A Woman of Proud Ilion
The days were lengthening towards summer when my journeys led me to Asia Minor. I had found myself at loose ends upon the death of my former master. With no little ones to school and no illustrious travels to chronicle, his daughters gave me my freedom and a small purse, and sent me on my way.
It had occurred to me as I wandered, that I might retrace the steps of the heroes of my master's war and chronicle the fates of those left behind. That is how I found myself in a corner of the Kingdom of Mysia, between the mountains and the sea, in the shadow of fallen Troy.
Of those who fought on that dusty plain, few remain. Achilles, Hector, Ajax, great Agamemnon even, are dead. Menelaus rules Sparta with the beauteous Helen returned to his side, while cunning Odysseus, after years of sailing the wine dark sea, has once again found comfort in the arms of his equally clever wife.
Few dwell here nowadays, save ghosts. Ghosts and Andromache.
I made discreet inquiries; hoping one of her ladies might agree to speak with me. The summons, when it came, took me by surprise. Cursing my boldness - I am but a scribe and hardly one to consort with princes - I shrugged into my best tunic, and arrived at the Palace at the hour of sunset. Aservant led me through a maze of pillared corridors to a secluded yet well-appointed courtyard. At its center glowed a brazier and before the fire on a fur-draped chair sat Andromache, Queen of Epirus and lady of fallen Troy.
My first impression was of a slender woman of middle years with features gilded by the setting sun. Still as a golden statue she sat, staring into the distance. Her gown was of a deep indigo with a border of galloping horses. She wore a veilof a matching color draped loosely over her shoulders to ward off the evening chill. Her dark hair was feathered with silver and dressed simply around a pearl coronet. To my amazement, she wore no other jewels save a ring upon her thumb and a locket on a slender chain about her neck. Drawing nearer, I noticed how the light picked out the lines that years and sorrow had etched upon her face. She made no attempt to hide her wrinkles, but wore them defiantly as a soldier might proudly display his scars.
I made a deep bow. She greeted me with a smile, indicating with a casual wave of her hand a nearby stool where I should seat myself. She said not a word. I followed her gaze across the vast empty plain to a line of broken walls. Even at this distance and in their state of ruin, they dominated the plain.
Somewhere in the wreckage, the setting sun touched upon an object: a fragment of twisted bronze perhaps, or a shard of broken glass. For a brief moment, a shaft of brilliance shot across the darkling plain, and then, like the heroes who had fought upon the dusty plain all those years ago, it was gone.
"I spend an hour here every evening," Andromache explained in a low-pitched voice. "The veil between worlds is thin at sunset, and I fancy that I can almost see my ghosts across the sea of time." She dismissed her servants. "You must think me a foolish old woman," she chuckled quietly when they had left.
"Nay, never…" I hesitated suddenly. Somewhat sheepishly I asked, "Forgive me, Lady, but by what title should I address you?"
"It matters little," she shrugged. "How do you think history will remember me? As brave Hector's widow, as a spoil of war, or as Queen to far-sighted Helenus?"
"How do you wish to be remembered?"
As a wife… a loyal wife." A thin smile flitted on her lips. "All this is but vanity. A hundred years from now, even the bards will have forgotten sorrowful Andromache ."
"Not if they read my chronicle, they will not," I boasted.
"My, but you are bold, Master Scrivener," she chided lightly.
"I have to be. Restraint does little to fill a belly, my Lady." The Queen did not laugh as I had hoped she would. Her gaze was fixed once more upon the distant ramparts. "Majesty," I advanced, "have you never returned to Troy? Is is, after all, but a few leagues distant."
"What purpose would that serve? When, after ten years of siege, proud Ilion fell, the Greeks left no corner of it undefiled. I have no wish to see it thus degraded. In my mind, I see her still as the glittering jewel she once was. The sails dancing in the harbor, the pleasant, vine-draped courtyards, the music of the fountains… All of that is gone now. All that remains is blackened stone and the whispers of the dead. Nay, I will not return, save in memory."
"Had you always lived in Troy?" I asked after a moment of respectful silence.
"Indeed not," she smiled. "I was born in Thebes. Eetion, the King was my father. I came to Troy as Hector's bride, and so was spared when my father and brothers fell to Achilles' wrath."
"They still laud Achilles as a hero of Greece," I said, "and greatly do they mourn his death."
Andromache's brow darkened. "Speak not to me of mourning!" she said in a voice edged with ice. "He slew them all. Seven brothers I had, the youngest but a child, and he put them all to the sword. All that blood and still his thirst was not slaked. No, he had to slaughter proud Troy, and take from me the dearest part of myself." The Queen seemed embarrassed by her outburst. She fell silent for a long moment, and when she spoke again, her voice was little more than a murmur. "He was all Troy could have wished for in a prince, and all I could desire in a husband."
"It is uncommon for a royal wife to speak so fondly of her husband."
"Hector was uncommon man."
"How came you to be his wife?"
"We were promised to each other as children. I grew to womanhood hearing tales of his valor. I knew all there was to know about him though I never set eyes upon him, until the day we were wed."
"That first sight of him is etched in my memory." She gave a wistful smile, and the years fell away from her face. "I remember whispering a silent prayer of praise and gratitude to Apollo, that he should gift me with such a fine-looking man. He was as fair in spirit as he was in form and we were very happy together. But, those days are long past, and seem to me now as insubstantial as a dream"
"What is your first memory of Troy?"
"I remember riding into the City at Hector's side. We drew near the gates early in the day. The city was arrayed in all her finery to greet us. Colorful flags waved from her golden towers. Silken banners spilled over her soaring walls, and a rain of flowers fell upon our heads. Gaily dressed people massed along the walls and poured out of the gates - people of Troy and Thebes and every land in between, who had flocked to the City to welcome home bold Hector and his new bride – and they sang and waved as we rode past. I loved them at once."
"In later years, as my captivity at the court of Neoptolemus stretched on, word came to me that Aeneas had led a handful of Trojans from the sack. The thought that those good people had found peace elsewhere comforted my heart."
"Neoptolemus? The son of Achilles?"
"The same." Her features hardened again, and she looked away once more across the dark plain. "On his deathbed, he promised me to his son to be his concubine. He distributed us all to the Achaean lords as spoils of war. When proud Troy was overrun, even as the priest threw… even as he took my son, Odysseus came for us. Helen he returned to Menelaus, and the Spartans celebrated her return, while I was given to Neoptolemus, to warm his bed and bear his bastards."
She gave a humorless chuckle and turned to face me. "Hector was right, you know. Even at the lowest point of my degradation, when I labored as Neoptolemus' whore, the people of his city honored me with their tears, as my husband had foretold. Shamed as I was, they knew me for a constant wife."
"Hector foresaw this?"
"Aye. The last time we spoke, he knew our city would be overrun and feared we would be taken into slavery. If that was to be our fate, he prayed that he would not live to see our shame. In that, at least, his prayers were granted."
"When Neoptolemus was murdered, you became Queen. Did not some people suspect you?"
"None would have convicted me, for Neoptolemus was not loved by many. As it is, however, my hands are clean. 'Twas his own wife who did the deed. He had bequeathed his crown to Helenus, who took me as his Queen."
"Tell me of your years with Helenus."
"He treated me with respect. For that alone, I would have agreed to be his wife. Not that I had any choice in the matter." She took a sip of wine, and continued. "Helenus was, as you know, one of Hector's younger brothers, twin to Cassandra, and like his sister, he too had a gift of foresight. Being a man, however, his prophecies were given consideration while poor Cassandra's were dismissed as a woman's hysterical ramblings."
A wry smile twitched her lips. "Do you know, in some lands it is considered an offense unto the gods to take your dead brother's wife? Can you imagine mighty Zeus who has lain with every manner of creature, making such a decree?"
"Nay, I cannot," I smiled. "Did you love him?"
"He treated me well, and I was content to be his Queen."
"Aye, but did you love him?"
"You are very forward for a scribe," she chided and toyed with her veil, winding the fine linen about her fingers. "Has no one ever taught you not to ask impertinent questions?"
"My master was very lenient, Majesty."
"He was remiss in not teaching you better manners."
"No doubt, my lady, though I daresay my impertinence has served me well enough."
"Yes, I imagine it has."
"Indeed. For one thing, it allows me to repeat a question when it has gone unanswered. Did you love King Helenus?"
"Impertinent and most irritatingly persistent," the Queen laughed. "Did I love Helenus? I grew fond of him... He had treated me with courtesy always, even as a lad in Troy, and I was glad to learn he had survived the fall. What became of him during the long years of my captivity, I do not know, for he never spoke of that time. I daresay not think his memories of those years were not happy ones. That much I suspect, for often times he would awaken, shaking and drenched with sweat.
"But did I love him? If by your question you ask if I loved Helenus as I loved Hector, the answer then is no. He knew it, I think, and did not ask of me what I could not give. I cared very deeply for him, and he was very tender to me."
"At his death, you returned here," I commented. "Was it Fate, do you think, that you should return to the place of your greatest joys and deepest sorrow?"
"I do not believe in Fate," she replied. "I have lost all respect for the gods."
"But lady!" I gasped, "the gods walked with you. Fair Aphrodite herself came to your ladies."
"So they tell me. She came, they say, all resplendent in gossamer and sunlight, to console Helen. I saw only a vain, deceitful woman whose outward beauty thinly concealed the ugliness within."
"What of your husbands? Your sons? 'Tis said they are descended from mighty Zeus himself?"
"Then why did they die? Can you answer me that? For I have begged the gods for an answer, prostrated myself in their temples and no word of comfort came."
"Surely, Hector was fated to fall, just as Paris was fated to destroy his father's kingdom. And as Achilles' fate was cast ere he ever drew breath."
"That is truly what you believe?" she asked.
"I dare not believe otherwise, my lady."
"Tell me, have you traveled abroad?"
"I was in service to a cartographer, my lady."
"Then perhaps you can tell me, do the foreign gods toy with their followers as do ours?"
I opened my mouth to answer, but Andromache forestalled me. "Do the foreign gods repay faithful devotion with cruel disregard?"
"I do not know, my Lady."
"At my birth, I was dedicated to Apollo. I was ever faithful in my devotions. I treated the lowest beggar as the father of the Gods himself. Every festival, I observed. Every god I honored, even fickle Aphrodite. And to what end? They turned their back on us, every last one. What is faith, if the gods will not uphold their end of the bargain? Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite…they played us all like chess men, pitting the one against the other for their amusement. Is that a fitting way to repay devotion? Should not the gods hold faith with the faithful?
"I do not know the minds of the Mighty. I am but a simple scribe."
"Not so simple, I think. You are prudent, voicing no opinion and keeping firmly to the middle of the road.
'Tis safer there, I warrant."
"If Hector and Achilles were not fated to die, why then did such great men fall?"
"Pride! Damned warrior pride! Being a demi-god was not greatness enough for Achilles. He desired immortality. He longed to be remembered as a god of war, equal to Herakles, as dread and glorious as Ares himself. Hector too was betrayed by pride, thinking he could slay one who was more than human. He wanted victory, not only to ward his people from harm, but also to be remembered as Troy's greatest champion. They are remembered. They won their prize, but those of us left behind, what prizes did we win save grief and woe?"
"You have your memories, and the comfort of knowing your lord died well."
Andromache shot me a look of such venom, that I recoiled upon my seat. I feared she would expel me at once, but almost as quickly, her look turned inwards, her lips thinned in disquiet, and she fell into a long silence. I watched, not daring to intrude upon her thoughts, as she rolled her wine cup between her hands, absently running a fingertip over the border of circling horsemen.
The silence stretched uncomfortably and I feared the Queen had quite forgotten my presence. At length, she released a long, weary breath and tilted her head upwards. Above our heads, the stars were strewn in a brilliant array across the heavens.
"I apologize, Lady, if I aggrieved you."
"You did not. I am old, and have grown too comfortable in my ways. My servants, too solicitous, tiptoe around my grief, offering unctuous assurances. It does me good to have my beliefs challenged every once in a while. Perhaps that is why I summoned you here."
"Have I persuaded you to return to the gods?"
To my surprise, the Andromache laughed. "Nay, my bold scribe. Even if I did, what god would have me now?" She rose to her feet and draped her veil over her head. "Nay, I will remain steadfast in my convictions, even in the face of daunting opposition, for I am, above all else, a woman of Ilion." Two servants emerged from the shadows. "Escort our guest to his lodgings."
I bowed, bundled my supplies, and hurried to follow my guides. I had almost reached the corridor when the Queen called to me. "Do you know, Master Scribe, that when the Greeks gaze at the heavens, they see the faces of their heroes among the stars?"
"I have heard as much, your Majesty."
"It must be a comforting thought to know your loved ones watch over you from above."
In the time it took me to form an adequate reply, like one of her ghosts, Andromache, Queen of Epirus, Lady of Troy, had vanished into the darkness.
For the purposes of the story, I have taken the liberty of situating the Palace of Pergammum (the location in Asia Minor where Andromache is said to have spent her waning years) within sight of Troy. I have also had Odysseus deliver her to Neoptolemus, though I have found no reference to that fact. He did rescue Helen, so it isn't inconceivable that he might have taken Andromache as well.
Homer, The Iliad, transl. Robert Fagles. Penguin Books, New York, 1990
Homer, The Odyssey, transl. Robert Fagles. Penguin Books, New York, 1996
"Andromache." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 20 Jan 2006, 01:30 UTC. 24 Jan 2006, 02:36 .?title=Andromache&oldid=35892044