ALEPPO ... TEMPLE
What joy deserting the gore infested temple; I glance over my shoulder. Snow pellets block any view, sting my eyes and I blink them away ... pellets and thick lazy grey flakes sifting languid as cold bleached blood. Did the headless man grow eyes, knowing slaughter was his to oversee given the rune of ages ...
"Tis not yours to mind Sar ..." old Tar gulping white breath, sniffling thoughts at my back like a long drowned tutor.
Pedazzer beside me. He wheezes through a bandaged nose where an arrow creased his soul. "They'd run us down for sure, without your stroke!"
"My stroke ..." I do not cry a boys tears. "A stroke too rash ... too much the melee ... too violent ... the strike of a boy not a warrior!"
Grim Kalikrates rising above his saddle. "Any warrior striking too late, too measured and too peaceful misses his main chance and becomes the Ferrymans prize."
I watch him gallop away, toward snow-snarled pickets. To myself ... muttering ... "I cannot defeat the kaleidescope that before battle tumbles me chaos!" Baring my face. "What does the slattern mountain provide us next, Padazzar?"
Unconcerned, as a wealthy trader. "Downhill, of-course and voices come one two three, as the Fates conspire. Chaos you know and chaos we will receive. "
Always a mystery companions wisdom. "Voices ...?" The bay roan stumbles ... "Damn the gods , not a headless voice as well as eyes." And thinking the mountain silent my horse picks through the first patch of bramble.
Shrieking winds tear into the cavern, a horror-toned voice of Sekhmet stripping ice from her breasts unloved and niggardly. Against the cold I shrink into my vest and find no comfort. Snow-mist gathers so densely and swirls so violently about the rocky jaw no light or vision or voice can venture within. No voice, but that howl of the bitch-goddess demanding her corrupted frozen blood ... death-from-above ice tentacles like quivering spears fly darting ... chipping ... smashing between the cave-maws wicked stone teeth. How the Ancient One whips us; all alike we bend into the storm.
"She'ol, Capi-tain," Isiahs horse battens against mine ; words rip from his mouth.
NaziBU has fashioned a cedar-cone talus and gifts the stony maw just as a first silver-pink strip flaws the eastern sky. Our van shivers, edging away, riding for'ard hugging the green canopy and hugging their robes ... for vampires devour any man wind-snatched into that cave ... so whines the boys nightmare ... while our tree-line following path spirals downward.
From the temple we had sent ox and sheep behind us, back down the gully we had used to to avoid the raiders attack ... to assault red-robed raiders officers ... to snatch-away their copy of the precious northing compass. Perhaps the Raiders were hungry ... perhaps gods sleep; scouts from their vast horde have not yet appeared on the ledge above us, and the Fates may have spun white drifts across our vanishing trail .
"Courage ye knee-chattering boyos for pain ends." Tar mutters about silver coins, but worn and muttering eats his words.
So the next voice catches us jaded. A shard of metal this voice. Bellowing ecstasy, a hot smoky wind flows from the cavern. Copper color scum coats ice and prods snow glitter. Bitter metal ... fumes-of-nitre ... sour breath ... stinging red-eye ... thus does Haephastus rid his forge of foul vapors after a sword-blade or ax-head has been hammered neat. Tis said the daemons who work his bellows can turn a vast canvas of bullhide now this way, now that, first directing breath of the goddess onto the untempered-iron; then after the strokes have been hammered wafting away vapours pestilent from the irons original softness. Men grant daemons nothing, but fierce teeth yet how they force wind through the passage-ways and cavern connecting the Underworld to the lands of men. Sulfur, cinder, impure lameness and pink-sleep of red-headed giants far to the east ... all scribed by Haephastus iron-muscled and all fly from the cave-mouth.
"We cannot pass Cibias, The Ferryman takes us ... !"
"Not our first volcano, not I believe our last. Earth trembles as dead Titans cannot die." So my tutor had taught ... a thing of nature ... but he was of Ios not Crete and did not believe in the gods. "Muffle your face and breath less, or breath what your horse exhales, as they do not die!"
"And our mules ...?"
"Ride on boyo we have broken the tree-line and are nearly below winds ..." NaziBu has made a dove-talus of parchment and stick; by releasing it low, sprung behind a willow-trig it has flown into the cave darker and smaller till it may not be seen. Light-flashes appears ... fearsome howls erupt ... a bear flees the cavern dashing uphill, his fur-coat afire blazing and the talus between his jaws. Horse shy at the beast and spears raise, and we picking between ice-sheets ... we move south.
Brighter now, in the eastern sky, but not so bright the flames of a tall funeral pyre do not shatter the morning sky. Flames lick at the horizon and tentacles of smoke clasp in a loveless rape early clouds. I had seen neither virtue nor evil in our enemy officers --- those surprised at the temple and slaughtered. Men say surprise and slaughter mark the warriors creed and we have done no worse.
I vomit at the thought sour wine will not wash away. I curse "Dianna you bitch what have you promised me?"
Move along Cibias, mastmate and navigator, tillarman and idler ... your boyos still breath. If these savages behind have left our burials unpolluted then perhaps we are done with them. Flames disappear behind the mountains rim. Faces red under wool capes and blue hands grasping at reins our van crosses a band of pine scrub. Snow covers ground gnarled and root-eaten beneath trees; ice melts from rock ledges and in the most protected nooks bloom winter flowers smelling teaberry and colored orange and white and purple as sunrise.
Glorious Auge baths us in golden streams. They ripple ice and dapple the uncertain forest canopy below the tree-line. A picket gallops back his breath streaming mist and horse panting. "Men ahead, Cibias ... both men and women and campfires!"
So over a gullies crest we spy them. An old man wrapped in sheepskin and silk scarf sitting watch guards another cavern. Ravens sits on his shoulder and fox-fur carpets the olive-wood bench. Raised stone platforms ... food storage ... climb above the stone-carved entrance. Unlike the first two caves , stone workrooms and wooden quarters scatter about a skeleton door , which itself had been logged and stoned into a faire holdfast ... door and windows and arrow-slits ... But, I see no hoplite only a young boy chopping wood. Youth and age ... those two men picket the camp. Beside a brick oven a trio of silk-clad women tend small-ware copper bowls of incense and ale and lamb ... by the smell of it ... at a roofed shrine which cedar plank builds and strip-oak binds.
Zeus beard what villeins we must appear ... frozen stiff by Lokis jest ... I greet ... "What ho grey-hair of 100-summers have the gods set ye to travelers service or is rent cheaper on the mountain ? Whichever we are sore-wrought, and would have pleasure of your warm ale and kind words beside your women "
Standing with an old mans effort he withdraws a long oak staff from his robe and shouts. "Brave words for a pup running tail between his balls. If such are yet grown." Throwing aside his sheepskin reveals a quilted vest of wool-fringed silk battened and sewn red with the jaws of dragons crouching. Wind whips his long white hair and bare feet bite a skim of snow. "Fit ye may be to snatch a maidens copper bowl, yet first remove from my hands this stave !" It twirls from one hand of a bare yellow-skinned arm to another and his slant slit-eyes gleam.
I bristle , but Faelan dismounts, spearless and strides before the apparition. Undaunted the Ancient stretches his stave, but Faelan bends both grace and the knee. "Resolve peace Ancient one for noone dare your power. See ... how dropped snow swallows my sword. In other actions we take the gods find justice. Our van prays for a womans favor not snatches, while our young leader tis first in shield-wall honor, but loves his own boyos more. We few have run from a violent horde."
Resting the stave on Faelans shoulder. "The birds say otherwise."
While Ancients voice singsongs, his Minoan diction bests most Hyrkon temple scribes. Faelan frowns biting his lip. "We strove with our life-takers, bested those planning our death and blocking our traders path. Are we bluff test our gifts. Armed, test the sheath loosing its blade. Speak to our Cap'N and test his virtue."
Faelan rises, with the stave removed from his shoulder; it rests on the ancients arm. Behind him a long banner whips in long-winded Eastern breeze ... cut figures snap from one curl to another and form as the forgotten Assyrian slashes might display, but all is different! Is this ancient from the East? With our van coming abreast and dismounting I walk to Faelans flank. The ancient sigals his women ... who set two new ale-pots afire ... disposes the raven to a perch and gimping two steps comes beside us. "Traders you say ; the birds chirp much more than traders; very so ... venturing pillagers of a jewel beyond kings." He removes an ivory poppy-bell from a sleeve and lights it. "That yee best Poseidon and Mars, what's your name and klan?"
Pedazzar steps afor me. "His King forbids name. I ... I am Pedazzar ..."
"As every whore in Aleppo knows well." This ancient-one passes over the bell to me yet nods at Pedazzar. "Does slippery-tongue dragoman gift rice and silk to the same Emperor as you?" His eyes flicker across mine.
"He means no sly advantage. Because of my trek some men would murder ..." Faelan will not the poppy so I return bell ivory with a pinch from my own hidden boul. "Because of my youth some would chance risk."
Ancient bows ... passing an ale-bowl. "Not this old man."
"Older than weak," I say. Well, I think you are a crafty old son-of-a-bitch bred far from this wild mountain and hold my peace.
NaziBu, though ... kindly as quick ... "Yet a young mans eyes brighten with experience ... from venture to trek to caravan. Every yoke frees another compatriot ; every trial that does not kill him sees him a stronger man."
"All men murder."
My place to speak. "Of his subjects our Kings law requires justice." If tempted, or if unwilling this Ancient I know not. We threaten failure, I think ... and thus risk. "Mercy ancient on our King! As son of his blood and servant of his sons ... I am Cibias Min of 17 years and Captain of the royal venture Belisama." Ancient appears both unimpressed and unsurprised, rolling one sleeve about a tattooed forearm. I need share more. "I'm not yet a bonded trader, but ventures to both Egypt and Parthia promise my Hyrkon backers fair return." Then ... I don't allow him to escape untested. "You are not a Hittite or Syrian ..."
"And as all thing pass so justice dims." How the smile slowly forms ... then a full-white mouth spreads open. He joins hands and bows. "I am ChiWo of Mi ... son of Sinim, and a caravaner of the BAU TEU ... or Silk Road as Akkad first called us."
My eyes widen. "Good sir, I have not ventured to the past, nor beyond the Black Sea so your tale wild as the vaults of Zeus is wonderous to me."
The young boy has skid before us a raft of willow-back leather mats. Boyos quickly unmount and take to the mats; ale-mugs pass by the women. All speak and these female servants bold as prudent might have married a dozen times. Ancient listens then smiles. "All men work. Far east as eagles I lived in the south of great Sinim where --- with the beauty of women --- both rice and cherries blossom. At times before our time my family became wealthy from the silk and spice trade."
"Such sailing the Belisama is my own hope."
"Water or sand little difference," he says. "As first son I was meant for the temple arts ... Shao-Lin ... but I rashly impregnated three of my cousins ... each more willing than the other ... and sadly was forced into my fathers trade. On my fourth voyage cross-desert Armenian horse-pirates attacked at night burning and slaughtering both men and camels." He looks up. "Have you battled these savages?"
"Scythians alone ... for a sailor, Helios rises from their braided hair ... but, not those tribes of the never-ending plain."
He nods. "We shattered one band. Much larger the next bolt of horse they drove in our pickets and rode-down archers and shield-wall. Only my night-watch and two infants survive . When we arrived at Aleppo the King took us for vagrants and sold us off. I went to a miner of copper, and here we have lived beneath the snow for 15 winters."
"You learned Egyptian !"
Ancient sucks dry his ale-bowl. "Three paths lead from Sinim to your great sea. Before the Pyramids my family traders wrote Egyptian to the priests of Ra ... who did not know as much as we. Egypt has flowered more than once!" Pronouncing that mystery Ancient hops about, clicking his stave off ice crusts pattering the ground. "My family favored the route beside Mountains-of Heaven. Now I live upon a hill."
This vagrant alien has lost all, my feelings pronounce yet found a home. "I have traded across the Black Sea into the Caucus. Wilders living that seacoast speak of terrible mountains of ice and sky farther east and spirit creatures that haunt them. Snowy slopes launch waves of ice against the unwary, and ghost leopards stalk the bones. I long for the trek!"
"Haha ... Ha... haha ... so you might imagine brash trekking a bold beardless youth , while the birds speak of you already. A fearsome sailor ... that bastard Min ... and not only the birds, but pirates raw who would cut your belly from a cask of fish ferment. Where do you find this fishy brew?"
Some trade proposals smash your girdle ... others tickle you toes ... "The women of Marsaii brew it warmly, and seethe mash stirring constantly between bouts of lecherous ecstasy. So the Gauls become famous. " Ancient passes over a cut of sizzling mutton and I chew into the bone. "Have you perhaps an exchange for this Goddess-graced prime ferment?"
Ancient squints into the sun. "Some of the poisoners ore, perhaps..." Eyes glittering as he pulls the sheepskin over bony shivering shoulders. "Wouldn't have any ferment now by chance ... that brewed Goddess-breath ... no no of-course not you sacrificed all avoiding the raiders."
"But, not next venture of success."
"Next? Has this one succeeded?"
"By as many parts as a man succeeds in love."
"Indeed ... you have Hercules labor remaining." Ancients eyes gain a far-away look. "Clever as were the mages of Sinim we never had a northing. If stars had fall from the heavens then as we trekked so we would have vanished."
"Every sailor knows beyond landview ... and without a northing and maps ... a cloudy night steers any bow into the green-toothed rocks ... or onto the lee-shore. " Cruel gods will that anyway ... I do not say.
Nodding ... nodding he passes to me a small scribed parchment stamped between glass tile. "For the next ancient ..." He laughs.
I finger the piece. "Does the glass mark me as a friend or pest?"
"Oh no no no never a pest. Some say Sumerian mages melted black glass into bridges; so with this. Yet mended here Cibias, best now find your friends."
Ancient felt what I see ... pickets stomping the horse-hoofs ... boyos restless after a spear of mutton , fire-warmed and looking west for enemy; binding girt on their pack-bridles ... "As now we must." I pass over a baglet of silver coin. "We meet again."
The ancient releases one of his ravens. "When seas of green meet silver sands."
Chi-Wo bundling his sheepskin retreats to the firepit and company of the women. Our van has packed, horsed and chews at their leathers. Dysis reigns before our van trots refreshed from the third cavern ... and skeptic of enraged trackers we ride all night. Cold ale at sunrise drunk without dismounting; high desert scrub starts our plunge into three days of military formation trekking. We become more silent ... as men become more certain of our destination. Half-time riders walk their mounts ... fore and reverse we traverse ... along muddy swale and windy gully after cold meals and no sleep we seek to leave no path. Boyos ask why we have come seeking a jewel we already possess; I can say nothing.
One morning isolation of our thin cohort ends at a cedar-ringed oasis. Shirtless slave farmers mix with hooded caravaners and wary Mitanni spear-men. We tighten ranks against klan campfires and traverse green pasture and sun-scorched shepherds in silence. Date and apricot orchards leach south, from their stone-lined watering sluice into a passing caravan stream broad as a river. Camel horse mule ox goat ... teamsters whip overland merchant trains into long snakey columns as wolves prowl. Pedazzer now leading with confidence we find one ridge below another till a thousand pack animals swallow our van. I think of fish schools ... tunny boiling waters about Hercules Pillars ... and the dogfish that strike into them. I imagine Hyrkon ascending, the lone survivor ... Yet here ... every man a warrior, this dense van-of-trade! All Hattusa chariots charging in battle column could not break into this ancient deeply pounded route leading south, and the King of Babylon ranging all his cavalry could not have found us among the litter.
"Queen of cities ..." Pedazzar glories. "Glory in your first visit Cibias, as Aleppo glories will live forever." We pass thru the mud-brick outer city wall beneath a bright midnight moon ... and threading a warren of stables break free under a stone-clad bronze-bound archway. Narrow is the guards gate ... hoplites rent a silver sesterce per day and must be paid ... a bond ensured by signet lest we rape the local women and our horse valued for the Kings road tax.
Sik and his new rope-boy companion calls me to their side. Since his brothers death Sik wans slim to nothing. "It's come for us master, the lions jaw. Would that my brother ..."
"Your brother had his coin , so joins all fallen heroes."
"Grey cold death!"
"Women too, the Nordmen claim ... about fires roaring with boast. Imagine ecstasy for the dead!"
"I think we follow him across the dark river."
A wineskin passes ... "Think of it no more. Ha! As to jaws, so much you know of a horses saddle chewing your ass. We sleep on a lion-skin bed tonight."
Sheepish ... "I'd take me a whore and wineskin."
Foolish ... sending my roan into a trot. "And find your throat cut by morning. Pray companions and what favor the gods give."
Pedazzar and I ride beside Faelan who is calling out roadside sigals. He finds threat in upsidedown pendants and war in tarnished copper door-plates. Factions communicate such, in the cites of Egyptian Phonici as no coin, but power pays; Pharaoh crushes them. The King of Aleppo, a fat pederast fit for Corinth and armed by Damascus might do worse. I think of hornpipes, young dancing wenches and dolphins I rode from a Lesbos beach. "What of your city, Pedazzer. Where in the night sky does it sparkle? Do temple columns rival Thebes, flute-song rival Sicily, palaces Knossos or canals the brightway of Queen Marys Genoa? Does gold pave streets like Gedes and silks the guild-halls of Chios ? Do guards wear silver leaf and the women ..."
"What a notion you are Cibias. A boy captain, bright-eye world wander yet to taste true wealth or false women ... while Goddess Diannas student of culture ... that's what Persian mages call it ... culture ... how people survive themselves and envy to finally serve the King."
Scoffing. Faint wisdom, I think of Pedazzars rhetoric. And what of his city? It spreads before us like a feast in Babylon. Our horses hoofs find that first, the steady clip-clop changing along the trek. Our trail becomes a bricked roadway, then stone-paved avenue smooth as the best pebbled streets in Hyrkon or Thebes. Vagabond wineshops and open stable doors sprinkle the roadside. Robed whores and lutests tend trees of wineskins , and even this late shandlers fill the air with smells of feedstock, raw leather yokes and roast mutton. Many stalls greet Pedazzar with shouts of welcome, for it seems the haetaira who has not born his weight is a women of deep and soundless sleep. Spys also of the King might call like this. Warmer now inside walls. Pastel mud-brick soars high shielding winds and holding the days faire warmth; people too ... an immense minds-eye throng of murmuring people unseen sharing their warmth.
"Hephastus could not heat more," snips Faelan, slicing the finger from a reaching cut-purse so saving his coin. The villian runs howling. "Perhaps in winter Belisama could burn its own firebox briskly to warm the hull."
"Cites-of-mud burn. Wooden Belisama? When sparks fire the hull what then for warmth?"
"Woolstone from the Baltic .. that's the wrap needed."
"Baltics bind murdering wifes in woolstone coffins; bloodless execution they say. But I forebear, if you can find mechanics to lay the weave. Perhaps they can also install a machine geared to drive the hull for'ard from rumblings of a bull . HA hahaha..."
We ride through a public square; candle-makers and wineshops abound, white robed men debate shadows from brick tiers and a mime troupe dances along a leather stage. Beyond, two ruffians flash knifes, killing another in an ally-way. Wineskins pass among us. We remove capes and unbutton vests. Pine torches light street-corners and candles the sashed windows of oilskin and glass. Hides of mud become skins of marble. Public columns march along many canals and waters ripple with lamp-flames of a hundred longboats. Poleboats too, with a brace of Kings guardsmen and long-shanked ballista fit to the bow. Surely this a traders waterway, yet vaporous misama clings to its banks, as if desert gods far far below reach up, boiling vengeance at the life-giving current. What man can long avoid them?
"Whores, Cibias," snips a ropeboy too young for plunder! "Mama would strike me for attending. Yet, wear they nothing, but gold-threaded skirts?"
Torches flickering catch the gold threads shining. For tiered temples grace every pasture and ziggurats whose many-stair nests of pleading bare-breasted women rise to the stars. Women who may never marry lest a man mount them for Astartes silver coin. Oil-lamps in profusion blaze color from haetairas high windows whether open or curtained. Densely travelers circle the marble statue of Astarte soaring over the main square. Hittite and Mitanni tight-robed visit in prayer ... a few Sumerians couple ... taking their pleasure in public that the Goddess eye bear on a child yet bloomed. Torches light psalms of Enhedu scrolled on the facing below which itself writhes gold-torqued temple whores pleading their charms. No imagination do Ishtars legions ignore.
Another avenue stretches away, holding atop ivory-bossed columns marble frieze city gods. Fox and hare, weasel and pheasant tthe frieze catches their motion ... traders gods! This path leads to the Kings gate and Zigguret whose onion-shaped spire reaches above the city ... as none other may. We avoid the Kings gate and iron-crust Hittite pickets; some perhaps have seen us before. So passes the center of Aleppo. Traffic beside us splits and splits again ... from crowded main-way and soaring pastel towers to empty byway where unlit torches and shopping matrons brazenly unveiled outnumber the cart-merchants ... robed travelers snuggle beside huge barns ... oxen and auroche graze ... till 4 camels of the city patrol hired by Pedazzar ride alone behind us.
"Your ship never finds quiet, Cibias while my vessel never moves!" Pedazzars sandstone manse rises beside a date and palm-crusted canal. "We could brighten up ... that my retainers see joy."
"As it should be ... Captain aboard," I shout and our column snaps to deck-inspired discipline known mostly to a raiders hull. Pickets report fore and aft. Weapons to ready. Officers take their squads. Horses canter ... and I ride full-chested with Pedazzar at lead. "By the numbers boyos at the mark! Count!"
"ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE ...." Coming over the arc-bridge we can see his harem gathered on the 3-rd floor patio feeding coals to an iron-brassier. A stone fountain-faun dances to Pan. Women dance to music of cymbal and flute beneath flaming gas-lights. Their veils and hymations removed , linen skirts swirl between cedar columns and bare breasts glisten in wavering orange shadows. Above them a fist-of-stone watchtower soars into the night sky.
A lookout calls warning and silver-haired women rush to the patio rail. I find blood rushing to the challenge when their voice calls out to us. "Master of light welcome home."
"Bringer of Astartes silk grant thee worship."
"Our lips open to a masters voice."
Pedazzars dragoman rushes ahead; through a small metal door the Numid gatekeeper appears; he will see for himself what prides this cohort and carries a huge iron mace. Examining our van he grunts as if visioning the world many times over. Wooden gears wail behind the mud-brick and wall-torches flare.
Orchards and shepherding open pasture rings the compound. Outer wall ... inner wall ... slingers, archers and a brace of lion-hounds guard the first; the second iron-bound door swings open to greetings from a dozen Macedon hoplites. We fit easily within the main courtyard ... behind our van the gates swing closed.
"Masters honor. His house sings joy to the gods."
"Oh very well, Autonom very well. Was a damned rough trial."
"Zeno to the gate ... Aolis and Proton ride a back-trail ... Sargent ... to the fore! Read the list of comings and goings ... in and outs ... here and ..." Their barrel-chested Lieutenant has arrayed his men beside a marble pool and while Pedazzar and I dismount and approach he snaps-out orders-of-the-watch.
Pedazzar stops him! "By Joves hairy cunt preserve that swill till the morning. We are cold and wet and hungry and exhausted in that order. Zeus beard preserve us tend to the issue!" He thinks about it ... "What about Lykisa?"
"The physician could not save her. The fever rose from neck to cheek to forehead ... and two nights ago she died."
" Three new lambs, master. She is prize of your flock! The Kings butcher will want it certain."
Pedazzar frowns. "Almodarl?"
The Lieutenant hesitates ... "Almodarl! " Pedazzar shouts.
"Almodarl!" bellows the Lieutenant. As if hanging on the front door for his call, a slim curly-hair villien in shepherds short-robe dashes from the manse. Not tall nor muscular only his feet betray him, for they are neither bare nor sandaled nor wear a hoplites leather, but are covered by orange pods squeezing his toes, laced at the ankle and soled by a thin black slab that bounces as he runs.
Pedazzar hisses. "I'd thought by now you would be missing a foot!"
"Greeting master ... all honor master ... forgiveness begged master ... I won the next race , master ...."
"You what !"
"The Magistrates trio ran in shifts ... each for a league, but I beat all three at the end by 20 strides." Almodarl preens. "I ran a much smarter race than the one I lost, by keeping a constant stride that remained stronger at the end."
"Pedazzar rocks back on his heels. "What did you win?"
"Of-course I won back the foot ... this right foot ... the one you traded for the manse I lost ... and 30 sesterces of Egyptian gold and ... the Magistrates daughter. But, I set all sails with her night before the race." Almodarl smirks. "On the sea of love ten voyages is enough for any man so I gave her back to the Magistrate. He judged my labor her temple-time ... as if Astarte may teach women nothing ... and granted me ... er granted master in exchange a dozen unbroken Libyan stallions."
"You have gamboled nothing else?"
"No ... not anything really ... nothing important ... recently ..." Pedazzar raises his arm. "Well there's that, master ... I bet a hetman from the new eastern caravan your copper-mine on Mt Cerci against 8 rafts of silk, 3 kaks of bean-ferment and 25 sky-flamers that I can outrun his fastest camel at noontime from the Well of Ob to Hamurabis stella."
Shining faces appear at windows. Hoplites dispersed and servants abounding our van heads toward the panel of wooden doors fronting the manse.
"King Minos surely does not know you own a copper mine."
"King Minos knows I need a legend, to serve his craft. What better than the miners trade?"
"Have you ever mined?"
"No more than Almodarl has ever gambled. He is swift as Mercury and sly as Loki. He'll beat the camel!"
"I hear he lost at least once. And who are these East caravaner?"
"Sinim most likely or Aryans taking the mountain route. A beast, that as many don't survive the tribesmen. Never is a traders skill more needed than against klans come from their snowy holdfasts once every ten summers. If they are Sinim then trade's our favor, as they cannot return home without our fairest jewels. Ruby best, quartz for their glass then amber, though the nords fiercely defend all trading sources."
"But, gamblers, the Sinim."
"Addicted to risk worse than the poppy they brew. They fish the market-place for wagers and I do not fault Almodarl for catching!"
"I would fish those waters ..."
"What will you trade, Cibias. Or better ... since all your wares now belong to the mountain what may you promise?"
"Long striders may these yellows traders be, yet none so swift or well-guided as the Belisama hull. I can promise the yellow slants routes 'cross our Sea to traders ports of wealth and desire. They cannot even imagine Utica ... Marsai ... Gedes ... the whole of Europa sleeping beyond Alashya."
Pedazzar pouts. "What's this? Hyrkon gives away their jewels not exchanges?"
I scramble for space. "Think again. The trade-routes remain behind my brow. Yellow merchants may share the Belisamas deck and their trades our cargo holds !"
"If they will sail ..."
"Any sailor loves a wager!"
"Zeus beard wager the skin off your arm dear friend the Yellows are clever people but , but soon enough bold Cibias. As to the three Magistrate racers? A trifle ... a minor strategic error, though rashly wagering his masters manse was quite illegal."
Skeptical. "Did you really bet his foot instead?"
Pedazzar tut-tuts. "As you Capi-tain , risk an oarsmans life landing a lee-shore." Landsmen see danger in a teacup, I think ... but listen ... "Magistrates are greedy, while no fools. Why offend the Kings law when a foot and 30 sesterces can replace? But, as I say any wager on Almodarls speed is no bet! His foot was as safe as my virgin daughters. "
"Oh indeed Pedazzar I see it all now ..."
A servant leads on. Cedar planks carved in the style of Babylon line a long hallway. I hear Isiahs exclaimed cry of joy and NaziBus surprise from a sideroom columned with winged lions. Pedazzar must point to every relic.
"After warm wine we are ripe for the hot showers, Cibias. It's a Babylon excess, but cool air flowing around steaming showers makes the blood race and mind cool. I see your men are clean-shaved .. like the Erithryan sailors."
"So will they be always!" Plums waft by on a pewter tray and I snatch one. "On my first command ... in a 20 oar longboat I swore to the goddess!" Visions of an 80-oar galley appear, roasting under the blaze of a dozen suns ... so the waves appeared .. "At eleven summers I sailed the Erithryan as a Kings boson shared with Pharoahs Ta-Huratet. The Egyptians had their winter stock of glass, Hyrkon forgers bronze. India had promised spices rare to make a queens girdle fly, should we sail the monsoon current ! Firm command ... lemons and peaches and grapes everywhere ... bodies shaved clean! No lice no worms no fleas no mites ... Captain Ta shipped clean, and his boyos all returned home to their wives."
"What fortune, to happen on virtue so young! I also have learned from India. Their Kings ... the Maharaj ... live a most peaceful family life and I follow their wisdom. Beyond a mans green-fringed walls, the Hittites say life strives red-as-sandtooth-claw. But inside the manse." We have woven a path deep within the hallways. Gold threaded rugs dyed purple cover floors and iron firebox warm each room. Servants attend silver fruit-bowls. Pedazzar begins shedding clothes. "Inside the manse all strive sharing tasks. Food and weaving become a joy and all freedoms belong to my harum." He chuckles serenely. "Happy women are true women ... they will tell you! Your boyos at bath will need deal with soapy sea-sponges my wifes wickedly find their favorite weapons. Scrub and lather ... calm tempers lead to ruddy well faced skin as any sea-captain knows. Nails too ... they peal and cut and clip; steady toes make a pleased foot. "
Pedazzar grins all over me. Skin shivers as I strip my linen trow. Womens voices ... laughing and behind ribbons of silk shipmates cry reckless joy as they had never seen Poseidons green maw. Bright vapours rise from poppy-lamps. Tambourines and flutes sing. Goddess Dianna weeps, but Minos choice of factor is wise beyond my ken, and in 17 years I have nothing vaguely to regard.
Bright Spondes noon. After two nights we have quit the manse joining a column of horse riding to an oasis beyond the central market and take audience with the yellow-skin Eastern caravaners. Their tents, camels and sheep are arrayed in circles about the central stone holdfast. Built in four layers any man will guess it holds the money. Few enter the building with sigal-rings and fewer leave with aught , but their trow and vest. Hyrkon preserves its gold coin by similar strict passage. Pickets guard each circle ... as traders from every race multiply. Renters also, who require silver coin to pass from one entrance tent to another. Wealth increases toward the center as the tents shout: rude cotton, wool weave, linen laced and finally gold-threaded yellow silk. So also with traders clothes, jeweled turbans of caravaner factors and corslet armour of scowling Hittite guards.
I have brought NaziBU and Faelan ... both sniff the oven-fires smelling trap. "Have you met this one before ... traded his wares ... eaten his table ... loved his women ...?"
"Twice." Pedazzars coin-purse and fluent languages never fail. Two more silver shekels grease a reaching palm. "Can any man do justice without a gift," he wizzens?" A factor and a hoplite lead us out, steps away onto the patio of a fat silk tent.
"What do we stand on Faelan? Tis not wood nor stone ... it's mushy like swamp-grass, but dry."
"Flax rough woven," bolts the factor ... a narrow man with short sharp beard ... looking wise and wishing fame. "Flax seeds are squeezed of oil, the liquid then mixed with thorn leaves and boiled. None, but the Sinim know this manufacture ..." Wishing on a star, the factor leaping for wealth above his station. Yet nothing stops a fools mouth. "The woven flax is then soaked in the mix, pressed dry and sun-baked." He snickers ..."Perhaps the trader would exchange gold for the method ?"
"I'll remember your offer," I suggest ... his face sags from an immediate bribe ... and we move on.
If camels were ox I could understand the tents fat bulge. Same mat floor inside as the patio , oil-lamps brighten scrolled silk seams, and from the ceilings curved bamboo frame hang sausage of dried meat and strings of dry rolled flour-paste. Hanging wool and bamboo rugs divide the space. A servant bows and hurries by: hierarchy displayed in smooth behavior; to be expected, a chief Eastern trader tight-lipped, slur-worded, wrinkled as dried berries, bent over an abacus, a seasoned palace scribe to serve the royal Lords and whose white hair remains mostly in memory.
"Ale good mistress and plenty of it!" A red hair giant strides in from a side-flap! "Bright fellows these Syrians and ... grab that seat Ba Do and ... and who is this twitching wastrel beside you Pedazzar? A friend no doubt, but friends are assassins too. Long hair swinging eyes locked to mine he lowers cross-leg onto a lace-fringed wool pillow. "HA hahaha ... I'm Wang Xi Tong and you ... you dear fellow promise short trades, long chess games and motives fit for the swarthy thief of Bagdad!"
"Hyrkons learn buyers-remorse in Corinth."
"City of whores and rubble I understand ... well ... well advised properly I would have worn deerskin and copper!" Thick eyebrows raise over his lanky friend ... then me. "One copper wrist-torque fit for a ..." Xi mimes thinking ... "you smell like poppy I hope we sold you the gum all silk wrapped not like that Indus crap comes in a paste of monkey shit ! You and yours ... welcome to my humble ... well let's not exaggerate ... " Ba Do sports a long ivory and jade poppy-pipe and sets it smoking.
From a pouch NaziBu passes over a rye-crisped rice-cake buttered with fish-ferment. Wang Xi swallows it approvingly. Young trader though I be ... noone can abide this folly. "Cibias Min at your service ... you prattling son-of-a-bitches ochered whelp and bard of lost fables even a Mycenii hoplite would not believe and a Corinthian actor would not fuck. Welcome friend to my precious time of trade. Please don't eat the rotten apricots. "
Above, one hole penetrates the tent roof. Hole , glass and parchment align. Beneath, Sols darkened image moves cross that bleached parchment spying electrum-tube mounted glass. Tube contours imply three not two glass oblates within ... tis a wonder. Bare face and bare armed woman clatter an array of abacus.
"Do they all travel with you,"I ask?"
"The attractive women do. But , some few lacking adventure remain between one caravan and the next. Do you agree Pedazzar," he ribalds? "At the new moon, one woman travels to our copper mine to obtain records. Some of the ore proves poisonous ... and may be forged directly into flawless red bronze. Our Emperors personal guard carry blades of this metal."
Half a grunt! Chained panda hangs from bamboo. Two scribes in white tunics never stop writing. Pedazzar sits to a side table , where our exchanges cannot annoy him eating pears and wined cherries with a silk merchant fat and chatty and covered with jaded ivory rings.
Wang Xi reading a rice-paper note and smiling cooly. . "Let's eat while we talk, but not talk before we think." A chef serves yogurt in a silver cup and walnut sweets with tea. Outside tent banners snap at the wind while the red giant plays for domination. Another stroke of quiet ... then waving the paper ..."Three factors swear to me ... absolutely ... so I witness truth to you, Cibias! Merchants guile we have tried, guile and faire barter. Aleppo Bear Klan guild will not sell us a northing. They will not admit to producing them ... craftsmen metalists deny any such instrument exists. Aleppo bankers claim loans unavailable for speculative craft no matter what the interest. " Wang Xi flips a crust on the braisure ... sipping his wine-bowl. "Do you understand that stupid guild-name, Cibias?"
"Something to do with stars aligned."
Wang Xi eyebrows lift. "I didn't know bears watched stars ..." Scratching his chin ... "Anyway, ship-fitters claim your pirate vessel ... I should say most likely fat-belly traders buss like the Japan-merchants who sell cheap ... was chandlered with such a brass-bound instrument from the very moon-phase its mainmast was raised." Fish ferment covers the crust and Xi wolfs it away.
I eat rice with their wooden sticks; they twist my fingers. "Fat belly? Etruscan grain busses perhaps, but our Belisama sleek and swift and manned with all affection out-sails pitchy Rhodian biremes and scavenging dogfish."
"As camels the desert leopard!" Wang Xi looks away from the braisier flames. "I don't insult your cargo , yet how can Levant claim trade for Sinims jewels while hiding its-own most precious? As do Japan shave-heads and their squid-mongering samuri long-boats, do you wish for our guild brass coin, thin traders and fat women? " Xi leans back on his pillow and smacks into the fuming poppy-pipe. He fondles a silk-spun, mountain-mottled and fantastical sphere-of-Earth that only an eagle might imagine.
What's he getting at ? I ask. "Japan? Near the Ganges ?"
"Only during monsoon!" Ba Do snickering. "Our desert overflows desolation long and dry and empty as Our Sea flows eternal, wave-crusted and wind-scoured. One tool blesses both treks."
"Your sand produces no fog."
"And your water no dust."
"Subtle mechanisms abound ... yet a fool and a tool produce no boul." I pass over to Wang Xi the pressed glass token gifted me by ChiWo on the snow-fierce mountain. "A strong man requires no guile."
Wang Xi examines the token, passes it off to Ba Do and who presses it well-lighted under a glass. Ba Dos anxiety cannot hide; they mutter. Then ... "Pray talus, another Sinim has seen your wares and marveled! What further proof do we need?" Wang Xi loudly. "There I have you! Admitted! You sail guided by the mechanism called northing"
"You see much in a piece of glass ..." His display will not weaken knees of a drunk Sidonian whore and I hector him. "Sailors guide by choice and imagining; no tool replaces a thought."
Intransigent. "We learn fast."
"Trade our ships. Hyrkon hulls await."
"We would trade your routes."
"So dear do captains love them, that some chose their wife as navigator."
"But, captains will sell wifes ample charms to savage kingly patrons before losing the ships profit."
Marvelous rice-cakes I think, though bits of green pepper burn. "Such captain dies young, faithless to his mate with a dirk in his belly! Savage trades miss approval by the Kings wife whose charms and bed cool faster than any womans ....."
"Well ... as to that Sinim men advise a peaceful pillow. But, we can hardly allow Levant traders to rival us!"
"Did I say rival?"
Wang Xi is grasping ... grasping ... grasping I think for some slight advantage ... "Would you take one of our women?" Xi raises his little finger; a figure draped in creame-silk chiton pushes away from her table abacus; smooth-featured, proud head erect the wraith moves silently over a rug covered path to his side.
Relaxing her hood she turns facing him. Wang Xi thumb hooks her lace neckline, and half the chiton falls away ... displaying saffron smooth skin, a pink nippled arrogant breast, tightly curved ass and trimmed as a dragons tail the dark shadow of her sex.
"Does she speak and have a name ," I snipe?
"LuZhi, if worshiped," she replies.
Xi pandering a frown removes a gold-tooth clip from his sleeve and smirking pinches it onto her nipple. The fangs sink in ... an infant cobras fang striking a fawns nose; she gasps, but the pink bud stiffens ... "LuZhi worked wonders for a year under a failing Shang prince ... her lubricious style fit to royal concubine many said though she bore no child. Cowardly, the eunuch chief scribe thought her too frisky for a courts subtle shifts of influence. Woman are so vain ... he sold her into a Shau Lin Temple. I bought her from the monk supreme who exiled her beyond temple walls calling herGODSREEF, considering the wench a daemon among his virgin accolites." Xi never moves his eyes from my face. "Talented in all ways she will loyally serve the Captains cabin as usefully as the officers mess."
"Have you ever been free," I ask her?"
"Grasping a pearl necklace that circles a breast she shakes her head."
And I shake mine. "A faire trade enslaves neither man or woman."
Xi trembles in hidden anger. "What servant does not free her master? Against the Eastern wave you stand alone, Cibias. Rival enemy cad villein pest tempter dopelganger .... Hyrkon misses its main chance at expansion; see if we don't have a solution by tomorrow morning." Servants rush away braisure and bowls. Another sweeps the firestone. Daylight flows through the opened tent-flap.
"That's it? " Icy resolve waxing Wang Xi and Ba Do stand away crossing their arms. Faelan, NaziBu and I rise, spin-round hefting our satchels and file toward the lifted flap. Back over my shoulder. "Come early if you wish. If you make free the woman you can bring her also. We breakfast before sunrise."
A child ... Wang Xi a foam-spouting slant-eye yellow-tinged child how my anger boils! Does his red beard grow from a sour stomach? Shadows play across seams of the rippling silk walls and I mean to turn snarling fumes from a hashpipe saying something corrosive. My sandals crunch into the forgiving floor; broad-chested NaziBu and Faelan swagger beside me. Mind tumbles a kaleidescope of passions. Think well the banner of snake and dolphin Cibias, wise and windswept the powerful bull never failing ... should I niggard my own virtue ... trade harshly against a man years journey from his wifes bed and masters salon? He plys far-traveled bamboo and silk and small glass against a thousand rock suns of Hittite iron! What terrors bind the lonely venture? Prince of traders once home at the worlds loose ends he must play the beggar! Should I cover him with gifts instead of ...
Walking away ... whisper swing of a measure. How soft air hurries when sand-bags dart from netting above ... NaziBu alone aware lifting an arm late for a morning hammer-fall come early .... smoothed between lamb and poppy eons too late; Faelan too takes a head-ringing smash, grunts and arms flailing goes down unable to grasp time of an ambush. Raven-black so foul the shock of impact behind my knee; a wood-soled foot raps air from my lungs; fingers on my bronze dirk weak-armed black sworls of crumbling unconscious are all I can imagine.
Roll of the sea casts me about Belisamas cabin. A wave crashes, then the sound of splintering ironwood and cold gush of Poseidons brine ... down forever down ... breathless ...
Blindfolded, wrists bound and body-bagged in a roll of hemp and naked I do not struggle. Chest and stomach and legs cramp voiceless screams. Pirates of Cyprus drown their captives within such tendrils .... after raping them. Night air chills and the camel over which I am tied stinks like a sewage pit. Sounds of the camp abound, from rustle of metal pots to the curse of teamsters roping packs to mules forever burdened. I whistle a trill; the notes of NaziBu and Faelan return. Further notes: NaziBu had awoke, before Wang Xi cohort led camels to the edge of the outer tent circle. My trill responds asking if a knife remains among us.
I think Wang Xi will have our northing. Pedazzar will have the young woman. Eliseed and Tah will sail the Belisama to Hyrkon, but gift no coin to their commanders eye. Yadini and Didikas will have neither comrade nor bastard brother with whom to dispute the throne. Minos ... father Minos will ... I stretch at the bindings ...
"Silence, Levanteer," scolds back under-breath as Egyptian mother to child. Slicing sounds, rope-snap and I sling from the Camel onto sand in one bounce. Cutting sounds strain and the hemp bag falls away. A quick thrust and my wrists come free. A hand claps over my face snatching the blindfold; startled I tumble the robed body beneath me ... fresh and yielding for a moment spice-laden ... only to be flipped, my arms akimbo grasping air and sand with saucy LuZhi riding above.
Face-to-face ... again scolding ... "You would not do for the royal bed."
Smile ... a man suddenly free. "I would have the bag," I say of foolish bare skin.
LuZhi pushes away my chest. "After battle I soaked the Prince bruised flesh and sewed his naked wounds. You are nothing , but a man, Cibias." Scold ... yet she drapes a belted silk tunic and leggins over my chest. "The moon is set. Stay quiet while I release your servants."
I snatch her arm so delicate and so limber. "They would not take kindly to the word." She holds so close I can smell buttered cocoa on her throat.
LuZhi brushes my cheek with her lips and palms a short dirk into my paw ... "even less so the Hittite iron blade." Crouched catlike moving away, LuZhi a phantom melting into the nights sharp black horizon.
One-hundred beats of the heart. Horses and mules mill around the shadow-cave I have chosen as burrow. Then compatriots ... "Cibias ... faire Cibias ... face to face three faces, three close-shave heads, three dirks ... three breathes not yet snatched by the dark river. "Take more than hemp bags dear Cibias to send us sailing Styx with the Ferryman. Do your bones hurt as much as mine?"
"Like a horse kicked me."
"And the ox gored .. haha we are tough men."
For a silent moment thoughts hatch ... "We need beat these creeps to Pedazzars manse."
"Treachery counts! We need to beat Pedazzar bloody before ... "
LuZhis face joins our circle palming a red-shaded wicker. "Pedazar is dead. Poisoned !"
Shock of the blood simple. "Why then are we still alive?"
"Wang Xi intends bartering your lives against your companions surrender. He believes Pedazzars men will follow you."
"To do what? Retrieve a hidden northing? No man withstands torture of fire and water. The device will soon appear and I soon dead."
"Yin and yang Cibias ... Yes and no. Yang Xi expects the northing, and the guidance it will provide his caravans, but he expects much more. He wants your ship, the Belisama!" Our faces press close to this Sinim woman. "He wants your ship and crew and trade-routes under his control making wealthy his caravaner family. Given you, he gets your companions. Given them he snatches your vessel . Given you and the crew and the vessel he gets the jewels of Levant ... trading routes covering the whole of your sea." LuZhi voice drops to a whisper. "He wants heaven and earth !"
Breathless. "A giants idea of exchange. He might be a Sumerian for the honor." I growl. "But, do I understand ... Xi will not attempt Pedazzars manse by force ?"
"He will appear this morning in force, but show the defenders Pedazzars dead body and your live ones. Then the negotiation begins. Wang Xi considers himself the mage of sly dealing; believes his crafty voice could talk the girdle off Astarte! He believes your men will give up the manse to save your life! Of-course his best warriors, sixty Sinim ninjas will always probe weak-points and if found prepare for a sudden assault. He thinks once inside the manse walls your cause ends quickly."
"I prize near three-hundred swords about this camp. How can we scotch him," Faelan glooms.
"We need to become men inside the manse not outside."
"Is that all, NaziBu chuckles? He has woven a straw talus and now viewing all ways twists it into the lamp-flame. "Seems ta me Sar we have here one man with two different needs and clients. Wang Xi needs to lead his ninjas in attack if they find a weakness in the wall, but he also needs to lead negotiation from the front of his massed raiders and present to we three ... now dead of-course if yee take my meaning Sar."
"Then best he lead a failed negotiation ..."
"While we lead a successful attack!"
"Yes .. yes, dead men tell the worst stories."
"Have we a bird?"
"Have we a warbow?"
"One taken from desert pirates. Only Wang Xi can bend it !"
"Never seen the bow or woman I could'N bend! With a message I believe this will work," NaziBu muggs and we bunch close for his warriors tale.
With a bit of charcoal I code the message on a strip papyrus. NaziBu wraps and gums it to an arrow-shaft. By his own plan he has one shot! LuZhi holds four bridled horses. "Have you removed the clip?"
Her face moves up to mine and her fingers touch my mouth. "Near man, some boy might try ..."
A silver-pink sliver guards the eastern horizon. Three pickets more curious than cautious fall to our dirks. We pack them into the wrapping meant for us. By his own plan he has one shot! LuZhi returns with four bridled horses. I taunt. "Have you removed the clip?"
Her face moves up to mine and her fingers touch my mouth. "Near man, some boy might try ..."
Mercenary horsing mill about the tent circles looking for arms and food and leaders. LuZhi false papers deceive one officer . Ninja circle ominously, but they have not fought or chandlered since leaving Sinim so pass us bye. We neither rush nor lag, riding hunched as servants and taking up with three bundled pack-horses the confused supporting tail of Wang Xi cohort. Three wagons trundle beside us. They carry frames for the sky-rockets Wang Xi intends as his smashers, should his negotiations fail into a siege. Eastern sky rockets ... temple toys for Crete mages I do not understand them. Thus dimly joined our van follows the winding band of dark-clothes raiders blundering casually toward Pedazzars manse.
Pedazzars dark manse looms across the canal silent and forbidding. NaziBu slips back ... off his mount and down to the waters edge where miasma swallows him. Proving able and avoiding poleboats he will snatch a canal-boat, row under the bridge and from his closest approach launch the arrow over both walls and onto the manse patio. When it strikes a spark should scatter into the discovering fingers of an innocent, early rising widow. On such brief light does our plan depend. Sound of our approaching van has prompted a covey of lights to flash high on the stone-fist lookout. On that early response our plan also depends. Faelan and I last across the bridge, short-swords tucked at our waist just as a ninja picket gallops to our side.
"The prisoner villiens!"
LuZhi has shed her cloak and darts a swatch of black hair at their Captain. "Take their useless hides and good riddance. Master Xi needs them."
"He barks. "There were four of you. What mischief is ..."
LuZhi sharply ignoring the drawn blade. "Return with the 1st troop, since we spy a fire Wang Xi payed for glowing from a walls small-door." She points at phantoms ... "Look its feeble flame taunts even as we speak. That's the lost mans work and Xi will have your head if you ignore it!"
Confused by orders his horse circles wildly. I shout. "Take three men, leave the other six with me."
The officer curses, then plunges for'ard with his pickets leading the three pack horses. Rocket wagons rumble behind. Six new plunging horses remain six faceless men ... bronze swords clang upon iron shield-boss ... if I could see their eyes I would fear. If they could see my heart they will kill! "Form on my flank bringers of death!"
New lights flicker on manse inner walls, and a bright glow flashes from the small-door. Bowshot distance Wang Xi has stationed himself inside a torch-ring fronting the iron-bound main gate. He is shouting ... bellowing a leaders threat even as the three pack horse draw in behind him. "Men of Padazzar ... boyos of Cibias cruiser Belisama ... all valuing their lives! Come to your wall without pride. See the power before you and the promise ahead."
One black-clad line of ninja surround us ... another approaches . The metal small-door swings open and the gate-master appears torch in one hand sword in t'other. Three steps for'ard and he shouts. "Who breaks the fast of duty?"
Faelan and I throw off our robes, showing raised swords and the double-thick boiled leather armour of Wang Xi inner guard. LuZhi shouts in her native tongue. "To the door rogues, Xi commands attack the open door and force the wall!"
We three dart hoofs pounding at gate-master as he stumbles back, weapon flung away in terror, torch grounded and door still swung open. Shouting a battle-cry and lowering spears the ninja follow our charge in one, two, now three fractured lines. Behind us Wang Xi troops have formed a thin arc from the bridge to the canal at the manses far side. Only before the main-gate, where Wang Xi himself bellows on does a solid phalanx maintain its threat.
Close to the open small-door ... itself not nearly tall enough for a rider ... we dismount at run and clamber through the stonework bruising our legs, dinging our half-helms and dashing ... through the wider 2nd wall gate , dashing into a warren of spear points made to ribbon us excepting the Hyrkon calls ofTHROUGH MEN THROUGH MEN LET THE MEN THROUGH!
Boyos newly warped boarding pikes and torque-bound happy arms reach out, slapping my half-helm. NaziBu stands first lifting me skyward. He bellows: "On time yer Hyrkon earsling. We thought you'd be plowing the slant."
LuZhi slides for'ard punching him through his belly-leathers and he goes down like a perfume-maker at a Corinth bazaar. She whorls on me ... but I'm spinning toward the open small-doors. Shouting to the raiding van outside the walls pounding feet and hurtling forward I urge them. "Crash the wall ye slant bastards. All to the attack!"
Wang Xi ninja officers and men ca-room through ... into the pincushion of spear-points that avoided my throat. But .. not their gasping throats full of surprise and blood before a quirl is set loose or a blade swung in anger. Screams of death ... screaming death determination breeds in ambush the most dire slaughter, and in the wild melee between onrushing ninja and well-formed hoplites inside the wall Pedazzars ash spears of three-strides reap a terrible harvest. In the front line beside Faelan and NaziBu and LuZhi I break their mother-whore blades with my own; steel defending steel while I drive my dirk thru their unprotected backs to a chorus of panicked screams. Two warriors behind me now, their blades snickering, but Tars war-hammer drives them down. I thrust -- thrust --- and splinter a mans black-robed chin. Ninja head neck chests and bowels are all spitted to bloody gore by prepared vengeance four ranks deep in what they expected a slaughter of surprise. One thin ryder squirms his horse through the doorway. His sword flashs down, snickering the wooly head of a manse servant proudly jabbing his short-spear, but no longer ...THWANGTHWANGTHWANG sing longbow catgut and feathered arrows flit from manse upper windows; peppering the ninja leather breastplate they snatch him from the saddle spurting fountains of red life. And the next slant ax-hewed from belly to throat fumbling into gore. None escape, of the three lines ... 60 of Xi warriors and the best of them.
I am dueling one of the last, a ninja holding off two other with a blade wicked as his young, hairless face and quicker than mine. I have cuts above the knee from that steel. While two guard his front I lunge for his waist ... he trips, yet falling backward, twisting into a groan his pestilent blade draws blood streaming beside my other cuts. Fuck him to Hades sour lake my wild swing shatters both our blades ... I reach the iron-stud mace first ... and his leg snapped from the ankle cannot avoid the blow. Or the next ... or the next I rain upon him an iron rain of blood-soaked hate so long avoided ... two men beside are pulling me away, forcing the mace away from the broken body and from my hand. I stare and stare at the gore while a leathery tillarman warning of the vampire ... for such reside in every-mans psyche ... fate wipes blood from my face.
"Wayho," comes the chant, "an opening gate, Cibias ..." Indeed our enemies broken howls echo the injustice of would-be murder spears and axes and crossbow delivered, but only theirs to taste. "Find peace, Cibias" repeats the call ... "Pedazzars chariots fly from the gate!"
For they rumble the courtyard a solid phalanx of thunder. As total the defeat of the wall-breakers, horse-thief NaziBu strategy does not stop with trapping a valiant doomed cohort. While our share of the battle remains inside the walls Pedassars men have formed up in chariot ranks behind the iron-bound main gate. Each of the twenty-one thickly built Hittite chariots ... of two horses and bladed wheel-spokes ... carry a horseman, a bowman and a spear-thrower. As our slaughter find no new blood I see the main manse gates thrown open to the sound of coronets. Scorpions toss a wave of fireballs, horsemen snake whips for'ard bloodying flanks as their seven plate-armoured ranks of three chariots thunder out.
Boyos drag me running behind the seventh line of chariots. We have butchered the last wounded ninja and prayed our injured to the manse women. Wang Xi had spread two-hundred bowmen along the manse walls ... they had not fared well dicing against ballista shooting powerfully from manse portals, but they held their ground. One-hundred spears and most of the hard-face Hittites stand beside Xi yammering directly to the iron-bound wood timbers; front path, they waited for ninja in victory to throw open the gates. Helmed and armoured, a formidable shield-wall if well-manned. Discovering treason they have stripped armour , hoisted the three naked dead bodies upon spear-shafts and set them afire.
"Kill them kill them all," the clad yammers thrusting for'ard a dragon-flag.
But, eye-blinded horses and their olive-wood chariots come upon them before the last tough curse chews between Wang Xi bitter lips. Vengeance lunging steel and bolt, spear and atlatl ride them down in a mist of blood and ocean of broken bodies. Wangs central cohort has time neither to turn and run and form-up a defensive circle where long-pikes might buy time for a bitter prayer. Wang swinging his war-ax tumbles under a chariots iron-hoofed destriers; the steel scythes cut off his legs.
Noone of the attackers fair better. Near the far edge of the canal one black-robe ninja cohort crouched in a pasture had driven their scaling ladders and torches against the outer wall, but scorpions scythed them down leaving a bloody trail of bolt-studded bodies from mud brick to grass. Otherwise, nervous bowmen carrying only a dirk and seeing destruction throw down their weapons. Shameless they strip away armour and wailing submission bend heads and knees seeking as a defeated army the best mercy.
During battle-rage Mars exults. Afterward the Ferryman sniggers. Cries of the wounded piece early morning. Physicans heal; physicians poppy urges the hopeless to peace. Three more Belisama boyos have cross-over. We gift silver to their sightless eyes before lighting the fires ... of the random dead, jackals eat them. I am sick and vomit behind the shit-pits with two rope boys pale as dead fish who managed oxen during the temple fight, but here fought a slingers trade.
A Syrian moon waxes and wains. LuZhi pretends Yin and Yan explain all, but each night I seize her yielding flesh to my body such a split seems impossible. She says boys have much to learn. I chuff women are wroth to teach them. We become savage together , consuming pleasure one-from-another so reckless the two boyos guarding my tent retire after sunset to the dice-pits. Yes I sleep in a matted tent, outside the manse, but inside the walls under a brace of mustard trees. Children wander by after morning gymnastic and I teach them sailors knots. Cool breeze from the canal leaps here at mid-day; I have no desire to appear a conquering master to the manse widows, servants or native guards whose lives I now oversee in gentle confinement.
Confinement and conquest ... Hyrkon academies test their lesser students with such a folly. What would you do young master, a rhetor might ask should your small patrol suddenly come into control of a large city whose men-to-war had been slaughtered and you ... now only you have complete power. Twenty foreign swords rule a thousand lives. By your word live or die a population of woman and slaves and feeble. How would you govern while showing mercy faire Goddess Dianna will surely expect?
Never does a student work, when he might play. Yet all agree ... consume Chian wine first and barley-wine last. The youngest students usually claim tolay-the-maids .. while those older willfully butcher off male children over twelve summers! My tutor believed students act the savage without effort as the bare soul is seething wilderness. Yet ... both ages would set personal guards for all the nursing mothers, feed them nuts and fruits and arm them with dirks. Young or old, poorly disciplined students rarely see the folly of such wildly unbalanced strategy against a helpless population, or evils cost to their own virtue.
Mugs of the local ale pass from the table and the mixed crew of boat and manse share the cheery rewards of victory. Says a bowleg mastman ... "A note from the King of Aleppo, Ca'N. His troops came 'round at noontime noting citizen complaints of raucous early morning parties. The officer of forty men said this complaint be not the first ..."
"Forty! That's all? Did they count our prisoners?"
"Said they looked a dirty lot Sar, and we needed to wash them in the canal! The soap-makers guild have great power with the city council."
"Did he offer to pay for the soap ... or the bread they eat every day? Zeus beard save us from bakers!"
"Well ... not so I heard Sar, but he advised a trip to the slave market."
"Hyrkon legions do NOT sell defeated warriors as slaves! Yet 200 men piss and crap like cattle-herds. The kings officer didn't advise on that I imagine ... "
"Legions Sar ...?" Tar grimaces. "Actually Sar a Lieutenant suggested tanners guild might pay for the piss ... if provided in buckets!"
A bilge-idler brave and fast on the pumps. "And the taxes also, Cap'N . The King wants an accounting of lost tax revenue from destruction of Wang Xi trade mission. He expects somebody to make-good the shortfall."
"So the King admits both full knowledge and full ignorance of the attack! Very well ... and the bodies?"
"Removed by the mortuary guild. There's still ice in western caves; Egyptian surgeons are pleased to accept human remains for training. Physician has become a popular escape from military service for sons of the lesser nobility."
"Returning birds from the Belisama?"
"Only the one last night. That advised we meet them at Latika Bay eastern shore in seven days and all agree that time cannot be satisfied .... the burial ... the widows ... the manse ... dividing spoils ... prisoners ... your woman ... "
Cool air ripples outside and Arctus setting sun tickles the tent canopy. I have table and chair, and the men who chose me Manse commander sit a 'round of expectations. I would rather king-of-Corinthian-lamb-shit for a year than castle ruler for a week. Worse than a city, this modest manse as trained councilors in authority and law I have not! Harshly and impatient ... "I thought we decided LuZhi would take duty as chief-tutor of the widows children ... Pedazzar must have twenty daughters if he has one ... only four boys it makes you wonder ..." I turn under the oil lamp and snatch a plum. "For the prisoners I have an idea."
Under light guard, and beside tables supporting ale-buckets the two-hundred men of Wang Xi cohort still alive gather in the manse courtyard. With NaziBu and Faelan beside me I walk to the center and a small platform. "Men of Sinim ... men of the hedges I offer what Aleppos King allows. Any may move to the city as slaves or sell-swords ... Aleppos market awaits that choice." A wave of groaning sweeps over the assembly though a few sturdy faces grin promise. I light a hashpipe, stroke deep on grey vapor and to murmuring surprise pass the ivory tusk into the crowd. And continue ... "Others may choose to join the manse family, expand the manse walls and keep-safe while planting new orchards and breeding few flocks. Docks on the canal provide options for the traders risk. Give three years of labor ... during three years you will wear-the-ring of bondsmen; there-after serving well you may take an allotment and form your own family; the manse has no shortage of desirable women and the surrounding land provides both water and tillage. Scattered voice call a salute ... I let them quiet.
"Are we free to leave," one rough voice calls out? I scoff, ignoring the question.
"Any man of able limbs may instead choose joining my own crew ... choose a sailors life on the Belisama for we are long on voyages and deck, short on limber muscle required to form a full dog-watch and maintain night sea-keepers. Bondsmen for two years, and freemen after. The sell-sword will find pirate raiders against which to test his fierce heart, the Sinim orphan many a foreign city bazaar offering small-trade to increase his wealth. Masts and yokes require intense labor and risk abounds. Poseidon would send all sailors on his face into the cold deep breathless dogfish infested depths. Yet rewards of coin and knowledge and women favor the bold; the faire cities of Our Sea call to the brash mariner and we are not last to answer." I point to a side table on which three wooden buckets have been pinned. "Three buckets one-two-three white stripes thus three choices as I have given you. Each man will get a tile on which to place his mark ... then place his tile in the favored bucket." The crowd now seethes with debating voices. The dry dead ivory pipe is returned to my hand.
"Again a few voices call ..."Free ... free ..."
I bellow so even canal-snakes might hear ... stepping down ... "Any who wish trekking alone without master or horse or weapon into the Syrian hedge can leave tomorrow morning at sunrise. Each gets clothes they wear, a water-gourd, 2 barley-cakes ... and a cedar stave. Baal curse their fool ass!"
At dawns break, four sell-swords, two whores and a scribe leave the manse walls; shrinking from dune to ravine they disappear into the Syrian desert. Next noon twenty men and sixteen women accept their chains and depart under-guard for the slaves market. Debates break-out among the remaining prisoners and more than one person trades body-for-body against anothers bondage ... which dealing of free-men I encourage. Following evening the manse families throw a festive for the 150 slant men and women ... and 20 mercenaries who cast their lot with Syrian soil and the Aleppo tides.
We remain another six days. On the coldest night my van of Belisama crew forms up on the manse patio to divide our shares of Wang Xi camp spoils. LuZhi has run the abacus , sold off to local traders all, but a merchants sample and none mind her her error-less curiosity. "Tyre factors begged for our emeralds ... 179 unflawed green and another 72 jewel quality ... Pharaohs daughter loves emeralds ... 340 Thebe electrum bars. They also took best-of-the quartz ... 95 silver minae. Of the 20 bolts silk 19 traded at 298 silver Damascus sesterce. Cattle, ox, mules, sheep and horses ... most went to pestilent Hittite cavalry pursuers for 109 Etruscan dinare. Our share of the slave trade ... 30 gold pieces ..."
"Three of the women were virgin be..be..beauties ... and the Babylon King auctions them off to his own merchants. Noone know if they are more fat than lubricious ... " LuZhi hides her stutter ... "another 27 Byblos silver coins for arms, shields and armour." Smiling at Isiah "A Hebrew trader took those, but I understand Jericho cannot even forge their own blades!" She looks up surprised. "And the young king-royal of Assyria Asher Dan snatched all the musical instruments ... flutes, lyres, tambolines, drums, harp ... 15 gold Gedes strull to our coinbox." LuZhi closes her papyrus folder. "Small pieces amount to ... 21 silver coins."
"And the seeds ......"?
"Growing a crop can never be certain." LuZhi removes a small chamois pouch from her sleeve. "The seeds belong to their new master ....." and reaches the pouch over to my hand.
Six days are required to allow birds from the Belisama ample time to deliver messages and to persuade Syrian guilds-men to finish our purpose-built northing. Of that I can say little, for they defend their secret ... electric as they call it ... from friend as fiercely as from enemy. While they built, I slept in their guild-house and saw what any man with two eyes sees. Certainly, one man one family even one guild could never fathom such a device. Boilers to purify quicksilver, forges to plice the perfectly smooth thin iron needle , and the electron ... or electric as most said. That tool drew the power of lightening into a copper coil ... inside, the needle pointed skyward balanced on what I took as spyder-webs though attending mages offered darker thoughts. As a storm approached and Zeus lightening split the sky glass fixtures held all in place till a lightening shaft stuck the coil and set it glowing. My eyes felt that unseen glow. After the strike guildsmen dashed to retrieve the coil, before another killing bolt struck. I saw men roasted in their skin, for a moments hesitation ... or perhaps Zeus in fury sends the 2nd hell-bent lightening strike onto humans divining his secret.
"Is that all," NaziBu heckles as I explain the manufacture to him. "We know the iron sliver floats on the quicksilver puddle. We can see how the bronze and ironwood case restrains the quicksilver. But, from where comes the northing breath and what holds it?"
"I am useless, NaziBu. You see ... I saw everything and know nothing."
At a moonless midnight following, my van horses and a pack of 20 mules quietly and unmarked surge under the manse walls and following the scarred lamp-lit northing won from the raiders makes for Latika Bay. NaziBus picket rides front and Tar cursing blaspheme with a few sturdy Sinim our rear. Sheepherders pass by unknown and unknowing as privacy rules our travel. A robbers band approached us one night and our archers shoot them down. We are 80 in all, 40 from the original van of which 10 have passed over the dark river ... and 40 yellow Sinim not one of whom passes 20 years in age.
"You forgive enemies too quick," snaps Ptr Pi, the last-son of faded Knossos royals. "Tis folly for dirks to find the back of mercy. Didikas would ..."
"Didikas may join us next summer, to harry Mycenai lookouts on Andros. Better the dirk come early find my back than his. Yet, I see no folly in these recruits other than forming pairs, and desire to please."
Each day I ride with a pair, such is Sinim custom. They are limber additions ... quick to the mules and leather tents ... every evening we practice archery and every morning before firebreak new thrusts of the short-sword. I marvel at their brave choice , bring them about our fires and allow none to insult their honor. Yet I may not keep all of them.
One day from the coast four horsemen come upon us trotting over a rising hill which masks a brisk cloudless afternoon. Cedar green mottles their path and the tricon of bull, dolphin and snake their shoulders. They must have spied us from afar, such a bold approach. The riders dress in rags ... rags worn through I know by the relentless scratch of open sea .. wave and wind and the snatching gull.
I put the glass on them, and they us. How can they be so sure ... as we dress in the caravaners wool-robed garb. Two of the men stand horse near the hilltop. Kalikrates and Rusa move for'ard; I remove my hood and wave. "I long for the sea where combers wave and save yer bow from a crusty knave whose hornpipes sees where he cannot."
"Zeus beard Cap'N iffn the bards heard yee a mimering all we go."
"We heard yee warriored Mars proud."
Spit. "I'd shove Pans hornpipe up the pestilent bitches ass ... if I could. Let Priam and Menalaus water their widows grave-flowers."
"And bedded a wench!"
"Raven spew!" Persian post-riders cover the kingdom in weeks, but rumors travels at Mercurys belt.
Dryuba snickers. "A frisky venture, then, Ca'N Cibias ."
"Or a trek worth bards tales ...?"
"Be the voyage here or there, a voyage of boy to man!"
Zeus beard how fame shrinks away. Crew will story a sail between two piss-pots and a drunken satyre. Nothing will prevent them when wind blow cold and a strange port darkens. All the chance are true for me, in a fashion and I think on the barding. "If anything certain comrades, a voyage beyond my grasp."
"But, not ours,"opinions Cletus the Macedon. "Birds chip yee plunder make Belisama crew fat!"
Plunder? "After Belisama sails trading Rhodes to Crete to Utica and home to Hyrkon I would not dice two brass pennies on how crew tie their trow and waist-rope." Later is time enough for the coin-share. Hands and arms extend and clasp together gripping me tight. NaziBU and Faelan and Tar come to join. We mosey along together, exchanging new visions of grief and joy nearly strangers and yet more deeply brothers after the long and deep separation ... for a man at sea becomes a different man ...
How the gift of old companions eases the ride. We travel with purpose, shaking away cold memories of boyos lost to the shades, setting a long thin dust-devil to our rear. Belisama boyos fresh from the sea talk of anything with their land-trekking mates. Officers and men equally spill stories. "Did rovers challenge at the Cyprus finger ... and did Belisamas wood pintle hold when thrown against that swell?"
" ... not be here if it hadn't ... yes the black-tar rover chewed our flank, but ten wraps to the pintles of stripped leather made bargain tacking against them."
"Mizzen windlass? We lost it in a storm off Pergamos. A bow cross-wind splintered the windlass hub and a dozen idlers rigged a pully yanking the sail starboard. But, they need to line up like men at a wet piss-hole groaning and sliding. "
"And the cook ... did he finally bed Drubyas whore?"
"She fed him castor-bean, when his hands grew frisky and he guarded privy-hole for three nights!"
"Hittites .. are they the hard men of story?"
"Their chariots ran-away too fast to tell."
"... and seeing your wound did yee kill a man Tata ... in the temple fray?"
"Afor his khopesh killed me."
"New 3rd mast-mate, when Kykronos fell drunk from the mainmast and dogfish got him afor the dolphins."
"There , there mates the Belisama main mast above the cedars!"
"Have you brought lamb? Figs? Cherries! Lemons! Missing white-fish, salt pork and dried apple has been our every meal meal." Till evening grew late and our company dips from shoreline dunes into a quiet rocky bay. Seagulls flock where clamshell and fishbones waste. And where another picket of shipmates exchange all joy ... an arrow-shot from the sand my Belisama dirty hull black against the phosphor surf sits rocking among lazy swells.
"Miss me love," I ask of her lonesome hull. Winds tussles a topgallent left flying for repair. Love indeed that hull a sailors mistress. Perhaps we'll beach her in Naxos and scrub off the mussels. Pendents sworl in a gentle breeze .. tis no lee shore we have chosen. Her mast-lamps lit, deck manned and longboats rowing inshore I feel born into a new sea and a new life. Navigator Mykron says we can launch before moon-set. You say 40 bronze bolts ... we have them! Make an end of it.
"Cap'N ... Ca'N ..."
"Let him be mate; Mr Faelan has the sigal."
Slipping away to a salt-crusted sandstone breach and retired by boyos who watch ... I also watch and my tired horse does not care. I will release him ... Three of the Sinim ride with me ... three who will return to Aleppo. Down thru the sea-oats one continues into foamy near surf where crabs scuttle among tangled seaweed and the sting of sea-salt snaps at your nose.
"Joy to your crew, Capi-tain Cibias. This new world belongs to you."
"Hull deck masts hemp pawls rudder ... Minoans have sailed them since the ancients."
"Freely sailed them as do your boyos. They revel a master who masters noone!"
"I honor King Minos ... the Belisama ... and Goddess Dianna-of-North. Logs are mine to maintain. Ship and trade- logs ... and the crewmans profit. A traders staff I have not yet earned." Words and thoughts ... what a ferment they create in me ... transformed ... certain of his true north, of his determination and ... and of his free troth.
Words ring bell-clear from her lips. "Your crew serves a man-child of their own heart."
"Emotion the sea does not abide! Same for your own tools. Do you have seals and codes and cyphers? Ink that bleaches? A dark glass and a light ... a quick-match when a message needs sudden burning ... and should capture threaten a philter of ... ?"
"Yes, all of that."
"... are not Jason and Medea of gold-woven myth."
Bits of light sprinkle water foam. "And the ravens ... well of-course I saw them feeding behind the manse. And faire coinage, when a promise does not rule...? Certainly you have exchanged with our Aleppo banker --- a crude man, but he knows the scripts and coin values. Yes yes every tool available, but with Pedazzar dead what master have you chosen to serve?"
"I have tried to serve the King."
"His words entrusted to my memory alone ... you have served Hyrkon well."
She laughs sadly. "Is it true ... Hyrkon women may own a land-plot and cottage, choose the man beside them and grow what they wish? Or do they fail grasping, unable to see themselves in anything, but the Kings mirror?"
Kaleidescope colors consume me, this unkind fairy daemon asking earth and sky --- nymph of dark springs --- whirlwind sylph of mist. Such a terrible cleft wrought through a person by another I hear myself repeating the question. Gift Minos my thoughts ... Belisama my hands ... Goddess Dianna my heart ... shipmates my foresight ... lost in visions what draft of sea do I myself sail?
"Why keep silent Cibias? When your father King Minos first bedded me, he swore his patient affection and promised ... should my own patience match his ... promised my freedom ....." Lowering her hood , and hitching the roans heavy bridle she saunters away careless beside her guard into a star-strewn Eastern night.