The Song of Troy by Colleen McCullough

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  Also by Colleen McCullough

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  For my brother, Carl, who died in Crete

  on September 5th, 1965, rescuing some

  women from the sea.

  Death can find nothing to expose in him

  that is not beautiful.

  Homer, Iliad 22.73

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  There never was a city like Troy. The young priest Kalchas, sent to Egyptian Thebes during his novitiate, came back unimpressed by the pyramids built along the west bank of the River of Life. Troy, he said, was more imposing, for it reared higher and its buildings housed the living, not the dead. But then, he added, there was an extenuating circumstance: the Egyptians owned inferior Gods. The Egyptians had moved their stones with mortal hands, whereas Troy’s mighty walls had been thrown up by our Gods themselves. Nor, Kalchas said, could flat Babylon compete, its height stunted by river mud, its walls like the work of children.

  No man remembers when our walls had been built, it was so long ago, yet every man knows the story. Dardanos (a son of the King of our Gods, Zeus) took possession of the square peninsula of land at the very top of Asia Minor, where on the north side the Euxine Sea pours its waters down into the Aegaean Sea through the narrow strait of the Hellespont. This new kingdom Dardanos divided into two parts. He gave the southern section to his second son, who called his domain Dardania and set up his capital in the town of Lyrnessos. Though smaller, the northern section is much, much richer; with it goes the guardianship of the Hellespont and the right to levy taxes upon all the merchants who voyage in and out of the Euxine Sea. This section is called the Troad. Its capital, Troy, stands upon the hill called Troy.

  Zeus loved his mortal son, so when Dardanos prayed to his divine father to gift Troy with indestructible walls, Zeus was delighted to grant his petition. Two of the Gods were out of favour at the time: Poseidon, Lord of the Sea, and Apollo, Lord of Light. They were ordered to proceed to Troy and build ramparts taller, thicker and stronger than any others. Not really a task for the delicate and fastidious Apollo, who elected to play his lyre rather than get dirty and sweaty – a way, he explained carefully to the gullible Poseidon, of helping to pass the time while the walls went up. So Poseidon piled stone upon stone while Apollo serenaded him.

  Poseidon laboured for a price, the sum of one hundred talents of gold to be deposited each and every year thereafter in his temple at Lyrnessos. King Dardandos agreed; time out of mind the hundred talents of gold had been paid each and every year to the temple of Poseidon in Lyrnessos. But then, just as my father, Laomedon, ascended the Trojan throne, came an earthquake so devastating that it had felled the House of Minos in Crete and blown the island empire of Thera away. Our western wall crumbled and my father hired the Greek engineer, Aiakos, to rebuild it.

  Aiakos did a good job, though the new wall he erected had neither the smoothness nor the beauty of the rest of that great, God-begotten encirclement.

  The contract with Poseidon (I daresay Apollo hadn’t deigned to ask for a musician’s wages), said my father, was dishonoured. The walls had not proven indestructible after all. Therefore the hundred talents of gold paid each year to Poseidon’s temple in Lyrnessos would not be paid again. Ever. Superficially this argument looked a valid one, save that the Gods surely knew what even I, then a boy, knew: that King Laomedon was an incurable miser, and resented paying so much precious Trojan gold to a temple located in a rival city under the rule of a rival dynasty of blood relations.

  Be that as it may, the gold ceased to be paid, and nothing happened for more years than it took me to grow from child to man.

  Nor, when the lion came, did anyone think to connect his advent with insulted Gods or city walls.

  To the south of Troy on the verdant plains lay my father’s horse farm, his one indulgence – though even indulgence had to bring profit to King Laomedon. Not long after Aiakos the Greek finished rebuilding the western wall, a man arrived in Troy from a place so far away we knew nothing of it beyond the fact that its mountains bolstered the sky and its grasses were sweeter than any other grasses. With him the refugee brought ten horses – three stallions and seven mares. They were horses the like of which we had never seen – large, fleet, graceful, long maned and long tailed, pretty faced, demure and tame. Splendid for drawing chariots! The moment the King set eyes on them, the man’s fate was inevitable. He died and his horses became the private property of the King of Troy. Who bred from them a line so famous that traders from all over the world came to buy mares and geldings; my father was too shrewd to sell a stallion.

  Through the middle of the horse farm ran a worn and sinister track, once used by lions as they travelled north from Asia Minor to Skythia for the summer, and south again to winter in Karia and Lykia, where the sun retained the power to warm their tawny hides. Hunting had killed them off; the lion track became a path to water.

  Six years ago the peasants had come running, pallid faced. I will never forget the sight of my father’s countenance when they told him that three of his best mares were lying dead and a stallion badly mutilated, the victims of a lion.

  Laomedon was not the man to give way to unthinking rage. In a measured voice he ordered a whole detachment of the House Guard to station itself on the track the following spring, and kill the beast.

  No ordinary lion, that one! Each spring and autumn he came through so stealthily no one saw him; and he killed far more than his belly needed. He killed for the love of it. Two years after his advent the House Guard caught him attacking a stallion. They advanced on him clashing their swords against their shields, intending to force him into a corner so they could use their spears. Instead, he reared to roar his war cry, charged straight at them, and went through their ranks like a boulder rushing downhill. As they scattered the kingly beast killed seven of them before going on his way unscathed.

  One good thing came out of the disaster. A man torn by his claws lived to go to the priests, and told Kalchas that the lion bore the mark of Poseidon; on his pale flank was a black, three-pronged fish spear. Kalchas consulted the Oracle at once, then announced that the lion belonged to Poseidon. Woe the Trojan hand that struck at him! Kalchas cried, for he was a punishment visited upon Troy for cheating the Lord of the Seas of his annual hundred talents’ payment. Nor would he go away until it was resumed.

  At first my father ignored Kalchas and the Oracle. In the autumn he ordered the House Guard out again to kill the beast. But he had underestimated the common man’s fear of the Gods: even when the King threatened his guardsmen with execution, they would not go. Furious but balked, he informed Kalchas that he refused to donate Trojan gold to Dardanian Lyrnessos – the priests had better think of an alternative. Kalchas went back to the Oracle, which announced in plain language that there was an alternative. If each spring and autumn six virgin maidens chosen by lot were chained in the horse pasture and left there for the lion, Poseidon would be satisfied – for the time being.

  Naturally the King preferred giving the God maidens to gold; the new scheme went ahead. The trouble was that he never really trusted the priests in the matter, not because he was a sacrilegious man – he gave the Gods what he considered their due – but because he detested being bled. So each spring and autumn every virgin maid aged fifteen years was covered head to foot in a white shroud to prevent identification and lined up
in the courtyard of Poseidon Maker of Walls, where the priests chose six of these anonymous white bundles for the sacrifice.

  The ploy worked. Twice a year the lion passed through, killed the girls as they stood huddled in their chains, and left the horses unmolested. To King Laomedon, a paltry price to pay for the salving of his pride and the preservation of his business.

  Four days ago autumn’s six offerings were chosen. Five of them were girls from the city; the sixth was from the Citadel, the high palace. My father’s most beloved child, his daughter Hesione. When Kalchas came to tell him the news, he was incredulous.

  ‘Do you mean to say that you were idiot enough to leave her shroud unmarked?’ he asked. ‘My daughter treated the same as all the rest?’

  ‘It is the God’s will,’ said Kalchas, calmly.

  ‘It is not the God’s will that my daughter should be chosen! His will is that he receives six virgin maids, nothing else! So choose another victim, Kalchas.’

  ‘I cannot, Great King.’

  From that stand Kalchas would not be budged. A divine hand directed the choice, which meant that Hesione and no other girl would satisfy the terms of the sacrifice.

  Though none of the Court was present during this tense and angry interview, the word of it swept through the Citadel from end to end and top to bottom. Favour curriers like Antenor were loud in condemning the priest, whereas the King’s many children – including me, his Heir – thought that at last our father would have to break down and pay Poseidon those annual hundred talents of gold.

  Next day the King summoned his council. Of course I attended; the Heir must hear the King deliver all his judgements.

  He looked composed and undistressed. King Laomedon was a tiny fellow far past the flush of youth, long hair silver, long robe gold. The voice which issues out of him never ceased to surprise us, for it was deep, noble, melodic, strong.

  ‘My daughter Hesione,’ he said to the assembled ranks of sons, near cousins and remote cousins, ‘has consented to go to the sacrifice. It has been required of her by the God.’

  Perhaps Antenor had guessed what the King would say; I did not, nor did my younger brothers.

  ‘My lord!’ I cried before I could stop myself. ‘You cannot! When times are hard the King may go to the sacrifice for the sake of the people, but his virgin daughters belong to Virgin Artemis, not to Poseidon!’

  He did not care to hear his eldest son chide him before the Court; his lips thinned, his chest swelled. ‘My daughter was chosen, Podarkes Priam! Chosen by Poseidon!’

  ‘Poseidon would be happier,’ I said through my teeth, ‘if one hundred talents of gold were paid to his temple in Lyrnessos.’

  At which moment I caught sight of Antenor smirking. How he loved to hear the King and his Heir at loggerheads!

  ‘I refuse,’ said King Laomedon, ‘to pay good, hard-earned gold to a God who didn’t build the western wall strong enough to survive one of his own earthquakes!’

  ‘You can’t send Hesione to her death, Father!’

  ‘I am not sending her to her death! Poseidon is!’

  The priest Kalchas moved, then stilled.

  ‘A mortal man like you,’ I said, ‘should not blame the Gods for his own failings.’

  ‘Are you saying that I have failings?’

  ‘All mortal men do,’ I answered, ‘even the King of the Troad.’

  ‘Take yourself off, Podarkes Priam! Get out of this room! Who knows? Perhaps next year Poseidon will ask that heirs to thrones form the sacrifice!’

  Antenor was still smiling. I turned and left the room to seek comfort from the city and the wind.

  Cold, damp air blowing from the far-off peak of Ida cooled my anger as I strode along the flagged terrace outside the Throne Room and sought the steps, two hundred of them, which led ever upward to the summit of the Citadel. There, far above the plain, I closed my hands on man-made stones; for the Gods had not built the Citadel, Dardanos had done that. Something reached into me from out of those carefully squared bones of Mother Earth, and I sensed in that moment the power residing in the King. How many years, I wondered, would have to pass before I donned the golden tiara and sat on the ivory chair which was the throne of Troy? The men of the House of Dardanos were very long-lived, and Laomedon was not yet seventy.

  For a long while I watched the changing march of men and women below me in the city, then looked farther afield to the green plains where King Laomedon’s precious horses stretched out their long necks to nudge and tear at the grass. But that was a vista only increased the pain. I looked instead to the western isle of Tenedos and the smear of smoke from fires lit against the chill in the little port village of Sigios. Beyond to the north the blue waters of the Hellespont mocked at the sky; I saw the long greyish curve of the beach which lay between the mouths of Skamander and Simois, the two rivers which watered the Troad and nurtured the crops, emmer wheat and barley, rippling in a soughing, perpetual wind.

  Eventually that wind drove me from the parapet to the great courtyard which lay before the entrance to the palaces, and there I waited until a groom brought my chariot.

  ‘Down into the city,’ I said to the driver. ‘Let the horses lead you.’

  The main road descended from the Citadel to join the curve of the avenue which ran around the inside of the city walls. The walls built by Poseidon. At the junction of the two streets stood one of the three gates let into Troy’s walls, the Skaian. I could not remember its ever being closed; men said that happened only in times of war, and there was no nation in the world strong enough to make war on Troy.

  The Skaian Gate stood twenty cubits tall, and was made of huge logs bolted together with spikes and plates of bronze, too heavy to be swung on the biggest hinges a man could forge. Instead it opened on a principle said to have been devised by Archer Apollo as he lay in the sun watching Poseidon toil. The bottom of the gate’s single leaf rested upon a great round boulder set in a deep, curving ditch, and massive bronze chains were cast about the shoulders of the stone. If the gate had to be closed, a team of thirty oxen was harnessed to the chains and pulled the leaf shut fraction by fraction as the boulder ground along in the bottom of the ditch.

  As a little boy, burning to see the spectacle, I had begged my father to hitch up the oxen. He had laughed and refused, yet here I was, a man of forty years, husband of ten wives and owner of fifty concubines, still hankering to see the Skaian Gate shut.

  Across the top of the gate a corbelled arch connected the walls on either side of it, thus permitting the pathway which ran along the top to be continuous right around the perimeter of the city. The Skaian Square inside the gate lay in permanent shadow from those fantastic, God-built ramparts; they towered thirty cubits above me, smooth and sleek, sheeny in the sun when it bathed them.

  I nodded to my driver to move on, but before he could shake the reins I changed my mind, stopped him. A party of men had come through the gate into the square. Greeks. That was manifest in their garb and manner. They wore leather kilts or tight-fitting, knee-length leather breeches; some were bare from the waist up, and others sported tooled leather blouses open to display their chests. The clothes were ornate, decked in gold designs or sporting tassels or rolls of dyed leather; their waists were clipped in narrow by wide belts of gold and lapis-studded bronze; polished crystal beads depended from the lobes of their ears; each throat was girdled with a great gem-encrusted collar; and their very long hair flowed loose in careful curls.

  Greeks were taller and fairer than Trojans, but these Greeks were taller, fairer and more deadly looking than any men I had ever seen. Only the richness of their clothes and arms said they were not common marauders, for they carried javelins and longswords.

  At their head strode a man who was surely unique, a giant who towered over the other members of the group. He must have stood six cubits high, and had shoulders like dark mountains. Pitch-black and trimmed into a spade, a beard coated his massively jutting lower jaw, and his black hair, thoug
h cut short, was wild and unruly above a brow which overhung his orbits like an awning. His only clothing was a huge lion pelt flung over his left shoulder and under his right arm, the head a hood on his back with frightful jaws open on mighty fangs.

  He turned and caught me staring. Overwhelmed, I found and looked into his wide still eyes – eyes which had seen everything, endured everything, experienced every degradation the Gods could mete out to a man. Eyes which blazed with intelligence. I felt myself mentally backed up against the house behind me, my spirit a naked scrawn, my mind his for the taking.

  But I marshalled my sinking courage and drew myself upright proudly; mine was a great title, mine a gold-embossed chariot, mine a pair of white horses finer than any he had ever seen. Mine, this mightiest city in the world.

  He moved through the racket and bustle of the marketplace as if it did not exist, came straight up to me with two of his companions close behind, then put out a hand the size of a ham to stroke the black muzzles of my white horses gently.

  ‘You are from the palace, perhaps of the King’s house?’ he asked in a very deep voice, though it lacked imperiousness.

  ‘I am Podarkes called Priam, son and Heir of Laomedon, King of Troy,’ I answered.

  ‘I am Herakles,’ he said.

  I stared at him with mouth agape. Herakles! Herakles was in Troy! I licked my lips. ‘Lord, you honour us. Will you consent to being a guest in my father’s house?’

  His smile was surprisingly sweet. ‘I thank you, Prince Priam. Does your invitation include all my men? They are of noble Greek houses, they will not shame your court or me.’

  ‘Of course, Lord Herakles.’

  He nodded to the two men behind him, a signal that they should step out of his shadow. ‘May I present my friends? This is Theseus, High King of Attika, and this is Telamon son of Aiakos, King of Salamis.’

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