Read the First Chapter

It had been a good morning for hunting, their last chance before the war began in earnest. They’d been up over Mount Neion, the three of them, and the thought of a second breakfast was making Odysseus’s stomach rumble. He jogged down the steep path, the dog Argos out in front, his best friend Menelaos close behind, and the leather game bag bumping between his shoulder blades, warm and sticky with blood.

They didn’t hear the cries till they were halfway down. Odysseus skidded to a halt, the gravel loose under his boots. Argos scrabbled back up to him, whimpering.

Menelaos grabbed a branch to stop himself crashing into Odysseus. “What’s wrong?” he said.

“Shush!” Odysseus tensed, listening. The wailing sank then spiralled up again in shrill, entangled threads.

“Mourners,” he exclaimed, his heart pounding.

“Someone’s died. Someone important.”

Who?” Menelaos frowned. “They were all fine when we left. At least, I think they were. Your mother came down to see us off. So it can’t be her.”

“Or Kitti.”

“You should be nicer to your little sister when she tries to kiss you goodbye.”

Odysseus grinned, despite his rising panic. He’d dodged behind the pillars to tease her, and she’d been so cross about it.

“We could hear your father snoring,” Menelaos went on, “so there was nothing wrong with him.”

“And we saw Eury in the armoury,” said Odysseus. His father’s squire Eurybates had risen even earlier to prepare the king’s armour in readiness for the Ithakan fleet’s departure tomorrow.

“Who else could it be?”

“The sooner we find out, the better. We’ll go down the scree – it’s faster.” Odysseus led the way off the path, fighting through the thorn bushes to a great swathe of rocks and shingle that stabbed down through the forest.

Once they were out in the open he paused, searching for clues. A quick glance told him nothing – the palace, down on the saddle; the town below it and the sweeping bay beyond; the black-hulled warships on the beach surrounded by a bustle of riggers and carpenters, sail makers, porters and painters with their steaming buckets of pitch – everything looked as it should.

Argos gazed up at him, whining plaintively as the cries echoed round the hillside.

“That wasn’t there before,” said Menelaos, pointing.

“You’re right.” There was a new ship down this end of the bay. Small, twenty oars at the most, bringing news from the mainland perhaps. “Argos!” Odysseus said. “Up. Quick!” The dog jumped into his arms and the two boys set off, the whole surface in motion as they surged down the slope.

“Weren’t the omens good yesterday, when we sacrificed to the gods?” Menelaos shouted over the clatter of stones. “Weren’t they telling us the war will go our way – that we’ll keep my murderous uncle trapped inside the Narrows at the least? I even thought we might kill him. Now that would be a fine revenge for my father’s death.”

“The gods don’t always speak the truth.” Odysseus tried to fend off his worst fears. Perhaps the High King had struck already – killed Agamemnon, Menelaos’s older brother and the rightful heir to the throne of Mykenai. Or Thyestes’s assassins had arrived in that new ship, pretending to be envoys.

Odysseus knew his own father was the obvious
target – the alliance he’d put together had kept Agamemnon and Menelaos safe from Thyestes after their escape from Mykenai last year. Without him the alliance might well collapse.

A sharp rock snagged Odysseus’s right boot and he felt the leather tear. Kerberus! It couldn’t be helped – this was by far the fastest way down the mountain. Surely his mother wouldn’t care what the scree did to their boots this time.

If she was still alive. Perhaps the mourners were weeping for her.

Odysseus swung the gamRe bag off his shoulder and dumped it inside the empty kitchen, normally so full of bustle and smells.

“Where is everyone?” said Menelaos, giving him a worried look.

“In the hall, I suppose.” Odysseus set off through the deserted rooms and passages, Menelaos and Argos hard at his heels.

The noise broke over them like a wave as they burst open the door. A wall of wailing women draped in white swayed around the great hearth, their arms writhing up like a field of snakes. Around them the household servants were gathered, fingers twisting nervously in the cloth of their tunics.

The two boys elbowed their way over to Odysseus’s mother, Antikleia: a short, stocky figure with red hair dishevelled and streaked with ash. “Who is it?” Odysseus shouted through the piercing din. “Where’s Father? What’s happened?”

Antikleia looked him up and down, her grey-green eyes coming to rest on his boots. “And what of these?” she said. “New this morning and half-destroyed already? And Menelaos’s no better.”

“We came down the scree.” Odysseus stared desperately around, half-expecting to see a humped shroud with his father’s feet protruding from the end. “We had to, it was the quickest way.”

“Why the hurry? You can’t raise a man from the dead by wrecking good boot leather.”

He grabbed her arm and shook it. “Who’s died?”

“Your grandfather.” She took another handful of ash from the brazier on the hearth beside her.

“Oh!” His heart lurched with a relief he tried to hide. Behind him, Menelaos was muttering something sympathetic.

Odysseus’s momentary euphoria was quickly followed by a pang of regret. He had met his maternal grandfather, but he’d been a tiny baby at the time. Now he’d never know that most devious of men. “Oh Mama. I’m so sorry.”

“So you should be,” she replied, pouring the ash in a steady stream over her head.

Shock, Odysseus thought, stunned by her detachment. Reality would hit home when all this commotion had stopped and she could sit quietly with her thoughts. “Will you go to him?” he asked.

“Go to him? Why ever would I do that?”

“But why wouldn’t you?” Odysseus frowned.

“Grandmama will be distraught. And, from what you’ve told me, my uncles will be next to useless, standing about, getting drunk, arguing over their inheritance. She’ll need you to keep them in order.”

“It’s not her father, silly.” Kitti poked out her tongue, safe behind her mother’s back. She waved a pair of shears in the air. “It’s Arkeisios. That stupid old man in Argos.”

“Ktimene. Be quiet!” snapped Antikleia.

“But you told me–”

“What I might think or say in private is irrelevant. We’re mourning him publicly, as we should.”

So that was it. Odysseus knew there was no love lost between Antikleia and her father-in-law, but even so …

“Can’t you feel something?” he said.

“What do you suggest?” Antikleia shrugged. “Kitti, pass me the shears.”

“Regret? Sympathy?” Odysseus saw his mother’s lips tighten into a thin line. Wasn’t she even going to bother answering him? “Where’s Father?” he demanded, annoyance thrusting his other emotions aside.

Antikleia gestured towards the back of the palace. “In the herb garden. With Eurybates.”

“Come on, Menelaos.” Odysseus swung round and started forcing his way back through the throng. “At least you could try,” he shouted over his shoulder.

Antikleia froze, a half-severed clump of hair in her hand. He saw her lips move, but the words were drowned out by a renewed wave of orchestrated anguish.