I said a little prayer to the Cloud Gatherer; though I had fought in more campaigns than any other living man, I had never faced an army like Troy’s. Nor had Greece ever spawned an army like Agamemnon’s. My eyes lifted to the gauzy, lofty peaks of distant Ida and I wondered if all the Gods had forsaken Olympos to perch atop it and watch the struggle. This was well worthy of their interest: war on a scale never dreamed of before by mere mortals – or by the Gods, who fought only intimate little wars among their limited ranks. Nor (if they had collected on Ida to watch) would they be allied; everyone knew that Apollo, Aphrodite, Artemis and that crew were violently for Troy, while Zeus, Poseidon, Here and Pallas Athene were for Greece. It was anybody’s guess whereabouts Ares Lord of War stood, for though it had been the Greeks who spread his worship far and wide, his secret girlfriend Aphrodite was all for Troy. Hephaistos, her husband, was (rather naturally) on Greece’s side. Handy for us, since he looked after the smelting of metals and so forth; our artificers had some divine guidance.
If any man was happy on that day, the man was I. Only one thing marred my pleasure: the lad beside me in my chariot, who chafed and figeted because he longed to be in his own car, a warrior rather than a driver. I glanced at him sidelong, my son Antilochos. He was a babe, my youngest and most beloved, the child of my twilit years. When I left Pylos he had been twelve years old. I had answered all his messengers begging that he be allowed to come to Troy with firm negatives. So he had stowed away on a message packet and come anyway, the scamp. On his arrival he had gone not to me but to Achilles, and between them they managed to talk me into letting the boy stay. This was his first battle, but with all my heart I wished that he was still far away in sandy Pylos compiling grocery lists.
We ranged up opposite the Trojans. The line was a league from end to end; I noted without surprise that Odysseus was correct. There were far more of them than there were of us, even if we’d had all Thessalia. I scanned their ranks looking for the men who led them and saw Hektor at once in the centre of their van. My troops of Pylos formed a part of our own van, together with those of the two Ajaxes and eighteen minor Kings. Agamemnon, leader of our van, faced Hektor. Our left flank was under the command of Idomeneus and Menelaos, our right under the command of Odysseus and Diomedes, that inappropriate pair of lovers. One so hot, the other so cold. Together, perfect?
Hektor drove a superb team of jet black horses and stood in his car like Ares Enyalios himself. As big and as straight as Achilles. However, I saw no whitebeards among the Trojans; Priam and his kind had kept to the palace. I was the oldest man on the field.
The drums rolled, the horns and cymbals clashed out the challenge, and the battle began across the hundred paces which still separated us. Spears flew like leaves in the awful breath of winter, arrows swooped like eagles, chariots wheeled and turned to dash up and down, infantry made charges and were repulsed. Agamemnon directed our van with a vigour and alertness I had not suspected lay in him. Many of us, in fact, had not had prior opportunity to see how the rest behaved in combat. Cheering, then, to realise that Agamemnon was competent enough to fare very well indeed this morning against Hektor, who had made no attempt to engage our High King in the duel.
Hektor railed and stormed, flung his cars at us time and time again, but couldn’t break through our front line. I led a few sallies during the morning, Antilochos shrieking the Pylian war cry while I saved my breath for the fight. More than one Trojan died under the wheels of my chariot, for Antilochos was a good driver, keeping me out of trouble and knowing when to fall back. No one was going to have the chance to say that Nestor’s son endangered his old father just to get into battle himself.
My throat grew dry and dust settled quickly on my armour; I nodded to my son and we withdrew to the rear lines to gulp a few mouthfuls of water and get our breath back. When I glanced up at the sun I was amazed to see it approaching its zenith. We drove back to the front line at once, and with a surge of daring I led my men into the Trojan ranks. We did some quick work while Hektor wasn’t looking, then I gave the signal to retreat and we fell back safely into our own line without losing a single man. Hektor had lost upwards of a dozen. Sighing in busy satisfaction, I grinned silently at Antilochos. What we both wanted was the armour of a chieftain, but none had opposed us.
At noon Agamemnon sent a herald into the open to blow a horn of truce. Both armies groaned and laid down their arms; hunger and thirst, fear and weariness became realities for the first time since the battle had begun shortly after sunrise. When I saw that all the leaders were converging on Agamemnon, I told Antilochos to drive me to him too. Odysseus and Diomedes drew up with me as I swung in near the High King. All the rest were already there, slaves hurrying back and forth with watered wine, bread and cakes.
‘What now, sire?’ I asked.
‘The men need a rest. This is the first day of intensive fighting in many moons, so I’ve sent a herald to Hektor asking him and his leaders to meet us in the middle and treat.’
‘Excellent,’ said Odysseus. ‘With any luck we can waste a goodly amount of time while the men get their breath back and eat.’
Agamemnon grinned. ‘As the ploy works both ways, Hektor won’t refuse my offer.’
Noncombatants cleared the bodies away from the centre of the strip separating our two armies; tables and stools were set up, and from both sides the leaders drove out to parley. I went with Ajax, Odysseus, Diomedes, Menelaos, Idomeneus and Agamemnon; we stood and watched this first meeting between the High King and Troy’s Heir with great interest and much curiosity. Yes, Hektor was a future king. A very dark man. Black hair showed under his helm and fell down his back in a braid, and the eyes looking at us as shrewdly as we at him were black too.
He introduced his colleagues as Aineas of Dardania, Sarpedon of Lykia, Akamas the son of Antenor, Polydamas the son of Agenor, Pandaros the captain of the Royal Guard, and his brothers Paris and Deiphobos.
Menelaos growled in his throat and glowered at Paris, but each man feared his imperial brother too much to create trouble. I thought the Trojans a fine group of men, all warriors except for Paris, who was out of place – pretty, pouting, precious. While Agamemnon made his introductions I watched Hektor keenly to note his reaction as he associated a name with a face. When he came to Odysseus he studied our mastermind intently, a light of puzzlement in his gaze. But I didn’t find his dilemma at all amusing; I was too consumed with pity. Men who didn’t know Odysseus the Ithakan Fox usually dismissed him when they met him because of his oddly proportioned body and the untidy, almost ignoble figure he could cut when he thought it politic. Look into his eyes, Hektor, look into his eyes! I found myself saying silently – look into his eyes, know what the man really is and fear it! But Hektor’s nature found Ajax, next to Odysseus in our line, far more interesting and attractive. Thus he missed the significance of Odysseus.
Hektor took in the mighty thews of our second greatest warrior with astonishment; for the first time in his life, we thought, he had to look up into another man’s face.
‘We haven’t talked in ten years, son of Priam,’ Agamemnon said. ‘It’s high time we did.’
‘What do you wish to discuss?’
‘That subject is closed.’
‘Far from closed! Do you deny that Paris, son of Priam and your own full brother, did abduct the wife of my full brother, Menelaos the King of Lakedaimon, and did bring her to Troy as an affront to the entire nation of Greece?’
‘I do deny it.’
‘The lady asked to come,’ Paris added.
‘Naturally you do not admit that you used force.’
‘Naturally, since we had no need to use force.’ Hektor blew down his nostrils like a bull. ‘What do you propose in this very formal language, High King?’
‘That you return Helen and all her goods to her rightful husband, that you repay us for our time and trouble by reopening the Hellespont to Greek merchants, and that you do not oppose the settling of our Greek people in Asia Minor.’
‘Your terms are impossible.’
‘Why? All we ask is the right to peaceful coexistence. I would not fight if I could attain my ends peacefully, Hektor.’
‘To accede to your demands would ruin Troy, Agamemnon.’
‘War will ruin Troy faster. You defend, Hektor – never a profitable position. For ten years we have enjoyed Troy’s profits – and the profits of Asia Minor.’
The parleying went on, pointless words tossed to and fro while the soldiers lay on their backs in the trampled grasses and closed their eyes against the sun’s glare.
‘Very well, then, will you agree to this, Prince Hektor?’ Agamemnon asked some time later. ‘Here among us are the two parties concerned in the beginning of it all. Menelaos and Paris. Let them duel in the open between our two armies, the winner to dictate the terms of a peace settlement.’
If Paris didn’t look a brilliant duellist, Menelaos looked even less brilliant. It took Hektor no more than an instant to decide that Paris was an easy winner. ‘Agreed,’ he said. ‘My brother Paris to duel with your brother Menelaos, the winner to dictate the terms of a treaty.’
I peered at Odysseus, who sat beside me.
‘For the sake of Agamemnon’s reputation in years to come, Nestor, let’s hope it’s a Trojan who has to break up the duel,’ he whispered to me.
We withdrew to our lines and left the hundred paces of vacant ground to the two men, Menelaos testing his shield and spear, Paris preening himself complacently. They circled each other slowly, Menelaos making lunges with his spear, Paris ducking. Someone in the ranks behind me called out a jeering remark which made a thousand Trojan throats rumble, but Paris ignored the insult and dodged on daintily. I had never given Menelaos much credit for anything, but Agamemnon obviously knew what he was about in proposing this duel. I had deemed Paris an easy winner, but I was wrong. Though Menelaos would never have the dash and instinct which make a leader of men, he had learned the art of the duel as conscientiously as he learned everything. He lacked spirit, not courage, which meant he showed to very good advantage in single combat. When he hurled his spear it plucked Paris’s shield away; faced with a drawn sword, Paris chose to run rather than draw his own. He took to his heels with Menelaos hard after him.
Everyone could see who was going to win now; the Trojans were very silent, our men were cheering lustily. My eyes remained on Hektor, who had judged wrongly and was a man of high principle. If Menelaos killed Paris, he would have to treat. Ah! Without any signal from Hektor, Pandaros the captain of the Royal Guard quickly nocked an arrow. I shouted to Menelaos, who stopped and sprang to one side. Amid a howl of outrage from the host at my back, Menelaos stood with the arrow quivering in his flank. A howl of grief from the Trojan side greeted the fact that it was a Trojan broke the truce. Hektor was branded dishonourable.
The armies flung themselves into the fight with a fury that had been absent during the morning; one side was in defence of tainted honour, the other was out to avenge an insult, and both sides hacked and hewed in screaming frenzy. Men fell thickly; the hundred paces which had separated the lines dwindled until there was only a solid mass of bodies and the dust underfoot rose in clouds, blinding and choking us. The guilty man, Hektor, was everywhere at once, ranging up and down the centre in his car, his spear darting viciously. None of us could get close enough to him to try a lucky cast, while men died in fear beneath the hooves of his three black horses. How he forced his team through the frightful crush of men I couldn’t understand on that first day of pitched battle, though later on it grew so commonplace that I did it myself and thought nothing of it. I saw Aineas looming with a pack of Dardanians in his wake, and wondered in the midst of the mêlée how he had managed to come in from his wing. My spear abandoned in favour of my sword, I rallied my men and drove into the thick of it, laying about me from my car, hacking without choice at sweat-grimed faces, keeping Aineas in sight as I shrieked the call for reinforcements.
Agamemnon sent more men, Ajax in their lead. Aineas saw him coming and called off his dogs, but not before I had the privilege of seeing that veritable tower of a man lay about him, his arm a tireless sickle cutting down the enemy chaff. He hadn’t got his axe, having chosen on this first day of battle to use his sword, two-and-a-half cubits of double-bladed death. Though he used it like an axe, it seemed to me, swinging it around his head with a scream of fierce joy. He carried his enormous, wasp-waisted shield better than any other man alive; it never wavered as he held it just clear of the ground, its weight of bronze and tin covering him from head to toe. At his back came six mighty captains of Salamis, and beneath the shelter of the shield itself Teukros hid with his bow, unencumbered, nocking an arrow and letting it fly, taking another from his quiver in a series of movements so fluid they seemed continuous, flawlessly rhythmic. I saw Greek men too far away from him in the press to spot his bulk grin at each other and take heart just because they heard Ajax’s famous cry to Ares and the House of Aiakos: ‘Ai! Ai! Woe! Woe!’ he shrieked, punning on the meaning of his own name, throwing his derision in a thousand Trojan faces.
Surrounded for the moment by my own men, I raised my hand to him as he rolled towards me; Antilochos stood staring in awe, the reins of our team slack.
‘They’ve gone, old one,’ growled Ajax.
‘Even Aineas wouldn’t stop to face you,’ I said.
‘Zeus turn them into shades! Why won’t they stand and make a fight of it? But I’ll catch Aineas yet.’
‘I’ve been searching for him all afternoon. The man’s a will o’ the wisp, and I always lag behind. But I’ll wear him down. Sooner or later we’ll meet.’
Shrill cries of warning sounded; we drew into formation as Aineas returned, bearing Hektor and a part of the Royal Guard. I looked at Ajax.
‘Here’s your chance, son of Telamon.’
‘I thank Ares for it.’ He shook his armoured shoulders to settle the weight of his cuirass and prodded Teukros gently with the toe of one vast boot. ‘Up, brother. This one is mine and mine alone. Guard Nestor and keep Aineas at bay for me.’
Teukros ducked from beneath the shield, his bright, devoted eyes unworried as he leaped up beside me and Antilochos. No one ever questioned his loyalty, though his mother was Priam’s own sister, Hesione.
‘Come, laddie,’ he said to my son, ‘drive us through these carcases and draw up with Aineas. We’ve work to do with him. King Nestor, will you cover me while I use my bow?’
‘Gladly, son of Telamon,’ I said.
‘Why is Aineas in the van, Father?’ Antilochos asked me as we moved off. ‘I thought he commanded a wing.’
‘So did I,’ Teukros answered when I did not.
My own men and some of Ajax’s Salaminians came with us to hold Aineas far enough away from Hektor to let Ajax force him into a duel. Yet once the pair engaged the fighting became halfhearted on both sides; we watched Hektor and Ajax far more closely than we watched where our missiles fell.
Ajax never used a chariot in battle, probably because one had never been built capable of supporting his weight plus Teukros and a driver. It was his habit instead to stand on the ground and pretend he was a chariot.
Bronze rang on bronze, an arm guard popped under the sudden expansion of muscles and fell to be crushed underfoot. They were evenly matched, Ajax and Hektor. They stood and parried face to face, while all about them the fighting slowly died away. Aineas caught my wandering attention with a shrill whistle.
‘This is too good to miss, my white-haired friend! I’d rather watch than fight, wouldn’t you? Truce is called by Aineas of Dardania!’
‘I agree to a truce until such time as the duel ends. Then if it’s Ajax who falls, I’ll defend his body and his armour with my life! But if it’s Hektor who falls, I’ll help Ajax steal his body and his armour from you! Truce is agreed by Nestor of Pylos!’
‘So be it!’
In the circle of faces no arm was raised. All around our territory the battle raged unabated while we neither moved nor spoke. My heart glowed as I watched Ajax. No drop in his guard, no exposure of his body from behind that colossal shield. Hektor danced like a living flame about his bulk, cleaving great slices out of the shield. Neither of them seemed to own a sense of time or an awareness of fatigue; moment after moment their arms rose and fell with undiminished power. Twice Hektor almost lost his shield, yet he took Ajax’s blade on his own and fought on, keeping shield and sword both despite the best Ajax could do. It was a long, vicious battle. One of them would see an opening and dart in only to be met with a blade, fight on undiscouraged.
I felt a tap on my arm: a herald from Agamemnon.
‘The High King requires to know why the fighting’s stopped hereabouts, King Nestor.’
‘I’ve agreed to a temporary truce. Look for yourself, my man! Would you fight if that was going on in your section?’
He stared. ‘I recognise Prince Ajax, but who opposes him?’
‘Go and tell the High King that Ajax and Hektor fight to the death.’
The messenger slipped away, enabling me to fix my attention on the duel again. Both men still hacked and tilted furiously – how long had they been at it now? I didn’t need to shade my eyes as I looked up at the dull yellow ball of the dusty sun to find it westering well and truly, almost down to the horizon. By Ares, what stamina!
Agamemnon pulled his car in beside me.
‘Can you be spared from the command, sire?’
‘Odysseus holds for me. Gods! How long have they been at it, Nestor?’
‘For about an eighth part of the afternoon.’
‘They’ll have to end soon. The sun’s setting.’
‘Incredible, isn’t it?’
‘You called a truce?’
‘The men weren’t willing to fight. Nor was I. How goes it elsewhere?’
‘More than holding our own, though we’re badly outnumbered. Diomedes has been a titan all day. He killed the trucebreaker Pandaros and got away with the armour under Hektor’s very nose. Ah! There’s Aineas, I see. No wonder he wanted a truce! Diomedes caught him on the shoulder with a spear and thinks he did some damage.’
‘So that’s why he came in from the wing.’
‘The Dardanian is the shrewdest man Priam possesses. But he always looks after himself first, so the stories say.’
‘How’s Menelaos? Did the arrow hit anything vital?’
‘No. Machaon bound him up and sent him back to battle.’
‘He put up a very nice show.’
‘Surprised you, didn’t he?’
The horn of darkness wound its long, dismal call above the dust and clamour of the field. Men laid down their arms and sobbed for breath. Shields were dropped and swords clumsily sheathed, but Hektor and Ajax fought on. In the end night defeated them; they could hardly see their weapons in front of them when I got down from my car and parted them.
‘It’s too dark to see, my lions. I declare a draw, so put away your swords.’
Hektor took off his helmet with a shaking hand. ‘I confess I’m not sorry for an end. I’m almost done.’
Ajax gave his shield to Teukros, whose knees buckled under its weight. ‘I’m done too.’
‘You’re a great man, Ajax,’ said Hektor, holding out his right arm.
Ajax twined his fingers about the Trojan’s wrist, smiling. ‘I can say the same of you, Hektor.’
‘If they rate Achilles better than you, I can’t see why. Here, take my sword!’ He thrust it forward impulsively.
Ajax looked down at the blade with unfeigned pleasure, then hefted it in his hand. ‘Henceforth I’ll always use it in battle. In return, I offer you my baldric. My father said his father said he had it from his father, who was Immortal Zeus himself.’ He ducked his head and slipped the treasured relic off; of brilliant purple leather chased with a design in gold, it was a rare specimen.
‘I’ll wear it in place of my own,’ said Hektor, delighted.
I watched the gratification, the mutual liking and respect they had gained for each other under such terrible circumstances. Then the icy wings of a premonition froze my mind: that exchange of property was ill-omened.
We camped where we were that night, under the walls of Troy, with Hektor’s army between us and the gaping Skaian Gate. The campfires were lit, the cauldrons hung above them on bars; slaves carried round great trays of barley bread and meat, and watered wine flowed. For a while I watched the sight of a myriad torches flickering in and out of the Skaian Gate as Trojan slaves went to and fro ministering to Hektor’s army, then I went to eat with Agamemnon and the rest about a fire in the middle of our men. As I stepped into the light their tired faces turned to greet me, and I saw the hollowness which always lies heavy on a man after a hard-fought battle.
‘We haven’t advanced a finger’s breadth,’ I said to Odysseus.
‘Nor have they,’ he said tranquilly, chewing on a strip of boiled pork.
‘How many men have we lost?’ asked Idomeneus.
‘About the same number as Hektor, a few less, perhaps,’ said Odysseus. ‘Not enough to tip the balance either way.’
‘Tomorrow should tell, then,’ said Meriones, yawning.
Agamemnon yawned. ‘Yes, tomorrow.’
There was little further conversation. Bodies ached and smarted, lids drooped, bellies were full. Time to roll into furs around the fire. I blinked across the flames, looking at the many hundreds of little lights dotted through the plain, each one a source of comfort and safety in the dark night all about us. Smoke plumed towards the stars, the smoke of ten thousand campfires under the walls of Troy. I lay back and watched those stars wax and wane in the manmade fog until they faded away into Sleep, the Bringer of Mind’s Darkness.
The second day was not like the first. No truces broke the slaughter, no duels held our attention, no gallant acts of heroism lifted the struggle above the plane of men. The work was grim and sourly tenacious. My bones cried for rest, my eyes were blinded by the tears every man must weep when he sees a son die. Antilochos wept for his brother, then demanded to take his place in the line. So I put another Pylian to drive my car.
Impossible to catch, as deadly as Ares himself, Hektor was in his element, up and down the field, harrying his troops in a brazen voice which gave no quarter and would never stoop to ask for quarter. Ajax had no time to chase him; Hektor brought the full force of the Royal Guard to bear on him and Diomedes, shackling his two most dangerous foes to one spot by sheer weight of numbers. Where Hektor cast his spear a man was sure to die: he was as good as Achilles. If a gap showed in our line he shoved his soldiers into it, then once he had them in he kept feeding more and more of them in, like a tree cutter driving the thin end of the wedge deeper and deeper into a forest giant.
Oh, the grief! The cruelty, the pain! I couldn’t see for the tears when another of my sons fell, his bowels torn out on a lance Aineas threw. Not a moment later Antilochos barely escaped losing his head under a sword – not this one! Please, merciful Here, almighty Zeus, spare me Antilochos!
Every so often heralds came to tell me how other parts of the field were going; I gave thanks that at least our leaders were unscathed. Yet perhaps because our men were tired, or because we lacked the fifteen thousand Thessalians Achilles held out of the battle, or for some other more obscure reason, we began to lose ground. Slowly and imperceptibly the venue moved further and further away from the walls of Troy, closer and closer to our own defence wall. I found myself in the very front ranks, my driver sobbing in rage as our team stepped over their tangled traces and began to rear.
Hektor came down upon us; I called frantically for help as his chariot loomed through the crush. Luck was with me. Diomedes and Odysseus had somehow got into the centre of our van, their men next to mine. Diomedes didn’t attempt to fight Hektor himself; he concentrated instead on Hektor’s driver, not his usual man and definitely not as experienced. He cast his spear and took the fellow straight back on his heels, dead and stretching the reins until the horses, feeling their bits, began to plunge. With some help from Odysseus we got away safely while Hektor spat curses and sawed through his reins with a knife.
I tried to rally my section of the line, but it was hopeless. Fear was in the wind and talk of ill omens was spreading. None of us could delude ourselves any longer – we were in full retreat. Realising it, Hektor threw the rest of his reserve lines forward with a shriek of triumph.
Odysseus saved the day. He leaped into a vacant chariot – where was his? – and turned the Boiotians when they began to bolt, swung them round to face the enemy and then forced them to give ground quietly and in perfect order. Agamemnon followed his example immediately; what had threatened to become a debacle was at least accomplished with a minimum of loss and without the risk of rout. Diomedes charged his Argives into the teeth of the advancing Trojans, and I followed him with Idomeneus, Eurypylos, Ajax and all their men.
We had drawn our flanks up into the van; the army had turned into a tight droplet formation with its slender tail facing Hektor and the bulk of our men behind us, falling back.
Teukros kept to his nook behind his brother’s shield, his arrows flying steadily, always accurately. Hektor was hovering; Teukros saw him and grinned as he nocked another arrow. But Hektor was too wily to fall from an arrow he was surely expecting in Ajax’s neighbourhood. One after the other, Hektor caught the arrows on his shield, which infuriated Teukros into making a mistake. He stepped out from behind his brother’s shield. Hektor was waiting for him. His spears were long gone, but he had found a rock, and flung it in a cast worthy of a spear. It struck Teukros on the right shoulder, and down he went like a bull at a sacrifice. Too beset to notice, Ajax went on fighting. Ah, there! My cry of relief was echoed in a dozen throats when Teukros’s head showed above the carnage on the ground and he began to crawl across the dead and wounded to go to earth with Ajax. But now he was just surplus baggage his brother had to lug; the Trojans charged.
I cast my eyes desperately to the rear to see how far we were from our own wall, and gasped; our back lines were already streaming across the causeways.
Odysseus and Agamemnon between them kept our army calm. The retreat was concluded without much loss of life, and we fled behind our wall to the refuge of our stone city. Too dark for Hektor to follow. We left them on the far bank of our ditch and palisade, jeering and yapping at our tails.