Hektor jumps from the saddle to inspect his horse’s vagina; as he feared, a pair of twitching legs protrude. The mare grunts and wobbles forward onto her knees, collapsing in exhaustion.
‘Gods, Kummi. Couldn’t you have waited?’ he huffs, slapping a hand down on the animal’s swollen belly. ‘We were almost there.’ His eyes flick to the load slung over the horse’s back: dusty leathers, a bronze sword, two severed heads, Father’s baked clay tablets, and, below all that, the pouch of herbal medicine, rolling across the animal’s flank, undelivered.
Hektor fixes hands to hips and squints beyond the turquoise musculature of pine trees under which he stands enjoying the respite from an Aegean sun, already skull-chiselling in its intensity. Here and there, across fields, farmers are busy about their work and livestock practise uniform stupidity. Further off, barely visible, bands of tradesmen writhe across the plains, more energetic than anything else in these rural parts and the beat of song, music and, more worrying still, laughter is present somewhere beyond the cicadas’ rhythm of lazy emptiness.
Hektor snorts, turns back to Kummi and faces up to the inevitability of what he must do. The mare holds his eyes, blinks slowly, lays her head down, rolls onto one side and swishes her tail. The emerging foal’s legs flex in a honeycomb of blood, sweet stink and elastic white. A moon early, but such is the lack of propriety of expectant mothers. Hektor thuds to his knees. I know this is not quite the same as when a woman gives birth, he thinks, reflecting on his instruction regarding the nature of horses and, most pertinently, foaling. Consequently, he decides to put all thought of common girls in alleyways with their labour screams out of mind. Recently, one of Father’s wives laboured a full day before her brat shot out. A day! But he knows foals are different. ‘The little horses, they are eager for the light of Appaliunas, so they come quickly.’ That’s what Father once told him. ‘Let the animal spill and do not force. Our patience must bow before the foal’s impatience.’ Hektor’s attention sneaks away to the pouch of medicine; he bites his lip against an impulse to run – such a small dose, but no less than my boy needs. Today, patience could be death. To gently ease the foal free; that could work.
Gently, Hektor acknowledges, grimly, glancing again at the severed heads of yesterday’s bandit attackers, will be a challenge for me. He looks back over the plains. On a haze-hidden hillside reclines the whitewashed city of Wilusa, which the Ahhiyawans, to the west, call Troy. Home. His eyes flash, yet again, to where he expects to see the medicine riding atop the horse’s sweaty flank, quickly rising and falling with the speed of the animal’s lungs. Where is it? Perhaps some demon has snatched it, taken it away to barter with a mother for her baby’s breath? But no, there it is – present.
Somewhere much nearer: the possibility of a branch snap and murmur of voices. Maybe farmers close by, though he cannot yet see anyone. Probably nothing. A man in his position is always in danger when travelling alone; Father hates that I do it. ‘Dek, Kummi. Get a move on, old girl.’ Hektor will not be riding her the rest of the way home – this he knows, yet there is grievance in his heart. She’s been the closest thing to a friend I’ve had since childhood, so he cannot leave her. Brittle thighs, thick with jellied blood, are now apparent. He snorts, wraps tender-yet-firm fists around the foal’s legs. The limbs slither in his palms at first, but quickly enough he makes a grip and awkwardly eases the foal, twisting his forearms with the mare’s contractions.
Gods! The damn thing’s like an eel. Hektor holds his hands up, shakes them, hisses in disgust. He needs to dry off, but refuses to get Kummi’s fluids all over his tunic or kilt. He wishes he had a servant with him to dry his hands on their clothes. He looks about... Eyes lock on to the severed heads. He reaches over and grabs the one with the longest hair, wipes his hands thoroughly. Then he turns back to the foal and grips again.
Perhaps a rustle in the surrounding undergrowth – but Hektor’s snorts block out all other sound. His focus: the job at hand. ‘What in the Under-Spring are you doing to that horse? Show your face, stranger.’ Hektor jumps, turns, looks up into the face of a man on horseback. Behind him is a crowd of men at various stages of ageing and dressing – farmers and other country workers, yes, by the look of the adzes and sickles they carry.
‘Get out of here, Xiuri. Haven’t you got some shekels need collecting?’ Hektor barks.
‘Tuhkanti? Forgive me.’ Xiuri exaggerates a bow, smirking – always the contest with him between an attempt at sarcasm and the fear of overstepping the mark. ‘I took you for some common bandit or horse thief. Now I see you’re a hasawa.’
Hasawa: healer, diviner, midwife.
Behind Xiuri: cautious laughter.
Hektor turns back to the foaling. ‘You’re a landowner, Xiuri, leader of a rural community. Had the gods intended you for comedy they would have made you a midget, a cripple or a chained, travelling ape. As it happens, you are none of these, though your intelligence suggests otherwise. Why are you not attending your lands? Were you summoned to Wilusa by the labarna?... Come on, Kummi! Push!’
Xiuri’s momentary silence fosters something, cuts bird song in trees. ‘As it happens, I was,’ he positively spits. ‘I needed more farmhands, but I have only been granted these gardeners’ – his arm sweeps over the men behind him – ‘and told to make do. The labarna hasn’t got a c— Does not appreciate what life is like for anyone with less than two hundred silver to their name, but what do you expect from the most powerful man in the region? Still, I can go home content that he has his own little crisis.’
The group of men cheer, sing, laugh – not cautious. Hektor recognises that distinct note of enjoyment he had heard earlier, lurking deep in the distance. He takes a firmer grip on the emerging midriff of the foal. Kummi swishes her tail, lifts her head, bares her teeth in what looks for all the world like an obscene grin. Maybe it is. Maybe the politics of vegetable taxation and agitated administrators amuses horses.
‘What are you talking about, Xiuri?’
‘Tell him about it, lads. Tell him about the miracle.’
Xiuri chuckles. ‘You mean, you haven’t heard?’
It has been a quarter-moon since Hektor was last in Wilusa.
‘Clearly... Good girl, Kummi! Almost there.’
‘A glorious coming!’ – a wavering voice.
Another voice – ‘That’s right. He has come to us! Your father’s time is coming, Hek— I mean, tuhkanti, sir.’
Hektor turns briefly to the eager-yet-cautious faces behind him, looks up at Xiuri. ‘What rubbish is this?’
‘Like I said, it’s the miracle, tuhkanti.’ The landowner’s voice is heavy with mockery, the tilt of his open mouth: poorly weighted scales. ‘You heard these lads. A voice, bellowing out from the Temple of Appaliunas. Rumour has it that it’s the mad, drunken physician, Washa. But they say He just... appeared. You should see Him – it’s quite something. The crowd is growing.’
Hektor clamps his teeth together; I am not in the mood for miracles, as though the appearance of miracles is subject to his private whim.
‘You mean, there is a – what? – a man yelling from the temple?’
He can imagine what the labarna’s reaction would be, rubs his concern out like so much piss in the sand. ‘What is he saying?’
‘He says He is the god Himself. He says He has come to impart a divine message to the people.’
Hektor is as gods-fearing as the next man, and although he might otherwise be tempted to regard this story dubiously, he cannot help but take it seriously. The commoners have been uneasy for some time...
Hektor growls, turns back to Kummi. With a final push – and a fiercer pull on his part – the foal comes flooding out, actually quite like one of those common girls in the alleys giving birth with averted eyes. Perhaps we are not so different from horses after all.
‘There we go. I can’t imagine why women should make such a din,’ Hektor mutters, loud enough for no one but himself to hear.
Kummi whinnies, revolves her head to see what all the fuss is about. The foal is bound in heat and stringy tissue, which Hektor tears through, scraping the blood and mucus from its mouth. It shivers, leans towards him. He harrumphs, folds his arms, realises too late that he now has birth fluids on his sleeves.
‘Well, tuhkanti? Shouldn’t you be getting back before this gets out of hand?’
Hektor sighs. His eyes flick: the medicine once more, mixing now in Kummi’s bell-decorated mane. Bells are usually laced into horsehair during battle, the noise encouraging enemies to consider stepping backwards instead of forwards. A madman in the temple claiming possession? Now there is twice the urgency to get home.
‘I cannot leave Kummi. I must stay with her. It’s the compassionate thing to do.’
After a deadly pause, Xiuri jumps down from his own horse. Hektor turns to face him; the landowner’s face has darkened.
‘Compassionate? Don’t you dare say that. There is no compassion, warmth or love in either you or your father, tuhkanti. To suggest otherwise would be an injustice to the pair of you.’
Hektor hangs his head, nods absently, then suddenly leaps up, marches around to Kummi’s head.
‘Xiuri. If I am as you say, then trusting me with this’ – he gestures towards the shivering foal, looking up, perplexed – ‘is out of the question. I might snap its neck or eat its face or something.’
Hektor yank, yank, yanks his equipment out from under the mare, grabs the medicine and stows it in his belt. If the commoners can have their miracle, why not I? He lifts up his sword, points it – at the landowner.
‘You can wait here with my horse... horses, until stable-hands are sent out.’
‘How dare you... You—’
Hektor pushes past Xiuri and heaves himself up onto the administrator’s horse, throwing his equipment over its back. The animal grows more concave under the tuhkanti’s superior weight. ‘If any harm comes to either of my horses,’ he booms, ‘I will cut off your balls and mount them on a spike over the upper town walls. As you say, I have no compassion.’
A final glance at Kummi – she looks content – and the stuttering landowner – he does not – then Hektor whacks the appropriated horse and clatters towards Wilusa.