I had a favourite seat outside my cave, carved out of the rock by the Gods aeons before men came to Mount Pelion. It was on the very edge of the cliff, and many were the moments I spent sitting on it, a bear skin spread to shield my old bones from the hard caress of its stone, looking out over the land and sea like the king I never was.
I was too old. Never more so than in the autumn, when I felt the aches begin, harbingers of winter. No one remembered how old I actually was, least of all myself; there comes a time when the reality of age is frozen, when all years and all seasons are but one long day’s wait for death.
The dawn promised a day of beauty and peace, so before the sun rose I performed my scant domestic duties, then went outside into the cold grey air. My cave was high on Pelion, almost at the summit on its southern side, and it hung over the edge of a vast precipice. I sank into my bear skin to watch for the sun. The aspect before me never wearied me; for countless years I had gazed out from the top of Pelion over the world below me, the coast of Thessalia and the Aegaean Sea. And while I watched the sun rise I fished a piece of dripping honey-in-the-comb from my alabaster box of comfits and sank my toothless gums into it, sucking hungrily. It tasted of wild blossoms and zephyr breezes and the tang of pine woods.
My people, the Kentaurs, had dwelled upon Pelion for more time than men could record, serving the Kings of Greece as tutors for their sons, for we were unrivalled teachers. I say ‘were’ because I am the last Kentaur; after me my race will be no more. In the interests of our work most of us had chosen celibacy, nor would we mate with women other than our own; so when the Kentaur women grew tired of their unimportant existence, they packed their possessions and departed. Fewer and fewer of us were born, for most of the Kentaur men could not be bothered making the journey to Thrake, where our women went to join the Maenads and worship Dionysos. And gradually a legend came into being: that Kentaurs were invisible because they were afraid to show men their persons, half man and half horse. An interesting creature if it had existed, but it did not. Kentaurs were simply men.
Throughout Greece my name was known; I am Chiron, and I have taught most of the lads who grew up to be famous Heroes: Peleus and Telamon, Tydeus, Herakles, Atreus and Thyestes, to mention but a few. However, that had all been long ago, and I had no thought of Herakles or his breed as I witnessed the sunrise.
Pelion abounds in forests of ash, taller and straighter than other ash, a shimmering sea of bright yellow at this time of the year because every bright and dying leaf shivered and shuddered in the slightest wind. Below me was the sheer drop of rock, five hundred cubits of it bare of even the smallest touch of green or yellow, and below that again the ash forest growing up to the sky, and many birds calling. I never heard the sounds of men, for no other mortal stood between me and the pinnacles of Olympos. Spread far beneath me and reduced to the size of an ant kingdom was Iolkos – not a farfetched description. They called the people of Iolkos the Myrmidons, the ants.
Alone among all the cities of the world (save for those in Crete and Thera before Poseidon levelled them), Iolkos had no walls. Who would dare invade the home of the Myrmidons, warriors without peer? I loved Iolkos the more for that. Walls horrified me. In the old days when I travelled I could never bear to be shut inside Mykenai or Tiryns for more than a day or two. Walls were structures built by Death from stones quarried in Tartaros.
I flung the honeycomb away and reached for my wineskin, dazzled by the sun crimsoning the great reaches of the Bay of Pagasai, glancing off the gilded figures on the palace roof, brightening the colours of the pillars and walls of temples, palace, public buildings.
A road wound up from the city into the fastness of my retreat, but it was never used. That morning was different, however; I heard a vehicle approaching. Anger dispelled contemplation and I rose to my feet, hobbled to confront the presumptious interloper and send him packing. He was a nobleman driving a fast hunting car with two matched Thessalian bays harnessed to it, and he wore the insignia of the royal household on his blouse. Eyes clear, bright, smiling, he jumped down with a grace only youth could own and walked towards me. I backed away; the smell of a man was disgusting to me these days.
‘The King sends greetings, my lord,’ the young man said.
‘What is it, what is it?’ I demanded, discovering without any pleasure that my voice cracked and rasped.
‘The King has commanded me to bring a message to you, Lord Chiron. Tomorrow he and his royal brother will come to give their sons into your keeping until they are young men. You are to teach them all that they ought to know.’
I stood rigid. King Peleus knew better! Too old to be bothered with rowdy boys, I no longer taught, not even the scions of a House as illustrious as Aiakos. ‘Tell the King that I am displeased! I do not wish to instruct his son or the son of his royal brother Telamon. Tell him that if he climbs the mountain tomorrow he will be wasting his time. Chiron is retired.’
Face a study in dismay, the young man looked at me. ‘Lord Chiron, I dare not give him that message. I was commanded to tell you that he is coming, and I have done so. I was not charged to bring an answer.’
When the hunting car had disappeared I went back to my chair to find that the view had gone behind a veil of scarlet. My rage. How dared the King presume that I would teach his offspring – or Telamon’s, for that matter? Years before, it had been Peleus himself who sent heralds throughout the kingdoms of Greece announcing that Chiron the Kentaur was retired. Now he broke his own ordinance.
Telamon, Telamon… He had many children, but two favoured ones only. The elder by two years was a bastard by the Trojan princess Hesione, Teukros by name. The other was his legitimate heir, Ajax by name. On the other hand, Peleus had but one child, a son by Thetis his queen miraculously born alive after six had died at birth. Achilles. How old would Ajax and Achilles be? Little boys, certainly. Smelly, snotty, scarcely human. Ugh.
All my joy evaporated, my rage in smoking ashes at the back of my mind, I returned to my cave. There was no way out of the task. Peleus was High King of Thessalia; I was his subject and had to obey him. So I looked about my large and airy retreat dreading the days and years to come. My lyre lay on a table at the back of the main chamber, its strings coated with dust from long disuse. I regarded it sullenly, reluctantly, then I picked it up and blew away the evidence of my neglect. Every string was flaccid, I had to tighten each one to the proper pitch; only after that could I play.
Oh, and my voice! Gone, gone. While Phoibos rode his sun car from east to west I played and sang, coaxing my stiffened fingers into suppleness, stretching my hands and my wrists, la-la-la-ing up and down the scale. Since it was a very bad thing to have to get into practice in front of my pupils, I would have to be proficient before they arrived. Thus only when my cave was a gloom and the black silent shadows of bats flittered through it to their haven somewhere deeper inside the mountain did I cease, weary beyond expression, cold and hungry and ill-tempered.
Peleus and Telamon came at noon, travelling together in the royal chariot, followed by another chariot and a lumbering ox cart. I went down the road to meet them and stood with bent head. It was years since I had seen the High King, but longer by far since I had seen Telamon. My temper improving, I watched them approach. Yes, they were Kings, those two men who radiated strength and power. Peleus as big as ever, Telamon as lithe as ever. Both had seen their troubles melt away, but only after long periods of strife, war, worry. And those forgers of the metal in the souls of men had left their indelible mark. The gold was dying out of their hair before silver’s invasion, but I saw no signs of decay in their sturdy bodies, their hard stern faces.
Peleus got down first and came up to me before I could back away; my flesh crawled when he embraced me affectionately, then I found my revulsion tempered by his warmth.
‘Sooner or later, Chiron, I suspect it is impossible to look any older. Are you well?’
‘All considered, sire, very well.’
We strolled a little way from the cars. I gave Peleus a mutinous look.
‘How can you ask me to teach again, sire? Haven’t I done enough? Is there no one else capable of dealing with your sons?’
‘Chiron, you have no peer.’ Gazing down at me from his great height, Peleus gripped my arm. ‘You must surely know how much Achilles means to me. He is my only son, there will be no others. When I die he must take both thrones, so he must be educated. I can do much myself, but not without a proper basis. Only you can instil the rudiments, Chiron, and you know it. Hereditary Kings are precariously positioned in Greece. There are always contenders waiting to pounce.’ He sighed. ‘Besides, I love Achilles more than life itself. How can I deny him the education I had?’
‘That sounds as if you spoil the boy.’
‘No, I think he is incorruptible.’
‘I do not want this task, Peleus.’
His head went to one side, he frowned. ‘It’s foolish to flog a dead horse, but will you at least see the boys? You might change your mind.’
‘Not even for another Herakles or Peleus, sire. But I will see them if you wish it.’
Peleus turned and beckoned to two lads who stood by the second chariot. They approached slowly and one behind the other; I could not see the boy who brought up the rear. Scant wonder. The boy in the lead was certainly eye-catching. Yet a true disappointment. Was this Achilles, the cherished only son? No, definitely not. This one had to be Ajax; he was too old to be Achilles. Fourteen? Thirteen? Already as tall as a man, his great arms and shoulders rippled with muscle. Not an ill-looking lad, but not distinguished either. Just a big adolescent with a slightly snub nose and stolid grey eyes which lacked the light of real intellect.
‘This is Ajax,’ said Telamon proudly. ‘He’s only ten, though he appears much older.’
I waved Ajax aside.
‘This is Achilles?’ My voice sounded constricted.
‘Yes,’ said Peleus, trying to sound detached. ‘He’s big for his age too. He turned six last birthday.’
My throat felt dry. I swallowed. Even at that age he owned some personal magic, some spell he used unknowing which bound men to him and made them love him. Not so heavily built as his first cousin Ajax, but a tall, strongly formed child nonetheless. For so young a boy he stood in a very relaxed manner, his weight distributed on one leg, the other gracefully forward a little, his arms loose by his sides but not awkward looking. Composed and unconsciously regal, he seemed made of gold. Hair like Helios’s rays, winged brows gleaming like yellow crystal, polished gold skin. Very beautiful, save for the lipless mouth – straight, slitlike – heartbreakingly sad yet so determined that I quailed for him. He looked at me gravely out of eyes the colour of the late dawn, yellow and cloudy; eyes filled with curiosity, pain, grief, bewilderment and intelligence.
I signed away seven of my dwindling store of years when I heard myself say, ‘I will teach them.’
Peleus beamed and Telamon hugged me; they had not been sure.
‘We won’t stay,’ said Peleus. ‘The cart holds all the boys will need, and I’ve brought servants to look after you. Is the old house still standing?’
‘Then the servants can use it as their lodging. They have orders to obey your least command. You speak in my name.’
Shortly afterwards they drove away.
Leaving the slaves busy unloading the cart, I went to the boys. Ajax stood like the mountain itself, impassive and docile, his eyes unshadowed; that thick skull would have to be pounded before the mind within became aware of its rightful function. Achilles was still looking down the road after his father, his big eyes bright with unshed tears. This was a parting of great importance to him.
‘Come with me, young men. I will show you your new home.’
They followed silently as I led them to my cave and showed them how comfortable such an odd dwelling place could be. I pointed out the soft furry skins upon which they would sleep, the area in the main chamber where they would sit with me and learn. Then I took them to the edge of the precipice and sat down in my chair with one of them on either side.
‘Are you looking forward to your schooling?’ I asked, more to Achilles than to Ajax.
‘Yes, my lord,’ said Achilles courteously; his father had at least given him lessons in good manners.
‘My name is Chiron. You will call me that.’
‘Yes, Chiron. Father says I must look forward to this.’
I turned to Ajax. ‘On a table in the cave you will find a lyre. Bring it to me – and make sure you do not drop it.’
The hulking lad regarded me without rancour. ‘I never drop anything,’ he said, quite matter-of-fact.
My brows rose; I felt a slight twinkle of amusement, but it kindled no answering spark in the grey eyes of Telamon’s son. Instead he went to do as I had asked, the good soldier obeying his orders without question. That was the best I could do for Ajax, I reflected. Mould him into a soldier of perfect strength and resource. Whereas the eyes of Achilles mirrored my own mirth.
‘Ajax always takes you at your exact word,’ he said in the firm and measured, pleasing voice I already liked to hear. He stretched out a hand to indicate the city far below. ‘Iolkos?’
‘Then that must be the palace up there on the hill. How small it looks! I always thought it dwarfed Pelion, yet from Pelion it is just another house.’
‘All palaces are, if you can get far enough away from them.’
‘Yes, I see that.’
‘You miss your father already.’
‘I thought I might cry, but it has passed.’
‘You’ll see him again in the spring, and the time between now and then will fly. There will be no chance to be idle, and it is idleness which breeds discontent, mischief, malice, pranks.’
He drew a breath. ‘What must I learn, Chiron? What do I need to know to be a great king?’
‘Too much to detail, Achilles. A great king is a fountain of knowledge. Any king is the best man, but a great king understands that he is the representative of his people before the God.’
‘Then learning cannot come too soon.’
Ajax came back with the lyre in his hand, holding it off the ground carefully; it was a big instrument more akin to the harps the Egyptians play, formed from a huge tortoise carapace which glowed all browns and ambers, and it had golden pegs. I laid it across my knee and stroked the strings with a feather touch which produced a pretty sound, not a melody.
‘You must play the lyre and learn the songs of your people. The greatest sin is to appear uncultured or uncouth. You will commit to heart the history and the geography of the world, all the wonders in nature, all the treasures beneath the lap of Mother Kubaba, who is the Earth. I will teach you to hunt, to kill, to fight with all manner of weapons, to make your own weapons. I will show you the herbs curing sicknesses and wounds, teach you to distil them for medicines, school you in splinting broken limbs. A great king sets more store by life than death.’
‘Oratory?’ asked Achilles.
‘Yes, of course. After learning from me, your oratory will draw the hearts of your listeners out of their breasts in joy or sorrow. And I will show you how to judge what men are, how to frame laws and execute them. I will teach you what the God expects of you because you are Chosen.’ I smiled. ‘And that is just the beginning!’
I took up the lyre then and set its base upon the ground, drew my hand across its heartstrings. For a few moments only I played, the notes increasing in power, then, on the climax, as the last chord died away into stillness, I began to sing.
‘He was alone, at every turn was enmity.
Queen Here brooding spread her hands,
And Olympos shook its golden rafters
As she turned restless to watch him.
Implacable her divine rage! King Zeus
Powerless in all the reaches of his sky
Because he promised glorious Here this,
His son into groaning bondage on earth.
Eurystheus her minion cold and pitiless,
Smiling as he counted those runnels,
His sweat that Herakles gave in payment.
For the children of the Gods must atone
Because the Gods are above retribution,
And that is the difference between men
And the Gods who prey on them as victims.
Bastard child without that drop of ichor,
Herakles took up the price of passion.
In agony and degradation did he pay,
While Here laughed to see mighty Zeus weep…’
It was the Lay of Herakles, not dead so many years, and as I sang I watched them both. Ajax listened intently, Achilles with his body tensed, leaning forward with his chin propped on his hands, both elbows on the arm of my chair, his eyes only a thread away from my face. When at last I put the lyre from me he dropped his hands with a sigh, exhausted.
So it began, and so it went on as the years rolled by. Achilles forged ahead in everything, Ajax plodded doggedly through his assignments. Yet Telamon’s son was not a fool. He had a courage and a determination that any king mighty envy, and he always managed to keep up. But Achilles was my boy, my joy. Every single thing I told him was stored up with jealous care – to be used when he was a great king, he would say with a smile. He loved learning and excelled in all its branches, as good with his hands as he was with his mind. Even now I have some of his clay bowls and little drawings.
But above all scholarship, Achilles was born to action, to war and to mighty deeds. Even in the physical sense he outstripped his cousin, for he was quicksilver on his feet and took to handling weapons like a greedy woman to a casket of jewels. His aim with a spear was unerring, nor could I see the sword once he drew it. Swish, slash, chop. Oh yes, he was born to command! He understood the art of war without effort, by instinct. A natural hunter, he would come back to my cave dragging a wild boar too heavy to carry, and he could run down a deer. Only once did I see him in trouble, when, after his quarry at full tilt, he came crashing down so hard that it was some time before he recovered his full senses. His right foot, he explained, had given way.
Ajax could flare into violent rage, but I never saw Achilles lose his temper. Neither shy nor withdrawn, he yet possessed an inner quiet and restraint. The thinking warrior. How rare. In only one respect did that gash of a mouth reveal the other side of his nature; when something did not suit his sense of fitness he could be as cold and unbending as the north wind bearing snow.
I enjoyed those seven years more than all the rest of my life put together, thanks not only to Achilles, but to Ajax too. The contrast between the first cousins was so marked and their excellences so great that welding them into men became a task filled with love. Of all the boys I have taught, I loved Achilles most. When he drove away for the last time I wept, and for many moons afterwards my will to live was a gnat as persistent as the one which tormented Io. It was a long time before I could look out from my chair and see the golden trim on the roof of the palace shining in the sun without a mist hovering before my eyes that made the gilding and the tile dissolve one into the other like ore in a crucible.