At the dawn of the fourth day from the Horn of the West, they finally found vacant land.
It took all their remaining strength to approach the smoldering shore. Black rocks replaced the high cliffs. It appeared as if streams of stone had met the sea, flattening the ground further inland and turning the trees into charcoal plinths.
Bostar spotted the only gap of sand. The streams had met the water and parted, leaving bare wet beach between the burning flows. This continued far into the distance, and it took some time for them to locate a gap sizeable enough to fit the trireme.
Artemisia stayed at the rudder, and with the sails furled and the top rowers easing the ship forward and back, she set the ram against the sand and ordered one last push to reach dry land.
Hanno was first to set foot on the shore. He took hold of the ropes and searched for a tree to anchor the trireme. The black rock stretched all the way to the cliffs and onto the southern and eastern horizon. Mists rose along the smoothed land, with not a living thing in sight.
“Hades has surfaced,” Aba cursed from the rail.
The black stone warmed the soles of Hanno’s sandals, but it held his weight.
“We’ve not yet entered hell,” the king replied.
“If this is not hell, what would you call it?” Jabnit asked.
“It’s land. Make do,” Artemisia scolded. She took a rope of her own and joined Hanno on the ground.
Encouraged by the sure footing of the king and helmsman, the rest of the crew disembarked. The marines fanned out to tie ropes against divots and cavities in the black rock. Some tried to hammer through the surface, but after snapping the hafts of several tools they ceased the attempt.
While the marines pulled and fastened the ship to the warm shore, the shipwrights set about the hull. Worn planks were replaced, and saturated supports were removed and laid out for drying.
The ship seemed swelled like a bruised arm, its timbers groaning as they re-hardened.
“We should give it at least till tomorrow,” Artemisia told Hanno while the work progressed. She joined Bostar and the king, who surveyed the crew from a low rise. Liva sat nearby.
“Agreed,” Hanno said. “Will there be any permanent damage?”
“I could use some more timbers. But I don’t suspect we’ll find any.”
“Not much use foraging,” Bostar added.
“What could have caused such devastation?” Hanno wondered.
“You think this is recent?”
“The land smolders. Perhaps this Chariot of the Gods the Gorillae warned of spat this black rock onto the ground.”
“A burning chariot wouldn’t last long,” Artemisia noted.
“But I’d rather not encounter it,” Bostar agreed.
“We could still turn north,” Artemisia pressed. “Four more days back to—”
“We have not completed our quest,” Hanno snapped. “If I return now, my kingship will be as vacant as the land you now see.”
“You think this chariot’s made of gold or something?”
“We’ve come this far, Helmsman. Have faith we can travel further.”
“I’ll leave the faith to Aba.”
Artemisia departed to assist with the repairs.
“I’ll set up a sentry perimeter,” Bostar said.
It seemed unnecessary with such an uninterrupted view, but when night came, Hanno knew they’d be grateful for the watchers.
The king sat beside Liva.
“I don’t want to be the downfall of your city,” she said.
“Are you still worried about Seer?” Hanno asked.
“I can’t remove the things it showed us from my mind.”
“The first you speak of love is now?”
“You are a creature of lust, Hanno. You lust for your kingship, and now you lust for me,” Liva continued.
“Does my lust displease you?” Hanno asked.
“It does when you lie it into love.”
“You doubt my love?”
“What do you know of it?”
“I know the love of my people. I know the love of a woman taken from me by sickness, a woman who was not of my people but whom I chose because I loved her and that was enough.”
“And I am merely a replacement for this woman?”
Hanno sighed, and rubbed his sweating forehead against his hand.
“Perhaps,” he admitted.
Liva looked at him, and turned Hanno’s face toward hers.
“I am nobody’s second,” she said.
“Of course,” Hanno agreed.
“I am Liva of the Lixitae. I am the teller of stories and the collector of tales. I seek out magic. And I believe I have found it,” she said, and held Hanno’s hand. “I don’t know if there is any here.”
“Certainly not in this black land.”
She pressed Hanno’s hand against her heart.
“Do you know why I feared the contents of Seer’s pool?” Liva asked. “Because I had no idea what it might show. When I saw it… it terrified me. How did it not terrify you?”
“Because I didn’t believe it,” Hanno said.
“But it showed what you wanted. Your gold. Your power.”
“And that was the truth?”
“I suppose it was.”
“What will happen if you find that? Will it truly burn Carthage?”
“That will not happen.”
“How do you know?”
“I know who I am. And I will not let that happen.”
Liva leaned against Hanno’s shoulder.
“I hope that’s true,” she said.
They lay there until sleep found them.
They awoke with a great tremor of the earth. Night had fallen, and several of the sentries dropped their torches and shouted in fright.
Hanno tore his sword free of its sheath, and looked around for the source of the threat. A clap of thunder and a flash of red drew all eyes to the south. A crimson ball lit up the sky, reaching so high it hid the stars and outshone the moon.
The clouds parted, and with the aid of the distant glow, a shroud of black loomed. Fire flowed down its sizes, silhouetting its shape higher and higher and higher.
“It’s a mountain,” Hanno realized.
“A mountain of shadow,” Liva added.
She held Hanno tight as the flames subsided.
The red dot lingered in their view all night, and they rose the next morning to the smell of sulfur.
Clouds of smoke hid the mountain, but the occasional burst of flames reminded them of its mass, like a looming god awaiting their approach.
“Ship’s ready,” Artemisia declared. “But I’d rather we didn’t do another four days without landing.”
“Agreed,” Hanno said.
The crew wasted no time dismantling their camp. They’d found little comfort in the warm, hard rock beneath their beds. Each man hurried below deck to grasp their oar, eager to be rid of the red eye burning at them through the distant clouds.
The wind dimmed, slowing their progress, and the rowers strained against a rough sea. Waves rose and fell, wetting the trireme’s bow, but Hanno and Artemisia stayed on the rudders and kept the ram pointed steadily southward. All the while that distant fire loomed, growing larger with their approach.
Black tendrils simmered against the low coast. Acrid smoke hid the lands beyond. With each mile, the tendrils grew thicker, the steam atop them darker, until red spots burst out of the black stone.
Instead of smoothed rock, the land lay covered in low flames. The very earth seemed charred, solid only where the waves met it in a cloud of steam.
“Ahead, ahead, we sail ahead. Further south, we have no dread. For Hanno leads and sets our speeds. Fear not, instead, ahead, ahead,” Mapen sang.
By the end of a hard day’s journey, they found shelter in the crag of an overhanging cliff. It hid a beach just large enough to fit the trireme and divert the smoldering land on either side.
The next morning, they set out with the same eagerness, and fought the same waves.
Hanno and Artemisia allowed the crew to take the rudders during a low point in the waves and consulted the king’s half-completed map.
“The way the coast has traveled, we should arrive upon a bay soon,” Artemisia predicted, tracing her finger along the painted African shore.
“As I said. We have wealth in abundance yet to come,” Hanno reassured her.
“This is further south than I’ve ever heard anyone traveling. I’m not sure if anyone even lives here. Especially with that… mountain so close,” Liva noted.
Clouds swirled around the dark, distant peak, the red eye swelling the closer they drew.
“Do you think that’s the source of all this fire?” Liva asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Hanno said.
“It’s getting thicker,” Artemisia complained.
“It will soon end.”
“It better. And there better be more gold than I can carry on its far side.”
The black flows thinned somewhat, but the red glow beneath spread. It stretched and popped along the thin membrane of the earth and spouted globs of liquid fire. The burning ground moved like a living, dying thing.
“The flames excite, ahead we fight, and see the southern dawn. With Hanno’s might, and trireme kite, ahead, ahead, beyond,” Mapen sang.
When the sun set, the fires traced along the shore like glowing roots. No landing could be made, but when the tide withdrew, they were able to beach in the shallows, setting up sporadic camps in the jagged shore.
The burning eye subsided somewhat, becoming a red spot in the cloud-hidden night. The sentries kept a sweating watch, though the burning land offered few spots where attackers might approach.
What held their vigilance was an ever-present rumble. Hanno and his companions didn’t notice it until the noise of camp subsided. It was a low, low shudder. Like a laugh bubbling up from Hades.
Liva had joined Hanno in his tent. It was the first time she’d done so since encountering the Horn of the West. She lay not with the king, though, but sat hugging her knees upon a bedroll adjacent to his.
Each trained their ears to the tent flap, where Hanno searched the night sky for the laughter’s source.
“It’s coming from the mountain, isn’t it?” Liva guessed.
“This is a strange land. It could be anywhere,” Hanno countered.
“But it’s from the mountain. And that’s where we’re headed.”
Hanno nodded, and sat down on his own bedroll. The low ceiling kept them huddled close, and the tentflap let in a sulfuric breeze salted by the churning sea.
“We’re headed south,” Hanno agreed.
“I hear it laughing. Do you not?” Liva asked.
“I do. If you could call it laughter.”
“This is a shadow land, full of flames.”
“Fear it not.”
“I would call it unwise not to fear it.”
“Then call me unwise.”
Liva smiled, and shook her head.
“For more reason than one,” she said.
After a pause where neither did more than listen to the laughter, Hanno admitted, “I do fear it.”
“We could just go, you know. We could go back north, back to Cerne maybe. You could rule there and join with my people like you did the Libyans.”
Hanno bit his lip. “Perhaps,” he said.
“What’s so wrong with being the husband of a queen if I have to face being the wife of a king?” Liva asked.
“I am a king.”
Liva nodded. “I know,” she said.
“I can’t not be who I am,” Hanno protested. “And if I go north, Suffete will take more than what he has already stolen. When I have the treasure and the map and the glory to return, then I will reclaim what my father lost.”
Hanno sighed. “Perhaps we made the initial mistake centuries ago.”
“In what way?”
“The Phoenicians. When Queen Elissa left Tyre and founded Carthage, she saw herself and her people as different from the Libyans. Her glory became my downfall.”
“Because she didn’t marry a Libyan king?”
“And we still sing about her sacrifice.”
“Is that why you married your Libyan woman?”
“Her name was Elissa as well. A new Dido. I’m sorry, I should not speak of her.”
“No, it’s okay. Tell me about her.”
Hanno gathered his thoughts, doing his best to ignore the rumbling laughter.
“She played the lyre. Her father taught her, she said. Daughter of a fabulously wealthy Libyan merchant. He came from nothing, married himself a Phoenician wife and named his daughter Elissa. She was glorious, kind, and…” Hanno said.
“Go on,” Liva encouraged.
“Her father died with mine. The Council told me to end the marriage, that her family had been ruined. I didn’t.”
“You loved her.”
“It was not a wise decision,” the king said. “I lost the chance to solidify my rule by marrying a perfume-spoiled merchant’s brat.”
Liva chuckled, the sound echoed by the low, distant rumbling.
“Sounds like you didn’t regret your decision,” she said.
“No,” Hanno admitted. “But she fell sick anyway, and I lost my power after my father fell in battle. The title of king is granted by the Council. It is not technically a hereditary post, though it has been solidified by my family for so long that none doubted I’d claim the mantle. I suppose it was easier for the Council to just ignore me, rather than name another man king. I have only this. I have only the kingdom I possess but in name.”
“Is that all you are?”
Hanno showed her his hands.
“What does the world know of Hanno?” he asked.
Liva put her hands in his.
“Liva knows of Hanno,” she said.
“And Hanno knows of Liva,” the king agreed.
“You yearn for the same cage I’ve longed to flee, Hanno. You were born to a title and seek to make it yours. I… I reject what title I have and seek a name of my own.”
“They say Carthage is a land of names written anew.”
“And the name of the king?”
“Is already carved in stone on the temple wall.”
“You can’t change it?”
“I never thought to,” he admitted.
The ground shook, just a moment, but enough that Liva squeezed Hanno tight.
“Do you know what I think, Hanno of Carthage?” Liva asked.
“What, Liva of the Lixitae?” Hanno replied.
“I think your greatest desire isn’t set in stone or found in the bottom of Seer’s pool. And neither is mine.”
Hanno squeezed her back.
“Am I wrong?” she asked.
“We will find the answers to all these things. Once we journey further south,” Hanno said.
Liva stared long into the king’s eyes, and nodded.
They lay side by side, and did their best to ignore the rumbling laughter.
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.