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The King Must Die
By Mary Renault
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Mary Renault
All rights reserved.
The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers. But the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.
Our house is Hellene, sprung from the seed of Ever-Living Zeus. We worship the Sky Gods before Mother Dia and the gods of earth. And we have never mixed our blood with the blood of the Shore People, who had the land before us.
My grandfather had about fifteen children in his household, when I was born. But his queen and her sons were dead, leaving only my mother born in wedlock. As for my father, it was said in the Palace that I had been fathered by a god. By the time I was five, I had perceived that some people doubted this. But my mother never spoke of it; and I cannot remember a time when I should have cared to ask her.
When I was seven, the Horse Sacrifice came due, a great day in Troizen.
It is held four-yearly, so I remembered nothing of the last one. I knew it concerned the King Horse, but thought it was some act of homage to him. To my mind, nothing could have been more fitting. I knew him well.
He lived in the great horse field, down on the plain. From the Palace roof I had often watched him, snuffing the wind with his white mane flying, or leaping on his mares. And only last year I had seen him do battle for his kingdom. One of the House Barons, seeing from afar the duel begin, rode down to the olive slopes for a nearer sight, and took me on his crupper. I watched the great stallions rake the earth with their forefeet, arch their necks, and shout their war cries; then charge in with streaming manes and teeth laid bare. At last the loser foundered; the King Horse snorted over him, threw up his head neighing, and trotted off toward his wives. He had never been haltered, and was as wild as the sea. Not the King himself would ever throw a leg across him. He belonged to the god.
His valor alone would have made me love him. But I had another cause as well. I thought he was my brother.
Poseidon, as I knew, can look like a man or like a horse, whichever he chooses. In his man shape, it was said, he had begotten me. But there were songs in which he had horse sons too, swift as the north wind, and immortal. The King Horse, who was his own, must surely be one of these. It seemed clear to me, therefore, that we ought to meet. I had heard he was only five years old. "So," I thought, "though he is the bigger, I am the elder. It is for me to speak first."
Next time the Master of the Horse went down to choose colts for the chariots, I got him to take me. While he did his work, he left me with a groom; who presently drew in the dust a gambling board, and fell to play with a friend. Soon they forgot me. I climbed the palisade, and went seeking the King Horse.
The horses of Troizen are pure-bred Hellene. We have never crossed them with the little strain of the Shore People, whom we took the land from. When I was in with them, they looked very tall. As I reached up to pat one, I heard the Horse Master shout behind me; but I closed my ears. "Everyone gives me orders," I thought. "It comes of having no father. I wish I were the King Horse; no one gives them to him." Then I saw him, standing by himself on a little knoll, watching the end of the pasture where they were choosing colts. I went nearer, thinking, as every child thinks once for the first time, "Here is beauty."
He had heard me, and turned to look. I held out my hand, as I did in the stables, and called, "Son of Poseidon!" On this he came trotting up to me, just as the stable horses did. I had brought a lump of salt, and held it out to him.
There was some commotion behind me. The groom bawled out, and looking round I saw the Horse Master beating him. My turn would be next, I thought; men were waving at me from the railings, and cursing each other. I felt safer where I was. The King Horse was so near that I could see the lashes of his dark eyes. His forelock fell between them like a white waterfall between shining stones. His teeth were as big as the ivory plates upon a war helm; but his lip, when he licked the salt out of my palm, felt softer than my mother's breast. When the salt was finished, he brushed my cheek with his, and snuffed at my hair. Then he trotted back to his hillock, whisking his long tail. His feet, with which as I learned later he had killed a mountain lion, sounded neat on the meadow, like a dancer's.
Now I found myself snatched from all sides, and hustled from the pasture. It surprised me to see the Horse Master as pale as a sick man. He heaved me on his mount in silence, and hardly spoke all the way home. After so much to-do, I feared my grandfather himself would beat me. He gave me a long look as I came near; but all he said was, "Theseus, you went to the horse field as Peiros' guest. It was unmannerly to give him trouble. A nursing mare might have bitten your arm off. I forbid you to go again."
This happened when I was six years old; and the Horse Feast fell next year.
It was the chief of all feasts at Troizen. The Palace was a week getting ready. First my mother took the women down to the river Hyllikos, to wash the clothes. They were loaded on mules and brought down to the clearest water, the basin under the fall. Even in drought the Hyllikos never fails or muddies; but now in summer it was low. The old women rubbed light things at the water's edge, and beat them on the stones; the girls picked up their petticoats and trod the heavy mantles and blankets in midstream. One played a pipe, which they kept time to, splashing and laughing. When the wash was drying on the sunny boulders, they stripped and bathed, taking me in with them. That was the last time I was allowed there; my mother saw that I understood the jokes.
On the feast day I woke at dawn. My old nurse dressed me in my best: my new doeskin drawers with braided borders, my red belt rolled upon rope and clasped with crystal, and my necklace of gold beads. When she had combed my hair, I went to see my mother dressing. She was just out of her bath, and they were dropping her petticoat over her head. The seven-tiered flounces, sewn with gold drops and pendants, clinked and glittered as she shook them out. When they clipped together her gold-worked girdle and her bodice waist, she held her breath in hard and let it out laughing. Her breasts were as smooth as milk, and the tips so rosy that she never painted them, though she was still wearing them bare, not being, at that time, much above three and twenty.
They took her hair out of the crimping-plaits (it was darker than mine, about the color of polished bronze) and began to comb it. I ran outside on the terrace, which runs all round the royal rooms, for they stand on the roof of the Great Hall. Morning was red, and the crimson-painted columns burned in it. I could hear, down in the courtyard, the House Barons assembling in their war dress. This was what I had waited for.
They came in by twos and threes, the bearded warriors talking, the young men laughing and scuffling, shouting to friends, or feinting at each other with the butts of their spears. They had on their tall-plumed leather helmets, circled with bronze or strengthened with rolls of hide. Their broad breasts and shoulders, sleekly oiled, shone russet in the rosy light; their wide leather drawers stood stiffly out from the thigh, making their lean waists, pulled in with the thick rolled sword-belts, look slenderer still. They waited, exchanging news and chaff, and striking poses for the women, the young men lounging with the tops of their tall shields propping their left armpits, their right arms stretched out grasping their spears. Their upper lips were all fresh shaved, to make their new beards show clearer. I scanned the shield devices, birds or fish or serpents worked upon the hide, picking out friends to hail, who raised their spears in greeting. Seven or eight of them were uncles of mine. My grandfather had got them in the Palace on various women of good blood, prizes of his old wars, or gifts of compliment from neighbor kings.
The land barons were coming in from their horses or their chariots; they too bare to the waist, for the day was warm, but wearing all their jewels; even their boot tops had golden tassels. The sound of men's voices grew louder and deeper and filled the air above the courtyard. I squared back my shoulders, and nipped my belt in; gazed at a youth whose beard was starting, and counted years on my fingers.
Talaos came in, the War Leader; a son of my grandfather's youth, got upon a chief's wife taken in battle. He had on his finest things: his prize helmet from the High King of Mycenae's funeral games, all plated, head and cheeks, with the carved teeth of boars, and both his swords, the long one with the crystal pommel which he sometimes let me draw, the short one with a leopard hunt inlaid in gold. The men touched their spear shafts to their brows; he numbered them off with his eye, and went in to tell my grandfather they were ready. Soon he came out, and standing on the great steps before the king-column that carried the lintel, his beard jutting like a warship's prow, shouted, "The god goes forth!"
They all trooped out of the courtyard. As I craned to see, my grandfather's body servant came and asked my mother's maid if the Lord Theseus was ready to go with the King.
I had supposed I should be going with my mother. So I think had she. But she sent word that I was ready whenever her father wished.
She was Chief Priestess of Mother Dia in Troizen. In the time of the Shore People before us, that would have made her sovereign queen; and if we ourselves had been sacrificing at the Navel Stone, no one would have walked before her. But Poseidon is husband and lord of the Mother, and on his feast day the men go first. So, when I heard I was going with my grandfather, I saw myself a man already.
I ran to the battlements, and looked out between their teeth. Now I saw what god it was the men were following. They had let loose the King Horse, and he was running free across the plain.
The village too, it seemed, had turned out to welcome him. He went through standing corn in the common fields, and no one raised a hand to stop him. He crossed the beans and the barley, and would have gone up to the olive slopes; but some of the men were there and he turned away. While I was watching, down in the empty court a chariot rattled. It was my grandfather's; and I remembered I was to ride in it. By myself on the terrace I danced for joy.
They fetched me down. Eurytos the charioteer was up already, standing still as an image in his short white tunic and leather greaves, his long hair bound in a club; only his arm muscles moved, from holding in the horses. He lifted me in, to await my grandfather. I was eager to see him in his war things, for in those days he was tall. Last time I was in Troizen, when he was turned eighty, he had grown light and dry as an old grasshopper, piping by the hearth. I could have lifted him in my hands. He died a month after my son, having I suppose nothing to hold him longer. But he was a big man then.
He came out, after all, in his priestly robe and fillet, with a scepter instead of a spear. He heaved himself in by the chariot rail, set his feet in the bracers, and gave the word to go. As we clattered down the cobbled road, you could not have taken him for anything but a warrior, fillet or no. He rode with the broad rolling war straddle a man learns driving cross-country with weapons in his hands. Whenever I rode with him, I had to stand on his left; it would have set his teeth on edge to have anything in front of his spear arm. Always I seemed to feel thrown over me the shelter of his absent shield.
Seeing the road deserted, I was surprised, and asked him where the people were. "At Sphairia," he said, grasping my shoulder to steady me over a pothole. "I am taking you to see the rite, because soon you will be waiting on the god there, as one of his servants."
This news startled me. I wondered what service a horse god wanted, and pictured myself combing his forelock, or putting ambrosia before him in golden bowls. But he was also Poseidon Bluehair, who raises storms; and the great black Earth Bull whom, as I had heard, the Cretans fed with youths and girls. After some time I asked my grandfather, "How long shall I stay?"
He looked at my face and laughed, and ruffled my hair with his big hand. "A month at a time," he said. "You will only serve the shrine, and the holy spring. It is time you did your duties to Poseidon, who is your birth-god. So today I shall dedicate you, after the sacrifice. Behave respectfully, and stand still till you are told; remember, you are with me."
We had reached the shore of the strait, where the ford was. I had looked forward to splashing through it in the chariot; but a boat was waiting, to save our best clothes. On the other side we mounted again, and skirted for a while the Kalaurian shore, looking across at Troizen. Then we turned inward, through pines. The horses' feet drummed on a wooden bridge and stopped. We had come to the little holy island at the big one's toe; and kings must walk in the presence of the gods.
The people were waiting. Their clothes and garlands, the warriors' plumes, looked bright in the clearing beyond the trees. My grandfather took my hand and led me up the rocky path. On either side a row of youths was standing, the tallest lads of Troizen and Kalauria, their long hair tied up to crest their heads like manes. They were singing, stamping the beat with their right feet all together, a hymn to Poseidon Hippios. It said how the Horse Father is like the fruitful earth; like the seaway whose broad back bears the ships safe home; his plumed head and bright eye are like daybreak over the mountains, his back and loins like the ripple in the barley field; his mane is like the surf when it blows streaming off the wave crests; and when he stamps the ground, men and cities tremble, and kings' houses fall.
I knew this was true, for the roof of the sanctuary had been rebuilt in my own lifetime; Poseidon had overthrown its wooden columns, and several houses, and made a crack in the Palace walls. I had not felt myself that morning; they had asked me if I was sick, at which I only cried. But after the shock I was better. I had been four years old then, and had almost forgotten.
Our part of the world had always been sacred to Earth-Shaker; the youths had many of his deeds to sing about. Even the ford, their hymn said, was of his making; he had stamped in the strait, and the sea had sunk to a trickle, then risen to flood the plain. Up till that time, ships had passed through it; there was a prophecy that one day he would strike it with his fish-spear, and it would sink again.
As we walked between the boys, my grandfather ran his eye along them, for likely warriors. But I had seen ahead, in the midst of the sacred clearing, the King Horse himself, browsing quietly from a tripod.
He had been hand-broken this last year, not for work but for this occasion, and today he had had the drugged feed at dawn. But without knowing this, I was not surprised he should put up with the people round him; I had been taught it was the mark of a king to receive homage with grace.
The shrine was garlanded with pine boughs. The summer air bore scents of resin and flowers and incense, of sweat from the horse and the young men's bodies, of salt from the sea. The priests came forward, crowned with pine, to salute my grandfather as chief priest of the god. Old Kannadis, whose beard was as white as the King Horse's forelock, laid his hand on my head nodding and smiling. My grandfather beckoned to Diokles, my favorite uncle; a big young man eighteen years old, with the skin of a leopard, which he had killed himself, hanging on his shoulder. "Look after the boy," said my grandfather, "till we are ready for him."
Diokles said, "Yes, sir," and led me to the steps before the shrine, away from where he had been standing with his friends. He had on his gold snake arm-ring with crystal eyes, and his hair was bound with a purple ribbon. My grandfather had won his mother at Pylos, second prize in the chariot race, and had always valued her highly; she was the best embroidress in the Palace. He was a bold gay youth, who used to let me ride on his wolfhound. But today he looked at me solemnly, and I feared I was a burden to him.
Old Kannadis brought my grandfather a pine wreath bound with wool, which should have been ready, but had been found after some delay. There is always some small hitch at Troizen; we do not do these things with the smoothness of Athens. The King Horse munched from the tripod, and flicked off flies with his tail.
There were two more tripods; one bowl held water, the other water and wine. In the first my grandfather washed his hands, and a young server dried them. The King Horse lifted his head from the feed, and it seemed they looked at one another. My grandfather set his hand on the white muzzle, and stroked down hard; the head dipped, and rose with a gentle toss. Diokles leaned down to me and said, "Look, he consents."
Excerpted from The King Must Die by Mary Renault. Copyright © 1986 Mary Renault. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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