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August 2022
 
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Things To Do In The Bronze Age

by David Barber



1.

Another blue world. They seemed drawn to them, birthing into the real, trailing a stutter of ghosts like white sails on a black sea.

How do we know it is still us, asked the Novice fearfully, as fading doppelgangers and their not quite crews failed to exist.

Lots of you have asked the same question, grunted the Warrior.

As was their custom, they donned the corpora of the indigenes of this planet.

The Fox watched the Warrior choosing his weapons.

"I note your blade is iron; and this handsome black armour is impervious to the soft bronze points of your foe."

In reply, the Warrior drew the edge of his sword across his forearm and startling red blood welled up.

The Fox laughed. "A hero but not a god."

2.

Above a bay, where wooden ships lay beached along the white shore, rose a walled town.

The Knower and the Poet trudged up the dusty slope towards its towers and the rising sun. The Knower had made himself forget how the universe worked so that he might discover the gods. The Poet had uploaded finger-craft on the lyre, but relied upon his own skill with words. A king and his court would hear new songs this night.

The Fox trailed the Warrior down to the sea. They stood and watched waves swell and fall endlessly. So much water. Like their years upon the beach of time. The Warrior grew bored and strode on.

Hurrying after him, the Fox was the first to realise they had put themselves between two bands of armed men, threatening and taunting each other from a careful distance.

"This is where you must choose your side."

A soldier with a red helmet plume pushed aside the shield wall and shouted something through the salt air. He followed the insult with a javelin. The Fox had already stepped back and it came nowhere near him. The Warrior waited until the last moment before turning his shoulders so the missile whipped across his chest.

With a slow smile he plucked the spear from the sand and weighed it in his fist. Then returned it in an impossibly flat trajectory through the eye slit of a man in the front rank.

He sighed. "I was aiming for the thrower."

From the other band came Idomeneus, grandson of Minos, king of Krete, pushing his bronze helmet up onto his head. The Fox saw it all at a glance: his grizzled beard, his worn gear, his cautious eyes. These were pirates, reivers from the sea, come to plunder this city, staying to feud.

"Here is Achilleus," he announced and knew how it must look, the Warrior's barely caged violence, like a dangerous animal, and beside him, his small crooked companion holding the leash.

They weren't Achaeans, but the fighting was interminable; a champion was needed. Idomeneus murmured this to the Fox.

Wordlessly, the Warrior took his javelin and hurled it into the ranks of Ilium. Two figures fell forward, skewered together, pinned to their own shields, the point protruding a foot from the back. Men moaned and began to edge away and the Achaean hoplites roared and gave chase.

"Their gear is yours," offered Idomeneus.

The Fox leaned close. "What would Achilleus want with armor soft as a liar's tongue?"

Idomeneus smiled uneasily.

3.

The court of Priam had its own bards who sang the praises of the house of Priam, the honored lineage of Priam, the wealth and legendary loins of Priam. They scowled at the newcomer as he yawned in the firelight, emptying cups of tart red wine and chewing morsels of bread.

Now the Poet was beckoned to the throne. He saw that no amount of gold and purple could hide the king's wretchedness. He had lost his favoured son to this war; every day in his city women wailed for their sons and husbands and brothers; vultures circled as smoke rose endlessly from funeral pyres.

The king's daughter, clad in the white of a priestess, was seated by the throne. She leaned forward. "A truthful man might leave here but a lyre will not."

Thoughtfully he sounded the strings.

Poets tire of being told
how long ago bards had voices
that made the birds fall silent
and memories longer than old men's beards...

The old king stared through him.

The hubris of art. He put into words the thoughts of sons and husbands, of the not quite heroes, who fought for the overweening pride of kings and to keep wolves from their kin, and would have chosen instead to raise horses and children, and live a life not burdened by fear and loss and the whims of godhead.

The king said nothing, but others cried sedition. A noble struck the lyre from his hand and ordered guards to take the blasphemer outside and kill him.

The Poet raised his voice and spoke certain words. The guards struggled feebly, staring at their useless blades.

"To what purpose?" insisted the Poet. "Why would this deed mean more than another? More than just doing nothing?"

In a moment of truth, the guards, the nobles, the king knew the vanity and foolishness of all things and could see no way to choose between them. The Poet strolled from the palace into the night.

4.

The girl in white was Cassandra. She had cautioned about the war, warned her brother of his death, had seen fire consume the temple of Apollo, though they all thought her senses deranged, and when the future happened, forgot she ever spoke.

Again there was too much light and she was blinded. She saw gods who had come here through the darkness, whose ship waited for them in night, who were more like dreams of men. She saw them on the steps of this temple, casting aside their helmets, their swords and their flesh.

5.

The Achaeans had found a new champion. Cased in black armour, he turned his chariot in angry circles outside the gates.

Ilium crowded the cyclopean walls to hear him shout: "I am Achilleus. Who will fight me?"

A grinning archer notched an arrow and took careful aim.

The champion sprang from his chariot and took one, two steps before hurling a javelin just as the bowstring hums.

The missiles crossed in flight and the arrow glanced harmlessly off the midnight armour. The bronze spearpoint entered the archer's mouth and knocked him backwards from the wall.

"Who will fight me like a man?" the Warrior cried.

They sent out their best and watched him carve them. Oxhide shields parted at a stroke and his blade hissed through limbs in sprays of blood. They fought like men but he did not.

There would be no more sacrifices this day. The men of Ilium crept down from the battlements.

6.

"You say you see things," asserted the Knower. "You see the future, but you are cursed and no one believes you?"

"You do not believe me."

"With proof I would not need to believe."

"You are not men. The poet, the champion. None of you are men."

"True. Still, tell me what will happen."

"You have no future to tell."

Cassandra's god was Apollo. The Knower had made sacrifice to the statue of Apollo, but still it did not answer him. He asked her to repeat its words; he asked her to make the god visible.

The others joined him in his disappointment.

The Warrior complained that no one would face him.

"They are not ready for my songs," said the Poet.

"There are other ways to win the game," murmured the Fox.

7.

Heirs to a mountainous land without grassy plains to provide fodder, Achaeans did not favour the horse except for the chariots of their kings. The men of Ilium once made a famed living from the horses they bred, and it was these the Fox sent men along the coast to herd, leaving their ships barely protected.

So it was the gates of Ilios could not be shut, jammed by innumerable horses, driven by Achilles and his band of heroes. Too late, soldiers assailing the ships saw smoke rise from their burning city.

8.

Cassandra has noticed the future was not exactly as she had foretold. Her gift was subtler: not to say what would pass, but what generations hence would remember had happened.

She had never glimpsed her own fate; she believed her god spares her that misfortune. Yet in the smoke-filled temple, the statue of Apollo came alive and she was sightless with foreknowing. Her tottering father butchered like a sacrifice upon an altar, the name of her own ravisher, the face of the woman who one day poisons her.

The Knower found her quivering upon the stones, blood from her bitten tongue staining her lips. He had unlearned knowledge of grand mal and could only drag her from the temple before the burning roof collapsed upon Apollo's likeness. Proof their gods were just stories after all.

The city had fallen; now there was only slaughter in the streets and the Warrior was wearied of all that. He found the Fox leaning upon a blood-caked spear.

"The soldiers lured away to the ships were always going to be a problem, but they have returned a rabble, each man seeking only his family." He let the spear clatter down the temple steps. "One attacked me."

"I should like to have seen that."

Soon they and the others were gone, lost in the swirling smoke and the cries of men.

9.

It was asserted that generations afterwards, a blind poet wandered the polities of Greece with tales of resolute heroes and a raid in revenge for a queen's adultery; of gods without conscience and a war won by a stratagem with horses; of wilful kings and the ruin of a great city on the Asian shore. Some of the details were unpolished still and subject to change as others took up the song.

Homer, if it was him, could not see his own face, though he counted the white sails of ships on wine-dark seas; knew the generations of each hero and saw in each end an individual death.

Such was the fashion for the old days, when the gods came down to speak to men and walk amongst them.

THE END


© 2011 David Barber

Bio: David Barber is a time traveller stranded in the middle years of the Anglophone Empire. By publishing this story, with its references to actual future events, he hopes to attract the attention of historians and be rescued from this benighted age. (Sadly, his previous message-in-a-webzine, Another Night at the Chronos Tavern (in the June 2011 edition of Aphelion) was not noticed. Mr. Barber has requested that Aphelion be scribed onto iridium tablets and sealed in transparent aluminum blocks to improve his chances.)

E-mail: David Barber

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