I. Fall of Troy
When Kassandra was three years old, she prophesied the fall of Troy, with words like firebrand, lust, and destruction: words she was not old enough to understand and not able to speak. And no one doubted that it was Apollo who spoke through her.
King Priam snatched the still crying infant from the arms of his queen and gave him up lest he bring doom on all of Troy. But Hecuba never forgave Kassandra for this and when time came, she parted easily from her and sent her to be reared at the sanctuary of the mouse god.
When Kassandra refused Apollo on a whim, not yet old enough to understand its full implications, she so feared the taking away of her sight that when Apollo pronounced his curse on her, she could only think to be grateful that gods could not take back gifts already bestowed, only mar them.
And this curse, too, felt like a blessing, certainly more so than the visions did at first. She had borne the burden of prophecies revered, grown up in another city, away from family and siblings, returned home to find herself a stranger in her own city, but when no one believed her words, they forgot them soon enough. And she found that when people did not fear her, she could persuade them in other ways than to tell them that she had seen the future.
II. Sack of Thebe
When Andromache was three years old, she bound herself to Hektor with words she was barely able to repeat as her mother said them for her. An oracle had prophesied that Andromache would one day be the queen of a Greek city, and her mother, unable to bear the thought of her only daughter living across a wide sea, had King Eetion send a marriage proposal to Troy as part of a trade treaty, and so Andromache became betrothed to Hektor.
Years later, when her mother parted from Andromache and sent her to Troy, she made Andromache promise that she would visit often, and said, “After all, did I not defy the Fates themselves to ensure that you would be able to?”
In Troy, she found herself alone in a household filled with Priam’s children. As the wife of his eldest, she was the first – and the only – outsider amongst them. Her mind and ears strained to keep up with their rapidly spoken dialect, which she had thought she was fluent in. Hektor spoke to her slowly, and waited patiently for her to process his words and gave her time to come up with her answers, but in the women’s quarters, her silence made her easily overlooked.
So she built her life around Hektor, and she missed her brothers and her parents and counted days till her mother would send for her, or till Hektor would leave to negotiate treaties so she may leave.
When Hektor finally left that first winter, and the weather made it impossible for Andromache to travel north. She was left to spend her days in women’s hall, and she cried herself to sleep every night.
“You’ve been crying,” a woman said to her. She was surprised at being spoken to when she had taken care to sit away from everyone at her loom, and so accustomed she had become to the Trojans’ clipped dialect that it took her a while before realizing that Kassandra had addressed her in her own tongue, and she remembered that Kassandra, too, lived far from her family in Apollo’s sanctuary that was closer to Thebe than it was to Troy.
“I have been far from home for too long, and now the Fates conspire to keep me away longer,” Andromache replied.
Kassandra considered her words for a while before she said, “Perhaps it is to give you time to make a home here?”
Taking that as reproach, Andromache hastened to explain, “It is only that I feel the absence of Hektor and have little to occupy myself with.”
“Too many people have claims on Hektor, and if he’s your only connection to Troy, you will often find yourself missing your Thebe.”
And so Andromache took her advice and started to make a place for herself amongst Priam’s daughters. When Hektor returned, she found herself dividing her time between him and Kassandra, who provided Andromache with a glimpse of home away from Thebe, and she found herself grounded in Troy as she never had been throughout her marriage. When Hektor went away next, she missed him less, and when time came for Kassandra to return to Apollo’s temple, she asked Andromache to come with her and took her to Thebe, and instead of staying at the temple, she came back to Troy with Andromache.
Next spring, Andromache found herself pregnant, and custom called for her to travel to her mother’s house for the birthing. This time, Kassandra did not offer to go with her, and instead, she persuaded Andromache to stay in Troy and said, “Hektor would not ask you to stay, but he would want to see his firstborn delivered in Troy. Stay through this, and I will come with you to Thebe next spring.” And Andromache stayed less for Hektor, and more because she liked the thought of Kassandra being with her in Thebe and wondered what her eldest brother would think of her sister-in-law.
Three days later, she received word that Thebe was besieged by Greek forces, and King Eetion had asked for reinforcements. And Hecuba said, “It is a good thing, Daughter, that you did not go to Thebe as you had wanted to, or you, too, would be in grave danger.”
Remembering rumors about Kassandra that she had previously dismissed, Andromache went to her and asked, “Did you know that Thebe would be besieged?”
“I knew that the Achaeans were on their way, and that Thebe is closest to the shores they had docked at,” replied Kassandra, not really answering Andromache’s question.
“Did you think I might be endangered? Is that why you would have me stay?”
“I only wanted you safe in Troy.”
“But I would have been able to let my father know! My mother, at least, could have come to Troy and avoided the battles.”
“They would not have heeded your word. Did your mother not defy the gods themselves in sending you to Troy instead of to Greece? Why believe in prophecies now?”
“As you defy them now,” said Andromache, and then, more quietly, “What will become of Thebe?”
Kassandra did not reply, but her silence was an answer.
Andromache lost the baby first, at the end of that year, and then news came that the Achaeans had slayed all of her brothers and King Eetion. She could not thank Kassandra for her life, nor forgive her.
III. A Thousand Ships
The first time Andromache saw Kassandra through a vision was a fortnight before Paris brought Helen to Troy, when Priam was still refusing to admit to the Greek envoys that he knew where his son was at all.
It started calmly with Kassandra going still as a fortress, her eyes glazing over and her mouth stilling in the middle of what she was saying to Hecuba, and Andromache watched as Hecuba’s eyes turned cold and she turned away and slowly, this reaction went around the room. Only Polyxena stayed and held her hand but Andromache could sense the fear in the little girl. Andromache gestured for Polyxena to let her take Kassandra, but she could feel the tremors starting through her even before they retreated from the women’s hall. Kassandra fell into a frenzied trance, and her rapidly spoken Trojan dialect was lost on Andromache’s ears and for this she was thankful.
And as she watched Kassandra lose all control, she understood Kassandra’s need for for it, and her need to guide people away from their destinies in the face of her utter lack of control over herself. She found herself wondering how Kassandra would recover herself again after having lost herself so completely to the visions. But she would see this again before Helen came. This is how Kassandra lost herself and found herself again, always recovering with a greater resistance. She still could not forgive her, but she understood her.
When Helen came to Troy, her presence shattered Kassandra’s carefully cultivated aloofness, and the words of Apollo came through her mouth unheeded once more. She saw a thousand ships instead of the dozen that Paris and Helen brought with them to Troy. Saw blazing fires burning in Helen’s brilliant eyes, and she prophesied death, doom, and destruction.
She felt the weight of the sight and the curse both as she spoke, but her impassioned words were no match for Helen’s grace and beauty, for her sheer presence that seemed to overwhelm even Kassandra. In the mist of eyes that regarded her with suspicion and pity, she saw recognition in Helen’s. Calmed by this acknowledgement, Kassandra came back to herself to find Andromache holding on to her through the visions.
She waited to fully recover from the visions before finding Helen and asked, “You have seen the destruction of Troy, have you not?”
“I would not have come here if I had,” Helen replied, regarding Kassandra carefully. And then said, “No, what I see is the presence of Apollo in you. Of his blessing. And his curse.”
“Will you not go back, then? Knowing what you bring?”
“You cannot think that *I* bring this destruction you speak of?”
“Not you, but Nemesis brings destruction through you.”
“Or so your visions show you. But I have known gods to be liars and prophecies to be trickery,” Helen said with conviction, and this unsettled Kassandra. Helen’s blasphemy did not come from lack of belief as Andromache’s did, or from a sense of arrogance as Paris’ did, but rather from complete belief in the existence of the gods and the existence of their indifference towards her.
And she sensed the presence of the sight in Helen, a sight that came from who she was – a daughter of the gods, if she believed the rumors, Zeus, or Nemesis, or both --, and not because any god had seen fit to bless her or curse her.
So Helen stayed, and the ships came, but Kassandra could not find it in her to blame Helen for any of it. And through the years, she watched Helen weave war, death, and destruction into her tapestries while the other women weaved flowers or pleasing patterns, and she knew that the war sat heavily on Helen’s mind, but Helen never spoke any words of guilt or regret, even if that would have made things easier for her.
But Helen took responsibility for the deaths in her own way, weaving death shrouds for the fallen of Troy, and Kassandra saw her retreat to her own quarters when the news of death came from the Greek side, the deaths of a former suitor, a friend, or a relative. These deaths, she was not allowed to mourn in public, and when she came back, her eyes were always brighter, and her smiles a bit more dazzling, as if to convince the Trojans that the Greek losses did not mean anything to her, as if she had always been theirs and never an enemy.
And Kassandra thought, not for the first time, that Helen’s easy grace and beguiling smiles cost her something.
She did not ask Helen to return to the Greeks again, and she knew that going to the Greek camps with warriors that cursed Helen’s name with each waking hour would not be safe. But in the last year of the war, after Paris’ death, when she could barely sleep from being plagued by all the visions of every death and dismemberment, she gave into her weakness and pleaded with Helen again to return to Menelaus.
“Kassandra, Kassandra…you still don’t understand, do you? You cannot change what’s written.”
“You sell yourself short, Helen, if you feel that you have no control over your actions.”
“My actions, yes, but I do not fool myself into thinking that any of them make a bit of a difference to the indifferent gods.”
IV. Death of Hektor
The first time Kassandra saw Hektor’s death was when Andromache gave birth to Astyanax, and Andromache sensed the change in Kassandra and remembered Thebe.
“What do you see?” Andromache asked her, still weak from childbirth.
Kassandra shook her head, and said, “Nothing you need worry about.”
“You need not protect me from whatever it is. Tell me so I can decide for myself what to do.” She did not mention Thebe, but the loss of her home and her city still sat between them.
“Your husband will not always be victorious on the battlefield,” Kassandra replied.
Andromache let out a brittle, hollow laugh, and said, “If Troy should fall as you say it will, I never imagined that it would happen with Hektor still living.”
Despite the lightness of her response, Kassandra could sense Andromache’s despair. She reached out and stroked Andromache’s arm in comfort, which Andromache grasped in hers and held on to. Finally, she let go, and said, “I am tired. I think I shall sleep for a bit.”
When Andromache told Hektor of this, he reassured her, but did not stay away from the battlefields. In her waking hours, she knew that if Hektor stayed with her, it would only hasten the prophecies, but at night, she clung to him and asked him to make promises he could not keep.
“How long do we have?” she would ask Kassandra when they were alone, unable to focus on anything else. She found that if she did not focus on Hektor’s fate, she started to wonder about her own, which she refused to ask Kassandra about. And eventually, she could not keep up the level of anxiety, which started to fade as the fear of Hektor’s death became a distant possibility.
But she saw Kassandra arguing with Hektor one day, and while she could not hear them, she knew it would not be long. So she retreated to her room and played with her son as if it were just another day.
When Hektor was leaving to meet Achilles in the battlefield, Helen stopped him and said, “Hektor, beware unexpected aid. The gods love Achilles and will play tricks on anyone who wishes him harm.”
Hektor nodded his acknowledgement and smiled his gratitude, and Andromache could tell that it pained Kassandra that he should heed Helen’s warnings, but refused to believe his own sister. But it did not make a difference, in the end.
V. Greeks Bearing Gifts.
When the wooden horse was brought inside the city, Kassandra found Astyanax and went looking for Andromache, who was still in mourning for Hektor. Finding her, she thrust the child at her, and said, “It won’t be long now, Andromache. You should leave. Find Polyxena and take her with you.”
“Where will I go?” Andromache asked.
“Hide in one of the villages along Mount Ida and wait till the Greeks have left. And then travel to the sanctuary of Apollo near Thebe.”
Andromache came out of her daze long enough to look at her with doubt, “The Greeks have left already, Kassandra. What do you see now?”
Kassandra shook her head and pushed her towards the door. “Find Polyxena. And go.”
“Come with us!”
“I cannot. I need to warn others.”
“No one would believe you.”
“You do.” And for now, Kassandra felt that that was enough. She felt compelled to save Andromache, save something of Troy, and while she hoped to convince others, she needed to know that Andromache was safe, that she would take care of Astyanax and Polyxena.
Andromache nodded and embraced her, and Kassandra drew strength from that before she went looking for Helen in the women’s quarters. She had not been given the luxury to mourn the death of her husband, and Priam had insisted on her taking another Trojan prince as a consort. Helen was hard to comfort and harder to read, but she had no doubt that she could trust Helen with this and that Helen would believe her.
So Helen came with her to the Wooden Horse, and together, they both moved about it silently, feeling every nook and flank that could hide secrets. And finally, Helen held a finger to her lips and motioned Kassandra away. And she spoke softly but loud enough that her voice would carry towards anyone hiding inside the horse. “Agamemnon?” She called out first, imitating the voice of her sister Klytemnestra. And spoke gently in Greek with words that Kassandra could only half understand. Not hearing a reply, she called out to Odysseus next, in the voice of Penelope, and Kassandra watched as Helen slipped from one persona to another, and beneath her perfect imitation of other men’s desires, Kassandra sensed Helen’s longing for home, for her sister and her kinswomen. She hesitated before finally calling out to Menelaus, using her own voice, and somehow, this bit of honesty took more out of her than all the easy mimicry had. She shook her head slightly and turned away.
Kassandra sensed movement inside, but she did not need that confirmation to know what lurked inside. No one came out, and Helen could not convince them to give up their secret.
Andromache was brought back to the women’s camps after the fall, when Kassandra had already imagined her safely away. She was covered in blood and ashes and alone. She did not speak, and Kassandra feared that she already knew what she would say.
Kassandra reached over to take Andromache in her arms, but Andromache grasped Kassandra's hands and pulled her into an embrace. She could not let Kassandra comfort her now; she had her sorrows now, but Kassandra had lived with this since Paris’ birth, and she could not understand how she had survived this when Andromache did not think she could live much longer with all these deaths.
Andromache had known that the Greeks would never forgive Polyxena for betraying Achilles, for being able to do what none of the warriors of Troy had been able to, for leading Achilles to his death. The threat she presented outweighed her value as a war prize, but Astyanax had only been a child and could have been molded into anything. But even so, she knew that she would have raised him with one purpose only.
They waited long enough to bring them food or water that when it was brought in, few women refused it. While the other women drank their water, Andromache watched Helen soak the ends of her tattered robes into her cup and use the damp cloth to wipe away the soot on her face, her arms, and her breasts. She dipped her fingers into it to smooth her wayward hair, and let just enough water pass through her parched lips to moisten them. Andromache turned away from her, unable to make out her actions, but fearing that she knew.
Kassandra followed her gaze, but did not turn away and said, “This war made Hektor into what he became, just as it has shaped Helen. This is the only way she’ll survive, and Helen will always find a way to survive.”
And this, Andromache could not understand. It was this that she held Helen most in contempt for: that Helen could live, should want to live, having lost everything. If death were offered to her instead, she would’ve willingly traded places with Helen under Menelaus’ sword or even with Polyxena on Achilles’ tomb.
Kassandra saw the death of Agamemnon before leaving Troy, and it was a comfort to know that she would not have to endure this for too long. This was the first, the only vision, that she welcomed, and having lost everything, she felt the weight of the curse lift. She could not tell if this lack of visions of the future meant an end to her life or an end to the curse.
She felt the presence of Apollo again only after arriving in Mycenae, in a place filled with transgressions and hubris. Agamemnon could not be bothered with finding a place for her once he arrived inside his city to find his wife still faithful, loving, and as lovely as ever, and more humble than he remembered. A wiser man would have found that reason to doubt her words, but Agamemnon fell easily into the net Klytemnestra had set for him.
Klytemnestra lingered outside after Agamemnon went in, and approached Kassandra as she reached for something inside the folds of her flowing peplos. She spoke carefully so that Kassandra would understand her, “How was Helen when you last saw her?”
“Alive,” Kassandra said. “Menelaus could not kill her.”
Klytemnestra smiled, “I never thought he would. But I have had no news of her in so long.”
When Kassandra did not reply, Klytemnestra asked, “Will I see my sister again?”
“I’m not a fortune teller, nor a proper oracle. I see what Apollo shows me.”
“So you still have his gift?” Klytemnestra asked, and Kassandra understood the purpose of these questions. To be sure, Klytemnestra was worried about her sister, but she was also worried about the success of what she had planned for Agamemnon.
Kassandra nodded, and watched as Klytemnestra took out a gleaming knife from the folds of her clothes.
Klytemnestra regarded her with thought, her fingers still tightly wound around the knife. “Tell me,” she asked, “Have you given Agamemnon hints to his fate?”
“You could not wish him harm more than I do. He killed your Iphigenia, but he destroyed all of my people.”
“We have a common goal, then,” said Klytemnestra. “But I also know his powers of persuasion, and know that it is easy to love him, if he puts his mind to convincing you. I do not wish to harm you.”
Kassandra nodded, “I understand. I do not begrudge you this. Rather you than him. Rather death than life as Agamemnon’s slave.”
And Klytemnestra regarded her with respect in her eyes, her right hand still tightly wound around the knife as her left played with its blade lightly. Finally, she smiled and took the blade of the knife in her left hand and extended it towards Kassandra with the blunt end first, offering it to her. “Aegisthus will want to make sure that any threats are eliminated after I take care of Agamemnon,” Klytemnestra said, as if in apology. “And he will see you as a threat.”
And Kassandra did not know if the knife was supposed to offer protection against Aegisthus or offer another way out, but for once, she felt like she had a choice. She knew that she would not die by Klytemnestra’s hand, so she took the knife and held on to it.
“Now,” Klytemnestra said, “there are spirits that need appeasing, and I have waited for this too long.” Kassandra sensed the warning in the words as Klytemnestra turned away from her and walked inside the lion gates of Mycenae. Kassandra’s hands played with the knife as she watched her go, and she did not wait to hear Agamemnon’s death throes.