The Iliad is re-done with the conceit that the Gods of Olympus are the players in an online game!
Unsuitable for conventional publication because of all the original reasons about the Iliad (given in the Classic Rejection post Dear Homer), plus it has a serially monogamous viewpoint in the first scene, an introduction, and scripted interludes. And I might be showing off scholarship and my intellectual transposition skills a bit.
So far incomplete, but I plan to return to it.
TROY STORY [v4]
By James B Tucker
POSSIBLE COVER BLURB:
“As playthings we are to the gods, they multi-user game with us for their sport.”
The Greek gods are human gamers—some think they are playing the Sims, others Warcraft. But characters within the virtual have developed thoughts and feelings of their own…
“Sing, oh Muse, of the tantrums of Achilles and Athena, over glory and grief. Sing, oh Muse, of the hissy-fits of Hera and Menelaus, over the living-doll wife. And sing, oh Muse, of the exasperation of their Dad Zeus, who isn’t very nice either.”
JUDGE: Is the pseudo-poetical style really necessary?
MUSE: It’s my invocation. I don’t get out of bed without an invocation.
PROSECUTION COUNSEL: That was brief compared to the invoking she needed this morning.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: Are you admitting to an improper relationship with a witness?
PRO CON.: Don’t be facetious. For the benefit of the jury, let me state the background to the case…
The question of rights for Artificial Intelligence has been contentious for a while now. And out of control too, because the development of “character AI” within computer games, especially the vast Multi-User ones, rapidly outstripped those of serious scientists in laboratories.
The famous “Turing Test” proposed by the father of computing is this: that when you cannot tell whether you are conversing with another human being or with a machine, then that machine truly has intelligence. But what Turing did not predict, and what is now seen as more important, is this: when you cannot tell whether you are conversing with another human being or with a program, then that program truly has emotion.
The use of bot programs pretending to be human to spam websites was just the start. Dating websites began using code to masquerade as attractive members and the first AI marriages followed shortly afterwards. But it was when non-player characters in World of Warcraft began forming unions that people first got worried.
It is now generally accepted that computer-game characters have more emotional development than the players—and often more intelligence into the bargain. And what horrifies many activists is that, being in games of war and adventure, many of these characters spend their short lives in violence, suffering and grief.
DEFENCE COUNSEL: Objection, your honour. My colleague is stating speculation about the status of AI’s as fact, not to mention impugning the character of computer gamers. The capacity of AI’s to suffer is something that he must establish if any of the rest of his case is to stand up.
PRO CON: The basic intelligence has been established beyond doubt. The emotion is something that I believe the jury will become utterly convinced of as we consider the evidence.
JUDGE: I believe this case follows a non-standard format?
DEF CON: My colleague and I have agreed that evidence will be viewed chronologically and debated as it arises before the closing remarks. Muse, would you like to begin?
JUDGE: Are we certain that this… hologram is reliable?
MUSE: I should ignore that, but I suppose you’re only doing your job. I am committed to the very highest standards of veracity, any idiom is purely for artistic purposes. Check my programming if you don’t believe me.
JUDGE: The previous account of the Trojan War that has been circulated?
PRO CON: I gather it passed through the hands of the winning side. It acquired a certain amount of bias in the process.
DEF CON: Subjective opinion!
MUSE: Ask me anything you like. I have total knowledge of the simulation and I can read the surface thoughts of humans connected to it via the neural interface. Not even Zeus was exempt.
PRO CON: Raul Jupiter, the head of Olympicorp. The man who set up this, the most sophisticated multi-user game ever created, purely as a toy for himself and his family.
DEF CON: It was a serious work of scholarship based upon Mycenaean legend. It was intended to be a valuable teaching aid.
MUSE: I am using their in-game names throughout. If they are an unholy mish-mash of the Greek and the Anglicized Roman, don’t blame me.
JUDGE: What is the most relevant point to begin the evidence?
‘I am the fairest of them all!’ screamed Athena, stamping her foot and causing a minor earthquake.
‘You’ve got geeky ears, you wear glasses, and you’re not even into puberty!’ snapped Aphrodite, cruelly and a little unfairly. While all of that was true in real life, Athena in the simulation had an impossibly perfect adult female avatar just like she did. Although possibly she had spent a little less time tweaking its appearance.
‘Girls! For heaven’s sake, play nice!’ snapped Hera. ‘It’s only a game, and it’s only in a game. It doesn’t matter.’
‘Then give it to me!’ said Aphrodite. ‘I am the goddess of Love after all.’
‘Only because nobody else wanted to play soppy girl games in here!’ said Athena. ‘This isn’t the Sims, half-sister!’
Hera grimaced a little at that. ‘There’s only one way to settle this,’ she said, ‘I’ll have the apple because it’s true in real life, I’m the eldest and I’m your father’s wife.’
‘Exactly, you’re old!’ said Aphrodite. Which was, in all honesty, the first and most inevitable declaration of war in this story.
‘I’m old enough to know that bust size isn’t the same as beauty!’ Hera retorted, pointing at the outrageous chest of Aphrodite’s avatar. ‘Come on.’
It was the society wedding of the year in the Virtual, and Zeus had called Family Time. Not being able to unite everyone physically in the Real, the patriarch decreed that they don their electrodes and meet up in his showpiece simulation. Thus the Hall of Priam was full to the brim with gods and goddesses, including many not normally seen, and the mortals were either exceedingly nervous or exceedingly drunk. Stories were still told about what happened to the last man who spilled Ares’ pint. And what happened to the shepherd who stumbled across Artemis bathing. And what happened to the woman who beat Athena at handicrafts. And so on.
Thus when three annoyed goddesses set off across the hall floor, there was an effect before them somewhat akin to the parting of the red sea (not that this had happened yet). When they reached the table at the end of it and the gods there looked up, they looked scared for a moment too. Which was rather comical given that Ares, in his usual insecure adolescent way, was a seven-foot monster with more muscles than an Olympic weightlifting team, and his mailed fist nervously crushed the wine goblet he was holding.
Beside him, Uncle Poseidon winced and took a deep breath. For his part, he hated being pulled into the internal politics of his over-achieving older brother’s stupidly large family.
Apollo twitched an eyebrow, which in his careful study of arrogant coolness, counted as leaping out of his chair. But he turned away from the nubile daughter of Priam he was chatting up, which showed he was taking it seriously.
As for Hephaestus, on a rare outing from his forge, he almost vanished under the table. This was even more understandable because Aphrodite was, technically at least, his wife. Whereas the existence of cybersexual relations was doubtful, the same could not be said for marital strife, nor the direction it normally flowed.
Where Hermes had been sat there was only an empty chair and settling ripples in the wine-cup. Super-speed was possibly the most valuable power here.
‘Which of us is the fairest?’ demanded Hera.
‘Um…..’ said Ares.
‘Er….’ said Apollo.
‘eeeeep!’ said Hephaestus.
‘Hang on a minute!’ growled Poseidon. ‘You’re asking me to cast a lustful eye over two of my nieces, the elder of whom is sixteen, and my sister-in-law? This isn’t even fair in the slightest. I’m not doing it.’
‘Husband!’ roared Aphrodite. ‘Stand up for your wife!’
‘Of course she’s the most beautiful,’ said the lame smith quickly, ‘but being married I disqualify myself from judging this competition, as I’m obviously biased.’
‘You’re weaselling out again!’ screeched the goddess of beauty, but choked herself back as they were in public.
Meanwhile, Athena walked over to the colossal meat-mountain of Ares and grabbed his iron collar. ‘You know I beat you every time I play your silly little war games,’ she said. ‘Well if you don’t support me on this, you ain’t seen nothing yet.’
‘I’m sorry to disappoint you all,’ said Apollo, ‘but Cassandra here is prettier than all of you put together.’ He indicated the girl he’d been talking to, who had been attempting to back away while he’d been distracted. A flash of fear crossed her eyes.
‘Oh this is pointless!’ said Hera, throwing her hands up. ‘Let’s find a man with some balls. Come with me.’
Nothing would do for the King God, of course, but that he sat at the head of the table on the finest and biggest gold-chased couch, and that a bevy of the most gorgeous house-girls in Troy were hand-feeding him delicacies. They may only have been computer-generated bit-players but Hera made sure she trod on a lot of robes and toes as she strode up. ‘Zeus,’ she said, ‘Who—’
‘We’re in public, my dears,’ he rumbled as the others tried to chip in, ‘remember protocol, we have talked about this.’
‘Father Zeus, who bears the storm-cloud for a shield,’ droned all the girls in unison, rolling their eyeballs heavenward in unison as well.
‘What is it?’ asked Zeus, pretending not to notice the mockery.
‘Who is the fairest one of us?’ asked Aphrodite. ‘It’s me, isn’t it?’
‘She’s desperate,’ said Athena. ‘You know I am always your best little girl, don’t you Daddy?’
Hera made a somewhat artificial sneeze that could, if one listened to it with something on your mind, have sounded a little like “adivorce!”
The Lord of Heaven looked, for a moment, like he was scared. ‘What’s this for?’ he asked. Aphrodite threw him a golden apple with an inscription.
‘ “I am a gift for the fairest of them all,” ’ read Zeus, and groaned. ‘My darlings, this is clearly the work of a hacker. One who has made a lot of trouble in here and obviously bears us a grudge—calls himself “Discord,” the pretentious bastard. You had better forget this, he’s only trying to stir things up.’
‘Alright then,’ said Athena. ‘Forget the apple.’
‘Stupid thing,’ said Hera.
‘Wouldn’t suit my boudoir,’ said Aphrodite.
‘So who is the fairest of them all?’ asked Athena, and three pairs of eyes—blue, grey, and brown—focused on the chief god.
He sighed. ‘This being in the virtual world,’ he said, ‘It’s obvious how we decide this. PARIS!’
The young man at the side of the table spun around with a start from the various women he had been talking to, apologetically removing a hand from someone’s leg and someone else’s from his shoulder. He was not as inhumanly beautiful as Apollo, and certainly didn’t have the power of Zeus, but he had one big advantage: he wasn’t going to doom anyone to Tartarus for a tiff, because he was mortal. Also, the house of Priam was known for its kind treatment of royal bastards and their mothers. ‘Yes Father Zeus, who bears the storm-cloud for a shield?’ he asked.
‘Judge which of these goddesses is the fairest of them all, would you please?’ said Zeus. Further up the table Paris’s father Priam, older brother Hector and new sister-in-law Andromache tried to look casual.
Paris was well known not to be the sharpest bronze blade in the box, but even he had a bit of consternation in his eyes as he led the three to a quiet corner of the hall.
‘I just don’t know how to decide between three divines,’ he said, ‘You’re all impossibly beautiful.’
‘How about this?’ said Athena. ‘You have a high charisma but a low intelligence. Pick me and I’ll make you the smartest man in Troy. Come to that, I’ll make you the greatest scholar in all the world. How does that sound?’
Paris concentrated as he imagined spending his days amongst papyrus scrolls and clicking abacus beads instead of giggling women and dance floors.
‘Bribery? Shameless—and I do shameless best,’ said Aphrodite, taking a step forwards. Paris’s eyes snapped magnetically to her cleavage as she leant towards him. ‘Hey there, big boy? You know this is my favourite city—and if you pick me, I will get you the most beautiful woman ever to be your wife.’ Paris gulped.
‘Listen to me,’ said Hera. ‘Hey! I’m up here!’ She reached out and slapped Paris’s head away from Aphrodite. As befitted her station, she stood six inches taller than the other goddesses. ‘I am not going to offer you anything, Paris, I just have a question for you. Think very carefully about this: who’s Queen?’
‘Oh by all that’s holy, we’re going to be in trouble whatever he answers,’ shivered Cassandra, watching from half-behind a nearby pillar. She hugged herself.
‘You should be alright, dear sister,’ said Hector, appearing behind her. ‘Wasn’t Apollo looking rather taken with you?’
‘I told him I had to go to the ladies room, and I think he’s forgotten,’ she said. ‘You know how I feel about human-god relationships, brother. I am not ready to be a whore or a brood-mare, and that’s only how it ends up if you’re lucky.’
‘Lucky? I don’t think you are lucky, my dear.’ It wasn’t Hector’s voice any more. Cassandra spun around to see the form of the mortal finish melting into that of the god Apollo, scowling at her.
‘My lord—’ she gasped, horrified.
‘You think you know a lot about how things will turn out, woman?’ he sneered. ‘Well let me tell you your future. You will see how everything will happen before it does—but when you try to tell people, no-one will believe you.’ He pressed his fingers against her eyes and for a moment her body blazed with light, outlining her mortal bones against her skin. As she slumped to the floor gasping, Apollo turned and stalked back across the room.
‘I tell you brother, chasing girls in here is pointless,’ said Ares. ‘You got ultimate power and no laws, just go get some or tell your priest to organise you a party.’ He made a crude gesture that betrayed how much alcohol he was getting in reality.
‘What do you know, you’re thirteen, it’s just a biological function for you,’ said Apollo dismissively. He turned to Hephaestus. ‘I need to talk to you about programming a curse for me. I just laid my best one yet on Cassandra and I want it to start properly as soon as possible.’
‘This computer gaming is turning all of you into sick sons of bitches,’ muttered Poseidon. Nobody took any notice.
‘On Cassandra!?’ Hephaestus rolled his eyes. ‘You just cursed a royal princess of the city that’s your biggest centre of worship? How am I supposed to stop them chucking your idols down the privies or falling flat on their faces at the mere sight of any of us without breaking credibility in here completely? You never think of that before you open your big mouth.’
‘Oh that’s the clever part, programmer,’ snapped Apollo waspishly. ‘She’s to have the gift of absolute prophecy, but nobody is to believe a word she says about it. Or about me cursing her. That should take care of the problem.’
‘And how exactly am I to implement that?’ said Hephaestus. ‘Make them believe the opposite of what she’s said? She’d work that out straight away and start saying the opposite.’
Apollo’s brow furrowed. ‘Make them believe the reverse of what she believes is the truth,’ he said.
‘And if that’s something that they would work out for themselves later on? Does that mean that she stops them ever realising it, even after it has happened? If we mess with minds too much, they cease to function as believable personalities.’
‘You know what?’ said Apollo, ‘that’s not my problem. My father employs you and lets you in here so that you and your team can code up what we want to happen. You do what I say, and if you can’t, I’m sure we can find another geek who will.’ He took a long pull at a goblet of wine.
Hephaestus and Poseidon exchanged resigned glances as a squeal of delight resounded through the hall. Aphrodite came skipping and dancing between the pillars, tossing and catching the golden apple.
Behind her, Hera and Athena were looking daggers at both her and Paris, who was wandering away with a bemused expression.
Ignored by everyone else, Cassandra had crawled to a wall and was pressing herself back against it, horror stamped on her face.
‘We are so screwed,’ she groaned.
JUDGE: They really went to war because they lost a beauty contest?
DEF CON: This is an adventure game. If there is no conflict, some must be generated.
PRO CON: I believe this is valuable background information on the characters we are dealing with here. We have seen that casual sadism to in-game characters was the norm.
DEF CON: The exploration of “evil” choices within games is simply good roleplaying. I would like to emphasise at this point that all feelings imparted to non-player characters are simply simulations emphasised by the Muse according to her function.
PRO CON: I intend to prove that AI’s have genuine emotion. My central exhibit is the rage of Achilles….
The Sunsets were gorgeous. For those in a position to compare them with real sunsets, it could be seen that those in the virtual world had richer, more vivid colours, better defined patterns, a greater blaze of light reflecting in any water it set into. Plus, they were gorgeous a lot more often.
This one was especially good. But the man sat on the seashore boulder was used to them; they happened every time he came here. As always, for him the myriad hues of scarlet and vermillion were blood, blood and more blood. The reflection in the sea was a river of blood, a ship-road leading through death to more death. But for the first time, it wasn’t making him salivate.
‘My dear son! How does the day find you?’
As always, he had not seen Thetis appear. But there she was, waist-deep in the gentle billows, striding towards shore. For the first time, it struck him how young she looked. He had known this would happen, it was the fate of mortals born to goddesses, but to actually see it…. he put the thought aside.
‘Mother!’ He jumped up and waded in to meet her, hugging her and kissing her on the cheek, tasting salt.
She smiled. ‘My dear Achilles,’ she said.
Arm in arm, they splashed back up the beach to his rock. As usual, it had a spear and shield propped against it, and he was wearing his belt with its shortsword and dagger. The only times he was parted from his weapons in his adult life were at the formal banquets of princes.
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes. The cool night air stirred her hair, which had shed its water the way only a goddess’s could. ‘There is something on your mind, son. Tell me—have you finally found the right woman to settle down with? Or the right man?’
Achilles snorted. ‘You know very well I never went to the Agoge, mother. I am young, strong, and even my peers acknowledge me as the greatest warrior of the age. Why would I settle down to breed horses and children?’
‘Yet you are considering it, aren’t you?’
Achilles didn’t look surprised. Let Odysseus and other kings work at being devious; he had never seen the point of hiding his thoughts. ‘Paris has stolen and raped Helen of Sparta’s treasure,’ he said. ‘And her,’ he added after a moment.
‘Achilles!’ She sounded disapproving. ‘What did I teach you about planning your words before you open your mouth?’
‘Mother, I’m not on the battlefield here! I have a lot on my mind, and I need your help to make sense of it.’
‘Well then.’ She considered a moment. ‘Now tell me again: he did what?’
‘Paris was visiting Menelaus in his Spartan estates,’ explained the warrior. ‘That beardless boy doesn’t like hunting and stayed behind one day. When Menelaus came home he found that his wife was gone along with her handmaidens and all her dowry, and Paris’s ship was vanishing over the horizon.’
‘Was it really an abduction?’ she asked. ‘This is Helen of Sparta and Paris of Troy we’re talking about.’
‘It was probably her idea,’ admitted Achilles. ‘But does it matter? The Atreides are fixed upon war, and taking all Achaeans with them. Agamemnon has sent to every prince in the land promising slaves, plunder and glory if we go with him to sack Troy. Odysseus is drumming up support, both the Ajaxes are in, so are Diomedes and Nestor. The priesthoods of Athena and Hera are offering divine help, and Zeus says nothing against.’
‘The Delphic Oracle?’
‘Just says that Fate and the Will of Zeus will prevail. As usual.’
The woman looked out to sea. The affectionately playful expression had vanished from her face. ‘Wyrd bid ful araed,’ she said quietly.
‘Sorry, slipped in to the wrong language,’ she said, and sighed. ‘We all knew this was coming. It will be the greatest battle of the age and decide the future course of the world, and you are debating whether to take part.’
‘It is not lack of courage,’ said Achilles. ‘Whatever puts misgivings in my heart, it is not fear.’
‘Oh your courage had never been in question; you are brave to a fault,’ said the goddess simply. ‘Is it Agamemnon’s leadership?’
‘He is a—what is that word you use—a wanker,’ frowned Achilles, ‘but I’ve put up with that before. There will be plenty of good men there, and Odysseus will stop him being too stupid. Besides, my Myrmidons are so strong now that even Agamemnon would not dare fight us.’
‘Then what is it?’
‘Something I cannot put into words, my mother. I can feel… a strange…. vibration on the thread of my fate.’
‘You learn wisdom,’ she said. She stood up and walked to the edge of the beach, stirring the cool water with a toe. ‘Have you wondered why it is you are great?’ she asked.
‘Why, I was born of Thetis, goddess in the sea, from Peleus, breaker of horses and killer of men!’ said Achilles proudly, standing and striking his chest with a fist. The muscle boomed. ‘I learned wisdom at your knee and skill in battle at his. You sent me to spend time with Nestor, with Theseus, with the Centaurs to learn their arts of war and leading men. The gods have favoured me in all I do. How could I not be great?’
‘There is a son of Zeus walking the world named Sarpedon,’ said Thetis, ‘and sons of Aphrodite and Ares, demigods and grandsons of Zeus. Yet you, the child of a minor sea-spirit, surpass them. Why is that?’
‘You belittle yourself mother!’ said Achilles crossly. After all, doing that belittled him as well. ‘It was your wit and courage that saved Zeus from rebellion. You teach his daughter Athena. If you are less well known than the Olympians it is because you spend your time modestly in the court of Poseidon, devoted to your arts rather than lusting for glory and worship.’
‘All true,’ she said. ‘But it is also because the gods become a little more subtle as they grow older. The time was that gods rode inside their chosen heroes as a matter of habit, living their lives as their own. That falls from favour. Hercules was the avatar of Zeus on Earth; and when Zeus tired of showing off, he ascended to heaven.’
‘Hercules was the greatest hero of them all,’ said Achilles. ‘If Sarpedon had half the strength Hercules had…’
‘Hercules was the most pathetic hero of them all,’ said Thetis flatly. Achilles cast a fearful glance up at the sky, but she didn’t blink. ‘He had such a ridiculous set of powers that he couldn’t help but succeed at everything he did, no matter how dumbly he was played. You wouldn’t believe how long it took for the penny to drop about the Hydra! You, on the other hand, are the greatest hero. When you were born I gave you only the ability to learn, and to grow.’
‘You dipped me in the waters of the Styx to make my skin turn away bronze,’ put in Achilles.
‘Only in diluted water, and not all of you; it was to let you survive a few mistakes, not give you a path to glory without trying,’ she said. ‘You are a paragon because you are your own man. I have never ridden inside your body guiding your arm or your speech, nor has any other god, at my command. Everything you have gained, you have earned yourself. You made the other heroes obsolete. The gods changed their ways, seeking to nurture their heroes with their own minds rather than making them their puppets.’
‘I am not sure I follow you,’ frowned Achilles. His mother shrugged.
‘It is a very hard idea for one who is not a god,’ she said. ‘But the age of the mythic hero is ending. This campaign at Troy may be its final act. The present belongs to you, but the future will belong to men like Odysseus.’
‘Odysseus?’ snorted Achilles. ‘He’s so devious he could run through a maze without turning any corners, but he’s nothing special in a fight. One day a monster will just stamp on him, and that will be that.’ He paused. ‘For such a clever man, he’s a surprisingly bad navigator too….’
‘You might be surprised,’ said Thetis. She turned back. ‘But I am digressing. If you go to Troy, there will be war on a truly epic scale. You will win immortal glory and your name will live forever alongside Hercules. But I know how the war will end. And I know that if you go there, then no matter how beloved I am of Zeus, you will not live to see that end.’
Achilles stared out to the dimming horizon. He stood erect, breathing the air deeply in and out of his great lungs. ‘Immortal fame and death,’ he said, ‘or what, mother?’
‘Happiness,’ she said simply. ‘A great hall full of treasures and loyal men like your father has. A loving wife and children who make you smile. Satisfaction in the breeding and racing of your horses, and in the prosperity of your lands. Men paying respect to your wisdom and fame as your hair slowly turns grey, drinking wine with your old companions. Strong sons making you proud as they win glory of their own.’
Achilles swallowed. ‘What is your counsel, my mother?’
‘Oh my son,’ she said, ‘as I have always taught you, you must make your life yourself.’
DEF CON: I don’t know about you, but I am only convinced that one of them is human. Achilles seems like a stereotype.
PRO CON: An archetype, not a stereotype. This was a culture that valued conformity to its norms.
JUDGE: Clarification please. Thetis refers to Achilles as her child, but he is only computer generated?
DEF CON: A persona she created within the matrix, and that her avatar gave birth to. She set up his basic characteristics and programmed his personality, no more.
PRO CON: There’s much more to it than that. Like all programs that learn, he was shaped by experience and by teaching, the nurturing of his mother. Much of this and his reactions to it were out of the control of any human, and could thus qualify as free will.
DEF CON: Nothing in a computer simulation is free will. Stimulus and response, nothing more.
JUDGE: We will be here all day if we tackle that philosophy now. I believe you now wish to move us ahead to the siege of Troy?
‘Nine years?’ exploded Zeus. ‘The siege goes on nine years and you don’t think to tell me?’
The man terrorised boardrooms and underlings in real life, but felt something was missing there. Like automatically being a head taller than anyone in his presence. Like having a voice an octave deeper, and acquiring the rumble of thunder when he raised it. Like actually being able to blast anyone with lightning when he felt like it.
Iris cowered, adopting the same posture as she always did. She had been created to serve a purpose, namely Zeus’s messenger and gofer, and not much in the way of personality had been required. She even looked quite artificial, having a head of multicoloured hair because the children thought she should resemble the flower, and being very thin so that she could run on air for her job description.
‘The war hit stalemate, oh great Zeus who bears the stormcloud for a shield, and they accelerated the mortal time rate in the hopes of victory.’
‘How on earth can a war like this drag on so long?’
‘Troy relies on its walls which are exceedingly well built, partly by your brother,’ said Iris. Anticipating his desire, she motioned at the pool below his throne and an image of a great citadel formed, standing on a hill before a plain. It was an exceedingly beautiful city of fountains, trees and terraces, with whitewashed colonnaded houses and vines in trellises. But the outermost layer, snaking around the cliffs and onto the plain, was a spectacularly huge wall. It was slightly sloped, but it was thick, high, and crenellated along its top, with regular towers.
‘My two eldest were playing architects while the younger ones were playing war,’ Zeus muttered disapprovingly. ‘Don’t they have the balls to come out and fight?’
‘The Greeks have half a dozen great heroes at least and they have Achilles,’ said Iris. ‘The Trojans only have Hector, and a promising young man called Aeneas.’
‘They have my virtual son Sarpedon!’ roared Zeus. Sparks began crackling around his beard, which was fuller and bushier than any he could grow in real life. Even if he could, it would have looked silly on his real flesh-and-blood jawline.
‘Sarpedon is only seventh level and not significant,’ said Iris. She adopted the cowering posture again. ‘Please do not punish me lord.’
Zeus glared at her. If he blasted her she would make the same scream and the same pleas as she always did, and there would be no satisfaction in it. For the first time it occurred to him to wonder, was she so dumb because she was so clever? He pushed the thought aside. ‘Can’t they starve them out?’
‘They have springs in the city, and Troy has many allies. The Achaeans have never managed to enforce a full blockade, and supplies keep getting in. King Priam has vast wealth and many alliances.’
‘Well well.’ Zeus frowned. ‘This is not supposed to happen. Competition will win out over collaboration any day, that is the order of things. The warring tribes have become strong, they will beat the monoliths just as the Europeans beat China and the other empires in real life. Troy will fall to show them this. It is my will.’
‘You act in accordance with prophecy,’ said Iris. Then she screamed as Zeus really did blast her with crackling bolts of lightning from his fingers.
‘I make prophecy, I do not follow it! Remember that!’
‘Yes Lord, please do not hurt me lord, shall I disregard the previous order to tell you the truth lord?’ asked Iris, her voice very calm between screams and cowers.
‘Keep telling me the truth,’ muttered Zeus glumly. Being omnipotent was easy, and omniscience in the present was feasible, but trying to cultivate a true divine sense of ruling over fate was another.
‘Your divine plan is in danger, oh father Zeus, who bears the—’
‘You don’t have to bother with that, just tell me what’s happening!’
‘The Achaean alliance has been under strain for a time now as plunder grows short and the war drags on without progress. Now it is in danger of collapsing entirely under a new danger. You forbade the gods to intervene directly with their powers, but Apollo has found a loophole. It is one of your highest commands that all gods maintain their respect and dignity….’
* * *
Immortal Glory was not just slow in coming, it smelt of rotting flesh and shit.
Achilles realised he was slumping, and pulled himself erect. One had to have standards; he was the greatest hero of the age, after all.
Not that it mattered when there was no meaningful fighting to be done. Oh, the campaign had started well enough. Sorting the logistics of supplies and ship manifests, putting up with all the thousand little squabbles of precedence that took place when you had so many proud warriors in proximity; these they had put up with, for all the glory and profit ahead. The incidents on the voyage had not dampened their enthusiasm. When they arrived, everything had begun just the way it should. The Trojan territories had fallen like wheat before the scythe, each village yielding more treasure than a Greek city—they should have done this sooner! There had even been a halfway worthy fight; he himself had slain Prince Troilus, who might have become a decent warrior with time and experience.
Then, everything had come to a grinding halt. The cowards had retreated behind their walls and only came out to risk getting killed on special occasions. They had tried assault many times, but the Trojan arrows took a heavy toll on the lesser of the soldiers. And so, somehow, the months had stretched into years. Food and letters came from home, they had plundered treasure and captives, his great tent had been reinforced and extended so that it was nearly a hall. But even so, it was a life of danger and frustration, not danger and glory.
And now this. The air was actually thick with the sound of groaning. Some men squatted in the open, unable or uncaring to find the latrines or at least get behind a rock or a wall. Others were beyond squatting and just lay, groaning and asking for water or beseeching the gods for mercy. The dead were starting to pile up. There was not enough wood to burn them, and not enough healthy labour to bury them as fast as they expired. The beach where the Achaeans had made their camp no longer had fresh sea air, nor clean sand.
Racing horses back home was starting to look quite good right now.
Some said that plague came when too many men lived too closely together, and that certainly didn’t help. But the wise knew it came from the Gods, and one god in particular: Phoebus Apollo, he of the Silver Bow. Being half a god himself, Achilles could see the arrows raining down from time to time, shining shafts falling like hail but passing through the roofs of tents like ghosts. They bounced off him and the greater men (he was proud how few of his own force succumbed) but not even Heroes could take Troy without an army.
Something needed to be done. Or at least talked about.
‘Sir! The Council is assembled!’ Old Phoenix, one of his wisest and longest serving lieutenants, disturbed his reverie.
‘About time. Thank you, Phoenix.’ He turned and strode across the sand towards the Command Tent.
Agamemnon, Lord of Mycenae and current High King of all Achaeans, had to have the best and biggest of everything. The ship that brought his tents could have contained soldiers instead, and men could have constructed siege engines with the wood used to shore it up and create new furniture. Achilles wouldn’t have minded if the man’s deeds were as grand as his words.
But at least he had a cool marquee large enough to accommodate all the leaders, and there they all were, assembled at his call. Not since the Golden Fleece has there been so many heroes together, but the novelty had long since worn off.
Achilles looked around at them. Great men, wise men, skilled men; all sweaty, all dusty, all tired. All with fear haunting their eyes—not the fear of death in battle, which all true Achaeans were ready to meet, but fear of defeat, of disgrace, and of death in dishonour.
Agamemnon himself was stomping up to the golden chair that served as his throne, placed on a great slab of rock dragged here across the beach to serve as a dais. No doubt he had timed that entrance; he wanted to be the last to arrive, but could not risk Achilles starting to speak without him. He was wearing his ceremonial armour, enamelled patterns unscratched by any sword or spear blow, and the stiffened cloak that accentuated his stocky and powerful frame. His beard and hair were braided and combed, and woven with black ribbons to hide the fact it was now all grey.
‘So I have been dragged from my affairs of generalship yet again,’ he growled, ‘Let us hear it.’
There was a hush for a moment, as it was an open secret why Apollo was smiting them, but only one man was willing to confront the High King about it. For a moment, Achilles felt sick with disgust.
Diomedes proffered him the carven staff that was passed from man to man granting the right to speak. ‘We are not scared,’ said the hero quietly, ‘It is simply that you are the greatest of us.’
That made Achilles feel better. Diomedes was a man he could respect; wise like Nestor rather than tricky like Odysseus. ‘Friends,’ he said, ‘We are stricken with the plague. The Sun-god casts his shafts at us daily and without mercy. Trojans we can fight, but plague one cannot stop with a shield, nor vanquish with a sword. If this continues, we shall have no option but to sail back home.’
There were two distinct tones to the murmurs. The louder one from the front of the assembly was shock and disapproval of the idea. But there was a definite undertone of relief and hope mixing with it. Many were sick of this fight.
‘The only way to spare us this shame is to learn how we have wronged the god and make amends,’ he said. ‘I do not know what it is; we have made our sacrifice Hecatombs to him, even more so of late. We have burned the fat and the thigh-bones and poured him wine, yet we inspire no mercy. Who amongst us is skilled in the reading of auguries?’
There was a general look immediately towards Calchas, the army’s official prophet, and the man who had managed to navigate the Aegean with barely an incident. To his credit, he stepped forward immediately. ‘Noble Achilles,’ he said, ‘I have indeed read the auguries and the reason for Apollo’s anger is as plain to me as the sun in the sky. However, I have a concern before I can speak.’ When Achilles merely looked at him expectantly, he went on. ‘My news will be not to the liking of a certain Great Man amongst this army. When a small man such as myself says things not to the liking of a great man, it is a plain augury against that small man’s fortune and health.’ He glanced around his audience as he said this last and got a number of sympathetic and cynical chuckles.
Calchas had a profession other than fighting, so Achilles had no doubts. ‘I place you under my shield,’ he said. ‘Let any anger against you come through me first. If any man among this host seeks to injure you, he shall face my spear and my sword as though you were my brother.’
Calchas nodded gratefully. ‘Agamemnon captured the girl Chriseis,’ he said. The seer was looking at Achilles not Agamemnon, but Achilles saw the chief’s face literally go dark with rage. ‘Her father is the high priest of Apollo, and he came to the fleet bearing a fair ransom for her return. Our High King declined to take the ransom, and he also sent the priest away with some harsh words that both he and the God took offence at.’
Murmurs throughout the hall, exclamations of shock to hear it confirmed. Kings could be brought low and the faces of princes could be spat in, but to insult the senior priest of a god was plain suicidal.
Agamemnon sprang to his feet. ‘Foul-minded storm crow!’ he bellowed. The man probably did have the loudest voice in the army. ‘You love disaster and take great delight telling us all manner of bad news and worse portents! The greater a man is, the more you delight in spiting him. Blaming this army’s misfortunes on me is ridiculous!’ Seeing the faces and hearing the voices raised around the room he went on hurriedly, ‘But if this is the cost of keeping my force together, so be it. The priest can have his damn daughter back, although I would rather have her than the ransom any day. She’s twice as pretty as my wife.’
Calchas raised the speaking-staff, but holding it crossways across his body in a warding gesture towards Agamemnon.
‘There will be no ransom,’ he said. ‘Apollo will only lift his curse if you return her to her father with one hundred animals for sacrifice to his glory.’
‘Son of a—’ The High King choked himself off just in case the god thought he was the one getting insulted. ‘Bleed me dry with your accusations! Yet the army hangs on your words, so I shall do it for them, but I cannot be out of pocket on this. I shall take fair recompense from the other warlords of the host.’
‘Recompense!’ Achilles knew that he should draw the ire of the High King away from Calchas to fulfil his oath, but this was easy. Anger was rising in him like the fires of Mount Etna. ‘You are the greediest man in the room, as well as the most nobly born! Why should we pay for your insult, when the last of the loot was distributed long ago? Wait until we sack another fortress or town, and you may take extra then, but leave us be.’
‘You forget your place, warlord!’ Agamemnon roared. ‘I refuse to be bullied, even by all of you together. Why should I be left chafing with nothing, when you all have your prizes? You can see what a beauty I lose! I am the High King, it is my right to make good from any of you! Odysseus the Crafty, great Ajax Telamonius, all of you are subject to me! But I choose to take my price from…. Achilles!’ He stabbed with his finger and the warrior almost swayed aside as though to dodge a spear-cast. ‘The only woman beautiful enough to replace the one I surrender is yours, the gorgeous Briseis! I take her to show who is the greater man and teach a lesson to those who dispute with me!’
The anger erupted, white-hot and searing, not to be denied. Achilles drew his sword in a lightning-fast motion—and found himself trapped, frozen. His eyes could move in his head, but the eyes of every other man in the tent were still, unmoving as those of statues. His breaths hissed loudly into a silence devoid even of the sea thunder and the call of birds.
A faint thud of feet and a hand closed on his sword-arm from behind, slender and female but with the strength of iron. Suddenly he could move again, although the rest of the council remained motionless.
‘Stay your hand, Achilles,’ said a melodious voice. The woman he turned to face was as tall as he was, and no doubt stronger despite her slender form. Grey eyes and a modest robe left little doubt.
‘Lady Athena,’ he bowed his head. ‘Have you come to witness the monstrous abuses of Agamemnon? The man’s arrogance shall cost him his life!’
‘I am sent to restrain you,’ she said, ‘Agamemnon is the beloved of Hera, as you know, and we cannot have him slain. Tell him what you think of him by all means. Smite him with words and insults, belabour his ego, but there is to be no violence between you! Do this and we shall allow you a prize twice as great as this wretch—you and I both know he is no true hero.’
Achilles swallowed hard and placed the tip of his sword back into its scabbard. ‘I am indeed enraged,’ he said, ‘but it is wise to obey the gods, for they bless obedience.’
‘Well restrained.’ Athena looked around the hall. ‘We do not pause time lightly, Achilles. Consider yourself honoured.’ Then she was gone, sound and motion surrounded him again. Many were gasps as he slowly finished sliding the sword away; after all, it did not seem anyone had seen him draw it.
‘You sack of cheap sour wine!’ he spat at Agamemnon. ‘You with the face of a dog and the heart of a deer, who sit back supping as braver men win the battles and collect the spoils you then take!’ Spitting the words and seeing the High King’s face was nearly as good as spearing it. ‘You rule by guile not strength, leaching and bullying your host until their spirit is gone. Well not me! You may devour other men and make them slaves, but I swear you this!’ He snatched up the speech-staff and held it over his head.
‘The day will come when all of you shall miss me. The men will cry out for me to save them from Hector’s killing sword, and last of all your own anger shall turn inwards and you, self-called great king, shall rue the day that you insulted the best warrior of all Achaeans!’
He flung the staff down, embedding its end a foot into the sand, turned on his heel and stalked out. Behind him he heard old Nestor start to speak; that would be good for calming the assembly down for the white-haired warrior could drone on for hours, especially as he began every speech by reciting his past deeds and lineage.
At the edge of the sea Achilles raised his arms.
‘Mother!’ he called out. ‘Hear my prayers and make it so!’
PRO CON: Here you can see evidence of computer characters having their own independent thoughts and feelings, why else would they argue when they are on the same side?
DEF CON: The simulation has moved from being a role-playing adventure game and war sim to being more strategy based, and a “bring ’em up” rather than a “shoot ’em up.” Management of your human resources is part of it.
PRO CON: Did you just say human resources?
DEF CON: Simulated human resources. Just as Achilles is exhibiting simulated anger, not the real thing.
PRO CON: Oh, this is only the beginning.
* * *
Eurybates and Telphibius were scared and tired. Rather more scared than they were before a major battle, not as tired as they were after it—as if that would make much of a difference if things went badly.
Eurybates turned back to their man-at-arms. ‘Keep up!’ he snapped.
‘I am keeping up.’ The spearman wasn’t a pretty man; his nose had been broken at least twice, and while his shoulders were very well muscled the development of his spear arm outstripped that of his shield arm, giving him a lopsided look. ‘Sure you aren’t meaning me to actually stand in front of you? You’re the heralds!’
‘Seems to be the day of insolence,’ said Telphibius gloomily. ‘Is there a god of that? Must be his feast day if it is.’
‘Just stay with us,’ said Eurybates, and started walking again.
‘I’m tired,’ said the spearman. ‘You stood up on the deck as we returned Chryseis, I had to work an oar. You talked to the priest, I had to man-handle some of the hundred oxen and hold them still while their throats got slit.’
‘Your tongue was hanging out at the girl, and you had a good helping of the meat after the sacrifices were made,’ snapped Eurybates. ‘Sure you’re not too bloated?’
‘I might as well fill my stomach before it gets slit!’ protested the man. ‘He’ll leave at least one of you two alive to tell the story. A lowly soldier like me, he’ll kill without a second thought, and will my name go in the war poems? Not likely!’
‘What is your name, soldier?’ snapped Eurybates.
‘Tell you so you can get my commanding officer to have me flogged? Not likely either!’
‘It’s Thersites,’ put in Telphibius. ‘It can go on the funeral urn next to ours.’
‘Yes, that’s me,’ muttered the spearman. ‘I’ve killed nearly ten men in this war, you know that? Might be nothing next to what the great lords and the god-favoured do, but that’s pretty good for a footsoldier. It could all end tonight because of two prima donnas.’
‘Say what you like out here,’ said Eurybates, ‘but I wouldn’t say that near Achilles.’
‘I’m insolent, not stupid.’
They couldn’t put it off any more, they were at the tent.
‘We—’ Eurybates cleared his throat. ‘We are here for Briseis.’
The guard looked at him like something he was going to be cleaning off the floor very shortly.
The tent-flap opened, and a young man stood there. ‘I’ll tell Achilles,’ he said, ‘Wait here.’ He vanished back inside.
‘Who’s that?’ asked Thersites. He was now holding his spear in a reverse grip with its point behind his back, deliberately non-threatenting.
‘Patroclus, his cousin,’ said Telphibius. ‘We might be in luck. He’s quite a cool head, by all accounts. Achiles’ pupil, no doubt going to be great himself…’
‘That’s not all according to some rumours,’ said Thersites, too quietly for the guards to hear.
The flap opened again.
‘Come in,’ said Patroclus. ‘Try not to look him in the eye, and I think that probably the less you say, the better.’
Several tents had been stitched together and the main one was huge, which was a good thing as a great amount of gold, silver, jet, amber, sandalwood, and so forth was piled around the outside and at one end. Thersites’ eyes went wide.
Achilles himself was sat on a stool in the middle, with a glass of wine and his shoulders hunched.
‘They’re here,’ said Patroclus, ‘I’ll get her.’ He headed for a side-chamber. There was silence and stillness, then Achilles stirred. Thersites dropped his spear.
‘I bear you no ill will,’ Achilles said. ‘My emnity is with the High King, your commander. You may have the girl; but if he tries to take anything else of mine he will need force, and then his royal blood will stain my spear. Tell him that!’
‘Yes lord.’ Telphibius lied shamelessly.
Patroclus appeared leading a tall woman with dark, curly hair and big, brown eyes. She was clinging to his arm. There were no bruises on her, she looked healthy. ‘Be brave, Briseis,’ said Patroclus. ‘We cannot defy the High King on this. Not yet. But I am sure Achilles will win you back soon. Agamemnon might not even sleep with you in the mean time—he’s an old man and he likes his wine.’
‘What if he does?’ whispered Briseis.
Patroclus averted his gaze. ‘Be brave,’ he said. ‘Go to them.’
Briseis did not move, keeping one hand on his arm.
Eurybates looked at Thersites, who was looking scared. Ordering him to seize the girl might set someone off.
‘Go,’ said Achilles, not looking up. ‘I will not have my vengeance on the King if you do not go!’
Briseis went. Telphibius held her arm, Thersites retrieved his spear and they hurried out of the tent. The spearman took big gulps of air.
‘He’s normally a kind man,’ said Briseis, blinking back tears. ‘Like this, I—I don’t know him any more.’
‘I am so pleased to be alive I won’t even ask for sordid details,’ said Thersites, leaning on his spear shaft.
PRO CON: As you can see, even minor characters, those who none of the players took any notice of at the time, have their own thoughts and feelings.
DEF CON: Can you prove that this actually took place, and was not interpolated later by this narration program we have here?
MUSE: The simulation data has checksums encoded with twenty bytes of the Greenwich time stamp and logged independently with an unimpeachable law firm. Check it if you want.
DEF CON: It is still only evidence of atmosphere, not of true feeling.
* * *
Zeus sighed. ‘I was wondering when you’d get here,’ he said. ‘Say your piece.’
Thetis did not speak, but leaned on the side of the pool and looked around the throne room. Damn, but she looked good! An avatar that was hardly enhanced from her real-world self, age nose and everything, but just the way the robe lay on her as she poised herself gave him thoughts Hera wouldn’t like. She was wearing silver shoes, like the ones that had first caught his eye.
‘No pleasantries?’ she said. ‘I like what you’ve done with the place. Less is definitely more when you’re after gravitas.’
Zeus frowned, which automatically sent thunder rolling around the horizon. Somehow when they made small talk, he wound up feeling smaller himself. ‘I heard about Achilles throwing his toys out of the pram,’ he said. ‘No doubt you’re here to plead your case to me, but the answer’s no. Fate must take its course.’
‘Fate was sorely tempted by Agamemnon,’ said Thetis, straightening up and walking forwards. ‘That man will alienate every last one of his men before he can be seen to lose a single coin.’
Zeus groaned. What she said was true. As usual. ‘Why is the world full of such monstrous yet fragile egos!’ he lamented, raising his hands.
‘Do you really want an answer?’ smiled Thetis sweetly.
‘Mocking me is not the way to win favour,’ he chided her. Fortunately the throne area was empty; he couldn’t have this in front of any other deities, as Thetis no doubt was aware.
‘It might be the way to win respect, though,’ she said in a netural tone. ‘As if I need to win favour; do you remember that time your family rebelled and I saved you from humiliation?’ She walked up and put her hand on the arm of his throne.
‘They could never have defeated me, not even all together!’ protested Zeus. ‘You were useful, not essential.’
‘You would have had to log into cheat mode and dial your powers up to eleven to reassert your superiority,’ she said. ‘That would have been a loss of face.’ She gently slapped his cheek. ‘They’d have got one over on you!’
‘I am grateful, but you are overstepping your bounds!’ he snapped. Lightning flashed, and Thetis winced at it.
‘Can we leave off the pathetic fallacy for the moment? That means—’
‘I know what it means.’ He waved his hand and the weather shut up. ‘Anyhow, what you want is out of the question.’
‘Troy can still fall, if that is your decree, but the Achaeans may have some trouble first. You complained that my son was unbalancing the game—while he is out of it, let them struggle.’
‘I can’t,’ said Zeus.
Thetis raised an eyebrow. ‘You used to say there was no such word as can’t.’
Zeus gave up, and hung his head. ‘Don’t make me say it.’
‘Ah.’ Thetis perched on the edge of the fountain. ‘You know, I feel sorry for Hera. I’m not saying that out of malice to put her down, I mean it. She probably works harder than you do, especially in family time. She watches, she schemes, she plots, she manipulates, she acts. She is never off duty, an actor who is never off stage. All to create the illusion that she has some real power, some genuine influence, to make you believe it. When of course she has no real power at all, not in here, not in the real world, either.’
‘They call it soft power,’ said Zeus.
‘Soft power is what I’ve got. She’s got fake power.’
Zeus looked at her admiringly. ‘How come you wouldn’t marry me?’ he asked.
‘Because, my darling, I would then be exactly where she is. I have sacrificed enough already.’
Which put a thought in Zeus’s head. ‘Why should I do what you ask, either?’
‘To put it at its crudest, Zeus: what if I wanted some access to my daughter in the real as well as the virtual? What if I told her who I was, and Hera found out that the mother of her adopted child was very much alive and in contact with you?’
Zeus barked a cruel laugh. ‘She may work it out anyway, your new name is a bit too similar to your old one. But first you tell me I can ignore her opinion, and then that your superior power lies in spoiling her opinion of me? Is soft power all a load of bullshit?’
‘It tends to require a bit of reflection,’ said Thetis, completely unfazed. ‘You value your marriage if only for the sake of your children. Troy is a minor strop she’ll get over. Lying over an affair and child, possibly not.’ As Zeus was silent, she went on. ‘There’s very little you have to do—just give Agamemnon enough rope to hang himself. Troy’s Thracian allies are arriving very soon. Send him an ambiguous omen or dream, a deniable one to make him over-extend, and let events take their course.’
‘Yes,’ said Zeus, ‘I think that will work. Iris! What she said.’
* * *
DEF CON: Is it really necessary to expose his personal life like this? To all the reporters and public here, I would remind you about the super-injunctions in place.
JUDGE: I have viewed the counsel for the prosecution’s submissions and I am satisfied it is relevant to the case. Please continue the narration.
MUSE: Shall I summarise a bit? If I don’t I will have to repeat the prophetic dream three times in its entirety, apart from anything else.
DEF CON: No objections, your honour.
MUSE: The next morning Agamemnon, fired up from the dream, tries to use reverse psychology on the army with disastrous results. Disaster is only averted when Odysseus and Athena—
PRO CON: This is not relevant to the case, Muse. Please proceed to Helen and Cassandra.
MUSE: Well I’m sure some people would be interested, but if you insist. Later on, two mighty armies face each other in the heat and the dust of the Scamandrian Plain. The whole war is to be settled on one duel: Paris, Helen’s current lover versus Menelaus, her enraged husband. In the city, Helen prepares to watch…
* * *
‘Come on, Cassie!’ Helen shook her friend’s shoulder. ‘We have to do this!’
‘No we don’t,’ said Cassandra, ‘but we’re going to. In a minute.’
Helen frowned as something tugged at her mind. She felt a bit of déjà vu, as if she got that a lot around Cassie. It was rather annoying, but she had to worry about a lot more than just annoyance. ‘We have to! Paris is going to fight today, for me, for Troy, for everything! We need to go out and watch!’
‘Alright. Just let me finish this part.’
In Troy, princesses did not need to practice spinning and weaving, although many did. Helen and Cassandra wove to pass the time. Helen had a flair for making clothes—Paris had insisted on wearing her mantle out to what could be his death—but there was no danger anyone was going to wear anything that Cassie wove.
The mad princess, as she was commonly known, worked frantically at her loom forming a confused mess of threads, knots, loose ends, twists and snarls. Right now she was pulling an honest-to-goodness dagger from her belt and cutting straight through what seemed one of the neater parts of the cloth. ‘There,’ she said, ‘There go all the men who will die today.’ She brushed a finger over the severed threads.
Helen looked at her pityingly. She had never known Cassie before madness had struck down the daughter of Priam; she had been famed for her beauty and wit, and Helen imagined that if the Fates had chosen differently, they might have become friends in such different circumstances. As it was, barely anything Cassandra said could be understood, and of that, barely anything could be believed. The girl was still beautiful, but in spite of herself. She only washed when Helen made her, drank herself into a stupor if she was allowed near wine, barely ate. She ripped her clothes as if she was in permanent mourning—Helen had given up stopping her, only made sure she remained decent—and she rubbed ashes into her hair if she got the chance. She was indeed a pitiable sight. People avoided her, some hated her, and many talked behind her back. If the current leadership changed, there were probably not a few who would remove her—permanently.
So it was natural that Helen and she should pull together.
‘Paris could die! Let us go!’
Cassie squinted at another thread. ‘No hurry,’ she said, ‘He’s good for another couple of weeks.’
Helen frowned as something tugged at her mind. She felt a bit of déjà vu, as if she got that a lot around Cassie. ‘The duel will be starting any minute!’
‘Alright, alright.’ Cassie shambled to her feet. ‘You look great.’
‘Thank you.’ Helen had spent a lot of time getting ready; it was one of the few things she had left. They moved to the door, and the two girls hugged each other.
‘You ready?’ asked Cassandra.
‘As I’ll ever be.’
Helen took a deep breath, opened the door, and went out to meet the inevitable stares and looks. She focused on walking, on keeping her head up, on acting the princess, as they moved towards the viewing terrace.
Priam was there, thank the gods, sitting with Queen Hecuba along with a fair number of other courtiers, lords, and family members. Many were gazing at her, of course.
‘They don’t hate you as much as you think,’ said Cassie, holding her arm. ‘Most of them take one look at you, shrug and say “I really don’t blame him!” ’
‘True beauty is on the inside, and even false beauty is only skin deep,’ said Helen. ‘I wish I’d been born as ugly as a pig’s arse.’
‘We don’t get to choose,’ said Cassie. ‘And don’t be too sad. Why,’ she said, looking forcedly jolly, ‘I’ll bet ten crowns that one day your tits are going to save your life!’1
Helen gave an outraged chuckle. ‘Nobody is quite that shallow! I’ll take your bet.’
‘Shame I won’t be able to collect,’ said Cassandra, suddenly glum again.
‘Ah! Helen!’ Priam rose to greet her the moment they reached the platform, giving her and his daughter hugs. Cassie of course burst into tears, as she always did when her father or brother did this, and he pretended not to notice. The others followed Priam’s lead with more air of duty than sincerity. Deiphobus, the youngest prince, was the least convincing.
‘You want to watch out for him,’ whispered Cassie.
‘Nonesense, I’m sure he’s fine,’ said Helen. Cassie shrugged.
Priam took his throne again. He was trying hard to look relaxed, but his back was stiff, and Helen noticed that he and his wife had clasped their hands together. They had lost enough sons already to this war.
The enormity of what was happening crashed onto her again, nearly overwhelming her. She had pushed it aside for the walk, but her man was out there. A dear, sweet, kind man, the man she loved, was going to kill or die for her. At one stroke they might be free to live and love, to have children to splash about in the fountains—or it could be all over.
If Paris died, she would not mind slavery. There would be nothing left to mind.
Out on the field, the preparations were underway. As a few words from Deiphobus made clear, something this important had needed oaths taken in front of high priests and some specific sacrifices to sanctify it. Now they were marking out the area for the duel with staves.
Hector was busily buckling armour onto Paris and his mouth was going nineteen to the dozen, no doubt giving last-minute schooling to his little brother. Paris looked up to her and waved. Helen waved back, smiling but thinking please Paris listen to him… concentrate… you have to win this…
On the far side Menelaus was lounging in the same armour he’d come out with, casually tossing his sword and catching it again. Then he looked up to the balcony, and made a couple of crude gestures that sickened her.
‘Sit with me, Helen,’ called Priam. ‘Tell me of our Achaean foes that we see before us.’
Not that she needed to, but that wasn’t the point. It was to fill time, to distract. ‘Agamemnon and Menelaus I know all too well, but my old eyes cannot make out that short but wide man with the dark hair. Many is the time I have seen him running up and down the troops like a ram guarding his flock of sheep.’
‘That is Odysseus the Crafty,’ said Helen, ‘favoured of Athena. A very clever man, hard to out-guess. His words are more dangerous than the cast of his spear.’
‘Indeed,’ said Priam. ‘He and Menelaus dined with us before the siege began as part of an embassy. Menelaus is an impressive looking man, and made his demands quite eloquently. Odyseeus was short and silent, we thought him a bumpkin at first—until he opened his mouth. What he said kept me lying awake that night.’ The King shivered slightly.
Cassandra ran up and grasped his arm. ‘Father,’ she said, with a horrible concentration, ‘Please, whatever you disbelieve, do not promise me that when the Achaeans haven’t fooled you they’ve left, you will dismiss any idea of burning the big wooden horse from your mind.’
Helen felt an odd sensation like snakes were writhing in her skull. It was horrible, and as it subsided she realised she had completely forgotten what Cassie had been saying. Not that it was likely to be important. She felt a moment’s déjà vu, as if this happened a lot.
‘Of course dear,’ said Priam, patting Cassandra’s arm distractedly. She subsided and shrugged.
‘Who’s that great brute of a man?’ said Priam, pointing with his staff. ‘The tallest by far in the whole army, a veritable giant.’
‘That is Ajax the Greater, Ajax son of Telamon,’ said Helen. ‘Just as dangerous is his half-brother, Teucer the Archer.’ Cassie nodded agreement.
‘Ajax the Greater? There are two Ajaxes then—who is the other one?’
Helen scanned the ranks, and pointed. ‘Over there. The man near the front, wearing only linen armour because he relies on his shield and his fast feet. That’s Locrian Ajax, famed for his skill with the spear.’
‘That man’s going to rape me,’ said Cassandra matter-of-factly.
‘It’s not going to happen,’ said Priam firmly. ‘Who is the tall man on the other side of him, with the very bright armour?’
‘Diomedes. Smart as well as deadly. Gets nearly as much glory as Achilles.’
‘That’s a point. Where is the Great Runner?’
Priam did not mean that as an insult, of course. Achilles was known as the Great Runner because of the speed at which he ranged the battlefield causing carnage. He had never been known to run from something in his life.
‘I don’t see him anywhere. Nor Patroclus, nor any of the Myrmidons.’
‘That is odd,’ said Priam, ‘but I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.’
‘You really should,’ muttered Cassie.
* * *
Odysseus smiled and nodded at Agamemnon as he passed. His face was starting to ache from all the false expressions he forced it to assume.
He was not happy. Tired from the early start and that debacle at the beach, his armour weighed down his shoulders and his hips, and his shield arm ached. The dust of ten thousand feet had gritted his eyes, stung his throat and turned his spittle brown. He was thirsty but his skin of water would have to last him the rest of the day, and if he was any judge, it would be a day of battle.
He squinted up at the citadel. The sun glaring from the Trojan bronze stung his eyes. Damn, even their troops were better equipped.
Odysseus had to admit that Troy, also known as fabled Ilium, was beautiful, even after all the time they had spent trying to take it. It shimmered above the heat of the plain like a man-made mountain, tiers rising within tiers of columns, statues, and tiled roofs. Trees showed green and vines flowered, mocking them—look, we have so much water we even spend it on the plants! Great statues gazed down on them, huge androsphinxes warning them away.
But the walls. The damned walls, as ever. Rising higher than any other city, it was rumoured Poseidon himself had helped to raise them. Great, slightly sloped expanses of stone leading to crenellations where those damned archers lurked, it was indeed hard to believe they were even slightly the work of man. Only the great Pyramids of Egypt were said to be greater, but the Gods discouraged contact with that realm.
Menelaus was getting ready for his moment of vengeance. Despite being Agamemnon’s brother and King of Sparta he tended to skulk about recently, and no wonder. There was a whole sub-genre of comedy in the camp about how and why Helen had needed another man; Odysseus himself indulged greatly, making camp-fire audiences roar and howl with laughter. He hoped the man himself hadn’t heard about it; some said that thanks to him, red-heads like Menelaus would be the butt of jokes forever.
It was nearly time. Prince Hector, general of Troy and the greatest of their warriors, stretched his hand into a bag and pulled out a pebble. He opened his eyes and looked at it.
‘Paris throws first,’ he said. Agamemnon nodded and the two men walked back to their own sides. Paris and Menelaus stood facing each other on the sandy ground. Paris held two spears, Menelaus only one—a gesture of contempt.
Odysseus didn’t bother putting his shield down, this wasn’t going to take long. Agamemnon signalled his herald, and Eurybates blew his horn.
Paris slipped one spear to his shield arm and lifted the other, weighing it and looking to and fro from it to his target, who was standing like a statue. Then he threw.
Odysseus had to admit it was quite a skilled throw; the spear whistled through the air and hit the shield right over Menelaus’s heart. But it was a weak throw; the point barely sank in to the heavy stretched ox-hides. Menelaus, who hadn’t even flinched, watched as the weight of the shaft bent the bronze tip, and the whole spear clattered to the ground.
The Trojan prince took up his other spear but then Menelaus hurled his own with a grunt of effort. As the shaft flew across the intervening distance Paris yelped and twisted aside, and it was a good thing he did. The Atreides’ spear smashed straight through his shield and the edge of his corselet, just missing his flesh.
Menelaus pulled his sword from the baldric over his back and started marching forward purposefully. Paris wrestled with his impaled shield, realised it was useless, and dropped it. Unfortuantely he also dropped his second spear. Menelaus paused, and mockingly tossed his own shield aside as Paris drew his blade. Then he swung.
Paris’s lack of hand-to-hand experience showed immediately. He tried to block Menelaus’s blows, holding his sword in their way instead of deflecting their force. It would have been tiring for a much stronger man, and was stupid for another reason. Menelaus, ignoring the prince’s exposed sides, rained blow after blow on Paris’s guard, striking the thinner end of the defender’s sword with the middle or base of his own.
‘Finish him!’ yelled Odysseus, but didn’t think he was heard. Up on the balcony, Helen had her hands at her mouth.
With another grunt, Menelaus brought a two-handed blow down on Paris’s sword where it had begun to bend. The blade smashed into two, and Paris was left staring stupidly at a broken hilt.
On the far side, Odysseus saw Hector close his eyes. He must have known that this was only ever going to be a sacrifice; his brother for an end to the war.
Paris turned to run but Menelaus reached out, grabbed the horsehair plume on the top of Paris’s helmet, and yanked. The youth went down as the burly King began walking back towards his own ranks, dragging his prey behind him. Paris kicked uselessly and clawed at the chin-strap, which must have been biting deep into his neck. Agamemnon was laughing and cheering his brother.
‘Oh for heaven’s sake,’ cursed Odysseus. It wasn’t mercy that motivated him, it was the thought of something going wrong when Paris could be dead already. Hector had opened his eyes, and they were blazing hatred and disgust. If Menelaus dragged Paris right out of the square, Hector was probably going to interfere, and the war would be back on.
Something did go wrong. The chin-strap broke, and Menelaus found himself holding the empty helmet. Growling, he turned and reached out for Paris—
There was a blaze of white light. For a moment Odysseus saw the gold-robed form of Aphrodite kneeling and clasping the youth, then there was another flare of light and the patch of sand was empty. Menelaus stared as it stupidly, then as he realised his vengeance was gone, he raised his hands to the sky and screamed fury.
‘Here we go,’ muttered Odysseus.
* * *
RE-TAG THE GODS AND SPREAD OUT A BIT
Up on Olympus, outrage erupted.
‘She did what?’ shrieked Hera.
‘Cheat! Cheat!’ screamed Athena.
Zeus and Hera sat on their twin thrones in the main hall, and below them was the large square viewing-pool. It currently showed Troy and the plain before it with the two armies drawn up, and the little square of the duelling ground in the middle. Of course, if you concentrated on any part of it, that part would enlarge and show you more detail.
The factions wre gathered on opposite sides. The Achaean end was below Hera and Zeus’s thrones, with Athena standing under her foster-mother. On the opposite side were Apollo, Ares and, until a moment before, Aphrodite. Artemis and Hermes were on neutral sides, but were looking a bit bored—they were the youngest with very short attention spans, after all.
‘That’s a direct divine intervention!’ yelled Athena, turning to Zeus with her hands open in appeal. ‘Referee…!’
‘I think that match was pretty much decided,’ said Zeus lightly. ‘Well we have a decision to make, all. Shall we have Paris killed, Helen returned, and let Troy stand?’ He smiled at them.
‘Husband, what are you thinking?’ snapped Hera. ‘I sweat blood getting a thousand ships launched, the greatest ever mortal army mustered, and you decide you’re going to ruin all of my work? Heartless!’
‘Heartless, am I?’ asked Zeus. He was feeling agreeably buoyed by his earlier conversation. ‘What have Priam and his sons ever done to you, that you want them dead so badly? They have never failed to honour me, in fact they’ve always made plenty of sacrifices to you as well. Yet I reckon you could burst through their gates, rip them all to pieces and drink their blood and not be satisfied!’
‘They are degenerate, libertine scum!’ raged Hera. On the other side of the pool, Apollo flashed a thumbs-up to his father.
‘Very well,’ said Zeus, ‘But if one day I decide to destroy a city of which you are fond—Argos, Mycenae, Sparta—I expect not a word from you.’
‘I won’t lift a finger in their defence,’ said Hera. ‘In fact,’ she added tartly, ‘It would be useless, as you have made yourself so strong in here and you always get your way. Even if I am technically of the same divine rank.’
Hera turned back to the pool. ‘Athena!’ she called. ‘How about we make one of those Trojans break the truce?’
Athena winked, dissolved into light and poured down into the pool.
* * *
Helen turned. It was Clymene, one of the serving-women. If she was going to distract her with something mundane while the fate of her husband remained unknown, so help her she would have her flogged.
‘Paris sent me to fetch you,’ she said. ‘He is back home, healed, washed and stretched on his bed upstairs. You would never know he had been duelling Menelaus, more as if he was on his way to a dance. He looks so handsome, my lady!’ She winked. Then she frowned as Cassandra ran up and seized her arm. The princess’s throat and mouth worked desperately, as if she was trying to breathe past something lodged in her throat. Clymene shook her off, knocking her to the ground.
Something was odd here. Helen squinted at Clymene, and in a moment, her own divine blood began to tell. Some of the rumours said Zeus was her father—possible, as he didn’t boast of daughters the same way as he did of sons, and they certainly didn’t get the divine might. But there were some perks. Clymene’s form wavered and dissolved into a voluptuous, yellow-robed goddess.
Helen couldn’t help it. Her mouth opened. ‘Fiend! Demon!’ she spat. ‘How can you deceive me so? Is it not enough that Paris is lost and I must go back to that brute in Sparta? Or have you got some other plan for me? Am I to be a trophy for Argos, or Phythia, or Crete? What man am I to whore for next?’
‘Shut up, harlot!’ Helen found herself frozen to the spot as Aphrodite clenched a fist. ‘Show some respect, hussy, and be grateful for all I have done for you!’ snapped the goddess. ‘I hate as extravagantly as I love, and however much you whine now, I can make things ten times worse! What if your few friends here desert you?’ She released the fist, but Helen stayed frozen. ‘Paris is fine. Now run along, and make the most of your time together.’ Helen stirred herself into action, and stumbled away.
She paused at the corner of the terrace, though, and looked back. Cassandra came running back holding a tablet. She dropped to the floor and began trying to write, but her fingers wouldn’t obey her and the stylus kept slipping through her fingers.
‘It’s no use, dear,’ said Aphrodite, softening slightly. ‘It’s impossible for a god to hear anything you say, or read anything you write.’ She patted the girl’s hair. ‘I am sorry, but I can’t undo the curse of another divine. When the war’s over I’ll find a good husband to take your mind off it.’
A flash of light and she was gone. Cassandra stood up and flung the stylus over the wall.
* * *
‘What’s happening now?’ Pandarus craned to peer over the shoulders of the Trojan spearmen in front.
‘Still arguing,’ said Laodocus next to him.
Pandarus saw Agamemnon angrily jabbing his finger at Hector, who kept shrugging and spreading his arms. Behind them Menelaus was stamping back and forth, kicking up sand. ‘Was it really Aphrodite snatched up Paris?’ he asked.
‘Must have been. One minute he was there, the next he was gone. Not even Paris could run that fast, not even if they told him he was missing a beauty contest.’
Pandarus spat on the ground. ‘I don’t see how they can blame us for an act of a goddess. Let’s just give the bitch back and have done with it. Bloody asylum seeker!’
‘I like her,’ said Laodocus. ‘But I’d like going home safe even—’ he paused, and for a moment his eyes seemed to glow strangely.
‘Let’s get Menelaus,’ said Laodocus suddenly. ‘Think of the gold Paris will heap on you for putting him on his funeral pyre! Shoot him.’
‘Break the truce without orders? Are you crazy as Cassandra?’ said Pandarus incredulously.
‘The war’s back on anyway,’ said Laodocus. ‘Paris will want revenge, and he’s not up to doing it himself. String your bow and perforate the son of a bitch!’
‘No way,’ said Pandarus. Laodocus leaned forwards and his eyes suddenly glowed again, blazing into his own. Oddly, they looked grey.
‘Just sacrifice to Apollo afterwards. String your bow.’
It was an excellent idea, why hadn’t he seen that before? Pandarus knelt and, while Laodocus got the men in front to cover him with their shields, he prepared his bow. It was a magnificent specimen, two horns from a prize oryx glued together at the base, and took a lot of strength to draw. He grunted as he pulled it back, curling the horns against their natural shape, and managed to slip the string over one end. He next selected the finest arrow from his quiver, notched it, and stood up.
‘Ease the shields apart,’ he said, ‘Just a bit…’
* * *
The arrow slammed into Menelaus’s side with a thunk, knocking him to the floor. Hector boggled at him for a moment, then turned and ran for the Trojan ranks screaming curses at the top of his powerful voice.
‘Oh my brother! Oh, no!’ cried Agamemnon, flinging himself on his knees. ‘This stupid truce has been your doom! Not that I mean the oaths sworn to the gods were stupid—’ he covered himself hurriedly— ‘—but those sworn to men are treacherous! To think that one fight in no-man’s land could have settled this, and now our enemy has slain my kin!’
‘I’m not dead yet,’ gasped Menelaus.
‘Oh my brother, I swear you shall be avenged!’ cried Agamemnon, raising his fists to the sky. ‘Almighty Zeus will aid us, enraged at this treachery! You hear that, men, Zeus is on our side!’
‘It’s not even hurting that much,’ said Menelaus, probing the site of the strike.
‘Some might say the cause we fight for is gone,’ said Agamemnon, ‘but I say it is not so! It is more important than ever! Let every man swear again that Troy shall fall and burn for the sake of your memory!’ He glanced around him pointedly as he said this. ‘Even as your bones rot in Trojan soil, so shall those of Priam and his sons. I shall heap their corpses on your barrow—’
‘I’M ALRIGHT!’ screamed Menelaus. ‘The arrow hit my shoulder buckle, only the point has gone in!’
‘Oh,’ said Agamemnon. ‘Well. I’d still be very sad if the wound went bad, brother. Telphibius! Go get a healer.’
‘I can walk,’ said Menelaus, getting to his feet. ‘I’ll go to the tent. Try to leave a few alive for when I get back.’ He stalked off.
Agamemnon leapt into his chariot and cracked the reins, sending it rattling down the front of the army. ‘The battle’s back on, boys! Gear up! Idomeneus, what are you waiting for, me to refill your wine-cup? Get ready!’
Ignoring the protesting king, he rolled past the Cretans.
‘Give the word, lord!’ bellowed Big Ajax. His men had their spears and shields in hand and were drawn up in lines already.
‘Good man! If only everyone was like you!’
Next was a chariot contingent with Nestor addressing them.
‘—like I said, nobody is to go rushing ahead of the rest, and nobody is to go dragging on the horses’ mouths either. Don’t be stupid and try ploughing into infantry. Keep your spear level when you attack enemy chariots, remember hurting horses is dishonourable—’
‘Ah, if your limbs were as young as your heart!’ yelled the High King. ‘We attack shortly!’
‘If only the gods granted wisdom and strength at the same time,’ sighed Nestor. ‘I was foolish enough when I was younger. Why, I remember the time I killed Prince Ereuthalion—’
Agamemnon didn’t wait for him to finish but cracked the whip and went back along the other wing of the army.
* * *
Up on Olympus, the gods watched as the Greek army began to move. Horns blared up and down the lines, reins were flicked, feet began to march, wheels to roll.
‘About bloody time,’ growled Ares.
The whole plain seemed to be in motion as the Trojans began moving as well, building up momentum to meet the Achaeans. Chariots went first, each bearing a fighter and a driver, then the foot-soldiers jogged. Formation tactics and shield-walls were not in use; Zeus had forbidden them. They just didn’t suit the heroic skirmish fighting everyone loved.
‘First kill is Achaean!’ yelled Areas as the chariots clashed. In front of him names and statistics glowed above the figures’ heads. ‘Antilochus got Echopolos with a combination, second one through the forehead like an egg. Elephenor’s dragging the corpse off by its foot to get the armour—no Aegnor’s spitted him in his side! Serve him right greedy bastard. Quite a scrap developing over the corpse.
‘Oh, here’s Ajax!! Yeah, straight through the breast-plate and out the back with his spear, you can always rely on the big guy! Oooooo! Antiphus just threw a spear and it’s gone into Leucus’s family jewellery, that’s going to sting in the morning! Nice return shot from Odysseus, it’s stuck—no, transfixed Democöon’s skull!’ He grinned at his long word.
‘I still think we should have restricted the gore level,’ said Hera to Zeus, pointedly angling her head to Artemis and Hermes. The young gods were more interested in a chariot duel on the far side of the field, fortunately.
‘First proper disembowelment,’ said Ares, craning out over the pool. ‘Diores. Peirous- oh same’s just happened to him, tit for tat! Thoas trying to loot the corpses, but they’re driving him back…’
Athena’s head and shoulders emerged from the pool facing Zeus and Hera. ‘Aphrodite did a divine intervention,’ she said. ‘It’s only fair if I do one too, isn’t it?’
‘Hey, you just re-started the war!’ protested Apollo.
‘That was done by Aphrodite,’ said Hera tartly. ‘I’d say you can take a hand, Athena.’
‘Go ahead,’ said Zeus, ‘If your sister tries interfering again, you have my leave to stop here in any way you see fit.’
Athena grinned nastily and ducked back down.
‘Woo-hoo!’ screamed Ares, doing a little dance. ‘Phereclus just got speared right up the jacksie!’2
‘I’m sure this isn’t healthy for him,’ muttered Hera.
* * *
On the battlefield, Diomedes stopped in his tracks. Ignoring the odd arrow whistling around him, he raised his spear and looked at its point. Small glimmers of light were starting to move through the head, not cast by the sun. When one passed under a blood-stain it hissed, smoked and vanished.
Sparks began to fly from the tip of the blade as more light began to move over his armour, and he felt his body changing. His muscles swelled and shifted, his armour creaked. Somehow the straps adjusted as he felt his eyes rise a couple of inches higher from the ground. Energy filled his limbs, he felt like he could leap twenty feet from just one toe. His vision seemed to to sharpen and time to slow; he saw every detail across the battlefield in crystal clarity, the dust-particles rising under feet, the blood-splatters floating through the air. He felt rather than saw more sparks beginning to streak from the peak of his helmet.
‘Make your father Tydeus proud,’ said a voice in his ear that he knew well. ‘Have no fear of Trojans, and if you see Aphrodite then have no fear of her either, for I have empowered your weapons. Wound her and send her running home.’
‘Wound an Olympian?’ Diomedes’ sense had not deserted him.
‘With the full approval of Zeus. Get going.’
Diomedes did. He sprang forwards, feeling almost as if his feet were turning the earth under him to bring his enemies near—this must what it was like to be Achilles! The future paths of the chariots in the way seemed to show themseves before him, with one that he could catch easily. The driver was gaping at him and the speed he was approaching, and screamed to the spearman. The Trojan turned, saw the blazing figure, and hurled his spear. Diomedes ducked slightly right, and it flew over his shoulder. Not breaking step, he rifled and flung his own spear with a side-cast. It took the warrior dead centre in the chest, hurling him backwards through the rear of the chariot in a cloud of flying splinters. The driver gaped and dropped the reins, then his nerve deserted him and he flung himself out of the far side. As the horses cantered on past him, no doubt to be collected by some Achaean man-at-arms, Diomedes ran towards a line of Trojan spearmen behind, grabbing his spear back out of the corpse on the way.
As usual the rank and file were lagging behind while their captains led in their more expensive armour, and a chariot lurked ready for a quick retreat or a move to another part of the field. Most of the infantry hung back but the two captains were brave enough, advancing to face him. He could even see their names lettered above their heads: Astinous and Hypeiron. But they were only fodder. He adjusted his spear, moving his grip to its very end—soemthing strength and balance usually made impossible—and used the extra length to drive it past Astinous’s guard before he was expecting and through his body. Without slowing down he slammed into Hypeiron with his shield, knocking him back, then snatched the sword from his back and dispatched him with a cut to the neck.
The Trojans were scattering. Sheathing the sword again without the slightest fumble he flicked another spear up from the ground with his foot—it blazed into life as he touched his hand—and went for the next unit behind them.
A little distance away, Pandarus grunted as he knocked aside another blow. His Achaean opponent had lost his spear but was making more than enough trouble with a hand-axe; it would smash his small archer’s shield in a few blows if he wasn’t careful, so he was trying to parry with the bronze rim and get in a stab with his own shortsword. Trying to avoid his enemy and keep an eye on what else went on around him was desperate; the enemy had burst through the line and chaos reigned everywhere.
A thunder of hooves, and flying manes in the corner of his eye. He leaped back and saw his foe vanish under a team of horses.
The chariot skidded around, kicking up a cloud of dust. Pandarus saw the Greek soldier crawling away groaning, but was too winded to think about pursuit. He put his hands on his knees, gasping for breath.
Lord Aeneas leapt from the back of the chariot and shook him. He wasn’t a huge man, but he was making something of a name for himself. No doubt there was divine blood in him somewhere—rumour said Aphrodite’s. Right now he was as flecked with dust, sweat and blood as everyone else.
‘Pandarus?’ yelled Aeneas. ‘Pandarus the archer?’
Pandarus fell to his knees. ‘I’m sorry, lord, I don’t know why I did it. Laodocus told me to and I didn’t think, but he says he doesn’t remember—’
Aeneas paused, then shrugged. ‘These things happen around gods. We need you.’
He pointed across the field. Pandarus saw a tall figure, blazing with light, take a huge leap and land on a passing chariot. The two occupants went flying out of it, one in a shower of blood; the Achaean hero grabbed spears from the chariot’s rack and jumped down again to start throwing them.
‘We’ve got to do something about him,’ said Aeneas, ‘come with me.’
Pandarus didn’t argue. Holding his bow he took his position next to Aeneas as the noble urged the horses into a gallop. Wooden wheels bounced across the field and over spilled and broken weapons. The horses tossed their heads and whinnied.
‘Can you shoot at this speed?’ yelled Aeneas.
‘I certianly can!’ yelled Pandarus. He really didn’t fancy getting closer to that glowing warrior than he could help.
They were approaching him at a stupid rate. In fact, he had now turned and spotted them. Pandarus strained his muscles, pulling the bow back as hard as he could while fighting the bumps under his legs. Double sacrifices to Apollo if he got him, he decided. The figure raised a spear—
—Pandarus released, and the arrow thudded into Diomedes’ shoulder.
‘Oh yes!’ screamed Pandarus in relief, seeing the feathers projecting. Diomedes’ shield arm sagged, and his spear wobbled. ‘Got him!’
A Greek chariot had been following the hero on his carnage and now the passenger hurled his own spear at them on a high curve. Aeneas swerved their chariot aside to avoid it with an oath.
The warrior on the other chariot leaped down, skidding in a shower of dust but not falling. Diomedes staggered over to him and said something. The other man snapped the feathers of the shaft away, then grabbed the point where it protruded from his back and pulled it all the way through and out. Diomedes flexed his shoulder, swung his shield around experimentally, and nodded approval. He glowered at them.
‘Damn,’ said Aeneas, swinging the chariot back, ‘we’ll need a bigger blade.’ Pandarus swallowed and pulled the last spare spear from the rack.
Diomedes’ helper ran back to his own chariot as the hero jogged towards them meaningfully.
‘You won’t be shrugging this one off so easily!’ yelled Aeneas. Pandarus hurled, knowing his life depended on it.
It was another good hit. Square on the shield, missing the spokes and going through it.
‘I think I got him!’ Pandarus decided on triple sacrifices to Apollo.
Diomedes cast his shield aside; behind it there was only a dent on his breasplate. Pandarus saw the hero’s arm flash forward, and then everything went suddenly black.
Pandarus would have been pleased at what happened next. Instead of whipping the horses away like a sensible man, Aeneas leaped out from the speeding chariot. He ducked, rolled, then ran back to the archer’s corpse. He roared like a lion at the soliders who had been closing on it, eyeing the expensive bow and the fine sword-belt, and they scattered.
Before turning to the advancing, blazing Diomedes, he pulled the spear out from Pandarus’ face. The tongue came out with it from where it had been severed at the root, but there was no time to cover the mess respectfully.
Aeneas raised his sword. ‘You’re not despoiling this corpse!’ he yelled. ‘He was a brave man!’
‘You are a brave man as well,’ said Diomedes. ‘I will be honoured to kill you.’ He dipped to the ground, catching up a large stone, and flung it with a blurring snap of the wrist. It crashed into Aeneas’ hip with a horrible crunch. His leg collapsed under him and he went down, howling fury.
Diomedes drew his sword and charged forward.
There was a flash of light and a yellow-robed goddess appeared, bending and clasping the youth. Diomedes’s sword flashed, and caught her across the wrist. She gave a little scream and jumped back, staring at it in horror.
There was no blood pumping from the wound but only a colourless, thin ichor.
‘Leave the field, Aphrodite!’ roared Diomedes as she staggered back from him. ‘Athena commands you to cease your interference! Stick to playing with your dolls and keep clear of anything that needs guts!’
He made a feinting rush towards her. With a wail and a flash of light, Aphrodite disappeared. Diomedes shook his head, disoriented for a moment, and then walked back to the fallen Aeneas and drove his sword through his breast-plate.
Or at least he thought he would. The form of the prince shattered like a mirror, leaving only an empty patch of sand.
* * *
‘Just a simple illusion,’ said Apollo, ‘Nothing forbidden about that. Aeneas crawled off under his own power.’
Hera grunted and left her throne. Picking her robes up slightly she descended the steps, and swept off into a side room.
In it, Aphrodite was swaying on a couch with a ghastly white face, hand clamped about her wrist.
‘It hurts, mother,’ she said, blinking at her. Hera considered a moment then, knelt down and folded her daughter in her arms. ‘There there, darling,’ she said, ‘it’ll be alright.’
‘I can’t believe it,’ said Aphrodite, ‘how can something in a computer game hurt?’ She tentatively removed her hand, which showed the gash slowly closing itself and knitting back together. Aphrodite gave a little scream at the sight of the muscle and tendon still exposed and buried her face back in her mother’s shoulder. Hera herself winced a bit.
‘Your father must have added a pain simulator. I will have words with him about this, for all the good it will do.’
‘But why, mum, why? Why all this pain? Why has everyone got to come attack Troy and make trouble? I only wanted people to be happy—I only wanted—’ Aphrodite gave up and burst into tears in earnest, sobbing wildly. Hera patted her gently and held her. From time to time she would glance around the room to make sure they were alone, then croon a few little nonesense phrases to her.
Eventually Aphrodite was quieter and more peaceful. The wrist seemed to be almost better by then.
‘Why, mother?’ asked Aphrodite again.
Hera sighed. ‘You—you know your father and I have our differences,’ she said. She grimaced. ‘In fact, he’s cheating on me. I know he is but I can’t prove it. I have to watch him with all those ambitious young girls trying to climb the ranks, and those secretaries who always seem to be female and good looking, and that’s just out there. In here he’s always having cybersex without even trying to hide it from me, because who could divorce their husband for a computer game? He even got that written into the pre-nup I had to sign. In small print. He comes to me to raise another woman’s daughter and thinks I shouldn’t be angry just because he’s telling me about it.’ She realised that her voice had been rising and her arms were twitching with the desire to claw and crush rather than cuddle, so she took a moment to breathe and relax.
‘What I am saying is,’ she went on, ‘he drives me mad. The only way I can get back at him is in here, making trouble for his digital spawn.
‘And then there is Troy, where they boast of their king’s bastards, and they steal my beloved Menelaus’s wife—herself the fruit of one of my husband’s philandering expeditions. He ravished her mother disguised as a swan, the pervert. His most recent virtual son fights in their army. Zeus tells me he doesn’t want Troy destroyed—I’ve no idea if he means it or not—but I suppose the whole place just makes me go into a red mist. I can’t help it.’
‘But Helen!’ Aphrodite’s make-up remained perfect—she was a goddes after all- but her eyes were red and puffy and snot still came out of her nose. ‘That poor girl. Born out of a rape, then Theseus went and molested before she was even sixteen. She survives that and those bloody men auction her off to the highest bidder like a piece of meat! She wasn’t happy, she’s the most beautiful mortal in the world, why can’t the goddess of Love find her a man who is kind?’ Aphrodite pulled herself upright and blew her nose longly and strongly on the sleeve of her robe, which fortunately cleansed itself magically. ‘We’re both women, mother, why can’t we make a stand against those patriarchies? Patriarchals—petrarchs—whatever.’
‘Oh my little girl,’ said Hera, not unkindly, ‘it doesn’t work like that. We just have to do the best we can.’
Aphrodite was quiet for a while, then flexed her wrist which was now unmarked. ‘Do you think they feel pain?’ she said. ‘I mean, the non-player-characters down there.’
‘If they do,’ said Hera, ‘I don’t want to know about it.’
* * *
Back on the battlefield, Prince Hector was getting desperate. The long hot afternoon stretched on; the heat, thirst, the stink of spilled blood and entrails in his nostrils, the dust in his breath, the crazy yellow sun glaring from overhead or flashing from bronze and the screams and yells assaulting his ears were wearing him down.
The best that could be said for the battle was that they were holding their own in part of it. In the centre, even Agamemnon himself was fighting and claiming kills; but Doom was coming from the right flank.
Craning up from a chariot, Hector saw light blazing through the dust as Diomedes smashed yet another line of Trojan soldiers. Nothing had slowed him down or even distracted him since Aeneas and Pandarus.
‘Get me a long spear,’ he said to Deiphobus. ‘My armour is to go to Aeneas if I fall and they don’t take it. Tell Helen she’s to regret nothing.’
‘No, brother, no!’ yelled Deiphobus. ‘You can’t fight him. We need you, don’t throw your life away!’
‘Let me fight him,’ offered Glaucus, another officer. ‘I’ll insist we recite our full lineages and the deeds of our families to each other before we duel. It’ll buy us time. Perhaps we could exchange gifts—if I give him enough gold he may even let me go!’
‘Does he look like he’ll stop to talk?’ Hector motioned at Diomedes as he pursued fleeing soldiers, cutting them down one after another. He was even worse than Achilles. ‘If we don’t stop him soon we’ll have to close the city gates, and then every man outside will be lost. It is time to put my life to the Fates again.’
Deiphobus gulped, then hugged him and clapped him on the shoulder. Hector called his charioteer, who was coming with the long spear requested.
He had known this day was coming. Hector knew he was good, and that you never won a fight by going in thinking you’d lose—but he also realised he was no match for Achilles, nor for Diomedes when crackling with divine power.
He told other men he did not fear death, and he had come to believe it himself. But he did fear being parted from his wife and son.
‘Ride fast,’ he said to his charioteer, ‘don’t stop for anything until we reach Diomedes. I’ll fight on foot—’
Before them, the ground erupted and black lightning struck from the sky. A pulse of sound struck them like a physical slap, forcing Hector to seize the side of the chariot for support. As he hauled himself upright he watched a whirling vortex of something that seemed like churning, oily flame coalescing and forming itself into a shape.
A shape nearly ten feet tall and many broad. A shape clad in thick, spiked armour of a black metal that wasn’t bronze. A shape with horns rising from its helmet, a collossal double-bladed axe in each hand and barbed spears strapped to its back. A shape that smelt of burnt coppery blood even at a distance, and whose laugh reverberated across the battlefield and through the ground underneath it at the same time as in the lungs and throats of the soldiers.
‘This is too much fun to leave to mortals!’ exulted Ares as he straightened up. Then he strode forward and began to kill.
* * *
‘I know he’s on my side,’ said Apollo, ‘…but that is just crass.’ He sneered at the carnage unfolding in the viewing-pool below him.
‘He appropriated several elements that belong to other Olympians for his big entrance,’ rumbled Zeus, his bushy eyebrows lowering over his eyes.
‘That’s so—so—unsporting!’ said Athena, who was stood next to his throne. ‘We never fight mortals directly. Where’s the challenge? Serve him right if—if—’
‘If someone went down there and gave him a taste of his own medicine?’ said Zeus, breaking into a smile.
Athena looked at him like Christmas had come early. ‘You mean it? Full contact?’
‘You go get him, my girl,’ said Zeus, patting her head.
‘Dad, you’re the best!’ exclaimed Athena, pecked him on the cheek and ran back to the pool.
* * *
Fear stank in the gates of Troy. Women, some with children in their arms or clinging to their skirts, waited and watched. As each wounded man was carried back in, there were gasps and shrieks added to the groans of the men themselves.
There was no free path for Hector’s chariot in the crowded way ahead. He leapt off and hurried forward on foot.
‘Lord Prince!’ shrieked a woman, bolder than the rest, running up and seizing his arm. ‘What of our menfolk? How many yet live, and have we driven the Achaeans away?’
‘Pray to the Gods,’ said Hector tersely, shaking her off. At the sight of his face, the others in his way melted out of it as he hurried to the little knot of messengers who waited there. Some were boys as yet too young to fight; Hector picked a girl who looked athletic and sensible.
‘Go to my mother Queen Hecuba,’ he said. ‘Tell her to go to Athena’s temple and there to make great sacrifice. She’ll know best what to give but it has to be good. And promise her even more if the grey-eyed goddess will spare us her wrath this day.’
* * *
Diomedes was retreating. So was every other Achaean who was not in full panicked flight. There was no shame in it, not when the titanic form of the War God was running about swinging his axes at anything that moved. Roars of triumph, laughs of savage joy and badly-thought-out insults from him filled the air, shaking the very walls of Troy. Body parts flew as Ares lashed about in a berserk frenzy, drawing no distinction between friend and foe; the Trojans were running from him as well, because often lost his direction and went cutting his way back into his own side before he realised.
Rout was beginning. There were screams and yells of panic, chariots and men in flight. Diomedes ran back and forth, protecting from the few Trojans who sought to press their advantage.
Ajax pelted up. It was odd to see the giant man fleeing, burdened by his heavy shield, but even he was dwarfed by the bloodthirsty Olympian. ‘Get out of here!’ he cried. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ And then he was on past.
He was right. No wise hero threw his life away on something that the poets would only satirise— “and Diomedes, abandoning his wits, tried to fight Ares.” His charioteer Sthenalus was obviously thinking the same as he pulled up their chariot next to him.
‘Don’t spare the horses,’ said Diomedes, ‘We’re—’
‘Going somewhere?’ asked the woman who was suddenly stood next to him, leaning on the chariot side. Sthenalus was dropping to his knees as best he could in the vehicle. Diomedes bowed his head and averted his eyes.
Athena was famously modest and virginal. But she was also very beautiful, and when going to war, she dressed as a warrior. The magnificent tunic of scale armour was sensible and practical, as were her greaves, but there were glimpses of leg to be had between them. When women normally wore long dresses, legs tended to draw the male eye, and Athena was notoriously uncomfortable with this. An uncomfortable goddess was not something you wanted.
‘My lady,’ he said, ‘Ares has taken the field!’
‘So have I. I need a charioteer.’
Sthenalus backed off happily enough. Athena climbed in, Diomedes took the reins and flicked them to start the horses. Athena unslung the huge shield from her back and hung it on the side of the chariot, which made Diomedes nervous. The Aegis shield was famous, and he really wanted to be behind it. His patron did not seem to have brought her great divine spear with her, either, and was simply picking up a couple of mortal ones. She balanced as easily as if she stood on solid rock.
‘Straight at him, I haven’t got all day,’ she remarked. Diomedes flicked the reins again and yelled to spur on the horses. They weren’t keen. Running against a tide of fleeing men was one thing, but the horror directly ahead of them was quite another. Ares was experimenting spinning round with his axes out, but wasn’t getting the hang of moving while he did it.
Athena put her fingers in her mouth and emitted a whistle that cut cleanly through the commotion. Ares stopped and looked up. She waved to him.
Ares roared. Putting both axes into one hand, he pulled a spear from his back. Larger than a mortal spear, it had a point larger than a sword with horrible jagged barbs, all in black metal that seemed to smoke and shimmer with heat. The god hefted it for a moment, then hurled.
It moved far faster than his hand had. Diomedes saw it flash through the air, straight towards him—and stop juddering, inches from his chest, with a slender hand clamped on it. He hadn’t had time to be scared.
‘Don’t say I never did anything for you,’ said Athena, retracting her arm and spinning the spear around. ‘Directly at him, then break right to sideswipe him as we pass. Chicken out too soon and I’ll have your guts.’
Diomedes gulped. The last men were scattering out from in between them. Ares spat in frustration, then spread his axes wide and grinned in anticipation. Every instinct screamed at Diomedes to flee, he could feel his knees wanting to collapse even with the power Athena had granted still burning through him.
Athena hurled Ares’ spear back at him. Her slender arm was deadly accurate but simply didn’t have enough power. The point struck through the thick heavy armour over Ares’ stomach but stopped there, quivering. The god flung his head back and laughed.
‘My lady, shall I—’
‘Keep going.’ Athena hefted the mortal spear. Ares raised his axes as the horses seemed about the plow straight into him.
‘NOW!’ yelled Athena, dropping her weapon. Diomedes pulled the chariot right to pass Ares, and as the started to bring the axes down Athena flung herself forward, seized the shaft of the spear stuck in his belly, and finished driving it all the way through his body.
The momentum flung her back onto the chariot. Ares was staring in shock as they flew past. Diomedes saw the cruel point stuck out of his back in a way that, he knew from experience, was going to be messy. Athena set her feet and tore the spear back out in a vile spray of ichor and gore, spinning Ares round.
Diomedes drew the chariot into a curve. He could hardly tear his eyes from the sight of a mutilated god. Ares spent another moment staring stupidly at the array of intestines slithering out of his stomach, then his mouth began to gape and anguish filled his eyes. The scream started, low at first but rising, rising, howling louder than the loudest gale or a thousand pigs being slaughtered at once.
But not so loud it drowned out Athena. ‘Who’s the Mummy!’ she screamed, ‘WHO’S THE MUMMY!!!?’
Ares howled and exploded like a volcano, sending Diomedes flying from the chariot. When he had picked himself up and cleared his head, there was no sign of any god or goddess on the field.
* * *
* * *
The air inside the tent was vinegary with spilt and soured wine, tinged with food that had been left lying in the heat. Nobody had dared enter to light the oil lamps, and the cooking fire was cold.
Patroclus sighed and walked over to the nearest lamp to light it from the one he carried.
‘Patroclus!’ came Achilles’ voice out of the gloom, a little slurred. ‘So what happened on the battlefiled today?’
Patroclus watched the wick take flame, and settled the lamp back level on its cord. ‘Oh, nothing much,’ he said casually. ‘More casualties than usual, a few wounded heroes, nothing decisive.’
A snarl and a surge from the centre of the chamber. A wine goblet bounced off the tent-post; having been flung by Achilles, the fine jewelled work was now dented half flat.
‘Lie to me again and I’ll cut out your tongue!’ roared Achilles. Patroclus saw him stagger to stay upright. In the dark he hoped the great runner could not see him swallow.
‘Wait till you’re sober, then I’ll take you outside and box you blue for saying that.’ His voice successfully came out even and confident.
He saw the glimmer of eyes staring at him for a several heartbeats, then…
‘Hurrh hurrh hurrh,’ laughed Achilles. Patroclus relaxed, walked over and clasped arms with him.
‘Seriously,’ said Achilles, ‘What happened out there today? I heard it wasn’t your ordinary battle.’
Patroclus went to light some of the other lamps. ‘The Trojans saw sense and tried to sacrifice Paris for peace, but Aphrodite wasn’t having it. Then the battle was on in earnest, theremaypossiblyhavebeensomegodsonthebattlefield, Diomedes downed Aeneas with a rock but he got away, Hector—’
‘What was that?’
The light showed that Achilles was slumped back in a patch of sand in the middle. Lying around him were not just a number of smashed wine-amphorae and goblets, but some of the most precious trophies taken in the war so far. Prince Troilus’s helmet, cuirass and sword belt had been arranged together. Patroclus suddenly felt more sorry for him. He heaved a sigh. ‘Athena was helping the Achaeans today. Without her, we really would have been in trouble, even without Ares showing up.’
‘Bit ugh,’ roared Achilles, saving himself from a potentially fatal blasphemy just in time. He groped for something to throw, then settled for driving a fist into the empty armour, making a significant dent. ‘I hope my mother persuades Zeus soon. Who did great deeds during the battle?’
‘Diomedes wreaked great havoc, but he was inspired by Athena, so that doesn’t really count. Big Ajax and Hector fought a duel at the end, but it was quite lack-lustre, ended by the dusk. They were both weary by then.’
Patroclus knelt in front of him. ‘We should sail away completely,’ he urged. ‘Being here but not fighting—it’s torturing you. Let Agamemnon scream out his regrets from a distance. We can go to Frankia, they’re always up for a scrap.’ He peered at his friend’s face. ‘Sitting right by our comrades as they die will not be easy. They will blame us a lot less if we are distant.’
‘I need to see Agamemnon’s face,’ hissed Achilles with venom. ‘I need him to humble himself before me and beg. All the people who have been covering themselves in glory today, glory they only have because I dared end Apollo’s curse and glory that would be mine if I was there, I need to see them bleed. They stood by as Agamemnon robbed me because I stood up for them, now they slave for him as I rot back here. Their screams are my due.’
Patroclus rocked back, and went to light some more lamps to hide his shock.
* * *
DEF CON: You are condemning my clients for cruelty, and you put up…. this as an exhibit against them?
PRO CON: The question is whether his emotions are real, not whether he is a nice man. They seem real enough to have shocked you.
DEF CON: Hatred is a simple emotion. Even if he did feel anger and rage—which I’m not admitting by the way—this case hinges on more complex emotions, the ability to suffer. I believe your whole case is built on a mistaken premise.
PRO CON: Let us see….
(That’s all the ordered narrative to date!)