The Spoils of Troy
Andromache’s eyeballs swivelled in panic as though at sudden loss. Then memory seared through her. Again, as though the scene were being played out before her for the first time, she saw Neoptolemus dragging Astyanax by the lobe of his ear across the upper room of her house. Again she saw the deft sweep with which the young warrior lifted her child above the parapet of the balcony. Again she released a protracted scream of refusal and denial, and again it was in vain. Neoptolemus opened his hands and Astyanax vanished, leaving only a brief, truncated cry on the night air.
Unable to stop herself, Andromache had run to the balcony and gazed down where the small body of her son lay twisted on the stones twenty feet below. A pool of blood oozed from his head like oil. In that moment she would have thrown herself from the parapet after him if Neoptolemus had not grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away. So she had stood with that gilded youth bending an arm at her back, screaming and screaming at the night.
But even the mind has its mercies and, for a time, Andromache had slipped beyond the reach of consciousness. When she was pulled back to her senses, she woke into an alien land of torchlight, noise and violent shadows. If she had been asked her own name she could not have recalled it. Still in that primitive state of near oblivion, she had been conducted through the streets of Troy until she was brought to the moment when Hecuba asked after Astyanax. At the sound of the name a whole universe of pain flashed into being again.
Wiping the back of his hand across his nose, Neoptolemus stepped forward to look more closely at the terrified group of women huddled beneath the portico. Wrapped in blankets now, their heads held low in the gloom, they were hard to distinguish from each other. He used the blade of his sword to edge one woman aside so that he could see the girl cowering behind her. ‘The boy had no father,’ he was muttering, ‘and now the mother has no son. But I have a remedy for that.’
Hecuba reeled where she stood. She felt as though she was striding against a dark tide and making no progress. She had seen her firstborn son Hector slain before the walls of Troy. She had seen her second-born, Paris, lying on his deathbed pierced and half-blinded by the arrows that Philoctetes had loosed at him. Others of her sons had failed to return from the battlefield. She had seen one of the youngest, Capys, die that night, cut down trying to defend his father. Then Priam himself had been murdered under her bewildered gaze. Now her six year old grandson Astyanax, Hector’s boy, who had been the only solace that remained to her in a world made unremittingly cruel by war, was also dead. Somewhere she could hear Neoptolemus saying, ‘One of you must be Polyxena, daughter of King Priam. Come forth. The son of Achilles wishes to speak with you.’ Had she not already been exhausted by atrocity, every atom of her being would have shouted out then in mutiny against the gods. As it was, this latest devastation had left the Trojan Queen reduced to the condition of a dumb animal helplessly awaiting the utter extinction of its kind.
And no one among the women moved.
‘Come, Polyxena, what are you afraid of?’ Neoptolemus cajoled. ‘I understand that my father was fond of you. It’s time that we met.’
Still there was no movement among the huddle of blankets.
From somewhere Hecuba found the strength to say, ‘Haven’t you brought evil enough on Priam’s house?’
The boy merely smiled at her. ‘We Argives didn’t seek this war. Troy is burning in the fire that Paris lit. We’re looking only for justice here. As for me, remember that this war took my father from me. He might still have been living at peace on Skyros with my mother if your son hadn’t taken it into his head to meddle with another man’s wife. Now tell me, where is your daughter, old woman?’
But at that moment the sound of Agamemnon’s voice boomed from across the square, shouting out his name and demanding to know where his generals were. As Neoptolemus turned to answer, Odysseus stepped out of the shadow of a nearby building, holding his boar-tusk helmet in the crook of his arm. Immediately Agamemnon demanded to know where he had last seen Menelaus.
‘I left him with Helen,’ Odysseus answered. ‘Deiphobus and his household are dead. The Spartan Guard have control of his mansion.’
‘Has he killed the bitch?’
‘I don’t know. Not when I left.’
Detecting an unusual shakiness in the Ithacan’s voice, Agamemnon looked at him more closely. ‘What’s the matter with you? Have you taken a wound?’
‘Have you seen what’s happening down there? Have you seen the blood in the streets? I gave them my word – I gave our word to Antenor and Aeneas that we would spare all the lives we could. But this …’
Brusquely Agamemnon interrupted him, ‘Aeneas and his Dardanians have already gone free. Antenor is safe enough if he stays indoors. And I’ve got my mind on other things right now. Memnon’s Ethiopians have broken out of their barracks. Diomedes and his men are having a hard time containing them.’
He would have turned away but Odysseus seized him by the shoulder and stopped him. ‘Antenor only agreed to help us because I gave him the most solemn assurances. I gave them on your behalf with your authority. Now you have to get control of this or they’re going to kill everybody. You have to do it now.’ But then he caught the shiftiness in the High King’s eyes. His heart jolted. ‘Are you behind this bloodbath?’ he demanded. ‘Is this what you want?
Agamemnon shrugged the hand from his shoulder and walked away to where Neoptolemus had abandoned his search for Polyxena and was now assembling his war-band for action.
‘Move your Myrmidons down into the lower city,’ Agamemnon ordered. ‘If you look lively we should be able to trap Memnon’s men between your force and Diomedes. I want it done quickly.’
The young warrior raised his sword in salute and, to a rattle of bronze armour, the Myrmidons jogged out of the square down a narrow street that would bring them out in the rear of the Ethiopians.
Agamemnon looked back with displeasure over the city he had conquered. ‘We need to start fighting this fire before half the treasure of Troy is lost to it.’
He was speaking to himself but Odysseus had come up behind him, determined to get the truth from him. ‘You intended this all along,’ he said. And when no answer came, ‘You never meant to hold on to Troy as we planned, did you? You were just making use of me to deceive Antenor and Aeneas.’
‘I’ve no time for this,’ Agamemnon scowled. He was about to walk away when he was snagged by a need to justify himself further. He looked back at Odysseus again. ‘Your stratagem of the horse worked well, old friend. Troy is finished. Poets will still be singing of this victory a thousand years from now. And you’ll be back home on Ithaca soon enough, a rich man, tumbling your wife on that great bed of yours.’ He grinned through the smoke at the grim face that frowned back at him, white as wax, in the moonlight. ‘Think of it, Odysseus. Just think of it. We are immortal, you and I. Whatever happens, our names are deathless now.’
And with that, Agamemnon, King of Men, summoned his bodyguard around him once more and advanced towards King Priam’s palace.
All night long, not speaking, refusing to be touched, Menelaus prowled the bloody chamber where the bed had begun to stink like a butcher’s stall. Helen crouched in a corner, stifling her whimpers. Sometimes, as the night wind gusted, smoke blew into the room, charring the air. After a time the oil-lamp that had been left burning on a tripod guttered out. Now the darkness was almost complete.
Menelaus went to the balcony once to look for the source of the fire and saw that the mansion was in no immediate danger. Beneath him, a tumult of screaming people ran along the street, looking back over their shoulders to where a company of spearmen advanced towards them rattling their shields. But he took almost as little interest in what he saw as did the many corpses already cluttering the gutters. He was remembering those moments in the bull-court at Knossos when he had first heard the news of Helen’s defection – how the roaring of the crowd had dimmed in his ears so that it sounded like the distant throbbing of the sea; how time had wavered strangely, and he had been possessed by the feeling that nothing around him was quite real.
Now it was much the same, for he was as little moved by the sacking of this city as he had been by the antics of the dancers in the hot arena or by the sleek rage of the bull. All this din and terror amounted to nothing more than an incidental accompaniment to the unappeasable clamour of his grief.
Menelaus could no longer see what was to be done. He had come to Troy with a single clear purpose in mind. But Paris had escaped him, fleeing from their duel in the rain like the craven coward he was. And though he had fallen later to the arrows of Philoctetes, it was an end in which Menelaus could take no pleasure because it deprived him of the personal satisfaction he had sought. And then, when the sickening news came that Deiphobus had taken Helen to his bed, Menelaus had found a new and still more violent focus for his hatred. Because of this further insult to his heart, he had driven on the Argive generals to fight when it looked, for a time, as if the two exhausted armies might settle for a negotiated peace. He had reminded them of the oath they had sworn to him in Sparta. He had made it clear that he would be satisfied by nothing less than the death of Deiphobus. So the war had gone on and now the war was won. Troy had been taken, as Helen had been taken, by stealth and treachery. Deiphobus was dead, and Menelaus had made sure that he had known in the moment of his death exactly who it was that killed him. But his body lay on the bed like the joints of horse-meat on which the princes of Argos had sworn to defend Menelaus’s right to Helen, and his troubles were now over. Yet even as Menelaus had hacked at his body, severing the head and limbs and genitals with his sword, he had found no satisfaction in the act. His arms were sticky with the man’s blood. His face was splashed with it. And almost as strong as the grief in the King of Sparta’s heart was the wave of disgust that left him retching in the night.
And still Helen lived.
Already Menelaus knew that if he was going to kill her he should have done it when he first found her in bed beside Deiphobus. But he told himself that he had wanted her to see her lover die. He wanted her to know how terrible his vengeful fury was. He wanted her to see what she had done to him, to learn how she had turned his gentle heart into a murderous thing. So the moment in which he might have acted had passed. And still, as she crouched in the corner like a frightened animal, he could not bring himself to finish her.
Nor could he command anyone else to do the deed.
Menelaus walked back from the balcony into the room and stood leaning against the door. He was still holding his sword. With the back of his free hand he tried to wipe the flecks of vomit from his mouth only to realize that the hand itself was wet with blood.
What was to be done? What was to be done? All across the city his comrades exulted in their triumph. Agamemnon must already be sitting on Priam’s throne. Young Neoptolemus would be taking bloody vengeance for his father’s death. The others would be revelling in the slaughter, toasting each other in captured wine as the women fell into their hands, or stripping the sacked palaces and temples of their treasure. Only he on whose behalf this long war had been fought stood in the darkness, empty and wretched, rejoicing at nothing.
Though the pain of the memory was almost more than he could bear, he was remembering the days long ago, in another time, in another world, when he and his wife had played together with their little daughter Hermione in the sunlit garden of the citadel at Sparta. How could Helen have dreamed of turning her back on such happiness? What must he himself have lacked in manhood that she should have spurned the unquestioning, utterly trusting fidelity of his heart, for a mad act of passion that could only ever have ended in disaster such as this?
Never, in all the long years since Helen had left him, had Menelaus felt so utterly alone.
Odysseus stood alone in the lurid night, beating his brains with the knowledge that this catastrophe was of his making and that he had intended none of it. His plan had been clear enough. He had discussed it carefully with Agamemnon and secured his agreement. Odysseus had always maintained that the long-term gain must be greater if the victorious Argives exploited the trading strength of Troy’s position rather than merely despoiling the city of its wealth. With this larger aim in mind he had pursued his secret negotiations with Antenor and Aeneas, and he had done so in good faith, certain that King Priam and Deiphobus would be more easily deceived by the stratagem of the wooden horse if the distrusted minister and the vacillating Dardanian prince were seen to suspect it. So the city would fall by stealth and need hardly be damaged in the taking. Crowned as a client king once Priam was dead, Antenor would owe his throne and his loyalty to Agamemnon. The presence of a strong garrison in the city would underwrite the alliance. And then, with Troy secured as an Argive fiefdom commanding trade with the Black Sea, the entire eastern seaboard must sooner or later fall under Agamemnon’s control. Meanwhile, Odysseus would go home to Ithaca a wealthy man, having crowned the Lion of Mycenae as undisputed ruler of an Aegean empire.
It was more than a plan: it was a vision – a vision that would change the map of the known world for ever. Even as he had climbed the ladder into the wooden horse, Odysseus had been sure that Agamemnon understood the dream and shared it. But he had come out of Helen’s mansion and stepped into a massacre.
The fire, he was prepared to concede, might have started by accident. But if, with the low cunning and purblind greed of a common soldier, the King of Men had already decided to opt for quick profit rather than the long-term benefits of a less certain vision then the logic became inexorable. To prevent Troy rising again and descending on Argos with the force of the avenging Furies, the destruction must be complete. The city must be burned, its walls torn down, its men exterminated, its women carried away. So even as he licensed Odysseus to give the assurances demanded by Antenor and Aeneas in return for their defection, Agamemnon must have known this was what he would do. He must have been hugging himself with glee when the Trojan defectors accepted those assurances. And why should they not have done when Odysseus had also been deceived?
All his care and craft and guile counted for nothing now. His brain was in flames with the knowledge. If Agamemnon had been standing beside him in that moment Odysseus might have struck him down. But it was another figure that came hurrying towards him out of the night, a huge Ethiopian, one of Memnon’s men, half-naked, his black skin glistening with sweat, his eyes wide and very white. Reflexively Odysseus drew his sword and stuck him through the belly.
The shock of the man’s weight jarred at his arm, driving the sword deeper. The Ethiopian hung there for a moment impaled, grunting with dismay. Odysseus pulled out the blade and stood back, watching him sag to his knees and fall, shuddering, to the ground. He could hear the black man muttering something in his own tongue – a curse, a gasp of execration, a prayer to whatever gods he served, who knew what those mumblings meant?
Odysseus stared down at the dying man, resentful that he had been drawn into the killing. Then his mind swirled in a blur of rage. If Agamemnon wanted blood, then blood he should have. He advanced across the square towards the sounds of slaughter and once he had begun to kill it seemed there was no stopping. He saw frightened faces gasp and cry as they fell beneath his sword. He saw the wounds splash open. He was killing people swiftly, without compunction, as though doing them a service. At one point he slipped on the entrails of a fat man he had butchered and found himself lying beside him, face to face, with the sightless, outraged eyes staring back into his own. Then he pushed himself to his feet again, driven on by an impulse of disgust, filled with fury and self-loathing.
Almost as deep in delirium as Ajax in his madness had once slaughtered the cattle in their pens, imagining them to be his enemies, Odysseus killed and killed again, working his way through the throng as though convinced that each body that fell before him might prove to be the last, so that he could be liberated, once and for all, from this dreadful duty. His mind was numb. His arm ached from the effort. His throat was parched. It all seemed to be happening in silence.
A Visitor To Ithaca (#ua64eaa0a-7742-5392-bdde-0a10329dd011)
So loud was the anguish at the fall of Troy you might have thought the noise must carry across the whole astounded world; yet it would be weeks before the news of Agamemnon’s victory reached as far as Ithaca. Of all the kingdoms that sent ships to the war, our western islands were furthest from the conflict. We were always last to receive word of how our forces were faring and by the time reports arrived they were far out of date, never at first hand and, more often than not, coloured by rumour and speculation. To make matters worse, Troy was taken late in the year when all the seas were running high and the straits impassable, so the fighting was over long before we got to know of it.
The view must always have been clearer from the high crag at Mycenae but even the intelligence that reached Queen Clytaemnestra was not always reliable, and she was too busy managing Agamemnon’s kingdom in his absence to keep my Lady Penelope apprised of events on the eastern seaboard of the Aegean. Meanwhile the infrequent letters Penelope received from her father, Lord Icarius of Sparta, were always terse in their account of a son-in-law of whom he had never approved. So throughout the war we Ithacans were fed on scraps of information that had been picked up in larger ports by traders who came to the island, or that reached us from the occasional deserter who made it back to mainland Argos. Such men had only a fragmentary picture of events, and who could say whether their accounts were trustworthy? All we knew for certain was that Lord Odysseus had still been alive the last time anyone had news of him.
As Prince Telemachus emerged from infancy into the proud knowledge that the father of whom he lacked all memory was one of the great Argive generals, this proved to be an increasingly frustrating state of affairs. So as his friend, I Phemius – still only a boy myself – did what I could to supply his need with flights of my own fanciful imagination. Each day he and I, along with a ragged troupe of fatherless urchins, fought our own version of the Trojan War around the pastures and coves of Ithaca. From hill to hill we launched raids on each other’s flocks, singing songs and taking blows. Meanwhile, far away in windy Phrygia, Odysseus used all his guile to steer his comrades towards victory over a foe that had proved tougher and more resilient than anyone but he had anticipated.
Then, in the ninth year of the war we learned that an inconclusive campaign in Mysia had ended with the Argive fleet being blown back to Aulis by a great storm. For a time we lived in the excited hope that Odysseus might seize the chance to visit the wife and child he had left so many years before, but all that came was a long letter which was delivered under seal directly into the hands of Penelope.
The next day she summoned my mother and some of the other women into her presence and with the gentle grace that always distinguished her care for our people, she told them that The Raven, the ship in which my father Terpis had sailed from Mysia, had failed to appear at Aulis. There remained a small chance that the crew might have made landfall on one or other of the islands scattered across the Aegean but the women should prepare themselves for the possibility that their husbands were drowned at sea and would not return.
The island rang loud with wailing that day. For me, for a time, it was as though a black gash had been torn in the fabric of things. But remembering how my father, the bard of Ithaca, had sung at the naming day of Prince Telemachus, I converted my fear and grief into a solemn vow that, if he did not return, I would honour his memory by becoming the island’s bard myself.