Empires of Bronze: The Crimson Throne - The Prologue
The Great Pillar of the West
Late Summer 1272 BC
The famous Wind of Wilusa squalled ever-southwards like a god’s breath. It raked the green waters of the Hellespont Strait, conjuring a haze of iridescent spray that dazzled in the noonday light. The linen sails of northbound trade ships thrashed with a noise like faraway thunder as they battled against the furious headwind. Most were sure they could outsmart the gale and reach the bounty of coastal amber markets beyond the strait. All were wrong. One by one, each vessel turned from the squall and into a bay nearby. The sheltered and shallow waters glinted, at peace, the surface like polished turquoise. Hundreds of boats lay moored near the sandy shores, awaiting the rare moments when the winds would change, opening the way to the north.
Watching over all of this like a hunkering lion stood the city of Troy. People trickled from the lower town – the lion’s body – taking water and bread down to the crews of the moored ships and collecting a toll of silver for their berth. Every so often the heads of Trojans and sailors alike would twist to glance up towards the citadel – the lion’s head, Troy’s fortified heart. Up on the Scaean Tower – the grandest and highest turret of the citadel defences – stood Troy’s king, draped in purple, staring out from the parapet. The glances were nervous and frequent, for all knew what was taking place up there might change their world.
The warm wind furrowed King Priam’s hair, swept-back, shot grey at the temples and held in place by the royal circlet. A lyre song rose in soft notes behind him, the music a welcome interlude to the discussions. He smoothed his palms across the sun-warmed limestone parapet and gazed across his city once more. His eyes drifted to the bay… then he realised he was staring at that damned ship.
It was like a thorn, lodged between two Trojan warships. A boat from another land, the hull painted black, and the sail emblazoned with the head of a golden bull, the symbol of Sparta. They had been here for seven days. Seven of the longest days of Priam’s life.
He turned from the parapet. On the tower’s flat rooftop, a purple awning shaded a long oak feasting table festooned with the best fare: venison flecked with chopped herbs, pots of honey and yellow cream, urns of date-sweetened beer and silver kraters of wine, trays piled with baked loaves and heaps of berries. The food might as well have been ashes and the drink vinegar, he mused, given the company.
At one edge of the table sat Menelaus, King of Sparta, eating like a boar, his bearded chin munching speedily, his shaved upper lip beaded with sweat. His pouchy eyes were brimming with tears of humour as he told jokes through a mouth full of half-masticated food: ‘… if it weren’t for the horse and that randy sailor, the fleet of Ithaca might still be afloat today!’ He rocked with hilarity, his long braids of red hair swinging.
Priam gritted his teeth and tried to let the boorish tales float past him. He had only met the Spartan King once before. Then, he had been such a quiet man – shy, even – mumbling just a few words, respectful and concise. Then, Priam thought, eyeing the cluster of empty wine jugs and watching as Menelaus poured himself a fresh cup from a full one, he was sober. Take the wine away, however, and the Spartan had a thread of nobility about him.
So too did his wife, Helen, the young Queen of Sparta – pale-skinned and amber-haired, her duckling earrings glinting gold in the sunlight. She skilfully watered Menelaus’ wine when he wasn’t looking, and wore a look of apology whenever she caught Priam’s eye.
It was the ‘advisor’ of the Spartan royal couple who truly raised Priam’s hackles. Piya-maradu, the roving, stateless warlord who had for so many years caused turmoil across these lands of Wilusa and her neighbouring kingdoms. Raiding, burning, stealing whole cattle herds, carrying off the entire populations of towns and selling them into slavery – Piya-maradu lived for these things. His every gesture and word were like insults, his presence in Troy the biggest slur of all. Even the way he sat – not at the feasting table like the others, but on the parapet, perched like a hawk, gnawing at a hunk of venison and staining his thin beard with meat juices – caused offence. He wore a conical helm of interlinked, bright white boar tusks and a kilt of leather strips, not a stitch to cover his scarred chest. His presence here was intolerable – in his time within the city, he had brazenly stared at the bare breasts of the Trojan wives on the streets, then greedily studied the tiles of gold on the temple roofs.
The first words of Menelaus’ latest tale scattered Priam’s thoughts.
‘There was a shepherd who tended the flocks near my palace in Sparta. Now he was blessed,’ The Spartan King held up his hands as if measuring something, his eyes widening. ‘And when I say blessed, I mean…’ his voice faded, his lips slackening and face creasing in confusion. A sound of sobbing rose from somewhere behind him. He looked around and across the citadel of Troy. ‘What… what’s that?’
For a moment, Priam could not answer, his throat thickening with grief. He gazed across the citadel grounds towards a temple distinguished by the golden statue of the archer god on its roof. Some called the god Apollo, others Lyarri. Trojan Guardians stood watch outside, their bronze cuirasses glittering, the coiled-whip crests of their helms juddering and their patterned cloaks fluttering in the breeze. To the passer-by, it might appear that they were present to deny entry to unwanted visitors. But Priam knew all too well why they were really there.
Piya-maradu noticed, and a keen look crossed his face. ‘Apollo weeps?’ he said, cupping a hand behind one ear theatrically.
Priam tried not to react or even look at Piya-maradu. Yet he could sense the man’s eyes, dark like polished stones, gleefully trained upon him.
‘Ah, no, it is Princess Cassandra, is it not?’ Piya-maradu corrected himself triumphantly. ‘She is imprisoned in there. I hear that at night she lies asleep by the altar, that snakes whisper in her ear… that she is mad!’
Priam felt the fires of the mountain rise within him. His top lip twitched as, for a glorious instant, he imagined how satisfying it would be to bound the few steps over to Piya-maradu’s perch on the parapet, stoop, grab his ankles and casually flip him out over the edge. He closed his eyes, struggling to control his emotions. Think of the preparations, he told himself, of the many months it took to arrange these talks.
The talks. The talks! It was all he had thought of since last winter. Discussions to arrange a pact of truce between Troy and Ahhiyawa – a land that lay across the Western Sea, composed of many city-states dotted across rocky peninsulas and archipelagoes. Working alone or in petty leagues, those city states had been merely bothersome in generations past. But Sparta and dozens more had now pledged allegiance to Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae. Federated like this, the Ahhiyawans were now a grave threat. King Menelaus was Agamemnon’s brother and his chosen delegate to attend the feast. Piya-maradu was Menelaus’ chosen aide. Thus, both had to be tolerated.
‘My daughter spends her time in the temple by choice,’ Priam lied, skilfully controlling his anger. ‘Yes, she weeps today, but there are other days when she laughs and sings,’ he lied again. Nobody spoke. The lyre song faded. The others on the rooftop shuffled in the uncomfortable silence as Cassandra’s wailing grew louder and more pained. Priam felt embarrassment creeping up and over his shoulders like the hands of an unwanted lover. He looked around the lower town for some source of distraction, and found it. Dolon, the wolfskin-cloaked commander of his Guardians, down on a lower parapet, frantically waving up at him and gesturing towards the lower town’s eastern gates. His confidence returned.
‘Ah! It seems that today’s spectacle is about to commence,’ he boomed, forcing a handsome smile, arms spreading towards the plains to the east of Troy. From the lower town, a groan of gates sounded, and a team of nearly one hundred silver-chased chariots rumbled out across the flatlands, moving parallel to the mulberry tree and wheat-lined banks of the River Scamander. They sped and swept like starlings, deftly cutting away from the river in perfect formation, switching from a broad line to a column then an arrowhead. Leading them was his scion, Prince Hektor. He drove the lead chariot like a man of many more than his eighteen summers, his mop of dark curls and purple cloak swishing in his wake. So strong, so fast, so confident, yet wise and untainted by the arrogance that plagued most self-assured young men.
Ostensibly, Priam watched the display, but from the corner of his eye he observed his guests, seeing their confidence waver as they witnessed this young Trojan lion at play. He allowed his attentions now to stray to some of the others around the feasting table. Chryses, the High Priest of Apollo, Laocoon the Priest of Poseidon, Antenor the elder, his armoured Guardians, and the most senior of his many sons: Deiphobus, Scamandrios… and Paris. Perched on the edge of his stool, Paris – two years Hektor’s junior – caressed the tortoiseshell lyre to his body as if it were a newborn. His fingers became a blur as he played a new speedier song on the instrument, the rhythm of which matched the beating hooves of the horses pulling his brother’s chariot. Priam felt so confident now, with his seven princes, his mighty city, and the chariots of Troy on display. Perhaps, in the name of accord, the visitors needed a gentle reminder that Troy and her neighbouring coastal kingdoms were a force to be reckoned with.
‘What does it take to produce a chariot worthy of riding in the Trojan wing?’ Priam boomed with a merry warmth as the battle-cars jostled around the flatland. To Hektor’s stirring cries, they launched spears at painted posts, every one hitting those targets. ‘Wilusan horses and crews, Lukkan tanners, Assuwan carpenters and Masan blacksmiths.’ He turned his back on the display and held King Menelaus’ gaze. ‘Unity. That is the key. A united seaboard. All along this trade-rich coast, dozens of kingdoms work together with Troy for our mutual protection-’
Suddenly, a dull crunch of wood and an agonised whinny from the Scamander plain split the air. In a blur, he swung back to the chariot display. The parade manoeuvre was in tatters. One of the leading vehicles had hit a divot, casting it into the air. Priam watched in horror as vehicle, man and horse flew like a thrown rock, then were dashed down upon their heads, spraying timber and dirt across the nearest vehicles, causing three cars to overturn and two more to swerve violently into others. Priam staggered over to clutch the eastern parapet, staring out at the smudge of dust partly concealing the accident. He saw in that cloud the thrashing legs of upturned horses, heard the groans and cries of men. But which men, which war-cars? Hektor? My boy?
‘Brother?’ Paris croaked, his lyre song ending in a discordant twang as he scrambled to the tower’s-edge beside Priam. In a blink his other sons were there too, and the priests and commanders, all afraid to speak as they watched.
From the dust, Hektor emerged, unharmed and still aboard his intact vehicle. A cool wave of relief swept over Priam. He watched his son guide his chariot round in a tight circle and to a halt, then leap out and crouch by the stricken crew. Hektor, knowing the parade was being watched, looked up towards the Scaean tower and waved his hand twice, slowly, indicating that the men were not seriously hurt. Priam felt a second wave of relief.
Until Menelaus’ laughter crackled through the air behind him. On and on it went. ‘This is Hektor the Crown Prince of Troy? The young and famous breaker of horses?’ he roared with hilarity.
‘Maybe he needs to pass on his skills to his fellow charioteers,’ Piya-maradu simpered. ‘They are as clumsy as oxen.’
Young Paris’ tanned, handsome face bent into a sneer, his short brown hair quivering as he shook with anger. He made to swing round and confront the laughing pair. ‘How dare you, you filthy-’
But Priam caught him by the bicep – slender and long – before he could finish his sentence. ‘No, my child,’ he whispered. ‘Take up your lyre and sit. Play for us once more. Observe how men like this must be dealt with.’ He held Paris’ gaze until the fire in the young man’s eyes died.
Paris, still shaking, nodded reluctantly, before sloping away and dropping with a deep sigh onto a pile of cushions. The other five of his sons sagged too, melting away back to their seats.
As Priam finally took his chair at the table he noticed that, much to his annoyance, King Menelaus and Piya-maradu were still rumbling with mirth about the crash. ‘All fear Troy and the neighbouring petty coastal states,’ he heard Piya-maradu whisper to Menelaus, ‘for they build chariots capable of great self-destruction.’
Priam felt anger surge inside him, but caught it as before. That was not the way. Perhaps they needed the sternest warning of all, he mused. Watching them both keenly, he lifted and swirled a cup of wine. ‘Perhaps you are right. Maybe Troy and her close neighbours are small and insignificant.’ His face darkened. ‘Certainly, we are small… in comparison to the giant that lies inland to the east. The greatest power in the world.’ He leaned forward to add, with a hint of menace: ‘The Hittite Empire.’
King Menelaus’ laughter stumbled and stopped. Piya-maradu shuffled a little and slowed in his chewing as if the latest mouthful of venison had lost its flavour. Both men glanced furtively towards the back end of the feasting table, and at the silent figure seated there in the depth of the awning shade.
‘Isn’t that right, Prince Hattu?’ Priam asked the silent one. He knew the mere presence of this man – tall, austere, brooding – was enough to strike even the boldest types into silence. Hattu was spoken of in hushed tones: the greatest general of the Hittite Empire, the Lord of the Upper Lands, commander of twenty thousand of the world’s best warriors. Some even said he was the Son of the Goddess Ishtar. But here, today, he seemed different, detached, lost in thought. His green cloak sagged around him like a shroud, his long hair – once jet black, now threaded with silver – hung loose to his waist. Oddly, he had arrived here wearing just that cloak and loose robes underneath. No coat of bronze, nor his distinctive twin swords. He had not even noticed the chariot accident on the north plains. Instead, his odd-coloured eyes – one hazel and the other smoke-grey – were trained on the eastern horizon, staring into the haze, back towards his empire.
‘Prince Hattu?’ whispered Priam.
It was like the breaking of a spell. Hattu blinked, his vulpine face turning slowly towards the others. ‘Majesty?’ he replied to Priam.
Relieved to hear his great ally’s voice, Priam continued: ‘In union, Prince Hattu and I marched together onto the baked plains of Kadesh,’ he paused to raise his wine cup. ‘There, we fought side-by-side: the mighty Hittite Divisions together with the armies of every kingdom in this land. We drove Pharaoh Ramesses back to his desert home, cowed.’
Menelaus folded his arms bitterly at the mention of the victory, news of which had spread across the known world like a forest fire. The triumph had secured the reputation of the Hittite Empire as the greatest military force in existence. Prince Hattu had been the strategist behind it all.
Priam rose from his seat and strolled over to the eastern edge of the Scaean Tower. He stopped by one corner of the rooftop. A bulky cedar-wood frame stood here, from which was suspended a huge bronze bell, inscribed with a scene showing a band of marching men. He stroked the smooth surface of the ancient piece, hot from the sun. ‘It is an age-old agreement that binds Troy to the service of the Hittite Empire,’ he said quietly over his shoulder, ‘and guarantees us the empire’s protection.’
He heard King Menelaus’ belly grumble in distress, and felt Piya-maradu’s glare on his back. They were afraid of his confidence, and of the superpower upon which he could call. He remembered then the words of The Hittite King and Hattu’s brother, Muwa, before the Battle of Kadesh:
My friend: you have shown the depth of your loyalty in coming to battle when I called upon you. My father and yours always agreed that Troy was the western pillar of the Hittite Empire and the Hittite land was the great bulwark that would shield Troy. We are one, we live to protect each other – as it has been for over four hundred years. When this war is over, I swear to you, under the eyes of the Gods, that the four mighty divisions of the Hittite Empire will, at your request, turn to and march upon the west. We will drive the Ahhiyawans from the land or to their knees at Milawata – force them to sign a treaty, a vow to expand no further. You talk of hundreds or even thousands of Ahhiyawan reavers? They will crumble when they see the armies of the Grey Throne pouring over the horizon. This is my oath to you and to Troy – and as deputy of the Storm God it is his oath also.’
He felt a warm shiver of hubris. ‘On the fields of Kadesh, that agreement became a vow. Many sons of Troy died in that faraway place in the winning of that day. The Hittites will never forget what we gave, and they will stand by our oath forevermore – to protect Troy against any and all who might seek to do her harm.’ He looked beyond the bronze bell, out into the countryside, towards the first of the beacon towers. This signal station and the many others beyond, dotted all the way from here to Hattusa, joined Troy and the empire umbilically. Men were stationed in each to relay the signal, should the bell ever toll.
‘Oaths,’ Priam said, swinging back to face the feasting table, refilling and raising his cup once more. ‘Stability, trust… peace,’ he stressed this last word like a heavy boulder being dropped into a pond – something that was not to be debated but obeyed. The Trojan priests echoed the word. ‘Peace,’ Prince Paris and his brothers agreed. A Trojan scribe waited eagerly for the Ahhiyawan delegation to repeat the golden word.
Priam let the notion hang in the air, ignored Piya-maradu completely and stared only at King Menelaus.
Menelaus shuffled and sat up, laughing quietly, raising his cup. ‘Aye, peace,’ he smiled. ‘Peace between Troy and Ahhiyawa.’ He rumbled with laughter. ‘I am too old for war anyway!’
Priam’s face split in a genuine smile now, relief flooding over him. Many said King Agamemnon yearned to claim the riches of Troy for himself. They also said he listened to nobody… apart from his brother. If Menelaus carried this call for peace back across the Western Sea, might it dampen Agamemnon’s hunger for war? Let Apollo see to it, he thought to himself, then sat down at last and began to eat and drink properly for the first time in seven days.
The sun began to drop as he finished his meal. It was then that a thought struck him. Prince Hattu had not echoed his call for peace. He looked to the far end of the long table. Hattu was gone, his seat empty, his cup and plate unused. He must have slipped away, Priam realised. He tried not to show his concern, but every so often he cast looks down across the citadel grounds. Eventually he spotted the Hittite prince, trudging back to his sleeping quarters and slipping inside. As dusk settled, Priam stared at the closed doors and shutters of the place. Something was wrong with the Hittite… terribly wrong.
He was so distracted by the matter that he did not even notice the fleeting and amorous looks between Paris and King Menelaus’ young bride.