"Might their masters want something more personal ..." chants the slave Isiah , who in four days of captive has already proven more than a mule-skinner. He coughs, for the thickening forest does him no favor. "What a man knows has value."
"Better than knowing, NaziBus manhood threatens their virgins!"
"I was thinking what traders might consider precious .. like a Kings ruby seal ..."
"And Faelans basket-size breakfast ravishes their crops!"
Raucas laughter ... "While Tars hashish banishes their entire spirit world."
Isiah scowls ... his idea made fantasy ... from his striped wool jacket he brandishes a cylinder-ring inscribed by entwined winged dragons. Dragons or what ... angels? "Like this he says," passing it over to me.
Priceless carved emerald; Parthian origin no doubt. "Our King has one of black pearl," I say ... and polishing the stone on my chamois pass it back.
Isiah nods wisely, while hilarity bubbles up sweeping over our van as Sardinian breakers a sprityard. Zeus beard ... riding a horse I have no mood for philosophy. Senseless too I think ... the King has done well sending me to sea! And now I lead men across a mountain. How my goddess Dianna-of-Snows must laugh at me. Icy drifts brighten the course of cedar winding north on the flank of Mt Cerci. We follow that winding course south-east toward Aleppo for which direction we have both bay and sun to thank and from which provincial raiders may not deter us.
"Get that ox into line, teamster," I shout. Our path is not so narrow having a lip to the west and broad gully spreading east. But, well ordered movement moves more swiftly.
"My ox will gore, master ..."
"Dangle a carrot before its nose."
My tutor often brandished the virtue of carrots, when deck-strakes on his wallowing cod-buss needed stoning. Beyond the brushy lip our trail pitches steeply to the west ... 100 strides steep or more and a fall will break all bones. We have none to waste; I tally our van again. Four local scouts guide us; twenty-five comrades from the Belisama crew have joined me with mounts and spares, twelve loaded mules, two ox, six sheep for food , eight pack-horses and a two-dozen teamster slaves: slaves and captive and bondmen. King Minos holds they are both necessary for a palace culture while violating the most basic human urge --- that of a free man. Well yes, a few yeomen live as Hyrkon slaves, but they are bound by law, bound by a hammered gold bracelet, bound by blood and bound by honor to their master. To their masters family they are more precious than children and in war such slaves always die at their masters side.
"Damn-your-eyes ... sniff the sea-breeze all you want, but take another hitch on that packhorse. If satchel fails you both go over the side ; our trail becomes steeper."
Slave indeed! In fact ... we buy none! Our slaves come as captured pirates or raiders or hetmen. They ride with us unbound, armed with daggers and wicker shields and should an enemy attack brass-tipped short-spears. Service brings real freedom ... that's the Minoan ethos. Cowardice or infamy sees them butchered without mercy.
Master-of-signals Faelan comes riding up. "We'll lose the bare ground soon enough Cap'N just as we lost the sand. Under the saplings .. see the ice patches. Crab-smell we have no more; damme I miss the Belisamas rolling fore-deck."
I laugh. "Tis not a wood deck ye miss Mr Faelan , but that Kition seamstress who sailed out in her masters dory. She claimed sanctuary from a harsh master and yee gave her half your officers cot." Faelan struggles to say nothing. True enough , I remember breaking camp that morning; from a forested rise our van caught the last site of Belisama streaming flagset: linen pendants of dolphin, snake and bull. We had sailed from the south, along the Phoneci trading cities of Sidon and Ugarit , and porting trekked inland along a deep forested ravine. Pine and cedar sting my nose muffling smells of the salt. Belisama becomes both memory and promise. Her crew shook Belisama bow offshore into the wild blue Bay of Latika, seeking safety where big ships fear not the mast-high rolling combers. "Belisama will love us all, and pray to Dianna-of-Snows when we mount her bronze-wing northing."
We believe something like that, blooded sailors of Hyrkon. Mastmen, oarmen navigators all sailing the Syrian hills to replace our northing, the fragile iron sliver and quicksilver nest that searches Posideons wisdom for true north. Horses hoofs bite into the sandy loam, a sound that shouts away-ho and measures advance. A measure as we trust our steady plodding upward path to the Aleppo geometry mages. That path, that wood-bedded course calls so white above, shouldering the ravine then sweeping by speckled green to below us where brown hills join the Bay of Latika dune fields. Under the snow lies rock and under rock ... Hephastus fire ... Tis a dragons tail we trod, in all convoluted splendor ...
"Feckin big Dragon, eh Cat'in," harps Faelin throwing his swatch of red hair at Gaias resolve.
Late afternoon ... Dysis long shadows revel a sun pitched low both west and south. Bitch Gaia ... "Fairly read," I mutter ... Faelan, Belisamas signal Officer reading my mind, "but I hope it's teeth do not find us." I'm kidding.
Isiah prodding his paint for'ard. "As Crete trembled, she has not burned since the Scythian invasion. Scribes in Urith recorded loss of trade ... and raiders fleet horses."
"This you know ?"
"My tribe sent me to ... I mean eunuch scribes chatter one to another and while our god scribes our manhood he does not remove it!"
"No end to chattering is there ..." I think on the accident of Isiahs capture ... then shout. "Away there! Away north! Now the buggers think we see them!"
We have peered among their iron-rimmed sparks for hours between dark mountain clefts. Chariots of the Hittite pretenders shadowing us. And our van not yet a dozen leagues from the Cilician coast. "Sharp eyes, those pretenders ..." I think pretenders them, but their iron swords and spear-points will anyway kill you bloody. What a rattle ... their chunky wheels churning at rocky hillsides miles from our wooded path, yet spewing a sharded threat of great kingdoms lost vengeance against capricious and unpermitted wandering.
"Ho & away Sur ...." Galloping up they are breathless. "Last two chariots pitched over the ravine," cautions Elisedd. He has just returned with Cha the pigtail rope-boy from a scout along the cedar dotted ridge.
"How close did you manage?"
"Within a gully ... close enough to see the warped olive-wood spokes on their wheels. Those last move on a mark parallel the first three ... I'd bet four Sidonian tits. Five chariots form a scout ... once certain of an enemy they split ; more certain one will find their master!"
"Are we so clearly an enemy?"
NaziBu nods. "They wi' fin certain friends bef nightfall ... 'aine spears find us on the morrow."
I bridal the Lesbian roan and let her grass, while snarking Tars ivory hash-pipe. He scoffs, thinking it much for a young man. I have never needed a pipe, even when the colors come. Now ... just what I want ... to fight a hundred iron-bladed Hittite leather-head cavalry with twenty-five Hyrkon sailors dressed in linen shirt and loose-weave wool trows fit for a long downwind reach. Puzzles me ... "You wouldn't think a twelve mules caravan and eight pack horses would excite the raider blood."
NaziBu snaps. "Sin' Jarr fell vi' Mitanni, near three summers Harran takes offense mighty B any intrusion. Half-Syri' ya know them fellaz suck traders blood from a bat."
NaziBu came to us a Sumerian criminal and like most horse-thieves talks funny. "Ambush perhaps? Wait till we approach the Gates ?"
Brogue crudely. "Not the Hittites, Cap"N. They form up at your front, with everything they have and charge straight for your best armed hetmen. "
"Are we vessels or vassals?" One of my tutors favorite chimes. "Better we be prepared."
Pedazzar our Aleppo factor. "Best we stay the fuck away from them. The Mitanni holdfast can't be another two leagues up this ravine. We stop short there, for the night letting Hittite cavalry overshoot south." He rides a giant desert stallion, leather strapped bags across its mane and a sheepskin map above that. He's consulting it now , a student of war as well as coin and much stroked by King Minos. Head twisting about to his companions ... "Come morning we break east toward Circi crest and follow its tree-line shadow round the tip of Latika Bay."
I sidle over to check the map. "What do the fine lines mark?"
"Smugglers bush trails beside the dunes. Easy to get lost, and they all end at the marshland tip of the Bay."
To pass from the marsh to dune you must break cover. "And here ... we can make this high mountain passageway with the mules?"
"Twenty one-horse carts can traverse it in summer ... smugglers know this ... how bad can winter be?"
"We'll fuckin freeze ya Hurran pounce!" Tar jaws a wad of black-tar hashish and peers up along a snowy mountain crest. "The empty village iced over as a virgins tit. You need more proof?"
Was Pedazzar Hurran? I thought him a Cretan striver of the Sheppard class. When his patrol burned two Mycenni galleys and sold the rowers back to their families in exchange for 30 virgin daughters King Minos was duly impressed. He was made a knight, and then showing political skill was posted first to the Sidonians , then Damascus. Success followed a pair of coinage trades. Now Aleppo.
"Proof we are missed?" To discharge us, Belisama anchored aside a deserted fishing village. It's mole was burnt, crop-plots raised by split cedar logs above the salt fringe ripped to shreds ... those above lining the hillside have gone thorny. The straggle of fishermans huts sat crumbling into mud. Salt water fills the village well , while a stone temple to their salt-god had been reduced to rubble. People could not live here. "Cold enough at anchor for winter solstice," Kalikrates shivers. "But, we each carry a sealskin mast-mans vest. A day and night of snow we can survive!"
"That limestone stella, Ca'N, the only rune of the temple left standing. Old eyes deceive me, but I translated ... FEAR MY WRATH ... SEAPEOPLE ..." Tar discouraged and shaking his graying head ... "Won't they follow?"
None viewed the stella without blood running cold. My ego rules, riding among the boyos to pluck courage ... but, from the eyes I see many wished I feared more. "Their bones lie beneath us. They make us no trial." Standing before the ruined temple gateway, the stella rose tall as two men, three hands thick and formed as a triangle. A headless man was carved into one side, a coiled cobra the 2nd side while a flaming sword etches into the 3-rd runed archaic Egyptian ... WRAITHFUL MY SEA ...or perhaps Tar had the better of such muddled text. Once off the dunes and upon the trail we had found another stella 2000 paces further on; though very like to the first, an auroche replaced the snake and twas deeply carved into the first rock steeps.
Pedazzar who advised the trail. "We're not the first on this trail nor the last. Scouts might follow ... chariots can't. Hittites don't really like mountain fighting: swords one-on-one ... lonely arrowheads screeching across granite. They like fellow horseman riding at both sides. But, like or not pretty certain they expected a bigger opposing van and felt need to supply heavy horse. Shoot ahead of us they will, making for Bay-dune trails. We should take advantage of that error. "
"Makes us days late," I say watching for Pedazzars discomfort. "Makes me wonder what code rules the stellas?"
He strokes a short pointed black beard laughing. "Aleppo whores are patient Sur, even for sailors. Not two pair each winter will they see , unless you count the Yellow traders sailing eastern Gobi sands."
"Very well, boyos," I say with all the bravado a newly minted sea captain of 17 years can muster. "Faelon, NaziBu and Elisedd ride swift as ye may before us, viewing the holdfast and chewing to splinters any villeins venturing against you. Sik and Sikk" .... two captured brothers, Argot pirates who chose open bondage to the loss of their right hands .... "back them with your bows."
Snatching at reins and whipping mounts all five rumble into the cedar forest stretching above us and curve into shadow. "You trust them quickly , Cap'N," snipes ever-skeptic Tar.
"Are men like arrows ... not separating the brave from the coward?"
"More like goats or Corinthians ... fucking whatever gets in front of them."
Men have gathered near to view Pedazzars map for themselves. "As for the Argots? I can't imagine the man behind me on a ship who wouldn't thru arrow-storms carry my wife and babe to safety." Years before Antander my tutor taught me that!
Our line-of-march again stretches north to south. A teamsters whip cracks over the mules. Horses shuffle. Kalikrates ... himself a Spartan hoplite captured near death and nursed alive ... he scoffs. "You ain't married yet Cap'N, nor plowed the most willing vixen ... nor seen the most handsome villian ..." And he gallops ahead to lead our van up the windy passage.
For'ard a league; sunset finds first ice, and we dismount to walk the horses. Virgin snowflakes hush the thickened forest, and speckle our woolen seamans caps. "To the vests, boyos," I shout, but already every crew bears a sealskin neck-to-belly and every foot a red-deer moccasin. Last solstice we sailed bold and ignorant to the Frisian marshes. They sit north of the Tin-Isle channel and for 5000 beaver pelts , 9 casks of maple-sweet and 4 boxes of amber both officers and crew had froze to the bones. Admitted, we chopped sleet from Belisama bows and chipped ice from our feet and blocked frozen crust for our water ... not the fluffy white powder that now sifts thru cedar branches like sweat of a Nordlands goddess.
I shiver. Cold has gripped us like ice on a pine needle; we march under a grim determination, clasping our leggins and wrapping about any misfit robe. Red deer sprint surprised from a small pasture and beneath Faelans arrow. Cold-water streams splash from a pine thicket. Wind whistles, but snow muffles the scream. Then the grey stone columns appear and flickering saddle-fires of our advance.
Shouts of friends! "Safe harbor, Cibias ..."
Immediately Pedazzar dashes for the first of the deeply scrawled granite-block bunkers, and dismounting smashes a bloody glass vial against rock. "En Hadu alra ... Ishtar ...", he screams. The red smear freezes before it can run down. I cannot repeat his high-toned rending chant, but the curse or old gods he appeased never appear.
"What cold god demands frozen blood," carps Elisedd rushing for'ard? He stops suddenly, leaps from his horse and brushes away snow that has hidden another stone stella. "This time a crocodile, Pedazzer unless the Pharaoh has grown teeth."
"She lurks about, the She-bitch hissing snake or bellowing croc that fills Our Sea."
"Blasphemy. Poseidon drank the waters from starry eternity."
"How is Baals child eternal? Twas pasture-of-Ra that ocean before aeons. Watch for Astartes witching lights as the moon sets behind Mt. Cerci. "
"Damnable frozen tit is all she gets now," curses Elisedd.
Yet he binds Pedazzars torn hand while teamsters unlash oxen, battle mules for their satchels of dried fruit and cram animals into the largest stone hall. Snowflakes twirl and sizzle, and snowfall obscures our path. Face-full of snow ... so unusual for a Hyrkon I believe our eyes will this night never see the moon. I heft hay-slabs from a mule and move into a bright circle of curried horses.
We have bunkered down for the night, in the deserted Mitanni stronghold. Skying one raven to the Belisama, with our current position and chances I have bedded the other into a deserted owls-nest. Bitter cold snowy dark surrounds our mess by the first light of burning, steaming campfire logs. Teamsters pitch horse-hyde tents; a falcon-eye lookout perches above; pickets curse and tromp ankle-deep powder only to roar at first deer-horns of hot ale. Pine-pitch torches are set; split-rail doors carpentered to jams; two heating fires have been started inside stone bunkers and a lamb turns slowly roasting over the outside clay firepit and sparkling like the last night-view of a solitary warrior.
We sit 'round a bunker oven ... bread warms and roasted mutton toasts crisp : talk flows free among Elisedd, NaziBu, Pedazzar, Isiah, Faelan, Kalikrates ... while other cherry-faced men from the picket shake snow and newly warm ... An ivory hashpipe circulates and flakes of sour-rye lace smoked herring and pickled beets fill a glass boul. I say to Pedazzar. "This She-bitch that prowls Mt. Cerci ... what can we expect of Her come Horai midnight?"
"I should have remained silent."
"Not in the Kings service .. surely ..."
"Have you memorized the Book-of-Hours so well ... Cap'N Cibias that our moon certainly sets to the south at midnight?"
I think ... not impossible for a Hyrkon factor holding an important post to know of The Book. Yet not broadly discussed by practicing Captains, nor publicly examined before Trade Council members. It's Hyrkons secret. If a merchant knows of the writing through his family perhaps his eldest son shares that knowledge. Casually biting a smoked herring I say ... "King Minos library holds a copy."
Pedazzar smiles. "I read the preface and a few maps in the bedroom of a Lesbian hetaira . She was holding the beaten gold plates for a favorite sea captain."
Sly Sik has come to the fire no mans slave and motions me aside ... "Among the brush, East side of the camp I found another stella. Limestone like the others, but a cedar-trunk grown round it." Sik chews on the black-tar plug and spits. "Old ... master ... Sa ... old very old ... when bloods glove brushed away snow we saw the worn down graving be not a snake or bull or croc ... but be a cuttlefish squid from the deep sea. We showed it to NaziBu who seen these in south Sumer and he cried fear."
I grip his torn leather collar. "Does the trail open up beyond the stella." Sik nods yes. I say "Keep the night quiet; no reason to excite the boyos," and slip a plug of sour-rye laced dried apple into his rough paw.
Without effort I return to the firepit. "Unlike cheap papyrus, ancient books are like that; one copy in bronze , another in gold. That's the legend." The Book ... HOURS ... but for two copies lost now to Hephastus fires ... HOURS, written by the Minoan voyaging astronomer PTRATRAN ... the first of our race to sail India ... his book citing the number of every act known to our ancients ... the histories ... and the time known to every star ... the sky maps ... I had memorized HOURS 700 double-side bronze plates by age 12. "You will not have a new Captain flogged, will ye mates for being away a day, here or there ..." But, away a day I am not ... "I'd walk snowy picket to dodge a Hittites sleeping arrow or a she-bitches bite!"
"Ey Ca'N we cou' use more a' those ..." Our Sea tempers Her sailors into both truth and beauty, but for bullshit they have no will.
"Twas a Knossos Temple ye boyos, with a red-girded Temple priestess that I seen one plate," carps Tar. "Can't speak for the writing, though talk is cheap, but the Artist knew his subject; such a faire titted wench ... she leaps smiling over and beyond a pair of rushing bullhorns. Her fain be set to catch her while the watching King prepared a rose garland as crown." Hashish pipe billows a gray cloud. "Now the Priestess herself ... that very evening she fucked into submission an entire crew of Sythian gold-traders. Thirty men if there was one ... the Temple physicians spent hours reviving the lamed! So by Diannas bodice I swear ... "
Raucous ... hot ale passes between gloved hands. Cedar and pine chips spit from the bed of glowing red coals. Murmurs around, for food and warmth nourish then Pedazzar. "Mitanni ye keen were not the first mastering these hills, nor the Hittite. Before Akkad and great Sargon ruled even to the sea a windstorm blew from the far Red Gulf leaving behind the cities of Ur and Lagas and Babylon ... collecting from on its trail jewels of lost wisdom and depositing its last refuse along the Cilician mountains." Pedazzar looks about and noone will daunt him. "The storm ... a storm of hidden peoples no secret to the Egyptians carried untold wealth ... fabulous wealth of all the nations it formed ... if only you knew where to look. Some believe venturing Minoans tasted the far reach of that ancient storm and set their scribes to record the last glories." Pedazzar looks up, into a round of speechless faces. And stares at me. "Why , Cibias why just now, just you and just here does Hyrkon quest the northing?"
Sailors shuffle ... Pedazzar smirks ... Damme I wonder who the man serves. Quickly ... "Teknos rules my friends ... teknos and trade. My Belisama is wont to sail beyond the sight of land. Casually sail for days among the green combers viewing naught , but flights of storks. That blind sailing makes Belisama faster to every port, better coinage at every trade, safer beyond every lee shore." Bright eyes follow me. "Our next trade boyos shows the case. We sail to Rhodes, where we collect raws of stout yew and ash, and flanged bow-tips of pewter. We then make the long open-sea reach to Crete and finish a hop to Ithaca. Ithaca boyos where Ulysses lonely wife Penelope spend her hours not rollicking curly-bearded young shepherds ... as Mycenni women are so wont ... but trading twinned bow-staves for horses with the savage Nordland Huns. Ithaca wood-masters fine the raws, then glue aurochs-tenden between long thin slates of yew and ash. The join is set by clamping and aging within a warm salt cave. After a year , strands of Chian silk and hemp clasp pewter notches and bend-the-bow knee-over elbow." New sparks fly from a new log and men breath steady. "Ulysses carries such a bow with an oak hand-grip. Most men prefer shrinking leather, and the Huns pay four horses per bow. Those horse Penelope sells to the Dark inland tribes who fear the expansion of Carthage grain-fields and loss of their women." I stand and snatch a smoking mutton-stick. "Such is the truth of our northing."
Pedazzar rises beside me with hashish fuming. "Ho ho fine Cibias your rhetoric does your tutor justice. Unique stories you tell indeed .. stories ripe with adventure ... ripe with everything, but tales of the northing ... as if I wished to understand amphorae, but you speak of wine. Clever my captain very very clever. But, speaking plainly some Hurran and Aleppo hetmen believe your appearance not so innocent, and imagine Minoan vessel Hyrkon knowing where the ancient treasure rests and when best to snatch it!"
"They .. those mystery sages you speak of they know a lot. Who makes them wise?"
"Oh dear Captain Cibias think well of me ... but noone are wise .. any person is stupid. Just imagine how the now departed village folk below us would have responded had Belisama arrived, and its Captain asked them whether they favored Carthage inclusion in the Trade Council with all its political baggage or preferred oak-stupid workmanlike Genoa. What should they respond?"
"Seeing the priceless grace of the Genoese Kings daughter my choice is certain."
"And happy you may be with Italiot prime flesh. Hurran councilors are equally pleased knowing the tales of great and ancient hidden wealth."
"Equally they appoint Hyrkon as the library of that lost knowledge. And none of the crew need know, until the discovery."
"Crude presumption. We instead will snatch the northing from its Syrian guildsmen and dashing briskly set Belisamas hull hissing toward the Rhodian harbor. "
"Publicly bold ... as Belisama ported at the 4-th Nile Delta mouth to replace a broken spar, only to have a crane fail smashing the Belisamas bronze northing. You spared no effort or expense to replace oak with ironwood! Everyone saw ... everyone chatted your misfortune ... like daemons messengers flew to their Hittite and Mitanni masters! Serious men, but not quiet men the masters of small holdfast and perch. City rulers will believe your haste to replace a rare northing means its next use is not at sea, but something near the western clines of Aleppo."
"You Cibias need to master an exact location and the northing provides. Craft-masters workshops also group there, along steep ridges drawing the most frequent bursts of Zeus lightening; metal rods so common they sell on street-corners. What more speculation do they need ... a postal rider from the Assyrian court providing them your crow-script ?"
"Stop us?" I shout "Zeus beard we sit blizzarding end-of-the-world. They ... whomever a few charioteers may serve they do not have the men!"
"Hungry wolves will find a bone ... believe it, Cibias. Mt. Circe this winter writhes with hungry wolves."
Flames lick anew at our boots; last of the toasted apples vanish with the last bowl of hot cider; every corner finds a shadow ; rumbling grows around the fire as each boyo seeks a comfort that noone may find. I must find a stop to the discord. "Perhaps tonight we battle, Pedazzar or perhaps we sleep. Let us first see to the moon, that its silver face runs behind Mt Circe thus calling our enemy."
I am helping on Tar with his vest and boots. "The old bones hurt me, Cibias, but not like a Hittite iron-blade. Where will they hit us ?"
"From atop a wave ... or a giant comber I believe ... like the Egyptians attacked the Carian birhemes at Rhodes. "
A plume of black-tar-hashish surrounds the old mastman as he rolls up the sheepskin, cracks the wicker door and steps into a bright frosty and unforgiving night. Ice sparkles below while cold snatches away the last breath, burning lungs to the bottom and seizing vision in a mournful trance. There ... there above ... there bright heaven I think among a strew of stars and beside the mountains black-pearl edge glides the silver moon.
Tars watered eyes seek the mountain. "Tis running Cibias tis running ... "
From the snowbound clearing, I see nothing at first. Wanderlust decides piling my boots into the snow. Determined, finding Siks stella proves easy as he marked the cedar-trunk with his ax. But, even my torch does not make the worn stone carving a squid! Yet among many figures the flickering torch creates by staring I count flames on the sword-blade, number them like walnuts on a tree and Mercury-quick my head spins upside down. "Elisedd! .... NaziBu!!" And staring down my watering eyes suddenly lift.