A story by Cheryl Morgan
In the days of the ancient Greeks it was the done thing for kings to visit oracles. After all, in those days the Gods would actually speak to men, and it would be churlish of a king not to try to find out what they had to say. So every year Agamemnon, High King of Greece, would travel to Delphi to visit the famous Oracle there. He took with him his young brother, Menelaus, whom he planned to make King of Sparta once the kid had grown up a bit and learned some diplomacy. It was Agamemnon’s third year on the throne, and on the previous two visits the Oracle had said little of importance. The High King took this as a sign that the Gods approved of him, because they were not throwing anything tough at him while he was still finding his feet. This year, however, was different. The Oracle looked very stern, and sounded all ominous when she spoke. Agamemnon thought that the servants had been over-zealous with the smoke and incense as well.
“There is a boy you must find, O King. His name is Achilles and he is destined to become the greatest warrior in all Greece. No man will ever defeat him in fair combat.”
“That good, eh? I’ll believe it when I see it. No man has beaten me yet, madam, though doubtless when he’s grown I’ll be older and losing my edge.”
“You, O King, are a mere mortal. Achilles is the son of Zeus himself, by the sea nymph, Thetis. When he was a baby his mother dipped him in the River Styx. Now he is invulnerable. He cannot take a wound save in a small patch on his left heel where Thetis held him in the water. Such a warrior has never been seen before. You must bind him to your cause, or things will go badly for your reign.”
“Then I shall find him, madam. Simply tell me where I must go.”
“That I cannot do. Nymphs can talk to oracles too, and Thetis was told that her son would be a great warrior. As mothers do, she fears that he will die young. Making him invulnerable was not enough for her. She has tried to hide him away from men so that he will never take up arms. A God must be helping her, for I cannot see the boy. All I know is that he is being raised as a girl.”
“Ha!” said Menelaus, “then all he’ll be good for is fighting with a needle. I’ll take the brat myself.”
“Dumbass! Hasn’t the Oracle just told us that the boy is the son of Zeus himself? We have to find this kid.”
“No problem, brother mine!”
“You think you can find him?”
“Well, not the kid immediately, but the mother is another matter. Sea nymphs can’t go far from the shore. Somewhere there will be a fisherman who has seen her. And once we have the mother, she can lead us to the boy.”
“Okay, it is about time you took on a bit of responsibility. Bring me back Thetis, and a fine chariot and horses shall be yours.”
While Menelaus puffed himself up, Agamemnon turned back to the Oracle. “Thank you madam, we shall do as you and the Gods advise.”
It took a few months, but Menelaus did as he had promised, and the nymph Thetis was dragged in chains before Agamemnon’s throne in Mycenae. Unfortunately she was not very cooperative.
“Your thug of a brother can threaten me all he likes, High King, but I will tell you nothing of my son. I will die before I reveal his whereabouts.”
“Ha, listen to her. I haven’t even started yet. I’ll drag her off to my bedroom and give her a good fucking. By the time I’ve finished she’ll be so desperate for me that she’ll tell me anything. And if that doesn’t work, well I’ve never known a woman who could withstand a thorough beating.”
“Menelaus,” said the High King, “you are a dickhead and a pig. The woman is a nymph. She’s semi-divine. It will take more than you to get her to talk. And how are we to know that Zeus isn’t still sweet on her, eh? Gods help me but at some point I shall have to find you a wife, and then I shall never hear the end of her complaints about you. Besides, you’ve done quite enough fucking for this year. Every week you’ve been gone I’ve had some fisherman in here complaining that you’ve despoiled his daughter. I have a better plan.”
“Oh no, not old brainbox again!”
“Odysseus is known as ‘brainbox’ because he’s clever. Come on, we are going to Ithaca.”
“Bet you my new horses and chariot he can’t find the boy.”
“Well,” said Odysseus, when the problem had been explained to him, “that is an interesting puzzle, but I think I can follow some of Thetis’s thinking. Putting myself in her place…”
“What?” guffawed Menelaus, “in a dress?”
“Putting myself in her place, I’d say that she’d want young Achilles reared somewhere away from other boys. Otherwise he might see those boys at play and want to join them.”
“So you are thinking a temple school?” asked Agamemnon.
“Great minds think alike, my King. And given that she’s a proud nymph, she’d probably want the best for her kid, him being Zeus’s boy and all that, so she has probably gone for one of the best ones.”
“Well there’s the Temple of Hera at Olympus, but that’s hardly away from other boys. And Athena actually admits boys to her school if they are good at philosophy.”
“Correct, Your Majesty. And Diana’s school on Lesbos is remote, but they teach the girls to ride and hunt, which isn’t what Thetis would want.”
“But that just leaves the Temple of Aphrodite. It is on a small island off the coast of Cyprus, and men aren’t normally allowed there. But that’s where they teach girls the arts of love.”
“Which is obviously the last place anyone would think to look for a warrior son of Zeus. Doubtless Thetis is hoping that the school will have an effect on the boy. Once he’s been taught the arts of pleasing a man she’s probably planning to marry him off to King Tydeus of Argos, who last I asked was as gay as they come, for all that he managed to father our young friend Diomedes.”
“What, that old fairy?”
“Careful, Menelaus,” muttered the High King darkly. “Tydeus is a very rich man. I need his support. He’s also a great warrior. I know, I’ve wrestled him. If you should happen to get in a fight with him, and you end up at his mercy, I’m not going to step in and save your sorry arse, no matter what indignities he decides to inflict upon you. Besides, he fancies you like crazy. We all know that.”
“Well I think the whole idea’s daft,” said Menelaus, turning bright red. “Who wants to go to the Temple of Aphrodite anyway? It is full of silly women practicing their sewing!”
“It is full,” said Odysseus thoughtfully, “of beautiful, eligible young princesses trained in the arts of love. I don’t know about you, Menelaus, but I’d like to take a look, and I think your brother can get us in. I bet you those fine horses and chariot that Achilles will be there.”
Chryseis, the High Priestess of Aphrodite, was not at all amused at having three Greek princes land on her island, but Agamemnon was the High King, and therefore the representative of Zeus on Earth. She could not keep him out. Sadly she led the men to a meadow where a group of girls were busy picking flowers and weaving garlands for themselves.
“These are our students, O King. As you can see, beautiful young ladies, all of them. You’ll not find a son of Zeus amongst them.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Odysseus, and taking up his spear he threw it over the heads of the seated girls. “Hey ladies, catch!”
Most of the girls screamed and fled, though one or two stopped behind nearby trees and peered cautiously at the young princes. Two girls, however, leapt nimbly to their feet and made a grab for the spear. Both got a hand to it. They shoulder-barged each other roughly, then grabbed for the shaft with their other hand and began to wrestle furiously.
“Girls, girls! Stop fighting!” yelled the High Priestess. “Oh, those two, they are just impossible.”
“Well there’s a problem,” said Agamemnon. “It sounded a good plan when you explained it to me, Odysseus, but it seems that we have caught two young warriors. They can’t both be Achilles.”
“Indeed not, Great King, there must be something we are missing. Tell me again exactly what the Oracle said, and try not to leave anything out.”
So Agamemnon told the story again, and half way through Odysseus’s eyes lit up. “Got it!” Reaching into his boots, the King of Ithaca pulled out two deadly daggers.
“You girls,” he called, “ever fought with knives before?”
“No sir,” they both said, looking hungrily at the proffered hilts.
“Well here’s your chance, but there are rules. No striking at the face, legs or body. The winner is the first girl to draw blood on an arm of her opponent.”
The two girls set to with enthusiasm, and it soon became clear which of them was the better fighter. One girl was slightly taller, had slightly longer reach, and was very fast. But when she scored a hit on her opponent, no blood came forth. Confused, she set to again and soon scored a second hit. Still no blood. The third time she actually stabbed her opponent with the point of her dagger, but it didn’t break the skin.
“Stop!” shouted Odysseus. “We’ve seen enough, my King. One of these children cannot be harmed by normal weapons. I doubt very much that two babies have been dipped in the River Styx in recent times.”
“Are you daft, man?” asked Menelaus. “They are girls. Anyone can see that.”
“They look like girls, but they don’t act like girls. If you need any further proof, O King, you could always ask them to remove their clothing. But one of these children is a Greek princess and I am loath to ask her to expose herself with your lout of a brother watching. The High Priestess would not wish me to make such a suggestion, would you madam?”
“No, Odysseus, you are indeed as smart as everyone says. I swore an oath to Thetis and my Goddess to protect young Achilles to the best of my ability, but you have seen how his skin cannot take a wound. There is no doubt who he is. Take him if you must.”
“But hang on a minute,” said Agamemnon, “isn’t there a problem here? The Oracle promised us this boy would be the greatest warrior that Greece has ever known. She said that no man would ever beat him, and we’ve just seen him beaten.”
“We have indeed, Your Majesty, but not by a man. Oracles are a shifty lot. You should never take what they say at face value.”
“But what point is there in my recruiting the best boy warrior in Greece if everyone knows there is a girl who can beat him?”
“Well, Great King, we came here today to find the best warrior in Greece,” Odysseus gestured grandly at the two youngsters, “and it turns out we have found the two best. Can I suggest that you offer them both a job?”
“Genius.” Agamemnon smiled. “What about it, kids, you want to be warriors?”
“You betcha!” they said in unison, and launched into a perfect high five, followed by a series of exuberant somersaults. When they had calmed down, Agamemnon drew himself up in his best kingly manner and began to make a speech.
“You, young man, for that is what you are, will henceforth forget whatever name this deceitful priestess has given you. For you are Achilles, son of Zeus, and I, Agamemnon, High King of Greece, offer you a place in my army. Will you swear fealty to me?”
“My King, I cannot tell you how happy this news makes me. The girls and women here have treated me with nothing but kindness, but I have always felt that I did not fit in here. I have tried hard at my lessons, but aside from gymnastics I have been hopeless at everything. Miss Chryseis told me that if I tried harder then I could be a good girl like smarty-pants Penelope over there who is top of the class at everything. But I knew that I was different. All I wanted to do was run and fight with my friend here. Now I know that I am a boy, I shall join your army willingly, and serve you to the best of my ability.”
“Top of the class at everything, eh?” muttered Odysseus, staring openly at the handsome young woman Achilles had singled out. To his delight, she stared back proudly, but Agamemnon was not to be stopped when making a speech.
“And you, young lady, I have never seen a woman fight with even half the skill you have shown. I would willingly have you in my army alongside your friend. But like him you must swear fealty to me, and you must tell me your parentage and your name.”
“Great King, it would be an honor to fight in your service, and at the side of my friend Achilles, for as such it seems I must learn to call her, er, him. To be a warrior has always been my ambition. I cannot claim divine parentage as he has, indeed I cannot claim a sire at all for my mother is Queen of the Amazons and has never told me my father’s name. Agamemnon, King of Greece, I hereby swear to serve you loyally to the best of my ability. My name is Xena.”
The character Xena is a creation of Universal Studios whose copyright is acknowledged.
The characters Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Thetis, Achilles, Tydeus, Diomedes and Penelope are creations of Homer and are believed to be out of copyright.
The office of Oracle at Delphi was held by many actual persons down the years. No particular holder of that office is depicted here.
The characters Zeus, Hera, Athena, Diana and Aphrodite are Gods and permission to use their names in this fiction is assumed on the basis that they have not yet seen fit to subject the author to Awful Punishment.