All his life, Aesacus had the ability to interpret dreams. He was barely a young man when his stepmother Queen Hecabe dreamed she gave birth to a smoldering piece of wood. When she asked him its implications, he said her future son, named Paris, would provide warmth during difficult times. He dared not reveal the warmth would come from the burning carcass of Troy.
Troubled, he moved from his father’s, King Priam’s, sumptuous home to modest rooms near the marketplace. He tried but failed at various trades, adopting at last the one occupation he was suited for, consulting oracle.
Everyone wanted to know the future, and Aesacus made a name for himself. Branching out from dreams, he learned to read faces and symbolic signs, presenting even the blackest future as off-white. He kept so busy he might have forgotten his mother’s dream had Priam not sought his blessing shortly after Paris’s birth. Wanting a second opinion, Aesacus took Sibyl, another oracle, with him. They had developed a friendly rivalry, her outgoing nature contrasting with his introspection.
“So, what does the future hold for my boy?” Priam asked in a booming voice as he and Hecabe sat erect on their jewel-encrusted thrones. The royal court dwarfed the combined living quarters of a hundred average families. Spears, shields and helmets adorned the cold, gray stones of the walls. The expectant silence was broken only by sniffling Paris, cradled in a slave’s arms.
I can’t do it, Aesacus thought, and though he hadn’t the ability, he and Sibyl might as well have read each other’s minds.
“I foresee an important leader who will leave an indelible mark on Troy,” said Aesacus, and bowed.
Sibyl, angular, wild hair, mouth agape, added, “I see years of peace for Troy, in which Paris will play a large part.”
Priam clapped his hands in joy. “I knew it. How could the future be anything but bright for such a beautiful child? He is beautiful, don’t you agree?”
“Oh yes. He has the eyes of Zeus,” Sibyl said.
“Do you think so?” Priam asked, alarmed. He turned to his queen. “Hecabe, when we sacrificed to Zeus last month, you didn’t…”
She frowned. “We sacrificed one of our sheep. I wasn’t even there.”
“That’s right,” Priam said, relaxing. He turned to Sibyl. “What do you mean, he has the eyes of Zeus?”
“She meant,” Aesacus interjected, “that in his eyes she could see strength and wisdom comparable to the king of the gods, or the king of Troy, for that matter.”
“I see. Is there anything we need to worry about?” Priam asked.
The two oracles shook their heads in unison. “No, father,” said Aesacus. “It is already written.” But for the first time in his life, Aesacus wondered if someone could scratch it out.
With that, Paris started crying. The slave carried him out of the room. Priam and Hecabe thanked and dismissed the oracles, adding, “Nice to see you again, son.” Outside the gates, Aesacus glared at Sibyl.
“He has Zeus’s eyes. Why didn’t you just say he has Dionysus’s breath? Medusa’s hair?”
“I was just making conversation. His eyes do…
“Forget about his eyes. Did you see his…fate?”
“Oh yes. He’ll burn Troy to the ground. No question.”
Aesacus wiped his bushy brow, a two-swipe job. “What are we going to do?”
“We can’t just let him grow up, kidnap Helen, start the Trojan War, and destroy the city.”
“Aesacus, we’re oracles. We know better than anyone that the future is the will of the gods and can’t be changed. How often have we made prophecies that mere humans tried to change, to no avail?”
“But that’s just it. We’re not mere humans.”
“Are you saying my son is fated to cause the destruction of Troy?” Aescaus froze, seeing Priam standing behind them. The king had heard everything.
Aesacus wondered why he couldn’t have foreseen that?
“I’m sorry, father. I tried to protect you but…”
“This is awful,” said Priam. “I have no choice but to sacrifice the child for the greater good. I will have my shepherd leave it exposed on the side of Mt. Ida.”
Priam was a man of snap decisions, as was evidenced by the fact he would produce 69 children. He left in a huff. Sibyl shrugged. “Perhaps…”
“Forget it,” said Asacus. “Have you ever heard of that working? If I wanted to ensure that a child live forever, I’d leave him on a mountainside. I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to let go of this one. Are you going to help or not?”
“Help you what? Kill your brother?”
“My half-brother. It’s either him or thousands.”
Sibyl gave it some thought. “I don’t normally do mountains, but I’m intrigued by the hopelessness of the situation.”
The next morning, from the cover of a discreet distance, Aesacus and Sibyl followed a grizzled shepherd up the side of Mount Ida. His brawny arms held the infant Paris, wrapped in animal skins. He and the wind moaned in mournful tandem. The two oracles huffed, and puffed, and fell farther behind, until they lost sight of the shepherd. Sibyl’s interest in climbing was replaced by a desire to wring her colleague’s neck.
“People always say they climb mountains because they’re there,” she yelled at Aesacus’s back. “In my opinion, that’s the best reason not to climb them.” Failing to walk and tie the back of her hair into a knot simultaneously, she fell on her knees with a squawk. Aesacus helped her up.
“Oh, so you do care,” Sibyl said sarcastically.
“Huh? Of course. But when you screamed, I thought it was the baby.”
“At this rate, I’m going to die faster than he is.” A sliver of blood cut across her knee. “Look!”
About fifty paces ahead, a brown bear lay curled on the ground. Creeping closer, they saw the infant Paris, sleeping peacefully in the protection of the animal. The shepherd had vanished.
“What did I tell you?” asked Aesacus.
Sibyl’s eyes moistened, her scowl curling into a smile, then back to a scowl. “I am not going to kill that baby.” She stood unyielding, her arms folded.
“Fine, I’ll do it myself.”
Aesacus advanced toward Paris. As the oracle leaned over, the bear whacked him on the side of the head, spilling him to the ground.
“Could I prevail upon you,” Aesacus called groggily to Sibyl, “to check the future and see what will happen if I keep trying to take the baby from this bear.”
“You don’t need to be an oracle to figure that out.”
He wobbled to his feet and addressed the bear. “You can’t raise a child. It’ll grow up maladjusted. He’ll see all the fur on his brothers and feel inadequate. He might start wearing dresses or something.”
“What are you wearing?” Sibyl asked.
Aesacus glanced at his cloak, then lunged for the child. The bear growled and whacked him on the other side of his head. From the ground he thought, one more slap like that and he’d have hours of dreams to analyze.
“In truth, we have many years to act,” he said finally.
“Let’s see if we can get back to Troy in time for the fifth chariot race. I got a hot tip.”
Sibyl shook her head. “They hate it when we bet on chariot races.”
Twenty years passed, and the two oracles went their separate ways. Sibyl stayed in Ilium where her obscure ramblings produced much business. Aesacus, disheartened by his gift, moved to the countryside and turned his hand to farming. His struggles against the unforgiving soil failed to make him forget about Paris, however. As everyone believed the baby was dead, no one dreamed about him, except Aesacus. At first all he could see was that burning piece of wood. Later he dreamed that the shepherd had returned, saved the baby, and raised him in secret, but the oracle could never discover where. He remained stymied, until a final vision showed Priam’s men stealing Paris’s best bull as a prize in their funeral games. Paris would go to Troy and win it back. This was Aesacus’s chance.
He again sought Sibyl at her temple. He complemented her, saying she hadn’t aged a day. She smiled and said, “Time flies when you live in the future.” Aesacus complimented her on another obscure pronouncement, then asked for help with Paris. Sibyl was astonished he still had this gadfly up his cloak, but consented, as she had already planned to attend the festivity.
Disguised as peddlers, Aesacus and Sibyl pushed through a crowd of boisterous men watching the archery contest. Aesacus wore a chafing, stiff outfit, the pockets filled with sand, and felt the changes of two decades on his body. His mind felt sharp, however. He and Sibyl watched a hairy bruiser, his body dwarfing his bow, pull on an arrow. It flew wobbly for ten lengths, then skidded well short of the target. There was a yelp as the shot of the next beefy man flew into an onlooker’s leg.
“This country doesn’t stand a chance against the Greeks,” said Sibyl.
“That’s why the Trojan War must never start,” said Aesacus.
The archer handed the bow to the next man in line. Aesacus recognized the grown-up Paris and pointed him out to Sibyl.
Sibyl grimaced. “Being an oracle, I really hate asking this question. It makes me feel stupid but, what are we going to do?”
“You’re going to distract Paris when he shoots.
“How? He looks very focused.”
“Do a belly dance or something. Use your feminine charms.”
He pushed the unenthusiastic Sibyl forward. Her frenzied gyrations resembled more the falling sickness than a dance, however, and distracted only a physician. Paris, on the other hand, shot the arrow into the center of the bull’s eye. The crowd went wild.
“He seems more interested in that bull than he is in you,” Aesacus said disgustedly as she returned.
“Not my fault,” she said.
Until sundown they watched archer after archer hit everything but the target. After the last man had shot, the elderly Priam stepped from his shaded chair and approached Paris. “You are the winner of the prize bull. What is your name, young man?”
A wide-eyed woman with a screeching voice tilted her head in Paris’s direction. Aesacus recognized Cassandra, a woman no one listened to. “I’ve seen this man before,” she said.
Behind her stood Deiphobes, another of Aesacus’s half-brothers. “Well, I haven’t. Who does he think he is, a stranger, coming into Troy to snatch away the prize? For all we know, this man could be an enemy soldier. These games are supposed to honor the dead. I propose we add another to its ranks.” He picked up a bow and arrow and aimed it at Paris. Having seen Deiphobes shoot, Paris didn’t flinch.
“Wait!” Cassanda said. “Don’t you recognize your own brother?” As a mid-sized island could have been densely populated with Deiphobes’s brothers, it was no surprise he didn’t. Priam didn’t even recognize the disguised Aesacus.
Deiphobes lowered his bow, confused. Cassandra pointed at the contest winner. “Are you not Paris, son of Priam?”
In desperation, Aesacus intervened. “He doesn’t look anything like him. He’s a good four and a half feet taller than Paris.”
“You’re making a fool out of yourself,” Sibyl whispered.
“I am he,” said Paris.
“See?” said Aesacus. “Deliberately vague. I am he could be anyone.”
Paris looked at Aesacus as if the latter had just suggested Haphaestus was a stud, then added, “I am he of whom she spoke.”
“Better, but not good enough.” The male oracle turned to Deiphobes. “I think you should put a few arrows into him just to be sure.”
Priam’s eyes widened. He grabbed Paris’s shoulders. “You are my son? It’s a miracle.”
“A miracle, my posterior,” Aesacus said to Sibyl. “It’s predictable.”
Hecabe, who had been standing behind Priam, said in a portentous voice, “These funeral games in their celebration of death have produced a rebirth.”
Priam did a double take. “That’s quite good, dear. Let’s celebrate the return of Paris.”
Having forgotten the tragic prophecy, Priam and Hecabe embraced Paris. The crowd of people, their lives blessed with a double surprise, dispersed happily to resume their short, uneventful lives.
“Have you had enough of this interventionist behavior?” Sibyl asked as they drifted away. “I, for one, thank the gods every day for limited free will.”
“Not me. I want to be more than an observer. I want to make a difference. I want to be an only child.”
“Only child? Where did that come from?” Sibyl asked.
“I don’t know. Forget about that. I had another dream. In a few months Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena will go to the wedding party of Peleus and Thetis where Paris will choose who is the fairest. We can try to persuade Paris to pick Hera or Athena. Anyone but Aphrodite because …”
“She bribes him with Helen, and the rest is history, or it will be. I know. A party sounds good. Even if we fail, at least I might enjoy myself.”
“I might be too depressed for a party. We’re running out of time.”
“Ah, loosen up. If Paris kidnaps Helen and Troy is destroyed, you can say, I told you so.”
Aesacus thought for a moment. “You just gave me an idea. What if we kidnapped Helen?”
“Then we’d be destroyed. Either her husband King Meneleus would stoke a funeral pyre with our dead bodies or Zeus would use us for target practice with his lightning bolts because we went against his will.”
“I can live with that.”
Sibyl shook her head. “Prediction: neither of us will.”
The two oracles stood outside the roped-off property of King Peleus. Hundreds of party-goers danced to the pulsing music of a lute-flute-percussion combo called the Cretans. A number of gods and goddesses mixed among the crowd. At the entrance stood two really stupid-looking guards, their muscular bodies parallel to their vertically placed spears.
“Wait for Eris, goddess of strife, to crash the party,” Aesacus warned.
“I know who Eris is: my patron goddess ever since I met you.”
“All we have to do is follow her in. No one will notice.”
Right on time, Eris, a disheveled but attractive goddess, brushed by them. They followed. The music stopped.
“The life of the party has arrived!” Eris announced, then reached into her cloak and pulled out a golden apple. “Whoever gets this golden apple will be the fairest of the fair.”
She rolled the apple across the floor. At first, all the dancers stood spellbound. Then Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite dove for the apple. Impulsively, Aesacus joined them, wrenching the apple from their hands.
“I got it!” he shouted. “I’m the fairest of the fair. There’s no need for Paris to choose one of the goddesses.”
Everyone looked at him as if I’d just opened up the bidding for Procrustes’ bed.
“Wait a minute,” Eris said. “Take a bite out of that apple.” Aesacus obeyed. “That’s a real apple.”
“What does that mean?” Aesacus asked.
“That means you just ate an apple that rolled on the floor. This is the golden apple.”
Eris pulled another apple from her pocket and tossed it into the air. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all got a hand on it. Apple-bitten, Aesacus hesitated, but Sibyl rushed into the scratching, kicking, and biting throng.
Aesacus glared at Eris. “They don’t call you strife for nothing.”
When the dust cleared, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, and Sibyl all had at least a finger on the apple.
“But who’s the fairest?” Hera gasped, Aphrodite’s long hair flying across her face.
“I’m content to call it a tie,” Sibyl yelped, after Athena kicked her in the right kneecap.
“There’s no way I’m going to be tied with these three,” said Aphrodite.
“What are you trying to say?” Hera hissed.
Paris stood up in front of them. “You need an impartial judge. I offer my services.”
The three goddesses look balefully at each other. “We agree,” they said in unison.
“Democracy hasn’t been working for me lately,” said Sibyl.
“All right.” said Paris to the contestants. “Appearance is certainly important, but I’m wondering if there’s anything else you might be able to offer that’s not immediately visible.
Aesacus whispered to Sibyl, “I don’t like the way this is going. Do you have any good qualities that aren’t immediately visible?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Just get ready with some counter-arguments.”
“If you choose me,” said Hera, “I will give you dominion over the earth.”
Sibyl threw up her hands in front of Paris. “What are you going to do with that? Think of the responsibility. Every time there’s a problem, people will turn to you and expect some results.”
Aesacus yanked her away. “You idiot! We want him to pick her!” He faced Paris. “What young man wouldn’t want dominion over the earth? If you just got your horse cart washed, you could make sure it didn’t rain the next day. If your mother-in-law from Crete decided to visit, you could have the wind blow the wrong way.”
“Very interesting,” said Paris. “Athena, what have you to say about this?”
“I will give you victory in every battle,” Athena answered.
“Wait a minute,” said Aesacus. “Say, for the sake of argument, Troy and Greece got into a disagreement. If Paris picks you and he was a Trojan soldier, that would mean Troy would be victorious, right?
“Correct,” said Athena.
“Go for it, Paris. Guaranteed prosperity for your city-state. What could be better?”
Paris looked suspiciously at Aesacus. “You seem very interested in this contest, stranger. Have we met before?”
“Only in my dreams,” Aesacus said and looked away.
There was silence, then Paris said, “There are still two others to be heard from. Aphrodite?”
The goddess of beauty flashed a radiant smile. “Choose me and the most beautiful woman in the world will be yours.”
Sibyl embraced Paris roughly. “That’s right. Choose Aphrodite and we’ll be together forever.”
Paris struggled for breath. “If I choose Aphrodite, I get you?”
“Frightening, isn’t it?” asked Aesacus.
“She’s not the most beautiful woman in the world,” Aphrodite said. Sibyl released Paris. “You would get Helen.”
“I see.” He turned to the remaining participant. “And your name is…
“What would I get if I chose you?”
“Try to offer him something he would want,” whispered Aesacus.
Sibyl thought for a moment. “I would give you the ability to tell the future.”
“Definitely a useful gift,” said Aesacus.
“I’m not sure I want to know the future,” said Paris.
“I’m sure you don’t,” said Sibyl.
“I think that would take all the fun out of life.”
“Certainly hasn’t helped mine lately,” Sibyl added.
“And as for dominion over the earth, it’s all I can do to keep track of things on my Mt. Ida farm. As for victory in all battles, I am a peaceful man, so I don’t see the use of that. But Aphrodite…” He looked lovingly at the goddess of beauty.
“Men are so predictable,” said Sibyl. She turned to Aesacus. “All right, let’s visit Helen.”
During the night they kidnapped Helen, their most overt act against a prophecy, and brought her to Aesacus’s rooms. Seated, her arms secured to the chair, the strikingly beautiful woman glared at Aesacus.
“How long do you plan to keep me tied up?” asked Helen.
“As long as it takes,” said Aesacus.
“As long as what takes?”
“I can’t tell you, but believe me, it’s for your own good.”
“Every time a man ties me up, he says that.”
What was it about Helen that made men act like fools? Aesacus wondered. As the nights turned into years, what did Paris think he was going to do with this woman that was worth bringing down a great city? Perhaps that was why her moist eyes, raven tresses, and curved form left Aesacus cold. He knew where they led.
“Any news?” asked Aesacus.
“Yes, her husband Menelaus heard about the party and thought Paris kidnapped his wife. So he declared war on Troy.”
“I hope you set him straight.”
“Of course, but he didn’t believe me. The ships have already sailed.”
“What kind of a moron doesn’t believe an oracle?”
“A doomed moron.”
A knock at the door sounded.
“Who’s that?” Sibyl asked.
“In two seconds, we’ll know,” said Aesacus. “Can’t you see that far ahead?”
“It’s Hermes,” said a youthful, musical voice. “Open the door.”
Aesacus did, and the god entered. The wings on his feet fluttered like blowing leaves, giving him a buoyant step. “I don’t have to tell you why I’m here, do I?”
“Not really,” said Aesacus.
“Tell us anyway. It would be ridiculous for the messenger god to go somewhere without a message,” said Sibyl.
“Zeus insists you release Helen.” Hermes untied her.
She looked admiringly at him. “Thank you. You’re a real gentleman.”
“Run,” said Hermes. Helen did, and the oracles knew where. To Paris.
Aesacus turned to Hermes. “I think it would be a good character builder for Zeus if something didn’t go his way. I know he’s the supreme god and everything, but he could use a little vulnerability.”
“That’s not what people want or need in a supreme god,” said Hermes. “If you’d succeeded in stopping this, you would have proven the future is not planned. Which would mean prophecy is impossible, the end of oracles. It’s best to play the game.” He turned to leave. “Don’t shoot me. I’m just the messenger god.”
After he left, Sibyl said, “Any more dreams?”
Aesacus shrugged. “Not about Paris.”
Aesacus shuddered as he thought about death, destruction, and helplessness. “This…is my life.”
“And mine.” Sibyl stared at his slumped figure, then patted his shoulder. “Hey, the Peloponesian War is coming up. Do you want to try and stop that? Together?
Aesacus smiled wistfully. “We’ll fail.”
“Knowing you’re going to fail, but trying anyway. Maybe that’s what life is about.”
Aesacus thought about it. They had tried and done their best. Perhaps that was a kind of freedom he could learn to love. Perhaps he already had. “All right, what the underworld.”
Sibyl smiled. “That’s the spirit. Peloponnesian War, watch out.”
“What do you know about Sparta?” asked Aesacus.
Sibyl grimaced. “You can’t get a good steak there. And I hate their barracks.”
They walked away, two old oracles, into a predicted sunset.
Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in “Penumbra,” “T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog,” “Fantasy Scroll Mag,” and other markets.