|Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.|
“Ulysses on deck!” Sturdy Xenophanes bellowed, white foam breaking over the red prow of the vessel.
“A fine morning.” Ulysses spoke, the words denying the lowering cloud and stiff gusts coming in off the port bow of the ship. “How are the men?”
“In a fine fettle, with the smell of home on the breeze. They’re chomping at the bit, sir.”
“Three knots and our course is fine.” Talaimenes was the helmsman, reporting at a glance from his chieftain. “The fog is now much thinner.”
Sucking in a deep breath of fresh, cool air, Ulysses marveled once again at how the vessel rode the hard chop just as competently as the day she was launched. A brazen shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and made the sea sparkle and shimmer like tiny golden dancers in torchlight. Pulling his cloak in tighter, he nodded in satisfaction.
“So many years gone.” He was philosophical. “We have earned a rest—and our keep for the days of our lives.”
“Tell them.” The eyes of Xenophanes shone with some inner joy, a kind of sweet pain that no one could share in mere words these days, not after all they had seen and done. Ulysses regarded the familiar figure of his friend with a slight frown and then his visage cleared.
“Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?” He strode to the front of the poop deck and put his hand on the shoulder of the time-keeper. “I want to talk to them. Hold her steady, give them a moment to rest.”
“Halt! Raise oars! Steady! One…two…three…” Chromis was a steady soldier and a masterful sailor.
Looking back at the helmsman, Chromis gave a nod.
“All stop, sir.”
“Thank you.” He took a moment, to clear his mind and purge his lungs of old air.
Ulusses faced the rowers from the poop deck. Expectant faces looked up in anticipation and respect. Men once young and innocent were somehow different now, a little wiser and a little sadder. A little older now. A moment of grief passed over him, for there were too many missing faces.
Flinching from the cold spray, the wind strong on his neck, Ulysses stood there and tried to memorize the look of every single one of them. He would never forget this moment for as long as he lived.
“Men. I cannot tell you what an honour it has been. I am proud to call you my friends. It also humbles me. We have seen our brothers throw their lives down for us, and we have done it for them. No commander could ever ask more of his men than I have asked from you. And you have given your all. No soldier can give more for his country than you have done. I am grateful for my life, and your service. I thank you for coming and am deeply relieved that so many of you will be going home.”
Tears rolled down Xenophanes’ cheeks and some of the others as well.
Equally at home in the palace and the camp, loved by his people and feared by his enemies, his words were magic. Ulysses was master of every stratagem. But that didn’t explain the love. He was a fierce and cunning soldier. Ulysses had led them to victory, and every one of them waited breathlessly.
The silence was profound, even over the waves and the wind. He studied their faces, each of them, one by one.
“Sarpedon, the bold! Let no man ever say that a Greek was a coward, or a traitor, or lacked honour. Tlepelemos! Let no man say that Greeks do not do justice to their fellow man. Enyo! Let no man say that a Greek does not have gratitude, or give thanks and credit where it is due. Briseis! Let no man say that a Greek cannot be trusted or will not keep his word. Petrus, the noble Petrus! Let no man say that Greeks are not loving husbands, good fathers and honest men. Xenophanes, whose eloquence has graced this voyage with wit and wisdom. And you, Pollux, whose love knows no boundaries…and you, Antenor, let no man say that Greeks do not stand by each other’s side when the time has come. Gentlemen, I wish I could tell you what a privilege it has been to serve with you. Mere words fail me in this time of need. I honour you all, and I thank you for your friendship.”
For a long moment, there was silence. Then all the rowers stood up and shouted the name of Ulysses, as the ship began to drift, and then there was only one more thing left unsaid.
Holding up a hand and waiting for quiet again, Ulysses spoke with finality.
“Back to your oars, my friends. It is time to go home.”
The shouting and the thumping of oar handles went on for some time. He was inclined to overlook it, just this once.
Smiling the length of the ship, he nodded at Xenophanes. Then he turned and watched for the green hills of home, as the wine-dark sea broke time and again over the prow, and the waves smashed against the sparkling wet bow.
“So what do you think, Xenophanes?” The sardonic Frigattenkapitan Gerhard von Bluecher was the neutral observer from the Imperial German Navy.
According to his own account, he was just there from the future to get a little experience before going on to some obscure diplomatic post.
“He’ll head straight to the bar, just you watch.” Xenophanes was his usual morose self, but then it was his job to pay off the crew and Ulysses was holding back thirty percent for provisions, repairs, breakage, sales from the slops chest, and withholdings from future advances.
This was a kind of usurious interest against loans in advance, taken from the men’s own pay.
“Hmn. That’s why he pays you the big money, eh, my friend?” Von Bluecher was joking.
“Yes. I’ll skewer him under a pseudonym, of course.”
Xenophanes kidded himself that he was a playwright and a poet.
That was the trouble with the ancient Greeks. While their pens were indeed mightier than their swords, their biggest problem was that the bastards simply couldn’t be trusted to keep a contract. That mutual distrust would be crucial in the times that lay ahead for folk of whatever era, now that all of humankind past and present was threatened by the time-travelling Eridanae.
It would come back to haunt them, or he wasn’t a shrewd judge of character, both individual and national. These people couldn’t hold a candle to a true German.
A German would rather die than break his word or become a hypocrite.