.......................Tales of Hyrkon: book 3 .... CYPRUS VIPERS
Chapter One

From screaming witch to whispering lover has the Lybian sirocco changed. Seven days out of Hyrkon  and the Belisama kisses  fair wind and silky blue water.   It rushes hissing and bubbling, polishing and lapping  along the hulls smooth teak drawing into Hesperis evening rich with the smells of lamb and bread and yew charcoal. Egyptian Topys brews a glassware of southern Nile  beans - - coffee - - fit only for kings or pigs and he tutors  aroma like a womans throat. Flutes whistle from larboard  yardarm.

We have sailed  six following nights lashed by sand-gritted gale,  a clutch of tillermen holding to the tortoise-backed curve between Hyrkon and Crete in a mist  of open empty black sea  veiling  salt-streaked Medusa eyes.  Malta lay  behind us, far nort'ard.  A hard academy, this patch of our sea sharpening   mast and oarsmen steerage, while  rough  swells have sealed the strakes caulking.  Such joins between  strakes  squeeze like a sponge, but much tougher ,  a brew of Ganges rubber and Berber sulfured bitumen, hammered cross-wise past mahogany ribs, the join will last till  Troas and Sparta exchange wives, or Hector removes his bronze-mail cod-piece and pisses on Achilles invincible  body.   But, this day at noon Mesembrias middle sun celebrated Adads  angry death,  cool Etesian winds from Macedons deep forests balancing African siroccos  leaving only the gentle west-to-east trade-winds. Sheets are managed by a half-crew while  companions sleep.  Sailor boys finds peace now, and in the slowly rocking hull Artyphons body needs wake me.  Women change you. Artyphon claimed my waist-dagger annoyed her belly, and so removed it, threaded around her neck , sheath and blade between her breasts. My complaint, her kiss.

Night approaching,  all, but the mizzen sheet have been reefed;  our oil-lamp swings from a claw.  A kings ship or wealthy trader would find the Captain and his whore struck mindless by ale and poppy juice. But, not a freely manned trader. Deck and sailsmen expect to hear their captains voice, and plans for the silver in their belly-bags. Here, a sample of experienced crew circle the quarterdeck listening to navigator and oar-master.  Even bilge-boys lift their ears as Teutor and Kalicrates explain their approach to the pinch-nipple bay on Cretes eastern edge with a belly of ease and  sharp limestone pincers enough to snip the Belisama in half.  Every man would kindle a fire. Thus attend my brazen venture, since our bay sits  below the Thrypti plateau and sacred, ancient  Temple of Dianna goddess of  Winter Hunt. Artyphons mage ( a cook and stargazer for us )  and talesmaker Kalicrates both believe the temple was built while the great ice walls still hammered and crushed north above our sea;  rounded pebbles and Baltic amber embed the temple columns.  Stories for a winter night I don't believe for  temple birds are common terns and storks and gulls not the leopard doves and panther sparrows most older Bogge tales relate. Wealthy I believe, oh yes, that and old or young as a woman may be. What can you believe?

“Sail days to Salamis after we refresh in Thrypti?”

“Must we survive a 2nd time  Bastets screaming bitches?”

“Sur, Rock of Storks?”

“Stork's a lucky bird loving nest and home. You prefer owls to rip your hair?”

Whale oil lamp swinging above,  my priceless annotated, berry-stained  parchment map of the greater Mediterranean below, Syrian glass and northing perched in a wooden rack ,  sailing experts jawing snips of wisdom between rounds of the hashish-pipe.  All eyes east, as Belisama bow splits Altair and Vega   and - -  from the surrounding dark - -    more shanks of kindling  bravely toss into the fire.

“Will we fight again sur, before our trading profits appear?”

“Will we fuck again boyo, before the  northern Pharaohs fermented fish are  delivered? He's gone to ground on Torkukt , a rocky Nile delta pleasure island surround by crocs and cobras. Southern Pharaoh stays away with his  hard-ass Nubian whores. Pharaoh will concentrate his troops at Torkukt,  awaiting his best chance.” I roll carved lions knuckles over the map. “ But his daughters marriage  to a Semite warlord calls for the ferment. Those barrels value at six silver minae per crewman.”  A  howling chorus of  cheers drowns out rude mercantile.

“Eleven Sur,  by Diannas bare ankle you threw a dowsy number! How does Rusa take to the married life?”

“Marriage ha! Heard she's quick as a falcon with weapons in both hands. Fought side-by-side said the physician who  treated them.” A lusty chuckle.  “Did he get one night or two? Ha haha ...”

“And just how ye rodger ropeman did that physician whisper from across the island?”

“Twas a bird whispered me ear, but the physicians voice.”  Rusa, cut, bandaged and salved  feels no need to answer. I think  one of the pidgeon handlers has got a message read before passing to me.

“And you Sur,  also templed not softening are we?  Traitorous witch dies before  ….  call it a strange passage. That's  fine as Nile silt, though certainly  boyos worship Artyphon and her medicines! Hard and soft a man may think of it, like the savage shores of Gaul and should the action always match the need.”

Polite sailors become dead sailors. I grunt. “Fine boyo, spit it out.”

Shuffling of a hemp-covered ass. “I mean sur, with a womans fire in his groin what need has he for the cold belly-flame of business?”

Damned by both pot and kettle, I throw a hash-plug in direction of the voice.

Tar I imagine with his Pictish shrill. “Our new rope-boy, Ajakas, farmers son and strong as his ox will he become permanent crew? He fought at the temple with ye earning Cybelles favor. But, what now,   a forge man perhaps, with  a full traders share?”

“How close was the vote, Captain, I mean Trade Council vote for your bonding? Did you really challenge the Carthage sea-snake to a duel, ship-to-ship?” Dark murmurs pray the Belisamas think bronzed keel  and carry the whine of defiance. I see Cybelles oracle given.

“No son of Minos believes, but idlers claim  you  fucked a chamois !”

Insubordinate, every question,  blasphemous or threatening sedition  against Minos best rule. So railed the glitter in Artyphons eyes and her hand unseemly slipped to my ivory handled dagger.  My chest still carries channels of her  painted silver horns. She straightens bruised tunic sleeve  and expects the worst.  'Dear Artyphon', I thought. True,  on any vessel a slave is not privy to such bickering. Blue water trading hulls mark an extreme case , with crew and officers single minded dedicated the the success of the trade and payment of  expense, bond, owners, wage and investors. All force being outwardly directed, against foragers, thieves and scandel-men. Such is a trader Captains power  and risk of blood that he needs neither officer nor flog nor Carian guard to rule his vessel. Artyphon shrinks from the uncertain and at night cries on my chest.

One day passes and  bloody Crete  rushes closer.  We have bent north and the DIPPER lay low in the newly dark heavens. Evening again, after a thin dinner of  oat pottage and fish. I am razoring the  thirsty point, with Teutors strop-stone, of a Messenian spear I retrieved from our battle off Sardinia;  olivewood shafts are rare and Rusa eyes the oiled wood  with envy thinking the  bronze head  will  soon drink its  fill.   Raider galleys  trimmed for speed  will blare copper trumpets  and send their hulls  of black pine heartwood  against us. Since fire rained from the sky, sea raider sails have blazed:  masts of ceder, yards of oak,  fat cut canvas and long sweeping oars of  untiring yew …  against well tempered darts and slings we'll  lose men.  Against  bronze fitting and a full  traders hold I count the blood price and my crew know it.

“Like this kind boyos,” NaziBu mocks them with a carved  model of beechwood strips, plaited then strapped together with woven sea grass. “The strakes, comrades  they must be tarred,  like this one and tar burns.” He sets the model on the smithies forge …  black tar seams smolder, then burst  flaming and spitting pitch.  A cave  opens in darkness. “Such be a raiders life,” says NaziBu pocketing the metal frame and flouncing from the foredeck.

Younger boyos ,  those  beardless optimists wearing linen shirts and  short leather  Sythian chaps raise the paeon and stalk cheering back to their stations. As if the golden goddess never bested Poseidon.

One rolling comber follows another as north and south breezes shear  swells  into stern waves  slapping the Belisama and hurrying us along.  “Sail … sail to the west Sur,” echos from both mainmast and mizzen.

“One ship twice or two-a-pair,” grumbles Mykron.  He's at the foresails, and if we're to run his jibs will do the running.

Belisama shoulders through a patch of  chop. Tillermen struggle. I'd put the sails fore-and-aft if time allowed, which it does not. “Do they follow, crows-man?”

“Can't see 'em for the chop,” the look-out returns. Pray it's worse for them. Then sudden a pawl of rain whites us out. No tiller no bowsprint. Mastmen strap to the yards and roll up  both sheets. Hail beats a deck tattoo, then Helios appears fast as He vanished. “Horizon clear Sur.”

Time and men had frozen.

Dianna warns me about time. A dozen men stand just below the quarter-deck and salute as I jump the stairs. These  are older sailors, those  leathered neck-beards wearing  full belted robes of Jason or cotton loincloth alone like followers of Ra  squatting under  wet canvas, smoking their jade pipes and rolling with gentle swells.

“Greek or Troas, Sur?”

“Priams boyos I'd guess, looking for cheap galley pickings and lost lovers.”

“Will they out-sail us Sur?”

“A Mycenii  byrheme  might try, with 200 oarsmen and favorable wind. But, Priams luggars? They still sail the double curved hulls of Egypt. Which will certainly get  a large cargo through high swells, or pick a path against wind winding up the Nile.  But, in open sea the Belisama sturdy crew and tack leaves them shitting on the moon.”

They laugh. Good! Nazi-Bu oracle they have taken for birdshit.  Tales they have heard and promises of ease. Some must imagine wives and daughters, while others  remembering bright blades and sharp bolts only the pale ravaged vapors of a life worth Heil. I wear a short woolen robe  drooling  rain-water and walk among all. My skin chills; both scars and torques catch the ship lanterns for I can promise nothing more than sharing their fates.

Later. Quiet. I mix ink. Speed 7  knots, swell height 12 hands. I miss not Nazibus battle song. Sing paeons to the war gods, beseech Agrona, Ares, Anat … Onuris till worn knees bleed on their gore strewn path. Boyos sharpen their weapons, oil bulls leather amour  and set aside ferment for the time just before battle when courage flees before Mars bloody fist. Few bare feet trod the gangway, save for those passing horns of hashish and opium among plaitmen. Very well. As I have seen,  few heroes and many besotted will stand the shield wall. We sail at full flood of the Kings will. May we scorn the enemy. I date and sign the log.

Morning awakes  with the rush of prime mastmen  feet beating teak planks.  My mind searches elsewhere, beside bright colors and   fresh smells to  spring  sea  surging  over  Persephone released from  Hades ice shades  and to Zephyrus  whistling a warm west wind over the starboard rail. Helios carves a yellow beacon into our face.  Soon now. Memory of Hyrkon is too fresh and the hulls song too sweet;  tease a piercing blue sky clouds billow up to the north.  Telemachus and Artyphon hang near, though I hector them away seeking peace to carve faces into a lions tooth.

Crows-nest bellow runs through the Belisama.  “Land before us. One-half point east. White-water Sur!” A clear-eyed rope boy  scampers up the mainmast lines, Syrian glass about his neck and a protractor for measuring angle. Only  two weeks   sailing before Zephyrus steady breath,  we approach  Crete  north east tip.  Mist deceives background mountains. Men have spread high among the sails.  “Harbor ho, I see it!” By minutes now, one sighting follows another. I order a round of ale, for clear heads are the best dice-throw  against foul harbors. At a leagues distance I stand on the top gallant yard.  Boyos run  lines taking my directions to the tillermen. Without blare we have it spot on. For a ragged coastline stony jumbles grow twice the height. No sand beach provides for a 20-oared galley. A shy sailor is a dead sailor.  Stone-faced Rusa and I share this visage of snarks.  White flare of foam and sheeted water  flow from each comber dashing  granite edges and  through the mouth  gentle rippling into a harbor beyond. Wicked.

“Rusa. “We can pitch anchor and winch us in.”

“What's that - - all of two days? And if a storm catches us? Or marauders? ” Rusa smiles and goes silent. “Brother,” I say, “Cybelle blesses us newly bound so fear not the reaper.” I mean more. Seen for myself black men of  western Canary Islands catch a wave-tip with their bodies or burned-hollow logs and fly above the white foam before easing to rest in shallows. Catch the crest they say. Fly straight!  Waiting high tide  we  circle twice, set all sheets and plunge afor sternwinds and oars ripping foam  from a long-string comber.  Which we miss.

“Backwater backwater,” I shout to the oarsmen. The surge has turned us sideways and arms grind sockets to repair the fault.

“ Twenty hands, Sur … fifteen … bottom of sand … twelve …  We might just turn her about ...”

"Your mothers ass." Bilge and ropeboys scour the deck for tools, iron headed that become balista on a crashing hull.

"Coral to larboard Sur."

"Jiffy her around, bitch!" I'll not hear it. Flying to a seamans oar I double his twenty strokes. Are those heartbeats I hear or rush of the far riding combers. Flat sea around us, for more heartbeats than a death deserves while finally  untiring yew blades point us just north of the rocks.  Climbing up to the quarterdeck I discover Cybelles tall emerald comber finding us; there's a rumble to it decking does not hide;  four marks along and two in; that's the breakers triangle we seek.  Rising, for'ard, rising … faster, higher, for'ard by Junos crusted cunt we shall not miss it! Idlers have doubled on oars.  We skip over a reef then break crest flying, free air flying for heartbeats and roar of Diannas paeon as a few have stood to the beak not wound on a yard so to spit at death flying  between granite pincers into a narrow etched  ripple dancing harbor at the Rock of  Storks.