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 -=- #4 -=- ANTHRO #24 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

Chapter 46
-= Racing Achilles =-

   As we made our way down to the plain, the chariots advanced towards us, keeping pace with the advancing infantry. Either they hadn’t thought of boxing us in, like Alexander had at Jaxartes against the Saka, or they were planning to do it once we were engaged. Looking around, I could see skirmishers in front of the infantry line, with more coming down the slope from further north. There were chariot runners alongside the chariots, and I could see the Myrmidons with their polished bronze helmets advancing behind Achilles.
   Turning towards the south end of the Achaean line, I accelerated to a canter and heard the others all around me do likewise. “Archers prepare!” I drew Apollo’s bow and strung it.
   The chariots accelerated. “Hold your speed!” The few centaurs who’d gotten ahead of me slowed and fell back into the mass.
   We closed, us eighty or so centaurs, and what looked to be nearly three hundred chariots. I turned further to my left, further to the south, until I was moving along the front of the chariot body. The centaurs spread out behind me in a rough line.
   “Archers ready!” Still at a canter, I drew an arrow and turned my waist so that I was shooting as close to sideways as I could get. All around me others did the same.
   “Fire!” I loosed my arrow, drew and nocked another in a fluid motion, and let the second one go. The chariots were maybe a hundred metres away. I winced as their horses screamed and went down, one chariot lost its driver and careened into a second.
   That was when a loud voice from the Achaean line shouted, “Charge!” The surviving chariot horses leapt into a gallop.
   “Fall back! Fall back!” Saying that I turned sharply to my right and accelerated to a gallop.
   All around me hooves pounded, ground was torn up. I could smell the sweat of centaurs, the richness of the earth after the rain. In the distance I could hear the crack of whips, the screams of horses, the thunder of bronze-rimmed wheels on the soil. The Myrmidons, like the Spartans of a later day, advanced in silence; and that was the most terrifying of all. The chariot runners fell behind the chariots as they ran, the skirmishers and Myrmidons fell behind too.
   For once I wished we were actual cavalry. Trained horse archers can control their horses with their legs, whilst firing almost backwards. Centaurs weren’t capable of doing that.
   I panted for breath and realized that others all around were doing the same, had been for some time. The chariot horses were fresh, but we’d been skirmishing most of the morning. They were catching up much faster than I’d thought possible, Ares take them!
   Then we were on the slope. I leapt over an outcropping of rock; landed, skidding, on a patch of gravel; and kept going. Beneath my armour sweat dripped off my sides. I could hear Philyanax gasping for breath, spittle flying from her nose each time she breathed out. She was falling behind, and I slowed to allow her to keep up. There were shouts from behind; I snuck a quick glance backwards. The chariots had stopped, maybe twenty were behind the main group—these had damaged or missing crew or horses. Warriors leapt off the lead chariots and joined the mass of Myrmidons and chariot runners in a loose formation. All of them started up the hill after us.
   I slowed to a canter to get some distance and give myself, and the others, at least a short rest. Philyanax’s head was almost dragging the ground as she fought to keep up. The centaurs around me weren’t much better.
   “Archers prepare!”
   As we didn’t have time to play around anymore, I turned to my left and started heading north along the ridge.
   “Archers ready!” I quickly ran my hands over the arrows in my quiver before drawing one. I had roughly twenty left. The others probably had less, they’d been firing all morning on the slope.
   I slowed to a trot. The Achaeans were advancing up the hill at a walk, letting the exhausted chariot runners move in front of them as a screen.
   “Fire!” I fired one arrow, another, and another. I kept firing as fast as I could, not worrying about accuracy. Dark shafts of questing death arced through the air and into the unarmoured chariot runners. With screams and curses they began to fall. One took a shaft in the eye, another in the upper thigh of his leg. Our fire slackened; ammunition and exhaustion were taking their toll.
   The Achaeans has stopped. The chariot runners fell back behind the infantry which stopped and held up their shields as a wall. Even 150 metres away I could hear our arrows thunk-ing into the oxhide. A few arrows arced towards us—some of the skirmishers must have bows. One thunked into my shield; two slammed into Eurpidius’ side, and he stumbled, tripped, and slammed into the ground. From the angle of his neck, he broke it when he fell. At least the main ranks of infantry were still far away, which meant that we still had archer superiority.
   “Cease fire! Cease fire!”
   Slowing to a walk, I turned slightly upslope. The Achaeans waited a moment,then lowered their shields and let the skirmishers through their line. Once again they began advancing.
   I quickly counted my arrows—eight left. My rate of fire being higher than most, the others would have the same.
   That was when Peukedymnos reached us. The others let him through as we all continued at a walk northwards.
   “Doryalos made his break for it,” he said between deep breaths. “I’d guess they’re half way to fair Illium.”
   I couldn’t help but grin. “It seems we’re on our way too. Go to each unit commander, share out your arrows. Let them tell you which are their best archers and give them the lion’s share. Go! We’re running short on time!”
   He turned and fled, leaving a whiff of sweat behind. At least he didn’t smell as bad as the rest of us.
   “Everybody share your arrows! Give the most to the best archers near you! We’re going to do one more pass!”
   I paused to be sure they were obeying my orders, then I turned to the Achaeans. They’d fallen into columns which could move faster through rough terrain in order to better pursue us, and were slowly catching up. I could see Achaean skirmishers spreading out in front of us along the slope. I looked around: Philyanax was barely able to keep up, and the others weren’t much better.
   I had to delay the Achaeans, and there was only one way I could think of to do that.
   Gods, but I wished Nedymnos was still alive… “Leaders to me!” I watched as all of the unit leaders turned away from their centaurs and trotted over beside me as we all continued walking north along the ridge. Pale Styphelas looked painfully young. “Hodites, I’m placing you in command of everybody except my bodyguard.”
   Hodites didn’t let me get a second sentence out: “What!?”
   “Shut up and listen! All of you! We’re running out of time. If this continues, we’re not going to make it. None of us!”
   I think it was Rhoetus who responded. “But—”
   “The Achaeans are fresh, and eager for vengeance. If we were fresh, fully armed, I’d just break through the skirmishers in front of us—but we aren’t! Look, this is the fastest pace we can maintain for any length of time, and even this pace might be too much.”
   Hodites nodded. “I’ve been worried about that, too.”
   “You all know as well as I that there’s only one way out of this for any of us.”
   “I won’t!” Orios shouted, “None of us—”
   “Yes, you will! We’re going to make one last bow assault, and that’ll last as long as the arrows last. Then I and my bodyguard will advance to engage. Hodites, you will take the rest and run for fair Illium. Hodites and Orios will assault any skirmishers in your way, the rest will follow through the hole.”
   Peukadia shouted out, “We won’t leave you!”
   “By Zeus you will! By Ares you all will! The only hope we have is if Doryalos gets to fair Illium, and they come out to help us. I should be able to survive long enough to be saved.” I could tell from their eyes that none of them believed that—and why should they? I didn’t believe it myself. “It’s the only Poseidon-damned hope I have! That any of us have!”
   There was a moment of silence, and then Melamnos quietly stated, “You said you wouldn’t leave us—”
   “I don’t want to. I’m not leaving to deny you risks, I’m leaving because it’s the only way any of you will survive. You have to remember me—have to make the Trojans remember me, remember all of us!”
   Peukedymnos spoke up. He’d finished his task and come back while I spoke. “I’ll go up and after Thaumos. As long as I can, I’ll watch from the top of the ridge. I’ll tell everybody what happens.”
   I looked at the others. Stubborn idiots! They weren’t going to go. And yet… how could I blame them? Isn’t glorious death in battle what I promised them?
   Closing my eyes for a second I gave in to the inevitable. “Right, then. You’re all idiots, but if you’re determined to die with me, I might as well make use of you. Peukedymnos, give out all your arrows. Don’t go straight back to Thaumos, circle around to the south. Make sure you’re not being followed. If you see the Trojans coming out of their city, blow that horn of yours.”
   “I will.”
   I turned to the others. “Since you’re all fixed on dying today, go to your men and prepare. We’ll turn back south, go for one last arrow exchange until we run out.”
   Younger Orios asked, “What if they get more archers into their lines?”
   Snorting, I remembered a statement that had supposedly been made by the Spartans at Thermopylæ. “Then we’ll fight them in the shade!”
   That got some laughs. At that instant I forgot about Poseidon, forgot about my vengeance; I knew I would willingly die for them, for all or any of them. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. I sighed, then continued: “After the arrows run out, we’ll hit the north edge of their line. I and my bodyguard will lead, the rest follow. Throw javelins, but keep at least one for the close infighting. Don’t go near Achilles or the Myrmidons—they’ll massacre you.” I stopped and looked around at them.
   One by one they each bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and held them there for a moment. Then they turned and trotted back to their units.
   I stopped and turned. The other centaurs slowed, but their leaders quietly told them to reform behind me. The front line of Achaean skirmishers was maybe 300 metres away. They slowed, letting the Myrmidons close behind them, but didn’t top their advance.
   Apollo’s bow was still in my hand. “Archers prepare!”
   We stood there, drawing arrows, picking targets. The only sound was the distant shouts of the humans, the desperate breathing of the centaurs, and Peukedymnos’ hooves thudding on the ground as he cantered further up the slope.
   “Archers ready!” I drew an arrow. Maybe I should have taken some from Peukedymnos… never mind. Too late now; my eight shafts would have to be enough.
   I began moving at a walk, again perpendicular to the Achaean line. They’d stopped. They must have seen us ready our bows, and were beginning to fall back.
   “Two shots only! Fire!”
   A rain of arrows leapt up and into the Achaeans. Five or ten in the closest group fell, and their ordered withdraw changed into a rout. Another skirmisher unit joined them in fleeing down the hill. All the others remained steady.
   I turned slightly downslope. When the skirmishers passed through their lines, we’d have a momentary opening. “Archers ready!” I drew another arrow, I was down to five in the quiver. “Wait… Fire!”
   I fired one arrow, another, and another: Three left. Achaeans fell, the skirmishers fled through the ranks, warriors raised their shields.
   “Cease fire! Cease fire!”
   We only had one more shot. It would have been nice to get to the far end of the Achaean line, the southern end, as that was their right side and their shields were on their left arms. They would have been less able to use them. But you fight on the terrain you are on, not the terrain you’d like to be on.
   “Left face!” I spun around 90 degrees to my left, and accelerated into a canter down the hill.
   “Archers prepare!” I drew an arrow—two left in the quiver.
   Large blocks of infantry are very strong in the front, but their maneuverability leaves a lot to be desired. They tried to face us as a body, but only a few on the end managed to do it. “Fire!”
   I fired one arrow; two; three; and that was it. Around me fire slackened. The Achaean line was disordered. Achilles was near the center, struggling through the men around him.
   I slung Apollo’s bow back into its case and raised my sword above my head.
   My heart was pumping fast; Ixion’s soul sang through me. All around me, I could sense expectation, eagerness.
   I lowered my father’s sword and, drawing on my last reserves, leapt into a gallop. “Charge!”

Chapter 47
-= Final Gift =-

   Hitting the flank of the Achaean line was almost like hitting a wall. When we’d fought the raiders, we hit them from behind, in a completely unexpected attack; here, at least some of them knew we were coming. Even before we hit the line, our fatigue showed itself as we strung out. Everybody was fighting to keep up, but not everybody could. As it was, I kept my pace to one that Philyanax could manage. A last shower of javelins arced above me, thrown by the centaurs behind. The Achaeans answered with a pitiful few. I could even hear the Achaeans further down the line asking what was going on—
   And then we hit them.
   I don’t know what happened to the first person I moved past. I caught his spear on my shield and then just… galloped over him. I may have killed him with my hooves, or a centaur behind may have. Still I was slowed a bit. The second Achaean I ran into dropped his spear and swung his sword at me. I had strength and momentum on my side; my father’s sword sliced through his neck, leaving his head attached only at the spine. Blood and flesh sprayed out and he fell. I know I stepped on him because I stumbled and almost fell, my right forehoof digging into his flesh, squeezing his guts out around it.
   By now, the centaurs were enveloping the end of the enemy line on both its flank and rear. Most were in the middle, and they pressed their bodies against mine, thrusting their javelins beside me into the Achaeans that pressed against us. Their momentum helped me thrust aside an Achaean in the third rank. He deflected my sword; I thrust past him,my body shoving him towards Philyanax—who ripped out his throat with her teeth.
   By now I was moving at just a walk. I heard screams behind me, but I couldn’t turn to see what was happening. There was no way I could even reach them, let alone heal their wounds. And even if I did, they wouldn’t have the energy to fight, and there was no way they could withdraw.
   I heard a scream from beside me, glanced, and saw Isoples with a javelin sticking out of his eye. He stumbled forward, trampling on the Achaean that killed him. Bianar leapt over his falling corpse, his hind hooves smashing through Isoples’ human chest; I kept moving. And then another Achaean sword slammed against one of the bronze plates protecting my human front! Had any mortal forged my armor, the blow would have passed through and into my chest. But it was of Hephastus’ make, so all it did was stop my advance. I reared up, and my scarred hooves kicked the swordsman, one each in his chest and head. His chest blossomed in a spray of crimson, and his skull split open around my other hoof, spraying gore and brain outward. I trampled his body to make sure before going on.
   Ares, but the killing went on… I kicked and reared. With one stroke I slashed at an Achaean, slicing—or, rather, forcing my father’s dulling blade—through his chest or shoulder. The next I slammed sideways for either Philyanax or Bianar, one was on either side of me, to finish off. Once I stumbled and held my shield above me, staving off a rain of blows. I had to shove it outward to get enough room to stagger back up onto my hooves. Bianar went down to a sword-slice along his horse-flank; he stumbled into me before collapsing. His last act was to turn his head and look at me. Philyanax was a whirlwind of death. She had shallow cuts all over, but between her teeth and her deadly, flashing front and rear hooves, the Achaeans couldn’t kill her.
   More Achaeans pressed inward, struggling over the mounds of dead, both centaur and human. I kept pushing forward, with only Philyanax beside me. I had to keep going. If I stopped, the Achaeans would be able to press their attack against my rear, and there I had no defense. Were any centaurs still following me? I hoped so…
   My ears grew numb at the sound of swords thunking into and through flesh, at the screams of agony and pain. A javelin flew through the air on my right and I shoved forward so that it passed over my horse half, its hungry bronze cheated—
   —until it slammed into the side of Philyanax.
   She reared, she screamed, her voice filled with nothing but the sound of pain. And then she fell onto her side, her legs pointing towards me.
   Anarcharax was stolen from me. I’d abandoned Modyexa and Souliux. Raparthax had died. But by the bones of the god I was sworn to destroy, no more!
   I reared up on my forelegs and kicked out backwards, feeling my hooves crunch into someone’s chest. I landed, and took a single step towards her body. Through the humans I could see her—she was still breathing! I only had to touch her for a second! Pulling my shield tight against my chest, I leaned into the weight of Achaeans before me and pushed. With my sword I thrust out again and again. There was no longer room to swing it. Short strikes, out, back, out back. All around me there were nothing but Achaeans. The only sound in my ears was Philyanax’s screams.
   No more!
   A shield isn’t just protection; I shoved mine forward, swung it around. Its edge slammed through naked chests, crushed bare throats. I spun like a whirlwind, kicking with one hind hoof and then the other to keep them from my back. Blades sliced into my flesh on either side of my tail. Each wound was a hot stab, and then a burning pain as my body healed. Often I stumbled, almost falling before my muscles could reknit themselves. As I turned, I saw centaurs in the distance, falling further and further behind, being pushed away as they tried to reach me, falling one by one. Behind them were the banners of the Achaeans’ main mass closing on us. I kicked and screamed like an animal, slicing out with my sword, slamming my shield into arms and faces. Achaeans were clambering over Philyanax and I thrust forward, pushing them off with my shield. She was so close—she was calling me—but if I leaned down to touch her, I’d never get up! There were too many Achaeans around me. More swords sliced into my rear, one cut through a hind leg and I fell, healing slowly. My healing power had limits, and this battle was surely taxing them. My breath pounded in and out of my lungs, up and down my throat. Sweat blurred my vision and I blinked to clear it. Another step forward, another. Slowly turning, kicking, slicing. The hilt of my father’s sword became slippery in my grasp, my hands cramped. Each step felt like my hooves were nailed to two-hundred-pound horseshoes. One fore hoof touched something soft. It was Philyanax! She was alive, she was—
   Again I thrust my shield out, again Achaeans fell back… and this time they stayed back. I crouched—no, fell—onto my knees. I dropped the sword. I reached out to touch her…
   …and her soul slipped from her body and into mine. But she didn’t stay with me, with Modyexa and Sauliux. In one final act, she gave the energy of her very self to me, spread herself through my limbs, healed my wounds.
   And then she was gone.
   My cry was that of a soul in hell. Somehow I found my father’s sword where it’d fallen on the ground. I stood up, stepped over the corpse so that my forelegs were on one side, my hindlegs the other. The Achaeans would not have her. They would not have her! They would not desecrate her. They would not roast her and stuff her into their stomachs. Not while I still drew breath, by Zeus!
   I looked up, looked around. The Achaeans had fallen back. Why? In the distance behind me I heard the thunder of combat. Silently, others formed a circle around me. These Achaeans weren’t like the others; none were naked, all wore bronze armour. All carried red crescent shields. All moved in silence. The battle became faint and unreal.
   In front of me I heard footsteps and looked towards them as somebody was let through the circle of armoured forms which closed behind.
   It was a man. He was fair of hair, armoured in bronze, carrying a red crescent shield. In one hand he held a spear. Massive, old. It had eaten of blood again and again, and it craved more.
   I panted for breath. Even with Philyanax’s sacrifice, I could barely stand. The ground was slick and wet. I heard the others behind me, faintly calling my name from where they were trying to reach me. I could smell my sweat, my blood. Philyanax’s blood.
   “So,” Achilles said, “a barbarian who may be worthy of me.”
   I looked at him. Young, fresh, full of energy and brazen self-confidence. I could see the divine in him. I doubted he could see it in me, not through the blood and gore that drenched me. “You won’t… have her!”
   “It sounds like a horse!” he said. The Myrmidons laughed at their leader’s joke.
   It took almost everything I had to switch my mind back to thinking in human Greek. Then, enunciating carefully, I stated, “You… will not… have her!”
   Achilles took a step forward, holding the spear Chiron had given him loosely in one hand. Still panting, I slipped my father’s sword back into its sheath and yanked a javelin from the racks on my back. I’d never had a chance to use them yet today. After that I waited, not saying a word, still gasping for breath. Occasionally I would shake my head to get my sweat-soaked hair out of my eyes.
   Before I saw his hand move, he’d thrown the spear; it hissed through the air towards me, its soul thirsting. I barely angled my shield in its path. With a sound like a defeated demon scratching its nails on a closed steel door, it slid along the hide-covered oak. It tore through the skin and dug into the thick wood, but it didn’t penetrate.
   With a thud it fell to the ground.
   I didn’t wait, with a groan I threw my javelin, one that had never been used, one of the gifts from Apollo and Athena. It hissed through the air, its bronze seeking flesh. Achilles saw it and dove out of the way so that it sailed overhead, thudding into the ground far behind. He rolled and leapt back up onto his feet, his shield in front of him held high so that only his eyes and helmet extended above it.
   I drew a second javelin and leaned back ready to throw it.
   Achilles began to circle, I didn’t see any movement but heard a snick of bronze on bronze as he drew his sword.
   I wanted to protect Philyanax’s body, oh Hades I wanted to! But if I stayed over it, I’d have no chance against Achilles. Finally starting to catch my breath, I leaned back on my hind hooves, and then threw the javelin and leapt forward. The cast went wide, but it distracted Achilles enough for me to land on the far side of Philyanax’s body. As I’d leapt I’d grabbed a third javelin and had it ready to throw as Achilles took a step towards me, then stopped.
   Somewhere in the distance I heard a horn. Was it Peukedymnos? Were the Trojans coming? Or were the masses of Achaean infantry moving in? I had no way of knowing.
   Achilles moved like a cat. He almost bounced on his feet, even under the weight of his bronze protection. His shield slowly bobbed up and down, his head behind it. On the left, the glittering point of his sword stuck out. Slowly I rotated, watching him watching me.
   Suddenly I threw, this time not aiming for him, but for his shield; if the javelin became lodged in it, he’d have to discard it. Somehow he recognized this and spun around, the javelin hissing into his shield at an angle and twanging off, its sharp bronze tearing along and through the layers of red-dyed skin. But it still didn’t penetrate!
   Achilles leapt forward then, his shield high, his sword low for a thrust.
   I stepped back,rearing, getting just enough time to draw my sword. I kicked at him, but hit his shield. He slashed in underneath me and I pushed off his shield. Both of us staggered back, and I thudded back onto all fours.
   I saw a light in his eyes, a flash of fear as he realized I was good enough to possibly beat him. The fear didn’t last; it was soon buried under glory at killing an enemy, the uncertainty of facing something he’d never fought before, and glee at doing what he did best. His breathing was slow, easy. He wasn’t the least bit tired.
   Me? I was barely standing. My breathing was loud and harsh.
   Suddenly he moved forward, his sword lashed out. I whipped my shield down. His sword beat its way past it to scrape against my blade and bronze armour. I stepped forward, my head leaning to the side. His sword whipped back, scraping along the side of my shield. My sword swung up; so did his arched shield, which pushed my arm away. I reared up, my right forehoof kicking. His shield pushed my sword further up.
   For a second our eyes locked.
   My forehoof slammed into his breastplate as his sword slithered between two of the plates of my armour, thrusting itself deep into my crotch.

Chapter 48
-= Tutor and Son =-

   I just stood there as the pain blasted through me. An explosion bursting from my crotch, a fireball of sharp redness and dull waves of intensity that rose and fell. My father’s sword fell from my hand and thudded onto the ground. I followed it as my knees weakened and I fell onto my lower legs, and then onto my horse chest. As the sword impacted the ground, my weight pushed the hilt upward, and the blade deeper into me. My body was trying to heal, but the sword was in the way! Virgin flesh grew, only to part on the sharp and hungry bronze which was slowly consuming me.
   I looked up to see Achilles looking down at me. I was still panting for breath; I could feel a pool of blood seeping out from underneath my armour and into the thirsty earth. Behind Achilles there was a form; pale, female, a shape of mist standing naked. Her hand was gently restraining Achilles’ arm.
   I knew who it had to be. “Thetis… why?” I gasped out. She was Achilles’ divine mother, but why was she helping Achilles kill me? There was no way I could have hurt him; didn’t she know that?
   Achilles turned and recognized her and frowned. She whispered something and then sank away into the earth like water.
   “She said that unless I leave my sword in you, you’ll kill me.”
   “Anybody… anybody can… in the… the chaos.” I kept creating blood, but I couldn’t create it as fast as it was seeping out. And the sword was digging, sapping at what strength I had left.
   “You fought well. If you were fresh, you might have beat me.”
   My vision was wavering but I forced myself to look up at him. I spoke, each word an act of will. “You have… have a… destiny. I can’t… kill you.”
   Through mists of pain I thought I could hear voices from behind. Calls, screams, the blowing of horns. It was like a dream. Was all this a dream? Was Chiron still alive?
   Achilles took a step forward. “It’s a shame none of us can wear that armour of yours.”
   I swallowed, wisps of saliva dribbling down my parched throat. I could feel my stomach churning from the continuous pain. The pool of blood was growing. Chiron… I only wished that I’d known Chiron… To see Achilles in his youth, to see the great teacher, my son… Achilles… “Tell me… tell me of Chiron. Before I die. Tell me…”
   Achilles face was a blur, but I could understand his voice. “Why?”
   That was when I realized the curse I had unknowingly been under. Death could never touch me, no—but I could face an eternity of pain. Faced with that fate, Chiron had given his immortality to Prometheus. Who could I give mine to? If the Achaeans burned me… would I recover? With my hands I fumbled at the sword, but I no longer had the strength to grasp it.
   Achilles’ face wavered into focus directly in front of me. I could feel his warm hand holding my chin. “I asked you why!”
   Had I asked him? About? Oh Zeus, the pain. Pulses, bright red, pounding. Waves. I’d asked him something. My son, my son! How could I forget?
   I could only speak in a whisper and Achilles had to lean down to hear. “He was… was my son. He was… taken, stolen… never knew him. Before I… before I die… please… tell me…”
   In disgust, he let go of my chin and stepped backward. “Your son!? Impossible! His father was there with me. He…” And then comprehension dawned on his horrified face. “Great Zeus! What have I done?”
   All I could feel was pain. All I could see was pain. All I could taste was pain. All I could hear was pain. All I could smell was pain. The pain rose, a jagged rending as something was ripped out of me. Bronze that had begun to live was torn away, and it returned to inanimate metal.
   I felt the pain change, metamorphosize. It was pain no longer, but just a horrible, horrible fatigue. I heard a voice, distant, wavering in and out. “Friend of ancient ties, heal. Come when you’re better and I’ll tell you.”
   What was that? Heal? Why? It was something that came from outside me. I should know the voice, but I couldn’t think. There were other voices, movements, the clanking of armour. I couldn’t hear the battle, or was it that I couldn’t recognize it? I felt strong hands grasping me, pulling me up onto my hooves. A familiar voice called my name. Chariot wheels rattled around me. Unknown voices. They started carrying me away. There was something… something… it couldn’t be forgotten. Bronze, metal, sword. Yes, sword. Weakly I tried to grab whoever was beside me. My head turned, a tunnel of focus began to grow in the center of my vision. It was Doryalos looking at me. Or was he a ghost..? But there are no ghosts here. They’re souls, spirits… No, no, there’s something. Sword, yes, sword.
   “Sword, don’t leave… father’s… ground…”
   My hand slipped down his arm, I couldn’t hold it up. Where was Achilles? Had he left? Why? Why?
   Somebody else’s hands appeared in my tunnel of clarity. Something was thrust between my lips. Then something warm, wet. It poured in and I swallowed. It was wonderful. It brought strength. It was a sweet, sweet nectar.
   It was wine.
   I tried pulling my head away, but hands wouldn’t let me. More wine poured down. Was it Achilles? But he’d left. Why? Why?
   I heard Doryalos’ voice fading in and out. “It’s from Hector. Drink. You need it. None of the centaurs will touch it.”
   The liquid was poured into my mouth and I had to swallow. Strength burned through me, immense pleasure and delusions of power and strength. But how could I have power and strength if I couldn’t move? My brain burned, ideas flowed, thoughts jumped out of a sea of delusion and then dove back in and vanished. Why had Achilles let me live?
   With the suddenness of a fish leaping out of the water before vanishing back into the depths, a silver glistening fragment of the Illiad drifted through my mind:

    By ancient ties of friendship are we bound;
    For godlike Œneus in his house receiv’d
    For twenty days the brave Bellerophon;
    They many a gift of friendship interchang’d;
    A belt, with crimson glowing, OEneus gave;
    Bellerophon a double cup of gold,
    Which in my house I left when here I came.
    Of Tydeus no remembrance I retain;
    For yet a child he left me, when he fell
    With his Achaians at the gate of Thebes.
    So I in Argos am thy friendly host;
    Thou mine in Lycia, when I thither come:
    Then shun we, e’en amid the thickest fight,*

   I grasped at it. I knew it was important, but how? Friendship? Who? Was it a delusion? With my father’s help I’d memorized more and more of the Illiad starting before I was even in school, and I’d never regretted it. But why that bit?
   And then, like the fish, it fell back into the depths of my mind and vanished. Gone.
   But I remembered more bits: Glaucus and Diomedes, two warriors who’d fought on opposite sides. They encountered each other in combat and had discovered each other’s parentage. And discovered that each of their grandfathers was once the guest-friend of the other’s. Achilles must have realized that because Chiron had raised him as a son, and I was Chiron’s father, that I was his grandfather by adoption.
   And that was why he’d let me live.
   That was it! My brain faded, shut down. I knew why, and now I could rest…

Chapter 49
-= Inside Fair Illium =-

   The next thing I knew, I was lying on a pile of straw in a fine stone room. There were windows looking out into a flickering light, and an urn of water and platter of fruits and dried meats beside me.
   I heaved myself to my hooves.
   I was sore, stiff. More wounds covered my body, and sections of my hide looked to be cut off and recently healed. I could see no sign of my armour, of my father’s sword, or of Apollo’s bow.
   Blinking my eyes I tried to recall what had happened. Where was I? I remembered the battle, the last stand, the fight with Achilles, his withdrawl, voices, a face… dear God, Philyanax! I remembered whispering something about my father’s sword, but nothing about her. Nothing!
   How could I have forgotten!?
   The flickering light outside the window drew my attention. What was it? Was fair Illium burning? Impossible! Achilles was still alive. But…
   Still unsteady, I staggered to my hooves and then carefully made my way over to the window, ignoring my rumbling stomach, my parched throat, my pounding headache. Somehow I made it, and grasped the sides of the window to keep from falling over.
   The window looked out over the walls of a city. The walls of fair Illium it looked like. And beyond those walls, on the plains of Troy, there was a massive pyre. I could smell the burning meat. How many had I killed? How many centaurs were dead? What had happened to Philyanax!?
   The plaster cracked under the grip of my fingers.
   It all flashed through my head. The javelin, my ducking, the bronze that hungered for me killing her instead. But I should have taken it! My armour would likely have stopped it! I should have reached her in time.
   The fire blurred as tears filled my eyes.
   She’d given all of herself to me. Even gave up her soul to aid me.
   I didn’t deserve it!
   “You should still be resting.”
   I spun around, and the room twirled vertically as well as horizontally. I almost fell. There was a person standing beside me, human, female. She was dressed in a dark green dress decorated in red zigzags along the bottom and letting her breasts hang free. Her red hair was braided and hanging down her back. I knew her. I blinked to try and get the tears from my eyes. The face blurred, spun, and then cleared.
   It was Phillipa.
   I screamed at her: “What happened to Philyanax!?” My voice was hoarse, harsh. It echoed with pain.
   “The mare! Philyanax. Oh Zeus, she gave of herself…” I fell onto my horse belly on the stone floor and held my head in my hands sobbing uncontrollably.
   “She’s on the pyre—”
   “As food? I’ll kill… kill them! I’ll kill every… every last one!!”
   “No! She’s on the pyre with the rest of the honoured dead. The ones she killed, you killed. All the dead of the battle two days ago.”
   Thank Zeus and Hades. She’d gotten the least of what she deserved.
   She crouched down on her knees and embraced me, her arms, her closeness, her being offering me the same comfort I’d offered her. I leaned into her, my head on her shoulder as she gently rocked me back and forth.
   Why did everybody have to follow me? All I ever gave anybody was death and abandonment. The family that adopted me, Modyes, Philya, Anarcharax, Modyexa, Souliux, Raparthax, Philyanax, Nedymnos, Cyllaros, Ularios the Elder, Melaneas… The list went on and on.
   So many had given so much to me. Why? Why couldn’t they just go away! They’d all still be alive!
   Sobs wracked my body, but Phillipa was always there. I don’t know how long I let her hold me. No, not let, I needed her to hold me. She didn’t say much, just held me and shared her presence. The fire outside the window burned down almost to ashes before I was finally able to gather myself and bury my sorrow.
   “Thank you,” I whispered.
   “Given that you did it for me, I had a debt to you.”
   “No, you didn’t!”
   She pushed herself away from me and back up onto her feet. “What is it with you? You want the whole world on your shoulders! You’re not Ajax! Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe, you aren’t the only person in the world who cared!?”
   Looking up at her I choked back a retort, forced back tears. “I don’t deserve it.” I waved my arms around. “I don’t deserve any of this!”
   “Stephan, if you weren’t a centaur I’d take a stick and beat some sense into you! Listen to yourself!”
   “I’m not—”
   “Shut up and listen for a change! Do you know why you’re here? Do you know what happened? Do you even care!?”
   I stared at her.
   “Doryalos, the others, almost all they dream of is being as honourable, as self-sacrificing, as noble as you! Doryalos could see the whole battle as he ran for the gates. He galloped the entire way. So did all the others. They all refused to fall behind because they knew that you needed them. They could see what you were doing and they refused to fail you! When Doryalos reached the gate he didn’t just knock or wait, he nearly kicked it down—because he knew you needed him. When they finally opened it to let me in, I shoved it open far enough for the others. Doryalos shoved his way through the guards, through the crowds. He galloped up onto the wall, the others followed.”
   I couldn’t stop staring at her.
   “He and the others galloped along the wall. I was still on his back—he’d have had to slow to switch me off and he refused to do that. Because he knew you needed him. When he finally found Priam he abased himself before him, he and all the others. They offered their own lives if the Trojans would go out and save you. They offered an eternity of servitude and slavery! King Priam didn’t even talk to me. Instead he walked up to Doryalos and held the sides of Doryalos’ head in his hands and looked at him. I could see that Doryalos’ eyes were filled with tears and his face with desperation.
   “King Priam stood up and stated that such loyalty and devotion deserved to be honoured. He called out the soldiers, the chariots, and with Prince Hector and Prince Paris at his side he led the soldiers of fair Illium out onto the field. He rode a chestnut horse, and his army followed behind him. I followed on another horse, and Doryalos and the others walked with me.
   “The Achaeans saw us coming and fell back, and the centaurs that were with you pursued them even though they could barely stand. Doryalos galloped to join them and together they chased after the Achaeans. They only stopped when the circle of Myrmidons parted to let them reach you.
   “I forced my horse to a gallop and pushed in far enough to see Achilles talking to you as you collapsed. He turned to Doryalos, said that you were his kin, and that he’d done great harm in attacking you. In recompense he swore the Achaeans to peace for seven days to allow time for them to bury their dead, and your dead. Time to honour the centaurs… and you. Yes, you!”
   I couldn’t speak.
   “I couldn’t believe you were still alive when I saw you, and when Doryalos tried to help you up you screamed and kicked, refusing to leave the dead horse. Achilles stated that while you fought you’d never left her, you’d always kept yourself between him and the mare. I remember seeing that sword being yanked out of you followed by a burst of crimson that dripped onto the ground as you somehow staggered up. Doryalos and the others managed to help you back to fair Illium as the Achaeans withdrew from the field.
   “King Priam sent servants to bathe you, to tend your wounds after the centaurs had removed your armour. They had to almost cut it off, blood had glued it to your hide. King Priam’s best surgeon held the knife and carefully cut the surface of the skin where he needed to, and together they removed the plates one by one. Then they bathed you, cleaned your wounds. All the time you were delirious, thinking yourself a failure, calling for Philyanax, others. I helped them tend you because I owed you as much as anybody else.”
   She looked at me, fire in her eyes.
   “Do you know where the centaurs are now? Do you even care!? They’re out on the plain watching the dead burn, and all the Achaeans and Trojans are behind them honouring them. Do you have any idea what you did!? There were less than a hundred of you, but I heard that there were almost a thousand dead Achaeans. A thousand!
   “And you can’t understand, you refuse to understand, why they worship you! Nobody else could have done what you did!”
   She slapped me and then turned and fled, slamming the open door behind her.

Chapter 50
-= Heroic Acceptance =-

   For a long while in the darkness I looked at the shadows where the door was. Why couldn’t they understand?
   Then a voice in my mind whispered: Why can’t you understand?
   For most of my life—my human life, I mean—I’d studied the great myths of the Greek world. My father had done it before me, and he’d instilled the same love and respect he had for them into me. He would often go out on digs and take me with him. My mother had died giving birth to me. He dominated my life. In a sense he still did.
   Was he still dominating my life, even here?
   The ethos of the mythic greek hero was honour and glory. Kindness to your friends. Hospitality. Marriage and family duty. Victory. Pride in being human. And how did I measure up to that standard?
   Honour and glory: I’d told the centaurs that we would fight with the first, and for the second. I’d done so myself, even against horrific odds. Kindness: I’d always been kind to anybody that wasn’t trying to kill me, and whenever I’d had to fight or kill, I did it as quick and as clean as I could. Hospitality: I’d been the best host I could to Phillipa and the others. Marriage and family duty: I had no mate, but one could argue that these last centaurs were my family. Had I fulfilled my duty to them? I’d redeemed them from barbarism. I’d made them heroes. I’d done everything possible to keep them alive while still making their lives mean something. Pride in being human: Well, I wasn’t human, so either I didn’t qualify on this count, or else it was more like ‘pride in one’s species’. So: How did I feel about being a centaur?
   That was an interesting question. I’d been taught to be honest, and had always been honest with myself and others. Was I comfortable in this body? Definitely. Did I consider it my body? How did I view myself? I’d spent two decades as human, a much longer time as Neried, as horse, as Medusa, as Pegasus. I’d spent only a decade or so as a sane centaur. Who knew how long I’d been mad..? Definitely years, almost certainly decades.
   Was my mental image of myself a centaur? Should I be thinking: I am centaur, hear me neigh?
   I didn’t know.
   But, to the rest of the herd I’d never hidden my horse attributes, never denied my beastial side. I’d restrained it, controlled it, but never denied it. I’d never compared any of the centaurs to humans in such a way as to lessen the centaur. Was that pride in being a centaur?
   All my human life I’d disagreed with the 20th Century cultural concept of the ‘everyman’. There would be no truly exceptional people—no heroes—in an ideal world. Heroes always had to be flawed, or be lucky, or be otherwise minimized. Even in movie adaptations of heroic myths, they’d been changed: Heroes had to debate if they were doing the right thing; they could never be certain of themselves; they could never be heroic.
   Here, in whatever time and place this was, there were heroes. Living, breathing, larger-than-life figures who would live on in the human psyche for millennia. It was what I’d promised the centaurs they would achieve. And until the dead started piling up around me, I’d never questioned what I was doing. Not to myself, and not to them. And even when I questioned it was only to help them, to keep them alive. To do my duty towards them, towards my family.
   That was that; by the classical definition, I was a hero. So, 20th Century notions or not, I had to accept it. But I had to accept it without falling prey to hubris.
   Still, even if that was true, why did the centaurs worship me so? Admiration and respect were one thing; what they felt for me was quite another thing entirely! Well, I had divine powers, that was certainly a factor. They’d known me both as a pure beast, and as a pure thinking being. I’d been, and was, the two extremes of their souls. And, from what I’d gathered, only when I was with them had they ever won any battles.
   Was I the centaur hero, their Heracles?
   It made too much sense. But was it the truth?
   There was a knock on the door. Probably Phillipa come back to drag me to bed. How could she be so exasperating? Well, I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction this time! Trying to keep silent I staggered up and onto my hooves. I was steadier, but the world still wobbled. I wished I had a cane. A cane for a centaur…
   The knock again, louder this time.
   I slowly walked over to the pile of straw and let my self collapse onto it. It was much better than the floor. “Come in!” I croaked out. And then, remembering classical Greek, I said it again in the non-centaur variant of the language. The door opened and the flickering light revealed that I’d collapsed on the straw facing the wall. The opposite direction I’d awoken in.
   Bare feet padded across the floor and I smelled the wondrous scent of hot cooked food. Meat, vegetables, some kind of bread, wine…
   I swallowed the drool as the figure stopped beside me and I turned to look. It wasn’t Phillipa, but another human girl, maybe eight. On her head she had a clay urn of wine, in one hand a clay oil lamp, and in her other a big plate of hot food.
   Without the urn wobbling in the least, she curtseyed before me. “Lord.”
   ‘Lord’? Who… Oh, right. “Yes?” My voice came out as a croak.
   “King Priam sent me to serve you. If you want to eat, I can feed you. Or I can bring it back later.”
   I swallowed more drool. “No, no, the food is fine now.”
   “As my lord wishes.” Swiftly she put down the light a good distance from the straw, then the plate of food, and finally the urn of wine.
   One sip of wine couldn’t hurt… no! It always started that way. “If you can bring the water from beside me, I’ll start on the food.”
   “As my lord wishes.”
   My body wouldn’t let me be polite. Grabbing the knife and the spoon—though ‘scoop’ might be a better word—I dug in and choked down the vegetables and the meat. Even though it was a big plate, I was over halfway through before I heard the girl’s voice beside me: “My lord, the water?”
   I swallowed what was in my mouth. “Thank you. Um, what’s your name?”
   “I am Xanthia, daughter of Pandarus. My father sent me here as a bride for Paris.”
   I’d been reaching out for the urn she was holding in both hands and stopped. “Oh.”
   She sniffed. “Yes.”
   Pandarus, Pandarus… right, he’s the King of Zelia. He’d probably hoped to use his daughter to continue his alliance with the Trojan kings. But then Paris accepted Aphrodite’s bribe, and now he was with Helen.
   “It’s not your fault. Zeus refused to choose between Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera, and he picked Paris as the victim to make the choice. Can any mortal refuse a bribe offered by an Olympian goddess?”
   “Have you ever talked to Ascanius, the son of Aeneas?”
   She looked at me, confusion in her face. “No…”
   “You should. Leave me, I’ll be fine. And thank you for bringing me the water.”
   “My Lord is too honourable.”
   In a wry voice that sounded much better now that I’d eaten, “Are you going to argue with me?”
   “No, my Lord!”
   “Then go! And remember what I said.”
   “As my Lord wishes.” She leaned over to pick up the lamp.
   “And leave the lamp.”
   “Yes, my Lord.” She gracefully walked from the room, closing the door behind her.
   I hoped she’d listen to me. With Aeneas and Ascanius, she might survive the hell of the next five years. Although I wondered… was sending her on Aeneas’ journey to Italy really a better option?
   Shaking my head, I took the cup that was tied to one of the urn handles, untied it, dipped it into the water, and drank it. The entire cup. I had to do it three more times before I was satisfied. The water was warm, but so very very good.
   I ate the rest of the meal at a slower pace, finished off most of the urn of water, and then blew out the lamp and went to sleep. I was still tired, and my mind was full of too many questions.
   That night I dreamed I was galloping across the plains, alone, far away from fair Illium and this war.

Chapter 51
-= Wanderings and Nature =-

   I woke up the next day feeling much better, though still not back to my usual self. I also had to answer the call of nature. Getting up off the straw, I stretched my back and clomped over to the door. I opened it and looked out.
   The hallway was brightly lit by light chimneys along it. Its walls were brightly painted with horses and other plains animals. The floor was tiled in clean white stone.
   I heard the sound of somebody stumbling to their feet and pushing the door out of the way. Turning my head, I watched as Xanthia peeked out.
   “My Lord! I’m so sorry! I didn’t know—!”
   “Don’t worry about it. Where’s the washroom?”
   I nibbled on my lip. “It’s kind of urgent.”
   “This way, my Lord!”
   As I trotted after her I grumbled to myself about those who lived indoors. Outdoors it was so much easier; just walk behind a tree and let go. Either way. But you couldn’t do that indoors… I just hoped the other centaurs realized that. Following Xanthia down the hallway, I paced behind her as she turned left, and stopped when she stopped in front of another door. We’d passed a few human servants or slaves, but they’d ignored us.
   “In here, Lord.”
   I pushed the door open. Perhaps I should have knocked, but fortunately nobody else was there. The room was tiled in cut stone, and the walls were plastered and painted a dark blue. Most of the ceiling was another light chimney. The chamber was small, and most of it contained a surprisingly modern-seeming toilet, complete with water supplied from cisterns on the roof. Stepping up to it, I let loose; it took a while. Blessed relief! There was a wooden lever that, when pulled, released water the same as any other flush toilet—likely supplied from cisterns on the roof.
   I had to back out and did so slowly. It was odd how much Cretan influence there seemed to be in fair Illium. Certainly not as much as the ruins suggested, but Cretan architecture fit with the mythology, or at least I’d always thought it did.
   Of course, given that I was in a cave beneath the sea near Thera, it was possible that this was a psychodrama of some kind, shaped from my memories. Or it could all be an illusion, or a dream. It didn’t really matter… it seemed real, and I’d decided long ago to treat it that way.
   I shut the door behind me. Xanthia was waiting. “King Priam is eager to see you. He’s in the King’s chamber, so if you would follow me...?”
   “Lead on.”
   We walked along more corridors, each painted a different colour, though all were decorated with animals. Primarily with horses. There didn’t seem to be any dolphins such as had been common in the palaces on Crete. The halls seemed strangely empty, we only passed a few servants. As we walked , my hooves echoed off the walls, overwhelming the faint slapping of Xanthia’s bare feet. We passed outside into a large stone courtyard surrounded in red painted pillars, and then passed up some wide marble stairs into a small antechamber. Two guards in Hittite armour and carrying spears stood at attention, their faces in deep shadow.
   Before I could say anything, Xanthia spoke: “King Stephan of the centaurs. King Priam asked to see him.”
   King Stephan? Of the centaurs? I guess it made sense…
   The guards bowed, and then one opened the small door: “Enter in peace.”
   “Thank you.” I waited for a second, but Xanthia didn’t move, so I stepped around her and ducked my head as I passed under the doorway. The room was dimmer than the courtyard or the hallway, most of the light shining through an entranceway on the opposite side. In the shadows I could tell that the walls were painted but I couldn’t see well enough to identify the shapes. There were clay oil lamps, but none were lit.
   A male voice called out sternly: “Who is it?”
   I heard whispers, and then an older voice, “Just come out on the balcony!”
   I ducked my head under the lintel and stepped out into the sunlight. I was indeed on a balcony; it looked out over the walls and over the great plain. In the distance, the Aegean Sea glistened in the late afternoon sunlight and there was a faint cool breeze blowing its scent across the balcony; below on the plain, there were crowds of humans cheering, their sound faint in the distance.
   “King Stephan,” the older voice spoke out. “I trust you’re feeling better?”
   I turned and saw an old man, his beard speckled in gray, sitting on a padded stone seat looking out across the walls, although his head had turned to face me. He was robed in a light purple chiton—a classical Greek robe that was essentially a shirt with a skirt that went down to the ankles with a belt around the waist. The edges of the sleeves and skirt were decorated in two zigzag lines; one red, the other in green. His head was bare, and he was starting to go bald. Sitting beside him on a second seat was an older woman, wearing a Cretan-style dress gaily decorated with horses and with her breasts proudly displayed. Presumably that was King Priam’s wife, Hecabe. More guards in Hittite armour were on either side of them.
   Turning to face the man, I asked: “King Priam?”
   I bowed my human torso. “I’m honoured to finally meet you.”

Chapter 52
-= Truths =-

   “I’d offer you a seat, but you don’t seemed to need one,” King Priam said.
   “Thank you for the offer.” Why was I here? Hecabe was pointedly ignoring us, instead concentrating on braiding leather strips together.
   King Priam sipped from a fine glass cup that was sitting on a polished wood table, then put it down again. I forced myself to ignore the wine's enticing, dangerous, aroma. He looked at me for a while as the cheers from the plains drifted up and around us.
   “What’s going on?” I motioned towards the crowds below the walls.
   “Funeral games for those who died in your battle. Hector and Achilles are seeing who’s best with a javelin.”
   I remembered the funeral games Achilles had—will have, for Patrocolus, and the funeral games he’d allow for Hector. “Umm… Are my cent- ah, people, causing you any problems?”
   “Doralos has kept them in order.”
   “Do you mean Dor-ya-los?”
   He looked at me. “Hecabe, please go to your chambers. Don’t wait for me, I’ll be a while.”
   She stood up, gave a slight bow, and turned and left, her bell skirt flowing around her. One of the four Hittite armoured guards followed behind. For a second I was angry, but then I remembered the status of women—or lack thereof—in the late bronze age. Priam was just abiding by his culture’s customs regarding the ‘weaker’ sex. In fact, he’d actually gone beyond the norm by letting her watch the games.
   King Priam leaned forward. “Stephan, why are you here?”
   “Why do you ask? Didn’t Doryalos tell you?”
   “I wish to hear it from your mouth.” I flinched from the intensity of his eyes.
   “We came here to help you in your war against the invading Achaeans.”
   “Umm… What did Doryalos tell you?”
   “He told me what he told me. And now, I want to hear you tell me.”
   Why was I so nervous? “Well, I, we, needed something. We’d been driven from Thessaly. There were no mares left alive. When I found them, they were just wandering aimlessly in a drunken stupor, waiting to die. I refused to let them, us, do that. I gave them the hope, the dream of glory. The dream of being remembered as something other than beastial monsters.”
   He leaned back in his seat and sighed. “Another glorymonger.”
   “What were we supposed to do? Just fade away into history and die!? We have no mares! We could either die in shame and obscurity, or have our deaths mean something!”
   What was I doing? This was Priam, King of fair Illium! The guards took a step towards me but Priam motioned them back.
   “Still glory, but not for aggrandizement, then. Why Troy? Why help me?”
   “Because we did!”
   He raised his eyebrows.
   Why’d I say that? Slow down, work out your thoughts. “We did because I asked a priestess how we could avoid dying in ignominy, and she prophesied that we could only break from our past by fighting on the side of Troy. We did that, did that all the way here, because it’s our only hope.” Not a bad recovery.
   Clasping his hands he leaned forward on his elbows, his eyes never leaving my face. “You know…” he whispered.
   He turned to the guards on one side of him. “I release you all from your duty. Go to the barracks, relax.” He turned to the guards on his other side. “You, too, all of you: Go.”
   “But sire—” one began.
   “He won’t attack me. If the Achaeans wanted me dead, there are far easier ways for them to manage it. Go.”
   They bowed and left. I just looked at King Priam, confused. What was going on? What did I know?
   He waited until their footsteps faded away. “King Stephan, why are you here?”
   I half raised a right forehoof to take a step back, but then put it down again. “I told you—”
   “No: You told me why the centaurs are here. Why are you here?”
   I swallowed. Well… it wasn’t a big secret, and if he threw me out, then so be it. “I’m here to kill Poseidon.”
   He leaned back and took another sip. My need for the wine … I forced it down. “You would kill the unkillable? An… odd ambition, that.”
   “The Oracle at Delphi told me I had to come here and fight him.”
   He nodded.
   “I won’t do it inside the city. I’ll make sure to do it on the plains, far away from your army.”
   “Why do you want to kill him?”
   For a second I didn’t know as my rage was gone. The need had been a driving force in my life and now it was gone. But, there was a kernel of something there. It was a surprise, realizing what I truly wanted: Not hatred, but justice. “He killed my family. He made me kill those I’d grown up with. He made me perform incest with my sister. He has exceeded the rights of even a god.”
   “Does not a god have unlimited rights?”
   He paused and took another sip. I must have revealed something on my face because he asked, “Would you like some?”
   I managed to keep my voice steady. “No, thank you. Centaurs seem to have a weakness for wine; it’s like an elixir that brings the beast to the fore. I prefer not to risk it.”
   He put the glass down. “The others say the same thing.”
   “Other centaurs; the twenty-three that remain.”
   I winced and my knees weakened, but I managed to remain upright on my hooves. Only twenty-three… And most of those would have been with Doryalos…
   “I’ve been told that they often say, ‘Would Stephan do that?’, or ‘Is that what Stephan would do?’ Only the wisest of men get that kind of adulation.”
   I focused my attention solely on King Priam.
   “I know that fair Illium will fall to the Achaeans. And you do, too. Don’t you?”
   All I could do was nod.
   “When the Achaeans invaded, I was told it would happen. I was told that we’d all be killed, the city destroyed, my dynasty ended.”
   “Aeneas will escape,” I whispered. “He’ll found a new city which, in a thousand years, will conquer all the Achaeans and hold them in servitude for another thousand.” Until the western Roman Empire collapsed, and the Greek world survived free for another thousand…
   “Aeneas is not of my family.”
   I bowed my head. “I know.”
   Suddenly he stood up. “Come with me. There is somebody I need you to meet.”
   Without waiting for an answer, he walked back into the King’s Chamber. He stopped in front of one wall, reached up, and pulled down one of the clay lamps. There was a faint sound of moving stone, of rope stretched almost beyond endurance, as a section of the wall opened. He hurried through and I ducked to follow. Inside, he picked up a plain clay lamp and lit it with flint and steel; when it was burning, he pulled a wooden lever and the door groaned shut. The air was still, musty, and I had to lean forward to keep from hitting my head. Then Priam walked off down the narrow passageway, and I squeezed along behind him.
   The way was long and winding. I had to force my body around odd bends, and walk slowly down stairs, watching my hooves to keep from stumbling and falling. Dust speckled my coat from where I’d scraped against the stone. And all this time, Priam said nothing. Eventually the passage ended and he stopped.
   He turned to me. “Don’t say anything. Beyond this is my daughter—”
   Suddenly I knew. “Cassandra. And… you believe her.”
   Priam stopped. Looked me up and down. “I don’t know how you know that, but both are true. I was right to bring you.”
   He turned back to a bare section of wall and leaned into it. With a groan he pushed, and stone scraped against stone as the wall began to move. Before I could help, he’d rotated it enough to leave a gap even I could pass through. Panting for breath, he walked through and I followed after.
   Behind was a small room. It had no windows, and a heavy wooden door. The only light was from a flickering oil lamp on a shelf. The walls were unpainted and undecorated, and the only furniture was a plain straw bed, and an urn of water like there was in my room. I wrinkled my nose at the scent of unwashed human, and the overpowering scent of piss and shit. It seems that a smaller pile of straw was used as a washroom.
   By the time I realized somebody was in the room, she’d run to her father’s arms and he was holding her.
   I waited in silence.
   “I’m here, Cassandra.”
   “You have to believe me. You have to believe!” she screamed out. “Flee! Flee before you all die! Die!”
   “Shhh… I know, and I will flee.”
   Flee? I thought. Why would Priam want to flee? This is fair Illium! The Greeks will never break it… What am I thinking!? They did, they will break it. The horse… I shook my head. What she was saying seemed so far-fetched, but I knew it was true. It had happened thousands of years ago, and it was true!
   It was like a fog lifting from my mind. I knew that Cassandra told the truth. And yet, I could feel doubt creeping in… No!
   By the time my head was clear again I looked and saw that Priam was helping Cassandra up. Once she might have been beautiful, but now she was filthy, her hair a tangled mess, her body covered in dirt and sores. What must it be like to live when you knew everybody was going to die, you warned them again and again, and they never believed you?
   What kind of hell had Apollo condemned her to when she had refused to make love to him?
   “Daughter, ” he said, “this is Stephan, the centaur King. He’s here to help.”
   She turned to look at me, her wild eyes peering into my soul. From the floor movement attracted my attention and I watched as a snake—it must have been over five metres long—it slithered up her naked, filthy body, until its head was suspended besides Cassandra’s, its eyes looking at the side of her head. Hypnotically it slipped its tongue in and out of her ear.
   A memory of Cassandra’s history flashed into me: Snakes whispered prophecies into her ear. This must be one of those snakes. Or, given its size, the original snake…
   “You will die,” she said. “You will die so that others may live.”
   Me? I won’t die. How can I die? No, think, she’s telling the truth!
“Soon you will die, die at the hands of Calchas!”
   Her eyes drew me, and for a timeless moment the only sound was the snake hissing into her ear.
   “You must die to save your race. In death all will be revealed! In death! In death!”
   King Priam slowly backed away from her. I could see fear in his eyes, but Cassandra was oblivious. The snake slithered down from her body, falling from her like rain, and she looked into my soul. “You don’t believe me…”
   I can’t die! Poseidon will die, and then… But no, she was telling the truth. It was Apollo’s curse at work. I had to force it aside: Cassandra always told the truth. Always! “I—” I couldn’t force anything else out as I fought to remember her words through the cloud of Apollo’s power.
   “Nobody believes me. Nobody! Nobody!” She screamed, tore out a clump of her hair, ran onto her straw bed and then rocked back and fourth on her knees. Over and over again she whispered, “Nobody nobody nobody…”
   I jumped as King Priam touched my hand. His voice was a whisper. “I think we should leave. She’ll be like this for hours.”
   Quietly I let him lead me back into the secret passage. I remained silent as he squeezed past me to close the entrance, and squeezed past me again. And in silence I followed him.
   Two things went through my mind again and again:
   Cassandra, saying, Soon you will die.
   The Pythia’s voice, chanting, In death the answers will be freed.

Chapter 53
-= Reunion =-

   We proceeded a short way before he stopped to face me. I had no choice but to stop.
   “Stephan, no one must know what happened here.”
   Odd that he only used my name, not my title. “King Priam, how did you come to realize that she told the truth?”
   “Little things she said, events that always ended up happening. Observations, conclusions.”
   “Then why don’t you try and change it?”
   He sighed. “Because once it’s stated, a prophecy must come true. Every story I’ve heard proves that—and the more you try and halt it, the worse the ending becomes. Consider Oedipus: He did horrific things because they tried to get rid of him. If they’d raised him, they could have given him a religious marriage to his mother—a marriage in name only. They could have had him ritually ‘kill’ his father after the old man died of natural causes. But instead, you know what happened to them. When I was young I exposed Paris, but that didn’t help. My ending is bad enough; I dare not make it worse.”
   “I’ve heard the story. Now I wish I hadn’t asked for my own prophecy.”
   “No one must know. Fair Illium believes it can survive; my people must continue to believe that until the last moment. It’s all I can give them.”
   “I’ll tell nobody.”
   “Thank you. Now, we should get back. You should at least visit the games that are in your honour.”
   “But they’re so wrong!”
   He started walking, so I trotted after him, the clatter of my hoofbeats echoing up and down the corridor. “They do it to make war less horrible. To celebrate that they’ve cheated death a little longer. And to honour those who fell, so that they will be honoured in their turn.”
   We passed the rest of the way in silence. After that, I couldn’t really think of anything to say. What must it be like to know that everything you love, everything you’ve created, is doomed to be horribly destroyed? And, worse, to know that you can do nothing to stop it? That was when I realized why he’d taken me so fully into his confidence.
   He knew I lived the same life he lived: He knew that no matter what I did, everything I cared about would die, one way or the other. I’d chosen to have my people’s deaths mean something; he’d chosen to let his subjects live the last years of their lives in hope as best they could.
   Had he known what would happen when he sent his two sons on the embassy to Sparta?
   I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.
   These thoughts were still swirling in my brain when I walked out into the afternoon sunlight and heard the hidden door close behind me. Then King Priam called out, “Xanthia!”
   There was a patter of bare feet on stone; then she stopped before him and curtseyed. “Yes, Sire?”
   “Show King Stephan out to the games. Take him to his people.”
   “As my king wishes.” She turned to me, “Will you follow me, sire?”
   Now she called me ‘sire’? Maybe it was a sign of the respect she had for King Priam, and because of his respect for me, she respected me. I forced a smile. “Lead on.”
   I followed her back out into the pillared courtyard, and down further steps into a narrow, winding street. Opposite us was one of the peerless walls of fair Illium. She turned left; I followed, trotting to keep up as she started jogging. My hoofbeats echoed through the narrow street and windows opened and Trojans looked down into the shadows at my passing. They were gaunt, thin, and yet their eyes were filled with hope.
   Had the siege been continuous? It couldn’t have been—there was no way the city could have stored supplies for ten years! Absolutely no way at all. Was there?
   Then she stopped, and I stopped behind her. Before us was one of the great gates, its wooden doors open. A few guards were there and she whispered something which I couldn’t hear. He bowed, then motioned us through with his spear. I followed her through a short passageway, past another open gate and onto the fields of Troy.
   Stopping and pointing, she said to me, “Your people are there. Food and drink is available throughout the competitions. I’ll have your room ready for your return.” She curtseyed, turned, and walked back through the gate.
   For a moment I thought about following her, but then decided that my people needed me, and maybe I needed them. I remembered all the stories in which Alexander the Great had been rumoured killed, and he’d had to march in front of the doubters to prove that he was still alive. How could I do any different from the greatest tactician in history?
   I cantered down the dusty road onto the plain. It wasn’t long until a crowd formed, led by the centaurs who galloped up and surrounded me in a happy mob. They let Doryalos through, and I stopped as he bowed deeply before me. All the others did likewise. Even the Trojans and the Achaeans lowered their heads in respect. All except a few anyway, one of whom was black-haired and bearded. He wore finer clothes than any other; if I remembered my Homer aright, he was Agamemnon.
   Clasping Doryalos around the shoulders, I hugged him against me and he hugged me back. We held each other for a second, and then let go simultaneously as the others cheered. His face… dear Hebe, his face! It was lined, scarred, and far, far older than it had been the last time I’d seen him. What's more, I saw that our terribly few survivors—all twenty three of them—were scarred and old. All of them. One had a slight limp.
   That was when I realized, in horror, that the only survivors were those who’d been with Doryalos, or those who’d been with Thaunos. And Peukedymnos.
   Dear Zeus… I closed my eyes and tried to keep control.
   It was Doryalos.
   “Nobody could have done better. I never expected to see you alive again after your duel! The Gods must love you to have saved you.”
   I looked around at them, at their expectant eyes. My old, human, self wanted to yell at them, to scream at them, to tell them that I’d failed. That I’d only lived because I had divine powers. That they should never have listened to me.
   But I remembered what Phillipa had said. The secret King Priam kept.
   This was an age of heroes, and I was one. And heroes did not deny their own deeds.
   “I tried, I really tried…”
   “I know. We all know. But you survived, and we survived.”
   I couldn’t speak. All that death, and still they followed me…
   “But come!” Doryalos yelled. “Today is a day to celebrate life, and to remember the dead! As we wish to be remembered!”
   “As we will be remembered, thanks to you!”
   The surviving centaurs started their chant. You might think it would be weaker now, with so many fewer voices than before, but it was stronger. The Achaeans and Trojans joined in:
   “Stephan! Stephan! Stephan!”
   I couldn’t enjoy it, though. I could feel death coming. It would be soon.
   I knew it would come today.

Chapter 54
-= The Contest =-

   I let the centaurs lead me over to the center of the festivities, to where Ajax, Hector, and other leaders were standing. Agamemnon wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Achilles was wearing a dusty tunic and was drinking wine from a gold tripod.
   He must have seen me as he dropped the tripod to the ground, the wine spilling out. “Stephan!”
   I licked my lips at the ambrosial scent, but managed to keep my voice calm. “Achilles. You look well. But then, I never touched you.”
   “No—but you came closer than most.”
   An old man spoke up, what little was left of his hair gray. “Achilles just won the chariot race.” I think it was old King Nestor.
   Another man snapped back, his voice wry and amused: “Again.” His beard and hair were a rich brown; from the scar on his thigh, I guessed that he was Odysseus.
   I couldn’t help but smile. They were like schoolboys. “I’d offer to race you, but I don’t seem to have a chariot on me.”
   They all laughed. Their laughter was rich, but I could hear a hint of sadness from Odysseus. Then Ajax spoke: “Your men tell me that you have some skill with a bow.”
   I thought about letting it go, but I could feel the weight of Doryalos and the others. How could I let them down? Gesturing at Odysseus, the archer of song and legend, I said: “Perhaps—but I’ve heard that he can shoot an arrow between twelve axes without it touching a single one.”
   “I’ve been said to do that,” Odysseus remarked in a neutral tone.
   “Too bad my bow is not here, and yours awaits your return home.”
   Odysseus’ eyes widened at that, and the others laughed. Except old King Nestor: He looked at me with a new respect.
   Ajax shouted out: “It seems we need to have a contest, then! I’ll fetch a bow, one neither has seen or used before. We’ll set up the twelve axes and see who’s the best.”
   There was a twinkle in Odysseus’ eyes at this. “A fair test. Are you agreeable, King Stephan?”
   “I am.”
   “Well, then!” shouted Achilles. “Let’s make some room and prepare.”
   Ajax called out, “I’ll be back!” and then he turned and jogged away.
   I watched him go and saw that a crowd was forming; it seemed that word was traveling fast. Most of the humans had never seen me other than near death. I could feel their knowledge that Odysseus would win. But at the same time, around me I felt the centaurs’ sure knowledge that I would win.
   Some Myrmidons ran up, pushing their way through the crowd, carrying double headed axes.
   “Let old King Nestor set up the axes, and let him judge!” Achilles yelled.
   “Here! Here!” the crowd shouted.
   I stood there and looked at wily Odysseus, and he looked at me. There was a moment of recognition. Here I thought I'd been so clever in complementing him but setting things up to mention that neither of us had a bow. And I knew that he knew that. Hell, Odysseus had faked insanity to try and stay home! Both of us feared what this contest could turn into… and then the moment passed.
   There was the sound of hammers as the axes were hammered into the dirt. The first one was high, the second one behind it low, leaving a five-centimeter vertical gap between the top and bottom of the blades. The third was high, the fourth low. And so it continued. Old King Nestor oversaw the placement, and checked the alignment. One axe was deemed unsuitable for whatever reason, and quickly replaced.
   There was a voice from the back of the crowd, and everyone—Trojans and Achaeans alike—parted to let Ajax through; he carried a single bow and two quivers, each with twenty arrows. Somehow, Odysseus and I were standing side by side by the time he stopped in front of us. To each of us he handed a quiver, and then he strung the bow, passing it first to me, then to Odysseus. After the inspection we hung the quivers over our backs.
   The bow was painted a deep green to preserve the wood. Varnish didn’t exist yet. It was plain, of okay quality but not the best. But the bow was straight and true, and it would serve.
   “I will let King Stephan have the first shot,” Odysseus said.
   “Thank you.”
   He handed me the bow and I walked over to in front of the row of axes. The blades were low, so low that I couldn’t stand. So I carefully lowered myself onto my horse chest and still had to lean my human body back a bit to get low enough.
   Then, in one smooth motion, I drew the bow and let loose. The arrow vanished through all twelve axes.
   “A true shot!” old King Nestor called.
   The centaurs roared their approval, as did a handful of the Trojans.
   I struggled to my hooves and handed the bow to Odysseus. “Your shot.”
   I watched Odysseus take the bow and kneel, drawing an arrow from his quiver. What had possessed me to think of this? It was at least partially a memory from the Odyssey, when Odysseus returned home; before he slew all his wife’s unwanted suitors, he strung his bow and fired one arrow through twelve axes just like we were doing. But I was afraid…
   Would I die today in a pointlessly renewed battle?
   Old King Nestor called out, “A true shot!” and the Achaeans and most of the Trojans cheered.
   Odysseus stood up and handed me the bow. “Your shot.” No, he wasn’t happy, either.
   I went back to the same place, lay down on my horse chest, drew and fired.
   “A true shot!” old King Nestor shouted out.
   This time only the centaurs cheered.
   Odysseus’ second shot was true. As were both our third, fourth, fifth, and sixth shots.
   As I took the bow from Odysseus for my seventh shot, he whispered to me, “This has to end without a winner.”
   I nodded, and crouched down. “My tenth shot will hit the twelfth axe. You do the same.”
   He nodded grimly.
   My seventh and eighth shots were true, and so were Odysseus’. The mood of the crowd was uncertain; the Trojans and Achaeans might have agreed to set their shared hatred aside for the moment, but it wouldn’t take much of a spark to kindle their mutual animosities into a raging riot…
   Doryalos trotted over and whispered to me, “I don’t like this.”
   “Nor I. If one of us loses, take the others and run for the city; give time for cooler heads to prevail. But Odysseus and I have a plan which I hope works.”
   “I hope so.”
   Both of our ninth shots were also true.
   Whilst waiting for Odysseus to hand me the bow, I whispered to Doryalos: “After my next shot, keep the centaurs calm. Don’t let them start anything. Pass the word.”
   I took the bow and crouched down for my tenth shot, not paying attention to Doryalos’ response. This shot would be harder. There was actually a fair distance between the axes, and to hit the last one would be hard. That was the real contest--Odysseus understood that as well as I. That was partly why I’d picked it—a challenge for him that wouldn’t cause problems. This time I aimed carefully, and in a smooth motion fired…
   …and with a tink, the bronze head hit the twelfth axe!
   “The twelfth axe!” old King Nestor called out.
   All the humans cheered; all the centaurs were still.
   Old King Nestor carefully straightened the twelfth axe.
   Sweating, I stood up and handed the bow to wily Odysseus. He knew what was at stake as well as I did.
   Again he took aim, this time much more carefully than before.
   He pulled and loosed… and with a tink, he, too, hit the last of the twelve axes.
   I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding.
   “The twelfth axe!” old King Nestor called out. “Before the gods, I declare this contest a tie!”
   There was a moment of silence at this odd pronouncement, but both sides knew and respected the wisdom and fairness of old King Nestor.
   Both sides broke out in cheers.
   Odysseus and I looked at each other and sighed in relief.

   There were other games—javelin throws, more chariot races, and single combat. I stayed out of them, pleading that I was still weak from my wounds. Which was a lie, but I didn’t want to risk the truce. After emptying a skin of water—they’d been put out for us centaurs—I made my way over to a cliff near the city overlooking the ocean. I needed to cool off, and I needed to get away.
   Soon my fate would come for me.
   Of course all the centaurs came with me. As I walked, each one made sure to talk to me and thank me. Did they know I was going to die? I wished I could say goodbye, but all that would mean is that they’d all die trying to protect me.
   Is this what Priam lived with?
   Part of me wanted to gallop away, to be alone—to be free of the pressures and wishes of the centaurs around me—but I refused to go. They’d just follow and they, at least, deserved to be with me at the end. So I waited, watching the crashing of the waves below and looking out into the distance. Individuals would trot over, look at me as though to reassure themselves that I was alive. Or they’d stop and ask how I was. Or they’d just thank me.
   The centaurs suddenly clustered defensively around me and I turned and watched old King Nestor walking towards me. I told everybody to let him through, and they grudgingly gave room. He walked up alone, his white hair blowing in the breeze from the sea. Doryalos looked at him, but didn’t make a move to stop him.
   He stood beside me for a while, looking me over. Suddenly he spoke: “Do you think you would have won?”
   “Perhaps…” I shrugged. “Perhaps not. I don’t know. Eventually a sudden gust of wind, or the gods, would have made one of us lose.”
   “Odysseus believes he would have won. He also told me that you suggested that you both hit the twelfth axe.”
   I looked at him for a while before answering, ignoring Doryalos’ startled look at me. Finally I said simply, “I did.”
   “Too many men would have tried to win,” said old King Nestor. "I’m glad you’re not one of them.” He made a deep bow before me, and then turned and walked back towards the crowd.
   Silently I watched him go until Doryalos spoke to me. “I know you could have won.”
   I turned to him. “Maybe—but what would that have achieved? You heard the crowd; if I’d won, we’d all have lost. I have confidence in my skill. I don’t need to prove it.”
   “But you could have won!”
   I sighed. “Doryalos, I’ve taught you about honour and glory. They’re easy to understand. But like I told old King Nestor, there’s always chance in any contest. Odysseus and I knew that we were both tempting the gods. After one arrow, we each knew that we were effectively equal; after that, it was all showmanship. I repeat: If you have confidence in your own skill, you don’t need to prove it.”
   He was silent for a while. A seagull cried over the waves. Finally he spoke in a much wiser voice: “Once again you put our needs over your own.”
   “That, too.”
   More time passed; the sun’s disk touched the horizon. The only sound was the cheers, and the rush of the water against the rocks. Then the faint rumble of wheels grew from behind, and again the herd crowded around me. I turned with Doryalos and watched a single chariot approach. Its sides were deep red, and its only passenger was a blond-haired man in a white tunic, his hair waving in the wind.
   Doryalos recognized him long after I had. Soon all the others knew, and they pressed themselves tighter around me. It was Doryalos who spoke their concern: “I think we should get back. He might try to kill you after you escaped him.”
   “No, he won’t. We’re kin through adoption. He won’t fight me, and I won’t fight him. You worry too much; let him through. Everybody, let him through!”
   I stood and waited for Achilles to tell me about my son.

Chapter 55
-= The Death of Chiron =-

   Achilles’ chariot rattled to a stop a short distance away; his two horses, Balios and Xanthos, bowed their heads to me. They were divine beasts, gifts from Zeus to Achilles. They spoke to me: We offer honour to our sire. And then they ended their bow, shook their manes, and began nibbling on the sparse patches of grass.
   It was touching, really. “Thank you,” I replied with unfeigned gratitude.
   By then Achilles waking his way towards me. He was still wearing what he’d worn when Odysseus and I had our contest, though now it was slightly dirtier and slightly dustier. He was like a small boy come home from the playground.
   “Who were you talking to, King Stephan?” he asked.
   “Your horses. They showed their respect to me just now."
   “You can understand them?”
   “I can understand all horses—it’s a gift. A very long time ago, I was the mother of them all.”
   Achilles frowned. “Chiron told me that Poseidon created the first horse from the sea.”
   “That’s true as far as it goes. But didn’t you ever wonder what became of that first horse, the mare he created?”
   He looked at me, confused. Finally he spoke. “I honour and thank you for the gift you bred for mankind. Though, I admit that I don’t understand how it could have been.”
   I could sense the centaurs listening just as intently as Achilles. I’d told them some of the legends and myths I remembered… but not once had I ever told them of my past.
   “Achilles, I’ve been many things. Ages ago I was human, then Poseidon stole me from my life and made me his creature. Eventually he made me into the first horse, his gift to Kekrops.”
   Achilles looked at me for a while. “There are many I wouldn’t have believed if they’d said that. But you are indeed Chiron’s father: I can remember you telling me this story when I was a child, and back then, it overflowed with wonder and joy. It pains me to see you so full of sorrow.”
   I’d told him? When had I told him? I’d never met him before the battle!
“I’m sorry, Achilles, but it wasn’t me who told you that. I would have remembered.” Unless I’d done it whilst I was insane… could that be it?
   He nodded. “King Stephan, you told me that when I met you at fair Illium, you’d be confused. You asked me to tell you to trust to your fate. In my childhood you told me when, and how, I would meet you again." He hung his head. "I forgot about it until I saw you on the ground, dying.”
   It must have been when I was mad—when else in my life could it have happened, that I didn’t remember anything now? Yet the madness didn’t seem right. And I remembered a phrase from the Delphic prophecy: The second time your first will be.
   That didn’t make sense!
   Even since I’d received that prophecy I’d thought about it. Tried to interpret it differently, tried subtly different meanings for each word. All futile: It had never made any sense. And yet, if what Achilles was saying was true, maybe the impossible was about to happen..?
   But how could it happen!? I refused to believe it.
   I looked down at Achilles. He’d been watching me, watching the turmoil in my face. “Please tell me about my son. How'd he die? I remember… I was there when he was wounded, but then I fled. My mind wasn’t my own.”
   “You were there,” the great warrior said, nodding. “You and Heracles were with him until the end, and it was Heracles who told me the end of the story. He’d unwittingly wounded Chiron with a poisoned arrow. There was no antidote; Chiron was cursed with an eternity of pain because he could not die. Heracles stayed with him. He told me it was because Chiron’s fate was his fault. Like so much other evil that Heracles did, it was an accident. Or maybe a fit of madness.
   “Heracles told me that he helped Chiron wander through Greece—he and you together, that is.”
What had I done in my madness!? “I don’t remember any of this. Please continue; I want—I need—to know.” My face and heart filled with longing to hear of my son’s final days. For an interminably long moment, Achilles stood there, in silence. I was afraid I’d attack him if he didn’t continue. But, after a while, he did speak:
   “For two years they wandered through Greece, Chiron leading the way. They climbed mountains, walked through valleys, dove into streams and lakes. Every herb that Chiron knew of, every cure that Apollo had taught him, Heracles and you helped him try. None of them worked. All the time Chiron grew weaker, thinner. He ate less, he couldn’t keep any food down. He turned feverish. He didn’t know where he was, or what he was doing. That was when the three of you found a hidden valley deep atop a mountain. One end was a massive cliff, streams of water pouring down it from melting snow.
   “Chained to that cliff was a man. An immense man, a Titan. He was young, muscular. It seemed that he could break his chains with ease, yet whenever he tried he failed. Each day an eagle would come, an eagle larger than any Heracles had ever seen. All day that eagle would tear with its beak into the chest of the Titan, ripping through flesh, becoming drenched in blood and gore. Near sunset it would reach its goal and, with its beak, rip out the liver of the Titan and gulp it down, and then fly away.
   “Each night the Titan would heal, and each dawn the eagle would come again.”
   “Heracles tried to fight the eagle, but you restrained him. You said that only Chiron could save the Titan; only Chiron could make the necessary sacrifice.
   “For three days, you watched as Chiron screamed and struggled in the grip of his fever. Chiron had left a drink which was to be given to him only when all else failed. On the third day, you forced it down his throat whilst Heracles held him down. That night his body burned, his flesh scalded whatever touched him. Yet you wouldn’t let go. With dawn the fever faded, and the light of reason shone from Chiron’s eyes for the last time.
   “Only then did you tell him what he had to do: The Titan was Prometheus, the Bringer of Fire. Only the sacrifice of the immortality of an immortal would cause Zeus to free him. Chiron could save both Prometheus and himself. Prometheus would live, and Chiron would finally die.
   “Chiron agreed.”
   Achilles held me in his arms as I sobbed out my pain and horror. I’d known the myth, and yet it hadn’t seemed real; now it did. Chiron was my son. I’d abandoned him, and only in my madness had I known him. I’d been there when he’d died, helped him end his torment, and I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember! Damn you, Poseidon, for making me kill everybody I knew and making me birth Chiron into a hellish death! Damn you, Apollo, for taking him from me! Damn all of you immortals!
   “King Stephan!”
   It was a voice I’d never heard before, and yet there was a hint of familiarity about it. Blinking back tears, I saw an Achean warrior calmly walking south along the cliff towards us. His hair and skin were glistening wet, and he carried only a figure-eight oxhide shield, a javelin, and a sheathed sword.
   Could it be a Greek trick—but no, Achilles looked as confused as I was.
   The centaurs crowded around me and Achilles, with Doryalos interposing his body between me and the stranger.
   “Doryalos, move aside.” He didn’t. “Move aside now!” Grudgingly, he did.
   The man stopped about fifty metres away. A chill terror swept through me, for I knew that my death was here.
   “King Stephan! For what you’ve done, I, Calchas, challenge you! Face me now!”
   Calchas? Why was that familiar? Cassandra’s voice echoed through my mind: Die at the hands of Calchas! And that was followed by a section of the Illiad:

   To slay beside them; but from Ocean’s depths
   Uprose th’ Earth-shaker, Circler of the Earth,
   To Calchas’ likeness and deep voice conform’d…*

   In the Illiad, Calchas was the chief of the Greeks’ soothsayers. Poseidon, also known to the Acheans as ‘the Earth-shaker’, assumed Calchas’ shape to inspire the Greeks to fight to save their ships from Hector’s assault.
   How had I missed this? It must have been Apollo’s curse on Cassandra that made me discard what she’d said. But now I knew:
   Poseidon had finally come for me.

Chapter 56
-= Poseidon =-

   “Calchas!?” Achilles boomed out. “What in the name of Zeus are you doing here? You’re not a warrior!”
   The false Calchas ignored his supposed leader. “I’m waiting, ‘King’ Stephan!” Poseidon spit out.
   Putting my hand on Achilles’ shoulder, I said loudly so that everybody would hear. “That is no man; it is the god Poseidon. It seems he has chosen to face me wearing the form of Calchas.”
   Doryalos burst out, “I won’t let him hurt you! None of us will!”
   I turned to Doryalos and addressed him, and the others. “Doryalos: That is Poseidon, brother of Zeus. If you interfere, you will die—all of you will die! You’ll achieve nothing to help me, and I’ll be powerless to stop him. This is not your fight!”
   Thaunos said quietly: “Stephen, you know none of us will leave you. You can’t make us abandon you.”
   “Listen to yourselves!”
I screamed. “In the battle you could do something, and I thank you for your efforts then, and thank you for your offer now. But you can’t help! None of you can!”
   “Stephan!” Doyalos shouted. “We’ll not leave you! You should know that by now!”
   “You’ll leave me because I’m telling you to, because this time you can’t do anything! Please, please don’t put your deaths on my conscience!” I swept my gaze over them. “Please…”
   The centaurs didn’t move.
   “Will you at least just watch and not interfere?”
   God damn them!
   “Stephan, I won’t let you hide behind them!” Calchas called out.
   Here my destiny was upon me, and all I felt was frustration. I turned to Achilles. “Do you have a sword I can use?”
   He leapt into his chariot and pulled out a sword, still in its scabbard. “I’d be honoured if you’d use mine.” Then he tossed it to me and I caught it, even though Doryalos tried to catch it first.
   With sword in hand, I glared at him: “Doryalos, you can watch. You’re right, you’ve earned that, you’ve all earned that. But..!”
   I swept my gaze over all the centaurs in front of me.
   “I swear to Ares, I will knock each of you out with the flat of this blade one by one, if I have to. Don’t interfere!”
   I looked down at Doryalos and he looked up at me.
   “Please,” I asked.
   Finally Doryalos turned away. “As you wish… my king.” There was little respect in those words, just an acceptance of what would happen.
   Slowly I pushed my way through the crowd. Each one that was in my path looked like he would stand immobile, but at the last minute he slowly and grudgingly moved out of the way.
   The sun had set by now, and the light from a near full moon was glimmering over the field. Nobody on the plain seemed aware of what was about to happen. Was that by accident, or by design? I didn’t know.
   Finally I was out of the crowd of centaurs and facing Poseidon across the grass. Somehow Achilles had managed to stand beside me.
   I turned to look at him. “Achilles: Like I told the others, this is my fight, my destiny. You have your own. Please don’t interfere.”
   “King Stephan, such interference would be wrong. You’ve made your choice, and I respect it. How could it be otherwise?” He reached up and clasped my arm. “May Zeus protect you.”
   “Thank you.” Turning away, I called out, “Poseidon, I’m ready! Why bother to disguise yourself? Everybody knows who you are!”
   Before Poseidon could respond, Achilles burst out, “Is it honour, Poseidon, to fight an undefended man when you bear a shield?”
   Poseidon laughed. “Far be it for me to fight in an unfair manner.” He tossed his shield to the ground and another one, an identical one appeared in his hand. “And since Stephan can’t help his form, I’ll make that fair too.” And then his body flowed like water and grew. Hair burst over him, soft brown hair, patterned like that of a deer. His legs changed, shrunk, until they were the forelegs of a cervine. And his body flowed backward growing larger and larger, until it stopped.
   Before me was a centaur like only one I’d ever seen. His entire body was hairy, not just his horse half. Around what would have been his human half except for the hair, and over his head, was draped a hide covered in owlfeathers.
   Beside me Achilles gasped out, “Stephan?”
   I was speechless. I remembered an instant of sanity in the midst of my madness, remembered seeing Heracles with two other centaurs. One was Chiron… and the other was the one who stood in front of me now.
   “Afraid of me?” Poseidon asked.
   I was beyond speech. As it had so long ago, rage filled me. If this was another form of Poseidon, than he’d been with Chiron. He’d shared my son’s life! If Poseidon had been there, it was he who’d caused Heracles to accidentally hit my son with his poisoned arrow.
   Poseidon had killed my son!

   My vision focused into a tunnel with Poseidon at its end. I would kill him. No matter what it took, I would kill him.
   “I’m waiting, King Stephan.”
   Screaming, I galloped towards him, trampling the shield Poseidon had offered. I held the sword in two hands, one on the hilt, one on the pommel, the better to strike with. Just as I reached Poseidon I swung downward with all my strength, the blade almost chopping his shield in half. He dropped it and danced back.
   “Now,” he said, “it's completely fair.”
   Only part of me heard him. Some of my skill fought its way through my madness and I held the sword in both hands in front of me, its blade in front of my face. It was a short weapon, a common sword of that time. To my strength it was light as a feather. Poseidon held his in a similar manner in both hands.
   Possibly I should have waited, but I was too consumed in rage. Ixion’s blood had consumed me and now it wouldn’t let go. I struck at Poseidon once, from my right to my left, and he held his sword and parried the blow upward. My strength stopped the light blade and I struck from the opposite direction, and again the blow bounced off the angle of Poseidon’s sword. I struck faster and faster, the hungry bronze becoming a gleaming blur. Poseidon deflected every strike with a minimum of motion. I started gasping for breath, my lungs heaving to suck in oxygen so that my body could perform all that I asked of it.
   Poseidon wasn’t even sweating.
   Rather than deflecting my next blow, Poseidon caught my blade on the edge of his. The bronze screamed as, with all my strength, I pressed down. His bronze dug into my bronze. Each blade strained to pierce the other.
   And then it happened.
   With the shriek of tortured souls, both our blades snapped at the point they met. And, before I could react, Poseidon shoved the half-metre stub of his blade into the middle of my chest, and then forced it downward and out the bottom of my crotch in a fountain of blood and gore.
   I dropped the sword Achilles had given me, and staggered backward.
   Poseidon lunged forward and sank his blade again deep into my body, so deep that his hand was thrust into my gaping wound. With his hand on its hilt he slowly started to wiggle it around, back and forth, left and right.
   Screaming I collapsed onto my horse chest and he fell on top of me, his face against mine, his sword still deep in my horse chest, its tip moving.
    My body tried to heal, but it couldn’t. As when Achilles had left his sword in my body—the same one he lent me!—my healing powers could not overcome a burnished bronze blade.
   And, oh Zeus, the pain! The pain was blinding, it was sparkling pulses of red and purple. A drenching rain of hot lava that swept through my entire body, and then turned back on itself. Each time I exhaled, blood gurgled out of my mouth; each time I inhaled, I felt more and more liquid fill my lungs. His blade found its way to my heart, which struggled to keep beating, and then stopped.
   And I couldn’t die.

   The only thing I could sense was pain. Endless torment. Torment with no end. Is this what Chiron had gone through?
   A voice, a coolness, penetrated my brain. I can end this, Stephan.
   I grasped at the hope, held the voice to me. An end to the pain. That was all that mattered. But then I recognized the voice: Poseidon..!
   “No…” I whispered, and more blood dribbled down my chin.
   The same voice, the same coolness in my brain so that I could think. Stephan, you have to end this. When I was here before, I ended it!
   The coolness vanished, consumed by unending burning pain. My heart healed, it beat once, and then the blade twisted into it again and it jumped, and stopped. Blood clogged my veins, electric pulses of agony swept up and down my spine. The pain swept all before it until there was only pain. It was the entirety of my existence. All I felt was pain. An eternity of pain. Pain that never ended—
   And then the cool hope of the voice: Please, Stephan, let me end this! We have to finish the cycle.
   It took a moment for me to figure out what was going on. Anything, anything to end the pain. No, not to Poseidon. But the pain… “Save… save them…”
   The centaurs?
the same cool voice asked.
   I held to it like a drowning man to his rescuer. “Save them… save them… and then… then you can end… end this…”
   I will,
the wonderful coolness stated. You must give me your immortality. Like Chiron.
   Chiron… He’d killed Chiron… I couldn’t…
   And then the pain was back. A never-ending sea of agony. It filled my world, it tore at my mind…
   And then the coolness. Please, Stephan. For all of us. For yourself. Give it to me. Let me save them!
   The coolness, oh the wonderful coolness! “Yes! Any… anything!”
   And I did it.
   My life, my soul, my divinity: All of it poured out of my maimed body, and some part of me went along with it. I felt Poseidon’s mind—I felt my mind—Poseidon was me! And beyond him, beyond a kind of psychic wall in his brain, a totality of knowledge. I glimpsed just the surface of it, and it was a cold, bitter thing. It was the knowledge of everything that ever had happened, that ever would happen. And somewhere within that knowledge was a cold, concealed desperation; Poseidon knew he was trapped, knew absolutely that he could never escape.
   Call it sensory overload; it was worse than the pain that had consumed me, so I fled. I ripped myself from my dying body, and my soul fled away in blind terror. Far, far away. As far away as I could get…

   Round noble Stephan’s pyre the people pressed:
   When all were gathered round, and closely thronged.
   First on the burning mass, as far as spread
   The range of fire, they poured the ruddy wine,
   And quenched the flames: his centaurs then his friends
   Weeping, the hot tears flowing down their cheeks,
   Collected from the pile the whitened bones;
   Then in a grave they laid it, and with care
   With stone in ponderous masses covered over;
   And raised a mound, helped by all on every side,
   Greeks and Trojans and Centaurs round
   The mound erected, back they turned; and all
   Assembled duly, shared the solemn feast.

   And so passed Stephan, King of the Centaurs.

*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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