When he woke, his head felt strangely clear, swept clean. As a child he had suffered from headaches that turned his stomach and blinded him with pain. Their ebbing had always left him like this, peaceful and smoothed as the beach after the tide.
The feeling was so startlingly familiar that he forgot himself. Was he ten once more, and on a hunting trip with his father? He lay, eyes closed, and smelt the damp earth and blooming lindens, scent so thick he felt it on his tongue. Beyond both, the rich brine of the sea.
I am on an island, he thought. My men are sleeping on the beach.
Eyes still closed, he reached for his bow – though ‘reached’ was the wrong word, for he slept with his arm threaded between curve and string. Many had tried to take it from him over the years. He was not a cruel man, and would shoot them only in the leg or the shoulder, somewhere that meant they would live to speak of it. And, of course, he would not use the poisoned arrowheads when he did it. Heracles would have chided him. Did you learn nothing from the Hydra? You must kill your enemies at the root, or they will come back.
Any other weapon would have been ruined by such hard use, but this was the great bow of Heracles. Was it true a god had given it to him? Whenever he had asked his old friend about it, Heracles would make up some outlandish tale; that its wood was cut from a golden tree at the end of the world, that it was the horn of the goat that nursed his father Zeus. The strings, he said, were whiskers plucked from the Nemean Lion as he roared. His friend said this to tease him, for he had been born a shepherd, and was slow to leave his peasant fairytales. “Really?” he would say, in those early days. Heracles was always laughing too hard to answer.
He kept his eyes closed; poised just beneath the surface of the day. There were no sounds but the distant waves; it was too early for birds. There was, as yet, no rattle and bang of the army breakfast, no streams of morning piss. He had made his bed apart, as was his custom, so that he would not be troubled by their snoring nightmares. He had always been a light sleeper and now, older, he was lighter still. These days it seemed that a worm in the earth could wake him. Heracles would have shaken his head. Never trust an army alone.
But of course the men were not alone. Odysseus, prince of rocky Ithaca, was with them. They had been paired together for the crossing to Troy, modest fleet with modest fleet. Odysseus was young, but he seemed competent, always among the men, handing out words like sweets, breaking up quarrels. He would make a good comrade in the field: keep his head in the mêlée, and not forget to dig the latrines after. He had been yoked with far worse in his day.
Odysseus had smiled at him, the first night, as he stood to go with his bedroll. “Enjoy the rest, you’ve earned it. I promise to keep them in line for you.”
Something in the man’s voice. As though he was being granted an indulgence.
“My men don’t need nursemaids.”
“I meant no offense, lord. It is an honour for me to keep watch for a companion of Heracles.”
It seemed sincere enough. Yet, in this small island of time before he rose, he could admit: he did not like the man. He could not say why, exactly, other than that he smiled too easily. Like over-oiled armour that will slip from you in battle.
I know the type, Heracles said. Soon as lie to you as look at you. If he tries it, pash him in the face, that will fix him.
He knew that when he opened his eyes and sat up, he would find his mouth uncomfortably dry, and his bladder overfull. His old shoulder wound would ache, and his bowman’s fingers would be stiff and twisted as roots. Every day now they took longer to loosen.
No matter. When he drew his bow, he was twenty still, and steady as the earth. Heracles used to watch him, arms crossed, leaning against a scabby trunk. The apple. No, the other one, higher up. That acorn. The narcissus on the opposite bank. One by one, he obeyed.
I swear you handle that thing better than me. Heracles had put a giant hand on his shoulder and shook him, as he did when he was pleased. One day maybe I’ll give it to you.
“I don’t want it,” he had answered, and pushed the wood back into his friend’s hands.
The messenger had found him at his father’s house. He came from Agamemnon, king of great Mycenae, and his tunic was stamped with the lion seal.
“Are you Philoctetes, companion of Heracles?”
The man recited into the air, like a priest speaking for a god: “You once strove to win Helen of Sparta’s hand, and swore to defend her marriage. She is stolen and the house of Atreus invokes your oath. Come to our aid or be disgraced.”
Clipped and angry, just this side of insult. But what more, really, was needed? He had sworn, and he was bound. The details – of the perfumed Trojan prince that had snatched her, of the war being planned – would not change that.
It had been a sort of madness to put himself forward for Helen’s hand. To think the most beautiful woman in the world, a daughter of Zeus, might chose him: old and broken-fingered as he was, and his house still smelling of sheep. Heracles would have told him so, would have clapped him on the back, dislodging foolishness like it were a pit stuck in his throat.
You and I aren’t for strutting in golden armour and oiling our hair. If her father doesn’t come looking for you, she isn’t worth it.
But it had seemed worse to stay home, like some spittle-flecked old fool whose best days were behind him. Heracles was dead, but his deeds lived, and his companion too. Where heroes were called, he still had a place among them. So he had gone, and dutifully given his oath like all the rest.
Stupidest bloody thing I’ve ever heard. Swear to defend another man’s marriage? He can defend it himself, or fuck off.
He almost smiled, but caught himself. The messenger was looking at him, waiting for his answer. He said, “Tell the sons of Atreus that Philoctetes, companion of Heracles, will honour his word.”
He was no mighty king summoning legions of dependents, opening the royal treasury and calling in favours. But he had a few things that belonged to him; polished shields and daggers from his days of glory. You sly old dog, Heracles said. Guess I taught you something after all.
He sent his messengers (cousins who bore no lion stamp, only a pair of good lungs) running across the hills of Thessaly, of Methone and rugged Olizon, to shout that the great archer Philoctetes, companion of Heracles, would hold a contest in the bow. Men might win prizes, and the best of them would earn a place in his army.
The archers had poured out of the mountains and sheepcotes clutching their homemade bows of yew and oak and ash. More than you might expect, for country folk.
Since his fame as Heracles’ archer had spread, the people of his lands had begun to take up the bow, claiming the land bred steady hands and good eyes.
He welcomed each man, ranged them, and set his cousins to loose the doves. Any man who dropped his arm, who cheered when the dove fell and bragged to his friends, was sent home. His eye sought out instead the ones who held their stance, who stood poised to send another arrow if the first one failed. Who scowled when they saw they had pierced the dove’s belly instead of its breast.
Not bad, Heracles said. But I bet they won’t be any fun to drink with.
When he was finished, he had enough to fill the seven boats he had bought, three hundred and fifty in all. They were good men, steady and well trained, their shoulders armoured with muscle. They would make the Trojans tremble.
They sailed for Aulis, the spit of land that served as a gathering place for the fleet. Trumpets blew when he landed, and a herald brought him to the great tent where the sons of Atreus had their war council. Old Nestor of Pylos had come running from some shadow, wheezing into his face: “Old friend, welcome, welcome! I have been all alone here, with no one who can speak of Heracles as we two can!”
Dear gods, is that old goat still living? I thought Jason would have thrown him over the side of the Argo years ago.
“I am glad to see you well, lord.” He faced Agamemnon and Menelaus, black beard and red, at the front of the room. “Philoctetes comes to honour his oath. I bring the great bow of Heracles, and three hundred and fifty picked archers on seven ships.”
“Welcome, lord,” Menelaus said.
“Only seven?” said Agamemnon.
Heracles spat. Spare me the men of House Atreus.
“Tish, seven! For a companion of Heracles, one would be enough. Is it not so?” Nestor beamed up at him. “Anyway, I have brought ninety, so we shall balance out.”
“You could get no more?” Agamemnon pressed, as if he might force Philoctetes to give up his foolishness and produce another fifty from his pockets.
Menelaus glanced at his brother. “Of course, we are glad to have you with us, however many ships you have.”
“And you are not the least, not at all!” Nestor pointed to a sweet-faced boy too young for a lump in his throat. “See, there is Nireus, with only three!”
Odysseus stood. “Perhaps we might leave the question of ships for a moment? We were hoping for your help with the Trojan Prince Paris in particular. He is, we hear, a bowman and a coward – that is, he stands apart from battle and is hard to get at. But we thought the great Heracles’ arrows might find out a hole in him.”
He could see the doubt on the other men’s faces: I thought he would be tall as a house; I thought he would speak like a god.
“Well?” Agamemnon demanded. “Can you do it?”
Shoot him through the balls, Heracles urged. That will show them.
“I will kill Paris,” Philoctetes said. “And anyone else you like. That is why I have come.”
He opened his eyes at last. The sky above him was grey, but dawn was beginning to catch at its edges. It would be fine again, good weather for sailing, and if it held they were three days from Troy. He would stand on the prow, and let the salt wind scrub him clean. Scour away the memory of two nights before, the thing still smeared across his stomach like a sickness.
The island where they had made camp had been lush with game, and the men – Odysseus’ men – had drunk deeply. Voices had been raised in song; loud, then louder. A thumping dance began. Boasts and good-natured curses were flung across bonfires.
The fight seemed to come out of the air; a stumble, and a shove. One minute the singing, the next a raw scream tearing across the beach.
He turned to see a man flailing on one of the fires. The wind was brisk and his hair had already caught, followed in a breath by his clothes and skin. The blood ran down his face and his ears were black. His screams, cracked with agony, went on and on. His companions stood frozen with horror.
“By the blood of Zeus, will none of you help me?” It did not seem possible that Heracles could speak still, from the center of that raging fire, but he did. “End this!” His friend who had never begged, begging him.
He stepped forward, the flames searing his face. “How?”
“The bow is yours now.” His friend’s face was twisted and ruined, his voice a husk. “Use it.”
He lifted the bow.
“You are the only one who loves me.” Heracles’ eyes on his. “Do it.”
The screams stopped. There was an arrow through the man’s eye. Odysseus skidded up with a water bucket, too late.
He was on his knees. He would have wept, but there was no water in him, only salt, creaky bones and an ash-heap tongue. He had not said goodbye. He had not said anything.
Odysseus said: “Quick thinking, my lord. He was too far gone to save.”
He stood, somehow. He turned and went to his pallet. He lay down and Heracles was silent.
Since then the men had been strange with him, wary and watching. He should not have walked away when he had, he should have forced out some words. He heard them whispering: His mind is gone. Did you see his face? He should have been left behind.
But what, really, could he have said? Young men do not care for weakness. They do not want to hear that their greatest hero was poisoned by accident out of mummer’s farce – a jealous wife who thought she was giving him a love potion; that he crawled, vomiting and shitting and screaming onto a pyre, hoping to send himself up to the gods in smoke. That he begged his friends to end his agony, and they would not. That he died badly, and the oily stench of his flesh hung in the air for days. That men worshipped him like a god, but no one mourned.
Get up, you old fool. You have lain here long enough, he told himself. The salt wind would scrub it all clean. The salt, and Paris’ blood, and someone to fight. He sat up.
The scream ripped through him. A pain in his leg like a jagged knife, like something rooting with teeth. The world spun, images swarming up at him: the soaked bandage around his calf, the ground under him black with pus. The thing he had not wanted to remember, returned.
The night before he had not been able to bear the thought of supper with the men. He had gone to walk the island instead, marshy and filled with belling frogs. There had been a pool, and he had stood looking at its surface, the water stirring and smoothing as flies passed above and fish beneath.
It had taken him a moment to see the snake, a brown thing by the water’s edge. Hydros, it was called, water viper.
It was no nine-necked monster; it was no god-sent boar, but he drew his arrow anyway. He wanted to feel the smooth working of his shoulders, the satisfying moment of strain, then release. Old Philoctetes, slayer of snakes.
The thing began to uncoil, to slip away. He nocked the arrow and shot, pinning the sandy head to the dirt. The body thrashed a little, and he had turned to leave it to its death.
A shock of pain in his calf. He looked down and saw another one of the things, coiling. It struck again, two fiery punctures. The moment of absurdity – why did I not look? – then the molten venom flooding into his veins. He remembered screaming and falling. Faces looming like fever out of the dusk, Odysseus… gag him if he won’t shut up. The men will go wild… Then a blessed black numbness, sliding up his body to gulp him whole.
He should have died in the night, but he had not. He started crawling, inch by flaying inch, up the small rise where he could call to his men. They will have doctors and drugs. They can make a stretcher. The world was a wash of red agony, the grass behind him wet with blood and pus. He felt the black returning and bit his hand to drive it away. He reached the edge, and opened his mouth to call down, for aid, for doctors, for poppy.
The shore was empty, the ships gone. Only ash piles were left to prove they had been there at all.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is published by Bloomsbury.