Soldier of the Mist Page 1

Author: Gene Wolfe

Genres: Fantasy , Historical


About two years ago, an urn containing scrolls of papyrus, all apparently unused, was found behind a collection - of Roman lyres in the basement of the British Museum. The museum retained the urn and disposed of the scrolls, which were listed in Sotheby's catalogue as Lot 183. Various blank papyrus rolls, possibly the stock of an Egyptian stationer.

After passing through several hands, they became the property of Mr. D___ A___, a dealer and collector in Detroit. He got the notion that something might be concealed in the sticks on which the papyrus was wound and had them X-rayed. The X-rays showed them to be solid; but they also showed line after line of minute characters on the sheet (technically the protokollon) gummed to each stick.

Sensing himself on the verge of a discovery of real bibliotic importance, he examined a scroll under a powerful lens and found that all its sheets were covered on both sides with minute gray writing, which the personnel of the museum, and of Sotheby's, had apparently taken for dust smears. Spectrographic analysis has established that the writing instrument was a sharp "pencil" of metallic lead. Knowing my interest in dead languages, the owner has asked me to provide this translation.

With the exception of a short section in passable Greek, this first scroll is written in archaic Latin, without punctuation. The author, who called himself "Latro" (a word that may mean brigand, guerrilla, hired man, bodyguard, or pawn), had a disastrous penchant for abbreviation - indeed, it is rare to find him giving any but the shortest words in full; there is a distinct possibility that some abbreviations have been misread. The reader should keep in mind that all punctuation is mine; I have added details merely implied in the text in some instances and have given in full some conversations given in summary.

For convenience in reading, I have divided the work into chapters, breaking the text (insofar as possible) at the points at which "Latro" ceased to write. I have employed the first few words of each chapter as its title.

In dealing with place names, I have followed the original writer, who sometimes wrote them as he heard them but more often translated them when he understood (or believed he understood) their meanings. "Tower Hill" is probably Corinth; "the Long Coast" is surely Attica. In some cases, Latro was certainly mistaken. He seems to have heard some taciturn person referred to as having Laconic manners (Greek eaeuieåìuò) and to have concluded that Laconia meant "the Silent Country." His error in deriving the name of the principal city of that region from a word for rope or cord (Greek ooounoii) was one made by many uneducated speakers of his time. He appears to have had some knowledge of Semitic languages and to have spoken Greek fairly fluently, but to have read it poorly or not at all.

A few words about the culture in which Latro found himself soon after he began to write may be in order. The people no more called themselves Greeks than do the people of the nation we call Greece today. By our standards they were casual about clothes, though in most cities it was considered improper for a woman to appear in public completely naked, as men often did. Breakfast was not eaten; Unless he had been drinking the night before, the average Greek rose at dawn and ate his first meal at noon; a second meal was eaten in the evening. In peacetime even children drank diluted wine; in wartime soldiers complained bitterly because they had only water, and often fell ill.

Athens ("Thought") was more crime-ridden than New York. Its law against women's leaving their homes alone was meant to prevent attacks on them. (Another woman or even a child was a satisfactory escort.) First-floor rooms were windowless, and burglars were called "wallbreakers." Despite the modern myth, exclusive homosexuality was rare and generally condemned, although bisexuality was common and accepted. The Athenian police were barbarian mercenaries, employed because they were more difficult to corrupt than Greeks. Their skill with the bow was often valuable in apprehending suspects.

Although the Greek city-states were more diverse in law and custom than most scholars are willing to admit, a brisk trade in goods had effected some standardization in money and units of measure. An obol, vulgarly called a spit, bought a light meal. The oarsmen on warships were paid two or three obols a day, but of course they were fed from their ship's stores, six obols made a drachma (a handful), and a drachma bought a day's service from a skilled mercenary (who supplied his own equipment) or a night's service from one of Kalleos's women. A gold stator was worth two silver drachmas. The most widely circulated ten-drachma coin was called an owl, from the image on its reverse. A hundred drachmas made a mina; sixty minas a talent - about fifty-seven pounds of gold or eight hundred pounds of silver.

The talent was also a unit of weight: about fifty-seven pounds. The most commonly used measure of distance was the stade, from which comes our stadium. A stade was about two hundred yards, or a little over one-tenth of a mile.

Humanitarians accepted the institution of slavery, realizing that the alternative was massacre; we who have seen the holocaust of the European Jews should be sparing in our reproaches. Prisoners of war were a principal source of supply. A really first-class slave might cost as much as ten minas, the equivalent of thirty-six thousand dollars. Most were much more reasonable.

If the average well-read American were asked to name five famous Greeks, he would probably answer, "Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Pericles." Critics of Latro's account would do well to recall that Homer had been dead for four hundred years at the time Latro wrote, and that no one had heard of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, or Pericles. The word philosopher was not yet in use.

In ancient Greece, skeptics were those who thought, not those who scoffed. Modern skeptics should note that Latro reports Greece as it was reported by the Greeks themselves. The runner sent from Athens to ask Spartan help before the battle of Marathon met the god Pan on the road and conscientiously recounted their conversation to the Athenian Assembly when he returned. (The Spartans, who well knew who ruled their land, refused to march before the full of the moon.)

 - G.W.


Chapter 1 Read This Each Day

I write of what has just occurred. The healer came into this tent at dawn and asked whether I recalled him. When I said I did not, he explained. He gave me this scroll, with this stylus of the slingstone metal, which marks it as though it were wax.

My name is Latro. I must not forget. The healer said I forget very quickly, and that is because of a wound I suffered in a battle. He named it as though it were a man, but I do not remember the name. He said I must learn to write down as much as I can, so I can read it when I have forgotten. Thus he has given me this scroll and this stylus of heavy slingstone metal.

I wrote something for him in the dust first. He seemed pleased I could write, saying most soldiers cannot. He said also that my letters are well formed, though some are of shapes he does not know. I held the lamp, and he showed me his writing. It seemed very strange to me. He is of Riverland.

He asked me my name, but I could not bring it to my lips. He asked if I remembered speaking to him yesterday, and I did not. He has spoken to me several times, he says, but I have always forgotten when he comes again. He said some other soldiers told him my name, "Latro," and he asked if I could remember my home. I could. I told him of our house and the brook that laughs over colored stones. I described Mother and Father to him, just as I see them in my mind, but when he asked their names, I could tell him only "Mother" and "Father." He said he thought these memories very old, perhaps from twenty years past or more. He asked who taught me to write, but I could not tell him. Then he gave me these things.

I am sitting by the flap, and because I have written all I remember of what he said, I will write what I see, so that perhaps in time to come I can sift my writing for what may be of value to me.

The sky is wide and blue, though the sun is not yet higher than the tents. There are many, many tents.

Some are of hides, some of cloth. Most are plain, but I see one hung with tassels of bright wool. Soon after the healer left, four stiff-legged, unwilling camels were driven past by shouting men. Just now they returned, laden and hung with red and blue tassels of the same kind and raising a great dust because their drivers beat them to make them run.

Soldiers hurry by me, sometimes running, never smiling. Most are short, strong men with black beards. They wear trousers, and embroidered tunics of turquoise and gold over corselets of scales. One came carrying a spear with an apple of gold. He was the first to meet my eyes, and so I stopped him and asked whose army this is. He said, "The Great King's," then made me sit once more and hurried off.

My head still gives me pain. Often my fingers stray toward the bandages there, though the healer said not to touch them. I keep this stylus in my hand, and I will not. Sometimes it seems to me that there is a mist before my eyes that the sun cannot drive away.

Now I write again. I have been examining the sword and armor piled beside my couch. There is a helmet, holed where I received my wound. There is Falcata too, and there are plates for the breast and back. I took up Falcata, and though I did not know her, she knew my hand. Some of the other wounded looked afraid, so I sheathed her again. They do not understand my speech, nor I theirs.

The healer came after I wrote last, and I asked him where I had been hurt. He said it was near the shrine of the Earth Mother, where the Great King's army fought the army of Thought and the Rope Makers.

I helped take down our tent. There are mules for the litters of those who cannot walk. He said I must keep with the rest; if I become separated, I must look for his own mule, who is piebald, or for his servant, who has but one eye. That is the man who carries out the dead, I think. I told him I would carry this scroll and wear the round plates and my sword on my belt of manhood. My helmet might be sold for its bronze, but I do not want to carry it. They have loaded it with the bedding.

We rest beside a river, and I write with my feet cooling in its stream. I do not know the name of this river. The army of the Great King blackens the road for many miles, and I, having seen it, do not understand how it could have been vanquished - or why I joined it, since where there are so many men no one could count them, one more or less is nothing. It is said our enemies pursue us, and our cavalry keeps them at bay. This I overheard when I saw a party of horsemen hurrying to the rear. The men who said it speak as I to the healer, and not in these words I write.

A black man is with me. He wears the skin of a spotted beast, and his spear is tipped with twisted horn. Sometimes he speaks, but if ever I knew his words, I have forgotten them all. When we met, he asked by signs if I had seen such men as he. I shook my head, and he seemed to understand. He peers at these letters I make with great interest.

The river was muddy for a time after so many had drunk. Now it runs clear again, and I see myself and the black man reflected. I am not as he, nor as the Great King's other soldiers. I pointed to my arm and my hair and asked the black man if he had seen another such as I. He nodded and opened two little bags he carries; there is white paste in one and vermilion in the other. He showed me by signs that we should go with the others; as he did, I saw beyond his shoulder another man, whiter than I, in the river.

At first I thought him drowned, for his face was beneath the water; but he smiled and waved to me, pointing up the river, where the Great King's army marches, before he vanished swiftly downstream. I have told the black man I will not go, because I wish to write of this river-man while I can.

His skin was white as foam, his beard black and curling, so that for a moment I thought it spun of the silt. He was thick at the waist, like a rich man among the veterans, but thick of muscle, too, and horned like a bull. His eyes were merry and brave, the eyes that say, "I will knock down the tower." When he gestured, it seemed to me he meant we would meet again, and I do not want to forget him. His river is cold and smooth, racing from the hills to water this land. I will drink again, and the black man and I will go.

Evening. The healer would feed me if I could find him, I know; but I am too tired to walk far. As the day passed, I grew weaker and could walk only slowly. When the black man tried to hurry me, I signed that he should go forward alone. He shook his head and I think called me many vile names; and at last flourished his spear as if to strike me with the shaft. I drew Falcata. He dropped his spear and with his chin (so he points) told me to look behind us. There under the staring sun a thousand horsemen scoured the plain, their shadows and the clouds of dust more visible than the riders. A soldier with a wounded leg, who could walk even less than I, said the slingers and archers with whom they warred were the slaves of the Rope Makers, and if someone he named were still in the country of the sun, we would turn and rend them. Yet he seemed to fear the Rope Makers.

Now the black man has built a fire and gone among the tents to look for food. I feel it can bring me no strength and I shall die tomorrow, not at the hands of those slaves but falling suddenly and embracing the earth, drawing it over me like a cloak. The soldiers I can understand talk much of gods, cursing them and cursing others - ourselves more than once - in their names. It seems to me I once knew gods, worshiping beside Mother where the vines twined about the house of some small god. Now his name is lost. Even if I could call on him, I do not think he could come at my bidding. This land is surely far, very far from his little house.

I have gathered wood and heaped it on our fire to make light so I can write. For I must never forget what happened, never. Yet the mist will come, and it will be lost until I read what I now write.

I went to the river and said, "I know no god but you. I die tomorrow, and I will sink into the earth with the other dead. But I pray you will give good fortune always to the black man, who has been more than a brother to me. Here is my sword, with her I would have slain him. Accept the sacrifice!" Then I cast Falcata into the water.

At once the river-man appeared, rising from the dark stream and toying with my sword, tossing her in his hands and catching her again, sometimes by the hilt, sometimes by the blade. With him were two girls who might have been his daughters, and while he teased them with her, they sought to snatch her from him. All three shone like pearls in the moonlight.

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