The second volume of Gene Wolfe's powerful story of Latro, a Roman mercenary who, while fighting in Greece, received a head injury that deprived him of his short-term memory. In return it gave him the ability to converse with supernatural creatures, gods and goddesses who invisibly inhabit the ancient landscape.
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About the Author
Gene Wolfe (1931-2019) was the Nebula Award-winning author of The Book of the New Sun tetralogy in the Solar Cycle, as well as the World Fantasy Award winners The Shadow of the Torturer and Soldier of Sidon. He was also a prolific writer of distinguished short fiction, which has been collected in such award-winning volumes as Storeys from the Old Hotel and The Best of Gene Wolfe.
A recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award, and six Locus Awards, among many other honors, Wolfe was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007, and named Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2012.
GENE WOLFE (1931-2019) was a winner of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, multiple winner of the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award, as well as the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Prix-Tour Apollo. In 2007, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. In 2013, he received the SFWA Grand Master Award.
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I Will Make a New Beginning
On this fresh scroll, which the black man has found in the city. This morning Io showed me how I wrote in my old one and told me how valuable it had been to me. I read only the first sheet and the last, but I mean to read the rest before the sun sets. Now, however, I intend to write down all the things that will be most needful for me to know.
Latro is what these people call me, though I doubt that it is my name. The man in the lion's skin called me Lucius, or so I wrote in the first scroll. There also I wrote that I forget very quickly, and I believe it to be true. When I try to recall what took place yesterday, I find only confused impressions of walking, working, and talking, so that I am like a vessel lost in fog, from which the lookout sees, perhaps, looming shadows that may be rocks, or other vessels, or nothing — hears voices that may be those of men ashore, or of the tritons, or ghosts.
It is not so with Io, nor, I believe, with the black man. Thus I have learned that this is the Thracian Chersonese, this captured city, Sestos. Here a battle was fought by the Men of Thought against the People from Parsa by which the chief men of the latter hoped to escape. Thus says Io, and when I objected that the city seems fit to stand a lengthy siege, she explained there was not food enough, so that the People from Parsa and the Hellenes, too (for it is a city of Hellenes), starved behind their walls. Io is a child, yet nearly a woman. Her hair is long and dark.
The governor of the place assembled all his forces before one of the chief gates and put his wives and female slaves (of whom he had many) in tented carts. There he harangued his men, saying he would lead them against the Men of Thought; but when the gates were unbarred, he and his ministers went swiftly and secretly to another part of the wall and let themselves down by straps, thinking to escape while the battle raged. It was for naught, and some are captives here.
As am I, for there is a man called Hypereides who speaks of me as his slave — the black man also. (His head, which is round and very bald, reaches to my nose; he stands straight and speaks quickly.) Nor is this all, for Io — who calls herself my slave though this morning I offered to free her — says King Pausanias of Rope claims us, too. He sent us here, and a hundred of his Rope Makers were here until just before the battle, when their leader was wounded and they (having little liking for sieges and expecting a long one) sailed for home.
It is winter. The wind blows hard and cold, and rain falls often; but we live in a fine house, one of those the People from Parsa took for their own use earlier. There are sandals beneath my bed, but we wear boots — Io says that Hypereides bought such boots for all of us when the city surrendered, and two pairs for himself. This Chersonese is a very rich land, and like all rich lands it turns to mud in the rain.
This morning I went to the market. The citizens of Sestos are Hellenes, as I said, and of the Aeolian race — the people of the winds. They asked anxiously whether we planned to stay all winter, and told me much of the danger of sailing to Hellas at this season; I believe this is because they fear that the People from Parsa will not delay in recapturing so fertile a country. When I returned, I asked Io if she thought we would stay. She said we would surely go, and soon; but that we might come back if the People from Parsa try to retake the city.
Something quite unusual happened this evening, and though it has been dark for a long while, I wish to make a note of it before I go out again. Here Hypereides writes his orders and keeps his accounts, so there is a fire and a fine bright lamp with four wicks.
He came while I was polishing his greaves and had me buckle on my sword and put on my cloak and my new patasos. Together we hurried through the city to the citadel, where the prisoners are kept. We climbed many steps to a room in a tower, in which the only prisoners were a man and a boy; there were two guards also, but Hypereides dismissed them. When they were gone, he seated himself and said, "Artayctes, my poor friend, it is in no easy position that you find yourself."
The man of Parsa nodded. He is a large man with cold eyes, and though his beard is nearly gray he looks strong; seeing him, I thought I understood why Hypereides had wanted me to accompany him.
"You know that I've done all I could for you," Hypereides continued. "Now I require that you do something for me — a very small thing."
"No doubt," replied Artayctes. "What is this small thing?" He speaks the tongue of Hellas worse even than I, I think.
"When your master crossed into our land, he did so upon a bridge of boats. Isn't that so?"
Artayctes nodded, as did the boy.
"I've heard that its deck was covered with earth for its entire length," Hypereides continued, wondering. "Some even assert that the earth was planted with trees."
The boy said, "It was — I saw it. There were saplings and bushes at the sides so our cavalry horses wouldn't be afraid of the water."
Hypereides whistled softly. "Amazing! Really amazing! I envy you — it must have been a wonderful sight." He turned back to the father, saying, "A most promising young lord. What's his name?"
"It is Artembares," Artayctes told him. "He's named for my grandfather, who was a friend to Cyrus."
At that Hypereides smiled slyly. "But wasn't all the world a friend to Cyrus? Conquerors have a great many friends."
Artayctes was not to be disturbed thus. "What you say is true," he said. "Yet all the world did not sit over wine with Cyrus."
Hypereides shook his head ruefully. "How sad to think that Artembares' descendant drinks no wine at all now. Or at least, I wouldn't think they give you any here."
"Water and gruel, mostly," Artayctes admitted.
"I don't know whether I can save your life and your son's," Hypereides told him. "The citizens want to see you dead, and Xanthippos, as always, seems to favor the side to which he is speaking at the moment. But while you still live I think I can promise you wine — good wine, too, for I'll furnish it myself — and better food if you'll answer one small question for me."
Artayctes glanced at me, then asked, "Why don't you beat me until I speak, Hypereides? You and this fellow could manage it, I imagine."
"I wouldn't do such a thing," Hypereides said virtuously. "Not to an old acquaintance. However, there are others...."
"Of course. I have my honor to consider, Hypereides. But I am not unreasonable — nor am I so stupid that I do not guess that Xanthippos sent you. What is his question?"
Hypereides grinned, then grew serious once more, rubbing his hands as though about to sell something at a good price. "I — I, Artayctes — desire to know whether the noble Oeobazus was in your party when you let yourself down from the wall."
Artayctes glanced at his son, his hard eyes so swift I was not sure that I had seen them move. "I see no harm in telling you that — he will have made good his escape by now."
Hypereides rose, smiling. "Thank you, my friend! You may trust me for everything I have promised. And more, because I'll see to it that both your lives are spared, if I can. Latro, I must confer with some people here. I want you to go back to the place where we're staying and fetch a skin of the best wine for Artayctes and his son. I'll tell the guards to let you in with it when you return. Bring a torch, too; it will be dark before we go back, I think."
I nodded and unbarred the door for Hypereides; but before his foot had touched the threshold, he turned to put another question to Artayctes. "By the way, where did you plan to cross? At Aegospotami?"
Artayctes shook his head. "Helle's Sea was black with your ships. At Pactye, perhaps, or farther north. May I ask why you are so much interested in my friend Oeobazus?"
But Artayctes' own question came too late; Hypereides was already hurrying away. I followed him out, and the soldiers who guarded Artayctes (who had been waiting on the wall for us to leave) returned to their posts.
The wall of Sestos varies in height from place to place as it circles the city; this was one of the highest, where I think it must be a hundred cubits at least. It commanded a fine view of countryside and the sun setting over the western lands, and I paused there for a moment to look at it. Those who stare at the sun go blind, as I well know, and thus I kept my eyes upon the land and the sun-dyed clouds, which were indeed very beautiful; but as chance would have it, I glimpsed the sun itself from the corner of my eye and saw there, in place of the usual sphere of fire, a chariot of gold drawn by four horses. I knew then that I had glimpsed a god, just as — according to my old scroll — I had seen a goddess before the death of the man who called me Lucius. It frightened me, as I suppose the goddess must have also, and I hurried down the stairs and through the streets of Sestos (which are gloomy and very cramped, as no doubt those of all such walled cities must be) to this house. It was not until I had found a skin of excellent wine and bound together a handful of splents to make a torch, that I understood the full import of what I had seen.
For what I had seen was merely this: although the sun had nearly reached the horizon, the horses of the sun had been at a full gallop. It had seemed so natural that I had not paused to question it; but as I reflected upon the sight, I realized that no charioteer would drive at the gallop if he were close to the place at which he intended to halt — how could he stop his team without the gravest danger of wrecking his chariot? Indeed, though only two horses are hitched to the chariots used in war, all soldiers know that one of the chief advantages of cavalry is that horsemen may be halted and turned so much more readily than chariots.
Clearly then, the sun does not halt at the western limit of the world, as I have always supposed, to reappear next day at the eastern in the same way that fixed stars vanish in the west to reappear in the east. No, rather the sun continues at full career, passes beneath the world, and reappears in the east just as we should see a runner dash behind some building and reappear on the opposite side. I cannot help but wonder why. Are there those living beneath the world who have need of the sun, even as we? This is something I must consider at more length when I have the leisure to do so.
It would be a weary task to set down here all the thoughts — most half-formed and some very foolish — that filled my mind as I made my way through the streets again and mounted the stairs of the tower. Artayctes' guards let me in without caviling, and one even fetched a krater in which to mix water with the wine I had brought. While they were thus occupied, Artayctes drew me aside, saying softly, "There is no need for you to sleep badly, Latro. Help us and these fools will never learn you bore arms against them."
His words confirmed what I had already gathered from my old scroll — that I had once been in the service of the Great King of Parsa. I nodded and whispered that I would certainly free them if I could.
Just then Hypereides came in, all smiles, carrying six salt pilchards on a string. There was a charcoal brazier to warm the guardroom, and he laid the fish here and there upon the coals where they would not burn. "One for each of us, and they should be good eating. Not much fruit this time of year, or much food in Sestos yet after the siege; but Latro can go out and try to find us some apples when we've finished these, if you like. And some fresh bread, Latro. Didn't you tell me you'd seen a bakery open today?" I nodded and reminded him that I had bought bread when I went to the market.
"Excellent!" Hypereides exclaimed. "It'll be closed now, I'm afraid, but perhaps you can rouse out the baker with a few thumps on his door." He winked at Artayctes. "Latro's a first-rate thumper, I assure you, and commands a voice like a bull's when he wants to. Now if —"
At that moment something so extraordinary occurred that I hesitate to write of it, for I feel quite certain that I will not believe it when I read this scroll in the days that are yet to come: one of Hypereides' salted pilchards moved.
His eyes must have been sharper than mine, because he fell silent to stare at it, while I merely assumed that one of the pieces of charcoal supporting it had shifted. A moment later, I saw it flip its tail just as a hooked fish does when it is cast onto the riverbank; and in a moment more all six were flopping about on the coals as though they had been thrown alive into the fire.
To give the guards credit, they did not run; if they had, I believe I would have run as well. As for Hypereides, his face went white, and he backed away from the brazier as if it were a dog with the running disease. Artayctes' young son cowered like the rest of us, but Artayctes himself went calmly to Hypereides and laid a hand upon his shoulder, saying, "This prodigy has no reference to you, my friend. It is meant for me — Protesilaos of Elaeus is telling me that though he is as dead as a dried fish, yet he has authority from the gods to punish the man who wronged him."
Hypereides gulped, and stammered, "Yes — that's — it's one of the chief reasons they insist that you — that you and your son — They say that you stole the offerings from his tomb and — and — plowed up his sacred soil."
Artayctes nodded and glanced toward the fish; by that time they had ceased to jump, but he shivered as if he were cold just the same. "Hear me now, Hypereides, and promise that you will report everything I say to Xanthippos. I will pay one hundred talents to restore the shrine of Protesilaos." He hesitated as though waiting for some further sign, but there was none. "And in addition I will give you soldiers from Thought two hundred talents if you will spare my son and me. The money is at Susa, but you can keep my boy here as a hostage until it is all paid. And it will be paid, I swear by Ahura Mazda, the god of the gods — paid in full and in gold."
Hypereides' eyes popped from their sockets at the magnitude of the sum. It is well known that the People of Parsa are rich beyond imagining, yet I think that few have dreamed that anyone other than the Great King himself could command such wealth as this offer of Artayctes' suggested. "I'll tell him. I'll — In the — no, tonight. If —"
"Good! Do so." Artayctes squeezed Hypereides' shoulder and stepped back.
Hypereides glanced at the guards. "But I'll have to tell him everything that's happened. Latro, I don't imagine you fancy any of those fish — I know I don't. I think it's time we went home."
I will return to the citadel now — perhaps something can be done to help Artayctes and Artembares.
The herald's cry brought me from my bed this morning. I was pulling on my shoes when Hypereides rapped on the door of the room I share with Io. "Latro!" he called. "Are you awake?"
Io sat up and asked what the trouble was.
I told her, "Artayctes is to be executed this morning."
"Do you remember who he is?"
"Yes," I said. "I know I spoke with him last night, before Hypereides and I came home."
Just then Hypereides himself opened our door. "Ah, you're up. Want to come with me to see them killed?"
I asked him who was to die, other than Artayctes.
"His son, I'm afraid." Hypereides shook his head sadly. "You don't remember Artayctes' boy?"
I cast my mind back. "I have some recollection of seeing a child last night," I told him. "Yes, I think it was a boy, a bit older than Io."
Hypereides pointed a finger at her. "You are to stay here, young woman! Do you understand me? You've work to do, and this will be no sight for a girl."
I followed him out into the street, where the black man was waiting for us; and the three of us set off for the sand spit on which the Great King's bridge had ended. It was there, as half a dozen heralds were still bawling (and as half Sestos was busy telling the other half) that Artayctes was to die. The day was overcast and windy, with gray clouds scudding along Helle's Sea from the First Sea in the north.
"This weather reminds me," Hypereides muttered, "that we must all have new cloaks before we leave here — you particularly, Latro. That rag of yours is hardly fit for a beggar."
The black man touched Hypereides' shoulder, his eyes wide.
"For you, too? Yes, of course. I said so. For all of us, in fact, even little Io."
The black man shook his head and repeated his gesture.
"Oh, ah. You want to know about our voyage — I was about to tell you. Get us to where we can see what's going on, you two, and I'll give you all the details."
By that time the people from Sestos were crowding forward and Xanthippos' troops were pushing them back with the butts of their spears. Fortunately several of the soldiers recognized Hypereides, and we were able to claim a place in front without much trouble. There was nothing to see yet but a couple of men digging a hole, apparently for the end of a timber that they had carried to the spot.
Excerpted from "Soldier of Arete"
Copyright © 1989 Gene Wolfe.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. I Will Make a New Beginning,
2. Artayctes Dies,
3. The Mantis,
4. Favorable Auspices,
5. Our Ship,
6. The Nymph,
7. Oeobazus Is Among the Apsinthians,
8. The Europa Sails at Dawn,
9. Elata Says,
10. The Amazons,
11. Ares and Others,
12. We Will Fight,
13. We Await the Attack,
14. In the Cave of the Mother of the Gods,
15. I Would Go Now,
16. The Horses of the Sun,
17. Sworn Before All the Gods,
18. Pharetra Is Dead,
19. My Duel with the King,
21. The Strategist from Rope,
22. There's Where We Camped,
23. At This, My Zygite Bench,
24. The Boar,
25. Farewell to Thrace,
26. In Cimon's Garden,
27. Io Weeps,
29. The Palace Walls,
30. Tower Hill,
31. From the Tomb,
32. For the Second Meal,
33. Bull Killer,
34. The Feast Is Over,
35. Cyklos of Rope,
37. The Dead Man's Stare,
38. The Pythia,
40. For the Sake of Days Past,
41. The God Himself Shall Rule,
42. Pausanias Rages,
43. Pindaros of Thebes,
Tor books by Gene Wolfe,
The saga of Latro, the Soldier of the Mist, continues,