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The song of Achilles / Chapter 2 - Part 1

created Feb 12th, 03:22 by Mazey



379 words
4 completed
I was summoned to the king. I remember hating this, the long walk up the endless throne room. At the front, I knelt on stone.
Some kings chose to have rugs there for the knees of messengers who had long news to tell. My father preferred not to.
'King Tyndareus' daughter is finally ready for marriage,' he said.
I knew the name. Tyndareus was King of Sparta and held huge tracts of the ripest southern lands, the kind my father coveted. I had heard of his daughter too, rumoured to be the fairest woman in our countries. Her mother Leda was said to have been ravished by Zeus, the king of the gods himself, disguised as a swan. Nine months later, her womb yielded two sets of twins: Clytemnestra and Castor, children of her mortal husband; Helen and Polydeuces, the shining cygnets of the god.  
But gods were known to be notoriously poor parents; it was expected that Tyndareus would offer patrimony to all.  
I did not respond to my father's news. Such things meant nothing to me.
My father cleared his throat, loud in the silent chamber. 'We would do well to have her in our family. You will go and put yourself forth as a suitor.' There was no one else in the hall, so my startled huff of breath was for his ears alone. But I knew better than to speak my discomfort. My father already knew all that I might say: that I was nine, unsightly, unpromising, uninterested.
We left the next morning, our packs heavy with gifts and food for the journey. Soldiers escorted us, in their finest armour. I don't remember much of the trip - it was overland, through countryside that left no impression. At the head of the column, my father dictated new orders to secretaries and messengers, who rode off in every direction. I looked down at the leather reins, smoothed their nap with my thumb. I did not understand my place here. It was incomprehensible, as so much of what my father did was. My donkey swayed, and I swayed with him, glad for even this distraction.
We were not the first suitors to arrive at Tyndareus' citadel. The stables were full of horses and mules, busy with servants. My father seemed displeased with the ceremony afforded us: I saw him rub a hand over the stone of the hearth in our rooms, frowning. I had brought a toy from home, a horse whose legs could move. I lifted one hoof, then the other, imagined that I had ridden him instead of the donkey. A soldier took pity on me and lend me his dice. I clattered them against the floor until they showed all sixes in one throw.
Finally, a day came in which my father ordered me bathed and brushed. He had me change my tunic, then change again. I obeyed, though I saw no difference between the purple with gold or crimson with gold. Neither hid my knobbly knees. My father looked powerful and severe, his black beard slashing across his face. The gift that we were presenting to Tyndareus stood ready, a beaten-gold mixing bowl embossed with the story of the princess Danea. Zeus had wooed her in a shower of golden light, and she had borne him Perseus, Gorgon-slayer, second only to Heracles among our heroes. My father handed it to me. 'Do not disgrace us,' he said.
I heard the great hall before I saw it, the sound of hundreds of voices banging against stone walls, the clatter of goblets and armour. The servants had thrown open the windows to try to dampen the sound; they had hung tapestries, wealth indeed, on every wall. I had never seen so many men inside before. Not men, I corrected myself. Kings.
We were called forward to council, seated on benches draped with cowhide. Servants faded backwards, to the shadows. My father's fingers dug into my collar warning me not to fidget.
There was violence in that room, with so many princes and heroes and kings competing for a single prize, but we knew how to ape civilization. One by one they introduced themselves, these young men, showing off shining hair and neat waists and expensive dyed clothing. Many were the sons or grandsons of gods. All had a song, or two, or more, written of their deeds. Tyndareus greeted each in turn, accepted their gifts in a pile at the centre of the room. Invited each to speak, and present his suit.
My father was the oldest among them, except for the man who, when his turn came, named himself Philoctetes. 'A comrade of Heracles,' the man beside us whispered, with an awe I understood. Heracles was the greatest of our heroes, and Philoctetes had been the closest of his companions, the only one still living. His hair was grey and his thick fingers were all tendon, the sinewy dexterity that marked an archer. And indeed, a moment later he held up the largest bow I had ever seen, polished yew wood with a lionskin grip. 'The bow of Heracles,' Philoctetes named it, 'given to me at his death.' In our lands a bow was mocked as the weapon of cowards. But no one could say such a thing about this bow; the strength it would take to draw it humbled us all.
The next man, his eyes painted like a woman's, spoke his name. 'Idomeneus, King of Grete.' He was lean, and his long hair fell to his waist when he stood. He offered rare iron, a double-headed axe. 'The symbol of my people.' His movements reminded me of the dancers my mother liked.
And then Menelaus, son of Atreus, seated beside his hulking, bear-like brother Agamemnon. Menelaus' hair was a startling red, the colour of fire-forged bronze. His body was strong, stocky with muscles, vital. The gift he gave was a rich one, beautifully dyed cloth. 'Though the lady needs no adornment,' he added, smiling. This was a pretty bit of speech. I wished I had something as clever to say. I was the only one here under twenty, and I was not descended of a god. Perhaps Peleus' blond-haired son would be equal to this, I thought. But his father had kept him at home.
Man after man, and their names began to blur in my head. My attention wandered to the dais, where I noticed, for the first time, the three veiled women seated at Tyndareus' side. I stared at the white cloth over their faces, as if I might be able to catch some glimpse of the woman behind it. My father wanted one of them for my wife. Three sets of hands, pretty adorned with bracelets, lay quite in their laps. One of the women was taller  than the other two. I thought I saw a stray dark curl peek from beneath the bottom of her veil. Helen is light-haired, I remembered. So that one was not Helen. I had ceased to listen to the kings.
'Welcome, Menoitius.' The speaking of my father's name startled me. Tyndareus was looking at us. 'I am sorry to hear of the death of your wife.' 'My wife lives, Tyndareus. It is my son who comes today to wed your daughter.' There was silence in which I knelt, dizzied by the spin of faces around me.
'Your son is not yet a man.' Tyndareus' voice seemed far away. I could detect nothing in it.
'He need not be. I am man enough for both of us.' It was the sort of jest our people loved, bold and boasting. But no one laughed.
'I see,' said Tyndareus.
The stone floor dug into my skin, yet I did not move. I was used to kneeling. I had never before been glad of the practice in my father's throne room.
My father spoke again, in the silence. 'Others have brought bronze and wine, oil and wool. I bring gold, and it is only a small portion of my stores.' I was aware of my hands on the beautiful bowl, touching the story's figures: Zeus appearing from the streaming sunlight, the startled princess, their coupling. 'My daughter and I are grateful that you have brought us such a worthy gift, though paltry to you.' A murmur, from the kings. There was humiliation here, that my father did not seem to understand. My face flushed with it.
'I would make Helen the queen of my palace. For my wife, as you know well, is not fit to rule. My wealth exceeds all of these young men, and my deeds speak for themselves.'
'I thought the suitor was your son.'
I looked up at the new voice. A man who had not spoken yet.  
He was the last in line, sitting at ease on the bench, his curling hair gleaming in the light of the fire. He had a jagged scar on one leg, a seam that stitched his dark brown flesh from heel to knee, wrapping around the muscles of the calf and burying itself in the shadow beneath his tunic. It looked like it had been a knife, I thought, or something like it, ripping upwards and leaving behind feathered edges, whose softness belied the violence that must have caused it.

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