Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Troy belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and Wolfgang Petersen/David Benioff/Homer.
The port city of Trachis was a sea-drift of stone and wood.
Odysseus stood close to the prow of his ship, watching the people ashore. At his side was Nestor, chief councilor to the Mycenaean Agamemnon, and he, too, watched the city they approached, a deep furrow in his brow.
High on a hill, from the roof of a many-columned temple, the banners of the Thessalian army caught and surged in the wind.
Trachis did not look like a city conquered by war. The docks had, it seemed, been ravaged by fire, but from all accounts that had been the work of the fleeing Phthiotians. The Thessalians themselves were said to have inflicted the least harm to the city that they possibly could. From what Odysseus could see, even at that distance, the roads were clear, there was no debris, and the market was as busy with people, citizens and soldiery and priests alike, as any other city's in peacetime. Few buildings had been badly scorched in the fire, and none of them had been broken or demolished.
Missing were the other, more unmistakable signs of war. Where were the processions of slaves, taken as the rightful spoils of battle? Where were the Thessalian troops, who by all rights should have been pillaging the city, as any subjugating army did? Odysseus could hear no wailing of women, no weeping of children. There were no bodies, no pyres, no blood-stained sites of massacre.
The people who worked now to rebuild the docks were tall and unbowed, untroubled by whips or swords. He heard them laughing and singing as they labored, and here and there were women, matrons and girls in decent dress and manner, going to and fro, carrying water and wine to the toilers. There, a team of asses dragged a load of cut timber and stone blocks to a half-reconstructed pier, and in another place, a group of boys sifted slowly through the ashes of a burnt square, digging out shards of pottery and metal to put in the baskets under their arms, preparing the way for spades.
From somewhere higher in the city, a horn blew, long and loud. Many heads turned, looked up, but there was not a single shout, not the slightest alarm, at the troop of Thessalian spear-bearers who had appeared from between two of the warehouses, a detachment of ten. Several of the workers even lifted their arms in salute as they passed.
Nestor made a noise in his throat. “They spoke the truth then, the Phthiotians! Their own people welcomed the Thessalians when they came.”
Odysseus was distracted. He was staring at the small number of ships already moored at the piers, most the poorer vessels of fishermen, but with one, imposing exception. “Look there, Nestor. Do you see those sails?”
Nestor's breath hissed as he inhaled through his teeth. “Trojan sails! Here!”
Odysseus frowned. The Trojans had beaten them, then.
When they finally docked, the spray of the water cold and salty in their faces, the sailors shouting and cursing at each other, the Thessalian squadron was already assembled and waiting. Odysseus did not miss the fact that they left their backs open to the civilians working behind them or that they stood at attention, in formation, as trained men did.
The Thessalians were dressed completely alike. They each wore a tall helm, crests of stiff, black-dyed horsehair arching over their heads from front to back. Cloaks, as red as their banners, hung from their shoulders by wheel-shaped silver clasps. Every single one of them was at least a head taller than Odysseus himself.
They did not wear armor. Around his waist, every man wore a belt of black pleats, and on their legs they wore black greaves from knee to ankle. Otherwise they were bare-skinned, naked at the arms and chest. One one arm was a shield, huge, half the hight of a man, and round, the same black metal as their greaves and helms, and on the face of it was inscribed the same wheel that was the shapes of the clasps at their necks. On their belts were swords, sheathed in black, and in their other hands they gripped spears, the hafts of black wood.
They stood, scarlet and black, their horsehair crests and woolen cloaks rippling in the sea breeze, and Odysseus felt as though he looked upon the Makhai themselves.
“Hail, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, and Nestor, emissary of the Mycenaean king,” said one of them, and Odysseus saw that this man wore on the brow of his helm a small wheel of silver, which none of the others had. “You are awaited.”
They reformed then, with an efficient, effortless correctness to their movements and postures that made Nestor's breath catch, to form two columns of four. The captain, for what else could he be, stood at the head, where Odysseus and Nestor were obviously meant to walk, and directly behind them was the standard-bearer, who was unfurling a red banner wrapped about a black pole.
The guard contingent Odysseus and Nestor had brought with them, men both Ithacan and Mycenaean, were made to walk beside the Thessalians, and Odysseus could see how uneasy they were, how intimidated. All of Greece had heard of the Thessalian shock troops, who called themselves the Dogs of War, and who were said to be the personal corps of the Thessalian royal house. For two years, stories of the bloody triumphs of the Dogs had been the stuff of nightmares for the southern Greeks, and Odysseus was in his heart dismayed to see how outclassed his own picked men obviously felt beside such warriors, as if they were in the presence of Myrmidons.
They were guided by the captain deeper into the city, going from the docks straight into the markets, where Odysseus saw not the devastation or starving beggars of war times, but the hectic life of a city of trade. Phthiotians and Thessalians haggled and bartered and shouted without any more enmity than that inherent in money changing hands, and with them mingled the Greeks of many different regions: Aetolians, Phocians, even Epirans and Macedonians.
Odysseus had been keeping his eyes open as he walked, and the farther they went, the more peculiar he felt at everything he saw. Finally, unable to keep his growing suspicions to himself, he turned to Nestor and murmured, “Does nothing seem strange to you?”
Nestor looked ill-tempered, but before he could answer, the captain of the War Dogs himself said, “My lord, perhaps you notice that we have no slaves?”
Nestor's mouth opened, but he could not speak. Odysseus slowed, almost to a stop, barely noticing when the captain adjusted the pace of the column to match him. He was staring around, at the crowds that filled the market, and slowly he began to realize that was the captain said was true.
“There are no slaves,” he said in something of a daze.
None. There were men aplenty, and the usual differences between rich men and poor, but he did not see a single man behaving in a manner fit for slaves, or any man treating another as a master would conduct himself toward his chattel. The women walked among the men, head high and eyes bold, as free women did, and all the children he saw were obviously accompanying their parents, or hurrying on some errand of their own, but none of them with the beaten air of servitude.
“We Thessalians do not believe in slavery,” said the captain, and there was manifest pride in his tone. “Our princess would not tolerate it.”
“Not tolerate it?” said Nestor, and his voice quivered with outrage and disbelief. “A woman
Abruptly, the captain stopped.
He turned, his cloak cracking in the wind, and Odysseus saw that the man's eyes had narrowed, become flat with hostility.
“I beg you to watch your tongues, my lords,” said the captain, and his voice was anything but servile. “We Thessalians will suffer no insult to our princess. Not from anyone.”
Odysseus felt more than saw how the other Dogs tensed, how they shifted their weights. Belligerent glares seemed to burn on the back of his neck. His own men, the Ithacans, glanced about uneasily, aware of the sudden possibility of violence, and the Mycenaeans were staring worriedly at their own king's emissary.
Nestor's jaw worked as he tried to swallow his rage. He was a chief of the Mycenaean king's court, and unused to such behavior from a lowly soldier. Odysseus himself was shocked at the temerity of this captain of War Dogs, but this was not Ithaca or Mycenae. This was Trachis, a city conquered by the Thessalians, who did not believe in slavery. Certainly anything was possible.
“I thank you, captain,” said Nestor at last, his composure regained. “I will certainly endeavor to remember where I am.”
Not an apology, but the captain obviously had not really expected one. Turning on his heel, he resumed the march, now at a stride, and the column was on its way once again.
He was a tall, dark man, this captain, probably an Aetolian. Odysseus’s eyes slid from the black crest of the tall helm to the shoulder, where the cloak had pulled back to reveal the skin when he turned. There, faded and weathered into nothing but a ridge of paler flesh, was what remained of a slaver’s brand.
From the market, where a single other detachment of ten War Dogs stood guard beside the weights in front of a shrine of Athena, Odysseus and Nestor were led to a broad, open square, where they found a third squadron of Dogs in ranks of stony silence before what had once been a temple. Here their captain exchanged hails with another captain who guarded the entrance of the temple, and the War Dogs who accompanied them separated to join their brothers in the square.
The captain addressed Odysseus and Nestor. “King Odysseus, Lord Nestor, your men must remain here. You may take one man each with you into the temple, but no more.”
Nestor hung back as if he would protest, but Odysseus named his man without hesitation and stepped forward. This forced Nestor to follow his example, and then the captain led them up the temple steps to an open bronze door, before which stood the second officer.
“My lords,” said this captain, and stood aside for them to enter. Odysseus went ahead, Nestor on his heels, then their men, and the Dogs of War watched them go.
The hall of the temple was wide and generous, with torches burning on the walls between columns. The altars that lined the hall had been stripped of their icons and statuary, and stood bare as the men walked by. Whatever god or goddess this temple had once been dedicated to, it had been denuded of all its trappings, so that Odysseus could no longer say what deity it was meant to serve.
He turned to ask the captain why the temple had been emptied, and discovered that the man was not there. The captain had apparently remained behind at the door, letting the king and the councilor go on their own, and Odysseus and Nestor were now alone in the dark temple.
“They cannot mean to kill us,” whispered Nestor. “We are emissaries. It would be lawless.”
“Yes,” said Odysseus, but he remembered the look in the captain's eyes when he had spoken against Nestor's contempt of their princess.
The strip of the temple did not sit well with Nestor. “What madmen,” he said as they walked. “To say they do not believe in slavery when all men practice it, and then to desecrate a temple of the gods. Triopas has lost his mind.”
“And conquered half of Greece,” said Odysseus.
Nestor moved closer, lowering his voice. “You do not really believe what they say? About the Thessalians and their so-called princess?”
“I don't know what I believe,” said Odysseus. “That's why I let Agamemnon persuade me into coming.”
What did he believe? That the gods had sent Triopas a daughter whose hair burned like the fire of the sun and whose eyes glowed like the green of sea-light? That she had with her own hands made of a broken, toppling country an empire of scarlet-cloaked men warriors and bright-eyed women archers? That Triopas, who had once nearly driven his kingdom into the ground, now sat on the throne of half of Greece, his witch-wife at his side?
The Thessalians had begun their campaigns nearly three years ago, first driving out the bandits and raiders who harried their own countryside, and then repulsing an incursion by Guneus of Cyphus. Odysseus remembered hearing of those battles, remembered how quickly the news had traveled even to Ithaca, at the edge of the world. He remembered hearing when Tricca and Ithome fell, when Macaon perished in the battle for Oechalia and his brother, Podalirius, swore on his knees to be a subject of Thessaly. He remembered the first time he had heard of the Dogs of War, from the war between Phylace and Cyphus where Guneus was killed.
Above all, he remembered hearing, from the refugees and wounded soldiers who fled south, of the golden-haired girl of Thessaly. He remembered being told, by old and young, warrior and citizen, of the girl who called herself the daughter of Triopas, king of Thessaly, and fought at the fore of his armies. He remembered hearing how beloved she was of her people, how her men followed her without question and the Dogs of War worshiped her as if she were a living goddess.
He remembered how he had burned to see this Daughter of Thessaly, even before Agamemnon had asked him to sail to Trachis, the latest city to fall, as his go-between.
Trachis was far to the south of Thessaly, on the coast between Phthiotis and Locris. Delphi was only a few more leagues down the spine of the world, and then it was the border of Mycenae. Thessaly's armies had come dangerously close, too close for Agamemnon's peace of mind, and everyone knew that war was brewing between those two wolves. It was only a matter of when. Agamemnon did not want it to be now—he was deep in negotiations with Sparta, helping his brother Menelaus to gain the hand of Helen, whose dowry was a kingdom. Once his brother was on the throne of Sparta, then he would turn his attention to Thessaly.
For now, he sent emissaries. He sent Nestor, to see to Mycenae's interests.
He sent Odysseus, to stall for time.
Odysseus had no illusions as to his worth to Agamemnon. While he was useful he would be honored, and when he was not he would be consumed. That was Agamemnon's way. He had never expected anything else, and had determined early to only use him in return.
But even he, in his palace on Ithaca, had heard of this girl they called Kore, the Maiden. He had heard of her gold-bright hair, her sea-green eyes. He had heard how those conquered kings and princes, even as they fell to their knees to proffer up their cities and scepters, had looked into her face and been consumed by love.
And he had been unable to resist.
At the end of the hall they traversed, they came to a second entrance, two doors of bronze that had been thrown wide. From within came the muted voices of men, and Odysseus’s ears marked the distinct dialect of Troas. The light was brighter there, and Odysseus hung back for a moment, while they were still in the dark.
“Do not insult the Thessalians,” he said quietly. “Whatever else the Thessalian princess is, she is beloved by her people, by her armies. Agamemnon will not honor you for bringing war down on his head now.”
Nestor’s lips whitened with strain. The wisest of Agamemnon’s councilors, he was also a notorious woman-hater, with a grudge against any female in a position of power or influence. Odysseus questioned the logic of sending such a man to the war court of a princess, but Agamemnon had not deigned to explain his choices to the Ithacan king.
“I will watch my tongue,” said Nestor caustically, and Odysseus could do nothing more than shrug.
The room that lay beyond the bronze doors was large and airy, with a gap between wall and ceiling where the sea air was allowed to waft through thick, carved stone columns. In the center was an altar, also bare and stripped of ornamentation, the fire-blackened stone cold and charred, unlit. The only light was that of braziers, placed in the four corners of the chamber.
Before the altar, his arms crossed over his massive chest, was the largest man Odysseus had ever seen.
Bald, scrape-bearded, this giant was naked but for the black pleats of his belt and the sandals on his feet. The buckle of the belt was a silver wheel, larger and finer than any of the wheels Odysseus had noticed so far, and it was the only metal he bore, for he was also unarmed.
The giant saw Odysseus and Nestor the moment they entered the chamber. The slight lowering of his head, slow and calculated, was not quite a bow, not quite a nod, and made Odysseus reconsider thinking the man a simple brute.
To one side of the room, standing with their own allotted man each, were two men. They were both tall, young, dark of hair and eye, and wore intricate, striking bronze armor in the Trojan style. They had turned upon hearing the entrance of more men into the chamber, and Odysseus saw the beardless youth lean close to the older man, to whom he bore some resemblance, and the name Odysseus
form on his lips.
On the other side of the room stood three figures, the sight of whom made a strangled, gasping noise escape Nestor’s throat.
Tall, dark, clad in white, the Egyptians cut uncanny figures in the dim gloom of a stripped Greek temple. They stood together near one of the braziers, their backs to the fire, so that they were lit from behind like ghosts of the underworld. They seemed to be made completely of large, black eyes, rimmed in their black kohl
, and the gleam of gold at their necks and wrists.
With them were three tall black men, Nubians carrying spears, and one smaller fellow with the look of a Cretan—the interpreter?
Otherwise, the chamber was empty. A smaller door in the far wall, behind the giant, led presumably into the inner sanctums of the temple, but this door was closed.
“Gods above and below,” whispered Nestor. “Agents of Pharaoh!”
Odysseus felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Had the news of Thessaly’s ascendancy reached so far so quickly? What did this mean?
Nestor’s unthinking exclamation had carried. The giant’s lips split in a leonine grin, and the Egyptians themselves smiled slightly. The Trojans alone remained silent and unmoved.
No one spoke. Odysseus exchanged looks with Nestor.
“Forgive me,” said Odysseus at last, his voice dry, “I seem to have forgotten the protocol for approaching a commanding princess.”
At least they smiled, even the colossus, though Nestor frowned and gave him an ugly look.
“Kore, the daughter of Triopas, king of Thessaly, walks the battlefield,” growled the giant, and his was a voice that would not have been incongruous to a Titan’s throat. “We await her.”
It seemed that this was news to the others as well, for the Trojans and Egyptians alike looked, mouths opening at the giant.
“The battlefield?” said the younger Trojan. “Trachis has surrendered.”
The giant bared his teeth. “But not Alope.”
A dead silence filled the chamber. Alope was only a few miles north and east along the coast, the second city of Phthiotis to Trachis’s third.
Trachis had fallen only days before. It was true, then—the stories that the armies of Thessaly were taking cities by the day.
“Alope,” said the younger Trojan, almost to himself. “Alope! That leaves only—”
“Phthia,” said Nestor, as if he could not help himself, his voice faint.
Phthia. Home of the Myrmidons. Of Peleus the Argonaut.
“She is insane,” said Nestor.
Odysseus winced. The Trojans turned to stare at Nestor, and Nestor’s own men gaped with alarm. The Egyptians’ eyes widened the way cats’ eyes widened.
The giant only smiled.
“Two cities in five days,” said the older Trojan, speaking for the first time. “Does Thessaly want an empire?”
“Many do,” said Odysseus, though the question had not been intended for him. “Though I suppose such ambitions are beneath a man of your caliber, Hector of Troy.”
The two men who backed him and Nestor gasped, eyes growing wide as they turned to stare the Trojans. Nestor himself only glanced, once and hastily, from Odysseus to the Trojans.
Hector smiled. “And over the head of a man of your state, Odysseus of Ithaca.”
Odysseus bit his tongue to keep his face stern. A knife in the kidneys! The man had teeth.
“Well, that’s true,” said Odysseus. “I like to keep my armies small. When I try to count higher than fifty, I get dizzy.”
Hector’s grin was real and unfeigned, and the youth beside him, whom Odysseus had decided must be Paris, laughed openly.
The Egyptians were here. The Trojans were here. Could it be possible that the whole world now trembled before the coming of the Thessalians?
Odysseus studied Hector. A tall, well-made man, with the black hair, black beard, and black eyes of a young Priam. This was the warrior whom all the Greeks called the greatest hero of Troy? Whom even Agamemnon the Mycenaean respected and hesitated to confront, at least while he did not yet have Sparta in his grasp?
“Anyway, what are a couple of boys like you doing in Phthiotis?” he asked, intentionally taking a paternal tone. “Shouldn’t you be off chasing women and putting the white in your father’s hair?”
“Not Hector,” said Paris, jabbing his brother with an elbow. “He’s become boring since father began negotiating a wife for him.”
“You have a loose mouth, brother,” said Hector, somewhat quelling. “Mind it does not get you a thrashing. You are not so old that I won't put you over my knee.”
Hector the heir and Paris the youngest. Odysseus could see how it was, as if it had been drawn for him on a wall. He looked at them, these two brothers, the younger teasing the elder, and, irrationally, felt something like dread stirring in his heart.
That was when, through the open roof of the stripped temple, they heard it.
The call of a horn, high and skirling, rising high over the city.
The giant lifted his head, his arms fell to his sides, his fists clenched. “The princess of Thessaly approaches!” he said, and his voice rang like a hammer against a blade.
Odysseus and Nestor moved to one side, the same as the Egyptians. The doors by which they had all entered were now clear, gleaming bronze in the light of the braziers.
In the corner of his eye, Odysseus saw Paris whisper in Hector’s ear. Whatever he said made his older brother frown with exasperation and slap Paris's own ear, which only made Paris grin.
Suddenly, from outside, there came a deafening roar, voices and the clash of metal. The Dogs of War were striking their shields and spears together, Odysseus realized, and howling like the beasts they called themselves after. Above it all he heard again the horn, now a blast that rent the air, and he heard the chant, the singing of men as if they recited a hymn, “Kore! Kore!”
Odysseus’s face was hot, as if he had a fever. He seemed to hear Nestor muttering something about idolaters, but dimly, as if from a distance. He saw, on the other side of the chamber, the Trojan Hector turning his head, his eyes, black and fathomless, to the doors.
At the far end of the entrance hall, where the public door of the temple was a square of pale white light, he saw a figure appear in the doorway. He saw a slender waist, a fragile arm, and then the shape passed into the dark of the temple, and he heard, beneath the dying roar of the men assembled outside, the soft tread of sandaled feet against the stone.
He heard, from where he stood, a soft, breathless exhalation, the sigh of a woman.
From the dark, from the hall of bare altars, walked a girl.
She was small. The top of her head could not have reached his shoulder.
From her shoulders hung a red cloak, stained dark in places. Under one arm, she carried a helm much like those worn by the Dogs of War, and it, too, was smeared with blood, from black cockscomb to nose piece.
About her waist she wore a belt of black pleats, and above that was a black tunic, like those worn by female slaves. The neck had been torn, and the cloth lay open to the gentle, beginning swell of a pale breast.
He saw her face, small, white, with lips like the pink buds of newborn flowers. He saw her neck, narrow, as fragile as a stem.
He saw her eyes, the green of sea-fire, of the color of the water from the shores of his own Ithaca.
He saw her hair, the golden hair.
She was small.
Kore, the Maiden, the pearl of Thessaly, stood in the opening of gaping bronze doors, beautiful and bloodstained, and she was looking at him.
Kore, the princess of Thessaly, looked upon Odysseus, the king of Ithaca.
He could not breathe.
The silence was broken. From behind him, he heard a dull thump, as of flesh striking flesh, and then the giant said, “Hail, Kore, She-Wolf! These men ask an audience with you!”
She looked away.
“Sorry I'm late,” she said, her Greek flawless but for the slightest trace of a strange, foreign stress, an unfamiliar prosody. “Alope took longer than I thought.”
Odysseus caught himself staring. She was barefoot, her small feet pale and white and soiled with dirt and blood. Why? He tried to turn away without seeming to do so, managed to wrench his eyes off of her—and looked, without meaning to, at Hector.
At Hector, who was watching Kore.
Hector, whose dark eyes were fixed, helplessly, on her.
On Kore, who had noticed, and was looking.
Kore, who looked upon Hector.
Odysseus watched her. He watched her lips part, her mouth open. He watched her skin flush, her hands clench, her eyes lower instinctively before returning, naturally, inexorably, to Hector's face.
He saw them see each other.
He felt, as he had never felt before, the pull of the thread of his life as it wound about the rod of the Measurer.
He saw Paris move to greet her, his eyes bright. He saw the Egyptians coming forward, faces full of wonder. He felt Nestor shifting impatiently at his side, waiting for Odysseus to speak.
He saw Hector's face as the man offered Kore his hand.
He saw Kore's face as she took it.
Odysseus felt the eyes of the gods upon him.
And his heart filled with despair.