‘Of course she had no notion of what she’d done. But I was beside myself. I felt like punching her where she stood. But what would have been the good of that? That wouldn’t have brought him back.
‘I ended up taking her head in my arms and sobbing fit to break my heart. It was such a comfort just to hold on to her, and feel the warmth of her, and the scratchiness of her hide against my cheek. But whether it was for grief at my loss, or joy that she was safe, I can’t tell you, sir. We’re such contrary creatures. Maybe both. Anyway, since then I’ve been that fond of her, you wouldn’t credit. She’s all I’ve got left of him. Her and the daughter-in-law, and the little girl. I’m sorry, sir –’ He lowered his head and brushed a rough hand across his eyes, and Priam, whose own eyes had moistened, looked away.
Almost imperceptibly while they were sitting dusk had come. ‘My lord,’ the carter said, ‘it’s getting dark, we should think of moving.’
He got slowly to his feet and, bending to dip his hand in the stream, splashed first his eyes, then his mouth and beard. Gathering up a fistful of his robe, he used it, rather delicately, to dab at his cheeks.
Priam looked about. It was true. A silvery greyness touched the river and the sandbars with their thickset bushes. The change had come quickly. Now that he was alerted to it, he saw that the river-colours were deepening, even as he watched, from blue-grey to a blackish purple.
He was sorry they had to move on. He had got used to the place and the small pleasures it provided, not least of all the opportunity to sit and listen to the other’s talk. He would remember all this. The rosebay bushes with their long pointed leaves, that grew so strongly out of the sand and gravel between the streams. This cooling water that lapped his feet. The fishes. The high thin whining of the midges. There was a scent that seemed sharper now that other scents were fading with the sun – some herb. He would remember that too.
The carter was on his knees, folding his things in a neat bundle. When Priam stood and stepped out of the water, he produced a napkin and offered to dry the king’s feet.
‘That’s the way, sir,’ he coddled, as Priam, like a child, very placid and biddable, raised first his left, then his right foot to be dried, and when the driver indicated that he should resume his sandals, repeated the action so that the man could fit them and fasten the cords. They set off then through the feathery pink tamarisks to where the cart and the tethered mules were waiting.
But they had advanced only a dozen paces when the carter, suddenly alert, laid his hand on Priam’s arm and stayed him.
‘Shhh,’ he whispered, raising a minatory finger.
Leaning in a leisurely manner against the rails of the wagon, right foot crossed elegantly on the left, was a slim youth in a winged bonnet, below which his hair, which was of a burnished golden-bronze, hung in glossy ringlets. He was quietly absorbed, or so it seemed, in the contemplation of his own ladylike fingertips. Priam felt the pressure of the carter’s hand on his forearm. His heart jumped.
The mules had already heard their approach or caught their scent. They turned, lifted their heads, and at the same moment, but languidly, the intruder also turned.
They saw then how young he was.
Idaeus, Priam observed, had his jaw set and was preparing to charge. The youth too must have perceived it. With a spring – all this on the instant – he was beside them, face contorted, short sword flashing.
‘So what did you think, old fellow,’ he was shouting, ‘that I’d just let you jump and take me napping? I’m not a child, you know. Nor a thief either. Though if I’d wanted to nab your treasure – oh yes, I’ve taken a good look under the covers and seen the loot you’re running off with – I could have walked away with anything I fancied in the half-hour you’ve been away dabbling your toes in the stream.’
Priam was confused. He knew something about anger, about angry boys, and this one was playacting. His bluster was that of a youth who liked to hear his own voice and strike poses, which was not to say that he might not also be dangerous.
‘Oh,’ he said now, still full of swagger and noise, ‘I suppose you’re wary of me because I’m a Greek. No doubt you’ve heard all sorts of stories about what ruffians we are, what barbarians. Well look at me, do I look like a barbarian?’
It was true, he did not. With his rosy mouth and narrow waist and ringlets, he was very charming and knew it; charm was native to him. But so, if charm failed and these two old fellows he was making game of took offence or decided to turn courageous, was a suddenness in him that would cut them down without a second thought.
‘The fact is,’ the youth announced, ‘I have been sent to be your escort,’ and very chivalrously he brought his right hand to his bonnet, in a gesture – but it was only that – of doffing it, and inclined his pretty head.
‘But I should introduce myself. My name is Orchilus. I am one of lord Achilles’ men, one of his fearsome Myrmidons. Polyctor, my father is called, a rich man about the same age as yourself, sir –’ he was addressing Priam. ‘There were seven of us, seven sons. Only four are still living, of whom your servant here,’ and he swept the bonnet from his head in an elegant flourish, ‘is the youngest. So you see you have no reason, none at all, to be afraid for your lives, or even your treasure. Or to be, as I see you are, suspicious of my intentions. You are old, sir, and so, if he doesn’t mind me mentioning it,’ and he cast a glance in the carter’s direction, ‘is your noble companion. Suppose you were to run into a squad of pickets on night patrol, or two or three enterprising fellows who were out for a bit of fun – to find a girl or to steal a couple of chickens or a fat sheep – what a prize you’d make with all that booty under the coverlet! So, here I am at your service. Your guide and escort. Sent by the lord Achilles, who knows you are on the way, to protect you.’
This seemed strange. Priam acknowledged the youth’s explanation but remained unconvinced. The fellow was just a little too good to be true.
The carter, he saw, was even more suspicious, and fearing the youth too might perceive it, Priam turned to his companion and said firmly, ‘There, you see? We are in luck. The lord Achilles, in his great courtesy, has sent one of his squires to be our guide.’
‘My lord,’ the carter began – but Priam quickly cut him off.
‘No, no,’ he insisted, ‘you heard what our young friend here has just told me. He has been sent.’ (He caught the youth’s smile, his look of half-mocking amusement.) ‘So let us make ready and set off again.’
He was thinking of the punch the fellow had given his son and later regretted. He was concerned on the young stranger’s behalf, but also on his own, lest the carter, believing he really had been fooled, should take matters into his own hands.
Meanwhile their unwanted companion had again taken up a lounging stance against the side of the cart. He yawned with what, to Priam, seemed studied indifference. All this fiddle-faddle, his eyebrow implied, was a hard test of a young fellow’s patience.
But the carter was not so easily put off. Riled by the youth’s impudence, his teasing condescension towards what he took, obviously, to be two bumbling oldsters (they had already set themselves at a disadvantage by getting ambushed, even if the ambush was for the moment a gentle one), he was determined to resist. He was the one who had got them into this pickle. He had allowed the king, and the treasure, and all that depended on it, to fall into the hands of a dandified puppy who, for all his oiled ringlets and languid lady-boy airs, was clearly a tough.
‘We don’t need an escort,’ he told the youth bluntly. And under his breath, to Priam, ‘My lord, we should shake this fellow off as quickly as we can. Thank him for his trouble, give him a nice silver cup, or a fancy pin for his cloak, and send him packing. Escort indeed! The first chance he gets he’ll lead us into a ravine, and before we know it our throats will be cut.’
Priam cast a quick glance in the direction of their new friend, who again raised an eyebrow and shrugged, as if this sort of thinking was just what you might exp
Priam distrusted charm, especially when it took a physical form. He had learned a hard lesson on this point from his son Paris. But a sixth sense warned him that in this case something more might be involved than mere beauty and the lively self-assurance of youth. There was an unusual scent to the intruder’s presence, though whether from his breath when he spoke, or from his body, was hard to tell. It was a fragrance of a kind Priam had never till now encountered. Some unguent or aromatic oil perhaps, with which the Greeks kneaded and eased their limbs after exercise, of a musky sweetness that if you were fighting at close quarters might be overpowering and hard to resist. And in fact Priam felt the intoxicating effect of it, even at a distance, a not-unpleasant yielding of his senses as the youth extended his hand and said, in a softer voice, ‘Here, father, let me help you up. If we are to get to Achilles by suppertime we really must get going.’
Priam, a little surprised at how easily all this seemed to have been decided, allowed himself to be helped up into the cart.
‘Come on, my man,’ the youth called across to the driver, ‘you’re holding us up.’ And the driver, seeing that the king had already submitted, went round to his side of the cart, spoke a word to his mules and, waving off the stranger’s offer of a hand, hauled himself up, but with a spring to his step that was meant to indicate to His Impudence that he at least, despite his age, had no need of assistance and might be better able to defend himself than some people believed. The youth shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
Slowly they moved on down the bank to the crossing place, the young squire walking sometimes at the head of the wagon, beside the off-side mule, sometimes a step or two behind.
‘Good day to you, little one,’ he said very affably to the mule, and she, responsive as always to any sign of attention, lifted her pretty head and rolled an eye at him.
‘Congratulations, old fellow,’ he called back over his shoulder. ‘I see your little sister here is one of the true servants of the gods.’ He laid his hand on the mule’s neck and tickled her softly behind the ear, and again she raised her head and responded. ‘It makes me think the better of you.’
Does it indeed, the driver thought, and he started them off with a lurch. Little sister, is it? I thank you for that. I’ll remember that!
He was furious. A good deal of it was jealousy. That his favourite had so immediately succumbed to the empty fellow’s charms.
They had come to the water’s edge, and the driver halted now to let his mules take in what lay before them. Moonlight ran fast over the river pebbles. Ten paces beyond, where the channel deepened, the stream, with its many eddies, was moving thigh-deep in a rolling sweep.
They edged forward, the mules resisting. Priam felt the wheels grind against pebbles and slide a distance on the chalky bottom, then take a grip. The channel was running at one speed on the lighted surface but another, stronger current moved thickly below. Suddenly the cart lurched and tilted dangerously with its load. The wicker hood, when Priam’s hand flew out to grasp it and steady himself, hung awry and seemed about to break loose.
The legs of the off-side mule had been caught by the force of the under-current, she was off her feet. Water, sluicing through the crescent-shaped openings in the wheels, had slewed the vehicle at a steep angle downstream. The whole outfit – mules, cart, its two helpless occupants, the load of treasure – were about to be pitched into the flood. Beside him Priam saw the carter rise unsteadily and prepare to leap in and attempt, hopeless though it might seem, to set them right. But the little mule was stronger and more self-possessed than she appeared. She propped, the wagon righted, and a moment later they were on firm gravel again with the water running easily round and past them; then, with shouts of encouragement from the driver and a vigorous heave, in the soft sand of the mid-stream island among shadowy bushes.
Their escort, though wet to the loins, had lost none of his cheery good humour. Having wandered downstream a little, ‘It’s safest down here,’ he called back to the driver. He was crouched on his haunches about fifty paces off.
The driver, taking this as a challenge to his own judgement in these matters, ignored him. But when, after climbing down and making his own investigations, he got back into the cart and urged the mules forward, he turned them down to where the youth, on his feet again, was standing slim and dark against the glimmer of the second channel. Slowly they rolled down through yielding sand.
Again the mules resisted.
This second channel was deeper than the last. Water, suddenly high and swift-flowing, brimmed in tumultuous eddies round the wheels as the midstream current struck them. It rose again and was pouring now over the boards under their feet like the spill over a weir.
‘An adventure, eh, father?’ the youth shouted at Priam’s elbow over the din made by the water. In to the waist now, he was wading strongly against it. ‘You didn’t expect this, eh, when you decided to set out?’
It was true, he had not. But here he was in the midst of it, and now that the first of his fear was past, he felt almost childishly pleased with himself. He was enjoying it. He hung on hard to the cross-bench and looked happily out over the expanse of sounding water with its eddies and haphazard cross-currents of light, already telling himself, in his head, the story of their crossing and feeling steadfast, even bold.
The bottom here was solid. For all the swirling around them of the icy stream, and the piled-up force of it against the body of the cart, they made good progress.
‘Good work,’ the driver shouted as they came within feet now of the bank; then, with water sluicing through the wheels, broke surface and struck the steepness of the rise. ‘Just one more pull now,’ he urged. ‘Just one. Now, Beauty, now!’ and he strained forward as if he could be a third beside them in the shafts.
The mules put their heads down, dug in with all the bunched strength of their hindquarters, and in just moments the wagon, Priam, the load and all were on dry land again. They were wet through, and as the wagon rolled on between low-growing maple scrub and sycamore figs and holm oak, water continued to drain away behind them, leaving muddy tracks. Meanwhile their escort had waded ashore, as easily as if water to him offered no more resistance than thin air. His tunic was soaked, but not a hair of his head was out of place and he showed not the smallest consequence of effort.
They came to a halt beyond the tree line. After the boisterous exertions and tumult of the crossing, there was only the sound now of their breathing in the muted stillness, and again the woo-wooing from far off of an owl. The expanse of open land before them was patched with shadow in some places, lighted in others by an early moon.
The driver, with his usual diligence, got down and inspected the cart, front and back, to see that all was well. Then, remounting, he led the mules this way and that till he felt the beginnings of a road under the wheels. Only then did he speak.
‘Well, that wasn’t so bad,’ he opined. ‘It’s a straight road from here on. Well done, Beauty! Well done, Shock!’
The mules, still glossy-wet from their ducking, responded and began to trot.
The moon was rising fast now. Soon, wafer-like and as if lit from within, it stood high over what had, till the war laid waste to them, been standing wheat fields and groves of ancient olives.
Priam sat silent. Till now he had seen nothing of this.
The landscape they were entering was one of utter devastation. Little starveling bushes sprouted from the dust, and all across the plain small squirrel-like creatures that had been gnawing at the slender stems sat up on their haunches to stare at them, noses trembling, then, with a scurry, dropped from sight into holes in the earth. In the windless sky big clouds edged with silver stood still before the stars: Orion, the Twins, the Pleiades, misty-white in their net.
After a little, their escort, who could not long keep silent, resum
The carter hid his astonishment with a narrow-eyed glare. What cheek!
And how could the fellow know of her? He felt a pang of unease, but also a faint glimmering of something else that was gone before he could grasp it. He hunched into himself and pretended not to have heard.
Priam too was surprised. The driver had not mentioned a limp. It formed no part of the picture he had fashioned of the young woman as she squatted beside hot stones, flipping pancakes with the tips of her fingers, and if they were too hot, popping her fingers into her mouth. He would have to begin all over again, though he was glad to hear that she was pretty.
‘Ah,’ the youth said, ‘I can see you’re not pleased, old fellow, that I know so much about you. But I know more than that. A lot more!’ and he gave a teasing laugh. ‘I know you’ve got a temper for instance and are on the sly side, that you’re a rogue in fact. I don’t say an outright scoundrel, but a fellow who’s not too particular about the law. Fond of the tavern too. Isn’t that what they say of you? A bit of a tippler, and a storyteller and spinner of tales. I know you pretty well, eh?’ And he cocked his head in a disingenuous, frankly disarming way and laughed again.
The carter was casting little sideways glances at Priam. He was sorry the king should have to hear this low gossip about him. He could have knocked the fellow to the ground, with his scurrilous talk and his air of being so pleased with his own cleverness. But something restrained him. Some inkling that all here was not quite as it seemed. That he had best keep an eye out and hold back.
‘Well,’ the youth said lightly, ‘the gods bless you. To tell the truth, I’m not too particular myself when it comes to the law, so I won’t hold that against you. And it’s a good thing to be merry and like a joke. You do, don’t you, like a joke?’ But the carter was glaring. ‘Well, maybe I’ve gone too far. I’ll stop chattering, old fellow, if all it does is get your temper up. But I’m young, you know. My head is full of this, that and I don’t know what, and the world is such a lively and interesting place that I can’t help getting carried away. And it’s a tempting thing when you’re young as I am to talk and hear news of all that’s happening in the world. Time enough later to be long-faced and glum, and sit still, and go hem and hum. We’re a long time in the earth, father. Plenty of silence there.’
Ransom by David Malouf / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes