By E.D. Wivens, April 2007
"A what?" said the carpenter putting down his saw.
"A horse", repeated the soldier.
"A wooden horse", he added.
"Well", said the carpenter eyeing a plank of knotty pine, "I'll see what we can do, but we're a bit busy at present.
"It's rather urgent", said the soldier.
"No it's for the general."
The carpenter's brow furrowed as he tried to get his mind around this.
The soldier looked about furtively. He jerked a thumb in the general direction of a teenager boiling up some glue in a corner of the tent.
"Can we talk confidentially?"
"Yes the lad's my son and he'll probably forget what you say anyway. His mother was a Vestal Virgin wannabe. Never made the temple though, spent all her time making olive oil instead."
"Good", said the soldier looking out of the tent before closing the flap.
"It's a military matter", he explained taking off his helmet.
"Thought it might be", said the carpenter.
"Well. What we need is a big wooden horse that some men can hide in."
This was not going as planned. "Sorry?" said the soldier.
"I was asking why you wanted a horse that could hide men. I mean what do you plan to do with it?" said the joiner doodling on a clay tablet.
"Ah", said the soldier, "I'm not allowed to tell you that."
"Well you're going to have to if you want it done. I mean it's a bit hard to build something when you don't know what it's for. Anyway how big do you want this thing?"
The soldier closed his eyes and drew his breath. He fiddled nervously with the plume on his helmet "It's got to be two hundred feet tall", he said.
"Two hundred feet tall", said the joiner slowly. He took a sharp intake of breath, "And just where do you think I'm going to get the wood to build a two hundred foot horse. I'm mean I can't just nip to a joiners' merchant and we're surrounded by sparse scrubland. The last decent trees around here got used to repair those boats. You know, the ones that military genius went and set fire to."
The soldier wilted. He mopped his forehead. He'd known it was going to be a bad week. The way the sergeant had grinned as he walked into the room right at the end of the briefing. The way his colleagues had grinned. He put his helmet down on the bench.
"Do you mind if I sit down?" he asked.
Recognising a kindred spirit the carpenter indicated a three-legged stool which the soldier drew up and sagged on to. The carpenter produced a small, delicately inlaid wooden box from the pocket of his overalls and offered it to the soldier.
"No I don't thanks."
"Quite right. Nasty habit", said the joiner taking one and spitting out the stone. He signalled to his lad who brought across two bowls and a skin of wine.
There was a pause as they drank the wine. After the third bowl the carpenter spoke again.
"You drew the short straw I take it." It was a statement rather than a question.
The soldier nodded. "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time." "Again!" he added with some feeling.
"So this will be the horse with a company of men inside that you're hoping to persuade the Trojans to drag into the city then. Whereupon they leap out, open the gates and let in the rest of you."
The soldier looked slightly taken aback. "So you know about that then?"
"I was talking with Smithy", explained the carpenter.
The soldier's mind drifted back to the previous day when he had been sent to ask the smith to build a two hundred foot bronze horse. He flinched as he remembered the warmth with which it had been explained to him that such a construction would be too heavy to move, even if they had conjured up the materials to build it.
He also recalled the sergeant's face as he had reported back. He hadn't realised that anybody could turn that colour.
"Ah", he said.
"You do realise that a two hundred foot horse won't fit through the city gates anyway" Come to that I don't suppose anybody's though to find out how big the gates are?"
"Not as far as I know. I suppose you could get your lad to organise a surveying party", he suggested.
A bolt of lightning flashed from the clear blue sky and struck the ground a few inches from where the soldier sat. He fell backwards off his stool. Recovering himself he glanced at the carpenter.
"What was that?"
The carpenter smiled. "That'll be Zeus. He gets really upset when somebody suggests the lad can go and organise something. I asked an oracle about it once, but she just said that the gods expected trouble from a carpenter's lad in the near future. It happens a lot, so I just ignore it."
The carpenter's face straightened. "I don't suppose there's a payment involved?"
The soldier shook his head. "No I'm to tell you it's a war time measure and all that. Sorry." His face brightened, "But they did say you'd get to build all their future horses."
The carpenter looked through the hole in the roof of his tent and uttered a silent prayer in the general direction of Zeus asking for strength.
"Well I'm not a military man, but I can't help feeling that there won't be any further orders. I mean this is just the sort of thing you do once isn't it? The next time a wooden horse appears at the gates, the enemy will have it sussed out right away won't they?"
"It always takes time develop countermeasures to any new weapon", said the soldier grasping at straws.
The carpenter sighed. "Look it's wood. Wood burns. Look how those ships went up. You know the ships we'd just spent a month fixing. How long does it take the enemy to work out their countermeasures for that one then?"
"Well they also said they'd get a write up for you in the Iliad, their war correspondent's around somewhere. His name's Homer or something."
"Never read it. I prefer the Aeneid myself, but I might go and have a word with old Virgil after the event if that's acceptable.
"I'm sure that'll be fine", said the soldier making a mental note to get it cleared.
"All right then", continued the carpenter, "as it's a military matter, we'd better see what we can do. Of course we'll have to scale things back a bit, but it's better than nothing". He picked up a stylus and started sketching on a fresh wax tablet. "Lets say six men, well certainly no more than a dozen anyway. And you'd have to make it no more than, say, forty feet high if you want to be sure of getting it through the city gates." He sketched away for a moment. "I suppose we could modify an existing siege engine and add a bit of light superstructure." More lines. "And there we are - one wooden horse. How's That?" He handed the tablet to the soldier.
"It's very good", he said.
"Well I know that, and you know that, but do you think you can sell it to the general. I mean you know what they're like. We don't want another one sulking in his tent do we?"
The soldier smiled and put on his helmet.
"Don't worry about that. In ten minutes he'll think it was all his idea in the first place."
He saluted and left the tent.
The carpenter turned to his son. "You know lad this could go down in history. We might even add a new phrase to the language." He sipped his wine before continuing.
"Beware of gifts bearing Greeks", he said.The author and owner of this work is E.D. Wivens. See http://www.katzphur.co.uk/ for more details.