Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Historical

Malthake's Tail: A New York Lawyer in the Court of Pericles, Book 1

p<>{color:#000;}.

Malthake’s Tail: A New York Lawyer in the Court of Pericles Book 1

By David Schenck

A modern man trapped in ancient Greece.

If you were suddenly thrown 2500 years back in time would you be a king or a slave? Would any of your modern knowledge be useful? When Robert Kakos, a lawyer for a New York bank, in Athens as part of a team working on the Greek financial crisis, suddenly finds himself in the Athens of the 5th Century BCE, he must struggle to find value in his modern knowledge. Along the way he meets a host of colorful characters, slaves and merchants, Pericles and Socrates, and finally finds love and a home.

Copyright © 2016 by David Schenck

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

Prologue

I apologize if any of my references to events or people in the past are unclear. So much about the past has changed and my own memories are a confused jumble of the old past and the new.

For example, I find that the name Al Capone no longer means anything to anyone, except me (and presumably, Alphonse himself, if indeed, he actually existed or exists).

Nonetheless, I have tried to tell the story as it occurred to me at the time, including my memories of the old past, so if you find a reference confusing or without meaning, just assume that it meant something to people at one time.

Chapter 1 – It’s my birthday!

I was in Athens for my 53rd birthday. I didn’t particularly want to be in Athens, but I also didn’t have anywhere much better to be. At 53 I found myself pretty much unattached. Divorced for 8 years, no kids, an older brother in London, we were close, but not close close.

I was working as an attorney for an international bank. That’s why I was in Athens. As part of a team trying to negotiate the soft crash of the Greek economy.

I didn’t particularly feel bad about my lack of connection. But I’ll admit that on the morning of my 53rd birthday, waking up in my hotel room, I felt like something was lacking, and I wanted to do something to celebrate.

I wasn’t a particularly important part of the team. My specialty was tax law (It’s more interesting than it sounds, no really), and US tax implications would play only a minor role in the eventual deal. I really think I was there only because I spoke some Greek (thanks, Grandma!). Not that the team needed a translator (not that my Greek was good enough to be a translator), all the Greek bankers and government officials spoke English. I was just there to trot out and show that we weren’t all barbarians.

“Have you met Robert? He’s one of our attorneys, he speaks Greek!”

I would butcher a few words in my American-accented Greek, and the big boys would get on with the real business of butchering the Greek economy and protecting the interests of the funds, be they of the hedge or mutual variety.

My Greek wasn’t actually that bad. It was what you might call conversational, if the conversation was light and mostly about how much things cost or what’s on the menu. Like a lot of people with a second language, I understood more than I could speak. When I was younger, I was actually pretty good (thanks, Grandma!). She taught me Greek herself, mostly by refusing to speak English to me, even though I know she spoke perfectly fine English. “So you can talk to your Greek cousins when they come to visit”. They never came.

So, after the day’s meetings were finished, instead of taking the car service back to the hotel with the others, I hailed a cab.

“Where to?”

“I don’t know exactly.” I managed in my rusty Greek. “I’m looking for a place to have a nice dinner, something away from the tourists. What would you recommend?”

In the mirror, I could see him looking at me, in the mirror. I could feel him evaluating me, how much was I good for? My poor Greek marked me out as a foreigner, my nice suit (just what all the bank lawyers wear when meeting with the Finance Minister of a major (if economically troubled, especially if economically troubled) country, marked me out as a potential mark.

“You OK with a little ride? I know a great place, authentic, fantastic seafood, but it’s a ways outside the city. About a half hour. You’ll love it!”

I could feel him taking advantage of me, and normally I wouldn’t let him, but I was in this weird mood, so… “Sure, half an hour is fine. Where’s it at?”

“Little place just outside the city, you probably haven’t heard of it. It’s just what you’re looking for, away from the tourists, authentic, and seafood so fresh it gets off the plate and tries to go back to the ocean. There’s a nice patio with a great view, you can have a drink and watch the fishing boats come in. Nice place you’ll like it. Tell you what, if you don’t like it – the cab ride is free. Both ways. I’ve got some friends nearby, I’ll wait for you and drive you back. Deal?”

Sounds like he just wants me to pay for his trip to visit friends, but whatever. “Deal”

We start to drive and he starts talking. Really talking. He will not shut up. I quickly learn that he doesn’t need any response from me, so I just let him drone. The traffic is terrible and the promised half hour is up almost before the ministry is out of sight. Eventually, we’re out of the city and the roads start to clear up. We’re driving along the sea for a while and I watch the waves and the boats, thinking my thoughts while the driver keeps talking. It’s late June so the sun is still up and the ocean is beautiful and hypnotic.

After we’ve been on the road for about an hour, the pattern of his talking changes in a way that breaks through my haze. “Almost there he says. This area is part of Megara, my family’s lived in Megara for as long as any. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The records only go back so far, but as far back as they go, we’re there! We still have a small farm outside the city. I live in Athens now, it’s a great scandal. I’ll move back one day. But, it’s a small city, it doesn’t have the kinds of opportunity Athens has. My great-grandfather tells me that Megara was once a great city, that we once ruled Athens and Sparta both. The historians don’t say that, the archeologists don’t say that, but in my family, we tell the legend of the time when Megara was the greatest city in all of Greece. He tells me this when I’m leaving for Athens, he tells me I should stay in Megara. But, I say, ‘But now, Megara isn’t so great.’ So, he hits me on the back of the head. It doesn’t hurt, he’s old. But still! I’m a grown man, he shouldn’t hit me.”

I start to tune out again, when he announces, “Here we are! This restaurant is run by my cousin, and before that by my uncle and before him by my grandfather, on the other side, not the hitting side. As long back as anyone can remember. I’ll go in with you and introduce you around. I promise you’ll like it. What’s your name again?”

“Robert, Robert Kakos”

“Hey” He shouts “Are you Greek? Kakos is a Greek name!”

“On my father’s side.”

“Come on! They’re going to love you! They don’t get a lot of Americans, and hardly any Americans who are Greek and speak Greek!”

The place looked ok, it was clearly very old, a little run down, but clean enough. As he said, you could see the water from the patio and he led me to an empty table. There were a few other tables on the patio and a few groups of people. Everyone was drinking and eating and now, after more than an hour in the cab, I was suddenly very hungry.

“What would you like to drink? Beer? Wine? Ouzo? I’ll get it for you and bring you a menu!”

“I’ll have a beer, whatever’s good and cold.”

He goes inside and is back a few minutes later with two beers and about a hundred people. He opens a beer and takes a swig, before opening the other for me, then he introduces me to his cousin, his cousin’s wife, kids, mother-in-law, grandmother and various friends. Everyone is friendly and soon my table is full. The beer is cold and good.

The driver takes a seat and more beers are called for, then ouzo, wine, food. The seafood is, in fact, ridiculously good. I notice the driver drinking and suggest he should take it a little easy since we need to get back to Athens. “Relax, I’ll stop after this drink.” He says swallowing a shot of ouzo and opening a beer. “I’ll be fine in a couple of hours. You Americans are so uptight.”

I figure if he’s too drunk when we leave, I can always call another cab and he can stay with family.

We drink, we eat, we sing and dance. He has a pretty cousin (or something) who wants to come to America and asks me lots of questions which I don’t mind answering.

It slips out that it’s my birthday and more drinks are brought out, more toasting, more music. Some kind of pastry with a candle. It is, in fact, a marvelous time.

It’s a little past midnight when I remember that tomorrow is a workday and suggest to the driver that we should think about heading back to Athens.

He is clearly too drunk. “Tell you what” he slurs “let’s stay here in Megara tonight and head back early in the morning. We leave here about 6 and I’ll get you back to Athens by 6:30, 6:45. What do you say? I’m too drunk to drive all the way back to Athens. My father’s house is just about 2 miles from here. We can have a last drink and Dorothea,” he nods at his pretty cousin “can drive us in the cab.”

I can feel myself getting angry, but I let it slip away. I look over at Dorothea, she is pretty and she seems relatively sober. It’s been a great night, just what I needed, so let the party continue!

“Ok, sounds good. Will your father mind?”

“He’s dead, but Mom will be happy to meet you and she’s really got no choice about me!”

With plans made, we order another round of drinks and maybe another after that. What are birthdays for?

It’s a little past 1:00 AM when Dorothea tells me it’s time to go. I’m already planning on being sick (and calling in sick) tomorrow.

I’m a little wobbly on my feet and she helps me to the cab. She’s soft and steady and I enjoy the walk and the cool breeze off the sea.

The driver is already laid out across the back seat so I take the front passenger seat.

“It’s just a few minutes up the road,” she says.

I nod and she pulls out onto the roadway. The driver in the back is still talking! I can’t really understand him, but he keeps going. Dorothea starts to tell me something about the local history (it must be a family trait). I’m not really paying attention, maybe I’m nodding off.

I come back to attention as the car starts to slide off the road, maybe it’s a bridge, I’m not sure. I remember falling and thinking ‘Anytime you fall in a car, it’s a bad thing.’

The last thing I remember, I’m waiting for the impact, but I never feel it.

Chapter 2

Introduction to the Book of Questionable Facts:

This book is called the Book of Questionable Facts for two reasons:

One – Because while much of it (if not most of it) is more or less true, it undoubtedly contains some things that are, if not completely false, at least wildly inaccurate. And;

Two – Because science demands that we question all assumptions and facts. If your results disagree with something in this book, check your results, have others check your results, but in the end, accept experimental results over anything you read here.

I wake up in pain. A lot of pain. And it’s pitch black. So black that I think I must be blind. I don’t think I’ve ever been in this kind of dark before. There’s always some light, everywhere.

I’m confused at first, then the night starts to come back to me. I remember the car falling and, I assume, crashing.

I’m on some kind of bed. I’m not sure if the bed is just incredibly uncomfortable or if I’m banged and bruised (turns out the bed WAS incredibly uncomfortable – but I was banged up pretty bad too). I experimentally move various extremities, nothing moves particularly smoothly, but everything moves, nothing seems broken.

I feel in my pocket for my cell. Better call someone on the bank team and let them know I’m not coming to the day’s meetings. The light from the screen is almost blinding. If I wasn’t blind before I am now. No signal. 11:31 AM. Well, I’ll give them a call once we’re back on the road. I remember, suddenly, the driver and his cousin. Where are they, are we in a hospital?

We must not be in a hospital because I’m not attached to any tubes and there aren’t any machines that go “ping”. Also no lights. Plus it really doesn’t smell so good.

Gingerly, I sit up. Then I fall back flat again. If I’m not in a hospital, I should be, I think as I pass out. I wake up again. Still in pain, still in the dark, still wondering where they got this uncomfortable bed. I check my cell, closing my eyes a bit against the expected glare. Still no signal, now 2:08 PM.

I decide to sit up again. More carefully this time. I achieve sitting status with some difficulty and more than a little pain, but once sitting I remain in that position and don’t fall back. Ok, so I can sit up. It makes me happier than it should and feels like a real accomplishment. I swing my legs around and put them on the floor. Surprisingly, I still have my shoes on.

Before standing, I decide to look around a bit. I turn on the flashlight from my cell, not sure why I didn’t think of this before.

Scanning the room with the light tells me one thing – definitely not a hospital. The room is small, not really much larger than I am. The walls seem to be rough plaster, there is nothing like a square corner. The floor is raw wood, worn smooth with use. There’s some kind of rough door in front of the bed, which the light reveals to be handmade with a rough blanket and what appears to be a thin straw stuffed mattress. No wonder my back hurts (aside from the car accident).

So – a few moments of thinking solves the mystery. I’m in the farmhouse of the driver’s mother! The kind of house that must have been in the family for hundreds of years. They might not even have wired it for electricity, that’s why it’s so dark. And the smell – it’s just hundreds of years of living.

I stand up, or almost stand up and rap my head on the surprisingly low ceiling. I sit back down and suddenly woozy, I lay back down and, no surprise here, pass out again.

I wake up again and this time, the room is less than completely dark, there’s a light coming through the door. I check my cell, 4:14 PM; still no signal and the battery is low.

Back through the process, sitting, carefully standing, bent over to avoid the ceiling and, really without moving from where I stand, I push open the door. Light floods my eyes and for a few moments I’m blind. Then, I duck down and pass through the doorway. I feel pretty steady.

I’m on a 2nd-floor gallery overlooking a courtyard. This seems to confirm my guess that I’m at the farm house of the driver’s mother.

There’s a woman down in the courtyard, she looks to be in her late 50’s or early 60’s – could be the mother – she’s dressed in what, I imagine, must have been the fashion here for thousands of years, a kind of short dress, belted, and actual Greek sandals. It’s like my own personal reenactment museum. Colonial Williamsburg but with Greeks!

I call down to her “Hello” I say in English, then a second later in Greek. “Where are Dorothea and the cab driver?” I really have to ask his name. There’s some kind of bond you form with people who have been both drunk and in a car crash with you.

She looks up at me and seems surprised to see me. Maybe the driver didn’t mention me? Without a word, she disappears into one of the doors and returns a few moments later with a man. Not the driver. Someone else, also dressed in some odd clothing, also wearing sandals, maybe late 30’s. He starts to climb the stairs to my floor. As he is climbing, I say to him “Hi, I’m Robert, I was with the cab driver and Dorothea last night when we had the accident. Are they ok? Where are they? I need to make a phone call and get to Athens as soon as possible.”

He said something I didn’t catch as he rounded the gallery towards me. When we were face to face he repeated himself (or maybe said something different). It sounded like Greek, similar sounds and even some words that almost sounded like words I should know, but I couldn’t understand a thing he said.

So, I repeated myself, slowly and pronouncing each word as carefully as I could. He seemed confused. But a look of recognition crossed his face at the word Athens. So, I repeated it. “Athens. I need to get to Athens.” Accompanied with the proper hand signals. Finger pointing at my chest at “I” and making some kind of gesture to convey “go”.

He repeated with a strange accent “Athens”. Was it possible that the accent was so different that we couldn’t communicate at all, this close to Athens? The driver and I had done fine, the rest of the family at the restaurant too.

But I remember meeting a guy from Boston years ago and I could hardly understand him, also a cab driver in Ireland who had spoken to me for the full 20-minute ride to the airport (what is with these chatty cab drivers?) and I’d only understood that he was no fan of George Bush. And all of us had been native English speakers.

So, I repeated “Athens” and he repeated “Athens” and finally I think we both realized that this was the limit of our communication.

“Dorothea?” I tried. But this was met with a blank look.

“Cabdriver?” Blank.

“My friends?”

“Friends” he repeated oddly, but enthusiastically.

Then he reached out and grabbed the front of my suit jacket. It was rumpled – car accident, sleeping in my clothes – and a little dirty. He rubbed it between his fingers. And said …. Something.

“It’s OK, no need to worry. I have clean clothes at the hotel. I just need to get to Athens and everything will be fine.”

“Athens” he repeated, not letting go of my jacket.

Before we could get into another round of who’s on first, the woman approached with a clay tumbler. She held it out to me and I think she said “water?”

I was suddenly wildly thirsty. I took the tumbler with a thanks and drained it, practically, in one go.

Now that I had another audience member I tried again to see if we could communicate.

“Hi, I’m Robert, I was with Dorothea and the cab driver last night. Where are they? Are they ok? I need to get to Athens, or at least make a phone call. My cell can’t get a signal here. Is there a phone?”

“Athens” they both repeated. It was almost comic. Almost.

Then suddenly I had a bright idea. I pulled out my cell phone. They stared. I put it to my ear and mimed making a phone call. Nothing. I turned it on to show them the no signal and as I turned it toward them they both jumped back in surprise. The woman backed away as if it would bite her and the man stared at it as if it was the strangest thing he has ever seen.

OK, enough of this! We couldn’t communicate, and I needed to get to Athens. Neither the cab driver nor Dorothea were my problem. They were with family. Nobody here spoke the kind of Greek I spoke, but nearby there must be somebody who I could talk to who could, at least, let me make a call!

I took a step towards the stairs (also towards the woman) – she let out a small shriek and she turned and ran.

I put away my phone and brushing past the man, I started for the stairs.

Once downstairs in the courtyard, I could see several open rooms and one closed door. Assuming the closed one to be the front door, I went to it. There was an odd type of latching system that took me a moment to figure out. While I was fumbling with the door, the man, still on the gallery above, saw what I was doing and started to shout. I made out the word “NO!” but nothing else.

I assumed that he was worried that the cab driver or Dorothea would come by looking for me, but at the moment, I was more concerned about calling someone on my team to explain my absence and figure out how to get back to Athens. For all I knew, the entire Athens police force was out looking for me. I was, after all, an “international banker” and we were less than popular in Greece at the moment. There had been riots.

Besides, the cab driver and Dorothea had essentially abandoned me. I really couldn’t waste any more time.

So, I opened the door and walked into the street outside. I was so surprised that there was a street and a house across the street and people in the street that I really didn’t look around too closely. I’d thought I was in an old farm house and so, of course, I’d expected a farm outside.

Once I looked around a little more, I was even more surprised. Shocked really. There were people in the streets, a fair number, and they were all dressed pretty much like the people in the house. Short belted dresses or robe type things and all with sandals. In fact, the whole place was like a reenactment museum. Was there a “Colonial Athens”?

I stopped an old woman with a mule loaded with a large clay jar. “Excuse me,” I started in my most careful Greek, “I need to get to a phone. Or a cab back to Athens. Can you help me?”

“Athens?” she said.

I think I was about to lose my temper when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the man from inside the house. He was talking to me fast and, clearly, he was worried and excited. He was pulling me back towards the house.

But, I wasn’t interested in going back to the house. I wanted to find a phone! I shook off his hand and started walking down the street. He followed, but at a short distance.

I stopped a few more people with no success. It was crazy. How could nobody speak Greek this close to Athens, even in a weird rural village where people still used mules (there were a surprising number of mules). Was this, in fact, a reenactment museum? Were they all acting and unwilling to break character even to help someone clearly in distress?

I walked, wandering more or less without direction, hoping to reach a paved road or find a telephone or something. The man from the house followed diligently behind me.

I came across an open square. It looked like a marketplace with stalls and tables and people buying and selling. Hundreds of people. All dressed in old fashioned clothes. If this was a reenactment museum, it was the best in the world. And I seemed to be the only visitor. As I thought this, I looked behind me. The man from the house was there, but so was a fair sized crowd of people. Apparently following me. If this was a museum, I, apparently, was the star exhibit.

And then I looked up. There was the Acropolis. I’d seen this view, more or less exactly, from near my hotel (which had a lovely view of the Acropolis). Only, now, the buildings were complete.

I was rooted to my spot. While it might have been possible to construct this museum and staff it with these hundreds of actors and construct a copy of the Parthenon and other buildings (there’s a replica in Nashville, Tennessee), it would be impossible to build a full-size replica of the Acropolis. I mean, it’s a god damn mountain!

What was going on?

Let me digress for a moment and talk about dental floss. Yep, dental floss.

I once bought a package of dental floss. My usual kind. A package of dental floss would usually last me about a month. Sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more. This particular brand had a little plastic window build into the container so you could see how much floss was left. But, for some unknown reason, they made the window dark blue, so you (or at least I) couldn’t actually see how much floss was left. But all this was normal. I opened the floss and used it, just like usual, day after day.

Then one day, I thought, “that’s weird, I’ve been using this floss for a long time now. More than a month, much more.” So, I started to pay attention, how long would it last? What if it never ran out? This went on for months. I started to think it was a violation of the law against the creation of matter and energy.

Here’s the important point: If it was a violation of the laws of physics, even just the never-ending dental floss, it would change everything. I would have to reevaluate everything I thought I knew. When faced with undeniable facts that seem to violate the laws of nature, we don’t have any choice but to accept them. Or I might have been crazy.

Of course, the dental floss eventually DID run out. They probably just accidentally spooled extra floss on the spool. No need to reevaluate anything and my sanity seemed safe.

At least until I found myself at the foot of the Acropolis looking up at a newly constructed Parthenon.

I was in a daze. Trying to make sense of the situation. What were the options?

1) I had been in an accident. It was more than possible I was in a coma or on drugs and this was a dream. It didn’t feel like a dream, too sequential, nothing changing form or location. But what did I know? I had never been in a coma before, maybe coma dreams are different.

2) The insanity option. This seemed unlikely. I had no history of any mental problems. And if this was a hallucination, it was a very orderly hallucination. The same reasons it was unlikely to be a dream argued against it being a hallucination.

In favor of it being a hallucination were my interactions with other people. They seemed confused by my behavior, they found me odd, and we had difficulty communicating. Kind of what I imagine people in the midst of a psychotic break must experience. So, crazy? Maybe.

3) The dental floss never ends. This was real. I was back in time or in a parallel universe. How? Who knows? Everything we think we know is wrong.

Are there other options? Maybe. Maybe I was dead and this was some kind of afterlife. I don’t really believe in that kind of thing, but I didn’t believe in THIS kind of thing either.

In the end, I decided it didn’t matter. If I was dreaming, I was in the dream and I had to live the dream until it ended. If I was crazy, I was in the crazy and I had to live the crazy until it ended. And if I was in a real weird place, I was in a real weird place and I had to live in the weird place until it ended.

I’m a lawyer and making pragmatic, what is obtainable type, decisions in difficult situations is part of my makeup.

But, it made no sense! How had I gotten here? If it was some kind of time travel/multiverse hopping thing, aside from the impossible physics, why was I in Athens and not Megara? The last place I had been was Megara. This argued in favor of the dream/coma/crazy explanations. I didn’t know Megara well and it might have been easier for my unconscious to imagine ancient Athens (which I also didn’t know well…). And what about the cab driver and Dorothea? This seemed to argue in favor of it being a real experience. I probably would have brought them with me into a dream/hallucination, at least the pretty Dorothea. But as I said, it didn’t matter.

Try as I might to remember that the explanation was irrelevant, I never could stop myself from occasionally getting lost trying to figure it out. It doesn’t make sense. The dental floss never runs out…

After a few minutes, the man from the house (Isodemos, I later found out, was his name) came forward and placed his hand on my elbow and I let him guide me back to the house.

Suddenly my phone sounded! It’s hard to express my excitement. I must have wandered into an area with service and (of course) someone from the bank team was trying to call me!

I excitedly pulled out my phone, and checked, but no, it was just a calendar reminder. My brother’s birthday was in a week. Of course, my calendar alert sounds nothing like my ringtone, but wishful thinking… I started to laugh almost hysterically.

Isodemos, who had jumped away at the sound and appearance of the cell, mastered his fear, and gently guided me along the road.

When we reached the house again, I gave him a weak smile of thanks. And he again jumped back in fear.

Despite my decision to act as if everything I saw was real and not worry about how or why, I basically spent the next few days catatonic. But each morning when I failed to wake up in my hotel room or in a hospital, my decision to accept my situation (for now) became more real.

Chapter 3

The planets, including the Earth, orbit the sun. The form of these orbits are ellipses, like the shape of a cross section of an eggshell, longwise (see section on gravity).

Book of Questionable Facts – 1028

They brought me food several times a day. Some kind of, I can only call it, gruel (please sir, can I have some more?). Wet and lumpy and relatively flavorless. Sometimes fruit or rough bread and some kind of fresh cheese. I had little appetite. And they otherwise pretty much left me alone. The woman (her name was Koré) was clearly afraid of me and the man only a little less so. At first, I would give them a smile and thanks for bringing me food or taking away the chamber pot (the less said the better), but my smile never stopped frightening them. I was confused by this until I realized they had never seen anybody with straight white teeth before. I eventually learned to smile with my lips closed.

There were others in the household, I could hear them, but they never entered my little room.

After 3 or 4 days of this, I opened my door and walked out. It was early in the morning, Koré was in the courtyard doing something and a small boy (maybe 5 or 6) who I hadn’t seen before was playing near her. I called out to her and when she saw me she ran and got Isodemos. He came up the stairs and walked to me.

“OK,” I said. “I need to learn to talk.”

“Talk” he repeated.

So, with hand gestures and simple words I got across to him that I was interested in learning the language. He smiled and seemed happy to help. He beckoned me downstairs and led me to a large room with tiled floors, 3 beds and a few stools and low tables.

He motioned me to one of the beds and pulled up a stool and we started on language lessons. At one point the boy wandered in, but on seeing us (me?) he turned and ran off.

The language lessons went pretty fast. He was speaking Greek and I knew Greek, we just spoke different dialects. The pronunciations were different but not, now that I understood the situation, that different. Many words seemed to have drifted in meaning but we made good progress.

Over the next few weeks, I became fairly proficient in the language. And I learned a lot about my current situation.

I learned that I was in the house of Megakreon a non-citizen, or metic, resident of Athens. Megakreon was a merchant, trading primarily in olive oil and cloth. He was currently away on a trading trip to Greek cities in Asia Minor (I remember from middle school that this means Turkey. Thanks, Ms. Pazler!). Where demand for Athenian olive oil was high and they had access to exotic fabrics from the east.

I had been found by some men on the beach a few miles from the city center and brought to the house of Megakreon because of my clothing. The men were right, Megakreon was very interested in me because of my suit. No one in Athens had ever seen cloth like this (it was a nice suit). And Megakreon had bought me from the men.

Isodemos (and also Koré) were slaves of the household. I was also considered a slave since Megakreon had purchased me.

I objected that I wasn’t a slave (and using my lawyer logic) and I hadn’t been the property of the men who found me, so, since one can’t sell what he doesn’t own, the sale was void.

Isodemos replied that I was clearly a foreigner who entered the city illegally and had been sold fairly. If I could prove that I was a freeman and had entered the city legally, I could be freed.

Of course, I couldn’t prove anything of the sort.

Isodemos pointed out that the punishment for a foreigner entering the city illegally was slavery, so best to stay in the household of Megakreon who wasn’t such a bad master all in all.

Then Isodemos said, of course, if I was a magician or a god or the son of a god in disguise, all I would need to do would be to demonstrate my power and I would be set free.

I was about to deny being a god or in any way related to a god, when I remembered the fateful words of Dr. Peter Venkmen in Ghostbusters ‘Ray, if someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!’ I didn’t want to say yes and be forced to demonstrate my powers (which were basically limited to my rapidly dying cell phone). So, I just smiled and nodded. He jerked back at my smile, as always, and I think took it as a ‘yes’.

The other members of the household were Megakreon’s son Philon (the boy I’d seen) who was 5, and another slave, a man named Tros. Tros managed most of Megakreon’s business in the city and was frequently away visiting olive groves to negotiate the purchase of the oil. Megakreon’s wife, Philon’s mother, had died in childbirth last year and the household was managed by Koré.

Isodemos was responsible for the tutoring of Philon and the general needs of the household, such as carrying water from the well or buying food from the Agora (the marketplace where I had first realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore).

Megakreon was very interested in finding out where he could buy my fabrics. Megakreon had told Isodemos to get my source and threatened him with a severe beating if he failed (and Megakreon was one of the good slave owners!).

Isodemos begged me, with genuine fear, to tell him. Megakreon should be home within a week and he would be very angry if Isodemos had failed. Also, Megakreon would beat me if I failed to tell him.

I asked him the year and he told me it was the year of Archon Theodorus and about 40 years after the war with Persia. It meant nothing to me. He talked for a long while about various important people, but the only name he mentioned that I knew was Pericles. I remembered that he had been king of Athens a long time ago.

When I asked about how long Pericles had been king, Isodemos told me that Pericles was a general and not a king at all and that Athens was a democracy. Although our owner (OWNER!) wasn’t a citizen and couldn’t participate. And, of course, neither could we.

This seemed to argue that maybe this was some kind of parallel universe rather than the past, but who knows. My grasp of ancient Greek history was pretty loose and I did know that it was a democracy. It definitely argued against it being a dream or my being crazy – because why would I change facts that I knew about the past? Or maybe that’s how crazy works.

It was a lot to take in. And I was shocked and angry to be considered a slave. But just like I realized that I had no choice but to accept that I was in a different world, I soon realized that I had to live within that world. My knowledge of the history of slavery in the US told me that any society dependent on slaves would have extensive and harsh systems to ensure rebellious slaves didn’t stay rebellious for long.

Chapter 4

The length of a year is approximately 365.25 days. To deal with this extra .25 day, simply add an extra day to the calendar every 4th year. But this is just an approximate measure so, every 125 years skip the extra day.

Book of Questionable Facts – 84

As the days crept by I was consumed with dread. Megakreon would return any day now and he would expect something from me. What would I tell him? I certainly couldn’t tell him that he could buy a nice tailored suit in New York – with only a 4000-year wait!

I’d told Isodemos that I was from across the sea to the west and that in my home cloth like this was available for sale in many locations. This made him happy, but he wanted to know if I could show them how to get there. When I told him that my home was many thousands of miles away, he was less happy.

I finally decided to handle Megakreon just like I had handled all requests for information I didn’t want to divulge. I would stall. Give out information in dribs and drabs. Enough to keep him hopeful, but not enough for him to get the full picture. Who says tax law doesn’t prepare you for real life?

One day, word came that Megakreon would arrive the next day or the day after at the latest. Apparently, his ship had been seen at, Sunium, a nearby port.

That night I lay awake late into the night on my uncomfortable bed, planning my strategy. At one point, unable to sleep, I sat up thinking to walk the gallery for some fresh air and to look at the stars (although the air pollution was bad in the city from the constant burning of charcoal and wood, the light pollution was non-existent and the stars were stunning). As I swung my legs down, I kicked my cell, which I had placed under the bed for, more or less, safekeeping. It got me thinking. Isodemos thought I was a god because of the cell (and my teeth). I was a modern man, steeped in science and technology. Was there nothing I could do to better my position? Nothing I knew that would help me?

I remember, as a kid, reading Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In Twain’s book his modern man was suddenly transported back to 5th century England and using his modern knowledge was soon running the country.

Of course, Twain’s hero had all kinds of useful knowledge. He knew the exact time and date of a solar eclipse (which seems unlikely – since solar eclipses occur at different times in different locations, so it’s not the kind of thing you can easily look up in a book.). He knew how to make matches for fire and how to make a telephone.

What did I know? I knew a lot. I DID know how to make a telephone. At least I kind of knew. I knew that it was based on the fact that a current passed through a moving magnetic field would encode the variations in that magnetic field and transmit them to the other end of a circuit and that speakers made of a flexible cone could amplify the sound.

So, I guessed, that given the right equipment, I could probably develop a working telephone pretty quickly – maybe 3-6 months. But the right equipment was the problem. Telephones needed electricity, insulated wire, magnets (or electromagnets?), paper (for a flexible speaker cone) and other things that wouldn’t exist for thousands of years.

I knew how to generate electricity, by moving something metal through a magnetic field. But again that would need magnets and wire (insulated wire – how long until someone invented plastic?).

What else did I know? I, kind of, knew the formula for gunpowder. Sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter (I’d learned this formula from watching Star Trek, the one where Captain Kirk kills the Gorn with a makeshift cannon). But I had no idea what saltpeter was. Some kind of white crystal I think (and maybe it tastes salty? Captain Kirk identifies it by taste). Not enough information to actually make it.

What else? I was a voracious reader and knew thousands of facts, but nothing that I could think of that would actually help me.

I knew a fair amount of history, but nothing that I could see a way to use. Who cares who’ll win the battle of Hastings in 1066 (William the Conqueror)?

Hannibal? He was at least in more or less the right time frame (I thought). Maybe he had already passed. But really all I knew was that he crossed the Alps with elephants. Who was he fighting? Maybe Rome?

You could make penicillin from bread mold. But there had to be more to it than that. An injection of bread mold seems more likely to kill you than to cure you.

I was literally the only person on the planet who knew thousands of things that were the basis of modern life, but there seemed no way to use any of it to my advantage.

I knew atomic theory and chemical theory, the orbits of the planets and the inverse square formula of gravity. I knew how rods and cones in our eyes used photosensitive chemicals to detect light. I knew the theory of evolution. That a feather and a bowling ball will fall at the same speed in a vacuum (9.8 m/s2, thanks, Galileo!).

I alone knew that the sun was a giant ball of hydrogen gas compressed under its own gravity and slowly fusing hydrogen into helium and that it would one day explode.

I alone knew that the universe had started as a point of matter with near infinite density and had exploded in a moment 12.5 billion years ago.

I alone knew that the Milky Way, which I saw clearly in the night sky for the first time in my life, was made of stars, like the sun.

And I alone knew a thousand thousand other things. All useless. I couldn’t prove anything, couldn’t make anything, couldn’t do anything.

The Connecticut Yankee had been a king and I was going to be a slave.

I barely slept that night.

Chapter 5

Hydrogen has 1 proton, Helium has 2, Lithium has 3, Carbon has 6, and Oxygen (the part of the air we breathe that is used by mitochondria for cellular respiration (see sections on mitochondria and respiration) has 9. There are many more elements each with its own proton count (see section on protons).

Book of Questionable Facts – 171

The next day the household was tight with tension. Koré was cleaning everything and constantly making me move from room to room so she could work. Isodemos was putting little Philon through his paces, making him recite lines from The Iliad. Tros, the manager of Megakreon’s olive oil buying business, had come in from the countryside and was preparing samples of oils and accounts.

I was busy worrying. What would I offer Megakreon? How would I keep him from selling me to some worse owner? What exactly would be worse?

I had cleaned my suit and other pieces of clothing (which I had switched for local garb) as best I could (no dry cleaners) and I was prepared to spin him a story.

Unfortunately, I had told Isodemos that my home (and the source of my clothing) was thousands of miles across the western ocean, so I couldn’t exactly promise to lead an expedition.

My plan was simply to stall by saying that I had been separated from my companions who would certainly come looking for me and were themselves cloth merchants who would be happy to trade with him in thanks for his kind treatment of me.

I also planned on showing him my cell phone (I was sure Isodemos would tell him about it anyway), which was a marvel of modern engineering, and even without power would have curiosity value. Its smooth glass screen was a mirror better than anything available locally, and its colorful plastic case would be a completely novel material.

I figured I could play on his greed to gain a couple of months grace and hopefully, by the time his patience ran out, I could think of something else…

Megakreon, however, didn’t arrive that day. My anxiety was through the roof. Again, I barely slept, working over my story, looking for errors, ways to make things more attractive. I really didn’t think of anything new, but I basically kept at it all night.

Why, I wondered, was I so anxious to stay with Megakreon? I’d never met him and I had reason to believe he beat his slaves. However, he seemed like a smart business man, not afraid to take a risk (he had bought me, unconscious, just on the off chance that I could tell him where to buy my clothing).

I, of course, saw buying me as a shrewd business move.

I also knew that he let his slaves do side work when time permitted and keep half their wages for personal use or to save to buy their freedom. Isodemos, taught Homer and rhetoric when Philon was busy with other chores, and Tros had actually purchased some olive oil with his earnings and was expecting a profit when Megakreon returned. I thought I might eventually figure out how to earn enough money to buy my freedom.

While we waited, Tros struck up a conversation with me. I had seen him several times, but we’d never really spoken.

He asked me a few questions about myself, where I was from. I answered as carefully as possible, feeling that I had divulged too much information to Isodemos and not wanting to offer anything more. After a short while, I started asking him about himself.

He had been born in Boeotia, to the north, and had been taken as a slave when just a boy of about ten, when his village has been overrun during a battle against the Athenians. His father had been killed in the war and he and his mother were enslaved. He hadn’t seen his mother in over 15 years since they had been sold to different owners.

As he told his story, I was surprised by his lack of anger or bitterness. He seemed to think that this was just the way life was.

He hadn’t originally been sold to Megakreon but had been sold to a man named Cleanetus who was very rich and owned a large olive orchard outside the city. He had worked on the farm for many years and learned everything there was to know about olives, olive trees and olive oils. The farm had been hard work and the overseer (himself a slave) had had a liberal hand with the whip and the rod. But Tros had been, in some ways, happier there. He had met and fallen in love with a woman, a fellow farm slave and they had a daughter, who was now seven years old. Cleon, his owner (who had inherited the farm after the death of Cleanetus), had been angry about the child (who was now an extra mouth to feed and who couldn’t work and who might well die before she would be useful) and both he and his wife had been severely beaten.

He had gotten to know Megakreon through his frequent buying trips to the farm. And one day, about 4 years ago, Megakreon, had approached him, all smiles, to say that he had bought Tros from Cleon and he would now work for him.

Tros, who had been on good terms with Megakreon, asked if he had also bought his family. Megakreon said no. He already had enough household slaves.

“That’s terrible!” I said

Tros shrugged and said, it wasn’t so bad. He still got to see his wife and daughter fairly regularly, since he now made buying trips to Cleon’s farm.

But his ambition was to save enough money to buy freedom for himself and his family. He told me how he was buying oil now with his own money and Megakreon was trading it for him.

Megakreon had set his price for freedom at 500 drachmas and Cleon had set the price for his Wife and daughter at 350 drachmas for the pair. He told me he was particularly anxious to buy their freedom quickly because his daughter was a pretty girl and in 3 or 4 years he was worried that a brothel owner might want to buy her.

“How much do you have now?” I asked him.

“I bought 31 drachmas worth of oil, which Megakreon will have sold, and I’m hoping to receive at least 75 drachmas.” He smiled ruefully and continued “of course, Megakreon will take his share and so, I should end up with something like 50 or 55.”

“Maybe you can buy your family first and then yourself.” I suggested since I didn’t see how he would raise 850 drachmas in a few years.

“Can’t” he said. “A woman and child can’t live alone, and a slave can’t own slaves. Megakreon would have to buy them and be willing to take them into his household, and then I’d have to buy them from him and, probably, pay him for their support, and then it would take forever to finally be free.”

“No” he continued, determined. “I just have to earn the money as fast as I can.”

I put my hand on his shoulder and said “Good luck, my friend.”

He shrugged my hand off, now in a foul mood and said. “There are no friends among slaves.”

He wandered off. I worried that he was angry with me, but when I saw him later he smiled and gave a small wave.

Late that afternoon, word came that Megakreon’s ship was at the dock and he would be home before dark.

Tros’ story with its casual beatings and sales and re-sales of slaves had raised my anxiety to a high pitch.

Megakreon did arrive just before sunset and the whole household was in the courtyard to greet him. He greeted everyone and gave his son a tight hug. When he came to me he asked my name.

“I’m called Robert” I answered.

He was in a good mood and clapped me on the shoulder and said “Good to see you alive and well Robert. I’m looking forward to talking with you soon.”

Then he stepped back a bit and turning to address everyone he announced “We have a new addition to the household!” and with a sweep of his arm, opened the door to the outside and in stepped a young woman. She looked nervous and keep her head down looking at her feet. Megakreon placed his hand under her chin and raised her head. She was quite pretty and maybe 20 years old. He introduced her as Penelope.

Megakreon took her by the hand and introduced her individually to each one. Then he announced. “As you know, we have been without someone to really manage the household since my beloved wife passed away. Penelope is skilled in household management and will fill that role for us. Koré and Isodemos, you are to give her all the assistance she needs.” Then giving us all a hard look, “Make her feel welcome.”

Then taking her hand again he said “I think she’ll help us all a great deal. I’m hungry! Koré I’ll eat in the men’s room now!”

He entered a room off the courtyard and the rest of us scattered. Koré went to the kitchen, but her face and her muttering showed her dissatisfaction.

I sat in the courtyard for a while, then as darkness fell, I went up to my room.

Chapter 6

The period (time to travel from one extreme to the other) of a pendulum never varies. So, as a pendulum slows down it covers less and less space in the same amount of time. This is useful in making clocks and, probably, for other stuff too.

Book of Questionable Facts – 1547

The next day, I waited to speak with Megakreon, but he (and Penelope) never left his bedroom.

Days passed. I saw him for brief moments, he always smiled and seemed in a good mood, but never wanted to talk to me. He met for a long time with Tros, who left the house soon afterwards to return to the countryside.

Before Tros left, he stopped to talk with me.

“I made less that I’d hoped. Only 44 drachmas. I’ll never make it!” Then lowering his voice, “Megakreon says the demand for oil was low and my oil only brought 48 drachmas and his own brought a similarly low price, yet he has his new slave girl (and she wasn’t cheap), and I spoke to a dock slave who says he saw chests of luxurious fabrics being unloaded. The bastard is cheating me!”

I could see his worry and I shared it. I said to him. “There may be no friends among slaves, but I wish you the best, I have no family of my own and if I can do anything to help you, just let me know.”

He smiled at me and put out his hand “No friends among slaves, but thank you for your well wishes.” Then lowering his voice again, “I’m afraid you’ll have troubles enough of your own soon.”

He turned and left and I couldn’t ask him what he meant, but I was gripped by fear all over again.

More days passed. Isodemos asked me to help him with some of his work, carrying water and wood. It was hard work and I think he was pretty disappointed with how I managed. Eventually, he gave me a scroll to read (he had been surprised to discover that I could read), and basically had me stay out of the way (I felt surprisingly upset by my inability to do these basic chores).

The scroll was a history of the Persian wars and was actually quite interesting.

Finally, one day as Megakreon passed through the courtyard he saw me and said, “Ah! Rober! Please come talk with me.”

“It’s Robert”

“Ah, of course. Strange name”

We entered a room off the courtyard where he spent much of his day. There was a table and several beds or couches as well a few three-legged stools. He reclined on a couch and motioned me to a stool.

He had a plate of figs and bread and hard cheese and began eating. He didn’t offer me any.

“So” he began, chewing loudly, “let me tell you a little about your story that you might not know.

“When I came to Athens 9 years ago, I didn’t have an obol in my pocket. I was flat broke when my ship landed.”

He gestured around. “Now look at me! Me! Megakreon! I have this fine house, true I have to rent it, but if the law allowed, I could buy one just as nice. I have 4, no counting you, 5 slaves and I’ll let you in on a little secret, soon I’ll be making myself a fine marriage. A damn fine marriage!

“The point” He continued, “the point is, I’m a smart businessman. Megakreon knows a good deal when he sees one and I’m not afraid to act!

“Take you, for example. You were found on the beach by the port of Piraeus. You were insensate. The men who found you assumed, based on your, shall we say interesting, clothing, that you were a stranger.

“Isodemos tells me that you speak a strange kind of Greek, and I can hear your accent myself, so, clearly you are a stranger. In the city illegally I assume. Smuggler? Eh? No matter!”

He waved his hand to show how unimportant my status was

“They, the men who found you, were, um, not the best class of men, but I’d had occasion to do business with one of their party in the past.

“They, quite honestly, were looking to find a way to turn a profit on you. The man who had done some work for me knew that Megakreon was always interested in new and different fabrics and they brought you to me. It was immediately clear to me that your clothing would be very valuable.

“If, I say if, its source could be found and profitably traded. But there was some concern that you would die and take the secret with you to hades.

“I’m glad to see that you are alive and well!” He reached out from his couch and slapped me on the knee in what he must have assumed was a friendly manner

“I bought you from them, quite cheaply I think, for just that reason. Who wants a dead slave, eh? But Megakreon sees profit where other men just see a half-dead slave!

“But here you are, alive and well! And thanks to me! But no need to thank me! I’m a generous man! My slaves have nursed you back to health, fed you my food, housed you in my house.”

He waved his hand at me “Clothed you in my fine clothes! As Isodemos will have told you, I am something of a trader in cloth. Nowhere else in the city do the slaves wear such fine clothing!”

He leaned forward a bit on his couch, closer to me and spoke lower, almost conspiratorially. “I would like very much to find the source of your cloth and for you to assist me in trading with your people. Can you do that for me? Hum? After all I’ve done for you?”

He slapped my knee again with the back of his hand, “Who is a better friend to you than Megakreon?”

He leaned back relaxing, his soliloquy finished and looked at me expectantly

I thought for a moment how to begin. At last, I said, “Thank you Megakreon.” Swallowing my revulsion at thanking a man who a bought me as a slave and was now proud of his good deed. “Your people have indeed cared for me and I’m grateful for your help in my moment of need. I’m anxious to help you in return. I should point out that I am not a slave and the men who sold me to you were not my owners.”

An angry look crossed his face “You’re a stranger, entering the city illegally. A smuggler or thief, it makes no difference. There were no strange ships in the port that day. I know! I’m Megakreon! It’s my business to know! I bought you fairly!” He again leaned in “I own you.” He growled.

Then leaning back and smiling wide “But you were saying how you wished to help me! Please go on!”

I was a bit shaken, not really surprised that he wouldn’t just give in and let me go free, but startled by his menace.

“Um, right, as I was saying. I’m more than happy to help you acquire as much cloth as you wish. As it happens, I was traveling with friends when I got separated from them and arrived here in the city by accident.” Best to stick as close to the truth as possible.

“I don’t really know how I ended up here. I’m not a smuggler or a thief. But, as it happens my friends are cloth merchants.” So much for the truth.

“I expect that they’ll be searching for me.” It was POSSIBLE.

“And, of course, when they find me, I’ll tell them of your kindness and recommend they trade exclusively with you.”

He had closed his eyes while I was talking. Now he opened them

“And how long do you think they’ll be, your friends? How could you have been separated from them and they not know where to look? You weren’t shipwrecked or thrown overboard. Your clothing didn’t have enough salt stain.” He thumped himself on his chest “Megakreon, knows cloth!”

“I don’t know how long they’ll be.” Leaving the truth far behind. “We had a tight schedule and important business in the east. They wouldn’t have been able to stop and search.” I added, a touch I thought he would appreciate, “Business first! But they will certainly come looking for me when they return.”

“But on their return,” he said, “they’ll have sold all the cloth. Leaving nothing for Megakreon!”

“True,” I said, “but where we come from there is much cloth. They’ll return with as much as you want. And,” here was my key selling point “nobody except you will have it!”

He looked like he was considering the idea, like he was already imagining himself the only seller of Armani suits in ancient Athens!

After a moment, he looked back at me. “Bring me your clothing. The strange sandals too.”

As I got to my feet, he added “And the blue object that Isodemos says makes light. I want to see that too.”

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I felt betrayed, not that I had told Isodemos to keep it a secret, but I guess I hadn’t expected him to tell Megakreon every detail of our time together.

I went out into the courtyard and up the stairs and got my clothes and my cell and returned to Megakreon.

He was drinking deeply when I entered, Koré must have brought him a cup of wine while I was gone.

I showed him my clothing. He stood up and took the suit and shirt and examined the fabric with the air of an expert.

Then placing the suit on his couch he took up my shoes. He examined them, clearly surprised by the quality of the leather. He smelled them and even chewed a bit of the tongue.

“What kind of leather is this? How do they make the stitches so even and tight?”

I started to say that I really didn’t know, but he waved me to silence. He was talking to himself.

Finally, he placed the shoes down too and held out his hand. “And the blue light thing? Where is it?”

I passed him my cell.

He took it in his hand and looked at it with true wonder. Turned it over and over. Admired his reflection in the glass. Marveled at the rich, slightly translucent color of the plastic. He poked the buttons and stroked everything.

Finally, after examining every inch he asked, “Isodemos says it makes light and music. How?”

“Unfortunately,” I began, I’d rehearsed how to deal with this demand, “it obtains its power from being in my homeland. Once separated from my country, it slowly loses its power until none remain. Only on returning to my homeland will it be able to make light and music again.”

Megakreon looked disappointed. Then after a second “No matter, it’s still a marvel! Tell me, your friends, they could also trade with me for these, how do you call it?”

“It’s called a cell, and yes my friends could also trade with you for these.”

“A kell, hum? Well, I’d certainly be interested in the trade.”

“When they return I’ll tell them and we’ll make a trade.”

He looked at me with what I think was regret, then said, “Unfortunately, I don’t think your friends will be coming back. At least not anytime soon. Isodemos tells me you are from across the western ocean. Far away and I believe it!” he gestures to my things. “I know trading with your people could make me rich, maybe richer than even my dreams, but Megakreon is also a pragmatic man and knows when to take a smaller profit rather than risk all for a dream.

“I’ve already sold you to Cleon.” He said, matter-of-factly. “I got a good price for you. More than I paid, now that you’re healthy. And I’ll keep this cloth, find a good buyer and of course your knell.”

“Cell” I corrected numbly. Sold?

“Yes, Megakreon will come out of this all right.” He looked lost in thought for a moment, I think counting his profit.

“You’re keeping my cell and my clothes?”

“They aren’t yours.” He replied with little interest. “A slave owns nothing. Besides,” He said jovially, “I’m trading you these fine clothes!”

He waved me out with his hand “Tros will return in a few days, and when he leaves again you’ll go with him and he’ll deliver you to Cleon’s farm. Isodemos tells me you’re a poor worker. Well, Cleon’s men will soon have you trained up right! In the meantime, relax, eat my food, and drink my wine, read my scrolls! Isodemos tells me you can read! It’s a pity your Greek isn’t better, I could have found you a much better spot, and at a higher price! Oh well, can’t waste the day wishing things were different!”

He waved me out again. And I left.

Sold! To Cleon! I don’t know why I was so upset. But I wanted at that moment to stay in Megakreon’s household more than anything. Not that it was so nice, but I had gotten used to it. As used as you can get to bad food, worse wine, terrible smells, chamber pots, filth and threats. Still, they had demanded no actual work and I’d grown fond of Isodemos, Koré and, the child, Philon.

Tros had told me that the work on the farm was hard and the overseers like to enforce discipline with beatings. I’d never been in a fight in my life, never been beaten by my parents or anyone, never broken a bone. In short, I’d never suffered any kind of serious physical pain and I wasn’t eager to start.

But I was an old man, by their standards, surely they wouldn’t expect much actual physical labor (something else I’d had little experience with) and surely they wouldn’t actually beat me. In my short time here, I’d heard about beatings, but I hadn’t actually seen one. Maybe it was just some sort vague threat that never actually happened.

But I knew that couldn’t be completely true. Isodemos’ fear had been real. If no one ever was actually whipped the fear would eventually dissipate. Still, it might be rare. I hoped. I’d have to ask Tros when he returned.

At least I was going to a farm where Tros had worked. He would know people and could maybe give me some inside information. Plus his wife and daughter were still there, if I remembered correctly. That should be something.

Like desperate people everywhere, I clung to what hope I could find.

Chapter 7

The resources of the Earth, although they may seem limitless, are in fact, limited. Don’t waste them! Don’t pollute any more than necessary and always look for ways to do more with less waste!

Book of Questionable Facts – 588

So, I waited for Tros. As Megakreon suggested, I ate his food and drank his wine and read his scrolls. He didn’t have many, but I still wasn’t reading very fast and the history of the Persian war was long.

I also continued to have language classes when Isodemos had time. He apologized for telling Megakreon that he doubted my friends would return. I told him not to worry. Megakreon probably would have arrived at the same conclusion himself. Still, I remembered – No friends among slaves.

Then one day Tros was in the courtyard waiting when I woke up. I went down to talk to him. He seemed happy to see me.

“My new traveling companion!” he greeted me.

“So it seems.” I replied, “At least for a little while.”

“Don’t be sad! It’s not so bad. The work is hard, but so is life. I’m just waiting for Megakreon to check these samples of oil, then we’ll take the jars to his warehouse and we’ll be on the road!”

“So soon?” I asked.

“Yes, no reason to delay! We’ll make a circuit of farms. I have two or three to visit on the way to Cleon’s. So we’ll be on the road probably three or four days before I can see my wife and daughter!”

Suddenly his good mood made sense. Of course, for him this was a trip to see his family, while I was going into agricultural slavery. Everything depends on your point of view…

“If you have anything to pack, get it ready.”

I held my arms out to my sides and spun around. “I’m all packed. We can leave when you’re ready.”

Just then Megakreon joined us. “Robé! This is goodbye! I just want to remind you that if your friends ever do return, nobody will give them better trading terms than Megakreon!” Then he leaned close to me, “And there would be something extra in it for you too. Come Tros, show me the samples.”

And they walked off together. I said my goodbyes to Koré and Isodemos and Philon and waited, reading and worrying.

Soon, we were on our way. After the warehouse, we headed out the city gates and into the countryside. The city was surrounded by farms and country estates.

We had a small cart with us pulled by a bad tempered donkey. She would spit and bite and stop at any small patch of grass or greenery to eat. Tros told me that her name was Malthake (sweetheart) after she tried to bite me for the first time.

I’m not normally much of an animal person, but I found myself feeling sympathy for my fellow slave and I wouldn’t let Tros beat her when she stopped.

We all three walked because if anyone tried to ride in the cart the donkey would slow to a crawl.

“It’s funny because I can load the cart with jars of oil that weigh much more than you and I both and she’ll walk all day without much complaint. She just doesn’t like to be the only one working.”

It was blazingly hot and the road (really just a rutted dirt path) was dusty. After a very short time, I was sweating and filthy and dying of thirst. Luckily, I’m a city boy and I’m used to long hot walks or I would never have made it past the first 10 minutes.

We walked mostly in silence, occasionally stopping for a drink of wine and a bite of bread. I remember in modern Athens seeing an exhibit on the history of wine in Greece. It went on and on about the suitability of the climate for grape growing and the ancient fame of Greek wines, but the stuff we drank was terrible. Sour or salty or just plain bad. It got you drunk if you drank a lot, but it was mixed with water so it did take a lot. It was barely drinkable – except it was pretty much the only thing to drink.

During one stop, I tried to make friends with Malthake. I ran my hand over her head and down her mane, she tried to bite me at first but eventually, we seemed to arrive at a certain détente. As I was stroking the course hair of her mane, I had an idea.

“Give me your knife.”

Tros looked at me skeptically, but he handed me the little knife he wore on his belt. It was DULL! There is nothing like a sharp knife here! I wanted to cut a few of the hairs from Malthake’s mane. I grabbed a small clump and started sawing away. Malthake, predictably, didn’t like it, but Tros held her head and after a surprising amount work, I had a handful of tough donkey mane.

“Hold her just a bit more, I need a few from her tail.”

“What the hell are you doing?”

“You’ll see.”

He held her while I cut a few long hairs from her tail (I stood to her side, she would have kicked me dead for sure if I had been behind her).

“Ok, now I need a small branch.” I found one on a nearby tree that seemed good and cut it with Tros’ dull knife. Then, with a few cuts and trims and some bending and tying I had a makeshift TOOTHBRUSH!

I held up my prize to Tros, expecting admiration, but he simply looked confused “What is it?”

“It’s for cleaning your teeth.”

I took the water skin and sloshed a little water on the brush and, without thinking about the irony of trying to clean my teeth with hair fresh from a donkey, started to brush my teeth. The bristles were too long. And for the rest of the day as we walked I fiddled with the brush until I was more or less satisfied.

When night approached we stopped at a small farm house. An old man in the field greeted Tros and motioned us inside. Tros told me that he stayed here often on his travels and usually brought them some oil or barley flour on his return trips and sometimes helped them with the farm. Tros tied the donkey to a tree alongside a patch of grass and weeds.

Inside the house an old woman was preparing dinner. She gave Tros a small hug and me a wary look, but she seemed friendly enough after a while.

The old man came in and with the four of us the house was a little crowded. They were clearly poor farmers. The house had just one room and the floor was dirt. But there was a small fire at one end of the room and some kind of soup or stew was cooking and it smelt pretty good.

Tros introduced me and told them I was a stranger from across the Western Ocean and new slave of Cleon’s and he was delivering me to the farm.

They invited us to eat. There was no table or chairs so the couple sat on their small bed and I sat on the floor while Tros took a small 3-legged stool. The soup was good. It had fresh vegetables and some barley and a little salt and there were pieces of a hard brown bread. It was, by far, the best meal I had eaten since the seafood restaurant in Megara.

After eating, Tros asked me to tell them about my homeland. At first I was unsure about what to say, but then I remembered that everyone here believed all sorts of strange things, so soon I was spinning stories about cities 100 time the size of Athens with buildings that scraped the sky, carts that moved without donkeys (Tros and I both took a moment to appreciate the joy of that) and devices that let you talk to anyone anytime no matter the distance.

I’m not sure how much they actually believed, but they seemed to enjoy the stories and talking about home helped me too.

I asked for a bit of water in a cup and took myself outside to brush my teeth. They all followed and observed my odd ritual with the kind of curiosity reserved for only the truly insane. Nonetheless, I felt 1000% better with something approaching clean teeth.

Afterwards, we lay down to sleep. The couple in their bed and Tros and I on the floor with thin blankets (rags really) that the old couple had offered us.

Thankfully the night was warm, so I used my blanket as a mattress and another blanket (rag really) that Tros had in the cart as a pillow and lay down to sleep as best I could. I very quickly missed the terrible bed in Megakreon’s house. I tossed and turned looking for the least uncomfortable spot without success. Every spot was more uncomfortable than every other spot (impossible but true). But I was so worn out from the long day of walking that I finally slept.

The morning came all too soon. Pain flooded my body. My legs were killing me from all the walking and my entire body hurt from sleeping on the hard dirt floor. I lay quiet for a moment seeing if I could just will myself to die, but without success.

Soon, everybody else in the house was up and about and Tros was kicking my shoulder. I got up reluctantly. There was a light breakfast, more hard bread (which was not as good without the soup) and some fresh figs and we were on our way.

As we untied Malthake and started on our way, the old woman ran out of the house and pressed a half a loaf of fresher bread into my hands.

I thanked her and she turned back to the house.

Tros gave me a look “She must like you! She never gives me food for the road!”

We walked for a couple of hours until Tros told me we were almost to the first farm.

“This is the farm of Nicias. He is a General and very rich”.

“I thought Pericles was the General.”

“Pericles is a General, but so is Nicias. There are 10 generals chosen each year.”

“Ok”.

“Anyway, when we reach the farm, just stay out of the way and keep quiet. Nicias is a hard master and his overseers are too. Be glad you are going to the farm of Cleon and not here.

“I’ll check on the olive crop, look at some of the stored oil, try to find some way to make a little extra money and, if we’re lucky, they’ll invite us to stay for the night.”

I nodded my agreement. “Ok, I’ll stay quiet and out of the way.”

A half an hour or so later we walked up a path to the farm of Nicias. The head overseer, a man named Patrobas, greeted Tros. He looked at me questioningly. Tros explained that I was a slave he was delivering to Cleon and Patrobas ignored me completely.

I unhitched Malthake from the little cart and tied her to a tree that offered her some greenery and lay myself down in the back of the cart to wait. I quickly fell asleep. After a while, I was awoken by Malthake braying. She still had food, so maybe she needed water. I couldn’t remember when we had watered her. I checked the skins. Some wine, but no water. I took a sip of wine (really terrible stuff).

Looking around I saw Tros, not too far off, talking with another man. Their conversation seemed intense, almost an argument.

There were some slaves a little off to one side working on something. I thought I would ask them where I could get some water for Malthake (who sweetheart that she was, was still braying).

“Calm down sweetie. I’ll see what I can find.”

I approached the group of slaves, they were standing in a ditch of water and digging. I later learned (the hard way) that they were clearing an irrigation ditch. My lucky day! Here was water! Dirty it’s true, but Malthake had never seemed too particular. I turned around to get Malthake, and a woman who was carrying a basket bumped into me and the basket (full of dried barley) splashed into the water.

The woman cried out and pointed her finger at me. “He pushed me!”

Soon we had a small group looking at us, but Tros and his friend were not part of it. A man who clearly was in a position of authority and carrying a long staff came over and as soon as he approached the woman burst into tears and repeated, “He pushed me!”

With no warning at all, he hit me across the right shoulder with his staff as hard as he could (I assume it was as hard as he could, I hope so, I don’t want to imagine that he could have hit me harder). The pain was indescribable. The staff was as thick as my wrist and 5 feet long and I fell down immediately screaming. I’ve never felt anything like it. As I lay screaming, he kicked me in the back and then again. I was immobile with fear and pain. He came around to my head and placed his foot on the side of my neck and began to shift his weight onto me.

“Stop!” I heard Tros yell and I was flooded with immense relief. I had expected him to beat me to death.

“This slave is the property of Megakreon and sold to Cleon. Damage him and you’ll answer to Megakreon!”

By now, I had rolled a bit so I could see Tros and the man who hit me.

“He ruined a basket of barley.”

Tros looked at the basket and the woman and silently handed a coin to the man he had been talking with.

The man with the staff turned immediately and struck the woman who had bumped me. He hit her in the chest and when she fell he kicked her over and over. She crawled towards the ditch and he kicked her into the water and with his staff held her down. He’s going to drown her, I thought, and nobody is going to do anything. I looked to Tros, but he stood still, his face blank. Then Petrobras said, “Enough, that slave is the property of Nicias.” Imitating Tros, even his tone of voice, like it was all some kind of joke. After what seemed like forever, the overseer lifted his staff and let her up. She rose gasping and choking, blood and bloody water streaming down her face. “Be more careful you clumsy bitch. I know he never pushed you.”

She looked at him (and me) with true hatred but said nothing.

Tros gave me his hand and I pulled myself up as best I could. My right shoulder and arm were numb and throbbing and full of pain all at the same time. I stood bent over from the pain in my back and with Tros’ help walked to the cart.

“Well, I guess we won’t be sleeping here tonight.”

He pulled up my tunic to see my shoulder. “You’ll live.”

I turned my head to see and discovered new pain in my neck. There was only a little blood but a large angry bruise had already started.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t see her. I was just looking for water for the donkey.”

“I know. It wasn’t your fault. I saw the whole thing. She wasn’t looking where she was going. Zeuxis just likes to hit people with that big stick of his.” He gave me a small smile. “I’d hoped you would stay out of trouble for just one night. We’ll sleep on the road tonight. No great loss. You owe me an oblo”

“How much is that?”

“More than you’re likely to ever have.”

“I’m sorry Tros. I hate that you wasted money on me. I’ll pay you back. I promise.”

“Well, let’s get on the road. I know a good place for us to spend the night about two hours from here.” He looked at me as I was bent over and gingerly touching my shoulder and wincing with the pain but unable to stop touching it. “Maybe longer. Ready?”

I nodded and he went and untied Malthake (still braying) and took her to the ditch for water and in a few minutes, we were on our way again.

I walked at such a slow pace that Tros suggested I should sit in the cart. “I doubt she can go any slower than you.”

But Malthake must have known I was hurt because she kept up her pace. Riding in the cart was as painful, if not more so, as walking. I felt every bump and shake, but I didn’t want to reject their generosity, so I just suffered in as much silence as I could. Tros, when he tells the story, says that I complained nonstop, but I don’t remember it that way.

We passed several small farms, but Tros didn’t seem interested in asking for shelter for the night and I didn’t want to say anything.

We stopped after about an hour and a half by a little stream and Tros washed the blood from my shoulder with the ice cold water. After, he built us a fire and we cooked a little dinner. One of the overseers at the farm had given him some squash which we roasted and we drank some wine. As the fire died down, we spread ourselves out on the stream bank to sleep.

“Would he really have killed her?”

“I doubt it. Killing is a big deal, even if it’s a slave. It’s religious pollution and at minimum, a purification would be needed. Plus slaves are expensive. Nicias wouldn’t have been too happy. Still, Nicias is a hard master. He has over a thousand slaves working in the silver mines south of the city. It’s a hard and short life. His farm slaves all know what might happen if they get on the wrong side of Petrobras or one of his men. Of course, working a man to death on little food is different. Apparently, the gods don’t think of that as anything bad.

“But don’t worry, Cleon is a reasonable man. You work hard and stay on Belos’ good side, he’s the head over there – same as Petrobras, and you’ll be fine.

“How do I stay on Belos’ good side?”

“Well, I’m not sure he has a good side, to tell the truth. He’s a mean bastard and ugly to boot. But he likes hard workers. Cleon likes money and if the farm produces money Cleon is happy and Belos is happy if Cleon is happy and if Belos is happy, you’ll be happy. Of course, if Cleon isn’t happy…

“I go to the silver mines?”

“No! Like all these rich bastards, Cleon has lots of different interests, but his money comes from tanning and leatherwork. If you don’t do well on the farm they might send you to the tannery, it stinks and it’s probably pretty rough, but nothing like the mines. I doubt you’ll get sent to the tannery, too old.” He thought for a moment. “Just make sure you work out on the farm.”

I hurt all over and was sick with fear.

We lay watching the stars for a long while in silence.

“Tell me a story. Something to cheer us up”

I started to tell him again about New York. “Heard that one! Tell me another!” Funny how quickly people can tire of an unimaginable marvel. “Tell me a story of your people. One with war and heroes!”

I thought for a moment. I knew a lot of stories, I read a lot, watched television, saw movies. But what could I tell him that would translate well? Nothing with car chases or airplanes or elevators or cell phones. Nothing that would require too much backstory.

I told him the story of Casablanca.

“Not so many years ago and not so far from here there was a great war.”

“The Persians?”

“No! A land called Germany. She had raised a mighty army and invaded most of the lands that were around her. Many people fled from their homes to escape the invading army and many of those people sought shelter in a city called Casablanca. In Casablanca, our hero, Rick, owned a bar.”

“What’s a bar?”

“It’s a place where travelers or refugees can buy food and wine.”

“Like a stall in the agora?”

“No, because you eat and drink in the bar, because you’re a refugee and don’t have your own place to eat and drink. Also, it’s fun to be with other people and there’s music.”

“Oh, ok. Go on.”

And I told him the rest of the story (with, relatively, few interruptions).

At the end he said, “That’s a great story! I was worried that Rick was a coward for running away from the Germans, but I’m glad that in the end he and Louie decided to fight! And when he killed Major Strasser! I never liked that guy!”

“I’m glad you liked it. Good night, Tros.”

“Good night, Robert.”

The next morning my shoulder was a giant flaming ball of pain. The bruise had spread down to my bicep and any movement was agony. And my back and my neck. Even my butt hurt from riding in the cart.

Tros passed out our breakfast, some figs (I like figs, but really, I was getting tired of them) and the bread the old woman had given me yesterday (it felt like years had passed). The bread was hard and took some chewing but it was filling.

“Ok, you ride in the cart today and we should reach the next farm in a few hours. When we get there just stay in the damn cart and out of trouble. If you get beaten up anymore Belos will tell Cleon that you’re damaged goods and Cleon will demand a refund and Megakreon will take it out of MY hide. So, for the love of Zeus, please be careful!”

I gave him my closed-lipped smile and nodded agreement.

We do reach the next farm in a few hours and I do stay in the cart. After a while, Tros comes back. He has a skin of wine and a hunk of cheese.

I get out of the cart and stretch. My shoulder is still extremely painful, but my back and neck hurt less. I move around a little and I’m walking more or less like normal.

Tros hands me the skin and I take a swig. The wine is still terrible, but I’m getting used to it. “I’m going to take a look at the olive groves, get a sense for the size of this year’s crop. You can come with me if you promise to be careful.”

“I promise.” Although I’m not sure why I want to see the olive groves.

Tros walks off and I follow. He’s basically giving me a tour of the farm. “This farm is a lot like Cleon’s. Here they have about 100, maybe 110 slaves.” He waves to a field on our right. “This is barley, beyond this field is lentils and further on there’s some wheat.” We pass a yard with chickens and a pen with goats. “There’s also a pasture for sheep. This field to our left holds the vineyard.”

He stops and walks a little way to the nearest grapevines and holds up to me the bunch of tiny green grapes. “See here, how the bunches are uneven, there are gaps between the grapes? That means the weather’s been too hot. It’s going to be a small harvest this year. That means less wine next year and higher prices. Megakreon doesn’t trade in wine, but this is the kind of information he gets from these trips.”

We walk on past many fields, mostly barley, but other stuff as well. We see lots of slaves working in the fields. Some digging, some carrying water, some weeding, but many seem to be just inspecting the plants.

“What are all these people doing?”

“Killing bugs. If you don’t stay on top of the insects, they’ll eat the better part of your crop. If you’re lucky, you’ll get insect killing duty most of the time. It’s hard on the back and the knees, but not too bad overall.”

Finally, we reach the olive groves. Tros approached a large gnarled tree and stroked it with genuine affection. “This tree is probably more than 100 years old. Olive trees give fruit on a two-year cycle. One year, lots of smaller fruits, and the next year fewer larger fruits.” He pointed above at an olive. “Look at the size of that olive, this is a big fruit year for this tree. The larger fruits, generally, aren’t processed into oil, but are cured and sold to be eaten.”

He walked on a bit, then pointed up at another tree full of olives. “See how this tree has lots of smaller olives, this is an oil year for this tree.” He spun around, looking at all the trees. “These trees all look good and healthy. Plenty of water and sun. It should be a good harvest.”

We spent another two hours in the olive groves. Tros inspecting practically every tree. Checking low leaves for signs of insects or disease, picking low fruit to sample. He offered me a hard green olive. I bit into it and spit it right out, to his amusement. It was incredibly bitter and so astringent my mouth was puckered for the rest of our visit to the groves.

We walked back the way we came through the fields and animal yards and vineyards to a collection of buildings.

“That building is the main house. It’s where the owner stays when he visits from the city. It’s usually empty. These two big buildings are the dormitories for the slaves. One for the men and one for the women and children. That smaller building is the overseer house. Tonight, you’ll sleep in the men’s dormitory. Bring your blanket from the cart. You sleep on the floor, try to find a spot away from the chamber pots, but don’t get into any fights. Just keep your head down and stay out of trouble. If someone wants your spot, give it to him. It’s just one night. You already owe me an oblo.” He smiled to show it was a joke, but I can tell he felt the loss of the money.

My own guilt at putting him further from his goal hurt me more than even my shoulder.

“I’ll be good. I promise.”

About an hour before sunset, the slaves started to come in from the fields and dinner was served, a lentil stew with vegetables. The food on the farms was much better than in the city. That was something.

Just before dark, as if by silent agreement, all the slaves finished their food and went into their separate dormitories.

Tros approached me “You go with the men.”

I suddenly realized that he had said “you sleep in there” earlier, not “we’ll sleep in there”.

“Aren’t you coming?”

“No, I’m going to sleep tonight in the overseer house. Sorry. It’s just for one night.”

“OK. See you in the morning.”

“Hurry up. You want to find a spot before it gets too dark to see the ground.”

I hurried off after the male slaves.

The dormitory was just a big open room. It was about 100 feet long and 30 feet wide with a dirt floor. A little light filtered between gaps in the boards, but there were no lamps. There were already about 30 men laying on blankets on the ground. There were only about another 15 men still eating outside, so room shouldn’t be too much of a problem. I lay my blanket down in a fairly empty area, following Tros’ suggestion, far from the row of chamber pots that were set up at one end.

I closed my eyes and waited for sleep. I didn’t even bother trying to find a less uncomfortable position. I was clear that, from now on, uncomfortable was the order of things and the sooner I made my peace with that the better.

I’d been laying down for just a few minutes what I felt a light kick on my shoulder (thankfully my left shoulder). I opened my eyes and in the dim light, I saw a large rough looking man standing over me.

“New guy.” He grunted

“I’m not new. We’re just passing through.” And I closed my eyes again

He kicked me a bit harder

“Passing through guy.”

“What?”

“What’s your story? Where are you from? Why do you talk so strange? Where are you passing through to? We don’t get a lot of folks passing through.”

I sat up with a sigh. There were now 45 or 50 men in the dormitory. It was too dark to see them, but I could feel their attention. I needed to make sure this didn’t escalate into a problem.

“My name is Robert. I talk with an accent because my home is far away and Greek isn’t my native language. I’m a slave now, sold to the farm of Cleon and I’m being delivered.” Saying it like that, like I was takeout food, made me suddenly dizzy.

The big guy seemed to consider this for a moment. “Say something in your native language.”

“Something” I was feeling uncooperative, but then fear got the better of me, so I continued. “No man is an island, every man is a piece of the mainland, a part of the whole. Any man’s death saddens me because I am involved in Mankind. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

“Hey, you really are from someplace far!” He seemed surprised. “I never met anyone who didn’t speak Greek as a child. What’s it like there?”

So I told them my now stock New York story. Millions of people, cars, subways, cell phones, hot and cold running water, etc.

The room was silent and I could hear men jostling to get closer.

After that, they demanded another (and while we were all friendly at this point, I could still feel some threat), so I told them my Casablanca (no point reworking a new story when I had a road tested one ready).

Then it was late and they had all worked hard so we lay down to sleep. I slept for just a short time (I think) when I felt a hand on my back. I pushed it away and settled down to sleep again. The hand came back and again I pushed it away. Fully awake now, I could hear men in the dark engaged with each other. After another push, I was left alone and slept until morning.

Chapter 8

Gravity is the force of attraction between any two bodies with mass. Its strength is proportional to the mass of the bodies and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. So, the Earth attracts us and we attract the Earth. Because the Earth is massive and close it attracts us strongly. The Sun is many thousands of times more massive but much further away, so it barely attracts us at all and we barely attract it.

Book of Questionable Facts – 2113

In the morning the door of the dormitory was opened and we streamed out to breakfast. Some kind of gruel, bland but not bad.

Tros found me after eating. He looked in a foul mood.

“What’s wrong?”

“We played dice last night and I lost a whole drachma. I had been up more than 2 drachmas but I got greedy and lost it all, then I tried to win it back…”

“Sorry, Tros. This has been an unlucky trip for us both. I’ll pay you back that oblo. I promise.”

But no amount of cajoling could cheer him up. I’m not much of a gambler, but I can see the lure to a desperate man. Of course, we were all desperate men. Me, Tros, the men from the dormitory, Tros’ wife and daughter. All the slaves really. All of us desperate and all of us hoping for some odd chance at rescue. I could see why the slave owners offered this chance at freedom. It gave us hope and kept us working. I wondered how many slaves really succeeded in buying their freedom. I doubted it was many.

We untied Malthake and fed and watered her. She was in a bad mood too and butted Tros with her head so that he fell in the dirt. So, we set off all three of us under our own personal storm clouds.

I was feeling up to walking so we trudged along with Tros and I on either side of Malthake. After about an hour, we came to a crossroad and turned.

Up until this point, we had been moving generally north, now we were heading south, back to the city.

“Are we going back to Athens?” I couldn’t keep the note of hope from my voice

“No, but Cleon’s farm is closer to the city. I took the long route so that you would have some idea what to expect before you arrived.”

I felt a tear start in my eye and my throat close up. No friends among slaves? Tros may have been the best friend I’ve had in my life. He was thoughtful and helpful and kind. He took care of me, a stranger, and never asked for or expected thanks.

I was silent a long time and only croaked out “Thank you”.

He shrugged.

We walked along. Each man (and maybe donkey) lost in his own thoughts. I needed to find a way to pay back Tros and help him free his family.

I ran through everything I knew, looking for a way to lift myself up. How can I know so much and yet be able to do so little?

Atoms are made of protons and neutrons and the number of protons determines the chemical properties of the element. Each atom normally has as many electrons as protons (to balance the charges). Useless!

Plants convert sunlight to energy in cellular organelles called chloroplasts. The energy is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen and somehow they use this process to create sugars out of carbon dioxide from the air. Useless!

DNA controls genetic heredity. Double helix, punnett square. Useless!

Pythagorean Theorem – A2 + B2 = C2. Do they already know that? Anyway, what’s it used for? Useless!

I was feeling desperate. Each step brought me closer to the next, and I was certain last, phase in my soon to be short unpleasant life.

But as I was descending into gloom, Tros was raising into the light. He was soon walking faster and looking back at me impatiently. He started to whistle a formless tune and occasionally break into a little song.

About mid-day we stopped to eat and water and feed Malthake.

“We’re about an hour from Cleon’s farm. When we get there, you wait in the cart and I’ll go find Belos. I’ll explain to him about your shoulder and ask him to give you light work for a week or so. Now, I have to warn you about Ampelios. He’s one of Belos’ men. He likes to teach new slaves who’s the boss. If he comes at you and hits you and you fall down right away, he’ll just keep beating you. He needs to feel like he’s beaten the defiance out of you, even if you never had any defiance to start with. You need to hit back and put up a fight then let him hit you a few times and then fall down and beg for mercy. Then he’ll feel like he’s taught you how things work and after that he’s basically a good guy.”

I listened in horror. I hated this plan! When I’d been hit before I didn’t have a choice about falling down or not and there was no way I could have gotten up. I could feel the sweat running down my back and my hands were shaking. “What if he hits me like the last guy and I can’t get up. What if I can’t fight back? I’ve never hit anyone in my life!”

“There’s a first time for everything.”

“What if I can’t fight back?”

He shrugged. “Fight back. Not fighting back is a mistake. I know him.”

“But what if I can’t?” I was on the edge of hysteria

“Do it. Find a way. He wants to see you fight and lose. You have to do it.”

“What if I just ran away right now?”

“I’d catch you. You can’t outrun me. I like you, Robert. But you’re my responsibility until we reach Cleon’s. Who knows what they’d do to me, and to my family. I’m sorry, I can’t take that chance. Besides, they’d just catch you and then the punishment would be much worse. It’s a hard lot to be a slave. Don’t make it any harder than you have to.”

I tossed a rock angrily into the trees. “Ok, let’s go! I haven’t had my daily beating! No point putting it off!”

He shrugged again and got to his feet and we headed off to Cleon’s

It was more than an hour and the sun was heading down when we arrived. I sat in the cart and talked with Malthake. She was a good listener if nothing else.

As Tros walked across the field a young woman ran up to him and launched herself into his arms, literally flying the last 3 feet. They hugged for a long time and then after several minutes a young girl joined them and the adults crouched down into a group hug.

It was good to see them happy in the midst of this insanity.

They walked off together and I watched them until they were out of sight behind a stand of trees. I hugged Malthake, just to have someone to hug. She tried to bite me, but, still, it was a nice moment for us.

About a half hour later Tros returned with a big ugly man. He was heavily muscled and had a scar across his left eye (although the eye worked ok) and had only a flap of skin where his nose should have been.

“Belos, this is Cleon’s new slave, Robert. I’m delivering him to you as promised.”

Belos without saying anything poked my shoulder hard and I let out a yelp. He looked me over critically and finally said, “If this is what was promised, it was a piss poor promise.”

He turned to me “Do what you’re told, when you’re told, work hard, work fast and keep your mouth shut and we’ll be fine.” He fingered the leather whip he had on his belt “Give me the least bit of trouble…” he trailed off leaving the threat unsaid and crystal clear.

He called to a slave boy “Take the new slave down to the vineyards and show him how to kill bugs. You get light duty for now. Don’t make me regret my generosity.”

I followed the boy and Tros and Belos went off together.

The boy, who looked about eight, led me off to the vineyards “I’m Gelo. What’s your name?”

“Hi Gelo, I’m Robert. Nice to meet you.”

“Robert, that’s a weird name. Where are you from? You talk funny.”

“I and my name and my accent are from far away and we’re not so strange where I come from.” Gelo seemed healthy and happy and his cheerfulness lifted my mood. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad.

“I’m from right here. I was born on the farm. There’s only two of us, kids born on the farm. But Cilo’s just a little kid. I’m the only big kid born here.” He was puffed up with pride at the fact.

“Do your mother and father live here too?”

“Yeah! You met my dad, Belos. He’s the boss of the whole farm! That means if you’re going to live here you gotta do what he says. My mom died when I was just a baby. I hardly remember her. I’ve got a new mom! Kind of, well it’s a secret. In fact, forget I said anything.” He looked at me worried that he had said too much.

I nodded that I would keep his secret. He seemed unsatisfied. “You got to swear.”

“Ok, I swear, although I don’t really know anything. So your secret is safe.”

“You gotta swear by Zeus and all the gods!” He looked at me as a thought dawned on him. “You got gods where you come from?”

“Yes, but they are different.”

“Then you gotta swear by them!”

“I don’t really believe in them.”

“Arg! Then you gotta swear by Zeus and all the gods!”

“Ok, I swear by Zeus and all the gods I won’t tell anyone your secret.”

This seemed to satisfy him and we continued on to the vineyards. He kept up a steady stream of chatter, about the things that interest eight-year-old boys, mostly toads.

Once we reached the vineyards he introduced me to a woman who seemed to be in charge. Melite was a woman in her late 30’s. Her skin was dark and tough looking from long exposure to the sun. She wore a cloth over her head and the escaping hairs were just beginning to show some gray.

“Melite, this is Robert, he’s from far away and he’s going to live here on the farm now. He talks funny and dad said that I should show him how to kill bugs.”

Melite grunted a greeting and turned back to her work weeding the vines. Gelo waited a few moments and when she realized we were still there she said, “Well, show him how to kill the damn bugs then!” She waved her hand to indicate that we should do it far from her. Still, Gelo didn’t move. “What, Gelo, what?”

“Don’t ya want to hear him talk? He talks real funny!”

She sighed, but finally “Yes, talk for me please.”

“Hi, I’m Robert.”

“That’s wasn’t enough words to really tell” Suddenly Melite was taking part in the game.

“I hope we’ll be friends. Now if Gelo doesn’t show me my work his father will be angry.” I really was nervous that Belos would come up any second and find us chatting rather than working.

“You’re right Gelo, he does talk funny. Where’re you from stranger?”

“I’m from America, it’s far away, across the western sea.”

She gave me an odd look, like she had expected something more normal. “That so? Well, you’ll have to tell me about it someday. Right now, Gelo, show him how to kill the bugs. Do it over here close to me so I can make sure you’re doing it right.”

“Arg, Melite, I know how to kill bugs!”

“I know you do, just stay close for a while.”

So, Gelo and I bent over and he showed me the bugs. There were lots of different bugs to learn. Bugs to kill, bugs not to kill. We basically just crushed the ones to kill with our fingers. Gelo enjoyed it more than I did. Anytime I killed the wrong kind of bug he would scream in frustration and explain to me AGAIN how to tell the good bugs from the bad bugs.

The work wasn’t, as promised, very hard and I could almost imagine that I was living on a large commune and voluntarily killing bugs to protect our plants, almost, except for the occasional whip-bearing overseers who passed by. Although I didn’t see them use the whips (that day) I could feel the threat and even my toes trembled. I remember how I used to dread when my boss would come into my office to watch me work, this was a thousand times worse.

Gelo wasn’t in the least bit put off by the overseers, perhaps because his father was the head. He did keep me entertained, however. I’d never really had much exposure to eight-year-olds in my life and I was surprised how much I enjoyed his company. Maybe because he was the only non-threatening person I currently knew. At any rate, he seemed to have an endless supply of little games and tricks and the time certainly passed more quickly with him there.

When the sun was low Melite called to us that it was time to head back in. As I stood up for the first time in several hours, my back spasmed with pain. I felt a wash of despair. Even the easy work was going to kill me and the overseers with whips didn’t look like the understanding types.

Again the ridiculousness of my situation struck me. Was there nothing I could offer these people to better my situation?

Mitochondria were the power plant of cells. They once had been free-living bacteria but now were the oxygen processing part of the cells of complex life (eukaryotic cells!). Useless!

The earth has a molten iron core and the earth’s magnetic field is caused by the motion of that iron core. Useless!

You can make stainless steel by adding other metals, like vanadium (I used to have a vanadium steel kitchen knife), nickel and maybe chromium. That seems like something useful. There certainly would be value in stainless steel – but even though I know that iron ores tend to be red, I have no idea how to find and refine nickel, vanadium or chromium. I don’t really know anything about them, except that the American nickel has no actual nickel in it and, maybe, the Canadian one does. Useless!

I followed Gelo and Melite and about 15 other slaves, mostly women, but a couple of other men in from the vineyard.

It was getting dark by the time we reached the cluster of buildings. Just like the other farm we had visited the slaves lined up to receive their bowl of gruel, some hard bread and a drink of water from the communal barrel. The gruel was actually pretty good (as gruel goes), with some chunks of fresh vegetables and some kind of seasoning. Like all the food here (now?), it lacked salt, but country food was definitely better than city food in my experience.

Gelo, who seemed to have appointed himself as my guide, introduced me to a large number of the other slaves who were sitting near us as we ate. I was famished and exhausted and my back hurt and my shoulder hurt and I was racking my brain for any kind of idea to save myself from this nightmare, so I didn’t really learn anybody’s name but the slaves all seemed friendly enough and even though Gelo told everybody that I was from far away and talked funny, nobody bothered me. I suppose they were all too tired, just like I was.

As we were finishing our dinner, I saw Tros approaching with a woman and young girl and I stood up to greet them. “Robert! I want to introduce you to my wife Eleni and my daughter Cilo.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Eleni, Tros has told me all about you. And hello Cilo. I hope we can be friends.” I held out my hand to her, but she was suddenly shy and hid behind her father.

“Nice to meet you too. Robert is it?” She tried my name a few times and finally seemed satisfied with her ability to pronounce it.

Tros asked them to wait a bit while he spoke to me in private and they withdrew a ways. “Robert, in case I don’t see you in the morning, this is goodbye.” He held out his hand and I shook it.

“Thanks for everything Tros. I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll be back by in a few weeks. Listen, I want you to do me a favor.”

“Whatever I can.”

“I want you to keep an eye on Eleni and Cilo.”

“What does that mean? I think they need to keep an eye on me.”

“Just make sure everything is all right. I think they wouldn’t want to worry me with their problems. I just want to know.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what he was asking, but I promised to keep an eye out for them the best I could.

He clasped me on the shoulder and pulled back immediately as I winced in pain. “Sorry.” He shook my hand again. “Good luck. Remember what I told you. Oh, and I promised Cilo you’d tell her a story. See you soon.” And he stopped to look me directly in the eye. “My friend.”

Then he was gone back to his family and it was time for me to go into the dormitory.

This dormitory was older, or at least more dilapidated or poorly built. It was also smaller and more crowded. I watched as other men took blankets from a pile by the door, so I took one too and found a space to lie down. In the close quarters, the smell of sweaty and dirty bodies was almost overpowering. Nobody talked to me so I just kept quiet and tried to sleep. There was relatively little noise or conversation and I was getting used to sleeping in the dirt, so I was soon asleep.

I woke in the night and needed to pee, but I was afraid to use the chamber pots because I didn’t want to wake anyone by moving around (and possibly stepping on someone in the dark). I lay awake for a while and finally fell back to sleep. The morning came too soon and before I knew it the door was open and men were moving out.

Gelo and Cilo joined me at breakfast and took me back to the vineyards. Melite was there too and directed us to work close by her.

My back screamed as I bent to the task, but the sight of an overseer patrolling the vineyards keep me from complaining.

Gelo and Cilo spent more time playing than working, but they were fast bug killers.

From time to time, a slave with a pail of water passed. The first time I was a little worried about the communal water pail and the spread of germs, but soon I was so thirsty I couldn’t waste a thought on hygiene.

The germ theory of disease. Wildly important, changed history, but I couldn’t think of a way to use it. Useless!

After about 3 hours, Melite called a break and we sat in what shade there was from the vines to rest for a few minutes. Cilo sat beside me. “My dad says you’ll tell me a story.”

“Ok, I will, because I promised your dad.”

So, I told them all about New York and the modern world. At least as much as I could tell in the few minutes before Melite told us to get back to work.

As we returned to the bug killing Cilo and Gelo worked close to me and asked me constant questions about my home.

“How can people fly from city to city?”

“Can you really talk to people without being next to them?”

“Is a car as fast as a horse? I saw a horse once and it was super-fast!”

And on and on.

Soon, I noticed Melite listening too.

About mid-day a woman passed with some pieces of barley bread and we took another break.

Gelo and Cilo begged a story. I didn’t want to tell them my version of Casablanca, feeling that war stories and love stories and war-love stories probably wouldn’t interest them. I racked my brain for something good, not wanting to disappoint them. Cilo had pointed out that my description of life in the modern era didn’t really count as a story since nothing happened and it had no heroes.

Heroes? So I told them a creation myth. Specifically the creation myth of Spiderman.

They loved it. Melite too. She moved close to listen. Just as I was finishing the part where Spiderman gets revenge on his uncle’s killers (I’m not 100% sure that’s canon), I heard a sudden crack and yell from Melite. An overseer stood over her, whip in hand and an angry red welt on her neck was starting to weep blood. “Get back to work! All of you! Melite, you should know better!”

I felt a sudden flood of rage. I couldn’t stand it anymore! I felt myself rising, my fists balled, and then, I looked at him. The overseer, Horus was his name, was shorter than I was, but much broader and heavily muscled. He was also at least 25 years younger and he had a whip and a staff. So, I bent back down and began inspecting a leaf for insects.

In the modern world we have few opportunities for bravery and so we can imagine that when an opportunity arises we’ll display our latent courage. It was a great disappointment to discover that at my core I was a coward.

We all returned to our work without a word. Horus watched us for a few minutes and then walked off. Once he was out of hearing range, Melite muttered, “It was worth it.”

We worked mostly in silence until it was time to head back in.

Dinner was pretty much the same, barley gruel with some chunks of vegetables.

Cilo sat by me and asked for another story.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” I looked at the group of overseers with their whips and staves.

“Oh, it’s ok now. We just have to be careful during work time.”

“Yeah, don’t worry.” Added Gelo.

I was worried, but essentially Cilo and Gelo were the only enjoyable human contact I had and I didn’t want to disappoint them.

“Ok. But just a quick one.”

Clio shyly asked me if I would repeat the Spiderman story, since she’d missed some of the details, and Gelo agreed he wanted to hear it again too.

So, I told the story. Not the exact same as before, I couldn’t remember all the details either, but basically the same. And by the time I was finished, we had a crowd. Little by little other slaves had come close to listen and I had done my best to raise my voice enough that they could hear.

When I finished they all applauded. I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. I’d never been the center of attention like this before.

One of the overseers, who I had seen listening, came over to me and put his hand lightly on my shoulder.

“Great story! You can be our own personal Homer! I’d heard that you like to tell stories and you certainly do!”

“Thanks! I…”

And I never finished because without warning he drove his fist into my stomach and then hit me in the forehead as I doubled over.

I was down on the ground and he kicked me in the stomach. “Telling stories! When you should be working! Lazy bastard!” he kicked and kicked.

I remembered Tros’ advice that I had to fight back, but I just couldn’t. He kicked me in the mouth and I tasted blood. He kicked me in the eye. And he just kept kicking and shouting.

Finally, I struggled to my feet. Blood streamed from my mouth and nose and I couldn’t see out of my left eye. He came at me and I grappled him around his back with his head under my arm. He pushed me into the ground. My left hand landed on a good size stone and I picked it up and hit him on the neck with it. It wasn’t much of a hit, from my position, with my left hand. He was suddenly enraged (more than before). He grabbed the rock from my hand. Removing it as easy as if I was a child. He pushed himself off me stood up and kicked me in the balls!

“OK. Now we understand each other.” And he walked away.

I rolled onto my stomach and puked. Soon I felt several pairs of hands pulling me up and then nothing.

Chapter 9

The moon orbits the Earth. And the Earth orbits the Sun. When the moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, we have a solar eclipse. When the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon, we have a lunar eclipse.

Book of Questionable Facts – 1557

I awoke the next morning to an empty dormitory. Cilo sitting near me scratching idly in the dirt with a stick. She saw I was awake. “Belos said you don’t have to work today. And I’m going to take care of you!” She was clearly proud of her responsibility. She came a little closer to me. “We, Gelo and I, we’re awfully sorry for what happened.”

“It’s not your fault. I don’t think it was really about the story.”

I took a moment to inventory my condition. My left eye was practically swollen shut, but I could see a little light through it. My nose might have been broken, it certainly hurt enough. And I was missing a tooth on my upper right side just behind the canine. I needed to pee.

I slowly got to my feet. I was getting tired of the pain. It was a dark moment and I seriously considered whether this life was worth living. I asked Cilo to turn around and pissed into an empty chamber pot. No blood. Good sign.

No, I decided. THIS life was not worth living. But life was worth living. And I would find a way to improve my lot. As somebody said (or will say) “while there is life there is hope.”

Pissing exhausted me and I lay back down. Cilo cleaned my face with cool water and a rough cloth. I slept a little and she stayed with me. At some point, Gelo came by with food for us. He also told me he was sorry. Cilo took her nursing duties seriously and made him leave again and “stop bothering” me.

I couldn’t eat the hard bread very well and Cilo soaked it in a bit of wine to soften it.

At the end of the day all the other slaves returned. I stayed in the dormitory and Gelo and Cilo brought me dinner. I appreciated the soft gruel more than ever.

The next day was pretty much the same. I didn’t work and Cilo nursed me. My eye was getting better, less swollen and I could see a little out of it.

Then on the third day, Gelo came to get me and led me to the vineyards. It was a regular day of work. The swelling in my eye had mostly gone down, but the vision was blurry. Cilo and I worked together, but Gelo was helping a group of men clearing an irrigation ditch in another part of the field.

Melite worked near us most of the day. She had a string of small scabs on her neck from the whip. Every time I saw her scab or probed my tongue into the space of my missing tooth, I was overcome with rage. But if there was one thing I was learning it was the depth of my own helplessness. My rage was completely without power. I suppose I could attack Ampelios, the overseer who beat me, but I would accomplish nothing except my own death. I wondered how much satisfaction I would receive before I died and if it would balance the pain.

We worked until the break and ate our small meal in silence. As we were finishing Melite put her rough hand on mine and gave me just a little squeeze.

That evening I was back among the other slaves for dinner. Gelo came to eat with Cilo and me. He told us how they had seen a hawk catch a rabbit in the field. I felt like a rabbit captured by a hawk.

The overseers ate the same food as us, but they ate in a separate area with a table. We sat on the ground. I looked over at the group seething with hatred. Zeuxis who had whipped Melite just for listening to a story a few minutes too long and Ampelios who had beaten me senseless as part of some insane initiation ritual and Belos who I knew by sight only and two others who I didn’t yet know.

Just five of them and over 100 of us. We could revolt. Of course, the whole system would turn against us and hunt us down. We were unskilled, unequipped and surrounded by a system that made escape and revolt impossible.

I was lost in my thoughts and not listening to Gelo when suddenly I felt a gentle kick at my foot and I looked up to see Belos’ fabulously ugly face.

“How about you tell us a story?” He said it loud enough that almost everyone turned to look at us.

I wanted to refuse. I wanted to say that my mouth hurt too much. I wanted to say that they didn’t deserve my stories. I wanted to rebel! But, I wanted his approval more. I wanted to be his friend. I wanted him to see value in me. I wanted his protection. I didn’t want to be beaten again. God, I didn’t want to be beaten again.

So, I told them a story. More Spiderman (stick with what works). I was their performing monkey and oh, how I hoped they liked it.

And they did like it! Spiderman was a success! Belos told me that he enjoyed it and casually mentioned that I could keep working the vineyards.

Zeuxis came over to me. Zeuxis! Who I hated! And he thanked me! As if three days ago he hadn’t lashed Melite for listening to me!

But, I’m ashamed to say that I enjoyed their approval.

In the dormitory, that night, I was given extra room on the dirt. It seems like nothing, but it wasn’t.

The next day in the vineyard, Zeuxis joined us for lunch and to listen to a story. We probably rested 10 or 15 minutes longer than allowed.

This was soon the pattern of my days. All day in the vineyards, sometimes killing bugs, sometimes weeding, sometimes hauling water, then at night, I was the story teller. They were a good audience. Starved for entertainment and I had a lifetime of stories to tell. I moved around, never letting them get bored. They liked Spiderman and Superman. Batman didn’t translate well, too many gadgets. My reimagining of Die Hard was a smash success and I told it several times to great acclaim.

I was finding my place and I hated myself for finding my place. The other slaves treated me as something special and the overseers seemed unwilling to whip me. Not that I gave them any reason to whip me. I worked as hard as I could. One beating was enough for me. I was never going to do anything to get another one.

Cilo and Gelo were my almost constant companions. They seemed to have pretty much free run of the farm as long as they were working. I saw Tros’ wife, Eleni, only in the evenings. She was friendly, but I never really had much opportunity to speak to her. I told Cilo to tell her mother that Tros was working hard to try and raise money to buy their freedom.

One afternoon, when I had been on the farm about three weeks, Melite pulled me down behind a stand of trees and started to remove her clothes. “I paid Zeuxis to leave us alone for a while. Hurry”

We both stank, my breath was foul (I had my toothbrush, but no toothpaste), her’s fouler (she didn’t even have a toothbrush), but it was sex and human contact and her small muscular body under mine and wonderful.

I never asked her how she paid Zeuxis.

While Tros apparently had some means of earning money, on the farm there were no such opportunities (which meant no chance to buy freedom). But as with any group of people living together, there was a system of exchange. Favors mostly. Sometimes food, some of the slaves had skills, woodworking, weaving. And of course, sex.

The men and women were kept largely separate. Separate dormitories and largely separate work. The fact that there were only 2 children on the farm and over 100 slaves told me that sex was a pretty rare thing between the male and female slaves. There was a fair amount of sex in the men’s dormitory at nights. I could hear it and over time identify pairs. I assume the women’s dormitory was similar.

Of course, there were exceptions. Just like Melite bribed an overseer to ignore us, the overseers could just ignore themselves.

One day I was told to take some baskets from the vineyard area over to the olive groves. I was getting familiar with the layout of the farm and I took a shortcut through a stand of trees and I saw Eleni and Belos coming out from behind a group of large clay jars. I didn’t think they saw me.

That evening, just after story time, Eleni came up to me. She looked at me fierce and angry and maybe a little scared. She took my arm and led me off a bit. “I love Tros!” She said angrily and started to cry, then stopped. “I’ll do what I have to, to protect Cilo. I don’t care what you think!”

And she ran off.

I guess this is what Tros meant by asking me to watch out for them, and I was sorry to have to betray my friend.

I couldn’t see anything wrong with what she was doing. It was the same thing I was doing! Trying to get in good with the men who controlled the whips and food and jobs. Trying to keep herself and her child as safe as possible.

I also couldn’t see any value to Tros knowing. Not for him and not for Eleni or Clio. So, I resolved to keep my mouth shut.

The next night I told a story (loosely based on an episode of Friends) about the value of keeping a secret. She gave me a small smile to show that she understood. After that, she was friendlier and sometimes came to eat dinner with the kids and Melite and me.

A few weeks later Tros came to visit and everything went fine. I was surprised that Belos cooperated in keeping this secret. He may have been afraid of Tros, or afraid of interfering in the business relationship between their two owners, or maybe he didn’t want to hurt his friend. Who knows? But he did keep the secret as far as I know and when Tros was on the farm, Belos gave them time together.

It can be hard to understand people. To balance their kindness with their casual cruelty.

Chapter 10

Steel can be made from iron by the introduction of carbon (I don’t know how much or how, maybe by throwing chunks of charcoal into molten iron, maybe by bubbling air (which contains carbon dioxide) through it). Steel is much harder than iron. Steel can be made resistant to corrosion by the addition of other metals (I don’t know which ones – not gold or silver or copper).

Book of Questionable Facts – 330

Time passed, I don’t know how long, I had no way of keeping track of days, not even a prison wall to scratch my mark into. But the grapes grew and the caterpillars we didn’t kill turned into butterflies.

Life on the farm had its rhythm, and each day was much like the last. Belos enjoyed my stories (thanks, thousands of years of literary tradition!) and that kept me from the worst of jobs and the worst of the beatings. I felt terrible, knowing that the jobs I didn’t do, someone else would be forced to do, but this was the life of a slave. Tros was right there is no friendship among slaves.

One evening, I sat down to eat next to Eleni. The kids, who always ate with me, were nowhere to be seen. “Where are Cilo and Gelo?”

She pointed to them. They were playing with two young boys. Where did they come from?

From time to time, we would get travelers stopping at the farm. We were the better part of a day’s walk from Athens and Cleon gave standing orders that any citizen who asked for hospitality be treated as a guest. A separate little house (with BEDS!) was set aside for the use of travelers and they were given food and wine. They ate the same food we ate, usually in their house, but occasionally they sat with us and listened to my stories.

So it wasn’t surprising to find citizens sitting by the cook fire when we returned from the fields. You could tell them immediately by the cleanliness of their clothes. The dustiest roads had nothing on field work. The unusual thing was the kids. Children were never part of the traveling groups.

This group (they were even cleaner than usual) was an actual family! Two parents and two kids.

Well, time rolled around for my story. I was starting on what I imagined would be a two night telling of “Charlotte’s Web”.

It went well and of course, I ended on a cliffhanger. If 50 years of watching TV has taught me anything it’s to end a multipart story on a cliffhanger.

After my story ended Belos came up to me with the citizen.

“This is our bard, Robert.”

The citizen held out his hand “Pleased to meet you. I’m Aiolos, son of Eugenio. That was a great story! We’ve never heard anything like it! Imagine a pig and a spider! Who can write! I’ve got to know, how does it end?”

“Oh, I couldn’t tell you that. The end’s not until tomorrow.”

“Well, we’ll just have to stay the night and hear the end tomorrow then!”

“Really? Aren’t you traveling? You’re going to stay the night and wait all day tomorrow, just for the end of the story?”

“Yes! In fact, we aren’t traveling at all, we left Athens this afternoon just to come hear your story. My friend Herodes, passed through a couple of weeks ago and heard one of your fantastic stories and told us about it and we decided to come hear you for ourselves. And it was fabulous!”

He took my hand and pressed some small coins into my palm.

Belos said to him, “Why don’t you and your family get settled in the house and I’ll have a slave bring you some wine.”

“Yes, good idea. Traveling takes a lot out of you.”

Traveling takes a lot out of you?! Try working in the field!

He walked off to collect his family. As soon as his back was turned, Belos grabbed my hand. I opened my fist to show three small silver coins. Belos took two for himself and left without a word.

The next day I showed the coin to Melite. She told me it was a hemiobol and it was half an obol (and so, half of what I owed Tros).

“I’d hide that somewhere safe. Any overseer will take it as soon as he sees it.”

That night after the story finished the citizen give me an even bigger coin! “Great story! I loved the end! Sad, but happy at the same time!” We’ll be back!” And to Belos, “Do you think Cleon would sell him?”

“Cleon would sell anything for the right price.”

“Well, thanks again!” He shook my hand.

I didn’t wait for Belos to grab me. I just held out the coin. It was a single coin 2 or three times larger than the one I had. I wasn’t surprised when Belos took the coin, but I was surprised when he reached into his pouch and produced two small coins and placed them in my hand. One was a hemiobol and the other a smaller coin. But I now had money to pay Tros and even a little something extra. There was, of course, nothing to spend money on here on the farm. Only save it and dream of one day buying freedom.

After that visitors arrived fairly frequently. I was becoming quite popular! And my little stash of coins grew. I was years away from freedom, but I could see it in the distance.

Chapter 11

Plants and animals and microorganisms, all life, develops through a process of variation and natural selection. Basically, as a result of recombination in DNA (see section on DNA) or mutation (errors in copying) in DNA all life has variations in its qualities. You know this. You aren’t just like your parents or your siblings. Similar, but different. Variation. Some variations may be beneficial in terms of reproductive success and over time become more common in the gene pool (see sections on genes and gene pool), over long periods of time this can lead to remarkable changes in life forms and functions. A much larger book on this subject can be found in the library, once written (Library note: book never written or subsequently lost).

Book of Questionable Facts – 1082

Tros passed by a few weeks later (he came as often as he could), and he came to visit me in the vineyard.

“Come with me I want to show you something.” I said.

The overseers were always a little lax when I was with Tros.

He shrugged and followed.

I led him to a certain vine and dug up my little stash of coins

I was so proud to hand him the two coins I owed him. He was stunned and even more so when I handed him the other small coins I had earned. I wanted my freedom so badly, but I couldn’t bear to think of Cilo sold off (to a brothel!) and I had decided to dedicate my earnings to Tros and his family first.

We passed a quiet moment together and he handed me a skin of wine and we drank for a few minutes before he hugged me and left for the olive orchard. But, I saw the tears in his eyes.

Melite was watching us. She had no idea what was happening, but she saw me hand Tros my money. She was distracted and cut her hand on the little bronze knife she used to cut tougher weeds. She called out and I ran to her. The cut was deep and bleeding profusely. She wrapped it with her filthy dress and tried to stop the bleeding. Horus came to see what the problem was and told her to go see Lanthe an old woman who supposedly knew about herbs and served as the farm’s cook and healer.

“I’ll go with her.” I looked at him and saw him give a small nod.

We walked as quickly as we could to the small covered area that served as the kitchen and found Lanthe working on the evening’s gruel. She took Melite’s hand. The cut was bleeding less now. She examined it, made some tsk sounds and wrapped it back up in Melite’s dress. “Wait here, I’ll get you something.”

She returned a few minutes later with a small wooden bowl filled with a foul-smelling black goo and some less filthy strips of cloth. She dipped her hand in the goo and moved to take Melite’s hand.

“What is that stuff?” I demanded.

“It’s my ointment for cuts and wounds. Mostly pig shit and chicken blood, mixed with my special blend of healing herbs. My own invention. It’ll help her heal.”

“What?! That’s crazy! She needs some kind of antiseptic, antibiotic, iodine, alcohol or something!” I shouted, mixing English and Greek words and them not understanding me in either language. I knocked the bowl to the ground and Lanthe jumped back and spat at me in anger. I grabbed the cloth strips and Melite and took her off a little way.

We moved to a nearby fire and I put some water in a pot to boil. Once the water was boiling I put the strips of cloth in the boiling water and once they were sterile fished them out with a stick and cleaned her cut. Then put the bloody strips back in to boil again and finally took them out, wrung out the water and used the now clean bandages to cover her wound. During this process, I was muttering to myself and bemoaning the lack of basic medical services.

I knew that in ancient times small cuts could become deadly if infected. I used to think the reason we never worried about that in modern times was antibiotics, but that can’t be true. I never took antibiotics when I cut myself. The difference was basic cleanliness. Soap and water. Everything here was filthy! No soap, no clean water, no iodine, no antiseptics!

Then suddenly as I was washing her hand a final time with clean warm water I had the idea I had been looking for all these months!

It was like a bolt of lightning! Like Archimedes (was he alive now? Already dead? Not born yet?), I shouted “Eureka!”

“What? What have you found?”

“No! Not yet! I need to find Tros!”

Once Melite was patched up to the best of my ability, I set her to rest, gave Lanthe a nasty look which she returned and ran to find Tros.

He was still in the orchards with Belos. When they saw me Belos said, “What the hades are you doing out of the vineyard?”

“Melite cut her hand and I took her to Lanthe and stopped her from putting some horrible goo on her hand and I fixed her up and now I need to talk to Tros!” I said breathlessly.

Belos raised his whip “You need to get back to the vineyards! I’ve been too lenient with you if you think you can just wander the farm because you want to talk to your friend. By Zeus, if you don’t get back to work I’ll make the beating Ampelios gave you look like lovemaking!”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’d forgotten myself and I felt the fear flooding back. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m on my way back right now!”

“I’ll find you at dinner” Tros yelled at my rapidly retreating back.

And I ran off to the vineyards thankful to have avoided the whip.

I worked the rest of the day like the devil. I didn’t want Zeuxis to say anything to Belos or, god forbid, Belos to see me slacking in any way. I worked hard enough to make up for my absence and Melite’s too. I was a bug killing machine, because I was afraid, but also because I had hope for the first time in months. I finally had an idea that could save me! And Tros! And his family! Cilo! And Melite! Now I just needed to talk to Tros.

I could hardly wait and the day passed at a crawl.

Finally, Zeuxis called us in. I almost ran to the dinner area and looked desperately for Tros. He was nowhere to be found! Cilo and Gelo were with Melite and she looked pale but Ok. I undid her bandage and checked her cut. No infection yet. “You need to keep it clean and cover it daily with boiled bandages.”

“I can’t do that! I’ve got to work!” I could see and feel her fear. Belos was more or less understanding of injuries, but he had a (short) limit for non-workers.

“We’ll find the time do it at night and do our best.”

“Why can’t I just let Lanthe put her salve on? I’ve used it before with no problem and I’ve seen her use it on lots of other people.”

“And how many of them got completely better?”

“A lot. Maybe most…”

“What happened to the others?”

“Well… Some died…One guy lost a foot and was sold to the mines…Ok. We’ll do it your way. My doctor.” She checked that none of the overseers were watching and gave me a quick hug.

We ate with the kids and I got ready to tell my evening story (The Invisible Man). There were 5 citizens who, apparently, had come from the city just to hear me and I hoped to add a little to my earnings.

Finally just as I was about to begin I saw Tros and Eleni walking hand in hand in from the fields. I suppressed a smile and ran over to meet them.

“Tros! I need to see Megakreon!”

“What?”

“I need to see Megakreon! I have an idea that will make him richer than even he can imagine! Set us all” I waved my hand to indicate Tros, Eleni and me as well as the kids and Melite “FREE!”

Eleni grabbed his arm. I could see her excitement.

“What’s this great idea?” he asked.

I shook my head “No. Tell him I need to see him! He’s seen my clothes and my cell. He knows my people can do amazing things. Tell him I can do something amazing here and we’ll all be fabulously wealthy! But he needs to come here to talk to me. It’ll be worth his while!”

Tros looked skeptical. “Ok. I’ll ask him. But I can’t promise anything.”

“I know. Just tell him and do your best. Everything is at stake, so don’t take no for an answer!”

“OK. I’ll try.”

I hugged him and kissed a surprised Eleni on the cheek and ran off to tell my story. It was a big success and I did earn a few coins and even after Belos took his cut I had two left to give to Tros.

That night I could hardly sleep for excitement. I tossed and turned and planned and woke exhausted but eager!

I saw Tros again at breakfast and passed him the coins.

“Robert, I can’t take all your money. You’ve more than paid me back and I never really expected that. Keep your own money for your own freedom.”

I shook my head. “No. First you and Eleni and Cilo. Until then, every oblo is yours. But it doesn’t matter! Bring Megakreon to me and we’ll all be free before the end of the year! And Lanthe and even Belos! I’ll free the whole damn farm!”

He shook his head and laughed and put the coins in his pouch. “Ok. Ok. I’ll do my best. Either way, I should be back within the month.”

He put out his hand and I hugged him. “Is this hugging going to become a habit?”

“I think it is. Get used to it.”

“Ok, but keep your kisses on Eleni’s cheek or we’ll have a problem!” He laughed and walked off.

I ran to get some food and check on Melite’s hand before heading to the vineyard. There was still no sign of infection and it seemed to be healing ok. She was going to work today with her good hand and we agreed to switch jobs since bug killing was an easier one-handed job than weed pulling.

As we worked I was bursting to tell her everything. I had to stop myself constantly. I didn’t want to raise her hopes until I talked to Megakreon. Until I was sure.

“So… Eleni tells me that you have some kind of idea to free us all. What is it? Is it a new kind of story?”

“Damn! I should have told her to keep it a secret! Listen Melite, I don’t want to talk about it just yet. But I do have an idea and if I can talk to Megakreon I am going to save us all!”

“Who? Megakreon? The guy who sold you to Cleon?”

“Yes! Megakreon! The guy who sold me to Cleon! He’s our best hope! He’s vain and boastful and maybe not too smart! But he’s greedy and he’s not afraid to take a risk and he’s our best chance!”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a chance.” She looked doubtful.

The whip fell on my back where the cloth covered me and I could tell it was a light blow but it still hurt and I jumped and shouted. “Sorry! We’re working! We’re working!”

Zeuxis turned away without a word.

We worked all day and at night I told my story and afterwards Melite came up to me and I could see the excitement in her eyes. “I know you can do it.” She said quietly.

It was exactly what I was hoping to avoid. I couldn’t talk as fear of disappointing her clogged my throat and brought tears to my eyes.

Still, the next day we talked excitedly (but quietly) about the possibility of a future as free people. Silly flights of fantasy about freeing our friends and buying a farm and working for our own benefit rather than an owner. She thought they were just flights of fantasy, but I knew I finally had the idea I was looking for, now I just needed to convince Megakreon!

Chapter 12

Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to cells in the body, hemoglobin is an iron-containing protein in the blood that carries the oxygen, it changes color depending on if it has an oxygen atom attached or not, which is why blood moving away from the lungs is bright red and blood moving towards the lungs is darker.

Book of Questionable Facts – 1866

Time drags when you are waiting for an important moment and I’d never had a moment more important and so the days literally seemed to last forever.

Again I could hardly sleep and the next day I was exhausted. But working! Working hard! Avoiding the whip! But Melite couldn’t stop talking about what we could do when we were free. We only keep quiet when Cilo and Gelo were near. I certainly didn’t want Gelo talking to his father and making things more difficult.

Melite and I were working together and whispering nonsense when a shadow suddenly fell over me. “We’re working! We’re working!” I shouted. And turned with my arm raised to ward off the whip and saw Tros. And Megakreon! And Belos…

“More work than you ever did for me!” laughed Megakreon.

I jumped to my feet! “Megakreon! You came!”

“I never forget a friend. Belos, please leave us. Cleon gave me free reign with this slave for the day. Thank you for your assistance.” And he dismissed Belos with a wave.

Belos stalked off, clearly unhappy.

“Come walk with us.”

I looked at Melite, and she smiled and nodded for me to go.

We walked a little way from the field. “I can’t believe you came so quickly!”

Tros shrugged. “You said it was important.”

Once we were away from anyone who could overhear us Megakreon turned to me. “You asked for Megakreon and Megakreon is here! So, tell me how you are going to make me a rich man! Well, richer than I already am.”

So I explained my plan to both Megakreon and Tros. Tros’ face ran the gamut of expressions from excitement to disappointment to incredulity and finally settled on confusion.

Megakreon asked a lot of detailed questions, which I answered as best I could. I was beginning to think that his lack of intelligence might have been an act. He really seemed to have a good handle on markets, costs, profits and risks.

Finally, he shook his head. “I see what you’re saying. And I guess there would be a market. There always is for a superior product. I know that! I sell only the finest olive oil and fabric! People come to Megakreon for quality! Still, how do I know you can deliver?”

I opened my mouth to answer, but he continued “I know you’re smart. They’re talking about you in the city. ‘Cleon’s Barbarian Bard’ they call you! People ask me about you and I tell them the only stories you ever told me were lies about trading fabulous fabrics! Your friends still haven’t come back I see.” He looked at me sharply. “Still, I know your people can do wonderful things! And I made a nice profit on your kell and your fabric and, of course, you as well! Yes, Megakreon always comes out alright! But Megakreon always comes out alright because Megakreon isn’t a fool. It would be foolish to pour money into your scheme with no idea if there’s a market and no way to see a sample product.”

“No.” He said finally “It’s too risky. I have a son and a household to think about.”

My whole body deflated! He wasn’t going to help me! I was out of hope! He turned away. Tros looked at me with sympathy and turned to follow his master. I wanted to run after them, to throw myself on him and grab his legs and stop him from leaving. I wanted to cry. But I was too shocked to do anything.

This was the worst moment of my life. Worse than the time I was beaten with the staff, worse than the time Ampelios nearly killed me. This was the death of hope.

I stumbled numbly back to the vineyard. Melite knew as soon as she saw me and I could see her wanting to run to me and hold me and comfort me, but, of course, she did nothing. She just gave me a small squeeze on my hand out of sight under a vine and whispered. “Never mind. We’ll find something else.”

I was too empty to even squeeze back and I turned to the vine and pulled some weeds. We worked in silence under my cloud of gloom for about an hour and a half until I heard Gelo “Robert! Robert!” He shouted, “Belos wants you in the compound right away!”

I had thought I was numb, but the old fear came back. Of course, how could I have been so stupid! Belos knew I wanted to get away! I was making him money and he wasn’t going to let me even think about leaving!

I got to my feet slowly and followed Gelo, like a man to his execution. Which it probably would be.

“Come on! Hurry! Belos is waiting!”

Even though I knew he would be furious if I delayed, I couldn’t make myself walk any faster.

We reached the compound and Belos was furious. He slapped Gelo on the side of his head (not hard, but it was the first time I’d seen him hit his son). “When I tell you to get someone I mean NOW!” He looked at me “Come.”

He walked to the small house reserved for visiting citizens. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to see him beat me. He rarely beat the slaves himself.

We entered the small house and immediately Megakreon jumped up and took my hand! “We’re going to do it! I’ve decided! I’ve already agreed with Cleon on your price! We’ll leave tomorrow!”

I was shocked! “What! Why did you change your mind?”

“Sometimes it takes a little thinking to see the value in a trade. I’ve just got a feeling that you can do it!”

He handed Belos a scrap of papyrus. “Cleon has sold me this slave. Here is his seal. We’ll take him with us when we leave tomorrow.”

Belos was red with anger but he couldn’t say anything to Megakreon. Tros whispered something to Megakreon who shook his head no. Tros whispered again and finally Megakreon said, “OK. You’re worse than a wife!”

He reached into his pouch and pulled out some coins. Larger than any I had ever seen and handed them to Belos, who brightened immediately!

When Belos had left, Megakreon looked at me, “That’s another 20 drachmas you’ll need to make me!” Then he laughed and passed around a wineskin. We drank and planned until the sun was setting.

“What about Eleni and Cilo and Melite?” I asked

“No. No. You’re expensive enough. I can’t buy all your slave friends. We’ll split all the profits 50/50. So make me money and you can buy them yourself. I just paid 1000 drachmas for you. Plus the 20, I gave Belos. I’ll set you free as soon as you make me 3000 drachmas, profit mind you, then you’ll have 3000 of your own and you can buy anyone you want! Now tell me what else you need.”

I shook my head. “Tros gets a cut too!”

“What! No, forget it!”

“Come on, without him, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

“Ok, a finder’s fee. 5%. 2.5% from you and 2.5% from me.”

“No. A full 1/3 partnership!”

But Tros said no and we finally settled on a 10% share for him.

I gave them a list of supplies.

“Oh, and I’ll need a metal smith. Someone working on the project full-time until it’s operating.”

“Ok. Tros will find you someone once we get back to Athens.”

Tros nodded. “I know a guy. He can make anything. Works in either copper or bronze. Iron too, I think.”

“And we’ll need a place to work. Preferably away from the city. We’ll need some pretty large fires and there is a small danger of explosion.”

Megakreon grumbled. “You’ll ruin me! Ok. I’ll rent you a small farm outside the city. I warn you, I’ll have you flayed if you are playing me for a fool!”

I smiled at him and saluted them both with the wineskin. “I know you will.” And I took a deep drink.

We went to eat.

Melite ran up to me as soon as she saw me. “What happened? Are you alright? I was so worried!”

I gave her a big kiss without thinking “He’s going to back us! We leave tomorrow!”

“We’re going to Athens?”

My heart fell. We weren’t going anywhere. I was leaving her. And Eleni and Cilo and Gelo.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can and I’ll free you and Eleni and Cilo. I promise.”

She looked at me with the eyes of someone who had lived her whole life without hope. “Ok. I know you will.”

“No, I promise! As soon as I can!”

She put on a small smile and kissed my cheek. “It’s ok if you don’t. Just don’t forget about me. Ok?”

I held her hand as we ate our dinner and told my last story on the farm, a version of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ that I had been working on for a while. It gave me a chance to fix something that had always bothered me about that story.

There’s a part in the story (at least in the movie version) where Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) has the Maltese Falcon hidden and is daring The Fat Man (Sidney Greenstreets) to shoot him, knowing that he can’t if he wants to know the location of the Falcon. Bogart says to Greenstreets something like “Your threats are no good. See? None of it’s any good if it hasn’t got the threat of death behind it.”

But these slaves and I know differently. We know that strong men, brave men, loyal men, break at the mere sound of the whip. The threat of death can seem like a relief. It’s the threat of pain, the threat of a life even worse than this one, that’s the real leverage.

Tros wanted me to sleep that night in the overseer’s house, but I couldn’t bear the idea of being in the same room with those men. I knew they were just like me, just trying to make the best life for themselves that they could, but I couldn’t forgive them. A successful slave is an abomination, even though I would have been like them if I had been given the chance. I would use the whip a thousand times on someone else rather than have it used on me once, but I couldn’t forgive the ones who wielded the whips, for the same reason.

So, I slept in the dormitory. The men all knew I was going away and they looked at me with an odd combination of envy and pity. All slaves know that every place is better than this place. The hours shorter, the work lighter, the food better. Unless, of course, it’s worse.

In the morning we said our goodbyes to Eleni and Cilo and Gelo. Melite was nowhere to be seen and I guess it was just as well.

The story continues in “The Great God Einstein”! Also available to read FREE on KindleUnlimited!

Will Robert’s idea be a success? Will he gain his freedom? Will he be reunited with Melite? Can Tros save his daughter from life in a brothel? Our hero meets the leading figures of 5th Century BC Athens, including: Pericles, Socrates, Aspasia, Plato and Sophocles. And he must decide to adapt himself to his new world or try to adapt the world to him. More excitement! War, plague, a chase across the known world! More laughter and more love! More words (it’s twice as long)! My mother likes it!

Or get the omnibus edition (it costs a tiny bit more, but it’s both books (Malthake’s Tail and The Great God Einstein together in one) “A New York Lawyer in the Court of Pericles

Hi. Word-of-mouth is important for any author. If you enjoyed this book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon, even just a few words. Your reviews make all the difference and are very much appreciated. Thanks.

Want to be notified when the next book is published? You can join my mailing list and never miss a book! To sign up you can click here: MAILING LIST, or go to http://bit.ly/2dK30ME

About the Author

David Schenck has been a lawyer, information technology consultant, Peace Corps volunteer and restaurateur. He currently lives in the beautiful (but largely unknown) city of Querétaro Mexico. p<>{color:#000;}. A New York Lawyer in the Court of Pericles is his first book. If you enjoyed, please leave a review at the site where you bought the book. Thanks!

You can follow David at www.facebook.com/BooksbyDavid

Or read my reviews of books by other authors at twitter.com/Books_by_David

Thanks for reading!

Excerpt from Let Slip the Princess of War

Let Slip the Princesses of War [(*]buy it here[) (][*or read for FREE with KindleUnlimited!][*)*]

Let Slip the Princesses of War

The Princess Company: Book 1

By David Schenck

These fairy tale princesses aren’t for your kids!

The Princess and the Pea has a drinking problem, but she’s deadly with a six-gun. Cinderella has a flaming sword and a rodent infestation. And Rapunzel has cut off her hair to make a lethal whip and has a very foul mouth.

The Wicked Queen has almost won. Only the kingdom of Snow White remains free. But for how long? The Princess Company is the last hope of millions.

Now our three heroines set off on a mission deep into enemy territory to rescue Sleeping Beauty (no longer asleep) and obtain a secret weapon that could turn the tide of the war!

******NOTE**** in this excerpt the word f*** has been replaced with the word ‘bomf’ for example: Bomf you, you bomfing bomf! The book, itself, is riddled with the word f***, so if you are sensitive about strong language, this might not be the book for you…

****ALSO NOTE**** There is now a "clean" version of this book. This means that I've removed all instances of the words f***, s***, ah***, however, they have been replaced by words like: damned, crap, hell, etc. Also, there are several instances of the word bitch; and ass, continues, to show up occasionally. So, as they say, cleanliness is in the eye of the beholder (I don’t think anybody says this). There also remains, occasional bloody violence and, aside from the title, there is still absolutely no connection with Shakespeare. I’ve done my best to maintain the attitude of the original. So, it still might not be appropriate for your child (unless, of course, you’re a childless aunt or uncle and you think it’s cute when other people’s children use bad words, in which case, either version is just fine for corrupting your little nieces or nephews). Get the “Clean” version here.

CHAPTER 1

“Any of that stew left?” I asked Sweet Pea.

She took a long swig from her bottle and belched before leaning forward to check on the stew. She drank like she had something to prove. Fought like it too. And maybe she did. Pea had a reputation for being soft. At least that’s the story I’d heard. Still, she’d joined up almost as soon as Ms. White put out the call, after the dwarf massacre back in ’73. By the time I’d gotten to know her, a few years later, Pea was as tough as nails (and not the kind on your fingers). I make no apologies for joining late. The dwarves were none of my kin. And I’d had my own people to worry about. Had.

“Yep. There’s a bit. Seen better days though.”

“Who among us hasn’t?” I tossed her my tin plate. “Let me have it.”

She started to dish it out. Then she was on her feet, both guns out, before the spoon hit the pot. I was just a blink behind her, whip ready. I’d heard it too.

A figure appeared at the edge of the firelight. “You two are a little jumpy tonight.”

“Shay! You know better than to sneak up like that. We could have killed you.”

“You coulda tried.” She nodded at me. “New hairstyle Rae? I liked it better the old way.”

I ran a hand through my cropped hair. “Yeah, me too. Don’t worry. I’ll go back. After.” This is a running joke with us. I cut my hair short as soon as I joined the Company. We all made sacrifices. “What are you doing down here with the peons?”

“All right Sweets. You can put the guns down. We’re on the same side. Remember?”

I lowered my whip. Sweet Pea hesitated for just a moment before putting up her guns. Always been bad blood between Scheherazade and Sweet Pea. I don’t know why. It was before my time. Rumors have it there was a man involved. I don’t listen to rumors. Much.

“Ms. White wants to see you. She’s got a special project for you two. Night after tomorrow at the Palace.”

“And she sent you to personally issue the invitation?” Asked Pea

“I was in the neighborhood. Snow, er, Ms. White asked me to stop in on you.”

No titles in the Company. Not that discipline is lax. We call her Ms. White. You can call her Snow, if you’re suicidal or one damn charming Prince.

The dwarves used to call her Snow, of course. Back when there were dwarves.

“What’s it about?”

“All I can tell you is be at the Palace night after tomorrow. It’s not an invitation.”

Pea held out her almost empty bottle. “You, uh… you want a drink?” It cost her something, being nice to Shay.

Shay shook her head. “Thanks. I’ve got to get on my way. Miles to go before I sleep and all that.” And then she was just gone.

“How does she do that?” I asked Pea.

She took another long pull from her bottle, tossed it, now empty, into the fire and shook her head. “Dun know. Magic I guess.”

“Get some sleep Pea. Long walk tomorrow. I’ll take first watch.”

She took off her long coat and spread it on the ground. I always liked to watch Pea stretch out to sleep on the hard ground. Reminds me how we can all change.

I put my back against a tree and with my whip coiled in my lap I settled in for the watch.

CHAPTER 2

The next morning Sweet Pea woke me with a kick to the foot.

“Sun’s been up half an hour. If you want some breakfast there’s a bit of week old bread and some honey.”

While I chewed away at the tough bread, Pea packed up her gear. She bent down into the ashes of the fire to retrieve her, now magically refilled, whiskey bottle. She stopped half bent.

“Do you see that?” She asked.

“You mean the 5-foot tall glowing letters that say ‘Horses at stable in Greengeld’? Yeah, I see it.”

“Guess we’re riding to the palace in style.”

“I guess we are.”

The stables in Greengeld were the opposite of style. Filthy, almost falling down and they stank. The stable hand was expecting us and he showed us two broken-down nags.

“I’m pretty sure I can walk faster than this horse.” I told him, examining the proffered mount.

He shrugged “Maybe you could. You’re welcome to try. Of course, slow or fast, riding is less work than walking.”

He had a point, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the long walk to the Palace. “You have a point and I’m not exactly looking forward to the long walk to the palace. Saddle um up!”

20 minutes later Pea and I were swaying down the road. Pea sat way back in her saddle, almost lying on her back and took out her guns and started to clean them.

“You’re always cleaning those bomfing guns!”

“Yep. That way they’ll work when I need them. Not everybody’s got a magic whip.”

We made poor time and by early afternoon it was clear that we would have to ride into the night and probably still wouldn’t arrive at the palace in time for dinner tomorrow.

“I’m hungry. Let’s find a spot to grab a quick lunch.” Pea said.

I knew she wanted a quick pull at her bottle too.

“OK. I don’t see that it makes much difference if we get there a little late or really late.”

A short while later we crossed a small stream with a bit of a clearing on its bank and some grass for the horses.

Pea looked in our bags and pulled out a couple of wrinkled apples and a hunk of dried cheese. She broke the cheese in half and passed me my apple.

“A meal fit for a queen.” She bowed low.

I am a queen too. Sweet Pea is just a princess. I outrank her, protocol-wise. Of course, neither of our kingdoms exist anymore, so it’s kind of academic.

We ate our cheese and apples in silence except for the sound of chewing and the babbling of the stream. If you had closed your eyes and forgotten everything, the war, the dead, the loss, just closed your eyes and let the sun warm your face, you could almost enjoy the moment. Two friends picnicking by a stream. Of course, I couldn’t forget any of it, and neither could Pea.

Then I heard a noise. A soft noise.

“Pea? You hear that?”

Pea had her eyes closed and the bottle at her lips. “Nope.”

“Shush. Listen.”

She lowered the bottle. And made a show of listening. “Nope. Nothing. What’s it sound like?”

“Like someone strangling a dog, quietly. I’m going to take a look.”

She waved. “Have fun. Yell if you run into a dragon or something and need help.”

“Will do.”

I followed the stream bank in the direction of the sound. It was faint and sometimes I thought I’d just imagined it. But then a few moments later I would hear it again. After about 10 minutes of walking the stream widened out into a small pond and on one bank was a little man, a gnome or something, struggling with a black cloth bag. The bag was bigger than the man and it was moving.

“Oye! What ya got in that bag?”

He looked at me and returned to wrestling with his bag without answering. It was so funny that I just watched him for a long while. Finally, frustrated he threw his hands up and sat down on the bag and started crying. The bag wriggled furiously beneath his butt, but the little guy had surprisingly good balance and refused to be thrown off.

I walked over and he looked up as if just seeing me for the first time.

“Good afternoon to you ‘mam.” He lifted his hat. “Would you be so kind as to help me carry this bag down to the pond?”

“What’s in the bag?”

“A dog. A wicked dog.”

“A wicked dog? I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing.”

“Oh, this one is. Wicked through and through.”

“And why are you taking it to the pond?

“I intend to drown him and rid the world of his wickedness.”

“Well, you’re a regular bomfin’ altruist aren’t ya? Let me see this wicked dog.”

“I assure you, madam, it would be best for all concerned if we just drowned him with all speed.”

I unhooked my whip from my belt, “I doubt it would be best for the dog. And he seems to be a concerned party. Open the bag.”

He didn’t move, so I lashed at him with my whip. A slow lazy lash. A tangling lash, not a killing lash. The long golden strands flowed towards the gnome and wrapped him tightly and with a quick tug I pulled him off the bag.

“Madam! I must protest this attack! If you won’t help me urp!”

A twist of my whip brought a few strands over his mouth effectively gagging him.

“There, now that I have a little peace and quiet, let’s take a look at this wicked dog.”

I bent down and opened the sack and saw a largish dog. His paws were tied front and back and a tight band was over his muzzle. He was writhing furiously.

I ran my hand over the soft reddish gold fur of his head and he nuzzled his snout into my palm.

“Seems like a sweet dog to me.”

The gnome struggled in his bonds. Might as well fight against gravity. I studied the ropes that tied the dog for a few seconds and then with a quick tug they fell away. I’ve always been good with knots.

The dog, now free, leapt to his feet, barked for joy and jumped up to lick my face. I gently pushed him down. “Ok, boy! Sit!” He sat immediately. I patted his head. “Yep, really wicked dog. Seems like a threat to the world. I think I’ll call him Ben.”

I flicked my wrist and my whip released the gnome and coiled itself back into my hand. The dog, newly christened Ben, instantly laid back his ears and began barking at the little man.

“Ben! Sit! Quiet!” I ordered. He sat right down, growling menacingly.

The gnome got to his feet and ran away into the woods. “You’ll regret this!” He called over his shoulder.

“Funny little man, eh Ben? Come on.”

I headed back along the bank to where I’d left Pea, Ben following along.

“Look what I found in the forest!”

“A dog!”

“A dog! He followed me home! Can I keep him?”

“Can he keep up with the horses?” Pea asked.

“A snail could keep up with the horses.”

“The moment I said it I knew it was a stupid question. You’re leading this little parade. You can keep him if you want. Though, I’m not sure what Ms. White will say about you taking a pet along on her special project.”

“We’ll bury that monkey when we come to it.”

“What kind of dog is he?”

I looked at him critically. “I’m not sure. Maybe a bit of golden retriever?”

“Maybe a bit of setter?” Pea added.

“Good old mutt!” I decided.

Ben looked at me, almost, like I’d insulted him.

But when we were back on the road, Ben was right alongside us. So, I guess all was forgiven.

We rode late into the night. When we stopped to make camp, Ben wandered off into the woods. I made a fire and cooked up some dinner. We take turns cooking, but Pea is a much better cook. Ben wandered back into camp after a couple of hours and turned his nose up at the leftovers I offered him.

Pea took the first watch and as I lay down to sleep, Ben came and lay down beside me, his breath hot and doggy on my neck and surprisingly comforting.

Pea woke me a few hours later for my watch. She was a little unsteady and she stank of magic whiskey. Funny thing is, Sweet Pea is a better guard, better shot, better fighter, all around better soldier when she’s drunk.

She belched, loud and smelly in my face. A better soldier, but not such great company. When she’s drunk. I love Pea and I’d kill and die for her and I have (killed that is, not died). And I know she would do the same for me, and she has (again, killed, not died). Still, I pushed her away. And she stumbled and fell on her ass. She saluted me with the bottle and took the last swig and, basically, passed out, cradling her beloved bottle.

The thing with the magic whiskey bottle is; Pea has to drink the whole thing every night. If she doesn’t finish the whole bottle it doesn’t refill. I’m not sure if missing one night kills it for good, or if you could just finish it the next night, but Pea isn’t taking any chances. It was a kind of gift / curse from a wandering fairy or something. There was a well and an old woman, who was really a fairy in disguise, and either Pea offered the old woman a drink or there was a fight about who would drink first or something and well, Pea got this magic whiskey bottle. Also, the bomfer is damn near indestructible. I’ve seen her use it to split wood and to kill trolls. Gift? Curse? Who knows? But it’s pretty damn nice to have around. It’s also a pain to have around. I guess that’s the whole point.

I woke Pea at first light and we hit the road. It was still a long way to the palace.

CHAPTER 3

It was well past dark when we finally pulled up at the palace. The gate guards passed us through with a wave. It was also past the dinner hour. I’d really been looking forward to dinner at the palace. Real food, cooked by real chefs. Well, maybe there would be something left for us.

The guards at the palace doors stopped Ben when he tried to follow us in, and he slunk off with a disappointed whimper.

Two guards led us to Ms. White’s office. We both knew the way, but, well, protocol.

Neither Ms. White nor Shay were in the office when we arrived, but there was a woman sitting in one of the chairs with her feet up on a second chair and a big hat, with a big feather, covering her face, she might have been asleep except she was idly cleaning her long perfectly polished nails with a large knife. She was also wearing a full ball gown. The gown was brilliant white but an iridescent play of colors passed over the gown anytime she moved. I hadn’t owned a piece of white clothing in years. I walked over to her and kicked her feet off the chair. Her glass boots rang on the floor like distant bells. She pushed the hat back on her head with the knife.

“Cinder-bomfing- rella.” I drawled.

“Ra-bomfing-punzel.” She replied.

She spat a gob of something greenish and unhealthy looking on the floor. Before the sound of the splat had died, a mouse ran out from inside her gown, dressed in a little maid’s uniform, with a mop and bucket, quickly cleaned it up, polished the little area of the floor to a high shine and disappeared back into the gown. Cinderella got to her feet and gave me a big hug. Then, seeing Sweet Pea she hugged her too, swinging Pea around and making her clearly uncomfortable.

She gave Pea a big kiss right on the mouth. “How’re you both doing, your highnesses?”

We had barely gotten into our bull session when the office door opened and in walked Shay pushing a cart loaded with food, followed by our glorious leader, Ms. Snow White herself.

“So wonderful to see you all!” Ms. White practically squealed. She went around the room, air-hugging and air-kissing everybody. “We thought you might be hungry after your long trips.” She indicated the cart of food. “Help yourselves! Try the vegetarian spinach lasagna. It’s fabulous!!”

She snatched glasses off the cart and filled them with a sparkling wine and began to pass them out. Sweet Pea waved her off and lifted her whiskey to show that she’d come prepared.

When everybody had a glass of wine (or bottle of whiskey) and a plate of food, Ms. White seated herself behind her desk. “Ok everybody!” she sang. “Let’s get started!”

We all took our seats, arrayed in front of the desk, except Shay who took up a position behind Ms. White’s left shoulder.

“Thank you all so much for coming! I’m sure you’re all tired and want to get some rest, so let’s get right to business.” Suddenly her face was serious. “I won’t waste your time going over old history that we all know. Few people know better how deadly a threat Queen Mallory and her Malevolent are. We have all lost kingdoms, husbands, friends and even children.”

She looked at me. They all did.

I was a rock.

I had been all cried out for years. Just the mention of my dead children wasn’t going to shake me now. I never forgot them. Not even for a second. Nothing Ms. White could say was going to make me feel any worse.

“My own kingdom is the last to stand against her. And we only manage it because all of you have come to fight at my side. But, perhaps you don’t know exactly how poorly the war is going. We’re losing territory and patrols at a frightening pace. Mallory seems to know exactly where we’re at our weakest and when to strike. If we continue as we are it’s just a matter of time before we are completely defeated.”

She paused to let the situation sink in. “Our only hope is to take the battle to her. To strike back. To take back what we have lost and push her into the sea. Until now that’s just been a dream.

“We’ve recently obtained, at great expense in both blood and treasure, intelligence about the location of a secret weapon that can help us turn the tide of this war.”

She smiled sweetly at us, that dazzling smile that makes you feel like you’re the only thing she sees, the only thing she wants to see. “The mission to acquire this weapon is both difficult and dangerous and nobody in our Company of accomplished warriors is better suited than you three.”

She paused again and leaned forward over her desk. “If you agree to undertake this mission and you succeed, we can all of us begin to dream different dreams. We can satisfy our longing for revenge, we can reclaim the lost kingdoms, we can start to rebuild. We can’t get back what we’ve lost, but we can hope for a future again.

“I ask you to volunteer because you three are our best chance and we need your full commitment.”

Cinderella stood up, her gown rustling and drew her sword and placed it on the desk. “My sword and my life are already yours. I’m sworn to the Company. You can make it an order, or ask for volunteers, it doesn’t make any difference to me. If there’s a chance to hurt Mallory, I’m in.”

Pea stood up too, she put her bottle on the desk alongside Cinderella’s sword, then thought better of it, took it back, took a swig, then put a gun on the desk. “Revenge.” She said nodding her head in agreement with herself, as proud of herself as if she had made a fancy speech like Cinderella.

I stood up too, I put my whip on the desk. A small shudder of anxiety passed through me. I don’t like to be separated from my whip. “Revenge.” I agreed.

Ms. White beamed with satisfaction. “Shay?”

We all retrieved our weapons and Shay rolled out a large map on the desk and we all leaned in. “Like all good quests,” Shay began, “This one has some sub-quests. The three of you won’t be able to acquire the weapon on your own. The first thing you’ll have to do is pick up some help.” Shay indicated a spot on the map, deep inside Malevolent territory. “There is a prison tower here.”

I felt suddenly nauseous. Shay looked at me and nodded. “Yes. Your old tower. Even more secure now that you and your magic hair aren’t there. The first addition to your team is a prisoner in the tower.”

Shay hesitated and looked at Ms. White, who nodded for her to continue. “You all know her. Beauty.”

Of course, we did all know her. Beauty, no longer asleep, had been the best fighter in the Company. Bar none. Sword, gun, knife, even, I’m ashamed to say, with a whip. Nobody was better. But, Beauty was, well … difficult. Vain (what the bomf were her parents thinking? Who names their kid Beauty? Although Belle, is a real sweetheart, and apparently her name means beauty too, so who knows), arrogant, not much for orders (taking them, she was fine with giving them). Beauty always chafed under Ms. White’s command. Beauty thought she should be running the show. And she wasn’t alone. A lot of people thought Ms. White was too cautious, using the Company to protect her own kingdom but not doing much about fighting Mallory or getting back lost territory. I won’t say I didn’t see the attraction of Beauty as a leader.

A couple of years back, Beauty was taken by a Malevolent squad while investigating a report of a sleeping spell in a border town. Her whole team returned and said they had been under a spell and when they had awoken Beauty was gone without a trace. A lot of people thought there was something suspicious about her capture. Of course, Beauty was the perfect choice to investigate a sleeping spell (although, apparently it wasn’t a sleeping spell after all). A lot of people thought it all seemed too perfect, thought it might have been a setup. I won’t say I didn’t see the logic of the theory.

Ms. White stood up. “Let me be frank with you. As you all know, there was some tension between Beauty and me. What you might not know, is that we had a big argument just before she left on her last mission. Some things were said that, perhaps, were best left unsaid.

“To make a long story short, it’s possible that once you free Beauty, she may be… reluctant to join your quest.” She handed me a sealed envelope made of elegant paper. “If she is, please give her that. I hope it will convince her to assist you. It’s unlikely that your mission can succeed without her aid. You will need to pass a sleeping spell in order to obtain the weapon.”

And of course, Beauty was one of only two people in the world who were immune to sleeping spells. Ms. White was the other. Apparently, sleeping spells are like some kind of disease. Once you have it, if it doesn’t kill you, you can’t get it again.

I put the envelope into an inside pocket of my coat.

Ms. White sat back down and Shay continued. “Beauty will be the 4th member of your team, but you will need one more. I can’t tell you anything about the 5th member, because one of the protections on the prison is that nobody who knows the identity of the prisoner can release him.”

Him? The whole room heard it. There was a him? There had been no hims in years. Oh, peasants hims, sure. But hero hims? Prince hims? Nope. Not since Mallory tricked all the princes and heroes in all the kingdoms into meeting in a single location and killed them all. We, all us queens and princesses, all told them it was a bad idea, but you know how princes are. I mean, I loved my husband, the King, but he was kind of a dumb, ‘er – pull sword, kill dragon’ kind of guy. Sweet sure, but well, they’re all dead. So that should tell you all you need to know.

Well, no one knew what to say. There was so much tension and confusion in the room.

Shay finally continued. “We can’t tell you more, so best to just put it out of your minds. The prisoner is being held in Beauty’s old palace. The sleeping spell has been recast and strengthened, the wall of thorns regrown. Nobody but Beauty will be able to enter without falling under the spell’s power. Once inside she’ll have to awaken the prisoner, or take him if she can’t awaken him.”

We all nodded. Traditionally – the sleeping spell requires the kiss of a prince to break the spell. We were fresh out of princes. And the subject, untraditionally, was a him!

Cinderella broke the silence. “And if we can’t awaken HIM? Are we just supposed to drag a sleeping prince with us all over Malevolent territory? Seems like a good way to get us all killed!”

Ms. White answered, “If you can’t awaken him, do your best to return him here. There’s no point continuing your quest, you won’t find the weapon without his help. Bring him back here and we’ll try to wake him. But, if bringing him back proves too dangerous, leave him.”

I was getting kind of tired of all this mystery talk. Can’t tell you the identity of the prince, secret weapon. WTF Snow?

“I’m getting kind of tired of all this mystery talk!” I broke in. “Can you, at least, tell us the ‘identity’ of the secret weapon? I’d feel a lot better tramping all over enemy territory rescuing random people if I knew what the hell we were after!”

Ms. White nodded. “Fair enough. The Magic Mirror.”

That shook us again. We all knew about the Magic Mirror. It had played a big part in Snow White’s story and it was a powerful tool. The Magic Mirror could be used to spy on just about anybody and it wasn’t just a dumb tool. The Slave of the Mirror could make correct judgments. If you asked it who is the Fairest Of Them All, it would search the world and compare everybody and find the actual, objective, Fairest. Which meant, of course, that you could also ask it strategic questions like, where is the weakest point to attack? If Mallory had the mirror, that would explain how she knew when and where to attack us.

“But the Magic Mirror was destroyed!” I pointed out.

“Yesh! Destroyed!” joined Sweet Pea.

Ms. White continued. “Our intelligence indicates that Mallory has recreated it. When my own sweet Prince defeated Mallory and smashed the Mirror,” a single tear shone in her eye, “he scattered the shards into the sea so that no one could ever recreate it. But, you know princes.”

We nodded. We DID know princes.

“He underestimated her patience and resources.”

This was the problem with princes. Any problem that required too much forethought was outside their wheelhouse.

“Mallory has gathered the shards and recast the mirror. And she’s bound the slave anew. But the weapon that she wields so effectively against us can be turned against her. If we can obtain the Mirror, we can find her weakness. Mallory has always been overconfident. In reforging the Mirror she has finally given us the opening we need!”

“Show” slurred Pea. “Lesh may shee” (ok. I’ll translate). “So, let me see if I’ve got this straight. We’re going to enter enemy territory, free two heavily guarded prisoners, find the Magic Mirror, (which is probably the most well-guarded item Mallory possesses), steal the Mirror and return here with the Mirror and the two prisoners? Is that right?”

“Yes.” Replied Shay. “That’s basically the plan.”

“Can’t be done.” Said Pea shaking her head and taking a drink. Then she stood up, checked her guns and said, “When do we leave?”

I stood and steadied Pea as she started to topple.

“You leave first thing in the morning.” Answered Shay.

“Excellent!” Said Ms. White. “I’m really hopeful for the first time in years. Thank you all!”

Cinderella and Ms. White and I walked into the corridor where some servants waited. “Would you please show our guests to their quarters?”

I was really looking forward to sleeping in a real bed. The first time in a long time and probably the last.

Then just as I was turning back to call for Pea, she pushed past me. “I’m sleeping in the stables! I won’t spend a night under the same roof as that woman!”

Shay gave me a look and a shrug. Not really an explanation or an apology, just a shrug.

Damn! If Pea was sleeping in the stables, so was I. Partners to the end and all. Damn! I looked at Cinderella, pleading.

“No bomfing way. I’m sleeping in a palace tonight!” Cindy never was much of a team player.

CHAPTER 4

Ben jumped up as we came out of the palace and he followed us as we trudged to the stables. There was no point in arguing with Pea. The stable hand was surprised to see us, but he knew better than to make a fuss. He pointed us to a loft with fresh hay and we climbed up. Ben, who couldn’t climb the ladder to the loft, had to sleep below. At least that was the plan. But he whimpered and whined so much I finally had to go down and carry him up.

At least we could both sleep the whole night. No need to stand watch at the palace, even in the stables. As soon as Pea lay down she was fast asleep.

But, I couldn’t sleep. It was all too much. And the letter Ms. White had given me for Beauty. Well, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit I was curious. I lit a lamp and took out the letter. It was sealed with Ms. White’s signet in snow-white wax. Best just forget it.

I put the envelope back into my coat and tried to get some sleep. I eventually dozed a bit, but it was a far cry from the luxurious night in a palace bed that I’d hoped for.

In the morning Pea and I went up to the palace. We found Cinderella in the dining room. And I finally had the palace meal I’d been longing for. And it was a meal I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life.

Ms. White came down to see us off. Shay was, surprisingly, absent. At least we could get on our way without her putting Sweet Pea in a bad mood.

They brought out horses for us. Real horses. Palace horses, fit for princesses and queens. The horses were loaded with as much food and water as they could reasonably carry. There were hugs and kisses (of the air variety) all around.

“What is that dog doing?” Ms. White asked, as Ben quietly joined us.

“Um, he’s kind of my dog. I rescued him. I thought I’d bring him with me.”

Ms. White bent down and took his face in her hand and looked him over. “You rescued him? From what?”

“A little man.” As soon as I’d said it I saw my mistake. “A gnome!” I quickly added. “A gnome was going to drown him. I saved him. He’s a good dog.”

She looked at Ben skeptically, then she looked at me skeptically too. “Well, OK. Just don’t let your pet do anything stupid, like ruin all our hopes and dreams.”

And we were off.

I led the way. I knew the way. I’d ridden the way in my mind thousands of times. Back to my old kingdom. I’d always imagined that I would be going back as a liberator, at the head of an army. I looked at my army. Sweet Pea, riding almost lying down, cleaning her guns; Cinderella, her ball gown bunched up in front and behind her, and I smiled. They may not have been an army, but they were tough and strong and loyal. Two of the best fighters I’d known. If, by some miracle, we managed to free Beauty, and by some bigger miracle, she joined us, we might have a chance.

My mind wandered back to the envelope.

Cinderella pulled up alongside me. “What do you suppose is in that letter that’s supposed to make Beauty forgive and forget?”

“I don’t know. An apology?” We both broke out laughing. The idea! Snow White apologize!

“What’s so damn funny?” demanded Pea, the three of us now riding abreast.

Cinderella told her through her laughter. “I asked Rae what she thought was in the letter. And she said, she said, she said, get this! She said ‘maybe it’s an apology!’” And Cinderella doubled over laughing.

Pea just looked at me. “An apology? To Beauty? From Ms. White?”? Then she started laughing too.

We all had a good laugh then Cinderella wiping tears from her eyes asked, “No seriously, what could be in the letter?”

I told her, “I looked at it last night, it’s sealed with Ms. White’s signet.”

Pea whipped out her knife. “Let me see it. If you do it just right, you can slice the seal off and then reseal it with a little heat.”

I, a little reluctantly, passed her the envelope. “Careful.”

As she worked the seal, a little wisp of smoke escaped from under the wax, formed itself into the shape of a hand and slapped her wrist.

“So, Ms. White’s used a ‘No-Peek’ spell. If we open it, Beauty will know. I guess we’ll just have to wait.” I told them.

“Let me take a look at it.” Cinderella grabbed it out of Pea’s hand.

She pulled out her own knife, looked carefully at the seal, and then just ripped it right open.

“I don’t give a bomf if Beauty knows what size shit I take. I ain’t delivering any sealed envelopes.”

“Not now we aren’t.” I grabbed the letter from Cinderella before she had a chance to read it. I unfolded it. Inside it was even fancier. It was printed on gold foil, like some kind of golden ticket. I pulled the ticket out and showed it to them, then I read the words. “The bearer of this Ticket, on its presentation at the Palace, is entitled to Single Combat against Ms. Snow White for leadership of the Princess Company.” I read. “Wait! It’s changing! An asterisk just appeared! And tiny letters are forming down at the bottom, they say ‘not valid for Rapunzel, Sweet Pea or Cinderella who should be ashamed of themselves for opening private letters.’”

“Wow!” Said Sweet Pea.

“I’ll say wow!” agreed Cinderella. “Single combat, Ms. White versus Beauty. It makes me want to live through this suicide mission just for the chance to see it!”

“Ok troops! Listen up!” I shouted. Cinderella and Pea both straightened up in their saddles and gave me their best mock salutes. “We have a new mission priority! The rescue and safe return of Beauty is now mission job one! Everything else, the mystery guest, the Magic Mirror are strictly secondary. Toss the bomfing mystery prince off a bomfing cliff if it improves our chances of returning Beauty to the palace alive!”

“SIR, YES SIR!” They both shouted.

Ben who had been loping along beside us barked.

If I had to go riding off into Malevolent territory on a crazy suicide mission that just might change the course of the war, I was glad to be doing it with these two. I mean, Pea could drink a little less and Cinderella, well, she could be somewhat less of a… princess, for lack of a better word. But nobody’s perfect.

CHAPTER 5

This close to the palace the countryside was pleasant and prosperous. The fields and farms all seemed happy and well-ordered. In a few days we would reach the edge of the Great Forest. In past days the forest was only dangerous in the ordinary way of large forests, wild animals; wolves, lions, bears and the occasional dragon or troll, bandits and fires and all that. Now, the forest served as the last barrier between Mallory’s territory and Ms. White’s kingdom, and so, much more dangerous things wandered its ways. There were powerful spells that kept armies from crossing through the forest, but smaller groups of monsters could, occasionally, slip through.

We stopped to camp that first night just as the sun set. Nobody felt much of a rush to reach the forest and the border and then into Mallory’s territory.

Once we stopped, Pea and I set about our usual tasks. We checked the perimeter, scouted defensible positions, gathered wood for a fire and generally prepared for the night. Cinderella watched us with a somewhat bemused expression, as if, even after years in the Company, she’s never seen anybody set up camp.

I staggered back to camp under a heavy load of firewood, while Pea was sorting through the supplies we’d gotten from the palace.

“Alright if I set up my stuff over here?” Cinderella yelled.

“Sure. Make yourself at home.”

She pulled something out of one of the pockets of her gown, an acorn I think, and set it on the ground and gave it a light tap with one of her glass boots. Suddenly there was a light and smoke and sparkles and a swell of distant music and in place of the acorn was a giant tent, more of a pavilion really.

“What the bomf, Cinderella!” Shouted Pea.

Cinderella shrugged. “It’s a gift. My fairy godmother didn’t want me sleeping on the cold hard ground.”

I looked at her hard. “Is there a bed in there?”

“No. No, of course not! Just daybeds, more like couches really. They’re not very comfortable at all. I promise.”

“How many ‘couches’ are in there?”

“Well, there’s three of us, so three I’d imagine. Fairy Godmother is usually very thoughtful like that.”

“What else ya got in there?” Asked Pea.

“Oh, you know, just the usual. Magic table, bath, musicians, servants, armory, stables.”

I looked at Pea, she was as stunned as I was. We’d been years in the field, sleeping on rocks, eating crappy food that we had to cook ourselves, bathing in streams and lakes (and not bathing more often). Servants!

“What?” asked Cinderella sounding a little defensive. “I mean, everybody’s got something. Right? Rae, you’ve got that magic hair whip, and Sweet Pea’s got that, that, super-sensitive ass. The guys must go crazy for that.”

Pea gave herself a gentle slap on the butt and winced a bit. “EVERYBODY loves my ass!”

“See what I mean?” Continued Cinderella. “Well, I’ve got a fairy godmother and, well, she likes to give me presents and stuff. What should I do? Say, thanks, but no thanks, as long as Sweet Pea and Rapunzel are sleeping in the dirt and eating the crap that Rae cooks up, I’ll suffer too? Hell, Ms. White and Shay and Lil’ are all sleeping in a bomfing palace for the bomfs sake!”

Then she opened the tent (more of a pavilion, really) flap and we looked inside. Wow! I want a fairy godmother! There were crystal chandeliers, and a table groaning with food, three daybeds (more like beds than couches), a screened-off part that I assumed hid the bathing area and an armory loaded with weapons. The soft strains of music floated in the air.

“Where’s the servants?” Pea asked.

“Here!” Cinderella replied, with a bit of a flourish. I think she was really beginning to enjoy showing off. She reached under her gown and pulled out three small mice (I guess they live in there? It seems kind of weird, but who am I to judge?). She placed the mice on the ground and instantly they grew into three human servants.

“Well, bomf me sideways!” said Pea, and I had to nod in agreement.

“Shall we, ladies?” Cinderella asked, holding the tent (more like a pavilion) flap open with one hand and waving us in with her other hand.

I looked at Pea and she shrugged at me and I shrugged back at her and we walked in. Ben tried to follow us, but Cinderella blocked his way. “Sorry Rae, but your dog stays outside. He can sleep in the stables out back with the horses if he wants.”

“Sorry boy. I’ll bring you a doggy bag later.”

The food was delicious and the service impeccable, the couches (more like beds) were incredibly comfortable (although Pea squirmed like she couldn’t quite find the right spot) and the screened off area hid a full bath complete with a sunken tub (more like a pool, really).

After dinner, we grabbed a bottle of wine (for Cinderella and me) and all climbed into the tub for a nice soak. I felt like kinks in my back, that had been there for years, were melting away.

“Well, this has been nice. I’ll take the first watch. Who wants second shift?” It was going to be nice having an extra watch person.

Pea volunteered for second shift. Second shift is hardest since you don’t get any solid sleep time.

“OK, I’ll wake you in a couple of hours. Then you can wake Cindy a couple of hours after.”

I could see that Cinderella didn’t really like the idea of taking a turn at watch, but she bit her lip.

I grabbed a big piece of meat off the still full table and headed outside. There was a chair outside the tent (more like, well, you know by now), that I swear hadn’t been there before, so I sat down to watch. I handed Ben the meat and he lay down next to me chewing with obvious enjoyment.

“Ingrate!” I said to Ben. He looked at me in confusion. I swear, sometimes, it seems like he understands every word. “You won’t eat the food I cook for you, but you’ll scarf down Cindy’s magic meat!”

Ben gave me the doggy equivalent of a shrug, as if to say, “If you cooked like the magic table…” and went back to chewing his meal. “I guess you have a point.” I told him and I let my hand dangle until I could stroke the fur on his back.

When Ben finished his meal, we took a stroll (you could call it a patrol) around the perimeter. We talked, well I talked, about things. Things that were difficult to talk to Pea about. Ben was a good listener. Pea was a good listener too. Neither was much of a talker, but Ben was sober more often.

To be honest, I don’t think talking is all that useful. But now that I had a listener, who wouldn’t judge me, who wouldn’t interrupt, who would keep his thoughts to himself, I couldn’t help myself.

I told him all about my past. My time in the tower with the witch. How I didn’t know any better, so I thought she loved me. How I thought her control, my imprisonment, was protection, for my own good. How my prince heard me singing while he rode in the forest and came one night to my window. How I let down my hair for him, the only person ever, except for the witch. How I learned that what I had thought was love was something else. Something dark and hateful and exploitive.

Ben was more than a good listener. He walked alongside me. He nuzzled my hand at just the right moments, almost as if he understood. Sure he nuzzled my hand at other moments too. He was a big hand nuzzler. Still, you read it your way and I’ll read it mine.

I told him about my escape. About the death of the witch (supposedly), and my mixed feelings. Sure she was an evil old witch who kept me locked in a tower and away from all human contact, for her own evil purposes, but she was also the woman I had thought of as my mother, who’d cared for me, in her own way, for years.

I talk to Ben about the wedding. How alone and lost I’d felt surrounded by so many people, after my whole life thinking that the witch and I were the only humans in the world. Finally, I told him about my twins, a boy and a girl. How they’d been born, so tiny and bright. How my whole life came into focus at the moment of their birth. How I’d wanted nothing more than to hold them and love them and protect them.

And I told Ben how I’d failed. How Mallory had lured my husband, now king, to his death with the others. How her troops had marched on my kingdom. How we (me) had been too weak to hold them off. How I’d been too stupid to run while there was still time. And finally, finally, how we’d fled too late. How my darlings had died cut down by arrows from Mallory’s troops. How I’d left them, lifeless, but still bleeding, unburied, in the dirt and run. Saved myself.

And the tears, which I’d held back in the palace, came now. In the field. With a dog. Ben put his face against my face and gently licked my tears.

When Pea came out for her watch I was, of course, completely composed.

“Sleep alright?” I asked her.

“Nah. Couldn’t get comfortable on the bed. I finally had to move to the floor. Plus Cinderella snores like a bull.”

“Well, I’m going to give the bed a try. See you in the morning.”

“Night.”

I opened the tent (Pa-bomfing-vilion, Pavilion!) flap and we went inside. Cinderella stirred a little as we entered. “No dogs.” She said in her sleep. But I just ignored her. I lay down on one of the beds. I’m not going to call it a couch or a day-bed just to help Cinderella feel less guilty. Ben tried to jump up, but I pushed him down and pointed to the floor. He lay down, whimpering softly.

Cinderella was moving on her couch. She’d taken off her ball gown and had changed into a nightgown. I imagine she had a full wardrobe in there. Ben was still whimpering and I didn’t want him to wake Cindy, so I curled up on my side to make space for Ben at the foot of the bed. He jumped up happily and curled up by my feet.

CHAPTER 6

Cinderella woke us before sunup (I think she was getting lonely on watch). Ben had moved up to sleep behind me. I didn’t mind, the bed was plenty wide and his warm body felt nice against my back.

“I told you no dogs.” She pouted.

“He’s fully house broken.” I pointed out.

“He’ll get hair everywhere!”

“It’s not like you’re doing the housekeeping. I can’t understand how you can travel around with mice under your gown, but have a problem with my dog!”

She considered it for a moment. I could see her wilting under the crushing grip of my logic.

She nodded. “Well, OK then.”

We ate magic table food, packed up camp and started on the road.

After about an hour Cinderella came up alongside me. “They’re magic mice, you know. Not just ordinary mice.”

“I know.”

“And there’s something odd about that dog of yours.”

I held back a comment about the ‘normal’ magic mice that lived in her gown, “Odd how?”

“Well, he never lets you out of his sight. He’s always watching your ass.”

I shrugged. “I’m his master. All good dogs always watch their masters.”

“No. I mean he’s always watching your ASS! The thing you sit on. You bend down and his eyes are fixed. He doesn’t do it with Pea or me.”

“I can’t even see your ass. I don’t know if you even have an ass under there.”

“Oh, I have an ass and it’s damn fine too!”

“Not as fine as mine!” Shouted Sweet Pea from behind us.

And, well, we talked asses for most of the morning.

That may have been our last truly carefree time. When we stopped to eat a quick lunch, a few hours later, the mood was decidedly darker. We were getting ever closer to the forest and we could all feel it. It showed in the countryside too. The farms were shabbier, the fields less well tended. The people we met on the road were wary and didn’t stop to talk. Anyone who could afford it had moved on long ago.

By the next day, we had entered a landscape that was completely bare of human life. All the farms and villages were abandoned.

Even the food from the magic table couldn’t cheer us up, even the warmth from the sunken bath (more like a pool) couldn’t chase away the chill we all felt. I mean, we ate the food and drank the wine and soaked in the tub, we’re not idiots. Only it was less enjoyable than before. The only thing that cheered us up was when Pea found Cindy’s giant makeup box and we had a good old time making fun of her. Well, it cheered me and Pea up.

So, we were all more than a little surprised, when on our fourth day on the road, just at the edge of the Great Forest, we came on a charming little farm with a neat little farm house and a group of girls working in the field.

I pulled my horse to a stop and Pea and Cinderella stopped beside me.

“Something is very weird about that.” Said Pea.

Cinderella nodded.

“So, should we stop and talk to them or just keep moving?” I asked.

“Too late now.” Said Sweet Pea, loosening her guns and motioning with her head at the group of girls who were approaching.

Cinderella checked her sword in its scabbard.

“They’re just girls. Keep the weapons down.” I said.

Ignoring me, Sweet Pea turned to Cinderella. “There’s just 8 of them. You watch the ones on the left and I’ll watch the right.” Cindy nodded.

The girls stopped on the road a few feet in front of us and the oldest opened her mouth to speak when the littlest, maybe 5 or 6, ran in front “Hi! I’m Emily! Where are you from? It’s been so long since we’ve had visitors. I used to have lots of friends, but they all moved away. Do you know how to play jacks? I have a set, but nobody wants to play with me. Are you going into the forest? Ma says we can’t go into the forest ‘cause it’s too dangerous, but my brothers go in all the time and nothing ever happens to them. Can I pet your horse? We used to have a horse, but he got too old to pull the plow, and we had to sell him. Oooh! Your gown is really pretty. Did you make it yourself? We make all our own clothes. I hate sewing!”

“Emily! Enough!” Shouted the oldest girl. “I’m sure they don’t need to hear everything about you right this moment. Out here on the road.” Then she turned back to face us. “Sorry, Emily is just excited to see new people. We all are, actually. I’m Andrea and these are my sisters. Ma would skin us alive if we let you pass without offering you something to eat. Supper is almost ready. Ma always makes it about this time. I know we’d all sure like to hear news of the world. It’s been so lonely out here now that all the others have moved away.”

I looked at Pea and Cinderella. They both shrugged. I shrugged back. “Ok. We’d love to join you for supper.” I mean, it was just eight girls and their mom and brothers. There was something weird, but if we can’t handle this, we sure as hell can’t handle Mallory in the heart of her territory. And it would be good to get some information about what we would face in the forest.

Andrea clapped her hands and smiled. “Elsa, run ahead and tell Ma that we’ll have three guests!” She almost squealed in excitement. One of the girls ran off. Emily ran forward to pet Pea’s horse and Pea caught her up in her arms and put her in the saddle and they rode together towards the farm house.

Up close the house was just as charming as from the road. Freshly painted with white lace-trimmed curtains in the windows. It looked like the perfect kind of house to raise a family. Elsa and a woman came out to greet us. The woman looked just like a prosperous farm wife should look. A neat little apron over her black dress and a bit of flour dust on her hands and sleeves.

“Welcome ladies! I’m Annette. I see you’ve already meet my daughters. Please come in and make yourselves comfortable. Supper’ll be ready in 15 minutes.” She waved us inside.

“Is there any place we can wash up a little before supper?” Asked Cinderella. She was always better about those kinds of things than Pea or me.

“There’s a pump out back. Esmeralda, show our guests the pump and, Angel, you get them some clean towels.”

One of the girls led us out back to the pump and we took turns pumping water and washing our hands and faces. And another of the girls brought us some clean rough towels and soon we were looking and feeling more civilized.

The table was set with plates and glasses and as soon as we sat down a stream of girls entered, carrying bowls of steaming food. Everything looked good. It was plain farm food. Not fancy palace or magic table food, but a hell of a lot better than the stuff Pea and I ate on a regular basis. Ben lay quietly by my feet and I slipped him scraps and he licked my fingers clean.

For a long while there wasn’t much talking. Riding and farm work are both hungry occupations and we all ate our fill.

“Can we help wash up?” Asked Sweet Pea, to Cinderella’s horror.

“Nah. You just sit and digest your meal. I didn’t have seven daughters for nothing.”

“Eight mama.” Said little Emily. “Don’t forget about me!”

Annette laughed. “Oh, right. Eight! I would never forget about you, my darling baby girl!” She gave us a tired smile. “It can be hard to keep track of so many children.”

A girl came round with some kind of sparkling cider and filled our cups.

“Now.” Began the mother, Annette. “What are three princesses doing way out here? Oh, don’t look so surprised. It’s not like you’re doing much to hide it. Hell, she’s wearing a ball gown and those are some pretty fancy horses you’re riding. You’re Princess Company or I’m a gelding!”

Cinderella answered her with a question. “What I’d like to know is what you and your daughters are doing out here. Everyone else has left. We rode through two days of empty farms, only to find you snuggled right up against the forest.”

The woman laughed. “A suspicious one, ain’t ya. Well, I can’t see that it matters anymore so I’ll tell you. Life hasn’t always been easy with my big family. Finding food to feed ‘um all was always a tricky business. We don’t have much money, what with my husband dead and buried these past five years. We lived inside the forest, where nobody else much cared to live, ate what we could find or catch. Until it became too dangerous. But, as luck would have it, when the forest was too dangerous for us, the area outside the forest was too dangerous for everybody else. Maybe we’ve always been a little bit braver than other people, or maybe just a little more desperate. Anyway, we found this nice little farm abandoned and made it our new home. It may not belong to us in the strict sense, but we keep it up, we work the fields, we care for the animals. We aren’t taking anything anybody else wants.”

Cinderella nodded her agreement. “As far as we’re concerned you can keep it.” Little Emily had crawled up on Cinderella’s lap (a bit of a challenge with her ball gown) and Cinderella held her, looking surprisingly maternal. It gave me a little pang and I thought Pea looked a little jealous.

“Well, that’s very kind of you, seeing how it’s not any more of yours to give than it is ours. Anyway, you’ve heard our story. Now, what’s yours? There ain’t anything out here but the forest, so I suppose that’s where you’re headed.”

“Yes.” I broke in just to make sure nobody said anything too revealing. Not that it probably mattered. What were they going to do? Run off to tell Mallory? “We’re going into the forest tomorrow. We would appreciate any advice you can give us. What can we expect to find?”

Annette broke into a smile. “I can do better than that. My boys hunt in the forest. They practically live there still. Ain’t nobody knows the forest better than my boys, at least this part of it. They’ll be back in the morning. You stay the night, we’ve got plenty of room, and tomorrow my boys will take you into the forest and show you the way.”

Cinderella and Pea and I all looked at each other and held a silent conference. I think we all were a little wary and felt like something was just a little off, but they seemed friendly and it would be nice to have guides, at least part way through. “Well,” I finally said, “it would be nice to have guides, at least part way through. Ok. Thank you.”

“Then that’s settled”, said Annette getting to her feet, “it’s getting on towards dark. We sleep early and wake early. Andrea, Elsa, show our guests to their rooms and make sure they have everything they need. I’ll say good night now and see you all in the morning.”

“Good night.” We all said.

We finished our cider and the girls led us to our rooms. They must have belonged to the hunting boys, but, mine at least, was passably clean.

I sank down on the bed and Ben jumped up beside me. It’s wasn’t soft like a palace or magic pavilion bed, but it was comfortable enough. I felt uneasy and I wasn’t sure why. Finally, I realized that I was alone for the first time in, maybe, years. No Pea, no nobody. I guess, I really hadn’t realized how much I relied on Pea. Her constant presence, keeping me focused on the job, grounded in the now. There was something different about being closed alone in this room. It wasn’t like being on watch. I felt unmoored, my thoughts drifting into an ugly past and an uncertain future. Well, I had Ben, and I put my arms around him and tried to sleep.

Here’s the funny thing about sleep and life on patrol; it makes you both a light sleeper and a heavy sleeper. I’m a light sleeper in that I’ll wake up instantly to the sounds of hoof beats or a person walking nearby, but I’m a heavy sleeper in that things like wind, light rain, small animal sounds or bugs crawling over me don’t bother me at all.

So, the spider crawling on my shoulder didn’t wake me, not until it bit my neck, and then, of course, it was too late.

I was on my feet in an instant as the door burst open and two giant spiders came in. I was on my feet, but unsteady on my feet. The spider venom in my blood blurring my vision, making my movements sluggish. I reached for my whip and missed. I reached again and grabbed it. But then the spiders were on me. Ben launched, unsteadily, off the bed and grabbed one spider by the leg, but the spider simply shook him off like he was nothing. Ben must have been bitten too. The other spider took me in two arms and began to wrap me in its silk. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ben being likewise wrapped before I completely succumbed to the poison and passed out.

When I woke the world was upside down and filled with giant spiders. I, groggily, looked around and saw Sweet Pea and Ben wrapped up to the neck in spider silk and suspended from the rafters. Some distance below were three giant spiders (giant for spiders, they were about the size of a person). I tilted my head up and saw a fourth in the rafters.

“Well, looks like one of our guests is awake.” A spider pointed with a leg in my direction. “Get her some water. Mallory wants them alive.” The spiders talked! People talk! I thought about engaging them in conversation, trying to charm my way out of this. I can be pretty bomfing charming when I want. But I decided to wait until I was clear headed. No point pissing them off while trying to charm them. Who even knows how you charm a spider? Are they vain? Do they like flattery?

One of the spiders left and returned in a few minutes with a bucket of water and a cup. I was suddenly aware of a burning thirst. Must’ve been a side effect of the spider poison. As I watched in fascinated horror, the spider climbed the wall and then across the roof beam until it reached the cord of silk that I hung from. Then it slowly descended along the cord to my feet. Suddenly the giant spider was on my chest, clinging with 6 legs to the cords that wrapped me and holding the bucket and cup. I can’t remember a more frightening moment. It just sat there for a second, giving me a chance to realize how bad my situation was. Its eight eyes spinning, its mandibles clattering. And then it held out the cup for me.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to drink while suspended upside down, but it’s easier than you might think. Getting the water into your mouth is hard, and a fair bit went up my nose and down my forehead, but once the water was in my mouth the swallowing worked just as if I had been standing. Huh. You learn something every day!

The water made me feel a thousand percent better. The spider went away up the cord and I took stock of the situation. Pea and Ben were still unconscious and Cinderella was nowhere to be seen. I hoped that she hadn’t been hurt or killed in the attack. I didn’t see Annette or any of the girls and I was afraid for them. I tried to get a count of how many spiders there were, but they all looked alike and while I never saw more than four of them at one time, I could hear others in the house.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been tied up, but it was the most serious. I can usually untie any rope. I have a way with knots, especially untying them. Living with hair 25 feet long will do that to you. But the spider silk wasn’t really knotted, it was more like glued.

I wish I knew what happened to Cinderella and the family. There were odd sounds from down one of the hallways, but they weren’t fighting sounds, more like someone moving furniture or playing some kind of jumping game.

A while passed and I waited for Sweet Pea to come around, maybe we could formulate a plan of some sort. I still had my whip, I could feel it in my hand, and if she still had her guns, I don’t know maybe we could do something. Seemed unlikely.

As I waited for Pea, a larger spider entered the room. This one was at least half again the size of the others. It stopped below me and reared back on its two back legs so that its eyes looked at me.

“Queen Rapunzel, I presume.” It began.

I didn’t see any point in denying it. I nodded.

“I wonder if you could help us avoid any further loss of life.”

Any further loss of life! Who was dead? Cinderella? Annette? The girls?

My throat was still dry but I croaked “Go bomf yourself, you bomfing nightmare!”

“So, self-righteous. So sure that we’re the monsters. But what opportunity was there ever for spider-goblins in your kingdoms? Mallory offers us a chance we never would have had.”

“I’m not going to discuss morality with a giant killer spider.”

“Spider-goblin, please.” She waved an arm over her body and with a shimmer Annette stood in her place. “Perhaps it would be easier for you to talk to this body.”

“You’re Annette!?”

“For a time yes. Almost everything I told you was true. We did live in the forest, it did become too dangerous, true, we were what made it too dangerous, but still. We did come find this farmhouse. Not abandoned, true, but still the gist of it was the truth.”

“What happened to the people who lived here?”

“Well, Annette and her daughters lived here and we simply took their places. It’s unfortunate that we had to kill them, but such is life. My seven daughters and I needed human bodies if we were going to acquire you for Mallory. How convenient that Annette had so many.”

“That’s why there was no place for you in the kingdoms, you bomfing murderous goblin!”

“Spider-goblin! I must insist!” She was losing control which was part of my plan.

She got herself under control.

“And,” I added. “It’s eight! You have eight daughters! Don’t forget Emily!”

She smiled at me. “No, I just have seven. Emily is a human. We replaced the others but left her as, kind of, a celebratory snack after a job well done. It’s always best to leave your food alive until the last possible moment.”

I don’t think she really understood how to talk to humans. I was shocked into silence.

She continued, “And it’s little Emily that I want you to help me save.”

“So you can eat her!?”

“I promise not to eat her if you’ll help me.”

“Bomf you, you bomfing slimy monster!” I struggled with my cords, swaying from side to side and coming closer to Pea, I thought if I could knock into her maybe she would wake up. What would we do then? Who knows?

Just then Pea opened her eyes. “What do we have to do to save Emily?” She asked.

The spider Annette smiled “Ah, at least one of you is reasonable. Your companion, Princess Cinderella, and, apparently, Emily are barricaded in one of the rooms. We can’t seem to get in either by the door or the window. Mallory wants you alive, but the mission is more important than any one person. If we can’t convince them to open the door and surrender peacefully, we will have to resort to violence.”

“What kind of violence?” I asked. “You can’t get in.”

She smiled again. How had I missed that she wasn’t human? “Not violence against them. Although fire is always an option. But, let’s leave that as a last resort. No, I was thinking of killing Princess Sweet Pea, unless they surrender. Or, you could come order them to surrender and we could avoid all the mess and delay and unfortunate bloodshed.”

“You bomfing slimy insect!”

“I am an ARACHNID!” She roared.

“Bomf you, you bomfing insect piece of…”

“Do it, Rae.” Sweet Pea said. “Save Emily. Do it for me.”

I looked at her. She was serious. And, of course, she was right. The spiders were just going to kill Pea and then torch the place. Mallory wanted us alive, so we might have a chance to escape or something. It was the best option.

“Ok.” I said. “Let me talk to them.”

Spider Annette smiled so broadly I thought her head would split open. “Excellent! I knew you could be reasonable.” She gave a nod to the spider in the rafters who quickly cut the cord holding me to the roof beam with its mandibles and lowered me, none too gently, to the floor.

“Ok, cut me lose and let’s go talk.”

“No need to cut you lose. Your mouth is free enough to talk.” One of the spiders picked me up in its two front legs.

Just then the front door burst open and a figure stood in the night with a flaming sword. Cinderella! She rushed into the room, slashing at the spiders. Where her sword touched, their bodies opened and spit gouts of greenish-gray blood. She slashed the one holding me and it dropped me. With a single motion she cut my bonds and I broke free. As she rushed past Annette, she cut her legs, but didn’t kill her. I knew what to do. My arms now free, I lashed out at her with my whip and completely enveloped her. Sweet irony! Annette changed back to spider form, hoping to escape my whip, but to no avail. Once you are wrapped by my whip, you stay wrapped.

Cinderella disappeared down the hallway and shortly there were sounds of fighting. I looked up at Pea, swaying in the rafters. I couldn’t reach her to cut her down. Suddenly I saw the spider in the rafters moving toward Pea. My whip was occupied and the only other weapon I had was a boot dagger. I pulled the dagger and looked at it. It seemed entirely too small for the job, but maybe if I hit it in an eye or something. I took aim as the spider approached the cord that suspended Pea and gave it a good throw. The dagger spun in the air and hit the spider right on its head, just under its mandibles. And bounced harmlessly off. Shit!

The spider was starting to climb down Pea’s cord. I looked desperately for something, anything.

BANG! Thump!

The dead spider hit the floor, blood streaming from where its head used to be. Pea smiled down at me. “They wrapped me with my hands on my guns. Not much use, except if one of them happened to be exactly above me.”

A few minutes later, Cinderella returned. Her dress was covered in greenish-grey spider-goblin goo, her sword was sheathed and Emily was crying softly in her arms.

We were stumped over how to get Pea down. There didn’t seem to be a ladder and Cinderella’s sword couldn’t reach her.

Cinderella and I pulled the dead spiders into the hallway, out of Emily’s sight. As we worked, Cinderella’s mice maids were working furiously to clean her gown. As one of them ran up her sleeve to get a particularly nasty hunk of dead spider, Cindy grabbed her and whispered something to the mouse. In a moment the mouse ran up the wall to the rafters and began chewing away at the cord holding Pea.

She came down hard, but, well, Pea is tough.

Then the mouse cut down Ben, who was still knocked out. He must have had a larger dose of poison for his smaller body. Or maybe dogs react differently. Anyway, I caught him as he fell and gently placed him on the floor to sleep it off.

“How did you get out?” Pea asked Cinderella after she’d recovered a bit.

“Well, when I saw the accommodations, I decided to set up my tent.”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “How did you set up the tent in a tiny room like that? That tent is huge. More like a pavilion, really.”

“Oh, it’s variable, it fits the space available. And like any good magic tent, it’s larger on the inside. So anyway. I’m in my tent relaxing with a glass of wine when I hear a knocking at my door. It’s poor Emily. She says she’s afraid and can she sleep with me? So, I let her in. Then I imagine the rest is what happened to you two. The giant spiders attacked, but, of course, they can’t get into the tent.”

“Why can’t they get into the tent? Those giant spiders and that thin tent fabric. Seems like they could rip it open without trying.” Asked Pea.

“Well, they can’t get into the tent on account of its invulnerability. When my fairy godmother makes a magic tent she doesn’t fool around. What good is a magic tent without invulnerability?”

“Why didn’t you mention this invulnerability before?” I demanded. “Why the bomf have we been sitting watch if the tent is invulnerable?”

“First, watch your language. There’s a child present. And second, I didn’t mention it, because you’re always so fired up about watches, I didn’t think it’d make any difference.”

“Well, you’re probably right. We can’t just sit in a tent, even an invulnerable one and let ourselves be captured. An enemy could just camp outside the entrance and kill us as we exit.”

“Ok. Can I finish my story? So, there we were, Emily and I, safe in the tent, but you and Pea were probably getting killed. We couldn’t just go out the exit, since they would be waiting.” She gave me a smile.

“So, I went out the bolt-hole, came around the front, listened until the right moment then rushed in killed all the spiders and saved your asses!”

“What bolt-hole?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be much of a magic tent if it didn’t have a bolt-hole. The enemy could just camp out front and kill me when I exited. And before you ask, you can also turn the whole tent transparent to see if anyone is waiting. I just never do it, because, well, we always have a watch.”

Pea nodded towards Annette, still wrapped up in my whip, “What’re we going to do with her?”

“Let’s see what she has to say.” I replied. I twisted my whip and the hairs flowed away from her head.

“I’ve got nothing to say. You monsters killed my daughters! Better kill me now, or I’ll get free and kill you all, the whole damn kingdom!”

Cinderella kicked her hard in the ribs. With those glass boots, it had to hurt. “First, language. There’s a child present. Second. If you tell us nicely, we’ll…” She turned to Pea and I, “What will we do?”

“We’ll kill her quick.” Suggested Pea.

I nodded. “Sounds good to me.”

Cinderella turned back to Annette. “There you go. Cooperate and we’ll kill you quick.”

Annette seemed to think about it for a moment, then said, “Ok. What do you want to know?”

It usually goes that way. When you’ve got someone tied up and they have the option of the quick painless death or the slow painful death, they almost always pick quick painless. Occasionally, you have to give them a sample of what slow painful looks like, but Annette must have been smarter than your average spider-goblin.

“What did Mallory tell you?”

“Queen Mallory didn’t tell us anything. We don’t talk to the queen. But word came down that three princesses would be passing through the forest and Mallory wanted them captured and brought to her. I figured that there would be too much competition once you entered the forest, so we came out here.” She nodded in my direction. “She knows the rest. Now, my daughters are dead.” She shrugged. “It’s OK. I have a few hundred more. However, I’d hate to die. Maybe we can make a deal. You’ll find the forest difficult to pass. I can help you. Help you avoid Mallory’s other hunters. All I ask is my life. Once you safely reach the far side of the forest, of course.”

Cinderella shook her head sadly. “Sorry, can’t do it. I’d like to, I really would, but I gave my word.” She passed Emily to Sweet Pea, and Pea pressed Emily’s face into her chest to cover her eyes. “I promised if you cooperated, I’d kill you quickly.” And with a swipe she took off her head.

Then Cindy packed up her tent and set it up outside in the field and put Emily down on the fourth bed (the tent seems to know). Once Emily was asleep, we came back out and Cinderella drew her sword again, as soon as it was out of its scabbard, fire ran along the side of the blade and walking methodically around the farm house, she set it aflame.

Cinderella rejoined Pea and Ben and I and asked, “So, now what?”

“Well,” I started, “I guess we continue into the forest tomorrow. Mallory knows we’re coming, and the whole bomfing forest full of bomfing monsters knows we’re coming, but what else can we do? I don’t see that we have a lot of good options.”

Pea took a drink and eyed Cinderella.

“What about Emily?” Cinderella asked.

“We can’t leave her here. It’s as good as killing her. And we can’t take her with us, that’s probably worse than killing her. I don’t see that we have a lot of good options there either.”

Pea eyed Cinderella again.

“To my mind,” Cindy began, “she’d be better off with us. Just like you say, leaving her here is a death sentence. But, if she comes with us, we can protect her. I mean, we all plan on making it back alive. Might not happen, but that’s the plan. How hard can it be to protect a little kid?”

“The problem is, protecting a little kid isn’t the mission. If it comes down to protecting Emily or completing the mission, what are you going to choose?”

Pea skipped eyeing Cinderella, and said, “Yurg, shot yur pret.”

“Yes, Pea, but Ben understands that if I have to choose, the mission comes first.” Ben looked at me, as if to say that he had not, previously, understood this. Bomfing dog understands too much for my own good.

“Ok,” said Cinderella. “If I have to choose, the mission comes first.”

Pea spat, which was her way of agreeing.

I didn’t believe either of them, hell, I wasn’t even sure what I would do. But I knew the alternative would be to backtrack into inhabited territory, which would cost us at least 4 days, days when the forest would be filling with Mallory’s creatures.

Want to read more? You can buy it here. Thanks! Or get the “Clean” version here!

Excerpt from A Study in Green

A Study in Green [(*]buy it here[) (][*or read for FREE with KindleUnlimited!][*)*]

A Study in Green

Sherlock and Alfie: Book 1

By David Schenck

AH-OOOOH-WA! AH-OOOOH-WA! The warning klaxons scream as the roof of the brownstone peels back. In the parlour, three stories below us, white smoke pours from the engines of the giant rocket, as Sherlock and I struggle helplessly in our bonds. The ropes cut cruelly into my flesh. Our nemesis, Moriarty, lets out a barking laugh as he prepares to launch the rocket that will destroy life-as-we-know-it in New York…

When, Alfie, a young rat from London, sets out to visit New York City, it was going to be the trip of a lifetime. Just what he needed to add a little excitement to his boring life. Only nothing goes as planned and he ends up homeless, penniless and living on the streets.

Then he meets Sherlock Holmes. At least, he meets a rat who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. When Holmes mistakes Alfie for Dr. Watson it’s the start of a wonderful friendship. Together, they embark on a grand adventure to find a missing rat and save the city from Professor Moriarty’s nefarious plan!

A rollicking tale full of surprises and adventure in the spirit of Sherlock Holmes!

CHAPTER 1

AH-OOOOH-WA! AH-OOOOH-WA! The warning klaxons scream as the roof of the brownstone peels back. In the parlour, three stories below us, white smoke pours from the engines of the giant rocket, as Sherlock and I struggle helplessly in our bonds. The ropes cut cruelly into my flesh. Our nemesis, Moriarty, lets out a barking laugh as he prepares to launch the rocket that will destroy life-as-we-know-it in New York…

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Although this story is mostly about my remarkable friend, let me introduce myself and tell you something of my own history, by way of context.

I was born one snowy day in December, in a small flat just outside London. It was my mother’s last litter and I was her last child. I was, as they say, the runt of the litter. While my brothers and sisters were all fit as fiddles, 8 squirming blind hairless little ratlets, I was more like a mouse. I was blind (so they tell me) and hairless and I squirmed with the best of them, but I was tiny.

My mother named me Aloysius Harrington James and, I think, she hoped I would grow into the name. Everyone called me Alfie and I stayed stubbornly small.

At school I was teased mercilessly on account of my size. It made me a bit of a loner. I like to think that it also made me tough. I’m not proud of it, but I got into a lot of fights. I won’t say that I won many, but I always gave as good as I got (Ok, I’m a little proud of it).

Being small wasn’t all bad. I could go places other rats couldn’t. Secret places where secrets lurked. I played at being a secret agent; a spy. I would often spy on my brothers and sisters, even my teachers.

It turns out nobody likes being spied on. I got caught a lot and I got in a lot of trouble. I guess I wasn’t a very good spy.

It was my English teacher, Mr. Westerly, who suggested I put my investigative skills to use as a reporter for the school paper.

I loved it! I was finally part of a team. A team of outcasts, true, but a team nevertheless. Mostly we reported on school contests and sporting events, but we broke a few big stories. I was the one who uncovered that the school cook was buying off-date tuna and pocketing the difference. I also uncovered a ring of students who were selling exam answers. I don’t have to tell you that I was less and less popular with each published issue.

In my imagination I was a crusading reporter, fighting crime, uncovering corruption!

At university, I studied journalism. After graduation, I found a job with the Croydon RATvertiser and I was ready to conquer the world!

Reality soon came crashing in. The crime beats were all covered, as were politics, sports, business, as well as national and world news. I was assigned the commodities markets and a public help column where I answered letters requesting the phone number of the health department or the person to call to report a pothole.

I reproduce here, in full, the most popular article I wrote during my tenure at the RATvertiser:

Cheese futures plummeted today as Royal British Cheese reported a major new discovery. An RBC spokesrat reported the find. “Our cheeselogists detected a likely cheese bearing area, based on local concrete formations, several months ago. We drilled several dry holes and, quite frankly, I was beginning to think it was a dud, when we hit cold! We broke through into cold storage on Tuesday and we have teams evaluating the strike. Right now, we are seeing a lot of Cheddar, Swiss and Stilton. We expect to uncover some Blue Cheese and maybe even a bit of Brie after more exploration. There have even been hints of a Wensleydale find. Conservatively, this will double our recoverable cheese reserves.”

The market responded to the news by dropping Cheddar contracts for June delivery 4.2% and Swiss contracts were off almost 5% in heavy trading.

In other market news, unsorted garbage was up ¼ point today to close at 21 1/4

I don’t mind telling you it was somewhat disheartening. I’d been craving action and excitement since I was a pup and here I was writing about cheese.

I mean, I like cheese as much as the next rat, but writing about it was just plain dull.

So, when my mother’s sister wrote to suggest I visit her in New York, I jumped at the chance. She was older than my mum and something of a family legend. She’d travelled the world before finally settling in New York City. She was rumoured to be something of an eccentric, but she was apparently rich enough to get away with it.

I scraped together my, admittedly meagre, savings and it was enough for a second class passage on a second class ship.

CHAPTER 2

The less said about my crossing the better. The weather was bad, the food terrible and the company even worse. Still, it was a beautiful early spring day when we pulled into New York harbour and I soon found myself, valise in hand, standing on the pier and looking at a world of possibility.

I was a young rat in New York eager to see what the world had in store for me. And… my aunt was nowhere to be seen. Funny that. I waited an hour or more, and still there was no sign of her. Maybe she had forgotten that I was arriving today.

Well, nothing was going to spoil my good mood. I pulled out her letter and hailed a cab. The driver let me off at her address on West 44th St. and charged me almost all the rest of my money.

I found her door under the big stairs and rang the bell. After a polite period of time, when nobody answered, I rang the bell again. Still no answer. I rapidly progressed to ringing the bell continuously, but with the same result. After some minutes, I gave up and sat down on my valise, frustrated, annoyed and, just a little bit, frightened.

“OK.” I said to myself (although I’m afraid I said it out loud), “Logically, what could be going on here?” And I ran through a list of possible explanations from wrong house (her name on the door made this unlikely) to the possibility of alien abduction (unlikely because, well, unlikely). I finally decided that the most probable explanation was that we had simply missed each other at the pier and my aunt was probably looking for me, just as I was looking for her. I considered returning to the pier, but worried that she would be on her way home and we would miss each other in the crossing.

I sat down on my valise to wait but, after a very few minutes, I grew impatient. I was in New York! I wanted to explore! I consulted my map. Times Square was just a few blocks away!

Suddenly, the giant door over the stairs opened and a Big came out. I, of course, hid under the stairs until it had passed. I’m not particularly afraid of the Bigs, certainly no more than the average rat, and back in London I even, occasionally, entered the flats of some of the Bigs that lived in my neighbourhood. Just to see what it was like, harvest a little food, that sort of thing. The thing is, the Bigs just have so much! Have you ever seen the size of the chocolate bars the Bigs have? They’re bigger than I am! Of course, it’s a little dangerous. The Bigs sometimes set traps and sometimes there are dogs or cats. Most dogs are alright. They can be a little excitable, the species seems to be kind of high-strung, but basically, they’re OK. Don’t get me started on cats. I mean, you can have a conversation with a dog, but with cats, it’s all red in tooth and claw. Although, I have known a few decent cats. So, there can be no general rule.

Once I was sure that the Big was gone, I opened my valise, found a pencil and some paper, and wrote a note for my aunt explaining that I had missed her at the pier and come to her house, however, finding her not at home, I’d decided to explore the city and would return in the evening and that I hoped this would not be too terrible an inconvenience. I left the note hanging out of the mail slot, hid my valise securely under the big stairs and headed out to explore.

London is my home, but oh how I love New York! The giant buildings! The crowds and the traffic! The busy streets and the fancy stores! And the fashionable rats everywhere you looked!

I wandered down to Times Square. I bought a giant slice of pizza from a street-side window, served on a sheet of wax paper, hot and dripping with gooey cheese and orange grease. I ate it like a native, folded in half without utensils of any kind, walking down the street.

As the sun was setting, I turned again towards my aunt’s house. Tired and poor, but excited by the prospects of a future in New York. My excitement evaporated as soon as I saw her house completely dark and my note still poking from the mail slot, unread.

Not knowing a soul in New York and having no money for lodgings, I spent an uncomfortable night sleeping under the stairs. Even though it was spring, the night was cruelly cold and I huddled between the wall and my valise hoping, unreasonably, to conserve a bit of warmth.

The next day dawned bright and I stretched in the sun to warm myself. I had no plan. I spent my few remaining pennies on a couple of rolls of bread and ate one immediately and put the other in my pocket for later.

That afternoon, I ate the second roll and I was truly and deeply destitute. I lingered in front of my aunt’s house, hoping for her return until a neighbourhood cop chased me away. He had no interest in my story and I can’t really blame him. I scarcely found it credible, myself. I mean what kind of an idiot comes all the way from London to New York only to find his expected host not at home?

During the next twenty-four hours I went without food and shelter. About ten o’clock on the following morning, seedy and hungry, I was dragging myself along the Avenue of the Americas, when a child that was passing, towed by a nanny, tossed a luscious big pear – minus one bite – into the gutter. I stopped, of course, and fastened my desiring eye on that muddy treasure. My mouth watered for it, my stomach craved it, my whole being begged for it. But every time I made a move to get it, some passing eye detected my purpose, and of course, I straightened up then, and looked indifferent, and pretended that I hadn’t been thinking about the pear at all. This same thing kept happening and happening, and I couldn’t get the pear. Then I remembered that I was a rat and I dove for it. I ate it like a raving lunatic, juice dripping down my chin and onto my shirt without care. I was just gnawing on the stem, still famished, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned to find a rat, his tall, gaunt figure made even gaunter and taller by his long grey travelling-coat and close-fitting cloth cap. “I say old chap.” He began in that odd accent that only results from Americans trying to imitate the, superior, British manner of speech. “If I’m not mistaken you are a fellow Englishrat.”

I nodded “I am, indeed. Are you English?”

He looked at me with a shocked expression. “I most certainly am! Why I’ve lived in London all my life! At 221B Baker Street, most recently. Unfortunately, I currently find myself, for reasons of the utmost importance, forced to dwell in New York. I’ve just now taken a suite of rooms and I’m in search of a companion to share the space. I saw you and thought it would be pleasant to share with a fellow Englishrat. I note that at the moment you appear to be in reduced circumstances and perhaps you would not be adverse to such an arrangement.”

“I don’t know how you knew I was English, but since you’ve correctly determined that I am, as you say, in reduced circumstances, you surely understand that I’m in no position to share rent with anybody.”

“My good Doctor,” He began “no rent will be necessary. Rest assured that I will cover all expenses. All that I will require of you is your, as always, invaluable assistance on my little cases.”

“I’m not a doctor.” I corrected him. I was beginning to think that this rat was either confusing me with someone else or, more likely, was a few pence short of a pound. Still, if he was offering me a place to live, I wasn’t exactly in a position to say no.

“Very well then, Major, if you prefer. Have we a deal? In return for rooms and meals in my flat and other incidentals, you will assist me with my work?”

“Are you sure you haven’t mistaken me for someone else?” I kicked myself for asking, but I wanted to know what I was getting into. He apparently thought I was either a doctor or a Major or both and I, I was relatively certain, was neither.

“Absolutely not!” He replied.

“Very well then.” I held out my paw. “We have a deal. Mr. Er, I don’t think I caught your name.”

He took my paw and shook it firmly. “Ha! Excellent jest, Watson! My name is, of course, Holmes. Sherlock Holmes.” He turned on his heels.

“Wait, Mr. Holmes! I have to collect my valise.”

“Of course you do Watson. That’s where I’m heading.”

And sure enough, when we reached West 44th street, he turned towards the river with no direction from me.

As we walked, I explained to Holmes about my situation. Now that I had the prospect of lodging and steady meals, I began to worry about my aunt.

“I say, Mr. Holmes, sir.” I said as we stood in front of my aunt’s door. “Do you think we should report her missing to the police?”

Holmes looked around, “Perish the thought, Watson! I’ve never known the police to find a missing rat. Besides, as any casual observer can tell, that there is nothing to worry about. All will be fine with your aunt.”

He said it with such forceful certainty that I was, surprisingly, reassured.

Once I’d collected my valise, Holmes hailed a cab and directed the driver to an address on 5th Avenue. We stopped in front of an enormous building, rather ugly and with garish gold letters in front “Trump Tower”.

“You live here?” I asked

“Sadly. I apologize for the building. Can’t be helped. But, I think you’ll find our digs more to your liking. Do you need any help with your valise? How’s the old war wound?”

“No, no thank you. I can manage.” War wound? Had there even been a war? I guess, if I was a Major, it’s not unlikely that I might have been wounded during my (many?) years of service.

He led me into the building and called the elevator. We took it to the top floor and then out onto the open roof, in one corner of the large space, nestled against some kind of Big ventilation pipe was a, rather charming, little London-style house, shorn of its neighbours, but otherwise exactly like you might find in Notting hill or Mayfair.

He opened the door. “Mrs. Hudson!” He shouted, and a little white-haired rat came into the entryway. “Ah, there you are. Mrs. Hudson, Dr. Watson will be staying with us for a while. Please prepare his usual rooms and we’ll take tea in the parlour.”

“Right away, Mr. Holmes, Sir. Pleased to meet you. Dr. Watson.” Mrs. Hudson was a true fellow Englishrat judging by her accent.

“Don’t be silly, Mrs. Hudson. You’ve known Dr. Watson for years!”

“Oh, right. Of course. How foolish of me.” Mrs. Hudson said. “What a pleasure it is to see you again, Doctor.”

Mrs. Hudson hurried off to see to my ‘usual’ rooms while Sherlock led me into the parlour. The room was cluttered with books and newspapers and what looked like laboratory equipment, test tubes and beakers and such. Stuff that I hadn’t seen since my school days.

Holmes directed me to a comfortable chair and settled himself in another. “I have to be careful,” he turned to me with a smile, brushing some whitish power off the coffee table, “for I dabble with poisons a good deal.”

Shortly, Mrs. Hudson entered with a tray containing a proper English tea and I forgot all about the strangeness of the situation as I lost myself in the pleasure of eating. I’m afraid I made something of a pig of myself, cramming biscuits into my mouth and letting the crumbs fall onto my shirt and then eating the crumbs off my shirt when all the biscuits were gone.

“Now then,” Said Holmes, as I noisily slurped my tea. “To business. Watson, I have reason to believe that our old friend, Moriarty, has moved across the pond, right here to New York and has set up operations. I’ve had several interesting cases recently, which lead me to believe that the Professor is planning something big.”

I smiled and nodded. I was desperate and destitute. So, I didn’t have any choice but to play along. In my defence, Holmes’ insanity seemed like the harmless type. And, I must admit, the presence of Mrs. Hudson in the house gave me some comfort. She seemed to be dealing with his madness without much problem. Plus, my new friend appeared to be quite wealthy. I didn’t want to kill the golden goose by objecting to his fantasy that we were acquaintances and had old friends in common.

“Do you have any idea what he is planning?” I tried to imagine what big thing our old friend, Professor Moriarty, could possibly be planning. “A surprise party, perhaps?”

“Ha! Jolly good one, Watson! Oh, I’ve missed your wit! Yes, I’m sure it is a surprise party! A big surprise, I’ve no doubt. Well, we’ll just have to keep our eyes open and our wits about us. He’ll give himself away soon enough. He always does!”

Our tea finished, I excused myself. “If you don’t mind, Holmes, I think I’ll freshen up a bit and change my clothes.”

He dismissed me with a wave of his paw. “Not at all, Watson. You have the run of the house.” He indicated a closed door, painted black. “Only this room is forbidden to you.”

I was feeling better, now that I had eaten, and my natural curiosity prompted me to ask, “What’s in that room?”

“It is my sanctum sanctorum, my holy of holies. When I am feeling lost, in there I find myself. When I need inspiration, I turn to that room.”

Ok. That’s not weird at all. “Right then! I’ll just go freshen up.”

“Fine, Watson, but, please return when you are refreshed. We have a client appointment at 4:30 PM sharp.”

A client? What kind of clients could this mad-rat have? “I’ll be sure to return before then.”

And, while I did need to freshen up and change my clothes, at the moment, I was more interested in finding Mrs. Hudson and asking her a few questions.

I found her in the kitchen. She had her back to me and I looked at her brown fur for a moment, confused by the whole situation. Something was different and it took me a few beats to realize that the pile of fur in the corner was a grey wig, designed to make her appear older. “Ahem,” I cleared my throat, “Mrs. Hudson.”

She turned with a jump “Oh, Dr. Watson! You startled me!”

She was quite young and pretty now that I saw her up-close and without her wig. “Sorry. And please call me Aloysius, or, um, Alfie, if you please.”

She held out her paw to me. “Nice to meet you, Alfie. I’m Millie. Millie Walsh, but I think it’d be best if we’d just stick to Mrs. Hudson and Dr. Watson. Mr. Holmes can get down in the dumps if, um, how best to put this? If things don’t go as he expects.”

“How did you come to work for Mr. Holmes, if you don’t mind my asking? You’re really English, right?”

“I Sure am. Derbyshire girl, born and bred. I came to New York for a guy. It didn’t work out and I didn’t have the fare home. I was working in a restaurant, not far from here, when, one day, Mr. Holmes, came right in and offered me a job at more than double the pay. Since I wasn’t making it on what I earned at the restaurant, let alone saving for a ticket home, I took it without asking too many questions. He’s a little strange, as I’m sure you’ve seen for yourself, but he’s harmless and he means well. And you? What’s your story, Dr. Watson?” She stressed the doctor part to let me know she, correctly, doubted my medical qualifications.

“Not too different than yours, I suppose. I was at something of loose ends and Mr. Holmes, kindly, offered to take me in. I gather he’s not really English?”

“Lord!” She laughed, “I’ve no idea! I mean, he can’t be, what with that horrible accent, but I don’t know anything about him but what he tells me himself, which ain’t much. All I know is he pays well and on time. I don’t ask and he don’t tell and we’re both happier that way, I’m sure.”

“How do you suppose he knew we were British? I mean, I imagine that’s why he choose us.” I asked her, somewhat curious as to how my good fortune had come about.

“Well, he’d heard me talk before he offered me the job. It was after I’d waited on him at the restaurant. Did you speak to him?”

“No.” I told her. “He came right up to me and told me I was English.”

She looked at me in my soiled clothes and wrinkled her nose, but not in a mean way. “Well, at a glance, I’d guess it’s that British Rodent Press Association t-shirt you’re wearing.” Then she indicated the stairway. “Your rooms are left at the top of the stairs. Just leave those old clothes in a pile and I’ll get them laundered right up.”

I nodded “I’ll do that. Thanks.” I found my rooms with no problem. They were large and airy and plainly decorated. There was a comfortable looking nest in one corner and a bathroom with a wash basin. I took off my old wrinkled and, admittedly, more than a little smelly, clothes and gave myself a good preening. It was certainly a strange situation I found myself in. It did give me some deal of comfort to know that Millie, um, Mrs. Watson, no wait I’m Watson, Mrs. Hudson, was in the same boat and seemed to be unconcerned.

CHAPTER 3

At 4:20 PM, I presented myself in the parlour. Holmes was already there, waiting.

“Ah, Watson!” He jumped up and took my paw. “So, good of you to join me. Our prospective client should be arriving any minute now.”

He regained his seat and motioned me to the chair beside his as he filled his pipe. He’d barely touched his pipe with a match when Mrs. Hudson announced our client.

“A Mrs. Lucy Ferrier to see you, Mr. Holmes.”

“Please come in, Mrs. Ferrier.” Holmes motioned her to a chair that sat facing ours. “I am Sherlock Holmes, and this is my associate, Dr. Watson.”

After we had all settled ourselves, Holmes said, “You’re here about your husband, I see. How long has he been missing?”

Ms. Ferrier looked flustered. “How did you know my husband was missing?”

Holmes waved a dismissive paw at her. “A band of fur on your ring finger has been rubbed clear. Indicating that you’ve been twisting your ring. Like a rat worried about her marriage or her husband. But you haven’t removed the ring, so you and your husband are still together. Your shoes are new, but the heels are considerably worn. Indicating that you’ve been walking a great deal recently. Perhaps searching for someone. I also note a smudge of ink on the fingers of your right paw. That particular type of ink is used only in the Raton Pluma, a cheap ball-point favoured by the New York Police Department and prone to leaking. Why would you have that particular ink on your fingers? Because you have just been to the police to file a missing rats report. Because you’re an intelligent and educated rat, you saw that the police were unlikely to assist you in locating your missing husband and so you made this appointment with me.”

“Remarkable!” I said.

“Elementary really,” Holmes replied. “I merely observe the facts and deduce the inevitable conclusions from my observations.” Then turning back to Mrs. Ferrier, “So, how long has your husband been missing?”

“Almost two days now. He called me from his office the day before yesterday, Tuesday evening, and said that he would pick up Lebanese food for dinner at the restaurant just down the block from our apartment. But he never came home! I came to you, sir because I heard of you from Mrs. Etherege, whose husband you found so easy when the police and everyone had given him up for dead. Oh, Mr. Holmes, I hope you will help me.” Ms. Ferrier broke down into tears.

I expected Holmes to try and comfort her, but he merely passed her a handkerchief and waited, impatiently, for her to compose herself.

“And did he pick up the Lebanese food?” He pressed her.

“Yes.” She answered, still sobbing gently. “I went to the restaurant where he usually gets our take-out and they said that he came by that evening just after 6 and got his usual order.”

“And can you tell us of what, exactly, his usual order consists?” Holmes interrupted her, although I couldn’t for the life of me see why he would want to know.

“Certainly,” she continued. “Two falafel sandwiches and a large fattoush salad.”

“Dressing on the salad?”

“Of course, lemon feta dressing, on the side.” She seemed as surprised as I was at his extraordinary interest in the food order.

“Excellent! What line of work was Mr. Ferrier in?”

“He IS,” She rejected Holmes’ use of the past tense. “A chemist. A Food chemist to be exact. I’m afraid I don’t know much about his work. I, myself, am a physicist and, well, chemistry is beneath my interest.”

Holmes looked shocked. “Madam! I assure you, you do your husband and chemistry, both, a great disservice!”

She started to cry again. “Just help me get him back, and I promise I’ll listen to him talk about texturizers and preservatives all he wants!”

I broke in, just to feel useful, really, “What is Mr. Ferrier’s first name?”

“John. John David Ferrier. He works for Graham Chemicals, food division, at their offices in White Plains.” She told us.

Holmes collected some more information from Ms. Ferrier, mostly about the Lebanese restaurant and told her we would take the case.

“Oh, thank you! I’m not rich, but still, I have a little money of my own and I would give it all to know what has become of my dear husband!” She held out a sheaf of bills, but Holmes waved her off.

“I generally I do not adjust my charges except when I remit them altogether, when it would be a hardship or when a case promises to provide something of interest. In this case, I shall remit them. No fee will apply. Mrs. Hudson will show you out. Dr. Watson and I will embark on the case immediately. And Ms. Ferrier, if it’s any consolation, I am certain that your husband is alive and well.”

She threw herself on (a very uncomfortable looking) Holmes, crying and hugging him. “Oh thank you! Thank you!”

Holmes extracted himself from her teary embrace, collected a photograph of Mr. Ferrier and bid her good night. When Mrs. Hudson had ushered her out of the parlour, I rounded on Holmes, furious. “How dare you! I don’t know what game you’re playing, but how dare you assure that poor rat that her husband is alive and well when we know nothing of the sort?!”

Holmes was not in the least bit flustered by my attack. He simply poured himself a small brandy and water and taking a sip said, “Really, Watson, you don’t think I would have said that if I wasn’t certain? Her husband is alive and well and I intend to find him.”

“How can you know that?” I demanded.

He only replied, “I have trained myself to see what others overlook.” And I could get no further explanation out of him.

“Grab your coat, Watson. We’re going to dinner. It’s nearly 5:30 now and we shall have to hurry if we are to arrive by 6:00”

“Great! I’m starved! Where should we eat?”

“I,” said Holmes, “am in the mood for Lebanese.”

We took the elevator down and hailed a cab on the street. We settled into the cab and Holmes gave the driver the address of the restaurant he’d received from Mrs. Ferrier.

“So, you’re a private detective, are you? I’d wondered what kind of ‘cases’ you wanted my assistance on.”

He looked annoyed. “Really Watson, this game you insist on playing is quite tiresome. You know perfectly well that I am no private detective. Here, in New York, we have lots of government detectives and lots of private ones, I, however, as you well know, am the world’s only consulting detective.”

“Consulting detective, private detective. I’m not sure I see the difference. I mean Mrs. Ferrier is a private person and you’re working for her, not for the police, so it seems like you’re a private detective. I assume that the other private detectives do some consulting as well.”

But Holmes wouldn’t clarify it for me and, just like Mrs. Hudson had said, he went into a silent sulk and wouldn’t speak another word until we arrived at the restaurant.

But, once we arrived, is if being at the scene of a crime revived him, he snapped out of his funk. He paused for a moment before opening the restaurant door and looked up and down the street then he waved me in.

“This way Watson. I promised you dinner.”

We entered the restaurant and I was overcome by the delicious scents. My mouth watered and I was almost dizzy with hunger. We took a seat and Holmes ordered us two falafel sandwiches and a large fattoush salad with lemon feta dressing on the side. His only deviation from the order described to us by Mrs. Ferrier was to request an extra plate so that we might share the salad more easily.

The food was delicious and, I’m proud to say, I managed to eat with somewhat more decorum than I’d managed at afternoon tea.

Having finished our dinner, Holmes wiped his mouth and stood to leave.

I stopped him. “Aren’t you going to ask the staff any questions?”

“My good fellow, whatever for?”

“Why? To find out about Mr. Ferrier, of course!” I was confused. What kind of detective, consulting or otherwise, came to a crime scene and didn’t, at least, talk to the witnesses.

“Certainly not. Mrs. Ferrier has already spoken with the staff and I am completely satisfied with her interrogation. No. I have already discovered everything I wished to know here. Let’s return to the flat. We have a busy day tomorrow and I’m sure you’ll want a good night’s sleep.”

I did want a good night’s sleep, but I couldn’t let this go. A rat was missing and his wife had hired Holmes and, indirectly, me to find him and I couldn’t let this mad-rat come all the way down here without at least talking to the restaurant staff. “When did you discover anything? What did you discover?” I was on the verge of shouting.

Holmes was not in the least disturbed. “Surely, my good doctor, you noticed me stop before entering the restaurant and observe the street. I saw you look, too. And if you had observed instead of merely looked, you would now know what I know. Come, let’s get a cab and you can take another crack at it.”

He led the way out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk. I stopped just at the door, as he had done, and looked down the street, as he had done, and I just saw a street, as, I’m sure, he had done. If there was ever anything else, it must have gone while we were eating. “I see nothing, Holmes.” I told him.

“On the contrary, Watson, you see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences. Please be so good as to tell me what you do see.”

He was starting to cheese me off, but I didn’t want to bite the hand that fed me (especially so soon after a good meal). “Well, I see the street.”

“Good.” He nodded, “Go on.”

“There are cars. Rats. Bigs. A dog. It’s a pretty busy street.”

“Excellent Watson! What else?”

“Further down the street, I see the cross street and the stop light. I see buildings, street lights, awnings, a door-rat and a post box.”

“Very good Watson. And what do all these things tell you about the disappearance of Mr. Ferrier?”

I sighed. “They don’t tell me a bleeding thing.”

“Now Watson, there’s no call for that kind of language. Think!” He hissed. “From here you can see the doorway of Mr. and Mrs. Ferrier’s building. If Mr. Ferrier picked up food from this restaurant and, subsequently, disappeared between here and his apartment, what does that tell you about the nature of his disappearance?”

“I told you, Holmes! It doesn’t tell me anything! Why don’t you tell me what it tells you?”

“I am determined Watson that you shall regain your former skills of observation and deduction!”

He shocked me. It was like he DID know me. Like he knew all about my time in school. My days playing at being a secret agent, my dreams of being a crusading reporter. I swallowed hard and looked again at the street. “Well,” I began again. “It’s a busy, well-lit street.”

“Excellent! And what does that tell you!”

“Ok!” I warmed to the task. “It’s a busy well-lit street. So, if he was abducted between here and his flat, someone would have seen it!”

“Oh! Good show, Watson! Go on!”

“So, he couldn’t have been abducted between here and the building!”

“Exactly!” Holmes’ praise was intoxicating! “And so, what is the logical deduction?”

“The restaurant workers must be lying! He never picked up his order! Let’s go question them!” I reached for the handle, prepared to rush into the restaurant and find out the truth! But he stopped me with a paw on my shoulder.

“Oh, Watson! So close! Your powers of observation are improving, but your powers of deduction are sadly lacking.”

If Holmes’ praise was intoxicating, his disappointment struck me like a slap across the face.

Holmes took my arm, but I shook him off. “Come, Watson.” He said, hailing a cab. “Get a good night’s sleep. We’ll be catching the 7:24 AM train for White Plains in the morning. We’ll talk more on it tomorrow.”

Back in our flat, I tried to put it out of my mind. But I couldn’t. I lay in the nest, it was a most comfortable nest, but I tossed and turned. What did Holmes see that I couldn’t see? I eventually slept, but I felt myself unrefreshed when Mrs. Hudson woke me with a knock at my door the next morning.

Buy it here!

A conversation with David Schenck

The author of Malthake’s Tail

Malthake’s Tail: A New York Lawyer in the Court of Pericles. That’s a long title.

Well, the title is a play on Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” which was, more or less, the inspiration for this book.

How were you inspired by Twain’s book?

I recently reread the book, which I love. I mean, Twain is a genius and his book is great. In Twain’s book a foreman at a gun factory has a fight with one of his workers, is knocked unconscious and wakes up in Arthurian England. He quickly becomes, essentially, the leader of England.

As I read, I was bothered by the fact that Twain’s time travel fantasy was so unrealistic! Twain’s hero seems to know everything and be able to invent things without concern for supplies or detailed knowledge of their workings. For example, he invents and installs telephones throughout England. I, basically, understand how a phone works (the old land-line type), but I would be helpless to create one in a world without wire, plastics, magnets, electricity and paper.

So, I wondered what exactly a modern man could actually accomplish in the ancient past. This series is an attempt to answer that question as realistically as possible. Sort of a realistic time travel fantasy.

Did you do a lot of research for the book?

I did a lot of research on ancient Greece and the people and customs of Greece during the time of Pericles. I read a lot of Socrates! But I didn’t do any research on the scientific ideas or inventions that appear in the book, because I wanted to explore the idea of what I could do just using the knowledge in my head. That was the point of the book, so researching the ideas would have been cheating. So, the result is, just like I would expect, some of the inventions aren’t a success and some of the scientific ideas of our hero are either wrong or inaccurate.

The book contains hyperlinks to more details about people and places that you mention. Why did you decide to add them in?

Well, I want people to know that many of the characters, places and events in the book were real and I want readers to be able to quickly access more information about them. I think it offers the readers an opportunity to put the events in the book in context. This ability to extend the reading experience, if you want, is one of the great things about publishing electronically. I want to offer the richest reading experience possible.

What’s your favorite thing about writing?

Well, I love the process. Thinking up interesting situations and characters. I like to walk around the center of the beautiful old colonial Mexican city where I live and look at the people and imagine them as characters in a book. I also love getting feedback from readers. When a reader likes one of my books it’s an amazing feeling! And when someone doesn’t like one of my books, if they let me know why, it helps me grow as a writer.


Malthake's Tail: A New York Lawyer in the Court of Pericles, Book 1

What if you woke up in 5th Century BC Greece? If you were suddenly thrown 2500 years back in time, without warning, with just the clothes on your back, would you be a king or a slave? Would any of your modern knowledge be useful? When Robert Kakos, a lawyer for a New York bank, in Athens as part of a team working on the Greek financial crisis, suddenly finds himself in the Athens of the 5th Century BCE, he must struggle to find value in his modern knowledge. What good is it to be the only man on earth who knows that the Sun is a giant nuclear furnace, compressing hydrogen into helium under the pressure of its tremendous weight, or that penicillin can (somehow) be made from bread mold or any of the thousand other things that make up the body of modern knowledge if you can't make anything or do anything or prove anything? Join Robert as he fights to make a place for himself in the ancient world. Along the way he meets a host of colorful characters, slaves and merchants, Pericles and Socrates. Can a modern man find the love and family that has always eluded him and change the course of history?

  • Author: David Schenck
  • Published: 2017-09-07 00:35:15
  • Words: 48692
Malthake's Tail: A New York Lawyer in the Court of Pericles, Book 1 Malthake's Tail: A New York Lawyer in the Court of Pericles, Book 1