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Title: The Skythian Woman
Author: Wang Xi-feng ([personal profile] xifeng)
Fandom: Trojan War/Homer
Warnings: Warfare-related violence, bad language, long-ass death scene.
Summary: Achilles and Penthesilea, retold. Only the words are mine.

Love, love, where can you be?
Are you out there looking for me?

--Anna McGarrigle, “Heartbeats Accelerating”

Thus they buried Hector, breaker of horses. And from the east there came an Amazon...
--from a variant manuscript tradition of the Iliad

All things have grown the same, since Patroclus.

Achilles is restless and bored at once; the last really satisfying thing he did was fix Memnon, and that didn't bring Antilochus back, any more than fixing Hector brought Patroclus back. Once upon a time, it might have been satisfying to make the fatal point, send an unequivocal message: It doesn't matter how big and bad you are. You can't withstand me.

Battle is tedious now. The Trojans have fielded, and lost, all their really good men, and their allies have either gone home or been broken. Even earlier in the war, nobody was Achilles' equal, but the men they're fielding now aren't even a match for the greenest Myrmidon fresh out of Phthia. They all scream and fall just the same. One day seems to flow into the next.

He doesn't even care what Agamemnon says or does. It doesn't matter anymore. He's going to die one of these days. The thought cheers him. He's already lived too long, and there's nothing worth living for anymore. Someone else will take Briseis; someone else will take command of the Myrmidons. Someone else will marry Deidamia. (Perhaps someone else already has; it isn't the kind of thing she'd write to him about, even if she were the sentimental kind.) The kid--he must be nearly grown up now--can take care of Peleus. As for Thetis, it's hard, but she's immortal and even if he lives to be ten thousand years old, she'll still outlive him, and there isn't anything either of them can do about that now.

The only reason he hasn't fallen on his sword is because he knows what everyone would say, and even in the afterworld, he can't stand the shame. When daylight comes and he finds himself still alive, he sighs, takes a deep breath, and calls for his armor.

She scarcely remembers the alliance her mother had promised, for she was only a child then. It seemed strange, at the time, that Priam should send a man instead of his oldest daughter, but she had known even less of the world then. "Their ways are not ours," her mother had said. How right she had been: where she is used to a glimpse of the open sky through the tents, here they wall themselves in away from nature. She knows only the open steppe, and the narrow streets are enough to make her claustrophobic; that first day in Troy, she had had to excuse herself, rushing to an alley to vomit. Silence has become her preferred métier; they do not know her language, and she knows only enough to make herself understood as simply as possible.

She had loved her sister Hippolyta above all others; it was an accident. They were hunting, and as the day wore on, were separated. She saw movement in the brush, and raised her javelin.

She is Penthesilea; she does not miss her mark.

Ever since then, she has been half in love with death; she took as little of her armor as she could get away with, because she does not intend to outlive this war. After all, her life is only for a little while; the glory will be forever, and she owes it to her sister to take as many of the Achaians out as she can.

The first time he sees her, he's busy stripping a dead Trojan of armor; he has no possible use for it, but the Trojan doesn't need it where he's going either. He notices the horseman, of course--he'd be a fool not to, on a crowded battlefield—but when there's no sword in his back, no spear bouncing off his shield, Achilles wonders if it's an Achaian and lifts his face to see if it's someone he knows.

"You do stop that, please," a woman's voice says; she has an odd accent that he can't place, which turns the words into something like you do stop dat, plizz. "Otherwise, we fight." She is small, probably not grown up yet, and slender; her knuckles, wrapped securely around two or three javelins, whiten.

By Zeus, they must be desperate if this is what they're resorting to. "Oh, really," Achilles says, returning to his grisly work. "Does your husband know you're out running around in his armor?"

Her brow creases as she tries to parse the unfamiliar sentence, and then she flushes bright red when she grasps the meaning. "I don't have husband. I don't need. This is mine." She watches him with disapproval for a minute, and then adds, "We fight."

"Lady, you are fucking kidding me." If she were an ordinary woman, the kind who does laundry and makes beds and occasionally shares them, he would lean on his spear while addressing her, but Zeus alone knows what she might try to pull, especially if she has no idea what she's doing.

"We fight. I fight with Trojans. Now I fight you."

"No, you don't. I don't fight women. Go home." Achilles has just about finished with this corpse, but there remains the problem of the very much alive woman in front of him, and the men she might be a front for. He looks about him, but it doesn't seem to be an ambush.

"I am even as you!" The cry is fierce, almost desperate. "I am Penthesilea, Otrera's daughter. An Amazon, of..." She frowns again, trying to remember their word for her home. "Skythia."

An Amazon? Shit. Priam is really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Achilles has heard the stories, of course, but nobody believes them. Then again, Herakles was alive not that long ago; if Tlepolemus hadn't copped it, at least he'd have someone to ask.

"So that's how you want to play this," he says. "Fine. I am Achilles, son of Peleus, and I do not fucking feel like indulging your bullshit today or any other. Get back behind the goddamn lines if you know what's good for you, you dim bitch, or so help me I'll drive you back."

She understands his name, which she has heard before, and the threat: I'll drive you back. The rest, she can make little sense of, and that may be a small mercy. Penthesilea considers, nods, and then draws her sword,dropping the javelins, legs sinking into a fighting stance. It may be the done thing in wartime, but the corpse he is despoiling belongs to one of her allies.

She doesn't know how he'll respond, and is almost relieved when he looks at her, one corner of his mouth lifting in what might be a humorless smirk; he snorts and puts his helmet back on, and then he advances on her, crossing the open space easily in a few long strides. She stands her ground, almost calmly, and raises her sword,aiming for his guts.

It's on. Achilles draws his sword with an easy grace, and when it connects with hers, the clash nearly splits her ears. The battle rages around them, but for her, there is no one else. Their swords clang and clash, they sweat and pant, their muscles tense. She has promised Priam this man; she will deliver.

She dares move in close, meaning to raise her sword to his throat, to have the last word--he says he will drive her back? It doesn't happen; both of them are ferocious, and when he takes a step forward, she feels her heart pound with fear and excitement. His hand, larger than hers, is wrapped around her wrist, squeezing. Against her will, Penthesilea's fingers open, and she watches her sword fall in the dust. She will wear a bracelet of dark bruises for some time afterwards. Her mouth opens, and Achilles shakes his head, spins her fiercely around. "Go."

She expected him to kill her. "I fight you," she begins again, reaching for her sword, but his foot is atop it.

"I've made my point. Go!" The last word is a roar.

There is a certain amount of campfire conversation, that evening, about the new arrivals and how desperate Priam is clearly getting; there's more cheer than there has been for weeks at that thought. Achilles, silent and sullen at his own campfire, snorts at the idea; he's been cutting supply lines and sacking allied cities for years now. The last two or three years, he's spent every summer out on the draughts-board of islands that constitutes the Aegean. The towns have grown fewer and smaller and more poorly defended as time has gone by.

When will these poor fuckers give up? They can't hold out. Their armies are shrinking. They're probably taking food out of their own mouths to give the Amazons; no army, no matter how close the bonds of friendship, fights for free.

"Hey," Diomedes says, appearing as sudden and uninvited as the plague before dropping down in front of the fire.

"Hey," Achilles says, wiping his mouth.

"Have you met our new friends?"

Achilles snorts. "Who hasn't? Been listening to all these damn grunts yap about how they done met an Amazon in the field and by Zeus wasn't it goddamn something." This is probably the longest conversation he's had with Diomedes since...ever, come to think of it. They aren't friends, exactly.

Diomedes nods, helping himself to the kettle slung over the fire. "Mm. Did you done meet one?" Achilles could break his teeth just for that. Ain't no one up in Phthia speaks Attic Greek, son.

"Ayuh. You?"

"No such luck. Was she any good?"

Was she? Achilles honestly hasn't given it very much thought. She didn't run and scream when he advanced on her, as he expected, and that's worth something. He wasn't worried about this possibly being the sword out there with his name on it, but that's nothing new; still, he knows he won't outlive this war. He supposes his doom could come in a small, female package: the gods' last laugh.

"I dunno. I don't think she's a fake. She seemed used to it, like she knew what to do."

"Hmm," Diomedes says. "I'm curious now. There's been a rumor that Priam dug a bunch of slave girls up somewhere and put them in armor."

"Maybe he did. Not the one I met. She didn't act like a slave." You've been hanging around Odysseus too long. Only he would come up with that.

"Hmm." Diomedes pushes away the plate, which he hasn't had the decency to clean off first, and then stands up. "Thanks. I'll see you around."

"Ayuh," Achilles says tonelessly.

At night, on the balconies of Priam's palace, she lies with Antiope. She is, after all, a foreign queen, and a guest of honor here; why should she not stay in the house of the king? They count the stars above, figuring how far west of Skythia they are from the position of the constellations, the familiar made strange again. Below, the noises of the city at night filter up to them; these are less numerous than they once might have been.

Penthesilea is exhausted, and she cannot sleep for wondering. She rubs her wrist idly, wincing at the still-tender bruises; they have already darkened on her skin, but she doesn't think he broke anything, since she can move her wrist without difficulty or too much pain.

The Trojans say that no one meets the son of Peleus and lives. They say that he was different, once, that once he might be kind enough to sell you instead of killing you. They say that there was a dear friend, once. But Hector, the dead prince, killed the dear friend, and Achilles killed Hector, and ever since then he has been a mad, wounded wolf let loose among the sheep.

And now she must kill Achilles, as she promised Priam. He looked sad and weary, rubbing at his old, rheumy eyes, when she made this impulsive vow at the altar of Ares. One of the old statesman, fancying her ignorant, told her in bad Skythian what he said next: "I don't desire his death. He too is mortal, and he'll meet his fate soon enough anyway. I release you from your vow. You should not have made it."

"I know what I do," she told him, determined to speak his language as an equal. "I say you I do something, I do. By Ares I say you I bring Achilles' armor. I am even as you, a king." They laughed, then, and she did not understand why.

It might be a mercy killing, she thinks. If Achilles is so unhappy, so mad with grief, perhaps it would be the best thing for him. He can be with his dear friend. Penthesilea will bring his shining armor back to Troy, or she will kill him and be killed by him. They will both have what they really want.

"How?" Antiope says in the darkness near her, as if she's read Penthesilea's thoughts.

"I've always had some luck with the spear," Penthesilea says.

It's first light when they meet again, the rosy fingers of Dawn caressing the sky as tenderly as a lover. Since Memnon, Achilles has always regarded the dawn with some suspicion; he knows old lady Eos does not care for him.

Before long, the sun will have risen and the rays will glance off helmets, swords, shield bosses; everyone will be blinded in every direction, and there will be repeated maneuvers to keep the sun out of the men's eyes. No matter. Right now, Helios' chariot is just the faintest, pink suggestion on the horizon, and if anyone is mad enough to venture out of doors when it's not quite bright out, Achilles is mad enough to meet him, and so are three other chiefs.

"You out early, son of Peleus!" That heavily accented voice is all too familiar in the beginnings of the fray.

She is mad enough to meet him. Achilles groans. She's standing there, one arm lifted in greeting, as if they're old and intimate friends. This doesn't happen.

"M'lord," the aide-de-camp says in his left ear, "I think I can take her. We'll sweep them off the field. You have only to give the word, and – "

Achilles shushes him. "Don't worry about it. Knock out those Thracians." He gestures. "I'll handle her. We've met before."

"You don't fight me?" Penthesilea calls.

"I'm coming!" Achilles shouts, and takes off towards her at a run. She isn't stupid; she sinks back into a fighting stance, the movement easy and familiar, her spear out and aimed at his gut. So that's how you want to play this. Good luck, m'lady. Achilles, not untalented with the spear himself, dodges her, rolling under the spear and towards her.

She wasn't expecting this; she knows he only means to frighten her, because now they're in too close to use their spears effectively. Penthesilea flinches only slightly; an untrained observer couldn't see it, but he can, and she can. He smirks, and this makes her blood race. Head held high, she reaches for her sword and draws. This wasn't how she wanted it to happen, but one takes what gifts the gods give, and is grateful for them.

He must have been pulling his punches when they fought earlier, because now he spares her nothing, and she doesn't know whether to be glad or whether she should be insulted that he was apparently easy on her the first time; the impact when they meet, cross swords, dodge, withdraw, is tooth-jarring. She wills herself not to wince, schooling her face into a calm, inscrutable battle-smile. They clash and part and clash again; the sounds of sword on shield, sword on helmet, are deafening.

She knows no other life.

Neither does he.

She's stronger than he thought – the enemy always is, but Achaian women do not fight, and Achilles didn't expect this dogged, stubborn endurance from her. Her sword rings off his breastplate; he throws up his shield out of reflex and moves in against her, threateningly close, as if to embrace her. The noise and dust and chaos of the Troad fade around them.

Penthesilea blinks sweat out of her eyes; Achilles, throat parched and burning from the exertion and the hot Trojan sun, sees his chance and takes it, swiping at her neck. She dodges quickly, though not quickly enough; a small line of red opens at her throat, just where the pulse beats, but the arterial gush does not come, and she'll live to fight another day.

Achilles hears shouts in a foreign language; he looks up long enough to see a woman, armed and on horseback, coming towards them. Penthesilea shouts something to her in response, nostrils flaring and voice ragged. It's in vain. It takes no time at all to put a spear through the mounted woman's gut, and she crumples, slides off the horse, which drags her body as it gallops, riderless, for the safety of the gates.

Penthesilea's lower lip curls, and the white of her teeth is alarmingly, dangerously close, like an animal's fangs. She has been tiring, but she picks up her sword and attacks him with renewed determination, and he spares her nothing.

Her calves ache, and her chest heaves. The lump in her throat is too large for her to cry; it was Antiope whom he just speared. She almost wants to give up right here, let him kill her. She came here to die. She was supposed to be the offering, not Antiope.

Achilles could give up, he guesses; he could let her go. He could drive her back to the Skaian Gates – they're barely defended now – and force her inside, behind the walls, like all the other women. Or he could gut her here and now; this will end with her death, or his. After all, he knew when he landed on Trojan soil that he was coming here to die.

He forces her back with steady, almost dancing steps; she looks wildly about her, behind her, but her women are otherwise engaged, and she has learnt that she can expect no Trojan to come to her aid. If they've learnt nothing else, they've learnt to fear murderous Achilles. Very well, then. She may not be his equal, but she can make a good end. If the gods smile on her, he'll escort her to Tartaros.

The Trojans scatter before him. He doesn't notice, or care. Penthesilea fights doggedly, though her arms are tiring; the swing of her sword has become haphazard, and she no longer connects with anything. She stumbles, stepping back from him and throwing up her shield a split second too late, and he connects with her, hard. For a moment, she keeps fighting, the rasp of her breath unnaturally loud in the tumult of the battlefield, and then she stumbles, drops to her knees, panting.

Shit, he must have gotten her good this time.

This isn't her death-blow. She would feel that. It's just a minor wound, though still it bleeds and the pain is no better for being minor. One more step and he would have stopped her heart forever.

She wishes he had.

Penthesilea wriggles uncomfortably on her knees in the dirt, one hand over the wound. She tries to get up, tries to keep breath in her lungs and her heart where it belongs. Achilles looms over her, not quite as fearsome as he was the first time, one hand at the hilt of his sword.

Should he finish her? Achilles doesn't even know. It seems base, somehow, while she's struggling in the dirt. He wouldn't have any qualms about killing a downed man, but this doesn't feel right at all. Even so, she might kill him if he doesn't kill her.

Achilles opts for the path of least resistance. "Get up."

She does nothing.

"Get up. Get. Up. GET. UP." People are staring. He doesn't give a fuck, and kicks at her. "Get the fuck up right now, or so help me I'll fucking kill you where you fucking lay."

She lurches forward and grabs his hand, which feels outsized and raw-boned compared to her own; she nearly drags him down into the dust with her, hears his startled grunt, but uses him to heft her to her feet. "Get up," she mimics him in her bad Achaian. "Get up, get up, get up. You kill me, maybe, son of Peleus, but not today!"

She thought she had no will to live, and that she can look death in the face and laugh at it amazes her a little.

They are standing closer than lovers. He can feel her breath against his lips. She is still holding onto his hand. "No, not today," Achilles says, voice soft as a caress. He lifts his hand, disentangling their fingers, and this is almost the most painful thing he's done today. His fingers sink into her shoulder, and he whirls her around, almost shoving her back down, before smacking her across the ass with the flat of his sword. "Don't let me see you out here again, you dumb little barbarian bitch, because next time I will kill you!"

"He shames me," Penthesilea says later that evening after they've sung the dirge for Antiope.

"It's their way," Clonie says. She has come to accept it, and has adopted Trojan manners, which Penthesilea likes not at all. There has not been a good time to speak to her about it. "They don't know anything else. They've forgotten we all come from the Mother in the end."

"They choose not to remember it, you mean. There's a difference." She shrugs, as if shrugging off the shame, the touch of that hand. "Anyhow, I told Priam I'd bring him the armor of Achilles as a trophy. I intend to make that good."

"Want some help?"

Penthesilea shakes her head. "No. This I have to do alone."

It's almost sunset when they meet again on the Troad. Achilles has kept an eye out, but hasn't seen her; he figures she must have learnt something from the other day. (Or has she? He's already starting to second-guess himself.) The fray is not so thick and fierce as it might once have been, but there's enough work for him, and the endless round of killing and stripping armor and killing again keeps him occupied.

There are too many thoughts that Achilles would rather not think. This is his element: here only he is free.

Here and there, he can see Amazons, though none are her, and this gladdens him (and disappoints him). The Trojan in front of him goes down easily, spewing blood, and Achilles turns his hand to the next. It's the same old story with all of them; there has been nothing new since Hector. (Except for Memnon, and now for her. And if he killed Memnon...well, Memnon was stronger than she is.)

The Trojan might be a young man, or a boy; he lifts his visor, and Achilles almost steps back in surprise. "You!"

"You!" Penthesilea says, and laughs; the sound is not altogether disagreeable.

"Didn't I tell you to stay the fuck away?"

"You're only man. I don't listen." She shrugs.

"Yeah, well, I can see that. Am I gonna have to fucking kill you?"

Another shrug. "Maybe. Or I kill you."

"Do it, then," Achilles says, and draws his sword. He doesn't even know whether or not he's joking.

They join like gods, like lovers, like enemies; she was expecting this. He can no more keep away from a battlefield than she can.

Penthesilea fights as hard as she ever has; she might miss Hippolyta, but it would be base and weak to go without putting up a fight. No Achaian will say that the Amazons were easy opponents, least of all this one. She is the best they have to offer; she'd better fight like it. She gives him no quarter, feints and blocks when he moves in towards her, blade seeking her weaknesses.

Her weaknesses aren't for him.

Something's changed; Achilles can feel it. He wouldn't have described their previous encounters as friendly sparring – the woman is stronger than he gave her credit for – but there's something raw and desperate in the air, and she comes at him harder than she ever has before. He has no objection; if this is how she wants to play it, he's game.

He lunges in, surprised at how ferociously she parries his thrusts, how fiercely she blocks him. It's more than a game now. Maybe it was never a game, and he just didn't know it.

Maybe it's time he started taking her seriously.

She ceases to be her, the Amazon woman, and becomes just another adversary. This is known and sure and right; this, Achilles can do. It's awkward, with the height difference, but the Trojans have fielded boys before. He comes at her harder than he ever has before, sparing her nothing, giving her his all; she responds in kind, and he's surprised at how tough this little creature is, at how strong she is. He didn't give her enough credit. He's never given her enough credit.

Why has he not realized this until now?

There's a change in the air, a change in their positions; they clash, separate, clash again, and he lunges at her, naked blade on a collision course with her vitals.

The blade bites deep. Penthesilea crumples forward, one hand over her wound, and withdraws from his sword; it doesn't hurt at all while she's being stabbed, but once the blade is out, it's agonizing. She sinks to her knees.

This time, she will not get up.

The first thing that pops into Achilles' head is, Shit! I didn't mean to kill her! I'm sorry!, which he immediately recognizes as ridiculous: he did mean to kill her, and she obviously knew that she might die when she set foot on the battlefield. Nobody comes here for their health.

But still...some part of him would undo that last thrust, if he could.

All things are, now, as they should be.

She rolls away, gushing blood, all dumb desire and animal instinct to preserve the body from harm. Achilles is on the verge of speaking the words that could end this, save her: Get up. I don't kill unarmed women.

She is Penthesilea. There is something in her that is more than instinct, and she checks herself; remembering her training despite the pain, she brings her shield up to cover her exposed body, reaches for her sword. Her fingers scrabble in the dust and curve reassuringly around the hilt of her sword, the comforting map of her known world; the rhythmic rasp of her own labored breathing sounds in her ears. She lifts her arm, offering Achilles her naked blade, and in that moment becomes again the enemy. Her face is pale and her jaw set, and her eyes follow the line of her arm and her blade without fear or shame, until they meet the red crest of horsehair waving like the grasses on the Scythian steppe, the shining bronze helmet, the terrible, implacable eyes underneath.

Through dry lips, Penthesilea says, "Please, you do kill me now." Her voice sounds weak and raspy, and it takes everything in her to speak; she can feel the blood pumping out with every beat of her heart, and is dimly amazed that she has lasted this long.

"What?" The voice is muffled by the helmet, but she understands the scorn there--and the surprise, too.

"You do kill me, please," Penthesilea says again, raising her voice as much as she can. "You are most--most good of all Greeks. I like you should kill me. I can to bear death, if from you."

Achilles has seen a lot of death scenes, and after a while, they’ve all started to run together in his memory: the look on King Tenes’ face when he choked the fuck out of him back there on Tenedos (practically another lifetime ago now), Protesilaus hit and dropping to his knees, Lykaon begging, Hector begging, Antilochus struck in the back...He could go on, but there’s something that almost makes him sad about this, something that almost makes him want to pick her up and carry her to the tents, have Machaon staunch her wound and fix her up, and send her back into the wilds of Scythia.

It's not fair. It's not right.

Almost isn't the same thing as exactly. And she's so small, and she's lost so much blood--he can't let her live. She would never take the field again. It would be cruel. He knows what he would feel if he were stuck indoors, and what everyone would say.

So Achilles bows his head, bends, spear in hand, and pushes up under her shield, seeking her vitals, where death will come quickly. She does not resist, and the force of that last thrust is enough to lift her off the ground, run clean through, her arms flung wide as a lover's--for a moment, he has the strangest illusion that he's fucking her, but when he blinks in surprise, it dissipates. He opens his eyes and looks into hers; there is no rancor or recrimination there, and she smiles at him in sudden, shared understanding.

Why--it's you!

Achilles smiles back--really smiles, with his whole face, as he hasn't done since Patroclus died--and opens his mouth to say something, but that brief spark has already flickered out. She's gone, and he lowers her gently to the ground, gingerly setting a foot on her to get his spear out.

That night, when the fire is banked and he is alone with his thoughts in the dark, he opens the tent flap and looks out over the plain. At first, on seeing the conflagration, Achilles thinks they've actually managed to take Troy, but then the wind carries the distant swell of women's voices, and he realizes it's her funeral pyre.

If I could have it exactly the way I wanted, I'd have Patroclus back again. Achilles watches the fire move through narrowed lines; he's too far away to really see anything, but he's been to enough funerals, and he can imagine how this one will go, if Skythian customs are like Achaian. The flames will catch the edge first, crackle up to where her body lies; the embers will fizz and pop, sparks flying here and there, and one will lick her long hair into flame. Soon enough, she'll be robed in fire, burning up towards the heavens and the gods who made her, and when it all dies down, the women will brush her ashes and the last fine shreds of bone into the urn.

For a moment, his sight blurs. It's nothing, of course; thinking about Patroclus always does this to him.

It's nothing at all.

I'd have Patroclus back again. And maybe, if you could be there with us, that'd be all right.
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Wang Xi-feng

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