Authors: Glyn Iliffe
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General
enelope, queen of Ithaca, stood tall and stiff, staring at the door to the great hall. The muffled sound of voices came from behind its thick wooden panels, punctuated with frequent bursts of laughter. She knew they were waiting for her – to tell her news of the war that had reached its tenth year, and of her husband, Odysseus, whom she had not seen in all that time – but still she hesitated.
‘Should I go now, Mother?’ asked the boy at her side, whose auburn hair she was twisting nervously with her slender fingers. ‘I know children aren’t allowed in the Kerosia.’
‘This isn’t a gathering of the council, Telemachus,’ she replied, looking down at her son and smiling. ‘It’s a private audience with the men who arrived today. They have news for me, and I have questions for them.’
‘Then is it true they’re Ithacans, back from Troy?’
Telemachus looked at his mother and she caught a sudden glimpse of Odysseus in his clever green eyes. It made her catch her breath and the only way she could prevent the swell of tears was to avert her gaze to the gloomy, torch-lit corridor that led back into the palace. At ten years old, her son had inherited little or nothing of his father’s short-legged, triangular bulk. Instead, he was already showing signs of his mother’s height and lean build, as well as her dark, intelligent looks. But his eyes came from his father, and from time to time he would give her a shrewd look or cunning glance that brought memories of Odysseus into painful focus.
After a moment, she looked back at her son and nodded.
‘Yes. Eurybates is your father’s squire and Arceisius is a member of the royal guard.’
Telemachus’s face flushed and his eyebrows puckered angrily.
‘Why send a squire? Couldn’t he have come himself?’
‘No, my dear. His duty is to stay with the army until they defeat the Trojans and win Helen back from the man who took her. Besides, even if he could leave his men I don’t think he would.’
Penelope looked at Telemachus and there was a deep sadness in her eyes.
‘Because he would never be able to go back. Now, come with me. I want Arceisius and Eurybates to see you with their own eyes, so they can let your father know what a strong and handsome son he has waiting for him at home.’
She pushed the door open and together they walked into the great hall. A fire burned brightly at its centre, casting a vigorous orange glow that fought against the encroaching shadows of night. Its light revealed colourful murals flowing across the white plaster walls, depicting figures of gods and men embroiled in acts of war and violence. Though each wall told a different story, they seemed to move effortlessly into each other, as if the struggles between gods and Titans, and the battles of men against each other, were but one continuous tale. Smoke from the fire coiled up between the four pillars that supported the high ceiling, while around the burning hearth were five chairs, four of which were occupied.
The men stood as Penelope entered.
‘Be seated, my friends,’ she ordered, circling the hearth towards the fur-draped chair that had been left for her.
They waited for her to sit before lowering themselves into their own chairs. Last of all, Telemachus settled on to a fleece at his mother’s feet, his inquisitive eyes roaming the faces of the men as he leaned his cheek against her knee. Penelope laid a hand on his head, drawing comfort from the softness of his hair as she, too, looked at the seated figures.
To her left was Mentor. His handsome face had a natural authority to it and his muscular physique would have marked him as a warrior, were it not for the leather-cased stump of his missing right hand. There was a warm smile on his bearded lips, but Penelope could sense the concern behind it. Mentor was her chief adviser and the closest thing she had to a friend, ever since Odysseus had sailed to Troy. He knew her calm exterior was a façade, hiding the anxieties and uncertainties that were suddenly teeming within her after the arrival of the ships from Ilium. She may have fooled others with her display of regal restraint – bottling herself up in the palace and refusing to follow the crowds down to the harbour to hear the news from Troy – but not Mentor.
Halitherses was to her right, his ageing bulk so tightly packed into the high-backed chair that it seemed the arms would snap off at any moment. He was a veteran soldier and had been a longstanding captain of the royal guard, though his mounting years and the scars of his many battles had prevented him from sailing with Odysseus to Troy. Instead, the king had given him joint stewardship of Ithaca, along with Mentor, to keep the island and its people safe in his absence. And they had not failed him, though the threats to the small kingdom were ever-present and growing. Over the years they had repulsed a handful of raids from the mainland, where groups of armed brigands were filtering down from the north and the rule of law was faltering in the absence of the Greek kings. And then there was the internal menace of Ithaca’s own nobles, whose increasingly audacious demands were voiced through the wealthy and treacherous Eupeithes. Odysseus had bought Eupeithes’s loyalty many years before with a place on the Kerosia, but neither Halitherses nor Mentor trusted him. Fortunately, the people were loyal to their king and the fear of Odysseus’s return kept Eupeithes and his followers in check. For now.
Penelope’s gaze turned to the other two men. She had already been informed of their names, of course, but could barely equate the battle-hardened warriors before her with the youths she had once known and had watched sail off to war. Eurybates, seated next to Halitherses, was an exceptional sailor who had been keen to make the voyage to Ilium and exact revenge from the Trojans for stealing Helen, the pride of the Greeks. Now, as he sat before her, his short body looked as hard as if it had been carved from rock, and his curly hair was grown long and had been drawn back into a tail behind his neck. His eyes were tough and uncompromising, though as they rested on his queen for the first time in many years there was a noticeable softness in them.
The other man, Arceisius, she had first known as a young shepherd boy with ruddy cheeks and a roguish grin. His father had been murdered by Taphian pirates, so Eperitus – Odysseus’s captain – had taken him under his wing to teach him the profession of war, eventually taking him with him to Troy. Now he was a man, scarred and deeply sunburnt, with eyes that had grown sharp from watching foreign horizons and witnessing horrors that no boy’s mind could survive. And yet his cheeks were still red and, unlike Eurybates, there was a light in his eyes that had survived the cruelty of war. It was like the glimmer of gold at the bottom of a pool, that still spoke of happiness and memories of music and dancing, and of young girls in the long grass of Ithaca’s meadows. It was then she noticed the garland round his neck and the petals in his hair, from the welcome the ships’ crews had received that morning. The sight brought a smile to Penelope’s lips.
‘Welcome back, Arceisius. Welcome back, Eurybates. I hope your journey wasn’t too perilous.’
‘Not nearly as perilous as being home again,’ Eurybates replied, looking around at the walls. ‘I didn’t realize how much I’d missed Ithaca, and the gods only know how we’ll bring ourselves to leave again and return to that forsaken country!’
‘We’ll do it because we’re loyal soldiers, sworn to obey Odysseus,’ Arceisius answered.
‘Aye, we will,’ Eurybates conceded with a nod. ‘But there’s not another man in this world that I’d do it for.’
‘Your words reveal more than the depth of your love for my husband,’ Penelope said. ‘The war, it seems, is not going well.’
‘Not going well, my lady?’ Eurybates replied. ‘That’s the problem – it’s not going anywhere at all!’
‘And you will tell us all about it,’ Penelope interrupted. ‘Every detail of everything that has happened since the last galleys were sent back five years ago. But I’m being a poor hostess. First we will eat; meat and wine will raise your spirits, and then you can tell us about the war and my husband’s part in it.’
She nodded to Mentor, who snapped his fingers behind his ear and brought a servant scurrying out of the shadows. A moment later the steward was running from the hall with his orders, to return a short while afterwards followed by a stream of slaves carrying tables, platters of food and kraters of wine. After washing her hands, Penelope led the libations to the gods by stepping up to the hearth and tipping a slop of wine into the flames. The others followed, muttering thanks to the Olympians as the liquid hissed and sent a puff of steam up into their faces. The rest of the meal was silent as the men helped themselves to strips of roast goat, which they picked up and wrapped in thin saucers of bread before washing it down with mouthfuls of wine, constantly replenished by the waiting slaves. Penelope ate very little, and that only out of politeness, as she watched the faces of her guests. Eurybates quickly lost his surliness as he forgot the war in the taste of Ithacan wine, while Arceisius was enjoying the flirtations of Melantho, the prettiest of the servant girls, who would brush seductively across him every time she refilled his krater and bat her long, dark eyelashes at him. They were men who had seen much hardship, but she could only envy them their trials because at least they had endured them alongside her husband. Indeed, the nearness of the two men – whose arrival had been totally unexpected – gave her a renewed sense of Odysseus, almost as if he were here with them, standing unseen in the shadows. Had they not spent the last ten years with him, listening to his soft voice, witnessing his feats on the battlefield and enjoying the embellishments he would add as they sat around the campfire later? For all the loss of their youth and naïvety, for all their hatred of the thought of returning to Troy, they had still not suffered as much as she had. She reached for Telemachus’s head again and was comforted by the touch of his hair beneath her fingertips.
‘Enough of this silence,’ Halitherses announced, his impatience finally getting the better of him. ‘Speak to us about this damned war. What in Ares’s name is taking Agamemnon so long? Doesn’t he have the greatest of all the Greeks in his army? What about that great oaf, Ajax, and Diomedes, and all those others? Why isn’t Menelaus tearing the walls down with his own hands? After all, Helen’s his wife and he should be leading the way. And what of Achilles? He’s the one they all had their hopes on, isn’t he?’
As Halitherses vented his frustration – built up by years of relative inaction at home – Mentor glanced at Penelope, then held his hand up to silence the old warrior.
‘What about Odysseus? I’d rather hear about our own king first.’
‘Thank you for your concern, Mentor.’ Penelope smiled. ‘As ever, you know where my heart is. But everything in its right place: first Eurybates can tell us about the war, leaving nothing out; and then, if Melantho can leave him alone, perhaps Arceisius will tell us about my husband.’
There was a pause in which the servants trooped out of the hall or faded back beyond the circle of firelight. Eurybates waited until the last sandals had stopped scuffing across the stone floor, then leaned across the arm of his chair and focused not on Penelope, but on the boy who had remained seated in obedient silence at her feet.
‘You must be Telemachus,’ he began.
‘Yes, now that I look at you I can see you have your father’s eyes,’ Eurybates continued. ‘I was there when he dedicated you to Athena on Hermes’s Mount, when you were just a few days old. He was
proud of you, Telemachus.’
‘Then why did he go?’
Eurybates’s eyes flicked up to meet Penelope’s. The queen nodded.
‘He left because he had to. He’s a king and no man bears more responsibility than a king – to his family, to his people and to his gods, but most of all to his gods. And, as you must already know, Odysseus was bound by a most sacred oath . . .’
Telemachus knew all about his father’s oath, of course – to protect Helen, queen of Sparta, which had been taken by all her suitors – and of all the things that happened because of it. But children love stories, especially when those stories involve themselves and the people close to them, and so he listened intently as Eurybates recounted how Helen had been abducted by Paris, a Trojan prince, while he was a guest in Menelaus’s palace. Supported by his brother, the powerful and ambitious King Agamemnon, Menelaus had called on the oath-takers to honour their promise. A great fleet was assembled and set sail for Troy, where, with Agamemnon as their elected leader, they laid siege to the city, intent on razing it to the ground and reclaiming Helen for Menelaus.
But the auspices had not been good from the outset. For one thing, Troy was not some poor city that would fall at the first attempt. Its walls were thick, high and strong, constructed by the gods and protected by all manner of prophecies. It was also a rich and powerful city and King Priam, Paris’s father, could call on vast, experienced armies of allies from far and wide. Indeed, after the Greeks’ first attempt to draw the Trojans out of their walls had failed, Troy’s allies had arrived in droves and under the leadership of Prince Hector had forced Agamemnon to make camp on the coast, a safe distance away to the south-west. Since then, countless battles had raged across the hills and plains between the camp and the city, killing and maiming thousands of men for little or no advantage to either side. Every strategy that Agamemnon tried, every ruse that Odysseus had thought up to defeat the Trojans, had been frustrated by Hector’s uncanny ability to anticipate their every move. In the end, Eurybates explained with a sigh, the Greeks were too numerous to be pushed back into the sea, while the Trojans always had the safety of their impenetrable walls to fall back on. And so the years had passed, filled with slaughter from spring until autumn, pausing during the cold misery of winter, and then resuming again with the first flowers of spring.