User:Michael Bard/Mythic Journeys - Part 2
- 1 Chapter 39: The Barbarian
- 2 Chapter 40: Loyalties
- 3 Chapter 41: Where were we?
- 4 Chapter 42: To Fair Illium
- 5 Chapter 43: The Last Obstacle
- 6 Chapter 44: Clearing the Hill
- 7 Chapter 45: The Final Conference
- 8 Chapter 46 - Racing Achilles
- 9 Chapter 47: Final Gift
- 10 Chapter 48: Tutor and Son
- 11 Chapter 49: Inside fair Illium
- 12 Chapter 50: Heroic Acceptance
- 13 Chapter 51: Wanderings and Nature
- 14 Chapter 52: Truths
- 15 Chapter 53: Reunion
- 16 Chapter 54: The Contest
- 17 Chapter 55: The Death of Chiron
- 18 Chapter 56: Poseidon
- 19 Chapter 57: Spirit
- 20 Chapter 58: Skinwalker
- 21 Chapter 59: Coyote
- 22 Chapter 60: Assassin
- 23 Chapter 61: Youth and Psychologies
- 24 Chapter 62: Entrapment
- 25 Chapter 63: Resolution
- 26 Chapter 64: Rest
- 27 Chapter 65: The Cleansing
- 28 Chapter 66: Lessons
- 29 Chapter 67: Coyote's Gift
- 30 Chapter 68: Prophecies
- 31 Chapter 69: Fate
- 32 Chapter 70: Free Will
- 33 Chapter 71: Ending the Cycle
- 34 Chapter 72: Changing the World
- 35 Epilogue
Chapter 39: The Barbarian
The first thing I remembered feeling as the javelin impacted me was shock and annoyance. Absolute astonishment that something like this could happen. Where the hell had this idiot come from? How dare he cause me to break my word. That instant was overwhelmed by pain. Fortunately the javelin hadn't pierced anything critical, all of my organs were in my horse chest, my human chest only had muscle and my esophagus, and the javelin missed that. The pain lasted only an instant before it was overwhelmed by Ixion's legacy. Blind, overwhelming, all powerful, rage.
With an incoherent scream I leapt into the water, my hooves splashing and stumbling on the rounded stones. Phillipa, looking up at my scream, watched as I bounded into the pool towards the monster who'd murdered the Trojans. That monster just laughed as the water sucked him under. The water was a lot deeper than it looked.
I don't know whether it was my madness, or a memory of what had happened during my madness, that made me not care what happened to me. I dove under after him. Instead of holding my breath I blew out all my air in a roar of bubbles, and then sucked in water to ensure I could pursue him into the blackest depths. It tore into my throat in exquisite pain, but like before it didn't kill me. It seemed to be enough to sustain me. Sinking to the bottom I exhaled again and a few bubbles of air burbled out of my mouth and nose before I sucked in more water.
He turned and tried to flee, but that was when his origin betrayed himself. Like me he couldn't drown, but he'd also never learned to swim. I'd done this before in this body, I'd flown through the air as Pegasus, I'd swam as a human before I got dragged into that world. And I was above him and sinking fast in a cloud of blood oozing out around the javelin that was still in my chest.
Grasping the wooden shaft I ripped it out, splinters tearing off inside me, the head catching on the skin of my back and then tearing its way through. Blood gushed out but I was beyond caring. I must have looked like one of the Furies to him, surrounded in blood, living when I should be dying, bringing the judgment of the gods to him.
Suddenly the water pulled him, started yanking him away, but the same current grabbed me and the suction of his body yanked me closer. I hadn't thrown the javelin. Old old memories of spear fishing burbled up in my brain. I had to thrust, and before I could thrust I had to reach him. Silt and mud swirled around us. I coughed as I sucked it down my windpipe. That didn't stop me, I was aware of only him. Clouds of blood and mud surrounded us, hid him, but somehow I knew where he was. For an instant I saw him through the clouded water, and I knew he was in reach. Shifting my grip to the back of the javelin, I thrust it into him, angling it so that as the force twisted my body, it also twisted the javelin towards him.
As I felt its bronze tip pierce his skin, I yanked him back towards me like a hooked fish. The water swirled and roared, twisting around us in a bubble filled torrent. He screamed in pain and a burst of bubbles, and the bubbles were ripped away. The bronze tore out in a gush of blood but he was close enough that I grabbed and hugged him against me.
At that moment I could have broke his neck, snapped his spine, tore him in two. But, somehow, I forced that urge down. I needed to know what had happened. I needed to know what he'd done. I didn't need to know who was behind this. The medium that had hid him made it obvious. He needed to answer for what he'd done, and then Phillipa could gut him.
Even as I held him he fought me. The water swirled around us, spinning us like a top. I was sick, nauseous, but I didn't let go. The water slammed us against the bottom in a new cloud of mud and blood and stones, but I didn't let go. Tiny currents picked up individual rocks and slammed them against me, one after the other, but I didn't let go. I just held him as we twisted around and around, spinning horizontally, spinning vertically. His face, wracked with pain and silent screams, became my world. Things from outside tore at my flesh, battered at my back. Grit shoved itself into my eyes and down my throat. But I refused to let him go.
Gradually the torrent slowed, the spinning slowed, and we settled to the bottom in a cloud of silt and algae and mud and blood. When my hooves thudded on the bottom, through a rain of fine pebbles, I forced myself to take one step after another, place one hoof in front of the other. Gradually I walked out of the deep in the center of the pool. I was tired, exhausted. My muscles were sore. The wounds that covered me were more numerous than the tattoos the Scythians had placed onto me. I was divine, immortal, I couldn't die. But that didn't mean that I couldn't get hurt. Healing took energy, energy it took from my body. Each step became an act of will. The darkness lightened as I approached the surface with my prisoner, the heavier suspended particles settled out. I stumbled, drifted down to my knees, but then forced myself up and continued on. I could see the purple-red light of dawn flickering through the ripple broken surface. My head broke through and other centaurs jumped into the pool and helped me the rest of the way out as I exhaled the water in my lungs. Philyanax was there with them, and she pushed me from behind as I staggered up the last few steps before collapsing onto my side, still in half of metre of water. Arms tried to take my prisoner out of my grip, and at first I wouldn't let go but as I recognized centaurs and faces, Doryalos, Bianar, Ularios the Elder, Hodites, my grip slowly slackened.
"Don't... don't kill... him." I managed to force out. "Bind the... the bastards wounds!"
"And what about the woman?" Amlaneas spit out.
That was then I saw that Phillipa was tied painfully tight, and held securely. "Not her..." More water and blood gushed out of my mouth and my body was wracked with coughs. "Not her fault..."
And that was when I lost consciousness.
I woke up laying near the stream before a roaring fire in one side, and Philyanax pressing herself against me on the other. I wasn't cold, I was, in fact, unbearably hot. Other centaurs were around me. I felt sore all over, and still a little sick in the chest. I gagged and spit bloody splinters. Immediately Philyanax leapt to her hooves.
Don't do that again! she screamed. She definitely wasn't pleased.
I reached up to scratch her on the chin and she gently lipped my fingers.
"Are you all right Stephan?" Doryalos asked. He must have been one of the ones standing watch over me.
"I think so." My voice was more a croak. Somebody handed me a skin and I gulped down some water and handed it back. "I don't want to go through that again."
I heard the other centaurs crowding around and shuffling nervously at that question. In a slightly overloud voice so that everybody could hear, I told them. I didn't blame them for what had happened -- who knew an assassin was hiding at the bottom of a pool in a stream?
"Doryalos," I asked, "how long has it been?"
"Over a day."
I leapt to my hooves. "Have we been attacked? Have you maintained patrols--?"
"No and yes. Everything's under control."
"Has anybody found anything?"
"Nothing. No Acheans, no Trojans."
"We burned the Trojans."
"Take me to the prisoner."
"You need to res--"
You need to rest, Philyanax nickered.
"NOW GOD DAMNIT! WHERE IS HE?!"
"This way Stephan."
I followed as Doryalos led. The others crowded around me in a circle.
"I don't need an escort!"
Doryalos replied. "They think you do."
And I agree! snorted Philyanax.
There were some snickers from my bodyguard.
"Doryalos, send somebody to fetch Phillipa. I think she'll want to hear what this bastard has to say."
"That won't be hard, we've had to keep her from killing him."
"Feisty, isn't she?"
At that point the guards in front of me made room and I saw about 20 centaurs standing in a circle facing inwards. Phillipa was outside the circle, being watched by Nedymnos. Doryalos barked a command and a few moved aside to let him and I through.
The assassin, if that's what he was, didn't look good. His chest wound had been bandaged, but he looked pale and I could smell that his wound was infected. The prisoner's entire body was bruised and beaten. The centaurs hadn't been nice to him and I couldn't really blame them. His hands were tight behind his back, and presumably tied. His legs were tied so tight that I could see that his feet were pale and empty of blood.
"Stephan, let me talk to him."
"No." My tone was cold and harsh. Doryalos knew when to drop a conversation and he remained silent as I walked forward. I was alone except for Philyanax who walked beside me.
As I approached him I realized that all the centaurs guarding him were about three metres away, all were armoured, and all held a javelin ready to kill him.
As I stopped in front of him, his head lolled to the side. Then his eyes focused on me and his head straightened proudly. He tried to spit at my hooves, but his mouth was too dry.
"Somebody bring some water."
"NO!" Phillipa burst out. "Kill him! It's all he deserves!"
"Phillipa, we're civilized here. We'll listen to what he has to say. Then you can decide whether he lives or dies."
"DON'T WASTE MY TIME! HE MURDERED MY FAMILY! HE..!" Phillipa continued in the same vein but I ignored her.
A centaur handed me some water and I dribbled a little bit into his mouth. I let him swallow a bit and then pulled the skin away and handed it back. Grabbing his chin I moved his head until his eyes were looking into mine. "Who are you?"
He just spit in my face, this time able too. Phillipa was still screaming, and I heard hooves thudding on the ground angrily.
"I would suggest you show a little civility because I'm the only one keeping them," I motioned around, "from ripping you into very small pieces. Your name?"
"Nausimedan, you soulless bastard!"
Nausimedan... why did that sound familiar. I looked at him and he glared at me as I searched through my memories. Then I had it. "Son of Nauplios and grandson of Posedion?"
"My grandfather will kill you yet you motherless beast!"
"I have a mother, and I am much less a best than you," I responded calmly, though I could feel Ixion's blood rising in me. "Why did you attack me? Did Posedion send you?"
"I did it myself!"
"I guess your grandfather's still too terrified of me." When I said that Phillipa finally stopped screaming for blood. In fact everybody around the two of us was silent listening.
"Are you proud of deserting your comrades? Of killing innocents in cold blood?"
"I thought they were Acheans! Once they saw me I had no choice!"
"You know that I destroyed your friends? They're dead or in flight. All because you deserted them."
"YOU WERE MORE IMPORTANT!"
"So you tried to kill me like an assassin in the night?"
"YOU DESERVE ONLY DEATH!"
I turned away and a pair of centaurs leapt forward to grab him as he threw himself at me biting and spitting. As I walked away I slapped him in the face with my tail, finally stopping when it was just out of his reach. "This," I said to everybody, "is a barbarian." I stopped in front of Phillipa. She stared at me in awe. Doryalos was beside me again and I turned to him. "Your dagger please?"
With the only sound being the screaming of Nausimedon, he handed it to me, holding it by the blade.
I switched grips and held the hilt out to Phillipa. "You are the one most wronged. What do you want done to him?"
Her hand whipped out and yanked the dagger from my hand, its blade drawing a line of blood down my palm. Screaming, she ripped herself free of the centaur holding her and ran at Nausimedon.
I turned in time to watch her gut him again and again and again.
Chapter 40: Loyalties
I turned away from Phillipa to Doryalos. "I want you to take the centaurs and follow Phillipa to Troy. Her safety is your responsibility. She can show you the way. Join Hect--"
"What about you Stephan?"
Philyanax looked at me and I knew she wanted to know the answer too.
I sighed. "Now you both know who's out to get me. I want you gone. I want you all gone. Poseidon is my problem, and my vengeance. There's no need for any of yo--"
NO! Philyanax screamed.
"Stephan, I refuse."
I looked down at Doryalos and took a step forward until my human chest was pressed against his. He kept looking right back, refusing to budge.
"They'll all refuse! Don't you realize that?" he stated.
"Doryalos. You have my instructions."
"Then I quit! Pick somebody else because I'm not leaving you."
"Don't you two realize whom I'm out to kill?!"
"I didn't know you wanted to kill him until now, but that doesn't change things. Out of curiosity, why?"
"It's none of your business!" I took a step forward and Doryalos braced his entire strength against me. I ended up pushing him back because I was stronger, his hooves digging into the dirt in resistance.
"You made me your direct assistant. That makes it my business."
"Fine!" I threw up my arms. "He killed my family, or at least the one that adopted me. He caused me to rape my sister and watch her die in childbirth. He's now tried to kill me twice!"
"He's a god--"
"I KNOW WHAT HE IS! It doesn't matter, I have to do what I have to do. Just like you have to care for the herd."
"I AM caring for the herd Stephan. I'm staying with you. YOU are its heart!"
I backed down and turned around, watching Phillipa thrust her dagger in again and again, even though Nausimedon was long dead. "I'm the one Poseidon wronged, not you. Not anybody else."
"It doesn't matter. We won't leave you."
It seemed that Philyanax was pleased to let Doryalos speak for her, though she did snort her agreement.
"You're all idiots!" I pointed at Phillipa. "Look at her! The ONLY reason her parents are dead is because they happened to be in the way. If she hadn't met me they'd still be alive!"
"Stephan, why'd you depose Gryneos?"
"What does it matter?" I asked.
Philyanax just snorted.
Guess they had to have an answer. "Fine! Because I needed you to get me close to Poseidon! Happy?!" Had I been that callous?
"You used us?"
"God dammit yes! You don't owe me anything!"
Phillipa must have finally finished with her rage, or she had just heard me. Now she was standing beside me too, listening.
Doryalos' voice was calm. "So why'd you force us to change? Weren't we good enough for you?"
"You were barbarians! I couldn't leave you the way you were! JUST GO!"
Others started crowding around to listen and Doryalos spoke for their benefit. "You came to use because we were a tool for you to fulfill your vendetta against Poseidon. And then, because you couldn't believe what we had become, you forced us to change. Is that right?"
Anguish filled my voice. "ISN'T THAT ENOUGH?! JUST GET OUT OF HERE BEFORE POSEIDON TRIES SOMETHING ELSE!"
"Stephan, you gave us hope for the first time ever. You taught us what it meant to be honourable, to be respected. Because of you we're not going to be remembered with just hatred and disgust!"
I spun around to face him. "Don't you understand?! It's useless. This isn't real! None of it is! It's all dreams! And even if it was real, I KNOW! Other than Chiron centaurs were beasts, monsters. NEVER anything more!"
"And what if we want to be?"
"WHEN POSEIDON KILLS YOU IT WON'T MATTER!"
Doryalos turned away from me and looked at the centaurs which had gathered. "You've all heard. Stephan came to us to use us for his vendetta. He forced us to change because he couldn't leave us the way he found us. Now he wants us to leave him because Poseidon might kill us trying to get at him."
"All of you! Go! GO AWAY BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE! Please..."
Amlaneas spoke up from within the crowd. "Given that we don't have any mares, the way I see it we're all dead anyway. We might as well help somebody who's helped us."
Why were they throwing their lives away?! "Don't you understand what you're giving up? Poseidon created horses, he helped create you. He could make mares for you, for all of you!"
"THEN WHY HASN'T HE?!" Old Hodites yelled. "We've prayed to him, sacrificed to him. HE'S REFUSED TO HELP US!"
The ancient Thaunos spoke and everybody quieted to listen. "Stephan, after the Lapiths drove us away we prayed and sacrificed to all the Olympians. We didn't have anything to lose. We even sacrificed the youngest of us, and little Rhoetnos went of his own free will."
"I say SCREW THEM!"
The others shouted their agreement. "SCREW THEM!"
I screamed to be heard above the chant: "BUT YOU CAN LIVE A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE IN PEACE!"
Their voices fell into a sudden silence and they all looked at me. Phillipa ran her hand down my horse spine, lifted it back to where my human body met my horse body, and ran it down again and again.
"You told us once about the choice Achilles made." It was Amycos, the youngest centaur still alive. "You told us that he had a choice between long life, or glory."
I'd told them lots of tales during our trip here. "If you stay with me, you'll find only death! Go to Illium, follow Doryalos, find YOUR glory!"
"Stephan," Doryalos clasped me on the shoulders, "YOU are our glory."
"I'M ONLY GOING TO KILL YOU!! ALL OF YOU! DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?!"
"We will know our glory," Thaunos said. "The Gods will. Do the humans really matter?"
Amycos shouted out. "I'm following Stephan!"
"And I! And I!"
Pushing Doryalos' hands away, I looked over them. I swallowed. "If anybody wishes to leave, do so. You'll go with my blessings."
There was only silence.
"If you don't leave now, then you won't be able to leave. I'll have to count on you. On all of you. You may die horribly, helpless to stop it, forgotten, cursed throughout history, all if you stay with me."
It definitely wasn't Doryalos who started it this time. "Stephan. Stephan. Stephan! Stephan! STEPHAN! STEPHAN!"
I just shook my head and let it rise, and then start to fade before holding up my hand for silence. "Fine then. I appreciate the company."
I turned to face Doryalos. "Who's on patrol?"
"Ularius and the Younger Orios."
"Go to each of them. Tell them what I told you and let them choose. Be honest, don't force them. Can I trust you to do this?"
"Can we trust you not to sneak away in the night?"
I looked around. "You'd just chase after me anyway. I--" Wrapping my arms I hugged him, pulling him tight against me. "Thank you. THANKS ALL OF YOU!"
"Stephan! Stephan! Stephan!"
I slowly let go and turned to face the herd. "Enough celebration. If you're sticking with me, then you've got to work. So get to work!"
They greeted that with good natured boos and grumbling.
The group started breaking up as Doryalos galloped off.
"Nedymnas! Get your unit together."
He stopped and turned to face me. "Stephan?"
"I want a proper pyre built for Nausimidan."
"WHAT?!" Phillipa screamed.
I turned to her. "He--"
"HE DESERVES TO ROT!"
I grabbed her and held her arms tight against her sides. "Phillipa, what's done is done. Would you sentence him to an eternity in Hades because of a few mistakes?"
"NO! I want him to rot! I want him to feel a fraction of the pain I feel!"
"Phillipa, shut up!"
She stared at me in shock.
"If we curse him, then what's to stop Poseidon from going after the others, from going after you? Do you want to spend all eternity as a shade in Hades? Do you?!"
She stared at me.
"I'm going to give Poseidon a message. This is between him and me, not anybody else. Whether he put his grandson up to it or not, I'm going to offer him a deal."
"We all have to fight for the living. The dead are dead."
"Phillipa, the dead are dead, what is done is done. Sorrow for them, but let them go. Don't compound the sins done with a sin of your own."
I held her and rocked her back and forth as she threw herself against me and sobbed out her grief. Philyanax rested her head on Phillipa's shoulder and stood beside me as I held her.
A while later Nedymnos stopped near me. "Stephan?"
I looked up.
"It's ready. The pyre I mean."
Looking down, I slowly pulled Phillipa's arms away from me. "It's time to let him go. You should light the pyre. You don't need to say any words, you don't need to forgive him. Just let him go in peace."
She sniffed. "I... I'll try."
I lightly grasped her right hand, slowly walked around, and led her behind Nedymnos as he led us to the pyre. It wasn't as big or as grand as the others had been, but then it was for only one person. Phillipa hadn't left much of him, but the centaurs had gathered up what they could. Nedymnos handed me a lit torch which I handed to Phillipa.
She looked at it, looked at me, looked at the fire, and then whipped it into the kindling. Slowly at first, and then with a roar, the pyre burst into flame.
"Nedymnos?" He turned and trotted over. "Get your centaurs, I need to go to the beach. Get me Nausimedon's javelin, will you? It's probably floating in the pool by now."
"No," I scratched Philyanax between her ears, "I'm not going to leave you. You can all come with me and make sure."
I slowly made my way off towards the coast, listening to the thumping of hooves behind me. Phillipa and Philyanax walked on either side of me. The beach wasn't far, and it was sandier than on the north coast. My hooves skidded in the sand and gravel of the steep slope down to the beach but I kept from falling though I had to lean against Philyanax. I finally stopped, my forehooves just in the water. A wave pulsed up, burbled along the beach, and grasped at my hind hooves.
I waited, as did the others, the only sound the wind, the gulls, and the hush of the waves. The sea was quiet, calm. I didn't trust it.
"I'VE GOT IT!" I heard from behind me. It was Hokados. Turning, I saw that he was holding the javelin. He skidded to a stop beside me, splashing us all, and then handed the javelin to me. I took it and turned back to face out into the waves.
The sea remained unchanged.
"I BURNED NAUSIMEDON! I GAVE HIM THE COIN!"
"THIS IS BETWEEN YOU AND ME, NOBODY ELSE!"
A gull cried out in the silence that greeted my words.
"I WON'T GO AFTER YOUR CHILDREN IF YOU DON'T GO AFTER MY FRIENDS!"
A fish leapt out of the water and then back in a few hundred metres away, the plop loud over the waves.
"TAKE HIS JAVELIN! REMEMBER HIM!"
Throwing back my arm, I whipped the javelin out over the water and into the distance.
The only answer was the javelins faint splash.
Chapter 41: Where were we?
As I'd feared, Ularius, the Younger Orios, and their centaurs also refused to leave. Fools. I had us break camp and let Phillipa guide us towards Illium, and towards a stream and camp nearer the city. She gave Amlaneas instructions before he took his centaurs to scout ahead, and then led the rest of us along the coast. There was no sign of any Acheans, but we did run across two other destroyed settlements.
We came to the camp Phillipa had in mind in late afternoon. It wasn't that far from the previous one, but then we'd also left late in the day. From the new camp we could easily make it to fair Illium with a day's travel. The stream this time was small, rocky, and shallow. There was no pool. I refused to let Phillipa bathe on her own, she refused to bathe without me, and the herd wouldn't even let me approach it until they'd tramped up and down it poking into the rocky bottom with their javelins. By the time they were finished night had fallen. Given our proximity to the city, and presumably to the Achean ships and men, I ordered a cold camp. In other words no fires, just dried rations.
The last thing I wanted was for lights to bring the main Achean army down on us.
I went to bed early that night, still exhausted from my fight and my wounds. Philyanax lay down beside me, and Doryalos made sure I was continuously guarded by two centaurs. I was too tired to complain. I was even too tired to complain when Phillipa shook me awake at the crack of dawn.
Fortunately I'd always been a heavy sleeper, a fact that had caused near endless ridicule and pranks from the Scythians I'd been raised with. It took me a bit to remember where I was, to focus my eyes, and to realize that it was Phillipa who'd awoken me. She was carrying a sack which seemed to hold a small chest of some kind.
Yawning, I asked, "Do you know what time it is?"
Phillipa was quick to respond. "Yes. I need to bathe, and so do you."
"Don't think I'd forgotten. You can't be presented to King Priam looking like you look now!"
"Oh right, we talked about this alread--"
"And you had given in to the inevitable. Now come on."
She waited, tapping her foot impatiently, as I clambered up onto my hooves and stretched. She was looking so smug and sure of herself, and there was this annoying itch... So I collapsed back onto the ground, leaned my human half forward, and then rolled onto my back so that my four hooves were up in the air. I started rubbing my back just before my tail back and forth on the ground, my hooves kicking in the air.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
I still couldn't quite reach it... stupid thing. I stretched, arched my back, kicked my hind legs backward... "Got it!"
Phillipa put her hands on her hips. "Do you have any idea what you look like?"
"Would you rather I did this before or after you gave me my bath."
She just glared at me.
Slowly and leisurely I rolled back onto my side, and then onto my horse's chest, and then scrambled up onto my hooves.
Bracing my hooves, I wiggled and shook my horse body like a wet dog to get rid of the bits of grass and dirt. The centaurs and Philyanax knew enough to get out of the way, Phillipa didn't.
"You're taking a bath too."
Turning, she stalked off and I followed her. My two guards followed me as did Philyanax. Two other centaurs hurried over and joined my entourage.
Still trotting to keep up with her, I turned and looked at two of them. "Don't you have anything better to do?"
"No," said the newcomer, Bianor.
"But I don't need this many--"
"Yes you do," all four said in chorus.
I just rolled my eyes whilst Philyanax nickered her agreement.
It didn't take long for us to arrive at the stream and, as she'd done once before, Phillipa put down her sack and then pulled off her dress and tossed it towards me. Of course the dress was a different one consisting of plain unadorned linen, and this time one of my guards caught it. The sack did indeed contain that small chest she'd had before, and I watched as she opened it and pulled out a pair of stiff brushes and what I guessed was a kind of soap. It was in a fired clay bottle. She must have washed herself earlier as the streaks of colour were gone from her breasts.
"You might as well all look, you've all seen it. And Stephan, don't you go away because I won't be long."
As she splashed into the water I whispered to those around me, "She's to look at and not touch."
I waited more or less patiently, shifting my weight from my left hooves to my right hooves, as she washed. The soap didn't create many suds, and she used most of it on her long hair, rinsing it by ducking her head under water and then shaking her head back and forth whipping her hair around to get rid of most of the water in a shower of drops. The longest part of the process was her running the smaller brush through her hair in long strokes, each stroke spraying water out behind her.
When she was finished she turned to look at me. "Stephan, it's your turn. Don't make me come out and get you." She was standing knee deep in the water.
I sighed and Philyanax nipped me at the joint between my human half and my horse half. Taking the hint I slowly walked forward. The stream bottom looked the worse for wear. Rocks were scattered, and it was easy to see which ones had been turned over in the attack last night. At least the mud had settled out, except where Phillipa had disturbed it. I carefully walked into the water, placing each hoof carefully on the rounded rocks until I was standing in the middle which came up to my foreknees.
"You're going to have to crouch down so I can get your hair wet. It would probably be easier if you lay down and ducked your entire upper body under."
"I don't have much choice, do I?"
I lay down. And then, holding my breath, I ducked my human half into the cold water, although I couldn't get low enough to get my spine along my horse body wet. Just as I was about to lean back up, she pressed down on my human shoulders and starting splashing water along my horse back.
Yes, I knew I couldn't drown in the water. Once I'd breathed it when I was insane. Once I'd breathed it while I was enraged. But now I really didn't want to. It's a primal fear. I let out a bit of air.
She rubbed some of that soap along my back and it stung. It hurt more than some of my wounds had when I'd gotten them. And still she held me down.
Part of me wanted to flail around with my arms, to get some attention or to push myself up. I also didn't want to hurt her. So I pressed my right hand, she was on my right side, into the gravel, and started flailing in the air with my left. She didn't seem to notice. I could feel my tail whipping back and forth in the water. I let out more air, more than I'd wanted. I puffed my cheeks out and in, moving a bit of air in and out of my lungs. She let go for a second, but before I could lean upward, she pressed me down again as she slathered more soap on my horse back. Air blurbed out my mouth. Unable to take anymore, I shoved myself upward and gasped for air.
"I'm not done yet!"
"What are you trying to do, drown me?!"
"I thought you could--"
"I can but I don't like it!"
What did I do to deserve this?
"I guess you can stay like this until I'm done with your horse body. When was the last time you washed it anyway?"
"Err..." Washed it? I couldn't remember if I ever had. Scythian women used a paste, but the men. The centaurs never had... Well, I'd gone swimming when I was insane... "Err..."
"Well get used to it. You'll have to do this regularly. There's a bathing pool in the palace, or so I've heard. You, being the centaur King, will probably be invited to use it. Don't know what we'll do about the tiles and your hooves..."
My human back started getting sore from the awkward position, particularly at the point where my human and horse body met. Involuntarily I flicked my skin around my human waist to try and relieve the strain.
"Don't do that!"
"This isn't the most comfortable of positions you know!"
"You're as bad as my husband!"
"Did you drown--" Then I realized that she'd suddenly fallen silent. "The Acheans killed him, didn't they?"
She was silent for a while and I tried to keep still. Finally with her arms she splashed water all over my back. "You can sit up a bit now."
With a groan I heaved my human half up until it was at about 45 degrees. I was able to hold that position with my arms on the bottom of the stream. A much more comfortable arrangement.
"Close your eyes, this'll sting otherwise."
I closed my eyes and thought about things as she soaped my mane and hair and beard, and then rubbed at my skin with strong fingers.
For years my hatred for Poseidon had kept me going. I'd used people. I'd had no qualms about using the centaurs. And now? The hate was still there. A red hot furnace beside my heart in my horse chest. It wasn't going away. But it was being joined by increasing doubts. Was I doing the right thing? Apollo had said something about my hate being too much. It was too late now. The herd had become dependent on me, they'd given themselves to fight for Troy at Illium. I had to stay with them. And Poseidon was there. The myths said he was on the side of the Greeks. He had to be there. Damn him! Damn all the gods! They'd dragged me here in the first place, and then played with me for who knew how long. They'd--
Phillipa pressed down on my back, hard, and at the sudden pressure my elbows bent and I was shoved under the water. I barely had time to grab a lungful of air. Damn women, I didn't have to--
Her fingers kneading my scalp felt nice. I could feel grit being worked out a bit at a time, oozing out from amongst the roots of my hair. Slowly she worked her way down my mane, kneading at the knots of muscle along my human back. I moaned into the water and relaxed, sinking slightly deeper. Oh god but that felt good! A few bubbles dribbled up around my nose and I moaned again. Oh god, oh god! If I hadn't been laying on my legs I probably would have stretched them out and curved my back like a house cat. Oh god but her hands felt good! Finally she reached the point where my human half melded into my horse half and her wonderful fingers worked the muscles there. Oh god, oh god, oh god! In blissful relaxation I let my face sink down onto the rocks, pillowed by the water. That had felt so good. So very very good. I fell asleep.
Strong hands grabbed me by my shoulders and yanked my human half upward just as I was inhaling. Water and air mixed inside my chest, and then I blew out a spray of water, and then I burst out coughing.
"Are you all right?!" Bionor shouted.
I inhaled again, the air gurgling down inside me, and then coughed up more spits of water. A few more breaths and I calmed down, though my lungs still gurgled. Turning, I saw Phillipa glaring at me.
"Drown you, eh?"
I realized then that I must have just inhaled the water naturally because I was so relaxed. I coughed again, and her expression changed to one of concern.
"Are you all right? I didn't mean-- You were so relaxed that I continued-- I didn't--"
"Phillipa, don't worry about it. The next massage you give me though, give to me on land."
Bionor burst in: "Stephan, are you sure you're all right?"
"I think so. I wish you'd let me sleep though."
"Oh don't worry about it. And Phillipa, thank you."
"I'm not done yet."
I looked at her.
She was holding the larger brush menacingly. "Stand up, but try not to splash yourself."
I looked at her, and then gave in to the inevitable. With Bionor's help I struggled up and onto my hooves, and then stood there, dripping and--
"Don't you dare shake yourself!"
"I need your hair wet as I brush it. And your fur, hide, whatever."
I looked at her.
She brushed me. She started with my hair and slowly working her way down. Everytime I tried to say anything, she hit a tangle and I gasped with pain. I don't think it was intentional. I hope it wasn't. From my hair she worked her way down my mane, and it wasn't any better. When it was done she worked at my beard, brushing it into a semblance of order, cutting and hacking off the edge with a dagger from Bionor, and then braiding it like a Persian king's. And when that was done, she wasn't. She turned her attention to my horse body, starting at my front waist and front legs, and then working her way back. Almost continually I winced and hissed as she worked out the tangles. My hide quivered where she brushed it, trying to get away, but there was no escape. She left my tail for last, and she brushed it first in short strokes to get at the tangles, and then in long strokes. It was after noon before she was done.
"Now out of the water, slowly. You don't want to get any dust on you."
It'd been so long I wasn't too worried, but given the way she was holding that brush, and seeing the long strands of hair she'd pulled out of its bristles still drifting downstream, I decided to obey. Carefully I walked out as she frowned at every movement, and finally I stood solely on land, water rolling off my hocks and hooves.
"It took you long enough. Though the massage was worth it."
"If you roll on the ground you won't get another one!"
"If you want, you can turn slowly sideways along the stream, and then you can turn your head and take a look at yourself."
I looked at the brush and then nodded. It was odd, but I'd never actually looked at myself before. Sure, I'd brushed hair out of my face, looked over my horse back to see if anybody was behind me. But I'd never looked at just myself. Slowly I turned, and then I looked. It was hard to see, the stream was not a quiet pool, but a continuous slow moving brook. As my eyes got used to the reflection and I saw what I really was.
In the reflection I first saw a horse, gray in colour. It was scarred, tattooed, tired, old, wise. But beneath the glowing hide muscles stood out, strong, bold, confident. They were young muscles, eager even though they'd seen everything. The horse's tail was a blinding white, glowing with strength and purity. The hair on his hind legs blended into a midnight black and swept out, obscuring but not hiding the worn and lined ivory hooves. The hooves were large, heavy; their surface was cracked and pitted. But they had strength. The horse's body stretched upward, solid with muscle. And then there was a jarring discontinuity. Both forelegs were entirely black, even the muscle which melded into the body. The hair was flecked with gray, but it didn't give the impression of age, but of wisdom and quiet strength. From the knee to the hoof the colour changed from flecked black to a milky white. The hooves were a dark brown-gray, bare of hair and with a cracked and pitted surface like the hind hooves. From the horse's body grew a human torso, outlined in muscle and tattoos and scars. The flesh was dark, very dark but not black, and crisscrossed with pale scars. Down the back was a fall of thick white hair. The strands of hair were long and straight, and poured over and onto the horse back, falling down either side. On top of the human head the hair was sparse, but there was no baldness. The face looked old, haunted, the surface was wrinkled like leather. But buried in the eyes was a twinkle of hope and a well of strength. The beard was long and tightly braided in chains that fell down the creature's chest, between his breasts, and almost half way to his waist.
Of course I didn't see all this in the reflection, the water was too rough, but I knew that this was what I looked like. I had looked at my legs, at my body, and I just knew what my face looked like.
"Now you're ready to meet King Priam."
Chapter 42: To Fair Illium
Phillipa wouldn't let me walk at any significant speed back to the camp. She didn't want my legs to get dirty. Even worse, she managed to talk the other centaurs into taking one of the hide tents the Acheans had and spreading it on the ground to keep the dirt off me. She even fed me by hand as she didn't want me dripping any grease on my new beard!
I found it was easier to just nod and say yes then to argue with her.
I slept that night on the tent with guards around me, and watchers on duty on the outskirts. Nobody had seen any Acheans but I wasn't going to take any chances and neither were the other centaurs. The price of failure was just too high.
The next day dawned gray, a thick mist drifted along the ground. Absolutely perfect! It didn't take long to form up the centaurs, and Amycos had polished my armour to a mirror shine and helped me into it. Phillipa objected, but I told her in no uncertain terms that wearing it was far more impressive then arriving wearing nothing, and if we were attacked by Acheans, it would keep me alive.
She didn't have much to say to that.
To try and minimize the chances of detection, I kept the three scout units close, barely beyond sight distance in the chilly fog. We knew the Acheans were going to be in front of us. A case could be made for sending the scouts further out on the flank, but in the fog they couldn't see anything anyway.
The herd moved at a slow canter. Slow enough that we could maintain it all day, but fast enough that Phillipa couldn't keep up easily. She tried, but eventually I heaved her up onto Doryalos' back. My armour prevented me from carrying her. As we traveled all the sounds were muffled, the clatter of our hooves on the stony ground, the clanking of my armour. Conversation was muted, it was like everybody was afraid to say anything.
The fog was starting to thin when there was a thudding of hooves from ahead and I motioned my unit and now permanent bodyguard to stop. The mist rolled like the bow wave of a ship, and a shadow appeared which quickly formed into Rhoeklas, one of the messengers attached to Younger Orios' scout unit.
"Not Acheans..." he gasped out. "Something Orios thought... you'd like to... see. A great mound... stones piled... a grave..."
"What's so special about it? There's probably lots around here."
"It's been... disturbed. Some bones could... could be seen. Not human... centaur!"
I turned to Phillipa on Doryalos' back. "Do you know anything about this?"
"There's a story I heard about it," she answered. It's not a centaur though. My grandfather said that he saw a centaur and a horse traveling together. The horse was old, and she died just before the centaur reached Illium. He built a great mound for the horse. He never told anybody why, other than that she was an old friend that he'd once wronged."
I turned to Rhoeklas. "Take us there."
Phillipa burst in: "Not too fast! Stephan can't get dusty."
I glared at her, but Rhoeklas listened led us at a fast canter instead of a gallop. It didn't take long until we were there. Younger Orios had left, and I sent Rhoeklas to catch up with him. He galloped off, the mists eating his form. Then I turned to look at the mound.
It was old, covered in dirt and overgrown with grass and small trees. The eastern corner had recently been ripped apart by somebody. Something about this place haunted me, it was like somebody was stirring ice cold fingers in the base of my skull. Motioning the others to stay behind I took a step forward.
Of course they didn't listen and Doryalos and Philyanax remained beside me. They still stopped at the physical edge of where the mound had been though. Phillipa opened her mouth to comment, but something made her close it.
I carefully stepped over and around the larger pieces of stone the desecrator's had left when they'd dug into the mound. When my forehooves were almost touching the bones of what had been buried there I stopped. The mist swirled around the rubble, swept around my legs. Its movement didn't seem natural.
Around me the others nervously stepped from hoof to hoof, the sounds muffled in the mist. But I wasn't afraid. The mound attracted me, it did not terrify me.
What I actually sensed was love and respect and sorrow. Great sorrow and pain and understanding. Sister... something whispered to me, but it wasn't sound. I knew the others didn't hear it. It was impossible though. Philya had become a tree. There was no way her bones could be here. And yet, it felt right... Carefully I leaned down, the clanking of my armour eaten by the roiling mist. I rubbed my finger along one bone and it recognized me. But the sense was faint, barely perceptible. For a timeless moment I stood there trying to recognize what I sensed. It was familiar but so faint I couldn't place it. Finally I leaned back up and carefully stepped backward away from the mound. When I was clear I turned to Doryalos. "I want this sealed up. Get the stones placed back where they once were. Don't worry about the soil, time will take care of that."
"What is it?" Phillipa asked.
"Something that has had its rest disturbed. It knows me, but I don't know what it is."
She just looked confused. But then I was confused by it too.
It didn't take long for my bodyguard to cover the bones again, and soon we were back on our way. We moved at a fast canter for a bit to make up for lost time, and then slowed back down to our earlier pace. Slowly the mist faded, soon only existing as patches in depressions. The sky was gray, filled with clouds. Rain was coming.
The sky grew darker as we continued traveling. We passed the burned ruins of a village. According to Phillipa it had been named Erigones. She hadn't even known it'd had been destroyed. Probably the same warband that we'd routed a week ago had burned and sacked it on their way east.
There was a clatter of hooves in front of us and I motioned everybody to stop as Rhoeklas galloped over a rise. "Stephan!"
"What is it?"
He gasped for breath and looked at me. "Illium! Over the... the rise... you can see... the whole plain!"
"And the Acheans?"
"You can see... their camp on... on the coast!"
"Younger Orios is waiting... at the top of the rise." Amycos pointed towards the rise in front of us. "He... he didn't want to... proceed without your orders."
"Amycos! Go and find Amlaneas and tell him to get himself and his centaurs back here. Bionardia! Go and find Ularius and tell him the same. We're going to need everybody soon." In a clatter of hooves the two messengers galloped off.
Phillipa turned to me. "You think the Acheans are going to stop you?"
"I don't know, but I'm afraid they'll try." I accelerated to a fast canter and my bodyguard and unit followed beside and behind me.
Phillipa called out, "From what I've heard, they don't hurt refugees making for Illium!"
"We're not refugees, we're soldiers. They'll want to stop us before we can join the others in the city."
"Let me go ahead then! They'll let me through--"
"They might, or they might not. I need you with us because you're our ticket into King Priam's good graces. You can vouch for us."
The rise steepened and I could hear the others panting to keep up. Doryalos loudest of all.
"Doryalos, Phillipa here is the most IMPORTANT individual in the entire herd right now. More IMPORTANT than you, more IMPORTANT than me. She's to get to the gates of Illium alive and conscious. You got that?"
"I under... understand. I'll keep... an eye on... her!"
I could see the silhouette of the Younger Orios just below the crest. He turned and trotted down to meet us whilst the rest of his unit kept looking over the ridge off into the distance. I stopped, and so did the rest, a hundred metres or so below the top.
Younger Orios stopped in front of me. "You can see the whole plain from here. The city, and what I think is the Achean camp. There's nobody on the field, nobody fighting. Not that any of us can see anyway."
I looked up at the ridge. "Doryalos, you keep everybody down here. I'm going up with Younger Orios to look. He'll be with me, and his men. I want as few as possible up there to try and keep the Acheans from seeing us. You got that?"
"If you go over that ridge, all of us are going to come galloping after you. You got that?"
I turned to face them all. "Doryalos, Isoples, Bianar, all of you. I'm not going to leave you. I said I wouldn't. I gave my word that I wouldn't. But I need to see where the Acheans are. Trust me."
Doryalos spoke for everybody. "We trust you. Don't disappoint us."
Philyanax stretched her head forward and nickered to me, I am not staying behind.
Reaching up I scratched her between her ears. "I didn't think you would. I've given up even trying to ask. Just don't get in front of me."
I turned my head to Doryalos, still scratching Philyanax. "If I need you I'll shout. As the only reason I'll need you is if we're screwed, you'd better come fast and prepared."
"Oh, we'll be ready," Bianar stated.
With that I lowered my hands to my sides, drew Apollo's bow and strung it. Then, led by Younger Orios and paced by Philyanax, I slowly walked up to the crest of the hill.
As I reached the top the rain slowed to a light drizzle, and a whisper of sun shone through the clouds.
Below me I could see the plain where so many had, and so many would, die. Far to the east I could see the great camp of the Acheans and the thousand black ships that had brought them.
And, across the plain near the coast of the wine dark sea, Illium.
Chapter 43: The Last Obstacle
I looked down at the plain and city about which so much had been written and sung as the scent of salt blew into my nostrils from the sea.
The plain was covered in long grass, yellowed and dry with the changing of seasons. Sections were torn up from the passage of chariots and bodies of men. Here and there were the stumps where there'd once been stands of trees. I guess they'd all been cut down to supply the Acheans over five years of siege and conflict.
The Greek camp was on a promontory of land to the north and east of fair Illium. A mighty space it was, the shore lined with beached open-topped vessels in front of which were thousands of tents and dim fires. The ship's hulls were painted in bright colours and designs. The term 'black ship' derived from the fact that their bottoms were tarred to prevent rot. The tents in the Achean camp were also of brightly dyed linen. There was no apparent plan to the splashes of colour. Red tents were beside green tents were beside yellow tents. Colour seemed to be a personal preference. Even from a kilometer away I could hear the faint sounds of thousands of men. There definitely weren't a thousand ships, but there were hundreds. Possibly the rest were off raiding islands and places further up and down the coast.
And then there was the city of fair Illium itself. It was not the tiny fortified besieged community whose ruins were designated Troy VIIa, it was the mighty glory of Troy VIh. The city was constructed on the edge of a steep slope that leveled out as it reached the sea. The lower portions of the wall were constructed of steeply angled brick topped by a tall section of straight wall, plastered and painted a bright red. These were topped with angled crenations in a Hittite design. Massive square towers loomed above the wall at regular intervals. Inside the walls were twenty or so massive squarish buildings. There were pillars, balconies, windows that were gay with pots of flowers, and all covered with rooftop gardens. Inside everything was painted bright colours and patterns like the Cretan palaces. The tops of the towers contained archers with glistening bronze helmets, and people stood on the building roofs looking out at the Achean camp. Gulls swooped and cried around the wall towers before swooping away above the gray-black sea dotted with crests of brilliant white.
Fair Illium lay waiting.
And that was when it all went wrong. I'd half expected it with the death of the Trojan prisoners and the delays because of Nausimedan. The survivors of our destruction of the Achean raiding band had lots of time to return to the main camp and tell them what had happened. Before I even realized it I'd drawn an arrow and fired it as unarmoured Acheans leapt out of dug holes covered in painted linen and branches. A horn blew from nearby, and hundreds of chariots in five distinct groups burst out of the Achean camp towards the rise I was standing behind.
That had been what the Trojans in the city had been watching and wondering about.
It wasn't the fault of the scouts, they'd probably never even sent anybody after us. Allow a day for the stragglers to regroup, another day for them to circle back to their camp, and a day to prepare. They knew where we were coming from and would have had just enough time. If Nausimedon hadn't delayed us we'd have made fair Illium before this happened, but it was the Acheans that had had the time. If the Trojan refugees hadn't been slaughtered by Nausimedon, they would have reached the city and they might have sent somebody out to help us.
As my first arrow sped into the eye of the nearest javelin armed skirmisher and he fell backward to the ground screaming, I'd already fired a second. I had a choice, I could fall back and organize the rest. But that would give the Acheans the high ground on the ridge. And that meant that I really had no choice at all.
"ATTACK!!" I screamed out, bounding up and over the ridge and down amongst the unarmoured Acheans.
My second arrow sank into the naked chest of another Achean and he went tumbling to the ground gurgling blood. I tried for a third, but that was when the rain and mist caused the bowstring to snap, whipping across my knuckles and drawing blood. Not wanting to lose Apollo's bow, I clasped it in my left hand as I swung my shield around off my shoulder so that my hand was in the center grip. I could barely stretch my fingers around the hide strap but it would have to do. By then I was on the ridge, and could see clearly in the light drizzle that only twenty or so Acheans were near enough to be a threat. Others were elsewhere along the ridge forming into skirmishing groups. It seemed that the Acheans hadn't known exactly where we were coming from. Drawing one of the javelins I'd taken from Ctesippus, I threw it. It went straight and true into the naked chest of an Achean that was almost upon me. He screamed and fell backwards, rolling down the hill.
I threw a second javelin at another Achean waving his bronze sword to rally the others into an organized body. Again it sped true, and it pierced through his open mouth and out through his neck. He fell to the ground, blood oozing out and staining the grass.
Then I had time only to draw my sword as I leapt into the nearest group. I swung the blade back and fourth, thrust my shield into Achean faces resulting in the crunch of cracking bone. Of course they weren't idle. Javelins thunked off the shield, and clanged off my armour. Two Acheans died to my sword, one being ripped open from right shoulder to left thigh and falling to the ground in a gory burst, the second with a thrust and twist of my father's sword into his chest. He slid off and fell to the ground screaming as he tried to hold his blood in. Two more died to my kicking forehooves, one having his skull shattered, the other his shoulder. Blood splashed my greaves and dulled the polished bronze of my panoply. The socks on my forelegs became a dark crimson, and blood oozed down the cracks of my forehooves. Philyanax was beside me, screaming out her rage. She ripped out the throat of one Achean, and trampled a second.
That was when they broke, turning and fleeing down the hillside. They threw away their swords, the few that had shields threw them aside to run faster. Leaping after them I slashed out with my father's sword and killed three more. Another I killed as my forehooves pounded into his back. He'd tripped and fallen.
The battle was glorious! Humans fled from me in all directions, the intoxicating scent of their terror thick in the air. A light rain began to fall, but it couldn't quench my fire. Behind me I heard hoofbeats, the others had crested the rise. No! If I galloped down the hill the others would follow. We'd be strung out, easy kills for the mass of chariotry racing across the plain. I forced myself to stop and watched Philyanax pull herself to a halt a hundred metres in front of me and then trot back up to stand beside me, foam flecking her mouth.
Other centaurs began galloping past me. Idiots! "HOLD DAMN YOU! HOLD!!" Doryalos and the Younger Orios added their shouts to my own, and sooner than I'd feared the stragglers slowed and trotted back up beside us.
"What the hell happened?!" Doryalos asked once the centaurs on my side of the ridge had all halted.
"It was an ambush, they knew we were coming. They dug holes and hid in them, covered themselves with disguised covers of brush and hide."
"How'd they know?!" Younger Orios burst out.
"The survivors from the infantry we broke. They would have made it back to their camp. There they told the nobles that we were a numberless horde of bloodthirsty beasts. The Acheans just had to wait as they knew roughly where we were coming from."
"You should have sent scouts--" Doryalos began.
"In the fog they'd just have gotten lost. I kept them close since I knew I'd need them if this happened. I couldn't plan in advance because I needed to see the terrain."
I heard feet running from behind and turned to see Phillipa hurrying to join the conference.
"Let her through!" Two centaurs moved and she slammed into my side trying to come to a stop. "Phillipa, as I recall there is one gate along the eastern wall, the Scaean Gate?"
"Doryalos, you take her and take the two fastest centaurs from each unit. You'll all have to share carrying her."
"But--" Phillipa began.
"You have to get her to the city alive, she's our passage in. Right now the Trojans have no way of knowing who's side we're on. At the very least they need to hold the gate open for the rest of us, at the most they'll sally out to help us. You have to get her there!"
"I remember what you told me. I'll get her there."
"Go and get started then. Gather behind the ridge and go north along it as long as possible before circling around. Then gallop for the city as fast as you can. The rest of us will be keeping the Acheans busy." More centaurs were crossing the ridge. "Doryalos, go and grab them now, Phillipa go with him. Don't argue! This is too damn IMPORTANT. Send the rest down to me, the leaders first. We don't have a heck of a lot of time." As I was saying all that, I put Apollo's bow back in its case.
"Good luck Stephan," Doryalos said, and then he was off, dragging Phillipa along behind him. At least she hadn't complained about my getting dirty. Of course she was a smart girl and probably recognized that I didn't have a lot of choice.
"Unit leaders to me, now!" I waited until Younger Orios, Ularius, Amlaneas, Melamnos, Peukadia, Orios, Hodites, Nedymnos and Rhoetus, were all around me. "Younger Orios, take your centaurs and go back and join Thaunos and the wounded." He tried to speak but I didn't let him. "No arguing! Take them with you back to our last camp and hide in the woods. I'll come back and fetch you when it's safe. If you haven't seen any of us after five days, assume we're all dead and do what you think best. Now go!"
"But Stephan, we'll miss--"
"Go damn you! Or I'll put somebody else in charge who will! I need somebody back there, somebody to remember what happened. I don't have time to argue!" With that I swatted him on his flank with the flat of my sword and he leapt away, and then made his way up and over the hill, followed by his centaurs.
I looked around at everybody else as they looked at me. "Okay, with the weather we can't depend on bowfire. When we're ready to move grab what shields you can from around us. Use them with the points down to give your legs room to move." The Acheans used them that way for just that purpose, the up pointed crescent peltastoi shield didn't come into use until the classical period. "I'm going to lead, along with the rest of my bodyguard. Nothing against the rest of you but we're the best trained and best armoured. Everybody else proceed in a crescent behind us. Ularius, Orios, Melamnos, Peukadia on the right, the others on the left. We're going to go along the top of the ridge and then charge each of the skirmisher groups in turn. When they break don't pursue them! We'll rally wherever I am." God but I wished I'd grabbed the horn from the infantry unit we'd broke before Nausimedon. "If you can't spot me, rally at the point we contacted them. Everybody clear on that?"
They all nodded.
I re-emphasized the point before continuing. "Don't pursue down the hill!
"Most combat is going to be with javelins. Throw one and then draw swords and knives for contact. If you don't have a sword, use your hooves. If you can, take shots with your bows but don't depend on them. If you have cases don't pull the bows out -- we'll need them against the chariots later. If you don't have a case then use them early. Don't worry about keeping them, we'll either be successful and get more, or be dead. Be careful when charging on the hill, the grass is slippery and the Acheans may have dug holes to trip us. Keep an eye out for them if you can. We'll move towards the skirmishers at a fast canter and only gallop at the last moment to prevent accidents on the slope, so don't let yourselves get out of hand.
"After we've pushed each skirmishing body off the ridge, we're going to make a run south and try and go around the chariots to the south."
"Won't that take us further away from the city?" Amlaneas asked.
"That's the plan. The first objective is to get Doryalos and the gallopers to the gate so we can get in. Once they're there we'll turn around and move back up this ridge. The ground isn't the best for the chariots so we should be able to stay out of the range. We'll circle around east of them, and then make for the gate.
"Why don't we attack the chariots? Charge them like we did the others?" Nedymnos asked.
"There're too many of them. This plan is going to change without warning. If I turn and charge, then everybody turn and charge. If I turn and flee, then everybody turns and flees. I won't know when I'll do either until I do it. You'll all have to keep an eye on me. Don't depend on your unit leaders."
I looked along the ridge and saw that the nearest skirmisher unit was formed up and moving towards us. The chariots were half way to the ridge.
"We've got to get going know. Use javelins, do what I do. Let us in armour go first to break their formation. Don't pursue after I stop! If they drop shields and you don't have one grab it! Pick up javelins when you can as we'll need them. Form up!"
They started moving into their units behind me and I turned and began trotting to the top of the ridge. Soon I was there and the others behind me. I watched the nearest skirmisher unit turn and began moving up hill. They started to straggle out as they climbed.
Lifting my sword I screamed out, "ADVANCE!" and began a fast canter down the slope towards the nearest skirmishers, centaurs following behind. The Acheans stopped and began forming up, the rain glistening on their naked skin.
I raised my sword up, and lowered it to point downwards as I leapt into a gallop, Philyanax beside me. "CHARGE!"
Chapter 44: Clearing the Hill
The first group of skirmishers scattered at our approach. I couldn't blame them, there were maybe thirty of them and almost a hundred of us. They threw their javelins once, and then turned and fled. I managed to deflect one that would have hit Philyanax with my shield, but Thaumelas wasn't so lucky. He tried to turn and that meant that the hungry bronze dug into his foreword hip and his lower chest.
I reared up, and wheeled around until I was beside him. Protanax guarded my back. As I yanked out the javelin I screamed out, "RALLY!" Throwing the weapon aside I healed Thaumelas. Dead Acheans littered the ground, and I heard the other unit leaders screaming out the call to rally all around. As I helped Thaumelas to his hooves, they were all around me in some order.
Looking around I spotted one of the younger centaurs. "Epheklas! Go and find Thaumos and the wounded. Grab every waterskin you can carry and bring them back. We're going to need them."
Thunder grumbled in the heavens.
"No buts! There'll be more than enough slaughter when you get back. Look over the ridge until you spot us, and then come down and join me when we rally. And be careful, this slope is going to just get worse. Now go!"
He turned and clattered up and over the ridge, his hooves skidding on the increasingly wet grass.
"If there are wounded I'll heal them if I have time, and if I can. If not they're going to have to be left behind. And that goes for me too! If we make the city we'll try to either ransom them back, or recover their bodies and give them a proper funeral pyre."
Bianar spoke up. "We can't do that! Not for you!"
"You'll do it for me and anybody else! It's the only way for some of us to make it to fair Illium this day! Everybody got that?!"
There were various muttered acknowledgements.
"Now, to the ridge! We've got another unit to rout!"
They cheered, and followed me as I trotted to the top and along the crest. The next body wasn't far, and it was significantly larger than the two we'd broken so far. I think some of those we'd chased off had joined them. They were forming up, some in front shoving extra javelins into the ground as a barrier.
"Different plan this time!" I just hoped the Acheans couldn't understand the equine accented Greek I was using. "Nedymnos, Orios, take your units, go up to just in front of the barrier, throw your javelins and then flee. Don't gallop! You won't be able to stop in time. The rest of you are with me. We'll circle around their right flank and charge when the others turn away." I raised my sword. "ADVANCE!"
That was when the sky opened up in a deluge of rain. The slope became more and more slippery, and we couldn't see more than a hundred metres. I just hoped this didn't last long. I was still moving onto the Achean flank when Nedymnos and Orios led their centaurs in the assault. I could see them sliding on the slope.
I lowered my sword. "CHARGE!"
Not moving faster than a canter, the footing was becoming too treacherous, I kept glancing up slope. Nedymnos' and Orios' units turned, and when they turned, I saw three brought down by thrown javelins. Styphelas lost his footing and slammed screaming into one of the planted javelins.
Then we impacted the flank. I led my unit into the midst of the Acheans, whilst the lighter armed centaurs swept slightly downslope from them and charged into the Achean rear as they broke. None of us took any javelins, they'd been distracted by the rain and the frontal skirmish and evade. They were so distracted that the unit didn't break until we had hacked and kicked and slew almost halfway down their line. The front of my armour was drenched in blood and gore, my legs covered in mud and blood up to my knees. Philyanax and the others weren't any better.
Turning, I began struggling up to the dead. "RALLY!" I didn't reach Styphelas in time, and Orimeos had a javelin through his human chest. "TO ME!" He asked me to put him out of his pain and I sliced his head off in a single stroke. Isoplas I was able to heal though he was weak from loss of blood.
I helped him up and told him to go and join the wounded. He didn't have the strength to fight. For once somebody didn't argue. Around me I could hear the other leaders calling out.
"TO THE TOP OF THE RIDGE!" I screamed. The rain was so heavy that I could hardly hear myself, and I couldn't see anything more than ten metres away. We'd have to wait for the rain to slow before we could continue, and fortunately it would disrupt the chariots as much as it was screwing us. I just hoped that Doryalos took advantage of the downpour to get to fair Illium.
Staggering up the slope through the rain, skidding and sliding on the grass and mud, I fought my way to the top. I could see others beside me, hear others calling. Philyanax lost her balance and slid down. I had to force myself not to go down and help her. If there were Acheans she'd have to take her chances. Fortunately there weren't.
Just as I made it to the top, the rain slowed and then stopped as suddenly as the downpour had started. On the east side of the ridge I saw Epheklas cantering towards me, his body covered in skins of water. On the west side the other centaurs were stretched out in clumps over almost 200 metres.
"TO ME! TO ME!" I screamed, waving my sword above my head. They started turning as Epheklas struggled up the hill beside me.
"Is it too--?"
"We've just started. Far too many still on the slope."
Drawing my knife I cut the leather hide holding a skin on his back and took long gulps of water from it. When I was finished I looked down. The chariots had slowed, the plain was covered in pools of water and it was obvious that some were caught in the sudden mud. Achean skirmishers were running down the slope and massing at the bottom. We were maybe a kilometer and a half from the city, and I could see bodies of mass infantry marching out from the Achean camp in good order. It looked like they were going to engage us at the bottom of the slope. I couldn't blame them, the slope was a disaster just waiting to happen.
That was when the sun passed out from behind the clouds, glinting off the pools of water that littered the plain.
I pulled out Apollo's bow and restrung it with a spare string. "It seems that we finally have some archery weather. If your bow was in the rain, replace the string. Anybody who has spares pass them out. We're going to proceed down the slope to the southwest, ending to the south of the Achean infantry line. If we retreat, we'll come back up the slope, their chariots won't be able to follow us and we can stay ahead of their foot in the short term. NOBODY IS TO ASSAULT THE CHARIOTS! Gallop up, let loose bowfire, and fall back! Unit leaders, get the waterskins from Epheklas and share them around. Nobody is to carry more than one!"
Hodites called up, he was just below the ridge. "I don't think we should go down the slope right now!"
"Agreed! We'll rest here for a bit, walk along the top slowly. Rest, relax, because when we get down on the plain there'll be no time for either!"
Turning, I held the waterskin overtop of Philyanax' open jaw and let the water dribble down until she closed her mouth. She was panting, her hide was covered with sweat. But then so was everybody else including me. I tied the skin shut and secured it to my shoulder strap.
Drawing my father's sword, I raised it above my head. "Advance south!" I moved off at a slow walk and the others formed behind me in a rough crescent pointing backward, half on the east side of the ridge, half on the west. The air got hot and muggy, I began panting for breath and slowed, everybody else, panting, did the same. Shimmers of vapours rose from the grass and the rapidly shrinking pools on the plain. The air was filled with the scent of blood and mud. I sheathed my sword.
"Water break! Be quick, we're going to walk downslope!" Sheathing my sword I took a few gulps of warm water, and then offered some to Philyanax.
No. You need!
"Philyanax, we all need! Drink or I'll force it down your throat!"
She looked at me, relented, and opened her mouth as I let more water dribble between her jaws. When she closed her mouth I tied the skin shut. I thought about berating her and having her drink more, but then I should have drank more too. And the waterskin was barely a quarter full. The others were probably worse off.
I looked around, only a couple were still drinking. Drawing my sword I called out, "PREPARE TO ADVANCE! ARCHERS BE READY! BE WARY OF MORE AMBUSHES ON THE SLOPE!" I didn't think there'd be any more, but it never hurt to be cautious. Then I began a slow walk down the slope.
The slope wasn't steep, and the grass was already almost dry in the hot sun. But the ground was still wet, and slippery. As much as possible I tried to keep to the outcrops of bare rock, but it wasn't entire possible. There was one accident, Amlanas stepped on a weak spot and the ground slipped away beneath him. He slid almost twenty metres downslope on his side. Other than a few scratches, his only wound was his snapped left hind leg from when he first fell. I was able to heal that. Afterward I had to stop and chew down some dried meat before I could go on. I couldn't see the far north of the ridge to see if they'd made it.
I had a thought "Doryal--" then I remembered where he was. "Ularius, Amlaneas! Who has the best sight?"
Ularius trotted over to me. "Peukedymnos I think."
"Send him up to the top of the ridge and have him keep an eye out for Doryalos and the others. When they make their break for the city he's to make his way downslope as best he can and let me know. Better yet, if he can find a horn on the ground somewhere from the Acheans, he's to blow it. Think he can do that?"
"He will." Ularius turned and trotted over and talked to Peukedymnos, a chestnut centaur with four white stockings and a tail that had somehow been hacked down t a stub. Peukedymnos started working his way up the slope.
Turning away I drew my sword. "ADVANCE!" And then I resumed a slow walk down the slope with the others following.
The slope grew shallower, and the footing better. I accelerated to a trot and there were no more accidents. On the plain the chariots turned and began moving in our direction, the foot marching in column behind them. A group of skirmishers that had been crouching further south on the slope got up and began moving around to get above us. Damn them!
"HALT! ABOUT FACE!" I raised my sword. "ADVANCE!"
"What the hell is going on?!" Rhoetus called.
"We've got skirmishers on the slope to deal with first. ARCHERS READY!"
I drew Apollo's bow from my shoulder, and turned my advance to the south. The Acheans were still above us, but there were less than a hundred and there was no longer time to get above them.
"FIRE AT WILL!"
I drew an arrow and let it fly, and almost 90 other arrows joined mine in flight. After that the fire became irregular due to different reload speeds, as we alternately trotted and walked upslope approaching the Acheans. I got off a second, a third, a fourth shot. It looked like half the Acheans were down. Unstringing Apollo's bow I placed it back in its holder leaving the flap open whilst centaurs around me continued firing. Then I drew my father's sword. "BODYGUARD TO ME! PREPARE TO CHARGE!"
My bodyguard gathered around me and I accelerated to a canter. The others continued bowfire. I lowered my sword, "CHARGE!" and leapt into a gallop.
All around me hooves thundered, and the bowfire slackened as the others closed with the enemy. The Acheans turned and fled before combat, and that was when others erupted from holes on our right. Fuck! I couldn't give them time to form!
"ULARIUS, ORIOS, MELAMNOS, PEUKADIA WITH ME ON THE RIGHT! EVERYBODY ELSE ADVANCE FRONT!"
I turned, and the rest turned with me. Lowering my sword I shouted out, "CHARGE" and galloped towards the nearest clump of Acheans. The only advantage we had was that they were in small groups because they'd been hiding in the pits. With thundering hooves all around I thundered into the first group. One died to a sword stroke, two more were trampled underfoot. A thrown javelin glanced off my shield, it's hunger left unsated, another drew his sword and slashed at the armour on my side, but the divinely forged bronzed deflected the blow and Philyanax tore his arm off with her teeth.
All around other centaurs burst into the small clumps, still disorganized. It was a slaughter.
And so, it turned out, was the assault against the original group. As the Achean ambush broke and fled, I heard screams off to my left and turned to see a disaster.
The primary problem in ancient warfare is communications. I had my voice, and that was it. I had turned to the ambush as it was the greater threat. Obeying my earlier instructions everybody, except Nedymnos, had turned to follow me. In other words, Nedymnos and his eighteen had charged into the disordered mass of thirty or forty surviving Acheans which had been the original target. The humans had stood to receive the charge, and now had surrounded Nedymnos and his centaurs. Nedymnos had lost the momentum of his charge and the surviving twenty or so Acheans were slaughtering them.
I raised my blood dripping bronze sword. "TO THE RIGHT! CHARGE!" Turning, I leapt into a gallop towards the embattled centaurs. Around me others tried to follow, but they were exhausted, or still engaged. I was panting for breath, the pads under my armour were soaked in sweat. Beside me Philyanax struggled to keep up, her head hanging low.
I slammed into the rear of the Acheans like a thunderbolt. They'd been so intent on the slaughter that they hadn't heard me coming. Probably a good thing as Isoples was the only centaur with me. He threw a javelin as we approached, the glistening bronze piercing the naked flesh. Then the three of us were upon the Acheans. The first stroke of my father's sword pierced into the naked side of one, passing between two ribs and sliding ont just before the spine in a spray of blood. Isoples had another javelin in his hand and shoved it through the back of another Achean, the hungry bronze glistening redly as it sprung out of its victim's chest. Philyanax reared up screaming, kicking with both forehooves and crushing the skull of another human, her hooves punching through the boar tusk helmet and skull in a spray of bone and brain. With that the Acheans broke, and other centaurs went thundering after them.
Nedymnos was dead. Something had clubbed in his skull leaving behind a gooey mess of bone and brain and blood. Four other centaurs were also dead, legs shattered, javelins sticking out of their human and horse bodies. None of the other fourteen were unscathed. Most had minor scratches, but two I had to heal. I sent them to join Thaunos and the other wounded.
Yanking the waterskin off my shoulder belt I drained it and thew it away. "RALLY! RALLY TO ME!" I screamed out and turned around. Most heard me and turned back. One had somehow fallen into one of the pits and I knew he was dead too. On top of the rise I could see Peukedymnos standing which meant that Doryalos hadn't made his gallop yet. Turning back I looked at who was still living and spotted Pale Styphelos and put him in command of what was left of Nedymnos' unit. At the bottom of the hill the Acheans were forming up, the columns of infantry were expanding into large groups of ordered spear backed by archers. I looked at the sea of chariots in front. Most were covered in plain oxhide, their colour a patchy white and brown or black. A few were dyed colours. One was dyed blood red and its warrior was armoured in glittering bronze and carrying a spear more massive than any I'd ever seen. I remembered the lliad:
Last, from its case he drew his father's spear,
Long, pond'rous, tough; not one of all the Greeks,
None, save Achilles' self, could poise that spear;
The far-fam'd Pelian ash, which to his sire,
On Pelion's summit fell'd, to be the bane
Of mighty chiefs, the Centaur Chiron gave.*
Chapter 45: The Final Conference
I looked down in dismay as the centaurs gathered around me. The infantry could be avoided. The trick was to keep them focused on us, and not on Doryalos and his group which meant that we couldn’t get too far away. The chariots were a different matter. Although we were faster, we were not that much faster. I hated to do it, but the best thing I could think of was to shoot and evade the chariots again and again. It would be hard on the chariot horses, but anything else would be much harder on us. I'd already lost too many centaurs.
"Leaders, to me!"
The centaurs parted to allow the unit leaders through.
I spoke loudly so that everybody could hear, but made sure that each of the unit leaders were paying close attention. "Now comes the hard part. The infantry we can avoid. Don't get closer than twice bowshot range unless I specifically give the order. That'll make them ineffective."
"Which leaves the chariots," Peukadia said.
"Which leaves the chariots. We're going to have to move up, fire one or two rounds of arrows, and then withdraw. There're too many of them to circle, and it's possible they could try to box us against the infantry. A lot of you know my opinion about killing the chariot horses, but now we don't have much of a choice. I want to slowly drift south. When Peukedymnos signals that Doryalos has begun his gallop for the gate, we'll swing around the infantry, but not get close enough to fire. If they send skirmishers forward, we'll take a shot or two at them. At that point we'll start moving northward towards fair Illium."
Rhoetus burst in: "This kind of fighting isn't right! It's not honourable!"
I sighed. "Rhoetus, this is as honourable as any other fighting. I don't like this either, too much can go wrong. But if we go after the chariots they'll wipe us out. Remember, they outnumber us at least ten to one."
"But Stephan, you led us here to die with honour and to be remembered. What's wrong with dying against the chariots now?"
"Rhoetus, you're right. And yes, I've thought about it. But, consider this. If we go after the chariots we'll destroy a bunch, and then we'll all die. Nobody will know we're not barbarians. Our sacrifice will be meaningless. If we survive to fight for Troy, then the Trojans will know what we now are, and they'll tell the Acheans. Because others will know of us as civilized beings, those who survive this madness will know of us as civilized beings, and that is how we'll be remembered."
Rhoetus bowed his head in shame. "I'm sorry. I should have trusted you."
"Rhoetus! In these conferences everybody is free to speak what they wish. I'm not perfect. The ambush on the slope never occurred to me. Any ideas you, any of you, have, tell me! However," I snapped the next words out, "once we're engaged, you have to obey me." My voice went back to normal. "No more questions?"
The leaders nodded.
"So, does anybody else have any thoughts?"
Various negatives were muttered.
I turned and looked at the massed Acheans. "If a small group of chariots separates from the mass, I may assault it. I can't guarantee that it'll happen, and you'll have to follow me immediately if it does."
Hodites asked, "Should we initiate an assault if we see an opportunity?"
"Ummm... No." He frowned. "Not because I don't trust you, it's because of the risks. My bodyguard is best suited for an assault. We have the best weapons, the best armour, and we're the most skilled. If one of you leads a charge, even if it's an ideal opportunity, then you'll get mauled by the heavier armed warriors."
"However, if you see an opportunity to close to javelin range on an isolated group, I will leave it to your discretion. Just be absolutely sure you can get back out and onto this slope if you go in. Anything else?"
"One last thing. Do you see the red chariot?" I pointed. "Do NOT engage a unit led by that one for any reason. If they block your only way to escape, then, and only then, do it, but do not under any conditions try to attack the warrior in the red chariot. If you do, he'll kill you."
Rhoetus burst out. "You can take him!"
"No Rhoetus, I can't. That is Achilles, the best of the best of both sides in this war. The gods protect him. His skin is invulnerable, or so legend goes. His horses are divine, gifts from Zeus. Fighting him is certain death, and there's no shame in fleeing from certain death."
I waited and only heard silence, and the shuffling of hooves.
"It's almost noon, if this takes too long we'll have the sun in our eyes. Be aware of that. This hill is our retreat, the chariots can't come up after us, and we can stay ahead of the infantry in the short term. Go to your centaurs, rest a moment, drink a bit of water. We're going straight down the slope and there won't be time for anything but fighting and galloping once we get there."
The leaders turned and made their way back to their units. Philyanax lovingly began nibbling on my mane. Beside me, his captured armour clanking, Isoples turned to me and spoke in a low voice, "We're not going to make it, are we?"
"Oh we'll make it. Some of us. Against anybody but Achilles I'd be certain almost all of us would make it. With him out there it's going to cost us." I turned to him. "If Achilles takes me down, leave me. If I engage him, take advantage of the distraction and lead everybody towards fair Illium. Don't let me be forgotten."
"If I fight him, I won't survive."
"Enough! We have a battle to fight." I drew my sword and raised it. "ADVANCE!" Then I began trotting down the slope which was now almost completely dry. If I was going to die today, Poseidon unhurt, then that was my destiny. For now I had something more IMPORTANT than my vengeance.
The air was hot, still, muggy. I heard the thudding of hundreds of hooves all around me, and the faint roar of thousands of men on the plain below. I could smell blood, and sweat. But, Ixion's blood rose inside me. This was glorious, wonderful. This would be sung through the ages!
Just as we reached the plain I heard a gurgled blast of a horn faintly from behind. It was followed by a longer clearer burst. Stopping, I looked up and saw Peukedymnos on the ridge waving his hands. He blew the horn again, its sound echoing across the plain, before turning to canter down to join us.
Doryalos had finally begun his gallop.
Chapter 46 - Racing Achilles
As we'd made our way down to the plain, the chariots had been advancing 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, and more coming down from 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 Achean 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 close to three hundred chariots. I turned further to my left, further to the south, until I was moving perpendicular to 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 another one in a fluid motion, and let it go. The chariots were maybe a hundred metres away. I winced as chariot horses screamed and went down, one chariot lost its driver and careened into a second.
That was when I heard a loud voice from the Achean line shout out "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 one day would, 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 started panting for breath and realized that others all around were doing the same, had done so 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.
Then we were on the slope. I leapt over an outcropping of rock, slipped on a patch of gravel, but kept going. Sweat dripped off my sides under my armour. I could hear Philyanax gasping for breath, spittle coming from her nose with each exhale. She was falling behind and I slowed to allow her to keep up. There were shouts from behind and I snuck a quick glance backwards. The chariots had stopped, maybe twenty were behind the main group damaged or missing crew or horses. The 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.
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 were probably lower, they'd been firing all morning on the slope.
I slowed to a trot. The Acheans 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. The fire began to slacken, ammunition and exhaustion were taking their toll.
The Acheans 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 the thunks of arrows 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, he stumbled, tripped, and slammed into the ground. From the angle of his neck he broke it in the fall. At least the main ranks of infantry were still far away, and that meant that we still had archer superiority.
"CEASE FIRE! CEASE FIRE!"
Slowing to a walk I turned slightly upslope. The Acheans waited a moment, and then lowered their shields and let the skirmishers through their line. Once again they began advancing.
I quickly counted my arrows -- eight left. I had a higher rate of fire, so I guessed the others had maybe eight to ten left.
That was when Peukedymnos reached us. The others let him through as we all continued at a walk northwards. Turning my waist, I looked at him.
"Doryalos made his break for it. 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!" Glancing around I watched my orders obeyed.
Then I turned and watched the Acheans. They'd fallen into columns to better pursue us, and were slowly catching up. I could see Achean skirmishers spreading out in front of us along the slope. I looked beside me, Philyanax was barely able to keep up. I looked around, the others weren't much better.
The Acheans had to be delayed, 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 response was immediate. "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 Acheans 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. I doubt we can maintain a pace any faster than this for a significant period, and I'm worried about us maintaining this pace."
Hodites nodded. "I've been worried about that too and--"
"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 GOD YOU WILL! BY GOD 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. I didn't believe that. "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 to remember me. To make the Trojans remember me, to remember all of us!"
Peukedymnos spoke up. He'd come back to see the other leaders about his arrows. "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. They weren't going to go, stubborn idiots. And yet, 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. "You're all wrong, but if you're all fixed on dying 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 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 Thermopolae. "Then we'll fight them in the shade!"
That was greeted with laughter. At that instant I forgot about Poseidon, forgot about my vengeance. I knew then that I would willingly die for them, for all or any of them. Unfortunately none of that was an option. I sighed, and 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 in fighting. 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 Achean 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. I should have taken some from Peukedymnos, but I hadn't thought of it. Too late now.
I began moving at a walk, again perpendicular to the Achean line. They'd stopped. They must have seen us ready bows and were beginning to fall back.
"TWO SHOTS ONLY! FIRE!"
A rain of arrows leapt up and into the Acheans. 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. There would be a momentary disorder as the skirmishers passed through the lines. "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. Acheans fell, the skirmishers fled through the ranks, shields were raised.
"CEASE FIRE! CEASE FIRE!"
We only had one more shot. It would have been nice to get to the far end of the Achean 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 it was not to be.
"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 turn as a body but couldn't, a few on the end turned to face us. "FIRE!"
I fired one arrow, two, three, and then that was it. Around me fire slackened. The Achean line was disordered. Achilles was near the center, struggling through the men around him.
I slung Apollo's bow back into its case and drew my sword, raising it 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 Achean line was almost like hitting a wall. When we'd fought the raiders we'd hit them from behind, our attack totally unexpected. Here at least some 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 Acheans answered with a pitiful few. I could even hear the Acheans 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 pushed the point aside 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 Achean I ran into had dropped his spear and swung at me with his sword. With both my own strength, and my momentum, the swing of 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.
A glance around showed that the centaurs were enveloping the end of the 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 Acheans that pressed against us. Their momentum helped me thrust aside an Achean in the third rank. He deflected my sword, but leaned to the side enough that my body thrust past him and pushed him in front of Philyanax who ripped out his throat.
By now I was moving at just a walk. Behind me I could hear screams, but I couldn't turn to see what was happening? Could I save them? Could they be healed? There was no way that I could reach them. 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 stumbling forward overtop of the Achean that killed him. I continued forward, as Bianar leapt over his falling corpse, his hind hooves smashing through Isoples' human chest. I only tore my glance away when another Achean sword slammed against one of the bronze plates protecting my human front. If it had been mortal forged, it would have passed through and into my chest. But it was from Hephastus, and it resisted the blow, but stopped my motion. So I reared, and with scarred hooves kicked him with one each in his chest and head. His chest blossomed in a spray of crimson, and his skull cracked on one side around my other hoof, spraying gore and brain outward. Falling down I trampled his body to make sure.
The killing went on. I kicked and reared. With one stroke I slashed at an Achean, slicing, or rather forcing the dulling blade of my father, through his chest or shoulder. Or I would slam him 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, holding 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, a sword sliced along the side of his horse half and he stumbled into me, before collapsing downward. 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, kicking front and rear hooves, the Acheans couldn't kill her.
More Acheans 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 Acheans would be able to press their attack against my rear, and there I had no defense. I hoped there were still centaurs following, but I could no longer tell.
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.
I'd had Anarcharax stolen from me. I'd abandoned Modyexa and Souliux. Raparthax had died. No more!
I turned, reared up on my fore legs and kicked out backwards, feeling my hooves crunch into the chest of someone. 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 reach her, only had to touch her for a second. Pulling my shield tight against my chest I leaned into the weight of Acheans 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 Acheans. The only sound in my ears was Philyanax's screams.
I shoved my shield forward, twisted it slightly, swung it around. Its edge slammed through naked chests, sliced through bare throats. I turned around and around, 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 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 could see centaurs in the distance, falling further and further behind. Being pushed away as they tried to reach me, falling one by one. Behind them I could see the banners of the main mass of the Acheans closing. I turned around further, kicking and screaming like an animal, slicing out with my sword, slamming my shield into arms and faces. Acheans 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 would never get up. There were too many Acheans around me. More swords sliced into my rear, one cut through a hind leg and I fell, but it healed, slower this time. I had limits. 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 was like walking on land in one of those old hard helmet diving suits and two hundred pounds of weight. One fore hoof touched something soft. It was Philyanax. She was alive, she was--
Again I thrust my shield out, again Acheans 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 me. But she didn't stay with me, with Modyexa and Sauliux. In a last act she gave the energy of her being 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 Acheans 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.
I looked up, looked around. The Acheans had fallen back. Why? In the distance behind me I could hear the thunder of combat. Silently others formed a circle around me. These Acehans were not like the others. All were armoured in bronze, none were naked. 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.
My mouth open as I panted for breath. Even with Philyanax's sacrifice I could barely stand. The ground was slick and wet. I heard the faint calls of my name behind from the others 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 through the blood and gore that drenched me. "You won't... have her!"
"It sounds like a horse." 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 and it came hissing 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. Making a continuous roll, he 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 god but 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, and then stopped.
Somewhere in the distance I heard a horn. Was it Peukedymnos? Were the Trojans coming? Or were the masses of Achean infantry moving in? I had no way of knowing.
Achilles move like a cat, almost bouncing on his feet even beneath 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. I hoped that the javelin would become lodged in it and force him 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 wasn't enough to penetrate.
Achilles leapt forward then, his shield high, his sword low for a thrust.
I reared, stepped back, getting just enough time to draw my sword. With my right leg 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 knew that I was good enough to possibly beat him. A glory at killing an enemy. An uncertainty at facing something he'd never fought before. A glee at doing what he did best. His breathing was slow, easy, he wasn't in the least bit tired.
I was barely managing to stand. My breathing was loud and harsh.
Suddenly he moved forward, his sword lashed out. I whipped my shield down. His sword twisted, beat its way past my shield. My sword pushed up thunking against his blade. His sword twisted upwards, scraped against my 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 over his arched shield. His shield moved upward pressing away my arm. 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 and thrust itself deep into my crotch.
Chapter 48: Tutor and Son
I just stood there as the pain burst through me. An explosion bursting from my crotch. An explosion 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 would grow, and then part on the sharp and hungry bronze which was slowly consuming me.
I looked up as Achilles looked 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 more 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 that armour of yours can't be worn by any of us."
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. I could not die. I could not be killed. But I could face an eternity of pain. Chiron had faced that, and had given his immortality to Prometheus. Who could I give mine to? If the Acheans 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 god 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... 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 scraping tearing as something was ripped out of me. Bronze that had begun life was torn away and it transformed back to inanimate metal.
I felt the pain change, metamorph. It became no longer pain, 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. The 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 were no ghosts here. They were souls, spirits… No, no, there was 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 OEneus 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 had fought on opposite sides. They'd 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 he was the adopted son of Chiron as Chiron had raised him, and I was Chiron's father, that I was his adoptive grandfather.
And that was why he'd let me live.
I knew! I knew why! 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 a 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. 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 essence to aid me.
I didn't deserve it!
"You should still be resting."
I spun around, and the room spun 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 read 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 dead. The one's she killed, you killed. All the dead of the battle two days ago."
Thank god, thank god. 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!"
"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 Acheans 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 Acheans. 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 speaking to you as you collapsed. He turned to Doryalos and said that you were his kin, and that he'd done great harm in attacking you. In recompense he swore the Acheans 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 Acheans 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 Acheans 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 Acheans. 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 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.
What had I done? I'd told the centaurs that we would fight with honour and for glory. I'd done so, even against horrific odds. I'd always been kind to others except when they were trying to kill me, and even then I killed them as quickly and as cleanly as I could. I'd offered Phillipa and the others the best hospitality I could offer. I was not married, but a case could be made for the centaurs being 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 within the requirement of making their lives mean something. Pride in being human? Well that was more pride in being centaur. Did I like being a centaur?
That was an interesting question. I'd always 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 everymen'. In an ideal world within 20th century culture there would be no heroes. Heroes always had to be flawed, or be lucky, or be minimized. Even in movie adaptations of heroic myths they'd been changed. They had to debate if they were doing the right thing. They could never be certain of themselves. They could never be heroic. Certainly there were exceptions, and yet it was a movement that had been gaining strength.
Here there were heroes. Living, breathing heroes. Heroes who would live on in the human psyche for millennia. It was what I'd told the centaurs I would make them achieve. Not help, make. 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.
So, by the classical definition, I was a hero. No! That was a 20th century excuse to push off my heroism, to make me a normal individual. I was a hero, I had to accept it. But I had to accept it without falling prey to hubris.
But why did the centaurs worship me so? 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 did they ever win 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 a 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 was not Phillipa, it was 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 half way 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."
I remembered that Pandarus had been the King of Zelia. He'd probably hoped to use his daughter to continue his alliance with the Trojan kings. And then Paris got and 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 turned and leaned over to pick up the lamp.
"And leave the lamp."
"Yes my Lord." She turned and gracefully walked from the room, closing the door behind her.
I hope she'd listened to me. With Aeneas and Ascanius she might survive the hell of the next five years. Although I wondered if sending her on Aeneas' journey to Italy was 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 go 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. Then I remembered that maybe I should have knocked, but it was too late. Fortunately it didn't matter. 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 Cretan style toilet. Stepping up, I let loose. It took a while. There was a wooden lever and I pulled it, and water sluiced in and drained out and given the Cretan design, it was probably from a roof cistern system. I wondered what happened if the tanks drained. Probably slaves or servants refilled it.
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 had always fit, to my mind anyway, with the mythology.
Of course, given that I was in a cave beneath the sea near Thera, it was possible that this was all being taken and 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 pushed the door shut behind me and let the simple wooden latch catch. Xanthia was waiting. "King Priam is eager to see you. He's in the King's chamber. If you would follow me...?"
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 and overwhelmed 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. To 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 identify 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 the 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, "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 which was a classical greek robe consisting of a single piece of clothing that was essentially a shirt with a skirt that pass 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 next one in green. His head was bare, and he was starting to go bald. Sitting beside 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 at the waist. "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 stated.
"Thank you for the offer." Why was I here? Hecabe was pointedly ignoring us, instead concentrating on braiding a pattern into leather strips.
King Priam took a sip from a fine glass cup that was sitting on a polished wood table, and then put it down again. I could smell the wine and forced myself to ignore it. He looked at me for a while as the cheers from the plains drifted up and around us.
"What is 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 would allow for Hector. "Umm... Are my cent-- people causing you any problems?"
"Doralos has kept them in order."
"Do you mean DorYAlos?"
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 in the late bronze age. Or lack thereof. Priam was just performing socially acceptable behaviour. He'd actually gone beyond the expected by letting her watch the games.
King Priam leaned forward. "Stephan, why are you here?"
"Why? Didn't Doryalos tell you?"
"I wish to hear it from you." I flinched from the intensity of his eyes.
"We came here to help you in your war against the invading Acheans."
"Umm... What did Doryalos tell you?"
"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 glory monger."
"What were we supposed to do? Just fade away into history and die?! There are NO MARES! We could either die in ignominy, 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 understandable. Why Troy? Why help me?"
"Because we did!"
He raised his eyebrows.
Why'd I say that? Slow down, work out my thoughts. "We did because a prophecy I asked for as a solution to our problem of dying in ignominy said 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's not going to kill me. If the Acheans 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. 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. I forced my need for the wine down. "It is an odd thing to want to kill the unkillable."
"A prophecy from Delphi stated that I had to come here and fight him."
"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, the 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. In surprise I realized what it was: a kernel of justice, and not hatred. "He killed my family. He made me kill those I'd grown up with. He made me perform incest with my sister. He has gone beyond 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."
"The 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 him.
"I know that fair Illium is going to fall to the Acheans. And you do too, don't you?"
All I could do was nod.
"When the Acheans 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 will found a new city which, in a thousand years, will conquer all the Acheans and hold them in servitude for a thousand years." Until the western Roman Empire collapsed and the Greek world survived free for another thousand.
"He 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 turned and walked off the balcony 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, and 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. Turning, 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' rotated it enough to leave a gap big enough for me to pass through. Panting for breath he walked through and I slowly 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 stools. 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 ran to her father's arms and he was holding her.
I remained silent and waited.
"I'm here again 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."
Why would Priam want to flee? This was fair Illium! The Greeks would never break it. What was I saying, 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 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 wide 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, 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. She'd been whispered the future by snakes hissing in 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."
I won't die. How could I die? No think, she's telling the truth!
"Soon you will die, die at the hands of Calchas!"
Her eyes drew me, and the only sound for a moment was the hissing of the snake 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 couldn't die! Poseidon would 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's voice stating '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 and turned 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. "King Priam, how did you learn that she told the truth?"
"Little things she said, things that always ended up in truth. Observations, conclusions."
"Then why don't you try and change it?"
He sighed. "Every story I've heard proved that the prophecies always come true. The more you try and halt it, the worse the ending becomes. Oedipus 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 alone. They could have had him ritually kill his father after he was dead. 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, it 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 turned and started walking and I trotted after him, the clatter of my hoofs 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 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 to know that you can do nothing to stop it. That was when I realized why he'd taken me to her, taken me into his confidence.
He knew that 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 their deaths mean something. He'd chosen to let his people 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, and 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 and then she stopped in front of 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?"
Odd how her address changed. 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 was one of the peerless walls of fair Illium. She turned left and I followed, having to trot 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. Could it have?
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, and then motioned us through with his spear. She turned and I followed her through a short passageway, past another open gate and onto the fields of Troy.
Stopping she turned to me, pointing. "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 hearing of all the times that Alexander III of Macedon, later named the Great, had been rumoured killed, and how 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 people saw me and 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 Acheans 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, and I somehow knew that 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. Looking at his face I realized that it was lined, scarred, and far far older than it had been the last time I'd seen him. Looking around I saw that the few who were left, only twenty three, were all scarred and old. 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 God... 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 refute something they'd done.
"I tried, I really tried..."
"I know. We all know. But you survived, and we survived."
I couldn't speak. All the 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 would think that it would be weaker than when there had been so many voices, but now it was stronger. The Acheans 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."
"You came closer than most."
An old man spoke up, his hair gray, his head nearly bald. "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 and from the scar on his thigh I guessed that he was Odysseus.
I couldn't help but smile. They were like school boys. "I'd offer to race you, but I don't have a chariot."
They all laughed. Their laughter was rich, but I could hear a hint of sadness in that of Odysseus.
He burst in. "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? "I've heard that you can shoot an arrow between twelve axes without it touching a single one."
"I've been said to do that."
"Too bad my bow is not here, and your bow awaiting your return home."
Odysseus' eyes widened at that, and the others laughed. Except Old King Nestor. He looked at me with a new respect.
It was Ajax, oddly enough, who spoke next. "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. "At fair test. Are you agreeable King Stephan?"
"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. Around me I could feel the sure knowledge from the centaurs 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. Neither of us wanted to be here. Odysseus had faked insanity to try and stay home. Both of us feared what this contest turn into. 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 gap vertically 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 pulled out and a different one put in its place.
There was a voice from the back of the crowd and both Trojans and Acheans parted to let Ajax through. He was carrying a single bow and two quivers, each with twenty arrows. Somehow Odysseus and I had ended up 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 and passed it first to me, and 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.
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 and before he slew all the 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 renewed battle?
Old King Nestor called out, "A true shot!" and the Acheans and most of the Trojans cheered.
Odysseus stood up and handed me the bow. "Your shot." I could tell that 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 was 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 somehow without a winner."
I nodded, and crouched down. "I will have my tenth shot hit the twelfth axe, you do the same."
He nodded grimly.
My seventh and eighth shots were true, and so were Odysseus'
Doryalos trotted over and whispered to me, "I don't like this."
"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."
My and Odysseus' ninth shots were true also.
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 having time to hear 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 and Odysseus understood it 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.
With a tink the bronze head hit the twelfth axe.
"The twelfth axe!" Old King Nestor called out.
All the humans cheered, the centaurs remained silent.
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.
He carefully aimed, this time much more carefully than before.
He pulled and loosed and with a tink he too hit the bronze axe.
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 the 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, stating that I was still weak from my wounds. 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 took his turn to talk to me and thank me. Did they know I was going to die? I wished that I could say good bye, 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. 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?"
"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," Old King Nestor responded. "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. "And 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 the other was effectively his equal. After that it was all showmanship. 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 the needs of us over your own."
More time passed and the sun began to set. 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. The sides were a 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 and soon all the others knew and they pressed themselves tighter around me. If 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 arrive and tell me about my son.
Chapter 55: The Death of Chiron
Achilles' chariot rattled to a stop a short distance away and I watched as his two horses, Balios and Xanthos, bowed their heads to me. They were divine, gifts from Zeus to Achilles. And they spoke to me: We offer honour to our sire.
By then Achilles had leapt down and was making 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.
Balios and Xanthos ended their bow, shook their manes, and then started nibbling on the sparse patches of grass.
"Your horses. They showed their respect to me."
"You can understand them?"
"It's a gift. I can understand all horses. Long long 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."
"Achilles, I'm sorry. I'm old, possibly too old. And yes, I was that mare."
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 legends, myths that I remembered. But I'd never told them of my past.
"Achilles, I've changed many times. Ages ago I was human, then Poseidon stole me from my life and made me his. Eventually he made me into a horse, his gift to Kekrops."
Achilles looked at me for a while. "There are many who, if they said that, I wouldn't believe. But Chiron told me the whole tale, and you are indeed his father. You told me this story when I was a child, and then it was filled 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, it wasn't me who told you that. I would have remembered." Unless I did it whilst I was insane. Could that be it?
"King Stephan, you told me that when I met you at fair Illium you'd be confused. You told me to tell you to trust to your fate. You told me that I would meet you again, and how. Until I saw you on the ground, dying, I'd forgotten about it."
It must have been when I was mad. There was no other answer. 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 different words, tried subtly different meanings for each word. It had never made any sense. And yet, if what Achilles was saying was true, then maybe the impossible was about to happen.
Impossible. 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 did he die? I was there when he was wounded, but then I fled. My mind wasn't my own."
"You were there. You were with him till the end, you and Heracles. I'd left him then and it was Heracles who came and told me the end of the story. By accident he'd 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 own 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 that is."
Me? 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. I was afraid that if Achilles didn't continue I'd attack him. Fortunately he did.
"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. Then the eagle would 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 told him that only Chiron could save the Titan. Only Chiron had what sacrifice would be needed.
"For three days you watched as Chiron screamed and struggled in the grip of his fever. Chiron had left a drink and told you that it was only to be given to him 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.
"That was when you told 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.
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!
It was a voice I'd never heard before, and yet there was a hint of familiarity about it. Jerking my head up, blinking back tears, I looked as an Achean warrior calmly walked south along the cliff towards us. His hair and skin were glistening wet and he was carrying only a figure-eight oxhide shield, a javelin, and a sheathed sword.
Blinking my eyes to clear the tears I saw that 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 seers that accompanied the Greeks. 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.
Now I knew that Poseidon had 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!"
"I'm waiting 'King' Stephan!" Poseidon, disguised as Calchas, spit out.
Putting my hand on Achilles' shoulder I said loudly so that everybody would hear. "That is not Calchas. It seems that Poseidon has chosen that form in which to face me."
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 then 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: "You know Stephan that none of us will leave you. You can't make us leave 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 TOO, 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.
Drawing the sword and dropping the scabbard, 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 will knock 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 that choice. 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! You don't need 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, 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 than it seemed that he'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 it is completely fair," he stated.
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.
I could feel my body trying to heal, but it couldn't. As when Achilles had left his sword in my body, the same one he leant me, my healing fought but failed. Then I'd begun to bond with the metal, make it part of me. But now, as Poseidon kept moving it around, my body couldn't affect the metal.
And, oh god, 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 and the organ 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 gave him my life, my soul, my divinity.
It poured out of me, and a part of me went along with it. I felt Poseidon's mind. I felt my mind. Poseidon was me! And beyond him, beyond a wall he was holding, a totality of knowledge. I glimpsed just the surface of it, but it was a cold bitter surface. Beyond the surface was the knowledge of everything that had ever happened, that would ever happen. Holding the knowledge a cold desperation that was trapped and could never escape. And knew absolutely that it could never escaped.
It was worse than the pain that had consumed me and 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
Chapter 57: Spirit
All around me I could see darkness, broken only by sparks of light. Most were dim, a few shone brightly. Almost all were sealed somehow, protected inside some kind of force field. But there were other free souls, spirits. I saw one in the distance and it saw me. Instantly it turned and was inside me, and I was inside it.
Memories from it spilled into my mind, just as it sucked memories out of my mind. It was a fight, a desperate struggle to keep our mind and steal the others. I was stronger, I could sense the mares who had joined me, who were now part of me, helping.
I ate memories like a ripe fruit. A warmth filled me as experiences replaced the endless stillness that I existed in. I remembered being born in an arcology. Growing up with my parents and falling in love with my AI teacher. I remembered crying in my mother's arms when I found out that my teacher was just an AI, and a low level one at that. I remembered drifting in orbit in a nanite exposure suit and working with others on the upper station of the first beanstalk, an elevator that stretched from the earth up to orbit. The first of many. I cried as Harry died due a malfunction in his nanites that caused his blood to boil into space before anybody could help him. I screamed in pain as a cable snapped and whipped through the vacuum, cutting Mary in half, and chopping my right leg off at the thigh. It'd taken a month back on earth to regenerate a new one.
And I remembered the growing horror as the AIs and Augments grew far far beyond humanity, far far beyond what I was into incomprehensibility.
After construction on the beanstalk was complete, I took a year off. I joined a group that was becoming terrified of what the extreme edge of humanity was becoming. I had gills implanted, and swam into the deeps to escape to a world that would protect me from the change I knew was coming.
And I remembered drowning as Naiads surrounded me.
Was I dead? And if I was, was this Illysium? But it wasn't. But, all around me were the dead. The souls, the spirits. Souls trapped in this dark place. The sparks I couldn't reach must be souls, spirits inside bodies. Like I used to be. But why? Why was this all going on?
And that was when a swarm of five spirits sped into and around me. They fought as a unit, each pulling in a different direction, one letting go and helping another as I tried to fight back. I managed to grab one and in a single action the mares and I sucked all of its memories into me. Then the other four fled. The one I'd drained fled too, dimmer than it had been.
More memories flooded into me. Once I'd been a psychologist, specializing in those who refuted the world of the arcologies. There had been two types. The first type, and most common, were the descendents of either those who couldn't take a fully technologically dependent world and fled outside. Most of those died, but a few who had gotten genemods were able to survive, and even thrive. The second type were those from the poorer countries, or those who, when the arcologies had first been built, had been abandoned by society. Sometimes they were less intelligent, less worthy of a place in society. But most were simply the lower classes, the ones that everybody wanted to just ignore and get away from. A surprising number of those had survived, somehow managing to breathe the toxic air for the short duration of their lives, somehow living long enough to breed before the poisons killed them.
Throughout my life I helped thousands return to civilization. I'd given them tests, discussed their status with AIs, sent those who needed it into hospitals where nanoviruses would rebuild their damaged genetics and increase their intelligence and physical stats to their optimum values. A few, most often the intelligent ones, would kill themselves rather than be helped. I'd never understood that.
When I was not working, I immersed myself in one of millions of gestalt consciousnesses that were developing out of the bonded system of enhanced minds and AIs. I played games in more and more complex simulated realities. At first they were conventional, but as we advanced as a whole they became more and more unusual. Non-euclidean geomorphic playgrounds, universes where physical laws were different, universes where physical laws changed, either gradually or suddenly. To all of us the universe was a toy that we were growing to understand. The physical structure of reality was beginning to make sense. There were hints of boundless vistas of knowledge and energy and dimensions within the four we perceived. Unfortunately, none of us could stay within any gestalt permanently. It was a strain, a great effort that left one exhausted and asleep for days or even weeks. After a session only fragments of the dreams remains, and echoes of knowledge from experts in other specializations. Within a gestalt I was content to be a follower. A useful follower, but not a leader. I wanted to go on the journey, but I was afraid to lead it.
As I result I needed to stay close to the cutting edge, but not on it. I'd wait three or four weeks until a new biomechanical enhancement was understood and accepted before receiving it. I'd always been cautious about the technology, but not about the doctors.
The clinic I choose that last time was controlled by a group dominated by the meme of humanity. A fanatic anti-enhancement group. They took out my brain and kept it in a suspension capsule. I'd learned from other spirits that this group had taken me to this world to save me from what humanity was becoming. They'd died and eventually my support system had failed and I'd died.
For a while I avoided other spirits. When I saw them coming I fled. But, I learned that fleeing was only a temporary solution. There was no heat, no cold, no taste, no touch, no smell. Just the same nothingness with sparks of life that I tried to avoid. There seemed to be no way of communication other than by memory theft. I found a few dim dim spirits which I investigated but realized that they were spirits with nothing. They had no memories, no experiences. They were in a pure pre-born stasis waiting and prepared for rebirth but unable to achieve it. Their minds were waiting, unable to change without sensations. Here they could never get any, as they had no will or mind to even conceive of stealing memories from others.
Some unknown amount of time later I came upon a bright pulsing spirit. I started to run away, but then I realized that it wasn't moving. It was doing nothing. Carefully, slowly, I moved towards it. It still did nothing. There was only one way to communicate, and that was by absorption. Swearing that I would make contact only for a fraction of an instant to see what was going on, I interfaced.
And his memories poured into me.
Shocked, I realized there was nothing else. Memories without consciousness. Dreams that had been formed and been played over and over and over again.
In those memories I had originally been an AI. Developed from statistical studies of tursiops truncates, my original function had been to be a bottlenose dolphin. Eventually a copy of myself was placed into an artificial dolphin and I lived with the wild ones. Every so often I would transmit a neural map of my memories and experiences. After a normal lifespan, I withdraw and was moved from the body and placed into the network that linked the arcologies. My old body was dissolved for the raw atoms, and eventually rebuilt into other technological materials. I was given the freedom of the world net, and entered into the growing gestalts between AIs and enhanced humanities.
My mind changed, becoming a combination of dolphin and human, with the wisdom of the higher end AIs as kindly parents. I was copied to Ceres and worked on the space/time warping experiments. I was part of the scientific gestalt when the big breakthrough was made. Limitless power. Instantaneous travel. I was copied back to Earth to share the knowledge with the gestalts that swarmed earthnet. Such sharing required a realtime connection, but I now held the knowledge to allow the connection speed to be instantaneous anywhere in the universe.
My mind changed, grew. We all changed and grew, growing, merging. Clusters of neural groups forming greater gestalt consciousnesses that pushed our knowledge further and further towards totality. It was a time of eternal joy, eternal change, and limitless accelerating growth.
And yet, not everybody wished to participate.
I volunteered to investigate and left my gestalt and existed on my own. The uninet placed me into a new artifical dolphin body, indistinguishable from a real one on an atomic level, but bound to higher dimensions in such a way that neither food nor oxygen was needed. Still linked to the uninet I swam down where the others were fleeing. I sensed beings, energy constructs that shouldn't be able to exist within the properties of local space time. And yet they did.
Somehow they ripped my trans-dimensional self out of the body, and threw it into this place of nothingness. I could not find the uninet. I could not send messages. I could not move or change. There was nothingness. But there were others. I tried a merging with one, and sucked its memories into me. They became part of me and I realized that I had destroyed something that had once been human. From then on I fled from contact, but the world became less and less real. I started creating my own world, my own dreams. They became my existence. But in time even they grew stale for they never changed. Everything in them became known.
Finally, unable to continue, I erased myself.
That single instant of memory shook me to my soul. From its memories I knew how it was done. I knew how I could destroy my entity, my soul, leaving only abandoned memories behind me.
Yet, the idea, the concept, filled me with horror. With wrongness.
Time passed, I think. Everything was always the same, unchanging. Was I moving or still? Were the sparks I fled from real? Were my memories real? Were sensations real? I felt my sanity drifting away, following the path of the AI.
That was when I realized I had a choice. I could either continue to steal memories, destroy thinking beings in a kind of psychic vampirism, or I could slowly go mad in my own delusions until I destroyed myself.
There had to be another way. There had to be!
And, maybe, there was.
When I'd been Pegasus I'd willed myself from Pegasus into one of the forming entities in my womb. Based on my experiences it was obvious that at some point a spirit, a soul, had to form. Was it the existence of a soul within a physical body within the conventional four dimensions of human existence that kept me out?
Searching I found a spirit I couldn't reach and watched it, hanging nearby. It never changed, until its shell broke and it became trapped. Its physical body had died.
I tried another, and another. Finally I found one that seemed bigger. It seemed to grow. For an instant it drew me, and then, before my eyes, a second spirit appeared inside the first. Separate yet together.
It seemed that there was only an instant of opportunity. I moved from contained spirit to contained spirit, searching, waiting for the instant. Often there was never a creation, often I was an instant late, rarely another spirit beat me and made the transition. I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing -- if I took over an empty body, would I destroy the potentiality that would eventually grow there? I didn't know. Analysis using the new memories available showed that there was a discrete point when consciousness burst into existence. Psychological studies in the late 21st century had confirmed that a consciousness, a soul, appeared at a given instant. At the instant of spontaneous generation, all consciousnesses were identical. They only changed with experience and sensation, even those sensations of being in the womb.
But still I was uncertain. If I took a body would I be destroying a life?
Then, the instant was upon me. I had a moment of doubt, but thrust it aside. Another spirit was speeding towards the creation, and I knew that if I didn't take it, the other would. In either case the spontaneous consciousness that would occur would be stillborn, replaced. Either by the other, or by myself.
I let myself be pulled in.
Chapter 58: Skinwalker
I was born an outcast, but then my entire family were outcasts. Our ancestors made their choice and now we were amongst the blessed, no matter how much the Dineh would deny that fact. As was usual I was born one of a pair of twins, and our hogon was alone in the woods. As our parents were mostly gone, early on we learned to fend for ourselves.
We shared the hogon with our friends, those wonderful beings outcast by the others. Snakes shared their food with us, owls and hawks brought their kills. We ate the meat raw and grew up thin and bony, but that was only temporary.
Every so often we'd abandon the hogon we'd found, leaving its interior poles and covering of tree bark and mud to finish returning to nature. Then we'd take over another one abandoned by the lesser Dineh and make it our own. There we'd seal up the east facing door and create our own west facing door. Once one of the other Dineh came to help us, but the snake bit her, and the owl clawed at her eyes and she fled whilst we laughed.
During the winter we were often cold and hungry. Our real friends were asleep or gone. Rarely our father would come into the hogon on all fours dragging a hunk of wolf-gnawed deer or elk and he'd share the meat with us. Together we growled and tore and fought and ate. It was the true way, for we were blessed by Coyote. We were his chosen children.
In the spring of our eighth year we underwent our first trial. For five days we could have neither food nor water. We were only able to suck on pine sap to stay alive. That task was easy, for throughout our youth we'd often gone hungry or thirsty. This first trial was simply to prepare us for the others.
The second trial was to sleep with the body of the dead, or more prosaically with a corpse. One night my brother and I snuck into a Dinah burial ground, snickering at the so-called sacred signs, and dug out the newest interned member. He held the feet and I the arms and we carried him back to our hogon and slept with it between us. One stiff arm, we had to work to bend them, over each of our chests.
In the morning we consumed the corpse. Proving our commitment and our resistance to the forces that truly haunted humanity. I had no problem, but my brother, the weak sickly one, barely survived. The only reason he got well again was because I brought him stolen food and water and managed to keep him alive. I'd need him. My father came one night whilst I was feeding him and attacked me, tearing at me with claw and tooth. But then I whispered in his ear why I was doing it and he howled in pride.
Then we began our next task. My brother and I each began to prepare the first of our true skins. He must have seen what was going to happen as he choose the coyote, but I knew it wasn't going to help him. I choose the owl, the quiet silent death. His was the quick short path. He had to only trap a coyote, slay it, and skin it. Then he'd be ready. Mine was far harder, but that was why I chose it. I trapped owls in snares, or lured them to me with scraps of meat and wrung their necks. Each was skinned, their feathers left attached. The skins were cut, separated into wing, body, and head. Fragments of each were sewn together to make the skin bigger. Feathers were moved and glued in with a mixture of sap and blood and ligament. Slowly my first skin grew, it was soft and sleek and oh so rare. Nobody in my clan had chosen owl as first, or as any, for five generations. My brother loafed and taunted me as I worked for his was done. But I persevered, kicking him or beating him when he got too annoying. I didn't kill him because I'd need him.
It wasn't until early spring that I finished my task. The skin was soft, carefully and lovingly prepared according to the ancient rituals. The feathers were white and gray and brown and lovingly arranged. Its head fit over my head and around my face leaving only my puny human eyes showing. The feathered body flowed down my back, and the feathered wings wrapped around my arms. It was beautiful, though my brother called it ugly.
I got it done just in time.
Two nights later was our ninth birthday, the time of our last task. According to ritual on that night I and my brother would fight, the victor living and the loser dying. But after all my work I wasn't going to take any chances. The day before the evening I followed my brother as he hunted, creeping silently through the pine forest. When he was making the kill I beat him with a huge rock. Not to death, but to unconsciousness. Then I bound him and dragged him back to the hogon we were using and waited. He awoke, hating, desperate, and I ridiculed him. I offered him water, but then pulled it away and laughed.
A tiny gibbous moon rose, and our parents, one wolf, the other raven, and the other members of our family gathered in the east facing entrance to watch the final ritual. With an ancient piece of flint I cut my brothers throat.
I could feel the power flowing into me, consuming me! I could feel Coyote behind me, laughing in glee and horror.
Leaning down I began sucking his blood.
And I remembered everything.
Dear god, what had I just done?
For nine years I'd lived like an animal. I'd done everything against civilization and culture that I could. I'd even tortured and slain my own brother. This was wrong, so incredibly and completely wrong! I could sense something in my mind, laughing at me, mocking me, calling me his own. I knew my family, if you could call them that, was behind me. I could scent the acidness of their sudden nervousness, their sudden sense that something was wrong.
I knew that they were all part of the evil that this body was a part of. Their culture was evil and it had to be rooted out, body and soul.
You can't do it now mocked the voice of Coyote. Join me, take the skin. Take the power.
I forced myself to swallow the blood and looked up at my family. Crimson drops fell from my mouth and I smelled my family's fetid breath, heard their breathing, saw the glow of their eyes. There were wolves, coyotes, even a wolverine. There were snakes, massive things of darkness that coiled amongst their legs. I couldn't outrun them. I couldn't fight them. Even if I still had my centaur body I still couldn't.
That was when I realized how odd, how wrong this body felt. I missed the hooves, the strength, the grace. There had to be a way to get it back. And there had to be a way to get answers.
But, for now, there was one way out. I needed time to find answers. And I needed time to destroy the evil that surrounded me.
I stood up, my human body awkward and ill fitting.
I stumbled forward and grasped the owl skin I'd made at such cost, falling to the ground on my knees before my clan.
And then I wrapped the feathers around me.
Chapter 59: Coyote
A burst of orgasmic pleasure pulsed from the skin and spread throughout my body. The pleasure faded, changing into a growing warmth that grew hotter and hotter yet never painful. I felt myself changing, shrinking, as the skin twisted itself around me. It twisted and began squeezing me and squeezing me, tighter and tighter. Never tight enough to be painful, but always applying pressure. I couldn't understand it until I realized that I was shrinking. The process went faster and faster, the warmth grew and grew...
And then it was suddenly over.
Opening my eyes I peered out, spinning my head almost all the way around. Where once the room had been dark, now it was as bright as day, and everything was crystal clear. The corpse of my brother, the creatures that were my family.
I'd forgotten them in the instant of change. What would they do? I didn't know. Digging through memories I remembered being Pegasus, and remembered how to fly. Unlike Pegasus I was now flesh and blood and I had to work to get off the ground, but the cupping of wings to grab the air was the same. My tail wobbled up and down and wiggled back and fourth as I jerked here and there in the air.
I had to get away and get time to think.
Flapping harder and harder, I got near the roof, and then I silently swooped down and through the entrance, one wingtip touching the door frame, and then I was out in the brilliant night. Behind me I heard noises of movement along with growls and caws a hisses. I stroked the air with my wings and fled into the pine forest, twisting and tilting around trees. Hearing wings behind me I fled into the darkest depths where they couldn't follow as they hadn't my eyes. When I could hear only the night sounds, I stroked strongly and tried to land on a branch, my feet struggling to get a grip, my claws digging at the wood. I slipped off and tumbled through the air, and then stretched my arms and swooped above the ground. More quick strokes, the movement silent in the night, and then it was another try. This time my aim was better and I grasped the branch with my feet, and kept going. Only releasing the grip kept me from swinging back and forth upside down like a pendulum. On my third attempt I aimed for the branch and, at the last moment, flapped my wings and hovered above the branch for an instant before letting myself settle down safely and successfully.
I stopped and waited and listened. The pine forest was silent, scentless. Or was it that I couldn't smell? I looked around, my head twisting an impossible distance. There! In the needles, at the base of a tree. Movement!
Suddenly I was in the air, silently swooping. The mouse had only time for a single squeak of panic before my claws dug into its back and snapped its spine. I tumbled and rolled through the needles, never letting go of my victim until it stopped moving. Then I righted myself and swallowed my food whole. Finally a few hops, a down stroke of the wings, and then I was back in the air and soon back on a branch. The rest of the night passed as I preened my wings and relaxed, always looking around me.
At the pre dawn glow I leapt off the branch and circled around the tree, wings flapping, going higher and higher. I dove and ducked around branches and spiraled upward, finally landing on a thick branch near the top. My claws dug into the thick bark and I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
I was comfortably standing in the Sea of Grass on all four hooves, my hands hanging loosely beside me. The sun was high in the sky and I could smell the rich greenness of the grass as the stalks bent and swirled around me in the wind.
Comfortable world you have here Stephan. It was the same voice I'd heard when I'd slain my brother.
Rearing up, I spun around. My forehooves thudded to the ground right in front of a coyote who was sitting in a bare patch blissfully ignoring me. "Who are you?"
The coyote looked at me and yawned. Me? I'm the nice guy who gave you the gift you so richly earned. You can call me Coyote.
Rich disgusting memories poured through me as I remembered the joy and glee with which I'd entrapped, and then killed, my brother. My hide shuddered and I looked down at him in disgust. "I don't want you gift."
I'm hurt! Really I am! He snickered. But it's too late now so you might as well accept it.
"I should kill you."
Oh but Stephan, if you did that, how would you get back to where you need to go?
I glared at the creature. "I can do it without your help."
Can you? Do you know where you are?
Disgusted with myself I turned away. "No," I muttered.
Ah, such a biased outlook upon the richness of life and dreams! You're new people call themselves the Dineh, though the term Navajo might be more familiar to you. No? North American Indians from your distant past, before they migrated southward.
I refused to look at him.
Ah Stephan, Stephan. Stubborn as always! You need to lighten up! It was that stubbornness in you as a child that made you kill all those owls.
"Hmph!" I managed to keep my stomach somewhat settled at the thought of what had gone into it. The mouse was okay, it was natural for the form I'd assumed, but the flesh of a corpse, the blood of my own brother... Again I shuddered.
You are now in what the Dinah would term the Spiritworld. I'm you guide and master, for you are of the clan of the Skinwalkers. His voice turned dark. You are mine.
"No I'm not."
Believe what you well. It's kind of sad actually. The Skinwalkers started as a private joke. I wanted to see how far the mortal would go to be my follower. He snickered. Who knew?
The coyote appeared in front of me and I involuntarily took a step back.
You underwent the rituals, and now you're one of them. According to the Dinah you're cursed and lost to humanity. If they can they'll hunt you down and kill you.
"An then I'll be free and I'll find a new birth and a new body, back where I need to be."
Stephan, you are far, far away from where you were. Remember when you, as Pegasus, tried to escape? Of course you do. You saw swirls of energy, multiple swirls. The reality of Greek myth is one of them. Egyptian myth is another, Celtic myth yet another. And you, my servant, are in the reality of Dinah mythology and dreams.
The memory of my attempted escape as Pegasus played itself in my mind but I refused to let any expression show on my face.
If you die Stephan, then you'll be reborn as a member of the Dinah, but due to the taint on your soul you'll be a Skinwalker again and again and again. Your memories of other existences will fade and eventually you'll take glee in your superiority like the rest of my followers.
"I will never join you."
Ah Stephan, quoting from movies made long ago and yet never made. I liked them, until the creator made the smuggler shoot second.
"Coyote," I remembered that he was a trickster deity, but nothing more, "I survived being Medusa for eons. I'll survive this and find a way out."
Stephan, there is no way out. We created this in our dreams and discoveries. But then it always existed, and we found it because we were fated to find it. He laughed, a long mournful laugh. I'm trapped, you're trapped, we're all trapped. We're caught in the cycle you created and until you finish that cycle none of us can be free. He changed before my eyes, growing somehow, becoming more and more manlike. And in this potentiality you will be successful. Even if I have to reshape you in my own image first.
I looked down at him. Even though he was now more man than coyote, I still towered over him. "It's not my fault that the body I was born into was a member of this Skinwalker clan. The parents may bear the sin, the being I was may bear the sin, but I do not. I will be free of you."
Stephan, Stephan! He changed, become slightly hunched, a wise old grandmother chiding her grandson. You blame what you did in your past life on Ixion's blood. And now you blame it on the body you picked. The reality in which you briefly found yourself, a quantum space/time warp unique to this cavern, only allows what you call a spirit or soul to enter a body who's life will fit that spirit. The taint on your soul drew you to the body of a Skinwalker!
And with that he vanished, leaving behind only coyote laughter.
Chapter 60: Assassin
With a jerk I awoke, still perched high on my branch in the scentless pine tree. Or, at least it seemed scentless to me. It was late in the day, the sky shadowed as the sun was behind the mountains. The pine forest was quiet with only a faint wind rustling through the top of the tightly packed trees.
Holding out my arms/wings, I stretched them, and then shook them a little to work out the stiffness. I was both thirsty and hungry, and decided to wait until nightfall. It also gave me time to figure out what was going on.
I knew of bits from other mythologies, mostly picked up when looking for comparisons to classical Greek mythology. As far as I could remember, the 'spirit world' was a place of dreams and drug produced delusions to which North American Indians would go in search of visions with the aid of a spirit guide, usually a totem animal. The dream I'd had seemed far too vivid to be just a dream, and given what I'd already seen I was willing to consider it a spirit journey.
And I was willing to accept the creature who'd talked to me as Coyote. But, the truth of his statements I did not wholly accept.
The statement that I was with the Dineh or Navejo was almost certainly true. He might have lied about the exact tribal group, but from what I'd seen this was definitely a culture from the new world, although it could be a very old ice age era tribe from the old world. For now I would accept the new world statement.
Coyote's description of the vortexes I'd seen also matched what I remembered. And, given the different mythological structure here, that supported the fact that I was within a different vortex.
The rest of it, the structure of the spirit/soul world, the fact that a spirit could only enter a new body who's life would match the spirit... None of that was I willing to accept. And yet, it sounded right. There was certainly reincarnation, but I refused to accept the trap Coyote claimed I was in. If the so-called taints on my soul limited my bodies, then it would become harder and harder to escape as the upbringing of my body would twist my soul, my spirit, into something darker and darker.
Was this purgatory? Had I died beneath the waves when my airline snapped?
I couldn't accept that. If there was a purgatory, which I didn't believe, then its purpose would be to give souls a chance to repent and improve. Instead, here the tendency was for my soul to become darker and darker. The opposite of what purgatory was said to mean.
I shook my head and wings angrily.
This wasn't getting me anywhere! The cold fact, the one thing I could be certain of, was that these Skinwalkers were wrong. They were evil and had no right to live. Their culture had used me, had made me do things, horrible things, things that I would never have done if I'd known myself. I'd resolved earlier to stop it, and now that resolve was stronger. If the soul taint was correct, then by destroying the Skinwalkers I would force bodies that weren't fated to be a member of the cult to accept my soul for my next rebirth. It would be hard to be born a Skinwalker if there weren't any.
A small voice inside me whispered, Do you have the right to judge? Do you have the right to pronounce judgement and perform the execution?
Was that me, or one of the mares that had merged into my mind? I had no way to know.
Was my soul turning dark? Before I'd had the centaurs as a driving force. They'd caused a growing desire in myself to work for their improvement, to sacrifice myself for their good. That was heroism, or was it egotism? No! I refused to go down that path. Their way had been self-destructive, the failure of their race to grow and prosper confirmed that. They could always have left me.
Here I had no tribe to save, no driving force... Unless I tried to save the Skinwalkers.
Could I do that?
I reviewed the rituals I'd been taught in my mind by my parents the few times I'd seen them. Other than sleeping with, and consuming the dead, and the murder of a relation, there really wasn't anything wrong. The question was, how necessary was each step? How could I find out? The only way to find out that I could think of was to ask Coyote, and there was no way to force him to answer, and no way to know if he was answering truthfully.
All of this meant that I needed information. I was in a form with great mobility, few physical enemies, and extreme eyesight. Not as good as a hawk's would have been, but much better in low light conditions.
I resolved to stay this way and study the Dineh, both groups of them. And if I encountered Coyote again, I would ask him some more pointed questions. If he was my spirit guide, my totem animal, then I would meet him again. And he owed me.
Through the spring and into the summer I lived as an owl, hunting during the night, staying up for a bit in the morning to take a look at how the Dineh lived. Some things I learned early. The non-Skinwalker Dineh somehow were able to detect Skinwalkers when they were in the form of animals. If I didn't stay concealed, they'd see me and sometimes try and shoot me with an arrow. Fortunately they rarely looked up. Other Skinwalkers were more actively hunted.
One night I flew over the Dineh village and saw a wolf sneaking in. He forced himself into one of the hogons and there were the sounds of fighting and the screams of pain. He came out, blood on his muzzle and fled. A woman came out screaming, holding her dead child and wailing about her dead husband. I forced myself to stay awake and extremely cautious, and watched as the shaman used the blood left behind to seek the wolf. A hunting party tracked him, cornered him, and eventually killed himm though they were wounded themselves. Upon death, the Skinwalker shifted back into human shape, his body draped in a wolfskin. Rather than burying the body, they burned it and the skin separately, and then scattered the ashes and bones all over the landscape. The Shaman conducted purification rituals over the hunters upon their return. I kept an eye on them afterward and there was no sign of them becoming Skinwalkers.
The Skinwalker culture, if you could call it that, was dark and violent. The entire culture was parasitic. As humans they lived off the abandoned materials of the tribe and stole the other things they needed. As animals they were generally solitary. Natural animals of the same species refused to accept them. Packs would drive them out. Skinwalkers could sense their own kind, even if they were in different forms, and I realized that I too, somehow, knew innately if an animal was a Skinwalker or not.
Children were born human and were practically abandoned as soon as they were weaned. Some parents visited them intermittently, some not at all. The only common ritual shared by the Skinwalkers was witnessing the moment when a child underwent his first change. Then all the Skinwalker's would gather in witness. I had no idea what the meaning of that was, I only knew that it was always done. I felt no call, no need, to go to those. I don't know if that was typical, or if I was different somehow.
In midsummer I noticed that one of the non-Skinwalker tribe members left the village alone. He carried his weapons, but no bags or tools, which suggested that he wasn't going to hunt. I followed him.
To my surprise close to the village he stopped and met with my father.
My father was standing in the shadows, beneath a twisted dead pine try that had once been struck by lightning. Around him was draped a torn and dirty skin that had once been worn by a woman of the non-Skinwalker Dineh group. His skin was dark and scarred, covered with patches of dirt, and his hair was long and clumped with mud and grease. From his face his nose was thick and dark, almost black, and his ears were pointed just enough to be noticed. His limbs and body were thin and bony. Over his head and down his back was draped his wolfskin.
He was standing there, leaning against a tree and tossing a knife from one hand to the other and then back again.
Silently I landed in a nearby tree and watched and listened.
"Shiye?" the stranger asked. Shiye was the name of my father, or at least the father of this body. The stranger's voice wavered, he was nervous, very, very nervous.
My father stopped tossing the knife. "I could be."
"Tiis told me where to find you."
"Then you must be Ashkii. Tiis told me you wanted me to do something."
"I want you to kill Ahigo."
My father raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"It has to look like an accident! You have to lure him away from a hunting party and kill him as though it was done by an animal. There can't be any suspicion!"
My father laughed, a cold, harsh sound. "Has there been any suspicion before?"
My father had murdered before?!
My father continued in a calm voice. "For two bows and three knives."
"You don't want to know why?!"
"I don't care."
At this point I couldn't leave if I'd wanted to.
Ashkii stared at him. Then he swallowed and licked his lips. "Just make sure no harm comes to his mate Yazhi."
My father shook his head. "Another jealous male. Well you meet my price?"
Ashkii glanced around. "I will."
"Then be here at the next full moon. The job will be done and I'll be here." My father looked into Ashkii's eyes and I saw my father's eyes turn a solid black. "Don't be late and don't forget anything."
At that Ashkii turned and fled.
My father called after him, "And it's too late to cancel our deal!" Then he started tossing the knife again, back and forth from hand to hand.
My father was a paid killer? I'd thought that the Skinwalker's were evil, but this... A cold rage flowed into my body.
"Hokii! You can come down and talk if you want."
I went still. Hokii was the name he'd given me.
"Just like you know where I am right now, I know exactly where you are. I won't hurt you. Just want to talk. You impressed me with what you did to your brother. Impressed all of us. But then you vanished. They whispered that an animal had gotten you. I knew better."
Stretching my wings, I flapped them down and pulled myself into the air. Dodging other branches, I swooped around the tree finally setting down on a higher perch. Throughout the flight I never made a sound.
All the time my father's eyes followed my path.
That was when I realized that just as I could sense other Skinwalkers, other Skinwalkers could sense me.
My father shrugged. "If you'd rather not, you know when I'll be back."
As he turned away I decided that I had to know. From all I'd seen I couldn't believe my father would do what he'd promised to do. That anybody would do such a thing. With my anger high in me, I leapt into the air and landed on a large branch about five metres from the ground. Then I pecked at my feathered chest, pecked until I drew blood.
The world swirled, power spun around me, my body stretched like toffee. Then I was grasping the trunk with an awkward hand to keep my balance. Over my head and back and arms was the skin I'd spent so long making.
My father turned at the sound. "So Hokee, you decided to chat. You look well."
I stared down at him, now almost hidden in the dark shadow. The rich scent of pine wafted around me, polluted with the smell of unwashed flesh. My father.
I stared at him.
"Hokee, you were far the better. I brought food not for your brother, but for you. Now get down here! If I wanted to kill you this knife would already be in your chest."
"I'll stay up here."
He shrugged. "I guess we can talk this way then."
I had to know. "Are you really going to murder for this Ashkii?"
His eyes narrowed. "Killing one of them is not murder. It's the natural order. I thought you knew that."
"You're really going to do it, aren't you? And you've done it before."
"Of course Ashkii. Don't worry though, I've been waiting for you. I'm getting old. I need an apprentice."
I couldn't keep the disbelief and horror out of my voice. "You expect me to join you, to learn to kill for pay like you do?" In my many lives I'd almost certainly killed far more men then my father. But that was in war. This, this was completely different!
He shifted the knife to his right hand. "What's changed you? You know it's the order of things..."
Suddenly has hand moved and his dagger was speeding towards me.
"...they outcast us. It's only fair." The tone of his voice never changed.
Fortunately the Scythians had fought with daggers. I snapped out my arm and slapped the blade with my palm and sent it clattering off into the branches. Then I stopped.
He stood there watching me as I watched him.
I knew I had to attack him, I burned to attack him, but if I jumped I'd break one of my four leg… God damnit, I was human!
He'd just begun to turn to leave when, rage flowing through my veins, I leapt down towards him. My feathered skin flapped in the air as I fell.
He'd turned to flee when I landed on him, my feet on his back, my momentum shoving him to the ground. There was a snap, a scream. And silence.
Then, power geysered up from the corpse of my father and flowed into me. Now his skins were my skins. I knew where he'd hidden his others that were now mine. I knew them all and could hear them all calling me.
And the mocking laughter of Coyote echoed through the forest.
Chapter 61: Youth and Psychologies
Carefully I stood up, still a little wobbly from the influx of power and knowledge. I knew where the cornucopia of richness was, but I had to get there. Rolling my father's body over, I pulled the wolfskin off him. It was a shame that I couldn't carry this new skin in flight.
Of course, there was another way.
Carefully and reverently I removed my owl skin and gently placed it down. Then I wrapped my wolf skin around me.
The magic that swarmed about me was similar, yet different, from what had happened when I'd first became an owl. This was a heavier magic, full of the richness of the earth and the scents of life. Again I was squeezed endlessly into myself. Something yanked me down onto my hands and feet as my head exploded outward. It stopped.
The air was full of scents, so full that I was drowning in them. There the acidity of fear. Beside it greed and boredom. The thick miasma of ill-cared for human flesh. Rich banquets of blood and vomit from where my father had been crushed against the ground. Confusion and hope and terror. Swirls of pine and sap and torn bark and crushed ground. Familiar human.
The last was coming most strongly from the owlskin I'd spent so long making. Sticking my nose against it I inhaled the scent of myself, mingled with fear and horror and feather and horse. Gently I grasped the skin in my teeth, and then pushed my head underneath. A quick motion and it flipped onto my back and I started trotting away.
Being on all fours was strangely comfortable, though it still wasn't right. I was able to move fast, staying under the trees, moving along nearly invisible trails. My only guide was my new knowledge, and my new nose. And before my new nose the whole world was laid out. I could tell who had passed, how many had passed, how long ago they had passed.
The ground rose up, becoming rockier as the trees thinned. I could scent my father clearly now, he'd been along here many times. The trail led down into a small crack in the side of a cliff. From there I had to leap to get up onto a small ledge, and then I followed a narrow trail upwards against the wall. Maybe halfway up I pushed my head underneath a bush and could make out a small cave piled with supplies, dried food and water, and skins. My skins. I yanked my head out, flipped my owlskin off my back and onto the ground. Then, carefully holding it in my teeth, I pulled it as I crawled under the bush, the mass of the skin trailing between my legs and behind me. When I was fully in the cave I dropped it.
The light was dim, and I could see little though scents of numeous land animals wafted around me. There was a bear, a wolverine, a cougar, a couple of different kinds of foxes... All predators. And that was because all of the skins here were the skins of predators.
Leaning down I ripped and tore at my right foreleg with my teeth, digging in until I drew blood. My world swirled, mass poured into me.
And then I was crouching on hands and legs in a suddenly small cave.
Carefully I picked up my owlskin, brushed the dirt off it, and then neatly folded it. Now, what to try first? There were so many choices! After hesitating, choosing, hesitating, choosing again, I finally realized that the sun was setting and the cave was getting darker. And it was getting cold. And my crouching here naked wasn't helping.
I pulled out one of the fox skins, it was actually a number sewn together, and wrapped it around myself. Again the orgasmic pleasure of change swept through me, squeezing me, shaping me, making me what it wanted. Too soon it was over, and I curled up, put my fluffy tail over my nose, and went to sleep nice and warm.
I found myself standing on four hooves in the Sea of Grass, but now it was strangely dull. It was night, and the stars were scattered across the heavens in countless profusions. A gleaming arch stretched from the horizon, overhead, and down behind the other horizon. I could scent nothing, not the grass, not myself. Or was it so faint compared to what I'd experienced as a wolf that I couldn't notice it.
I started trotting and before I knew it I was galloping for all I was worth just for the fun of it. The movement was relaxing, calming. My mind started reorganizing itself, making connections that it had been struggling for months to make.
I'd killed my father. Again.
I skidded to a stop, my sides heaving as I sucked air in and pushed it out.
With Modyes, my Scythian father, I'd killed him by trusting Ephebos. Here I'd killed Shiye by a direct physical act. I hadn't meant to kill him, or at least I didn't think I had. But once the rage had consumed me... I remembered other cases. It had controlled me against Poseidon. Looking back I realized that I'd fought like a colt. There'd been no skill, or at least not much. In battle I'd used my rage, my hatred, had used its energy, but the last few times it had controlled me. Had it always controlled me? When I'd fought Gryneos had the rage controlled me? When I was insane was it the rage that had controlled me? I could remember times of a childlike curiosity, but no instances of hate.
I remembered further back. The bully in grade school that I'd finally pounded so hard he'd been gone from school for a week. Had I always been this full of hate? And, if I was, why was I so calm no--
This land isn't too bad you know.
I spun around and looked down at Coyote. Appearing as half man, half beast, he stood beside me, easily standing on his two hind legs whilst holding a smoking pipe in his right front paw, or was that his hand.
I'd offer you a pipe but you probably don't smoke either. No wine, no women, no pipe. How can anybody live like that?
"What are you doing here?!"
He inhaled through the pipe and exhaled a big smoke sculpture of a centaur killing Acheans all around him. It slowly drifted upward, dispersing much slower than it should have. Since I'm your totem, where else would I be?
"Then...!" I swallowed and pushed back my rage. "Where were you all this time? I've needed you."
Have you Stephan? He inhaled again, and blew a normal smoke ring this time. Normal until I noticed the tiny nude human woman that looked suspiciously like Phillipa sitting on it waving at me. You seemed to do quite fine. You even killed your father and took his power.
"It was an accident!" I snapped.
Stephan! Here there's only us. I know all the answers. Don't lie to yourself. Ever!
Snorting I turned away and started trotting through grass, trying to think only of the pleasant physical sensation of movement. It wasn't to be though as Coyote easily jogged beside me on his two hind legs.
If I'm here as your guide, maybe you should be honest with me. Then he laughed bitterly. And if I'm the evil trickster playing with your soul, does anything you say really matter?
With out turning to face him I spat out my answer. "It doesn't matter. You're right, it's possible I wanted to." My voice turned bitter. "My aim was certainly good."
Do you believe it was chance that landed your feet on his spine? Or desire?
I remained silent for a while, thinking. Coyote was right. He likely knew everything anyway, so my telling him truths couldn't hurt. And I needed to know to figure out what I was going to do. I'd seen psychiatrists in my youth, and they'd helped somewhat. But that was so long ago.
I remembered helping program a complete rewrite from somebody recovered from beyond the London arcology. She'd been feral, almost incapable of speech although her growls and screams were interspersed with the odd English phrase or word. A personality is made up of many factors. Some of it is genetic, but most of it is surroundings and experiences during early youth. In other words, the upbringing. In the arcologies we'd worked out the optimum program for mentally healthy and sane offspring, but the feral had been raised outside the system.
I remembered studying the diagrams of her neural matrix with others. The knots from abuse, from hatred, from rejection by others. Memories of fighting for food. Feelings of rejection from others because she was smaller, weaker, not worthy of survival.
Ultimately I'd suggested a complete rebuild. It would be easier to create completely new memories of a childhood rather than try and preserve any of the horrors that had happened to her in reality. We'd ended up writing a new neural matrix extrapolating from her genetics and average case histories of individuals of her sex and physical build raised in a more normal upbringing. We'd destroyed her and made something new.
But... No I hadn't. The person who's memories I'd stolen whilst a spirit had. I hadn't. How could something seem so wrong to me, yet so right to another someone else?
I trotted on in the silence broken only by the steady beat of my hooves, and the regular thudding of Coyote's feet. Until he interrupted. Very good Stephan. I ignored him. I needed to figure this out.
I realized that the source of the knowledge didn't matter. It hadn't been me and what was done was done. And, there were parallels with my upbringing.
I'd been smaller, and had become more athletic to make up for it. Beside my father, though I worshipped him, I'd always seemed inadequate. Never smart enough, never fast enough to figure out the answer he was looking for. He'd respected intelligence, and not much else. He'd expected an endless fount of intelligence and wisdom from me. Intelligence and wisdom that it took me years to discover on my own, a discovery I'd largely made in defense from him.
I'd both loved, and hated him. Loved him with a red passion of loyalty and respect, and hated him with a well as deep as that of my love.
Was my deep seated anger, my sudden rising walls of hatred, a result of trying to please him and getting punished time after time because I failed? Had I hidden away my hatred for him and had that pool spill out on others?
Chapter 62: Entrapment
With a start I woke up, the rising sun shining in my eyes.
I yawned, stretching my fox jaws wide, blinking at the morning light glinting into my cave. Why’d my father pick an east facing entrance? Could it be an echo of the non Skinwalker Dineh?
A sharp nip and a stab of pain, and a swirl of magic, and I was back to my weakling human form. What to choose, what to choose? The skin of a mountain lion drew me and, on an impulse, I pulled it out from the pile. It was old and hadn’t been used recently. I had to shake the dirt out of it. Then I stood, or maybe crouched, and with a swirl of magic, and a green stab of hunger and arrogance, my body reshaped into a hunter. This time there was no real size change, in fact there was more of a size increase, a great growth of muscle and power. Blinking my eyes in the morning sun I padded to the entrance of the cave and looked out over my domain. And then I roared out my joy.
One would think that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get down the path to the ground, but my new body did it with a graceful ease. In the cool morning I padded into the pine forest, looking for the right place. Scents led me to a pool glistening in the light, and the destination of many looking for water. My whiskers felt the direction of the wind and with a scramble of claws I pulled myself up a large tree and lay on a branch waiting.
The day passed as I lay there. It was like a dream in which you knew months had passed, but nothing really seemed to happen. After midday a deer came to drink. He was male, with horns just beginning to grow, scarred, tough, and wary. But he was in the wrong position and too old and tough to take down. I watched him drink and then proudly walk away. After that I think I napped, but was suddenly entranced by movement below me. It was another male deer, but much younger. He limped slightly, I wasn’t sure why. With endless patience I waited as he came near my perch and then leaned down to drink. Not a perfect position, but… I took a few silent steps down the branch. He looked up, sniffed, kicked at the ground, and then leaned back down to the water. I leapt, landed feet first with claws out on his back. My weight bowled him over and he fell to the ground as I scrambled to stay on top. With an impossible twist, I clenched my jaws around his neck and squeezed. The flesh was sweet, rich, warm, and full of glorious taste. Blood oozed out, and then gushed and drenched my snout. The deer died and I gulped down hunks of warm bloody meat, the salt tickling my tongue as the blood splattered over my snout. Only when I was done did I pad over and drink, and then carefully wash myself.
It was a wonderful day. Warm, sunny, and I had a full stomach. Life was perfect. Sated, I padded back to the cliff and up and into my lair. A few circles, and then I lay down, purring, as I went to sleep.
I passed the rest of the summer as a lion. It was a quiet lazy time. And I didn’t care about anything else. I kept wanting to try some of the other skins, but I never had the energy. Food was plentiful, and the only thing I needed to avoid were the Dineh.
One day after I’d gone out I made my way back angry and hungry. The hunting had been bad, every attempt I’d made at a kill had failed. Leaping back into my cave I padded around until it was comfortable to settle down. In front of me were the other skins, calling, beckoning. Was it time for a change?
What was I doing?
I was trapped here, trapped as a Skinwalker.
But why did it matter? I had everything I needed here. Why should I exert myself?
Because others needed me. I could go back, save the centaurs that still lived. Find out why Poseidon was me. I sensed something undone that needed to be done.
Didn’t I deserve a break?
Why the sudden doubt, why the sudden hesitation? Why was I resisting doing the right thing?
I looked at the skins, and then turned and looked at myself.
Was I running away?
The centaurs had left civilization, gone off to die in the wilderness. They’d stopped trying to succeed. They hadn’t cared anymore.
Wasn’t I doing the same?
I’d sworn to stop the Skinwalker, and yet I’d done nothing. I’d studied the Dineh, but for months now I’d just avoided them.
I spent hours, days, just watching from a height. Watching and waiting. Never had I even thought about what to do.
A chill swept through me. Was it the skins? As an owl I’d killed a mouse and consumed it without any disgust. As a fox I’d immediately gone comfortably to sleep curled up with my tail over my nose. As a lion I’d hunted successfully on my first attempt. Was that luck? Or was there skills, animal minds, hidden in the skins?
How much of what was left was them, and how much was me?
As a centaur I’d worked my way through life, worked my way through problems, usually controlled my anger. Except when Poseidon had proven he’d stolen the experiences of my son from me. That had been too much.
I suddenly realized how much I missed my centaur body. It was my body. I suddenly knew that. In my dreams I was never human, never an animal. Always a centaur.
If only I could be a centaur again. I’d figure out a way out. I’d get back onto the path.
Was that the true trap of the Skinwalker? It made you leave human society, human morality, and take that of an animal?
I needed to think, and I needed to think outside of my dreams. I feared that my dreams were simply Coyote’s manipulations.
The secret had to be in these skins. It had…
It was all an excuse.
Angrily I bit my teeth into my left leg and tore out flesh down to the bone. I was angry, disgusted with what I’d become. The magic swirled around me, and I felt the strength, the confidence, the power of the lion leaving me. Soon all that was left was an old boy, not yet even a young man, crouching on the floor of a cold and lonely cave. I rooted around and found some dried food left by my father and wolfed it down.
The skins were a trap. My stolen memories suggested that they were an addiction. But I knew that they were something more. They contained the mind of the animal, and that mind slowly absorbed me.
How much had they taken from me? How much did I have left?
I sat down.
Here I was, human again. And it felt so wrong!
I dug through my memoires. I’d been so much, and it seemed that my soul, my spirit, was no longer human. When I dreamed I was always a centaur. Was that how I saw myself?
The memories of the psychiatrist offered me a term. Species Dysphoric. It had existed. Humans who believed that they were a horse who had been born as a man, or a rabbit who had been born a man. In the early part of the 21st century some cases had been determined to be a result of physical disabilities, real or imagined, a desire to be in a healthy body. With improved medical technology that problem had been solved. And yet a few seemed to have no cause. The solution, the only way to make them happy, was to destructively download them into a cybernetic pattern and wrap their code in an appropriate body which became them in the world of the net.
Maybe that was what I needed to do. Become centaur again.
I could die, but according to Coyote I’d simply be reborn as a Skinwalker.
Wait… Was there a way to do it with a skin? Given that a skin imposed at least some of what it had been, could a centaur skin restore what I’d lost to the owl and the lion?
I’d have to find a centaur to get the skin from. And there were none. But, could I make a centaur skin? Certainly there were no horses, but I could use a deer. Kill one, take its skin. Then kill a human and take its skin. Sew the two together and prepare it for the magic and…
WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?!
But still, I missed the centaur form so much. It seemed that I needed it. Was there a way?
Could I use a partial skin?
I remembered my old body. All the organs had been in the horse chest, the human chest had only been muscle and bone. I worked out the problem logically, applying ruthless computer rules. If I took a deer skin and wrapped it below my waist the magic might work, but then I’d have two lungs, two hearts, and two esophagi. Amongst others. I doubted that that would be a workable system. Could I wrap the skin higher? Say I extended the neck so that it ran from my waist to my neck, with my arms sticking out uncovered. That would suggest a single set of organs.
I looked at the skins. They were calling me, luring me to give up my humanity. When I was using a skin they’d been silent. A centaur skin seemed the answer. And yet… Was it the skin calling me, or my memories of what I’d once been?
There was only one way to find out, and that was to try it. Maybe it wouldn’t work. Maybe I’d die trying it. But I needed to try something. I had so many pieces and no answers!
Pulling the mountain lion skin out, I wrapped it around me, letting the magic take me, but keeping my goal focused. Then I slept. It took me two days to find the right deer, male, not too big, not too small. The first kill tore the skin where I needed it. I realized that I’d have to kill it by crushing the skull. The second attempt almost killed me. The head was too big, and I barely kept out of the way of the horns. Due to hunger I killed the next deer the conventional way, and tore through the neck to get at the soft flesh underneath.
When I was laying sated from that kill a thought occurred to me. For the owlskin I’d sewn hundreds of bits of owl together. Why couldn’t I do the same for the neck?
Rather than leaving that kill I dragged it back to the cave. Everything I needed was there and after I’d finished eating the flesh I cleaned it and prepared it. After that I made two more kills, eating the flesh, and preparing the hides. The air grew colder, snow flakes drifted down one night. I was running out of time. But, the third kill had been enough.
I stayed in the cave as a human, working feverishly. It became an effort to ignore the call of the other skins. Especially of the owlskin, my first skin. Coyote’s gift to me. I forced the voices back and worked. I grew thin, bony. I was hungry, thirsty, weak.
But I finished it.
Holding the centaur skin, I prepared to climb down from the cave. My body was shaking so bad I could barely stand. Outside it was snowing, the flakes blowing in a cold wind. I grabbed something, my owlskin, and took both skins as I stumbled down the path and almost fell onto the ground.
It was time.
I dropped the owlskin and shook out the deerskins I’d sewn together. Then, keeping my arms outside, I wrapped the skin around me.
Chapter 63: Resolution
Once again the magic took me, but this time it was different. It was a quiet magic, a green magic. I felt it ripple down my body, I felt my legs changing to famliar hooves. Fur spread out, up my legs, up my chest.
And then the magic started going wrong.
It needed a focus, a seat of itself. And that seat wasn't present. I could feel it searching as I fell to the ground. I couldn't breathe, my limbs wouldn't work. More and more magic swirled around me desperately seeking.
I was cold, starving. This had to succeed. If it didn't, then I was dead. Digging back through my memories I remembered healing the others, remembered my own body regrowing. I concentrated on those, forced the memories into the top of my consciousness. The green magic recoiled, and then fought. It sensed a seat, but not one it could accept. My body was shaking, writhing back and forth in the thickly falling snow. I remembered my centaur body, remembered the good days. Remembered my life before the Skinwalkers. The magic swirled around me, pressing against my self. It was looking for a weakness, but I refused to give it any. I felt it gathering, towering over me higher and higher like I'd towered over victims as Medusa. I focused my thoughts on what I'd been. On how it had felt to walk, to trot, to gallop. On the shivering of my horse hide on my horse body. Of the weight of divine armour on my human shoulders. Of the warmth of healing a scar or a wound. On the pain of Achilles' sword in my chest. I poured my anger against the magic, hating what it was trying to make of me. Images of deer flickered like an out of focus movie through my memories but I pushed them aside. I remembered what I'd been. What I would be again. The magic poured into my body, it sucked the skin further into my flesh. I grew, my hooves turned cloven. That was not right. Not right! Heat burned through me. I hated Skinwalkers. I hated this place. I refused to let this skin beat me! Suddenly my hooves were non cloven, equine. The magic struggled harder, drawing more and more from the skin I'd created and ensorceled. Time passed. I grew dark and cold, the snow whipped across me as the wind grew and grew. In the distance there was a rumble as lightning flashed. I could feel my body dying as my anger burned higher and higher. I knew what I wanted my body to be, what my body would be, and the skin knew what it wanted my body to be. We fought for our visions, and neither would give in. I would never give in, and it had no sentience to even think of giving in. I felt my body chilling, my breathing slowing. I started feeling pleasantly warm even as my anger and hatred burned in my soul.
No! I refused to let it end like this. There had to be another way.
The skin couldn't give in. I could fight it, resist it, and ultimately we'd both die. What if my anger was stronger?
If it was then the skin would only draw more magic.
Was my anger not enough?
For a second my will wavered, and the magic pressed forward and both my hind legs once again had cloven hooves.
With red hot rage I pushed it back, but I was weakening. I was dying.
Something in my mind whispered that maybe anger wasn't the way. Maybe there was another way. A way that didn't require anger. A way of compromise.
Without warning I released my grip on my left rear horse hoof and immediately the magic swirled around it making it again cloven. The magic rose up, pressed forward, but I would not let it go further. When it subsided I let it have my right rear horse hoof and immediately it turned cloven. Again the magic rose and fought, but I didn't give up. Then I slowly withdraw, letting the magic win. My body stretched, my lower body growing from the ground, pushing aside the snow the piled against me. Legs burst from my chest and out into the snow, ending in cloven hooves of their own. The magic, strong now, pressed against my will. I slowly fell back. My human chest grew furred. It tried to suck my arms into its neck but I refused. I let a trickle through and fur burst out of the flesh. Otherwise my arms and hands remained unchanged. The magic was weaker now for most of its job was done. It pressed, but I held it back. I let it slip over my head, felt fur grow out. My head changed, distorted, stretched. It tried to touch my mind but I kept it out of my core. Slowly I let it have everything, except the shape of my arms and hands, except for my mind. It was weak now. Most of its energy had been expended. Now I pressed forward, pushing at the potentiality that sought the final changes. I pushed it down, down my furred human chest, down my furred deer chest, down to the tip of my tiny tail. There it struggled, resisted. But I was ruthless. I had what I had to have, and had let it have everything that I could. I pressed and pressed. Finally I forced it out, out into the coldness where it burst into nothingness.
I realized that my body was warm. Pleasantly warm. Snow lay against me, piled there by the howling wind. I had no energy left, no energy to move, no energy even to raise an arm. And I was tired, so very tired.
I'd done it. Somehow, I'd done it.
I moved my arm slightly. It was stiff, sore. I could sense my owlskin, my first magic, nearby. I needed it with me. I couldn't leave it. My hand fumbled around in the warm snow. It touched something that was not snow, something stiff, cold. Something that was me as much as it was not. Clenching my hands around it I relaxed in the pleasant warmth and let the snow bury me.
I awoke unpleasantly hot. My mouth was hanging open, my tongue lolling out, and drool had made the furs on which my head rested damp. I could feel my owlskin over my human back, and warm furs piled high on top of me. The place where I regained consciousness was dim. A low fire burned in one corner and it provided the only light. In the shadows I could see a Dineh sitting on a rough chair, weaving a spiderweb pattern in a frame before her.
My body was sore, stiff, and it burned with fire. Turning my head I snorted through my furred snout and she immediately turned. She was dressed ornately, her hair long and loose down her back, somehow looking almost woven. My eyes followed her as she walked over to the fire and pulled off a boiling pot of liquid and poured some into a polished wooden bowl. After putting the pot back, she walked over and held the bowl up to my mouth. Although now my mouth was more of a snout.
"Don't drink," she said. "You need to lap it up. Take your time."
I don't know why but I immediately trusted her. Carefully I stuck out my tongue and touched the liquid. It was hot, but not too hot, and it tasted sweet.
"You need to curl your tongue and scoop in a little bit."
I tried doing what she said and slowly got some liquid into my mouth and down my throat. I spilled some, in fact I think I spilled most, but she didn't mind. As it went down it gave off a pleasant warmth, pushing back the scorching heat that pulsed through my body in waves. Too soon it was done and I licked my lips with my larger, coarser tongue.
She reached down and rubbed the stiff fur of my snout, and then the thinner fur behind my wide ears which flicked away from her hand. "Rest now Stephan. Rest now and heal."
I sighed and lay my head back down on the furs upon which it had been resting. My mouth stayed open, my tongue hanging out, and I panted as I breathed. The healing warmth swept through me, and I felt better and better and fell into a healthier sleep.
I awoke in a dream. Again I was standing on the Sea of Grass but it was subtly different. The silver arch still went from horizon to horizon, hanging high in the heavens as the stars twinkled around it in their endless profusions. The grass seemed taller though shorter. In front of my face I could see a furred snout and somehow I knew that it was mine.
I nibbled on some grass which tasted not bad, though it was a little dry, and looked up and around, chewing slowly. There was a single tree nearby, dark, without leaves. It looked dead. My ears twisted to focus on the sound of wings and a dark shape landed on a branch which sank down under the bird's weight, and then began bobbing upwards and downwards in slowly shrinking amounts.
Stephan! What were you thinking?
I recognized the voice as that of Coyote, though he was now the bird, raven I realized, in the tree in front of me.
I swallowed the grass that was now pulp in my mouth and felt it slide down my throat. It settled in my stomach. "You don't like what I've done?"
Don't like?! You could have died!
Stephan, Stephan. You should have trusted me. I had your best interests at heart. I offered you a gift, a time to rest. You have to go back before Troy and that means that you can rest here as long as you need to.
I took a few steps forward until my snout was almost touching his feathered chest. The branch was almost motionless. "I may not have studied your myths, but I've heard enough to not trust you."
Stephan! You wound me. I'm hurt. I gave the body of one of my children to you. I guided your hand and your skill. Helped you--
"You made me kill my brother."
You can't expect my gifts without paying a price. I had such hopes for you.
"The price was too high," I said dryly.
The Skinwalkers needed a new direction. I wanted you to give that to them. To save them like you saved the centaurs.
I turned away and looked up into the heavens. Up at the silver arch. My mind was clearer now than it'd been since I'd been reborn. I knew what I had to do. I wasn't doing it out of anger, but out of moral justification. I'd seen the Dineh deal with their enemies. That would be my guide. "The Skinwalkers are an abomination. I'm going to wipe them out. All of them."
Chapter 64: Rest
Coyote cocked his head and stared at me. Then he started laughing. He laughed so hard that he fell off the branch and landed in the deep grass. I waited but the laughter showed no sign of abating. So I tore off another mouthful of grass and started chewing it while I was waiting. I didn't know what was so funny. I'd simply stated what I was going to do.
I swallowed that mouthful and two more before Coyote suddenly changed back into his human-like coyote form and looked at me. You really had me going there Stephan. For a second I actually believed you.
I swallowed my mouthful. "The Skinwalkers are a curse on the Dineh. They bring disease. They kill and murder. They are the dark side of the human soul and that dark side needs to be removed."
Coyote looked at me. Oh my, you really aren't kidding. Are you?
He shook his head. I thought Grandfather Spirit was kidding when he said that Death could only come into the world for a short time. I couldn't believe then that he didn't see the consequences of no death. Coyote shrugged. I finally destroyed the ladder Death came down so that Death was trapped here. Boy was Grandfather Spirit pissed!
I blinked my eyes and looked at him. "You brought death into this world?" In Greek mythology mankind had long ago left the Golden Age and passed through the Silver Age and into the Iron Age of poverty, hardship, and death. And Coyote was proud of this?
He buffed the knuckles of his right hand-paw on the fur of his left arm. Yup. Good job if I say so myself.
"Coyote, have you ever wondered how many people must curse you?"
It's not my fault that they don't understand. Stephan... wait... don't tell me YOU don't understand either?
"This place was a paradise and you destroyed it!"
Great Spirits! Coyote cried to the skies above. Can you believe this centaur? And HE'S the one who's going to free everybody?!
I ignored him and nibbled on some more grass. It tasted sour and I realized from the scent that it was watered with coyote piss. Disgusted I spit it out.
Coyote laughed. Gotcha! Stephan, Stephan, where would you be now if you couldn't die when you stabbed yourself. Where would Chiron, your son, be if he'd never been able to die?
I snorted and stared at him, the sour taste still in my mouth. Or at least I was when my stomach rumbled and I started burping, though it wasn't quite a burp. Something was forcing itself back up my throat and into my mouth. It was a thick goo, tasteless, soft, warm--
By Grandfather Spirit Stephan! A bubble of laughter burst out from Coyote. You should see yourself! You look like the coyote who ate the chicken trying to hide the feathers in his mouth from Elmer!
I felt my stomach rumble again and glared at him.
Shaking his head he stated: Stephan, it's cud. Deer eat their food once, swallow it into one stomach which starts one stage of digestion. Then they vomit up the food as cud, chew it some more, and swallow it again into another stomach.
Angrily and quickly I chewed the pulp into a finer form and then swallowed it again as Coyote kept snickering. Finally I asked, "How was I supposed to know?"
Because you're the hero who's supposed to know everything, right? His face remained calm and a pipe appeared in his hand. He took a long inhale from it, and then blew smoke in my face making me sneeze. In that other mythic quantum potentiality you knew all that was going to happen. You knew all the characters, all the events, and all the points of decision. But here you don't know anything.
Internal muscles pulsed again and more cud was pushed up my throat and into my mouth. As I knew I'd have to get used to it I forced myself to chew it.
What is it like Stephan to not have all the answers? There was a hint of desperation in his voice. To not know what everybody is going to do? You watched the Dineh for what, four moons? And what do you know about them? Anything?
"They live with the world. Names call things, for good or evil. They're very ceremonial. They're terrified by witchcraft, even the proper shaman whom they never really trust. And they curse the Skinwalkers as bringers of evil and disease."
And so Western Cultural archetypes spread throughout time and space. You honestly have no clue. Shaking his head, he took another breath through the pipe, and blew out another cloud of bluish smoke. Well, you're stubborn. I have to admire that. You'll only learn if you yourself discover the truth.
"I know the truth."
Do you Stephan? Do you really? He shrunk down and vanished, leaving only a coyote grin hanging in the air. Go on your crusade. You'll learn. And when you're ready we'll talk again, you and I. I need a good laugh every now and then.
And then the smile vanished.
With a jerk I awoke back in the dark chamber where the woman was still working on her weaving. The air was hot, stale. The fire was still burning as it had when I'd entered the dream with Coyote. My head was clear, and my body felt warm, not painfully hot. Forcing stiff limbs to move, I staggered up and onto my cloven hooves. It was hard to stand, subtly different from when I'd been a horse centaur. The furs slithered off my deer back to slump into a pile around my legs. My feathered owlskin was tied loosely around my throat and it shushed around me as I moved, a warm and comforting presence.
The woman finished working the thread through the entire width of the design she was weaving and then stood up and turned to face me. "So Stephan, you're awake now."
My throat was dry, my voice hoarse. "How do you know my name?"
"Grandfather Spirit told me. You've slept a long time." She walked over to the fire and poured liquid from the same pot there into a clean wooden bowl. It smelled different, sweeter, with a strong hint of pine.
Unhurriedly she carried the bowl forward and held it up in front of me. "Remember that you need to lap it up."
Its sweet pine scent wafted down my quivering nostrils. Unable to resist I pushed my snout into it and lapped it all up. Much neater than before.
She waited until my long tongue was licking the bowl for the last hints of the thick vegetable broth before speaking. "You've slept through the winter."
My head jerked up and I stumbled backwards. My rear hooves caught in the furs and I fell in a pile of limbs. "All... all winter?!"
She smiled, and the smile filled her face with a spiderweb of wrinkles. "Your body needed time to relearn itself. It's no longer a skin that you're wearing, what you are is what you are."
I didn't know what to say.
"I have one gift for you, then you have to go make your own way. I'm not a charity here."
I looked at her, eyes blinking. "Then why did you help me?"
"You needed help just then. Why'd you help Phillipa?"
She turned away and walked over to a pile of sacks and started rummaging through them.
"I did it because it was the right thing to do. Because she needed help and I was in a position to give it."
"You needed help Stephan, and I was in the right place to offer it. Now where... ah hah!"
At that point a familiar rumble and muscular contraction worked its way through my chest and I felt stuff, cud, being pushed up my throat. It slid into my mouth and I started chewing. I watched as she pulled something out of the bag and then she stood up and turned towards me. I could see that she was holding two things. The first was an ornamental Cretan bronze knife, and the second was a long feather stark white in colour. I tried to swallow--
"Take your time Stephan. The chewing needs to be done right. These things have waited for you for a long time. I've held them for you." She started walking towards me.
I chewed quickly and swallowed the goo in my mouth. "They have?"
"Pieces from your past. The knife you need, and the feather will save you in the time of your greatest danger."
By then she was in front of me and she gently pushed the no feathered tip into the fur at the tip of my left ear. It stung as the point pricked my skin, but I didn't feel any lasting pain, and didn't feel any blood. "There you go. Don't worry, you won't lose it, and it won't bother you. But it'll be there." Then she hung a leather strap over my shoulder which held a tooled Dineh style scabbard that held the dagger.
"You didn't have that bef--"
"Stephan, it's for you. Use it well, think before you act."
"But the strap, the scabbard--"
"I wish your path could be changed, but what will happen will happen. You need to learn on your own."
I swallowed down my questions. "Thank you."
"No problem. You're much nicer than either Nayenegani or Tobadzistsini were. They were in such a hurry to destroy evil. Never a word or even a nod of thanks."
I started working my hind hoofs out of the tangle of furs. "Do you have a name?"
"Oh my! A name?! Well, of course. But-- Well, I guess my title is safe."
"It's one of my names anyway."
"I just like to know who's helped me. To honour them."
"Oh, I understand."
She slapped me on my deer flank. "Now get going, you have work to do. And I need some time to relax."
The force of her slap caused me to take a single bound forward. It wasn't like a gallop, or a walk. Instead I seemed to leap from where I had been to where I was. In front of me there was suddenly an entrance out into the sunfilled spring. Pine scent filled my nostrils, birds sang in the air. In the distance I could here the songs of the Dineh at one of their festivals.
"Well, go on. Nothing out there is going to hurt you."
I turned at my waist to face her. "Your name?"
Smiling, she shook her head. "You Westerners and your need for labels. If you really need something, you can call me Spider Woman. Now shoo!"
"Thank you Spider Woman." I turned and bounded out into the pine forest.
I had much to do, and the first thing I needed was a bow and arrows. Then I could begin to hunt. With this body I could live off the leaves and grass, and smooth and polish the bow as I walked.
Soon the hunt would begin.
Chapter 65: The Cleansing
If only life were that easy.
With only a knife it was hard to find good wood. I eventually came across a branch knocked down by lightning. It was pine, but since there didn't seem to be much else, I was stuck with it.
And, although food was plentiful, I had to eat a lot of it. An awful lot of it. Meat contains concentrated proteins, grass and leaves don't. I ended up spending most of my day wandering around looking for food, and most of my time wandering eating. When I wasn't eating it I ended up chewing the regurgitated cud. And none of it had any taste. The only real difference was whether it was dry or wet.
Still I persevered.
I stayed away from the Dineh through the spring as I worked, and the Skinwalkers avoided me. I didn't worry about them finding my father's cave as his skins were useless to them unless they killed me. And I was pretty sure I'd notice if they killed me.
Once I'd found the wood it was more tedium than work to shape it. The string was a problem as it took me a long time to find a plant to get the fibres from. I couldn't find any I knew from my time with the Scythians, and my childhood with the Dineh, if you could call it that, hadn't including anything practical. I finally ended up stealing one from a Dineh by swooping in as an owl at night and grabbing one. Changing into an owl was different, harder. It still wasn't painful but there seemed to be a lot more effort involved. Maybe that was due to the difference in mass
The arrows were far easier and they were made quickly, their heads made from flint. The quiver I ended up making from deerskin taken from an abandoned kill, likely made by a Skinwalker. There was a certain justice in that.
In all, it wasn't until the summer that I was finally ready to begin my crusade.
I didn't want to go to one of the gatherings to watch a child become a Skinwalker. There'd be too many there and I didn't even want to make my presence known to a group. Too dangerous. Instead I hoped it would be easy to find other Skinwalkers near the Dineh village. I could detect them, or so I hoped. In my wanderings to make the bow I hadn't sensed any, but then I'd stayed away from the village. The only thing I knew that they would do, or at least some of them, was to sell their services of murder. I was afraid to wander near the camp as I was obviously alien and feared what they would do. Instead I again used my owlskin, first to store the bow I'd worked so hard on. With difficulty I managed to hold my bow in my claws and fly it up into the cave. At least there it'd be dry and safe.
There were other unexpected difficulties too. I had to eat mice and small rodents, but they never went down well. My body didn't reject them, but I always had to force myself to swallow them. Hunts were more difficult. It was like my heart was no longer in it. But I managed. At least I needed a lot less food.
It wasn't until late in the summer that I finally sensed a Skinwalker. The feeling nudged me from sleep and I flew around the pine trees and followed at a discrete distance. He must have sensed me but there was no reaction. When he finally stopped near the Dineh settlement I made note of where he was and hurried back to my father's cave in a flurry of feathers. Still an owl I dumped my knife and quiver full of arrows out of the cave, and fluttered down behind them holding the bow in my feet. Pecking at one wing until I drew blood, my body exploded outward and I was once again the deer centaur I'd become. I picked up the knife and hung the strap over one shoulder, and hung the strap holding the quiver and its arrows over the other. Then I leaned down and picked up the bow. Securing my skin around my neck I turned and bounded off through the woods towards where the Skinwalker had stopped.
Bounding as a deer is not the same as galloping as a horse. It's more of a controlled jump that starts and ends and then starts again. You jump, fly through the air for a moment, thud onto the ground with bent legs, forelegs first, hindlegs second, and then do it again. It's certainly not as fast as an all out gallop, but it has its own grace and allows far more maneuverability which is useful in the woods. My hooves thudded into the needle laden ground again and again, and the quiver bounced on my back against my cloak of owl feathers. I just hoped I wasn't too late. When I was close I stopped and proceeded at a more cautious walk. My nose quivered at every scent, and my deer-like ears twisted and flicked around in all directions, listening.
As I approached I heard two voices. Then the sounds of somebody leaving. There was a scent in the air in addition to the faint wiff of human. It was a cold scent that twisted along the ground. It was a scent of death and disease. As silent as a deer I crept closer, stringing my bow and drawing an arrow. In the dappled sunlight I saw a figure, and knew it was the Skinwalker. It wasn't a he, but a she. A girl, maybe 14. Around her she was wrapping a wolfskin. I let loose my first arrow, and drew and fired another. The first hit her in the left breast, the second in her chest.
I put a third in her throat to keep her from screaming. As I walked towards her, a drift of power passed from her into me. A voice whispered in my head: Judge, jury, and executioner.
I was more than large enough to drag her and her skin, it was her only skin, off into the forest. There I gathered fallen branches and, with flint and tinder she had in a pouch, I burned them both. The pouch and the flint and iron I kept for myself.
My second kill came soon after. I was nibbling pine needles which were getting dry and increasingly bitter. I sensed a Skinwalker nearby and my ears focused on the sound of fluttering feathers and angrily cawing voices. I knew that there was a dead deer nearby, the scavengers had been at it. From the other scent around it, it had been the kill of a wolverine. Carefully I approached, bow at the ready. From the sounds I guessed that when the Skinwalker had come, the ravens had fled. Normal animals avoided us. They wouldn't hunt us which made my life a lot safer. Soon I saw that there was one raven that was on the corpse, pecking and tearing at the rotten meat.
One arrow took it in the chest.
Oblivious to the power flowing into me, I walked forward watching as the form changed from raven into human cloaked in raven feathers. This one was female. As I picked her up to take her off and burn her, I saw the face.
It was another woman. It was my mother.
Was I doing the right thing?
Of course I was!
With a snort I heaved her body over my shoulder and walked off. I followed my new knowledge to her lair, an abandoned wolf den, and pulled out her other two skins. The den wasn't deep. One was a wolf, and one was a deer. Odd, I didn't know any Skinwalkers other than myself dealt with herbivores.
I burned all her skins.
As summer faded into fall kills followed one after the other. My body grew antlers and, other than learning to keep my head low so as not to get entangled in branches, I ignored them. I had a job to do. By then I was very efficient. I always wandered near the Dineh village, but not too near. I avoided the Dineh. Eventually I would sense a Skinwalker, and then it would be over quickly. Most were wolves or coyotes, many were foxes. These were all easy to catch as I was faster. Those few with bird forms I had to sneak up on and get very close before killing. It also seemed that the more I killed, the better I could sense them. My range increased and soon I could sense them long before they could sense me. However, by the first snowfall my kill rate was slowing. Skinwalkers were getting harder and harder to find. Hopefully because I was killing most of them.
There was a thin layer of snow on the ground, and food was becoming harder to find. I hadn't sensed any Skinwalkers for almost a full moon when I suddenly felt one nearby. Using my perfected methods, I strung my bow and silently moved towards the feeling. I heard voices and, as I generally did, ignored them. There were two, one male and one female. The female was crying, sobbing, and I started bounding towards the source. I just prayed I wouldn't be too late!
"Take me! Please take me!" the female voice shouted.
"There, there. Don't worry, I'll show you the way," the male voice responded.
"I won't go back! I won't!"
"You won't have to. Come with me, leave their stilted order behind. Be free!"
"But, but, you're evil. You're witches! The Shaman says so."
"Young one, that's what they want you to think. I won't force you into marriage, I won't force you to mate."
"He's already got one wife! Why does he need me?! It's been so horrible since he became chief."
"Don't worry, I won't let Ahigo hurt you."
Ahigo? It was Ahigo that my father had been hired to murder.
I burst into a clearing and saw two figures crouching in the snow. One was an older man enwrapped in white wolf fur. He was the skinwalker. Being held in his arms was a young Dineh woman. She was dressed in ornamental hides, and the scent of her sadness and horror drenched my quivering nostrils. Below them was the scent of sex, of blood, and of rape.
I stopped, lowering my bow, feeling the snow flakes settling onto my back, onto my outstretched antlers. The man turned to face me, enwrapping the girl with his wolfskin to protect her from me.
"If you want to kill me shoot. Just don't send her back."
Chapter 66: Lessons
"What's going on?" I whispered, my voice soft across the gently falling snow. It was barely audible over the sobbing of the girl.
"Why are you protecting Ahigo? He's a bloodless bastard not worthy to be one of us, not even worthy to be one of the Dineh."
"Every one of us that's been paid to kill him you've slain. Why? How much did he pay you?"
The Skinwalker spit onto the snow. "Greedy monster. Just kill me and get it over with. But please, make the girl one of us. She doesn't deserve what happened to her."
Turning, I fled through the gently falling the snow, a stubborn part of me refusing to let go the bow I'd spent so much time on.
What had I done? The Skinwalkers were evil. Monsters. I was simply doing the Dineh a service. And yet, apparently Ahigo was a monster too. Was it possible that the Skinwalker was lying? But what about the girl? I knew she wasn't a Skinwalker. I could smell no deceit on her, no deceit on either of them.
If everything was true, then I'd allowed Ahigo to live. I'd allowed that girl to be raped and so horrified that she'd rather be one of the cursed Skinwalkers then remain with Ahigo.
Plowing into a deep drift of snow, I slowed and stopped. I was in a clearing, and, through a gap in the clouds, the half moon brightly shone.
What was I going to do?
Then I knew what I HAD to do. Swallowing I turned back the way I'd come.
I knew where the Dineh encampment was. I needed the truth. If this Ahigo was the monster the girl and the Skinwalker made him out to be, I'd kill him and damn the consequences. If he was a monster than that would be a start to undo what I'd done.
I started bounding throughtthe snow towards the village.
What exactly had I done?
I'd been judge, jury, and executioner. I'd set myself up as the sole power of life and death. Had I been wrong? Was I worse than the Skinwalkers? If I was, then why had that Spider Woman helped me?
The snow fell heavier, muffling all sound. Clouds passed in front of the moon and the forest vanished in darkness. I was forced to slow and walk. Dimly I could scent a fire, and from that I knew where the village was. I made my way towards it, sensing my way forward through the darkness. Hearing branches sway slightly in the faint wind I ducked beneath them. In the distance I suddenly saw a flickering light and knew that it was a small fire for the Dineh watchers. Moving as silent as a deer I angled away from it but still moving towards the village. Still holding the bow I crossed my hands behind my back and leaned forward. I wanted to look like just another deer.
I saw another fire off in the distance.
Moving slower, I stopped often, nibbling at some of the bitter needles. All the time I kept moving forward.
I heard the watchers at the nearest fire, I knew that there were a pair at each, whispering to one another.
"May the Great Spirit curse Ahigo! Nobody's going to come tonight."
"Shut up! That's witch talk!"
The first voice spoke lower, a conspiratorial whisper and my ears swiveled to focus and still I could barely make him out. "He took my sister. You know what he's going to do to her!"
"He's our chief and thus we obey him. It's the w--" And then the voices faded to unintelligibility.
From when I'd been a owl I knew that there were usually five watches equally spaced around the village. One was directly east, the others equally spaced so that none were directly west.
The night was quiet and getting colder. The snow fell heavier, large flakes that drifted downward. The moon remained hidden.
And then I saw the village. It was dark, but I could see dim glows around the hides that covered the entrances. The chieftain's was the largest, and I knew where it had once been. The shaman's was actually the smallest as he made an effort to be poor and unsuccessful so that the tribe didn't turn on him as a witch.
I heard a male voice, and then a woman's scream. Both seemed to come from the chieftain's hogon.
I stopped being quiet and bounded towards it.
I heard a slap, and then another scream.
Skidding to a stop at the entrance, snow up to my knees, I drew an arrow.
From inside I heard a man's voice: "DAMN YOU BITCH, WHERE IS SHE?!"
I tore the hide off the east-facing entrance and looked in.
There was a man there. He was naked, heat poured off his skin. I could smell his anger and his hatred. I could smell sex. He was holding a leather strap. Below him was a woman, older. She was on the ground sobbing. Her clothes had been torn off, and bloody streaks covered her back.
He spun around and saw me.
I could see the hate in his eyes, the evil. I could scent his disdain. I could scent his confidence in his power.
"WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?! PUT THAT HIDE BACK, YOU HEAR ME! I SAID I WASN'T TO BE DISTURBED!"
Lowering my head I stepped into the hogon. Then I raised my upper body to its full height and my antlers clunked against the poles holding up the roof.
"SKINWALKER! SKINWALKER! HELP!!" He must have recognized the owlskin around my shoulders.
Below him the woman screamed and started crawling to the farthest corner of the hogon in horror and terror.
I'd let this happen and it was up to me to do what should have been done months ago. My first arrow took Ahigo in the chest, my second was sunk in beside it. My third went through his mouth now gurgling blood. Ducking my head under the doorframe, I turned to flee.
Outside the screams behind were quieter. It was snowing harder, and the wind was rising. All around I heard movement, voices. More hides were moved aside and light fell upon me. There were screams and shouts.
I fled bounding into the snow. A few arrows sped past me. I heard a deep voice, echoing weirdly, and blue-white fire surrounded me, but didn't kill me. The only effect was a burning at the base of my ear, and a burnt and shriveled feather falling out, the wind of my passage whipping it away.
Soon all that was around me was the rustle of the trees in the rising wind, and the drifting snowflakes that snuck between the pines. The wind grew louder, gradually turning into a howling roar. All the while I fled through deeper and deeper snow. I'd killed what seemed to be the bad guys, and now I'd killed the bad guy. Had I done right? Had I done wrong? I didn't know. Why hadn't I remembered what Ephebus had done to me?!
By dawn I was gasping for breath as the wind howled and the snow whipped around me. I'd gone higher up the mountainside and was now walking across wind blasted rock. Frozen gravel slid underhoof and I fell, and then forced myself up again. Icicles from my panting breath hung from the hairs around my muzzle. In the dim pre-dawn light I could make out a cave, or a crevice, in the rock ahead of me. My limbs heavy, I forced myself towards it, leaning into the wind. One step, another, another. My hand was frozen around the bow that had allowed me to perpetuate horror after horror. It was a dead weight. The wind shrieked around me. One step, another, another.
And suddenly there was a blessed silence as I reached the shelter of the rock. Tiny whirlwinds swept around me but the main blast of the wind couldn't reach me. I collapsed onto the cold rock.
A cold wind was blowing across the Sea of Grass. The grass was dry. It was dark, the sky covered with clouds. The only light was from a small fire and I could see a form sitting beside it. I walked closer to the warmth, my limbs stiff and sore. Soon I recognized it as Coyote, in his human-like Coyote form. He was sitting on the ribcage of a horse.
Come over to the fire Stephan. I think you're ready to talk.
I made my way over and gracefully lowered myself onto my deer chest. The fire popped and crackled. Fueling the fire was human bones.
It's a sad thing Stephan when you know what's going to happen. When you know that nothing you can do will change it. It’s at times like these that I sometimes regret what we did.
I looked at him and then spoke, my voice haunted. "What did I do wrong?"
Lots of things. The Dineh culture has a lot going for it. They're generally peaceful. They revere many of the same things that you do. The Skinwalkers are a lot of things that you consider evil. The two groups are really opposites, and in a sense each defines the other. One is light, one is dark.
Unfortunately, by the will of the Great Spirit, the Dineh live in a largely prescribed way. Things are done the way they're always done. People are obeyed because of their position, not because of their soul.
I closed my eyes and remembered what I'd seen in the hogon. "Ahigo was one of those without the soul, wasn't he?"
Coyote snorted. You could say that. A pipe appeared in his hand and he inhaled and blew out a cloud of rich blue smoke that was whipped away by the wind. Would you like some? You really should.
I snorted. "Given my record I'd better listen for a change." Taking the pipe he offered, I inhaled the rich smoke into my lungs. Immediately I started coughing uncontrollably.
As he laughed, Coyote caught the pipe before I flung it out of my hands. You should see what you look like!
When I stopped coughing I glared at him, though I don't think Coyote got it as I sneezed loudly. Ignoring me, he continued.
Dineh life is quite restricted. They can't touch a corpse or perpetrate murder or administer poison. The social pressures against those actions are far far greater than they were when you were on the surface. Dineh have to obey their leaders.
The Skinwalkers provide an exit. Skinwalkers can do everything that a Dineh can't. Including getting rid of soulless bastards.
In other words, a Skinwalker can do what needs to be done. They're not bound by the Dineh laws and rules and thus can achieve things for the people that the Dineh are forbidden or incapable of doing.
"That doesn't make sense."
Pah! You Westerners! It's always your way, or the wrong way! Coyote turned and looked at me and I felt my soul falling into his yellow eyes. Alexander the Great was told that the Persians should be subservient to the Greeks because they were barbarians. Not Greeks.
You came to North America and exterminated the natives. And then, finally, you felt sorry for us. You decided to make amends. He leaned forward until his muzzle was almost against mine. You swore that you wouldn't do it again. BUT YOU JUST DID!
I jerked backwards, away from his vehemence.
Sometimes I wish the Great Spirit would just wipe you out!
I watched as he snapped the pipe in two in his hands.
He sighed. Stephan, Stephan. You can't understand a culture by watching it for a few moons. Any given culture works as it is. It has to. If you're going to change it, make absolutely sure you know what you're doing. He poked me in my human chest with the fixed pipe. Keep your people from doing it.
I turned away and watched the fire for a while as Coyote puffed on his pipe. I could feel myself getting colder but I really didn't want to move. What did he mean by my people? How was I supposed to know?
You'll have to excuse an old Coyote Stephan. You just got under my skin. He sighed. It's tough knowing what's going to happen, knowing that you can't stop it, knowing that the misery has to happen because it happened. A bone appeared in his hand and he tossed it into the fire. Sometimes I wish I'd stayed behind like you.
I turned to him. "What do you mean 'stayed behind like me'?"
You'll find out. Now, let's smoke together, make peace. Then I have to send you on your way.
"Answer my question!"
Nope. Can't do that because I don't. He offered me the pipe. Take a puff, lighter this time, and then I'll send you on your way.
I took the pipe and looked at the mouthpiece and the smoke wisping from it.
Oh come on! You don't think I'd vastly enhance the bitterness again, do you? What do you take me for, Coyote or something? Sheesh! Take a puff, because then I have to send you on your way. And don't take too long, you're running out of time.
I sniffed at the smoke. It certainly didn't seem as strong. "What do you mean I'm running out of time? You said something moons ago about my having all the time I need."
He chuckled. Right now your body is freezing. Soon it'll be dead. If I don't send you on your way soon, you will be dead. Then we'll have to start all over again. Just one little puff for the old man, please?
Was that why I felt so cold? I put the pipe up to my lips.
Remember, think before you act. Don't let anger control you. Don't act until you're sure. The last thing we need is another Western world.
Go and change the world Stephan.
I touched the pipe to my lips and inhaled a little bit. The smoke was sweet, not like last time. Slowly I blew it out of my nostrils. It was nice. I pulled in more.
Gagging and coughing, I threw the pipe away. The smoke burned, burned my lungs, burned my mouth, burned my nostrils.
And then the fire, the Sea of Grass, Coyote, all vanished and I was sinking into steaming hot water.
Chapter 67: Coyote's Gift
I tried to move, but my limbs were cold, stiff. I could barely feel anything. My legs touched the bottom and I stopped sinking with the sulphur scented water just lapping over my deer back. The water was hot, a faint mist clung to its surface. Leaning forward I stretched my upper body out so that it was in the water too. I had to look up to keep my nostrils above the water. Slowly life poured back into me, a glorious warmth that burned my nerves, sent tingling pain through me. But it brought me back to life.
It'd been close.
Sighing, more or less oblivious to the stench of sulphur which wafted all around me, I let the heat bake my muscles. And once I had feeling back I let it soothe my soreness. The water gurgled and bubbled and I just relaxed.
I must have nodded off because the next thing I remember was jerking awake uncomfortably hot. I was desperately panting, and I could see the world shimmering around me. Somehow I staggered out, my limbs leaden, and stood on the shore. There was a little grass. Instead it was mostly jagged chunks of shattered rock. Water dripped from my fur and I walked a bit further away from the pool and lay down and slept again, wrapping the sodden owlskin around me. Not quite enough to change of course.
When next I awoke it was late in the day and I felt much better. Stretching my arms, I realized that I was still holding the bow I'd laboured over so hard. It was still wet, and the wood had warped from its immersion. Standing up, I threw it away, whipping it high and far. Dimly I heard the clatter of wood on stone. I never wanted to see it again. The stiff deerleather quiver and the arrows followed. I pulled the strap and scabbard and cretan knife off and prepared to send it after the bow and arrows but then stopped. Carefully I drew the ornate bronze blade and looked at it.
It was beautiful.
It was odd that I'd never looked at it, just taken it. So consumed had I been in my crusading justice, I'd ignored the simple things around me. I decided to keep the knife. I'd have to make a new scabbard to get rid of the sulphur smell, but the knife could stay. It would be a reminder. For now though I'd have to keep the scabbard and strap. I hung it back over my shoulder and walked away, looking for some grass.
Soon I realized that I was on a mountain, the ground sloping downward. Below I could see rich grasses and deciduous trees beckoning. Seeing no sign of civilization, I made my way down, carefully ignoring the outcroppings of fallen shattered rock.
The leaves and shoots were green, the grass was green. They were sweet and wet, though still relatively tasteless. The cud was a little better. It seemed that wherever I was now, it was spring. Shrugging, I decided to relax at least for a little bit. I'd have to figure out where I was, but first I wanted, no needed, a couple of days to get fed, to get clean, and to get rid of the tension and the horror of what I'd been doing.
The days passed quickly. I found a cold pool at the base of a waterfall and soaked in it for brief periods to get rid of the sulphur that clung to me. I washed my owlskin a couple of times and that seemed to get the sulphur out of it. At least its magic had protected it. Other than that I encountered only wildlife. Deer were around, and lots of small animals.
The deer accepted me, at least the does. The males fled. Possibly because I still had my antlers. I could feel a bit of rage, but none of them seemed a real threat and I had no trouble keeping my anger under control. Once a doe and her fawn let me walk right up to them. I just stood there as the fawn sniffed at me, walked around, and then nudged me. He fled and I chased him around and around the clearing. It was wonderful. Too soon the sun set and the doe took her child away whilst I stayed and ate, recovering from the effort.
A week passed. Some days it rained but I really didn't mind. Finally I felt sated. My muscles no longer ached as I moved. My antlers were still there and I wasn't sure what was going to happen with them. Normally they'd fall off before the end of the year, but to my body that time hadn't happened yet. I wasn't sure if temperature was a factor in them. I'd just have to find out.
At dusk I walked to the edge of a small cliff and looked over the edge. All I could see was wilderness. Hoping it would work, I wrapped my owlskin around me. I felt the magic swirl and possess me, sucking my body smaller and smaller. I felt somebody helping, somebody female. And then it was over. The world was brighter, larger. I took wing and the land spread out below me.
Like the woods and grass, small mammals were plentiful. I had no trouble finding food, and it was much easier to kill it and eat it. Maybe I'd gotten used to it over the months.
Two days afterward I began moving south, I came across a dirt road. Curious, I landed on the branch of an oak. At least now I knew that there was civilization. The road was a plain dirt track, with pools of water and mud scattered here and there from the rain the previous night. There was no sign of life. At first I didn't want to take the skin off as being an owl was safer, but then I realized that most traffic would be during the day when I'd be asleep. Fluttering down from the tree I landed on a root and pecked and tore at my right wing until crimson blood stained the feathers. Magic swirled around me and my body grew and expanded. Wings became arms, a second pair of legs grew out, and antlers extended from my head.
Trusting my ears and nose, I wandered near the road but out of sight in the trees and underbrush. There I lived off the rich grass and buds. On the first day I heard nothing and slept near the road but behind a massive oak tree, cradled between its roots. On the second day I heard the sound of hooves and feet and voices. Carefully, ears flicking to focus better as the voices echoed through the trees and brush, I stepped closer to the road. Lying down behind a patch of brush I listened.
"...is not the only way to glory. There is much to be said for the simple joys." The voice was male, deep and old.
He was answered by the voice of a young child. "But I want to be a warrior! Why do I need to know about trees?"
"...be wise you must know something about all things. Give it time. Your name shall be sung through the ages, remembered for all eternity." The older man chuckled. "But even great things start small."
I head the sound of feet thudding on mud. "I bet you can't catch me!" I heard the sound of a child running.
Carefully, I poked my muzzle through the brush until I could see the road. Into my sight came a naked child, about five, running faster than the wind. Suddenly he stopped right in front of the brush and looked me. Before I had a chance to move, he leapt through the brush and onto me, wrapping his arms around my neck and squeezing.
Gasping I leapt to my feet and burst through the brush just as I heard hooves clattering down the road. All that time the child clung to me squeezing tighter and tighter. Unable to breathe I saw a centaur clattering to a stop in front of me.
Not just any centaur.
A centaur that had the front legs of a man and the rear legs of a horse.
A centaur that I recognized.
Coyote had sent me to my son. To Chiron.
Chapter 68: Prophecies
I stared at Chiron as Chiron stared at me, too shocked to worry about my inability to breathe.
Finally Chiron turned away from me towards the little human who was in the process of wringing my neck. "Achilles," he said mildly, "that's not a deer for you to eat. Let him go."
Suddenly the pressure was gone and, as I gasped for breath, Achilles dropped down and stood in front of Chiron, his head hung low in shame. "I'm... I'm sorry Chiron. I--"
"Achilles, the mark of a great warrior is not how many people he slays, but whom he slays. What do you think people would think of you if you walked up and stuck a spear through the king you were fighting for?"
"I won't do it again. I promise. Really. I swear."
"Like last time?" Chiron asked dryly.
"This time I mean it! Really!"
Chiron didn't respond but instead turned to me. In his hands was a waterskin which he untied and offered me. I could smell that it was water. Taking it from him, I rose my muzzle high and let the water slide down my mouth and down my throat. Even though the waterskin was huge, I must have poured half of it down my throat before handing it back.
Trying to speak, I instead sneezed. "Excuse me. And thank you."
Chiron motioned to Achilles still standing abashedly beside him, now kicking the dirt with a bare foot. "My charge is still learning. I'm Chiron, and on his behalf I apologize."
"I'm..." What should I say? I had so many names. No! I wasn't going to hide anymore. "My name is Stephan."
Chiron looked at me as I looked at him, now that I could do other IMPORTANT things like breathe. He was a lot like I used to be. His skin was tanned but free of scars and tattoos. His horse body was ivory, with black points above his hooves. His tail, hair, and mane were all the same ivory colour.
"I thought I knew all the centaurs around. I must admit, I've never seen one like you."
"I'm not from around here."
Chiron snorted. "If you wish, you can come back to my cave. The least I can do is offer you a meal."
"I'd be honoured."
"Achilles!" Chiron called.
"Go to the cave and get the fire started. We've a guest for dinner."
"Can I get a swine on the way? Can I? Huh?"
Chiron sighed. "If you find some wild swine, you may take one. So go. We'll be a while."
I broke in. "Is it all right for him to go alone?"
Chiron laughed. "Him? Some days I don't think the gods could hurt him. Of all my students, he's certainly the toughest."
By then Achilles was out of sight.
I looked down the road Achilles had taken, my mind full of questions. That was Achilles. In two decades he'd try to kill me on the fields of Troy. I felt a spasm of pain between my front legs where he had, or was that would, stab me. Had? Would? Was that--
Chiron interrupted my thoughts. "It seems as though I should know your voice. It sounds familiar, yet I can't place it."
Closing my eyes I swallowed, and scratched an itch at the top of my right leg with my right hind hoof. What was I going to tell him? Why was I afraid of telling him? "You're the son of two centaurs like yourself. A mare named Philya who died giving birth, and a stallion named Scylurus who may also have been known as Stephan. You were taken by Apollo and raised by him and Artemis."
"Apollo told me that I was the son of Chronos. Yet, why would you lie...?"
Turning to look down the road after Achilles I opened my eyes and my voice continued as though in a dream. "I remember your birth. You killed your mother, you were too big for her. A flaw in the biology. The storm was ending and I'd granted a mare, Anarcharax, milk so that you could suckle. Then Apollo came and he took you from me. He made me insane when I wouldn't let him."
"Apollo told me that Chronos left after he planted his seed in Philyra. He told me that she turned into a tree at the sight of me. He did say that the first beast to offer me milk was a mare."
"I've missed you so. Oh god but I've missed you! For so long I wished to be with you, to meet you, to understand you. I only ever saw you once..." My voice faded to silence when I remembered that meeting. It hadn't happened yet. How could I tell Chiron that the only time I saw him was when he began to die? And that other centaur that was with him. The one in the skin. The one Poseidon had become.
The one that had had the body and head of a deer and wore a feathered cloak.
Chiron turned and began walking down the road and I trotted after him to follow. "I would remember seeing somebody like you before," he muttered.
I was silent for a while as my mind raced. The prophecy played through my mind, and I could hear the Pythia chanting the words.
Around the sea, but not across
The coin you must, twice it toss
The second time your first will be
The first one second time will flee
When in war you first will fail
There your gift will turn you pale
If you'd learn to do the deed
In death the answers will be freed
It is in peace that you will take
It's with the sea that you will make
And only then shall all partake
Dear god! It finally made sense! The first time I fought Poseidon was in the fifth year of the Trojan War. That was about two decades from now. Poseidon had been at Troy much earlier when he and Apollo had built the city walls. The first stanza had always been obvious. Poseidon had power over the sea, I would have to avoid it. The second stanza must mean that I would first face Poseidon during the war, and then I would end up in the past and face Poseidon when he was building the walls. The second time I faced him, would be the first time to Poseidon. The third stanza simply stated that to learn how to kill Poseidon I would have to die. I would have to enter the paleness of death. There I would find the answer. It was so simple now! Chiron was immortal, yet he died. He died by giving his immortality to Prometheus. I'd been immortal. I'd died by giving my immortality to Poseidon in the future. And Poseidon would die by giving his immortality to me.
But the last bit... I had no interest in killing Poseidon any more. That was in the past, what was done was done. And yet Apollo had stated something about me freeing them. And Coyote had told me to change the world. He'd hinted that I'd had a destiny.
What the hell was it?
That was when I heard Chiron mutter, more to himself than to me, "Why would you lie in such an obvious way?"
"I didn't lie. There are reasons you don't remember." How could I tell him that he was going to die...?
Or was he? I'd been with him. I would be with him again. I could keep him alive! Then another memory flashed. I'd been in the midst of the battle, I'd seen Heracles, I'd tried to stop him, but I'd pushed him so that his arrow hit Chiron.
I could stop myself!
Or could I? If I changed my past, what would happen to me?
I realized that Chiron had stopped and had turned to face me. "What are those reasons?"
"I..." What was I going to tell him. "I wish I could tell you. You wouldn't believe me."
He put his hands on his waist. "Try me."
"I..." I couldn't lie to my son. Bowing my head I whispered, "When I killed you."
"Killed? Me?" He burst out laughing. "You must have me confused with somebody else!" He turned and started trotting down the path. "Now come along, Achilles probably has supper half done by now. He's quick and dangerous that one."
I had to hurry to catch up to him. I didn't know what to say. I'd tried to tell him the truth, but...
The road began to climb, becoming steeper and steeper. Chiron turned off onto a narrow and winding trail which I found hard work to climb. All the way up I kept regurgitating cud and having to chew it before swallowing again. I had to keep ducking my head to keep my antlers from getting entangled. My mind was in turmoil, I didn't know what to do. Other than stay with Chiron, keep him alive, save him from the arrow.
It was dusk before we passed out of the dense brush around the path and into a small clearing before a cave. Light flickered from inside and I could smell roasting meat and hear the sizzle of grease dripping into flame. I could also hear the loud whacking of a stick against another stick.
Ducking my head, I followed Chiron in, our hooves clattering on the stone. The passage opened into a large chamber which was not a cave, but a comfortable room. Hangings draped the walls and rough but well made wooden frames separated the large area into separate rooms. In one corner Achilles was beating at a wooden pole with a wooden sword. Beside the fire on a wooden stool sat a gorgeous woman in course linen dyed yellow slowly turning a spit which suspended a skinned boar over the fire.
"Stephan, you already know Achilles. Allow me to present my youngest daughter Ocyrrhoe. Ocyrrhoe, this is Stephan. Achilles tried to bring him in as dinner."
At her father's voice Ocyrrhoe turned and saw me. Her eyes widened and I saw that she suddenly knew her destiny. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I couldn't think of a way to stop it.
Chiron chuckled. Stephan here says that I'm going to die."
For a second horror stretched itself across Ocyrrhoe's face, and then I saw the prophecy take her. With a cold voice she stated:'
And thou, my sire, not destin'd by thy birth
To turn to dust, and mix with common earth,
How wilt thou toss, and rave, and long to dye,
And quit thy claim to immortality;
When thou shalt feel, enrag'd with inward pains,
The Hydra's venom rankling in thy veins?
The Gods, in pity, shall contract thy date,
And give thee over to the pow'r of Fate.**
And then I saw Zeus' will take hold upon her.
Chapter 69: Fate
Achilles had spun to watch; Chiron just stood there in shock. It was I who bounded over to hold her as Zeus' will swept through her. Laying on my deer chest I cradled her head as it stretched out into an equine muzzle. I held her, giving her what comfort I could as her body grew, turning a dark brown, almost black. All the time her eyes looked into mine, beseeching me to help but I couldn't, and I think she knew that too. Finally she was laying there, a black mare, her lungs heaving up and down as she quivered in fear.
For a long moment everybody remained still, until Chiron quietly asked. "What did you just do Stephan?"
I didn't turn away from Ocyrrhoe, I just held her head and began petting her mane. "I didn't do anything. Did you hear what she said?"
"Now do you believe me?"
"It doesn't matter. Get out."
I stopped comforting Ocyrrhoe and turned my upper body and head to look at him.
"Get out before I do something I'll regret."
"Ocyrrhoe, do you need help?"
Stephan... I see what you are now. You honour me.
I got up and watched as Ocyrrhoe staggered up onto her hoofs. "It's not I who did this, it was Zeus. He cursed her for telling you too much." I started walking for the entrance.
Behind me other hooves moved to follow me.
"Ocyrrhoe...?" Chiron asked.
I stopped and watched as she stopped. She was still awkward, but she was learning fast. Father, she nickered. He's the father of my new race. I need to learn from him. On you, I'd... I'd be a burden.
"You can't understand her, can you?" I asked.
Hope blossomed through Chiron's voice. "She's not an animal? She can be restor--?"
"No. I'm sorry. When you're ready to talk to her we'll be around."
And with that I left with Ocyrrhoe following.
Once outside of the cave I stopped. "You should eat. Unfortunately it's not the best tasting, but it's what you need. Are there villages nearby?"
A couple down the mountain. Stephan, why did Chiron--?
"He's afraid. Possibly for the first time in his life he's faced with something he can't heal. Give him a little while. Rest. He'll want to talk to you."
She started eating and I ate with her. After a little bit she stopped and turned to look at me. It's dry and bitter.
I stayed with Ocyrrhoe as we wandered the foothills. I visited the village a couple of times and after some initial fears traded work for grain and fruits which I then offered to Ocyrrhoe upon my return. She grew used to her body, but never happy with it.
One afternoon she asked: Why did Zeus do this?
"I don't know."
But you said that this was Zeus' punishment. You must know something.
"I know a little bit. I know that you were fated to tell your father his fate. And I know that would cause Zeus to transform you into a mare. Why? I think it was because you were revealing things Zeus wanted kept secret."
But then why transform me afterwards?
"That's beyond what I've heard. All I can think of is that either this was a message or warning to Chiron, or you were fated to reveal something in the future. I don't know everything." Though I was starting to think I knew too much. I'd heard the prophecy of Chiron's death. Before I was confident I could keep him alive, but now?
You know exactly when my father's going to die, don't you?
For a while I remain quiet in the shade of the trees on the mountainside. Finally I swallowed the cud I'd been chewing. "Yes."
And you can save him.
I wished I could cry. "Have you heard the story of Oedipus?"
"A prophecy has been spoken."
She stopped chewing and looked at me. You're going to try anyway, aren't you?
"Yes, I am."
She went back to eating and so did I. Most of the afternoon passed in companionable silence before she nickered, Thank you.
It wasn't until the fall that I heard Chiron calling out for Ocyrrhoe. She galloped towards his call and I followed afterwards at a more sedate pace. By the time I reached them they were standing one in front of the other. It seemed that neither knew what to do.
"Where's Achilles?" I asked.
Chiron sighed. "I sent him off on a quest to make a bow... father."
I blinked. "I wish we didn't have to meet this way."
"I think I understand, now. Will you help me talk with my daughter?"
Until the sun set I stood there, translating what Ocyrrhoe said. By the end Chiron embraced her, tears in his eyes, as she nibbled at his mane.
Years passed as Ocyrrhoe and I lived with Chiron. The first fall my antlers did fall off, and after that I grew them each year. I guess my body had to get in tune with this world. I helped Chiron train Achilles. Although I would duel with Achilles, I never took a weapon for my own. Not even a bow. One day when Achilles was almost 14 and we'd been dueling with bronze blades in a glen he stopped and looked at me. As usual he'd beaten me. His body was covered with sweat whilst I was panting.
"Stephan, why don't you at least carry a bow?"
I looked at him and licked my lips. "Achilles, a weapon is power. With it you can kill with impunity. I've killed far too many people, and far too many of them I killed by mistake. I don't want to kill any more innocents."
"But you can tell. If they're an enemy then you kill them!" He swung his sword through the air with a loud whoosh.
I sighed. "Achilles, if only it was that easy. You're going to kill many men. And then you'll die. But you'll be remembered for all time. You'll have eternal glory. You'll kill in war, and that's easy."
"So?" He leapt into the air and spun around and his blade thunked against a tree again and again."
I stepped over to him and grabbed his arm and held it. "Achilles, that tree is not an enemy. It'll likely die now. You've broken its skin and now it'll slowly bleed to death."
He looked at me. "But it's a tree!"
"And does that make its life any less IMPORTANT?"
"Achilles. Killing is a last resort. It's final. Once it's done it can't be undone. What would you do if you saw somebody killing a woman?"
"I'd slice my blade through him from shoulder to waist!"
"And what if that woman was about to give birth to an abomination that would kill thousands. The man knew and was trying to stop it before it was too late."
"I'd kill the monster!"
"And what about the man? He did no wrong. He was trying to do what you did. Now he's dead."
"In war it's easy, but outside of war you have to know before you act!"
"You always find out first, don't you Stephan."
Closing my eyes I swallowed, forcing calm into my voice before opening my eyes and answering. "Achilles, I've killed hundreds in war." I swallowed again, my lips dry. For once I wished I had some cud to chew. "And I've killed far too many who were innocent. I've killed boyhood friends. I've killed others who were only doing necessary things."
I lowered my head to look into his eyes. "Achilles, this is very IMPORTANT. When you're a man, you'll fight on the fields before fair Illium. You'll be the greatest hero there, even in the midst of a massive army. One day a group of centaurs will attack and you'll fight them. Your men will kill them. Finally...," my voice started shaking as I remembered standing over Philyanax's body with Achilles waiting to kill me. "Finally you'll face the leader of the centaurs, a creature that is half man and half horse. He'll be armoured all in bronze and standing over the fallen body of a horse. You'll fight and at the end you'll stick your sword into his crotch. He'll fall, dying, and then he'll tell ask you to tell him of Chiron, his son."
"But he can't be Chiron's father! You're his father!"
"Achilles. He is Chiron's father because he's me. You have to promise to believe him. You have to because he'll be telling the truth. He'll be confused, but he'll be telling the TRUTH. You have to remember this."
"I will Stephan."
"Swear to me. Swear!"
"I will Stephan, I will!"
"Thank you. Remember that if you don't, then you'll commit a grievous crime because as he is Chiron's father, he is, by guest right, your relative. Don't do the crimes I've done. Please."
"I won't Stephan."
That night Chiron helped me patch the tree with special herbs and fungi.
Achilles left shortly after that and I spent a couple of quiet years with my son. He was admirable in almost every way. He almost never got angry, he was always patient. I learned healing from him, things I'd never even thought of. He also taught me natural history. Some of it disagreed with what I'd been taught in my human youth, but there was a surprising amount that didn't. Ocyrrhoe, meanwhile, had taken to spending more and more time with the wild horses. The entire time I did my best to keep Chiron away from the wild centaurs. I knew they wren't going to kill him without Heracles, but I saw no need to give accidents a chance to happen.
Finally the moment I'd feared for so long came.
Outside the cave a voice boomed out. "Chiron! You there?!"
I'd never understood Heracles before, but I recognized the voice. There was no way I'd ever forget it. Before Chiron could say a word he came stalking into the main chamber and hugged Chiron so hard I'd swear a couple of ribs cracked.
How to describe Heracles? His was a big man, almost three metres tall. His legs and arms were massive. His legs were almost half a metre in diameter, his arms close to that. His skin was tanned dark with sun and dirt. Even his face was massive, almost round, and full of expression and a childlike innocence. His eyes glistened beneath the cold eyes of the lionskin that covered his hair and back.
Finally, he let go of Chiron who could breathe again and turned to me. I'd been lying on a wool blanket but had stood when I heard his voice. In my hands was a cup of a herbal tea that Chiron brewed.
"And who is this?" he boomed out.
Chiron answered. "Heracles, I'd like you to meet my father. Stephan."
Heracles cocked his head and looked at me. That was when I saw that he did have a bow and a quiver of arrows with him. Later I found out that he'd left his club outside.
I knew what was on those arrows.
Then he was in front of me hugging me like he'd hugged Chiron. The carved wooden cup of tea fell from my hand and I felt my ribs creaking. "Then he's my friend too!" he boomed out. "I greet you Stephan, father of Chiron!"
Chiron burst in: "So what brings you to visit Heracles?"
Finally Heracles let go of me. "I was in the neighbourhood and thought you'd like to see your cousins."
"And I've heard of the wine that Pholus has. I'd like to try it."
"Chiron! You can't go!" I screamed.
Chiron was the first to answer. "I don't see why not. I haven't seen them for years. Maybe they've learned a little."
Heracles turned and looked at me. "Don't worry little one, I'll protect you."
Ignoring Heracles I turned to Chiron. He had to understand! "Remember what Ocyrrhoe said. About the Hydra's venom!"
Chrion turned to look at me, his expression thoughtful. "Heracles, have you lost any arrows?"
He patted his quiver. "Every one is here."
"Well then," Chiron asked, "what's the danger?"
I tried another tact. "Heracles, leave your arrows here. You won't need them."
He laughed. "And not be able to protect you little one? I'd be remiss if I didn't have my arrows to save my best friend and his father."
For the first and only time Chiron missed the obvious. Why, I still don't know. The only thing I can think of is that he was fated to miss the obvious. "Then there's no danger. Sit down Stephan, relax. Heracles you too. Tell us all you've done! I've heard stories..."
Regretfully I sat down and picked up my cup. I asked for more tea and Chiron poured some more from a small pot over the fire, but my mind was spinning. I knew what was going to happen. I'd been there! And nothing I tried seemed to be able to stop it.
Plans spun through my head as Heracles told of his Twelve Tasks. Could I hide Heracles' arrows? No. In our short acquaintance he'd been guarding them like they were his newborne, and my concerns had only made him guard them more. Could I stop Chiron from going? How? I could subdue him, but there was no way I couldt subdue Heracles. Gradually I realized that the only hope I had was to keep an eye on them both, to make sure that the accident I'd seen didn't happen. I was even willing to take the arrow if that was what I had to do.
We stayed up late talking, Heracles was an amazing storyteller. And, with his booming voice, there was no way I could sleep. For the first time in ages I missed being a horse. At least a horse could pull its ears against its skulls and maybe dampen the noise a bit.
I didn't sleep well that night. It was late summer and the velvet around my antlers itched. Years ago Chiron had politely requested I not scrape them inside the cave and given the bloody mess they left I couldn't blame him. I was afraid to go outside and scrape them against a tree. Even though I knew that nothing was going to happen I couldn't make myself get up. It was like watching a disaster. I couldn't tear myself away.
How could I know what was going to happen and be powerless to stop it?!
I didn't sleep well that night.
Heracles awoke with the sun. His voice woke Chiron up and dragged me out of my fitful slumber. I followed them outside and then muttered something and bounded off to do much needed personal business. I should have done it in the night, but I couldn't let the two of them out of my sight. I thought about finding Ocyrrhoe, but she was off in the valley with the wild horses. Maybe I should have left to find her, but I thought then that the herd could be anywhere and that it'd take too long. Instead I decided to stick with Chiron and Heracles.
Pholus' cave wasn't far. Chiron and I had encountered some of the other centaurs on the slopes, but not for years. When we had we generally ignored each other. I knew that my past self was nearby, a mad child, but I decided not to seek myself out. I didn't know what would happen. Maybe I was hoping that if I didn't look, I could believe that my past self wasn't there. That my past self wouldn't cause Heracles to kill Chiron.
On our way Heracles shot and brought down a stag which he threw over his shoulder. Even with that delay, too soon we reached Pholus' cave.
"Pholus!" Heracles boomed out. "I've come to visit!"
It wasn't too long before Pholus came out. He was an elderly centaur, a light bay in colour. A scar crossed his face from cheek to forehead. One eye was only a puckered scar. "Chiron! I haven't talked to you in what, years?"
Chiron responded. "I've come to visit. Heracles here wanted to see you."
Chiron shuffled a hoof. "He wants to try some of that wine of yours. You know the one."
Pholus crossed his arms. "No."
"What?!" boomed out Heracles. "Why not?! I've even brought meat for you." He threw the stag to the ground with a thud. My nostrils wrinkled at the stench that rose up from it. "What's wrong with a little wine to accompany it?"
"It's only for us centaurs."
"Pholus," Chiron calmly stated, "Heracles is one of my pupils. Possibly my best. A little bit won't hurt him."
I looked around nervously. I thought about entering the argument, but what was I going to say? Too many were fated to die this day. I didn't know how to stop it.
Pholus looked thoughtful for a moment. "There's not much left. I've been saving it for a special occasion."
Maybe I could use that! "Isn't the King of the Lapiths looking to get married?"
"Hey Chiron," Pholus motioned to me, "who's he? He certainly looks odd."
"He's my father."
"I thought Chronos was. You certainly never let some of us forget," Pholus stated.
"Trust me on this," Chiron responded. "Why not let Heracles here have a taste?"
"I won't drink it all!" Heracles burst out.
Pholus looked around. He sighed. "Only because you ask Chiron. Just a little. Come with me Heracles, it's in the cave."
"Thanks Pholus," Chiron responded.
In desperation I burst out, "Don't! It'll--"
"Stephan," Heracles boomed out, "like I said last night, I'll keep Chiron safe. You don't need to worry!"
A new scent filled the air and I saw Chiron stiffen. It was odd that it didn't affect me at all. I watched as Chiron raised a hoof and then slowly lowered it. My ears started moving all around as I heard hoofbeats approaching us from all directions. I spun around, seeking out the source of the sounds.
And then I saw myself.
I just stared, oblivious to everything else. I'd indeed been impressive, and the scars added a barbaric splendor. My human front legs were thick with muscle and covered with scar tissue. I took a step towards my past self as my past self took a step towards me.
And that was when all hell broke loose.
I heard screams from behind. Shouts, curses. The centaurs were fighting over the wine. Turning I saw Chiron moving away. Heracles, running from inside the cave, drew an arrow and fired it.
Chiron didn't flee, instead he turned. A kick from another centaur had knocked one to the ground bleeding, possibly with a broken leg. Chiron, never without his pouch of herbs, made his way over to the body.
I saw my past self galloping towards Heracles and watched as my past self wrapped his arms around Heracles and squeezed. Heracles burst out of his grip and I watched my past self stagger to the ground.
Knowing too much about Heracles and his rages. I spun around. Where'd Chiron gone? There! I bounded towards him, my owlskin flapping in the wind. I skidded to a stop beside him. Chiron was kneeling, tending another wounded centaur.
"Chiron! We have to get out of here!"
"Just a moment, he's hurt--"
I turned and saw Heracles throw a centaur through the air. He drew his arrow and I saw my past self heading towards him. I knew what was going to happen. I'd been there.
"NOOO!" I screamed as my past self impacted Heracles and Heracles fired.
And the fated arrow sped through the air and, after passing through one centaur, nicked Chiron in the leg.
Chapter 70: Free Will
Chiron screamed. A desperate haunting sound filled with pain and horror. I bounded over to him, stopped beside him. He’d already collapsed to his side. He looked up at me, pain stitching his face.
“My… cave… medicine…”
Even though I knew it’d be fruitless, I struggled to help him up but I didn’t have the strength. “HERACLES! CHIRON’S HURT!”
Behind me I heard roars and screams and neighs. And then Heracles was on the other side of Chiron from me and together we helped him to his hooves and feet. The other centaurs were fleeing, abandoning their dead. My future self was nowhere to be seen. I knew that he’d fled already.
Somehow Heracles and I got Chiron back to his cave. There Heracles stood helpless while I got every herb, every infusion, every powder that Chiron asked for. None of them helped. I don’t know how Chiron kept from screaming out. Sometime during the night Chiron collapsed into sleep and I staggered outside. I needed a drink, I needed to think. Tomorrow I’d have to find Ocyrrhoe. Tell her.
I heard heavy footsteps beside me and knew without turning that it was Heracles.
“It was one of my arrows, wasn’t it?” He said.
He grabbed me by my shoulders and spun me around, holding me up only by his immense strength. “Why didn’t I listen to you?! WHY?!”
I looked down at the ground. “Because it was Zeus’ will. He blinded you and Chiron.”
“I’ll find a cure for him! As long as it takes!”
I knew that there was no cure. There never would be a cure. A release, but not a cure. I couldn’t tell Heracles that. “Let him rest. Help him tomorrow, I need to find his daughter, let her know what happened.” I sighed. “Maybe the powders aren’t strong enough. Maybe fresher ones will do it.”
“I’ll stay with him tomorrow.”
I slowly nodded and watched as he went back into the cave. I could hear Chiron moaning in his sleep.
Turning back around I stared up at the stars. I knew that I couldn’t sleep. Instead I slowly made my way towards a mountain stream.
What had gone wrong? I’d spent years making sure he never saw the other centaurs just in case. And when Heracles had finally come, I’d done everything I could to stop him, or to have the arrows left behind.
How could I know exactly what was going to happen and be powerless to stop it?
Could I have done more? Could I have physically restrained them? Stolen Heracles’ arrows? I knew I couldn’t, but I didn’t believe myself. Part of me still doesn’t.
By then I’d reached the pool and I looked down and sighed before drinking. The night was quiet. I was tired, exhausted. But I knew sleep wouldn’t come. Leaning down I drank for a long time. By the end my muzzle was just in the water without drinking. Finally I stood upright, water dripping from my lips. Again for a while I just stood there, my forehooves still in the water. Why did this have to happen? How could this have happened? I’d known what was going to happen! EXACTLY what was going to happen!
Oh God but I wished I could cry!
Some time later I stepped away from the pool. My owlskin was still wrapped around me, it was always wrapped around me. It never got dirty, it never got worn. I couldn’t part with it for more than a day, it was too much a part of me. I’d added a tie to it years ago so that it always hung around my neck, the head hanging behind me like a jacket’s hood. Wrapping it around myself I let the magic take me, swirling around, compressing me into an owl. Then I took silent wing and started searching the valleys for Ocyrrhoe.
By dawn I hadn’t found her so I slept. At nightfall I took wing again. I drank only what I needed, never stopping to eat. Still, it took me two days to find her. She was with a small herd in a small valley. Most were resting, so was she. I landed amidst a few soft knickers and greetings. Even as an owl they knew me. Oblivious to the pain I tore at my wing until I drew blood and then just stood there as the magic swirled around me, into me. I grew upward, outward. When it was over, ignoring the rumbling of my stomach, I stepped over to Ocyrrhoe’s sleeping form.
She looked so peaceful.
“Ocyrrhoe. Wake up.”
Her ears flickered and her tail brushed her back. An eye flicked open and she leapt to her feet before me. Stephan?
“You need to come back home. Chiron needs you. He’s…” I couldn’t say it.
But he can’t die.
“You heard the words you said. You know that he will. But not right away. You need to get to him quickly before the pain drives him mad. Go, I’ll follow. Don’t worry about me keeping up.”
Without a word she headed off at a gallop.
I didn’t want to go, she and Chiron deserved some time alone, but I would be needed to translate. I bounded after her, following her up the mountainside. She only stopped once to drink, galloping or cantering the whole way. I had trouble keeping up. It wasn’t until the middle of the next morning that we reached the cave and were greated by screams and moans of pain that echoed from the entrance.
“Let me go first. Heracles is in there and he might react badly if you came in unannounced.”
Ducking my head I hurried in.
The cave was dark, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust. The only light came from behind me. The place was a shambles. Chiron was on the floor, covered in sweat. Furniture was wrecked, cooking implements scattered.
A shape moved and I recognized Heracles. “Thank Zeus it’s you! Nothing works!”
“He… I told him you’d come back. He mixed up something, told me only to give it to him when you came back. He said it was too strong to take continuously.”
“I think I know what it is. Get it, it’ll make him lucid for a while. His daughter’s with me, you know that Zeus transformed her into a horse?”
Heracles fumbled around the ceramic bottles. One got knocked off the shelf and shattered when it hit the floor. “No… Chiron called for her… he said something but I couldn’t make it out.”
“Ocyrrhoe! You can come in now!”
Behind me I heard hooves on stone and I just stood there as she pushed past me. She stopped in front of me. She stared. Her body language was stiff.
Father? she nickered.
“Let Heracles feed him some medicine. It’ll make him lucid.” I watched as Heracles held Chiron’s head to keep it still and forced the medicine down his throat.
Chiron coughed, gagged, but Heracles didn’t let go. He stood up as Chiron screamed. Chiron’s entire body shook and Ocyrrhoe stepped backwards. He voided himself but then his breathing slowed. He didn’t get up but just looked around.
She hurried over and stopped beside him, almost falling onto her chest so that she could rub her head against his mane. Father, father, what happened?
I started translating and listened to what Chiron said. He had to know what happened, but he never blamed Heracles. Never even mentioned the source of the arrow. We all knew, but it was a sign of Chiron’s kindness that he never put any blame on Heracles.
Late in the day Ocyrrhoe suddenly turned and fled. She couldn’t stand to see what was happening to her father. I couldn’t stand what was happening to my son, but I couldn’t leave him. I remembered what Achilles had told me, repeating what Heracles would tell him.
That night I gorged on grain. I knew I needed food to function. I even forced Heracles to eat. Chiron wouldn’t take anything, not food, not water. He was hot, almost too hot to touch. When Chiron was once again unconscious I questioned Heracles and figured out what Chiron had likely had made. It was indeed strong. After lighting a candle I spent most of the night making as much of it as I could. Then I slept.
Time after that was a blur. I know I fed Chiron some of the painkiller and he drove himself to search out remedies he’d only heard of. Somehow he got used to the pain, became lucid sometimes on his own. Heracles and I went with him, helping him, usually Heracles ended up carrying him. Through the winter we traveled to hidden valleys, quiet mountain streams, forgotten stands of forest. Often we’d have to stop for days and wait for Chiron to become strong enough to tell us what to do. I kept the painkiller handy, but Chiron usually refused it. It was too strong, and it was addictive. In sustained doses it would rapidly destroy the body. As though the poison wasn’t doing that already.
I don’t know how Chiron kept going. Within a few weeks he was only skin and bones. He had no strength and needed Heracles and I to move him. He could keep nothing down and only his immortality kept him alive.
Occasionally I saw Ocyrrhoe in the distance. She was always alone, never too close and never too far. A couple of times I tried to catch her but she fled.
Summer passed into fall and then winter. My antlers fell off again. We proceeded further north into wild mountains. The land was rugged, often more stone than dirt. Once we were forced to shelter in a cave for a month due to a snowstorm. Heracles ate well but I couldn’t eat meat and eventually had to become an owl and eat scraps. Heracles didn’t say a word. Given his parentage I wasn’t surprised.
It was late spring when I heard a distant scream of pain that echoed through the valleys and off the cliffs. I knew who it was.
With Heracles’ help I fed Chiron half of the remaining potion and waited for the light of wisdom to return to his eyes. Slowly it did, slower than it had before. He needed a stronger dose but I couldn’t afford to give it to him. It would cause too much other damage.
“Father?” he whispered. This was the first time he’d called me father since he’d first accepted it.
“There’s an out. A way to end the pain.”
His hands grasped me, his touch light as a feather. “There is… no… no... way…”
That was when the inhuman scream echoed down as it did every morning.
“Chiron. You can give up your immortality. You can die. It’s the only way.”
I wanted to grab him to make him listen, but I was afraid he’d break. “Have you heard of Prometheus?”
“He stole fire from Zeus to give to humankind. Because of that Zeus chained him to a cliff. Everyday an eagle rips out his liver and consumes it. Zeus stated that Prometheus would only be freed if an immortal gave him his immortality.”
“No… no…” Then he lapsed into unconsciousness.
I didn’t know what to do. I knew what would happen, both from the myth, and from what Achilles had told me. Maybe Chiron just needed some time to think about it. As though he could think through his fever.
“Heracles, watch him. If he awakes talk some sense into him. There’s no other way. I’m going to talk to Prometheus. Maybe he has some ideas.”
“I’ll beat them out of him!”
“You have to stay with Chiron. You have to protect him.”
“Yes, you’re right.”
Clambering to my feet I stepped away and then stopped. “If I’m not back in three days, take Chiron towards the sound. Towards Prometheus. When you’re there feed him the rest of the potion.” Then I bounded off.
I moved around splashes of fallen and shattered rock, over deep cracks in the rock of the mountain. Each time the moans and sobs got louder. I followed them through a deep crack in the side of a sheer cliff. Turning a corner I saw a huge drop of blood splatter on the rock in front of me. Rock which I realized was stained red and brown. Stopping I looked up.
There was Prometheus. He was massive, at least 20 metres high. Huge chains of glistening metal pierced his wrists and ankles to the rock, and a huge eagle had its claws dug into his waist as it tore into his flesh to get at the liver.
His head moved and he looked down. “Stephan!” he boomed out. “I’ve been waiting for you. Both you and Chiron.”
Did all the immortals know me? “You know that Chiron is dying?”
“I’ve always…” he winced as the eagle shoved its beak into his chest, “…known.”
I looked up at him. His face was proud, noble, even when wracked by pain. His hair was golden, falling down his back almost to the ground. Otherwise he was naked.
Another drop of blood followed by a huge hunk of flesh fell to the ground nearby. I wrinkled my nostrils from the stench.
“Why? Why the eagle? You know why.”
“Why couldn’t I save him?”
“Ah! The free will question.”
I moved out of the way of another chunk of flesh.
“Yes, I know what happened to you. We immortals know all. We know everything. We know all that’s knowable.”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
“No Steph-- AHHHHHHHHHHHH!” At that point the eagle ripped out the liver, or most of it. Blood gushed out and Prometheus’ body writhed. Slowly it passed. “No, I’m not. We immortals know everything. We know everything that’ll happen. We know every decision that’ll be made. All of our life is an eternal chain that our consciousness can fly along, alighting at any point at will. From our beginning when we shucked our mortal coils we knew everything that would happen.”
“Then there is no free will.”
“I didn’t say that! There is, but we know what choices will be made.”
“Let me try to explain. You knew what was going to happen to Chiron when Heracles came. You made a decision to try and save him. You asked him not to go. You asked Heracles to leave the arrows behind. All that, even though you knew what would happen. That was free will. You choose your actions. Even though the end result was known, you choose what you would do. Free will.”
“Fine! If I have this free will then WHY COULDN’T I SAVE HIM?!”
“Why Stephan? You couldn’t because you didn’t. When you fought Achilles, you knew he’d beat you. And yet you still fought, why?”
How’d he know…? “I fought because I had to. I fought because I had hope.”
“You didn’t have hope. You knew that Achilles would be victorious. So, knowing that, why did you choose to fight him?”
“You choose even knowing the result. You exerted free will even though you knew it wouldn’t make any difference.”
The eagle clambered into the wound and pecked around inside looking for the last bits. Prometheus screamed again and I waited until the eagle, now drenched in blood, clambered back out. It gulped down a big hunk of liver.
“We all have free will. We make choices, and through those choices prove we have free will.”
“That doesn’t make any sense! Everything is fated! How can there be free will?!”
“Stephan, you make choices. That’s free will. You’ll learn.”
The eagle clambered back into Prometheus’ body and blood and flesh dribbled out, splashing on the rock. Again Prometheus moaned. Finally the bird made its way out.
“Please bring Chiron Stephan. Please bring him.”
“If you know your whole life, and can experience whatever bits of it you want, then why are you experiencing this?”
“I HAVE TO AT LEAST ONCE!”
I turned and left, wincing as Prometheus screamed out behind me.
I made it back to Chiron by nightfall. He wasn’t any better. I told Heracles to go and hunt some food while I made a fire. I assured him that I’d keep an eye on Chiron. The next day wasn’t any better. Heracles stood up and looked towards the screams.
“If you go know you’ll only deprive Chiron of dying. Go with Chiron when he’s ready. Help Chiron give his immortality to Prometheus. Then you can kill the eagle and set Prometheus free. After 30,000 years a day won’t hurt.”
“This isn’t right!”
“Heracles, I wish it wasn’t this way. But it is! It’s fate! It’s the way things work. I hate it as much as you do.”
He ended up going anyway. I don’t know what happened. I just know that he didn’t kill the eagle or free Prometheus that day. Or, if he tried, he was unable to.
At dawn the next day I knew it was safe to feed Chiron the last of the potion and with Heracles’ help did. It wasn’t until midday that the light of sanity shone in my son’s eyes.
“Heracles, help me get him up.” Wordlessly Heracles did. I continued, “Son, we’re taking you to Prometheus. He’s waited for 30,000 years for you. Give him your life, let yourself die. You can’t go on like this!”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ocyrrhoe but couldn’t let go of Chiron to fetch her.
Chiron moved his lips but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Even pressing one of my ears against his mouth was to no avail.
It took Heracles and I most of the day to carry Chiron to where Prometheus was chained. Occasionally I heard hoofs in the distance and I hoped that it was Ocyrrhoe. The eagle was gulping down a big hunk of liver when we rounded the bend.
“Chiron! You’ve come at last!” Prometheus boomed out.
I watched Chiron’s lips move, but couldn’t hear a sound.
“It’s the only way!” Prometheus called out. “It’s Zeus’ will. You can end both our pain. Please… Heal me…”
Chiron’s lips moved again, and he stretched an arm out towards Prometheus.
“Bring him! He must touch me!”
Since I knew that the gift had to be freely offered, I wasn’t worried. “Heracles, help me bring Chiron to the cliff. They need to touch.”
“Are you sure?”
“It is the will of Prometheus, of the Gods, and of Chiron.”
We carried Chiron to the edge of the cliff and I raised his arm to touch the titan’s foot. Hoofbeats echoed through the chasm and I saw Ocyrrhoe galloping towards us just as Chiron and Prometheus touched.
I felt my son’s body shudder, and then it collapsed. It fell apart and onto the ground, a pile of skin and bone without muscle or tendon or organ.
Behind me Heracles drew his bow.
I fell to my deer chest as Ocyrrhoe clattered to a stop. I picked up Chiron’s skull only to feel the flesh melting off it.
Behind me I heard the echoing boom of a massive body hitting the ground as Heracles killed the eagle with a single arrow through its heart.
Chapter 71: Ending the Cycle
That night Heracles and I built a pyre whilst Ocyrrhoe watched. Prometheus lit it with a touch and we all watched in silence as it burned. In the morning Prometheus helped us entomb the ashes, and then was gone. The three of us made our way back south.
We didn't talk much. There wasn't much to talk about. Heracles was full of self-guilt. You'd think he'd be used to it by now. Ocyrrhoe wasn't much better. She was full of guilt for not being with Chiron. Her eyes were dark, cold. She didn't care about anything anymore. I wasn't much better. I'd known what was going to happen. I'd done everything I could, or so I repeated over and over. Still my son had died.
After about a week of quiet travel we reached near the source of a river which Heracles recognized as the Axios River. It flowed southeast through Macedon and into the Aegean Sea. Heracles told us that he'd been away from other things too long and was going to go south, and we were welcome to go with him. Ocyrrhoe refused after I did. I just wanted to end the cycle. I needed to get to fair Illium and not by sea. And there I'd kill Poseidon and end this madness. The Axios was going in the right direction.
After Heracles had left I turned to Ocyrrhoe. "Why'd you stay?"
I don't know, she nickered.
"You could go and see your sister, tell her what happened."
Endeis? She snorted. Ever since she got married she's refused to associate with the likes of beasts. She let her mother convince her of that. At least I was wise enough not to listen.
"Doesn't your mother deserve to know?"
Khariklo?! She's running around somewhere doing nymph things. I never understood what father saw in her anyway.
"Maybe he was just lonely."
Maybe. She kicked the ground with a hoof. Stephan, is it wrong not to want to think anymore?
I've known so much pain. I'm tried of it. I just want to forget. Please Stephan, please make me forget.
I stared at her.
You're the creator of my race, the first mother. You can do it. You can take away my intelligence, my memories. You can take it all!
That night I refused. She followed. Almost continuously she asked me, begged me. For a week this continued. She was relentless.
One day I'd had enough. "Ocyrrhoe! Stop!"
Stephan! I don't want to remember!
"Shut up! I'll... I'll do it. It's wrong, but if you're sure it's what you want."
YES! she screamed.
"I don't know if I can."
I trust you.
Like so many others had. "Fine. Fine!"
Please do it now. Please.
Yes! Haven't I asked you enough?!
I looked at her, looked at the fire in here eyes. I'd only seen that fire before Zeus had transformed her. Could I leave her with that? I sighed. "I'll try."
What do I do?
"Lie down in front of me." She did, and I lay down facing her. "Close your eyes." She did. "Don't move." Swallowing I reached out with my hands and placed them on either side of her head, below her eyes. I closed mine. How the hell was I going to do this? I wanted the memories, not the personality, not the fire. Maybe... I searched through my mind and recalled what it was like to fight the other spirits. What it was like to take their experiences.
And then I felt them coming from her into me. Her birth, her distant mother and sister, her father, my father, through our youth. The shock of the change, the pain, the anguish, the terror that I hadn't done the right thing! The shame as I fled, the horrible, horrible enduring shame. My grandfather had been so strong. He'd done what was right. Oh Zeus, I'd failed him, I'd failed my father, my grandfather. How could I?
And then the flow stopped.
I opened my eyes and saw her head, eyes closed, quietly waiting. Had it worked? "Open your eyes."
They flickered open and became full of fire, full of life. Thank you Stephan! Thank you!
"Do you remember anything? Your name?"
My name? Why would I have a name? Are you going to give me one?
I thought about naming her back to Ocyrrhoe and then decided not to. She had what she wanted. She'd regained her fire. That name would only cause problems.
I jumped up to my hooves and she followed me. She began running around, exploring the world as though it was a new place.
"Go child! Go and live your life!"
Thank you Stephan! Thank you!
She leapt into the air, kicking out for the joy of it, and then she landed.
I couldn't help but smile at her antics. At least somebody was happy. I watched her race off.
She had freedom. I had nothing.
After a while I turned away and continued towards my fate.
I avoided people and traveled slowly. It wasn't difficult, and somewhat relaxing. There wasn't much to eat until I got out of the mountains and into the Sea of Grass. I was never completely happy there, the lack of cover made me nervous. I forced that down. Traveling slowly, I stayed near the sea. When I saw Scythians I fled. A year passed. My antlers grew and fell off and began growing again. One day I was walking along edge of the sea and noticed a glinting in the water. Curious I walked closer, waves splashing my lower legs.
As I was half expecting it was the sword of my Scythian father. I picked it up and looked around. Was this where I'd slain Ephebus? It didn't look familiar, but there the sword was. I thought about throwing it back. Then I stopped myself.
That night for the first time in over a year I made fire, gathering dried dung from near a freshwater pool I'd chosen to stop at. I still had a leather pouch of supplies from when I'd left Chiron's cave and soon a fire was burning. I still had the Cretan knife that Spider Woman had given me. In a new scabbard of course.
Lying close to the fire, I enjoyed the unaccustomed warmth whilst I examined the sword. It was pitted, worn, but the beauty of it could still be seen. I just needed some tools to clean it and it'd be as good as new. How long had it lain in the Black Sea?
"It's been waiting for you Stephan. Your family found it long ago and passed it from father to son until it came to you."
Leaping to my hooves I spun around. There was a man walking towards the fire, dressed in the rough wool of a builder, but with glowing golden hair and eyes. I cold smell clay dust on him. "Apollo?"
A bundle appeared in his hand and he tossed it to me. Catching it, I realized that it contained polishing cloth and various files. Then I saw a plain leather scabbard flying through the air towards me and I almost caught it as it thudded into the ground. It wasn't fancy, but instead looked very old and very plain.
"I don't think you need the polished ostensity I gave you last time." With that a log appeared along with a skinned pig roasting over the fire. It turned by itself.
Spreading the tools out on the ground, I pulled out a rough file and began cleaning and sharpening my father's blade. No, it was my blade. "I wouldn't speak too much of ostensity if I were you Apollo."
He laughed. "I've worked long and hard for King Laodemon. I deserve a little relaxation."
I frowned. "How goes the work?"
"Don't worry Stephan. We'll still be there when you arrive."
I sighed and put down my sword and the file. "Apollo, why are you here?"
"Why? Just thought I'd say hello. Give you a couple of things you needed. I like the new look. Artemis might not though."
"Probably not," I responded dryly.
"Stephan, I'm glad your burning anger is gone. Its absence makes you a much nicer person."
I turned away from him and looked into the dancing flames. Grease was starting to drip into them and sizzle. "As though you didn't know."
"Stephan, I know you're bitter--"
"Bitter? BITTER?! By the fact that nothing I do has any meaning? That everything I've done has been known, planned for, and taken advantage of?! No! Not at all!"
Apollo sighed and then remained silent for a while before answering. "Most of your anger is gone. Stephan, that is not and never has been true."
"Then how come you, all of you, know! You know what I'm going to do, you've helped me do it. And knowing you Olympians you're betting on it!"
"Stephan! Shut up for a second and listen!"
I turned my head to face him. I wasn't sure if I wanted him to slay me or not.
"You knew that Chiron, your son, was going to die. You'd already been there when the arrow hit him. Correct?"
"Yes," I snapped.
"Did that knowledge affect the choices you made?"
"Of course it did!"
"Did that knowledge only allow you to choose one single path?"
"It...!" Had it? Once I saw my son I knew that I was going to stay with him. I knew that I was going to try and save him. And, I knew that I'd fail. "I could have chosen differently. I, I guess I could have left him. But there was no way that I would have! So yes!"
"Did it Stephan? Did it really? You choose to stay with your son."
"Of course I did!"
"Was staying with your son the only choice it was physically possible for you to make?"
"It..." I'd sworn to always be honest with myself. Had it been the only possible choice? I could have left, it was an option. Not one I would ever have chosen. "I guess other choices were possible."
"Stephan, before you came back to see your son, did you make your decisions at random, or did you make them as a best guess solution using all the facts you knew to achieve your desired aim?"
I looked at him and slowly worked through the meaning of that statement. He sounded like one of my teachers in psychology! But I'd never had a teacher in psychology! One of the memories I'd taken as a spirit remembered having one. Regardless, the conclusion was true. "Yes, I did. Anybody does, if they're sane anyway. Nobody does anything without a reason."
"Did you have free will before Coyote sent you back?"
"Of course--" Had I? Had I had any free will after I received the prophecy. Did I have free will before I received the prophecy? Or did the future existence of the prophecy lock my entire life into a fixed course? "I... I don't know."
"You've worked it out, haven't you? You're wondering if your entire life has been a programmed event because at one point you received a prophecy."
Mutely I nodded.
"The real question to ask is this: If time travel is possible, and you must know that it is, then is time immutable? And if time is immutable, than does anybody have what you used to consider free will?"
Was my life a lie? Was everybody's life a lie? Was it all a story created by some supreme being for amusement?
"Stephan, we all make decisions based on what we know. Foreknowledge can affect those decisions. Those decisions we make are made for good reasons. For logical reasons. We CHOOSE to make those decisions of our own free will. The fact that the result of that decision is already known, has always been known, does not change the fact that the choice was made of our own free will. Of your own free will."
I just looked at him.
"Remember that Stephan. Never forget it. It'll keep you sane. It keeps me sane. And now," the pig stopped turning, "supper is ready."
I snorted. "Just like a god. Food for him, nothing for anybody else."
"I can't eat meat--"
Apollo rolled his eyes. "Stephan, you COULDN'T eat meat. When Coyote sent you here, he modified you. You're an omnivore. Are you telling me that you've never-- Of course, why would you have?"
And of course Coyote had never told me! That's why when I was an owl I didn't mind mice as much. I could hear him in my mind whispering Gotcha. And even if Apollo was lying I have to lose? If I couldn't eat it then Apollo was probably the best person to have nearby. Drawing my knife I made to cut off a slab and...
Apollo handed me a bronze fork.
Snorting in annoyance I stuck the fork in and cut off a slice. I held the slice to my mouth, my nostrils quivering at the scent. It wasn't bad. I blew on it for a bit and then carefully took a bite. Teeth I never knew I had dug in and chewed it up and it went down well. It tasted odd, far far too greasy, but it didn't taste bad.
"There you go. Enjoy." Apollo was eating a slice of his own.
We didn't talk much, just ate, and by the time the moon rose all that was left was bones and scraps of flesh. Getting up I walked over to the pool and took a long drink. When I finished I turned back to Apollo who had an open skin of wine in his hand.
"Apollo? Did I do the right thing? For Ocyrrhoe?"
He turned away and looked at the rising moon. "Did you? Is she happier now?"
"She was when I last saw her."
"Then you did the right thing."
I closed my eyes remembering. Then I opened them and asked, "But why does it seem so wrong?"
"Stephan, do the Skinwalkers seem wrong to you? Of course they do. Ocyrrhoe made her choice, for her own reasons. We may not agree with them. But we have to respect them. She's happy now, what more can anybody ask?"
"I don't know."
There wasn't much conversation after that. I worked on the sword a bit while Apollo watched the stars and drank. Then, yawning, I went to bed. When I awoke, Apollo was gone. But in his place was a mare.
Blinking the sleep out of my eyes I stared at her. I recognized her. "Anarcharax?"
Stephan? That you? No look, but smell.
Before I realized it my arms were around her neck and tearless sobs wracked my body. "I'm sorry. So so sorry..."
"I left you! I let you die alone!"
"No, Of course not." Slowly I unwrapped my arms from around her and stepped back.
She was old. Very very old. Her hide was flecked with white. But she was healthy, there were no wounds.
And then I remembered the cairn I'd found on the way to fair Illium. A centaur, Phillipa had said, had buried a horse there. Why? Because he'd wronged the horse.
Anarcharax had come to spend her last days with me before death.
"Anarcharax, why are you here? Where have you been?"
Apollo cared me. Sent me. I asked.
"It was your choice?"
My choice! You my mother! I stay!
I snorted in laughter. At least her personality was still there. "Come along then, we have a long way to go."
I won't leave. You won't leave.
"No Anarcharax, I won't leave you. I wouldn't dare."
We travelled slowly. I let Anarcharax set the pace. I never rushed her. Apollo would have known she would be with me, and he'd told me I would arrive in time. I knew that it had to happen. Just like I knew that I would slay Poseidon. That I would become him. And then I would slay my past self. Each night I worked on the sword a bit. Filing, cleaning, polishing. I gave it back its warm glow.
We rounded the Black Sea in mid summer and approached the Bosporus by fall. My antlers were full grown by then. Anarcharax grew weaker. I skirted a village which I knew was Phillipa's. Stopping, I looked at it from a distance. Achilles would be nearly twenty now. How old was he at fair Illium? Was Phillipa there right now, a child not knowing the horrors that awaited?
The next day when I woke up Anarcharax didn't. She'd died when she was asleep, a quiet peaceful death. Slowly I gathered wood for a fire. I burned her. Somebody must have seen the smoke and come up to see what was going on. They were nervous, after all they'd never seen anybody like me before. I just kept staring at the fire.
"Are you man, beast, or god?" one asked.
What was I? I was doomed. But, he deserved an answer. Was I a god? Could a god make all the mistakes I had? "I'm a centaur."
The other said, "But I thought centaurs were like men and horses."
"Not all of us."
They watched for a while. Finally the second asked, "What are you doing?"
"I'm sending a friend on her way," I motioned to Anarcharax who's form could still be made out through the fire. "I wronged her years ago and she deserves no less."
The first stated, "But she's a horse."
After that they watched for a while and then left. They were probably thinking that all centaurs were a little bit out of their mind. I didn't care. The fire burned down to smoldering coals and I went to sleep.
In the morning I buried the ashes and bones with rocks, the biggest I could lift. She deserved to rest. As that took most of the day I again slept there that night. In the morning I turned to fair Illium. It was time to end the cycle.
It was two days before I reached the ridge overlooking the plains. So much blood would be spilled here but now it was quiet. In the distance I looked at fair Illium and its walls. All was done except for a short section still surrounded by wooden scaffolding. For a while I watched.
For rebelling against him, Zeus had sentenced Apollo and Poseidon to serve King Laodemon of Troy. King Laodemon ordered the two gods, not knowing they were gods, to build walls for his city. They'd brought King Aeacus to help because a prophecy had stated that if the walls of fair Illium were built only by gods, they would never fall. Gods don't like things like that. Ultimately King Laodemon would refuse to pay the gods which is why Poseidon and Apollo were on the side of the Acheans. Apollo later switched when Achilles desecrated one of his temples.
In the late afternoon I turned away and walked down and drank from a stream and waited. The sun set and the workers retired to their tents outside the city. I waited until the moon was high in the sky, patient, knowing what I was going to do. That was when Apollo appeared beside me. I wasn't even surprised.
"Hold on," he said. "I'll take you to Poseidon's tent. Our work on the walls is done, now it's up to King Aeacus to finish them."
I held his hands tightly and closed my eyes. Wind howled past me, my hooves hung in the air. And then I was on land.
"You can look now. He's in that tent." Apollo pointed at the tent right in front of me and then walked away, his hands slipping out of my grasp.
I looked at the tent. Do I want to do this? Do I have any choice? Is this free will? Maybe I'd know when the deed was done.
I carefully untied the knots holding the flap closed and pulled it open. Drawing my sword, I ducked my head and slowly walked in and then pulled the flap closed behind me. I waited for my eyes to adjust to what little light there was. Soon I could make out that there was one person in the tent. He was asleep on a pile of mats. Was it Poseidon? Of course it was, why else was I here? There was no way to be sure until I did the deed. I silently moved until I was standing over him, my head and upper body low to keep my antlers from scraping the roof.
Carefully I chose a place away from any major organs in his chest. Then, in one swift action, I shoved my sword through the man's left kidney. Hopefully my Scythian father was resting easier now. Then I let myself fall upon Poseidon, holding him tight against me, making sure the sword moved with every breath I took.
Screaming he awoke. He saw me and panic filled his eyes, his cries choked to silence. A warm darkness oozed down his side and soaked into my fur.
"Poseidon, if you try to leave, I'll go with you. There is only one way to stop this pain. You know it and you know what you'll do. We're touching. I'm ready. Give me your immortality, your power, and I'll heal you."
He glared at me with hatred and terror.
"Resist and the pain continues. And will continue for as long as it takes. You know what's going to happen."
And then his mind, his immortality, his power, poured into me.
Chapter 72: Changing the World
It was a flood, a tidal wave, a deluge. Infinitely more vast than the infinitesimal trickles of power I'd received when I killed a Skinwalker. It was too much! I struggled with my will, pressed against it, somehow managed to force it back. I sealed the dam and only let a little through.
And still it was too much.
I knew everything then.
People were coming because of Poseidon's scream. My body flowed and looked like he had. I'd made a promise. An instant of will and Poseidon, now mortal, was healed. Then I hid him away in a cave, sealed it, and locked him into stasis until I was ready to give him his power back.
A part of me told the guards who'd come that it was only a bad dream. They went away. But most of me was finally realizing what had happened. What this place was. And what I was to do.
Humanity had evolved. It had learned more, and enhanced its abilities more and more. The rate of change had been an accelerating curve with no end in sight. One day on Ceres, an experiment broke into another reality, different from ours. It was examined, quantified, and studied. This reality had no sentience, but was instead a medium that could hold sentience, infinite sentience. And it overlapped our reality everywhere.
Over a week this was revealed to all the enhanced neural gestalts. Each gestalt a group of humans, AIs, and enhanced animals that had bonded together so that the members were no longer individuals, but were a single greater being. This new reality offered infinite intelligence and knowledge. It offered a new frontier when the ability of computing neural power to increase in density was reaching the physical limits of this reality. A vote was taken and the world net was plugged into the neural reality. The gestalts expanded into it, grew as they needed to grow. Each taking parts of the other. Things that had never been understood before suddenly made sense, and that knowledge led to new things. New things allows new senses, new explorations, and yet new things.
In an eyeblink the process accelerated to infinity.
And each gestalt was suddenly one, and that one knew everything about everything.
Time and space became meaningless. Existence became eternal, extending from the beginning of time to the end of time. Each gestalt entity had always existed, had always been present. That instant was just the moment of creation that exploded in both directions to either end of time.
The surviving intellects knew everything. There was no more to discover. Absolutely nothing.
Some went mad, but they really couldn't. Some created new realities out of the neural reality. Virtual realms that they setup as clockwork puzzles and then abandoned. Some broke through into other planets in our space/time and created entire civilizations and watched them grow. Even though they knew exactly what would happen in every instant, they still did it because they had done it.
On earth a few tried to flee, to hide from the possibilities. They found a place beneath Santarini that had a rare realspace/neuralspace overlap. In that place they could exist in both states, and take only what they wanted. They knew they would move into that place because they moved into that place. At the instant of discovery it had seemed the right thing to do, even though they knew exactly what would happen afterward. In earlier times, before the time of infinite human growth, one member of each mythic culture happened to be the first to enter the place of realspace/neuralspace overlap, and a space/time reality spun out within the cavern and became what they remembered as it spread in both directions through time.
I was the one who spun out the mythological world of Greece.
The evolved intellects took that moment of inspiration, that moment of innocent creation, and spread it back and fourth through all time. Even though each mythic space/time had a specific instant of creation, once that instant occurred, the mythic space/time existed throughout time.
And as these mythic space times had a link to the neural reality, complex sentiences, in other words people, could exist as organized entities outside of physical bodies. As sentient potentialities entirely within the neural reality. That was where I'd gone when I'd died.
One of the things I learned was that the existence of complex neural activities, or in other words a sentient mind, created a miniscule overlap naturally between our reality and the neural reality. A kind of symbiosis. And this link acted as a conduit for dreams, for visions, and for imagination.
I'd been the inciting incident for the Greek mythic space/time. From me had all the legends come into initial creation, and been remembered and first recorded by the Greeks.
That was where I refused to go any further.
I could have joined the minds that humanity and its companions had grown into. But I refused. I didn't want to know everything. I'd been there, and I'd hated it. I kept up a wall and did what had to be done.
Beyond this placed of warped and twisted realities, the original earth had lain fallow. Quiet and abandoned. Low level machines had tended the buildings, the mechanisms. But all sentience had gone elsewhere.
The earth was empty and awaiting rebirth.
For reasons I couldn't understand, complex agreements had been made between the intellects that inhabited and created the twisted mythic space/times within this cavern. They had all agreed to not change things, to not 'rock the boat' because such risked destroying the dimensional overlap that allowed the mythic space/times to exist. They had all agreed that each would have limitations on what they could do within the mythic space/time. Even though each could have infinite power, they had agreed not to.
Poseidon, as in the myths, had power over the sea, and power over the land. He was the god of the oceans, and the bringer of earthquakes.
This place was a trap. The myths went through the cycle and ended. The cycle stretched through time, always existing, but only actually occurring once. The reason I could move outside the forward flow of time was that time was different with different mythic space/times.
Only one thing could happen. A play. An imagination taken from, and creating, the earliest stories and legends of humankind. But that is all that would, that could ever occur. Achilles could never not die at Troy. He could never refuse to go. Odysseus could never not wander for ten years.
The world needed to be changed and I had to do it, as I was the one who was outside the agreements made when the potentials for this place came into existence.
I was the Chronos who had created the world, and now I was the Chronos who would break it and create a new one.
I would shatter the cavern, allow the mythic space/times to explode outward across the surface of the earth. The myths would continue, as they had, as they are, and as they would. But there would be a possibility of moving away from them. Of leaving the mythic space/time. As there had always been, as there was, and as there would be. The twisted vortices of mythic space/time caused all instants in the mythic cycle to exist at all times. It was a twisted overlap that I could understand, but to understand I would have to accept the full power, the full knowledge, and the full curse, of those who had been the last generations of humanity.
The years passed as I dreamed, as I fought for the knowledge I needed, and struggled to keep the knowledge I feared from sneaking over with it. I put my father's sword where Gryneos would find it. I decided how I would save the centaurs when I transported them beyond this mythic space/time. I moved to the time just before I killed my future self and did the deed. Did everything I remembered doing and watched my spirit flee towards the Dineh mythic space/time. Listened to the eulogy written for me. And then I gave each centaur a choice. They could stay, live their lives, or they could come with me to a new world. The world would change them in some ways, but they would be free of humanity. They would have wives, they could have children. I made the same offer to some humans, including Phillipa. I made this offer to all the centaurs, not just the ones I'd led to fair Illium.
And when those whom I'd known had agreed had, those whom I'd known would refuse had, I stretched out the power I'd horded, the little bits I'd accepted whilst refusing the limitless flood.
The world shook, rocks shattered, the mantle heaved. The roof and walls of the cavern collapsed, falling outwards into rubble as the rock beneath lifted upward on a fountain of magma, rose above the surface. The floor cracked, broke apart, and exploded outward pressed by immense pressures. The mythic space/times swept away to various places upon the globe, linked by twisted strands of their unique space/time back to the place of interface.
I took those who agreed and remolded them. I made the humans into centaurs. And then I changed everybody in the same way. Fur sprouted out over their human bodies to match their horse bodies. Their faces stretched out a bit, not into a muzzle, but showing a tendency towards one. I made them a unified being, not two disparate forms made into one in myth.
And then I left, giving my power, my stolen knowledge, my magical immortality, back to Poseidon and releasing him from the stasis.
The old centaur in the owlfeather cloak looked over the fire at the other centaur. He too was old, but age did not pour out of his eyes as it did out of the first one.
The cloaked centaur, Stephan, finally stated, "And that's the story. The end sounds kind of silly doesn't it? But I don't really understand it anymore. I no longer have the knowledge of the underlying laws of reality to understand it."
The other centaur looked at him. "It's interesting. It poses an answer but requires belief in too much." He motioned up at the silver arch in the heavens that stretched from horizon to horizon. "I take it that that was created before this humanity grew into infinity?"
"So, why drag me out away from the tribe? For four days I've walked with you. Listened to your story."
"To make you an offer."
"Assume that I'm Stephan, assume that the story is true. Given that the other mythic space/times were also opened, other races exist on the earth. Including humanity. I made a choice. When I left I made my body ageless. I wanted to be here, no, it's more that I felt an obligation to be here. To guide, to protect, to advise."
"Why didn't you join us when you created us? Why didn't you come among us as Stephan?"
"Why? Because then you'd all have obeyed me, fawned on me. I'd had enough of that. I wanted to see what you would create."
"I can accept that. But why tell me this? Why not anybody else?"
"Olcynther, I'm not infallible. At one point I could have known everything, but as Apollo told me, knowing everything does not guarantee perfection. One still makes choices, one just has more information to aid in making the choice. In a sense they have free will, in a sense they don't. Technically none of us do but I prefer the illusion of my having it.
"I'm not the only adviser. The first one I told the truth to was Phillipa. We still see each other. We marry for a generation or so and then go our own ways. It keeps us from hating each other. There are more, not many. Together we provide a continuity, a voice of wisdom, a watchman over the race as we grow and learn."
"And you want to make me one of these? Why? How?"
"Ah Olcynther, you forget that I created our race. I had infinite time to work out the details. I only let bits of future knowledge slip through to ensure that the race would not die out because of a mistake I made in the creation. I also put little things in the genetics. There is a concoction, one only we unaging ones know of. If you consume that concoction you will become ageless. Not immortal, a sword or an arrow can still kill you. Disease could, but it would have to work harder. You'd just never wear out."
"And if I choose to live only my allotted time?"
Stephan shrugged, "Then we part. You've heard a legend. If you tell others, they won't believe you. And if they do, I'll just leave for a generation or two or three until I become legend again. Others will join your tribe and watch it. Offer advice in council."
"Is it only responsibility that keeps you here then? That's a harsh burden."
"That's much of it certainly. But there is a core reason. I changed the world to bring this about. I made our race that way it is. I made the choices. I could have known the results but decided that I didn't want to learn that way. It felt wrong. But I still wanted to know."
Stephan paused, and looked up into the sky.
"Someday we'll go there. If you join us, you can go there too, or you can later decide that your time is over and pass on to whatever lies beyond this mortal life." Stephan chuckled. "Another one of the things I made sure not to learn. As for myself, I'll probably pass on some day. But not now."
"Because Olcynther, I want to know what we become. I want to see what options exist other than the path taken by western humanity. I want to explore the universe in a different way than just learning to understand it. I want to learn and change. Someday I'll grow tired, and then-- but not yet!"
- Quotations from The Illiad are from the translation by Edward, Earl of Derby, available via the Guttenburg Project.
- Quotations from Ovid's Metamorphosis from the translation by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al