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32

NARRATED BY

Priam

Boreas the North Wind came howling down from the frozen wastes of Skythia, dyeing the trees amber and yellow; summer was gone in the tenth year and still Agamemnon remained, a mangy dog guarding the stinking bone of Troy.

Everything was gone. Just before Hektor died I ordered the last of the golden nails withdrawn from doors, floors, shutters, hinges, and threw them into the melting pot. The treasury was bare; all the votive offerings in the temples had been cannibalised to make ingots; rich and poor alike groaned under taxes; yet I still didn’t have enough to buy what Troy needed to fight on – mercenaries, arms, war engines. For ten years I had seen no income from Hellespont tolls. Agamemnon collected them from all the Greek ships streaming into the Euxine Sea, from which he had barred ships of other nations. We ate well because our southern and northeastern gates remained open and the peasants were able to continue farming, but what we missed were the items of food our location made impossible to grow. Only a very few of the fabled horses of Laomedon were left to graze the southern plain; I had been forced to sell almost all of them. How true it is that the wheel turns full circle. What Laomedon and I had denied to the Greeks now belonged to the Greeks, for I learned later that King Diomedes of Argos was the chief buyer of those horses. Pride, pride… It goeth before a fall.

They lit great fires in my chamber to warm my flesh, but there was no fire on earth could thaw out the despair settled like a sucking creature around my heart. Fifty sons had I sired, fifty beautiful lads. Most of them were dead now. The War God had culled the best of them for himself, left me the dross to console my old age. I was eighty-three, and looked as if I would outlive the last of them. To see Deiphobos strutting, a mockery of the Heir, made me weep rivers. Hektor, Hektor! My wife Hekabe was crazed, howled like an ancient bitch dog deprived of sustenance; her preferred companion was Kassandra, even more demented. Though Kassandra’s beauty had grown in time with her madness. Her black hair bore two great ribbons of white, her face had fined down to sharpest bones, her eyes were so big and brilliant that they looked like jet-dark sapphires.

Sometimes I would force myself to make the journey down to the Skaian watchtower to see the innumerable wisps of smoke rising from the beach, the ships drawn up rank on rank along the strand. The Greeks made no assault; we hung on the brink of an abyss while they accorded us no sop of comfort, for we did not know what they intended. They simply went about their mysterious business. The remnants of Troy’s army were concentrated on the Western Curtain; it was here that Agamemnon must attack, as attack he must.

Each night I lay sleepless; each morning found me wide awake. Yet I was not defeated. While a spirit still dwelled inside my withering carcase I wouldn’t let Troy go. If I had to sell every person within its walls, I would hold Troy in Agamemnon’s teeth.

But on the third day of Boreas’s Breath I lay with my face turned to the window as the dawn crept up over Ida, grey light streaked with the misty glow of tears. Weeping for Hektor.

I heard a faint shout, shuddered and forced myself out of bed. It sounded as if it was coming from the Western Curtain. Go there, Priam, see what the matter is. I summoned my car.

The noise was growing louder and louder as more and more voices joined in, but it was too far away to learn whether the racket was caused by fear or grief. Deiphobos joined me, rubbing sleep from his eyes and pouting sourly.

‘Are we being attacked, Father?’

‘How should I know? I’m going to the walls to find out.’

The head groom came with my chariot, my driver stumbled from his quarters half stuporous; I drove off, leaving the Heir to follow or not, as he chose.

The whole city around the Skaian Gate and the Western Curtain seethed with people; men ran in all directions gesticulating and calling, but no one seemed to be buckling on armour. Instead they were leaping about, screaming to everyone to go up and see.

A soldier assisted me to climb the stairs of the Skaian watchtower; I emerged into the guardroom quietly. The captain was standing clad in a loincloth, tears running down his face, while his second-in-command sat in a chair, laughing insanely.

‘What is the meaning of this, captain?’ I demanded.

Too possessed by whatever affected him to realise what he was doing, the captain grasped me painfully by the arm and propelled me out onto the roadway. There he turned me in the direction of the Greek camp and pointed one shaking finger at it.

‘Look your fill, sire! Apollo has heard our prayers!’

I screwed up my eyes (which were quite good for my age) and peered through the growing light. I looked, and I looked. How to take it in? How to believe it? The Greek smoke holes were cold, no scent of burning wood lingered on the air; not a single tiny figure moved; and a swathe of shingle bathed by the rising sun glittered in it. The only sign that ships had ever rested there was the series of long, deep scores running down into the water of the lagoon. The ships were gone! The soldiers were gone! Nothing of an army eighty thousand strong remained save a small city of grey houses. Agamemnon had sailed in the night.

I shrieked. I stood there and carolled my uncontained joy, then my limbs lost their power and I fell to the cobbles. I laughed and I wept, I rolled on the hard stones as if they were thistledown, I babbled my thanks to Apollo, I giggled and flapped my arms. The captain hoisted me to my feet; I took him in my embrace and kissed him, promising him I do not remember what.

Deiphobos came running with face transfigured, picked me up bodily and whirled me round in a crazy dance, while the guards stood in a ring and clapped the time.

No Grecian monster lurked on the beach. Troy was free!

No news ever travelled so fast. The whole city was awake by now, and all of it crowded onto the walls to cheer, sing, dance. As the light spread and the shadows began to lift from the plain we could see more clearly: Agamemnon had indeed sailed away, away, awaaaaay! Oh, dear Lord of Light, thank you! Thank you!

Alert now, the captain still stood protectively beside me. Suddenly stiff with apprehension, he plucked at my sleeve. Then Deiphobos noticed and came closer.

‘What is it?’ I asked, my spirits sinking.

‘Sire, there’s something out there on the plain. I’ve seen it since dawn, but the light’s beginning to strike it now, and it isn’t the grove of trees beside Simois. It’s a huge object. See?’

‘Yes, I see,’ I said, mouth dry.

‘Something,’ said Deiphobos slowly. ‘An animal?’

Others were pointing at it, debating its nature; then the sun slanted onto it and glanced off a brown, polished surface.

‘I’m going to see,’ I said, making for the guardroom door. ‘Captain, order the Skaian Gate opened, but don’t let the people go outside. I’ll take Deiphobos and examine it myself.’

Oh, the feeling of that wind, cold though it was! Driving across the plain was a panacea for everything that ailed me. I told the driver to follow the road, so we bumped and jolted over the cobbles. A smoother ride than of yore. The ceaseless progress of men and chariots had worn the stones evenly and the fissures between were filled in with powdery dust gone hard in the autumn rains.

Of course we had all understood what the object was, but none of us could credit that we saw aright. What was it doing there? What could its purpose be? Surely it wasn’t what we thought! On closer view it must turn out to be something far stranger, far different. Yet when Deiphobos and I approached, some of the Court trailing in our wake, it was indeed what it had seemed to be. A gigantic wooden horse.

It towered far above our heads, an oak-brown creature of huge proportions. Whoever had made it, Gods or men, had adhered strictly enough to equine anatomy to define it as a horse rather than a mule or a donkey, but the body was on such a scale that it was mounted on thicker legs than any horse ever owned, with mammoth hooves bolted to a table of logs. This platform was raised clear of the ground by small, solid wheels – twelve on either side at the front and the back. My car lay in the shadow of its head, and I had to crane my neck to see the underside of its jaws above me. Made of polished wood, it was both stout and sturdy, the joins between the planks sealed with pitch in the manner of a ship’s hull; over the pitched seams a pleasing pattern had been painted in ochre. It had a carved tail and a carved mane; as I moved back to take in the head I saw that its eyes were inlaid with amber and jet, that the inner caverns of its nostrils were painted red, and that the teeth open on a neigh were ivory. It was very beautiful.

A full detachment of the Royal Guard had galloped up, together with most of the Court.

‘It must be hollow, Father,’ Deiphobos said, ‘to be light enough to rest on the table without the wheels collapsing.’

I pointed to the creature’s rump on our side. ‘It’s sacred. See? An owl, a serpent’s head, an aegis and a spear. It belongs to Pallas Athene.’

Some of the others looked doubtful; Deiphobos and Kapys muttered, but another son of mine, Thymoites, became excited.

‘Father, you’re right! The symbols speak more eloquently than a tongue. It’s a gift from the Greeks to replace the Palladion.’

Apollo’s chief priest, Lakoon, growled in his throat. ‘Beware the Greeks when they bear gifts,’ he said.

Kapys leaped into the fray. ‘Father! It’s a trap! Why would Pallas Athene extract such backbreaking labour from the Greeks? She loves the Greeks! If she hadn’t consented to the theft of her Palladion, the Greeks couldn’t have stolen it! She would never transfer her allegiance from the Greeks to us! It’s a trap!’

‘Control yourself, Kapys,’ I said, distracted.

‘Sire, I beg you!’ he persisted. ‘Break open its belly and see what it contains!’

‘Have nothing to do with gifts from the Greeks,’ said Lakoon, an arm about each of his two young sons. ‘It’s a trap.’

‘I agree with Thymoites,’ I said. ‘It’s meant to replace the Palladion.’ I glared at Kapys. ‘Enough, do you hear?’

‘At any rate,’ said Deiphobos practically, ‘it wasn’t intended to be brought inside our walls. It’s too tall to fit through the gates. No, whatever its purpose, it can’t be a trick. It’s meant to remain here in this spot, of no danger to us or anyone else.’

‘It is a trick!’ cried Kapys and Lakoon, almost in unison.

The argument continued to rage as more and more of Troy’s important people congregated about the amazing horse to wonder and theorise and inundate me with their opinions. To get away from them I drove round and round it, examining it minutely, plumbing the meaning of the symbols, marvelling at the quality of the workmanship. It stood exactly halfway between the beach and the city. But where had it come from? If the Greeks had built it, we would have seen it rise. It must be from the Goddess, it must!

Lakoon had sent some of the Royal Guard into the Greek camp to inspect it; I was still driving round and round when two guardsmen appeared in a four-wheeled car, a man between them. They dismounted at my side and helped him down.

His arms and legs were in chains, his clothing was reduced to tatters, his hair and person were filthy.

The senior guardsman knelt. ‘Sire, we found this fellow skulking inside one of the Greek houses. He was as you see him now, in chains. He’s been very recently flogged, see? When we took hold of him, he begged for his life and asked to be taken to the King of Troy to impart his news.’

‘Speak, fellow. I am the King of Troy,’ I said.

The man licked his lips, croaked, couldn’t find a voice. A guardsman gave him water; he drank thirstily, then saluted me.

‘Thank you for your kindness, sire,’ he said.

‘Who are you?’ Deiphobos asked.

‘My name is Sinon. I’m an Argive Greek, a baron at the Court of King Diomedes, whose cousin I am. But I served with a special unit of troops the High King of Mykenai delegated for the exclusive use of King Odysseus of the Out Islands.’ He reeled, had to be held up by the guardsmen.

I got down. ‘Soldier, sit him on the edge of your car and I’ll sit beside him.’

But someone found me a stool, so I sat opposite him. ‘Is that better, Sinon?’

‘Thank you, sire, I have the strength to continue.’

‘Why should an Argive baron be flogged and chained?’

‘Because, sire, I was privy to the plot Odysseus hatched to be rid of King Palamedes. Apparently Palamedes had injured Odysseus in some way just before our expedition to Troy began. It’s said of Odysseus that he can wait a lifetime for the perfect opportunity to be revenged. In the case of Palamedes, he waited a mere eight years. Two years ago Palamedes was executed for high treason. Odysseus engineered the charges and manufactured the proof which damned Palamedes.’

I frowned. ‘Why should one Greek conspire to effect the death of another? Were they neighbours, rivals for territory?’

‘No, sire. One rules islands to the west of the Isle of Pelops, the other an important seaport on the east coast. It was a grudge, over what I don’t know.’

‘I see. Why then are you here in this predicament? If Odysseus could engineer treason charges against one Greek king, why didn’t he do the same to you, a mere baron?’

‘I’m the first cousin of a more powerful king, sire, one whom Odysseus loves greatly. Besides, I told my story to a priest of Zeus. As long as I lived unscathed, the priest was to say nothing. If I died, no matter from what cause, the priest was to come forward. As Odysseus didn’t know which priest, I thought myself safe.’

‘I take it that the priest never told the story because you aren’t dead?’ I asked.

‘No, sire, nothing like that,’ said Sinon, sipping more water and looking a little less wretched. ‘Time went on, Odysseus said and did nothing, and – well, sire, I simply forgot about it! But of late moons the army has become very discouraged. After Achilles and Ajax died, Agamemnon abandoned hope of ever entering Troy. So a council was held and a vote taken. They would go home to Greece.’

‘But this council must have happened in midsummer!’

‘Yes, sire. But the fleet couldn’t sail because the omens were inauspicious. The high priest, Talthybios, finally gave the answer. Pallas Athene was causing the contrary winds to blow. She hardened her heart against us after her Palladion was stolen. She demanded reparation. Then Apollo declared his anger too. He wanted a human sacrifice. Me! By name! Nor could I find the priest in whom I had confided. Odysseus had sent him on a mission to Lesbos. So when I told my story, no one believed it.’

‘King Odysseus hadn’t forgotten you, then.’

‘No, sire, of course he hadn’t. He simply waited for the right moment to strike. They flogged me and cast me in chains and left me here at your mercy. Boreas began to blow, they could sail at last. Pallas Athene and Apollo were placated.’

I got up, stretched my legs, sat down again. ‘But what of this wooden horse, Sinon? Why is it here? Is it Pallas Athene’s?’

‘Yes, sire. She demanded that her Palladion be replaced by a wooden horse. We built it ourselves.’

‘Why,’ asked Kapys suspiciously, ‘didn’t the Goddess simply demand that you return her Palladion?’

Sinon looked surprised. ‘The Palladion had been polluted.’

‘Go on,’ I ordered.

‘Talthybios prophesied that the moment the wooden horse rested inside the city of Troy, it would never fall. All its former prosperity would return. So Odysseus suggested that we build the horse too big to fit through your gates. That way, he said, we could obey Pallas Athene, yet make sure the prophecy couldn’t be fulfilled. The wooden horse would have to remain outside on the plain.’ He groaned, moved his shoulders, tried to sit more comfortably. ‘Ai! Ai! They shredded me!’

‘We’ll bring you in and tend you very soon, Sinon,’ I soothed, ‘but first we must hear the whole tale.’

‘Yes, sire, I understand. Though I don’t know what you can do. Odysseus is brilliant. The horse is too big.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ I said grimly. ‘End it.’

‘It’s already ended, sire. They sailed, I was left here.’

‘They sailed for Greece?’

‘Yes, sire. In this wind, an easy business.’

‘Then why,’ asked Lakoon, still very sceptical, ‘were wheels put on the beast?’

Sinon blinked, astonished. ‘Why, to get it out of our camp!’

Impossible to doubt the man! His suffering was too real. So were those whip weals, his extreme emaciation. And his tale fitted together without flaw.

Deiphobos looked up at the mighty bulk of the horse, and sighed. ‘Oh, what a pity, Father! If we could get it inside –’ He paused. ‘Sinon,’ he said then, ‘what happened to the Palladion? Polluted?’

‘When it was brought into our camp – Odysseus stole it –’

‘Typical!’ said Deiphobos, interrupting.

‘She was displayed on her own altar,’ Sinon went on, ‘and the army was assembled to see her. But when the priests made the offerings to her, she was three times enveloped in flames. After the fire died down for the third time she began to sweat blood – big drops of it oozed out of her wooden skin and rolled down her face, down her arms, from the corners of her eyes as if she wept. The ground shook, and out of the clear sky a fireball fell into the trees beyond Skamander – you must have seen it. We beat our breasts, we prayed – even the High King himself. Afterwards we discovered that the Goddess had promised her sister Aphrodite a favour – that if the wooden horse was placed inside Troy, then Troy would marshal the forces of the world and conquer Greece.’

‘Hah!’ snorted Kapys. ‘Too, too convenient! This brilliant Odysseus thinks of making the horse too big, then sails away! Why should they go to so much trouble only to sail away? Why should they care what size the horse was? They sailed home!’

‘Because,’ said Sinon in a voice which indicated that he was rapidly coming to the end of his patience, ‘next spring they’re coming back!’

‘Unless,’ I said, rising from my stool, ‘the horse can be brought inside our walls.’

‘It can’t,’ said Sinon, sagging against the side of the car and closing his eyes. ‘It’s too big.’

‘It can!’ I cried. ‘Captain! Bring ropes, chains, mules, oxen and slaves. It’s early morning. If we start now, we can get the beast inside before darkness falls.’

‘No, no, no!’ Lakoon yelled, face a mask of terror. ‘Sire, no! Let me at least petition Apollo first, please!’

‘Go and do what you feel you must, Lakoon,’ I said, turning away. ‘In the meantime, we’ll start fulfilling the prophecy.’

‘No!’ shouted my son Kapys.

But everyone else roared on a whoop, ‘Yes!’

It took most of the day. We attached ropes reinforced with chains to the front and sides of the massive log platform, then harnessed mules, oxen and slaves; with almost infinite slowness the wooden horse moved down the road. Painful, frustrating, exasperating work. No Greek – no man! – could have counted on our stubborn persistence in the face of such a task. At every bend the thing had to be backed to and fro a dozen times to keep it on the cobbles and off the sward, for the wheels were only bolted to the table; there were no axles in the world strong enough to take such a mountain of weight.

By noon we had drawn it to the Skaian Gate, where, sure enough, we could see for ourselves that the head was five cubits taller than the arched roadway above the vast wooden door.

‘Thymoites,’ I said to my most enthusiastic son, ‘tell the garrison to bring picks and hammers. Break down the arch.’

It took a long time. The stones laid down by Poseidon Builder of Walls didn’t yield readily to the blows of mortal men, but they crumbled fraction by fraction until a large gap existed above the open door of the Skaian Gate. Those harnessed to the creature drew on the roped chains; the mighty head went forward again. As the jaws crept closer and closer I held my breath, then screamed a warning: too late. The head stuck. We prised it loose, demolished a little more, and tried again. But it would not pass through. Four times in all that noble head jammed before the space was wide enough. Then the gigantic thing rolled groaning and ponderous into the Skaian Square. Hah, Odysseus! Foiled!

To be sure, I decided that the horse must be towed up the steep hill and brought inside Troy’s wellsprings, the Citadel. Which took twice as many beasts of burden and what seemed aeons of time, though the cityfolk put their shoulders to it too. The Citadel gate had no arch over it; the horse just squeezed through.

We brought it to rest for good in the verdant courtyard sacred to Zeus. The flagstones cracked and split under its huge weight and the wheels sank into the ground amid fragmented paving, but the replacement for the Palladion stayed upright. No force on earth could move it now. We had shown Pallas Athene that we were worthy of her love and respect. Then and there I vowed publicly that the horse would be kept in perfect condition, and that an altar would be erected at its base. Troy was safe. King Agamemnon would not return in the spring with a new army. And we, when we had recovered, would marshal the forces of the world to conquer Greece.

Came Kassandra’s crazed laughter; she ran from the colonnade, her hair streaming unbound behind her, both arms outstretched. Howling, wailing, screeching, she fell to clasp my knees.

‘Father, get it out! Get it out of the city! Leave it where it was! It is a creature of death!’

Lakoon was there, nodding grim confirmation. ‘Sire, the omens are not good. I’ve offered Apollo a hind and three doves, but he has rejected them all. This thing spells doom for our city.’

‘I have seen it. Father speaks the truth,’ said the elder of his two sons, pale and shivering.

Thymoites sprang forward to defend me; my own temper was rising, and the voices around grew afraid.

‘Come with me, sire,’ said Lakoon urgently. ‘Come to the great altar and see for yourself! The horse is accursed! Chop it up, burn it, get rid of it!’

Hustling his two sons before him, Lakoon ran to Zeus’s altar, far outdistancing my old legs. Suddenly, attaining the marble dais, he screamed. So did his sons, leaping and shrieking. By the time one of the guards reached him, he was down in a huddled heap and moaning, his arms plucking at his writhing sons. Then the guard skipped backwards very quickly and turned a horrified face towards us.

‘Sire, don’t come near!’ he cried. ‘It’s a nest of vipers! They’ve been bitten!’

I raised my hands to the crimsoned depths of the firmament. ‘O Father of the Skies, you have sent a sign! You struck Lakoon down in front of us because he spoke against your daughter’s offering to the people of my city! The horse is good! The horse is sacred! It will keep the Greeks from our gates for ever!’

They were over, those ten years of war against a mighty foe. We had survived and we still owned ourselves. The Hellespont and the Euxine were ours again. The Citadel would have golden nails again. And we would smile again.

I led the Court into my palace and commanded a feast; our last misgivings laid to rest, we gave ourselves over to rejoicing like liberated slaves. Shouts of laughter – songs – cymbals – drums – horns – trumpets floated up from the honeycomb of streets below the Citadel, while from inside the Citadel the same noises floated down. Troy was free! Ten years, ten years! Troy had won. Troy had driven Agamemnon from its shores for ever.

Ah, but for me the best sight of all was Aineas! He hadn’t gone to see the horse, nor stirred from the palace through all our travail. He couldn’t very well avoid attending the feast, however, though he sat with face set and eyes smouldering. I had won, he had lost. The blood of Priam still existed. Troy would be ruled by my descendants, not by Aineas.

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