FIC: "Time to Sail" (1/1)
"For them doth the strength of the sun shine below,
It seems like many years ago, not mere months, that King Odysseus of Ithaca came to Phthia to convince my lord, the great Achilles, to join the Greek forces preparing to sail to Troy. It was a beautiful day, as most days there are -- the sea was only a shade more blue-green than the sky. My lord was practicing at arms with his second cousin, Patroclus, and I believe I was engaged in a spirited attempt to woo a local serving girl who had refused my attentions for some time.
The Greeks were prepared, as usual, for war. But this time they had decided to unite in a single cause. The Trojan prince, Paris, had stolen the affections of the Spartan Queen, Helen, and taken her bodily to his home. All of the former suitors of the beautiful Helen, including Odysseus, had vowed to join Sparta's king, Menelaus, and his brother Agamemnon in waging war on Troy.
When Achilles called the Myrmidons together and announced he would sail with only one ship to join the Greek forces, we stood in our perfect order and waited to be chosen. With a nod of his head, he picked which of us would go to war. I knew without his indication that I, Eudorus, would be at his side, as I usually was.
Achilles also intended to take Patroclus, which was in itself a surprise. When he told me in private he would include the young man, I knew then that Achilles must expect this to be a long campaign, because he was devoted to Patroclus and would not want to be parted from him for long.
And so we supplied ourselves for the voyage and the campaign, quickly preparing to join the fleet. We barely had time to take leave of our loved ones -- and I never was able to bed that serving girl -- before it was time to sail to Troy.
As soon as he had made up his mind, my lord was completely devoted to the cause of war. He was a great leader and an even better warrior, and his lust for battle was legend once his initial torpor was overcome. He had given himself a full day and night to consider the campaign, and when his decision was made, he took charge of everything, even choosing the dried meat to fill the larder of our ship.
Achilles, the son of a goddess by many accounts, was my leader from childhood. We fought together as boys against the boars and bears on Mount Pelion, and we were fed the meat of lions. In fact, Achilles always called us lions, not ants as the stories about us go.
I remember feeling my heart swell as the wind first filled our sail the day we left for Troy. The legends may tell that we Myrmidons were formed from insects that trail in the dirt, but the truth is, we love the sea as well as the land. In fact, the Myrmidons designed the first sailing ships, some say.
Over the years, the stories people tell of the Myrmidons became as humorous to us as the constant whispering of Achilles' divinity. The legend is that the great father of the gods, Zeus, fashioned the Myrmidons out of ants to re-populate the island of Aegina which had been devastated by plague. This was done at the request of Aeacus, Achilles' grandfather. Thus we served his line and were considered a diligent and industrious race, eager and tenacious, great followers and bold in heart. Ants.
Not that we do not have similarities with these insects. Just like ants, we Myrmidons are social creatures, living in what could be called a colony. When we unite in a cause, we can move mountains, not just build hills.
Achilles often encouraged these stories, or certainly did nothing to discourage them. And so we dressed in black and traveled in 'swarms,' and we were considered the fiercest of all Greek warriors, with the great Achilles leading us.
In truth, my background was much less romantic than these legends, but something of which I felt no shame. Although my mother was unmarried, she had told me of my father, who had fallen in love with her and bedded her after he saw her dancing at a ceremony for Artemis, the goddess she served. She never told me his name, but she did recount he was among the heroes who went with Jason to recapture the Golden Fleece, along with Peleus, the father of Achilles, Menoetius, the father of Patroclus, Laertes, the father of Odysseus of Ithaca, and Nestor of Gerenia.
Because my father was unknown, there were some who claimed I must have been sired by the god Hermes, being so fleet of foot. There are always legends of gods having come to earth to get children on mortals, and these are probably no more strange than to be of a people believed formed from ants. At any rate, I come from a proud line of fighting men, trained from the age of two to be a warrior -- to be a killer.
Also trained to serve.
Achilles is and has always been my king, though he never took that title. From the time he turned 15, we Myrmidons have followed him as we would have followed the god, Ares, into war. A man of fearless demeanor in battle, he could also be gentle and kind. Often over the years I have seen his pain, just as I have shared his songs and his poems.
Although I've heard it spoken of -- and sometimes in the basest terms -- one thing I never shared was his bed.
It was the honor of my life to serve Achilles as I did, but I always understood that for him to take just one of the Myrmidons as a lover would have bred discord and jealousy in the ranks. And so what passed between us was a kind of pairing that began in the heart and head and often defied the needs of the body.
Not that I didn't serve his body! I often massaged him, bathed him, dressed him and doctored him when he needed tending. The heat of my body often kept his warm during long, cold nights on campaign. And, yes, he was magnificent to look on, with golden hair and skin, and perfectly formed all over.
But Achilles was untouchable to most of us in certain ways, and even to the last time I saw him, he remained a mystery to me. And this is the greatest regret of my short life.
Achilles shared far more of himself with his cousin, Patroclus. From the time Patroclus came to Phthia to live, he was the favorite of my lord. They trained together a great deal, and Achilles taught him to fight in his own recognizable style, a thing that later came to great tragedy for us all. They were inseparable both day and night, and though we never allowed Patroclus to be demeaned with the term 'Achilles' Boy' -- as men like the Trojans often refer to the Greeks and their favorites -- we knew what was between them.
The war in Troy began badly in several ways. We defied the high king, Agamemnon, by taking the beach before any of the other hundreds of ships had landed. And on that first day, we lost several Myrmidons, both on the beach and in the temple of the Sun God, whose statue Achilles desecrated in one of his most defiant acts.
I was uneasy immediately in Troy and felt the weight of every action. It seemed we were caught up in something beyond our control and led by forces we could not stay.
It was prophesied that the first of us to set foot on Trojan soil would die, and from the time the unlucky Protesilaus fulfilled this tragic destiny to the moment of Patroclus' horrific death, to that last parting of Achilles from our band, the days and nights were filled with an epic drama worthy of the gods, one that will be told and re-told through time, and hopefully will retain something of the spirit of the men and women who lived it.
Little did I know when I took the beautiful and tempestuous Briseis, acolyte of Apollo, to Achilles' tent, what a fateful role she would play. How could I have foreseen his love for her or his fury at Agamemnon when the great high king claimed her as his own spoil?
Little did I know when I saw he whom I believed to be my lord that fateful morning and took up my arms, as happy to fight as I have ever been after those days we sat idle, that I was nothing but a pawn of the gods, destined to betray and wound my lord in a way I would never have chosen.
Little did I know when he spoke to me from time to time of Hector, the crown prince of Troy, with a voice filled with admiration for the general's courage and skill, he would later be driven to not only kill the man but to desecrate his body in such an ignoble way.
I was always the voice he would have rather not heard, the one who begged for moderation and rationality in a world of madness. I always warned him against himself and his own tendencies, for from the time of his birth he was on a path of glory that demanded the ultimate sacrifice. And so he tempted the gods and their lesser counterparts on earth, the kings, as only a man with no fear of the future can. Achilles' destiny was clear to him, if not to me. And if I would have changed it, he never would.
The story is well enough known, it seems, and does not need my re-telling. When Agamemnon took Briseis, Achilles was unhappy and refused to fight for the Greeks. When he finally got the girl back, he seemed to fall immediately under her spell and told me it was time to sail back to Greece. But Patroclus wanted his chance to go to war, and he defied Achilles and wore his armor, leading the Myrmidons into battle with the Trojans. Hector killed Patroclus, believing him to be my lord, as we all believed.
Then in the madness that came from the death of his favorite, Achilles challenged Hector to fight, killed him and then dragged his body around Troy and through our camp, defiling it.
King Priam himself came to Achilles' tent that night and begged the return of the body of his son. This so moved my lord, he agreed to forestall the Greek war with Troy for the 12 days of Hector's funeral games, a promise Agamemnon was forced to honor. I will never forget the sight of Achilles weeping over the body of the Trojan prince, calling him "brother," the bloodlust that had driven him now spent. He ordered us to put Hector's body in a chariot for the King to take back to Troy, and he allowed Briseis, the niece of Priam, to leave with him.
For me, then, the war was over. Achilles gave me one last order, and that was to take the Myrmidons back to Greece, leaving the fate of Troy to Agamemnon and to the gods. And for Achilles himself, his fate was in the hands of Destiny.
It was the hardest thing he had ever asked me to do -- to leave him. I wanted to do more than beg his pardon for having disappointed him by allowing his beloved cousin to die, but he would not hear of it. He said it was he who was the disappointment. He spoke kindly to me, and he kissed me and released me from service.
And I could not dishonor him then by begging to be allowed to stay at his side! It was our time, once again, to sail.
And so we Myrmidons went away before the fall of Troy, as my lord had ordered. We did not see the giant horse fashioned by Odysseus pulled into the city; we were not among the warriors who crouched for hours inside the wooden mammoth and sprang forth to open the gates and murder the guards; we did not see the red and orange flames rise as the great city was set ablaze.
And we did not smell the acrid black smoke of the funeral pyres that came after -- one, of course, which held the body of my great lord, Achilles.
But by the time we reached Thessaly, we learned of it all. And I, without really knowing, knew all along that he was gone. I had seen it in his eyes and heard it in his voice on that night he sent me away. It had been prophesied that he would never return, and so he had gone on to his death and sent us home.
Since our return, I have had long talks with Thetis, the mother of Achilles, and she has told me of her visions of him now, where he dwells in a favored region in Hades, perhaps the White Isle or the Elysian Plain. Patroclus is with him, as are others he both knew in life and did not know. The great queen of the Amazons, Penthesilia, is there, who could have made a good wife for my lord, Thetis says; and also, the sorceress Medea, who helped the Argonauts steal the Fleece.
The great Trojan prince, Hector, is with him, and they are brothers and lovers in death as they should have been in life, Thetis tells me. This seems fitting to me, as Hector was a man that even I could find deserving of my lord.
After a lifetime of war, he has found peace. All that awaits now is for me to join him, if the gods are willing. And so I prepare to sail one last time, having paid my final respect to Ares, the most hated of the gods, whom I've served all my life. I made a last sacrifice to him, one which may sound terrible, but one that was, to me, appropriate -- Xanthus, Achilles war-horse.
I also begged the pardon of the Sun God for my part in destroying his temple in Troy, and thanked Athena for her wisdom and loyalty to the Greeks when even the god of war himself supported the Trojans.
Finally, I prayed to Hermes, the god who leads men's souls into the Underworld and some say assisted in my begetting, to help me find my way when I cross the river. I know I will reach the spot where the path forks in two directions, and I hope there to make the turn toward Elysium instead of being forced down to Tartarus. In Elysium, if this is where my lord now dwells, we can exercise upon grassy playing-fields or wrestle on the yellow sands. We can sleep in the groves and make our beds on the river banks. With Achilles and Hector and my young friend Patroclus, I can wander in luminous plains and green valleys.
Achilles will be glad to have me, I know. I can once again wash his feet and massage his shoulders, and pull the cover over his naked body when he is spent from making love to the Trojan hero.
I can continue, in death, as in life, to serve my lord.
And, so, with my sword in my left hand as I have always carried it, I make my way to the spot I have chosen. My Myrmidon brothers will prepare my body after this final deed is done and send me on my way to Charon, the boatman; Thetis has provided the coins herself.
My heart is as light as it's ever been. Even fearing what may come next, I can look forward with hope. Many times when fighting side by side with Achilles, I found that I was carried beyond my own abilities by the inspiration of his bravery. And this is the inspiration that will guide me to find my way in the Underworld, even without the help of the gods.
I am ready. It is time to sail.
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