The outlaw awoke, heard the twitter of birds in the air, felt the breeze on his face, and saw the old the Sheriff’s guard lying next to him, dead, on the forest floor.
Robyn of Locksley grunted to his feet, his movements brought back the pain and memories of the night before.
This was the first of them to seek him out—part of him hoped it wasn’t the last. There was a new price on his head; one of two hundred pounds and fourscore golden angels.
This mercenary had ambushed him in the night. Robyn Hode had thought it a different sort of night-terror. It took him too long to realize this foe was an ordinary man.
It was only the far-off cry of “Sir Richard!” That had drawn the mercenary’s attention. Robyn Hode steeled himself toward his cause and shot an arrow through the man’s heart before he could turn back to him.
Presently, Robyn buckled his swordbelt, threw his bow over his shoulder and set off.
The highroads crawled up steep hills and then dipped over crests that were sharp-cut with hedgerow and shaggy grass. Soon, a company of his yeoman had come upon the outlaw. “What news?” Robyn called.
“Little John has gone to Sherwood in search of someone to pay our fare. It’s said the Bishop of Hereford rides coming through Sherwood this day!” said Will Stutely, approaching Robyn. “It has been decided that we go west to find another, that way may increase our earnings.”
Robyn’s smile came easily, but did not touch his eyes. “Give Little John my thanks!” Robyn shouted back. “Let us away!” And he gestured for his yeomen to follow. They wound down the highroad until they came behind the hedge, and there they waited. Robyn knew for a surety that someone would come soon. It was a sunny spring day, and men of riches were never rare in such weather.
As if prophesied, a man came riding over the hill and down the stony road toward hedge where Robyn lay hidden. As he came closer, Robyn saw he had a horse and armor. He smelled of rose petals mixed with the sweat and dirt of the highroad.
He was a nobleman. This could not be mistaken.
Robyn called from the hedgerow, He loosened his sword in his scabbard, arose and crossed the road. “You there!”
The knight reined back at the sight of Robyn. His hand leapt for the pommel of his sword.
“Hold, sir!” Robyn spoke, “Might I convince you to tarry for a time? Mayhaps I could treat with you?”
“What man are you to stops a traveler on the king’s road?” the knight fumed.
“None other than Robyn of Locksley.” The outlaw bowed. “And what man are you that travels on the king’s road?”
The knight bit back a smile, “You have great pride, Locksley. And if the rumors of you in Nottingham are true, you are a good man. My name is Sir Richard of Lea. What is it you wish of me?”
Robyn laughed and called his men from the hedgerow. “Come!” he cried. “This man means no harm. Truly, he knows what favor good words may bring. Pray, come with me to Sherwood Forest, and we will give you a feast better than any you’ve ever tasted. Though since you seem a favorable man, I must tell you that guests are few and far between. And for one of such high status, I would needs impose a dining fee.”
The knight seemed to consider this, and a moment later he shook his head. “If I go, you would find me a sorrowful guest. Please, let me pass on my way in peace.”
“A sorrowful guest?” Robyn laughed, “You hardly seem the sort. Why do you say such a thing?”
“Because I have only ten schillings in my purse. Because of this, I am being hunted.” He tossed his purse at Robyn’s feet, staining it with road-dust. “Take it, if you are so keen to rob me.”
Robyn snatched the purse and tossed it back to Sir Richard. “Far be it from me to doubt the word of a knight. You have my apologies. Please allow me and my men to assist you—if you come with us to the greenwood, I will forsake any fees I would impose on another man.”
The knight considered this for a span of three heartbeats, and then booted his horse forward, its hooves like drumbeats on the road.
As they traveled, Robyn spoke. “Sir Richard, I do not seek to trouble you—”
“—Then do not trouble me.”
“—but God willing, would you share your sorrows with me?”
“Why would you care?”
Robyn’s throat tightened. “I told you—I seek to aid you. I would have you share your story with me, that I may be of further use.”
“If you truly seek to aid me, then know this: my castle and lands are in pawn for a debt that I owe. Three days hence the money must be paid or else my estate is lost forever, for then it falls into the hands of the Bishop of Hereford.”
Robyn grimaced, but bade the knight go on.
“Last year I went off to a clergyman to appeal that my debt be forgiven. I cited my service under the King in Palestine. But in a fortnight I was approached by the Bishop, who told me that I had impure thoughts, and he had sent my son to Palestine to cleanse him of any influence I may have had on him.” The knight laughed mirthlessly. “Such is the way of the priory.”
“You have my sincerest apologies,” Robyn said. “How much do you owe them?”
“Four hundred pounds.”
Robyn’s knuckles went white, and through a clenched jaw he muttered, “The bloodsuckers! They’re slowly bleeding us to death!”
The sun was setting when they arrived at a clearing in the greenwood. And in the distance Robyn descried Little John, who had returned with a guest of his own who was hauling his packhorse behind him. “This ought to be fun,” said Stutely.
“Indeed,” Robyn agreed, he started forward to meet the new arrival.
The Trojans had opened their gate enough for a small army to file out. It was a challenge. A challenge that Agamemmnon, Meneleus, Achilles and the others took up. We met the Trojans on the field.
Our skirmish had ended. Trojans and Greeks strewed the battlefield as limp as discarded tunics. Their death-stink was the only smell in the world. My spear had become my only comrade in battle, and I now used it as support to steady myself. All the while I forced my breaths to remain shallow. I was the right hand of Achilles. I could not let myself appear winded.
I heard Achilles footsteps from behind me. He walked differently from the others. There was a rhythm to him that was all his own and marked him easily. He drew up next to me and spoke. His voice was hoarse from the hours of shouting orders amidst the chaos.
“There was nothing you could do, Patroclus,” Achilles said.
I did not meet his gaze.
“There wasn’t!” he said again, and when I still said nothing, his voiced turned low. “Talk to me.”
I turned away, and Achilles’ hand wrapped around my arm, feeling like rough old leather. He pulled me towards him. “This is not your fault. It is not mine. Nor Paris or Hector’s or anyone’s. There’s not a man among us who didn’t choose to come here.”
“I know,” I muttered, “But can I not shed tears for them?”
He scraped a finger along scraped along my cheek, gently. He had cut his hand in the skirmish, and it drew a line of blood down my face. “I would never forbid that,” he whispered.
I tossed my spear and it bit into the sand. “If I could have been better,” I said, “If I had concentrated had trained more in battle with Chiron, I could have saved them. If I was better I could have saved them.”
“It is past time for regrets,” Achilles said. His voice had cracked mid-sentence. “They knew the risk in coming here.”
“I want to be better. I need to be.” My knees gave way without warning, and Achilles caught me before I hit the ground. He sat down with my head straddled in his lap, and the stink died away, replaced with sweat and leather and warm bronze—and the faint seawater scent of him beneath it all. He held my head to his chest, and my tears wrote streaks down the blood on his breastplate. When they stopped coming, he released me and I rose. The tears dried on my face, as the blood on his breastplate.
Scant days later, we were in our tent when Achilles rose from our bed without warning, hefted two spears in one hand and a sword in the other, and hacked the heads off.
I rose and pulled a tunic over my head, turning the world momentarily white. “Achilles, what—” When the world came back to me, a long wooden staff was sailing towards me. The catch stung my hand. It felt like my palm had been filled with sifting sand. “What are you doing?”
“You need to learn to fight,” he said.
“What more is there to be taught? Did Chiron not train me to his fullest extent?”
“You can always get better,” he said, “That aside, you are my right hand. And I will not lose you to Paris or any of Troy’s coward archers. Come. We’re going to spar.” His voice carried with it all the authority of Zeus, so that I was in awe of him.
He chose a hill speared with patches of grass like a thousand green armies advancing upwards. He took his stance, and I took mine.
“Go,” he said, and the next instant pain blossomed in my side. I did not see his blow, and by the time I realized he had dealt it, he was forcing me back.
“I’m holding back,” he said. He was not even winded. Yet I was already struggling to grasp a breath.
I could barely defend from him, such was the fury in his attacks. The wood kissed and sprang apart and kissed again. The staff was a blur in his hands.
He advanced, and I gave ground, then a shock of pain struck my heel and I tumbled onto my back.
Achilles had his staff poised at my neck. His hair stirred in the wind like a golden halo behind him. I studied him, puzzled, for he was not even sweat-dampened.. He looked every bit an Olympian god. “Up,” he said. “Try again.”
“Achilles, I don’t want—”
“You can’t rely on me!” he snapped, “A day will come when I am not there, and I do not wish to see you die because of my absence. You said you wanted to do be better, did you not?”
He offered his hand and I took it.
“Again,” he said, and in the next instant the staff was a blur once more. This time I was ready to block his strikes as they came. Again and again and again. My hands went numb, and my limbs moved of their own accord. I became fascinated with the movement of his body, each strike designed to expend the least effort—every movement built to conserve his energy. They came so fast that I was not sure he even knew of the precision of his movements. He seemed at once both mechanical and natural. Beautiful and dangerous. He sprang forward, golden hair splayed out behind him like the glow over a waterfall before it crashes down on you.
I turned his strike aside and dealt him a blow to the ribs. The same one he gave me when we began.
He paused, growling, and all at once I knew this was not the Achilles I had come to love. His eyes seemed to darken as he leapt forward. His strikes came faster, then. He wrung his former rhythm as the neck and built a new one, faster now. Forcing me back. I started to think of my movements, and each misstep stacked up in my head, until Achilles turned aside an awkward strike and the butt of his staff battered my head and I fell.
But he did not stop. He hefted the staff, the sun splaying out behind him like golden wings. And in his face was a look that was alien to me. This was not my Achilles—this was the hero. The half-god, bred for war and glory.
He brought the staff down beside my head, panting, and his face slackened. He fell on top of me as though someone had cut the strings of life from his limbs.
“Achilles, I—” His kiss sucked the words from my mouth, and he seemed to understand.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered against my mouth. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me, I—”
Then it was my turn to kiss him. “There is nothing to forgive,” I said, but he shook his head.
We had gained Troy’s beaches relatively unopposed. After a small skirmish, we had set up our camps. Come nightfall, Diomedes was making music for me and the other two.
He played his lyre for the three of us. His fingers wove about the strings, making them do twirls as they sang out their notes.
He had taken the women Iphis and Deidamia from his time on Skyros. He had requested they share our tent in Troy. His reasoning had been that he didn’t wish the other Kings to discover our secret. With the arrangement Diomedes had made, the Achaeans would not be like to discover the truth.
Iphis and Deidamia held each other on a bed of wood covered in animal hides. Fingers of moonlight filtered through the tent, but they were mostly hidden beneath a deerskin, and they were half-listening to Diomedes’ music. The rest of their attention was focused on the touch and smell and taste of the other.
I laid my hands behind my head and listened to his playing. Diomedes had a talent for making music breathe, talk, and tell a tale. For a time I thought that there must be a fifth member of our company.
The last echoes of his music faded, and we sat in silence. It felt as if something were missing from the world, now that Achilles had stopped playing. Even when Deidamia spoke, there seemed an emptiness that stayed with us.
“What news from the council of Kings?”
Achilles looked away. He poured himself into the simple task of wrapping his lyre in white linen and returning it to its red-brown trunk. “The raids begin tomorrow,” he said. “Menelaus wishes to see which soldiers should prove best. He wants to know who to keep close beside his own guard when he turns his sights to the city to retrieve his wife.”
“And attacking farmers is the best way to do this?” I asked.
“Demoralizing Troy is the best way to do it,” Deidamia said from her own bed.
“That is so.”
“Will I have to come with you?”
“Do you want to?”
“Then you don’t.”
Iphis glared at me from across the room. “What is a soldier who doesn’t fight?”
I looked away, all too aware of the heat on my face. I wished to answer, but words have never come easily to me, even when I know what it is I want to say.
“Don’t be too harsh with Patroclus,” Achilles said. The look he gave her was there and gone and I wondered if I imagined it when I had blinked. But I turned to Iphis and, seeing the fear on her face, realized my lover’s anger to be true.
“Don’t be so hasty to bring your wrath down upon this girl!” I clutched a fistful of his tunic and shoved him back onto our bed, and then swung my leg up and over his hips. “Save that for the farmers you’ll meet in the morning.” I spoke the words against his lips and put mine to his neck. The smell of him—the taste of him felt familiar, yet distant. He was detached from me and all else, and so these senses came back muted. “Achilles?” I said, “What’s wrong?”
“He doesn’t want to kill farmers,” Deidamia observed.
Achilles arced his neck to look at her. A cord there drew taut. “If you are to speak, Deidamia, speak plainly.”
“Iphis, too, has spoken plainly,” she observed. She kissed her. “And yet after threatening her for this you ask me to do the same?”
“What is it you would say?” Achilles asked.
“Only that your character is made of sterner stuff than farmer-killing.”
“Odysseus called it a strong tactic. A good idea for any siege,” Achilles said.
I sifted his hair through my hands. “You do not have to like it. You aren’t required to take joy in the songs of slaying.”
He sat up and our lips met, and he fell back upon the bed. “I don’t,” he said, “Yet I am to be the best of the Achaeans. I cannot do this if I refuse to take action in the simplest of siege maneuvers. It is a battle that is not a battle.”
“A massacre?” I suggested. He twisted his hips and I fell off him, and he rolled onto his side to embrace me.
“Yes,” he said, “But if I cannot prove myself best at even that, I will never achieve greatness. The other Kings will begin to doubt me.”
“They already do,” Deidamia said from across the room. She put a hand over Iphis’ mouth to put a temporary halt to their activities. “I would not put it past the other Kings to do the same. They are Kings after all, and you are merely Prince of Phthia.”
Achilles opened his mouth to reply, but I steered his head toward me. “Pay her no heed,” I said, “She seeks to irritate you. Nothing more.”
Three heartbeats passed, wordlessly. Achilles’ hold on me grew tighter. And, after a time, he asked, “Why don’t you join me in the raids? Don’t you think I’ll protect you?”
“Would that you could,” I replied, “But my fear is that you will be too swept up in battle to do anything. I shall be left to some chance arrow, and what will become of me then?”
“I would kill whoever it was who hurt you,” he said. He held me by either side of my face. My sight tunneled towards him, and the only feeling in the world was his callused hands. I felt blisters shaped like long small olives rough against my cheeks. He pulled me forward so that his nose touched mine. “I would desecrate them, that not a soul among their kin might recognize them, and your killer would look so horrid, even Charon would shrink back at his presence, so he would never enter Hades nor walk amidst the Fields of Asphodel.”
I felt the moisture of his forehead, and his hands felt like kelp. If I were to close my eyes I would have imagined his mother Thetis had taken hold of me.
“Eros has struck this one,” I heard Deidamia from across the tent, but the moonlight no longer touched it, so I could not see her.
“This is true,” Iphis added. I could feel their gaze on us. “Madness has taken hold of him.”
“He’s not mad—” I muttered. The words bobbed and floated amidst my throat, and only their semblance managed to pass my lips. “He’s not mad. Just—just passionate.” I grappled for words, and settled on “Go.”
Both drew a breath in unison.
“There are other tents, and other beds to share. Try Phoenix’s tent. Or Ajax’s.”
“And if there are no tents to be found?” Iphis’s eyebrows went taut as bowstrings.
“I am sure you can find other ways to warm each other.” She seemed to catch my wink, because she grinned like a crescent moon. The two rose and left the tent.
Achilles arms were pincers on my sides when he wrung one hand over his wrist. He traced his fingers along me and nodded to himself. “We should sleep,” he said. “We have a long day ahead of us.”
I’m not sure if he knew the turmoil I would be facing. Despite my leave of battle, he was not wrong.
I awoke to blades of sunlight piercing the tent, and then Achilles’ silhouette granted me a brief shade. The sun splayed out behind him in golden arrows so that for a moment I feared he had wrought Apollo’s wrath.
I threw myself upon him. His welcome was that of sun-warmed bronze and a smell of sweat and leather. Achilles bowed his head. “I did not mean to wake you,” he murmured. “There are a few final things I need to gather.”
He only had to look at me and I knew what he needed. I scrambled across the tent and snatched his helmet, bristling with horse hairs. As I retrieved it, he sheathed his kopis. He left his xiphos behind. He would be riding by chariot, and he needed a longer blade.
He hefted his spear as I came over and placed his helmet over his head. He leaned forward for a goodbye kiss, and when he did this he did not smell like Achilles. This hero was alien to me.
Yet when I closed my eyes and heard him whisper, “I will return,” it seemed that all his armor had melted away, and he was Achilles again.
But I had to open my eyes.
I saw him in gleaming armor before he turned, silhouetted against the sun. His purple cloak licked the air as a sudden wind came up. I decided to take it as a sign of Poseidon’s favor at the least. With the wind came the cheers.
The men loved their hero. Their Achilles, who was not mine. I did not follow him out of the tent. I could not hear him over the roar of the crowd. Soon enough, in a rattle of spokes and wheels and a rumble of hooves I knew he was gone.
I fell back onto my bed, and an instant later sleep took me.
I awoke, expecting Achilles but found that it was only mid-afternoon. Cobwebs cluttered my brain as I climbed out of bed, and I shook them free when I exited the tent.
The cook fires were still smouldering outside, though they were more smoke than heat. I collected bits of driftwood for a new fire upon Achilles return.
The tent flaps stirred in the wind–all except one, closed as tight as the gates of Troy. I started to approach, but I heard Deidamia and Iphis on the other side, and left them to each other.
But as I turned to leave, I heard Iphis call, “Patroclus!”
I dashed inside the tent. The two were dressing in the soldiers’ tunics that were much too large for them. They looked like children playing dress up. I managed to gather my thoughts enough to say, “You called?”
“You’re concerned about Achilles,” she said, “Why is that?”
“What does it matter to you?”
She shrugged. “Can I not be curious?”
“It’s been prophesied that Achilles will not die while Hector yet lives,” Deidamia added. “That should bring you at least some reprieve.”
“No.” I denied them all further response. I’d let them make of it what they would. I turned to leave the tent, but they followed.
“You can’t just leave us with that alone! Come, there are only the three of us here for the day. Join us in conversation, if nothing else!”
They followed me into Achilles’ tent, where I turned heel and addressed them, “What if Hector turns up at one of these raids, hm? What if there was a mistake in the prophecy? What if the Hector that must live to ensure his survival is not the Hector? What then? Well? What then?”
“Eros has struck you both,” Iphis’ teeth clamped down on her grin.
“No wonder you chose to stay behind,” Deidamia observed, “You think too much, such that the raid would be over the moment you hefted your spear.”
“Away with you! Both of you!” The heat in my face flared, and I forced the shout back down my throat. “You seek only to agitate me.”
“Come, Patroclus, do not take our jests to heart. We’ve been deprived of entertainment since we left Skyros. Let us have our fun.”
“You’ve had it.” So saying, I rushed forward and reached for the tent flap, that it would fall before them and bar them from me, but before I had even a chance to crowd them out of the tent, Deidamia spoke.
“Do you know why Achilles took us?”
I froze. “He’s told me it was to hide–to hide us.”
“There’s hardly a need for it. It’s the worst kept secret among you Achaeans. And I doubt folk like Odysseus and Diomedes would reproach the idea of joining you in such activities.”
“Then why would he bring you?”
“I bear his son.” The words were ice in my stomach. “He will be named Neoptolemus. He will be raised amidst war, for this one can only end when my son takes up spear and sword upon the field.”
Iphis, too, seemed shocked by this. We both shrank away from her, while she stood with such straight backed pride that if she were to speak of the gods they would doubtlessly bring their wrath toward her.
“There is no comfort in lies.” This was her only response.
“Is this true?” Iphis asked.
“Ask Achilles, should you think me false.”
As if her words were prophecy, there came an unmistakable sound of a creaking wagon and the drumbeat of horse hooves, and moments later, Achilles threw aside the tent flap and entered.
Deidamia was clutching at him, her hand coming away bloody. She bid this strange hero to tell me about his son. His cuirass was painted red and his golden hair was dark with sweat and blood. He had lost his helmet but kept his spear. A flap of something I didn’t want to think about danced on its end.
For my part, I tried to tell him of Deidamia and Iphis stirring up trouble, I begged him to return them to Skyros. But he did not seem to hear any of us. And I realized my mistake. I was caught up in my own fears and perils. I had forgotten his.
“You killed them.”
“I did.” He said nothing more, but opened his red-brown chest and took out his lyre. The white linen fell off of it like a sinking wave. I scrambled over to him. To be by his side. But he spoke not a word to me.
Instead, he played the most beautiful song I’d ever heard.