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This feeling was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This, and this, and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender, or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.
I saw then how I changed. I did not mind any more, that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose to such beauty?
It was enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet flashing as they kicked up sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulders as he pulled through the salt. It was enough.
My pulse jumps, for no reason I can name. He has looked at me a thousand thousand times, but there is something different in his gaze, an intensity I do not know. My mouth is dry, and I can hear the sound of my throat as I swallow.
He watches me. It seems that he is waiting.
I shift, an infinitesimal movement, towards him. It is like the leap from a waterfall.
‘She wants you to be a god’, I told him.
‘I know.’ His face twisted with embarrassment, and in spite of itself my heart lightened. It was such a boyish response. And so human. Parents, everywhere.
His words mingled with the sound of the river over its rocks, soothing any strangeness there might have been between Achilles and me. There was something in Chiron’s face, firm and calm and imbued with authority, that made us children again, with no world beyond this moment’s play and this night’s dinner. Even our bodies felt smaller, besides the centaur’s bulk. How had we thought we were grown?’
As the fire dwindled, my eyes closed in half-dreaming. I was warm, and the ground beneath me was soft with mossad fallen leaves.
‘I have no objection to Patroclus as your companion.’
My body felt hollow in its relief, as if a storm had gone through.
‘Do not let what you gained this day be so easily lost.'
I said his name, I think. It blew through me; I was hollow as a reed hung up for the wind to sound. There was no time that passed but our breaths.
If I had words to speak such a thing, I would have. But there were none that seemed big enough for it, to hold that swelling truth.
‘There is nothing I can teach you. You know all that Heracles knew, and more. You are the greatest warrior of your generation, and all the generation before.’
A flush stained Achilles’ cheeks. I could not tell if it was embarrassment or pleasure or both.
‘Agamemnon and Mycenae appeal to the men of Hellas to sail to the kingdom of Priam for her rescue. Troy is rich and will be easily taken, they say. All who fight will come home wealthy and renowned.’
This was well worded. Wealth and reputation were things our people had always killed for.
I do not need to say that my panic swelled, that it became a live thing, slippery and deaf to reason. My steps grew hurried; the kitchen, the basement, the storerooms with their amphorae of oil and wine. And still I did not find him.
My eagerness displeased him. He did not like to see desperation in those who sought passage; haste and free hand spoke of hidden crimes. But the gold was too much for him to object.
I lay back and tried not to think of the minutes passing. Just yesterday we had a wealth of them. Now each was a drop of heart’s blood lost.
At our approach they lifted their shields, shining like carapace, in salute to their new general. He was their commander now. He would be expected to know them all, their names and armour and stories. He no longer belongs to me alone.
I could see the tug of a smile at the corner of his mouth. He was enjoying it, licking the crowd’s worship off his lips.
His face seemed cut from stone as he stared his warning at the King of Mycenae - You do not command me. The silence went on and on, painful and breathless, like a singer overreaching to finish a phrase.
He leaned forward in his chair. ‘May I give you some advice? If you are truly his friend you will help him leave his soft heart behind. He’s going to Troy to kill men, not rescue them.’ His dark eyes held me like swift-running current. ‘He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.’
Troy was a smudge on the horizon.
Odysseus shrugged. ‘There are many ways to start a war. I always think raiding makes a good beginning. It accomplishes almost the same thing as diplomacy, but with greater profit.’
‘So you think she did it on purpose? To cause the war?’ This shoked me.
‘Maybe. She used to be known as the most beautiful woman in our kingdoms. Now they say she’s the most beautiful in the world.’ He put on his best singer’s falsetto. ‘A thousand ships have sailed for her.’
A question has burned in me since the battle on the ships, but there had been no time before now to ask it.
‘Did you think of them as animals? As your father said?
He shook his head. ‘I did not think at all.’
I tried to imagine him bloodied and murderous after his first raid tomorrow.
I did not kill anyone, or even attempt to. At the end of the morning, hours and hours of nauseating chaos, my eyes were sun-blind and my hand ached with gripping my spear - though I had used it more often to lean than to threaten. My helmet was a boulder crushing slowly into my skull.
I could not even see the ugliness of the deaths anymore, the brains, the shattered bones that later I would wash from my skin and hair. All I saw was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet.
I knew he killed men every day; he came home wet with their blood, stains he scrubbed from his skin before dinner. But there were moments, like now, when that knowledge overwhelmed me.
He seemed to sit across the world from me, though he was so close I could feel the warmth rising from his skin. His hands were in his lap, spear-calloused but beautiful still. No hands had ever been so gentle, nor so deadly.
‘You ask a question that philosophers argue over,’ Chiron has said. ‘He is worth more to you, perhaps. But the stranger is someone else’s friend and brother. So which life is more important?’
We had been silent. We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us. At twenty-eight, they still feel too hard.
Through the haze of terror I see a man levelling a spear at my face. Somehow I am quick enough, and it passes over me, ruffling my hair like a lover’s breath. A spear stabs towards my knees, meant to trip me. I leap it, shocked I am not dead already. I have never been so fast in my life.
A fierce red rage comes, and he almost kills him there. But he would have to let go of me. He cannot. He holds me so tightly I can feel the faint beat of his chest, like the wings of a moth. An echo, the last bit of spirit still tethered to my body. A torment.
Achilles’ gaze lifts to meet hers. She is afraid, but does not draw back. ‘I hope that Hector kills you.’
The breath rasps in his throat. ‘Do you think I do not hope the same?’ he asks.
Achilles’ eyes fill; he looks away so the old man will not see.
Priam’s voice is gentle. ‘It is right to seek peace for the dead. You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.’
She stabs and Achilles’ body dodges the deadly point, impossibly lithe, endlessly agile. Always, its muscles betray it, seeking life instead of the peace that spears brings.
Achilles hears the faint hum of its passage a second before it strikes. He turns his head a little, as if to watch it come. He closes his eyes and feels its point push through his skin, parting thick muscle, worming its way past the interlacing fingers of his ribs. There, at last, is his heart. Blood spills between shoulder blades, dark and slick as oil. Achilles smiles as his face strikes the earth.
In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood, like a hundred golden suns pouring out the sun.
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