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I was close to him now, I could smell his rankness and his rage. Spear steady in my hand, I crept down on him in the thicket. Came his snuffling breath, the ground tearing as he raked it with a foot. Then I saw him. He was as big as a small bull, his bulk rolling on short and powerful legs, his black coat bristling, his long cruel lips drawn back around the curved and yellowed tusks. His eyes were the eyes of one doomed to Tartaros; he saw the phantom Furies already, and he was filled with the terrible wrath of a mindless beast. Old, coarse, a mankiller.

I shrieked aloud to tell him that I was there. At first he did not move, then slowly he turned his massive head to look at me. The dust rose as he raked, as he bent his snout and lifted a clod of earth on his tusks, gathering power for the charge. I came into the open and stood with Old Pelion my spear poised, daring him to come. The sight of a man facing him boldly was new to him; he seemed uncertain for a moment. Then he broke into a lumbering, ground-shaking trot that built into a headlong gallup. Amazing, that such a huge thing could run so fast.

I gauged the level of his charge and stayed where I was, Old Pelion in both hands, its point a little upwards, its base down. Closer now. Impelled by all the weight he carried on his bones, he could have bored straight through a tree trunk. When I saw the red flash of his eyes I crouched, then stepped forward and buried Old Pelion in his chest. He embraced me; we went down together, the steaming gush of his life pouring over me. But then I found my feet and dragged his head up with me to ride out his threshing with my hands wrapped about the spear shaft, my feet slipping in his blood. And so he died, astonished at meeting one mightier than he. I pulled Old Pelion out of his chest, cut out his tusks – they were a rare prize to adorn a war helmet – and left him lying there to rot.

Nearby I found a little cove, and descended a snakepath to its back reaches, where a brook meandered down to meet the sea. Ignoring the sparkling invitation of the rivulet, I loped through the sand to the edge of the lapping waves. There I cleansed the boar’s blood off my feet and legs, my hunting suit and Old Pelion, then waded out to spread everything on the sand to dry. After which I swam lazily before joining my stuff lying in the sun.

Perhaps I slept for some time. Or perhaps the Spell had come upon me even then. I do not know as I try to remember, only that cognisance faded. When it returned, the sun was slipping towards the tree tops and there was a faint coolness in the air. Time to go. Patrokles would be anxious.

I got up to fetch my things, and that action was the end of sanity. How to explain the inexplicable? To me it afterwards became the Spell, a period during which I was cut off from what was real, yet not cut off from some sort of world. A foetid smell I associated with death invaded my nostrils and the beach shrank to minute size while a shrine on the headland above suddenly zoomed to such an immensity that I fancied it was going to tip over and crash down on top of me. That world was a thing of contradictions, this grown large and and that diminished.

While brackish brine flowed from the corners of my mouth I sank to my knees overcome with terror, consumed by a lonely wilderness of tears and deprivation; nor could I do anything in all my youth and strength to banish the mortal dread I felt. My left hand began to shake, the left side of my face twitched, my spine stiffened, arched. Yet I hung onto consciousness, willing myself not to let that awful jerking march go further. How long the Spell lay upon me I have no idea, save that when I regained my strength I saw that the sun was gone and the sky flushed pink. The air was still, filled with bird songs.

Trembling like a man in the grip of the ague, I got to my feet, the taste of something foul in my mouth. I did not stop to gather up my things or think of Old Pelion. All I wanted was to get back to camp, to die in the arms of Patrokles.

He was there and heard me coming, ran to me, shocked, and put me down on a bed of warm skins by the fire. Once I had drunk a little wine I began to feel ordinary life steal into my bones; I lost the last of my confused panic and sat up, listening with boundless thanks to the thudding of my heart.

‘What happened?’ Patrokles was saying.

‘A spell,’ I croaked. ‘A spell.’

‘Did the boar wound you? Did you suffer a fall?’

‘No, I killed the boar easily. Afterwards I went down to the sea to wash off his blood. That was when the Spell came.’

He sank into his heels, eyes wide. ‘What spell, Achilles?’

‘Like death coming to me. I smelled death, I tasted it in my mouth. The cove shrank, the shrine grew gigantic – the world twisted and reshaped itself like something Protean. I thought I was dying, Patrokles! I have never felt so alone! And I was stricken with the palsy of old age, the fear of a craven. But I am neither old nor a craven. So what happened to me? What was that Spell? Have I sinned against some God? Have I offended the Lord of the Skies or the Lord of the Seas?’

His face loomed worried and apprehensive; later he told me that I did indeed look as if I had given death the kiss of welcome, for I had no colour, I shook like a sapling in the wind, I was naked and covered in scratches and cuts.

‘Lie down, Achilles, let me cover you from the cold. It may not have been a spell. Perhaps it was a dream.’

‘Nightmare, not dream.’

‘Eat a little and drink some more of the wine. Some farmers came with four skins of their best pressing in thanks for the killing of the boar.’

I touched his arm. ‘I would have gone mad had I not found you, Patrokles. I couldn’t bear the thought of dying alone.’

He clasped my hands, kissed them. ‘I am far more your friend than your cousin, Achilles. I will always be with you.’

Drowsiness came, a gentle sensation with no fear in it. I smiled, reached out to ruffle his hair. ‘You for me, and I for you. So it has always been.’

‘And so it always will be,’ he answered.

In the morning I was perfectly well. Patrokles had woken before me; the fire was going, a rabbit spitted over the flames for us to break our fast. And there was bread too, brought by the farm women as their thanks for the killing of the boar.

‘You look quite yourself,’ said Patrokles with a grin, handing me roast rabbit on a bread platter.

‘I am,’ I said, taking the food.

‘Do you remember as vividly as you did last night?’

That provoked a shiver, but bread-and-rabbit banished the fear in remembering. ‘Yes and no. A spell, Patrokles. Some God spoke, but I did not understand the message.’

‘Time will solve the mystery,’ he said, moving about, dealing with all the tiny tasks he took upon himself to ensure my comfort. Try though I did, I could never break him of this serving habit.

He was five years older than I. King Lykomedes of Skyros had adopted him as his heir when his own father, Menoetes, died of illness in Skyros. A long time ago. He was my cousin on the left hand, Menoetes being the bastard of my grandfather Aiakos; we felt the blood link keenly, both of us only sons and minus any sisters. Lykomedes thought very highly of him, which was little wonder. Patrokles was that rarity, a truly good man.

Our fast broken and the camp packed up, I donned a kilt and sandals, put on a bronze dagger and found another spear. ‘Wait for me here, Patrokles. I won’t be long. My clothes and trophy are still on the beach. So is Old Pelion.’

‘Let me come with you,’ he said quickly, looking afraid.

‘No. This lies between the God and me.’

His eyes dropped; he nodded. ‘As you command, Achilles.’

Finding the way easier this time, I went over the ground as fast as a lion can travel. The cove looked innocent as I ran down the snakepath to collect my clothes, the tusks, Old Pelion. No, the cove was not the source of the Spell. At which moment my eyes, roving the clifftop, fell upon the shrine. My heart began to beat heavily. My mother was an unofficial priestess of Nereus somewhere on this side of the island – was this her domain? Had I stumbled into her pavilions by mistake, profaned some mystery of the Old Religion, and been struck down for it?

I climbed slowly back to the summit and approached the shrine, now remembering how huge it had loomed while the Spell had been upon me. Oh yes, this was my mother’s domain. And hadn’t King Lykomedes warned me never to stray here, where my mother, defying him, had set up residence?

She was waiting in the shadows beside the altar. Suddenly I found I needed to use Old Pelion as a staff; my legs had lost their strength, I could hardly stand upright. Mother! My mother whom I had never seen.

So tiny! She came not far above my waist. Her hair was blue-white, her eyes dark grey, and her skin so transparent I could see every vein beneath it.

‘You are my son, the one Peleus denied immortality.’

‘I am he.’

‘Did he send you to seek me?’

‘No. I came by chance,’ I said, leaning feebly on old Pelion.

What ought a man to feel when he meets his mother for the first time? Oedipoas had felt lust, had taken her as his wife and queen, bred by her. But I, it seemed, had no Oedipoas in me, for I felt no pang of lust, no flicker of admiration for her beauty or her apparent youth. Perhaps what I felt is best summed up as wonder, as discomfort, as – yes, rejection. This odd little woman had murdered my six brothers and betrayed my father, whom I loved.

‘You hate me!’ she said, sounding outraged.

‘Not hate. Dislike,’ I said.

‘What did Peleus name you?’


She eyed my mouth, nodded contemptuously. ‘Very appropriate! Even fish have lips, but you have none. Lack of them turns your face from a thing of beauty to a thing unfinished. A bag with a slit in it.’

She was right. I did hate her.

‘What are you doing on Skyros? Is Peleus with you?’

‘No. I come alone each year for six moons. I am the son-in-law of King Lykomedes.’

‘Married already?’ she asked, nastily.

‘I’ve been married since I was thirteen years old – I am almost twenty now. My son is six.’

‘What a fiasco! And your wife? Is she a child too?’

‘Her name is Deidamia and she is older than me.’

‘Well, it’s all very convenient for Lykomedes. Peleus too. They harnessed you, and quite painlessly.’

Finding nothing to answer, I said nothing. Nor did she. The silence stretched interminably. I, so well trained by my father and Chiron always to defer to my elders, would not break it because I could not break it politely. Pehaps she was truly a goddess, though my father denied it each time the wine got the better of him.

‘You should have been immortal,’ she said finally.

That made me laugh. ‘I want no immortality! I am a warrior, I enjoy the things of men. I do homage to the Gods, but I’ve never hungered to be one of them.’

‘Then you haven’t thought on what mortality entails.’

‘What can it entail, except that I must die?’

‘Exactly,’ she said softly. ‘You must die, Achilles. And doesn’t the thought of death frighten you? You say you’re a man, a warrior. But warriors die early, before men of peace.’

I shrugged. ‘Whichever way it goes, death is my lot. I’d rather die young and gloriously than old and ignominiously.’

For a moment her eyes became misty blue and her face took on a sadness I had not thought her capable of feeling. A tear trickled down her translucent cheek, but she wiped it away impatiently and became again a creature devoid of pity. ‘It’s too late to argue the point, my son. You must die. But I can offer you a choice, because I can see into the future. I know your fate. Soon men will come to ask you to join in a great war. But if you go, you’ll die. If you don’t go, you’ll live to be very old and enjoy much happiness. Young and gloriously, or old and ignominiously. The choice is yours.’

I blinked, laughed. ‘What kind of choice is that? None! I elect to die young and gloriously.’

‘Why not think on death a little first?’ she asked.

Her words sank into me barbed with venom. I stared down into her eyes to see them swim and dissolve, to see her face become shapeless, the sky above her melt and flow beneath her tiny feet. When she grew in height until her head penetrated the clouds I knew the Spell was upon me again – and who cast it. Brine spilled from the corners of my mouth, the stench of corruption filled my nostrils, terror and loneliness drove me to my knees before her. My left hand began to jerk, the left side of my face to twitch. But this time she took her Spell further. I lost consciousness.

When I woke she was beside me on the ground, rubbing sweetly scented herbs between her palms.

‘Stand up,’ she commanded.

Unable to order my thoughts, enfeebled in body as well as in mind, I got up slowly.

‘Achilles, listen to me!’ she barked. ‘Listen to me! You are going to swear an oath of the Old Religion, and that is a far worse oath than any under the New. To Nereus, my father, the Old Man of the Sea – to the Mother, for she bears us all – to Kore, queen of horror – to the rulers of Tartaros, place of torment – and to me in my Godhead. You will swear it now, understanding that it cannot be broken. If you do break it, you will go mad for ever and ever, and Skyros will sink below the waves just as Thera did after the great sacrilege.’ She shook my arm, her grip hard. ‘Do you hear me, Achilles? Do you?’

‘Yes,’ I mumbled.

‘I have to save you from yourself,’ she said, breaking open a leathery old egg upon greasy blood and letting the blood splatter over the altar. Then she took my right hand and squashed it down upon the mess, held it there firmly. ‘Now swear!’

I repeated the words she dictated. ‘I, Achilles, son of Peleus, grandson of Aiakos and great-grandson of Zeus, do swear that I will return at once to the palace of King Lykomedes and assume the dress of a woman. I will remain within the palace for the space of one year, always dressed as a woman. Whenever any persons come asking to see Achilles, I will hide in the harem and have no contact with them, even through intermediaries. I will let King Lykomedes speak for me in everything and abide by what he says without argument. And all this I do swear by Nereus, by the Mother, by Kore, by the rulers of Tartaros and by Thetis, who is a Goddess.’

The moment those awful words were finished, my confusion lifted; the world resumed its true colours and contours, and I could think clearly again. But too late. No man could take such a terrible oath and forswear it. My mother had bound me hand and foot to her will.

‘I curse you!’ I cried, beginning to weep. ‘I curse you! You’ve made me into a woman!’

‘There is woman in all men,’ she smirked.

‘You’ve stripped me of my honour!’

‘I’ve prevented your going to an early death,’ she answered, and gave me a push. ‘Now return to Lykomedes. You won’t need to explain anything to him. By the time you get to the palace, he’ll know it all.’ Her eyes went blue again. ‘I do this out of love, my poor, lipless son. I am your mother.’

I said not one word to Patrokles when I found him, simply picked up my share of our gear and started back to the palace. And he, attuned as always to my mind, did not ask me one single question. Or perhaps he already knew what Lykomedes certainly knew when he came through the gates into the courtyard. He was waiting there, looking shrunken and defeated.

‘I’ve had a message from Thetis,’ he said.

‘Then you know what is required of us.’


My wife was sitting at the window when I came into her room. At the sound of the door she turned her head and opened her arms wide, smiling sleepily. I kissed her on the cheek and stared out the window, down on the harbour and the little town.

‘Is that all the welcome you have for me?’ she asked, but not indignantly; Deidamia was never put out.

‘You surely know what everyone knows,’ I said, sighing.

‘That you have to dress as a woman and hide in Father’s harem,’ she said, nodding. ‘But only when there are strangers here, and that won’t be often.’

The shutter under my hand began to splinter, so great was my anguish. ‘How can I do it, Deidamia? The humiliation! What a perfect way to be revenged! She mocks my manhood, the cow!’

My wife shivered, put up her right hand in the sign which wards off the Evil Eye. ‘Achilles, don’t anger her further! She’s a Goddess! Speak of her with respect.’

‘Never!’ I said between my teeth. ‘She has no respect for me, for my manhood. How everyone will laugh!’

This time Deidamia shuddered. ‘It is not a laughing matter,’ she said.

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