Steep Wilusiya (Age of Bronze)

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

MENELAWO

 

 

At twilight, a man ambled to the top of a low hillside, a goatskin bag filled with liquid on his left shoulder, a small jug and a cup in his right hand.  In the dry, trampled grass blanketing the rise, he took his seat, grunting with pain.  He stretched well-muscled legs and leaned on his left elbow, letting the bag down to the ground.  With rough hands, he set down his juglet and two-handled cup.  Clumsily he loosened the leather belt that held up his knee-length kilt, and let the stiff breeze uncover him.  Looking down at his right hip, he gingerly felt around a jagged wound.  The swollen flesh was hot to the touch and he saw that the day's activities had made the injury bleed again.

           

"You will pay for this too, Paqúr," the man groaned, though he was alone.  He looked toward the north where, across gently rolling fields, the walled city capped a steep hill.  "To 'Aidé with you," he muttered and spat in the direction of the citadel.  "Death to all Tróyans."  Indeed, the specter of death was all about.  The plain separating his hillock from stone-walled Tróya was littered with mangled corpses.  Clumps of dead men lay scattered here and there, the dry grass and parched soil stained black with their blood.  There were scraps of wood, too, the slender shafts of feathered arrows, thicker and longer spears, broken wheels of chariots and cracked axles, tattered remnants of the wickerwork baskets that had once risen from each cart's platform.  Torn shields of blood-darkened ox-hide accompanied the fallen men, the wooden frames sometimes circular, occasionally in a rough figure-eight.  But no metal glimmered in the sun's last light, none of the bronze heads of arrows or of lances, no swords or daggers were to be found.  So, too, had the armor of the dead been gathered up and carried off, their corselets, helmets, and the greaves that had formerly protected the dead men's shins.  All among the corpses of men and the occasional horse, there roamed half-wild dogs, eating their fill alongside the raucous cries of carrion birds.

 

Muttering more curses to himself, the man untied the end of his goatskin bag and let some of the dark liquid pour into his cup.  His hands trembled.  A fair amount of wine spilled on the earth before he could close the spout again.  This too inspired angry words.  He removed a dried fig that served as a stopper for the little jug at his side.  From this vessel, shaped like the head of a dried poppy, he let a few viscous drops fall into the two-handled cup.  Raising the vessel to the darkening sky, he purposely spilled a small amount on the damp soil.  "Hail to you, Diwiyána.  Owlé, great goddess," he whispered hoarsely and drank the cup dry.  Twice more he filled his wine-cup, each time adding a bit from the poppy jug.

 

He began to feel better, the constant wind cooling him as it dried the sweat on his unclad body.  Sitting up, he mixed a fourth drink with hands that were even clumsier than before.  Sipping the wine more slowly now, he waited for the night.  As the darkness finally deepened, a second man came to the foot of the hill, calling up to the first, "King Meneláwo!  Come back to the camp now, wánaks.  I will ferry you across the river."  The second man stood waiting, bare-skinned, the wind whipping his long, dark hair about his face.  When there was no answer to his call, he shifted his stance, scratching his beard, running the back of his hand over his clean-shaven upper lip.  "Wánaks," he called once more.

 

On the low hilltop, Meneláwo did not respond.  His eyes were fastened on the pale, limestone walls of the fortress across the plain.  He saw the lower courses of those walls constructed of massive stones, without mortar, saw the smooth incline that made scaling the heights so very difficult.  Above those stones, the superstructure rose still higher, built of sun-baked brick, topped with rounded battlements that protected archers, who were ever watchful in their stations at the top.  Still taller than the already massive walls, soared the great towers, guarding the city's five gates.  Inside those great oak doors, he knew, he remembered from his earlier visit, the houses of wealthy merchants and royal retainers stood in safety, rising two and three stories high, set on concentric terraces.  The palace of the local king stood on the highest point of Tróya's hill.  He had been allowed into the outer courtyard of that magnificent building, that far and no farther.  He had not seen the aged king, nor spoken with him directly.  That would change, he thought grimly.  Paqúr might hide for now behind his royal father's power and the thick walls of his capital city.  But Meneláwo would one day enter those gates, penetrate that hilltop palace, and, if the gods were with him, slit the throats of Tróya's monarch and prince.

 

In his mind, he saw the heavy, hardwood gates on fire, smoke billowing from the wooden pillars and the roofs and doors of the wealthy Tróyans' houses.  He pictured dead men draped over the battlements that crowned those massive walls of pale limestone and brick.  And he heard the city's women singing lamentations, scratching their cheeks with their fingernails until the blood came.  Those who survived the sacking of Tróya would be gathered before the main gate on the southeastern side of the city.  Women and their small children would have to bid farewell to Tróya's six stone columns, symbols of divinity that had been placed before that gate long ago.  Yes, they would say goodbye to their familiar gods and the land of Wilúsiya and then cross the sea to the west, to live in servitude in their conquerors' lands.

 

"You will all pay for what you have done to me," the man threatened the distant fortress.  Below him, the second man sighed and shook his head.  Alone, he began poling a raft across the low waters of the river.  He made his way toward a second settlement, much smaller than Tróya, a collection of tents and thatched huts encircled by a humble wall of earth.

 

On the small rise, the sweet scent of wine mingled with the bitterness of the opium.  Meneláwo's thoughts turned to another city on another hill, across the Inner Sea to the west.  He thought of the pillar of smoke that had risen over the island of 'Elléniya, a signal of disaster that had been visible to him even when he had still been well out at sea.  Before his wine-clouded eyes, came the images of the flame-blackened houses, of shattered storage jars thrown into the streets, their contents plundered.  His flesh crawled at the memory.  Still worse had been the broken bodies, their limbs or heads cut away and bathed in dark blood, or slit from throat to groin, the entrails splayed out on the ground.  He recalled the dread that had sickened his soul as he ran through the streets to his palace on that distant hill.  "Ariyádna!" he had called out as he ran, fearing the worst for his wife, and "'Ermiyóna!" seeking his little daughter.

 

The image of his child came to him then, as he had found her that day, crouched at the bottom of a great storage jar.  The little girl was naked and shivering, damp with her own urine.  He had looked her over from her toes to her head, shaved but for a single, long lock at the back and a short one over her brow.  She had pulled the long topknot into her mouth, biting it to keep from screaming as she hid in the big urn.  Her dark curls were drenched, saliva dripping from her trembling chin.  But 'Ermiyóna was unharmed.

 

"Where is your mother?" he had asked her.  He remembered she would not speak, but only held out her small, dimpled hands for him to lift her.  In one fist she had gripped a small figurine, painted with red stripes, part woman, part bird.  Perhaps this image of the goddess had kept her safe, he remembered thinking.  She had clung to the thing with such intensity that the terra cotta had crumbled beneath her whitened fingers.  He had called her name, over and over, and wrapped his arms around her.  She had wound her hands in his abundant chest hair, sobbing and screaming, inconsolable.

 

"Ai, 'Ermiyóna," he sighed, thinking of her.  "Ai, little daughter, I will bring your mother back to you.  I swear it.  I vow this by the hearth of my home that I will bring Ariyádna back home to you."

 

Ariyádna…his wife…the child's mother.  More than anything else, the thought of his wife troubled him.  Perhaps it was her hands that had crushed the goddess figurine….He shook his head, trying in vain to clear his thoughts.  "Ariyádna," he moaned, "I will make Paqúr pay for what he did to you."  The thought of what that Tróyan prince had done pressed like a stone on his chest.  All his life he had known of the fate of women in war, raped by their captors, distributed as chattel, carried off to foreign lands to live as slaves or concubines.  But these things had always seemed to be the distant troubles of foreigners, events unconnected with him or his kinfolk.  Now it was more than he could bear, knowing that his own wife was behind the walls of that citadel across the plain.  It was not so far away.  He knew he could walk to the big oak door facing the south, could stand before those six idols by the time the moon set.  But Ariyádna might just as well be in the city of the dead, in 'Aidé itself, for all the good it did him.  Those gates across the fields would not allow him to enter, nor would they open for Ariyádna to come out.

 

As Meneláwo sat thinking of them, the big doors swung wide.  Men bearing spears and shields hurried from the citadel, the light of the rising moon glinting on the bronze points of their weapons.  Some made their way to the shoreline of the western sea, not far away.  There, they pushed small boats out into the water and rowed to bigger ships anchored out in the harbor.  Other men, their heads covered by wicker helmets, marched in the opposite direction, inland and toward the eastern mountains.  Neither group was numerous or particularly well armed.  They were all on foot, too, he noticed, not a single chariot among them.  The sight brought a humorless smile to Meneláwo's face.  "Lost your taste for Ak'áyan blood, have you?" he asked the departing warriors with bitter satisfaction.  He stood, taking his wine-bag back on one shoulder, his garment and belt over the other, the cup and small jug once more in his hand.  Striding easily now, he descended the little hill and ferried himself across the low-flowing river, heading for the encampment on the other side.

 

Not far from the southern bank of the Sqámandro’s waters lay the camp of Meneláwo's people.  He took no note of the gaps in the tamped earth on top of the now-uneven surrounding wall.  Nor did any man take note of him.  Meneláwo passed unchallenged through the sole opening in the earthen wall.  In the dark he stumbled over broken planks, the ruins of the gate that had formerly closed that space.  Before each rude shelter within, there was a circle of stones.  Many of these held campfires that were still glowing, despite the lateness of the hour.  By the light of these flames, he picked his way among the many tents and huts.

 

He passed groups of sleeping men clustered about those hearths, as he headed toward the biggest tent, at the center of the encampment.  Most of the sleepers were naked.  None wore anything more than a kilt.  Some lay on the open ground with only torn, oxhide shields to cover them.  Inside the rough shelters, Meneláwo knew, those of higher rank rested with only a little more ease.  Those who had warm sheepskins had taken refuge on and beneath them, in the soft arms of their captive women.  Many of the sleepers clutched laurel branches for good luck charms.  But all kept their bronze swords and spears close at hand.

 

Other men remained awake and squatted by the dying fires.  To the sounds of crickets chirping and wolves howling on the wooded hills in the distance, they drank ever more wine, mixing it with water and the essence of poppies.  Meneláwo paused in the shadows of the biggest tent, watching and listening to such a group of wakeful men.  Four of them were seated by that largest camp fire, all bearded like Meneláwo, and, like him, wearing their hair shoulder length or longer.

 

"So, Meneláwo did not come back to camp with you?" asked the tallest of the men, clad in a fringed kilt.  His beard was beginning to gray but he was still powerfully built and broader in the chest than the other men at the great camp fire.  Of the four, he alone wore a mustache, the sign of his higher rank.  He held one arm close to his ribs as he spoke, an arm wrapped in pale linen, stained with dried blood.

 

"No, high wánaks, he would not come," answered a slender man.  "I went to the hill where he was sitting and called to him.  But he did not even answer me.  I am worried about my king.  His wound is worse each day, but he refuses to stay in camp when we fight.  He depends on the poppy to give him the strength to keep going.  Ai, he will not even eat a proper meal anymore.  He wants nothing but poppies and wine.  You are every man's overlord, king Agamémnon, and his older brother.  He has to listen to you.  Talk to him.  Make him stay away from the poppy jars."

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