For the Asking
The vista was bare and rough. A spit of desert that looked as though some mighty hand had scratched a furrow through the surrounding mountains, leaving just a few stunted scrubs and burnt grasses in its wake. Wind picked up grit and sand from the stone monoliths surrounding the valley, carrying it in stinging waves across the barren landscape- its coming heralded by hollow moaning as the gusts passed through imperfections in the rock edifice.
Across this empty, desolate place came a sound foreign to the normally lifeless landscape. A sharp, metallic noise that sounded as though some distant hammer were striking an anvil furiously, repeatedly. This sound was followed by another: more clear and distinctive than the first. A furious wail, imparted from what could only be a human mouth, rolling across the ground, filling the landscape for a moment before leaving on the wind that always seemed to be carrying across the land. The scream rose in pitch before dying out completely, lost to the desert.
Movement focused attention in this open desert, drawn to two men slowly circling each other in ever reducing concentric circles. One dragged his leg behind him slowly, leaving a gritty trail of blood in the trench his heel created. The steadily flowing rivulets of blood ran the length of his leg, their source a deep gash running from his inner groin upward across his left thigh. The femoral artery was untouched, but visible from the surface and in danger of rupturing. The man took no notice of this, turning his copper blade over in his hand, feeling its familiar weight and thrust.
His opponent stood, not unscratched, but with mostly superficial wounds. Nonetheless, both men were exhausted and their furrowed brows were beaded with sweat. The sun gave them no mercy, beating upon their backs and necks with furious heat, rendering their armor slick and suffocating.
Without warning, the wounded man attacked, drawing his blade low and meeting its mark by virtue of surprise. The startled opponent dropped to his knees, each of his calves now marked by the crude line of a well-sharpened blade. Blood gushed freely from the wounds, brining their own level of pain. Just as the man drew forward to slice his blade cleanly across his opponent's neck, the man on his knees turned quickly, thrusting upward. His aim was true, and drove the tip of his blade through the intercostals of his opponent, leaving it to rest inside the lower cavity of his heart. With a fluid motion he removed the weapon as gracefully as if it were being pulled from a sheath. Thick, crimson lifeblood raced down its length, over the hilt, and down his own arm. It was finished.
His opponent fell in surprise, clutching his hand to his chest as his precious blood left between his fingers in torrents. His body fell into the dust with a dull thud, haloing him in sand briefly before the dust settled about him, leaving only the victor at his side, still on his knees.
Slowly, his calves screaming in protest, the man drew himself up to his full stature, pulling dust and grit-filled breaths into his lungs. His tongue was coated in sand, and his dry coughing did nothing to wet his parched throat- sweat was standing on his skin in beads and rivers. His sword, coated thickly with blood and dirt hung at his side, gripped in an arm sheathed with the blood of his fallen enemy.
As he looked down upon his defeated adversary, he did not lord; nor did he rejoice. In their stead came an overwhelming sense of loss- of desperate sorrow. He could not place the origin of his emotions; they seemed to press outward from his soul and simultaneously inward from his skin. Every inch of his body ached with exhausted fury; each breath he summoned was agony.
And then, the pain seemed to dull into gray. The world about him pitched and yawed, diving into darkness before returning to the yellow and brown world where his body lay next to his brethren in battle. Pain abated to dull warmth, and he felt as though his body had become like so many wisps of cloud- weightless and detached.
His eyes slowly opened, the dream still clinging with their weight to his eyelids. For a moment he thought himself still in that desert landscape, the heat surrounding him seemed to leaden the air. Then, slowly, it came to him. He was not in the desert; in point of fact he was very far from it. Beached upon the coast of the Aegean, he sat at the cusp of a mighty sea, and the heat was that of midday. He had awoken to the same oppressive heat, same salt-heavy air, same crudely fashioned tent for nearly five months, and yet still he felt a sense of unreality each time he opened his eyes. This land was not his home, though he felt certain in some distant way that it was the foreign soil over which his ashes would be spread, to be carried by foreign winds across lands he would never see.
"My Lord Achilles." Eudoras stood silhouetted against the opening of his general's tent, waiting with calm patience for acknowledgement. Achilles suffered no impatient officers- haste had been the mistress of needless death for too long to regard her lightly. Slowly standing to his full height, Achilles turned his eyes to Eudoras, who took his cue to deliver his message.
"The slave girl- the Trojan. Agamemnon has released her from his service." Achilles stared at him a moment longer, boring through him with inscrutable dark eyes. Then, without response, he turned to his washing basin, the water dirty with salt from the sea. As he drew the tepid water to his face, he felt the muscles working there- what to do about this news?
"Does Agamemnon send her spoilt back to me? To dine upon the crumbs that fall from his table, lick the wine that spills from his chalice and thus consider myself content and grateful?" Eudoras turned his eyes shamefully to the ground, fury and anger burning behind their darkened orbs. Agamemnon had indeed insulted Achilles most unjustly- Eudoras' own outrage at this scandal was staved only at his beloved leader's command. Achilles bore the insult with a brooding quite that Eudoras knew all to well to harbor a rage he never wished to bear witness to.
"He does not return my Lord's prize- he has given her over to his men for sport."
Achilles was upon his armor in a moment, the upturned basin spilling water across the open sand that composed the floor of his quarters. Eudoras stepped back sharply- Achilles' anger was breeching its holds.
"Pompous, sluggardly fool! He is no more fit to bear the title "king" than a hog is allowed to eat at the tables of men! Is there no vice into which his greedy hands will not grasp?" His voice rose to a full and terrible timbre- hatred filling each word with such venom that many a mighty man would have fallen down trembling at his feet. Eudoras backed out of the entryway, leaving Achilles to prepare in solitude- his message had been delivered, and to remain close to the raging man seemed ill advised. His temper was legend for good reason, and Eudoras would not have wished his most desperate enemy on the sharp end of Achilles' wrath. Agamemnon was a fool for slighting so powerful a man, and many secretly felt his end would be met upon the hilt of a Myrmidon blade.
Achilles tightened his sword against his thigh, feeling its reassuring weight and sending a silent prayer that one day Agamemnon would know its weight as well.
"When it meets the flesh of his soft belly." Quickly he strode into the midday light, leaving in the direction of Agamemnon's encampment.
"Trojan bitch!" Asaeus spat bright red into the once white sand of the Trojan shore- turned a dull gray by the passing footsteps of thousands upon her virgin coast. The stain stood markedly against the gray pallet, causing all who were gathered around the cowering girl to pause momentarily.
"She has a set of claws about her! Time to tame this cat!" Another soldier threw his weight into her body, knocking her onto her back as a scream was torn from her lips. He brought the back of his hand against her face with a sharp snap.
Her bottom lip felt as though it had burst open as stars swept across her eyes in a dazzling array. The warm, coppery taste of blood coated her tongue and as she hitched in another breath to scream she felt her throat constrict, every passageway blocked by her own blood. Her body spasmed involuntarily, spitting a thin mist of blood and spit across her assailants' face.
"Bitch!" He slapped her again, and this time she did not have to speculate that her upper lip had split open. He roughly grabbed her cheeks, forcing her eyes into his own- his expression carried only delight. She felt someone else grab great handfuls of her hair; its separation from her scalp was marked only with a distant, tearing pain. Her flailing arms were caught and pinned, each writhing thrust of her body met with another pair of groping hands to still her movement. She felt her robes being split, the last defense against her attackers wrenched from her skin, leaving her body exposed and helpless. From some distant place she heard the men around her laughing, the smell of their sweat filling her lungs and galling her. Their animal excitement was palpable as she closed her eyes and felt a rough, bearded face rub against her own, wet with sweat and blood.
"Achilles!" The word cut its way through the melee with a forcefulness that stilled everyone's motions. There was a quick sound of sword grinding against bone and then a river of blood, still warmed by its owner, fell across her naked body. She could not force her eyes open, even as every pair of hands and arms wrapped about her fell away in one movement. She was crying, though she did not know it herself.
Two arms slipped beneath her neck and legs, lifting her with effortless ease. Even in her terror, there was strength left in her body, and with every breath her scorched lungs would allow her, she beat against the man who now carried her, even as he bore her away from the lustful soldiers who had been making sport of her. The noise of their frustration and confusion soon fell behind her, to be replaced by the rolling tide crashing against the shores of Troy.
From the stifling heat they entered into a tent, its relative coolness salving her bare skin and cooling the sweat upon her body. She reopened her eyes and felt her heart lurch upward into her throat, closing the passageway to no more than a pin's breadth.
He laid her down on the floor and just as quickly she scuttled away from him like a whipped dog, her large brown eyes wide with fear. She made no motion to cover her naked body, and in fact seemed not to notice it at all as her chest heaved up and down, her eyes never leaving his for a moment.
As for Achilles, he regarded her briefly, remembering only slightly her appearance when first she came into his hold. Now she looked more feral than human, and once again Achilles felt his loathing for Agamemnon rise into his throat like a bitter gall. He stood and left the tent, returning a few moments later with two other men. Between them they carried a copper bathing tub; once it was set and prepared they quietly left.
"Bathe." Achilles threw a clean robe at the foot of the basin, and then disappeared into the sunlight, leaving her alone.
Briseis brought her fingertips up to her lips. They were swollen and sensitive to touch, but the bleeding had stopped and they did not appear to be severely damaged. Her hands traced the line of her jaw up to the scalp, wet with blood where the men had cuffed her and pulled great patches of her hair from their roots. Every inch of her body ached as she stood on unsteady legs, looking like a newborn calf as she tottered towards the glimmering copper bath.
The water was cool to the touch, and as clean as could be expected of water gathered from the churning Aegean. Briseis sat in the basin, allowing the water to rise up to her chest. The salt stuck her like so many needles, causing her breath to catch sharply and her face twist into a grimace of pain. Slowly, she began to wash the blood from her body, removing the sticky crimson scales to reveal her familiar ivory skin beneath. The supple cloth left for her use felt like coarse parchment scratching away at her wounds a bruises.
She could not stifle the cry that escaped her mouth when she pressed the cloth against her lips. Tears slipped down her face, adding to the bitter salt already stinging her cuts. She curled into a ball in the water, turned bright pink by her own blood, and resting her arms against her knees, allowed her fear and pain to pour out in rivers from her eyes.
Achilles did not return until well past sundown, his brow dark with thoughts and troubles. He did not spare Briseis a glance, but instead shed his clothing absentmindedly and fell down upon his bed of furs.
As for herself, Briseis curled into the corner farthest from his bed, but found sleep elusive as she watched his shoulders rise and fall in dreamless rest. He did not force her to share his bed tonight, but that was not indicative of his temper tomorrow. These thoughts did little to allay her fears as she wrapped her arms about her shoulders tightly, subduing the shudders that ran the length of her spine.
The food at her feet stood untouched where a man, one of the two who had brought in the basin, had laid it after her bath. It was a modest platter laden mostly with fruit- the vast farmlands outside of the protective city walls of Troy had obviously been plundered and their riches shared amongst the Achaean armies. For the moment her hunger was great, but not so much that she could bear eating food that her countrymen had shed blood over.
The clothes Achilles had left her however, she refused to touch. She did not have to study the weaving or patterns to know instinctively that they once belonged to a Trojan woman. How they had come into the possession of an Achaean Briseis dared not speculate.
As night waned to morning, sleep came to her slowly, though troubled and filled with dark dreams.