The sail is curved taut with a favorable southwest wind that speeds the ship over the glittering waves like a low-flying sea bird.
Two women stand near the prow: one young, one old; one eager to reach their destination, one not so eager. "Andromache," the older woman says, tugging gently at the younger woman's arm. "If you stay out here, you'll turn red from the sun and the wind." Gray-haired, her tone of voice has the mix of familiarity and deference that marks her as an attendant of long service. "I've laid out your procession chiton; it's the finest linen I've ever seen, as white as snow. Let me help you change into it, please? That old wool peplos makes you look like a street vendor."
The younger woman shrugs. She is at an age between the tender bud of childhood and the full-blown bloom of womanhood, and everything about her echoes this transition. She is tall but not yet graceful; her features are still softened by the roundness of childhood; and though she wears an elegant gold necklace, she clutches a small toy horse in one hand.
"Come now, do you think King Priam and the people of Troy want to see their Prince married to a beet in shabby clothing?" the nurse teases. When Andromache does not reply, she wheedles, "At least let me comb and dress your hair."
"If Hektor doesn't like the way I look he can send me back," Andromache says. "I didn't ask to be married to him." She runs her free hand through her hair, lifting it up and away from her neck until it is caught by the wind and swirled into an even unrulier tangle.
With an exasperated sigh, the nurse turns and makes her way across the deck to the hatch that leads below. "I told her this would happen!" she mutters. "She let you run wild far too long. 'Might as well send her to the Amazons,' I told her, 'than expect her to comport herself as a princess should!' "
Andromache pretends she does not hear this, but as soon as the nurse has gone below she tucks the toy horse between her breasts into her strophion, quickly combs through her hair with her fingers and then plaits it, and then takes the himation from her shoulders and drapes it around her face to protect it. Her fingers worry the fringe along the edge of the shawl, but as always the sight of the meandering border, so like a row of stylized horses' heads emerging from the waves, calms her with memories of happier days.
- § -
Like many port cities, the marketplace of Eleusis offered wares from all over the world. With such a panoply for sale, the streets and stalls of the trade district did brisk business year-round; but this week, during the special celebration of the Greater Mysteries held every fourth year, the crowds came from as far away as Delphi, Argos, and Sparta.
A sharp-eyed young Spartan, shopping with her attendants for dyes for the hundred skeins of newly-spun wool waiting at home, noticed four young men hurrying through the crowd — and a much smaller figure following them. To the casual observer, the five would have blended into the crush of fast-moving festival-goers, but the Spartan recognized that their attire, bearing, and similarity of feature bespoke a royal house. Curious, she followed them. When the quartet stopped near a loomsmith's stall and began a heated discussion she saw the shadow duck under a table adjacent to the loomsmith. She maneuvered within earshot and then stopped as well, picking up and pretending to examine a blown glass shuttle as she sifted their conversation from the cacophony of the market.
"Finest Cretan workmanship," the loomsmith said to her, trying to re-kindle her interest. "Your slaves will never again be able to blame their mistakes on a snag."
"It's cleverly made," the Spartan had said, "but I prefer bone. Less fragile than glass, and warmer in the hand."
"If we don't get her back before the ceremonies begin—" one of the young men said. "I know, I know," another said.
As they hurried off again, the Spartan set the spindle down and selected several vials of murex extract and saffron for purchase, then said, as if addressing no one in particular, "I know you're not a thief, because you've been following too far behind them to steal… and if you had stolen from them already, you would have gone the other way. Why are you hiding from them?"
- § -
She had first met Hektor only days before. It was an honor, everyone said, to have a prince of Troy visit their city, and so the welcoming banquet had been lavish. To Andromache's bafflement she had been seated next to Hektor. He was polite and not overly perfumed, and she supposed that he was handsome — although the way her nurse had prattled on and on about Hektor's virtues Andromache had expected him to be as radiant as a god. After the banquet, after the men had withdrawn, Andromache had been admiring the many gifts Hektor had presented to her father when her mother had taken her aside and told her to pack for a journey. When Andromache had asked why, she was told that that the next morning she would embark for Troy, as Hektor, son of Priam, was to be her husband.
Too shocked to speak, it was not until Andromache reached her chambers, and looked around at all the familiar objects and scenes and people that she was being forced to leave behind, that the tears had come. But she knew her duty, and so when she was empty of tears she had slept, and in the morning she had gone to the temple of Artemis to sacrifice her childhood toys — all but one toy horse, surely the goddess did not need every one — and then returned to the palace to be bathed and say goodbye to her eight brothers. And after that she and many chests of wedding gifts and treasure were taken to the harbor, and Hektor himself had led her aboard the black-hulled boat.
And now she is on her way. She pulls her himation tighter; the wind is becoming brisker, chasing the sun's warmth from her shoulders. She stares at the sea; if her lip quivers, if she wipes tears from her face, none but the dolphins and gulls witness it.
It is not long before her husband-to-be comes to stand next to her. "When we get to Troy," he says at last, "you'll have your pick of wares from the finest weavers in the five kingdoms."
"I like these clothes," she says, pulling another thread from the fringe. "They keep me warm enough." She wonders if he is trying to impress her with Troy's wealth because he sees her as an uncultured bumpkin. Does he not know that her father has storehouses of gold, of pearls and amber and lapis, of garments woven of silk as fine as gossamer?
The wind is stronger now, the surface of the sea ridged with waves. The deck of the ship moves up and down slightly as it cuts into and over each one, and she grips the rail, feeling a mix of fear and exhilaration.
Hektor momentarily places his hand on her back to steady her. "Have you been at sea before?" he asks.
"Of course," she says. "We had a villa near the shore in Thisbe." Her fondest memories are of the winters she spent there, chasing the white horses in the breakers, making her youngest brother Podes draw and explain maps of famous battles in the wet sand, and watching the setting sun for the flash of the chariot wheels as Phoebus left the sky. She had learned to race and ride and throw a spear, and her elder brothers had taught her where to stab a man with her dagger to sever the artery in the thigh in case she ever needed to defend herself.
But ever since the blood had appeared on her own thighs she had not been allowed to run along the shore.
- § -
Crouching under the table of dyes, she said, "They went to the ceremony without me! I wanted to go too!"
"I see. You felt left out, and so you ran away?"
"But it is a thing not to be spoken of," the Spartan said gently, kneeling down so that they were face to face. She was young, perhaps only a handful of years older than Andromache, and yet she seemed to the child to be as regal as any queen or priestess; and while it was true that her gold jewelry was not crafted according to the latest fashion, her clothing had been beautifully made, the wool of such a fine weave that it looked like silk. "They are worried that some harm will befall you. Let me bring you back to them before you—and they—get into trouble."
Andromache shook her head.
"I'll tell you a secret," the Spartan said. "Someday you will have mysteries of your own."
"I will? When?"
"We women have our own mysteries," the Spartan said. "Mysteries that men cannot understand."
"I don't want to be a woman!" Andromache said. "I want to do what my brothers do! Men get to fight. They get to ride horses and drive chariots."
"That is true," the Spartan said carefully, "but even Phoebus himself needs horses to pull his chariot." She took off her fringed himation and draped it around Andromache, then touched the decorative border woven into the wool. "Men have glory," she said, "but think on this: just as the charioteer needs the horse—and also the one who tends the horses—so do men need us. Without us to weave for them, they would be cold. Without us to cook and carry water, they would die of hunger and thirst. Without our comfort, they would be sad; without the strength of our love, they would be hollow…"
- § -
"I'm not your horse," Andromache says suddenly, fiercely, turning at last to look at him fully.
Hektor looks shocked. "No! Of course not! What makes you say such a thing? I swear to you, I shall never treat you so."
"Then how will you treat me?" she asks.
"With the respect due a wife and the mother of children," Hektor says earnestly, then smiles. "I give you my word, if any dare say that Andromache is a horse, then I shall tell them to say the same of Hektor, for husband and wife pull the chariot of family together."
She turns away. Husband and wife. She knows what her future holds: she has often hidden in the straw to watch the foaling. The Spartan had said as much that day: Without the children we bear, men's graves and names would be forgotten. Andromache's heart thuds as she thinks of what else she has seen, the stallions mounting the mares, but until now that memory has never made her feel so strange. She pulls another thread.
"That shawl… it belonged to someone important to you?"
Andromache nods. "I've had it since I was a little girl." She doesn't know how to explain to him that she has treasured a gift and words from a stranger, but when she glances at him Hektor is smiling, and despite herself she feels reassured. How was it that he could understand, when her nurse and her mother had not?
She is still pondering when Troy comes into view, towering white walls rising from a hill above a broad plain that slopes gradually to the shore.
"What do you think?" he asks. "Those walls were built by Poseidon and Apollo for my grandfather King Laomedon."
"The city is well situated," she says.
"Oh? How so?" He does not seem to be mocking her.
"Strategically," she says, thinking back to battlefields drawn in wet sand. "The hill allows you to see even further out to sea, and the approach from the sea offers little cover."
She wonders if he would draw her a map, show her where Troy's own harbor is situated, where the city draws their fresh water from, but the sail is being furled and the rowers below have begun to strain for shore. A hundred soldiers in glittering armor stand tall on the beach; off to the side is a chariot with two white horses. They are almost aground before she notices the seated figures beneath the brilliant canopies of purple and yellow. Awaiting Hektor. Awaiting her. "I have… procession robes," she says, remembering her nurse's chastisements.
"No time to change now," Hektor says, and takes her hand.
As they get off the boat, she is mindful that, shabby beet or not, she is expected to act like a princess, and so she holds her head high as Hektor leads her to where King Priam and Queen Hecuba sit.
"My dear," Hecuba says, looking only mildly shocked. "Welcome to Troy."
Andromache bows, avoiding her nurse's reproving eyes, and allows Hektor to lead her to a seat.
As the conversation begins to flow around her, she steals glances at the chariot. Fronted with hammered gold, the sunlight it reflects is almost blinding. The white horses yoked to it look insubstantial in the shimmering glare, as if they are made of the sea foam itself.
"Go say hello if you like," Hektor whispers to her unexpectedly.
As eager as she is, she forces herself to walk, not run.
The horses stamp their feet and toss their heads as she approaches, but soon they are nuzzling her palms. She leans against them, feeling the bellows of their breathing, and for a moment it is as if she is on the beach at Thisbe again.
"I think Andromache might enjoy riding up to the city with me," she hears Hektor tell his parents; a moment later she can hear his sandals crunching across the sand.
"It's not you," she says as she steps up into the chariot to stand beside him. "I like to watch horses."
He laughs and flicks the reins, and then they are racing, as bright as the sun.
posted 26 April 2015; rev 17 July 2015