a/n: I'm not proud of how long I've drug this out and I'm sorry it's not yet complete. There will be only one more part after this and hopefully I will have that update in before the summer ends. All of my readers have been wonderfully supportive- you're honestly the reason I've not entirely given up on this little bit o' fluff.
She did not remember returning to the tent, nor how long she had been sitting on the floor. When she came to herself, she noticed with only mild surprise that there was a long, ugly cut along her calf, freshly opened and bleeding. Her leg was wrapped in slick ribbons of red that were pooling at her foot in the packed sand.
Her eyes dragged across the room, following the thin trail of blood starting from the edge of the water stand. She must have scratched herself when she had come back inside, though she could remember nothing of the incident, nor could she feel any pain from the wound. Her last conscious thought was of Achilles, his back to her, the charging courser in front of him, the wheels of the chariot as it rolled beyond her sight, bearing her hope away and leaving only despair in its wake.
Mechanically, she picked at the edge of her dress until a loose thread appeared. She tugged at it, pulling the delicately sewn decorative hem away from the more plain, blue fabric. Once freed, she wrapped it around her cut, carefully tying it in tight knot to stop the bleeding. Now finished, her hands were coated in a fresh lacquer of blood. She curled her knees up to her chest and stared at them, watching in grim fascination as the shiny coat slowly darkened to a matte, rich burgundy and then to a scaly, nearly black-scarlet.
"Will there be war? With the Greeks, I mean."
"Little sister, I have prayed to the gods many times that such a thing will not come to pass, but now…I fear it may."
"Can anything be done?"
"We can honor our parents, comfort our children, love our husbands and wives, give our little sisters a kiss on the forehead…and wait."
"I do not fear the Greeks."
"They are fierce warriors. They say even Achilles may cross the sea if it comes to war."
"I do not fear them, even Achilles."
"Because you are here."
The sun's rays had stretched long, golden strips across the floor of the tent, and still Briseis had heard nothing of the duel. Surely it was all over by now? One way or another, she had lost something precious to her- something that could never be replaced or returned.
Slowly, a rumble began in the camp. It was distant at first, but like a gathering wave, rolled and collected its strength as it bore down on her. There were shouts, words she could not discern and cries that could have easily been either joy or shock.
The tent flap suddenly flew back, and there stood Achilles, his golden armor dulled red and dusty. A cry of anguish rose from deep within her chest, calling out across the veils of this world to Hector's spirit beyond, telling him of her broken heart, her fear and the sudden emptiness in her chest.
His arms hung heavy and sore at his sides. Every muscle called to attention only a few short hours ago now was battered and bruised, their memories long and unforgiving as they cried in pain. He flexed his fingers, slowly curling and uncurling them, trying to bring back feeling after having gripped his sword to the point of numbness.
In his mind, the battle played out over and over. At first he had pressed the attack too strongly, and Hector had repaid his foolishness with a few quick blows. Achilles had thrown himself against Hector's shield like an ocean wave wearing at a stubborn jut of land and in so doing lost more ground than he gained.
The battle had changed slowly in his favor, but the final victory had come at a great effort- a struggle worthy of the gods and their bloodlust. Achilles had felt his sword drive into Hector, had felt the life leave the prince of Troy and in that moment knew that this was his destiny. His world would forever be found in the dust and sweat and blood of battle, and never in the laughter of his children or in the arms of his wife.
He felt no honor in the death. Once accomplished, with Hector's body tied to his chariot for all those peering eyes over the city walls of Troy to see, Achilles had instead felt empty. There was a great hollowness inside him now, one that the death of Hector had created, and the knowledge of Patroclus' avenging had not refilled.
He drug the body through the sand, in front of those who had loved and known him best, in front of those who had looked to Hector as a symbol of Troy's invincibility. He had felled their hero, and now stood as the specter of Hades himself, born in blood and wrath, destined to raze their way of life to the ground. The wails of anguish from the city walls deepened the emptiness.
He had returned to the encampment not to the sound of cheering, but instead to wide-eyes and whispers, to looks of fear and uncertainty. Like a once-loyal dog turned feral, he felt treated like a mistrusted animal- tolerated for his usefulness but not allowed any measure of real trust.
The look on Briseis' face when he stepped into the tent took the edges of his emptiness and ripped them as far across as they would stretch. Completely hollowed, he collapsed onto the bed, his eyes staring ahead but seeing nothing. She remained on the floor, her legs curled up against her chest, her face a mixture of terror and agony. The space between them was more than just the span of the tent- it stretched much farther, a chasm that no bridge could cross.
Hours passed, and the shadows that speared across the floor of the tent slowly faded into the darkness of night. The Agean crashed relentlessly outside, and tonight it seemed particularly noisome. It seemed to accuse Achilles with every thunderous clash as it churned against the shoreline, continuing a prolonged bellow that would not allow him to rest. He had killed one of Troy's heroes, and even the land and sea itself had felt the echoes of his infamy.
Briseis made no move to come near him, but it seemed just as well that she remain where she was. Achilles now knew that he had crossed the tipping point, and now he could not reverse his fate. He had laid the path himself, and was now bound to follow it to the end. Briseis could only ever be more blood on his hands.
They remained as they were for many hours, neither speaking nor making any motion. Comforting platitudes and the touch of a lover's hand were distant, loathsome ideas as they sat in the suffocating presence of death's spectre.
Achilles' thoughts had wandered far from the battle, and now rested only on that thin point of light in the ever-swelling darkness around him that marked his departure from this life and his entry into the realm of the immortals. Hector had been a good man; Briseis with her determination to hold on to those she loved best had tried to tell him that.
A good man.
A father, a brother, a son. Achilles' had killed the mortal flesh, but he had not killed the spirit. It lived on, he could see it even in her eyes- those large, brown pools that were awash with tears of pain and loss. He shut his thoughts from the accusation, from the agony he could see written so plainly there.
Having sat so long in stillness and in silence, the sudden movement of the tent flap was enough to startle both of them. A stooped figure, head cloaked in roughspun fabric pushed his way into the tent, turning his back to Briseis and shuffling to Achilles' feet.
A hand, veined and curled with age reached up to the hem of the hood; something deep within Briseis quickened and her heart began to beat faster. As the cowl fell backward, she could see the shock of white hair, the familiar form and slope of the shoulders- everything crashed against her and caught her breath in her throat.
"Priam." Achilles was on his feet, his face drawn down in confusion and sudden fear. He had killed this man's son, and now he stood within a dagger's length of his arm. Achilles' blood was pounding in startled fear- was this man here to avenge his fallen son, the heir to his line? He had managed to disguise himself and slip unseen through the defensive lines, he had walked into the tent as though it were as familiar as his own home, and now he stood before a man still covered in the blood of his eldest child. Achilles understood well the fearless rush that bore vengeance on swift feet, heedless of risk and desirous of blood.
But this man, this king, did not hold himself defensively. He produced neither sword nor spear from the thick folds of his cloak. Instead he fell to his knees at Achilles' feet- an action which only served to confuse and frighten Achilles all the more. Why kneel at the feet of a man you could do nothing else but hate? What pride could this king have left after having genuflected before a common soldier?
"I ask for the body of my son." His voice was cracked with emotion and the years of his long life. He had lived to see too much. His beloved city was panicked, his warriors dying on bleached sand and rock in front of their families and now, now Achilles had kicked out one of the few remaining supports that had kept everything hopeful and upright. With Hector gone, Priam had suddenly been forced to shoulder a crushing weight.
And now, bent under that tremendous load, he begged for the mangled body of his son.
"I ask not as a king, but as a father. Allow me to take him back to his people, allow me to anoint him with oils and send him peacefully to his home beyond this world. Allow me to grieve for my son." He begged with palms up and open, a position of complete supplication that was taught to slaves. Achilles had never before in his life seen any free man plead in such a manner.
Briseis shifted against the wall, watching the scene with rapt attention. The desire to comfort Priam as he spoke in rattling, broken phrases nearly overwhelmed the common sense that held her back. After so long drifting amongst the invading hoard, she had nearly forgotten the comfort of a familiar face; the impulse to reach for that single thread of her former life was nearly beyond her ability to control.
Priam continued to speak to Achilles, the latter's face drawing down into deeper lines of shame and regret with each passing moment. A king of men calling upon a foot soldier, even one so great as Achilles, was uncommon, but to have the noble father of a slain prince begging at his feet was unheard of. Achilles shifted his weight uncomfortably between his feet, anxious to curtail the conversation without insulting the king kneeling in the hard packed earth of his tent.
Achilles' eyes flickered from Priam to Briseis, and she knew what his decision would be.