Never bury my bones apart from yours Achilles,
Let them lie together…
… Take some joy in the tears that numb the heart.
Homer: The Iliad, 23:100-101 + 116
So lays the violent hunter, spread-eagled across the bloodied shield, a tribute and a warning all at once. Beside him lay fallen comrades, less loved by the one who matters, envied by their juniors, all spent in the hour of death. Their fights had been long; their struggles longer. Life lasts fleetingly, for those who seek glory. By his slanted head, gleaming with the cold sweat of death, lingers the war helmet, rocking slightly under the pressure of the retreating army. Their battle is won, and the sufferance bearers remain.
His limbs are bared, trembling with the last strength of life, his will and courage knotted with the roaring pain. In his chest, gasping and fruitless, is his mark of death, a princely spear that sought a different target. It shakes on the dusk air, in a pounding duality with his horrific cries, his manly gasp and boyish whimper. The glut of death becomes dimmed, his surroundings all but lost: he cries for himself, for the shame and the inertia of pain. He is losing the final battle, fought deep within his body, and his tears are stained with blood.
Too far, too long away, crouches the one whose name he calls, the general and the taciturn soldier - too far, too long. He guards his thoughts too cleverly, but his eyes rest heavy on the empty armour stand in the tent’s corner. Not too long now, he is certain, and the heralds will return with messages. They will call his name in breathless triumph, and his act of defiance will melt to joy. “Achilles,” they will spring about the tent door, “Achilles we have pushed their defences.” He crumbles grass blades in his well-worn palm, and sighs. Hope, he reflects, is the biggest killer of them all.
By the field’s edge, all signs of dusk melted into greyscale gurgles for life; his bearer of trials, his steadfast shadow, his own comrade - lies beaten in the dust of war. Breath comes sparser now, and shallow to hear; those comrades who had survived are now lost in his pitiful sobs, no more heroic than the sullen coward. He begs for death and, with steps of molten lead, the bravest descend with welcome comfort. Beyond the darkness, there is no more pain, only life’s longest journey into death.
They bind his hair in fettered ribbons, woven carefully through bloodied locks, and his worn body is covered with a stranger’s chlamys, red for war and courage. The softest hands rest upon his temples and he is assured of his fate beyond that field - eternally, the most loved. His words are no more than a child’s first attempts at speech, but the red tears that blot the dust beneath him are straight from the soul, his strangled eyes plead for one voice only.
One voice, one man, one hero - all but deafened to the bitter turn that the battle has taken, unknowing in his distance. He reclines upon the blanketed floor, restless in his heart and eager for news. “Lord there is nothing,” he could almost hear their reply, “nothing more to do but retreat.” It would be a well-suited end to the battle - and yet, already Achilles is a slave to regret. The missing armour from the stand ought to be resting upon his shoulders and yet… it had been placed on the unready form of his heart’s brother. Achilles could easily have cried for anger, if it were not for hope, damned hope…
Hope had fled them far on false wings, and for its deception, Achilles would reap only loss. On the killing fields, more red than grassed, his own Patroclus’ finest hour was one of bitterness and sickness. Antilochus, out of respect and propriety, takes the boy’s fragile life into his own soul, and ends it before the death shivers take him in stark pain. Better for the Boatman to greet him sane, than to have him approach half-wild with the crippling waves of agony. In his splintered chest, nothing stirs. Patroclus, tricked and slain, lays dead.
“He was brave,” Antilochus intones, “when it mattered most. He was Achilles’ right hand, and served his honour well. He is Achilles, forever now.” His heart weighs more than it ever has as he trudges the lonely road to the ships by the sea’s edge, a world away from the killing fields, to where Achilles, tempestuous and choleric Achilles, expects his friend’s return. No more, Antilochus sighs, no more will hope serve him well.
By the waiting boats, Achilles’ eyes are lowered in shame as he bears the news, great shackles of remorse overtake his stern body. Antilochus bows his own head by the blanketed floor, fearful of the lusty grief that wells behind Achilles’ measured eyes. His roars of deceit and horror are mere continuations of Patroclus’, his hands grappling with his glistening hair as he curses his own wilfulness. Achilles, no more the brave Achilles - whatever battles are fought hence, they shall be for Patroclus, in Patroclus’ name, a treaty to the warring grief within Achilles. For Patroclus, anything for Patroclus - and Antilochus can abide no more of such hopeless sorrow. His darkened hair is matted with his own tears, and a fair number of Achilles’ too, all spent in loss for the brave dead boy. Antilochus kneels back, takes the grieved soldier’s hands in his, and awaits the storms of madness. “I shouldn’t have,” and “if only…” comes the mantra from Achilles’ cursed lips, a traitor to his own heart, bowing his spine to the weight of such a loved one’s death. Brave Patroclus, only Patroclus, my Patroclus - Patroclus, it will all be for Patroclus now, all for him - until Antilochus, most loyal, can no longer bear to hear such portents of despair. Hope, which had before deceived them, was now dispersed altogether.
His restless feet bear him back to Patroclus, drawn to him for Achilles’ sake, and to where bravest Ajax is fighting the killer’s kin to protect the fallen boy. For Achilles, Antilochus knows they must soldier for Achilles now. They must return the beloved’s body, deliver Brave Patroclus from the beastly Trojans, and Antilochus is loath to snap the spell of grief that has set upon Achilles. His eyes are slick ice, watching with clear broken-heartedness, following behind with the dizzy insecurities that stem from the greatest suffering. They’ll not dishonour him twice, snarls Achilles, not while I draw breath.
As they approach the body, held on all sides by fervent Argives, Antilochus stands back, stands apart; he cannot bear to approach once more the blood-lost body, or be witness to the dirge that has been fraying Achilles’ mind. Achilles - oh, how Antilochus would weep for Achilles if only time allowed it - wanders into the field no more armed than he had been in the first instance, no more protected than his dearest Patroclus. An easy target though he is, the Trojans stand back, guarded and fearful of the wrath that bubbles beneath the surface as Achilles throws himself upon the boy. Brave Patroclus, only Patroclus, my Patroclus… Antilochus begins to feel as if he too has loved and lost so dear a boy, such is the extent of Achilles’ howling grief. A show for the death of a hero - everything is owed to Patroclus now.
He calls for a bier, some thoughtful Argives hurry forth with a strapped board to carry the slain hero, and Achilles leads the procession, full of praise and true horror for Patroclus. It is in the unspoken grime upon his face, that any Trojan to assail them now will fall further than the House of Death. They hasten to the beachfront, Achilles’ voice carrying above the rest with tales of Patroclus’ childhood, and woes that his father must hear of the death. It is the end, Antilochus fears, the end of the way things used to be. Achilles will leave no Trojan alive now, if the choice is laid before him.
And in their midst
The brilliant Achilles began to arm for battle…
A sound of grinding came from the fighter’s teeth,
His eyes blazed forth in searing points of fire,
Unbearable grief came surging through his heart.