Author: Clea Saal
Page count: 480 pages
Bucolic… freaking bucolic. That’s the word that comes to mind when I see the endless pastures stretching as far as the eye can see, with the sun shining, and the well-meaning sods coming to groom me. I’ve been here for a while now, everything’s perfect, and all the evidence seems to suggest that I won’t be going anywhere any time soon. That should be wonderful, but the only thing I can think of is how much I hate this fucking century, pardon my French.
Yes, this place is fucking wonderful, but the whole ‘not going anywhere any time soon’ thing’s a bit of an issue, not to mention that ‘bucolic’ is not my fucking kind of place. Still, this is where my quest for my old friend brought me, I’ve been here for so long that I know soon enough the fact that I haven’t been planted’s bound to attract someone’s attention… and questions about my longevity are one of those things I’ve always done my best to avoid. The good news is that the sods don’t really know when was I born, and that’ll probably buy me some time. The bad news is that in time that won’t make one lick of difference. That’s why I hate this fucking century, with its fences, its well-meaning sods, and its fucking obsession with record keeping. In the old days things were much simpler: if someone wanted to get rid of a horse that was getting a little long in the tooth that horse was shot, left to die, or pawned off on any fool that would have it. In some cases it was eaten, a fate I always did my best to avoid, but now there’s all this crap about preventing animal cruelty, and these goddamned sanctuaries meant to ensure our comfort in our old age. I’ve been here for almost twenty years now, that’s too long for me to be in one place, and that goes double for a place like this, but maybe I should explain.
My name is Xanthos, and let’s just say that I’ve been around for a while. In fact you may even have heard of me, but if you did, please forget everything the blind fool told you. He wasn’t there, and the tales he was told by those who were themselves told those tales have nothing to do with what actually happened.
In case you were wondering, I’m an old warhorse, and I don’t mean in a fucking allegorical sense. I mean that I’m old, and that I’m a goddamned horse, one of those a warrior’s supposed to ride into battle. Have you seen many horses in the battlefield lately? Neither have I, and that’s where everything went to hell as far as I’m concerned. Up until a few centuries ago things were going great: no matter what I did, sooner or later my ‘owner’ would be killed in battle, and being the dashing specimen that I am, I would become part of the loot… spoils of war and all that. That meant that every few years I could count on finding myself with a clean slate, and a brand new owner who was just itching to get himself killed, and even when that didn’t happen —even when I found myself stuck in a royal stable, serving one royal family or another for a number of generations— I could usually count on the fact that most of the people who were looking after me day in and day out couldn’t fucking count, and that made it hard for them to keep track of time. More often than not that was enough to keep them from getting suspicious, but nowadays? A fucking nightmare. There’s no room for a goddamned warhorse in this world, and numbers are everywhere.
Now, you may be wondering just how old I happen to be, and the truth’s that I don’t have a fucking clue. Numbers are not one of those things horses worry about, not under normal circumstances. In fact I had never even thought about time before I found myself effectively marooned in this goddamned world, and even though I know how long it’s been since that happened, I have no clue as to how old I was at the time. All I know is that I was given to Peleus more than three thousand years ago, and then he handed me over to his son when the brat went chasing after Paris. Fair enough, that’s what warhorses are supposed to be for, not that you’d know it by reading the old fool. Being the backwards sod that he was, he didn’t quite know what to make of us, so he treated us as if we were a fucking taxi service, doing nothing but take men to and from the battlefield. What, it sounds like I’m fucking bitter about that? You bet I am! The bastard made us into a footnote!
Well, let me tell you that that was just one of the things he got wrong. In fact the creep got so many things wrong that I don’t even know where to begin… though seeing how I’m the one telling this story maybe I should begin with the most fucking obvious one of the lot: yes, it’s true that back in Troy I only spoke once, but Hera had nothing to do with that one… and the fact that I never bothered to say anything else doesn’t mean I was struck dumb by the fucking Furies, it just means I was so fucking furious in the aftermath of Achilles’s accusations —and of his refusal to listen— that I didn’t see why I should bother. My father may be a fucking god, but the only thing humans see when they look at me is a goddamned horse, so I must be beneath them, right?
Um, okay, so maybe I should try to calm down a bit. As you may have noticed by now, the blind fool’s not one of my favorite people, as for my language… well, I’ve spent a good chunk of the past three thousand years in one goddamned army camp or another, and no matter what the books say —regardless of the tales of chivalry, of knights in shining armor, and all that crap— I’m here to tell you that a goddamned army camp’s no fucking finishing school… though come to think of it you’re still more likely to get finished there than in that fucking finishing school.
What really gets to me’s not so much how many things the blind fool got wrong, but rather the fact that he actually got some things right, and that makes it that much harder to dismiss him outright. For instance, he was smart enough not to mention that nonsense of the judgement of Paris, even though pretty much everyone had fallen for that one by the time he came along. How anyone could have fallen for that particular load of manure’s beyond me, but humans are supposed to be the rational ones, so what would a horse know, right? I mean, if that one had been true, if Paris had been promised the most beautiful woman by Aphrodite after claiming that she was ‘the fairest one’ there’d have been no way Achilles could possibly have been at Troy, and the blind fool would’ve found himself one hero short when telling his goddamned tale. The whole business with the fucking apple was supposed to have happened at his parents wedding, for fuck’s sake, and that means that when Paris ‘abducted’ Helen, Achilles would’ve been too busy being a baby. Sure, the war lasted ten years, and the whole business with Hector and Patroclus happened towards the end of the blasted thing, but he’d still have been a goddamned kid.
Anyway, back to Troy. That’s where this whole thing started, and that’s when pretty much everything went to hell in a handbasket.
Sure, the Greeks won the war, but they managed to piss so many gods off in the process that their ships were sunk and scattered to the four winds in its aftermath… or at least that’s how they put it, though the truth’s that those ships were quite capable of going down on their own, no angry gods needed for that. Anyway, care to guess who were on those ships in addition to the goddamned Greeks? You got it: their fucking horses. In a way it was remarkably simple: god gets mad (consider this step to be optional regardless of what the blind fool told you), ship goes down, humans and horses die (if they can), eventually the immortal horse washes ashore, and finds himself effectively marooned in an unknown world where he’s just another horse. In fact that was when Bailos and I got separated. What can I say? We tried to stay together, but hooves were not designed with handholding in mind.
After that things got kind of confusing, with raid upon raid, war upon war, slaughter upon slaughter. Even for me the next few centuries are kind of a blur. I landed in Anatolia, tried to make my way back to Greece, figuring that sooner or later Bailos would do the same, but it wasn’t easy. For the first time in my life I was just another beast of burden. I wasn’t honored, I wasn’t a gift of the gods, I was just a tool for men to use and abuse as they saw fit, and chaos was everywhere. I got caught in the mess that followed the collapse of the Hittite Empire, I was driven first towards Egypt and then towards Persia. I was caught in the struggle of countless petty kingdoms, a plaything for countless warlords who saw themselves as mighty warriors. I witnessed their folly… not that the Greeks were more sensible in that regard.
It took almost five hundred years, but eventually things settled down somewhat, and I managed to make my way back to Ionia. That’s when I first realized how much had that particular world changed. Yes, the Ionians were Greeks, at least in theory, but I soon realized that they were not Greeks like the Mycenaeans had been. Oh, they were still bickering like children, that part certainly hadn’t changed, but there were no mighty kings left… and it was precisely while I was in Ionia that I first became aware of the blind fool’s tales.
Anyway, I was enjoying the fact that I was back in familiar territory —or close to it— when the goddamned Ionian Revolt broke out. Honestly, you’d have thought that the fools would at least have been able to count, or if not that at least that they’d have been kind enough to wait until I’d figured out a way to cross the fucking sea before rushing in, but no. To say that the whole thing was a fiasco would be putting it mildly. The Persians squashed the rebels without breaking a sweat, and I was on the brink of being sent back to Persia —that whole spoils of war/dashing specimen thing again— when Mardonius, the man who had picked me to be his mount after his own horse had been killed, was told to press his advantage, cross the Hellespont, and teach those uppity Greeks a fucking lesson. After way too many centuries my time had finally come… or so I thought.
Oh, for a while there everything seemed to be going great. We conquered Thasos, and from there we went on to Macedon. We were kicking butt, we were the heroes of the day, and then a fucking storm came along, and blew most of the fleet to kingdom come. That left us with no choice but to retreat and, to make matters worse, the Persian king —a guy by the name of Darius, who’d eventually come to be known as Darius the Great, and who was also Mardonius’s uncle, father-in-law, and half-brother-in-law— decided to break with tradition, and pin the failure of the expedition on Mardonius rather than on the gods themselves. No, Mardonius hadn’t taken a hatchet and sunk those ships himself, but as far as the king was concerned that didn’t really matter. He was still stripped of his command, and effectively sidelined. Now, if that had been the extent of it, it wouldn’t have been so bad —in fact, seeing how he wasn’t killed, I have to say that Mardonius got off lightly— but his fall from grace left me unable to do anything but watch as the Persian forces marched into battle, as they crossed the Hellespont, leaving me behind once more.
Now, I can’t tell you exactly what happened at Marathon, I wasn’t fucking there, but I do know that those forces had their asses effectively handed back to them, thus setting the stage for round two. That’s when my luck finally changed. First of all Darius died, and was followed by his son Xerxes, who was kind enough to restore Mardonius to his previous post… and by then Mardonius himself had become all but obsessed with the idea of defeating the Greeks, something that suited me just fine. Unfortunately before he could march on Greece Xerxes had to put down half a dozen revolts, build a bridge across the Hellespont, have said bridge blown away by yet another storm, whip the sea and try to chain it —er, yes, that was yet another shining example of rational human behavior, but hey, at least he wasn’t blaming Mardonius for the whole fiasco, so I’m not going to complain about that— and build another bridge. Anyway, after ten years we were finally ready, and I knew that once we’d crossed the Hellespont there’d be no turning back. Of course, that doesn’t mean that things went according to plan, they never do. Yes, the Persians outnumbered the Greeks, but the Greeks managed to do the one thing they’d never been able to do before: set their differences aside for about five minutes, and work towards a common goal.
Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little here. They did manage to form an alliance, that much is true, but they were still bickering like children, and their differences hadn’t so much been set aside as put on a back burner and left to simmer. Still, knowing the Greeks like I do, I can tell you that the fact that they were able to do even that much was nothing short of a fucking miracle… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In fact I think it was when we got to Thermopylae that I first became aware of just how tough cracking that particular nut was going to be. Yes, our forces outnumbered theirs by more than I could count, and because of that we managed to prevail, but it was not an easy victory, and the bottom line was that at the end of the day, or to be accurate three, not only our troops, but also our dead, vastly outnumbered theirs. Still, it was a glorious battle, one of those I’m proud to have been a part of.
Sorry, I know I’m not supposed to say that, not any more. I know that modern sensitivities dictate that I should be appalled at the thought of all that needless violence, of all that carnage, of the barbarism of that bygone era that has fortunately been replaced by a more merciful and enlightened one, but I’m a fucking warhorse, and even though I can see the absurdity of it all, the truth’s that I was in my element… and as for the whole ‘more merciful and enlightened era’ thing, please don’t even get me started on that one.
Anyway, the problem was that, even though we had the numbers on our side, that was not the whole fucking story.
Sure, the tale as it’s been told makes it seem like it was an epic war, and I’m sure that, outnumbered as they were, the Greeks saw it as such… that was, in a twisted kind of way, their greatest advantage. I mean, Thermopylae had been a thing of beauty and all that, but it had also been just one battle, and it didn’t mark the end of the goddamned war. Hell, it hadn’t even been the only battle to be fought over the course of those three days, and while in the end the Persians won that one, their fleet barely managed to break even at Artemisium.
I think that was where the difficulties inherent to the whole enterprise became painfully obvious even to a stubborn fool like Xerxes. In a nutshell, seeing how Greece had always been a maritime power, the Persians’ inability to knock their fleet out once and for all left them in a less than desirable position, one that went from less than desirable to downright precarious when their own fleet was soundly defeated at Salamis a couple of weeks later.
For me that was the most terrifying moment of the whole fucking war: when I realized that the Persian commitment was waning, and I feared I would be forced to turn back… again. Oh, from a military perspective I knew that that was the only sensible course of action. The Persians had suffered a significant defeat, but that was just the tip of that goddamned iceberg. In a nutshell: in addition to that defeat there was also the fact that while for the Persians the whole thing had always been a matter of honor, for the Greeks it had been literally a matter of life and death.
Rose-colored notions about long gone splendors aside, Greece was a dirt-poor land, the ideals some now claim to hold so dear struck the Persians as the rankest insanity, and there was nothing those Persians could hope to gain by asserting their control over that particular chunk of real estate that would justify the expense of trying to subdue it. Besides, and to further complicate matters, there was also the fact that while the Greeks had managed to cobble together a tenuous coalition, they had nothing remotely resembling a central government. That meant that there was no head that could be cut, and that even if the Persians had been able to beat the Greeks soundly on the battlefield, they’d still have found themselves in the rather unenviable position of having to subdue over a hundred independent city states… not to mention that they actually had the borders of a vast empire to worry about.
In other words, while the Persians could probably have won it if they’d really had to, the bottom line was that they didn’t have to… in fact I think by the time Xerxes retreated even he had realized that it didn’t really make sense for them to try. Pyrrhus may not have been born until a couple of centuries later, but that doesn’t mean that for the Persians beating the Greeks wouldn’t have been a Pyrrhic victory if there ever was one. Of course, with humans pride trumps common sense eleven times out of ten, and because of that the whole enterprise wasn’t completely abandoned, it was just scaled down… and in the end that was what saved me because, evidence notwithstanding, Mardonius was not about to give up.
The man was still convinced that the war was worth it, and he was determined to keep on fighting, so when Xerxes turned back he was allowed to remain behind. He was put in charge of the areas that had already been conquered, and he was allowed to chase his dream with what was an expendable but not inconsiderable army. It was one of Xerxes’s most pragmatic decisions. If Mardonius had managed to pull it off, the empire wouldn’t have hesitated to claim his victory as its own, if he got himself killed in the process… well, that would be as effective a way as any of putting an end to that particular argument, wouldn’t it? Anyway, the bulk of the army left, and back to Macedon we went, where we were about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit. Sure, the Macedonian king paid lip service to the notion of paying homage to the Persians, but you couldn’t turn your back on the man without having him mistake that simple gesture for an open invitation to plant a goddamned knife into it.
Now, while at first glance that may not seem like the most logical of assumptions, you’d be surprised by how common it happens to be, but back to my story.
The fact that Mardonius remained behind, and that it was apparent that he was determined to die there was a relief. It meant that I was finally going to be in a position to start looking for Bailos, though the fact that the Greeks were as divided as ever meant that the task was not going to be an easy one. Sure, even the Greeks spoke of ‘the Greeks’, and that makes it sound like they were a single, unified lot, but they weren’t. They were a bunch of bigoted, spoiled little brats who insisted on bickering about anything and everything, and fighting just to have something to do. Sometimes I wonder what they might have been able to accomplish if, after coming together to beat the Persians, they’d been able to stick together, but the truth is that I’ll never know.
Okay, I think I’m getting ahead of myself… again, after all Mardonius isn’t even dead yet.
Now, I realize that the fact that I was actually relieved by the realization that Mardonius was going to die in Greece may make me sound more than a little callous to your ears, but let’s face it, one way or another the guy was going to die. That’s what mortals do, it’s one of their defining characteristics, and even though he was a pretty decent fellow —in fact he was one of my favorites, the one who had finally gotten me back to where I most wanted to be— I can’t exactly afford to become attached to each and every sod that gets onto my back. I’ve been around for more than three thousand years, and in that time I’ve had hundreds upon hundreds of riders, not to mention that one lesson I had already learned by then had to do with the fact that military men just don’t know how to quit while they’re ahead. As long as they’re winning, they keep rolling the dice, and when they lose… well, let’s just say that by then it’s usually too late for them to learn much of anything, and leave it at that.
That’s what happened to Mardonius: he kept pushing his luck until his luck got tired and decided to push back. That’s when he got himself killed in the battle of Plataea… and to add insult to injury —or in this case death— he was taken out not by a sword or a spear in single combat, but rather he was brained by a fucking soldier throwing a goddamned rock. That’s not the kind of death bards tend to sing about, let me tell you that much.
Of course, the less than glorious nature of Mardonius’s death wasn’t exactly an exception. No matter what the books say, human history is a bloody mess in the most literal sense of the word, and while bards tend to sing of glorious battles, glorious deeds and especially of glorious deaths, the truth’s that a battle is rarely a thing of beauty, a glorious deed is unlikely to withstand anything remotely resembling a close scrutiny, and dead is dead, end of story. Oh, I know bards like to wax poetic and all that crap, but when you put those three facts together the end result is that, in the heat of the battle, one means of getting rid of an enemy is just as welcome as the next, as for the glorious deeds thing, you’d be surprised by just how fast the concerns regarding those run for cover once the arrows start flying. Besides, while the living tend to make a distinction between a glorious and an ignoble death, the dead don’t really seem to care.
Anyway, once I realized that Mardonius was down, I took off, as I tended to do whenever my ‘master’ was killed in battle, and then I waited for things to settle down again. Sure, I knew I was going to have to get myself a new rider sooner rather than later, and I wasn’t really afraid of the battle as such —being immortal does have some advantages in that regard— but experience had already taught me to play it safe, and to wait until the gods had been properly appeased, thanked and so on before allowing myself to be caught. After all, even though the Greeks were not too keen on human sacrifice, animal sacrifice was a different story, and even though as an immortal being I don’t have much use for a survival instinct, being sacrificed is still something I try to avoid. No, the dying itself is not much of an issue, but being killed has an annoying tendency to be followed by coming back to life, and I’ve always done my best to steer clear of anything that could possibly be perceived as a fucking miracle.
A few days later I wandered into the Greek camp, and after forcing them to chase me around for a while, just for the hell of it, I finally allowed an Athenian general by the name of Aristides to catch up with me.
So what happened after that? Well, in the aftermath of Plataea there was a small respite that enabled everyone to get ready for the next war… sorry, I meant to say that something close to peace reigned for the next few years. Sure, the Greeks were still bickering with one another, as far as they were concerned that was just the natural order of things, but even though there was a counterattack against the Persians launched by some who had been emboldened by their earlier success, they soon realized that chasing the Persians out of the Greek mainland, or reclaiming the sea, was a far less daunting proposition than chasing them all the way into Asia Minor would have been.
As for me, I wound up spending the next ten years or so under Aristides, carrying him around and watching the Delian League come into being. That was an unusual experience as far as I was concerned, as Aristides was something of a dreamer —one who was desperate to see the peace among the Greeks hold— and the truth’s that neither dreams nor dreamers tend to last long in the battlefield. Anyway, even though I really should’ve known better, for once I almost allowed myself to get caught in my rider’s enthusiasm, and to hope that this time around things would be different. That hope turned out to be a very short lived one indeed.
In fact almost as soon as Aristides’s body hit the ground, his dream began to unravel, and less than ten years later —not even twenty years after the Greeks’ decisive victory at Plataea— war broke out again, only this time around it wasn’t Greeks vs Persians, it wasn’t Greeks vs any other foreigners, it was Greeks vs fucking Greeks. Why, you ask? That’s a good question, one I’ve never really been able to answer… come to think of it, I don’t think anyone ever even bothered to try to come up with a semi believable excuse for that one. It just wasn’t necessary. They fought because they wanted to, because Greece was too small and too poor to accommodate the oversized ambitions of both Athens and Sparta… especially Athens. Sparta may have been able to get along just fine with two kings within her walls, but as a whole Greece only had room for one major player, and soon enough the balance of power between those two became all but impossible to maintain.
In a nutshell: Athens ruled the sea, but Sparta was dominant on land, neither one of them was willing to tolerate the other’s existence, and the rest of the poleis did what they could to thread that fucking needle, to stay out of trouble by seeking the protection of either one of them. They didn’t have a choice, but those shifting allegiances only served to strengthen the main contenders, making the inevitable clash between them that much more violent. In theory that initial confrontation lasted for fifteen years, but the truth is that from that moment on no one even bothered to pretend that peace was a long term option. Hell, even their attempt at a ‘Thirty Years Peace’ broke down after a measly thirteen!
That’s when the Peloponnesian War broke out in earnest… and, unlike what had been the case when they’d fought the Persians a few decades prior, this one was a civil war. It wasn’t a matter of pride, and that meant that neither side could afford to back down.
Now, I won’t bore you with the details of that one. Sure, if you’re keeping score you can come up with a long list of battles, of victories and defeats. You can even tally them all, and say that Sparta came out on top, but even though that’s technically true, so much so that even the Spartans and the Athenians managed to convince themselves that that had actually been the case, the truth is that the whole thing dragged on for almost thirty years, and that by the time it was over the outcome no longer mattered because by then both sides had effectively burned themselves out. In a way it was the Greeks traditional bickering taken to its logical conclusion.
As for me, the most memorable thing of that war was the fact that I actually caught a glimpse of Bailos for the first time in almost eight hundred years. Unfortunately at the time he was busy fighting for the other side, and I never even managed to approach him. So much for that long-awaited reunion. Funny, in all those centuries I’d never even thought that our next encounter would take place under such circumstances, but I probably should have.
Oh, I’m not ascribing any particular meaning to that fact, not really. Bailos is a horse, just like I am, and I don’t think he had any more control over the role he was called to play in that pathetic little fiasco than I did, nor do I think he favored one side over the other. I know I didn’t. Yes, I fought for the Athenians, and Bailos fought for the Spartans, but even if our positions had been reversed, even if we had both been fighting on the same side, or if neither one of us had been there at all, I don’t think that would have made one lick of difference. Who won, who lost, when was a given battle fought… those are all things you can look up in a history book, just another one of the countless footnotes that make up the pile of manure that’s usually referred to as ‘human history’, and yet each one of those footnotes accounts for hundreds if not thousands of deaths, each one marking the end of an individual’s hopes and dreams, and the devastation of a family that’s left behind… ends that for the most part don’t even warrant one of those goddamned footnotes.
Of course, in a way I know there’s no point in mourning those deaths. It all happen almost twenty-five centuries ago, for fuck’s sake, the ones who died could all have gone on to live long lives and die at a ripe old age, but they’d still have been long dead and buried by now, they’d still have been forgotten centuries ago. The question is, if they hadn’t died, if the war hadn’t been fought, would the world have been any different than it is today? I don’t know. In a way I guess it would have been, so when do the meaningless details that don’t even warrant a footnote become the building blocks that make up the world as we know it?
I’m not sure, and the truth’s that I don’t particularly care. It’s just that being fucking immortal can get old after a while. Sure, at first glance having all the time in the world sounds fucking wonderful, but I’d love to see you try to go for a couple of millennia eating nothing but fucking grass. Believe me, things have a tendency to get tedious, and in the absence of a good mare, watching humans is the only kind of entertainment that’s been consistently available to me.
Okay, so now back to our regular programming, and I’ll try not to go all doom and gloom on you again. It’s just that seeing Bailos again like that really shook me. So what happened next?
Well, by the time the war was over I had long since lost the trail of the one who was supposed to be ‘my eternal companion’ again, so I spent the next few decades making my way north as best I could, trying to get away from the stupidity of both Athens and Sparta. Now that’s a laugh. Do you want to know where that got me? Back to what had once been one of Mardonius’s prime stomping grounds. It got me back to Macedon, and that in turn led me to a man who was most definitely not a footnote.