Melkart The Herdsman
Qui dedit benificium taceat; narret qui accepit.
(He who does a good deed should be silent; he who benefits should tell)
The Nones fell early that Aperas. That meant corvée, a day of obligatory service to Eryx the Rex. At dawn, Aule the headman mustered the pagani and made them prune Eryx's olive groves, heavy with new spring shoots. They piled up severed branches while gray partridges sang nearby.
"I could have sown oats or tended my own grove," Thresu said.
"Hush before Aule overhears you," Larth said.
"As if I cared a fig- Wait. Do you hear something?"
Larth cocked his head and listened intently. He pointed to the forest past the grove, thick with towering oaks, beeches, and pines.
"Someone's come through the pass."
A continuous rustle grew steadily louder, like the rush of waves, hooves shuffling through dirt with horns' click and occasional plaintive moos.
"Cattle," Thresu said.
The men ran to the grove's edge. Tamped down over centuries, a hard, dirt path wound past the grove and into the dark forest. A magnificent red bull emerged from the shadows, twenty hands high, long horns tipped by bronze globes, an iron bell hung from his neck whose clapper gently clanged as he led the way. A herd followed, several hundred cattle, scarlet hided, long horned and legged, rugged and bad tempered right down to the calves, flanks and sides heavy with beef and tallow despite plainly having traveled far.
Beside himself with greed, Aule slavered like a starving man. "Surely this is Tin's bounty. We're rich."
"There's a herdsman," Larth said.
A man drove the herd with a dog. He whistled and clapped to move the herd along, threw small stones, and sent the dog to nip at their heels. Both were of heroic stature to match the cattle they drove. The dog was shaggy, black haired, with a demon's pointed ears and long, sharp teeth. His black iron collar had finger-long spikes. Clad in a red wool kilt, a lionskin tied around his waist, the man was tall, broad shouldered with a gleaming bronze body, his curly hair and beard jet black. He was armed with a composite, ram's horn bow, a short sword, and a dagger. The arrows in his quiver were as long as a normal man's arm.
"You take him, headman," Thresu said. "We'll hold your cloak."
"That's enough insolence, Thresu. Just for that, run to Tarquinia. Tell the guards a stranger's trespassing with cattle."
Thresu scowled, but still obeyed, and set off at a swift trot for the urbs. Aule and the men watched the stranger and his herd go down the path. A wide vista opened up, a broad and fertile valley, well watered, green with lush forests and thick fields. A rich and mighty urbs stood in the distance on a high hilltop, built of white marble with mighty granite walls.
The herd came to a swift stream and spread out to water. The herdsman went upstream above the herd, knelt by the bank, bent low, and drank from his cupped hand. There was a rumble of bronze shod hooves. The herdsman rose, unslung his bow, and nocked an arrow.
Horsemen rode up on the stream's opposite side, armed with bows, swords, and spears. Two young men in the lead wore bronze helmets, cuirasses, and greaves; the rest had leather armor. They halted at the stream's edge.
"Ohe, drover," one young man said. "Who gave you leave to water your dirty cattle in our stream? Do you know whose lands you trespass upon? This is the Valley of Volturmna, the realm of my Pater, Eryx the Rex."
The herdsman lowered his bow. He smiled, a vast expanse of white teeth.
"Forgive me, my lord. I am Melkart, a traveler from a far land. I only seek water for these cattle as I pass through. That and no more, I humbly beg."
He spoke Rasennan, but with a strange, heavy accent, foreign, unknown.
"Hear that, Phobis? He begs."
"What a craven paganus. He's more fit for a catamite than a drover," the other young man said. He was slickly handsome, but a superior sneer marred his good looks. "Antagones. Tell him to leave the cattle here as the toll for crossing our valley. Maybe then we'll let him and his flea-ridden dog pass in peace."
"Good idea. Caile, cut the cattle out and drive them back to Tarquinia."
A buck toothed man grinned. "Aye, Lord."
He drew his sword, put his heels to his mount, and charged across the stream. Caile screamed and whooped to stampede the herd, but they simply watched him incuriously.
Melkart raised his bow, drew the arrow back, and released it. The goose-feathered shaft went deep into Caile's chest. Caile fell from his horse into the stream where he bobbed, dead before he hit the water.
The dog snarled, leaped across the stream in one bound, ran to the nearest rider, and dragged him from his mount. Once down, Kaleb savaged the helpless man. The riderless horse stampeded away.
"Retreat. Run for it," Antagones cried.
Riders sawed on reins, wheeled their horses around, and frantically urged them into flight. They heedlessly left their comrade behind to his grisly fate.
"That's enough, Kaleb."
The dog left the man alone. Badly mauled, he got to his feet, left arm cradled in his right, and staggered away, sobbing miserably. Kaleb trotted back across the stream, tongue gently lolling from his bloodstained mouth. He approached Melkart, head low, tail wagging. Melkart petted and caressed him.
"Good dog, Kaleb. When I kill a deer tonight, you'll get the liver."
Melkart and Kaleb drove the herd across the stream and down the path again. At a hill's crest, the path broadened into a level road, hard packed by corvée laborers, paved with flagstones, flanked by rows of tall, pale green cypress trees. Fledgling wheat stalks waved in terraced fields on either side. Hummocks marked where cunningly designed underground pipes bore water to irrigate the land, laid out in painstaking detail by haruspices in conformity with the disciplina etrusca. Boundary lines were marked by stone herms with horned, snarling features and grotesquely large phalluses. Every detail was crisply distinct in the rarefied Volturmnine air, fresh and pure as Olympian ichor. The morn was fair, the breeze still fresh with dew, but Melkart pushed on with his herd, determined to cover three leagues that day.
There was a glimpse of saffron and scarlet ahead. Melkart unslung his bow again.
A procession slowly approached, a heavy, bearded man on a sedan chair clad in a saffron silk synthesina and a red cloak, borne by six bearers with a retinue of slaves in white linen tunics before and behind him, the nearest equipped with large, ostrich feather fans to keep mosquitoes and other winged insects away.
Bemused, Melkart lowered his bow. He went to the head of the herd, grabbed the bull by his collar, and halted him. The other cattle stopped in their tracks. The procession came near. Bearers lowered the sedan chair and helped the corpulent man to his feet. Hem held high to keep his synthesina free from dirt, he bowed low while the slaves prostrated themselves on the paving stones. He carried a slender, white ivory staff, the token of his authority.
"I am Churinas, chief steward of Eryx the Rex, Lord of Volturmna. You will forgive this terrible misunderstanding. A foolish paganus, a man named Thresu, spread a malicious report about a herdsman setting his cattle to graze in freshly sown fields. Lord Eryx sent his sons out to investigate. What followed was something best laid at Hekate's door."
"There's really no need to bow. I'm no lord, just Melkart, a herdsman. Let me pass through and I'll be content. After all, I killed a man and my dog mauled another. And yet you claim no blood debt? You puzzle me."
Churinas shrugged. "Mere mercenaries, born to suffer and die. We've offended the rules of hospitality and must make amends. Thresu has been thrashed and put under arrest to teach him never to bear errant, lying tales again. My lord has ordered me to escort you to Tarquinia where you'll be his honored guest. Your cattle will rest in his cattle pens and fatten on oats and millet, just like his own stock. Wine, bread, and opson await you, eggs and cheese, smoked wild boar, spit roasted goats, and beef haunches in honey sauce. Young, lissome boys and girls will bathe you in rose scented water and clothe you in finery. All this to make amends."
"Lord Eryx is most gracious. It's been long since I've known civilized pleasures. After many nights camping rough in the open, a good feast and a soft bed under a roof sound like Elysium. Does Lord Eryx give his solemn bond there's no blood feud over the slain man?"
Churinas bowed low again. "Just as you say. Nothing that can't be worked out between friends over an elegant repast. I had the slaves bring another sedan chair. You must be tired after traveling countless leagues."
Melkart laughed again. "No need as long as I've two good legs to hold me up. Lead on to Tarquinia, Churinas."
They formed a strange company. Churinas led in his sedan chair, accompanied by bearers and other attendants. Melkart followed with his rough and unruly herd and savage hound. As they went deeper into the valley, Volturmna's boundless wealth was apparent everywhere. Green forests teemed with birds and game. One rich, well run farm after another came into view, black bottom land planted with well tilled wheat fields, higher ground studded with thick branched olive groves, terraced hilltops festooned with fresh budded grape vines, barnyards packed with fat, healthy poultry, swine, and milch cows.
Despite the evident prosperity, there was a curious, gloomy pall over the land, so thick and persistent even Melkart noticed, intent as he was on the prospect of an upcoming feast. In the fields, hinds and masters alike kept their heads sullenly down as they went about their tasks, with occasional stealthy, sidelong, malicious glances toward the procession from those nearby. No one waved in greeting. Men and women were dressed in black mourning, many young, too many for such a rich and giving land.
The road ascended until they reached Tarquinia. Like every Rasennan stronghold, it was situated on a high hilltop. Natural ramparts were further strengthened by Cyclopean granite walls fifteen cubits high. Livestock pens were set up at the foot of the hill for pagani when they came to market. Melkart led the bull into the main corral while Kaleb nipped at the herds heels to drive them inside. He closed the corral gate. Slaves threw armfuls of fresh green hay into the corral. The herd spread out to eat.
"Keep watch, Kaleb. I'll return to see you're fed and the herd's bedded down."
Kaleb looked Melkart in the eye, understanding evident.
Churinas got out of his sedan chair. He gently took Melkart by the elbow.
"By Tin, what a giant. Eryx will be so impressed. This way, Melkart."
A causeway led to the gates. Defended by high, flanking towers, the broad gates were topped by a brightly painted, bas-relief sculpture of a pillar flanked by twin rampant lions. Tall, bronze studded oak doors swung open. Guards bowed as they passed, although several shot Melkart dirty looks. The guardhouse was to the right, the granary to the left. The palace stood at the peak, large, multi-storied, and painted bright red and dark blue with terracotta roof tiles. A temple of equal size stood on a lower crest, well proportioned, beautifully adorned with gold and silver, blood red, thick columns' capitals sculpted like flowering acanthus, the tile roof edged by terracotta antefixes that depicted bearded haruspices wearing high crowned, broad brimmed straw hats, the roof's peak adorned with a triumphal quadriga that bore a winged Victory. Hints of burning frankincense and myrrh wafted from the altar set in a sunken terrace before the temple.
It was well into morning, but the urbs was empty. Elegantly enclosed by a marble peristyle, the forum was deserted, stalls empty of wares and without merchants, with only shadows for customers. Melkart saw no one apart from Churinas, servants, and the guard. There were a few private houses, but the shutters were closed, the residents secluded inside despite the fine weather. They walked up the long stairway to the palace and through another gate into a small courtyard. Antagones and Phobis were there, dressed in spotless, white wool tunics and togas. A tall, older man stood before them, also in a toga, scant hair iron gray, a once muscular body gone to fat from too much indulgence. Four lictors attended them, dressed in short tunics. Each man carried a banded bundle of wooden clubs with a double headed ax in the middle.
Melkart put his right hand to his heart and bowed low.
"Lord Eryx. I humbly thank you for your hospitality. I am Melkart."
Eryx's mouth spread wide in a black toothed smile. "So this is the fellow. You must be Laran's own child."
He turned to Antagones and Phobis. "And you dared offer battle to him? You are indeed my sons. Afraid of nothing."
Eryx faced Melkart again. "We never get visitors like you. Just vagabonds or thieves or cattle raiders from Veii. I'll give a real banquet tonight, no stinting either, a royal feast. For now, bathe, rest. Take your ease after a long, hard journey."
Melkart smiled, but puzzlement lingered in his eyes.
"I thank you, Lord Eryx, but you give far more than my due. I'm only a drover. A good meal and a place by the kitchen hearth will be more than enough."
"Nonsense. A man of such stature and strength deserves only the finest. Here in Volturmna, we have a tradition of hospitality. You must not deny me. It's a point of honor."
Churinas led Melkart to private quarters in one of the palace's upper floors. The rooms were broad and airy with their own shallow bath.
"Iole will serve you. She's pretty. Let me know if she's rude or disobedient and I'll have her beaten."
Churinas left. Slaves bore amphorae filled with hot water into his quarters shortly afterward. A silent, sullen, young woman in a plain, ragged tunica with no mantle accompanied them. The men filled the tub. Melkart stripped off his filthy kilt and got into the bath with a grunt of pleasure. The woman poured pure olive oil over his body, scraped it off with a curved strigil, then worked oil into his filthy hair. She poured several more amphorae of tepid water over him.
Clean once again after a months long tramp, Melkart wrapped his loins in a soft, white linen cloth and lay on the rope-slung bed. Wooden shutters kept the bright light out, but still allowed a cool breeze through. He rested his head on a contoured, upholstered wooden pillow and slipped into sleep. When Melkart awoke, the setting sun glowed red through slanted shutters, the last gasp of natural light. The young woman entered the room. She carried fine garments of the purest white wool.
"Your toga and tunic, my lord."
"Melkart will do, girl. What's your name?"
"Iole. You should get dressed. The banquet will start soon."
Melkart pulled the soft tunic over his head and shoulders. Iole showed him how to drape the toga over his enormous frame.
"This thing is a nuisance."
"You're not properly dressed for a banquet without it."
Iole took a small oil lamp and led him down the stairs and a dim corridor to the Hall of Couches, a grand room with a high, barrel vault ceiling. Walls and ceiling were covered with colorful, brilliant murals that depicted the gods' battles, revels, and idylls, brightly lit by dozens of smokeless castor oil lamps. Heated by an underground hypocaust, the porphyry floor was marvelously warm under Melkart's sandaled feet. Eryx lay on a gilded, upholstered couch. He dined in state with his sons who reclined on their own luxurious couches. They wore purple edged togas and soft, red leather shoes with curved, pointed toes.
Leaning on his left arm, Eryx indicated the couch on his right, the place of honor. "Hurry, my dear boy. Take your place so the banquet can properly start."
Melkart gingerly placed his bulk on the slender couch. He laid on his left side and draped the hem of his toga over his head like the others. A slave gave him a long handled silver spoon and a large linen napkin. Churinas strode to the Hall's center and tapped his bejeweled ivory staff three times upon the floor with great dramatic flair. A concealed orchestra took up the beat. A water organ, twin flutes, and a horn played a sinuous, tuneful melody with a tympanum and castanets for percussion.
Young women entered the Hall. Bare-breasted, clad in gilt greaves, helmets, and feathered Amazon skirts, they were armed with wooden spears and shields. In an obscene travesty of martial valor, they performed the Pyrrhic dance. Bent low, they formed a circle, shields high over their heads, and slowly raised their spears to pierce pretended enemies. Melkart impassively watched. A slave poured Melkart wine from a finely modeled, black clay oinochoe. He sipped from his red and black krater only to wince.
"Iole. Fetch water to add to the wine."
"What's the matter, strong man?" Antagones said. "Pure wine too much for you?" He was already very drunk.
"I like things in a civilized measure. At least two to one is considered tolerable where I come from."
Iole poured spring water into his krater. Melkart swirled it around to mix the water and wine. He smiled. Iole smiled back. Antagones nudged Phobis and pointed with a wide grin.
"Do they treat slaves like ladies in your land too?"
Melkart calmly drank his watered wine. "As I said, my lord, I'm a common herdsman. I have no right to look down on anyone."
"My, how admirable you are, Melkart," Eryx said. "Big and handsome as a god, and yet you still know your place. I wish all my subjects had your deferential attitude. But you must be hungry. Churinas."
The steward tapped his cane again. The dancers left. The orchestra played on, low and subdued so not to interfere with conversation. Sterling silver salvers were brought out by slaves, loaded down with a whole roast goat, wild boar meat in pomegranate sauce, and charred, massive beef chunks. Melkart reached out with his long spoon and ate heavily.
"Make sure our guest has more wine, Churinas. It's the finest Falernian."
The steward refilled Melkart's krater. Iole added water without being told. Antagones reached out to grab her as she passed, but Iole neatly sidestepped him. Melkart frowned.
"Melkart, that herd of yours. How many head have you got? I mean, just as a guess," Eryx said.
"I know every cow, my lord, all three hundred and twelve, from Serapis, the guide bull, to the newest calf."
"Why wouldn't you? After all, they're your only companions."
"Quiet, Antagones. I'm talking business. What would you say if I offered a gold talent for an even hundred?"
Melkart gave Eryx a puzzled look. "My lord, I'm under a bond and must deliver these cattle to my master, Toqeph, Lord of Byblos and Tyre. I either bring the cattle to him or die."
Eryx leaned close to Melkart. He spoke in a low, level tone, his manner confidential, an older man imparting sound, hard earned wisdom to a younger one.
"That's far from here. You'll probably lose that many cattle or more by the time you get there. Toqeph has no way of knowing if you leave some behind. I'll make you a rich man for life."
"What's wrong with you, Melkart? Are you such a stupid paganus you can't see a lifetime's opportunity?"
"I said I'd handle this, Phobis. Melkart, I know you're not just strong, but you've got a good head on your shoulders too. All I ask is less than a third of your herd and I'm willing to pay far more than they're worth. Why do you object?"
Melkart smiled ruefully. "Because they're not mine to sell. If you don't mind my asking, my lord, why do you want these cattle so much? I saw any number of fat milch cows on the way here. Aren't they enough?"
Voluble until now, Eryx suddenly turned reticent. He broke eye contact, hemmed and hawed.
"Well, you see, we've had some difficulties of late. The pagani have complained about stillborn, two headed foals this spring, although it's really no more than usual. And the haruspices have pointed out a few ill omens lately, birds flying at dawn from the northeast quadrant, snakes writhing in a heap where three roads cross, that sort of thing. They've consulted the libri ostentaria, but-"
"For Laran's sake, Pater, get to the point," Antagones said. "There's a fire breathing, giant monster named Cacus that rampages at night, and he kills and eats women and children."
"We need those cattle to make a sacrifice to appease Tin so he'll go away," Phobis said, angry as his brother.
"A hecatomb is the appropriate ritual for this situation," Eryx said. "So you see logic and profit only dictate one result."
"But, my lord, why does Cacus harry Volturmna? Surely some terrible sin against the gods must have occurred. Why else would a monster be sent to murder women and children?"
"You'll find as you grow older, Melkart, that the gods are often arbitrary. I mean no disrespect, far from it, for am I not chief haruspex, but perhaps some junior haruspex erred in his recital of the vesper services. Fate often turns on seemingly little things like that."
"The important thing is, we need to get rid of Cacus. Now are you going to sell those cattle or not?" Phobis said.
Melkart sipped from his krater. "I have a better idea. Why don't I go out tomorrow to wherever this monster Cacus lives and just capture or kill him? That will solve your problem without getting the cattle involved at all."
Phobis and Antagones burst into loud, derisive laughter. They rolled about until they nearly fell from their couches.
"Kill or capture Cacus? Are you completely mad? He's five cubits high, as broad as the Lion Gate, and he spits flames from his mouth. He'll eat you alive," Antagones said.
"Then you'll have the whole herd and can sacrifice as many as you like. Give me your solemn bond as my host, Lord Eryx, you'll let me and the herd pass on if I bring Cacus back dead or alive."
Eryx reached over and slapped Melkart lightly on a rocklike thigh.
"By the Pantheon, I'll take you up on that offer. Cacus lurks on the Colline Mount, two leagues from here."
"I'll need a strong horse then."
"And you shall have him, my best mount."
"I suppose you want guards to accompany you," Phobis said. "You can't possibly take him on alone."
"No, you're right. I'll bring Kaleb."
Eryx and his sons stared at Melkart in mute incomprehension, stunned by his nonchalance. Melkart set down his krater. He stood up and stretched long, muscular arms.
"I should get some sleep if Cacus is such a hard nut to crack. And I need to check on Kaleb and the herd anyway. So I'll bid you and your sons good night, my lord."
He bowed and walked off. Antagones and Phobis stared daggers at him as he left.
"Did you see how rude that paganus was?" Antagones hissed once Melkart was out of earshot. "All those impertinent questions instead of just doing what he's told."
"Really. Let's kill him tonight and take the cattle for ourselves. Big as he is, a well-placed dagger in his sleep will lay him low."
"And what if you miss?" Eryx said. "No, what our foreign friend proposed sounds eminently reasonable. Certainly he's no stranger to violence. He either kills Cacus and rids us of a horrible scourge, or he dies and we have his cattle to sell, trade, and sacrifice. By Tin, Cel, and Uni, why did I sire two thoughtless hotheads? Now are you going to behave yourselves?"
He bellowed the last question. Still cowed by their overbearing father, both young men nodded. Eryx laid back on his couch.
"That's better. Send the dancing girls back. This has been a long day. It's about time we took our togas off."
Melkart found Kaleb and the herd fed and well. Kaleb stood with his front paws on Melkart's shoulders and frantically licked his face.
"Easy, boy. We hunt tomorrow, just you and me."
He reentered Tarquinia and returned to the palace. Aside from loud, drunken screams from the Hall of Couches, everyone else was in bed. The halls were shrouded in darkness. Melkart went to his quarters alone by an oil lamp's tiny light. When he entered the bedroom, he heard faint breathing.
Iole lay naked on the bed, a frightened, apprehensive look on her face. She was beautiful, but her arms and legs were bruised.
"Churinas said I must lie with you."
Melkart set the oil lamp on a bronze tripod. He draped his lionskin over the petite girl, bronze face graced by compassion.
"Be calm, Iole. I am Melkart. I take advantage of no one, slave or free."
She smiled radiantly. Melkart gently stroked her dirty hair. He removed his tunic, blew out the lamp, lay next to Iole, and immediately went to sleep. Happy for the first time in years, safe by the hulking stranger, Iole cuddled next to his protective bulk and soon drifted off herself.
Iole woke Melkart before dawn. He put on his freshly clean kilt and washed his face and beard in a pewter basin. Melkart broke his fast with porridge in hot goat's milk and dried figs that Iole fetched him. Melkart ate the large bowl of porridge to the last spoonful.
"You take good care of me."
Iole smiled again. She had a full set of even, regular, white teeth.
"A man your size needs to eat."
Melkart regarded Iole, curiosity alive in his black eyes. "You weren't born a slave. You're too well bred."
Iole looked away. She wore Tragedy's mask. "No. I wasn't always a slave. You'd better hurry. Phobis awaits you outside the Lion Gate."
"Hmm. That worm. What about Erisus and the other runt, Antonocles?"
Iole laughed outright to hear Melkart speak so of her lords and masters.
"It's Eryx and Antagones. They both had too much raw wine last night and they're in bed, eating cabbage until their hangovers go away."
Melkart's booming laugh resounded. Iole stilled him with two white fingers to his lips.
"Shhh. You'll wake everyone in Tarquinia. Your voice would shake Tin from his throne in the sky."
Melkart nodded. "You're right, Iole. I shouldn't be rude. I won't keep Photis waiting."
Iole giggled, liquid, tinkling silver. "It's Phobis."
"Barbar barbar. Who cares what his name is. I want to see this terrible monster. Take care, Iole. Astarte keep you. I'll see you before twilight."
"Be careful. Cacus is an awful monster. Every night, he breaks into some poor paganus's hut to steal a child or a woman for his dinner."
"We'll see about that. I'm not a child or a woman. I'll bring him back, either whole or just his head if he gets difficult."
Melkart stood up. He tied his lionskin around his waist and gathered his arms. With enormous strides, Melkart went to the Lion Gate. The guards bowed low with newfound respect as he passed through, awed any man would even think to take on the dreaded Cacus alone. Wrapped in a scarlet cloak against the early morning spring cold, Phobis paced back and forth outside the walls. The cloak's edges waved in the stiff wind. Four grooms struggled to hold a giant, saddled black stallion.
"There you are," said Phobis, "I'm not used to waiting on some paganus. It's supposed to be the other way around. I hope that whore Iole was to your satisfaction last night. She's the last woman you'll ever lie with. Are you ready to be eaten? Let's see you even mount Lupu. He won't let anyone but my Pater on him."
A head taller than Phobis, Melkart smiled tolerantly. "Even for a barbarian, you're rude and ill-bred. I'll buy Iole from your father upon my return and manumit her. As for this poor horse, you don't know how to treat him, just like human beings."
Melkart slowly approached Lupu. He let the horse smell him, grow accustomed to his presence.
"Let him go."
"He'll bolt," a groom protested.
"He won't. Let him loose."
The grooms released the horse and hurriedly backed away. Melkart put his hands out, palms upward. He made gentle clicking sounds. To everyone's astonishment, rather than bolt or trample him, Lupu nuzzled Melkart with his huge head. Melkart embraced the horse, stroked his mane, thick and black as his own dark hair. Right hand on the saddle, Melkart vaulted onto Lupu. The powerful stallion took his weight without complaint.
"I'll need a rope."
"To bind the monster."
Phobis laughed. "There's no end to your hubris, is there?"
"Just give me a rope."
"All right. Guard. Fetch a rope from the stable."
A guard hurried inside the walls and soon returned with a coiled hempen rope. Melkart tied the rope to the saddle.
"You said you wanted your dog," Phobis said. "He's still inside the stock pen. The vicious beast won't let anyone near him."
"He won't let barbarians approach." Melkart put two fingers to his mouth and emitted a shrill, loud whistle.
An answering chorus of barks and yelps. The tread of swift paws. Kaleb leapt over the gates of the pen with a soaring bound, eye whites prominent as he ran toward his master. He rested his front paws on Melkart's right foot and licked his outstretched hand.
"How touching. Cacus lives in a cave halfway up the Colline Mount. Just follow the rising sun for two leagues. You can't miss the mountain. There's a trail of bones and skulls up the slope. I bet my half of the kingdom you and your dog just ride on. We'll feast well off your herd."
"Lucky for you I want no part of your kingdom. You and your brother are both barbarians and fools. I'll return before twilight."
Melkart put his heels to Lupu's flanks. The horse loped away. Kaleb easily kept pace. He barked with delight at being with Melkart. They galloped toward the ascending sun as the red orb gained in size and power. Melkart sat astride the charging horse, great bow slung over one shoulder, armed and ready.
The landscape gently flowed and ebbed, verdant, sloping fields and olive groves edged by hills, like the folds of a carelessly dropped green cloak. Farmhouses, barns, and stables stood empty. Panicked local pagani had hurriedly packed up their families, rounded up their livestock, and fled from Cacus long ago. Melkart slowed Lupu to a steady, brisk trot. Bright blue birds flitted among neglected wheat fields in an endless, circling harvest of rust colored dragonflies. A brown hare dashed across the road. Kaleb let out a deep, throaty yelp and lunged after him.
Shamefaced under his master's stern gaze, Kaleb returned to the road and followed Lupu. The road steadily ascended. Open fields and farmsteads gave way to a thick beech tree forest that yielded in turn a band of spiny needled pines. The air grew cold. Melkart put his lionskin over his shoulders. Trees slowly gave way to barren, oddly shaped, sandy cones, like the stone tents of some primordial tribe, long dead for eons. Above the conical hills, the Colline Mount rose high into the clouds.
Melkart stopped and chopped a dead pine down with his short sword. He tied the tree with rope to the saddle, mounted up, and urged Lupu onward. Gentled by Melkart's kindness, Lupu willingly pulled the extra load. The tree's brown needles hissed over stones as the horse dragged it upward.
The path wound through the strange conical hills. A long, yellow femur lay on the path, picked clean by kites and buzzards. Kaleb paused to sniff at the bone, but Melkart hissed at him to follow. Other bones lay on the path. They became more frequent as they ascended. In his greedy haste to devour his prey, Cacus had gnawed and torn at their bodies as he hurried to his lair, only to heedlessly toss half finished remains away. Ribcages littered the way, a child's small skull with a patch of long haired scalp, long bones snapped in two to suck out the raw marrow.
They reached the base of Colline Mount. The mountain's colossal, bare gray stones towered high above them. Scattered bones lay at irregular intervals on the winding path to a small plateau halfway up the slope. There was a jagged black hole, a cave's mouth. Bones and skulls littered the grassy plateau.
Melkart dismounted. He stroked Lupu's mane and blew in his ear.
"Wait here. Be quiet like a good boy."
Melkart untied the rope and picked up the tree. He headed toward the cave, Kaleb behind him, both silent as they made their way up the stony path. Melkart held the dead pine high, careful not to brush against any stones. At the plateau's edge, he ducked low. Kaleb crouched, ears cocked back, snout flared, long fangs bared. He let out a growl, but Melkart hushed him.
There was an enormous, guttural roar, a sucking gasp like a desperate, last attempt to breathe, only to be followed by another spasm, louder and more stertorous than the one before. Sated by his latest feast of raw human meat, Cacus lay in his primitive lair and snored, insensate after his gluttonous orgy.
Melkart took out a flint and iron from his bag. He turned his back to shield them from the light wind and struck the flint against the iron, deftly and repeatedly. A shower of bright sparks soon ignited the pine's bone dry needles. Pitch saturated branches caught fire also. Thick, gray black smoke burgeoned from the tree. Melkart picked the burning pine up by the trunk and deftly hurled it into the cave.
The snores continued while smoke poured from the cave's mouth. They suddenly ceased.
An awful scream, worse than any Melkart had ever heard from a wounded beast or man, a cry of pain mingled with livid outrage that anyone could commit such a foul act. The flaming tree shot out of the cave.
Melkart and his dog flattened themselves beneath the plateau's edge. A giant, naked monster ran out from the cave. More beast than man, hairy to the point of shagginess, he bared long fangs in a hideous face and let loose with a fiery blast, a torrent of flames that reduced everything in its path to blackened cinders.
The fire passed harmlessly over their heads. Momentarily drained, Cacus gasped for air. Melkart rose to his feet. An arrow already nocked, he drew back the bowstring and fired so swiftly and smoothly as to be almost instantaneous. A goosefeather-fletched shaft sailed straight and true. The sharp iron arrowhead landed in Cacus's left shoulder.
Cacus reached up and yanked the arrow out with a gout of blood and tissue. He angrily threw the arrow down, but Kaleb had raced across the plateau by leaps and bounds and was already upon him. The black hound yapped and snarled at Cacus while he tore at the giant's calves and ankles. Cacus drew back his right leg. He sent Kaleb flying with a ferocious kick. Kaleb hit the ground hard. Not even fazed, the dog leapt up and furiously sped toward Cacus, eager to rejoin the fray.
Before Kaleb could attack Cacus once again, Melkart ran up to the monster. Cacus punched at Melkart, wild, roundhouse swings that would have surely killed him if they landed, but Melkart smoothly dodged his blows. He landed a hard left fist in Cacus's stomach. The buffet doubled the giant over, head thrown back from the blow's force, chin wide open, an easy target.
Melkart brought his right fist up from the waist and landed an uppercut square on the point of Cacus's chin. Cacus landed flat on his back from the blow, a dazed look in his feral eyes. Kaleb grabbed Cacus by the throat and pinned him. Melkart picked up a large stone and fell on Cacus as well. They thrashed about in a confused, brawling mess. Melkart and Kaleb worked together to harry Cacus into submission. Melkart belabored Cacus about the head with the sharp stone until his thick brown locks were soaked with blood. Cacus kicked and threw himself about all the while. Desperate to bite his attackers, he ferociously gnashed his fanged teeth.
Melkart raised the rock high. He brought it down hard. There was a loud crack. Cacus lay still, mouth slack, eyelids closed, finally knocked unconscious. Shaking, Melkart and Kaleb rose, staggered away from Cacus, and fell to the ground. Man and dog gasped for air, spent by their grueling effort.
Melkart sat up, then got to his feet. He took the rope, went to Cacus, and tied him from head to foot with triple knotted bonds. When he was sure the monster was securely restrained, Melkart cut a short piece of rope and gagged Cacus tightly. He searched Cacus's smoky lair and found a crude wooden table where the monster had his vile repasts. Melkart dragged the table outside and broke it up into planks with his bare hands. With other short lengths of rope, he fashioned a travois with his lionskin as a cover.
Melkart manhandled Cacus onto the travois. Although big, Cacus wasn't quite as tall as Antagones had claimed. Melkart dragged the travois down the slope to where Lupu awaited. Lupu snorted and grew restive at the sight and smell of Cacus, but made no move to bolt. Melkart backed him up to the travois and secured the two long planks to the saddle with the last of the rope.
"Come on, boy. Pull. Get up."
Lupu dragged the travois down the path. Melkart followed behind. He lifted the travois over large stones and helped the horse pull through rough patches. They made slow but continuous progress. The sun was still just short of its zenith when they left the forest and reached the relatively level Volturmnine plain. Melkart halted Lupu at the first farm he encountered. He untied the travois, set it down, and checked Cacus. The monster was still insensate, his breathing ragged but steady.
"Watch him, Kaleb."
Melkart ran to the barn and returned pulling a two wheeled cart by the shafts.
"Now we'll make real progress. Back up, Lupu."
Melkart harnessed Lupu to the shafts. He picked Cacus up, draped the giant over his shoulder, and dumped him into the cart with one terrific heave. The cart groaned under Cacus's weight, but was sturdy enough to hold him. His burden now sharply reduced, Lupu willingly pulled the cart. The ungreased axle creaked and whined, but the road to Tarquinia was well paved and smooth. Melkart urged Lupu on. The horse trotted down the road. Melkart and Kaleb easily kept pace.
A broad stream was crossed by a narrow crescent shaped bridge. As the cart rattled over the stone bridge, two swineherds herded their pigs toward the stream to water on the opposite bank.
"Ohe, giant. What's in the cart? A wild ox you killed?" the older one cried, grizzled face alive with curiosity.
The swineherd dropped his crook, few teeth stark in an open, gaping mouth.
"The monster. You mean to say you've saved us?"
Melkart only hurried on with the cart. The swineherd picked up his crook. He turned to his young son.
"Metie, lad. Run and tell everyone the news. I'll mind the pigs. Hurry."
Metie ran off. The good tidings soon spread far and wide. Sturdy tillers of the soil cast their plows aside and left oxen untended in the fields to run toward the road with their wives and children to catch a glimpse of Melkart and his captive. People flocked to both sides of the road. Unbidden, they followed the cart, laughing and singing. The air was filled with hosannas and hallelujahs as hymns of praise were sung. A young girl ran up to Melkart with a quickly fashioned laurel wreath, the traditional victor's tribute. Melkart graciously paused to don the wreath. The pagani wildly cheered and raised their right hands in the two fingered sign of blessing.
Word had spread to Tarquinia long before Melkart's arrival a little before twilight. Eryx stood before the Lion Gate with Antagones and Phobis, attired in regal robes, the gods' attire, the toga imperatoria, blue and adorned with a golden sun, moon, and stars. They wore golden radiate crowns and were accompanied by guards in burnished bronze cuirasses. Eryx's open delight seemed unfeigned.
"Greetings, Melkart. You're indeed a man of your word. What you set out to do, you accomplish. Here's Cacus, scourge of Volturmna, feared by all, brought before us a bound captive. My sons, here's a hero to emulate."
"I see you brought most of the countryside along too," Phobis said. "Clear out," he shouted. "Get back to your hovels, pagani."
"Guards," Antagones said. "See them off."
The guard formed ranks, raised their shields, and reversed spears. They drove the pagani away from Tarquinia with wooden shafts. Melkart watched, but said nothing.
"As you said, Lord Eryx, I've kept my promise. I'll set out with the herd tomorrow. I thank you once again for your hospitality. All I ask of you for my service is one favor."
"Friend Melkart, what's your hurry? A hero deserves thanks for his feat; the deliverer must have his homage. A great feast is being prepared. Can't you smell the sides of beef and wild boar roasting? That and the finest Opimian and Falernian await, along with new robes, a soft, comfortable couch, and dancing girls. You can't deny me. We can talk about business and anything else you like in the Hall of Couches. Any boon you seek, rest assured I'll grant it, but only at the banquet, where kindness and hospitality rule. Please don't refuse."
Melkart smiled. "I would never refuse a banquet. But what about Cacus? He needs watching."
"Don't worry about the monster," Phobis said. "We've got plans for him."
"He'll be in good hands, I can assure you," Eryx said. "The guards will look after him. You must be tired and dirty. Bathe in your quarters. Iole, the slave girl you like, will attend you. Rest. You're my guest."
Lupu was unharnessed. Guards pulled the cart inside the city walls to confine Cacus in an earthen cell for sacrificial victims, deep underneath the temple. Melkart brushed Lupu down in his stall and fed him a double ration of oats. He had the palace cook give Kaleb a thick, red slab of raw beef and left the dog to happily devour it in the kitchen. Melkart went to the livestock pens to check on the cattle, did a careful head count, and was satisfied to find none missing. A slave led him to his quarters. Iole awaited, clad in a new, white linen tunica with a blue, glass bead necklace. She bowed low to Melkart, her smile wide, open, honest.
"Lord Melkart. You've returned as you vowed with Cacus subdued. You're greater than any man in the valley."
Melkart gently embraced Iole and kissed her lightly. "None of this 'Lord' business, girl. Plain Melkart will do. Now I want my bath."
He lifted her up and spun her around in the air. She squealed with delight. Melkart set Iole down. He stripped and got into the shallow tub. Iole bathed him once again with hot water and olive oil, only this time joyfully, happy to scrub and pamper Melkart.
"I see you've put on your finest. Is that for my benefit?"
"The Rex has ordered a festival. Everyone in the household has been given new clothes to wear for tomorrow's celebration."
Melkart got out of the tub. Iole stood on tiptoes to drape a towel over his broad shoulders.
"New clothes suit you well, Iole."
Iole shot a fearful glance toward the entryway. Reassured no one spied on them, she stood close and whispered conspiratorially.
"Be on your guard. Eryx and his sons are treacherous. Be wary at the banquet. Watch what you eat and drink. Phobis is a master poisoner. They'll stop at nothing to have their way."
Melkart smiled. Teeth and the whites of his eyes flashed brilliantly in the gathering twilight.
"Don't worry about Erisus."
Iole giggled, but put her hand over her mouth.
"Won't you please be serious? You're impossible."
"Never mind that puffed up hill chieftain and his two nasty brats. Even if I don't say their barbarian names right, I can still eat them alive."
"I know you're big and strong, but please be careful, Melkart. I'm begging you."
Her pleas cut him like the tears that streamed down her face. Melkart dried her eyes with a toga hem and gently stroked her hair.
"Don't worry, Iole. I'll be on my guard. I swear by Marduk Sky Father. I can't make a more solemn oath than that."
Iole favored Melkart with a weak smile. She pulled herself together and became her usual businesslike self again.
"You should get dressed. He'll be expecting you."
"You know. Erisus."
They both laughed. Melkart put on a loincloth and pulled on another clean, white wool tunic. Iole helped him don the toga, white like the previous one, but with a brilliant, thin purple stripe along the edge.
"It's a special mark of honor."
"I still say it's a damned nuisance."
Churinas entered. "Lord Melkart, the Rex awaits. Stupid, inattentive girl. Why didn't you fetch the Lord to the Hall of Couches?"
He raised his hand to strike Iole, but Melkart grabbed him by the wrist.
"I don't like you, Churinas. Get out, you obsequious weasel."
He turned Churinas by his wrist and kicked him hard. Churinas hurriedly fled.
"You shouldn't have done that. He's very powerful."
"He's a toady. From tomorrow, you'll have nothing to fear from him or anyone else."
"You'd better go to the Hall before Churinas tells some story about you."
Iole picked up an oil lamp to lead Melkart to the Hall of Couches, but Melkart took it from her.
"Stay here instead. I know the way well enough. I've seen what Circean swine they become once they drink unwatered wine. I don't want you exposed to that. I'm going to have Eryx manumit you, set you free. Then you can either stay here or come with me, your choice."
Iole cried out with joy and delight. She ran to Melkart and hugged him, then backed away to straighten his toga folds.
"Melkart, I'll follow you to the Hesperides and beyond. I'm your slave."
Melkart bent low and kissed Iole on the forehead. "No, girl. You'll never be a slave again."
He walked down the stairs and took the corridor to the Hall of Couches. Melkart walked into a confused, chaotic scene. The orchestra was in full swing, a strange, barbarous piece, with odd beats and wailing horns. Dancing girls swayed about the hall stark naked but for brilliant blue and green cloaks. They formed a lurching, lewd saraband, eyes wide and blank on some strange herb, with occasional pauses for varied concupiscent combinations. The air was thick with burning myrrh's sharp scent. Eryx and his sons lay on their couches in their regal robes, heads undraped, instead adorned with the golden radiate crowns. They were already quite drunk, faces split by wide, complacent smiles.
"The guest of honor," Eryx shouted. "We've been waiting for you. Where've you been? Did you use Iole again? You should. You deserve it. And a whole lot more. Come lie on the couch of honor."
"Yes. You're really a good fellow after all," Phobis said. "You did us an important favor. I'm sorry I was rude. Please take your place as our honored guest."
His words plainly rehearsed beforehand, Phobis bared rabbit teeth in a smile, but his eyes still radiated hate. Melkart smiled in turn and lay on his couch. He was about to drape the edge of his toga over his head when Eryx restrained his hand.
"We hold celestial court tonight, just like Tin in the heavens. What better way to treat a hero, surely the son of some god? You needn't cover your head tonight. Instead, wear the victor's due, Apulu's crown."
A handsome young boy handed Melkart a crown of golden laurel leaves, cunningly fashioned by master smiths. Melkart donned the crown. Yellow leaves' sharp tips faintly pricked his temples. He put his right hand to his heart, and bowed his head.
"Again, my lord, you honor me more than I deserve."
"Nonsense. Now that you're here, let's eat."
Food in ridiculous quantities was served, plainly cherished delicacies to Eryx and his sons, but mostly barbarian dishes not to Melkart's taste, boiled sow's belly smothered in rancid fish sauce, roast dormice on skewers, and whole, tiny birds plucked featherless, rolled in bread crumbs, and deep fried in olive oil. The dancers continued their lascivious antics. They gave Melkart many long, sighing gazes, open invitations to rut he coolly disregarded.
"Try some chilled Opimian. It's what I'm drinking. Fill my krater too, slave."
A slave poured wine from a pot bellied psykter, previously placed inside a snow packed hydria to chill. Melkart waited for Eryx to drink first. He sipped the cold, unwatered wine and fought to hold back a grimace. The bitter red wine was incredibly strong. He beckoned for a slave to add water. He closely watched Eryx and his sons and was careful to eat only from dishes they had already tasted. The golden laurel crown sat uncomfortably on his head, scratched and itched his scalp.
The hall seemed to shrink around him; the incense smell grew overpowering. The orchestra's frantic music irritated Melkart's usually sanguine disposition. He found his attention straying as his mind wandered into emptiness. Melkart shook his head and looked around him. Antagones loudly laughed.
"Is a sip of Opimian enough to make you drunk, Melkart?"
"An overgrown paganus like Melkart needs some red meat to bring him round," Phobis said. "Isn't that right, Pater? Don't you think it's time we had them bring out the centerpiece?"
Eryx considered briefly. "Yes, this does seem auspicious. Melkart, we want to honor you for bringing in the monster who terrified the valley for so long-"
"Oh, come on, Pater, stop blathering. I'm hungry," Antagones said.
Eryx smiled indulgently. "Ah, the impatience of youth. Wait until they reach man's estate, eh, Melkart? But without further ado, in your honor, a traditional Rasennan dish."
Churinas sharply clapped his hands three times. Four muscular slaves carried in a small litter, weighed down by a heavy burden concealed under a red cloth. The slaves set the litter down on the table before Melkart and bowed low. Three departed while the remaining slave put a hand to the cloth and looked toward his master. Eryx nodded approval. The slave snatched the cloth away.
Serapis's severed head sat on a massive silver salver, skinned, roasted, and coated in aspic, a yellow quince in his mouth and bronze bells on the horns' tips. Melkart's eyes went wide. Teeth bared in an awful snarl, he leapt to his feet.
"You break the rules of hospitality, slaughter Serapis, and insult me, your guest? I'll kill every single one of you and your servants this night."
Melkart reached for the slave who turned to flee just a moment too late. He snatched the slave up with both hands, held him high over his head, and threw him. The slave sailed through the air only to crash full into Antagones's chest, a blow that knocked the princeling flat to the floor and left him gasping.
Melkart turned a couch over and ripped off a leg for use as an impromptu club. He brandished it high in a blood fury, only to have the strength in his legs go out from under him. Melkart swayed back and forth. The hall reeled around him. His hands went to his sides. The club fell harmlessly to the floor. Distorted faces swam into view. Eryx and Phobis leered as they drank wine and laughed at his plight.
"I can't believe he's still on his feet. How much adder venom did you put on the wreath?"
"Pater, I know what I'm doing. It's just this paganus is so damn large. Maybe he needs a little help. This should do it."
Phobis reached out and shoved Melkart hard. He crashed to the floor unconscious. Golden leaves cut his skin. Thin trails of red blood trickled down his face onto the porphyry floor.
Melkart came to with a splitting headache. He was in a subterranean cell, chained by the neck to a stone wall. The cell had a small open window, set high in the outer wall with a single iron bar to prevent escape. A faint, ghostly column of moonbeam provided scant light. Melkart looked around the cell. What appeared to be a pile of rags in a corner suddenly stirred. A battered, honest face reared up from the pile.
"So you woke up. Now I'll have some company, that is, at least until they come for us."
"Where are we?"
"Under the guard house, just by the gate. Don't bother to shout. They ignore you. I can't count how many times I passed this place without a care, headed toward the forum to do some business, never knowing I'd end up here just for obeying that whoreson Aule."
"What's your name?"
"I'm Thresu of the Luceres. I saw you with your herd when you entered the valley. Aule the headman told me to run to Tarquinia and let them know. I stuck around, hoping for a copper as a reward, and do you know what happened? That rotten bastard Churinas slapped my face. Then he had the guards beat me and put me here."
"They're vicious even for barbarians."
Thresu got up, pulled his torn tunic around him, and sat next to Melkart.
"I have to agree, even though they're my own people. Now we're both for it, once Thesan streaks the sky."
"What's going to happen?"
"We're both to be put to death in the morning before the altar as human sacrifices to Tin. I'll just have my throat cut since I'm only a paganus, but they're going to make you fight that monster Cacus and then kill whoever wins. Then they'll sacrifice all your cattle in a triple hecatomb."
"And how do you know this, trapped in this cell?"
"Guards told me when they dragged you in and chained you. Said how much they're looking forward to seeing me get it, the miserable swine."
Melkart silently mulled over Thresu's words.
"I understand these evil men mean us harm, Thresu, but what's the point of all this? If they want me dead and to have my cattle, why not just kill me when they drugged me unconscious? The same for Cacus. Why risk letting him loose?"
"Eryx is desperate to escape Tin's curse. He thinks if he makes enough offerings, Tin will forgive him and let him sacrifice in the temple again."
"Why did the god curse him?"
"He murdered his brother Evandrus the Rex at sacrifice, in the temple before Tin's image, so he could become Rex. In his death agony, Tin spoke through Evandrus. He cursed Eryx and all of Volturmna and sent Cacus to torment us for the blood guilt of Evandrus."
Melkart's scowl was visible even in near darkness. "Fratricide before the Sky Father himself? Blasphemy. Anathema. Is there no end to the infamy here?"
Thresu shook his head. "They're Kharun's children, the lot of them. Eryx took his own niece, Iole, after he murdered her pater and made her a slave, turned her over to the guards to break her in."
"By the gods, such vile crimes can't go unpunished. I made an oath this night to slaughter Eryx and his foul brood. As you are my witness, Thresu, before the sun sets on the morrow, I'll fulfill that vow."
Thresu laughed, then clapped both hands over his mouth. "I'm sorry, friend, but we're trapped down here. There's no way to escape. You're chained up. You might as well face it. Come the dawn, you and I will go under Kharun's hook."
"We'll see about that. I'm starting to feel more like my usual self."
Melkart got to his feet. He grabbed the chain with both hands and gave an exploratory pull.
"You'll never budge it. It's bolted to the wall."
"Probably at least a century ago. Let me brace myself."
Melkart stood close to the wall, braced his feet against it, and pulled on the chain. Veins bulged forth on his arms, chest, and neck. There was an audible groan from the wall. Melkart paused to catch his breath.
"Cel's bones, you're strong. What do they feed you in your country, whole cows?"
Melkart chuckled. He put his feet to the wall again, took in a deep breath, and exhaled heavily while he pulled even harder than before. A metallic shriek of protest and the four bolts gave way. The plate that bolted the chain to the wall came loose.
"All right, Melkart. Good work there. You're still trapped in this cell."
"You're right, Thresu. But you won't be, not for long, now I can move around."
A wild light came into Thresu's moonlit eyes, the hint of hope, of life continued.
"What do you mean, friend Melkart?"
"I'm too big to fit through that window, but you're the right size. Do you think you'd have much trouble scaling the wall?"
"No problem at all. I've done it before. The guards are dead lazy. They never keep their rounds. But what about the bar?"
"It looks about as old as these bolts."
Melkart reached up and pulled on the bar, rocked it back and forth. Old lime and weather-frayed brick cracked, split, and at last gave way. With one convulsive heave, the bar broke loose.
"You're a wonder."
"Concentrate on what's important, Thresu. When you're over the wall, tell your tribe and the others in Volturmna. Their day of liberation from the usurper and tyrant Eryx is at hand. You'll all attend the morrow's sacrifice, summoned by the Rex?"
Thresu nodded. "Every paganus for two leagues around must come."
"And the men have sickles and knives they can conceal in their robes."
Thresu frowned. "Aye, like all farmers, but they're cowards. They grumble about Eryx and his crimes and harsh taxes, but no one dares raise a finger against him. I can't say I blame them. His guards have cuirasses and helmets, spears and swords. All we have are farm tools."
"That's enough if you add courage, Thresu. You and your tribesmen outnumber the guard greatly. You yourself said they're lazy and undisciplined. Tell the men Melkart stands with them. I myself will deal with Eryx and his sons. The guards should put up little fight after that."
"So you'll just stay here. They'll be angry when they find out I've escaped."
Melkart shrugged massive shoulders. "What are they going to do? Put me to death? Get going, Thresu."
Thresu smiled. "Better than staying here. I give you my vow, I'll spread the word."
"Good man. Here, I'll give you a boost."
Melkart bent low and cupped his hands. Thresu stepped into the stirrup and with one bound wriggled his thin frame through the narrow window and was outside. Melkart bent low and searched with his hands on the filthy cobblestones until he found the rusty bolts and the plate. He carefully replaced the plate and bolts in the wall, heaped straw against the plate, and settled himself against the wall. Melkart closed his eyes, thought of green fields and clear, blue streams, and was soon asleep.
Long before the dawn's advent, pagani in their best white togas trekked toward Tarquinia on paved roads or narrow paths known only to their vicus, families with them. Rich pagani traveled in two wheeled carts pulled by sullen donkeys; poor families went on foot. The Lion Gate stood open. The press of pagani was so great, the guards simply waved them through rather than search everyone. Thresu bent low, concealed himself in a group of much bigger men, and sneaked in. Pagani solemnly washed their arms and heads at the marble fountain that burbled outside the temple's sacred boundary. Holy ablutions performed, they draped togas over their heads and took their places on the half moon of tiered granite seats before the terrace.
White smoke from burning myrrh and frankincense drifted up from the marble altar set in the sunken terrace, six cubits deep. Eryx and his sons sat upon bronze and ivory curule chairs on the terrace's opposite side, at the foot of the temple stairs, the closest Eryx dared to approach the sacred precinct. They still wore their celestial robes and radiate crowns. They were attended by lictors and two white bearded haruspices, wizened faces solemn under broad brimmed, high crowned straw hats. Each haruspex held a strangely curved augural staff. Guards and courtiers formed an entourage, including Churinas and Iole, in the back with the other slaves. Eryx waved to the captain of the guard.
"Fetch the condemned man, Teitu."
Teitu bowed low, rose, about faced, and left.
Melkart heard Teitu shout as he came down the tunnel. "All right, you foreign bastard, time to meet Kharun."
Teitu smacked his spear against the bars.
"Put up a fight, Molekart, and we'll spear you dead here and now. So come along quietly.
Melkart only regarded Teitu. The captain grinned broadly.
"Not so brave now you're a captive, eh? It doesn't take much to trim an overgrown ape like you down to size. Unlock the door."
The guards nervously filed into the cell.
"Hey, where's the other one, the little paganus?"
"Look, the bar's missing from the window."
"He must have escaped last night."
"What do you know about this?" Teitu said.
"Why, nothing. I passed the time sleeping. Are you sure there was another man? I don't remember one."
Teitu scowled. He raised his spear to strike Melkart with the butt, but Melkart held up a warning finger.
"Remember, your master wants me in one piece."
Teitu lowered his spear. "We can find Thresu later and kill him. Here, Lar. Take the key and release him. The rest of you, stand ready to spear him if he acts up."
Iron key in hand, Lar bent low and undid Melkart's collar with trembling fingers. Melkart massaged his chafed neck.
"There's eight of us here and a dozen more waiting outside, in armor with swords and spears. No matter how strong you are, you can't outfight us all. So show some common sense like you've done up till now and march like a good fellow to the temple."
"Can I have breakfast first? I'm hungry."
Teitu roared with laughter. "Breakfast? How about a krater of Falernian too? Condemned men don't get fed. You're going to be breakfast. The monster's."
The guards all laughed. Melkart shrugged and got to his feet. They instinctively flinched from his overpowering presence. Teitu shouted to reassert his authority.
"Form a cordon around the condemned man. Forward march."
They walked up the tunnel that led outside. Melkart blinked, momentarily stunned by day's unaccustomed harsh light. Teitu prodded him with his spear butt.
"Keep moving, Molekart. Don't want to keep the Rex waiting, do we?"
The streets were deserted as before, only now because everyone was waiting at the temple. The guards' hobnailed boots slapped hard on the flagstones as they marched.
"What became of Kaleb?"
"You ask a lot of questions for a man who isn't long for this world. We tried to spear the dog to death, but he was too quick. He jumped the fence and ran off into the night."
"He's too smart for barbarians."
Teitu shoved Melkart onward. They came to the temple. Melkart walked up to the sunken terrace's edge. He jumped down before Teitu could push him and landed with easy grace in the soft sand. Eryx rose and held up his arms in evocation.
"Behold the condemned foreigner who dared to question the ways of our paters. For that he shall suffer Tin's justice."
Melkart's voice rang out, loud and clear as a war trumpet's cry. "A wonder such words don't burn your mouth, sinner. I learned the truth about you. You murdered the true Rex Evandrus, your own brother, while he made sacrifice, and then enslaved his daughter, your own blood kin. Blasphemer. Fratricide."
A loud murmur went up from the assembled pagani. Ugly rumors had long circulated, but no one had publicly dared give voice to them until now. Many nodded at Melkart's incendiary accusations and shot Eryx filthy, hateful looks. Aware he was about to lose control of the situation, Eryx cried out.
"Loose the monster. Let Tin take his justice out on this cursed liar through him."
Teitu waved to a squad of guards. They turned a winch that raised a portcullis set into the wall. Cacus ran out, hungry and in a rage after being confined. The ravenous beast shook his great mane and looked all about him. His eyes fixed on Melkart, first and worst of his tormentors. Melkart smiled and waved. Cacus's hideous face contorted into an even more repulsive mass of wrinkles and bulges as his eyes went red with fury.
An enormous bolt of flame shot forth from his mouth, larger than before, the heat so intense it singed nearby spectators' hair. Just as Cacus let loose with his fire blast, Melkart ducked behind the altar, which blocked the bulk of the flames. The white marble was left permanently blackened. Exhausted by the effort, Cacus's barrel chest heaved as he tried to regain breath for another blast.
Melkart darted from behind the altar. Fast as fleet footed Akhilleous, he dashed across the terrace and threw himself upon Cacus. They hit the yellow sand with a deafening crash. Everyone watched enthralled, from the lowest paganus to Eryx the Rex, eyes fixed unblinking as the two titans fought to the death. Cacus sought to wrap tree trunk arms around Melkart in a fatal embrace, but he grabbed the brute by the wrists in his own iron hard grasp.
Each struggled to overcome the other in a prolonged test of strength. Cacus snapped ferociously with sharp fangs at Melkart's face. He deftly bobbed and weaved his head, kept it away from the monster's maw. Little by little though, human arms slowly gave way to inhuman, chthonic strength. Cacus smiled in delight as he pulled Melkart closer, yellow eyes aflame with piggy joy.
Loud barks and a nasty growl. A black form sailed through the air, launched from the battlements above. Kaleb agilely landed on all fours and bounded to his master's aid. He sank his teeth deep into the hamstrings of Cacus's left leg. The monster screamed with pain. Distracted, he let Melkart go, turned, and kicked Kaleb the length of the terrace.
"There's that damned black dog. He was hiding here the whole time," Antagones cried.
"Aye, and now I'll fix him too," Phobis said.
A long javelin sailed through the air. Thrown hard and well aimed, the javelin pierced Kaleb straight through his vitals. The dog expired without a whimper, dead game to the bitter end.
"Now you'll pay," Melkart roared.
He threw a handful of sand and small rocks into Cacus's eyes. The monster screamed with pain and tried to rub the grit from his eyes with his hands. Melkart hurtled toward him. His feet drove into Cacus's unprotected stomach, a double blow that left the monster dazed, sprawled, and prone. Before Cacus could regain his breath, Melkart leapt onto the small of his back with all his weight and force. He bent low and cupped his hands around Cacus's jaw. Melkart pulled on Cacus's head with every last obol of strength.
Cacus thrashed and emitted guttural moans. He bucked like a wild horse in a desperate effort to free himself, but Melkart kept his footing and continued to apply pressure. Veins protruded from Melkart's neck and arms as his face turned red from the strain. Cacus's eyes swelled from their sockets. A blood engorged, bloated, purple tongue jutted from his open mouth. He struggled with his last remnant of vitality to survive, desperately fierce, fighting to the last.
There was a loud, awful crack like a mighty oak's crash under a woodsman's axe. Cacus thrashed once more, fouled himself, and lay still, dead at last. Melkart got to his feet, but stood hunched over, gasping for breath.
Thresu shouted from amid the crowd. "My friend Melkart. Hail him. Ave. Greet him as our Pater."
Cheers went up throughout the crowd. "Hail him," they cried. "Ave, Pater Patriae, Father of Our Country."
The last greeting was traditionally reserved for the Rex. Eryx stamped his foot, angrily shook a fist at the pagani, and turned to Teitu.
"Spear him down."
Teitu signaled for guards to throw their spears, but Melkart was already on the move. He ran to Kaleb's carcass, snatched up the javelin, turned, and threw it.
The javelin plunged into Antagones's stomach, all the way through. Antagones looked down at the shaft buried in his guts. He turned to Eryx and gave a piteous, small child's wail.
"Pater, see what the paganus did to me."
Antagones fell. He writhed in agony as his copious blood stained white marble flagstones irreversibly red. Terrified, the haruspices hiked up their tunics and ran for their lives. The lictors followed in a cowardly funk.
"Here's our chance, men," Thresu said. "Rise up. Kill the blasphemers."
Thresu threw off his toga and pulled out a short, sharp knife. He jammed it into a nearby guard's throat. Encouraged by his example, other pagani took out knives and sickles and set upon the guards. Outnumbered and opposed by armed, desperate, righteously indignant men, the mercenary guards were soon overpowered and murdered. Courtiers panicked and fled, Churinas foremost among them. Paralyzed by the sight of his dying son, Eryx was left with Phobis and Teitu at the foot of the temple stairs.
"Lord Eryx, we must flee. I can't defend you alone."
"Pater. Stop staring at Antagones. You can't help him. You have to do something. Let's run for it."
With one bound, Melkart leaped from the terrace and stood among them. Teitu raised his sword and charged, but Melkart slammed a ham sized right fist to his jaw in a devastating punch. Teitu's head snapped right. Shattered teeth flew from his mouth in every direction. He fell unconscious.
Mind suddenly focused by imminent peril, Eryx held up his hands in a placatory gesture.
"Melkart, wait. I admit I broke the rules of hospitality, but that's nothing I can't make up. I'll give you a thousand cattle, why not two thousand? I'll gather up every cow in the valley, never mind whose they are-"
Frowning, Melkart grabbed Eryx by the scruff of the neck with one hand and his back with the other. He hoisted the tyrant high overhead. Eryx's toga and crown fell off. He dangled awkwardly in the air, fat, middle aged, well past his prime.
"Melkart. No. I said we can negotiate-"
"Blasphemer. Fratricide. Suffer your just fate."
Melkart hurled Eryx upward. Eryx sped screaming toward the temple.
Tin's grim statue loomed gray among dark shadows, full of menace, a certain portent of Eryx's foreordained doom. Eryx landed inside the temple with a hard thump.
Eryx writhed on cold marble stones as if he lay on hot coals. Before onlookers' appalled and awed eyes, he suffered all the tortures of the damned in Tartarus. Invisible razors surgically flayed living skin from his body as each hair was individually torn from his head, right down to the eyebrows and beard. Nerve endings were stabbed with needles as capillaries slowly wound around one another until they strangled themselves. Face reduced almost to a skull, Eryx looked up with withering eyes at the idol and begged for release from his misery.
Tin's statue gazed down upon this calvary and faintly smiled. From the hypaethral opening in the temple's roof, there was a clink of terracotta kraters, a lyre's ring, and booming laughter from celestial banquet couches. Lightning flashed from the northwest out of a cloudless sky.
"Looks like Tin thinks you did right by the bastard," Thresu said.
Worked up by battle frenzy, eyes locked in a long distance stare on Eryx's remains, Melkart suddenly noticed Thresu who'd been by his side for some time.
"Friend Thresu. You're indeed a man of your word and rare courage too. What happened to that bastard Photis?"
"It's Phobis. Rascne and Plesna have him. You didn't think we'd just let him run away, do you?"
"Bring him here."
"Yes, friend Melkart."
Two husky pagani dragged Phobis over. He fought every step of the way.
"Unhand me, you dirty villains. I'm the rightful Rex now, your lord and master."
"No," Melkart said. "You're a dog killer. Come here, you."
Melkart grabbed Phobis by the throat. He knelt down and balanced Phobis on his right knee.
"Stop. What are you doing?" Phobis shrieked.
Melkart put his big hands on Phobis and brought them down. The princeling's spine snapped in two. Melkart disdainfully threw Phobis to the marble where he writhed in agony by his dead brother.
"Eheu, paganus," he moaned. "You've crippled me."
"Writhe like the worm you are. Grovel in the dust. Beg for bread and wine for the rest of your life from those you once abused. Marduk's curse on you. Get him from my sight."
Pagani carried Phobis away.
"Where is Iole, Thresu?"
"She fled with the rest of the court to the palace."
"Let's go there. Bring Eryx's crown and toga along."
Thresu hurried to keep pace with Melkart. Courtiers and servants were gathered in the palace's small courtyard. Churinas and other high ranking officials prostrated themselves when Melkart entered.
"Ave, Lord Melkart. We are your slaves," Churinas said.
"No, you're not. Get up and hand over your staff."
Trembling, reluctant, Churinas nonetheless handed Melkart his ivory staff. Melkart scanned the crowd. Taller than everyone else, he quickly spotted Iole. He held out his right hand in invitation.
"Please come forward, Iole."
The young woman stepped through the crowd. Adept at adjusting to new circumstances, courtiers who'd once treated her contemptuously looked on with newfound respect. She stood before Melkart, a smile on her face.
"I thought for sure you'd die today. Instead, you killed Cacus and Eryx too. You've avenged my Pater, Evandrus. I owe you everything. I'm your slave now, Melkart."
"I told you no, Iole. You're the Lady of Volturmna now."
Melkart draped the blue toga over Iole's slender shoulders. He held the gold radiate crown over her head.
"Honor your liege lady, the rightful heiress to Volturmna, Iole, daughter of Evandrus, restored to her lawful high station and rank."
Everyone prostrated themselves before Iole. Overcome by the sudden, wild turn of events, Iole fought her emotions, but quickly mastered herself and stood proud and tall like the aristocrat she was raised to be. The courtiers rose and hailed her.
"Ave, Regina. Vivat Iole."
Melkart handed the ivory staff to Thresu.
"You're brave and honest, Thresu, and a loyal companion even when things get difficult. You'll be a good chief steward. If you approve, my lady?"
Iole nodded. "Your recommendation is enough, Melkart. I know Thresu will serve me well."
Thresu gasped. "From paganus to chief steward? Truly, Tin favors the bold. Wait until I get a hold of Aule. I'll serve you faithfully to my dying day, Lady Iole."
"Heed my commands then. Tell the haruspices to purify and re-sanctify the temple and to burn Eryx's remains outside the city walls. Let Antagones be buried in the potter's field outside the city walls with no stone or marker so no one ever knows where he lies. Phobis may beg outside the city walls, but may never again enter Tarquinia."
"Hail our royal mistress. Hear her justice, mercy, and wisdom," the courtiers cried.
"Clear the regal bedchamber of Eryx's things. The sons' chambers too. Burn everything that belonged to them."
"And what of Churinas?" Melkart asked. "He betrayed and tormented you. Shall I snap his neck for you, my lady?"
The fat courtier trembled so hard his scarlet synthesina shimmied. Iole dismissed him with a glance.
"Don't trouble yourself. Churinas may live on as a swineherd, with pigs for companions, far from Tarquinia's walls."
"You hear that, you fat bastard?" Thresu said. "Thank our lady for her mercy, Churinas."
In tears at the thought of a life of luxurious gluttony abruptly brought to a rude pastoral end, Churinas still had enough sense and remaining courtier instinct to prostrate himself again.
"Your slave thanks you, Mistress, for sparing his life. I'll try my best to be a good swineherd."
Melkart snorted with laughter. "Get out of here, Churinas."
Churinas gratefully ran from the courtyard to a hard life outdoors tending pigs. Melkart put his right hand to his heart and bowed low to Iole.
"My lady, I must tend to Kaleb. You'll excuse me."
"I understand, Melkart, but let me help perform the honors."
Melkart smiled. "You're kind, Iole."
They went to the terrace where Kaleb lay. Two slaves gently picked up his body and set it on a litter. Melkart led the procession with Iole by his side. Slaves carried the litter behind them. Urbani and pagani followed, mantles and togas draped over their heads, as if in mourning for their own kin. The sad lament went up, the paean to the warrior who died fighting for Volturmna. Outside the city, Melkart built a pyre from dead wood with Thresu's help. He laid Kaleb atop the pyre and stroked his thick, black hair for the last time. Haruspices anointed the dog with oil, myrrh, and frankincense, and a laurel wreath was laid upon the body, hero's honors.
After he ignited the pyre with a torch, Melkart sang a threnody in his foreign, unknown tongue while loyal Kaleb's fur caught fire. His body was swiftly consumed by the raging fire. Melkart wept as he would for any human companion. Kaleb was the last of the rarest breed, blood brother of Kerberus and Orthros, semi-divine canines.
When Kaleb was completely consumed, Melkart went outside the walls and checked the cattle herd. To his relief, only the guide bull had been slaughtered. The remaining herd was well fed and in good health after a long rest.
A banquet was held that night at the Hall of Couches, but the fare was simple, coarse bread, well watered wine, and smoked eels. A poet strummed the lyre and sang tales of brave Ulixes. As usual, Melkart ate heartily. Iole poured fresh spring water into his krater and smiled at him.
"Melkart, won't you stay and help me rule Volturmna? Frankly, I can use your strong right arm. You always seem to know what to do."
"You praise me too highly, Iole. I want to help you, always and forever, but I remain under a bond to deliver the cattle. Once that task is done, I'll return. You have my word."
Iole nodded, saddened by Melkart's words, but then suddenly brightened.
"Take Lupu. He's my gift to you. The leagues will fly swiftly under his hooves."
Melkart raised his krater in a toast.
"You do me honor, Lady Iole."
"Please. Call me Iole." Melkart laughed merrily.
Melkart set out at sunrise on Lupu. Before he mounted the horse, Iole handed him his lionskin, well brushed with a freshly shampooed mane. As he rode through the Lion Gate, Phobis writhed in the dust nearby. He held out his clay bowl, indifferent to who passed, intent only upon begging enough to get drunk. Thresu disdainfully threw a copper coin into the bowl.
Melkart drove the herd before him, a new, young guide bull in the lead. The court accompanied him to the valley's edge on foot. Iole rode in a litter as became her high station. The bright sun slowly ascended into an eggshell blue sky. Farmers and hinds cheered as Melkart and the herd passed, forever grateful to the man who rid them of Tin's curse and the tyrant Eryx.
They reached the valley's edge. Melkart drove the herd up the path and through the pass. Iole and her court watched them ascend. When the last cow trotted up the pass, Melkart turned Lupu around. Iole, Thresu, and the others waved and shouted blessings.
"Farewell, but return soon. Tin, Uni, and Cel keep you."
Melkart raised his right arm and waved farewell, teeth bared in a blazing smile. He turned Lupu, rode off, and was gone from sight.
"When do you think he'll return, my lady?"
"In the spring, Thresu, a year from now," Iole replied. Her gaze was far away. "He promised me."
© Mark Mellon 2018 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 11:09 Wed 14 Feb 2018
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