From the top of the hill Alexander turned toward the beach and beheld a scene that was almost identical to the one that had been played out a thousand years earlier. Hundreds of ships were lined up along the coast, carrying thousands and thousands of soldiers, but the city behind him -- Ilium, heir to ancient Troy -- rather than preparing for years of siege and resistance, was now getting ready to open its gates and welcome him, descendant of Achilles and of Priam.
He saw his companions coming up toward him on horseback and spurred Bucephalus toward the top. He wanted to be the first to enter the ancient shrine of Athena of Troy and he wanted to do it alone. He dismounted, handed the reins to a servant and crossed the threshold of the temple.
Inside, objects glimmered in the darkness, difficult to make out, draped deep in the half-shadow. Their shape was indefinite and his eyes took some time to become accustomed to the gloom; just a moment before they had been coping with the dazzlingly bright sky of the Troad region, with the sun at its highest.
The ancient building was full of relics, of weapons displayed in memory of the war described by Homer in his epic of the ten-year siege of the city built by the gods themselves. On each of the time-worn souvenirs was a dedication, an inscription: Paris' lyre was here, as were Achilles' weapons and his great storied shield.
He looked around, his eyes resting on these mementos that unseen hands had kept shining for the reverence and the curiosity of the faithful over the centuries. They hung from the columns, from the ceiling beams, from the walls of the cella -- but how much of all this was real? And how much was simply the product of the priests' cunning, of their will to exploit it all for their own ends?
At that moment he felt as though the only genuine thing in the confused jumble -- more like the clutter of objects displayed in a market than suitable fittings for a sanctuary -- was his own passion for the ancient blind poet, his boundless admiration for the heroes who had been reduced to ashes by time and by the countless events that had taken place between the two shores of the Straits.
He had arrived out of the blue, just as his father Philip had done that day at the temple of Apollo, at Delphi, and no one was expecting him. He heard some light footsteps and hid behind a column near the statue of Athena, a striking image of the goddess carved in stone, painted in various colors and bearing real metal weapons: this primitive simulacrum was sculpted from a single block of dark stone, and her mother-of-pearl eyes stood out starkly from a face blackened by the years and by the smoke of the votive lamps.
A girl wearing a white peplum, her hair gathered into a headdress of the same color, moved toward the statue. She carried a bucket in one hand and a sponge in the other.
She climbed up onto the pedestal and began wiping the surface of the sculpture, spreading as she did so an intense, penetrating perfume of aloe and wild nard throughout the temple. Alexander moved up to her silently.
"Who are you?" he asked.
The girl jumped and the bucket fell from her hand, bouncing once and then rolling over the floor before coming to a halt against a column.
"Do not be afraid," the King reassured her. "I am only a pilgrim who seeks to pay homage to the goddess. Who are you? What is your name?"
"My name is Daunia and I am one of the sacred slaves," replied the young girl, intimidated by Alexander's appearance, which was certainly not what one would have expected of an ordinary pilgrim. His breastplate and greaves glinted under his cloak and when he moved there came the noise of his chain mail belt clanking against his armor.
"A sacred slave? I would never have guessed. You have fine features -- aristocratic -- and there is such pride in your eyes."
"Perhaps you are more used to seeing the sacred slaves of Aphrodite: they really are slaves, before being sacred, slaves of men's lust."
"And you aren't?" asked Alexander as he picked up her bucket from the floor.
"I am a virgin, like the goddess. Have you never heard of the city of women? That is where I am from."
She had an unusual accent that the King had never heard before.
"I had no idea there was such a place as the city of women. Where is it?"
"In Italy. It bears the name of Locri and its aristocracy is exclusively female. It was founded by a hundred families, all originating from Locris in Greece. They were all widowed and legend has it they formed unions with their slaves."
"And why are you here, so far from home?"
"To atone for a sin."
"A sin? But what sin can such a young girl have committed?"
"Not my sin. A thousand years ago, on the night of the fall of Troy, Ajax Oileus, our national hero, raped Princess Cassandra, daughter of Priam, right here on the pedestal bearing the sacred Palladium, the miraculous image of Athena that had fallen from the heavens. Since then the Locrians have paid for Ajax's sacrilege with the gift of two maids from their finest aristocracy, both of whom serve for a full year in the goddess's shrine."
Alexander shook his head as if unable to believe what he was hearing. He looked around while outside, the cobbles surrounding the temple resounded with the noise of horses' hooves. His companions had arrived.
Just at that moment, however, a priest entered and immediately realized who the man standing before him was. He bowed respectfully.
"Welcome, most powerful lord. I am sorry you did not let us know of your arrival. We would have given you a very different welcome." And he nodded to the girl to leave, but Alexander gestured for her to stay.
"I preferred to arrive this way," he said, "and this maid has told me such an extraordinary story, something I could never have imagined. I have heard that in this temple there are relics of the Trojan War. Is this true?"
"It certainly is. And this image you see before you is a Palladium: a likeness of an ancient statue of Athena that fell from the heavens and granted the gift of invincibility to whichever city held it in its possession."
At that moment Hephaestion, Ptolemy, Perdiccas and Seleucus entered the temple.
"And where is the original statue?" asked Hephaestion as he came nearer.
"Some say that the hero Diomedes carried it off to Argos; others say that Ulysses went to Italy and gave it to the King, Latinus; and then others again maintain that Aeneas placed it in a temple not far from Rome, where it is still housed. However, there are many cities that claim the original simulacrum as their own."
"I can well believe it," said Seleucus. "Such conviction must be a considerable source of courage."
"Indeed," nodded Ptolemy. "Aristotle would say that it is conviction, or prophecy, which actually generates the event."
"But what is it that distinguishes the real Palladium from the other statues?" asked Alexander.
"The real simulacrum," declared the priest in his most solemn voice, "can close its eyes and shake its spear."
"That's nothing special," Ptolemy said. "Any of our military engineers could build a toy of that kind."
The priest threw him a disdainful look and even the King shook his head. "Is there anything you believe in, Ptolemy?"
"Yes, of course," replied Ptolemy, placing his hand on the hilt of the sword. "This." And then he placed his other hand on Alexander's shoulder and said, "Together with friendship."
"And yet," the priest said, "the objects you see here have been revered between these walls since time immemorial, and the tumuli along the river have always contained the bones of Achilles, Patroclus and Ajax."
There came the sound of footsteps -- Callisthenes had joined them to visit the famous sanctuary.
"And what do you make of it all, Callisthenes?" asked Ptolemy as he walked toward him and put his arm around him. "Do you believe that this really is Achilles' armor? And this, hanging here from that column, is this really Paris' lyre?" He brushed the strings and the instrument produced a dull, out-of-tune chord.
Alexander no longer seemed to be listening. He was staring at the young Locrian woman as she now filled the lamps with perfumed oil, studying the perfection of her figure through the transparency of her peplum as a ray of light came through it. He was captivated by the mystery that glowed in her shy, meek eyes.
"You well know that none of this really matters," replied Callisthenes. "At Sparta, in the Dioscurian temple, they have an egg on display from which Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers of Helen, were supposedly born, but I think it's the egg of an ostrich, a Libyan bird as tall as a horse. Our sanctuaries are full of relics like this. The thing that matters is what the people want to believe and the people need to believe and need to be able to dream." As he spoke he turned toward Alexander.
The King moved toward the great panoply of bronze, adorned with tin and silver, and he gently stroked the shield carved in relief with the scenes described by Homer, and the helmet embellished with a triple crest.
"And how did this armor come to be here?" he asked the priest.
"Ulysses brought it here, filled with remorse for having usurped Ajax's right to it, and he placed it before the tomb as a votive gift, imploring Ajax to help him return to Ithaca. It was then gathered up and housed in this sanctuary."
Alexander moved closer to the priest. "Do you know who I am?"
"Yes. You are Alexander, King of Macedon."
"That's right. And I am directly descended, on my mother's side, from Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, founder of the dynasty of Epirus, and thus I am heir to Achilles. Therefore this armor is mine, and I want it."
The priest's face drained of all color. "But Sire..."
"What!" exclaimed Ptolemy with a grin on his face. "We're supposed to believe that this is Paris's lyre, that these are Achilles' weapons, made by the god Hephaestus in person, and you don't believe that our King is a direct descendant of Achilles, son of Peleus?"
"Oh no..." stammered the priest. "It's simply that these are sacred objects that cannot be -- "
"Nonsense," said Perdiccas. "You can have other identical weapons made. No one will ever know the difference. Our King needs them, you see, and since they belonged to his ancestor..." and he opened his arms as if to say, "an inheritance is an inheritance."
"Have it brought to our camp. It will be displayed before our army like a standard before every battle," came Alexander's orders. "And now we must return. Our visit is over."
They left reluctantly, hanging on to look around at the incredible jumble of objects hanging from the columns and the walls.
The priest noticed Alexander staring at the girl as she left the temple through a side door.
"She goes swimming every evening in the sea near the mouth of the Scamander," he whispered in his ear.
The King said nothing as he left. Not long afterward the priest saw him mount his horse and set off toward the camp on the seashore, which was teeming with activity like some giant anthill.
Alexander saw her arrive, walking briskly and confidently in the darkness, coming along the left-hand bank of the river. She stopped just where the waters of the Scamander mixed with the sea waves. It was a peaceful, calm night and the moon was just beginning to rise from the sea, drawing a long silver wake from the horizon to the shore. The girl took off her clothes, undid her hair in the moonlight and entered the water. Her body, caressed by the waves, glowed like polished marble.
"You are beautiful. You look like a goddess, Daunia," Alexander said quietly as he came out of the shadow.
The girl went in deeper, up to her chin, and moved away. "Do not harm me. I have been consecrated."
"To do penance for an ancient act of rape?"
"To do penance for all rapes. Women are always obliged to endure."
The King took off his clothes and entered the water, as she crossed her arms over her chest to hide her breasts.
"They say that the Aphrodite of Cnidus, sculpted by the divine Praxiteles, covers her breasts just as you are doing now. Even Aphrodite is demure...do not be afraid. Come."
The girl moved toward him slowly, walking over the sandy bed and, as she came nearer, her divine body emerged dripping from the water and the surface of the sea receded until it embraced her hips and her belly.
"Lead me through the water to the tumulus of Achilles. I don't want anyone to see us."
"Follow me, then," said Daunia. "And let's hope you are a good swimmer." She turned on to her side and slipped through the waves like a Nereid, a nymph of the salty abyss.
The coast formed a wide bay at that point, the shoreline already illuminated by campfires, and it ended in a promontory with an earthen tumulus at its tip.
"Don't you worry about me," replied Alexander as he swam alongside her.
The girl struck out offshore, cutting straight across the bay, aiming directly for the headland. She swam elegantly, graceful and flowing in her movements, almost noiseless, slipping through the water like some marine creature.
"You are very good," said Alexander, himself breathless.
"I was born on the sea. Do you still want to go as far as the Sigeus headland?"
Alexander did not reply and continued swimming until he saw the foam of the breaking water in the moonlight on the beach, the waves stretching up rhythmically to the base of the great tumulus.
They came out of the water holding each other by the hand, and the King led them closer to the dark mass of Achilles' tomb. Alexander felt, or he believed he felt, the spirit of the hero penetrate him and he thought he saw Briseis with her rosy cheeks when he turned toward his companion, who was now standing before him in the silver moonlight, searching for Alexander's gaze in the darkness that enveloped him.
"Only the gods are allowed moments like this," Alexander whispered to her and turned toward the warm breeze that came from the sea. "Here Achilles sat and cried for the death of Patroclus. Here his mother, the ocean nymph, deposited his arms, weapons forged by a god."
"So you do believe in it, after all?" the girl asked him.
"So why in the temple..."
"It's different here. It's night and those distant voices, long silenced, can still be heard. And you are resplendent here before me -- unveiled."
"Are you really a king?"
"Look at me. Who do you see here before you?"
"You are the young man who sometimes appears in my dreams while I sleep with my friends in the goddess's sanctuary. The young man I would have wanted to love."
She moved closer and lay her head on his chest.
"I will leave tomorrow, and in a few days' time I will have to face a difficult battle. Perhaps I will be victorious, perhaps I will die."
"In that case, take me if you want me. Take me here on this warm sand and let me hold you in my arms, even if we will regret it later." She kissed him long and passionately, stroking his hair. "Moments like this are reserved for the gods alone. But we are gods, for as long as this night lasts."
Copyright © 1998 by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A. English language translation copyright © 2001 by Macmillan