Legends #2

How wecagedthe wild (5)

The next day was much the same, only now they marched through a rainstorm, further muddying the roads. “We’d better hope to get to Silverhill before the Orcs,” the Mouser told Casreyn. “We don’t want an uphill battle.”

A Marshal came riding through later that day, instructing anyone with a cart to abandon it so that they could hasten their travels.

And so the squealing carts were replaced with squealing pigs and goats when a few shieldmaidens freed the livestock. Casreyn wondered if she should protest. She looked to the Mountain and the Mouser for a clue.

“Why leave behind food that walks itself?” the Mountain shrugged. But the thought of looming battle overtook any thoughts of food, and much of the livestock was allowed to abandon the road with impunity. Few saw much use in wasting their energy trying to herd them onto the path.

The Mouser gave the Mountain no shortage of torment for his incorrect prediction, but his only response was, “Today’s not over.”

Casreyn hoped that his prediction was true. The prolonged march before battle only served to increase the new fears that came to her every day. What if she was just another corpse? How would her father know if she died? Would that she decided to follow them sooner, she thought bitterly. It was the unknown of battle itself that made Casreyn’s chest tighten; made it difficult to breathe.

And resting was nearly worse than marching. She rarely slept, if ever at all. The ground was as comfortable as a bed of knuckles, and in the dark she suspected every noise might belong to an Orc.

She found herself retreating into her mind and her father’s stories more often. She would compare her experience with his stories of the Great Conflict and the legends of Garth the Great.

If Orcs were coming down from the north, then the Great Enemy must have returned. Which would mean that Garth the Great had to return to, at the Nailed God’s discretion.

And the Nailed God would send him. She was sure of it. So sure, in fact, that she decided to paint the Sacred Hammer onto her shield, when they passed through a small town.

The road had forked: one path through the wild, the other through a town. A section of the army split off through the wild to take the Orcs from behind while the rest were led on a slow march head-on for Silverhill. The Mountain and the Mouser were squabbling over this, and his predictions, as a townsman helped Casreyn paint her shield. And it was while they were conducting this business when a boy wandered into the town.

The fog filtered around him, making him look half a wraith. Though as he came closer he seemed more a skeleton; he’d only a shadow of skin and a face that pocketed deep-sunken eyes that couldn’t remember to blink. His tunic was torn and he was caked with dirt and dust. One side of his yellow hair had been matted down and crusted with dried blood. Whether it belonged to him or someone else, you couldn’t say. He had only one leg and a makeshift wooden crutch that he used to hobble over to Casreyn, who had been eating honeyed porridge as she painted. “Food?” he asked. “Food? Food?”

She handed the boy her bowl and he grinned, tucking it under his arm and spooning its contents into his mouth with two fingers as he hopped away.

They all stared in silence for a time before the Mountain said, “I’m going to kill those Orc cunts.”

But the Mouser cursed, “Red Nails, that’s a boy with one leg. Some poor fucker must have miswung.”

That night, the town gave them a feast. There was little cheer. Swordsmen and shieldmaidens spoke of the Nailed God or the Lightning Lords or other gods in speech littered with curses. Casreyn wondered what good it did to curse masters and creators of storms and stones. And if they would be saying the same things during a thunderstorm.

The Mountain tossed her scraps of meat thick as bark. They were dribbling with pink juice and seared with patches of crisp burn. “Eat well,” he told her. “You earned it.”

“I can’t—”

“You can and you will,” he growled. “Don’t make me threaten you into eating a decent meal. You already gave up your lunch for that boy. You’ve got to get something in you if you want to keep up your strength.”

She wolfed it down and asked for more. The Mountain gave her his plate.

The town had no bedding to spare beyond what was saved for the Marshals, so the army that had passed east littered themselves in and around the town’s timbered walls. Casreyn, the Mountain and the Mouser all sat by a tree. The Mouser was using a dagger to clean his nails, which Casreyn deemed dangerous due to the fog, but his only response to her warning had been a shrug.

“When do you think Garth the Great will return?” she asked them.

“Fuck Garth,” the Mountain spat. “He was as much a malice as he Enemy he slew.”

“Does that mean Orcs called Garth the Great Enemy?” asked the Mouser.

“Most like he was,” the Mountain said.

Casreyn interjected. “Do you think then that we might’ve picked the wrong side?”

The Mountain rolled over so that his gigantic back was facing her and the Mouser. “No,” he said, and resolved to sleep.

The Mouser only spoke again after the Mountain was snoring. “My Mother was one of Garth’s personal shieldmaidens, you know.”

Casreyn had been planning on slipping her father’s service into conversation, but knowing this about the Mouser’s mother, she decided against it. Instead, she asked, “Did she have any stories?”

“No,” the Mouser said. It was a flat denial. “She preferred to tell me stories of what I would do. She always said the Nailed God would make a song of my war-glory and put my likeness in the stars. And you know what I want more than anything in the world?”

“What?”

“That song—that promised song.” He finished shaving the nail off of one finger and turned to the next. “Because I’m sure that would be the most boring song in all of Creation. But at least Mother dearest would be satisfied.” A smile bled onto his face.

“What’d be so boring about it?”

“It’ll be short,” he said. “Mercifully so. Because one day my hand is going to slip with this dagger and I’ll lose a finger. Won’t be able to hold a sword proper after that. Won’t be able to fight.”

“Why not do it now?” she asked. “Get it over and done with?”

The Mouser finally looked up, scowling. “What do I look like to you? A coward?”

 

Casreyn could not have said when she woke the next day, for the Orc-summoned fog almost blotted out the sun. The phantom of a Marshal rode up astride a giant horse. “Form rank!” she called. “Form rank!”

Casreyn scrambled to her feet, pulled her shield off her back and unsheathed her sword. Generals and officers of higher rank crowded her, pushed her forward like she was caught in a surging mob. She was disoriented, reeling. The ground sloped suddenly downward and for a moment she worried that she’d been on a path directly to the Lord of Bones. Hills went up and down for hours. At some point the Marshals dismissed the archers and sent them scurrying off the path. “Shoot any stragglers,” a Marshal said. “Orc or not.”

She continued on like this, surrounded by a wall of people. She had begun naming those directly around her: Front, Back, Left, and Right. They marched in step, uphill and downhill until she thought she spied Silverhill through the fog—or its shadow, leastways, looming over her like the skull of a dead giant.

She had lost the Mountain and the Mouser, but she’d no time to ponder this or wonder where they were or if they were safe. She was on the march to her first battle.

Her heartbeat throbbed in her neck and her forearm burned from holding her shield up so long.

Beating drums boomed from the other side of Silverhill.  Boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom. There were Orcs grunting and shrieking from atop the hill a thousand hulking silhouettes waiting for their uphill approach.

She thought of all her practice drills and all of her training in sword and shield. She recalled tales of Orcs: some said they were green skinned, others black as pitch. They either had great big tusks or small precise fangs. Great horns or slavering jaws.

She heard a thrum from atop the hill, as if a thousand birds had taken flight at once. There was a whistling from above, and she saw a thousand silhouetted arrows ready to rain down. She raised her shield and felt three heavy stabs pushing her forearm back. She heard scattered shouts muffled behind her shield from soldiers too late to raise theirs.

She hacked the shafts off as she rose, then the army surged forward, up the muddy hill. The fog whispered through the air almost taunting them.

Casreyn nearly tripped on her way up the hill, but she had neither the time nor the desire to see if it was only uneven ground she had tread upon. She was practically carried up from the sheer force of swordsmen and shieldmaidens charging. She felt as if she were moving in a box.

Then the army slammed to a halt. Ahead of her came the sound of wood on wood and steel on steel. She flexed her hand around her sword, sweat slick and worried that she might drop it.

She could hear folk pleading ahead of her; pleading for mothers; for mercy; for quarter, But they were all silenced by wet sounds—like a bucket falling into a well. The army moved forward after every line lost. Casreyn felt she was a lamb being led to the slaughter.

Then to her right she saw the shadow of an Orc skulking through the mist. Someone scalped the beast, horns and all. The Orc fell back, then leapt forward. It looked like it had regrown its skull.

Casreyn stabbed over two rows of shoulders, taking it through the neck before it could regrow its horns. The beast made a gurgling sound and then collapsed, staying dead.

Someone up front shouted, “Thanks!” as the Orc collapsed, but sinew and bone had trapped her blade in its neck and levered it from her hand.

“The sword! Grab the sword!” shouted the Thank You Man. There came a short, suckling sound as steel was pulled from flesh—like boots squelching through mud. Then the sword changed hands as the army was pushed back, and kept changing hands even as they gave ground.

Front seized her wrist in his gauntleted hand and fastened hers to the hilt of her sword. “Don’t wait to pull after you stab next time,” she shouted, as they were pushed back onto level ground.

“You’re welcome!” Casreyn said, shaking and frenzied as a sack of wet cats.

The Marshals thundered down the line, ordering a retreat. “Keep formation!” they shouted, “Stay in rank!”

Bodies were turning sharply, forcing Casreyn around and shoving her forward as they moved. “We’re bringing Orcs back to the town?” she cried.

“Have you forgotten the archers we left off the road?” said Left.

“They were told to shoot anyone!”

“Have faith that the Marshals have a plan.”

The Orcs followed them down the road, nipping at the army’s heels. Arrows whispered into the Orc flanks. There were yelps and shrieks like wounded dogs.

Upon a Marshal’s command, the army turned to face the Orcs and pushed back.

From beyond the Orc army, she heard horses whinnying and bright swords shining through the fog. There were Marshals leading the riders, sloping down, down, and toward the Orcs’ rear.

The Orc army dwindled. Horned heads were scalped, then killed again. Casreyn saw it from over a sea of shoulders and shields and helmeted heads. It was now the Orcs who snarled for mother, mercy, and quarter as the archers spat and the army closed its fist.

Casreyn took to the grim work. They had won the day, killing every last Orc, but even when they knew victory was theirs, it took hours to see to the slaughter.

The boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom of the Orc drums faded, and with it left the fog. The sun was shining, but the only dead on the field were men and women. No Orcs.

“The foul beasts hate the sunlight,” Casreyn heard Left say. “Turns them to dust right quick.” Left snapped her fingers to illustrate her point.

The only dead were swordsmen and shieldmaidens lying limp as discarded tunics, with cloven halfhelms, hornhelms, or heads.

Casreyn climbed Silverhill, thankful for the ability to stretch and brace her hands against the steep slope. Beyond the hill were little fields girdled by the threshold of a forest. Other survivors floundered up Silverhill, or walked among the fields. There were green hedges, grass, and trees. The dew sparkled in the sunlight. There were pebbled paths and briar patches. The place seemed to her altogether the wrong sort of place for a battlefield.

She looked back and saw the litter of bodies strewn about the hillside. One soldier lay dead at the foot of the hill—a shieldmaiden who looked a few years her junior. Her ruined face stared at the sky, looking like something resembling crumpled parchment. Casreyn wondered if she had died instantly, or if it were the trampling that had done her in. And if it was the latter, had she—

—She cut that thought short before she could complete it. “What happens now?” she asked aloud.

“Now, shieldmaiden?” came the voice of the Mountain. He and the Mouser were standing behind her atop Silverhill. “Red Nails,” he cursed, “We defend this fucking hill. Convince the Orcs it isn’t worth trying to retake.”

“That’s it?”

“Don’t grow overbold, shieldmaiden,” the Mountain cautioned.

The Mouser must have seen the shock on her face, because he said, “What’s wrong? Isn’t this what you had in mind when you decided to save the world?”

Legends #1

How wecagedthe wild (5)

The fog blustered like dancing specters, blanketing the army that stretched down the ruddy road where shieldmaidens and swordsmen pushed carts that squealed like panic hogs.

One such shieldmaiden walked through the ranks in astonishment. There would be a battle soon, she knew. A battle that she would be fighting in. She cradled the thought like a precious bauble. She had grown up on stories of her father’s various battles against the Orc people long ago in the Great Conflict.

She liked to imagine herself in his place. She had found lately that her imagination was a glorious place to be.

It was a place where her mail had no rust like an old man with liver spots, her halfhelm was free of dents, and her cloak was full green, not weathered to gray. She would put her old enemies to the sword in this place, with Garth the Great beside her.

Garth the Great had been chosen to lead Men in repelling the Orcs into the far north; chosen to defeat the Great Enemy in single combat and end the Conflict. not been reborn since he was last seen during the Great conflict, but she hoped to meet him before the war was over. He would be reborn, she knew. For all was as the Nailed God willed it.

She remembered that this hope in the Nailed God was the only sentiment her father gave her when she went off to war.

He had been watching his flocks graze, and did not part to look at her when she said told him of her ambitions. But she had built up the scene in her head, and his rebuke left her cold. “Will you not see me off?”

He seemed to coil at the suggestion. “No,” he said, and then: I never should have told you those stories, Casreyn.”

“I would follow in your footsteps, Father. Orcs are swarming down from the north, unchecked and unchallenged.”

“If the Nailed God wills you to follow in my footsteps, then I suspect you will.” Silence and knowing passed between them. “You’re all I have left, Casreyn. Those stories—they were half-truths. If that. I only meant to entertain—”

“And now you’ve inspired—” but her father would not be interrupted.

“Would you like to know the life you’ve chosen? Truly? You have chosen a life of lost limbs, and hordes of gray husks—and in this I speak of more than Orcs.” It seemed to her his final tale he’d left to tell. And it contradicted all others. But her father was also an old man, taken to embellishments. She could hardly trust such a story.

But he had left his sword and mail out for her all the same. She’d only briefly glimpsed him as she left. He had come out to watch her leave when he thought she was too far away to see. She remembered how he exhaled, seeming to deflate.

Casreyn was pulled from her own thoughts when a mountain of a man shouldered past her, followed by a smaller man who moved with catlike grace and a wary eye, as though he were a mouser always on the lookout for his prey.

“I’m not telling you to believe me,” the Mountain said. “All I’m saying is that I saw the Orcs’ fires last night. We’ll be upon them by nightfall.”

“What are you, a seer?” asked the Mouser.

The Mountain turned, and Casreyn saw the horror of his face. Burned, melted fleshed had sealed left eye shut, and she could see the eye moving beneath the lid, just so. Part of his left cheek had sloughed off, revealing yellow teeth and dry pink gums. “I’ve seen many things, boy,” he said. “I don’t predict a battle lightly. You don’t need to be a seer to smell blood on the horizon.” The Mountain marched off, and the Mouser looked at Casreyn. “He can be a touch dramatic.” He shrugged.

Casreyn started after him, ignoring the Mouser’s protests. She hailed him. “You think there’s a battle dawning, swordsman?” She had to take long strides to match his pace.

“Did you hear me back there?”

“Yes.”

“Then what do you think.”

“How big do you think the battle will be?”

“The Orcs want more than a skirmish, elsewise they wouldn’t be calling down this fog.”

Casreyn reached out to touch the mist. “This is Orc work?”

“You see any clouds in the sky these past few days?”

“No.”

“There you go.” He quickened his pace in an attempt to be rid of Casreyn, but she jogged up to him.

“How will we fare?”

He pivoted, turned. Casreyn slammed into him and fell into the mud. When she oriented herself, she saw the Mountain hadn’t moved. “I already told you I’m not a fucking seer.” He crouched to be at eye level with her. “You ask too many questions, you know that?”

Casreyn nodded, mutely.

“You want to know what my details are?”

She nodded again, and the man drilled his finger into the mud. “This is us,” he said. Then he scooped up a handful and, holding it in his fist, walked his fingers three paces north from his original depression and spattered it down there. “This is Silverhill. We want it. It’s works as a good defensive position to spy and repel invasion from the north.” He walked his fingers three paces further north and made another impression with his finger. “These are the Orcs. They want Silverhill. It’s works as a good defensive position to spy and repel invasion from the south. If we keep going north as we are now, we’ll be at Silverhill in a day. That’s why I say we’ll be fighting.”

He and Casreyn rose. She thanked him for the explanation and offered him her hand. “My names Cas—”

“Don’t,” the Mountain growled, spewing spittle onto her face, “tell me your name.”

She lowered her hand an inch. “Why?”

“Because I’d prefer to see you as just another corpse once all this is over.”

Casreyn’s throat tightened at the word.

“It makes things easier,” he explained. “For me, at least.”

Lord of the Greenwood

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We could never agree on where we’d first met, nor when. I thought we were eight—he said we were four. But we both agreed that I’d been older then him.
He’d been an impish, fey little boy in the beginning, safe in the knowledge of his parents’ protection. He knew he could throw rocks at me without reprisal—or did he throw sticks, as he’d insisted years later?
I remembered playing with him every day, every summer, though he insisted it was only on holidays and feast days.
I do remember long periods of time spent trapped in his manor while my parents doted on his. It was my duty to learn to weave and sew and dance and speak horribly-accented French.
But we were friends—that much I remember. And we agreed on that. Our friendship began the day he first to lead me into the greenwood. He dragged me by my hand, painfully pulling through dark, knotted trees. He was resolute, dragging me through as the thorns and brambles scratched at my legs.
The woods was supposed to be a terrible place.
I remembered the stories my parents would tell of witches and werewolves and dark, evil things. They hid in the forest waiting for children like us. They would snatch us up and nobody would find us again.
I wanted someone to find us.
He led me into the woods that day, my clinging desperately to his. If there were truly some evil thing out there waiting to consume us, it would have to take us both.
I wasn’t going to be gobbled up without him.
#
Years passed, and the boy’s parents died when he turned fifteen—or was he nineteen? I can’t quite remember.
But within months of his new Lordship, my own parents died, and I was taken away within the week.
The sheriff, I learned, had offered me a position in his castle. His offer, to me, didn’t seem so bad. Though it was not, strictly speaking, an offer.
Since my parents’ death and my unmarried state, I was a ward to the shire. A ward to him, the sheriff, he had explained.
The sheriff—was a pinch-faced little man with a high-pitched voice and a thick accent. An accent that reeked of a foreigner.
So he took me away from my childhood home, the manor where my parents had worked. He took me away from the friends and the servants. And the one boy I came to know quite well.
Too well, maybe.
Months passed, a year passed, and the boy sent me letters upon letters. The first half-year he wrote boring drabble about the management of his estate. But soon his letters came less and less and his handwriting had changed, the words marred hastily onto parchment as though time was of the essence. He told me that with the King gone off to reclaim the Holy Land, he had lost many powerful allies. I would wait for months to hear what had become of him, and the letters grew shorter and shorter. He had lost his lands and titles, he said. And then: I have met the Lord of the Greenwood of late.
To hear the sheriff tell it, this Lord of the greenwood was a cunning rogue with no love of the prince of the crown
And then, one night, I retired to my chambers to find him standing there with a grin on his face—the same one he’d wore that day he led me into the greenwood.
And I see in his eyes, though his titles were revoked he was truly the a servant to the Lord of the Greenwood; with dust on his face and twigs in his hair. He scoured the forest with the sun on his back.
But in his absence I had become the ward of the shire, with dresses that itch and a dagger hidden beneath them. I walked through halls of cold stone and colder drafts.
I wanted to slap the boy, but instead I was kissing him. We’d been so long away from each other that I couldn’t bring myself to bandy words no matter how badly I wanted to.
Except: “You have to leave. If they find you—” I said.
But he had a plan, same as always. “I came through the window. I’ll leave the same way. It’s no trouble at all, I promise.” He drank in my shock, my fear and my dread as I rushed to the window to see.
I gasped, exclaimed: “You shouldn’t have done this,” and then cursed myself for uttering the obvious.
He was by my side, then, showing me the rope. He gave it a tug, two then three. “Who would follow me down such a climb? Who could even see?”
He had the right of it, so I didn’t argue. But I knew there must have been a reason for his visit, so I asked.
“I’m billeted out in the greenwood,” he said—as if I didn’t already know—“but I’ll need your help in these times to come.”
“What times?” I asked. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of an answer. But he grinned and smiled. He knew what I’d say.
“The King is gone. The Prince has the throne but he cannot enforce with the proper strength. Someone needs to keep order—at least in these parts.”
“And what would be you?” I asked, biting my lip. I shouldn’t have needed to ask. I knew what he’d say.
“The people are starving and thieves run rampant, unchecked.” Under his breath, he added, “Most thieves are the ones who should see the King’s law enforced.”
“If you do this, the sheriff will order more soldiers,” I protested.
“His soldiers are not trained for the greenwood.”
“But they need only torches—”
He clamped his hand clamped around my wrist. “Do you think it so easily burned?”
“It isn’t the greenwood I worry about.”
“I wear a hood, you know. To hide my face.”
“They suspect—”
“Of course they suspect!” He snapped, “But they’ve no proof—they’re powerless.”
“Why have you come, my Lord?” I asked. I meant it to tease but it didn’t. His face darkened with memories of stripped titles and possessions. His ancient house now held by somebody else.
And anything unneeded, burned.
He didn’t answer; he didn’t need to. I knew what he sought and I would give it unasked. For I was a fool in those days.
#
He took me into the forest one day—showed me who to make merry with and who to avoid. He warned me against the friar with meaty hands and the large belly. His singer had fingers that were nimble on more than his lute. These were hard men, I realized. And outlawed for a reason. Yet this was the company he chose to keep.
He was a servant to the Lord of the Greenwood. I didn’t dare to question him.
They built a fire that night to dance around and make merry. I joined them in their jovial songs, watching those who were watching me. By my gaze was only for their greenwood Lord. The others meant little and less.
At length, he pulled me aside and asked, “Do you feel safe here?”
“I do,” I shrugged. “Aside from those who would see me undressed.”
So he put a dagger in my hand, its blade orange against the firelight. He closed my fist around it.
And try as I might, I could not contain my laughter.
The concern dropped from his face and it the fire’s glow emphasized its coloring red. “What is it?” He asked, “What’s so funny?”
And in that moment the greenwood lost its’ Lord—for I remembered how young he was. We were.
I stoop to one knee and retrieve my own dagger from beneath my itchy dress—and then I pressed it to his hand and closed his fist around it.
It was his turn to laugh. And then all the others were looking. Their leader was a grim man—a hard man, not a merrymaker. But his defenses were all but gone and for the moment, he enjoyed that.
He seized my hand and pulled me toward the fire while his singer played his songs.
We danced, made way for his friends, made merry, made love.
And when I awoke I was Lady of the greenwood with dirt on my face and twigs in my hair. But this was far from my home where the cold stone walls called me.
I was careful to dress—I didn’t want to wake him. A servant to the Lord of the greenwood, purring in his sleep.
But he awoke anyway, despite my intentions, and smiled as I cleaned myself up. He said not a word, merely admired me from afar.
He understood I must go. For just as a castle confined him with small spaces and close heavy air, the greenwood was always too vast for me. I was like to lose myself if I tarried too long.
#
The winters were harsh and one season he came wearing wolf-pelts. “To match the wolf’s head the prince has titled me,” he explains.
“Wolf’s head?” I asked.
“That’s how much my life is worth now. I am outside the law, and my head can be sold for the same price as a wolf’s.”
“How warm are you?” I asked, “Out there?”
“Warm enough,” he said, but he his gaze wandered when he said it.
“You little brat!” I shouted, seizing him by the collar. “You have to find someplace safe to stay!” I threw my arms around him and dragged him toward the fire.
“The villagers are all too eager to help,” he protested.
“They can’t hide you forever.”
“Nor would I want them to.” He pulled his wolf-skin cloak close as he sat. I rested my head on his shoulder. “I belong in the greenwood, not some peasant’s home. I’ve enough wolf’s heads to me without others added to my ranks for aiding us.”
“And how many are sworn to you?” I asked, leaning close. “How many wolf’s heads hide out in the greenwood?”
“Seven-score,” he said. He shrugged, jolting my head. “Maybe more, maybe less. I can’t quite say.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I’d need quite the tall tree to count all of them.”
“And how do they keep warm on such nights?”
“They bed down with beautiful ladies in itchy silks,” he grins.
“You jest.”
“I would never!”
“Such things you say! How would you know if my dresses get itchy?”
He turned red, then. Redder than I could’ve imagined. “I’ve needed disguises in the past and without coin to pay, I may have taken one or two out the window.”
“And?”
“And I don’t understand how you wear them so long! Truly you are made of sterner stuff than I, to last so long in such garments.”
“And what of your men who have no ladies to bed?”
“Can we not discuss men? Not right now, not right here.”
“But what of their fate? They’re your subjects, are they not?”
He said nothing. Again, he avoided looking at me. Without warning he stood and went to the window. His cloak was a crescent behind him. “There are no Kings in the Greenwood.”
“But they talk of that man’s title—”
“They jest.”
“You take orders from him—” I began.
“That’s my choice,” he said, “More or less.”
He paused on the sill, turned around and held his hand out to me.
I took it, wanting to pull him back in. Give him a respite from his misery. But when smiled those urges faltered and I found I could not. “You don’t have to go,” I tell him.
“There is much I must do and much to be done. The Prince is arriving on the morrow.”
“And?”
“And he’ll find the Lord of the Greenwood is in Nottingham that day. And watch as he steals all his coffers.” He began his descent, hesitating only once more as he shouted my name.
I came to the sill, shouted “What?”
“I almost came down by the chimney today. I thought you’d like to know.”
“And what stopped you?”
“Last minute change of hearth, I guess,” he said and descended with half-muted chuckles.
It is only a moment, before he returns. “One more thing,” he says, “Put on some britches. You’re coming with me.”

An Absent Fire

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Higher Powers choose a young, innocent farm boy to be their weapon of war. They put fire and magic in his veins and send him off to stop the Great Evil. And he does so, at the cost of an eye or a hand and quite a few friends.

But then the war’s over, and the Higher Powers can’t have someone with that much power just traversing the land. So they tear the magic and the fire out of your veins, they heal you up and restore you missing hand or eye, and they ship you home to your old farm to live out your life in a plain shire. And you’re always cold, because there’s no more magic inside you to keep you warm.

But at least they let you keep the sword.

I’ve got a small farm, a Ma and a sister. It’s summertime now—whenever I go outside, I try not to wear a cloak or to shiver in the absence of fire within. The Higher Powers tore it out of me, but they made me a weapon and taught me their tricks. Sometimes I can access a space between spaces and tease the fire. Not enough to pull it into the world. But enough to keep me warm. But it’s hard to concentrate on something like that and till a field at the same time.

Most of my time is spent staring at maps. Ancient maps some of the neighbors had collected from old scrolls. I always wished there were more maps. I would track my path from this shire to the small town of Bailiwick—I remember getting there and thinking that was quite the trek!

And then I would trace where I went when I was being chased by the Riders. But most of the maps don’t match the land I remember, or the mountain city is labeled Barad Yuen instead of Rivenrock. Such things shouldn’t frustrate me, yet they do—even though I can’t quite understand why.

I would overhear gossip as I tilled my fields—rumors about what happened in all the different battles. I wanted to correct the children, but it was better to let them have their fantasies. Sometimes I would hear about things we did when I was off on my own quests.

I was a good soldier. That was good enough.

#

One morning my Ma awoke me one day, but she went about it the wrong way. She pushed at my side where the Great Spider’s pincers had pierced my flesh. The Higher Powers had removed the wound but not the memories.

So when my Ma pushed at my side to wake me up, I reached for my the sword by my side and swung.

By the time I realized there was no spider, I’d shaved three hairs off her forehead. She stumbled back and I dropped my sword. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Ma, I’m sorry.”

She was wide eyed and I don’t know if she knew that she wasn’t blinking. “It’s all right,” she said in a tone that implied it wasn’t. “I shouldn’t have woken you.” She rose to her feet.

“What is it, Ma?”

“I was just thinking,” she smoothed her dress, “Do you remember when I told you the horse was to stay in the town stable? It was only to be used when we had to ride into market?”

I nodded. I knew what she was going to say, but it would be easier if she said it herself.

“I think you should be allowed to ride out as you wish. Visit the markets or other towns as you wish.”

“Yeah?” It was all I could say. I was still shaking. Still thinking of the Great Spider and my Ma’s three strands of hair. I wasn’t sure if she couldn’t see my trembling or just didn’t want to notice.

“Yes. I’ve felt for some time you should be able to do this.”

“Have you?” I asked. Venom seeped into my voice. “Retcha convinced you, didn’t she?”

“No. I just thought you deserved it.”

“Right,” I said, sitting up in bed. “I’m sure Retcha had nothing to do with it.”

“I’ve made you two breakfast,” Ma said, “It’s in the other room. Will you come and get it?”

“Just let me get dressed, Ma,” I said.

She left without another word.

I came into the kitchen for breakfast soon after. Ma had made lemon cakes, roast onions dribbling with gravy and honey-roasted chicken.

I had taken a map from my room to examine and traced the landscape as I ate.

“Davion,” Ma said, “Please don’t spill on the maps. You promised the neighbors you wouldn’t make a mess of their maps.”

“I won’t make a mess of it, Ma,” I said. I was dimly aware she was sitting across from me.

“I want to talk, Davion,” she said. “Please put down that map for a minute.”

I put down the map, if only to avoid an argument and looked at her.

“Have you decided what you’re doing to do? Now that you’re back here—now that that whole mess is over?”

Mess. The word echoed in my head. Was that what she thought that was? A war against a Great Evil? Just a mess, I suppose. But I didn’t voice it. I just told her, “No.”

“Don’t you think it’s time?”

She didn’t mean it to sting, but it did. I tried not to take it too personally. She didn’t know. “I just hadn’t thought about it,” I said.

“The Higher Powers have a plan for everyone,” Ma said. “None can sit idly by in Their land.”

I clenched my fists and spoke through my teeth. “It’s not Their land.”

“We are all in Their land. We must all make the best of our circumstances, Davion.” She had the right of it. If I wasn’t in Their land, I’d still have the fire and magic. I wouldn’t be cold and focusing on keeping my teeth from chattering. But Ma seemed to notice the look on my face, and placed her right hand over my left.

But I pulled away, my hand tingling with the memory of the sorcerer who had burned it to ashes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “This must seem so strange to you. I didn’t always have this hand.”

“I’ve worried about you too much, Davion,” Ma went on as if she hadn’t heard. “I understand what you’re going through. I know how weak Men are to the Higher Powers. I’ve prayed months since your return that you would get better. I pray for you all day long.”

I picked up the small knife she’d given me for the honey roasted chicken. “Do you know how they pray to the Higher Powers in Greyfallow? They skin goats alive and then burn it as it screams. It’s rare their prayers are even answered, but they take that chance because they’re desperate.” I leaned across the table. “You don’t have enough goats, Ma.”

I turned to leave, but she said “Retcha is worried, too,” and I stopped in the doorway.

She wasn’t going to bring my sister into this. “She’s not worried.”

“She thinks you’re losing your passion. You don’t have any goals anymore. You’re just floating through life.”

“If that’s what you think, Ma, then say so. Don’t tell me your worried by pretending it’s Retcha who thinks all this. Now,” I said, “Is that all?”

“Yes.”

I started to leave, but she spoke again. I made the mistake of turning around and seeing the tears rimming her eyes. “Do you love me, Azoc? Do you love your Ma anymore?”

She reminded me of the apparition the Temptress used to conjure to try and stop my advance to retake the city she’d conquered. But I had shattered her apparition. I would shatter this one, too. “I don’t love anyone.”

I shouldn’t have said it. She couldn’t understand how cold I was. No matter how hard I tried. I had only hurt her.

She kept crying. On and on it went. I went over and knelt beside her to hold her. “I didn’t mean that,” I said. “I was just angry.”

She kept crying.

“I was just angry. I’m sorry. Do you believe me?”

She kept crying.

“Please believe me, Ma. Please.”

And the Higher Power must’ve let me access the fire in my veins one last time, for I must’ve conjured an apparition–because she said yes. She believed me.

And I felt nauseous. She believed my illusion. And I would have to keep lying. I would be lying for the rest of my life.

I decided I’d go the stables that night and ride the horse into Bailiwick. It had seemed so far away, long ago. But with all I’d seen since then, it would be a short ride.

I’d have to bring my cloak, though. Even in the kitchen holding onto my Ma, I was still shivering. And I couldn’t even tease out some fire for warmth.

Crow Fodder

The girl watched the man in black, who was kneeling in a small clearing choked with dead leaves. He had been urging her to move for days now. He did not seem to concern himself with how her legs were sore and her feet hurt. She had wished nothing more than to rest. And the man had given her that, but on his terms.

He opened his mouth, and a raven crawed in the distance.

The girl sat down and rubbed her feet. She wanted to go back to her mother. But she recalled her urging that she follow the man in black. There had been fire and smoke and…no. She couldn’t let herself think about that. The man had said not to worry over a maybe.

The raven’s craw came closer now, and then there were two, and then three. The gathering of ravens settled on the man’s shoulders, forming a cloak about him, with the occasional flutter of wings.

The man stood, longsword rattling against his thigh. “Imogen,” he barked. The girl’s heart leapt. “Stand up. We need to keep moving.”

She did as he bid her. “Cormag?”

“Imogen?”

“What did you see?”

He was silent for a moment as Imogen squinted at him. “The conqueror comes, bringing men shelled in steel.”

“Are they going to kill us?”

Cormag stiffened, and then plucked up Imogen’s hand and led her along. It was scratchy, and when she tried to pull free he only tightened his grip. “All will be well,” he whispered.

#

The man was three days dying when they found him. He was slumped against the bottom of a hill, his cuirass bloodied and one arm swollen and disjointed.

“Do you see him too?” Imogen pointed to the dying man.

“Yes,” Cormag said. One hand on his longsword, he waded off the path toward him.

Imogen shadowed Cormag through the tall grass. As she drew closer, she glimpsed a long cut from shoulder to collarbone. Every breath wept blood.

“That’s not going to get better,” Cormag said.

“I know,” the man answered. “Damn conquerors in their craven’s clothes. Damn them twice-over!” He grunted. “I don’t suppose you know how to use that blade?”

Cormag nodded yes.

He motioned with his head to the girl “Is she yours?”

“No,” the man said. “Just a girl.”

“But you’re looking after her?”

Ravens wings bristled on his cloak. “Aye, that’s what I’m doing.”

“Do it well,” the man said. “And strike true.”

Cormag stood erect to give himself space to draw his longsword. Imogen couldn’t see beyond his implacable back. But she heard a grunt and a wet noise like a bucket falling into a well.

Cormag turned and stomped back onto the path. “Follow me, Imogen.”

She did. “Who was that?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Cormag said. And then: “I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re stuck in the midst of war. With me.”

Imogen wrinkled her nose. It was how she used to tell her mother she was upset, but Cormag didn’t seem to notice. Crestfallen, she said, “What’s wrong with you? I don’t understand.”

Ravens wings fidgeted on Cormag’s back. “We should keep moving,” he said.

The Goddess Sings

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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.

We won.

 

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.

On Trojan Beaches

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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?”

“No.”

“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.

“You’re lying.”

“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.

___ ___ ___

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