فصل 28

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فصل 28

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Chapter Twenty-Eight

THAT NIGHT, PHOINIX COMES LIMPING UP THE SHORE with news of a duel. As the armies rallied in the morning, Paris had strutted along the Trojan line, golden armor flashing. He offered a challenge: single combat, winner takes Helen. The Greeks bellowed their approval. Which of them did not want to leave that day? To wager Helen on a single fight and settle it once and for all? And Paris looked an easy target, shining and slight, slim-hipped as an unwed girl. But it was Menelaus, Phoinix said, who came forward, roaring acceptance at the chance to regain his honor and his beautiful wife in one.

The duel begins with spears and moves quickly to swords. Paris is swifter than Menelaus had anticipated, no fighter but fast on his feet. At last the Trojan prince missteps, and Menelaus seizes him by his long horsehair crest and drags him down to the earth. Paris’ feet kick helplessly, his fingers scrabble at the choking chin-strap. Then, suddenly, the helmet comes free in Menelaus’ hand and Paris is gone. Where the Trojan prince sprawled there is only dusty ground. The armies squint and whisper: Where is he? Menelaus squints with them, and so does not see the arrow, loosed from a ibex-horn bow along the Trojan line, flying towards him. It punches through his leather armor and buries itself in his stomach.

Blood pours down his legs and puddles at his feet. It is mostly a surface wound, but the Greeks do not know that yet. They scream and rush the Trojan ranks, enraged at the betrayal. A bloody melee begins.

“But what happened to Paris?” I ask.

Phoinix shakes his head. “I do not know.”

THE TWO SIDES FOUGHT on through the afternoon until another trumpet blew. It was Hector, offering a second truce, a second duel to make right the dishonor of Paris’ disappearance and the shooting of the arrow. He presented himself in his brother’s place, to any man who dared answer. Menelaus, Phoinix says, would have stepped forward again, but Agamemnon prevented him. He did not want to see his brother die against the strongest of the Trojans.

The Greeks drew lots for who would fight with Hector. I imagine their tension, the silence before the helmet is shaken and the lot jumps out. Odysseus bends to the dusty earth to retrieve it. Ajax. There is collective relief: he is the only man who has a chance against the Trojan prince. The only man, that is, who fights today.

So Ajax and Hector fight, heaving stones at each other, and spears that shatter shields, until night falls and the heralds call an end. It is strangely civilized: the two armies part in peace, Hector and Ajax shaking hands as equals. The soldiers whisper—it would not have ended so if Achilles were here.

Discharged of his news, Phoinix gets wearily to his feet and limps on the arm of Automedon back to his tent. Achilles turns to me. He is breathing quickly, the tips of his ears pinking with excitement. He seizes my hand and crows to me of the day’s events, of how his name was on everyone’s lips, of the power of his absence, big as a Cyclops, walking heavily amongst the soldiers. The excitement of the day has flared through him, like flame in dry grass. For the first time, he dreams of killing: the stroke of glory, his inevitable spear through Hector’s heart. My skin prickles to hear him say so.

“Do you see?” he says. “It is the beginning!”

I cannot escape the feeling that, below the surface, something is breaking.

THERE IS A TRUMPET the next morning at dawn. We rise, and climb the hill to see an army of horsemen riding for Troy from the East. Their horses are large and move with unnatural speed, drawing light-wheeled chariots behind them. At their head sits a huge man, larger even than Ajax. He wears his black hair long, like the Spartans do, oiled and swinging down his back. He carries a standard in the shape of a horse’s head.

Phoinix has joined us. “The Lycians,” he says. They are Anatolians, long allies of Troy. It has been a source of much wonder that they have not yet come to join the war. But now, as if summoned by Zeus himself, they are here.

“Who is that?” Achilles points to the giant, their leader.

“Sarpedon. A son of Zeus.” The sun gleams off the man’s shoulders, sweat-slick from the ride; his skin is dark gold.

The gates open, and the Trojans pour out to meet their allies. Hector and Sarpedon clasp hands, then lead their troops into the field. The Lycian weapons are strange: saw-toothed javelins and things that look like giant fishhooks, for ripping into flesh. All that day we hear their battle cries and the pounding hooves of their cavalry. There is a steady stream of Greek wounded into Machaon’s tent.

Phoinix goes to the evening’s council, the only member of our camp not in disgrace. When he returns, he looks sharply at Achilles. “Idomeneus is wounded, and the Lycians broke the left flank. Sarpedon and Hector will crush us between them.” Achilles does not notice Phoinix’s disapproval. He turns to me in triumph. “Do you hear that?”

“I hear it,” I say.

A day passes, and another. Rumors come thick as biting flies: tales of the Trojan army driving forward, unstoppable and bold in Achilles’ absence. Of frantic councils, where our kings argue over desperate strategy: night raids, spies, ambushes. And then more, Hector ablaze in battle, burning through Greeks like a brush fire, and every day more dead than the day before. Finally: panicked runners, bringing news of retreats and wounds among the kings.

Achilles fingers this gossip, turning it this way and that. “It will not be long now,” he says.

The funeral pyres burn through the night, their greasy smoke smeared across the moon. I try not to think how every one is a man I know. Knew.

ACHILLES IS PLAYING the lyre when they arrive. There are three of them—Phoinix first, and behind him Odysseus and Ajax.

I am sitting beside Achilles as they come; farther off is Automedon, carving the meat for supper. Achilles’ head is lifted as he sings, his voice clear and sweet. I straighten, and my hand leaves his foot where it has been resting.

The trio approach us and stand on the other side of the fire, waiting for Achilles to finish. He puts down his lyre and rises.

“Welcome. You will stay for dinner, I hope?” He clasps their hands warmly, smiling through their stiffness.

I know why they have come. “I must see to the meal,” I mumble. I feel Odysseus’ eyes on my back as I go.

The strips of lamb drip and sear on the brazier’s grill. Through the haze of smoke I watch them, seated around the fire as if they are friends. I cannot hear their words, but Achilles is smiling still, pushing past their grimness, pretending he does not see it. Then he calls for me, and I cannot stall any longer. Dutifully I bring the platters and take my seat beside him.

He is making desultory conversation of battles and helmets. While he talks he serves the meal, a fussing host who gives seconds to everyone and thirds to Ajax. They eat and let him talk. When they are finished, they wipe their mouths and put aside their plates. Everyone seems to know it is time. It is Odysseus, of course, who begins.

He talks first of things, casual words that he drops into our laps, one at a time. A list really. Twelve swift horses, and seven bronze tripods, and seven pretty girls, ten bars of gold, twenty cauldrons, and more—bowls, and goblets, and armor, and at last, the final gem held before us: Briseis’ return. He smiles and spreads his hands with a guileless shrug I recognize from Scyros, from Aulis, and now from Troy.

Then a second list, almost as long as the first: the endless names of Greek dead. Achilles’ jaw grows hard as Odysseus draws forth tablet after tablet, crammed to the margin with marks. Ajax looks down at his hands, scabbed from the splintering of shields and spears.

Then Odysseus tells us news that we do not know yet, that the Trojans are less than a thousand paces from our wall, encamped on newly won plain we could not take back before dusk. Would we like proof? We can probably see their watch-fires from the hill just beyond our camp. They will attack at dawn.

There is silence, a long moment of it, before Achilles speaks. “No,” he says, shoving back treasure and guilt. His honor is not such a trifle that it can be returned in a night embassy, in a handful huddled around a campfire. It was taken before the entire host, witnessed by every last man.

The king of Ithaca pokes the fire that sits between them.

“She has not been harmed, you know. Briseis. God knows where Agamemnon found the restraint, but she is well kept and whole. She, and your honor, wait only for you to reclaim them.” “You make it sound as if I have abandoned my honor,” Achilles says, his voice tart as raw wine. “Is that what you spin? Are you Agamemnon’s spider, catching flies with that tale?” “Very poetic,” Odysseus says. “But tomorrow will not be a bard’s song. Tomorrow, the Trojans will break through the wall and burn the ships. Will you stand by and do nothing?” “That depends on Agamemnon. If he makes right the wrong he has done me, I will chase the Trojans to Persia, if you like.”

“Tell me,” Odysseus asks, “why is Hector not dead?” He holds up a hand. “I do not seek an answer, I merely repeat what all the men wish to know. In the last ten years, you could have killed him a thousand times over. Yet you have not. It makes a man wonder.” His tone tells us that he does not wonder. That he knows of the prophecy. I am glad that there is only Ajax with him, who will not understand the exchange.

“You have eked out ten more years of life, and I am glad for you. But the rest of us—” His mouth twists. “The rest of us are forced to wait for your leisure. You are holding us here, Achilles. You were given a choice and you chose. You must live by it now.” We stare at him. But he is not finished yet.

“You have made a fair run of blocking fate’s path. But you cannot do it forever. The gods will not let you.” He pauses, to let us hear each word of what he says. “The thread will run smooth, whether you choose it or not. I tell you as a friend, it is better to seek it on your own terms, to make it go at your pace, than theirs.” “That is what I am doing.”

“Very well,” Odysseus says. “I have said what I came to say.”

Achilles stands. “Then it is time for you to leave.”

“Not yet.” It is Phoinix. “I, too, have something I wish to say.”

Slowly, caught between his pride and his respect for the old man, Achilles sits. Phoenix begins.

“When you were a boy, Achilles, your father gave you to me to raise. Your mother was long gone, and I was the only nurse you would have, cutting your meat and teaching you myself. Now you are a man, and still I strive to watch over you, to keep you safe, from spear, and sword, and folly.” My eyes lift to Achilles, and I see that he is tensed, wary. I understand what he fears—being played upon by the gentleness of this old man, being convinced by his words to give something up. Worse, a sudden doubt—that perhaps, if Phoinix agrees with these men, he is wrong.

The old man holds up a hand, as if to stop the spin of such thoughts. “Whatever you do, I will stand with you, as I always have. But before you decide your course, there is a story you should hear.” He does not give Achilles time to object. “In the days of your father’s father, there was a young hero Meleager, whose town of Calydon was besieged by a fierce people called the Curetes.” I know this story, I think. I heard Peleus tell it, long ago, while Achilles grinned at me from the shadows. There was no blood on his hands then, and no death sentence on his head. Another life.

“In the beginning the Curetes were losing, worn down by Meleager’s skill in war,” Phoinix continues. “Then one day there was an insult, a slight to his honor by his own people, and Meleager refused to fight any further on his city’s behalf. The people offered him gifts and apologies, but he would not hear them. He stormed off to his room to lie with his wife, Cleopatra, and be comforted.” When he speaks her name, Phoinix’s eyes flicker to me.

“At last, when her city was falling and her friends dying, Cleopatra could bear it no longer. She went to beg her husband to fight again. He loved her above all things and so agreed, and won a mighty victory for his people. But though he had saved them, he came too late. Too many lives had been lost to his pride. And so they gave him no gratitude, no gifts. Only their hatred for not having spared them sooner.” In the silence, I can hear Phoinix’s breaths, labored with the exertion of speaking so long. I do not dare to speak or move; I am afraid that someone will see the thought that is plain on my face. It was not honor that made Meleager fight, or his friends, or victory, or revenge, or even his own life. It was Cleopatra, on her knees before him, her face streaked with tears. Here is Phoinix’s craft: Cleopatra, Patroclus. Her name built from the same pieces as mine, only reversed.

If Achilles noticed, he does not show it. His voice is gentle for the old man’s sake, but still he refuses. Not until Agamemnon gives back the honor he has taken from me. Even in the darkness I can see that Odysseus is not surprised. I can almost hear his report to the others, his hands spread in regret: I tried. If Achilles had agreed, all to the good. If he did not, his refusal in the face of prizes and apologies would only seem like madness, like fury or unreasonable pride. They will hate him, just as they hated Meleager.

My chest tightens in panic, in a quick desire to kneel before him and beg. But I do not. For like Phoinix I am declared already, decided. I am no longer to guide the course, merely to be carried, into darkness and beyond, with only Achilles’ hands at the helm.

Ajax does not have Odysseus’ equanimity—he glares, his face carved with anger. It has cost him much to be here, to beg for his own demotion. With Achilles not fighting, he is Aristos Achaion.

When they are gone, I stand and give my arm to Phoinix. He is tired tonight, I can see, and his steps are slow. By the time I leave him—old bones sighing onto his pallet—and return to our tent, Achilles is already asleep.

I am disappointed. I had hoped, perhaps, for conversation, for two bodies in one bed, for reassurance that the Achilles I saw at dinner was not the only one. But I do not rouse him; I slip from the tent and leave him to dream.

I CROUCH IN LOOSE SAND, in the shadow of a small tent.

“Briseis?” I call softly.

There is a silence, then I hear: “Patroclus?”

“Yes.”

She tugs up the side of the tent and pulls me quickly inside. Her face is pinched with fear. “It is too dangerous for you to be here. Agamemnon is in a rage. He will kill you.” Her words are a rushing whisper.

“Because Achilles refused the embassy?” I whisper back.

She nods, and in a swift motion snuffs out the tent’s small lamp. “Agamemnon comes often to look in on me. You are not safe here.” In the darkness I cannot see the worry on her face, but her voice is filled with it. “You must go.” “I will be quick. I have to speak with you.”

“Then we must hide you. He comes without warning.”

“Where?” The tent is small, bare of everything but pallet, pillows and blankets, and a few clothes.

“The bed.”

She piles cushions around me and heaps blankets. She lies down beside me, pulling the cover over us both. I am surrounded by her scent, familiar and warm. I press my mouth to her ear, speaking barely louder than a breath. “Odysseus says that tomorrow the Trojans will break the wall and storm the camp. We must find a place to hide you. Among the Myrmidons or in the forest.” I feel her cheek moving against mine as she shakes her head. “I cannot. That is the first place he will look. It will only make more trouble. I will be all right here.” “But what if they take the camp?”

“I will surrender to Aeneas, Hector’s cousin, if I can. He is known to be a pious man, and his father lived as a shepherd for a time near my village. If I cannot, I will find Hector or any of the sons of Priam.” I am shaking my head. “It is too dangerous. You must not expose yourself.”

“I do not think they will hurt me. I am one of them, after all.”

I feel suddenly foolish. The Trojans are liberators to her, not invaders. “Of course,” I say quickly. “You will be free, then. You will want to be with your—” “Briseis!” The tent flap is drawn backwards, and Agamemnon stands in the doorway.

“Yes?” She sits up, careful to keep the blanket over me.

“Were you speaking?”

“Praying, my lord.”

“Lying down?”

Through the thick weave of wool I can see the glow of torchlight. His voice is loud, as if he is standing beside us. I will myself not to move. She will be punished if I am caught here.

“It is how my mother taught me, my lord. Is it not right?”

“You should have been taught better by now. Did not the godling correct you?”

“No, my lord.”

“I offered you back to him tonight, but he did not want you.” I can hear the ugly twist in his words. “If he keeps saying no, perhaps I will claim you for myself.” My fists clench. But Briseis only says, “Yes, my lord.”

I hear the fall of cloth, and the light disappears. I do not move, nor breathe until Briseis returns beneath the covers.

“You cannot stay here,” I say.

“It is all right. He only threatens. He likes to see me afraid.”

The matter-of-factness in her tone horrifies me. How can I leave her to this, the leering, and lonely tent, and bracelets thick as manacles? But if I stay, she is in greater danger.

“I must go,” I say.

“Wait.” She touches my arm. “The men—” She hesitates. “They are angry with Achilles. They blame him for their losses. Agamemnon sends his people among them to stir up talk. They have almost forgotten about the plague. The longer he does not fight, the more they will hate him.” It is my worst fear, Phoinix’s story come to life. “Will he not fight?” “Not until Agamemnon apologizes.”

She bites her lip. “The Trojans, too. There is no one that they fear more, or hate more. They will kill him if they can tomorrow, and all who are dear to him. You must be careful.” “He will protect me.”

“I know he will,” she says, “as long as he lives. But even Achilles may not be able to fight Hector and Sarpedon both.” She hesitates again. “If the camp falls, I will claim you as my husband. It may help some. You must not speak of what you were to him, though. It will be a death sentence.” Her hand has tightened on my arm. “Promise me.” “Briseis,” I say, “if he is dead, I will not be far behind.”

She presses my hand to her cheek. “Then promise me something else,” she says. “Promise me that whatever happens, you will not leave Troy without me. I know that you cannot—” She breaks off. “I would rather live as your sister than remain here.” “That is nothing that you have to bind me to,” I say. “I would not leave you, if you wished to come. It grieved me beyond measure to think of the war ending tomorrow, and never seeing you again.” The smile is thick in her throat. “I am glad.” I do not say that I do not think I will ever leave Troy.

I draw her to me, fill my arms with her. She lays her head upon my chest. For a moment we do not think of Agamemnon and danger and dying Greeks. There is only her small hand on my stomach, and the softness of her cheek as I stroke it. It is strange how well she fits there. How easily I touch my lips to her hair, soft and smelling of lavender. She sighs a little, nestles closer. Almost, I can imagine that this is my life, held in the sweet circle of her arms. I would marry her, and we would have a child.

Perhaps if I had never known Achilles.

“I should go,” I say.

She draws down the blanket, releasing me into the air. She cups my face in her hands. “Be careful tomorrow,” she says. “Best of men. Best of the Myrmidons.” She places her fingers to my lips, stopping my objection. “It is truth,” she says. “Let it stand, for once.” Then she leads me to the side of her tent, helps me slip beneath the canvas. The last thing I feel is her hand, squeezing mine in farewell.

THAT NIGHT I LIE IN BED beside Achilles. His face is innocent, sleep-smoothed and sweetly boyish. I love to see it. This is his truest self, earnest and guileless, full of mischief but without malice. He is lost in Agamemnon and Odysseus’ wily double meanings, their lies and games of power. They have confounded him, tied him to a stake and baited him. I stroke the soft skin of his forehead. I would untie him if I could. If he would let me.

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