Inside the horse’s gut: heat, darkness, sweat, fear. They’re crammed in, packed as tight as olives in a jar. He hates this contact with other bodies. Always has. Even clean, sweet-smelling human flesh makes him want to puke—and these men stink. It might be better if they kept still, but they don’t. Each man shifts from side to side, trying to ease his shoulders into a little more space, all intertwined and wriggling like worms in a horse’s shite.
The word sends him spiralling down; down, down, into the past, all the way back to his grandfather’s house. As a boy—which is what some seem to think he still is—he used to go down to the stables every morning, running along the path between the tall hedges, breath curdling the air, every bare twig glinting in the reddish light. Turning the bend, he would see poor old Rufus standing by the gate of the first paddock—leaning on it, more like. He’d learnt to ride on Rufus; nearly everybody did, because Rufus was a quite exceptionally steady horse. The joke was, if you started to fall off, he’d stretch out a hoof and shove you back on. All his memories of learning to ride were happy, so he gave Rufus a good scratch, all the places he couldn’t reach himself, then breathed into his nostrils, their breaths mingling to produce a snuffly, warm sound. The sound of safety.
God, he’d loved that horse—more than his mother, more even than his nurse, who, anyway, had been taken away from him as soon as he was seven. Rufus. Even the name had formed a bond: Rufus; Pyrrhus. Both names mean “red”—and there they were, the two of them, spectacularly red-haired, though admittedly in Rufus’s case the colour was more chestnut than auburn. When he was a young horse, his coat used to gleam like the first conkers in autumn, but of course he was older now. And ill. As long ago as last winter, a groom had said, “He’s looking a bit ribby.” And every month since then, he’d lost weight; pelvic bones jutting out, sharp points to his shoulders—he was starting to look skeletal. Not even the lush grass of summer had put fat on his bones. One day, seeing a groom shovelling up a pile of loose droppings, Pyrrhus had asked, “Why’s it like that?”
“Redworm,” the man said. “Poor old sod’s riddled with ’em.”
And that one word delivers him back to hell.
At first, they’re allowed rush lamps, though with the stern warning that these would have to be extinguished the minute the horse began to move. Frail, flickering lights, but yet without them the pelt of darkness and fear would have suffocated him. Oh, yes, fear. He’d deny it if he could, but it’s here, unmistakably, in the dryness of his mouth and the loosening of his bowels. He tries to pray, but no god hears, and so he shuts his eyes and thinks: Father. The word feels awkward, like a new sword before your fingers grow accustomed to the hilt. Had he ever seen his father? If he had, he’d have been a baby at the time, too young to remember the most important meeting of his life. He tries Achilles instead—and it’s actually easier, more comfortable, to use the name that any man in the army can.
He gazes along the row of men opposite, seeing each face lit from below, tiny flames dancing in their eyes. These men fought beside his father. There’s Odysseus: dark, lean, ferret-like, the architect of this whole enterprise. He designed the horse, supervised its construction, captured and tortured a Trojan prince to get details of the city’s defences—and finally concocted the story that’s supposed to get them through the gates. If this fails, every leading fighter in the Greek army will die in a single night. How do you carry a responsibility like that? And yet Odysseus doesn’t seem at all concerned. Without meaning to, Pyrrhus catches his eye and Odysseus smiles. Oh, yes, he smiles, he seems friendly, but what’s he really thinking? Is he wishing Achilles were here, instead of that useless little runt, his son? Well, if he is, he’s right, Achilles should be here. He wouldn’t have been afraid.
Looking further along the row, he sees Alcimus and Automedon sitting side by side: once Achilles’s chief aides, now his. Only it’s not quite like that. They’re in control, have been from the moment he arrived—propping up an inexperienced commander, glossing over his mistakes, always trying to make him look good in the eyes of the men. Well, today, tonight rather, all that’s going to change. After tonight, he’ll look into the eyes of men who fought beside Achilles and see nothing but respect, respect for what he achieved at Troy. Oh, of course he won’t brag about it, probably won’t even mention it. No, because he won’t have to, everybody will know; they always do. He sees these men looking at him sometimes, doubting him. Well, not after tonight . . . Tonight, he’ll—
Oh my god, he needs a shit. He sits up straighter, trying to ignore the griping in his gut. When they’d climbed into the horse, there’d been a lot of joking about where to put the latrine buckets. “The arse end,” Odysseus said. “Where else?” This produced a burst of laughter at the expense of those who were sitting at the back. Nobody has used the buckets yet and he desperately doesn’t want to be the first. They’ll all be holding their noses and making wafting movements in the air. It’s just not fair, it’s not fair. He should be thinking about important things, the war ending tonight in a blaze of glory—for him. He’s trained for this for years—ever since he was old enough to lift a sword. Before that even, five, six years old, he’d been fighting with sharpened sticks, he was never not fighting, pummelling his nurse whenever she tried to calm him down. And now it’s all happening, it’s actually happening at last, and all he can think is: Suppose I shit myself?
The griping seems to be easing off a bit. Perhaps it’ll be all right.
It’s gone very quiet outside. For days, there’s been the noise of ships being loaded, men singing, drums beating, bullroarers roaring, priests chanting—all of it as loud as possible because the Trojans were meant to hear. They’ve got to believe the Greeks are really going. Nothing must be left inside the huts, because the first thing they’ll do is send reconnaissance parties down to the beach to check that the camp has actually been abandoned. It’s not enough to move men and weapons. Women, horses, furniture, cattle—everything has to go.
Inside the horse, now, there’s a growing murmur of uneasiness. They don’t like this silence; it feels as if they’ve been abandoned. Twisting round on the bench, Pyrrhus squints through a gap between two planks, but can’t see a bloody thing. “What the fuck’s going on?” somebody asks. “Don’t worry,” Odysseus says, “they’ll be back.” And indeed only a few minutes later, they hear footsteps coming towards them up the beach, followed by a shout: “You all right in there?” A rumble of response. Then, what seems like hours later, though it’s probably only minutes, the horse jerks forward. Immediately, Odysseus holds up his hand and, one by one, the lights go out.
Pyrrhus closes his eyes and imagines the struggling sweaty backs of men as they bend to the task of hauling this monster across the rutted ground to Troy. They have rollers to help, but even so it takes a long time—the land’s pitted and scarred from ten long years of war. They know they’re getting close when the priests start chanting a hymn of praise to Athena, guardian of cities. Guardian of cities? Is that a joke? Let’s bloody hope she’s not guarding this city. At last, the lurching stops and the men inside the horse’s belly turn to stare at each other, their faces no more than pale blurs in the dim light. Is this it? Are they here? Another hymn to Athena, and then, after three final shouts in honour of the goddess, the men who’ve dragged the horse to the gates of Troy depart.
Their voices, still chanting hymns and prayers, fade into silence. Somebody whispers: “What happens now?” And Odysseus says: “We wait.”