Sing, Muse, he says, and the edge in his voice makes it clear that this is not a request. If I were minded to accede to his wish, I might say that he sharpens his tone on my name, like a warrior drawing his dagger across a whetstone, preparing for the morning’s battle. But I am not in the mood to be a muse today. Perhaps he hasn’t thought of what it is like to be me. Certainly he hasn’t: like all poets, he thinks only of himself. But it is surprising that he hasn’t considered how many other men there are like him, every day, all demanding my unwavering attention and support. How much epic poetry does the world really need?
Every conflict joined, every war fought, every city besieged, every town sacked, every village destroyed. Every impossible journey, every shipwreck, every homecoming: these stories have all been told, and countless times. Can he really believe he has something new to say? And does he think he might need me to help him keep track of all his characters, or to fill those empty moments where the metre doesn’t fit the tale?
I look down and see that his head is bowed and his shoulders, though broad, are sloped. His spine has begun to curve at the top. He is old, this man. Older than his hard-edged voice suggests. I’m curious. It’s usually the young for whom poetry is such an urgent matter. I crouch down to see his eyes, closed for a moment with the intensity of his prayer. I cannot recognize him while they are shut.
He is wearing a beautiful gold brooch, tiny leaves wrought into a gleaming knot. So someone has rewarded him handsomely for his poetry in the past. He has talent and he has prospered, no doubt with my assistance. But still he wants more, and I wish I could see his face properly, in the light.
I wait for him to open his eyes, but I have already made up my mind. If he wants my help, he will make an offering for it. That is what mortals do: first they ask, then they beg, finally they bargain. So I will give him his words when he gives me that brooch.
A deafening crack awoke her, and she caught her breath. She looked around for the baby, before remembering that he was no longer a baby, but had seen five summers come and go while the war raged outside the city walls. He was in his own room, of course he was. Her breathing slowed, and she waited to hear him cry out for his mother, terrified by the thunderstorm. But the cry did not come: he was brave, her little boy. Too brave to cry out at a lightning bolt, even if it was hurled by Zeus himself. She wrapped the coverlet over her shoulders, and tried to guess what hour of the night it was. The pitter-patter of rain was growing louder. It must be early morning, because she could see across the room. But the light was peculiar: a fat yellow colour which caught the dark red walls and painted them an ugly, bloody shade. How could the light be so yellow unless the sun was rising? And how could the sun fill her rooms when she could hear the rain falling on the roof? Disorientated by her recent dreams, it was several moments before she realized the acrid tang was in her nostrils, not her imagination. The crash had not been thunder, but a more earthly destruction; the pitter-patter was not rain, but the sound of dried wood and straw crackling in the heat. And the flickering yellow light was not the sun.
Realizing the danger she was in, she leapt from her bed, trying to undo her previous slowness. She must get outside and away from the fire. The smoke was already coating her tongue with its greasy soot. She called for her husband, Aeneas, and her son, Euryleon, but they made no reply. She left her small bedroom – the slender cot with its red-brown coverlet that she had so proudly woven for herself when she was first married – but she did not get far. She caught sight of the flames through the small high window just outside her bedroom door, and all speed slid away from her feet into the floor. It was not her home which was ablaze. It was the citadel: the highest point of the city of Troy, which only watch-fires or sacrificial flames or Helios, god of the sun, travelling overhead with his horse-drawn chariot, had ever lit before. Now fire was jumping through the columns of stone – so cool to the touch – and she watched in silence as part of the roof caught, and a sudden shower of sparks flew from the wood, tiny whirling fireflies in the smoke.
Aeneas must have gone to help battle the flames, she thought. He would have run to offer assistance to his brothers, his cousins, carrying water and sand and anything they could find. It was not the first fire which had threatened the city since the siege began. And the men would do anything, everything, to save the citadel, site of Troy’s most prized possessions: the treasury, the temples, the home of Priam, their king. The fear which had driven her from her bed ebbed, as she saw her own house was not ablaze, she and her son were not in danger, but – as so often during this endless war – her husband was. The sharp fear for survival was replaced instantly with a familiar pinching anxiety. She was so used to seeing him go out to fight the pestilence of Greeks who had been encamped outside the city for ten long years, so used to the dread of watching him leave, and the crippling fear of waiting for him to return, that now it settled on her almost comfortingly, like a dark bird perching on her shoulder. He had always come home before, she reminded herself. Always. And she tried to ignore the thought which the bird squawked unbidden into her mind: why should the past be any guarantee of the future?
She jumped as she heard another monstrous crash, louder surely than the one which had woken her. She peered around the edge of the window, looking out over the lower parts of the city. Now she saw that this was not a fire like other fires save for the importance of its location: it was not confined to the citadel. Pockets of angry orange light were flickering all over the city. Creusa murmured a prayer to the household gods. But it was too late for prayers. Even as her tongue formed the sounds, she could see the gods had abandoned Troy. Across the city, the temples were burning.
She ran along the short dark corridor which took her towards the front of the house through the courtyard room she loved with its high and ornately patterned walls. No one was here, even the slaves had gone. She tripped over her sheath, then twisted her left fist into the fabric to shorten it. She called again for her son – could Aeneas have taken him to collect her father-in-law? Was that where he had gone? – and opened their large wooden door onto the street. Now she could see her neighbours running along the road – none carrying water as she had imagined Aeneas would be, but only bags with whatever they had managed to gather up before they fled, or nothing at all – she could not suppress a cry. There were screams and shouting coming from every direction. The smoke was sinking into the streets, as if the city was now too ruined, too shamed to meet her eyes.
She stood in the doorway, unsure what to do. She should stay in the house, of course, or her husband might not be able to find her when he returned. Many years ago, he had promised that if the city ever fell, he would take her and their son and his father, and any other Trojan survivors, and sail away to found a new city. She had put her fingers on his lips, to stop the words from coming out. Even saying such things could invite a mischievous god to make them come to pass. His beard tickled her hands, but she did not laugh. And nor did he: it’s my duty, he had said. Priam commands me. Someone must take on the mantle of founding a new Troy, if the worst should happen. She again tried to crush the flurry of thoughts that he would not return, that he was already dead, that the city would be razed before dawn, and that her home – like so many others – would not be here for anyone to return to.
But how could this have happened? She pressed her head against the wooden door, its black metal studs warm against her skin. She looked down at herself and saw oily black dust had already settled in the creases of her shift. What she could see happening across the city was not possible, because Troy had won the war. The Greeks had finally fled, after a decade of attrition on the plains outside the city. They had arrived with their tall ships all those years ago and had achieved what, exactly? The battles had been waged nearer the city, then further away; advancing right up to the beached vessels, then closing back towards Troy. There had been single combat and all-out war. There had been sickness and famine on both sides. Great champions had fallen and cowards had sneaked away with their lives. But Troy, her city, had stood victorious in the end.
Was it three days ago, four? She could no longer be completely sure of time. But she had no doubt of the facts. She had watched the fleet sail away herself, climbing to the acropolis to see it with her own eyes. Like everyone else in the city she had heard the rumours several days earlier that the Greek army was packing up. Certainly they had withdrawn to their camp. Aeneas and his fellow men – she would never think of them as warriors, for that was their role outside the city, not within it – had debated the merits of a raiding party, hoping to discover what was going on as much as to cause mayhem. But they had held themselves back within the city walls, watching patiently to see what might happen next. And after another day or two with no spears thrown nor arrows fired, people began to hope. Perhaps another plague was ravaging the Greek camp. It had happened before, a few moons ago, and the Trojans had cheered, making thankful offerings to every god. The Greeks were being punished for their impiety, for their senseless refusal to accept that Troy would not fall, could not fall to mortal men. Not to men like these, these arrogant Greeks with their tall ships and their bronze armour, glinting in the sun because not one of them could tolerate the notion that he should labour in obscurity, unseen and unadmired.
Like everyone else, Creusa had prayed for plague. She had not thought there was anything better to pray for. But then another day passed and the ships began to move, the masts quivering as the men rowed themselves out of the bay and into the deep waters of the ocean. And still the Trojans stayed quiet, unable to believe their eyes. The camp had been an eyesore to the west of their city, behind the mouth of the River Scamander, for so long that it was peculiar to see the shore without it, like a gangrenous limb finally amputated. Less horrifying than what had been, but still unsettling. And a day later, even the last and slowest of the ships was gone, groaning under the weight of the men and their ill-earned treasure, ravaged from every small town in Phrygia, from everywhere with fewer men and lower walls than Troy itself. They rowed themselves into the wind, then unfurled their sails and floated away.
Creusa and Aeneas stood on the city walls, watching the white froth churning up on the shore, long after the ships had disappeared. They held one another as she whispered the questions he could not answer: why have they left? Will they return? Are we safe now?
A loud, distant thud jerked Creusa back to the present. She could not now go up to the acropolis to look for Aeneas. Even from her house, she could see that the citadel roof had collapsed in a rush of smoke. Any man who had been underneath it would be dead. She tried not to think of Euryleon darting past his father’s legs, trying to help quench an insatiable fire. But Aeneas would not have taken their only son into danger. He must have gone to collect Anchises, to lead the old man to safety. But would he return for Creusa or expect her to find him in the streets?
She knew Aeneas’ heart better than she knew her own. He had set off to find his father before the fire had reached its fullest extent: Anchises lived closer to the acropolis, where the flames were burning most fiercely. Aeneas would have known the journey to his father’s house would be difficult. He would have anticipated returning, but now he would see that it was impossible. He would be making his way to the city gates and trusting her to do the same. She would find him on the plains outside; he would head towards what had recently been the Greek camp. She paused on the threshold for a moment, wondering what she should take with her. But the shouting of men was coming closer and she did not recognize the dialect. The Greeks were in her city and there was no time to search for valuables, or even a cloak. She looked across the smoke- filled streets, and began to run.
Creusa had been caught up in the festival atmosphere that spread through the city the previous day: for the first time in ten years, Troy’s gates were thrown open. The last time she had walked out onto the Scamandrian plains which surrounded the city, she had been little more than a child, twelve years old. Her parents had told her that the Greeks were pirates and mercenaries, sailing the glittering seas to find easy pickings. They would not stay long in Phrygia, everyone said. Why would they? No one believed their pretext: that they had come to claim back some woman who had run off with one of Priam’s boys. The idea was laughable. Countless ships, as many as a thousand, sailing across oceans to besiege one city for the sake of a woman? Even when Creusa saw her – saw Helen with her long golden hair arranged over her red dress, matched by the gold embroidery which decorated every hem and the ropes of gold she wore around her neck and her wrists – even then she did not believe an army would have sailed all this way to take her home. The Greeks took to the seas for the same reasons as anyone else: to fill their strongboxes with plunder and their households with slaves. And this time, when they sailed to Troy, they had over-reached. In their ignorance, they had not known that the city was not merely wealthy but properly defended. Typical Greeks, Creusa’s parents had said: to Hellenes, all non-Greeks were alike, all were barbarians. It had not occurred to them that Troy was a city surpassing Mycenae, Sparta, Ithaca and everywhere they themselves called home.
Troy would not open her gates to the Greeks. Creusa had watched her father’s brow darken when he spoke to her mother about what Priam had decided to do. The city would fight, and they would not give back the woman, or her gold or her dresses. The Greeks were opportunists, he said. They would be gone before the first winter storms battered their ships. Troy was a city of fabled good fortune: King Priam with his fifty sons and fifty daughters, his limitless wealth, his high walls and his loyal allies. The Greeks could not hear of such a city without wishing to destroy it. It was in their nature. And so the Trojans knew this was why they had come, with the retrieval of Helen as their pretence. The Spartan king – Trojan wives muttered as they gathered by the water to launder their clothes – had probably sent Helen away with Paris deliberately, to give him and his fellow-Greeks the excuse they needed to set sail.
Whatever their reasons, when the Greeks had first made camp outside Creusa’s home, she had been a child. And the next time she walked outside, she held the hand of her own son, who’d had a whole city for his nursery, but had never run across the plains outside. Even Aeneas, battle-wearied after years of fighting, had a lightness to him when the gates creaked open. He was still wearing his sword, of course, but he had left his spear at home. Scouts had reported that no soldiers had been left behind. The coast was empty of men and boats. Only a sacrificial offering remained, a huge wooden thing, they said. Impossible to know who the Greeks had dedicated it to, or why. Poseidon, for a safe voyage home, Creusa suggested to her husband, as their little boy tore off across the muddied ground. The grass would grow again, she told Euryleon when they first walked outside. Thinking of her own childhood, she had promised too much. She had not thought of all those studded feet trampling, all those chariot wheels churning, all that blood draining.
Aeneas nodded, and she caught sight of their son’s face in his, just for a moment, beneath the thick dark brows. Yes, Poseidon was surely the divine recipient of their offering. Or perhaps it was Athene, who had protected the Greeks for so long, or Hera, who loathed the Trojans no matter how many cattle they slaughtered in her honour. They walked around the edge of what had recently been a battlefield towards the bay. Euryleon would finally feel sand beneath his feet rather than dirt and stone. Creusa felt the change already, as the mud became grainier and clumps of thick sea-grass sprouted around her. She felt tears warm on her cheeks as the soft west wind blew into her eyes. Her husband reached out a scarred hand and pressed her tears away with his thumb.
‘Is it too much?’ he asked. ‘Do you want to go back?’ ‘Not yet.’
Creusa felt tears on her face once again but they did not come from fear, although she was afraid, and although Aeneas was not there to comfort her. Billowing smoke filled the streets, and it was this which made her eyes track sooty tears down her cheeks. She turned down a path which she was sure would lead her to the lower part of the city where she could follow the wall around until she came to the gates. She had spent ten years locked inside Troy and had walked its paths countless times. She knew every house, every corner, every twist and turn. But though she had been sure she was heading downhill, she suddenly found her way blocked: a dead end. She felt panic rise in her chest and she gasped for air, spluttering at the greasy blackness which filled her throat. Men ran past her – Greek, Trojan? She could no longer tell – with cloths tied around their faces to hold off the smoke. Desperately she cast around for something she could use to do the same. But her stole was at home, and she could
not return for it now. Even if she knew the way back, which she was no longer sure she did.
Creusa wanted to pause and try to find something familiar, something which would allow her to work out exactly where she was and calculate the best route out of the city. But there was no time. She noticed that the smoke looked thinner at her feet, and crouched down for a moment to catch her breath. The fires were spreading in every direction, and although the smoke made it difficult for her to judge, some looked to be very close. She retraced her steps until she came to the first crossroads, and peered left, which seemed a little brighter, and then right into the deepest darkness. She must move away from the light, she realized. The brightest parts of the city must be where the fires raged most strongly. So Creusa would go into the dark.
The sun had dazzled her as she and Aeneas approached the promontory which had held the Greek encampment on the low plains. Only from the highest point of Troy – the citadel and the watchtowers – had the camp been visible. Creusa had climbed up to see it every time her husband fought outside the walls. If she could see him fighting on the plains, she had told herself, even if she couldn’t identify him in the midst of mud and gore and glinting blades, she could keep him safe. And now here he was, walking beside her with his hand on her arm. She had expected to feel the strongest relief, when she saw the bay vacated and the camp abandoned. But as she and Aeneas turned the sandy corner, she barely noticed the missing boats or the detritus on the shore. Like the other Trojans ahead of them, their eyes were drawn upwards, to the horse.
It was the largest sacrificial offering any of them had ever seen, even those Trojan men who had sailed abroad to Greece before the war. It was another way in which the Greeks sought to distinguish themselves. Their offerings to the gods were extravagant beyond measure. Why offer one cow when you could offer a hecatomb? The smell of burning meat from outside the walls had filled Troy in the early days of the war, when Creusa had eaten nothing but a small cup of barley with a little milk. The Greeks were doing it on purpose, she knew: flaunting their carcasses in front of a besieged city. But it would take more than hunger to break Trojan spirits. And as the war dragged from one year to the next, she thought the Greeks must regret their earlier largesse to the gods. If they had only saved some of those cattle, they might have had quite the herd by now, grazing on the sea-grass perhaps, and sustaining the soldiers who grew leaner every year.
But this offering was so large that it tricked the eyes. Creusa looked away for a moment and was shocked anew when she turned them back to its huge wooden planks. It towered above them, three or four times the height of a man. And though the design was rudimentary – what else could you expect from Greeks? – the figure was perfectly identifiable as a horse: four legs and a long grassy tail; a muzzle, though it lacked a mane. The wood had been cut with a clumsy axe, but the panels had been nailed together neatly enough. Ribbons had been tied around its brow to convey its sacrificial status. ‘Have you ever seen anything like it?’ she breathed to her husband. He shook his head. Of course not.
The Trojans approached the horse warily, as though it might come to life and snap its teeth. Foolish to be fearful of a simulacrum, but how could this be all that was left behind by an invading army? The men began to discuss what should be done, and their women stood back, murmuring to one another about the strange beast. Perhaps they should draw long grasses and twigs into a pile beneath the creature’s feet, and burn it? If it was an offering to a god for a fair wind back to Greece – as seemed likely, though Creusa had heard of them making uglier sacrifices in the past – then could the Trojans inflict one last blow on their enemies by destroying it? Would that divert the good will of the god away from the Greeks? Or should they take the horse and dedicate it to the gods for them- selves?
What began as a whispered conversation soon developed into shouts. Men who had fought alongside one another, brothers in arms and blood, were snarling at their kinsmen. The horse must be burned or saved; driven into the sea or dragged up to the city.
Creusa wished she could simply call for silence so she could sit on the dunes and lie back, stretching out her arms and legs, feeling the sand on her skin. It had been so long since she had been free. What did the Greeks’ offerings matter to the Trojans now? She grabbed Euryleon’s hand, and scooped him close to her legs as Aeneas stepped forward, squeezing Creusa’s arm as he walked away. He did not want to be drawn into an argument, but he could not shirk his duty as one of Troy’s defenders.
The men had experienced a very different war from the women who waited for them, nursed them and fed them at the end of each day. To Aeneas, Creusa realized, the place where she now stood – from which she wished the Trojans would disappear so she could enjoy it in peace with her husband and her son – was still a battle- field.
Suddenly, the clamour fell silent and a shuffling figure made his painful way past Creusa, his dark red robes tangling around his gnarled feet. Priam walked like the old man he was, but he still held his head upright like a king. His proud queen, Hecabe, moved beside him into the centre of the crowd. She would not hold herself back, as the other women did.
‘Enough!’ Priam said, his voice quavering a little. Euryleon began to tug at Creusa’s dress, wanting her attention for something he had seen – a beetle digging its laborious way through the sand-dune at their feet – but she shushed him. Nothing about this first day outside the city was matching her imagination, which had brought light into her darker moments. She had yearned for the day to come when her son saw for the first time the animals which lived along the shore. And now she was quieting him, so the king could speak to his furious subjects.
‘We do not fight among ourselves,’ Priam said. ‘Not today. I will hear your thoughts, one after another.’
Creusa heard the arguments in favour of every possible fate for the horse, and found she did not care particularly what Priam chose to do. Burn the horse, keep the horse: what difference would it make? The last man to speak was the priest, Laocoon, a fleshy man with oiled black curls who was always too fond of the sound of his own voice. He was determined that the horse should be torched where it stood. It was the only way to placate the gods, he said, who had punished Troy for so many years. Anything else would be a catastrophic mistake.
Smoke from countless fires billowed around her and Creusa stumbled as she tried to make her way along the path to the city walls. She thought she was going in the right direction, but she could not be sure. Her lungs were screaming as though she were running uphill. She could see nothing ahead of her, and she stretched out her hands, one in front to break her fall if she tripped, one to her right, so she could try to trace the buildings she passed. It was the only way she could be sure she was moving forward.
Creusa tried not to let the thought become words, held it only in its haziest form before hurling it away from her, but it could not be denied: the city was beyond salvation. So many fires raging in every direction. More and more wooden roofs had caught and the smoke was only growing thicker. How much fire could one stone city make? She thought of everything in her own home which would burn: her clothes, her bedding, the tapestries she had woven while she was expecting Euryleon. The sudden sense of loss seared her, as though she had been caught in the flames. She had lost her home. Ten years of fearing that the city would fall, and now it was falling around her as she ran.
But how could this be happening? Troy had won the war. The Greeks had sailed away, and when the Trojans found the wooden horse, they had done exactly what the man told them they must do. And in a terrible rush, Creusa knew what had set her city ablaze. Ten years of a conflict whose heroes had already made their way into the songs of poets, and victory belonged to none of the men who had fought outside the walls, not Achilles nor Hector, both long since dead. Instead, it belonged to the man they had found hiding in the reeds, near the horse, who said his name was – she could not remember. A hissing sound, like a snake.
‘Sinon,’ the man wept. Two spears were pointed at his neck, and he had fallen to his knees. The Trojan scouts had found him hiding in the low shrubs, on the far bank of the Scamander just as it opened out to meet the sea. They had driven him – one on either side, armed with knives as well as spears – into the midst of the Trojan men. The prisoner’s hands were bound at the wrists and there were angry red welts around his ankles, as though ropes had bitten him there too.
‘We might not have seen him,’ said one of the scouts, prodding the prisoner with the tip of his spear. The man suppressed a cry, though the spear had not broken his skin. ‘It was only the red ribbons which caught our eyes.’
The prisoner was a strange sight: his mousy hair curled into his neck and out again, and if it had ever been oiled, it was now matted with the mud which covered so much of his bare skin. He wore a loin-cloth but nothing else. Even his feet were bare. And yet, around his temples, bright ribbons had been tied. It did not seem possible that so dirty a man – more like an animal than a man, Creusa thought – could have any part of him so clean and pretty. The prisoner let forth a piteous howl.
‘What was meant to kill me then is the cause of my death now!’
Creusa could not hide her disgust at the filthy, weeping Greek. Why had the scouts not killed him where they found him?
Priam raised two fingers of his left hand. ‘Silence,’ he said. The crowd stilled, and even the prisoner’s racking sobs diminished.
‘You are a Greek?’ Priam said. Sinon nodded. ‘And yet they left you behind?’
‘Not intentionally, king.’ Sinon raised his hands to wipe mucus from his face. ‘I ran away from them. The gods will punish me, I know. But I could not stand to be . . .’ His speech dissolved again.
‘Take control of yourself,’ Priam said. ‘Or my men will kill you where you kneel and your blood will feed the gulls.’
Sinon gave one last juddering sob and took a breath. ‘Forgive me.’
Priam nodded. ‘You ran away from them?’
‘I did. Though I was born Greek and I have fought alongside Greeks all my life,’ Sinon replied. ‘I came here with my father when I was still a boy. He died in the fighting many years ago, killed by your great warrior, Hector.’ A ripple passed through the Trojan crowd. ‘Please,’ said Sinon, looking around him for the first time. ‘I mean no disrespect. We were on opposing sides. But Hector did not kill him with malice. He cut him down on the battle- field, and took nothing from his corpse, not even my father’s shield, which was finely wrought. I bear no grudge against Hector’s family.’
The loss of Hector had been so terrible, and so recent, that shadows settled on Priam’s face, and he seemed to Creusa’s eyes to lose himself for a moment. Standing before her, before them all, was no king, but a broken old man whose ancient neck could scarcely support the gold chains he still wore. The prisoner might have noticed the same thing, for he swallowed and when he spoke again, his voice was quieter, speaking to the king alone. Creusa had to strain to hear him.
‘But my father had enemies, powerful enemies among the Greeks,’ Sinon said. ‘And we were unfortunate enough to incur the hostility of two men in particular, though I swear to you neither my father nor I did anything to deserve it. Still Calchas and Odysseus were set against him, and so against me, from the outset.’
At the hated name of Odysseus, Creusa could not suppress a shudder.
‘An enemy of Odysseus holds some common ground with us,’ said Priam slowly.
‘Thank you, king. He is the most hated of men. The ordinary Greek soldiers detest him, the way he swaggers around as though he were a mighty warrior or noble king. He is a far from exceptional fighter and Ithaca – his kingdom, as he calls it – is nothing more than a rocky outcrop that no man would envy. Yet our leader Agamem- non and the others, they have always treated him as a hero. And his arrogance has only grown in consequence.’
‘No doubt,’ said Priam. ‘Yet none of this explains why you are here, or why your countrymen have all disappeared so unexpectedly. And the name of Calchas is not familiar to me.’
Sinon blinked several times. He could see, Creusa thought, that he must make his point quickly, or lose his chance to speak forever.
‘The Greeks have known for some time, king, that they must leave. Calchas is their chief priest, and he has appealed to the gods for happier news. But their answer has been the same, since last winter: Troy will not fall to a Greek army camped outside the gates. Agamemnon did not want to hear it, of course, and nor did his brother, Menelaus. But eventually they could no longer argue their case. The Greeks are sick of being far from home. The war could not be won, so it was better to take the booty they had acquired and set sail. This argument was put forward by many men—’
‘Including you?’ Priam asked.
Sinon smiled. ‘Not at the formal discussions,’ he said. ‘I am no king, I would never be permitted to speak. But among ourselves, the ordinary soldiers, yes: I agreed that we should leave. I believed we should never have come. And that made me unpopular. Not with the rank and file, who were of the same mind. But with the leaders, the men who had staked their reputations on the war, with Odysseus. Still, they could not argue with a message coming directly from the gods. Reluctantly they agreed to sail home.’
‘And they left you behind as punishment?’ Priam asked. His scouts had relaxed their spears a little, so Sinon no longer saw them right at his throat as he spoke.
‘No, king.’ He sucked in his tear-stained, mud-smeared cheeks for a moment. ‘You know the story of the Greek voyage to Troy? How we massed our fleet in Aulis, but then could not sail, because the winds disappeared?’
Around him, the Trojans nodded. It was a tale they had all heard, and told: how the Greeks had offended the goddess Artemis, and she had taken the wind from them until they appeased her. Horrifyingly, they had done so by conducting a human sacrifice. What Trojan did not know of this terrible, typical cruelty?
‘When it came to the time to return to Greece, Calchas and Odysseus hatched their plot together,’ Sinon continued. ‘The king of Ithaca could not resist an opportunity to rid himself of me.’
Creusa looked again at the red ribbons around the prisoner’s head and felt a prickling behind her eyelids. Surely he was not saying such a dreadful thing.
‘I see you understand my meaning, king,’ Sinon said. ‘Calchas announced at the assembly of Greeks that the gods had chosen their sacrifice, and that it was my blood they wished to drink from a makeshift altar. There was a little criticism from the soldiers but better me than them.’
‘I understand,’ said Priam. ‘They intended to sacrifice you like an animal.’
‘They did more than intend it; they prepared me for it. They bound me at the wrists.’ Sinon raised them to show the grimy ropes which still held his hands together. ‘And at the feet. They oiled my hair and tied fillets around it. Everything about this sacrifice had to be perfect, of course. But the bonds around my ankles were not quite as tight as these,’ he shook his hands, ‘and when I was left out of sight of the guards, I wrenched myself free.’ This explained the angry weals around his feet.
‘I knew the guards would soon drag me to the altar. So first I crawled and then I ran as fast as I could away from the camp. By the time I heard the shout go up I had made it almost to the reed banks and I lay down and hid.’
The tears began to flow from the man’s eyes once again, and a corresponding dampness appeared on the face of the Trojan king. Creusa knew that she too was weeping. It was a horrific story, even to those well-versed in the barbarity of the Greeks. Priam’s wife, Hecabe, looked on without comment: her mouth in a short, thin line, her grey brows drawn.
‘I heard the men searching for me,’ Sinon said. ‘I heard them cutting at the grass with their whips and spears. I was desperate to run further, but I knew I couldn’t risk being seen. So I waited for the longest night of my life, praying to Hera who has always been my protector. And the next morning, my prayers had been answered. The Greeks had decided to fashion this wooden offering to the gods, instead of sacrificing an unwilling victim. They built it, dedicated it, and then set sail without me. So in spite of my bad fortune, I have lived a few more days than I was allotted. Now you will kill me, king, and rightly: I am one of the men who came here to raze your city, and I deserve to be treated as your enemy, even if I was only a boy when I was brought here. I have no family who can ransom me. So I do not beg you to send my body home to grieving relatives. I have none. I have but one request to make of you.’
‘What is that?’ Priam asked.
‘Take the horse.’
Creusa had fallen heavily and she could feel the blood inching down her shinbones as she pulled herself upright. She could see almost nothing ahead of her now, though the heat on her back made her certain she was taking the only possible route. Was everywhere behind her in flames? She could not bring herself to look, knowing that if she did, the brightness of the fire would blind her when she turned back towards the darkness. It was this – thinking of the practical things she could and could not do – which was keeping her on her feet, when nothing in her life had prepared her for what was happening. Although she wanted to hitch up her dress and run, she took small, quick steps to minimize the likelihood of crashing into anything else.
She was glad of it when she found herself at what she thought was another dead end. About to give in to despair, she stared into the smoke and thought she might see a smaller path to the left, running between two houses. She was trying to remember whose homes they were, and work out where she might be, when a gang of soldiers erupted from the one furthest away. Creusa shrank back against the front wall of the building opposite the men, but they did not see her. They laughed as they ran down the alleyway which Creusa planned to use. She did not need to hear their words to know that the men had killed whoever they had found inside. Creusa waited for the men to disappear before she dared follow. Having tried so hard to remember whose house she was passing, she was grateful that she had failed. She did not want to know whose throat the men had just slit.
She dragged her fingers along the wall beside her, making her way more slowly now, to be sure that the men would not see her behind them. When the passageway finally opened out into the street again, she saw that she had done it. She had found her way to the city walls.
‘Take the horse,’ Sinon said. ‘In so doing, you will take its power from them. They built it here and dedicated it to Athene, protector of the Greeks. They believed it to be so large that you Trojans would have no chance of drag- ging it away into your city. They saw the distance across the plains, the height of your acropolis, and they laughed at the notion that you could take it for yourselves.’
‘How do you know?’ asked Hecabe. Her Greek was rudimentary, but clear.
‘Forgive me, queen, I do not understand,’ replied the prisoner.
‘How do you know what they thought about the horse?’ she repeated. ‘If you were hiding in the reeds, fearing for your life. You say they built the horse after you had run away. So how do you know what was said?’
Creusa thought she saw a flicker of annoyance cross the man’s face. But when he spoke again, his voice was still quavering with sorrow.
‘It had been their original plan, my lady. Before Calchas and Odysseus cooked up their plot against me. The Greeks wanted to build a giant horse and invest it with all the sacred power they could. Then they wanted to leave it outside your city to taunt you: a sign of the goddess guiding them home safely. It is the kind of arrogant gesture that Agamemnon cannot resist.’ Hecabe frowned but said no more.
‘So please, king,’ he added. ‘Rob them of their safe voyage home. Take their horse to your citadel before night- fall. It could be dragged by your men. I will set my own shoulder to the ropes if you will only permit me. Anything to punish those impious Greeks who would have taken my life without hesitation. If you let me help you drag the horse into your city and up to its highest point, I will fall on the sword of any of your men the moment the task is completed. I swear it.’
‘No.’ Laocoon the priest could keep himself in check no longer. ‘I beg you, king. The horse is cursed and so shall we be, if we allow it in our city. The man speaks with a false tongue. Either he deceives or he is deceived. But the horse must not come inside our city walls. Let us burn it, as I proposed.’ He lifted his meaty arm and flung the spear he held into the horse’s flank. It vibrated for a moment, humming in the shocked silence which followed his words.
Creusa could not be sure what happened next. She didn’t see the snakes for herself, though many others claimed to have done so. She wasn’t looking at the reeds. She was looking at the man, Sinon, and his filthy, unreadable face. The only sign that he could understand Laocoon’s words was the shiver of his biceps against the ropes which still held him. She thought Laocoon’s children had simply run out into the water. Why wouldn’t they? They had long since tired of hearing the men argue and – like all the other children of Troy – they had never been down to the shore before, never played in the sand. So of course they had wandered off, following the river a little way until they reached the waves on the beach. The two of them had waded out into the shallows before anyone noticed they were gone.
The seaweed grew in huge fronds, Creusa knew. As a child, her nurse had warned her never to enter the water in search of the dark green tentacles. While the seaweed’s fingertips were thin enough for a child to tear, the body of the plant was thick and fibrous. It would have been all too easy to stumble and lose her footing. And that was surely what had happened to Laocoon’s children. One of them must have caught his foot in a loop of seaweed and fallen. Unused to the current, he panicked and, writhing, entangled himself further. The other, ploughing over to help his brother who had slid right under the water, found himself in the same predicament. His thin cries for help were carried away by the shore breeze.
But by the time Laocoon had run – too late – to save them, the seaweed had taken on a malevolent form. Giant sea-snakes sent by the gods, someone said, to punish the priest for defiling their offering with his spear. As soon as the words had been spoken, they had believers.
As the priest wept on the sand, cradling the bodies of his drowned children, Priam’s choice could hardly have been different. The gods had punished the priest, so the Trojans must heed the warning and follow the words of the prisoner, Sinon. They laid logs beneath the horse and dragged it across the plains, the men taking turns to heave on the ropes. They rolled it through the city, though it barely fitted into the indentations of cart-tracks which cut through the streets. They drew it up onto the citadel and cheered when it reached the highest point and the men rubbed their aching arms and rolled up their ropes. Priam declared a sacrifice must be made to the gods, and a feast would follow. The Trojans cheered again as the fires were lit and the meat cooked. They poured wine first for the gods and then for themselves. Troy had won the war at last.
And Creusa turned and looked back at her burning city. She had made it to the walls but now she could see that the fire had reached them before her. She could not follow the walls around to the city gates as she had planned: the paths were ablaze. If she could have climbed the wall where she now stood, she could perhaps still have escaped. But it was too high, too sheer, and she had nothing to cling on to. The men she had followed were no longer a threat to her: choked on the thick smoke, they had lost their lives in the pursuit of carnage. She could see their bodies on the ground ahead of her, already being claimed by the fire.
She understood her predicament far more quickly than the birds which were singing overhead – on roofs which had not yet burned – though the sky was black, the moon obliterated by thick grey smoke. The fires across the city were so bright, they thought it was morning, and Creusa knew she would remember this oddity – the fire and the birds and the night made day – for as long as she lived.
And she did, though it mattered little, because she was dead long before dawn.