Chapter 1: The Echoing Tale 音忆
She heard that wistful moaning again: his voice over-flown with longing, he called out to the water, just as he had done yesterday, the day before yesterday, and the day before…
A short story (~1500 words) from the point of view of Echo, as she recalls her tragic yet beautiful story.
Based on original Greek myth
“O, I am so in love with you… please come out! Come to me!”
She heard that wistful moaning again: his voice over-flown with longing, he called out to the water, just as he had done yesterday, the day before yesterday, and the day before… She tried to track time, but quickly lost count. He had stayed here too long—so long that she almost forgot how her life had been before he came.
Yet she remembered the day he came—a flash of a bow drawn, a swish of an arrow shot, a yelp of frustrated effort, the shadow of a lithe figure, the light of an exhausted smile—vague memories flickered like dim tatters, ragged shreds of blurry remembrance scattered across her foggy mind. But at times, some pieces flared up in brilliant sparkles—and she caught them before they faded forlornly away—such as the moment she was struck by him and had since then fallen helplessly and hopelessly in love: when he beamed and declared, joyously, “O, I love you!”
The violent force of reminiscence battered her heart; for an instant she was knocked out of breath. Bitterness welled up inside her, and she had to bite her lips to damher burning tears. Then coldness gripped her in its iron fist, twisting and squeezing her entire body until she was shaking terribly, in immense, desolate grief.
She collapsed onto the ground, sobbing, eyes stinging from countless days of agony. She loved him so, so dearly; but he seemed ignorant of it.
He cared about nothing, but himself.
His never left the pond side; his eyes never moved from the image of himself reflected in the watery mirror. Every word spoken by him was about his love for himself; so was every sigh, every smile.
He pined for his own self.
Narcissus…! She wanted to cry out, and yank his attention away from that cursed water. But when she opened her mouth, there was only a hollow, wheezing sound, void of substance, straining to create meaning.
She couldn’t speak.
How many times had she forgotten her curse, and how many times had she been reminded of the painful reality of it yet again, after her vain struggle to talk to her lover? Narcissus didn’t love her; he was repulsed by her presence. And he didn’t even bother to know her.
She thought of the disgust in his eyes. Such revulsion! Malice glittered like blades of obsidian, dangerous and sharp; dark flames of arrogance breathed into loathing, casting interweaving shadows of condescension and repugnance. His contemptuous dismissal of her entirety was imbued with such intense abhorrence that it cut wounds into her simple little soul: those wounds never healed, re-opening again, and again, upon his sole concern for himself.
He had screamed, “leave me! Leave me alone!” She had been exceedingly puzzled, wondering at his stormy complexion, the way his eyes bore into hers, and those maddeningly flashes warning of malignity and spite swirling inside. She remembered thinking, foolishly, of how Zeus’ lightning bolts must resemble the raging wrath in his eyes, extremely menacing, yet astoundingly beautiful. O, she had thought in admiration, how he looks like a god!
He roared again: “Go away, you detestable creature! I don’t love you! Do you hear me?”
Then her tiny heart shattered. Shards of broken hope crashed within her body, slashing at her flesh, hamstringing her. Her senses were cut dull; she was shocked into numbness, rendered immobile as if another curse was cast upon her. Perhaps she had been dead ever since: her will to survive had withered away like wilted flowers.
But she still loved him, despite his cruelty, his ego, his obsession of his own image. It is her own fault, she thought, to mistake his words addressed to himself as some profession to her of his adoration.
No, a damned creature like her doesn’t deserve his noble feelings; so what a wishful thinking it is to deem herself ever fortunate to secure the noblest feeling of all—love!
She thought of the day her fortune failed her. She recalled Hera’s wrath—the Queen of the gods was so furious at her tricks that she was shivering with rage. Her eyes burning with indignation, the goddess shrieked: “You! You detestable creature! How dare you! To lie! For Zeus!”
She had been grovelling at her feet, too terrified to look up. But the aura of power and godly strength around Hera was shimmering in golden waves of energy, clashing at her with horrifying force. She felt herself being clamped against the cold, hard ground.
Hera paused. Slowly, she said: “I will bestow a gift upon you, Echo.”
She was stunned. But before she sighed with relief and thanked the goddess, Hera chimed: “You shall never speak your own words again; you can still speak, but only in repetition of others—your companions shall despise your strangeness, so one by one, they shall leave you. You shall die, in your own time; but surely you shall perish in loneliness and regret.”
A blinding light flashed; then Hera was gone.
She had since spoken others’ words, and everything Hera had promised came true.
Except for death.
“O, I am so in love with you… please come out! Come to me!”
Narcissus’ voice cracked, his face lined with pain. In tears, she observed him—his face was gaunt, his eyes hollow, his expression excruciating. O, her only lover, what kind of spell had left him in such a trance of self-obsession, and such folly of self-love!
She watched him crumple to the ground.
She rushed to his side; but it was too late—Death had taken him away.
She wept silently, too frail to make a sound. Her lover was dead. Why, she asked Death, why have you not taken me?
Something was glimmering beside her. She lifted her tear-streaked hands, and choked at the sight—she couldn’t comprehend what she saw—Narcissus was dissolving; his body was crumbling into thousands of shining star-dust.
He disappeared completely. Soundless. Traceless.
She sobbed again.
A tiny flower sprouted from the spot where he had knelt and died—a white bud, bursting into pure, startling beauty—a snow-like bloom starred with gold patterns at the centre.
Trembling, she cuddled the flower, murmuring, “O, Narcissus! O, my love!”
Then Echo fell to the ground, holding the flower to her heart.
Exhaustion coursed through her body; and she prayed, against all hope: Mercy, Hera! Let me have him…
She lay on the grass, her flesh disintegrating into star-dust.
Finally, she thought, smiling, I could stand by his side…
Chapter 2: The Weaver's Wound (纺殇)
I grasped her sleeve, pulling her back from the confrontation.
But Arachne stood her ground, obstinately refusing to back down. She glared at the goddess with her piercing dark eyes, scoffing: “Oh, almighty goddess, are you afraid of a fair contest? Or do you fear that your skills are no match for mine?”
--- This is a story based on Arachne, the proud yet remarkably brave weaver, who dares to challenge the goddess Athena in a contest. POV: a fictional friend of Arachne, who witnesses the contest, and voices her thoughts about the relationships between gods and men.
I grasped her sleeve, pulling her back from the confrontation.
But Arachne stood her ground, obstinately refusing to back down. She glared at the goddess with her piercing dark eyes, scoffing: “Oh, almighty goddess, are you afraid of a fair contest? Or do you fear that your skills are no match for mine?”
The goddess blazed with fiery energy, golden waves of magical power that rushed through her body bursting forth to cast an aura of raging fury. In her clear, bright eyes, blasts of anger fleeted across the grey pupils, which were masked by smoky clouds of scornful distaste. A storm of divine wrath was swirling in the goddess’ eyes—a tempest of godly scale, a catastrophe that no mortal could ever withstand.
The daughter of Zeus silently threatened to blow Arachne up with her father’s lightning.
“Stop it, Arachne!” Desperate with fear, I tugged at her sleeve again, shouting louder. “Do NOT offend the gods!”
“Oh, foolish girl!” A man in the crowd yelled with despair, “Arachne, listen to your friend!”
“Get off me,” my friend shook herself out of my grasp, her face etched with lines of annoyance. She would not be dissuaded from her folly, and she would never allow anyone to wound her pride, particularly, in public.
The goddess gritted her teeth, dignified even in her worst temper. She trembled at Arachne’s audacious affront—in extreme terror, I was for an instant shocked by what I found—the goddess and my friend were so alike, in their both valuing others’ opinion of themselves, in priding themselves to be the best. They took no insult; and would do anything to restore their perceived images of being absolutely invincible.
“Very well,” the goddess said coldly, her face a plain slab of alabaster, on it veins of rosy streams shone lightly against the blinding flashes flaring all around her body—even in rage, her face was breathtakingly beautiful; her anger only added a tinge of red to her flawless, ivory face, softening her stern features and making her complexion glow in gentler radiance. She glimmered with danger, and strength, but stunningly so.
Athena continued, her eyes only on my friend, “child, I accept your challenge.”
“NO!” I screamed, trying once again to drag Arachne away from Athena. “No, powerful Athena! Have mercy! Arachne didn't mean it! She…”
“Go away, Celia,” Arachne scolded me, and stepped forward to face Athena, “I meant it; and I still mean it. I want to compete with you.”
“This CANNOT be!” An old man beside me knelt, quivering in horror, “Oh, Athena! Forgive this foolish girl! How can a mortal ever challenge a goddess!”
“I CAN!” Arachne was on the verge of tears, her whole body shivering with disbelief and rage, “I WILL challenge Athena!” And she turned to the goddess, who was also shaking with anger, “as long as she is willing to.”
“I WILL.” Athena said, and waved her hand at all the rest of us, who knelt around her and watched her exchange with Arachne in fear, “Do NOT stop me. I’ve made up my mind. This girl is so proud of her skills—I want to see how good she really is. ”
“No…” I would not give up on my friend! I couldn't bear witnessing her suffering at the hands of Athena! “Athena, mercy! Mercy…”
The goddess dismissed my plea with a lukewarm smile.
“Let all Gods and Men bear witness!” Athena cried, her spear suddenly burning with light. At the centre of the town square, two identical looms materialised, sparkles gleaming off the golden structures. Two baskets where threads in a dazzling assortment of colours and shades were placed neatly stood beside the looms. Athena raised her spear, as if she was giving a signal to the other gods on Mount Olympus. Lightening slashed across the darkening sky; and the nearby sea roared in defiance. The plants all around the square were shuddering, their leaves and flowers trembling in anticipation. The livestock trotted near the crowd nervously; dogs barked; and birds screeched.
Oh, I thought, the gods are all watching: Zeus blasted lightening to show his concern; Poseidon raised the ocean. Hera, Demeter, Artemis, Apollo… ALL of them. It was not a matter of a simple contest between Arachne and Athena; it was a competition about skills and strength between all Mortal Men and the Mighty Olympian Gods.
And Arachne would not stand a chance.
Athena turned to Arachne, her eyes glittering with disdain. They seemed to chide: you proud girl, apologise, and confess your incapability before all the gods!
No one would have dared to stare into the goddess’ blazing eyes; but Arachne, my proud friend, did. She didn't even flinch.
“You want this? No problem,” Athena murmured. Then she turned to the grovelling crowd, and announced, “What we weave shall be the images of the Olympian Gods.”
The crowd shifted uncomfortably in universal despair—perhaps at the blatant unfairness of this supposedly “fair” contest—Arachne had not even met those gods in person, so how could she ever be able to create their likeness in her tapestry? Not to mention she was to compete with Athena, the goddess of artistic skills and clever crafts, the goddess who invented weaving in the first place, and who must have known how her fellow Olympians looked like well?
This isn’t fair! I wanted to scream and stand between Athena and Arachne, who were glaring at each other. Nothing but complete failure would await Arachne, and utter humiliation. My poor friend wouldn't stand all the pain and shame!
But again, since when were gods’ dealings with men fair? The Olympians were powerful, extremely so: one snap of their fingers could bring down entire cities—the sea might rise and swallow all humankinds on Poseidon’s orders; by Zeus’ will, the storms might pour flood that could devour stretches of land; the plants might all wither and die, should Demeter decide to punish mortals; men could not hunt for wild animals successfully without Artemis’ blessing. Apollo could easily scorch the earth with his sun chariot racing lower. Hera and Aphrodite could tear families and lovers apart. Ares could stir madness in men’s hearts and incite endless fighting. Hephaestus could simply force all the mechanical devices to a stop. Life could be wiped out from this earth, should mortals ever cross the gods.
The gods control our fates. Our life, and our death. Even after death, we have to travel to the Underworld, cross the River Styx, and submit to Hades’ reign.
We mortals are no match for the gods. Gods punish us for our pride, our blinding arrogance, and our foolish ego.
Arachne was on her way to destruction.
The contest started.
I was almost blinded by the sight—flying fingers, nimble hands, shifting figures, cascading threads, whirling shuttles, blurry looms – their action were astoundingly rapid. It was more like a race of fingers. Upon the quickly forming tapestries two sets of fingers danced with such adroitness, it was pleasurable to watch, even in dread: Athena’s pale fingers twirled in graceful acrobatics, her movement light and lithe, animated by divine power; while Arachne’s tanned hands spun in smooth circles, interweaving strands into braids, matching dazzling colours. She was fuelled by pride and anger.
One hour passed. Two hours.
They finished their works at the same time.
The crowd stared at the two tapestries, and let out a collective gasp: how exquisite those two artworks were! That made by Athena depicted the Olympians in their regal state—silence fell upon the crowd as we inspected every detail—the gods had such gravitas that awed worship was most befitting: Zeus held his lightning bolts, donned in a majestic white robe. Hera sat beside him wearing her lotus crown, cloaked in silky peacock feathers. Athena herself stood next to Zeus, spear and shield in place, and the winged statue of the goddess of Victory, Nike, on her palm. The other gods were splendidly magnificent as well. At the corner, I saw, seven images of punishment—all of which were about gods turning disobedient, prideful mortals into animals—and I averted my eyes in alarm. Oh, Arachne!
The crowd turned to the work made by my friend. No doubt it was marvellous—the best I’ve ever seen—but it was flagrant blasphemy: Zeus abducting Europa by turning into a white bull; Poseidon seducing Demeter and consorting with her as a stallion with a mare, Zeus raping Ganymede in his eagle form… All about the gods’ indiscreet misadventures. The gods were beautiful, surely; but they were greedy, lusty and tyrannical—mortals were their slaves and toys.
Oh, Arachne! I was steeped in tears, worrying for her fate—she had spoken the unspeakable truth with glaring imagery.
Unbearable mockery. Intolerable pride.
She was doomed.
“Insolent creature!” Athena shrieked, mortified by the folly of her fellow gods. Fire burst from the tip of her spear, and burned Arachne’s work to tatters.
Arachne yelped in rage: “Athena! You ruined my best work! How…”
Before she finished, a blast of lightning struck her.
In the crowd children squealed in horror; women sobbed; and men covered their eyes.
Thunder rolled, and rain poured down. In the foggy light I saw my friend lying on the charred ground, her body unmoving amidst columns of rising smoke.
“Poor girl,” Athena sighed, recovering from shock at her father’s intervention. She considered her rival’s dead body, her eyes filled with pity.
“I’ve never wanted this,” she said slowly, “I’ve given you so many chances. I warned you, but you never heeded my advice. You had superb skills; but how could you offend the gods?”
Then, the goddess tapped Arachne’s body with her spear. A shimmer rippled across Arachne, and she shrank into a tiny, eight-legged insect with sleek, dark skin.
“Arachne, I shall let you weave, for eternity.”
- END -
Chapter 3: The Fateful Judgement —A Trojan Tale （误断——特洛伊传）PART 1. Contemplation 冥想
This is a snapshot of the Trojan War, the most tragically epic and astounding tale of human history.
It consists of 5 parts, some told by Paris, the Prince of Troy; some by Helen, the Queen whose beauty launches a thousand ships, and who marries Paris after leaving Sparta and her husband.
TIMELINE: After Hector's death.
* Many scenes are flashbacks projecting into the past of Paris, and Helen.
Part 1 is a memory of the start of the conflict-- the Contest for the Golden Apple.
He snapped his eyes shut; and forced himself to grope deeper into his own mind.
It was the only way to secure the privilege to escape from the real world, even for just a few moments.
The cacophony of fighting outside the city faded, and gave way to the eerie humming sound inside the temple. The Great Temple of Zeus was mostly silent; but godly power seemed to always rumble distantly in far corners hidden all around the airy structure, chiming about its solemn presence. Besides this, the voices of desperate women praying in sobs on the temple steps murmured faintly, an anguished chorus of withering hope.
He willed himself to focus, staring hard into his memories—recalling the past seemed easier than contemplating about the present – at least for now.
How long had he been awake? Perhaps hours; or days. He had not closed his eyes since that fatal day: when his big brother died—slaughtered by the most malicious, violent creature upon this earth.
Damn you, cursed demigod.
Yet remembering the harsh fact that his brother, who had always tolerated his folly and protected him from harm, and who had eventually sacrificed his life die fighting for him in the war he caused, would no longer stand by his side and console him, was excruciating. Pain shot through his heart and rushed madly along his veins; his blood roared in his ears, condemning his cowardice. Terrible, inescapable senses of guilt and remorse fused into unbearable agony, tearing his soul into tatters. His flesh was burning as if being set on hellish fire, and his mind was searing as if all its content was boiling in a furnace of molten gold.
He couldn't bear to think of Hector. Hector who had always grinned warmly in the sunlight, beads of sweat tumbling off his bare torso like pearls rolling across a sheet of toughly wrought bronze, after fighting practices. Hector who seemed incapable of feeling tiredness, and yelled gleefully at his little brother words of encouragement across the field, prompting him to run faster, to catch up. Hector who always glared at him, his face stern with anger, and in the corner of whose brown eyes always shimmered the gleam of guilt, which, betrayed his soft heart—Hector wouldn't be cruel enough to punish his little brother—when the first storm of rage passed, there was only smoky clouds of incredulity and disappointment left. Those melancholic mists swirled and masked his eyes, striking Paris harder than any outburst of wrath could: an aura of profound sadness seemed to swallow Hector whole, a sorrow so vast and deep, like the weeping seas. His brother would then lean on a column, suddenly consumed by thoughts, his face darkened by shifting shadows, his brows tied in knots; he was pensive, silent, and lonely—he locked himself up in the enclosure of his own mind, and fortified that citadel with his fiery, indomitable will. Desolate in his impenetrable solitude, he looked like an aged man who had glimpsed his fate and given up in struggling against it, a hero with a doomed future.
Except that he was doomed—dead and defiled, at the hand of a fatal enemy.
The cursed child of Thetis and Peleus, the famed demigod that could destroy the entire army of Troy. The bane of all heroes; the brat that murdered Hector and dragged his body across the field, crying in ecstasy as the men and women in the city wailed in grief.
I hate him, Paris thought, gritting his teeth.
But Hector died also because of him. His reckless endeavour in Sparta had set off a chain of events that he couldn't foresee: with all his mind on his beloved lady at that time, he hadn’t thought of the wrath of the Greeks. They were not famous for taking insults kindly—so how could they stomach the mortification of their king?
He eloped with the Queen of Sparta; and set off a horrible war.
And the fighting had lasted almost ten years.
But how would he know that when he met Helen? All he knew was the goddess’ promise—in return for his favour of choosing her over her two rivals.
He was shoved back to the past. A past so distant that it seemed almost surreal…
He was languishing on the grass again, bathing in the warm, lazy sunbeams. The cows were grazing near him, equally relaxed. He hummed an old song, slightly bored by the familiar tune: yet his entire life had been as dull as the rusty music, each day passing just as expected, as if his whole journey upon this earth was a ship sailing smoothly on a set course void of danger yet sorely aching for excitement. His soul yearned for more—definitely more than this monotony.
Suddenly, he heard a whipping sound, like wings flapping rapidly against the winds.
He opened his eyes, dazed by the bright light above him. He blinked away the discomfort and rubbed his eyes—a lithe figure perched on a staff, no, a sceptre, smiling impishly at him. On his feet, tiny white wings trembled happily, as if in anticipation of another flight.
“You are?” Paris croaked, staring at the wings warily.
“Hermes, my dear friend,” the god laughed, his eyes glittering with playful delight, “the Messenger of Olympus.”
“Oh, Lord Hermes!” Paris bolted up into a respectful kneeling position, and bowed to the god. His heart was pounding madly, in fear, and strange excitement. He stammered, “May I inquire, what …?”
“You are a blessed fellow,” Hermes laughed again, this time tilting his head as if considering Paris’ worth, “You shall come with me to Mount Olympus.”
“What? But Lord Hermes, what did I do?”
“Nothing,” Hermes chuckled, “you will know when you arrive there.”
Before Paris could protest in dismay, the god of Travellers grabbed his arm and hoisted him onto a wisp of cloud. The flimsy substance was almost transparent, seemingly too thin to support his weight—but when he stepped on it, it held him just as a solid ground would.
Then they flew off at a dizzy speed, with Hermes directing the winds to aid their journey. Paris was tempted to ask Hermes why the gods wanted him; but he didn't dare to offend the god.
Soon, he saw Mt. Olympus glowing against the horizon. A mighty mass of land shot upright into the sky, piercing through clouds. Clothes of milky mists wrapped the ridges in thick layers of magic, and curled their creamy fingers along the valleys cladded with emerald-like greenery glimmering in the golden sun light. Tinkling streams glided across the terrain in joyous elegance, dancing around stone caves and kissing other water sources. Nymphs sitting at the water front shone in their bright gowns; admired from the distance, their figure gleamed like tiny stars.
Hermes guided Paris through the mist, and in no time, they descended into a garden. In the centre, a fountain gurgled, spurting water as clear as crystal. As Paris gaped in amazement, the water slowly changed its shade as it poured down, and dropped into the embrace of a pool of grape wine at the basin, in ripples of dark and purple, like smooth velvet interwoven with richly textured silk. Nectar! Paris thought, the Drink of the gods. The scent of freshly picked flowers wafted out from the elaborate braids of nymphs and pervaded the garden, along with the subtle sweetness drifting from the dazzling myriad of desserts, fruits and meat cuddled in gold bowls and silver plates which floated gracefully in mid-air. Ambrosia! The Food of the gods.
Hermes pointed to the flying plates, as if reading his thoughts, and said, “Those are the Aurae, the wind spirits, the maids of Mount Olympus. They are invisible to mortal eyes.”
But in the garden, there were more than nymphs. Near the fountain, a couple sat and whispered to each other: the man was sturdy and tough, yet the mirth in his sky-blue eyes spilled out in abundance, softening the sombre glint within, veiling the grim look of steadfast steeliness. The woman lacing her fingers around his was the most beautiful that Paris had ever seen—her eyes sparkled in blissful joy, just as calm seas caught the beams of sunlight, gleaming like smooth sapphire starred with topaz nuggets. Her smile reminded him of the warm currents dancing beneath the surface of oceans, and the gentle, salty breezes. At the far end of the garden, men in various attires stood, engrossed in conversation; some women stood among them, chattering with each other. Everything seemed to be neat, and peaceful—yet Paris could feel his back tingle at the sense of unease creeping down his spine.
Hermes led him towards the gathering at the far end, and those they passed by stared curiously at Paris, making him uncomfortably conscious of himself. Hermes bid him to stop at a few yards away and strode forward by himself—Paris watched in jitters as Hermes bowed respectfully before a regal figure donned in a glittering white robe, and said, “Lord, I’ve brought you Paris.”
The man nodded silently. Hermes took the cue, turned around, and pointed to Paris, announcing: “Here I present to you Paris, the chosen judge.”
Men and women whirled around and gazed at Paris—he felt himself enflamed by the fiery intensity of those eyes, his body weighed down by a sudden thrust of burden threatening to crush him under its immensity. His flesh seemed to glow and sear in those glaring looks. It was not the evil of his nervous feeling—the air all around him smelled burned and sizzled with mad energy. In a puzzling second, he realised—in panic—that those who cast him amused stares were the famed gods and goddesses of Olympus.
“Zeus,” one god shouted, “no more waiting!” He wore an identical robe as Zeus’, but in the colour of the deepest sea; pearls studded in the folds of his robe. His eyes bore into Paris’ sharply, menacing eyes from which gusts of stormy winds seemed to blow. His voice boomed like the roaring oceans. The sea god was as quick-tempered as often told.
“Patience, Poseidon,” the woman next to him chided, “we shall not scare Paris.” Paris looked gratefully at her, and she returned an encouraging smile. Her eyes were the colour of fields overflowing with plenty—the colour made by sunlight shining upon the harvested lands. Her gown was the shade of sage, her hair braided in a shape that resembled a crown of wheat. Demeter, the benevolent goddess of the grain, agriculture, harvest, and growth, reminded Paris of an honest village woman, always warm and gentle.
Zeus clapped his hands, strips of lightning lashing across his fingers. “Bring them.”
- TO BE CONTINUED -
Chapter 4: The Fateful Judgement —A Trojan Tale （误断——特洛伊传）PART 2. Contest 比试
Paris finally understood what awaited him, the impossible choice, the difficult judgement...
He grasped faintly, that his decision might have consequences beyond his comprehension...
When the three contesting goddesses arrived, how could he choose?……
Hermes flew away.
Moments later, he came back; behind him followed three ladies covered in white veils and cloaks.
Paris wondered at the mysterious ladies. Who were they Why were they dressed the same?
“Reveal yourself as Zeus had bidden,” Hermes told the first one.
The first lady shook off her cloak—instantly, bright light shot from her body as well as her gown—hers was the most stunning dress he had ever seen: golden rays swam and shimmered in every fold of the delicate fabric, which rippled in a thousand colours, the shade of snow-like white flowing into that of lavender, then ruffled into the shade of tangerine, like that of a blazing fire. As he gaped on, the gown finally settled on the colours of emerald and turquoise, like the feathers of a peacock. Golden lotus bloomed on the celestial silk, forming a pattern – a regal lioness prowled, her fur made of lotus petals. Paris frowned—weren’t these the symbols of…?
The lady let out a laugh as she cast off her veil. She was even more striking than the woman he just saw at the fountain—her dark hair a cascade of wavy curls, pouring down across her shoulders; her eyes as splendid as the colours of jewels, and even made more extraordinary by the slightly fierce light emanating from within. She was majestic, and powerful.
“Hera, the Queen of Olympus.” She announced, with a haughty air. Her beauty was so powerful that it was almost menacing, and he averted his eyes.
The second lady gave out a delightful chuckle before she glowed; the cloak peeled off immediately, so did the veil. Before Paris stood a goddess cladded in simple white gown clasped with a silver adornment in the shape of an owl. An olive wreath nestled upon her head, whereas her hair was plaited into a modest bun. Her skin was smooth, but slightly tanned. Her facial features were not as impressive as Hera, yet the gleam of determination, strength and wit in her eyes pulled at his attention like a magnet attracting metals; her gaze steady and calm, transmitting power to Paris—the ability to use reason, intelligence, tactics and skills. She had an austere sense of gravitas; her expression reassuringly stern. She was confident, and magnificent.
“Athena,” her grey eyes glistening like two gems of quartz, “the daughter of mighty Zeus, protector of Athens, the goddess of wisdom, crafts and tactics.”
Paris locked his eyes with hers, and felt braver and stronger. Her presence inspired loyalty and morale. She nodded in approval.
“And me,” the third goddess giggled, her voice ringing like silver bells, melodious and soothing. Paris’ head swam. The third figure extended her fair, carefully manicured fingers and untied the clasp holding the cloak; Paris goggled in astonished pleasure at the movement of her hands, speaking of tenderness and grace—like a snow-white butterfly dancing in the air. The air smelled sweeter in her presence, as if made more enthrallingly delightful by her unseen magic. Her gown was revealed; then her face.
Paris couldn't speak a word; not a single one—he was struck into humility and even a strange sense of shame, by such an otherworldly beauty.
Her gown was tinted soft pink; strewn across it were thousands of tiny suns—brilliant pearls— radiating warmth. The silk rustled in the breeze, as gentle as rose petals adorned with bright globes of watery jewel, those droplets of dew fresh from dawn, bathing in the golden beams of Helios. Around her waist a silver belt hung, which channelled mysterious energy into Paris when he stared at it, sending an intense heat up his chest, warming his heart. Dove feathers floated from her gown as she took one step closer to examine him.
He couldn't breathe. Her eyes seemed to shine in the most captivating way possible—they were constantly changing in colours, like Hera’s gown, so they projected a kaleidoscope of shades and tints, encapsulating every shape and type of beauty in this world. Her face seemed changing as well, moulding itself ever more charming, as if responding to his wildest imagination of beauty. Her neck was slim, like that of a swan. Myrtle blossoms seemed carelessly sprinkled in her flora-scented ringlets; her golden locks, tied in flowery ribbons, like unbreakable chains, enslaved Paris’ heart.
“O, dear Paris,” the goddess purred, “I am Aphrodite, the goddess of Love and Beauty.”
“Now,” Hermes said, “Paris, you’ve seen the three contesting goddesses. They are competing for the golden apple, you see; the words on it decrees that this precious gift to be bestowed upon the most beautiful goddess, is the prize they desire. Make your choice wisely, Paris, and fairly—the title lies in your judgement.”
“So, give this, as you see fit.” Hermes laid a shimmering apple onto Paris’ palm. Upon it, a string of words glimmered: ΤΗΙ ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΗΙ. (Greek for “To the Most Beautiful”)
The apple was real gold, heavy in his hands. Tentatively, he closed his fingers around the prize—the moment he touched it, he felt a surge of power rushing through his body, perhaps the godly magic contained within the apple and the words upon it; yet the power filling his blood was unsettling, almost latent with malice, spiteful venom obscured by the attractive gains it promised. The connection fuelled his anxiety, making him edgy; the bitter spleen within him churned and boiled in sinister malevolence, stirring up enmity and hatred.
The apple was a curse, he realised, yet the three goddesses wanted it so badly.
“It’s a curse!” he wanted to yell, but a girl, who stood next to a man featuring similar complexion as hers, spoke in a clear, resonant voice, “It’s probably from Eris, that cursed creature of strife and discord. Look how she is stirring up infighting among us! We shall not fall into her trap!”
The girl looked about the same age as Paris, young and fresh, full of energy and spirit. She wore simple white gown similar to that donned by Athena, and she had the same expression of steadfastness and strength. Yet as Artemis surveyed Paris, he was chilled to the marrows by her cold eyes—they glowed like moon light reflecting on the ragged, snowy ridges swept by wild winds—a kind of ferocious femininity, fortified by disdain for men in general.
“Father, I agree with my sister,” the man next to her nodded grimly, which, Paris considered, was not characteristic of him: his face, though refined like a well-chiselled statue and exhibiting an air of rarefied beauty like his twin sister, emitted far more heat and passion than his twin’s did; he must have grinned a lot, Paris thought, for poetic glee flashed in his golden eyes, brighter than the sun he embodied. Apollo adjusted his laurel crown, and faced Zeus gravely, “I’m afraid holding this contest and allowing a mortal to look upon goddesses in judgement are far too much against the traditions.” He eyed Paris warily. “This golden apple… is a trap.”
“Family,” another goddess nodded in agreement, her eyes the colour of warm orange fire dancing in the hearth, her complexion solemn, “yes, family and harmony… Unity is what matters; we shall not be lured by this cursed apple to tear Olympus apart. It doesn't matter, who is the best—we all are beautiful. We are goddesses; if not beautiful, how else would we be?”
Hestia, the goddess of the hearth and home, spoke plainly, but truly.
As Paris almost wanted to sigh in relief, thinking that he would not need to judge in the contest for this idea of competition was soon discarded, Hera glared and hissed, “Never! It’s a matter of recognition and honour. You spoke well, sister—it’s true that we are all beautiful; yet we do not yet know who is the MOST beautiful of us all.”
“A victory without bloodshed, made glorious by a fair contest,” Athena intoned, “is the most honourable prize.”
“I am, after all, the goddess of beauty,” Aphrodite adjusted her belt, “I shall not miss any fun in a beauty contest.”
The other gods and goddesses murmured in unease, clearly disliking the three’s stubborn insistence. A god growled, “O, Hera! What do you want? You are the Queen already; leave the matter of beauty to the goddess of beauty alone!” He was burly, with sinewy muscles bulging beneath his robe. From his eyes shot vicious heat, which, is completely different from that in Apollo’s eyes: they cast no warmth; nor did they delivered hope. They were bottomless pits of fiery radiation, burning with hellish flames that promised violence and destruction. Scars marked his flesh where it was not covered by the robe—and his robe made Paris’ skin crawl in terror. The fabric was in some part scarlet and other parts dark: the gruesome red resembled the colour of freshly-spilled blood from deeply-cut wounds, and the ominous black reminded him of the smoking piles of charred wood and scorched rubbles— the only remains of his neighbour’s house when it burned down. Shadows of warriors wailing in dying agony seethed in the linen folds. Then the god of war tilted his head to his rival, and bellowed in cruel mockery, “O, the wise Athena! Goddess of Crafts and War! Is there anything about you that is related to beauty?”
Aphrodite smirked in pride, and winked at her lover.
“Hush, son!” Hera gritted her teeth. Athena bore her piercing grey eyes into Ares’ fiery ones, her fury silently malicious against his derision. The air was suddenly charged by mounting energy—it seemed that Athena desired to strangle Ares more than she wanted to win the golden apple.
Thunder drummed above. A blinding lightning flashed across the sky and the Lord of Lightning, incensed by the lack of decorum among the Olympians, stood up and declared, “The contest shall commence now. Paris, you know the rules; I expect you to exercise your judgment in discretion.”
—TO BE CONTINUED—
Chapter 5: The Fateful Judgement —A Trojan Tale （误断——特洛伊传）PART 3. Choice 抉择
The three goddesses offered gifts that, to Paris, were all perfect beyond reason.
Yet he could only select one of them as the most beautiful...
Hera strode forward. She plucked one plume of peacock feather from her gown, drawling, “Paris, let me be frank: choose me, and I shall repay your favour—better than what you could possibly imagine. Gaze into this feather! That’s the price I offer.”
Her request sounded more like a command; Paris wouldn't mistake the authoritative note in it. He stared hard into the feather…
The green-blue patterns stirred, and shifted like pieces of mosaic, finally morphing into a distinct image.
An invisible force absorbed Paris’ attention, sucking him into the vivid imagery—all in a sudden, he was leaning against a parapet, taking in the vista of a beautiful land. A city bustling with business and other activities, sprawled out beneath him glowing gorgeously in the morning sun. Sandstone walls, decorated with mosaic depicting sacred bulls and eagles, lined the cobble streets. Colourful flowers and verdant greenery adorned rooftops, and cast shades onto the garden where people played lyre and cithara, performed poetry and sung. Carts drawn by strong oxen rumbled on the streets towards hustling market places, laden with fresh fruits picked from the orchards strewn along the city parameter, spices puffing out whiffs of intoxicating perfume, as well as silverwares, iron pieces and ceramics newly made in forges and workshops.
Paris had never seen such a captivating scene of prosperity and bliss before; he had not even seen a real city—he heard about cities in travellers’ tales and what they described had sounded like some monstrous giants before—never had he expected cities to be so spectacular, ever. He was drawn further into the vision by the power of this image, mired by the vortex of his own desire; it was as if his deepest-hidden, slumbering ambition was suddenly shaken awake, and forced out in a rupture of painful realisation—he had never been more keenly aware of what he wanted than this particular moment his entire life! He wanted power—the authority to govern cities, the divine right to rule stretches of rich land—though he was only a shepherd.
“I know what you want,” Hera whispered, “look closer! Look at your deepest desire!”
He focused on his own presence within the image, and saw what he wanted—
Dressed in pure white robe, crowned, and girded by a gold belt, he was in fact the ruler, the king. He held a sceptre on which a huge eagle perched, its eyes sharp like lightning— Zeus’ sacred animal—true blessing from the King of gods.
“I will give you what you want—land, riches, power, anything,” Hera promised, “you shall be a king! Your rule shall be celebrated; you shall enjoy prosperity. Give me that apple, and I shall give you the throne of an entire city.”
Paris swallowed, his fingers inching towards the apple.
Athena marched forward, her voice harsh with anger. “Power not won by fair contests, or brave battles, is never worth savouring—for it could never match the glory conferred by victory.” She ignored Hera’s resentful glare, and bore her sharp grey eyes into Paris’, transporting him to another vision.
He was at a field, participating in the famed pentathlon games. In front of him, a jagged sandy patch of land grew a forest of javelins. “GO!” A voice behind him shouted, and he flew into action—then his instinct took over: his heels on fire, his limbs taunt with well-built muscles, he grabbed a javelin, dashed forward, his body turning sideway, his right arm threw backwards; his eyes fixated on the farthest point pinned within his vision, every sinew of his boiling with power almost divine, he concentrated all his strength and thrust the javelin forward. The object shot across the sky, blazing an arc of silver light—the very air it touched sizzled with godly energy, as if the javelin was endowed with magic by an invisible force. In a blink, the javelin plunged straight into the ground, marking a distance far longer than those made by the other javelins.
“Victory!” The crowd burst into a frenzy of applause. Exhilarated shouts, elated cries, even crazed screams thrust the roaring masses into a frantic cacophony. Tides of spectators crashed down, and inundated him with their congratulations. He seemed to be enchanted, in a daze of euphoria, frozen in rapture—the blissful knowledge of glorious victory had struck him numb. Waves of words expressing awe, admiration, and amazement smashed against his eardrums, and rammed into his bones. Suddenly he was flying in the air—some worshippers had hoisted him up, and held him for a holy tour. Like a god he surveyed his pilgrims who kept rushing from all around the stadium, consecrated by the absolute submission of all men in reverence of power and strength.
In that moment he was made immortal—his legend would never die—the entire crowd who had borne witness to his deeds would pass his story on for generations to come; songs would be composed, and poetry crafted in his name… “Paris! Paris!” They bellowed, enthralled, and so would they remember him, Pairs, the most shining star in the games, forever young, forever victorious, forever inspiring.
Suddenly it dawned on Paris that the promise of Hera meant nothing to him—it was no more than a shadowy dream as unreal as the fleeting flash of a meteor. The glory bestowed by power was never a match to that granted by real victory—the ultimate display of strength in the field. It had been said that labour would sweeten its own fruits: he would rather take pains in honing his skills in fair contests and grand battles, so as to win glory than to lay back in hereditary sloth, suckling at the breasts of patrons for wealth, bent under the loom of Fates. Title didn't matter; he would choose to make his own name. Weak was the vanity in relishing the veneer of eminence; he wanted true pride, in well-earned, everlasting fame.
“You’re a hero, Paris,” Athena whispered, “the greatest of them all. Such glory! Harken the cheers for heroes—the cheers for you!”
“I … want this.” Paris stammered.
“Then choose me!” she cried, “I shall make you invincible—victorious in every fight! You shall gain eternal fame on the fields of games and battles! No one shall defeat you, ever.”
She extended her fingers where a flame flicked into life—the image of another goddess flared. Nike, the golden-winged goddess of victory, glimmered in fearsome brilliance, exuding raw energy so powerful that it set every fibre of Paris on fire.
Just as Paris extended his hand to present the gift to Athena, an amorous breeze sighed across the garden. Athena looked up in disbelief as a petal of rose landed softly on the golden apple. Aphrodite brushed past Athena, and smiling, took Paris’ hand. “My turn.”
Her hand was smooth and warm, smelling of cinnamon, clove, lavender, and a dozen other aromatic herbs. The air swirling around her flowed like nectar, showering him with drizzles of sweetness. His limbs were softened, shed of all competitive tenseness; his mind was pacified, calmed by the sudden sense of steady languor comfortably settling in. Paris was intoxicated, drunk on the emotive experiences aroused by the goddess’ presence—tender feeling, gentle affection, and LOVE. He ventured to squeeze Aphrodite’s hand, pleading, “O, yes, my immortal goddess, please show me...”
She giggled softly, and his surrounding dissolved.
He saw a teeming expanse of luxuriant verdancy, exuberant in growth, lush in tint. Amidst soft viridescent turf there sprang a sacred fount, its ringing trickle a musical piece. Buttercups starred the grassy slope, like golden coins, stringing across the elegant curve of the Gaia’s bosom. Leimoniads, the nymphs of meadows, danced in a circle, crowning one another with fresh flowers, while Naiads left the springs in their charge to play with Oreads, the mountain nymphs whose melodious songs outshone those of their playmates, the larks. He saw a man sitting in a shade, and a woman. Holding hands, they kissed each other’s cheeks and whispered into each’s ears. Their loving murmur caught the breeze and swelled into a sweet clamour in Paris’ heart—as if his innermost feelings had been most violently repressed for all his life; until now, he never knew himself. He wanted LOVE. Every senses in him screamed for passion, the flames of erotic desire that could consume all.
He looked closer, his vision blurred by the dizziness of his swooning head. He thought the couple were Peleus and Thetis, the married lovers whom he saw in all their happiness at the wedding at Mount Olympus. Yet the man was leaner, and fairer. In a moment he was almost overcome by surprise, discovering that the man was none other but himself. Then he began guessing that the girl must be Oenone, his lover, the nymph of Mount Ida, where he looked after herds of sheep; yet this lady was far more enthralling than Oeneone.
Her look was dazzling, in literal sense, as her features kept shifting, like Aphrodite’s, morphing into his imaginative whim and wild fancy in every possible way, every now and then. Paris couldn't decide how she looked, exactly—yet his heart was enflamed, fiercely hot with lust. Staring into her changing and evolving beauty sharpened his tender adoration into an affectionate desire, then an irresistible passion, and finally a fervent carnal instinct of conquer and possession.
Who is she? He thought in desperate, unrelieved desire, barely holding himself together.
“You want love, Pairs my dear,” the goddess’ voice flicked the image away. She purred, “O, I see, as I always do, everybody desires love, and beauty. We all fall for beauty and love, don't we? They are the two noblest treasure in the world, and I, am the paradigm of both.”
He couldn't respond.
She continued: “It’s in my power to grant you the most desirable mortal beauty of them all—choose me, and I, shall repay your regard with the most precious gifts. You, my dear Paris, shall have the most beautiful woman to fall in love with you: beauty and love, you shall relish both!”
Then, in that fateful moment of self- realisation, he allowed his emotions to take the rein, his rational faculty no longer in function. He looked past the seething Hera and the fuming Athena, and all other gods and goddesses shimmering in all-powerful presence, and contemplated the goddess of Love and Beauty only. He took a deep breath to fight off the trembling in his voice, and said, “I shall give this apple to Aphrodite, as the title of beauty shall be entitled to the goddess who is beauty herself.”
Deadly silent. The silence was so loud that the murmur of the lovers Peleus and Thetis was clearly heard over the running waters of the fountain.
Ares broke into a thunderous laughter, eyeing Paris in amused interest, “Well, a fair judgement I dare say, not buckling under the intimidation of some self-important goddesses.”
The others smiled uneasily, unwilling to speak.
At length, Athena shouted, “Paris!”
He dared not lift his eyes to look at hers. Guilt rushed through his veins—he had failed her.
She announced, in constrained resentment, and possibly hardly-concealed hatred, “I shall not forget this day, Paris. I shall remember how you fail me. Never shall you ever again receive my blessing—never shall you ever become a hero! Scorned shall you be by your countrymen; disparaged shall you be by posterity. No fame shall you gain; no victory; no glory. Mark this.”
Hera only said, “You are nothing but a fool. Do know this: you shall never be king; nor shall you see your beloved land prosper—it shall be dripped in blood, and soaked with pain. Wait and witness the distress, despair, and inevitable doom you shall bring to your fellow men! Your name shall become a curse in history, your foul deeds invoked in disgust by generations to come, your downfall paired with uttermost misery.”
Then he faded into oblivion.
Chapter 6: The Fateful Judgement —A Trojan Tale （误断——特洛伊传）PART 4. Conflagration 烈火
O, what pain to sing a last song to a fallen hero!
O, what pain to mourn a most beloved brother, a son, a countryman, a thrice-honoured, gods-blessed prince!
At nightfall, a sea of shadows crept across the city and funnelled into the temple. Ghostly songs wailed in shared agony, seeping into the air. Torches hissed and sputtered in men’s hands, glinting feebly in the endless waves of dark shawls and robes adorned with nothing but simple misery, under which thousands of broken hearts heaved in painful motion.
“Paris my lord,” a servant shuffled into the temple, and urged, “The King wants you.”
“Father…”Paris croaked, noticing how coarse his voice had become, “it broke his heart, I know. But I am also in pain now—I want a moment of peace…”
“Pray, my lord,” the servant, unmoved, spoke louder in a polite yet chiding tone, “It’s upon gods’ words that we must all know our duty. We are all in utmost distress after we lost Prince Hector, but I venture to presume that had he been alive, he would be indeed grieved to learn that his beloved brother, you, my lord, has yet to uphold his standard of piety.”
Paris’ chest burnt with anger, thousands of acid remarks churning in his stomach, threatening to splash out. How dare the servant… Yet how right he was. The servant spoke plainly but truly. He was a disappointment to his dead brother, whom he had failed again and again. He was racked by guilt—he was a shame to Helen and his family. He was a disgrace to the entire Troy. His blunder cost Troy her proudest, noblest, most beloved son.
At nightfall, it would be his funeral.
He rose up to follow the servant, numbly aware of the throbbing ache pulsing through the muscles of his legs. At his knees, two blood-stained prints of raw skin marked the cold stone floor which gnawed at his flesh while he knelt upon it. Dimly he recalled the leering disgust on people’s faces as he crossed the streets the other day, the hushed disdain breathed from every rapid murmur, the silent condemnation flashing across every narrow eye; he remembered the strained expression Helen had borne on her usually sweet, smiling face, at the night when she shuffled into their room, her slender body rigid with distaste at his cowardice, after he humiliated himself and her, along with Hector, his father and the rest of Troy, for fleeing from the fatal blow from Menelaus, that red-headed scoundrel husband of Helen, King of Sparta. Never could he forget how Helen had shuddered with reluctance, and how she averted her eyes in revulsion when he spoke soft words and touched her. Worse, he remembered the words Helen’s maid, Agata, had told him, the day after Helen’s unwilling companionship. “She said you are unmanly, weak, and no match to her husband.” Her disappointment was bitter, her words harsh, and he knew why. He, the prince of Troy, couldn't even save himself in a battle, without a goddess’ help. Aphrodite had favoured him, and gave him all her blessings; yet her gift had been a curse, some said, for Helen had taken Troy into a bloody war no men had ever witnessed before.
He was plunged back into darkness, his mind tangled with nightmarish images of flashing steels and scarlet sand, his ears drumming with the howling laughter of evil sounds: he saw Hector falling, his breastplates slashed open, blood gurgling from his many wounds, foam streaming from his trembling lips; he saw him crawling at Achilles’ feet, his eyes glassy with pain, croaking his last words, perhaps pleading for the enemy’s honour, beseeching him to return soon-to-be dead body to his family. Hector who had valued honour for all his life, whose dying wish concerned not himself, but his father, brother, wife, and child; his final breath he gave to Troy with no regret. And he saw the cursed, merciless Achilles roared his refusal, his eyes feral like beasts and wild with grief, his mouth twitching in the unquenched thirst for revenge. Achilles was bent on destruction; he wanted to claim not only Hector’s life, but his death—he wanted his body debased, his honour disgraced, his legacy desecrated. He wanted the world to remember not Hector’s bravery in life, but humiliation in death. His scream pierced my ears— “There are no bargains between lions and men! My rage— my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw!”—and the sound of shattering bones bursting into pale, ghastly dust at the thrust of Achilles’ spear thundered across the realm, and the unbreakable walls of Troy trembled in inconsolable distress.
Then Pairs remembered Andromache’s wail—poor Andromache, his brother’s beloved wife, how she stared blankly into the void which now was her entire world, and maddened by shock and pain. How she tore her hair out in clumps, and clawed at her face; how little Astyanax, their young child, stunned at his mother’s grief, yet unable to understand, sobbed loudly in Helen’s arms. He heard the dull thudding noise as his mother, Hecuba, fainted and hit the floor. He saw Helen shaking all over, her eyes brimming with tears, her right hand clasping Astyanax to her chest, her left clutched by his father Priam’s knobby hands. Blood studded on Father’s lips where his teeth had bitten into so hard.
Then he heard the mournful songs ringing through Troy. Then, and now.
The pain had not eased; with time, it hardened into calluses, and burst open, raw and bloody, again and again, striking us down with renewed grief.
The whole city was drowning in despair.
The palace was eerily silent, suspended in sorrow. The very air draped over the entire building muffled any sound of moaning and weeping, like a heavy pall, impenetrable in its solemn woe. Paris lingered at the entrance to his father’s audience chamber, overwhelmed by a sudden surge of shame and guilt.
Priam reclined on the throne, his shoulders slumping under the unbearable weight of suffering. A pious man he was, mumbling prayers as he choked upon them in anguish, stubbornly refusing to turn away from the gods even as Fates afflicted such pain on him. Paris hung his head, sharing his father’s pain, in awkward silence, until Priam croaked—
“O, my child, come forth…”
Paris stumbled forward, and dropped beneath his throne, kneeling once again, upon the hard stone steps, waiting for his anger.
He had hoped that Priam could yell at him, cursing him for destroying Hector, and banishing him from the city, once and for all, ridded him and all the trouble, pain and blood he brought upon Priam’s beloved land. He had hoped that Priam could yank the royal sword free, and drew his blood, to appease the Fates, and turn the tides of the war. He had hoped for a slap at his face, a scream in his ears, or a dagger pressed into his throat…
Yet he only received the trembling hands of an old man, hands lined with age and misery, hands that touched his face in gentleness and grief. Something inside Paris cracked, and he broke into tears.
“O, dear Paris, my boy,” his father cupped Paris’ chins in the gnarly hands of his, and kissed Paris on the forehead, with no trace of reproach in his shaky voice.
“Father, I… I failed you.” Paris stuttered, his voice rough with strain.
“O, my child,” was Priam’s only reply. That and his warm hands, softened by his son’s tears.
They remained there for a long time, father and son, communicating grief.
At nightfall, a sea of shadows crept across the city and funnelled into the temple. Ghostly songs wailed in shared agony, seeping into the air. Torches hissed and sputtered in men’s hands, glinting feebly in the endless waves of dark shawls and robes adorned with nothing but simple misery, under which thousands of broken hearts heaved in painful motion. The gloom of men and women and children eclipsed the evening gloom, veiling the blood-stained sun slowly swallowed by the looming shade of the city.
Helen’s eyes were swollen from crying, and her hair dishevelled as it had been since the day Hector fell. Her gaze swam past Paris and was moored to the body of Hector, now lying upon a pile of wooden stakes built to form a pyre.
Paris couldn't read his beloved’s eyes. The pain in it seemed strangely distant, yet soulfully deep. It reminded him of the weariness in Apollo and Artemis’s eyes, as they watched the contest of the three goddesses silently, their eyes dull with pity and pain, as if they had already foreseen this war, this death, this day. Helen was unapproachable in her solitude, shrouded by her untouchable grief.
The crowd gathered, all eyes lifted, fixing on the body high above, bidding their last farewell to the fallen hero whom they had always loved, and would always love.
There was still no sight of Andromache and Hecuba. The winds hushed. The crowd shifted uneasily; people whispered to one another, anxious about the welfare of their queen and princess. Voices blurred into one cacophony of worry and sadness, and the air was unmoved, and suffocating, reeking of sweat and tears. Paris stood in the sweltering heat, racked with guilt. The angry words of men and women who hated him for pushing Hector to his untimely demise swirling in his mind, a whirlpool of mortification and remorse engulfing his body and soul—words like the fiery whips of the Furies, screaming for blood and revenge, vowing to hunt him down for his crimes. If he hadn’t fallen in love with Helen… If he hadn’t taken her away from her husband… If he could fight…
A man stepped in front of the crowd, and called: “O, fellow men of Troy, my brothers of this great city, this beautiful land! I, Aeneas, son of Aphrodite and Anchises, call upon you to mark this sorrowful day. We have lost Hector, the bravest, most honourable man of all men, the greatest hero of our country, and the greatest of our time. We shed tears, aye, we wept for the prince; I, for one, have fought alongside him in countless battles and witnessed his courage and strength, and I wept, for his undeserved death. I have loved Hector dearly, as a countryman, as a comrade, as a brother. But I say, nay, his glory shall not be forgotten even in death, and his tragic end shall be avenged! Trojans, I call upon you to fight—to fight even harder, and let the Greeks pay; let Achilles, son of Thesis and Peleus, pay for his crime!”
Then Aeneas turned around, and knelt before the pyre, raising his sword. He murmured a prayer, and offered Hector his unchanging allegiance. The crowd, as if waking from a death-like trance, shouted approval at his speech, and nodded in agreement.
That was what a hero should be, Paris thought, his mouth filled with the taste of bile. A hero, even that born of the goddess of love and beauty, should not look inferior to a son of Ares, or of Zeus. A hero could address the crowd, and draw men into his orbit like the sun attracting stars—he could lead, fight, and honour his fallen brothers in dignified grief. A hero so unlike him, Paris, who stood mutely in the crowd, unable to move or speak, too afraid to stand up even as his brother lay dead at the pyre, even as his brother was murdered fighting Paris’ own battle, even as thousands of honourable men had perished in the ten years of war to pay for Paris’ mistake. Now the oldest prince of King Priam, Paris couldn't even step out of the shadow and face Trojans, who had sacrificed all they had to die for his cause. He couldn't even console his grief-stricken father, mother, brothers and sisters, and his wife, let alone the thousands weeping day and night in the city.
He was a disgrace to them all.
The searing pain upon this realisation blazed across his chest. He shut his eyes, trying to quench the fire of guilt, and heard the crowd sigh, with much relief—“O, the Queen and Princess! They are here.”
Hecuba plodded down the lane, with Andromache trailing behind. The two most heart-broken women on the land, cladded in the colour of night, shrouded by mist and loss, their faces unreadable masks of grim remembrance, carved out of stiffened pain. On their cheeks where torrents of bitterness had poured down, stripes of rusty skin chiselled by nails snaked down in haunting angles, tracing the torment the distraught women had inflicted upon themselves in agony. Raw flesh glistened with beads of blood, gleaming ominously against their otherwise pallid skin. There was almost no light in their puffy eyes, no life in their forms—their bodies walking corpses, their wandering souls anchored to their beloved’s body, their existence a living shape of death. Yet still they marched on, grave but determined, shoulders straining under the burdens of duty. With the sheer force of will, Hecuba and Andromache bore their world aloft, even as its weight crushed them, even as their souls ached. Their heavens and earths spun around the axis of distress, yet they held it nonetheless. Dark and silver hair, woven in the same strands of bereavement, but firmly knitted in strength.
And Paris, a man, couldn't even fulfil his duty like his mother and sister did.
Shame welled up in his chest again, wave upon wave of remorse crashed with his body. The pain was acidic, eating his senses away. He forced himself to look at his father, whose eyebrows kneaded in concern for Hecuba and Andromache, and who himself was fighting for composure. The crowd went still, not daring to breathe, as if any tiny sound would disturb the silent grief of the princess and the queen.
Priam kissed his wife and daughter tenderly on the forehead, and turned to face the crowd. At length, he said, “Let the rite begin.”
The priests of Zeus and Apollo started chanting laments, but Paris couldn't hear the words, or he couldn't remember. In the air the rasping elegy of crows was louder than the human words, perhaps Apollo had sent his divine creatures to sing the dirge, to honour his favoured hero. When the chanting faded away, Priam lumbered forward and raised his torch—a piece of wood encased in thin gold carved in the pattern of eagles, cows, and boars, the sacred animals of our patron gods, Zeus, Apollo, Ares, who fought alongside us in the Great War against the Greeks. “Farewell, my son.” He tossed the torch into the pyre.
The priests followed, then the men. Bright flames arched across the air like meteors, and leaped into the pyre. The fire caught the wood and sizzled; red hot tongues flared up hungrily, hissing and spitting, impatient to devour the prey of flesh. Sparks crackled in a frenzy, darting from wood to wood, wherever they touched a starburst of golden hue. Soon the roaring serpent of amber blaze reared up, whirling, burning havoc across the entire wooden structure. Paris had just stolen one last glance at his dead brother before the fiery beast engulfed him whole—his eyes closed, his hands clasped before his chest, his face erased of any sign of worry: he looked almost at peace. No longer would his big brother clap him on the shoulder and smile down at him encouragingly; no longer would Hector kiss Andromache gently on the cheeks, with a joyous grin; no longer would Hector squeeze Priam’s hands reassuringly before he picked up his spear and leaved to claim victory of the day.
His big brother Hector would no longer be here to guide him, chide him, and love him.
He was utterly alone.
The wailing resumed. Paris watched numbly as the fire burned into his heart, smothering him in woe.