We have risen with our faces to the Wall of Troy every day for the last nine years. Every day, we wait in the silence of the rosy-fingered dawn for the gates of the wall to yawn and swing up mightily. Behind them is a host exactly like this one, which has risen every day for the last nine years to see our ships clogging their coastline. They stream out behind their mighty captains, to whom they have sworn courage and violence in the swell of their hearts. Just so, the men on this beach stream out behind our captains, in the joy of the knowledge that they are the most excellent killers of men the world has seen. Nine years we have observed this tradition, come rain and wind and heat.
It is hot today, dry and dusty. The heat is the heat of the same sun. The dust is the dust of war, and so the same dust. Only the gods are different.
It is a lesser war, a pettier war. Some say it is a war for a woman. Others say it is a war against thieves, indigo-skinned bandits. Dark lords, but not dark powers. The Achaians would never turn against their deities, no matter how cruel their decrees or improbable their whims. It makes me wonder at these long-haired men, wild and beautiful. What sort of people make gods of their own flaws, of pride and vainglory and jealousy?
These people do, who are not compassionate, or merciful, or soft, or sentimental. These whose joy lies in their passion, their honour amidst their blades, their love in their lust, their ecstasy in their agony.
I listen to the breathing of their myriad armies, fires coursing through bodies in a unified song of swords and cries, rending and remaking the air above them again and again. The earth rings beneath their feet like a terrible harp. And I remember.
These people are a people of music, as once my god was a god of music. Now their gods are my gods. For good reason. One must believe with the times.
I have believed, and wandered, and believed again. I am that elda, the fey one who chose eternal regret over eternal peace. I wonder if they remember me, the ones who sailed, the ones who died, and think, ah, our poor brother, our dear lord, the mad Makalaurë who did not come back and remained in pain on mortal shores?
But I did not die. I sang. Life, and music. I sang, like the one I call Ilúvatar, and my life stretched out before me, spun as He once spun Arda from His song. I wandered and forgot, for a time, merging my song with His. Then I rested and watched. Then I sang again, was silent again, then again sang. Now I count the ages by the songs. As long as I have a voice in my throat, life continues, within and without my body. I will not die. Not here, at least.
Now the Achaians are making their song of war. And I am listening, though I regret having to do so. Blood is distasteful to my ears, and in all the ages of men, I have avoided it. Of some things I have had enough. Yet, I am here today on the windy plains of Troy, breathing the dust they are kicking up, Apollo and Athene and a few hundred islandfuls of able-bodied warriors.
I am not here for any of them.
It is near dusk and the shouts are getting more frantic, growing closer. My lord cannot hear them. The setting sun has filled his tent with heat and dusk, and his shadow is flung out across the dirt-streaked material, magnified gloriously and lovingly by the red rays. For even she would desire him, Arien the Maia, because she has eyes with which to see.
Surprising, how easily the old life and the old names come back to roll off the tongue. Or not. We Eldar have always had the gift – the curse – of perfect memory. This time it is a face and a body that have brought the earliest memories of a past to life.
They call him Achilles. Son of Peleus, lord of the Myrmidons.
I must confess I was shaken when I first set eyes upon this one. It was a tremendous thud into memory, into brief terror and even briefer joy, then into an incredulous recollection of the first lessons I learned that spoke of rehoused fëar, and a rejection of their possibilities. To think I might have gone upto him and embraced him, and been hacked for my pains! One does not simply touch a prince.
Now I am here to look upon this form awhile, and to dream sometimes that it is really him I look upon, that I have come to battle again because it is he who bade me do so, as always. For who did I love more than my brothers, and which of them more than my eldest?
I call him maitimo. Well-formed one. And I am here for him.
Maglor is the mightiest bard of the Noldor, and his voice travels far over land and sea, but of all the sons of Fëanor, it is Maedhros who is tallest, and kingliest, and the most beautiful of them all.
He is a wholly lovely boy. His mother’s divinity clings to him like the sea-sheen upon a swimmer, and life burns hot within him. His hair is a rich, deep auburn that hangs down to his hips from his proud young head. Young as my Russandol once was, in the morning of the world. So very young that he makes me feel ancient. Younger than never-defeated Aias, younger than wily Odysseus, younger than mace-wielding Agamemnon, King of Kings, who has caused him such grief.
Grief is naught but a fit of the sulks so magnificent that it would be amusing, were it not so horrifying. They say he almost slew Agamemnon the other night. None would blame another man for doing so, for the usurping of a woman is a heinous offence, has been so since time began. But one does not simply kill the High King, not even if one is the strength and soul of his armies. So boy Achilles did the next most hurtful thing. He withdrew himself and all his fighters from the war, and withdrawn we remain until amends are made.
One or other of his more hotheaded brothers would occassionally grumble at Maedhros. “Why are you always right, Russandol?”
And Maedhros, twinkling, would reply, “It is just my way.”
Of course, Agamemnon insisted that he would keep the maid Briseis, and that Achilles could go back and sing to the cuckoos in Pythia for all he cared. It is how kings behave in this day and age. Perhaps Agamemnon also believes he is a deity. His people would not mind. He is king, so he can be anything he wants.
His friend Patroklos is the one who sustains Achilles now, through his self-imposed exile from the battlefield. He was brought up to do battle, and misses it dearly. However, his pride keeps him from repealing his vow. He has a very strong sense of honour, and righteousness, and duty, my young lord. All outweighed only by his stronger sense of self.
Right now, the Achaians are dying like flies under the swords of the sons of Troy. And they will continue to die until this copper-headed half-deity calls upon the Shepherd of the Clouds to cease his revenge by proxy.
The young king tilted his head back, exhausted. “My lord,” he began, then hesitated. He wanted very much to reject the suggestion summarily, to assert that the armies of the elves were not at their full strength. That he was now as tired as it was possible for any living being to be.
Maedhros flashed him a silent challenge. His eyes brightened, and his lip curled imperiously. Fingon smiled wearily. He knew he was being unworthy.
“Maitimo,” he said softly, “you know best in this. No,” – he raised a hand to check the automatic denial, “no, lord commander, you have been the single greatest enemy of the Black One in these years past. Himring has stood closer and faster against Angband than Hithlum. We shall abide by your plans. Send out the missives. The Eldalië shall march, with such allies as we have, against Morgoth – ”
He felt Maedhros’ soul leap in pride and joy. Fingon hated nothing and no one in the world except for Morgoth, but he knew his hatred was a pale thing before that of his friend.
“ – and our host shall be called the Union of Maedhros.”
Many ages later, long after the events of the Trojan War, Maglor, sitting repulsed and fascinated in the Colosseum, would be reminded again of Fingon as he watched the two young gladiators in the arena turn to the emperor and raise their voices in that single-minded, despairing cry. We who are about to die salute you.
What an entirely strange war. The mightiest of the mighty swat their own children as the small errand boys swat flies for their amusement.
Perhaps these are the only real gods. When else has power been so random, so joyous, so drunk on itself, so utterly in keeping with the world it governs?
It has been a bad day for our hosts again. Achilles’ men have been skulking about uneasily. Technically, those under his banner have no part in this war for now, but they do not like sitting on their hands when there is so much blood to be spilt. I have busied myself in the healers’ huts. They do not seem to mind a strange man holding the hands of the dying. They probably believe I pray to Hades for their safe journey to the otherworld, or something equally irrelevant. The afterlife seems so important to mortals, the undeath, the redemption, sometimes even the reincarnation. It never interested me. No, all I try to do is ease the pain where I can. Holding a warm hand helps, sometimes. And if they want to believe they are really dying with a brother or a father by their side, instead of an idle stranger, I see no point in gainsaying delirium.
A flash of cloak. Patroklos hurries by.
He is handsome after a fashion, dark-haired, with a kindly face. It is not his fault that ever he must wait upon his lord, and stand bedimmed and superflous, like a candle beside a brilliant bolt of lightning. Or perhaps it is. The fetters of devotion are entirely a thing of your own making, son of Menoition.
A younger elf, swaying slightly under the influence of the dance and a healthy dose of wine, pointed slackly and somewhat stupidly at the broad back of the red-haired elf, and then asked Maglor, “You’re his brother?”
There now, but I must not be uncharitable. Patroklos is among the best-loved men of the Achaians, for he is simple and high-souled and generous to all, even the women. Rather a rare thing among men whose tongue uniformly calls them all as shes. And ‘wombs’, now and then. I wonder if the young Paris calls to Menelaus’ wife so.
Oftimes I find I am amused at them all. Am I then their god too?
The sun has taken the bent road to the other world. It is dark now. I must go back to the huts. The dying will be carried back soon.
It was late, very late. Fingon struggled to draw the cool night air into his lungs. He was surprised and irritated at his own lethargy. It would never do, not when battle loomed ahead, billowing with promises of greater fury and greater glory than ever before. And he was among those who would lead his kin into the jaws of –
He shook his head resolutely. What was happening to him? His father would have been ashamed. No; it would not be. Not for nothing was he the son of Fingolfin, who had done battle with Morgoth himself.
A light hand fell on his shoulder, and all doubt was swept away as he turned to look into the warm, trusting eyes of Maedhros.
“The night is passing,” murmured Maedhros.
Suddenly, Fingon’s joyous laugh rang through the room. “Yes,” he replied. “Now day shall come again.”
“…Meriones is wounded?”
“Aias also.” Patroklos’ voice is hushed, ragged. “It is a rampage.”
The boy is up now, and pacing. “Bad, bad. At this rate they will fire us out of here – if any live to run away.”
“It is that one,” Patroklos says. His hand-shadows are frantic, spread over the white cloth. “Priam’s eldest. He seems to be everywhere at once.”
Achilles snarls. “He is not a god that he can be everywhere at once.”
No, and you would not bear for anyone else to be covered in more glory than you, will you, blessed one?
“No!” His voice is raised now. The other servants have raised their heads. It is a mighty sound, like a great bell. Sweet. “Hector, Hector, Hector. He is all there is on this plain. And all thanks to that – that man whom we are forced to call our king.”
Actually, Achilles, it is all thanks to you, who withdrew from battle knowing full well how it would hurt your side. And is that all you do? It would be enough, but no, your resentment must fall as a mother-sworn curse over your own hosts, so that Zeus himself plagues them in the form of that Hector who is said to be your equal from the Trojan side. So that your own kin cry out to the skies, Bring him back! Achilles, Achilles! Without him we are lost!
Bloody-minded, petty son of Peleus. I wonder how I ever saw my brother in you. He was never, even at the fraying ends of his hope and sanity, so full of himself.
“So they need Achil now, do they, Patroklos?”
“No Turgon. No Thingol. No Finr- no Orodreth.”
Maedhros watched Fingon impassively as he murmured the names over again, worried.
“So of all the hosts of the Eldar, it is but a two-fifths that actually march in this rally against the Black Foe. Not a very cheering prospect, as you will agree, cousin.”
Slowly, he shifted in his seat, and spoke for the first time since Fingon had undergone this panic attack.
“So?” Fingon almost laughed. “Does it mean nothing, then, my lord?”
“Not really – my king.”
He stopped in his tracks and faced the older elf, hoping for a solace his laconic flippancy had not afforded Fingon so far. Their eyes met.
“Who else do we have, then?” he asked.
He felt it reverberate in his being, dark and enticing, like a promise. King. Lord. Equal ransoms on their heads.
Who else was needed?
“…and ever has my father bid me hearken to your words, my friend. Very well, then, so it shall be. If not Achilles, then his squire shall brace the Achaian host.”
Patroklos is a shrewd man. He does not love war, but he will do anything to keep the Argives from immortalising his lord as Achilles the Resentful. It is not a bad idea, Patroklos impersonating Achilles. He is an average warrior, but even average men, I have learnt, may achieve greatness by assuming its mantle.
A flare of bright orange. Patroklos lights the coal himself. In the light, their reflections seem like dancing puppets, thrown this way and that by the hands of the wind.
“…strike center and forge ahead…do not take on Hector yet…go upto the Wall, but do not attempt to breach it...do not touch the Wall…”
They make plans hurriedly. Things are passed between them. Patroklos rises. Achilles put his arms around him.
A fevered embrace in the shadows, red head against dark. We who are about to die.
And I can see it in the shadows, as if I were Death himself. These two will die. They are dying right now, their fates ebbing from their bodies even as they hold each other.
Achilles, Achilles. You will doom me to song again.
Water and music wash a man at birth, and with water and music he is anointed at his last. How like a river is the bard. The rain swells his song, the heat dries it. Winds prickle the bard’s skin and pinch them up in wrinkles.
And Maglor in the end must seek the sea.
I have not sung aloud in a long time. I do not sing for others to hear. I sing to the dying men sometimes. Softly, so that none else can hear me. So far they have kept my secrets. I wonder what Agamemnon would do if he found out that among Achilles’ kinslayers was a man who could prevail on Poseidon himself to rise and wash his precious palisade off the face of the shore. It irritates me, this wall they have built across their ships. I have always hated walls.
Patroklos did not return to his tent last night. The news of tomorrow’s game has spread. Most of the men forced themselves to sleep the night through. I will not be going with them. I want to stay with the boy.
I watched the host for a while, curled up one beside the other like rows and rows of babies in a womb. Then I slashed my shoulder wound open again. I took it from a child’s spear two days before we laid down our arms. It had healed completely, but the gash was visible yet. I ran my knife along it.
Patroklos is wearing Achilles’ armour. He is shorter and more wiry, but they will fall for the disguise from a distance. He believes me when I tell him I dashed against a rock in the sea. He likes me. I think he recognises his own impulse when he looks at me in battle. We both fight just enough to stay alive. He tells me they will not miss me, and I am free to go back and rest for the day.
I wish I could hold your hand a while and sing to you, Patroklos. But I am not here for you. Wish you well, squire-lord. And do not take the Wall. If you love him, do not take the Wall.
I bandaged the shoulder myself. It does not hurt more than a scratch would, but appearances must be kept up.
“Look for me, if you can.” Maedhros told Fingon.
“That I will,” he smiled. They were alone in the sunlit room, going over the last details.
“Findekáno,” Maedhros asked, “do you think we have overestimated our strengths?”
Fingon froze, surprised that such a question could pass even for a jest from his cousin.
“No,” he replied earnestly. “I thought that was the first thing that we ascertained between ourselves, Maitimo. What makes you doubt now?”
Maedhros smiled brightly, and raised his hand to Fingon’s bare head. “I could never doubt, Findekáno. Not with you by me.”
Fingon left for Hithlum soon after. Himring was plunged into silent preparations for the great war.
Maedhros looked westwards to his cousin’s kingdom, and did not sleep that night.
It is unbearable, the sand of Troy. Heat rises with it, a damp, airy heat that fills the hollow of the world with sweat and sloth. The healers’ backs are bent, and the maids’ dresses have become translucent. It sticks to skin like fine gold. Wash it off, and more sticks on. Achilles has walked abroad often these days. Hearts invariably lift when he does. It would be a blind man who did not adore him unquestioningly upon sight. Women, especially, watch him with a certain shining light in their eyes. It was so with Maitimo. They loved to simply look at him. So did I. So did everyone. Merely to behold him made one want to swear to a lifetime of valour and honourable deeds. Much the same as it is with this boy.
He does not appear out of his tent today at all.
All day, I hear the sounds from the plain. Metal, hooves, panting breath. Death takes the Danaoi and the Trojans with equal ecstasy, screaming as it enters their bodies and not stopping until it has well and truly taken the last sour vestige of breath. I cannot help but remember other wars.
The screaming was worse then, less musical. The enemy’s blood was black. It hissed as it spilled to the ground, like poison.
It is mid-afternoon. The camp is hanging its head in fatigue. I turn from them and listen for the young one. His feet are shuffling on the dust floor of his tent, scrabbling aimless patterns on it.
I must see him again.
I enter his tent with water and a washcloth. The silence ricochets around the enclosure, much like the sound of a gong would.
“I did not send for anyone.”
I cannot raise my eyes. But I can talk. I talk to his feet. I know he will like what he hears.
He lolls back on his couch and sighs, a sort of shrug from his throat. I kneel and place his left foot on my leg. The water is the coolest I could find.
“Is it late yet?” he asks me.
I tell him there are a little over three hours to sunset.
“He shall return before that,” he says casually.
This is where I insert the customary intonation to Zeus the lightning gatherer, and Apollo of infinite light. How can I tell him that even now, it is Ares the war god who has his friend by the throat, driving him to madness, closer and closer to the Wall, and further away from him?
I say nothing.
Fingon had fought for four days without food, without sleep and without stopping. He did not know what had gone wrong, only that something had, and now he was fighting to save his life. Kingdom, kingship, brothers, armies – he no longer cared. He only wanted to get out of this alive.
He raised his sword once more against the lord of Balrogs, and smote him. Gothmog roared in pain, and faltered before his eyes.
Everything faltered before Fingon’s eyes.
He heard, rather than felt, the fire whip crack into his head.
Slowly, he raises his foot from my thigh and places it under my chin. He forces me to look into his face. His eyes are the water in the deepest part of the sea.
“He shall return at sunset,” he repeats, in a weary sort of voice.
I cannot answer him. His toes shift from beneath my chin. There is a sharp, rushing sound. His foot slams into my face.
The water is upset, over my clothes and into the dust. The heat rises up like a sigh. I find myself sprawled on my back before him. He is a strong lad, very strong.
I pick up the cloth, which is still wet – lucky it did not fall into the gravel – and sit up. I take his right foot in my hands and pass the clean half over it.
He raises my head again, this time with his fingers. There are tears in his eyes. He touches my lower lip. His thumb is warm and callused, and bloody. I have a bleeding lip.
Do not weep, maitimo. Everyone dies. Everyone except Maglor. And he will sing of you, never worry.
“I will sing of you,” I tell him. I do not know what prompted me to say it loud.
One of the stories they tell at the campfires is that Achilles was given a choice, when he was very young, of a short and glorious life, to be rewarded with the foremost place in the history of men, or a long life spent in oblivion. They say he chose the former. Is this why I am saying it to him? For reassurance? What difference will it make to him after he is gone, anyway?
I suppose he believes it will, or he would be back singing to the cuckoos in Pythia right now. I would kill Agamemnon, were he before me, for causing this boy pain.
“Bard,” he speaks roughly, “find Patroklos for me. Tell him to return. Now.”
There is some commotion out on the field. The screaming is become centred, focused on something – or someone. I pick up what I brought in and walk out.
Running feet. Fast, fast running.
All seven brothers were wounded, but none so badly as Amras, the younger of the twins. His fever took a long while to cool, and his wounds were several, and serious.
He woke to find himself in an unfamiliar camp, watched over by his eldest brother. Maedhros had suffered the least bodily harm, so he took over the care of his other brothers as soon as he was hale enough. He continued to sit by Amras through the long period of his recovery, and once he was well enough to talk, answered all his questions in plain, truthful speech. He held Amras silently as the latter wept through the grievous hurts of what had befallen them and their friends. Beleriand had almost been obliterated by the dark armies.
“Where is Findekáno?” Amras asked him soon after he woke, timidly, afraid that he already knew the answer.
Celegorm and Curufin, engaged in a chess game at the far corner of the room, snapped their heads up. Maedhros was a long time answering.
“Turgon is now High King of the Noldor,” was all he said.
His brothers never heard Fingon’s name cross his lips, then or ever again.
It is the stripling Antilochos. He is one of those would gladly die if Achilles expressed a mild inclination to seeing a man run through arrow-rain. His eyes are wide, and his lip trembles.
From behind me, Achilles has seen him through the open tent flap and is up and out like a storm.
A single word issues from him. “Patroklos…”
Antilochos opens his mouth to speak but fails. Silence tells everything.
And the heavens have stopped, and the earth is still. There is naught but the heat, and the sweat trickling down Antilochos’ brow, and Achilles. The world’s eyes are on him.
He is still, breathless, for one moment, and then he is down, pulled to his knees. He opens his mouth, and a single cry escapes him, a wordless scream that is so loud, and so primal, the earth must have uttered it when birthed by the One. It is the simplest song I have ever heard, and the most final. And he is stretching like an animal, his palms scraping through the dust, bringing it up in handfuls and pouring it over himself, his hair, his eyes, his open mouth. He is beautiful and hideous.
I watch the earth gather him to itself, as he lies face down in the soil and begins to weep, shaking like a leaf. Boy, boy, I would weep in your stead if I could. And I envy your grief, for my brother’s sake. He loved and loved and could not shed one tear.
But I am only a singer. I cannot save your lives.
Antilochos is terrified. The women have come out now. They will start rending their hair soon.
Another new day. But for the first time in ten years, the army rises and looks – not to the Wall. It is to the one ship where abides hope, and a greater terror than the Trojans have yet faced.
He is more beautiful than ever as the first light falls upon his armour, Thetis’ gift. Hector stripped Patroklos of his old set. They say the blacksmith god made this new coat himself. I watch desire and worship flare in the eyes of the thousands who hold their breath as he walks out, and I can believe it. My father once wore jewels like these. None can see his red-rimmed eyes. At first sight of him, the thousands shout in one voice, so that the gods on Olympus must flare alight with jealousy at the love and the madness.
Achil! Achil! Achil!
For you, maitimo, I shall wander again, until your story is told. They talk of muses, your people, and all nine shall combine their grace to tell of you, for you are worth the epic, and the hymnal, and the poetry of love; music, dance, grief and laughter all have a share in your being and breath, Achil, and history shall remember you, since that was always your dearest wish, as the child who chose his stars, and not otherwise.
So sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles…
“…and so they held the funeral, for Hector tamer of horses.”
The old teller rasped the last lines. Narration sapped all his energies these days. He lacked the sight to see the rapt faces of his audience, so he listened for the collective sigh from them, such music to his ears. Sure enough, there was that brief, mesmeric second before the appreciative hoots broke out. His assistant caught hold of his wrinkled arm gently, and led him to his seat. He sank down, and slowly bent his face into his hands. He had managed it.
His helper watched him silently, grey eyes shining, and let his mind wander back to a beloved red head sparkling in the light of the sun.