Stories from the Iliad Told to the Children - Jeanie Lang

The White Horses of Rhesus

Sound was the sleep of the Greek chiefs that night, but Agamemnon the king slept not. From his enemies' camp came the sound of pipe and flute and laughter of men, as the Trojans feasted and made merry in the red light of their camp-fires. As he looked seawards at the ships of the sleeping Greeks, his heart was heavy within him and he groaned aloud.

On his feet he bound his sandals, over his shoulders did he throw his great mantle of a tawny lion's skin, and, grasping his spear, he went forth into the night to take counsel of wise Nestor.

Neither to Menelaus came there sleep, for his heart was full of fear lest harm should come to the Greeks who had crossed the wide seas to fight for his sake in Troyland.



On his head he placed his bronze helmet, across his broad shoulders he threw a leopard skin, and, spear in hand, went to seek his brother.

Down by the ships he found him, putting his armour on.

"Why dost thou arm thyself, dear brother?" he asked. "Wilt thou send forth one of our comrades to spy on the Trojans? I fear me no man of ours is of courage enough to go alone in the night and do so brave a deed."

Then did Agamemnon bid his brother go and awake the lords of his host and call a council together, while he himself went to rouse Nestor, the oldest of all the warriors.

And as they passed through the host they found the sentinels sitting wide awake with their arms, like dogs that watch by a lonely sheepfold amongst the hills and listen to the cries of the savage wild beasts that come towards them through the woods.

Gladly did old Nestor see them.

"Even so keep watch, dear children," he said, "lest we allow our enemies to triumph over us."

Out in the open field, beyond the deep trench which they had dug, the chiefs of the Greeks sat themselves down in council.

To them, then, spake Nestor.

"O friends," said he, "is there among you a man with heart so fearless that all alone he will go into the camp of the Trojans this night and there learn what are their plans for battle? If such an one there be, and he return to us scathless, great will be his fame among all men, and great the rewards that he wins."

Then said Diomedes of the loud war-cry:

"With willing heart will go, Nestor: yet if another man will come with me, more comfort and courage will be ours."

Many there were who asked with eagerness to be that one who should go with Diomedes. But Agamemnon spoke.

"Diomedes, joy of mine heart, verily shalt thou choose thine own comrade," he said.

And Diomedes made answer:

"If indeed I may choose, then shall I choose Odysseus, for with him as comrade we might pass through raging flames and yet return in safety."

"Praise me not overmuch, Diomedes," said Odysseus, "but let us be going. The night wanes, the stars have gone onward, and the dawn is near."

Then did they don their armour, and set forth, like two lions seeking their prey, treading underfoot the men who lay still and dead in their blood. And through the dark night they heard the shrill cry of a heron, and knew it for an omen sent by the gods, a promise to them of victory.

In the Trojan camp was a council also held. And brave Hector offered great rewards to the man who would go in the darkness to where the Greek ships lay and find out how it fared with the men of Agamemnon, and what plans were theirs.

And Dolon, the swift-runner and ill-favoured man, but one who owned great riches of gold and bronze, stood up and said:

"To the swift-sailing ships will I go as thy spy. But for reward must I have the horses and bronze chariots of Achilles."

"No other man of the Trojans shall mount these horses," swore Hector.

Then Dolon took his bow, on his shoulders cast a great wolf-skin, on his head drew his helmet of ferret-skin, and with his sharp javelin in his hand, went forth towards the seashore.

In the darkness Odysseus heard his stealthy footsteps.

"Lo, here is some man, Diomedes," he said; "I know not whether he be a spy or a plunderer of the dead. But let him pass, and then will we rush on him and take him."

Turning from the path, they lay down amongst the dead bodies on the plain, still and silent as those they lay beside.

But when Dolon had gone a little way, they ran after him, and Dolon, when he heard them, stopped, thinking they were messengers from Hector, coming to bid him return. Less than a spear's-throw from him were they when he knew them for foemen and fled before them.

But as two fierce hounds pursue a hare or a doe, so did Odysseus and Diomedes hunt Dolon. They had wellnigh reached the trench where the sentinels were placed when Diomedes called aloud:

"Halt! or my spear shall pin thee dead to the ground!"

Thereat he hurled his spear, but not with the wish to smite Dolon. Over his right shoulder it flew, burying its sharp point in the ground in front of him. Green with fear, and with chattering teeth, Dolon stopped, and Odysseus and Diomedes panting, came up to him, and laid hold of him.

"Take me alive!" said Dolon, weeping, "and a mighty ransom of gold and bronze and iron shall be yours if ye but spare my life."

"Fear not," said Odysseus, "but tell us truly why thou comest thus at dead of night into the camp of thine enemies."

Then did Dolon, the coward, tremblingly tell his tale, and reveal to Odysseus and Diomedes all that Hector had bidden him do. At their bidding, too, he told them how all the Trojan forces lay, and how best they could win into the camp.

"At the farthest point from the men of Troy are encamped the Thracians," he said. "Rhesus is their king, and fit for a god is his golden armour and his chariot of gold and silver. His, too, are the fairest horses mine eyes have seen, of great strength and height, whiter than snow, and swift as the wind."

Eagerly did Odysseus and Diomedes listen. But when he had ended and begged them to take him a prisoner to the ships, or to let him go free, grimly did Diomedes look at him.

"Good is thy news, Dolon," he said, "yet nevermore shalt thou have a chance of playing the spy, or of fighting against the men of Greece."

With that he raised his mighty sword, and ere Dolon could beg for mercy he smote him on the neck. Cleanly was his head shorn off, and it rolled in the dust at the feet of Diomedes. His casque of ferret-skin, and the grey wolf-skin, and javelin and bow did Odysseus and Diomedes then take from him and held them aloft, an offering to Athene. They placed them on a tamarisk bush, raising on it a mark of long reeds and branches of tamarisk, lest they might miss the place as they returned again ere dawn.

Across the plain did they hasten then, until they came to the camp of the Thracians. Deep was the sleep of the warriors who lay, each with his arms beside him, and his two horses standing near at hand. And in the midst of them lay Rhesus the king, his great white horses tethered to his chariot of silver and gold.

"Lo, here is the man, and here are the horses of which Dolon gave us tidings," said Odysseus.

And thereupon did the slaying begin.

Like a lion that rends a flock of sheep without a shepherd, even so did Diomedes slay the men of Thrace. On this side and on that he slew, till the earth grew red with blood, and terrible was the groaning of the dying men. Twelve men did he slay, and as he slew them, Odysseus dragged them to the side that a way might be left clear for the white horses of Rhesus. For he feared that panic might seize them were they to step in the darkness upon the dead men.

The thirteenth man was King Rhesus himself. An evil dream made him draw his breath hard and quick, but ere he could awake from sleep the sword of Diomedes took his life away. Then did Odysseus drive the horses out of the camp, smiting them with his bow, for he had no whip, and driving them onwards.

To Diomedes he whistled, for a sign that he should cease from slaying and follow him and their lordly spoil. Still did Diomedes linger, pondering whether he should drag the chariot with him, or slay yet more of the Thracians. And as he pondered, Athene came to him.

"Return to the ships, Diomedes," she said, "lest another of the gods arouse the Trojans, and in flight thou art driven before them."

Even then, indeed, was Apollo arousing one of the kinsmen of Rhesus, who with great lament saw the dead and dying men and knew that the horses of the king had been stolen away.

But swiftly did Diomedes and Odysseus spring on the backs of the white horses, and swift as the snowy foam on the crests of storm-driven waves did they dash through the darkness back to the ships.

When they came to the tamarisk bush, where they had left the bloody spoils of Dolon, Diomedes leapt to the ground, seized them and placed them in the hands of Odysseus, and again mounted, and, lashing the horses, dashed furiously onward.

The clang of the hoofs of the galloping horses struck first upon the ears of old Nestor, and quickly did he and other lords of the Greeks go to meet Diomedes and Odysseus.

Then did the two heroes rein in their horses and lightly spring to the ground, and with hand-clasping and glad words were they welcomed by their comrades.

And when he had told the tale of the slaying of the men of Thrace and the taking of the horses of Rhesus, Odysseus, laughing, drove the white steeds through the trench and stabled them beside the other horses of Diomedes.

Then did he and Diomedes plunge into the sea and wash the sweat and dust from off their limbs in the cold waves. Glad were their hearts when they sat down to sup and poured forth an offering of honey-sweet wine to Athene; but in the camp of the Trojans were there shame and lamenting for the deeds that had been wrought in the third watch of the night.