A free story (for Year 7) from my History Short Story Book

ANCIENT GREECE: The Other Runner (The story)

A draft cover page for the book.
A draft cover page for the book.
A little cloud of dust and a hubbub, boys calling to each other, the unmistakeable sounds of a school yard brawl. Diemeter wandered across, not so fast that the boys would notice him and call it off… And thus, a slight figure amongst older boys he’d hoped would have stopped the fight before a tutor stepped in, he slid in and saw: 

Two small boys, perhaps with 10 years to each,  wrestled in the sand. The fight, in fact, had become more than wrestling; fists, the barbarians tools, had been thrown. One of the boy’s noses was bloodied and the other had a cut above his eye, encrusted now with sand. Diemeter stepped further in, the boys somehow recognising authority, even though he was relatively new at the academy – the circle around the hard little knot of two boys brawling expanding – and pulled them apart. He didn’t know them but a wrestling match gone this wild must be stopped.

‘What’s this about?’ he asked.

Both muttered, ‘Nothing’. Diemeter smiled. Boys do not change, he thought. Some of the others had drifted away, those who always avoided dealing with authority, while others awaited developments, listening like dogs with their tongues hanging out. But appearing disinterested.

‘Such savagery for nothing. The Persians do well to fear us, eh?’

‘How’d you know it was about the Persians’ said one. He of the bloodied nose. The other looked to see what this one would say but preferred to stay silent.

‘I didn’t. It was a good guess.’

Both boys exchanged looks at this confession. Diemeter, who always favoured the truth in his dealings with boys, thought perhaps they would settle back into silence. Quiet and solitude might call up answers.  ‘Let’s go and wash this muck off and we can talk about what cravens those Persians are, eh.’

Faces washed, the blood on their tunics rinsed to what would be a faint, pale pink when dry, they sat in the shade of the cupola, near the stadium sands where the boys had earlier wrestled.

Their names, he had discovered, were Telemachus (bloodied nose) and Erchius (he of the cut eye). Erchius sat on his right, Telemachus on his left. He’d asked a slave to fetch his aulos[1] and now he played, calling up bird songs on the double pipes.

‘So,’ he said after he had called down a wren and the boys remarked his ‘magic’, ‘what have the Persians got to do with my two warring Athenians?’

For answer Erchius quoted from a much loved poem:

‘Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!

‘Athens is saved, thank Pan,’ go shout!” He flung down his shield,

Ran like fire once more: and the space ‘twixt the Fennel-field

And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,

Till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Like wine thro’ clay,

Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died–the bliss!..‘ [2]

Diemeter liked a  boy who set him riddles. He said,  ’Of course I know this story, as do we all; of how we met and matched the Persians that hot September day at Marathon. Of Pheidippides’ run to announce a victory against all odds and to call up the city against the marauding Persian fleet. ‘

Diemeter cocked a querying eye at them. ‘Did you fight over Erchius’s delivery, perhaps. I personally thought it was rather good, though his style is perhaps a little subdued.’

‘No’ said Telemachus. Nothing more; Diemeter decided he was not so likeable as Erchius.

‘Ah,’ said Diemeter. ‘Perhaps you are aware that some say that the one who ran to tell the city, the one who died, was not called Pheidippides. Indeed, I have even heard tales of no run at all. The word, it is said, came back with the army from Marathon. But I think that is wrong.’

‘My grandfather,’ said Erchius, ‘ran with him. It’s a lie to say there was no runner, to deny glory to him.’

‘Liar,’ said Telemachus, leaning in and around Diemeter. And thus he had suddenly to put up arms and stop scrabbling boys, who it seemed would willingly have proved themselves barbarians again.  He was a dog at a rat, that Telemachus.

‘Ah, I think we are now getting to the matter.’

From under dark eyebrows, both boys looked at him.

‘Your grandfather ran with Pheidippides, is that what you said?’

‘Yes. But not all the way. He was in a grove on the plain minding the goats with his friends Pholis and Menaton. Actually, they were slaves, the ones our family set to minding the flocks, but my grandfather said that when you are a boy slaves can be your friends.’

Diemeter cast a glance at Telemachus who appeared about to interject and simply stopped him with a gesture. And thus Erchius’s flow did not cease.  ‘Anyway, Pheidippides ran up and took a little water from them and told them of the battle, though in truth they had heard it when the wind from the sea sprung up. Anyway,  my grandfather thought that Pheidippides would run better with someone by his side and he had won the boys’ race at the games many times and so off they flew together. And my grandfather, who is also called Erchius, would call out a fluting question about the battle and thus made the miles fly by until at last they came into the city, past the gates and the guards, and at this point he did not go farther towards the ecclesia with Pheidippides because he was not yet a citizen and he thought he had done his work. He was two years past my age at the time. He ran with Pheidippides, perhaps 16 miles altogether, but he peeled off before Pheidippides was written into the poetry.’

‘He wants Pheidippides’ glory for himself’,’ said Telemachus. ‘No one ran with Pheidippides.’

He looked at both boys then, wondering at what men they would become and perhaps wishing that Erchius might be more powerful in the ecclesia, where he Diemeter had no voice. He was from Corinth. But he also suspected that Telemachus came from a better family. No talk of goats for him.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘ do you remember me saying that history and the tales that come from our past are funny things, such as the question of whether the runner was really named Pheidippides.’

‘What?’ Telemachus asked.

‘It’s Herodotus to whom we owe the story, is it not… Well, he wrote of it some years after the events and we all know how hard to it is to remember everything in all its detail even the day after.  For myself, I am willing to believe Erchius. Of course, if the truth is really important to discover, one should always check.’

‘Yes,’  both said. (‘No need to check his outrageous lie,’ Telemachus whispered but so that both could hear.)

‘My heart tells me, in all its details, that Erchius tells the truth,’ said Diemeter now, because he wanted it ended. ‘And I do not think he wants glory, only to have a little of the pleasure of having run with Pheidippides. Isn’t that something we would all want – to be the other runner with Pheidippides.’

Later, Diemeter heard the two boys had fought again and that Erchius had been told to find another school. Apparently Telemachus’s nose was broken. Telemachus’s father was a  friend of the schoolmaster’s. Telemachus, thought Diemeter, was not a boy who wanted to be the other runner, he wanted to be the only one.

  1. A flute-like instrument.
  2. This poem is not ancient Greek; it is actually by Robert Browning (1812 -1889)

Must be getting old

I’ve taken to re-reading old loved titles, boys’ own yarns such as H. Rider Haggard’s Quartermaine novels and others, such as Stuart Cloete’s Rags of Glory. Some I am rediscovering my affection for; others not so much.

Here is my review of:

The H. Rider Haggard Omnibus: 50 Novels and Short Stories (Halcyon Classics) (Kindle Edition)

Despite the times (and this is Victorian England with all its pomp and certainties we are talking of) Haggard had a remarkably open mind re the ‘savages’ which people his fantastic but headily aromatic Africa. Characters such as Umslopagaas and Mopo are fine figures: laudable adventure genre characters, raw and powerfully iconic, of types later writers would borrow.
The stories usually rip along, with the odd lag for some reflection on God, nature and the beauties of place (which sometimes you’ll love and sometimes you’ll skip) but here is the archetype of so much that came later, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and many another boys’ own adventure. Quartermaine is a charismatic old character and aren’t all of us entranced by the idea of a beautiful woman made soulless by her immortality but forgivably satanic because love reduces her to fallibility. She who must be obeyed… what a clause.
There is an awful lot of the same here (50+ novels and stories) so I doubt anyone will read them all in one fell swoop… and yes there are typos and some annoying organisational glitches in the eBook’s delivery of text, but I just read on. Minor speed bumps. This huge compendium is heartily recommended when cynicism and the old modern world gets too much for you.