فصل 19

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فصل 19

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Chapter Nineteen

WE LEFT THE NEXT DAY, EARLY, WITH THE REST OF the fleet. From the stern of our ship, Aulis’s beach looked strangely bare. Only the gouges of the latrines and the ash-white ruins of the girl’s pyre were left to mark our passage. I had woken him this morning with Odysseus’ news—that he could not have seen Diomedes in time. He heard me out dully, his eyes bruised despite how long he had slept. Then he said, “She is dead, all the same.” Now he paced the deck behind me. I tried to point things out to him—the dolphins that ran beside us, the rain-swelled clouds on the horizon—but he was listless and only half-listening. Later I caught him standing alone, practicing drill-steps and sword-swings and frowning to himself.

Each night we put in at a different port; our boats were not built for long journeys, for day after day of submersion. The only men we saw were our own Phthians, and Diomedes’ Argives. The fleet split so that each island would not be forced to give landfall to the entire army. I was sure it was no coincidence that the king of Argos was paired with us. Do they think we will run away? I did my best to ignore him, and he seemed content to leave us in peace.

The islands looked all the same to me—high cliffs bleached white, pebbled beaches that scratched the underside of our ships with their chalky fingernails. They were frequently scrubby, brush struggling up beside olives and cypresses. Achilles barely noticed any of it. He bent over his armor, polishing it till it shone bright as flame.

On the seventh day we came to Lemnos, just across from the Hellespont’s narrow mouth. It was lower than most of our islands, full of swamps and stagnant ponds choking with water lilies. We found a pool some distance from the camp and sat by it. Bugs shivered on its surface, and bulbous eyes peered from amidst the weeds. We were only two days from Troy.

“What was it like when you killed that boy?”

I looked up. His face was in shadow, the hair falling around his eyes.

“Like?” I asked.

He nodded, staring at the water, as if to read its depths.

“What did it look like?”

“It’s hard to describe.” He had taken me by surprise. I closed my eyes to conjure it. “The blood came quickly, I remember that. And I couldn’t believe how much there was. His head was split, and his brains showed a little.” I fought down the nausea that gripped me, even now. “I remember the sound his head made against the rock.” “Did he twitch? Like animals do?”

“I did not stay long enough to watch.”

He was silent a moment. “My father told me once to think of them like animals. The men I kill.”

I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it again. He did not look up from his vigil over the water’s surface.

“I do not think I can do it,” he said. Simply, as was his way.

Odysseus’ words pressed in on me, weighed down my tongue. Good, I wanted to say. But what did I know? I did not have to win my immortality with war. I held my peace.

“I cannot stop seeing it,” he said softly. “Her death.” I could not either; the gaudy spray of blood, the shock and pain in her eyes.

“It will not always be like that,” I heard myself say. “She was a girl and innocent. These will be men that you fight, warriors who will kill you if you do not strike first.”

He turned to look at me, his gaze intent.

“But you will not fight, even if they strike at you. You hate it.” If it had been any other man, the words would have been an insult.

“Because I don’t have the skill,” I said.

“I don’t think that is the only reason,” he said.

His eyes were green and brown as forest, and even in the dim light I could see the gold.

“Perhaps not,” I said, at last.

“But you will forgive me?”

I reached for his hand and took it. “I have no need to forgive you. You cannot offend me.” They were rash words, but I said them with all the conviction of my heart.

He looked down a moment at where our hands sat joined. Then his hand ripped itself from mine and blurred past me so swiftly I could not follow it. He stood, something limp and long as a piece of wet rope dangling from his fingers. My eyes stared at it, uncomprehending.

“Hydros,” Achilles said. Water-snake. It was dun gray, and its flat head hung brokenly to the side. Its body still trembled a little, dying.

Weakness sluiced through me. Chiron had made us memorize their homes and colors. Brown-gray, by water. Quick to anger. Deadly bite.

“I did not even see it,” I managed. He threw the thing aside, to lie blunt-nosed and brown among the weeds. He had broken its neck.

“You did not have to,” he said. “I saw it.”

HE WAS EASIER AFTER THAT, no longer pacing the deck and staring. But I knew that Iphigenia still weighed on him. On both of us. He took to carrying one of his spears with him always. He would toss it into the air and catch it, over and over again.

Slowly, the fleet straggled back together. Some had gone the long way around, south by the island of Lesbos. Others, taking the most direct route, already waited near Sigeum, northwest of Troy. Still others had come as we did, along the Thracian coast. United again, we massed by Tenedos, the island just off of Troy’s wide beach. Shouting from ship to ship, we passed word of Agamemnon’s plan: the kings would take the front line, their men fanned out behind them. Maneuvering into place was chaos; there were three collisions, and everyone chipped oars on someone else’s hull.

At last we were set, with Diomedes on our left and Meriones on our right. The drums began to beat and the line of ships thrust forward, stroke by stroke. Agamemnon had given the order to go slowly, to hold the line and keep pace as one. But our kings were green still at following another man’s orders, and each wanted the honor of being first to Troy. Sweat streamed from the faces of the rowers as their leaders lashed them on.

We stood at the prow with Phoinix and Automedon, watching the shore draw closer. Idly, Achilles tossed and caught his spear. The oarsmen had begun to set their strokes by it, the steady, repetitive slap of wood against his palm.

Closer, we started to see distinction on the shore: tall trees and mountains resolving out of the blurring green-brown land. We had edged ahead of Diomedes and were a whole ship length in front of Meriones.

“There are men on the beach,” Achilles said. He squinted. “With weapons.”

Before I could respond, a horn blew from somewhere in the fleet, and others answered it. The alarm. On the wind came the faint echo of shouts. We had thought we would surprise the Trojans, but they knew we were coming. They were waiting for us.

All along the line, rowers jammed their oars into the water to slow our approach. The men on the beach were undoubtedly soldiers, all dressed in the dark crimson of the house of Priam. A chariot flew along their ranks, churning up sand. The man in it wore a horsehair helmet, and even from a distance we could see the strong lines of his body. He was large, yes, but not as large as Ajax or Menelaus. His power came from his carriage, his perfectly squared shoulders, the straight line of his back arrowing up to heaven. This was no slouchy prince of wine halls and debauchery, as Easterners were said to be. This was a man who moved like the gods were watching; every gesture he made was upright and correct. There was no one else it could be but Hector.

He leapt from the chariot, shouting to his men. We saw spears hoisted and arrows nocked. We were still too far away for their bows, but the tide was dragging us in despite our oars, and the anchors were not catching. Shouts came down the line, in confusion. Agamemnon had no orders; hold position; do not make landfall.

“We are almost in range of their arrows,” Achilles commented. He did not seem alarmed by it, though around us there was panic and the sound of feet pounding the deck.

I stared at the shore coming closer. Hector was gone now, back up the beach to a different part of his army. But there was another man before us, a captain, in leather armor and a full helmet that covered all but his beard. He pulled back the string of his bow as the line of ships drew closer. It was not as big a weapon as Philoctetes’, but it was not far off. He sighted along the shaft and prepared to kill his first Greek.

He never had the chance. I did not see Achilles move, but I heard it: the whistle of air, and his soft exhalation. The spear was out of his hand and flying across the water that separated our deck from the beach. It was a gesture only. No spearman could throw half so far as an arrow could fly. It would fall well short.

It did not. Its black head pierced the bowman’s chest, drove him backwards and over. His arrow twanged harmlessly into the air, shot wild from nerveless fingers. He fell to the sand and did not rise.

From the ships beside us, those who had seen, there were shouts and triumphant horns. The news flared along the line of Greek ships, in either direction: first blood was ours, spilt by the god-like prince of Phthia.

Achilles’ face was still, almost peaceful. He did not look like a man who had performed a miracle. On the shore, the Trojans shook their weapons and shouted strange, harsh words. There was a group of them kneeling around the fallen man. Behind me I heard Phoinix whisper something to Automedon, who ran off. A moment later he reappeared with a handful of spears. Achilles took one without looking, hefted it, and threw. I watched him this time, the graceful curve of his arm, the lift of his chin. He did not pause, as most men did, to aim or sight. He knew where it would go. On the shore another man fell.

We were close now, and arrows began to fly on both sides. Many hit the water, others stuck in masts and hulls. A few men cried out along our line; a few men fell along theirs. Achilles calmly took a shield from Automedon. “Stand behind me,” he said. I did. When an arrow came close, he brushed it aside with the shield. He took another spear.

The soldiers grew wilder—their overeager arrows and spears littered the water. Somewhere down the line Protesilaus, Prince of Phylace, leapt laughing from the bow of his ship and began to swim to shore. Perhaps he was drunk; perhaps his blood was fired with hopes of glory; perhaps he wished to outdo the prince of Phthia. A spinning spear, from Hector himself, hit him, and the surf around him flushed red. He was the first of the Greeks to die.

Our men slid down ropes, lifted huge shields to cover themselves from arrows, and began to stream to shore. The Trojans were well marshaled, but the beach offered no natural defense and we outnumbered them. At a command from Hector they seized their fallen comrades and relinquished the beach. Their point had been made: they would not be so easy to kill.

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