- Urns of Ash
AYE, Lords, there. It begins there, near the rock cleft, and extends north by the length of nine spear casts. It is a low mound but long and fashioned that way by order of the tyrants. It was not always thus. In the beginning, by royal command, no mound was built. Urns returning stood in the open, outside Argos’s walls, beyond the city’s sight. But after my Lord Agamemnon’s death, when unwholesome dreams began to torture the tyrant’s sleep, her skirted consort, Aegisthus, ordered the mound, and it was made, heaping cold winter soil over the army’s vast remains. Then, and only then, the libation-bearers came, slaves of the court, driven hence to pour dregs of royal wine over the wandering spirits of the night. There were mutterings then and much unrest, but in the wake of the boy-king’s return and the tyrannicide, the curse was lifted, the city cleansed, and the mound grew green. You see it now as it then became, so many decades past.
May I offer you olives, my Lords, and barley cakes fresh from my granddaughter’s hands? It is poor fare, I know, but well meant, and the wine in this jug is newly drawn.
Nay, Lords, even then I was much too old; I should not have gone. In looking back, in now recalling those distant times, I might have done better had I remained here with the elders. Possibly, had I spoken well, I might have made a difference then. Possibly some august word or speech of mine, something firmly spoken in close debate, might have served to limit the excesses that later swept Argos to a feast of bitterness amidst such lustful winds. But, alas, in the hour of crisis, I was away; and when I finally returned, limping with labor on three unsteady legs, the tyrant had already seized the throne and ceded the externals of command to her womanish bedmate. That was a grim time, Lords, and as more months fled [End Page 517] by, the skies only darkened until those of us who remained felt like we were pressed down, living beneath an unending night.
But, in the beginning, things were otherwise. In the beginning the cause looked just. No man here could will himself to tolerate wife-rape; and all men, Lords, Argive or Spartan, Locrian or Pylian, all men resolved to make the doer suffer; and thus the fleet assembled. I was an old man, even then; I wore already fifty winters upon my shoulders. My wife of thirty years had died of a flux in the preceding year, and my children were grown, my daughters married and my sons in their prime, all four of them marching under bright bronze arms. My foot, as I knew, was no longer fleet; my spear arm—once the pride of Argive strength—had lost its sinew, so much so that on my best days I could cast my dart only half my former length. As I say, I should not have gone; I should have remained at home with the elders; but, when the army assembled, I went, thinking to uphold the law, thinking to extract from Ilium just reparation and just due.
Knowing my history, knowing my former services in the Argolid . . . knowing my age, my Lord Agamemnon assigned me to command a high-beaked ship in the reserve.
“Thessalus,” he said to me beneath an ancient oak overlooking the whitecapped bay at Aulis, “you will command a black hull in the seventh wave. Once we strike and take Tenedos, you will move your men ashore, occupy the citadel, and assist my Lord Leitus in organizing the army’s supplies, grain coming east from Argos, wine, oil, and olives shipping from Euboea. If a need for fresh meat arises, at Lord Leitus’s command, you will raid north up the Hellespont. Use caution, exercise firm control, and let your expertise direct your tactics. Strip the land bare; show Priam’s allies no mercy. Take you my meaning?”
I understood my Lord Agamemnon’s intentions and made him my mark of respect, and then...