After making sure the old Trojan king was settled in for the night, he walked back into the hut and paused, gathering courage to face her after those nightmarish couple of weeks. It had to be done if he was going to have her back, and he did want that more than anything else now, but that didn't make it any easier.
He loved her and he knew it, even if he had never openly admitted it. It was one of those twisted absurdities of life that the first time he'd spoken the words out loud it was not to her, but to the men who'd come to try and reconcile him with the high king who had so disgracefully taken her from him. But she knew how he felt, she had never needed him to tell her. It wasn't just the physical passion they shared, but all those signs of mutual tenderness that were ever present in the little things that made up their daily life together: in the way she would be standing by the door of the hut waiting for him and in the smile with which she welcomed him home; in the quick exchange of bright glances when he arrived from the battlefield that expressed, discreetly but clearly, her joy to see him return alive and unharmed and his joy at finding her there; in the way he squeezed her fingers when she handed him the sponge to wash off the dirt, the sweat and the blood; in the hushed conversations in bed that extended long into the night, keeping their voices down in order not to disturb Patroclus and Iphis, who slept on the opposite end of the main room of the hut; in the laughter they had learned to share; in the knowledge and acceptance of each other's flaws and qualities, likes and dislikes; in the pleasure he took from sleeping with her even when her moon was changing and she could not make love.
Yes, he loved her and there was little doubt that she'd come to love him too. She'd grown on him and he somehow seemed to have grown on her as well. It's just the way the heart works. It felt nice to have someone to come home to. A woman to come home to. He'd never had that before.
It was true that he had loved Deidamia. After all, she had been his first woman - could he really use the word "woman" referring to Deidamia at the time they had been together? A girl, she was nothing but a girl then, just as he was most certainly not a man either, but a mere a boy. She'd been his first love and was the mother of his only son. But that had been so very long ago! So many years - more than ten now. It had pained him immensely to leave her, but the allure of becoming a man and a warrior had superseded everything else. He'd missed her, truly, and was determined to go back and fulfill his promise to marry her, but then time simply kept passing by and Deidamia slowly faded into a ghost in his memory. A very dear one indeed, but still just a ghost. She didn't seem real anymore.
Then there had been Iphigenia. He had never asked for her hand, he had never even thought about any of Agamemnon's daughters until the day he stumbled upon Clytemnestra in Aulis and found out about the Mycenaean king's shameful abuse of his name to lure the girl in for sacrifice. He chose to protect her, not out of love - he hadn't even met her yet - but because of his own sense of honor. But when the girl saw him standing alone in the face of the whole Achaean army and decided to go willingly to her sacrifice in order to save his life, her utterly unexpected courage and dignity won him over and he found he would gladly marry her, if only she weren't going to die. He offered her his protection again and this time he was doing it for love, no longer for honor. But she refused and walked proudly to the altar, her eyes dry and her head held high.
Iphigenia might have acted as a sacrificial lamb to the army, but she had proved she was a true heroine. Actually, she remained to this day the bravest person he had ever encountered. That included all the many warriors, as great as they might be, whom he had fought and defeated.
Yes, he had loved Iphigenia and for a long time after Aulis he would occasionally find himself wondering what might have been. But once again time just kept passing by and Iphigenia too became no more than a sweet shadow in his memory.
And he was still young, very young; too young to have already loved and lost twice.
Some years later, perhaps five or six years into the war, he couldn't recall precisely anymore, everything just seemed to be the same year in and year out, he had led the assault on Lyrnessus and won, as he always did. The town fell to the Achaeans, the king, Mynes, was slain by his own hand, and the king's widow was awarded to him as a war prize. Her name was Briseis and she was the prettiest woman he had ever laid eyes on. In her case, "woman" was definitely the proper word. Oh, she was young, very young, like himself; as a matter of fact, she was a little younger than him. But she was no girl anymore, just as he was no longer a boy.
He didn't fall immediately for her. He wanted her, that was for sure, but lust isn't love and by then he was old enough to know the difference.
He wanted her, but she hated him. That was clear as day and she made no effort whatsoever to hide her feelings. Quite the contrary, sometimes she seemed to go out of her way to let him know exactly how she felt. He could have had her anyway - it was his right, she had been lawfully given to him by the people's assembly. He knew she would not try to fight him off; she was aware of her status as a slave and of what that status entailed. But he also knew that she would shut herself down, close her heart and her mind to him, turn off her body, keep her eyes staring blankly into the ceiling and lay unresponsive in his arms, making sure he felt her loathing for him from beginning to end. And that was most definitely not what he wanted.
So he'd decided to win her. He put time and attention into it, as he always did in all of his campaigns, and eventually he succeeded, but in the process he became more taken to her than he expected.
She was both strong and vulnerable, fierce and fragile at the same time. But she had the soul of a fighter. She could fall on her face, tumble from queen to slave, but she would always get back on her feet, her chin high and her self-respect unscathed. And after falling for him, slave or no slave, she had started to fight to get him to marry her.
The ghost of a smile played fleetingly on his lips. He always seemed to go for women who combined strength and frailty, who were delicate but able to defy the odds stacked against them. Deidamia with her forbidden pregnancy, Iphigenia with her impending death at her own father's hands, Briseis with her captivity. It suddenly struck him that he did have a type. Not a physical type - Deidamia was a brunette, petite and promisingly curvy; Briseis was blonde and slender, with a natural elegance worthy of Aphrodite herself; Iphigenia... she wore a veil and a large flowing gown, so he had never seen her hair or much of her figure, he only knew that her eyes were brown and liquid like a doe's and that her features had an angelical serenity to them – but he had a type nonetheless: headstrong damsels in distress.
Life could be quite ironic, particularly considering he was as headstrong as they came and pretty adept at putting people – damsels or otherwise – in distress.
The smile faded. He had lost Deidamia and Iphigenia, but he would not loose Briseis. Not again, anyway. He'd already lost her once and bitter tears had that loss cost him. Not just him though; since he had become a full-fledged warrior, he rarely ever cried without making mortally sure that the persons responsible paid for his grief.
No, he would not loose her again. When she'd returned, she'd tried to go back to the way they were before. She'd shown that she had forgiven him for letting her go. She'd tried to close the gap that had opened between them, to remind him of those ties of heartfelt passion and consistent tenderness that held them together and could create a common future for them both. She'd spoken of her wedding dreams he had once shared. His answer had been that he wouldn't leave Troy alive. Brutally straightforward... and utterly truthful. He would die in this war. Actually, at the time he felt like he was already dead.
She'd staggered under the blow, her hopes shattered yet again. How much suffering had she already endured? After all, he had given her up. True that it was to avoid slaughter from befalling his men, but that still didn't mean he had not sacrificed her. The reason he never lost a battle was that he knew when to engage and when to pull back. Engaging the gigantic army commanded by Agamemnon before the eyes of the besieged Trojan forces would have spelled inevitable defeat. And he would never lead his men into defeat, only victory. He sure as hell would never, ever, lead them into certain death, even if it meant letting go of his woman, shattering his pride and breaking his own heart. His men always came first. But then he had lost the best of them...
There was no point in going into that again. Patroclus was gone, he had avenged him with full knowledge that vengeance would precipitate the end of his own life, and that was that. Now he would try to make the best of what little time he had left. And for that he needed her, he needed Briseis. The woman who had grown on him. The woman he loved to come home to. The woman who had been at his side for the past few years. The only woman he had ever truly lived with.
The wife of his heart.