Dardania lay closer to us at Assos than any other nation of Asia Minor, but I had deliberately left it alone through all the nine years of our campaign to reduce coastal Asia Minor to ruins. One reason for this lay in the fact that it was an inland territory sharing a boundary with Troy, while another reason was more subtle: I wanted to lull the Dardanians into a false sense of security, into believing that their distance from the sea rendered then inviolable. Besides which, Dardania didn’t trust Troy. While I left them in peace, old King Anchises and his son Aineas kept aloof from Troy.
Now all that was about to change. The invasion of Dardania was about to begin. Instead of the usual long voyage, I prepared my troops for an arduous trek; if Aineas expected any attack at all, he would assume that we would sail around the corner of the peninsula and beach on the coast opposite Lesbos isle. From there to Lyrnessos was a mere fifteen-league march. Whereas I intended to march straight inland from Assos itself, almost a hundred leagues of wilderness spanning the slopes of Mount Ida, down into the fertile valley where Lyrnessos lay.
Odysseus had given me trained scouts to spy out our line of march; they reported that it was heavily forested, that few farms lay in our way, and that the season was too late for the shepherds to be at large. Furs and strong boots came out of storage, for Ida was already white with snow halfway down its flanks, and it was possible that we would encounter a blizzard. I estimated that we’d march about four leagues a day; twenty days ought to see us within sight of our goal. On the fifteenth of these twenty days old Phoinix my admiral was under orders to sail his fleet into the deserted harbour at Andramyttios, the nearest port on the coast. No fear that he would meet opposition. I had burned Andramyttios level with the ground earlier in the year – for the second time.
We moved out silently and the days on the march passed without incident. No shepherds tarried in the snowy hills to fly to Lyrnessos bearing news of our coming. The tranquil landscape belonged to us alone, and our journey was easier than expected. Consequently we came within scouting distance of the city on the sixteenth day. I ordered a halt and forbade the lighting of fires until I could ascertain whether or not we had been detected.
It was my habit to do this final investigation myself, so I set off on foot alone, ignoring the protests of Patrokles, who sometimes reminded me of a clucky old hen. Why is it that love breeds possessiveness and drastically waters down freedom?
Not more than three leagues on I climbed a hill and saw Lynessos below me, sprawling over a fair area of land, with good strong walls and a high citadel. I studied it for some time, combining what I saw with what Odysseus’s agents had told me. No, it wouldn’t be an easy assault; on the other hand, it wouldn’t be half as difficult as Smyrna or Hypoplakian Thebes.
Yielding to temptation, I descended the slope a little way, enjoying the fact that this was the lee side of the hill and quite free of snow, the ground still surprisingly warm. A mistake, Achilles! Even as I told myself this, I nearly stepped on him. He rolled aside lithely and pulled himself to his feet in a single supple movement, ran until he was out of spear-cast, then paused to survey me. I was vividly put in mind of Diomedes; this man had the same deadly, feline look about him, and from his clothing and his bearing I could tell that he was a high nobleman. Having listened to and memorised the catalogue of all the Trojan and Allied leaders which Odysseus had made for us and circulated through messengers, I decided that he was Aineas.
‘I am Aineas, and unarmed!’ he called.
‘Too bad, Dardanian! I am Achilles, and armed!’
Unimpressed, he raised his brows. ‘There are definitely times in the life of a careful man when discretion is the better part of valour! I’ll meet you in Lyrnessos!’
Knowing myself swifter of foot than others, I started after him at an easy pace, intending to wear him down. But he was very speedy, and he knew the lie of the land; I did not. So he led me into thorny thickets and left me floundering, over ground riddled with craters from foxes and rabbits, and finally to a wide river ford, where he streaked across on the hidden stones with light familiarity while I had to stop on each rock and look for the next. So I lost him, and stood cursing my own stupidity. Lyrnessos had a day’s warning of our impending attack.
As soon as dawn came I marched, my mood sour. Thirty thousand men poured into the Vale of Lyrnessos, lapping about the city walls like syrup. A shower of darts and spears met them, but the men took the missiles on their shields as they had been taught, and sustained no casualties. It struck me that there was not much force behind the barrage, and I wondered if the Dardanians were a race of weaklings. Yet Aineas hadn’t looked like the leader of a degenerate people.
The ladders went up. Leading the Myrmidons, I attained the little pathway atop the walls without having encountered one stone or pitcher of boiling oil. When a small band of defenders appeared I hacked them down with my axe, not needing to call for reinforcements. All along the line we were winning with truly ridiculous ease, and soon found out why. Our opponents were old men and little boys.
Aineas, I discovered, had returned to the city on the previous day and immediately called his soldiers to arms. But not with the intention of fighting me. He decamped to Troy with his army.
‘It seems the Dardanians have an Odysseus in their midst,’ I said to Patrokles and Ajax. ‘What a fox! Priam will have an extra twenty thousand men led by an Odysseus. Let us hope the old man’s prejudices blind him to what Aineas is.’