I. Aegeus and Aethra
There was once a king of Athens whose name was AEgeus. He had no son; but he had fifty nephews, and they were waiting for him to die, so that one of them might be king in his stead. They were wild, worthless fellows, and the people of Athens looked forward with dread to the day when the city should be in their power. Yet so long as AEgeus lived they could not do much harm, but were content to spend their time in eating and drinking at the king's table and in quarreling among themselves.
It so happened one summer that AEgeus left his kingdom in the care of the elders of the city and went on a voyage across the Saronic Sea to the old and famous city of Troezen, which lay nestled at the foot of the mountains on the opposite shore. Troezen was not fifty miles by water from Athens, and the purple-peaked island of AEgina lay between them; but to the people of that early time the distance seemed very great, and it was not often that ships passed from one place to the other. And as for going by land round the great bend of the sea, that was a thing so fraught with danger that no man had ever dared try it.
King Pittheus of Troezen was right glad to see AEgeus, for they had been boys together, and he welcomed him to his city and did all that he could to make his visit a pleasant one. So, day after day, there was feasting and merriment and music in the marble halls of old Troezen, and the two kings spent many a happy hour in talking of the deeds of their youth and of the mighty heroes whom both had known. And when the time came for the ship to sail back to Athens, AEgeus was not ready to go. He said he would stay yet a little longer in Troezen, for that the elders of the city would manage things well at home; and so the ship returned without him.
But AEgeus tarried, not so much for the rest and enjoyment which he was having in the home of his old friend, as for the sake of AEthra, his old friend's daughter. For AEthra was as fair as a summer morning, and she was the joy and pride of Troezen; and AEgeus was never so happy as when in her presence. So it happened that some time after the ship had sailed, there was a wedding in the halls of King Pittheus; but it was kept a secret, for AEgeus feared that his nephews, if they heard of it, would be very angry and would send men to Troezen to do him harm.
Month after month passed by, and still AEgeus lingered with his bride and trusted his elders to see to the affairs of Athens. Then one morning, when the gardens of Troezen were full of roses and the heather was green on the hills, a babe was born to AEthra-a boy with a fair face and strong arms and eyes as sharp and as bright as the mountain eagle's. And now AEgeus was more loth to return home than he had been before, and he went up on the mountain which overlooks Troezen, and prayed to Athena, the queen of the air, to give him wisdom and show him what to do. Even while he prayed there came a ship into the harbor, bringing a letter to AEgeus and alarming news from Athens.
"Come home without delay"-these were words of the letter which the elders had sent-"come home quickly, or Athens will be lost. A great king from beyond the sea, Minos of Crete, is on the way with ships and a host of fighting men; and he declares that he will carry sword and fire within our walls, and will slay our young men and make our children his slaves. Come and save us!"
"It is the call of duty," said AEgeus; and with a heavy heart he made ready to go at once across the sea to the help of his people. But he could not take AEthra and her babe, for fear of his lawless nephews, who would have slain them both.
"Best of wives," he said, when the hour for parting had come, "listen to me, for I shall never see your father's halls, nor dear old Troezen, nor perhaps your own fair face, again. Do you remember the old plane tree which stands on the mountain side, and the great flat stone which lies a little way beyond it, and which no man but myself has ever been able to lift? Under that stone, I have hidden my sword and the sandals which I brought from Athens. There they shall lie until our child is strong enough to lift the stone and take them for his own. Care for him, AEthra, until that time; and then, and not till then, you may tell him of his father, and bid him seek me in Athens."