It wasn’t a very cheerful gathering that night in Agamemnon’s house; we just sat, beginning the wearisome business of getting our strength back in order to endure tomorrow. My head ached, my throat was raw from yelling war cries, my sides were rubbed clean of skin where my cuirass had chafed despite the padded shift underneath. All of us sported minor wounds – grazes, punctures, gashes, cuts – and sleep screamed in us.
‘A shocking reverse,’ Agamemnon said into the pit of exhausted silence. ‘Shocking, Odysseus.’
Diomedes sprang to my defence. ‘Just as Odysseus predicted!’
Nestor nodded confirmation. Poor old man. For once he did look his age, and little wonder. He had lost two sons on the field. Voice reedy, he said, ‘Don’t despair yet, Agamemnon. Our time will come. And be the sweeter for today’s reverses.’
‘I know, I know!’ Agamemnon cried.
‘Someone had better go and report to Achilles,’ Nestor said in an undertone audible only to those of us in on the plot. ‘He’s with us, but if he’s not kept informed he may move prematurely.’
Agamemnon glared at me balefully. ‘Odysseus, it’s your idea. You see Achilles.’
I plodded off wearily. To send me down the line of houses to its very end was Agamemnon’s way of getting back at me. Yet while I walked, at peace and unmolested, strength began to creep into me again. I felt more rested for the little additional exertion than I would have after a full night’s sleep. Since any who saw me would assume after the day’s reverses that Agamemnon was sending me to plead with Achilles, I passed openly through the Myrmidon gate to find the Myrmidons and other Thessalians sitting about dolefully, avid to fight, rendered impotent.
Achilles was in his house warming his hands at a tripod of fire, looking as worn and nervy as any of us who had fought for two days. Patrokles sat opposite him, face stony. I suppose that didn’t really surprise me, given the advent of Brise. The relationship between Diomedes and me was as friendly as it was sensuous, a kind of expedience both of us found immensely pleasing. But if either of us fancied a woman, well and good. No disaster, no sense of betrayal. Patrokles loved, and had thought himself safe, permanently free of rivals. Whereas Achilles, like all men who burn for things other than the flesh, had not truly committed himself. Exclusively a man for men, Patrokles thought himself cruelly wronged. Poor fellow, he loved.
‘What brings you?’ Achilles demanded sourly. ‘Patrokles, find food and wine for the King.’
Sighing gratefully, I sat down in a big chair and waited for Patrokles to depart.
‘I hear things went badly,’ said Achilles then.
‘As expected, don’t forget that,’ I answered. ‘Hektor kept the Trojans hard at it, and Agamemnon couldn’t do the same with our men. The retreat began at about the same moment as the grumbling – the omens were all against us, the sky was thick with eagles flying on the left hand, a gold light bathed the Trojan Citadel, and so forth. Omen talk is always fatal. So we fell back until Agamemnon had to pull us inside the fortifications for the night.’
‘I hear Ajax met Hektor yesterday.’
‘Yes, they duelled for over an eighth part of the afternoon without a conclusion. You’ve nothing to worry about there, my friend. Hektor belongs to you.’
‘But men are dying needlessly, Odysseus! Let me come out tomorrow, please!’
‘No,’ I said harshly. ‘Not until the army is in immediate danger of annihilation, or the ships begin to burn because Hektor breaks into our camp. Even then you’ll tell Patrokles to lead your troops – you mustn’t lead them yourself.’ I stared at him sternly. ‘Agamemnon has your oath on it, Achilles.’
‘Rest assured, Odysseus, that I break no oaths.’
He bowed his head then and lapsed into silence. When Patrokles came back we were sitting thus, Achilles hunched over, I staring dreamily at his head of golden hair. Patrokles directed the servants to put the food and wine on the table, then stood like a pillar of ice. Achilles glanced at him briefly, then at me.
‘Tell Agamemnon I refuse to go back on my word,’ Achilles said to me in a formal voice. ‘Tell him to find someone else to extricate him from this mess. Or else return Brise.’
I slapped my thigh as if exasperated. ‘As you wish.’
‘Stay and eat, Odysseus. Patrokles, go to bed.’
Not in this house! Patrokles exited through the door.
Perhaps later I would sleep, but as I walked back I found myself so alive that I craved mischief, so I went to the hollow wherein my spy colony was still headquartered. Most of my agents not living inside Troy were sitting over the remains of dinner; Thersites and Sinon greeted me warmly.
‘Any news?’ I asked, sitting down.
‘One item,’ said Thersites. ‘I was about to find you.’
‘Ah! Enlighten me.’
‘Just as the battle ended tonight, a new ally arrived – a distant cousin of Priam’s named Rhesos.’
‘How many troops did he bring?’
Sinon laughed softly. ‘None. Rhesos is a loud-mouthed bag of wind, Odysseus. He calls himself an ally, but he’s better summed up as a refugee. His own people threw him out.’
‘Well, well!’ I said, and waited.
‘Rhesos drives a team of three magnificent white horses which are the subject of a Trojan oracle,’ said Thersites. ‘They’re said to be the immortal children of winged Pegasos, as fleet as Boreas and as wild as Persephone before Hades took her. Once they’ve drunk from Skamander and eaten Trojan grass, Troy can never fall. A promise, says the Oracle, from Poseidon, who’s supposed to be on our side.’
‘And, since Poseidon is on our side, have they drunk from Skamander and eaten Trojan grass yet?’
‘They’ve eaten grass, but they wouldn’t drink from Skamander.’
I grinned. ‘Who can blame them? I wouldn’t drink either.’
‘Priam’s sent for a bucket or two upstream,’ said Sinon, sharing my grin. ‘He’s decided to make a public ceremony out of it at dawn tomorrow. In the meantime, the horses go thirsty.’
‘Very interesting.’ I got up, stretching. ‘I’ll have to see these fabulous creatures for myself. It would add a certain – er, elegance – to my image if I drove a team of white horses.’
‘You could do with a little more elegance,’ gibed Sinon.
‘A lot more elegance,’ Thersites contributed.
‘Thank you for that, sirs! Whereabouts might I find this immortal team?’
‘That we haven’t been able to find out,’ said Thersites, frowning. ‘All we know is that they’re quartered on the plain with the Trojan army.’
Diomedes, Agamemnon and Menelaos were waiting outside my own house; I strolled up to them as if I’d been enjoying a constitutional, and grinned at Diomedes. Knowing that look, his eyes began to sparkle.
‘Achilles is all right,’ I said to Agamemnon.
‘Thank all the Gods for that! I can sleep now.’
The moment he and Menelaos departed I entered my house with Diomedes and clapped for a servant. ‘Bring me a light leather suit and two daggers,’ I said.
‘Then I’d better go and equip myself similarly, I suppose,’ said Diomedes.
‘Meet me by the Simois causeway.’
‘Are we going to get any sleep at all tonight?’
Clad in soft dark leather, two daggers in his belt, Diomedes joined me at the Simois causeway. We threaded our way from shadow to shadow silently until we got to the far end of the bridge, where the ditches joined up with the palisade.
‘What are we after?’ he whispered then.
‘I have a fancy to drive a team of immortal white horses.’
‘That would certainly improve your image.’
I shot him a suspicious look. ‘Have you been talking to Sinon and Thersites?’
‘No,’ he said innocently. ‘Whereabouts is this team?’
‘I have no idea. Somewhere out there in the darkness.’
‘So we’re looking for a flea in a bear’s pelt.’
I squeezed his arm. ‘Ssssh! Someone’s coming.’
Mentally I saluted my protectress, the Owl Lady herself. My beloved Pallas Athene always dropped fortune in my lap. We sank down into the ditch alongside the causeway and waited.
A man flitted out of the gloom, his armour chinking – a very amateur spy, to sneak about in armour. Nor did he have the wit to skirt a patch of moonlight; the rays bathed him momentarily, revealing a small, plump man in costly gear, his helm waving the purple plume of Troy. We let him get within a spit of us before we sprang, Diomedes darting off to my left so we had him between us. My hand was over his mouth, cutting off his squeal; Diomedes pinned his arms behind his back and we bore him down, dumped him roughly in the grass. Eyes starting from their orbits goggled up at us; we could feel him shaking like a soft little jellyfish. Not one of Polydamas’s men. An entrepreneur, more like.
‘Who are you?’ I growled, low but ferocious.
‘Dolon,’ he managed.
‘What are you doing here, Dolon?’
‘Prince Hektor asked for volunteers to enter your camp and discover if Agamemnon means to come out tomorrow.’
Stupid Hektor! Why didn’t he leave spying to the professionals like Polydamas?
‘A man arrived tonight. Rhesos. Where’s his camp?’ I asked, drawing my finger lovingly along the blade of my dagger.
He swallowed, shuddered. ‘I don’t know!’ he bleated.
Diomedes loomed over him, sliced off an ear and waved it in front of his face while I gagged him with my hand until the horror faded and he understood.
‘Speak, snake!’ I hissed.
He spoke. At the end of it we broke his neck.
‘Look at his jewels, Odysseus!’
‘A very rich man, probably from scavenging. A man not worth Hektor’s notice. Strip him of his pretty baubles, old friend, hide them and pick them up on the way back. Your share of the spoils, since I must keep the team.’
He tossed a huge emerald in his hand. ‘My team is well enough. This alone will buy half a hundred Sun Cattle to stock the plain of Argos.’
We found the camp of Rhesos exactly where Dolon had described, and lay on a nearby hillock to plan our strategy.
‘Fool!’ Diomedes muttered. ‘Why so isolated?’
‘Exclusivity, I suspect. How many can you make out?’
‘Twelve, though which is Rhesos I can’t tell.’
‘I count the same. First we kill the men, then we take the team. No sounds.’
We jammed our knives between our teeth and slithered off, he to take the near side of the fire, I to take the far side. In such matters practice is helpful; they died in their sleep, and the horses, vague white shapes in the background, took no fright.
The one named Rhesos was easy to pick out. He too was a jewel collector. Snoozing closest to the fire, he glittered with them.
‘Look at this pearl!’ breathed Diomedes, holding it up to twin the moon.
‘A thousand Sun Cattle,’ I said, keeping my voice low. One could never be sure someone wouldn’t arrive unexpectedly.
The horses had been muzzled in case they broke their tethers and headed off to Simois to satiate their thirst. Good for us; they wouldn’t start whinnying. While I found halters and said hello to my new team, Diomedes collected anything worth taking from the camp and put it on a mule. Then, our route plotted on the way there, we headed back to the Simois causeway, where my Argive friend picked up Dolon’s cache.
Agamemnon wasn’t pleased at being woken until I told him the story of Rhesos and his horses, whereupon he laughed. ‘I can see why you must keep the sons of winged Pegasos, Odysseus, but what about poor Diomedes?’
‘I’m content,’ said crafty Diomedes, looking noble.
Yes, that was a politic answer. Why tell a man with a war chest to fill that one has, in the course of a small fraction of the night, accumulated a formidable fortune?
The story of the horses of Rhesos was out and about among our troops by the time they broke their fast at dawn; they were delighted, and cheered me as I drove my new team out over the Simois causeway ahead even of Agamemnon, who wanted Troy to see.
Troy saw, and Troy did not think it a joke.
The battle was bloody, vicious. Agamemnon saw his chance and drove a deep wedge through the Trojan line, forcing them to retreat. Our men were all for finishing it, and drove them back until the walls of Troy loomed. But there the Trojans, who still outnumbered us grossly, rallied, and there our luck changed. The Kings began to go down.
First was Agamemnon, in fine fettle that day. As he drove down the line towards us he speared a man who tried to stop him, but didn’t see the man who followed and thrust his own spear deeply into Agamemnon’s thigh. The head was barbed, the wound bled copiously; our High King was forced to leave the field.
Then it was Diomedes’s turn. He managed to strike Hektor’s helm with a javelin, dazing him for a moment. Whooping, Diomedes moved in for the kill while I concentrated on Hektor’s horses and driver, intending to disable the car. None of us saw the figure lurking safely behind it until he rose with an arrow nocked, his white teeth flashing in a grin as he let the shaft fly. It was a long shot and almost to earth when it found its mark in the Argive’s foot. Pinned to the ground, Diomedes stood cursing and shaking his fist while Paris scuttled off. Troy had a Teukros.
‘Bend down and pull it out!’ I shouted to Diomedes, coming up with a good number of my Ithakans.
He did as he was told while I swung an axe some dead man had no further use for. It wasn’t my normal choice of weapon, too clumsy and heavy, but to fend off a ring of enemies it was peerless. Determined I would see Diomedes safely away, I wielded the awful thing savagely until he limped off painfully, too crippled to be of further use.
At which moment I too went down. Someone’s lucky spear-cast lodged in the back of my calf a little below the hamstrings. My Ithakans surrounded me until I could pull it out, but the head was barbed and took a great chunk of flesh with it. Losing blood fast, I had to waste time binding the blood vessels closed with a strip from some dead man’s shift.
Menelaos and his Spartans came to reinforce us; I managed to fight my way to his side. Ajax appeared, and the two of them stepped aside to let me dodge down behind Menelaos’s chariot. A glorious warrior, Ajax! His blood fired, he laid about him with a strength I could never have mustered and forced the Trojans back, his Salaminians, as always, so proud of him that they went with him anywhere. Some Trojan leader responded by pushing more men in until they were jammed against Ajax’s axe by sheer weight from behind. Faster than our struggling soldiers and the mighty Ajax could mow them down, they sprang up again like the soldiers of the Dragon’s teeth.
Thankful to see that Hektor had disappeared, I had made myself useful by calling for a concentration of strength in the area. Eurypylos was the closest, and came in from one side: just in time to collect one of Paris’s arrows in his shoulder. Machaon was coming up too, and met the same fate. Paris. What a worm. He wasted no arrows on common men; he simply lurked somewhere safe and comfortable and waited for a prince at least. In which he differed from Teukros, who shot at any target.
Somehow I managed to get behind the lines at last, to find Podalieros tending Agamemnon and Diomedes, who waited disconsolately as close to the venue as they dared. Horrified, they took in the sight of me, Machaon and Eurypylos.
‘Why must you fight, brother?’ Podalieros demanded through his teeth as he lowered Machaon to the ground.
‘See to Odysseus first,’ gasped Machaon, the stump of an arrow in his arm bleeding sluggishly.
So I had my wound packed and bound first; Podalieros went to Eurypylos then, electing to push the arrow through for fear it would do more damage inside the shoulder if it were pulled out the same way it had gone in.
‘Where’s Teukros?’ I asked, sinking down beside Diomedes.
‘I sent him off the field a while ago,’ said Machaon, still waiting his turn. ‘The blow Hektor dealt him yesterday swelled to the size of the rock Hektor hit him with. I had to tap the lump and drain some of the fluid off. His arm was quite paralysed, but he can move it again now.’
‘Our ranks are thinning,’ I said.
‘Too thin,’ said Agamemnon grimly. ‘The soldiers know it too. Can’t you feel the change?’
‘Yes, I can,’ I said, getting to my feet and testing my leg. ‘I suggest we move ourselves back to camp before we become caught up in a panic. The army will break for the beach soon, I think.’
Though it had been I responsible for it, I found the retreat a blow nonetheless. Too few of the Kings were left to hold the men together; of the major leaders only Ajax, Menelaos and Idomeneus were left. One section of our line broke; the rot spread with astonishing speed. Suddenly the whole army turned and fled for the safety of our camp. Hektor shrieked so loudly that I heard him from where I stood atop our wall, then the Trojans were baying in pursuit like starving dogs. Our men were still pouring in across the Simois causeway with the Trojans attacking their rear when Agamemnon, white-faced, issued his orders. The gate was closed before the last – and the most gallant – could get in. I stopped my ears and closed my eyes. Your fault, Odysseus! All your fault.
Too early in the day for a cease to battle. Hektor would try for our wall. Milling about inside the camp, our troops took some time to rally and understand that their job now was to defend the fortifications. Slaves flew about boiling great cauldrons and urns of water to pour down on the heads of those who would attempt to scale the wall; we didn’t dare use oil for fear that the wall would end in burning. Stones were already piled along its top, stacked there for just such an emergency years ago.
The thwarted Trojans massed along the trench, leaders rolling up and down in their chariots, urging men to take up their ranks again. Hektor drove in his golden car with his old driver, Kebriones, at the reins. Even after days of bitter conflict he looked erect and confident. As well he should. I propped my chin on my hands as our own men began to fill the spaces around me on top of the wall, and settled down to see how Hektor meant to storm us: whether he was willing to sacrifice many, or whether he had a better scheme in mind than simple brute force.