Authors: Bernard Evslin
The Trojan War
HE MAN STOOPED UNDER
a huge bale. He passed through the castle gates and climbed the broad stone stairs that led to the women’s quarters. The brass-helmeted sentries stood silently watching him go. Ordinarily they did a little playful torturing of peddlers before allowing them in—beat them a bit about the shoulders with their spear-shafts, plucked their beards, and scattered their wares. They weren’t really cruel, these sentries, they were fighting men, but it had been a long time between wars, and they were bored. For some reason they had not bothered this red-headed fellow. Perhaps it was that his shoulders were so broad and his arms so knotted with muscle—and he had lifted the great bale of goods so easily off his white donkey. His grin was servile enough, and he had tipped them a greasy little bow like all peddlers. Nevertheless, they let him pass through the gates and across the courtyard without tormenting him.
And it was strange, too, that the great guard dogs, the brindle mastiffs with their spiked brass collars, did not charge the stranger, nor even growl.
The peddler flung down his bale and knelt on the stone-flagged floor, pulling out garment after shining garment as the tall daughters of King Scyros crowded about him, chattering and laughing and shrieking with greed. For they loved clothes, these daughters of the king, and Scyros was such a remote island, they felt themselves falling far behind the fashions. Besides … they had a visitor to impress: the tall yellow-headed silent girl—a country cousin who had been with them for three months now without ever telling them anything about herself. She listened to all they had to say, smiling her curious thin-lipped smile, but never told any secrets in return.
“Spread out your wares, man,” cried Calyx, the eldest princess. “Don’t pull them out one by one. Spread them so we can see them all.”
“Yes, princess,” said the peddler.
With a sweep of his arm he spread his goods upon the stone floor. Silks and furs and garments of wonderfully woven flax, dyed with the colors of mountain sunset. Jewels flashed—rings, bracelets, anklets, necklaces. And, on a long cloak of black wool, were couched a lance and a sword. Unjewelled were these weapons, made for battle use not ceremony; their blades were heavy and sharp, newly honed. The hilt of the sword was bull-horn; the haft of the throwing lance of polished ash, its head of bronze. With gull-cries of greed the girls fell upon the garments—all except their visitor. She leaped across the chamber and snatched up the weapons. Flexed her long legs in a fighting stance, and whipped the sword through the air, decapitating a horde of imaginary foes.
The princesses fell silent, stared at their cousin, eyes huge. The peddler smiled. He arose. His stoop was gone, gone the little servile selling-grin. He stood there massively, smiling, and watched as the princesses’ yellow-headed cousin shadow-duelled—whirling, ducking, stabbing.
“It is well,” said the peddler. And his voice was different too. “By your choices shall you be known. I have come a long way for you, Achilles. And now you must come back with me.”
“Achilles!” shrieked the maidens.
“Achilles,” said the peddler.
He approached the tall girl, seized the shoulder of her tunic, and ripped it away, baring her to the waist, and disclosing not another maiden, but a young man muscled like the statue of a god.
“A man,” murmured the princesses. “She’s a man.”
The young man said nothing, but seized the peddler by the beard and raised his sword.
“Softly, Achilles,” said the peddler. “I too am unlike what I seem. We are kinsmen far back, you and I. I am Ulysses, King of Ithaca.”
Achilles let his hand fall.
“Ulysses,” echoed the princesses.
And, indeed, even before the Trojan War was fought this name was known the length and breadth of Hellas as that of the boldest pirate-king of the Inner Sea, a master of strategy on land and water.
“But why do you seek me, cousin?” said Achilles. “My mother bade me dress in maiden’s garb and hide myself in this court in obedience to some oracle or other. She said she would call me back when the Fates had been satisfied—a matter of weeks. But now you come first to fetch me away. By what right?”
“Oh, you may abide here among the maidens and wait for your mother,” said Ulysses. “But I think I should tell you that there’s a war on.”
“A war?” shouted Achilles, snatching up his sword. “A real war?”
“Very real. With Troy. Against some of the most fearsome warriors of this age or any other.”
“Why do we stand here conversing?” cried Achilles. “Let’s go!”
Ulysses bowed to the princesses. “You may keep these garments, fair maidens. They are my gift to you. Accept too my apologies for the slight deceit I was forced to practice.”
“Farewell, cousins,” said Achilles. “Gentle maids, farewell. After this war is over, I shall return—in my own guise, and attempt to thank you for your hospitality.”
The two men passed from the chamber, and left the courtyard. The princesses watched from the embrasures; saw them disappear through the gates and then appear again around the corner of the cliff where the road dipped to the sea. And that night nine of them dreamed of Achilles, and three, of Ulysses. But in the middle darkness their dreams crossed, and by dawn there was no counting.
Ulysses led the young man aboard his ship. They lifted anchor and set sail for Aulis where the war fleet was gathering. They sat on deck in the golden weather, and Ulysses told of how enmity was born between Greece and Troy.
CTUALLY, YOU AND THIS
war were meant for each other,” he said to Achilles. “Your seeds were planted on the same night—the night your mother and father were wed—at a wedding feast given by the gods themselves on Mt. Olympus. Know you, Achilles, that your father, Peleus, was the most renowned warrior of his day, and your mother, Thetis, the most beautiful naiad who ever rose naked and dripping from the tides of the moon to trouble man’s sleep?”
“I’m aware of my own pedigree, man,” snapped Achilles. “Get to the war.”
“Patience, young friend, the war comes soon enough. Now, whoever it was of the High Ones who made out the invitation list to the wedding feast, neglected to include the Lady of Discord herself. Eris, queen of Harpies, sister to the War-god, who rides beside him in his chariot delighting in the cries of the wounded and the smell of blood, was not invited to the feast and, oh, Achilles, what a terrible omission it was.
“When the rejoicing was at its height and the stars reeled on their crystal axes, shaken by the laughter of the gods, then it was that Eris made herself invisible, entered the great banquet hall, and rolled upon the table a gleaming, heavy apple of solid gold. Upon the apple were written the words: ‘To the most beautiful.’ It glowed there like the heart of flame, and was immediately claimed by Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. The festivities were immediately rent by their quarreling as they shrieked like fishwives over a beached mackerel. The feast was ruined. Gentle Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth, and protector of feasts, wept great tears. Eris stood among the shadows, chuckling. Hestia begged Zeus to settle things by awarding the apple to whoever he considered to be the most beautiful. But Father Zeus was much too wise to be caught in a trap like that. Hera happened to be his sister and his wife, Athena his daughter, and Aphrodite a kind of half-sister—and, it is said, even more.
“ ‘Peace, good company!’ boomed Zeus. ‘The question of choosing among three such enchanting beauties is too difficult to be undertaken by anyone who knows them well and has been exposed to their potent charms. We must therefore seek beyond our own small circle for a just decision. I shall search among the mortals of the earth for him of coolest judgment and most exquisite taste. Give me a few days to find him. In the meantime, I bid you cease your quarreling, my three fair claimants, and let the festivities resume. As for this little gem of contention, I shall just keep it myself until judgment is made.’ And his huge hand closed lovingly about the golden apple.”
“The war, man! The war!” cried Achilles. “Enough of parents, weddings, and high vanities! When will your tale tell of war?”
“Hark, now. These events I relate are the living seeds, and they will bear bloody fruit, I promise. And you, my boy, will be there for the harvesting. Where was I?”
“Zeus was seeking one wise among mortals to give judgment upon the claims of the goddesses.”
“He chose Paris. Paris, secret prince of Troy, Priam’s youngest son, thought to have been killed at birth because an oracle had warned that his deeds would destroy Troy.”
“Reason enough for the king to drown him like a kitten. How is it he survived?”
“Oh, some plot of Hecuba’s, no doubt. A mother’s heart cherishes her sons, even those who endanger the state. It is said Queen Hecuba instructed her serving man to smuggle the babe out of the castle and give it to a certain shepherd to raise as his own. He grew up to be very beautiful. It’s a handsome family anyway, and he is the fairest by far, they say, of Priam’s fifty sons. The shepherd maids trailed him up and down the slopes. But he was too young; he spurned the maidens. And this, of course, recommended him to uneasy husbands and lovers, giving them a great opinion of his wisdom and moderation. So it was that he was called upon to mediate their disputes, to fix grazing rights, judge the points of cattle, and so forth. When Zeus bent his ear to earth to hear of a man of judgment, why the strongest word came from Mt. Ida, speaking the name, Paris …”
The hot silver of a flying fish scudded suddenly out of the water followed by the black-silver hump of a broaching dolphin. For half a breath they hung in the air—long enough for Achilles to uncoil from the deck with a fluency that delighted the warrior heart of Ulysses. Swiftly, Achilles hurled a short lance through the air transfixing the winged fish so that it fell heavily before the dolphin—which drew out the lance, swam to the boat, and tossed the weapon aboard with a flick of its head, grinning up at the men like a dog. Then it turned and swam back for its meal.
“Well thrown,” said Ulysses.
“It thirsts for blood,” said Achilles, wiping his lance-head. “I must appease it with hunting till it can drink of the enemy upon the beaches of Troy. Unless, of course, I am lucky enough to fall in with a private quarrel.”
“Strictly forbidden,” said Ulysses. “There’s a war on. Private quarrels must wait. We have all taken an oath, and you must too.”
“Tell the tale, King of Ithaca. It shortens the journey.”
HEY WERE FIGHTING A
headwind out of Scyros, and Ulysses saw that it would take some days to reach Aulis. So he told the story in the old bardic way with many a trill and flourish, and taking every byroad. But we will shorten it …
In those days it was customary to bribe judges, which shows how far we have come since. And so Paris was offered bribes.
Hera offered him power. “Great fleets shall sail at your nod,” she told him. “Armies shall march when you raise your hand. Dominion shall be yours over land and sea. All men shall be as slaves to you. Your smile will quicken them, your frown kill. And power is wealth. Your slaves will delve the earth for gold and jewels. Your galleys will plunder far places and sail back with cargoes beyond dreams of piracy to stuff your vaults. All this shall be yours if you award me the apple.