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User:Michael Bard/What difference can a Man make?

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This story is a work in progress.
What difference can a Man make?
Author: Michael Bard

by Michael Bard

Falling--

Blinding pain, darkness, light, silence, the roar of a trillion rockets--

Landing--

Thudding into a body, a form. Different, vague. Somebody else is there -- somebody else who screams in fear, eyes wide, mouth foaming. Comfort, trying to make an agreement. The other bursts, snapping like a soap bubble.

Control.

Odours. Salt permeating everything. Hot sweaty herd bodies. Sweet sickness of too many in too small a place. Cedar, cut, new, permeated with tar and oil. Manure. Piss. Comforting herd scent.

Sounds. Distant roar of thunder. Creak and groan of timbers. Crash and grumble of water against wood planking. Snapping of lines and canvas. Faint shouting voices, words gibberish where once they might have held meaning. Whine and whistle of wind. Distant rumble of thunder. Soft nickers and neighs. Snuffling of herd fellows, pleasant nibbling on neck. Clatter of hooves echoing.

Ears move. His ears, long, furry, twisting and twitching. Hair brushes against them. The same hair pulls at the back of his neck. Sounds change, some becoming richer, other fainter. One in focus, and then a different one, and then a different one.

Eyelids move. Blink. Blinkblink. Dim light, sepia-shaded sunlight through gaps in the dark clouds far above. Glittering air. Forms blur into clear solidity. Stalls, white fuzz in front of his eyes, horses--

I'm a horse, he realizes.

He rears, trying to stand up on his feet, but the body is heavy, and his arms clomp down onto the shifting deck. The impact thuds against his finger, echoing and reverberating up his leg. Balance shifts, he stumbles, his weight shoves against a herdmate. She bares her teeth at him, snorts slobber onto his back. He snaps back with is teeth, but not touching anything. He doesn't even realize he did it until the act was done.

Spine, no tail, shivering, he forces himself to think. To force the fog out of his mind. He remembered the lectures about other time travels, remembers the mantras to clear and focus the mind. Things quiet down and he stands, somehow knowing how, on the gently shifting deck. He can feel straw scattered underneath, dim and faint on the far side of his fingers, nails, hooves. Hooves.

He raises one, feels his weight shift, and then lets it thump against he floor, feeling his weight press and deform it slightly. Instinctively he stands steady, and turns his head on its endless neck and gently grooms the mare beside him. She calms. He calms.

Memories begin to fall into place, sliding into ordered ranks as the scents of horses fill his nostrils and relaxed him further.

He remembered training, going to school, studying classical history. During his graduate studies, he'd volunteered for a project to project human consciousnesses back into the pass, aiming for 450 BC. The time of the great Persian Invasion of Greece. The time that had defended Western Culture against Eastern, and had spawned Alexander and Rome and the entire Western World. Others had gone to other periods, and brought back priceless eyewitness accounts. Never were they of the great events, for the selection was random, with only the barest of control. Bitter trial and error had shown that one could not try and ride a human body. It drove one permanently insane. Instead animals. Nobody knew why. And, all one could do was observe, ride the beast, see and sense what it saw. Priceless observations about the basics of culture. Never anything about what people wanted to know. And yet, the things being found out--

He'd learned all the great classical languages as best as could be taught. Ancient Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Macedonian, Phoenician. Control was so limited, but by hearing, by listening, one could pick up hints of the Great Events. Secrets that were forgotten, but that revealed so much. Expeditions had already revolutionized knowledge of William the Conquerer, of Ramses II at Kadesh. The lucky few became famous, returning upon the death of the beast they rode instants after they had been projected.

And so Robert had hoped he would.

Days passed. The ship sailed ever onward. Foul smelling humans came, blacks and whites tanned almost black, and groomed and fed him and his herdmates. He'd learned early that he'd, that the body he was in had been gelded. Oddly it didn't bother him. The humans talked, but it was nothing but gibberish, noise, sound without meaning.

That worried him.

He felt he should know, that he almost knew, that he'd once knew. But he didn't. And that meant that he was not anywhere near where he was supposed to be.

Or that something had gone wrong.

Only the presence of the mare beside him, gently grooming his back, kept him from losing it.

One day there had been a lot of the random noises as the humans shouted. The ocean was calmer. And then there was a massive creak and groan as the spine of the ship had scraped against the shore. Humans, dressed in simple, one-piece garments and in bare feet raised the door, jumped from the middle spine, and snugged and simple leather bridle around each head. One by one they scrambled up to the central deck of the converted trireme, sun glittering around them. When it was Robert's turn, he held back, digging in his hooves as the human pulling him dragged and cursed. Somebody slapped him beneath his tail and he squealed, but burst forward, hooves clattering on the wood and he bounded up onto the gently rolling deck. Even though he kept walking, behaving himself as he was led across the foot-smoothed wood, he stared disbelievingly. The sea was filled with ships, every size and shape. More than he could count rolled in the surf near the shore as horses and animals were dragged and pushed off the ships and into the green-brown water. All around him he could see the converted triremes that served as horse and animal transports. Around them the slow cargo transports being unloaded of a constant stream of food and supplies. In the distance he could see different ships, lean, angry, weapons more than the portly beasts of burden that surrounded him. And, off to the side a sandy shore, the tepia waves gurgling up and clattering on the gravel before sliding back into the depths.

Before he realized what was happening, he was slapped on his behind, and jumped into the heaving sea, screaming. Cold water shoved against him, sucking at his life as he kicked and screamed, head straining forward and upward as he snorted at the water splashing against his nostrils. There was a weight, small, insignificant, holding on to his back, and he realized that it was the human, his groom, hanging on as he swam, kicking strongly, fighting against the water. He felt something under his hooves-- a wave listed him, and then settled him down, dragging and pulling at him as his hooves dug into the gravel and he struggled forward. Regretfully the water loosened its grip as he strode higher and higher, water dribbling and curdling down his legs and tail to rejoin its mother as the groom slid off and walked through him.

Beyond the shore was the camp. And a mighty space it was! As far as he could see were tents and humans. Countless humans. He cursed his equine vision, all the brilliant colours washed out as the troops drawn from a thousand nations drilled and marched and, he imagined, cursed, as soliders always did. The mediterrainian sunlight glittered off polished steel spearheads and armour. A stench filled his nostrils, faint as the sea breeze blew inland, but he recognized it as thousands, maybe millions, of beasts neighed and grunted and squeaked and whined in the distance. Wagons and wagons of grain sat there as human porters lugged more and more off the waiting ships. Not that many he realized, but still more than he could count.

As the groom grabbed the rope attached to his bridle and led him off to join with the herd, he wondered where he was. Xerxes' invasion had come over the famous boat bridge and by land But he'd come from sea. Could this be Darius' punitive attack against the Athenians at Marathon from earlier? And yet the numbers! But-- Slowly he walked, and watched, and his mind struggled to make sense. Don't count individuals, count groups. Count colours, uniforms. The numbers shrank from countless, to simply immense. Fifty thousand? A hundred thousand? A million? He needed more information.

If this was Marathon, than the Athenians and their allies had yet to arrive. They'd wait seven days. Finally the Persians would disembark to try and flank the Athenian army and reach Athens, but the army would attack the infantry rear guard, beat it, and then jog back to their city before the Persian fleet and its cargo could arrive.

And yet, if this was Marathon, where was the swamp that defined the battlefield?

Roughly his groom yanked at him and he staggered aside as a group of Persian nobles, slaves holding shelters over their heads from the sun, walked by leading three near-naked men with slung shields and spears. The Persians pointed and gestured, spouting gibberish, showing off everything to the three men.

The three Greeks?

Robert examined them as they strode by, barefoot, and naked but for the slung shield and spear. Or were those javelins? Their bodies were scarred, marked with wounds that ran up and down. One was missing a finger, crudely hacked off, but long healed.

He nickered. Could this be the three spies that Leonidas had sent ahead. That the Persians had captured, and that Xerxes had ordered be shown the army in detail to inspire terror in them. Was that legend, or was that real?

The group strode off until the groom dragged him back into motion.

Turning his head, he watched the group pace off behind him, over the sleek whiteness of his hide.

If this was Xerxes' camp before Thermopolae, then why had he come by ship? Reinforcements? But the bridge?

It made no sense! But, if he was in the camp, with the army that drank rivers dry as it advanced, than he was where he wanted to be.

But, why couldn't he understand anybody? Why?

With the other horses, he was put in a crude pen. Not made out of wood -- too hard to carry -- but of rope strung over crude poles. The poles looked to have been gathered locally and roughly shaped. They weren't treated badly -- they didn't get first pick of water hauled into the camp day after day, but they also didn't get the muddy remnants he saw some of the slaves fighting over. What grass there was, was consumed early in the first day. The grooms brought them some grain, and their water, specifically to each horse.

The first day Robert walked back and forth along the rope nearest to hte mass of men he could see in the distance. Occasionally he'd hear a scream, faint, the cause beyond what he could see. And that was it for one of ht emost important battles of Western Civilization. The air was still, hot. The scent of salt thick. Late in the day a faint breeze walked into the ocean cooling things a little, but it died as the moon rose.

He tried to sleep by the fence, having learned to sleep on his hooves in the tight stalls of the transport. The moon low, a scream of agony work him, and he turned to watch some darker skinned Persians beating somebody. It didn't last long; a unit of soldiers marched over and broke it up. The victim was a Greek, a slave, or so he guessed.

The Persians were not in a good mood.

The next day was again hot and still. Robert itched all over from the sweat that clung to him. He saw some of the other horses rolling in the dust and trotted to a bare spot to try. Flomping down, he rolled onto his back, wiggling and jerking his back against the hot earth. It helped. The dirt was dry on his back, and pressed against him, its heat almost painful. He sneezed when he jumped back to his hooves. For whatever reason the dust bath had made him feel a lot better. Of course, the grooming from the Persians later in the day was even better.

It was frustrating! Here he was, within a few miles of Thermopolae, and he was learning nothing!. He walked back and forth, irritated, his hooves clomping on the dry ground. There had to be something he could do. Maybe some observations of Persian logistics? Turning away, he trotted towards a small knoll with a scraggly tree near its top. There were only a few leaves, still in the still air. Robert couldn't even tell if the thing was still alive. A few horses were underneath the tree, resting in what little shade the empty branches provided, but there was still lots of room.

As he approached, one of the horses stood up, a dark chestnut with half of one ear missing. The chestnut looked at him, ears pointed and following the sounds as Robert approached. The ears flicked, and then fell down, flat against his head, buried by the course black hair of his mane. The horse's scent was rich, and it made Robert nervous for some reason. There was agression, pride, rightfulness. Almost without choosing it, Robert stopped. He looked, shook his head, and then proceeded. The chestnut nickered, a long low sound that rose into a neigh. He could see other horses turning to watch.

Something wasn't right--

Remembering some of the lectures he'd attended by other time travellers, he remembered that they mentioned something about riding the animal; about being a helpless passenger in their body. Robert's experience wasn't like that. Panic scrapped at his skull, but then he realized that they must have meant that they could choose to be a passenger.

He stopped at the base of the gnoll as the dark chestnut took a few steps towards him. The chestnut shook his head from side to side and shoved its muzzle foward, jaws open wide, a loud scream bursting out and ringing in Robert's ears. He tried relaxing, feeling his tail fall flat against his behind. Hello? Um-- do something-- Take over or whatever.

The chestnut pushed his weight against Robert's side and he had to step away to keep from being pushed over. What the hell? He didn't know what was going on, but Robert had always been stubborn. He stepped forward, pressing his shoulders against the chestnut, neighing his displeasure. The chestnut snapped at Robert with his teeth, but stepped back.

All around was the scent of confusion--

Robert didn't know what was going on, but he had had enough!

Not noticing the relaxed posture of the chestnut as he stepped back, Robert reared, let his forehooves clomp to the dry ground, and stepped forward. The chestnut screamed as the other horses milled nervously. The chestnut decided to stand his ground against the interloperand reared, kicking back. Robert was hot, tired, and frustrated, and pissed. He nipped at the other's ears, reared up again and kicked at the chestnut's chest.

At that point the chestnut decided enough was enough and gave dominance to the wierd agressor. He turned and fled.

Screaming his triumph, Robert clomped back down onto his forehooves and stood there, panting. His body sang with triumph, and he felt the scent of the herd relaxing. The dynamics shifted, heirarchy changing, priorities being rearranged. As for Robert, what had he done?

He looked around, almost uncomprehending. Why had the chestnut attacked him? And why had it stopped? And, most importantly, wht had he had to deal with it? Thinking back, he remembered bits and pieces. There was no way to control what species a time traveller ended up inside. So there was no way to study the specifics -- there were simply too many species to cover. But, they had gone through the general behaviours of each species, though briefly.

Virtually all herd animals had an individual pecking order. Every member knew his or her place in the heirarchy. Same thing for pack hunters. There couldn't be a herd stallion as stallions didnot make good riding or war horses. Robert knew that he was a gelding, but then he also knew that he'd get it back when this body died and his soul returned home. It must just be the ranking of individuals. Apparently the chestnut had been higher in the herd than him, and he had challenged the chestnut. And won.

And yet-- why had he had to deal with that?

Panic bubbles up inside Robert and he could sense the herd milling nervously, looking for the predator.

The horse Robert was riding would have known. Would have dealt with the herd position struggle correctly. And yhet, there was nothing. Nothing that he could reach or sense in ths body that he was riding. That seemed more and more to be his. What the hell was going on? Could he be holding the horse mind imprisoned? That was it -- holding the mind imprisoned, and he simply didn't know how to let it go. It was possible. It had to be. Robert made a mentalnote to talk to the other travellers when he got back to see what their experiences were.

Shrugging, and then snorting, Robert walked to the top of the knoll. One of the others nibbled on his back and he let her. Her scent made her gender obvious. Relaxing a bit at her ministrations, enjoying the slight sea breeze, he looked out into the glistening tepia-blue of the Aegean.

For a while he just stood, the late aftgernoon sun behind him providing perfect illumination. The sea was full of ships, big breasted clumsy merchantmen, the odd sleek bireme or trireme, Along the beach before him stretched miles of beached triremes, safely out of the water, camps near each vessel presumably housing each crew. Before him there was a horse transport disembarking its cargo.

Herodotus has put the Persian army at over a million -- far too large a number to be possible. Scholarly analysis ranged form 40,000 to well over a hundred thousand. The later number was far closer to true from what lay before him. The secret to warfare, the secret Alexander knew and Napoleon forgot, was logistics. A hundred thousand men, their horses, their servants and slaves, took a lot of food, and could literally drink rivers dry. Before Robert's eyes was the genius of the Persian Empire.

Whilst the Greeks squabbled and fought, the Persians masterminded the growing of crops, their transport to the coast, their loading on to ships movement to the army in the field. Somewhere a clerk recorded every bag of grain, every sack of barley. Every single one had a number, and a tally trail across hafl the ancient world.

And yet the Greeks had won--

All Robert could do was shake his head.


For five more days Robert just stood and watched the endless procession. He knew that to the south, at the Gate of Fire, the Greeks were slaughtering their foes. The only sign the circling and crows and gulls to feed on the dead. He could feel the anger in the camp building. Triremes lay beached, other afloat guarding the army's lifeline. Xerxes had built a bridge to march here, but the chain of supplies was what kept his army going.

On the eighth day the army began to move.

The first that Robert knew was when his groom, from scent he coudl tell that it was the same one, led him out of the makeshift paddock after the morning grooming. All around him, his herdmatese were undergoing the same ritual. The Persians hadn't yet introduced horse armour, a fact that Robert was overjoyed about. Just the thought of his body being covered with cataphract armour was enough to make him shudder.

A bit was slipped into his mouth, the bronze cold and hard on his tongue, and he snorted his displeasure. At least it wasn't the far crueller bits the Greeks used. A decorated leather bridle was pulled over his muzzle, and reins dropped ont ohis neck. Over hs backwas settled a heavy wool blanket, onad on top of that an ornate leather saddle. A cloth strap was draped over the saddle and the blanket, and an organe bronze clasp pressed codly against his chest. He didn't have time to protest as the bastard groom kneed his chest. Robert's breath gasped out through his nostrils and the strap was tightened. He sucked in air, but not quite as much as he coul dhave, as the strap dug into his stomach.

At least they hadn't invented the horseshoe yet.

The final components were a colourful feathered headdress, unwelcome in weight, but Robert figured it made him look dashing, along with a colourful ribbon braided into his tail. He couldn't tell what colour it was with his vision, but from what he knew, it was quite colourful.

- mounted (name of general)

He stood there, watching the army begin to move otju, column after column. Looking around for Xerxes' legendary throne

- march through Greece, accepting surrender after surrender

- Burning of Athens

- Watching the naval battle at Salamis

- Watching most of hte army turn to march home

- Winter in Greece

- Spring, sweetness of grass. The army masses and marches.

- Platea