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The Gathering Storm
A black wind rising
Penelope, queen of Ithaka, understood the nature of dreams and the portents and omens that dogged men’s lives. So she sat on the beach, a gold-embroidered shawl around her slender shoulders, and glanced at the sky from time to time, watching for passing birds and hop- ing for a better omen. Five swallows would predict a safe journey for Odysseus, two swans good fortune; an eagle would indicate a victory—or, for Odysseus, a trading success. But the skies were clear. A light wind sprang from the north. The weather was perfect for sailing.
The old galley had been repaired, debarnacled, and recalked ready for spring, but new timbers and a coat of fresh paint could not conceal her age, which showed in every line as she lay half in and half out of the shallow water.
“Build a new ship, Ugly One,” she had told her husband countless times. “This one is old and tired and will be your downfall.” They had argued about it for years. But in this she had no power to sway him. He was not by nature a sentimental man; his affable demeanor hid a core of bronze and horn, yet she knew he would never replace the old ship he had named after her.
Penelope sighed, a gentle sadness settling over her. I am that ship, she realized. I am getting old. There is gray in my hair, and the time is swiftly passing. But more significant than the fading of her chestnut hair or the increasing lines upon her face, the monthly flows of blood that indicated youth and fecundity were becoming less frequent. Soon she would be past childbearing age, and there would be no new sons for Odysseus. The sadness deepened into sorrow as she remembered pale Laertes and the fever that had melted away his flesh.
On the beach Odysseus was striding angrily around the galley, his face red, arms gesturing, bellowing at his crewmen, who hurried to load the cargo. There was a sorrow among the men, too; she could feel it as she watched them. A few days previously their comrade Portheos, whom they called Portheos the Pig, a fat, jovial, and popular young man who had sailed with the Penelope for many summers, had died. His young wife, pregnant with their fourth child, had awoken at dawn to find Portheos dead on their pallet bed beside her.
On the Penelope two crewmen were hauling on a heavy bale of the brushwood used for packing cargo in the hold. Suddenly one lost his grip and stumbled, and the other was catapulted into the sea after the stack of wood. Odysseus swore colorfully and turned to his wife, raising his arms in a gesture of despair.
Penelope smiled, her spirits lifting as she watched him. He was always happiest when about to leave for foreign shores. Throughout the spring and summer he would roam the Great Green, buying and selling, telling his stories, meeting kings and pirates and beggars.
“I’ll miss you, lady,” he had told her the previous night as she lay in his arms, her fingers gently curling into the red-gray hair of his chest. She had made no reply. She knew when he would remember her—at each night’s fall, when the dangers of the day had passed, he would think of her and miss her a little.
“I will think of you every day,” he added. Still she said nothing. “The pain of your absence will be a constant dagger wound in my heart.”
She smiled against his chest and knew he felt the smile.
“Don’t mock me, woman,” he said fondly. “You know me too well.”
On the beach in the dawn light she watched him as he stomped across the sand to speak to Nestor, king of Pylos and her kins- man. The contrast between the two men was remarkable. Odysseus, barrel-chested, loud, and angry, attacked each day as if it were a mortal enemy. Nestor, slim, gray, and stooped, was a small point of calm in the storm of activity on the beach. Although Nestor was only ten years older than her husband, he had the demeanor of an ancient; Odysseus was like an excited child. She loved him, and her eyes pricked with unaccustomed tears for the journeys and perils he faced.
He had returned to her only a few days before, accompanied by Nestor, after a reluctant voyage to Sparta at the request of Agamemnon, king of Mykene.
“Agamemnon is intent on revenge,” old Nestor had said, sitting in the megaron late in the evening, a cup of wine comfortably full in his grip, one of his hounds at his feet. “The meeting at Sparta was a failure for him, yet he will not be diverted from his path.”
“The man is obsessed,” Odysseus said. “He summoned the kings of the west and talked of alliance and peace. Yet all the while he dreams of a war with Troy—a war he can only fight if we all join with him.”
Penelope heard the anger in his voice. “Why would any join him?” she asked. “His hatred for Troy is a private matter.”
Nestor shook his head. “There are no private matters for the Mykene king. His ego is colossal. What touches Agamemnon touches the world.” He leaned forward. “Everyone knows he is angry at being thwarted by Helikaon and the traitor Argurios.”
“The traitor Argurios, is it?” Odysseus snapped. “Interesting what makes a man a traitor, is it not? A fine warrior, a man who had faithfully served Mykene all his life, was declared outlaw and stripped of his land, possessions, and good name. Then his king tried to have him killed. Treacherously, he fought for his life and that of the woman he loved.”
Nestor nodded. “Yes, yes, kinsman. He was a fine warrior. Did you ever meet him?”
Penelope knew he was seeking to defuse Odysseus’ anger. She masked a smile. No one with any sense wanted to see Odysseus in a fury.
“Aye, he sailed with me to Troy,” Odysseus replied. “An unpleasant man. But every one of those Mykene would have been slaughtered at Priam’s palace had it not been for Argurios.”
“As it was, they were slaughtered when they returned home,” Penelope added quietly.
“It was called the Night of the Lion’s Justice,” Nestor said. “Just two escaped, and they were declared outlaw.”
“And this is the king you wish to support in a war?” asked Odysseus, swigging mightily from his wine cup. “A man who sends valiant warriors to fight his battles and then murders them when they fail?”
“I have not yet offered ships or men to Agamemnon.” The old man stared into his wine cup. Penelope knew that Nestor had not argued against a war but had kept his own counsel among the kings gathered at Sparta. “However, Agamemnon’s ambitions affect everyone,” he said at last. “With him you are either friend or foe. Which are you, Odysseus?”
“Neither. All men know I am neutral.”
“Easy to be neutral when you have secret supplies of wealth,” said Nestor. “But Pylos depends on trading its flax up into Argos and the north. Agamemnon controls the trade routes. To go against him would be ruinous.” He glanced at Odysseus, and his eyes narrowed. “So tell me, Odysseus, where are these Seven Hills that are making you rich?”
Penelope felt the tension in the room rise, and she glanced at Odysseus.
“On the edge of the world,” Odysseus replied, “and guarded by one-eyed giants.”
Had Nestor not been drinking heavily, he would have noticed the harsh edge in Odysseus’ reply. Penelope took a deep breath, preparing herself to intervene.
“I would have thought, kinsman, that you might have shared your good fortune with others of your blood rather than a foreigner,” Nestor said.
“And I would have,” Odysseus said, “save that the foreigner you speak of discovered the Seven Hills and opened up the trade route. It is not for me to share his secrets.”
“Only his gold,” Nestor snapped.
Odysseus hurled his wine cup across the room. “You insult me in my own palace?” he roared. “We had to fight for the Seven Hills against brigands and pirates and painted tribesmen. That gold was hard-won.”
The angry atmosphere lay thick in the megaron, and Penelope forced a smile. “Come, kinsmen. You sail for Troy tomorrow for the wedding feast and games. Do not let this night end with harsh words.”
The two men looked at each other. Then Nestor sighed. “Forgive me, old friend. My words were ill advised.”
“It is forgotten,” Odysseus said, gesturing at a servant to bring him another cup of wine.
Penelope heard the lie in the words and knew that Odysseus was still angry. “At least in Troy you will be able to forget Agamemnon for a while,” she said, seeking to change the subject.
“The western kings are all invited to see Hektor wed to Andromache,” Odysseus said glumly.
“But Agamemnon will not be there, surely?”
“I think he will, my love. Sly Priam will use the opportunity to bend some of the kings to his will. He will offer them gold and friendship. Agamemnon cannot afford not to go. He will be there.”
“Is he invited? After the Mykene attack on Troy?”
Odysseus grinned and imitated the pompous tones of the Mykene king. “I am saddened”—he spread his hands regretfully—“by the treacherous attack by rogue elements of the Mykene forces on our brother King Priam. The king’s justice has been meted out to the outlaws.”
“The man is a serpent,” Nestor admitted.
“Will your sons compete in the games?” Penelope asked him.
“Yes, they are both fine athletes. Antilochos will do well in the javelin, and Thrasymedes will beat any man in the archery tourney,” he added with a wink.
“There’ll be a green moon in the sky that day,” muttered Odysseus. “On my worst day I could spit an arrow farther than he could shoot one.”
Nestor laughed. “How coy you are with your wife in the room. The last time I heard you brag about your skills, you said you could fart an arrow farther.”
“That, too,” Odysseus said, reddening. Penelope was relieved to see good humor restored.
On the beach the Penelope was finally fully loaded, and the crew members were straining on ropes in the effort to get the old ship refloated. The two sons of Nestor were there, both waist-deep, their backs against the timbers of the hull, pushing her out into deeper water.
The queen of Ithaka stood and brushed pebbles from her dress of yellow linen and advanced down the beach to say farewell to her king. He stood with his first mate, Bias the Black, dark-skinned and grizzled, the son of a Nubian mother and an Ithakan sire. Beside him was a massively muscled blond sailor named Leukon, who was becoming a fistfighter of some renown. Leukon and Bias bowed as she approached, then moved off.
Penelope sighed. “And here we are again, my love, as always,” she said, “making our farewells.”
“We are like the seasons,” he replied. “Ever constant in our actions.”
Reaching out, she took his hand. “And yet this time is different, my king. You know it, too. I fear you will have hard choices to make. Do not make bullheaded decisions you will regret afterward and cannot change. Do not take these men into a war, Odysseus.”
“I have no wish for war, my love.” He smiled, and she knew he meant it, but her heart was heavy with foreboding. For all his strength, his courage, and his wisdom, the man she loved had one great weakness. He was like an old warhorse, canny and cautious, but at the touch of the whip he would ride into fire. For Odysseus that whip was pride.
He kissed both of her hands then turned and stomped down the beach and into the sea. The water was chest-high before he grabbed a rope and hauled himself up on board. Instantly the rowers took up a beat, and the old ship started to glide away. She saw him wave his arm, silhouetted against the rising sun.
She had not told him of the gulls. He would only scoff. Seagulls were stupid birds, he would say. They have no place in prophecy.
But she had dreamed of a colossal flock of gulls that blotted out the sun like a black wind rising, turning the midday sky to night.
And that wind brought death and the end of worlds.