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.
He did not try to train me after that.