38 comments

Jul 22, 2020

Mystery Historical Fiction

I count him braver who overcomes his desires than he who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self – Aristotle





    Phrygia, Western Anatolia, 850 BCE


    The Phrygian King was dead.

    The council of elders called a hasty assembly to discuss the tricky matter of succession. The monarch had died suddenly, leaving behind no heir. Such a thing had never happened before and Phrygian custom made no allowance for this eventuality. The lobbying for power had already begun among the council members and, if the matter was not soon resolved, civil war would surely follow.

    Disaster loomed, and there was but one in the entire kingdom who could prevent it.




    Adrasteia was the most revered woman in all of Phrygia. Her wisdom was unrivaled and it was said she could concoct magical potions and cast powerful spells. She was also an oracle; her prophetic proclamations were believed to come directly from the gods.

    As such, she occupied a lofty position in Phrygian society and played a vital role in governing the affairs of the kingdom. Being a woman, Adrasteia was barred from serving on the council or holding any official seat of authority, but her influence was nevertheless significant.

    When the Oracle spoke, people listened.

    Upon hearing of the king’s death, Adrasteia hastened to the temple to address the council, hoping to avert calamity.

    The elders fell silent as she entered the council chamber. All heads turned to her expectantly.

    “Oracle, who among us is to be the new king?” the chief elder asked. “Have the gods made their will known?”

    “They have,” she confirmed. Looking over the gathered men, Adrasteia knew that none among them was suited to royal office. If civil war was to be averted an outside candidate was required. They would not like her next words, but, if she purported to speak on behalf of the gods, none would dare argue. “The man who shall be our new king sits not in this room.”

    A collective gasp of astonishment went up.

    Adrasteia continued, “The gods have decreed that the next man to enter the city gates driving an oxcart is to be crowned the new King of Phrygia.”

    This was met with stunned silence.

    The oracle then sealed the divine decree with the customary sacred words: “By the power the gods have vested in me, so it is spoken so shall it be.”

    “So shall it be,” the councilmen affirmed as one, thus settling the matter.




    The long journey was finally nearing its end. Gordius sighed contentedly as, at last, the city gates came into view. He spurred the twin oxen pulling his cart onwards, eager to get back to his hearth and looking forward to a warm fire and a full belly.

    A peasant's life was a brutal one, and often all too brief. Gordius was proud that he’d made it to early old age and wanted only to live out his remaining days in peace.

    He was unprepared for the fanfare that greeted his arrival in the city. Cheering people thronged the streets and they all seemed to be focussed solely on him. It was as if they thought he was…

    “King! King! All hail the new Phrygian King,” the crowd roared.

    Barely able to comprehend what was happening, Gordius was lifted bodily off his cart and carried to the clearing before the temple. There, a golden crown was placed on his head, an amaranthine cloak draped over his narrow shoulders, and a gleaming scepter thrust into his hands.  

    The elders knelt, swore him their undying allegiance, and proclaimed that Gordius was officially the new King of Phrygia.

    The city was renamed Gordium, in his honor.




    Gordius’ first act as king was to sacrifice his oxen as an offering to the gods. Then, on the steps before the temple, he addressed his subjects for the first time. “I was a mere peasant this morning and now I stand before you, King of Phrygia! Such is the mysterious will of the gods, which no mortal can comprehend. Praise be to them!”

    The crowd roared in agreement.

    Gordius then took the yoke which had bound the oxen and, with a length of rope, tied it to a stout wooden pole nearby. “Let this yoke symbolize my sudden elevation and the everlasting bond between all Phrygian people. No man can untie this knot, and if ever one is able, he shall go on to rule over all of Asia!”

    Again, the crowd cheered their approval.

    The king singled out a lone figure in the front row, saying, “Come, Oracle, I command you to declare my words as prophecy of the gods.”

    Adrasteia was disinclined to acquiesce. She knew that, above all else, absolute power corrupted absolutely. No individual should ever be granted leave to rule over the entire continent. Yet she also knew that to refuse a royal command was unwise. So, reluctantly, she stepped forward and proclaimed, on behalf of the gods, that any man who untied the knot would go on to rule Asia.

    Later that night Adrasteia returned alone to the steps before the temple. She knelt in front of the pole upon which the yoke was tied. “Oh wise, ancient ones,” she whispered into the silence, “I beseech you: allow no mortal man the strength of hand to untie this knot. And if any should succeed by other, less scrupulous means, be it by flame or by blade, I pronounce him cursed by the 13th number. His rule shall span no more than 13 years, his heir will perish at that same young age, and his empire shall crumble to dust.” She then sealed her words into the customary way. “By the power the gods have vested in me, so it is spoken, so shall it be.”




    The proud nation of Phrygia flourished under Gordius’ rule and he was succeeded by his son, Midas, who governed his kingdom with his legendary golden touch.

    All things must eventually come to an end, however, and Phrygia was no exception. A century and a half later it was overrun by Cimmerian invaders; her citizens fled West, to the shores of the Mediterranean, and Gordium was left in ruins, never to be rebuilt.

    The famed Gordian Knot remained securely fastened, waiting for one worthy to loose its intricate bonds.

    It would be a long wait indeed. 





    The ruins of Gordium, 333 BCE


    The young Macedon King rode proudly at the head of his formidable army. His pride was well justified. Only 22 years of age and already he’d achieved more than any ruler in history. Immediately after his father’s death, Alexander had united the warring Greek city-states into one, powerful force. The citizens of Thebes had thought they could defy him, but so brutally had he dealt with the rebellion that thereafter, all others had fallen into line.

    He had led his forces into battle against their age-old enemy, the Persians, and despite being outnumbered, Alexander’s troops had won a famous victory on the shores of the Aegean Sea. King Darius III had been humiliated and had fled for his life.

    The Macedon King planned to march South, to Egypt, and then East, to the unexplored lands of India and beyond. He had declared himself Lord of Asia, and few doubted he would succeed in conquering the continent, if not the world.

    Already, his legend was spreading. He was directly descended from Zeus himself, some said. Others claimed he was immortal. There could be no mistaking that his keen intellect, honed at the feet of his childhood tutor, Aristotle, coupled with his fearsome battlefield ability would raise him to dizzying heights, the likes of which had never before been seen.

    Alexander had heard of the Gordian Knot and had detoured to the ruined city with the sole intent of loosing the bonds and affirming, once and for all, that he was the rightful ruler of the Asian continent. There was no doubt in his mind that he would succeed where no many before had failed.




    Alexander was not the only one who was eager to reach the ruins of Gordium. Aileethia, bound hand and foot along with the other slaves in the king’s personal entourage, had longed to see the city of her forebears all her life. She had been born and raised in the Greek city of Thebes, but her lineage could be traced back to ancient Phrygia: to Adrasteia herself. The legend of the Gordian Knot was known by all, but only the direct decedents of the Oracle knew of the curse.

    As Aileethia marched in line, regarding the regal figure on his mighty horse not far away, hot bile rose in her throat. She hated Alexander with a venomous passion. The Macedon King had swiftly dealt with the Thebeian rebellion early in his reign, putting all who dared offer resistance to the sword, including Aileethia’s husband. Never before had she witnessed such carnage. And her children… that did not bear thinking about. She’d been taken into slavery and from that day on, the sole focus of her continued existence had been the unlikely possibility of revenge.

    But, perhaps unlikely no longer, she thought, as the ruins of Gordium, and the cursed knot within, drew near.




    Alexander of Macedon reigned in his horse before the crumbling temple within the city. He dismounted and approached the knot, studying it carefully from all angles. He then turned to address his gathered troops. “I, Alexander son of Phillip, the third of my name, King of Macedon and all the Greek lands, conquerer of the Persians and the Thracians, future King of Asia, have brought you many leagues further than any other ruler in the history of the world!”

    The soldiers cheered and stamped their feet.

    “But,” Alexander continued in a dangerously lowered voice, “there are those among you who dare whisper treason behind my back. Let any who still has doubts cast them aside this day, for behold, I shall now untie this knot and prove myself worthy of ruling all of Asia.” He then bent swiftly to the knot and began working at it with his bare hands.

    As the king struggled with the bonds, his troops grew restless. The silence was punctuated by mutterings of dismay as the futility of his efforts became apparent.

    Aileethia took her chance. Stepping nimbly around the guards, she approached the king, falling on her knees before him. “B-beg pardon,” she stammered. “A w-word, if it p-please your m-majesty?”

    “Insolent slave!” Alexander roared. “Guards, away with her!”

    “W-wait! I k-know the s-secret to undoing the knot,” Aileethia cried in desperation. “I c-can help you.”

    The king signaled the guards to halt. He then approached Aileethia. As he bent down, a lock of blond hair fell into his boyish face, but Aileethia was not fooled by his benign appearance. Within, she knew, lurked a monster. “Are you suggesting I’m incapable of untying the knot on my own?” he whispered in a voice so full of malice that Aileethia knew she was but moments away from death.

    “No, your majesty! I w-wish only to save you t-time. This knot, you s-see, none before have been able to untie it. P-perhaps it is n-not meant to be untied. Perhaps it need be loosed by other m-means.” She darted a glance at the sword on his hip, hoping he’d take the hint.

    He did. It made perfect sense to Alexander. Had he not advanced so far in so short a time thanks only to the might of his blade? There was no problem that couldn’t be solved at the point of a sword, he knew, and the troublesome knot was no different.

    Alexander ordered the guards to remove Aillethia and punish her for speaking out of turn – he could never have it said he was advised by a mere slave and a woman besides. He then drew his blade, approached the knot, and cut clean through it with one, vicious stroke.

    The soldiers cheered. As she was being dragged away, Aileethia smiled with savage satisfaction. So it is spoken, so shall it be.




    A terrible thunderstorm shook the city that night. The soldiers and their king declared it a sign that the gods approved of Alexander as the rightful ruler of Asia. Fools, Aileethia thought to herself as she lay alone in the dark, her back still bleeding from the whipping she’d received at the king’s command. As the thunder boomed out and the rain lashed down, she marveled at how anyone could mistake the storm for anything less than a sign that the gods were enraged.





    Babylon, June 13th, 323 BCE


    The Macedon King was dead.

    Crowds of mourners gathered on the streets of Babylon on hearing the news. How could it be? they wondered. Alexander had swept all before him, had conquered all of Asia, and founded the greatest empire ever to exist. And now he was dead in just the 13th year of his reign.

    Speculation was rife as to what had caused the downfall of the great man. It was fever, contracted in the East, some said. Others whispered that he had been poisoned by his rivals. No one knew for sure, and the mystery would remain for all time.

    To all but one. Aileethia alone was dry-eyed in the city that day. She knew the truth. Alexander of Macedon had never been bested in battle but, in the end, he’d fallen prey to his own greed and boundless ambition. And a certain wise woman of Phrygia and her proud line.

    There was much discussion as to who would take over the reins of power. Alexander’s son, when full-grown, would make as fine a ruler as his father, all agreed. The empire was in good hands. They could not know that Alexander’s heir would not live beyond the age of 13 years and that, after his death, his father’s mighty empire would crumble to dust.

    Aileethia chose not to enlighten them. No one would have believed her and, besides, her kind preferred to operate from the shadows of anonymity. She had her revenge and the world was rid of a tyrant. There would be others in the centuries to come, she knew, but that didn’t trouble her. Her kind would be there too, always watching, ready to intervene if so required. The world was in good hands.

    Aileethia bowed her head in prayer with all the other mourners, but she didn’t ask for Alexander the Great’s safe passage to the afterlife. Instead, she thanked the gods for their wisdom in allowing her to so subtly steer the momentous course of history. So it is spoken, so shall it be.




    And that is where our tale ends. Or perhaps not. The decedents of Adrasteia of Phrygia have influenced history countless times since and, some say, continue to do so to this day.

    If any proof is required, consider this: 13 is still regarded as an ill-fated number; a superstition perpetuated by certain wise old women whose forebears were persecuted and burnt at the stake throughout history, and whose lineage can no doubt be traced back to ancient Phrygia. A saying favored among them is Do not cut what you can untie, and there can be no doubt what fateful event these words reference. What they are surely thinking when uttering this truism, but which remains unsaid, is the corollary: And if you can’t untie the knot, then perhaps it is best soon forgot.              


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38 comments

Kathleen March
23:41 Jul 25, 2020

Dynamite. Extremely well-written, both in terms of pacing and structure and in terms of dialogue and description. Aileethia - Greek for Truth. Nice. Gordius - when gordo is the adjective for fat in Spanish. Nice again. Fantasy? For YA or teen readers? Or...? One thing - I wondered about the phrase Macedon King. Later we see King of Macedon, which sounds better. Macedonian King? Forgive me for obsessing, but my old high school was Palmyra-Macedon! Also, in another life I studied Classics... You are heading for publication sooner rathe...

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Jonathan Blaauw
08:20 Jul 26, 2020

Thank you, that means so much! Interesting about the names. Gordius I got from the legend, but I wonder if it has any relation to gordo? Would be interesting to know. And Aileethia I just improvised. Inventing Greek names seems to be a case of starting with the letter ‘A’, throwing in plenty of vowels, and then adding a ‘th’ for fun. It’s wonderful how it means truth, because that I did not know. I know nothing about the language, actually. It’s all Greek to me. Also interesting observation about Macedon/Macedonia. From what I can gather,...

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Kathleen March
14:43 Jul 26, 2020

I haven't tracked it very much, but somewhere back centuries, one source mentioned it could be related to Spanish gordo. I'm still pondering it. Might be a vague Indo-European origin. I don't do metal music, so thanks for clarification. I do love old stuff and intertextuality, myth, etc. Do keep writing. You're good.

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09:10 Jul 22, 2020

I read this to the end and hate me Nathan, but I did like Alexander😊. I just love the way you made him out to be. I like the slave girl too, her insistence on how to cut the knot? I don't know much about the history of the world and don't blame me since I barely paid any attention to it. But I like what you did here. Love all of your work.

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Jonathan Blaauw
15:06 Jul 22, 2020

Thanks, really appreciate that. I took some literary license with Alexander’s character because he’s not a traditional historical bad guy. But then, a strong case could be made that he was no saint either. So… gray area. I just had to make him seem bad to suit the story. Glad you enjoyed it.

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Pragya Rathore
19:39 Aug 21, 2020

Historical fiction is definitely your forte, Jonathan. This gave me 'The Mummy' vibes: the curse on a coveted object; stupid kings who don't listen to wise advisers, and the like. It felt like a wonderful fairytale to me. I'm learning so much, both creatively and historically, from your works. Kudos! I think my favorite part was when Alexander died. :) And the epigraph was beautiful: where did you find such a lovely quote? Anyway, the story was lovely and fascinating to the reader. Please write more stories like this one! If you don't find ...

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Jonathan Blaauw
08:13 Aug 22, 2020

Thank you so much! Seeing as Aristotle actually was Alexander’s childhood tutor, I just looked for quotes by him. Finding such a fitting one was pure luck. I may do a semi-sequel/sort of follow up to this one. In the last century BC, Spartacus led the slave rebellion in Rome known as the 3rd servile war. Few know that his success was possibly because his wife was a priestess and prophet. Apparently. He also famously wore a Phrygian helmet in battle. I’d love to do a story linking his wife to the wise woman and expanding on her involvement si...

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Pragya Rathore
08:20 Aug 22, 2020

It's all so fascinating! Personally, I found the prophetess in your story to be the most alluring element.

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Nandan Prasad
15:33 Jul 28, 2020

Great story! Love the smooth way you skip across timelines. Great characterization of the Oracle. Very well-written overall! Keep writing! Also, would you mind checking out my stories too if it is not too much trouble? Thanks and good luck!

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Jonathan Blaauw
04:52 Jul 29, 2020

Thank you so much. I'll check yours out asap.

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Amy Dematt
23:41 Jul 27, 2020

This is worthy of commercial publication. Beautifully told and engaging! Have you peddled this? I would encourage you to--a classic story well-told is rare, and you have a gift. Well done! I'll be looking out for more like this!

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Jonathan Blaauw
08:56 Jul 29, 2020

Thank you! I haven’t submitted it anywhere yet, I will one day if I find the right place though. For me the big victory here is that my real literary area of interest is historical fiction. I absolutely love it! So trying and getting it sort of right is kind of like trying to emulate Steve Smith’s unconventional delivery stance and scoring a century (I know that, like my heavy metal references, my cricket comparison will go over everyone’s head, but that’s okay, I get it). OMG! You’ve just given me a brilliant idea! Picture this: a histori...

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Aqsa Malik
11:20 Jul 26, 2020

This is one of my favourite stories I've read on Reedsy so far! It's not often that stories keep me engaged from beginning to end, and where I really read every word, but this was definitely an exception. What I loved straight away was your use of history and mythology. I love mythology so much-especially Greek mythology-and the story of the Gordion knot is so familiar. I'm not that well versed in it, so I don't know what was fictional or part of the myth, but either way, you brought everything out so well! The title is also a genius ...

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Charles Stucker
16:04 Jul 23, 2020

You have a wonderful style which is well matched to a mythic interpretation of history. Three distinct scenes are easily linked by the verve with which you set the number thirteen into play and use oracular women as true agents of change. Your pun in the title is something I particularly enjoy, as I often use the same method. Your mastery of the craft is definitely enough for professional publications.

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Jonathan Blaauw
06:46 Jul 24, 2020

Thank you so much. That means a lot, because I've seen your comments on other stories (which is how I found my way to your story) and you're very knowledgeable on writing matters. I'm looking forward to reading your others.

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Juliet Martin
12:12 Jul 23, 2020

Brilliant story! Once again, I love how the narrative voice carefully matches the tone of the plot and the setting - and this is really consistently done. Also, your characterisation is really clever - you cover a lot of ground temporally but give us a strong sense of each character at each period very effectively in a short space of time which kept me engaged all the way through! I also love how the whole thing is bound up with legend, especially with the saying 'do not cut what you can untie'. The most effective part for me is when Alexand...

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Jonathan Blaauw
14:41 Jul 23, 2020

Thank you so much. The cutting of the knot is such an interesting issue because we largely use it as an idiom for solving a difficult problem in a bold, unexpected way. But to me, solving a problem by going beyond the stated constraints sounds a lot like a fancy description of cheating. And while he - and history in general - regarded it as a great act, I kind of think old Alexander was a bit panicked at that point and desperate to do anything to get the knot loose. So, like you say, exposing weakness thinking it’s strength. Having a slave m...

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Laura Clark
20:52 Jul 22, 2020

So sorry that this comment is delayed! I read it earlier and then life got in the way but at least it gave me time to mull it over. I like the blending - I think it’s blending? Is this just pure history? - of history and fiction. It’s very smoothly done, to the point that I can’t tell what actually happened and what didn’t. You definitely make me want to go and learn more about history! Love the uses of semicolons, too! Very nicely deployed. I feel a little proud, too, as I know you’re practising something you’re struggling with! ...

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Jonathan Blaauw
07:18 Jul 23, 2020

Thank you so much for the insights. It is definitely a blend. I considered adding a note to the end explaining what’s true and what’s not, but I thought it might break the flow. The story of Gordius and the knot comes from Greek mythology, but the account is very brief so I took the liberty of fleshing it out a bit. And giving reasons because the oracle in the myth just says stuff for no reason, so I had to invent. All Alexander stuff is true. Complete fiction is the female characters and the role they play, including the curse on the Gordia...

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Jonathan Blaauw
07:19 Jul 23, 2020

Okay, so I know we capitalize proper nouns. But sometimes I get confused. For example, if you say “I’m going to see the Wizard of Oz” that’s capitalized because it’s a title (question within a question: would ‘the’ be capitalized in that case?). But, if someone asks you where you’re going and you say “To see the wizard” does that get capitalized? Because it could be part of the title, but could also just be a common noun. I think. I know this is basic English but then, with this bizarre language of ours, nothing is really basic, is it? Aga...

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Laura Clark
08:42 Jul 23, 2020

Capitalisation is a tricky thing as sometimes it is the intent. With titles, generally the rule is that prepositions aren’t capitalised (hence the of being lower case) unless they begin it. In your example, you’re using ‘Wizard’ as a name and ‘Oz’ is always capitalised because it’s a place. But ‘the’ shouldn’t be because it’s the not the title of a book, Wizard is the title you’re using. If you said: I read The Wizard of Oz yesterday, then it would need capitalisation. Does that make sense? I’m not sure that made sense.

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Jonathan Blaauw
09:16 Jul 23, 2020

That does, thanks. It was on my mind because of using ‘gods’ in my story. I didn’t know if that should be capitalized. I’m guessing not. But what if you’re talking about specific gods? Like ‘the god, Zeus’? God is his title, so I’m thinking maybe it should be capitalized? But then my instinct would be to not capitalize, and I’m not sure why. This really is not as straightforward as one would think. In this day and age, why haven’t we invented a spelling/grammar checker that just takes care of this stuff for us? Sure would help. But then, wit...

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Laura Clark
09:20 Jul 23, 2020

‘The god, Zeus’ Shouldn’t be but ‘I ask you, God,’ should be. Even the ‘easy’ parts of grammar are hard! That’s why I’m so impressed at the people who manage to not only learn the language but also write creatively in it!

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Adhi Das
19:35 Jul 22, 2020

Worthy reading😊

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Jonathan Blaauw
07:20 Jul 23, 2020

Thanks!

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Adhi Das
19:34 Jul 22, 2020

Nicely done👍😊

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Deborah Angevin
09:52 Jul 22, 2020

I normally don't enjoy history, but I enjoyed this story for some reason! The slave girl is the most memorable one for me :) Also, would you mind checking my recent story out, "Red, Blue, White"? Thank you!

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Jonathan Blaauw
15:05 Jul 22, 2020

Maybe because it’s a blend of history (often boring, I know), mythology (less boring), and fiction (not at all boring)? It’s very cool that you took the time to check it out, even if the subject matter isn’t your usual choice. Thanks. I will check out your new story shortly. Always happy to 😊

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Arya Preston
08:46 Aug 02, 2020

Wanted to check your previous stories and I can positively say that it was definitely worth it! Though I've only recently read your work, I can identify certain tones and a narrative voice that seems specific to you. I've always been an enthusiast of Greek mythology and you've done an incredible job developing a plot in this context and still including appropriate vernacular. Similar to your most recent story, the manner in which you expand these characters is remarkable - you really have a talent for characterisation, revealing little bits ...

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Keerththan 😀
05:09 Jul 30, 2020

Great story. Loved it. I liked Alexander. Well written. Keep writing. Waiting for more of yours.... Would you mind reading my story "The secret of power?"

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Keerththan 😀
05:07 Jul 30, 2020

Great story. Nice concept. The pace was also nice. I liked Alexander. Great job. Keep writing. Waiting for more of yours.... Would you mind reading my story "The secret of power?"

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Taylor Arbuckle
07:33 Jul 29, 2020

This story is incredible. Not only is it a brave thing to set a story in such a time period as this, but also to weave fiction into it and still make it come out seamless. I think it's interesting that you didn't start with Alexander the Great, which is the name most people are familiar with, but rather the origin of the myth itself so that when the famed name did come in, it was sort of like a puzzle piece falling in place. I also really appreciated that you tied the oracles to the salem witches and other spiritually-inclined women throu...

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Jonathan Blaauw
12:48 Jul 29, 2020

Thank you so much! I appreciate that you appreciate the level of difficulty involved. I thought it would be easy to write. It was not easy. Trying to weave fiction in amongst the historical stuff without changing anything important and still come out with a coherent story was a challenge. But a fun one. And I might have mentioned it in another comment earlier here, but ‘Don’t cut what you can untie’ is something my great grandmother used to say. So I’ve added in a personal element. I figured if I was going to suggest a link between the o...

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Taylor Arbuckle
15:20 Jul 29, 2020

If there is one thing that every true writer can agree on, it's that writing is personal. I love that you threw in that element; it makes the story even more genuine. You did a fantastic job on this challenge, and I look forward to seeing more from you. From an editor's standpoint, the only thing I would say to work on is when Gordius comes through the gate and is taken away to be crowned, the way he accepted it with very little fight or confusion seemed sort of rushed, but I do understand that 3,000 words is not a great many. I also unde...

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Grace M'mbone
08:03 Jul 25, 2020

Unique in that you have combined fiction and mythology. I can also make out some history here. This was an awesome read for me. I have definitely learnt a lot about character development from this. Please keep writing. I love just how complex your writing style is and how successful it has turned out to be. I would be really grateful if a gifted writer of your ilk could take a look at just one of my stories. Once again,this was brilliant. Keep it up and keep writing.

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Jonathan Blaauw
08:25 Jul 25, 2020

Thank you so much! I think maybe ‘gifted’ is a bit strong… but if you want to go for that I won’t argue. I am, in fact, very happy. And I’m always, always happy to read your stuff. I enjoy reading as much as writing. On my way to have a look now.

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