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  “Do you know these people?” Hanno asked Liva.

  The Lixitae shook her head. “I don’t recognize their dress,” she said.

  The people fled the shore before the trireme drew close enough for sound to reach them. Before the day ended, they passed even more villages and settlements. Each time, the people dashed into the thick trees further ashore.

  That night, though the sentries kept vigilant watch, they spotted no sign of the departed peoples. The shy southerners had even buried the ashes from their fires in their flight from the shore, leaving no sign anyone had ever lived along the lush coast.

 

  On the eleventh day, Hanno began the tale of how Melqart earned an apple from the queen of the gods, a mighty woman known only by her title, when they spotted more vacated settlements. At noon they went to shore, hoping to discover where the people had gone.

  “If there is some danger in this land, we should know of it,” Hanno announced.

  “Perhaps the only danger they see is you,” Liva noted.

  “This time you share my status as a northern invader. Don’t forget that.”

  “I’m not here to steal any apples.”

  “Melqart traded for them, remember? He gave the queen of the gods the one thing she did not have, in exchange for her magnificent treasure.”

  “What do you think these people want?”

  “Ask them.”

  Liva and Hanno stepped into the forest, listening through the swaying trees for any human sound. Bostar and a company of marines walked with them, each with spear and javelin held ready.

  At the sound of a distant shout, they sped in that direction.

  “Maintain a line,” Hanno said in a low, quick order. “But don’t attack unless provoked. We might need supplies if this forest ends.”

  They followed the sounds through the wide-leafed trees. Only the echo met their ears, and they soon lost sight of the shore.

  Hanno raised a hand to halt their advance, and they knelt to listen. The distant shouting continued, though it seemed no closer.

  “What do they say?” Hanno asked.

  “I’ve never heard words like theirs,” Liva admitted.

  “Can you call out to them?”

  “How would I?”

  “Speak something. Maybe they know your tongue.”

  Liva frowned, but shouted out in the language Hanno recognized as that of the Lixitae. Then she switched and shouted in a way that sounded like the Gorillae shapeshifters.

  Silence greeted them, followed by more indiscernible cries that grew further and further distant.

  Liva shook her head.

  “I can’t understand it. Not a word,” she admitted.

  “Artemisia will be worried,” Bostar noted.

  “I doubt that,” Hanno replied.

  “Still, unless we get back before long she’ll either assume we’ve been attacked and leave or burn the forest down to search for us.”

  “I dislike either outcome,” Liva shared.

  “As do I,” Hanno agreed. “Maintain formation and withdraw. Keep an eye out. Perhaps they will chase us.”

  But the voices stayed behind, and only the frowning helmsman greeted them when they returned to the beach.

  After they splashed to the hull and climbed aboard the waiting trireme, they resumed their progress. And in the time between their midday excursion and the setting of the sun, Liva completed both her copying of the eleventh labor and her translation. She lined the written stories in Punic and her own tongue, as well as the list of symbols that allowed both to be understood.

  “You name your language Punic, but your people are from Carthage, yes?” Liva asked.

  “Our ancestors came from Phoenicia,” Hanno explained. “My people are Carthaginian by loyalty, and Phoenician, or Punic speakers, by heritage.”

  Liva frowned. “I suppose my people are loyal to many things.”

  “Such as?”

  “Land, perhaps, but there is no point being loyal to land when you move to a new land with the changing seasons. Family, friends, the herds we gather. Should I name the language after what my people are loyal to or where they’re from?”

  “This is up to you.”

  “Identifying things is difficult. You say something, and it will be that forever.”

  “I suppose this is the power Chretes identified,” Hanno noted.

  Liva nodded. “How did Melqart know what the queen of the gods would accept as payment for her apple?”

  “He understood her weakness.”

  “A goddess is weak?”

  “So the tale says. The goddess was powerful, capable of destroying or creating anything she chose.”

  “So she has no weakness.”

  Hanno shook his head. “She was terribly weak. She could level mountains, but never earn fear or awe from the people who witnessed it. When the gods spoke to each, other they would ask, ‘Who did this great thing? Who has this power?’ And they would be told, ‘The queen,’ and they would nod, but not truly see the crafter of these great works. So the queen had no idea what powers she had. For how could anyone see it? She did not know herself.”

  Hanno wrote down the word.

  “Tanit,” the king said. “That is what Melqart named her.”

  Liva copied the word in her own language.

  “Maybe my people will worship her as well,” she said.

  “This is why the gift was so worthy. The Lixitae, the Greeks, even the Phoenicians did not know her. But Melqart’s gift made it possible to know our queen of the gods,” Hanno shared.

  “Then you have given me a gift as well, Hanno.”

  Liva scratched the word Lixitae using both the Phoenician alphabet and her own.

  “I name my language after my people. Perhaps the written name will make them realize their own strength,” Liva announced.

  She frowned at the word.

  “Perhaps it will make me realize it,” the Lixitae whispered.

  “Melqart traveled the world in its entirety, spreading the name of Tanit to everyone he passed. We continue that legacy. There is power in that name, even the queen of the gods knew it. That is why she gave Melqart the gift he requested. It was a fair trade.”

  Jabnit blew the pipes to signal their turn toward the shore.

  “Perhaps we’ll have one more name to give today, if these unknown peoples wish to greet us in our camp,” Hanno hoped.

  But nothing more than the wind in the bright green branches of the trees met their arrival. The sentries spotted only small furry creatures that dashed away so fast they couldn’t be captured, and shadows from the fading moon.

 

  The next day, Hanno found Liva spreading out the final section of the stolen scroll on their shared desk. The sails had been set, and the oars began their steady beating.

  The king glanced back at the desk, and in so doing spotted a fraying rope.

  “Marine,” the king called out. “Fetch me some twine.”

  Liva looked up and saw Hanno and the marine repairing the rope, and returned to her reading.

  When he’d finished, Hanno spotted a crack in one of the planks and had this replaced as well. Then he rechecked the stitching in the sail. Only after half the day had passed did he realize the ship was sound as could be, and he had no reason not to assist Liva with her work.

  The king hesitated, and Bostar joined him near the mast.

  “I find myself reluctant to continue studying this scroll, my friend,” Hanno admitted.

  “I can tell her to stop,” the bowman replied.

  Hanno laughed. “I doubt she’d agree. She stole that scroll. She’d steal it back. Might even swim to shore and read it on her own rather than continue if we told her to stop.”

  The king smiled.

  “There are further tales. Further stories to be told. I’m sure she’d be willing to listen to them,” Bostar advised.

  “I suppose,” Hanno said.

  “And there are many tales yet to be written. Don’t let past works restrict further tellings.”

  Hanno’s face darkened.

  “Hanno, I—” Bostar tried to say.

  “No,” the king interrupted. “You are right.”

  Hanno took a breath, patted his friend on the shoulder, and approached Liva.

  “I was wondering when you were going to join me,” she said, and smiled at Hanno.

  Hanno smiled as well.

  “I’m not sure about this last labor,” Liva admitted. She had already copied near the entirety of the scroll, and pointed to the Punic and Lixitae words.

  “What’s wrong with it?” Hanno asked.

  “It’s terrifying. Melqart dies.”

  “Melqart doesn’t die.”

  “It says he journeys to the underworld to fetch the fifty-headed beast guarding its entrance.”

  “But he doesn’t die.”

  Liva looked closer at the scroll.

  “It says right here. Melqart died,” she pointed out.

  Hanno read the words. “Melqart died, but he didn’t die,” he clarified.

  Liva frowned.

  “What is the definition of dying?” Hanno prompted.

  “I thought that was obvious. You die,” Liva said.

  Hanno shook his head. “To the gods Melqart had to appease, the definition of dying is entering the underworld. But only the dead may enter the underworld. So Melqart had to do something that would kill him, but that he could also survive.”

  “That makes no sense.”

  “A word can mean one thing and something else at the same time. Such as the word dead.”

  “Chretes wasn’t kidding,” Liva muttered.

  “But even Chretes would have called Melqart dead after what he did,” Hanno clarified. “He asked everyone how this might be done. But none knew how to enter the underworld unless one gave up their life. And so that’s what Melqart did.”

  “Sorry to interrupt, Hanno, but look,” Bostar said as he ran to the desk, then pointed to the shore.

  A dozen or so people stood on the beach. They held thin spears of wood and stone and wore red-dyed wraps and skirts speckled with beads. The midday sun glistened off a shimmering object, and the call went out on the trireme that they had gold.

  Necklaces, rings, headbands hammered thin, and dangling earrings of wide, glowing discs. They wore gold in such abundance that word of a possible mine already spread through the marines.

  “Have you ever met this nation of people?” Hanno asked Liva.

  “Their dress is somewhat similar to the people north of here,” she replied.

  One of them called out, a woman in the center holding a staff capped with a golden bird.

  Liva shook her head and said, “I don’t know what she’s saying.”

  “Reply in whatever language you deem best. Artemisia, stop the ship,” Hanno ordered.

  They proceeded to the stern while the helmsman slowed the trireme. The sails were furled and a single row of oars kept the ship paddling still, edging it closer while the marines gathered at the rails.

  The gold-decorated people shouted back at Liva’s voice, but neither understood the other. They shook their heads when Liva tried to shout again, and retreated toward the trees when they saw the trireme approach the beach.

  “Don’t let them leave,” Hanno insisted. “Suffete wants the treasures of Africa. Here’s where we’ll begin.”

  “Do you intend to steal it from them?” Liva asked.

  Hanno spotted the marines holding readied javelins and urged them to stand down.

  “Weapons lowered,” the king ordered. “Go below deck and await my command. We don’t want to scare them off.”

  “But we don’t want to be caught off guard,” Artemisia cautioned.

  “Of course. So be prepared, but don’t appear threatening.”

  The deck cleared, and Bostar set his bow upon the planks, though he kept an arrow ready.

  Hanno waved at the people on the shore, but they still stepped toward the trees. They called out to Hanno, and the king said, “Your gold! What do you wish for it?”

  But the bejeweled people dashed away. They called out one last time before disappearing into the trees.

  “They seem friendly,” Artemisia noted. “Shall we move on?”

  “I want to know where that gold came from,” Hanno said. “Bostar.”

  The king leapt into the shallow water. He swam a pace before reaching the sandy bottom, and walked to the dry beach with Bostar, Liva, and half a dozen marines at his side.

  “You don’t intend to attack them, do you?” Liva asked.

  “Can you tell them I don’t?” Hanno asked.

  “I’ve tried.”

  “Then I’m preparing in case they attack me.”

  Hanno instructed the marines to form a line at the beach, their spears planted upward. Bostar kept an arrow nocked but his bow lowered, while Hanno laid his hand on his sheathed sword.

  They waited, but no sound came from the trees.

  “Are you done?” Artemisia shouted from back on the trireme.

  She’d guided the ship closer to shore, so that it nudged against the shallows. They were far out of javelin range, but close enough the king could flee to his companions if need be.

  Nothing came from the brush save the chittering of birds.

  “The twelfth labor,” Hanno said.

  “What of it?” Liva asked, her eyes wide and searching the empty beach.

  “Do you think Melqart was wise to give up such a thing?”

  “I don’t think we’re in a position to discuss stories.”

  “It would be a clever trap indeed if they intended we let our guard down and then ambushed us. But let us assume for a moment that is not their intent. Let us assume betrayal will not happen. Melqart risked everything. I suppose we can risk a little.”

  Hanno instructed the row of marines to withdraw to the shallows.

  “Helmsman,” the king called out. “Fetch a crate of cloth. A couple axes and spears as well.”

  “What for?” Artemisia asked.

  “We’re assuming betrayal will not occur.”

  Mapen readied the box and lowered it to Bostar.

  “I’ll take it. Watch my back, though. I’m afraid I lack the faith of Melqart,” Hanno instructed.

  Bostar handed over the box and the king walked it to the beach, where he set it down on the dry sand. After a moment’s silent pause, Hanno returned to his men.

  “Back onboard,” he commanded.

  “You’re granting a gift?” Bostar asked.

  “It could be a gift. It could not be. We shall see.”

  Back at the ship’s rails, they waited, but still nothing appeared at the tree line.

  “Push us further out,” Hanno advised.

  Jabnit piped a quick tune and the oars shoved against the shallows, where they once more held the ship still amidst the low waves.

  “How long must you know a person before you trust them?” Hanno asked Liva while they waited.

  “I suppose it depends on the person,” Liva guessed.

  Hanno nodded. “Ready the brazier, Mapen. Set a low flame. Perhaps the smoke will signal our location.”

  Mapen and a couple marines did so, and soon they had a stack of wetted logs burning in a metal brazier set up on the bow. Plumes of gray smoke drifted into the sky.

  “We’ve known these peoples little, and you want to assure them where we are, and that we are far from the goods you’ve left?” Liva asked.

  “Melqart knew the Numidian Cirta only a day, and yet he gave her his life. He transferred ownership of not just his possessions, but his body and mind as well,” Hanno noted.

  “He needed to get into the underworld, didn’t he? It was either that or die.”

  “But if he returned, he would have no life save that which Cirta allowed him. Yes, it tricked the gatekeeper of the underworld into letting Melqart enter, but would his success be worth the price?”

  “But Cirta gave him back his life.”

  “It was a risk, though.”

  “Was there an alternative?”

  Hanno thought a moment, and in this pause he spotted a moving tree branch.

  “There,” he pointed out.

  One of the gold-adorned peoples who’d departed the beach returned. He kept his eyes on the distant ship, and approached the crate. There he examined one of the axes laid atop it, and tested the spear he found.

  After he opened the crate and ran his fingers through the cloth, he waved to the tree line.

  Another man carried a small basket. It was about the size of a cooking jar, and when the man placed it beside the crate the contents glistened.

  “They put gold on the beach,” Liva announced.

  “I suppose if they hadn’t volunteered to pay us we’d hardly be out a life, would we? Just some cloth and weapons,” Hanno said.

  “How did you know they would do that?”

  “As I said, I lack the faith of Melqart. But perhaps I share his eyes.”

  The men on the beach returned to the trees.

  “Skittish, aren’t they?” Artemisia said.

  “Take us closer,” Hanno ordered.

  Once more, the king and his company stepped onto the beach. They examined the basket, and Bostar showed Hanno the rough bar of gold it contained, so heavy none doubted its purity.

  The bowman frowned, though, because that was all they found in the basket.

  “What’s wrong?” Liva asked.

  “This is a small bar,” he noted.

  “So? They’re paying you, aren’t they?”

  “Not enough.”

  “Bostar has a point,” Hanno agreed, and weighed the bar in his palm. “You’d fetch a similar fee for such a crate in the markets of Carthage. But we are far from Carthage.”

  “They don’t appear to be ready to haggle,” Liva noted.

  “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

  Hanno returned the bar to the basket.

  “Back to the ship,” Hanno ordered.

  “What are you doing?” Liva asked.

  “Once again, I am assuming betrayal will not occur.”

  Liva glanced at the tree line, bit her lip, and then followed the Carthaginians into the shallows. Once they’d retreated further into the water, the two on the beach returned.

  The gold-adorned peoples examined the basket, spoke a moment, and then placed another bar of gold inside, along with a pair of round nuggets and a hammered disc like that of their earrings. This done, they returned to the trees.

  “I suppose they are ready to haggle,” Liva realized.

  “Let us examine their modified price,” Hanno agreed.

  They returned to the basket, and Hanno smiled when he raised its heavy contents.

  “My thanks, people of this fertile land,” Hanno called out.

  “They don’t understand you,” Liva said.

  Hanno hefted the basket.

  “Of course they do. They just don’t understand my words,” he corrected.

  When they returned to the ship with the basket of gold, the two men stepped onto the beach as before. This time, when they saw that their basket had been collected, they picked up the crate and weapons and brought them to the trees.

  Only then did a woman with many golden bracelets adorning her arms show herself. The way the other golden people stood in deference to her revealed her to be some sort of queen. She stood on the dry sand beside her fellows, and waved at the trireme.

  Hanno waved back.

  “Perhaps there is honor in these southerners,” Aba stated.

  “There is honor in all peoples, Priestess,” Hanno chided.

  “What of the Gorillae?”

  “There is honor in them as well. They just ask a different price for it. Resume course, Helmsman. Maybe we’ll discover the source of this gold, but it seems we’ve earned as much as we can from these people.”

  “We could press them further,” Artemisia suggested.

  The woman with the bracelets returned to the trees, her fellows admiring their traded goods as they followed.

  “I think I’ll play the part of Cirta this day,” Hanno said.

  “You hardly had to battle any Cerberuses,” Liva noted.

  Hanno laughed. They watched the shore fade into the distance as they chased the land further south.

  “I don’t like the ending,” Liva announced after the sun began to set. She pushed aside her ink and pen and stared at the words she’d scratched onto the parchment.

  “These are the words written in Suffete’s scroll,” Hanno noted.

  “But I don’t like it. Melqart goes to the underworld, defeats the fifty-headed beast, shows it to the gods, and earns their forgiveness. Then he gets his life back from Cirta and the story ends.”

  “And?”

  “And it’s not an ending.”

  “Melqart re-earns his proper place with the gods.”

  “Exactly. He’s right where he was at the beginning. He hasn’t changed at all.”

  Hanno frowned at the scroll.

  “He went through all of that, died even, just to recover what was lost? What if he loses it again?” Liva asked.

  “I suppose he’ll suffer more labors,” Hanno guessed.

  “Seems to me he died for nothing.”

  “Being shamed by the gods is not nothing. Nor is earning their respect.”

  “But the tale just stops there. It doesn’t say what Melqart did with that respect once he earned it. I’d like to know that.”

  “Perhaps you will write it then.”

  “It’s not what happened.”

  “Aba tells us that Melqart works throughout the world even today. Perhaps his story is not complete.”

  Hanno handed Liva a blank piece of parchment. She looked at its empty space for a moment, then smiled at Hanno.

  Aba approached when she saw the king roll up the stolen scroll.

  “You’ve finished, then?” she asked.

  “We have,” Hanno said.

  “But have we? Aren’t there more works of Melqart?” Liva asked.

  “There are many further tales, of course,” Aba said.

  “But Mapen tells them best. Mapen! Don’t you have a song of Melqart’s travels after his labors?” the king proposed.

  “Of course!” Mapen replied, and raced across the deck to join the king. “With your permission, Mother.”

  “Sing well, my son. Tell us of the many works of Melqart not found in any text, and I shall clarify all mistranslations,” the priestess relented.

  The singer spun the tale while the sun lowered upon the horizon.

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About the author

DavidDHammons

Bio: I once snuck into a castle. It wasn’t a terribly good castle. In fact it was quite old and broken, but it had a shut door I wasn’t supposed to go through. Yet through it I went. I climbed an ancient wall I shouldn’t have climbed, wandered across borders without using the approved path, and was handed a silver trophy for a contest I wasn’t allowed to enter. From my time growing up in the Missouri Ozarks to my travels abroad, I couldn’t help going places and doing things I probably shouldn’t. Perhaps more of those doors needed 'Keep Out' signs, or if they did have signs they should have been locked, and if they had been locked they shouldn’t have hidden such amazing things that made going through them so worthwhile. I currently live in Springfield, Missouri, where I teach Marketing, study History, and, alongside my wonderful wife, make a valiant attempt at passing through the doorway of writing.

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