It was on the eve of the Gymnopaedia, the Festival of the Naked Boys, that I learned my father's estate had been burned. I had been elected an eirenos, a youth-captain, and this night took charge for the first time of my own platoon of boys. We were at choral practice, just setting up, when one of the lads, a particularly bright youth named Philoteles, advanced in the scrupulous manner prescribed by the laws, eyes down, hands beneath his cloak, and sought permission to address me. His father, Cleander, was with the army in Attica and had sent a message home. He knew our farm. We had welcomed him as a guest more than once.

“Please convey to Polemidas my extreme regret,” Cleander's letter stated, employing my Laconian name. “I exerted all influence I possessed to prevent this action, but the district had been selected by Archidamus, prompted by the omens. One farm could not be spared when all others were torched.”

I applied at once for an interview with my commander Phoebidas, the brother of Gylippus, whose leadership in Sicily, scores of thousands of deaths later, was to prove of such calamitous effect against our forces. Should I return or complete my passage to initiation? Phoebidas was a gentleman of virtue, a throwback to a nobler age. After much deliberation, including taking of the dream omens at Oeum, it was decided that duty to the gods of hearth and fatherland superseded all conflicting obligations. I must go home.

I trekked to Acharnae, a hundred and forty miles in four days, without even a dog to accompany my steps, oblivious to the sequence of sorrows of which this blow was the precursor. I expected to find vines and groves blackened by fire, walls toppled, crops laid waste. This, as you know, Jason, is no calamity. The grapes and olives spring back, and nothing can kill the land.

I arrived at my father's farm, Road's Turn, during the hours of darkness. It looked bad, but nothing could prepare me for the devastation which greeted my eyes at daybreak. Archidamus' men had not simply scorched vineyard and grove but sheared the living plants to the nub. They had poured lime into the open stumps and spread this brew across every square yard of field. The house was ashes, and the cottages and barns. All stock had been slaughtered. They had even killed the cats.

What kind of war was this? What manner of king was Archidamus to countenance such depredation? I was enraged; more so my younger brother Demades, whom we called Little Lion, when at last I located him in the city. Eluding our father by whose command he was to maintain his study of music and mathematics, he had enlisted in the regiment of Aegeis, outside our tribe and under false papers. My two younger uncles and all six cousins had joined their companies. I signed as well.

The war had begun. In the far north the Potidaeans, emboldened by the vigorousness of the Spartan incursion into Attica, had enlarged their revolt from our empire. A hundred ships and ninety-five hundred Athenian and Macedonian troops held them besieged. Alcibiades, the most illustrious youth of our generation, had mustered already. Too impatient to wait for his twentieth birthday and the cavalry trials, he had shipped as a common infantryman with the Second Eurysaces, that company which his guardian, Pericles, had claimed as his first command. When weather and the close of sailing season threatened to strand the last of our unembarked Acharnian companies, we were piggybacked onto the penteconters of this unit. We sailed on the eighth of Pyanopsion, Theseus day, into a howling norther.

Of the hundreds of passages I have endured in subsequent seasons, this was the worst. No mast was even stepped; sail was broken out only as weather-cover, pitifully inadequate, against the seas which pounded over the bows daylong onto the exposed backs and shoulders of us, serving as oarsmen as well as infantry, bereft of refuge in the undecked galleys. It took eighteen days to get to Torone, whereupon our Acharnian companies and those of Scambonidae were conjoined under the Athenian general Paches and, reinforced by two troops of Macedonian cavalry, sent back the way we had come, by sea, with orders to capture and occupy the Perrhaebian fortresses at Colydon and Madrete.

These sites were unknown to me, as was the region entire; I felt as one washed up at the extremities of earth. Surely such weather could prevail only at the verges of Tartarus. We made south, twenty-two ships-among whose companies now stood my brother, “making the skip” from his original regiment-packed with puking neophytes greener even than ourselves, while enemy cavalry tracked the flotilla's progress from shore, barring all attempts at landing. Alcibiades was aboard our ship, the Hygeia.

He had made a nasty name for himself by assigning his turn at oars to his attendant (when none other younger than twenty-five even dreamt of such extravagance) while he himself monitored the convoy's passage more like a fleet commander than an untried shield-humper like the rest. About his shoulders he wore a black woolen cloak with the design of an eagle in silver, of such superb workmanship that its worth could be no less than a year's pay for a colonel. Every item of his kit was the finest, and his looks…well, you know these as well as I. One was torn between jealousy, for all knew well of his wealth and lovers, and awe, that any of flesh could be so spectacularly gifted by heaven. For three days the squadron alternately ran before, then beat into, a gale which the locals described as “moderate” but which to me was indistinguishable from the hoarblast of hell. At last at the third sunset a storm of homicidal ferocity struck. Paches' flagship signaled all vessels to make for shore, enemy be damned.

Do you know that headland, Jason, called the Blacksmith's Bellows? Its sound once heard may never be forgotten. The swifter vessels fetched the lee; those lumbering pots, as our own, were driven in and nearly dashed. The sole landing site was a splinter of gravel, walled on three sides by two-hundred-foot cliffs, and defended across its solitary channel of ingress by stone promontories exploding with white water and booming beneath the thunder of storm-pounded surf. Only after a struggle titanic in its exertions and sustained throughout the terrifying descent of darkness did our severed remnant, six ships, succeed in beaching upon that site called the Boilers, a strand so slender that the vessels' prows (beaching stern-first being out of the question in such a tempest) were staring straight into the face of rock. Waves taller than a man crashed about their sternposts, seeking to suck them back into the sea. To augment the hospitality of the place, the foe had gotten above us, at the summit of a precipice too sheer to scale, and begun raining boulders and initiating rockslides. Two of six ships were holed at once, nor could the youths of our force be induced to respond to orders to preserve the others, but hunkered in clefts at the base of the fall, drenched and dread-stricken.

Command had broken down. Paches and the Athenian officers had been swept beyond the headland; it took an eternity to determine the ranking senior of our shredded squadron, a captain of Macedonian infantry it turned out, and he, overcome by the extremity, had retreated to a cave at the cliff base, from whose shelter he could not be drawn.

Upon the strand boulders plummeted like hail. With each ship holed, our extinction became more certain; the enemy would simply close from above and take us down with stone and shaft.

Beside Hygeia, a horse transport had broached to. A number of the beasts thrashed in the surf, drowning; two who had made land had been struck by rockfalls and back-broken; their cries unstrung the rookie troops further. The vessel herself pitched among the breakers, secured only by bow and stern lines, each manned by twenty lads, frantic themselves and buffeted chest-deep in the maelstrom. Alcibiades and his cousin Euryptolemus had hurled themselves into this rescue. I found my brother Lion; we joined too.

After monumental exertions the transport was at last beached.

Without a word Alcibiades had become our commander. He strode off, seeking a senior officer to report to, ordering the rest of us to follow as soon as the horses had been secured ashore.

The gale continued to scour the landing beach. Boulders plummeted from above; concussions of thunder never ceased. My brother and I had just reached the brow of the strand, seeking the command post; we could see Alcibiades ahead, addressing the Macedonian captain. Suddenly this officer struck him with his staff. We dashed forward. Even amid the cacophony of storm and surf, the content of the confrontation was clear: Alcibiades demanding orders, the captain incapable of giving them. He wheeled upon the youth, twenty years his junior, whose family and reputation he knew, as we all. “Your kinsman Pericles is not here, young man, nor may you presume to dictate in his name!”

“I speak in my own and that of these who will perish, absent your deliverance,” Alcibiades rejoined. His gesture took in ships, gale, and the rain of rubble which continued to pelt from the enemy above. “Take action, sir, or by Heracles I will!”

Only two fifties remained unholed. Alcibiades struck for them.

The captain was shouting, commanding him to stay put and threatening hell if he disobeyed. The youth bawled no defiance, simply strode on; and we, my brother and two score others, followed in his train as if drawn by fetters of adamant. At breakers' brink he issued orders. No one could hear a word. Yet we seized oars and launched into the teeth, ten at each bank, without even stepping the steering oars, so worthless were they in that sea. How

Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату