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Authors: Barry Unsworth

Tags: #Historical, #Fiction

The Songs of the Kings (3 page)

BOOK: The Songs of the Kings
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He was disabled, groaning and helpless there on the bloody shingle, crippled for life—with hamstrings severed he would never fight again. Whether he lived or died lay with Stimon the dancer, who had won the bout by dancing and was dancing still, on his feet once more and stepping carefully and delicately round the fallen man, holding the spear he had taken up again.

He kept out of range of the other's hands, which might still have sought for his throat or his eyes. He was waiting for the moment when he could get a thrust at the neck or abdomen, areas not protected by the cuirass. He was waiting, but he was not in haste; it soon became obvious to all watching that the moment of the kill was being deliberately delayed, that Stimon was playing up to the spectators, putting on a show. The Boeotian knew it too. As the hope of mercy left him he found the resolution to draw the short sword from his belt, the only defense remaining to him.

And now, amid the continuing hush, it became a dance for two persons, Stimon swaying his hips and raising his knees and setting his feet with exaggerated care while the wind scattered the drops of blood from his shoulder widely over the pebbles, Opilmenos twisting his body round to follow him, making attempts to rise, striving to keep his eyes always on the weapon in the other's hands, because to look away was to acquiesce in his death. Then Stimon quickened the step, the fallen man could not gyrate quickly enough, the thrust came, piercing the side of the neck, entering deeply into the throat. When the point was withdrawn, Opilmenos moved still, but it was the pumping of his blood that moved him. The Locrian turned away, not towards the King—he did not give a glance to Agamemnon—but towards his own people. Calchas heard, or thought he heard, the metal shoulder pieces of the dying man scrape on the pebbles. Then all other sounds, even the lamentation of the wind, were engulfed by the great shout of triumph that came from the Locrians as they broke ranks, their leader, Ajax the Lesser, to the fore, and surged forward to raise the victor shoulder-high. Agamemnon rose to his feet, again smiling. The show was over.


Calchas remained where he was while the army began to disperse, while the corpse of Opilmenos was carried away. Poimenos, who missed no change in his master's face, saw now that it was ashen below the caking of chalk. Without knowing the cause, he made to draw nearer, but Calchas waved him away and sat motionless, head declined, staring down at the ground before him. How could he have been so deceived? He was the more shaken as this had been—or seemed—a private message, not a matter for public pronouncement but an assurance that he was still held worthy of trust, still had the favor of Pollein.

The moving body, the moving flames, the Singer at the edge of the firelight—perhaps that sightless one had seen more than he? Fire and dance, the briefest of things and the most lovely. But not the same . . . Was that where he had gone wrong? He pondered it, eyes still fixed on the ground. The flame has no past and no future, it belongs only to now, it is born and leaps and dies, no other flame will exactly resemble it, though the number should be countless. Also the dance dies and cannot be reborn and no other dance will exactly resemble it, even though the dancer be the same. He had thought this consuming joy of life meant the death of the dancer along with the dance but Stimon the Locrian had killed while dancing and lived to dance again. Perhaps the god had wanted him to understand that the more intense the life the greater the power of death, and therein lay the divine contradiction. Or perhaps it had not been Pollein who had led him there, perhaps some other god altogether had directed his steps, visited him with that shaft of conviction, luminous and deceiving. Fear came with this thought, fear his familiar, the companion of his days, the nightmare fear of not knowing the sender, not knowing whom to placate. It was like the wind . . . he seemed to remember now that there had been laughter from somewhere in the crowd, or perhaps somewhere beyond. Laughter of men or gods? Had he simply been tricked, toyed with, or had his mistake somehow been necessary? And if so, necessary to whom and for what purpose? How could it be known? At least he had made no public forecast, he had merely hinted at knowledge, always a safe thing to do.

He was seeking to derive what comfort he could from this when he saw Ajax the Larger bearing down on them with his rolling gait, head and shoulders above everybody else, flanked by the usual group of sycophantic companions from Salamis, who were making a way through the crowd for him, jostling anyone who didn't move quickly enough. Calchas got to his feet as they approached and Poimenos followed suit.

“I wanted to have a word or two before we go in.” Ajax made a motion of his huge head in the direction of Agamemnon's tent.

“Of course.”

“I was against this fight from the start. These people will tell you. Speak up, was I or was I not against it from the start?”

“Yes, Ajax, you were, you were, right from the very start.”

“I said as much, I told Agamemnon how I felt. Did I or did I not?
Speak up

“You did, Ajax, you did.”

“Well, events have borne me out.”

Calchas experienced the usual mixture of feelings Ajax of Salamis inspired in him, awe at his enormous strength and stupidity, fear of his erratic temper, a nervous, half-humorous sense of his dangerous absurdity. “How do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, it has ended in a death, hasn't it? I said that would happen.”

“But it was a duel to the death, wasn't it? It was only to be expected that one of them . . .” He stopped short, becoming aware that the eyes of Ajax and those of the whole entourage were intently upon him. “Well, of course,” he said, “it is undeniable that the Boeotian is dead.”

Ajax continued to look down at him in silence for some moments. He had unusually wide-open eyes, very short-lashed, light greenish blue in color, eyes that looked somehow stunned, as if at some point in the past, perhaps long ago, they had registered a shock of surprise so enormous that it had never been possible to absorb it. He seemed out of temper now and Calchas wondered whether he had been backing Opilmenos to win. Like all exceedingly simple souls and some souls not so simple, he easily set down his disappointments to something that needed mending in the general state of things. More than once he had been heard to say that the smell of shit that lay over the camp was due to faults in the positioning of the army.

“The waste of a life,” he said now. “This Opilmenos was a good soldier. Even the other chap, the Locrian, has a wound that will take time to put right. In his sword arm too. As a military man, I can't see any sense in it. It is not quarreling and threatening and bloodletting that we need. I've said it before and I'll say it again, what we need—”

“He has said it before and he'll—”

“Who is that fool interrupting me? I'll have your guts for garters if it happens again. What we need is something that will bring us together, something that will make us if not exactly friends . . .”

“Allies,” a rash voice offered—despite the fear Ajax inspired, there was always someone among his followers who tried to curry favor by getting in early with the right word.

“Blockhead, we are allies already. Good grief, I am surrounded by cretins. We need something to take the men's minds off this wind and as a military man I know what it is.”

“He knows what it is.”

Ajax raised a hand, extending a forefinger that looked to Calchas the size and shape of the sausages they made in Pergamum from goat guts and corn. “Games,” he said. “I intend to organize a Day of Games. Something never heard of before. It came to me in the form of a dream, which is why I have come to you with it, you being the chap best qualified in the dream department.”

“Well, I am at your service,” Calchas said.

But some shyness seemed to descend on Ajax now and he did not immediately relate his dream. “There's bound to be winners and losers, that's life,” he said. “But we will come out of it, you know, not friends exactly . . .”

“Closer,” Calchas said. “With mutual respect.”

“That's it exactly, that's just the phrase I was looking for. Great gods, what it is to have a head on your shoulders.” Ajax's eyes were as dazed-looking as ever but a glow had come over his face. “Mutual respect,” he said, drawing out the syllables. “I like that, as a military man I like it a lot.”

“We could have races,” one of the followers said.

Ajax turned on him and half raised a fist that was roughly the size of Poimenos's head. “Numskull, there are races already. Everyone knows what a race is. I am talking about something completely new.” He lowered his hand, it seemed reluctantly, and turned back to Calchas, shaking his head. “Thick as two planks,” he said.

“What was your dream?”

“I was throwing a javelin across the sea. The sea was dead calm, not like this one, there wasn't a ripple on it. I stood on the shore and I hurled the javelin with all my strength. I was waiting, you know, to see the splash, so I could judge the distance. I mean, I knew it was a mighty throw, but I expected to see a splash sooner or later. But there was no splash, the javelin flew up into the sun and disappeared. There wasn't a mark on the sea at all. Then there was a great crowd all around me and everyone was shouting, ‘Ajax! Ajax! Ajax has won the most points!' The shouts were still in my ears as I woke and it came to me that this was a message, that some god was telling me to organize a Games Day with different events, not just running, I'm too heavy for running, javelin-throwing, for example, and give points to the winner and the one coming in second and so on.”

“This is a most important dream,” Calchas said. “We have to attend on Agamemnon shortly, but when I have had time for reflection I'd like to talk to you about it. I see nothing offensive to the gods in the idea. And they are clearly favorable to a javelin-throwing competition as one of the events.”

A smile came slowly to Ajax's face. All expressions were slow with him and this seemed to be because of the great expanse of his features and the time it took for his moods to travel across them. “I'm glad you see it in that light,” he said. “I would win easily. There is no one else in the world who can hurl a javelin as far as I can. We could have a weight-lifting event too. It is a pity that in my dream there was not more guidance about how to organize the points system. It must be groups, let's say the Spartans make one group, everybody tries to get points for himself and for his group, and then these groups . . .”

He paused and a frown spread over his face, replacing the smile. The fringe of ginger-colored hair that lay along his upper lip bristled slightly. “These groups, the people in these groups . . .” The frown deepened. “I am going to ask Ajax the Lesser to be my partner in the project,” he said, “when I see him. He has a head for figures.”

“Won't he be at the meeting?”

“No, he has had leave not to attend. He is with his Locrians, celebrating Stimon's victory. They'll be well on the way to getting drunk by now. He mixes with the rank and file too much, the officers should keep a distance, I've told him that before. I don't drink myself, it clouds a man's mind. Stand away from us.”

This last was said to those clustered around him. He advanced and took Calchas by the arm in what was doubtless intended as a friendly grip. “I don't know whether you've noticed it, but there are deep divisions among us.”

“Yes, I have, as a matter of fact.”

“I want to change all that. I want to bring the allies together. When we get to Troy, that will be the war process. Here at Aulis what we need is a peace process. I'd like to feature in the Songs as Ajax the Unifier, the man who held the army together in the face of a hostile wind through the brilliant idea of a Games Day.”

“And so you will. I'll make it my business to speak to the Singer about this at the earliest opportunity. He is a foreigner like me, we are both from over the water, and so I have some influence with him as to what he includes. And what he leaves out, of course, which is sometimes more important.” In point of fact he had practically no influence with the Singer at all; between diviner and bard there was rivalry, both in their different ways being reciters, disseminators of stories; but Calchas lost no opportunity to encourage a belief to the contrary, as it added considerably to his status in the camp.

“You will do that?” Ajax's grip tightened. “I swear you'll not regret it.”

Calchas saw the large face, radiant with gratitude, close above him. He was not himself a short man, but at this close range he had to crane his neck to meet the moist, emotional eyes below the unruly wisps and whorls of the brows.

“To approach him myself would be too lowering,” Ajax said.

There was no intention of offense in this, as the diviner knew. Ajax was rarely aware enough of others to want to offend them, except when he got heated and then all he wanted to do was kill them. He had spoken openly and confidingly, like a child. Calchas's womanly dress and painted face were like the plumage of some strange bird to him, perhaps exciting. And then, he knew the diviner had access, not only to the Singer's ear but to the meaning of dreams and the signals of the gods. And, more immediately important, he enjoyed the favor of the Commander-in-Chief.

“The Singer will require a gift,” Calchas said. His arm was beginning to feel numb.

“I'll give you a silver hair clip for him.”

Calchas nodded. It sounded an unlikely thing for Ajax to have in his possession. It might be plunder of course. Whether this gift would ever materialize was a matter of doubt to him, as was also the question of whether, if it did materialize, he would ever pass it on to the Singer. To his intense relief he felt the grip removed from his arm. “He'll appreciate that,” he said.

“You might speak to Agamemnon about this idea of mine for keeping up the morale of the army. Just mention it to him, he listens to you. I don't want to speak to him myself, it looks too much like toadying. Why should I ask him for permission just because he has the general vote for commander? Besides, we are related. My mother is Periboea of Athens and she is a granddaughter of Pelops and Pelops is Agamemnon's grandfather. That makes us cousins of a sort.”

By now the crowd had thinned, there was nothing before them but the churned and bloodied patch of shingle, the swaying masts, the endless rearing and tumbling of the waves. It was time to present themselves at Agamemnon's tent. As they went, Calchas fell behind and loitered for a while, allowing Ajax to precede him. Not a good idea to enter together, he thought. All such things were noted and might sooner or later be used against one in ways not foreseeable. He was still wondering vaguely, as he entered, why the family connection with Agamemnon should be felt by Ajax an impediment to easy speech.

BOOK: The Songs of the Kings
2.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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