Achilles is eating in his hut with his men but remains withdrawn. He resents Automedon, who sits beside him, for being Patroclus’ replacement and for being able to hold Patroclus in his arms while he died. Automedon is aware of this and adjusts to his moods. Achilles knows that Alcimus, his other companion, would rather be with the other men, free to be loud and exuberant. But while he feels sorry for him, he likes to have him by his side.
All of a sudden, he senses the presence of a god among them, a sort of thickening of the light. He looks into the distance and sees what he initially thinks is Patroclus, but realizes that it is an old man, dressed in a white man. For a moment, Achilles thinks it might be his father, Peleus, who he hasn’t seen in nine years, and cries out to him, weeping and falling to his knees to clasp the old man’s knees.
Automedon and Alcimus draw their swords, alarmed, and Achilles sees that it is not his father after all. This initial feeling causes him to gently question the intruder instead of attacking, to the surprise of his companions. Achilles gestures to them to put their swords away. Priam, relieved, introduces himself and says that he has come to ransom Hector’s body. He is worried that he will be attacked, but Achilles simply asks how he got there. When Priam reveals that he was guided, Achilles is impressed.
Looking at Priam, Achilles senses the spirit of his father hovering around him, and cannot ignore it. Automedon brings in the carter, who Priam introduces as Idaeus. This puzzles Achilles, who has seen the real Idaeus before, but they explain that the carter is called Idaeus because he is acting in the herald’s stead, and the king’s helper is always called Idaeus. Achilles is amused by the interplay between the two men, and tells Alcimus to take the carter out to feed him. Priam then turns to Achilles, who is caught off guard by what he says next. He comes to Achilles as a father, and asks him to imagine how he would feel if his own son was lying out on the plain unconsecrated after eleven days. He comes to him, father to father, mortal to mortal, and humbly asks that he accept the ransom and let him gather up what is left of his son.
Achilles frowns and tries to imagine his son, seven when he left and now sixteen. Priam pushes forward and insists that Achilles think of his son and his father, asking again to ransom Hector’s body. In the aftermath of these words, Achilles is chilled, struck by the image of his father Peleus and the old man he will never become. At this moment, Achilles glimpses the days after his own death. Seeing the look of revelation on his face, Priam falls to his knees, but Achilles mistakes this for more pleading and begs him not to speak again, that he will give him what he came for. He offers Priam his hand.
Achilles and Automedon go down to where Hector’s body lies, but Achilles wants to be alone, so he sends Automedon away. By now it is nighttime, and Achilles sits by the body, contemplative. It still looks as if he has just killed Hector: the body is immaculate, save for the wound at the throat. But now when he looks at the body, he no longer feels the weight of rage or revenge. He thinks about how free he feels now, then gets up and calls for Automedon.
Two grooms carry Hector’s body into the laundry hut. Although Achilles’ presence throws the laundry women off, Achilles is curious and stays for the ceremonial preparation of the body. He muses that people begin their lives here, that it is interesting that someone would end their life here as well, and that soon, he will also be in that hut, just like Hector. The women, however, will not start while he is present, and so Achilles withdraws.
He wakes Priam up, touched by his dignity even in sleep. Priam, puzzled, reflected on the immense courtesy he’s been shown while here. They eat together in intimate peace. Afterward, Priam, who is refreshed, returns to the wagon, which has been loaded with the body of Hector wrapped in a rich mantle. Achilles takes him to the gates and tells him to call on him when Troy falls. Priam turns and asks what would happen if Achilles was already dead by that point, to which Achilles responds simply that he would not come.
As Priam and Somax leave the gates behind, the sun has already arisen. Along the road, they see ghostly figures—old men looking for kindling, women looking for battle relics. When they are far enough out into the plain, Priam uncovers Hector’s body and weeps, while the carter thinks about how his adventure is nearly over and about his granddaughter. They come home in triumph, but only partial triumph: after all, it is only a momentary victory, and there is little to celebrate about bringing your son’s body home. But he will be remembered for this, at least. They cross over the stream, and Priam affectionately recalls the first time they crossed it. Riding home, Priam feels content.
Achilles is also feeling light, and it seems as if the end has been suspended, but it hasn’t. His son is no longer at home; unbeknownst to Achilles, he is sailing fast for Troy. The last days of the story belong to him, where he will storm into Troy and become almost drunk with slaughter, and will kill Priam. The boy, covered in blood, will shift from being exhilarated to feeling ashamed and will beg his father for forgiveness.
But that moment hasn’t happened yet. For now, Priam and the carter are returning (somewhat) triumphantly to Troy. The carter reflects on how he wants to stop and buy something for his granddaughter, and thinks about the tale he has to tell. At first, the characters involved will seem real to the listeners, but over time, they will fade into memory, becoming the stuff of legend and an old man’s empty bragging. Even the memory will fade as the region descends into chaos and lawlessness, and as the generation that has never known anything else begins to grow older. But the carter shares the stories to anyone who is willing. He tells them the story of Priam and Achilles, although his listeners do not believe him. But everyone knows the most remarkable thing about him was the mule he owned named Beauty, who was very appropriately named.
Returning to Achilles, we see how vulnerable he is. He still mourns Patroclus and tries to find a little comfort in other people, but it doesn't work. When he believes he sees his father, he reveals how emotional he is by clasping him around the knees. His love for his father is so strong that even the suggestion of his presence prevents him from attacking Priam. Instead of the hostility Priam expects, Achilles treats him with gentleness even before he finds out that Priam was led here by a god. Priam is driven by the love for a son, and in turn Achilles' love of his father is what drives him to treat Priam and Somax with courtesy and understanding.
But rather than refer to the love Achilles has for his father, Priam surprises him by referencing the love Achilles has for his son. Priam chooses to place himself and Achilles in the same place, where the expected thing might be to compare Achilles and Hector or to compare himself and Peleus. This means that Achilles is now thinking of both his son and his father. Achilles, therefore, is forced to consider his role both as a father and as a son. Thinking about this causes him to think about how he will never be an old man, will never be in Priam's position.
His vision, catalyzed by Priam's words, is the final element that convinces him to give Hector over Priam. Despite their refusal to interfere directly, the gods still do a bit of meddling when they can. Here, it works: Achilles stretches his hand out to Priam and helps him up. In the aftermath of this interaction, Achilles realizes that the anger he was fueled by has passed and that he can move on. He has finally let go of Patroclus enough to give Hector's body back to Priam. By foregrounding the relationships he has with his father and his son, Achilles no longer feels the weight of anger or revenge and is finally able to break free—Priam's true ransom.
Achilles knows that his death is coming soon, so the preparation of Hector's body strikes him as ironic. He draws a parallel between how women brought his naked body into the world after he was born and how women will prepare his naked body to be buried in the earth after he dies. He and Priam are no different, but neither are he and Hector. Looking at Hector's body, Achilles sees himself just like he did when he killed Hector in his old armor.
Achilles' death isn't the only death hanging over the end of the book, though. When Priam asks what will happen if Achilles isn't alive when he calls, the hidden implication of that is that Achilles won't be alive to prevent his son, Neoptolemus, from killing Priam. When Achilles replys that he would not come, it hints at the fact that the vision Achilles had while Priam was trying to convince him was likely of Priam's own death at the hands of Neoptolemus. But in this peaceful interim before their deaths, neither Achilles or Priam despair. The last days haven't happened yet.
In the aftermath, after the end of the main story, after Troy falls, the only person left is Somax. While all the illustrious people in the story pass away, the carter lives on. As time goes on, the tale that only the carter knows becomes less and less believable. In the end, the simplest piece of the story—Beauty, the mule—is the best is preserved. Priam's intuition was right: it is the humble things that last.