فصل 16

کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 16

فصل 16

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Chapter Sixteen

WE ARRIVED IN PHTHIA THE NEXT DAY. THE SUN WAS just over the meridian, and Achilles and I stood looking at the rail.

“Do you see that?”

“What?” As always, his eyes were sharper than mine.

“The shore. It looks strange.”

As we drew closer we saw why. It was thick with people, jostling impatiently, craning their necks towards us. And the sound: at first it seemed to come from the waves, or the ship as it cut them, a rushing roar. But it grew louder with each stroke of our oars, until we understood that it was voices, then words. Over and over, it came. Prince Achilles! Aristos Achaion!

As our ship touched the beach, hundreds of hands threw themselves into the air, and hundreds of throats opened in a cheer. All other noises, the wood of the gangplank banging down on rock, the sailors’ commands, were lost to it. We stared, in shock.

It was that moment, perhaps, that our lives changed. Not before in Scyros, nor before that still, on Pelion. But here, as we began to understand the grandness, now and always, that would follow him wherever he went. He had chosen to become a legend, and this was the beginning. He hesitated, and I touched my hand to his, where the crowd could not see it. “Go,” I urged him. “They are waiting for you.” Achilles stepped forward onto the gangplank, his arm lifted in greeting, and the crowd screamed itself hoarse. I half-feared they would swarm onto the ship, but soldiers pushed forward and lined the gangway, making a path straight through the crush.

Achilles turned back to me, said something. I could not hear it, but I understood. Come with me. I nodded, and we began to walk. On either side of us, the crowd surged against the soldiers’ barrier. At the aisle’s end was Peleus, waiting for us. His face was wet, and he made no attempt to wipe aside the tears. He drew Achilles to him, held him long before he let him go.

“Our prince has returned!” His voice was deeper than I remembered, resonant and carrying far, over the noise of the crowd. They quieted, to hear the words of their king.

“Before you all I offer welcome to my most beloved son, sole heir to my kingdom. He will lead you to Troy in glory; he will return home in triumph.”

Even there beneath the bright sun, I felt my skin go cold. He will not come home at all. But Peleus did not know this, yet.

“He is a man grown, and god born. Aristos Achaion!”

There was no time to think of it now. The soldiers were beating on their shields with their spears; the women screamed; the men howled. I caught sight of Achilles’ face; the look on it was stunned, but not displeased. He was standing differently, I noticed, shoulders back and legs braced. He looked older, somehow, taller even. He leaned over to say something in his father’s ear, but I could not hear what he said. A chariot was waiting; we stepped into it and watched the crowd stream behind us up the beach.

Inside the palace, attendants and servants buzzed around us. We were given a moment to eat and drink what was pressed into our hands. Then we were led to the palace courtyard, where twenty-five hundred men waited for us. At our approach they lifted their square shields, shining like carapace, in salute to their new general. This, out of all of it, was perhaps the strangest: that he was their commander now. He would be expected to know them all, their names and armor and stories. He no longer belongs to me alone.

If he was nervous, even I could not tell. I watched as he greeted them, spoke ringing words that made them stand up straighter. They grinned, loving every inch of their miraculous prince: his gleaming hair, his deadly hands, his nimble feet. They leaned towards him, like flowers to the sun, drinking in his luster. It was as Odysseus had said: he had light enough to make heroes of them all.

WE WERE NEVER ALONE. Achilles was always needed for something— his eye on draft sheets and figures, his advice on food supplies and levy lists. Phoinix, his father’s old counselor, would be accompanying us, but there were still a thousand questions for Achilles to answer—how many? how much? who will be your captains? He did what he could, then announced, “I defer all the rest of such matters to the experience of Phoinix.” I heard a servant girl sigh behind me. Handsome and gracious, both.

He knew that I had little to do here. His face, when he turned to me, was increasingly apologetic. He was always sure to place the tablets where I could see them too, to ask my opinion. But I did not make it easy for him, standing in the back, listless and silent.

Even there, I could not escape. Through every window came the constant clatter of soldiers, bragging and drilling and sharpening their spears. The Myrmidons, they had begun calling themselves, ant-men, an old nickname of honor. Another thing Achilles had had to explain to me: the legend of Zeus creating the first Phthians from ants. I watched them marching, rank on cheerful rank. I saw them dreaming of the plunder they would bring home, and the triumph. There was no such dream for us.

I began to slip away. I would find a reason to linger behind as the attendants ushered him forward: an itch, or a loose strap of my shoe. Oblivious, they hurried on, turned a corner, and left me suddenly, blessedly, alone. I took the twisting corridors I had learned so many years ago and came gratefully to our empty room. There I lay on the cool stone of the floor and closed my eyes. I could not stop imagining how it would end—spear-tip or swordpoint, or smashed by a chariot. The rushing, unending blood of his heart.

One night in the second week, as we lay half-drowsing, I asked him: “How will you tell your father? About the prophecy?”

The words were loud in the silence of midnight. For a moment he was still. Then he said, “I do not think I will.”

“Never?”

He shook his head, just the barest shadow. “There is nothing he can do. It would only bring him grief.”

“What about your mother? Won’t she tell him?”

“No,” he said. “It was one of the things I asked her to promise me, that last day on Scyros.”

I frowned. He had not told me this before. “What were the other things?”

I saw him hesitate. But we did not lie to each other; we never had. “I asked her to protect you,” he said. “After.”

I stared at him, dry-mouthed. “What did she say?”

Another silence. Then, so quietly I could imagine the dull red shame of his cheeks, he answered, “She said no.”

Later, when he slept, and I lay wakeful and watching under the stars, I thought of this. Knowing that he had asked warmed me—it chased away some of the coldness of the days here in the palace, when he was wanted every moment and I was not.

As for the goddess’s answer, I did not care. I would have no need of her. I did not plan to live after he was gone.

SIX WEEKS PASSED—the six weeks that it took to organize soldiers, to equip a fleet, to pack up food and clothing to last the length of the war—a year perhaps, or two. Sieges were always long.

Peleus insisted that Achilles take only the best. He paid for a small fortune in armor, more than six men would need. There were hammered-bronze breastplates, graven with lions and a rising phoenix, stiff leather greaves with gold bands, horsehair plumed helms, a silver-forged sword, dozens of spearheads, and two light-wheeled chariots. With this came a four-horse team, including the pair given to Peleus by the gods at his wedding. Xanthos and Balios, they were called: Golden and Dapple, and their eyes rolled white with impatience whenever they were not free to run. He gave us also a charioteer, a boy younger than we were, but sturdily built and said to be skilled with headstrong horses. Automedon, his name was.

Finally, last of all: a long spear, ash sapling peeled of bark and polished until it glowed like gray flame. From Chiron, Peleus said, handing it to his son. We bent over it, our fingers trailing its surface as if to catch the centaur’s lingering presence. Such a fine gift would have taken weeks of Chiron’s deft shaping; he must have begun it almost the day that we left. Did he know, or only guess at Achilles’ destiny? As he lay alone in his rose-colored cave, had some glimmer of prophecy come to him? Perhaps he simply assumed: a bitterness of habit, of boy after boy trained for music and medicine, and unleashed for murder.

Yet this beautiful spear had been fashioned not in bitterness, but love. Its shape would fit no one’s hand but Achilles’, and its heft could suit no one’s strength but his. And though the point was keen and deadly, the wood itself slipped under our fingers like the slender oiled strut of a lyre.

AT LAST THE DAY for our departure came. Our ship was a beauty, finer even than Odysseus’—sleek and slim as a knifepoint, meant to cut the sea. It rode low in the water, heavy with stores of food and supplies.

And that was only the flagship. Beside it, forty-nine others, a city of wood, rolled gently in the waters of Phthia’s harbor. Their bright prow-pieces were a bestiary of animals and nymphs and creatures half in between, and their masts stood as tall as the trees they had been. At the front of each of these ships, one of our new-minted captains stood at attention, saluting as we walked up the ramp to our vessel.

Achilles went first, his purple cloak stirring in the breeze from the sea, then Phoinix, and me with a new cloak of my own, holding the old man’s arm to steady his steps. The people cheered for us and for our soldiers, filing onto their own ships. All around us final promises were shouted: of glory, of the gold that would be stripped and brought home from Priam’s rich city.

Peleus stood at the shore’s edge, one hand raised in farewell. True to his word, Achilles had not told him of the prophecy, merely hugged him tightly, as if to soak the old man into his skin. I had embraced him too, those thin, wiry limbs. I thought, This is what Achilles will feel like when he is old. And then I remembered: he will never be old.

The ship’s boards were still sticky with new resin. We leaned over the railing to wave our last farewell, the sun-warm wood pressed against our bellies. The sailors heaved up the anchor, square and chalky with barnacles, and loosened the sails. Then they took their seats at the oars that fringed the boat like eyelashes, waiting for the count. The drums began to beat, and the oars lifted and fell, taking us to Troy.

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