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No news of Penthesileia came; the Amazon Queen lingered in her far off wilderness while Troy hung in agony, a city’s fate depending on the whim of a woman. I cursed her and I cursed the Gods for permitting a woman to remain on any throne after the death of the Old Religion. The absolute rule of Mother Kubaba was gone, yet Queen Penthesileia reigned undisturbed. Demetrios, my invaluable escaped Greek slave, informed me that she hadn’t even begun to summon in the women of her countless tribes; she would not come before winter closed the passes.

All the omens spoke of war’s finishing in this tenth year, yet my father still dithered, humbling himself and Troy to wait on this woman. I gnashed my teeth at the injustice of it, I railed at him in the assemblies. But his mind was made up and he refused to budge. Time and time again I assured him that I stood in no personal danger from Achilles, that our crack troops could hold the Myrmidons at bay, that we could win without Memnon or Penthesileia. Even when I told Father what Demetrios had reported about Amazonian tardiness he remained adamant, saying that if Penthesileia didn’t come before the winter, then he was content to wait until the eleventh year.

Now that the whole Greek army was on the beach we had taken to walking the battlements again, looking at the various standards fluttering atop the Greek houses. On the flank of Skamander at a place where an internal wall split off some of the barracks there waved a banner I hadn’t seen before, a white ant on a black background holding a red lightning bolt in its jaws. Achilles the Aiakid, his Myrmidon standard. The face of Medusa could not have thrown more fear into Trojan hearts.

Obliged to listen to petty business when my loins burned for battle, I attended every assembly. Someone had to be there to protest that the army was stale and overtrained, someone had to be there to watch the King turn his notoriously deaf ear, to watch Antenor, the enemy of all positive action, smile.

I sensed nothing different about the day which changed our lives, went morosely to the assembly. The Court stood about chatting desultorily, ignoring the throne dais, at the foot of which a plaintiff was outlining his case – really earth-shaking litigation to do with the drains emptying Troy’s storm waters and excrement into unclean Skamander. His new apartment block had been refused access to the drains, and he, the owner-landlord, was very angry.

‘I’ve better things to do than stand here contesting the right of a pack of mindless bureaucrats to thwart honest taxpayers!’ he shouted at Antenor, who, as Chancellor, was defending the city drainage authorities.

‘You failed to apply to the correct person!’ Antenor snapped.

‘What are we, Egyptians?’ asked the landlord, waving his arms about. ‘I spoke to my usual man, who said yes! Then, before I could make the connection, a squad of enforcers arrived to forbid it! A man would fare better in Nineveh or Karchemish! Somewhere – anywhere! – that the bureaucrats haven’t managed to paralyse with their stupid regulations! I tell you, Troy is almost as inert as Egypt! I’m going to emigrate!’

Antenor’s mouth was already open to wade into the fray in defence of his beloved bureaucrats when a man burst into the hall.

I didn’t recognise him, but Polydamas did.

‘What is it?’ Polydamas asked him.

The man groaned with the agony of breathing, licked his lips, tried to speak and ended in pointing wildly at my father, who was leaning forward, sewers forgotten. Polydamas helped the fellow to the dais and sat him on its bottom step, signalling for water. Even the irate landlord sensed something more important than effluent in the offing, and moved away a little – though not far enough to prevent his hearing whatever was going to be said.

Water and a few moments’ rest enabled the man to speak. ‘My lord King, great news!’

Father looked sceptical. ‘What?’ he asked.

‘Sire, at dawn I was in the Greek camp attending an augury called by Agamemnon to divine the cause of a plague which has killed ten thousand men!’

Ten thousand men dead of disease in the Greek camp! I almost ran to stand beside the throne. Ten thousand men! If my father couldn’t understand the significance of that, then he was blind to all reason, and Troy must fall. Ten thousand less Greeks, ten thousand more Trojans. Oh, Father, let me lead our army out! I was about to say it when I realised that the man wasn’t done yet, that he hadn’t told all his news; I held my peace.

‘There was a terrible quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, sire. The army is split. Achilles withdrew himself, his Myrmidons and the rest of Thessalia from the war. Sire, Achilles will not fight for Agamemnon! The day is ours!’

I clutched at the throne-back for support, the landlord whooped, my father sat white-faced, Polydamas was staring at his man in disbelief, Antenor was leaning limply against a pillar, and the rest of those in the room seemed turned to stone.

A loud, bleating laugh rang out. ‘How are the mighty fallen!’ my brother Deiphobos brayed. ‘How are the mighty fallen!’

‘Silence!’ my father snapped, then looked down at the man. ‘Why? What caused this quarrel?’

‘Sire, it was over a woman,’ the man said, more collected now. ‘Kalchas had demanded that the woman Chryse, given to the High King out of the spoils of Lyrnessos, be sent to Troy. The Lord Apollo was so outraged at her capture that he arranged the plague and wouldn’t lift it until Agamemnon gave up his prize. Agamemnon had to obey. Achilles laughed at him. Jeered at him. So Agamemnon ordered Achilles to hand over his own prize out of Lyrnessos, the woman Brise, as compensation. After Achilles gave her to the High King, he withdrew himself and all the men under his banners from the war.’

Deiphobos found this even funnier. ‘A woman! An army split in two over a woman!’

‘Not quite down the middle!’ said Antenor sharply. ‘Those who have withdrawn can’t number more than fifteen thousand. And if a woman can split an army, never forget that it was a woman brought that selfsame army here in the first place!’

My father rapped his sceptre on the floor. ‘Antenor, hold your tongue! Deiphobos, you’re drunk!’ He returned his attention to the messenger. ‘Are you sure of your tidings, my man?’

‘Oh, yes. I was there, sire. I heard and saw everything.’

A great sigh went up; the atmosphere lightened in an instant. Where before gloom and apathy reigned, now smiles broke out. Hands clasped hands, a murmur of delight swelled. Only I mourned. It seemed we were fated never to meet on the field, Achilles and me.

Paris strutted up to the throne. ‘Dear Father, when I was in Greece I heard that the mother of Achilles – a Goddess – dipped all her sons in the waters of the River Styx to make them immortal. But as she held Achilles by the right heel something startled her – she forgot to change her grip to his left heel. That’s why Achilles is a mortal man. But fancy his right heel being a woman! Brise. I remember her. Stunning.’

The King glared. ‘I’ve said that’s enough! When I rebuke one son, Paris, the rebuke extends to all of you! This isn’t a matter for jest. It’s of paramount importance.’

Paris looked crestfallen. I watched him and pitied him. During the last two years he had aged; the coarseness of the forties was creeping inexorably into his skin, blighting its youthful bloom. Whereas once he had fascinated Helen, he bored her now. The whole Court knew it. And knew that she was in the midst of an affair with Aineas. Well, she’d get little satisfaction there. Aineas loved Aineas best.

But it was never possible to read her. After Father’s sharp words to Paris she did no more than shake Paris’s hand off and move a small distance away. Not a flicker of emotion showed in eyes or face. Then I realised she was not quite enigmatic; a touch of smugness had settled about her lips. Why? She knew them, those Greek Kings. So why?

I knelt before the throne. ‘Father,’ I said strongly, ‘if we are ever fated to drive the Greeks from our shores, the time is now. If it was genuinely Achilles and the Myrmidons held you back when I asked before, then the reason for your reluctance has vanished. They are besides ten thousand men less from plague. Not even with Penthesileia and Memnon would we stand the chance we do right at this moment. Sire, give me the battle orders!’

Antenor stepped forward. Oh, Antenor! Always Antenor!

‘Before you commit us, King Priam, grant me one favour, I beg. Let me send one of my own men to the Greek camp to verify what this man of Polydamas’s says.’

Polydamas nodded vigorously. ‘A good idea, sire,’ he said. ‘We ought to confirm it.’

‘Then, Hektor,’ King Priam said to me, ‘you’ll have to wait a little longer for my answer. Antenor, find your man and send him at once. I’ll call another assembly tonight.’

While we waited I took Andromache up onto the ramparts at the top of the great northwestern tower which looked directly at the Greek beach. The minute speck of banner still fluttered above the Myrmidon compound, but in the tiny progress of men about the camp, it was significant that there was no traffic between the Myrmidon compound and its neighbours. Unable to think about eating, we watched all afternoon; that visible proof of disunity within the Greek camp was all the sustenance we needed.

At nightfall we returned to the Citadel, more hopeful now that Antenor’s man would confirm the story. He came before we had time to grow restless, and in a few rapid sentences repeated what Polydamas’s man had told us. There had been a terrible quarrel, Agamemnon and Achilles could not be reconciled.

Helen stood by the far wall well away from Paris, openly beckoning to Aineas, her smiling mask secure in the knowledge that for the time being all rumours about herself and the Dardanian were eclipsed by news of the quarrel. When Aineas came up to her she put her hand on his arm, her long eyes slanting up at him in naked invitation. But I was right about him. He ignored her. Poor Helen. If it came to a choice between her charms and those of Troy, I knew what Aineas would decide. An admirable man, yes, but one who held himself just a little too high.

She did not, however, seem disconcerted by his abrupt departure. I fell again to wondering what she thought of her countrymen. She knew Agamemnon very well indeed. For a moment I debated as to whether I should question her, but Andromache was with me, and Andromache loathed Helen. What little I might get from her, I decided, would not be worth the verbal drubbing I’d get from Andromache if she learned about it.


I went to the throne and knelt before my father.

‘Receive the battle command of our armies, my son. Send out the heralds to order mobilisation for battle at dawn two days hence. Tell the Skaian gatekeeper to oil the boulder in its tracks and hitch up the oxen. For ten years we’ve been incarcerated, but now we go forth to drive the Greeks from Troy!’

As I kissed his hand the room erupted into deafening cheers, though I did not smile. Achilles wouldn’t be on the field, and what kind of victory was that?

The two days passed with the swiftness of a cloud shadow on a mountainside, my time filled by interviews with men and orders to armourers, engineers, charioteers and infantry officers, among many others. Until everything was in train I couldn’t think of rest, which meant I didn’t see Andromache until the night before we were to do battle.

‘What I fear is upon us,’ she said harshly when I came into our room.

‘Andromache, you know better than to say that.’

She brushed at her tears impatiently. ‘It’s still tomorrow?’

‘At dawn.’

‘Couldn’t you find a little time for me?’

‘I’m finding time now.’

‘One sleep, then you’ll be gone.’ Her fingers plucked at my blouse restlessly. ‘I can’t like it, Hektor. Something’s very wrong.’

‘Wrong?’ I forced up her chin. ‘What’s wrong with fighting the Greeks at last?’

‘Everything. It’s just too convenient.’ She held up her right hand, clenched into a fist save for the little and forefingers, stuck up in the sign to ward off evil. Then she said, shivering, ‘Kassandra’s been at it day and night since Polydamas’s man came with the news of the quarrel.’

I laughed. ‘Oh, Kassandra! In the name of Apollo, wife, what ails you? My sister Kassandra is mad. No one listens to her croaks of doom.’

‘She may be mad,’ Andromache said, determined to be heard, ‘but haven’t you ever noticed how uncannily accurate her predictions are? I tell you, Hektor, she’s been raving without let that the Greeks have laid a trap for us – she insists Odysseus has put them up to it, that they’re simply luring us out!’

‘You’re beginning to annoy me,’ I said, and actually shook her – a first. ‘I’m not here to discuss war or Kassandra. I’m here to be with you, my wife.’

Wounded, her dark eyes went to the bed; she shrugged. Then she turned the covers down and slipped off her robe, went about snuffing lamps, her tall body as firm and lovely as it had been on our wedding night. Motherhood had left her unmarked; her warm skin glowed in the last lonely light. I lay down and held out my arms, and for a while forgot the morrow. After which I dozed, sliding into sleep, my body content, my mind relaxed. But in the final giddy moments before the veil of unconsciousness is drawn tight, I heard Andromache weep.

‘What is it now?’ I demanded, up on one elbow. ‘Are you still thinking about Kassandra?’

‘No, I’m thinking of our son. I’m praying that after tomorrow he still knows the joy of a living father.’

How do women manage to do that? How do they always seem to be able to find the one thing a man doesn’t want or need to hear?

‘Stop snivelling and go to sleep!’ I barked.

She stroked my brow, sensing that she’d gone too far. ‘Well, perhaps that was too pessimistic. Achilles won’t be on the field, so you ought to be safe.’

I wrenched myself away, pounded my fist on the pillow. ‘Hold your tongue, woman! I don’t need to be reminded that the man I itch to fight won’t be there to face me!’

She gasped. ‘Hektor, are you out of your mind? Does meeting Achilles mean more to you than Troy? – than me? – than our son?’

‘Some things are for men’s hearts only. Astyanax would understand better.’

‘Astyanax is a little boy. Since the day of his birth his eyes and ears have been filled with war. He sees the soldiers drilling, he rides beside his father in a magnificent war car at the head of an army parade – he’s completely deluded! But he’s never seen the field after a real battle is over, has he?’

‘Our son doesn’t shirk any part of war!’

‘Our son is nine years old! Nor will I allow him to turn into one of these hardheaded, coldblooded warriors Troy has bred out of your generation!’

‘You go too far, madam,’ I said in tones of ice. ‘As well that you won’t have any say in Astyanax’s future education. The moment I return from the field victorious I’m going to take him off you and give him into the care of men.’

‘Do that and I’ll kill you myself!’ she snarled.

‘Try, and you’ll find yourself dead!’

Her answer was to burst into loud tears.

I was too angry to touch her or seek any kind of reconciliation, so I spent the rest of the night listening to her frenzied weeping, unable to soften my heart. The mother of my son had indicated that she would rather raise him to be a cissy than a warrior.

In the grey twilight before dawn I rose from the bed to stand beside it and look down on her; she lay with her face to the wall, refused to face me. My armour lay ready. Andromache forgotten as my excitement rose, I clapped my hands. The slaves came, put me into my padded shift, laced on my boots, fitted the greaves over them and buckled them on. I swallowed down the desperate eagerness I always felt before combat as the slaves went on to dress me in the reinforced leather kilt, the cuirass, the arm guards, the forearm braces and the sweat leathers for wrists and brow. My helmet was put into my hand, my baldric looped over my left shoulder to hold my sword on my right hip; finally they slung my huge, wasp-waisted shield over my right shoulder by its sliding cord and settled it along my left side. One servant gave me my club, another assisted me to tuck my helmet beneath my right forearm. I was ready.

‘Andromache, I’m going,’ I said, my tone unforgiving.

But she lay without moving, her face turned to the wall.

The corridors shuddered, the marble floors echoed hollow to the sounds of bronze and hobnails; I felt the noise of my coming spread before me like a wave. Those not going to the battle came out to cheer me as I walked, men falling into place behind me at each door. Our boots assaulted the flags, sparks flew under the impact of bronze-tipped heels, and in the distance we could hear the drums and horns. Ahead now was the great courtyard, beyond it the Citadel gates.

Helen was waiting in the portico. I stopped, nodding to the others to go on without me.

‘Good luck, brother-in-law,’ she said.

‘How can you wish me luck when I fight your own countrymen?’

‘I have no country, Hektor.’

‘Home is always home.’

‘Hektor, never underestimate a Greek!’ She stepped back a little, seeming surprised at her words. ‘There, I’ve given you better advice than you deserve.’

‘Greeks are like any other race of men.’

‘Are they?’ Her green eyes were like jewels. ‘I can’t agree. I’d rather a Trojan for my enemy than a Greek.’

‘It’s a straight, open fight. We’re going to win it.’

‘Maybe. But have you stopped to ask yourself why Agamemnon should create so much fuss over one woman when he has hundreds?’

‘The most important thing is that Agamemnon did make a fuss. The why is immaterial.’

‘I think the why is everything. Never underestimate Greek cunning. Above all, never underestimate Odysseus.’

‘Pah! He’s a figment of the imagination!’

‘So he’d have you think. Whereas I know him better.’

She turned on her heel and went inside. There was no sign of Paris. Well, he’d be watching, not participating.

Seventy-five thousand infantrymen and ten thousand chariots waited for me, rank on rank along the side streets and smaller squares leading to the Skaian Gate. Within the Skaian Square itself waited the first detachment of cavalry, my own charioteers. Their shouts rang like thunder when I appeared, lifting my club high to salute them. I mounted my car and took time to insert my feet carefully into the wicker stirrups which took the lurch of travel, especially at a gallop. As I did so my eyes swept over those thousands of purple-plumed helmets; the glitter of bronze was blood and rose in the long gold sun, the gate towered above me.

Whips cracked. The oxen harnessed to the great boulder supporting the Skaian Gate bellowed in anguish as they bent their heads to the task. The ditch was already oiled and fatted; the beasts drove their noses almost to the ground. Very slowly the gate opened, squealing and roaring as the stone slid, halting, along the bottom of the ditch; the door itself grew smaller and the expanse of sky and plain between the battlements grew wider. Then the noise which was the opening of the Skaian Gate for the first time in ten years was drowned out by the scream of joy ripping from the throats of thousands of Trojan soldiers.

As the troops began to move down towards the square the wheels of my chariot began to rotate; I was through, I was onto the plain with my charioteers behind me. The wind probed my face, birds flew in the pale vault of the sky, my horses pricked up their ears and stretched out their slender legs in a gallop as my driver, Kebriones, wound the reins about his waist and began to practise the leans and lunges he used to control the team. We were going into battle! This was true freedom!

Half a league from the Skaian Gate I drew up and turned to direct my troops, making the front a straight line with chariots in the first rank; the Royal Guard of ten thousand Trojan foot and a thousand war cars formed the centre of my van. All was done neatly and quickly, without panic or confusion.

When everything was in order, I turned to look at the foreign wall grown across the plain from river to river, cutting off the Greek beach. The causeways at each end of the wall flashed with a million points of fire as the invaders poured out onto the plain. I gave my spear to Kebriones and fitted the helmet on my head, shaking back its plume of scarlet horsehair. My eyes met those of Deiphobos next to me in the line, and one by one I told them off as far as I could see down the one-league front. My cousin Aineas was in command of the left flank, King Sarpedon of the right. I led the van.

The Greeks came closer and closer, the sun on their armour increasing in brightness; I strained to see who would be drawn up opposite me, wondering if it would be Agamemnon himself, or Ajax, or some other among their champions. My heart slowed because it wouldn’t be Achilles. Then I looked down our line again and jumped in shock. Paris was there! He stood with his precious bow and quiver at the head of the portion of the Royal Guard which had been allocated to him somewhere back in the mists of time. I wondered what wiles Helen had used to lure him out of the safety of his apartments.

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