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The song of Achilles / Chapter 2 - Part 2

created Feb 13th, 22:40 by Mazey



600 words
2 completed
My father was angry. 'Son of Laertes, I do not remember inviting you to speak.'
The man smiled. 'I was not invited. I interrupted. But you need not fear my interference. I have no vested interest in the matter. I speak only as an observer.' A small movement from the dais drew my eye. One of the veiled figures had stirred.
'What does he mean?' My father was frowning. 'If he is not here for Helen, then for what? Let him go back to his rocks and his goats.'
The man's eyebrows lifted, but he said nothing.
Tyndareus was also mild. 'If your son is to be a suitor, as you say, then let him present himself.'
Even I knew it was my turn to speak. 'I am Patroclus, son of Menoitius.' My voice sounded high, and scratchy with disuse. 'I am here as a suitor for Helen. My father is a king and the son of kings.' I had no more to say. My father had not instructed me; he had not thought that Tyndareus would ask me to speak. I stood and carried the bowl to the pile of gifts, placed it where it would not topple. I turned and walked back to my bench. I had not disgraced myself with trembling or tripping and my words had not been foolish. Still, my face burned with shame. I knew how I must look to these men.
Oblivious, the line of suitors moved on. The man kneeling now was huge, half again as tall as my father, and broad besides.
Behind him, two servants braced an enormous shield. It seemed to stand with him as part of his suit, reaching from his heels to his crown; no ordinary man could have carried it. And it was no decoration: scarred and hacked edges bore witness to the battles it had seen. Ajax, son of Telamon, this giant named himself. His speech was blunt and short, claiming his lineage from Zeus and offering his mighty size as proof of his great-grandfather's continuing favour. His gift was a spear, supple wood beautifully cut. The fire-forged point gleamed in the light of the torches.
At last it was the man with scar's turn. 'Well son of Laertes?' Tyndareus shifted in his seat to face him. 'What does a disinterested observer have to say to these proceedings?' The man leaned back. 'I would like to know how you are going to stop the losers from declaring war on you. Or on Helen's lucky new husband. I see half a dozen men here ready to leap at each other's throats.'  
'You seem amused.'
The man shrugged. 'I find the folly of men amusing.'
'The son of Laertes scorns us!' This was the large man, Ajax, his clenched fist as big as my head.  
'Son of Telamon, never.'
'Then what, Odysseus? Speak your mind, for once.'
Tyndareus' voice was as sharp as I'd heard it.
Odysseus shrugged again. 'This was a dangerous gamble, despite the treasure and renown you have won. Each of these men is worthy, and knows it. They will not so easily be put off.'
'All this you have said to me in private.'
My father stiffened beside me. Conspiracy. His was not the only angry face in the hall.  
'True. But now i offer you a solution.' He held up his hands, empty. 'I have brought no gift, and do not seek to woo Helen. I am a king, as has been said, of rocks and goats. In return for my solution I seek from you the prize that I have already named.'
'Give me your solution and you shall have it.' Again, that slight movement, from the dais. One woman's hand had twitched against her companion's dress.
'Then here it is. I believe that we should let Helen choose.'
Odysseus paused, to allow for the murmurs of disbelief; women did not have a say in such things. 'No one may fault you, then. But she must choose now, at this very moment, so she will not be said to have taken council or instruction from you. And.' He held up a finger. 'Before she chooses every man here must swear an oath: to uphold Helen's choice, and to defend her husband against all who would take her from him.'
I felt the unrest in the room. An oath? And over such an unconventional matter as a woman choosing her husband. The men  were suspicious.
'Very well.' Tyndareus, his face unreadable, turned to the veiled women. 'Helen, do you accept this proposal?'
Her voice was low and lovely, carrying to every corner of the hall. 'I do.' It was all she said, but I felt the shiver go through the men around me. Even as a child I felt it, and marvelled at the power of this woman who, though veiled, could electrify a room. Her skin, we suddenly remembered, was rumoured to be gilded, her eyes dark and shining as the slick obsidian that we traded our olives for. At that moment she was worth all the prizes in the centre of the hall, and more.  
She was worth our lives.
Tyndareus nodded. 'Then I decree that it is so. All those who wish to swear will do so, now.'
I heard muttering, a few half-angry voices. But no man left.
Helen's voice, and the veil, gently fluttering with her breath, held us all captive.
A swiftly summoned priest led a white goat to the altar.
Here, inside, it was a more propitious choice than a bull, whose throat might splash unwholesomely upon the stone floor. The animal died easily and the man mixed its dark blood with the cypress ash from the fire. The bowl hissed, loud in the silent room.
'You will be first.' Tyndareus pointed to Odysseus. Even a nine-year-old saw how fitting this was. Already Odysseus had shown himself too clever by half. Our ragged alliances prevailed only when no man was allowed to be too much more powerful than the other. Around the room, I saw smirks and satisfaction among the kings; he would not be allowed to escape his own noose.
Odysseus' mouth quirked in a half-smile. 'Of course. It is my pleasure.' But I guessed that it was not so. During the sacrifice I had watched him lean back into the shadows, as if he would be forgotten. he rose now, moved to the altar.
'Now Helen,' Odysseus paused, his arm half-extended to the priest, 'remember that I only swear in fellowship, not as a suitor. You would never forgive yourself if you were to choose me.' His words were teasing, and drew scattered laughter. We all knew it was not likely that one so luminous as Helen would choose the King of barren Ithaca.
One by one the priest summoned us to the hearth, marking our wrists with blood and ash, binding as chains. I chanted the words of the oath back to him, my arm lifted for all to see.
When the last man had returned to his place, Tyndareus rose.  
'Choose now, my daughter.'
'Menelaus.' She spoke without hesitation, startling us all. We had expected suspense, indecision. I turned to the red-haired man, who stood, a huge grin cracking his face. In outsize joy, he clapped his silent brother on the back. Everywhere else was anger, disappointment, even grief. But no man reached for his sword; the blood had dried thick on our wrists.
'So be it.' Tyndareus stood also. 'I am glad to welcome a second son of Atreus to my family. You shall have my Helen, even as your worthy brother once claimed my Clytemnestra.'
He gestured to the tallest woman, as though she might stand. She did not move. Perhaps she had not heard.
'What about the third girl?' This shout from a small man, beside the giant Ajax. 'Your niece. Can I have her?'
The man laughed, glad for an easing in the tension.
'You are too late, Teucer.' Odysseus spoke over the noise.
'She's promised to me.'
I did not have the chance to hear more. My father's hand seized my shoulder, pulling me angrily off the bench. 'We are finished here.' We left that very night for home, and I climbed back on my donkey, thick with disappointment: I had not even been allowed to glimpse Helen's fabled face.
My father would never mention the trip again, and once home the events twisted strangely in my memory. The blood and the oath, the room full of kings: they seemed distant and pale, like something a bard had spun, rather than something I lived. Had I really knelt there before them? And what of the oath I had sworn? It seemed absurd even to think of it, foolish and improbable as a dream is by dinner.

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