The Spoils of Troy
‘Achilles asked to speak with me, yes.’
‘But it was you who made the first approach.’
Nervously she whispered, ‘My father asked it of me.’ Polyxena’s gaze had been fixed on the ground beneath her. Now she looked up hopelessly into those cold eyes. ‘We thought it the only hope of having Hector’s body returned to us.’
‘And because my father had a noble heart he acceded to that hope, did he not?’
Polyxena nodded and averted her eyes.
‘Yet that was not the last time you saw him?’
Her arms were crossed at her breast. Now she was trembling so much that she could barely speak. ‘But it was Achilles who sought me out.’
‘Perhaps you had given him cause to do so?’
‘I swear not,’ she gasped. ‘The priest told me he had come looking for me many times. The thought of it frightened me. I didn’t understand what he wanted.’
‘But still you came.’
‘And you didn’t come alone. You told your treacherous brother Paris that Achilles was to be found unguarded at the temple of Apollo. You told him exactly when he would be there. You told him to bring his bow and kill my father in vengeance for the death of your brother Hector.’
‘That is not how it was!’ Polyxena cried.
But Neoptolemus was not listening. He was remembering that Odysseus had told him how, in a quiet hour together, Achilles had confessed his tender feelings for Polyxena. Looking at the girl now – the tousled ringlets blowing about her face, the delicate hands at her shoulders, the shape of her slim thighs disclosed by the pull of the breeze at her shift – he thought he understood how this alluring combination of poise and vulnerability might have tugged at his father’s heart.
It did so now, seditiously, at his own.
Yet this girl had betrayed his father, whose shade cried out for vengeance.
‘And is not Thymbra under the protection of the god?’ he demanded. ‘Isn’t it a sacred place of truce where men from both sides – Argive and Trojan alike – were free to make their offerings without fear?’
Seeing that her truth and his must forever lie far from each other’s reach, Polyxena lowered her head again and consigned herself to silence.
Accusation gathered force in his voice. ‘But you and your brothers lacked all reverence for the god. Together you violated the sanctuary of Apollo’s temple. Your brothers were afraid to face my father in open combat like true men, so they set a trap for him. And you, daughter of Priam, were the willing bait in that trap.’
In a low whisper Polyxena said, ‘I knew nothing of what they planned.’
Neoptolemus snorted. ‘I think you’re lying to me – as you lied to my father before me. I think, daughter of Priam, that it’s time you were purified of lies.’
He turned away from her and gestured to the two Myrmidons who stood at his back. The women who had listened with pent breath to their tense exchanges began to moan and whimper as the Myrmidons stepped forward to seize Polyxena by her thin arms.
Swaying where she stood, Hecuba screeched, ‘Where are you taking her?’
‘To my father’s tomb,’ Neoptolemus answered coldly. ‘There is a last service she can perform for him there.’ Then all the women were wailing again as they watched Polyxena dragged off through the gritty wind blowing across the square, past the impassive effigy of the horse, towards the Scaean Gate.
Walking at dawn through ransacked streets where only the dead were gathered, Odysseus disturbed vultures and pie-dogs already tugging at the silent piles of human flesh. They cowered at his approach or flapped away on verminous wings, peevishly watching as he stared at the horror of what had been done.
During the course of the night a living city had been transformed into a vast necropolis. Its very air was charred and excremental. As though some swift, inexorable pestilence had struck out of the night sky, all its men folk had lain down in droves, their necks gaudy with wounds, their entrails flowering in garlands from their bellies, their eyes gaping at the day. Here lay a man who might once have been a jolly butcher, now with his ribs split open like a side of beef. There, in a slovenly mess, crouched two twin boys – they could only recently have learned to speak – with their infant brains dashed out against a wall. And over there a youth sat propped against an almond tree, evidently puzzled by the broken blade of a sword that had been left protruding like a handle from his skull. And still, in the boughs of that tree, a linnet sang.
When he came out into a small square strewn with bodies, Odysseus saw three men who had followed him to Troy from Dulichion. They were quenching their thirst at a fountain while another milked a nanny-goat into an upturned helmet clutched between his knees. Across the square a half-naked woman with blood splashed at her thighs sat weeping in the doorway of a house.
The soldiers leapt to their feet at his approach, pressing knuckles to their brows as though expecting a reprimand. When Odysseus merely asked if he might share their water, he was offered goat’s milk but said that water was all he wanted. Before he could reach the fountain however, the weary men relaxed and began to congratulate him on the success of his ruse. Only a man out of the Ionian isles, they declared, could have been canny enough to dream up a scheme as clever as that of the wooden horse.
‘We shall have tales to tell when we get home, sir,’ lisped the oldest of them, a grey-headed man who had taken a scar across his mouth and lost half his teeth in the rout at the palisade much earlier that year.
‘Do you think there was ever a night of slaughter such as this?’ asked another.
Odysseus shook his head, unspeaking.
The man who had been milking the goat said, ‘There’s been times I’ve wondered whether I’d ever get to see my wife again, but thanks to you, sir, I expect to come home a rich man now.’
The first man nodded, grinning. ‘It seems the gods were with us after all.’
Around them, the bodies of the dead paid scant attention to these ordinary men, their murderers. And when Odysseus opened his mouth he found he could not speak. His hands were trembling again. When he lifted them to where water splashed in the basin of the fountain he realized that his arms were still stained with blood up to his elbows.
Hurriedly he washed them clean, then cupped his hands at the spout and lifted them to his lips. Water splashed across his tongue like light. He stood swaying a moment, possessed by brief startling intimations of another life in which, with a frenzy entirely alien to his nature, he too had joined the massacre. He saw the Ethiopian mumbling in his blood; he saw the fat man’s eyes staring back at him.
Then he returned to time. He heard the water splashing in the bowl and the woman sobbing still.
Nodding at the soldiers with a weary, distracted smile, Odysseus walked out of the square towards the gate, making for the sea.
At a wind-blown dune not far from the burial mound of Achilles he came to a halt and stood alone beside the sea, watching a flight of pelicans flag their way across the bay. Then his gaze shifted westwards with such concentration that his keen eyesight might have travelled out across the turbulent Aegean and over the mountains of Thessaly to focus on his small homestead island of Ithaca. He was thinking about his wife Penelope and his little son Telemachus, who must now be almost as old as Neoptolemus. With a fervour that amazed him, Odysseus heard himself praying that, unlike the son of Achilles, his own boy would never rejoice in a night of slaughter such as the one he had just endured.
Hunched against the wind, he remembered the dream that had come to him on Ithaca – the furrows of his fields sown with salt, his infant son thrown down before the ploughshare. Ten years, the sibyl at the Earth-mother’s shrine had said, ten wasted years must pass before Troy fell. And now Troy had fallen, destroyed by his own ingenuity, and those long years of war seemed waste indeed, for he had lost more in a single night than all the gold of Troy could redeem. He had done such things as would chill his wife’s blood should she ever come to hear of them.
The white caps of the breakers rolling in off the Hellespont clashed against the shore. The wind banged about his ears. Odysseus swayed where he stood. His breathing was irregular, his tongue dry as a stone in his mouth. Shivering, he lifted a hand to his brow and found that his temples were rimed with sweat. His fingers trembled. He sensed that his nerves had begun at last to mutiny.
Конец ознакомительного фрагментаКупить и скачать всю книгу