The Komneniad: Full Circle

Another out-of-sequence post, forgotten in the depths of my drafts folder – the real end of the Akhilleus arc.

May 12th, 1655
Ortai tribal lands, east of the Urals
Afternoon

It wasn’t customary for men nearing seventy to ride with the armies; but Achilles was, after all, Dictator, with twelve men carrying literal fasces for summary execution of anyone who displeased him, and so his will had triumphed. Now at last they neared his actual goal, the meeting for which the “need to direct the armies from close at hand” was a cover; and he found that he had no idea what he was going to say. It had been fifty years since he rode two horses to death, fleeing the vengeance of the Ortai for the murder of the Czar’s envoy; the boy of seventeen who had been disowned by his State and his parents for that deed was as dead as if the tribesmen had caught him. And yet, the boy’s white-hot rage at betrayal had become the passion and fixed purpose of the man. If not for that ancient murder and the soiled acts of statecraft that had led to it, Achilles would not have climbed to the pinnacle of the Roman state, and would not have led the armies of Rome west in an effort to appease the ghost of the boy he had been. He almost had to laugh at himself: Half a million armoured kataphrakts and auxiliaries were on the move, tens of thousands of tons of iron and horseflesh, and why? Because as a teenager he had disagreed with something his father had done!

They crossed a tiny swell in the land and came into sight of the Ortai camp. Achilles did a quick count-and-multiply, and frowned; only five hundred tents? The Ortai had numbered well over six thousand when he last spoke to their chief – but then, much could happen in five decades of Russian rule. They were alert, though; pickets rode to meet Achilles’s party, and he could see saddled mares in the camp. It wasn’t possible to surprise a nomad tribe over the open steppe, at least when the weather was reasonably clear. The Ortai were ready to fight, as hopeless as it would be for them.

Achilles held up his hand, and his escort stopped and stabbed their lances into the ground in formal politeness; it wasn’t done to keep riding towards an encampment that had sent men to greet you. When the pickets had reached conversational range, he drew a breath and spoke, not in Greek but in the Turkic koine that was the common language of the steppes: “I am Achilles, son of Peleus. I would have speech with Bakhyt, who was chief of the Ortai when I last met him, if he yet lives.”

“Bakhyt lives, but his grandson is chief.” Achilles nodded; it was Ortai custom for chiefs to retire when their sons reached manhood. “You are well known to the Ortai, Achilles son of Peleus, and not welcome in our camp. Wait here, then, and I will ask whether Bakhyt will speak with you.” Achilles pressed his lips together, but nodded again. He could force his way in, and the Ortai must know it; but they were proud men, and did not give hospitality lightly, especially not for the mere threat of death. Besides, he had come to right a wrong, not to commit another; he would have to swallow the insult.

He waited patiently in the hot May sun, not yet strong enough to threaten heatstroke, as it would in high summer, but pleasant for old bones. At last men again rode out from the camp; reaching the Roman party, their leader spoke without ceremony.

“I have come as you requested, Roman. Speak, then.”

The words came to him without forethought: “Once you asked me, `Where are the kataphrakts?’, and I had no answer for you. It took me a while to find them. But I have brought the kataphrakts to ride against the Czar, as you desired, in accordance with the ancient treaty between our peoples.”

Bakhyt stared incredulously. The years had not been kind to him; most tribesmen had an ageless look from their twentieth year to their deaths, sturdy weathered frames that neither storm nor sun could bend; but Bakhyt was unambiguously old, with hunched shoulders and thin arms. He might not see another spring. But the black eyes were still penetrating, and Achilles had to make an effort to meet them steadily, until at length Bakhyt threw back his head and laughed.

“Do you think,” he asked when he had got his breath back, “that the world revolves around you? It’s been fifty years, man! It’s all wind over the steppe, now. The Ortai have been subjects of the Czar for five decades; you can’t repair that now!”

Achilles shrugged. “Indeed, what’s past is past. But tell me this: Have you prospered, then, under the Czar? You had more tents than this, when last we spoke. Better horses, too. Have the Cossacks left you alone, since you gave bread and salt to their lord?”

Bakhyt spat. “Of course not. Do you take me for a fool? It wasn’t because I thought the Czar a loyal overlord that I took his oath; it was because all my other choices were worse. The Ortai are grain between two stones; the Roman grinds as fine as the Russian. So you’ve brought the kataphrakts to grind us finer yet; what is that to me? I am no chief to the Ortai, and no friend of yours. Speak to my grandson of fealty and loyalty and treaty, if you will; but leave me alone.”

Achilles sighed. “Very well; let it be as you say. I have done what I could. Bring me the chief of the Ortai, then; and we shall speak of how treaties may be renewed, and vengeance against the Ural Cossacks.”

They were riding away with the newly-signed treaty when Ajax, Achilles’s son, spoke for the first time. “You don’t seem dissatisfied, Father. But you hardly needed to come here in person for a treaty with a minor tribe like the Ortai. Did you get what you wanted from that old man, then? I saw him offer you only insult.”

“Insult, yes; but also truth. He was right, you know: The Ortai are being ground to powder between the empires, like all the borderland tribes. So…” Achilles shrugged. “I’m not quite sure what I came for, really. Forgiveness? Friendship? Too much to hope for; and really, Bakhyt was never my friend, even in the days when I was the Komnenos spokesman to the Ortai. But I suppose in the end we should all be happy for a day that gives us a new insight.”

“And what is the insight, then?”

“Better to be the grindstone, than the grain.”

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