Disclaimer: Troy, Iliad, etc. do not belong to me.
A/N: At long last... part five! I took some liberty with the story here, but personally, I'm rather satisfied with the ending.
A City of Fire
Dust-colored stone walls loomed high, shouldering away the horizon like eager warriors jostling to the fore of a battle. Odysseus was more circumspect, slipping along in their shadow, substituting cunning for force. For so long, he had stared at the outside of those walls, memorizing every cursed contour and irregularity. These immaculate obstacles, debarring him not only from victory but from home and wife, peace, tranquility, happiness! With one, repressed corner of his mind, he had longed furiously to level them. Now, from the inside, they looked no different from without; but now, their power had crumbled.
Torches splashed the night with a garish paint. Odysseus spared no thought for the aesthetic of the scene: the dance of slaughter, the song of conqueror and vanquished, the heavy perfume of blood found no foothold on his cold mind. Concentrated, detached, he scoured the city with the artisan's precision. He hunted.
The search led him through deserted streets, past houses with trails of flame escaping through their windows and doors. Women screamed, men and children died, weapons clashed and armor rang. An infant boy, bawling, tumbled from a roof to a swift death below. Odysseus pitied the thing, but felt no regret. These were the accepted processes of war. He took no further heed of the proceedings; that was work for others.
Odysseus had more important things to do than level the rank and file of the enemy. His honor demanded a king or a great warrior; somehow, he had to justify to himself and to his comrades his presence here, his rank as king of Ithaca, his reputation. He needed a conquest that would prove his worth. Hector was dead, Sarpedon, the best sons of Priam... all vanquished. What was left for him?
He had not wanted to fight in this war, and had gone only to protect his kingdom and family. But if he failed now to distinguish himself, the sacrifice would be undone. Odysseus had to demonstrate his prowess, or others would take advantage of perceived weaknesses – not today or tomorrow, but eventually, back in the fractured Greek lands. He and his wooden horse had given them Troy, yes, but he must take it with his own hands. Wiles were all very well, but he needed a show of strength.
He raged through the city alone, helping where it was needed, hurtling into the thickest whirl of battle, his mind burning with its red obsession. Kleos. Honor. Timé. Glory. Reputation. His name. They would say of him, "That is mighty Odysseus, whose spear and sword led the Achaeans at Troy – the king of Ithaca, great among men." And they would leave him and his country in peace.
His blade, a cruel, bronze extension of his flesh, spoke in whispers only he could hear. Sandaled feet led him up stone stairs. The sounds of fighting had receded somewhat. That was bad; he wanted more exposure to battle, not less.
He burst into a square, quiet, deserted, leveled beneath the invading horde. Quiet, save for the echo of a distant cry: "Achilles!"
The cry meant nothing to Odysseus. His eyes told him far more. There, in the green center of the square, lay a body, magnificent in death despite its awkwardly sprawled limbs. Blonde hair, limp and without luster; mighty arms, lifeless; the fleet feet, an arrow impaling one heel. Odysseus dropped to the ground and turned the body over, arranging it in a position of repose and dignity. His hand lingered briefly above the chest, where a heart had once beat, before drawing softly away.
Achilles' lips did not pout in death. Their corners lay drawn back, strangely inoffensive; the contrariness that had so angered Agamemnon was lacking now. A brief laugh forced its way through Odysseus' lips. To think that, of all the Greek host, Achilles should lie here, defeated – cut down by a mere arrow!
"Ridiculous," he told himself, "but I tried to warn you, old friend."
He fell silent, startled by his own words. It was only a corpse. His fingers clenched spasmodically on his sword hilt. This was real: bronze, blood, fire, earth, flesh. The spirit of Achilles was on its way to Hades already, no longer a matter for living men. They would meet again, in the endless halls of the underworld.
Would they? Odysseus' eyes clung to that arrow, embedded so impudently in the heel of the greatest warrior ever to have lived. It had taken only one man with a bow to kill the great Achilles; how much less must it take to put an end to Odysseus, a weaker fighter by far? At any moment, a sword might sever his spirit from its body. A rock, an arrow, fire, water, the plague, age . . . death lurked behind the thinnest of veils. Death? It was a horde of assassins, dogging the footsteps of every man, incapable of failure. Sooner or later, they would emerge to trample on the flickering spark concealed in mortal flesh. And who was to say Hades would truly receive them? Perhaps only oblivion waited, eternal darkness less than a breath away.
He squeezed his eyes shut and breathed deeply, angry and vaguely shocked at his own thoughts. He had not felt this muted panic since he was a young boy, in those awkward years when one learned that uncertainty ruled the world and no one had any control over fate—not one's parents or kings or even the gods, if they did exist. Such fear was for children; a man looked death in the face and grinned.
Odysseus looked down at the features of his friend and smiled sadly. He had hardly expected to outlive Achilles. But that, too, was beyond his control.
There were some things, however, that he could influence. While he yet lived, there was honor to think of, and friendship.
"Sleep well, friend," he said softly, "Fear not for your name; I will avenge you."
The body lay still as a stone carving. Soon it would burn on the funeral pyre, and even the flesh would be gone. Odysseus gazed at it for one more long moment before springing lightly to his feet. He remembered the echo that had reached his ears upon entering the square. A woman's voice, full of despair, crying "Achilles!" He hazarded a guess at the direction and sprinted away, strength filling his limbs as if to make up for previous weaknesses.
He ran up a flight of stairs and along a street without meeting anyone. This part of the city appeared deserted, save for a few stragglers, Greek or Trojan, he did not know. Perhaps the warriors had swept through here already, or perhaps all the inhabitants had fled. One part of his mind scouted out the surroundings, keeping an immaculate record of his path. Another part hovered, unwilling to leave, above the lifeless corpse of Achilles. And in the back of his voice, a small voice repeated endlessly, exaltedly, life, life, life...
... "Life!" Odysseus howled gleefully, "I have created LIFE!" He shook his hands triumphantly above his head and leaped madly about the room.
"I may have had something to do with it as well," Penelope remarked wryly from her habitual seat by the window.
"What foolishness! Everyone knows a man does the real work in creating children," Odysseus laughed, stooping to give his pregnant wife a chaste kiss.
"Beware, my husband!" Penelope said, a twinkle in her eye, "I might decide to spare you that particular work in the future!" She laughed as a look of horror crossed Odysseus' face. He knelt before her, taking her white hands in his brown ones.
"And what can I do to reclaim your, er, favors?" A half-smile hovered about his lips.
Her blue eyes held his gaze until he felt he was staring down into the depths of a sea more profound than any that existed on the earth. So deep, and yet not dark; brightness infused their every glance, sunshine piercing through endless waves.
"Never leave me," she said, and he knew she did not mean it in a physical sense.
"My heart is yours forever," he answered, levity slipping away.
But she only repeated, as if in desperation, and yet with a voice so calm it chilled him, "Never leave me..."
... "Leave me!" a woman sobbed.
Odysseus halted, pressing his back to a wall. He was at a cross-roads, and the voice had come from around the corner, to his right. The light was very weak here; only a faint, lurid reflection of distant fires illuminated the night.
"I can't go... I can't... I can't...."
Odysseus peered around the corner. Two figures there, in the middle of the road, one obviously female and the other, he guessed, a man.
"Come, Briseis—it's no use—"
Briseis. He had not recognized her voice, having heard it only once, within Achilles' tent. He could not tell who her companion was, but she did not seem pleased with him. Was he Greek? Or one of her own people? But then why would she be resisting?
"We must go, Briseis! Before they find us. Come to the passage—"
"Dead," Briseis moaned, "Dead—you killed him, Paris! I hate you—men—all men! Even you, my cowardly, womanly cousin, even you do nothing but kill!"
Odysseus missed the reply in his surprise. Paris! Opportunity bloomed before his eyes like dry wood going up in flames. Paris had killed Achilles. Paris had started the war. Paris had dishonored his host, shamed his people, dragged thousands of Greeks from their homes, and now he was fleeing, a coward until the end. Paris, the second son of Priam. What better man could he kill?
"Briseis, we don't have time..."
No time. One stroke could right so many wrongs. Odysseus did not have his spear, but there were other ways.
Tension fastened cruel claws on his shoulders. He crouched, ready to leap around the corner. The night seemed to pause; his nerves screamed in his ears. His limbs felt heavy and loose all at once. Everything depended on this moment, on this, the most important stroke of his life.
He bounded around the corner into the street.
"Paris!" His voice tore out of his throat like a bull's bellow.
Two figures whirled to face him. He caught only a glimpse of their faces before his sword left his hand, hurtling like a bronze bolt of lightning through the dark air. There was a thunk, followed by a gurgling, and one of the forms fell heavily to the ground.
Then the frenzy disappeared from the night, as if a cold wind had blown away the smoky heat. His heart grew suddenly calm. Briseis stood frozen, staring at him, and he could see by her face that she knew him.
He advanced slowly, but she showed no sign of fear. Her face was mask-like, glazed with old tears. She stood with clenched hands, rigid, her robe stained and tattered, and yet looked no less a noble. It seemed to him he glimpsed traces of his wife in her fierce composure.
He spared a glance for Paris. The man was dead. Achilles was avenged, the theft of Helen punished, his glory secured, the war over. It was finished. He could go home. He wanted to shake his head; it had happened too quickly, after so much time.
Odysseus turned back to Briseis. She had not spoken, but regarded him silently, with an indifference he could tell was false.
"Come," he said gently, echoing the words of her dead cousin, "there is nothing for you here. They are both dead. Come with me. I will send you to my wife; she will care for you."
She did not protest when he took her hand and led her away. His task was complete; he could return to his ships, leave tomorrow if he so chose. A great weight lifted from his soul, and he felt he had grown wings. The night held no more terrors; all the barriers were gone, the pathways open, the sea waiting.
He walked through the burning city, and a half-smiled tugged at his lips.
A/N: Holy shiznit! It's finished! Thanks everyone for reading and for your patience with my lack of updating!