Cadmus training ground, outskirts of Thebes, 338BC
There was a flash of bright sunlight on metal, before the trill of metal and wood cut through the air, and a loud thunk sounded as the object made impact on its target. The spear stuck straight out, and the warrior who had thrown it strode forward to inspect his efforts.
The spearhead was almost completely submerged in the trunk of the olive tree. The rest of the doru was almost perpendicular to the tree. It took a considerable amount of strength to remove the spear from the tree, and the hole that was left in the trunk passed through to the other side. The warrior’s throwing partner came closer, also inspecting the throw.
“If we don’t get a campaign soon, Thebes is going to run out of olive trees,” he commented with a chuckle. “Perhaps you should do more agility training than trying to destroy all the local farmer’s supplies?”
The spear thrower removed his helmet, wiping the sweat off his brow and running a hand over his light brown hair.
“A campaign is why we’re here, surely? I was promised that there would be more like the Boeotian War. Like the battle of Tegyra. Not watching all the hoplites wrestle and dance.” He measured the weight of the spear in his hand, checking that the head hadn’t been dislodged when removing it from the tree. His companion also removed his helmet.
“Surely you don’t object to the wrestling? I enjoy seeing you take on the other men.”
The man dug his spear into the dry earth below their sandalled feet, turning the soil over pebbles and dust..
“They have their own erastes, Benny.”
“And yet I like seeing you throw yourself into the fight. And trust me, Dean, should a campaign arise, you will be grateful for the way your body remembers the moves. It could be the thing that saves your life.”
Dean looked up, squinting slightly as the sunlight glinted off of Benny’s breastplate.
“I’m not objecting to training, I’m objecting to the fact I have been in this army for five years and the training seems to be for nothing.”
Benny laughed heartily, throwing his head back, the sound reaching other members of the company. Several heads turned towards them, but when they saw the pair who were talking, they lost interest.
“You are not a man built for peacetime, are you?” He clapped a hand onto Dean’s armoured shoulder. “Come, no more spear practice. We will need the olive oil for other things. I want to see how you are with your xiphos.”
Dean followed the older man back through the grove of trees, stepping around the other men throwing spears who were aiming at the bags of grain as he was meant to be doing. They came to a clearing where another pair of men were already fighting with practice blades and shields. Dean could already see where they were not protecting themselves properly. He took another shield and weighted the blades as Benny replaced his helmet, fondling the frond at the top briefly before massaging Dean’s shoulders and leaning closer to talk, in order to be heard past the ear protectors on the helmet.
“Remember that your shield is also a tool. Read your opponent. And should you succeed, I will reward you handsomely.”
Dean fought the shiver that rippled down his spine. His main reason for accepting the offer to fight in the Sacred Band of Thebes was in order to continue the relationships he was used to. Sometimes, he pictured life without the army, where instead he would be married and procreating, and it made his chest ache. It was not what he wanted.
He pushed the thoughts out of his mind as the fight in front of him was called off, and the victor was rewarded by his erastes with a long kiss. Dean stepped forward, and controlled his breathing as he took the measure of the soldier opposite him. Dean had two years of training on this man, and he knew he favoured a low cut, near the knees. Benny had trained him well, and treated him even better.
The battle began, and Dean dropped his shield, anticipating the attack. There was a clang of metal on metal, and Dean held his hand firm to cope with the reverberations through the shield and made an attack of his own. His intention was not to hurt the other soldier, not right away, but to disarm him and remove some of his armour. He aimed his blade at the stalk of the helmet, separating the frond from the base and knocking it askew. His opponent, temporarily blinded, made another low swipe. Dean parried it with his blade in a return stroke, twisting and dislodging the blade from his hand. He pressed his advantage, working to loosen the other man’s grip on his shield while the other soldier couldn’t see.
The man wasn’t helpless, however. Where he couldn’t attack Dean with a blade, he tried to use the shield to knock him flat, throwing punches and kicks where he thought Dean would be too slow with his blade. He hadn’t read Dean correctly however, and hadn’t been trained by anyone half as skilled as Benny. Dean’s onslaught was relentless, his movements fast and unforgiving despite this only being a practice. His blade sliced through the leather restraints, and he knocked the shield to the floor, blocking fists with his shield and managing to press the blade gently against the opponents neck. The fight was called, and Dean stepped away, only just registering the dryness of his throat, the volume of his pants, the aches in his arms and legs where the other man had managed to knick him. Benny stepped forward, and removed the weapons, leading Dean out of the battle circle and over to the dining area. He found some wine and passed it to Dean.
“You must remember it is practice, and they are on your team,” Benny reprimanded him as he gulped the wine down. “You don’t want to be responsible for the downfall of Thebes because you single-handedly decimated your own company out of boredom, do you?”
Dean wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and shrugged.
“Should I remember all this if Athens continues its derogatory campaign of Thebes? What if Sparta rises again? Maybe I should just lay on the floor and accept my fate?”
Benny rested his head in both hands as some of the other soldiers approached.
“Good fight, Dean,” one of the younger men congratulated him.
“You’ve trained him well, Benny,” one of the older men added. They both took the praise of their fellow soldiers, leaving their conversation until later, when they could have privacy.
Dean wasn’t annoyed with Benny, or angry at the lack of fighting, despite what they communicated in public. And Benny wasn’t as disproving of him. They had realised some years before, when Dean was inducted into the band and claimed by Benny that praise made him fumble. Likewise, Dean admiring Benny out loud left the older man flustered and ruined his concentration. Some of the other couples worked well with praise, Dean and Benny worked best by pushing each other’s buttons and striving to do even better.
They were soon surrounded by the entire company, preparing for dinner as the sun left the sky. They made their offerings to the gods and soon all that could be heard was the sound of chewing, gulping, and the general murmur of men enjoying their meal and their company. The air was cooling, and towards the end of the meal someone started to sing as another man played a lyre. Dean was feeling pleasantly full and content despite the lack of action, and he watched as Benny talked with the man beside them, laughing and being engaging. He admired the profile of his partner, his erastes, as the light dimmed further, and did not hear the boy approach.
“Dean?” Benny broke away from his conversation, and nodded to Dean’s shoulder. He knew that, rather than be rewarded for his efforts during the day he would instead be chastised for allowing someone to take him unawares. He looked at the small boy standing nervously beside him, and stood, leading him to the edge of the olive grove, away from the rest of the company.
“I have a message for you, from inside the city. Concerning your brother, Sam.” The boy seemed terrified.
“Sam? Has he been chosen to fight with us?” Dean couldn’t hide his excitement. He missed his brother, who he hadn’t seen since the age of twelve. The idea that Sam would have followed in his footsteps, that they could bond again as brothers, that he could make sure Sam was paired with the appropriate warrior, it was more exciting than Dean would want to admit to.
“No,” the young boy cut his enthusiasm quickly. He spoke rapidly, anticipating Dean’s anger. “Sam was eromenos to a man named Gabriel. Recently it was noted that Sam was coming of age, that he must leave Gabriel and find his way in the world.”
Dean felt his stomach drop, anticipating the worst. Had someone killed his brother? He would avenge them. They would feel all the might of Thebes through Dean’s rage.
“But there has been no sign of Sam or Gabriel in the last week, and when their neighbours went to look, they saw that the homestead was empty, and untouched. They have run off together, to continue their affair.”
The gloom of early nightfall hid Dean’s expression from this boy, who by now sounded terrified, telling a soldier of an unstoppable army that his brother had committed a huge offence. But Dean wasn’t going to slaughter an innocent, and this boy surely had to know the truth about this army? So many of his brothers-at-arms would have loved to remain with their erastes. Dean’s own one, Michael, seemed like such a distant memory. But he also knew his brother, and Sam wouldn’t act hastily. He must have planned the move with his Gabriel well in advance.
“You’re excused,” he said abruptly to the boy who dashed away quickly, and returned to the company, who were beginning to bed down for the night. Benny squinted at him through the dusk.
Dean did something he wouldn’t have normally, that the army may not have approved of: he stepped forward and curled against Benny, their breastplates clashing together. He pawed at Benny’s arms, trying to put them around his torso, suddenly desperate for their closeness. Benny held him at arms length for a brief moment, before leading him away from the others for some privacy.
“What’s wrong?” Benny wanted to know.
“You haven’t rewarded me for my performance today,” Dean blurted. It was easier to tackle that then acknowledge what had happened with his brother.
“We’ve only just eaten, Dean.” Benny pressed their foreheads together. “What did that messenger boy want?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does, it’s upset you. We’re partners, Dean. Tell me.”
Benny ran a hand up Dean’s leg, underneath his armour. His breathing was suddenly restricted by his chest plate. All he wanted was something physical to allow him to forget what the messenger boy had said.
“My brother. He was talking of my brother.”
“Your brother? Has he been drafted to the company?” Benny was cupping his backside, thumbing over the linen Dean was clad in.
“He’s run off. With his lover.”
Benny’s thumb stopped moving, and for a brief moment, Dean was actually terrified of what was to come. Benny withdrew his hand, but then he was removing his own armour, and Dean’s armour, pulling him closer and giving him that sweet physical contact that meant Dean could think of nothing else. Around them were the sounds of other pairs enjoying contact under the cover of night, and Dean stared at the starlit sky as Benny rubbed against him, making him touch his lover. They rolled over, and Dean curled up on Benny, relishing his clammy skin, his gentle caresses. They would sleep naked, and rise at dawn, replacing their armour before eating with the rest of the company, but until then, Dean focused on the gentle breeze over his sun baked skin, on the solidness of his lover underneath him.
In the morning, Dean woke alone on the dusty floor. He brushed himself down, and dressed quickly, looking around for Benny. The guy loved to cuddle in the morning until they were made to eat, but he was nowhere to be seen. Dean walked over to the dining area, and took his usual place. A few men were in his position, looking for their lover as though they were lost to the world. He mixed his wine and bread and ate silently, wondering if Benny’s absence was something to do with the news of Sam. But then they were called to order, and lined up as though ready to march to a battle ground. Benny stood with a group of about fifteen others, all who stood proud in their armour. Dean tried to catch his eye, but he was defiantly not looking Dean’s way.
Their general began making a speech, one Dean had heard several times in the past few years, and it was as this speech continued that he realised what was happening. Benny’s service in the army was over, he was leaving him.
He remembered the day that Benny had picked him out of the crowd of newbies, how he had behaved as he had at aged twelve with Michael, refusing his advances because he was told he must do that at first. How Benny had told him to cut the crap, that wasn’t how the company engaged themselves and he was with their band rather than others for a reason. How Benny had been unforgiving in training, but was venomous and dangerous when it seemed that Dean was at risk. They had been partnered for five years, how was Dean meant to go without him now?
He applauded with the other soldiers, and waited until the formal section of the ceremony was over, when the other erastes and eromenos were saying their farewells.
“How are you leaving?” Dean demanded. Benny shot him a sheepish look.
“Dean, I’ve been with this army for a long time. And you’re an asset to it. But I’m betrothed to a girl in my village, and now is the time to start a family with her. With Andrea.”
Dean took a step back. He knew that some of the men did this, left the lifestyle behind and became like other members of society. Others still returned to their roots, and became erastes to young men who had the potential to be young warriors. Dean didn’t know what his future held, but it wasn’t women.
“I thought the idea was that we didn’t live a lie?”
“Dean,” Benny smiled tenderly. “You’re a great soldier, and you’ll do an incredible job with the next rookie. Make me proud. And thank you for a wonderful last night.”
He squeezed Dean’s bicep, and walked away, to shed his armour and return to life as a civilian. Dean stood frozen to the spot, watching his lover leave, and with him all the fight that Dean had.