Storytelling in the same vein as the last attempt, if you saw that. Our prompt this time was love is watching someone die, to be written in two hours. At the end of the stipulated time I affected this. It's a take on the story of Penthesilea, the Amazon Queen, and her final defeat in battle by Achilles. It's one of the squickiest but also the most tragic and affecting parts of the whole story of the Trojan War.
Placing here a pg-13 warning for violence. Also, you may recognise the opening line from that blasted novel, Love Story.
What can you say about a twenty-one year old girl who died?
That she wasn’t twenty-one, for starters. She was thirty-two when she died and looked every day of it. History has proved that to be a bad age for great and careless people (Gilles Villeneuve and Swami Vivekananda, for example. Karen Carpenter.) Astrologically, Pluto comes around to visit you when you’re thirty-two, after the exuberant carelessness of Zeus and Hermes have showered you in their bright, unseeing light. When Pluto comes, the blindness recedes from your eyes as his cool, leaden shadow falls over you, and he will make you account for every excess of your youth. Everyone knows that this was the revenge of the stars on Alexander the Great, who died of a mysterious fever at the age of thirty-two, but at this time the Aegeans were not yet a superstitious lot, because their lives were not yet governed by the cold and impersonal light of distant planets, just very powerful gods, against whose randomness no salt over your shoulder and no straw men could guard you.
He was twenty-one. Still the darling of their benevolent divinities, and he remained so until the end. Perhaps they knew that they had already taken everything he could give. It is not often that human beings have a choice as stark as that which was offered to Achilles, son of Peleus, which is one way of looking at it. He had been at war for about five years by then – five years in Troy proper, that is, because the other way of looking at it was that Achilles had always been at this war, that he learned to walk and run and fight and be, because he was always, always, always meant to be this soldier on this plain, his glory as inevitable as death, as inevitable as the sky in his rainy-grey eyes.
He walked into a bar. They all did that on their furloughs. He was still a general; the Myrmidons were going to raze this town to the ground later sometime, but he had time for a drink before it happened. There were townsfolks lingering on the shore, holding hands, singing, looking dreamily at the horizon. There was nothing to disturb the view, no ominous looming figures of black ships. This little Pleasantville would be a minor operation, mainly scheduled for keeping his soldiers’ hand in as and when strategy ordered them off the plain.
No one seemed to know who he was. He sat at the bar and asked for wine. Over in the corner an old woman was telling a gathering the story of Tantalus and how he cut up and served his own son Pelops as food for the gods. He watched the storyteller wave her hands, painting pictures of the horror, only half-listening. He knew this story of course; he had seen it enacted before his very eyes when they set out to sail. Agamemnon had murdered his own daughter to ensure good winds for the journey. Iphigeneia had been young, intelligent and gorgeous, very enthusiastic about being married to Achilles himself. That hadn't worked out. She had fought frantically before they killed her. The funny thing was, Pelops had been her great-grandfather, Agamemnon and Menelaus’ grandfather. It had never occurred to her that the gods might resurrect her the way they did Pelops. It had never occurred to her at all that history was repeating itself.
“Nothing much’s changed, has it?” a voice sounded in his ear. He turned and there she was, dressed in combat fatigues and leather. She was tall, bronzed, with the sort of body that took years of fencing and running and good hard knocks to build up. She had long, olive-black hair and eyes darker than any child of Priam’s. Achilles thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
“Still bloodthirsty buggers, the lot of them.” She sat down next to him and signalled for wine, too. “It’s the curse, isn’t it. You can’t end it. Their fathers and forefathers will all haunt them until they have their own mouthfuls.”
Achilles remembered the omen after her sacrifice. “Like a snake,” he said. “Swallowing – ”
“Its own eggs. Exactly,” she finished, picking up the cup before her and draining it in a gulp. “Who’s the redhead, then?”
He stared at her, wondering what had happened to him. “Hi, I’m talking to you, Sparky,” she waved five long, callused fingers before his face and laughed.
“Pyrrhus,” he said, not taking his eyes off her face. “I’m Pyrrhus. And you’re lovely.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” She looked pleased, tilting her head and looking him over appreciatively. “Try Penny.”
“Penny,” he breathed. “Penelope?”
“Ugh, no,” she laughed again. “Penelope is a horrible name. So is Penny, but my only other option is Silly. Very silly. I discourage people from addressing me by name as a rule.”
Achilles made an effort to smile, even though his heart seemed in danger of beating its way right out of his mouth at any moment. “Not even your lovers?”
“Especially not my lovers,” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“So what should I call you, then?” It was out before he knew it, as inevitable, really, as everything else about him. Her eyebrow shot up a little higher, an eagle’s wing upon her brow, and she said, “'Your majesty’ will do.”
Three years later
They knew they were fighting each other even before the masks of war came off. It was in the movements, the curve of an arm as it swept around the other’s body, the sweat-damp curls that escaped from a helmet, the surprise and the ferocity in the cries of passion. Things that no lover forgot about Achilles or Penthesilea. Time had drawn them close once more, almost as close as they had been that night in the town that was not so much as a memory even in the minds of its destroyers.
He found an opening and wounded her arm slightly before she pulled back and swung hard at his head. She was strong. She could crush and wound you and make you utterly forget who you were. She did not give you time or space. She would mean everything to you, consume you and give nothing back. He could not crumble to dust for her, though. He might have; it might have been easy and possible, but there were reasons that he did not, too many reasons, all of which came down to the single fact that he was not meant for her. Three years ago they had been drinking wine together and talking about the sons of Atreus. She had told him that they were cursed, and he had agreed, and wondered how the curse could be broken.
She had shrugged as if she did not care, and said, “By someone brave enough to reverse destiny. To swallow the snake. To kill the father – or kill themselves.”
He looked her in the eye and advanced towards her. He remembered the wisdom in them. She beat him back, attacking him with new reserves of energy that welled up in her just as she seemedd about to give up. It would not be too difficult to be beaten by this woman. You could give yourself up with honour; she would destroy you so completely that nothing, not even shame, could be left. She could entwine and break the threads of fate, invert destiny and kill the killer.
He thought, and thought that a curse was not a bargain with the gods. The House of Atreus could reverse their fortunes, but he could never break his.
He did not hate her for being unable to change what always had been. He did not even hate for dying when she finally did, sword knocked out of her hand, his blade sliced clean through her heart. She had her destiny too, and he was it. She had not made a bargain, she had not been cursed. She was beautiful and brave and he had loved her for it, but he never thought that she might have deserved more.
She was lying sprawled, still on the ground. Someone pulled her helmet off gently – she had fought well – and the hair, still long and black, fanned out on the earth around her. Her eyes were open, the wisdom gone, the fear gone. He knelt beside her to close them and noticed the eagle-wing brows, furled now, bleached by daylight battles.
“I hope you’re clean, gorgeous,” she had said on the stairs, leaning against the banister to look down at him. The eyebrows kept flying upwards, as though he were a perpetual incredulity. And he was.
Someone murmured his name. A crowd had gathered around them. Her blood pooled about them, lapping at his knees.
I’m not, he thought, kissing the forehead, smooth and fading without life. I carry my death with me, and now you have yours.
What can you say about a twenty-one year old boy who died? Pluto never had the chance to summon him. He was twenty-eight when it actually happened, the arrow flying into his heel almost an accident, if anything the stars have orchestrated for eternities can be an accident. What can you say about Achilles dying? Perhaps this: that he did not deserve more. That no one, not even a woman, not even a queen of the Amazons, ever got less.