فصل 11

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فصل 11

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Chapter Eleven

THE LAST BIT OF SUN WAS FLARING ON THE WESTERN horizon as we passed the boundary stone that marked the palace grounds. We heard the cry go up from the guards, and an answering trumpet. We crested the hill, and the palace lay before us; behind it brooded the sea.

And there on the house’s threshold, sudden as lightning-strike, stood Thetis. Her hair shone black against the white marble of the palace. Her dress was dark, the color of an uneasy ocean, bruising purples mixed with churning grays. Somewhere beside her there were guards, and Peleus, too, but I did not look at them. I saw only her, and the curved knife’s blade of her jaw.

“Your mother,” I whispered to Achilles. I could have sworn her eyes flashed over me as if she had heard. I swallowed and forced myself onward. She will not hurt me; Chiron has said she will not.

It was strange to see her among mortals; she made all of them, guards and Peleus alike, look bleached and wan, though it was her skin that was pale as bone. She stood well away from them, spearing the sky with her unnatural height. The guards lowered their eyes in fear and deference.

Achilles swung down from his horse, and I followed. Thetis drew him into an embrace, and I saw the guards shifting their feet. They were wondering what her skin felt like; they were glad they did not know.

“Son of my womb, flesh of my flesh, Achilles,” she said. The words were not spoken loudly but they carried through the courtyard. “Be welcome home.” “Thank you, Mother,” Achilles said. He understood that she was claiming him. We all did. It was proper for a son to greet his father first; mothers came second, if at all. But she was a goddess. Peleus’ mouth had tightened, but he said nothing.

When she released him, he went to his father. “Be welcome, son,” Peleus said. His voice sounded weak after his goddess-wife’s, and he looked older than he had been. Three years we had been away.

“And be welcome also, Patroclus.”

Everyone turned to me, and I managed a bow. I was aware of Thetis’ gaze, raking over me. It left my skin stinging, as if I had gone from the briar patch to the ocean. I was glad when Achilles spoke.

“What is the news, Father?”

Peleus eyed the guards. Speculation and rumor must be racing down every corridor.

“I have not announced it, and I do not mean to until everyone is gathered. We were waiting on you. Come and let us begin.”

We followed him into the palace. I wanted to speak to Achilles but did not dare to; Thetis walked right behind us. Servants skittered from her, huffing in surprise. The goddess. Her feet made no sound as they moved over the stone floors.

THE GREAT DINING HALL was crammed full of tables and benches. Servants hurried by with platters of food or lugged mixing bowls brimming with wine. At the front of the room was a dais, raised. This is where Peleus would sit, beside his son and wife. Three places. My cheeks went red. What had I expected?

Even amidst the noise of the preparations Achilles’ voice seemed loud. “Father, I do not see a place for Patroclus.” My blush went even deeper.

“Achilles,” I began in a whisper. It does not matter, I wanted to say. I will sit with the men; it is all right. But he ignored me.

“Patroclus is my sworn companion. His place is beside me.” Thetis’ eyes flickered. I could feel the heat in them. I saw the refusal on her lips.

“Very well,” Peleus said. He gestured to a servant and a place was added for me, thankfully at the opposite side of the table from Thetis. Making myself as small as I could, I followed Achilles to our seats.

“She’ll hate me now,” I said.

“She already hates you,” he answered, with a flash of smile.

This did not reassure me. “Why has she come?” I whispered. Only something truly important would have drawn her here from her caves in the sea. Her loathing for me was nothing to what I saw on her face when she looked at Peleus.

He shook his head. “I do not know. It is strange. I have not seen them together since I was a boy.”

I remembered Chiron’s parting words to Achilles: you should consider your answer.

“Chiron thinks the news will be war.”

Achilles frowned. “But there is always war in Mycenae. I do not see why we should have been called.”

Peleus sat, and a herald blew three short blasts upon his trumpet. The signal for the meal to begin. Normally it took several minutes for the men to gather, dawdling on the practice fields, drawing out the last bit of whatever they were doing. But this time they came like a flood after the breaking of the winter’s ice. Quickly, the room was swollen with them, jostling for seats and gossiping. I heard the edge in their voices, a rising excitement. No one bothered to snap at a servant or kick aside a begging dog. There was nothing on their minds but the man from Mycenae and the news he had brought.

Thetis was seated also. There was no plate for her, no knife: the gods lived on ambrosia and nectar, on the savor of our burnt offerings, and the wine we poured over their altars. Strangely, she was not so visible here, so blazing as she had been outside. The bulky, ordinary furniture seemed to diminish her, somehow.

Peleus stood. The room quieted, out to the farthest benches. He lifted his cup.

“I have received word from Mycenae, from the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus.” The final stirrings and murmurs ceased, utterly. Even the servants stopped. I did not breathe. Beneath the table, Achilles pressed his leg to mine.

“There has been a crime.” He paused again, as if he were weighing what he would say. “The wife of Menelaus, Queen Helen, has been abducted from the palace in Sparta.” Helen! The hushed whisper of men to their neighbors. Since her marriage the tales of her beauty had grown still greater. Menelaus had built around her palace walls thick with double-layered rock; he had trained his soldiers for a decade to defend it. But, for all his care, she had been stolen. Who had done it?

“Menelaus welcomed an embassy sent from King Priam of Troy. At its head was Priam’s son, the prince Paris, and it is he who is responsible. He stole the queen of Sparta from her bedchamber while the king slept.” A rumble of outrage. Only an Easterner would so dishonor the kindness of his host. Everyone knew how they dripped with perfume, were corrupt from soft living. A real hero would have taken her outright, with the strength of his sword.

“Agamemnon and Mycenae appeal to the men of Hellas to sail to the kingdom of Priam for her rescue. Troy is rich and will be easily taken, they say. All who fight will come home wealthy and renowned.” This was well worded. Wealth and reputation were the things our people had always killed for.

“They have asked me to send a delegation of men from Phthia, and I have agreed.” He waited for the murmuring to settle before adding, “Though I will not take any man who does not wish to go. And I will not lead the army myself.” “Who will lead it?” someone shouted.

“That is not yet determined,” Peleus said. But I saw his eyes flicker to his son.

No, I thought. My hand tightened on the edge of the chair. Not yet. Across from me Thetis’ face was cool and still, her eyes distant. She knew this was coming, I realized. She wants him to go. Chiron and the rose cave seemed impossibly far away; a childish idyll. I understood, suddenly, the weight of Chiron’s words: war was what the world would say Achilles was born for. That his hands and swift feet were fashioned for this alone—the cracking of Troy’s mighty walls. They would throw him among thousands of Trojan spears and watch with triumph as he stained his fair hands red.

Peleus gestured to Phoinix, his oldest friend, at one of the first tables. “Lord Phoinix will note the names of all who wish to fight.” There was a movement at the benches, as men started to rise. But Peleus held up his hand.

“There is more.” He lifted a piece of linen, dark with dense markings. “Before Helen’s betrothal to King Menelaus, she had many suitors. It seems these suitors swore an oath to protect her, whosoever might win her hand. Agamemnon and Menelaus now charge these men to fulfill their oath and bring her back to her rightful husband.” He handed the linen sheet to the herald.

I stared. An oath. In my mind, the sudden image of a brazier, and the spill of blood from a white goat. A rich hall, filled with towering men.

The herald lifted the list. The room seemed to tilt, and my eyes would not focus. He began to read.

Antenor.

Eurypylus.

Machaon.

I recognized many of the names; we all did. They were the heroes and kings of our time. But they were more to me than that. I had seen them, in a stone chamber heavy with fire-smoke.

Agamemnon. A memory of a thick black beard; a brooding man with narrowed, watchful eyes.

Odysseus. The scar that wrapped his calf, pink as gums.

Ajax. Twice as large as any man in the room, with his huge shield behind him.

Philoctetes, the bowman.

Menoitiades.

The herald paused a moment, and I heard the murmur: who? My father had not distinguished himself in the years since my exile. His fame had diminished; his name was forgotten. And those who did know him had never heard of a son. I sat frozen, afraid to move lest I give myself away. I am bound to this war.

The herald cleared his throat.

Idomeneus.

Diomedes.

“Is that you? You were there?” Achilles had turned back to face me. His voice was low, barely audible, but still I feared that someone might hear it.

I nodded. My throat was too dry for words. I had thought only of Achilles’ danger, of how I would try to keep him here, if I could. I had not even considered myself.

“Listen. It is not your name anymore. Say nothing. We will think what to do. We will ask Chiron.” Achilles never spoke like that, each word cutting off the next in haste. His urgency brought me back to myself, a little, and I took heart from his eyes on mine. I nodded again.

The names kept coming, and memories came with them. Three women on a dais, and one of them Helen. A pile of treasure, and my father’s frown. The stone beneath my knees. I had thought I dreamt it. I had not.

When the herald had finished, Peleus dismissed the men. They stood as one, benches scraping, eager to get to Phoinix to enlist. Peleus turned to us. “Come. I would speak further with you both.” I looked to Thetis, to see if she would come too, but she was gone.

WE SAT BY PELEUS’ FIRESIDE; he had offered us wine, barely watered. Achilles refused it. I took a cup, but did not drink. The king was in his old chair, the one closest to the fire, with its cushions and high back. His eyes rested on Achilles.

“I have called you home with the thought that you might wish to lead this army.”

It was spoken. The fire popped; its wood was green.

Achilles met his father’s gaze. “I have not finished yet with Chiron.”

“You have stayed on Pelion longer than I did, than any hero before.”

“That does not mean I must run to help the sons of Atreus every time they lose their wives.”

I thought Peleus might smile at that, but he did not. “I do not doubt that Menelaus rages at the loss of his wife, but the messenger came from Agamemnon. He has watched Troy grow rich and ripe for years, and now thinks to pluck her. The taking of Troy is a feat worthy of our greatest heroes. There may be much honor to be won from sailing with him.” Achilles’ mouth tightened. “There will be other wars.”

Peleus did not nod, exactly. But I saw him register the truth of it. “What of Patroclus, then? He is called to serve.”

“He is no longer the son of Menoitius. He is not bound by the oath.”

Pious Peleus raised an eyebrow. “There is some shuffling there.”

“I do not think so.” Achilles lifted his chin. “The oath was undone when his father disowned him.”

“I do not wish to go,” I said, softly.

Peleus regarded us both for a moment. Then he said, “Such a thing is not for me to decide. I will leave it to you.”

I felt the tension slide from me a little. He would not expose me.

“Achilles, men are coming here to speak with you, kings sent by Agamemnon.”

Outside the window, I heard the ocean’s steady whisper against the sand. I could smell the salt.

“They will ask me to fight,” Achilles said. It was not a question.

“They will.”

“You wish me to give them audience.”

“I do.”

There was quiet again. Then Achilles said, “I will not dishonor them, or you. I will hear their reasons. But I say to you that I do not think they will convince me.” I saw that Peleus was surprised, a little, by his son’s certainty, but not displeased. “That is also not for me to decide,” he said mildly.

The fire popped again, spitting out its sap.

Achilles knelt, and Peleus placed one hand on his head. I was used to seeing Chiron do this, and Peleus’ hand looked withered by comparison, threaded with trembling veins. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that he had been a warrior, that he had walked with gods.

ACHILLES’ ROOM was as we had left it, except for the cot, which had been removed in our absence. I was glad; it was an easy excuse, in case anyone asked why we shared a bed. We reached for each other, and I thought of how many nights I had lain awake in this room loving him in silence.

Later, Achilles pressed close for a final, drowsy whisper. “If you have to go, you know I will go with you.” We slept.

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