Hello! Here’s another chapter of my story. Thanks to all those who are reading and commenting.
Helenus sat on his bed, the usual clay tablet on his knees, studying the Hittite signs he had learned a few hours earlier.
They had started studying Hittite a few weeks earlier and it was proving challenging. The Hittite signs looked all alike and he spent most of his free time practicing.
He turned to see Hector standing in the doorway, looking cautiously at him.
“Yes?” the younger prince replied.
“Deiphobus, Polydorus and I are going to Artemis’ temple. Would you care to come with us?” Hector asked.
Helenus pondered the question.
More than a month had passed since the day when he had yelled at Hector, and Helenus had been avoiding his older brothers since then. He wasn’t looking forward to being alone with them. What if they brought up that conversation again?
On the other side, it was nice of Hector to involve him. Besides, if he refused to go, he might offend the goddess he was going to serve as a priest. And it was never a good idea to offend the Huntress.
“Yes, thank you” he said eventually, putting his clay tablet aside.
On the way to the temple, his brothers discussed the most exciting news: the visit of king Eetion from Thebe, who had brought a magnificent bow for Hector.
Helenus listened silently. He could never figure out whether he was supposed to join a conversation or not, or what he should say. Why was it so easy for the other people to make small talk?
“Tell us, Hector: will you marry his daughter?” asked Deiphobus, interested.
“Yes, I think so” replied Hector.
“Please wait some more years before you marry!” said Polydorus.
“You’re always too busy to spend time with us. It would be even worse if you had a wife” explained Polydorus.
“I am spending time with you right now” reasoned Hector.
“We mean to go hunting, ride horses, things like that” said Deiphobus. “Going to the temple doesn’t count! We’re doing it just because…”
Hector cleared his throat quite loudly and Deiphobus went silent.
But it was quite clear.
They were doing it just because of Helenus.
He could feel his brothers’ eyes on him, even if he was looking ahead.
Helenus didn’t know how he should feel about this. Yes, his brothers had invited him to join them. But did they really want to be here or was this just a chore for them?
“The bow Eetion gave to you, for example. When are we going to try it out?” asked Deiphobus.
“We? I thought it was a gift for me” replied Hector with a chuckle.
“Would you keep it to yourself without letting your brothers touch it? Now that’s mean, it’s such an awesome bow!” said Deiphobus.
“Besides, we have to practice for Ares’ ga…” started Polydorus, but he stopped without finishing the sentence.
Also because of Helenus.
They were mostly silent for the rest of the way. Helenus had a feeling that all of them wanted this little trip to be over as soon as possible.
It was a relief when they finally arrived at the temple.
They met the high priest Grymas, left their offer and prayed. Eventually, they walked to the temple’s terrace.
Artemis’ temple rested on a hill, halfway between the city’s doors and the royal palace. The view from the terrace was magnificent. To the west, one could see beyond the city walls and look at the sea. To the north, there was the lower town, with its vineyards and olive groves, and with the market square. One could see the whole city and, at the same time, stay away from it.
Helenus liked the temple.
He vaguely remembered the day when Hector, sitting on his bed, had explained to him that one day he would serve the Huntress. He and Cassandra had been born on the summer solstice, the solemn feast of the twin god and goddess, it could not be just a coincidence.
Coincidence or not, he liked the idea of joining this temple. Many of his brothers wouldn’t want to give up glory in battle and the company of women for a place in a temple, but Helenus didn’t mind.
“What a great view one can enjoy from here!. And in a few years you are going to enjoy it every day, Helenus” observed Hector, addressing him directly for the first time.
Was it just a comment or an attempt to make him join the conversation?
“Yes… it is beautiful” he replied carefully, after a moment.
On the way back to the palace, his brothers were much more silent. Helenus couldn’t say why, but they looked aggravated.
At the palace, Hector left to go and see their father, while Helenus, Deiphobus and Polydorus walked back to the men’s quarters.
“Alright, I’ve had enough” said Deiphobus, stopping.
Helenus turned to him with a questioning look.
“We invite you to spend some time with us even though you’re always terribly rude. And you? You say a total of -what was that?- four words! What is your problem?”
Helenus looked at him, taken aback.
“Get over yourself and stop being haughty, like our conversations are too stupid for you to join!” added Deiphobus, annoyed.
He wasn’t like that! Why did nobody understand?
He wanted to explain so many things. That he was grateful for their invitation. That he wanted to join their conversations but he was scared that he might say the wrong thing. That he wanted to have a friend but was scared of being disliked. That being around people made him so nervous.
But Deiphobus would just laugh at him. Everybody already thought that he was a weakling.
“Well, I didn’t ask you to invite me!” he said harshly.
“Great! And believe me, if it hadn’t been for Hector I wouldn’t have” growled Deiphobus, walking away.
It was a sunny spring day and the Trojans were gathering in the stadium to attend Ares’ games.
Helenus followed his family into the royal box, wishing that he could be invisible.
The news that he wasn’t going to participate had spread quickly. Zeritos, the master of arms, had not hesitated to share this information during a particularly embarrassing practice. The other boys hadn’t dared to openly laugh at the king’s son, but they had certainly done so in private.
Close to him, Priam was welcoming the most distinguished Trojans and introducing them to his guest king Eetion, his future in-law.
“This is my dear friend and advisor Anchises. And here is his son Aeneas, one of our most promising warriors. You will be able to appreciate his prowess during the game. I will not deny that I would like to see him married to one of my daughters” explained the king.
“It would be a great honor, my king” said Aeneas, bowing his head with a smile.
So, Aeneas was going to become his brother in law, thought Helenus. The king would never say such a thing just to make conversation. Aeneas was likely going to marry Polyxena, or Creusa.
“And this is Hermes’ priest Aesacus, my oldest advisor and my children’s teacher. I hope that my youngest ones aren’t disappointing you” said Priam, taking Aesacus’ right hand as it was customary.
“I’m very pleased with the prince and princess, my king. They’re intelligent and hard-working, I couldn’t ask for more” said Aesacus, resting his hand on Helenus’ shoulder.
Helenus bit his lip to hide a small smile.
“I’m glad to hear it. And you, young boy…” said Priam, turning to Helenus. “If you worked just as hard with the master of arms, you would improve there as well!”
He looked down, the smile completely gone from his face. He thought that his father was going to praise him, just once.
“Yes, Father” he said meekly.
Aesacus’ grip on his shoulder tightened slightly.
“Very well” replied the king, before finally taking place next to the queen.
“We should take a seat too” said Aesacus softly.
The prince let himself be guided to one of the rows behind the king’s seat, as usually occupied by the royal family and by the most important guests. He sat next to Hermes’ priest without a word.
For some time, they were both silent. They watched Hector, Deiphobus and Polydorus defeating their opponents in their wrestling matches and Aeneas winning the spear throw.
“Some time ago, Hector told me that you memorized the lines you read at the temple and wrote them down” said Aesacus suddenly, in a low voice. “That’s brilliant. I cannot say that I’m surprised, though: you’re pretty smart”
Helenus eyed him suspiciously. Was Hermes’ priest trying to cheer him up?
He hated it when people pitied him.
“Why are you glaring at me? I’m not making fun of you. I really think that you’re smart” said Aesacus with a smile.
“Helenus, I don’t think poorly of you just because you’re not talkative and you keep to yourself. That would be preposterous. It is alright to be a private person. It’s alright for someone to be uncomfortable with talking”
The prince blushed, not knowing what to say.
People usually tried to push him into being more outgoing, more competitive, more talkative, and were annoyed when he didn’t comply. Nobody had ever told him that he was shy and that it was alright.
But it was easy for Aesacus to say it. He wasn’t shy – and he wasn’t a royal prince.
“I know that it makes things difficult for you, and that you wish you could be different” said Aesacus in a very gentle voice. Not for the first time, Helenus had the feeling that his teacher could read his mind.
“But Helenus, your shyness will never make you less smart, less wise, less strong. Wisdom and strength have nothing to do with your willingness to chat and swagger around. They have to do with the way you face obstacles and adversities. Just be careful not to reject people who might very well like you”
Helenus snorted. He didn’t believe that anybody would like him.
Again, Aesacus seemed to read his mind.
“Believe it or not, not everybody thinks poorly of you” he said.
Helenus couldn’t think of anything to say, but he knew that Aesacus wouldn’t mind.
He nodded tersely, looking at the pitch.
“If you need my advice, you can come to me whenever you want” Aesacus said eventually, patting his shoulder.
“Thank you” he whispered.
Is it worth it to read an almost 200 years old novel that looks like a brick made of paper (900 pages in my Italian edition)? Definitely yes.
“Twenty Years After” (Vingt ans après in French) is the sequel of the much more famous “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas, Senior. It was published in 1845, just one year after “The Three Musketeers”.
The book is set in France and Britain between 1648 and 1649, a time of turbulence in both kingdoms.
But allow me a short digression, for it doesn’t make any sense to comment on “Twenty Years After” without a short summary of “The Three Musketeers”, which, as you can imagine, took place twenty years earlier.
“The Three Musketeers” begins with the penniless but resourceful nobleman D’Artagnan, who leaves his father’s lands in Southern France to join the company of the Royal Musketeers in Paris. There, he befriends three Musketeers who hide their true identity under the nicknames of Athos, Porthos and Aramis. The four friend go through a series of adventures, including a secret mission to England on behalf of the Queen of France and a participation in the siege of the city of La Rochelle. They also engage in epic fights against the guards of their major enemy, Cardinal Richelieu, Minister of the King. At the end of “The Three Musketeers”, the four friends are separated: Athos retreats to his estate, Aramis enters the Church, Porthos marries and D’Artagnan realizes his dream of becoming an officer in the Company of the Musketeers.
In “Twenty Years After” there is quite some water under the bridge. French king Louis XIII has died and his son Louis XIV (the future “Sun King”) has taken the crown. Since he is still a boy, he reigns under the guardianship of his mother Queen Anna and of the new Minister, Cardinal Mazzarino. France is shaken by the Fronde, a civil war started because of an attempt at increasing taxation by the government. On the other side of the Channel, things aren’t quiet either, because Britain is in the middle of its civil war, too.
The Musketeers are now in their forties, and some of them have what we would call a midlife crisis. D’Artagnan is not the flamboyant young man he once was, but a lieutenant of the Musketeers without any career opportunities. Porthos is a wealthy widow, but is depressed and has no purpose. Aramis, once sensible and thoughtful, has become kind of gentrified. Only Athos has changed for the better, probably because of the young boy he is tutoring (an illegitimate son, but don’t tell anybody).
In the face of the French and English civil war, the Musketeers once again take action but, unlike in the first novel, they join opposite sides. Their agreement to be on different sides while maintaining their friendship and loyalty to each other, will be put to the test several times. Until a ghost from their past will come to taunt them all…
Both “The Three Musketeers” and “Twenty Years After” are pure swashbucklers, a bit like Zorro (or Ivanohe). But it is a swashbuckler of the finest quality, endlessly entertaining and captivating. Compared to “The Three Musketeers”, “Twenty Years After” has more complexity due to the fact that the four friends have joined different sides.
The historical events are overall correct and even the Musketeers are roughly based on real people, but do not think of Twenty Years After as an historical novel. Dumas’ interpretation of historical characters, their personalities and motives are purely fictional, many events like the affair between Queen Anna and Cardinal Mazzarino are completely invented.
If you want to spend a number of entertaining evening with a French classic, then the Musketeers’ series is for you.
Hello everybody and thank your for reading my story so far. And even more thanks to those who have left a like or a comment to the previous chapters.
As usual, you find some notes at the bottom of this chapter.
“Very easily Hermes softened the son of Leto, stern as the Far-Shooter was” Cassandra read loudly and confidently.
“That was very good, Cassandra” said Aesacus, turning the clay tablet to Helenus.
“He… took the-the lyre upon… his left arm and… tried each… string… in turn” the prince read slowly.
He felt so stupid.
After every lesson at Hermes’ temple, he spent hours practicing while Cassandra went to play with their sisters. He could trace all of the symbols and knew what they sounded like. He wrote short sentences and then practiced reading. He was so obsessed with those symbols that he even dreamed about them.
But every time he had to read in front of Hermes’ priest, his mind went blank. He stuttered, his voice quivered, he was slow. It was so frustrating!
Aesacus would think that he couldn’t read yet. He would be disappointed.
“I’m sorry” he whispered eventually, feeling a tear on his cheek.
The priest rested a hand on his back.
“Never mind, my dear. Reading aloud can be distracting. Now try and read the next sentence just in your mind. No, without mouthing the words. Just in your mind”
“It sounded delightfully, and the music touched Apollo’s heart” Helenus read silently.
It was so much easier now that nobody could listen!
“Would you try to read the same sentence out loud, please?” asked Aesacus.
“It sounded delightfully… and the music touched Apollo’s heart” the prince read in a low voice.
“Very well done, Helenus” said the priest with a smile. “You’ve practiced enough for today. Now let’s go to the market square. An Egyptian merchant arrived yesterday and he has some very interesting items. Which reminds me, I should tell you something about the Egyptian language. You see…”
Helenus tried to listen but his mind kept going back to the reading practice.
He had been studying with Hermes’ priest for almost a year now.
It wasn’t like throwing spears or wrestling, something at which he was hopeless. He could read and write, he was even good at it! Then why did he look like he couldn’t? Why couldn’t he be like Cassandra?
Some hours later, back in his room, Helenus sat with a clay tablet on his lap.
“Very easily Hermes softened the son of Leto, stern as the Far-Shooter was. He took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string in turn. Bright Apollo laughed with delight and his heart was filled with longing” he read promptly.
Even if Aesacus was always very kind to him, it was so much easier when nobody was listening. It was even enjoyable.
“That was impressive” said a voice behind his back.
Startled, he turned to find Hector standing right behind his bed. He was so focused that he hadn’t even heard his older brother coming in.
“Did Aesacus write it for you?” asked Hector, taking the tablet from his hands.
“No, I just… wrote down some lines we read today”
“You mean you copied them from Aesacus’ tablet?”
“No, I… I… remembered the lines from earlier today and just… wrote them down of my own”
His brother looked at him with wide eyes, clearly impressed.
“Alright, let me get this straight. You memorized the lines you read today and wrote them down?” asked Hector.
“I… yes…” answered Helenus.
“That is brilliant” said Hector, looking closely at the tablet “These symbols are flawless, there are no errors. I bet Aesacus would be proud”
Helenus noticed that his cheeks felt very warm but for once it wasn’t unpleasant.
“There’s something I should tell you” said the older prince, sitting on the bed and putting the tablet aside.
“Ares’ games are coming in two months. I talked about it with our father and he considers that you shouldn’t participate” Hector said carefully.
On one side, he was relieved that he wasn’t going to be humiliated in front of the whole city again. But the royal princes always competed in the games. The very idea of a prince not participating was unheard of. Helenus’ absence would be noticed, the people would talk about it.
Apparently, he was such a disgrace for his family that his father wanted to avoid the ridicule at all costs. Even if it meant taking an unprecedented decision.
He looked down, not knowing what to say.
“Father is of the opinion that wrestling at Ares’ games would be inappropriate for a future priest of Artemis” Hector said hesitantly.
Hector was too honest to be a good liar.
“That’s not the real reason and you know it!” cried Helenus, offended.
His older brother looked very embarrassed.
“Fine. That is not the real reason” he conceded after a moment.
“The reason is that you are ashamed of me!” yelled Helenus, bursting into tears.
He hated crying in front of other people.
“We are not ashamed” Hector said soothingly.
“I heard Father saying it after the last games! That I was an embarrassment! That I had made a fool of myself! Or do you think that I don’t know it?”
“Please calm down, Helenus, don’t be like that”. Hector tried to reach for him but the younger prince jumped back.
“Leave me alone!” Helenus yelled so loudly that his throat hurt. He ran to the door and bumped into his brother Deiphobus, who stood in the doorway.
He tried to push him out of the way, but Deiphobus didn’t move and looked sternly at him.
“How dare you yell at Hector like that? Where’s your head?” he asked harshly, giving him a shove. “Apologize right now!”
When Helenus didn’t react, Deiphobus grabbed him by the hair and pulled. “I said right now!”
“I am sorry” said Helenus, defeated.
“It is alright” Hector replied calmly.
Deiphobus let go of him, but he wasn’t done yet.
“Do you want to hear it? Be my guest! Last year you were a disgrace and Father doesn’t want to be embarrassed like that again. There! Are you happy now?”
Helenus kept sobbing, unable to speak.
“Deiphobus” warned Hector, walking up to them.
But Deiphobus ignored him
“You could have accepted it silently but no, you had to make a scene! You’re lucky that I don’t give you what you deserve right now! I don’t do it just because it would be like hitting…”
“Stop that” said Hector in his toughest voice, and Deiphobus complied.
Helenus hastily wiped his face. With the corner of his eye, he noticed that some other of his brothers had gathered out of his room, alarmed by the screams.
Hector gently pushed Deiphobus out of the room and then walked out, closing the curtains behind his back.
From the inside, Helenus could hear him quietly dismissing their other brothers.
“It’s nothing. Just an argument that got heated” he said.
Helenus threw himself on the bed, exhausted.
“Whoa. And you complain about my temper. You’re one to talk” said Molossus.
“I don’t get angry like that anymore. Besides, I remember an argument between the two of us a few years ago when you said a number of things…” said his stepfather.
Molossus blushed at the mention of it.
“Alright. I guess my temper is worse than yours” he conceded.
“What happened with your brothers after that day?”
“Deiphobus gave up. After that, he was nothing more than civil to me. Hector… he stayed away for some time, but he wasn’t angry. He didn’t even tell my father, otherwise I would have been punished”
He stayed silent for a long time, seemingly lost in his thoughts.
“And… what about Ares’ games?”
The text Helenus and Cassandra are reading at the beginning is an adaptation of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. If you don’t know it, I definitely recommend it.
Hello everybody and happy May Day! To celebrate the 1st of May, I decided to share with you a few extracts from traditional songs. The songs were originally written in Italian, but I provided my own English translation
“Il nostro giorno” (Our Day)
This is a song to celebrate May Day written by Italian songwriter Giorgio Gaber in 1965.
Un garofano é spuntato d’un sol giorno tra le dita:
ma sicuro, che sbadato, oggi é maggio che ci invita
ad unirci fino a sera nella nostra primavera!
Forza amici, in allegria questa nostra festa sia
un giorno per chi vive del lavoro, un giorno per chi spera nel futuro,
un giorno per chi lotta con coraggio: il nostro giorno é il Primo Maggio
Questo giorno è tutti i giorni tutto l’anno vi è racchiuso
primo maggio tu ritorni a dar forza a chi è deluso.
Questa festa è una gran festa non ce l’hanno regalata
su leviamo alta la testa noi l’abbiamo conquistata!
“A carnation has sprouted in just one day between the fingers:
but of course, foolish me, this is May inviting us
to gather until the evening to celebrate our spring.
Come on friends, with joy, might this day be
a Day for those who live of their work, a Day for those who hope for the future,
a Day for those who fight bravely: our Day is May 1st.
This day is everyday, the whole year is enclosed in it:
First of May, you come back to give strength to the disillusioned.
This Day is a great Day, nobody gifted it to us.
Let’s keep our heads high: we have earned it!”
“Son la mondina, son la sfruttata” (I’m the rice weeder, I’m the exploited worker)
The lyrics written by Piero Besate in 1950. The melody comes from a pre-existent working song of the Italian “mondine” (rice weeders).
Son la mondina, son la sfruttata, son la proletaria che giammai tremó,
mi hanno uccisa, incatenata; carcere, violenza, nulla mi fermó.
Coi nostri corpi sulle rotaie abbiam fermato il nostro sfruttator,
c’é molto fango nelle risaie ma non porta macchia il simbol del lavor.
E lotteremo per il lavoro, per la pace, il pane e per la libertá
e creeremo un mondo nuovo, di giustizia e di nuova civiltá
“I’m the rice weeder, I’m the exploited worker,
I am the prolerarian who never trembled.
They killed me, chained me; jail, violence, nothing stopped me.
With our bodies on the railway we stopped our exploiters,
there are lots of mud in the paddy field, but the symbol of work is unstained.
We will fight for work, for peace, bread and for freedom
and we will make a new world of justice and new civilization”
“Saluteremo il signor padrone” (We will say goodbye to the boss)
This one, as far as I know, is a traditional working song sung by the rice weeders. They used to be seasonal workers, so at the end of the season they abandoned the large straw hat they used in the rice paddy and went back home by train with very little money in their pockets.
Saluteremo il signor padrone per il male che ci ha fatto, che ci ha sempre maltrattato fino all’ultimo momen.
Saluteremo il signor padrone per la sua risera netta, pochi soldi in la cassetta e i debiti a pagar.
Macchinista, macchinista, faccia sporca, metti l’olio nei stantufi, di risaia siamo stufi, di risaia siamo stufi.
Macchinista macchinista faccia sporca, metti l’olio nei stantufi, di risaia siamo stufi, a casa nostra vogliamo andar.
Con un piede, con un piede sulla staffa e quell’altro sul vagone ti saluto, cappellone, ti saluto, cappellone.
Con un piede, con un piede sulla staffa e quell’altro sul vagone ti saluto, cappellone: a casa nostra vogliamo andar.
“We will say goodbye to the boss for all the evil he has done to us, for how he has always mistreated us until the last moment.
We will say goodbye to the boss, for his neat rice paddy, a few money in the box and debts to pay.
Train driver, train driver, dirty face, put oil on your pistons, we are sick and tired of the rice paddy
Train driver, train driver, dirty face, put oil on your pistons, we are sick and tired of the rice paddy, we want to go home.
With one foot, with one foot on the bumper and the other on the wagon, good bye large hat, good bye large hat.
With one foot, with one foot on the bumper and the other on the wagon, good bye large hat, we want to go home”
Happy International Labour Day to you all!
Thank you to those who have read my story so far.
You can find some notes at the bottom of this post.
Molossus shook his head, smiling.
“I find it hard to believe that you were like that as a child. I mean, you’re always such a bada…”
Helenus turned abruptly and glared at him, and the younger man quickly corrected himself.
“I mean… you look quite… tough”
“Well, at least I am a good pretender” snorted his stepfather.
“So the bad temper is just a mask” said Molossus quietly.
But Helenus didn’t answer.
“Did you go swimming with your brother then?” the younger one asked after a long silence.
“No. Hector mentioned it a couple of times, then he stopped asking” his stepfather replied in a very quiet voice.
Molossus wanted to ask whether Helenus missed his brother but he didn’t dare.
“What happened at Hermes’ temple?” he asked instead.
Aesacus was waiting for them in the temple’s kitchen.
Hermes’ priest was a slender man with smooth and thick grey hair. He looked quite old: Helenus thought that he had to be in his fifties. As it was the custom for Trojan priests, he was beardless.
“Ah, wonderful, you’re here!” he said with a wide smile upon seeing them. “Come in and take a seat, please. Just leave some space for me between the two of you”
The prince sat and looked cautiously around.
On one side of the kitchen there was an extinguished fireplace. On the hearth there were pots, cups and different vegetables. On the mantel there were water skins, vases and many dried herbs.
In the middle of the room there were a table and a bench. On the table, there were a stylus and several clay tablets, some clean and some already written. Cassandra was eyeing them with curiosity.
“Now let’s get started, shall we?” said the priest, taking his seat between them “During your time here, we will first of all learn to read and write. We will learn to prepare medicine, brews for sleeping and for the cold and other similar things. And then we will learn a few foreign languages, the ones you can hear all the time in our market square. But don’t worry” he added with another smile “I will always find some time to tell you a good story or to take you for a walk in the market. We won’t be working hard all the time”
This said, he grabbed one of the written clay tablets and showed it to them.
Were they supposed to read it? Helenus had no idea how to do that!
But Aesacus didn’t question them.
“I have written the beginning of a story I like very much on this clay tablet. I will read it for you” he said.
He straightened the tablet so that they could both look at it and started reading slowly.
“There was an oak tree growing on the bank of the Euphrates river:
The south wind stripped its branches and the river carried it away.
A woman walking along picked up the tree
and planted it in the garden of the goddess Inana”
Helenus gaped. How could the priest decipher all of those symbols and read so quickly?
He was never going to learn that!
Aesacus took one of the clean clay tablets and swiftly wrote a symbol on it. It looked like a circle with a bar in the middle.
“In our language, every symbol represents one single sound. This barred hoop, for example, represents the sound Ha. Every time you see this symbol in a writing, it will always sound like Ha”
Well, that wasn’t difficult to understand. And the symbol looked simple, just a circle and a bar.
“Again: one symbol, one sound. This is the only thing you need to understand in order to read. The rest is about memorizing the symbols and practicing. Don’t get discouraged or impatient if you mix up the symbols at first: it’s normal, mistakes are part of learning. With some practice, you are going to read just as I do”
Aesacus took two written tablets and put one of them in front of each pupil.
“I kept writing the same story on these other two towels. Now please look closely at your tablet and see if you can spot any Ha symbol. Take your time: sometimes, it looks like they are playing hide and seek in the tablet”
Helenus’ heart was beating wildly.
Now he was going to make a fool of himself.
Well, that one might be a Ha… but he wasn’t sure. What if he pointed at the wrong symbol?
“There’s one here… another one here” said Cassandra confidently, pointing at her tablet.
How he hated her!
“Very good, my dear” Aesacus complimented her. “Do you see any other Has”
In a short time, Cassandra found all of her Has, earning another praise from the priest. And Helenus hadn’t opened his mouth yet.
Aesacus turned to him and the prince felt himself blushing.
“Do you see any Has on your tablet, Helenus?” he asked softly.
Helenus wanted to say something. He desperately wanted to say something. He opened his mouth but no sound came out.
Now the priest would get angry…
“It is alright if you are not sure or if you make a mistake” Aesacus said instead, very gently. “I’ve never eaten a pupil, I swear”.
Helenus blinked. He was expecting to be scolded or slapped. He was expecting to hear one of the usual things: “don’t be shy”, “what are you waiting for?”, “how can you not manage to do that?”, “you’re the only one who cannot do that!”.
He turned to his tablet and pointed at a symbol with a trembling finger.
“I t-think this one could be a Ha…” he said tentatively.
“Yes, very well!” Aesacus answered encouragingly.
“And this one… and… I think… this one…” he whispered.
He kept pointing at the symbols until he reached the end of the text.
“Excellent, you found all of them!” Aesacus praised him, patting lightly on his shoulder.
“Well done, you two. You have earned a walk in the market place, and a story” said Aesacus some time later.
He had taught them to recognize the sounds i and mi… and Helenus had been able to find all of the symbols without making mistakes!
Clearly, Cassandra had been faster because of course she was perfect.
But Aesacus had made no comparisons and had praised both of them. He had been patient and encouraging whenever Helenus hesitated and he had never looked angry or even annoyed.
Of course, he had stuttered all the time and he still wanted to run away whenever he was asked a question. Why couldn’t he be like Cassandra?
Still, in comparison to the military exercises, this was a huge improvement.
They walked through the market square, looking at the stands.
Helenus had never been to the market before and he marveled at how many people seemed to be there. There were Trojans he knew by sight who sold fruit, vegetables and fish, shepherds from the regions who sold wool and cheese and many, many foreigners.
Sometimes, Aesacus stopped to show them some peculiar item, like vases from the island of Crete or fabric from the far city of Tyre. He seemed to know all the merchants and could speak many different languages with them.
Helenus wondered whether he would be able to learn those foreign languages and the other things that Aesacus had listed.
He didn’t think that he could. But Hermes’ priest had been so kind and patient and seemed to believe in him… and maybe…
His thoughts were interrupted by Cassandra’s voice:
“The story you wrote for us… can you tell me what happened next, please?”
“You are quite right, my dear, I promised you a story. Well…”
The priest told them a beautiful story about an eagle who had taken refuge on top of the oak tree and a hero who chased it away.
Eventually, they went back to the temple and found the handmaid already waiting for them.
As soon as he was back at the palace, Helenus ran to the gardens.
He found a good spot and started tracing the symbols he had learned on the ground.
He wanted to write those symbols until they were carved in his mind.
He didn’t want to disappoint that man.
– The language Helenus starts learning in this chapter is the cuneiform variant of Luwian. As far as I know, this language employed syllabograms, where each sign represents a syllable. If you are interested in Luwian, you can find a conference held by linguist Petra Goedegebuure from the university of Chicago.
– The story written on the tablet (and later told by Aesacus) is an adaptation of “Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Nether World”
As long as I can remember, I have always loved history. Even as I child, I loved reading books and watching documentaries about history, and particularly enjoyed fiction with a historical setting.
If you share my passion for history, here is a short list of my favorite YouTube history channels in English (someday I will write a post about my favorite history books of all time as well). Some of the videos on these channels have provided inspiration and some historical background for my fiction “A Stranger in the City).
- Fall of Civilizations: as the name says, the channel is particularly interested in the collapse of civilizations in different eras and parts of the world. You have everything, from the fall of Roman Britain and the Aztecs to the Songhai Empire or the Khmer. The podcast’s episodes come out about every 2-3 months, but they are really worth the wait (and often longer than three hours).
- History Time: this channel has so many videos that I haven’t managed to listen to all of them so far. The channel mostly deals with ancient and medieval history, but there are also several videos about modern history. You can find short videos that last about 10 minutes but also longer episodes about very specific topics. My personal favorites are a playlist about the Anglo-Saxons and a stand-alone episode titled “who were the Sea Peoples?”
- History with Cy: Another channel that mostly deals with ancient and medieval history. The videos are usually shorter, typically 10-20 minutes. You will find the “classical” videos about the Egyptians, the Greeks and Mesopotamia, but also less famous topics, like the Median Empire and the Kingdom of Urartu.
If you love history and don’t know these channels, go check them! If you know some other great history channel, I am all ears!
(If you wish to read the previous chapters, tap on the menu symbol at the top left on the page, there you’ll find the links to the previous chapters)
“Well, they were your first games… it wasn’t that bad…” said Molossus politely.
“Do me a favour!” snapped Helenus, glaring at him.
The young man shrugged. “Fine, I give up. It was one heck of a disaster” he admitted.
His stepfather stayed silent.
“Why were you so rude with your brother? I think he was just trying to be nice” asked Molossus.
“He called it a bad day while we both knew very well that I was just inept” replied Helenus.
“He just wanted to cheer you up, Father! What was he supposed to say?”
The older man didn’t reply and slowly took a sip of wine from his cup.
“This Zeritos was a quite unpleasant guy” said Molossus after a while, to break the silence.
“Zeritos had to prepare us to become warriors and he did it” Helenus answered in a detached voice. “I just wasn’t cut for it, it wasn’t his fault”
“You also weren’t meant for it, you were going to be a priest” reasoned the younger man.
Helenus suddenly turned to him, pale and thin lipped. His grey eyes were blazing.
“Would you please stop sweetening the pot? I don’t need you to make excuses for me!” he spat.
Molossus stood and started pacing. Even in the megaron’s dim light, Helenus could see that his stepson was red with anger.
“Why do you always have to be like that? Every time I try to say something nice, you snap at me! Why do I bother talking to you? At least now I know that your terrible attitude is not my fault!” the young prince yelled, towering over him.
Helenus did not stand.
“Stop shouting” he said calmly.
“I’ll shout as much as I want. You know? No wonder your brothers disliked you!”
Helenus grimaced and his shoulders tensed ever so slightly.
Molossus knew that he had crossed a line. He went silent, expecting to be thrown out of the megaron.
“Do you think that it was easy for me to tell you what I just told you? That I failed miserably at one of the most important tasks of a royal prince? That my own father was ashamed of me?” his stepfather asked. He sounded almost emotionless.
“Right. It was not easy. So please don’t make it worse by pitying me” Helenus concluded bluntly.
“I was trying to be nice” Molossus muttered, sitting next to him again.
“You will need to control your temper as a king” the older man said casually.
“I apologize, Father”
Helenus waved his hand.
“I have been called worse things”
It was a summer afternoon and Helenus swam in the Scamandrios river.
He enjoyed swimming like that, with long and even strokes, sometimes even stopping to stay afloat and look at the sky, letting the cool water caress his skin.
There was no hurry. No master of arms hitting him, no boys to compete against, no witnesses judging his performance.
Yes, there was the handmaid who had accompanied him. But she was quietly sitting on the river, busy with stitching, and couldn’t care less whether he was slow or fast.
The sun was starting to fall and Helenus swam ashore, accepting a towel from her.
Shortly after, on his was back to his room, he met his brother Hector.
Hector was about ten years older than he was, almost a man. He exuded confidence in a way that Helenus couldn’t even dream of doing. Priam was already getting him involved in the city’s administration: Hector was always present when the king received guests, listened to petitions or discussed with his advisors. As a consequence, he rarely had time to participate in his brothers’ activities. He was never the one insisting that Helenus went hunting or racing. He was polite and, maybe because of his young age, much less intimidating than Priam.
Helenus sort of liked him.
“There you are! You went swimming, didn’t you?” the heir apparent asked with a smile.
“It must have been wonderful. It was so hot today, I would’ve liked to go swimming, too. Maybe we could go together sometimes” Hector proposed.
“Maybe…” Helenus conceded warily.
Going swimming together?
Hector would be a faster swimmer. Well, there was no shame in that: he was almost a man. But what if Helenus ended up drowning or made a fool of himself in some other way? And besides, what would they talk about? He hated talking.
His ramblings were interrupted by Hector’s voice.
“By the way, Father wants to see you in his room. That’s why I was looking for you”
Helenus reluctantly walked to his father’s room, unsure of what to expect. His last training sessions with Zeritos had been the usual disaster. His father had already reprimanded him several times, most notably after the fiasco at Ares’ games. He had stayed away from his father for days after the games. But apart from that, Helenus was quite sure that he had done nothing wrong.
He found Priam sitting comfortably. He didn’t look angry.
“Ah, Helenus. You will start studying at Hermes’ temple tomorrow” the king said.
Oh, not that. He had hoped that his father would somehow forget…
He knew that the king’s sons studied. It was a very unusual choice – Priam and his ancestors had never studied, neither any of the foreign kings and princes who sometimes visited their palace. When he was already a grown man, Priam had decided to learn how to read as well as some foreign languages. Aesacus, priest of Hermes and his trusted advisor, had been his teacher. From that moment on, all of his sons had studied with Aesacus as well.
Helenus wasn’t looking forward to yet another person who would ask him questions, expect things of him and reprimand him.
Well, at least he would attend alone, like all his brothers before him. Apart from Hermes’ priest, nobody would witness his humiliation.
“Cassandra is going to come with you” added the king.
“Cass-Cassandra?” he stuttered.
A girl? Why was a girl attending school? Polyxena hadn’t!
He was going to make a fool of himself in front of a girl, and Cassandra, no less! His twin sister was confident, talkative… he couldn’t stand her!
“Yes. It is unusual but it is my wish. She is going to become Apollo’s priestess one day, she must learn some foreign languages. I expect you to become accomplished and make me proud, young boy. What I don’t want is to hear from Aesacus the same complaints I constantly hear from Zeritos. Am I clear?” the king asked sternly.
“Yes, Father” Helenus replied without looking at him.
There was no way he could protest, let alone change his father’s mind. He went back to his room, defeated.
On the following day, he dressed slowly, trying not to think about what was to come. He had spent a sleepless night.
What if Hermes’ priest slapped him in front of his sister? What if he cried? She would tell it to their other sisters and everybody would laugh at him.
Well, maybe he was overreacting. He had met the old Hermes’ priest several times and he didn’t look mean. Maybe he would be a good pupil. Just because he was bad at the military exercises, it didn’t mean that he couldn’t become accomplished elsewhere.
But how? He hated being at the center of attention. He hated questions. He hated talking.
He felt sick.
At the palace door, Cassandra and a handmaid were already waiting for him. His sister was bouncing on her feet, overflowed with enthusiasm. Apparently, the idea of studying didn’t scare her in the slightest. Of course she would be great, Aesacus would praise her, Helenus thought with a grimace.
“About time!” she said loudly, with a broad smile.
He didn’t acknowledge her and walked out of the door.
“Good morning, by the way” she added after a moment, taking his arm.
“Let me be, will you?” he answered rudely, breaking away from her grip.
“Fine! she yelled, offended “Then sulk alone!”
She took place at the handmaid’s other side and quickened her pace. She stayed silent until they arrived at Hermes’ temple, in the market square.
It was early in the morning and the market was still quiet. The temple’s front door, however, was already open.
The handmaid left them there, and they walked in.
- Literacy was probably very unusual for a king or prince of the Bronze Age. It seems that Egyptian Pharaohs could read and write to a certain extents. Mesopotamian kings like the Assyrian ones likely couldn’t: Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king from the 7th century BC bragged about being able to read cuneiform, so it looks like it was quite an accomplishment for a king. I haven’t found any sources on whether Hittite kings or any kings from the Anatolian region could read and write. If you know more on the subject, I am all ears
- In the next chapter, I am going to assume that the Trojans spoke Luwian, an Indo-European language spoken in Western Anatolia during the Bronze Age. The language could be written in a hieroglyphic form and in a cuneiform one.
“Some knowledgeable and gloomy prognosticators even speak of the Next Big One as an inevitability (…) Will the Next Big One be caused by a virus? Will the Next Big One come out of a rainforest or a market in southern China?” wrote David Quammen in 2012.
For Earth Day 2022, I decided to review “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” published in 2012 by the American science-writer David Quammen, that I read in the Italian translation.
A spillover is the process occurring when a microbe is transmitted from its usual reservoir population into a new host population, for example from a tick to a bat, from gorillas to humans and so on. The spillover can result in a so-called zoonosis, an infectious disease caused by a microbe transmitted to humans by an animal.
In the nine chapters of this book, Mr. Quammen analyzes ten pathogens that are responsible for zoonoses in humans (plus one who causes infections in insects). The pathogens range from famous ones like HIV and Ebola to less famous ones like Chlamydia psittaci and Hendra virus. The author focuses on several aspects like the emergence of these diseases, the identification of the pathogen and the reservoir host and then, of course, the spillover.
How does the Ebola virus come to humans? Is it transmitted by bats, great apes or none of the above? Where does the HIV virus come from? Why do some animals carry a pathogen without developing an infection? These are only a few of the questions that Mr. Quammen tries to answer.
“Spillover” is a mixture of reportage and narrative. Mr. Quammen vividly recalls his many expeditions in Central African jungles, Chinese markets and many other places in search of answers. He interviews some of the most important experts on molecular biology, zoology, infectious disease and much more. He talks with researchers involved in field work, people who capture bats in caves or work with viruses in maximum safety labs.
Although Mr. Quammen includes lots of scientific details, the narrative style makes it approachable and a scientific background is not necessary to follow his reasoning (although it certainly makes things easier).
Yes, but why is this book related to Earth Day?
Because Mr. Quammen tries to identify factors that favor spillovers and, consequently, epidemics of zoonoses. Can you guess some of them?
Well, we have overpopulation, intensive farming, deforestation, the destruction of habitats, pollution, just to name a few. We also have, I might add, governments who are unwilling to take action because they don’t want to face discontent.
“Spillover” reminds us that our behaviors can very well pave the way for a new pandemic. Many pathogens who are now resting quietly in a bat or a pangolin could one day make the spillover and cause a brand new zoonosis, and we need to do something about it. We are part of nature as much as the other animals and we shouldn’t believe that pathogens will be nicer to us just because of our intelligence.
If Mr. Quammen wrote of the Next Big One in 2012, it is not because he has the gift of prophecy, but because the occurrence of a new pandemic was not very hard to foretell.