By Mark Kodama
When Nicanor the Bard returned home from the wars in Asia, he was restless. He had made a fortune many times over only to lose everything, save his life. When he left Greece, he was a penniless young man. When he returned, he was a penniless middle-aged man.
So he told tales. To his surprise, people enjoyed his old soldiers’ tales of great wars and strange lands. They even paid him money. Soon he traveled from town to town on a circuit in an old wood wagon pulled by a horse. The wood tires of the wagon creaked as they trundled along the stone roads inside the fortified cities.
Nicanor the Bard wore a neatly trimmed black beard that covered a scar that ran from the black eye patch that covered his empty eye socket and ran down his cheek to his mouth. He wore a simple but clean linen cloak and leather sandals.
One day while on the road to Pherae, Nicanor stopped at the stone well in the center of the walled town. It was a hot summer day. He could feel the sweat under his wide brimmed Macedonian hat.
Nicanor the Bard lowered the wood bucket by the rope down into the well. He could hear the splash when the bucket hit water. By the time he had raised the bucket full of water to give to his horse, the dozen children had already gathered round.
“Tell us a story,” a small little boy said.
“Let’s hear a tale,” an older boy said.
“Let’s have a dipper,” the bard said to a little girl. “I am parched.”
The little girl vanished on the run and then returned with a wood dipper.
The bard smiled. “Thank you, my princess,” he told her. The bard sipped the cool water and washed his face as the children watched in anticipation.
“Well, let’s see,” the bard said, scratching his salt and pepper beard. His eyes lit up. “We gathered at Aulis under the leadership of the king of kings Agamemnon and his glorious brother Menelaus to win back Helen.
“Do you know about that scoundrel Trojan Prince Paris?” the bard asked the children. The children nodded their head in affirmation. “Villain a thousand time over,” the bard scowled in baritone voice. “He stole Helen from Menelaus from his castle as Menelaus slept.”
“All the great Greek kings were there with their men at Aulis, ready to take their revenge on Troy and get rich at the same time. There was old Nestor and his sons from Pylos. The great warrior Achilles and the Myrmidons. The great Ajax with his tower shield and wily Odysseus with his seafaring men from Ithaca.
“But we could not get a favorable wind. So we prayed and prayed. Finally, the soothsayer Calchis said a sacrifice must be made – a sacrifice of the most terrible kind.”
The children gasped.
The bard pointed to Mount Olympus. “The gods demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his own daughter the princess Iphigenia. Oh, terrible.”
The bard paused and drank another draught from the wood dipper. He looked up. “I can still see Iphigenia as if it were yesterday,” he said sadly, shaking his head. “Beautiful to behold! Shining black hair. Doe eyes. Rose red lips. As young as a spring wind!
“Agamemnon knew the Queen Clytemnestra would never allow him to kill their daughter,” Nicanor the Bard said, his eyes lit with fire. He pointed the dipper at the children. “So he decided on a ruse,” he said raising his voice to a shout.
“He sent his herald to his palace to tell the queen an infamous lie – that the great prince Achilles was to marry Iphigenia. Achilles was the greatest fighter of the Achaeans.
“But when Queen Clytemnestra and Princess Iphigenia came to camp, he seized Iphigenia – his own daughter – for a sacrifice!
“But at the last minute, the goddess Artemis saved the Princess Iphigenia. The goddess replaced her with a deer to sacrifice.
“And at last our army had a favorable wind to bring us to Troy and immortal glory.”
The children clapped. The bard retrieved honey cakes with pistachio nuts from his wagon and gave them to the children.
As he was about to leave, he handed the wood spoon to the little girl. “Thank you my princess. And what is your name little girl?”
“I have no name,” the little girl said. “I am a slave.”
“Ah, yes, my pretty little one,” the bard said. “Every little girl has a name.”
The girl looked up him sadly.
“I know,” the bard said, his eyes lighting up. “You must be the Princess Iphigenia. The goddess Artemis turned Iphigenia into a little girl.”
The little girl’s eyes lit up.
“I have a special present for you,” the bard said.
He went to the wagon and gave the little girl – a doll. “May I present to you the Princess Iphigenia.
That night, when the bard made camp, he heard scuffling in his wagon. “I wonder what little animal has gotten into my honey cakes,” he thought.
When he went to the back of his wagon under the blankets, there was the little girl.
“Little girl, what are you doing here,” the bard said. “Someone will miss you.”
“I am the Princess Iphigenia.”
“Well, Iphigenia, I must take you home.”
“I am home with you.”
Try as he may, the bard was unable to persuade the little girl to go home. But he thought the girl would soon tire on the life on the road and he would bring her home at that time.
He gave her the last of his honey cakes.
“But what will you eat,” Iphigenia asked.
“The gods always provide,” he replied.
Iphigenia broke the cake in half and gave the half to the bard.
“The gods will provide for me too,” she smiled. “How about another story?”
“Have you ever the heard the story of Cupid and Psyche?” the bard began.
The bard and Iphigenia traveled to Thebes, then to Athens. They took a ferry to Aegina and the back to Megara and Corinth. Iphigenia was a natural at playing the lyre as the bard cast his spells upon his listeners as he told his stories of the gods and heroes and most of all about the Trojan War.
“And so was buried Hector, tamer of horses,” he concluded. The nobles, their wives and children clapped. The king of Corinth wiped the tears from his eyes.
Iphigenia had wonderfully nimble fingers and an expressive face. She was sad when she had to be sad. And she smiled when it was time to smile. They dressed in matching clothes and the nobles paid them generously for their stories.
One day near Argos, they met a traveling troupe of three actors. After the actors saw the bard and Iphigenia perform and the amount they were paid, the actors became jealous and decided to steal the little girl and make her perform with their group.
They captured the bard, tied him up and stole his horse, wagon and belongings. They kidnapped Iphigenia and left in the night.
“Do you have nothing to say?” the lead actor sneered, his putrid breath wet the bard’s face. The actor was a tall fat middle-aged man who sweated all the time. “Your heroic tales are just that – tales.”
The bard was silent.
“I guess you have nothing to say,” the actor said. His eyes glimmered with a sense of satisfaction.
Iphigenia refused to perform with the troupe. The actors beat, whipped and starved her. But she refused to play for them.
“You are evil men,” she told the lead actor. “The gods will punish you.”
“When you get hungry enough, you will do everything I say,” he replied.
One night, she thought she saw the bard in the audience with his black eye patch. He had a bow slung over his shoulder and a dirk in belt.
That night after the actors were drunk on their honey beer, the bard appeared in camp. He woke Iphigenia.
“Let’s go,” he whispered. To her amazement, he had hitched his wagon with his horse, both stolen by the actors.
He then led them away.
In the morning, the bard was gone when Iphigenia awoke. The three rode their horses into camp.
“You ungracious little monster,” said their leader.
He had an iron poker heating in the fire. “I’m going to teach you to obey.”
As Iphigenia ran toward the forest, an arrow whizzed by her left ear and struck the leader in the chest, just above the left nipple. He sat on the ground, trying to pull the arrow from his chest. A second struck him in the throat
A third arrow struck the second actor in the eye. The actor fell backward, his body convulsing on the ground.
The third actor ran into woods.
It was the bard. He sprang on the two dying actors like a mountain lion. He finished off both actors with his knife. He then ran into the wood. When he returned he had the third actor by the hair.
“Please, mercy,” the actor said. “Spare my life.”
The bard slew him with his knife. His one good eye was wild and his hair was in disarray. His face and clothes were spattered with blood.
Iphigenia locked her arm in his arm. “Let’s go,” she said softly.
Nicanor the Bard tied the corpses of the three dead actors to their horses and then led them back to Argos.
When the bard returned to Pherae, he paid Iphigenia’s owner to set her free. He did not want troubles with the authorities there.
“There is enough trouble in life,” the bard told Iphigenia, “without making more trouble for yourself.”
They travel together during the spring and summer. During the fall and winter they lived with the bard’s brother and his brother’s wife in Macedonia.
“Were you a soldier in the great war?” Iphigenia asked the bard.
“Yes,” he said.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Terrible things,” he said.
“Can I see under your eye patch?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said and took it off.
“You are very handsome,” she said and kissed his cheek.
When Iphigenia became of age, Nicanor the bard gave her husband a rich dowry and always referred to Iphigenia as his daughter. When he died, he left her all his possessions.