by Michæl W. Bard
©2009 Michæl W. Bard

Prologue -=- Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2 -=- Chapter 3 -=- Chapter 4 -=- Chapter 5 -=- Chapter 6 -=- Chapter 7 -=- Chapter 8 -=- Epilogue

Home -=- #23 -=- ANTHRO #23 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

Chapter 37
-= Spoils of War =-

    Oriolas wasn’t the only one who thought I’d taken the girl to rape. The error was understandable, given the brute fact that these centaurs had been without females for years. Still and all, an instinct as powerfully influential as that will find ways to express itself; I’d seen some things at night that I’ve tried to forget since. But as long as such activities didn’t occur between guards on duty, didn’t cause lasting physical harm, and didn’t prevent the centaurs involved from being ready for duty the next day, I ignored it. It wouldn’t surprise me if Raparthax and Philyanax had taken part in such activities—but they kept it out of my sight, and I didn’t see any need to bring it up.
   Look: If you know you’re one of the last members of an extinct race, does it really matter which protuberance you insert into whose orifice?
   Phillipa’s protected status didn’t cause any serious discontent among my herd; habits ingrained by a year of strict discipline kept the response limited to rude comments and disgruntled expressions. Then another potential disaster arose…
   I should have thought of it myself, but I didn’t. The first clue was when I saw Peukalos, the dark chestnut who’d first run for the wine when I destroyed it all, galloping off with shouts of glee towards one of the piles of Achaean supplies.
   Of course the Achaeans would have wine, damn it!
   “Phillipa, we’ve got a problem. You’ll have to catch up to me.” Not waiting for her reply, I leapt into a gallop towards the rapidly growing mob of centaurs. Even before I reached them, I could smell the ambrosial aroma. Fuck! “Stop!” I screamed as I shoved my way through the mob. I had to grab two by their necks and yank them and out of the way. Hodios was apparently the youngster who’d recognized the skins, and he sheepishly backed away as I took the open skin from him and twisted the top to cut off the scent.
   Turning, keeping the bag of supplies to my rear, I watched as almost the entire herd looked at me. A few stragglers were still waking up, and then everybody would be present except for Amlaneos and his squad. Phillipa remained behind the crowd a safe distance away.
   Whispers raced through the herd—questions about what had happened, confirmation of what had been found. I cut it all off with a shout: “Yes, there is wine here!”
   Half the crowd pressed tighter towards me, the rest started backing away.
   They all stopped and looked at me, in fear, in terror, in anger, and in hope.
   “Today, you defeated a superior foe! They were well equipped, they were in a prepared position, and they outnumbered you. But, together we defeated them!”
   Some lusty cheers greeted that.
   “Do you remember when you fought the Lapiths?” Most nodded. “Did you ever beat them when they outnumbered you? No! Never! But now—but nowyou defeated a numerically superior foe!”
   They cheered. I waited for it to quiet down.
   “I could give lectures over what went right, and what went wrong. But I won’t. You won, and you deserve to enjoy it! So we’re not going to destroy the wine!”
   More cheers.
   “Tonight it will be shared. An equal portion to each, with a double portion to each of the wounded.”
   A half-hearted cheer.
   “I wish there was more, but there isn’t. And, even if there were, I would still ration it out! Do you remember what you were when I found you? You were lost, without direction. The wine controlled you! But now… you can make your own destiny!”
   I paused and scanned my herd. Most of them looked thoughtful, hopeful.
   “Together, we will fight the Achaeans on the side of Troy! We will show them that we are not barbarians! That we are better than them! We will be remembered!”
   And that was somebody started the chant. I think it was Doryalos, but I was never sure. He never admitted it, anyway. “Stephan! Stephan! Stephan!”
   I let them go on for a bit, feeling their emotions roll over me. It was a good feeling. Finally I raised my arms and the chant quieted.
   “The Trojans are to be given food and water, and released. They’ve chosen to proceed to Illium on their own. They think we’re barbarians.”
   “No!” the herd screamed out.
   “Yes!” I screamed back, even louder. “As civilized beings, we must respect their choice. Phillipa,” I pointed, “has decided to trust us; she will be the first of many. She will guide us into the city. Treat her with the respect due to a guest. That is how I shall treat her!” I could smell the meat starting to cook. “Now, we need to get back to work. Those who were preparing the meat, we’re all waiting for your pleasure. Younger Orios, go and relieve Amlaneas…” he and his unit groaned, “…after you’ve had your share of the meat and the wine!”
   A lusty cheer.
   “And now… let’s celebrate!”
   “Stephan! Stephan! Stephan! Stephan! Stephan! Stephan!”
   It felt good.

Chapter 38
-= Reasons and Rationales =-

   There was one responsibility we had to carry out before the party: Lighting the pyre for the dead. Through the day, we’d been stacking and preparing the bodies, dead centaurs and Achaeans alike. Wood had been gathered from what the Achaeans had handy, and chopped from a stand of trees near the mouth of a stream a short distance away. Raparthax was placed at the top of the pyre.
   The final preparations and moment of silence left more than enough time for the meat to get well and truly done… and then the party started. It was a celebration of life, a remembrance of the dead. There wasn’t enough meat for everybody to gorge themselves (not that I would have let them!), but what with grain and other supplies the Achaeans had taken from the Trojans, we had enough to make it festive. I and Doryalos oversaw the wine. No doubt it would have been a more than ample quantity for the Achaeans, but there was only about half a skin for each centaur—enough to wet the palate, but not enough to even begin to get drunk. Doryalos and I made sure that the scout units were kept ready, and made sure things didn’t get too rowdy just in case of attack. I wasn’t much worried, given that the patrols had found no sign of other Achaeans throughout the day, but there was no sense in taking chances.
   Phillipa stayed close to me throughout the evening. I don’t think she fully trusted the others, and I really couldn’t blame her. Even unintentionally, a ton of happy centaur could kill or badly maim a human. I checked with Oriolas about the other Trojans; he confirmed that they’d received their promised provisions and fled our camp. I made sure he got a fresh slab of meat when the third deer was ready. After that I was ready for some quiet, so I took Phillipa out to the piles of booty the Achaeans had taken so she could find a dress to replace the torn rag she was wearing. That was when we finally had a chance to talk.
   As she was looking through a sack of dresses, she asked me, “You’re going to present yourself to Priam, aren’t you?”
   “What? To ally with him and—”
   “I mean, why are you going to help us?”
   “Pelius’ reaction will be typical, you know.”
   That brought me up short. It was a good question: Why was I going to help the Trojans? Originally it was because I needed to get close to Poseidon to kill him. I could have joined the Greeks—it would have made getting closer to Poseidon easier. But until now, that had never entered my mind. Was it only the myth of the centaurs fighting on the side of the Trojans? No… it was something else. Something deeper, something that I hadn’t even realized until then.
   Oh, don’t get me wrong; the burning need for vengeance, the deep-seated hate, all that was still there. But there was something else, too. Pride? Partially. A sense of duty in that by becoming the leader I’d made the centaurs my responsibility. I could almost feel a genetic need to protect the group. How much of me was horse now? But there was another, deeper reason, I realized: The original reason.
   I’d read a great deal about the Trojan War; Homer’s Illiad, of course, which presented the Greek point of view, and other writings from the likes of Euripides and Virgil, which provided other viewpoints. And of all the people who were involved in this war, I’d always admired Hector the most. He was a true hero, not a monster like the so-called ‘heroes’ of the Achaeans. He fought for his city, not for himself, not for glory…
   I realized that Phillipa was waiting for my answer.
   “I guess… it’s Hector. I’ve heard stories of the Achaeans, prophecies of what they’ll do and what happens to them. Eventually, they’ll all pay for what they do, either in death or in years of travel and trials. But Hector… he doesn’t deserve any of this.”
   “What have you heard about our prince?”
   “I’ve heard that he fights for Illium. He doesn’t fight because he wants to, because he wants to be remembered, or to conquer or steal: He fights to defend his family and his people. He fights because he must, and even then, he fights as civilized as he can.”
   “I think… your opinion of our prince is awfully inflated.” She turned around and started rooting through the sack again. “I hope he doesn’t disappoint you.”
   I looked away from her and up into the heavens. Part of me knew it was all fake, but I’d found that the longer I lived in this cave, the harder it became to believe that. The constellations were above me, bright, twinkling. I wondered if Chiron had been put up there yet? “I’ve been alive too long to expect pleasant surprises. Even so… I’ll be satisfied if Hector is even half as good a man as I’ve heard.”
   “I guess that’s all any of us can expec—Ah hah!”
   “I knew I’d seen somebody grab it!”
   I walked over until I was just behind her. “What did you find?”
   “Everything a woman needs to look nice.”
   She pushed herself up, holding a small chest under one arm. “Can you watch over me while I get washed up? I’ll redo my breasts and face in the morning.”
   “You look fi—”
   “I do not look fine! My hair is a mess—my breasts are a disaster!”
   “I’ll show you the way and give you some priv—”
   “Oh, no, you won’t! If you’re going to meet King Priam, you can’t look the way you do now! Don’t you ever wash!?”
   I sighed. “The ocean and I don’t get along…”
   “That’s why we’ll do it in the stream, dummy.” She walked up beside me. “Now: Are you going to come peaceably, or must I use force?” Her arm whipped out and pinched my ear.
   “Ow!” Where was Philyanax when I needed her? I think she was still sleeping off the healing. I raised my hands. “I surrender! If you’ll follow me I’ll let you get cleaned up.”
   “You don’t get out of it that easy, Stephan! When I’m done, you’re next!”
   How did I get into this? “I don’t need—”
   Snorting, I trotted off towards where I’d been told the small stream was. I heard Phillipa hurrying along behind me. The stream wasn’t too far, and there was a small pool just before the stream tumbled over rocks and burbled into the sea. It was like it’d been designed for bathing. When we stopped, Phillipa put the chest down, untied the cloth around her waist, and tossed her dress to me. I just managed to catch it. It smelled… sweet.
   Twirling in the moonlight she asked, “Do you like?”
   Her body was indeed well formed; her hair swirled around, hiding and revealing her curves. There was a small scar on her right thigh, but other than that her skin was smooth and muscular. I also realized that her question was one of those to which there was no correct answer. “Ummm…”
   She stopped, hands on her hips, facing me. Her hair settled down on top of her breasts before sliding off and hanging at her side. “You don’t like it?”
   “Errr… we are different races…”
   “You’re very nice above the waist, though…”
   “That’s better!” With that she opened the chest and pulled some things out. “I won’t be long!” Then she ran over to the edge of the pool…
   …and screamed. “Mother!”
   Her dress fluttered from my hands and I galloped over beside her. Under the branches of a tree, partially hidden in driftwood, was a human body, female. Looking around I could see others partially covered—
   Phillipa spun around and threw herself against me, punching her fists into my chest again and again. “You bastard! You gods-forsaken bastard! You promised! I let myself trust you!” Sobs broke out and she hit me harder.
   I reached out to comfort her, “Phillipa, I didn’t—”
   “Get away from me you lying monster!”
   I stopped, letting my hands fall to my waist as she ran to her mother’s body. Crouching on the ground she lifted her mother’s head into her lap and gently brushed her mother’s hair with her hand, sobbing.
   What the hell had just happened? I’d told Oriolas—
   Over the faint sounds of singing from the camp behind me, I heard something—I spun around; a human figure, wearing only an Achaean boar’s tusk helmet, burst out of the stream. His face was in shadow and water dripped from the bronze-tipped javelin in his hand.
   Before I could move, he threw the javelin. It hummed through the air, eager, hungry.
   Its bronze point pierced my human chest just below my left breast, and burst out my human back.

Chapter 39
-= The Barbarian =-

   When the javelin hit me, my first reaction was shock and annoyance. Absolute astonishment that something like this could happen—where the hell had this idiot come from? How dare he cause me to break my word?—but that instant was overwhelmed by pain. Fortunately, the assassin missed all my vital spots, which were in my horse chest; the javelin was nowhere near my esophagus, the only vulnerable organ in my human chest. The pain lasted only an instant before Ixion’s blood rose in me to bury it under blind, overwhelming, all-consuming, rage.
   With an incoherent scream I leapt into the water, my hooves splashing and stumbling on the rounded stones. Phillipa, looking up at my scream, watched as I bounded into the pool towards the monster who’d murdered the Trojans. That monster just laughed as the water sucked him under… the water was a lot deeper than it looked.
   Perhaps it was a memory of what had happened during my madness that made me not care what happened to me: I dove under after him. Instead of holding my breath, I blew out all my air in a roar of bubbles, then sucked in water to ensure I could pursue him into the blackest depths. It tore into my throat in exquisite pain, but I survived it as I had before. Sinking to the bottom, I exhaled again; a few final bubbles burbled out of my mouth and nose before I sucked in more water.
   The murderer tried to flee, but that was when his origin betrayed himself. Like me, he couldn’t drown; unlike me, he’d never learned to swim. I’d done this before in this body, I’d flown through the air as Pegasus, I’d swam as a human before I got dragged into this world. And I was above him, sinking fast in a cloud of blood oozing around the javelin still in my chest.
   I ripped the wooden shaft out of my chest, splinters tearing off inside me, the head catching on the skin of my back and then tearing its way through. More blood gushed out, but I was beyond caring. I must have looked like one of the Furies to him; surrounded in blood, living when I should be dying, bringing the judgment of the gods to him.
   Suddenly the water pulled him, yanking him away—but the same current grabbed me, and the suction of his wake yanked me closer. I hadn’t thrown the javelin; underwater, missile weapons were a joke. I had to thrust, and that meant I had to reach him. Clouds of blood and mud surrounded us, hid him, but somehow I knew which direction would bring me closer to him. For an instant I saw my target through the clouded water, and I knew he was in reach. Shifting my grip to the back of the javelin, I thrust it into him, angling it to ensure a dead-center hit.
   Success! As the bronze tip pierced his skin, I yanked him back towards me like a hooked fish. The water swirled and roared, twisting around us in a miniature maelstrom. He screamed in pain and a burst of bubbles, and the torrent ripped them away. The bronze tore out in a gush of blood—but by then, he was close enough for me to grab in an iron grip.
   I wanted to destroy him—break his neck, snap his spine, tear him in two—but somehow, I forced that urge down. I needed to know what had happened, why he’d done what he’d done. There was no doubt at all who was behind it; breathing water meant godly assistance, and I already knew which member of the pantheon hated me enough to strike at my friends. But no matter that the assassin was Poseidon’s cat’s-paw, he still needed to answer for what he’d done, and then Phillipa could gut him.
   Easier said than done! The killer wasn’t about to go quietly, and the water swirled around us, spinning us like a top. I was sick, nauseous, but I didn’t let go. The water slammed us against the bottom in a new cloud of mud and blood and stones, and still I hung on. The currents threw rocks against me, one after the other; I kept my grip on the murderer. I just held him as we twisted around and around, spinning crazily every which way. His face, wracked with pain and silent screams, became my world. Things from outside tore at my flesh, battered at my back. Grit shoved itself into my eyes and down my throat. But I held on—I swore I’d be damned if I was going to let him go.
   Gradually the torrent calmed, the spinning slowed, and we settled to the bottom in a cloud of silt and algae and mud and blood. When my hooves thudded on the bottom, I forced myself to take one step after another, place one hoof in front of the other. Gradually I walked out of the deep in the center of the pool. I was tired, exhausted. My muscles were sore; the wounds that covered me were more numerous than the Scythian tattoos I bore. I might be a divine being, unable to die… but that didn’t mean I couldn’t get hurt. And I might be able to heal from any injury, but it wasn’t free; each healed wound was a drain on my body’s energy. Each step became an act of will. The darkness lightened as I approached the surface with my prisoner. I stumbled, drifted down to my knees, but then forced myself up and continued on. I saw the purple-red light of dawn flickering through the ripple-broken surface. When my head broke through, other centaurs jumped into the pool and helped me the rest of the way out as I spewed water from my lungs. Philyanax was there with them, and she pushed me from behind as I staggered up the last few steps before collapsing onto my side, still in half a metre of water. Arms tried to take my prisoner out of my grip, and at first I wouldn’t let go; then I recognized centaurs and faces—Doryalos, Bianar, Ularios the Elder, Hodites—and my grip slowly slackened.
   “Don’t… don’t kill… him.” I managed to force out. “Bind the… the bastard’s wounds!”
   “And what about the woman?” Amlaneas spit out.
   That was then I saw that Phillipa was tied painfully tight, and held securely. “Not her…” More water and blood gushed out of my mouth and my body was wracked with coughs. “Not her fault…”
   And that was when I lost consciousness.

   I woke up near the stream, laying down with a roaring fire on one side, and Philyanax pressing herself against me on the other. I wasn’t cold; in fact, I was unbearably hot. Other centaurs were around me. I felt sore all over, and still a little sick in the chest. I gagged and spit bloody splinters. Immediately Philyanax leapt to her hooves.
   Don’t do that again! she screamed. She definitely wasn’t pleased.
   I reached up to scratch her on the chin and she gently lipped my fingers.
   “Are you all right, Stephan?” Doryalos asked. He must have been one of the ones standing watch over me.
   “I think so.” My voice was more a croak. Somebody handed me a skin; I gulped down some water and handed it back. “I don’t want to go through that again.”
   “What happened?”
   I heard the other centaurs crowding around and shuffling nervously at that question. I told them, in an uncomfortably loud voice so that all might hear. I didn’t blame them for what had happened; who would expect an assassin to spend hours lying in wait at the bottom of a pool in a stream?
   “Doryalos,” I asked, “how long has it been?”
   “Over a day.”
   I leapt to my hooves. “Have we been attacked? Have you maintained patrols—?”
   “No and yes. Everything’s under control.”
   “Has anybody found anything?”
   “Nothing. No Achaeans, no Trojans.”
   “Did you—?”
   “We burned the Trojans.”
   “Take me to the prisoner.”
   “You need to res—”
   You need to rest, Philyanax nickered.
   “Now, Poseidon damnit! Where is he!?”
   “This way, Stephan.”
   I followed as Doryalos led. The others crowded around me in a circle.
   “I don’t need an escort!”
   Doryalos gestured at the ranks of my centaurs. “They think you do.”
   And I agree! snorted Philyanax.
   I glared, but bowed to the inevitable. There were some snickers from my bodyguard.
   “Doryalos, send somebody to fetch Phillipa. I think she’ll want to hear what this bastard has to say.”
   “That won’t be hard—we’ve had to keep her from killing him.”
   “Feisty, isn’t she?”
   At that point the guards in front of me made room and I saw about 20 centaurs standing in a circle facing inwards. Phillipa was outside the circle, held by another centaur, being watched by Nedymnos. Doryalos barked a command and a few moved aside to let him and I through.
   The assassin, if that’s what he was, didn’t look good. His chest wound had been bandaged, but I could smell the taint of infection. The prisoner’s entire body was bruised and beaten, and very pale. The centaurs hadn’t been nice to him; I couldn’t really blame them. His hands were tight behind his back, and presumably tied. His legs were tied so tight that his feet were white from lack of blood.
   “Stephan, let me talk to him.”
   “No.” My tone was cold and harsh. Doryalos knew when to drop a topic, so he remained silent as I walked forward. I was alone except for Philyanax, who walked beside me.
   As I approached him I realized that all the centaurs guarding him were about three metres away; all were armoured; and all held a javelin ready to kill him.
   His head lolled to one side. As I stopped in front of him, his eyes focused on me and he straightened proudly. He tried to spit at my hooves, but his mouth was too dry.
   “Somebody bring some water.”
   A centaur handed me some water and I dribbled a little bit into his mouth. I let him swallow a bit, then pulled the skin away and handed it back. Grabbing his chin, I forced him to look into my eyes. “Who are you?”
   Now that he could spit in my face, he did. Phillipa was still screaming, and hooves thudded angrily on the ground.
   “I would suggest you show a little civility. I’m the only one keeping them—” I motioned around, “—from ripping you into very small pieces. Your name?”
   “My name is Nausimedan, you soulless bastard!”
   Nausimedan… why did that sound familiar..? He glared at me as I searched through my memories. Then I had it: “Son of Nauplios, and grandson of Poseidon?”
   “My grandfather will kill you yet, you motherless beast!”
   I could feel Ixion’s blood rising in me, but I fought it down. “I have a mother, and I am much less a beast than you,” I responded calmly. “Why did you attack me? Did Poseidon send you?”
   “I did it myself!”
   “I guess your grandfather’s still too terrified of me.” When I said that, Phillipa finally stopped screaming for blood. In fact everybody around the two of us was silent listening. “Tell me, Nausimedan: Are you proud of deserting your comrades? Of killing innocents in cold blood?”
   “I thought they were Achaeans! Once they saw me, I had no choice!”
   It didn't take long for Phillipa to realize whom the Achaeans he'd killed were. “No!” she burst out. “Kill him! It’s all he deserves!”
   “Phillipa, we are civilized here. We’ll listen to what he has to say. Then you can decide whether he lives or dies.”
   “Don’t waste my time! He murdered my family! He...!” Phillipa continued in the same vein but I ignored her.
   I turned to Nausimedan. “You know that I destroyed your friends? They’re dead or in flight. All because you deserted them.”
   You were more important!”
   “So you tried to kill me like an assassin in the night.”
   “You deserve only death!”
   I turned away and a pair of centaurs leapt forward to intercept him as he threw himself at me, biting and spitting. As I walked away I slapped him in the face with my tail, finally stopping when it was just out of his reach. “This,” I declared to everyone within earshot, “is a barbarian.” I stopped in front of Phillipa. She stared at me in awe. Doryalos was beside me again and I turned to him. “Your dagger, please?”
   Nausimedon kept screaming; there was no other sound as Doryalos handed his weapon to me.
   I held the hilt out to Phillipa. “You are the one most wronged. What do you want done to him?”
   In a blur, she yanked the dagger from my hand, its blade drawing a line of blood down my palm. Ripping herself free of the centaur holding her, she ran, screaming, at Nausimedon.
   I watched her gut him again and again and again.

Chapter 40
-= Loyalties =-

   It was as horridly fascinating as a car wreck, but eventually I turned away from Phillipa to Doryalos. “I want you to take the centaurs and follow Phillipa to Troy. Her safety is your responsibility. She can show you the way. Join Hect—”
   “What about you, Stephan?”
   Philyanax looked at me; she wanted to know, too.
   “What about me?” I sighed. “Now you know who’s out to get me. I want you gone—I want you all gone. Poseidon is my problem, and my vengeance. There’s no need for any of yo—”
   No! Philyanax screamed.
   “Stephan, I refuse.”
   I looked down at Doryalos and took a step forward until my human chest was pressed against his. He kept looking right back, refusing to budge.
   “Everyone will refuse!” he cried. “Don’t you realize that?”
   “Doryalos. You have my instructions.”
   “Then I quit! Pick somebody else, because I’m not leaving you.”
   Nor I!
“Don’t you realize whom I’m out to kill!?”
   “Not until now, but that doesn’t change things. Out of curiosity, why?”
   “It’s none of your business!” I took a step forward and Doryalos braced his entire strength against me. I ended up pushing him back because I was stronger, his hooves digging into the dirt in resistance.
   “You made me your direct assistant. That makes it my business.”
   “Fine!” I threw up my arms. “He killed my family, or at least the one that adopted me. He caused me to rape my sister and watch her die in childbirth. He’s now tried to kill me twice!”
   “He’s a god—”
   “I know what he is! It doesn’t matter; I have to do what I have to do. Just like you have to care for the herd.”
   “I am caring for the herd, Stephan. I’m staying with you. You are its heart!”
   I backed down, watching Phillipa thrust her dagger in again and again, even though Nausimedon was long dead. “I’m the one Poseidon wronged, not you. Not anybody else.”
   “It doesn’t matter. We won’t leave you.”
   It seemed that Philyanax was pleased to let Doryalos speak for her, though she did snort her agreement.
   “You’re all idiots!” I pointed at Phillipa. “Look at her! The only reason her parents are dead is because they happened to be in the way. If she hadn’t met me, they’d still be alive!”
   “Stephan, why’d you depose Gryneos?”
   “What does it matter?” I asked, confused at the change of subject.
   Philyanax just snorted. She and Doryalos just stood there; apparently, they were going to wait until they got an answer. “Fine! Because I needed you to get me close to Poseidon! Happy!?” Had I been that callous?
   “You used us?”
   “Zeus dammit, yes! You don’t owe me anything!”
   Phillipa must have finally finished with her rage, or she had just heard me. Now she was standing beside me too, listening.
   Doryalos’ voice was calm. “So why did you force us to change? Weren’t we good enough for you?”
   “You were barbarians! I couldn’t leave you the way you were! Just go!”
   Others started crowding around to listen and Doryalos spoke for their benefit. “You came to us because we were a tool for you to fulfill your vendetta against Poseidon. And then, because you couldn’t believe what we had become, you forced us to change. Is that right?”
   Anguish filled my voice. “Isn’t that enough!? Just get out of here before Poseidon tries something else!
   “Stephan, you gave us hope for the first time ever. You taught us what it meant to be honourable, to be respected. Because of you, we’re not going to be remembered with just hatred and disgust!”
   I spun around to face him. “Don’t you understand!? It’s useless. This isn’t real! None of it is! It’s all dreams! And even if it was real, I know! Other than Chiron, centaurs were beasts, monsters. Never anything more!”
   “And what if we want to be?”
   “When Poseidon kills you, it won’t matter!”
   Doryalos turned away from me and looked at the centaurs which had gathered. “You’ve all heard. Stephan came to us to use us for his vendetta. He forced us to change because he couldn’t leave us the way he found us. Now he wants us to leave him because Poseidon might kill us trying to get at him.”
   “Yes! So go, all of you! Go! Get away before it’s too late! Please…”
   Amlaneas spoke up from within the crowd. “The way I see it, we’ve got no mares so we’re all dead anyway. We might as well help somebody who’s helped us.”
   Why were they throwing their lives away!? “Don’t you understand what you’re giving up? Poseidon created horses, he helped create you. He could make mares for you, for all of you!”
   “Then why hasn’t he!?” yelled Old Hodites. “We’ve prayed to him, sacrificed to him. And the bastard hasn’t done anything!”
   The ancient Thaunos spoke and everybody quieted to listen. “Stephan. After the Lapiths drove us away, we prayed and sacrificed to all the Olympians. We didn’t have anything to lose. We even sacrificed the youngest of us—little Rhoetnos went of his own free will.”
   Dear Zeus…
   “So you say we can abase ourselves before the gods, beg a higher power for relief? Well, perhaps we can do that. But here's what I say—” And he spat on the ground. “And I say, screw the gods! Screw them all!”
   The others shouted their agreement. “Screw them all!”
   I screamed to be heard above the chant: “But you can live a long and happy life in peace!”
   Their voices fell into a sudden silence and they all looked at me. Phillipa ran her hand down my horse spine, then stroked my horse back again and again.
   “You told us once about the choice Achilles made.” It was Amycos, the youngest centaur still alive. “You said he had a choice between long life, or glory.”
   I’d told them lots of tales during our trip here. “If you stay with me, you’ll find only death! Go to Illium, follow Doryalos, find your glory!”
   Doryalos clasped me on the shoulders. “Stephan,” he said, “You are our glory.”
   I’m only going to kill you! All of you! Don’t you understand!?”
   “Everybody dies some time,” Thaunos replied. “But we will know our glory, and the Gods will, too. Do the humans really matter?”
   Amycos shouted out: “I’m following Stephan!”
   “And I! And I!”
   Pushing Doryalos’ hands away, I looked over them. I swallowed. “If anybody wishes to leave, do so. You’ll go with my blessings.”
   There was only silence.
   “Last chance—if you don’t leave now, you won’t be able to later. I’ll have to count on you. On all of you. You may die horribly, helpless to stop it, forgotten, cursed throughout history, all if you stay with me.”
   It definitely wasn’t Doryalos who started it this time. “Stephan. Stephan. Stephan! Stephan! Stephan! Stephan!”
   I just shook my head and let it rise, and then start to fade before holding up my hand for silence. “Fine then. I appreciate the company.”
   They cheered.
   I turned to face Doryalos. “Who’s on patrol?”
   “Ularius and the Younger Orios.”
   “Go to each of them. Tell them what I told you and let them choose. Be honest, don’t force them. Can I trust you to do this?”
   “Can we trust you not to sneak away in the night?”
   I looked around. “You’d just chase after me anyway. I—” Wrapping my arms I hugged him, pulling him tight against me. “Thank you. Thanks, all of you!”
   “Stephan! Stephan! Stephan!”
   I slowly let go and turned to face the herd. “Enough celebration. If you’re sticking with me, you’ve got to work. So get to work!”
   They greeted that with good natured boos and grumbling.
   “Well, go!”
   The group started breaking up as Doryalos galloped off.
   “Nedymnas! Get your unit together.”
   He stopped and turned to face me. “Stephan?”
   “I want a proper pyre built for Nausimedon.”
   “What!?” Phillipa screamed.
   I turned to her. “He—”
   “He deserves to rot!”
   I grabbed her and held her arms tight against her sides. “Phillipa, what’s done is done. Would you sentence him to an eternity in Hades because of a few mistakes?”
“Phillipa, just—”
   No! I want him to rot! I want him to feel a fraction of the pain I feel!”
   “Phillipa, shut up!”
   She stared at me in shock.
   “If we curse him, then what’s to stop Poseidon from going after the others—or even you? Do you want to spend all eternity as a shade in Hades? Do you!?”
   She stared at me.
   “I’m going to give Poseidon a message. This is between him and me, not anybody else. Whether he put his grandson up to it or not, I’m going to offer him a deal.”
   “We all have to fight for the living. The dead are dead.”
   “Phillipa, the dead are dead. What is done is done. Sorrow for them, but let them go. Don’t compound the sins done with a sin of your own.”
   I held her and rocked her back and forth as she threw herself against me and sobbed out her grief. Philyanax rested her head on Phillipa’s shoulder and stood beside me as I held her.
   A while later Nedymnos stopped near me. “Stephan?”
   I looked up.
   “It’s ready. The pyre, I mean.”
   Looking down, I slowly pulled Phillipa’s arms away from me. “It’s time to let him go. You should light the pyre. You don’t need to say any words; you don’t need to forgive him. Just… let him go. In peace.”
   She sniffed. “I… I’ll try.”
   I lightly grasped her right hand, slowly walked around, and led her behind Nedymnos as he led us to the pyre. It wasn’t as big or as grand as the others had been, but then it was for only one person. And not all of one—Phillipa hadn’t left much of him. Nedymnos gave me a lit torch, which I handed to Phillipa.
   She looked at it. Looked at me. Looked at the fire. And then she threw the torch, hard, into the kindling. Slowly at first, and then with a roar, the pyre burst into flame.
   “Nedymnos?” He turned and trotted over. “Gather your centaurs, I need to go to the beach. Get me Nausimedon’s javelin, will you? It’s probably floating in the pool by now.”
   A familiar nickering sounded. I sighed. “No,” I scratched Philyanax between her ears, “I’m not going to leave you. You can all come with me and make sure.”
   I slowly made my way off towards the coast, listening to the thumping of hooves behind me. Phillipa and Philyanax walked on either side of me. The beach wasn’t far, and it was sandier than on the North Coast. My hooves skidded on the steep slope down to the beach, but I stayed upright, though I had to lean against Philyanax. I finally stopped, my forehooves just in the water. A wave pulsed up, burbled along the beach, and grasped at my hind hooves.
   I waited, as did the others. The only sound came from the sea; the wind, the gulls, and the hush of the waves. The sea itself was quiet, calm. I didn’t trust it.
   “I’ve got it!” someone said from behind me; it was Hokados with the murderer’s weapon. He skidded to a stop beside me, splashing us all, and then handed the javelin to me. I took it and turned back to face out into the waves.
   The sea remained unchanged.
   “I burned Nausimedon! I gave him the coin!”
   Still nothing.
   “This is between you and me, nobody else!”
   A gull cried out in the silence that greeted my words.
   “I won’t go after your children if you don’t go after my friends!”
   A few hundred yards offshore, a fish leapt out of the water and then back, the plop loud over the waves.
   “Take his javelin! Remember him!”
   Throwing back my arm, I launched the javelin out over the water and into the distance.
   It splashed when it hit the sea. That was the only answer.

Chapter 41
-= Where Were We? =-

   As I’d feared, the other centaurs also refused to leave. Fools! I had us break camp and let Phillipa guide us towards Illium, and towards a stream and camp nearer the city. She gave Amlaneas instructions before he took his centaurs to scout ahead, and then led the rest of us along the coast. There was no sign of any Achaeans, but we did run across two other destroyed settlements.
   It was late afternoon when we reached the campsite Phillipa had in mind. It wasn’t that far from the previous one, but then we’d also left late in the day. From the new camp, it couldn’t be more than a day’s journey to fair Illium. The site was watered by a small, rocky, and shallow stream—and there was no pool. I refused to let Phillipa bathe on her own; she refused to bathe without me; and the herd wouldn’t even let me approach the thing until they’d tramped up and down it, poking into the rocky bottom with their javelins. By the time they were finished night had fallen. Given our proximity to the city—and presumably to the Achaean ships and men—I ordered a cold camp: no fires, and only dried rations for food.
   The last thing I wanted was for our firelight to bring the main Achaean army down on us.
   I went to bed early that night, still exhausted from my fight and my wounds. Philyanax lay down beside me, and Doryalos made sure I was continuously guarded by two centaurs. I was too tired to complain. I was even too tired to complain when Phillipa shook me awake at the crack of dawn.
   Unfortunately I’d always been a heavy sleeper, a fact that had caused near-endless ridicule and pranks from the Scythians I’d been raised with. I didn’t immediately recall where I was, but it didn’t take me too long to focus my eyes and recognize that Phillipa was the one who’d awoken me. She was carrying a small chest in a sack.
   Yawning, I asked, “Do you know what time it is?”
   Phillipa was quick to respond—morning people, ugh! “Yes. I need to bathe, and so do you.”
   “Don’t think I’d forgotten. You can’t be presented to King Priam looking like you look now!”
   “Oh, right… we talked about this before—”
   “Yes—and you gave in to the inevitable. Now come on.”
   She tapped her foot impatiently as I clambered up onto my hooves and stretched. She was looking so smug and sure of herself, and there was this annoying itch… So I collapsed back onto the ground, leaned my human half forward, and then rolled onto my back so that all four hooves were up in the air. I started rubbing my rear end back and forth on the ground, my hooves kicking in the air.
   “What are you doing?” she asked.
   I still couldn’t quite reach it… stupid thing… I stretched, arched my back, kicked my hind legs backward… “Ah! Got it!”
   Phillipa put her hands on her hips. “Do you have any idea what you look like?”
   “Would you rather I did this before or after my bath?”
   She just glared at me.
   Slowly and leisurely, I rolled back onto my side, and then onto my horse’s chest, and then scrambled up onto my hooves.
   “About time…”
   Bracing my hooves, I wiggled and shook my horse body like a wet dog, to get rid of the bits of grass and dirt. The centaurs and Philyanax knew enough to get out of the way; Phillipa didn’t.
   I gave her an innocent look. “I thought you were taking a bath, too?”
   She stalked off; I followed her. Not alone, of course—my impromptu entourage consisted of two guards, Philyanax, and two other centaurs. I turned and looked at two of them. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
   “No,” said one of the centaurs.
   “But I don’t need this many—”
   “Yes you do,” all four said in chorus.
   I just rolled my eyes whilst Philyanax nickered her agreement.
   It didn’t take long for us to arrive at the stream. As she’d done once before, Phillipa put down her sack and then pulled off her dress and tossed it towards me. This time, one of my guards caught it. As for the sack, it did indeed contain the small chest she’d had before; she opened it and pulled out a pair of stiff brushes and a fired clay bottle filled with a kind of soap. She must have washed herself earlier, as the streaks of colour were gone from her breasts.
   “You might as well all look—you’ve all seen it. And Stephan, don’t you go away because I won’t be long.”
   As she splashed into the water, I whispered to those around me, “Look, but don’t touch.”
   I waited more-or-less patiently, shifting my weight from my left hooves to my right hooves, as she washed. The soap didn’t create many suds, and she used most of it on her long hair, rinsing it by ducking her head under and then whipping her hair around to get rid of most of the water in a shower of drops. The longest part of the process was running the smaller brush through her hair in long strokes, each stroke spraying water out behind her.
   When she was finished she turned to look at me, standing knee-deep in the water. “Stephan, it’s your turn. Don’t make me come out and get you.”
   I sighed and Philyanax nipped at me. Taking the hint, I walked forward. The stream bottom looked the worse for wear; rocks were scattered, and it was easy to see which ones had been turned over in the attack last night. At least the mud had settled out, except where Phillipa had disturbed it. I stepped with caution, placing each hoof carefully on the rounded rocks until I was standing in the middle. It barely came up to my foreknees.
   “You’re going to have to crouch down. It would probably be easier if you lay down and ducked your entire upper body under to make sure all your hair gets soaked.”
   “I don’t have much choice, do I?”
   I lay down; as expected, the water didn’t even reach up to my horse spine. And then, holding my breath, I ducked my human half into the cold water. With a groan I heaved my human half up until it was at about 45 degrees. I was able to hold that position with my arms on the bottom of the stream. Of course she pushed me down so that my arms had to bend at the elbow and my mouth was just above the water, and starting splashing liquid along my human back.
   She rubbed some of her soap along my back and it stung. ‘Stung’, nothing; it hurt more than some of my wounds had when I’d gotten them. Soon my back couldn't take the strain anymore and I pushed myself up to a 45 degree angle, so that my supporting arms were straight.
   She glared.  “I guess you can stay like this until I’m done with your horse body. When was the last time you washed it, anyway?”
   “Err…” Washed it? I couldn’t remember if I ever had… I’d gone swimming when I was insane, hadn’t I? “Err…”
   “Well, get used to it. You’ll have to do this regularly. There’s a bathing pool in the palace, or so I’ve heard. You, being the centaur King, will probably be invited to use it. Don’t know what we’ll do about the tiles and your hooves…”  She splashed water all over my back. “You can sit up a bit now.”  Then she said, “Close your eyes, this’ll sting otherwise.”
   I closed my eyes and thought about things as she soaped my mane and hair and beard, and then rubbed at my skin with strong fingers.
   For years, my hatred for Poseidon had kept me going. I’d used people; I’d had no qualms about using the centaurs. And now? The hate was still there, a red-hot furnace beside my heart in my horse-chest. It wasn’t going away. But the hate was being joined by increasing doubts, lately. Was I doing the right thing? Apollo had said something about my hate being too much… well, it was too late now. The herd had become dependent on me, they’d given themselves to fight for Troy at Illium. I had to stay with them. And Poseidon was there. The myths said he was on the side of the Greeks. He had to be there, damn him! Damn all the gods! They’d dragged me here in the first place, and then played with me for who knew how long. They’d—
   Phillipa pressed down on my back, hard, and at the sudden pressure my elbows bent and I was shoved under the water so that she could rinse out my hair and mane. I barely had time to grab a lungful of air. Damn women, I didn’t have to—
   My word, but her fingers kneading my scalp felt nice! She worked grit out of my hair a bit at a time, and the particles oozed out from amongst the roots. Slowly she worked her way down my mane, massaging the knots of muscle along my human back. I moaned into the water and relaxed, sinking slightly deeper. Oh Zeus, but that feels good! A few bubbles dribbled up around my nose and I moaned again. Oh Zeus, oh Zeus! If I hadn’t been laying on my legs, I probably would have stretched them out and curved my back like a house cat. Oh Zeus, but her hands feel good! Finally she reached the point where my human and horse halves met, and her wonderful fingers worked the muscles there. Oh Zeus, oh Zeus, oh Zeus! In blissful relaxation I let my face sink down onto the rocks, pillowed by the water. That feels so good… so very very good… I fell asleep.

   Strong hands yanked my human half out of the stream just as I was inhaling. Water and air mixed inside my chest, and then, coughing, I blew out a few sprays of water.
   “Are you all right!?” Bionor shouted.
   I inhaled again, the air gurgling down inside me, and then coughed up more gouts of fluid. A few more breaths and I calmed down, though my lungs still gurgled.
   Phillipa was glaring at me.
   I coughed again, and her expression changed to one of concern.
   “Are you all right? I didn’t mean—you were so relaxed that I just—I didn’t—”
   “Phillipa, don’t worry about it. But the next time you give me a massage, do it on land, please?”
   Bionor burst in: “Stephan, are you sure you’re all right?”
   “I think so… I wish you’d let me sleep, though.”
   “Oh, don’t worry about it. And Phillipa, thank you.”
   “I’m not done yet.”
   I looked at her.
   She was holding the larger brush menacingly. “Stand up, but try not to splash yourself.”
   I looked at her, and then gave in to the inevitable. With Bionor’s help I struggled up and onto my hooves, and then stood there, dripping and—
   “Don’t you dare shake yourself!”
   I stopped.
   “I need your hair wet as I brush it. And your fur, hide, whatever.”
   I looked at her.
   “Just, don’t!”
   She brushed me like I’d never been brushed before—certainly not in this body! She started with my hair and slowly worked her way down. Every time I tried to say anything, she hit a tangle and I gasped with pain, but I don’t think it was intentional. I hope it wasn’t, at least. From my hair she worked her way down my mane, and it wasn’t any better. Then she worked at my beard, brushing it into a semblance of order; she cut and hacked off the edge with a dagger from Bionor, and then braided it like a Persian king’s. And when that was done, she wasn’t—there was my horse body for her to groom. Starting at my front waist and front legs, she worked her way back. She found plenty of tangles—I gave off a near-continual stream of winces and hisses as she worked them out. My hide quivered where she brushed it, as if trying to get away, but there was no escape. She left my tail for last, and she brushed it first in short strokes to get at the tangles, and then in long strokes. It was after noon before she was done.
   “Now out of the water, slowly. You don’t want to get any dust on you.”
   I wasn’t worried about dust—not after all the splashing we’d done—but given the way she was holding that brush, and seeing the long strands of hair she’d pulled out of its bristles still drifting downstream, I decided to obey. Carefully I walked out as she frowned at every movement, and finally I stood solely on land, water rolling off my hocks and hooves.
   “Not bad…”
   “It took you long enough. Though the massage was worth it.”
   “Roll on the ground, and you won’t get another one!”
   “Yes, Phillipa.”
   “If you like, you can take a look at yourself in the stream—but mind the dirt!”
   I looked at the brush and then nodded. It was odd, but I’d never actually looked at myself before. Sure, I’d brushed hair out of my face, looked over my horse back to see if anybody was behind me. But I’d never looked at just myself. Slowly I turned, and then I looked. Really looked. The stream was not a quiet pool, but some parts of it were a good deal more still than others. And after I found a calm spot… I saw what I really was.
   Staring up at me from the water was a horse, gray in colour. It was scarred, tattooed, tired, old, wise. But beneath the glowing hide muscles stood out, strong, bold, confident. They were young muscles, eager even though they’d seen everything. The horse’s tail was a blinding white, glowing with strength and purity. The hair on his hind legs blended into a midnight black and swept out, obscuring but not hiding the worn and lined ivory hooves. Those hooves were large, heavy; their surface was pitted, but they had strength. The horse’s body stretched upward, solid with muscle. And then there was a jarring discontinuity. Both forelegs were entirely black, even the muscle which melded into the body. The hair was flecked with gray, but it didn’t give the impression of age; rather, it spoke of wisdom and quiet strength. From the knee to the hoof the colour changed from flecked black to a milky white. The hooves were a dark brown-gray, hairless and with a pitted surface like the hind hooves. From the horse’s body grew a human torso, outlined in muscle and tattoos and scars. The flesh was dark, very dark but not black, and crisscrossed with pale scars. Down the back was a fall of thick white hair. The strands of hair were long and straight, pouring over and onto the horse back, falling down either side. On top of the human head the hair was thinning, but not bald. The face was old and haunted, its skin wrinkled like leather. But buried in the eyes was a twinkle of hope and a well of strength. The beard was long and tightly braided in chains that fell down the creature’s chest, between his breasts, and almost halfway to his waist.
   “Now you’re ready to meet King Priam.”

Chapter 42
-= To Fair Illium =-

   Phillipa wouldn’t let me walk at any significant speed back to the camp—she didn’t want my legs to get dirty. Even worse, she managed to talk the other centaurs into taking one of the Achaeans’ hide tents and spreading it on the ground to keep dirt off me. She even fed me by hand, as she didn’t want me dripping any grease on my new beard!
   I found it was easier to just nod and say yes then to argue with her.
   I slept that night on the tent with guards around me, and watchers on duty on the outskirts. Nobody had seen any Achaeans—but I wasn’t going to take any chances, and neither were the other centaurs. The price of failure was just too high.
   The next day dawned gray, with a thick mist drifting along the ground. Absolutely perfect! It didn’t take long to form up the centaurs, and Amycos had polished my armour to a mirror shine and helped me into it. Phillipa objected, but I told her in no uncertain terms that wearing it was far more impressive then arriving wearing nothing. And of course, if we were attacked by Achaeans, it would keep me alive.
   She didn’t have much to say to that.
   To try and minimize the chances of detection, I kept the three scout units close, barely beyond sight distance in the chilly fog. We knew the Achaeans would be in front of us. I could have sent the scouts further out on the flank, but didn’t bother, given what the fog did to everybody’s lines of sight.
   The herd moved at a slow canter. Slow enough that we could maintain it all day, but fast enough that Phillipa couldn’t keep up easily. She did try, mind you, but eventually I heaved her up onto Doryalos’ back. With my armour, me carrying her wouldn’t have been comfortable for either of us. The fog muffled all the sounds of our travel—the clatter of hooves on stony ground, the clanking of armour. Conversation was muted; it was like everybody was afraid to say anything.
   Suddenly, hooves thudded from ahead! I motioned my unit (and now permanent bodyguard) to stop. The mist rolled like the bow wave of a ship, and a shadow condensed itself into Rhoeklas, one of the messengers attached to Younger Orios’ scout unit.
   “Report!” I said. “Where are the Achaeans?”
   “Not them…” he gasped out. “Something Orios thought… you’d like to… see. A great mound… stones piled… a grave…”
   “What’s so special about it? There’s probably lots around here.”
   “It’s been… disturbed. We saw some… bones. Not human… centaur!”
   I turned to Phillipa. “Do you know anything about this?”
    “I’ve heard a story about it,” she answered. “It’s not a centaur, though. My grandfather said he saw a centaur and a horse traveling together. The horse was old, and she died just before the centaur reached Illium. He built a great mound for the horse. He never told anybody why, other than that she was an old friend that he’d once wronged.”
   I turned to Rhoeklas. “Take us there.”
   “Follow me!”
   Phillipa burst in: “Not too fast! Stephan can’t get dusty.”
   I glared at her, but Rhoeklas listened led us at a fast canter instead of a gallop. It didn’t take long until we were there. Younger Orios had left, and I sent Rhoeklas to catch up with him. He galloped off, the mists eating his form. Then I turned to look at the mound.
   It was old, covered in dirt and overgrown with grass and small trees. The eastern corner had recently been ripped apart by somebody. Something about this place haunted me… it was like somebody was stirring ice cold fingers in the base of my skull. I stepped forward, motioning the others to stay behind.
   Of course they didn’t listen; Doryalos and Philyanax remained beside me. Even they stopped at the physical edge of where the mound had been, though. Phillipa opened her mouth to comment, but something made her close it.
   I carefully stepped over and around the larger pieces of stone the desecrators had left when they’d dug into the mound. When my forehooves were almost touching the bones of what had been buried there, I stopped. The mist swirled around the rubble, swept around my legs. Its movement didn’t seem natural.
   Around me, the others nervously stepped from hoof to hoof, their sounds muffled in the mist. But I wasn’t afraid; the mound attracted me, it did not terrify me.
   I sensed something… love and respect and sorrow. Great sorrow and pain and understanding. Sister… something whispered to me, but it wasn’t sound. I knew the others didn’t hear it. ‘Sister’? It was impossible! Philya had become a tree; there was no way her bones could be here. And yet, it felt right… Carefully I leaned down, my armour soundless in the roiling mist. I rubbed my finger along one bone, and—it recognized me. But the sense was faint, barely perceptible. For a timeless moment I stood there, trying to recognize what I sensed. It was familiar, but so faint I couldn’t place it. Finally I leaned back up and carefully stepped backward away from the mound. When I was clear I turned to Doryalos. “I want this sealed up. Get the stones placed back where they once were. Don’t worry about the soil; time will take care of that.”
   “What is it?” Phillipa asked.
   “Something whose rest was disturbed. It knows me, but I don’t know what it is.”
   She just looked confused. That made both of us.
   It didn’t take long for my bodyguard to cover the bones again, and soon we were back on our way. We moved at a fast canter for a bit to make up for lost time, and then returned to our earlier, slower, pace. Slowly the mist faded, its last remnants patches of grey in depressions. The sky was filled with clouds that matched the fog. Rain was coming.
   The sky grew darker as we continued traveling. We passed the burned ruins of a village; Phillipa said it had been named Erigones. She hadn’t even known it’d had been destroyed. Probably the same warband that we’d routed a week ago had burned and sacked it on their way east.
   There was a clatter of hooves in front of us and I motioned everybody to stop as Rhoeklas galloped over a rise. “Stephan!”
   “What is it?”
   He gasped for breath and looked at me. “Illium! Over the… the rise… you can see… the whole plain!”
   “And the Achaeans?”
   “You can see… their camp on… on the coast!”
   “Show me.”
   “Younger Orios is waiting… at the top of the rise.” Amycos pointed towards the rise in front of us. “He… he didn’t want to… proceed without your orders.”
   “Amycos! Go and find Amlaneas and tell him to get himself and his centaurs back here. Bionardia! Go and find Ularius and tell him the same. We’re going to need everybody soon.” In a clatter of hooves the two messengers galloped off.
   Phillipa turned to me. “You think the Achaeans are going to stop you?”
   “I don’t know, but I’m afraid they’ll try.” I accelerated to a fast canter and my bodyguard and unit followed beside and behind me.
   Phillipa called out, “From what I’ve heard, they don’t hurt refugees making for Illium!”
   Humanitarian? Hardly. The more mouths Illium had to feed, the sooner its stores of food would run dry. “Yes, but we’re soldiers, not refugees. They’ll want to stop us before we can join the others in the city.”
   “Let me go ahead, then! They’ll let me through—”
   “You’d trust them? Too risky—I need you with us because you’re our ticket into King Priam’s good graces. You can vouch for us.”
   The rise steepened and the others panted to keep up, Doryalos loudest of all.
   “Doryalos, Phillipa here is the most important individual in the entire herd right now. More important than you, more important than me. She must get to the gates of Illium alive and conscious. You got that?”
   “I under- understand. I’ll keep… an eye on… her!”
   I could see the silhouette of Younger Orios just below the crest. He trotted down to meet us whilst the rest of his unit looked over the ridge, off into the distance. I and my retinue stopped, a hundred metres or so below the top.
   Younger Orios pointed at the landmarks he described: “You can see the whole plain from here. There’s the city, and I think that’s the Achaean camp. There’s nobody on the field, nobody fighting. Not that any of us can see, anyway.”
   I looked up at the ridge. “Doryalos, you keep everybody down here. I’m going up with Younger Orios and his men to look. I want as few as possible up there to try and keep the Achaeans from seeing us. You got that?”
   “If you go over that ridge, all of us are going to come galloping after you. You got that?”
   I turned to face them all. “Doryalos, Isoples, Bianar, all of you: I won’t leave you. I gave my word that I wouldn’t. But I need to see where the Achaeans are. So… trust me.”
   Doryalos spoke for everybody. “We trust you. Don’t disappoint us.”
   Philyanax stretched her head forward and nickered to me, I am not staying behind.
   I scratched between her ears. “I didn’t think you would. I’ve given up even trying to ask. Just don’t get in front of me.”
   Still scratching Philyanax, I gave Doryalos his orders: “If I need you, I’ll shout. Since the only reason I’ll need you is if we’re screwed, you’d better come fast and prepared.”
   “Oh, we’ll be ready,” Bianar stated.
   “Thank you.”
   With that I lowered my hands to my sides, drew Apollo’s bow and strung it. Then, led by Younger Orios and paced by Philyanax, I slowly walked up to the crest of the hill.
   As I reached the top the rain slowed to a light drizzle, and a whisper of sun shone through the clouds.
   Below me was the plain where so many had, and so many would, die. Far to the east lay the great camp of the Achaeans, and the thousand black ships that had brought them.
   And finally, across the plain near the coast of the wine-dark sea… fair Illium.

Chapter 43
-= The Final Obstacle =-

   I looked down at the plain and city about which so much had been written and sung, as the scent of salt blew into my nostrils from the sea.
   The plain was covered in long grass, yellowed and dry with the changing of seasons, with many sections torn up from the passage of chariots and bodies of men. Here and there were stumps where once had been stands of trees. The far-famed olive groves were long gone; after five long years of siege and conflict, the Achaeans would have cut them all down for firewood and building materials.
   The Greek camp was on a promontory of land to the north and east of fair Illium. A mighty space it was, the shore lined with beached open-topped vessels in front of which were thousands of tents and dim fires. There definitely weren’t a thousand ships, but there were hundreds. Possibly the rest were off raiding islands and places further up and down the coast. Anybody who knew the Illiad’s references to the Greek ‘black ships’ would have been surprised to see how these hulls were painted in bright colours and designs; they were tarred from the waterline down to the keel to prevent rot, which is where Homer got the nickname. As for the Achaean camp proper, it was a riot of brightly dyed linen. Red tents were beside green tents were beside yellow tents; colour seemed to be a personal preference. Even from a kilometer away, I could hear the faint sounds of thousands of men.
   And then there was the city of fair Illium itself.  It wasn't the tiny fortified community whose ruins had been designated Troy VIIa by archaeologists.  Instead it was a city of dreams and power and myth, a mighty and glorious construction on the edge of a steep slope that levelled out as it reached the sea. The lower portions of the city’s wall were constructed of steeply angled brick topped by a tall section of straight wall, plastered and painted a bright red. These were topped with angled crenelations, the same style as the Hittites used. Massive square towers loomed above the wall at regular intervals. Inside the walls were twenty or so massive squarish buildings. There were pillars, balconies, windows that were gay with pots of flowers, and all covered with rooftop gardens. Inside everything was painted bright colours and patterns, like the palaces of Crete. Archers with glistening bronze helmets lined the tops of the towers, and people stood on the building roofs looking out at the Achaean camp. Gulls swooped and cried around the wall towers before swooping away, above the gray-black sea dotted with crests of brilliant white.
   Fair Illium lay waiting.
   And that was when it all went wrong. I’d half expected it, with the death of the Trojan prisoners and the delays because of Nausimedon. We hadn’t destroyed all of that Achaean raiding band; its survivors had plenty of time to return to the main camp and tell their officers what had happened. Before I even realized it I’d drawn an arrow and fired it as unarmoured Achaeans leapt out of dug holes covered in painted linen and branches. A horn blew from nearby, and hundreds of chariots in five distinct groups burst out of the Achaean camp towards the rise I was standing behind.
   Now we knew what the Trojans in the city had been watching and wondering about.
   It wasn’t the scouts’ fault; the Greeks had probably never even sent anybody after us. They didn’t need to—they knew where we were coming from, and how many days’ travel that was, so they’d have had ample time to prepare for our arrival. Damn Nausimedon to Hades! If he hadn’t delayed us, we’d have made fair Illium a few days earlier, but as matters stood, it was the Achaeans who'd had the time. If he hadn’t slaughtered the Trojan refugees, they would have reached the city and might have persuaded somebody to send us some reinforcements.
   As my first arrow sped into the eye of the nearest skirmisher, and he fell backward to the ground screaming, I’d already fired a second. I had a choice: I could fall back and organize the rest. But that would give the Achaeans the high ground on the ridge, which meant I really had no choice at all.
   “Attack!” I screamed out, bounding up and over the ridge and down amongst the unarmoured Achaeans.
   My second arrow sank into the naked chest of another Achaean; he tumbled to the ground, gurgling blood. I tried for a third, but my rain-soaked bowstring snapped, whipping across my knuckles and drawing blood. Not wanting to lose Apollo’s bow, I held onto it with my thumb as I swung my shield around off my shoulder so that my hand was in the center grip. It wasn’t the best of grips with my fingers alone, without the thumb, but it would have to do. By then I was on the ridge, and could see clearly in the light drizzle that only twenty or so Achaeans were near enough to be a threat. Others, elsewhere along the ridge, were forming into skirmishing groups. The Achaeans hadn’t known exactly where we were coming from. I threw one of the javelins I’d taken from Ctesippus; it went straight and true into the naked chest of an Achaean that was almost upon me. He screamed and fell backwards, rolling down the hill.
   My second javelin went to an Achaean who was trying to rally his comrades into an organized body. Again my weapon sped true, and it pierced through his open mouth and out through his neck. He fell to the ground, blood oozing out and staining the grass.
   No more time for missile weapons: I drew my sword and leapt into the nearest group. I swung the blade back and forth, thrust my shield into Achaean faces with a crunch of cracking bone. Of course they weren’t idle—javelins thunked off my shield, and clanged off my armour. Two Achaeans died to my sword; one fell to the ground in a gory burst, ripped open from right shoulder to left thigh, the second with a thrust and twist of my father’s sword into his chest. He slid off and fell to the ground screaming, trying to hold his intestines in. Two more fell to my kicking forehooves, one from a shattered skull, the other’s arm torn off at the shoulder. Blood splashed my greaves and dulled the polished bronze of my panoply. The socks on my forelegs became a dark crimson, and blood oozed down the cracks of my forehooves. Philyanax was beside me, screaming out her rage. She ripped out the throat of one Achaean, and trampled a second.
   That was when they broke, turning and fleeing down the hillside. They threw away their swords; the few that had shields threw them aside to run faster. Leaping after them, I slashed out with my father’s sword and killed three more. Another tripped and fell; he died as my forehooves pounded into his back.
The battle was glorious! Humans fled from me in all directions, the intoxicating scent of their terror thick in the air. A light rain began to fall, but it couldn’t quench my fire. Behind me I heard hoofbeats, the others had crested the rise. It would be a glorious… No! If I galloped down the hill, the others would follow. We’d be strung out, easy kills for the mass of chariotry racing across the plain towards us. I forced myself to stop, and was pleased to see Philyanax pull herself to a halt a hundred metres in front of me, then trot back to stand beside me, foam flecking her muzzle.
   Other centaurs began galloping past me. Idiots! “Hold, damn you! Hold! Doryalos and the Younger Orios added their shouts to my own, and sooner than I’d feared, the stragglers slowed and trotted back up beside us.
   “What the hell happened!?” Doryalos asked once the centaurs on my side of the ridge had all halted.
   “It was an ambush. They knew we were coming. They dug holes and hid in them, covered themselves with disguised covers of brush and hide.”
   “How’d they know!?” Younger Orios burst out.
   “The survivors from the infantry we broke. They would have made it back to their camp. What do you want to bet they told the nobles that we were a numberless horde of bloodthirsty beasts? The Achaeans just had to wait, as they’d have a good idea where we were coming from.”
   “You should have sent scouts—” Doryalos began.
   “In this fog? They’d just have gotten lost. I kept them close since I knew I’d need them if this happened. I couldn’t plan in advance, because I needed to see the terrain.”
   I heard feet running from behind and turned to see Phillipa hurrying to join the conference.
   “Let her through!” Two centaurs moved and she slammed into my side trying to come to a stop. “Phillipa, as I recall there is one gate along the eastern wall, the Scaean Gate?”
   I nodded. “Doryalos, you take her, and the two fastest centaurs from each unit. You’ll all have to share carrying her.”
   “But—” Phillipa began.
   “You have to get her to the city alive—she’s our passage in. Right now, the Trojans have no way of knowing whose side we’re on! At the very least, they need to hold the gate open for the rest of us; at the most, they’ll sally out to help us. You have to get her there!”
   “I remember what you told me. I’ll get her there.”
   “Then go. Gather behind the ridge, and go north along it as long as possible before circling around. Then gallop for the city as fast as you can. Don’t worry about the Achaeans; the rest of us will keep them busy.” More centaurs were crossing the ridge. “Doryalos, go and grab them now, Phillipa go with him. Don’t argue! This is too damn important. Send the rest down to me, the leaders first. We don’t have a heck of a lot of time.” During that little speech, I put Apollo’s bow back in its case.
   “Good luck, Stephan,” Doryalos said, and then he was off, dragging Phillipa along behind him. At least she hadn’t complained about my getting dirty. Of course she was a smart girl; she must have realized that I didn’t have a lot of choice.
   “Unit leaders to me, now!” I waited until Younger Orios, Ularius, Amlaneas, Melamnos, Peukadia, Orios, Hodites, Nedymnos and Rhoetus, were all around me. “Younger Orios, take your centaurs and go back and join Thaunos and the wounded.” He tried to speak but I didn’t let him. “No arguing! Take them with you back to our last camp, and hide in the woods. I’ll come back and fetch you when it’s safe. If you haven’t seen any of us after five days, assume we’re all dead and do what you think best. Now go!”
   “But Stephan, we’ll miss—”
   “Go, damn you! Or I’ll put somebody else in charge who will! I need somebody back there who’ll remember what happened. I don’t have time to argue!” With that I swatted him on his flank with the flat of my sword and he trotted up and over the hill, followed by his centaurs.
   I looked around at everybody else as they looked at me. “Okay: With the weather, we can’t depend on bowfire. When we’re ready to move, grab what shields you can from around us. Use them with the points down to give your legs room to move.” The Achaeans used them that way for just that purpose—the up-pointed crescent peltastoi shield wouldn’t come into use until the classical period. “I’m going to lead, along with the rest of my bodyguard. Nothing against the rest of you, but we’re the best trained and best armoured. Everybody else, proceed in a crescent behind us; Ularius, Orios, Melamnos, Peukadia on the right, the others on the left. We’re going to go along the top of the ridge and then charge each of the skirmisher groups in turn. When they break, don’t pursue them! We’ll rally wherever I am.” God, but I wished I’d grabbed the horn from the infantry unit we’d broke before Nausimedon. “If you can’t spot me, rally at the point we contacted them. Everybody clear on that?”
   They all nodded.
   I re-emphasized the point before continuing. “Don’t pursue down the hill!
   “Start combat with javelins. Throw one, then draw swords and knives for contact. If you don’t have a sword, use your hooves. As for bows, take shots if you can, but don’t depend on them. If you have cases, don’t pull the bows out—we’ll need them against the chariots later. If you don’t have a case, use your bow early. Don’t worry about ammunition; either we’ll be successful and get more, or we’ll be dead. Be careful when charging on the hill—the grass is slippery, and the Achaeans may have dug holes to trip us. Keep an eye out for them if you can. We’ll move towards the skirmishers at a fast canter, and only gallop at the last moment to prevent accidents on the slope, so don’t let yourselves get out of hand.
   “After we’ve pushed each skirmishing body off the ridge, we’re going to make a run south and try and go around the chariots.”
   “Won’t that take us further away from the city?” Amlaneas asked.
   “That’s the plan. Our first objective is to get Doryalos and the gallopers to the gate so we can get in. Once they’re there, we turn around and move back up this ridge. The ground isn’t the best for the chariots, so we should be able to stay out of their range. We’ll circle around east of them, and then make for the gate.
   “Why don’t we attack the chariots, charge them like we did the others?” Nedymnos asked.
   “There’s too many of them. This plan is going to change without warning. If I turn and charge, everybody has to turn and charge. If I turn and flee, everybody turns and flees. I won’t know when I’ll do either until I do it. You’ll all have to keep an eye on me. Don’t depend on your unit leaders.”
   I looked along the ridge and saw that the nearest skirmisher unit was formed up and moving towards us. The chariots were half way to the ridge.
   “We’ve got to get going now. Use javelins, do what I do. Let us armoured ones go first to break their formation. Don’t pursue after I stop! If they drop shields and you don’t have one, grab it! Pick up javelins when you can, as we’ll need them. Form up!”
   They started moving into their units behind me and I turned and began trotting to the top of the ridge. Soon I was there and the others behind me. I watched the nearest skirmisher unit turn and began moving up hill. They started to straggle out as they climbed.
   Lifting my sword I screamed out, “Advance!” and began a fast canter down the slope towards the nearest skirmishers, centaurs following behind. The Achaeans stopped and began forming up, the rain glistening on their naked skin.
   I lowered my sword to point downwards as I leapt into a gallop, Philyanax beside me. “Charge!”

Chapter 44
-= Clearing the Hill =-

   The first group of skirmishers scattered at our approach. I couldn’t blame them; there were maybe thirty of them and almost a hundred of us. They got one volley of javelins off, then ran away. I managed to deflect one that would have hit Philyanax with my shield, but Thaumelas wasn’t so lucky. He tried to turn and that meant that the hungry bronze dug into his foreward hip and his lower chest.
   I wheeled around until I was beside him. As Protanax guarded my back, I yanked out the javelin and healed Thaumelas; then I screamed out, “Rally!” Dead Achaeans littered the ground, and I heard the other unit leaders screaming out the call to rally all around. As I helped Thaumelas to his hooves, they were all around me in some order.
   Looking around I spotted one of the younger centaurs. “Epheklas! Go and find Thaumos and the wounded. Grab every waterskin you can carry and bring them back. We’re going to need them.”
   Thunder grumbled in the heavens.
   “But Stephan—!”
   “No ‘but’s! There’ll be more than enough slaughter when you get back. Look over the ridge until you spot us, and then come down and join me when we rally. And be careful, this slope is going to just get worse. Now go!”
   He turned and clattered up and over the ridge, his hooves skidding on the increasingly wet grass.
   “If there are wounded, I’ll heal them if I can. If not, they’re going to have to be left behind. And that goes for me, too! If we make the city, we’ll try to either ransom them back, or recover their bodies and give them a proper funeral pyre.”
   Bianar spoke up. “We can’t do that! Not for you!”
   “You’ll do it for me and anybody else! It’s the only way for some of us to make it to fair Illium this day! Everybody got that!?”
   There were various muttered acknowledgements.
   “Now, to the ridge! We’ve got another unit to rout!”
   They cheered, and followed me as I trotted to the top and along the crest. The next group of Achaeans wasn’t far, and it was significantly larger than the two we’d broken so far. Maybe some of those we’d chased off had joined them. They were forming up, some in front shoving extra javelins into the ground as a barrier.
   “Different plan this time!” I just hoped the Achaeans couldn’t understand my equine-accented Greek. “Nedymnos, Orios: Take your units, go up to just in front of the barrier, throw your javelins and then flee. Don’t gallop! You won’t be able to stop in time. The rest of you are with me. We’ll circle around their right flank and charge when the others turn away.” I raised my sword. “Advance!”
   That was when the sky opened up in a deluge of rain. The slope became more and more slippery, and we couldn’t see more than a hundred metres. I just hoped this didn’t last long. I was still moving onto the Achaean flank when Nedymnos and Orios led their centaurs in the assault. I could see them sliding on the slope.
   I lowered my sword. “Charge!”
   Not moving faster than a canter—the footing was becoming too treacherous—I kept glancing up slope. Nedymnos’ and Orios’ units turned, and when they turned, three went down from thrown javelins. Styphelas lost his footing and slammed, screaming, into one of the planted javelins.
   Then we slammed into the enemy’s flank. I led my unit into the midst of the Achaeans, whilst the lighter armed centaurs swept slightly downslope from them and charged into the Achaean rear as they broke. None of us took any javelins, They’d been so distracted by the rain and the business to their front that they hadn’t even thrown a single javelin at my unit. In fact, they were so unaware of us that their unit didn’t break until we’d hacked and kicked and slew almost halfway down their line! The front of my armour was drenched in blood and gore, my legs covered in mud and blood up to my knees. Philyanax and the others weren’t any better.
   Turning, I began struggling up to the dead. “Rally!” I didn’t reach Styphelas in time, and Orimeos had a javelin through his human chest. “To me!” He asked me to put him out of his pain and I sliced his head off in a single stroke. Isoplas I was able to heal though he was weak from loss of blood.
   I helped him up and told him to go and join the wounded. He didn’t have the strength to fight. For once somebody didn’t argue. Around me I could hear the other leaders calling out.
   “To the top of the ridge!” I screamed. I wasn’t sure it did any good; the rain was so heavy that I could hardly hear myself, and I couldn’t see anything more than ten metres away. We’d have to wait for the rain to slow before we could continue. It screwed up the chariots as badly as it did us. I just hoped that Doryalos took advantage of the downpour to get to fair Illium.
   Staggering up the slope through the rain, skidding and sliding on the grass and mud, I fought my way to the top. I could see others beside me, hear others calling. Philyanax lost her balance and slid down. I had to force myself not to go down and help her. If there were Achaeans, she’d have to take her chances…
   Just as I made it to the top, the rain slowed and then stopped as suddenly as the downpour had started. Epheklas was on the ridge’s east side, cantering towards me, heavily laden with waterskins. On the west side, the other centaurs were stretched out in clumps over almost 200 metres.
   “To me! To me!” I screamed, waving my sword above my head. They started turning as Epheklas struggled up the hill beside me.
   “Is it too—?”
   “We’ve just started. Far too many still on the slope.”
   Drawing my knife, I slashed open one of the skins on his back and guzzled water from it. When I was finished I scanned the battlefield: The chariots were bogged down in the mud, and pools of water were scattered across the plain. Achaean skirmishers were running down the slope and massing at the bottom. We were maybe a kilometer and a half from the city, and I saw bodies of mass infantry marching out from the Achaean camp in good order. Hmm… they were going to engage us at the bottom of the slope. I couldn’t blame them, the slope was a disaster just waiting to happen.
   That’s when the sun emerged from behind the clouds, glinting off the pools of water that littered the plain.
   I re-strung Apollo’s bow with a spare string. “It seems that we finally have some archery weather. If your bow was in the rain, replace the string; anybody who has spares, pass them out. We’ll proceed down the slope to the southwest, ending to the south of the Achaean infantry line. If we have to retreat, we’ll come back up the slope; their chariots won’t be able to follow us, and we can stay ahead of their infantry in the short term. Nobody is to assault the chariots! Gallop up, let loose bowfire, and fall back! Unit leaders, get the waterskins from Epheklas and share them around. Nobody is to carry more than one!”
   Hodites called up, he was just below the ridge. “I don’t think we should go down the slope right now!”
   “Agreed! We’ll rest here for a bit, walk along the top slowly. Rest, relax, because when we get down on the plain there’ll be no time for either!”
   Philyanax had survived, praise Zeus! But she was panting, and her hide was covered with sweat. Of course, so was everybody else, myself included—but that was no reason to let her suffer. I held one of Epheklas’ waterskins over her open jaw and let the water dribble down until she closed her mouth, then I tied the skin shut and secured it to my shoulder strap.
   I raised my father’s sword above my head: “Advance south!” I moved off at a slow walk, and the others formed behind me in a rough crescent pointing backward, half on the east side of the ridge, half on the west. The air got hot and muggy; I had to slow down, panting for breath, and everybody else did the same. Shimmers of vapours rose from the grass and the rapidly shrinking pools on the plain. The air was filled with the scent of blood and mud. I sheathed my sword.
   “Water break! Be quick, we’re going to walk downslope!” I took a few gulps of warm water, and then offered some to Philyanax.
   No. You need!
   “Philyanax, we all need! Drink or I’ll force it down your throat!”
   She looked at me, relented, and opened her mouth as I let more water dribble between her jaws. When she closed her mouth I tied the skin shut. I thought about berating her into drinking more, but then I should have drank more too. And the waterskin was barely a quarter full. The others were probably worse off.
   I looked around, only a couple were still drinking. Drawing my sword, I called out, “Prepare to advance! Archers be ready! Be wary of more ambushes on the slope!” I wasn’t expecting anything of the kind, but it never hurt to be cautious. Then I began a slow walk down the slope.
   The slope wasn’t steep, and the grass was already almost dry in the hot sun. But the ground was still wet, and slippery. I kept to bare rock as much as I could, but it wasn’t always possible. There was one accident—Amlaneas stepped on a weak spot, and the ground slipped away beneath him. He slid almost twenty metres downslope on his side. Other than a few scratches, his only wound was his snapped left hind leg from when he first fell. I was able to heal that. Afterward I had to stop and chew down some dried meat before I could go on. Had Phillipa made it to fair Illium? I couldn’t see that far north…
   I almost asked Doryalos, then I remembered where he was. “Ularius, Amlaneas! Who has the best eyes?”
   Ularius trotted over to me. “Peukedymnos, I think.”
   “Right. Send him up to the top of the ridge and have him look for Doryalos and the others. When they make their break for the city, he’s to make his way downslope as best he can and let me know. No—better yet—if he can find a horn on the ground somewhere from the Achaeans, he’s to blow it. Think he can do that?”
   “He will.” Ularius turned and trotted over and talked to Peukedymnos, a chestnut centaur with four white stockings and a tail that had somehow been hacked down to a stub. Peukedymnos started up the slope.
   Turning away, I drew my sword. “Advance!” And then I resumed a slow walk down the slope with the others following.
   The slope grew shallower, and the footing better. I accelerated to a trot—and there were no more accidents! On the plain the chariots turned and began moving in our direction, the foot-soldiers marching in column behind them. A group of skirmishers that had been crouching further south on the slope got up and began moving around to get above us. Damn them!
   “Halt! About face!” I raised my sword. “Advance!”
   “What the hell is going on!?” Rhoetus called.
   “We’ve got skirmishers on the slope to deal with first. Archers ready!”
   I drew Apollo’s bow from my shoulder, and turned my advance to the south. There were less than a hundred Achaeans, but they were still above us, and there was no longer time to get above them.
   “Fire at will!”
   I fired a single arrow… and almost 90 more joined mine in flight. That was the last true volley; our reload speeds varied too much, as we alternately trotted and walked upslope approaching the Achaeans. I got off a second, a third, a fourth shot. It looked like half the Achaeans were down. Unstringing Apollo’s bow, I placed it back in its holder, leaving the flap open, whilst centaurs around me continued firing. Then I drew my father’s sword: “Bodyguard to me! Prepare to charge!”
   My bodyguard gathered around me and I accelerated to a canter. The others continued their bowfire. I lowered my sword—“Charge!”—and leapt into a gallop.
   All around me hooves thundered, and the bowfire slackened as the others closed with the enemy. The Achaeans turned and fled before combat, and that was when others erupted from holes on our right. Fuck! I couldn’t give them time to form!
   “Ularius, Orios, Melamnos, Peukadia with me on the right! Everybody else advance front!”
   I turned, and the rest turned with me. Lowering my sword I shouted out, “Charge!” and galloped towards the nearest clump of Achaeans. We had only one advantage: They were in small groups, because they’d been hiding in the pits. With thundering hooves all around, I hit the first group like a battering ram. One of them died to a sword stroke, two more were trampled underfoot. A thrown javelin glanced off my shield, its hunger left unsated; another Achaean drew his sword and slashed at the armour on my side, but the divinely-forged bronze deflected the blow and Philyanax tore his arm off with her teeth.
   All around us, other centaurs burst into the small (and still disorganized!) clumps. It was a slaughter.
   And so, it turned out, was the assault against the original group. As the Achaean ambush broke and fled, I heard screams off to my left and turned to see a disaster.
   The primary problem in ancient warfare is communications: My orders only went as far as my voice could carry. So whilst I was focused on the ambush, which was the greater threat, Nedymnos had gotten himself and his unit into a bloody mess. For whatever reason, he hadn’t turned to follow me, as per my earlier instructions; instead, he and his eighteen had charged into the disordered mass of thirty or forty surviving Achaeans which had been the original target. The humans withstood his charge, and now they’d surrounded Nedymnos and his centaurs. And without the momentum of his charge, the surviving twenty-or-so Achaeans were slaughtering them.
   I raised my blood-dripping bronze sword—“To the right! Charge!”—and leapt into a gallop towards the embattled centaurs. Others tried to follow, but they were exhausted, or still engaged; even I was panting for breath, and the padding under my armour was soaked in sweat. Beside me Philyanax struggled to keep up, her head hanging low.
   I slammed into the rear of the Achaeans like a thunderbolt. They never heard me coming, they were so intent on the slaughter. Probably a good thing, as Isoples was the only centaur with me. He threw a javelin as we approached, the glistening bronze piercing its target’s naked flesh. Then the three of us were upon the Achaeans. The first stroke of my father’s sword pierced into the naked side of one, passing between two ribs and sliding out just before the spine in a spray of blood. Isoples had another javelin in his hand and shoved it through the back of another Achaean, the hungry bronze glistening redly as it sprung out of its victim’s chest. Philyanax reared up screaming, kicking with both forehooves and crushing the skull of another human, her hooves punching through the boar-tusk helmet and skull in a spray of bone and brain. With that, the Achaeans broke; other centaurs went thundering after them.
   Nedymnos was dead. Something had smashed in his skull, leaving behind a gooey mess of bone and brain and blood. Four other centaurs were also dead, legs shattered, javelins sticking out of their human and horse bodies. None of the other fourteen were unscathed. Most had minor scratches, but two I had to heal. I sent them to join Thaunos and the other wounded.
   Yanking the waterskin off my shoulder belt, I drained it and threw it away. “Rally! Rally to me!” I screamed out. Most heard me and turned back. One had somehow fallen into one of the pits, and I knew he was dead, too. I saw Peukedymnos standing atop the rise, which meant that Doryalos hadn’t started his gallop yet. I scanned the field of battle to see who was still living… ah; there was pale Styphelos. I put him in command of what was left of Nedymnos’ unit. Meanwhile, the Achaeans were forming up at the base of the hill, their columns of infantry expanding into large groups of ordered spearmen backed by rear ranks of archers. I looked at the sea of chariots in front. Most were covered in plain oxhide, their colour a patchy white and brown or black. A few were dyed colours. One was dyed blood-red, and its warrior was armoured in glittering bronze; he carried a spear more massive than any I’d ever seen. I remembered the Illiad:

Last, from its case he drew his father’s spear,
Long, pond’rous, tough; not one of all the Greeks,
None, save Achilles’ self, could poise that spear;
The far-fam’d Pelian ash, which to his sire,
On Pelion’s summit fell’d, to be the bane
Of mighty chiefs, the Centaur Chiron gave.*

   It was Achilles.

Chapter 45
-= The Final Conference =-

   I looked down in dismay as the centaurs gathered around me. We couldn't flee from the infantry; the goal was to keep them focused on us rather than Doryalos and his group, which meant that we couldn’t get too far away. The chariots were a different matter. We were faster, true, but not by much. The best tactic I could think of was to evade the chariots while shooting at the poor brute horses; I hated to do it, but anything else would be much harder on us. I’d already lost too many centaurs.
   “Leaders, to me!”
   The centaurs parted to allow the unit leaders through.
   I made sure that each of the unit leaders were paying close attention: “Now comes the hard part. The infantry, we can avoid. Don’t get closer than twice bowshot range unless I specifically give the order. That’ll make them ineffective.”
   “Which leaves the chariots,” Peukadia said.
   “Which leaves the chariots,” I agreed. “We’re going to have to move up, fire one or two rounds of arrows, and then withdraw. There’s too many of them to circle, and it’s possible they could try to box us against the infantry. A lot of you know what I think of killing the chariot horses, but… right now, we don’t have the luxury of choice. I want to slowly drift south. When Peukedymnos signals that Doryalos has begun his gallop for the gate, we’ll swing around the infantry, but not get close enough to fire. If they send skirmishers forward, we’ll take a shot or two at them. At that point we’ll start moving northward towards fair Illium.”
   Rhoetus burst in: “This kind of fighting—it isn’t right! It’s not honourable!”
   “Honourable?” I sighed. “Rhoetus, this is as honourable as any other fighting. I don’t like this, either—too much can go wrong. But the chariots outnumber us at least ten to one! We can’t go after them, or they’ll wipe us out.”
   “But Stephan: You led us here to die with honour and to be remembered. What’s wrong with dying against the chariots now?”
   “Just this: If we go after the chariots, we’ll destroy a bunch, and then we’ll all die. Our sacrifice will be meaningless, because nobody will ever know we’re not barbarians! But if we live to fight for Troy, then the Trojans will know what we now are, and they’ll tell the Achaeans. Whoever survives this madness will know of us as civilized beings, and that is how we’ll be remembered.”
   Rhoetus bowed his head in shame. “I’m sorry. I should have trusted you.”
   “Rhoetus! In these conferences, everybody is free to speak their mind. I’m not perfect. The ambush on the slope never occurred to me. Any ideas you have—any of you—tell me! However,” I snapped the next words out, “on the battlefield, you must obey me.” My voice went back to normal. “No more questions?”
   The leaders nodded.
   “Does anybody else have any thoughts?”
   Various ‘no’s were muttered.
   I turned and looked at the massed Achaeans. “If a small group of chariots separates from the mass, I may assault it. I can’t guarantee that it’ll happen, and you’ll have to follow me immediately if it does.”
   Hodites asked, “Should we initiate an assault if we see an opportunity?”
   “Ummm… No.” He frowned. “Not because I don’t trust you, it’s because of the risks. My bodyguard is best suited for an assault. We have the best weapons, the best armour, and we’re the most skilled. If one of you leads a charge—even if it’s an ideal opportunity—you’ll just get mauled by the heavier-armed warriors.”
   He nodded.
   “However: If you see an opportunity to close to javelin range on an isolated group, I leave it to your discretion. Just be absolutely sure you can get back onto this slope if you go in. Anything else?”
   “One last thing. Do you see that red chariot?” I pointed. “Do not engage a unit led by that one—not for any reason! If they block your only way to escape, then, and only then, do it, but do not under any conditions try to attack the warrior in the red chariot. If you do, he’ll kill you.”
   Rhoetus burst out. “You can take him!”
   “No, Rhoetus, I can’t. That man is Achilles, the best of the best of both sides in this war. The gods protect him. His skin is invulnerable, or so the legends go. His horses are divine, gifts from Zeus. Fighting him is certain death, and there’s no shame in fleeing from certain death.”
   I waited… and the only sound was the shuffling of hooves.
   “It’s almost noon; if this takes too long, we’ll have the sun in our eyes. Be aware of that. This hill is our retreat; the chariots can’t come up after us, and we can stay ahead of the infantry in the short term. Go to your centaurs, rest a moment, drink a bit of water. We’re going straight down the slope, and there won’t be time for anything but fighting and galloping once we get there.”
   The leaders turned and made their way back to their units. Philyanax nibbled lovingly on my mane. Beside me, his captured armour clanking, Isoples turned to me and spoke in a low voice, “We’re not going to make it, are we?”
   “Oh, we’ll make it. At least, some of us will. If it was anybody but Achilles, I’d be certain almost all of us would make it. But with him out there… it’s going to cost us.” I turned to him. “If Achilles takes me down, leave me. If I engage him, take advantage of the distraction and lead everybody towards fair Illium. Don’t let me be forgotten.”
   “But Stephan—”
   “If I fight him, I won’t survive.”
   “Enough! We have a battle to fight.” I drew my sword and raised it. “Advance!” I started down the slope, which was now almost completely dry. If I was going to die today, Poseidon unhurt, then that was my destiny. For now I had something more important than my vengeance.
   The air was hot, still, muggy. I heard hundreds of hooves thudding all around me, and the faint roar of thousands of men on the plain below. I could smell blood, and sweat. Ixion’s blood rose inside me: This was glorious, wonderful. This would be sung through the ages!
   When we reached the plain, I heard a gurgled blast of a horn faintly from behind. It was followed by a longer, clearer burst. Stopping, I looked up and saw Peukedymnos on the ridge waving his hands. He blew the horn again, its sound echoing across the plain, before turning to canter down to join us.
   Doryalos had finally begun his gallop.

*The Illiad, by Homer; English translation by Edward, Earl of Derby

Prologue -=- Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2 -=- Chapter 3 -=- Chapter 4 -=- Chapter 5 -=- Chapter 6 -=- Chapter 7 -=- Chapter 8 -=- Epilogue

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