough becomes a kind of death. Join our heart brother, Yadini and mine for Hyrkon must not choose that path!"