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.