The Paeonian

Some complacent god in the sky might have mistaken the Paeonians for a line of ants crawling tenaciously towards their trivial ends. The stalking Achaean scouts knew better. The Paeonians were marching for almost a day at the fastest pace their pack animals would sustain on rough terrain. Bags of precious wheat, barley and spelt tottered their way from the southern coast of Troad for the hungry army of king Alexander of Troy.

Smell of pack animals and human sweat filled the nostrils of Teres and the two scores of Paeonian warriors in the rearguard. Fine dust, stirred under hooves and dragging feet, stung their eyes and powdered their mouths and skins. Teres’ scalp itched under the copper helmet. The scorching late summer sun had turned it into a boiling pot sending rivulets of sweat that washed paths on the dirty face down his square jaw. The skin under the stubble was irritated from the constant scratching, its color prominent against the white lumpy scar that run along his left cheek. All his gear seemed to be specifically designed to obstruct his movement and to irritate him. His short bronze sword sheathed in red painted leather flapped annoyingly against his knee and his water sack kept sliding down the long spear he carried on his right shoulder. The splashing of the water inside distracted him and, he thought, gave him urges to piss.

“I miss swimming into the Axius,” Teres said to Dropion, his cousin and best friend since childhood, marching with him at the head of the rearguard.
“I could lie down on its sandy banks for hours,” Dropion closed his eyes in a mock daydreaming trance then his long thin face stretched into a beaming smile. “My ass is sizzling right now!” The short burst of laughter startled a horse a few paces ahead.
“How far is home from here?” Dropion turned towards his slightly taller companion.
“I don’t know. Many days of walk towards the sunset. Then some more up the great river to Amydon.”
“Yet, we’re here.”
“Yet we’re here,” Teres repeated and lapsed into silence. Images of the snow covered mountains at home swam into his mind. He remembered how much he liked playing chicken over the frozen river and how he would show off for that girl, Meda, and keep walking long after the others had given up, with the ice crackling underneath.
“I sometimes envy the seamen,” Dropion broke the silence after a while. “Did you see those Cretans at Astyra? They sail freely buying and selling to anyone with enough metal to pay.”
“Idomeneus and Meriones fight the Trojans while their people sell them wheat. It takes guts and insolence to do it,” Teres chuckled.
“They see more places for one summer than a man would see in a lifetime.
Fresh sea air, new whores to enjoy in every port. But then I remember our trip across the straits on the accursed Trojan ships. I think I puked some of my guts out. It still gives me nightmares three summers later.”
“It is a dangerous trade. Sea monsters have been seen swallowing whole ships. I’ve heard that in a stormy season half the crews become food for the fish. Rowing in a dug-out down the river is as much as I would dare.”

Teres’ eyes were fixed on the rumps of the scrawny mules at the end of the caravan. He kept yelling at the drivers to pick up pace. He was too distracted to keep a good watch on the surrounding area and every time he looked around some new grove, a steep crag, an overgrown gully would loom large as if out of nowhere. A sharp whistle from far ahead made him straighten and look over the line of men and animals.
“They’re stopping at the front. We must move faster,” he told Dropion as he waved to acknowledge his father’s command.
At the head of the column, lord Pyraechmes watched the slow progress of the rearguard under his son’s command. The thick chest of the grey bearded king was protected by a hard leather corselet with a polished bronze shoulder guard over the left arm and a broad, ornamented copper belt. The king carried a spear and a long sword with a bone handle and a horned cross-guard.  His half-brother Asteropaeus, leader of the Paeonian tribe of the Almopians, stood next to him. Asteropaeus’ long austere face did not reveal any discomfort under the weight of the heavy leather armor and the sheaf of thin-shafted javelins tucked under the round shield on his back.

The two seasoned warriors remained silent. Neither had much love for the other, but mutual respect and recognition of political realities kept their cooperation effective and uncomplicated. After a long wait Pyraechmes nodded and Asteropaeus turned to give orders to the avant-garde to resume marching.

Not too far ahead the narrow track opened into a broad valley. A range of low hills was visible to the northwest and behind it were the Scamander and the trampled fields around Troy. The convoy was climbing out of a shallow trough when the Achaean attack came as a summer storm. A howling mob leaped from the edge of the ridge on the right, spears and swords bristling. The salvo of arrows from behind them fell with masterly precision on the junction between Pyraechmes’ avant-garde and the first group of pack animals. The time the Paeonians took to turn around while enduring the shower of arrows was enough for the attackers to cut them from the rest of the convoy. The Paeonian front line held the initial ferocious attack, but Pyraechmes’ men were forced further down the path. In the midst of the press of men a band of Achaeans were swinging long heavy swords, pounding and thrusting at the line of shields in front of them with fierce war cries. At one point a sword found a shoulder and slashed a chunk of muscle and fabric off and a heavy round shield dropped.

6 thoughts on “The Paeonian

  1. Pam Portland says:

    Hi there – I saw your notes in the workshop comments about moving your novel here. I’m glad you did, I specifically started with this genre because it is my favorite.

    As a reference, I read through, “Rowing in a dug-out down the river is as much as I would dare.”

    I recall many years ago watching part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with my sons and I fell asleep because all the characters did was walk. At the time I thought if they just stopped walking, the story would end. I got a similar sense here. The descriptions are quite strong, and I certainly feel how hot and uncomfortable the characters are. Likewise, I can tell they are headed into battle, but I had a hard time hanging in there. Perhaps a few descriptive thoughts (since this is a strength of yours) about how the way the felt compared to previous battles, or with anxiety for the pending battle to let the reader know what is coming might be helpful earlier in the story.

    Separately, as time allows, be sure to review your content for grammatical consistency. For example, in the sentence, “The skin under the stubble was irritated from the constant scratching, its color prominent against the white lumpy scar that run along his left cheek,” the past tense of ‘run’ would make more sense. That’s a polishing element to be handled, perhaps later in the writing process, but it did take away form the flow of the story as I was reading.

    Good luck with your project – have fun!

  2. CKB says:

    Hello!

    I read through the end of the fourth paragraph. While your descriptions are evocative, so much description and not enough action becomes tedious. What are the stakes? What do these characters care about? Why do they miss home so much? I love interactions between friends because you can learn more about characters by what they think about each other and how they act around each other.

    At the very beginning you mention the “Achaean scouts” briefly and then never mention them again. Are the Paeonions being stalked? Are they the enemy? Do they pose a significant enough threat to raise the stakes?

    Good work, and good luck!

  3. johnsonofdaw says:

    I’ll comment after I read each paragraph.

    1. I like the way you economically and vividly set the scene. The names have got me guessing. Rethink “trivial”

    2. I like the way you start with a bird’s eye view then zoom down to give up-close-and-graphic details, got me feeling the scene sensually while learning who and what. Consider deleting either “scorching” or ”boiling”.

    3. Started getting a bit lost from “yet we’re hear”. I would like to have a better fix on what’s happening here and now before getting involved in there and then. The names are interesting, but only Troy is known to me, so I’m struggling to keep them placed. Consider deleting either “daydreaming” or ”trance”

    4. Paragraph starting Teres ending back – consider moving it up a paragraph.

    5. Consider getting the two names into the first sentence.

    6. Consider rewording the first sentence, e.g. by deleting “Not too far ahead”. Consider putting the first two sentences into the preceding paragraph. Reconsider “as a summer storm” – too benign, summer storms can be welcomed.

    Started very strong, the later paragraphs not as good. I like your acute descriptive style. The historical setting couldn’t be more heroic so I’d like to see what you do with it. Best of luck.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I like the initial paragraphs very much, but the battle scene at the end seems introduced too abruptly. Perhaps have some of your characters comment on their shock and surprise. It seems a little detached.
    Having said that, I would read this book. It is definitely a promising introduction.

  5. chickinwhite says:

    I would skip the first paragraph and start with the second one. Because it is much more intriguing, and a start like yours here, with a nice description, that has no background to relate to, makes me frown. Though, it is not overdone, but I feel like it´s the wrong place. Maybe you can put it a little later, between two paragraphs, but give the reader a more personal view to start with (like the second paragraph..)
    And for the short dialogue between the cousins, I´d wish to feel a bit more… tension. About why they are here? Or about how they feel? Or about anything that might get important (like perhaps a clue of a sudden attack awaiting them…)
    Otherwise than that? I like your style.
    Thanks for sharing! And good luck! 🙂

  6. Jeff Ziegler says:

    First, I like the tension. I did anticipate an attack, but that isn’t evil. It added edge.

    I confess that I am more patient for the hook than most if I am getting a better feel for characters and the relationships. Like you, I was over 700 words until a hook hit. I liked your banter and the character introduction, but if you can trim it down some (others made some good suggestions) you would keep people going. It is a tough exchange. I liked the anticipation of the attack, and less words to it will spend the tension faster. Usually you want to make sure that you get something from spending the tension, and for this I believe you are getting the hook in the reader.

    A lot of characters, places and relationships are mentioned in this first excerpt, and I am not sure which are important to remember. I like a fleshed out world, and it is evident that yours is, but I would recommend that you exchange some of the details and keep in the sensations. You may want to shift some of the details until after the battle. Mention home or locations that they dream of, but you don’t need to name them if it isn’t pertinent to the story at this point.

    I liked the descriptive phrases and dialog. It drew me into their world.

    Show, don’t tell is a mantra I will be using during my editing. I suggest the same. Examples:
    “His short bronze sword sheathed in red painted leather flapped annoyingly against his knee…” – I don’t think you should say it is annoying, but describe him flinching or cursing at it. Or “He was too distracted to keep a good watch on the surrounding area…” would rather mention how he was distracted – eyes darting, head craning, etc. I think that would make it more of a picture or scene rather than information.

    I like the world, and have a positive first impression of the characters. Good visualization as well. I hope to read more.

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