“Aias, I can’t lie to you,” I told my friend. “I’m about out of patience with him as well. But I swear by flashing-eyed Athene, who is dear to us both, that you’ll have no luck getting him to give the girls up. He says they were given to him by the host, fair and true, and that he’d not return them unless the whole distribution was done over.”
The great, dark form of the Salaminian prince rumbled. It was like the rattling of pebbles on a mountain slope, beginning to fall away, gathering others of their kind, until the whole hillside slides away - just like that. Except that I’d rather take my chances with a landslide than Aias, son of Telamon, any day of the week.
I hurried on with my explanation. “It’s nonsense - you know it and I know it. But he’s convinced himself of it, that the crowd ceded him the power to make his own picks, so he’s within his rights. Challenge him over it, and he’ll tell the rest of the army you just want something better for yourself. Then he’ll go on - he’ll call you a coward, say you want to abandon your oath against Troy, and then dare you to leave, saying he can spare twelve ships.”
He waited, pondered. Aias was ten times more stubborn than an ass, the sort of man who’d stand out on deck in the midst of a storm while Zeus’ bolts crashed down around him, and never flinch. I held my breath. Had I over-egged it? Aias was straight-forward to a fault, and had little patience for rhetoric, but his mind was keen as his spear’s point, and if he saw me trying to appeal to him too much by blunt speaking, he’d take just as much offence as if I’d tried to misdirect him. (And being blunt about what Agamemnon was doing, Hera curse his pride, ran the risk of infuriating the Tower too. Two paths in a forest: along the easy way, two lions; along the hard way, just one - but all three of them hungry for a man’s flesh).
“You tempt me, son of Laertes,” he growled, at last. “You tempt me to defy this prancing son of Atreus and see how just well he does manage without me and mine. And there are others who would follow the warriors of Salamis, for black blood binds us to Athenai and Phthia alike. But you speak wise and gentle words all the same, and there is still a war to fight, and glory to be gained for Aiakos’ line. We stay. For now.”
As he strode away with thunderous footsteps, I let out the breath I’d been holding. Goddess of wisdom, I’d been handling proud rulers with hairline tempers all day for Agamemnon over this latest debacle. Akhilleus had taken to this better than his kinsman only because Peleus’ son had got the girl he wanted - a pretty, fair-cheeked, little thing by the name of Diomede - in spite of Agamemnon bypassing the host’s distribution. But he’d still picked a fight anyway, just because he resented the older man’s rule. He was exactly like a young dog yapping and biting at the old leader of the hounds, just waiting to prove himself the first among the pack, even if the power of his youth was his only advantage. Oilean Aias hadn’t cared a whit for the way things were supposed be done either, but his ever-present, dark jealousy had been stirred up all the same - though at least he was fool enough to be talked down easily. And then Idomeneus, Eurypylos, Sthenelos, Elephenor -
“Odysseus!” came the booming call.
Oh, by the Styx whose waters flow dark through Haides’ house ...
“Yes, most glorious Agammemnon?”
In a technical sense, I suppose it was true: he’d certainly taken the most prizes from the war so far. But over the last nine years, he’d earnt far less praise than most of the captains of the host, and his poet’s title had begun to be uttered with a certain ring of sarcasm around the campfires. Not that he’d noticed.
“Big Aias wanted a word with you, eh?” He’d taken on that jocular tone which - well, it worked well enough for him when he wanted to seem like the benevolent Father Zeus of clear skies; he’d been trained decently by Atreus in the art of ruling, before the cruel old bastard had got his just deserts - but Agamemnon was never the best at the timing of it, and he turned out patronising far too often when dealing with the rest of us kings.
Like now. But I turned my tongue to another subject (because Odysseus, son of Laertes, grandson of Autolykos, never bites his tongue, not even in the face of kings of Mykenai).
“He did, noble son of Atreus. A most concerning problem, one he believed many in our camp shared. He worried that the trouble might be widespread.” I really didn’t need to lay it on that thick. Agamemnon was full of himself, but he was bright enough that he could usually take a hint if you hadn’t got him up on his dignity first.
“And you sorted him out, did you?” And there, again, the little slip. Too much eagerness in his voice, a hint of desperation, of neediness. To a common warrior, nothing. To me - oh so much.
“It’s been seen to for now. I hope it won’t arise again, but I fear that’s not within my control.”
“Excellent! You did very well, Odysseus, very well. ‘Of many plans’, they call you, don’t they? Much-deserved, I say.”
My patience snapped. Quietly, like a little twig underfoot in the forest, where the noise is muffled by the autumn’s fallen leaves and mossy old trunks. But, all the same, it’s that soft sound which sends the old boar turning and charging to tear a long scar in your thigh, one which still aches in poor weather decades on.
“I would like to hold council with you, wide-ruling Agamemnon, in private.”
Agamemnon blinked and paused for a second. “Very well, son of Laertes, equal to Zeus in wisdom. Spurning your advice would be Blindness’ work. Let's seek out my hut.”
I raised a brow. “Both your hut and mine, shepherd of the host, are right in the centre of the long-haired Danaans’ ships. We won’t get privacy there, however hard we try. No, I’ve got a better idea.”
He laughed. “Your mind is twisted with suspicion, noble Odysseus, but I said that I’d listen to your counsel, so I won’t stop now. Where should we go?”
Well, I thought, one end of the line takes you by Akhilleus, and the other by Aias, so we’re not going out there unless I want your bull-like neck wrung. Which I don’t, yet.
“We’ll go,” I said, “to sea.”
“You wouldn’t,” he asked, “rather have got someone else to row?”
I, heaving on the oars of our borrowed little fishing craft, smiled crookedly. Pride, pride, pride, son of Atreus. That self-assurance will get your great heart skewered on a spear’s point one day - or a dagger’s, through the back.
“I wanted privacy, lord Agamemnon, and this is how we get it. Besides, I may be older than you, but I’m no weaker: Telamon’s son will attest to that, any day we’ve met in the ring.” I pulled with relish, revelling in the bunching and loosening of muscle that powered our boat onward.
“And,” I continued, “I am the king of an island realm. I went out among the rocks like this even when I was a child, escaping my guards by every trick I could imagine. It’ll be a long time before my limbs can’t take an oar’s weight any more, Poseidon willing. You know, we of Ithake seek the Earthshaker’s blessing before every voyage, asking that he keeps his waves calm and lends his might to our arms. In return, we offer a fine, fatted lamb, or the best of the catch that day, and Zeus’ brother looks on us kindly. I owe him a full, sacred hecatomb on my return.”
“Often I forget about your age, godlike Odysseus, because you’re rightly known still as a spearman of the first rank and a sacker of cities. But when you tell stories like Nestor of sweet speech or Old Phoinix, then you remind me of them clearly. I don’t think you brought me out here to tell me about the quaint customs of your rugged little rocks. You wanted privacy - why?”
So. The heart of it. I rested my oars and replied, speaking winged words.
“Wide-ruling Agamemnon, Lord of Men. They call you truthfully ‘both noble king and powerful spearman’: you’re a terror in battle to the Trojans and the Lykians; and Mykenai remains rich in gold, as it was said of old, under your rule. From your domains, you brought enough men to fill a hundred ships, and provided others with their ships too, so splendid is the treasury of Atreus. I have to praise, too, your loyalty to your family. Menelaus called you to help him regain his honour, and you went to wage war on mighty Ilion for his sake, calling all the kings of Greece to your side.”
He puffed up like a net cast into water, unfurling to catch all the fish that swim into its grasp, and bringing home a fine meal to be eaten with thanks to the gods.
“But you’re a shit ‘Lord’ and no mistake.”
From his proud pose at the prow, looking for all the world like he was trying to imitate the noble aspect a poet gives to Perseus in his verses, with chest puffed out and jaw jutting, Agamemnon suddenly collapsed, choking on his own spit.
I went on before he could get himself together and start screaming at me for my ‘insolence’. “We’re all kings and princes, you know? You’ve brought along a hundred men of royal blood who hold the sceptres of their lands in their own right, blessed by Zeus, and a hundred more who’ll take up a sceptre if they ever reach home. Sometimes they’re one and the same: stout Aias rules Megara already and old Telamon will grant him Salamis on his return, for he’s proven himself a dozen times over in this war.”
I took my own sceptre from my belt - not a gaudy one, to be sure, covered in gold and gems, but of Ithake’s own wood and precious to me for that alone - and leant over to prod him right in his godlike chest to make my point.
“You’re calling yourself the Lord of us all, setting yourself above everyone else, like Zeus is Lord of the Gods. And, it’s true, we gave you command when we swore our oaths together. A hundred kings might as well be no king, and then you get only chaos. But you’re dealing with proud men, son of Atreus, and that means you’ve got to temper your own pride. They’ve been first among their hosts for their whole lives, and they’ve swallowed enough by handing over supremacy to you. Don’t try to force any more down their throats, Lord of Men, or they’ll spit it all back in your face.”
“Let me tell you something, wide-ruling Agamemnon. Today, for the sake of holding this army together, I spoke to the elder Nestor and my friend horse-taming Diomedes on your behalf. They both see the need to rally everyone around, and don’t care to fuss if you get a choicer bit of meat, so long as Troy falls. They’re willing to be patient with you, to ask the others to be patient with you, and that’s most of the reason your head isn’t on a spear already.”
“ Then, I spoke to war-minded Idomeneus. The king of Krete, king of its Hundred Cities, and a man who has more than enough wealth and glory that he could decide, whenever he wants, to simply leave, taking all his eighty black ships with him. I spoke to him of his oath, of the advantages in keeping his nobles both ready for war and also occupied with something that isn’t raiding each other or the Aigyptian coast. He agreed that he would stay, but told me that his men had sworn no oath to you, and they were liable to turn back soon if you kept insisting that the host’s prizes were yours.”
“ Next, Menestheus, my comrade in strategy, who rules Athenai. But he understands that money is the oar which can move every ship, and Attike always wants more wealth, rich as it may be. Deny him his fair chance at his share, and you’ll find an entire wing of your army without a marshal, given he commands the chariots of the Akhaians. I reminded him of the prophecy of Kalkhas, and told him that even if you took the wealth of every other city in the Troad, his ships would sink with the weight of their share of gold from Troy alone in just a year’s time. He agreed, and said he’d ask Priam for his share directly and then leave, if you tried this again.”
“There were many more like this. Son of Atreus, there were many more. Nine years of toil has left the men greedy and the kings chafing, and there’re only so many more Trojan allies to sack to keep them happy. They’re deserting Priam already - he doesn’t defend them, and Alexandros is at fault without doubt. You walk a sword’s edge.”
I waited for the little interjection that was starting to be customary by now, just so I could start talking again right on over it. It’s a petty little power play, but I liked to think it was helping hammer home the point to Agamemnon. Also it was just satisfying after a day’s worth of arguing, negotiating, and begging on his behalf without any prospect of honour gained in return.
But he sat there, as deflated as he had been inflated before, eyes cast down to the bottom of the boat.
I shrugged. I hadn’t finished yet.
“And, most important and most angry of all, there are the grandsons of Aiakos. Aias the Great and Akhilleus the Swift-Footed. The bulwarks of the Akhaians. Our two best fighters, who hold the flanks of our camp against the enemy’s assaults - and they’d cost us even more than that to lose.” Agamemnon looked up, frowning for a second before his face cleared. And then turned far more sour again. He was a good enough general to remember this much. “Precisely: our bulwarks, and our admirals too. If Menestheus goes, you lose your chariots as a respectable fighting force. If the Aiakides go, you lose the war fleet. Which means you lose any protection for our ships at sea. Which means we can’t raid, we can’t get supplies, we can’t get reinforcements, and we can’t damn well retreat.”
This was, to be fair, exaggerating a bit. The Aiantes - Aias and his brother Teukros - were the real admirals, being fierce tacticians and having sailing experience thanks to their island origin. Akhilleus was in that position as a sop to his swollen head, and losing him would only hurt on land, though it certainly would hurt there. Nor was I genuinely convinced that either of the Aiakides would follow the other, if they abandoned the expedition. So much pride in both of them, nearly enough to match Agamemnon. But Aias had raised the possibility, and it was a useful threat to concentrate the King of Mykenai’s mind.
“They’re gloryhounds, the pair of them. You know that just as well as I do. But what’s the point of glory, Atreus’ son? It’s to be known, to have men listen to you, to have your name sung now and in a thousand years time. It’s to get all those titles - captains of the host, kings good at the battle-cry, Swift-Killer and Unbreakable Wall. It’s to be respected. And denying them their war-prizes is the best way, bar none, to make them feel like you don’t respect them. To make them feel like, no matter how many cities they sack or heroes they kill, all their efforts are in vain.
“And then, wide-ruling Agamemnon, Lord of Men, they will fuck off and leave you here to die.”