Guys, I am so sorry this has been so delayed. Lockdown 3.0 hit me hard and despite having more free time than normal I found my creativity dried up for a while there. I seem to be back in the flow of things now, so hopefully there won't be such a delay next time (famous last words). I know some of you get cross with me when I apologise, but I also know the frustration of having to wait months.
Special thanks to my lovely new editor SimonBrooke
It is just after dawn, and I am drifting in that place between sleep and wakefulness when Achilles bursts in. He is still dripping from the ocean, carrying with him the smell of brine and seaweed.
He paces about the tent, fists clenched. 'I will kill him. I will desecrate his body. I will tear his eyes out and rip off his limbs!'
I struggle upright and pull the furs to my chin, hoping to somehow shield myself from this onslaught. 'Achilles, you're frightening me.'
He only continues to rage. It is as though I haven't spoken
'She has forbidden me to fight without armour. She has always been so fearful of my mortality. They cannot kill me, but I gave her my word and now I must wait.'
He is returning from his mother, the goddess Thetis, but I wonder what he can mean by his words. I am about to ask how he can be so certain he will not lose his life but before I can, he switches again. The anger recedes faster than the sure footed Hermes can run and he falls to his knees and sobs.
I have never seen this Achilles. Words spill from his lips, rushed and incoherent. 'All my fault... Stubborn... stupid... Should have fought with the men... He was right. He was right about everything. He didn't deserve to die.'
He holds his head in his hands, and becomes still as stone and for the longest time I falter at his side and struggle with what I should do. Finally, I rest a hand on his arm, so lightly I wonder if he will notice my touch.
When he raises his head there is a fire blazing in his eyes.
In an act of perfect fluidity he rolls us onto the pallet so I am beneath him, he pins my wrists above my head and a lurch of arousal flips my stomach
Soon his lips begin their descent, tantalisingly slowly they graze my skin, igniting a cascade of sparks wherever they touch, until unbearable pleasure burns through every part of me.
I gasp his name as I struggle to free my wrists, that I might seize his hair and pull his face towards my own.
'What is it?' he asks without looking up.
'Achilles' I say again. 'Please'
He sucks my nipple into his mouth and I arch from the pallet hissing with unmet need.
His eyes meet mine and they are filled with mischief. This glorious torture could last for hours. My sigh is wretched. I am taut with frustration and I know what this look means. His answering chuckle makes me smile despite myself. It is the first time I have heard the sound in many days.
Seeming to take pity on me, he releases my wrists and crawls back up my body and rests his palms on either side of my face. He buries himself in me, in one swift move. Once inside me, he collapses on top of me, covering my body with his own and takes long slow grinding strokes that seem to go on for an eternity. Suddenly he stops again, holds my face in his hands and gazes at me long and hard; mischief replacing solemn fortitude. I begin to wonder if he will ever speak again, ever move again, but he does.
'Don't leave me Briseis, don't ever leave me.'
I shake my head. 'I won't.'
But this isn't enough for Achilles. 'Promise me.'
'Swear to it.'
This seems to satisfy him. He captures my lips with his mouth in a punishing, thrilling kiss. Movement resumes; the moment of vulnerability forgotten. He slides his hands under me, cupping my buttocks so he can penetrate still deeper, and pistons in and out. His nails dig into my flesh.
There is a desperation to the sex we have these days. It feels like he is trying to eat me, to swallow me whole, as if somehow consuming me entirely will take away the pain and grief that fills him.
His stabbing thrusts become erratic and I know he is close to coming undone. With a roar he coats my womb in his seed and immediately he is fast asleep. I am wrung out, soothed by his release and glad of the respite. These last few days I have been on a constant blade-edge, trying to predict which Achilles I will be dealing with.
At sundown, a boy comes. 'Patroclus is returned.' Already he has turned and he is running back from whence he came. Achilles follows after him, running to the gates of the camp to find Patroclus' body. I follow more slowly.
'How is he?' Odysseus' voice is rough with some unspoken emotion, as he falls into step beside me.
I shake my head, unable to find the words to answer his question. Odysseus nods, it appears my expression is enough.
'He frightens me.' I finally whisper. 'He oscillates between violent rage and terrifying grief.'
He has not the chance to reply, before the sight of Achilles carrying Patroclus in his arms reaches us. He looks lost. He has killed so many, I wonder, has he not considered what happens to them next?
'Take him to the medicine lodge.' I tell him, sensing a need for someone to be decisive. As he lays him out on the gurney, I fetch my kit.
When I return, Odysseus and Ajax take Achilles and leave us - this is women's work. Hecamedes lights the lamps and ignites the incense, myrrh for tranquility, rosemary for remembrance, sage to repel bad spirits. I bind the wound on his chest in linen. The rest of him is relatively unscathed. I wash him, beginning at his feet and working upwards, all the while, tears spill down my face. Many times have I fulfilled this task, when warriors prized to the Greek Kings lost their lives in this war, but never have I cried before, never have I done this for one that I care for as I care for Patroclus. Next comes the oil, infused with melissa and laurel. I must anoint him so the boat keeper will know him. Finally, when I lay the coins on his eyes, he could almost be sleeping.
It is done.
I sink to the cold dirt floor. The sun has set, the lamps are almost empty, they splutter and start as they give up their light. Every bone in my body aches from the tension I have felt these past days. Curling into myself and resting my head on my knees, I close my stinging eyes. I loved Patroclus. I loved him as much as I love Achilles. They are sides of the same coin and I realise I cannot conceive of one without the other. That I will never see him alive again in this world, fills me with an inconsolable sorrow that I fear will never leave me.
I have no idea how much time has passed when Achilles finds me and takes me back to the tent. At first I fear his response, guilt that somehow I should not be allowed my own grief when his is so large and unwieldy, but he bathes me, makes tender love to me. My climax is followed by my tears. He wraps us both in the furs and holds me, stroking my hair until I fall asleep.
The sun arrives, and I wake to find the vengeful rage that fills Achilles has returned. He paces back and forth, punching his clenched fist into the palm of his other hand. His breathing is laboured, he changes direction suddenly and unpredictably, he pulls at his hair and mutters. I dare not speak. Achilles is furious that Patroclus was returned only in his tunic. He is furious at losing his armour, furious at the insult implicit in this action. All I can think is how peaceful, how beautiful Patroclus looked, even in death. Finally Achilles leaves to go back to the beach in search of Thetis.
He returns more angry and more restless, even than before. He wants to go directly to Troy and summon Hector but his mother has again forbidden it. She has made him swear to wait until the promised new armour arrives. Thetis has asked the lame blacksmith, Hephaestus - god of fire and metalworking, to craft him new armour, superior in every way to the stolen armour. They say Hephaestus is a sight to behold. As ugly as his wife Aphrodite is beautiful. They say theirs was not a love match. They say Zeus married them in haste, to stop the other gods fighting over Aphrodite's legendary beauty.
Wearily I fetch figs and bread. Achilles eats with taciturn rage and I watch, hopeful it will recede as his belly fills.
The moment he finishes eating he leaps back to his feet. 'I am going to kill Hector,' he is still so angry. 'I am going to kill him and then I am going to chop him into pieces.' I flinch at the harsh words. 'There will be no burial for Hector,' he bellows. There will be no afterlife. He will be cursed to wander the planes of Troy for all eternity.'
He is fretful. He is angry. He is restless. As the hours pass he grows more so, until I start at his every movement. Three days and three nights pass. All three mornings as the sun rises over the Aegean Sea she does not come. Achilles makes the journey to the shore to wait for Thetis. I hear him calling for her even from where I wait in the tent. Still she does not return to greet him at the seafront where he waits for her.
When finally on the fourth morning he returns, the vision of him robs me of my breath. For what a suit of armour it is.
The tight clasped shimmering greaves curve gracefully around his calves; the breastplate of bronze shines like the sun itself; there is a golden helmet with a brilliant scarlet plume. But it is the shield, it is the magnificent shield that draws the eye. They say the talent and skill of Hephaestus is greater than any other blacksmith immortal or otherwise, that has ever lived, but still I cannot conceive of how he has managed to produce something of such beauty in such a short time.There are entire worlds in that shield. On the very centre there is wrought the moon and the sky, with the stars and all of their constellations. Outside of this, forming concentric rings, there are two worlds, one at peace, with a wedding dance and purple clusters of grapes and a trickling stream and grazing cattle; and the other a country at war, with a city under siege and all the terrible disorder of the battlefield. There is more, there is so much more I cannot begin to describe it, but running around the very edge is a tumultuous ocean. It is a shield that only a god could make and I cannot imagine how Achilles can think of fighting, when instead he could admire its creation all the long day.
Word of Achilles' new armour spreads quickly, and soon enough, folk from all over the camp have gathered to admire it. A crowd, three men deep surround him and it is only because of his height that I can still see him towering above them. Hemmed in by his admirers, he is unable to move, so instead he barks orders to prepare for the battle and the myrmidon encampment swings into activity.
Before too long, the high king and his brother join the crowd. Agamemnon is clearly delighted and he makes no attempt to conceal this. People part respectfully, to allow their king get closer to Achilles, but when he reaches out to grip Achilles by his shoulders the responding growl is almost instant. Achilles does not appear to move and yet it is as though a storm gathers around him.
'I am not doing this for you. I am seeking revenge for the untimely death of my dearest friend. Do not ever forget that.' His voice is quiet but deadly.
I hold my breath and wait to see how this will unfold.
Agamemnon smiles awkwardly. 'Of course, of course Achilles, you are absolutely right,' he blusters. A collective sigh is uttered by the gathered crowd and the atmosphere eases.
Menelaus mostly keeps his gaze to the ground, occasionally shooting looks at the new armour when curiosity means he can't keep his eyes away. He looks away again almost as soon as he's stolen a glance. This is likely the first time they have been in each other's company since the night Achilles came and took me from his tent. Before long, Menelaus' gaze begins to find me too. I feel it before I see it, that familiar crawling sensation. My skin prickles as his unwelcome attention moves down my back. I look at the ground and remember this was frequently a position I found myself in, before Achilles fell out with the brothers. I don't miss Menelaus' gaze and I have forgotten how uncomfortable it makes me.
A sound distracts me, I look up from my feet to see Odysseus move to stand between us. I cannot see Odysseus' face, but Menelaus blanches at his expression. For a while that is the end of it, but it soon begins again, when he thinks no one notices his eyes shoot towards me. He cannot help himself.
It has happened maybe half a dozen times, when Achilles patience runs dry. I had assumed he was too wrapped up in his new armour and the impending fight, but apparently not. Like a flash he moves in front of Menelaus, his face mere inches away. His roar fills the arena. 'If you even glance at her again I will rip you to pieces with my bare hands.'
The crowd draws in it's breath yet again as Agamemnon visibly struggles between appeasing Achilles, and raging at the disrespect shown to his brother and by proxy to him. A second slight, a second show of insubordination. In such a public way, but finally the desire to have Achilles back out in the battle wins.
Achilles meanwhile, ignores the conflict taking place on Agamemnon's face, instead his preparations to depart resume. Kneeling beside his chariot, he checks the wheels and fittings are sound. He leads out his horses. Huge, beautiful, majestic creatures, Xanthos and Balius are as white as the foam of the Aegean waves and they dwarf even Achilles. It is said that they were a gift from Poseidon to his mother Thetis on her wedding day. They stand as still as marble, as he tethers them to his chariot.
Achilles is so entirely involved in his preparations, I wonder if he will leave without me getting the chance to bid him farewell. If the sombre mood among most of the men is anything to go by, this could be the last time I see him alive. But suddenly he appears to remember me. Abruptly, he stops talking, leaves the group and comes to stand me before me. The world around us seems to dissolve and it is as though only the two of us stand here. From somewhere Achilles withdraws the ring, the curling arrow that Patroclus always wore, that bled when he died, dripping its blood down Achilles' arm on that bleak, godless day.
Too big to be worn on any of my fingers, it hangs on a thick leather thong. Solemnly he lifts it and places it over my head, so it hangs around my neck and nestles in my breast. I know I should be happy, touched by this display of commitment, but this feels like an omen. I don't want this parting gift and the sense of finality it brings with it.
'Achilles' I whisper. My voice breaks. My eyes smart. I don't want him to go, I cannot lose him too. But there is little point in asking him to stay. 'Be careful.' I say instead.
He laughs and cups my face with his giant hands, and in a gruff voice, perhaps an octave lower than normal he says 'worry not little one, I will return to you soon enough.' The kiss he lays on my forehead is gentle.
Then his stance changes. He stands taller and stiller while the myrmidons gather behind him. I watch as though some kind of enchantment has descended on me, as he transforms before my eyes. A cold inhuman stillness seems to settle over him, it robs the expression from his face. As he climbs into his chariot, clouds move across the sun, casting shadow on the plain. A stiff wind sweeps across the stark grey horizon. And then with a great shout, Achilles raises his spear, signaling their parting, and they move off.
I am still watching their departure when I hear the thunder of hooves close by. Cautiously, I look up to see Odysseus seated high on his horse. He leaps down and lands on his feet beside me.
'Odysseus' my voice is a mere whisper, even though I am certain no one watches our exchange.
'Go to my tent. Tell no one. Wait there until we return.'
He takes my hand in his own. 'I am sure all will be well Briseis. He has never lost a fight yet.
Before I have a chance to reply he is back in his saddle and away.
The light is fading; we hear their return long before we see it. A deafening thunder of galloping hooves and rattling wheels seems to surround the camp. I look around me, women have risen to their feet and hug themselves as they too try to locate the source of this unearthly sound. They gallop in circles around the camp. A cloud of dust surrounds them so at first I do not notice, but as he draws closer my stomach clenches and my mouth dries.
Achilles drags his corpse behind his chariot, I know him immediately from his size and the onyx black curls that even now adorn his head. The men scream and bay their bloodthirsty delight. My eyes sting from dust and tears, until eventually I lose sight of them again, so blurred is my vision. They circle around the camp, at breakneck speed in an odd display of victory. My relief at Achilles' safe return is eclipsed by this brutal, savage vision.
Hector, who I have known since girlhood. Son to Priam, brother to Paris, husband to Andromache, father to Scamandrius, lies dead. His bloodied, dust covered corpse mutilated almost beyond recognition. So many will grieve his passing. Will they be denied the honour of putting his body to rest in the proper way?
We gather in a huddle and look on in collective horror as Achilles alights from the chariot. He removes his new armour from his body piece by piece as his eyes scan the crowd. I back further into the small group of trojan women, hoping to conceal myself from him, hoping to delay the inevitable. I cannot see him now. My stomach turns, my chest tightens, my throat clamps shut. I want to cry. I want to scream. I want to beat Achilles' chest with my fists. I want to run away, to find my sanctuary in the woods and hide but I dare not. I am expected to be here, loyal and welcoming while my heart breaks. There has been too much loss, too much death, too much mindless carnage, but most of all Hector's death will not bring Patroclus back to us.
When the armour is gone, he unties Hector from his chariot and drags his corpse by it's ankles to the entrance of the feasting tent.
He rights himself and again his eyes scan the crowd stopping when they locate me. My breath catches, I am never prepared for the vision of him; all that glorious masculine perfection. As his gaze crawls over me and my world begins to burn. He speaks my name and somehow his voice carries across the arena to where I stand. It is low and rich and laced with so many dark things. The sound of it licks its way down my spine and settles low in my belly. It is a summoning, an accusation and a command all bundled into a single word.
He begins to approach, taking big strides, reaching me in no time. The crowd of women I had sought refuge among melt away, leaving me alone to face my fate. I shrink back, without meaning to, but he does not appear to notice. For a long moment he simply stands before me, uncomfortably close, his gaze hooded and lethal, his powerful lythe body taut with suppressed energy and tension. My stomach clenches, and I tell myself it is in fury not desire. My tongue darts out to moisten my lips.
'Achilles.' My voice is a parched whisper.
He takes another step towards me, crowding out the darkening sky, the emerging stars and all the plains of Troy. He is so close now I can feel the heat radiating from him. His stare sweeps over me and crawls inside me. Another wave of sorrow for Hector washes through me and I am certain my treacherous feelings are there in my eyes for him to read. An expression moves over his face akin to some sort of desert storm. I stand as still as I can and try to school my features so they show nothing of the battle which rages in my chest.