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The winds and currents were always more favourable than the long, tortuous land route, so we sailed to Iolkos, hugging the coast. As we drew into harbour I stood on the deck with Ajax; this was my first visit to the home of the Myrmidons, and I thought Iolkos beautiful, a crystal city shimmering in the wintry sun. No walls. At the back of the palace Mount Pelion towered, wreathed in pure white snow. Wrapping my furs closer about my shoulders, I blew on my hands and looked sideways at Ajax.

‘Will you go over the side first, my colossus?’ I asked.

He nodded tranquilly; verbal play was lost on him. One massive leg went over the rail, found the top rung of the rope ladder, and the rest of him rapidly disappeared. He was wearing no more than when I had seen him in the halls of Mykenai: a kilt. Nor did his fine skin betray a sign of cold. I let him descend to the beach, then called down to him to locate a conveyance of some kind. Well known in Iolkos, he would have his choice of whatever was available.

Nestor was busy packing his personal belongings in the shelter built on the afterdeck.

‘Ajax has gone to find us a car. Do you feel well enough to descend to the beach, or would you rather wait here?’ I asked him, tongue in cheek. I enjoyed making Nestor bristle.

‘And what makes you think I’m in my dotage?’ he snapped, leaping to his feet. ‘I’ll wait on the beach, of course.’

Still muttering to himself, he went out onto the deck briskly; impatiently slapping at a sailor’s helping hand, he shinnied down the ladder as nimbly as a boy. Old horror.

Peleus bowed us into his home personally. When I had been a youth and he a man in his prime I had met him often, but not since. An elderly man now, he was still erect and proud, kingly. A handsome man, and a wise one. A pity he had only the one son to follow him; owning Peleus as sire, the young Achilles had a reputation to live up to.

Seated comfortably before the big tripod of fire, mulled wine at our elbows, I broached the reason for our coming. Despite Nestor’s seniority I had been elected spokesman; if there were any mistakes he could bow out nicely, the reprobate.

‘We’re sent by Agamemnon at Mykenai to beg a favour, sire.’

His shrewd eyes surveyed me. ‘Helen,’ he said.

‘News travels swiftly.’

‘I expected an imperial courier, but none came. My shipwrights have never seen such business flow into their yards.’

‘As you didn’t swear the Oath of the Quartered Horse, Peleus, Agamemnon could send no courier. Nothing obliges you to aid the cause of Menelaos.’

‘Just as well. I’m too old to go to war, Odysseus.’

Nestor decided I was being too convoluted. ‘Actually, my dear Peleus, it isn’t you we seek,’ he said. ‘We’ve come to see if we can enlist the services of your son.’

Thessalia’s High King seemed to shrivel. ‘Achilles… Well, I hoped against it, but I expected it. I’ve no doubt that he’ll accept Agamemnon’s offer with alacrity.’

‘We’re free to ask him, then?’ from Nestor.

‘Of course,’ said Peleus.

I smiled, relaxed. ‘Agamemnon thanks you, Peleus. And I personally thank you. From my heart.’

He looked at me long and steadily. ‘Have you a heart, Odysseus? I fancied it’s only mind you possess.’

Something stung momentarily at the back of my eyes: I thought, Penelope, and then her image faded. I gave him back his stare. ‘No, I have no heart. Why should a man need one? A heart is a severe liability.’

‘Then what men say of you is true.’ He picked up his goblet from the tripod table, a very fine piece of Egyptian workmanship. ‘If Achilles elects to go to Troy,’ he said then, ‘he’ll lead the Myrmidons. They’ve been spoiling for a hard campaign these twenty years and more.’

Someone entered; Peleus smiled and held out his hand. ‘Ah, Phoinix! Gentlemen, this is Phoinix, my friend and comrade of many years. We have very prestigious guests, Phoinix – this is King Nestor of Pylos and this King Odysseus of Ithaka.’

‘I saw Ajax outside,’ said Phoinix, bowing low. In years he was somewhere between Peleus and Nestor, a very erect and soldierly fellow with a Myrmidon look – fair, big, fit.

‘You’ll go with Achilles to Troy, Phoinix,’ Peleus said. ‘Look after him for me, protect him from his fate.’

‘At the price of my life, sire.’

Which was all very well and good, I thought, growing a trifle impatient. ‘May we see Achilles for ourselves?’ I asked.

The two Thessalians looked blank.

‘Achilles isn’t in Iolkos,’ said Peleus.

‘Then where is he?’ asked Nestor.

‘In Skyros. He spends the six cold moons there every year – he’s married to Deidamia, daughter of Lykomedes.’

I slapped my thigh in vexation. ‘So we have yet another winter voyage to make.’

‘Not at all,’ said Peleus warmly. ‘I’ll send for him.’

But somehow I knew that unless we saw to it ourselves, we would never see Achilles draw up Iolkan ships on the sands at Aulis. I shook my head.

‘No, sire. Agamemnon would deem it more fitting that we ask Achilles in person.’

And so we came once more into harbour and made our way from town to palace; the difference was that this second palace was little more than a large house. Skyros was not rich. Lykomedes made us welcome, but as we sat down to eat and drink a minor repast, I found myself prickling. Something was wrong, and not merely with Lykomedes himself. A peculiar tension hung over the place. Servants – all male – slid and skipped without looking at us, Lykomedes wore the mien of one labouring under a heavy burden of fear, his heir Patrokles came in and went out so quickly I almost thought him a figment of my imagination, and – most disquieting of all – I heard not one feminine sound. No woman, even in the distance, laughed, or whined, or screeched, or howled in tears. How alien! Women did not participate in the affairs of men, no, but they were fully aware of their importance in the scheme of things, and they enjoyed liberties no man would dare to deny them. They had, after all, ruled under the Old Religion.

My prickling skin had turned into pins and needles, my nose twitched at the old, familiar smell of danger; I caught Nestor’s eye. Yes, he had sensed it too. His brows lifted at me, and I sighed. I was not mistaken, then. We had a problem.

The handsome young man Patrokles returned. I looked him over more thoroughly, wondering what his significance might be in this strange situation. A tender and gentle fellow, not lacking in fight or courage, but possibly very one-sided in his affections – affections which did not, I decided, extend to women. Well, that was his right. No one would think ill of him because he preferred men. This time he actually sat down, looking unhappy.

I cleared my throat. ‘King Lykomedes, our mission is very urgent. We seek your son-in-law, Achilles.’

There was a queer, intangible pause; Lykomedes almost dropped his goblet, then got up awkwardly. ‘Achilles isn’t in Skyros, royal gentlemen.’

‘Not here?’ asked Ajax, dismayed.

‘No.’ Lykomedes seemed embarrassed. ‘He – he quarrelled violently with his wife – my daughter – and left for the mainland vowing never to return.’

‘He’s not in Iolkos,’ I prompted gently.

‘I confess I didn’t think he would be, Odysseus. He was talking about Thrake.’

Nestor sighed. ‘Dear, dear! It seems as if we are fated never to meet this young man, doesn’t it?’

The question was directed at me, but I didn’t reply at once, too conscious of a sudden curious lightness, a vast relief. All my instincts were right. Something was seriously amiss, and Achilles was the centre of it. I got up. ‘Since Achilles is not here, I think we must leave at once, Nestor.’

I waited, knowing that Lykomedes had to extend the proper courtesies or sin in the eyes of Hospitable Zeus. And while I waited, I turned so that only Nestor could see my face, then shot him a venomous glare of warning.

Lykomedes made the obligatory offer. ‘Stay with us overnight at least, Odysseus. King Nestor should rest a while.’

As well I glared at him; instead of snapping that he was quite capable of declaring war on Olympos, he subsided into a pathetic, huddled heap of ancient misery. Old villain.

‘Thank you, King Lykomedes!’ I cried, looking relieved. ‘Only this morning Nestor was saying how tired he is. The winter gales at sea make him ache all over.’ I dropped my eyes. ‘I do hope our presence won’t inconvenience you.’

It did inconvenience him. He had not dreamed that I would accept his formal invitation when our mission was a failure, when we had to get back to Mykenai and break the news to Agamemnon. He put a good face on his disappointment, however. So did Patrokles.

Later I sought Nestor in his chamber and sat on the arm of a chair while he reposed in a steaming bath as an elderly servant – male, how extraordinary! – scraped the salt and grime from his withered hide. The moment Nestor was standing on the floor all swaddled in linen towels, the man departed.

‘What do you think?’ I asked Nestor then.

‘This is a house under a shadow,’ he said positively. ‘I suppose if Achilles had quarrelled with his wife and taken himself off to Thrake it might provoke a reaction like this, yet I do not think so. Whatever is wrong, it is not that.’

‘I think Achilles is here within the palace.’

His eyes widened. ‘No! Hidden, yes, but not here.’

‘Here,’ I insisted. ‘We’ve heard enough of him to know he’s as impulsive as he is warlike. Were he located at any distance from Lykomedes and Patrokles, they’d fail to control him. He’s here in the palace.’

‘But why? He didn’t swear the Oath, nor did Peleus. There’d be no dishonour in refusing to go to Troy.’

‘Oh, he wants to go! Desperately. It’s others who don’t want him to go. And somehow they’ve bound him.’

‘What should we do, then?’

‘What do you think?’ I countered.

He grimaced. ‘That we have to wander everywhere within this little building. Preferably I during daylight. I can pretend to be senile. When everyone is asleep, you can wander. Do you truly think they’re holding him prisoner?’

But that I could not believe. ‘They wouldn’t dare, Nestor. If Peleus got word of it, he’d tear this island apart better than Poseidon could. No, they’ve bound him with an oath.’

‘Logical.’ He began to dress. ‘How long before dinner?’

‘Some time yet.’

‘Then go and sleep, Odysseus, while I prowl.’

He came to wake me in time for dinner, looking peevish. ‘Plague take them!’ he growled. ‘If they have him hidden here, I can’t find where. I’ve stumbled into every single corner from the roof to the vaults without a sign of him. The only place I couldn’t enter was the women’s quarters. There’s a guard.’

‘Then that’s where he is,’ I said, getting up. ‘Hmmm!’

We went down to dinner together, wondering if Lykomedes had gone so Assyrian that he forbade his women the dining hall. A male servant as bath attendant? No women anywhere? A guard on the door of their quarters? Very fishy. Lykomedes didn’t want us hearing gossip, so he had to keep his women away from us.

But the women were there, admittedly all thrust into the farthest, darkest corner. I had thought Lykomedes would have to produce them for the main meal; the size of his kitchens and his palace would have made it impossible for him to feed them in their quarters without creating culinary chaos for his royal guests.

No Achilles, however. Not one of those indistinct female forms was anything like large enough to be Achilles.

‘Why are the women segregated?’ Nestor asked when the food arrived and we sat at the high table with Lykomedes and Patrokles.

‘They offended Poseidon,’ said Patrokles quickly.

‘And?’ I asked.

‘They’re forbidden congress with men for five years.’

I raised my brows. ‘Even sexually?’

‘That is allowed.’

‘Sounds more like something the Mother would demand than Poseidon,’ Nestor remarked, swigging wine.

Lykomedes shrugged. ‘It came from Poseidon, not the Mother.’

‘Through his priestess Thetis?’ the King of Pylos asked.

‘Thetis is not his priestess,’ said Lykomedes uneasily. ‘The God refused to take her back. She serves Nereus now.’

After the food went out (along with the women), I settled down to talk to Patrokles, leaving Lykomedes at Nestor’s mercy.

‘I’m very sorry to have missed Achilles,’ I said.

‘You would have liked him,’ said Patrokles tonelessly.

‘I imagine he would have jumped at the chance to go to Troy.’

‘Yes. Achilles was born for war.’

‘Well, I have no intention of combing Thrake to find him! He’ll be sorry when he finds out what he’s missed.’

‘Yes, very sorry.’

‘Tell me what he looks like,’ I said invitingly, having learned one thing about Patrokles: it was Achilles to whom he had given his love.

The young face lit up. ‘He’s a little smaller than Ajax… So – so graceful when he moves! And he’s very beautiful.’

‘I heard he had no lips. How can he be beautiful?’

‘Because – because –’ Patrokles searched for words. ‘You’d have to see him to understand. His mouth moves one to tears – so much pain! Achilles is beauty personified.’

‘He sounds too good to be true,’ I said.

He nearly fell for it. Nearly told me that I was a fool to doubt him, that he could produce his paragon for my inspection. Then he closed his lips tightly, the hot words unuttered. Though they may as well have been. I had my answer.

Before we retired I held a little council with Nestor and Ajax, then went to bed and slept soundly. Very early the next day I made my way with Ajax down to the town. I had billeted my cousin Sinon there; it was never wise to display all one’s treasures at once, and Sinon is a treasure. He listened impassively as I told him what to do, gave him a bag of gold from the little hoard Agamemnon had given me to defray our expenses. What was mine I hung on to grimly; one day it would be my son’s. Agamemnon was well able to pay for Achilles.

The Court was still sleeping when I returned to the palace, though Ajax did not accompany me. He had work to do outside. Nestor was awake and packed; we did not intend to keep Lykomedes in suspense. Of course he made all the proper protests when we announced that we were sailing, egged us to stay longer, but this time I declined politely, to his huge relief.

‘Where is Ajax?’ Patrokles asked.

‘Wandering around the town asking people if they have any idea where Achilles went,’ I said, then turned to Lykomedes. ‘Sire, as a small favour, would you assemble your entire free household here in your Throne Room?’

He looked startled, then very wary. ‘Well…’

‘I’m under orders from Agamemnon, sire, otherwise I wouldn’t ask. I’m bidden – just as I was in Iolkos! – to tender the High King of Mykenai’s thanks to every free person at the Court. His orders stipulate that everyone be present, female as well as male. There may be a ban upon your women, but they still belong to you.’

On the echo of my words some of my sailors entered, bearing great armloads of gifts. Women’s trinkets, these: beads, shifts, flasks of perfume, jars of oil, unguents and essences, fine wools and gauzy linens. I asked for tables to be brought forward so that the men could dump their burdens down in careless heaps. More sailors came in, this time with gifts for the men: good bronze-skinned arms, shields, spears, swords, cuirasses, helmets and greaves. These I had placed on more tables.

Greed warred with caution in the King’s eyes; when Patrokles put a warning hand on his arm he shrugged it off and clapped for his steward.

‘Summon the entire household. Have the women stand far enough away to observe Poseidon’s ban.’

The room filled with men, then the women arrived. Nestor and I searched their ranks fruitlessly. None could be Achilles.

‘Sire,’ I said, stepping forward, ‘King Agamemnon wishes to thank you and yours for your help and hospitality.’ I indicated the heaps of women’s things. ‘Here are gifts for your women.’ I turned to the weapons and armour. ‘And here, gifts for your men.’

Both sexes murmured in delight, but no one moved until the King granted his permission. Then they clustered about the tables to pick the things over happily.

‘This, sire,’ I said, taking an object wrapped in linen from a sailor, ‘is for you.’

Face alight, he stripped the shroud from it until it was revealed as a Cretan axe, its double head bronze, its shaft oak. I held it out for him to take it; beaming with pleasure, he extended his hands.

At that precise moment there came from outside a shrill, high squeal of alarm. Someone sounded a horn, and in the far distance we all heard Ajax bellow a war cry from Salamis. Came the unmistakable clang of armour being strapped on; Ajax yelled again, closer now, as if he retreated. The women shrieked and began to flee, the men broke into confused questions, and King Lykomedes, deathly pale, forgot his axe.

‘Pirates!’ he said, not seeming to know what to do.

Ajax howled once more, louder and much closer, a war cry from the slopes of Pelion that only Chiron taught. In the rooted stillness suddenly gripping us all I changed my hold on the axe, grasped its shaft in both hands and lifted its head.

One other moved also, erupting into the Throne Room with such force that the terrified women, clustered in the doorway, were flung about like spools of yarn. A sort of a woman. Easy to see why Lykomedes had not dared display her! Impatiently stripping off the linen robe swathed about her to reveal a chest so well muscled that I stared in admiration, she strode to the table where the arms were piled. Achilles at last.

He swept the contents of one table to the floor with a crash, took a shield and spear and towered there at his full height, every fibre of him ready to fight. Axe extended, I walked up to him.

‘Here, lady, use this! It looks more your size.’ I flourished it, my arms creaking under the strain. ‘Do I address Prince Achilles?’

Oh, but he was odd! What should have been beautiful was not, despite the paeans of Patrokles. Though it was not the mouth negated beauty. That actually lent him some much-needed pathos. His lack of beauty, I have always thought, came from within himself. The yellow eyes were full of pride and high intelligence; this was no lubber Ajax.

‘My thanks,’ he cried, laughing back at me.

Ajax came into the room still holding the arms he had used to create the panic outside, saw Achilles standing with me, and roared. The next moment he had Achilles in his grasp, was hugging him with a force that would have crushed my rib cage. Achilles shook him off without seeming to be impaired, and flung an arm across his shoulders.

‘Ajax, Ajax! Your war cry tore through me like a shaft from a longbow! I had to answer, I couldn’t stand idle a moment longer. When you yelled old Chiron’s war cry you were summoning me – how could I resist?’ He spied Patrokles and held out one hand. ‘Here, with me! We go to war against Troy! My dearest wish has been granted, Father Zeus has answered my prayers.’

Lykomedes was beside himself, weeping, wringing his hands. ‘My son, my son, what will happen to us now? You’ve broken the oath you swore to your mother! She’ll rend us limb from limb!’

Silence fell. Achilles sobered in an instant, his face grim. I raised my brows at Nestor; we both sighed. Everything was explained.

‘I can’t see how I broke it, Father,’ Achilles said at last. ‘I answered a reflex, I responded without thinking to a call instilled in me when I was a boy. I heard Ajax and I answered. I broke no oath. Another man’s guile destroyed it.’

‘Achilles speaks the truth,’ I said loudly. ‘I tricked you. No God could deem you guilty of breaking your vow.’

They doubted me, of course, but the damage was done.

Achilles spread his arms above his head in exultation then reached for Patrokles and Ajax, hugged them. ‘Cousins, we go to war!’ he said, smiling fiercely, then looked at me with grateful eyes. ‘It is our destiny. Even in the midst of her vilest spells my mother could never convince me otherwise. I was born to be a warrior, to fight alongside the greatest men of our age, to win everlasting fame and undying glory!’

What he said was probably true. I gazed wryly at them, that splendid trio of young men, remembering my wife and son, all the endless years which must elapse between the beginning of my exile and my homecoming. Achilles would win his everlasting fame and undying glory before Troy, but I would cheerfully have traded my share of those two vastly overrated commodities for the right to return home tomorrow.

In the end I did manage to return to Ithaka, on the pretext that I had to form up my contingent for Troy in person. Agamemnon was far from pleased to see me leave Mykenai; he could perform his own part more easily if I were there to lean on.

I spent three precious moons with my web-faced Penelope, time we hadn’t counted on having, but eventually I could delay no longer. While my small fleet weathered the stormy rim of the Isle of Pelops, I made the journey to Aulis by land. I went swiftly through Aitolia, not breaking my progress by night or by day until I reached mountainous Delphi, where Apollo, Lord of the Prophetic Mouth, had his sanctuary, and where his priestess, the Pythoness, gave out her infallible Oracles. I asked her if my house oracle had been right in saying that I would spend twenty years away from my hearth. Her answer was simple and straightforward: ‘Yes.’ Then she added that it was the will of my protectress, Pallas Athene, that I should be away from home for twenty years. I asked why, but got no answer beyond a giggle.

Hopes dashed, I pressed on to Thebes, where I had arranged to meet Diomedes coming up from Argos. But the ruined city was deserted; he had not dared to tarry. Nor was I sorry for the solitude as I put my team on the last short stage of my journey, jolting over the rutted track which led down to the Euboian Strait and the beach at Aulis.

The whereabouts of the expedition’s start had been long and carefully debated; a thousand or more ships took up some leagues of room, and the waters had to be sheltered. Therefore Aulis was a good choice. The beach was over two leagues long, shielded from the wildest winds and seas by the island of Euboia, not far offshore.

Last to foregather, I breasted the top of the rise above the beach and looked down. Even my horses seemed to sense something ominous in the air, for they stopped, balked and began to rear, as horses do when commanded to approach carrion. My driver had to fight to control them, but finally managed to coax them on.

Endless they ranged before my eyes! There on the beach in two rows stood those high-prowed, red-and-black ships, each of them built to carry at least a hundred men, with room for fifty on the oars and fifty to lie at rest amid the gear, each with a tall mast to swing the sail upon. I wondered how many trees had crashed to earth to create those thousand and more ships, how many splashes of sweat had soaked into their pitched sides before the last bolt had been driven home and they could ride lightly upon the water. Ships and ships and ships, small from where I stood atop the rise. Enough ships to convey eighty thousand troops and thousands more of noncombatants to Troy. Mentally I applauded Agamemnon. He had dared, and he had succeeded. If he never got those two ranks of vessels any further than the beach at Aulis, it was nonetheless a splendid achievement. The beauty of the land was lost on me; mountains were dwarfed, the sea reduced to a passive instrument for the use of Agamemnon, King of Kings. I laughed aloud and shouted, ‘Agamemnon, you have won!’

I drove through the little fishing village of Aulis at a swift trot, ignoring the multitudes of soldiers thronging its single street. Beyond the houses I paused, at a loss. Amid so many ships, whereabouts were headquarters? I hailed an officer.

‘Which way to the tent of Agamemnon King of Kings?’

He surveyed me slowly, picking his teeth as he took stock of my armour, my helmet shingled with rows of boar’s tusks, the mighty shield which had belonged to my father.

‘Who asks?’ he queried impertinently.

‘A wolf who has devoured bigger rats than you.’

Taken aback, he swallowed and answered civilly. ‘Follow the road for a while yet, lord, then ask again.’

‘Odysseus of Ithaka thanks you.’

Agamemnon had established temporary quarters only, pitching good leather tents of a fair size and comfort. He had built nothing solid or lasting aside from a marble altar beneath a lone plane tree, a poor tattered thing struggling against salt and wind to produce springtime buds. Handing my team and driver to one of the imperial guards, I was escorted to the biggest tent.

All who mattered were inside: Idomeneus, Diomedes, Nestor, Ajax and his namesake called Little Ajax, Teukros, Phoinix, Achilles, Menestheus, Menelaos, Palamedes, Meriones, Philoktetes, Eurypylos, Thoas, Machaon and Podalieros. The albino priest, Kalchas, was sitting quietly in a corner, his red eyes flickering from man to man, calculating, surmising; their crossedness did not fool me. For a few moments I watched him undetected, trying to plumb him. I did not care for him, not only because of his repulsive exterior, but also because something less tangible in his makeup inspired an intense sensation of mistrust. I knew Agamemnon had felt the same in the beginning, but after moons of having the man watched, he had come to the conclusion that Kalchas was loyal. I was not so sure. The man was very subtle. And he was a Trojan.

Achilles called out joyfully. ‘Odysseus, what kept you? Your ships arrived half a moon ago!’

‘I came overland. Business to attend to.’

‘Timely withal, old friend,’ said Agamemnon. ‘We are about to hold our first formal council.’

‘So I really am the last?’

‘Among those who matter.’

We took our seats. Kalchas issued out of his nook to hold the gilded Staff of Debate slackly in one paw. Despite the sunny spring weather outside, lamps were burning, for the only light percolated in through the tent flap. As befitted a formal council of war, we were clad in full armour. Agamemnon was wearing a very pretty set of gold inlaid with amethyst and lapis; I hoped he had a more workmanlike set for battle. Taking the Staff of Debate from Kalchas, he faced us proudly.

‘I’ve called this first council to discuss the sailing rather than the campaign, of course. But rather than issue orders, I think it better to answer questions. Strict debate isn’t necessary. Kalchas will hold the Staff. However, if any one of you wants to speak at length, take it.’ Looking content, he gave the Staff to Kalchas.

‘When do you plan to sail?’ asked Nestor placidly.

‘At the next new moon. I’ve delegated the chief part in organisation to Phoinix, the most experienced sailor among us. He has already detailed a special squad of officers to depute the order of sailing – which contingents are the fastest, which the slowest – those ships with indispensable troops aboard and those carrying horses or noncombatants. Rest assured, there will be no chaos when we land.’

‘Who is the chief pilot?’ from Achilles.

‘Telephos. He’ll sail with me on my flagship. Each ship’s pilot is under orders to keep his vessel within sight of at least a dozen others. This will ensure that the fleet remains intact – in good weather, that is. Storms will make things difficult, but the time of year is with us, and Telephos is coaching all the pilots carefully.’

‘How many supply ships have you?’ I asked.

Agamemnon looked a little huffy; he had not expected to be asked such mundane questions. ‘Fifty are fitted up as supplies, Odysseus. The campaign will be short and sharp.’

‘Only fifty? For over one hundred thousand men? They’ll eat the food out in less than a moon.’

‘In less than a moon,’ the High King of Mykenai stated, ‘we will enjoy all the food Troy has in store.’ His face spoke more volumes than his words; he had made up his mind and would not be budged. Oh, why on this point – the most tenuous point, the most unpredictable point? But he was like that sometimes, and then nothing Nestor, Palamedes or I could say would sway him.

Achilles stood up and took the Staff. ‘This worries me, King Agamemnon. Surely you should pay as much attention to our supply lines as you should to embarkation, sailing, even battle tactics? Over one hundred thousand men will eat over one hundred thousand dippers of grain a day, over one hundred thousand pieces of meat, over one hundred thousand eggs or cheeses a day – and will drink over one hundred thousand cups of watered wine a day. If the supply lines aren’t properly established the army will starve. Fifty ships, as Odysseus said, will last less than a moon. What about keeping those fifty ships in constant transit between Greece and the Troad, bringing more? And what if it turns out to be a long campaign?’

If Nestor, Palamedes and I could not sway him, what chance did a young pup like Achilles have? Agamemnon stood with lips compressed, a red spot burning in each cheek. ‘I appreciate your concern, Achilles,’ he said stiffly. ‘However, I suggest you leave such worries to me.’

Unrepentant, Achilles handed the Staff to Kalchas and sat down. As he did so he said, apparently to no one in particular, ‘Well, my father always says it is a silly man doesn’t care for his soldiers himself, so I think I’ll carry additional supplies for my Myrmidons in my own ships. And hire a few merchantmen to carry more.’

A message which sank in; I saw quite a few of the others deciding to do the same.

So too did Agamemnon see it. I watched his brooding dark eyes rest on the young man’s vivid, eager face, and sighed. Agamemnon was jealous. What had been going on at Aulis in my absence? Was Achilles gathering adherents at Agamemnon’s expense?

The following morning we assembled and drove out to inspect the army. Awe-inspiring. It took most of the day to tour the beach from end to end; my knees shook from standing in my car’s wicker stirrups bearing the weight of full armour. Two rows of ships towered above us, tall vessels with red sides striped in black seams of pitch, their beaked prows daubed in blue and pink, the big eyes on their bows staring at us expressionlessly.

The army stood in the shadows they cast across the sand, each man fully armoured, shield and spear at the ready; interminable ranks of men, all loyal to a cause they knew nothing about, save that there were spoils in the offing. No one cheered, no one rushed forward to get a better look at their Kings.

At the very end of the line stood the ships of Achilles and the men we had heard so much about, yet never seen: the Myrmidons. I was experienced enough not to expect them to look any different, but they did look different. Tall and fair, their eyes gleamed uniformly blue or green or grey beneath their good bronze helms, and they were fully clad in bronze rather than in the customary leather gear of common soldiers. Each man held a bundle of ten spears instead of the usual two or three; they carried heavy, man-high shields not that much inferior to my own veteran, and their arms were swords and daggers, not arrows or slingshots. Yes, these were front-line troops, the best we had.

As for Achilles himself, Peleus must have spent a fortune equipping his only son for war. His chariot was gilded, his horses by far the best team on parade – three white stallions of the Thessalian breed, their harness glittering with gold and jewels. Wherever the armour he wore had come from, I knew of only one suit better, and that reposed in my own strongbox. Like Agamemnon’s dress suit it was gold-plated, but backed by a weight of bronze and tin that probably only he or Ajax could have carried. It was wrought all over with sacred symbols and designs, and embellished with amber and crystal. He bore one spear only, a dull and ugly thing. His cousin Patrokles drove him. Oh, cunning! When something ahead caused the parade of the Kings to halt for a moment, the horses of Achilles began to talk.

‘Greetings, Myrmidons!’ cried the near one, tossing his head until his long white mane floated.

‘We will carry him bravely, Myrmidons!’ issued from the lips of the middle horse, the steady one.

‘Never fear for Achilles while we draw his car!’ said the off one, his voice more neighing than the others’.

The Myrmidons stood grinning, dipping their clusters of spears in salute, while Idomeneus in the chariot ahead of Achilles stood with jaw dropped, shivering.

But I had seen the trick, following close behind that golden car. Patrokles was talking for them, keeping his lip movements to a minimum. Clever!

The weather continued sunny, the breeze a light zephyr; all the omens spoke of an uneventful sailing and a clear passage. But on the night before the launching I could not sleep, had to get up to pace long and restlessly beneath the stars. I was contemplating the profile of a nearby ship when someone came through the dunes.

‘You cannot sleep either.’

No need to peer to see who it was. Only Diomedes would seek out Odysseus in preference to any other. A good friend, my war-scarred comrade, the most battle hardened of all the great company going to Troy. He had fought in every campaign of any size from Crete to Thrake, and he had been one of the second Seven Against Thebes, who took that city and razed it when their fathers could not. He possessed a ruthless passion I lacked, for though I owned the ruthlessness, I did not have the passion; my spirit was forever tempered by the ice inside my mind. As on other occasions, I felt a stab of envy, for Diomedes was a man who had sworn to build a shrine out of the skulls of his enemies and actually kept the vow. His father had been Tydeus, a very famous Argive king, but the son was the better man by far. Diomedes would not fail at Troy. He had come from Argos to Mykenai with all the fiery eagerness his heart could marshal, for he had loved Helen to distraction, and like poor Menelaos he refused to believe she had run away of her own accord. He held me in high esteem, an emotion I sometimes felt was close to hero worship. Hero worship? Me? Strange.

‘It will rain tomorrow,’ he said, lifting his long throat and looking into the depths of the sky.

‘There are no clouds,’ I objected.

He shrugged. ‘My bones ache, Odysseus. I remember that my father always said that a man broken on the rack of battle many times, his frame cracked or shattered by spears and arrows, aches with the coming of rain and cold. Tonight the pain is so great that I cannot sleep.’

I had heard of this phenomenon before, and shuddered. ‘For all our sakes, Diomedes, I hope that just this once your bones are wrong. But why seek me out?’

He grinned. ‘I knew the Ithakan Fox would not sleep until he felt the waves beneath his ship. I wanted to speak to you.’

Throwing my arm across his broad shoulders, I turned him in the direction of my tent. ‘Then let us talk. I have wine, and a good fire in the tripod.’

We settled down on couches with the tripod holding the fire between us, full goblets at our hands. The tent was dim and warm, the seats plumped with pillows, the wine unwatered in the hope it would induce sleep. No one was likely to disturb us, but to make sure, I drew the curtain across the tent flap.

‘Odysseus, you’re the greatest man in this expedition,’ he said earnestly.

I couldn’t help laughing. ‘No, no! Agamemnon is that! Or, failing him, Achilles.’

‘Agamemnon? That stiff-rumped, pigheaded autocrat? No, never him! He may get the credit, but that’s because he’s the High King, not because he’s the greatest man. Achilles is only a lad. Oh, I grant you there is potential for greatness there! He has a mind. He may prove formidable in the future. But at this moment he’s untried. Who knows? He might turn tail and run at sight of blood.’

I smiled. ‘No, not Achilles.’

‘All right, I concede that. But he can never be the greatest man in our army, because you are, Odysseus. You are! It will be your work and none other’s that delivers Troy into our hands.’

‘Rubbish, Diomedes,’ I said gently. ‘What can intelligence do in ten days?’

‘Ten days?’ He sneered. ‘By the Mother, more like ten years! This is a real war, not a hunt.’ He put his empty cup on the floor. ‘But I didn’t come to talk about wars. I came to ask for your help.’

‘My help? You’re the skilled warrior, Diomedes, not I!’

‘No, no, it has nothing to do with battlefields! I know my way around them blindfolded. It’s in other things I need your help, Odysseus. I want to watch you work. I want to learn how you hold your temper.’ He leaned forward. ‘You see, I need someone to watch over this accursed temper of mine, teach me to keep my daimon inside instead of letting it loose to my cost. I thought that if I saw enough of you, some of your coolness might rub off on me.’

His simplicity touched me. ‘Then call my quarters yours, Diomedes. Draw up your ships next to mine, deploy your troops next to mine in battle, come with me on all my missions. Every man needs one good friend to bear with him. It is the only panacea for loneliness and homesickness.’

He extended his hand across the bright flames, not seeming to notice how they licked about his wrist. I wound my fingers around his forearm; thus we sealed our pact of friendship, shared our loneliness, and made it less lonely.

Somewhere in the middle marches of the night we must have slept, for I woke in the dawn light to the howl of a rising wind, singing in the shrouds of all those ships, crying loud and vicious about their prows. On the other side of the blackened, guttered fire Diomedes was stirring, breaking off the supple beauty of his arousal with a grunt of pain.

‘My bones are worse this morning,’ he said, sitting up.

‘With good reason. There’s a gale outside.’

He got cautiously to his feet and went to the curtained flap of the tent, peered outside and returned to his couch.

‘It’s the father of all storms come down out of the north. The wind’s still in that quarter, and I can feel the breath of snow. No launching today. We’d all get blown to Egypt.’

A slave came wheeling a tripod with a fresh fire upon it, made up the couches and brought us hot water to wash in. There was no need to hurry; Agamemnon would be so put out he would call no council before noon. My woman fetched steaming honey cakes and barley bread, a sheep’s cheese and mulled wine to finish the repast. It was a good meal, the more so because it was shared; we lingered warming our hands over the fire until Diomedes went back to his tent to change for the council. I donned a leather kilt and blouse, laced on high boots and flung a fur-lined cloak about my shoulders.

Agamemnon’s face was as dark and stormtossed as the sky; fury and chagrin warred in his rigid features, all his plans collapsed around his golden feet. He had a sneaking feeling he would yet look ridiculous, his grand venture disbanded before it so much as got started.

‘I’ve summoned Kalchas to an augury!’ he snapped.

Sighing, we made our ways out into the unwelcome teeth of the gale, pulling our mantles close. The victim lay with all four legs strapped upon the marble altar beneath the plane tree. And Kalchas dressed in purple! Purple? What had been happening in Aulis before I arrived? Agamemnon must think the world of him, to permit him to wear purple.

The coincidence was just too much to swallow, I thought as I waited for the ceremony to begin; two moons of perfect weather, then on the very day the expedition was to have sailed, all the elements combined against it. Most of the Kings had elected to return to their quarters rather than suffer the freezing wind and sleet that staying to witness the augury meant. Only those senior in years or authority remained to bolster Agamemnon: myself, Nestor, Diomedes, Menelaos, Palamedes, Philoktetes and Idomeneus.

I had never seen Kalchas at work before, and had to admit that he was very good. With hands trembling so much they could hardly lift the jewelled knife, his face waxen, he cut the victim’s throat jerkily, almost upsetting the great golden chalice as he held it to catch the blood; when he poured the scarlet stream out upon the cold marble it seemed to smoke. Then he slit open the belly and began to interpret the multiple folds of entrails according to the practice of priests trained in Asia Minor. His movements were rapid and dysrhythmic, his breathing so stertorous that I could hear it whenever the wind died for a moment.

Without warning he spun about to face us. ‘Listen to the word of the God, O Kings of Greece! I have seen the will of Zeus, the Lord of All! He has turned away from you, he refuses to give this venture his blessing! His motives are clouded by his wrath, but it is Artemis who sits upon his knee and begs him to remain obdurate! I can see no more, his fury overwhelms me!’

About what I had expected, I thought, though the mention of Artemis was a deft touch. However, to give him his due, Kalchas really did look like a man pursued by the Daughters of Kore, a man stripped of all save his life in a single flake of time. There was genuine agony in his eyes. I wondered about him anew, for he obviously believed what he said, even if he had worked it all out beforehand. Any man who possesses the power to influence others interests me, but no priest ever interested me as Kalchas did.

And no, you have not yet concluded your performance, I thought; there is more to come.

At the foot of the altar Kalchas wheeled and flung his arms wide, his huge sleeves flapping soaked in the sleety wind, his head far back, the line of its tilt revealing that he looked at the plane tree. I followed his gaze to where the branches were still bare, wormy buds not yet unfurled. A nest was tucked into one fork, and on it sat a bird, hatching. An ordinary brown bird of some indiscriminate kind.

The altar snake was writhing along the branch with greed in his cold black eyes. Kalchas drew in his arms, still upraised, until both hands pointed at the nest; we watched with bated breath. A large reptile, he opened his jaws to take the bird, swallowing her whole until she was a series of tattoos thrusting at his rich brown scales. Then one by one he devoured her eggs: six, seven, eight, nine, I counted. The mother and all nine of her eggs.

The meal over, like all his kind he stopped in his tracks, curling about the thin branch as if graven from stone. His eyes were riveted on the priest without the shadow of an expression; no human blinks fractured the frigid penetration of his stare.

Kalchas twisted as if some God had driven an invisible stake clean through his belly, moaning softly. Then he spoke again.

‘Listen to me, O Kings of Greece! You have witnessed the message of Apollo! He speaks when the Lord of All refuses! The sacred snake swallowed the bird and her nine unhatched young. The bird herself is this coming season. Her nine unborn children are the nine seasons as yet unborn of the Mother. The snake is Greece! The bird and her young are the years it will take to conquer Troy! Ten years to conquer Troy! Ten years!’

The silence was so profound it seemed to vanquish the storm. No one moved or spoke for a long time. Nor did I know what to think of that stunning performance. Was this foreign priest a true seer? Or was this an elaborate charade? I looked at Agamemnon, wondering which would win: his certainty that the war would end in a few days, or his faith in the priest. The struggle was a violent one, for he was by nature a religiously superstitious man, but in the end his pride triumphed. Shrugging, he turned on his heel. I left the last of all, never taking my eyes from Kalchas. He was standing stock still, gazing at the High King’s back, and there was malice in him, outrage because his first real exhibition of power had been ignored.

The days dripped onward into high spring, tortmented by strong winds and deluges of rain. The sea was lashed into waves as high as the decks of the ships; there could be no hope of sailing. Each of us settled down to wait in characteristic fashion. Achilles drilled the Myrmidons pitilessly, Diomedes paced up and down my poor tent floor with increasing impatience, Idomeneus dallied in the arms of the courtesans he had brought with him from Crete, Phoinix clucked like a demented hen over his fleet, Agamemnon chewed his beard and refused to listen to any kind of advice, while the troops idled and diced, quarrelled and drank. No easy business, either, to bring sufficient food across the rain-soaked leagues to keep the army eating.

I felt little. It was all one to me which way I spent the beginning of twenty years in exile. Only a few of us gathered each day at noon to witness the reading of the omens. None of us expected a positive reason from Kalchas as to why the Great God had turned against us. The new moon waxed to full and waned to nothing without a pause in the tempest; it began to seem a serious possibility that we would not sail at all. If another moon went by the winds would be more unpredictable, and by the end of summer Troy would be closed to us until next year.

More because of my fascination with Kalchas himself than in any real hope that the God would draw back his veil and let us see his purpose, I never missed the noon ritual. Nor did this particular day prompt any prickles that it would turn out to be different. I simply went in my role of Kalchas watcher. Only Agamemnon, Nestor, Menelaos, Diomedes and Idomeneus arrived to keep me company. I had noticed in passing that the altar snake had long since emerged from his gluttonous hibernation and had taken up residence in his niche again.

But today was different. In the midst of his probing into the victim’s entrails Kalchas whipped around and pointed one long, bony, bloodied finger straight at Agamemnon.

‘There stands the one who prevents the sailing!’ he shrilled. ‘Agamemnon King of Kings, you have denied the Archeress her due! Her long-dormant anger has roused, and Zeus, her divine father, has heard her pleas for justice. Until you give Artemis what you promised her sixteen years ago, King Agamemnon, your fleet will never sail!’

Not a wild guess. Agamemnon stood swaying on his feet, his face ghastly. Kalchas knew what he was talking about.

The priest stalked down the steps, stiff with outrage. ‘Give Artemis what you denied her sixteen years ago, and you may sail! Not otherwise. Almighty Zeus has spoken.’

Covering his face with his hands, Agamemnon shrank away from the purple-clad figure of doom. ‘I cannot!’ he cried.

‘Then disband your army,’ said Kalchas.

‘I cannot give the Goddess what she wants! She has no right to demand it! If I had dreamed what the outcome would be – oh, I would never have promised! She is Artemis, chaste and holy. How can she demand such a thing of me?’

‘She demands her due, no more. Give it to her and you may sail,’ Kalchas repeated, voice cold. ‘If you continue to refuse your sixteen-year-old vow, the House of Atreus will sink into obscurity and you yourself will die a broken man.’

I stepped forward and forced Agamemnon’s hands down. ‘What did you promise the Archeress, Agamemnon?’

Eyes full of tears, he clung to my wrists like a drowning man to a spar. ‘A stupid, unthinking vow, Odysseus! Stupid! Sixteen years ago Klytemnestra was at full term with our last daughter, but her labour dragged on for three days without fruit. She couldn’t bring forth the child. I prayed to them all – the Mother, Here the Merciful and Here the Throttler, the Gods and Goddesses of the hearth, of labour, of children, of women. None of them answered me – none of them!’

The tears were falling, but he struggled on. ‘In desperation I prayed to Artemis, even though she is a virgin with her face turned away from fecund women. I begged her to help my wife give birth to a fine and unblemished child. In return, I promised her the most beautiful creature born that year in my kindom. Not many moments after I made the promise, Klytemnestra was brought to bed of our daughter, Iphigenia. And at the end of the year I sent couriers through Mykenai to bring me all the offspring they considered most beautiful. Kids, calves, lambs, even birds. I saw them all and offered them all, though in my heart I knew they would not satisfy the Goddess. She rejected every sacrifice.’

Did nothing ever change? I could see the end of this awful story as clearly as if it were painted on a wall in front of my eyes. Why were the Gods so cruel?

‘Finish it, Agamemnon,’ I said.

‘One day I was with my wife and the baby when Klytemnestra happened to remark that Iphigenia was the most beautiful creature in all of Greece – more beautiful, she said, than Helen. Before she was done saying it, I knew Artemis had put the words into her mouth. The Archeress wanted my daughter. Nothing less would satisfy her. But I couldn’t do that, Odysseus. We expose babes at birth, but ritual human sacrifice has not been practised in Greece since the New Religion drove out the Old. So I prayed to the Goddess and begged her to understand why I couldn’t do as she wanted. And as time went by and she did nothing, I thought she had understood. Now I see that she was only biding her time. She demands what I cannot give her, the life she let begin and insists upon ending while it is still virgin. The story of my daughter is come full circle. But I cannot permit human sacrifice!’

I hardened my heart. My son was lost to me: why should he keep his daughter? He had two others. His ambition had separated me from all I held dear – why shouldn’t he suffer as well? If lesser men were compelled to obey the Gods, so too should the High King, who was everyone’s representative before the Gods. He had promised, then withheld the promise for sixteen years only because it affected him personally. If the most beautiful thing born that year in his kingdom had been the child of any other man, he would have made the offering with a clear conscience. So I looked into his face with deliberate intention, my chest filled with the ache of exile, and succumbed to the urging of some daimon which had taken up residence within me the day that my house oracle had pronounced my fate.

‘You have committed a terrible sin, Agamemnon,’ I said. ‘If Iphigenia is the price Artemis demands, then you must pay it. Offer up your daughter! If you do not, your kingdom will collapse in ruins and your enterprise against Troy will turn you into the laughingstock of all time.’

How he hated being a laughingstock! Not the dearest member of his family could mean as much to Agamemnon as his kingship, his pride. I watched the conflict march across his face, the despair and grief, the vision of his own miserable descent into ignominy and ridicule. He turned to Nestor, hoping for support.

‘Nestor, what should I do?’

Torn between horror and pity, the old man wrung his hands together and wept. ‘Terrible, Agamemnon, terrible! But the Gods must be obeyed. If Almighty Zeus instructs you to give the Archeress what she demands, then you have no choice. I am very sorry, but I must agree with Odysseus.’

Weeping desolately, our High King appealed to each of the others; one by one, white-faced and grave, they sided with me.

I alone kept an eye on Kalchas, wondering whether he had made a few discreet enquiries into Agamemnon’s past. Who could forget the hatred and vindictiveness in his face the day the storm had begun? A subtle man. And a Trojan.

After that, it was a matter of simple logistics. Agamemnon, reconciled, convinced – thanks to me – that he had no other alternative than to sacrifice his daughter, explained how difficult it would be to get the girl away from her mother.

‘Klytemnestra would never permit that Iphigenia be brought to Aulis as a victim for the priest’s knife,’ he said, looking old and sick. ‘As Queen, she would go to the people, and the people would uphold her in this.’

‘There are ways,’ I said.

‘Then describe them.’

‘Send me to Klytemnestra, Agamemnon. I’ll tell her that, thanks to the storms, Achilles has become very restless and talks of taking himself and his Myrmidons back to Iolkos. I’ll tell her that you had the bright idea of offering him Iphigenia as his wife provided he remains at Aulis. Klytemnestra won’t question this. She told me that it was her ambition to marry Iphigenia to Achilles.’

‘But it’s a slur on Achilles,’ Agamemnon said doubtfully. ‘He would never consent. I’ve seen enough of him to know that he goes straight. After all, he’s the son of Peleus.’

Exasperated, I cast my eyes skyward. ‘Sire, he will never know! Surely you don’t intend to tell the whole world about this business? Each of us here today will gladly take an oath of secrecy. Human sacrifice wouldn’t win any hearts among our troops – they’d start to wonder who might be next. But if no rumour of it leaks out, then no harm is done, and Artemis is appeased. Achilles will never know!’

‘Very well, do it,’ he said.

As we left I took Menelaos to one side. ‘Menelaos, do you want Helen back?’ I asked.

A wave of pain flooded into his face. ‘How can you ask?’

‘Then help me, or the fleet will never sail.’

‘Anything, Odysseus!’

‘Agamemnon will send a messenger to Klytemnestra ahead of me. The man will warn her to take no notice of my story and instruct her to refuse me custody of the girl. You have to intercept him.’

His mouth set into a thin, hard line. ‘I swear, Odysseus, that you’ll be the only one who speaks to Klytemnestra.’

I was satisfied. For Helen he would do it.

It was easily done. Klytemnestra was delighted with the match she thought Agamemnon had arranged for this beloved youngest female child, and it suited her to wed the girl to a man about to embark for a foreign war. She adored Iphigenia; marriage to Achilles would enable her to keep the girl with her at Mykenai until Achilles returned from Troy. So the Lion Palace rang with laughter and rejoicing while Klytemnestra packed boxes of finery with her own hands, spent time with her daughter to initiate her into women’s mysteries and marriage. She was still beside the litter talking to Iphigenia when it passed through the Lion Gate, her nubile yet unwed elder child Chrysothemis weeping in frustration and envy. Whereas Elektra, the oldest one of all, a thin, dour and unattractive replica of her father, stood on the ramparts with her baby brother, Orestes, clasped tenderly in her arms. There was no love lost between her and her mother, I had noticed that.

At the foot of the path Klytemnestra reached inside the curtains to kiss Iphigenia’s wide white brow. I shuddered. The High Queen was a woman given to passionate loves and hates; what would she do when she learned the truth, as eventually she must? If once she brought herself to hate Agamemnon, he would have good reason to fear her vengeance.

I hurried as fast as the bearers could carry the litter, anxious to reach Aulis. Whenever we stopped to rest or to camp Iphigenia chattered away to me artlessly – how much she had admired Achilles when she stole secret glances at him in the Lion Palace, how ardently she had fallen in love, how wonderful it was that she would marry him, for it was the desire of her heart.

I had steeled myself to feel no pity for her, but at times that proved difficult; her eyes were so innocent, so happy. But Odysseus is a man stronger than any others in that part of a man which gives him endurance, victory in adversity.

After night had fallen I brought the litter with its curtains drawn into the imperial camp and bundled Iphigenia straight inside a little tent near her father’s. I left her with him, Menelaos hanging on doggedly for fear the sight of her would break down Agamemnon’s resolve. Deeming it wiser not to draw attention to her advent, I posted no guards around her tent. Menelaos would have to make sure she stayed there.

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