فصل 24

کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 25

فصل 24

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Chapter Twenty-Five

ONE DAY IN THE NINTH YEAR, A GIRL MOUNTED THE dais. There was a bruise on her cheek, spreading like spilled wine down the side of her face. Ribbons fluttered from her hair—ceremonial fillets that marked her as servant to a god. A priest’s daughter, I heard someone say. Achilles and I exchanged a glance.

She was beautiful, despite her terror: large hazel eyes set in a round face, soft chestnut hair loose around her ears, a slender girlish frame. As we watched, her eyes filled, dark pools that brimmed their banks, spilling down her cheeks, falling from her chin to the ground. She did not wipe them away. Her hands were tied behind her back.

As the men gathered, her eyes lifted, seeking the sky in mute prayer. I nudged Achilles, and he nodded; but before he could claim her, Agamemnon stepped forward. He rested one hand on her slight, bowed shoulder. “This is Chryseis,” he said. “And I take her for myself.” Then he pulled her from the dais, leading her roughly to his tent. I saw the priest Calchas frowning, his mouth half-open as if he might object. But then he closed it, and Odysseus finished the distribution.

IT WAS BARELY A MONTH after that the girl’s father came, walking down the beach with a staff of gold-studded wood, threaded with garlands. He wore his beard long in the style of Anatolian priests, his hair unbound but decorated with bits of ribbon to match his staff. His robe was banded with red and gold, loose with fabric that billowed and flapped around his legs. Behind him, silent underpriests strained to heft the weight of huge wooden chests. He did not slow for their faltering steps but strode relentlessly onwards.

The small procession moved past the tents of Ajax, and Diomedes, and Nestor—closest to the agora—and then onto the dais itself. By the time Achilles and I had heard, and run, weaving around slower soldiers, he had planted himself there, staff strong. When Agamemnon and Menelaus mounted the dais to approach him, he did not acknowledge them, only stood there proud before his treasure and the heaving chests of his underlings. Agamemnon glowered at the presumption, but held his tongue.

Finally, when enough soldiers had gathered, drawn from every corner by breathless rumor, he turned to survey them all, his eyes moving across the crowd, taking in kings and common. Landing, at last, on the twin sons of Atreus who stood before him.

He spoke in a voice resonant and grave, made for leading prayers. He gave his name, Chryses, and identified himself, staff raised, as a high priest of Apollo. Then he pointed to the chests, open now to show gold and gems and bronze catching the sun.

“None of this tells us why you have come, Priest Chryses.” Menelaus’ voice was even, but with an edge of impatience. Trojans did not climb the dais of the Greek kings and make speeches.

“I have come to ransom my daughter, Chryseis,” he said. “Taken unlawfully by the Greek army from our temple. A slight girl, and young, with fillets in her hair.” The Greeks muttered. Suppliants seeking ransom knelt and begged, they did not speak like kings giving sentence in court. Yet he was a high priest, not used to bending to anyone but his god, and allowances could be made. The gold he offered was generous, twice what the girl was worth, and a priest’s favor was never something to scorn. That word, unlawful, had been sharp as a drawn sword, but we could not say that he was wrong to use it. Even Diomedes and Odysseus were nodding, and Menelaus drew a breath as if to speak.

But Agamemnon stepped forward, broad as a bear, his neck muscles twisting in anger.

“Is this how a man begs? You are lucky I do not kill you where you stand. I am this army’s commander,” he spat. “And you have no leave to speak before my men. Here is your answer: no. There will be no ransom. She is my prize, and I will not give her up now or ever. Not for this trash, or any other you can bring.” His fingers clenched, only inches from the priest’s throat. “You will depart now, and let me not ever catch you in my camps again, priest, or even your garlands will not save you.” Chryses’ jaw was clamped down on itself, though whether from fear or biting back a reply we could not tell. His eyes burned with bitterness. Sharply, without a word, he turned and stepped from the dais and strode back up the beach. Behind him trailed his underpriests with their clinking boxes of treasure.

Even after Agamemnon left and the men had exploded into gossip around me, I watched the shamed priest’s distant, retreating figure. Those at the end of the beach said that he was crying out and shaking his staff at the sky.

That night, slipping among us like a snake, quick and silent and flickering, the plague began.

WHEN WE WOKE the next morning, we saw the mules drooping against their fences, breaths shallow and bubbling with yellow mucus, eyes rolling. Then by midday it was the dogs—whining and snapping at the air, tongues foaming a red-tinged scum. By the late afternoon, every one of these beasts was dead, or dying, shuddering on the ground in pools of bloody vomit.

Machaon and I, and Achilles too, burned them as fast as they fell, ridding the camp of their bile-soaked bodies, their bones that rattled as we tossed them onto the pyres. When we went back to the camp that night, Achilles and I scrubbed ourselves in the harsh salt of the sea, and then with clean water from the stream in the forest. We did not use the Simois or the Scamander, the big meandering Trojan rivers that the other men washed in and drank from.

In bed, later, we speculated in hushed whispers, unable to help but listen for the hitch in our own breath, the gathering of mucus in our throats. But we heard nothing except our voices repeating the remedies Chiron had taught us like murmured prayers.

THE NEXT MORNING it was the men. Dozens pierced with illness, crumpling where they stood, their eyes bulging and wet, lips cracking open and bleeding fine red threads down their chins. Machaon and Achilles and Podalerius and I, and even, eventually, Briseis, ran to drag away each newly dropped man—downed as suddenly as if by a spear or arrow.

At the edge of the camp a field of sick men bloomed. Ten and twenty and then fifty of them, shuddering, calling for water, tearing off their clothes for respite from the fire they claimed raged in them. Finally, in the later hours, their skin broke apart, macerating like holes in a worn blanket, shredding to pus and pulpy blood. At last their violent trembling ceased, and they lay puddling in the swamp of their final torrent: the dark emptying of their bowels, clotted with blood.

Achilles and I built pyre after pyre, burning every scrap of wood we could find. Finally we abandoned dignity and ritual for necessity, throwing onto each fire not one, but a heap of bodies. We did not even have time to stand watch over them as their flesh and bone mingled and melted together.

Eventually most of the kings joined us—Menelaus first, then Ajax, who split whole trees with a single stroke, fuel for fire after fire. As we worked, Diomedes went among the men and discovered the few who still lay concealed in their tents, shaking with fever and vomit, hidden by their friends who did not want, yet, to send them to the death grounds. Agamemnon did not leave his tent.

Another day then, and another, and every company, every king, had lost dozens of soldiers. Although strangely, Achilles and I noted, our hands pulling closed eyelid after eyelid, none of them were kings. Only minor nobles and foot soldiers. None of them were women; this too we noticed. Our eyes found each other’s, full of suspicions that grew as men dropped suddenly with a cry, hands clutching their chests where the plague had struck them like the quick shaft of an arrow.

IT WAS THE NINTH NIGHT of this—of corpses, and burning, and our faces streaked with pus. We stood in our tent gasping with exhaustion, stripping off the tunics we had worn, throwing them aside for the fire. Our suspicions tumbled out, confirmed in a thousand ways, that this was not a natural plague, not the creeping spread of haphazard disease. It was something else, sudden and cataclysmic as the snuffing of Aulis’ winds. A god’s displeasure.

We remembered Chryses and his righteous outrage at Agamemnon’s blasphemy, his disregard for the codes of war and fair ransom. And we remembered, too, which god he served. The divinity of light and medicine and plague.

Achilles slipped out of the tent when the moon was high. He came back some time later, smelling of the sea.

“What does she say?” I asked, sitting up in bed.

“She says we are right.”

ON THE TENTH DAY of the plague, with the Myrmidons at our backs, we strode up the beach to the agora. Achilles mounted the dais and cupped his hands to help his voice carry. Shouting over the roar of pyres and the weeping of women and the groans of the dying, he called for every man in camp to gather.

Slowly, fearfully, men staggered forward, blinking in the sun. They looked pale and hunted, fearful of the plague arrows that sank in chests like stones into water, spreading their rot as ripples in a pond. Achilles watched them come, armor buckled around him, sword strapped to his side, his hair gleaming like water poured over bright bronze. It was not forbidden for someone other than the general to call a meeting, but it had never been done in our ten years at Troy.

Agamemnon shouldered through the crowd with his Mycenaeans to mount the dais. “What is this?” he demanded.

Achilles greeted him politely. “I have gathered the men to speak of the plague. Do I have your leave to address them?”

Agamemnon’s shoulders were hunched forward with shame-sprung rage; he should have called this meeting himself long ago, and he knew it. He could hardly rebuke Achilles for doing it now, especially not with the men watching. The contrast between the two had never seemed more sharp: Achilles relaxed and in control, with an ease that denied the funeral pyres and sunken cheeks; Agamemnon with his face tight as a miser’s fist, louring over us all.

Achilles waited until the men had assembled, kings and common both. Then he stepped forward and smiled. “Kings,” he said, “Lords, Men of the Greek Kingdoms, how can we fight a war when we are dying of plague? It’s time—past time—that we learn what we have done to deserve a god’s anger.” Swift whispers and murmurs; men had suspected the gods. Was not all great evil and good sent from their hands? But to hear Achilles say so openly was a relief. His mother was a goddess, and he would know.

Agamemnon’s lips were pulled back to show his teeth. He stood too close to Achilles, as if he would crowd him off the dais. Achilles did not seem to notice. “We have a priest here, among us, a man close to the gods. Should we not ask him to speak?” A hopeful ripple of assent went through the men. I could hear the creaking of metal, Agamemnon’s grip on his own wrist, the slow strangle of his buckled gauntlet.

Achilles turned to the king. “Is this not what you recommended to me, Agamemnon?”

Agamemnon’s eyes narrowed. He did not trust generosity; he did not trust anything. He stared at Achilles a moment, waiting for the trap. At last, ungratefully, he said, “Yes. I did.” He gestured roughly to his Mycenaeans. “Bring me Calchas.” They towed the priest forward, out of the crowd. He was uglier than ever, with his beard that never quite filled in, his hair scraggly and rank with sour sweat. He had a habit of darting his tongue across cracked lips before he spoke.

“High King and Prince Achilles, you catch me unprepared. I did not think that—” Those freakish blue eyes flickered between the two men. “That is, I did not expect I would be asked to speak here before so many.” His voice wheedled and ducked, like a weasel escaping the nest.

“Speak,” Agamemnon commanded.

Calchas seemed at a loss; his tongue swiped his lips again and again.

Achilles’ clear voice prompted him. “You have done sacrifices surely? You have prayed?”

“I—have, of course I have. But . . .” The priest’s voice trembled. “I am afraid that what I say might anger someone here. Someone who is powerful and does not forget insult easily.” Achilles squatted to reach a hand out to the grimed shoulder of the flinching priest, clasping it genially. “Calchas, we are dying. This is not the time for such fears. What man among us would hold your words against you? I would not, even if you named me as the cause. Would any of you?” He looked at the men before him. They shook their heads.

“You see? No sane man would ever harm a priest.”

Agamemnon’s neck went taut as ship ropes. I was suddenly aware of how strange it was to see him standing alone. Always his brother or Odysseus or Diomedes was near him. But those men waited on the side, with the rest of the princes.

Calchas cleared his throat. “The auguries have shown that it is the god Apollo who is angry.” Apollo. The name went through the host like wind in summer wheat.

Calchas’ eyes flickered to Agamemnon, then back to Achilles. He swallowed. “He is offended, it seems, so the omens say, at the treatment of his dedicated servant. Chryses.” Agamemnon’s shoulders were rigid.

Calchas stumbled on. “To appease him, the girl Chryseis must be returned without ransom, and High King Agamemnon must offer prayers and sacrifices.” He stopped, his last word gulped down suddenly, as if he had run out of air.

Agamemnon’s face had broken into dark red blotches of shock. It seemed like the greatest arrogance or stupidity not to have guessed he might be at fault, but he had not. The silence was so profound I felt I could hear the grains of sand falling against each other at our feet.

“Thank you, Calchas,” Agamemnon said, his voice splintering the air. “Thank you for always bringing good news. Last time it was my daughter. Kill her, you said, because you have angered the goddess. Now you seek to humiliate me before my army.” He wheeled on the men, his face twisted in rage. “Am I not your general? And do I not see you fed and clothed and honored? And are my Mycenaeans not the largest part of this army? The girl is mine, given to me as a prize, and I will not give her up. Have you forgotten who I am?” He paused, as if he hoped the men might shout No! No! But none did.

“King Agamemnon.” Achilles stepped forward. His voice was easy, almost amused. “I don’t think anyone has forgotten that you are leader of this host. But you do not seem to remember that we are kings in our own right, or princes, or heads of our families. We are allies, not slaves.” A few men nodded; more would have liked to.

“Now, while we die, you complain about the loss of a girl you should have ransomed long ago. You say nothing of the lives you have taken, or the plague you have started.” Agamemnon made an inarticulate noise, his face purple with rage. Achilles held up a hand.

“I do not mean to dishonor you. I only wish to end the plague. Send the girl to her father and be done.”

Agamemnon’s cheeks were creased with fury. “I understand you, Achilles. You think because you’re the son of a sea-nymph you have the right to play high prince wherever you go. You have never learned your place among men.” Achilles opened his mouth to answer.

“You will be silent,” Agamemnon said, words lashing like a whip. “You will not speak another word or you will be sorry.”

“Or I will be sorry?” Achilles’ face was very still. The words were quiet, but distinctly audible. “I do not think, High King, that you can afford to say such things to me.” “Do you threaten me?” Agamemnon shouted. “Did you not hear him threaten me?”

“It is not a threat. What is your army without me?”

Agamemnon’s face was clotted with malice. “You have always thought too much of yourself,” he sneered. “We should have left you where we found you, hiding behind your mother’s skirts. In a skirt yourself.” The men frowned in confusion, whispered to each other.

Achilles’ hands were fisted at his sides; he hung on to his composure, barely. “You say this to turn attention away from yourself. If I had not called this council, how long would you have let your men die? Can you answer that?” Agamemnon was already roaring over him. “When all of these brave men came to Aulis, they knelt to offer me their loyalty. All of them but you. I think we have indulged your arrogance long enough. It is time, past time”—he mimicked Achilles—“that you swore the oath.” “I do not need to prove myself to you. To any of you.” Achilles’ voice was cold, his chin lifted in disdain. “I am here of my own free will, and you are lucky that it is so. I am not the one who should kneel.” It was too far. I felt the men shift around me. Agamemnon seized upon it, like a bird bolting a fish. “Do you hear his pride?” He turned to Achilles. “You will not kneel?” Achilles’ face was like stone. “I will not.”

“Then you are a traitor to this army, and will be punished like one. Your war prizes are hostage, placed in my care until you offer your obedience and submission. Let us start with that girl. Briseis, is her name? She will do as penance for the girl you have forced me to return.” The air died in my lungs.

“She is mine,” Achilles said. Each word fell sharp, like a butcher cutting meat. “Given to me by all the Greeks. You cannot take her. If you try, your life is forfeit. Think on that, King, before you bring harm to yourself.” Agamemnon’s answer came quickly. He could never back down in front of a crowd. Never.

“I do not fear you. I will have her.” He turned to his Mycenaeans. “Bring the girl.”

Around me were the shocked faces of kings. Briseis was a war prize, a living embodiment of Achilles’ honor. In taking her, Agamemnon denied Achilles the full measure of his worth. The men muttered, and I hoped they might object. But no one spoke.

Because he was turned, Agamemnon did not see Achilles’ hand go to his sword. My breath caught. I knew that he was capable of this, a single thrust through Agamemnon’s cowardly heart. I saw the struggle on his face. I still do not know why he stopped himself; perhaps he wanted greater punishment for the king than death.

“Agamemnon,” he said. I flinched from the roughness of his voice. The king turned, and Achilles drove a finger into his chest. The high king could not stop the huff of surprise. “Your words today have caused your own death, and the death of your men. I will fight for you no longer. Without me, your army will fall. Hector will grind you to bones and bloody dust, and I will watch it and laugh. You will come, crying for mercy, but I will give none. They will all die, Agamemnon, for what you have done here.” He spat, a huge wet smack between Agamemnon’s feet. And then he was before me, and past me, and I was dizzied as I turned to follow him, feeling the Myrmidons behind me—hundreds of men shouldering their way through the crowd, storming off to their tents.

POWERFUL STRIDES TOOK HIM swiftly up the beach. His anger was incandescent, a fire under his skin. His muscles were pulled so taut I was afraid to touch him, fearing they would snap like bowstrings. He did not stop once we reached the camp. He did not turn and speak to the men. He seized the extra tent flap covering our door and ripped it free as he passed.

His mouth was twisted, ugly and tight as I had ever seen it. His eyes were wild. “I will kill him,” he swore. “I will kill him.” He grabbed a spear and broke it in half with an explosion of wood. The pieces fell to the floor.

“I almost did it there,” he said. “I should have done it. How dare he?” He flung a ewer aside, and it shattered against a chair. “The cowards! You saw how they bit their lips and did not dare to speak. I hope he takes all their prizes. I hope he swallows them one by one.” A voice, tentative, outside. “Achilles?”

“Come in,” Achilles snarled.

Automedon was breathless and stuttering. “I am sorry to disturb you. Phoinix told me to stay, so I could listen and tell you what happened.”

“And?” Achilles demanded.

Automedon flinched. “Agamemnon asked why Hector still lived. He said that they do not need you. That perhaps you are not— what you say you are.” Another spear shaft shattered in Achilles’ fingers. Automedon swallowed. “They are coming, now, for Briseis.” Achilles had his back to me; I could not see his face. “Leave us,” he told his charioteer. Automedon backed away, and we were alone.

They were coming for Briseis. I stood, my hands balled. I felt strong, unbending, like my feet pierced through the earth to the other side of the world.

“We must do something,” I said. “We can hide her. In the woods or—”

“He will pay, now,” Achilles said. There was fierce triumph in his voice. “Let him come for her. He has doomed himself.”

“What do you mean?”

“I must speak to my mother.” He started from the tent.

I seized his arm. “We don’t have time. They will have taken her by the time you are back. We must do something now!”

He turned. His eyes looked strange, the pupils huge and dark, swallowing his face. He seemed to be looking a long way off. “What are you talking about?”

I stared at him. “Briseis.”

He stared back. I could not follow the flicker of emotion in his eyes. “I can do nothing for her,” he said at last. “If Agamemnon chooses this path, he must bear the consequences.” A feeling, as if I were falling into ocean depths, weighted with stones.

“You are not going to let him take her.”

He turned away; he would not look at me. “It is his choice. I told him what would happen if he did.”

“You know what he will do to her.”

“It is his choice,” he repeated. “He would deprive me of my honor? He would punish me? I will let him.” His eyes were lit with an inner fire.

“You will not help her?”

“There is nothing I can do,” he said with finality.

A tilting vertigo, as if I were drunk. I could not speak, or think. I had never been angry with him before; I did not know how.

“She is one of us. How can you just let him take her? Where is your honor? How can you let him defile her?”

And then, suddenly, I understood. Nausea seized me. I turned to the door.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

My voice was scraped and savage. “I have to warn her. She has a right to know what you have chosen.”

I STAND OUTSIDE her tent. It is small, brown with hides, set back. “Briseis,” I hear myself say.

“Come in!” Her voice is warm and pleased. We have had no time to speak during the plague, beyond necessities.

Inside, she is seated on a stool, mortar and pestle in her lap. The air smells sharply of nutmeg. She is smiling.

I feel wrung dry with grief. How can I tell her what I know?

“I—” I try to speak, stop. She sees my face, and her smile vanishes. Swiftly, she is on her feet and by my side.

“What is it?” She presses the cool skin of her wrist to my forehead. “Are you ill? Is Achilles all right?” I am sick with shame. But there is no space for my self-pity. They are coming.

“Something has happened,” I say. My tongue thickens in my mouth; my words do not come out straight. “Achilles went today to speak to the men. The plague is Apollo’s.” “We thought so.” She nods, her hand resting gently on mine, in comfort. I almost cannot go on.

“Agamemnon did not—he was angry. He and Achilles quarreled. Agamemnon wants to punish him.”

“Punish him? How?”

Now she sees something in my eyes. Her face goes quiet, pulling into itself. Bracing. “What is it?”

“He is sending men. For you.”

I see the flare of panic, though she tries to hide it. Her fingers tighten on mine. “What will happen?”

My shame is caustic, searing every nerve. It is like a nightmare; I expect, each moment, to wake to relief. But there is no waking. It is true. He will not help.

“He—” I cannot say more.

It is enough. She knows. Her right hand clutches at her dress, chapped and raw from the rough work of the past nine days. I force out stuttering words meant to be a comfort, of how we will get her back, and how it will be all right. Lies, all of it. We both know what will happen to her in Agamemnon’s tent. Achilles knows, too, and sends her anyway.

My mind is filled with cataclysm and apocalypse: I wish for earthquakes, eruptions, flood. Only that seems large enough to hold all of my rage and grief. I want the world overturned like a bowl of eggs, smashed at my feet.

A trumpet blows outside. Her hand goes to her cheek, swipes away tears. “Go,” she whispers. “Please.”

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