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.