“With enemies yet scattered about us, how far do we scout?”
“One picket line routs the enemy assassins, another at a days ride marks stragglers and yet another two-hundred woodsmen further ...” Yadini hears as well as I. “Perfectly good stone-bedded watch-towers if they be manned. Who wouldn’t, eh Cibias? Can’t expect Don swamps to keep the Berzerkers out forever.” I didn’t know Don … a River likely and Berzekers came in all races as sour rye flourishes. Insane!
“The short fat ones, them from the long grass steppes?”
“Same steppes. Fat shit, Cibias hard as Spartan nails. Horse riders, them and stretching longbows from head to toe and arrows length of your arm. Shoot from the saddle and slit your dick in three pieces!” The fighting has long ended, smells of gore damped away, yet two bruised and bloody young men from Didikas inner picket cannot stop vomiting.
Neither officer nor royal hector them. “Have your men shields.”
My sailors error. “Our twenty hoplites yes; the rest pitch and carry what shows up.”
Didikas shakes his head. “Set up a search party … the dead Greeks and Parthians all had bronze-bossed units tall as a man; the Berzerkers used leather and fur layers. Work fine against swordsmen, but the steppe arrows plunge right through. Guess they don’t give shits about body defense when they have a striker longbow like that.”
“I’ve seen a few … men and tendoned bows, but the Chersonese is Mycenii territory, them and a few bastard Parthians. New Greeks every year, if you believe the Sardine fishermen. Scythians always bitch about stone-cold Greek women not rabbit-assed savages.” I grab an offered slice of crisped sturgeon. Damn good even without sauce. “Short on encouraging new settlers, the Mycenii adventures, but for slaves and gold and these long white bony fish good trading partners. Soon as I collect enough I’ll try to ferment the mash.”
“Ha! Damn your food alchemy my friend. Might have been that way … the trade and may be that way again, but for now no longer!” Yadinis arm swung north-to-south and the evening cookfires. He and Didikas had brought the entire youth raise of Hyrkon and might have formed up 1200 hoplites and as many bowmen. Near 2500 men if you count the wounded. Yadini grunts. "Even as we moved with Mercuries blessing we still proved a tardy savior to these Greeks!"
"Hyrkon Greeks savior?" I mutter without irony. "Fates planned our journey and fortune this arrival." I grip his shoulder. "Cybelle praise we fight together!"
"What have you for the pot," he asks? I think about who floats a sailing ship. We walk further … the destruction calls us: here a torn temple and there a shattered ceramic public bath. Blood , bones, gore, torn limbs scattered among the low rolling 15x15 stade spread of sandy bog.
"I can arm and feed seventy-five men for a month ... twice the number if we fish!" I look to a century-old line of broken olive trees. "Assuming Belisamas skeleton crew ventures no storm or enemy raider."
Dydikis nods his head, finds a grim distraction, then ... “The Jew Ben-Lavi saw revolt - - as if men are entitled to peace - - but Council agents ... and King Minos ignored every loss and warning. Athens traders came running to Council claiming their ships no longer had access to Apamea or their trading posts east and west. An overland camel-train was slaughtered to the last hump! First the Greeks, then Syracuse, Ithica and bloody isthmus potters. Nobody bitches like Corinthians without a new butt-slave.”
“There," I exclaim comparing small matter to large, "… a busted iron oven. I kick at the rubble. "Apamea had eleven hand-crafted - - melt the balls off Zeus, but see! Feel how attackers hated builders!" Destroyed, damme all of them with stone picks. Lifting a fragment. "Here's an ax-tip blunted from chipping away the hard outside stone."
Dydikis queries. "Have you ever make steel?”
"I know something of it.
Inside the triple-baked light firebricks render heat enclosed without crumbling.
A man born healthy will die before such are replaced …"
"Something like melting glass!"
Near another ovens ruin I bend to pick-out a brass ring and iron foundry value … the ratcheting fit that allows oven-melted iron to flow away from trapped slag. "This Dydidkis! A strong and steady-handed mechanic might use three months to make one this melon size.”
“All can be rebuilt!”
To believe joyful, but evil to ponder. “Perhaps … never built such complex workings, but pour a mold? I saw a Tin Isle woman pour and burnish an iron dagger long as your arm. We four slaves worked the air-pumps from morning till twilight, before pure metal melted from the iron ore. When she worked the blade clean I stripped the leather apron from her ass and fucked the blade out of her hand ... for a satisfied man to escape a woman is no small chore!"
"HA you whore-mongering bastard," Dydikas howls. “Most Hyrkons lie!” My brothers and their aids roar at the story, laughing wine spilling between their teeth. The story both true and false I still bear the scars … . Smells of roasting fish draw our return; dark Dysis rushes upon our camp. Two dirty-blonde haired Gauls size of vinagar barrels and swinging iron broadswords followed behind Yadini.
"Frow'ard sorts ... they don't smile at me.
“Think you’re a Corinthian faggot,” snarked Yadini, “cause you wash your hair.”
“Posiodons rotted crotch! Sea-brine teaches quickly." Among others I wonder. "When did the Berzerkers get free?”
“Better question, Cibias ...” Didikas drops down beside us from a platform six-arms above. He had washed and carried fresh bowls of ferment. “When will we meet them. This melee can only be a start!” Two of the hooded darkmen take Didikas back. No skin no face just glowing red eyes in the twilight. I had just got back from Egypt, after a fighting retreat from Thebes.” He chewed on his lip for a moment … finding words … then “Nasty business, that where jewelers mercenaries and Pharaohs grunts fought in a line of 20,000 , bronze blade to crocodile-skin shield.”
“Thought crocs were sacred, lambs-of-Ra like cobras and … and the hooded men, untouchable also.”
Didikas silenced. Then … “All in their own way still are sacred. Use the croc-shield, wear croc-teeth around your neck." He grins. "You know first-to-the-Quay offers 1st coin ... I caught a two-mast Rhodian trader heading west and flew home. Brother Yadini and his wench were waiting at Hyrkon with father Kings orders.”
Romancing ... “I have found true love, Cibias.”
Didikis sniggers.“His new Trojan love fucks like a Pontian weasel. One of Paris sisters! But, more later. When this business is stable.” We all had our shoulders against a huge oak post beside six other setting it plumb while four Egyptians squared cross-bars. "Heave mightily ..." and slots fall into place. Dydikis flexed his shoulders breathing heavy. “Father had departed, with a boatload of Hyrkon silver doing politics - - creating a new seat at Council to balance the gold-plated Indus bastard who won’t eat a cow - - politics mind-you at some Latin shit-hole called Rome where the streets are paved in pitchy cow-turds not rock. He says their population doubles every three years not like ours! Zeus beard hope father rules forever rather than taking some heavy-titted milkmaid up into green birch-bound hills and dropping the throne on my head! Can you see me trying to buy off … ”
Impatient … “So here you didn’t fight the Greeks.”
“Tis a Greek, Parthian and Scythian town. Fuck each-others wives like satyres and slave local men to the diggings! Lax in their success I think!”
“A walled city rolled by raiders? Not likely!”
“Believe what you see and take a lesson; no shy assassins these horsemen!"
Querelus. "If not stealth, Dydikis, then what gave rude horsemen the city?"
"I repeat what survivors claim. Grass-land warriors had taken walls and commons before we arrived. But, our agents birded us from their keep; they told of a Cerulian temple whore leading flowered carriages ... iron-bound beneath the flowers and when up close lunged for'ard crashing the main gate. Packed thickly, heavy armoured warriors emerged and this column fought inside. Outside horsemens arrows roamed the walls picking away defenders.” Dydikis stripped a patch of gore from his hip-pad. “Signaling us …. the last thing our brave agents managed before ladders breached their heights and long-blades overpowered their dirks! Fighting bunched together they were to a man slaughtered !”
“First throw to them; but, gymnast you hit them fast!”
“Only way! Knowing confusion lorded after the battle we came in at night. Local sardine fishers impressed , but willing drove our Rhodian galleys right onto the beach; surprised the bastards cause drunk or wounded they started bleeding before they awoke. No different than other men without their horses, and without 400 arms of distance to shoot their long-bows. We broke through their picket with a phalanx of spears. Then up close our ballista held that middle, while light-armed wings and our few cavalry squeezed their flanks. Not used to that, a wandering warrior tribe and when they grouped for protection our fire-slings cut them to willow-shoots. Do it again too when the time comes.”
Counting on the same mistake from a powerful enemy .. I say nothing. We have walked the Hyrkon picket, doubled the guard at two points where the bog deepens into a watery trench. Thorn-bushes line the water, but determined thick-skin warriors could try forcing the gap. Look-out posts at the perimeter have been raise to twenty arms, and fire-arrows carve obscure paths through grey sky. Toward the center of our camp some of the town remains unbroken. Surgeons occupy such a rocky outcrop. Beside them we take the highest and most sturdy long-room, where opium and hashish muffle the screams of cutting, and sour rye comforts in frenzy those slipping away. Hyrkon has lost sixty men and war council is set beside the wounded. Those able listen in anger, while those planning measure their strategy against the pain of loss.
Twenty officers sit about the fire drinking warm ale and hard cheeze wrapped in the last barley loaves. Yadini has unraveled a wall-size parchment map. A sailor marvels it’s detail of the Caucus and Chersonese lowlands … a remembrance comes of Artyphons skyview treasure, but silence and discipline dictate. Rudely detail stops at waters edge: what cares a hoplite of shoals and sandbars ... new armour, cross-bows and blades have come from the ships. Warrior up bastard.
“Six-hundred beyond our arrows. Twas a raider party that did-in the unprepared Greeks. That’s why they couldn’t hold broken walls once taken. Hard to take a wall ...” Yadini eyes his warrior band. “But two days trek … or if it rains three days Greek scouts we found hiding in the brambles count nine-thousand marching beside Sea of Assholes. Ten times as many horse-warriors wait behind them; wait for a success that promises their efforts are worth the ride!”
“Certain of the numbers,” I carp?”
“They counted fires. Assholes were sitting in the mud! How many fruit in a pod of cherries?” A harsh laughter dancing on lips goings round. Dydikis sketches a defensive formation on parchment. “Those wandering grass-landers number as locusts number …. and can match Egypt phalanx shield for shield. Marching for Hyrkon gold and blood, like they marched on the Mycenii. They couldn’t do it - - untutored horsemen - - but somebody built them causeways across the quicksand and sucker-pools.”
“Bastards can fight and ride, but they can’t walk on water!” I don’t believe many have ever been inside a boat!”
“A mud-puddle stops them? Wait till it dries, if ever they might come.”
“You’re a sand-lander Cibias, though sailor ye be! These Chersonese bogs run from the earths center to cloud-tops. Despise them not for a sudden deluge may wash away kings army. Count them not fools of caution ... patient they wait for a raised pathway.”
“Waited? Waited on a promise ? Who has skill, time, silver-coins, authority and the men?”
“Somebody patient. Can’t do that building in a week! Somebody with gold to burn and a god that likes the smell of flesh!”
“Working locally, then.”
“Money to work anywhere. Who else, Cibias, but Parthians bought and sold by Carthage! Who pays the Parthians? Answer who gains by a horde of Berzerkers crashing through the Pontis into the north of Greece and you have the answer. Your pal Quinc was a paid Carthage agent - - so says the pigeon-code our peregrines intercepted.”
I think Carthage … or Assyria! “ Birds saying what?”
“Was a simple letter substitution code. Orders to have you killed and your damned round-nosed Belisama disabled or destroyed." I returned the decoded cotton sheet to Yadini. He grinned. "Even making port, your reputation as Hyrkons man threatens; powers feared your intrusion!”
"Hyrkon intrudes," I spit. My heart hammers ... counting among my most trusted. I leap at fractured yard before canvas shreds. “So assume my slaughter, brothers royal intend stopping them with 1200 hoplites?”
"Yadini swears on Cybelles tit you can strap-to-bed two hetmans daughters while dodging his guard swordsman! We never counted you dead." Didikis pondering carefully. “On our own count 400 Syrian cross-bow. Count Trade Councils hired three companies of Byzant mercenaries … only a half-day off-shore they were very impressed the way you sunk both pirate rovers trying to board. Never hate an enemy you can buy! Then ninety Lesbian slingers working their own galley! They claim you as village savior and brought potters fireballs. Cod fisher and whalers straggle in … and sardine men, all able with harpoon and grapling hook. We shall get 300 of them at least.”
“Worthy values, Didikas, and salty boyos should steppe horsemen take to dolphin.”
Laughter comes forced. “Eighty Mycenii come from Byzants, sixty from Amphilocus leaving Paris in peace to fuck Helen yet another month … if indeed she be with him. Zeus beard can you imagine fighting beside Greeks?”
Yadini wipes his smile then proposes: “Plus another 2200 slingers, archers and darters that your woman Artyphon has sent from the mountains north of Syria. They march overland.”
That rocks me on my heels. “Artyphon recruiting warriors? Parthia, then plays no simple Carthage buttboy. Factions must abound ... yet Cybelles grace Artyphon rests birthing my child !”
Didikas worries his own secrets. “She is as much father King Minos agent as you …” Didikis voice falters unwilling to accuse me of court assassin. “Her own bodyguard of twelve hoplites will lead them!”
Face flushed … I must have been; anger too squeezing the handle of my dagger. “I served father ...” for a man must serve his race. I have no words ...
“Fear not brother, and may any guilt fall on we three together. Cut my arm if you must ...” And waits … he passes over an amber hashpipe to my hand. It’s Alreks … Didikis smiles. “Why did she pick Zeus-forsaken snow-bound rock as a retreat for her birthing? Why, if not for hungry mountain shepherds with a kant for battle! Of-course her Hyrkon slave also was Minos agent! Deadly in her own way and able to casually hide Hyrkon electrum in her mule carriage. Smart slave … what did Artyphon tell you? Pah … a woman can tell her husband any damned thing!”
Late that evening hundreds of Don-River Russ stumbled into our forefront pickets. Whole red-headed villages staggered through, wounded carried by the bloody and pregnant women by their eldest daughter. Of able men there were but 95. Hetmen from two villages were among that number: damaged goods indeed, as all men living had fought not to die. Even far to the north, where rock ledges hemmed in the great river Steppe berzerkers had enveloped them … like a game it seemed.
“Where have your southern brothers fled,” japped Didikas we three being called to council from our tents as the midnight moon died. “Liege they stronger kings to the east?" Fear has struck them mute. "And since you flee where are your wagons?”
“Burned, like our villages. Are we seers? Can’t say about others. We have been running for a week to escape with our bones. Escape yes, them what was lucky.”
Yadini took a message from picket-riders and returned foul mood. “Noone have come seeking our aide … southern Caucus people. None came as you poor mongrels.” He didn’t like a cowards implication. “Some our pickets were bloodied beating off the rats that followed behind you.”
Again, the cowards implication. A red-hair growled some before spitting blood, that being pure blood of some warrior klan. “Taken to the mountains - - Captain. It’s luck of the village.”
“Battles won by fortune are fought by men!”
“See to our wounds, sar and see if we did not battle,” mutters a willowy-rapacious chiefs swordsman. “One-of-twenty appear before you. We trade as you do, rather than being ignorant sheep-shearers only. We know the others of our blood. They took to the high mountain crags … men of horse and bow won’t follow.”
“Not with you running before them that’s for sure,” japs Didikas. “Why fight, when you can shield behind our walls?”
“We did so find rest, on your cots when we had sable and mink pelts to trade and no ravaging horde followed us. Now we both pay for what neither wished to purchase.”
“And should we just leave you to their cannibal cages? Ha!”
“Cannibals they are not!” The Russ bit into his hash-plug and looked round the gather. “Not the Kimmerians anyway. They roil the Scythians, who jealously drive them out when too many maids are stolen … or fucked into submission as women so love. But, those Black sea wanders are just a part of the movement. Of the Beet people beyond them I know nothing, except they live on horse-blood and roots, for only the plant root will grow in such cold ground. Flit axes and arrow-points are the best they know. Mound dwellers, their pillars and caves reach from one hillock to the next traders claim out to the horizon. Should they join ... ”
Make-light I say. “Have you ever seen one enemy when two prowled the neighborhood?” Most scorn or scoff. "As allies join us expect not less from our enemy." I ask one of their old men . “You have seen more?”
He responds in gibberish Russ! “You seem like a savior, so I’ll tell what I’ve visited. Lightening bands of wanders roam to fringes of the great desert … Gobi the slant traders call it … and horsemen will dare the well-packed spring streams sifting like the Scythians for gold pebbles. Have to go somewhere … here! And if they eat us, next on the menu are your neighbors, your fellow tradesmen, your Black Sea sailing partners including the Parthians. After them, the Bosporus spreads open like a Marekesh whore legs and the joys of your sea will soon vanish.”
“What do you know of Our Sea?”
“A sharp-nose bowman, brow furrowed and shoulders like a Nord giant pipes away. “I have traded to far Athens and Crete, and to the temple whores of Lesbos!" He snickers, "tasty flesh-pits! I used them while exchanging amber, quicksilver and emeralds … a few well-cunted slaves. Men afar know your gold-etched temples and silk-tunic women. Know and lust for coin, women, land and power.” He blows a fat stream of fumes from a rude stone hashpipe. “ Eh my friend many know of the lux! Enjoy your green meadows and pastures high and fulsome. Joy them as yee may. They all will be meat for the chewers, if berzerk horsemen break through.”
“Greeks in Macedon nettle the forests and plow fields. They won’t allow savages passage.”
“Can’t imagine Astartes whores in horsemens rags. Asher Dan will assault their flank!”
“Our silver sticks like jellyfish! Our voices carry too many hollow threats.”
“Cook meat on their horses ass - - traders say so. A language without writing. Savages out of place.”
“Tempt not the wicked,” I chant into a drunk spearmans face. He vomits. "I mean strike hard as the spoken words!" A chaos of noise as more men of the shield-wall gathered near.
“What say you further far-striding Cibias?” Didikas and Yadini both had my eye.
“I fain not spit on a flower of Our Sea.” We needed to replace arrogance with anger. "Do we dare retreat after your bold advance?" To the Russ: “You say we must save Chersonese whoremasters, gird our mail and fight here!”
The heavy-torqued Russ swordsman. “Thick as cherry blossoms those bastards; if they have a god except pillage I know not which. But, not a god of foresight." He swills at an ale-flask. "With disciplined men I’d fight them over the Azoz marshes.”
“Twas lucky enough,” I say, “to see a Median mime fight assassins in the forests of Cyprus. Better there, than the Council chambers and bath-houses of Hyrkon. Better fight here than ...”
Yadini holds his armlet covered hand high into the fire-flame. “So also Dydikas and I have fought to keep enemies at spears-reach and our woman and land safe. But, have we chanted a rhyme, and picked time and place of rhyme to take on the horse-raiders? Mycennii I have enmeshed, but these ..."
I snap. "As they extend beyond their range so too their supplies and warfare become more strained, more easly ... conjured!"
Yadioni looks into the Russ faces and those of Hyrkon officers, then raises a feathered brush from his armed band and declares to Didikas. “Lead us brother, and allow our feathers to guide your decision.”
“Question to the staff, men of … of Our Sea. Do we believe these … these HUNS of the grassland threaten our temples and script and wisdom old as the ice-walls and in virtue certain as our virgin daughter!” Feathers fly. Didikas raises his sword. Six feathers of raven and two of white owl loop the steel blade. “Vote I declare among the warriors also. Cibias brother you do such on your sailing vessel.”
“On faire seas indeed and faire winds , but this storm rings foul.”
Dydikas ponders. “We may retreat into luxury … or gather curs from a hundred nations. Sleep for the remains of our day. So the wind now blows fair.” He turns to robe, tunic and sandal-trod common men about us. “Let no boyo be so clever as to enumerate the difference in numbers between the eastern reevers, their billowing force and ours tight band." Dydikis leather boots churn Chersonese mud." They are savage horsemen swinging obsidian blades. We are the steeled pride of Minos and his best allies. Numbers are a childs lesson and a womans fantasy. Let us instead think of assaulting the horsemen where and when they cannot use their horses or bows so freely. Where they are swift, so we retreat; where they become bogged let us drive a phalanx. Sheltered cowards will feel the scourge of our ballista! No flocks of bone-tip arrows will greet us, among the bramble, but wild struggle man-upon-man from feet to helm … blade to bronze mail ringlets and make courage decide who buries the dead!”
A few men start singing the paeon to Cybelle, but Dydikas breaks through. “If we beat them here, men of Hyrkon we’ll not see them again in our lifetimes. A far future of Our Sea may treat them as it may. But, now well may you buckle leathers and mail. Sharpen the blade and spear. Oil the bowstring and drive our stalking enemies to the muddy waste!”
So Didikas spoke taking the manly lead. Weight of failure, he also borrows against in this high venture. Perhaps seventy armed men had rose to circle our prime council. Each has a marker of sorts and the markers are gathered in an oak bucket used to mix our peas-porridge gruel. Nine are my sailors and steel up to the task with firm mouths and steaming poppy-bouls. Other men strain against their fears … few have voted before. Sixty and five black markers are recovered from the bucket of seventy.
A cheer resounds - - always the cheer before blood squirts from rheemed guts! “Tis a battle here, then brothers,” Didikas speaks, then looks at me. Three ravens from the three men who may one day sit on the dolphin throne. Snake swift and bull-strong we declare upon oaths to Cybelle and Dianna-of-North and to Zeus Deus. We declare upon this earth : deny horse-raiders their path to conquest.”
All gathered at that round share the bowl and pipe. One scribe tries to record all the names … sketches the most dramatic speakers … encodes a hymn and paeon sung by the voting warriors for Cybelles mercy. A female acolyte bundles the work in oilskin. Brave historian, that templed scribe; I think he later dies in the shield-wall, his woman & parchments lost. Think about it, fool. I count six-thousand men at most. Slim prospects for a war-tribe more designed to assault drunk pillagers, than an army meant to mass against an entire race hell-bent to their gods of terror. I slept.
Re-enforcements appear by land and sea and we feel strong. New officers are appointed. I have command of a spearmens wedge and its complement of archers, taking Tin-Isle longbow and hatchet as my own. We boiled and smoked meat before sunrise, then salted and stuffed pigs bellies till Helios lathered horses slept. We stretched and swam and slept for a day under watch of our Egyptian physicians; forming rounds of sixteen we drank barreled barley-wire and pissed like pigs. Another day Mars owned , we working armour and weapons; we picked then launched away two ships carrying men too tired, too sick or too wise for our undertaking … and those needed to record our fate should noone survive. At the last fifty chariots fight their way through the mud and join their Scythian archers to our light horse. Then under a cold, bright overnight moon broke camp before sunrise.
“We could all be sleeping beside fat-titted whores tonight, in Sinope.”
“If they did not poison us first.”
“Artyphon will sleep safely. Her maid’s a Spartan by birth.”
“Will these horsemen savages send everyone,” quipped Yadini of a red-bearded Russ axman riding his cover.
“Not if they fight like Scythians,” a Greek horse-archer opinioned. “And they do fight Scythians every spring.” He nudged a 12-hand chestnut mare up a bit closer to Yadinis hearing. “First comes a horde, on scout and picket and plunder. Then a battle-master leads the horde-of-hordes. Crush the enemies prime formations. Sow fear and distrust. And when they see victory certain a horde-of-horde-of-hordes led by the tent-king appears and washes away all that stood before them.”
“We saw the Horde,” snarls Dydikis. “Saw, advanced and conquered.
“Will a bigger force flank us?”
A husky tillarman, now mailed hefting oakwood darts. “Like a riverbank in storm. If our archers break early, before drawing first blood then the left-most shield goes down … and then next left … and the next ...”
Some pikemen from Belisama oarlocks. “Or if we gauge formations against the boarshead … and they ply the horns! Of-course if we guess wrong they smash our weak center and all is lost. ”
"Have we an army of generals," Dydikis snickers. "Woe be our enemies, when no opposing spearmen greet them."
"Fear not my lord we shall greet them bronze-helmed left and right!"
I have never feared a wise crew before battle, a crew who chose their odds and leader ... and their enemy! Do I wish to fight steppe horsemen - - I lead paeon chants! "Captains may find a literate crew reads accounts of Pharaohs victories. Not the destruction of Babylon slingers by Assyrian chariots!" Dydikis nods. I temper … “Their battle-master led horsemen will be a more subtle fight,” I opinion. “He’ll lose men before he loses a battle.” Then swig from the wineskin and its bitter sour-barley smell. “Be very useful to see him dead before their last swarms are launched.” I pass over the amber poppy-pipe. “Locate, target and kill the battle-master as he will not avoid the front ranks.”
Dydikis sees it. “Broad shoulders in the front rank. There Battle-Master earns gold-torque and mail so he can be a giver of wealth to his own hetmen. Have we an archer to take him down?”
None spoke. "After those bastards, then and may a lucky archer find helmuts of silver."
So landsmen sail to battle. We trek east into a silver slit of sky. Few speak on the trail and scouts rotate into the line. It’s a feckin-A bog our army enters, yet we step dry tracing a ridge-line nor-east; ridgeline; weedy stone turf; Cronos must have shit here running from Zeus his path not wide as a darts-field. Muffles our boots and hooves and wagons for’ard 90 stade where raised ground pitches for’ard to edge a muddy stream. We are men. Council calls gather into a sharp, brief conflict of wills.
Where Dydikis learned the method I can only guess the hooded bastards. Five men and I am one sit rugs about his wove-basket. A cobra-head appears above it’s lacing and weaves near outstretched unmoving hands. Two fangs, ten hands …. “Do we strike as a solid column, chariots, phalanx and archers one behind another in-line trusting to break through and out or … or do we form a kings bow flexing toward the middle with hard edged stingers left and right; horsemen the arrow striking plumb to the flex at battles very end.” Dydikis runs his hand over the cobras hood, has it’s neck snatched fangs squirting a sizzle of venom into our fire … and sharply snaps off its head.
“I will soul the risk you decide.” Some moments expect anything may happen.
Yadini passes on the hashish blowing a long thin stream over the open basket. “We ought bend like the cobra ...”
My hand steady turning to Dydikas face. “Yet supple, to snap like your hand!”
Dydikis smiles grimly. “Very well. Lochas defeat will come a-sudden. But, avoiding chaos fates willing we shall have two ways to find a victory.” His scribes writes orders on birch-bark passing them to each. Our ten hands cover each; oath and paeon are sworn. “Return to your commands, brothers, and may we fuck Cybelles ass till she begs for Juno!”
Mesembria thieves half the day. Before us stretches the flat eastern bog while above low thick pine forest murmurs evil. My officers sit on pine needles eating cold sausage and hard bread. Water puddles shimmer unbidden, and a Damascus armour claims his bronze shield rings true. “Gods play with humans,” I claim to much agreement among salts. To either side between hashpipes & wineskins idlers throw up a rude rampart of horse-hide, clods and rickety branches.
“What woman claimed your heart,” I ask Yadini working beside me.”
“A Trojan wench … young and restless and eager for life. Good family, but the black-wooled sheep. I found her at market, when our trader-band slipped in from the south with bronze hatchets. One look, one bowl of wine, one poppy-pipe and I pegged her to a grassy stream pillow all one week. Thereafter she follows me like a puppy. Keeps my cabin aboard my galley … you do the same I’ve noticed.” He blushes good for a king son to feel shame. “We will have a temple marriage, once Agamemnon is trounced. ”
I think at least one man has become happy and plans for two unlikely victories. “Where have you put the horse and chariots.?”
“North, Cibias to our left concealed among a high cropping of birch. I see this. As our shield-wall extends to the right, Berzerker horse and ax will try slipping the off-flank. They slide right … then our horse will release to crush their exposed flank … and if Zeus wills start a collapse of their whole line.” He pounds my shoulder. “Stand firm in the center, Cibias till the fates give us our chance!”
My lieutenants cheer me and raised hopes, seeing a commander who can plan as well as order. All rank of trooper feather our nest, sowing the frontal stream-bed with sharpened stakes, mixing horse-shattering stone carved cross-piles into the soil beyond, and sending watchers to the treetops. Never-you-mind - - aTop they do, but it’s muddy fields they spy from our boot-heels to the silver morning horizon. Four Spartans chose our van, and they sit burnishing faceplates and combing their long grey hair. Greeks will not die rag-headed in the rain. Enemy ranger scouts come prowling noon of the next day.
"Poppy and hashpipes are sucked dry as the last wineskin. Spartans and six pigtailed Hebrews feasted of sour-rye, and now kneel locked-together both mind and shield. Others vomit and shit as brave blood boils away.
“All shafts for’ard,” whispers the order that runs swift and true like orange ferment engaging our first ranks creeping toward slimy creek shore. The steppe-men pickets are prodding and scuffling under proud Helios zenith just three bowshots from the boarshead an equal distance to the U-shape package of horsemen.
Ragged lot, our hoplites agree, vague and lean eyed, though among the horse elk-antlers rise and between them flashes of silver and ivory horn. We let first rank advance to spear-toss distance from the pines, their picket four riders thick and two leagues wide about 500 men and our archers, darters and slingers let fly with a vengeance. Like Hercules falling upon scattered Amazons his anxious thirsty sword afore his sex they kill every other horseman to the last empty saddle. I can’t make him out, the Battle-Master, but he has found and measured us with one maneuver. Wailing and chants rise and fall as their drums and cymbals begin to roar.
“Steel her up, Kalicrates. Blood for the bird friend NaziBu.” My men, all the Belisama crew that ventured bearing ballista, and the longest most heavy spears and thickest armour and thus men least mobile hold the middle of our formation. Dydikis and Yadini hold the flanks. I say … Firmly … “Plant butts into the mud and the spear-points right into the horses teeth.” Whistling the desert song of pain enemy boarshead horsemen plunge straight toward us. Sun glitters from the sides of their half-helms; not the most poor bastards sent to the first-rank I think … get your attention … and in that instant of crashing sound and glittering violence promised thoughts rings clear … why both drums and cymbals?
Scholars meditate; I have meditated with scholars to find the number minus-one. Storm-surge cracks a yard and ropeman has, but an instants lunge to save both ship and himself. Imagining beforehand, I have clued my companions … and they follow my chant once shouted. “Horns see horns see horns ...” That is all I can do. Six-arm spears for’ard. Copper trumpets blare behind me; long-bladed whistling horsemen layered in sheepskin and raw oxhides approach the stream; we send a pickets volley and double returns. Horses prance picking way – among stones still hidden. I hear BARBARBAR their hetmen blaspheme such thin guards. Yet long-spears replace the pikes on many riders … they will pick-through the pines; try us men of silver torques. We have obscured their vision; my ivory whistle rings for flaming ballistas to sow their pitchy-fire confusion. Horses dash forward , their line a sickle a scythe a gleaner of wheat. And all screaming chaos reigns as warriors join in struggle.
“On your left Mykron!” Two men at my shield one high one low the axman behind me shatters one face and I prod prod prod the second till he backs into thrashing horse hooves and goes down in a splatter of white brain. “Thrash him thrash he bleeds ...” we both beat on a spilled horsemans leathers until we cut him altogether.
“Him still with the bow … dart him … there … see the blood … vastly pitched axman that head splits wide. He rises … arrow thru the neck he falls. Chop at his leg it’s bleeding … he’s down … Arg fuck I’m down … the mud SLAMSLAM will yer get that bastards ax away … humphum Awworr awry that arrow flight swatched them … again not possible this man he hacks so, parry, rip his hand ripped away he’s mine! BALLISTA ballista oh how the flames scream … HIM, Autocrates! Tripped fuck your feet . Slain at last … slammed … aside by a pair. “Shave-cheeks behind us … Kaia, behind … oh Kia away your head rolls afore-them spearmen. Spear-men YES! There see the Russ sortee slaughter them spraying blood. Pitch spearpoints to their faces ... ey .. ey .. their hatchetmen groan. BOTH !” Piece each below and above. Raise up the spitted bodies. “Back to your line!” Dead slash the other … watch and thrust again … shear of pain … Behind you Azki … grind him down Calista your sides bleeding, fetters he acts … twatck back off there I put a spear to him … parry parry Defdlorn thrust again. That one. He screams why does he scream so … step back hack thrust parry bend hack swung his shield BAETHCR away there’s the bloody armpit … dammme TAAT is down … watch that man with a blade scratching his spine … thrust thrust we watch his guts flow then … not, not my shield and again … fuck that bolt, got the metal gorget … owuee … back him up he’s down … the bolt split his brain ...”
Waist deep in the stream and jammed among three spear-dual I have the blood-handed wood ax. “Behind you Cibias!” The spear-point comes twirling at me, dripping blood. I twist, fall below it and hurl the ax-head at bare flesh uncovered, but for a skull tatoo. Gods sport metal skin; it sprays blood scissoring the thin body twain. “My ax!” And NaziBu lurches it from a tangle of gore.
Tis not a line-of-battle I’ve seen before. At the front slingers and darters and bowmen ply among the spilled carnage of horses and riders thrown by damaged mounts. Our hidden manacle of wood and stone births death! Cracked bone! Eastern enemy thrown down struggle for’ard, if not so damaged and finding a weapon; jogging among darts to reach our western swordsmen thrust for thrust. Disadvantaged by injury, time and weapon they die writhing, crying, pleading ... Ceberus howls Minos chant. Behind us, the fearsome row of long-spears waits unused. A van may rush for'ard, to a gush of blood then retreat unharmed. The polished bronze points meant for bloodletting have aught, but the screams of horsemen wounded and grunts of ax and hatchet hoplites to brighten their dealing.
My loudest shout. “Behind me boyos, archers taken ten, other five steps then kneel; set your feet.” As the stream fills up with horsemen dead, and new live riders dismounted, trodding over dead to attain us I feel pressure to retreat my van. Wounded have been carried away. Looking left and right I see other Hyrkon commands unbroken, but also also shifting men to the rear. We have few losses, good order and weapons primed for killing. Some carry better shields and short-spears. I have one! Just ten paces from our shield-wall we form up again prepared to accept the next wave of hatchet-armed unhorsed Berzerkers. Such I thought and most commanders planned.
Atropos weaves otherwise. Three helmed spear-thrusting horse warriors leap-the-slag , over the mound of bodies , through the muddy stream bank and thick bronze points to the most likely leaders. One horse thunders at four pikemen, while two align directly at me. Horses mailed face and the warriors single-slotted helm give no work to my blade. I will die under the horses hoofs how weak I feel shitting inside my mail waistlet before thrusting my 6-arm pike into the leading horses breast; his master tumbles into a Mykrons hatchet-head … that I see eyes askance and heaving with all my strength atlatl-dart to split 2-nd horsemans streaming silver slot and he becomes a blood-spouting unicorn turning aside and mindless dashing down the battle-line tearing away any riders before him till thrashing hoofs knock me tumbling. It’s like that. You hear and see nothing else about you how time becomes so long and the world tears at your life … tears like those winds on the Sicilian rockway years before I have forgot that lack of fear. Ardbenna do you listen?
Do the dead hear? Hyrkon men are singing the paeon. Spear-blades thud into flesh and screams of the dieing form a dark curtain separating others from now. Sounds become less, then again more .. returning. More fearless victors chanting in the old Minoan. Someone carries me. How shall I color these rainbow kaleidescope colors all round ?
I know when a ship rocks into a swell. Tis like a baby-bundle bow, amidships and stern first high then low before repeating. Hands coddle with poured wine; that also.
“The speared horse kicked him!”
“Can he speak?”
“Gruel and cherries, yes.”
“Spits out the pit eh …. well that’s Zeus blessing. Has he moved?”
“Oh yes, moved, walked limping below the quarterdeck, climbed to the main-yard … if he knew.”
“Body moves you say, but unaware?”
“He knows right arm, but not the left. An oarsmen works it every morning, works yet … Didikis physician says some men return and others … they just get weaker and drift away.”
“One of the sardine fishers said to freeze him. Dump him into barrels of ice … let him turn blue with the breath barely inside him and when as close to death as Ceberus fangs … cover his face and drag him into the sun.”
“Yadini signals-man just got his flags run-up. He said try it!”
“I know … that Don sturgeon-scull brought in loads of ice. Damn winter comes on fast in these northward climes. But … but shouldn’t we wait for our Lady Artyphon …?
Poppy-smoke. “Behind his eyes there sits a cave ill-lit, but scrolled like those of the elder Gauls and bright-painted.
"I've seen, NaziBu. Some say the Bogge worshipped them."
"Worship or create, Cibias I know not. He goes there ... and has returned afor this." Deep trembling of Tars lips as ideas miss words. Say finally. "Set us a shipmate for'ard, as yet any man has just so many good breaths.”
“Aye … bail the winch there right proper. That’s a lad. Run off … run I say ...”
Quiet. Tar-of-Avelon spits a hash-gob overside and covers his bare foot. “Ca’N Cibias would not wait. Three of us is plenty to see Cap’N along where-er be his next port.”
"Cup of warm ale and a canvas."
“That done. NaziBu will want a place … he’s closest thing to Artyphons warrior!”
“Tillermen have the ice and for binding an Egyption cotton wrap.”
"There noo Cap'N the ale's warm - - another seep from the hornpipe lays ye down proper."
“Don’t handle him so ... ; he’s … he’s our Ladies ...”
"Barrels of ice! Tis no cold'r Ca'N than Green-Isle Amazons."
“Then walk him up, lay him down and winch up a basket ; pull a tarp over the quarterdeck … damn-your-eyes pull the tarp closed!”
I think of the last time Belisama brought us round the Sinope breakwater, how the quartz-layed granite blocks shown gold into the evening sun. Cybelle worshiped and Helios adored! I see that gold sparkle! “Jiffy the foresail, yeoman we’ve a bit of wind off the hillside. Yes… yes, there she be ...” Artyphon was crying. She feared becoming so large I would never fuck her again. Our physician begged she eat an extra herring every night for her bump was all, but a secret! I often dream of cold. Cybelles price? Zeus beard the moles come on fast in short harbors. I must remember than should we sail small upon returning to town. Birds have visited reporting her birthing a male child and rushing about the villa , preparing it for my first visit. Noone told Artyphon of my head-kick, and visit to the land of many-colored silence. “Another turn ‘round that bollard. That’s a boyo. Hold till a whore sits on it!” A son .. what name? How shall I honor Cybelle? Artyphon believes fates wove about both she and I a silk-shield. That I slew the hordesmans Battle-Master and right-ye-be took a swim in the river, rejected a captured, well-titted wagon-princess and while the enemy ran smoked poppy till my ears grew red. The traitors among Parthians court ... I'll see to them! And oh yes birds again, the honored Assyrian King Asher Dan begs the pleasure of sharing our first child. For he also has a first and pipes-a-magic tune for her pleasure. Boy and girl … Perhaps he retains the mime who so enlivened us. “Elesedd, drop oars, roll the fore-gallent and main-sheet .. we'll have no rogue list to the lee!”
NaziBu and Kalicrates have told me the battle had yet a trick, after my drive to-the-mud! Didikis has promised to celebrate a festival with a wood-carved floor size model of the fight. Our scribes labor scrolls nightly … now, I understand this much. The steppe horsemen had indeed planned the horn; large hordes looped north and south. To cover this move they foxed a madding charge by their biggest horse into the center of our line. That center my van; we took that stroke with the pikes finally marching to an assault. And our warning shouts were heard. Dydikis and Yadini instead of strengthening the center split our light infantry and archers between them - - unexpected - - met the flank attacks HEAD-ON. Quick destruction found the Azoz attackers, especially on the north, where a surprise force of chariots and horsemen had already been hidden. The attacking left was shattered and the Berzerker battle-line collapsed from north to south. With the loss of their Battle-Master added in the grass-landers ran for their lives. I sleep.
“Pitch the anchors here, beside Didikis and Yadinis craft … look, both are waving so keep distance. Try not to smash their tender strakes hahaha... have a slinger gently loop vials of cherry-ferment to each ship; Kings service damme they must each have a catcher with net!” See how I caught fate wiggles my thoughts worm-of-wisdom. Artyphons glory in my luck! Woman believe such stories if told in high spirited wanton bard of myth. My real bruises will appall her, and seeing pain our morning gymnast will become seven tortures of Hades … I count on that. “Not another wine skin Kalicrates … well just a quarter … cherry ferment should taste less sweet.” Rope-boys … we lost three in the battle and unspliced hemp cords lay-about as duckling feathers. “Yes yes, Faelon. set a flag and wait for the buss. We’ll all go in together!” Of-course Dianna-of-North will call ... Venus chasing Mars in the spring sky … calling our return to Hyrkon. Months in port will have mastmen crying for canvas song and thrumming ropes.
Oh yes, the writing … Yes, here be the last line. Who I am. This vessel the Belisama, Captain Cibias Min honored brother of Hyrkon kings noting his declaration four years after the Trade Council made Him a badged member and two months after a defeated Berzerker Hun left him clawing for sight. Praise Cybelle for my crew; they now call for me. Patient beyond Arktus, Antares sits low in the south. I stand the quarterdeck writing Belisamas ship-log from Parthian Sinope: Tis Captains appointed history written in brown iron script, dates in redberry, but my signature in sea-shells royal purple as fates have allotted.