I spent most of my time standing on the roof of the tallest Myrmidon barracks, looking from its height across our wall to the plain. When the army broke and fled, I saw it; when Sarpedon breached our wall, I saw it; when Hektor’s men poured in among the houses, I saw it. But no more. Listening to Odysseus outline his plan was one thing. To see the plan’s outcome was unbearable. I plodded back to my house.
Patrokles sat on a bench outside its door, his face wet with tears. Seeing me, he turned away.
‘Go and find Nestor,’ I said. ‘I saw him bring Machaon in a while ago. Ask him what news there is from Agamemnon.’
All futile. What the news would be was obvious. But at least I wouldn’t have to look at Patrokles, or hear him beg me to change my mind. The noise of the conflict raging on the other side of the stockade fence which shut my Thessalian people off was a little distant; it was the Simois end of the camp most beset. I sat on the bench and waited until Patrokles returned.
‘What does Nestor say?’
His face was ugly with contempt. ‘Our cause is lost. After ten long years of work and pain, our cause – is – lost! Through no one’s fault save yours! Eurypylos was with Nestor and Machaon. The fatalities are shocking and Hektor runs amok. Even Ajax is powerless to curb his advance. The ships must burn.’
He drew a breath. ‘If you hadn’t quarrelled with Agamemnon none of this could have happened! You sacrificed Greece to feed your passion for an insignificant woman!’
‘Patrokles, why won’t you believe in me?’ I asked. ‘Why have you turned against me? Is it jealousy over Brise?’
‘No. It’s disillusionment, Achilles. You’re just not the man I thought you were. This isn’t about love. It’s about pride.’
I didn’t say whatever I thought I might because a great shout went up. We both ran to the stockade wall and mounted the steps to see above it. A column of smoke rose into the sky; the Protesilaos ship was burning. All had come to pass. I could move. But how could I tell Patrokles that he, not I, must lead out the men of Thessalia? The Myrmidons?
When we came down Patrokles went on his knees in the dust.
‘Achilles, the ships must burn! If you won’t, then let me lead our troops out! Surely you’ve seen how much they hate sitting here while the rest of Greece dies! Do you want the throne of Mykenai, is that it? Do you want to return to a land in no fit condition to resist your conquering forces?’
My face felt tight, but I answered levelly. ‘I have no designs on Agamemnon’s throne.’
‘Then let me lead our men out now! Let me take them down to the ships before Hektor burns them!’
I allowed myself to nod stiffly. ‘Very well, then, take them. I see your point, Patrokles. Receive the command.’
Even as I said that, I saw how the scheme might be made to work better, and lifted Patrokles to his feet. ‘But on one condition. That you wear my armour and make the Trojans think it’s Achilles come among them.’
‘Put it on yourself and come with us!’
‘That I can’t do,’ I said.
So I took him to the armoury and dressed him in the golden suit my father had given me from the chest of King Minos. It was too big by far, but I did my best to make it fit by overlapping the front and back plates of the cuirass, padding the helmet. The greaves came up his thighs, which would afford him more protection than greaves usually did. And yes, provided no one got too close, he would pass for Achilles. Would Odysseus see that as my breaking the oath? Would Agamemnon? Well, too bad if they did. I would do what I could to shield my oldest friend – my lover – from harm.
The horns had sounded; the Myrmidons and other Thessalians were waiting in so short a space of time that it was obvious they had been ready to leap into the fray. I walked with Patrokles to the assembly area while Automedon ran to harness up my car; though it would be of little use inside the camp, it was necessary that everyone see Achilles arrive to throw the Trojans out. In the gold armour I had rarely worn, everyone would know Achilles.
But how was this? The men cheered me deafeningly, looked at me with the same love they had always shown me. How was this, when even Patrokles had turned against me? I shaded my eyes and glanced up at the sun, to find it not so far above the horizon. Good. The deception need not last long. Patrokles would be all right.
Automedon was ready. Patrokles mounted the car.
‘Dearest cousin,’ I said, my hand on his arm, ‘content yourself with driving Hektor from the camp. Whatever you do, do not pursue him onto the plain. Is that order clear?’
‘Perfectly,’ he said, shrugging me off.
Automedon clicked his tongue at the team and moved off to the gate between our stockade and the main body of the camp, while I ascended to the barracks rooftop to watch.
The fighting now raged in front of the first row of ships, with Hektor looking invincible. A situation which changed in an instant when fifteen thousand fresh troops came at the Trojans from the Skamander side, led by a figure wearing golden armour in a golden chariot drawn by three white horses.
I could hear both sides crying my name, a sensation as odd as it was uncomfortable. But it was enough. The moment the Trojan soldiers glimpsed the figure in the chariot and heard the name, they were transformed from victors into defeated. They ran. My Myrmidons were out for blood and fell on the stragglers tooth and nail, cutting them down without mercy, while ‘I’ screamed my war cry and urged them on.
Hektor’s army poured out across the Simois causeway. Never again, I vowed, would a Trojan set foot inside our camp. Not the most cunning wile Odysseus could think of would persuade me. I found that I was weeping, and knew not for whom – myself, Patrokles, all those dead Greek soldiers. Odysseus had succeeded in luring Hektor out, but the price was ghastly. I could only pray that Hektor had lost at least as many men.
Ai, ai! Patrokles chased the Trojans out onto the plain. When I saw what he was about, I felt my heart sink. Inside the camp the crush had prevented anyone’s getting close enough to him to see the deception, but out there on the plain – oh, anything was possible! Hektor would rally, and Aineas was still in the fight. Aineas knew me. Knew me, not my armour.
Suddenly it seemed better not to know. I left the roof and sat on the bench outside my house door, waiting for someone to come. The sun was about to set, hostilities would cease. Yes, he would be all right. He would survive. He had to survive.
Footsteps sounded: Nestor’s youngest, Antilochos. He was weeping and wringing his hands together – telltale, telltale. I tried to speak and found my tongue clove to the top of my mouth; I had to struggle to produce the question.
‘Is Patrokles dead?’
Antilochos sobbed aloud. ‘Achilles, his poor naked body lies out there among a host of Trojans – Hektor wears your armour and flaunts it in our faces! The Myrmidons are heartbroken, but they won’t let Hektor near the body, though he shouted a vow that Patrokles would feed the dogs of Troy.’
As I got to my feet my knees went; down I went into the dust where Patrokles had knelt to beg. Unreal, unreal. Yet it had to be real. I had known it was going to happen. For a moment I felt the power of my mother in me and heard the lap and swell of the sea. I cried her name once, hating her.
Antilochos pillowed my head in his lap, his warm tears falling on my arm, his fingers chafing the back of my neck.
‘He wouldn’t understand,’ I mumbled. ‘He refused to understand. That never occurred to me. He, of all people, to think I would desert my own? They had my oath on it. He died deeming me prouder than Zeus. He died despising me. And now I can never explain. Odysseus, Odysseus!’
Antilochos stopped weeping. ‘What has Odysseus got to do with all this, Achilles?’
I remembered then, shook my head and climbed to my feet. Together we walked towards the gate in the stockade wall.
‘Did you think I might kill myself?’ I asked him.
‘Not for very long.’
‘Who did it? Hektor?’
‘Hektor wears his armour, but there’s some doubt as to who actually killed him. When the Trojans turned to face us on the plain, Patrokles got down from his car. Then he tripped.’
‘The armour killed him. It was too big.’
‘We’ll never know that. He was attacked by three men. Hektor dealt the last stroke, but he may already have been dead. Not unblooded. He killed Sarpedon. When Aineas came to help, he was recognised for an impostor. The Trojans were furious at the trick, and rallied well after the news spread. Then Patrokles killed Kebriones, Hektor’s driver. Soon after that he got down and tripped. They set on him like jackals before he could get up – he had no chance to defend himself. Hektor stripped away his armour, but before he could get the body the Myrmidons had come up. Ajax and Menelaos are still fighting to keep him safe.’
‘I must go and help.’
‘Achilles, you can’t! The sun’s going down. By the time you got there, it would be over.’
‘I have to help!’
‘Leave it to Ajax and Menelaos.’ He put his hand on my arm. ‘I must beg your forgiveness.’
‘I doubted you. I should have known it was Odysseus.’
I cursed my loose tongue. Even in the midst of the Spell I was bound by my oath. ‘You’re to speak of it to no one, Antilochos, do you hear?’
‘Yes,’ he said.
We ascended to the rooftop and looked to where the plain was filled with men. I made Ajax out easily, and saw that he was holding the fresh Thessalian troops firmly in place while Menelaos and another I fancied was Meriones bore a naked body shoulder high on a shield away from the battle. They were bringing Patrokles in. The dogs of Troy wouldn’t feast on him.
‘Patrokles!’ I screamed. ‘Patrokles!’
Some of them heard, looked my way and pointed. I shouted his name again and again. The whole host stood silent. Then the horn of darkness wound its long, braying call across the field. Hektor, my golden armour flashing redly in the dying sunset, turned to lead his army back to Troy.
They laid Patrokles on a makeshift bier in the middle of the great assembly space in front of Agamemnon’s house. Menelaos and Meriones, covered in gore and filth, were so exhausted that they could hardly stand. Then Ajax stumbled up. When his helm dropped from nerveless fingers he had not the strength to bend and pick it up. So I did that, gave it to Antilochos and took my cousin into my arms, a way of holding him up with honour, for he was done.
The Kings gathered around to form a circle and gaze down on dead Patrokles. His wounds were the thrusts of curs, one beneath his arm where the cuirass had gaped, one in the back and another in the belly, where the spear had plunged so deeply that his bowels were hanging out. I knew this was Hektor’s blow, but thought that whoever had got him in the back had killed him.
One of his hands dangled off the edge of the bier. I took it in mine and sank down beside him on the ground.
‘Achilles, come away,’ said Automedon.
‘No, my place is here. Take care of Ajax for me, and send for the women to come and bathe Patrokles, dress him in a shroud. He’ll remain here until I kill Hektor. And this I vow: that I will lay the bodies of Hektor and twelve noble Trojan youths at his feet in the tomb. Their blood will pay the Keeper of the River when Patrokles asks to cross.’
Some time later the women came to cleanse Patrokles of his dirt. They washed his tangled hair, closed the wounds with balms and sweet-smelling unguents, tenderly sponged away the reddened tear marks from around his fast-stuck eyes. For that much I could be thankful; his lids were already down when they brought him in.
All through the night marches I remained holding his hand, my only conscious emotion the despair of a man whose last memory of a loved one was filled with hate. Two shades now thirsted for my blood: Iphigenia and Patrokles.
Odysseus came with the rising sun, bearing two cups of watered wine and a plate of barley bread.
‘Eat and drink, Achilles.’
‘Not until I’ve fulfilled my vow to Patrokles.’
‘He neither knows nor cares what you do. If you’ve vowed to kill Hektor, you’ll need all your strength.’
‘I’ll last.’ I stared about, blinking, only then realising that there were no signs of activity anywhere. ‘What’s the matter? Why is everyone still asleep?’
‘Hektor had a hard day yesterday too. A herald came at dawn from Troy and asked for a day of truce to mourn and bury the dead. Battle won’t be resumed until tomorrow.’
‘If then!’ I snapped. ‘Hektor’s back inside the city – he will never come out again.’
‘You’re wrong,’ said Odysseus, eyes flashing. ‘I’m right. Hektor thinks he has us now, and Priam won’t believe that you mean to take the field again. The ruse with Patrokles worked. So Hektor and his army are still on the plain, not inside Troy.’
‘Then tomorrow I can kill him.’
‘Tomorrow.’ He looked down at me curiously. ‘Agamemnon has called a council for noon. The troops are too tired to care what sort of relationship you and Agamemnon enjoy, so will you come?’
I closed my fingers over the cold hand. ‘Yes.’
Automedon took my place with Patrokles while I went to the council, still clad in my old leather kilt, still in all my dirt. I sat down beside Nestor, glancing at him with a mute question; Antilochos was present. So was Meriones.
‘Antilochos guessed from something you said to him yesterday,’ the old man whispered. ‘Meriones guessed from listening to Idomeneus curse during the battle. We decided the best thing we could do was to admit both of them into our full confidence, and bind them with the same oath.’
‘And Ajax? Has he guessed?’
Agamemnon was a worried man. ‘Our losses have been appalling,’ he said gloomily. ‘As far as I can ascertain, we’ve suffered the loss of fifteen thousand dead or wounded since we joined battle with Hektor outside the walls.’
Nestor shook his white head, his glossy beard straying over his hands. ‘Appalling is putting it mildly! Oh, if only we had Herakles, Theseus, Peleus and Telamon, Tydeus, Atreus and Kadmos! I tell you, men are not what they used to be. Myrmidons or no, Herakles and Theseus would have carried all before them.’ He wiped his eyes with his beringed fingers. Poor old man. He had lost two sons on the field.
For once Odysseus was angry. He jumped to his feet. ‘I told you!’ he said fiercely. ‘I told you in no uncertain terms what we’d have to endure before we could see the first glimmering of success! Nestor, Agamemnon, why are you whining? To our fifteen thousand casualties, Hektor has suffered twenty-one thousand! Stop woolgathering, all of you! None of those legendary Heroes could have done half what Ajax did – what everyone present here did! Yes, the Trojans fought well! Did you expect anything else? But Hektor’s the one who holds them together. If Hektor dies, their spirit will die. And where are their reinforcements? Where’s Penthesileia? Where’s Memnon? Hektor hasn’t any fresh troops to put on the field tomorrow, whereas we have nearly fifteen thousand Thessalians, and they include seven thousand Myrmidons. Tomorrow we’re going to defeat the Trojans. We may not get inside the city, but we’ll reduce its people to the last stages of utter despair. Hektor will be on the field tomorrow, and Achilles will have his chance.’ He looked at me complacently. ‘My property is on you, Achilles.’
‘I’ll bet it is!’ said Antilochos nastily. ‘Maybe I’ve seen through your scheme because I didn’t listen to your proposing it. I heard at second hand, from my father.’
Odysseus was suddenly watchful, lids lowered.
‘The foundation of your scheme was that Patrokles should die. Why did you insist so emphatically that Achilles himself must stay out of things even after the Myrmidons were let join the fight? Was it truly to make Priam think that Achilles would never bend? Or was it to insult Hektor with an inferior man in Patrokles? The moment Patrokles assumed the command, he was a dead man. Hektor would have him, nothing surer. And Hektor did have him. Patrokles died. As you always intended he should, Odysseus.’
I came to my feet, my thick skull burst open by Antilochos’s words. My hands reached for Odysseus, itching to break his neck. But then they fell. I sat down limply. It hadn’t been Odysseus’s idea to dress Patrokles in my armour. That was my own idea. And who can say what might have happened had Patrokles taken the field as himself? How could I blame Odysseus? The fault was mine.
‘You’re both right and wrong, Antilochos,’ said Odysseus, pretending I had never moved. ‘How could I possibly know Patrokles would die? A man’s fate in battle isn’t in our hands. It’s in the hands of the Gods. Why did he trip? Isn’t it possible one of the Trojan God partisans stuck a foot out? I’m just a mortal man, Antilochos. I can’t predict the future.’
Agamemnon got up. ‘I would remind all of you that you swore an oath to stick to Odysseus’s plan. Achilles knew what he was doing when he took it. So did I. So did we all. We weren’t coerced, or dazzled, or fooled. We decided to go with Odysseus because we had no better alternative. Nor were we likely to think of a better alternative. Have you forgotten how we railed and chafed at the sight of Hektor sitting safely inside Troy’s walls? Have you forgotten that it’s Priam who rules Troy, not Hektor? All of this was designed to deal with Priam far more than with Hektor. We knew the price. We elected to pay it. There’s no more to say.’
He looked sternly at me. ‘Hold yourselves ready for battle at dawn tomorrow. I’ll call a public assembly, and in front of our officers I will return Brise to you, Achilles. I will also swear that I had no congress with her. Is that clear?’
How old he looked, how very tired. The hair which had been sparsely sprinkled with white ten years ago now displayed broad silver ribbons amid its darkness, and a pure white streak ran down each side of his beard. My arm about Antilochos, still trembling, I got up wearily and went back to Patrokles.
I sat down in the dust beside the bier and took his stiff hand from Automedon. The afternoon passed like water falling one drop after another into the well of time. My grief was wearing away, but my guilt never would. Grief is natural; guilt is self-inflicted. The future cures grief; but only death can cure guilt. Those were the kinds of things I thought about.
The sun was setting pink and softly liquid across the far Hellespont shore before anyone came to disturb me: Odysseus, his face obscured by shadows, his eyes sunken, his hands slack by his sides. With a great sigh he squatted down in the dust near me, linked his hands across his knees and rested on his heels. For a long time we didn’t speak; his hair was flame in the last of the sun, his profile rimmed in amber purity against the dusk. He looked, I thought, godlike.
‘What armour will you wear tomorrow, Achilles?’
‘My bronze with the gold trim.’
‘A good set, but I would dower you with a better.’ His head turned, he stared at me gravely. ‘How do you feel about me? You wanted to break my neck when that boy spoke in council, but then you changed your mind.’
‘I feel as always. That only some future generation will be able to judge what you are, Odysseus. You don’t belong to our times.’
He dipped his head, toyed with the dust. ‘I cost you a suit of precious armour which Hektor will take great pleasure in wearing, hoping to eclipse you in every way. But I have a golden suit which will fit you. It belonged to Minos. Would you take it?’
I stared at him curiously. ‘How did it come to you?’
He was tracing squiggles in the dust; above one he drew a house, above another a horse, above a third a man. ‘Grocery lists. Nestor has grocery-list symbols.’ He frowned and obliterated what he had drawn with his palm. ‘No, symbols are not enough. We need something else – something which can transmit ideas, thoughts owning no shape, the wings inside the mind… Have you heard the tales men whisper about me? That I’m no true son of Laertes? That I was got on his wife, my mother, by Sisyphos?’
‘Yes, I’ve heard them.’
‘They’re true, Achilles. And a good thing at that! Were Laertes my sire, Greece would have been the poorer. I don’t openly acknowledge my paternity because my barons would have me off the Ithakan throne in a wink if I did. But I digress. I only wanted you to understand that the armour was come by dishonestly. Sisyphos stole it from Deukalion of Crete and gave it to my mother as a token of his love. Will you wear something dishonestly got?’
‘I’ll bring it at dawn, then. One thing more.’
‘Don’t say I gave it you. Tell everyone it’s a gift from our Gods – that your mother asked Hephaistos to weld it through the night in his eternal fires so that you could take the field as befits the son of a Goddess.’
‘If you wish it, that’s what I’ll say.’
I slept a little, slumped on my knees against the side of the bier, a restless and haunted sleep. Odysseus woke me just before the first light and took me to his house, where a great linen-shrouded bundle rested on a table. I unwrapped it joylessly, imagining that it would be a good, workmanlike suit – in gold, admittedly, but nothing like the suit Hektor now wore. My father and I had always assumed that was the best outfit Minos owned.
Perhaps it was, but the suit Odysseus gave me was far the better of the two. I rapped its flawless gold with my knuckles to find that it gave off a dull, heavy sound completely unlike the ring of many layers. Curious, I turned the enormously heavy shield over to discover that it wasn’t made like other shields, many-layered and thick. There seemed to be two layers only, an outer plating of gold covering a single layer of a dark grey material which gave off no glitter or reflection in the lamplight.
I had heard of it, but never seen it before save in the head of my spear, Old Pelion: men called it hardened iron. But I had not dreamed it existed in quantities sufficient to make a full suit of armour the size of this one. Every item was made of the same metal, each plated with gold.
‘Daidalos made it three hundred years ago,’ said Odysseus. ‘He’s the only man in history who knew how to harden iron, to turn it in the crucible with sand so that it takes up some of the sand and becomes far harder than bronze. He collected lumps of raw iron until he had enough to cast this suit, then he hammered the gold over it afterwards. If a spear gashes the surface, the gold can be smoothed. See? The figures are cast in the iron, not fashioned in the gold.’
‘It belonged to Minos?’
‘Yes, to that Minos who with his brother Rhadamanthos and your grandfather Aiakos sits in Hades to judge the dead as they congregate about the shores of Acheron.’
‘I can’t thank you enough. When my days are over and I stand before those judges, take the suit back, give it to your son.’
Odysseus laughed. ‘Telemachos? No, he’ll never fill it. Give it to your son.’
‘They’ll want to bury me in it. It’s up to you to see that Neoptolemos gets it. Bury me in a robe.’
‘If you want, Achilles.’
Automedon helped me dress for war while the house women stood against the wall muttering prayers and charms to ward off evil and infuse the armour with power. Whichever way I moved, I flashed as brightly as Helios.
Agamemnon spoke at the assembly of our army’s officers, who stood wooden-faced. Then it was my turn to accept the imperial humble pie, after which Nestor returned Brise to me; there was no sign of Chryse, but I didn’t think she had been sent to Troy. At the end we dispersed to eat: a waste of precious time.
Her head up, Brise walked beside me silently. She looked ill and worn, more upset than when she had walked with me out of the burning ruins of Lyrnessos. Inside the Myrmidon stockade we passed Patrokles on his bier; he had been moved there because of the assembly. She flinched, shuddered.
‘Come away, Brise.’
‘He fought when you would not?’
‘Yes. Hektor killed him.’
Seeking a sign of softness, I looked into her face. She smiled a smile of pure love.
‘Dearest Achilles, you’re so tired! I know how much he meant to you, but you grieve too much.’
‘He died despising me. He threw our friendship away.’
‘Then he didn’t really know you.’
‘I can’t explain to you either.’
‘You don’t need to. Whatever you do, Achilles, is right.’
We marched out across the causeways and formed up on the plain in the damp new sunlight. The air was soft, the breeze like the caress of teased wool before it is spun. They fronted us, rank on rank on rank, as we must have looked to them. Excitement was a fist rammed down my throat, my knuckles when I chanced to see them were white on Old Pelion’s worn dark shaft. I had given Patrokles my armour, but not Old Pelion.
Hektor came thundering in from his right wing in a chariot drawn by three black stallions, swaying a little with the motion of the car, wearing my armour superbly. I noticed that he had added scarlet to the golden plumes of the helmet. He drew up opposite me; we gazed at each other hungrily. The challenge was implicit. Odysseus had won his gamble. Only one of us would leave the field alive, we both knew it.
The silence was peculiar. Neither army emitted a sound, not the snort of a horse nor the rattle of a shield, as we stood waiting for the horns and drums to start. I was finding this new armour very heavy; it would take time to grow used to it, know how best to manoeuvre in it. Hektor would have to wait.
The drums rolled, the horns blared, and the Daughter of Fate tossed her shears into the strip of bare ground between Hektor and me. Even as I shrieked my war cry Automedon was lashing my car forwards, but Hektor swerved aside and was off down his lines before we met. Blocked by a seething mass of infantry, I knew no hope of following, even had I wanted to. My spear rose and fell, dripping the blood of Trojans; I felt nothing beyond the fascination of killing. Not even my vow to Patrokles mattered.
I heard a familiar war cry and saw another chariot forcing its way through the press, Aineas lunging coolly, holding onto his temper as he found himself opposing neatly dodging Myrmidons. I gave my own cry. He heard me and saluted me, jumped down at once for the duel. His first spear-cast I caught on my shield, the vibration jarring me to the marrow, but that magical metal thwarted the lance completely. It fell to earth, its head mangled. Old Pelion flew in a beautiful arc over the heads of the men between us, high and true. Aineas saw the tip coming at his throat, flung up his shield and ducked. My beloved spear passed clean through the hide and metal just above his head, tipped the shield over, and pinned Aineas beneath it. Sword drawn, I pushed through my men, intent upon reaching him before he could wriggle free. His Dardanians backed before our charge and the smile of triumph was already on my face when I experienced a surge, that frustrating, maddening phenomenon which happens occasionally when a huge number of men are jammed tightly together. It was as if suddenly a mighty wave arose in a sea of tiny ripples, sweeping down the line from end to end; men crashed into each other like a row of bricks set falling.
Almost knocked off my feet, borne along like flotsam on that living wave of men, I cried in despair because I had lost Aineas. By the time I struggled free he had gone and I was a hundred paces further down the line. Calling the Myrmidons into proper formation, I worked my way back; when I reached the spot I found Old Pelion still nailing his shield to the ground, undisturbed. I wrenched my spear out and tossed the shield to one of my baggage noncombatants.
Shortly afterwards I banished Automedon and the chariot to the back of the field, giving Old Pelion into his care. This was axe work. Ah, what a weapon in a crush! The Myrmidons kept with me and we were unbeatable. But no matter how frantic the action, I never ceased to look for Hektor. Whom I found just after I killed a man wearing the insignia of a son of Priam’s. Not far away, face twisted by the fate of his brother, Hektor watched. Our eyes met; the field seemed not to exist. I read satisfaction in his sombre contemplation as we saw each other’s faces for the first time. We drew closer and closer, striking down our foes with one thought in mind: to meet, to be near enough to touch. Then came another surge. Something crushed my side and I almost lost my footing as I was hurled back through the ranks. Men fell and were mashed to pulp, but I wept because Hektor was lost to me. From grief I passed to anger and a killing frenzy.
The red furore lifted when there were no more than a handful of purple plumes opposing me and the torn, trampled grass was visible between their feet. The Trojans had disappeared; I dealt with stragglers. They backed off in an orderly withdrawal, their leaders mounted once more in their cars, and Agamemnon let them go, content for the moment to re-form his own lines. My chariot appeared from nowhere, and I climbed up beside Automedon.
‘Find Agamemnon,’ I panted, letting my shield drop to the floor struts with a sigh of relief. A wonderful protection, but almost too heavy.
All the leaders had come in. I pulled up between Diomedes and Idomeneus. Tasting victory, Agamemnon was the King of Kings again. A piece of linen was bound about a cut in his forearm and dripped slow crimson to the earth, but he seemed not to notice.
‘They’re in full retreat,’ Odysseus was saying. ‘However, there’s no sign that they intend to take refuge inside the city – not yet, at any rate. Hektor thinks there’s still a chance to win. We needn’t hurry.’ He glanced up at Agamemnon with the look that said he had just had a bright idea. ‘Sire, what if we do what we did for nine years? What if we split our army into two and try to drive a wedge through the middle of their ranks? About a third of a league from here Skamander takes a big loop inwards to the city walls. Hektor’s already heading that way. If we can manoeuvre them so that they’re stretched out across the neck of the loop, we could use the Second Army to push half of them at least into the maw of the loop, while the rest of us continue to drive their other half in the direction of Troy. We won’t accomplish much with those running for Troy, but we can slaughter those shut up in the arms of Skamander.’
It was a very good plan, and Agamemnon was not slow to realise that. ‘Agreed. Achilles and Ajax, take whatever units you prefer from Second Army days and deal with whatever Trojans you can trap inside the Skamander loop.’
I looked very slightly mutinous. ‘Only if you make sure that Hektor doesn’t escape into the city.’
‘Agreed,’ said Agamemnon at once.
They fell into the trap like little fishes into a net. We drew up with the Trojans as they came level with the neck of the loop in the river, whereupon Agamemnon charged his infantry straight through their middle ranks, scattering them. They had no hope of continuing an orderly retreat while coping with the huge mass of men he deployed. On the left Ajax and I held our forces back until a good half of the fleeing Trojans realised they had run into a blind end, then we swung across their only avenue of escape. I massed my infantry and led them into the loop, Ajax bellowing off to the right as he did the same. The Trojans panicked, milled about helplessly, fell ever backwards until their hind ranks stood on the brink of the river. The weight of men still retreating before us pushed them inexorably on; like sheep on the edge of a cliff, those in the rear began to tumble into the foul water.
The old God Skamander did half our work for us; while Ajax and I hacked them to shrill pleas for mercy, he drowned them in hundreds. From my chariot I saw the waters running clearer and more strongly than usual; Skamander was in full spate. Those who lost their footing on the bank had no hope of regaining their feet to fight the current, handicapped as they were by armour and panic. But why was Skamander in full spate? There had been no rain. Then I found the time to look towards Mount Ida; the sky above it was roiling with thunderheads, and there were opaque curtains of rain lying like cleavers across the foothills beyond Troy, chopping them off.
I gave Old Pelion to Automedon and got down with my axe in my hands, the shield a weight I couldn’t bear to carry. I would have to do without one, and there was no Patrokles to follow me. But before I waded into the fray I remembered to call up one of the baggage noncombatants; I owed Patrokles twelve noble Trojan youths for his tomb. Easily gathered in such a debacle. That awful, mindless lust for other men’s blood swept over me again, and I could not find enough Trojans to satiate it. At the river bank I didn’t pause, waded out instead after the few terrified men I had cornered. The weight of my iron armour anchored me in the increasing thrust of the current; I slew until Skamander ran ever redder.
One Trojan tried to make a duel of it. He called himself Asteropaios; a high nobleman of Troy at least, for he wore gilded bronze. His was very much the advantage, as he stood on the bank while I was waist deep in the river, with nothing save my axe against his handful of spears. But never think Achilles witless! As he readied himself to cast his first missile I took my axe by the end of its handle and flung it at him like a throwing dagger. He loosed his spear, but the sight of that thing whopping through the air spoiled his aim. Over and over the axe turned, flashing in the sun. Then it took him full in the chest, its jaws deep in his flesh. He lived no more than an instant, then pitched forward and dropped like a stone into the water, face down.
Intending to prise the axe free, I waded to him and turned him over. But the head was rooted in him to its handle, the shattered metal of his cuirass tangled around it. So intent was I that I hardly noticed the dull roaring in my ears, or felt the water bucking like a newly broken stallion. Very suddenly the water was up to my armpits and Asteropaios was bobbing as lightly as a sliver of bark. I grasped his arm and forced him close to me in a mock embrace, using my own body to steady him as I worked at the axe. The roar was now a huge thunder, and I had to fight to keep my footing. At last the axe came free; I snaked its thong fast about my wrist, afraid of losing it. The River God was shouting his anger to me; it seemed he preferred that his own people defile him with their wastes than I defile him with their blood.
A wall of water bore down on me like a landslide. Even Ajax or Herakles could not have withstood it. Ah, there! An overhanging branch on an elm tree! I leaped for it. My fingers found leaves and struggled those few enormous handspans higher until I had solid wood in my grasp; the branch bent over with me as I fell back into the torrent.
For an instant the wall hovered over me like some watery arm grown by the God, then he flung it down on my head with all the fury he could muster. I sucked in a last great breath of air before the world turned liquid, before I was pushed and pulled in a hundred directions at once by a strength far superior to my own. My chest was almost to bursting, both my hands clung of themselves to the elm branch; I thought in agony of the sun and the sky, and wept within my heart at the bitter irony of being defeated by a river. I had used too much of myself grieving for Patrokles and killing Trojans, and that iron armour was a death.
I prayed to the dryad who lived in the elm tree, but the water rolled over my head unabated; then the dryad or some other sprite heard me, and my head broke the surface. I gulped air gluttonously, shook Skamander from my eyes and looked about me desperately. The bank which had been almost close enough to touch was gone. I seized fresh hold of the elm, but the dryad deserted me. The last of the bank came away and left the old tree’s mighty roots bare. My own body in all that iron formed the extra load; the mass of leaves and branches tilted over, and the elm took the plunge into the river with scarcely a sound of anguish above the howling of the flood.
I kept hold of the branch, wondering if Skamander would be strong enough to sweep everything downstream. But the elm remained with its head in the water, a dam which held back the debris moving towards our camp and the Myrmidon stockade. Bodies piled up against its bulk like brown blossoms with crimson throats, purple plumes wreathed around the green of its trees, hands floating white and repulsively useless.
I let go the branch and commenced wading to the edge of the river, which was lower since the bank had collapsed, but not low enough. Time and time again the unrelenting flood sucked my feet away from their precarious grip on the slimy river bottom; time and time again my head went under. But I fought back, struggling ever closer to my goal. I actually managed to get my hands on a clump of grass, only to watch it part from the saturated soil. I went under, floundered upright and despaired. The earth from Skamander’s vanished bank trickling dark through my fingers, I raised my arms to the skies and prayed to the Lord of All.
‘Father, Father, let me live long enough to kill Hektor!’
He heard me. He answered me. His awesome head bent down suddenly from the illimitable distances of the heavens; for some few moments he loved me sufficiently to forgive me my sin and my pride, perhaps remembering only that I was the grandson of his son, Aiakos. I felt his presence in all my being and thought I saw the fire-shot shadow of his monstrous hand hover dark over the river. Skamander sighed his submission to the Power which rules Gods as well as men. One moment I was going to die, the next I found the water a trickle around my ankles, had to jump aside as the elm collapsed into the mud.
The opposite, higher bank had crumbled; Skamander dissipated his strength in a thin sheet across the plain, a silver benison the thirsty soil drank in one gulp.
I staggered out of the river bed and sat exhausted on the drowned grass. Above me Phoibos’s chariot stood at a little past its zenith; we had been fighting for half of its journey across the vault. Wondering where the rest of my army was, I came back to reality in the shame of knowing I had lusted to kill so much that I had completely ignored my men. Would I ever learn? Or was my lust to kill a part of the madness I had surely inherited from my mother?
Shouts sounded. The Myrmidons were marching towards me, and in the distance Ajax was re-forming his forces. Greeks everywhere, but not one Trojan. I climbed aboard my car, grinning at Automedon.
‘Take me to Ajax, old friend.’
He was standing with a spear in one massive hand, his eyes dreamy. I got down, water still running off me.
‘What happened to you?’ he asked.
‘I had a wrestling match with the God Skamander.’
‘Well, you won. He’s spent.’
‘How many Trojans survived our ambush?’
‘Not many,’ he said serenely. ‘Between the pair of us we’ve managed to kill fifteen thousand of them. Perhaps as many again got back to Hektor’s army. You did good work, Achilles. You have a thirst for the blood of other men even I cannot match.’
‘I’d rather your love than my lust.’
‘Time to get back to Agamemnon,’ he said, not understanding. ‘I brought my car today.’
I rode beside him in his – well, cart is a better word than car, for it needed four wheels – while Teukros travelled in my car with Automedon.
‘Something tells me that Priam has ordered the Skaian Gate opened,’ I said, pointing towards the walls.
Ajax growled. As we drew closer it was too plain that I was right. The Skaian Gate was open and Hektor’s army streamed in ahead of Agamemnon, thwarted by the sheer number of Trojans clustered about the entrance. I glanced sideways at Ajax, showing my teeth.
‘Hades take them, Hektor is in!’ he snarled.
‘Hektor belongs to me, Ajax. You had your chance.’
‘I know it, little cousin.’
We trundled into the midst of Agamemnon’s forces and went to seek him. As usual, standing with Odysseus and Nestor. Frowning.
‘They’re closing the gate,’ I said.
‘Hektor packed them in so tightly we had no hope of turning them away – and no chance to attempt an assault ourselves. Most of them made it inside. Two detachments deliberately elected to remain shut out. Diomedes is hammering them into submission,’ said Agamemnon.
‘What of Hektor himself?’
‘Gone inside, I think. No one’s seen him.’
‘The cur! He knew I wanted him!’
Some others were coming up: Idomeneus, Menelaos, Menestheus and Machaon. Together we watched Diomedes finish off those who had volunteered to stay outside – sensible men, for when they were courting annihilation they surrendered. Liking their courage and their discipline, Diomedes took them prisoner rather than kill them. He came towards us then, jubilant.
‘Fifteen thousand of them lost by Skamander,’ said Ajax.
‘While we lost not a man more than a thousand,’ said Odysseus.
A great sigh came from the resting soldiers behind us, and a shriek of such awful agony from the top of the watchtower that we ceased to laugh.
‘Look!’ Nestor’s bony finger pointed, shaking.
Slowly we turned. Hektor stood leaning on the bronze bosses of the gate, his shield propped against it, two spears in his hand. He wore my golden armour with the alien scarlet among the helmet’s plume, and the bright purple baldric Ajax had given him shimmered with amethysts. I, who had never seen myself in that suit, saw how well it became any man who wore it – and fitted it. I should have known the moment I stood back to look at Patrokles that I had strapped him into his doom.
Hektor picked up his shield and walked a few paces forward. ‘Achilles!’ he called. ‘I have stayed to meet you!’
My eyes met Ajax’s, who nodded. I took my shield and Old Pelion from Automedon, gave him the axe. Hektor was no man to insult with an axe.
My throat tight with a trembling joy, I stepped out of the ranks of the Kings and went to meet him with measured step, like a man going to the sacrifice; I did not raise my spear and nor did he. Three paces from each other we halted, each of us intent on discovering what kind of man the other was, we who had never seen each other closer than a spear-cast. We had to speak before the duel began, and edged so close together that we could have touched. I looked into the steadfast darkness of his eyes and learned that he was much the same kind of man as I. Except that, Achilles, his spirit is untainted. He is the perfect warrior.
I loved him far better than I loved myself, better than Patrokles or Brise or my father, for he was myself in another body; he was the harbinger of death, whether he himself dealt me the killing blow, or whether I lingered on a few days more until some other Trojan cut me down. One of us had to die in the duel, the other soon after, for so it had been decided when the strands of our destinies were interwoven.
‘These many years, Achilles,’ he commenced, then stopped, as if he could not express what he felt in words.
‘Hektor son of Priam, I wish we might have called each other friend. But the blood between us cannot be washed away.’
‘Better to be killed by an enemy than a friend,’ he said. ‘How many perished by Skamander?’
‘Fifteen thousand. Troy will fall.’
‘Only after I am dead. I will not have eyes to see it.’
‘We were born for war alone. War’s outcome does not concern us, and I am pleased it is so.’
‘Is your son of an age to avenge you, Hektor?’
‘Then I have the edge on you. My son will come to Troy to avenge me, whereas Odysseus will see that your son never lives long enough to weep over his lack of years.’
His face twisted. ‘Helen warned me to beware of Odysseus. Is he the son of a God?’
‘No. He’s the son of a villain. I would call him the spirit of Greece.’
‘I wish I could warn my father of him.’
‘You will not live to do so.’
‘I might beat you, Achilles.’
‘If you do, Agamemnon will order you cut down.’
He thought for a moment. ‘You leave women to grieve for you? A father?’
‘I won’t die unmourned.’
And in that moment our love burned more fiercely than our hate; I put out my hand quickly, before the wellsprings of ardour could die in me. He took my wrist in his.
‘Why did you stay to meet me?’ I asked, holding him.
His fingers tightened, pain darkened his face. ‘How could I go within? How could I look at my father, knowing it was my rashness and stupidity lost all those thousands of his people? I should have retreated into Troy the day I killed your friend, the one who wore this armour. Polydamas warned me, but I took no notice. I wanted to meet you. That’s the true reason why I kept our army on the plain.’ He stepped back, relinquishing my arm, his face an enemy’s again. ‘I’ve been watching you, Achilles, in that very pretty gold suit, and I’ve decided it must be solid gold. It weighs you down. The suit I wear is much lighter. So before we clash swords, let’s have a race.’
He took to his heels on the last word, leaving me to stand flat footed for a moment before I started after him. Clever, but a mistake, Hektor! Why should I try to catch you? You will turn and confront me not far off.
A quarter of a league from the Skaian Gate in the direction of our camp – his direction – the Trojan walls flung a huge buttress southwestwards, and there the Greek army cut him off.
My breath was coming easily; perhaps my wrestle with old Skamander had given me a second wind. He turned, I stopped.
‘Achilles!’ he shouted. ‘If I slay you I give you my oath that I will return your body to your men undefiled! Give me your oath that you’ll do the same for me!’
‘No! I’ve sworn to give your body to Patrokles!’
There was a rush of wind about my head, dust blew into my eyes. Hektor was already raising his arm, Old Pelion was already leaving my hand. His spear-cast was true, the shaft bouncing off the centre of my shield, whereas Old Pelion fell limply at my own feet. Hektor cast his second missile before I could bend to pick up Old Pelion, but the capricious wind veered again. I never did pick up Old Pelion. Hektor drew his sword from Ajax’s purple baldric and charged me. Now the dilemma: keep my shield and be protected from a brilliant adversary, or toss it away to fight unencumbered? The armour I could manage, but the shield was far too heavy. So I flung it from me and faced him with drawn sword. Even charging he was capable of halting; he threw away his shield too.
When we met we discovered the hugeness of the pleasure in a perfect match. I stopped the downward chop of his blade with my own; our arms stood rigid while neither of us yielded; we sprang back in the same instant and circled, each looking for an opening. The swords whistled a deathsong as they carved the air. I gave him a lightning glance up his left arm when he lunged, but in the same passage of arms he took the leather covering my thigh and ripped the flesh underneath. Both blooded, neither of us paused to consider our wounds; we were too eager to finish it. Thrust after thrust the blades flashed, descended, met a parry, went at it again.
Seeking an opening, I shifted ground cautiously. Hektor was a shade smaller than I, therefore my armour must contain a flaw, a place where he wasn’t adequately protected. But where? When I nearly reached his chest he moved aside quickly, and as he lifted his arm I noticed that the cuirass gaped away from the side of his neck, where the helmet didn’t come down far enough. I stepped back, making him follow me, manoeuvring for a better stance. Then it happened, that irksome weakness in the tendons at the back of my right heel which twisted the foot, made me stumble. But even as I gasped in horror my body was compensating, keeping me upright. And laying me wide open for Hektor’s sword.
He saw his chance immediately, was on me with the speed of a striking serpent, his blade raised high to deal me the death blow, his mouth gaping open in a wild scream of joy. His cuirass – my cuirass – moved away from the left side of his neck. I lunged at him at the same moment. Somehow my arm withstood the massive power of his arm, his sword descending. It met mine with a clang and flew aside. My blade passed on without deviation to bury itself in the left side of his neck between cuirass and helm.
Taking my sword with him, he fell so fast I had no chance to help lower him to earth. I let the crosspiece go as if it glowed red hot, seeing him at my feet, not dead yet for all it was a mortal wound. His great dark eyes stared up at me, speaking his knowledge, his acceptance. The blade must have severed all the blood vessels in its path and buried itself in bone, but because it still remained embedded he could not die. He moved his hands slowly, jerkily, until they were clamped fast about the wickedly sharp blade. Terrified that he meant to pull it out before I was ready – would I ever be ready? – I dropped to my knees beside him. But he lay without moving now, gasping hard, his knuckles white about the sword, his lacerated hands trickling blood.
‘You fought well,’ I said.
His lips moved; he rolled his head a little to one side with the effort of trying to speak, and blood spurted viciously. My hands covered in it, I took his face between them. The helm rolled off and his coiled braid of black hair flopped into the dust, its end beginning to unravel.
‘The greatest pleasure would have been to fight with you, not against you,’ I said, wishing I knew what he wanted to hear me say. Anything. Or almost anything.
His eyes were bright and knowing. A thin rivulet of blood flowed from one corner of his mouth; his time was ebbing rapidly, yet I couldn’t bear the thought of his dying.
I could hardly hear my name, and bent until my ear almost touched his lips. ‘What is it?’
‘Give my body… Back to my father…’
Almost anything, but not that. ‘I can’t, Hektor. I vowed you to Patrokles.’
‘Give me back… If I go to Patrokles… Your own body… Will feed the dogs of Troy.’
‘What must be, will be. I have sworn.’
‘Then it is… Finished.’
He writhed with a strength God given and his hands tightened their hold; with the last of himself he drew forth the blade. His eyes grew instantly dim, the rattle sounded in his throat, pink foam fluffed about his nostrils, and he died.
His head still between my hands, I knelt without moving. The whole world was struck to silence. The battlements far above me were as still as Hektor lying dead, nor came any murmur from Agamemnon’s army at my back. How beautiful he was, this my Trojan twin, my better half. And how much I mourned his going – the pain! The grief!
‘Why do you love him, Achilles, when he murdered me?’
I jumped to my feet, heart pounding. The voice of Patrokles had spoken within me! Hektor was dead. I had vowed to kill him, and now, instead of exulting, I wept. I wept! While Patrokles lay without the price of the ferry across the River.
My movement dispelled the silence. A hideous shriek of despair spiralled down from the watchtower, Priam protesting the death of his most beloved son. Others took it up; the air became filled with women’s wails, men crying on their Gods, the dull thrumming of fists on breasts like funeral drums, and behind me Agamemnon’s army cheering, cheering, cheering.
I began to strip the armour from Hektor savagely, tearing out the unwelcome sorrow in my heart, willing the instinct to mourn out of my marrow with a curse for every piece I ripped away. When I had done the Kings came to form a circle about his naked body, Agamemnon staring down at his dead face with a sneer. He lifted the spear he carried and buried it in Hektor’s side; all the others followed his lead, dealing the poor defenceless warrior the blows they couldn’t while he lived.
Sickened, I turned away – a chance to fan my rage white-hot and so dry my tears. When I swung round again I discovered that only Ajax had refrained from doing Hektor’s body insult. How could men call him a lubber when he alone understood? I pushed Agamemnon and the rest away roughly.
‘Hektor belongs to me. Take your weapons and go!’
Suddenly shamed, they backed off, looking like nothing so much as a pack of furtive curs hunted from their stolen meal.
I took the purple baldric from its buckle on the cuirass and drew my dagger. Then I slit the thin parts at the back of his heels and threaded the dyed, encrusted leather through, while Ajax, face stolid, watched the end of his gift. Automedon drove my chariot up; I secured the baldric to the back of it.
‘Get down,’ I told Automedon. ‘I’ll drive myself.’
My three white horses were smelling death and plunging, but when I wrapped the reins about my waist they quietened. Back and forth beneath the watchtower I drove the car to an accompaniment of grief from the top of Troy’s walls and jubilation from King Agamemnon’s army.
Hektor’s hair came unbraided and dragged loose across the trodden earth until it was matted and grey; his arms trailed limply backwards on either side of his head. Twelve times in all I whipped my horses between the watchtower and the Skaian Gate, parading the hope of Troy beneath its very walls, proclaiming the inevitability of our victory. Then I drove to the beach.
Patrokles lay still and shrouded on his bier. Three times I drove around the square, then dismounted, cut the baldric free. To pick up Hektor’s limp form in my arms was easy, yet somehow to fling it away, to let it lie ungainly at the foot of the bier, was enormously difficult. Yet I did it. Brise darted away, frightened. I sat down in her place, my head between my knees, and began to weep again.
‘Achilles, come home,’ she said.
Intending to refuse, I looked up. She too had suffered; I could not let her suffer more. So I got up, still weeping, and walked with her to my house. She sat me down in a chair and gave me a cloth to wipe my face, a bowl to wash the blood off my hands, wine to compose me. Somehow she managed to remove that iron armour, then dressed the wound on my thigh.
When she began to pull at my padded shift I stopped her. ‘Leave me,’ I said.
‘Let me bathe you properly.’
‘I cannot while Patrokles lies unburied.’
‘Patrokles has become your evil spirit,’ she said quietly, ‘and that is to mock what he was in life.’
With a burning look of reproach I quit the house, walked not to the square where Patrokles lay, but down to the shingle, and there dropped like another stone.
My sleep was a trance of utter peace until into the featureless abyss wherein I dwelled a thready whiteness came, glittering with unearthly light, the blackness of the abyss looming through its tenuous coils. From the distance it moved ever closer inward to the centre of my mind, gathering form and opacity as it came, until it stood before the core of my spirit in its final shape. The steady blue eyes of Patrokles stared into my nakedness. His soft mouth was harsh, just as I remembered it last, and his yellow hair was streaked with red.
‘Achilles, Achilles,’ he whispered in a voice that was his and yet not his, mournful and chill, ‘how can you sleep while I still lie unburied, unable to cross the River? Free me! Let me loose from my clay! How can you sleep while I am unburied?’
I reached my arms out to him to plead for his understanding, trying to tell him why I had let him fight in my place, babbling explanations one after another. I took him into my arms and my fingers closed on nothing; he shrank and dribbled away in the darkness until the last chirrup of his bat voice faded, until the last lingering thread of his luminescence faded into nothing. Nothing! Nothing!
I screamed. And woke still screaming, to find a dozen of my Myrmidons pinning me down. Shaking them off impatiently, I stumbled back between the ships, men stirring and asking each other what was that awful noise?, the grey light of dawn showing me the way.
A night wind had blown the shroud onto the ground; the Myrmidons who formed his guard of honour had not dared approach close enough to retrieve it. So when I staggered into the square I saw Patrokles himself. Sleeping. Dreaming. So peaceful, so benign. A facsimile. I had just seen the real Patrokles, and knew from his lips that he would never forgive me. That heart which had given so generously from the days of our shared adolescence was as cold and hard as marble. Why then was the facsimile’s face so tender, so gentle? Could such a face belong to the shade haunting my sleep? Did men truly change so much in death?
My foot touched something chilly; I shivered uncontrollably as I looked down on Hektor sprawled just as I had left him the evening before, his legs twisted up as if they were broken, his mouth and his eyes wide open, his emptied white flesh showing the pink mouths of a dozen wounds, the one at his neck gaping like a gill.
I turned away as Myrmidons came from all directions, wakened by the sound of their leader screaming like one demented. They were led by Automedon.
‘Achilles, it’s time to bury him.’
‘More than time.’
We carried Patrokles across the waters of Skamander on a raft, and then walked garbed for war with his corpse on his shield shoulder high in our midst. I stood behind the shield with his head in the palm of my right hand as his chief mourner, the whole army dotting the cliffs and the beach for two leagues around to witness the Myrmidons put him in his tomb.
We bore Patrokles into the corbelled cavern and laid him tenderly on the ivory death car, clad in the armour he had worn to his death, his body covered in locks of our hair, his spears and all his personal belongings on gold tripods about the painted walls. I glanced towards the roof, wondering how long it would be before I too lay there. Not long, so the oracles said.
The priest fitted the mask of gold over his face and tied the strings under his head, arranged his gold gauntleted hands on his thighs, their fingers meeting over the sword. The words were chanted, the libations poured out on the ground. Then one by one the twelve Trojan youths were held over a huge golden cup standing on a tripod at the foot of the death car, and their throats were cut. We sealed up the entrance to the tomb and marched back to the camp, to the assembly ground in front of Agamemnon’s house, where funeral games were always held. I brought out the prizes and went through the misery of presenting them to the winners, then, while the rest feasted, I returned to my own house alone.
Hektor lay now in the dust outside my door, removed there after we had taken Patrokles from his bier; the memory of that wraith out of my dreams had urged me to inter him with Patrokles like a mongrel dog at the foot of a hero, but I couldn’t do it. I broke my vow to my oldest and dearest friend – my lover! – to keep Hektor with me instead; Patrokles had the price of the ferry ride: twelve noble Trojan youths. Enough and more than enough.
I clapped my hands; the serving women came running. ‘Heat water, bring the anointing oils, send for the chief embalmer. I want Prince Hektor prepared for burial.’
I carried him to a small storehouse nearby and laid him on a stone slab the right height for the women to minister to him. But I straightened his limbs, I put my hand on his face to close his eyes. They opened again very slowly, sightless. An awful thing, to watch Hektor’s vacant husk. To think of my own.
Brise was sitting waiting for me, hunched in a chair. She glanced at me, but didn’t speak for some time. Then she said in a neutral voice, ‘I have water ready for your bath, and there’s food and wine afterwards. I must light the lamps, it’s dusk.’
Oh, if only water had the power to wash away the stains on a spirit! My body was clean again. But my spirit was not.
Brise sat on the couch opposite me while I toyed with the food, quenched my thirst. I felt as if I had been running like a madman for years.
Then she used the word too. Madman. She said, ‘Achilles, why are you behaving like a madman? The world isn’t going to cease because Patrokles is dead. There are others still living who love you as much as he did. Automedon. The Myrmidons. I.’
‘Go away,’ I said wearily.
‘When I’m finished. Heal yourself, Achilles, in the only way possible. Stop pandering to Patrokles and give Hektor back to his father. I’m not jealous, I never have been. That you and Patrokles were lovers didn’t affect me or my place in your life. But he was jealous, and that warped him. You believe he thought you betrayed your ideals. But to Patrokles the real betrayal was your love of me. That’s where it started. After that, nothing you did would have been right as far as he was concerned. I’m not condemning him – I’m just speaking the truth. He loved you and he felt you betrayed his love by loving me. And if you could do that, you couldn’t be the person he thought you were. It was necessary that he find flaws. He had to feed his own sense of injury.’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I said.
‘Yes, I do. But it isn’t Patrokles I want to talk about. I want to talk about Hektor. How can you do this to a man who faced you so bravely and died so well? Give him back to his father! It isn’t the real Patrokles who haunts you, it’s the Patrokles you’ve conjured up to drive yourself mad. Forget Patrokles. He was no true friend to you at the last.’
I struck her. Her head snapped back and she fell from the couch to the floor. Horrified, I scooped her up, laid her down to find that she was moving and groaning. I stumbled to a chair, put my head in my hands. Even Brise was a victim of this madness, and madness it was. But how to heal it? How to banish my mother?
Something wrapped itself about my legs, plucked feebly at the hem of my kilt. I lifted my head in terror to see what new visitation had come to plague me and stared confounded at the white head and twisted countenance of an old, old man. Priam. It could be no one else. Priam. As I took my elbows from my knees he seized my hands and began to kiss them, his tears falling on the same skin Hektor’s blood had.
‘Give him back to me! Give him back! Don’t feed him to your dogs! Don’t leave him alone and unhallowed! Don’t deny him proper mourning! Give him back to me!’
I looked across at Brise, who was sitting upright, her eyes filled with unshed tears.
‘Come, sire, sit down,’ I said, lifting him and putting him into my chair. ‘A king shouldn’t have to beg. Sit down.’
Automedon stood in the doorway.
‘How did he get here?’ I asked, going to him.
‘In a mule cart driven by an idiot boy. I mean that literally. A poor creature full of mindless mumbles. The army is still feasting, the guard on the causeway is Myrmidon. The old man said he had business with you. The cart was empty and neither of them was armed, so the guard let them in.’
‘Fetch fire, Automedon. Don’t breathe a word to anyone of his presence here. Pass that onto the guard, and thank it for me.’
While I waited for the fire – it was cold – I drew up a chair close to his and took his gnarled hands in mine, chafing them. So chilled.
‘It took courage to come here, sire.’
‘No, none.’ His rheumy dark eyes looked into mine. ‘Once,’ he said, ‘I ruled a happy and prosperous kingdom. But then I went wrong. The wrong was in me. In me… You Greeks were sent to punish me for my pride. For my blindness.’ His lip trembled, the moistness in his eyes made them glitter. ‘No, it took not one scrap of courage to come here. Hektor was the final price.’
‘The final price,’ I said, unable not to say it, ‘will be the fall of Troy.’
‘The fall of my dynasty, perhaps, but not the fall of the city. Troy is greater than that, even now.’
‘Troy the city will fall.’
‘Well, on that we beg to differ, but I hope not on the reason for my coming. Prince Achilles, grant me the body of my son. I will pay a fitting ransom.’
‘I require no ransom, King Priam. Take him home,’ I said.
He fell on his knees a second time to kiss my hands; my flesh crawled. Nodding to Brise, I disengaged myself. ‘Sit down, sire, and break bread with me while I have Hektor readied. Brise, look after our guest.’
As I spoke to Automedon outside I thought of something. ‘Ajax’s baldric – it belonged to Hektor, whereas the armour didn’t. Find it, Automedon, and put it in the cart with him.’
When I returned it was to find Priam recovered, chattering happily to Brise in one of the bewildering mood changes characteristic of the very old, asking her how she liked life with me when she had been born into the House of Dardanos.
‘I’m content, sire,’ she was saying. ‘Achilles is a good man, and not ignoble.’ She leaned forwards. ‘Sire, why does he think he must die soon?’
‘Their fates are linked, his and Hektor’s,’ said the ancient King. ‘It has been seen in the oracles.’
When they saw me they abandoned the subject, of course. We dined then and I discovered I was famished, but I forced myself to a pace equal to Priam’s, and drank sparingly of the wine.
Afterwards I conducted him to his mule cart, in which lay the sheeted body of Hektor. Priam didn’t look beneath the covering, but climbed up beside the idiot boy and drove off sitting as erect and proud as if he rode in a car of solid gold.
Brise waited for me with her hair unbound, a loose robe folded about her. I went through to our bed as she lingered to blow out the lamps.
‘Too tired even to shed your clothes?’
She unclasped my collar and belt, removed the kilt and let all of them lie on the floor where they landed. Exhausted, I put my arms above my head and lay flat on my back as she lifted herself up beside me, leaning over me and fitting her knotted fists into my armpits. I smiled at her, suddenly as light and happy as a small child.
‘I haven’t the strength even to pull your hair,’ I said.
‘Then lie still and go to sleep. I’m here.’
‘I’m too tired to sleep.’
‘Then rest. I’m here.’
‘Brise, promise me that you’ll not leave me until the end?’
Gone her laughter; her face hung over me, her eyes dimmed because only one lamp still burned, and it at the farthest reaches of the room. With an enormous effort I lifted my arms and took her head between my hands, holding her frail skull the way I had held Hektor’s, bringing her face closer.
‘I heard what you asked Priam, and I heard his answer. You know what I mean, Brise.’
‘I refuse to believe it!’ she cried.
‘Some things are required of a man on the day of his birth, and these things are told to him. My father would not, but my mother did. Coming to Troy meant I would die here, and now that Hektor’s dead, Troy must fall. My death is the purchase price.’
‘Achilles, don’t leave me!’
‘I’d give my all to stay, but it can’t be.’
She was quiet for a long while, her eyes dwelling on the tiny flame sputtering in the lamp’s shell, her breathing rhythmic and unhurried. Then she said, ‘You had ordered Hektor prepared for burial before you saw me this evening.’
‘Couldn’t you have told me? Then some things would never have been said.’
‘Maybe it was necessary that they be said, Brise. I struck you. A man must never strike woman or child, anyone weaker than he. When men cast out the Old Religion, that was a part of the bargain by which the Gods gave men the right to rule.’
She smiled. ‘You struck not at me but at your daimon, and, in striking, you drove it out. The rest of your life belongs to you, not to Patrokles, and for that, I rejoice.’
My exhaustion left me; I lifted myself on one elbow to look at her. The tiny lamp would have been kind to any woman, but because she had no fault it gave her the aura of a goddess, it burnished her pale skin to faint gold and enriched the shimmering fire of her hair, touched her eyes with liquid amber. I put my fingers hesitantly to her cheek and traced a line down to her mouth where it was swollen from the impact of my hand. Her throat was hollow in shadow, her breasts drove me to distraction, her small feet were the terminus of my world.
And because at last I admitted the depth of my need for her, I found things in her beyond my dreams. If I had tried in the past consciously to please her, I no longer thought of her at all except as an extension of my own being. I found I wept; her hair was wet under my face, her hands relaxed and fluttered to mine and locked there in aching comfort, her hands in mine above our heads on the shared pillow.
Thus Hektor dwelled once more in the palace of his forefathers, but this time unknowing. Through Odysseus we learned that Priam had passed over his remaining senior sons to choose the very young man, Troilos, as the new Heir. Not even, so some Trojans were saying, arrived at the Age of Consent – a term we didn’t know or use, but (said Odysseus) which apparently formed the Trojan concept of maturity.
The decision had met with great opposition; Troilos himself begged the King to give the Heirdom to Aineas. This provoked Priam into a diatribe against the Dardanian that ended when Aineas stalked from the Throne Room. Deiphobos too was angry; so was the young son-priest, Helenos, who reminded Priam of the oracle which said that Troilos would save the city only if he lived to reach the Age of Consent. Priam maintained that Troilos had already reached the Age of Consent, and that confirmed the phrase’s ambiguity in Odysseus’s mind. Helenos kept begging the King to change his mind, but the King would not. Troilos was anointed the Heir. And we on the beach began to sharpen our swords.
It took the Trojans twelve days in all to mourn Hektor. During that time Penthesileia of the Amazons arrived with ten thousand mounted women warriors. Another reason to sharpen our swords.
Curiosity oiled our whetstones, for these unique creatures lived lives completely dedicated to Artemis the Maid and an Asian Ares. They dwelled in the fastnesses of Skythia at the foot of the crystal mountains which spear the roof of the world, riding their huge horses through the forests, hunting and marauding in the name of the Maid. They existed under the thumb of the Earth Goddess in her first triple entity – Maid, Mother, Crone – and ruled their men as women had in our part of the world before the New Religion replaced the Old. For men had discovered one vital fact: that a man’s seed was as necessary for procreation as was the woman who grew the fruit. Until that discovery was made, a man was deemed an expensive luxury.
The Amazon succession lay entirely in the female line; their men were chattels who didn’t even go to war. The first fifteen years of a woman’s life after she attained her menses were dedicated exclusively to the Maiden Goddess. Then she retired from the army and took a husband, bore children. Only the Queen did not marry, though she stepped down from the throne at about the same time as other women left the service of Artemis the Maid; instead of taking a husband, the Queen went to the Axe as a sacrifice for the people.
What we didn’t already know about the Amazons, Odysseus told us; he seemed to have spies everywhere, even at the foot of the crystal mountains in Skythia. Though, of course, what consumed us most was the fact that Amazons rode horses. Other peoples did not, even in far Egypt. Horses were too difficult to sit upon. Their hide was slippery, a blanket wouldn’t stay in place; the sole part of them of use to men was the mouth, into which a bit could be inserted attached to a head harness and reins. Therefore the world used horses to pull chariots. They couldn’t even be used to pull carts, for a yoke strangled them. How then could the Amazons ride their beasts into battle?
While the Trojans mourned Hektor we rested, wondering if we would ever see them outside their walls again. Odysseus remained confident that they would come out, but the rest of us were not so sure.
On the thirteenth day I put on the suit of armour Odysseus had given me, to discover that it felt much lighter. We crossed the causeways in the dimness of dawn, endless threads of men trudging across the dew-wet plain, a few chariots in their lead. Agamemnon had decided to make his stand along a front about half a league from the Trojan wall adjacent to the Skaian Gate.
They were waiting for us, not as many as before, but still more numerous than we were. The Skaian Gate was closed already.
The Amazon horde was positioned in the centre of the Trojan van; as I waited for our wings to come into formation I sat on the side rail of my chariot and looked them over. They were mounted on big, shaggy beasts of some breed I didn’t know – ugly aquiline heads, shorn manes and tails, hairy hooves. In colour the horses were uniformly bay or brown, save for one white beauty in the middle. That would be Queen Penthesileia. What I could see was how they stayed aboard – clever! Each warrior fitted her hips and buttocks inside a kind of leather frame strapped beneath the horse’s belly so that it remained firmly in place.
They wore bronze helmets but otherwise were clad in hardened leather, and covered themselves from waists to feet in tubes of leather bound about from ankles to knees with thongs. On their feet were soft short boots. The weapon of choice was obviously the bow and arrow, though a few were girt with swords.
At which moment the horns and drums of battle sounded. I stood upright again, Old Pelion in my hand, the iron shield riding my left shoulder comfortably. Agamemnon had concentrated all his chariots in the van opposite the Amazons, pitifully few.
The women ploughed in among the war cars like harpies, shrieking and screaming. Arrows zipped from their short bows, flying over our heads as we stood in our chariots and coming to earth in the foot behind us. The constant rain of death shook even my Myrmidons, not used to fighting an adversary who engaged at a distance preventing instantaneous retaliation. I pushed my little segment of war cars closer together and forced the Amazons out, using Old Pelion like a lance, fending off arrows with my shield, shouting to others to do the same. How extraordinary! These strange women wouldn’t aim their barbs at our horses!
I glanced at Automedon, his face set dourly as he struggled with the team. His eyes met mine.
‘It will be up to the rest of the army to slaughter Trojans today,’ I said. ‘I’ll count the battle well fought if we can hold our own against these women.’
He nodded, swerving the car to avoid a warrior who launched her steed straight at us, thick and powerful forelegs flailing a pair of hooves big enough to dash out a man’s brains. I snatched up a spare javelin and flung it, hissing satisfaction as it took her straight off her mount’s back to fall under its trampling legs. Then I put Old Pelion down and picked up my axe.
‘Keep close to me, I’m getting down.’
‘Don’t, Achilles! They’ll smash you to pulp!’
I laughed at him.
It was much easier on the ground; I passed the word to my Myrmidons.
‘Forget the size of the horses. Come in under their feet – they won’t kill our horses, but we’ll kill theirs. A horse down is as good as a rider down.’
The Myrmidons followed my lead without hesitation. Some got maimed and battered beneath Amazon horses, but most stood their ground amid the deluge of arrows, slashing at hairy bellies, skirted legs, straining equine throats. Because they were neat and quick, because my father and I had never discouraged initiative or versatility in any one of them, they got away with it and forced the Amazons into worried retreat. A costly victory. The field was littered with Myrmidon dead. But they had won the moment. Uplifted, they were ready to kill more Amazons, more Amazon horses.
I heaved myself up beside Automedon again and searched for Penthesileia herself. There! In the midst of her women, trying to rally them. I nodded to Automedon.
‘Forward, at the Queen.’
I led the charge at her lines in my car, before they were prepared. Arrows met us all the same; Automedon shouldered a shield to protect himself. But I couldn’t get close enough to her to harm her. Three times she managed to drive us off, all the while battling to re-form her lines. Automedon was panting and weeping, unable to command my three white stallions the way Patrokles had.
‘Give me the reins.’
Their names were Xanthos, Balios and Podargos, and I called to each of them by his name, asking him for his heart. They heard me, though Patrokles was not there to answer for them. Oh, that was good! I could think of him without guilt.
Without need of the whip they went in again, big enough themselves to shoulder the Amazon beasts aside. Shouting my war cry, I gave Automedon the reins and took up Old Pelion. Queen Penthesileia was within range and moving closer, her warriors in worse disorder than they had been before. Poor woman, she didn’t have the gift of generalship. Closer, closer… She had to swing her white mare to one side to avoid crashing into my team. Her pale eyes blazed, her side was presented for Old Pelion. But I couldn’t throw. I saluted her and ordered a withdrawal.
A riderless Amazon horse – they seemed all mares – was tethered to its own feet, reins beneath one. As Automedon drove past I reached out, hauled the reins from under the mare’s hoof and compelled her to follow us.
Once out of the turmoil I jumped down from the car and surveyed the Amazon horse. Would she like a male smell? How could I get myself seated in that leathery frame?
Automedon went pale. ‘Achilles, what are you doing?’
‘She wasn’t afraid to die, she deserves a better death. I’ll fight her as an equal – her axe to mine, from the back of a horse.’
‘Are you mad? We can’t ride horses!’
‘Not now, but after seeing how the Amazons manage to, do you think we won’t learn?’
I scrambled onto the mare’s back by using my chariot wheel as a step; the corners of the frame were stoutly knobbed, which meant I had great trouble edging into it, for it was too small. But once there, I was amazed. Remaining upright and balanced was so easy! The only difficulty was my legs, which hung down unsupported. My mare was shivering, but by luck I seemed to have chosen a placid-natured beast; when I thumped her on the shoulder and yanked the reins to turn her round, she obeyed. I was horsed; the first man in the world to be so.
Automedon handed me my axe, but the man-sized shield was out of the question. One of my Myrmidons ran up, grinning, to hand me a little round Amazon shield.
Myrmidons following with yells of delight, I charged into the midst of the women warriors, aiming for the Queen. In the crush my mount couldn’t move much faster than a snail, and had grown used to me besides. Perhaps all that weight cowed her.
When I saw the Queen I sent my war cry winging to her.
Shrieking her own bizarre, ululating call, she wheeled to face me, pushing her white mare through the crowd with her knees – I learned a new trick – as she slung her bow across her back and transferred her right hand to a golden axe. Some sharp order she gave made her warriors fall back to form a half circle, my Myrmidons eagerly making up its other half. The battle must have been going all our way in other parts of the field, for among the Myrmidon observers I saw troops belonging to Diomedes, and the dark, unpleasant face of his cousin Thersites. What was Thersites doing here? He was co-commander of Odysseus’s spies.
‘You are Achilles?’ the Queen called in atrocious Greek.
She trotted closer, her axe lying along her mare’s shoulder, her shield steady. Knowing myself green at this new form of the duel, I decided to make her use her tricks first, trusting to my luck to stay out of trouble until I felt more comfortable. She flung her steed sideways and swung like lightning, but I pulled away in time and took the blow on the bullhide shield, wishing I had one of iron and that size. Her blade bit deep, emerging free of the leather as cleanly as a knife paring cheese. She was no general, but she could fight. So could my brown mare, which seemed to know when to turn before I did. Learning, I swung my axe and missed by a fraction. Then I tried her own trick, crashing into her white mare. Her eyes opened wide; she laughed at me above the rim of her shield. Getting the feel of each other, we exchanged blows with ever increasing speed; the axes resonated and struck sparks. I could feel the power in her arm, and admitted her consummate skill. Her axe was much smaller than mine, designed for one-handed use, which made her a very dangerous foe; the best I could do with my own weapon was to grasp its handle much closer to its head than I normally did, using my right hand only. I kept to her right and forced her to crack her muscles, stopping each of her lunges with a power that jarred her to the marrow.
I could long have outlasted her in strength, but I hated to see her pride humbled. Better to end it swiftly and honourably. As she realised her course was run she lifted her eyes to mine and consented silently; then she tried one final, desperate trick. The white horse reared high, twisting as she came down, thudding against my mount with such impetus that she stumbled, hooves slipping. As I held her together with voice and left hand and heels, the axe descended. I raised my own axe to meet it and push it aside, then did not hesitate. Penthesileia’s side was bare and took my blade like unfired clay. Not trusting her while she remained upright, I wrenched it out again quickly, but the hand groping for her dagger wasn’t strong enough. Scarlet streams gushing over the white mare’s hide, she tottered. I slid off my own mare to catch her before she married the earth.
Her weight bore me to the ground, where I knelt with her head and shoulders in my arms, feeling for her pulse. She was not yet dead, but her shade was called. She looked at me out of eyes as blue and pale as sunstruck water.
‘I prayed that it would be you,’ she said.
‘The King should die at the hands of the worthiest foe,’ I said, ‘and you are King in Skythia.’
‘I thank you for ending it too quickly to betray my lack of your strength, and I absolve you of my death in the name of the Archer Maid.’
The death rattle came, but her lips still moved. I bent over to hear.
‘When the Queen dies under the Axe, she must breathe her last into the mouth of her slayer, who will rule after her.’ A cough; she struggled to continue. ‘Take my breath. Take my spirit until you too are a shade and I must ask it back.’
Her mouth was free of blood; with all of her remaining she breathed into me, and so died. The spell broken, I lowered her carefully to earth and stood up. Screaming their grief and despair, her warriors charged me, but the Myrmidons stepped in front of me and gave me the chance to lead my brown mare off the field, find Automedon. That wood and leather frame was a prize worth more than rubies.
‘What a spectacle you gave the crowd, Achilles. I’m sure few of the men – or the women either, for that matter – have ever seen someone making love to a corpse.’
Automedon and I spun round, hardly crediting our ears. There postured Thersites the spy, smirking. Was this the depth of the army’s contempt for me, that a man like Thersites could voice his foul thoughts to my face, deeming himself safe?
‘What a shame they charged and you couldn’t finish it,’ he sneered. ‘I was hoping to catch a glimpse of your mightiest weapon.’
Shaking with ice cold anger, I lifted my hand. ‘Get away, Thersites! Go and hide behind your cousin Diomedes or your string puller, Odysseus!’
He turned on his heel. ‘The truth hurts, doesn’t it?’
I struck him once, my arm sparking pain to the roots of my shoulder as my fist found the side of his neck just below his helmet. He dropped like a stone, twisted on the ground serpentlike. Automedon was weeping with rage.
‘The dog!’ he said, and knelt down. ‘You broke his neck, Achilles, he’s dead. Good riddance!’
We beat the Amazons to their knees, for their hearts had died with Penthesileia; they fought on only to be killed in this, their first foray into the world of men. When I had the time I searched for the Queen’s body, but it was nowhere to be found. As the day died one of my Myrmidons came to me.
‘Lord, I saw the Queen’s body taken from the field.’
‘Where to? By whom?’
‘King Diomedes. He arrived with some of his Argives, stripped her body, then tied it by the heels to his car and drove off with it and her armour.’
Diomedes? I could scarcely believe it, but when men began to tidy the field I went to beard him.
‘Diomedes, did you take my prize, the Amazon queen?’
‘Yes!’ he snapped, glaring. ‘I threw her in Skamander.’
I spoke civilly. ‘Why?’
‘Why not? You murdered my cousin Thersites – one of my men saw you strike him down after he’d turned his back on you. You deserve to lose Queen and armour both!’
I clenched my fists. ‘You acted hastily, my friend. Find Automedon and ask him what Thersites said.’
I took some of my Myrmidons and went looking for the Queen, not expecting to find her. Skamander was running strong and full and foul again; during the twelve days of mourning for Hektor we had repaired the river’s banks to keep our camp dry, and then there had been more rain over Ida.
Darkness had fallen; we kindled torches and wandered up and down the bank looking under bushes and willows. Then someone shouted. I ran towards the sound, straining to see. She was in the stream, bobbing up and down, caught by one long, pale braid of hair upon a branch of that same elm to which I had clung for my life. I drew her out and wrapped her in a blanket, then laid her across her own white mare, which Automedon had found roving the deserted field, crying for her.
When I returned to my house Brise was waiting for me.
‘Dear love, Diomedes called and left a parcel for you. He said it came with his sincere apologies, and he would have done the same to Thersites.’
He had sent me Penthesileia’s things. So I buried her in the same tomb as Patrokles, lying in the position of the Warrior King, armoured and with a gold mask covering her face, her white mare at her feet so that she would not go riderless in the realms of the Dead.
The morrow brought no sign of the Trojans, nor the day after that. I went to see Agamemnon, wondering what would happen now. Odysseus was with him, as cheerful and confident as ever.
‘Never fear, Achilles, they’ll come out again. Priam is waiting for Memnon; who’s coming with many crack Hittite regiments, purchased from King Hattusilis. However, my agents tell me that the Hittites are still half a moon away, and in the meantime we have a more urgent problem. Sire, would you explain?’ asked that crafty man, who understood exactly when it was politic to defer to our High King.
‘Certainly,’ our High King said loftily. ‘Achilles, it’s been eight days since we’ve seen a supply ship from Assos. I suspect a Dardanian attack. Will you take an army and see what’s the matter down there? We can’t afford to fight Memnon and his Hittites on empty bellies, but nor can we fight him short-handed. Can you rectify matters in Assos and be back here quickly?’
I nodded. ‘Yes, sire. I’ll take ten thousand men, but not Myrmidons. Have I your permission to recruit elsewhere?’
‘Certainly, certainly!’ He was in a very good mood.
Affairs at Assos were much as Agamemnon had predicted. The Dardanians had our base besieged; we enjoyed some hard fighting before we broke out of our defence walls and trounced them on open ground. It was a ragged army, motley and polyglot; from somewhere, probably all down the coast, whoever ruled in ruined Lyrnessos now had picked up fifteen thousand men. In all likelihood they had been bound for Troy, but couldn’t resist the temptation Assos offered en route. The walls had held them outside and I arrived too quickly for a breach, so they got nothing and never reached Troy either.
Four days saw the end of it; we set sail again on the fifth. But the winds and currents were against us all the way, so it was fully dark on the sixth night before we made the beach at Troy. I walked straight to Agamemnon’s house, discovering as I went that the army had seen a major action in my absence.
I met Ajax in the portico and hailed him, anxious to know the details. ‘What happened?’
The corners of his mouth drew down. ‘Memnon came sooner than expected, with ten thousand Hittite troops. They can fight, Achilles! And we must be tired. Even though we had the advantage in numbers and the Myrmidons were on the field, they drove us behind our wall just on darkness.’
I jerked my head towards the closed doors. ‘Is the King of Kings receiving?’
Ajax grinned. ‘Cut out the irony, cousin! He isn’t feeling very well – he never does after a reverse. But he is receiving.’
‘Go and sleep, Ajax. We’ll win tomorrow.’
Agamemnon looked very tired. He was still sitting at his dinner table, only Nestor and Odysseus to keep him company. His head was down on his arms, but he lifted it as I came in and sat.
‘Finished with Assos?’ he asked.
‘Yes, sire. The supply ships will arrive tomorrow, but the fifteen thousand men bound for Troy will not.’
‘Excellent!’ said Odysseus.
Nestor didn’t speak – not like him! I looked down the table to him and was stunned. His hair and beard were untended, his eyes red-rimmed. When he realised I was staring at him he moved one hand aimlessly; tears began to roll down his wrinkled cheeks.
‘What, Nestor?’ I asked gently. Knowing, I suppose.
His breath caught and quivered on a sob. ‘Oh, Achilles! Antilochos is dead.’
I put my hand up to shield my eyes. ‘When?’
‘Today, on the field. All my fault, all my fault… He came to get me out of trouble and Memnon killed him with a spear. I can’t even see his face! The spear entered through the occiput and smashed his face to pieces when it erupted out of his mouth. He was so beautiful. So beautiful!’
I ground my teeth. ‘Memnon will suffer, Nestor, I swear it. On my vows to River Spercheus I swear it.’
But the old man shook his head. ‘Oh, can it matter, Achilles? Antilochos is dead. Memnon’s corpse can’t bring him back to me. I’ve lost five sons on this evil plain – five out of my seven sons. And Antilochos was the dearest of them all. He’s dead at twenty. I’m alive at close to ninety. There is no justice in the decisions of the Gods.’
‘We finish it tomorrow?’ I asked Agamemnon.
‘Yes, tomorrow,’ he answered. ‘I’m sick to death of Troy! I couldn’t bear another winter here. From home I hear nothing – my wife never sends a messenger, nor does Aigisthos. I send my messengers, who return to tell me that all is well in Mykenai. But I long for home! I want to see Klytemnestra. My son. My two remaining daughters.’ He looked at Odysseus. ‘If the autumn fails to see Troy taken, I’m going home.’
‘Troy will be taken by the autumn, sire.’ He sighed, that cool and iron-hard man, more than a trace of weariness in his grey eyes. ‘I’m sick of Troy too. If I have to remain away from Ithaka for twenty years, then let the second ten of them be spent anywhere save in the Troad. I’d rather contend with a combination of sirens, harpies and witches than more boring Trojans.’
I grinned. ‘Sirens, harpies and witches combined won’t know what hit them when they have to deal with you, Odysseus. But it doesn’t matter to me. Troy is the end of my world.’
Knowing the prophecies, Odysseus said nothing, simply looked down into his wine cup.
‘Only promise me one thing, Agamemnon,’ I said.
His head was on his arms again. ‘Anything you like.’
‘Bury me in the cliff with Patrokles and Penthesileia, and see Brise marries my son.’
Odysseus stiffened. ‘Are you called, Achilles?’
‘I don’t think so. But it must come soon.’ I held out my hand to him. ‘Promise me that my son will wear my armour.’
‘I have already promised that. He’ll get it.’
Nestor wiped his eyes, blew his nose with his sleeve. ‘It will all be as you wish, Achilles.’ He plucked at his hair with shaky fingers. ‘If only the God would call me! I’ve prayed and prayed, but he doesn’t hear. How can I go back to Pylos without all my sons? What will I tell their mothers?’
‘You’ll go back, Nestor,’ I said. ‘You still have two sons. When you stand on your bastions and look down to the sandy shore, Troy will fade to a dream. Only remember those of us who fell, and pour us libations.’
I cut Memnon’s head off and flung the body at Nestor’s feet. We took fresh heart that day; the shortlived Trojan resurgence ended. They retreated slowly across the plain while I, with an alien agony inside me, killed and killed. My arm felt sluggish, though the axe bit as often and as viciously. But as I ploughed through the best King Hattusilis of the Hittites had to offer on the bloodsoaked altar that was Troy, I grew sick at the carnage. At the back of my mind I could hear a voice sighing, I thought my mother’s, blurred with tears.
At the end of the day I paid my respects to Nestor and assisted at Antilochos’s last rites. We laid the lad alongside his four brothers in the cliff chamber reserved for the House of Neleus, and hunched Memnon at his feet like a dog. But the thought of the funeral games and the feasting was unbearable; I slipped away.
Brise was waiting. When was she not?
I took her face between my hands and said, ‘You always wipe away the grief.’
‘Sit down and keep me company,’ she said.
I sat, but found myself unable to talk to her; an awful coldness was settling about my heart. She went on chattering brightly until she looked at me, then her animation died.
‘What is it, Achilles?’
I shook my head dumbly and got up to go outside, standing there with my head lifted to the infinite reaches of the sky.
‘What is it, Achilles?’
‘Oh, Brise! I am torn open to the very roots of my being! Never until this moment have I felt the wind so keenly, smelled life so strongly in my nostrils, seen the stars so still, so clear!’
She tugged at me urgently. ‘Come inside.’
I let her lead me to a chair and sat down while she sank at my feet and put her arms on my knees, staring up into my face.
‘Achilles, is it your mother?’
I took her chin in my fingers, smiling down. ‘No. My mother has left me for good. I heard her weeping farewell on the field. I’m called, Brise. The God has called me at last. I’ve always wondered what it would be like, never dreaming for an instant that it would be this uttermost consciousness of life. I thought it would be all glory and exultation, something that would carry me physically into my last fight. But it’s quiet and merciful. I’m at peace. No daimons of vanished years, no fear for the future. Tomorrow it ends. Tomorrow I will cease to be. The God has spoken. He will not leave me again.’
She started to protest, but I stopped her words with my hand.
‘A man must go gracefully, Brise. The God wills it, not I. And I am no Herakles, no Prometheus to resist him. I am a mortal man. I have lived thirty-one years and have seen and felt more than most men do who see the leaves turn golden on the trees one hundred times. I don’t want to live longer than the walls of Troy. All the great warriors will die here. Ajax. Ajax! Ajax… It isn’t fitting that I should survive. I’ll face the shades of Patrokles and Iphigenia across the River with everything gone. Our hatreds and our loves belong to the world of the living – not one thing so strong can exist in the world of the dead. I’ve done my best. There is no more. I’ve prayed that my name will continue to be sung through all the generations of men to come. That is all the immortality any man can hope for. The world of the dead gives no joy, but no sorrow either. If I can fight Hektor a million times over on the lips of living men, I will never truly die.’
She wept and wept; her woman’s heart couldn’t glimpse the intricacy of the warp on the loom of time, so she could not rejoice with me. But there comes a depth of grief when even tears are dried. She lay still and quiet.
‘If you die, then I will die,’ she said then.
‘No, Brise, you must live. Go to my son, Neoptolemos, and marry him. Give him the sons I have not got out of you. Nestor and Agamemnon have pledged to see it done.’
‘Even for you I can’t promise that. You took me out of one life and gave me another. There can’t be a third. I must share your death, Achilles.’
I lifted her up, smiling at her. ‘When you set eyes on my son, you’ll think differently. Women are meant to survive. All you owe me is one more night. Then I give you to Neoptolemos.’