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Authors: Mary Renault

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BOOK: The King Must Die
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I could not wrestle for a fortnight, and told the other youths I had fallen on the mountain. For the rest, life went on as before; except that the light had been put out. Those to whom this has happened will understand me; not many, I daresay, for such men die easily.

For a man in darkness, there is only one god to pray to.

I had never before singled out Apollo for worship. But of course I had always prayed to him before stringing a lyre or a bow; and when I went shooting, I was never mean with his share. He had given me good bags time and again. Though he is very deep, and knows all mysteries, even those of the women, he is a Hellene and a gentleman. Keeping that in mind, it is easier than it seems not to offend him. He does not like tears intruded on his presence, any more than the sun likes rain. Yet he understands grief: bring it to him in a song, and he will take it away.

In the small laurel grove near the Palace, where he had an altar, I gave him offerings, and played to him every day. At night in Hall, I used to sing of war; but alone in the grove, with only the god to listen, I sang of sorrow: young maidens sacrificed on their wedding eve, ladies of burned cities weeping their fallen lords, or the old laments which have come down from the Shore People, of young heroes who love a goddess for a year, and foreknow their deaths.

But one could not always be singing. Then melancholy would fall black upon me, like a winter cloud heavy with snow. Then I could bear no people. Those days I took myself into the hills, alone with my bow and my dog.

One day in summer I had wandered far, loosing at small game and taking up my arrows; but the wind had tricked me, and I had got nothing but one hare. I was still on the heights in the last light, and looking down saw the shadows of the hills thrown right across to the island. From the foot slopes hidden by trees and dusk, the smoke of Troizen rose faint and blue. They would be trimming the lamps there. But on the tops, birds still gave softly their evening calls, and a deep light carved the edges of the grass blades.

I came out upon the bare round summit ridge, where the sun strikes first at morning, and Apollo has his altar. On two sides you can see the sea, and to the west the mountains about Mycenae. There is a house for the priests, built of stone because up there the winds are strong; and a little stone sanctuary for the holy things. Underfoot are springy heath and thyme; and against the sky is the altar.

My black mood was still on me. I had resolved not to go and eat in Hall; I should only affront someone and make enemies. There was a girl by the harbor who would put up with me, because it was her trade.

A dim curl of old smoke rose from the altar, and I paused to salute the god. The hare I had shot was in my hand. I thought, "It is not worth cutting. One can't be paltry with Apollo. Let him have it all; he has given me something for nothing, often enough."

The altar stood black against a clear sunset sky, yellow as primroses. It smoldered still from the evening sacrifice, and the smell of burnt meat quenched with wine hung on the air. The priests' house was silent, lampless and without smoke. They were fetching wood, perhaps, or water. There was no human creature to be seen in all the world; only the thin pure light, and great blue spaces stretching away, mountains and seas and islands. Even the dog was daunted by the solitude; the hair darkened on its back, and I heard it whimper. The evening breeze touched my bowstring, and a humming came from it, high and strange. And suddenly the place overwhelmed my soul, as an ant drowns in a river. I would have given anything for the sight of an old woman gathering sticks, or any living thing. But nothing stirred in all that vastness; only the bow still sang, small like a gnat. My nape shuddered, and my breath came thick. Almost I fled headlong into the hillside forest, like a hunted stag, crashing down through the woods till the thicket held me. I stood at stretch, my hair stirring like the dog's hackles; and a clear voice said in my ear, "Do not be late tonight, or you will miss the harper."

I knew the voice. It was my mother's. The words too I knew, for she had spoken them that morning, when I set out. I had answered heedlessly, my mind on my troubles, and had at once forgotten. Now, like an echo, the sound returned.

I went up to the sanctuary, and laid the hare on the offering table for the priests to find. Then I walked home through the dusky woodland. The black mood that drove me out had lifted; I felt hungry for supper, for wine and company.

Though I made good haste, I was still rather late; my grandfather raised his brows at me, and I saw the harper already at his meat. I went down to the foot of the table, where he sat among the House Barons, and they made room for me beside him.

He was a middle-sized man, dark and spare, with eyes deep-set and a thinking mouth. His life had made him at home at kings' tables; he set himself neither too high nor too low, and was easy to talk to. He told me he came from Thrace, where he served a shrine of Apollo. The god had forbidden him to eat meat or drink strong wine; he took cheese and greenstuff, and even that sparingly, because he was going to sing. His robe glittered with gold, and looked like some rich king's gift; but it lay folded on the bench beside him, while he ate in clean white linen. A quiet man, who talked of his art like a craftsman, and had a strain of the Shore People in his blood, as many bards have.

While we ate, we talked about making lyres: how to choose one's tortoise, stretch the sounding-skin, and set in the horns. The lyre I made afterwards was so good that I use it still. Then the tables were cleared; the servants wiped our hands with towels wrung out of hot mint-water; my mother entered, and took her chair by the column. From her greeting to the harper, it seemed he had already given her a song upstairs.

The servants went down the Hall to eat and listen; my grandfather had the bard's harp brought him, and invited him to begin.

He put on his singing-robe, which was blue, and spangled with small gold suns, so that by torchlight he seemed all sprinkled with fire. Then he withdrew into himself, and I stopped the young men from speaking to him again. I guessed he was a master, from his not sitting to eat in his robe. Sure enough, from the first chord onward, nothing else stirred but a dog scratching for fleas.

The song he gave us was the Lay of Mycenae; how Agamemnon the first High King took the land from the Shore Folk, and married their Queen. But while he was at war she brought back the old religion, and chose another king; and when her lord came home she sacrificed him, though he had not consented. Their son, who had been hidden by Hellenes, came back when he was a man, to restore the Sky Gods' worship and avenge the dead. But in his blood was the old religion, to which nothing is holier than a mother. So, when he had done justice, horror sent him mad, and Night's Daughters chased him half over the world. At last, all but dead, he fell on the threshold of Apollo, Slayer of Darkness. And the god strode forward, and lifted up his hand. They bayed awhile, like hounds robbed of their game; then earth drank them back again, and the young King was free. It is a terrible tale, and one could not bear it, but for the end.

When he had done, the cups beating the board could have been heard down in the village. Presently my mother signed that she wished to speak.

"Dear Father, this evening will be boasted of to those who were not there. Now, while the bard is taking a drink to cool his throat, won't you ask him to sit with us, and tell us about his travels? I have heard he knows the world to its furthest ends."

Of course my grandfather invited him, and his chair was moved. I went over too, and they put a stool for me by my mother's knees. After the drink and the compliments, she asked him what was his longest journey.

"Without doubt, Lady," he said, "the voyage I made two years back, to the land of the Hyperboreans. It lies north and west of the Pillars of Herakles, in that green shoreless sea which drowned Atlantis. But Apollo is the guardian god of the Hyperboreans. That year they built the second circle round his great sanctuary. I sang the work-song, when they raised the standing stones."

"What kind of land is it," I asked him, "at the back of the north wind?"

"A land dark with forests," he said, "and green with rain. They build on the bare hilltops and high moors, for safety against beasts and enemies. But it is a great land for bards, and for Apollo's priests to learn his mysteries. I was glad to go, being a priest myself. Thrace is my native land, but the god keeps me roaming. It was his oracle at Delos sent me on this journey. I was there to sing for him, when the envoys came with their offerings south down the Amber Road. The High King of the Hyperboreans sent to say he had this great work in hand, and asked for a priest from Delos, that being the center of Paian's worship, as well as of the Cyclades and of all the world. It was put to the oracle in the hill cave, who answered that they should send the Thracian singer. That was how I came to go."

He told us of the voyage, which had been cold, stormy, and perilous. A gale had driven them north of the island, where, he said, they had passed between two floating rocks as white as crystal, which almost closed on the ship; and on one sat a black monster with seven snaky necks, and barking dog-heads.

I glanced at my grandfather; he winked at me, when the bard was not looking. "After all," said his eye, "the fellow is not on oath."

My mother said, "And how had they built Apollo's sanctuary?"

"After the fashion of the place: a circle of standing stones, with lintels lying on them. The inner circle had been there time out of mind. It is an emblem of Apollo's mystery. While I was there, the priests admitted me to the Lesser Mysteries, and I learned such things as a man is better for all his life."

"Since those things are secret," my mother said, "tell us about the building."

"It was like Titans' work. Great blocks of rough-hewn stone, each as big as a poor man's house. Yet they had brought them many leagues, from a sacred mountain, rolling them round hills and floating them over rivers. Some had been years upon the way. But now when it came to lifting them, the High King had sent to Crete for masons. If the strongest men on earth had all been there together, without engines they could not have been stirred."

Then he told how this king, and six others who used the sanctuary, had brought all their people to the work; so many it needed, though the Cretans had halved it with their hoists and levers. And even that multitude looked poor and frail about the huge stones, like ants tugging at pebbles.

"Then I saw why Apollo had sent a bard. Cretans do not know everything, though they think so. They know now to raise stones, but not men's hearts. The people were afraid. So I understood why I was there, and called upon the god; and he put the power on me, to feel the work and make it music. I sang his praises, and gave the time. After a while, the seven kings with their sons and barons came forward and pulled for Apollo's honor, standing among the people. Then the stones rose up slowly, and slid into the beds the Cretans had made for them. And they stood fast."

Now he was rested, I asked if he would give us a verse or two of his work-song. He smiled, and said it would be like a dance without dancers; but when he sang it, I saw old barons whose hands had never known the feel of a common task sway in their seats as if they were pulling a galley. He was famous for these songs; all over the Achaian lands, kings planning some great work in stone sent for him to time the hauliers, and put luck into the walls. Since he died there is no one to touch him at it; simple folk say, believing it, that the stones rose up for him of themselves.

It was now time to give him his presents. My grandfather gave him a good brooch; but my mother brought out a heavy girdle worked with gold, which would not have been mean to give a king. Since he had taught me so much, I felt I too should give him something uncommon; so I parted with my black ring, one of my best things. It was made of a precious metal from a distant land, very heavy, and so hard that you could turn even a bronze sword-edge on it. I was glad to find him pleased with its rarity; he already had gold enough.

My mother first, and then my grandfather, gathered their people and went up to bed. The slaves took down the trestles, and brought in the beds for the unmarried men. I saw the bard made comfortable, and asked if he fancied any of the Palace women; but he said he would sleep. Then I went out in the courtyard. The night was clear. The toothed roof-edge, the watchman with his spear and horn, stood black against the stars. Behind me in Hall, the House Barons were bedded with their girls, those who had captured or bought their own; and young men in want of company were seeking it in the usual way. A girl passed whom I knew; she belonged to my mother, and had sat that evening near her chair. I ran out and caught her round the middle. She only fought with the soft of her hands; we were not quite strangers to one another. We struggled and laughed in whispers, and she said, Well, what must be must, but I should be the ruin of her; and we went into Hall as they snuffed the last of the torches. Later I asked her softly, so that no one else could hear, what my mother had said to the bard apart, when she rewarded him. But she was sleepy, and cross at being waked again, and said she could not remember.

4

In the dark before daybreak, the girl woke me going away. I had been dreaming; and, being wakened, remembered my dream. I had seen the Hyperborean sanctuary, great hoists and engines standing against a gray sky, great stones rising, and kings leaning on the levers. And a thought came to me, sent straight from the god.

I got up, and went out to the yard of the Palace woodman. Dawn scarcely glimmered; not even the slaves were astir, it was only in the fields that men were waking. It was almost too dark to find what I needed; but I should have to take it with me, for no man puts a tool to the oaks of Zeus. I found a short thick log and two longer ones, whose ends I trimmed to wedges. I bound them up, and getting them unhandily on my shoulders—for I was not used to carrying burdens—set out for the oak wood.

BOOK: The King Must Die
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