my little one? There, there.
You cannot know what waits for you.
– How will it be? Falling down – down – all broken –
And none to pity.
Kiss me. Never again. Come closer, closer.
Your mother who bore you – put your arms around my neck.
Now kiss me, lips to lips.
last words to her son Astyanax
from 'The Women of Troy' by Euripides
quoted from Edith Hamilton's 'Mythology'
Ruin had come to Ilium.
As the flesh of the dead on the pyre withers in the cleansing touch of the flame, the mighty city of the son of Laomedon now withered in the glow of innumerable fires. No longer did its great walls avail it as in the days of glorious past; no longer did Priam's people look in grave anticipation to the day of their delivery from the horror of war. Edifices fair and foul fell by the hand of the all-consuming blaze, fiery tongues licking at the predawn sky, rising as hands of pleading anguish to the blue-gray vault of heavenly Olympus. Over the burning city, a mere day before so proud and strong, soared the voices of Greek and Trojan alike, wild, bestial battle cries mingling with screams of alarm, agony, and terror, a dreadful symphony borne of the darkest nightmares of man.
All who looked saw the end. It was over. The sons of the Achaeans, drunk with the frenzy of final victory, enveloped as in a cloak by the presence of they that walk with the murderous War-god Ares – Enyo and Eris, Deimos and Phobos, poured through the shattered streets like oil that floods over the earth when the amphora that contains it is dashed to the ground. Temples were raided, shrines burned. Here and there axe-blades and spears and bloodied swords, armor of burnished bronze fire-lit to a golden gleam, twinkled amidst the dimness as stars amidst storm clouds.
Who could grudge them their folly? Their irreverence? Ten long years, ten torturous years, of the most frightful war ever waged since the universe was young when all-mighty Zeus chained the Titans beneath dark Tartarus. Brothers, friends, comrades, laid low by the blades and the darts of the enemy. Black blood flowing, watering the fields of Ilium in horrific mockery of Acheron, the river of woe; untold multitudes of wailing souls sent on the breaths of the dying to the cold embrace of Hades' house. Who could grudge the Achaeans their madness?
"Sir," said one weary soldier to another, "you spoke true. See now great Ilium, laid low by our hands, by the will of the blessed gods! Genius indeed was King Odysseus's plan, and keen were you to foresee its success. Never shall I wear this fine helm of my father's the more – as we agreed, it is yours."
The other faced his comrade with a smile. "Nay! Keen, you say? Say rather that you are dull. King Odysseus's mind is as sharp as his sword. Dull, sir, were you indeed not to have seen the cunning of the horse. You are Pylian, of the land of Nestor. Your king is a wise and venerable man, not unlike mine."
"This plan was not King Nestor's work," said the Pylian, "but that of Odysseus. Whence, I say, came your confidence in his cunning when first he advised it before the kings? How knew you for sure?"
His fellow answered, "I am Ithacan, of his land, and I know my king. Would only that the gods had seen fit to put this plan into his wily head the day we landed, that we might all have been spared these sad years! But, speak not to me of your father's helm. A prize of such worth hardly befits a trifling wager as this. Let us go now, for I see dawn is upon us at last, and our captains will have need for us long ere the embers have died in these fire-gutted houses, for I deem there is much yet to be done."
With that they left the high wall where hitherto they had leaned on their spears and observed the city, and parted ways before the foot of the stairs. The Ithacan found his way to another place on the wall, making haste in spite of his weariness, that which takes every man after a night of blood and hard battle – so that his eyes are clouded and his throat is parched, his heart strains loud and painful within his chest, his head swims with the fever of heavy exertion, and his feet drag the ground as they were made of stone – even so did he trudge under the burden of his armor sullied by scarlet and smoke, his sword notched from a hundred blows, and his ashen spear with its point of bronze. The dawn was as a veil of grayest silver overhead, tinged with the ocean's deep blue, in that enchanting hour ere the Sun ascends, in his fiery chariot, from the horizon of the east. In its hoary light the Ithacan made his way, his gaze never straying from the sight unfolding below him – the fallen city, alive now only with conquering Achaeans, its dying breath huge plumes of the blackest smoke.
His eye was drawn to Pergamos, that most sacred ground in all Ilium, and there were soldiers by the multitude, lusty and red-eyed, arms heaped with ill-gotten treasures. From his vantage point the Ithacan looked upon one rugged band, their flashing shields showing the emblem of Locris; these followers of Ajax Olieus, fleet-footed chieftain of men, gathered before the threshold of a grand temple to Pallas Athena, fighting, as wolves fight over a freshly slain deer, over the riches piled before them – fine things of bronze and silver, copper and gold, splendidly worked, their glitter akin to the kiss of the moon's light on still water under a sky of stars.
As the Ithacan beheld these things, he was gravely troubled in his heart, and he sighed. "Alas," said he to himself, "what folly heaven has sent upon us! This the result of ten years of war? This the result of our innumerable slain? How many wives, how many families, wait still in the lands of the Danaans for husbands and kinsmen they will see again only where grim Charon plies his trade on the banks of the Styx? Surely the gods mock us. This is no victory, no heroic triumph, but a calamity! And I – what have I fought for now? Ten years have come and gone since I came over the sea with my good and wise king, leaving behind my land, my home, my dear, aged mother – what have I fought for? What has he? – what have we all? For this – a glorious city in flames, the wails of widowed women, reaping glory from the dry dust?"
He bowed his helmed head as he spoke, for he could bear the sight of the looting Achaeans no longer. Then a voice from over his right shoulder roused him.
"Who, sir," said the voice, "are you to speak such? Words of gloom and despair – such are words that would have poisoned all our hearts, were you one of the chieftains, and not merely a common soldier! Are your eyes befouled by the smoke, or has a god, perhaps, struck you blind? Glory from the dry dust, you say! There is no greater triumph than this – all the more so that ten accursed years we have spent to earn it. Yet you would speak words that doom the hardiest of wills, douse the highest of spirits. Who are you? You have no shield; I see no emblem on your armor. Tell me who you are, that I may know which king of the Danaans harbors an augur of ill fortune such as you in his ranks."
The Ithacan turned, and at once knew the man who stood before him by his goodly bow and his helm, of leather studded thickly with boar's teeth. "Noble Meriones," he answered, "why do you rebuke me so? I may be but a common soldier, but like my fellows I have done battle as well and keenly as any son of the Danaans. That I am here before you on this day, o son of Molus, is testament enough. Of what concern are the words I speak now? We both have lived to see this great day, when all is ended, and no words will reverse or better the fate of proud Ilium. But, since it be your wish to know who it is to whom you speak, know then that I was near at hand on the night you set your helm – verily, it is that selfsame helm you now wear – on the head of my king, when he with the heroic son of Tydeus raided the camp of the Thracian King Rhesus. I am Ithacan, of the army of Odysseus."
The brave squire of gray-bearded Idomeneus, king of Crete, then said, "The greater fool for that. It was by virtue of the king of Ithaca's brilliant ploy – blessed be he, peer of the gods in counsel and cunning – that such a day as this is ours. No Danaan should enjoy more pride, after King Odysseus himself, than he that calls himself man of Ithaca."
"Be it so," said the Ithacan, "but, I pray you, leave each man to his own. Not since that day at the ships, when defeat was certain and the hand of murderous Hector laid heavy upon us, not since that day of dread when I deemed, and many a comrade of mine also, that our time had come – we stood shoulder to shoulder, hard by the ships of Odysseus, fending off the Trojans that bore fire and death, spilling our life's blood with abandon for lack of aught to douse the flames with – not since that day, has my heart borne such a burden of dismay. It seems to me that I am fated to bear it even to my grave, as Bellerophon bore his fruitless longing for Pegasus to his, for long after we are gone from these shores, long after we taste again the sweetness of home, the things I now behold shall burn evermore in my memory."
Meriones looked at him with surprise and answered, "Then, better you had fallen that day, that day when peerless Patroclus fell beneath the terrible spear of the son of Priam – by the gods, how clearly I recall it! – than to have lived to see this. Warrior though you are, sir, you speak poorly. Bitter, captive women we take in battle have that kind of speech! Far rather savor the fruits of your years of toil, and return to your land with the glory and spoils that is due to you and your valiant comrades, as we all shall."
Thus the famous archer spoke, and the man of Ithaca bowed his head. "You speak in earnest, sir, and I know your heart. We common soldiers see much, and many a time I have seen you on the field. I remember well the glory of the charge of the Danaans that awful day, ere Patroclus – honored be his name for ever – had fallen, when the spear cast by Aeneas failed to find your flesh, and you with mocking words taunted the gallant son of Anchises. You taunted him, for he was sorely vexed, and Patroclus bade you hold your tongue, for it availed not to anger the enemy. I remember the funeral games mighty Achilles held in honor of Patroclus; you fared little in the chariot race against the like of King Menelaus and King Diomedes, but in the contest of archery you bested eagle-eyed Teucer, and the ten double-edged axes the son of Peleus promised the winner went to you, while King Teucer was left ten single-edged ones. Sir, you are squire and charioteer to a man most puissant – King Idomeneus, whose prowess with the spear is legend. The boon of glory has ever been your part in this war, and by the favor of the gods you have lived to see its end. I know your heart, and I know from whence your words spring. For my part I am humbled at my kind fate, for it is the will of the gods – many a man better than I have taken my place in the house of Hades."
"It is only too true," said the son of Molus. "Good Ithacan, you speak well, and I know your heart as well. Father Zeus and the gods have blessed us with this great conquest, and I can only pray that they will smile on us homeward as they have done in war. Go now, and let us each do what we must, ere the hour comes that our feet know not the feel of Trojan soil ever again."
Then they took leave of one another, the Ithacan with a deep bow, Meriones with a nod of his head. The Ithacan would have went on his way had not a sudden premonition, the immensity of which descended on him like a great rock, laid hold of him, seizing his knees and drawing him to a halt. Turning he stared after the retreating figure of Meriones and called out, "O son of Molus, I bid you hear me a moment longer. Tell me, if you can – you spoke of bitter, captive women, taken in battle – tell me, where are they of Ilium gone? Whence have they been taken – old queen Hecuba, the daughters of King Priam, the maids of the palace, the women of the city?"
The charioteer of the Cretan king answered with a hearty laugh over his shoulder, far down the wall now, "Fear not, sir, for there will be many awaiting Danaan hands and whims after Helen herself, whom King Menelaus has no doubt claimed already. I envy him his place! But proceed, with your back to the rising sun, past yonder ramparts, and ere long you will find them. Them I do not envy." Thus he spoke as he laughed, and his loud, coarse laughter faded on Boreas' breath as he departed under the dawn. The Ithacan stood gazing after him a moment longer before going on his way.
With the words of Meriones in mind, he crossed the wall westward, with the rising sun at his back. A strange compulsion drew him onward; he felt bewildered by a purpose as mysterious as it was unfathomable, the hand of the gods thrusting him over the threshold of a door into an unknown destiny. It seemed to him that his legs, already heavy from battle, had became as the legs of bronze Talos, yet on he walked, measuring each pace, slow and ponderous, one after the other. He imagined he could faintly hear, beyond the hum and cry of Achaean voices out of the smoke-veil of the city below, murmurs – or perhaps it was merely the wind, so bleak it seemed Boreas himself lamented the ill fate of Ilium. It was an extraordinary feeling, and the Ithacan fancied for an instant a god was near, unseen to mortal eyes, a divinity whispering in his ear.
The song of the morning wind brought faded images to the Ithacan's eyes; a humble cottage on the hill slopes, within sight of the palace of the son of Laertes; a rough bed where each dawn he awoke with cool air on his face and the light of rosy-fingered Eos in his eyes, and rising gazed out across the hills; rocky fields where as a boy he ran and played, and as a young man toiled; a tree tall as ten men, ancient beyond reckoning, that oft he climbed to survey as King Odysseus himself would the Ithacan countryside under the burning light of the sunrise. He saw his home, where still his elderly mother dwelt in anticipation of the return of her one, beloved son, her daughters having been given away in marriage to men of other isles. He saw the cot on which he had been brought into the world, and on which he had spent its nights every day since. He saw the bare fields of Ithaca, unlovely to all but Ithacan eyes, the island's lack of horses owing to craggy terrain as such – yet there was few better for soldierly training. He saw the great tree, its trunk the arm-spans of several men, ringed by rocks at a respectful distance – it seemed the very stones feared to infringe on the territory of that proud and immortal tower of nature – with its sturdy branches skyward that he would clamber on with slow caution to feel the wind in his hair and with a child's exultation behold what the gods themselves must when they turn their divine gazes to earth.
So did a pain of longing surface in the Ithacan's heart as he listened to the wind, such that with a soundless sigh he was obliged to slow his step. Then a pain of a different kind pierced him as he came completely to a halt.
There before him was a woman, one among many. No desolate, despoiled maid was she, but a lady of lofty station manifestly, her rich raiment of Trojan royalty vivid amid plain, undyed garments. Gold shone at her slender neck, her pale arms and wrists, in her tresses of moonlit night that hung in stained disarray. She clutched to her bosom an infant child, wrapped still in swaddling cloths, from whom muffled cries and a constant squirming came. Around were ranged the other women, who notwithstanding their own pain and despair stood about her in protective fashion, as a herd gathers about its wounded.
The Ithacan stared, and like a ray of the sun's radiance through a sky of ebony clouds a name came unbidden to mind – Andromache, daughter of Eetion King of Thebes, wife of Hector tamer of horses.
He spoke to a soldier near at hand, "Pray, sir, do tell me – unless my eyes deceive me, is that not King Priam's daughter-in-law, wife of his son Hector, the princess of Ilium and formerly of Thebes, Andromache?"
"You speak true," replied the man nodding.
"And what of the child?" asked the Ithacan.
The answer came, "The child is Scamandrius, the son of Hector, called by the people of Ilium Astyanax, 'prince of the city', or so I have heard tell. In truth," he added, "it surprises me greatly that he is yet safe in his mother's arms."
The Ithacan glanced at the man's armor, noting with a sense of awe the emblem all Achaeans knew and took heart to see on the field of battle – the emblem of the Myrmidons, lions among men, the fierce followers of legendary Achilles, son of Peleus. But the warrior's last words mystified him. "How so?" he queried.
"Do you not know?" the Myrmidon answered, looking at him with an odd expression. "Verily, even as we speak the children of the city are being flung from the walls! It is the will of King Agamemnon. This day Ilium ends, and so also do its people. No Trojan shall take up the sword against a Danaan, ever again."
The Ithacan swayed as one who has been struck a mighty blow from the butt of a sword, or the head of a mace perhaps. He stared at the babe, a hero's son – great Hector's son. And as he stared, he heard again, akin to the whisper of the boughs of a sacred grove by the coming of dusk, the murmurs on the wind.
The soldier at his side spoke once more, "Now, sir, pardon that I cannot tarry longer, for I see my lord has come."
Abruptly, the Ithacan stood alone. His gaze traveled past the mass of women, down the wall to a figure moving resolutely in his direction, escorted by many men, and even at a distance he needed no far sight to know who it was; Neoptolemus, destroyer, indomitable fury, merciless slayer of men, the cruel, savage young son of Achilles – he who had been summoned by the Achaeans to take the place of his father, slain by the arrows of Paris before the Scaean gates. It was then a man ascended a stair nearby and passed the Ithacan, a soldier in armor of proud Mycenae, city of Agamemnon. On his shield, its emblem bright as the morning star, there was borne another child, another infant, but unmoving in the stillness of death.
On a sudden impulse, the Ithacan seized on the man, whispering in his ear, "Friend, do not trouble yourself the more. I will do this ignoble task in your place. Here, lend me your shield for I have lost mine."
The Mycenaean, dour and weary, appeared relieved, and he said, "My good sir, this poor babe is yours. Verily, it is not in our nature, we of the finest of the King of Kings' army of Mycenae, to sully our hands with such deeds. It is to spill the blood of Trojan warriors, not cast their dead children like so many pebbles from the walls, that we came hither! I thank you. There down the stair I shall await my shield."
And the Ithacan made pretence of carrying the shield toward the edge of the wall as the man departed. Yet swift as a hawk he turned as soon as the soldier had vanished, and with his ash spear forced a path through the women around the princess of Ilium till he stood before her, a frightful sight to behold in his armor and helm dirty with smoke and blood. Laying down his spear and the shield he then lifted the dead child in his arms, all the while watched by the princess whose dewy eyes, red from the outpour of a river of tears, gazed astonished upon the lone Achaean warrior whose strange action seemed of such purpose it brooked no protest.
The man of Ithaca addressed her thus, "Princess, I am Ithacan, of the land of Odysseus. I must ask you now, and be quick to answer, for our time is short – tell me, and tell me true, is that child your own, and that of Hector, son of Priam? Is that the child named Scamandrius, but known to your people as Astyanax?"
Andromache gave her answer boldly, "Truly he is my son, and that of Hector, son of Priam." At this, the Ithacan drew in a breath and pointed down the wall, at the nearing Neoptolemus and his Myrmidon guards.
"Know you, Princess," said he, "Neoptolemus, son of Achilles? He comes hither, doubtless to do you harm, and your child." Yet Andromache stood as a statue, holding tight her child, unmoving as the babe in the Ithacan's arms.
"Think you I know not the name of the son of Achilles, Danaan?" said she. "Yet I cannot think he has come to do me harm. My son, o my little one! He is so young, so young! I cannot think he will come to any harm. He will come with me. For he is so young, they will let him come with me. Do not goad me falsely."
The Ithacan responded, in a tone which betrayed his anxiety, "Think you so? I tell you now, your son will surely perish, as will every child in Ilium, for they are being flung from the walls even as we speak!" The women near at hand gasped aloud, and not a few wailed in terror as the Ithacan spoke these dreadful words. "Think you Neoptolemus will show mercy? It was his father that slew your son's! You know well, Princess, the savagery of Achilles' son. Deny it no longer, for he approaches. Yet I would have it otherwise."
In the moment of silence that greeted this speech, the Ithacan heard once more the murmurs. But then Andromache spoke, and in her stately voice there glowed the embers of a nameless hope, "Speak, Danaan, and I will hear you."
Thus the Ithacan looked into the shining eyes of she who was the wife of a hero, the daughter of kings, and, until the night before, the princess of one of the proudest cities in the known world, and when he spoke again it was with a voice clear and strong, portentous as the voice of thundering Zeus himself.
Ruin had come to Ilium.
In the midst of Achaean soldiers milling all around, yet completely alone, the Ithacan made his way toward the massive, broken gates of the city, passing under the shadow of that which had given Ilium into the hands of the Achaeans. He reined in the horse he had managed to lead away unnoticed, one of many of fine Trojan stock taken from the royal stables by the army of Lacedaemon, and gazed up. The great wooden horse, now gutted by fire, loomed above the fallen city, terrible testament to the cunning of one man.
The Ithacan thought of the men he had met on this day of ruin – the soldier of Pylos who had wagered his father's goodly helm that King Odysseus's plan of the horse would not succeed; Meriones, squire of Idomeneus, who had doubtless gone on to further glory after their parting; the Myrmidon on the wall where he had encountered the princess of Ilium; the noble Mycenaean warrior who in all likelihood was at the stair still, awaiting the return of his shield in vain; even King Odysseus himself, who had not been seen in hours. For the Ithacan had met others of his army on his way, but of his king there had been no sign.
It was then the Ithacan heard, from far away up on the high wall, a woman's shriek loud and long, and in its wake there came a voice pitiless and doom-laden, the voice of a soulless dreadnaught, "Take heed, woman! My father it was that slew his. He may have sought revenge in the years to come, and I cannot suffer that. Also he may have become King of Ilium, and we want no more Kings of Ilium!"
The man of Ithaca lowered his helmed head and rode on. Under the shield he carried that showed the flashing emblem of Mycenae, he bore his burden, now quiet and still save for an occasional squirming. As he emerged from the shadow of the great horse and the road yawned wide before him, he heard again the song of the morning wind, yet this time it brought no visions of the past so dear they hurt, but promises of a future unknown, uncertain, obscure as the wine-dark depths of Poseidon's realm.