Early one morning, nearly two weeks after they’d left the Middle Kingdom, a ridge of rocky, yellow land, festooned with cliffs, rose beyond the prow. The island separated the Jericho River into two wide, blue-green channels.
“That must be Crete,” said Jason.
Red Knossos, Crete’s principal settlement, lay along the right-hand channel, so they bore to starboard.
“Ha!” said Rim-Hadad later that morning. He pointed to the yellow countryside along the right bank, where a rocky fortress perched between a village and a forest. For the first time, they were seeing real construction on the right bank.“I’ll wager a fierce tribe lives there.”
But the view that afternoon impressed him even more. A chariot rumbled down a dusty road by the shore. Zidu, Tia, and Rim-Hadad stared wide-eyed at the bronze-armored charioteer and his driver, and at their horses.
“What a marvel!” enthused the barbarian. “Think of the speed! Think of the power you’d have on the battlefield, pulled by such beasts!”
Jason realized he couldn’t remember seeing horses in Fore until now.[*]
The companions met a fisherman on the river later that day and asked for directions to Red Knossos. They reached it the next morning. They hid the Dead Valencia in a thicket near a stream and then hiked into the interior, crossing through quiet woods and over yellow fields. They saw a settlement in the distance but then found a road leading inland.
“This looks like a king’s road,” said Zidu, impressed. Many of the paving stones had cracked, but the thoroughfare cut a straight, wide path across the plain. The road was nearly silent, except for the smacking of Tia’s and Rim-Hadad’s sandals and the tread of Jason’s sneakers. Soon they found themselves between rows of square, stone houses, marching in line down each side of the road. The houses were deserted, and many had crumbled to heaps of rock and wood. Those that still stood were impressive and must have once been handsome. But now shadows lurked beyond wooden window and doorframes and in bare rooms.
“I wonder why they’re abandoned,” Jason said, his voice low. Soon, a stone monument rose into view atop a yellow hill, like a giant U or a pair of bull’s horns pointing into the sky.
In the morning sun, the monument cast long shadows on an enormous assembly of buildings covering the hilltop.
“That must be the palace,” said Jason.
“There’s something wrong with that place,” Tia whispered. The hill was perfectly still. They saw no people or animals around the buildings, and they heard nothing.
A rumble drew their gaze to the plain beside the hill. Three chariots were racing toward them, behind galloping horses. The sun reflected off helmets and blades. The charioteers had arrows notched on bowstrings.
“What do we do?” cried Jason.
“Run!” Rim-Hadad bellowed.“We can’t fight those things!” They turned and sprinted down the road. Jason yelped as an arrow clattered against the paving stones at his feet. More fell around them as they reached the slope beneath the looming palace. As they pelted uphill, the rumbling wheels grew louder. Jason glanced back.The chariots had veered onto the road behind them. Thundering hooves, cruel blades, and fierce men in bronze flew toward the travelers before clouds of dust. Tia, running behind Jason, looked back and shrieked. How could they outrun horses? Jason’s legs burned as he poured all his strength into running. An arrow whizzed past his ear, and more fell at the runners’ feet. But then he realized he’d reached the top of the hill. Gasping, he leapt off the road, amazed that he’d beaten the chariots to the palace. He hurtled over a low, crumbling wall, just behind Zidu. Tia and Rim-Hadad scrambled over seconds later, and they all looked down at the chariots.
The horses had stopped halfway up the hill. The road’s last leg was smooth and straight—perfect for chariots—but the riders did not drive another foot toward the stone horns looming over the palace. They stood in their chariots shouting and shaking their bows. The horses stamped and whinnied.
“Thank the gods, they stopped!” cried Tia.
“Yes,” said Zidu. “But how will we ever leave this place with enemies in the countryside, waiting to strike?” He turned to face the complex behind them and looked over the silent domain of pillars, balconies, and dark windows. “And what stopped them from coming here? What could frighten such warriors?”
[*] The steppe barbarians rode bareback, but people in the Fertile Crescent didn’t ride horses much during the Bronze Age, and they certainly didn’t ride into battle. If you’re going to fight from horseback without falling off and getting killed, you need a really stable saddle, which wasn’t invented until after 1000 BC. The light chariot came along first, and it became the ultimate weapon of the late Bronze Age. As for horses themselves, they weren’t even particularly popular as beasts of burden until chariot-fighting came along. Donkeys are sturdier, and originally they weren’t much smaller. Wild horses are pony-sized, and bigger ones evolved over time through breeding, once enough people realized their value.
~ William Gallo, e-mail to Candace Fleming, “RE: Horse Research” (December 3, 2010).