فصل 29

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فصل 29

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Chapter Twenty-Nine

WE WAKE TO SHOUTS AND THUNDER, A STORM THAT has burst from the blue of the sky. There is no rain, only the gray air, crackling and dry, and jagged streaks that strike like the clap of giant hands. We hurry to the tent door to look out. Smoke, acrid and dark, is drifting up the beach towards us, carrying the smell of lightning-detonated earth. The attack has begun, and Zeus is keeping his bargain, punctuating the Trojans’ advance with celestial encouragement. We feel a pounding, deep in the ground—a charge of chariots, perhaps, led by huge Sarpedon.

Achilles’ hand grips mine, his face stilled. This is the first time in ten years that the Trojans have ever threatened the gate, have ever pushed so far across the plain. If they break through the wall, they will burn the ships—our only way of getting home, the only thing that makes us an army instead of refugees. This is the moment that Achilles and his mother have summoned: the Greeks, routed and desperate, without him. The sudden, incontrovertible proof of his worth. But when will it be enough? When will he intervene?

“Never,” he says, when I ask him. “Never until Agamemnon begs my forgiveness or Hector himself walks into my camp and threatens what is dear to me. I have sworn I will not.” “What if Agamemnon is dead?”

“Bring me his body, and I will fight.” His face is carved and unmovable, like the statue of a stern god.

“Do you not fear that the men will hate you?”

“They should hate Agamemnon. It is his pride that kills them.”

And yours. But I know the look on his face, the dark recklessness of his eyes. He will not yield. He does not know how. I have lived eighteen years with him, and he has never backed down, never lost. What will happen if he is forced to? I am afraid for him, and for me, and for all of us.

We dress and eat, and Achilles speaks bravely of the future. He talks of tomorrow, when perhaps we will swim, or scramble up the bare trunks of sticky cypresses, or watch for the hatching of the sea-turtle eggs, even now incubating beneath the sun-warmed sand. But my mind keeps slipping from his words, dragged downwards by the seeping gray of the sky, by the sand chilled and pallid as a corpse, and the distant, dying shrieks of men whom I know. How many more by day’s end?

I watch him staring over the ocean. It is unnaturally still, as if Thetis is holding her breath. His eyes are dark and dilated by the dim overcast of the morning. The flame of his hair licks against his forehead.

“Who is that?” he asks, suddenly. Down the beach, a distant figure is being carried on a stretcher to the white tent. Someone important; there is a crowd around him.

I seize on the excuse for motion, distraction. “I will go see.”

Outside the remove of our camp, the sounds of battle grow louder: piercing screams of horses impaled on the stakes of the trench, the desperate shouts of the commanders, the clangor of metal on metal.

Podalerius shoulders past me into the white tent. The air is thick with the smell of herbs and blood, fear and sweat. Nestor looms up at me from my right, his hand clamping around my shoulder, chilling through my tunic. He screeches, “We are lost! The wall is breaking!” Behind him Machaon lies panting on a pallet, his leg a spreading pool of blood from the ragged prick of an arrow. Podalerius is bent over him, already working.

Machaon sees me. “Patroclus,” he says, gasping a little.

I go to him. “Will you be all right?”

“Cannot tell yet. I think—” He breaks off, his eyes squeezed shut.

“Do not talk to him,” Podalerius says, sharply. His hands are covered in his brother’s blood.

Nestor’s voice rushes onward, listing woe after woe: the wall splintering, and the ships in danger, and so many wounded kings—Diomedes, Agamemnon, Odysseus, strewn about the camp like crumpled tunics.

Machaon’s eyes open. “Can you not speak to Achilles?” he says, hoarsely. “Please. For all of us.”

“Yes! Phthia must come to our aid, or we are lost!” Nestor’s fingers dig into my flesh, and my face is damp with the panicked spray of his lips.

My eyes close. I am remembering Phoinix’s story, the image of the Calydonians kneeling before Cleopatra, covering her hands and feet with their tears. In my imagination she does not look at them, only lends them her hands as if perhaps they were cloths to wipe their streaming eyes. She is watching her husband Meleager for his answer, the set of his mouth that tells her what she must say: “No.” I yank myself from the old man’s clinging fingers. I am desperate to escape the sour smell of fear that has settled like ash over everything. I turn from Machaon’s pain-twisted face and the old man’s outstretched hands and flee from the tent.

As I step outside there is a terrible cracking, like a ship’s hull tearing apart, like a giant tree smashing to earth. The wall. Screams follow, of triumph and terror.

All around me are men carrying fallen comrades, limping on makeshift crutches, or crawling through the sand, dragging broken limbs behind them. I know them—their torsos full of scars my ointments have packed and sealed. Their flesh that my fingers have cleaned of iron and bronze and blood. Their faces that have joked, thanked, grimaced as I worked over them. Now these men are ruined again, pulpy with blood and split bone. Because of him. Because of me.

Ahead of me, a young man struggles to stand on an arrow-pierced leg. Eurypylus, prince of Thessaly.

I do not stop to think. I wind my arm under his shoulder and carry him to his tent. He is half-delirious with pain, but he knows me. “Patroclus,” he manages.

I kneel before him, his leg in my hands. “Eurypylus,” I say. “Can you speak?”

“Fucking Paris,” he says. “My leg.” The flesh is swollen and torn. I seize my dagger and begin to work.

He grits his teeth. “I don’t know who I hate more, the Trojans or Achilles. Sarpedon tore the wall apart with his bare hands. Ajax held them off as long as he could. They’re here now,” he says, panting. “In the camp.” My chest clutches in panic at his words, and I fight the urge to bolt. I try to focus on what is before me: easing the arrow point from his leg, binding the wound.

“Hurry,” he says, the word slurring. “I have to go back. They’ll burn the ships.”

“You cannot go out again,” I say. “You have lost too much blood.”

“No,” he says. But his head slumps backwards; he is on the edge of unconsciousness. He will live, or not, by the will of the gods. I have done all I can. I take a breath and step outside.

Two ships are on fire, the long fingers of their masts lit by Trojan torches. Pressed against the hulls is a crush of men, screaming, desperate, leaping to the decks to beat at the flames. The only one I can recognize is Ajax, legs widespread on Agamemnon’s prow, a massive shadow outlined against the sky. He ignores the fire, his spear stabbing downwards at the Trojan hands that swarm like feeding fish.

As I stand there, frozen and staring, I see a sudden hand, reaching above the melee to grip the sharp nose of a ship. And then the arm beneath it, sure and strong and dark, and the head, and the wide-shouldered torso breaks to air like dolphin-back from the boiling men beneath. And now Hector’s whole brown body twists alone before the blankness of sea and sky, hung between air and earth. His face is smoothed, at peace, his eyes lifted—a man in prayer, a man seeking god. He hangs there a moment, the muscles in his arm knotted and flexed, his armor lifting on his shoulders, showing hip bones like the carved cornice of a temple. Then his other hand swings a bright torch towards the ship’s wooden deck.

It is well thrown, landing amid old, rotting ropes and fallen sail. The flames catch immediately, skittering along the rope, then kindling the wood beneath. Hector smiles. And why should he not? He is winning.

Ajax screams in frustration—at another ship in flames, at the men that leap in panic from the charring decks, at Hector slithering out of reach, vanishing back into the crowd below. His strength is all that keeps the men from utterly breaking.

And then a spear point flashes up from beneath, silver as fish-scale in sunlight. It flickers, almost too fast to see, and suddenly Ajax’s thigh blooms bright-red. I have worked long enough in Machaon’s tent to know that it has sliced through muscle. His knees waver a moment, buckling slowly. He falls.

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