15. "That Time I Spoke and Everyone Ignored Me"

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Centering Wise Nestor,
King of Pylos:

Stunning.
     Shocking.
The words of Achilles grind the assembly to silence.
     The hot blood of Peleus flows strong
          in this man's veins,
               cooled to a deadly chill
     by the frigid saltwater of his goddess mother.

Ah, now there was a wedding for the ages!
     But I digress...

     Achilles has threatened to quit the war!
If our strongest bulwark against the might of Trojan Hector
          were to withdraw his protection,
     how could Agamemnon then prevail?
The scepter thuds against the ground
          and echoes
     like thunder.

Murder brews in Agamemnon's eyes,
          so I rise.
     I take up the discarded scepter,
               gingerly,
          to delay the overlord's anger.
"Fellow Achaeans, allow me to speak to this matter.
     In my native Pylos,
          I've lived alongside two generations of men,
               and now rule over a third.
     I have seen deeper grief and more fiery anger,
          greater plagues and longer wars,
               and mightier men than those assembled here
                    have sought out my advice.
     Even as my eyesight and my arm grow weak,
          my mind spurts forth renewed fountains of wisdom."

"Fountains of something,"
     grumbles Diomedes.
The foolish youth must have intended his disrespect
          to be too quiet to hear,
     but others chuckle at his miscalculation.

Not wanting to embarrass the son of noble Tydeus,
          I ignore his outburst
     and continue to burnish my peacemaking credentials.
"Oh, the stories I could tell
     of Peirithous,
               and of Dryas,
     of the people’s shepherd,
               and of Caeneus,
          of Exadius,
     and of godlike Polyphemus,
               and of Aegeus’ son Theseus,
          who is now among the immortals."

"Please don't,"
     says Odysseus,
          and laughter accompanies his request.
So much for the alleged cleverness of Laertes's spawn.
     He knows,
          surely,
       the tenseness of the fists I am working to release.
  Perhaps the scepter is to blame,
     I muse,
       being a less respected symbol than once it was.

     I nod.
"Another time, perhaps.
     For just now we face a daunting task.
The men lie dying all around us
          not from battle wounds,
          but from the sores and retching of a plague,
     and as one who constantly anticipates the arrival of Thanatos,
          I can tell you a few things about death--"

More groans,
     more groans,
          from such a restless crowd.
     In my day,
          men could sit still for a story or two
               from our wisened elders,
                    but oh,
          how the mortal race has fallen since then!

I wiggle the scepter in rebuke,
     avoiding a harsher gesture that might displace my shoulder.
"Then let us skip to the meat of the meal,
     seeing how young men have no appetite for starters and soup.
          A pity, but I also remember
               my days of having teeth only for meat."

"He remembers having teeth,"
     one grandson of Minos whispers to another.
More laughter at my expense.

"I would have my scepter back,"
     Agamemnon growls.

"I would like to see you take it,"
     Achilles states,
          locked in the overlord's glare,
"but as amusing as it would be
     to have you try to wrench it from my grasp,
          it is Nestor,
              son of Neleus,
          who has taken up the rod."

These words,
     return to me
          the attention of the assembly,
     and I clear my throat for one last speech:
"Priam and his sons
     celebrate in their hearts
          when Achaeans quarrel among each other.
     In a dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles,
               only the Trojans
          would emerge victorious.
Heed then my voice of age and wisdom.
     Even the strongest of kings
          need not lower himself to a warrior's challenge,
          need not seize glories rightfully earned by others,
          and need not put himself before his realm.
     And even the mightiest of warriors
          must not fight his own sovereign ruler,
          must not presume personal honor in his king's domain,
          and must never reach for the scepter of authority."

I offer the gold-studded rod back to Agamemnon
     accompanied by my final plea,
"My lord,
     though you have every right to do so,
          I bid you not to take this girl,
                    this Briseis,
               granted as she was
          to Achilles as a well-earned prize.
Give him no reason to chafe under your rule,
     nor to leave our camp before our victory over Ilion."

     In thoughtful contemplation,
Agamemnon repeatedly pounds the scepter in his palm,
          once for each labored step I take
     back to my seat.
"Sir Nestor,
     you speak as always with truth and wisdom,
          but this son of Peleus,
               displays an arrogance,
     that would upset the balance of the cosmos.
The same gods who made Achilles a great warrior
     have placed a bit in his mouth
     and a set of reins leading back to my hand,
          so that I might yank him into compliance
          whenever he strays from his appointed track.
A charioteer who refrains from correcting an errant horse
     will soon find himself over a cliff,
          and so shall we,
          if I indulge the insolence of this man.
Surely one slave-girl from his tent
     is a small price to pay
          for ensuring the order of our army."

"I am not your chariot horse,"
          Achilles spits,
     "and our army isn't ordered by your greed."

"Then you would deny me the girl?"
     Agamemnon asks,
          stroking his beard
          with a hand
               that hides
             and shows
                  and hides
            his amused smile
        like clouds across the sun.
"In denying my request,
     you would make your father's kingdom an enemy of Mycenae,
          and of the entire allied host of Hellas.
     After I level Ilion to restore my brother's honor,
          I would level Phthia to restore my own.
               Is this really what you want?"

"Take the girl,"
     says Achilles through clenched teeth.
"But you'll carry away nothing more from me than her,
     no more treasures,
          no more tributes,
     no more Myrmidon lives,
          no more sweat from my brow,
     nor a single drop of Trojan blood on my spear,
               spilled on your command.
          I am finished."

And so the assembly ends
     with hope for the end of the plague
     and dread at the prospect of continued war
          without the spear of Achilles,
               the best of all the Achaeans.

Yet though my entreaty failed,
     I still have something to smile about.
I held Agamemnon's scepter in my hands
     and stood my ground
          between two great powers of this war.
Upon my return to Pylos,
     this will make a most excellent story!

EPIC CYCLE ROADMAP:

* The Kypria
* The Iliad
* The Posthomerica
* Tales of Nostos
* The Odyssey
* The Telegony
* The Aeneid
  Rage is the first book of the Iliad. Amazons is the first book of the Posthomerica.
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