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W. Baero

(written c. 2600)

Written after the Great War by an Altansian writer enchanted by the contemporary fascination with Greece and the culture of the Eastern Mediterranean, this short story is clearly connected with the ancient myths surrounding the figure of Apollo and his arrival in Delphi. Divided into four ‘seasons’, each one depicting stages in the life of Pythia, a young girl on the threshold of adulthood, the story concerns the arrival of a stranger into the life of a primitive, Bronze Age village. This extract is from the beginning of Summer.

Pythia had taken to the ramparts around the megaron at the centre of the Citadel. Behind her, as she looked out, the banner raised above the highest tower of the Citadel hung limp in the summer stillness of this unending heatwave. No breeze had lifted it in days. Ahead out over the waters of the wide inlet there sparkled the ferocious fireworks of the early afternoon sun reflecting dazzlingly on the swells and waves. And there, floating like a tiny, hovering mosquito amid the flashes of sunlight, was the approaching fleck of the sail.

The whole village had heard about the visitors. Their boat had been spotted off the high cliffs to the west, and word had scurried form settlement to settlement all the way up the length of the inlet. Now, four days later, its sails could even be seen in the sparkling distance, at the dazzling edge of the open sea.

She stared out at the tiny speck, shading her eyes against the hot glare, and she saw with a sudden shock how quickly the billowing sails were closing in on her world. It was indeed a swift-moving vessel, the sail catching a low breeze at the water’s level, presaging perhaps a change to the stifling thickness of the summer.

Below, she heard her father’s gruff tones giving orders to his men, and then she watched the village lads tumbling down towards the river bank, clambering into their boat and heading out onto the sea to meet their guests, rowing enthusiastically to find out if what they’d heard was true.

The first messages coming back to the village had been full of wild stories of travellers, sailors all the way from distant Crete, laden with wine and rich olives from the south, and brimming with songs and tales. And of the boy among them, a bright youth who had captured alive a dolphin, hauling it onto the vessel single-handed as his trophy, victor over the waters.

‘I wonder who they are.’ She turned to find Thersos standing close behind her, also looking out over the sea. His eyes were fixed on the sails, and his voice betrayed a fear at the impending changes their arrival would bring.

‘Cretans,’ muttered Pythia. ‘They’ve been working their way around the coasts for ages now.’

‘It’ll be worth seeing if it’s a Cretan ship,’ answered Thersos, before turning brusquely away to run and help the rest of the villagers who were gathering to see the ship as it made its way towards them. Pythia too followed him down the steps towards the landing spot.

It was worth it, too.  As she ran down the final slope, she watched the scene unfold like some miracle play, a brilliant pageant of figures and festival players, arriving on their stage, the air filled with with song and cheering applause, as the boats strained up the creek and ran onto the shingle below the village. A swirl of banners and strident blast of horns announced their arrival and it felt to Pythia as if a bright new, everlasting banquet was about to begin with a flurry of change!

From above the sides of the red and black-painted ship heads appeared, beaming with adventure. Hands helped them down onto the the soft bank, limbs flailed momentarily in shock at the solidity of the ground, laughter flared through the hot air, and a wide-mouthed excitement rippled through the crowd.

His first appearance was almost unnoticed amid this noisy bustle, but Pythia saw him standing there high up on the deck, proudly clutching the tail of his trophy. And one by one the rest of the village folk spotted him in the blaze of the late afternoon sun, bare-chested, dark hair cropped and thrown back in a torrent of disarray. She stepped forward as if to greet him, but the crowd surged around and ahead of her, coaxing and lifting him and the bulky dolphin down to be amongst them. Only Thersos, never knowingly spiteful, held back, darkly eyeing this scene of joyous jostling.

© Copyright Paul David Holland 2017