"You have to take me to Achilles,” Kat said.
“That will only get you killed, or worse. You’ve gotten close to Achilles. The berserker could easily target you. If that happens killing you would be the best possible outcome.”
“Bullshit! Getting Achilles back would be the best possible outcome. Now take me to him.”
“The battlefield is this way.” Odysseus gestured up past the dunes that eventually gave way to a field of wheat, a grove of lovely olive trees, and various temples that used to be quite busy, and then, beyond the temples, the massive walls of Troy. As they hurried toward the great city, Kat thought she recognized Hera’s temple where she and Jacky had first been zapped into this world.
“I’ll lead you as close as I can, but you’ll need to stay clear of the battlefield. It is no place for a woman,” Odysseus said.
“Odysseus, I’m not going to lie to you. I have no intention of staying clear of the battlefield. I’m going where Achilles is, and that’s all there is to it.”
“You aren’t Athena’s oracle, are you?”
Odysseus pulled her attention from focusing on not stepping on her skirts as she practically jogged to keep up with his long stride. “No,” she said. “I’m not Athena’s oracle.”
“Are you immortal?”
“I wish. Which means hell no. I’m just a woman.”
“Not even one of Athena’s priestesses?”
Something in his voice made her look up at him, and she saw a terrible depth of sadness in his eyes and remembered how he had looked at Athena. Then she also remembered how stark his expression had been when he’d said the goddess had lied to him. What had Athena done to him? He loves her, Kat realized. “Well, not exactly. I work for three goddesses. I guess you could say I’m closest to Venus.” She didn’t mean to sound oh-so-divine, but it was damn difficult to explain. “Look, there’s a bunch of stuff going on here, and it can definitely be confusing.”
“The goddess didn’t take me into her confidence. I thought she…” He looked away, clearly too hurt to continue.
Kat felt terrible for him. She didn’t know much about Odysseus or about Athena, but she recognized heartache and betrayal. She also recognized a decent man when she saw one, and she definitely liked Odysseus.
“Venus is the goddess who cooked up the whole thing with Patroklos to impersonate Achilles. Athena didn’t have anything to do with it. She probably didn’t even know about it.”
“I hope that is true. I hope she hasn’t been using me,” Odysseus said haltingly, and Kat could see what it was costing him to show such vulnerability. She’d seen it many times before in her office, and always when a man had found himself truly, deeply in love. Kat hoped Athena deserved him.
Kat decided to tell him as much of the truth as she knew. “I’ve seen you and Athena together and I can tell you that there is a bond between you, one she doesn’t appear to take lightly.”
Odysseus stared at her for a long while. “It is a difficult thing to love a goddess. I have a wife, you know. She’s been waiting almost ten years for me to return to our kingdom.”
“And do you love her?”
“Athena asked me that question recently. My answer was the same then as it is now. I honor Penelope as my wife and respect her as the mother of my son. But my love?” He shook his head. “That hasn’t been mine to give away since I was a youth.”
“What happened then?” Kat asked the question, but she was pretty sure she already knew his answer.
“I met Athena, and pledged my life and my love to her service.”
“You didn’t realize the seriousness of your choice then?” Kat asked.
“Oh, I realized it—I embraced it. I’ve belonged to Athena since the first moment I saw her. I have never regretted my love for her, even when it seemed I was no more than a slight favorite among many. I didn’t even mind being used as a pawn—I was her pawn, and that was enough. Until now. Today, for the first time, I find myself wishing I did not love the goddess.”
He sounded utterly destroyed, and even in the midst of the turmoil with Achilles and Jacky and Patroklos, Kat wanted to help him. “You and Athena have become lovers.”
Odysseus nodded, giving a little self-mocking laugh. “Yes, despite knowing that doing so is unwise, I have fallen gladly, joyously, into her arms. Remember this, Princess, or whoever you really are, when mortals love the gods there is a price to pay, and it’s usually the mortal who pays it. Achilles is the product of such love, and I have watched his mortality, his humanity, suffer for as long as I have known him.”
“I’ll remember, but it seems what you’re saying is that Achilles has been a victim, too.”
“He isn’t Achilles anymore. You’ll soon see.”
There didn’t seem to be anything left to say, and Kat concentrated on keeping up with Odysseus as she wondered just what the hell she thought she was going to do when she finally found Achilles. In the middle of battle. Totally berserked out. She could hear Jacky’s voice calling her a damn fool.
And then she realized that it wasn’t Jacky’s voice that was crowding into her mind, but the voices of many men and horses, swords and pain. They struggled up the side of an olive-lined ridge, Odysseus taking her elbow to help her, and Kat stumbled to a shocked halt.
“Oh, holy shit!” she blurted.
The walls of Troy stretched before her, thick and tall and impossibly magnificent. They were made of butter-colored limestone, and the midday sunlight made them shine a soft, compelling yellow. She could see some of the city built up inside the walls, the center-piece of which was a graceful, pillared palace that stretched all along the inside of the city walls to the left of the huge front gates. Beautiful arched windows led to ivy-hung and flowered balconies that afforded excellent views of what should be the placid and prosperous comings and goings of merchants, farmers and the people of Troy. Now the empty balconies looked out onto chaos.
“So many men,” Kat said, staring at the melee of warriors who shouted and screamed, fought and died in front of the city walls. How will I ever find him? But before she could voice the question, a terrible roar sounded from the center of the battlefield, so powerful that it had no trouble carrying over the two armies. “Achilles,” she said softly.
“Not Achilles,” Odysseus said. “You’re not dealing with the man. You’re dealing with the monster.”
“The man is still inside the monster,” she said stubbornly.
“Perhaps, but I saw no evidence of that when he gave himself over to it.” Odysseus paused, and rested his hand gently on her shoulder. Kat looked up at him questioningly. “As the berserker was possessing him he asked me to give you a message. Achilles said that the dream was over, and that you should go home. It was his final wish, along with asking that you forgive him. Reconsider, Princess. Imagine what it would do to him if he knew that he had again destroyed the woman he loved.”
Kat’s throat burned with unshed tears. She remembered all too well the story Achilles had told her about the berserker raping and killing his young fiancée, who had also been Odysseus’s cousin.
“I know you’re making sense,” she said. “And I know it must seem to you like I’m behaving recklessly and being ridiculously stubborn, but here’s the truth, Odysseus. I’m not from your time. I’m not even from your world. I’m a different kind of woman than what you know here, and I have the power of generations of independent thinkers and educated mothers and sisters, daughters and girlfriends, all within me. I believe in myself, and what the power of one woman can bring about. That gives me a different kind of strength, a strength that Venus and Hera and Athena knew would be needed here. I can change what’s happening. All I have to do is trust myself and believe that Achilles will trust me, too.”
Odysseus had listened to her carefully, studying her intently while she spoke. “You make me hope you are right, Princess,” he finally said.
“Katrina, that’s my real name. My friends call me Kat.”
He smiled. “Well, Kat, shall I lead you into chaos?”
She bobbed a little curtsey. “There are few men I’d rather go there with, kind sir.”
The battlefield was like nothing Kat could have ever imagined. The smells alone were horrendous, the sights and sounds utterly frightening. As soon as they’d reached the outskirts of the fighting, Odysseus sent a Greek runner to gather as many of the Myrmidons as he could find. Kat waited impatiently behind the battle lines, wishing for modern communications and transportation, and all the while the roar of the berserker sounded over and over again, filling the air with a bestial violence that made the men fighting and dying mere yards from her seem tame.
The Myrmidons responded to Odysseus’s call much more quickly than Kat would have anticipated, and soon she was looking at the surprised, blood-spattered faces of familiar men who nodded to her in respectful greeting.
“We’re taking her to Achilles,” Odysseus announced.
The Myrmidons’ faces were utterly confused.
“But he is Achilles no more,” Automedon said.
As if to punctuate the warrior’s words, another roar shook the battlefield and Achilles’ own men shuddered.
“I know about the berserker, but I think I can reach Achilles,” Kat said, looking from man to man. “Patroklos is not dead. All I have to do is get to a small part of Achilles and make him understand that.”
“Patroklos lives!” Automedon said, as the men nearest them took up the cry and let it ripple through the group. Then the smiling warrior turned back to her. “Bring Patroklos to the battlefield, Princess. Even overtaken by the berserker, Achilles must recognize his cousin. When he sees that he is alive, all will be well again.”
“Yes!” said another warrior whose name Kat couldn’t remember. “We may even get to Achilles before he has killed Hector and called the prophesy to him.”
Everyone was looking expectantly at Kat, even Odysseus. Kat wished like hell she could produce a living, walking, talking Patroklos, but of course that was impossible. Even if the warrior was actually alive, he was probably in surgery. Pulling him out of the modern world would kill him as surely as Hector’s sword.
“Patroklos can’t be brought out here on the battlefield. It would kill him. He’s alive, but he’s badly hurt. No, I’m all you have. You have to take me to Achilles.”
“Achilles will not see you, my lady,” Automedon said sadly. “It will only be the berserker, and we cannot save you from him if the creature decides to destroy you.”
“I know that. You won’t have to save me. I’ll save myself.”
Every single man looked at her as if she had just said she was going to sprout a red cape and fly faster than a speeding bullet.
“Just take me to him,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll take care of the rest of it. No, I won’t hold you responsible for my deadness if things don’t work out. And once you get me to him, all you guys back off. I don’t want any of you getting hurt.”
She saw the incredulous looks and heard a muttered, “She doesn’t want us getting hurt?” which she ignored. They were definitely not helping her confidence level.
“All right. Let’s get her to Achilles,” Odysseus said.
The men snapped to like the experienced, disciplined warriors they were. They created a phalanx, putting her safely in the middle of them. Then they began to move onto the battlefield, fighting slowly, as one man, moving inexorably forward, drawing ever nearer the animalistic cries that came from the creature who used to be Achilles.
Afterward Kat couldn’t decide if the nightmare trip across the battlefield had taken a very short or a very long time. It had seemed she had entered a place where time had no meaning, a Twilight Zone landscape of death and blood and violence that her eyes took in, but her soul refused, at least temporarily, to see. Later the memories came to her, mostly in black-and-white snapshots of horror, but at that moment she had marveled what the human mind could deny to survive.
Then the pace of the group changed, picked up, before coming to a stop. Odysseus was beside her, breathing hard. “There is only one more layer of men between us and the berserker. We should push easily through.”
“Okay, good. Just get me close to him.”
“You may not have long before he’s upon you,” Odysseus said.
“Let me worry about that.”
Odysseus nodded and called the men surrounding them to order. “Push through the line then open the column for the princess!”
Kat was sick and scared. As she moved forward again with the men she thought she might puke and was gritting her teeth together against it when the dark shields in front of her parted to let in daylight and madness.
He was standing in a clearing of dead men. Blood had turned the dirt to rusty clay. His back was to her, giving Kat a bizarrely peaceful moment in which to study him. Odysseus and the other men had been right—this creature was not Achilles. His body had grown to such huge, misshapen proportions that the tunic she had last seen him wearing had split, leaving him naked except for a short linen wrap knotted around his waist. She must have made an involuntary noise because he suddenly whirled to face her. Kat felt the men tense. She glanced at Odysseus and told him “Go!” before walking away from their protection.
The creature growled. Kat took a few more steps, distancing herself from the other men, then she stopped and met his burning red gaze. Blood and gore covered his scarred body. It ran in dirty rivulets from his matted hair. His face was not his own. Like his body, it was misshapen, as if there was something under his skin trying to stretch its way free.
“Achilles, it’s me, Katrina.” She made sure her voice was steady and calm, as if he were a client who had just told her that he was thinking about suicide. And wasn’t that just what Achilles was doing? He believed he’d caused his cousin’s death, so now he was planning on paying for that with his own. “Achilles,” she repeated his name. “Patroklos is not dead.”
Achilles curled his lip, bearing his teeth. He began to move toward her, slowly but with a deadly, almost seductive grace. She thought he reminded her of a huge poisonous snake. Kat wanted to turn and run for all she was worth back into the sea of warriors behind her. Instead she drew a deep breath, sent a silent, pleading prayer asking Venus for help, and held her ground.
“Achilles,” she said sternly. “You have to listen to me. Patroklos is not dead. He’s alive and he’s going to be fine.”
As he circled her he made a noise that sent chills skittering across her skin—she realized the creature was laughing.
“Achilles,” she said again, turning her body so that she could continue to meet his gaze. “I know you’re there somewhere. I know you can hear me. Patroklos is not dead.”
“I will taste you.” His voice was so awful, so utterly not human, not Achilles that she had to clench her hands into fists so that their trembling wouldn’t be obvious.
“No, I don’t think you will.” Kat kept her voice as well as all of her mannerisms carefully neutral, as placid as possible. “Achilles loves me, and he won’t let you hurt me.”
His laugher was terrible, mocking and monstrous. “Foolish woman, I am not Achilles.” Almost within touching distance he stopped circling her. She could smell him—blood and sweat and something feral and male.
“Well, that’s obvious.” She lifted her chin, pretending with every skill she’d learned in her clinical experience to be calm and unaffected by him. “Achilles—” she began, but he cut her off.
“No! Achilles is no more!”
As he lunged toward her, Kat stumbled back, her composure crumbling. “Achilles!” she cried. “You have to come back to me!”
She saw recognition flicker through his eyes, cooling the scarlet and causing the monster to pause awkwardly. “Yes! Achilles!” Kat smiled, dizzy with relief, but before she could say more or move toward him, her arm was being yanked roughly back and up, and she was pulled out of the clearing and off her feet.
“Ah, gods, we thought you were dead!” said the handsome, kind-eyed man who had lifted her onto the back of a quivering black stallion and into his arms. “Polyxena! Sister!”
Kat looked into Hector’s eyes as the berserker roared his challenge and charged.