by Steve White
“It’s hot as Hades today!” gasped Alexander, heaving a great sigh as they entered the fortified camp at the foot of Mount Agriliki.
Myron, son of Epilycos, gave his friend a sharp look. What a curious thing for Alexander to say!
Granted, the August afternoon was miserably hot. And in some ways it was even worse for ekdromoi or light-armed troops like Alexander and himself than it was for the bronze-encased hoplites. The latter only had to don their heavy and uncomfortable panoplies for a short time each morning, form up outside the earthworks, and go through the daily ritual of facing off against the Persians and refusing to be drawn down onto the plain where the dreaded Eastern cavalry could have outflanked and encircled them. The Persians, on the other hand, weren’t about to hurl their lightly equipped troops uphill against the solid ranks of the phalanx. Thus it had gone for four days. But all that time the ekdromoi had been sent out on daily patrols into the surrounding hills, sometimes fighting skirmishes against the Persian foragers they were hunting. Even now they were returning from such a patrol, and as Myron gratefully took off his light helmet, set down his two javelins and small round shield, and began to unlace his leather shirt, he mentally agreed it was most certainly hot.
But… hot as Hades? What did that mean?
Everyone knew what the domain of the dead was like. Apart from the Fields of Elysium, where the shades of heroes and initiates of the mysteries of Eleusis spent an agreeable eternity, it was a dreary, featureless place where most of the shades led a pointless, frustrating shadow existence—although even that was to be preferred to the tortures endured by a few truly terrible transgressors against the gods. No doubt about it, Zeus’s brother and his consort Persephone ruled over a pretty cheerless realm, to which Myron was in no hurry to go.
And yet, nobody had ever described it as being especially hot.
Yes, Myron thought, it was an odd thing to say. Alexander often said odd things.
That was only to be expected, as were the frequent oddities in Alexander’s pronunciation of the Ionic Greek of Athens, given his background. He was from the half-barbarous northern kingdom of Macedon, as was Jason, the nobleman he served. They had exiled themselves from that land, unable to stomach its king’s getting on his hands and knees and exposing his arse for the Great King of Persia to bugger. They had come to Athens and secured the patronage of Themistocles, strategos of the Leontis, one of the ten tribes into which the citizens of Athens were divided. Thus it was that, as metoikoi or resident foreigners, they were performing their military obligation in the Leontis ranks: Jason as a hoplite as befitted his social station, and Alexander among the ekdromoi like Myron.
The dark, engagingly ugly Macedonian wasn’t the easiest man to get to know, but there was no denying he was a deadly fighter. This, too, was probably to be expected; the Macedonians had been warring for ages against the Thracian barbarians whose peltastes were the model for the weapons and tactics of Greek ekdromoi. In particular, his accuracy with the sling was uncanny, as several Persian foragers had lived just long enough to learn. And in friendly wrestling matches, he knew some unheard-of techniques that would have made him unbeatable were he not obviously holding himself back and going easy on his comrades. And except on the subject of his personal background, about which he was notably reticent—a blood-feud, perhaps?—he could eventually be drawn into conversation, and he knew some dirty jokes Myron had never heard. Even his accent could be gotten used to.
But Alexander did come out with some decidedly peculiar turns of phrase from time to time.
Whenever he caught himself doing so, he always wore an expression of intense annoyance with himself. He wore it now.
“Well,” he said gruffly, as though to cover it up, “I need to go and talk to Jason.” He hurried off—not toward the area where the Leontis hoplites were encamped, but toward the rear of the camp, up against the wooded lower slopes of Mount Agriliki. Jason and Alexander were often to be found conversing in such places, where a degree of privacy was possible, although no one thought they were lovers. (Which would have been mildly eccentric, inasmuch as they were both mature men, neither of them a desirable boy.) Probably it was just their common foreignness.
At any rate, Myron thought, it was none of his business. He continued to strip down, and as he did he glanced to the northeast. The clutter of tents here was thin enough for him to glimpse the plain of Marathon and, to its right, the beach which curved away to the promontory known as the Dog’s Tail. Within the shelter of that cape, the beach was thick with the six hundred ships of the Persian fleet. At the other end of the plain, three miles away, between the beach and the Great Marsh, the Persian camp could be glimpsed.
With a bitter smile, Myron imagined the Persians eating their own dung in that camp.
The strategos Themistocles had explained it to them. Those tens of thousands of barbarians must surely be coming to the end of the enormous supplies of food they had brought with them; and the ekdromoi, together with Athens’ tiny, usually ceremonial cavalry troop, were preventing them from gathering any in the surrounding countryside. All the Athenians had to do was keep the Persians penned in the boxlike Plain of Marathon until supply problems forced them to do something rash, or until the Spartans arrived—which should be in another five days, according to the runner Pheidippides, who had returned from there day before yesterday. Pheidippides also claimed—although Myron wasn’t sure how much credence to give the claim, since the gods seldom appeared to mortals any more, as they had in the days of the Heroes—that on the road from Sparta he had met the great god Pan, who had promised to aid the Athenians by instilling unreasoning terror in the invaders.
Invaders. The word had a peculiarly vile sound to Myron. These trouser-wearing, gibberish-speaking barbarians had come to snuff out Athens’ infant democracy and restore the traitorous dotard Hippias to his prior seat as tyrant—if, indeed, they weren’t merely using him as a source of information and contacts, and really planned to eradicate Athens as they had eradicated other Greek cities like Miletus and Naxos and Eretria, killing the men and scattering the women and children throughout the formless population of their vast slave-empire, putting an end forever to the very memory of the polis that gave meaning to life. The very thought made Myron sick.
The thought of things that gave meaning to life made him remember his wife Clytia, waiting at their rocky little farm on the slopes of Mount Aigaleos with the children. At least he hoped she was still there. When he had departed she had barely been able to say farewell without dissolving into a coughing spasm whose product was speckled with blood. It was only to be expected, of course; she had seen over thirty winters, and Myron could not reasonably expect to have her for many more years. But now he asked the gods, as he often did, for just a few. He wasn’t sure it was proper for a man to appeal to Hera, protectress of women, but he did anyway.
As he bowed his head, something on the ground caught his eye: the sling with which Alexander was so lethal. The Macedonian must have dropped it. It was an object of no intrinsic value, being just a small leather pouch with two strings. But it was the one Alexander was used to, and he probably wouldn’t want to have to get used to another one now. Myron scooped it up and went to find his friend.
He passed through the tents of the hoplites, members of the upper three property-owning classes who could afford to equip themselves with the elaborate armor and weaponry, and continued on until he was among the trees. Up ahead, he saw Alexander walking up to Jason, who was reclining against a tree. There was no one else about, and neither of the two Macedonians had noticed Myron. He opened his mouth to call out to Alexander. But at that moment his friend spoke to Jason… and Myron came to a shocked halt, and flattened himself against a tree-trunk for concealment, his heart racing.
Alexander had spoken in a language Myron had never heard.
Granted, Macedonians and other northerners had a peculiar dialect of their own, not always easy to understand. Indeed, Athenian snobs liked to pretend to be unable to understand it at all. But it was still a form of Greek. What had issued from Alexander’s mouth was a string of utterly meaningless noises, in which only the words Myron and Hades had been comprehensible.
“Local language, Alexandre,” said Jason in a cautioning tone. He gave the name a slightly different sound. “Remember, we need to keep in practice, and stay in the habit.”
“Right, Commander Thanou,” said Alexander (Alexandre?) in the grumbling tone of all veteran soldiers reprimanded by their officers. Myron was puzzled. The three-syllable title by which Alexander seemed to be addressing Jason (albeit by another name) was meaningless. A Macedonian title of nobility, perhaps? “Although,” Alexander went on, “it’s a lot easier to discuss things in Standard International English.”
The last nine syllables meant absolutely nothing to Myron. But the word that roared through his stunned mind was spies!
It was something on every Athenian’s mind, for the Persians were the acknowledged masters of espionage. Everyone knew why the city of Eretria, on the island of Euboea, was now a smoldering heap of rubble. The Eretrians had made their stand inside their city’s walls… and in five days traitors within those walls had opened a gate for the Persians. No one had any confidence that Athens, with its inveterate factionalism and aristocratic family jealousies, not to mention the glittering allure of Persian gold, would last even that long. Furthermore, Hippias might still have sympathizers in the city, and some of Myron’s fellow small farmers were fools enough to still have a soft spot in their hearts for him because of the land reforms of his father, the tyrant Pisistratus. All of which was precisely why the Assembly had voted to send the army out to deploy across the two roads that led from the Persians’ landing site to the city.
Still, everyone was alert to the danger of spies, even in the camp. Suspicion was rampant.
And, it now seemed, the suspicion was justified. Myron’s thoughts were raging… and, in the heart of the storm, was an irrational feeling of betrayal by his friend.
He must, he thought, report this to the strategos.
But as he began to sidle carefully away from the tree, a thought held him. It would be his word against theirs, and Jason, foreigner though he might be, was of noble blood. Maybe he should continue to listen, in the hope of hearing something that would point him in the direction of corroborating evidence.
All these thoughts flashed through Myron’s mind in a couple of seconds. By the time he settled back against the concealing tree, Jason was replying.
“Yes, I know this language can be inconvenient; there are many things that simply can’t be expressed in its vocabulary. But we’ve got to be cautious at all times. And that ‘hot as Hades’ slip was pretty careless.”
“I know, sir.” Alexander sounded contrite. “It won’t happen again. My only excuse is that after going out on patrol enough times with these men it’s easy to let your guard down in conversation with them--especially Myron, the one I slipped up with. He’s a good man. It isn’t easy having to dissemble with him.”
“Yes,” Jason said sympathetically. “That’s always a problem for time travelers.”
The words “time travelers” echoed in Myron’s mind. That was unquestionably what Jason had said, but the combination of words made no sense whatsoever. And it certainly didn’t sound like a euphemism for “spies.”
“But remember what you’ve been told,” Jason continued. “There are no paradoxes. The past cannot be changed in any way that violates observed fact.”
“Yes, sir. I recall what you told us about the Observer Effect.”
Myron blinked. More gobbledygook. Alexander had said it as though he was referring to some impersonal force—perhaps a supernatural one. A shiver ran through him.
“Then you know that our standing orders aren’t just for our own protection,” Jason was saying. “They also protect people like your friend Myron.”
“How is that, sir?”
“Reality protects itself, and it doesn’t care how it does it. That’s why we don’t push too hard—or at all, if we can help it—against the fabric of recorded history. Events will somehow push back, to prevent us from creating any paradoxes. We might get hurt. And any local people whom we involve might also get hurt.”
Alexander nodded slowly. “I think I see. And of course, things like that are especially sensitive when we’re present for a crucial turning point in history like the battle that’s going to be fought here day after tomorrow.”
“That’s right. We’re not in some obscure time or place. We’re in the full glare of history. The Athenian victory in the Battle of Marathon is going to prevent Western civilization from being strangled in its cradle, and thereby make possible the world we come from.”
Myron was no longer shivering. He was frozen in chthonic terror.
He no longer thought these men were spies. What he was hearing had gone far beyond that. He didn’t know what they were, and most of what they were saying might as well have been spoken in their barbarous Standard International English, for all his ability to understand it. But one thing was clear enough: they were firmly convinced that they were able to foretell the future.
But they were like none of the oracles he had ever heard of. Those involved elaborate rituals with lots of smoke, and when asked questions they gave vague, ambivalent, riddle like replies through the ravings of ecstatic priestesses or the configurations of thrown lots. These two men had been asked no question, and had done no mummery; they were matter-of-factly stating that Athens would triumph over the Persians in two days’ time. They seemed to be able to actually see what form the tapestry constantly being woven by the three Fates on their loom, its threads the lives of mortals, would take before it was woven.
But… if such foreknowledge was possible, might the weave not become tangled, by men acting on the basis of such prophecies for their own advantage?
Sweat popped out all over Myron—not the wholesome sweat of the August heat, but a clammy sweat as he peered over a precipice beyond which lay madness and chaos.
Only… Jason had seemed to be saying that the weave could not become tangled. The Fates would somehow prevent it. Was the Observer Effect simply the word in their tongue for the Fates? Myron began to breathe a little easier.
“So,” Jason continued, “we have to be especially careful just now, not just for our own safety but also to avoid jeopardizing the success of the mission for which the Temporal Regulatory Authority sent us here.”
“Understood, sir. Also, I don’t want to endanger Myron—‘involve’ him, as you say—by giving him any information neither he nor anyone else in this era is supposed to have.”
“Right,” Jason nodded. “Because such knowledge on their part could change history and generate paradoxes.”
The cold sweat broke out again, for Myron realized that, after standing and listening to all of this, he did have such forbidden knowledge. His panic lasted less than a second, like a flame that flared momentarily before being smothered by ashen despair.
He was now under a curse. He heard Alexander’s voice as though from a great distance.
“ Anyway, I’d better get back to….” Alexander trailed to an irritated halt and fumbled at his belt-rope. “I’ve lost my sling! Hope I can find it.” He and Jason departed.
Myron waited until they were out of sight, then followed. He was oddly calm. He had decided not to report the two Macedonians as spies.
There were three reasons for his decision. First, he still had nothing but his own unsupported word. Second, he was now fully convinced that they were not spies at all. Whoever this Temporal Regulatory Authority might be, he clearly was not the Great King of Persia. And they seemed favorably disposed toward Athens, viewing with approval the victory they were so certain it was about to win.
His third reason was that he had arrived at yet another resolve. He was going to confront Alexander and ask—beg, if he had to—the Macedonian to use his powers of divination to tell him how much longer Clytia had to live.
He knew full well that asking an oracle for the date of anyone’s death was an affront to Fate itself. But he was already accursed, and hated by the gods. So what did it matter? He had little to lose. With the courage of absolute fatalism, he walked on to seek out Alexander.
As it turned out, though, what with one thing and another, he never got a chance that night to speak to the Macedonian in private. And the following morning they went out on patrol again.
“Thanks again for finding my sling, Myron,” said Alexander.
“It was nothing,” Myron muttered, preoccupied.
They had ascended into the hills, leaving the wheatfields and the meadows of asphodel, marjoram and thyme behind. Now they were in the rocky, scrubby higher altitudes of Mount Kotroni, west of the plain and not far from the village of Marathon. Moving parallel to them, but invisible beyond the hills, was a small cavalry unit: upper-crust dandies of the hippeis class who could afford to own horses. The farms they passed, with their vineyards and fig trees and olive groves with nearby oil presses, made Myron homesick.
Homesickness naturally made him think of Clytia. Which, in turn, made him all the more eager to put his question to Alexander. But there had always been other ekdromoi in earshot, and the frustration was beginning to tell on him.
They were walking up a slope toward a ridge-line when he finally decided to throw caution to the winds. “Alexander….?” he began in a low voice.
“Yes, Myron?” Alexander prompted. No one else seemed to be noticing as they spoke.
“Yesterday afternoon, I overheard you and Jason talking.”
The Macedonian—if that was indeed what he was—jerked to a halt. He turned slowly and met Myron’s eyes. Myron looked back, into eyes that, as he now realized, held things he could never know.
“Yes?” Alexander spoke slowly and expressionlessly. “Have you told anyone else?”
Now they were attracting notice from nearby men. Myron no longer cared. But the others, evidently deciding that the conversation was none of their business, resumed trudging up the slope, leaving the two of them momentarily alone.
“No, I’ve said nothing to anyone. And I won’t report you. And I don’t pretend to know what you and Jason are. I don’t think I even want to know, because I think that knowledge lies beyond the proper knowledge of mortals. But the things I heard ….”
“What did you hear, Myron?”
“Many things that I didn’t understand—especially the parts about the Observer Effect and the Temporal Regulatory Authority.” Now Alexander’s features froze into total immobility, as Myron pressed on. “But I understood enough to make me think you can answer a question. It’s about my wife—”
At that moment, one of the men ahead of them, who had already topped the ridge, turned and shouted, “Persians!”
At once, all other thoughts fled their minds. Myron and Alexander locked eyes one more time, then sprinted for the ridge with the others. Beyond was a depression holding a little farm, and the Persian foragers who were ransacking it, unmistakable in their outlandish, colorful costumes, complete with their distinctive trousers and hoods. As the ekdromoi charged downhill, screaming war-cries, the Persians sprang up from the goats they were butchering, and grasped their short spears and their akenakes, or short swords. Some also had war-picks.
Without breaking his stride more than momentarily, Myron hauled back and hurled one of his javelins. It missed its target, but the effort of dodging it threw one Persian off balance. Then they were down among the foragers, and Myron crashed into the Persian he had missed. He tried to use his second javelin as a stabbing spear, but the Persian brought his knee down on its shaft and broke it, at the same time raising his akenake. Myron barely had time to interpose his small shield and draw his dagger. He brought the dagger around under his shield-rim and drove it into the Persian’s unarmored underbelly with a vicious twist, then yanked upward, slicing through cloth, flesh and muscle. The Persian shrieked something in his barbarian language and doubled over, trying to hold his guts in. He fell atop Myron, who struggled to get out from under the dying body, hampered by slippery spilled entrails and blood.
He was still struggling when he saw two Persians break free of the general melee and run toward him.
But at that moment, a line of Athenian horsemen appeared behind the farm and swept down on the Persians’ rear. The young aristos were armed with the long kamax spear, which they gripped near the butt and used to stab downward. They began to do so with limited skill but unlimited zest. The Persian foragers were now trapped.
For an unreal instant of three-way mental communion, the two Persians rushing Myron looked at each other, and Myron knew exactly what they were thinking. Knowing themselves for dead men, they had reached an unspoken decision to take one Greek with them. Their run became a sprint.
Myron, still immobilized, saw Alexander, some distance away, whirl his sling around his head and let fly. At appreciably the same instant came a sound compounded of a smack and a crunch, and one of the Persians staggered and fell with a pinkish-gray spray of brains. His hood had offered no protection against the lead pellet that had punched through one temple and exited through the other.
But the other Persian almost leaped the remaining distance and, with a cry of rage and despair, gripped his akenake in both hands—it wasn’t designed for that—and brought it down with the strength of ultimate desperation.
There was a flash of searing pain in Myron’s neck. The world seemed to spin, and he felt an impact against the left side of his face. He couldn’t move, or even feel his body. He could only see what was inside his eyes’ field of vision.
He saw the Persian fall forward, the bloody point of a kamax protruding from his chest, as the horseman who had speared him from behind yelled in triumph. He also saw a headless body, trapped under a dead Persian. The stump of the neck was pumping out blood that seeped quickly into the dry soil of Attica.
He now knew what had struck the side of his head. The ground had. And he knew whose body he was looking at.
He had always heard stories that a severed head could remain alive and conscious for an appreciable length of time, even as much as a minute, for there were those who claimed to have seen the eyes of such heads blink repeatedly. It was true after all, he decided, although it was rapidly becoming harder to form thoughts. So hard.
It wasn’t even easy to remember exactly what Clytia’s face looked like.
But there was one thing of which he was certain. The curse of the Observer Effect had found him. Like the Furies, there was no escape from it. In order that the weave of the Fates might not become tangled, the thread that was Myron, son of Epilycos, had been cut.
As the darkness gathered around the periphery of his vision, he saw Alexander looking down at him. His friend’s face wore a look of sorrow. And then there was only darkness.
Copyright © 2012 by Steve White
Steve White is the coauthor with David Weber of New York Times bestseller The Shiva Option. He is the author of science fiction novels such as recent works Wolf Among the Stars and Starfire novel Extremis, cowritten with Charles E. Gannon, as well as fantasy novels such as Demon’s Gate. White is also the creator of the Jason Thanou time travel series which includes Blood of Heroes, Sunset of the Gods, in whose Athenian milieu this story is set, and upcoming Pirates of the Timestream.