فصل 22کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 22
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AS TRIUMPHANT AS THE RAIDS WERE, THEY WERE ONLY raids. The men who died were farmers, tradesmen, from the vast network of villages that supported the mighty city—not soldiers. In councils Agamemnon’s jaw grew increasingly tight, and the men were restive: where was the fight we were promised?
Close, Odysseus said. He pointed out the steady flood of refugees into Troy. The city must be near to bursting now. Hungry families would be spilling into the palace, makeshift tents would clog the city’s streets. It was only a matter of time, he told us.
As if conjured by his prophecy, a flag of parley flew above Troy’s walls the very next morning. The soldier on watch raced down the beach to tell Agamemnon: King Priam was willing to receive an embassy.
The camp was afire with the news. One way or another now, something would happen. They would return Helen, or we would get to fight for her properly, in the field.
The council of kings sent Menelaus and Odysseus, the obvious choices. The two men left at first light on their high- stepping horses, brushed to a shine and jingling with ornament. We watched them cross the grass of Troy’s wide plain, then vanish into the blur of the dark gray walls.
Achilles and I waited in our tents, wondering. Would they see Helen? Paris could hardly dare to keep her from her husband, and he could hardly dare to show her either. Menelaus had gone conspicuously unarmed; perhaps he did not trust himself.
“Do you know why she chose him?” Achilles asked me.
“Menelaus? No.” I remembered the king’s face in Tyndareus’ hall, glowing with health and good humor. He had been handsome, but not the handsomest man there. He had been powerful, but there were many men with more wealth and greater deeds to their name. “He brought a generous gift. And her sister was already married to his brother, maybe that was part of it.” Achilles considered this, arm folded behind his head. “Do you think she went with Paris willingly?”
“I think if she did, she will not admit it to Menelaus.”
“Mmm.” He tapped a finger against his chest, thinking. “She must have been willing, though. Menelaus’ palace is like a fortress. If she had struggled or cried out, someone would have heard. She knew he must come after her, for his honor if nothing else. And that Agamemnon would seize this opportunity and invoke the oath.” “I would not have known that.”
“You are not married to Menelaus.”
“So you think she did it on purpose? To cause the war?” This shocked me.
“Maybe. She used to be known as the most beautiful woman in our kingdoms. Now they say she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.” He put on his best singer’s falsetto. “A thousand ships have sailed for her.”
A thousand was the number Agamemnon’s bards had started using; one thousand, one hundred and eighty-six didn’t fit well in a line of verse.
“Maybe she really fell in love with Paris.”
“Maybe she was bored. After ten years shut up in Sparta, I’d want to leave too.”
“Maybe Aphrodite made her.”
“Maybe they’ll bring her back with them.”
We considered this.
“I think Agamemnon would attack anyway.”
“I think so too. They never even mention her anymore.”
“Except in speeches to the men.”
We were silent a moment.
“So which of the suitors would you have picked?”
I shoved him, and he laughed.
THEY RETURNED AT NIGHTFALL, alone. Odysseus reported to the council, while Menelaus sat silent. King Priam had welcomed them warmly, feasted them in his hall. Then he had stood before them, flanked by Paris and Hector, with his other forty-eight sons arrayed behind. “We know why you have come,” he said. “But the lady herself does not wish to return, and has put herself under our protection. I have never refused a woman’s defense, and I will not begin now.” “Clever,” said Diomedes. “They have found a way around their guilt.”
Odysseus continued, “I told them that if they were so resolved, there was no more to say.”
Agamemnon rose, his voice ringing grandly. “Indeed there is not. We have tried diplomacy and been rebuffed. Our only honorable course is war. Tomorrow you go to win the glory you deserve, every last man of you.”
There was more, but I did not hear it. Every last man. Fear sluiced through me. How could I not have thought of this? Of course I would be expected to fight. We were at war now, and all had to serve. Especially the closest companion of Aristos Achaion.
That night I barely slept. The spears that leaned against the walls of our tent seemed impossibly tall, and my mind scrambled to remember a few lessons—how to heft them, how to duck. The Fates had said nothing about me—nothing about how long I would live. I woke Achilles, in panic.
“I will be there,” he promised me.
IN THE DARK just before dawn, Achilles helped me arm. Greaves, gauntlets, a leather cuirass and bronze breastplate over it. It all seemed more of a hindrance than protection, knocking against my chin when I walked, confining my arms, weighing me down. He assured me that I would get used to it. I did not believe him. Walking out of the tent into the morning’s sun I felt foolish, like someone trying on an older brother’s clothing. The Myrmidons were waiting, jostling each other with excitement. Together we began the long trip down the beach to the enormous, massing army. Already my breaths were shallow and swift.
We could hear the army before we saw it; boasting, clattering weapons, blowing horns. Then the beach unkinked and revealed a bristling sea of men laid out in neat squares. Each was marked with a pennant that declared its king. Only one square was empty still: a place of primacy, reserved for Achilles and his Myrmidons. We marched forward and arrayed ourselves, Achilles out in front, then a line of captains to either side of me. Behind us, rank upon gleaming rank of proud Phthians.
Before us was the wide flat plain of Troy, ending in the massive gates and towers of the city. At its base a roiling morass was ranged up against us, a blur of dark heads and polished shields that caught the sun and flashed. “Stay behind me,” Achilles turned to say. I nodded, and the helmet shook around my ears. Fear was twisting inside of me, a wobbling cup of panic that threatened each moment to spill. The greaves dug into the bones of my feet; my spear weighed down my arm. A trumpet blew and my chest heaved. Now. It was now.
In a clanking, clattering mass, we lurched into a run. This is how we fought—a dead-run charge that met the enemy in the middle. With enough momentum you could shatter their ranks all at once.
Our lines went quickly ragged as some outstripped others in their speed, glory-hungry, eager to be the first to kill a real Trojan. By halfway across the plain we were no longer in ranks, or even kingdoms. The Myrmidons had largely passed me, drifting in a cloud off to the left, and I mingled among Menelaus’ long-haired Spartans, all oiled and combed for battle.
I ran, armor banging. My breath came thickly, and the ground shook with the pounding of feet, a rumbling roar growing louder. The dust kicked up by the charge was almost blinding. I could not see Achilles. I could not see the man beside me. I could do nothing but grip my shield and run.
The front lines collided in an explosion of sound, a burst of spraying splinters and bronze and blood. A writhing mass of men and screams, sucking up rank after rank like Charybdis. I saw the mouths of men moving but could not hear them. There was only the crash of shields against shields, of bronze against shattering wood.
A Spartan beside me dropped suddenly, transfixed through the chest by a spear. My head jerked around, looking for the man who had thrown it, but saw nothing but a jumble of bodies. I knelt by the Spartan to close his eyes, to say a quick prayer, then almost vomited when I saw that he was still alive, wheezing at me in beseeching terror.
A crash next to me—I startled and saw Ajax using his giant shield like a club, smashing it into faces and bodies. In his wake, the wheels of a Trojan chariot creaked by, and a boy peered over the side, showing his teeth like a dog. Odysseus pounded past, running to capture its horses. The Spartan clutched at me, his blood pouring over my hands. The wound was too deep; there was nothing to be done. A dull relief when the light faded from his eyes at last. I closed them with gritty, trembling fingers.
I staggered dizzily to my feet; the plain seemed to slew and pound like surf before me. My eyes would not focus; there was too much movement, flashes of sun and armor and skin.
Achilles appeared from somewhere. He was blood-splattered and breathless, his face flushed, his spear smeared red up to the grip. He grinned at me, then turned and leapt into a clump of Trojans. The ground was strewn with bodies and bits of armor, with spear-shafts and chariot wheels, but he never stumbled, not once. He was the only thing on the battlefield that didn’t pitch feverishly, like the salt-slicked deck of a ship, until I was sick with it.
I did not kill anyone, or even attempt to. At the end of the morning, hours and hours of nauseating chaos, my eyes were sun blind, and my hand ached with gripping my spear—though I had used it more often to lean on than threaten. My helmet was a boulder crushing my ears slowly into my skull.
It felt like I had run for miles, though when I looked down I saw that my feet had beaten the same circle over and over again, flattening the same dry grass as if preparing a dancing field. Constant terror had siphoned and drained me, even though somehow I always seemed to be in a lull, a strange pocket of emptiness into which no men came, and I was never threatened.
It was a measure of my dullness, my dizziness, that it took me until midafternoon to see that this was Achilles’ doing. His gaze was on me always, preternaturally sensing the moment when a soldier’s eyes widened at the easy target I presented. Before the man drew another breath, he would cut him down.
He was a marvel, shaft after shaft flying from him, spears that he wrenched easily from broken bodies on the ground to toss at new targets. Again and again I saw his wrist twist, exposing its pale underside, those flute-like bones thrusting elegantly forward. My spear sagged forgotten to the ground as I watched. I could not even see the ugliness of the deaths anymore, the brains, the shattered bones that later I would wash from my skin and hair. All I saw was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet.
DUSK CAME AT LAST and released us, limping and exhausted, back to our tents, dragging the wounded and dead. A good day, our kings said, clapping each other on the back. An auspicious beginning. Tomorrow we will do it again.
We did it again, and again. A day of fighting became a week, then a month. Then two.
It was a strange war. No territory was gained, no prisoners were taken. It was for honor only, man against man. With time, a mutual rhythm emerged: we fought a civilized seven days out of ten, with time off for festivals and funerals. No raids, no surprise attacks. The leaders, once buoyant with hopes of swift victory, grew resigned to a lengthy engagement. The armies were remarkably well matched, could tussle on the field day after day with no side discernibly stronger. This was due in part to the soldiers who poured in from all over Anatolia to help the Trojans and make their names. Our people were not the only ones greedy for glory.
Achilles flourished. He went to battle giddily, grinning as he fought. It was not the killing that pleased him—he learned quickly that no single man was a match for him. Nor any two men, nor three. He took no joy in such easy butchery, and less than half as many fell to him as might have. What he lived for were the charges, a cohort of men thundering towards him. There, amidst twenty stabbing swords he could finally, truly fight. He gloried in his own strength, like a racehorse too long penned, allowed at last to run. With a fevered impossible grace he fought off ten, fifteen, twenty-five men. This, at last, is what I can really do.
I did not have to go with him as often as I had feared. The longer the war dragged on, the less it seemed important to roust every Greek from his tent. I was not a prince, with honor at stake. I was not a soldier, bound to obedience, or a hero whose skill would be missed. I was an exile, a man with no status or rank. If Achilles saw fit to leave me behind, that was his business alone.
My visits to the field faded to five days, then three, then once every week. Then only when Achilles asked me. This was not often. Most days he was content to go alone, to wade out and perform only for himself. But from time to time he would grow sick of the solitude and beg me to join him, to strap on the leather stiffened with sweat and blood and clamber over bodies with him. To bear witness to his miracles.
Sometimes, as I watched him, I would catch sight of a square of ground where soldiers did not go. It would be near to Achilles, and if I stared at it, it would grow light, then lighter. At last it might reluctantly yield its secret: a woman, white as death, taller than the men who toiled around her. No matter how the blood sprayed, it did not fall on her pale-gray dress. Her bare feet did not seem to touch the earth. She did not help her son; she did not need to. Only watched, as I did, with her huge black eyes. I could not read the look on her face; it might have been pleasure, or grief, or nothing at all.
Except for the time she turned and saw me. Her face twisted in disgust, and her lips pulled back from her teeth. She hissed like a snake, and vanished.
In the field beside him, I steadied, got my sea legs. I was able to discern other soldiers whole, not just body parts, pierced flesh, bronze. I could even drift, sheltered in the harbor of Achilles’ protection, along the battle lines, seeking out the other kings. Closest to us was Agamemnon skilled-at-the-spear, always behind the bulk of his well-ranked Mycenaeans. From such safety he would shout orders and hurl spears. It was true enough that he was skilled at it: he had to be to clear the heads of twenty men.
Diomedes, unlike his commander, was fearless. He fought like a feral, savage animal, leaping forward, teeth bared, in quick strikes that did not so much puncture flesh as tear it. After, he would lean wolfishly over the body to strip it, tossing the bits of gold and bronze onto his chariot before moving on.
Odysseus carried a light shield and faced his foes crouched like a bear, spear held low in his sun-browned hand. He would watch the other man with glittering eyes, tracking the flicker of his muscles for where and how the spear would come. When it had passed harmlessly by, he would run forward and spit him at close quarters, like a man spearing fish. His armor was always soaked with blood by the day’s end.
I began to know the Trojans, too: Paris, loosing careless arrows from a speeding chariot. His face, even strapped and compressed by the helmet, was cruelly beautiful—bones fine as Achilles’ fingers. His slim hips lounged against the sides of his chariot in habitual hauteur, and his red cloak fell around him in rich folds. No wonder he was Aphrodite’s favorite: he seemed as vain as she.
From far off, glimpsed only quickly through the corridors of shifting men, I saw Hector. He was always alone, strangely solitary in the space the other men gave him. He was capable and steady and thoughtful, every movement considered. His hands were large and work-roughened, and sometimes, as our army withdrew, we would see him washing the blood from them, so he could pray without pollution. A man who still loved the gods, even as his brothers and cousins fell because of them; who fought fiercely for his family rather than the fragile ice-crust of fame. Then the ranks would close, and he would be gone.
I never tried to get closer to him, and neither did Achilles, who carefully turned from his glimpsed figure to face other Trojans, to wade off to other shoals. Afterwards, when Agamemnon would ask him when he would confront the prince of Troy, he would smile his most guileless, maddening smile. “What has Hector ever done to me?”
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