This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
When Telamon espoused my lady mother and held his marriage feast in our isle of Salamis, great Heracles came to him; not a bidden guest, for he had been wandering afar, but dearly welcome as a friend tried and true. Now he came seeking a comrade to make war with him on this very city we are beleaguering, for the king of Troy that then was, even Laomedon, Priam’s father, had basely cozened Heracles of his due. This Laomedon, it seems, was a defrauder not of men only, but of gods; once upon a time, Apollo and Poseidon did offense to King Zeus, and their penance was to become hirelings of a mortal for a year; so they came in the guise of laborers to Troy and agreed with Laomedon to build a wall round about his city.
But when it was built, he denied the two gods their wages, little dreaming who they were, and threatened them with death if they did not instantly quit his borders. Then the wrathful Poseidon made the sea overflow all Troy plain, and with the flood he sent a fearsome sea beast, which devoured men and cattle. And an oracle declared that Troy should never be rid of that monster until the king’s daughter were given to it for prey. But Heracles, as he journeyed, came in the nick of time to Troy; Laomedon promised him whatsoever reward he might choose to save the princess; and forthwith he slew the monster with his invincible bow. Heracles asked for reward two horses of the wondrous breed that the gods gave to Trojan kings of old; but Laomedon, filling up the measure of his iniquity, denied his promise yet again and drove his helper away with insult.
All this Heracles told my father; “And now, Telamon,” said he, “I am bound for Eastern lands once more, on the errand of King Eurystheus. With you and your men to aid, I had thought to land at Troy on my way and teach Laomedon the lesson he needs; but since I find you newly wedded, that must not be.”
But for nothing in the world would Telamon forego an adventure in the company of glorious Heracles; he took leave of his bride, manned all his ships of war, and soon the two friends landed on this self-same spot where now we are encamped. Six ships’ crews had they, and no more; but with these they overcame Laomedon and all his folk, burst a way through Troy wall, and slew the treacherous king on his own threshold. Then they sent home the ships, laden with spoil and captives, and Heracles prayed Telamon to return likewise; but he would not, being utterly purposed to share his friend’s next quest. And that was to fetch the girdle of the queen of the Amazons.
For, as all men know, Heracles served his kinsman, King Eurystheus of Argos, twelve years, by ordinance of Fate; and in each year that king sent him on some perilous quest, hoping to rid himself of a man he feared and hated, as the base and cowardly ever hate the noble in soul. Now the daughter of Eurystheus, hearing that the Amazon queen wore the most splendid golden girdle in the world, begged her father to send Heracles to get it for her; so Eurystheus set him that task, being the ninth of those he laid upon him.
Long and toilsome was the road the two comrades now traversed; and when they came to the Amazon country, some of the warrior women met them and bade them turn back; but Heracles by his noble mien and winning words prevailed with those sentinels to conduct him before their queen. And being brought to the great village in a forest where she dwelled, he made known his name and his comrade’s to this queen, who was called Hippolyta. Rumor said she was a daughter of Ares, the war god, and when the heroes looked on her they could well believe it, so fair and terrible was her aspect. Now she had heard the fame of Heracles and often longed to behold him, so she was right fain of his coming and fell straightway to questioning him concerning his adventures and the marvels he had seen in wandering by land and sea.
Heracles never loved to speak of his own mighty deeds, but for once he might not refuse; when the queen had well feasted her guests, they took place beside her at the hearth, and Heracles began the story of his travels, she listening eagerly as a child. Ay, Telamon is wont to say he will remember that scene to his latest hour; the long, low hall of rough-hewn timbers, all hung with bright weapons and spoils of the chase; a great fire of beech logs in the midst; the women guards standing silently round; and that strange queen leaning from her deerskin couch, with shining eyes fixed on the great wanderer’s face.
As for Heracles, he sat there merry and at ease, like one at home; that was ever his way, whether he housed with king or churl, kindly Greeks or the wildest races of earth. And he spoke haltingly at first, but kindled presently at the memory of wonders seen and dangers passed, so that to hear him tell of them was a pleasure gods might covet. At last, when they had sat long and late, he pleaded drowsiness, and the queen said, “Sleep, then, here by the hearth, and tomorrow you shall tell me more.” So the comrades slept in her hall, bedded soft and warm on piled skins of wolf and bear. On the morrow, Heracles avowed his errand to her, and boldly asked the girdle as a guest gift; but the queen only smiled and said, “We will talk of that when I have heard the rest of your adventures. Meanwhile, I go hunting, and you and your comrade shall come with me.”
In this manner, she put him off day by day, until she had heard all that ever he did. But before all was told, he had found such favor in her sight that she bestowed the girdle on him of her own free will. This she did secretly, for that girdle was a divine and sacred thing, the gift of Ares himself to his daughter and the symbol of her queenship. It was also a most potent war charm and held in deepest reverence by the Amazons as the luck of their race. So the queen durst not let it be known that she had parted with it for love of a stranger; but coming late in the night to Heracles where he lay sleeping, she bade him unclasp the precious zone —which she wore continually— with his own hands.
Classicsness 🎙️ the podcast about Classics
Subscribe gratis on your favorite platform and get the new episodes pushed right to your device as soon as they’re published!
Right now, we’re telling myths for all audiences!
Now Telamon says that she asked and received of Heracles a token in return, but what it was he leaves out of his tale. Presently the queen aroused him also, and with stealth and silence led the two comrades forth of her dwelling by a postern that opened on the forest; then she took farewell of both and charged them to make all speed out of the land, for the Amazons must believe that they had robbed her of the girdle while she slept.
“What, fair queen,” said Heracles, smiling, “and you neither woke nor cried a rescue? Will they credit such a tale as that on your bare word?”
“No,” she said, looking at him strangely, “but they shall have a proof they cannot doubt. Farewell, my lord, since farewell it must be — nay, linger not another instant — go, go, and may all the gods of your far homeland have you in their keeping.”
With that, she was gone, and the comrades set out at their best speed, making due south by the guiding light of Orion, the Heavenly Huntsman. Three nights and three days they journeyed, snatching brief rest now and again in recesses of the woods; about noon of the third day they came out of the forest region upon a wide, grassy plain; and when they were midway across it, they heard a great hue and cry behind them. Looking back, they saw a bevy of riders advancing at the gallop and knew that a band of the Amazons had somehow lighted on their track.
“How shall we do now?” quoth Telamon.
Heracles shaded his eyes with his hand and scanned, first the pursuers, next the plain on all sides. “We must e’en run for it,” he answered; “away to the right I see a low building — some shrine or tomb, belike; there we can make a stand — here there is not so much as a tree stump to set our backs against.”
So saying, he began to run like any deer. Now Telamon, though he followed, had shame of this action; and when they had gained the building, which proved to be a small, ruined temple of stone, he panted out, “Little I thought ever to see the greatest of warriors run from a few score women.” But Heracles laughed and said, “The greatest of warriors, were he not also the greatest of fools, would run from a few score angry bees, and trust me, yonder swarm hath stings far deadlier. For my part, could I outrun their tireless horses, I would have fled outright; less shame I count it to fly women than to fight them; but I fear me these will give us no choice but to slay or be slain.”
And that was a true word, for in another instant the Amazons were upon them, and of the fight that then began, Telamon, who bears the mark thereof to this day, saw never the like in his lifetime of warfare. The temple, being ruinous as I said, gave the comrades no better protection than that of a yet standing sidewall, which served to guard their rear; but the approach in front was difficult to riders because the sacred precinct was still partly fenced in by a stockade, and the ground about it was marshy and broken. The Amazons no sooner saw this than they leaped from their horses and rushed to the attack on foot, uttering cries of rage scarce human. There were perhaps not twoscore of them, for they were but one of the many bands scouring the country in search of Heracles; and he, as all the world knows, was singly a match for fifty men in his god-given strength; yet now, with Telamon to aid, he was well-nigh overborne by the sheer fury of those assailants. It seemed they knew their arrows and light javelins would rebound harmless from his enchanted lion skin and Telamon’s broad shield, or maybe they were too frantic to take aim; at least they plied only their battle axes and did so to such purpose that the heroes, who at first merely strove to parry their blows, must soon fight for the dear life. Even then, Heracles, as I tell you, was sore bested; as for Telamon, an axe hurled at his head clove through helm and scalp and laid him stunned at his comrade’s feet. Ah, then did the divine anger, that being kindled turns to flame the blood of those who are sprung from the immortals, blaze forth in Heracles; then came one of those dread moments when he seemed no longer man, but a destroying god. Telamon knew that as soon as his senses returned to him, for behold, Heracles and he were alone with the dead. Heracles had bound his wound and was laving his face with water he had fetched in the broken helm.
“They have fled, then?” he asked, raising himself and looking mistily around him.
“Not one of them,” answered Heracles, with a sob, and sitting down hid his face in his hands…
Before the comrades left that spot, they laid the dead Amazons in one long grave beside the ruined shrine, and their arms also; and though there was danger in tarrying, Heracles toiled until nightfall to raise an earthen barrow over the grave and set thereon a fallen pillar of the temple, for a memorial, as he said, to warriors the most fearless of all that ever he encountered. Now he had thought to catch two of the Amazons’ horses for himself and Telamon, for, whether by training or instinct, they all stood like so many statues where their riders left them throughout the fight — yes, and until they saw the earth heaped over the slain; but then with shrill, mournful whinnyings the creatures formed in squadrons and galloped out of sight. So the comrades went their way on foot as before and came each to his home at last, not without braving further perils; but here ends the tale of their adventure among the Amazons, as my father told it me.
Yet one thing, the which he learned not until long after, I have nigh forgotten to tell of, though to my mind it is the strangest of all. The Amazons pursued after Heracles and Telamon not only to recover the sacred girdle, but to avenge, as they thought, the murder of Hippolyta, whom they had found lying dead, with a dagger through her heart. That was the proof of her having been robbed which the wild queen told Heracles she would give her people, and so she saved her honor; as for her life, it seems she recked little of that, after she knew she must let him go and see his face no more.