Iris, sent by Juno, instructs Turnus to attack the Trojans' camp, since Aeneas has left it to find Evander. Turnus thanks the gods for the help and prepares his troops. The Trojans see Turnus's army approaching and prepare to guard the fortress that they've built in their camp. Turnus's men think that the Trojans are cowards to stay in their fortress instead of coming out to meet them on the plain. Turnus rages like a famished wolf who's unable to reach the lambs he wants to eat.
Virgil will make use of many animal metaphors to highlight the impulses and savagery that drive war. Turnus as a hungry wolf suggests that Turnus doesn't just want to kill the Trojans, he must in order to survive—and this is true, because if Aeneas's fate stands, Turnus is doomed.
After attempting and failing to break into the fortress, Turnus's troops begin to burn the Trojan ships. The action pauses for some backstory about the Roman ships. Cybele, a goddess, gave her sacred trees to the Trojans to build their ships, and asked Jove to shield the ships from storms and destruction. Jove agreed, and planned to turn the ships into water nymphs after they served their purpose. Returning to the present time, as Turnus attempts to burn the ships, they transform into nymphs and swim away.
This is the second time that people have attempted to burn the ships. In Book 5, Jove saved four ships with a rainstorm. Now the transformation into nymphs shows that Aeneas has truly reached a place where he won't have to do any more sea-wandering, since the ships were fated to turn into nymphs once they had served their purpose.
Though Turnus's men are upset by the divine intervention, Turnus declares that the lack of ships will actually hurt the Trojans. He doesn't fear fate or the gods, he says, and anyway, the Trojans have messed up his fate to marry Lavinia. He galvanizes his men with a stirring speech and makes plans to scale the walls of the Trojans' camp.
Turnus misinterprets fate on purpose, substituting what he wants with his destiny. His bold declaration that he doesn't fear fate or the gods shows bravery but also a profound lack of piety.
As the Trojans guard the walls of their fortress, Nisus, a Trojan, tells his young friend Euryalus about his eagerness to do some brave act. Nisus wants to sneak out through the Rutulian camp surrounding the fortress to find Aeneas and get help for the upcoming battle. Euryalus thinks it's a great idea and wants to come too. Nisus warns that the attempt might prove fatal, and says young Euryalus's life is more important. Euryalus refuses to budge.
Nisus and Euryalus, who we last saw teaming up to win the running race in Book 5, again demonstrate the special bond of their friendship. Though they're just two of many Trojans, their great devotion to the Trojan cause makes them famous.
The Trojan leaders are in the middle of a nighttime meeting trying to decide who should go as a messenger to Aeneas when Nisus and Euryalus come to volunteer. Aletes and Ascanius praise and encourage them, and Ascanius promises them gifts. Euryalus asks only that they comfort his mother, because he can't bear to upset her. Ascanius cries, remembering his own mother Creusa, and promises he will. Ascanius gives the pair messages for Aeneas, but Virgil foreshadows that the messages will only scatter on the wind.
With Aeneas absent, this scene is the first time Ascanius's leadership is on view. Ascanius has clearly learned from his father's methods—like Aeneas in Book 5, Ascanius praises bravery and promises gifts. But Virgil's foreshadowing shows that even the best and brightest can be cut down by fate, which is impartial to human goodness.
Nisus and Euryalus, under cover of night, creep through the enemy camp, where the Rutulians are drunk and sleeping. Nisus then suggests that they shouldn't waste this chance to kill some of the enemy leaders in their sleep. They quietly kill many men before Nisus finally decides they should stop and continue on through the camp. Euryalus straps on some enemy armor and a helmet as trophies.
Nisus and Euryalus could have just gone through with the messages, but with their bravery and desire for glory, they decide to take advantage of their unguarded enemies, and Euryalus takes trophies of enemy armor to prove his triumph.
Meanwhile, Volscens, a Rutulian captain, marches back to Turnus's camp with three hundred men. He sees Euryalus's helmet through the dark, and calls out, asking who's there. Nisus and Euryalus run into the forest, but Volscens's men chase after. Nisus finds the way through the forest to Latinus's land, but realizes he's lost Euryalus somewhere in the wood. He re-enters the forest, searching, and finds Euryalus, whom enemies have surrounded.
Euryalus's trophy-taking, an error of pride, is his downfall (and foreshadows Turnus's fateful choice to do some trophy-taking of his own in Book 10). Nisus, though, doesn't blame Euryalus for this error and puts himself in danger to go back for his friend.
Nisus struggles with a decision: should he save his own life, leaving his friend to die? Or should he attempt a rescue? He prays, then throws his spear, killing a Rutulian. The startled group looks around, and he kills another. Volscens furiously prepares to kill Euryalus. Nisus jumps from his hiding place, saying that he's responsible for the Rutulians' deaths, but it's too late—Volscens stabs Euryalus.
Ultimately, this act of friendship will bring Nisus more (posthumous) glory than if he'd saved himself and lived out a long life. In a way, this action is also about piety—a selfless devotion, in this case, to a slightly foolish friend. Euryalus's mistakes don't matter in the face of the bravery he's inspired.
Nisus chargers forward and kills Volscens even as Volscens kills him. Nisus falls and dies next to his friend. The Rutulians bring back the bodies and mourn their many dead.
Nisus actions show the importance of vengeance in this society. Like a proper burial, vengeance is one way to do right by the dead.
In the morning, Turnus's side displays the heads of Nisus and Euryalus, stuck on pikes, to the Trojans. Rumors reach Euryalus's mother, who runs to the front lines and says that the robe she made for Euryalus will serve as his shroud, and she didn't even have a chance to say goodbye. She begs the Rutulians to kill her too. Her tragedy lowers the Trojans' morale as each soldier remembers his family. Ascanius and others carry her home.
It is typical of Virgil to complicate the story of the glorious dead by showing its aftermath. As much as Nisus and Euryalus won honor for their bravery and piety, the mother shows the human tragedy that underlies it. For her, her son's life would have been better than his fame in death.
Turnus's troops attempt to scale the fortress walls. The Trojans hold them off, but Turnus throws a flaming torch that sets afire and collapses a Trojan tower, killing many, and throwing two Trojans out onto the Rutulians. One, Helenor, resembles a wild boar as he throws himself onto Turnus's men and dies. The other, Lycus, tries to climb the wall to get back to the Trojan fortress. Turnus taunts him and pulls him from the wall, killing him. The battle sounds like a mother sheep crying after a wolf has taken her lamb. Many men die.
Virgil emphasizes the viciousness and inhumanity of war. He once again uses the metaphor of a wolf to describe battle, but shifts it to echo Euryalus's mother's sadness. Instead of focusing on the wolf (Turnus) or the lamb (the Trojans), Virgil concentrates on the mourning mother sheep. This suggests that the saddest thing about war isn't the soldiers' doom, but the families the dead leave behind.
Ascanius makes his first kill, using a bow and arrow, his boyhood hobby. His victim is Numanus, a Rutulian soldier who was mocking the Trojans, saying that they, like women, enjoy dressing up in fancy clothes. Ascanius asks Jove to bless his shot, and thunder comes from the blue sky. Ascanius's arrow hits Numanus in the head.
Ascanius, by killing Silvia's pet stag in Book 7, started the war with a bow and arrow. His first kill reflects that, and aligns him with Camilla, the great archer of Book 11. Numanus calling the Trojans feminine recalls Iarbas's similar insults in Book 4.
Apollo, also famous for his archery, applauds Ascanius's actions from the heavens, exclaiming that he's fated to found a line of great leaders who will bring peace. Apollo comes to earth disguised as the elderly Trojan Butes, and instructs Ascanius to stop fighting. When he leaves, the other Trojans realize he was a god, and remove Ascanius from the battle.
As has often happened with Aeneas, despite Ascanius's sunny fate, he's in danger of getting himself killed, so the gods have to intervene to set him on track. Despite his moment of glory, Ascanius is actually young and inexperienced.
The Trojans Pandarus and Bitias, who were guarding a gate to the fortress, open it and dare the Latins to enter. They manage to kill some of the onrushing Latins, but then Turnus enters and kills many Trojans, including Bitias. Mars strengthens the Latins. Pandarus closes the gate, but in doing so accidentally closes Turnus within the Trojan walls. Pandarus throws his spear at Turnus, but Juno diverts it. Turnus brutally kills Pandarus and many other Trojans, strengthened by Juno.
As at the Trojan war, some gods (here, Mars) take sides against the Trojans, despite Aeneas's piety and superior fate. This adds tension to the war, and suggests that the Latins are also worthy and pious fighters. Turnus's killing rampage shows that he'll make a formidable match for Aeneas.
Mnesthus, a Trojan, encourages his friends, telling them to remember Aeneas and Troy. The Trojans manage to stop Turnus's progress. Jove sends Iris down to tell Turnus to leave, because Juno can't disobey Jove by continuing to help him. Unable to fight any longer, he escapes by jumping into the Tiber.
The Trojans turn to their two sources of strength, Troy and Aeneas, their home and their leader, to rally their forces. Turnus's quick escape shows how much he depends on Juno's help.