فصل 20

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فصل 20

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Chapter Twenty

WE GAINED THE BEACH, AND PULLED THE FIRST SHIPS onto the sand. Scouts were sent ahead to watch for further Trojan ambush, and guards were posted. Hot though it was, no one took off his armor.

Quickly, while ships still clogged the harbor behind us, lots were drawn for the placement of each kingdom’s camp. The spot assigned to the Phthians was at the farthest end of the beach, away from where the marketplace would be, away from Troy and all the other kings. I spared a quick glance at Odysseus; it was he who had chosen the lots. His face was mild and inscrutable as always.

“How do we know how far to go?” Achilles asked. He was shading his eyes and looking north. The beach seemed to stretch on forever.

“When the sand ends,” Odysseus said.

Achilles gestured our ships up the beach, and the Myrmidon captains began unsnarling themselves from the other fleet lines to follow. The sun beat down on us—it seemed brighter here, but perhaps that was only the whiteness of the sand. We walked until we came to a grassy rise springing from the beach. It was crescent-shaped, cradling our future camp at the side and back. At its top was a forest that spread east towards a glinting river. To the south, Troy was a smudge on the horizon. If the pick had been Odysseus’ design, we owed him our thanks—it was the best of the camps by far, offering green and shade and quiet.

We left the Myrmidons under Phoinix’s direction and made our way back to the main camp. Every place we walked buzzed with the same activities: dragging ships onto the shore, setting tents, unloading supplies. There was a hectic energy to the men, a manic purpose. We were here, at last.

Along the way we passed the camp of Achilles’ famous cousin, towering Ajax, king of the isle of Salamis. We had seen him from afar at Aulis and heard the rumors: he cracked the deck of the ship when he walked, he had borne a bull a mile on his back. We found him lifting huge bags out of his ship’s hold. His muscles looked large as boulders.

“Son of Telamon,” Achilles said.

The huge man turned. Slowly, he registered the unmistakable boy before him. His eyes narrowed, and then stiff politeness took over. “Pelides,” he said thickly. He put down his burden and offered a hand knobbed with calluses big as olives. I pitied Ajax, a little. He would be Aristos Achaion, if Achilles were not.

Back in the main camp, we stood on the hill that marked the boundary between sand and grass, and regarded the thing we had come for. Troy. It was separated from us by a flat expanse of grass and framed by two wide, lazy rivers. Even so far away, its stone walls caught the sharp sun and gleamed. We fancied we could see the metallic glint of the famous Scaean gate, its brazen hinges said to be tall as a man.

Later, I would see those walls up close, their sharp squared stones perfectly cut and fitted against each other, the work of the god Apollo, it was said. And I would wonder at them—at how, ever, the city could be taken. For they were too high for siege towers, and too strong for catapults, and no sane person would ever try to climb their sheer, divinely smoothed face.

WHEN THE SUN HUNG LOW in the sky, Agamemnon called the first council meeting. A large tent had been set up and filled with a few rows of chairs in a ragged semicircle. At the front of the room sat Agamemnon and Menelaus, flanked by Odysseus and Diomedes. The kings came in and took their seats one by one. Trained from birth in hierarchy, the lesser kings took the lesser places, leaving the front rows for their more famous peers. Achilles, with no hesitation, took a seat in the first row and motioned me to sit beside him. I did so, waiting for someone to object, to ask for my removal. But then Ajax arrived with his bastard half-brother Teucer, and Idomeneus brought his squire and charioteer. Apparently the best were allowed their indulgences.

Unlike those meetings we had heard complaints of at Aulis (pompous, pointless, endless), this was all business—latrines, food supplies, and strategy. The kings were divided between attack and diplomacy—should we not perhaps try to be civilized first? Surprisingly, Menelaus was the loudest voice in favor of a parley. “I will gladly go myself to treat with them,” he said. “It is my office.” “What have we come all this way for, if you intend to talk them into surrender?” Diomedes complained. “I could have stayed at home.”

“We are not savages,” Menelaus said stubbornly. “Perhaps they will hear reason.”

“But likely not. Why waste the time?”

“Because, dear King of Argos, if war comes after some diplomacy or delay, we do not seem so much the villains.” This was Odysseus. “Which means the cities of Anatolia will not feel so much duty to come to Troy’s aid.” “You are for it then, Ithaca?” Agamemnon asked.

Odysseus shrugged. “There are many ways to start a war. I always think raiding makes a good beginning. It accomplishes almost the same thing as diplomacy, but with greater profit.”

“Yes! Raiding!” brayed Nestor. “We must have a show of strength before anything else!”

Agamemnon rubbed his chin and swung his gaze over the room of kings. “I think Nestor and Odysseus are correct. Raids first. Then perhaps we will send an embassy. We begin tomorrow.”

He needed to give no further instructions. Raiding was typical siege warfare—you would not attack the city, but the lands that surrounded it that supplied it with grain and meat. You would kill those who resisted, make serfs of those who did not. All their food went now to you, and you held their daughters and wives as hostages to their loyalty. Those who escaped would flee to the city for sanctuary. Quarters would quickly grow crowded and mutinous; disease would arise. Eventually, the gates would have to open—out of desperation, if not honor.

I hoped that Achilles might object, declare that there was no glory in killing farmers. But he only nodded, as if this were his hundredth siege, as if he had done nothing but lead raids his whole life.

“One final thing—if there is an attack, I do not want chaos. We must have lines, and companies.” Agamemnon shifted in his chair, seemed almost nervous. Well he might be; our kings were prickly, and this was the first distribution of honor: the place in the line. If there was a rebellion against his authority, now would be the time. The very thought of it seemed to anger him, and his voice grew rougher. This was a frequent fault of his: the more precarious his position, the more unlikable he became.

“Menelaus and I will take the center, of course.” There was a faint ripple of discontent at that, but Odysseus spoke over it.

“Very wise, King of Mycenae. Messengers will be able to find you easily.”

“Exactly so.” Agamemnon nodded briskly, as if that had indeed been the reason. “To my brother’s left will be the prince of Phthia. And to my right, Odysseus. The wings will be Diomedes and Ajax.” All of these were the most dangerous positions, the places where the enemy would seek to flank or punch through. They were therefore the most important to hold at all costs, and the most prestigious.

“The rest shall be determined by lot.” When the murmur had died, Agamemnon stood. “It is settled. We begin tomorrow. Raids, at sun-up.”

The sun was just setting as we walked back up the beach to our camp. Achilles was well pleased. One of the greatest places of primacy was his, and without a fight. It was too soon for dinner, so we climbed the grassy hill that lay just beyond our camp, a thin thrust of land emerging from the woods. We stopped there a moment, surveying the new camp and the sea beyond. The dying light was in his hair, and his face was sweet with evening.

A question had burned in me since the battle on the ships, but there had been no time before now to ask it.

“Did you think of them as animals? As your father said?”

He shook his head. “I did not think at all.”

Over our heads the gulls screamed and wheeled. I tried to imagine him bloodied and murderous after his first raid tomorrow.

“Are you frightened?” I asked. The first call of a nightingale in the trees at our backs.

“No,” he answered. “This is what I was born for.”

I WOKE NEXT MORNING to the sound of Trojan waves against the Trojan shore. Achilles still drowsed beside me, so I left the tent to let him sleep. Outside the sky was as cloudless as the day before: the sun bright and piercing, the sea throwing off great sheets of light. I sat and felt the drops of sweat prick and pool against my skin.

In less than an hour the raid would begin. I had fallen asleep thinking of it; I had woken with it. We had discussed, already, that I would not go. Most of the men would not. This was a king’s raid, picked to grant first honors to the best warriors. It would be his first real kill.

Yes, there had been the men on the shore, the previous day. But that had been a distant thing, with no blood that we could see. They had fallen almost comically, from too far away to see their faces or pain.

Achilles emerged from the tent, already dressed. He sat beside me and ate the breakfast that was waiting for him. We said little.

There were no words to speak to him of how I felt. Our world was one of blood, and the honor it won; only cowards did not fight. For a prince there was no choice. You warred and won, or warred and died. Even Chiron had sent him a spear.

Phoinix was already up and marshaling the Myrmidons who would accompany him down by the water’s edge. It was their first fight, and they wanted their master’s voice. Achilles stood, and I watched as he strode towards them—the way the bronze buckles on his tunic threw off fire flashes, the way his dark purple cape brightened his hair to sun’s gold. He seemed so much the hero, I could barely remember that only the night before we had spit olive pits at each other, across the plate of cheeses that Phoinix had left for us. That we had howled with delight when he had landed one, wet and with bits of fruit still hanging from it, in my ear.

He held up his spear as he spoke, and shook its gray tip, dark as stone or stormy water. I felt sorry for other kings who had to fight for their authority or wore it poorly, their gestures jagged and rough. With Achilles it was graceful as a blessing, and the men lifted their faces to it, as they would to a priest.

After, he came to bid me farewell. He was life-size again and held his spear loosely, almost lazily.

“Will you help me put the rest of my armor on?”

I nodded and followed him into the cool of the tent, past the heavy cloth door that fell closed like a lamp blown out. I handed him bits of leather and metal as he gestured for them, coverings for his upper thighs, his arms, his belly. I watched him strap these things on, one by one, saw the stiff leather dig into his soft flesh, skin that only last night I had traced with my finger. My hand twitched towards him, longing to pull open the tight buckles, to release him. But I did not. The men were waiting.

I handed him the last piece, his helmet, bristling with horsehair, and watched as he fitted it over his ears, leaving only a thin strip of his face open. He leaned towards me, framed by bronze, smelling of sweat and leather and metal. I closed my eyes, felt his lips on mine, the only part of him still soft. Then he was gone.

Without him the tent seemed suddenly much smaller, close and smelling of the hides that hung on the walls. I lay on our bed and listened to his shouted orders, then the stamps and snorts of horses. Last of all, the creaking of his chariot wheels as they bore him off. At least I had no fears for his safety. As long as Hector lived he could not die. I closed my eyes and slept.

I WOKE TO HIS NOSE on mine, pressing insistently against me as I struggled from the webbing of my dreams. He smelled sharp and strange, and for a moment I was almost revolted at this creature that clung to me and shoved its face against mine. But then he sat back on his heels and was Achilles again, his hair damp and darkened, as if all the morning’s sun had been poured out of it. It stuck to his face and ears, flattened and wet from the helmet.

He was covered in blood, vivid splashes not yet dried to rust. My first thought was terror—that he was wounded, bleeding to death. “Where are you hurt?” I asked. My eyes raked him for the source of the blood. But the spatters seemed to come from nowhere. Slowly, my sleep-stupid brain understood. It was not his.

“They could not get close enough to touch me,” he said. There was a sort of wondering triumph in his voice. “I did not know how easy it would be. Like nothing. You should have seen it. The men cheered me afterwards.” His words were almost dreamy. “I cannot miss. I wish you had seen.” “How many?” I asked.

“Twelve.”

Twelve men with nothing at all to do with Paris or Helen or any of us.

“Farmers?” There was a bitterness to my voice that seemed to bring him back to himself.

“They were armed,” he said, quickly. “I would not kill an unarmed man.”

“How many will you kill tomorrow, do you think?” I asked.

He heard the edge in my voice and looked away. The pain on his face struck me, and I was ashamed. Where was my promise that I would forgive him? I knew what his destiny was, and I had chosen to come to Troy anyway. It was too late for me to object simply because my conscience had begun to chafe.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I asked him to tell me what it was like, all of it, as we had always spoken to each other. And he did, everything, how his first spear had pierced the hollow of a man’s cheek, carrying flesh with it as it came out the other side. How the second man had fallen struck through the chest, how the spear had caught against his ribcage when Achilles tried to retrieve it. The village had smelled terrible when they left it, muddy and metallic, with the flies already landing.

I listened to every word, imagining it was a story only. As if it were dark figures on an urn he spoke of instead of men.

AGAMEMNON POSTED GUARDS to watch Troy every hour of every day. We were all waiting for something—an attack, or an embassy, or a demonstration of power. But Troy kept her gates shut, and so the raids continued. I learned to sleep through the day so that I would not be tired when he returned; he always needed to talk then, to tell me down to the last detail about the faces and the wounds and the movements of men. And I wanted to be able to listen, to digest the bloody images, to paint them flat and unremarkable onto the vase of posterity. To release him from it and make him Achilles again.

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