The archer aimed and released the string. The arrow winged from the battlements like a snake darting to kill.
An injured warrior let out a cry of pain and looked to the sky as if wanting to whisper something to the Gods. He fell to the ground, raising dust. He stayed still; around him, countless warriors were involved in a big battle that took place at the plains beyond a fortified city, under the hot midday sun.
When I woke up from a sleep I couldn’t remember falling into, I was in a dark place. Shadows moved around scattered funeral pyres.
I looked above me, but couldn’t see the Constellations of the Gods, only darkness. I rose to my feet and took a quick look around. From the rocky walls I realized I was in a big cavern that descended into the earth. The silence was unnatural: around me were warriors. They fought each other without making the smallest noise, neither they nor their weapons and armors. Out of instinct, I looked around for my shield and sword. I found them where I had woken up, along with my helmet. I picked them and began my descent to the only entrance I could find into the half-light, trying to avoid the silent warriors.
Two of them approached, their shields raised, their swords high. They attacked fiercely, muttering curses and insults I couldn’t hear, but only imagine from the expressions on their faces. I deflected and dodged their blows; I counterattacked and sent them to the ground with two quick slashes on their unprotected necks.
Night; outside the Temple of Asclepios, a man waited. He would stroll nervously near the entrance, occasionally kicking some rock, watching it fly.
From time to time he would look towards the entrance, where the glow of torches burning on walls could barely be seen.
He could hear speeches from the temple; also, the strong heave of a woman, which sometimes became crying or a wail of pain, until it subsided again. Each time it got louder, the man would raise his head and look towards the temple entrance, unmoving. Afterwards, when it stopped, he would bend his head again and keep on with his nervous walk.
At some time, as the man watched the full moon that silvered the roof and pillars of the temple, the woman’s wails started once more, this time louder than ever. The man turned to the temple and moved to enter, but a priest at the entrance stopped him. The man tried to look behind the priest’s back but only saw the dark antechamber. Disappointed, he turned around and walked down the temple steps again, shuddering each time the woman cried louder.
Suddenly the woman let out a long scream and then stopped. Another kind of cry was heard.
An infant’s cry.
The man smiled and ran up the steps again. The Archpriest of Asclepios came out smiling and murmured something to him. The man’s smile became wider as he turned his gaze to the sky and raised his hands high, mumbling words of gratitude. Some time later more priests appeared at the entrance, holding a baby wrapped in white, thick clothing. The man took it in his lap and looked at him.
He was sleeping.
The man thanked the Gods once more as he accepted the priests’ congratulations.
A thought came and left:
“…to take his place when the time comes!”
The man looked back at his son’s face. His smile was a bitter one.
I kept on descending in the cave, trying to make out who fought whom and why pyres without corpses burnt amidst their silent battlefield. The emblems on their shields seemed familiar, as did the aigrettes on their helmets.
Images came to my mind:
A big battle around a fortified city. I am attacking the city’s defenders; many men follow my banner. With spears and shields we charge as volleys of arrows fall on us from the loopholes.
I carried on. Further below, some warriors from both sides had formed a procession. They moved without a sound, between the fires and those still fighting, to the way I was headed. I followed them, curious. I heard water flowing in the distance and was surprised; it was the only sound I had heard since I woke up, except my own thoughts.
At least I wasn’t deaf.
“Pileas,” said the old man to the boy beside him, “get Ahos and go gather the sheep at the other slope before they get too far from the rest of the flock. We have to go back to the pen before it starts raining.”
The boy looked at him in disbelief. The tall mountain to their left was clouded, but the clouds were white and thin, no wind blew, and the spring shone, warming his face and hands that protruded from his fleece. “Father,” he said, “are you certain it will rain today? I see no rainclouds and no wind blows.”
“As certain as the path of Sun’s chariot, my son. Do what I told you.”
“Aho, come here!” said the boy, clapping his hands and a white shepherd dog with big, green eyes ran to his side. The boy patted him on the head and the dog licked his hands, wagging his tail.
“Let’s go, Aho! With me, Aho!” said the boy and ran to the sheep, the dog barking as he followed.
The old man smiled and rose from the rock he was sitting on. He wrapped himself in his fleece and took his cane. “Prrrr,” he yelled at the sheep, guiding them down the mountain as he limped. He felt a warm breeze on his face. The clouds around the mountain thickened and the rays of the sun suddenly weren’t as warm as before.
A while later, as they drank milk from wooden cups, inside a cave, a spring storm raging outside and the sheep, deeper inside the cave, blatting with every thunderclap, the child said: “You always know when it’s going to rain, father?”
“Some years on the mountain can see more than a pair of eyes, Pileas,” said the old man, pointing outside. “And the experiences of a man can change the way he sees the world and other people.”
“Every time you do this, father, you make me believe that Apollo himself, or perhaps Athena Pallada gave you this gift,” the child said. “And every time I tell you this, you say…”
“…that the Gods have more important things to do than glance on our fate and that of our flock,” the old man continued. “And so it is, Pileas. They have their own worries and we have ours. And each one of us must do what he wants most with his life, yet live it as they commanded.”
“To become a great, glorious warrior,” said the child in excitement, wielding an invisible sword, slashing the air in front of him, “to rule over men and be remembered for ever!”
“Those are ramblings of rhapsodians during festivals, my son,” his father answered, playing with his cane. “So that we run to war, spill our blood for a piece of land, or slaves, or fortune and glory.”
“Better than herding sheep forever!” the child snapped. “I wasn’t born to be --” Immediately he lowered his head. “Sorry father, I was disrespectful.”
“A warrior’s pride and honor is great, when he marches wearing his shiny armor and the shield with the city’s episemon ,” answered the old man, “but when he’s brought back dead, on that very shield, all friends and next of kin cry and wish he had never gone to war. And when the pyre eats his flesh, what remains?” He grabbed some dirt from the ground and let it run through his fingers. “Ashes. A life he didn’t live. The children he didn’t make, or those he left as orphans.”
“But he goes to Olympus!” the child said lively. “He appears before the Gods, and Zeus smiles at him, and Ares takes him in the army that will fight the enemies of Hellas when the world ends!”
“Where did you hear such nonsense?” the old shepherd asked in anger. “The world ends when you die. All the dead go to Hades, a dreary place where you live as a shade, without hope if you were unjust to your fellowmen, or a bit better if you weren’t. That is the end of men.”
“You say all this so that I become a shepherd too, father,” said the child sharply, “but the gymnast that saw me yesterday at the palestra said that I was made to be captain, general even, should I learn the ways of war!”
“If that’s the destiny the Fates weaved for you, why not,” the father answered, watching the ground, making patterns on it with his cane. “And since you like war so much, let me tell you a story.”
The cave walls opened more as I descended, until I saw the banks of an underground river. The waters were turbulent as they crossed the cave, foamy, making a deafening noise; they came out of an opening to my right, only to be lost, falling into darkness from a waterfall to my left. At the other side was a small boat that, undisturbed by the strong current, unloaded warriors. They got off and kept on walking until they were lost, like shadows in darkness.
The procession had reached the riverbank; they waited, ever so silent, for the ferryman to get back. As I tried to go near them, a broadshouldered warrior stood up near a pyre and came to me, unspeaking, drawing his sword. I showed him my blade too, but shuddered when I saw that his eyesockets had no eyes, his head no ears. I felt an inexplicable wave of fear paralyzing me and barely managed to parry his first blow. Our blades sparked as they made contact and the images came back:
Outside the city was none but me. Facing the main gate, I challenged this man to a duel. He watched me from the battlements. After a while the gate opened; he came out.
I raised my sword and charged. My opponent blocked easily and pushed me back with his shield, sending me tumbling on the cold ground. I quickly got to my feet and charged again, landing my sword heavily on his shield. He backed.
I weighed my spear and threw it at him with force; he barely avoided it. He threw his; it deflected on my shield and fell away.
We both drew swords; we measured each other by the eye.
We measured each other.
We threw the shields away.
We threw the shields away.
Our swords attacked and defended, rising and falling with swiftness; minor wounds scarred our bodies.
Our swords attacked and defended, rising and falling with swiftness; minor wounds scarred our bodies.
In front of the gate he defended, my opponent fell dead, as I slashed him on the shoulder, cutting him down to his heart.
In front of the river’s shore, my opponent fell as I slashed him on the shoulder, cutting him down to his heart.
I looked at his corpse for a moment; I felt sorrow for something I had done, but couldn’t remember.
I dragged his corpse with my chariot outside his city’s walls, and the dry land got painted with his blood. As I whipped the horses, I screamed I would pluck out his eyes and cut off his ears and tongue so that they know in Hades that he was Hector, slain by the divine Achilles.
In Hades. Slain. But then…?
I watched the shadows vanishing in the darkness across the river.
Panic had me. I ran to the shore. The boat had moored; some warriors were already boarding. The ferryman did something to each one’s eyes. He then showed them where to sit. They sat. Their faces were sad.
I pushed some warriors aside and approached the boat. I looked at the ferryman. I couldn’t see his face under the hood of his grey robe. He held his oar without trouble; his boat stood still even though the river current flanked it with force.
I looked at the men standing ashore. On each one’s eyes were two coins.
No doubt anymore.
I screamed Zeus’s and Hera’s names, as Charon’s boat slowly floated to the other side of Acheron. I called my father, too, Pileas, and my mother, Thetis, to come to my aid. I screamed in anger and my screams drowned inside the river’s wild waters. I wished I had never become a warrior. I wished I had lived some more; I dropped my weapons to the ground, my helmet in the river.
I suddenly felt something in front of one of my eyes. I tried to rub it and my fingers touched cold metal.
“No. No, I’m not dead! I’m Achilles! I’m immortal!” I screamed, but not even a whisper reached my ears.
My feet couldn’t hold me any longer. The last thing I felt as the cave around me vanished, were Acheron’s freezing waters engulfing me.
“No, father, things didn’t happen like that! No rhapsodian ever said such things about Achilles,” Pileas said, angry.
“Of course not,” the old shepherd said. “Because he’d starve! Nobody wants to hear about warriors cowering in the face of death. They prefer to be told stories about fearless men sacrificing themselves in the name of the Gods and their city and earning glory about that. But, I tell you again, there is no glory when you die!”
“So it’s better for me to spend my life tending to sheep, father?” asked the boy, pointing at them.
“Better to tend the sheep, than to eat the ground,” answered the shepherd, pointing at it.
“Better to die young and strong, in battle, than weak and sick on a bed!” said the boy, taking a gallant stance.
“When you bleed, mortally wounded, lying amongst your dead comrades-in-arms, you see things differently, but by then it’s too late,” the old man said with an indifferent look on his face. “You then begin your descent into the shadows.”
“Whatever you say, you can’t change my mind, father,” said the boy, slicing the air with a piece of wood.
“Of course not,” the father answered, looking the rain that fell outside like a horde of locusts on wheat.
“So let me finish with my story, until the rain stops and we go to the village. What do you say?”
“Fine,” the boy answered, shaking his shoulders.
I opened my eyes. I could see only with one.
A man over me, coin between his fingertips, muttered a prayer. His eyes widened as I moved. “B-by Zeus! Divine Achilles, you are al-“
My hands clenched his neck. He tried to pull away but couldn’t; his face turned blue as he tried to breathe. When he stopped kicking, I almost saw his soul leaving his body and float for a while under the dark red sky, before taking the path to the place I had just come back from.
Noone must know.
I threw the coin off my eye and tried to stand up. My heel was killing me.
Around me, under the first stars of one more night of the tenth year of the war, were corpses of Greeks and Trojans; smoke came from funeral fires that had eaten their share of men. The smell of burnt flesh filled my nostrils.
Men from both armies were gathering their dead and stacked them for burning. I crawled and hid between the corpses and the soft shadows of the sunset before they could see me. I broke the arrow that should have taken my life and patched the wound as best as I could.
Looking at the moon that started to shed its light over the living and the dead, I felt great shame about what I had done; I thanked the Gods, however, for giving my life back, and swore not to waste it. I swore on the same waters that had brought me back from the shadowy land where I had left my pride.
“So Achilles lived?” asked the boy in an ironic tone.
“He lived and made a family, as every man should,” said the shepherd.
“And what about the songs?”
The old man frowned. “Who knows.”
“Who told you this story?”
“It’s a long time since then, but this story passes, just like those of the rhapsodians, from mouth to mouth. That’s how I heard it.”
“Well, I’d like to become like him,” said the boy with a serious face. “Oh, not like the one you spoke of!” he added. “Like the other one, the true Achilles, the hero of Hellas!"
The old man shook his head. “Before you become like him, though, and before you lead your Myrmidons to great battles, can you drive the sheep back to the pen, now that the rain has stopped?” he said after a while. “My foot kills me when the weather changes, you know that.”
“Of course, father,” said the boy, looking outside. “Will you be late? Should I get Ahos?”
“Isn’t he your dog?”
“Aho! Come! Let’s go!”
Six feet and a tail ran outside the cave; the shepherd led the sheep outside and followed them, limping. He saw the boy and his dog driving the sheep down the mountain swiftly.
His face darkened as the sky cleared.
Many years ago, in a sacred chamber, a man looked at a priestess. For a while, they didn’t talk or move at all.
“You came to me dressed as a traveler from a faraway place,” finally said the priestess, pouring red dust around her. Immediately, thick, brusque aromatic smoke spread around her, coming out from a pit under her seat. “But the gaze of Apollo sees under your clothes, into your soul, and back in your past!”
Her eyes widened and then turned upside down in their sockets. She began to move back and forth on her seat, into the Oracle’s Adytum. The man stood still inside his thick clothing as his eyes pierced her through the hood of his woolen robe.
“I see… I see a man taking off his armor!” the priestess raved. “…he…he…puts it on a dead man without a head and pushes an arrow into his heel! He leaves the battle naked, a shield-dropper!”
“I didn’t come to you about what happened,” said the man, “but about what will come to be!” The priestess ignored him.
“This… this man has the gaze of Charon over him, his… his soul in the shadow forever, rest… from the sorrows of life… never to come!”
The man shook his head in disappointment and turned to leave.
“He’ll live… for many generations… ashamed, undying, like… a dead amongst… the living!” said the priestess. “And only then… will the time come… to wash his shame away, when…”
The man’s attention turned back on the priestess.
“When, Pythea?” he said. “When?”
Pythea shook, head to toe, writhened as if she was going to vomit. “…after many… failures… and sorrows… the Gods will give him… give him a son… a son to take his place when the time comes!”