Achilles. How the women used to swoon at the name. Only twenty five he stood a head above most mortals. Long golden hair that had never been cut ran in a plait down his back. He never wore a shirt unless in battle, he barely wore clothes if he had to. He would stride between the tents wrapped in a cloth if anything. Body oiled, hairless and toned like a predator. He was a cockerel, a man who showed off to all, regardless of their station he would make men feel small by comparison. He did not mean to do it. His manner was as beautiful as his body. He would slap men on the shoulders, he would complement them on their days work, and he never forgot a name, ever in the time I knew him. His thick arms would wrap themselves around an unsuspecting ally and he would wrestle them to the ground before they swapped stories.
He loved to listen. He would tell his fair share of tales, but most of all he would love to sit by the firesides during that long campaign and hear of other men’s lives. Their fights, their wives, their children.
He was a student as much as a warrior, a student of war, of killing. He would stop men in discussion as they talked of some conflict or parry and ask them to show him. He would watch them and mimic them, like some grand strategy was playing out in his mind he would twist and turn with them to see why the strike had worked.
He was the greatest of us truly. As kind in camp as he was terrifying to face on the field. His swords would whirl like the claws of an unmentionable beast. Even across the field of battle he could be seen by the plumes of life’s blood set free by his sharpened fury.
He was the reason for our greatest victories and our greatest failures.
It was the start of the conflict that I remember most vividly. The prizes of war captured, gold, silver and gemstones from far away lands. Slaves too. One in particular took Achilles fancy. Briseis. A small girl with hair the colour of coal she was a mouse one moment and then flew at him the next. Scratching at the great Achilles she feinted. Her hysterical lunge a ruse to get her hands on a knife. She whipped it from the belt of the man nearest to her as Achilles threw her off laughing. He didn't see and neither did we. He stood calmly and then turned like a child’s top, her extended arm slashing at the throats of the still laughing men.
By the time Achilles had hold of her arm five men lay dead or dying on the floor. She was not a wild cat, she was not some spirited woman, she was much more. Maybe an assassin sent to slaughter our own kings and heroes, maybe just something more than what she appeared.
Achilles said nothing. He took the knife from her and bound her hands and feet before throwing her over his shoulder and taking her to his tent.
Obviously uproar. Achilles summoned to explain himself before Agamemnon. While he was kept busy the girl was stolen and prepared for execution. Agamemnon wanted to do it himself. She was dragged in. Naked, beaten, raped and thrown on the floor. Achilles was motionless. Of all the men present I had seen him fight the most. He was always controlled, always able to wield his hands as the weapons he wished them to be, but that control was not there in his eyes. He was motionless because he did not know what to do next.
The imperceptible trembling of his hands became more evident as Agamemnon launched a tirade of abuse at the girl. He ranted for a minute or more, his insults and vulgarities ever more colourful.
‘I should keep you alive and chained as a cunt for my guard’ he finally growled.
‘King’ Achilles whispered.
It was a magic, of that I am sure some immortal god made us listen because they knew if we did not we would all have died at Achilles hands.
‘What’ the squat, arrogant king snarled.
‘I will return home or I will stay and fight’ his voice was barely there, afraid to unleash it.
Agamemnon looked stunned.
‘What do you mean by this?’ the king advanced on Achilles, who even bare-chested seemed a bear to the King’s barking hound.
‘If the girl is mine, I stay. If the girl is yours I go. If the girl dies?’ His voice trailed off. The men in the tent were stunned. No one moved, no one said anything. Achilles looked only at the girl.
‘You have twelve days to decide.’
With that he marched out.
Agamemnon was no fool. He needed Achilles and so the girl was easily parted with after he had taken his own amusement with her.
Heroes are the things we admire made flesh. You will never meet your heroes, you will only hear about them and wonder whether they truly were that golden.
Agamemnon sent his brother Menelaus, King of Sparta, to deliver the girl. A bloody mess wrapped in rags she was no more than a corpse with half a breath still in her.
But Achilles kept his word but it was not for her sake that he returned to the fray.
The Myrmidons had grown weary of their leader’s reticence to fight. He stayed in his tent a further twelve days. Tending to Briseis or fucking his cousin Patroklus. Younger by a handful of summers he was slimmer but still possessed the athlete’s body. He fought with the Myrmidons now, a fully-fledged warrior. They were inseparable during those days. Achilles would joke with me that it was like fucking himself so alike were they.
It was after Hector had beaten us back almost to the beaches that Patroklus acted. Stealing away from his lover he took Achilles armour and his helm. Rousing the Myrmidons from their imposed rest he led them out.
The whole Greek army cheered when they saw him. Our hero, our champion, Achilles was there and he dove into the fray. The armies clashed and he was relentless. Pushing on and on to the city walls he clambered over the fallen to reach up and scale those steep stone ramparts. But the rocks and arrows flew at him. Three times he tried but was finally beaten back. A last surge by the Trojans meant hector and Patroklus were face to face.
Hector, the tamer of horses, the prince of Troy was like nothing I have seen. As big as Achilles or Patroklus he whirled and span like a dancer of death, eventually catching Patroklus in the leg with tip of an extended spear. The boy yelped and was quickly swallowed up by the Greeks who returned with him borne aloft to camp.
But the wound had caught his vital vessels and his blood continued to pour from him. A cry went through the camp that Achilles was hurt until the helm was removed beside his black sailed ships and the truth discovered.
Achilles emerged naked just woken, bemused at the racket. His cry when he saw his lover dead in the sand will remain with me forever. It was the agony of a lover, a bother and a father. He collapsed and gathered the body to him, shrieking vengeance, calling for the Gods to hear him, calling for the earth that bore him to witness his oath of revenge against an entire people.
No one spoke, no one said anything. There was no period of mourning, no period of respect for Patroklus. He was stripped there and then, his naked body left in the dust. When Achilles was ready he knelt, kissing the dead man’s hair, then his heart, then his limp lifeless hands and finally his feet.
No one said anything. Achilles just walked towards the city walls. We followed and we watched.