A Stranger in the City – Chapter Three

Hello everybody!

Thank you to those who have read my story so far.

You can find some notes at the bottom of this post.

OOO

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.

-O-O-O-

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.

-O-O-O-

“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?”

Aesacus laughed.

“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.

OOO

A Stranger in the City – Chapter Two

A Stranger in the City – Chapter Four

Notes

– 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”


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