By Gary Oswald
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 3rd contest was Utopia.
2237 years ago, by the Ticino River
The boy was frightened. He knew he should not be, he was a Cornelli, a Scipio, a true son of Rome. His father was a great man, a brave man and the boy had been eager to follow him into battle for the first time. To prove his worth against the enemy.
But he was still a boy, not yet blooded and the battle had gone against them so that the air was filled with the cries of dying men and it terrified him. It struck him once again that the enemy was not even meant to be here. His father and uncle had thought to meet them in faraway Hispania but they’d appeared out of nowhere in Italy itself as if the gods themselves had carried them.
He was dimly aware of infantry fleeing past him as he attempted to get his horse moving again. The Javelins had been too slow, landing harmlessly behind the cavalry as they charged and now there were enemy cavalry all around them and the lines were breaking, men were dismounting from their horses. It was chaos, a million private fights, blood and flies and heat everywhere and the boy could barely tell friends from foe.
He did what came naturally in such straits, because he was frightened he looked for his father and because he was disciplined he looked for the standard. And when he found them, his heart dropped further. His father, his general, was surrounded.
The boy called for aid, called for his men to follow him, called for one last charge to save the consul but he was green and young and scared and the men could see that and would not follow him into death. So he swallowed down his fear and charged anyway, hoping that he would not be alone.
When the blow came he did not feel it.
2182 years ago, Qart-ḥadašt
The woman had not cried when they offered her child to the gods. That was good, it pleased the gods more when the offering was done stoically. And this new venture was risky and needed all the support from the gods it could get.
The Barcid family had a stranglehold on trade to their colonies in Spain and Italy and they had bought enough men in the council to protect their monopolies. The other traders would have to find new markets or else starve. Ships were pushing north and south every day, looking for opportunities but it had been Hanno alone who had thought to cross the great desert by land.
He had bought camels from Egypt and men who knew how to use them, and he had won the favour of the gods, now they could only march south into the endless wastes of sand and see what they would find beyond the dunes.
2003 years ago, Kingdom of Jenne
The farmer’s son had come north to visit the city and was now returning home. It would be a long journey and he glared with envious eyes at the rich men on their horses when they’d passed him. Horses died quickly down here, he knew, much like the cattle did but he wished they didn’t, he wished there was enough to go around.
He was nearly half way home before it occurred to him that there were other animals with strong bodies and legs that didn’t die so quickly. The horned beasts that the hunters sometimes bought to the village were strong enough to ride, were they not?
He wondered if there was something to that.
1734 years ago, Alexandria
It was clear to the Pharoah of Egypt that the gods were angry. She was a young woman thrust into kingship, thrust into godship, at the death of her father and she felt ill suited to dealing with the worst crisis of her age.
Her people were starving, and all around her war was waging and her old allies and enemies alike were falling to barbarians. The Axumites were marching into Kush, conquering the Nubians in the name of their great god Attar, the Carthaginians were fleeing their sacked cities in desperate armadas of laden boats as the hordes came south, the Greeks and Persians were battered by new invaders from the steppes.
And around this chaos all that protected Egypt was … her, the living god, the descendent of the sun, blood of he who had driven out the Greeks and restored Egyptian greatness. And she did not know what to do.
If the gods had abandoned her she thought suddenly, with the recklessness of youth, then why shouldn’t she abandon the gods? ‘Bring me the diplomat from the Mauryas’ she commanded her attendants loudly, ‘let him tell us more about Dhamma and the Wisdom of the Buddha.’
1019 years ago, Ghana
Niall of the 17 Haircuts sat proudly at the prow of his longboat, his shield maidens behind him. It had been a long journey but finally the land on his left was no longer the imposing desert of the last few weeks but rivers and jungles and, what is more, the seas were full of great ships, ships which made his own, the pride of Dublin’s fleet, looked tiny in comparison.
For years he’d heard rumour of the great riches of Ghana and Mali, of the camels laden with salt and gold that crossed the great desert, of the fact that the kings there worshiped their own gods. Weaker gods, no doubt, than his own but gods. Not the cruel indifferent world of the invaders and those who'd followed their false messages of suffering that could only be escaped by rebirth but real gods who could be bargained with and relied on. That alone had made his heart sing with hope. And now he’d finally found them.
This was going to be a day long remembered.
422 years ago, Ayiti
Another ten had died during the night. The warrior did not know why this land was cursed so, but for what had seemed to him a paradise it was proving more deadly than a thousand battles. The natives had died first, they had sickened in their hundreds until their villages were lined with corpses and that had seemed a good omen, like the gods had paved their way until the settlers started dying too.
Every night another did not wake up, another fire was lit, another house torn down. He wondered just how long they could last like this.
He had heard that the black men in their own villages had fared better. He wondered if this island would belong to them soon when the inevitable happened. Let them choke on it if so, this was no land for decent men.
208 years ago, Kingdom of Great Arda
Seh-Dong-Heh checked her gun twice before she walked to the docks. She was a mino, one of the King’s soldiers, and she took her duties seriously. The dock master and his slave met her there and she followed him down to the new ship.
It was from Spain, she noted with some disappointment. The Swahili had banned trading in slaves too, but they were less pious about it than the Berbers. They had even attempted an embargo a few years back, after they’d witnessed some sacrifices, but the Fon mostly traded with other Africans and so they’d given up after it had no noticeable effect.
Still, Seh was in no mood for another tedious conversation about how most house slaves were actually happy to serve and it was only in places like Oyo where slaves were truly treat cruelly. There was less slaves every year anyway, now the kingdom was at peace and prosperous enough that less families ended up in debt bondage.
Hopefully the Captain would be diplomatic enough not to bring the matter up.
The representative for the Pueblo was ranting again, Ana noted. Old grudges clearly died hard in this part of the world. She understood his demand for reparations, his people had clearly suffered during the years of Mexica Dominance, but as that period dwindled further into the past, she became less and less sympathetic to the Pueblo’s refusal to discuss any kind of cooperation until that matter was settled.
Part of her sympathy for the Tlaxcalans in this matter, she knew, was due to the fact her own people were seen in much the same way by many of the former peoples of the Kongo Empire. Back in the day, that’s just how things worked. You conquered the neighbours, made slaves of their women, sacrificed the men to your gods and made a catchy song about your great victory. Only from the perspective of now, where we just sacrifice goats and pay everyone a living wage, it all looked rather less admirable.
It was the fate of the winners of history to constantly be apologising for the glorious victories of their ancestors.
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