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The Good Soul

Chapter Text

Today was a day of celebration. Wine was poured not from clay but from silver, a heifer had been stalked, speared and roasted and the palace was heavy with the smell of dripping fat, incense, purple and stinging burned in their candle holders and someone had sketched a phallus onto Patroclus’ best tunic.

It was difficult, he decided, unless you looked at it from a certain angle, to tell exactly what it was. It had been done very crudely with a stick of kohl and the hand was shaky, as if belonging to a child. But despite this it had remained resistant to all his attempts to wash it or brush it off and he supposed that whoever had done it had gone over it in wax or oil, resulting in a hard, translucent sheen that served both as a protector and an emphasiser. But still, he told himself, it is difficult to tell what it is. It is barely possible, unless you look at it from a certain angle.

In a desperate gesture of reassurance he laid it out on the mattress and surveyed it, arms folded. He tilted his head. He looked at it from a certain angle. Shit.

This, he realised with a pang of regret, was exactly the reason his mother had told him to pack a spare. She had foreseen this, in her uncanny, all-knowing, motherly way. It was evident in the way she kissed him goodbye, the way her eyes shone sad and accepting as clear as if she had said “My poor boy, my poor, poor son. They will tear him to pieces. They will make him meat for their dogs.” He supposed he should have wondered when she hugged him so tight he felt his ribs wince and the imploring look she’d sent in his father’s direction. And when she’d burst into tears he supposed he should have done more than pat her awkwardly on the back and assure her that despite what his father said he had never once considered himself a “sitting target,” although this was partly due to the fact that running had been second nature to him since the invention of the sling shot.

He crossed over to the heavy wooden chest and rummaged through his belongings, sending tunic after tunic flying for the mattress; Too little…too much…too Thracian, too embroidered...too bloody orange…and he wondered, perhaps if his this had been intentional, if Menoetius had purposefully neglected to waste fine things on the son who had brought him nothing but shame since day one. The thought was an unwelcome one and Patroclus dismissed it quickly as his fists curled around something of fine, woven material. With considerable relief he yanked the tunic over his head and turned to look in the mirror.

A pale, skinny young man looked back at him, big dark eyes set into a nervous thin face that was all apprehension and insecurity, the kind of face, Patroclus noted grimly, that his father would have described as “punchable.” He held his arms awkwardly by his sides as if he didn’t know quite what to do with them, self-consciously aware of the pinched, gangling look of someone who had grown a lot in a short space of time. The tunic hung off his frame like something dead, and he saw, with an increasing sense of despair, that it was purple.

Purple was rich and deep and looked like the touch of velvet. Purple was a gesture of wealth, status and high society. Purple was reserved especially for kings; kings, heroes and their sons.

Purple was so not his colour.

Instead of showing him off as regal and impressive the tunic only made him look insipid and washed-out by comparison, highlighting the dark circles from lack of sleep round his eyes and the sharp angles of his chin and jaw. It hung just above his knees, revealing the scabs and scruff of childhood and shamefully skinny legs, like the bones of a sacrificial offering and his arms stuck out at the sides as if they were trying to escape. He supposed his mother had packed it in the hope that he would wear it with pride, that it would give him confidence and standing among the other boys. Instead he just felt faintly sick.

But it was the next best thing he had, the only thing worthy of a king’s reception. So with a sigh he turned away from the mirror and, casting a mournful look at the abandoned tunic, left the room.

As his feet made slap-slapping sounds against the grey tile he knew that if he was going to be honest with himself, he really wasn’t that surprised. He’d noticed the other boys sizing him up as soon as he’d walked in; caught every suppressed smirk, discreet nudge and whispered taunt as he took his place in the long line of royal castoffs, the blood beating against his ears as he tried valiantly to blot out the hushed hum of “murderer” from behind him and within. If he had been bigger, more imposing, they’d have stayed out of his way; maybe even looked at him with a little admiration. But looking like he did and being, generally, a pretty nice person he had only let down their expectations and thus served as another massive disappointment.

He entered the hall cautiously, taking care not to look at anyone directly. Of course they looked up when he walked in, grinning vulgarly to each other and making crude gestures; he felt his cheeks warm but said nothing and took his place quietly in the line.

The boy in front of him, Deiomachus, turned to give him the once-over. “You’re wearing purple.”

“Well noticed,” said Patroclus, craning his neck to see what was happening at the front.

“I thought you were wearing the other one? The green?”

“Yeah well, so did I,” he replied through gritted teeth.

Deiomachus frowned. “So what happened?”

“Erm,” he bit his lip. “Well…don’t say anything, no big deal, what’s a joke between friends…but someone drew something kind of…phallic…on the back.”

“By kind of phallic you mean…?”

“Well, um, a phallus, actually.”

It was with great restrain that Deiomachus held back a hoot of wild laughter, possibly stifled by the arrival of the King and his two armed guards. “Someone drew a dick on your shirt?”

“Hey keep it down alright? I’m sure they didn’t mean any harm-”

“-Right,” the boy smirked. “Sure. You know you can report this?”

“And let my new father know I’ve been targeted for abuse on my first day, no thank you,” Patroclus muttered. “Gods, what’s taking them so long?”

King Peleus, it appeared was no longer quite the man he had been thirty years ago. He was lowered rather than sat into his chair and his knees gave a loud click that echoed across the hall. It was hard to imagine, thought Patroclus, that this man had sailed with Jason, shaken hands with Hercules and been given a goddess for a wife.

Once seated he folded his hands in his lap and surveyed the boys with polite curiosity, rheumy but bright eyes tracing each face one by one. As they fell on him Patroclus attempted to stand a little straighter but they passed him quickly, indifferent to the entirely unremarkable. He felt his shoulders sag.

“Welcome,” he greeted in a voice that was surprisingly carrying, not at all like the expected rasp of an old man. “Long has it been since such promising young men as yourselves have stood in my halls, a credit each of you to the fathers that brought you here. I trust that you will all do your very best to uphold the name of your house and abide by our customs, for remember that this is now your country and I am now your king. Shame and disgrace are foreign words to our tongue and I look forward to the day when it can be said that you have repaid my generosity with honour and duty.”

He paused to bless them with a friendly, fatherly smile and the boys understood that he was waiting for an expression of gratitude. A murmur of thanks rippled across the hall until, satisfied, Peleus quietened them with a slight raise of his withered hand. “Phthia rejoices the receiving of its new sons,” he declared warmly. “May you give her just cause.”

He leant back as if exhausted by the speech and gestured for a man to his right who held a piece of linen in his hands. Immediately he cleared his throat and began to read off names. “Eukleides.”

A tall boy with a lolloping gait strode up to where the king sat and knelt. There was an exchange of words, too far away for Patroclus to hear, then Peleus touched the boy’s forehead lightly and he re-joined the group.

Kleonides.

Leonides.

Iasonides.

One by one another followed suit until the number of the unblessed dwindled, leaving Patroclus one of the last waiting anxiously. Some of the names he recognised and knew that these were the sons of kings and famous men. So what? he thought angrily. I too am a prince. I have as much of a right to be here as anyone.

And more than most, said a nasty little voice at the back of his head. He ignored it and tried to focus on what was going on but the gloom of the hall was bringing back unwanted memories; snatches of high ceilings and arched doorways, wooden benches scraping the stone floor as they were arranged for a trial, the look on his father’s face as he knelt in supplication, his mother crying softly into her shawl, the dead boy’s parents screaming profanity after profanity until the sudden slam of a door yanked him out of his reverie and he spun round to glimpse the source of the disruption.

A boy stood in the doorway.

He was lean and slim as one of the young trees that grew wild on the beaches of Patroclus’ home country, of average height but somehow he seemed taller. His limbs were a light brown from the sun, like polished sandalwood and the strength in them was obvious yet without the crude bulk of a brute. Instead he was delicately muscled, slender yet wiry with a face as fine featured as a girl’s and framed by a dazzling shock of golden hair.

He strode through the hall, casual as a gust of wind and knelt at the king’s feet without sparing a look behind him. As he passed Patroclus thought he caught the dry salt smell of the sea. “Apologies for my lateness, Father,” he said. “I lost track of the time.”

“Rise, my son,” said Peleus with a smile. “And take your place beside me.” He patted the seat next to his own and the boy sat, one foot dangling over the edge with a sort of casual elegance. “Here I present my son,” spoke Peleus to the group, voice filled with a pride Patroclus hadn’t even thought possible. “The prince: Achilles.”

“Hail, Achilles,” chorused the boys dutifully. The prince didn’t even bother acknowledge them, only inclined his chin slightly to show that he had heard and instead focused his energy on flicking the dirt from beneath his nails. Inexplicably, Patroclus felt a surge of instant dislike and was still glowering at him when the scribe called out Menoitides.

“Menoitides?” he called again. “Is the son of Menoeitus present?” and Patroclus realised with an unpleasant shock that he had been so busy disliking Achilles that he had missed his name. “Here my lord,” he managed to stutter and hurried forward to the patch of stone floor where the others had knelt. But in his rush he stumbled and with a cry was sent sprawling to the ground with an ungainly thud.

Achilles was the first to laugh. His mouth opened pink and wide as a cat’s and his head fell back against his chair as he began to shake uncontrollably. His reaction was quickly copied by the boys behind him and soon the whole hall was filled with the sound of wild laughter, even the guards clutched their ribs and wiped tears from their eyes as Patroclus stood, cheeks burning, and turned his face towards the heavens.

Dear Zeus, he prayed, trying desperately to look anywhere but in front if him, if you have ever loved me, even in that sick and twisted way of yours, do me a favour. Kill me now, and make it quick.

He had no such luck. After what felt like an age Peleus raised his hand again, his leathery old features twisted with repressed amusement, and beckoned him closer. Patroclus shuffled forward a few steps, keeping his eyes fixed on the old king rather than straying to his right.

“You are Patroclus, son of Menoeitus?”

“I am, my lord,” Patroclus replied with as much dignity as it was possible to muster under the circumstances.

Peleus nodded, suddenly serious. “I have heard your story, young man,” he said with a frown. “You are here today because, as your father tells me, you have been exiled from your home. This is so?”

“Yes my lord.”

“And that you killed a boy, no older than yourself.”

“Yes my lord.”

“Over a game of dice, no less.”

“Yes my lord.”

Peleus raised a thinning eyebrow. “And you are aware of your sin?”

For Gods’ sake. Yes, I killed a kid, yes I know I’ve earned myself a one way ticket to Tartarus, yes I’m pretty bloody upset about it. He struggled to regain composure over his face as he replied “Yes my lord. Very aware.”

“I should think so. Gambling is a very serious crime and I will not tolerate it as long as you are under my roof. Is that clear?”

Patroclus stared in disbelief, searching the old king’s face for signs of jest. There were none. So he cleared his throat and replied automatically “Yes my lord. Very clear.”

“Good,” said the king approvingly, reaching to touch Patroclus’ brow in blessing. “Rise, Patroclus, and be welcome. You may still yet make a good man.”

He supposed he’s meant it as a reassurance but as he got to his feet and concealed himself at the very back of the line Patroclus had the unsettling feeling that he had been cursed rather than blessed. Certainly that was the impression he got upon catching sight of Achilles’ still smirking face and the snickering green eyes that had never left him. He felt the heat rise to his cheeks and he stared fixedly at the floor in an attempt to block out the scornful mutterings of the other boys, anger and shame bubbling acidly in his stomach. Please Lord Zeus, he found himself begging, please let it be over soon.

Finally Androclides re-joined the assembly and the scribe folded the linen back into his tunic. With a wave of Peleus’ wrist the boys dispersed and were seated at long oaken tables laden with meat, fish, bread, fruit and wine; watered almost to impotency and sharp tasting to Patroclus who was used to the sun-sweet grapes of the south. He sat at the end, far away from the others who had scurried to avoid him like a bad omen, and stared down at his plate for some sign of deliverance, for an indication that some God up there had not yet forsaken him. None came and the bread stuck in his throat when he swallowed.

A movement from the top of the dais made him look up and he noticed Achilles slipping from his seat to join the boys at the far end. Patroclus was surprised, he had assumed that the boy prince had his own private quarters and would be reluctant to mix with the cast-offs and strays of less important families. The others, it seemed, had made the same assumption for they leapt up at once, tripping over each other to make room and pulling their plates round so that the prince had all the space he needed to spread his stately bread with stately honey and flick his noble princely hair out of his noble princely eyes. Patroclus watched him, distaste increasing with every chew, bite and swallow.

“Hey. Menoitides.”

“Huh?” he swivelled round to meet the grinning face of Leonides, gesturing towards his lap.

“You saving that for later?” he asked.

Patroclus glanced down and felt a sinking feeling in his gut. Somebody it appeared had upturned a wine bowl and its contents was dribbling steadily onto Pactroclus’ tunic, staining the rich wool inky dark. The upper end of the table guffawed and Achilles’ perfect features twisted into a leerish grin until Patroclus’ face burned hot and red as a burning spit.

Purple, he concluded, staring down at his dampened lap, was really not his colour.

Chapter Text

He was woken the next morning by a splitting headache and a smack of yellow light. It came into his room in floods, yanking him into consciousness like a slap in the face. Patroclus groaned, squeezing his eyes shut tight as gates against an invasion and tried to will his mind back to sleep but to no avail; the morning was persistent as a breeze slipped through the open window and under the thin covers, ruffling his hair and prickling his skin like gooseflesh.

He shivered and wrapped the linen sheets tightly around his body, trying to recall snatches of his dream. He was back at home in his father’s palace where the walls were comforting and the faces familiar if not always kind. He was skipping stones across the sea surface, grinning as each one was swallowed by the waves. His mother sat beside him, her face turned into the sun, hands folded in her lap. A picture of perfect serenity. He tried to keep this last one fixed in his mind but it was like cupping water in his hands. The harder he tried to hold on the more it began to slip away until he was left alone in his cold, shadowy room; hating the morning and the promise of the day it brought.

Eventually, when he had run out of excuses for remaining immobile he slid from the mattress, dressed quickly and washed his face. The shameful tunic still lay rumpled and disgraced in the corner. Patroclus’ pride forbade giving it to the slaves for washing when just the look on their faces upon his return from last night’s feast had been enough to send him running for his room. The king’s sympathy he could bare. Servants’ pity was another matter entirely. After deeming himself presentable he headed downstairs to the main hall where most of the other boys were already helping themselves to breakfast. Trying hard to ignore their barely suppressed sniggers he took his place next to Deiomachus who smiled wryly at him.

“Made quite an impression last night, didn’t you?” he greeted. Patroclus couldn’t tell if his tone was pitying or sarcastic.

“I’d rather not talk about it actually,” said Patroclus. “Pass me a bowl.”

“Oh yeah,” said Deiomachus. “You might not want to use that.”

“Why not?”

“I think someone pissed in it.”

Patroclus stared in disgust. “Are you serious?”

Deiomachus shrugged. “They knew you’d be the last one down.”

Patroclus looked round the room to meet a hundred grinning, eager faces. He sighed, ignored the wooden bowls and platters offered him and grabbed an apple. Fruit, at least, could be trusted.

“What’s happening today then?” he asked, taking a cautious bite.

“Drills,” came the reply. “Drills and training. We’re supposed to be on the field in an hour.”

Patroclus felt his heart slide a little further down the walls of his chest. He had never been a natural athlete, much to Menoetius’ shame and would often content himself with watching the other boys as they raced, leaped and battled across the fields, their feet rising little golden clouds in the dirt as sweat slipped from tensed limbs to the grey earth. He remembered countless occasions where he would attempt to throw a shotput or launch a javelin only to suffer the humiliation of having it land barely a foot before him, or enter a swimming contest only to come back up, spluttering. Personally, he blamed the Gods. It was they who had seen fit to gift him with such weak arms and thin shoulders, they who had bestowed upon him the esteemed title of Perfectly Average…at everything.

“Who will be taking us?” he asked warily.

Deiomachus glanced around the hall and pointed to the high table where the noble lords of Peleus’ house sat munching on bread and honey. “There. Ampelius. I hear he has rather high standards.”

Patroclus followed his line of vision and settled on a sturdy, thickset man with a voice like a battering ram and rather unruly facial hair. His heart sank a little deeper. Still, he thought, thinking of the coldly beautiful boy who had swept into dinner the previous night, it could be worse.

He finished his breakfast quickly and tried to ignore the mounting sense of dread as he followed the others outside and onto the practice fields. Overhead the sky was a brilliant, cloud-less blue and the grass was damp underfoot, still clinging with the residues of the previous night’s rain, the earth itself cool and springy. Patroclus tilted his neck in the direction of the sun as they lined up wordlessly, poised and eager for instruction before Ampelius who stood like an overgrown thorn bush, his ham-like hands clasped behind his back in typical soldier stance.

He needn’t have worried. Despite his wild appearance Ampelius showed himself to be pretty reasonable and beamed at the boys with hearty, almost childlike enthusiasm. Inside every boy, he told them in his ground-shaking boom of a voice, there is a man and inside every man there is a warrior. His job was to bring the warrior out of each of them; to chisel away the soft exterior of childhood to reveal a hard and polished core of rock and iron until they could stand and call themselves the Sons of their Fathers. “Think of me as a carpenter,” he said. “And these,” he raised his giant’s hands “Are my tools. With them I shall make fine chairs out of all of you, firm enough for even the most bounteous of backsides.”

He threw back his great, shaggy head and laughed, causing little stones to jump up into the air and cartwheel into each other. Patroclus thought he felt the ground beneath his feet vibrate.

They were given practice spears of roughly hewn wood and watched nervously as Ampelius showed them how best to hold and thrust, correcting any untidy technique with a hearty roar of “Not quite lad, not quite.” Patroclus held his weapon awkwardly and was silent when his grip was corrected and corrected again. It felt strange, as if it did not rightly belong there and he experienced a momentary settling of relief when it was released from his palms and skimmed the side of the oak tree target with a feeble bump. The boys behind him tittered and Ampelius blew out a slow breath. “And again, son. Only this time try and keep your eyes open.”

And so it went for rest of the morning.

It became quickly apparent to everyone, including Ampelius, that this was not a specimen built for the spear. A hundred times Patroclus threw, renewing a desperate hope in his chest as the metal point pierced the sky only to have those hopes come to a crashing thud at his feet, a few centimetres behind the shaft. Beside him Leonides and Deiomachus were hurling their weapons with Olympic accuracy, grinning each time the silver heads shredded the targets and left behind a trail of little wooden splinters while his own fell short, aimed too high or missed the thing completely. Ampelius accepted every dropped weapon and missed target with almost maternal patience but after the first few dozen failed throws Patroclus could sense annoyance.

“Come on now lad,” he bellowed, his great hairy eyebrows meeting in a perplexed frown. “Get your body weight behind it. We Achaeans are blessed with the strong backs of a bull’s and the thighs of its plough. Show some of your parent’s good breeding!”

With that he took the spear from his hands and launched it at the oak tree, back and shoulder muscles rippling like a turning tide. It cut through the air with a faint whistle and struck the bark dead centre. A trickle of sap squeezed its way through the cracks as Ampelius turned to Patroclus and handed him another. Patroclus squinted at the target. He threw. He missed.

At midday the sun burned huge, white and furious. Sweating and covered from head to foot in dust the boys trudged wearily from the field over to where servants waited obediently with bread and water. They collapsed into the shade and began to chatter loudly and boastfully about the day’s exercise while Patroclus inched away until he was sat by himself to sip cool water and listen to the crickets chirruping through the grass. His ears burned scarlet with humiliation and he avoided Ampelius’ eye for fear that he might again see that ever-familiar shadow of disappointment flicker and settle there.

He raised the water skin to his lips and looked around him with polite curiosity, confused over the sudden quietness. The boorish conversation that had up till now been ringing like clashing swords had come to a stop. All eyes were fixed on something on the other side of the field. Perplexed, Patroclus followed their gaze. He stopped. He saw.

For a moment, he wondered what he was watching. Then, he realised. It was him. The prince. Achilles. The sun had settled on his hair and face so that he seemed to be made entirely of gold and in one hand he held a spear, not one of the practice play things of the past hour but something real and lethal. He thrust and it seemed to Patroclus that the weapon was merely an extension of his arm, as much a part of him as flesh and sinew for he held it so naturally and his movements were all freedom and grace like those of a cat’s.

In a haze of dusty light Achilles’ feet licked the ground like pink tongues, his body a beam of perfect energy as he struck one and two and three and –

Pause. Aim. Throw.

Like lightening splits the surface of a roaring sea the spear shone ablaze. It struck, with perfect form and accuracy and the target shuddered and collapsed. An impossible throw.

He straightened. Turned. And with the foster sons of Phthia staring the wide-eyed, open-mouthed stares of men who have just witnessed the divine the boy-prince smiled.

Patroclus’ breath lodged in his throat.

“LOOK AWAY!” Ampelius’ roar tore through the confounded silence like a charging bull at a fair. “LOOK AWAY! NO ONE SEES THE PRINCE FIGHT! TURN AROUND! LOOK AWAY!”

Setting himself between Achilles and the bewildered onlookers Ampelius ushered the boys away, casting an anxious look over his shoulder. Patroclus just caught a glimpse of the boy slip out of sight, taking his spear and splintered target with him. When Ampelius had moved out the way it was as if nothing had ever been there.

“They say his mother is a goddess,” came a sudden whisper behind him. He whirled round. Everyone’s face bore the same mystified, awe-struck expression as he knew he did.

“Hera herself as I heard it,” said another.

“No,” Androclides shook his head. “A wood nymph. From Pelion.”

“Don’t be ridiculous Thales,” another scoffed. “How could a wood nymph give birth to a fighter like that? No, he’s one of Ares’…or Athena’s at the very least.”

“Athena’s a virgin, genius. Care explaining how a virgin gives birth at all?”

“Well I don’t bloody know, she’s a goddess, maybe they lay eggs or something…”

Patroclus listened to the excited supposes and presumptions of his peers with only half an ear. He felt hazy, as he often did after too much wine at dinner and was filled with the sudden urge to sit down and make sense of things. He felt addled and confused and suddenly, inexplicably angry although at what he wasn’t quite sure. All he knew was that what he had just seen, what he had…witnessed…should not have been possible. No one should have been able to move like that. It wasn’t right.

It wasn’t fair.

He thought of his own clumsy steps onto the dais, of grazes and scars from tripping over his own feet and landing in an ungainly mess at the king’s feet. He thought of the spear in his hands, how uncomfortable he’d felt holding it and of Ampelius’ unhappy frown as it landed. Here he was, flailing like a drowning man at the most basic of tasks as he, Achilles, made it look so easy.

Made it look beautiful.

He became aware, after a while, that somebody was watching him. He looked up. It was one of the slaves, observing him sympathetically, a tiny, hateful smile playing at the corner of his mouth. Irritation sparked once again in Patroclus’ chest. “What?” he snapped.

The slave shuffled his feet in embarrassment. “Nothing, young master.”

“Don’t give me that,” said Patroclus. “Come on, out with it.”

He waited expectantly, frustration mounting steadily until finally the slave spoke again, “There is no point in envying him,” he said. “For he is matchless in skill and speed. The God’s have yet to make a more perfect fighter, nor have they ever made one before. He will be the best warrior of his generation.”

Patroclus stared. The slave’s face was unreadable. “How could you know this?” he finally managed to mutter. “How could you possibly know this?”

The young man shrugged. “It is written.”

A boy’s name was called, the slave made his excuses and walked away, leaving Patroclus to stare stupidly at the space where Achilles had been. If it had seemed empty before it was nothing but a void now, a vast expanse of where once a demi-god had stood and where now there was nothing.

Chapter Text

Life in Phthia began to pass in a haze of monotonous routine. Every morning Patroclus would wake up and drag himself out of bed with considerable reluctance, dress in a simple starched tunic and eat breakfast (alone). The next few hours were then spent wincing at Ampelius’ bellowed orders as he tried not to make a fool of himself whether with spear, sword or javelin. When finally they grew too weary to raise their weapons and the sun shone hottest in the sky they were dismissed to pursue their own activities which usually involved running up and down the beach, pelting each other with unripe figs, visiting the girls of neighbouring villages or venturing into the great, vast expanse of sea that both beckoned to and mocked Patroclus, as if it knew him. He never joined the other boys and they never asked him to. Instead he sat, under a tree or on the beach, quite intent to ignore and with being ignored.

Some days it was as if he had never left home.

There was the one major difference though, and his greatest source of discomfort about his new life in Peleus’ house. It was that of his host. He did not see Achilles often, mostly at meal times and the occasional glimpse on the training fields when Ampelius’ massive girth was not hiding him from view. But when he did he let him know it. When he walked into a room the servant girls would drop whatever they were holding and become quite out of sorts. Ordinary, rational people would become quite ridiculous and fall over themselves to serve him, to please him. Even grown men, hardened from war and rough living would crack slow smiles at his effortless wit and charm. Peleus’ foster sons became rivals for his notice, competing over who got the loudest laugh or widest grin and he ruled them without even knowing he was doing so. He was the natural leader of the pack, the golden boy and everybody loved him. Everybody except Patroclus.

Here, thought Patroclus, was a pampered pretty boy; all easy grins and adult charm with not an inkling of sense in his perfect, everything-blond head. He could not understand for the life of him why only he seemed to notice his arrogance, his tremendous conceit and his disdain for anyone who did not go by the name of Achilles. Whereas the other boys competed endlessly for his approval and affection it seemed blatantly obvious to him that the prince laughed loudest at his own jokes, smiled widest at his own reflection and was pleased best by the failures of others. Such a boy, Patroclus mused glumly, would be the favourite of Gods and women. He, Patroclus, found him insufferable.

He was aware that some might have named his dislike uncalled for, especially as Achilles had never spoken to him but for once at dinner when he had asked for the salt. Patroclus had been so shocked that he’d knocked over the bowl in his hurry, prompting raucous laughter and mock applause. But for then Patroclus had contented himself with hating Achilles from a distance, shooting daggers when his back was turned and scowling into his food whenever his laugh rang across Peleus’ hall.

Until one day, after arms practice when Ampelius had scattered the boys across the bay. Patroclus was sat in his habitual spot under a tree, watching the waves roll easily onto the beach when suddenly a single dice rolled onto the patch of sand beside him. He looked down and when he looked back up again Achilles was standing in front of him, his hair swept up into a tangle by the salt and grains of sand clinging to his palms.

“Hello,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “Sorry.”

The word was thrown casually, almost as an afterthought. It was not an apology, although Patroclus was confused as to why this should make him angry. “It’s okay,” he muttered.

Achilles bent down and snatched up the dice in his long fingered hands. Warrior’s hands. Patroclus watched him suspiciously. “What are you playing?” he asked despite himself.

“Tesserae,” the prince replied with a quick, sly smile. “Do you want to play?”

Patroclus shook his head abruptly. “No,” he said quickly.

Achilles’ eyes narrowed as Patroclus looked away embarrassedly. “Suit yourself,” he shrugged.

Patroclus did not answer. He hoped the boy would go away and leave him alone but when he glanced out of the corner of his eye he was still there and his mouth was slightly open, as if he wanted to say something. “Can I help you, prince of Phthia?” he asked, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

Achilles frowned. “Yes,” he said bluntly. “What is your name, son of Menoetius?”

“Patroclus.”

“Patroclus.”

“Yes.”

“Why do you hate me Patroclus?”

Startled, Patroclus blinked. Achilles’ face was honest and questioning, like a young child’s. He fished about wildly for an answer, protesting inarticulately that he would never presume above his status to dislike his most gracious host when Achilles raised his hand with a look of sheer boredom and he fell silent immediately. “Alright that’s enough,” he said. “If you’re going to do nothing but bleat about it I have better things to do than waste my time listening to sheep.”

He turned to walk away, leaving Patroclus to open and close his mouth in outrage. A sheep? he thought furiously. A sheep?! And who does he think he is, the prize of the flock? Sheep. I’ll give him sheep.

“Prince Achilles!” he called before he could stop himself. The boy stopped in his tracks. He looked over his shoulder, one perfect eyebrow raised expectantly. Patroclus took a breath. “I am not a sheep!”

Achilles fixed him with a stare. It was a wicked thing and his eyes shone with mischief. Patroclus felt himself gulp but he held his gaze proudly until the boy-prince smiled. “We’ll see,” he said simply. “You can go on hating me if you like, Patroclus Menoitides. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen a man turn to resentment as a result of his envy.”

He sniggered as Patroclus’ eyes widened in indignation. “I’m not envious of you,” he mumbled confusedly. “You’re a narcissist. A sycophant. The only reason nobody else will tell you so is because your father is lord of these lands.”

“And what are you, then?” Achilles retorted and his eyes flashed bronze. “An exiled prince. A murderer, if the rumours are true. No home. No prospects. No conceivable talent.”

He flushed at that and Achilles smirked. “Pretty face though,” he added. “You might make a good eunuch.”

At that moment, Patroclus knew what he was supposed to do. He was to jump up, fix his expression into one of heroic fury, deliver an excellent right hook into the little scrotum’s jaw and not stop until he was a bloody pulp in the sand. He had seen it done so many times for insults much less than this, had even done it himself in his father’s house. Reputations were built on such actions, heroes born out of impulse and recklessness.

But he remembered where he was. A stranger in a strange land and his adversary was the king of that land’s son, with a goddess for a mother and divine blood in his veins. He also remembered the way he fought, the perfect execution of his limbs and the sculpting of his muscles, as though every whisper of his body could speak the word Kill.

The twitch of Achilles’ lip was enough.

He leapt up and ran at him headfirst, fists raised. He could see Achilles’ stupid, smirking face coming closer and closer until he was just about near enough to reach; he raised his arm and swung, expecting the cool touch of knuckle colliding against skin. Instead he felt nothing as his bunched fist fell through clean air, his body following. Achilles had sidestepped out of the way and now grabbed the failed fist, pulling it backwards so that Patroclus was thrown onto the ground and landed in a disgraceful heap at his feet.

He could hear laughing in the background and caught Achilles’ glittering smile at the boys watching behind them. He spat out a handful of sand from his mouth. If you’re waiting for the right moment for divine intervention, oh mysterious, hidden patron god of mine, he prayed silently as more people began to turn to discover the cause of such hilarity, Now would be a good time.

“Now now,” Achilles sang merrily as Patroclus massaged his wrist. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you to respect your betters?”

“You’re not better than me,” he managed to wince. The laughter grew louder. Achilles wrinkled his nose as if trying to dislodge a fly.

“Maybe in another world,” he said. “Where cowardice and inadequacy are admirable values in a man.”

“As opposed to vanity and conceit,” said Patroclus.

The gathered crowd grew silent as Achilles looked at him. It was only for a moment but for Patroclus, kneeling at his feet and covered in sand it felt like a Golden Age. And as the time passed, slowly like a man dragged by chariot he was not sure if he imagined a faint flicker of humour pass across the prince’s face. Then it was over, Achilles offered Patroclus his hand, pulled him to his feet and marched away without a backwards glance, the dice rattling in his hands and he was certain he had imagined it.

Dinner that night was a particularly painful experience. The ballad of Valiant Achilles’ Versus the Inglorious Patroclus was the evening’s subject of entertainment and wherever Patroclus looked someone was relating the honourable tale to his neighbour, resulting in the standard rambunctious hoot of mirth and a scornful look his way. He pushed the plate away, feeling sick and not trusting himself to swallow. Aware that all eyes were on him he left the hall and went to bed early.

Listen to them, he thought bitterly, their voices following him up the stone steps. With their flattering and their…their…backslapping. “Oh, let me pour your wine, Achilles,” “let me braid your hair” “let me wipe your arse for you Achilles”! Gods. This whole place is full of pseuds and donkeys.

By the time he reached his room he was just about ready to explode with resentment. He opened the door and made ready to scream into his pillow when he stopped, realising there was already someone in there. It was a girl, dressed in one of the short chitons of the servants’ quarters and she jumped when he walked in.

“Young master,” she murmured, lowering her gaze and bending her knees in respect. “Please forgive your servant the intrusion.”

“Intrusion?” Patroclus repeated, perplexed. “Yes. Yes! Intrusion. What are you doing in my room?”

The girl gestured towards the bed with a frown. “Changing the sheets, young master.”

“Oh. Right. Sheets.” He breathed a sigh of relief, not knowing quite what he had expected. All he knew was that this was Achilles’ home, he was likely to have spies everywhere and if he had singled him out as a rival there was no telling quite what a young, female slave might be doing in his bedroom. “Ok. Fine. Good work.”

The girl acknowledged the praise. “Is there anything else you would like doing?”

“Wha-? Oh, no,” Patroclus shook his head. “All good here. You may go.”

She nodded, the frown still playing slightly between her brows. “Forgive me for my impudence,” she said slowly. “But might I inquire as to the well- being of my young master?”

“Pardon?”

“Is everything alright?”

“Oh,” said Patroclus. “Oh yes, it’s fine. Fine, everything’s brilliant. Just…the prince can be….but yes, it’s fine. Thank you for asking.”

“You dislike the prince?” said the girl.

“What? No,” Patroclus shook his head quickly. “I never said…I mean…the prince is great! I love the prince!”

“The prince.”

“Yes.”

“He’s a dick.”

“Yes. Yes he is.” Patroclus exhaled the breath he didn’t know he had been holding in.

The girl smiled and Patroclus gave a watery attempt back. “Don’t worry about it,” she said gently. “If he had it this way we’d all be crawling along the ground like insects. As it is I just try to stay out the way of his big feet.”

Patroclus forced a laugh. “Right. I’ll remember that. Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” she smiled again and gave a little bow, closing the door gently behind her.

Patroclus waited until her footsteps had faded down the stone corridor before collapsing onto the neatly made mattress, groaning into the linen. It seemed that even now, in the silence of his chamber he could still hear their echoing laughter, cruel and grinding against his ears. Achilles’ words rang loudest of all: “An exiled prince. A murderer. No home. No prospects. No conceivable talent.”

He sighed a mournful little sigh and turned so that he was facing the window. The moon was bright tonight and large as a coin, almost silvery in the dark sky. It was the kind of moon that the goddess Artemis would bring to light the way for weary travellers and guard those who served her while they slept. Patroclus closed his eyes and muttered a quick prayer. Surly the maiden huntress would take pity on a poor, vulnerable soul such as he, alone and victimised in this hell of charlatans. Surely she could give him peace of mind, for this night at least if not during the day.

If his words fell at all it was on deaf ears, for that night he dreamed of the dead boy.

Chapter Text

Tesserae.  

The dice fits comfortably in his hands, the edges and corners just poking into the flat of his thumb. He runs a finger over the surprising smoothness, counting the sides and the little ridges. Funny, he thinks, that I am playing with that with which I need to play. It is very awkward irony but he speaks it aloud and the other boys gawp at him as they would a philosopher.

One look at their admiring faces is enough to convince him that he rather likes being drunk.

A thousand empty bottles lay cluttered around the board, nestling between dirty naked feet and sticky hands. It all has the stale, slightly musty smell of his father’s store cupboard but it is strong and needs a lot of water. It occurs to him that he might have got the ratio wrong; quantities confuse him in this state, but he also decides he doesn’t care. Looking around him everyone is laughing with a girl on his lap and he feels strong, so very, very strong.

Everyone sees the foul throw but Clysonymus is a big boy, built like a battering ram and his father is staying in one of the palace’s nicer rooms. He has gotten away with it before now and it’s not fair, he thinks, not when it’s my dice and my kingdom is so much bigger than his. And he feels so very strong.

He is not sure who throws the first punch. All he knows is that he is alone and that he is staring down at the broken fragments of a man’s skull. It litters the rock, like the cracked shell of a nut, and runs a river over his bare feet and somewhere he thinks he hears a God laugh…

“PATROCLUS!”

“I’m sorry father!” Patroclus wailed and opened his eyes, expecting to meet the stern, condemning face of Menoetius, with its pointed beard and eyes averted in embarrassment. Instead he found himself staring into the ruddy, red-cheeked, flushed fury of his drill master.

“FATHER?” Ampelius bellowed and the ground seemed to shake beneath him. “FATHER?!”

“Sorry sir,” Patroclus cringed as the boys behind him tried to stifle their sniggers. “Slip of the tongue.”

“LET ME ASK YOU SOMETHING BOY,” he continued to roar. “SINCE THE FIRST DAY OF YOUR TRAINING IN THE ARTS OF WARCRAFT, WHEN YOU GAVE THAT ABYSMAL SHOWING OF YOUR MILITARY TALENT, HAVE I EVER ONCE SUGGESTED THAT I SHOULD LIKE TO BE EVEN YOUR MOST DISTANT RELATIVE?”

“No sir,” said Patroclus.

“DO I LOOK LIKE DADDY?”

“No sir.”

“DO I SOUND LIKE DADDY?”

“Gods no, sir.”

“NO! I DO NOT SOUND LIKE DADDY. BECAUSE I AM NOT YOUR FATHER, I HAVE NEVER BEEN YOUR FATHER, AND, JUST TO MAKE IT VERY CLEAR, I HAVE NO SON!”

“No sir,” said Patroclus dully. “But you see, that’s exactly what he said.”

For a moment he thought Ampelius might beat him. He held his breath and waited for the giant, hammer-like fists to come down but then the drill instructor shook his great, shaggy head and sighed a mournful little sigh.

“I don’t know what to do with you today, lad,” he said sadly. “For one thing you can barely keep your eyes open. You fell asleep in the middle of a chariot race and in the spear toss you just about turned Calisthenes into a fruit kebab.”

“Yeah,” said Calisthenes. “Thanks for that.”

“What’s gotten into you this morning?” he continued. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like you’re a whole lot better on a normal day. But at the moment…Pegasus with dysentery would call you shit."

The boys tittered and Patroclus looked up. Almpelius’ round face was creased with a frown and he was looking down at him as though he desperately wanted to understand. But far from making him feel better, if anything, the genuine concern in his voice only made Patroclus feel a little more like dying. “It’s nothing sir,” he replied quietly. “I just…I didn’t sleep well.”

The empty shell of the dead boy swam into his head through a scarlet flood and he squeezed his eyes tight to shut him out. Ampelius shook his head again and scratched the back of his neck. “Well,” he began. “I thought we might try the javelin again this afternoon, that’s if Menoitides here can even lift the damn thing in his state, but I’ve left them in the storeroom for cleaning. Patroclus, you run a long and get them. And don’t you dare tarry or I will give you something to tell daddy about.”

Patroclus gave a quick nod and sprinted off the field, ears burning. This, he thought furiously, was not his fault. Zeus or some other cruel deity had tortured his night with dreams and now every time he closed his eyes he saw Clysonymus, staring and white. He had not slept, only tossed and turned in a fitful spell, twisting the linen sheets into sweaty knots around him. Sometimes the boy reached for him and he swore he could feel his touch, like an icy breath on his forehead and sometimes he spoke. He could never understand him though, for his words were too soft and too condemning. The slow speech of Hades.

It was only when he was back inside and the stone walls cast their gloomy shadow once again that it dawned on him. He had no idea where the storeroom was. The realisation sent a sickness into his stomach. He couldn’t go back and ask Ampelius, the look on his face when he’d called him “father” had shaken him enough. Besides, the idea of having to turn around and face the group of snickerers and tormenters again was unthinkable. But if he took too long he knew Ampelius wouldn’t think twice about thrashing him in front of the other boys which is not happening, he told himself, never ever, ever.

He looked around fretfully for inspiration. Ahead there were three corridors; one which he knew led to the Main Hall and two others which remained untried. Fine, this is fine, he thought calmly. I’ll just keep turning left until I meet someone I can ask. And with a surprising decisiveness he took the left corridor and headed down it without looking back.

It didn’t take him long to discover that the majority of passages in Peleus’ house looked pretty much identical. Apparently the palace architect had wanted to represent the equality of the Phthian people and the unanimity of the nation by designing a building of complete symmetric likeness. A touching display of patriotic pride perhaps but it was lost on Patroclus who was beginning to feel more and more like Theseus winding his way through the Minotaur’s labyrinth. His rule of left did not appear to be working particularly well, he had seen no one and so could not ask if he was even allowed in this particular wing and was becoming uncomfortably aware of how big the palace really was. What’s more the hallways seemed to be never ending and although there were plenty of doors on his left and right he came to no dead ends.

This is ridiculous, he thought, dodging a low-hanging torch bracket. Why on earth does Peleus need a palace this size? He might as well have built a citadel on a molehill! He took another left, grumbling to himself and stopped, realising that the hallway had at last reached its end. A single door, marked with the characters that meant slaves only was set into the stone, gleaming mahogany with a bronze handle. This must be it. All the other rooms are for attendants and visitors. Quickly he reached for the knob, pushed the door open, and fell through darkness.

“AAAAGGGGGGHHHHH!”

“EEEEEEEEIIIIIIIIIKKKK!”

“Oh my Gods! Who’s there?! Show yourself!”

He grasped around blindly, his heart hammering in his ears until he felt his fingers clasp around something soft. Whatever it was pulled away and he stumbled and slipped, landing painfully on his front. “Ouch,” he groaned pathetically and groaned again as a light grew and swelled before his eyes.

“Young master?” whispered the voice behind the light.

Patroclus rubbed his eyes and managed to haul himself into a sitting position. It was coming from a lantern and holding the lantern was a slave girl, the same girl who had made his bed the previous night. She was watching him with her mouth slightly open, as if she gazed upon a ghost or apparition rather than a scrawny teenage boy who had taken a wrong turn and landed in a disgraceful heap at her feet.

“Hello,” said Patroclus and got to his feet. As his eyes adjusted to the new brightness he saw himself surrounded by an assortment of different vials and bottles, pitchers and amphorae. There was not a javelin in sight. “This is not the storeroom.”

“Oh my gods,” said the girl. “I am so sorry! It’s my fault…I should have seen…Gods, I’m sorry-”

“-Huh? No, don’t be sorry,” he shook his head ardently. “It’s my fault completely. I wasn’t looking. Well obviously, I couldn’t see-”

“-But you’re hurt!” she cut him off with a gasp, pointing at his knee.

Patroclus looked down. There was a gash of blood running steadily down his leg. “Oh, it’s just a graze,” he replied dismissively, bending to wipe it away. “See? No problem.”

Still the girl stared in horror, lips moving without forming words. “My Gods,” she said again. “I swear I never…I’m so sorry…please forgive your errant slave, master-”

“-Honestly it’s fine!” he insisted. “Like I said, it was my fault. I mean, I shouldn’t even be down here.”

“This is true,” the girl nodded, biting her lip nervously. “Um…why are you down here?”

“I’m looking for the storeroom,” Patroclus replied. “And I think I’m lost.”

“I think so too,” said the girl. “This is a wine cellar.”

“Yes,” said Patroclus uncomfortably, looking around in interest. “That would explain the…um…wine.”

He finished lamely and she gave a sweet, nervous laugh which he returned with a half-smile. “Come on,” she said and took his hand. “I’ll show you.”

She led him back up the steps leading to the cellar and into the hallway. The glare of natural light hit Patroclus hard and he found he had to squint to look at her while she, accustomed as she was to the dim of the servant’s quarters, moved easily through the maze of stone and marble. He saw that she was young, round about his own age in fact, with the light brown skin and dark eyes of an Easterner. Her step was very light and she reminded him of one of the small, cautious, quick-footed creatures that dwelt in the woods back home.

“The main route is back the way you came, then you take a right and then another right but I know a much quicker way,” she explained.

“Right,” Patroclus nodded awkwardly. “Listen, I really am sorry about this. I hope I haven’t gotten you into trouble or anything…You’ve probably got more important things to do…”

“Well yes, I do,” she admitted. “But to be honest I think I’d much rather be helping you then assisting Phoenix with his oiling.”

The idea of the king’s chief advisor, stripped, naked and glistening with oil in all his eighty-year old glory was not a particularly welcome one. “That’s…pretty disgusting.”

“It is isn’t it?” she agreed. “Here, this way.”

She led him through a series of secret and disconnected passageways, Patroclus guessed used only by slaves when they wanted to appear invisible. His mother had often said that the mark of a good slave was if you didn’t even know they were there and he had often wondered how they did their jobs so quickly and so discreetly. Now he knew.

“Gods, you really know your way around this place,” he observed, bending to avoid hitting a very low ceiling.

“Well I should do, I’ve been here since I was six,” she said. “I wouldn’t be much of a slave if I didn’t, young master.”

“Please, enough of all this ‘young master’ stuff,” Patroclus cringed. “We’re about the same age, for one thing.”

“Then what should I call you?” she asked. “Menoitides?”

“No,” he shook his head quickly. “Patroclus. Just…Patroclus. And you?”

She looked at him, puzzled. “Huh?”

“What do I call you? What’s your name?”

“Oh,” her big eyes widened in surprise and it suddenly dawned on Patroclus that she probably wasn’t used to hearing that very often. “Leptine. Everyone calls me Leptine.”

“It’s nice to meet you Leptine,” said Patroclus and Leptine smiled shyly.

Leptine’s knowledge of the palace meant they reached the storeroom quickly and she helped carry the javelins back with him. As they walked Patroclus told her all about his troubles with the other boys, how failure seemed to follow him whatever he did and how even his drill master looked at him with exasperation. He mentioned his encounter with Achilles and she clucked her tongue impatiently at his name and tutted sympathetically when he described his humiliating attempt to fight him. “That boy is spoiled,” she said angrily. “His father could give him the kingdom and he’d complain that it isn’t as big as Mycenae. I just don’t understand how no one else sees it. You should hear some of the other girls talk about him, as if it were Adonis’ chitons they were laundering.”

“I can imagine,” muttered Patroclus glumly, thinking of the way his shoulders flashed in the sunlight, like hard bronze.

They reached the big archway leading to the playing fields and Leptine handed Patroclus the javelins. “I suppose I’d better get to the baths,” she said gloomily. “Phoenix is old, but he won’t sleep forever.”

“Unless he dies,” Patroclus suggested.

Leptine laughed. “Well it was nice to meet you,” she smiled her small, guarded smile.

“Thank you so much,” said Patroclus. “Gods know what I would have done if I hadn’t…um…ran into you. I hope I see you around.”

“I daresay you will,” she replied brightly. “It’s not all that big a house, for all its paths.”

She bowed, gave him a fluttery little wave and headed back inside. Patroclus watched her go, her unbound hair tangling in the slight wind and was suddenly aware of the inexplicable feeling that perhaps he was not so alone after all.

Chapter Text

Patroclus knew he was in trouble before he stepped through the door.

When you have lived a life of relentless injustice and victimisation you learn to develop a sixth sense for these things. A subtle change in the air, a thickness of atmosphere, a face that looks up when you enter a room, all catlike smiles and I know something that you don’t. Next thing he knew he was sitting in front of King Peleus, backed by three of his chief advisors, watching the old man shake his head sadly and saying “Dear, dear, dear.”

“But I haven’t done anything,” he protested feebly.

Phoenix, Amyntor and Cleitus exchanged looks of disbelief. Peleus shook his head sadly. “Now see here lad,” Phoenix began. “It’ll be a whole lot better for you if you just tell the truth. No point in all this unnecessary ugliness.”

“Tell the truth about what?” asked Patroclus.

Cleitus snorted derisively. “‘Tell the truth about what’,” he snarled “As if you did not know.”

“But I don’t know,” said Patroclus.

“Enough!” snapped Amyntor. “Stop playing the innocent! Accept it like a man, by Herkules and admit to your crime!”

“But I haven’t committed any crime!”

“‘Haven’t committed any crime’,” mocked Cleitus. “Right. Sure.”

“It may not appear very serious to you, Patroclus,” said Phoenix gently. “I’m sure you meant no harm. But I’m afraid it is quite a serious matter and your little joke has cost us rather dear, not to mention a fair share of damage.”

“Damage?” Patroclus repeated, perplexed. “What are you talking about?”

“The COWS, boy!” answered Amyntor. “We’re talking about the goddamned cows!”

They stood there, eyes narrowed, waiting expectantly for his reply. Patroclus searched each face for some humour, for some clue that this was just a big stupid joke and soon they would all burst out laughing and send him back to his room with a clap on the back and a wine in hand. But there was none. He took a breath. “I’m sorry,” he said, trying to keep his voice level. “But I still don’t know why I’m here.”

The three advisors looked at each other. Peleus was still shaking his head, only he had now moved on to twiddling his thumbs and gazing interestedly at the ceiling. Amyntor leaned forward until his face was inches from patroclus’. “You are here,” he said very slowly, as if it was costing him a great effort to stay calm. “Because someone snuck into the king’s fields, opened the gates for the king’s herd and led them all into the king’s Great Hall, resulting in a thousand tripods’ worth of damage and the consumption of at least four tapestries! Four bloody tapestries! And we have reason to believe that that someone was you.” 

“Ok,” said Patroclus. “Except it wasn’t.” 

“‘Except it wasn’t,’” jeered Cleitus. “Shut up.” 

“It wasn’t!” he insisted. “I don’t even know where the king’s fields are!” 

“There is no point in denying it,” said Phoenix tiredly. “You were seen.” 

Patroclus stared in disbelief. Amyntor and Cleitus crossed their arms and glared down at him with triumphant disdain. “I was seen,” he repeated, trying to make sense of the words in his own head. “By who?” 

“Oh you would like to know wouldn’t you,” sneered Amyntor. “What would you do, go and finish him off like you did the last?” 

“It wasn’t like that,” Patroclus sighed. “Look, I really am sorry about the cows. But someone is obviously trying to frame me so if you could just let me -” 

“-Save your breath coward,” snapped Cleitus. “And keep your forked tongue behind your teeth.” 

Patroclus fell back in his seat, seething and blinked back furious tears. This is not right, his head yelled. This is not right, this is not right. 

“A gambler, a murderer, and now a petty prankster,” said Amyntor. “We have no choice. The boy must be punished.” 

The three heads turned and each pair of beetle black eyes settled on Peleus’ glazed, absentminded blue. There was a silence while the King of Phthia twidDled his mottled grey thumbs and hummed, idly in time with the beat of Patroclus’ own heart. Suddenly, Peleus gave a raspy, phlegm-filled cough and fixed Patroclus with a gaze that pinned him fast to the hard back of his chair, a scrutiny that filled him with an ice fear that none of the advisors’ pitiless threats had yet to manage. 

“Menoitides,” said Peleus and Patroclus felt a cold thing slither beneath his skin. “This is a most serious matter.” 

Patroclus blinked and swallowed as the king gave another hoarse cough and pulled the thick furs he wore over his cloak tighter around his shoulders. Patroclus shifted in his seat, realising with a pang that he had never been more afraid of an old man. 

“You were sent here,” Peleus continued. “With hopes of redemption. Generously I accepted you into my home and this is how you repay my kindness.” 

“Please sir,” Patroclus attempted. “I never meant-” 

“-Be silent,” said Peleus, raising a milk-white palm and Patroclus lowered his head. “I have heard enough. Amyntor is right. You must be punished.” 

The three advisors looked smug. Peleus cleared his throat again and continued. “However,” he said. “We must be sure not to look too harshly upon the nature of boys. It is not a lesson of Violence that you need but one of discipline. You must learn that you are no longer a prince of Opus but a servant of Phthia. And there is only one way a boy can learn such a lesson.” 

For a moment, Peleus’ eyes were hard as whetstones as he surveyed Patroclus. He held his breath like a man drowning and his palms were wet, as a convict who receives his sentence. “Patroclus, son of Menoitides, exiled prince of Opus,” Peleus began and his voice seemed to echo the deep tones of a judge. “I condemn you to three months of enforced service. For now on you will be treated as little more than a slave. You will sleep in the servants’ quarters, you will speak only when spoken to and you will carry out every single task ordered by your superiors until it is clear to me that you have learnt the obedience and restraint of an honoured citizen.” 

So he spoke and to Patroclus each word was like the drop of a heavy stone on his skull. Finally he folded his blue veined hands and asked “What say you to this?” and Patroclus stared back in stunned disbelief, his mouth moving stupidly and soundlessly. Three months of enforced service. Three months of ordered slavery. Death would have been quicker, and a thrashing less painful. Say no, his mind screamed say you’d rather die. But there was only one answer one could give a king. 

“I…” he stuttered and gulped. “There is nothing for a slave to say to his master.” 

The king nodded approvingly. Amyntor, however, looked furious. “Begging your pardon my lord,” he whispered angrily. “But the boy has committed a civic offense. Theft and vandalism against the king! Three months of scrubbing floors is unlikely to discourage such delinquent behaviour.” 

“We should leave him on a mountain with a fishbone and a slingshot,” nodded Cleitus. “That’s what they do in Sparta.” 

“But we are not in Sparta,” said Phoenix firmly. “Nor are we Spartans. Truth, this boy has done wrong, as we all do when we are young. Show him the compassion you yourself would expect. Besides, my lord is right. Violence will only encourage him. We don’t want to make him a martyr.” 

“So it is settled,” coughed Peleus. “Henceforth you will be stripped of your name and title. You will address your peers as ‘sir’ and you will answer to the orders of any man in this house. Go and take care of your belongings. Amyntor will show you to your new quarters.” 

Amyntor shot Patroclus a filthy look as he got to his feet, mumbled a hasty “As it please you my lord” and hurried speedily from the room. His heart was still pounding in his ears and his skin felt clammy and cold as he raced up the steps to where, up till now, had been his chambers. He could still feel their steely black eyes on the back of his neck, even upon slamming the door shut and sinking pathetically to the floor. 

It was only then that he was able to fully comprehend the unfairness of the situation. Someone in the group had pulled the stupid prank with the cows and it was he, Patroclus, who was getting the blame. “You were seen,” Phoenix had said. By who? Who had it out for him so badly as to risk getting caught by the king himself? He thought back to the other day, sat beneath the tree on the beach. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you to respect your betters?” Well. Here was a lesson he was unlikely to forget in a hurry. 

He packed his things quickly, reluctant to keep Amyntor waiting and left his room with a bag as heavy as his deadened guts. The advisor stood at the foot of the steps, his lips curved in a loathsome snarl. He barely spared his charge a glance before turning on his heel and marching straight down one of the darkest corridors, leaving Patroclus to stumble anxiously after him. 

“This passage will soon become very known to you,” he stated without looking. “Can you remember the way?” 

“Yes,” muttered Patroclus darkly. 

“Yes what?” 

“Yes sir,” Patroclus snarled. 

Amyntor tossed him a black look and said nothing. They walked the rest of the way in silence, their boots echoing across the marble and to Patroclus it seemed that his steps were growing quieter, muffled against the gloomy dark until at long last they came to a tiny wooden door set into the rough grey stone. The hinges were brilliant orange with rust and the surface had chipped to splinters. Patroclus stared at it dully, watching it grow smaller before his eyes. 

“Your room, my lord prince,” said Amyntor mockingly, almost wrenching the little door from its cavity. 

Patroclus peered round the man’s arm and for a moment was confused. Did the king truly mean for him to sleep in a hole? Then he realised. There was no light in this part of the palace, save for a few wavering candles dripping wax from their stubs. The bobbing flames cast dim shadows on already shrunken faces, shying coyly away as if their entering had burned them. The quarters were tiny, yet there had to be at least a hundred bodies pressed into the nooks and crevices, all of whom were watching Patroclus warily. Patroclus looked back into their wide-eyed, distrusting faces and felt faintly sick. 

“Leptine!” barked Amyntor. Patroclus heard startled rustling from the corner, like that of a disturbed mouse and the young girl who had rescued him only a few days past broke from the shadows. 

“Yes my lord?” Leptine answered, her eyes flickering nervously over Patroclus’ perplexed face. 

“Teach Menoitides the ways and workings of this house. He is to be one of you now. Show him how things are done. Teach him what it is to be a slave,” his lips twisted into a crude leer. 

“And if he will not learn, my lord?” asked Leptine nervously.

“We shall make him,” he replied and left abruptly, slamming the door behind him with a force that made the whole frame quiver. 

Patroclus turned and surveyed the many faces watching him. Most were confused, a few were suspicious. Leptine, however, looked as though she had been smacked in the forehead by the sun. 

“I hoped I’d see you again,” she said brightly. “But what’s going on? What is Amyntor talking about?” 

Patroclus sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. “It’s a long story,” he replied, feeling suddenly very tired. “But I suppose I have three months to tell it.” 

*** 

Leptine listened in sympathetic silence as Patroclus unloaded on her the whole sad, sorry tale and when he was finished she abused the prince, the advisors and the society in which they lived with such aggression that he even felt a little bit better. But as sorry as she was, she informed him gently, there was very little they could do and they would all save themselves some pain if he could just stick out his punishment, do as he was told and try not to upset anyone. 

“You’re one of us now,” she told him with her melancholy smile. “That means they can treat you like one of us.” 

And that was how Patroclus found himself in a starched yellow chiton, scrubbing the floors of the Great Hall. 

On reflection, he found himself thinking, this really wasn’t all that bad a punishment. True, his knees were skinned red from kneeling on the stone and his lower back ached to Hades.  But the room was cool and pleasantly dim, a welcome relief from the stifling wet heat of Phthian summer and the palace was blessedly quiet. The lords had gone hunting, Peleus was resting in his chambers and the boys were outside for morning drills. A slow smile crept up Patroclus’ face as he thought about them all, sweltering under the ruthless sun, Ampelius’ heat-induced rage ringing in their ears. 

The resounding scrape of wood against stone blew away all thoughts of calm as Patroclus snatched up the sodden rag and immediately sped up his strokes. He looked up uneasily as the huge double doors opened, revealing the last person on Gaia’s green earth he wanted to see. 

“Hey,” said Achilles. “Are you busy?” 

Patroclus looked at him. He was lounging against the doorframe with his standard, detestable nonchalance; his thumbs tucked idly into the low belt hanging off his slim hips. Hot anger flared in Patroclus’ chest, mixed with a desire to slam the door into his face and not stop until he was nothing but blood on the stone. “Yes,” he answered shortly and turned away. 

Achilles ignored him and proceeded to pace around the room. Patroclus tried to keep his eyes fixed on the soap sopped patch in front of him but his gaze kept drifting to where Achilles’ feet touched the ground one and two and three, lightly with the grace of a dancer. Then he noticed the dirt clinging to his heels, and now to the floor. His floor. 

“I just did there,” he blurt out in irritation. 

Achilles stopped and looked down. He shrugged. “Sorry.” 

Sorry. He kept saying that but Patroclus wondered if he knew what the word even meant. “Did you want something?” he asked. “Or are you just here to revel in your triumph?” 

Achilles frowned. “I came to see you.” 

“I’m flattered,” said Patroclus in a tone that suggested he was really, really not. 

“Good,” grinned Achilles. “You’re learning something.” 

Patroclus rolled his eyes and returned to scrubbing the floor. Achilles stood there, watching him. Finally Patroclus looked back up, irritably. “What?” 

“I can’t move,” his voice was smug. 

Gods above. “When your mother held you in the Styx how tight was her hold? Or was it your wet nurse who dropped you on your head?” 

“And what kind of a way is that for a slave to talk to his prince? I should have you flogged.” 

“Then why don’t you?” Patroclus snarled back. “Save us both this pointless conversation.” 

He didn’t quite know what he was expecting to happen. All he knew was that this boy, this so-called godchild brought out the dissenter in him and that he could not control himself, even if he’d wanted to. It was as if Achilles had kindled a fire in his gut, a long suppressed spark that was growing to flame and setting him alight with a sort of rebellious excitement. He did not care what Achilles did as long as he knew what he thought of him, and as long as he considered him a force to be reckoned with. 

What he did not expect was for Achilles to look down at his feet, averting Patroclus’ gaze and start to nibble on his lower lip. If he hadn’t known better, Patroclus would have said he was nervous. “I need to tell you something,” he began carefully. “I never meant for…this…to happen.” 

He gestured awkwardly at Patroclus kneeling on the floor, the rag in his hands oozing suds into the puddle of water at his feet. Patroclus snorted derisively. “Right,” he said. “Okay. As if you hadn’t got it out for me from day one. As if this wasn’t exactly what you intended when you told the king it was me who pulled that prank with those stupid bloody cows-” 

“-But that’s what I’m saying,” said Achilles hurriedly. “It wasn’t me.” 

Patroclus stared. “Huh?” 

“I mean, not the cows. That was me. But I didn’t tell father it was you. I would never do that.” 

“Somehow I find that hard to believe.” 

“I didn’t!” Achilles protested ardently. “It wouldn’t be honourable.” 

“Honourable?” Patroclus repeated in disbelief. “Since when do you give two shits about honour?” 

“It’s all I give a shit for,” Achilles retorted. “Honour and glory. Everything else is ephemeral.” 

“I think you’re confusing honour with egoism.” 

“Maybe,” a flash of wicked smile. “But whatever my philosophy, it’s served me better than yours has you.” 

“Perhaps that’s because I don’t centre my philosophy on serving myself.” 

“Evidently,” said Achilles with a nod to the bucket at his elbow. “But whatever, believe what you like. I just thought I’d tell you. And I don’t lie.” 

“If not you then who was it?” Patroclus challenged. 

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Could have been anyone. A lot of people have it in for you, Patroclus. You present an easy target. It comes with not being like the rest of them.” 

“Right,” nodded Patroclus. “Well apologies my lord, but I’m not like the rest of them. So you’ll excuse me if I don’t happily swallow up your bullshit.” 

It was a step too far. Achilles’ eyes narrowed and in that moment, Patroclus recalled the whispered rumours circulating the servant’s quarters and the palace walls, the inhuman tense of his arm and back, the gold of divinity in his eyes. “Fine,” he said and his voice was like wind on the sea. “Play it that way. I was on my way to tell father that it was me who put the cows in the Hall and to lift your punishment…but I don’t think I will now.” 

Something cold and slimy twisted in Patroclus’ gut as he looked up, furiously, into Achilles’ beautiful, sneering face. “You must do as your honour commands, my prince,” he replied with more bravery than he felt. 

“I will,” said Achilles. “And what’s more it will do you well to remember, slave Menoitides, that as my servant I can ask you to do anything I want.” 

Patroclus almost dropped the rag he was holding. There was something in Achilles’ voice that made him feel suddenly very warm and when he spoke his voice was hoarse. “And what would my lord have his servant do?” 

“I don’t know yet,” Achilles replied with a sly smile. “I haven’t given it much thought. But don’t worry. I’ll let you know.” 

And with that he turned abruptly and left, slamming the huge double doors behind him and leaving a trail of dirty footprints behind, gleaming laughingly from the polished grey stone.

Chapter Text

As the days stretched into weeks Patroclus realised he had made a mistake in taking his new position so lightly. Every morning, before Dawn had even so much as stretched her legs he would be up; turning sheets, heating water and cleaning straw, yawning and rubbing sluggishly at his eyes in the morning cold. He would then return to his quarters for a breakfast of dry, grey bread and dates before beginning the day’s tasks, all of which were long, arduous and incredibly boring. 

It was not so bad when Leptine was with him. Through shy beginnings of tentative, polite smalltalk they had begun to reveal more of themselves to the other, weaving whole webs of history with the threads of casual conversation until one day, Patroclus realised they had reached the stage where they could say just about anything and whether with a word, or a smile, or just a look which said I get you their world was just a little more calm. Patroclus had never been gotten by anybody before and he wondered how many nights Leptine had lain awake waiting for someone to tell her dreams to. 

She was true to her word, leading him back and forth along the secret workings and inner passages of the palace until he could trace them in his sleep. She taught him how to flit silently as a moth from one room to another and how to step lightly across the stone like a cat with no shadow. She taught him when best to speak and when to keep quiet and, most importantly, when to listen and leave without getting caught. 

“If you cannot hear you will not get far,” she whispered, one ear pressed to a door. “We slaves are soldiers. Our sword is secrets. Our shield is gossip. And our fight is survival.” 

She taught him how to tell from one sniff if a wine was very old or very young. She showed him how best to skim the curds from the milk and make them into butter or cheese. She even revealed to him the coveted art of herb lore; which roots cured stomach ache and which cleared the throat from infection, the flower that could drive a man insane with lust and the one that brought on a deep and dreamless sleep, the sap from one plant which could with three drops cure almost any ailment known to man and with four bring an instant and painful death. 

“Not all slaves know this kind of thing mind,” she told him matter-of-factly, chopping roots with a silver knife. “It’s not something you just pick up. You have to be taught and you have to know what you’re doing. One wrong ingredient and Phoenix’s simple sleeping draught will have him on the privy for weeks and limping for months.” 

“So where did you learn it all?” asked Patroclus, scattering the leaves into boiling water. He was getting better with distinguishing between shape and colour but still had trouble measuring sizes and quantities. 

“My mother taught me,” Leptine replied. “She was the wise-woman of our village and knew all manner of spells and plant properties. I never had her gift but the little I know serves me well enough. A slave with a skill is worth more than a brothel can afford.” 

There was something in her voice, the bluntness with which she spoke about her past that made Patroclus sad and a little guilty for reasons he could not quite explain. Leptine was not from Greece but from far away to the East where the people were brown-skinned and dark and spoke the deep, melodic tones of the Anatolian tongue. When she was nine her village was raided and she was sold into captivity, thrown onto a ship and sent across the Aegean Sea to live in a strange land with a new name. Since then she had served in four different homes for four different masters, spoken five languages and worshiped more Gods than she could remember. Seven years has erased nearly all signs of her former accent, yet when she spoke of her old life her eyes grew bright with memory and sometimes, at night, Patroclus would catch a murmur of whispered prayer to a nameless, half-animal God and fall asleep with the faint rustle of hooves in his ears. 

“So with this,” he picked up a red flower with large round petals. “You can get rid of a man’s pain or send him into hallucination, just like that?” 

“Not with that you can’t,” said Leptine. “You have to extract the milk from the bud. But yes, in theory.” 

“And this,” a star-shaped purple plant with a bright yellow centre. “Treats memory loss, shows the future and acts as a poison?” 

“And then there’s torture,” Leptine reminded. 

“Do you realise how much power you actually have here?” Patroclus gaped wonderingly, turning the plant over in his hands. “I mean…with these ingredients…you could do anything. All those people who mistreated you or…or…hurt you. You could get them back with one drop of this or this. No one would dare harm you again,” a lifetime of injustice, a hundred contemptuous faces bled away like the prick of a thorn. “You’d be untouchable.” 

Leptine surveyed him thoughtfully. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said gently. “But you can’t play around with things like this. They’re meant to heal but they can also be incredibly dangerous. I couldn’t risk something going wrong. Besides, the Gods get angry if you abuse their gifts. They’re supposed to help people, not serve as revenge.” 

Patroclus wasn’t sure that his Gods were quite as charitable as hers but he let it lie. Still, as they prepared Peleus’ rheumatism tonic he could not quite keep out the image of slipping a discreet something into Amyntor’s wine…or Cleitus’…or Achilles’… 

“Patroclus,” Leptine’s voice cut sharply through the fantasy. 

“What?” he blinked innocently. 

Leptine shook her head. “No.” 

“Oh come on,” he begged. “Just a little of the nightshade. Or the cassava root. He deserves it!” 

“I don’t care if he kills your father and beds your sister, I’m not poisoning the prince,” she retorted. “And he’s requested a wine serving at noon so you’d better go clean yourself up.” 

Patroclus stared in protest. “Why me?” 

“He asked for you specifically. Have fun.” 

Groaning, Patroclus left the kitchen and made his way to one of the many rooms belonging to the prince and his friends, muttering darkly to himself. Ever since the conversation in the Hall Achilles had also been true to his word, having Patroclus perform every single task that came to him. Big or small, simple or crippling it made no difference. So far he had been ordered to stack Achilles’ weaponry in order of size and weight, only to watch the prince send it back into its usual state of anarchic confusion, “the way he preferred it”, immediately afterwards. He had also had him peel a dozen apples before serving them to his horse and given him the impossible task of filling the palace cauldron with hot water. It had only taken him two hours to realise that somebody had riddled the bottom with holes. 

He found him in one of the palace’s bigger rooms, lounging across a couch in his trademark position with one leg dangling off the arm. Grouped around him were five or so boys mimicking similar poses, laughing too jovially and talking too loudly in sickeningly obvious attempts to get his attention. Achilles, however, ignored them, looking bored as he always did and was busy staring into space when Patroclus walked in. 

“Ahem,” Patroclus announced feebly and the boys looked up. At once Achilles snapped out of his self-induced trance, flashing his most taunting smile. 

“Lord Patroclus,” he purred and the room fell silent. “How gracious of you to join us.” 

Patroclus glanced round the room. The faces were excited and smiling, their chests bursting with baited anticipation. What jolly game was their clever prince playing now? And how could they join in? 

“Look boys,” Achilles continued in a voice of velvet poison. “Look how the prince of Opus takes time out of his busy day to honour us with his most venerated presence.” 

The boys tittered. Achilles smiled and their eyes locked. Patroclus saw in them the glint of humour, the impish narrowing of mischief and he wondered how long Achilles had been waiting in sheer, devastating boredom for him to walk through that door. If only he was alone, he found himself wishing. I could take him if he was alone. 

But unwilling to make a spectacle in front of all these young lords, he inclined his head graciously. “You sent for me, my lord?” 

For a moment, Patroclus thought he saw a hint of disappointment cross the prince’s face. Then it was gone and the smile was back, mocking and contemptuous. “I’m thirsty,” he said. 

Achilles nodded and crossed over to the other side of the room. A decanter of wine and a tray of silver goblets had been set on a corner table and he poured them measurably, taking care to observe the water to wine ratio as Leptine had taught him. He then handed one to Achilles first before passing goblets to his company and waited anxiously as they raised the wine to their lips. Achilles took a steady sip, swallowed and grimaced. 

“A little thin,” he stated. “Are you sure you’ve got enough wine in there?” 

I have, you know I have. “Quite sure, my lord.” 

“Well I’m not,” Achilles shrugged. “I think we could do with it being quite a bit stronger, what do you think?” 

This question he tossed at his friends who promptly raised their glasses and cheered as if on cue. Patroclus suppressed the sinking feeling in his gut and went to refill the decanter. He knew, as no doubt Achilles did too, about Peleus’ views on the boys drinking strong wine. Only a few months ago the fosterlings had been resigned to drinking half-and-half with added milk to curb the potency further. “A man who cannot rule his own mind cannot possibly hope to rule a kingdom,” he had often heard him tell his son. But it was either this or disobey a direct order. 

Patroclus filled the goblets much to the boys’ delight and waited patiently for Achilles to taste. Again he winced. “No,” he shook his head. “Still not getting it.” 

He held the goblet out for re-filling. Patroclus hesitated. Achilles looked up, frowning curiously. “Patroclus,” he said softly. “I asked for more wine.” 

Patroclus bit his lip nervously. “But your father-” 

“-My father,” interrupted Achilles. “Is not here. I’m thirsty. My friends are thirsty. Would you have us drink this swill?” 

“More wine!” chorused one of the boys and the others echoed in a loud, brazen chant. “More wine! More wine!” 

Achilles looked at Patroclus and offered an apologetic grin. “The public wants what the public gets,” he said. 

Patroclus glared at him and went back to fetch the decanter. By the third fill most of the boys were already half-drunk with hilarity and juvenile rebellion but when Patroclus turned to go Achilles stopped him. “Stay,” he commanded. “I may have more need of you.” 

And so Patroclus found himself glued to a corner, watching as the movements became more deliberate and the sentences began to make less and less sense. Soon the whole room was filled with raucous laughter and nonsensical anecdotes and Patroclus felt as though he had stepped into another time, another place where he did not belong and yet could think of no way to escape. Please let nothing break, he prayed desperately. Please may no one kill each other. He tried not to imagine how worse his punishment would be if the king found out it had been Patroclus who had let his son kill himself out of drunken disobedience. 

And yet, he realised, watching out of the corner of his eye, Achilles had barely touched his own glass and was lying regally on the couch, surveying the scene before him with a mixture of amusement and scorn. It was then that it occurred to Patroclus that Achilles, it seemed, felt nothing for these people he called “friends”, except for a mild disgust he didn’t even try to disguise. They were just all too reeling with delusion to see it. The thought made Patroclus feel strangely satisfied. 

Achilles kept Patroclus there for an hour or so, having him refill glasses and move furniture around the room so that he could see it in all its different “lights”. Finally, with half the room snoring on their couches he turned to Patroclus and waved dismissively at the door. “You can go,” he said and Patroclus made to get out as fast as he could. “Wait.” 

Patroclus looked over his shoulder. There was a curious expression on Achilles’ face and his voice sounded strange when he spoke, “Have my bath ready before dinner.” 

oOo 

“He said what?” shrieked Leptine. 

“‘Have my bath ready before dinner,’” repeated Patroclus, perplexed. “Why? Does he not do that a lot?” 

“No, it’s just…um…” Leptine bit her lip. “You’re just not...trained for that…kind of thing.” 

Patroclus frowned in perplexity. “Well how hard can it be?” he mused. “I just have to heat some water, put it in a tub, maybe add some rose petals…or does he prefer lavender?” 

Leptine shook her head pityingly. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple.” 

Patroclus’ frown deepened. “How’d you mean?” 

Leptine signed and once again Patroclus felt that feeling of stepping into an imaginary world, where nothing made sense and everything meant something different. “Patroclus,” she took a steadying breath. “Do you know what a bath attendant is?” 

Patroclus nodded blankly. “Of course,” he replied confusedly, searching Leptine’s face for an explanation. “They’re girls who…you know….attend the bathing. Sensually.” 

Leptine nodded. “Yes,” she affirmed hesitantly. “But…um…not just girls.” 

She stepped back, waiting for his reaction. Patroclus stared idiotically as the wheels turned slowly through the mist of his mind, his eyes widening in sudden comprehension. “NO. No, no, no, no, no there’s no way he can mean that.” 

“What else could he mean?” shrugged Leptine. “He hasn’t asked any of the usuals. And he told you directly…” 

“I’m not doing it,” stated Patroclus, folding his arms protectively across his chest. “Just tell him I’m ill or I’ve run away or…or I’m dead or-” 

“-You don’t say no to a prince,” Leptine objected. “But listen, don’t worry about it. He probably just wants to make you uncomfortable, to remind you who’s on top, so to speak. He’ll have you pour his water…wash his hair….maybe oil his feet but that’s it. It’s just another way to humiliate you, that’s all. To remind you of your status. You won’t have to…do anything.” 

“Oh. Well,” Patroclus rolled his eyes. “If it’s only humiliation.” 

“And you should thank the Gods for it,” said Leptine. “Most of us aren’t so lucky. But come, if you’re to be a bath attendant even only by name you’ve got a lot to learn….and in a very short space of time.” 

Leptine led Patroclus to whom she referred to as “the usuals”, a handful of some of the prettiest slaves in the palace specially trained in what they called “the bathing ritual.” Over the next two hours they taught him everything from how best to pour the water to the venerated oiling process, a lesson which Patroclus could be sure not to forget in a hurry. “A man’s body,” instructed one attendant. “Is like a harp. You need to learn to play it in a way that is best pleasing.” 

The attendants then showed Patroclus how to play the harp across the back and the thigh but when they came to that most sensitive of topics in between the legs they found him completely overwhelmed by a sudden violent coughing fit and could get no more out of him. Finally, when the brilliant blue of the sky had darkened to a dusty mauve they announced him ready and with Leptine’s last words of “Good luck” ringing in his ears, Patroclus headed towards the baths feeling very much like a heifer, turning steadily on a spit. 

The bathroom was a large chamber made mostly of marble. The ceiling was a giant dome supported by six pillars the size of tree trunks and the floor was smooth as polished granite. Right in the centre of the room was a large wooden bath and around it stood a dozen candle holders, casting foreboding shadows across the sloping walls. Patroclus lit each one and the glow of orange light bounced off the shining stone. 

In an adjoining chamber a giant cauldron sat beneath a towering fireplace. Patroclus lit the fire and waited impatiently for the water to warm. When finally steam began to rise he took the cauldron off the flames and poured its contents into the bath, adding the oil, herbs and perfumes sitting in bottles on the shelves. When the bath was made, he sat himself on the edge and watched dully as steam rose from the water’s surface, twisting like vapid dancers and vanishing into the warm, wet air. The scent of the herbs and oil mingled with rosewater was strong, almost stifling and he had to resist the temptation to open a window when suddenly the door opened and all other thoughts disappeared, like vapour, into the air. 

Achilles’ arms were crossed over his chest. He wore a loose linen robe, light and hinting at the perfect sculpt of his limbs and torso and when he saw Patroclus he smiled his curling, sneering smile. Then he closed the door. 

Patroclus swallowed. Hard. 

“Good evening my lord,” he managed to rasp. His voice sounded hoarse and strange and he wanted to die. 

“Hey,” replied the prince. “I see you got my invitation.” 

Patroclus suppressed the urge to roll his eyes and busied himself with measuring the water’s temperature. Behind him he heard the subtle thump of cloth hitting floor, followed by the sound of Achilles’ feet pacing the chamber. Patroclus felt his pulse quicken as the rising heat of the bath crept across the back of his neck and under his chiton. 

He gestured awkwardly towards the bath. “If my lord would like to step-” 

“-Gods, enough with the servant formality horseshit,” Achilles snapped. “You’ve made your thoughts about me perfectly clear. I think we’ve reached the level in our relationship where we can at least speak plainly, don’t you?” 

Taken aback by his bluntness, it was all Patroclus could do to think up a retort. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s speak plainly. Why am I here?” 

It was Achilles’ turn to be surprised. But he recovered quickly, arranging his features into a mask of mocking irony. “Why,” he replied blandly. “These things are so much more fun when you have the help of a pretty girl.” 

Patroclus snorted derisively. “You’re disgusting.” 

“And you’re an attendant,” Achilles pointed out. “So go on. Attend.” 

He pointed to the linen robe, lying abandoned on the floor. Patroclus strode over and folded it neatly before placing it on one of the side benches. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Achilles lowering himself into the hot water, just catching a flash of chiselled calf before it was swallowed by the surface. As Patroclus stood his eyes wondered over Achilles’ magnificent form, marvelling over the perfect tautness of his upper body as he closed his eyes and let his head drop against the carved wood of the bathtub.  He watched as the muscles in his shoulders contracted and relaxed, moving subtly beneath his skin like a wave under the sky.

And as he watched, as Achilles eyelashes fluttered closed and his mouth parted ever so slightly Patroclus felt a sudden, inexplicable desire to touch him. 

He opened one eye and Patroclus drew breath. “What are you waiting for?” 

Patroclus gave a little start and approached the bath gingerly. There was a jar of scented oil on one of the shelves and he took it, spreading it evenly over Achilles’ back and shoulders. The moment his fingertips touched skin the prince issued a little sigh. 

Patroclus swallowed. Harder. 

 “So,” spoke Achilles finally. “Are we going to get through this experience in excruciating silence or make an attempt at awkward conversation?” 

“It’s not like we have much common ground to discuss,” said Patroclus numbly, who was still trying to process the development of his hands on another boy’s skin. 

“Oh come on,” said Achilles with a yawn. “Two people with as much disdain for one another as we have must have something to talk about. Where you were born, for example.” 

“Opus,” Patroclus answered dully. 

“And what was it like?” 

“Warm,” said Patroclus. “Dull.” 

“Phthia is dull,” said Achilles scathingly. “A dull, flat country teeming with dull, flat people. You wake up every morning to the same simpering faces; ‘yes my lord’ and ‘as you wish my lord’. Every one as empty as the last.” 

“At least your people honour you,” objected Patroclus. “At least you wake up to servants and fine food and praise.” 

“Wealth,” Achilles sneered. “Comfort. Is that what drives men?” 

“Only the ones who have never known it,” retorted Patroclus. 

Achilles shrugged carelessly. “I have known it,” he said. “And I’m bored of it. Do my back.” 

Remembering his lessons with the attendants, Patroclus slid the heels of his palms into the crevice between Achilles’ shoulder blades and made small circles with the flat of his thumb. Achilles’ sighed again, sending prickles up his spine. The oil made him smooth and he glistened in the flickering candlelight, giving Patroclus the distinct sensation that he was moulding pure gold. 

“Why are you like the way you are?” he asked suddenly. 

Achilles frowned. “Surely you’ve heard the stories.” 

“I’ve heard them for what they are,” replied Patroclus, moving to massage just below his neck. “Stories.” 

“Then why don’t you tell me which stories you believe to be true,” said Achilles. 

Patroclus thought hard, recalling snatches of gossip tossed by his peers and around the servants’ quarters. “Your mother is a goddess,” he stated. “As a child she held you in the Styx. They say you are immortal,” he waited and when Achilles did not answer he took a steadying breath. “They say you cannot be killed.” 

Still Achilles said nothing. Patroclus, fearing he had said too much, lowered his hands to rub Achilles lower back. He felt a kind of fire in his fingertips, spreading from the rosy warmth of Achilles’ skin to his own gut, warming his insides and sending shivers across his body all at once. Suddenly Achilles spoke, “She says I’m to be a God,” he said. “But I’ve heard her talk about Olympus and it sounds just about as much fun as Phthia in a heat wave.” 

Patroclus imagined the God Achilles glowing in all his divine glory, staring from a mountain crevice with unsuppressed boredom and couldn't help but grin. "Perhaps that's because Olympus isn't so different from here after all."

"Same faces," remarked Achilles. "Different names. My hair, now."

Patroclus complied, combing his fingers through Achilles' thick blond locks with olive soap. The thought occurred to him briefly that this job as usually done by a woman but he waved it away dismissively. He would worry about that later. "Don't you want to be a God?" he asked.

"I want to live forever," said Achilles. "But not on a cloud. And then father wants me to be a man...a great king and rule over his little world and have a hundred sons called Peleus."

"Have you spoken to them?" Patroclus frowned. "Your parents, I mean?"

Achilles thought for a moment before shaking his head. "They love me," he replied. "And I know they want the best for me. But they don't...get me. Sometimes they don't even understand what I'm saying."

Patroclus said nothing. He was thinking about his own parents; his father's perplexed disappointment, his mother's desperate searching for a reason why her son was so unlike her husband. Achilles was still speaking "You don't know how it feels," he was saying. "To live your life ungotten by anyone."

"It's like you're a ghost," said Patroclus. "And when you speak, all people hear is the wind."

"Yes," said Achilles. "Exactly."

He looked up. Beads of moisture clung to his forehead and his hair was plastered to his face. "They all pretend to love me."

Patroclus thought of a room bursting with sycophantic laughter and wine spilling from drunken mouths. "Yes."

"But you don't."

"No."

Achilles looked satisfied. "That's why you're here."

He sank back into the tub. Patroclus looked down at the water, where Achilles’ torso met his lower half, the gentle curve of his waist, the smoothness of him and he gulped, tracing a finger hesitantly down his spine. Achilles gasped at the touch and he flinched. 

“You’re good at this,” he muttered. “Do the princes have many duties in Opus?” 

Patroclus ignored the jibe, skirting the joining of Achilles’ thigh with his hand as he moved steadily round the bath. Achilles’ eyes widened as slowly, deliberately he began to massage him. He started outwards, working his way in with precision, and as he did so he became particularly aware of how Achilles’ breaths were coming shallower and shorter, and even more so of the reaction his own body was having to the prince’s laboured breaths, damp skin and ever so sweetly parted mouth. 

His hands were ceaseless. Achilles’ torso was arched, the whole of him almost rising out of the water to reveal the pretty pink flush spreading from his face downwards and Patroclus wondered idly if he had ever seen something so lovely. He was so close to Achilles that he feared he might fall in But it doesn’t matter, he found himself thinking, just as long as he does not ask me to- 

“-Stop,” exclaimed the prince, eyes flashing open and Patroclus froze. “Stop…just…stop.” 

Patroclus jumped backwards, pulled his dripping hand out of the water and thrust it ashamedly behind his back. Achilles, red-faced and damp-skinned was blinking hard. “Enough,” he said quietly, so quietly Patroclus almost didn’t hear him. 

Patroclus busied himself with the candles while Achilles got out of the bath. His heart was beating frantically against his chest and he felt cold all over, as if he had just walked through a ghost. Achilles towelled himself dry and pulled on the linen robe with the dependence of a soldier buckling himself into his armour. 

“You may go,” he said, breaking the earth-shattering silence. 

Patroclus stood, routed to the spot. Achilles glanced over his shoulder and his face was like hard iron. “Did you not hear what I said?” he snapped, eyes flashing like a knife in the back. “Go.” 

And Patroclus, who knew an order when he heard it, left the room without a backwards glance. His footsteps slapped across the stone like the clatter of a hundred hooves as he marched through the halls, hardly daring to slow for breath. He felt as though the shadow of a force was stalking him, breathing across his neck in a jeering whisper of a voice; I see you, it said. I see you I see you. 

He did not stop when he arrived at his quarters. He did not stop to respond to Leptine’s cheery greeting, nor answer her call as he drove past her. He did not stop until he reached his mattress and the cool, gloomy safety of the slaves’ shared bedroom. Only then did he lie down, bury his face into his pillow and try to make sense of what had just happened. 

That was the first night he dreamed of Achilles.

Chapter Text

Just a dream, it means nothing.

But what if it doesn’t?

A remnant of last night’s weirdness. Nothing more.

But what if it it’s not?

“Patroclus?” whipped Leptine and Patroclus started. “Are you here?” 

“Yes,” Patroclus answered automatically. “Yes I am here, I am here and I am listening.” 

“Oh really?” Leptine raised an eyebrow, her hands on her hips. “What did I just say?” 

“Err…” Patroclus fumbled in his memory for a plausible answer, his eyes settling on the plants strewn across the table. “You said you had to steam the root…and….err….wear it…around your….scrotum?” 

Leptine rolled her eyes. “As a lotion,” she sighed. “You have to wear it as a lotion.” 

She dropped the vegetable on the table behind her and turned to face him, her dark eyebrows crooked with concern. “Okay,” she began in a tone of voice that meant business. “What’s going on with you?” 

Patroclus tried to look oblivious and casual at the same time. “Nothing,” he shrugged. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine. Brilliant, in fact. I just…I love herbal roots.” 

“Patroclus,” said Leptine, fixing him with her sternest stare. “If you’re going to last long in this place you really need to get better at lying. You ‘ve been distracted all morning and when you’re not trying to amputate yourself,” her eyes wondered over Patroclus’ bandaged finger where a knife had accidentally slipped “you just sit and stare into space. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. I know it’s something to do with last night.” 

Patroclus shuffled his feet awkwardly, dully aware that it would be easier to tickle a sleeping Cyclops than it would be to hide something from Leptine. That girl spotted everything. “It’s nothing,” he reassured her. “Just…when I was attending Achilles last night something a bit…weird…happened.” 

Leptine’s frown deepened. “What kind of weird?” 

Patroclus mumbled something inaudible. “But hey,” he said loudly. “No big deal. I’m sure it happens to everyone.”

Leptine looked confused but when it was clear Patroclus didn’t want to go into the details she shrugged, silently resolving to find out later. Patroclus resided back into depressive silence. It had been easy to convince himself last night that what had happened in the bathroom was nothing more than natural occurrence. Yes, Achilles had appeared to respond…positively…to his touch and yes, there had been an instant when Patroclus’ own response had been just as…positive. But that was natural, what with the ridiculous proximity of their bodies and the pressing, wet, almost stifling heat of the room. It was normal. It was scientific. And as Patroclus drifted into an uneasy sleep he had half-managed to doubt whether anything had really happened at all, and it had all just been a trick of the heat and the fumes. 

Then came sleep. As soon as the curtains of his subconscious had fluttered closed the shadows on the world began to take peculiar shape; delicate lines of tendon strung fine as the strings of a bow, skin like polished wood, the rosy softness of thigh, the curve of a neck. Through snatches of disconnected images the looms of Patroclus’ mind wove for him a tapestry of pink warmth and wet breaths, long and laboured and pressing on the walls of his skull until he woke up, cold with sweat and staring in horror at the patch of dark dampening the mattress between his legs. 

He had said not a word that morning, only scraped his sheets into a hurried bundle and dropped them in a bucket of cold water before anyone had a chance to question him. Then he had done his chores and followed Leptine to the kitchens, nodding at her throughout the lesson and suggesting an “Aha” or “Mm” at frequent interjections, all the while moving on automatic and hardly hearing her words. His mind had vacated him, had made its home in dark rooms and damp mattresses and it wasn’t until the knife fell that he realised he had no idea what he was doing. 

“PATROCLUS!”                

“I’m sorry!” wailed Patroclus, wrenching himself back to reality. “I’m sorry. I’m listening now. Promise.” 

Leptine just sighed. “Forget it,” she said. “You’re obviously not with it today. Why don’t we just leave it for now?” 

Patroclus nodded thankfully and sank onto a bench, rubbing his temples tiredly with his fingertips. Leptine bustled about the kitchen throwing things into a steaming brew which she handed to Patroclus. He took it with a grateful smile and drank, at once feeling soothed and calm. Leptine perched next to him, sipping daintily from her own cup and for a while they sat there, neither of them saying anything, just drinking and silently understanding the other’s need for thought. Patroclus pondered morosely over all that had happened, wondering if Achilles was having similar thoughts and if he’d be avoiding him from now on. For some reason Patroclus found himself hoping he wouldn’t. The prince made him angry and miserable and he couldn’t remember a time when he had walked away from a conversation without feeling insulted but at least he made him feel something. Achilles was a distraction, a break from the wearisome predictability of life and without his presence it was as though something was missing, some vital ingredient that held Patroclus from the brink of oblivion and stopped him going under when he slipped. 

As he mused Patroclus found himself slipping deeper into despondency and was only saved from sheer depression by the sound of the door opening. They looked up to see Loras, a young slave who often acted as messenger, standing before them and looking purposeful. 

“I have a message for you,” he said, nodding at Patroclus.

Patroclus looked wary. “From who?” 

“Ampelius,” Loras answered and the two exchanged glances. “He says despite your new social status you are still required for drills and training instruction by the order of King Peleus. You will attend every session with the other foster sons of Phthia before returning here to resume your duties as a slave, starting immediately. He also bid me tell you that even the smallest beetle can draw blood with a bite.” He shrugged apologetically. “I think he meant that as a compliment.”                                                                                                                             

“Probably,” sighed Patroclus, his heart sinking. “Ok. Thanks, Loras.” 

Loras closed the door behind him and Patroclus’ head fell into his hands. Leptine put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder as he groaned in self-pity. “What have I done?” he wailed, raising his head to glare condemningly at the ceiling. “Tell me what I’ve done!” 

“Don’t worry,” crooned Leptine reassuringly. “You’ll be fine. Their words can’t hurt you.” 

“No, but fists and javelins might,” replied Patroclus through gritted teeth. “Suppose I’d better get ready. I’ll see you later.” 

He hurried back to his room and dressed quickly, unwilling to keep Ampelius waiting for any longer than he had to. One of the compensating factors of slave life had been his exemption from activities with the other boys, a fact from which he had drawn some comfort. He had almost danced with glee upon hearing that he would never again have to watch as his spear fell pathetically short of his target, or endure the laughter when he misplaced his footing and had to flail to avoid landing on his sword. Now he cursed his naivety and it was with considerable reluctance that he pulled on the starched training chiton and headed down the corridor that would take him outside and onto the fields. 

The group was already lined up when he arrived. Deiomachus nodded at him when he approached but the others either laughed or sneered, hammering him with names as he took his place in the line. 

“Hey Menoitides, how are you liking your new room?” 

“Hey Menoitides, when was the last time you took a bath?” 

“Hey Menoitides, I need you to service an itch on my-” 

“-Hey Menoitides,” called a voice and Patroclus turned around. 

A boy was walking towards him. He was big, at least a head taller than Patroclus and built like a bull, all power and muscle with a neck as wide as his torso. His shoulders were so large it seemed to take extra effort to propel his body forward and by comparison his head seemed small, although his jaw was square and blunt enough to split rock. His hair was bright red and curly, his eyes clear and blue and were it not for the cruel twist of his slack mouth and the threatening glee in his eyes he might have been handsome. Instead, he simply had the look of an oversized teenage psychopath. 

He stopped short of Patroclus who felt as though a lead thing had been dropped on his gut with each step he took. “Mynax,” he said and the boy grinned. 

“Thrown you out, have they?” he asked. 

“No,” replied Patroclus, who couldn’t think of anything better to say. 

“They’ve thrown him out,” Mynax announced, turning to address the group. “Prince Patroclus was thrown out by slaves.” 

“I’m still a slave,” Patroclus stated dully. 

It was the wrong thing to say. Mynax’s eyes lit up with unsuppressed glee. “Prince Patroclus is adjusting to his new position,” he exclaimed. “And why shouldn’t he be? It suits him so well.” And before Patroclus could retort, Mynax seized him by the back of his head and yanked it so that his neck snapped back and he cried out in shock and pain. Mynax brought his face close to Patroclus’ and when he spoke he could feel flecks of spit peppering his cheek. “One might even say he was born to it,” he hissed. “You were born to suck my cock Prince Patroclus-” 

“-NEKROITIDES,” came Ampelius’ distinctive roar. “What are you doing with that boy?” 

“Nothing sir,” replied Mynax, releasing Patroclus at once and blinking innocently. “Just messing.” 

Ampelius squinted so that his black eyes looked like tiny beetles. “Patroclus? Is that you? You look peaky. Are they letting you out enough? Get enough to eat?” 

“Yes sir,” mumbled Patroclus as the other boys tittered, as if Ampelius was talking to a badly-behaved pet. 

“Hmm,” frowned Ampelius doubtfully. “Well, summon whatever strength’s left in you, lad. You’ll need it today. Leonides, get the javelins. Let’s see how much our cellar prince remembers.” 

It was a torturous session. It soon transpired that Mynax and his friends, all similarly thuggish, had apparently missed Patroclus while he was away and regarded any moment not spent abusing him as a moment wasted. Whether it was simply sticking a foot out as he passed by or sabotaging every attempt he made with a weapon they would not let up until Patroclus turned to Deiomachus for answers. 

“Have I done something?” he implored furiously. “Because Mynax is making it look pretty personal.” 

“It’s Achilles,” Deiomachus explained. “Mynax knows he doesn’t like you so he’s trying to win his approval.” 

Patroclus stared in disbelief. “Why should Achilles’ opinion mean so much to him? He’s a prince in his own right.” 

Deiomachus glanced around discreetly, as if to check if anyone was listening. “I was talking to one of the serving girls,” he began, with the air of someone about to divulge a great secret. “Apparently, Peleus wants Achilles to start looking for a hetairoi.” 

Hetairoi. Blood brother. Companion. Someone to fight by Achilles’ side in battle and sit at his right hand during peace.  Patroclus nodded in comprehension. Of course Achilles was looking for a hetairoi, and of course, only the best would do. A boy of noble blood and pure, unblemished history, strong enough to carry his own weapons and defend his prince’s. 

That explains all the fawning, thought Patroclus. Anyone would kill for a place like that. “Well he’s wasting his time,” he stated out loud. “Achilles hates everyone.” 

Deiomachus shrugged. “Apparently not everyone.” 

He pointed. Patroclus followed his gaze to where Achilles was sitting, having finished his own drills, and was laughing at something Mynax had just said. Patroclus stared, an acid bubble of bile rising from his stomach into his throat. 

“Great,” he said, more bitterly than he’d intended. “I hope they’re happy together. They deserve each other, they really do.” 

Deiomachus looked quizzically at Patroclus. “You feeling okay?” 

Patroclus blinked, suddenly aware of the inexplicable feeling of resentment in his gut. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’m fine.” 

But he wasn’t and as Mynax continued to flatter and fawn, once in a while sending scathing looks his way the resentment continued to bubble like boiling water until finally, when Achilles had returned to his training, Patroclus was feeling decidedly un-fine enough as to challenge Mynax. 

He strode up to him boldly, aware of every set of eyes following him and his own sweating palms. Mynax had his back to him and he was surrounded by friends, each one a towering fortress when compared to Patroclus’ pitiable averageness. He took a steadying breath, forcing himself not to look at Mynax’s rock-like fists and scratched knuckles. 

“Hey,” he said and when he didn’t turn around he said “Hey” again, louder. 

The chatter stopped. Mynax turned slowly, like an owl at night. His eyes settled on Patroclus and he grinned, his lips twisting unpleasantly as if it caused him pain.  Patroclus straightened his spine and tried to look threatening. “Did you put the cows in the hall?” 

Mynax laughed. “What?” 

“Did you put the cows in the hall?” Patroclus repeated. “And tell Phoenix it was me?” 

Mynax’s grin became a grimace. “And if I did?” 

Patroclus squared his shoulders. “If you did,” he said. “And you are a man, you will say you did.” 

Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a few people nod appreciatively. Mynax pulled back his upper lip, revealing pointed canines. Like a dog’s. “If I did,” he said slowly. “I see the point was not taken to heart.” 

Patroclus frowned. “And what point was that?” 

“That some people are born to serve others,” said Mynax. “Some people are born to be slaves.” 

The boys behind him sniggered. Patroclus felt the heat creep into his cheeks but he held his gaze as Mynax began to walk slow, deliberate circles around him, poking viciously at any bare patch of flesh he could reach. “Thin arms,” he taunted. “Weak knees. Little back. And the face,” here he paused, just centimetres away. Patroclus could feel his breath on his skin and prepared himself for the insult. But it never came. Instead, Mynax pulled back his hand brought it sharply across his cheek. 

Patroclus staggered backwards. He could feel the mark burning scarlet, heard the sharp intakes of breath from left and right. Through watery eyes he saw Mynax looking triumphant, his features wrought in perverse pleasure as his friends whistled and clapped, bursting with barely contained anticipation. “By the way,” he was saying. “I also drew a dick on your tunic.” 

His skin stung. His eyes sprang salt and he blinked hard, his head swimming as the world spun before him. This was it. No man could sit idle and take such humiliation. Patroclus had to act and fast. He had no other option. 

He stepped forward and hit him. 

As his knuckles met the side of Mynax’s face he became aware that this probably wouldn’t hurt him as much as he’d meant it to. He had meant to get him in the nose but he’d turned his head at precisely the wrong moment and the punch was disappointingly softened by the flesh of his cheek. Still Mynax stumbled and when he stepped back Patroclus was pleased to see a matching bruise already beginning to blossom. 

“You little bitch,” he spat, his eyes burning yellow-white with fury. “You fucking little cunt.” 

He launched at him with his whole body, fourteen stones of iron-hard muscle and Patroclus, who could barely process what was happening, had no time to sidestep and caught the whole of it, like a torpedo, in his gut. His head slammed against the ground and tiny silver spots popped up with the impact, he blinked and the next thing he knew Mynax was on him, pinning his wrists down with the strength of ten giants, his knees clamped atop his chest. 

“Get off,” Patroclus hissed. “You fat fuck, get off.” 

Instead Mynax tightened his hold, laughing manically so that flecks of saliva flew into his face and Patroclus screamed with the pure injustice of it all. 

Then, suddenly, Mynax’s face began to change. His jaw thinned, his cheekbones slackened until Patroclus was no longer looking into his face but into that of Clysonymus’, his eyes bloodless and unseeing, his chiton torn and running crimson. And Patroclus screamed again, wrenching his wrists from the dead boy’s clammy grasp and twisting until he had him by the shoulders. 

With tremendous effort he seized the boy’s sides as if they were handles and pushed him down. His hands flew out, grabbing Patroclus by the ankles and he floundered, losing balance but instead of hitting the floor he shifted his weight, collapsing into his assailant’s torso. As he thrashed, kicked, punched and wrestled he realised suddenly that this was all too familiar, that his hands would become sticky with blood and the solid body beneath him would turn limp with a snap, like the break of a twig. 

Then the face changed again and Mynax was staring up at him, eyes wide with astonishment as Patroclus threw him down, twisting his legs behind him so that he could not get up. Around them a crowd had gathered and voices were shouting encouragement, shrill and barbarous like chattering monkeys as the two boys wrestled in the circle. And when Mynax finally gasped “Stop” and Patroclus stood up the cheer was so loud birds took flight into the summer air, anxious to escape the shrieks of wild animals. 

And now someone was patting him on the back, another on his shoulder and Deiomachus was yelling “I told you he could do some things!” but it was one face he looked for, a silver that stood out from between the trees. 

Achilles was watching, his head tilted to the side as if trying hard to work something out. Then Ampelius called “PATROCLUS” and he was gone and Mynax was telling him he would kill him, you ugly piece of shit, if it was the last thing he’d ever do. 

 

Chapter Text

“Wait, wait. Tell me again.”

Patroclus groaned, rubbing his temples with his fingertips. “I told you,” he said. “I won a fight against Mynax, Ampelius pitted me against Leonides, Iasonides and Deiomachus, I won the fights, Ampelius wet himself.”

“Then what?”

“Ampelius made me fight the whole group. Like, one by one.”

“And you won all of them?!”

“No,” he shook his head. “But I didn’t lose all of them either!”

“Oh my Gods!” Leptine squealed, throwing her arms around his neck. “This is it! Didn’t I tell you there was something you’d be good at it? Something that would make you famous? You’re a fighter, Patroclus! You can fight!”

“Steady on,” Patroclus hugged her, laughing. “I still lost a fair few. And my technique’s terrible, Ampelius likened it to the style of a drunken bar brawl. And it’s only wrestling, it’s not like I can do anything else. But I don’t know, when I fight something in me just…comes out, I guess. Like…I don’t know…I just really, really want to win.”

“It’s heart,” Leptine beamed. “Pure heart. You’re winning on your bravery and courage. Your desire to come out on top.”

Patroclus shook his head modestly. “I think it’s just the sheer desperation of not wanting to lose, to be honest.”

Leptine smacked him reprovingly on the arm and, as she had a hundred times before, scolded him on his total inability to accept praise. Patroclus humoured her but inside his mind was still reeling with the adrenalin of the morning. Blood was on his tongue and sweat in the crevices of his hands and elbows and his ears echoed with blasphemies and wretched gasps of “Stop”. His palms itched, the tips of his fingers tingled with physical excitement and everything was flashing muscle and groans of surrender. Everything, suddenly, was bronze.

It would be an understatement to say that Ampelius had been impressed. One look at Mynax’s chastened scowl and Patroclus, bleeding but triumphant had him roaring with delight, almost breaking Patroclus’ spine as he clapped him on the back. He had then, as if to confirm what he had just seen, declared a spontaneous wrestling match between Patroclus and everyone, forcing him to his feet even when his knees buckled beneath him and his body grew slick with blood.

“I KNEW IT!” the drills master had declared as Leonides collapsed, wheezing, against a tree. “THERE’S FIGHT IN YOU BOY, IN YOUR FISTS AND YOUR NAILS AND YOUR TEETH! THAT’S BLOOD IN YOUR VEINS, A SURVIVOR’S BLOOD! WE’LL MAKE A SOLDIER OUT OF YOU YET!”

But at that moment, with a beaten rival shaking his hand with respect in his eyes Patroclus was not thinking about survival.

“Promise me,” Leptine was saying. “Promise me you’ll think better of yourself now.”

Patroclus smiled. “Why should I need to,” he said. “When I have you to think so well of me?”

“I may not always be around,” she replied solemnly.

Patroclus scrutinised her frowningly, his dark eyebrows knitting a cloud of reproach across his forehead. “What do you mean?” he said. “Why shouldn’t you be? Your place is here, you’re staying here…right?”

“Well of course I hope so,” she replied, fixing him with one of her sad, a little pitying looks. “But you know, people never have much choice in these matters.”

It was the way she looked, rather than what she said that revealed that by “people” she really meant “people like me.” The thought filled Patroclus with a sudden dread, passing over him like a chill as he thought about life without her melancholy, dark eyes, her thoughtful smiles and hesitant laughter. And for the first time since he had known her he feared he would lose her.

The realisation was enough to scare him into flinging his arms possessively around her waist, knocking her backwards into the silver they were polishing. “Patroclus!” she exclaimed in surprise. “What are you doing?”

“Don’t leave meee,” he moaned sorrowfully.

“I’m not planning on it anytime soon!” she laughed. “Let go, you idiot.”

“No,” he clung childishly. “Not until you promise to stay here forever.”

Leptine giggled with a half-hearted attempt to push him away but Patroclus held tight, and was still holding her when the doors opened with an obtrusive slam and the prince walked into the room.

Achilles took one look at them, Patroclus’ arms wrapped jealously around Leptine’s hips, the echo of laughter frozen on her face and his eyes widened, then narrowed. “Am I interrupting something?”

They jumped apart, excuses and explanations spilling from their mouths as they gestured and justified, their embarrassment manifesting itself in frantic movements and pink cheeks. Achilles watched the tragic show unfold, looking stony.

“Enough,” he snapped, his face flushing scarlet. “Whatever pursuit you enjoy in your own time is no business of mine. But clearly you cannot behave as befits workers of my father’s house. You will be punished.”

Leptine murmured compliance and looked down at her feet. Patroclus, however, looked indignant. “My lord, that’s not fair,” he protested. “I was just messing around, Leptine didn’t do anything-”

“-How noble of you to say so,” Achilles cut jeeringly. “But it is obvious you are no good influence on each other. You’re both on privy duty. Separately.”

Patroclus opened his mouth to argue but a sidelong glance from Leptine stopped him. Instead he contented himself with a particularly malice-filled glare, mirrored by Achilles’ returning scowl. “Hurry up with that silver,” he barked. “My laundry’s been fermenting for days and I need a chiton for the afternoon. Idiocy is no excuse for laziness.”

And with that he turned on his heel and marched from the room, slamming the door behind him. As soon as he was gone and out of earshot Patroclus punched a pillar.

“Fuck,” he hissed, massaging his knuckles. “That bastard! That stupid, milksop, chauvinist prick.”

“Chauvinist might be a bit strong,” said Leptine.

“No word is too strong,” replied Patroclus through gritted teeth. “I swear, I’ve had enough. If he wants to take out his deep rooted personal issues on me…been like this for too long, ever since-”

He stopped himself just in time at Leptine’s questioning look, aware that he had been about to divulge the details of his night in attendance. Achilles’ way of dealing with the incident had been to pretend it never happened and instead focused all his energies on making Patroclus’ life a living hell. A step up from his usual snide remarks, his every action was hateful and calculated and there was unsuppressed anger in every humiliating ordeal he could think to put him through until, by the end of the day, Patroclus was no longer sure who Achilles was punishing.

This time, however, he had gone too far. And apparently, Leptine thought so too.

“I know that look,” he said as she chewed her lip thoughtfully. “What’re you thinking?”

“Just that,” she answered slowly. “It’s a little too late in the game to be playing with words.”

***

Achilles had not been lying about the laundry. Upon entering they were greeted by a monument of white, where tunic upon tunic had been thrown haphazardly into a corner until a linen tower had risen, twisted and intimidating and bright with crimson sleeves and embroidered collars. Patroclus and Leptine crept stealthily around the mount with all the wide-eyed innocence of a convicted felon.

“This is a bad idea,” Patroclus muttered. “This is a very, very bad idea.”

“So why are you still here then?” Leptine retorted. “Nobody’s forcing you.”

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “I honestly don’t. This is stupid. This is suicide.”

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic.” She crossed over to his bed where a fresh chiton had been laid out neatly, sky blue with a border worked in gold and studded with lapis lazuli. It was the kind of garment only princes could afford to wear, and would only be expected to on the most important of occasions.

Leptine lifted the lovely piece and stuffed it unceremoniously into the leather bag she was wearing over her shoulder. “Ok,” she said. “Pass me the deerskin.”

Patroclus handed her the heavy, brown tunic. “Remind me. What’s the point of all of this?”

“The king is having some very important visitors this evening,” Leptine explained, spreading the deerskin where the blue tunic had lain. “Tribesmen from the northern regions. He needs their armies to help deal with attacks from Thessaly. But they’re forest dwellers and animals are sacred to them, especially the deer. So, we are to see that Achilles dresses for the occasion.”

She gestured to the ugly brown tunic, crumpled and misshapen against the sheets. Patroclus frowned. “Achilles would never wear something like that,” he said dubiously. “He’s too vain.”

“He would if he thought it was expected,” Leptine replied wickedly. “He’s been brought up to dress appropriately before his company. If he thinks his father means for him to wear it, he’ll wear it.”

Patroclus looked at the tunic, at the blue chiton, at Leptine’s confident, self-assured grin. He shook his head. “This is stupid,” he repeated. “This is a bad, bad, bad idea. What if they find out it was us?”

“They won’t,” Leptine assured him. “Even if Achilles does suspect something he won’t be able to prove it. Besides, his record holds against him. He’s been chided for insulting his father’s visitors more times than I can count. He thinks it’s funny or something.”

“Some sense of humour,” Patroclus remarked dully. “I wonder he’ll juggle at our executions.”

“Look, do you want your revenge or not? Because honestly, privy duty is starting to look a lot more appealing.”

“No, I do, I do, it’s just-”

“-Then enough with the negativity and help me straighten out some of these creases.”

***
It did not take long for the story of the prince’s disgrace to reach the servants’ quarters. Loras’ epic recount to anyone who would listen told of how the chieftain and ambassador of the northern tribes had taken one look at Achilles’ hairy, shapeless, doe-pelt smock and splattered the walls of the Great Hall with Peleus’ famed hospitality with one massive heaving of their stomachs. Needless to say blasphemies were uttered, foul oaths were sworn and the evening was ended in much bloodshed and many a bruised feeling. It was, Loras assured them gleefully, a failure of cataclysmic proportions with Achilles being named the venture’s sole cause and utter ruin.

That night, Leptine and Patroclus fell asleep giggling.

***
“Do you think it was too mean?” Leptine asked anxiously on their morning rounds the next day.

“Nah,” Patroclus shook his head ardently. “He needs to learn. Think about everything he’s put ¬us through. If anything, this whole experience is good for him. Maybe he’ll come out of it with a new-found desire to do good and treat people with respect and gentility.”

Leptine sniggered. “Maybe Zeus will shower roses instead of thunderbolts and Hades will wear a pantyhose.”

Patroclus laughed. “Hey, you don’t know,” he smirked. “The appearance of self-love could just be a desperate attempt to hide the sweet, sensitive soul inside-”

“-Doulos!” a loud, commanding voice cut across him. “Over here!”

Patroclus and Leptine looked up to see a huddle of boys at the far end of the corridor grouped around a broom cupboard. They approached warily and as they did so Patroclus’ heart dropped into his stomach. Standing at their forefront was Mynax.

Catching sight of Patroclus’ wary guardedness his face twisted into a broken-toothed grin. “Do not look so scared, doulos,” he said scornfully. “My friends and I only require your assistance.”

“What do you want?” asked Patroclus.

Mynax gestured towards the broom cupboard. His huge hands seemed to fan the air. “Phineas’ dog is trapped,” he explained. “We tried calling him but he can’t get out. And it’s below us to lower ourselves to searching through broom cupboards. You however…”

“Right,” Patroclus rolled his eyes as Phineas grinned stupidly. “Fine. If we get your dog will you leave us alone?”

Mynax nodded solemnly and made the sign of an oath before Zeus. Reassured, but not altogether happy, Patroclus and Leptine opened the broom cupboard and stepped inside. It was pitch black but for a tiny slither of light from a crack in the wall, showing shelves stacked neatly with soaps, buckets and rags. Brooms and brushes littered the space in clusters. There was no evidence, however, of any such dog.

Patroclus was just about to say so when the door slammed behind them and with the follow of a click he knew, with dread, that it was locked. On the other side he could hear Mynax and his friends splitting with laughter, deep and rolling like barrels smashing against a wall.

“The prince sends his compliments!” Mynax yelled triumphantly through the keyhole.

“He put you up to this?” cried Patroclus in outrage.

“Consider it justice,” replied Mynax. “And now, as my oath state, we shall leave you alone!”

He heard their laughter ringing down the hall, growing fainter and fainter as their footsteps died out. Patroclus and Leptine hammered at the door, screaming with all the air in them in the hope that someone would pass by. But when the minutes stretched into hours and still no one came their shouts became quieter and less frequent until all they had strength to do was sit in the dark and stare morbidly at their hands, taking shifts to call out.

They were found finally by another slave who had taken their wailings for the moans of trapped spirits but had gone back just to check. But by that time it was late afternoon and they had missed all the day’s chores. With most of the slaves too tired and resentful to believe their protests they were taken before Amyntor and disciplined for shirking. Patroclus, being a prince and foster son of Peleus got of lightly with only a few blotches of red and a wince when he moved.

Leptine was beaten until her back was bloody.

***
That evening, his body aching and the sound of Leptine’s whimpers searing in his ears, Patroclus sought Achilles out.

He found him on the beach, throwing things into the waves and grinning when they swallowed them up. The wind caught at his yellow hair, the only thing that stood out against the dark and pulled it across his cheeks and lips. Standing barefoot on the rock, his body tipped towards the sea he looked for a moment like one of the naiads of the crystal caves, or a mermaid or a girl.

Patroclus stormed up to him with all the hell-bent fire of a Fury and the naiad gave a very human startle of surprise. “Hey,” Patroclus yelled over the crash of the waves. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Achilles straightened up and set his face as hard as the rock beneath him. Patroclus stopped a few feet from him, his hands curled into fists and his arms shaking with rage. “Leptine was beaten,” he said.

Achilles shrugged uncaringly but the effect was ruined by the uneasy look in his eyes. “You asked for it.”

The roar of the ocean was deafened by the pounding of blood in his ears and for a moment, Patroclus was scared he would murder him. “Do what you want to me,” he shouted. “Hurt me. Kill me, if you like. But I swear, if anything happens to her again because of you I will rip the God right out of you.”

“She got me in trouble!” Achilles screamed, raising his fists like a child throwing a tantrum. “She dishonoured my name! She brought shame to my father and he won’t even look at me and-”

“-That thing you’re dealing with,” said Patroclus. “All that pain and injustice you’re feeling, that’s called life, Achilles and you’d better get fucking used to it. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is the one thing you never asked for always the one thing you get? You’d think I’d know, I’ve only been getting it my whole fucking life. And you, you live in this beautiful world and everybody loves you and everything is Achilles and Achilles and Achilles and when one thing goes wrong, one thing, you act as if the whole world is conspiring against you-”

“-IT IS!” shrieked Achilles, sea salt streaking his cheeks. “IT IS IT IS YOU DON’T KNOW YOU DON’T. YOU THINK YOU DO BUT YOU DON’T-”

“-I DON’T WANT TO,” Patroclus shouted. “WALTZING THROUGH LIFE BECAUSE YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE WHO MATTERS. MAKING HELL FOR ANYONE WHO GETS IN YOUR WAY. YOU’RE DISGUSTING, YOU MAKE ME SICK. I HOPE I NEVER UNDERSTAND. I HOPE NO ONE EVER DOES. I’D RATHER BE A SLAVE FOREVER THAN THINK LIKE YOU DO.”

“GO THEN,” said Achilles and the sea crashed around his words. “IF I’M DISGUSTING, IF I MAKE YOU SICK, HOW CAN YOU BEAR TO LOOK AT ME? HOW CAN YOU BARE IT? GO BACK TO YOUR WHORE, GO FUCK HER SOME COMFORT, GODS KNOW SHE MEANS SO MUCH TO YOU.”

Patroclus stared. Achilles’ eyes were huge and wild and green as a monster, his skin stretched skull-white across his bones with his hair whipped about his face he looked for a moment quite insane. Patroclus searched him, the furious defiance in his eyes and his mouth, the anger and pain in the straining muscles of his arms and shoulders. He searched him and his voice was heavy with confusion when he spoke. “What is this about?”

Achilles blinked. His lip trembled. “I don’t know,” he said.

They looked at each other. The waves splintered huge crags of rock from the black cliffs in the distance. The purple clouds burst with a shower of arrows, the wind pulled Achilles’ hair across his face. And Patroclus, who had heard enough, turned and walked away without looking back.

Chapter Text

He dreamt of him again, only this time he was the rock.

The sky still swollen purple, vacuums of black still shooting arrows at his feet. He was the rock and the sea was angry, whipping up rage into curling waves to send them smashing against his side. He held fast, the grey wall splintering into drops of salt as they met him but he held fast, you’ll not move me, you’ll not move me...

The sea was angry. It rose like a demon, all green scale and yellow hair, roaring over the wind and rain, summoning great wings and a tail of sea-weed as it thrashed. And Patroclus held, he was the rock and you’ll not move me. Come on then, try, have a shot…

The sea rose, bringing with it the horizon until it had blot out the divide. A twisting pillar of water hard as stone, whistling mournfully as the wind blew across its surface You don’t understand. You think you do but you don’t…

 “Patroclus!”

He opened one eye. Leptine was leaning over him, her hand on his arm as she nudged him gently awake. “What is it?”

“It’s the prince,” she whispered hurriedly. “He wants to talk to us-”

“-Achilles?”

“Yes Achilles, how many other princes do we know? Come on, come on, he’s waiting-”

“-Alright, give me a minute...”

He fumbled with the covers, bleary eyed and groggy with half sleep and reached for his clothes, his skin shivering with protest as the cold morning hit. Leptine waited anxiously by the door chewing her nails, (a habit she had picked up recently) and as soon as Patroclus had pulled a chiton over his head she took off down the corridor. And despite the fact that she’d been limping since the beating, Patroclus still had to run to keep up with her.

“What’s this about?” he asked in hushed tones, trying not to trip over his feet while he straightened the creases in the linen.

“No idea,” Leptine whispered back. “I just got up to boil water and he was there, waiting for me. He told me to go and get you and not to keep him waiting.”

“My Gods he’s such a prick,” said Patroclus furiously. “You know he just wants to rub it in. His triumph over our punishment. Maybe he’ll ask us to turn around so he can see the scars.”

“Maybe,” muttered Leptine but he knew she wasn’t really listening. They had reached the door to the slave’s quarters where, leading from an antechamber, Achilles would be waiting. Absentmindedly, Leptine fingered the bruises on her wrists.

“Patroclus,” she whipped round to face him. “I don’t know what this is about. But promise me, whatever it is, that you’ll keep your temper.”

As if by reflex, a wave of indignation crept into Patroclus’ brow, manifesting itself into a resentful frown. “Keep my temper?” he whispered heatedly. “Leptine, because of him-”

“-I know,” said Leptine anxiously, a finger still twisting around her wrist. Patroclus wished she wouldn’t. “But if you don’t it’ll only make it worse. Please Patroclus….think of the consequences. Yesterday was stupid. Risky. If we cross him now who knows what he’ll do? Please just…just keep calm.”

It was the imploring look on her face more than anything else that did it. That, and the way her fingers brushed against the angry dark splodges winding round her arm like a bracelet. He sighed, his insides sinking as if to an ocean floor. “And if I get the urge to vomit?”

“Swallow it,” said Leptine abruptly and she opened the door.

Achilles was waiting for them as she’d said he was, however Patroclus found he had to squint to make sure. He was holding himself differently, uncomfortably, and rather than the boy of casual, effortless grace they were used to Patroclus thought he looked more like a naughty child who had been caught with his hand on a honey cake. “Good morning,” he muttered. Leptine and Patroclus exchanged a nervous glance.

“You wanted to speak to us, my lord?” said Leptine, her eyes respectfully lowered.

“Yes,” Achilles replied, his gaze flitting to Patroclus. Patroclus continued to stare brazenly forward.

He cleared his throat and the sound reverberated off the stone, as though the very walls were bursting with that something they had to say. Patroclus raised his eyebrows expectantly. Come on, he was thinking. Hit me, come on, we’re waiting. Try. Have a shot.

Achilles looked at the ceiling. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. Dangerous ground, thought Patroclus. “Concerning my behaviour of late. And after much…reflection…I have concluded that my actions yesterday were…unjustified…and unbefitting of my status.”

He lowered his gaze from the ceiling. Leptine and Patroclus stared, too perplexed to speak. “I express regret,” said Achilles impatiently.

“Nothing to regret my lord,” Leptine mumbled but Patroclus had to stifle a scoff.

At once Achilles’ green eyes flashed in his direction, just catching the shadow of a smirk. “You do not accept my apology?”

“Oh!” exclaimed Patroclus in mock surprise. “That was an apology? Forgive me my lord, you see I couldn’t be sure.”

Leptine sent him a warning glance but it was too late, Achilles was scowling. “What more can I say?” he asked. “It went too far, I didn’t mean for it to happen, what else do you want?”

“Oh nothing really,” Patroclus shrugged. “It’s just, for an apology, you kind of missed something. A little thing, really.  Just a word.”

Achilles looked confused. Leptine’s eyes were wide and jumping between the two as if following a wrestling match. “Sorry,” said Achilles suddenly. “I’m sorry.”

“There you go,” Patroclus rolled his eyes. “But you know, it helps if you actually know what it means. Feeling genuine remorse for what you’ve done. Not reciting words from your father’s speeches. That kind of thing.”

Leptine’s head dropped into her hands. But to her complete amazement, Achilles looked more disappointed than angry. “I do know what it means,” he said sulkily. “I just haven’t had often cause to use it. I’ve never had to justify myself to anyone before.”

He looked so sad and mournful that Patroclus felt within him a degree of sympathy and when he spoke he found his voice had softened. “It’s because…you just don’t think about what your actions are going to mean for other people. It’s not totally your fault. You’ve been raised to put yourself first. But you never consider the consequences of your anger or…or humiliation…and one day it’s going to get you into trouble.”

He placed each word carefully, bracing himself for the explosion but Achilles looked only resentful. “It’s you, you know,” he said dully. “I don’t know what it is….but you just make me do things I wouldn’t even think about ordinarily. You don’t…you don’t know what you do.”

Patroclus frowned. “So,” he said slowly. “You’re saying all this…is my fault?”

“No,” Achilles rolled his eyes. “I’m just saying that since you got here I haven’t been…normal. You bring out the worst in me.”

“You are literally blaming your sociopathic tendencies on me, okay.”

“No, Gods, that’s not what I mean!” he huffed in frustration. “Gods you’re so self-centred. Do you know that? All that self-pity and “life is so hard”, it’s just another form of narcissism. You’re iust as self-obsessed as I am. What’s more is you don’t even know it-”

“-Okay, let’s stop there,” Patroclus interrupted, palms raised in protest. “First of all, you’re plainly wrong and misguided and you need your head examined but I don’t want to go into that. We keep going in circles, you and I. It doesn’t make sense. You’ve…kind of…apologised and I accept. Okay? Truce. How about we just…stay out of each other’s way for now on?”

Achilles looked at him searchingly, a slight furrow appearing between the fine downy gold hairs of his eyebrows and his ocean eyes seemed darker, as though trying to find something in Patroclus’ face that he couldn’t quite fathom. Then he jutted his chin slightly in affirmation, a mixed gesture of arrogance and submission. “Fine,” he said.

Patroclus sighed, feeling as though a huge weight had been lifted off him as Achilles turned to go. But behind the relief he thought he felt a twinge of something, something close to regret although he couldn’t think for the life of him think why. Nor did he understand, when Achilles looked back over his shoulder, why he felt his stomach lurch.

“I just remembered,” he said, the words slipping feather-light from his lips. “Last night, you were in my dream.”

Patroclus’ insides took another funny turn but he kept his face cold and indifferent, raising a single eyebrow in cool nonchalance. “Were there grapes?”

“No,” Achilles answered, a faint pink tinge creeping into the pale hollows of his cheekbones. “I think you were a mountain.”

Patroclus opened his mouth to say something but he was gone before he had a chance to form a reply. Instead he turned to Leptine who was shaking her head, her hands spread over her face and her wide brown eyes peeking, bewildered, from between her fingers.

“I don’t understand,” she said, her voice muffled by her palms. “What just happened?”

Patroclus shook his head. “I’ll get back to you,” he said.

oOo

Achilles was as good as his word. For the next few days he seemed little more than a ghost to Patroclus, a fleeting glimpse of a soul occasionally caught haunting the end of a hallway or vanishing behind a door but nothing corporeal, nothing real anymore. He saw him at meal times when he came to clear the table, surrounded by Mynax and his disciples with quick laughter spilling from his lips and he would feel sad, a bit, and spend extra time getting round to him and lifting his plate. Once their eyes met and Achilles made an acknowledging movement that wasn’t a nod, exactly, and Patroclus was so startled he almost dropped the jug he was holding.

This is better, Patroclus would tell himself, watching from a distance as Achilles and his friends took turns in pelting girls with hard figs. This is good, this is healthy, this is better.

But as much as he’d told himself he was relieved that Achilles had finally, finally stopped using him as target practice, he couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. The walls of Peleus’ house became washed-out and grey, he sunk into his familiar routine with a sponge in his hand and Leptine at his side yet couldn’t stop himself looking up occasionally, as if to check that the doors hadn’t flown open and a boy would be standing there, all taunting disdain and smelling of the sea.

Time passed strangely then, with every day seeming much like the next and although it could not have been more than a week it felt like an age before Patroclus found himself standing sweat-drenched in the sun and Ampelius was calling for another wrestling match.

“Wrestling match!” he boomed, ruddy face splitting with an eager grin. “Patroclus, Quintos, you first.”

Patroclus felt a squirm of delighted excitement. Quintos, however, groaned. “But sir,” he protested. “He’s beaten me, like, forty times. I can’t go against him again. It’s humiliating.”

“Your face is humiliating, Quintos,” belched Ampelius cheerfully. “In the ring. Now.”

Quintos scowled as they took their place in the makeshift ring, a large circle drawn into the sand. “Just my luck,” he muttered darkly. “First fight of the day and I get faced against bloody Mighty Menoitus.”

Patroclus grinned at the nickname. It had started off as a taunt by Mynax and his cronies but they’d quickly dropped it upon realising that the other boys actually meant it genuinely. His skill as an amateur wrestler had brought him greater standing than he’d thought possible; passing people in the corridors meant approving nods, friendly smiles and the occasional high-five rather than shouts of “doulos” or worse. Most people agreed now that some bitter sneak, jealous of his talents, had framed him for the whole cow incident and he’d even heard one rumour that the reason for his remarkable strength despite his scrawny stature was because he was, in fact, a lost son of Hermes.

“Don’t worry,” he assured Quintos. “I’ll go easy on you.”

Quintos nodded enthusiastically. “Please do,” he grimaced. “So not in the mood. Far too early in the morning for this shit.”

Ampelius shouted “COMMENCE” and the boys began to circle each other, keeping a careful distance and waiting for the other to attack. Quintos moved feverishly, like a rabbit pitted against a wolf and he kept glancing outside the ring, as if hoping for a quick escape. Patroclus judged his time, keeping a steady eye on his opponent’s sturdy brown limbs and the moment his hand twitched he sprang, knocking Quintos backwards and pinning his upper arms to the ground. Quintos struggled, trying to manoeuvre his legs into giving him some momentum but he gave up quickly, and merely lay in the sand looking vaguely irritated as Patroclus sat up again, one arm raised in triumph.

“BRAVO,” Ampelius clapped. “BRAVO, MY SON! Right, Stylax, Andros, you up next.”

The matches lasted all morning until by the end Patroclus was sticky with sweat and breathing heavily but happy with his performance. He had won most of his fights and his shoulders ached from being clapped on the shoulder so many times. He was feeling good.

Deiomachus and Leonides were leaning against the tree and held out their hands as he approached. Patroclus high-fived them and sank down tiredly, gratefully accepting the offered water-skin. “You want to be careful mate,” said Deiomachus jovially. “Ampelius will be signing you up for the army soon.”

Patroclus shook his head amusedly. “Think I’ve got a while to go yet.”

He drank thirstily, listening with half-an ear as Leonides recounted his epic commentary of the fights, relating with relish how Mynax had tripped over his own feet. Patroclus laughed appropriately but his gaze had drifted to a little way off to where a crowd of people had gathered, forming a ring round some hidden spectacle. He nudged Deiomachus and pointed. “What d’you reckon?”

Deiomachus squinted and shrugged. “Only one way to find out.”

They approached warily, nudging their way through the mass to get to the front. As they neared the familiar sounds of a fight grew louder, the slap of skin meeting flesh, the sharp grunts of pain and effort, the crunch of a fist on a jaw. Then a flash of gold and Patroclus knew what he was watching.

“Oh my holy fucking Zeus on a cloud,” breathed Leonides. “Should we be watching this?”

“Who cares?” answered Deiomachus, similarly awe-struck.

There was a tremendous thump as a body crashed to the floor and Achilles got to his feet, his arms above his head in the pose of a champion. Another assailant rose from the throng but barely a second had he crossed into the ring and Achilles was on him, his arm outstretched as he measured his distance with professional concentration, the sinews tense as bow strings. His feet were light, barely dusting the ground as he danced mocking circles, flying out with a teasing punch to the torso until the other boy was also lying in the sand, winded, and clutching his gut.

Patroclus stared in dumbstruck fascination. Leptine had told him once that nearly all Achilles’ faults could be redeemed if you just stood and watched him fight. Now, being here, with not even a thin sheen of sweat glowing on his forehead, he understood what she meant.

He was inhumanly fast. Patroclus could see him on one end of the ring, then he had ducked and now he was behind you all in the space of about a moment. His strikes were perfectly executed, his fists like flashing knives and when he moved it was as if he were the wind, his body a wave he controlled it so expertly.

“Is there no one else?” Achilles cried and the crowd fell silent.

Patroclus, Deiomachus and Leonides looked at each other. “Not bloody likely,” Deiomachus muttered.

Achilles looked at the crowd, frowning at the shameful hush that had come over the ring. Patroclus knew what he was thinking. Sheep. Bleating, cowardly sheep. He felt a bubble of resentment. I am not a sheep…

“Is there no one else?” he repeated. “Come on, I’m only human.”

This prompted a few nervous laughs but the crowd still shuffled awkwardly, avoiding the prince’s gaze for fear he would pick them out. “No one?” pressed Achilles. The disappointment in those two words was almost comical.

Suddenly, as if in a trance, Patroclus was aware of himself stepping forward.

Deiomachus noticed, grabbing his arm automatically. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “You’ll get yourself killed!”

But Patroclus shook him off, feeling suddenly filled with a wild, reckless impulsiveness. His eyes were bright, his fingers itched. Achilles had seen him. He was smiling.

“Is there no one else?” he asked one final time, his eyes fixed on Patroclus.

Patroclus raised his hand. “Yes,” he said and every head in the crowd snapped to him.

Achilles’ smile widened, his eyes narrowed but excited. “Well alright then,” he said.

The ring was re-marked and Patroclus took his place, aware of every eye fixed on him. Achilles stood opposite, the shadow of derisive laughter hanging on the corner of his smile. Somewhere someone was playing a drum.

“Rules?” asked Patroclus.

Achilles shrugged. “What rules?”

“Take your positions,” someone called. Patroclus assumed a basic boxer stance, his fists raised defensively before him to guard his face. Achilles was on his toes, bouncing lightly with his hands slightly curled before him, as if testing the air.  “Ready. Okay. FIGHT.”

They circled each other like cats over a carcass, Achilles moving continuously, Patroclus’ feet planted firmly to the floor. He kept his eyes fixed before him, too wary even to blink. Achilles was still grinning but there was a hardness to it now, like it had frozen there.

“You sure you want to do this?” he asked wickedly. “Back out now and you might still save that pretty pout of yours.”

“Yeah you wish,” Patroclus retorted. Achilles laughed.

Patroclus attacked first. As soon as he was in range he went straight in, arms thrashing in clumsy punches for Achilles’ torso. Achilles blocked them, raising his on elbows in front of his face and following with a couple of punches of his own. They met Patroclus straight in the stomach and he fell back, breathing hard.

He waited a few seconds before going in again, this time dodging Achilles’ defence and smacking him straight in the side. Achilles let out a tiny oomph of surprise and Patroclus retreated before he could respond. When he looked up again Achilles was no longer smiling.

They went in at the same time. With a titanic clash they launched at each other and all semblance of technique and courtesy went out the window. Patroclus’ arms flew around Achilles’ waist, his face buried into his lower stomach as he tried to shove him back. Achilles twisted his legs around Patroclus’, pushing back with his thigh until they were locked in each other’s grip. The crowd began to scream hysterically as they wrestled like two writhing pythons, their skin already slick with sweat as they struggled to keep hold.

Achilles was winning. Patroclus could feel him pressing into him, the strength in his arms and the calves of his legs, now entwined with his in muddled confusion. He could feel the heat in his body, all the suppressed anger and tension that had steadily built up between them, all of it mounting to this one final clasp of bodies. The blood flowed hot in Patroclus, he was all fury and vengeance and by the Gods if he wasn’t going to let Achilles know it. You’ll not move me, he found himself thinking as Achilles fought desperately to pin him down. Come on, have a shot, you’ll not move me by god you’ll not-

It all happened at once. Achilles, made furious with frustration and adrenalin released one of Patroclus’ shoulders to draw back his arm. And, driven by some impulsive madness, he sent it fist-first into Patroclus’ face. Patroclus fell back, stunned by the blinding force of the punch and collapsed into the sand, tiny silver dots popping up before him. Achilles stood over him, fists clenched. The crowd stopped cheering.

“Shit,” said Achilles, his face was deathly white as Patroclus staggered drunkenly to his feet. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”

He was silenced by the look Patroclus gave him, a look of pure loathing and humiliation. Blood had begun to pour thickly from his nose, hot and sickly tasting of metal. Achilles stepped forward, his hand outstretched in concern.

“Don’t touch me,” snapped Patroclus, spitting blood on to the sand. Achilles snatched his hand back as if it burned.

The onlookers were silent as Patroclus pushed his way past them but he could feel their eyes following him, burning into the back of his skull. As he moved, he half expected Achilles to follow him. But he didn’t. He just stared, white as a dead man, at Patroclus’ retreating figure as his blood dripped slowly down his knuckles, pooling softly onto the sand.

Chapter Text

“There! Did you see him?”

“Who? Where?”

“That guy, over there. He’s the one who took on Achilles.”

“Took on Achilles? Sweet Semele, is he crazy or just stupid?”

“Gods, check out the face on that bruise.”

“I heard he cried when Achilles hit him.”

“I heard he fainted.”

“Ignore them,” Leptine murmured as Patroclus clenched his fists. “Just ignore them.”

Patroclus scowled and grit his teeth, conscious of each pair of eyes goggling after him as Leptine led him speedily down the corridor. The news of his defeat had reached the palace before he’d even had the chance to wipe his nose and by lunchtime it seemed even the lowliest slave had heard the sorry tale. Patroclus had spent the past couple of hours enduring crude mimes of gushing blood and listening with horror as the story became more and more heavily embroidered until even Loras was convinced of how Patroclus had simply lain down in surrender as Achilles kicked him round the ring like a throwing ball. After months of praying for deliverance, of limping and bleeding for the approval of his peers this was what it had come down to. Achilles, a right hook and a blood-stained chiton.

“Gods’ teeth,” Patroclus swore as the boys behind him began to point and snicker. “You’d think I was the only one he beat. Just because I end up with this,” he jabbed at the angry blotch making purple riot across his face. “Suddenly I’m the bloody indignity. He’s the one whobroke the rules. And now everyone’s making out like I just stood there and let him hit me.”

“Mmhm,” nodded Leptine neutrally, avoiding his eyes.

Patroclus looked at her sharply. “You do agree, right?”

“Well, you know,” she replied, still keeping her gaze fixedly forward. “Obviously I think it’s terrible that you’re hurt. But…um… he did say “no rules”.”

Patroclus stared. Leptine brushed her hair distractedly out of her face, long lashes softly veiling her lowered eyes as if she were speaking to a lord or an overseer. “But that’s just…procedure,” Patroclus protested. “Fight talk to make the tough guys look tougher. No one actually means it.”

“Looks like he did,” Leptine pointed out.

“Yeah…well…that’s just him,” Patroclus scowled. “He’s not normal. Most people, normal people, don’t mean it. Like…you don’t…you just don’t punch people in the face! You just don’t do that!”

“You’re right,” said Leptine. “Of course. I mean, to challenge someone to a fight and then actually hit them? Madness. Absolute outrage.”

She snuck a quick, amused glance at him.  He was not smiling. “I don’t think,” he spoke, frosty and deliberate. “That I like you anymore.”

Leptine laughed and threw an arm around his waist, hugging him tight. Patroclus did not return her affection and remained stubbornly cold, his arms folded over his chest. “I’m sorry,” she said, burying her head in the crook of his neck. “I’m sorry, that was mean. Poor Patroclus. Poor, poor, wounded Patroclus. Forced to retire from a fight, who knows if he’ll ever recover from such a terrible…nose bleed...”

“Shut up!” cried Patroclus, pushing her away as she broke into fits of hysterical laughter. “No stop, you weren’t there, it actually really hurt!”

But this only made her laugh harder, tears streaming out the corners of her eyes as she clutched her ribs and Patroclus stood with all the stony dignity of a marble pillar, trying to ignore the bemused glances from passers-by. Slaves took one look, saw a retarded serving girl and a boy with a stick up his backside and hurried away, assuming this was not something good, obedient workers wanted to be involved with. Patroclus set his jaw and looked up at the ceiling. “Are you finished?” he asked when Leptine’s giggles finally began to subside.

Leptine hiccoughed. “Yes,” she said. “Oh Patroclus, I am sorry, really. But you have to admit…it is a bit funny.”

“No,” replied Patroclus shortly. “I don’t.”

“Oh come on,” she poked him as he continued to look determinedly aloof. “He said sorry, by the Gods. I mean he actually apologised. Surely that’s got to count for something?”

“Yay, sound the alarm, the prince has learnt a new word,” Patroclus huffed. “I cannot believe you are actually defending him. Whose side are you on anyway?”

“Gods’ sake Patroclus,” Leptine rolled her eyes. “You know as well as I do this has nothing to do with taking sides. Admit it. You don’t care about a stupid nose-bleed or that Achilles broke the rules or embarrassment or whatever. The fact is you fought him and he won. You are pissed off because Achilles is a better fighter than you.”

Leptine folded her arms and fixed him with her most challenging glare, her dark eyes at their most defiant. Patroclus stared at her, dumbstruck.  “Well that’s just…” he stuttered. “That’s completely off the point…”

But before he had a chance to defend himself he was interrupted by a sudden horn blast, ripping past them like a small hurricane and reverberating through the stone. Patroclus and Leptine hurried towards the Great Hall, the flats of their palms slammed down over their ears, following the crowd who had already gathered at its huge double doors. Peering through the gap between them Patroclus could just make out an imposing figure standing atop the raised dais where Peleus sat with Achilles, glowering, at his side.

“What’s going on?” he whispered to the boy stood in front of him.

“The king wants all his foster sons in the Hall,” he explained. “Some big announcement about our futures or something.”

“Our futures?” Patroclus repeated wonderingly but further questions were cut short by Amyntor’s self-satisfied little directive of “Enter.”

The doors opened and the boys flooded in, their hands clasped obediently behind their backs and their gazes lowered. They lined up single-file in front of the dais, bending the knee before the king and sneaking furtive glances at the man stood before them. Patroclus looked up and caught Achilles’ eye. The prince blinked and tore determinedly away, his foot jiggling self-consciously up and down on the arm rest of his chair.

Peleus raised his arms, thin as withered branches and appealed in his hoarse yet carrying voice, for silence. Patroclus looked behind him to the back of the Hall where Leptine was waiting with the other slaves. Brace yourself, she mouthed.

“My children!” called Peleus into the echoing hush. “Many of you come from golden lands, rich with the fame that destiny awards the bold. As babes you will have fed on the milk of history, well-versed in the wisdom passed in tales of old from generation to generation. The time has come, brave boys, to add your own mark to that history! Behold, I give you Acastus, son of Pelias king of Iolcus, esteemed hero of the Argonauts and venerable General of the Myrmidon army!”

The foster sons of Phthia applauded automatically as Peleus rose unsteadily to grasp his guest’s hand. And Patroclus thought there was real warmth in that embrace, a gleam of fraternal bond that can only come between those who have fought together, seen the same horrors and shared the same hardships of life and war for many years. I wonder if I’ll ever have that, he thought, and was surprised at himself.

Acastus helped Peleus back to his seat then turned to regard the gleaming faces pointed up at him in fervent expectation. He was one of the few heroes that looked as tall as the songs made him out to be and Patroclus could not help but look on him with admiration, recalling the stories his mother would tell him of the Argonauts and their adventures. His face was battle-hardened, beaten and brown as old leather and scars lined the crevices like rivers on a map. His brown beard was streaked with grey, yet age had done little to corrupt that powerful body which still held the bulk of his youth; beneath the leather pelt his tendons rippled and the muscles in his arms and shoulders strained the seams of his armour.

He raised his hand and the room fell silent once again, awed by the sheer dominance of his presence. “Sons of great men you were when first you came,” he spoke. “And stronger men yet will you become. The time has come for you to pay back the debt you owe this fair country and your king for bringing you so graciously under his roof. The barbarian hordes from Thessaly swarm on the fringes of Phthian hills and valleys. Soon they will be upon us with none but the might of the Myrmidons to hold them back. But who will protect our towns and villages while they are away? Who will defend our women and little children from their savage spears and appetites?”

The boys looked at each other awkwardly as Acastus paused, waiting for an answer. None came and he continued. “Who,” he went on. “Has the guts and the heart and the stomach to act as sword and shield for this noble land, the last line of defence should the Thessalian pig-dogs break through our ranks? When our soldiers are dying and all is lost, who will be the last hope to save our people from slavery and death?”

He paused again, his ancient eyes boring into souls. “We will,” said a voice in the crowd and Acastus nodded vigorously.

“Young you may be, yet old enough to take a stand. Inexperienced you may be but with arm enough to raise a weapon. As the power of the Myrmidon army holds back the storm let the sons of Phthia defend their gates.”

“Yes,” called more voices and Patroclus looked round.  Heads were beginning to nod and to his right Deiomachus and Leonides stood with their mouths hanging half open, their faces glowing with the golden light of revelation and looking as though Beltane had come early. A few people had started to cheer.

“Glory awaits you, my sons,” Acastus resumed. “Endless heroics beckon your name, destiny herself shall be bent to your will. Join the home defence today and safeguard your country and its citizens. Those who are worthy will be remembered as ideals of youth, work your way up and become a hero of the army. Do your duty. Fight for your king. This is your chance, boys, to be men. Let each man do his part.”

He raised his arms and a titanic roar greeted his words as the boys jumped up in applause, eager for Acastus to spot his face as the next “ideal of youth”. What a load of bollocks, thought Patroclus but even he could not help but clap along with the others, grinning stupidly with grandiose ideas of fame swimming deliciously into his mind. He pictured himself, clad in bronze and commanding a legion of young soldiers, scarlet plume nodding frighteningly from his head, a dash of colour across the dull beige of his life. He imagined what his father would say, to know that the son he’d never wanted was amongst the very elite, the honoured chosen of the home guard. My Gods he’d be pissed, he answered himself, and felt his grin grow wider.

“Now is the time,” came Ampelius’ thundering crescendo over the ecstatic noise of the crowd. “Let each boy wishing to sign as a volunteer of the Phthian home defence give his name here.” He took from his belt a strip of linen and held it in front of him. At once the room fell silent. Written word was as good as binding contract. Change of heart would do no good now, once a name was down in ink there was no going back.

The sound of wood scraping against the stone floor cut the tension like a knife through soft bronze. Achilles pushed back his chair and stood, like a God, before the wide-eyed gathering. Without looking at them he hopped off the stage, marched straight over to Ampelius and took the linen straight from his hands, writing his name at the top in large, black letters. Then he handed the linen back to Ampelius, wiped the ink of his hands and left the Hall without a word.

It was as if this had been the signal they’d all been waiting for. The moment the doors slammed shut the orderly line of boys dissolved into a swarming multitude, surging forward like a tidal wave. Patroclus felt himself being pressed on both sides as his peers grasped for the sign sheet, desperate to be the next to have his name down. Through the mass he could see Deiomachus and Leonides attempting to clamber over the people in front. “Are you going for it?” Deiomachus yelled, pushing away someone’s ear.

“Yeah,” Patroclus called back. “Yeah, I think I am!”

One by one he watched the crowd start to thin, the list becoming longer and longer as each boy fought their way to the front and signed their name. Patroclus waited impatiently, suddenly anxious to be part of something and to join his peers in their pursuit of renown. Finally, when Stylax Kleonides had skipped away cheering, Patroclus found himself with the linen in hand, his heart pounding with nervous excitement as his fingers brushed over the list. However, he was just about to sign his name when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Sorry Menoitides,” said Ampelius, his deep voice gentle. “But not this time.”

Patroclus stared in disbelief, feeling as though someone had just let all the air out of him. “What?” he faltered. “Why not?”

Ampelius sighed, running thick, sausage-like fingers through his tangled thicket of hair. “Listen,” he said eventually. “The home defence just doesn’t have the kind of resources to train up volunteers into decent soldiers. Those in it come decent or not at all.”

“But I’m a good fighter,” Patroclus protested desperately. “You know it, you’ve seen me-”

“-Phthia needs combatants, Patroclus, not wrestlers,” Ampelius shook his head. “And someone who can hold his own in a child’s contest is just not the same thing. Your spear toss is abominable. You wield a sword like the thing’s on fire. You can barely even lift a shield-”

“-But I have the heart,” he insisted. “I’ve got spirit and I’m not afraid…please just give me a chance and I could…”

But Ampelius just shook his head, looking pained. “I’m sorry son,” he said regretfully. “That’s my final word,” and Patroclus knew the conversation was over.

For a moment he just stood there, looking wronged and defiant, then someone behind him yelled Move arsehole, and he walked away slowly, feeling like someone had just smote at his head with a blunt axe. Around him the crowd was retreating, the cheers were growing louder but he neither saw nor heard any of it. He was aware only of a growing sense of resentment and self-pity, the pressure of it swelling in his gut until he thought he might drown in it.

Don’t worry father, he thought darkly, ignoring Leptine’s call. I’m still here.

oOo

The next few days were some of his worst spent in Phthia. Drills went as normal, however the class was split into the boys who would be part of the home defence, or as Ampelius had taken to calling them, “his elite squad”, and those who weren’t. This meant that while he, Patroclus, was stuck trying to hit a tree with a child’s javelin from a few feet away the “elite” were driving circles around him on proper men’s chariots, or standing from the battlements like little Apollos, shooting arrows down at bales of hay. They had taken to wearing special brooches clasped to their tunics along with their new smug expressions, their days were marked with bro-hugs and high-fives and there was even something in their air and manner of walking that just read “I’m better than you.”

The worst part was, in Patroclus’ view, they weren’t. Most of these boys he had beaten in training matches or in friendly scuffles on several occasions; Mynax, who took his new position very seriously, seized every opportunity to practice his new soldier’s techniques on stray children and animals. Even Quintos, with his ferrety eyes and rabbit’s courage had taken to swaggering round the compound, reprimanding anyone he tagged a “rule-breaker” with a tap of his shining new badge. And it was for this reason, more than any other, that Patroclus began to hate the home defence; not just because he had not got in, but because there were so many beneath him who had.

After the normal drill sessions the elite squad would take part in further training with Acastus while the mediocre were allowed to take the rest of the day off. During these hours of freedom Patroclus had time to mull over his hatred and would spend the afternoons sat under a tree on the beach, reflecting over the canon of depression his life had become. It was almost as if time had gone backwards; after his short peek of excellence he had gone back to his habitual state as a nobody, which, it seemed, was his natural place in the world.

“Patroclus.”

And it wasn’t even as though they could find it within themselves to be gracious. The other boys had begun to talk to him with excruciating sympathy, condescension in every word as if he were but a child and they oh-so-grown up. Mynax relished telling people over-loudly about how poor Patroclus had been so unlucky at not getting chosen but then, he supposed they weren’t too want for wine servers in the army. He was back where he’d started, a misfit, a disappointment, a faceless, no-named obscurity-

“Patroclus.”

“What?” Patroclus snapped violently, lifted his head from his knees and saw Achilles standing over him, his gold-blond head blocking the sun. “Oh fuck off.”

“Whoa, what’s with the niceties?” observed Achilles casually. “Enough with the foreplay. Don’t bottle up your feelings like that. Let it out, tell it straight.”

“You’re not funny,” Patroclus growled. “Go away. I’m not in the mood.” 

Achilles smiled and shook his head. Escaping strands caught the light, setting his face aglow with a pale yellow halo. “Well aren’t you just a ray of sunshine?” he grinned. “But don’t worry, I can fix that.” 

“Somehow, I doubt it.” 

“What would you say if I told you I had a proposition for you, guaranteed to make your day just that little bit brighter?” 

“I’d say don’t bother me, I’m busy living happily ever after.” 

“Aren’t you at least going to hear me out?” 

Patroclus gave him a long look. Achilles’ eyebrows were raised and questioning, his palms outspread. Half of him felt an automatic desire to grab a fistful of sand and fling it into his eyes, the other was too driven by curiosity to lose it to antagonism. “Thirty seconds,” he said. 

Achilles scratched the back of his neck self-consciously. “I want you to do me a favour.” 

Immediately caution set his voice on edge.  “What?” 

“Will you fight me?” 

Silence. Patroclus watched Achilles’ face for signs of jest. There were none. The rustle of the leaves in the tree above him synced with the crash of waves on the shore, slowing time and pushing the limits of the void between them. Achilles stood patiently, his thumbs tucked into his belt as he tapped a rhythm out on his thigh. Patroclus stared at him. “What?” he said again. 

“Will you fight me?” Achilles repeated, then added “No one else will.” 

 Patroclus snorted derisively. “Well forgive me my tone of surprise.” 

“I need to practice,” said Achilles. “It’s all very well being the best but I’m not improving. Everyone I fight either goes down too quickly or lets me win. It’s boring and pointless and it does nothing for me. But with you I actually had to try.” 

“Please, enough with the compliments, you’re making me blush.” 

“I’m serious,” Achilles insisted. “Yours was the first proper fight I’ve had in ages. And I know how badly you want to hit me. So come on. Let’s go.” 

 “What, so you can break my nose again?” muttered Patroclus childishly. “No thank you.” 

Achilles frowned. “I didn’t break your nose.” 

“No. Well,” he shrugged, feeling suddenly very foolish. “You might as well have done.” 

“Oh come on,” Achilles rolled his eyes. “I already said I was sorry. And I am. I lost control. I was frustrated and I wanted to win and I lost control. See how you do that to me? See why I need this?” 

His request had turned into a supplication. Patroclus heard the desperation in his voice, saw the entreat in his eyes, the purse of angst about his mouth. He wasn’t using the words but it was there all the same. Patroclus sighed. “I don’t know.” 

“What if,” said Achilles carefully. “I agreed to help you with your drill training? You want to be part of the home defence, right? No problem. By the end of the month I’ll have you throwing thunderbolts like an Olympian. The goddamn army will be begging to have you.” 

The image of himself, clad in bronze and heroics came unbidden. Achilles was swift to press his advantage. “You can be great Patroclus,” he said and the wind echoed his words. “I can make you great. And all you have to do is hit me. As hard as you fucking can.” 

He leant back expectantly, waiting for his answer. Patroclus turned his head slightly towards the sea. There was a clear horizon, unmarked by rock or boat, a clear stretch of blue travelling forever into the distance. The sunlight studded the surface white silver, shimmering flat and infinite as the gentle breeze drew waves onto the dampened sand and Patroclus heard the word before he spoke it. “Yes,” he said, and felt rain.

Chapter Text

“Great,” grinned Achilles and took up a stance.

Patroclus stared up at him, perplexed. “What, now?”

“Why not?” Achilles answered, cracking the joints in his neck and knuckles. “No time like the present.”

Patroclus groaned and heaved himself to his feet. Achilles was bouncing up and down on his toes and shaking energy from his wrists, as if a sudden electrical current had shot its way through his limbs and was sparking now at his fingertips. Patroclus took his place opposite him, scratching the back of his neck self-consciously.

“So…what? You just want me to hit you?”

Achilles jumped, bringing his knees up to his chest. “That’s right.”

“Where?”

“What do you mean where, I don’t know, anywhere.”

“But, like, do you want me to make contact or are you going to block it or-”

“Gods’ teeth man, do you have to have a fucking neurosis over everything?”

“No, I’m just thinking that-”

“-Well don’t think,” Achilles rolled his eyes. “Just do. Come on.”

Patroclus scowled, drawing his fists in front of him unenthusiastically. Achilles cracked his neck one last time and assumed a loose position, still jumping slightly on the balls of his feet. Patroclus shook his head. “This is so fucking stupid.”

Achilles nodded. “Yup.”

His eyes were bright with manic excitement, his grin dug into the soft pads of his cheeks like an axe split. Patroclus could see the nervous energy pumping him like battery acid, could almost hear the electricity crackling in his veins. Don’t think. Just do.

The punch collided with the cushioning flesh of abdomen and Patroclus was aware of his knuckles bending forward, curling into Achilles’ lower torso inch by crooked inch. Achilles’ stomach tightened as he braced himself, tense muscles hardening against the softness of tissue but he still went backwards, doubling over with a stifled grunt. Patroclus stood over him awkwardly. “Um…you okay?”

“Fine,” Achilles wheezed. “Just…give me a second.”

Patroclus nodded, unsure of whether to feel guilty or pleased with himself. He settled on ambivalent and started looking around him to check if anyone was watching. No one was and he found himself grateful. Achilles was exhaling deeply, his head between his legs. When he straightened up again Patroclus saw he was wincing.

“Good punch,” he gasped.

“Sorry,” grimaced Patroclus.

“No,” he shook his head. “No it was perfect.”

The rush of sailing limbs punctuated with the thump of Patroclus’ diaphragm meant he didn’t hear the last word. All he was aware of was the wind suddenly knocked out of him, white spots appearing at the corners of his vision as he grunted with surprise and pain. Achilles wiped his knuckles on the back of his thigh, surveying Patroclus with the appraising air of an artist viewing his work. “You good?” he asked.

Patroclus took a slow, steadying breath, trying to control the dull ache of his stomach. “Yeah,” he replied.

“Excellent,” said Achilles, and attacked again.

It soon became uncomfortably apparent to Patroclus that the only reason his first punch had made any contact was because Achilles had wanted it to. After that the match was very much one-sided with Achilles scoring hit after hit until all he could do was raise his elbows up to his face and hope very much that he would still be able to hold a sword after this, never mind join the home defence. Achilles was ceaseless and unyielding in his attack, yet his eyes were calculating and thoughtful. He was thinking as he fought, solving violent equations in his mind so that each move was perfectly planned, timed and executed. Yet at the same time he moved instinctively, like it was the wind carrying his body and he was little more than a leaf floating on it. Still each hit smacked like a hurricane and soon Patroclus found himself face down and spitting out fistfuls of sand, his ribs stinging with the impact of Achilles’ crescendo.

“That was good,” said Achilles, offering his hand to help him up. “You can do better though.”

“Oh can I?” Patroclus took it, wincing as his whole left side protested.

“Yup,” Achilles nodded. “Tomorrow morning, by first cock crow. Meet me on the training field.”

Patroclus’ eyes widened, aghast. “By first…by first…Are you serious? I have chores, I have…sleep-”

“Enough,” Achilles cut across him. “First cock crow. If you’re not here before then I’ll be gone. You want to learn, you follow my rules. Or I’ll drop you, simple as that. Understand?”

Patroclus glowered at him, thinking with a dull ache of his growing list of duties. “Understood,” he replied reluctantly, then added “Maestro.”

A flicker of amusement danced across Achilles face, settling on the wry twist of his smile. “Good,” he said with a glint in his eye. “See you then. Don’t be late.”

And with that he turned and walked back across the sand whistling as he went, leaving Patroclus with aching ribs, a heavy weight in his stomach and wondering how, by Hades, he was going to get all this round Leptine.

oOo

“No.”

“Oh come on,” Patroclus protested. “You haven’t even heard me out yet!”

“Don’t need to,” Leptine shrugged. “My name said in that way is all I need to know.”

“I’m only asking for an hour,” Patroclus pressed. “One, tiny little hour. Surely you can get someone to cover me for then.”

“Oh yes, and any ideas who that might be?” Leptine huffed. “Which someone do you think is going to have to get up at Gods know when to carry out all your chores and their own so that you can throw things at squirrels?”

“Always with the squirrels,” Patroclus rolled his eyes. “I told you. The wind blew my catapult off target.”

“Of course,” Leptine retorted. “Just like the wind dropped that battering ram off a cliff or the wind set the stables on fire. In fact never mind the home defence, from what I hear the wind sounds your biggest competition.”

“Yes, well, this is it,” said Patroclus defensively. “This is exactly why I need the extra training. So that none of these…accidents…happen again. During a particularly bad….storm.”

Leptine raised her arms, gesturing before her. They were sitting on a stone bench overlooking the field which, previously overrun with strangling black-green stalks and stems, was now utterly weedless and shining with an afternoon of back-breaking work. “Look around,” she said. “Storms enough out here. And there’s a hurricane all set to hit the privies tomorrow morning.”

“I’d kind of rather not.”

“What, is real work not heroic enough for you, or something? Or is the pleasure of my company not enough of an incentive?”

“Well no offense, but as wondrous as your company is it’s hardly going to make me famous is it?”

Leptine rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything. Patroclus nudged a little nearer to see the look on her face. She was always hard to read, years of being a possession had taught her to guard her emotions jealously but it was the way she set her jaw that told him she was not happy. Patroclus felt a stab of guilt and put his arm around her waist.

“Joke,” he said softly. “I’m joking.”

“I know,” replied Leptine loftily.

“I’m being a dick, aren’t I?”

“Yes.”

“Sorry,” he said and Leptine turned to look at him, her face so lovely and sad and forgiving that Patroclus felt all over again like a terrible human being. She had a way of doing that, a way of making people ashamed of themselves with just a look and Patroclus found he had to lower his gaze to his feet if only to avoid that stabbing mercy.

“Forget it,” he said. “I’m talking bullshit. Don’t listen to me.”

“No,” Leptine shook her head, her brown hair fluttering in a melancholy way around her face. “No it’s me. I’m sorry. It’s your life, you do what you want. You have that right. I think I’m just so used to thinking of you as a slave that I forgot myself for a moment.”

Patroclus looked at her in confusion. “What are you talking about?” he frowned. “It’s not like that at all.”

“Isn’t it?” she asked glumly. “We’re so close, you and I, that we forget we’re not the same. When I look at you I don’t think prince or master but Patroclus. And you, you don’t see a slave or an inferior. You just see me, your friend. We’ve grown so used to each other that it’s as if we were born of the same colour in the same land…of the same mother, even.”

“But that’s how it should be,” Patroclus frowned. “Prince, master, slave, they’re just words someone landed us with. They don’t fit either of us, and they certainly don’t define us. I’m the least likely prince to walk Gaia’s green earth, just like no one in their right mind could ever label you an inferior.”

“But people do,” Leptine reminded him. “And just thinking like that is state sacrilege. I mean, I could be beaten and worse if anyone even heard me call you ‘Patroclus’.”

She looked down at her hands, blackened with dirt, against the coarse muddied wool of her skirt. A single tear rolled down her cheek and dropped onto her skin, clearing a patch of shining olive brown through the earth and Patroclus was so shocked for a moment that he just stared, his brain unable to process that she was crying, actually crying. Then something kicked in his head and he drew her into his arms, resting her cheek against his chest.

“I’m sorry,” she said wetly. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve been having these feelings lately…horrible feelings…and I can’t sleep…”

“What feelings?” asked Patroclus, heart aching with concern as he held her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just feel like…soon…everything’s going to change. Something’s coming. A storm or a God…something dark…and when it hits us nothing will be the same again.”

“A bad dream,” he reassured her. “Nothing more.”

Leptine shook her head. “I don’t know if it is or if it isn’t,” she sighed. “I’m just scared…terrified, even, that whatever it is…it’ll hurt us. What happens when your punishment is over and you’re a prince again? Will you see me differently? Because I don’t think I can bare it Patroclus,I just can’t-”

“-Stop,” said Patroclus. “Stop. Listen and understand. I don’t care what country you come from, I don’t care about the hailing of our mothers. You are my sister, Leptine, that’s not going to change. Not now, not ever.”

He felt her heat leave him as she raised her head, a tiny frown marking her brow. “Sister?” she murmured softly, her long lashes at their most veiled.

Patroclus nodded. Leptine watched him for a moment, searching his face for something until she sighed, apparently giving up. Then she lifted herself from his chest, eased smoothly out of his embrace and got off the bench. Patroclus watched her brush the mud from her skirts, sending dirty clouds into the warm air, feeling suddenly uncomfortable and sad. Then she turned back to look at him, flashing her sweet smile and all despondency was lifted, like the dust, into the air as she held out her hand.

“Come on,” she said. “We’ll compromise. I’ll cover for you tomorrow if you take my afternoon shift. That way at least I’ll have some time to catch up on sleep. And if Amyntor says anything we’ll just say we switched because the weeding gave my hands blisters. How’s that?”

Patroclus nodded ardently, taking her hand and shaking it. “Great,” he replied, then added “Wait a second. What do blisters have to do with you not being able to take the afternoon shift?”

Leptine grinned and Patroclus thought he saw the stars of the east shining in her eyes. “Nothing at all of course,” she said and, not for the first time that morning, Patroclus had the distinct feeling that she was telling rather less than the whole truth.

First cock crow came like a slap in the face. Patroclus opened one eye a sliver, raising his head a hair’s breadth above the thin blanket. A draft of morning hair came whistling through the cracks of the wall, stinging his exposed skin and pricking it with goose pimples as he pushed the covers reluctantly away from him and forced himself unsteadily to his feet. The slave quarters, always dimly lit were pitch black in the early darkness and Patroclus blinked blearily, wiping sleep from his eyes as he struggled to make out the door before setting about picking his way round the several sleeping bodies carpeting the floor.

“Watch it, arsehole!” hissed one not so somnolent slave, yanking his hand under a bundle of dirty covers as Patroclus missed his footing.

“Sorry,” Patroclus whispered back, approaching the door warily and feeling a sense of mounting dread in his gut as he did so. This is so stupid, he chastised himself. So, so stupid. It’s not too late. Turn around. Go back to bed now. Save whatever’s left of your dignity.

But as persuasively sensible as the voice in his head was, Patroclus found himself strangely reluctant to return to the warm safety of his mattress. Despite the dark and the early hour and the cold air down his chiton he could not help but feel oddly anxious to see what the morning would bring, and as he snuck out gingerly onto the fields he wondered, with growing curiosity, what Achilles had in store for him.

He saw him almost immediately, a slender black silhouette standing out against the powdered lilac-blue of before dawn. He turned his head slightly as Patroclus approached, the gold of his hair dimmed to dusty brown in the dark as he nodded his greeting.

“You came,” he stated.

“Don’t sound so disappointed,” Patroclus replied, shivering in the cold. “You should know by now there’s no hope of me matching up to your expectations.”

“On the contrary,” said Achilles wryly. “You exceeded my expectations just by turning up.”

He folded his arms across his chest, looking Patroclus up and down, his lip curled contemptuously.  As Achilles’ eyes passed over his slight, hunched form Patroclus became uncomfortably aware of how thin his chiton really was, provoking another involuntary shiver which had nothing to do with the cold. Whether Achilles noticed or not he didn’t know, he just snapped his fingers suddenly and pointed towards the training field behind him.

“I marked a track out in limestone,” he told him bluntly. “Run round it.”

For a moment Patroclus, convinced the earliness of the hour had somehow affected his thought process, assumed he had him wrong.  “You’re joking.”

Achilles shook his head. “People laugh at my jokes.”

Patroclus squinted at the field. Sure enough there glowed the track, a perfect circle gleaming from the grass like a giant’s mouth stretched open in silent laughter. He turned back resignedly. “How many times?”

Achilles shrugged. “Until I say stop,” he replied and gestured for him to start. Feeling like a man heading to the gallows Patroclus walked over to the circle, his feet dragging like a noose around his neck. He took his place and Achilles raised his hand into the air, letting it hang there a moment for dramatic effect before bringing it down. His arm swung back pendulum style, a sword swing, and Patroclus started running.

The first few laps were easy. Patroclus paced himself steadily, remembering how he had run just about everywhere back in Opus, tearing across the countryside from boys with slingshots in need of entertainment, from angry farmers whose fields he had trespassed, from his drunken father still brandishing a bottle. He remembered how he had run from the dead boy, desperate to put as much distance between himself and the blood, spreading flood-like after him. He remembered and the memories pumped his legs like fuel round the track as Achilles stood, drumming out a beat with his foot.

But before long he began to tire. By fifth or sixth his legs had started up a protest, by the eighth they were burning. Achilles watched, silent unless he saw him begin to slow. Then he would call out constructive comments such as “Keep running” and “Don’t stop” until Patroclus felt he was no longer running on energy but on pure loathing, an emotion which only intensified lap by lap until the fire in his calves and thighs begged to be put out.

Dawn came with rosy fingers, spilling orange light onto the field and still Achilles did not call an end. Patroclus ran on, his whole body aching and his brain screaming at him to stop, just stop, but he didn’t, even when his knees began to buckle and sweat turned the cloth of his chiton see-through. He kept running, his chest feeling as though it were about to give up with every slap of his foot on the grass, his breaths coming out in dangerously high pitched wheezes.

Finally, when the third cock had shattered the sleepy silence and the sun beamed a new day across the sky Achilles called “That’s enough”.  Within a second of the command Patroclus collapsed, twitching like an insect onto his back, ribs splintering against his lungs and face scrunched up in pain. Achilles loomed over him, observing him as though he were a vaguely interesting plant specimen.

“Twenty five,” he announced. “An ok start. Tomorrow I want to see ten more than that.”

Patroclus opened one eye. “Tomo…” he stuttered, his voice hoarse. “Tomorrow?”

Achilles nodded. “Tomorrow,” he affirmed and yawned. “That’s assuming you’re still standing, of course. For now you can go. That’s us done for the day.”

His grin blocked out the sun, a demon out of hell with his face half his shadow and Patroclus, to whom every breath was like a knife between his ribs, wondered at how much hatred it was possible for one man to feel.

At least, he thought as he limped back to the palace, clutching his chest and wheezing like an ancient, I don’t have morning chores to deal with. Thank the Gods for Leptine, sweet Leptine and her sweet, sweet compassion.

“Patroclus,” said Loras, greeting him in the corridor. “I hear you’re doing the afternoon shift.”

Patroclus nodded, too tired to reply. “Right,” said Loras. “You’re on oiling. Phoinix wants his massage straight after dinner, no dawdling now, and remember to really get your hands in. Feel out the crevices. And maybe take a comb. For someone his age that guy is surprisingly resistant against hair loss. On everywhere except his head, that is.”

“I…” Patroclus stuttered, his tongue incapable of forming words.

“And be sure to powder your palms,” Loras continued. “Phoinix can’t abide rough hands.”

Chapter Text

And so it went on. Every morning at first cock crow Patroclus would get up, wipe the sleep from his eyes and stagger onto the playing field where Achilles would be waiting, one foot tapping a beat out on the ground and an arm raised in the direction of the track. And every morning Patroclus would run until his legs burned and his chest begged for relief, his desperate prayers to hear the word Stop mingling his sweat with silent tears. His prayers were never answered, not until he was wheezing with every breath and the sun had just begun to break out from behind the olive trees.

Achilles watched him unpityingly, his face a mask of callous detachment as he stood at the edge of the ring, hair uncombed and falling messily into his eyes. Each time Patroclus passed him he could not help but glance his way, see the absence of pity there and become charged with a fury that would channel his legs for another couple of laps as he thought up new and delightful ways to wipe the smirk of his face. But when dawn finally came and Patroclus collapsed, panting, into the dirt Achilles would walk over, stand above him like a God and pronounce his sentence: “Forty-seven. Tomorrow I want sixty.”

Then there were the chores. Thanks to Leptine Patroclus was usually able to catch a couple of hours sleep before he was summoned to do the afternoon’s shift, yet he always woke sore, irritable and somehow more tired than he had been before. He would perform his duties zombie-like, as if half entranced and spent more energy on forcing his eyes open than on listening to what the overseer was saying. This resulted in unhappy consequences and more than once had received beatings for getting caught dropping off.

For weeks the torment continued with little change to the training schedule. Indeed, Achilles seemed to have no interest in anything besides counting how many times Patroclus ran round a circle for he made no reference to any potential future sessions, nor did he hint at an ending to the cycle any time soon. And Patroclus, determinedly unwilling to show any signs of weakness, refused to question him about it, even when the hours became earlier and instances of passing out halfway through his chores became more and more frequent. Until finally one morning, when Achilles pointed toward the track, he shook his head.

“No,” he said. “No more.”

The fine hairs of Achilles’ brow knit together as he surveyed him. “Excuse me?”

“No more,” Patroclus repeated, lifting his chin in defiance. “I’m not doing it again. I know what this is, this is your sick idea of a joke. Oh, how can we use Patroclus’ problems to our advantage, I know, let’s have him run non-stop around a circle for no apparent reason! Won’t that be funny? Well sorry to ruin your amusement but I’ve had enough torture and sleep deprivation and use as a human punch bag to last me a day in Sparta. So no, I refuse, and both you and the home guard can shove it right back up your-”

“-Whine, whine, whine,” Achilles shook his head. “Gods know that’s all you do. You think you know torture? You wouldn’t last a day in Sparta.”

“At least in Sparta they teach you endurance,” Patroclus retorted. “Resistance. Pain control. They see men suffer to make them strong, not for their own sick pleasure.”

“And what do you think I’m trying to do?” Achilles protested, gesturing violently. “This is all about endurance. Tell me, when you first started, how many laps could you run?”

Patroclus wracked his brains for the memory. It was difficult, what with lack of sleep limiting his awareness of reality all the days had started to blend into one. “Twenty…twenty five, was it?”

“And how many did you do yesterday?”

“Seventy,” replied Patroclus. “But that’s not the point-”

“-It is the point,” Achilles protested. “It is absolutely the point. A few weeks ago you could barely get round the field. Now you’re belting your way round nearly a hundred circuits. I’m building up your fitness, your speed, your stamina.  I’m giving you the building blocks you need to become a great warrior.”

Patroclus looked at him dubiously. Reading the doubt in his expression Achilles rolled his eyes and took him roughly by the arm. “Right,” he said, leading him purposefully across the field. “Come with me.”

“Where are we going?” asked Patroclus, hurrying to keep up with his urgent strides.

Achilles didn’t answer, only shushed him irritably as they walked back towards the palace. Confused, Patroclus allowed himself to be led in through the back door, up the corridors and winding staircases until they reached the landing of the highest rooms in the building. It was into one of these that Achilles pushed Patroclus, closing the door self-consciously behind him.

Patroclus glanced round the room. It was large and spacious yet somehow seemed cramped due to the amount of luxuries stuffed into the space. The floor was littered with rolled up carpets and silk cushions, expensive fabrics and materials light as gossamer thread spilled out the window, their brilliant colours flashing in the early light. Patroclus stared, dumfounded as Achilles set about trying to find whatever it was he was looking for, sending trinkets and blankets flying over his shoulders in impatience.

“Is this your room?” asked Patroclus, eyeing a small silver jar that looked suspiciously like face powder.

Achilles sent him a dark look from beneath a scarlet quilt. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he scowled. “Well sorry to disappoint. This is my mother’s room for when she comes to stay and she won’t be happy to know a mortal’s been in it. So be a good girl and try not to touch anything.”

At once Patroclus tore his eyes away and stared fastidiously at the floor, suddenly terribly conscious of himself and his presence in such a place. He was also aware that, for the first time, Achilles had referred to his mother as rather less, or more, than human. Watching him rummage through her things, flecks of incense landing on his olive smooth skin he wondered how many more of the rumours were true.

“Here it is,” he announced suddenly. “Okay. Come over here.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

Patroclus walked over to where Achilles was standing in front of an elaborately carved full-length mirror. He looked up, staring in puzzlement at his reflection. Achilles was smiling triumphantly. “See?” he said.

Patroclus peered at the glass. A disgruntled-looking skinny boy with untameable curling dark hair and brown eyes, narrowed with distrust, peered back. “See what?” he replied, still perplexed.

“Look how much you’ve changed,” said Achilles excitedly, gesturing at the mirror. “A few weeks ago and you wouldn’t have recognised you.”

“Are you sure that’s incense? Or have you been sniffing one of Cleitus’ herbal remedies?”

“Are you serious?”

“What?”

“You don’t see it?”

“See what?”

Achilles ran a hand through his hair, sighing exasperatedly. “Ok. Take off your chiton.”

Patroclus whirled round, mouth open. Achilles huffed in frustration. “Not all the way off. Just…pull it down to your waist.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

Tentatively, Patroclus wrestled his arms from his sleeves and wrenched himself out of the rough, homespun wool, pulling it down so that it bunched clumsily around his hips. The warmth of the room, made thick with incense, stuffed silks and scented candles embraced his naked torso and he felt the soft hairs of his skin prickle. Achilles stood a hair’s breadth behind him, his head slightly bent so that the point of his chin almost grazed his shoulder.

“Here,” he spoke softly. “You have broadened. Do you see?”

He brushed his fingertips lightly across the top of his back. Patroclus, surprised at the touch, gave a sharp intake of breath as the soft pads lightly grazed his skin. Looking at himself, at the areas Achilles outlined he saw he had changed; his shoulders were wider and there was a subtle hint of power in his upper back which hadn’t been there before. He turned his head an inch towards Achilles, eager to see more evidence of improvement. “Is that all?”

 Achilles shook his head slightly and moved his hands from Patroclus’ back to skirt his arms. “Here,” he said, flitting over the wiry tendons, hardened from hours of propelling his body forward. His hands were warm. Patroclus was aware of his own shallow breathing as Achilles gently cupped his biceps, applying pressure to the supple skin and muscle.

“And here.” He continued to trace over his body, mapping out areas of taut muscle and sinew like a general going over a landscape. His touch was light yet it might as well have burned; Patroclus tried to hold his breath but it proved impossible. He felt like he was about to burst.

“Do you see?” Achilles whispered, his fingers still brushing his forearms. Patroclus could feel the heat of his breadth creeping against his neck, the perfect pink lips almost touching his earlobe sending tiny goose pimples erupting over his flesh, as if the whole of him were rising in response to Achilles’ hands on him.

“I see,” he breathed back although his eyes were closed.

“I can show you more.”

Touch me again. “Okay.”

Achilles moved his hands inward, stroking the base of his spine with his knuckle. Patroclus could hear his breathing growing laboured in his ear but he did not notice how Achilles’ hands shook, nor how his eyes traced the smooth lines and contours of his body.  His palms flattened against Patroclus’ chest, browned by the sun and tensed with suppressed breath, his fingers centimetres away from the hardened nipple. Patroclus made a tiny sound, halfway between a squeak and a moan, then hoped to the Gods Achilles hadn’t heard.

“You’re harder here,” said Achilles with a voice like purple velvet. He was tracing the V shaped grooves either side of Patroclus’ abdomen.

Patroclus nodded but his brain had long ceased to process what he was saying. He could think of nothing but Achilles’ hands and his hot, shallow breath and the length of him pressing into his back, every inch rigid and insistent. Patroclus swallowed hard and resisted the urge to grind up against him, to roll his head back and fall against Achilles’ torso, to give himself up to his wondering hands and the urgent pressure of his thighs.

“And all that,” said Achilles, dropping his hands suddenly from Patroclus’ waist, “From just a few weeks’ worth running.”

Patroclus nodded distractedly, his skin left cold where previously it had been on fire. Achilles, apparently noticing their proximity for the first time, stepped back, a pink flush coming into his cheeks and turned away while Patroclus pulled his chiton back on. The room seemed now uncomfortably warm, invasive even and the rich smells of hair oil, incense and perfume were clagging his throat. This is his mother’s room, thought Patroclus and felt instantly sick.

“So you see,” said Achilles, his back still turned. “There is a point to all this. I’m not just torturing you for my own amusement.”

“Does that mean I still have to run?” asked Patroclus, trying to keep his voice steady as his hands shook on the clasp.

Achilles nodded. “Yes,” he said. “But I think it’s time we moved on, don’t you? Starting tomorrow, we’ll work on your spear thrust. How’s that?”

Patroclus, whose brain was still working a little sluggishly, took a moment to process what he’d just said. “Starting…”

“Tomorrow,” Achilles repeated. “Today you’re excused. It’s too late in the morning to get in more than seventy and if you’re not doing better than there’s no point doing anything. Besides, you’re clearly exhausted.”

Surprised and taken aback, Patroclus took a second to form a reply. “Oh,” was the best he could come up with. “Um…thank you.”

“Get some sleep,” said Achilles, still not looking at him, and gestured toward the door. Patroclus headed for it with a sense of mounting confusion, noticing as he did so the awkward angle at which Achilles was turned, as if trying to hide something.

It was only once had had left the room and looked down that he realised it was a good thing too. For had Achilles not had his back to Patroclus he would have noticed another, more obvious sort of change, and one that certainly had nothing to do with exercise.

oOo

Achilles was true to his word. The next morning, rather than having Patroclus run the track he set a javelin in his hands and set about teaching him how to throw. But rather than the new sessions coming as a relief they proved instead to be a whole different trial. The tension between the two of them was as bad as it had ever been, as if someone had lit a match beneath their feet which sparked a flame, now burning brighter than ever. Achilles was impatient, unyielding and authoritarian, Patroclus passive aggressive and surly with sarcasm. Thus the lessons mostly consisted of Achilles demanding too much and Patroclus giving too little, resulting in high tempers and many a raised voice.

It did not help, in Patroclus’ case, that with the past few weeks had come creeping into his anger and resentment another quite different feeling. Every morning Achilles would stretch and yawn, his pink mouth opening wide like a cat’s and Patroclus would trace over the lines of contracted muscle in his arms or the crease of his eyes squeezed tightly shut against the early morning cold. He would watch his demonstrations unblinkingly and suppress a groan over the way he shook his hair out of his eyes or bit his lip whenever he had to focus on a target and when the sun shone he stood close by him so that he could see beads of sweat form on his limbs, like diamonds studding a golden casket.

It was torture, loving the way his hips swung tauntingly beneath the low girdled belt with all the self-assurance of a king and the allure of a young hetera, craving the way he tilted his head back to drink, his mouth slightly parted between the rosebud lips and hating him; hating his petulance, his arrogance, his irresistible beauty and the undeniable fact that Patroclus simply could not stop but stare and wonder and desire.

And so it went. Day after day the two would scream themselves hoarse, swearing oaths and hurling insults into the sky until one of them would storm off, kicking clouds of dust with furious feet and sending stacks of javelins crashing to the ground. Then later, Patroclus would lie on his bed, blinking angry tears and thinking over the hundred things he should have said and automatically, almost unconsciously, his hand would stray downwards, past the soft flesh of his abdomen to settle finally between his legs.

“Bastard,” he would whisper into the still air, thinking of Achilles’ beautiful sneering eyes and curling lip. “Stupid arsehole son of a bitch.”

He could almost hear Achilles laughing; cruel, hard laughter as he crept atop him, like a predator preparing for the kill. He imagined his long-fingered hands scaling his chest and stomach with calloused palms and a touch like silk. He imagined his smile as he stroked him, scornful and mocking and full of disdain. He imagined him grinning with triumph as he came, lurching against him and muttering a nonsensical stream of profanities.

Then he would see him again, leaning coolly against the storeroom door, his hair falling messily into his eyes and feel half like slashing his throat and half like opening his own wrists.

“What sort of time do you call this?” he spat, seeing him approach.

“I’m sorry,” Patroclus glowered, thinking of the crisis earlier that morning when, upon waking to find his sheets damp, he had not been able to reach the laundry room without crossing Leptine who’d fallen asleep there while on shift the night before. In the end he’d had to beg a bucket of cold water off Loras who had eyed him with far too much understanding for his liking. “I overslept.”

Achilles shook his head. “Not good enough,” he said. “I told you if you weren’t here on time I’d drop you. I have things to do, you know. I’m already giving up a lesson to be here. As it is it’s philosophy, otherwise you’d be gone.”

Patroclus gave a low and exaggerated bow. “As ever you are most gracious, maestro.”

Achilles rolled his eyes and gestured for him to follow him to one of the fields Ampelius used for spear practice. A large oak tree grew at the other end, a bull’s-eye dashed across it in shining red paint. Achilles handed Patroclus a spear and motioned for him to take his mark.

“As I said before,” he said. “You’ve actually got a pretty decent arm. All you need is the speed, the accuracy and the height.”

“Oh is that all?” asked Patroclus, raising his eyebrows mock-quizzically. Achilles ignored him and set about correcting his stance.

“Straighten your back,” he ordered. “Bring your hand closer to your ear. Now bend your right knee. Right knee. RIGHT KNEE.”

“I’m bending my right knee!”

“Since when was your right knee attached to your left foot?”

“Back off, okay, I know what I’m doing-”

“-So this performance just for my benefit?”

“No, you’re just…you’re distracting me-”

“-KEEP YOUR LEFT LEG STRAIGHT.”

“I’M TRYING, FUCK OFF.”

Achilles reached for the javelin, making to wrench it from his hands and on instinct Patroclus threw. The shaft flew like a sling shot into the air, becoming a black arrow against the sky a good few feet above the oak tree, eventually disappearing above and beyond it. Achilles turned to look at Patroclus, smirking. “Like I said,” he scoffed. “Accuracy.”

“Got the height though, didn’t I?”

“Right, now go get the javelin.”

“I’m not getting it, you get it.”

“Well I’m not getting it.”

“Why not?”

“What do you mean ‘why not’? I’m the prince!”

“It’s bad manners for a student to touch a weapon before his teacher.”

Achilles gritted his teeth, the muscle in his jaw jumping as it often did when Patroclus antagonised him. “I give you permission,” he said slowly. “Now go and get the javelin.”

“Permission refused,” replied Patroclus.

Achilles swore loudly and kicked a row of wooden targets. They fell into the dirt with a crash and he swore again. Patroclus watched with faint amusement and smirked when Achilles rounded on him. “See this,” he shouted. “This is what’s wrong with you. You’re lazy.”

“Lazy?” Patroclus raised his eyebrows. “What, just because I don’t want to walk all the way over there and-”

“-You talk about wanting to get better,” Achilles interrupted him. “Then you make absolutely no effort to do so. You want to get into the home guard but don’t turn up to training on time. You want to be a soldier yet you can’t even lower yourself to taking orders from me.  Make up your mind, Patroclus, you can’t have it both ways.”

“Fine,” snapped Patroclus. “I’ve made up my mind. I’ve had enough of this. I don’t have to deal with your shit.”

“I don’t have to put up with yours!”

Patroclus glowered at him, then turned abruptly and began to walk away. “Hey where are you going?” Achilles called after him.

“This,” Patroclus replied. “This was a bad idea. I can’t take it anymore. I’m done.”

Achilles shouted something after him but whatever it was Patroclus couldn’t hear. He walked away without looking back, feeling Achilles’ eyes on him even when he was out of reach.

Chapter Text

“You should go back.”

“I’m not going back.”

“But you should.”

“I shouldn’t and I won’t.”

Leptine fixed Patroclus with a condescending look and shook her head so that he could feel the full force of her disapproval. Patroclus responded by knocking a bowl of strained oak leaves over her side of the table.

Ever since he had come back from training yesterday morning covered in dust and fuming, Patroclus had not stopped berating Achilles, relentlessly recounting everything to Leptine from the prince’s dictatorial, control-freak methods to his ridiculous standards, ending of course with his marching away in disgust and swearing never to return. Much to his displeasure, Leptine was once again taking the moral high ground and after listening sympathetically to his curses and blasphemies put forward the ridiculous notion that he might be better off just going back to talk to him.

“You should just talk to him.”

“I don’t want to talk to him.”

“It’ll make you feel better.”

“I feel fine.”

She raised an eyebrow, the one which meant she knew much more than he was letting on. “Patroclus…”

Patroclus tried to look oblivious and nonchalant. “What?”

“Don’t you what me,” replied Leptine bossily. “Look at yourself. You’re a mess. You look like an insomniac struck by lightning.”

Patroclus ran a hand through his hair, cringing at how messy it had become. “Gods Leptine,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You really know how to charm a man.”

He tried fixing his expression into one of casual exasperation, but then he thought of Achilles; the way he had looked at him in anger and frustration and he remembered the feel of his hands on his waist and his chest and knew that he was failing miserably. He knew how he looked; his hair dishevelled from tossing and turning in bed, there were dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep and his cheeks were pale. For the past few nights he had lain awake, staring at the cavernous stone ceiling thinking furiously of the boy and his beautiful fiery rage that leapt like a flame from his hands and his eyes. And for the past few nights he had wondered who he hated more.

“Okay,” he said. “So I’ve been a little less than fine.”

He turned away slightly and busied himself with chopping roots for the tonics they were making so that Leptine wouldn’t see his face. She sees so much, he thought as he cut stalks with increasing aggression. If she wasn’t a slave she’d make one hell of a spy. He continued to slice through the plants, bringing the knife down hard enough to cut through the table until a hand closed on his.

“Hey,” Leptine murmured. “What’s wrong?”

Patroclus shook his head, keeping his face turned away from her. “It’s nothing.”

“You know you can tell me,” she pleaded. “You can tell me anything.”

Not this, he thought and said nothing. Leptine sighed and returned to scooping the leaves back into their bowl. Seeing her, with her head bowed over the leaves, Patroclus felt bad but he waved the feeling away. Leptine was an amazing friend and he would trust her with his life…but his secrets were his own.

There was a knock at the kitchen door and they both jumped, causing Leptine to knock the bowl of leaves over again. Loras walked in, dressed in a clean chiton and looking very pleased with himself just as she swore loudly. He gave her a reprimanding look.

“Leptine,” he said solemnly. “That is not the type of language you should be using before a Vassal of Hermes.”

“Vassel of Hermes?” Patroclus repeated, raising an eyebrow. “What are you on about?”

“I’ve been promoted,” said Loras importantly, standing a little taller and puffing out his chest. “I have officially moved up from part-time messenger to semi-fulltime messenger official. The Man likes my news so much and we need a new keryx since the last one hung himself so they decided to give me the job. Pretty great huh? I get a new caduceus and everything.”

Not caring enough to ask what on earth a caduceus was, or indeed what was the difference between a part-time messenger and a semi-fulltime messenger official, Patroclus merely grunted. “That’s great Loras,” he answered dully. “Truly. I’m happy for you.”

Clearly this was not the reaction Loras had wanted or expected, for he narrowed his eyes and there was a sharp edge to his voice. “Good,” he said. “Because I deserve this, you know. I really do. And you know what, you should be happy, because nearly all my news is about you.”

At this Patroclus looked up automatically, suddenly alert. “About me?”

“Ah,” Loras smiled smugly. “Care now, don’t you? That’s right, Patroclus. Everyone’s dying to know the latest on your war with the prince. Kind of a Davos and Goliatides sort of deal. Most exciting thing to happen since Cleitus’ wife drank hemlock. Personally I’m putting my money on Achilles. As much as I’d like to support the underdog, he’d kick your sorry arse to Hades and back-”

“-Enough Loras,” Leptine cut across him tiredly, plucking leaves from the floor. “Congratulations on your promotion. Now is there any other reason you’re here or would you like me to make you a laurel wreath?”

Loras gave her a withering glance, then fixed his bearing into one of professional composure with his hands clasped behind his back. “It’s market day,” he announced formally. “Amyntor requires two escorts to a sale in the agora this morning. Someone to carry his bag and defend him against thieves and rapists and the like. You up for it?”

Patroclus was about to tell Loras where to go when Leptine suddenly jumped up, releasing a peal of excitement and sending the bowl of oak leaves smashing once again to the floor. “Yes yes yes!” she squealed. “Tell him yes!”

“Are you serious?” asked Patroclus, looking perplexedly at Loras who was watching enviously at Leptine dancing round the kitchen.

“You’re so lucky,” he told them bitterly. “I would have gone but I have official messenger official business to attend to. What one does for the job.”

He left the room muttering to himself, blotted out by Leptine’s ecstatic cheers of triumph. Patroclus stared at her, dumfounded. “Why are you so happy?” he asked. “Carrying Amyntor’s bloody bags and fighting rapists…why would you sign us up for that?”

“Because we get to go to the agora!” Leptine replied, grinning like a madwoman with her arms waving in celebration.

Patroclus raised an eyebrow. Leptine had abandoned the bowl of oak leaves upturned on the floor and was now involved in a passionate dance sequence with a broomstick. “Really?” he asked. “Is that all? I’ve been to the agora like…I don’t know, a hundred times?”

Leptine let the broomstick drop with a clatter at her feet as her mouth fell open. “A hundred times?” she repeated reverently. “I’ve been twice.”

It was one of those moments that Patroclus became suddenly aware of the stark difference between Leptine’s life and his own. Back in Opus, when his father had sent him to the agora to pick up a couple of dustpans or haggle for a goat it had been a chore. For Leptine, and other slaves like her, it was a holiday.

They cleaned up the kitchen quickly before Leptine sprinted off to wash and get dressed. Patroclus took his time; around him his friends were buzzing excitedly, asking him to bring them back a ribbon or in some cases shoving whole lists in his face. Finally Leptine came down wearing her best dress of dyed saffron, her soft brown hair aggressively brushed and her eyes bright and shining. She grabbed Patroclus’ hand and together they ran off to meet Amyntor.

He was waiting by the palace doors and greeted them with his usual look of contempt. “So you can find it within yourselves to be punctual,” he sneered. “Nothing like sugar to bring the rats scurrying out of the shadows.”

Straight away Patroclus felt an instant surge of dislike but Leptine bobbed courteously and fluttered her eyelashes as if he were Zeus of Olympus rather than the cruel and abusive chief overseer. With an air of considerable reluctance Amyntor handed them a tiny leather pouch, drawn together with a length of string. Inside were two small pieces of silver. Patroclus felt Leptine’s knees buckle beside him.

“Gods know why the king feels the need to reward laziness,” Amyntor muttered darkly as they set off down the road into town. “If you ask me he’s far too soft on you vermin, far too soft. If it were me it wouldn’t be silver you’d be getting, oh no. It’d be The Rack, and leg casts of pure bronze.”

Patroclus ignored him. It had been far too long since he’d last been outside the palace grounds and it brought an immense sense of freedom. The feel of the dirt road beneath his feet, the shuffle of donkey’s hooves and the clink clink of metal bouncing in the little leather pouch brought back memories of visiting the agora with his mother and her women on market days. He looked at Leptine, glowing like the sun in her yellow dress and smiled. She grinned back.

The Phthian agora was much smaller than the one in Opus, yet far busier. As soon as they arrived they were swamped by venders, “Some very good wine my lord, just got in from Corinth, care for a taste sir-” “Daggers, pocket knives, short swords! You’ll be wanting to defend yourself lad, when the Thessalians cross our border-” “Ribbons! Girdles! Pretty pearls for the lovely lady…”

“No thank you, no thank you,” Amyntor waved them away, then turned to Patroclus and Leptine. “Right. I have some business over an excessively violent species of monkfish to attend to. We meet back here for the sale at midday. In the meantime, do as you please.”

It was the words they’d been waiting to hear. As soon as Ampelius had swept away Leptine grabbed Patroclus by the arm and carted him off to the nearest stall, holding the silver piece between her finger and thumb as though it were something holy. She gazed at each vender in rapture, stretching out shaking hands to touch things she could never own but there was no sadness in her face; to her it seemed it was enough just to look and feel and have the bustle of the market place around her and a tiny piece of fortune in her pocket.

They spent a good hour circulating the agora, Leptine pointing excitedly at anything that shone or glittered, Patroclus simply enjoying the bustle of the marketplace and the seductive voices of merchants calling over the noise of the crowd and the smell of herbs and spices in the air. They stopped by a clothes stall and marvelled over the expensive looking tunics, softly fluttering from the beams like swollen rainclouds of blues and purples. “They’re so beautiful,” Leptine sighed, stroking the fine wool. Patroclus felt guilty, knowing that once upon a time some of these could have been found in his wardrobe. He wanted to buy her one but there was no way they could afford it, besides a slave would never be allowed to wear such finery. Instead Leptine spent her silver on a yellow ribbon to match her dress and Patroclus helped her tie it into her hair.

“How do I look?” she said excitedly, trying to catch her reflection in a beaded mirror on sale.

“Like a princess,” Patroclus replied, truthfully, and she blushed.

“What are you going to spend yours on?” she asked, pointing at the pouch hung from his waist.

Patroclus looked at it, frowning, and shook his head. “Nothing,” he answered. “I have enough. You have it.”

But Leptine would not hear of it. No matter how Patroclus insisted, even going to press it into her palm she would not take it, telling him it was his money, rightfully earned and she had no call taking it from him. In the end Patroclus gave in and bought a large kebab from an Anatolian vender which he promptly declared he could not finish and gave to her. This was, of course, acceptable and Leptine had no qualms eating the whole thing.

“Look!” she said suddenly, flinging a greasy, meat-stained finger in front of her. “It’s Achilles!”

 Patroclus stepped out from behind the stall and peered through the crowd. Sure enough there was the prince, surrounded by his usual fan club who were making so much noise Patroclus had assumed they were merchants. They were huddled round a collection of unusual and lethal looking weaponry and debating loudly the use of each, the discussion led by Mynax who had the most carrying voice. Achilles hung back, showing little interest and casting an eye over the tents of scarlet and green, where scarf-wearing women spoke in a strange language and held nutmeg and cardamom.

“He looks bored,” observed Leptine.

“He looks sad,” said Patroclus and felt a pang in his chest as Achilles’ eyes swept across the marketplace with cool detachment while his friends held torture weapons. “I should go talk to him.”

“Oh great,” Leptine rolled her eyes. ““Maybe I should go talk to him”. Because that’s only what I’ve been saying for the past – Patroclus, wait!”

Patroclus wove his way past the stalls, brushing canvases and curtains away impatiently with Leptine hurrying after him. Achilles hadn’t yet spotted him but he looked up as he approached and surprise registered on his face.

“Hey,” Patroclus greeted him, heart fluttering nervously in his chest. “You alright?”

At once the boys stopped talking to turn and stare menacingly at him, as if he’d been a thief threatening their prince with torture and death rather than a servant saying hello. Achilles looked taken aback and stood there blinking stupidly for a few moments before he had recovered himself.

“Yeah,” he replied. “I’m good. You?”

“Good,” nodded Patroclus. “You um…enjoying the market?”

He made a general clumsy gesture. Behind Achilles the boys exchanged glances. Mynax cracked his knuckles. “I am,” said Achilles although Patroclus could tell this was a bare faced lie. “There’s a man down there, eating fire. It’s very impressive.”

“I can imagine,” said Patroclus, feeling the corners of his mouth twitch into a smirk. Achilles grinned back.

Not discouraged by the fact that Mynax’s hands were now balled into fists, Patroclus was just about to mention the disastrous training session of yesterday morning when Leptine grabbed his arm urgently. “Patroclus,” she hissed. “It’s midday. We have to go.”

“You’re leaving?” asked Achilles, trying and failing to hide his disappointment.

 “Yeah,” said Patroclus distractedly. “Sorry…um…have a good day.”

And with that he sped off through the agora, Leptine’s ribbon bobbing like a candle in front of him as they raced to reach the marketplace. A swarm of people had gathered round the square, hands shoved deep within their pockets feeling for gold. Leptine scanned the many heads and picked out Amyntor’s pointed black beard and surly expression, grabbing Patroclus’ hand so they wouldn’t become separated. The overseer saw them and waved them over impatiently.

“About time,” he growled. “Here, take these.”

He shoved two canvas bags into their arms, both spilling from the rim with his purchases. Patroclus’ legs buckled as he caught it and had to step back to regain his balance.

“Come on, come on,” muttered Amyntor. “Where is this sack of wine? Aha! Here we go.”

Patroclus craned his neck for a better view over the sea of heads. A little man, bald as an egg and dressed in fine lilac silks was coming towards them, holding a lead in his hands with which he led something Patroclus couldn’t make out. He wove his way through the crowd with many a “Pariemai, pariemai, epaino, pariemai,” before he reached them, rubbing his hands together in a slimy fashion.

“Lord Amyntor!” he greeted loudly. “My good friend! How are you, how are you? Still keeping your beard sharp, I see? Good, good, very nice. Very commanding, if I may say so. What can I do for you?”

“I am not your friend,” Amyntor snarled. “And you can start by turning up on time in the future. It was you, Viros, who insisted on this ridiculous meeting after showing me that pile of rubbish you call stock the other day, or have you forgotten?”

“A bad day my lord, a bad day,” Viros simpered. “Happens to the best of us…sure you understand…”

“Well there’d best not be another bad day if you’d like to keep King Peleus from finding some other greasy slime ball to buy his slaves from,” replied Amyntor and with a sinking feeling Patroclus realised what Viros had been leading from the rope behind him.

“Of course my lord of course, whatever you say,” Viros bowed. “But, if I may be so bold, I doubt you shall be disappointed. Very good stock we’ve had come in today sir, very good, all the way from the east no less…if my lord would like to have a look…”

“Yes I’ll have a look,” Amyntor snapped. “Do you think I’d have come here for the good of my health?”

Viros gave another little bow before sidestepping out the way and with a flourish of his hands called the slaves forward. They shuffled an inch to the front, eyes downcast, each bound to the same length of rope wrapped around their hands and in a few cases their feet. Each face was sallow thin, there were dark shadows in the hollows of their cheeks and their eyes looked like bats blinking in deep caverns so sunk were their sockets. Patroclus felt sick. Amyntor looked unimpressed.

“This is it?” he said. “This lot have got barely any more meat on them than the last. What are you feeding them, water and salt?”

Viros gave a watery smile of mock amusement. “Very funny sir, as always you make quite the little joke. They may not look much but I assure you they are a most skilful and excellent bunch. See this one here,” he grabbed an old man with a dirty white beard by his spindly arm. “Used to be a healer back in Persia. Knows all there is to know about eastern medicine. Invaluable on the battlefield, stick him in a tent with a few bandages and you’ll never lose another man. Good with his numbers too-”

“-Then he can tell me how many years he’s got left to live,” Amyntor interrupted. “This one’s seen too many winters. I’m not making an investment on a dying slave.”

“Very well sir, very well,” Viros purred, thrusting the old man back into the throng. “Then might I interest you in this particular individual?

This time a fair haired, ruddy-faced boy stepped forward, tall and strong looking. “This one’s brought in from Albion,” Viros explained. “Strong lad, brave, especially useful for manual labour. These arms, see.”

“They’re a funny colour,” Amyntor frowned. “What is that, disease?”

“No sir, no,” Viros shook his head quickly. “He comes from a Barbarian tribe; paint themselves blue and run round naked when they go to war. Think it protects them from harm.”

“Well clearly not,” said Amyntor, pointing. “The boy’s lame.”

Patroclus followed Amyntor’s gesture. Sure enough, while the rest of him was muscled and stocky, the boy’s left leg stood at a funny angle which Viros had tried to hide by keeping it behind him. Viros’ fat face flushed unattractively, giving him the look of a large red bruise. “Alright,” he said, waving the boy away distractedly. “These are worthless, my lord, rubbish. Not worth your time nor your exalted coin. But I have one very, very special offer to make…one guaranteed to make my lord think a little…Pamaia!”

There was a little movement among the line as someone moved from the back, parting the group like waves then Patroclus heard himself gasp. It was a girl but for a moment he was sure he had seen a goddess. Long, shining black hair fell in thick straight waves like a waterfall past her shoulders, her eyes were dark and lined with kohl and as she gazed at them they hinted at mystery and secrets. Her sultry mouth was pricked in a coy smile. Patroclus swallowed. Amyntor looked as though he had been struck by lightning. Viros was smiling smugly.

“Pamaia has this affect on most people,” he gushed. “She is beautiful is she not? And you should see her dance! My my, what a mover. She also cooks and cleans as well as any maid, hairdresses to an exemplary standard, speaks over five languages…and I’m sure I don’t have to inform you of her other many skills.”

Here he gave a rather roguish wink and Patroclus instantly his ears and the back of his neck grow warm. Beside him Leptine was looking stony. Amyntor, however, was pulling out his gold. “Name your price,” he said.

oOo

 By the time they arrived back at the palace dusk had come and the sky was powdery with blue and purple pastels. Amyntor had taken Pamaia immediately to show the king his purchase, voice nearly shaking with excitement. Worn out from the business of the day, Patroclus had been all set to crash onto his mattress and waste away the rest of the evening in comfortable laziness, however Leptine, previously so full of joy was now in a terrible mood and haunted the quarters like a black cloud, snapping at anybody who dared to talk to her. Unwilling to be around her when she was like this, Patroclus sneaked out subtly through the back door and made his way to the beach.

It was a cool evening and there was a pleasant breeze in the air. Patroclus stood there for a moment, enjoying the slight chill of the sand between his toes and the flutter of the wind in his hair. He peered out into the dark. There was someone up ahead, sat down on the sand near the surf and without taking a step further Patroclus knew who it was.

“Hey,” he called and Achilles looked behind him. He waved. Patroclus took it as an incentive to come closer.

He walked up and sat down next to him. Achilles didn’t look at him but continued to watch the waves come in, gently rolling up onto the shore with each tug of the moon’s tide. “Did you have fun?” he asked.

 “Yeah,” Patroclus replied. “Did you?”

Achilles raised an eyebrow and they both gave a little laugh. Overhead a gull called mournfully as it disappeared behind the cliffs. Achilles sighed. “I hate my friends.”

Patroclus nodded. “I also hate your friends,” he agreed.

Achilles smiled. They stayed silent a while, hugging their knees and digging their feet into the wet sand and listening to the crash of the waves. Patroclus looked and saw Achilles drawing a circle in the sand with his finger. “A while ago,” he said slowly. “You apologised to me for something.”

Achilles looked up, curious. “I remember,” he spoke softly.

“So,” said Patroclus, “I think it’s time I apologised to you.”

Achilles shook his head. “You don’t have to do that-”

“-No, I do,” Patroclus interrupted him. “I’ve been a dick recently. I mean…not always totally unprovoked…but still. You gave up your time to help me and I responded by acting like a child. It wasn’t right and I’m sorry. And if you would consider training me again I promise I will be the most nauseatingly zesty, enthusiastic and eternally grateful student you could wish for.”

“Wouldn’t that hurt?”

“A little,” Patroclus admitted. “But I could take it.”

He snuck a look at Achilles from the corner of his eye. He was smiling slightly, still tracing pictures in the sand. Patroclus nudged him. “Hey,” he said quietly. “Remember that deal we made? To call for peace between us? Neither of us did too well there. So what do you say we try again? Truce?”

He stuck out his hand and watched uncertainly for his reaction. The sea was calm and night was drawing in. Achilles turned to look him in the eye and Patroclus saw the stars reflected there, twinkling mischievously over the tide. “We are both far too wilful for peace,” he replied with his casual, lopsided grin. “But I’ll agree to a ceasefire, if you promise not to be too grateful.”

Patroclus laughed and agreed. “To obstinacy, then?” he asked.

“To pig-headedness,” amended Achilles and the two shook hands.

Above them a gull called dolefully, circling the patch of moon glowing from the surface of the ocean, like a silver coin, before disappearing with a sigh into the dusk.

Chapter Text

It was like a dream, the next few days, but one they both had to try not to wake from. Achilles was still dictatorial and Patroclus often found himself wrestling with his disdain for authority but, after many a restrained word or eye roll, they began to reach some sort of balance and soon discovered that this, this “being nice to each other” thing really wasn’t all that difficult.

In fact, after a while, Patroclus found himself becoming less and less bothered by Achilles’ arrogance and pride. When he stopped sessions halfway through to check his hair it brought on more amusement than hatred. When he boasted of his superior skill or called himself a God Amongst Men (which he did a lot) Patroclus would respond by seizing him round the waist and knocking him over rather than walking away in disgust.

Of course he was still insufferable and their fights, verbal or physical, were frequent and explosive. Yet it seemed that all those little things; the narcissism, the conceit, all that had made Patroclus loathe him so were just part of everything that made him Achilles; and at the same time, nothing at all to do with him.

Another thing, mused Patroclus, watching Achilles climb a tree to retrieve a rogue arrow before promptly falling out of it, is how alike we are. And it’s only taken me till now to realise it.

Later Achilles said something similar. “It’s like we’re two sides of the same dice,” he told him one practice session. “Opposites and all, but the same.”

Patroclus didn’t even have the heart to tell him that a dice has six sides.

“You’re still an arsehole,” he reminded him.

“Yes but so are you,” Achilles shrugged.  “Just a closeted one. Take the bow.”

Patroclus took the roughly hewn practice bow Achilles handed him, running the pad of his thumb along the knotted wood. “I thought you hated archery?”

“No, I hate archers,” Achilles corrected him. “Weak-spirited, cowardly people; prefer to hide behind their battlements and hit a man from a distance because they can’t handle braving death or facing the body they’ve killed. No, I’ve no time for archers but I’ve nothing against archery itself. It’s a skilled vocation, even if it means people spend more time fixing an arrow than battling an enemy.”

Sounds good to me, thought Patroclus privately but supposed Achilles might hit him if he said it. He raised the bow before him and, taking an arrow from Achilles, fit it into the string. Then he pulled his hand back, keeping two fingers on the bowstring and let the arrow loose. It flew straight through the air but, rather than piercing the red target, grazed only the side of the tree and landed in the grass. Patroclus lowered the bow and cringed. “Oops.”

“That was awful.”

“Hey, my people weren’t built for ranged weaponry. We’re stocky and, um, muscular. Very good at close contact.”

“Oh yeah, you’re a real Titan,” Achilles raised an eyebrow, eyes grazing over Patroclus’ lean body and slim hips. “Here.”

He slipped subtly behind Patroclus, gesturing for him to raise the bow again. Patroclus did so and as he drew it back he felt the brush of Achilles’ hand on his.

“Raise your elbow a little,” said Achilles softly. “And bring your hand up.”

“Like this?”

“Bit higher, up to your, um, mouth.”

Patroclus nodded although it was difficult to concentrate. Achilles’ breath tickled the back of his neck and his hand was warm on the one that held the bow. He pulled the string tighter, narrowing his eyes at the target. “Deep breath,” said Achilles. “Count to three.” Patroclus took a breath but it came out shaky. He counted to three and released the arrow.

It leapt from his fingers with a twang and the string shook like an earthquake with the vibration just as Achilles’ arms moved from Patroclus’ shoulders to slip round his waist. Patroclus gasped but as soon as he was aware of the movement it was gone; Achilles had thrust his hands into his belt and was looking innocently at the target. The feathered end of the arrow still shook with the impact. The metal head was imbedded in the tree, dead centre.

“I did it!” Patroclus exclaimed delightedly, the moment forgotten.

“I know,” Achilles rolled his eyes. “I saw.”

Patroclus, bigger person that he was, decided not to pay him the courtesy of a retort and instead responded with a crude but effective hand gesture. Seeing it, Achilles did not hesitate but launched himself at Patroclus, grabbing his shoulders and knocking him straight to the ground. Patroclus wriggled in his grasp, locking his legs around Achilles’ calves and for a while the two wrestled, two pythons struggling for the upper hand and all the while giggling, like children drunk on their father’s wine until Achilles swung Patroclus round with enough force to shake Olympus so that he was laying beneath him, his back against the dirt.

“Apologise,” Achilles hissed menacingly but the effect was ruined by the giveaway twitch of his lip.

Patroclus struggled but Achilles’ grip was tight, nailing him to the floor with the urgent pressing of his limbs and heavy torso. He could feel the warmth shifting from Achilles’ body to his, tugging at the thick folds of his chiton which rose and fell with every laboured breath, tickling Patroclus’ exposed chest where his own tunic had slipped. “Never,” he rasped.

Achilles growled and shook his tawny head, bearing his teeth like a young lion deprived of his prey. “Apologise,” he repeated, increasing pressure on his abdomen until Patroclus cried out.

“Ah! Ok ok! I’m sorry!” he released, cringing at himself.

Satisfied, Achilles rolled off him and stood up. Patroclus got to his feet gingerly, massaging his wrists and throwing dark glances at Achilles’ smug face, repulsive with triumph. “Sorry for your mother!” he added and ducked the punch.

The next few hours passed in a series of disjointed practice sessions, frequently interrupted by hasty squabbles and wrestling matches. When the sun was beaming hottest, and the white-blues of the morning were beginning to bleed into afternoon golds they abandoned their weapons and lay down in the grass. The cool shade of the olive trees was soothing to their skin and the smell of the dark green leaves was thick and rich in the air. Achilles was staring up at the sky, one arm outstretched, his hand opening and closing as if trying to grasp a cloud.

“So,” he said finally, letting his arm drop back to the earth. “Do you feel like a champion yet?”

Patroclus laughed. “I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like a champion,” he confessed. “I feel a lot less like a liability on the battlefield, if that’s what you mean.”

“And so you should,” said Achilles. “I was talking to Ampelius the other day. He couldn’t stop raving about you; how much you’ve improved, your attitude, your skill set, your hair...Reckons he’ll be signing you up for the home defence within the month.”

Patroclus’ eyes widened. “Seriously? Are you sure? You’re not…you’re not pulling my leg?”

“No I am not ‘pulling your leg’,” Achilles rolled his eyes again. “Although from what it looked like Ampelius was pretty close to pulling on something, Gods does he like you-”

“-Achilles. Are you sure he said that? Really said that?”

Achilles turned to look at him, his blue-green eyes boring into Patroclus’ with an intensity that almost shook him. “Patroclus,” he said solemnly. “Would I lie to you?”

Patroclus suppressed a snort. “Um, let me think,” he said mockingly. “Yes.”

“I would not,” Achilles protested, sounding hurt. “I told you. I don’t lie. It’s dishonourable.”

“Ok so, what would you call what you’re doing to your friends?”

Achilles stared at him wide-eyed, as if Patroclus had just accused him of some vile crime and he couldn’t quite believe it. “That is totally different,” he huffed. Patroclus waited for him to elaborate but no justification came.

“Well…it’s not,” reasoned Patroclus. “You pretend to like them when you hate their guts. You let them accompany you to places then spend half the time wishing you were somewhere else. I don’t get it. You’re lying to yourself as much as to them and it’s just making you miserable.”

“No, you don’t get it,” Achilles sighed heavily. “Listen Patroclus; when you’re…when you’re me…there are certain expectations people have of you. Everyone expects me to be charming and witty and beautiful and brave andgenerous all the fucking time. People expect me to have a band of merry followers; later they’ll be my trusted generals and advisors and I’ll win a lot of land for their fathers to grow tomatoes on. They don’t really love me and I think a shallow grave’s the best place for most of them but it’s all part of the image. That’s important, Patroclus.”

“Why?” Patroclus frowned. “Why is an image important if it’s an illusion?”

“Because people worship images, just like they believe illusions.”

“But it’s a lie.”

“Of course it’s a lie,” said Achilles impatiently. “Most things men praise or worship are lies. Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter what the facts are as long as people hear what they want. And what people want to hear is always changing. Look,” he pointed at the sky. “Fact: Uranus ate his children, Zeus castrated him and his body is the sky. Gaia is his consort, their children are the Gods and thus life as it is began. That’s fact. A few centuries ago an almighty Titan mother gave birth to the heavens and the earth and Zeus and Hera and all the others are nothing but her disobedient accidents. That was fact too. Who knows what they’ll be saying a thousand years from now?”

Patroclus shivered. “That’s blasphemy.”

Achilles made a dismissive gesture. “’Blasphemy’ just means “not currently accepted”. It’s just another word to get you to think like everyone else. Listen: The only fact is perception. Whatever people believe is the truth.”

He leant back and gave a little sigh, his face obscured by a thin wall of long grass. Patroclus was quiet, thinking about what Achilles had said. There was something wrong there, somehow. There had to be. Achilles had to be wrong, or else everyone else was. He looked back up at the sky, at its tremendous, pressing infinity and felt suddenly very small and unsure. Achilles turned his head to look at him, his lips parted so slightly.

“I’ve frightened you now,” he said softly. “Haven’t I?”

Patroclus gave a nervous smile. “A little bit,” he confessed.

“I’m sorry,” said Achilles. “Ignore me. I’m talking bollocks, as usual. I’m no philosopher, just a cynical teenager trying to justify himself. I don’t even know what I’m saying. You do that to me, you know that.”

Patroclus frowned quizzically. “Do what?”

Achilles’ laugh was like a brook tumbling over pebbles. “Mess me up,” he answered, grinning. “Spin me about. Force me to atone for my countless sins.”

He looked at Patroclus, smiling. It brought creases round the corners of his rock pool irises, marking the smooth, impossibly smooth skin. There was nothing to do but laugh and smile back.

oOo

After a while of their mutual armistice, Patroclus found himself looking forward to his morning practices with Achilles more and more. One of the reasons for this was that the atmosphere amongst the slaves had been somewhat…chilly of late. Patroclus was well aware what the cause was, as was anyone within a mile radius of Leptine or Pamaia.

The day after the trip to the agora, Amyntor had sent Pamaia down to their quarters to make her permanent home and introduce herself to the other slaves. As usual, Leptine was given the task of making the new arrival welcome due to her famous sunny disposition and warm temperament.

If Patroclus hadn’t known better, he’d have said Amyntor had the wrong girl.

As Leptine rounded up the other slaves she looked as though she were thinking hard on whether or not to hit someone with a brick. Her face was set and stony, her mouth was a thin, pursed line and her eyes were hard and steely as flints. She stood at the steps with her arms folded across her chest, her chin jutting out in a gesture of dismissive pride as the new arrival curtsied and beamed.

“So,” she tossed sharply. “Where did you say you were from?”

Pamaia smiled at her and the whole room issued a little sigh. “Libya,” she answered. Her voice was husky and soft, like embroidered silk yet smooth and deep. When she spoke the word it sounded like a prayer.

“Libya,” repeated one slave in amazement. “But that’s…well…that’s far away!”

“It is,” Pamaia agreed. “Very, very far. And it feels further still.”

She gave a little wistful look to somewhere very, very far off. Beside him, Patroclus heard a breath hitch in the boy’s throat. Leptine scowled.

“Pamaia,” she began.

“Oh, please call me Mai,” interrupted Pamaia.

“Pamaia,” said Leptine. “What did you do before? Back in Libya, I mean.”

“I was a dancer,” Pamaia replied. “I used to dance for lords and kings all over the country. I was requested for all their parties, festivals, ceremonies. Any occasion, I would be happy to serve. Such parties! You must imagine, these men. In all my life I have never seen such cloth. Such finery…gold and silver brooches…beads like drops of fire and water…the celebrations would begin in the afternoon, when the air was just a little damp, and then would not stop till the next night. The music never stopped playing…it plays in my head still…”

Leptine rolled her eyes as at once the slaves began to clamour Pamaia for more stories, descriptions of her home country and all the fabulous balls and banquets she had danced. Later while Leptine and Patroclus were in the kitchen preparing the evening meal, she spoke to him crossly.

“You know what that means, don’t you?” she snapped.

“What?” asked Patroclus, absentmindedly examining an oddly shaped bulb.

“When she says she’s a dancer,” said Leptine. “You know what that means.”

“I had a notion it had something to do with moving in time to music,” replied Patroclus.

Leptine glared at him. “Don’t be coy,” she said. “‘Dancer’. It’s just one of those stupid terms men use to make the profession more acceptable. So they can come home to their wives and look them straight in the eye when they say it. Dancer. Gods, that’s a good one.”

“What’re you on about?” Patroclus sighed, rubbing his eyes tiredly.

Leptine slammed the knife down through an onion and the whole table shook. “She’s a whore,” she said.

Patroclus raised an eyebrow and surveyed his friend. Her face was grim and set, yet decisive. And the enthusiasm with which she sliced the onion let him knew she was not in a mood to be argued with. Yet, once again, his scepticism got the better of him. “And you’ve just decided this now, have you?”

“I haven’t decided anything,” replied Leptine crossly. “It’s as plain as the nose on her face. She’s a whore, and a badly disguised one. Why else do you think Amyntor got so excited when he got her?”

Patroclus thought back to the other day where, while out running errands, he had overheard the overseer boasting loudly and elatedly about the bargain price he’d got on Pamaia to his friends. He remembered his fevered words and the way the other men had laughed like donkeys at the lewd gestures he’d made when describing her. He shrugged. “Ok, maybe she had her…duties…back wherever she came from. So what? That’s no reason to be cruel to her.”

Leptine looked wounded. “I am not being cruel to her.”

“No of course not,” Patroclus answered sarcastically. “You’ve been the epitome of warmth and welcoming. Hestia herself would have blushed.”

Leptine did blush; a fiery flush of anger colouring her nut brown skin with pinkish irritation. “Okay,” she huffed. “So I haven’t exactly been the Hearth of Hospitality recently. I’m sorry, I just…there’s something off about her.”

A wry smile twisted Patroclus’ lips. “Not her virtue, surely?”

Leptine fixed him with a black-eyed glare so piercing Patroclus almost put a hand on the table to keep his balance. “No,” she snarled. “But there’s something else. Think about it; Amyntor wouldn’t just buy a so-called “dancer” on a whim to indulge his own lusts and what use has Peleus got for another palace slut? Mark my words, that girl is here for a reason. And sooner or later it’ll come out.”

She looked back down at the table and resumed focus on chopping carrots for the stew. Unconvinced, and more than a little amused, Patroclus decided to change the subject and the two moved on to less sensitive topics of discussion.

But as time passed soon there was no denying it. Regardless of Pamaia’s previous history or past profession the effect she had on King Peleus’ household was undisputable. Everywhere she went, whether she was practicing dances for upcoming festivals or just carrying a pitcher of water through a hallway heads turned and eyes strayed after her. When she entered a room the air changed, became warm and promising and when she left there would be many left lingering after the door. The twitch of her rosebud lip was all promises, a sidelong glance of her smoky-dark, almond-shaped eyes was a secret just for you and even her suggestive stride and slowly swinging hips were enough to drive men into a maddened frenzy.

Soon not just the slaves but the whole palace was rustling like leaves in the wind, full of whispered stories about the dark eyed Libyan dancer who with just one look could turn a man insane. Wherever Patroclus went there was a new tale about her, a new myth, and sometimes in the dead of night he would hear the word repeated softly, whistfully, almost like a prayer, Pamaia. Pamaia. She was a scent in the air, a silk scarf in a curtained room and everybody wanted to be near her in the vain, desperate hope that she might move and brush against their arms, or else it was enough just to see the candlelight dancing on her golden skin and in her long, dark hair.

Patroclus was, of course, aware of what was going on around him. Drills with the other boys passed in worship of her slim waist and breasts, “like two ripe pomegranates,” as one exclaimed and everyday Deiomachus and Leonides were thinking up new strategies to get her on her own. But to him she was more of a story than anything else; a golden myth dreamed up by men, with little foundation to it but structure enough to pass the time. Until one morning.

He had been in the process of a beautiful dream (of which he was not certain of the details, but he was pretty there had been a blonde boy throwing food) when he was jolted awake by the deafening blast of a messenger horn, accompanied by cymbals, millimetres from his ear. Eyes watering and hands clamped over his aching eardrums he sat up and seized the culprit who turned out to be Loras, on orders from Achilles to wake Patroclus up “in an as annoying a way as possible.” The prince wanted to meet him for a fight before breakfast.

So, pumped with fury and a desire to hurt, Patroclus had been on his way to meet him when he noticed Pamaia in the distance. She was standing in the middle of the corridor, carrying a batch of fresh linen and looking horrified around her. Patroclus waved.

“Hello,” he said in what he hoped was a friendly and approachable manner. “Are you alright?”

“No,” she and Patroclus saw shaky tears, like tiny pearls, threatening to spill from her eyes. “I’m…sniff…I think I’m lost.”

At once Patroclus felt a surge of pity as he looked at the poor girl, alone and terrified in the marble halls. He put an awkward hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he told her gently. “I used to get lost all the time. It’s a big house for such a small country. Where are you headed?”

“Lady Thetis’ room,” she answered, bottom lip shaking. “They tell me I’m to be her handmaiden…but I don’t know where to find her. I’ve never even her face.”

Patroclus shook his head. “Nor I,” he replied. “And I’ve been here longer than you have. But I know where her room is. Follow me, I’ll show you.”

“Gods bless you,” murmured Pamaia, wiping her eyes. “Thank you so much!”

“No problem,” replied Patroclus, thinking with a smile about a time not so long ago when he’d been in exactly the same position.

Patroclus set off for the route he and Achilles had taken a few weeks ago, Pamaia moving subtly as a ghost beside him. As they walked Patroclus found himself observing that she really was very pretty, even with her eyes red from crying and tears still balancing on the ends of those long lashes. The way she glanced hesitantly around her, so gently vulnerable made him feel suddenly very self-conscious and by the time they arrived at Thetis’ room he found he was quite a lot warmer, and he didn’t think it was the stairs.

“It’s just here,” he gestured lamely at the door, inlaid with a swirling pattern of seashells. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to get in…”

“It’s alright, I have a key,” said Pamaia, reaching into her bodice. Patroclus looked away sharply, strikingly aware of the heat creeping up the back of his neck.

She opened the door and at once the warm, herby scent of the goddess’ bedroom enveloped them. Pamaia set the linen next to the bed and turned to face Patroclus. “I am indebted to you,” she said, dropping a curtsy and lowering her eyes in respect.

“Not at all, not at all,” Patroclus coughed awkwardly. “No problem. Happy to do it.”

“If there is ever any way I can repay you,” she continued, eyelids fluttering like butterfly wings. “You must let me know.”

“Wha-? Oh! No! That really won’t be necessary,” Patroclus cringed, face glowing red as a skillet on a fire. “I…just…Happy to help. You can find your way here now? For..um…ever?”

Pamaia gave a little giggle which sounded like silver bells. “Yes, I think so,” she replied coyly. “Thank you, Patroclus.”

“No problem,” said Patroclus again, looking at the curtains covering Thetis’ bed and wondering if it would be incredibly antisocial if he were to hang himself with them. “Any time. Um…how do you know my name?”

Pamaia gave another little smile, a smile that seemed to give so much yet tell so very little. “Your reputation for kindness presides you,” she said.

With that she closed the door. And Patroclus, who was not quite sure where his brain had gone, found himself standing there ten minutes later, still staring at it.

Chapter Text

“So I hear this new girl’s causing quite a storm,” said Achilles, throwing a sword.

“You could say that,” replied Patroclus, catching it. “She’s all anyone can think about. People keep turning corners hoping that she’ll be there, or telling stupid jokes just to hear her laugh. No one can work with her in the room. It’s like she’s put a spell on the place.”

“Wow,” Achilles raised his eyebrows. “I’ll have to request a wine-serving sometime.”

Patroclus made a non-committal sound. For some reason, completely irrational, the thought of Achilles meeting Pamaia filled him with dread.

The sword Achilles held was a blunt, heavy thing. He surveyed it interestedly, testing the weight. “Do you think she’s pretty?” he tossed casually.

Patroclus shrugged. “Yeah.”

Achilles’ glance was full of mischief and there was a glint in his eye when he grinned. “Is she prettier than me?”

Patroclus blushed and tried not to let his eyes stray to Achilles’ cornfield-yellow hair, pulled back with a strip of leather from which a few strands had slipped and now framed his face with almost elegant grace. He tried not to stare at the fine delicate bones of his face and jaw, the hollow of his cheekbones and firm point of his chin. He dared not wonder over that beautiful body, all subtle muscle and restrained power moving like rippled water under wind and gleaming like molten gold.

“I swear it Achilles,” he murmured, tracing over the perfect, bow-shaped mouth, pricked in a teasing smile. “Of all Phthia’s maidens, you will ever be the loveliest.”

Achilles let out a hiss and thrust at Patroclus with the sword. Laughing, Patroclus dodged out the way and parried it with his own. Achilles scowled. “We’ll see who’s the maiden,” he said, holding the sword in front of him challengingly.

He thrust again and this time Patroclus was slow. The sword caught him on the side and he winced, knowing that if it had been sharp and not a practice weapon Achilles might well have wounded him. He responded by aiming for Achilles’ left thigh but he was too quick, blocking the clumsy attack and responding with his own.

“You realise I could kill you in a second,” said Achilles conversationally as they fought.

“Oh really,” Patroclus scoffed but inside he didn’t dare doubt it.

“Really,” replied Achilles and with sudden, inhuman movement he dodged Patroclus’ sword blow and gave a tremendous leap, his weapon aiming for the side of Patroclus’ neck. Gawping and caught completely unawares, Patroclus dropped his sword just as Achilles mimed slicing through his jugular. Then, as he landed, he felt his arms wrap around his neck.

“Haha,” grinned Achilles, holding him in a headlock. “You’re dead.”

Patroclus squirmed but Achilles held fast. He punched him in the stomach, feeling the hard plane of abdomen but he just laughed and tightened his hold. He tried grabbing his legs and flipping him round but Achilles saw him coming and moved out the way of his flailing arms.

“Let me go, arsehole!” he cried, voice muffled against Achilles chest.

“Now, now,” Achilles scolded him. “You’re not playing right. Corpses don’t talk.”

“Achilles,” whipped a sudden voice, loud and abrupt like the bark of a dog. Patroclus looked up over Achilles’ arm and just as quickly wished he hadn’t. Mynax was standing a few feet away, hunched like an enormous boarhound, his ham-like fists clenched and slack, axe-split mouth gawping stupidly. Patroclus motioned for Achilles to let go but to no avail. The prince spun round angrily, still holding onto Patroclus’ head.

“What?” he snapped.

Mynax gestured behind him. “The others wait for you,” he said. “Remember? We were to go hunting this morning.”

“I’m busy,” said Achilles. Patroclus stamped on his foot.

Mynax’s icy blue eyes flickered from Patroclus’ face, peeping out from the tight grasp, to Achilles’. They widened, then narrowed. His slack mouth grew slacker. “My lord-” he began again.

“-Gods’ teeth,” Achilles swore, releasing Patroclus who fell back onto the grass with a soft thump. “I’m coming, alright? Can you morons not manage without me for one minute?

Mynax made a little bow but his eyes were fixed on Patroclus and when he spoke there was a new malice in his voice. “As you wish my lord,” he said softly, then turned and walked away.

Achilles sighed and shook his head tiredly. “Morons,” he said again. He looked at Patroclus, his expression reluctant. “I have to go,” he said apologetically.

Patroclus picked up the sword and made out like he was examining it. “Have fun killing things.”

Achilles grinned, slipping a fallen lock of hair behind his ear. “I’ll think of you,” he replied.

Patroclus stuck out his tongue and Achilles laughed. “See you later,” he said and turned to follow Mynax across the field.

Patroclus watched him go, heels flashing as he ran, and couldn’t help but hope that had been a promise.

oOo

He had not been lying when he’d told Achilles about Pamaia. Rather than her novelty wearing off, as Leptine had coolly predicted, it was burning brighter than ever. People couldn’t work with her around; it was all Patroclus could do to keep staring at the floor when people began to talk about her in his hearing. She was infectious and whatever it was, it was catching fast.

The worst part was, ever since their encounter on the way to Thetis’ room Pamaia seemed to have taken a particular shine to her “hero” as she had started calling him. Whenever she caught sight of Patroclus doing his rounds she’d give a shy flutter of her fingers. If she saw him rounding a corner she’d wait so that they could walk together. She told everyone who would listen how “gentle Patroclus” had saved her on that first day, alone and confused in a strange new place when he had swooped down, like a messenger sent from Zeus, to guide her.

Flattered and touched, Patroclus did little to discourage her and instead maintained resolutely to be as nice as possible. Despite her many admirers Pamaia seemed to have few real friends and Patroclus only had to think back to how it had been before he had crashed into Leptine so long ago to know how that felt. She was beautiful yes, but she was also frightened and lonely and while Aphrodite could put a sparkle in her eye and a swing in her hips there was very little she could do about that.

One morning they found themselves together, polishing the walls of the Great Hall. Amyntor had ordered Leptine to make rounds and check which areas of the palace were “up to standard”, although why he did not say. In any case, Patroclus and Pamaia had a bucket of soap suds between them and a sponge in hand and very soon they found themselves in conversation.

“But you’re a man,” observed Pamaia with wonder in her eyes as Patroclus sifted dirt from the marble with practiced ease. “How are you so good at this?”

Patroclus laughed, wringing brown water from the flannel. “I’ve been here a while. And I had a good teacher.”

Pamaia wrinkled her nose with disdain. “In my country, the women do the housework. There are other jobs for men. Cleaning hay. Carrying heavy loads. Looking after horses. Things like that.”

“Yeah well,” Patroclus shrugged, far too well acquainted with himself and Achilles’ taunts to have any delusions of macho-ness. “You certainly won’t ever see me dancing in any case.”

Pamaia giggled and tossed her long hair over her shoulders. Patroclus saw it reflected in the soapy puddle, like a rainbow in oil. “I think you’d make a wonderful dancer,” she grinned.

“Trust me,” said Patroclus. “You don’t want to test that.”

Pamaia laughed again and Patroclus smiled, happy to sacrifice assumptions of his masculinity if it put her at ease. He snuck a look at her from the corner of his eye as she sat back to scan the Great Hall.

“It’s so strange here,” she said with a little sigh, eyes wondering over the dank dark of the hall. “So cold.”

Patroclus, thinking of the sun on his back during afternoon drills thought “cold” was the last word someone would use to describe Phthia. But he remembered the smothering warmth of the South and how the northern countries with their green-grey seas had seemed a frightening contrast when he’d first arrived and knew that wherever Pamaia came from it had been even hotter.

“You get used to it,” he replied. “Walking around, you get to know every face, every pathway, every room. After a while even the trees become familiar.”

“Don’t you miss your home?” she frowned, rosebud lips slightly parted.

Patroclus made a funny gesture, halfway between a shrug and a dismissive wave. “I never…” he began. “I guess I never felt like Opus was ever really my home to begin with,” he replied. “It’s just the place I was born. It could have been anywhere.”

Pamaia nodded then turned away, biting her lip. Patroclus sat there hopelessly, at a loss of what to say, how to comfort her. You arse. Of course she’s homesick. She’s been her what, a week? And here you are talking about how things are so much better now. Dick.

“Hey,” he said awkwardly, motioning with the rag. “You missed a spot.”

Pamaia turned slightly. “Where?”

Patroclus dipped his fingers in the soapy water and flicked. A few suds jumped from his hands onto Pamaia’s chiton. She squealed and retaliated, flicking water into his eyes. He responded with the rag and she returned with the bucket.

Soon the whole corner of the Hall was a massive puddle with Patroclus and Pamaia sitting in it like two islands, soaking wet and still flinging water at each other. Suddenly the double doors opened and their heads flew up automatically, fearing Amyntor or worse. Then, seeing who it was, Patroclus relaxed.

“Leptine,” he greeted her. Then he pointed at Pamaia. “She started it.”

Pamaia let out a sound of protest, instantly silenced by the look Leptine sent her. “Pamaia,” she said in a voice of forced civility. “Amyntor wants you on bunting. I’ll take over from here.”

Pamaia gave a little nod and left the room, a string of tiny bubbles trailing after her like a necklace of silver beads. The second the doors had closed behind her, Leptine’s polite expression slipped to be replaced by a dark scowl.

“I see you two are getting on well,” she said with a nod towards the giant puddle pooling around Patroclus’ knees.

“She was homesick,” Patroclus defended himself. “I was just trying to cheer her up.”

“Oh I think you’ve already cheered her up quite a bit,” Leptine sighed, shifting her skirts gingerly as she tried to find a dry place to sit down.

Patroclus frowned curiously. “What do you mean?”

Leptine made a clucking sound of impatience with her tongue. “She asked to work with you personally,” she replied.

Patroclus’ frown deepened. “Why would she do that?”

The look Leptine gave him made him feel like a small child who had just asked a very stupid question. It also made him instantly aware of the answer. Despite himself, he could not help but feel a little pleased. “Well,” he said warmly. “I’m flattered. She could have her pick of the whole palace, the king included…then again, can’t say I blame her…they don’t call me Patroclus Adonis for nothing…”

“No one calls you that,” said Leptine irritably. “And to be honest, I think you could do much better than that…hetera...”

“You only hate her because she’s beautiful,” Patroclus pointed out.

“You only like her because she’s beautiful!” Leptine snapped furiously, eyes flashing and cheeks glowing crimson. “Anyway, I don’t hate her. I just don’t trust her. There’s a difference.”

Patroclus shook his head, perplexed. Leptine was at her most self-righteous and he knew when she was like this, as passionate as she was, it would be difficult to reason with her. “You have no reason to distrust her,” he told her logically.

“Really?” she raised an eyebrow. “Patroclus, the moment she arrived her everything’s changed. Look around. The whole palace is dribbling for her. She’s even got you under her spell.”

“Dear Gods on a mountain,” Patroclus rolled his eyes up to the heavens. “You know what I think? I think you’re jealous.”

Leptine’s face morphed into a mask of indignation, her mouth opening and closing like a fish caught out of water. Patroclus leant back in satisfaction and waited patiently for her defence. He remembered them having a similar conversation, not so long ago, the protests and the objection. Only this time the roles were reversed.

 “I am not jealous,” she said finally and decisively. “I’m just…concerned…that what we’ve let in through the front door won’t come back to bite us. You men act far more quickly on pride than you do on intelligence and more often than not it’s we women who have to pay for it.”

Before Patroclus could reply the doors of the Great Hall flew open once again, letting in a gust of air that swept ripples over the puddles of water. Leptine jumped up at once and lowered her eyes to the floor while Patroclus stayed sitting. “Speaking of great pride and little intelligence,” he said as Achilles walked in.

Achilles looked at him solemnly. “Patroclus,” he spoke seriously with paternal concern. “You really need to stop being so down on yourself. Start recognising your skills and abilities rather than focusing on your flaws.”

Patroclus shook his head amusedly, smirking, while Leptine looked confused. “Is there anything I can help you with, my lord?” she asked tentatively.

“No, no, don’t trouble yourself,” he replied dismissively. “I just need to borrow Menoitides here a moment. Won’t take long. An hour or so. Or three. Whatever.”

Patroclus exchanged a glance with Leptine who gestured for him to follow. “Go,” she said gently and motioned to the little flood at their feet. “I’ll clear this up.”

Patroclus murmured his thanks and followed Achilles out of the gloomy chill of the Hall into the sunshine. For some reason the prince was in a good mood for he walked with a spring in his step, thumbs tucked into the belt wound loosely round his waist. Patroclus watched him warily. Since their official “ceasefire” there had been no more dupes, tricks or practical jokes from either of them or Achilles’ friends. However, Patroclus could not help but feel a sense of apprehension as he looked round for whatever task Achilles had wanted him for and saw nothing.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, scanning the area for hay to sift or bottomless cauldrons to fill. 

Achilles yawned and stretched, the belt slipping a little further down his abdomen as his torso lengthened and contracted. “Nothing,” he answered. “I’m bored. Let’s go climb a tree.”

Patroclus blinked in disbelief. Achilles yawned again and cracked his knuckles. He was bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet. “Are you serious?” Patroclus demanded. “I have work to do!”

“Work is boring,” groaned Achilles, scratching the back of his neck. “Come. Play with me.”

“I can’t,” Patroclus shook his head. “I’m going back inside.”

He turned to go when the flash of Achilles’ hand on his wrist stopped him. “Wait,” he spoke. The word escaped his lips like a prayer whispered through a thin reed and Patroclus felt his heart leap inside his chest. Achilles glanced behind him, as if to check that no one was listening, and bent his head forwards slightly. “Patroclus,” he said, skipping each syllable like stones across a lake. “Please.”

There was a purity in his voice, the kind Patroclus could sometimes make out after they had fought and were laying on the grass, taking in the afternoon, or that night when they had spoken by the sea’s edge with the tide licking their feet. There was a purity in his voice and his eyes begged with the sweet desperation of the heart-wrenchingly lonely and Patroclus felt all his inhibitions melt away as he beheld that face and those eyes and that voice. “Okay,” he said.

oOo

Achilles took him to the woods that grew beyond the grounds of the royal palace where, he said, he’d spent most of his childhood whenever he was not on the beach. As they journeyed further in the Cyprus trees grew closer together and the smell of lemon morphed into that of pine, moss and the damp of the forest floor. Green sunlight cast dappled patterns on the ground and the colours danced in Achilles’ yellow hair and for one wild moment Patroclus thought he was looking at Daphne, the beautiful wood nymph who had spurned a god’s advances.

Does that make me Apollo then? The thought came unbidden into his head. Ashamed and fearful, he pushed it away.

When they reached a glade they started to race. Achilles set up tracks winding through the trees, from one end of the wood to the other and meeting back in the clear green space. They ran these laughing and looking constantly over their shoulders to check if the other was behind. It was Achilles, always Achilles, who finished first and he would stand there grinning at Patroclus, who was bent over and breathing heavily.

When Patroclus had tired of losing they climbed the trees and dangled from the branches, plucking fruit from the leaves and pelting them at each other and at midday they sat curled in the leaves, like two woodland kings watching over their territory. Achilles was eating a fig from the neighbouring tree. He peeled it with his fingers, sucked the juice off them and let the purple skin drop to the ground.

“This place looks much nicer now than it did this morning,” he said conversationally.

Patroclus smelt the leafy, green smell of rain on the dirt and smiled.  “How did the hunt go?”

Achilles rolled his eyes and bit into the fig. “Not well,” he replied. He was silent a moment, apparently thinking. Then, quietly he added “Mynax caught a stoat.”

There was something in the way he said it, something in the way his eyes gazed fixedly at the floor that filled Patroclus with a sense of dread. “And?” he probed.

Achilles sighed. Rubbed his eyes tiredly. Sunk his shoulders as if the burden he carried was too much for them to handle. “What do you think?” he deadpanned. “He plucked its eyes out while it was still alive and used them for marbles.”

The way he said it, in the flat, emotionless monotone did little for the abrupt swell of acid bubbling in Patroclus’ stomach. He closed his eyes against the sickness, suddenly all too aware of how high up they were. “He needs to go,” he said.

“Do you think I want him around?” rounded Achilles. “But what can I do? Father knows his family, he wants him to be my hetairoi. I swear, I’d rather go into battle with a fully grown hydra.”

Patroclus looked away. He was thinking about Clysonymus, the boy he had killed over dice. “He has something broken in his mind.”

“So do I,” said Achilles.

Patroclus shook his head. “You’re not broken,” he said. “I don’t know what you are, but you’re not broken.”

Neither of them said anything for a while, just sat there, legs swinging from the tree. Birds sang with high, thrilling voices and darted through the leaves like brightly coloured kites. Below a soft-downed deer nudged through the undergrowth, nose twitching for berries and Patroclus thought of Leptine, having to clear up the mess he had made while he sat eating figs. He decided to bring back flowers.

“Mynax reminds me of a boy I once knew,” he broke the silence before he even knew what he was saying.

Achilles whipped round urgently. His voice was a whisper. “The boy you killed?”

Patroclus nodded, not even bothering to ask how he knew. It seemed everyone did. But he avoided Achilles’ eyes, scared of what he would see there. Disgust or hatred and I jump, he thought madly. “Whenever I see Mynax,” he said. “I see him.”

Achilles gazed at Patroclus and his eyes were full of wonder. He inched along the branch until they were touching. He put his hand on his shoulder. Patroclus bit his lip and realised he was crying.

“I still can’t sleep,” he confessed. His voice shook like a leaf trembling in the wind.

Achilles’ hand lifted from Patroclus’ shoulder to run through his hair, letting the thick, dark brown locks slip through his fingers. Patroclus closed his eyes and sighed, leaning into the pressure as his fingers settled on the base of neck, stroking tenderly. The tears slipped from his chin to darken the forest floor.

“Patroclus,” murmured Achilles. “Listen to me. You’ve done nothing wrong. Any man would have done the same in your place. He was bigger than you. You were defending yourself.  Anyone can see that.”

Patroclus shook his head and turned away. “Look at me,” said Achilles. “Look at me.”

He looked. Achilles' gaze bore into him, as if he could open his head like a casket and see into the darkest parts of his mind. “I would have done the same.”

Patroclus took a shaky breath, and Achilles wiped his face with his sleeve, leaving the other hand where it lay.

By the time they climbed out of the tree it was evening and the moon, bright and white as a coin marked their path back to the palace. They said their goodbyes at the gate and went their separate ways, Achilles to his chambers and Patroclus back to the servants’ quarters. He gave Leptine her flowers, (yellow, like her ribbon) hugged her and made up his pallet for bed. But even when the covers were over him and the room was heavy with the soft breathing of sleep he still had not made his mind up on whether Achilles’ last statement had made him feel better or worse.

Chapter Text

He began to see Achilles more often, almost daily. When Patroclus was done with his chores and Achilles with his lessons the two would slip from the palace grounds, onto the beach or into the forest and spend the rest of the day in blissful freedom, fighting or playing it made no difference; the lines had already been blurred for a long while. Achilles showed him things; the ingenious little traps he’d invented and built for animals, the best spots to search for wild mushrooms and hickory nuts, how to move so silently not even the sharpest deer would raise their nose. In return Patroclus taught him a little of herb lore and the names and functions of the plants that grew around the base of the trees and surprisingly, Achilles learned fast and with fervour.

In those crisp mornings or sweltering afternoons they also learned about each other. With each fight, conversation or play-wrestle they opened up a little more, giving up a part of themselves piece by piece to the other, as if their souls were labyrinths and with every passing day they gained another fragment of the route. At first Patroclus was guarded, tentative and kept glancing at Achilles while he talked as if trying to judge his reaction. But as time went on he found himself speaking more comfortably of things he had not allowed himself to think, things he had suppressed into the deepest reaches of his mind.

Achilles was open, off-hand and talkative, as though the things he spoke of were as of little consequence as the fish in the streams. But then suddenly he’d break off, frown, and stare half-accusingly at Patroclus saying “I’ve never told anyone that before.”

And Patroclus would smile, half-teasingly, and reply, “Guess I’m not just anyone.”

It was a good time, the best of Patroclus’ days in Phthia and often after the two had been swimming and were laying in the sun to dry he would trace the beads of water running off Achilles’ golden limbs and think he’d never been so happy.  Other times he’d watch as Achilles, hidden within the green cage of a tree jumped and pounced on an unwitting forest creature, sliced its gut and showed him its skin, grinning, and he felt slightly sick, ever so slightly afraid, and more than a little desire.

Achilles was competition. He was forever trying to outdo himself, casting his ability off as a limitation, his skill chains that prevented him from always being better. So he set up courses, tracks and targets and tried to beat himself and when he did he would let out a victor’s yell of triumph and strut around like a prince peacock for the rest of the day, as if he had just vanquished a long standing rival. He would always make Patroclus go against him and whether it was who could run the furthest in a minute or who could hold their breath longest underwater Achilles always won and celebrated. Sometimes Patroclus thought Achilles made him compete just so he could watch him win.

One morning, Achilles woke Patroclus up and took him to the beach. From there they climbed the pale grey rocks that littered the shore’s edge higher and higher until they reached the cliffs, Patroclus moaning all the while, Achilles snapping at him to shut up and trust him.

“This is stupid,” Patroclus grumbled, stubbing his toe on a loose rock. “The sun’s in my eyes.”

“Then fucking blink,” Achilles snarled. “We’re almost at the top.”

Patroclus squinted past Achilles’ ascending figure to where the cliff face curved into a plateau, the flattened summit spiked with clumps of dry moss, like a few sparse hairs prickling from a balding scalp. He shook his head exasperatedly and followed upwards, his feet and hands clumsy on the rock where Achilles had been nimble and lithe.

Achilles reached the level first and, having heaved himself up, reached out a hand to Patroclus. He took it and allowed himself to be pulled up, gingerly regaining his balance as a rush of the wind made him suddenly aware of how high up they really were. Looking down the sea seemed so very far away, a flat expanse of blue-green that glimmered with studded diamonds of light across the surface. He looked back at Achilles. He was grinning wildly, wickedly, and the shining sea pooled in his irises.

“Jump,” he commanded.

Patroclus gawped at him. “Are you crazy?” he exclaimed. “I’ll break my neck!”

Achilles shook his head. “You won’t,” he said. “Come on. It’ll be fun. You’ll enjoy it.”

“I enjoy my spine,” Patroclus replied. “Have you seen how high up we are? If the fall doesn’t kill us the water will.”

“It’ll be fine,” Achilles insisted, rolling his eyes. “Trust me. I’ve done this, like, I don’t know. A hundred times.”

Patroclus eyed him suspiciously. Achilles looked nonchalant and casual, as if he were asking him to take a gentle dip in the river rather than jumping off a fifty-foot cliff. For some reason this troubled Patroclus more than it reassured him. “You’ve done this before?” he asked cautiously.

“Yeah,” Achilles nodded, brushing his wind-blown hair out of his eyes. “Used to be one of my favourite pastimes when I was a kid. My mother, she’d sit there,” he pointed to an indistinct blob of brown Patroclus assumed was a rock. “And cheer me on.”

“And you say your parents are separated,” Patroclus murmured, glancing below him with a sense of mounting nausea. The cold morning blew upwards from the salt spray into his face as he imagined falling down, down, the sea rushing up to meet him as his limp arms scrabbled desperately for something to hold on to. He shook his head.

“No,” he stated. “No way.”

Achilles fixed him with his most challenging stare. “Patroclus,” he said seriously. “Don’t be a pussy.”

Patroclus huffed and turned away, crossing his arms defiantly over his chest. Achilles sighed and then, softly as the breeze, took a step closer; his chin hovering just above his shoulder so that they were almost touching. “Imagine,” he murmured, lips barely parted. “Taking the leap. Imagine gravity falling away from you, like a heavy cloak, as soon as your feet leave the rock. Imagine falling with no concerns, no limitations. Just falling through that cold, blue space between sky and earth. Boundless. Ceaseless.” His eyes were wide, wild, and bearing with an ethereal intensity. His mouth, so close. “I swear, the second you jump, you’ll wish you could fall forever.”

Patroclus looked back down. The sea roared in his ears, his face stung with the morning chill. The waves curled onto the shore like a crooked finger, smiling at him, beckoning him. “You trust me?” asked Achilles. Patroclus nodded. “Then jump.”

For you, then, thought Patroclus, recalling broken fragments of a reprimand given by his mother so long ago. Something about if all your friends jumped off a cliff. He shook it from his mind and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. He jumped.

As soon as his feet left the rock he felt all his fears, inhibitions, anxieties leave him like a shift shaken into the wind. There was only the rush of cold, pounding like blood in his ears as he fell, his heart hammering in his chest until he thought it would break. But if it did, he thought, it would not matter. Surely there was no greater way to die than this. He fell through that cold, blue space; the wind and the sea screaming in his ears and the sound of Achilles’ mad whooping sparked the realisation that never, never had he felt more alive and more a part of this world, never had the blood pumped through his veins so fast, not even in the most electrifying fights had the adrenaline zapped through him like a shock, making him scream with the pure, terrifying thrill of it all…

His legs broke the surface of the water, drops spraying in his face as if he had fallen through a plate of shattering glass and he felt himself become immersed as it pulled him under. He opened his eyes and all he saw was green, dark and foreboding and this is it, he found himself saying, this is where it ends.

Then, with an abrupt lurching movement, he was pushed up like a bobbing cork, his arms and legs thrashing frantically as he struggled to regain control. He spun round in the water until he was facing the cliff. The plateau jutted out from its side, a towering Titan of grey rock, glaring, beaten, down at him. Patroclus laughed insanely and whooped into the air just as a loud splash a few feet away announced Achilles’ arrival.

“I missed your jump,” said Patroclus, swimming over to him.

Achilles turned, long hair gleaming and plastered to his skin, his eyes shining bright with adrenalin. “That’s okay, I saw yours,” he replied. “How was it?”

Patroclus felt the grin split his face, huge and unrestrained. “Amazing,” he breathed. “I felt like I was flying. Like I was a God.”

Achilles beamed back at him. “I know,” he said. He pointed at the cliff. “Fuck, look how high we were! Not bad for the first time.”

Patroclus frowned, the words falling like heavy stones upon his numb ears. “…First time?”

Achilles was smirking. His face, combined with the understanding slowly dawning on Patroclus mixed in his gut into sudden, burning fury. He lashed out with all the restraint of a young kraken, diving at Achilles who bobbed instinctively out the way. “YOU ARSEHOLE!” he screamed. “YOU TOLD ME YOU’D DONE THIS BEFORE! WE COULD HAVE DIED! YOU COULD HAVE KILLED ME!”

Achilles just laughed, tempestuous, unrestrained, hair shining like liquid gold and Patroclus, through his anger, found that he was laughing too, laughing like a madman as he dived after Achilles into the waves.

oOo

An hour later they rolled with the tide back onto the shore. Sodden and shivering, their footsteps made silvery tracks in the sand as droplets of water slipped from the ends of their soaking hair and trailed after them in little dark spots. The buzz of the fall was only now just beginning to wear off and strangely, although goose bumps had erupted all over Patroclus’ flesh it was as if someone had lit a fire inside him and it’s embers now glowed with a comforting warmth, spreading rosily from his chest into his stomach.

Beside him Achilles was skipping. He had rolled his chiton down to his waist and was squeezing water out from the cloth. “Bet you’re glad you got up this morning,” he declared.

“You’re a testicle,” answered Patroclus.

Achilles snickered. Beads of water trailed down the muscles of his arms and shoulders, rolling off like splaying light from his limbs. “Come on,” he said. “You’d never have gone for it otherwise. And don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it.”

Patroclus ignored this, for there was no denying the fire in his belly, nor the way his face glowed like the sunrise. “Regardless,” he began. “You could have killed us both.”

Achilles shook his head. “I knew we’d be fine.”

“How could you know that?”

“I just know,” he stated stubbornly. “I have a knack for these things. Anyway, I’d have never asked you to if I wasn’t sure.”

Patroclus glanced at Achilles, squeezing his chiton dry with ease and guessed this “knack” had something to do with the way he always knew where falling fruit was going to land or exactly when to strike a hunted animal or how to move so imperceptibly you’d have sworn he was invisible. He shook his head in surrender and decided there were some things he was better off not asking about.

They walked back across the beach shoulder to shoulder to aid the sun in warming their bodies. Once they’d reached the palace, Achilles turned to Patroclus, scratching the back of his neck self-consciously.

“So tomorrow’s my birthday,” he stated.

Patroclus tried not to let the surprise register on his face. “Oh,” he said.

“My father’s having this party,” Achilles continued, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “Just an excuse for a massive piss-up in diplomacy. Some People Of Great Consequence will be there so they can tell me how tall I’ve grown and how I look so much like my father and how last time they saw me I was only up to their bloody shins or something. And there’ll be a lot of showing off of how much gold and lentils Phthia has and maybe someone will bang out the harp and it’ll be hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting. Anyway, you should come.”

That explains the bunting, thought Patroclus, remembering how hard Amyntor had been working the slaves recently. “I’ll be there anyway, won’t I?” he pointed out. “You know, pouring wine, serving wine, spitting in the wine, that kind of thing.”

Achilles shook his head ardently. “I don’t want you there as my slave,” he said and an emphatic passion rounded his words. “I want you there as my guest.”

He said it so flatly, so bluntly yet it did not present the heat rushing through Patroclus’ veins to rise into his cheeks, nor did it dissuade the inevitable squirm of pleasure in his stomach knowing that Achilles wanted him there, wanted him not because it was expected or because his father told him so but because without him he knew he would once again be made a victim of his boredom. Patroclus gave a wry smile, feeling suddenly blissful. “Well,” he said. “Seeing as you’ve sold it so well.”

Achilles grinned, eyes shining as he slipped a fallen lock of hair behind his ear. “Tomorrow evening then,” he stated, turning to go. “Don’t forget!”

“I won’t,” replied Patroclus over his shoulder, heading back to his quarters.

It soon transpired however, that this would have been impossible. How Patroclus had missed the blatant and screaming symptoms of an upcoming event he had no idea, especially as for the next few hours Amyntor had upgraded from tyrant to complete sociopath, taking to standing at the top of the stairs and bellowing orders through a piece of hollowed shark bone which reverberated round the palace and struck anyone within a few paces with deafening ear ache. Unfortunately, Patroclus’ invitation did not excuse him from his servant’s duties and he and Leptine found themselves shooting from room to room mopping floors, polishing marble and hanging decorations, complying to Peleus’ every whim and Amyntor’s every command.

By the time the two were instructed to go over an enormous mosaic with a toothpick, Leptine was feeling pretty resentful of the prince. “I can’t believe this,” she muttered, scratching dirt from the tiles with unnecessary vigour. “You know, I bet he’s sitting in his room now, pouring over his silk chitons and wondering whether to wear his hair straightened or curled.”

“Mmhmm,” Patroclus responded.

“Or he’s parading through the grounds,” continued Leptine. “Whip in hand, exercising his skill as an overseer. Strutting like a bloody peacock, ‘did you know my mother’s a goddess?’ ‘did you know I’m a prince?’ ‘did you know it’s my birthday?’ Well Happy birthday, Prince Narcissus. I hope it’s bloody worth it.”

“Mmmhhhmmm,” answered Patroclus.

Leptine cast him a quizzical look. “You’re pretty quiet,” she observed. “Usually you’re the one who can’t criticise him enough.”

Patroclus shrugged, conscious of the puzzling expression on her face. “I suppose I’ve just…grown up a bit since then,” he replied ambiguously.

Leptine raised her eyebrows in mock-admiration. “Oh have you?” she said, the hint of a smile tugging at her lip. “And when exactly did you undergo this spurt of maturity?”

“I don’t know,” muttered Patroclus stubbornly. “I’ve just been thinking recently that maybe…possibly…we might have misjudged him. A little.”

Leptine’s eyebrows disappeared into her hair. “Those are words I thought you’d never say,” she declared wonderingly. “What changed your mind?”

Patroclus shrugged again, uncomfortably aware indecision was becoming a habit. “He’s just…different,” he explained feebly, trying to find words for the teasing warmth of his smile or the way his hand had clasped around his with such easy reassurance as he’d pulled him to the top of the cliff. “Something’s changed in him. I don’t know. Maybe he’s grown up to.”

He looked away, blushing, and refocused on scratching the dirt from a particularly interesting looking tile, Leptine’s searching gaze burning into the back of his neck. At long last she yawned and stretched and he felt the relief of her lifted scrutiny. “Well I’m glad you two seem to have sorted out your differences,” she told him. “Surprised, confused, but glad. I just wish I could see the same evidence of his ‘change’ as you do.”

“You don’t see it?” asked Patroclus, taken aback.

Leptine shook her head. “No,” she said bluntly. “I don’t. If anything he seems worse, what with the party and his officially becoming ‘a man’ and all. He’s as selfish, conceited and full of himself as ever. In fact, the only thing that seems to have ‘grown’ about him is his head.”

Patroclus forced a laugh and quickly changed the subject. There was no way he could explain to Leptine that it was all his imperfections; his pride, his arrogance, his vanity that made him so…well…perfect. How could he make her understand the pure, innocent joy in Achilles when he discovered some child’s thing; an ant hill or a bee’s nest? Or his sense of honour, and dignity and the passionate fury in his voice when he talked about prejudice and intolerance and tyranny? Or the way he could spin whole tales from words with an airy coolness, as if he did not even realise the beauty of what he had just said?

“Patroclus?” spoke Leptine softly, snapping him out of his daze. “Are you alright?”

Patroclus blinked. The world was suddenly all at once very bright and very hazy. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I’m fine.”

Just fine.

oOo

Tomorrow evening came much sooner than Patroclus would have liked. Before he knew it the whole palace was bustling with the anticipation of Achilles’ party, five minutes later it was dark and Patroclus was tearing through his chest of possessions trying to find something to wear.

He had no idea why he was so nervous. This was Achilles, not a complete stranger from a far off land or some heroic legend who had once laced Hercules’ shoe. He pulled out a green chiton, the colour of spring grass and yanked it on over his head. It had been a favourite of his in Opus and he supposed it would do well enough now.Glancing at himself in Leptine’s hand mirror he quickly attempted to flatten the hair that stuck up round the back of his ears; it sprung back up resiliently and he abandoned it, heading over to the Great Hall with a sense of mounting dread.

He heard the sound of music playing a long way down the corridor and as soon as he stepped in he felt repelled by the sheer force of it; lutes and lyres, harps and drums playing with enough volume to wake up half the Underworld. But as loud as the music was, it did little to drown out the suffocating sounds of conversation that swelled through the room so that the very walls seemed to pound.

Patroclus’ eyes scanned through the room, past Cleitus who was already lying in a paraplegic muddle on the floor, being plied with wine by a servant girl to where Achilles sat, brooding in the corner. His eyes lit up as Patroclus approached but his scowl did not shift, even as he sat down next to him.

“Steady my lord,” Patroclus jested. “Calm yourself. You don’t want to go too hard too quickly.”

Achilles tossed him a dark look. Up ahead Phoinix was dancing, stark naked but for a string of grapes around his neck, a doting female on each arm. “This is the worst evening of my life.”

“The worst evening of your life so far,” Patroclus corrected him. “Besides, what are you complaining about? Look at all the presents!”

He pointed in the direction of a coffee table, groaning beneath the strain of gold and silver; dishes, plates, tripods and amphoras glittering with pearls and precious gems. Achilles looked dismissive. “Blood money,” he answered disdainfully. “You should have seen them all. Each one came up with their father’s, went down on one knee and offered me a gift, like I was the king of fucking Olympus. They each had a speech prepared. Like, an actual speech for Gods’ sake.”

Patroclus smirked, picturing the guests dropping their gift and running with Achilles’ insults ringing in their ears. “So you won’t be upset if I told you I didn’t get you anything?” he asked.

Achilles shook his head. “Your being here is enough,” he replied simply. “Otherwise I swear I would go mad. I may still go mad. Oh fuck, there’s Tyrus. And he’s got a tapestry.”

Patroclus followed his gaze to where one of Achilles’ friends stood on a table, a tapestry hung around his neck like a feather boa. Achilles groaned and reached for his goblet. “Drink up,” he said grimly, raising the wine to his lips. “It’s going to be a long night.”

Chapter Text

The party stretched on long into the night. Considering the state of some of the guests within the first hour Patroclus thought this was quite an achievement, however as time wore on it soon became clear that the room was swelling. News of the festivities had spread and the Great Hall was becoming packed with more and more guests; nobles, friends, slaves, even commoners who had been drawn to the music and the laughter like insects to a wobbling flame until even the walls strained at the seams. The cheer grew swollen and fat, the guests laughed louder and the goblets and decanters felt much lighter.

Achilles and Patroclus sat in the corner of the room, watching the events unfold with detached amusement. Through the fog of gyrating hips, spilled wine and pouring jewels Patroclus had the distinct feeling of being within and without, an objective onlooker surveying the room with vague but superior interest. And with Achilles beside him, in his gilded chair with one foot thrown over the arm and a supercilious look on his face, he felt like a young God passing judgement on the mortals.

However, he had taken Achilles’ advice literally. From the moment he’d entered the room to the second Phoinix had restarted his strip-tease he had been sipping steadily from his goblet. And by the time the celebrations had reached their peak, he realised he was quite drunk.

“What’s the ratio of this?” he asked, peering quizzically into the inky-black depths.

Achilles shrugged. He had been drinking too, not so much as Patroclus but enough to make his eyelids droop slightly and a pale pink flush begin to creep across his cheeks. “Three,” he drawled. “Four. Hundred.”

Patroclus shook his head. “You’re just saying words.”

Achilles snickered. His long hair had become dishevelled and fell in messily elegant waves, giving him the look of someone who had a very tortured and mysterious past. He lifted his goblet to his mouth and a tiny drop of wine clung to his lower lip. His pink tongue darted out to lick it off and Patroclus felt something twitch within him.

“Let’s play a game,” said Achilles suddenly.

Instantly Patroclus was on guard. “What kind of game?”

Achilles picked up his goblet and wiggled it suggestively. Patroclus groaned. “Really?” he protested. “I’m so drunk.”

“Not drunk enough,” retorted Achilles. “Come on, there are several hours of torture to endure before we can leave and still be polite.”

Patroclus rolled his eyes. “Fine.”

Achilles refilled their goblets to the brim while Patroclus watched morosely. He had only ever played one drinking game in his life and it had ended in murder and exile. The look of maniacal delight in Achilles’ eyes as he handed Patroclus his goblet did little assuage his concerns. “Here’s how it goes,” Achilles began in a business-like manner. “I will give a statement of something I have never done. If you have done it, you drink. If you haven’t, I drink.”

Patroclus bit his lip. The alcohol made him feel sluggish and stupid and he wasn’t sure about how he felt about confessing his life’s secrets to his previous arch nemesis. But Achilles’ face was shining with excitement and in any case, he was far too lethargic to argue. “Fine,” he said reluctantly.

Achilles smiled mischievously. “I’ll start,” he said with almost professional enthusiasm. “I have never thrown up in public.”

Patroclus grimaced and took a drink. Vomiting in public was one of the worst things a prince could do, displaying the weakness of an heir’s stomach and character. Achilles tut-tutted at him. “Were you young?”

“Unfortunately not,” replied Patroclus with a sigh. “I was twelve. I was being introduced to these ambassadors and my father…he kept poking me, kicking me, making me stand up straight, etcetera. It was humiliating. So in the end I grew so uncomfortable with the situation I forced myself.”

Achilles let out a peal of violent laughter. Patroclus blushed but couldn’t help but smile at the truly awful memory. “It was not my proudest moment,” he admitted. “Okay. My turn. I have never seen a God.”

Achilles rolled his eyes and drank. “Oh yeah,” groaned Patroclus, mentally cursing himself. “I forgot about your mother.”

He shook his head. “I’ve seen others too,” he replied. “For my fourteenth birthday mother took me to the place where all the naiads hang out. And I’m pretty sure I caught her talking to Artemis this one time.”

Patroclus nodded, unable to suppress the envy rising up inside him. For years he had prided himself on his piety, (his outward piety anyway) and the closest he had ever come to the divine was his hands on the boy sitting opposite him in a Goddess’s bedroom. He decided he would use this opportunity to find out more about Achilles’ other life in his next question.

“Right,” said Achilles, wracking his brains. “I have never told a lie.”

Patroclus looked at him, aghast. “Yes you have!”

“Well, not a direct lie.”

“What never?” Patroclus gaped as Achilles shook his head.

“I told you,” he said. “I’m morally impeccable.”

Patroclus scoffed and drank deeply. Achilles sniggered as he set down his goblet with a slam. “I have never been to the Underworld,” he stated defiantly.

Achilles raised an eyebrow. Hesitantly, he took a sip. Patroclus’ eyes widened. “So it’s true?” he gasped. “About your mother holding you in the Styx? That you’re…” he swallowed. “Indestructible?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Achilles shrugged. “Mother says I am. She also says father raped her and that before me I had seven siblings who died and that I am, in fact, my deceased elder sister reincarnate. Which is why she dressed me up in skirts for the first four years of my life and called me ‘Aikaterine’. She says a lot of things.”

He took a drink absently while Patroclus stared, in a state of semi-shock, trying to comprehend the idea that this was a being whom, quite possibly, could not be killed. Achilles however did not appear to notice his distraction for he was busy forming his next question. “Excluding each other,” said Achilles finally, after what seemed like an eternity. “I have never wanted, with the whole of my being, to kill someone.”

Patroclus closed his eyes and took a drink. Achilles looked stunned. “Clysonymous?” he asked. “But that was an accident.”

Patroclus shook his head tiredly. “No,” he answered. “My father.”

Achilles’ mouth formed a little “o”. Patroclus gave a wan, sardonic smile. “You would too,” he assured him dully. “If you’d known him.”

Conscious of Achilles’ eyes on him he took another drink, suddenly desiring it. “I have never told anyone any of this before,” he said and was oddly delighted when Achilles did not drink.

“I have never…” Achilles began cautiously. “Prayed to Aphrodite.”

He snuck a look at Patroclus from the corner of his eye. There was a hidden implication in the question, and they both knew it. But Patroclus left his goblet untouched. Even if he did have cause to pray to the Goddess of love, she was far too fickle to test his luck.

Following from that Patroclus asked his next question, his heart slamming against his chest as he did so. “I have never done…more…than kiss a girl,” he said, then added quickly, “On the mouth.”

Achilles looked at Patroclus steadily. Then slowly, heart-wrenchingly slowly, he reached for his goblet. As his lips closed around the rim Patroclus felt as though someone had wrenched their fist into his gut and was steadily unravelling his intestines. Achilles drank and placed the goblet back on the armrest. Who was she?  a voice in Patroclus’ head roared. Neither of them said anything.

Suddenly the corner of Achilles’ mouth twitched. The tell-tale sign for trouble. The crack widened and then he was smiling with terrible malevolence. “I have never,” he said, drawing the words out like a jeweller placing beads on a thread. “Gotten so pent-up from a fight that, straight after, I decided to go to my room…and let off a little steam…”

Patroclus’ brow furrowed as he ran Achilles’ words through his mind, then slowly, slowly comprehension dawned on him and he felt his eyes widen in shock and horror. “I am not answering that!” he yelped.

“That means you have!” yelled Achilles ecstatically, pointing accusingly and with a kind of psychopathic excitement. 

“It does not!” Patroclus protested. “It doesn’t, it means I refuse to answer such a…a…personal-”

“-If you hadn’t then you could have just not drunk,” Achilles reasoned and Patroclus cursed his own stupidity.

“No, I just...” he tried desperately to think up an excuse but Achilles’ detestably smug, knowing look was doing very little for his calm. “I just…refuse to respond to your…immature and…childish…childish…”

“Hey now come on,” Achilles laughed, slapping him playfully and infuriatingly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, I know plenty of guys who need a little…release…after a good fight…very common, perfectly natural-”

“I don’t,” Patroclus sputtered, trying not to think about the number of times he had lain awake at night, tracing over the bruises Achilles’ fists had left on his body and imagining his lips brushing over them, and how his hand would always move automatically between his legs. “I make no comment.”

Achilles was still smirking. “Fine,” he said. “If you won’t answer the question then you must do a forfeit.”

Resigned, Patroclus raised an eyebrow. “What do you want me to do?”

“I don’t know,” Achilles shrugged. “Do something daring. Surprise me.”

He leant back in his chair, his foot jiggling up and down on the seat as his eyes swept the room, like those of a hawk. The musicians had struck up another tune, this one languid and slow, and there were girls now; dancing girls with flat stomachs and smouldering eyes whose slender wrists flicked like curling smoke to the beat of the drum. There were hoots and catcalls as they trickled out into the room, the cheers of old and young men alike louder with every flash of thigh.

Patroclus looked at Achilles, slung over his throne as if by accident, morose and brooding and dark as a prince of Hades. He looked at his messy hair and his heavily lidded eyes and his full, red mouth, ripened with wine and he felt desire take him, seize him with a sudden, desperate urgency and a power so strong and sure that for a moment he knew nothing else.  Do something daring, Achilles had said. So Patroclus did the most daring thing he could think of.

Patroclus leaned forward. Achilles’ eyes flickered towards him beneath long lashes as gently he took his chin in hand, so close that Patroclus could smell the grape on his breath. Heart hammering and with a rush of current Patroclus turned his face towards him. And kissed him squarely on the corner of the mouth.

It was a chaste kiss, almost brotherly. But the moment Patroclus’ lips left Achilles he felt instantly frightened, and watched his reaction with painful anxiety. Achilles looked taken aback but not in shock. The corners of his mouth twitched in a surprised smile.

Patroclus fell back into his chair, drained. “More wine, I think,” he declared, staring glumly into his empty goblet. He cast distractedly round the room, desperately looking anywhere but at Achilles until he spotted a slave girl carrying a tray laden with decanters and waved her over excitedly.

“Leptine!” he called, instantly forgetting the events of two minutes ago in his delight. “Over here!”

“Good evening, my lords,” greeted Leptine, observing the two with a sort of wry amusement. “I see you’re enjoying the celebrations.”

“Achilles,” said Patroclus, grasping Leptine’s hand. “I would like to introduce…the best goddamn person in the whole fucking Cosmos.”

“Hello,” said Achilles with a clumsy wave, tipping the last dregs of his goblet into his mouth.

“Actually we have met before,” giggled Leptine but Patroclus was tugging on her hand.

“The best goddamn person,” he repeated. “The nicest, cleverest, prettiest girl the Gods ever made. Leptine. Hey. Leptine. Did you hear me? I said you’re the prettiest girl in the world. Did you hear me? Did you hear what I said?”

“Yes Patroclus, I heard,” grinned Leptine patting his hand, her cheeks glowing. “Thank you.”

Achilles looked unhappy. “Why is she the prettiest girl?” he grumbled. “I’m way more pretty than her. I could be a girl.”

“Stay with us,” Patroclus implored, tugging at her skirts. “Siddown. Have a drink. Play the game-”

“I can’t,” replied Leptine regretfully. “I have to go serve. But you have a good night okay? Both of you.”

Patroclus nodded and gestured at his cheek. Dutifully, Leptine bent down and kissed it, ruffling his hair as she stood back up. Achilles pulled a face and another as she walked away.

“Is she not the best goddamn person,” Patroclus drawled at her retreating figure. “Is she not the best fucking prettiest, loveliest girl who ever lived.”

“No,” said Achilles.

Patroclus watched Leptine as she made her way around the room, filling goblets and making polite conversation with every drunken wreck sprawled untidily across the hall. She bent down to fill Mynax’s glass and he saw how he looked at her, his empty blue-grey eyes calculating her slender waist and breasts. She walked away and Mynax’s eyes followed her and Patroclus felt a cold thing slither down his back.

But before he had a chance to say something, Achilles was grabbing his shoulder and pointing towards the centre of the room where the girls had started to dance again. “Look there,” he whispered as a hush fell over the guests. “There. That one.”

Patroclus squinted through the mist of sequins and glittering crop tops, settling on a girl who was quite obviously the leader of the group. Her glossy black hair lay loose on her shoulders, her flat stomach exposed to the heat of the room. She danced and she held the room transfixed, every eye fixed upon her body as she moved sensuously to the music.

“Is that the girl you were telling me about?” asked Achilles. “The other day? Pamaia, was it?”

Patroclus nodded, unable to tear away from those languidly roving hips. “Yup,” he replied dully. “That’s her.”

Achilles’ mouth slackened and gawped. Pamaia caught him looking and tilted her head back, her arms above her head as she rocked her hips slowly back and forth. The drum beat quickened and she moved faster, as if she and the music were one, bending and extending like a ribbon in the wind. A thin sheen of sweat had appeared on her golden thigh, around the room the men were watching with their mouth’s hanging open, wine dribbling into their laps.

Patroclus scowled, leaning back in his seat with his arms crossed over his chest as Achilles continued to stare, as if caught by some enchantment. He glanced around for Leptine but she had gone, he supposed to the storeroom for more wine. Pamaia had started to moan and her hands were ceaseless over her stomach and torso. He nudged Achilles, “I’ll be right back.” Achilles nodded but gave no answer, his eyes glued to Pamaia. With a sigh, Patroclus got up and made his way past the incapacitated bodies, strewn about like corpses.

 

Look at them all, he thought bitterly. Lords and princes alike. Reduced to animals over a whore in a bikini. He glanced behind him, seeing with distaste how they had grouped around Pamaia, like pilgrims round a shrine. Then he frowned, noticing a seat that was empty. Mynax’s seat.

Suddenly a muffled sound came from the storeroom. Patroclus froze, one foot in mid-air. The scuffling came again, followed by a sharp cry and then a flat, echoing sound. Dread heavy in his stomach, Patroclus forced himself to move. The sounds grew louder with every step until he reached the storeroom door. He stretched out a hand to reach the handle and wrenched it open.

Mynax was there, panting like a bull in heat. It seemed he was wrestling with something, forcing it up against the wall as it writhed against his massive, boulder-like arms. Patroclus caught a flash of brown hair and his heart jumped into his mouth.

Leptine’s skirt was bunched around her waist, her hair a tangled thicket. There were red welts and scratches along her arms and legs, as if she had fallen into a thorn bush. She turned her head as Mynax pressed his massive length against her and Patroclus caught the look of disgust on her face. But in her eyes there was another look, a look which angered and terrified him more than anything else. It was a look of resignation.

There was no time to think. The storeroom door banged against the wall as Patroclus launched himself at Mynax, seizing his massive shoulders and wrenching him away. Mynax stumbled backwards and turned just as Patroclus’ fist collided with his jaw. He staggered and lifted his hand away from his mouth. Blood foamed from his nose and lip. He looked at Patroclus, the whites of his eyes glowing like two pits of hell as he spat onto the stone. With a gigantic movement he grabbed Patroclus’ torso and hurled him into the shelves. There was a clatter of pots and jars as Patroclus lay there like a broken rag doll. Leptine screamed and Mynax turned back towards her.

“Come here you little bitch,” Mynax spat, saliva peppering his chin. “You think that faggot is going to stop me from getting to your tight little cunt?”

“Get away from her!” yelled Patroclus from the floor, grabbing a jar and making to throw it.

With a crash the door banged open again, just as Mynax’s fingers closed round Leptine’s wrist. Achilles’ stood in the doorway, face as hard as a battle god’s and glowing with all the harsh gold of divinity. “Nekroitides,” he said in a voice cold as steel. “Release the girl.”

Mynax glanced at Leptine, then back at Achilles. “She’s a slave,” he snarled. “She’s mine to do with as I will.”

“You will do so at your death,” Achilles retorted. “Release her.”

A black look crawled onto his face as he dropped Leptine’s arm. Leptine wrenched herself away at once, making herself into a ball in the corner like an insect. Patroclus went to her, wrapping his arms round her tiny form. She was trembling.

“She’s off limits,” Achilles spelled out distinctly. “You will not touch her again.”

Mynax gave an abrupt nod, spitting a globule of blood and saliva onto the floor before making to leave. Patroclus’ glare followed him out the room and when he turned to look over his shoulder their eyes met. And Patroclus had to stop himself from gasping, for the look Mynax gave him then was one he had never seen before and hoped never to see again. It was the look of loathing in its purest form, such hatred that it morphed Mynax’s face into a mass of writhing ugliness until he was no longer a boy but something quite different, darker, and altogether more sinister.

And for the first time in a long time, Patroclus felt true terror. Then Mynax left the and all trace off fear lifted as the storeroom door banged closed once more.

oOo

Leptine spent the next day in her room, talking to no one and letting no one near her. After checking that she really was physically okay Patroclus left her alone, partially because he understood her need for solitude and partly because he knew that if he saw her again, so broken and anguished and fragmented, no one could stop him from acting on his anger. As it was he walked around with it bubbling in his chest, so close to the surface that he was constantly on edge, ready to lash out at anyone who happened to be nearby. Twice he passed the barn, leaking with fresh, dry straw and thought about setting the place alight. They could all burn for letting it happen to her.

The hangover didn’t help. He’d woken up with his hands clutching his skull, as if hoping to break it open and release the demons clanging against it. He couldn’t think, couldn’t do his chores. Just standing was an effort. Finally, when the pain got so much that even Loras had stopped talking around him, he decided to brew up some willow bark to numb it. However, upon rifling frantically through the kitchen store he found they were out and was forced to go outside and hunt for some.

It was a cool day, the sky the pearly colour of marble and a slight wind quivering through the tree branches. Patroclus tilted his head back, letting the breeze pass through his hair and sending a chill over his skin. The fresh air helped his head and he set off looking for willow with renewed vigour.

He soon found a tree where the bark was damp and green and set off stripping it with his knife. With the cold air clearing his mind as he began the soothing, repetitive motions he found he was able to think about last night more clearly, with hindsight. He remembered with a smile the game he’d played with Achilles and the way they’d sat there getting steadily hammered together, watching with ill-disguised disgust charades of the people around them. He thought of the way they’d talked, as if they’d known each other their whole lives and nothing between them was secret.

He remembered how he had kissed him and he dropped the knife.

Behind him came a cracking sound, like a twig snapping. Instinctively he seized the blade, holding it out defensively. “Who’s there?” he called out, his pulse quickened, breathing sporadic. He held his breath as a rustling came from the undergrowth and a figure began to emerge.

“I’m sorry my lord,” came a soft, honeyed voice. “I did not mean to alarm you.”

Patroclus released his breath as Pamaia emerged from the leafy refuge and lowered the knife. There were tiny petals in her long hair, which fell in loose waves over her chest, and her chiton was marked with emerald grass stains so that Patroclus though she looked like a wood nymph, emerging from her floral bower. She gave a shy smile which Patroclus returned, wobbly with relief.

“What brings you out here?” he inquired. “Suffering the aftermath of last night’s festivities?”

Pamaia shook her dark head. “Forgive me,” she murmured. “I…I saw you, and I could not stop myself.”

Confusion marked Patroclus’ brow. “I…” he began awkwardly. “Did you…follow me here?”

Pamaia nodded and bit her lip, a pretty blush colouring her soft cheeks. When she looked up, Patroclus saw in horror that her eyes were damp. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “There is a leash which binds me to you.”

She took a step forward, her slender torso less than a foot away. Patroclus shook his ardently. “No,” he stated. “No leash here. Definitely no leash.”

“You cannot tell me you don’t feel it,” she said, the words lifted feather light from her lips. “I saw you watching me dance.”

Patroclus gulped. Tiny beads of sweat were clinging to his temple and his palms were clammy. Suddenly the weather was a lot warmer than it had been a minute ago. “I have to go,” he mumbled, snatching up the strips of wood bark and dashing off without hesitation, conscious of her staring after him. As he ran he cursed himself; his awkwardness, his embarrassment, his general weakness. What is wrong with you? he chided himself. Most men would jump at the chance of just getting to talk to a girl like that. And there she is, practically throwing herself at you. You idiot. You coward. Be a man, go back and face her.

He thought about how nervous she’d been; her loneliness, her mortification and he felt furious with himself. His feet faltered on the ground, he stopped running. He turned round, making to head back to where he had left her.

A flash of blinding pain and he was flung to the ground, the back of his head ringing with impact. He cried out in shock but the sound was muffled as two hands grasped his throat.

Chapter Text

The thick fingers wrapped around his gullet and began to squeeze. Instinctively Patroclus’ knee shot up, catching his assailant in the ribs and following swiftly with his foot. The attacker doubled over, allowing Patroclus to scramble a few inches away where he caught a glimpse of copper red hair and pale eyes. Mynax’s eyes.

But before Patroclus had a chance to exclaim Mynax’s arm had flown out and wrapped itself round his ankle. He gave a sharp yank and Patroclus found himself being dragged through the mud; leaves, dirt and thorns streaking his face as he hurtled backwards. Landing at Mynax’s feet he attempted to pull himself up but he was too slow; all of a sudden Mynax was on him, pinning him to the floor as he squirmed and yelped like a farmhand struggling with a badly behaved pig.

He had thrown his whole bodyweight; his massive, hulking form pressing into Patroclus’ torso. Patroclus gulped for air, feeling like his stomach was being split in two as Mynax leered over him, broken teeth and pale eyes gleaming. He tried to scream but the sound was muffled as a damp palm slapped over his mouth. He bit it but Mynax held on, reaching once more for his throat.

The thick fingers looped his jugular. There was a dull pain at the back of his head and Patroclus felt the breath fail in his chest.. He reached for Mynax’s face, his nails thrashing at his skin and eyes but the boy held on, pressing him harder into the earth. The ache in his skull was spreading, there was darkness at the edges of his vision, creeping across like a mist. Bruise coloured and purple, silver lights were appearing before his eyes and Mynax’s face morphed before him into the face of the boy he had killed so long ago.

Eyes milky white, bulging and unseeing. Skin fleshy as a bloated corpse. Through broken teeth icy breath sounded a death rattle. Patroclus’ arms landed limply beside him and he felt his eyeballs roll back into his skull.

The dark fringed the edges of Patroclus’ sight and everything was bruise-coloured. He felt light suddenly, as if a great weight had been lifted and he looked around for Charon’s boat, certain he’d see it steering its way through the black waters of the Styx. But there was no river, only the thick brown mud in which he lay, sprawled on his back. Then a flash of light, so sudden and golden that he had to shut his eyes. When he opened them again, the darkness had gone.

With an effort he forced himself to sit up. Mynax had disappeared to be replaced by a large, oddly shaped boulder sitting in a pool of black mud. Cautiously, he crept towards it. With shaking fingers and his heart slamming against his chest, he stretched out a hand. It met something soft.

Patroclus pulled and yelled, releasing the handful of tunic. The boulder had turned on his side, revealing a slack mouth and bulging eyes. Milky white and unseeing. His face peered out blankly from a shock of copper red hair but it wasn’t that which worried him, rather it was the unnatural way in which it sat on his neck.

Black mud pooled around pearly splinters of bone, sticking out from the thin patches of flesh. It streaked a trail across the earth and Patroclus found himself following it, stomach churning as it wavered and stopped at a pair of dirtied feet. He looked up.

Achilles’ hands were dark. They were balled into fists and Patroclus could see the tendons jumping beneath his golden skin. There were black streaks across the expensive wool of his tunic. He was staring at Mynax.

Patroclus breathed and Achilles’ eyes flickered up. They met his gaze and held. And somehow Patroclus had the distinct feeling that he was staring at a stranger.

Then Achilles’ bottom lip trembled. And as quickly as it came, the feeling was gone.

Suddenly a rustling sound came from behind them, followed by raised voices. Achilles and Patroclus looked at each other, deathly white. The voices grew louder. Someone was calling their names. Patroclus turned back to Achilles. “Run,” he whispered.

Achilles shook his head.

“They’ll think it was me who did this,” Patroclus insisted. “All you have to do is let them. You’re the prince. Nobody cares if I live or die.”

Still Achilles shook his head. Behind them the voices had reached their maximum. Suddenly, a woman screamed.

“Merciful Gods!” exclaimed Theodorus, Captain of the Guard, as he approached the body. The king’s guard followed him closely and watched Achilles and Patroclus with condemning eyes. Behind them Pamaia crouched with her eyes wide and hands clasped over her mouth.

Theodorus leant down beside Mynax, running his fingers over his wrist in search for a pulse. There was no need, the splinters of bone poking out from what remained of his neck told him all he needed to know. He closed the boy’s eyes then stood up, looking grave.

 “Broken neck,” he declared. “Head snapped sharply to the side, with considerable force judging by the angle of the bone. Dark patches down the side of the flesh, pressed by fingertips.” He looked up. His solemn, penetrating gaze rested on the two white faces before him. “This boy has been murdered.”

The words thudded to the ground at Patroclus’ feet, each one like a weight pulling him down. He squeezed his eyes shut to blot out the level, judging stare of the Captain of the Guard but all he could see was Clysonymous’ face, wavering before him. Pointing and laughing. “Which one of you committed this vile atrocity?” asked Theodorus. His eyes flickered to Patroclus and rested. “Menoitides,” he uttered. “Your history speaks for you.”

“No,” said Achilles abruptly, stepping in front of Patroclus. “It was me. I did this.”

Theodorus frowned. Behind him the guard were staring, their breast plates straining with suppressed breath. “My lord?” Theodorus whispered in disbelief.

“That’s right,” nodded Achilles. “I did it. I killed him.”

There was silence except for Pamaia’s quiet whimpers and the resonant beating of Patroclus’ heart. Even the leaves had stopped rustling and now perched, attentive and rigid with anticipation.  Theodorus was still frowning, trying to read Achilles’ face. Achilles stared back levelly, expression blank. Finally, after an age, he spoke. “I suppose you’d better take me to my father.”

oOo

The walk back to the palace was the longest Patroclus had ever experienced. Despite Achilles’ confession the guard had insisted on treating him like a convict; his hands were tied behind his back and two guards flanked him either side. Achilles was led by the shoulder and from the way he was wincing Patroclus guessed the guard’s grip was tight. However, his hands were loose and he was able to walk freely, a ridiculous injustice but Patroclus was too frightened to feel even faintly resentful.

People stared as they approached. They cut across the market square and eyes followed him like those of Argos, the monster watchman. One woman whispered to her friend, her finger crooked at Patroclus. Shame coursed through him, he glanced at Achilles but he was still staring forward, his face a terrifying blank.

Leptine was standing with a few other slaves at the palace gates, her head lowered demurely as the Guard swept past. Catching sight of Achilles and Patroclus she frowned, taking in the splashes of dark blood across their tunics. Her eyes widened.

“Send word to King Peleus,” Theodorus spoke to the slaves in an undertone. They obeyed at once, running off in the direction of the king’s quarters. Leptine gave Patroclus a fleeting look from over her shoulder; he tried to smile back reassuringly but the muscles had frozen in his face.

At long last they were escorted inside. The heels of the Guards’ boots slapped against the marble floors and to Patroclus it seemed they echoed louder than usual, the corridor was colder, the hallway darker. The pillars supporting the high ceiling loomed down at them, casting judgement with their long shadows as they reached the door to Peleus’ study.

The old man was sat in his chair, half-hidden under a blanket of thick grey furs thrown over his knees. He looked tired and feeble and as they entered the room he gave a sorrowful sigh that rattled inside his skinny chest.

The door closed behind them and Achilles sank down abruptly onto one knee. “Father,” he murmured without looking up.

Peleus stretched out a thin, papery hand. Achilles clutched it and pressed his lips to the large, egg-shaped ruby stone that shone from his index finger. Peleus gave a thin, melancholy smile as Achilles raised his head and met his father’s gaze. A silent exchange passed between the two of them. Peleus’ withered palm brushed his son’s cheek and Patroclus knew then, that regardless of whatever happened next, at least by one person he had been forgiven.

“Rise my son,” he said in his clear, powerful voice.

Achilles stood up, his face chalk white. All trace of familiarity was gone; Peleus’ expression was stern and grave. “I have received word,” he began severely. “Of a most terrible crime committed on my grounds by a member of my own household, no less. Now, had this information not come from one of my most trusted Guard, I’d have had his tongue cut out for spinning lies and falsehoods. But, as it is, I have no option but to trust his word to be true. A boy lies dead, and they tell me at your hand.” He leant back in his chair, fingers folded in his lap as he surveyed Achilles. “What have you to say to these allegations?”

Achilles did not reply but continued to stare at the floor. Peleus waited patiently but no words came. At last Patroclus cleared his throat. All eyes shifted towards him. “If I may my lord-” he began hesitantly.

“Quiet,” snapped Theodorus. “Hold your tongue!”

“It’s quite alright Captain,” Peleus stopped him gently. He gestured for Patroclus to continue. “Speak.”

“Thank you my lord,” Patroclus inclined gratefully. “I was just going to say…it’s not Achilles’ fault. He was protecting me. Mynax…Nekroitides…he attacked me. I would have died had Achilles not been there to stop him.”

“So you bore witness to this tragedy?”

“I did, sir.”

“And you say he was acting in your defence?”

“He was sir,” Patroclus nodded, unable to prevent the embarrassment flushing crimson into his cheeks.

Peleus’ eyes, like clear water, narrowed. “Are you unable to fight your own battles, Menoitides?” he questioned sharply. “Are you so helpless or reliant that my only son must risk his life and freedom to come to your aid?”

“He is neither,” spoke Achilles suddenly.

Peleus’ head snapped round to face him. “Explain yourself then,” he commanded. “If Menoitides here is perfectly capable of defending himself, why was it necessary for you, a prince of Phthia, to throw away everything for an exiled slave?”

“Mynax had the upper-hand. He would have killed him.”

“And his life his worth more than yours? Do you have any idea what you have jeopardised? By your actions you have prepared yourself for banishment or execution!”

“You would rather I let him die?” Achilles whispered. “Is that the sort of king you would have your son be?”

For a second, Patroclus thought Peleus was going to hit him. He was breathing hard and his nostrils flared with each exhale like an enraged bull. There was a long silence. Finally Peleus sighed and leant back in his chair, rubbing tiredly at his rheumy eyes. “No,” he said at last. “You have done exactly what I would hope and expect of a leader of our country,” there was a twinkle in his eye. “And you have acted exactly as I would have, when I was your age. But unfortunately, that counts for little. The dead boy’s parents will be here in the morning and they will not be forgiving. They will demand recompense. Your birth and status will not protect you from their wrath.” He fixed him with penetrating scrutiny, his clear blue eyes at their most intense. “You alone must face up to your actions.”

He beckoned to Achilles who came forward reluctantly. Peleus smiled and clasped his shoulder. “Gods willing you will come out of this a man,” he said.

Achilles said nothing.

oOo

And Achilles said nothing even after they had left the room. He was silent as Theodorus escorted them back downstairs and instructed them they were not to leave the palace complex until after the trial, which would take place the next day. He did not touch the food offered them and as soon as the Guard’s back was turned he took off, sprinting across the fields and into the grounds, leaving Patroclus alone to ponder morosely on the day’s events with an increasing sense of despair.

Luckily he was not by himself for long. As soon as the Guard gave him leave to return to the slaves’ quarters he was met by Leptine who immediately pulled him into a secluded corner and demanded he tell her all that had happened. Patroclus told her while he ate and watched the emotions flicker across her face from disbelief to shock to anger.

“But there’s no way they can sentence him?” she protested. “Not for defence of an innocent?”

Patroclus shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Peleus will do all he can but by now Mynax’s parents will be braying for blood. Hopefully they’ll let him off with a lenient punishment…servitude or the stocks…but if he’s found guilty of murder…”

Leptine’s hands smacked over her mouth. “Not execution?” she whispered with wide eyes.

Patroclus shook his head. “Very unlikely,” he said. “No, banishment’s much more probable. A couple of years’ exile to the northernmost regions. Of course, he’ll probably starve or freeze to death, what with the winter coming. That’s considering he’s not killed and eaten by wolves or wildmen. And he’ll never fight for Phthia, or make the Myrmidon army, or become king.”

“And for him that’ll be worse than death,” murmured Leptine. “What are we going to do?”

“What can we do?” Patroclus responded dully. “The king can’t even guarantee his own son protection. If my word ever counted for anything, it certainly counts for very little now.”

“So you’re just going to leave him to the dogs?” said Leptine incredulously. “After what he did for you? After what he did for me?”

“I never said I would leave him, I just don’t know what-”

“You would be dead if it wasn’t for him!”

“Gods Leptine, do you think I don’t know that?!” cried Patroclus, the wood used to board up the holes in the walls. “Do you think I haven’t been running that through my mind every single fucking second? I owe him my life, Leptine. I was attacked and I didn’t even have the fucking willpower to defend myself. Do you know how I felt when I saw the blood running down his neck? When I heard the bone snap? I was relieved. I was fucking relieved.”

He looked at Leptine and his eyes swam with bitter tears. “What sort of a man can say that?” he whispered. “What sort of a man needs his friend to risk his life and soul for him? I’m useless. I’m pathetic. And now Achilles is the one to pay for it.”

Leptine shook her head ardently, grabbing Patroclus’ wrist. “Don’t say that,” she said. “Never say that. This is not your fault. Mynax was a psychopath. He was out to get you from day one. And if not you, it would have been someone else. Achilles was just at the right place at the right time. He saved you because he cares about you. You would have done the same for him.”

“He shouldn’t have had to make that decision,” Patroclus insisted. “I should have done it.” He remembered Achilles’ carefree smile, glowing with youth and arrogance and innocence. He remembered his childish bravery, his daring immaturity as he dived from the cliff-face. He remembered how his bottom lip had trembled as Mynax’s blood dripped down his fist. He closed his eyes. “I should have been the one to kill him.”

Leptine’s hand closed round Patroclus’. She clutched it tight. “What’s done is done,” she told him. “You’re alive. That’s all that matters.”

Patroclus shook his head. “It’s not,” he said stubbornly. He stood up, releasing himself from Leptine’s hold. Her hand dropped limply to his side as he turned away. “I have to see someone,” he said and left before she could ask who.

Achilles was still missing. Word as going round that he had run off to escape trial. There was even a rumour that someone had seen him walking into the sea to seek sanctuary with his mother and her people. Patroclus knew they were lies. Achilles would not seek to escape his punishment but face it like the man his father expected him to be. Just one of the many differences between us, thought Patroclus bitterly as he charged down the hallway. As he searched Peleus’ words echoed in his head, like a mocking song: Are you unable to fight your own battles, Menoitides?

“Achilles?” he called out into the alcoves and crevices of the palace. “Achilles, where are you? Achilles? Ach-oh!”

He had walked straight into someone, a person, heading the opposite way. Taking a step back he realised, with a sinking feeling, who it was. “Pamaia,” he murmured. “I’m sorry.”

“Not at all young master,” Pamaia answered with a graceful curtsy. “Forgive my clumsiness, I wasn’t looking where I was-”

“-I don’t mean just for that,” Patroclus interrupted quickly. The events of the morning had instilled in him a new determination. He took the girl by the hand and led her into an alcove. Pamaia went willingly, confusion darkening her beautiful features.

“Earlier you told me something,” he said, fumbling over his words in haste. “You said you felt…bound to me.”

Pamaia nodded slightly, the light brown of her skin glowing cherry-blossom pink. “I am too bold,” she answered. “Forgive me my lord, I know that I am not worthy-”

“-No,” Patroclus cut across her. “No, don’t apologise. I was just very…surprised…at your declaration. My reaction was discourteous and I am sorry for offending you. It’s not what I intended.”

Her eyelashes flickered, like the wings of a bird, her inky eyes enigmatic. She was so beautiful and Patroclus found himself drawn to her as they stood together in that tiny space. Her lips, so slightly pasted, the subtle curves of her body so close. He thought about the way she had danced last night and felt instantly warmer. She noticed, the corner of her mouth pricking into a teasing smile. “You’re words are so practised,” she said softly. “Like a gentleman of a court. But I can see into your heart.”

She lifted her finger and placed it on Patroclus’ chest. He felt his pulse quicken as she trailed it downwards, his skin rising with the heat of her touch. “You desire it as much as I,” she said.

She was really very close. Patroclus could count the tiny freckles dotting the bridge of her nose. He could smell her too, the engulfing, tantalising scent of rich perfume and spices. He gulped, thinking of how he had ran from her and felt instantly ashamed. Are you unable to fight your own battles, Menoitides? A real man would not hesitate. A real man would push her up against this wall and take her now, take her and leave her screaming his name…

“You want me,” Pamaia was whispering in his ear. “Take me.”

Her perfume was heady. It crept up his nostrils, stinging his throat, choking him like a noose made from a silk scarf.

“Not now,” replied Patroclus. “Tomorrow night. After the trial.”

Her smile was like a forbidden door, suddenly swung wide open to reveal the light behind him. “Tomorrow then,” she promised. “Don’t leave me waiting.”

And as quickly as she had appeared she had gone, sweeping off down the hallway like a feather in the wind. Patroclus peered out from the alcove, clutching the back of his skull. He had suddenly been struck with a very painful headache that knocked irritatingly, like something he had forgotten. He headed off down the corridor, Pamaia’s perfume still clinging to his throat.

Chapter Text

Hours later and nobody had seen Achilles. Patroclus, nervous and shaky from his run in with Pamaia, had thrown himself into the search with almost aggressive determination, anything to distract his mind from the intrusive closeness of her body and the cloying scent of her perfume. He walked around the palace calling out Achilles’ name but his skull was buzzing with thoughts of her body and her hair and the promises they had made in a darkened alcove.

But what was worse, he found, was that when she drifted into his head it was not accompanied by feelings of lust or excitement. When he remembered his pledge to her, when whispers of tomorrow night followed him through the corridors it was not with breathless anticipation that his heart began to beat a little faster. The idea of her, stripped and naked and gleaming, her long nails digging into his torso and back and his stomach churned inside him. He pictured her beckoning to him, her dark hair falling in waves across the swell of her breasts, and he felt a little sick.

What is wrong with you? he found himself thinking furiously. She wants you. You’ve got her. Now be bloody happy about it.

A sensible argument. Yet there was an inquisitive little voice at the back of his head which raised a valid point: But do I want her?

Yes, was the plain answer. He couldn’t deny that he was attracted to her. The effect she had on him, on every man, with her slow oscillating hips and seductive smile couldn’t be ignored. But for some reason the idea of being withher filled him with terror.

But “Tomorrow night,” he had said to her. Those were the words. And they were words he intended to keep. For the sake of his own dignity, if nothing else.

“Any sign of him?” he asked Ampelius, catching sight of the drill instructor striding down the hall, mammoth eyebrows bristling.

“None,” came the reply. “We’ve looked all over the palace. He’s not in his chambers or his classrooms or any room in the building.”

“Have you searched the grounds?”

Ampelius nodded. “We’ve sent out a search party to scout along the beach,” he replied. “So far, nothing.”

Patroclus chewed his lip anxiously. Ampelius looked troubled. “Perhaps,” he began hesitantly. “We should be looking a little further than the grounds.”

Patroclus shook his head emphatically. “No,” he said. “He wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t run.”

Ampelius sighed heavily, as if his massive shoulders could not quite support the weight of his troubles. “I hope you are right,” he said grimly. “All the worse for him if you are not.”

 

He walked away, shaking his head dejectedly. Patroclus tried not to think about that he was wrong and Achilles had escaped. Because if that was the case then the trial, if there even was one, would be little more than a formality.

Of course, he reminded himself, they’d have to catch him first.

That was a point. Suppose he’d made it. Suppose he’d made the getaway and was already trekking his way North through the mountains, or whisked away to safety by his mother in a cloud of ocean mist. Patroclus pushed the thought away, feeling suddenly cold all over. Somehow the possibility of Achilles having left forever without even saying goodbye was an even harder idea to swallow.

The search continued and Patroclus joined with increased anxiety, calling “Achilles” until his throat was raw. Still there was no sign of him. Finally, feeling exhausted and depressed Patroclus trooped back towards the slaves’ quarters, just about ready to collapse and stare at the ceiling in morose contemplation, only to find half a dozen people grouped around his bed talking.

They looked up when he entered the room. Leptine smiled and waved him over, showing him they were friendly faces. “Any luck?” she asked.

“No joy,” answered Patroclus, sitting down between Deiomachus and Leonides. “What are you all doing here?”

“It’s alright,” Leptine assured him. “They just want to know what happened.”

The boys nodded eagerly. “The whole place is buzzing with rumours,” Deiomachus informed him. “It’s impossible to tell the truth from the bollocks.”

“Is it true that Mynax jumped you?” asked Quintos fearfully. “Like, genuinely attacked you?”

Patroclus rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Yes Quintos,” he replied dully. “Mynax genuinely attacked me. In fact, I think it might have been the most genuine attack I’ve ever experienced.”

“I told you,” Andros rounded on him smugly. “He bribed a wood nymph to tell him when Patroclus came along, then hid in the trees with a crossbow and a kitchen knife.”

“So why did he need to spring out on Patroclus then, if he had a crossbow?”

“Clearly it stalled, you know those things are faulty. And then Achilles came along and killed him before he had the chance to load it.”

“Knife between the ribs, as I heard it,” nodded Leonides.

“No,” Loras shook his head. “He punched him straight through the windpipe. Left a hole right through the trachea. That’s right, hey Patroclus?”

“I heard he reached into his chest and pulled out his heart,” stated Calisthenes. “He was holding it in his fist, still beating when they found him.”

“What happened, Patroclus?”

“Yeah, tell us Menoitides.”

They all up looked at him expectantly. Patroclus took in their shining eyes and faces, eager for all the gossip, all the gory details, the mottled flesh and broken bone, the glazed unseeing eyes with those huge black, dilated pupils, the pearly pieces of shredded marrow. The boys looked at Patroclus like dogs catching a scent, pink tongues lolling. Each shining, eager face, baying for blood.

They wanted a story, something they could turn into a song or a ballad to impress strangers and women. They could never understand what it had been like to be there, to smell the blood still fresh on the air and mingling with the damp dirt, to see the boy’s life draining second by second from his still white flesh into the ground. Still, if they wanted a song better it be built on fact rather than fiction. And so, with a sigh, Patroclus told them everything.

He watched their faces morph as Leptine’s had until they all held identical expressions of horror. Quintos looked prepared to throw up. “Well,” said Calisthenes. “At least you’ll both get off. Mynax tried to kill you, Achilles acted in your defence. No one’s going to execute him for that, right?”

The other boys exchanged glances. Calisthenes looked worried. “Right?” he pressed.

“It’s not…so simple,” replied Stylax. “Mynax’s family are prominent in these lands. They have their own retainers, big enough to form an army. If that’s not enough of an incentive to keep on their good side, they’re also filthy rich. They have major influence over just about every institution and a finger in every pie, including the law.”

“But that’s so unjust!” protested Calisthenes. “Measuring a man’s worth based on a hierarchical construct. What sort of society would advocate that kind of inequality and social prejudice?”

“Calisthenes,” said Patroclus. “You’re sitting in a slave’s bedroom.”

There was a momentary silence as the boys surveyed their surroundings. The thought occurred to Patroclus that for the most of them this was probably the first time they had witnessed the true lifestyle of those on the other side of things, the ones who poured their wine and made their beds and lit the stoves so that the stone was warm underfoot on bitter mornings. And by the looks on some of their faces, it was obvious they were thinking the same thing.

“Patroclus,” said Andros suddenly. “There’s another reason we’re here. We’re really sorry about the cows and Mynax framing you and you being made a slave and all.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” nodded Stylax. “We should have said something.”

“And we’re really sorry about being such dicks to you,” added Leonides. “Like when I spilt wine on your tunic.”

“And when I tripped you on the stairs that one time.”

“And I pissed in your breakfast bowl.”

“You did what?!”

“Hey come on, you’re the one who put poison ivy in his mattress!”

“Oh what, some mild itching, at the most. Not, like, cholera!”

“The point is, we’re sorry,” interrupted Deiomachus. “And we want to help. In whatever way we can.”

The boys nodded fervently, their guilt transforming itself into a keen enthusiasm and Patroclus could not help but feel touched and a little awkward at such an unexpected display of remorse. He tried to fix his face into a saint-like look of forgiveness but the events of the morning had taken a grim toll and he found himself worrying, harder than ever, for Achilles’ fate.

“We have to find him,” he told them. “If we don’t they’ll think he’s tried to evade his punishment, and that’ll make him look even guiltier.”

“Well, let’s think,” said Deiomachus, tapping his chin with his finger. “If we were Achilles, where would we hide?”

“The cliffs?” Leptine suggested. “The ones you jumped?”

Patroclus shook his head. “Ampelius said a search party’s been sent to scan the beach, they haven’t found anything.”

“The stables?” offered Quintos. “He’s fond of horses.”

“Too close to the palace,” said Deiomachus.

“His mother’s room?” suggested Leonides. “No one dares venture there.”

“Pamaia has a key. I doubt she’d withhold it under the circumstances.”

“Wouldn’t put it past her,” scowled Leptine.

“The storeroom?”

“Too small.”

“The basement?”

“Too obvious.”

There was a pause as they sat there, each of them going over in their minds various places Achilles had every visited, or was ever likely to visit. Then suddenly Deiomachus snapped his fingers. “Suppose we ask the beggars?” he exclaimed. “You know, the ones who are always hanging round the gates? Surely they’ll have seen him leave?”

Leptine turned to him, looking incredulously impressed. “That’s true,” she exclaimed, surprised. “I’d completely forgotten about them.”

“It was just a thought,” replied Deiomachus. “Probably won’t achieve anything.”

“But that’s a really good idea,” Leptine repeated admiringly. “And do you know, I bet no one else will have thought of that.”

Deiomachus looked pleased. “Well you know me,” he shrugged officiously. “Always thinking outside the box.”

“Well come on then,” said Leonides getting up. “Shall we go, Patroclus?”

But Patroclus remained seated, completely still as his brain began to whir with sudden revelation, his mind fringed with cyrpus trees and following a winding path through the undergrowth, the smell of lemons sharp and then, the subtle smell of pine. He leapt to his feet. “No need,” he stated. “I know where he is.”

And before the others had a chance to ask he was off, sprinting out of the slaves’ quarters and through the winding passageways that led to the palace’s backdoor, in the direction of the forest.

Of course, of course, he repeated to himself as he ran, the dark blur of the trees gaining focus with each fall of his feet. How could I be so stupid? How did I not see it before?

He remembered Achilles’ words to him as, taking his hand, he’d led him through the trees along the hidden route, secret to all travellers except he, to the spot in the glade where they’d hung from the branches and pelted each other with figs. He remembered the self-conscious way he’d spoken of his childhood, showing him all the places he used to hide and play. “This was always my place,” he’d said, fingers brushing over greens shoots and mossy bark. “People hunt in these woods all the time…but no one knows its secrets like I do.”

“Achilles,” Patroclus called out, weaving his way past landmark willows in his desperation to remember the way. “Achilles, it’s me!”

Thorns snatched at his clothes and dragged their heads across his skin, streaking his arms with a crosspatch of red. He batted them out the way, breaking boughs and branches as he hurried through the forest. With every shrub and vine his anxiety increased, he looked above him and searched the leafy roofs frantically for a flash of gold against the russet and green.

“Achilles!” he shouted and birds sprung from their branches into the air. “ACHILLES!”

“Patroclus.”

The voice was a whisper, so quite he almost took it for the rustle of the leaves. Patroclus spun round wildly and immediately spotted a pair of eyes, wide and fearful, staring out at him from the bracken.

Patroclus approached him cautiously. He was crouched in the leaves like an animal, his shoulders hunched over his body and his arms wrapped protectively round his knees. Tentatively, Patroclus moved the branches out of the way as he crept nearer, suppressing a gasp as Achilles’ face came into view. He was covered head to foot in thick black mud. It caked his limbs and his chiton and the creases of his face so that only his eyes showed through the dirt. His long blonde hair was a tangled knot of black and red for there was blood everywhere, on his clothes, in his hair and, Patroclus saw with dismay, lacerating the skin of his arms.

He did not speak as Patroclus neared him but flinched at the touch of his hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright,” Patroclus spoke coaxingly, as if to a small child. “It’s alright, it’s fine, it’s me.”

Achilles did not answer, only stared blankly as he allowed himself to be raised to his feet. Patroclus touched his hand. It was cold as the earth. He took it and together they made their way back to the palace.

oOo

The moment they came into view, the small, dark boy emerging from the forest, leading their prince by the hand a clamour broke out. Servants rushed out of the gates to meet them, covering Achilles in thick cloaks and whisking him away to his chambers while messengers and couriers ran to bring the news to Peleus that his son had been found. Patroclus found himself swamped with various people wanting to thank him, pat him on the back or ply him with questions but he was in no mood to form any sort of reply or respond to their congratulations. Leptine was waiting for him at the entrance and together they slipped their way past the throng into a secluded spot near the stables.

“How was he?” she asked him quietly once sure they were alone.

Patroclus gave a heavy sigh, his head falling into his hands and his knees giving way onto one of the hay bales. “Bad,” he admitted finally.

Leptine sat down next to him. “Did he say anything?”

“No,” Patroclus shook his head. “Just stared and stared, without seeing anything.  He moved like he was in a trance.”

“He’s in shock,” Leptine told him. “He’s just been through a trauma. Even for someone like him, it must be difficult to come to terms with.”

“Especially for someone like him,” Patroclus corrected her.

Leptine made a gesture of agreement and the two sat in morbid silence. Patroclus stared down at his hands. Seeing Achilles like that had shocked him, he who was always confident to the point of contempt reduced to that vulnerable, broken thing; that mocking light of vitality that was so bright it could blind you extinguished.

“It’s so strange,” he spoke at last. “That he should hide somewhere only he and I would go.”

Leptine raised an eyebrow. “It’s not so strange,” she replied. “Clearly he wanted you to be the one to find him.”

She said it so simply, as if the words bore no more significance than the sun on the hay, or a fly landing on a horse’s back. But if it were so simple, thought Patroclus, if it was such an easy matter then why, whenever he tried to find him, did it seem that another piece of him was lost?

The day shifted into the afternoon, then the sky was dark and the air humming with moths and fireflies. Deiomachus had invited Patroclus and Leptine to eat with them in the boys’ chambers and they talked in low, serious voices about the trial, Leptine carrying most of the conversation for both of them. Patroclus listened, made grunts of assent when it was necessary and answered all Quintos’ persistent questions but his head was somewhere else, in another part of the building and when dinner was over he got up, thanked the company and left without a backwards glance.

Achilles had not come down for dinner. Patroclus had heard one of the slaves say he’d rejected all food and hadn’t said a word since he’d got back from the forest. Instead he’d shut himself in his rooms and refused every face that attempted its way past his door. A part of Patroclus wondered nervously if he was even fit to see anybody in his state, but the other part, the one that had listened to Leptine knew that if anyone was going to try it would be him.

He approached the door cautiously and knocked. There was no answer. “It’s Patroclus,” he called out. Still no answer. Tentatively, he put his hand on the doorknob and turned, breathing a sigh of relief when he found that it was unlocked. He pushed it open and stepped inside.

The chambers were pitch dark except for the pale light of the moon which trickled in through the window and spilled across the sparse furniture: a wooden chest, a larger closet, elaborately furnished and a bed. Achilles, however, was nowhere to be seen. Patroclus closed the door behind him and as he turned he noticed a flicker of yellow light coming from an alcove in the corner of the room. He went over to it and discovered another door left wide open, exposing a narrow stone passageway which he knew led to the bathrooms.

The yellow light was the product of a single candle which bobbed with a small, faltering flame, leaving most of the room in semi-darkness. Achilles was sitting in the large wooden bathtub at the centre of the room, his back turned to Patroclus. He did not look up when he entered.

As Patroclus came nearer he saw that he was fully clothed. Frowning, Patroclus reached the bathtub and touched the water. It was freezing cold. He looked up at Achilles with wonder. “How long have you been in here?”

Achilles didn’t answer but there was no need, his face was white as the walls and his lips were tinted with blue. He was hugging his knees and shaking, the heavy cloth of his tunic ballooning around so that he looked like the victim of a shipwreck. Patroclus touched his shoulder and flinched. It was cold as ice.

“Dear Gods,” he whispered. He must have been here for hours. “I’m going to get you some more water.”

He crossed over to the stove where a large cauldron sat, already full, over the coals. He lit it and within a few minutes steam began to rise from the surface. With an effort he lifted it and upturned its contents into the bath, sending steam twisting into the air with a hiss. Achilles watched him, his eyes a hopeless blank. There were still streaks of blood and dirt over his body and in his hair. On impulse, Patroclus took the sponge that lay on the side of the bath and set about cleaning it off his skin.

Time passed and the silence stretched on; Patroclus washed away the filth from Achilles’ body, bringing the sponge back and forth across his limbs and his back. The glow of the little flame danced across his skin so that it flickered like gold. Achilles looked straight ahead of him at something Patroclus couldn’t see, some disembodied demon that haunted the shadows and sometimes his bottom lip trembled.

“I see him,” he said and Patroclus almost dropped the sponge. “He’s standing in the corners. Grinning at me. Laughing at me.”

Patroclus placed the sponge back on the side and bent down so that their faces were level. He reached out a hand and brushed back Achilles’ hair from his jaw. “There’s no one there,” he told him gently. “It’s just the shadows playing tricks on you.”

Achilles drew a shaky breath. Inside his chest Patroclus felt his heart skip a beat. He looked so young. Instinctively Patroclus stood up, slipped one leg over the side and climbed into the bath.

His body was warmer now. Patroclus could feel the steam drifting from his arms and the folds of his chiton to curl around his own. Patroclus put one arm around Achilles’ shoulders and drew him closer, holding his body tight against his torso. He was still shivering, despite the heat of the water.

“I’m a monster,” he whispered.

Patroclus gripped him tighter, feeling tears springing in his own eyes. “Don’t say that,” he told him through gritted teeth. “Never say that. You’re not a monster, you saved my life, you were brave you were…heroic-”

“-Don’t,” Achilles cut him off bitterly. “You don’t know what I was thinking. You don’t know what I wanted to do to him.”

He looked up. His eyes were no longer blank but swimming. A tear trembled and slipped, splashing the water with a ripple. “I wanted to skin him alive for touching you.”

At his words Patroclus felt cold inside, like a serpent had slunk its way round his intestines and tied a knot. There was something strange in his face, something dark that he had only seen once or twice before but it chilled him to the core. It was as if he had muttered some sinister prophesy, and yet, despite the unsettling words there was a part of him that was warmed by them, a part of him that was insanely, absurdly pleased.

The arm around Achilles drew him closer, the other crept across his torso. Achilles sighed and his head dropped onto Patroclus’ shoulder. Together they sat like that, watching the sputtering candle twitch and dwindle, the water growing cooler around their warming bodies as the steam rose from them, twisted, and died.

oOo

That night, Patroclus slept in Achilles’ room. After they had towled and dried he’d made to head back to his quarters but Achilles stopped him with a simple, pleading look and any resistance melted away instantly. After digging around in the wooden chest he’d drawn out some blankets and linen and made a small, not totally uncomfortable bed on the floor. Achilles fell asleep the moment his head touched the pillow and soon the room was filled with the sounds of his soft, deep breathing while Patroclus lay awake, head buzzing with unquiet thoughts.

The next morning he woke up and saw Achilles’ bed was empty. He got up and found him already up and washing, dressed in a clean tunic pulled down to his waist as he sloshed water from a bowl over his back and shoulders. He looked over and gave Patroclus a swift glance.

“Morning,” he greeted.

“Morning yourself,” replied Patroclus, warily. “How are you feeling?”

Achilles pulled a sardonic expression. “I’ve been better,” he answered shortly. “But okay.”

Patroclus nodded. Achilles splashed water over his face, bending down so that the muscles flexed in his back, tiny droplets lingering on his skin. Patroclus bit his lip and looked away. Last night had been torture; he’d lain awake for hours going over the lines of Achilles’ face in his mind, marvelling how calm and at peace he’d looked, despite the shadows plaguing his dreams. More than once he’d resisted the urge to take the hand that poked out from the covers and run his thumb over the scuffed knuckles, wanting to translate some sense of comfort and reassurance.

But as Achilles straightened up and turned to face him it was clear that the night was not to be mentioned. While he was not exactly back to his old self the broken vulnerability had gone to be replaced by a sort of grim determination. His jaw was set and his eyes were hard, like those of a soldier heading into battle.

“Are you ready?” he asked him.

Patroclus nodded again. Achilles watched him levelly, his eyes deep and searching. Patroclus found it difficult to hold his gaze but he did, unwilling to look away. “I’m going to need you today,” he said finally.

He said it flatly, bluntly, completely devoid of emotion as if stating the sun had just come up. “I know,” replied Patroclus.

For a moment they looked at each other. There was something new in that look, an unspoken understanding that had grown in the night and been forged while they slept. Then Achilles told Patroclus to get dressed and waited for him while he did so, beating out an impatient rhythm on his thigh, restless energy crackling in his veins.

“By the way,” he told him in an off-hand, casual way as they left the room together. “After the trial, I’m going to ask father to make you my hetairoi.”

Startled, Patroclus glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. Achilles was looking forward, his face unreadable. But as they walked into the Great Hall, a hundred accusing faces turning to meet them, Patroclus heard him swallow.

“The roaring seas and many a dark mountain range lies between us,” he muttered.

Patroclus smiled. He’d heard the line before, stolen from a poem read to him once, long ago. “Give us a place to stand,” he replied. “And we will move the earth.”

They looked at each other. Achilles grinned. And, as they strode into the the crowd of accusers, Achilles took his hand.

Chapter Text

The Hall was packed with unfamiliar faces and as they walked in each one turned towards them, measuring them with cold, hostile eyes. The benches and tables had been pushed to the sides, leaving a space in the middle of the room where a man and woman sat, close together and staring straight ahead. An empty stool stood next to them. At the front a single long table had been drawn up and at it sat the jury; a row of noblemen, among them Phoenix, Cleitus and Amyntor. Beside them King Peleus was seated on his high chair, looking grave and very old. He gave no sign of acknowledgment as his son entered the room, only raised his fist to his mouth and issued a raspy, phlegm-filled cough.

Patroclus remembered with a pang his own trial in Opus, the arched ceiling of the Hall cavernous and dark as though it were ringed with stalactites, how the pillars had loomed inwards, threatening to close him in. It seemed so long ago, as if whole ages had passed between the boy who’d hunched, shivering, under his father’s reproachful shadow to the boy who stood in the doorway now, yet there were the scraped back benches and accusing frowns and he realised, with a shock, how very little time had passed.

He swallowed and Achilles glanced down at him. “You okay?” he asked, eyebrow raised.

Patroclus closed his eyes and nodded, nerves crashing through his veins as the thought came to him that last time he was in a place like this a boy was banished.

The sight of Amyntor striding towards them brought him back to reality and realised he was being instructed on something. “Sorry, what was that?”

“You, over there.” He jerked impatiently in the direction of the stalls where most of the palace was seated. “Sit near the front. Make sure you’re ready to be called up for witness.”

Patroclus’ tongue felt thick and loose in his mouth. “For…for witness?” he stammered.

“What,” Amyntor snarled mockingly. “Did you think someone else would clear up your mess and that would be the end of it? The jury’s to decide on the weight of your testimony. Now go over there and shut up until your name’s called. And you my lord prince,” switching expertly to a smirking simper. “If you would follow me to your seat…”

He gestured to the stool propped a few feet away from the seated couple. Patroclus looked apologetically at Achilles, the corners of whose mouth twitched in an attempt at reassurance. “It’s fine,” he said. “You go over there. I’ll see you afterwards.”

He made to follow Amyntor but Patroclus held him back. “Achilles, wait.”

Achilles turned expectantly. Patroclus licked his lips, his mind searching desperately for the right words. Don’t worry. I’m here for you. It’ll be okay. Somehow his lips struggled to form sentences and try as he might he could think of nothing to say.

Achilles smiled. Repeated, “It’s fine.” Squeezed his hand and walked away. And it was only when he dropped it that Patroclus realised he’d still been holding it.

“How touching,” Amyntor jeered as Patroclus turned towards the stalls. “Perhaps they’ll let you accompany him on his journey north. You can keep each other warm.”

Patroclus ignored him and headed off to the stalls where his friends had saved a space for him. He sat down tentatively, eyes never moving from Achilles who was looking at his stool with contempt, as if to sit were somehow beneath him. He suppressed a chuckle, wondering how long it would be before he asked for a cushion.

“Bloody big turnout,” observed Deiomachus, watching as people continued to file in through the door.

Patroclus surveyed the room and noticed for the first time how many people there really were. Most of them occupied the backbenches, intended for commoners and the ordinary people of Phthia who sat side by side, gossiping with their neighbours over baskets of eggs and cheese. “I suppose they had nothing better to do,” replied Patroclus scathingly, repulsed by their titillation and their mindless, petty chatter.

“You’d have thought they’d come to watch a hanging rather than a trial,” said Deiomachus.

“Let’s just hope they’re disappointed,” Patroclus sighed.

“Hi,” came a breathless voice and they turned to see Leptine squeezing her way through the rows. “Sorry I’m late, Sapphus the artist had me balancing fruit on trays for half the morning…had to slip a sedative into his inspiratory draught before I could get away…oh no, there’s no room…”

“Don’t worry, I saved you a seat,” said Deiomachus.

“Oh,” answered Leptine, taken aback. “Thank you.”

“S’alright,” said Deiomachus.

“That couple over there,” exclaimed Patroclus. “They’re Mynax’s parents, right?”

As if he had heard him, the man turned his head sharply and Patroclus saw his face properly for the first time. The resemblance to his son was not immediate, for while Mynax’s face had been broad and slack, Nekros’ looked as if it had been snapped off. The angles of his chin and jaw jutted out sharply from beneath a greased black beard that had been twizzled and knotted at the end. Rather than making him look ridiculous, as it would have done on any other man, combined with the familiar, blue-grey eyes that gleamed like chips of ice from deep sockets, he was just about the most menacing man Patroclus had ever seen. The woman beside him was bone white. Her hair, which must once have been red, had been reduced to a washed out tawny colour. Her eyes were wide, as if she were preparing to scream.

“Nekros,” said Deomachus sofly. “Now there’s an evil bastard. Good job Peleus is acting judge or he’d be yelling to have Achilles drawn and quartered by now.”

“Peleus is acting judge,” Patroclus murmured, taking into account his high chair and the line of noblemen at his right hand. “I thought he wasn’t allowed to preside over the case?”

“By convention the king judges every case,” Deiomachus explained. “The jury announces the verdict and Peleus chooses the sentence. Except in this case the jury decides the verdict and the sentence, then the king will amend it as he chooses. So if the jury find him guilty and sentences him to death, Peleus can decide whether it will be by sword or axe or hanging or dismemberment-”

“-Or exile,” offered Leptine.

“Or exile,” Deiomachus agreed.

“So who on the jury’s on our side?” asked Patroclus.

Deiomachus pointed, running along the line with his index. “Obviously Phoenix,” he said. “He’s Peleus’ closest friend and like a second father to Achilles. Then there’s Phaedrus…he’s pretty fair…Cleitus and Amyntor are only out for themselves, they’ll vote whichever way the wind’s blowing-”

“-Especially if it’s against me,” Patroclus groaned.

“Malanthon’s in Nekros’ pocket, he buys his retainers…and there. Eumenes.” Deiomachus tapped the air with his finger above the man’s head. “Of all of them, he’s the one you want to watch out for.”

Patroclus squinted over to the end of the table where a small, thin man sat, sipping wine tentatively from a goblet as if scared it would bite him. He raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Trust me,” nodded Deiomachus. “He’s been chief secretary here for Gods know how long. Knows all the rules and conventions like they were written on his palm. Hyper intelligent, hard as a brick of baked shite. Seriously, he can’t bend over for the stick up his arse. But if you win him, you can pretty much dance out of here, naked, throwing candlesticks at children.”

“That’s an odd image,” frowned Leptine.

“It is an odd image,” Deiomachus agreed.

“But how am I supposed to do that?” wondered Patroclus aloud. Deiomachus’ reply was cut short by the sound of the doors slamming closed and the last of the crowd trickled in, a hush falling over the room.

“Achilles Peleides, son of silver-footed Thetis, prince of Phthia: realm of the Northern Kingdoms,” announced Peleus, his voice ringing across the hall like an echo. “You stand trial for the murder of Mynax Nekroitides. Do you swear before the Gods and your king that your statement will be true and without falsehood?”

Achilles made the sign of reverence before Dika, the goddess of justice. Peleus looked satisfied. Surely he was aware, as they all were, of Achilles’ flawless reputation for honesty.

“You will state your version of events,” Peleus ordered him.

Achilles nodded and stood up. Patroclus craned his neck to get a better look at his expression. He did not look scared or nervous, only defiant; his lip already beginning to curl with curbed insolence. Oh dear Gods, Patroclus found himself praying. Please let him keep his temper. Please, please, please let him keep his temper, please…

“It was the morning after my birthday celebrations,” he began. “I woke up with a headache. I thought a walk would help clear it so I went to the wood. As I approached I heard a disturbance, I came closer and I saw Mynax attacking Patroc…Menoitides. He had him on the ground on his back and his hands were clasped around his neck. I saw Menoitides trying to fight back but he was weakening by the second. By the time I was close enough to act he was near death. I stepped in and pushed Mynax away. There was a struggle and then he was dead.”

“How did he die?”

“I killed him.”

Shocked whispers reverberated through the audience in waves. Achilles’ face was deadpan and sullen. His statement had been completely devoid of emotion. “He could sound more apologetic,” Leptine whispered.

“Achilles doesn’t really do apologetic,” Patroclus whispered back.

“Do you believe it was Nekroitides’ intention to kill Menoitides?” asked Peleus.

“I do, sir.”

“Do you have any reason to believe that was his intention, aside from the events from that morning?”

“Yes sir,” nodded Achilles. “The night before…at the celebrations…Menoitides and I prevented Mynax from taking a girl by force. I believe Mynax blamed Menoitides for the humiliation.”

“Do we have the girl here?” Peleus turned to the jury.

“We do my lord, however she is but a slave,” Amyntor answered. “Her testimony does not count in a civil court.”

“Ah,” sighed Peleus regretfully. “Pity. Very well, you may sit.”

Achilles sat down, crossing his arms over his chest defensively. As soon as he did so the chair beside him scraped back and Mynax’s father stood up.

“To the floor, Nekros, son of Theleon, father of the deceased,” he announced in a voice as silky smooth as the rich, crimson tunic he wore under a cloak of black furs. “Permission to address the accused.”

“Granted,” Peleus gestured for him to continue.

Nekros inclined his head graciously and turned so that he was face to face with Achilles. Patroclus could see the intense hatred in his eyes even as he smiled courteously, showing white teeth.

“A tremendous stroke of luck,” he said, twisting the knot at the end of his beard around his finger. “That you should have been there at precisely the right time to save your friend. Uncanny, one might say. The odds that you appeared just when Menoitides’ life was slipping away….A remarkable coincidence. Tell me, why did you choose the wood that morning? I can think of more cheerful places to rid oneself of a hangover.”

Achilles gave him a black look. “Because I like the wood.”

“Interesting,” replied Nekros. “And you just happened to arrive at the exact same spot as Mynax and Menoitides?”

Achilles hesitated. Eumenes, who had been scribbling something down on a piece of linen, looked up, blinking like an owl. “I didn’t know they were there,” he said at last.

The jury looked meaningfully at each other. Nekros raised an eyebrow. “You sound unsure,” he said. “You are telling us you had no knowledge whatsoever of either Menoitides’ or Myax’s whereabouts?”

“I didn’t know they were there,” Achilles repeated. “But I guess I had, like, a feeling or something, I don’t know, that Patroclus was in trouble.”

Nekros’ other eyebrow shot up. “You mean a vision?”

“No,” said Achilles impatiently. “Not a vision. More like…intuition, or something.”

As soon as he said it, Patroclus felt his insides sink. Leptine’s head had dropped into her hands. Deiomachus was cringing. “’Intuition or something,’” Nekros repeated, letting the ludicrousness of the statement sink in. “So, conveniently, while on your way to the wood a sudden spurt of ‘intuition’ made you aware that your friend was in danger and convinced you that this is where you needed to be. Correct?”

“Yes,” replied Achilles, scowling.

“And when you got there,” Nekros continued. “And found Mynax where your, forgive me, ‘intuition’ told you he would be, you broke his neck in one movement, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“And was that before or after you broke up the fight?”

Achilles frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Did you walk up to Mynax while he was still strangling Patroclus and break his neck from behind or did you pull him off first?”

Again, Achilles hesitated. Patroclus, understanding the trap in the question, held his breath and hoped Achilles had too. “I pulled him off first,” he said finally.

Beside him, Leptine groaned. “So you broke up the fight,” Nekros spoke slowly. “Pulled Mynax away from Menoitides and then killed him.”

Shit shit shit shit shit shit, Patroclus thought frantically. Come on Achilles. Tell them he attacked you. Tell them you fought. But either Achilles didn’t recognise the significance of the detail or simply couldn’t bring himself to be untruthful. “Yes,” he said, dully.

At once the noise of the hall rose to its high ceiling as a clamour rang out. Peleus rose his palm and the room fell silent once again. Nekros turned back to Achilles, white teeth glinting like a dog who had scented a deer. “Very brave of you,” he crooned softly. “To risk your life for some exiled outcast foster-son. But then you are close aren’t you, Menoitides and yourself?”

Achilles’ eyes narrowed as Peleus leaned forward in his chair, frowning curiously. Patroclus felt his blood run cold. “I don’t see how that has anything to do with it,” said Achilles stubbornly.

“Just trying to get a grasp on the nature of the relationship between those concerned in the case,” Nekros shrugged airily.

“Well the nature of the relationship is none of your fucking business so you can go and grasp something else.”

“Quiet,” cried Peleus as the crowd began to roar its appreciation. He glared at Achilles with a rheumy eye. “And one would remind the accused to watch his tongue if he wants to see light outside this trial.”

“No more questions my lord,” stated Nekros with a polite little bow and he returned to his seat.

“Very well,” asserted Peleus. “If Menoitides could come to the floor.”

With shaking legs Patroclus stood up. At once all eyes in the room shifted towards him. He swallowed, hard, took a deep breath and approached the floor. He dared not look at Achilles, only stared straight ahead, avoiding Peleus’ stern, steady inspection.

“Patroclus,” he said gently. “If you will tell us of what happened, starting from the festivities.”

Patroclus took another shaky breath. Sweat prickled his palms and he dug his nails into the soft flesh. He could feel Achilles watching him, could almost hear his controlled, nervous breathing. Next to him Nekros watched too, a thick strand of beard circling his index finger.

“Uh well it was quite late in the evening,” he began, desperately hoping he didn’t sound as nervous as he felt. “Everyone was watching Pamaia dance and I started looking round Leptine-”

“-The slave girl?” one of the jurymen, Phaedrus, interrupted.

“Yeah,” replied Patroclus. “But I couldn’t find her so I guessed she’d gone to the storeroom. So I headed over there and I found Mynax on…” he struggled to form the words as the unpleasant memories washed back into his head. “On top of her…trying to force himself on her…I tried to fight him but he was too strong so I yelled for help, Achilles heard and ordered Mynax to release her. He obeyed, but reluctantly. The next day I was in the wood looking for kitchen supplies, I was just heading back when Mynax jumped me from behind. He pushed me down, and then he…” he gulped, thinking of the heavy weight of Mynax’s knees on his chest, the hot stink of stale breath. “Tried to kill me,” he finished, somewhat lamely.

He snuck a look at the jury. They all had their heads down, conferring with each other. Suddenly Malanthon raised his hand. “This girl,” he inquired. “Did you feel you had some possession over her that Mynax did not have?”

“What?” said Patroclus, disgusted. “No, I don’t have…possession over her-”

“-Then why did you object to his handling her?”

“Because…because she’s my friend,” Patroclus answered in disbelief.

Malanthon raised an eyebrow. “You expect us to believe your interests and relationship with a slave girl are entirely non-sexual?”

“Clearly he is shy,” quipped Nekros slyly and the courtroom tittered.

Phoinix raised his hand. “Was the party the first time you and Mynax came into conflict?”

“No sir,” Patroclus shook his head, hoping to Zeus his cheeks weren’t as red as they felt. “A few weeks ago we fought during drill training. I bested him and he swore revenge. He swore he would kill me.”

There was uproar as the audience began clapping or heckling his words, some people even taking to their feet to shout across the hall. Peleus silenced them impatiently but even he looked perturbed as Nekros stood up once again.

“Come now Patroclus,” he purred, and Patroclus felt a shiver run down his spine. “Let us not be modest. Word has it you are quite the combatant, is that not so?”

He paused expectantly, waiting for a reply. Unsure, Patroclus looked around the sea of faces for inspiration. None offered him any. “I’m ok at wrestling,” he said hesitantly.

“More than ok as I hear it,” Nekros continued. “Top of the class. Five times group champion. Bested Mynax more than once, if your good drill master speaks the truth,” here he inclined his head at Ampelius who nodded uncertainly. “Indeed, it is surprising that you were unable to hold your own against one you had formerly defeated.”

“Like he said,” Achilles rounded furiously. “He attacked him from behind.”

“My question was directed at the son of Menoeitius, not Peleus thank you, my prince,” Nekros snarled. “Still, you’re not exactly the helpless innocent you’re made out to be, are you Patroclus? It’s certainly clear you can handle yourself in a fight. Look at you. Those are not the arms and shoulders of a weakling. And besides,” here he grinned showing unusually pointed canines and his eyes gleamed with maniacal menace. “It’s not as if your history is…shall we say…spotless.”

“OBJECTION!” Achilles yelled, leaping to his feet. “The indicter has no right bringing up past events with no direct relevance to the case!”

“The court is advised to use whatever evidence is available to create a rounded view of the accused,” Nekros argued.

“BUT HE’S NOT THE ACCUSED!” Achilles screamed, stamping his foot against the ground like a tiny child. “I’M THE ACCUSED! YOU’RE USING HIS HISTORY AGAINST HIM! THAT’S EXPLOITATION AND…AND MISUSE OF EVIDENCE AND-”

“-SILENCE,” Peleus roared. “Achilles, sit down and be quiet! Nekros, explain yourself. What do you mean by referring to the witness as the accused?”

“I mean, my lord, that the events that have transpired are quite clear,” Nekros pronounced, eyes burning with fury and loathing. “It seems obvious to me that your so called ‘witness’ is as much involved with my son’s murder as that boy sitting there. Mynax and Menoitides quarrelled over some harlot Menoitides had his eye on. Hell-bent on vengeance and seeking to establish himself, Menoitides appealed to Achilles and together the two connived to teach him a lesson. So Patroclus led Mynax into the wood and there he was ambushed by the two of them. Convenient, yes? No other witnesses. Which allows them to make up this cock-and-bull story about my son having some deep-seated, personal vendetta against this…this nobody,” he fixed Patroclus with a look of disgust. “When none of you have any knowledge or evidence of Mynax being anything other than gentle and amiable. Which is more than anyone can say for a disowned exile convicted of homicide and a spoilt little sociopath with more looks than sanity.”

The reaction was immediate. Within a second three quarters of the courtroom were on their feet, roaring their appreciation or shouting protests at Nekros who stood smugly before them, his black furs bristling like the wings of some hideous bird. Achilles was screaming profanities at the top of his lungs, his fists flashing as he struggled against the restraint of two guards, issuing a terrible stream of oaths and blasphemies. But Patroclus could barely hear him above the pandemonium and the chaos and it was only when Ampelius’ titanic lungs bellowed for silence that Peleus’ voice could be heard ringing across the Hall.

“Enough,” he was saying. “Clearly the accused is in no fit state to stand trial at this point. We shall have a short break and meet back here at midday. Guards, escort Prince Achilles to confinement for holding until then.”

The guards made to take hold of Achilles by the arm but he shook them off abruptly and followed them out the Hall without a backwards glance. As soon as he was gone the audience began to thin; Patroclus stood up and Deiomachus and Leptine followed.

“Well,” said Leptine conversationally as they wove their way through the crowd. “That could have gone better.”

Patroclus didn’t answer. He was still shaking with nerves and he didn’t trust himself to speak. Eventually he mumbled something about needing fresh air and the three made their way outside onto the field where they were met by a group of the other boys who had apparently waited to offer Patroclus encouragement and reassurance.

“Wow,” Calisthenes shook his head in amazement. “That Nekros is bloody terrifying. If I were you Patroclus, I’d keep on his good side.”

Patroclus gave him a dark look. “Thanks mate.”

“Someone needs to have a talk with Achilles,” noted Leonides. “If he carries on like this he’ll have earned himself a one way ticket to Hades.”

“It’s true Patroclus,” Leptine affirmed seriously. “He’s not doing himself any favours. And his case is weak as it is.”

“What?” Patroclus exclaimed aghast. “You can’t be telling me that the jury swallowed that bullshit Nekros is serving?”

“If you mean his theory that you and Achilles were in cahoots and arranged the whole thing then no, I don’t think they did,” she said matter-of-factly. “Even with his skills of persuasion it sounded very far-fetched. But the fact that Achilles killed Mynax after he stopped him from killing you seriously undermines his claim that he was acting defensively. It makes it look like he did it in a fit of rage.”

Unbidden and unwanted, Achilles’ words crept back into his conscience from where they had been pushed down into the dark corners of his mind: I wanted to skin him alive for touching you. “Of course,” Leptine continued. “It certainly doesn’t help that you ‘quarrelled over some harlot’. And your past conviction really isn’t working in your favour.”

“Yeah you probably shouldn’t have done that,” Deiomachus affirmed. “For future reference.”

“Well what am I supposed to do then?” Patroclus demanded. “Tell me, how do I fix this?”

The boys looked blankly at each other. Even Leptine was at a loss. “Right,” said Patroclus, getting to his feet. “I have to go talk to Achilles.”

Peleus, reluctant to have his son and heir treated like a common criminal, had ordered for Achilles to be held in one of the guestrooms rather than in the palace dungeons. Even so, it took a good ten minutes of sweet-talking the guards into letting him pass and he was aware of them watching him suspiciously as he approached their charge.

He was lying across a couch with his eyes closed, one arm thrown dramatically across his face so that he looked like the tortured occupant of an oil painting. As Patroclus approached he opened one eye, then shut it again, looking theatrically pained.

“What the fuck was that?” Patroclus rounded on him.

“What was what?” asked Achilles sulkily.

“This,” answered Patroclus, throwing his arms around in imitation of Achilles’ tantrum. “And the yelling. And the screaming. And the calling Nekros a fat whore.”

“He insulted me,” Achilles snapped. “And I’m very sensitive about my mental stability. But what about you and your past conviction of homicide, huh? What did you have to go and do that for?”

“Oh I’m sorry,” Patroclus retorted sarcastically. “Next time I decide to randomly murder someone I’ll make sure to notify you first. Do you realise what position you’ve put yourself in? You’re on trial for murder for Gods’ sake. Show some bloody restraint!”

“I’m trying!” Achilles snapped. “But that man, he makes my fucking blood boil. Did you hear him? A remarkable coincidence…oh forgive me, your intuition…He thinks because he shits gold he can buy justice. Like his wealth makes us somehow better than the rest of us. And no one else will stand up to him because they’re scared he’ll ride in with his private army. It’s pathetic. It makes me sick.”

“Yes it’s unfair,” Patroclus countered. “Yes the system is immoral and unjust and corrupt but it’s still the system, Achilles, and you can’t fight it your whole life or it’s just going to get you killed.”

“Watch me,” replied Achilles stubbornly. “Anyway, I probably won’t die. Father will get it into his head that it’s more merciful to let me live and send me away.”

Patroclus stared at him. “And how is that not more merciful??”

“I don’t know,” Achilles shrugged. “It’s a bit boring, isn’t it? Like, who will remember me if I’m just banished? A noble execution would be far more dramatic. The country will be talking about it for decades.”

He said it so casually, so matter-of-factly that Patroclus realised he was completely serious. Unable to believe his ears, he found himself staring in astonishment as he struggled to comprehend what Achilles had just said. “Are you insane?” he sputtered. “This is not a joke! This is your DEATH we’re talking about! There is nothing ‘noble’ about it, you’ll be dead and that will be it and no amount of country gossip will bring you back-”

“-Well forgive me for trying to consider things in a positive light!” Achilles cried. “But in case it hasn’t occurred to you I don’t actually want to die and Elysium sounds even more boring than banishment and I’ve never killed a wolf before, not a big one anyway, and father won’t even look at me and it’s so unfair because everyone thinks I’m a murderer and a coward and it’s only because no one except us and the other boys knows what a bastard Mynax was, and no one believes that I knew you were in trouble but I did and now they all think I’m a liar or crazy-”

“-Wait stop,” Patroclus, who had mastered the art of tuning out Achilles’ rants and had been nodding inattentively, yanked himself back to earth. “Say that again.”

“I can’t explain it, I just had a feeling you needed help, like a sixth sense or something…mother says it’s because she’s part dolphin but I don’t-”

“-No not that,” said Patroclus impatiently. “The other thing. About Mynax.”

“Oh,” Achilles frowned. “That no one except us and the other boys know what Mynax was really like. But a lot of good that will do us, I heard his mother telling the jury he was a fucking angel and as for his father-”

“-I’ve got to go,” Patroclus interrupted him, mind-racing, and before Achilles could stop him he was sprinting out the room.

The others were still sat outside waiting for him, Leptine and Deiomachus apparently deeply involved in animated discussion but they broke off as soon as Patroclus slowed to a halt in front of them. “What’s the matter?” asked Leptine concernedly. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” Patroclus assured her. “I have an idea.”

Chapter Text

“Patroclus, I’m not sure about this.”

“Yeah, you know, I think you might have mentioned.”

“I mean I’m really, really not sure about this.”

“Why? What harm could it do?”

“Bodily harm, maybe? As in, physical injury? As in Nekros with a big pointy stick?”

Patroclus rolled his eyes and turned from Quintos to look demandingly at the other boys. They were all avoiding his gaze and, it seemed, had all suddenly become very interested in their own feet.  “Oh come on,” he exclaimed in disbelief. “None of you? A few minutes ago you were all swearing eternal loyalty and devotion. What happened to ‘we want to help’?”

“We do want to help,” answered Stylax. “Just…not in a way that could get us tortured and impaled.”

The others nodded eagerly. Patroclus looked desperately at Deiomachus and Leonides, both of whom were looking uncomfortably hesitant. “Well…you see Patroclus,” Leonides began. “Nekros…he’s not the kind of man you stand up to. And you know, while we like you and all, we also quite like being able to see and talk.”

“He cuts out people’s eyes with silverware,” Calisthenes explained. “And tears out their tongues.”

“Here’s an idea,” said Quintos. “How about we all go to the Temple of Athena and pray to the Goddess to absorb Achilles’ sins?”

“Here’s a better idea,” snapped Deiomachus. “How about you shut up? Patroclus, pay no attention these cowards. I’m up for it. Possible death, almost certain blindness and small chance of success? Sounds like my kind of plan.”

Patroclus nodded his gratitude, yet inside him his stomach squirmed as the enormity of the situation dawned upon him. He was only just starting to understand the full extent of Nekros’ influence and the shadow he cast upon the lands and lives of the people here. For the past half hour the boys had regaled him with stories of cannibalism and infanticide and men whose skin had been flayed off their bones, stories that apparently followed Nekros’ army and settled around the turrets of his northern castle, like a thick black mist. He thought about what he was asking his friends to do and wondered, with anxiety, what his answer would have been had the roles been reversed.

“But this is why we have to do this,” he continued ardently. “If no one stands up to him, he’ll just keep doing whatever he likes. At some point, you have to say no to these people. And not just Nekros, but all men like him.”

“What’s the point of being able to talk,” quipped Leptine. “If you are silent when you have something to say?”

Deiomachus clapped appreciatively. “Here here,” he exclaimed to Leptine’s bemusement. “Wise words, well said.” He glanced around him hopefully. The other boys were still looking uncertain and none of them spoke, although some of them were glancing up at Patroclus with pained expressions, as if suffering from some kind of internal torment.

Eventually, Patroclus threw his hands up in the air in defeat. “Fine,” he exclaimed, not bothering to hide his irritation. “If you’re too afraid for your own skins to save an innocent man from being thrown to the wolves then so be it. But I tell you this,” and suddenly his eyes burned furiously, as if someone had lit a leaping fire in his chest and his voice grew low, “Cowardice is not being unable to throw a spear or shoot an arrow. It is not losing a fight or trembling in the face of battle. Cowardice is seeing wrong done and standing there and doing nothing.”

At his words several faces turned flushed and indignant, mouths gaping open and closed in wordless objection but, unwilling to listen to their protests Patroclus had already begun to walk away, his back turned so that they would not see the disgust on his face.

oOo

The bell was rung, commanding everyone back to the courtroom and one by one the spectators began to trickle in until the Hall was once again choked with buzzing anticipation. Patroclus and Leptine took their place in the stands, closely followed by Deiomachus who was looking determinedly cheerful although he kept casting nervous glances in Nekros’ direction, as if judging the safe distance between them. He had cast off his furs and sat there gleaming in his scarlet robe, like a bright snake. Although his eyes betrayed nothing he was smiling, smug with perceived victory, a horrible twisted thing which only served to make him look all the more threatening.

Achilles took his seat before the jury, led by a guard who remained warily at his side. There was no need however; all trace of scornful, derisive anger had vanished to be replaced by a pale, wide-eyed trepidation, evident in the edgy way he tapped out the characteristic jumpy beat on his thigh. But it was not this that shocked Patroclus, rather it was the look of resignation with which he greeted the courtroom and the deflated slump of his shoulders and spine. It was as if all the fury had been let out of him, and with it, all the fight.

Peleus cleared his throat and a hush fell on the room. “We have heard statements from both the witness and the accused,” he announced wearily. “Now is the time for the jury to review the evidence with which to judge the actions of Prince Achilles Peleides and also, in light of Lord Nekros’ indictment, the questioned innocence of Patroclus Menoitides. Unless any new witness has further evidence to add to the case let him speak now, or we shall continue on to the weighing of the current testimonies-”

“I do my lord,” declared Deiomachus, standing confidently.

The spectators whispered excitedly to each other. Nekros’ eyes narrowed. Peleus looked surprised but gestured amiably. “Very well. State your name for the record.”

“Deiomachus, son of Eustos, foster-son of King Peleus of Phthia,” he stated, making his way onto the floor. Patroclus saw the flash of stylus as the jury hurried to note it down.

 Peleus inclined his head. “Speak, Eustoides.”

Patroclus watched, heart hammering as Deiomachus began to recount. He began by describing the way Mynax had picked him out from the start, his frequent bullying and harassment. When he came to relating the details of that first fight his voice rose and fell with such fervour it was as though he were a bard narrating some legendary bloody battle and, looking round the room, the spectators sat rapt as listeners round a campfire. He swore Patroclus’ statement to be true, and when he told of Mynax’s promise he did so in a whisper, “I’ll kill you, you ugly sonofabitch if it’s the last thing I ever do”. In the cold, shadowy dark of the Hall, Patroclus saw several people shiver.

When he had finished the spectators burst into applause. Deiomachus performed a mock bow and sauntered back to his seat. Out of the stands Leptine was clapping hardest, Patroclus cringed as her enthusiastic whoops shot past his eardrums. “That was fantastic,” she was saying breathlessly. “Wasn’t he fantastic?” Patroclus noticed her cheeks were rather pink.

Nekros, it seemed, was less impressed. His lip had curled, showing those curiously pointed canines and he was appealing to the courtroom. “A very skilled storyteller,” he announced. “I can see a great future ahead for this young man as a minstrel or in the theatre. Comedy, perhaps. But might I remind you my lords this is a trial, not a drama, one boy’s word is hardly going to alter proceedings.”

He waited patiently while the jury conferred. Phoinix and Melanthon were in heated debate, the latter protesting loudly against the value of Deiomachus’ testimony. At last Phoinix turned away looking cross and Melanthon smug as Eumenes announced gravely, “We are regretful to declare Eustoides’ account insubstantial.”

Even as the courtroom rose to abuse the judgement Patroclus felt his insides sink, like lead, to the bottom of his stomach. He and Leptine looked, stricken, at each other, both at a loss of what to do or say. Nekros was smiling again, his long sleeves hanging as if heavy with blood. Seated on his stool Achilles had ceased the tapping of his thigh and now stared, glumly, into empty space.

Peleus called for order, his voice very worn and his pale eyes seemed to droop with resignation. “The jury have made their decision,” he sighed heavily. “It is now for them to decide the verdict-”

“-Wait!” came a timid, squeaky little voice from the back of the hall. Patroclus whipped round and all heads in the courtroom followed suit as slowly, tentatively, Andros rose to his feet.

Peleus raised an eyebrow. “And you are?”

“Andros Stomatides, foster-son of Phthia,” he rushed.

“You have some evidence to add to the case, Stomatides?”

Andros looked at Nekros, then at Patroclus. He gulped. He nodded.

Patroclus watched as Andros confirmed Deiomachus’ statement, as well as adding his own embellishments when it came to telling of Mynax’s character, recounting instances of abuse he’d exacted on anyone within range of his fists. Although his testimony lacked the charisma and performance of Deiomachus’, Patroclus could not suppress the tiny bubble of hope beginning to grow inside him, a hope that continued to swell as the jury began to converse again.

As soon as Andros finished Nekros stood up to object. “Pure nonsense!” he bellowed. “Surely you don’t expect us to believe that-”

But suddenly Leonides was on his feet and telling everyone enthusiastically that he had once overheard Mynax’s plans to drop a poisonous stoat in Patroclus’ mattress. He sat back down and was immediately replaced by Calisthenes and after him Stylax.

Patroclus watched in dumfounded amazement as one by one the foster sons of Phthia rose to their feet and declared witness, testifying the truth of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ statements and relating their own tales of Mynax’s violent and dangerous behaviour. Some of the accounts Patroclus recognised and remembered, others were completely new to him, and others were elaborately sensationalised, including Calisthenes’ speculations that Mynax practiced dark magic and was the follower of a secret heathen cult, followed by Quintos’ statement which ended with him bursting into tears and revealing that Mynax had once tried to touch him.

Each witness was punctuated by Nekros screaming his protests and pointing out every irregularity and fabrication but it didn’t matter, suddenly no one was listening to him. The crowd were utterly absorbed by the boys’ tales as though they were actors provided for their specific amusement. Soon the Hall was resonant with laughter, tears and applause and Nekros’ pleas were utterly drowned out. Phoinix and Phaedrus were both chucking heartily, Peleus was grinning indulgently behind his hand and even Eumenes had cracked a faint, amused smile.

Finally, when the last witness had sat back down Peleus fixed his expression into one of impartial severity and called once again for silence.

“Thank you boys,” he said. “For your contributions to the case. But it is now time to hand over to the jury to make a decision…taking into account, of course, the newly imparted evidence,” Patroclus and Leptine shared a look of glee, “And relay their verdict.”

Peleus folded his hands together and looked expectantly at the table of lords. No one dared utter a word, as if the whole room was holding their breath. The jury was debating again, Phaedrus and Phoinix heartily abusing Melanthon’s challenges while Cleitus and Amyntor looked on sullenly but it was Eumenes Patroclus sought, Eumenes who was reviewing his notes with a slight frown, his owl eyes thorough and meticulous. Patroclus could hear the blood rushing in his ears, his heart pounding violently against his chest as the torturous silence stretched on and on for what felt like an eternity. Beside him Leptine’s fingers were crossed in her lap, her lips moving in a wordless prayer. Achilles was watching the jury, wide-eyed and poker straight.

Finally Eumenes looked up. He whispered something and the debate ceased. Heads began to nod. And after a millennia, he faced the courtroom.

“We find the defendant…not guilty.”

“NO!” shrieked Nekros as the whole room jumped to their feet, waving wreaths and scarves in celebration with a cheer that shook the great double doors and resounded across the stone, vibrating the floor beneath their feet. Achilles sat dazed with bewilderment amongst the colour and the sound, as if he were struggling to let himself believe it, then suddenly he was swarmed with blessings and congratulations until he had disappeared under the joyful horde of bodies wishing to shake his hand or clasp his shoulder. Patroclus and Leptine were jumping up and down with their arms around each other, shedding tears of joy and relief.

“You did it!” she was screaming. “You did it Patroclus, you did it!”

She whirled around, and, spotting Deiomachus exclaimed, “And you! You were brilliant!”

“Oh that? That was nothing,” Deiomachus shrugged in a gallantly modest sort of way. “Just helping out a friend.”

Leptine beamed and hugged him. When she let go, rather quickly, Deiomachus looked flushed but very pleased with himself. Somewhere in the midst of the crowd, Nekros was still shouting abuse.

“You’ve made a mistake, Peleus!” he spat, flinging a long nailed finger at the king. “Who will Phthia run to when the Thessalaians cross the borders and your so-called ‘Myrmidons’ lie in the dirt? When the hordes of invaders flood the fields and the market place who will you turn to? Because I tell you now, no soldier in my army will come to your aid unless you give me that boy’s head on a spike, your son in return for the one he took!”

“The jury has spoken Nekros,” replied Peleus, surveying him with one eyebrow raised. “Go home. Bury your son. Justice has been served.”

“THIS IS NOT JUSTICE!” Nekros screamed, spittle flying from his thin lips as he stamped his foot against the ground. “And mark my words, this is not over!”

And with that he spun round and marched out the door, the folds of his scarlet robe billowing and his pale wife, after casting a hasty terrified look behind her, hurrying at his heels.

When he was gone, Peleus’ shoulders slumped and he and Phoenix shared a troubled look. But Patroclus, who was already weaving doggedly through the crowd didn’t notice. All he saw was a flash of golden hair and a face, turned up in euphoric disbelief as he neared. Achilles still had the look of someone in shock but as Patroclus came into view he stood up, pushing people impatiently out the way in order to grasp his shoulders.

When he spoke it was as if the noise and the cheering of the crowds had faded away to nothing. For all Patroclus heard was his voice, all he saw was his face gazing at him in almost rapture and everything that was and had ever been had turned to a meaningless haze. “This was you,” Achilles spoke and his eyes blazed with green flame as he held Patroclus’ gaze. “You did this.”

Patroclus’ throat was dry and he could not speak. Achilles’ grip on his arms was scalding, he felt his eyes could burn right into him. Achilles licked his lips. “You saved my life,” he whispered.

Patroclus opened his mouth to reply but before he could summon the words Achilles’ arms were round him, folding him against his torso. The breath died in Patroclus’ chest, coming out in a muffled gasp at the glowing heat of Achilles’ skin, the supple hardness of his muscles tensing, and relaxing as he held Patroclus to him. And standing there, amongst the chaos and the laughter and the confusion it seemed the real world slipped away, leaving just the two of them, alone in a blur of colour and sound.

oOo

The benches were scraped back into the centre of the room and the table where the jury had sat was gone. Soon there was no sign there had ever been a trial. Torches burned in their brackets, spilling pools of warm yellow light onto the stone floor and in the centre of the room a fire burned, casting a rosy glow on the shadowy corners as it leapt towards the high ceiling.

On the left side of the room stood the lords of Phthia, all looking solemn, their eyes following Patroclus as he approached the king. As he passed, Ampelius gave him a wink. Achilles was standing at the front beside his father, the ostentation and formality of his ceremonial robes looking rather ridiculous compared to his jaunty gait and casual stance. He grinned at Patroclus, his hands clasped behind his back in a pose of mock seriousness.

Peleus sat on his throne, wearing his most regal robes and a similarly sombre expression, however the effect was ruined slightly by the genial twinkle in his eye and the warmth with which he clasped Patroclus’ hands.

“Achilles tells me it was you who mustered the witnesses to speak at the trial,” he stated. “Is that true?” Patroclus nodded and Peleus broke into a smile. “Then your courage and quick-thinking has saved my son,” he said. “And he and I are eternally in your debt.”

Patroclus snuck a look at Achilles who was looking slightly unhappy at the idea. Restraining a smirk, he bowed humbly before the king. Peleus touched his forehead in blessing. “I shall thank the Gods every day that he has you by his side,” he said. “Rise, my boy.”

Patroclus stood up. Peleus took his hand and reached for Achilles’. Then he turned to face the Hall. “My lords,” he proclaimed in his clear, ringing voice. “Two souls stand here today. But, with the swearing of this Oath they will be joined together as one. They will be brothers, tied by a bond more powerful than blood. That is the bond of friendship and loyalty and it can never be broken, not by man nor God. You will no longer be two men but two parts of a whole. One soul in two bodies.”

He nodded to his left and a servant appeared, carrying an elaborately wrought golden goblet which he set into Achilles’ hands. Achilles raised it before him, staring into Patroclus’ eyes. “With this Oath I swear,” he declared. “To be your shield, your sword, in peace and in war. For your life is my life and my blood is your blood.”

He drank and passed the goblet to Patroclus. “With this Oath I swear,” he answered with the words he had been taught. “To be forever by your side in battle and in counsel. For your life is my life and my blood is your blood.”

He raised the cup to his lips and drank. The wine flowed hot through his body, like the nectar of the Gods. Peleus raised his arms around the two of them. "The sun was shining when this son of Opus first stepped into these halls,” he announced. “Henceforth he shall be received in most high honour and status, as the hetairoi of the prince and an eternal friend of our house.” He clasped their shoulders and beamed at them both. “You have each other’s devotion. Now you must earn it.” He clapped them jovially. “Go, my boys. I know you’ll make me proud.”

Achilles and Patroclus leapt of the stage to raucous cheer and applause. After they had poured out the remainder of the wine onto the fire in libation to Zeus, thus concluding the ceremony, Patroclus turned to Achilles smirking mischievously. “So,” he said. “Apparently you’re in my eternal debt.”

Achilles scowled. “I am not in your debt,” he replied scathingly.

“That’s not what your father said.”

“My father is a senile old man who can’t remember one day from the next,” Achilles huffed. “I owe you nothing. I saved your life, you saved mine. That makes us even.”

“Until I save your life again, of course,” Patroclus taunted. “With my…what was it? Courage and quick-thinking?”

“Suppose I get myself into dangerous situations,” said Achilles wickedly. “And make it harder for you.”

“Then I suppose I’ll just have to always be there,” Patroclus answered. “To save your life.”

“And I will always be there to save yours,” countered Achilles.

They grinned at each other. The whole of the palace had finally been let in and the room was bursting with celebration. The slaves and foster-sons were dancing together; Patroclus saw Leptine’s yellow ribbon flash as she was led into the ring. “It’s a deal then,” said Achilles softly. Then, as if on impulse, he reached for Patroclus’ hand, rubbing his thumb along the knuckles. He leaned in. Patroclus felt his blood freeze in his veins as Achilles’ his lips stopped millimetres away from his neck.

“Thank you,” Achilles whispered, like the brush of a feather against his ear.

Then it was gone, as quickly as if it had never happened. Achilles dropped his hand and disappeared into the festivities. For a few seconds Patroclus stood there staring at his abandoned palm, his neck tingling with the promise of Achilles’ touch. Then he shook his head, took a deep breath and followed his retreating figure into the crowd.

oOo

The Phthian traditions of celebrating the swearing of companionship were far more exuberant than Achilles had led Patroclus to believe. But then, he supposed, they all had much to celebrate. Very soon the formal ceremony marking Patroclus out as the prince’s hetairoi had turned into a salutation of Achilles’  victory at the trial and his triumph over Nekros.

Patroclus watched with amusement as Achilles was hoisted into the air, laughing as he slopped wine over the people who were all chanting his name. He was grinning wildly, drunk on victory and the praise of his subjects. Patroclus shook his head exasperatedly as Achilles began to chant his own name along with them.

“To Achilles and Patroclus!” someone called out. “The best of the Myrmidons!”

Everyone took up the cheer, raising their goblets in great clamour. Patroclus found himself being clapped on the back and his hand wrung thin, he thanked them all hurriedly in an attempt to escape his new found fame which was quickly becoming suffocating. Achilles, who was being plied with wine by a slave girl, did not notice him slip out the back door.

It was very late and the sky was pitch dark, except for the glow of light and laughter that grew less as Patroclus increased his pace. There was no one about, for everyone was in the Hall celebrating and his footsteps sounded eerily loud across the cold stone. His pulse too had quickened, he could almost hear his heart pounding with every step.

As Thetis’ handmaiden, Pamaia had her very own quarters in the palace. Patroclus traced the route automatically, his mind somehow disconnected from his body and conscious. There was still a part of him that was screaming What are you doing? What are you doing?! But he ignored it, steeling himself as he reached her door.

He knocked twice and waited. There was a short pause in which he considered fleeing for all his life was worth, then he heard movement and with a click she opened the door.

She smiled when she saw him. “Patroclus,” she said, the word barely escaping her lips. “I’m glad you came.”

Patroclus nodded, doubting his ability to form coherent sentences. Pamaia was wearing a long chiton of an impossibly light, floating material which did little to disguise the curve of her breasts and hips, nor the warm glow of her skin. Her long, shining black hair had been thrown over one shoulder, revealing the fine line of her collar bone. Even in the dark, her kohl-lined eyes glimmered like tiny candle flames. Patroclus swallowed. Hard.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked, her lip twitching teasingly.

And without a moment’s hesitation, Patroclus took a breath and stepped inside. The door clicked shut behind him.

Chapter Text

The door clicked shut behind him, like the slam of a prison cell. Patroclus felt a shiver of dread course through him. He was at the point of no return. From this moment on, there would be no going back. Pamaia hovered round the room lighting candles and incense. As she bent her neck light fell on her skin and danced in her black hair, like little drops of flame had been snatched up and caught in the thick, shining tresses. The glow of the lamps flickered on her body, the thin material of her dress barely concealing her nakedness beneath.

She straightened up and faced him, the stick of incense in her hand streaming smoke into the warm air. Patroclus watched with a lump in his throat as she reached for the clasp of her dress.

“It’s alright,” she crooned soothingly. “It’s natural to be nervous. I know you haven’t done this before.”

Apparently, this was supposed to make him feel better. Instead the lump in his throat swelled and tightened as Pamaia lifted the material away from her body. Inch by inch the dress slid off, brushing softly as an insect’s wing over her bare flesh until she stood before him, fully naked, her hair falling in waves over her breasts and dark skin glowing in the candlelight. She stood before him, her eyes boring into his with dangerous magnetic force, like Aphrodite emerging from the ocean foam. Patroclus’ mouth grew dry.

She took a step towards him, her lustrous hips swaying sensually. Patroclus kept his eyes fixed forward, not allowing himself to look down at that small patch of dark between her legs. She stepped nearer and he realised his palms were sweating, all the more when she took his hand and placed it on her hip.

“Come on,” she murmured, holding his hand against her body. “Show me what metal you are made of.”

Her skin was soft, like jasmine petals and bed sheets. He could smell the jasmine in her perfume, soft and sweet and cloying. Patroclus gripped her hips, tracing the gentle curve of waist to buttock but it was like someone had built a wall in his head. He could not think to do anything, only hold her. Then suddenly she had slid up against his torso and was pressing herself upon him, her thighs grasping his, her breasts with their hardened nipples digging into his chest. The shock of it made Patroclus want to speak but he was prevented from forming words by the addition of Pamaia’s tongue in his mouth.

She was so soft, her lips opening and budding like little roses around his, her tongue flickering like vines along the grooves of his mouth. Patroclus stood frozen as a block of marble. The wall in his head had grown larger and reinforced; try as he might he could not get past it. Her tongue was cleaving and intrusive, he felt like some fat serpent had slithered in bringing with it a sickly sweet toxin that was spreading everywhere; blocking up his throat and nostrils until he could take no more. He broke away.

Pamaia looked at him frowningly. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Patroclus shook his head quickly. “Just…nerves. Like you said, I’m sort of new to this.”

Pamaia said nothing, only brought his lips to hers again. As her mouth worked fiercely on his Patroclus mentally cursed himself.

You are not a man until you do this thing, he told himself. You are no one until you do this thing. Spurred on by his own reproach he kissed her harder, his hand moving towards her left breast. Encouraged, she brought their bodies closer together until there was no breathing space between them. Patroclus felt like he was being buried alive. Typical, said a little voice at the back of his head. Can’t even stir your sword to take a woman. Achilles managed it. Enjoyed it, too. But then, he’s more of a man than you’ll ever be.

Achilles. Patroclus imagined him striding into the room, slipping out of his chiton and tossing it roughly to the side. He imagined the light falling on his lean muscles and torso, the sandalwood brown of his skin glimmering with gold as he grabbed Pamaia. He thought of the way the tendons in his back would shift and flex as he moved against her, how his mouth would claim hers with almost violent, dominating intensity. His hands on her body, rough and calloused as they were with their scars, etched mementoes of one of their glorious fights. Shoving her roughly onto the bed, pinning her down onto the mattress and grazing his teeth against her neck. And for the first time since he’d entered the room, Patroclus felt his cock twitch.

But then Pamaia brought his hand to that place between her legs and Patroclus remembered what was happening. The warning bells in his head were going off again, he snatched his hand away as if burnt. Eyes flickered open. Pamaia was staring at him accusingly.

“What is wrong with you?” she snapped.

“Nothing!”

“Then why are you still soft?” she gestured to where, beneath his chiton, his member still hung pathetically limp.

Because I don’t want jasmine, his heart seemed to scream. I don’t want bed sheets and honey and vanilla perfume. I want scars and calloused palms and mad, fragile, beauty. I want golden skin and bronze blood and mostly I want him. How to tell her that no matter how much he might want to he just…couldn’t. Something inside was stopping him, telling him this was wrong. Patroclus searched his brain desperately for an answer but landed upon none. Instead he grabbed her arm and kissed her again, furiously, determinedly. He would break down this wall, he resolved. He would overcome this weakness. Even if it meant using a little imagination.

Achilles’ head tilted back, water trickling out of the corners of his mouth as he drank. Achilles running, his calves flashing beneath his skin in the sun. Achilles’ mouth inches away from his ear, his hot breath creeping under his tunic, Achilles’ thighs coiled and tensed around his, slick with summer sweat and violence, Achilles’ slamming his head against the ground when they wrestled, the weight of his body pushing him into the dusty ground…

Pamaia’s hands beneath his chiton.

Without thinking, he batted her away, as if swatting a fly. The moment he did so he realised his mistake. Pamaia’s eyes widened with scandalised insult, Patroclus made to apologise but it was no use. Her cheeks had flushed scarlet with anger, her dark eyes flints of malice.

“There is something wrong with you,” she snarled. “I thought as much when first I met you. Weak-hearted and mewling, like a sacrificial lamb.  And the way you hanker after the prince. Pathetic. I suspected there was something of the deviant in you. I didn’t realise you were actually incapable.”

Here she released a sudden, biting laugh, a laugh that chilled Patroclus’ core far quicker than her words could hope to reach. He stared at her in disbelief; her lovely features were twisted in a dark mask of mocking cruelty, all affected tenderness disappeared from her eyes which were steely and black. “Wait,” he said, brain struggling to issue coherent language. “Are you saying that all along…all this time-”

“-I was playing you from the start?” Pamaia finished for him. “Good Gods. For someone so far removed from a man you really are remarkably stupid. Did you truly believe that this could be anything other than an act? Look at yourself!” she gestured carelessly, poking humiliatingly at his body. “You are, as they say, almost entirely unremarkable. Did you honestly think that someone like me would look twice at an insignificant nobody like you? You are an amusement. A pawn, if you will, in a game much bigger than your delusional, teenage-misfit fantasies.”

“You were acting,” he repeated dully to himself, the words tasting foul on his tongue. “Like you wanted me.”

“I seduced you because I needed you,” Pamaia rolled her eyes. “That’s right. Looks like your ugly little friend was right all along. Oh yes, don’t think I didn’t hear you whisper. I know exactly what she thinks of me, as if she were the fucking Queen of Persia rather than some gawky little kitchen rat. Truth is, I do no more than any girl in this place would do to survive. Except it seems I’ve rather wasted my time, haven’t I?”

She flung an accusing finger at Patroclus, her long nail digging into his flesh like a harpy’s talon. “All that effort I’ve spent on you,” she sneered. “You have no idea how sickening it was to look at you every day and pull that so sad, so yearning expression. Did it make you feel wanted Patroclus? Did it make you feel special?” She fixed him with a look that was filled with a strange mixture of disgust and pity. “To think I almost lowered myself onto a blunt sword.”

Her nail drove further and with a sharp, wrenching movement she flung him away. Patroclus stumbled backwards, tripping on an untucked corner of the carpet. Pamaia laughed coldly, mercilessly, a vacuous empty thing absent of any human feeling. It was not the laugh of a woman but a Goddess, a demon, and she was still laughing when Patroclus strode out the room, slamming the door shut in her face.

oOo

He did not tell anyone about the incident. Leptine sensed, as she always did, that something was wrong but when she tried to talk to him about it he grew surly and irritable. So instead she contented herself with a reproachful look and resolved to treat him with haughty distance until he humbled himself. As it was they barely had a spare moment to see each other anyway, for now Patroclus’ days revolved around Achilles who, quite predictably, noticed nothing.

The very night of being made his hetairoi slaves had been sent to move all Patroclus’ possessions into Achilles’ bedroom. A small cot had also been made up at the far end of the room; the sight of it, with its feather mattress and throws of soft animal skins had almost made Patroclus weak at the knees after months spent wrapped in the threadbare, moth-eaten blankets of the slaves’ quarters. It was also right next to the window and when Patroclus couldn’t sleep he would listen to the gentle wash of the waves, synonymous with the rise and fall of Achilles’ chest. He would look at him in the dark, the child-like serenity of his sleep making him appear so much younger than he really was as the moonlight tangled itself in his hair and limbs.

After the incident with Pamaia Patroclus found sleeping more of a chore than ever. He would lie awake in his comfortable bed feeling like his skin was on fire with these feelings he could never declare or act on, feelings he didn’t even understand. Lying on his side he would search Achilles’ face for answers or at the very least some inclination that he wasn’t going insane but all he would feel was a crippling sense of desire, creeping on him like a disease and setting an ache in his bones and in his head. In the end he was lucky if he had managed to close his eyes for an hour or two and in the morning would have to think of a fresh excuse to Achilles’ insistent questioning as to why he was so tired.

One such night came a few days later; Patroclus had lain awake for hours wondering if Achilles would notice if he were to move the pillow that was blocking his face from view so that by the time sleep finally arrived it came as a welcome relief. However, it seemed no sooner had he closed his eyes that he was shaken rudely awake by the sound of Achilles bounding round the room.

“Good morning sunshine!” he proclaimed, his bright hair framing his face like rays of morning light. “Who’s ready to learn?”

“No,” Patroclus grumbled, bringing the covers over his head “Not me. No learning today. Find someone else.”

Achilles chuckled and set about his morning routine. This consisted of skipping round the room singing “morning’s here” for a solid ten minutes before dropping down to the floor to carry out his compulsive one-hundred push ups and one-hundred-and-fifty sit ups. Then he would jump back up to wash and dress and stare at his reflection in the mirror. It was usually around thistime that Patroclus would think about opening his eyes.

Except today he was prevented from dozing off by a new addition to the custom. He had just yanked the blankets over his eyes and was beginning to sink back into his pillow when he felt the cot creak with extra weight and Achilles clambered into bed with him.

“Rise and shine,” he crowed cheerfully, snaking his arms around Patroclus’ waist. “It’s a beautiful day. To waste it is a sin.”

“Wha-no, Achilles, get off!” grumbled Patroclus, wrenching the covers over to his side of the bed.

Achilles propped his chin on Patroclus’ shoulder; he could feel him frown against him. “That’s not a very sunny attitude,” he replied with a pout. “Looks like someone took a little trip to Grumpy Land last night.”

“Fuck off,” Patroclus huffed, aiming a kick at him from under the covers. It missed but Achilles rolled out of the bed anyway, laughing, ruffled Patroclus’ hair and skipped away. Patroclus lay still for a little while, cursing his reddened cheeks and tensed muscles before brushing his dishevelled hair out of his eyes and following Achilles to the wash basin.

He was right, it was a beautiful morning. The sky was a brilliant, hopeful blue with not a cloud to be seen, except for the dark scowl that had settled on Patroclus’ face and prevented him from enjoying anything from the warm air to the sun’s caress on the back of his neck. Pamaia had visited him in his dreams last night and his sleep was haunted by the sound of her high-pitched, demonic laughter that even now drowned out the birds’ song. While Achilles whistled on his way to their first lesson Patroclus followed morosely, kicking at stray pebbles and insects, (although he later felt bad about that and offered a honey cake to a nearby anthill) Pamaia’s insults ringing in his skull.

As a companion to the prince, Patroclus was required to attend all his lessons and training in order to make him into a suitable confidante and strategist for the future king of Phthia. This morning they had Philosophy which ordinarily he would have been pleased about, considering the sessions usually ended up in heated argument between the two of them which usually continued in some sort of physical form outside. But as they sat down before Phoenix who promptly announced that today they would be discussing the various and different interpretations of “love” he felt a little like disappearing into his cushion.

“So who can tell me what kinds of love there are?” Phoenix asked, blithely oblivious to Patroclus’ stricken expression.

Achilles and Patroclus exchanged a hopeless look. Although they regularly sat up late into the night discussing the more thought-provoking questions of nature they instinctively tended to keep away from such sentimental or, as Achilles dubbed them, “effeminate” topics. “Erm,” said Achilles. “There’s philia, storge and…eratos, is it?”

“It mostly certainly is,” Phoenix nodded gravely. “And can you give me a definition of any of them?”

“Well, philia is like, friendship,” Achilles answered hesitantly. “Storge is family love or affection, like how you’d feel towards your parents or your siblings and then eratos is romance or something?”

Phoinix nodded, his long, grey-streaked russet beard bouncing up and down on his knee. “Very vague,” he replied. “But basically correct. Philia is indeed as you say the platonic bond between two people, a dispassionate, virtuous love that includes devotion and loyalty towards friends, members of your family, fellow soldiers, countrymen etcetera. It is a mental love, residing primarily in the mind and therefore can be seen as more rational or logical than the other kinds, as erratic bodily impulses hold no sway over it.

Storge is the natural, compulsive love such as that felt by parents towards their offspring and vice versa. While philia comes from the mind, storge love emanates from the heart, in deep-seated emotional affection that survives even when all civility in the relationship has gone, for example say you quarrelled with your father and crossed swords. The philial bond will have broken down, however you would be reluctant to kill him due to the knowledge in your heart that you still love him.

And finally eratos, or “romantic love”. Eratos is physical, passionate desire; romantic feeling without logical reason. Eratos comes from the body and is therefore invariably sexual in nature. It is pure sensual emotion, the kind of thing that happens when a young man meets a pretty girl for the first time and says he is “in love” with her. But sure as the body breaks down, sags, becomes old and loses its vitality, so eratos is equally ephemeral. The initial fire of a relationship will die down and disappear over time if it does not have more lasting foundations behind it.”

Phoenix leaned back in his chair, folding his hands before him as he surveyed his two students. “But you have missed one,” he told them. “There is one other word left, one people often forget.” He fixed an earthy, brown eye on Patroclus who avoided his gaze. “Patroclus,” he said. “Perhaps you know the answer?”

Achilles looked at him expectantly. Patroclus fiddled with the embroidery on his cushion. “Agape,” he answered dully.

Phoenix nodded appraisingly. “Correct.  Agape. Otherwise known as true, unconditional love. Less tangible and often less recognisable than the other three kinds, yet far more powerful. In fact, some have professed it to be the strongest force in the entire Universe, capable of altering the will of the Gods and perhaps even fate itself. Unlike philia, storge and eratos, agape love is completely selfless, willing the good of another while expecting nothing in return. This is what makes it so rare. Even the purest, truest loves often expect something back. But agape supersedes common human traits and physical boundaries. It is not from the head nor the heart nor the body but from the soul and this is the reason it is so powerful. For only the soul lives forever, possessing true immortality, while everything can only wither and die.”

Phoenix paused dramatically, as if to see what effect his words had had on them. Patroclus was still much involved with the embroidered pattern on his cushion and did not look up. Achilles however, was looking sceptical. “So,” he began. “You really expect us to believe that the most powerful thing in this world is an incorporeal, totally conceptual super-force that comes from something we don’t even know exists?”

“Of course the soul exists,” Patroclus retorted, although why he was so sure about this he had no idea.

Achilles raised an eyebrow. “Really?” he asked. “Show it to me.”

Patroclus made to respond but could think of no reply. Achilles nodded smugly. “You see,” he continued. “I think, therefore I must have a brain. Something beats in my chest and sends blood around through my veins, so I know I have a heart. People regularly faint when I walk by and I know they are looking at my body. But a soul?” he shrugged doubtfully. “I see no evidence for this.”

“Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Patroclus pointed out. “What about wind or time or happiness? The word is too complex for just the material.”

“Yeah I get that,” said Achilles impatiently. “And I’m not saying love doesn’t exist, or anything. I love my father for example, and I’ve witnessed the bond between brothers-in-arms and the way a man looks at his wife. But I just don’t accept this agape stuff is real. People are too selfish and greedy to love unconditionally, without expecting something in return. More often than not what people call “true love” is really just eratos disguising itself.”

“If there was no such thing as agape then why would people worship Aphrodite in so many forms?” Patroclus argued.

“I don’t know,” Achilles countered. “Perhaps because people have been wrong for so many years it would be an embarrassment to admit it now?”

“Oh you’re just being contrary,” Patroclus snapped.

“Boys, boys, please,” Phoenix said wearily, with the air of a man who had said the same many times before. “Why don’t we look at what Master Chiron had to say on the subject?”

An hour later the two struggled back into the sunlight, their heads fuzzy with theorems and technical vocabulary.  The day was hotter than ever and they raced down to the sea to cool off, the cold water a welcome relief to their limbs, aching from sitting in a classroom all morning. Patroclus sat in the surf, letting the waves wash over his knees and legs while he watched Achilles dive into the waves and come up again like a bobbing cork. Try as he might he was unable to tear his gaze away from his glistening arms and skin damp with saltwater and he wondered whether this was love, the way he desired and yearned for this lovely, lovely boy, or “just eratos, disguising itself”. And if it was really just eratos then why was it directed only at Achilles, why couldn’t he stir it for Pamaia or some other woman?

It’s because you’re a “deviant”, said the sly little voice at the back of his head. Didn’t you hear her? You’re a sick, twisted, parody of nature. A pervert. A freak.

Achilles emerged from the sea, shaking water out of his hair like a puppy and lay down next to Patroclus on the sand with his hands behind his head. Patroclus looked at him from beneath his eyelashes. There was a thin trail of light golden hairs that snaked from his navel to beneath his chiton, now wrapped around his waist. For the life of him, Patroclus could not see how he hadn’t noticed it before.

“Paint a mural, it’ll last longer,” said Achilles with his eyes closed.

Patroclus almost jumped out of his skin and muttered something nonsensical while Achilles sniggered. “Some lesson huh?” he said at last. “Honestly don’t know why Phoenix became a soldier, he’s much more suited to teaching.”

“Mmm,” replied Patroclus absently. “Achilles, do you really believe all that stuff you said about love or were you just being a pretentious maverick?”

“Bit of both,” Achilles admitted. “Don’t call me pretentious.”

“But how can you be so cynical about it?” Patroclus ignored him. “Especially when so many people have experienced it and sung about it and written about it-”

“-Maybe it’s because so many have experienced it,” Achilles interrupted him. “When so many people claim to have “fallen in love” it kind of takes the magic out of it a little, don’t you think? Turns it into a myth, almost. Anyway like I said, I don’t doubt philia or storge or eratos. I just find the whole agape thing a little hard to swallow. Especially when you look at my parents. It’s hard to believe that anything everexisted there at all, that they even liked each other once is debatable. After they separated the idea of love was sort of…spoiled for me. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve never experienced it. It’s hard to appreciate something you have no knowledge of.”

He lapsed into silence, looking contemplatively out at the waves. Patroclus felt something squirm inside him at his words, he took a shaky breath as he breathed his next question. “So,” he all but whispered, his stomach a tense knot. “You’ve never been in love, then?”

Achilles turned to look at him, his eyes wide as if the question had caught him off guard. The few seconds he paused before his answer were the longest in Patroclus’ life. “No,” he said finally.

There was another silence but for the sea lapping the shore. Achilles was chewing his bottom lip. They both knew what they wanted to ask yet, the question hung in the air like the seagulls above their heads until Patroclus took the plunge.

“But you’ve…” he swallowed and his mouth instantly grew dry. “…Been with someone?”

“Not…all the way,” Achilles admitted. “Girls have always liked me and I’ve always liked the attention. The furthest I’ve been is when I was fourteen and there was this shepherd’s daughter… I used to see her sometimes when I was out hunting. She tended the goats up on the hills behind the palace. I got quite friendly with her…she liked me quite a lot I think. Once she asked me to touch her under her skirt…I was a bit clumsy and I didn’t really know what I was doing but she didn’t seem to mind.” His cheeks had taken on a pinkish hue and he looked decidedly embarrassed. “After that I sort of…lost interest, really.”

He looked back at Patroclus who was sifting sand between his fingers, determined trying not to picture Achilles rolling around in the grass with pig-tailed, freckled shepherd’s daughter. “What about you?” Achilles asked softly.

Patroclus shook his head, blushing. “No,” he replied. “Never.”

“Really?” said Achilles, truly surprised, his voice barely above a whisper. “But I thought…you and Leptine…”

“No!” Patroclus protested, louder than he had intended. “Gods, no!”

 “You said you hadn’t at the trial,” Achilles wondered aloud, more to himself than anyone else. “But I thought you were just backing up your case...so you mean you really never…?”

“Never,” Patroclus reiterated. “God…to even think it….no. She’s like my sister. I’ve never even thought about…that…before. With her, I mean.”

Achilles made a sound that could either have been amusement or disbelief. Unwilling to risk losing yet another shred of dignity, Patroclus dropped the topic and the two of them lay together on the beach in a not altogether comfortable silence. But by the time the sun had dropped and a breeze was beginning to brush over the sea’s surface, Patroclus thought Achilles looked rather pleased with himself as they walked back to the palace, although again he could not fathom why.

oOo

That night Patroclus’ sleep was plagued with dreams. He dreamt he was being strangled slowly to death with a silk scarf to high-pitched, female laughter while Achilles stood in the dark and told him he did not believe he was really dying and therefore could not possibly help. He woke up gasping and gulping for air, certain he had woken Achilles with his fitful tossing and turning. However Achilles, was not in his bed. The covers had been thrown off, displaying the milk white mattress beneath which lay as still and pale as a tombstone. Patroclus sat up and looked round the room. He was nowhere to be seen.

It was then that he noticed the door was slightly ajar.

Logic told him he should forget about it and go back to sleep, that Achilles would be back again in the morning or that he had somehow slipped into another stupid dream. But as if by its own accord his body was acting instinctively; without hesitation he climbed out of bed and made for the door.

Achilles’ room sat at the top of a steep stone staircase. Patroclus headed down it cautiously, conscience of the flat sound his feet made against the cold floor. It was late at night and everyone was asleep, even the guards on shift were drowsing on each other’s shoulders, an empty wineskin rolling at their feet. Turning away from them, Patroclus realised he could hear voices somewhere along the corridor. Heart in mouth, he followed them until he was peering behind one of the walls.

There were two voices, raised heatedly as if in argument. The boy’s he recognised instantly as Achilles’, the other, an unknown female’s. Whoever she was, she sounded close to tears.

“-Like a stranger to me, hardly see you anymore. You spend all your spare time with him-”

“-What, so I can’t have even have friends now?”

“You never needed them before! What happened to the days when just I was enough?”

“I was a lot younger then. A lot more…dependent…”

“You don’t need me anymore, is that it?”

“No, of course not-”

“-Oh so you don’t want me! I’ve got to say, that explains an awful lot!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course I still want you, how could I not want you-”

“-What happened to the boy who used to hold me to him? Like I was all he could ever need in the world? You’ve changed so much…I barely recognise you!”

“Stop it, calm down, you’re being silly-”

“-I’M BEING SILLY?! YOU DON’T LOVE ME ANYMORE!”

“Shush! Be quiet, please! Of course I love you, I’ve always loved you and I always will! Nothing is ever going to change that! Please don’t I cry, you know I love you…”

The woman had burst into tears; Achilles was now making soft, muffled crooning noises, as he attempted to comfort her, presumably into her hair. Patroclus did not stay to find out; already he was flying back up the stairs and into his bedroom where he shut the door and buried himself under the covers of his bed, drawing the pillow over his head to blot out the sound of the woman’s wailing sobs echoing in his ears. And for the first time in a long while, he cried himself to sleep.

Chapter Text

Achilles did not come back until early the next morning.

“Good Gods, I’m exhausted,” he declared, flinging himself dramatically upon his mattress. He yawned loudly and rubbed his eyes, then immediately jumped up. “I want to climb the temple of Aristaeus.”

Patroclus sent him an evil look from under the covers. “No.”

“Why not?” Achilles whined. “He’s the God of bee-keeping and fruit trees. Or are you afraid he’ll sting us to death?”

“I’m not afraid, I just don’t want to,” Patroclus replied. Waspishly.

Achilles looked taken aback. “Okay,” he shrugged. “Then we could do that translation project Phoenix set us? My Syrian Cave Giant’s pretty good but I think my Mermish lacks lustre-”

“-Finished it,” interrupted Patroclus abruptly, getting up to wash his face.

“Oh,” said Achilles. “Right. Well what do you want to do? We’ve got no lessons. The world is our oyster. Let’s go stalk a mountain lion!”

“Oh yes, the famous mountain lions of the Phthian beach,” Patroclus retorted, pulling a tunic over his head and heading for the door.

Achilles watched him frowningly from the bed. “Hey, where are you going?” he asked.

“Out,” Patroclus snapped and closed the door before he had time to ask where.

As he set off down the staircase it occurred to him that perhaps he was not being particularly fair. Achilles clearly had no idea what he had supposedly “done wrong” and technically, technically, he wasn’t exactly guilty of offense. It wasn’t as if he’d broken any vows or anything. There was no rule bound in solemn oath that the prince should seek his companion’s approval before becoming…intimate…with anyone else. But as memories of the previous night and the shaking sounds of a woman’s sobs rung against the walls of his skull, Patroclus could not help but think that Achilles had betrayed him somehow. 

It’s because he didn’t tell me, he reasoned with himself. He’s at perfect liberty to do whatever he likes with whoever he likes. But he should have told me. I’m his best friend. I should know these things.

Yes, that was it. Achilles hiding this girl from him was more than plain secrecy. It was a betrayal of trust. They had promised they’d never lie to each other and here was Achilles, after stating he had never been in love, swearing undying affection to some scorned maiden. Patroclus recalled the softness in his voice when he spoke to her, the gentle warmth in his words as he held her to him and he felt his eyeballs prick. He wiped them furiously with his sleeve. How could he have been so stupid to believe, to hope, when all along he had some girl sitting patiently in the corners of his mind, waiting for his embrace and filling his head with thoughts of her? How could he possibly ever match up?

He marched straight into the slaves’ quarters without knocking. As the door banged open a hundred bodies jumped up with a start, then upon seeing who it was, returned to their previous state of casual indifference.

“Where’s Leptine?” Patroclus asked Loras who was lounging atop his mattress, picking his teeth with a piece of fish bone.

Loras did not look up, only resumed the scraping of his molar. “Where’s Leptine, what?” he said coolly.

Patroclus rolled his eyes. “Where’s Leptine, Loras?”

Loras gave him a disdainful look from under his lids. “I do not answer to anything other than my full title.”

“For fucksake Loras, I really don’t have time for-”

“Oh do you not have time?” Loras’ eyes flashed angrily. “Forgive me young master, I forgot you lords have so much more to do than we little folk. Am I making you late for a hair appointment? Or is it a wine tasting? I’ve always wondered…exactly how fruity is the Cyprian? Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s so much more important than my role in the establishment-”

“-Please keryx Loras, Vassal of Hermes, semi-fulltime messenger official, swift-footed lord of the silver caduceus, will you kindly fucking tell me where Leptine is?” said Patroclus, tapping his foot impatiently.

Loras gave him a look that could curdle milk and returned to picking his teeth. “She’s out the back,” he replied.

“Thank you,” said Patroclus, with a sarcastic bow.

Loras returned with the finger. “Have fun at your wine tasting,” he shouted at his retreating figure.

Leptine was out back, as Loras had said, overseeing what looked like the planting of a hundred glowing pumpkins. On closer inspection however, Patroclus saw that they were lanterns, lined up either side of a neatly swept pathway that winded into the forest. “What’s all this?” he asked her.

“Oh these?” she said airily, wiping her muddy hands on her apron. “Preparations for Beltane.”

She must have registered the blank expression on Patroclus’ face for her eyes widened in disbelief. “You’re not telling me you haven’t heard of Beltane?”

Patroclus scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. “Of course I’ve heard of it,” he defended himself in discomfort. “It’s the one where pagans have giant orgies and dance naked around the fires of human sacrifice…?”

Leptine gave him her famous withering look. “I’m going to excuse that exhibition of ignorance and xenophobia on the basis of a very exclusive and narrow-minded upbringing,” she told him.

“Thanks,” said Patroclus gratefully, hurrying to follow her over to where slaves were hanging streamers. “So…what exactly is it? Something to do with the spring, right?”

“Sort of,” replied Leptine dryly. “It usually takes place on the cusp of spring and summer. It celebrates the coming of summer and the fertility of the upcoming year. At this time, the Horned God reaches maturity and is allowed to court the Great Goddess. It is their divine union that gives the soil its fertility, allows the crops to take seed and grow and grants the community a fruitful harvest come autumn.”

“Wait…what?” Patroclus frowned. “Great Goddess? Horned God? I thought their worship died out years ago?”

“It did, but some parts of the land still remember the Old Religion. Long before your Zeus and Hera sat on Olympus the Great Goddess had absolute power over everything and the Horned God of the woods was her consort. Although most of the Old Ways were driven out by Olympian rule you can still see elements of Her in much of your worship. Now I suppose She goes by your name of Demeter, and He as your God Pan.”

Patroclus nodded his understanding. He’d forgotten that there was a religion and a way of being before the priests began to make sacrifices to the Olympians. Even back in Opus he remembered a tiny few leaving offerings for the “earth mother” at the base of large trees. When he’d asked his own mother about it, she’d told him that long ago the Goddess held dominion over all that was, but then she quarrelled with the new Gods and was overthrown in an ancient battle. Since then she was confined only to the harvest and the deep wood, passing out of human knowledge and worship. Menoetius, however, took a different view, saying there was no such thing as an almighty Goddess and never had been, that it was some foolish fancy that only served to give women “big ideas”. He then proceeded to ban the Beltane festival as “savage” and “uncivilised”, clearing out the earth mother’s followers as if weeding a garden.

“So where do all the orgies come into it?” Patroclus snickered, watching two girls struggle with an enormous May pole.

“Because it is essentially a fertility festival the rituals usually involve courting,” Leptine explained matter-of-factly. “Boys and girls are expected to go together to the celebrations. Matches are made, some even ending up in marriages (more often than not as a result of the couples’ own fertility). It is the most overtly sexual festival we have all year…but mostly it’s just really fun and there’s food and a bonfire and everyone gets really drunk and has a fantastic time. It’s like…the best thing ever. I cannot believe you don’t do Beltane.”

Patroclus shook his head. “My father banned all worship of other Gods,” he explained. “He saw it as a challenge to his own authority. And he was a very firm believer of keeping women in their place, didn’t even like people praying to Hera, Athena and Aphrodite much. But such practices aren’t really popular in the South anyway. Down there we’re more…um…” he trailed off awkwardly, fearful of giving offense.

But as always, Leptine sensed what he meant. “You’re allowed to think ‘civilised’,” she said with exasperation in her smile. “But trust me, compared to some of the places I’ve been Phthia is the absolute pinnacle of progress. Anyway, enough about that. What did you want to see me for?”

Patroclus dropped his eyes to the dirt, scuffing the ground with his sandal. “I’m sorry,” he said defensively. “Does one need a reason to drop by and say ‘hello’ to his favourite person?”

“Yes,” replied Leptine, crossing her arms with a raised eyebrow. “When it’s the first time he’s decided to just ‘drop by and say hello’ in weeks.”

Immediately, shame coursed through Patroclus as he realised that this was, in fact, the first time he’d seen her in a long while. In fact, this was the first time he’d even been down to this part of the palace in ages, something probably connected with Loras’ less than kindly welcome. “Leptine I’m so sorry,” he began to fluster. “I’ve been so-”

“-Busy, preoccupied, engrossed in adapting to life in a different social circle,” she waved his excuses away as if batting a moth. “I know. Don’t worry about it, I’m just teasing. Now, tell me what’s really up.”

Patroclus didn’t reply. Leptine searched his face for the answer before sighing exasperatedly. “It’s Achilles, isn’t it? What’s he done now?”

Patroclus shrugged, wriggling his foot out of the hole he’d made in the ground. A worm had wound its way round his big toe. He shook it off gently, aware that Leptine was still scrutinising him. She sighed again. “You two,” she said tiredly. “I don’t think I’ve ever met two people more able to get to each other. Whether it was something you said or something he did…you’re like two women. No, you’re like a married couple.” She tilted her head quizzically at the sudden blush flushing his cheeks. “What?”

“Nothing,” replied Patroclus quickly. “I don’t know. We’re just both very…strong willed, I suppose. Anyway, it’s his fault this time, not mine.”

“Oh really?” Leptine raised the other eyebrow. “How so?”

In vain, Patroclus struggled to articulate the depths of Achilles’ deceit without mentioning the argument he had overheard or the feelings, these days so close to the surface, that he had been struggling so valiantly to supress. He also made sure to leave out his little encounter with Pamaia, certain it was unlikely to get him into Leptine’s good books. As a result his explanation was muddled and ambiguous and by the time it eventually petered out he was quite unsure of what he’d just said.

Leptine too was looking singularly unimpressed. “It sounds to me like you don’t know why you’re angry,” she voiced reasonably. “Any more than he does, I expect. You shouldn’t just leave him confused like that. He’s probably wracking his brains this minute, trying to remember what he’s done wrong.”

Patroclus thought of Achilles, murmuring his worries into some sweet-smiling, understanding face and snorted derisively. “I highly doubt it.”

She frowned at him and he looked back down at his feet. He knew she was right, that he was being ridiculous and illogical and stupid and that there was absolutely no reason for him to be angry or upset. If he had any rational sense he’d just tell Achilles what was up.

Oh great, and how would that conversation go? he argued with himself.  Hey man, sorry I was cold with you this morning. It’s just I’ve been experiencing these odd spurts of intense homoerotic lust and yearning for you and due to my complete social ineptitude and deep-seated emotional/psychological issues, probably stemming back to early childhood trauma, passive aggression is really the only way I can handle it. Oh, and did I mention, I love you so much it hurts sometimes? If he was lucky, he’d get off with a bloodied jaw.

As he pottered around helping Leptine with Beltane decorations and talking about life in the slaves’ quarters a part of him wished he could tell her everything, from how he felt about Achilles to what had almost happened with Pamaia. But every time he got close something pulled him back. It was partly the fact that he just couldn’t find the right words but mostly he was terrified of her reaction. The thought of her looking at him differently, as a freak or a “deviant” was more than he could bear. And as much as he wished he could just crack open his skull and let everything come pouring out he valued her friendship too much to risk her disgust.

Helping Leptine with her chores provided a double service in that it allowed him to spend time with her and away from Achilles. But when noon came and Amyntor called her away to attend to her other duties, he was left alone to think of more creative ways to avoid him. He managed this fairly well, arranging for a practice session with Ampelius to improve his sword arm, dropping in on friends who also had the day off and even offering to help Phoenix answer his letters. But when dinner was called and the habitants of the palace filed into the Great Hall, he realised he could go invisible no longer.

Achilles was sitting in his usual seat, waiting patiently for Patroclus to take his place beside him. When Patroclus stalked by, sparing him only a snotty look and sitting instead next to Deiomachus and Calisthenes, his eyes narrowed in indignation. In one swift movement he pushed his plate away and marched towards them; Patroclus, who was rather enjoying being pursued for a change, pretended not to notice and made a big deal of cutting his chicken until Achilles was standing right next to him.

“Patroclus,” said Achilles.

Patroclus took his wine cup and raised it to his lips. “Yes?” he asked, muffled against the rim.

“I want to talk to you,” Achilles replied, through gritted teeth.

“That’s nice,” said Patroclus.

A nerve jumped in Achilles’ jaw, Patroclus could see it twitching beneath his skin like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing. “I want to talk to you in private,” he reiterated, voice tense with the effort of staying calm.

Patroclus looked up at Achilles. Their eyes met, a blazing clash of impetuous fury. He drained his cup, stood and followed him out of the Hall. As soon as they were alone, Achilles rounded on him. “Why are you being such a pissy bitch?”

Patroclus’ eyes widened in outrage. “A pissy…a…piss…You tell me!”

“If I knew I wouldn’t have asked,” Achilles retorted, folding his arms across his chest challengingly. “Come on. This morning you act like someone rammed a hot spear up your arse. You avoid me all day and now this? What’s going on with you? And don’t lie to me okay, I hate it when you do that. Like, more than anything.”

“Okay one, that’s horrible imagery,” snapped Patroclus. “And two, are you fucking serious? You hate it when I lie to you? What about you, Mr ‘Morally Impeccable?’ Or is this a one way thing? Do the normal rules not apply to the Golden Boy, God Amongst Men?”

Achilles wrinkled his nose. “What are you talking about?”

Patroclus laughed hollowly. “Oh please,” he scoffed. “At least have the decency to be honest now. As much as I commend your effort, it really is degrading to the both of us.”

“I swear to Zeus you could be talking Mermish right now,” said Achilles.

Patroclus stared at his blank, perplexed face in furious disbelief. “You lied to me,” he hissed. “When you said there was no one else. When you said you’d never been in love.”

Achilles’ eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “No I didn’t.”

“Please Achilles, stop,” Patroclus groaned, throwing his hands up in despair. “I know about her. I heard you arguing last night. You told her that you loved her and always would. And for someone who doesn’t believe in true love that sounded pretty bloody true to me. Not that I care or anything, like, do what you want. But you could have at least told me, I mean we’re supposed to share these things, but I don’t know, maybe we’re not as close as I thought we were, maybe you don’t see our friendship the way as I do-”

 “-Hold up, princess,” Achilles cut him off. “You heard me arguing last night? With a woman?”

Patroclus nodded apprehensively. “She sounded pretty upset Achilles, you should be nicer to your one-true-loves. And don’t fucking call me princess okay, just because I like to share my feelings-”

“-My Gods,” Achilles was shaking his head, a grin splitting his face. “You are such a little shithead.”

Patroclus opened his mouth to retort but was shocked to find that Achilles had exploded into a fit of laughter. “I can hardly see what’s so funny,” he muttered with dignity which only served to make him laugh harder, his hands clasped across his stomach as he bent back and forth with hilarity, tears pooling in his irises in an uncontrollable fit of mirth. Patroclus waited impatiently for him to stop, looking round anxiously in case anybody walked by, feeling steadily more and more like an idiot.

Finally, Achilles straightened up, wiped his eyes and attempted to fix his face into an unconvincing serious expression. “Patroclus,” he said, the corner of his mouth twitching. “I think it’s time I introduced you to someone.”

oOo

They abandoned dinner, Achilles still being prone to random fits of shaking his head and giggling, Patroclus feeling too embarrassed and confused to face food. Achilles refused to elaborate on the situation, telling him all would become clear if he “shut up and stopped being a twat for a second”. Which is how Patroclus came to find himself following Achilles as he made his way across the beach, marking a strange route through rock pools and reed banks as if dodging Greek Fire on a battlefield.

It was getting to be late evening now; the day had melted into that warm buttery glow which fell upon the rocks and seaweed like the touch of Midas. It fell on the sea too, the waves shining with gilds of copper and blue yet Patroclus thought he’d never seen it look so hostile. It was like it was judging him, waiting patiently for the moment when he would slip up. There was a slight chill to the air and Patroclus shivered as he missed his footing and came plunging into a small rock pool.

Achilles glanced behind him at the splash. “You okay?”

“Fine,” Patroclus replied airily. “It’s only water.”

Achilles nodded and walked on until he reached a large grey boulder jutting out from a fringe of reed beds, circled by a number of smaller rocks whose nobly brown heads could be seen, peeking out from the foam. He waited for Patroclus to catch up, frowning concernedly. “You look cold.”

Patroclus peered at his arms where tiny goose-pimples had erupted. “I am a little,” he admitted.

“Here,” said Achilles and he put his arm around him.

At once the shivering subsided. The moment he felt Achilles’ warm weight press in on him Patroclus felt a flutter inside his chest, like the beating wings of the seagulls overhead. Achilles drew him closer, folding him into his torso so that Patroclus could feel the heat radiating from him, as if there were an everlasting fire flickering for eternity in his chest. Yet, thought Patroclus, breathing in. He smells like the sea. He closed his eyes and leaned against him.

Suddenly a stirring from the ocean forced them open again. Patroclus peered curiously over to where the surface of the sea appeared ruffled, like someone emerging from rumpled bed sheets. At once, Achilles’ arm flew off Patroclus’ shoulders and Patroclus’ eyes widened in pure astonishment as, slowly, limb by limb, a person emerged from the sea foam; first a hand, then an arm, then a leg until gradually a whole woman could be seen, stepping out of the surf. As she straightened up and stretched, he felt his mouth drop open.

He was standing face to face with a Goddess. How he knew that he wasn’t sure, for she looked very much like a normal woman. True her skin was strikingly pale, almost translucently so with an eerie blue tinge that reminded Patroclus of wet shells. Her whiteness contrasted violently with her bright red hair which hung in shining tresses all the way down her back, twisting in fabulous knots like fishermen’s rope. A beautiful grey-green dress which looked as though it had been woven from the sea itself clung to her slender form but it was the eyes that did it, those brilliant chips of blue-green lined with a thin ring of gold, eyes like stones buried at the very heart of the sea bed, eyes that pierced with an intensity that was violent yet magnetising, possessing an allure that was both strange and dangerous. Eyes that he had seen before.

The woman took a few steps towards them, her long dress trailing in the surf. As she did so Patroclus noticed she seemed to shimmer slightly, as if her skin were lined with faint, silvery scales. Her eyes scanned Patroclus’ face briefly, narrowing only a little with suspicion before passing over him and settling on Achilles’ face. The effect was instantaneous. Her whole face seemed to light up, as if struck suddenly by the sun.

“Well, well!” she trilled and her voice rang like the little silver bells on a ships’ prow. “This is a surprise! And there I was, sitting alone in my cave wondering just how long it would be before I would be allowed even another glimpse of my darling boy only to find him come to me before even a whole day has gone by!”

She clapped ecstatically and rushed to plant a kiss on Achilles’ cheek. When she moved away Patroclus saw it had left a bright red mark.

“Patroclus,” said Achilles, in a voice as stiff and dry as driftwood. “I would like you to meet my mother.”

My mother. The words fell upon Patroclus’ ears with the impact of a thousand but never, never before had two words been so welcome. Instant comprehension dawned as he matched the high-pitched, silvery voice of the woman in front of him to the one he had heard last night and realised, with humiliation, the crushing blow of his stupidity which was not completely swallowed up by the joyous swell of happiness already ballooning in his chest. Achilles was looking at him smugly, not even bothering to disguise his delight at the idiotic mixture of surprise and slow understanding creeping across Patroclus’ face.

“Your…” he swallowed, repeating the words to make them more real. “Your mother…”

“That’s right,” said Thetis with sudden aggression, whipping her head round as if noticing him suddenly for the first time. “I am his mother. But whom or what, might I ask, are you?”

“This is Patroclus Menoitides, mother,” answered Achilles quickly, gesturing for him to step forward. “Remember? The one I told you about? My hetairoi?”

“Hetairoi, what’s that?” barked Thetis. “Some sort of handmaiden?”

“Erm, no,” cringed Patroclus, still trying to process the realisation that he was, in fact, having a conversation with an actual divine being while attempting to block out the sound of Achilles sniggering. “I’m more of a friend. Type. Person. And a boy, actually.”

“‘A friend type person’?” Thetis repeated incredulously, turning back to Achilles. “Could this perhaps be the very same ‘friend’ who has been stealing so much of your attention away from me of late?”

It was Achilles’ turn to blush and look at his feet. “Well,” he mumbled shamefacedly. “I think ‘stealing’ is a bit of a strong word…”

“Oh do you?” rounded Thetis, the gold in her eyes flashing. “Let’s see if I can think of a better one. ‘Thieving’ perhaps? Or ‘diverting’? ‘Pilfering’? ‘Snatching’? ‘Purloining’? ‘Embezzling’? ‘Pinching’? ‘Appropriating’? ‘Nick-”

“-You know what mother, I think he gets it,” Achilles interrupted.

The moment he said the words, Patroclus was sure a chill crept across the water. All he knew was the goose-pimples were back on his arms and he was terrified to breathe as Thetis’ eyes narrowed and burned with furious green fire. Feeling as though his limbs had entered some form of paralysis, he snuck a fraction of a glance at Achilles. He did not look fazed, only faintly bored as he stared down his mother.

Then suddenly Thetis flipped her long hair and her eyes were sparkling with tears. “You are a horrible, mean, cruel boy!” she announced. “You are just like your father! And I shall not see you until you have come to apologise!”

And with that she turned on her shimmering heel and dived back into the sea. Patroclus caught a flash of long white leg until that too had been swallowed up by the waves, leaving the beach quiet and lonely once again.

Achilles turned to Patroclus and his voice was apologetic when he spoke. “She’s a little sensitive.”

Chapter Text

Achilles visited his mother often, and from then on Patroclus frequently went with him. In the light of these visits it did not take him long to discover that “sensitive” was one of her less demanding traits.

She was, Patroclus observed, a woman amplified; almost a parody of a female character. It was as if someone had gathered the common fears, dreams and qualities of all mothers and multiplied them by the stars. She was extremely over-bearing, fiercely protective and frequently excruciating, on several occasions even driving Achilles away from her presence by berating him or bringing up some mortifying story from his childhood. Yet she was also loving and gentle, doting on her son as if he were a little babe of three years old and could do no wrong in her eyes, a quality that was, however touching, more than a little disconcerting.

The resemblance between Thetis and her son was not immediately recognisable. When they were together Achilles was the embodiment of calm and reason, if only to balance out his mother’s wild temperament. But sometimes when they argued (and that was a thing to behold, if Patroclus had thought their quarrels were bad this was a whole new level: the waves would crash around their words, the wind whipping at their long hair and picking up every shouted profanity, lifting it into the salty air to sting their blazing golden eyes) and mother and son was a more difficult thing to distinguish. It soon became obvious where Achilles had gained his fiery temper, flighty disposition and conflicting personality, sometimes relaxed as a calm sea, at other times dangerous as a tempest.

One thing that became immediately apparent to Patroclus was that, like Achilles, Thetis was fiercely competitive, and especially so for her son’s affections. For the first time Patroclus felt he really understood all Achilles had gone through while being the prize trophy coveted by both his mother and father, or as he put it, “the bleeding carcass between the wolf’s lair and the lion’s den.” Thetis loathed Peleus with a furious, burning passion and the majority of their visitations ended with her reeling an endless stream of abuse of him while Achilles tried to keep his face from betraying his anger and Patroclus made bracelets out of shells. She would not let one chance to upbraid Peleus slip through her fingers and, as Patroclus soon learnt, challenged him over every decision he made in regard to their son’s welfare.

“Why Zeus granted that man child custody I will never understand!” she screamed after Achilles had ill-advisedly let slip that Peleus was considering buying him his own chariot. “Does he want to see his only son and heir lying broken at his feet? Perhaps he does, perhaps his only aim in life is to spite me! He knows it destroys me to even think of you hurt, everything he does to take you from me is like a knife in my side…”

To his credit, Achilles would usually bare this without a murmur and only Patroclus noticed the twitch in his jaw, set a little tighter than usual. But later when they were alone it was as if someone had uncorked him and his own chastisements would come rushing out.

“All she ever thinks of is her pain, her hardship,” he complained as they sat together on the beach one morning, the foam still bubbling from where Thetis had dived back into it. “She thinks the whole world has done her some great personal wrong and no one has anything better to do than conspire against her. She can’t appreciate anything from anyone else’s point of view, as if the universe revolves entirely around her.”

Patroclus smiled secretly to himself. Achilles had changed a lot over the last few months, almost to the point of actual maturity, yet he might well have described himself as he had been only a short time ago. Achilles noticed and looked at him suspiciously.

“What are you grinning at?” he asked.

“Nothing,” replied Patroclus mildly. “It sounds to me like your mother just wants to make sure she has an ally in you against Peleus. She’s making a point to show you how badly she has been done by.”

“Of course she is,” Achilles rolled his eyes. “It has been so since I was weaned. She cannot get over the fact that I am my father’s son as much as I am hers. She wants it to be me and her against the world again, like when I was little. But I’m almost a man now and a soldier – my first allegiance must be to my king.”

Patroclus nodded understandingly.  He had been privy to their most explosive fight yet which was over whether Achilles or ready or not to join the army. Thetis, while taking great delight in her son’s skills, was of the opinion that getting involved with such trivial matters as regional disputes was beneath him. She had no interest in human affairs, military or otherwise, and for the legendary soldiers, commanders and heroes who had long inspired Achilles to glory she expressed nothing but disdain.

“She doesn’t see why I waste my time with mortals,” Achilles continued. “When I tried to tell her that I’m mortal she stuck her fingers in her ears and started singing the Ballad of Eurydice.”

Patroclus remembered a time when he had been walking alone along the beach and had come across Thetis, deep in animated discussion with someone who, as far as he could see, was not there. When she’d noticed him she bore her teeth like a wild animal and made a sudden, frightening hissing noise. “Perhaps she’s been drinking too much saltwater,” he said dryly.

Achilles’ eyes flashed at him. “Are you calling my mother mad?”

“Of course not,” said Patroclus lightly. “Not really. Maybe a little bit. Why? Is she?”

Achilles made to box him round the face and would have hit him if Patroclus hadn’t seen it coming and dodged out the way. “She’s the cleverest, kindest, most beautiful woman in the entire world!” he huffed, cheeks burning red. Then he paused, looking thoughtful. “But yes. She is a bit mad.”

Patroclus nodded again, sympathetically. “Heredities are a bitch.”

This time Achilles’ fist connected with the side of Patroclus’ head and he was knocked backwards into the sand. Patroclus lay there dazed for a moment as tiny silver spots erupted at the corners of his vision but before he could shake them away Achilles was on top of him, trying to grip his fists. Patroclus wrestled his right hand out of his grasp and sent it into Achilles’ torso before scrambling to his feet, stopping to brush the sand out of his eyes. In a split second Achilles was on him again, wrapping his legs around Patroclus’ and threatening to push him back down; Patroclus grasped Achilles’ back and shoulders, forcing him into a wrestler’s hold.

For a while they stood at a stalemate, both of them writhing in each other’s grip as they fought to force down the other. The morning sun was hot and soon their skins grew slick with sweat, yet the angles and crooks of their bodies remained gritty with sand. Patroclus kneed Achilles in the gut and Achilles responded by hitting him again, this time on the mouth, not very hard but hard enough for him to lose his footing and fall once again to the ground.

Once down Achilles wasted no time in pinning Patroclus beneath him. He yanked his arms viciously above his head, holding them there by the flat of his wrist and with the other he held himself above Patroclus’ resisting form. He lowered himself so that their stomachs were touching, Patroclus could see the thin sheen of sweat that clung to the tendons in his neck and shoulders. Their legs were still intertwined and flailing to kick each other, feet brushed against knees, thighs tightened and connected.

Achilles was heavy. He pushed Patroclus into the sand with only his upper body and as he moved their groins slid against each other. Patroclus issued a little shocked gasp, his head falling backwards so that he could see Achilles’ mischievous grin, damp and flushed with heat. Their thighs were still wrapped around each other; Patroclus felt his muscles relax as Achilles hips passed over him again. Then, with horror, he noticed the response his lower half was giving to the pressure of Achilles’ body against it, combined with his heavy breathing and pink skin.

“Stop,” he gasped, hoping to the Gods Achilles did not hear the stifled moan behind it, or notice how his hips quaked with excitement and terror.

But Achilles, it seemed, had taken the command for submission. “Do you yield?” he crowed triumphantly.

“Yes, yes!” Patroclus cried in desperation. It was becoming almost too much to bare. Already he could feel the blood rushing downwards. “I yield, you win.”

Achilles smiled but he didn’t get off. Instead he lifted his hand to brush Patroclus’ jaw, thumbing the purple petals his knuckles had made that were already blossoming at the corner of his mouth. Patroclus held his breath, petrified to move or speak. Achilles’ brow wrinkled in concern, his lips ever so slightly parted. “I win,” he whispered. Then, without warning, he bent down and kissed him hard on the mouth.

It did not last long. Patroclus had barely a moment to process what was happening; all he knew was that Achilles’ mouth was hot and hard on his, his kiss burning as if branding him with hot iron. It was like he was claiming something, the prize for his triumph in a single dominating action; Patroclus’ brain was working just enough to process that he tasted like honey and sea-salt and that his lips were dry and slightly chapped yet moist and soft behind the harsh, unyielding force. His long golden hair had slipped from behind his ears and was falling now onto Patroclus’ face, tickling his cheeks like drops of summer rain as he held himself above him by support of his arms, fingers still digging into the warm sand. His mouth burned on his, his very touch was scalding and Patroclus realised he was praying with every inch of his worth Let this never end, let this never end or else God let me die.

Then suddenly it was over. Achilles had rolled off him and was pulling himself to his feet, dusting the sand absentmindedly from his chiton. Patroclus lay on the ground, speechless and shaking like someone struck by a lightning bolt.

“Phoenix will be waiting,” said Achilles and did not even spare him a glance before setting off for the palace at a sprint.

And Patroclus, too stunned even to hear him, did not move, knowing full well he could never catch up.

oOo

Achilles was not at Phoenix’s lesson, nor at any others for the rest of the morning. Instead he left a message with the maesters that his father had sent him on some errand which would keep him busy for most of the day. Patroclus did not know whether this was true or false; Peleus sometimes sent Achilles off on random missions which kept him away from the palace, although he usually asked Patroclus to accompany him. He wondered with a pang if Achilles was avoiding him, and if he was, when it would be until he could next talk to him. So many questions whirled in his head it was like someone had filled it with sawdust and shook it, leaving nothing but a floaty haze which hung about all day.

Why should he be avoiding me? he thought to himself. If anything, I should be the one angry with him. He walked around in a state of utter confusion, repeating the same word over and over in his mind: Why? And what on Gaia’s green earth did it mean? The more he thought about it, the more he realised it was not all as strange as that. Many a time had Achilles performed some kind of gesture of superiority after winning a victory over Patroclus, usually one which established Patroclus as subordinate or womanly. Smacking him on the backside, for example, was a particular favourite, or making obscene gestures. Once he’d even had kissed him on the top of his head. But never on the lips. Still, that was what it had to be. It couldn’t have meant anything else. It was impossible.

But what if it’s not? Patroclus could not help the tiny little probing voice at the back of his head but he shook it away impatiently. It had been one off Achilles’ dickish, insulting moves, that was all. Anything else was simple wishful thinking.

But if that was the case, then why was he avoiding him now?

“Leptine!” Patroclus called, walking round the back of the palace and into the yard. Ordinarily, loose chickens with scruffy faded red and brown feathers would have been pecking dimly at his feet but someone had shut them away and swept the ground neatly of their seed. He looked about for his friend and spotted her clearing the courtyard a little further away while around her male and female slaves lifted hay bales and set them in decorative patterns around the back field. “Leptine!” he shouted again, she looked up and waved.

“Come hither my beloved,” she said with a smile. Her face was gleaming with hard work and she wiped it with the back of her hand.

“Preparations going well, then?” he asked her. The place was covered with brightly coloured ribbons and streamers, glittering like jewels from the parapets. Lanterns swelled at every corner and Patroclus imagined how glorious it would look at night when their orange light would beam across the dark grass, woods and trees. Looking around at the hundreds of workers sweltering in the heat and grimacing with stiffness he felt a little guilty; by rights he should be out there, doing his fair share of the work.

“They’re going okay,” Leptine replied nonchalantly. Then suddenly her face broke into a wild grin as if she could no longer keep it back. “Oh Patroclus, I’m so excited I could pee.”

“Well don’t do it here, you just swept that spot,” said Patroclus. “So this is a really big deal then, this Beltane?”

“Such a big deal!” Leptine squealed. “Look Patroclus, it’s really the only time of the year when slaves are treated exactly the same as freemen. Nobles and servants alike, everyone forgets who they are and just gets drunk together! And Peleus always lets his slaves celebrate Beltane even when some kings won’t allow it of their household because they think it improper. And then everyone has to find a partner and all the boys get really embarrassed and ooh! You should see my mask-”

“-Wait, Leptine, what?” Patroclus interrupted. “What did you say about...about finding a partner?”

Leptine cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “I told you before, didn’t I? Everyone goes as a couple to Beltane. It is a fertility festival, after all.”

Patroclus felt himself go pale. One look at his expression of pure dread and Leptine burst out laughing. “Oh Patroclus,” she exclaimed, patting his cheek fondly. “You do make me chuckle. Don’t worry, the girls will be fighting over themselves to have you.”

Patroclus looked scandalised. “Are you mocking me?” he snapped.

“No I am not mocking you,” Leptine rolled her eyes. “Have you had a good look at yourself lately? I think you would not be so displeased. All those extra training sessions have done you a lot of good and since you started getting outside more your colouring’s really improved. You don’t look nearly quite so ill. Also your hair’s better.”

Patroclus fingered the dark brown locks that hung in slight curls around his ears, secretly rather pleased. “Besides that,” Leptine continued matter-of-factly. “Surely you cannot have escaped the knowledge that you’re practically the talk of the palace at the moment. Everyone knows how you beat Nekros at the trial, your success as a fighter is, well, legendary if broadly exaggerated and your best friends with the prince, all of which adds up to make you a pretty eligible bachelor.” She narrowed her eyes at him, scrutinising his dumfounded expression with the look of an old woman attempting to force a threat through the eye of a needle. “This cannot seriously be news to you?”

“It is!” Patroclus insisted, spreading his hands in a gesture of shock. “How…how? I’m skinny and pasty and cripplingly average and I have…weird knees…”

“You were skinny, pasty and cripplingly average,” Leptine corrected him. “You are now a true son of Phthia, and one of the most desirable men of age around. Although yes, your knees are weird. Please do something about them.”

“It’s a common trait of Opus royalty,” Patroclus complained.

Leptine nodded pityingly. “Heredities are a bitch.”

And just like that Patroclus’ entire good mood which had been so brightened by the colourful ribbons and the spill of the sun on the field evaporated in a flash. He stared morosely over at the wood where just a few weeks ago he and Achilles had hung like two kings from the branches and felt a sense of despair and confusion wash over him. Leptine looked at him, frowning. “Are you alright?” she asked.

Very nearly, Patroclus told her everything, including the kiss. But at that moment he really didn’t have the heart. This was something he wanted to keep to himself. Still, Leptine was looking for answers so he muttered pathetically, “I’m never going to find a partner.”

Leptine rolled her eyes again and seized his hands. “Right,” she said with all the authority of an Empress. “Come on.”

oOo

As Leptine tugged him along past several more gaggles of young women, it occurred to Patroclus that he had never before fully appreciated how popular he was. He still couldn’t understand it, to himself he would always remain the pale, skinny misfit with hair that stuck up at the back and elbows that stuck out at odd angles. But as Isotta the milkmaid waved him away coyly he realised Leptine was right and that was no longer quite true. Not only in Phthia had he grown mentally and emotionally but also, it seemed to his great delight, physically as well.

In the past half an hour he had had seven requests for a Beltane partner consecutively. Of course he had been too taken aback to actually accept any and turned each one down as politely as he could but he could not suppress the childish pride he felt at people, women, actually finding him attractive. The first one who had asked him, a young red-headed girl who worked in the bathrooms, he had been so shocked he said “no” automatically without even considering she had walked away looking rather put out. Now, as base and immature as it sounded, he found he was really quite enjoying doing the rejecting for a change.

“So what was that about never being able to find a partner?” smirked Leptine with her hands on her hips.

“I truly had no idea,” Patroclus shrugged happily. “Just tie me down with a leather belt and call me Adonis.”

“I told you, I will never call you that,” said Leptine.

They had made a detour to the kitchens. As soon as Patroclus stepped into that soft, cavernous warmth and was hit by the smell of freshly baking bread he felt cosy and content inside. A part of me will always be down here, he thought to himself, helping Leptine make breakfast. “I’m hungry,” he announced and immediately started searching the cupboards for leftovers. While he was searching he felt his hand brush over something soft. He looked down and saw clutched in his fingers a bunch of bright yellow flowers.

He turned around, holding them out. “What are these?”

He had never seen someone turn red as fast as Leptine at that moment. She stared at his hand, her face bright as a beetroot as she took the flowers from him. “Nothing,” she squeaked. “Just some plants I had left over from Cleitus’ vitality draught.”

Patroclus raised an eyebrow. “Primroses?” he said. “A little subtle for a vitality draught?”

If possible, Leptine went redder so that her cheeks looked like two coals in the embers of a fire. “I was trying something new,” she muttered. “Give them here, I’ll put them away.”

Patroclus passed them over, noticing how when her back was turned she took time to smooth out the petals before hiding them away in the cupboard. When she turned back round Patroclus gave her a knowing glance before continuing his hunt for food. Despite Leptine’s brave attempts to strengthen her story, babbling on about plant remedies and herbal roots, it remained perfectly obvious to the Patroclus that he was not the only one with an admirer.

Later that afternoon, his suspicions were proven justified. He and the other foster boys were cooling in the shade after a particularly gruelling drill session; apparently all this talk of fertility, flowers and coupling made Ampelius uncomfortable and he compensated by giving the boys exercise after exercise to “prove that they were still men”. So it was that Patroclus found himself collapsed under a tree, listening to the boys snicker about which girls from whom they wouldn’t “mind a bit of it, considering” and their chances of getting it at the festival.

After a while Deiomachus came and sat by him. “You alright?” asked Patroclus concernedly. Usually confident to the point of cockiness, today it seemed he looked a little ill.

“Yeah,” Deiomachus replied uneasily. “Listen mate, I wanted to ask you something.”

“Oh mate I am flattered, but you know, Brecca asked first and she’s had a hard time of it lately, what with the scabies and everything. Maybe next year, yeah?”

Deiomachus laughed shortly. “Funny,” he stated without mirth. “Actually, I wanted to ask you about Leptine.”

Patroclus tried not to let the surprise register on his face. Deiomachus coughed awkwardly into his hand, then looked over his shoulder as if expecting to catch someone listening in. “I thought I might…you know…ask her to Beltane,” he said. “And I wanted to check if that was alright with you first.”

He looked at him expectantly, eyes wide like an eager child’s. Patroclus frowned in bemusement. “Why would that not be okay with me?”

Deiomachus shrugged, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his tunic. “Well, you know,” he said evasively. “You two are so close and all and you’re always together…I just thought that maybe you’d have asked her.”

Patroclus had just started to recite his usual parrot speech (no of course not we’re just friends yes I know we’re very close no not close enough for that) when suddenly the thought struck him. He and Leptine were close. In fact, she was his best friend besides Achilles, and the first person he had ever really felt close to in his whole life. He could talk to her about anything, well, within reason, she was clever and funny and smart and he loved her. Really, it made perfect sense for them to go together, even if it was only as friends.

But then he remembered her blush at the primroses and how she had smoothed out the petals one by one and he thought, it wouldn’t be fair really, to deny her that. He looked up into Deiomachus’ keen, wide-eyed, waiting face and he smiled. “We’re just friends,” he stated dully and wondered how many times he would have to say those words.

A look of relief washed over Deiomachus like a tidal wave. “That’s what I told Leonides,” he explained. “He thought you were, like, together, I mean together together. And she is always talking about you and you know, there’s always gossip…so it’s really cool if I ask her?”

Patroclus inclined his head, like a king bestowing some great gift. “She’s all yours.”

 Deiomachus’ face broke into a great grin. “Great,” he beamed. “That’s great. Hey, thanks man. You’re a lad. And if you ever need me to set you up with any of the gardening girls-”

“-I think I’m good,” said Patroclus.

Deiomachus grinned again, clapped Patroclus on the shoulder and bounded away like an excitable puppy. Patroclus watched him go feeling a sense of joy only a little tinged with sadness. Once upon a time, maybe, if things were different, it might have been he and Leptine walking to the festival together hand in hand. People were always telling them they made a good couple and they would laugh it off but perhaps there was some truth to it…or might have been again, if things were different…

“Young master?” perked a small voice, he looked up and saw a slave girl standing before him looking nervous. “Prince Achilles has returned from his errand. He bids you come to him.”

“Fantastic,” said Patroclus, scrambling to his feet. “Where is he?”

“He’s in his room,” the girl replied as he prepared to sprint over. “And also young master…I was wondering if you were going with anyone to the Beltane festival…”

“Mmhmm, yes, I’ll let you know,” said Patroclus, barely registering what she had asked him. Already he was running across the fields and through the palace back entrance, his heart hammering like a carnival drum against his ribcage. Achilles was back, Achilles wanted to see him, no he wasn’t avoiding him, they were going to speak, they were going to talk about this…he thought about the sensation of Achilles’ kiss, still burning on his mouth as if it seared him. Perhaps…perhaps…he did not know what he was wishing for, only that if they spoke now, if all the cards were lain on the table then nothing would be the same ever again. But would that be such a bad thing? he thought frantically to himself. He thought about Achilles’ grip on his wrist, Achilles’ pelvis grinding him into the hot sand and he bit his lip. No. No it would not.

He leapt up the steps leading to Achilles’ room two at a time and flung open the door. Achilles was laying on the bed, one foot dangling off the end. His small harp was laying abandoned on his chest and Patroclus eyes it with apprehension, he only ever pulled that out when he was depressed or feeling particularly contemplative. He gave Patroclus a swift, indifferent look.

“There you are,” he said, voice a monotonous deadpan. “You took your time.”

Patroclus swallowed. His mouth felt very dry. He became uncomfortably conscious of how heavily he was breathing. That last flight was a bad idea. “I ran,” he replied and then wished he hadn’t.

Achilles’ frowned. A crease appeared in his smooth skin like a wrinkle in a linen sheet. “Why did you do that?” he asked dully and Patroclus noticed that his eyes were rather red.

Patroclus had enough sense left in him not to answer that question. He sat down at the edge of Achilles’ bed, his elbows balanced against the headboard. “Where did you go?” he asked. “I looked for you.”

Achilles blinked and looked up at the ceiling. There was a mosaic printed there in orange and green tiles, a giant kraken fighting with a whale. “My parents fought again,” he said, still in that awful, awful monotone.

Patroclus tried to keep his voice steady as he asked him, “What about?” Please can we not talk about this now, please can we talk about earlier, I want to talk about earlier…

“Father says I can’t go to Beltane,” he deadpanned. “He says it’s improper…says it’s alright for the servants and the commoners but for the prince oh no, we are a civilised country he says, this is a civilised palace. And he will not have me disgracing his name behaving like a heathen, getting some silly wench pregnant and swelling with one of my bastards when I’m not even properly married yet.”

“What did your mother say?” Patroclus inquired, feeling disappointment wash over him as he realised they were not going to talk about the kiss. Clearly it meant nothing to Achilles, no big deal, just a spur of the moment, seize-the-glory kind of thing.  It was as if it never happened.

“Mother says I ought to go,” Achilles continued. “She thinks it’s good for my development, or some such nonsense. But I know she’s just arguing for the sake of it, she doesn’t give a shit if I go or not.”

He turned on his side and for the first time since he’d entered, looked Patroclus squarely in the eye. Patroclus could see clearly that they were slightly swollen and shiny. He hadn’t seen him cry, not since Mynax’s death and just like that time a swooping force of sympathy and love fell upon him, he wanted to take him in his arms and kiss him; his mouth, his eyelids, his ears his hands, anything to make the tears go away.

But the feeling disappeared as quickly as it came with Achilles’ next words. “So if I can’t go, you can’t go,” he said.

And Patroclus felt like hitting him again.

Chapter Text

“What?” sputtered Patroclus.

“You heard.” Achilles put his arms behind his bed and leaned back so that he was resting on the headboard. “If I can’t go neither can you. Which is only fair, really.”

“Oh no,” Patroclus shook his head. “No no, don’t you start bringing ‘fair’ into this. This is not fair. This is so far removed from fair that you can’t even see fair anymore. But please, explain to me how in your world this amounts to any kind of sensical justice?”

“You’re my hetairoi,” answered Achilles. “That means whatever I do you have to do too.”

“Really?” Patroclus raised an eyebrow. “I must have missed that part of the vow.”

“You’re supposed to be with me always,” Achilles snapped. “Forever by my side. How can you be forever by my side if you’re rutting in the dirt with some lowborn peasant slut?”

Patroclus lifted his other eyebrow as he felt the heat rise in his cheeks. “In that case your wedding night is going to be a very social affair.”

Achilles sent him such an evil look a lesser man would have fallen to his knees in supplication and be hard pressed to feel shame. Patroclus however, charged to strength with anger, stood his ground and continued to stare him down. “Look Achilles, I’m sorry about your parents,” he began, forcing his voice into a tone of calm and reason. “I think it very wrong of them to keep you from the festival, and more so to argue about it in front of you. You have every right to be angry and upset, no child should have to watch their mother and father hound at each other like two jealous infants. But you have no right to cast out all your frustrations on me. What do you want, when you’re miserable I must be too?”

“YES!” Achilles shouted and Patroclus almost jumped backwards in surprise. “For you to be miserable when I am miserable, for you to be happy when I am happy and when I want to die from my sorrow for you to-”

“-You’ve never wanted to die, you vainglorious prick,” Patroclus snapped, all resolutions at empathetic reason evaporating from his head. “You think far too much of yourself. And exactly to which ‘sorrow’ are you referring? The heart-rending pain of mother and father not letting you go to the party? Oh the brutality of life! The endless suffering of the wealthy adolescent!”

“What do you know about it?” Achilles barked. “You don’t live in my head. You don’t feel what I feel. You don’t wake up every morning cold in the stomach for the fear that you are, finally, at last going mad….” Suddenly he stopped looking fearful, his green eyes wide, as if terrified he had said too much. “Anyway,” he said quickly. “It’s not about that. The point is I won’t have you disgracing me with savage and barbarian behaviour. Father is right, it’s not dignified, with someone so high up in the household as you.”

Patroclus stared at him, completely dumfounded. Achilles was no longer talking to him but at the ceiling, in that way which meant he was trying to convince himself of what he was saying as much as anyone else. “It’s not dignified,” he said again. “For the companion of the prince to participate in heathen and pagan practices…rolling about in the mud with Gods know who…I won’t have it. Suppose you stick it in some girl and she comes back a few months later swelling with your bastard, begging acknowledgement of the brat and claiming entitlement to some high position...” he swallowed, hard, and took a shaky breath. “No,” he shook his head. “I won’t have it.”

“Well I’m very sorry you feel that way but there’s not really much you can do about it,” shrugged Patroclus.

“You’re not going and that’s final.”

“It’s not final and I am going,” Patroclus retaliated brazenly. “Who are you to command me? I’m not one of your slaves to do your bidding! You don’t own me!”

Achilles did not answer, only shifted his gaze from the ceiling to fall on Patroclus. In that moment, when their eyes locked, it was as if unspoken words hung in the air between them and a little voice at the back of Patroclus’ head said: I think you know that’s not true. But Patroclus shook it away impatiently. No, he told himself furiously. He wasn’t going to curl up and let Achilles walk all over him. The boy needed to learn. His feelings weren’t the only ones which mattered. He wasn’t the only one who suffered…

Achilles looked away, fixing his eyes back on the ceiling. When he spoke, his voice was a monotonous deadpan. “I’ll tell the guards not to let you out,” he said tonelessly. “I’ll tie you down if I have to.”

Patroclus stared at him. He did not really believe that Achilles would do such a thing but the fact that he’d said it, that he was so ready to exercise his power of authority over him made him angrier than ever. For some reason he found himself waiting for a few seconds, giving him a chance to apologise or at least to grant some kind of word of explanation. When none came he made a noise of disgust and left the room, slamming the door behind him. 

As soon as the door fell shut Patroclus heard a crash sound from the other side, as if something had smashed against the wood and he felt the impact of the hit through his back. The sound was followed by a strangled sob and for a second Patroclus debated whether he should turn around and go back in. In the end he walked away, realising as he climbed the stone steps that his hands were balled into fists.

oOo

By the time late evening came he was still so furious he had taken to walking outside by himself to clear his head. His anger had taken on a kind of physical form; he could feel it pumping in his veins so that his whole body seemed to tingle with pent-up energy. He wanted to jump, scream, hit something. Or, more specifically, someone.

“Why me?” he muttered apathetically to himself on the seventh turn round the palace stables. “Why me and, Gods, why him?”

He did not arrive at an answer. The wind was picking up; it whisked his hair, blowing dark locks onto his cheeks and stinging his eyes. Leaves and sheaves of wheat were lifted into the air, hovered and settled on the ground and Patroclus could not hold back a scream.

“WHY HIM?” he demanded, turning his head up to the swelling clouds. “OF ALL PEOPLE WHY HIM?”

“Patroclus?” quipped a small, cautious voice from behind him; he spun around in alarm which dissipated as quickly as it had come. Leptine was standing in the shadow of the animal pen, a concerned look on her face.

“Leptine,” he breathed thankfully then realised what he must look like, red faced, teary-eyed and screaming at the clouds and felt immediately embarrassed. “Sorry, I was just…I needed to….”

He faltered off dumbly, making an evasive, helpless gesture. Leptine nodded sagely, turning on him with a look of understanding. “It’s alright,” she said. “Sometimes I come down here too when I need to clear my head. Or you know. Scream at the sky.”

Patroclus managed a weak smile then wondered with a pang whether she had heard exactly what he’d been screaming. If she had done she made no notice of it , nor did she act as though he’d behaved oddly in the slightest and Patroclus’ pulse slowed with relief.

“So,” Leptine smiled crookedly. “What is it this time? Or is it the same thing?”

Patroclus gave a sigh which was more like a groan of internal pain. “Same person,” he mumbled. “Different thing.”

Leptine cocked her head inquisitively, her soft brown hair falling gently onto one shoulder. Patroclus rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Peleus does not want him to go to Beltane,” he explained. “He thinks it improper…and I suppose he fears him fathering a bastard when he remains as yet unmarried. He and Thetis had an argument over it which he won. Consequently I have been forbidden by Achilles from attending the festivities.” He ended with a tired, exasperated look. It would take longer than it was worth explaining Achilles’ bizarre, premature reasoning.

Leptine looked aghast. “But that’s absurd!” she sputtered. “You can’t miss Beltane, that would be like missing…well…Beltane!”

“Don’t think I don’t know that,” sighed Patroclus heavily.

Leptine gave him a funny glance, frowning at Patroclus’ morose expression and shoulders slumped in dejection. “You aren’t seriously considering staying with him, are you?”

He remembered Achilles’ assertive, commanding voice, the way he had spoken to him as if he were still a slave or subordinate. His fists tightened. “No,” he replied decisively. “He thinks I’m a spaniel to order around, play with when bored, kick at will.” The memory of his kiss was still fresh in his mind, he tried urgently to shut it out. “He needs to learn. People aren’t just toys…”

He petered out, nervous about hinting too much. It was already evident that something important had happened between them, Patroclus could see in Leptine’s eyes that she sensed it. But she looked satisfied and pleased enough with his answer.

“I’m glad,” she said and sounded it. “Of course,” and here she grinned impishly. “In that case you still need to find yourself a partner.”

Patroclus felt his shoulders sag even heavier at her words. With all that was going on he’d completely forgotten the convention, that he was supposed to go as a couple to a festival that was, ultimately, in celebration of fertility and vitality. The thought made Patroclus shiver internally; what in all of Hades was he supposed to do with a girl at a fertility festival?

“I’d completely forgotten,” he confessed. “And now I suppose it’s too late to find anyone.”

“Well you can’t go alone,” Leptine bristled. “People will think you’re undesirable. Or worse. Impotent.”

“Great,” said Patroclus dully, the last shred of hope he had been clinging on to leaving him. “I suppose I’ll just have to stay at home with Achilles and play knucklebones. Here meaning mine connecting with his face.”

“Or…” started Leptine, chewing her lip thoughtfully. “You could come with me and Deiomachus.”

Patroclus started in surprise. “He asked you then?”

“Yes he did,” replied Leptine matter-of-factly and looking pinkish, twirling a strand of hair round her index finger. “But you can come with us, if you want.”

Patroclus started to say yes, then he thought about how excited Deiomachus had looked as he’d bounded away and Leptine’s face stowing away the primroses in the kitchen. He shook his head in protest. “Leptine, that’s very kind of you but honestly, it’s fine. I’d just be the awkward tag-along, you wouldn’t want me there-”

“-Oh but it would be no trouble,” Leptine interrupted him. “You can come with us to the festival so that you don’t look like a loser, then once we get there we can go our separate ways. It’ll be fine.”

Patroclus nodded slowly, picturing the scenario in his head. “And what will people think when we stroll up, the three of us, together? Two guys…one girl…?”

Leptine looked confused, then, seeing Patroclus’ raised eyebrow, looked appalled and yelped. “They won’t be thinking that!” she exclaimed in reproachful alarm, slapping him on the arm. “Dirty, dirty boy! Right, do you want to come with us or not because I am perfectly willing to leave you and your muddied mind right here right now-”

“-No no, I want to come,” said Patroclus quickly. “I’m sorry. Thank you. Are you sure Deiomachus won’t mind?”

“He’ll be fine,” Leptine shrugged. “It’s not like you’ll be with us the whole night.”

The phrase reminded Patroclus of something he’d said earlier in regard to Achilles’ wedding night. Evidently it showed on his face because Leptine smacked him again. “Dirty boy!” she cried. “Come on. If you’re coming to Beltane we’d better sort out what you’re going to wear.”

“What’s wrong with this?” Patroclus gestured at his tunic. It was made of good stuff and had an elaborate border worked in embroidered threads of red and green.

Leptine eyed it disdainfully. “Patroclus,” she said. “You cannot go to the Beltane festival looking like a prince’s companion.”

And before he had a chance to ask what she meant she had whisked him away; giving Patroclus the unsettling feeling that he was growing less and less sure on what, exactly, he was getting himself into.

oOo

After a good few hours among Leptine and the other slaves, it occurred to Patroclus that he had severely underestimated the event. Looking at some of the outfits people planned on, it became clear that the festival was much more Bacchic than he’d previously assumed. Apparently Beltane was all about a return to the primitive state of man as all primal instincts and hungers were satisfied in this one night of total abandonment. To represent this and the otherworldly aspect of the festival that cut it off from civilisation, it was customary to dress in animal skins or costumes which reflected man’s return to nature. This was why Leptine had scoffed at Patroclus’ desire to dress in his expensive courtly tunic; in her words nothing was more likely to ensure celibacy at Beltane than “dressing like an overseer.”

However, these words did very little to assuage Patroclus’ discomfort as he cast a shocked eye over some of the other costumes, including one delightful piece designed with a very creative slit in the skirt, “To make it easier for him,” as it explained by the girl in question.

This was topped only by Loras’ outfit which appeared to be little more than a loose and wiry string made entirely from laurel leaves.

“I’m not wearing that,” Patroclus stated, staring in horror as Loras walked away.

Leptine giggled. “Don’t worry,” she assured him. “We’ll find something.”

This however turned out to be easier said than done. No matter how many outfits he tried on Patroclus could not help but feel like a complete and total idiot in all of them. It certainly didn’t help that a gaggle of kitchen girls kept hovering nearby, giggling every time he whipped something off.

“No,” he declared, crossing his arms across his chest as the girls stifled their laughter.

He was wearing a costume made from very shiny leather which was uncomfortably and very obviously tight, particularly in certain nether regions. Leptine wrinkled her nose, surveying him from different angles.

“No…that’s probably not the image you want to portray,” she said, cringing at the places where the leather was straining. “Although it does make you look remarkably well endowed…”

The girls burst into another fit of hysterics as Patroclus wrestled to get the ungodly thing off him. “Right, that’s it. I’m not going,” he announced.

“Oh don’t be such a girl,” Leptine rolled her eyes, shooing the harpies out of the room. “Don’t you think everybody’s going through the exact same thing right now? Here, try this.”

She tossed him a shapeless, brown thing which felt slightly furry beneath his fingertips. He pulled it over his head and found it to be a deerskin tunic, not unlike the one they had tricked Achilles with so long ago. It hung off Patroclus’ skinny frame like a bedsheet on a washing line, its long sleeves dragging on the floor. Patroclus gave her a look understood by all to mean, “You can’t be serious?”

However, Leptine it appeared, had a plan. She strode round to Patroclus’ side and with the knife she’d used to slice the leather she cut off one of Patroclus’ sleeves, doing the same to the other side. The thick wads of material fell to the floor, displaying Patroclus’ wiry arms and toned shoulders. She then bent down and set about trimming away the hem until it was chiton-length, falling just halfway down the thigh, persisting when Patroclus cried in protest, “Not my weird knees!”

“Hush,” Leptine batted his flailing hands away. “It’ll be dark, no one will see them.”

When she had finished she stepped away to admire her handiwork. The newly shortened tunic showed off the well-formed muscles in Patroclus’ arms and calves and the earthen brownish colour worked well with the tan of his skin. But it still hung loosely off his body, giving Patroclus the impression that he had been transfigured into a bean pole.

“Hold on,” ordered Leptine, disappearing from the room. She returned shortly with a belt-like object clutched in her hand which she handed to Patroclus.

Patroclus took it warily. It was a bright golden colour of finely woven thread, however, there was one thing which bothered him. “I’ve seen you wear this,” he accused Leptine. “This is a woman’s girdle.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Leptine argued. “When I wear it, it’s a woman’s girdle. When you wear it-”

“-It’s a man, wearing a woman’s girdle,” finished Patroclus.

“Just put the thing on,” snapped Leptine, wrenching it from his hands and winding it round his waist herself. When she had it secured she nodded approvingly, handing him the mirror. “See? It’s fine!”

Patroclus surveyed his reflection with apprehension. True the fine gold belt tightened round his torso did make the outfit, pulling the tunic in at his hips so that it looked like it had a shape and no longer hung down stupidly. But it was without a doubt definitely supposed to be worn by a girl. “I don’t know Leptine,” he said unconvinced.

“Well what else are you going to do?” she challenged him. “It doesn’t work without it. Fashion before comfort, darling.”

Patroclus looked down at the girdle, sliding it uncomfortably round his waist. Fashion before comfort, he thought resentfully. Not fashion before dignity. He suffered to think what Achilles would say if he saw him now. But it didn’t matter, he reminded himself. Achilles was not going. And Leptine was right, he had nothing else. He looked at himself again in the mirror and tried to look masculine and heroic.

“And yet,” he said. “How odd that a woman’s girdle should look so good on me, a man.”

“There you go,” smiled Leptine, clapping him on the shoulder. “Keep right up with that attitude and you’ll have a great time.”

Luckily, in an environment so buzzing with excitement and anticipation, this was not such a hard task to fulfil. Everywhere he went people were heatedly discussing the promise the next night would bring, as if all their dreams and desires would somehow be magically fulfilled with the coming of the Spring Moon. From costumes to food to music the palace had been transformed into a hotbed of heated conversation, raised to boiling point with the approach of Beltane Eve.

On the way back to his room he overheard several prayers whispered behind doors and into darkened alcoves and he remembered Leptine telling him that Beltane Eve was the night Aphrodite heard all the supplications for her blessing and patronage, asking Patroclus jokingly whether he was planning on trying his luck. He had replied jovially that he did not think one night would alter his luck with the Gods and upon reaching his room he saw he had spoken true. The space was dark except where moonlight spilled through the open window, pooling onto Achilles’ bed, a bed that was revealed to be empty.

Patroclus tried not to let himself feel disappointed. He knew it had been foolish to hope that Achilles would have stayed up waiting for him so that he could apologise or at the very least talk things over. But as he crept into his own bed and waited for sleep to come he was surprised to find himself praying into the dark. When morning came, he could not remember what on earth it had been for.

oOo

Much to his expectation, Achilles was not there when he woke up either. Sighing, he dressed quickly, made sure that his Beltane costume was safely stowed away in his chest and came downstairs for breakfast.

In anticipation for the festival the normal timetable had been suspended. Clearly Ampelius had worked out that to get any sort of decent, practical work out of the boys when the night was so quickly approaching was an impossibility, thus the day had been turned into a sort of holiday and everyone was exempt from lessons and training. Instead of engaging in a formal breakfast in the Great Hall, the boys were spending the morning in one of the rooms set aside for their use and Patroclus went to join them now.

When he entered a small group were already reclining on lounges, accompanied by some of the slaves with whom they were friendly with. Unfortunately Leptine was not there as she was busy serving the masters’ meals, however this gave Deiomachus the perfect opportunity to talk of her incessantly.

“Cannot believe she said yes,” he informed Patroclus, shaking his head in stunned wonder. “I knew she was pretty but man, you never told me she was so nice! And funny too! You know what she said to me, when I asked her out? It was hilarious, she said-”

“-Pretty?” came a screeching, incredulous voice. “Pretty? That scrawny little wretch?”

Patroclus’ blood ran cold at the familiar scathing tone. He turned to see Pamaia stretched out across one of the lounges, looking like a reclining Goddess except that she was snickering. Patroclus hadn’t seen her since the unfortunate episode and he had dreaded the eventual encounter, however he was surprised to find all the fear and intimidation she had inspired was gone. All he felt now was a shock of pure dislike. “Sorry, did you have something to say?” he asked her.

“I’m just surprised,” she answered casually. “That the girl was planning on going tonight. Not just that, but she’s even found herself a partner!” she nodded mockingly at Deiomachus. “Incredible! Miracles happen every day. What did she do, agree to do your laundry for a month if you took her? Or was it a little simpler than that?”

She made her hand into a fist and lifted it to her cheek, moving it back and forth. Some of the other girls squealed delightedly at the gesture and the boys hooted. Patroclus and Deiomachus looked stony.

“Actually Pamaia,” began Patroclus pleasantly. “I’m not surprised if this comes as news to you, but some girls manage to attract male attention without having to suck them off first. I advise talking to Leptine. She can show you how it’s done.”

This was followed by amplified catcalls and applause from everyone in the room; Patroclus sat there smiling amiably in response to Pamaia’s seething expression and curling lip. “Look who’s suddenly grown himself some claws,” she snarled when the clamour had died down. “Of course, you’d know all about male attention. One might even say it was your speciality.”

“If you don’t have anything pleasant or intelligent to say, I advise you shut up.” snapped Deiomachus abruptly.

“Forgive me,” said Pamaia airily, raising her hands in surrender. “I only wanted to congratulate you on your gentlemanly behaviour. Taking that poor, ugly girl to the festival just so she’ll have a nice time. You’re a real hero. I only hope you get something out of it is all. Next thing you’ll be telling me this one here has found himself a partner,” she gestured derisively at Patroclus who coloured.

“Yeah, well, who are you going with?” he challenged. The moment he did so he regretted it. Already all the boys around him were straightening up, eager to hear who among them had won the ever-so-coveted prize. Pamaia observed them all amusedly, as if they were hungry dogs and she alone held aloft a juicy bone.

“I’ve set my sights a little higher thanthe common rabble,” she replied smugly and evasively as a dozen shoulders drooped in disappointment.

The boys glanced at each other curiously, trying to work out what she meant. Yet something in her face and voice and Patroclus comprehended instantly. “If you’re talking about Achilles,” he said hotly. “You’re out of luck. He’s not going.”

Pamaia looked shaken but not terribly perturbed. “The thought of you attempting to conquer at Beltane a little too much for him?” she taunted. “I cannot say I blame him. Ah well. There will be other opportunities, I suppose.”

“You’d be better of setting your sights a little lower,” retorted Patroclus. “He would never want you.”

Pamaia raised a perfect black eyebrow, arched like a bow of ebony. “We’ll see,” was all she said before sweeping brazenly from the room.

After a few seconds of stunned silence in which a few of the boys still looked vaguely confounded in the wake of her presence, conversation began to swell again. Deiomachus resumed his eulogising of Leptine, however Patroclus listened with only half an ear. Pamaia’s words had shaken him, and they had also cast is mind back to something she had said that night they had almost slept together: “You are an amusement. A pawn, if you will, in a game much bigger than your delusional, teenage-misfit fantasies.” At the time he’d thought she had just intended to hurt him. Now he wondered if there had been another meaning behind the insult.

Apart from that, the day passed without incident. Patroclus spent his free time making final arrangements with Leptine and Deiomachus whom he had agreed to meet by the stairs as soon as it was dark. As the sun made its way from one end of the field to the other, shifting the sky from its original piercing blue to dusky mauve Patroclus found himself counting down the hours and hungering for the time when everyone would slip on their masks and costumes and head down to the woods. He felt a rhythm of excitement pulse through him, like was someone was beating a drum in his chest, an excitement tinged with nerves and a little fear. He couldn’t tell how he knew, but something special was going to happen this night. He could feel it.

At long last it was time. Patroclus slipped up to his room, fingertips tingling with a magic that was almost tangible. Pulling his deerskin tunic out of the chest he slipped it over his head, followed by the girdle although his hands were shaking so much he could barely fasten it round his waist. Just then the door flew open and he jumped up with a start. He looked up. He swallowed.

“Hi,” he said, forcing speech past the lump already forming in his throat.

Achilles was leaning against the door, his thumbs tucked idly into the belt around his hips. “Hey,” he greeted him. He brushed away the hair that was forever falling into his eyes and gave him a scrutinising look. “Is that what you’re wearing?”

Patroclus looked down at himself, instantly self-conscious. “Um…yeah,” he mumbled.

Achilles strode into the room. Even with small steps he seemed to fill up the place, the room looked smaller with him in it. He stopped in front of Patroclus and glanced him up and down, just as he had done when they’d met for the first time. Time seemed to go by very slowly in that moment as Patroclus stood like a statue, awaiting Achilles’ judgement. Finally he gave a small approving nod. “Looks good,” he stated. Then, suddenly, he frowned. “Why are you wearing a woman’s girdle?”

Humiliation, red and searing rode like a battalion into Patroclus’ stomach; he tried not to let it show in his voice as he squealed, “It’s…it’s unisex.”

“It is not, it’s got flowers on it,” Achilles pointed.

Patroclus wrenched off the thing and examined it in detail. Sure enough, tiny flowers had been embroidered into the design with what looked like birds and other small creatures. I am going to murder Leptine. “Perfect,” he muttered under his breath. “What the fuck am I going to do now?”

“Well you can’t go in that,” Achilles raised an eyebrow and gestured at the shameful object still clutched in Patroclus’ hand. “Wait a moment.”

He crossed over to his side of the room and rummaged around in the chest at the bottom of his bed. Eventually he stood up, holding in his hands a strong, sturdy looking belt also made of deerskin. He approached Patroclus cautiously with it, looking somewhat sheepish.

“The clasp is a little tricky,” he told him. “Here, I’ll do it for you.”

Patroclus nodded dumbly and raised his arms so that Achilles could snake the belt around his waist, holding his breath as he worked the clasp a hair’s breadth below his navel.  “There,” Achilles whispered when he had the belt fastened. “You look like a true King Stag.”

“Thank you,” murmured Patroclus through barely parted lips. He did not trust himself to move, let alone speak. And he was very conscious of the fact that Achilles’ hands were still on his hips.

“Apart from the antlers,” continued Achilles and Patroclus allowed himself to release the breath he’d been holding as Achilles’ hands moved to touch his hair. His fingers combed the brown locks, brushing and plucking them into a style that was elegantly dishevelled, as if he were an elf or fairy that had just rolled out of bed. Every time his fingertips grazed the skin of his ears or forehead he felt an involuntary shiver rush through him; he wished desperately that Achilles would take him now into his arms and brand him with that kiss which was like fire and water.

Achilles was looking at him now, his bright green eyes with their gold-flecked irises boring into him with that magnetising intensity which made Patroclus want to look away and at the same time held him completely captivated. Patroclus held his gaze, desperately wanting to say something but having no idea what. Then suddenly Achilles’ hands had slipped from his hair and were back on his waist and Achilles was pulling him close, pulling him in against his chest and his arms circled his back.

“Patroclus,” he whispered against his shoulder.

He wanted to say sorry. Patroclus knew from the moment he walked in that he regretted everything that had passed between them that morning, the words he’d hurled and the ones which had been hurled back in return. He wanted to say sorry but he couldn’t because he was Achilles. And that was okay. Because Patroclus had already forgiven him.

“It’s alright,” he said and meant it. His hand reached up to touch Achilles’ neck, curled into the thick, heavy strands that ran like a river of gold through his fingers.

Achilles made a sound like a sigh and drew him closer. Patroclus nestled his chin in the crook between Achilles’ neck and shoulder. There were tears stinging his eyes and he fought to hold them back. For how long they stood like that he didn’t know, it was as if time no longer existed for them. After what could have been minutes, hours, or several sunlit days Patroclus remembered where he needed to be. They broke apart and took a step away from each other, both looking a little embarrassed. Achilles, as always, was the first to break the silence.

“Have fun tonight,” he said.

“I will,” replied Patroclus.

Achilles made a funny motion, as if he’d made to touch Patroclus’ face and thought better of it, bringing it instead to scratch the back of his neck. For his part, Patroclus thanked him for the belt and left the room, climbed the narrow stairs and emerged from the dark where he found Leptine and Deiomachus waiting for him.

Chapter Text

Leptine and Deiomachus were waiting at the bottom of stairs, talking quietly and coyly. They looked up as Patroclus approached, greeting him enthusiastically.

“There he is,” exclaimed Leptine beaming. “What took you so long?”

Patroclus, preferring not to answer, avoided her attention by diverting it towards herself. She was wearing a short, russet-coloured dress with a hem and sleeves lined with reddish fur. Her soft brown hair had been brushed until it shone in the moonlight, coppery strands settling gently on her shoulders around which a fox-skin cloak had been fastened, two fabric ears artfully peeking out from the hood. Her skin, flushed with excitement, seemed to glow golden through the dark and her eyes were bright and shining as he had never seen them.

She smiled at him and Patroclus suppressed an intake of breath. Because she was his friend and he loved her he had always thought her pretty, in an indifferent, platonic sort of way. But looking at her now, so wild and small and fairy-like, he realised how truly beautiful she was.

“You look…amazing,” he breathed and her smile paled the moon.

“Puts me to shame, doesn’t she?” agreed Deiomachus playfully. He looked Patroclus up and down with an approving expression. “A stag huh? Good call. Suits you. Wish you’d told me earlier, I could have made you some antlers.”

He had fashioned for himself some sort of mask or helmet in the likeness of a wild boar, complete with a set of gleaming white tusks. He took Leptine’s hand and she gave a remarkably girlish giggle. “Shall we get going, then? We don’t want to miss the first dance.”

They left the palace and set off briskly down the winding path that streamed from the gates to the wood. Overhead the moon shone bright as a coin dropped into a dark river, lighting the road before them so that it appeared silver and curling like a ribbon of water. They made an odd three; the fox, the boar and the stag travelling companionably together while to their every direction other couples and groups were making a similar journey through the fields, the shadows of horns, tails, wings and pointed ears stretched across the dark grass, an animal army come to seize their realm. Patroclus wondered how the other creatures of the trees and bracken would react to this invasion, these other animals who were like themselves only bigger.

Leptine and Deiomachus talked mostly to each other, flirting and giggling while Patroclus kept a respectful distance, conscious of his inevitably resented presence. Looking down he saw their three shadowy likenesses, distortedly caricatured; two of them entwined so that it was difficult to make one from the other and the last standing alone, surrounded by a patch of green. With a pang of sudden loneliness he cast his thoughts back to the palace where another wild thing paced around their darkened room before curling, cat-like, upon a thin mattress.

With every step they took the noises from the trees grew louder. Balls of brilliant orange flame flew over the branches and the very leaves seemed to shriek with music and laughter. “It’s like the whole wood is alive,” said Leptine and Patroclus nodded. Tiny lights blinked out from the leaves and branches, winking like the bodies of fairies or a thousand pairs of eyes. The laughter grew louder, more raucous and they could feel the music vibrating beneath their feet. As the light of the torches came into view Patroclus felt suddenly nervous, realising sharply that he had never been anywhere like this before. The wood stretched before him like a dark, tumultuous sea; the joyful sounds from within mocking as well as enticing.

“Is it really a good idea to throw fire around in a forest?” he asked doubtfully.

“Who cares?” Deiomachus shrugged and headed on in without hesitation, pulling Leptine behind him.

Patroclus followed them, mumbling something about how he thought they would start to care if the whole place went up in flames and they were all burned alive when, with one look at his surroundings, the words fell out of his mouth.

It was as if he’d walked into a dream. The glen had been splendidly lit with a hundred torches, all burning in their brackets, some in fantastical colours; purple, blue and green. They bathed the glen in pools of bright light and cast flickering shadows on the dirt ground and trunks of the trees, the wavering result of the cacophony of bodies packed within that space. Everywhere he looked there were people, draped in masks and animal skins moving to the beat of the drum and flute that seemed to sing from the very trees. People everywhere dressed like animals, moving, leaping, grinding, dancing to the music and embracing the wild energy of the wood.

“It’s amazing,” gasped Leptine. A young man wearing horns and goatskin breeches in the likeness of a satyr strode up to her and offered his hand. She laughed and allowed him to spin her under his arm, curtseying in response to his parting bow before he skipped off and re-joined the throng.

“Let’s go get a drink,” suggested Deiomachus when her blushes had subsided. “Before anyone else decides to carry you off.”

With Deiomachus in the lead they wove their way through the tangled thicket of dancers, holding hands so that they wouldn’t become separated. At the edge of the ring a man wrung with vine leaves and holding a staff like the one carried by Dionysus was standing next to several mysterious looking caskets. Seeing them approach he reached into the nearest and withdrew three wooden wrought goblets.

“Newcomers, huh?” he greeted them cheerily. “You’re just in time. It’s about to get pretty wild.”

“What’s that?” asked Patroclus, eyeing the goblets warily. “Wine?”

The man laughed at that, the little acorns tangled in his hair wobbling precariously. “If you’re planning on getting through the night then you’ll be wanting something a little stronger than that,” he replied amusedly. “But if it’ll set your mind at ease then sure. It’s wine.”

Patroclus looked at the goblet distrustfully, then at Leptine and Deiomachus. They shrugged and accepted the drinks and Patroclus, who did not want to look like a killjoy, accepted his with apprehension. Gingerly, he raised the cup to his lips and took a sip. The liquid was cool on his tongue but left a burning trail as it slid down his gullet, giving Patroclus the feeling that his insides were on fire. The moment it entered his stomach he felt his head swoon and he grimaced at the strong, sharp taste. Whatever it was, it was unlikely Peleus would be serving it at his table any time soon.

Deiomachus took a large gulp and swallowed it down, cringing at the bitter aftertaste. “Yuck,” he exclaimed, shaking his head. “That’s horrible.” He turned to Leptine and nodded in the direction of the ring. “Fancy a dance?”

Leptine grinned in response and took the offered hand, stopping to look apologetically at Patroclus. “Be back in a bit,” she sung merrily before skipping off to join the line of dancers.

Patroclus waved at them, watching as their retreating figures disappeared into the frenzy until they were just another costumed couple, clapping their hands and stamping their feet along with the others. The musicians had struck up another tune and already many of the dancers were dripping with sweat beneath their thick furs. Patroclus took another sip of his drink feeling a little awkward and out of place. Everyone, it seemed, had come here with somebody. And here he was, standing on his own in a corner while his friends were hand in hand.

Suddenly someone tapped him on the shoulder and he gave a little start. Turning around he saw a pretty girl standing before him, a crown of spring flowers braided into her long hair. “Hello,” she said with an apprehensive smile.

“Hi,” returned Patroclus, trying not to sound taken aback. “Um…can I help you?”

“Oh,” the girl flushed to match the colour of the rose buds in her hair. “I was just wondering if maybe you’d like to dance.”

For one wild moment Patroclus almost turned to look over his shoulder, just to check that she was in fact talking to him. But there was no one there except for the man dressed like Dionysus who appeared to be drinking deeply from his own crates. He glanced at the ring of people moving before the torches, their bodies twisting up and down like flames and he felt the alcohol within him pleasantly warming his insides. He looked back at the girl who was waiting nervously for his response and felt himself seized with an odd sort of confidence which certainly hadn’t been there a few minutes earlier.

“Sure,” he replied, returning her smile. “I’d love to.”

Her eyes glowed in the firelight as she slipped an arm though his. Patroclus’ heart thudded as she led him into the twisting, writhing mass but it was more from excitement than nervousness. “I have to tell you,” he said to her, raising his voice over the noise of the drums. “I’m pretty terrible at this.”

She laughed amiably and instantly he felt himself encouraged by her warm amusement. “Thanks for the warning,” she shouted back. “Just follow my lead.”

He did as she told him, relaxing as she took both his hands in hers. The music had sped up to the rhythm of a fast-paced folk song, such as that sung by shepherds in the mountains and valleys of the North. The dance was instantly recognised by the people around him who commenced their steps with renewed vigour and Patroclus was struck with a moment of panic as he realised that he had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to be doing. Luckily for him however his partner clearly did and he was more than happy to let her lead him along. As long as she was in charge he found that it was surprisingly easy to keep up with her; soon they were arm in arm, stepping and jumping in time with everybody else until they were both hot and breathing deeply.

“That was fun,” she exclaimed, clapping enthusiastically as the song came to an end.

“Yeah,” Patroclus agreed. “Sorry, I think I stepped on your foot a few times.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the girl grinned at his bashful expression. “Phew, it’s hot. Want to get a drink?”

Patroclus nodded gratefully and they stepped out of the ring to refill their goblets. They talked for a little while under the leafy canopy of a large Cyprus tree and as they did so Patroclus was aware that he was growing steadily more tipsy. Whatever had been in those caskets was obviously extremely potent and fast-working; already he could feel his head starting to swim and he had trouble focusing on the girl’s words. However, looking up he could just about make out two familiar figures running towards him, both red faced and breathing heavily.

“PATROCLUS!” Deiomachus roared, throwing an arm around his buckling shoulders. “WE FOUND YOU! DON’T WORRY GUYS, I FOUND HIM! FOUND HIM!”

“He’s a little drunk,” Leptine explained in response to Patroclus’ questioning expression. “Somebody pushed him into one of those caskets while we were dancing and instead of getting up he just sort of…laid there and swallowed.”

“That’s right I did,” nodded Deiomachus proudly. “Damned good swill, that. Makes the palace stuff taste like sheep’s piss. Did you see us dance Pat, eh? She was bloody good,” here he gestured aggressively at Leptine. “Like a bloody dryad, or a fairy. A lovely little fairy.”

He leaned down and pressed a kiss into Leptine’s hair. Instead of blushing and pushing him away, Leptine giggled and threw her arms around his neck which was a mark, Patroclus thought, that she was none to sober herself. Indeed, when she refaced him he saw that her hair was now rather frizzy and a slightly unfocused glaze had formed over her glittering eyes. “My feet hurt,” she complained. “Can we sit down somewhere?”

“My friends are over there, just through those trees,” said the flower-haired girl, pointing to a little way away. “You’re more than welcome to come and join us.”

The others nodded and followed the girl deeper into the woods where groups of people were sitting in clusters like clumps of shrubbery, swigging from wineskins and talking or singing loudly. There were couples too, tucked away non-too conspicuously into the undergrowth; their sprawling limbs indistinguishable from the leaves and branches. Patroclus tried to avert his eyes as flashes of white flesh peeked out from the smudges of green and brown but he found his gaze drawn back to them, even as they retreated into the darkness and disappeared from sight.

The flower-haired girl led them to where a large group of boys and girls of about their own age were sitting in a circle. They were passing something around, although with the absence of torches in this part of the glen Patroclus could not see what it was. They sat down cross-legged on the forest floor, Patroclus feeling suddenly self-conscious of his intrusion, his long legs which seeming strangely too big among these people he didn’t know. They were welcoming though, greeting him cheerfully and throwing over the wineskin. The flower-haired girl drank first and passed it to Patroclus with a smile; Patroclus took it and lifted it to his lips.

“I tell you,” one boy was saying ardently. “There is no such thing as free will. The Gods plan out our existence the moment we’re born. Earlier than that. From the moment we’re conceived, even.”

“Right,” responded his rival. “So when I got out of bed this morning and put on a yellow chiton instead of a white one, that had nothing to do with my free will but because the Gods had ordained it from my conception? To fit into some great master plan?”

“No arsehole,” snarled the former. “You get control of little things. Like what to wear in the morning or whether to have bread or yoghurt for breakfast. But the big things, the things that really matter? They’re out of our hands. If the Gods want you dead, you’re dead. If they want you to live, become a king, rain gold out of your arse then that’ll happen. If they want you to murder your father and marry your mother then that’s what you’ll do. It’s all written in the stars. Decreed by destiny.”

The other boy shook his head. “No,” he said. “I don’t buy it. The world is too confused to have that kind of meaning. Anyway, what would be the point in living if all you were was Zeus’ little game pieces? What would be the point in anything if in the end you had no choice?”

“I don’t mean that effectively we’re just slaves of the Gods or anything,” the other retorted impatiently. “I just mean that, at the end of the day, whatever we do is meant to happen. Our lives mean something, in the bigger picture. So you can’t help who you kill or…or who you love because whatever happens is supposed to happen. Humans like to have control, over the earth, over animals, over their own lives. Free will is a human construction designed to deal with the simple fact that we don’t always have control. And once we accept that fact maybe we’ll all be free to let go and just let the chips fall where they may.”

His friend let out a low whistle and shook his head, as if the conversation had suddenly become too much for him. “Whatever man,” he shrugged soundly. “I still say you look a little blue.”

The whole circle laughed and Patroclus joined in, although he was not sure he understood the joke. It all became clear however when someone started passing around what looked like a bundle of dried flower petals, electric blue and secured with a piece of string. When they came to Patroclus he looked at the girl beside him questioningly.

“You chew them,” she explained. “Here.”

She broke off one of the petals and popped it in her mouth. Patroclus, with his extensive knowledge of drugs and herbs realised that this was the blue lotus plant, an Egyptian flower which caused a state of relaxed inhibitions and peaceful temperament. He was surprised, these were incredibly expensive and hard to get. He made to ask how on earth they had gotten their hands on the drug but to no avail, to the rest of the group everything was suddenly very funny. He shrugged, put one in his mouth and chewed.

After that time seemed to pass in a haze; people it seemed were moving more slowly, or was it his mind dragging back their arms and voices?  Everything took on an ethereal edge to it as if he had just stepped into the fairy world where time and space moved in different circles and chronology was no longer important. Deiomachus and another boy in the group were doing somersaults with Leptine looking on idly, cheering for one and then the other confusedly. Patroclus listened to the talk which had gone from philosophy to sex to politics. The flower-haired girl was leaning against him, her head on his shoulder. Absentmindedly, he stroked her hair.

She looked up at him. Her eyes were wide and slightly red, they beamed out from the smoke like two lanterns. “You can kiss me if you like,” she said.

“Okay,” said Patroclus, and he did.

He could hear the beat of the drum through the trees, like the cool damp of the earth, and the soft, mourning crow of the flute like leaves on the wind. The fire was yellow and leaping, despite his distorted vision he thought he had never seen fire so bright nor shadows so dark. He felt all at once peaceful and sleepy while at the same time nervous excitement charged in his veins; he wanted to get up, run, jump, climb a tree and he wanted to curl up amongst the roots and close his eyes.

The musicians had begun again, around him people were getting up and making their way back to the ring. The flower-haired girl had taken off with the boy who fancied himself a philosopher; Patroclus looked around him, Deiomachus was involved in a drinking game with his new acrobatic friend which he appeared to be losing; already he was heaving up against a tree and retching forcefully. Leptine was looking on with a faint expression of disgust as with an enormous heaving sound something spattered upon the ground. Patroclus approached her, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Hey,” he greeted her. “Want to dance?”

Leptine looked at Patroclus and then back at Deiomachus, who it appeared had a prior engagement with his own vomit. She nodded.

Together they walked back up the path until they had re-joined the dancers. The song being played was not as fast as the last but slower, more haunting and somehow more beautiful. Patroclus took Leptine’s hand but she shook her head, removing it and placing it on her waist.

Deiomachus hadn’t lied; Leptine was light on her feet and graceful as if she really were a dryad or some other fantastical creature of the wood. Patroclus watched her spin and twirl, her hair flashing red as she passed the light, red as autumn leaves and summer flowers and her face was bright and merry. They changed partners; Patroclus was back with the flower-haired girl but his eyes sought Leptine, skipping and laughing with another man, her little heels flashing against the beaten earth, her slender wrist dipping and twirling like a ribbon caught in a breeze. And now they were back together, their bodies close, his hands on her hips again and everything was fire and earth and music.

They looked at each other, suddenly aware that they were no longer moving. The music started up again and still they stood there in the middle of the ring, breathing heavily and holding each other’s gaze. And Patroclus did not know if it was the fire reflected in her eyes or the strong drink or the blue flowers but there was something different there, something which he certainly had never seen from her before.

They crept back through the trees, bodies bent low like two children afraid of getting caught doing something mischievous. The wood closed in around them, shutting off the brilliant yellow light of the glade in a cool space of dark and damp. Patroclus’ head was fuzzy, even as he led her by the hand and she lay down in the leaves he was unsure which girl he had with him and from the glazed look in her eyes he thought she was thinking the same thing. But then she reached up, her small hand brushing his cheek and he knew who she was, where he was, and what they were about to do.

“Patroclus,” she said and pulled his face down to meet hers.

Their lips met. She was little, so little, and her body was small and soft as a bird’s. That’s what she looked like then, with her hair all snatched up with brambles and her costume ruffled, a bird caught up in the brackets and snares. And suddenly she was reaching up under his shirt, her warm hands were on his chest and she was pulling him down so that his body was pressed atop hers and Patroclus, who seemed so big and clumsy in comparison, was terrified he would crush her.

She was soft, fluttery and warm. He felt her eyelashes brush against his cheek, heard her little sigh as he kissed her, light as the brush of her hair on his face. He touched her breasts and she moaned, pulling him closer to her. Then suddenly his eyes flew open, he saw where he was, rolling in the dirt and the dark and it was Leptine in his arms, Leptine he was about to do this stupid, drunken thing with. All at once the wall appeared in his head before he could stop it, try as he might he could not get past it no matter how hard he kissed her or what her hands brushed against. All he could think of now was that this was wrong, this was dirty, this was foolish. This was not what he wanted.

“Patroclus,” she murmured again, twisting her hands in his hair but it was useless. Patroclus squirmed uncomfortably at her touch and she felt it, although he kissed her again it was half-hearted and unenthusiastic. He was shamefully aware of the fact that he was still soft underneath his tunic, and what was worse, Leptine realised it too. The moment she did so her eyes widened and her arm fell limply to her side. “Oh,” was all she said.

“Leptine I’m so sorry,” Patroclus started, tears springing unbidden to his eyes. “It’s not you, it’s not…I’m so sorry…there’s something wrong with me I know it, I know-”

“-Hush,” spoke Leptine softly as bitter tears began to fall thick and fast onto the dirt. “No, no, hush honey, don’t worry…there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re fine…you’re perfect…”

Her words, spoken so gently and carefully as she stroked his cheek only served to make him cry harder until before he knew it he was sobbing into her chest, all the desires and desperations he had kept corked up for so long pouring out like a flood from a broken dam. He cried for Achilles, for the searing, agonizing desire that pricked like needles in his flesh, he cried for the sinful thoughts and feelings that kept him awake at night, he cried for Leptine and the things he could not give her. He cried and she stroked his head and held him to her like a mother comforting her son and “it’s alright,” she promised him, “it’s going to be fine.”

He did not know how long he cried for, or afterwards for how long he slept. All he knew was that at some point his tears were spent, his eyes were dry and he collapsed, exhausted with his head in Leptine’s lap. He closed his eyes and passed out immediately, semi-conscious of her still softly crooning words of comfort until she too slipped into unconsciousness. By the time he woke up again he felt sunken and drowned; the glen was no longer an ethereal paradise but a cage, pressing in on him, suffocating him. He was also startlingly and undeniably sober.

He sat up with a jolt and a spurt of panic. Glancing desperately around him he saw that the celebrations were still going which meant they couldn’t have been out for more than a few hours, although much of the dancing had fizzled out. Most of the couples had retreated into more secluded regions of the forest and the coupling ceremonies were beginning; horror struck he reached beside him and shook the sleeping body rudely awake.

“Leptine!” he hissed, tugging aggressively at her shoulders. “Leptine, wake up!”

“Huh? What time is it?” Leptine grumbled, reaching for a blanket and getting only leaves. Then suddenly her eyes flew open; she sat up as if someone had charged her with an electrical current and stared accusingly at Patroclus. “You!” she cried, hands flying to clamp the sides of her face. “And me…just now…we didn’t…did we? Oh dear Gods, say we didn’t!”

“We didn’t,” said Patroclus quickly. “But fuck, it was close.”

“Oh my Gods,” wailed Leptine, clutching her knees and rocking back and forth like a madwoman. “Oh my Gods oh my Gods…what were we thinking? What did we almost do?” And without warning she raised her hand and struck Patroclus sharply round the head.

“Ow!” exclaimed Patroclus, clutching his already pounding skull. “What was that for?”

“For just…standing there and letting me throw myself at you!” she sobbed ardently. “Why would you do that? What could possibly possess you to let me do that? You’re supposed to safeguard my dignity, you absolute prick-”

“-Well I’m sorry Leptine,” retorted Patroclus, throwing his hands up in the air in distress. “But funnily enough your dignity wasn’t the first thing on my mind at that point.”

But Leptine had stopped listening to him and had proceeded to snatching up handfuls of her hair and wrenching them with her fists. With her eyes widened in horror and stark white skin she looked for a moment quite insane. “Oh my Gods,” she moaned again. “I can’t believe I did that. When I promised myself-”

She broke off with a sob, her head falling into her outstretched hands. Patroclus shifted around so that he was sitting next to her and awkwardly put his arm around her shoulders, uncomfortable as he was at their renewed close contact. Leptine was saying something but her words were muffled by her palms, he only just caught the words “I’m so embarrassed” muttered between her fingers.

“Don’t,” said Patroclus, hugging her to him. “Please don’t. If anything I’m the one who should be embarrassed.”

Leptine lifted her tear stained face to meet him, her cheeks streaked with dirt. “What do you mean?” she asked.

Patroclus sighed, realising as he did so that there was no way he could put this off any longer. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he began.

Chapter Text

He started from the beginning, or as far back as he could remember. Back when he was new and lonely and Achilles was just a boy with dice. Their first fight and how the blood charged through his veins, the smash of knuckles connecting with sinew, their second: I want you to hit me as hard as you can. In his mind’s eye he saw him running, saw the smile he would toss back at him from over his shoulder, an afterthought, a flash on the wind. Holding him against the cooling water of the bathtub until the shivering subsided. Dive bombing off the highest cliff and screaming until the breaking of the waves drowned out all sound. Kissing him, with bloody knuckles and a flower shaped bruise at the corner of his mouth.

“At which point,” asked Leptine, “Did it happen?”

And Patroclus shook his head. An impossible question, impossible. Because even now, remembering how he had sat up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and staring in wide eyed horror into the dark thinking “My Gods. That’s what it is” he thought No, it was before. Or maybe it was always. Achilles would scorn such things he knew; fairytales, mythology, romantic fantasy, but it was true. Even when he had hated him he’d loved him, had always loved him, before they had ever even met.

He told her this and more. Watching Achilles touch him in the mirror, Here and here and here…thinking of the sweat on his thighs while Pamaia stood naked in his arms. He told her all of this with his head in his hands because he couldn’t look at her; surely, surely she would see him now as he saw himself – a pathetic freak, a slave to his own perverse desires but he could not hold back the words, now he had started he couldn’t stop and he kept talking until his voice was hoarse and dry.

When finally he stopped, his last words petering out like the final feet of a very long race, he ventured to look up from his palms. Leptine had said nothing all the time he’d been speaking, only listened in silence, her face blank. Now she waited for him to regain composure and when he had done so her voice was quiet.

“Feel better?” she asked, a twitch at the corner of her mouth.

The moment Patroclus registered the question he felt as though a huge burden had been lifted. He felt lighter and free despite his exhaustion. The race was done and here he was now, stumbling over the finish line not caring what place he’d come, only embracing the sweet relief that it was finally over. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “Yeah, I do.”

“Good,” said Leptine and reached for his hand. Her eyes were brimming with tears. “Oh, Patroclus I’m so sorry.”

Patroclus frowned at her in confusion as with her other hand she swiped at her eyelashes. “Sorry for what?”

“Oh just…for everything,” she replied, her voice trembling slightly. “If I’d had any idea of what you were going through...I mean, of course I knew what it was but not that it was so bad…I should have said something, spoken earlier but you wouldn’t talk to me so I thought you didn’t want me to know…you were always so closed off…”

“Wait,” Patroclus stopped her. “What are you talking about? Are you saying that you knew…all along…you knew the whole time?”

“Did I know you were so much in love that it was driving you into self-hatred and destructive emotional turmoil, no,” Leptine answered, raising her eyebrow. “Did I suspect that you might have a small crush on your best friend? That was as plain as the moon in the sky, I’m afraid. You’re not nearly as inscrutable as you think you are.”

“Then why didn’t you say something?” said Patroclus pleadingly. “Just a word or…or anything to let me know that you were there, that you understood what was going on?”

“Because I didn’t think you wanted me to know,” replied Leptine with a sigh. “I kept waiting and waiting for you to come and talk to me, to explain what was going on with you. But you never did. So I decided that I’d give you some space, let you come around in your own time. I suppose I thought that it would pass, that it was just a brief phase and a silly thing. It is a common enough thing between boys, you know. I had no idea that you actually felt like…well…this.”

Patroclus groaned and let his head drop into his hands again. Darkness closed in around his eyelids, pressed in by the weight of his palms. At the corners of his vision he could see tiny silver lights appearing between his fingers; he shook his head to clear them and realised his temples were pounding with head ache. “I don’t know what I feel,” he confessed. “I hate him. I hate him so much.”

“No you don’t,” Leptine reprimanded him. “You’re only telling yourself that to make it easier.”

“It doesn’t feel easier,” muttered Patroclus.

“No,” said Leptine quietly. “These things never do.”

Patroclus looked up. Leptine caught his glance and held it, it was regretful and sad and for all the things Patroclus would never comprehend, he understood it at once.

“Leptine,” he squeezed her hand. “I am so sorry.”

She smiled ruefully, the smile of someone who has long learned to accept their fate. “Don’t worry about it,” she replied softly. “It would never have worked anyway. Whoever heard of an Eastern-born slave marrying the son of a king? You might as well have proposed to Achilles! Or a goat!”

“You know it’s not that,” Patroclus insisted, horrified that this could ever have been her thought. “Gods, never that. Tell me, you know it’s not.”

“I do know,” she reassured him, patting his hand with her own. “I’m sorry. I’m making light. It’s what people do you know. To cope with heartbreak.”

The horror already wrenching Patroclus’ gut gave an extra sharp tug. “Did I really break your heart?” he murmured, dumfounded that he had the ability to do such a thing, even unconsciously.

Leptine laughed. “No,” she replied. “I am not in love with you, Patroclus. I might have thought I was, for a little while at least. You were the first person since I was taken into slavery to ever give me a second glance, let alone show me kindness. The girl that I was, I began to hope. But I saw the way you looked at him and…well. I am accustomed to knowing my place. Whatever romantic intention, whatever naïve, childish emotion I ever had for you is long gone. I am content to be your friend. Truly, I cannot imagine being anything else or other than.”

As the knot in his stomach loosened Patroclus let out the breath he had been holding in. Seeing his visible relief Leptine laughed and drew him to her, planting an affectionate kiss on the top of his head. “Oh hapless my Menoitides,” she crooned fondly, ruffling his hair. “What an ill-fated, star-crossed pair we are. What can we have done for the Gods to justify such laughter at our expense?”

“Perhaps we sacrificed kittens in another life,” observed Patroclus gloomily.

“Perhaps,” Leptine agreed. “But I suppose the real question is what are you going to do now?”

Patroclus peered up at her through the circle of her arms. “What do you mean?” he frowned.

“Well,” began Leptine. “We’ve established how you feel about Achilles. We recognise your complete inability to feel similarly for anyone else. There isn’t really any reason why you should still be here.”

Patroclus wrinkled his forehead in bemusement. “But…where else should I be?”

She responded with such a Leptine-ish look of pure exasperation that he felt a little thrill of joy, knowing with absolute certainty that whatever had happened between them, and whatever was still to come their way, their friendship would survive this. “Patroclus,” she said. “You really are the biggest idiot I have ever met. Surely you realise the reason Achilles didn’t want you to come here tonight is because he was afraid you’d end up with somebody else? Well, I think we can safely say now that that isn’t going to happen. So what the hell are you still doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Patroclus squirmed uncomfortably. “You seem to have all the answers, why don’t you tell me?”

“You need to tell him how you feel. Go on! Tell him what you just told me!”

Patroclus stared at her. Her eyes were wide and shining fervently with enthusiasm; he peered at her distrustfully. “Are you still drunk?”

“No I am not,” she huffed and then paused. “Well. Maybe a little. But that’s not the point. He kissed you, didn’t he? That’s got to count for something! Odds are he feels exactly the same way.”

“Or else we’re both very, very tired,” Patroclus countered meaningfully. “Do you even know, can you even imagine how he would react if I were to say to him what I just told you? You’d be scraping me off the staircase for months.”

“Or it might just be the most fantastic thing you’ll ever do in your life,” argued Leptine. “And if you don’t, you’ll regret it forever.”

“No one lives forever.”

“Come on,” she insisted. “Think. He forbids you from coming to Beltane. He risked his life, freedom and his soul when someone tried to attack you. He gets jealous and defensive any time you even look at me (don’t think I haven’t noticed, the other day he dipped my mop in yoghurt) and it’s all he can do to be near you, to think of ways to touch you, even to kiss you. Either he’s head over heels or he is one very eccentric individual.”

“Well that goes without saying,” answered Patroclus. “But Leptine, do you think I haven’t considered these things? Do you think I don’t lie awake every fucking night considering them?  But the fact is he isn’t like you or I, he doesn’t play by our rules. He doesn’t think Leptine, he does what he wants when he wants. And that’s not me being bitter, that’s just how he is. Anything else is wishful thinking. Nothing more.”

As he spoke he realised, his heart dropping a few inches with each word, that he was right. It had been so easy to wonder, to hope when Leptine spoke like that about him. It was so easy to think actually yes, what if, perhaps and if Achilles had been an ordinary boy, any other boy then she would have had a point. But the fact was he wasn’t ordinary. The normal rules didn’t apply to him. When he wanted something he took it, be it a kiss or a human life.

“Alright,” said Leptine, crossing her arms over her chest in a gesture of defiance. “Say you’re right, say Achilles is a self-indulgent little shit with a golden orb where his heart should be. You’re still his best friend, aren’t you? He still cares about you in a way he’s never cared about anyone other than his own reflection. You need to tell him how you feel, if nothing else to get it off your chest. If you’re as close as you seem he’ll understand. You can’t go on like this, it’ll eat you alive.”

Patroclus glanced from the patch of dirt he had been tracing skulls into and met her eyes. She was pleading with him, he could see it in her face. He knew it distressed her to see him like this, he wanted so badly to make it all to her, to smile if it made her happy. But she was wrong, so wrong. Still, he tried to look as though he was considering what she’d said and a moment later shrugged in feigned resignation. “I suppose I might feel better if I spoke to him,” he lied. “I’ll think about it.”

For a moment Leptine looked at him as if she might press the issue. But to Patroclus’ relief she only smiled and stood up, brushing earth and dead leaves from her skirt. Then she held out her hand; he took it and allowed her to pull him up.

Only once on their feet did they appreciate how dark it really was. Most of the festival fires had gone out to be replaced by fairy-lights made from tiny candles bobbing in jars which made the wood look ethereal and strange. As they picked their way back through the tangled undergrowth they noticed there were more shadows than there had been before, casting a dim, dusky green gloom through the leafy canopy over their heads. The moon however was brighter than it had been all night and lit their pathway for them; tracing the beams through the ailing trees it was as if they were following a trail of silver coins.

The band had stopped playing now, only a couple of musicians still blew haunting songs on thin pan-pipes and wooden flutes. Most people had retreated into the secret shade and were wrapped up in their nights of love, however some groups had remained in the glade making sleepy, post-high talk with their friends or else simply lying on their backs, gazing up at the stars. It pleased Patroclus to see that Deiomachus was one of this latter; having risen from the patch of earth where he had been lying face-down and unconscious for the past few hours he was now quite alert and blowing steam from his breath into the clear, cold sky.

He looked up as they approached, a flicker of suspicion passing over his face when he spotted that they were holding hands. “Where have you two been?” he inquired, a note of distrust in his voice.

Patroclus and Leptine looked at each other, knowing there would be no need to go over the events of that night again. It was as if it had never happened and there was no reason for Deiomachus to think otherwise.

“There you are, Leptine,” said Patroclus smiling. “Pure gratitude for you. There’s you, passed out on the floor and us waiting devotedly by your side for you to come to, worried sick that someone would come by and piss on your head or something. Then when we saw the bruise on your temple Leptine got worried that you might have a concussion so we went off to find some herbs to deal with it. She was all set to have a heart attack when we couldn’t find anyway but clearly you’re fine and we needn’t have worried. Honestly, and there’s her crying her eyes out and you lying still as a corpse. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Deiomachus turned to Leptine looking startled. “Were you really crying over my lifeless body?”

Leptine glanced at Patroclus who gave a tiny, encouraging nod. Leptine took a deep, shaky breath and squeezed her eyes shut as one who has suffered great emotional distress. “The fear was too much to bear.”

Patroclus stifled a smirk as Deiomachus hugged her and lapsed into speaking words of comfort to which Leptine responded diligently with occasional nods and helpless little sighs. As soon as it became apparent all traces of suspicion had vanished Patroclus decided to take his leave, walking away from the safe space of the glade back through the trees. This, as it turned out, was not one of his better ideas as he was instantly surrounded by coupling bodies; he moved through the wood quickly until he was out of dangerous territory and, doing so, realised he had come out of the wood altogether.

He was now standing at the edge of the field near the end of the path that had led to festival. Across the flat expanse of hay and long grass he could see the palace lights twinkling in the distance. Inevitably his eyes sought that of the highest tower which remained unlit. Achilles was probably sleeping by now, there being no reason for him to stay up. Or else he was lying awake on his mattress, one arm outstretched before him grasping out at something invisible and always out of reach, as he sometimes did when he thought Patroclus wasn’t looking. What was it, that intangible object his fingers opened and closed around, that unattainable treasure he would reach and reach for but never grab and pull back down to his chest? Patroclus had never asked, and would probably never know.

He knew he was right. Achilles would not thank him to be exposed to every deep, dark thought that had been curling its tendrils round the pillars of Patroclus’ mind. Even if he didn’t beat him to a pulp there was no doubt their friendship would be ruined forever; there could be no coming back from such a confession.

Patroclus looked behind him, back at the wood where the festival was still dragging on to its last. He would do better to go back inside, to wait for his friends, perhaps find a girl to talk to if nothing else. He should get on with his life, give up the visions and fantasies that had so far destroyed his comfort and happiness, think of Achilles as a friend and nothing else. He would do better to stop dreaming, to forget.

He looked at the tower, at the little black window and realised with a pang of sudden, inexplicable certainty. He didn’t want to forget.

Fuck it.

oOo

He sprinted across the field as fast as his legs would carry him. As he ran he could feel his muscles burning in complaint, he ignored them only driving his feet harder into the ground, arms pumping wildly. For the first time he was grateful for all those extra running sessions; in the light of the moon he flew across the grass, his long strides easily covering the distance even as his chest begged for breath. As he put more and more width between him and the wood his heart grew lighter and euphoria swelled in his chest with the insanity of what he was about to do. He was taking the future into his own hands, regardless of what fate had planned for him. Whatever the consequences he was finally doing something he wanted to.

He reached the palace and without a second’s pause for breath barged through the gate and raced over to the back entrance. Using the tunnels he was by now so well acquainted with he hurried through the slaves’ quarters, conscious of the sound of his feet slapping feverishly against the stone floor despite the fact that there was no one there. Within minutes he found the staircase that led up to Achilles’ room; heart hammering he leapt up them three at a time and when he reached the top he just about kicked the door open.

To his surprise Achilles was wide awake and laying on his back, hands placed idly on his stomach and green eyes fixed on the ceiling. He raised his head, startled at the sound of the door banging against the wall and instinctively reached for the knife lying at his bedside. Then he saw who it was and his figure relaxed although his face still betrayed his shock.

“What the fuck are you playing at?” he exclaimed, gesturing at the wall where the force of Patroclus’ entrance had chipped away the paintwork. “You’ll wake up the whole palace-”

“-Shut up,” said Patroclus and letting the door slam shut behind him stepped swiftly into the room. He saw Achilles’ eyes widen as he drew nearer, saw the mixture of confusion and bewilderment on his face as he stepped shortly in front of the bed and reached to grab the back of his head. And without another word, without the space of another heartbeat he wrenched him forward and kissed him.

It was hard, brutal, like the first had been. Achilles barely had time to respond or betray his shock when Patroclus released him and cut him off before he started. “No, shut up,” he said again. “Listen for a fucking change. I don’t know what’s going on with me. Maybe it’s something to do with my childhood, you know I never really got enough affection growing up and every time I thought about asking a hug from my father he’d hit me over the head with something. My mother, she was alright but can you really measure someone’s character by the lack of violence they carry out against you? I don’t know, maybe this is all part of the Gods’ master plan and they arranged all this as some drunken wager before my conception. Maybe I’m just fucked up. Or perhaps the world is, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about coming here it’s that life is shitty. It’s unfair and there’s injustice and underage drinking and poverty and good people are slaves and bad people sit in high courts. So life is shit and sometimes I feel like it just took a big fat one on me but the only thing I’m certain about, the only thing, is that there’s a light in it and I think it might be you. I don’t know, maybe this would be easier if I was a king or still a prince or even a slave, just some…some category to go by, to make some sense of this whole stupid, crazy thing. But if there’s anything else I’ve learned it’s that we can’t have everything, simply because there’s not always enough happiness to go around. And you can lay there bitching about it, wishing that things were different or you can take what you can get and hope it lasts long enough to get you through the day.”

He paused and found he was breathing heavily, the effort of his speech combined with the run was taking its toll. But if he didn’t say this now he knew he’d never find the courage again. And with that thought in mind, he steeled himself to go on. “So that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “Taking what I can get. And sure, it would be nice if I was brave or charming or beautiful or even if I could look at you once without blinking in wonder. But here I am. Not a king, not a prince, not a slave. Just a boy, standing in front of a God, asking it to love him.”

There. It was done. He stopped and waited, still breathing hard, the wind and spurt of sudden courage that had carried him thus far at last run out. But now it was the tension that gripped him, the wait for Achilles’ reaction.

He was staring at him, frowning, his mouth slightly parted, expression unreadable; it didn’t look like anger but Patroclus couldn’t be sure. Looking down he could see that Achilles’ muscles were tensed, shining bright white through the taught skin of his hand. Patroclus winced and braced himself for the punch that never came. Instead Achilles reached up, grasped his jaw and pressed his lips to his.

Within a second it all came flooding back. The memory of Achilles’ mouth on his, he wondered how he had ever lived without it after that first taste that seemed now like a lifetime ago. It stunned him still to realise just how soft his lips were, opening against his like the flowering of petals. But there was nothing lenient in the kiss, nothing forgiving. With desperate intensity they claimed each other, hands clasping at the back of necks, fingers pulling through knots of tangled hair. Their foreheads bumped together; Achilles’ palms were flat on either side of Patroclus’ face as their lips met again and again, Patroclus could see beneath his eyelashes that his eyes were screwed up as if from pain.

His mouth was hot; it was as if someone had lit a fire in their stomachs which was leaping up their torsos and into their chests, curling from their lips like tongues of flame. As they kissed they pushed at each other, their arms working furiously while they struggled to gain the upper hand, bruising flesh as their shoulders bashed together. At one point Achilles actually shoved him away and Patroclus felt a sharp flicker of horror, thinking that he had changed his mind when suddenly he was back and kissing him again, this time more urgently, forcing him backwards onto the bed.

Patroclus stumbled, tripping over his own feet and landing on the mattress. Hastily he arranged himself into a sitting position, struggling to suppress his glee as Achilles proceeded to clamber onto the bed, his hands and knees flat on the mattress as he hovered over Patroclus. With his tawny hair sticking messily about his face and his cat eyes shining brighter than ever he looked for all the world like a great lion, standing on all fours.

“You are beautiful,” he growled angrily. “So shut up.”

And before Patroclus had a chance to respond he had leant down and was kissing his neck. Patroclus eyes rolled back into his skull at the touch of Achilles’ lips on the supple skin beneath his jaw, gasping as his teeth grazed his neck. He felt the curve of Achilles’ smile against his shoulder and a jolt of competitive irritation shot through him. Instinctively, he reached down and began to stroke the taught muscles of Achilles’ thighs, his fingers skimming his bronze skin with feather light touches as they moved slowly inward. Suddenly Achilles gasped audibly and Patroclus was thrilled to discover the hardness there, peeking out from beneath the thin cotton of his chiton. His joy only intensified upon the realisation that Achilles was blushing.

“Alright,” he murmured, raising an eyebrow as he caught sight of Patroclus’ own erection. “Sit up.”

Patroclus obeyed and Achilles moved away to allow him to scramble into an upright position. Once apart they looked at each other, cross-legged upon the mattress. For the first time, it seemed, they beheld each other; there was no light except for that of the moon and Patroclus had to peer at him from the dark in order to make out the rosy sheen of his skin, dishevelled hair and swollen lips. In all the time that he had known him, he’d never looked so lovely.

Patroclus put his hands on Achilles’ chest. He could feel the rhythmic beating of his heart beneath his palm, like a ball of fire pulsing beneath his skin. He looked up and their eyes met.

“You can have it,” Achilles whispered, and kissed him.

Chapter Text

After that they were slower, moving languidly, almost dreamlike as steadily they undressed each other. Perhaps the full enormity of the situation had dawned on them now that the initial heat and impulse of the moment was over, and they were both suddenly aware of how inexperienced they really were. Patroclus’ fingers fumbled on the catch of Achilles’ chiton, feeling the heat rise to his cheeks as it failed to undo and in the end Achilles had to do it himself, his hands quick and nimble where Patroclus’ had been clumsy.

The thick folds of material slipped from his body inch by inch until they had fallen away completely, revealing the magnificent torso beneath. Despite having seen it so many times, awake and in his sleep, Patroclus felt his breath catch. After so long thinking and dreaming of this body he could scarcely believe now that it was his and his alone. Mixed with the awe came a twinge of embarrassment as his own tunic fell away; compared to Achilles’ sculpted form he felt himself to be pale and average and not for the first time that evening he wondered why on earth Achilles wanted him, why he had been given this gift of which he was so unworthy.

As if reading his thoughts, Achilles reached out and ran his fingers along the prominent line of Patroclus’ collar bone, tracing the v-shaped groove at the base of neck. He set his lips to that hollow, working upwards to kiss his neck and throat and Patroclus sighed, feeling himself relax into Achilles’ gentle touch, even while his other hand made to tug away the remains of the tunic still clinging to his waist. He flushed when it came off however, exposing his hot flesh to the cold air and had to fight the reflex to cover up his erection with his hands. Noticing, Achilles whacked his hand away and bent down towards his chest. As he did so his lower half brushed against Patroclus’; he stifled a groan through clenched teeth.

Strands of silvery blonde hair slipped from behind Achilles’ ears as he began to trail kisses over Patroclus’ chest. They tickled his skin, like the beating wings of a small bird and Patroclus was reminded of that story, of how Zeus had come to Hera as a helpless, feathered thing and she had clasped him against her breast, to keep him safe from the storm sending the galaxies tumbling round the Universe. Achilles’ lips marked his flesh, as if he were claiming Patroclus for his own, and each touch of his mouth was as branding as iron.

Suddenly he stopped. Patroclus’ eyes fluttered open to meet his, staring apologetically up at him. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he confessed.

He sounded himself so helpless, so completely at a loss that Patroclus’ first instinct was to laugh. He reached out a hand to brush the hair off Achilles’ face, running his fingers through the tangles and stroked the blushing skin at the back of his neck. “Well what you’re doing now seems to be working,” he answered pointedly, twirling a curly thread of gold round his index.

Achilles smiled and kissed Patroclus sweetly, his tongue flickering lithely as a dancing flame. Patroclus tightened his hold round his neck, drawing him closer to him and was disappointed when Achilles broke off the kiss. The feeling did not last long however as Achilles lowered his head and proceeded to take Patroclus’ nipple between his teeth. This time Patroclus could not suppress the moan that came out with the sudden flash of pain and he felt Achilles’ grin widen. By the time Achilles released him he was rock hard and his cock was throbbing urgently.

Achilles’ hands, long fingered and calloused from bow strings and the lyre flitted across his thigh, barely grazing the tip. Patroclus swore as the light contact sent his head reeling and his cock gave an involuntary twitch. Achilles hesitated, as if struck by a sudden idea and Patroclus almost screamed at him, the suspense was almost unbearable. Then, as if he had made up his mind, Achilles began to stroke him.

He was tentative, clumsy even, and Patroclus was aware of a cruel, perverse sense of glee at seeing the magnificent Achilles, always so confident, now unsure of himself. But as Achilles’ movements quickened all thoughts dissipated into the warm air and he was conscious only of the pleasure; of Achilles’ long, supple, beautiful hands on him, weaving up and down as if he were working some fabulous tapestry. His pulse quickened, his breathing grew haggard and he could not think but could only tilt his head back as a moan escaped his lips and stars appeared at the corners of his vision. He caught Achilles’ eye and suddenly they were both laughing at how much better this felt when it was somebody else’s hands doing this, after so many nights touching himself under the sheets this is what he had been missing.

Achilles’ strokes were faster than ever; Patroclus’ mouth fell open as he came in thin streaks against the golden-brown plane of his stomach. They both gazed in shock at the lines of semen glinting off Achilles’ muscles and dripping onto the sheets, like the corporeal incarnation of a pearly white ghost until they were laughing again, partially from embarrassment and mostly because it seemed like the right thing to do.

It was then that Patroclus noticed Achilles too was swollen and reddish, the tip slightly moist and he realised that with his other hand he had been touching himself. Before Achilles had the chance to say a word Patroclus had pushed him down so that he was lying flat upon the mattress. Swiftly he touched him between the thighs and Achilles’ whimpered, a glorious sound which only grew more guttural as Patroclus began to mimic his actions. Like Achilles he wasn’t sure what he would like or what to do, and he didn’t want to seem as awkward and inept as he felt. So he did what seemed natural, his hand moving in time to his hammering heart, at one point glancing nervously up to gauge Achilles’ reaction. His skin was bright pink and damp with sweat, his bright hair clinging to the hollows of his cheeks as his wet mouth fell open to accommodate the frantic rate of his breathing. Suddenly he made a strange noise which sounded like “Fu-ghujcklus” as his eyes rolled back into his head and he lurched forward, coming in reams onto the crisp, cotton sheets.

They collapsed onto the mattress, both of them breathing hard. Soon there was no sound but for their soft panting and the steady thump of their hearts, gradually slowing to a calmer rhythm as their limbs relaxed. The room was cool, it was raining outside, and Patroclus could see little tendrils of steam rising from the sweat on their skin to settle on the air. He could smell salt; lying there on their backs they could easily have been on the beach with the sting of the sea on their glistening bodies and the tide washing over their feet. Their chests rose and fell like the crests of waves, both of them too stunned with what had just happened to speak. Silence, thought Patroclus whimsically, is most definitely something you can hear.

As usual, Achilles was the first to break it. “How long?” he asked.

Patroclus shook his head. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “A long time.”

“I can tell you when,” said Achilles, propping himself up on his elbow. In his sluggish state, Patroclus thought stupidly that he looked like a mermaid. “Your first fight. When I saw you pummel that bastard Mynax into the dirt.”

Patroclus stared at him in disbelief. “That was when…when…?”

“When I knew yeah,” nodded Achilles, correcting the unfinished question. “For certain, I mean. I remember seeing that look in your eye and you had this gorgeous little split in your lip and I knew right then that I liked you. It took a little more time for me to work out the rest.”

“But that was so long ago,” said Patroclus incredulously. “If you knew then why in Gods’ name were you such an arsehole?”

“I don’t know,” Achilles shrugged, flicking his bangs out his eyes. “I suppose it’s a little like when a boy likes a girl but he can’t show it. So he tells her she’s pretty by pulling her hair and pushing her over and stuff.”

Through the dim, moonlit darkness Patroclus narrowed his eyes. “Is this you calling me a little girl?”

Achilles smirked, turning his head so that he was facing Patroclus properly. “I’m just saying,” he continued. “That being an arsehole was how I dealt with the situation. And you made it so goddamn easy…don’t trick yourself into thinking that you were a stroll in the agora yourself. You were such a self-righteous little prick. Still are, in fact.”

“Here comes the romance,” Patroclus rolled his eyes.

“But it must have been earlier,” Achilles carried on, a slight frown appearing on his pink-flushed face, as though trying to explain something to himself. “Since first I saw you I couldn’t take my eyes off you. I thought I would drive myself crazy trying to hide it. Surely you noticed?”

Patroclus shook his head, completely astonished. “No,” he said. “Never.”

“Never,” Achilles repeated, shaking his head in bewilderment. “And what about you? Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

Patroclus shook his head, at a loss for an explanation. He felt like someone had robbed all the words right out of his head leaving no room for anything but the purest happiness. All along, when he had thought Achilles despised his very guts he had loved him, even as Patroclus loved him now. He considered pinching himself just to check he hadn’t slipped into a dream but decided against it, thinking that even if he had done, he didn’t want to wake up anytime soon.

“It’s just so strange,” sighed Patroclus finally. “All this time when we wanted to kill each other, hating each other’s very being and now…now here we are. It’s just so…so insane, I mean, how did we even end up this way?”

Achilles shrugged. “The Universe is incongruous and heteromorphic,” he answered sagely. “Anyway, it’s not so strange. Perfectly understandable. To be expected, even. From the moment I first saw you I was fascinated by you. You were so weird; so awkward and clumsy and angry at everyone. And then I met you and you were so…different from the rest of them…it was perplexing to me. You were such a little weirdo. And you were so like me, yet you hated me so much. How can two people hate each other so avidly without liking each other a little? How could I possibly not have been drawn to you?”

Their eyes met and locked. Patroclus found himself unable to look away from those eyes, with their ocean irises, green and tumultuous as a storm at sea. Achilles smiled, moving to cup Patroclus’ cheek with his hand and when he spoke it was softly, so softly Patroclus had to strain to hear him. “How could I have possibly stayed away?” he whispered.

His hand was soft, thumbing the angular line of Patroclus’ jaw bone with his thumb. Patroclus leaned into his palm, burying his face into those callouses where sword hilts and the hefts of spears had welded themselves against him, rubbing against the taut skin and scarred knuckles; evidence of their many fights, now etched like ink into his flesh. He reached out with his hand, brushing against the hollow of Achilles’ cheekbone and revelled at the impossible softness of his skin.

“You should have told me,” said Patroclus wistfully. “Or I should have told you. We could have had so much time.”

Achilles shrugged, the lean branch of his shoulders lifting like a cypress tree in the wind. “No matter,” he said. “We have all the time in the world.”

Patroclus smiled and nodded, blinking back tears. Happiness, he decided as Achilles thumbed the matching scars on Patroclus’ knuckles, could be a painful thing. For a little while longer they gazed at each other in the dark, learning each other’s bodies anew, scaling lines and crevices with tender touches and soft, chaste kisses. Then at last Achilles put his arms round Patroclus and it was not long before they were both asleep, suddenly overcome by the sheer magnitude of their joy and the aftermath of love. Soon the room was quiet but for their breathing and the sound of the rain that pattered against the windowsill before rising like steam into the night.

oOo

Morning came in waves of sunlight, drenching the room with pools of pale gold. Patroclus woke up first and was at once awash with relief as it became apparent that last night had not been a dream. Achilles was still sleeping soundly beside him, his face calm and mouth slightly parted. Patroclus could feel his warm breath against his shoulder; for some reason he found this reassuring. He never liked to see Achilles asleep. He always looked like he had gone somewhere Patroclus was unable to follow.

Patroclus turned on his side, arranging himself so that he could see the whole of him. He looked so much younger in this state, his face so untroubled by the plagues and excitements life was forever springing at them. At this moment he could have been a child who had never held a knife or felt the drip of blood running black along his arms. It remained a constant source of amazement to him that one could look so white and innocent, so perfectly, purely naïve when the very balls of his fists were crafted to kill.

Sunlight spilled onto the bed, setting Achilles’ face alight with a radiant glow and not for the first time Patroclus struggled to comprehend how this was possible, that something so beautiful could be firstly real and secondly his, to have, to touch, to love so freely and completely. Then with a jolt of fear he wondered if perhaps, in the light of the morning, Achilles had changed his mind. What if he was horrified at the events that had taken place last night? What if this was just another one of his games and in a moment he would kick Patroclus out of the bed, laughing disgustedly and tell him that he was pathetic and worthy only of the upmost contempt?

These thoughts flashed through Patroclus’ mind by the second, however, the moment Achilles’ eyes fluttered open and smiled at him they were gone. “Patroclus,” he said and the day was already the greatest of his life.

They rose and washed quickly, their bodies still sticky with the residue of the night. Achilles stripped the bed and bundled the sheets into a ball to be washed later, so that the dubious stains would not arise suspicion amongst the servants who would later come in to do the laundry. Then they dressed swiftly and headed downstairs for breakfast.

Even as they entered the Great Hall Patroclus felt sure that someone would notice a change. Surely someone had to sense the warm glow radiating from the both of them, or at least glance up and see the ridiculous grins plastered on both their faces. But no one did and breakfast continued as normal, despite the looks neither of them could help sneaking each other from across the table, or the fact that their legs would just happen to bump and graze against each other.

They bolted their food down as fast as they were able, much to the bemusement of their peers, and when they were done they raced each other down to the beach. Achilles took off ahead of him of course and the sound of his laughter caught and carried on the wind, his hair streaming behind him as his pink heels raised massive clouds of sand. Patroclus forced himself to speed up in order to catch up with him and when he was near enough he reached out to grab Achilles’ shoulders. At once Achilles’ lost his balance and tripped, sending them both tumbling into the dunes.

For a little while they rolled about in the sand, the kicks and punches they threw at each other broken only by breathy kisses and caresses. Gritty granules clung to their bodies, already slickened by the sun and the exercise, making it easier to grip each other. At last Achilles pinned Patroclus down and Patroclus, instead of throwing him off, allowed himself to be kissed, relishing the feel of Achilles’ soft mouth sliding against his as his shadow loomed over him, and he tasted the honey they’d both had for breakfast.

When they tired they sat up and crawled over to sit under a tree. Once seated beneath its shade Patroclus glanced at Achilles’ out of the corner of his eye. His expression was unfathomable but there was a slight smile tugging at the corner of his lip, as if he had a secret he was struggling not to tell.

“You look like you just won a kingdom,” Patroclus observed.

The corner of Achilles’ mouth twitched. “I think I did.”

Patroclus took this as a good sign and charged ahead to voice the worry that had been irritating him since he’d been awake.

“So no regrets,” he said, sifting sand through his fingers. “About yesterday? And last night. And what we did.”

He held his breath even as Achilles looked at him quizzically, one eyebrow raised in a question. “Regrets?” he repeated. “My only ‘regret’ is that we didn’t do it sooner.”

Patroclus exhaled, the tension in his body leaving him. “Good,” he replied. “Me neither.”

They were both quiet for a little while, listening to the sound of the waves rushing against the shore. The smile tugging at Achilles’ lip had broadened now, he was grinning unabashedly at his feet. Patroclus noticed and nudged him. “What?”

“It’s nothing,” answered Achilles.

“No go on, tell me.”

“It’s not important,” Achilles emphasised, a little pink coming into his cheeks. “I was just thinking…that this is the happiest I’ve ever been.”

He looked at Patroclus and his eyes were shining brighter than the gold splitting the sun-drenched clouds above them. Patroclus grinned back, knowing it was needless to put into words how he was feeling. He wasn’t even sure if he’d ever known happiness before this. He dropped his head on Achilles’ shoulder and Achilles put an arm around his waist, hugging him tightly against his body. The wind picked up strands of Patroclus’ hair, ruffling it, and Achilles’ nuzzled the tousled locks.

“And also I was thinking,” he said against his ear. “That I really hope mother doesn’t find out.”

At once Patroclus’ eyes flew open; all the tautness flooded back into his muscles so that he was rigid with fear. He stared at Achilles with the expression of a man begging for what he had just heard not to be true but Achilles, who had decidedly less to fear from the Goddess, was busy cackling to himself; amused by his own imagination and the infinite images of potential destruction that would result from Thetis’ reaction. His amusement however was cut short as the figure of a man could be made out running in their direction from across the bay.

“What do you think that’s about?” Achilles muttered, slipping his arm back from round Patroclus’ waist.

“I don’t know,” replied Patroclus but his insides squirmed nervously. Had they been found out already?

The figure was sprinting, his legs and arms working with disciplined urgency. Achilles, suddenly remembering that he was the prince, got to his feet and Patroclus clambered up after him, pulse quickening as the man’s steps slowed to a halt in front of them. When he had reached them he doubled over, clutching his knees and breathing deeply with his head between his legs. Beads of sweat slipped from his forehead to form little dark spots on the sand.

“Take your time man,” said Achilles warily. “There’s no rush.”

“Thank you, my lord,” panted the man. Patroclus could hear the wheeze in his breath, he must have killed himself to get here. Absentmindedly, and not without worry, Patroclus wondered what on earth could be so important.

Achilles waited patiently while he caught back his breath. At last he straightened up and clasped his hands behind his back, assuming a formal messenger stance. “I have…two messages,” he said haltingly, his breath still heavy. “One for the both of you.”

Achilles made a small inclination with his head. “We’re all ears.”

“For Menoitides,” the messenger continued nodding at Patroclus. “Lords Ampelius and Acastus have decided you are fit to be recruited into the home defence. Your duties and training will begin at once and you will see Lord Ampelius at noon to be fitted with weapons and armour.”

Patroclus felt the joy inside him swell at the words and Achilles clapped him on the back. At last, at long last they had recognised his worth. He had been accepted among the ranks of the home defence and after that the army beckoned like a brilliant lighthouse throwing out beams of eternal fame and glory. He raised his face to the sky where walls of lights spilled out from the cracks in the clouds. Zeus, he prayed. If this is a dream, do me a favour. Let me sleep.

“Brilliant,” grinned Achilles. “That’s what we like to hear. And the other news?”

The messenger bowed courteously but firmly. “I fear that is best to be given by King Peleus, my lord. He requests that he will see you now amongst his council. He says that Menoitides may accompany you if you wish it, but there must be no other.”

“I do wish it,” said Achilles bluntly as Patroclus’ insides went cold. Peleus wanted to see them. Both. Together. That could only mean one thing. Clearly Achilles was thinking along the same lines because he appeared, as he rarely did in front of others, hesitant. “I also wish to know why my father so requests my presence.”

The messenger looked uneasy. “My lord, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say-”

“-You have just been granted the liberty by your prince. Speak now, tell me what I am wanted for, or you will tell my father that if he wishes to see me he will come for me himself,” interrupted Achilles curtly.

The man turned pale at the thought of addressing Peleus so and he looked for a moment just as queasy as Patroclus felt. Achilles winked at him, his way of telling him not to worry, that the situation was under control, however his confidence did little to assuage Patroclus’ fears. As much power as Achilles had over common men and messengers, Patroclus was dubious of how much influence he had to change the will of the king once he had steeled himself to a decision. If Peleus had somehow found out about the two of them, Patroclus knew he might as well skip the meeting and head off to his room to pack his things.

The messenger licked his lips feverishly, clearly in some sort of internal turmoil. Achilles awaited him, his expression cordiale and pleasant. “Speak,” he said amiably. “Unless you would prefer to return to my father.”

“Prince Achilles, as a humble messenger you will know I am not privy to the political dealings of the kingdom, therefore it is not my place to deliver-”

“-Speak,” said Achilles again and this time his voice hinted at impatience.

“We are at war with Thessaly,” the messenger rushed as if it caused him great pain to say the words. Patroclus’ heart dropped into his stomach. “They are marching an army only three leagues hence. Already they have crossed the border. They will be ready to attack in four days, at the most. Peleus wants you in his council now to help plan Phthia’s defence.”

He eyed Achilles and when he spoke it was as if the words came from far away, not from the mouth of a messenger but from all around them, and echoing from deep within. “Your time has come, Prince Achilles.”

Chapter Text

Patroclus could feel his heart leaping in his chest as he hurried to keep up with Achilles who had abruptly assumed a fast-paced march in his urgency. His quick steps made little sound on the marble floor while Patroclus’ feet slapped obnoxiously as he attempted to speed up and keep the pace. They did not talk, Achilles’ keen eyes were fixed in front of him and steely, his carriage was that of someone readying themselves. Although his expression was a blank Patroclus could see the wheels turning in his mind as he mentally prepared himself for what was to come.

By the time they reached the War Room Patroclus’ ribs and chest were complaining and his pulse fluttered with nerves and heavy breathing. Achilles however looked as if he had been carved out of marble. After knocking brusquely and receiving Peleus’ wheezy “Enter” he opened the door with little ceremony and walked into the room, Patroclus hurrying after him.

At his arrival all heads in the room turned towards Achilles, like sunflowers to light. No wonder, he was the brightest thing in the room, the spun gold of his hair and gilded limbs acting almost like a candle in the cavernous gloom. The War Room was dark for there were no windows; the walls were roughhewn stone and all the furniture was hard, uncomfortable looking, and carved from darkest mahogany. The only colour came from a few imperious looking tapestries, dyed in deepest crimson and depicting scenes of battle.

It was hard not to feel intimidated in a room such as this one, and more so when Patroclus’ eyes grew accustomed to the dark and he was able to make out the faces. Peleus was seated in his chair and grouped in a circle around him on chairs or on cushions were Acastus, Phoinix, Amyntor, Cleitus and Ampelius as well as a few other nobles whose names Patroclus didn’t know. He felt their black eyes settle on him, weighing him up, and he resisted the urge to move behind Achilles.

Peleus’ thin face cracked in a smile. “Welcome my son,” he said, holding out his hand. “It is good you have come. And Patroclus as well.”

“We are sorry to have kept you waiting father,” answered Achilles, crossing the room swiftly to bend down and plant a kiss on the ruby ring glinting from Peleus’ index. “My lords,” he added, with a stiff nod to the rest of the company. Patroclus followed suit, trying hard not to blush as some of the men raised eyebrows at Achilles’ use of the inclusive plural.

“Come both of you, sit beside me,” Peleus gestured to his right side where two chairs lay empty; they took them, Patroclus feeling a little odd looking down at the people seated beneath him. He snuck a look at Achilles out of the corner of his eye. His face was still impassive, but beneath the calm exterior Patroclus could sense an almost imperceptible twitch of excitement.

“Now we are all here,” began Acastus, getting to his feet. Patroclus had forgotten what a big man he was, he seemed to fill the room with his shoulders as well as his voice. “Let’s get down to it. The Thessalians have crossed the border. They will be ready to attack in three days, four if we’re lucky. The Myrmidon army can meet them at the frontier but I fear chances of repelling them will be slim-”

“-How so?” prompted Cleitus. “The Myrmidon army is the strongest force in all the Aegean. Empires quake in their greaves just hearing our name. Why shouldn’t we send these Thessalian pig-dogs back home with their curled tails between their legs?”

“Because we are not just talking about the Thessalaian army,” Acastus explained patiently. “It seems King Poeas has been as busy in diplomacy has he has in military matters. He has made alliances with forces all over the other side of the Othrys mountains. It seems your son’s coming of age has made you a threat in the eyes of other rulers. Rumours of a Myrmidon Empire have provided fodder for paranoid fallacy. And Prince Achilles is, as they say, notorious.”

Patroclus felt rather than saw the glee seize Achilles at the word. He turned to Patroclus grinning, eyes shining with mischievous delight. Notorious, he mouthed at him.

“So how many are there?” Phoinix asked, an empiricist as always.

Acastus took a steadying breath before he answered. “So far our sources have reported ten thousand strong.”

The words gripped the room with dramatic effect; beside him Patroclus felt Achilles grow rigid in his seat as the number was echoed with scandalised disbelief and Ampelius swore loudly.

“We have just over half as many,” Acastus continued. “And we are ill-trained and ill-equipped. We have not had to face so many for a number of years. The Myrmidons are indomitable yes, and if it were not simply a case of figures I would still say we would send them like mewling whelps back to their mothers. But the fact is we are outnumbered.”

“So what do we do?” asked Peleus.

Acastus shrugged his heavy shoulders with a disturbing air of resignation. “Call for aid,” he answered. “Send word to Corinth, Ithaca, Argos. We cannot win this battle. Our best hope is to let them have this one and catch them off guard while they are celebrating their victory with a full, combined force.”

“Surrender, then?” Ampelius growled disapprovingly. “Is that what you’re suggesting?”

Acastus shook his head. “Don’t think of it as surrender,” he suggested. “Think of it as…temporary submission.”

His words were greeted with a heavy silence. Patroclus took a moment to scan the faces around him. None looked very happy. Both Peleus and Achilles looked as if they had been forced to swallow something repulsive, he tried to imagine the two of them with their arms raised in surrender as around them foreign soldiers looted and plundered. Achilles involved in a tug of war with a Thessalian trying to take his lyre. He suppressed a chuckle.

“Very well,” said Peleus slowly after the quiet had become almost unbearable. Achilles’ head snapped towards his father, his eyes wide. “Phoinix, send out a call for aid. Corinth have long been allies of Phthia, they will come. As for Argos and Ithaca…no doubt our plight will seem small fry to a son of Atreus and Odysseus is far too slippery to place my trust. But we cannot afford to be picky with so few friends to choose from. Send word to them too. With luck, help will arrive before the hoard reaches our gates.”

“So you will just lay down,” said Achilles hotly. “And wait for the problem to move out of our hands?”

Patroclus felt his insides sink. Around him men exchanged glances and raised eyebrows, Peleus looked singularly displeased. Magnificent, he thought to himself. His first time on an actual war council and he can’t keep his mouth shut long enough to enjoy it. He wondered how many wars Achilles would start when he became king, as a simple result of his own impetuousness.The idea was unsettling.

“I know I am young,” Achilles continued. “But I must say, I never thought I’d see the day when the Myrmidons were reduced to bleating sheep and our finest war captains to cowering women.”

“Achilles,” Patroclus murmured under his breath.

Achilles waved him away impatiently. “We’re talking about the greatest warriors Greece has ever seen,” he went on. “The greatest commanders. The best tacticians. And of course, the noblest king. Are you really suggesting we lay down our arms so easily? Without even giving the Thessalians a chance of a fight? My lords, the humiliation itself will outlive us for generations.”

“Once again the young prince betrays his naivety,” Amyntor snarled, his lip curling. “Your words are commendable my lord, and, if it is what you were afraid of, no one doubts your bravery,” a few men snickered. Achilles flexed his knuckles. “However, fine sentiments will not get us out of this fix. Submission is the only option, unless you have a better idea-”

“-I do,” Achilles interrupted him and it was Patroclus’ turn to snap to attention. “We send the army to meet the Thessalians at the border. They will be beaten yes, and severely. Yet it will force the Thessalians to exert themselves, to test their bronze against ours. By the time the battle is over they will be tired, their numbers scattered. They will not reach the gates for another two days, at which point the home defence will finish them off. Or at least buy enough time for aid to arrive before it is too late.”

He finished and looked round the room expectantly for criticism or support. Acastus stroked his beard thoughtfully. Ampelius looked a little confused, his heavy eyebrows bustling and Peleus too was frowning.

“You would have me risk good men?” he asked. “Sacrifice half my army in an impossible battle to buy us temporary glory?”

“To buy us time,” Achilles corrected. “True, Corinth has been our ally for years. But it will take them long enough to get here, by which time Thessalians could already be making off with the best of our silver. At least this way we have a chance at gaining a foothold over them before they wreak wrack and ruin throughout the country.”

Phoinix turned to Acastus, his forehead layered with deep creases. “What do you think about this?”

Acastus scratched his jaw philosophically. “Our losses will be many,” he answered after a while. “But we might save a few if we retreat back to the citadel before it gets too hot. Prince Achilles is right, there is no guarantee help will come to us to save the situation in time. If we can delay them even a little…it might prove useful.”

“But the home defence?” spluttered one of the lords. “You would trust the safety of your country into the hands of some feckless adolescents? They will be speared where they stand, if they don’t run for clean undergarments first.”

Achilles eyes flashed. “You underestimate the youth my lord,” he said dangerously. “This is a mistake.”

He looked appealingly at his father, as did the rest of the room. Peleus tapped his long-fingernails on the arm rest of his chair, his rheumy eyes uncharacteristically focused. He still looked unhappy. Finally however he looked up. “We will do as the prince suggests,” he replied reluctantly. “Acastus, ready the troops. Ampelius, the home defence. Time is of the essence, preparations must begin at once.”

At his words people started getting to their feet, heading off to assume their various duties. Achilles and Patroclus made to get up and follow them out the hall when Peleus’ raspy voice called them back. “Wait a moment.”

Achilles turned expectantly. Peleus was watching him levelly, his mouth set into a tight, thin line. It was as if a shadow had fallen over the pale, aged face, the darkness over the room creeping into the deep lines and crevices, like the flit of Death’s wing. Patroclus swallowed as Peleus began to speak.

“Do not think you have won a victory today,” he said coldly. “You spoke offensively and out of turn. If that is the kind of behaviour you think I expect from a leader of this army you are wrong.”

“But-” Achilles started indignantly.

“-Don’t interrupt me,” Peleus raised a palm, his eyes suddenly bright as Achilles’ had been. “You are young, you are naïve, you have no experience of battle. Yet you speak to hardened veterans as if they are below you. I will not have it. You will show respect. Otherwise I will not allow you at the next council. Do you understand?”

Achilles’ body was rigid and tense as marble. Patroclus watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed hard. “Yes,” he muttered.

“Good,” said Peleus. “You may go.”

Achilles gave a stiff bow which Patroclus copied hastily before sweeping after him out the room. If he had thought his strides were long before it was nothing to what they were now, Achilles walked like a man possessed in his haste to put as much distance between himself and the war room as possible. At his sides his fists were bunched so tightly his knuckles shone white against the skin.

Once outside he lost it. Patroclus leaped out the way instinctively as Achilles kicked at a laundry basket, sending linens into the wind like large flapping birds. “Can you believe it?” he rounded after swearing so forcefully that a washerwoman jumped in startled surprise. “How dare he! And after I practically wrote his strategy! Clearly the old man cannot handle a fresh voice. Perhaps he fears his son will steal all the glory from him in talk as well as on the battlefield. Mother always said he hated debate. Naïve. I’ve killed a man for Gods’ sake, how many ‘feckless adolescents’ can claim that-”

“-Ding ding,” said Patroclus.

Achilles broke off and stared at him incredulously. “What?”

“Hm? Sorry?”

“Why did you just ding me?”

“Oh that?” Patroclus waved dismissively. “That was just the warning bell that goes off whenever it’s time for you to stop talking stupid. Although apparently you can’t hear it, so I decided to start sounding it out for you.”

Achilles’ eyes, already narrowed, became slits.  “You have thirty seconds to amend the situation.”

“You know perfectly well that had nothing to do with jealousy. You addressed a room of experienced, hardened war veterans as if they were your sparring buddies. As if you’ve been through everything they have and come out of it laughing. Sure, you came up with a viable alternative to retreat but at the cost of sounding like a complete dickhead. Oh, and you were just about to use killing Mynax as evidence of your competence. That’s pretty uncool.”

“Fifteen seconds,” snarled Achilles. “I’m not feeling improvement.”

“You need to accept that you’re not just a prince anymore,” Patroclus told him calmly, as if explaining mathematics to a child. “You’re a councillor. That’s going to require skill in debate as well as on the field. Remember what Phoinix taught us, much of warfare happens behind closed doors. If you want your father to respect you as a war chief you’re going to have to curb your tongue, and your temper. Otherwise you’ll just get a reputation as an impetuous hot-head who likes to shout for attention. No one will ever take you seriously.”

Patroclus waited patiently, arms crossed over his chest in anticipation of challenge. Achilles looked sulky and his eyes were cast downward as he scuffed his foot against the ground. “But you like my temper,” he muttered eventually.

A smile tugged at Patroclus’ lip. “Yes,” he replied admittedly.

Achilles glanced up, a wicked look crawling into his features. “And you also like my tongue.”

“Oh for Gods’ sake,” Patroclus rolled his eyes and Achilles tittered smugly. “That has nothing to do with anything, stop trying to change the subject, you can’t just win me over-”

“-Can’t I?” purred Achilles, gently taking Patroclus’ chin with the crook of his finger and tilting his face towards him. Patroclus felt all strength leave his limbs, his legs going wobbly at the huskiness of Achilles’ voice and the proximity of his pricked, teasing mouth. His breath was warm and sent shivers along his spine; Achilles closed the gap between them and Patroclus allowed himself to surrender to the soft pressure of his lips, the skilful probing of his tongue as it flickered across his bottom lip like a leaping flame.

They parted and Patroclus’ eyes fluttered open. “See, now you can’t do that to the people in there,” he scolded him. “You will have to use your other persuasive charms.”

Achilles grinned. “I think I can manage that,” he conceded diplomatically. “Of course, they won’t be able to dismiss me for long. Not when I’m holding the last resistance against the Thessalians. Speaking of,” he glanced over his shoulder, as if something had suddenly occurred to him. “I should go and talk with Acastus, start planning the defence. Come with me?”

Patroclus almost nodded before remembering the message they’d received before attending the war council. “I have to see Ampelius,” he replied. “Need to get kitted out.”

In his mind’s eye he pictured himself holding a sword twice his size, in helmet and armour that were far too big. He cringed inwardly. Achilles nodded. “I’ll see you on the beach when you’re done,” he said. “Wait for me.”

Patroclus agreed and Achilles squeezed his hand before heading off in the direction of the barracks. Patroclus turned and made for the opposite direction, toward the practice fields where Ampelius would be waiting for him, like some giant excitable puppy eager to start a new adventure. As he walked through the long grass he was aware of a certain feeling of change. It felt strange to cross the fields now after passing through them so many times as an outcast, so unsure of his place in the world. Now it was a different person who ran his fingers through the long green stalks, a person who loved and was loved, and whom the Gods had finally, finally seen fit to bless. But now everything was changing all over again and he wondered whether another person still would come out of this in the end.

Ampelius was ready for him, massive palms outstretched in greeting and Patroclus thought it had been a long time since he’d seen disappointment on that hulking face. Then again, he thought grimly to himself, I’ve never fought in a war before. Clearly Ampelius was thinking along quite different lines for as Patroclus drew nearer his grin only broadened until it threatened to split his face in two.

“Here he is!” he announced jovially. “Hello Patroclus, welcome. Well, would you look at this! All the best young fighters of Phthia lined up together, ready to save the country that has become more like home to them than their mother’s own breast. Each one prepared to raise the spear and echo the cry of war! War, my children! Isn’t it exciting?”

He beamed round at the collection of foster boys who stared wide-eyed back at him, hoping to look keenly excited rather than vaguely sick.  Patroclus exchanged a look with Deiomachus before falling into step with him as they followed Ampelius to the armoury.

“So it’s true?” Deiomachus asked in an undertone. “We’re actually at war with Thessaly? Like a real war?”

“Like an actual, real, honest-to God war, yes,” Patroclus replied.

Deiomachus let out a low whistle. “Fuck,” he said. “I never…I guess I thought it would be a few years, you know? I mean, I knew we’d have to eventually but not… I thought at least until we turned eighteen…”

Patroclus didn’t have anything to reply to that so he settled on a gesture of agreement. The reality of the situation was only just starting to dawn on him; he was going to have to fight, not friends in a ring or competition but strangers, intent on killing him. The idea sent a blossom of nausea swelling at the pit of his stomach.

One by one the boys lined up at the door of the storeroom and looked nervous as Ampelius handed them chest guard, greaves, sword, spear and shield. The armour was made of thick leather, a fact Patroclus saw Deiomachus weigh up dubiously, mentally calculating the resistance needed in the face of a spear flying at a ninety miles an hour. When it was Patroclus’ turn however, Ampelius gave him the once-over before retreating back inside the storeroom and emerging with a complete new set of armour, gleaming in the sun as it splayed light from all directions. Patroclus gawped along with the other boys and tried not to let his knees buckle as it was placed into his hands.

“What’s this?” he managed to gasp.

“Your armour,” Ampelius replied. “The king has ordered that the prince’s companion will wear bronze.” He smiled good-naturedly at Patroclus, as if at an inside joke. “You’ve come a long way son,” he told him. “Don’t worry. I think it will suit you.”

Patroclus nodded dumbly and stammered out his thanks. He felt suddenly embarrassed, the armour was heavy in his arms and the sun made the metal burn hot against his skin. He tried to avert the other boys’ gawking stares as he struggled to carry it away.

When he had reached the beach he set the burden down, the muscles in his neck and shoulders sighing with relief. He sat down cross-legged in the sand and propped the shield up against his knee, allowing himself to examine it properly. The bronze was smooth and felt strangely soft to his touch, as if it were fresh out the kiln. The sun had warmed it so that when his fingers skimmed the raised surface it was like there was a beating heart somewhere deep within it, pumping away streams of red-gold molten. Shivers shot down his fingertips and along his nerve endings and idly he stroked the hilt of his sword.

“My what a romantic display,” came a voice and instinctively Patroclus’ fingers tightened; in one swift movement he raised the sword into the air and held it challengingly in front of him, heart hammering in his ears.

A high, shimmering laugh answered him, a laugh like the tide rushing over the rocks. In a moment Thetis stood before him, her long red hair hanging in heavy ropes around her white shoulders. In contrast to her skin, the armour looked positively dull. Patroclus’ felt something lodge within his throat.

“Perhaps I should give you some privacy,” she said. “Tell me, is the weapon responsive to your caress?”

Patroclus realised he was still holding the sword and instantly felt foolish. He dropped it unceremoniously into the sand and sank clumsily to his knees. “My lady,” he mumbled embarrassedly. “Forgive me, I did not know it was you.”

Thetis raised an eyebrow, an expression that was so painfully familiar Patroclus almost forgot to breath. “Well obviously,” she said, in the tone of one addressing an imbecile. “I did sneak up on you.”

Her footsteps made no sound on the sand, indeed there was no indentation of her movement except for the trail of tiny droplets that slipped from her skin and hair as she walked. Her grey dress barely fluttered in the wind, it was as if the rules of this world had no bind on her whatsoever. Patroclus watched her approach hesitantly and tried not to take comfort in the fact that his weapons were close by when she folded her legs and sat near him on the sand.

“So,” Thetis began with the air of settling down to a pleasant conversation. “I hear there’s some sort of war on.”

Patroclus wondered if this was a test. He had no idea how much news reached her down there, in the dark depths of the underwater caves although surely gods had their own networks of information. It was impossible to tell anything from her face however so he settled on a standard response. “Yes,” he replied warily. “Thessaly is attacking in three days hence. We are preparing the home defence for the onslaught.”

Thetis nodded disinterestedly.  “A chance to stand in the sun I suppose,” she said. “Time for the mighty Menoitides to prove his noble worth.”

There was no malice in the jibe, only boredom. Patroclus remembered Achilles telling him that she had little interest in mortal concerns and dismissed war matters as bringing about only more swiftly an inevitable end. But if that was the case, then why was she here now?

“A chance for Achilles as well,” he suggested and, as expected, her green eyes glittered a little.

“Yes,” she murmured. “This is true. Although in all honesty I’d really rather he sit this one out. I don’t have a good feeling about this war.”

The words were spoken so idly, so casually that anyone else might have taken them for a passing comment. But to Patroclus, who had spent many hours in the company of the mother goddess and her son, they were not lost. His eyes widened. “Why?” he said quickly. “What is it? What have you heard?”

Thetis’ bone white arms raised and lowered. “Oh, this and that,” she answered airily. “Through the grape-vine or whatever the ocean equivalent is. This war’s going to mean trouble, for everyone involved. Important people as well I mean, not just humans. One of those big “turn of history” deals. And I might have had a tiny little prophecy that someone is going to die.”

It was Patroclus’ turn to raise his eyebrow. “You've had a prophecy that someone is going to die,” he repeated. “In a war.”

“Someone important, sponge-brain,” Thetis snarled. “Someone you know, or who my son knows. Might even be you, come to think of it. Although as you so perceptively implied people die all the time so. No harm done, really.”

With that Thetis got to her feet, stretched and yawned. “And there’s Achilles now,” she observed, looking into the distance. Patroclus craned his neck. Sure enough there he was, his blond head almost white against the blue of the sky. “I should head off. I’ve got some things to discuss with that man,” she spat the last derisively, as if even the epithet of Peleus tasted stale in her mouth. “Nice talking to you. Try not to die.”

Patroclus opened his mouth to reply but before he could form the words she was gone, leaving nothing but a trail of damp splodges against the sand leading away from the shore. A few moments later Achilles had replaced her and was taking her place in front of him.

“Hey,” he greeted him. “Nice armour. Not as nice as mine though. It’s got gold inlay.”

“I couldn’t be more jealous,” Patroclus responded dully.

Seeing the troubled expression, Achilles frowned. “You look like Hephaestus asked you to take a bath with him,” he said. “What’s the matter?”

Patroclus made an airy gesture. “Just had a chat with your mother,” he replied.

A look of dumb shock and horror struck Achilles like a brick. “She doesn’t know,” he whispered.

“No, no,” Patroclus reassured him, although the fact that this possibility could produce such an effect was probably something he should think about later, as well as the speed in which Achilles visibly relaxed. “She’s had a bit of a prophecy. Says she has a bad feeling about this war with Thessaly, that she isn’t mad about you taking part and that someone is going to die. Who could be me, incidentally.”

Perhaps predictably, these words didn’t generate quite the same response as the former except that Achilles’ frown deepened. “My mother had a prophecy that someone is going to die in a war,” Achilles deadpanned.

“Well, yes, that was pretty much my reaction,” shrugged Patroclus. “Although she said it would be someone we know. Which is possibly more frightening.”

Achilles shook his head. “I really don’t think so,” he said. “Between you and me, my mother isn’t exactly a natural talent when it comes to prophesising. A while back she predicted this massive storm that would totally obliterate a nearby settlement we were trading with. It turned out she was right in the end, although she failed to mention it wouldn’t come for another four years.” He shook his head again, a mixed gesture of amusement and exasperation. “Either way, it’s a war, for Gods’ sake. There will be death. That’s just something we’re going to have to get used to. Anyway, people die all the time.”

He got to his feet, dusted the sand off his tunic and offered a hand to pull Patroclus up. “Come on,” he announced, turning on his heel. “Race you to the sea.”

He took off, pink heels flashing against the golden sand. Patroclus smiled and watched his retreating figure grow smaller. However, even as Achilles looked back to yell childish abuse at giving him an unnecessary head-start, Patroclus could not suppress the dark disturbance that had unsettled him as Achilles repeated his mother’s words.

Chapter Text

The next few days went by in a blur, in fact Patroclus was never quite sure where one ended and the next began. The time spent in the War Room was filled with plans and battle strategies, going over numerous tablets, drawing and re-drawing maps in the sand. Achilles and Patroclus found themselves standing for hours on end in that cold, dark, windowless room until their legs could barely support them and they would stumble out into the open air, blinking stupidly at the harsh brightness of the light. At night, when Patroclus was struggling to keep his eyes open and the talk of numbers and provisions got a little too much for his brain, he would go and curl up on the couch. Later Achilles would join him and they would sleep then and there, heads together, figure-bearing tablets slipping from their hands.

If anyone had ever doubted Achilles’ leadership their fears were assuaged now. He was a natural commander; perhaps not so surprisingly he enjoyed giving orders, yet they were always followed without protest or resentment. And it wasn’t just because he was the prince but because he was trusted, it seemed, to know what he was doing. It was no secret that the feral teenager had never led an army before, or fought in a battle. But for some reason that didn’t seem to matter, he spoke with such confidence and self-assurance that the soldiers obeyed and respected him as if he had been a seasoned general all his life.

“It’s my natural charisma,” Achilles informed him matter-of-factly as one young soldier sprinted off to fetch him breakfast.

“It’s your natural megalomania,” Patroclus replied and jumped out the way.

Mock as he might, Patroclus enjoyed watching Achilles in his element rather more than he might admit. There was something fascinating (and admittedly attractive) in his authority, in the way power seemed to come as lightly as the breeze ruffling his hair or the strength in his arms, not so crass or forceful as to be vulgar but subtly, a narrowing of the eyes or a change in his tone of voice. Unlike some of the older warriors he never needed to shout. And sometimes, catching a glimpse of a grim face or tightly pursed mouth, Patroclus thought they resented him for it.

“Well that’s no surprise,” Leptine commented after Patroclus had voiced his suspicions. “They’ve been commanding the Myrmidons for Gods know how long and it’s taken years to totally suppress dissent. Now this green boy appears and wins unwavering loyalty in a heartbeat? I know I’d be pissed off.”

They were in the barracks, organising food and bedding for the army’s imminent departure. Patroclus put down the wine casket he was carrying and scratched the back of his head thoughtfully. “I don’t know what it is,” he confessed. “People are just…drawn to him, or something. Like, he doesn’t even have to try. He’s inspiring without meaning to be. It’s like…what?”

Leptine was wearing a ridiculous smile, so big that it bordered on the unsettling. She shook her head, attempting to clear it. “Nothing. Sorry.”

Patroclus shook his head exasperatedly and groaned. He had realised earlier that morning that Leptine was still oblivious to all that had happened recently and he had come down to fill her in. After making him go over the events of Beltane night several times over, Leptine proceeded to let out an ear-piercing shriek which resulted in her being slapped round the back of the head by an overseer. She had then picked up her broom, or faithful dance partner, and twirled around the barracks before promptly bursting into tears of pure joy.

“You need to get a grip,” he told her bluntly.

“I know,” said Leptine. “Sorry. I’ll try and keep it to myself. Continue. You were telling me about your lover’s matchless quality?”

Patroclus groaned again, dropping his head into his hands as Leptine cackled behind him. “Don’t call him that,” he protested against his palms.

“Why not?” Leptine squealed. “You luuurve him. He luuurves you. You are in luuurve together…”

“Okay, firstly, last time I checked ‘lurve’ was not a thing,” said Patroclus irritably. “Secondly, let’s try and keep it on the down low, okay? The last thing I need right now is the whole palace to know that the prince and his hetairoi share a bed-”

This was interrupted by another high-pitched squeal as Leptine clamped a hand over her mouth, little giggles escaping from between her fingers. Patroclus gave her a withering look. “You are a pervert,” he told her.

Leptine grinned and shrugged. “I make no apologies.”

Patroclus rolled his eyes. Really the thought of their relationship getting out was at the very bottom of his heap of worries, what with the war and the impending doom of Phthia. But he was finding it difficult to ignore the looks people snuck him in hallways, the smirks some of the older nobles exchanged when the two of them walked by which sent shivers of dread creeping up his skin in waves. Although, if this was going to be Leptine’s reaction whenever he mentioned Achilles, he was not sure which response he preferred to deal with.

“Enough about me,” he announced, attempting to steer the conversation out of less excruciating waters. “What about your love-life? How are things between you and Deiomachus?”

The moment he said it, he regretted it. Leptine’s face, previously shining with mirth, seemed to drop and a shadow flickered across it. However it only lasted a moment, within the second she had snatched up the corners of her mouth again, fixing her expression into one that was forcefully blasé. “Fine,” she replied easily.

Patroclus gave her a funny look. “Leptine,” he frowned. “What’s wrong?”

Leptine gave a weary sigh and turned so that her back was facing him. “It’s nothing, honestly,” she replied, busying herself with securing the water-skins. “It’s just…well…he wants to sleep with me.”

Patroclus held his breath but when Leptine didn’t elaborate he prompted her. “And…you don’t want to?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” answered Leptine. Her voice was strangely small. “It’s just that I can’t.”

Patroclus froze. Tentatively, he looked at Leptine over his shoulder. She was avoiding his gaze although he could see that a faint colour had crept into her cheeks. He cleared his throat cautiously, suddenly aware of the turn the conversation had taken and not all together comfortable with it. “I’m not sure what you’re afraid of,” he began. “But it’s not all that difficult. Quite nice, actually.”

He trailed off pathetically as Leptine raised her head to shoot him daggers. “Patroclus,” she enunciated. “I am not a virgin.”

And Patroclus should have known that, really, should have guessed it at the very least. Leptine had been sold into slavery when she was only nine years old, had grown into womanhood in an environment of utter debasement and cruelty. They had never discussed the subject before and Patroclus had avoided it instinctively, cautious of bringing back traumatic or unwanted memories. To many people, lords and slaves alike, bodies were bodies. He was no innocent, he knew what went on behind closed doors and dark corners; serving boys and girls trying to snatch whatever comfort they could from the harsh reality of their lives, or at least sharing a bed for the very sake of keeping warm. But Leptine had never spoken of it to him and now, kicking himself, he realised there must have been a reason for that.

“I…” he opened his mouth to say something but the right words did not fall out. “I…didn’t…”

“-It doesn’t matter, don’t worry,” Leptine interrupted him quickly and Patroclus, Gods help him, felt a wave of relief. “Anyway, that’s not what I meant. What I meant was I cannot sleep with him because the moment that I do he will leave.”

 She said it very bluntly, as if stating basic fact, and despite himself Patroclus felt a bubble of indignation. “You don’t know that!” he protested. “Deiomachus is decent, he wouldn’t-”

“-It’s happened before,” Leptine cut across him wearily. “Too many times to count. High-ranking men persuade slave girls into their sheets, tell them that they love them, give them all kinds of magnificent promises. And then, after they’ve got what they wanted, they leave the girl used and heartbroken and there is nothing she can do about it. Deiomachus might think he loves me now but what about in a year? Or a few months? Or when some beautiful noblewoman comes along, dragging her dowry behind her? I can’t risk that. The humiliation would kill me.”

Patroclus looked at her, aghast that she could think of anyone so cynically, but knowing that he could not really blame her. Leptine spoke from nothing if not experience after all and he had been privy to enough boys’ conversations to know that, unfortunately, he could not accuse her of paranoia.

“Do you love him?” he asked, suddenly.

Leptine shrugged. “I’m a practical person,” she replied, and Patroclus wasn’t sure what to say to that.

Because if there was one thing he had learned, it was that there was nothing practical about love. Deiomachus had been pining for a number of days now and evermore vocally. He had gotten into the habit of catching Patroclus on his own so that he could bear his heart, and would then spend the next hour eulogising Leptine and calling Eros a wanker until Patroclus could think of a good excuse to shake him off. It was disconcerting, seeing a man reduced to such a pitiful state and sometimes he could not help but feel a slight disapproval of Leptine’s deliberate indifference when Deiomachus turned up to drills red-eyed and sniffing. But then he knew she was only trying to protect herself, something she had been taught to do from day one.

“She should learn to be more trusting,” said Achilles, tracing circles onto Patroclus’ chest with his finger. “You can’t live your life in fear forever.”

They were in the music room, Achilles perched above Patroclus who was laying on the carpet. Theoretically they were supposed to be practicing, however their lyres lay abandoned in the corner. Patroclus shifted his weight so that he was gazing up at him.

“That’s easy to say when you haven’t lived your life in fear for a day,” he pointed out.

Achilles made an assenting gesture. “True,” he agreed. “But I don’t see the point in her self-discipline. All it does is make them both miserable. Also, not all men are like that.”

Patroclus groaned, partly due to the suddenly increased contact of Achilles’ touch on his skin. “That is literally the worst argument in the case of male defence.”

“It’s true though,” Achilles murmured. The pads of his fingers were very soft as they skirted Patroclus’ sternum. “I’m not, am I?”

The corners of his mouth twitched as Patroclus tried to suppress a smile. “One man hardly makes up for the faults of many,” he replied. “Besides, you’re a freak remember?”

Achilles grinned, showing the white point of his canines. “Oh yeah, that’s right.”

He bent down so that their lips met. Patroclus sighed into the kiss and reached up to cup the back of Achilles’ head, letting his hair slip through his fingers. It was getting almost ridiculously long; strands of it dropped onto his chest and tickled his bare skin. Achilles moved down to kiss his throat and shoulders, Patroclus closed his eyes.

“Anyway, there hasn’t been a chance to test your loyalty yet,” muttured Patroclus, aware of himself becoming steadily breathless.

“Do you doubt it?” Achille’s growled, his teeth grazing the skin below Patroclus’ ear.

“Not yet,” answered Patroclus, suppressing a whimper as Achilles’ other hand clenched his ass. “But…supposing some…some….beautiful woman comes along with a…a…massive dowry and a king for a father…ah…”

“I’m not interested in her king father,” Achilles’ voice was low, seductive but Patroclus had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. He knew Achilles liked women. It was one of the first things he had confessed since they had become known to each other. He didn’t blame him, but could not help but feel a twinge of regret at this one seemingly small difference between them.

“You might be more interested when the time comes for an heir to take over your kingdom,” said Patroclus.

Achilles stopped what he was doing, resulting in a tiny mewl of disappointment, to frown at Patroclus. “What is this,” he asked, somewhat coldly. “An interrogation?”

Patroclus shook his head. “No, I just-”

“-You think I would just drop you the moment some slut appears bearing gifts? Is that really how much faith you have in me?”

“I’m just…” Patroclus cast round for the right words. “I’m just being practical.”

The look of bemused scorn on Achilles’ face was almost comical. “Practical,” he sneered. “None of this is practical. If I wanted practical I would be here with someone far less aggravating.”

Patroclus opened his mouth to retort something cutting but was stopped by Achilles kissing him again, harshly. “Now shut up,” Achilles ordered him. “We’ll cross those bridges when we come to them. Or I’ll burn them down.”

Patroclus grinned and nodded, surrendering to the measured listlessness of Achilles’ hands. They were growing hurried now, one slipped under his chiton while the other dug sharp nails into the flesh of his thigh; Patroclus moved to grasp the back of Achilles’ head, bringing him down again to meet him. Achilles’ mouth was hot, his tongue moving expertly and with great curiosity, flickering against his roof and the back of his teeth. Patroclus moaned again and Achilles bit his bottom lip.

A knock at the door sounded, followed by an urgent call as the door began to open.

“Shitting fuck,” announced Achilles, tripping over his limbs in his haste to leap away from Patroclus and falling face first on the carpet.

The door opened to reveal Ampelius. He looked at Patroclus, his lips swollen and trying desperately to flatten his hair against his scalp and Achilles who was hiding behind an amphora. His eyes widened. For a moment it was as if time had stopped; Ampelius stared at Patroclus with unrefined shock and Patroclus felt cold all over, the skin of his palms prickling with sweat. Ampelius’ mouth moved and for a second Patroclus thought he was going to yell. But clearly priorities had taken over, for he only shook his head, as if to clear an unwanted image, and declared: “They are coming.”

It took a heartbeat for the words to sink in. Achilles leapt to his feet and marched out the room, Patroclus scrambling hastily behind him. Ampelius held the door open for them, allowing them to go first; Patroclus felt his eyes follow him but could not decipher the expression there. He could feel the bread he’d had for breakfast swirling acidically in his stomach and his skin felt unpleasantly clammy. Everything was happening so fast and why was it all he could think was that they had been seen, they had been found out, as if his brain was not allowing him to dwell on the actualities of impending battle.

Instead of heading for the War Room or his father’s chambers Achilles made straight for the barracks. Acastus was there, making last minute provisions and directing the soldiers. The Myrmidons stood like an army of ants, thick and sturdy, their shiny armour like hard shells with their shields strapped to their backs. Each one held a spear in his large brown hand, the twisted bones and knuckles standing out against the heft wood like the knots of trees.

“Is everything ready?” asked Achilles and if his voice wobbled slightly with trepidation who but Patroclus was to know.

“Most certainly,” replied Acastus grimly. “We are leaving this very moment. With any luck, we’ll reach the frontier by the time the sun is at its highest.”

“Any news from our allies?”

“We have received word from Corinth and they say they will come. Whether what is put in writing materialises in the flesh, however, is another matter.”

While they spoke Patroclus let his gaze fall and wander over the soldiers. Each man wore a similar expression of sturdy grim acceptance, their black brows pulled low over hard eyes. Standing as they were, side by side like rows of corn it was easy to think them many. But ten-thousand, Acastus had said. Ten-thousand. The odds were almost two to one. Next to them the mighty Myrmidons would look only a handful.

“They’re all going to die,” Patroclus whispered.

Both Achilles and Acastus broke off to look at him quizzically. “Yes,” frowned Acastus. “But then, that’s the plan, isn’t it my prince?”

He gave a little bow and left to re-join his men. The moment he was gone Achilles turned to raise an eyebrow questioningly at Patroclus. “What’s the problem?” he asked wearily.

“You’ve sent these men to their deaths,” replied Patroclus.

“You were there, you heard what they said,” said Achilles. “This is the only way besides surrender.”

“In which scenario no one gets killed,” Patroclus pointed out.

Achilles sighed, running a hand through his hair. It really was getting very long, the ends just brushing the small of his back. From behind, anyone might think he was a girl. “This is war Patroclus,” he said eventually and his voice came out hard. “People are going to get killed. It is unsavoury, but unavoidable.”

“Except in this case, where it was totally avoidable.”

“Can we not do this now?” said Achilles impatiently. He cast around him anxiously, as if checking anyone was listening in before lowering his voice. “Look. I really need you to be on my side right now. Just for today, alright?”

He was giving him that look, the one where his eyebrows were ever so slightly upturned and his eyes, ever so slightly wider. Patroclus huffed disgruntledly, feeling something twinge painfully inside him. “‘Just for today,’” he mumbled sulkily. “I’m always on your side.”

Achilles grinned and the tension melted. “Good,” he said. “Now come on. We have a defence to man.”

oOo

Patroclus did not know how long it took to win a battle. From songs and stories he’d gathered they could last days, weeks even with soldiers taking it in turns to sleep and fight. However, in reality it seemed a side’s fortunes could be made or broken within a few hours. Judging the urgency with which the home defence was ordered, it seemed as though it was expected that the fight between the actual armies would be over by sundown. And while the others seemed emboldened by the prospect, Patroclus could not see how, in any way, this could be construed as reassuring.

A few of the older men had stayed behind in order to help with the defence. To some extent however they were almost redundant; Achilles took on the mantle of general immediately and the foster boys, knowing him as well as they did, responded to him keenly with their old eagerness to impress. Patroclus suppressed a smile as a couple of boys showed off by heaving heavy catapults onto the battlements, sending glances over their shoulders to check if Achilles was looking. Some things never changed.

Phthia’s foster sons were not the only ones expected to see battle; Patroclus accompanied Achilles on his rounds of the homes surrounding the citadel to see that every able-bodied man was supplied with a weapon. It was harrowing to see so many young boys faced with the daunting prospect of bloodshed and death and Patroclus had to remind himself that this was all necessary, this was all the way it must be. He did not know what kind of people the Thessalians were; they could hardly be very different, indeed, they were likely to be more similar to a Southerner like himself than he was to these Northerners he had come to know. Yet it was easier, as the other boys had taken to doing, to think of them as savages and barbarians. Monsters were easier to slay, after all.

By the time dusk had fallen and an eerie red glow tinged the sky, the palace was virtually unrecognisable. A barricade had been built from fallen rock, hay bales and old furniture, upon which several boys perched, spears poised, tiny faces peeking out from between the cracks in the wall. Behind them archers stood from the battlements, for many of them their bows slightly too big. All of them were taut as the strings they held, alert for any sign of movement beyond the city gates. No sound could be heard, aside from the gentle blowing of the wind. It was as if the whole palace was holding its breath.

Achilles and Patroclus had found a spot under one of the archways where Achilles was able to survey the rest of the defence and still be easily heard. He had not been lying about his armour, it was a thing of beauty. It was not ostentatious, Achilles himself was decoration enough and the supple metal became him as if it were a part of his skin, the gold inlay glinting against his sun-kissed arms and bright hair. Earlier Patroclus had helped him put it on, hands shaking on the leather fastenings. As glorious as he looked, he did not like him in armour. He was too bright, too shining, as if the bronze and gold had made him less human somehow.

There was no look of divine composure, however, in the look he gave him over his shoulder. Achilles’ face was glowing with excitement, his eyes alight with mischief as he bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, the tell-tale sign of mounting adrenalin. “You ready for this?” he asked Patroclus, as if challenging him to a race, or a game of dice.

Patroclus tried to fix his face into one of matching enthusiasm but the courage he had spent the whole day summing up had already shrivelled up and died. It was one thing fighting his friends under Ampelius’ gruff supervision but these were grown men and warriors coming to kill him. True, if Achilles’ estimations were correct they would be tired out from fighting the Myrmidon army and in reality, all the home defence had to do was hold them off until the Corinthians arrived. But try as he might, he couldn’t get Thetis’ warning out of his head. Someone you know, or who my son knows. Might even be you, actually.

Achilles was looking at him. He took his hand and squeezed. “Do not worry,” he said. “Stay close to me. You know I will not let anyone touch you.”

Patroclus supposed he should feel a prickle of indignation at that and his initial response was to snap that he could look after himself, that Achilles should focus on keeping himself alive. But instead all he felt was vague relief and reassurance, spreading like a steady warmth in his belly. As long as we’re together we are safe, he found himself thinking and smiled back.

There was nothing left to do but wait. The minutes slipped into another hour and the rosy sky was splashed with gold by the time the call sounded from above them.  “Over there!” called a boy with keen eyes whom Achilles had settled at the watch-tower. “The Thessalians are approaching!”

Patroclus craned his neck to see but could only make out a fuzzy dark shape moving down the hill, like an army of ants. The breath lodged in his throat and the air around him felt suddenly cold. Somewhere a horn was blowing, he couldn’t tell if it was from his side or theirs.

They were less far away than it looked. Patroclus had barely had time to take ten steadying breaths before they were at the gates. The man at the front, Patroclus assumed must be King Poeas, raised his hands to the sides of his mouth and called out.

“Prince of Phthia!” his voice reverberated off the stone barricade. “Your Myrmidons have fought well, bravely and long. However, bleeding and beaten, they have scattered and abandoned you. You are totally deserted. Surrender now and we will show clemency. Resist and face desolation.”

He paused, cocking his head to the side in wait. A reply was expected in these situations, as diplomatic as they were ceremony. Patroclus glanced at Achilles. He was chewing his lip, preparing his answer.

“It is good to hear our armies worked you so well,” he called back through a gap in the wall. “From what I can make out of you, my good king, the exercise can hardly have gone amiss.”

A snicker sounded from every end of the defence. King Poeas looked bemused at the laughter, a protective arm round his prominent stomach. “I am warning you,” he shouted again. “My army matches yours two-to-one. You are outnumbered. There can be no escape. Surrender now and save your people. Save yourself.”

“We are outnumbered indeed,” retorted Achilles. “For each of your men could easily make up for two!”

More laughter. Achilles, smirking, winked at Patroclus. Poeas was frowning incredulously.

 “Is this an army of children to be amused so easily?” He meant it as a jape rather than an observation.

Achilles giggled. “Are you an army of philosophers to be so wheezing?”

Laughter again. King Poeas looked aghast. “How old are you?”

Achilles was bouncing so high Patroclus feared he might take off. “Old enough for your mother!” he cried gleefully.

“Enough of this,” Poeas snapped as members of his own army began to smirk. “Finish them!”

The Thessalians began to flourish their swords, surging forward to break down the gate. Achilles gestured to the men, waiting upon his command. “Archers!” he called.

Black arrows fell like rain on the hoard, piercing armour and soft flesh that lay exposed. Several too late to raise their shields collapsed, their knees buckling beneath them. They were paid no mind however, the front line intent on breaking down the gate. Within moments it collapsed and the Thessalians entered the citadel, flooding the streets like black mud.

Achilles turned to Patroclus. There was no fear in his eyes, only excitement. And Patroclus remembered a boy he had found, shivering in the bushes with blood on his hands, he blinked and the image was gone.

“Here they come,” said Achilles, and raised his spear.

Chapter Text

Nothing; no number of songs, ballads, accounts from veterans who had been there and done it and seen it with their own black eyes, nothing could have prepared Patroclus for the sight of the Thessalian army breaking down those gates and flooding the streets for the citadel.

It began the way water breaks through a damn. As the force of the wave built up with the crushing pressure of the black-armoured soldiers, the wooden boards began to splinter. A single crack in the design can let the storm in and within a moment the army was bursting past the walls, a shower of rock and rubble flying in their wake. They surged into the market place, plates shining like a plague of locusts, spilling and swelling around houses and food stands; Achilles yelled for the archers to shoot again and a few collapsed into the beaten earth, however no sooner did one fall did it seem they were replaced by another breaking crest.

Achilles pointed and the first line of defence came to meet them, emerging from the foliage of the roughly hewn barricade like forest dwellers who have found their home threatened. From their higher stand they had the upper hand, fighting the Thessalians at the barrier by sticking anything they could reach with spears and dropping large rocks on unsuspecting heads. More arrows came raining down and Patroclus watched with glee as numbers began to dwindle at the first line, although they were replenished quickly. The Thessalians were strong, ox-like men and they tore at the barricade with their bare hands. A boy Patroclus had seen but never spoken to raised his spear as a soldier breached the wall; he batted it out of the way and stuck him in the throat with his sword.

It did not take long for the barricade to scatter, soon the Thessalians had burst through the first line, sending several boys running for cover as they surged ahead. From behind a row of small houses came the second line and they jumped out on the unsuspecting hoard as they approached. A skirmish begun, boy fighting against man while perched atop buildings others threw down boulders and flicked catapults.

Achilles was twitching.

“No,” said Patroclus warningly.

“They need help,” Achilles protested. “And nothing’s happening over here.”

“They do not,” replied Patroclus, ignoring the last part. “Look at them. They’re doing just fine.”

And they were. Achilles’ placement of the home defence had given them an excellent advantage, purely by way of level and terrain. While the foot soldiers fought with determination, having much more to lose than the Thessalians, admittedly it was those standing above with heavier weapons who had the most success. Earlier Achilles had been reluctant to fight this way, dismissing it is as “cowardly and dishonourable”. And he might be right, however it was impossible to deny that it was also effective.

Unluckily, one boy within Achilles’ line of sight took that exact moment to have his head dashed against the side of one of the buildings. Patroclus cringed. Achilles looked round at him meaningfully.

“You can’t,” Patroclus insisted. “You’re supposed to stay here in case any of them make it to the citadel.”

“Well that’s just ridiculous,” Achilles scoffed. “Who’s idea was that?”

Yours?” Patroclus raised his eyebrows pointedly. “You literally planned this whole defence around the concept that the best warriors would guard the core of the citadel and the palace. ‘Like an egg yolk’ you said. And then you started laughing at the word ‘yolk’. Remember?”

Achilles frowned. “That doesn’t seem like something I would do.”

“I swear to the Gods Achilles, do not go over there,” growled Patroclus in his most threatening voice.

Achilles looked back towards the fighting. The Thessalians had beaten back most of the boys again and the defence was largely scattered. The outer formation Achilles had planned was in fragments, reduced to a bloody chaos of sword against sword. There was no way they could win on strength, their entire victory depended on structure and strategy. A boy was laying on his back, his sword a few feet away. Above him, a Thessalian prepared to jam his shield into his torso. Achilles bit his lip.

“Fuck it,” he said at last. “Come on!”

And before Patroclus could scream abuse Achilles had hurled himself over the stone wall they had been crouched behind and was sprinting off into the fray. Patroclus hesitated a few moments, hissing at him to come the fuck back but when it became clear he was no longer in sensical distance he groaned to himself and prepared to run after him.

“Achilles!” he shouted as he ran, trying not to lose sight of the dancing yellow hair. “We’ve got to go back! The palace is our responsibility!”

“Wherever people are dying is my responsibility,” Achilles tossed over his shoulder.

“Oh how noble,” Patroclus snapped. “But what you really mean is wherever people are in need of killing-”

The rebuke died in his mouth as out of nowhere an enormous boulder of a man emerged, towering over Patroclus and blotting out the sun. Patroclus’ eyes widened and he swallowed hard as the man grinned and raised his axe. He swung and instinctively Patroclus ducked, just as he had learned to duck Achilles’ punches at the slightest twitch of an arm. He stepped out the way as the man came hurtling towards him but not quick enough to miss the jut of his sword hilt and he fell to the ground. The man approached him, still grinning, axe prepared to slice downwards but within a second Patroclus had grasped his sword and was pushing it as hard as he could into his stomach. Blood welled up like an ink stain, blossoming into the Thessalian’s mouth and dribbling between his lips. His eyes bulged. Patroclus twisted the blade and then he was toppling, collapsing with a dull thud into the earth.

Patroclus stood up, staring in shock at the body splayed spread-eagled in front of them. This was the second time he had killed someone. He expected to feel horror at what he had done but there was none; no nausea welling up in his stomach, no creeping feeling of cold dread on his skin. Only a detached sort of bemusement as he surveyed the man who had only a few seconds ago been standing upright, murder in his eyes, and a buzz in his veins that he recognised as adrenalin.

“Achilles!” he yelled and was surprised to hear he sounded gleeful. “Achilles, I got one!”

“That’s great, honeycake,” came the snarl back. “But I’m a little busy, do you mind if we save the parade for later?”

The sarcasm snapped Patroclus back to reality. He looked over to where Achilles was engaged in battle and suppressed the gasp that had gathered in his throat. For a moment he just stood there, watching as Achilles sliced one Thessalian across the throat before turning and stabbing the other one in the stomach, ducking a blow aimed at his head and catching him in the soft flesh at the back of the knee. It was all one movement. One breath, almost. As if he were enacting the steps of a dance.

Patrloclus shook his head and blinked his eyes that had been glazed over in awe. It was so easy to forget, after the death of Mynax, that this was what Achilles was really good at. What he had been born to be good at. He remembered the terrified look in Achilles’ eyes as he had gazed at the blood on his hands, mixing with the mud. There was none of that now. In fact, as another man collapsed at his feet, grasping at his windpipe, Patroclus could see the flicker of a smile pass across Achilles’ lovely face.

A Thessalian appeared, sprinting towards them. Without thinking Patroclus swung his sword. The sharp edge caught him in the chest and he fell backwards. Achilles looked at him approvingly.

“Nice,” he said.

“We really should go back to the palace,” Patroclus replied.

“Why?” asked Achilles. “It’s much more fun here.”

Patroclus tried to give him an exasperated look but Achilles had already taken off again, towards the direction where most of the fighting was taking place. Patroclus followed him, cautiously keeping an eye out for arrows or catapults that were dropping left, right and centre. By squinting he could just make out Stylax and Calisthenes, both of them against one large Thessalian. From what it looked like they seemed to be overpowering him, although they were tiring fast.

A few feet away another Thessalian was ramming his shield into a boy’s face. He looked up and caught Patroclus’ eye, within a split second he was charging towards him. Patroclus used his shield to block his sword before throwing him off with all of his strength. There was an opening between his arm and left side, he went for it, digging his sword point in until the blood flowed.

“See?” said Achilles said as Patroclus joined him, panting. “It’s just like wrestling.”

“No it’s not,” Patroclus tried to reproach him but even to himself it sounded unconvincing. Achilles was right. No matter how hard Patroclus tried to remember that these were human lives they were taking, he felt the same pumping excitement he did after a training match.

Stylax and Calithenes had succeeded against their opponent and were doubled over in exhaustion. They waved joyfully as Achilles and Patroclus approached them, standing so that the defeated body was in full view.

“How are things?” Achilles asked.

“Alright,” Stylax replied. “We’re doing okay, except that there are so many of them. Every time we think we have them another squadron appears. It’s like fighting the bloody hydra.”

“You were right though,” added Calisthenes to Achilles. “They’re tired. You can tell. And they weren’t expecting another fight after facing the Myrmidons. We took them by surprise.”

Achilles smiled and Patroclus was glad. He too had noticed the soldiers were slower than expected; it should not have been so easy to be overpowered by a handful of semi-trained teenagers. If things continued as they were, Achilles’ plan could quite possibly work.

Clearly Stylax was thinking along the same lines. “We only need to hold them off,” he reminded them. “Before the Corinthians and what’s left of our army get here.”

Achilles nodded, apparently thinking. Suddenly his head snapped up; he grasped Patroclus’ shoulder and hurled him out the way. Patroclus barely had time to exclaim “Wha-” before Achilles was slicing a Thessalian across the face with his knife. The soldier collapsed, knees bent into a kneeling position clutching his eyes. Achilles snatched him by the hair, yanking his head back roughly.

“Mistake,” he snarled before slamming his head against one of the fallen rocks, turning the roughened grey bright scarlet. Sylax and Calisthenes’ eyes widened as Achilles returned, wiping the blood off on his thighs.

“Don’t turn your back on these people Patroclus,” he stated grimly. “They have no honour.”

“Thank you,” breathed Patroclus who could hear nothing but the sound of his own heart galloping in his ears.

“Don’t thank me,” said Achilles. “Just get behind me.”

He whirled Patroclus back as a spear came towards them. Achilles brushed it aside with a flick of his shield, his other arm providing a barrier between the soldier and Patroclus. He wrenched it out and flung it back. It pierced the man’s armour and he fell. Achilles turned back to Patroclus.

“You go nowhere without me,” he told him. “Swear it.”

“You’re not my mother,” Patroclus retorted childishly, attempting to throw off the protective arm.

Achilles tightened his hold. “Swear it,” he repeated. “I’m not playing games.”

Indeed, his face was deadly serious, his eyes piercing as poised spears. “I can look after myself,” Patroclus muttered.

Achilles smiled fondly. “I know you can,” he said. “But I’ll feel a lot better if I know you’re nearby. Swear it, or I won’t let you fight.”

Patroclus wanted to argue, wanted to prove somehow that he was perfectly capable of fighting the Thessalians by himself. But out of the corner of his eye he could see Stylax and Calisthenes, watching the exchange open-mouthed, slight perplexed frowns playing between their brows.

“Alright, I swear,” he conceded, anxious to end the disagreement before the other two started asking questions. “Lead the way.”

Achilles nodded, saluted Stylax and Calisthenes and headed for the agora, keeping Patroclus close behind him. It was hard to believe this was the same place Patroclus had visited with Leptine those many months ago; the bright stalls had been slashed and overturned so that fragments of cloth and broken wood littered the ground, swimming in pools of bright blood. Here and there bodies lay like the flies that had hovered round the fruit but the fighting was too thick to see much else. Achilles picked up a spear laying on the floor and thrust it into the first Thessalian he could see. He uttered a guttural gasp before falling forward. At the sight of his fallen comrade another soldier let out a cry of anger and lurched towards them, bringing his sword down to carve through Patroclus’ neck. Patroclus parried it, knocking him backwards with his other fist and Achilles finished him off with a slice to the ribs.

Stylax had not lied about their numbers. As they held the marketplace, beating back fresh hordes of the soldiers piling in Patroclus lost track of time, or the number of men he and Achilles sent sprawling into the dust. As they fought, wordlessly they seemed to have picked up almost a rhythm, with Achilles dealing with those coming in from the right and Patroclus from the left whilst covering each other partially with their shields. When he could get his hands on a spear or fallen sword Achilles would launch it, leaving part of his body exposed and Patroclus would raise his shield to protect the bare target. They almost took turns, finding that together they were stronger and steadier even if the kills were slower.

However, Patroclus knew he was tiring. Both Achilles and the Thessalians set a fast pace and there was no telling how long they had fought for. It was as if they had entered another dimension where there was no measurement except for the number of bodies slain and the proximity of sword from temple. After what must have been hours he was glistening with sweat and breathing hard. Achilles looked at him concernedly, his own breath barely laboured.

“Are you alright?” he asked. Patroclus tried not to feel resentful that, other than his hair looking a little more dishevelled, he was barely changed from before the battle had broken out.

“I’m fine,” he replied. “There are just so many.”

As if to confirm this, a spear came rushing for Achilles’ shoulder. He blocked it lazily and turned back to Patroclus. Silently they surveyed the area; most of the bodies were smaller, the faces familiar. With a pang Patroclus recognised several of those who had stood up for him in the trial against Nekros; there was Andros, laying face up with a cut across his stomach, eyes wide and mouth slightly open as if caught by surprise and a few meters from him Iasonides, a boy whom Patroclus had shared jokes and water with on several occasions, but whose first name he’d never known. Now he never would. The thought spurned a sudden and ready grief which gripped him with astonishing urgency, he grabbed his chest and his knees buckled. On instinct, Achilles grabbed his arm, preventing him from falling.

“What’s the matter?” he exclaimed, astounded. “Are you hurt? Are you wounded?”

“All of them…” Patroclus only murmur. “Dead. Andros…Iasonides…I raced against him once…”

“Oh is that all?” Achilles humphed impatiently. “Give me warning next time, why don’t you? Right, let’s get out of here. Can you walk or is your conscience weighing you down too much?”

“I can walk,” Patroclus muttered, too dazed to be riled.

They moved away from the battle, seeking cover from the houses and hay bales that littered the streets. Patroclus found that he was blinking stupidly but he could not get the image of those pale, glassy eyes staring out of faces he had once known and liked. Achilles was muttering and swearing under his breath, something about Patroclus having a girlish constitution but Patroclus ignored him. It was different for him, he who had never seen anybody but himself and now Patroclus. He did not know what it felt like to lose someone he had known, even in passing. For him, everyone else had already been a ghost.

Suddenly a cheerful voice rang out, calling their names. Patroclus squinted in the direction and saw Deiomachus waving over to them from atop of one of the higher buildings. Achilles propelled them forward and helped Patroclus up the ladder until they had joined him on the roof, crouched behind a makeshift wall of wine barrels. Deiomachus and Leonides greeted them like old friends who had come to lunch. Beside them, Quintos was quivering noticeably, his hand clasped over his abdomen.

“What’s wrong with him?” Patroclus gestured to Quintos whose face was pale as curdled milk.

“Him?” Deiomachus glanced at him dismissively. “Oh, he’s fine. Just spent the past hour holding his own guts in. He was trying to run away when a Thessalian caught him in the stomach. Serves him right, the cowardly bastard.”

“You were trying to run away?” Achilles enunciated, scandalised. “My father would have you beaten for desertion.”

“Considering I’ve spent the majority of this battle inhaling my intestines,” Quintos snapped. “Don’t be offended if I consider that a somewhat limp threat.”

“How’s it looking?” Patroclus changed the subject.

“Not too good,” Deiomachus replied with a heavy sigh. “Fact is their numbers are overwhelming. We’re boys, they’re  grown men. We can’t hold out for much longer.”

Achilles made a noise, less of anguish than of vague irritation. He frowned at Patroclus. “If I go down there will you promise to stay up here?”

“I have wine,” volunteered Deiomachus, raising a skin. “Also Quintos has been passing us spears and I’ve been throwing them down when the mood takes me.”

Quintos released a groan of confirmation. Patroclus nodded and Achilles gave his shoulder a quick squeeze before leaping off the roof and sprinting back towards the fight. Patroclus watched him go with a sort of passive gloom. He’d be better on his own, he knew. Faster. He wondered how many men he would kill before they were finally forced to surrender.

“Hand me that spear,” he ordered Quintos. He obliged.

“Fifty points for the head,” said Leonides and for a while they took turns aiming at passing Thessalians, missing about as many as they caught but cheering loudly whenever they did. A spear point stuck a soldier in the thigh, resulting in Deiomachis laudably awarding him ten and Patroclus absently wondered when killing had become a game. Then he looked at Quintos, pausing to spit out mouthfuls of his own blood, and remembered the unseeing eyes of Andros and Iasonides and he wondered, dully, at what else were they supposed to do.

“Do you think they’ll keep us alive?” he asked Deiomachus as he bent down to pick up another spear. “If they win, I mean.”

Deiomachus shrugged. “Best not thinking about, I guess.” he replied.

“Patroclus!” yelled a voice and their heads whipped round towards the source.

It was Loras. He was sprinting towards them, zig-zagging his way past soldiers caught in combat as if his life depended on it and paying little heed to the battle around him. Patroclus and Deiomachus exchanged a foreboding look. It could not be good news, if it caused Loras to run like that.

“Where’s Achilles?” Loras panted once he had gotten his breath back.

Patroclus gestured evasively. “What’s wrong?” he demanded. “What have you heard?”

“The Thessalians must have split their forces,” Loras replied. “There’s another army heading for the palace. We’ve just seen them. They’ll be here in a matter of minutes.”

“Another army?” exclaimed Deiomachus. He looked as though he had just been struck.

Loras nodded. “They’re aiming for the back entrance,” he wheezed. “They must be planning to come in through the cellar.”

“The basement,” repeated Patroclus. “But that means-”

He looked at Deiomachus and met an identical expression, face white and eyes wide in shock. Achilles had ordered all those who could not defend themselves into the palace cellar which was, at this moment, the refuge of predominantly women and children. Women, children…and slaves.

“Leptine,” they said together, and set off at a run.

The sound of the fighting around them was dulled by the pounding of blood in his ears and his internal cursing. He knew there were people hiding in the palace, knew that Leptine had been one of them, amongst several helpless innocents it had been his duty to protect. Still he had let Achilles abandon his post and went with him willingly. And if not because he could not restrain him then why? For pursuit of his own personal glory? As distasteful as the suggestion was, Patroclus would have been lying to say it was not in the least bit true.

“There’s no hope for us now,” he told Deiomachus. “Not if they’ve sent another army by the back. We might as well lay down arms here.”

“All we can do is make sure she’s safe,” Deiomachus replied.

Patroclus nodded and they increased their pace, loathe to think what could have happened if they were too late. Leptine had a small knife on her Patroclus knew she had taken to carrying since Achilles’ birthday party. But would that really be enough against a seasoned soldier, blood heated by battle? And what about all the other vulnerable citizens, the young girls and women? They would all be at the mercy of the Thessalians now.

As they rounded a corner and headed up the dirt path the back entrance of the palace came into view. True enough hundreds of soldiers could be seen, huddled by the gates, as if preparing for resistance. Patroclus and Deiomachus darted behind a wall, peering over the top to get a better look.

“We might be able to sneak round,” Patroclus muttered. “I know some of the passages, we might be able to get her in and out before anybody-”

“-Wait a minute,” Deiomachus thrust out an arm, holding him back.

“Deiomachus, we don’t have time for-”

“-No wait,” Deiomachus insisted. “Look at their armour. They’re not Thessalians.”

He pointed towards one of the men at the front, whose inlay was the most decorative. Patroclus squinted at him to try and make out the decoration. Sure enough the style was completely different to that of the Thessalians. What’s more, he was wearing a magnificent purple cloak and tunic.

“Oh Gods above,” Patroclus exhaled. “Don’t play with me now.”

Almost as if he had heard, the man turned round. His eyes met Patroclus’ before he could dart back behind the wall. They crinkled into a smile and he walked forward to meet them.

“Thoas, King of Corinth,” he announced, hand outstretched in greeting. “I do believe you’re expecting me.”

oOo

The poets do not lie when they tell of how quickly the tide of battle can turn. Unlike the Thessalians or the Myrmidons, the Corinthians were not natural warriors, their wealth having been built on trade, diplomacy and pottery rather than the plunders of war. However, that counted for very little when their multitudes of fresh, lively soldiers came pouring in. To their credit the Thessalians, once they had recovered from their initial shock and horror, put up an honourable fight. But when the surviving Myrmidons also returned, screaming the battle cry with their spears poised in vengeance, it did not take long for them to recognise the futility of the situation.  The combined forces crushed the Thessalians like rock against a walnut until they had no choice but to retreat. Patroclus joined in the cheer, beating his sword against his shield as they watched the Thessalians scramble to escape over the hills, a swarm of flies beaten back by fire.

“We did it!” Patroclus wept for joy, clutching Achilles’ to him. “You did it Achilles, your plan worked! It worked!”

In response, Achilles let out a crow of triumph as he was lifted by the home defence into the air. “I’m the greatest there ever was!” he announced and a hundred voices shouted in agreement.

Patroclus could only laugh. He did not remember the last time he had been so overwhelmed with relief. To have come within a hair’s breadth of almost certain death and emerged unscathed…it was nearly too much to comprehend. As the din rose around him, fists and swords waving in the air and catching the light like multi-coloured flags he raised his face to the heavens. It was nearly dark but he fancied there were still some slivers of light squeezing its way through the clouds. It was to that which he addressed his thanks.

Around him he could hear similar responses given by the adults. “BY ZEUS’ HAIRY BOLLOCKS,” Ampelius was booming, seizing Leonides by the scruff of the neck and ruffling his hair with his knuckles. “DID WE SEND THE MANGY CURS SCURRYING HOME WITH THEIR TAILS BETWEEN THEIR LEGS! AND AT THE HANDS OF CHILDREN NO DOUBT! SHINING CHILDREN, ALL OF YOU! THE BLESSED SPAWN OF THE GOLDEN ONES!”

“We couldn’t have done it without Achilles,” Leonidas replied, wincing as he touched his scalp. “He was like a one-man-army.”

“Yeah, or Patroclus,” Calisthenes laughed. “Achilles ripped apart anyone who even looked at him funny. Wouldn’t have made a difference were it our side or there’s!”

Oh Calisthenes, Patroclus thought, icy dread curling in his stomach. To think I almost turned you into a fruit kebab. He chanced a look at Ampelius. His ruddy face, previously animated in celebration had darkened, the thorn-thicket eyebrows retracting over the shining eyes and his mouth thinning into a grim line. He did not say anything and the comment was dissolved and forgotten in the laughter that followed. Yet it lingered still in the anxious parts of Patroclus’ mind and as he watched Ampelius walk away, trying to conceal his heavy frown, he knew he wasn’t the only one.

There were no frowns to be seen in the Great Hall that night. After making sure Leptine was alright, Patroclus had led her and the other hiding citizens upstairs where they joined in the celebrations. Upon seeing her, Deiomachus seized her hand and kissed her in front of everyone, resulting in an eruption of whoops and catcalls. When they parted Leptine’s face was burning brilliant crimson, but she looked very happy. From across the room where Achilles stood with his father, he caught Patroclus eye. He raised his goblet slightly and winked. Patroclus smirked, returning the gesture. Later.

“Well Peleus,” bellowed King Thoas, clasping Peleus’ shoulder heartily. “You’ve raised yourself some fine young men here. You should be very proud.”

Peleus’ smile was small and happy, almost serene. Next to the rich plum of Thoas’ cloak and ostentatious gold jewellery he looked quite washed out. He looked at Achilles with an expression of unadulterated pride. In his simple blue chiton with the pale gold prince’s band around his head he looked for all the world as if he had really just stepped off Olympus.

“I am blessed with many fine sons,” Peleus replied. “But I think this time, the Prince Achilles really has exceeded all expectation. The glory of this day belongs to him.”

Achilles face was glowing with the praise but he shook his head. “No father,” he replied. “This day belongs to all of us. And to Patroclus as well.”

He held out his hand and Patroclus knew it as a sign to approach the dais, somewhat warily. Whether he had need to be cautious was not revealed, Thoas’ eyes crinkled warmly as he shook Patroclus’ hand. “Meonitides of Opus,” he greeted him. “I have heard a lot about you.”

Unsure of how to take this, Patroclus raised an eyebrow. “A lot of good I hope, sir?”

Thoas smiled. “Oh yes,” he replied. “A lot of good. In fact it seems I will have nothing but good to bring back to Corinth,” he added, addressing them all. “My daughter, Princess Chloē, will be very pleased to hear her father has made an alliance with such admirable men. She is forever worrying, my sweet Chloē. I am sure she thinks some of my friends are a bad influence.”

“Why, that is the job of every good daughter,” Peleus laughed Thoas joined and the two kings settled down to talk of diplomacy and toasts to their new friendship.

Achilles was busy being ploughed with wine by admiring subjects and Leptine was engaged with Deiomachus. Feeling ridiculously buoyant, Patroclus floated around the Hall feeling like he was on a cloud. After the victory today, he struggled to see how anything bad could happen ever again. Sometimes his thoughts flitted to memories of the dead and he would feel an ache in his chest, like something was squeezed tightly inside him. But as sad as he was about the loss of life, he could not help but feel relief at least that Thetis’ prophecy had not yet come true.

“Patroclus,” muttered a voice.

He spun round to face the source. It was Ampelius, leaning against one of the pillars, surveying the celebrations. The grim expression was still there and he was holding a wine goblet, from which he did not appear to have taken a sip. Patroclus swallowed hard.

“Master Ampelius?” he said, trying to keep his voice casual. “How can I help you?”

“None of that pansy nonsense now lad,” Ampelius growled. “Just get over here.”

Contrite, Patroclus wheedled over, casting glum looks over his shoulder as if hoping someone might swoop in and save him. Ampelius brought the goblet to his mouth and took a deep draught. When he brought it away, the tips of his moustache were shining and red.

“Right,” he said, suppressing a belch. “I think we need a little talk, don’t you?”

“I don’t know, do we?” muttered Patroclus sullenly.

Ampelius gave him a black look. “Come on now,” he said. “Let’s not make this anymore awkward than this has to be. Do you think I liked having to see…well…what it is I have seen? Trust me, there are far more pleasant sights on Gaia’s Green Earth. You…two boys…canoodling is not an image I’d have stick with me in Hades. A man…with another man…it just doesn’t bode thinking about. And I know we Greeks have our little ways but I suppose I’m a conservative man. For me just some things…weren’t made to fit…other things….if you catch my drift-”

“-I honestly do,” interrupted Patroclus who was really, really starting to reconsider the positives of his dying in battle.

“Well anyway,” continued Ampelius, an expression of deep discomfort on his broad face. “That’s by the by. To be honest, I don’t really care what boys do with their…time. It’s none of my business whether a man prefers his comrade for a bedfellow rather than some buxom kitchen wench. And I suppose, if you are be inclined to swing that way, you could do a lot worse.”

Patroclus chanced a look up. Ampelius was drinking deeply from his goblet again, looking in quite excruciating pain, yet a bubble of hope was beginning to grow in Patroclus’ chest when he spoke again. “The only thing Patroclus,” he continued. “Is that others might not be quite as tolerant as I am. No listen,” he protested when Patroclus turned his scoff into a sneeze. “I don’t know if you’ve ever had this talk with your father but, well, it’s a rough world out there. Boys can be cruel and men…well, men can be downright savages. And against my better judgement, I like you. I don’t want to see you get hurt. And I don’t want you to risk any reputation you might stake for yourself on some childish fancy. Legacies are made and broken on the most trivial of details. Do you really want to risk your chances of glory on a trifle?”

Patroclus shifted his feet. He felt like he should answer but couldn’t think of anything to say. He could feel Ampelius’ eyes boring into him and when he asked “Are you listening to me?” he made a gesture between a nod and something non-committal.

Ampelius took it. “Good,” he sighed. “Because I really think you could go far, Patroclus. I really do. Your fighting today showed that.”

Patroclus attempted a smile but it withered and died. Ampelius took a final swallow of wine, patted Patroclus on the shoulder and walked away, leaving him with the feeling that, somehow, his cloud had just been burst.

Chapter Text

Any hopes that the battle at the citadel had meant an end to the Thessalian conflict were very quickly dashed. It became immediately clear that King Thoas planned to stay for weeks and temporary quarters were set up to house him and his Corinthians. Indeed, Peleus spared no expense in making sure his new allies felt completely welcome; when the hours were not spent hunting and feasting they talked strategy, hammering themselves up in that oppressive, windowless room to talk in low, grim voices. They had won a victory and showed their mettle, not only to the Thessalians but to anyone who thought they might try their hand at breaching Phthian walls. But rumours of Poeas’ networking reached the ears of the messengers within days, as did the whispers of their swelling numbers, brewing over the hills like a storm cloud. Everyone knew there would be another battle in open field. Only this time, the Myrmidons would be prepared.

“Apparently we have more allies coming,” Achilles informed Patroclus as they lay lazily in the hot sun, wrestling with their feet.

“Who?” asked Patroclus. There had been a number of War Council meetings in the past few weeks and while for Achilles it was compulsory to go Patroclus had taken to shirking them.

“Father didn’t want to say until it was absolutely set in stone,” replied Achilles with a slight frown. “Actually, he looked a little embarrassed about it. Although I can’t imagine why.”

Patroclus tried to think of any kingdoms Peleus might be embarrassed about seeking help from. King Agamemnon of Argos was, from what he had heard, a loud, swaggering man; inflated from his realm’s recent bout of prosperity. He spoke to the rulers of smaller lands with ill-disguised contempt and Patroclus had seen Peleus mention him a few times with an expression of distaste. But Argos had not come with the Corinthians when Phthia had sent for aid the first time and Patroclus doubted Agamemnon would lower himself to what he deemed petty squabbles between small nations, unless there was something in it for him.

Either way, while talk of war was frequent and inevitable Patroclus found it fairly easy to block out. He was still buoyed on the victory of the home defence and after that first hurdle the next one seemed so far off. Besides, he had an easy distraction before him. What with the preparing for the attack and structuring the city’s defence it seemed he and Achilles had had very little time to themselves. Now, with this albeit brief respite, they grabbed the opportunity to discover each other, making up for all those lost days where they had gazed in silent agony before quickly averting their eyes. They visited all their old haunts: the dappled glen in the woods, the white cliffs at the sea’s edge, but now when Achilles dived into the water below Patroclus was free to admire the muscles rippling in his back, was free to hold his hand when they jumped together, was free, when a drop of fig juice clung to his lower lip, to wipe it away with a dart of his tongue.

The seasons were changing, the air growing colder but the sun beamed ever brightly; bathing them in pools of golden light even as they chased each other through the trees or along the beach, salt spraying in the wake of their flashing pink heels. Hands would stretch out, clasp shoulders and both would fall, tumbling into sand. A brief struggle, both clambering to gain the upper-hand before one would always fall back in surrender and the winner would claim his prize. Hands would cup jaws, eyelashes flutter, lips prick in a mocking smile and then meet. The air is chilly, their skin roughened by goose bumps but it always tastes like summer.

One morning, Patroclus woke with a jolt. He had just had a rather unnerving dream in which a woman, who might have been his mother only she had been sitting on a rock, held out an hour glass to him and was gesticulating loudly. “Time!” she has shrieked as the sand grains slid against the glass. “Look at the time! Look at it!”

He had woken up confused, oddly unsettled, and with a headache. The woman’s voice had been exceptionally shrill. It was only then that he remembered: today was his birthday.

If anything, the revelation only made him feel more disturbed. He reached down to wake up Achilles and tell him about the irritating, shrill woman only to find him gone. Confused, he looked around the room, expecting to see him pounding out his daily push ups or else preening in the mirror but there was no sign of him. Assuming he had gone to visit his mother, Patroclus yawned and got out of bed, washed and dressed quickly before heading downstairs for breakfast.

Upon entering the Great hall he was met by Deiomachus and the other foster boys, waving him over excitedly. He approached warily, taken aback by their disturbingly eager grins as they made room for him to sit down.

“Here he is!” Deiomachus announced gleefully, reaching round to pat him heartily on the back. “Happy birthday, mate.”

Patroclus looked down at the table and felt his eyes widen. Laying in front of him across the polished wood was a handsome shield, made from bronze and stretched over with dyed, dark green leather, upon which the silhouette of a stag was printed. A pattern of yellow forest leaves gleamed round the edges and Patroclus looked up, eyes shining with awe.

“Is this real gold inlay?” he asked wonderingly.

“Yup,” Deiomachus replied proudly. “Cost a pretty penny, but we all pitched in.”

“Some of us more than others,” Leonides muttered, casting a scathing look at Quintos who glared back and clutched his bandaged abdomen with a pained expression.

“But this is amazing,” Patroclus stretched out a marvelling hand to skim over the supple leather. “My Gods. Thank you all, so, so much.”

“Well, we thought it was about time Phthia’s Great Defender had an adequate defence,” Calisthenes grinned.

“It’s us who should be thanking you Patroclus,” Stylax nodded sincerely. “We won’t forget it.”

Too speechless to speak, Patroclus could only nod. His throat suddenly felt very thick and he could feel the emotion pricking at his eyeballs. Apparently the other boys also felt the atmosphere was a getting a little too sentimental because the conversation quickly turned to one of celebration as between them they fought over who could heap the most food on Patroclus’ plate.

After breakfast and, the numerous thanks heaped on his friends until they had all disappeared with embarrassment, Patroclus wondered outside. For a moment he stood there, eyes closed, head tipped up to the sky. He had never been an earnest devotee to the Gods, even less so the more time he spent with Achilles and his scepticism. But right now, with the morning sun warming the cold tip of his nose, he felt it would be churlish not to offer a little thanks for all the blessings he had so recently received. A cool breeze ruffled his hair and he smiled.

“You know you look a bit retarded,” said a familiar voice.

Rolling his eyes, Patroclus turned his grin on Achilles, watching him with his arms crossed over his chest. “Go away,” answered Patroclus. “You’re spoiling my moment.”

“Trust me, nothing would make me happier than to leave you to your…moment,” shrugged Achilles, scratching the back of his neck ruefully. “But it just so happens that I have…something. For you.”

Patroclus raised an eyebrow. “You do know sexual favours do not count as good presents?”

Achilles made a huffing sound, blowing a lock of hair out of his eyes. “You should be so lucky,” he retorted. “No, come on.”

Curiosity brimming, Patroclus followed Achilles away from the palace towards the wood. Patroclus held his tongue as they moved deeper and deeper through the trees, knowing Achilles would only snap at him to be patient. Finally, Achilles stopped before what looked like a tangled thicket of shrubs and bracken with a satisfactory expression on his face.

“Oh the cleverness of me,” he crowed happily. “Sorry I had to be so mysterious and all, but I couldn’t risk mother finding out about this.”

“You couldn’t be mysterious if you tried,” replied Patroclus, craning to get a better look. “What is it?”

“One second,” said Achilles, moving forwards towards the undergrowth. Patroclus waited as he busied himself, sweeping away the leaves and branches before at last he stepped back and announced with a flourish: “Behold, Patroclus. The best birthday present ever.”

Achilles moved out the way and Patroclus’ breath caught in his throat. From amongst the earthy greens and browns came peeking out the unmistakeable glint of gold. The more Patroclus’ eyes roved the more he could make out…wheels…spokes…a leather seat…

“You got me a CHARIOT?!” he screamed.

“I guess I did,” replied Achilles smugly. “Although, just so you know, this is a joint present. And by joint present, I mean for you and me. Like, I tell you now, I am going to be using this-”

Whatever further conditions Achilles had to impose were lost as Patroclus flung his arms around his neck and pressed their lips together, leaving Achilles breathless but ridiculously pleased. “Are there horses?” Patroclus asked urgently. “Can we use it now?”

“No, I got you a chariot without horses,” Achilles rolled his eyes. “A magical vehicle where you have only to clap your hands and it will steer itself. I’m good Patroclus, but I’m not that good. Balius! Xanthus!”

At his call, two handsome looking stallions emerged from the greenery, batting their tails and looking curiously at them with large doleful eyes. Patroclus thought his heart might burst. Quickly they harnessed them to the chariot, Achilles instructing him all the while on the best way to hold the reins and how it was all in the shoulder movement, animals respect a firm hand Patroclus, a little like you, so don’t coddle them okay, they’re war-horses, they can take it-

“Achilles,” Patroclus cut him off. “This is incredible, honestly, but please stop acting like you’ve driven a chariot before. You have never drivena chariot before.”

Achilles gave him a scathing look before hopping in beside him. Patroclus breathed out slowly, holding the reins loosely in his hands as if they really were something magical. He could feel his beating pulse through the leather, as if there were a single vein reaching between him and the horses, a strand of energy connecting them. The horses’ ears were pricked, their large nostrils twitching at the air. They were ready. Patroclus hitched the reins.

“Whoa my Gods,” he gasped as the chariot jumped into action at a stomach-lurching pace.

“Ah,” said Achilles, in the dreaded tone of voice which meant he was about to admit something. “I should possibly mention these are very fast horses.”

“You don’t say?” breathed Patroclus, struggling to pull them back to a canter.

“Well yeah,” shrugged Achilles, flicking hair out his eyes. “They’re immortal, so.”

Patroclus’ incredulous “What?!” was drowned out by the sound of hooves shredding through brushwood as the chariot charged ahead. Patroclus put out one hand to steady himself before shifting his position so that he had more balance. He leaned forward and concentrated hard on the horses’ movements, the spasm of the muscles in their necks, the flash of their kneecaps. He tried to shut out everything else so that the world slowed around him, allowing him to focus only on the chariot and what lay directly in front of them. The horses were wilful, their long, tangled manes blowing back into his face with the force of their speed but Achilles was right, they did respond to a firm handling and soon Patroclus found he was directing them rather than the other way round, albeit not wholly smoothly.

“I’m doing it!” he announced gleefully. “I’m driving a chariot!”

“You’re driving my breakfast,” Achilles groaned as the wheels ran over an ungainly bump. “Okay, my turn.”

“What no, give me a second, I’ve been going about three minutes-”

“-Four minutes thirty at the very least, come on, you’re wearing out the wheels-”

“-Maybe that’s because you decided to test it out in a forest-”

A flash of colour in the distance, moving swiftly through the trees. They spotted it at the same time, then suddenly it was gone. Achilles frowned. “What was that?”

“Probably just some animal.”

“Too big to be an animal.”

They watched the trees warily, eyes peeled for further disturbances. Then another flash, closer this time, accompanied by the sound of hooves. Patroclus tried to dismiss it from his mind and concentrate at the task at hand but it was impossible, especially as the sound was drawing nearer and nearer until the whir of wheels was directly behind them. Achilles looked over his shoulder and issued a little squeak.

“We’re being followed in a very great way,” he announced.

“Who is it?” asked Patroclus.

“Chariot.”

“I know what it is, who’s-”

The vague path they had been following took a sudden dip; Patroclus yanked the reins back as the horses surged forward, moving faster and more frantically with the discovery of pursuers on their tail. The whole chariot lurched to the right, bumping and buffering against the wheels with Achilles and Patroclus clinging desperately to the sides before settling straight. Achilles put his head in his hands. “My Gods,” he moaned into his palms. “What in all the Hells was I thinking. You can’t drive a chariot. You can’t even ride a horse.”

Patroclus was about to passionately protest otherwise when he was distracted by a flurry of movement from behind. Achilles gestured at him to keep his eyes on the road, turning to watch their chasers. Their faces were half-hidden by helmets pulled low over their foreheads but they were both grinning. The smaller one next to the driver was gesticulating, making signs Achilles recognised as “beach”.

“Oh Hades’ skeletal prick,” Achilles swore.

“What?”

“They’re not chasing us. They’re racing us.”

Patroclus risked a look back. Sure enough the other drivers wore matching expressions of determination tipped with mischief and they were urging their horses on with singular purpose. Unwilling to lose to a pair of presumptuous strangers, Patroclus charged ahead.

It soon became clear, however, that these presumptuous strangers were by no means amateurs when it came to chariot racing. As Achilles and Patroclus jolted along their way through the trees, the walls of the chariot tilting from side to side their challengers drove smoothly, swerving past roots and patches of raised turf as if the reins were an extension of themselves. Soon they less than an inch away from them. Catching sight of them, Achilles released a huff of irritation and pushed Patroclus out of the way.

“Right that’s it,” he declared, snatching the reins from his hands. “Give them here.”

“Fucking no, I was doing well-”

“Yeah? They’re gaining on us, explain that. Have them back if you’re so willing to lose to these bitches.”

Ignoring him, Patroclus made a grab for them but Achilles held them out of arms’ reach, yelling at the horses to go faster. The other chariot was nearly level with them now, Patroclus could see their mouths stretched in laughter. Achilles drove the horses forward, their massive nostrils flaring as they struggled to compensate. Beside them, Patroclus could see their competitors urging on their steeds with a lazy crack of the whip. Achilles flung them a furious look and snarled: “Bastards. We’re going to win this. Come on!”

“Achilles, look out!” Patroclus screamed and Achilles looked up just in time to see an approaching tree trunk, less than three feet away. Instinctively he yanked the reins. The horses reared indignantly, pulling up the frontal wheels of the chariot so that Achilles and Patroclus clung on in terror, anxious of the thing upturning. Out of the corner of his eye Patroclus saw the other chariot shoot past them, their high, youthful laughter crackling into the wind. Achilles, seeing them too, swore loudly.

“They’ve won,” he announced angrily. “This wouldn’t have happened if you’d let me steer earlier.”

“What,” Patroclus retorted. “So you could have crashed into a tree earlier and saved them the trouble?”

Achilles glared at him but could think of no answer.

They made their way back to the palace in partial silence, broken only by Achilles muttering darkly under his breath. Patroclus, who was by now well-acquainted with the bouts of immaturity that flared up whenever he lost at something, ignored him and was instead immersed in thought of who the charioteers had actually been. Now that he thought about it, their clothing had been strange; except for the helmets they had worn loose tunics, the kind favoured by sailors and ships’ crew.

They wheeled the chariot in round the back, giving the servants strict instructions to keep it hidden at all times. Neither of them were too worried about whether Peleus would approve, however there was always a chance he might tell Thetis if pressured. For his part, Patroclus would really rather not be included in that conversation. After making sure the horses were safely returned to their stables they made their way back outside. Achilles was still too busy fuming to notice but there were people everywhere, carrying boxes and crates, all of them dressed in similar loose-fitting tunics. Patroclus tugged on Achilles’ sleeve.

“Look,” he said. “What do you think’s going on?”

Achilles squinted into the distance, towards the beach. He tilted his head into the sun, lighting up the flecks of gold in his eyes and Patroclus knew he was seeing further than the mortal eye. “There’s a ship,” he replied with a bemused frown. “Black flag, yellow borders. Know it?”

“No,” Patroclus shook his head. “Maybe we should go down-”

Achilles was already running in that direction. Patroclus shook his head and with a sigh took off after him.

As they drew nearer the shore the number of men marching up and down increased. Patroclus looked them over curiously. Big, brawny men with scraggy, unkempt beards, brown muscles rippling in the salty air. Achilles and Patroclus stood back to watch them bearing their cargo up the beach when a jovial voice caught their attention.

“Hello there,” a man greeted them, waving. “You must be the respective princes of Phthia and Opus. Prince Achilles, Lord Menoitides, a pleasure to meet you formally. I’m afraid there was little chance to exchange pleasantries this morning.”

Patroclus observed the man warily. He had a thin, brown face; lined and weathered but still belaying traces of youth, evident in his open, friendly smile. His hair was thick, brown and curly, cut just below the nape of his neck. He stood a little taller than average height with a slim, sinewy body; the tendons in his arms and legs thick and tight as knotted rope. His whole expression portrayed ease and affability, however the effect was ruined slightly by his eyes, an uncommon shade of hazel that twinkled with a sharp intelligence and drew disturbingly close to cunning.

He had forgone his sailor’s chiton in favour of a plainly embroidered brown tunic, breeches and a well spun woollen cloak. But the hint of mischief lurking below the surface of his honest countenance meant Patroclus recognised him at once. “You were driving the chariot,” he stated. “In the wood, earlier.”

“Quite so,” the man inclined his head, scratching at his short beard. “I must thank you for that. Sailing is my life but being at sea for three weeks means you’re a little short of things to do for entertainment. You did well actually, considering you don’t look quite old enough to be racing chariots yet.”

“One could say you look a little too old,” Achilles snapped. “I’m surprised you didn’t put your back out. Besides, you initiated it. We would have beaten you too…if the tree hadn’t been in the way.”

Patroclus resisted the urge to put his head in his hands, even as the man laughed. “Right you are, Prince Achilles,” he answered good-naturedly. “And quite as astute as the stories say. For once, the bards fail to disappoint. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Odysseus, from the island of Ithaca. I received word from your good father that you were planning a little anti-Thessalian coalition, and inviting me ever so kindly to join. Naturally I seek to offer my humbled thanks at being remembered, from my far-flung scrap of rock. Might I be so impertinent as to trouble you to lead me to him?”

Achilles and Patroclus exchanged glances. Every word he spoke sounded mocking, as though he were laughing at some private joke, yet he spoke with such frank honesty it was difficult to pinpoint a reason against him. Achilles scanned him cautiously, one eyebrow crooked. “Alright,” he said slowly. “Follow me.”

“You are most gracious,” Odysseus smiled with a little bow. “I’ll just call my first mate.” Raising his strong, calloused hands to the sides of his mouth he shouted: “Pelops!”

At his call, a young boy dropped the piece of rigging he was working on and strutted over to meet them. Slim, lithe, dark, he was very pretty with a shock of black hair peeking out from a cap pulled low of his eyes. Stopping in front of them, he looked Achilles and Patroclus up and down before winking roguishly at Patroclus. Patroclus felt his eyebrows shoot up.

“Lead the way,” said Odysseus and Achilles and Patroclus headed off in the direction of the palace, Odysseus and the boy following diligently behind.

Once sure there was a sizable distance between them, Patroclus spoke to Achilles in hushed tones. “Who is he? Do you know anything about him?”

Achilles shrugged. “Only bits and pieces. He is the prince of Ithaca, but from what I hear he spends little time there. For good reason; it is a barren scrap of an island and if I were its heir I would wish to stay away while I still could. Father says he is a merchant, but with great hesitance. From what I hear, he acquires as much of his goods by force and theft as by bargain.”

“You mean to say,” Patroclus whispered, scandalised. “That he is a pirate?”

Living in Opus, Patroclus had grown up in perpetual fear from the stories of sea-brigands who leapt upon Southern ships and stripped them of cargo, leaving them like a bleeding carcass for opportunists to find. Achilles shrugged again. “It would explain why Peleus is so reluctant to form an alliance with him,” he replied. “Although I’d be more embarrassed that his army is so small. We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one.”

Patroclus snuck a look at Odysseus from over his shoulder, currently deep in conversation with his crewmate. From what he had heard, pirates were fearsome men with wild beards, broken teeth and scarred faces. Odysseus, with his groomed hair, neatly trimmed beard and courteous, diplomatic manner was about as far from this description as he could imagine. Indeed, he looked more like a philosopher or a poet than a criminal.

Achilles led them into the palace and along the halls that lead to the chamber in which his father received guests. Inside, Peleus and the Corinthian King Thoas were pouring over maps and heavy scrolls blotted with battle strategy. They looked up when they entered and, seeing Odysseus, summoned thin, unconvincing smiles.

“Well well,” Peleus wheezed. “If it isn’t the prince of Ithaca. I was starting to wonder if you’d lost my invitation.”

“Oh no,” Odysseus replied airily. “My apologies for the delay. Word reaches us quite slowly from where we are, I’m afraid. Had we been but thirty miles nearer we would have been able to help you defeat the Thessalians. Not that you had any need of us, by the looks of it.”

“No matter, no harm done,” said Peleus dismissively. “You are here now and it is now that matters.”

“Safe journey, Odysseus?” asked Thoas, his dark eyes hard beneath their brows. “Didn’t come into any…trouble on the seas?”

If Odysseus detected any malice in Thoas’ tone of voice he did not show it. “None, thank the Gods,” he replied pleasantly. “Luckily I know the waters well enough to avoid the particularly…tumultuous routes.”

Thoas made a scoffing sound. “I dare say you do,” muttered Peleus. “In any case, we must offer thanks that the waves were able to bring you here safely. We shall have great need of the famous Ithacan hardiness in the upcoming days. But more of that later. For now you must be in need of refreshment after your long passage. I’ll have a girl make your bath and another will show you to your room. And perhaps one for your companion as well?”

“You are as gracious a host as they say,” said Odysseus with his little bow. “I wonder, Pelops here has expressed a great interest in your famed stables. It’s all he’s could talk about the whole trip here. Would it be possible for someone to show him around?”

Peleus looked delighted at the compliment to his horses, high spots of colour appearing on his milky pale cheeks. “But of course,” he exclaimed warmly. “I’ll just send for someone to guide you-”

“-No need,” announced Pelops briskly, grasping Patroclus by the elbow. “Menoitides here will do just fine.”

Both Peleus and Achilles stared at the boy incredulously. Patroclus himself blinked uncomprehendingly even as Pelops grinned up at him. “Very well,” said Peleus. “If Patroclus agrees?”

Patroclus nodded, too taken aback to really appreciate what was going on. “Great,” declared Pelops then turned to Odysseus. “See you in a bit,” he said before tugging Patroclus’ arm and leading him rather forcefully back outside.

“So,” Pelops began, briskly falling into step with Patroclus once they were out of doors. “You’re who they call the Mighty Menoitides.”

“People still call me that?” mumbled Patroclus in wonderment.

Pelops chuckled, although it was so high-pitched it was more like a giggle. “They do where I come from,” he replied easily. “Although it might be a different story in the West, over in Nekros’ lands. Did you know he still talks about skinning you alive?”

“I didn’t,” answered Patroclus tepidly, suppressing a gulp. He hadn’t thought about Nekros or Mynax in months. In truth, he was rather shocked to discover the man set so much significance by him.

“I met him once,” Pelops continued conversationally. “He came to my father’s house. Nasty man. Terrible misogynist. And that awful squealing brat of his. I have to say, I was very pleased to hear how you bested him in that trial, very pleased. In fact, that’s what set off my interest in you.”

He snuck a glance at Patroclus from beneath uncommonly long, dark eyelashes. Patroclus did his best to look casual and indifferent but could not contain his inquisitive: “Oh?”

“Yep,” nodded Pelops. “I’ve been very curious about you for some time. Your story is quite a gripping one; the forsaken prince, outcast, underdog, a stranger in a foreign land. Works his way up to becoming one of the most genuinely well-liked notables this side of the Atlas. And, dare I say it, one of the most eligible bachelors.”

Patroclus looked at him, aghast. Pelops laughed again. “So no one’s approached you yet? No? Well, no matter. Soon you’ll have so many marriage proposals they’ll be coming out your ears.”

“I really can’t think where you’re getting this information,” said Patroclus, uncomfortably conscious of the colour burning his cheeks.

Pelops tapped the side of his nose mysteriously. “You’d be surprised how much you can learn,” he told him sagely. “If one only watches, and listens.”

They had reached the stables. With an exclamation of delight Pelops rushed over to admire Peleus’ most prized steeds while Patroclus hung back, secretly glad of the break from the rather probing conversation. He watched as Pelops cooed and petted over the horses, running his fine white hands through their glossy manes, hands that looked rather incongruous on a seasoned first mate. The horses pressed their damp noses into Pelops’ palm; he issued his high-pitched giggle, whispering admiring sentiments into their alert, attentive ears.

“You really like horses huh,” Patroclus deadpanned for want of a conversation starter.

“They are all that is good and noble in his world stitched into bone and flesh,” Pelops replied, scratching a massive stallion behind the ears. “Back home my sisters and I used to race each other on horseback….I don’t suppose you do that much here, do you?”

Patroclus shook his head. “It’s not…unheard of,” he answered tentatively. “I mean, we know how to ride. It’s just…why would you? The physics of it…doesn’t make it the most popular means of travel.”

Pelops looked confused and continued to do so until Patroclus pointed meaningfully downwards with his chin. “Oh,” he said, expression clearing. “Yes. Well. I could see how it might take getting used to, for some people. But you know, it’s really quite common in the East. The Anatolians never go anywhere on foot. They’re like human centaurs.”

“That’s interesting,” commented Patroclus who knew very little about the East, except for what he had learnt from Leptine. “Around here we prefer…um…chariots.”

Pelops gave him an amused, knowing glance, tittering quietly before resuming his stroking of the stallion. Patroclus moved to his side and joined in petting it roughly, casting an eye out for Balius and Xanthus. He wondered how Pelops would react upon discovering the horses they’d driven that morning had the blood of the Divine in their veins. He snuck a look at him from beneath his lashes.  He was remarkably sure of himself, caressing the horses with such confidence it was as if he had bred and reared them himself. More than that, he spoke and acted with more self-assurance than Patroclus had ever managed, even on his best days. He opened his mouth, about to comment on his apparent skill with the horses when Pelops spoke first.

“I’ll tell you why I love them so much,” he said. “It’s because they’re like you and me. Loyal companions. The comrades of great men, the ones who will never desert, will follow into death, if necessary. The ‘unsung heroes’, a lot of the time.”

He looked up at Patroclus. For the first time since their acquaintance, his expression was serious. “The reason I wanted to meet you Patroclus,” he began. “Is because I wanted to meet another companion. I’ve heard all about you and Achilles, how he killed Mynax to save you, how you saved him in return. I know about the bond between you, I know what you are. One soul in two bodies. And I wanted to meet you because I’ve only ever known of one other bond like that. Mine and his.”

He made a movement with his head, obviously gesturing towards Odysseus back at the palace. Patroclus gazed at Pelops, completely at a loss for words. Pelops removed his eyes from Patroclus’ and resumed his patting of the stallion.

“Of course,” he continued and the gravity was gone from his voice. “I have to say I don’t quite understand your affinity to the Prince of Phthia. He comes across as quite the little brat to me.”

Patroclus shrugged heavily. “Yeah well,” he answered tiredly. “Looks can be deceiving.”

Pelops’ smile could have split stone. “You’re quite right,” he said, and removed his cap.

Chapter Text

“Oh,” said Patroclus.

“‘Oh’?” Pelops exclaimed. “Is that all? Aren’t you surprised?”

“Not really,” Patroclus confessed admittedly.

Pelops pulled a face in a way that conveyed the sentiment: Fair enough. She, for it was a she, bent her head back and shook out her long, black hair. The locks came tumbling through her fingers, framing her fey-like face in elfin bangs. She smiled brightly, stars glinting out from eyes so dark blue they were almost black.

“The name’s Penelope,” she informed him. “Daughter of Icarius of Sparta.”

“Daughter of Icarius?” Patroclus repeated incredulously. “But that’s King Tyndareus’ brother. You’re a princess?”

“If you like,” Penelope replied, rolling her eyes impatiently. “But before you worry yourself into anxiety with any notions of kidnap, I am also Odysseus’ wife. And no,” she added before Patroclus could interrupt. “We did not elope. I assure you the union was quite proper. You never saw a more boring, conventional, patriarchy-conforming affair. Really, my father was very near balling for joy.”

“Well that’s a relief,” said Patroclus who seriously doubted whether Phthia could afford another enemy at this time. “And you’re telling me he’s a hundred percent okay with…erm…all this?”

“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Penelope shrugged. “And anyway, it’s none of his business what I do with my life anymore. That’s the wonderful thing about marriage. Once you’ve passed into your husband’s control you’re no longer under your father’s.”

“And uh,” Patroclus continued, wanting to get things absolutely clear. “Odysseus does actually know that you’re a..uh…”                                                                                                                                                                              

“A woman?” Penelope offered with an amused half-smile. “I should think so. But I can’t say the same for the crew, although I’m sure one or two of them must have figured it out by now, so I’m sure you won’t mind keeping this our little secret.”

“Of course,” said Patroclus who really couldn’t picture any scenario in which he regaled the sailors with the scandalous truth of their cross-dressing first mate.

Penelope grinned again, scratching determinedly at the back of her head. Patroclus surveyed her meditatively, inwardly marvelling at how knowledge and just a few more inches of hair made her cheekbones appear suddenly more rounded, the point of her chin sharper, her lashes longer. Still, despite the physiognomy, he suspected it was her carrying, combined with the clear-faced spring of one just fresh from girlhood that allowed her to bring it off so well.

“You have no idea what it’s like wearing this thing for three weeks straight,” she informed him, lifting her cap. “Oh well. Protects from the lice at least.”

“The lice?” Patroclus grimaced.

“You try sharing a small, enclosed space with a hundred and seventy sailors,” Penelope retorted. “The Aegean sea is no hot spring and men are animals. Long hair is an absolute hazard.

“Why don’t you just cut it?” asked Patroclus.

“Because then she would be forced to conform to a single way of being,” came a voice at the stable door. “And my wife likes to have her options open.”

Odysseus was leaning against the wood, his arms folded across his chest and an amused smile on his brown face. Penelope flashed him a rude hand gesture which he answered with a chuckle.

“So Patroclus,” Odysseus said. “I see you are the fortunate holder of Penelope’s confidences. Tell me; who do you like better, the first mate or the princess?”

Patroclus looked from one face to the other, his mouth gaping like a fish as he tried to think of a sensical reply. Both sets of eyes were twinkling at him, as if he were being tested. “Um,” he began. “I…uh…regret that I have not spent suitable time in either’s company to make an informed decision.”

Odysseus laughed and Patroclus felt a wave of relief, feeling he had passed. “Good answer,” Odysseus smiled appreciatively before slinking an arm round Penelope’s slim shoulders. “So,” he addressed her. “Are we to be having the pleasure of Pelops or Penelope’s company this evening?”

Penelope looked thoughtful, twirling a long strand of hair round her index finger. “Peleus hasn’t met Penelope yet,” she replied.

Odysseus nodded. “True,” he said. “And I’d hate for that dress you brought to go to waste, however incongruous it does look on you.”

“You could always wear it,” Penelope countered.

Odysseus cringed mock-regretfully. “I forgot the shoes,” he replied.

Patroclus’ eyes darted between them, watching their interactions with increasing wonder and bemusement. They were both grinning at each other, as if this was a game they played regularly and took great amusement in having their fun at the expense of making strangers uncomfortable. Not that Patroclus felt ill at ease; on the contrary there was something refreshing about these two strange foreign visitors, unsettling yet exhilarating as a sudden sea breeze.

They walked back to the palace together, Patroclus listening with an enraptured grin as Odysseus and Penelope bantered and chatted with each other, calling on him only occasionally to ask his opinion in whatever debate they were having. Achilles was waiting for them by the gates, arms folded and frowning. He gestured to Odysseus as they approached: “Council in the War Room. They’re waiting for you,” he said.

Odysseus answered with a courteous bow; Achilles waited for him and Penelope to take the lead in front of him before falling back into step with Patroclus.

“So?”  he asked urgently, voice hushed. “What happened? Did he try anything?”

“What? No!” Patroclus shook his head ardently. “What? Why would you even-”

“Come on,” Achilles rolled his impatiently. “I saw the way he was looking at you. Like he could eat you up for dinner. And then when he asked for you to ‘show him the stables’ I thought he just might try-”

“-You are…unfeasible,” said Patroclus in bewilderment. “He was looking at me with interest. As in with sexless, amicable curiosity. He wanted to talk about horses for Gods’ sake.”

Achilles gave a disbelieving snort. “Right,” he muttered. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me the next time I misinterpret a suspicious lone request to an unoccupied space.”

Patroclus sighed, giving him a fond, exasperated look. “Honestly,” he insisted, trying to sound as emphatic as possible. “I promise. You have nothing to worry about.”

He nodded in the direction of Odysseus and Penelopes’ backs, raising his eyebrows meaningfully. Achilles’ eyes narrowed perplexedly, then widened as his expression began to clear in comprehension.

“Ohh,” he said sagely. “I see. Well. Either way, we’d best get to the Council quickly, before anyone else starts looking at you with amicable curiosity.”

When they arrived at the War Room they found Peleus and the other lords and nobles waiting for them patiently. Achilles and Patroclus took their places at the king’s right hand while Odysseus assumed the empty seat next to King Thoas who spared him one look of vague contempt before fixing his gaze determinedly forward. Looking around the room Patroclus noticed similar expressions on the faces of some of the other nobles who were surveying Odysseus like something many-legged that had just scuttled out from a dark corner. Others looked positively delighted at his arrival, even crossing the room to shake his hand jovially and clasp his shoulder. He and Achilles exchanged a look; clearly this was someone who was both loved and loathed in equal measure.

“Now that we are all here,” Peleus began. “Let us begin. Acastus, if you would.”

The general inclined his head before turning to address to the room. “First, praise where it is due,” he announced. “We would never have gained such an advantageous head-start over the Thessalians had it not been for Prince Achilles’ plan and his excellent command of the home defence. Thanks to Achilles and Patroclus our losses so far have been limited and our motherland remains under Phthian rule. It was a risky strategy, however it paid off, avoiding unnecessary loss of life and dignity. For that, our relief and gratitude are yours.”

He put his strong, sinewy hands together and the rest of the room followed suit in echoing the applause while Achilles looked on smugly. Achilles snuck a look at Amyntor and Cleitus who both looked as if they had been forced to gulp down poison. Odysseus however looked fairly impressed and clapped along amiably. Behind him, Penelope winked outlandishly at Patroclus who tried not to grin back.

“However,” Acastus pressed on. “We must be careful of getting ahead of ourselves. We have won a victory yes, but the battle is only half over. Already the Thessalians are well past licking their wounds; they have rebuilt their forces and will be ready to meet us on the open field in a matter of days. With the combined armies of Myrmidon, Corinth and Ithaca we number just over fifteen thousand which will easily prove formidable against Poas’ allies. What possessed him to call on those backward retrogrades Phokis and Boeotia I’m sure Athena only knows; to be sure there is little glory in brandishing bronze against sharpened sticks and pointy fruit-”

“-Pardon my lord,” Odysseus interrupted apologetically. “Forgive the effrontery, but your tone suggests you do not possess sufficient concern over the Thessalian confederates.”

“Concern?” Amyntor raised a scornful eyebrow. “Forgive us Prince Odysseus, I cannot speak for the Ithacan constitution, but for us slightly more eminent nations the trifling stings of feral tribes are hardly a matter of concern.”

“And that’s if the Boeotians can pull themselves away from their livestock to fight,” Cleitus snickered. “Or should I say, out of their livestock.”

The crack was followed by an outburst of loud, exaggerated laughter from the other nobles. Odysseus waited politely for it to die down before continuing.

“I have little doubt that neither Phokis and Boeotia will prove much of a challenge in the face of such ‘eminent’ nations, as you say,” he said amiably. “However, I’m afraid I was referring to Poas’ other ally.”

He looked round the room expectantly even as his words were swallowed up by silence. Puzzled frowns appeared on several faces, including Peleus’ and Acastus’. When the hush remained tensely unbroken after, Odysseus’ face seemed to fall dramatically.

“Ah,” he groaned. “There’s something you don’t know. But I thought surely you’d have heard…the news reached us all the way in Ithaca…even the Thebans were talking about it…”

“Speak quickly, son of Laertes, or not at all,” spoke Peleus brusquely.

“My apologies,” said Odysseus regretfully. “It is just…this may come as something of a shock.”

“Quickly,” Thoas snapped.

“Lord Nekros has joined forces with the Thessalians,” Odysseus announced. “He has lent him his entire legion of retainers and the priceless asset of a brilliant strategic mind and genius cunning in exchange for one thing,” he paused theatrically, surveying the troubled faces with dark intensity. “Prince Achilles’ stripped, flayed body, hanging from the rafters of his palace.”

It was as if someone had plunged Patroclus headfirst into icy water. His entire body wracked with numbing dread, he took a deep gulp of air but found it stuck in his throat. Around him he could see his emotions displayed on the faces of the nobles, all stricken with horror and disgust. Out of the corner of his eye Patroclus saw Ampelius drop his great shaggy head into his hands. Acastus looked as if he had just been struck with a thunderbolt, his eyes wide with shock and disbelief. Beside him Peleus’ face was grim, his wrinkled mouth thinner than Patroclus had ever seen it.

No one spoke, each man taking in the dreadful impact of Odysseus’ words. At long last, Achilles broke the silence with a giggle. “‘Stripped’,” he repeated, grinning widely. “What a pervert.”

“Yes, well,” Odysseus resumed. “I think the idea is to take you alive, or at least, conscious enough so that you still appreciate whatever it is they do to you. Patroclus, you get off a little more lightly, he just wants your head on a spike. As for Phthia, the citadel will be handed over to King Poeas and the lands and villages burnt to the ground. It was a rather speedy bargaining process as I heard it. I’m sorry you two,” he added, addressing Achilles and Patroclus sadly. “No one appreciates your act of bravery more than I. Followed the story very closely, rooting for you all the way. But it seems your heroic attempt at overthrowing the oppressive establishment may have made you quite a few, fairly powerful enemies.”

Odysseus leant back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest with almost sadistic satisfaction. Patroclus glanced at Achilles who was frowning, although it was difficult to decipher his thoughts. Furiously, Thoas rounded on Odysseus, eyes flashing. “And how long have you been sitting on this information?” he demanded. “We’ve been preparing for this battle for weeks, why didn’t you mention this earlier?”

“I thought you already knew,” Odysseus replied innocently.

“You insufferable, flea-ridden, sea-shitting pirate bastard,” Thoas yelled. “This is a man who we’re supposed to trust! A whoreson son of a stinking bitch who would rather see our throats slit if it meant he’d come out on top!”

“I’m really not interested in who tops to be honest,” Odysseus shrugged.

Thoas swore loudly and horribly, causing several people to wince. “Harsh language will get us nowhere,” said Peleus firmly. “Although I must say Odysseus, the sentiment, although poorly expressed, is relatable.”

Odysseus made an assenting gesture. “It is a good thing the Gods have seen fit to prepare me with a few tricks up my sleeve,” he said. “Or my personality might have been truly unforgiveable.”

“We’ll be the judge of that,” Acastus retorted. “Go on. Tell us your plan and we’ll determine the worth of its merit.”

Patroclus listened with half an ear as Odysseus explained his strategy to the Council, however most of his attention was on Achilles who was currently deeply invested in chewing off a hangnail. He could not dismiss the dreadful, unsettling trepidation that had come with Odysseus’ report…the horrible news that Nekros was out there, biding his time, baying for their blood. For Achilles’ blood. He knew that Achilles feared no mortal man, believed himself to be untouchable either due to the gift of the Divine or his own ability. But as Patroclus listened to Odysseus speak it began to dawn on him just how mighty an opponent Nekros really was. Thinking back to the trial, to the hate-filled promise Nekros had screamed as the jury announced their victory, he felt a jab of panicky regret. At the time his triumph had seemed like a win; now it had only landed them deeper in hot water.

Odysseus finished imparting his strategy and the talk moved on to resources, supplies and numbers. Achilles had now stopped trimming his nails and was listening attentively, only interrupting occasionally to ask questions. He kept casting flitting glances at Odysseus, as if anxious for his good opinion. Patroclus, in contrast, could feel his attention beginning to slide. The threat of Nekros and his resolve for Achilles’ destruction had shaken him and he found that no matter how hard he tried to concentrate on weapon distribution his mind kept returning to the sickening image of Achilles, broken and bloody, hanging from the rafters. The thought was almost unbearable but he couldn’t shake it, it was like it had lodged in his brain as a blaring, grisly warning. This is what will happen, it seemed to scream. This is the future if you do not do something.

He sunk lower in his seat, mediating over recent events moodily to himself. The talk turned to army rations he realised with a deep rumbling in his stomach that he was also very hungry. Thankfully, by the time Patroclus’ eyelids were just starting to droop, it appeared Peleus was thinking along similar lines.

“We will continue discussion tomorrow,” he concluded after what could only have been a few hours but felt like several tiresome days. “For now I think we have had enough grim talk for one evening. My lords, if you would care to depart and relax before dinner is served. Soon you will be able to appreciate first-hand the hospitality of the Phthian culture you are helping to protect.”

One by one the lords got to their feet and dismissed themselves with a bow. Achilles waited until Odysseus and Penelope had risen before approaching them.

“That was some trick,” he said, regarding Odysseus carefully. “Tell me, is it your plan to turn your own allies against you, as well as the enemy?”

Odysseus chuckled amicably. “While you have already mastered the art of war it seems you have some way to go in your studies of politics, Prince Achilles,” he replied. “First lesson: if you cannot make people like you, then you have to make them need you.”

He waved cheerily before turning to follow the other lords out of the room. Penelope smiled secretively at Patroclus. “See you at dinner,” she said before following suit.

Achilles watched them go thoughtfully, chewing his lip as he mulled over what Odysseus had said. Catching his frown, Patroclus nudged him playfully in the ribs. “Come on,” he said. “We should get ready.”

oOo

Celebrations in the Great Hall were always majestic affairs, however with the black cloud of impending war hanging over the festivities there was a necessity for forced joviality which resulted in this feast being even more outrageous than usual. Peleus, clearly embarrassed about having to call for help from foreign leaders, pulled out all the stops to show his allies that Phthia was still a nation of strength and unity, proven by displays of lavish expense and several initiatives to make the guests “as comfortable as possible.” And so when Achilles and Patroclus came down for dinner that evening they were faced with a circus-like cacophony of musicians, jugglers, dancing girls and exotic “entertainers” whose bright scarves and golden bells set the Hall alight in a riot of colour and sound.

The guests were seated at the highest of the tables, although Patroclus observed that someone had wisely calculated a wide berth between Thoas and Odysseus. Achilles took the place Peleus had provided for him next to the latter leaving Patroclus to take an empty seat next to Penelope.

“Good evening,” she greeted him with her trademark roguish smile. “Don’t you look dashing.”

Patroclus gave her the once-over. She was wearing a midnight blue dress, the straps of which fastened round her neck where a silver torque also hung. Silver bracelets dangled from her slender wrists like the rings of planets and her long, jet black hair hung loosely braided over her bare shoulders. For the life of him, Patroclus could not see how he had ever mistaken her for a man. “One could say the same,” he replied. “Aren’t you worried that people will…you know. Ask questions?”

“I love questions,” Penelope shrugged, taking a sip from her goblet. “You’d be surprised at my capacity for tolerance. I’ve had to put up with some very rude ones in my time. As it happens, it appears there’s little need tonight. Not one person has paid me any mind since I sat down. I’m just another unnamed woman at the table.”

Patroclus, conscious of the many admiring glances Penelope was receiving from across the room, remembered Leptine’s experiences with distaste. “Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable dressed as a man?” he nodded towards the upper end of the table. “You could join in with the conversation.”

At the other end it seemed the war talk had resumed ahead of schedule. Penelope pulled a face. “There’s only so much testosterone-fuelled, aggressively-masculine diatribe I can stomach,” she said dismissively. “Just because I enjoy the opportunities available to me as Pelops doesn’t mean I don’t have better things to do than listen to men arguing about the best ways to kill one another. Honestly, I’d rather weave for Arcadia and impale myself on my own spindle than be forced to listen to another Big Dick Contest.”

She gave Patroclus a scrutinising glance from behind the rim of her goblet. “And unless I’m very much mistaken, the same goes for you,” she observed. “Why else would you be talking to me, the little wife, when you could be up there grabbing a tape measure?”

“Because you’re an interesting person to talk to,” mumbled Patroclus with a blush. “And besides, it’s not that I’m not interested in military matters. It just seems there’s been little time for anything else recently. It gets tedious, and more than a little depressing.”

“Fair enough,” said Penelops. “So then, we are agreed? No more war talk?”

She raised her goblet in proposition. Patroclus grinned and knocked it with his own. “Agreed.”

Twenty minutes later, they had barely started in on their first course and it had become blatantly clear to Patroclus that he had made a very good call in sitting next to Penelope. If first impressions hadn’t been evidence enough, it was soon apparent that she was unlike any person he had ever known. He had been brought up with the expectations that highborn women were to be modest, demure, and discouraged from voicing their opinions in the company of men, if indeed they had any.

In this respect, and indeed in most, Penelope defied every single convention. She was loud, brash and assertive with absolutely no qualms about expressing herself in any way that she saw fit, which frequently resulted in Patroclus shooting anxious looks over his shoulder to check if anyone had overheard. An extension of her fierce intelligence, she also possessed a very quick wit which she used to regale the table with scandalous stories that sent the heat rising into Patroclus’ cheeks and provoked several urges to crawl under the table.

Apart from the unsolicited insights into her sex life, Patroclus learned a great deal about Penelope’s past; what it was like to be a girl child growing up in Sparta, her ravenous appetite for adventure, her relationship with her family, especially with her cousins: Clytemnestra and Helen, whom she regarded almost as sisters.

“Of course it was difficult sometimes,” she told him, rolling her eyes. “Growing up with Helen. Imagine me: an ugly, black-haired, lanky-limbed thing with dirty knees bloody from climbing trees and stealing birds’ eggs all day. Compare that to Helen, the little dove, all pink and white and gold in her pretty dresses. You should have seen how the boys fawned over her, like she was Aphrodite herself.’Nestra and I; we used to pull her hair and cut the heads off her dolls.’Nestra had it much worse than I did, though. At least I have to put on breeches to look the part.”

Patroclus let out a loud guffaw of laughter even as Odysseus looked up from the other end of the table. “Are you being ungracious about your womenfolk again, my wife?” he called. He looked at Patroclus and winked. “To this day I ask the Gods why I didn’t pick the youngest daughter of Sparta instead.”

“You make it sound as if the choice was yours to make,” Penelope retorted. “You should thank those same Gods I was the only daughter of Sparta who would have you.”

Odysseus laughed good naturedly. “There is truth to that,” he nodded. “Although I have to say, despite her aesthetic charms Helen was never really my type. I like my women to have at least something going on in their heads.”

“She’s as vapid and silly as a lamb,” Penelope agreed. “Although I really shouldn’t bitch. It’s really down to her that we are got together. Helen had a lot of suitors,” she explained in response to Patroclus’ confusion. “Her father Tyndareus asked Odysseus to think of a way to prevent a fight from breaking out, in exchange for his putting in a good word for him with my father, to secure my hand.”

“And of course, my incomparable genius was more than up to the task,” Odysseus piped up.

“Ah yes,” Penelope rolled her eyes. “An oath! How original! How inspired! How truly, earth-shatteringly ground-breaking! In fact, I’d go as far as to call it the greatest innovation since the wheel!”

Odysseus shrugged casually, apparently unbothered by the sarcasm. “Worked, didn’t it?”

Penelope rolled her eyes again. “We’ll see,” she said. “Helen never learned how to be happy with herself. She doesn’t know what she wants. And that means she’s going to keep looking for it, after she’s got what she can out of Menelaus. Forget a woman, that man couldn’t satisfy a hole in the ground-”

“-Oh my God,” cried Patroclus, dropping his head in his hands. “Change the subject, please.”

As Penelope tittered the music grew louder and quickened its pace. Suddenly the centre of the Hall had been taken over by dancing girls, exhibiting their talents for the guests who crowed appreciatively, tossing lewd remarks and golden coins alike into the ring. At the head of the throng danced Pamaia, looking beautiful as ever in a flimsy silk costume that only barely clung to her voluptuous figure. She flashed Patroclus a scornful glance from beneath kohl-lined lids before engaging King Thoas.

Patroclus followed her roving hips with ill-disguised animosity. Catching his darkened expression, Penelope raised an eyebrow. “Well she’s certainly very pretty,” she remarked. “Am I sensing a little past history?”

“No,” replied Patroclus shortly. Penelope raised the other eyebrow. Patroclus sighed. “Yes,” he amended admittedly. “We don’t get on.”

“Can’t imagine why,” said Penelope sweetly as Pamaiamoved from grinding against Thoas to stroke Achilles’ throat.

Patroclus followed her gaze and felt a lump stick in his oesophagus. He made to get to his feet but Penelope grasped his wrist with a flash. “Sit down,” she told him quietly. “Don’t make a scene. What are you going to do, yank him away from his lap dance so you can lecture him on fidelity?”

“Maybe,” Patroclus muttered through gritted teeth. Achilles was laughing as the silk tickled his chin. He felt something inside him squirm in protest.

“Well you can’t,” said Penelope bluntly. “Look around you. He’s surrounded by some of his father’s most eminent guests and allies. This is exactly what Odysseus was talking about earlier. Politics. He has an image to preserve. He’s got to play the part.”

Pamaia was holding both of Achilles’ hands in hers. The waterfall of her hair was brushing against his chest, her hips were almost directly aligned with his. Patroclus swallowed hard.

Penelope, clearly noticing his pain, softened her tone. “It’s hard I know,” she said. “Whenever Odysseus went away on one of his voyages I would wonder what new girl he would meet; on an island, or another ship, or on the other side of the world. Every time he left I’d wonder if that was the last I’d ever see him. And whenever he returned with a new trinket for me I’d ask myself which woman he took it from, whether it was in exchange for something or if he’d stole it from her while she slept.”

She paused and Patroclus looked up at her. Her voice had been factual, devoid of all emotion and there was nothing that betrayed feeling in her eyes. She made an airy gesture. “It’s shit,” she continued. “But what can you do? Nothing, except remember that it doesn’t count. All these other girls, boys, whatever, they don’t mean anything. You have to bear in mind that it’s you he loves, you he’s chosen to be with. Anything else is just political, or silliness. It doesn’t matter. In this case, you have even less to worry about. All he’s got to do is look interested in that wet thing between her legs for a few minutes while the others pat him on a shoulder and tell him what a ‘lad’ he is. She’s a slave girl. A prop. A test, if you will. It’s not like he has to actually do anything.”

“Really?” Patroclus asked hopefully.

Penelope nodded. “Sure,” she shrugged. “Now, if she was a noblewoman or a princess it would be another matter. Then he might actually have to marry her. That would be really shit. But there’s little chance of that with this one.”

This was true. Although Pamaia liked to act as though she could mould the world around her like clay to her perfumed hands it was worth remembering that, in the great scheme of things, she had very little real power at all. In fact, much of her bravado was probably compensation for the knowledge that, despite her image of empowerment, she was and would always be a prisoner. Realising this, Patroclus tried to relax and ignore her ministrations, an easier feat when she finally moved away from Achilles’ torso.

Eventually the dancers dispersed and Patroclus resumed his conversation, casting only a few wary glances in Achilles’ direction. He was currently engrossed in discussion with Odysseus and was paying no heed to Pamaia, even as she continued to send him sultry looks from across the room. Patroclus resolved to banish it from his mind, there was no need to bring it up later. As Penelope had said, she was only a pawn. There was little real damage she could actually do. A few minutes later he was enjoying himself again and was just beginning to feel pleasantly sleepy with food and alcohol when King Thoas stood up, clapping his hands to call the Hall to silence.

“My friends,” he proclaimed in a heavy, important voice. “Great thanks to your generous hospitality, the joys of which must be comparable to the feasts of the Gods in Olympus in their golden halls! It is an honour and a privilege for Corinth to ally with such a country of big hearts and full bellies!”

A heart cheer followed his words and Patroclus applauded along with the rest until Thoas raised his hands again in order to continue his speech. “In return for such pleasures and bounties,” he went on. “I have already placed my kinship and loyalty. However, neither of those virtues are quite so pleasing to the eye as anything King Peleus has offered so far!”

He reached for one of the slave girls who was carrying a jug of wine and pinched her playfully on the backside, causing her to yelp. Patroclus noticed Odysseus and Penelope exchange a black look.

“And so,” Thoas continued. “In order to seal the deal inflexibly, I make to you King Peleus an offer. My daughter Chloē’s hand in marriage to your fine son, Achilles. Even as our two families shall be come one, so will the alliance between Corinth and Phthia be ever stronger and thus our defence against Thessaly!”

He threw his hands up into the air and a mighty clamour erupted. People jumped out of their seats in celebration, diving across the table to wring the hands of Thoas or Peleus or Achilles. The music started up again, ten times louder than before. Thoas and Peleus were clasped in an embrace and toasting to the future of their children. Beside them, Achilles sat slumped in his chair, his face deathly white as though he had just been stricken.

Penelope turned to Patroclus and her dark eyes were wide. “Fuck,” she said.

Chapter Text

“Patroclus, wait!”

Patroclus ignored him, tearing up the spiral steps three at a time. Behind him he could hear Achilles’ breath, only slightly laboured as he chased after him, the clatter of his desperate feet loud on the stone. “Patroclus, come on! This isn’t my fault!”

Upon reaching the top, Patroclus did not hesitate before yanking open the door to their bedroom and trying to slam it shut. However Achilles, with all his God-given speed, was only a few seconds behind him and succeeded in jamming his foot in the door. Seething with frustration, Patroclus attempted to force it closed but Achilles was fighting on the other side, his superior size, weight and strength overwhelmingly weighing out. They struggled for a few moments as Patroclus stubbornly wrestled with the handle until with a final push from Achilles’ end it went flying open and Patroclus stumbled backwards into the room.

“Patroclus,” said Achilles again breathing deeply, although Patroclus suspected this was more with the effort of trying to keep calm than from real exertion. “Come on, listen to me. I didn’t know about her, I promise.”

“Really,” jeered Patroclus, voice heavy with disbelief. “You expect me to believe you spent the whole of dinner sitting at the ‘lad’s end’ with Thoas and your father and she never came up once?”

“I didn’t know about her,” Achilles repeated and now his eyes were flaring. “Gods’ teeth, can you not imagine my reaction if I had?”

“I imagine it would be similar to your very firm response to the announcement,” replied Patroclus sarcastically. “Where you sat there and said nothing.”

“What was I supposed to do?” Achilles shouted. “Stand up, make a big scene, declare that the only person I want to spend the rest of my life with is you? Do you know what that would have done to the alliance? To my father? He has put everything he has into negotiating with these people, these men from greater lands who look down at us as a mountain on a tussock. Do you think I want to be the son who destroys all of that for his own selfishness? You were the one who told me I needed to recognise there was a bigger picture beyond my own desires. You were the one who said that a man has to make sacrifices.”

“Well yes,” said Patroclus exasperatedly, rolling his eyes. “But I didn’t mean me.”

“There was nothing I could have done but sit it out,” Achilles continued as if he hadn’t heard him. “Be courteous. Play the part. To have done otherwise would have been to offer Thoas insult-”

“-And I bet that required a major effort on your part,” Patroclus flared up. “To sit there and put on a brave face. ‘Oh no, I’m being forced to marry a beautiful princess with a massive dowry and half a kingdom behind her, what a shame, I’m so, so sad…’”

“We don’t know that she’s beautiful,” Achilles muttered.

Patroclus seized Achilles’ kithara from his bedside table and aimed to throw it.

“Wait, stop, stop,” Achilles rushed at him, waving his hands frantically. “Calm down, you’re being stupid-”

“-Yeah that’s right,” nodded Patroclus, raising the kithara threateningly. “Stupid old Patroclus, Achilles’ stupid friend. Stupid enough to think that you actually cared more about me than your status or your image-”

“THIS IS NOT ABOUT THAT!” Achilles yelled, clutching at locks of his own hair in frustration. “For fuck’s sake Patroclus, do you even know how short-sighted you sound? How petty?”

“Fix it Achilles, fix it,” said Patroclus warningly, the hand that held onto the kithara white and shaking.

“I had to sit it out,” Achilles repeated, struggling with the effort of keeping his voice level. “For the time being. It would not have done to have made a scene there. But I swear to you: first thing tomorrow morning I will go to Peleus, I will speak to him and I will call off the engagement.”

Patroclus held the kithara in the air but did not throw it. “You…you will go to Peleus?”

“I will,” Achilles nodded. “I promise, I will sort it. I don’t want to marry her, Patroclus.”

His face was very open, plaintive, his eyes wide and beseeching. Patroclus lowered his arm, feeling suddenly bashful. “Not…not even if she is very beautiful?” he mumbled.

“Not if she were Aphrodite herself,” replied Achilles with a slight smile, stepping forward.

“Not even if she could bare you lots of children?” insisted Patroclus. “And came with a thousand silver tripods?”

“I don’t care about children,” Achilles had advanced, he was standing right in front of him now.  “And I wouldn’t know what to do with a tripod.”

He raised a hand to cup Patroclus’ jaw, his green eyes bearing down on his with almost solemn intensity. “Now will you be satisfied?” he asked quietly.

Patroclus let out a shaky breath, allowing his shoulders to sag. “Alright,” he exhaled. “But you’d better sort it.”

Achilles made a hum of assent in Patroclus’ hair, bending to fit his head in the crook between his neck and shoulder. Patroclus closed his eyes even as Achilles’ other hand enclosed around the one that held onto the instrument.

“What were you going to do with this?” he murmured amusedly against the shell of his ear.

Patroclus’ gaze flitted to where Achilles had a tight hold on his fists and back up again. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “Hit you with it.”

Achilles made a tut-tutting, reproving sound. “That would not have been friendly,” he admonished, his hands moving efficiently to work off Patroclus’ belt. “I would have had second thoughts about giving you your other present.”

“Is it another one I have to share?” quipped Patroclus.

Achilles halted on Patroclus’ belt and fixed him with a hard look. Patroclus felt a squirm of nervous excitement, watching as his lip curled with distaste.

“I thought we had agreed to drop the subject,” he spoke, his voice dangerously low. “Clearly you are still under allusions that I do not care for you.”

“Accept nothing without proof, remember?” retorted Patroclus challengingly.

“I will make you let this go,” replied Achilles and suddenly, without warning, Patroclus found himself with his back against the wall, his arms pinned up above his head by Achilles’ wrist. He tried to wriggle free but Achilles held him hard, one eyebrow crooked in admonishment.

“Naughty,” he said, smacking his cheek lightly. “My Patroclus, just when are you going to learn to do as you are told?”

Patroclus opened his mouth to respond but was thwarted by Achilles sealing it with his own. Against his own resolution he found his limbs relaxing, his defiance melting away at the hot, unyielding insistence of Achilles’ tongue. His mouth opened beneath him, eager for more pressure, for more exploration and Achilles obliged, pressing him harder against the wall until there was barely room to breathe. He was heavy; Patroclus could feel the plane of his stomach muscles pressing into his own torso as his shoulders towered over him, making him painfully aware of how much smaller he was in comparison. Patroclus gave an involuntary shiver as Achilles moved to stroke his ear with his tongue.

“That’s better,” Achilles purred, nipping his earlobe. “Perhaps I will give you your present after all.”

“I…ah,” Patroclus struggled to enunciate as Achilles set his mouth to the skin just an inch away from his throat, worrying it with his lips and teeth. Patroclus’ hands, now free, settled themselves in Achilles’ hair, holding him there as his breathing grew increasingly laboured. Patroclus’ eyes rolled back into his skull, gasping as Achilles sucked harder at his skin, the hint of teeth behind it almost enough to push him over the edge. Absently Patroclus stroked the back of his head, if nothing else to take his mind off Achilles’ red, wet mouth on his flesh before he came in his chiton…

Suddenly with an obscene wet, suctioning sound Achilles had released his neck and was sinking to his knees. Patroclus watched with confusion as Achilles positioned himself before Patroclus, placing two hands on his thighs and rolling the hem of his chiton upwards. “What are you doing,” Patroclus managed to gasp.

Achilles replied by smacking him, harder, on the side of his thigh. “No talking,” he ordered. Patroclus watched, eyes wide in dumb wonder as Achilles lifted his chiton and stroked once down the length of his cock before taking him in his mouth.

At once, all thought shot out of Patroclus’ head. Everything that had happened over the past few hours; Penelope, Odysseus, the princess Chloē disappeared into insignificance. Nothing existed anymore but for the indescribable feeling that arose from the hot, wetness of Achilles’ mouth on him, sucking him slowly as he had on his neck just moments before. Patroclus’ head fell back against the wall, exposing his throat but he kept his eyes on Achilles, Achilles on his knees with his hair tangled and messy around his face and a heady look in his eye. Within a few moments, Patroclus was panting and babbling like a madman.

“Bloody shitting…fuck Hell…don’t think this means I’m not still angry…ah...with you…you’re a dirty…enfgh…cheating wanker bastard…fuck…don’t know why I keep you…ah don’t stop DON’T STOP…I’m gonna…

Hot, curling sensation was building up in Patroclus’ lower stomach, barely containable. Achilles chuckled and the hum of the vibrations sent waves of pleasure shooting up the shaft; Patroclus groaned audibly and gritted his teeth. Then Achilles swiped his tongue over the tip and with a shout Patroclus came like a thunderbolt, head slamming backwards into the wall. Bright lights were popping up at the corners of his vision, the world was a blur, he was nearly blind with pleasure.

Achilles swallowed it all down before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and getting to his feet. He was grinning. Patroclus was shaking, hair plastered to his skull with sweat and skin in flames, burning brightly as if he had a fever. Gently, Achilles peeled him from the wall and enveloped him against his chest, holding him there tightly until the shaking had subsided.

“There you go sweetheart,” he crooned softly as Patroclus’ breathing slowly became regular. “There you go. Good man.”

Patroclus tried to speak but could only manage a pitiful mewling sort of noise. Achilles chuckled and carefully led him into the bed, wrapping the covers firmly around them both. The moment Patroclus’ head touched the pillow he felt the beginnings of sleep crashing around him, stealing itself upon his now fragile limbs within seconds. Achilles smoothed the damp hair away from his forehead and stroked his knuckles with his thumb.

“Where did you learn that?” Patroclus breathed drowsily.

His eyes were closed but he could still see Achilles’ smile. “Been dreaming about doing it to you for a while,” he said. “I guessed your nerves might benefit from a kiss down there.”

“Good guess,” replied Patroclus. He could still feel tendrils of warmth curling in his abdomen. He shifted closer to Achilles needily who laughed and wrapped an arm possessively around his torso.

“There you are,” Achilles grinned. “You needn’t worry about losing me to anyone else. You have, most assuredly, succeeded in making yourself mine.”

“You will fix it tomorrow, won’t you?” Patroclus yawned. “You don’t lie to me.”

“I don’t,” Achilles agreed. “Except…well. It’s possible I might have done once.”

But Patroclus was fast asleep before he had a chance to ask when.

oOo

When Patroclus woke up the next morning the bed was empty and Achilles was nowhere to be seen. At first he was disappointed, then he remembered that he must have already gone to set things straight with Peleus. Patroclus hoped Achilles’ refusal to marry the princess would not be enough to drive a wedge between father and son, or between Phthia and Corinth but his anxieties were superseded by a cool wave of relief that he would not have to hand Achilles over to anyone else just yet.

He climbed out of bed and stretched, pleasantly aware of a sunny, warm feeling inside him that he assumed must have something to do with last night. Grinning shamelessly, he made his way down to breakfast. Leptine was standing at the door, holding a large tray of summer fruits. Patroclus grabbed a peach from the stack and greeted her cheerily, prompting her to raise a curious eyebrow.

“What are you so happy about?” she asked.

Patroclus shrugged.  “Nice day,” he replied airily. “Come over here, I want you to meet someone.”

Leptine followed him warily over to where Penelope and Odysseus were sitting, the latter engaged in avid conversation with the man on his right while his wife played idly with an olive on her plate, looking bored. Her face lit up as Patroclus approached and she nudged her husband.

“Don’t mind me for a bit dear,” she told him. “I’m just going to flirt outrageously with Menoitides for a little while.”

“Whatever makes you happy dear,” Odysseus answered before resuming his conversation.

Penelope rolled her eyes before bringing them back to Patroclus. It was difficult to tell what style she was going for today; although she wore a loose linen tunic with embroidered flowers that were clearly supposed to be feminine, her legs were clad in a pair of men’s riding breaches. Either way, she fixed Patroclus with a very womanish look after glancing him up and down, a look identical to the one Leptine had just given him.

“Well, well,” she intoned. “Someone gained great favour with the Fates last night.”

Leptine goggled at him as he blushed from toe to root. “I…how would you know…”

“Please Patroclus, it’s written all over your eager teenaged face,” said Penelope. “Good work. Although I’d have thought the events of last night might have put a bit of a dampener on the mood.”

“Achilles is sorting it,” Patroclus assured her. “He’s gone to see the king now to call off the engagement amicably.”

Penelope’s expression read, quite clearly: Good luck with that. However, she did not press the matter but instead gestured at Leptine. “I suppose you’re going to introduce me to your friend?” she said. “Or did you just come over here to boast your good fortune?”

Patroclus hurriedly introduced Leptine before Penelope had a chance to quiz him on the more intimate details of his relationship. As expected, she appeared not the least bit perturbed that his best friend was a slave although she did raise her other eyebrow inquisitively, as if wondering how such a friendship could be born out of such circumstances. She asked her a great deal of questions about Anatolia, particularly concerning their horse culture, and was especially pleased when Leptine informed her that in her village they had even had a horse God.

“Sometimes I wonder why I don’t just move East,” Penelope said wistfully after listening to Leptine describe the festival of Sozon. “Horse Gods and matriarchy. It sounds like a utopia.”

“Only a few cities are actually ran by women,” Leptine told her. “Although a lot of the land is de facto owned by the Amazons. They can’t really have a legal right to it though, because they don’t stay in one place but move around everywhere on horseback.”

After that Penelope’s eyes glazed over and they couldn’t get much more out of her, although Patroclus did hear her whisper to Odysseus a few minutes later something that sounded strangely like: “Can I divorce you and live as a lesbian Amazon horsewoman?”

Leptine had the morning off, so after breakfast she and Patroclus decided to go for a walk in the grounds. The morning air was crisp and balmy and smelled pleasantly of wood smoke. As they passed the stables Patroclus realised he was feeling relaxed and at peace with the world, a sensation he’d never guessed he’d ever be feeling again after Thoas’ announcement at dinner. Patroclus wasted no time in relating the situation to Leptine, however rather than looking reassured and confident as he felt, she bit her lip anxiously.

“Oh Patroclus,” she began. “Do you…do you really think he’ll succeed?”

Patroclus looked at her perplexedly. “Of course he will,” he said, as if she had just asked him the colour of the sky. “No one can make Achilles do something he doesn’t want to. Plus, Peleus dotes on him, even more so since his plan worked out against Thessaly. He could ask for a pet chimaera and he’d probably say yes. Besides, what sort of parent would force their child into a marriage they don’t want anyway?”

“I suppose,” said Leptine, still looking unconvinced.

Her doubtful expression was making Patroclus depressed so he decided to change the subject.

“So, Penelope eh?” he grinned. “What do you think of her?”

Leptine answered without hesitation. “I think she’s fantastic,” she said. “Quite a…um…character. She’s very…outspoken, isn’t she?”

“She knows her own mind,” Patroclus laughed, nodding at what had to be the biggest understatement of the Bronze Age.

“And that’s ok with her husband?” Leptine raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a marriage where the woman can do and say as she pleases. Doesn’t Odysseus mind?”

“No I don’t think so,” Patroclus shook his head. “In fact, I think he quite likes it. They amuse each other. It’s a very equal sort of partnership.”

Leptine nodded and a melancholy look came into her eye. “Yes, that’s the way all relationships should be I find,” she said sadly.

Patroclus snuck a look at Leptine out of the corner of his eye. She was scuffing the ground with her foot, avoiding his gaze. Patroclus hadn’t asked but from what he gathered things hadn’t moved any further with Deiomachus but were at a bit of a standstill: she was still refusing to let him into bed with her and he was becoming increasingly frustrated, although Patroclus thought it was more out of hurt that she didn’t trust him than anything else. Privately, Patroclus suspected Leptine might feel better if she took her chances while they were hot instead of waiting for them to cool. If women always waited for a man to show signs that he wasn’t about to bolt at the first opportunity then no one would have any children. But then, he reminded himself, he was a man himself and free, so he really didn’t have any right to an opinion on the subject.

They walked across the playing field and then back round towards the main gates, Leptine entertaining him with tales from the servants’ quarters, including Loras’ recent exploits with a married woman from the town. Apparently the caduceus was really doing something for his sex appeal. She was just splitting his sides with a particularly apt impression of the official-semi-fulltime-messenger-official when they noticed a long train of people, filing in through the palace entrance. They halted curiously, observing that they all seemed to be carrying possessions: a carved bedstead, an embroidered cushion, a harp, hunting dogs and silky cats, and what had to be at least a hundred tripods.

“What do you reckon?” Patroclus asked Leptine who shrugged in bewilderment.

There was one young man at the back of the line, wearing a servant’s chiton, who appeared to be struggling with a particularly heavy trunk. Patroclus and Leptine rushed over to him, each of them taking hold of either side. “Here, let us help you with that.”

“Thank you,” said the servant gratefully, wiping sweat of his brow with a free hand. “I was just thinking how magnificent it would be if I gave myself a hernia.”

“Have you had to walk very far with it?” asked Leptine.

The servant shook his head. “The wagon did most of the work,” he replied. “It is only a short distance away, up that road there.”

He gestured in the direction of the dirt path that led into the town and beyond. Patroclus saw that there was more than one wagon parked there, and it was from these that the servants were unloading.

“Four wagons,” Patroclus counted. “Wow. You definitely have a job ahead of you.”

“You’re telling me,” the servant grumbled.

They lugged the heavy trunk through the palace doors and into the main building, which, even with the three of them, was no easy feat. Patroclus began to reflect that his act of kindness might have been a little too impulsive, particularly when, upon asking where he wanted it, the servant pointed up the stairs.

“Gods-on-a-Mountain what’s in this thing?” Patroclus panted, sweat dripping down his neck to mark the stone steps. “Rocks?”

 “Just your standard haul of treasure,” the servant replied. “Lots of jewellery; golden necklaces, rings, brooches etcetera, then a few goblets, coins, bolts of silk. Then you’ve got your precious gems: rubies, sapphires, garnets, a few opals…”

“So rocks, then,” snapped Leptine, gritting her teeth over a particularly high step.

Finally, they came to a room on the third floor; Patroclus just had time to register that it was, in fact, one of the best guest rooms in the entire palace before they set the chest down and he felt nothing but a wave of sweet relief. The servant wiped his sweaty hair out of his eyes and bent backwards, producing a loud and satisfying click.

“Thank you two for your help,” he addressed them. “Unfortunately I’m not quite sure how to repay you unless…well…would you like a tripod?”

“We’re all good,” Patroclus answered with a smile. “But can you tell us…who is it that’s staying here? It must be a guest of great stature, to have all of this brought up for a temporary visit.”

He gestured to the room around him which was stuffy with unburdened cargo. The servant’s brow knitted together in a frown. “Great stature is correct,” he nodded slowly. “But I should be very displeased if the visit turned out to be temporary, after that effort. Luckily I have faith in Princess Chloē’s stamina, and her intentions for an extensive marriage.”

Patroclus felt as though he had left his stomach back at the foot of the stairs. Next to him he could sense Leptine’s look of horror. The servant, noticing nothing, thanked them again and hurried out of the room in order to help shift the load of the other wagons. By the time the echo of his footsteps had faded away, Patroclus had recovered and was now shaking his head regretfully.

“Are you okay?” Leptine asked him tentatively.

“Yeah,” he answered heavily. “I just feel so sorry for that poor girl, having to come all the way from Corinth for nothing. Achilles will have talked to Peleus and pulled out of the engagement by now and she’ll have no idea. Bless her, I bet she was really looking forward to a nice big wedding. And when you think of the servants having to reload all of this stuff…it’s sad really.”

Leptine gawked at him but when he continued to do nothing but shake his head out of sorry compassion for the disappointed princess she obviously thought it best to say nothing.

They spent the rest of the morning outside, laying lazily in the grass and watching the world go by, the sunshine warm and yellow on their bellies. When they had grown tired of pointing out the shapes of clouds or cooking up schemes to get Pamaia sent away from the palace, each one more ludicrous than the last, Patroclus remembered he had wanted to show her the chariot. They jumped up to look for Achilles, as Patroclus strongly doubted that he’d approve of his using it without him, and headed back toward the palace foyer.

Inside they were greeted by a cacophony of people, all huddled around something that Patroclus could not see. Servants and retainers were darting this way and that, some lugging around what he assumed were more of the princess’ possessions. Thoas was there with his thumbs tucked into his belt, beaming indulgently at everyone and so was Peleus, smiling welcomingly at whomever flashed by. He reached into the throng to clasp someone’s hand; Patroclus caught a glimpse of a dainty palm, glittering with expensive-looking rings.

Odysseus was standing at the edge of the swarm, his arms crossed over his chest. Patroclus went and stood next to him, craning his neck for a sight of the princess. “Where’s Penelope?” he asked.

“Playing another part,” Odysseus answered with a nod of his head and Patroclus realised she was the one blocking his view. She was wearing another dress, dark green, stately and elegant and he had not recognised her.

Suddenly Penelope moved to her right and for the first time the celebrated Princess Chloē came into full view. She was wearing a dress of shocking pink bordered with gold, luminescent against the tresses of her hair which hung in loose, honey-coloured curls. Her skin was honey-coloured too, smooth and clear. Her eyes were large and dark and she was smiling, showing beautiful white teeth.

“Oh she’s lovely,” Patroclus winced, ever-more regretfully. “How is she taking it?”

Odysseus shrugged. “In her stride,” he replied. “I should think she’s used to it by now. She is a princess, after all.”

“Yes that’s true,” Patroclus murmured. “I suppose she’s had her fair share of disappointment.”

Odysseus wrinkled his nose, glancing down at Patroclus with bemusement. “Disappointment?” he repeated confusedly. “I’m not sure I’d say that’s the first thing she’s feeling. Gods know Achilles is no fishing trip but I should think at the moment she’s simply relieved he is not ugly or forty-five.”

Patroclus stared, wide-eyed at Odysseus. “What,” he said in hushed tones. “Is that the kind of thing they’re into in Corinth?”

Odysseus stared back at Patroclus as if he had gone insane. “What the hell are you on about?” he asked, dazed.

Patroclus was saved from answering, and so from confirming Odysseus’ suspicions of madness, by a sudden loud bark of his name. “Patroclus!”

They both whipped round to see Achilles running towards them. His eyes were wide and he looked frantic. He opened his mouth and closed it a few times before he was able to speak and when he did so his voice came out hoarse and dry. “There’s…um…” he began. “There’s been a…slight hiccough-”

“-AND THERE HE IS!” Thoas boomed, holding out the arm that wasn’t around his daughter to embrace Achilles. “The lucky groom-to-be! Achilles, come and meet your betrothed!”

Achilles gulped and darted a look at Patroclus. In all the time he had known him, Patroclus had never seen him look so terrified. And for very good reason.

“You perfect little bitch,” Patroclus hissed.

Achilles swallowed again.

oOo

The fight that followed was the biggest Achilles and Patroclus had ever had. Slaves downstairs cringed and cowered at the thunderous clamour coming from their room, the ear-splitting shouts punctuated only by the sounds of breaking furniture. Their voices rang throughout the palace like the crack of a storm through trees, echoing off the marble until the suggestion was put forward to send someone up there to quieten them. There were, however, no volunteers.

According to Achilles, Peleus had simply refused to call of the marriage, stating that etiquette dictated only Thoas could recall the proposal, having been the one to put it forward. Were Phthia to back out now, Corinth would take it as a personal affront and any hopes of alliance would be immediately shattered. It was simply impossible, Peleus had emphasised. Unless Corinth were to withdraw the hand of their princess, the wedding had to go ahead.

Patroclus, however, had a different theory. He maintained that, rather than trying his utmost to persuade his father, Achilles had taken one look at Chloē and made a U-turn, a suggestion that Achilles took rather less than positively. This led to accusations of Patroclus being paranoid and untrusting which he responded to with scorn.

“I’M PARANOID?!” he screamed indignantly. “Who was the one who dipped Leptine’s mop in yoghurt?? And what about that retainer you tried to have exiled for saying that I had, and I quote, ‘a good arm’??”

“THAT WAS A TOTALLY DIFFERENT SITUATION!” Achilles yelled back.

“IN WHAT WAY?”

“BECAUSE…BECAUSE I DIDN’T KNOW YOU KNEW ABOUT THAT!”

The conversation ended with a splintered kithara and a slammed door as Patroclus stormed out looking thunderous, into the living room where Penelope was sitting, perched on a couch and apparently deeply engrossed in a scroll of poetry. Half an hour later, tears were falling thickly into her lap as Patroclus sobbed heartily. Half a dozen empty wine jugs littered the carpet.

“Come on now,” Penelope crooned, patting him somewhat awkwardly. “It’s not that bad. There’s no reason why a silly thing like marriage should stop you two being together, Arrangements like these exist all over the country! What do you think I do whenever Odysseus goes off to war?”

“He will-hic-leave-hic-me!” Patroclus wailed helplessly. “You’ll see, once he’s got a-hic-a nice young bride to-hic-keep him occupied and he’s had his-hic-first-hic-child he’ll lose-hic-interest-hic-he’ll fuck off and I’ll-hic-have to become-hic-a virgin-hic-priestess to-hic-Athena-”

“Seeing as you have to actually be a virgin woman I’m not quite sure you qualify,” Penelope told him sympathetically. Which, if anything, only made him cry harder.

“Where’s Leptine?” he asked suddenly. “Where’s Leptine, I want Leptine.”

“She’s coming,” Penelope replied with an anxious look over her shoulder, as if she was counting the minutes until Leptine’s arrival.

“Well then where’s the wine?”

“I’m afraid you drank it all.”

Patroclus moaned dismally. “Why does everything I love leave me?”

He broke out into another wave of sobs and Penelope resumed the awkward, sympathetic patting of his back. His plight was cut short however as at that moment the doors flung open, revealing a very frenzied looking Leptine.

“Oh thank the Gods,” Penelope muttered, attempting to shift Patroclus’ stubborn form off her lap. “What took you so long?”

But Leptine ignored her, instead seizing Patroclus arm with almost aggressive urgency. “Patroclus!” she exclaimed. “You have to listen to me! I’ve just found something out!”

“What is it?” asked Penelope as Patroclus blinked blearily up at her.

Leptine looked around to check they weren’t being overheard before steaming ahead. “I was going round sweeping all the guest rooms,” she told them excitedly. “When I nearly walked in on Pamaia.”

“Oh that can’t have been pretty,” Penelope grimaced. Leptine tutted impatiently.

“No, she was praying,” she explained. “To Aphrodite. And I…well…I couldn’t really help overhearing, but now I know why she’s here! It’s because,” she took a deep, dramatic breath. “She’s trying to seduce Achilles!”

She paused victoriously, looking from Patroclus’ face to Penelope’s with the air of someone who had just unearthed a great philosophical truth. However, the two slack, less-than-enthusiastic faces before her seemed to be a little less than the reaction she had anticipated.

Finally Patroclus broke the silence with a croak: “Is that supposed to be something we didn’t know?”

“Yeah, because I had actually worked that one out,” Penelope added. “And I have been here a grand total of two days.”

“Alright but listen,” Leptine huffed frustrated. Her cheeks were glowing and her hair was beginning to frizz around her face. “We thought she was acting alone, right? Out of self-motivated ambition? Wrong! Turns out I was right when I thought Cleitus wouldn’t have bought her for no reason. He was under orders to purchase the most beautiful slave he could find. And you’ll never guess whose!”

“I have a feeling you’re going to tell us,” said Patroclus glumly.

Leptine glared at him before announcing with spectacular triumph: “Thetis’.”

This time, her words did produce a satisfactory response, from Patroclus at least. He sat up straight on the couch as if hit by a bolt of lightning, face dumbstruck and feeling suddenly more sober. “Thetis told Cleitus to buy Pamaia?”

“That’s right,” Leptine nodded. “She’s her instrument. Thetis is using her to try and gain influence over Achilles so that she has another weapon to use against Peleus. She must have been intending for him to fall in love with Pamaia, so that if he had to do so it would at least be with someone loyal to her, someone who can help swing him to fulfilling his mother’s wishes. Apparently, Thetis is furious about this marriage. Peleus didn’t even discuss with her, and now Achilles’ fiancée is some political pawn of his that she doesn’t have the slightest sway over!”

For some reason, Leptine looked positively delighted. Through the haze of intoxication, Patroclus struggled to hold onto her words which were gushing like a river during a flood: “From what it sounded like, Pamaia’s really worried because she isn’t doing her job properly. Then she started crying about something, something that would make it even harder for her to act but I couldn’t understand what she was saying through the tears.”

Patroclus frowned, wondering what on earth it could be to make Pamaia break down like that. Penelope, however, looked as if all the secrets of the universe had suddenly been made clear to her.

“This is it Patroclus!” she hissed. “Don’t you see? All the pieces are right before you! If we play this right, we can stop this marriage!”

“How?” Patroclus stammered stupidly.

“By using the greatest weapon at our disposal,” she replied.

“Poison?” he suggested. Leptine groaned and dropped her head in her hands.

The corner of Penelope’s mouth twitched. “Close,” she said grimly. “Politics.”

Chapter Text

That night Patroclus did not sleep but stayed up with Leptine and Penelope, talking late into the night. As much as the latter insisted that all the pieces had been handed to him for assembling, for the life of him Patroclus could not see how the little they had managed to unearth could possibly be of use to them. And so, after a few more caskets of wine and several raucous sea-shanties it was with a rather despondent air that Patroclus went up to his room the next morning in order to dress for breakfast, thinking that the whole thing might be a lot easier if he were to slip hemlock in Princess Chloe’s yoghurt.

He met Achilles on the stairs, coming down as he was going up. Patroclus acted as though he were invisible until they were level, at which point he promptly slammed his shoulder into Achilles’ with as much force as he could muster.

“Sorry,” he said coolly as Achilles rubbed his bicep. “Didn’t see you there.”

Achilles narrowed his eyes. “Bet that hurt you more than it hurt me.”

“No,” lied Patroclus. In actual fact his whole left side was ringing as if he had just barged into a marble statue. “If you had been walking head-first it might have been another matter.”

Rather than appearing wounded, Achilles rolled his eyes disdainfully. “Right, because I have a big head,” he nodded. “Original. Very witty. Really Patroclus, I think you’re going to have to think up some new put-downs, it seems your supply is running a little low.”

He continued on down the stairs without a backwards glance. Patroclus just had time to shout “Your mother” at him before he disappeared round the corridor and out of sight.

Breakfast was a similarly hostile affair. Rather than taking his usual place Achilles was required at the head table next to his father-in-law and bride to be. As Penelope and Odysseus were also sat near Chloē, Patroclus was forced to park himself moodily beside Deiomachus and the other foster boys where he was subjected to a blow-by-blow account of everything Leptine had said or done over the past week. Patroclus responded by nodding and making sympathetic noises at relevant intervals; meanwhile he satisfied himself by glaring at the head table from behind his goblet, alternating between shooting daggers at Achilles and the princess.

“-And I asked her if he wanted to come with me to the hunt today but she just gave me this really withering look and said ‘I might be busy’, like, really sarcastically and walked off before I had a chance to work out what I’d said wrong. What do you think she meant, Patroclus? Patroclus?”

“What?” Patroclus wrenched his gaze from the head table and his fantasies from swapping Achilles’ honey with laxative. “Sorry, rough night. What were you saying?”

Deiomachus rolled his eyes in exasperation. “The hunt today,” he said. “I asked Leptine if she wanted to go together and she was really cold-”

“-Wait,” Patroclus interrupted, perplexed. “What hunt?”

Deiomachus shook his head despairingly at Patroclus. “Honestly mate,” he said, his voice sounding almost awestruck. “Do you ever listen to a single thing that goes on around here?”

“Not if I can help it,” replied Patroclus with a shrug. “What’s this then?”

Deiomachus shook his head again with the air of someone who had been forced to condescend to an idiot. “Peleus has organised a hunt in honour of our guests this afternoon,” he jerked his head in the direction of Chloē who was leaning in to listen to something Penelope was saying. “To give the couple a chance to get to know each other before, you know, the wedding. But, more importantly, we all get to go and I thought it would be fun if I took Leptine for the afternoon but clearly she disagrees…what d’you reckon? Is it a vegetarian thing? Is that it?”

But Patroclus had stopped listening, his mind reeling furiously with this new information. So Achilles and Chloē were to spend the day, lounging in each other’s company in the warm sunshine, eating summer fruits and basking in the afterglow of each other’s immaculate sex appeal? It seemed all they needed were a couple of winged infants in loin cloths to perfect the scene. Groaning miserably, he dropped his head into his hands and did not register the words Deiomachus was still speaking to him.

“Patroclus!”

“What?” he snapped impatiently.

“I said, what do you think Leptine meant by-”

“-By saying she’d be busy?” Patroclus cut him off impatiently. “I don’t know man, maybe she’s got other plans. Or maybe, and this is a longshot mind you, she was referring to the fact that she is a slave and therefore will probably have other duties to perform at a large-scale, mass-invite event? And if I were to hazard a guess at why she was angry, it might have had a little something to do with the fact that you’re so wrapped up in insecure, post-adolescent anxieties to lose your virginity that you didn’t even stop to consider that she might have other things on her mind.”

Patroclus stopped and glared round at the foster boys, all of whom were staring at him with a mixture of surprise and apprehension. Deiomachus, looking rather red, was opening and closing his mouth without saying anything. There was a shocked silence which lasted well into awkwardness until, with a final huff of impatience, Patroclus stood up and left the Hall. As he walked he could feel both Achilles’ and Penelope’s eyes on him. To his bitter disappointment it was the latter who excused herself and got up to follow him.

He was breathing very hard by the time it took her to catch up with him and his eyeballs were itchy with impending frustrated tears. He rubbed at them angrily as she approached before turning round.

“What?” he barked at her.

“‘What’?” Penelope echoed with a raised eyebrow. “What nothing, except that you just marched out of the Hall with a face like a post-menstrual Hera. What’s the matter with you?”

Patroclus rubbed his eyes tiredly feeling that he was really not in the mood for a lecture. “Nothing’s the matter,” he responded dully.

“Then you’d do well to start acting like it,” Penelope hissed, jabbing a sharp-nailed finger into his chest. “This will not work with you moping around like a barrel of Greek fire, ready to go off at ay moment. Our success depends on strategy and discretion. We need to be calm and cool at all times, let no one suspect you have a plan-”

“-And exactly where is this ‘plan’ you speak of?” Patroclus interrupted heatedly. “What exactly do you plan on doing with a disgruntled mother and a few shreds of court gossip?”

“I’m working on it,” Penelope snapped back. “In the meantime, you’d better start channelling your inner courtier and practicing some etiquette. We’re going to the hunt this afternoon.”

“Oh no I’m not,” said Patroclus automatically, horrified at the idea of having to bear witness to Achilles and Chloē simpering all over each other.

“Oh yes you are,” Penelope replied grimly. “I can’t think of a better opportunity to learn what we can from little Miss Bride-to-be. So you’d better make nice with her this afternoon. And watch that temper!”

She strode off briskly, leaving Patroclus looking furious and more than a little embarrassed in the hallway.

oOo

Incredible as it may seem, for all the time Patroclus had spent in Phthia he had never been on a hunt. He had been hunting and often, had stalked and trapped animals in the forest with Achilles using clever little snares they made and set themselves. They had tracked deer as they moved through the trees, marking their paths by the nibbled berries on a bush and evidence of broken bracken. When they spied one, Achilles would make a soundless action to silence Patroclus before reaching for his bow. One arrow straight through the eye. The shot would be quick, clean and painless.

However, this cautious flitting from in and out of trees, of spending hours in silence looking for footprints was so far removed from the sport and entertainment the palace nobles enjoyed it was impossible to think of it as the same thing. At noon a massive procession streamed out from the palace doors, complete with musicians and flag bearers, their bright standards flashing like jewels against the clear blue sky. Towering birds of prey perched majestically on crooked arms made stiff with leather as long lines of servants followed bearing baskets of fruit and flagons of wine, as well as expensive, needlessly complicated hunting equipment, most of which Patroclus wagered would never touch blood.

At the front of the procession marched Achilles and Chloē. The latter had clearly modelled herself after Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt and was looking radiant in a white dress that fluttered behind her in the light breeze, her honey-coloured hair plaited with flowers. Beside her, Achilles was looking handsome as ever in a white linen chiton; however his smile, unlike hers, looked rather forced.

“He looks like he’s eaten a funny whelk,” muttered Odysseus to Penelope who sniggered. Shunned by the other nobles, Odysseus and Penelope contented themselves with observing from their modest place in the crowd and making the occasional dry remark. Penelope, for whom necessity made it unable to assume her man’s disguise, was unable to participate in the hunt which she made up for by being surlier and even more cutting than usual.

“Bloody bollocks,” she hissed to Patroclus, tripping for the third time over the long hem of her dress. “Chloē had best be a mine of information if I’m to sweat in this bloody contraption all afternoon.”

“You were the one who was so eager to talk to her,” Patroclus whispered back. “I was perfectly fine with pretending she didn’t exist.”

Penelope was about to respond when the procession came to a halt. They had reached the fields that lay on the border of the forests and the party began to split, the majority of men heading into the dark, thick stretch before them while the women made themselves at home in the fields.

“Alright,” Penelope intoned to Patroclus in a hushed voice. “Looks like it’s time for me to join the other fine ladies in idle conversation.”

She hurried off to join the other women in praising Chloē’s choice of costume while Patroclus huffed and looked around for someone he knew. A short way away, slaves were hovering with silver jugs containing sparkling wine and cold pomegranate juice, Leptine among them. He approached her anxiously, checking there was no one within earshot.

“Hello my devious partner in crime,” Leptine greeted him. “How goes the sabotage?”

“Slowly,” replied Patroclus through gritted teeth. “Penelope swears we’re on to something with this Thetis and Pamaia thing but I can’t see how it will be useful…I don’t think even she knows…”

“Do we have a plan so far?” asked Leptine.

“Less of a plan than a principle,” answered Patroclus. “Talk to Thetis, get her on our side somehow. If anyone has the power to stop this she does, although actually persuading her to help us is another matter entirely. I suppose if we can use Pamaia as some kind of leverage…I don’t know. Have you heard any more about why she was crying last night?”

Leptine shook her head. “Nothing,” she said dully. “Although Loras said he caught her retching while on privy duty earlier this morning, although that’s hardly surprising, considering the smell…”

Patroclus nodded absentmindedly. He had just caught Deiomachus watching them rather glumly from across the field. Patroclus felt a bubble of pity and a pang of shame upon having been so sharp with him that morning. He looked back at Leptine, one eyebrow raised.

“I heard you were quite the cruel mistress with Deiomachus earlier,” he said.

Leptine’s cheeks coloured even as she clucked her tongue impatiently. “Gods’ teeth,” she swore. “He can be such an idiot at times. Do you know he asked me if I wanted to come down here with him? Didn’t even think for a second that I might have a previous engagement with lifelong servitude.”

She waved the decanter she was holding so aggressively little drops flew out. Patroclus took note of the anger in her voice, the frustration and saw how her eyes sparkled rather voilently. “Leptine,” he said quietly. “If you’re not happy…if you don’t like him then you don’t have to stay with him.”

Leptine looked at Patroclus, sighed and slipped a fallen strand of hair behind her ear.

“I do like him,” she said finally. “I do. It just…it gets a little much sometimes. It’s not even him I’m really angry with.”

She didn’t say anymore but Patroclus understood. It was not Deiomachus Leptine had lashed out on but the world, and the one that, despite her best efforts, she would always be unable to break from. Similarly, as Patroclus’ gaze drifted toward the princess he felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness. At the end of the day, they were just pawns in a game much bigger than themselves. How would they ever be able to challenge pieces and players so much more powerful?

Leptine was required elsewhere so Patroclus went over to Deiomachus with the intention of apologising for his less-than-friendly reception, blaming his mood on stress. Luckily, he seemed to realise that Patroclus was also speaking on behalf of Leptine for he did not press the issue further. Thus the majority of the afternoon was spent lounging in the hot sun, taking bets with Deiomachus and Leonides on which of the nobles would meet with the most success and drinking their body weight in whatever cold liquid was immediately available.

Patroclus could feel his face burning and this chiton kept sticking uncomfortably to his back. Now and then he would steal glances at Chloē, sitting in the shade of a large tree and looking immaculate, pampered and fanned as she was by her many attendants. Beside her, Penelope was looking increasingly hot and bothered and kept stealing envious glances at the scantily clad serving boys. Patroclus felt a scowl form on his face as he watched Chloē, laughing and chatting with the other girls, warm and golden as sunlight made flesh.

Then, suddenly, she looked up. Their eyes met. Patroclus looked away sharply, feeling suddenly colder. But it was too late, Chloē was getting to her feet, was walking in his direction. Oh Gods, Patroclus began to pray. Please make her not have seen, make her go away, make her turn around…

But he had no such luck. Chloē was coming towards him and soon she was so close it was impossible to continue to ignore her. Instead Patroclus looked up, forcing a horrible, garish smile that he knew was more frightening than it was convincing.

“Hello,” he said in an awful, hearty voice. “Lovely day.”

“You must be Patroclus Menoitides,” said Chloē. She gestured at the patch of grass next to him. “May I sit here?”

A number of responses jumped immediately into Patroclus’ head. He selected the one least likely to result in his beheading. “You must sit where you please, princess.”

Chloē folded her long, tan legs gracefully beneath her, her skirts fluttering around her like the wings of some brilliant bird. Patroclus watched her warily, unsure of how to react to the situation. Once she was sat down she fixed him with a curious but open and friendly gaze which did little to make him feel more comfortable.

For several seconds too long, neither of them said anything with both appearing to be waiting for the other to speak first. Chloe’s hands lay in her lap and she kept twisting nervously at the rings around her fingers. Finally, when she spoke, her voice had the high, strained quality of someone trying far too hard to act casual. “Hot isn’t it?” she said.

Patroclus nodded and they lapsed into further silence. Chloē was chewing her lip. Patroclus tilted his chin up towards the sky and prayed for a thunderstorm.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” she began at last. “My father never ceases praising your exploits and Achilles talks of nothing else. It’s as if everything is Patroclus, Patroclus, Patroclus. Is it alright if I call you that, by the way? I feel like I know you quite well.”

Patroclus gave an ungracious shrug. It mattered very little to him whether or not anyone used his patronym, he had felt disconnected from it for so long. Chloē, apparently unperturbed by his indifference, carried on.

“You are Achilles’ hetairoi,” she said. “That means soon we will be almost like family. I’ll be your sister.”

“I suppose so,” squirmed Patroclus, unsure of how this conversation could be any more awkward.

“You know him better than anyone,” said Chloē. “I wonder…could you tell me…is he…happy? With the marriage, I mean?”

Patroclus frowned at her. Her eyes were wide and earnest, as if this was a question she had been anxious to ask for some time. “Why shouldn’t he be?”

“Oh…No reason of course,” Chloē replied, colouring slightly. “Only...I know that it is part of our unfortunate duty sometimes…to be forced into things that we do not want to do for the sake of our country or our families…not that marrying Achilles is an unfortunate duty at all, of course…who wouldn’t wish to be married to such a…such a man…any woman should be lucky and count her blessings, as I do, most assuredly.”

“Ok…?” said Patroclus hesitantly, unsure of why Chloē was telling him this, or even why she was talking to him at all.

“I mean to say,” Chloē continued and Patroclus noticed she was growing more and more flustered. “What I mean is… sometimes we have to do things that go against…against our feelings. Against our own natures, even. Do you…do you understand what I mean?”

Her expression was so desperate, her voice so plaintive that Patroclus wished that he could say yes. It was clear from her upturned brows, the significance she was urgently trying to convey that she wanted to tell him something. But all Patroclus could gather was that, for one reason or another, Achilles wasn’t her type.

Apparently, this was not good enough for Chloē. She took a deep breath, as if steadying herself before going in for the plunge. “Patroclus,” she began. “I-”

“Well, well, what’s this I see?” came the interruption of an unpleasantly familiar voice.

Pamaia was standing before them, her hands on her hips and her head tilted coquettishly, a curious, playful smile on her lips. If Leptine had not been the one to tell him that she had walked in on her in floods of tears Patroclus would not have believed it; there was no evidence showing on her beautiful face of anything other than confidence and mischief.

“Has our young master Menoitides succeeded in luring you away, princess?” she said, raising a perfect, winged eyebrow. “I can hardly dare to believe it. But then, his powers of attraction are scarcely to be believed.”

The scoff in her voice was so evident that Patroclus felt his face grow hot with fury. Chloē, on the other hand, appeared to notice nothing. On the contrary, she was gazing up at Pamaia with wide eyes and her mouth slightly open, as if she could not quite believe what she was looking at.

“If I may my lady,” Pamaia proceeded with a pretty curtesy. “Might I show you some of the delicacies we have prepared for you? I am sure you will find them much to your taste.”

Chloē’s eyes flitted to Patroclus’; he tried desperately to communicate a warning but too late, already she was taking Pamaia’s hand and allowing herself to be led sluggishly away, like an unsuspecting visitor to a fairy world. Unwilling to dwell on what mischief Pamaia could possibly be plotting this time, Patroclus sat back to wonder what on earth his talk with Chloē had been about. He did not have very much time to ponder however for he was jolted abruptly by Penelope who was crossing the fields with exceeding haste in order to get to him.

“Hello,” Patroclus greeted her, bemused by her anxiety. “It’s alright, I kept my temper. Actually, I managed to have a civil conversation with her which was…weird. You were right, maybe it does pay to know the people you’re up against…I get the feeling there’s something she wants to keep secret…nice girl though. I feel a little bad about wanting to kill her-”

“-Patroclus,” Penelope cut him off urgently. “Would you please shut up and look with your eyes for one second?”

Patroclus frowned at her, perplexed. “Look with my eyes?” he repeated non-comprehendingly. “What do you-”

He followed the line where Penelope was pointing, over to where Chloē and Pamaia were standing by the food table. His mouth fell open.

“Ohhh,” he said as understanding crashed around him. “I see. Yes. That explains a lot.”

oOo

“So, whereabouts is Chloē from again?”

“Corinth.”

“Right. And that’s not far from Lesbos, is it?”

Leptine groaned and Penelope looked at Patroclus’ forcefully straight face with a look of utmost disdain. “How long have you been sitting on that joke?”

“At least an hour and a half,” Patroclus admitted, scrambling to keep up with her. The afternoon’s revelation seemed to have supplied her with renewed vigour; even in her long skirts Patroclus had to match his pace to a jog as they headed down the corridor. “So what’s the plan?”

“We utilise this as best we can,” Penelope replied automatically. “We’ve been astonishingly lucky, now that we have a bride and a groom who don’t actually want to be married. All we need to do is convince Chloē to talk to her father and…for the love of Zeus Patroclus, will you please stop smiling?”

Patroclus apologised and tried to clear the ridiculous grin from his face. He felt bizarrely elated. Ever since catching sight of Chloē, looking spell-bound as Pamaia fed her tartlets from the tips of her fingers Patroclus had found himself feeling much more disposed to the princess. Possibly the knowledge that there was at least one other person who was looking even less forward to this marriage as he was had gone to his head, either way he found himself skipping slightly on every other step.

“It won’t be enough to have Chloē talk to Thoas,” Leptine was saying. “If he’s anything like Peleus he’ll value an alliance’s stability over his child’s preference. And since when has a girl’s desires ever had a political impact?”

“You’d be surprised,” Penelope smiled mysteriously. “But you’re right. We need another player on our side. Someone with considerable power and influence.”

She turned to Patroclus who had been humming the Ballad of Eurydice cheerfully to himself. “Patroclus, you need to talk to Thetis,” she instructed him. “Convince her to put pressure on Peleus, make him fear the consequences if he goes ahead with this marriage. I don’t know how much power the king’s ex-wife has over policy, but I think it’s a fair bet to say a goddess’ wrath might give Chloē’s sentiments a little extra weight.”

But a thought had just occurred to Patroclus which caused his happy mood evaporate as quickly as it had come. “Hang on,” he said. “Won’t Thetis be a little suspicious at why I’m so anxious for this wedding to be called off?”

Penelope and Leptine exchanged meaningful glances. When the latter spoke her voice was gentle. “That’s just a risk you’ll have to take,” she said.

Patroclus felt icy fear grip him even as he pictured the exchange. He and Achilles had been so careful in hiding the true nature of his relationship from the volatile sea nymph, whose unpredictability he knew had caused waves to rise and ships to smash in the past. He swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat and nodded.

“You ought to go soon,” Penelope suggested softly. “It’ll be easier the quicker you get it out the way. Meanwhile, I’ll go and find Chloē.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Leptine asked Patroclus.

Patroclus shook his head. “She doesn’t like strangers,” he answered with a grimace. “It’s better if it’s just me. Wait for me in the slave quarters, I’ll meet you there.”

Leptine nodded and the three parted. The moment they were out of sight Patroclus’ heart began to hammer wildly in his chest. Apart from the time she had crept up on him on the beach, he had never been alone with Thetis before. She unnerved him at the best of times; the prospect of gaining her help after having his explained his reasons for wanting to break up the marriage wasn’t just unlikely…it was downright unwise.  

He decided to take the back entrance, passing the staircase that led up to his room on the upper floor. On his way he saw Achilles, clearly making to escape away upstairs; once again he slowed down until they were level before propelling all his body weight into slamming his shoulder with his own.

“You really ought to watch where you’re going,” he snarled. As prepared as he was to forgive Chloē, his newfound clemency did not quite extend to Achilles.

“That’s going to get old very quickly,” said Achilles warningly.

“You know what doesn’t get old?” Patroclus retorted angrily. You. Because you’re immortal.”

“I-what?” Achilles frowned. “Is that supposed to be an insult? It doesn’t even work like that, that doesn’t even make sense.”

“You don’t make sense!” Patroclus snapped back. “And don’t you worry about thinking up another excuse for how you just can’t quite manage to get out of being married. Because I’ve got it covered.”

Almost instantly Achilles’ expression cleared to be replaced by one of astounded incredulity. “You have?” he prompted eagerly. “What are you doing? Have you got a plan?”

“The best plan,” Patroclus responded haughtily. “Don’t you worry about a thing. In fact, why don’t you run your pretty little self off to daddy and let me handle the big boy stuff, okay?”

And with that he continued along the corridor and out of the palace, hoping against hope that Thetis wouldn’t kill him before Achilles did.

oOo

He found her in a rock pool, her pebble-grey skirts trailing inkily into the clear blue water. She did not look up when she approached, only crooked her finger with a doleful sort of air.

“Hello,” she said in a bored tone. “I’ve been watching the hunt.”

“From here?” asked Patroclus, looking around. From what he could see, there was no way Thetis could have made out the wood from the confines of the beach.

“It’s easier than in the water,” Thetis replied with a yawn. “Of course, the silly bitch looks just as vapid above the surface.”

A few hours ago, Patroclus would have rejoiced internally to hear Chloē described as such. Now he felt a sting of abashed guilt and gave Thetis a reproachful look. “You shouldn’t call other girls bitches,” he rebuked her. “It’s not good for solidarity.”

Thetis’ eyebrows disappeared into her violent red hair. “And exactly when did you join our sisterhood, Menoitides? Is that why you’ve come, for a little girly gossip? Or perhaps,” her flint-like, green eyes flashed. “A confession?”

Patroclus opened his mouth and closed it again, feeling as if she had just robbed the powers of speech right out of his throat. Thetis laughed unpleasantly, the sound of waves smacking against cliff walls.

“Do you think me deaf and blind, mortal?” she smiled with little joy. “There is only one force strong enough to drive my little boy away from his mother’s arms…not love no, he cannot feel that, not the kind you understand anyway, but the other thing…the one common to all adolescent boys regardless of divinity or inheritance…But you needn’t worry,” she added with almost a parody of maternal kindness. “In fact, you should enjoy it while it lasts. You will grow out of each other. Oh yes, that is a certainty I’m afraid.”

“Is that why you told Cleitus to buy Pamaia?” asked Patroclus, forcing himself to remain above the taunts now ringing in his ears. “So that Achilles would have someone to help him grow out of me?”

He expected her eyes to narrow, for her to warn him not to meddle in a goddess’ design. Instead she seemed unperturbed, busying herself with flicking grains of sand from under her fingernails. “It always pays to have influence where you can,” she said idly. “If you think I was going to leave my only son in the agenda of some exiled upstart you are sorely mistaken-”

“-I don’t have an agenda,” Patroclus told her quickly. “Really. I don’t have a clue about politics or any of that. I’m only here because…well. I want to stop this marriage. And so do you. And I think, if we work together, we probably can.”

He did not realise, until he finished speaking, that he had been staring at his feet. He forced himself to look up into Thetis’ face although he found he couldn’t quite hold her gaze. To his intense relief she did not look angry. On the contrary, she appeared to be thinking and there was a note of resignation in her voice when she spoke again.

“It’s true that I cannot allow this wedding to go ahead,” she told him. “To have that man pick a bride for our son without any input from me…a bride entirely contrived to serve his interests…it is unthinkable. I cannot allow it. I am a goddess, I am his mother. His mortal whims are puny whencompared to my plans…”

She trailed off whimsically, her face softening. Patroclus, warily observing the way her eyes were glowing gold, said nothing about his fears for what these great plans might entail. One crisis at a time, he told himself firmly.

“I will help you,” Thetis said abruptly, apparently coming back to earth. “I wasn’t going to. I was thinking about drowning you both but I suppose Achilles might not like it if I did that. Very well. I shall make my feelings known to Peleus. Although I warn you, even my anger might not persuade him to call off an engagement he had not proposed. He is an obstinate man and mortals are so petty about silly things like honour and etiquette.”

“If all goes well he should not have to,” answered Patroclus, thinking about Chloē. But the words had barely to fall when Thetis had gone, leaving nothing behind but a blood red anemone where her foot had been.

Chapter Text

Patroclus re-entered the palace with a sense of renewed purpose. His nerves were still tingling from his meeting with Thetis, he felt as though whole bolts of electricity were running up and down his arms and through his fingertips. For the most part he was still in a state of semi-daze, unable to believe that he had come away with all his limbs intact, especially considering the leading topic of the tense conversation. But here he was; still alive, still whole and, at least for the time being, triumphant. Thetis had relented. He had succeeded in persuading a goddess. The only question that remained now was one he reflected on with a twinge of unease: would it be enough?

“Patroclus!”

He started and saw Penelope waving at him from further down the hallway. He was just about to wave back and relate excitedly all that had transpired between Achilles’ mother and himself when he realised she was not alone. Behind her, a gleam of honey-coloured hair caught the light streaming in through an open window and, before he could say a word, Princess Chloē had stepped out to meet him.

“Hello again,” she greeted him with an intimate smile.

Taken aback, Patroclus made to sink into a clumsy bow but Chloē stopped him. “No need for that,” she said brusquely and Patroclus noticed she had dropped the cautious, hesitant tone with which she had last spoken to him. “I think we are both well enough acquainted with the others’ disposition to dispense with formality by now. Shall we get to business?”

Sinking even further into bemusement, Patroclus glanced at Penelope who gave him an encouraging wink. “There’s an unused guest room just up here,” she said, leading the way.

The room was indeed empty, except for one lone slave sweeping who cleared out instantly at a look from Penelope. Chloē sank down into one of the long couches and Penelope followed suit, leaving Patroclus to claim a stiff, hard-backed chair which he sat on the edge on, looking tentative.

“So,” Chloē began with the air of one settling down to a pleasant conversation. “Let us not beat about the bush. You want to ask for my acquiescence in ending this betrothal, is that correct?”

She looked at him expectantly, one slender eyebrow raised. Patroclus cleared his throat uncertainly before replying. “Um…yes. It is. Princess.”

Chloē nodded in a satisfied manner, as if Patroclus had answered a test question correctly. “Right,” she said crisply. “Well, first understand that it is indeed my inclination to go along with your plan. You are correct in assuming that any…erm…male fiancé will not be exactly to my…um…taste. An unfortunate characteristic in a princess, don’t you think? To, if given the choice, prefer the witch over any handsome prince?”

She smiled, watching him ruefully and Patroclus realised he was expected to reply. “I don’t think I myself am in any position to judge, my lady,” he mumbled. “Give me the handsome prince any day.”

To his surprise, Chloē slapped a hand over her mouth and issued a rather indecorous giggle. “Oh you are funny,” she said from between her fingers. “Although I have to say, I have heard as much. I’m not sure how much drift you catch of foreign rumour but you would do well to be at least a little more discreet in your regard. Of course, one would have only to look at you together to see that you are completely enamoured with each other. Or talk to Achilles for half an hour.”

“You’ve spoken to Achilles?” Patroclus’ eyes widened in amazement. “Of this?”

“Of course I have,” shrugged Chloē. “What else was there to say once it transpired neither of us felt the remotest attraction for the other? We had to break the ice somehow.”

Patroclus thought of Achilles and Chloē together at breakfast, heads close as they talked animatedly under their breath and felt a little ashamed of himself. I shall have to apologise to him later, he realised. The thought gave him little pleasure.

“So like I say,” Chloē continued. “The idea of tethering myself to some man for the rest of my life isn’t particularly my idea of fun. Thus my first inclination is, of course, to help you. However, although I undoubtedly possess some of the…um...unconventional about me, I’m afraid I remain, in some respects, conservative.”

Here she leaned forward in her seat slightly, her soft brown eyes fixed unwaveringly on Patroclus’ face and suddenly he had the feeling that she’d arrived at what she’d come to say. “I love my father,” she said. “And I love my country. I have been raised as a servant to both and I would do anything for either. No I don’t want to marry Achilles, but since when has any woman wanted to be handed over to a man she has never met, like property, like chattel? Many girls have had it much worse; at least he is young with little interest in hurting me.”

She paused warily, as if anticipating a reaction. Patroclus, however, said nothing, waiting for her to finish. When no one spoke, she ploughed ahead. “Here is what I am saying. I will have to be married at some point, as is my duty and desire if it means what is best for Corinth. And if I must be married, then I see no reason why it should not be to the prince of Phthia. So, Patroclus, I suppose what I am asking you is: what can you offer me to abandon a daughter’s loyalty to her father and a princess’ duty to her country?”

With the last word, she folded her hands prettily in her lap and blinked at him expectantly. For a long while silence followed her question as she waited, slightly nervously it seemed, for his reply. Patroclus glanced at Penelope. She was watching the exchange with anticipation, her eyes steely. She seemed to be holding her breath.

Finally, Patroclus’ voice shattered the hush like the dropping of a pebble into still water. “It seems clear to me, princess, that you are looking for something specific,” he spoke at last. “Why don’t you name it?”

Chloē’s blush was violent and immediate, colouring her rose pink from chin to forehead. Her voice when she spoke, however, was quite composed, if a little bashful. “I…well…I wanted to hear your answer first. What do you say? Will you give her to me?”

Patroclus’ shoulders rose and fell. “She is not mine to give,” he said plainly. “As much as I need and desire your help I can’t compel another person against their own free will. But say I were to talk to her and she agreed…would it persuade you?”

Chloē’s face, which had fallen slightly at Patroclus’ reply, hitched back on its expression of reserved dignity. “It…it might,” she answered quietly. “She would be a great…a great comfort to me, when the time comes that I do have to marry.”

The note of sheepish embarrassment had crept back into her voice and Patroclus found himself warming irrevocably to this quiet, dignified, honour-bound princess who wore her loyalty like the gold band of state around her head. At that moment, he found himself hoping that he could do as she asked, as much for her as for himself and he tried to convey the sentiment in the sincerity of his next words. “I’ll do what I can.”

For a moment, there seemed to be fleeting flicker of understanding between the two of them as they held each other’s gaze. Then Chloē stood up and straight away was back to her brisk, business-like manner, although her cheeks still retained a trace of their rosy hue. “I should be getting back,” she said. “Father will be wondering where I am. Um…you will let me know soon, won’t you?”

“Of course,” replied Patroclus and Chloē flashed him one last grateful smile before disappearing with a flutter of skirt.

Patroclus turned a doleful face to Penelope who was watching him with an odd expression that he thought might have been pride.

“Well you certainly handled that very nicely,” she told him glowingly, confirming his estimation. “Now all we need to do is bundle up the whore and we’ll have ourselves one perfect, successfully demolished engagement.”

“Easier said than done,” muttered Patroclus, getting to his feet. The odds of winning over Thetis, a woman who barely tolerated his existence, had been uncertain enough. But Pamaia, a nemesis whom he knew felt nothing toward him but direst loathing, was more likely to spill their plan to the nearest overseer out of pure spite than agree to help him.

They made their way towards the slaves’ quarters where Leptine was waiting for them as planned. Upon entering the cloying, dark gloom with all its stinking warmth Penelope looked around interestedly but said nothing, for which Patroclus was grateful. They sat down in the space Leptine had cleared out for them and recounted to her everything that Chloē had said, concluding with the bargain of her aid in return for Pamaia. When they had finished, Leptine looked as troubled and dubious as Patroclus felt himself.

“Convince Pamaia to leave Phthia?” she repeated in disbelief. “We’d have an easier job getting Achilles in a bodice, or asking Phoinix to stop drinking.”

Trying very hard to ignore the rather distracting image of Achilles in women’s underwear, Patroclus attempted another angle. “Is it at all possible that she might leave of her own accord? I mean, she and Chloē seemed to be getting on pretty well from where I was standing.”

“Oh grow up Patroclus,” Leptine chastised him wolfishly. “She was playing her like she played you, like she plays everyone. Pamaia is motivated solely by drive and ambition. I doubt she’s got a real feeling in her body.”

“Then that’s what we’ll have to appeal to,” said Penelope, plucking idly at a loose thread coming away from the mattress she was sitting on.

“How?” Leptine persisted desperately. “Pamaia’s probably worth more than half of Peleus’ strongbox. Why would she trade her position as one of the most valuable members of his household to become some little girl’s handmaiden? And don’t say for love, Patroclus, not everyone is quite as romantic as you.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Patroclus hummed calmly.

“I suppose we’ll just have to offer her something else,” said Penelope. “Make another bargain.”

Patroclus’ head dropped into his hands. “I have a feeling we’re running out of things to trade.”

Penelope grinned at him and this time there was no mistaking the pride in her voice. “Even so, you’re becoming quite the wily merchant,” she told him. “We’ll make a politician out of you yet. How did you know it was Pamaia Chloē wanted?”

Patroclus shrugged and scratched the back of his head modestly. “I just thought about what I’d want if I was forced to live in a strange land where I didn’t know anyone. A friend.”

Both Leptine and Penelope gave him such sugar-coated, doting looks in response that he felt his face grow quite hot and he tried quickly to change the subject. “But uh, yeah, so, Chloē’s a lesbian.”

“Who’d have thought it,” Penelope shook her head amusedly. “First a prince of Phthia, now a princess of Corinth, no less. Whatever is the world coming to?”

“Maybe it’s spreading,” Patroclus grinned.

“Gone is the time of traditional values!” cried Leptine, raising her hands in mock-distress. “Is there no morality anymore?”

“And she so prim and proper…looking like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth,” added Penelope, wiping away an invisible tear. “But alas, another vice-wriggling degenerate to join our fetid ranks-”

“-That’s enough!” came a sharp voice.

Patroclus, Leptine and Penelope looked up in surprise. There, standing before them, stood Pamaia, her face stark white and her eyes blazing with anger. She was shaking slightly, as if with fury, and in one hand she seemed to be holding something behind her back. The other was clenched in a fist.

“Pardon?” said Patroclus in polite bemusement.

“I said that’s enough,” Pamaia hissed again through gritted teeth. “I heard you having a go at Chloē, taking the piss, and you need to stop, right now. Just because she’s stolen away your fuck buddy does not give you the right to talk about her like that…to make a joke of it…that girl has been through more than you’ll ever know and you…you don’t deserve to shine her sandals. She’s suffered enough without becoming the butt of your childish jokes. So shut up, now, before I make you.”

“Pamaia, calm down,” Penelope appealed as Patroclus and Leptine stared, dumbstruck, at each other. “We weren’t having a go at Chloē, we would never do that. We like her, we want to help her-”

“-You expect me to believe that?” snapped Pamaia, jutting her chin in Patroclus’ direction. “After all the shit he’s been saying about her? After all those plans to murder her?”

“That was before I found out she was a lesbian,”said Patroclus exasperatedly. “Now I think she’s a delight.”

“You said you were going to put hemlock in her food!”

“I was joking!” Patroclus protested as Leptine looked at him through narrowed eyes. “Obviously!”

“Why do you care, anyway?” Leptine rounded on Pamaia fiercely. “What should the honour of another deviant matter to you?”

The emphasis she placed on the word reminded Patroclus sharply and uncomfortably of the incident that had occurred between him and Pamaia so long ago, where she had spoken to him so scornfully. Clearly she was remembering it too although her reaction was not one any of them could have anticipated, for she dropped her head and lowered her gaze to the floor, almost as if she were ashamed.

“I admit that I may have spoken…misguidedly…in the past,” she muttered darkly at the pavestones beneath her feet. “I know better now. But if you think I will stand by and listen while you-”

She broke off suddenly, grasping at her lower stomach. With the other hand slapped over her mouth she began to make odd, convulsive movements, as if suppressing a retch. Patroclus, Leptine and Penelope stared at her in bewilderment even as she wiped her mouth shakily with the back of her hand.

As she straightened up, Patroclus noticed again how very sick and pale she was looking. Perhaps it was just the absence of kohl that usually lined her eyes but somehow her beauty seemed washed-out, as if someone had smeared a hand over a damp painting. The shadows under her eyes had darkened to the colour of fresh bruises and her face seemed thin and oddly pinched, her collar bones sticking out of her chest as if she wasn’t eating enough.

Leptine, it was clear, had made similar observations for she beheld Pamaia with a look of frowning concern. “Are you alright?” she asked. “You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine,” Pamaia snapped testily. “And me at my worst is still better than you at your best, so.”

“You’re at your worst, are you?” said Patroclus quickly.

Pamaia glared at him. “Mind your own business,” she snapped. “There’s nothing wrong with me, apart from exhaustion at this pointless conversation.”

“What’s that behind your back then?” asked Penelope.

Pamaia made an attempt to hide whatever it was she was holding but Penelope was too fast for her. Quick as lightening she grabbed hold of Pamaia’s bony wrist and wrenched it into her grip, revealing what looked like a lump of chalky mud clutched in her fingers. A large chunk appeared to be missing on one side, accompanied by little indentures that looked suspiciously like teeth marks.

 “You’re eating modelling clay?” Patroclus exclaimed in baffled disgust, staring at the teeth marks. “How ill are you?”

But Leptine was looking at Pamaia with a new expression, and when she spoke her voice was low and soft. “How long?”

Pamaia’s eyes flitted to her. She blinked and Patroclus was startled to see tiny beads of water clinging to the long eyelashes. “Two months at the next half moon,” she whispered.

Patroclus looked from Leptine to Pamaia in blank confusion. Leptine’s eyes were soft with the heaviness of crushing understanding and there was an energy between the two women such as there had never been before, a kind of bond formed from wordless communication. “Oh Pamaia,” Leptine sighed and Patroclus was shocked to hear something that sounded like sympathy in her tone. “Can I ask whose?”

“You can ask,” answered Pamaia, hostility creeping back into her voice. “I couldn’t say for sure even if I wanted to. Possibly Cleitus’. Not that it matters – a slave brat is still a slave, regardless of its sire.”

And then it clicked. Patroclus’ eyes widened and he gesticulated wildly at Pamaia. “You’re pregnant!” he nearly yelled at her.

Pamaia spared him a look of deepest loathing, causing his flaying arm to drop limply back to his side. “How does it feel, Patroclus?” she asked him, her voice sharp as a knife’s edge. “To have won at last? To have claimed victory over your enemy? Will you revel in your triumph, now that I am destroyed?”

“Destroyed?” Penelope’s eyebrows knit together. “But surely a fruitful slave is held in esteem, as having greater value? I should have thought you’d be rewarded for your fertility.”

Pamaia’s hair whipped her face as she rounded on Penelope, eyes blazing like those of an enraged harpy. “I suppose you think I am to be congratulated, king’s daughter?” she uttered spitefully. “And what reward should I be given? A trinket, perhaps? A few coins to spend at the market? In return for my child, scarcely ripped from my womb before being placed on a boat to some foreign land, thus to being its life in shackles. No mother there to ease the ache of the chains in the mines, or to teach it to endure rape in the brothels. And what of myself, after my body is torn and sagged from birth and my dancing days are over? A slum probably, after being sold cheap to whichever whoremonger will pay for damaged goods. Or else to live here for the rest of my days as a common serving wench, pining for the child I will never see again, until disease or my own hands take me.”

She tore her gaze away, so that they would not see her blinking furiously over her shoulder. However she could not quite disguise the strangled sob that broke out from her throat even as she hid her face from them in the crook of her arm. Patroclus, Leptine and Penelope said nothing but avoided each other’s eye, unsure of where to look. For Patroclus he felt oddly shaken, stunned by this swooping sensation of guilt and despair such as he had never known before. In those few moments every other emotion and desire deserted him until he felt nothing but sick to the core.

It was Leptine who spoke first, in a voice so small Patroclus almost had to lean in to hear it. “It doesn’t have to be like that,” she said.

Pamaia looked at her and for a second it was as if that fleeting understanding had returned between them. “No it doesn’t,” she agreed stonily. “And it won’t be.”

Patroclus frowned again at the prominent collarbone and the new translucence of her flesh as comprehension suddenly dawned. “Is that what you’re doing?” he asked tentatively. “You’re trying to starve it?”

Pamaia did not answer. Leptine, however, looked positively horrified.

“Oh Pamaia, you can’t!” she cried.

“Do not tell me what I can and can’t do,” Pamaia retorted poisonously. “It’s my body, I will do with it as I please!”

“No, I…that’s not what I meant!” Leptine shook her head. “I mean it doesn’t work like that! Human life is tenacious…the baby will not die but will continue to live off you until there is nothing left. It will take all the goodness out of the food you allow yourself until you both become weak…if you continue this way you are both going to die.”

“Then what am I to do?” rounded Pamaia, not quite managing to hide the appeal of hopeless desperation in her snarl. “I’ll not bring a new life into a world such as mine. I’ll die first.”

And with her hair matted about her face in her fury as she stared at them with eyes so wide, the black pupils dilated to enormous size so that they emphasised the dark shadows and luminescent paleness of her skin, Patroclus did not doubt it. And as those last words fell from her mouth, ringing with all the gloomy certainty of the direst prophecy, Patroclus realised suddenly how very cold it was in their darkened quarters.

Again, it was Leptine to break the silence. “There may be another way.”

oOo

They had to wait until dark. It was only when they were certain that the very last slave had retired to their mattress that Patroclus and Leptine stole into the kitchens, with Penelope keeping watch. Despite the security ensured by the cover of darkness they could not take any chances and Patroclus did not need Leptine’s warning of what would happen to them if anyone discovered what they were up to. It was perfectly clear to him, in the way her hands shook slightly as she worked and the restless glances she sent at the door that this was the most dangerous thing they had ever done.

They spread out the various plants and herbs they had gathered on the table before them, among which Patroclus recognised silphium, rue, and hellebore. Leptine gave Patroclus the task of boiling water while she prepared them, separating the useful parts from the rest of the plant with her little silver knife. Patroclus watched her out of the corner of his eye, cleaning and chopping with brisk, expert efficiency even as her hands trembled infinitesimally on the blade’s hilt. Before he could push the thought away, he wondered whimsically how many times she had prepared this exact concoction.

  “Are you sure this is safe?” Patroclus blurted out, again before he could stop himself. “It’s not going to…hurt her, is it?”

“Oh it’ll hurt,” Leptine sighed, grimly and heavily. “There’s no helping that. The least we can do is add a little poppy to help. But there shouldn’t be any lasting complications.”

She swept up the chopped herbs and tipped them onto the brass measuring scales as Patroclus set about extracting and crushing the pain-dulling seeds from the poppy pods. He could hear night sounds through the midnight black of the open window; the slow mournful hooting of an owl, the hissing whisper of crickets in the fields. An involuntary shiver ran up his spine. Despite Leptine’s assurances, as well as his own awareness of the narrow ignorance surrounding such sciences, he could not suppress a little sympathy for those who would associate their purpose with witchcraft.

There was also, Patroclus remembered with a squirm, the more practical threat of Amyntor or Cleitus bursting in on them any moment. Although slaves had apparently been taking similar potions to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies for years they had always to do so in utmost secret, as they were technically robbing their masters of the property they were entitled to. Patroclus new the enormous risk Leptine ran if an overseer were to discover she was stealing from them and the thought was almost enough to make him want to upturn the entire cauldron out the window.

If Leptine possessed any of Patroclus’ uncertainty she did not show it. Her face was impassive as she added each quantity into the boiling water, stirring vigorously. The steam rose from the simmering surface, making her skin shine damp and rosy and her hair frizz about her face. A few minutes later she ladled the draught into a rough wooden beaker and gave it to Patroclus to hold while she doused out the flames. Patroclus peered into the murky, swamp-coloured depths. It was difficult to imagine that something so innocuous could possess such sway over life and death. He repressed another shiver.

“Okay let’s go,” whispered Leptine when she had extinguished the last candle and the two tip-toed out into the passageway where Penelope was waiting for them.

It took them a great deal longer than usual to exit the palace. Aside from the fact that Patroclus was balancing a full mug of hot liquid they had to move slowly and cautiously through the passageways, stopping at every corner to check there was no guard on duty and retreating speedily whenever there was. Patroclus could hear not only his own heart but Leptine’s and Penelope’s as they moved silently through the tunnels, their feet making only the barest sound against the stone. It came as a great relief when the back entrance finally came into view and their sweating skins made contact with the cold, night air.

Pamaia was waiting for them as planned in the furthest field, away from the prying eyes of anyone who might be outside the palace. She had lost all trace of her former vulnerability, her face hard once again with the steely boldness of resolution. However, her gaze faltered slightly as she watched them approach, her eyes narrowing at the steaming beaker in Patroclus’ hands.

“You drink it,” said Patroclus unnecessarily when several moments had passed.

“It’s poison,” replied Pamaia distrustfully.

“On my word it is not,” said Leptine. “Drink. The child will be flushed from your body.”

“How can I trust you?” asked Pamaia. “You, who have always hated me from the moment I first set foot in this place?”

Patroclus and Leptine looked at each other. They could make no secret of how they felt for Pamaia, any more than she could them. The old animosity still lay, thick as smoke, between them. But there was no hatred deep enough that could persuade them to abandon her now, with not a soul in the world to help her. How to explain to her, that it was not friendship or even sympathy that stirred their alliance now, but human duty? One hand extended to another in need, nothing more or less?

“If you want insurance,” spoke Penelope at last. “There is something you can do for us. There. That’s a language you can understand, isn’t it?”

Pamaia held her gaze challengingly for a moment before her features softened in resignation. “It is,” she accepted. “And, I suppose, what choice do I have?”

With that she took the beaker from Patroclus’ hands and raised it to her lips. Patroclus held his breath as she drained it and swallowed. He could see it moving, travelling along her gullet before suddenly she dropped the beaker so that it landed in the grass with a light thump, and with a stomach-wrenching grasp her hands flew to her throat.

“What have you done to me?” she gasped, collapsing onto all fours and trying to retch.

Patroclus sent a terrified look at Leptine, scared that they had poisoned her after all, but thankfully there were no signs of shock on her face. She knelt in the grass next to Pamaia and placed a hand on her back, rubbing in circles as she continued to gag. “It’s alright,” she murmured against Pamaia’s groans. “You’re alright, be strong, it will all be over soon-”

Pamaia released a long strangled sob that seemed to split the night. She turned her face into a beam of moonlight and Patroclus could see the silver tears shining there. Then she screamed and Penelope nudged his elbow.

“Come on,” she muttered. “This is not our place.”

She led him away, far enough that Pamaia’s tears and shouts of pain grew dulled. Patroclus could see them still, two black silhouettes crouching in the dark, one holding the other tightly to her as she convulsed and trembled. It was as if Leptine’s tender words of comfort carried on the rustling of the leaves and the grass. Patroclus closed his eyes and muttered a prayer for Pamaia, feeling with the full weight of regret that there was nothing else he could do. Penelope was holding his hand; she squeezed it and Patroclus knew that he was crying.

It felt like several ages had passed by the time the shadow of Pamaia was able to rise unsteadily to her feet. Leptine helped her bury what remained and they did so in silence, staying a while before Pamaia was ready to walk, shakily away. Leptine came back alone, looking tired and for some reason, much older. Behind her a slim, black figure was swallowed up by the darkness.

“Where’s she gone?” asked Penelope.

“The beach,” Leptine replied wearily. “She needs to be alone for a time.”

“Is she okay?” said Patroclus, knowing dully that it was a stupid question.

Leptine made a non-committal gesture. “She will be,” she answered. There wasn’t much more to say, so nothing more was said.

oOo

They said goodbye at the back entrance. Leptine took off to the well to wash the blood from her hands and clothes and Penelope disappeared soundlessly to her own quarters. As Patroclus climbed the steps up to his bedroom it seemed to him that the stairs wound higher than usual, that each time his foot fell it cost him extraordinary effort to pull the rest of his body back up, as if it had become heavier. Perhaps it was the extra weight he was carrying, of a grief that didn’t really even belong to him. Or otherwise nothing more than the unbearable heaviness of life and being, the burden of understanding that always seems to drag us down until we learn how to shoulder it.

Achilles was awake, as Patroclus had known he would be. He was lying on the bed with his head turned to the side facing the window, out of which moonlight was pouring. His arm was outstretched, his fingers twitching as if he sought to grasp it. But he looked up when Patroclus entered, pushing himself into a sitting position and the silvery beams lay forgotten.

“Patroclus,” he breathed, his face brightening like starlight. “I knew you’d come, it was only a matter of time. Does this mean I’m forgiven?”

Patroclus did not answer, only crossed the room until he stood in front of the bed. He saw Achilles’ expression change before him, morphing from delight at his arrival to incredulity at the look on Patroclus’ face. He paused before the foot of the bed, his face cast silver as a coin in the dark light and without moving, as if asking for an invitation. And Achilles, understanding, raised his arms as if giving one.

Patroclus fell into them. He eyes drifted closed as Achilles’ arms tightened around him, bringing him securely into his torso. Patroclus could feel his heart beating through his chest, pulsating against his cheek like a tiny sun. Achilles did not ask what had happened, he did not need to.He radiated warmth. He always had done. And all he needs to do, thought Patroclus, holding him, is keep his heart beating forever and ever.

They stayed like that a long time and it was a longer time still before they fell asleep. Just before they did, Patroclus, remembering, asked Achilles when he had lied to him. And Achilles, smiling, told him.

Chapter Text

The news was all over the palace before Patroclus even had a chance to hear it himself. Someone who had it from the king directly had told a lord who’d confessed it to a porter who had whispered it to a slave who had told the entire underground. It was scarcely possible to move down a corridor without someone claiming that they had been the first to hear it, had been privy to the conversation at the time or else wiping the floors with one ear crooked above ground. But regardless of the source, the simple fact remained fixed and unaltered. The wedding was off.

Considering the number of those who claimed to have heard the news first hand, Patroclus was surprised how few knew the truth of the actual events that had ended the engagement. So far the rumours he’d heard had ranged from Chloē herself being pregnant to the princess actually having been a manticore in disguise. Certainly many of the stories included the involvement of Thetis as it had been difficult to miss her, storming into the palace in a whirl of blue-grey skirt , her red hair streaming behind her and eyes raging with immortal fury to accost Peleus while he was having his bath. Patroclus had done a double take on his journey down a hallway upon spotting several servants with their ears pressed up against the door as Peleus’ oddly squeaky, high-pitched voice informed his ex-wife that on no account would he be calling off the marriage unless King Thoas first decreed so.

Clearly, the ire of a goddess was too much for a king’s will to stand for long, or so was the common conclusion. Only Patroclus, Leptine and Penelope it seemed knew of how Chloē had gone to her father and begged him to call off the marriage, possibly making the valid point that a flimsy alliance really wasn’t worth the consequences of divine wroth. With the added pressure of Thetis glaring at him from across the room, Thoas’ fatherly compassion proved indomitable and within the time it took to dissolve a legal contract the two kings were shaking hands amiably, though it must be said, letting go rather quickly.

“You’d think they’d find something else to talk about,” muttered a disgruntled Achilles, having just overheard a slave-girl telling her friend that Chloē had taken one look at Achilles’ nether regions and headed for the hills. “Like, I don’t know, that perhaps we’re at war.”

“Or perhaps that you’ve just been made the youngest army captain in a century,” Patroclus suggested with a raised eyebrow.

Achilles tossed him a dirty look but said nothing. Certainly they had found very little time to celebrate their victory of late. Over the past few weeks the Thessalian force had been mounting over the border and the time had finally come for the Myrmidon army to depart, including a number of the most formidable young members of the home defence. And with it, Achilles as captain.

It had not taken Acastus much persuading to allow Patroclus to serve as his second-in-command. It was mutually accepted that Patroclus had served his worth both on the battlefield and off it, his deeds as well as his status of hetairoi making him more than the suitable choice of deputy. And so Patroclus found himself in the courtyard, saddling his horse with provisions for the journey ahead and watching the stream of Corinthian household staff stumbling through the gates, lugging heavy chests and tripods away with them.

“You know, I have never understood what those were for,” said Chloē, eyeing one of the latter thoughtfully.

“Me neither,” replied Patroclus. “I mean, I suppose you could balance flower vases on it or something.”

“There’s a hole in the middle,” Chloē pointed out.

Patroclus shrugged cluelessly. “Then I really have no idea.”

Chloē gave her little indecorous giggle. She was prone to laughing much more now, and even when she wasn’t there was a ghost of it on her face, as if she were just waiting to. Patroclus spotted Pamaia barking orders concerning some of her dresses and supressed a smile of his own.

“How long is the way back to Corinth?” he asked Chloē.

“At least four days hence,” Chloē replied. “But I do not think the time will go by too slowly.”

She cast a significant glance in Pamaia’s direction and Patroclus felt his insides glow, as if someone had smothered them in warm butter. Chloē was grinning again, her brown eyes so alight with joy that Patroclus hadn’t even needed to ask if she was happy. Were it another case he would not have had the chance, for in the next moment Chloē’s arms were around his neck and she was hugging him so tightly he thought he might faint.

“Thank you Patroclus,” she whispered into his ear. “For everything.”

“Thank you,” Patroclus wheezed back. “I mean, we couldn’t have done it without you.”

Chloē laughed. “I’m sure you’d have found a way,” she said. “I’m starting to think you’re the kind of person who can do anything, if you put your mind to it.”

She released him and waved sunnily as he massaged his ribs. “Goodbye,” she said. “And remember, if you’re ever in Corinth you have a place to stay. And that goes for all of you,” she added as Leptine and Penelope had just emerged.

They waved goodbye as she followed her father into the royal carriage. Pamaia hesitated, apparently having some trouble with the clasp of her bag. They had not spoken since that night; Leptine had informed him sternly that some things were not for sharing and if Pamaia ever wanted to speak of it then she could tell Chloē in her own good time. But she did not look unwell, although Patroclus was wary of asking. They were not friends after all, there was too much bad blood between them for that. But the old animosity had died away, and Patroclus was glad of that at least.

When she had made sure they were out of earshot, she looked up at Patroclus. Her eyes were hard as they always were but they lacked their previous malice and there was a new flatness to her tone when she spoke.

“Congratulations,” she said. “Be sure you look after each other.”

Patroclus nodded. “You too.”

The corners of Pamaia’s mouth twitched in what he thought might have been a quickly suppressed smile. “She is a good girl,” she acknowledged. “A sweet girl. She will need protecting from some of the harsher realities of life.”

“Thank you for agreeing to go with her,” said Patroclus sincerely.

Pamaia shrugged. “Every house welcomes a dancer,” she replied. “Besides, we are even now. There are no lost bargains between us. Which means neither of us have any excuse to see each other again.”

Patroclus inclined his head in acknowledgement. For a moment, Pamaia’s eyes flickered to Leptine’s and held her gaze. Patroclus was just aware of Leptine nodding slightly before the contact was broken and she had turned round abruptly to follow the Corinthians out the gates, her long black hair swinging behind her. Patroclus watched her go, and as she climbed in next to Chloē, could not help wishing her well.

“All these goodbyes are making me quite emotional,” he stated with a mock sniff.

“Well I hope you can sum up the effort for a few more,” answered Penelope. “My ship’s just arrived.”

Patroclus whirled round instantly, mouth hanging open. “You’re leaving?” he demanded indignantly. “But I thought…Odysseus…”

He gestured vaguely in the direction of the Ithacan and Myrmidon armies where Odysseus was busy making last-minute preparations. Penelope shook her head.

“Someone has to go back home and look after things,” she replied. “Odysseus needs someone he trusts to rule in his place while he fights the Thessalians. Better me than some shit-brained old army veteran who will turn Ithaca into a chauvinist’s Elysium.”

Patroclus blinked at her glumly. “But,” he began. “I’m going to miss you.”

Penelope laughed and enveloped him into an embrace. “And I you,” she told him. “You have transgressed all expectations, Patroclus. I have never been more proud of someone I can call a friend. Promise you’ll write to me.”

“Every day,” Patroclus swore passionately.

“That’s excessive,” said Penelope. “But do keep me posted on the goings on of this place. It’s very rare that anything exciting happens in Ithaca. And watch over him,” she added in an undertone, jerking her head towards Achilles. “It’s our job, remember?”

Patroclus nodded. “I will.”

Penelope smiled and clasped his shoulders. “Good man,” she said. Someone had brought her a horse to take her to the beach. She swung up onto it easily, as if anxious to get off the ground, and once seated, despite the man’s breaches she wore, she looked more like a queen than Patroclus had ever seen her.

“Keep in touch,” she ordered him, pulling on the reigns. “I’m rooting for you, remember?”

And with a last roguish wink and a wave for her husband, she cantered out the palace gates and disappeared from sight. Patroclus wanted to watch until she had gone completely but an urgent jerk at his arm prevented him from doing so. He turned to see Leptine, looking anxiously at him. “I need to talk to you,” she whispered.

“Patroclus!” Achilles’ voice rang from across the courtyard. “We need to go.”

“Hold on,” Patroclus called back and gestured for Leptine to lead on.

She led him towards a small alcove, away from the bustling servants and the clanking of newly polished armour where they were certain not to be overheard. Patroclus frowned curiously at her and saw that she had resumed her old habit of biting her nails.

“What’s wrong?” he asked concernedly.

“There’s nothing wrong,” replied Leptine, chewing her lip. “Not…exactly.”

“Then what is it?”

She cast a cautious look over her shoulder, checking that there was no one nearby who could hear before taking a deep breath. “Deiomachus has asked me to marry him.”

Patroclus felt as though his whole stomach had plummeted towards his feet. Conscious of Leptine watching him nervously he blinked through the shock and struggled to sound as if he knew how to articulate words.

“Bloody hell,” he uttered. “Wow. Um…and uh…what was it that was the…er…how do you say…”

“I said yes,” Leptine cut across him bluntly. “Was that wrong?”

Patroclus scratched the back of his head evasively, rather taken aback by her wide, anxious eyes and the urgency in her voice. “I dunno,” he shrugged unhelpfully. “Do you er…love him?”

“What does it matter?” answered Leptine impatiently. “Patroclus, he said that he’s going to use his army wages and whatever loot he gets from Thessaly to buy my freedom from Peleus.And then he will come back and marry me. Did you hear me, Patroclus? He’s going to buy my freedom. I’m going to be free!”

And now he understood why her eyes shone so brightly, why her cheeks were so aglow with all the warmth of the newly in love. She looked so excited, yet there was something else there, something that could only be seen if you had been friends with Leptine for as long as he had. “So what’s the matter?” he asked her.

Her bottom lip trembled. “I’m scared,” she confessed, her voice tiny. “What if something goes wrong and he doesn’t come back? Or he falls in love with some pretty camp follower over there and forgets all about me? And I’ll just be sat here, waiting, so close but with no way of knowing how much further there is to go…I’m so close, Patroclus! I’m so, so close to being happy, to having everything I’ve only ever dreamed of having and I’m…I’m terrified!”

“Hush,” whispered Patroclus, folding her against him and holding her tightly as she began to sob into his chest. “Shh, don’t cry, you mustn’t cry. This is amazing news Leptine, amazing. I’m so, so happy for you. It’s only natural to be scared but you really shouldn’t be…everything’s going to be fine. Better than fine, you’re going to be a free woman! And you’re going to have your own house, and a grey cat like you’ve always wanted, and…and babies and…and a husband who loves you. This is everything Leptine and it will happen because no one deserves it more than you, no one! Please don’t cry…don’t be scared, this is amazing…”

Leptine made a tiny, hiccoughing noise that Patroclus took to mean she was calming down. He gently prised her off his chest and looked at her. Her eyes were red and there were tear tracks running down her face, thin pale lines shining through the dirt and ash of the kitchen fires. He wiped them away, smoothing her brown hair down around her ears.

“Patroclus!” he heard Achilles shouting.

“I’m coming!” he yelled back, rolling his eyes before turning apologetically back to Leptine. “I have to go,” he told her. “Please don’t worry. It’s going to be fine.”

Leptine sniffed in response. “Here,” she said, and pressed into his hand a single yellow primrose, such as the kind Deiomachus so often presented her with. “For luck. Look after yourself. Don’t let Achilles do anything stupid.”

“I can’t work miracles Leptine,” Patroclus grinned, tucking the primrose into his tunic pocket.

“You’ve done alright so far,” Leptine shrugged. “Go on. And come home safely.”

Patroclus hugged her and just had time to plant a kiss on her forehead before sprinting off to join the Myrmidons. Achilles was waiting for him by the gates, holding Banthus and Xalius by the reigns. Patroclus looked them up and down incredulously.

“We’re travelling by horseback?” he asked, scandalised.

“No idiot, we’re planning on defeating the Thessalians with the power of flight,” replied Achilles, scathingly. “How else do you plan on getting across the border?”

“But it’s a full days’ ride!” Patroclus protested, feeling his knees grow weak at the thought. “At the very least!”

“Penelope mentioned you Northerners have little experience in this method of travel,” said Odysseus, appearing from behind them. “Don’t worry. After three hours or so you stop feeling very much at all. Until the next morning of course, but by then you’ll have an army of ten thousand strong to take your mind of things!”

Chortling, he climbed up on to his horse with the same grace his wife had done before him. Patroclus turned to Achilles, who was wearing a smug-faced grin, and glared blackly at him.

“I hate you,” he said.

“I missed you too,” Achilles replied.

oOo

The Myrmidons were hardy folk and strong soldiers, however it soon became apparent that travelling by horseback was an ordeal that few could have predicted. By the time the sun was highest in the sky several men were complaining of pains in the most sensitive of areas, as well as general aching all over the body. The best that could be said was that it was not a hot day; the sky retained a fair amount of cloud coverage and a cool breeze aided the horses in batting flies away from their rumps and ears, as well as jolting Patroclus away from the strong temptation to fall asleep. As it was, this would have been nigh impossible, for the simple fact that he had Achilles as a travelling companion.

Patroclus did not know whether it was the successful ending of an unwanted engagement, his promotion to army captain or the simple anticipation of what promised to be a particularly bloody battle up ahead. But whatever the reason, Achilles was in a better mood than Patroclus had seen him in for a very long time. He had spent the better half of the journey whistling, (bad) singing, (worse) and chatting aimlessly, regaling his company with a number of “funny” stories, (an irritating number of which seemed to involve Patroclus). When at last Patroclus threatened to resume his silent treatment he turned to Odysseus for his source of entertainment, asking several questions about the king of Ithaca’s adventures both on land and on sea.

“Is it true you are a pirate?” Achilles asked him directly, interrupting Odysseus’ explanation of Arabian shipping laws.

If Odysseus was taken aback he did not show it. On the contrary, he looked at Achilles as if he had just asked him a question of very deep, meaningful and perplexing significance. “Some say pirate,” he answered, scratching his short brown beard thoughtfully. “Others say an enterprising young man particularly skilled at coercing people out of seaborne goods.”

Patroclus scoffed. Achilles spared him a dirty look before returning to Odysseus. “You’re not that young,” he stated bluntly. “But is it hard? I mean to say, is it very dangerous?”

“Depends on how you do it,” answered Odysseus, apparently deeply amused at Achilles’ curiosity. “Of course with anything from a medium to a smaller sized vessel you can get away with the traditional old boarding and slaughter…we always look like a merchant ship so we tend to catch most people unawares…of course, with anything larger you’ve got to use a little more…initiative. A particularly favourite trick of mine…you disguise the ship to look like you’ve been caught in a storm, or robbed by pirates yourself. Then you wait until another boat draws nearer, looking to offer help and…”

Odysseus drew a thin, long-nailed finger across his throat. Patroclus winced as Achilles laughed heartily. Catching sight of his expression, Odysseus tilted his head.

“I see Patroclus disapproves of my methods,” he said with a small smile.

“I just don’t find the idea of killing innocent people particularly funny,” Patroclus replied haughtily.

“An interesting one, the word ‘innocent’,” observed Odysseus. “Would you be so quick to use it, I wonder, if I were to tell you the men I robbed belong to Nekros, or to the rich King Agamemnon? And that a fair portion of the spoils go to much smaller vaults than my own?”

Patroclus said nothing, unwilling to enter into a debate on ends versus means. He knew now that he was right to be wary of Odysseys; no matter how much he liked him and Penelope, they were both far too cunning for anyone’s good.

“Well I don’t see a problem with it,” said Achilles stoutly. “Except that there’s not much glory to be offered in that kind of trick. A fair fight is the only real honourable means of gain.”

Odysseus laughed. “You might think differently when the odds are not entirely in your favour,” he advised him. “Although I think our definitions of glory might differ somewhat slightly. I see myself as an adventurer above all things…for what is gold and silver compared to new lands…a distant sunrise, the smell of strange spices in the air…different faces, different worlds. And so many more, yet to be discovered. That, my friends, is the true treasure. The real glory of living.”

Achilles and Patroclus exchanged glances. Suddenly Patroclus was uncomfortably aware that this was the most he had ever travelled, the furthest away from either Phthia or Opus he had ever been. The thought was strangely discomforting; he wondered how much time he had left to see all these worlds Odysseus spoke of with such wonder…or even if he ever would. Looking at Achilles, he wondered whether they were making the best use of their time, fighting pointless wars he didn’t really understand, or if they’d be better off finding a boat and sailing away together, in search of another kind of immortality.

They journeyed on for several hours. With the steady plodding of horse hooves being the only measurement of time Patroclus had no way of telling how long; certainly it seemed like several seasons had passed as the scenery shifted around them. As they edged further north the fields that surrounded the citadel became fewer, the land around them no longer flat but harsh and uncompromising. Greens morphed into browns and then into greys with the approach of the mountains, not gently rolling but sharp and craggy as flint stone, their shadows casting ominous stretches of dark over the ground.

There was a change in the temperature up here too. Patroclus shivered as a blast of wind whistled past them and drew his cloak tighter over his sheepskin tunic. Beside him the end of Achilles’ nose and his hollowed cheeks were slightly pink; Patroclus resisted the urge to ride up close to him and put his arm around his shoulders. He was not sure how much of the army knew about the two of them, but he was unwilling to give credence to the several theories as to why Patroclus was made second over several more experienced and prolific warriors. Whispered rumours of nepotism were already rife enough with Achilles’ captaincy and he had been wary of several eyes on him the whole time he had been riding.

At long last they came to the border and Achilles gave the command for his company to halt. Patroclus peered at their surroundings through his face wrappings. They were right in the shadow of a large mountain, on the edge of an equally foreboding looking forest. Before he had a chance to voice his anxieties however, Achilles had already swung of his horse and was swaggering over to join the other officers.

“Looks like good enough ground than we’ll find anywhere else,” stated General Acastus, sifting the earth with the toe of his boot. “Give the order to make camp.”

“We’re making camp here?” Patroclus questioned Achilles as he joined him in unloading the horses. “But it’s so dark…and…spacious.”

“For Gods’ sake Patroclus,” Achilles huffed. “We’re doing battle against an army nearly twice the size of ours in the morning. I’d really rather you didn’t pussy out now over some scary looking trees.”

“What I meant,” Patroclus snarled. “Is that it would be the perfect terrain for an ambush.”

Achilles frowned, glancing round the space thoughtfully. “You may have a point,” he conceded. Then, spotting Deiomachus and Leonides, he waved them over. “You two are in charge of overseeing the camp,” he told them. “Patroclus and I are going to scout the area. There’s a chance the Thessalians have sent spies ahead of us.”

Deiomachus and Leonides nodded and went to organise provisions while Achilles and Patroclus made a beeline for the trees. Patroclus suppressed a gulp as the forest swallowed them up; it was darker than the one back home with the trees growing much closer together, shutting out the very last of the dying evening light overhead. He was suddenly very aware of the sound of his own breathing and that of Achilles’ beside him. Evidently Achilles was thinking along the same lines for he gestured towards his weapon. “Swords out, do you reckon?”

“Yeah,” nodded Patroclus, glad that he had made the suggestion first.

They picked their way very carefully, sensitive to the slightest hint of sound or movement. Achilles was on hyper-alert, his ears pricked, nostrils slightly flared like a wild animal picking up a scent. Even the fine blonde hairs on the back of his neck were vigilant, standing to military attention. He searched the undergrowth while Patroclus watched the trees, ready for the flash of a bow and arrow or the booted foot of a Thessalian spy. They came to nothing, however, until a dip in the patches of bracken they were following led them into an almost clearing, right in the centre of which there seemed to be what looked like a very tall, thin boulder.

“What in Hades is that doing there?” Achilles frowned, edging around it curiously.

Patroclus followed nervously. As he did so, his eyes were drawn to the branches surrounding the boulder, from which dangled a number of curious objects: snatches of ribbon, pieces of brightly coloured glass, feathers, little cloth pouches. They all dangled jauntily in the mountain breeze, flashing amongst the leaves like some bizarre fruit.

“It’s a woman,” Achilles breathed, examining the rough stone. “Patroclus, it’s a sculpture.”

Sure enough Patroclus could make out the crude bulk of roughly-hewn breasts, wide hips and long hair framing a coarse, expressionless face. Once again his eyes flitted to the glittering branches and then back to the stone carving.

“It’s not a sculpture,” he said. “It’s a shrine.”

Achilles stood up slowly, his eyes flickering towards the strange dancing objects. Patroclus saw him shiver and a swallow travelled down his throat.

“We should go,” he said.

“So soon?” came a voice.

Quick as lightning Achilles thrust out an arm, pushing Patroclus back so that he almost fell against the statue, and in his other hand a knife suddenly glinted. Harsh laughter echoed through the trees, the sound of thin reeds rubbing together. Patroclus held his breath as up ahead the bracken parted, revealing a figure coming towards them. Then, as they entered the clearing, he breathed a sigh of relief.

It was a woman. She was old, impossibly old; her brown, weather-beaten skin hanging off her like scraps of old leather. She was also tiny, her long white hair falling way past her knees, and the sack-like brown robe she wore seemed to drown her. From her face, wizened and lined as a riverbed, two beetle black eyes blinked out at them, creased in the dry humour that even now still lingered in the trees. Patroclus nudged Achilles, telling him to drop the knife but he ignored him and the weapon remained raised.

“Who are you?” Achilles demanded. “Declare yourself.”

“I need not, nor shall I,” replied the woman in her thin, reedy voice. “And you can put that down, son of Peleus, unless your fear of the Thessalians extends to an old woman.”

At that Achilles did lower the knife, although slowly, and his eyes never left her face but held her gaze warily. “I fear nothing the mortal world can offer me,” he declared seriously. “So unless you be a goddess, you might dry directing your taunts elsewhere.”

The woman’s smile was no more than a contortion of lines. “I am no goddess,” she replied. “Although from what I hear, it would make little difference to you, son of Peleus, who holds the immortal world in likewise scorn. But no, I am merely a humble priestess looking to live out the rest of her days in service to the Divine.”

She gestured with a long-nailed, claw-like hand towards the statue. Patroclus followed her gesture and found to his discomfort that despite the crudity of the carving, a reverent shiver ran up his spine.

“Hekate,” the woman said. “Mistress of magic, Lady of mysteries, Queen of all things that dwell in the dark. Will you not allow her to pull back the veil, to dispel the mists that at this moment enshroud your future…”

“I have no business with the Witch Queen,” Achilles interrupted her. “Nor any with the future.”

“Fool,” the woman snarled, her voice sharp and dry as the crack of the whip. “Your destiny will be offered to you on a silver platter, when the time comes, although the fates will seem obscured to you until it is too late. However, I was not speaking to you.”

Patroclus held his breath as the woman laid her heavy, black stare upon to him. Logic told him that he had never met her before, yet somehow it seemed that she knew everything about him, as if right now she could see into his soul.

“Tell me son of Menoetius,” she said and her voice rang out as if several had spoken. “Why always do you walk in shadow? Do you think the Gods will not see you if you hide behind the sun?”

Achilles and Patroclus exchanged confused, nervous glances. “No…” replied Patroclus tentatively. “I suppose I just…I didn’t think they’d be that interested in me.”

“An unwise presumption,” the old woman sneered. “Yet so it is with the ways of men: so often those who expect greatness receive little, and those who seek to fade into history find themselves with more fame than they could have possibly imagined. Others may think you are nobody Patroclus, you may even still think so yourself. But I tell you now: The Gods have great plans for you.”

Patroclus gulped and sought another look at Achilles. A crease had appeared between his brows and he was chewing his lip, clearly discomfited. The old woman was still watching him expectantly, as if anticipating his reaction.

“Will you ask the Goddess?” she prompted him after he still had not spoken. “Will you draw back the veil?”

Her hand was extended now, reaching out to him. And suddenly, Patroclus had an inexplicable yet powerful urge to take it.

As if reading his mind, Achilles sent him a warning glance. “Patroclus,” he said. “We have to get back.”

“Wait a minute,” murmured Patroclus. He was looking into the stone face of Hekate’s statue. Before he had thought it seemed blank, vacant, even vapid. Now, it seemed to be smiling at him.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” the old woman was purring at him. “The answers lie before you…”

The answers…and if he thought about it, Patroclus realised he had a lot of questions. For one day Achilles would have to marry and what would happen to the two of them when he did? How long was it before the divinity in his veins started yearning for something greater than Patroclus could provide? Tomorrow they would be walking onto a battlefield, and who was to say what the day might bring? And always Thetis’ prophecy sounded at the back of his head, never far away: Someone is going to die…it might even be you…

“Patroclus,” Achilles’ voice sounded louder, yanking Patroclus back to reality. “Come on. We’re leaving now.”

Patroclus nodded, trying to clear his head of the sudden disturbing images that had flooded it. He felt strangely cold all over and more aware than ever of the pressing, claustrophobia of the increasingly darkening trees and the cool, damp smell of the clearing. He took Achilles’ hand and allowed him to lead him authoritatively away, sparing one look over his shoulder for the old woman. However, no sooner had he turned his head than had she disappeared.

They walked back through the forest in silence. Achilles still hadn’t let go of Patroclus’ hand which Patroclus was glad of; his head was still a swimming mess of dark greens and browns and he felt woozy, as if he had drunk too much wine. Once they had arrived back at camp and into the open air however the vertigo lifted and he raised a shaking hand to his forehead to wipe of the sweat, aware that Achilles was watching him anxiously.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Patroclus nodded again. “Yeah,” he muttered. “That was weird.”

Achilles said nothing but continued to look at Patroclus with concern.

Deiomachus and Leonides had done a good job; all the tents were pitched and someone had even got the cooking fires going, around which men had huddled in small groups to warm their hands and ladle thick-looking stew into their bowls. Achilles and Patroclus ate quickly, unwilling to make small-talk with the other captains and when they were done headed directly into their tent which, Patroclus was pleased to see, was one of the larger and less moth-eaten ones.

They undressed, dumping their travel-worn cloaks and tunics in the corner next to the armour they would be putting on the next day. Patroclus tried not to look at it. The anticipation of the coming battle had just started to kick in and he wasn’t in the mood for another bout of wooziness. The events in the forest had disconcerted him more than he could reason; try as he might he could not get the little old woman’s words out of his head.

Clearly they had had an effect on Achilles too for he turned to Patroclus abruptly, his hands planted on his hips. “Listen Patroclus,” he said in the tone of voice he used whenever he wanted to convince people that he was a solemn and mature young man. “What that old witch said…about you being a nobody. It’s bullshit. No one has ever thought that.”

Patroclus raised an eyebrow. Achilles made an assenting gesture. “Okay, so it’s possible some people used to think that. And maybe one or two still do. But those people are very few and far between. You’re a hero now! And that’s something no one can deny. You heard Odysseus and Penelope…people have literally travelled far and wide just to see if the stories about you are true.”

“To see if the stories about you are true,” Patroclus corrected him. “I’m just a quirky side character.”

“You are not,” Achilles gritted his teeth angrily. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. This is your story Patroclus, your song. Because you’re golden and they know it now…I’ve known it since first I ever laid eyes on you. And now they do to. But you’ve never been nobody to me. Not ever.”

Achilles stared at him plaintively and wide-eyed and Patroclus half wanted to laugh at the desperate bid for understanding in his expression. He stepped forward, placing both his hands on the sides of Achilles’ face and looked directly into his eyes.

“I know,” he promised him as Achilles’ bottom lip trembled. “And I’m sorry. All that stuff with Chloē…I don’t know why I was so jealous…I just can’t stand the thought of losing you.”

“But you won’t,” Achilles insisted and Patroclus noticed that he was blinking rather fiercely. “You won’t lose me because there’s no one…I don’t see anyone else. Only you-”

Patroclus cut him off, pressing his lips fiercely to Achilles’. Achilles responded eagerly, throwing off the last sleeves of his tunic so that he could grasp Patroclus by the shoulders, pressing their bodies closer together. They moved hastily, clumsily, tripping over the pots and cushions littered around the tiny space of their tent and Patroclus realised, with a violent pain somewhere in his chest how much he really had missed him.

“You can’t pretend now,” Achilles muttered against the crook of Patroclus’ neck as he pushed him onto the pallet. “You’re much more jealous than me.”

“I’m not-” Patroclus tried to protest before he felt Achilles’ hand skirt his hip.

“I didn’t like you not talking to me,” said Achilles. “Don’t do it again. I would rather have you scream at me than ignore me.”

“Funny, I was just starting to enjoy the peace and quiet,” Patroclus breathed back and felt Achilles’ chuckle reverberate through his kiss.

oOo

An hour later Achilles lay sleeping, his face calm and untroubled once more. Patroclus watched him a little while, lightly following the curves of his bones with his finger and savouring how his eyelids flickered slightly when Patroclus’ knuckle brushed his bottom lip. Then, trying carefully not to disturb him, he gently untangled himself from Achilles’ arms and crossed to the other side of the tent where his clothes lay.

He dressed quickly, drawing his cloak tightly around himself to protect from the biting midnight cold. He frowned at his sword, deliberating, and in the end settled on Achilles’ knife, tucking it securely into his boot. Then, with one last look at Achilles to make sure he hadn’t woken, he slipped out from the tent and into the night.

There was no one left outside, the mountainous temperature having driven even the commanders in search of the protection offered by canvass walls. All around him the sounds of sleep rumbled from tent flaps, a hum of breath like low thunder, readying itself for the storm ahead. The Myrmidon army lay in a pool of milky light as the moon shone directly overhead, the barest patch of it scraped by the summit of a distant mountain. It lit a path for Patroclus, guiding him away from the camp and sloping downwards into the forest.

The way was harder to find by nightfall and Patroclus swore at his foolishness for not bringing a candle. He was aided by the moon, however, and the reassurance that for some reason he was less fearful than he had been earlier that evening. All previous dread had been replaced by a feverish, humming anticipation, almost reaching excitement as he found his way once again into the clearing.

The old woman was there, as Patroclus knew she would be. She was kneeling before the statue of the goddess Hekate, her long white hair flowing around her, giving her the look of a drowned person. Patroclus hovered uncertainly between the trees, unsure of whether he should announce himself. This, however, proved unnecessary as the woman lifted her head and turned to him with a knowing smile.

“Back again, Patroclus?” she rasped in her rough, high voice. “What is your excuse this time?”

Patroclus shifted his feet awkwardly and shrugged. “Curiosity.”

The old woman nodded sagely. “It happens to the best of us,” she said. “Even the strongest men are oft unable to withstand the pull of the moon.”

She gestured to him to come forward. He complied somewhat tentatively, unwilling to meet her eyes and fall victim to that terrible, soul-searching gaze. He stopped before the feet of the statue, looking up into the face of the goddess. Hekate loomed down at him, seeming somehow taller and more imposing in the dark. For a moment it seemed as though her folded hands would twitch and shoot out towards him, even as the old woman’s hands were now extended.

“What is it you want to know?” she asked him at last.

Patroclus tore his gaze away from the goddess, forcing himself to look at the old woman. She was watching him, her expression steady, betraying nothing. He took a deep breath, swallowing the last of his fear before he spoke.

“Everything,” he said.

Chapter Text

“That’s rather a big ask,” said the old woman. “Are you sure you wouldn’t just like to know your future?”

Patroclus shrugged indifferently. “Yeah, I suppose that’ll do.”

The old woman turned and, slipping her hand inside her brown robe, withdrew two small pieces of flint. With them in hand, she crouched before a cluster of dry twigs and leaves at the base of the Hekate statue and set about striking them. Patroclus watched her, a little cautious of whether lighting a fire in a dry forest clearing was really the most well thought out idea but before he had a chance to ask this she had stood up, a withered palm extended towards him.

“As with all services, the Goddess requires payment,” she rasped.

“I haven’t got any money,” replied Patroclus.

The priestess’ thin mouth twisted in a not entirely pleasant smile. “Gold is of little interest to the Divine,” she answered. “Not all things with value glitter.”

She kept her palm upturned, expectantly. Patroclus searched briefly on his person; he was carrying nothing of worth apart from Achilles’ knife tucked safely into the heel of his boot. He was about to give up and ask the priestess whether he could owe her when he felt something soft brush against the skin of his hand. Further inspection showed it to be the little yellow primrose Leptine had given him, tucked into the waistband of his breeches. He held it out to her dubiously. “Will this do?”

“What is it?” asked the old woman.

“A gift from someone very dear to me,” Patroclus replied. “A token of good luck, for tomorrow’s battle.”

The old woman plucked the flower from Patroclus’ fingers and turned it over in her bird-like talons, examining it as if it were a diamond. “It will more than do,” she answered. “This is a powerful thing. All gifts given in love carry their own magic: protection, luck, healing. Are you sure you wish to throw such a boon away? You may need more than a little of all three tomorrow.”

Patroclus, whose eyes had widened in reaction to the woman’s announcement, looked at the small, unassuming thing in her hands and considered snatching it back. But then, he reflected, there can be no better protection than knowledge, especially if the future tells me I am to die. “I am sure,” he said.

The old woman took the flower and walked over to the fire, dropping it into the flames. Patroclus felt a jolt of panic strike through him as it was consumed, to be replaced by a feeling of regret. But then the woman was walking back towards him, the light of the fire flickering over her face like scars and her eyes were dark as fathomless caves as she solemnly held his gaze.

“Three questions,” she spoke, her voice deep and low as he had never heard it before. “Ask.”

Patroclus took a deep breath, feeling the weight of enormity upon him.  He was well aware that he would never get this chance again and resolved to make the most of it. However the fire was distracting, the blaze rising and twisting like a fickle serpent and he struggled to order in his mind all the things he wanted most to know the answers to.

“What will happen tomorrow?” he blurted out once the pressure of thinking had become too much. Will I die? Will Achilles? Or will it be someone…someone else?

He knew as he spoke how foolish he sounded. Hoping the priestess would not take his question too literally, he held his breath as he waited for her answer. To his surprise however, it seemed a gleam of understanding danced in the old woman’s eye.

“You speak of the sea daughter’s prophecy, the one they call Thetis,” she smiled. “She has the Sight, yet she sees only as she desires and her will clouds her vision. I cannot tell you all that will happen tomorrow, for the tides of battle are changing and unpredictable and that knowledge is not made known to me. However, I can tell you with some degree of certainty that neither you nor the son of Peleus will die.”

Patroclus breathed a sigh of relief. Yet, even as this assurance comforted him, he could not suppress the feeling of dread that welled in him as he remembered Thetis’ reputation for predictions that struck later rather than imminently. He put this from his mind however as the old woman moved to stoke the fire and moved on to his second question.

“When will Achilles marry?”

The priestess shifted the burning twigs with a stick without looking up. “Exactly four moons from now,” she replied. “To a princess from a land not far from yours.”

Patroclus felt as though he had been stuck open by a mallet made of ice. He stared at the old woman unseeingly, gripped by a sort of numb horror as her words sunk in. Achilles was going to be married. And not in the far distant future, to a nameless face made of smoke but in four months’ time, to a princess “from a land not far from yours”. Until now, Patroclus had known Achilles would marry as a principle, in the same way that he knew all men must die and that one day the sun would burn out. But now, with the old woman stating it so bluntly, he understood it for the first time; not as a concept, but as stone hard fact.

He felt tears rise at the back of his throat and almost choked when he spoke again: “Will he love her?”

The old woman fixed him with a beady black eye, her brow lowered in a stern frown. “Is that really how you would like to waste your last question?”

Patroclus bit back the stubborn “Yes” he was about to spit out. On one hand, the desire to know was such that he could feel it burning him. On the other, perhaps he would be better off without such information. Caught in the limbo of his ambivalence he hesitated, and the old woman looked at him disdainfully.

“I will tell you to save you from stupidity,” she snapped. “I see two wives in Achilles’ future. Both daughters of kings, yet one will be a slave. You will love the pauper more but it is she you should fear. That is all I will say. Now, ask your final question and make it worthy.”

Patroclus had opened his mouth to argue, demanding for her to speak more of Achilles’ future bride but judging by the look on her face he thought better of it. Instead, he asked the question that had been plaguing him since the old woman had first spoken to him, the question that had prompted his return into the forest and the shade of Hekate’s statue.

“You said the Gods had plans for me,” he said, steeling himself. “What are they?”

The old woman cracked her thin smile, showing few and loosened teeth and beckoned to Patroclus with a crook of her finger. “Come by the fire.”

Patroclus moved warily forward. The fire was burning brighter than ever, climbing so high he half feared it would catch a tree branch. The old woman reached once again inside the folds of her robe and withdrew a leather pouch. From it, she scattered sharp-smelling, pungent herbs into the flames, murmuring words in a language Patroclus did not know as she did so. Half her face was lit by the bright orange light, the other half cloaked in shadow and Patroclus remembered a story his mother had told him of the Old Crone, the wisest and darkest of all the Goddess’ Aspects.

Suddenly she looked up and it seemed a very different face was before him than the one he had seen moments ago. “Look into the flames,” she said.

Patroclus obeyed, squinting past the smoke that stung and watered his eyes. For several moments he could see nothing, then as he stared for longer figures began to emerge, flooding his brain with images as clear as a water’s reflection. A young, dark boy, sitting on a throne with the coronet of state upon his head. A tremendous city, glittering with marble and quartz, its coffers so overflowing with gold that it flooded the streets. And finally, a warrior atop a magnificent horse, sunlight bouncing off his shining armour so that he seemed to be Apollo himself with his spear in hand. Behind him, a vast host of nations, thundering across an open plain.

The visions faded, as if blown away by a gust of wind and Patroclus opened his eyes. The fire had gone out, he could see a few curled and blackened leaves smouldering weakly within a ring of scorched earth. He felt unnaturally cold and his previous dizziness had returned; he put out a hand to steady himself as the world came steadily back into focus.

“What was that?” he gasped once his breath had returned.

“Your future,” the priestess replied, poking the ashy remains with a grim look. “Should you wish to accept it.”

“You mean to say,” he sputtered, wiping his smoke streaming eyes. “That king…the man on the horse…that was me?”

The old woman said nothing but continued to poke idly at the smothered embers. Patroclus waited with increasing impatience, his heart thundering against his ribcage as the hooves in his head had done, just moments ago. After what seemed like an age the old woman turned away from the ashes and, with a heavy sigh, turned her gaze gravely back on Patroclus.

“In a few months from now Achilles will be offered a choice which will change the entire course of history,” she told him bluntly. “The outcome of this decision will be echoed in time until the end of days. It is this choice that everything until now has come down to, and the path he decides will be the scale upon which his chance at immortality rests. However, what the bards will not sing is that with this decision you also are granted a choice.”

She paused, as if waiting for Patroclus to interject. Patroclus however, struck dumb by awe, could do nothing but listen as if his very life depended on what she would say. The old woman breathed deeply and continued.

“Achilles’ path, should he so choose it, will take him far away,” she went on. “If you go with him you will be remembered only as his companion. Your name shall be known throughout history only as an accompaniment to his. You will walk ever more behind the sun, forever in his shadow. But, should you stay, you will become a great king of legend, such as Arcadia has never known and shall not again for a thousand years.”

Patroclus felt his mouth drop open and he searched the woman’s face for signs of jest. There were none. He cleared his throat in an attempt to find his voice, however when he spoke it was shaky and thin. “But how can that be,” he managed. “For I am disowned. I have no land, no rights to entitlement. How could I ever be king?”

It seemed to him there was a look of pity in the woman’s eye and her voice was condescending when she spoke again. “You are still your father’s oldest son,” she said, as if explaining matters to a five year old. “A stronger claim than many who have ever seized kingship.”

Patroclus just stared dumbly, unable to believe what he was hearing. He had not thought of his father or homeland properly in over a year. The idea that he still belonged to both was incomprehensible. And this woman was suggesting that he, Patroclus, could be king? He briefly imagined himself sitting on a throne and ruling a nation, sceptre in hand, and shook his head. The thought was beyond ridiculous.

“You’re lying,” he stated as the only possible explanation.

The old woman sent him a withering look, filled with contempt. “Doubt me if you will, son of Menoetius,” she said before gesturing towards the statue of Hekate. “Only do not doubt the Gods, for it may just be the last thing you ever do. I tell you now, the Gods have great things in store for you, should you accept them. And remember: those who give are rarely slower to take away.”

Patroclus did not stay to form a response. He turned on his heel and marched out of the clearing without another word, his footsteps suddenly charged with a furious desire to leave this place and forget; forget the old woman and everything he had just heard. He felt angry with himself, furious that he had been weak enough to succumb to his curiosity and listened to what the old witch had to say, even believed it. He tore through the forest, snapping branches and breaking bowers in his wake as he set to put as much distance between himself and the Hekate shrine as he could.

Achilles did not stir when Patroclus re-entered the tent and crashed back in beside him. Patroclus, yanking the blankets around himself viciously, envied him. He knew full well there would be no more sleep for him tonight.

oOo

Achilles was up the second rosy-fingered Dawn had so much had stretched her back and was tearing outside to do his push-ups. Patroclus pretended to be asleep as he clattered round the tent, yelling orders over his shoulder for armour and weapons and supplies. From the moment that he had come back from the forest he had not managed a single five minutes of sleep. This annoyed him as, quite aside from making him tired and irritable before the battle, he was unable to convince himself that the night’s misadventures had been a dream.

Outside he could hear others rising slowly from their tents, yawning, wiping away sleepy dust and scratching at their groins before beginning the business of war. Patroclus turned and burrowed his face in the furs and blankets. After everything he had just experienced, he had almost forgotten they would be fighting Thessaly with the morning, bringing a new wave of anxieties crashing with it. What with everything going on, he had barely given himself a chance to consider the realities of what the day would bring. Now, laying flatly on his stomach he groaned, and wished he were a stone.

“My sunshine!” Achilles crowed, bursting through the tent flap. “My sweetheart! My little golden honey cake of fortune!”

“Get out,” Patroclus croaked as Achilles removed the covers from Patroclus and replaced them with his body. “Get the–fucking hell! Get off me, you fat bastard!”

Achilles pouted. “Unkind,” he said, rolling off him. “Get up. I need you to help me put on my armour.”

“Why don’t you do it yourself?” Patroclus scowled, sitting up and massaging his ribs. “I’m not your squire.”

“No,” Achilles rolled his eyes, grabbing his greaves and helmet from the corner. “But you are my hetairoi, and this is like, one of your special sacred duties and shit. So on your feet soldier, and lace me up.”

Still grumbling darkly to himself, Patroclus reluctantly got to his feet and walked over to where Achilles was standing, holding out his armour expectantly. On first glance, and particularly in Patroclus’ fuddled morning state, it was difficult to see where the chest guard ended and Achilles began. His skin shone golden against the inlay of the metal, smooth and perfectly fitted to the muscles of the torso and breast plate. Patroclus pulled the leather straps tightly through the buckles, making sure it was secure. A patch of neck shone through just above the collar bone and he could not restrain himself from planting a kiss on the shining, supple skin.

“Why are you so beautiful,” he groaned, dropping his forehead into the crook of his neck. “It’s not fair.”

He could sense Achilles’ grin behind the shield of his braided hair. “Envious?”

“Jealous,” Patroclus murmured against his skin. He breathed in Achilles’ scent; leather and bronze and armour polish. “I’m jealous of anyone who gets close to you.”

“You’ll have plenty of chance to act on it then.”

“Don’t let anyone spill your blood,” said Patroclus. “It belongs to me.”

Achilles chuckled and Patroclus dropped to his knees, fitting his greaves to his shins. His knuckles brushed against the back of Achilles’ calf; as he pulled the leather through, Achilles placed his hand on his head, carding his fingers through the dark locks. Patroclus breathed deeply, letting his forehead fall against the cold metal of Achilles’ thighs. Achilles stroked his hair, fingers closing around the curls at the nape of his neck.

“Are you alright?” he asked softly, thumb pads brushing against his neck.

“Mmhm,” Patroclus hummed back. Behind the layers of bronze he was aware of the blood pumping through Achilles’ body, blushing his skin the rosy hue it always was before a fight. He closed his eyes and tried to hear it, rushing like the tide through his veins.

The door of the tent flapped open and both Achilles and Patroclus jerked up to see Odysseus standing before them. His eyes flitted to Patroclus, bent on his knees and Achilles with a hand in his hair and an eyebrow flew up.

“Please tell me I’m not interrupting anything,” he said dryly.

“Yes you were,” chirped Achilles before Patroclus had a chance to protest. “We were having a very tender moment. What’s the problem?”

“The armies are assembled,” Odysseus replied. “Everything is prepared. The Myrmidons await your command.”

“Excellent,” said Achilles breezily, grabbing his sword and shield before following Odysseus outside. Cheeks burning, Patroclus hastily pulled on his own armour before hurrying after them.

Outside all the soldiers were stood in lines, their faces solemn and eyes, dark and intense. Achilles walked up and down the formation, inspecting them row by row. Patroclus could see the thrill of command gleaming in his eye as he looked his army up and down, his hollowed cheeks flushed with pleasure. Patroclus stood at the front with Deiomachus beside him and they marched together, limbs moving mechanically until Achilles gave the order to halt.

The rows began to split off into long, straight lines, flowing on from the Ithacan and Corinthian forces to form one unit. Patroclus and Deiomachus moved forward so that they were at the front with Achilles. As Patroclus readied Achilles’ spears he noticed Leonides who was watching the skyline nervously.

 “Look,” he said, pointing with his sword. “Over there.”

Patroclus looked. A haze of dense black smog seemed to have settled over the far end of the plain, eating up the earth and thickening by the second. It took Patroclus a few moments to understand that this was, in fact, the Thessalian army, although the revelation did very little to assuage his nerves.

The hoard was massive, at least three times the size of the force they had sent to the citadel. As they drew nearer he noticed, rising out of the sea of spears and helmets, an enormous chariot crafted from black metal, emerging from the swarm like the head of a monstrous wolf. Inside it Nekros was standing, clad head to toe in black armour bedecked with rubies, giving him the look of a huge, bleeding scorpion. He swallowed.

“I have a feeling this one is going to be very different from the days of the old home defence,” Deiomachus observed, settling his shield safely against the wooden cavity.

Patroclus snorted, trying to disguise the fear that was currently paralysing his limbs. “By ‘the old home defence’ I assume you mean the one battle any of us have fought before?”

Deiomachus shrugged. “So shoot me,” he said. “I’m feeling nostalgic.”

Suddenly, absurdly, he began to laugh. Achilles, Patroclus and Leonides all turned to stare at him as he doubled over, leaning on his spear for support. “What the hell is so funny?”

“I was just thinking about that time,” Deiomachus chuckled, shifting his helmet to wipe a tear from his eye. “You know, when someone drew a dick on your tunic.”

Patroclus stared in disbelief as Deiomachus continued to rock with amusement. “Mynax,” he hissed. “Mynax drew a dick on my tunic. And in case you haven’t noticed, his vengeful father is standing right there, ready to add another skin to his cloak.”

Mynax,” Deiomachus repeated, clutching his diaphragm and taking deep breaths. “Mental. Absolutely classic. Ah Gods. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we Patroclus?”

He reached out to clasp Patroclus’ shoulder and Patroclus, perplexed but filled with a rush of sudden fondness, echoed the action and grasped his arm.

After that it was as if a silence swept over the plain, broken only by the wind and the caws of buzzards overheard, circling as if in expectation. To Patroclus it seemed like the world was holding its breath, like the gasp before the dive that takes you under. He glanced along the front line, a hazy flash of quivering bronze within the sharp, angular cut of helmets and spear shafts. Faces beneath the shadow of metal brows, stern and set and preparing for death. Or glory, Patroclus reminded himself, and felt his stomach swim.

Finally, General Acastus led the cry and it was echoed all along the lines; Achilles and Patroclus raised their swords, the sharp points piercing the sky and bellowed their defiance.

To war.

The Thessalians broke the charge. The second their front line began to sprint the Corinthians moved to meet them, shooting off across the plain like the crack of a whip with their swords held aloft. Achilles gave the command and the Myrmidons filled the gap they had left, crouching low, spears poised in anticipation. Behind them the Ithacans formed the final line of the formation, arrows quivering against the drawn bow strings.

The Thessalians and Corinthians came together in a mighty clash, however it was so much of a blur it was difficult for Patroclus to see what had happened. The moment the forces came together Achilles gave the signal and the Myrmidons threw their spears. Patroclus handed Achilles the javelins and held his breath as he launched the weapon with a dancer’s grace; it went whistling through the air and caught a Thessalian straight between the eyes.  Patroclus saw Deiomachus’ and Leonides’ own eyes widen.

“Fuck me,” Deiomachus swore. “With a throw like that you could have hit Nekros!”

Achilles shook his head. “Too early in the day,” he shrugged. “Let’s give the poor man a chance.”

It soon proved that the Thessalians, however, were not a side to command a head-start. Within minutes they had broken apart the Corinthian unit and Thoas’ forces were drawn into one-on-one fighting as a stream of Thessalians broke across the plain, tearing towards the Myrmidons. In that moment, seeing those men with blood in their beards and fire burning in their eyes, ripping towards them like a pack of ravenous wolves Patroclus had a sudden urge to flee.

The instinct was drowned out by Achilles’ shout. “SHIELD WALL!”

There was no time to think; Patroclus brought down his shield and within seconds the full weight of the charging Thessalians came hurtling against him, smashing with the sheer force of a tidal wave against rock. Massive pieces of wood came flying off into the air as several shields splintered; Patroclus felt his heels slip backwards and bent his knees, digging into the dirt to regain his balance. On his right he saw Achilles, looking remarkably calm behind his shield despite the fact that he currently had three men pressing in on him. With a sharp motion he slipped his sword between the gap in the shield wall, and into a Thessalian torso. Patroclus followed his example, jabbing clumsily at any part of flesh and army he could reach behind his shield. Blood was flying in his face, the weight of the army was claustrophobia as he had never known it and for a long time it seemed he had forgotten how to breathe.

A whistling noise shot through the air; Patroclus looked up to see a line of strange looking birds flying upwards before plummeting down and a number of Thessalians stumbled and fell as the Ithacan arrows hit them. Patroclus felt a surge of relief as the pressure on his diaphragm lessened, however it was short lived as another wave of Thessalians slammed into them.

“HOLD FAST,” Achilles was shouting, slicing a Thessalian across the face with his knife and sending him howling into the dirt. “STRENGTH, MYRMIDONS! STRENGTH! HOLD FAST!”

Patroclus gritted his teeth and summed up all the power he had within him. To his left Deiomachus’ face was red with the strain of holding up his shield and a vein was pounding in his neck. Patroclus saw space and with a tremendous effort moved forward. As the rest of the front line did the same, Patroclus felt a thrill of glee when he saw the man in front of him sliding backwards. They were gaining ground.

Patroclus had heard tales of the Myrmidon’s, “ant men”, strength long before he had come to Phthia but he had never truly appreciated it until this moment. The Myrmidons held fast and then pressed until, with one almighty haul, they threw the Thessalians off. And then, all hell broke loose.

In the time that it takes to blink, a Thessalian was swinging towards him with a weapon that looked more like a butcher’s cleaver than a sword. Patroclus raised his shield automatically; the point lodged and stuck. The Thessalian huffed, grasping the hilt with both hands to try and heave it out. Seeing his advantage, Patroclus swung his sword into the man’s side. The Thessalian let out a cry, his hands flying to his ribcage. Patroclus thrust again, striking the man in the throat and he collapsed, blood shooting from the cavity in ribbons.

He looked around, panting. Leonides was hamming down on a small, slight, man and Achilles was dancing circles around three men simultaneously. Deiomachus was locked in combat with one Thessalian, but as his back turned Patroclus saw another behind him, ready to strike. Instinctively, Patroclus picked up the cleaver of the man he’d just killed and flung it. The man stumbled and fell, out cold. Patroclus raced over and finished him off just as Deiomachus killed his opponent.

“Thanks,” he panted, noticing the dead man.

“Any time,” Patroclus replied. “How many are you on?”

“Seven,” Deiomachus answered. “Caught five in the shield wall alone.”

He squinted into the distance. Achilles was standing amongst a pile of dead bodies, already scarlet from head to foot and yelling encouragement at the army. He caught Patroclus’ eye and beckoned him over. Patroclus complied, dodging arrows and swords as he sprinted towards him.

“What is it?” he asked once he had reached him.

Achilles grinned, showing bloodstained teeth and moved out the way. Behind the pile of bodies lay a wooden chariot, stripped to a single horse who was neighing pitifully.

“Achilles no,” said Patroclus.

“Achilles yes,” said Achilles. “Come on. I’ll let you drive.”

Patroclus sighed and, snatching up a handful of spears, helped Achilles push the chariot into an upright position. Patroclus clambered in, snatching the horse’s reigns and striking him on the flank with the flat of his spear. The horse gave a gut wrenching rear and broke into a gallop, sending both Achilles and Patroclus lurching against the chariot’s sides.

“Where do you want me?” Patroclus asked once he had control over the horse’s movements.

“Anywhere any time,” Achilles replied filthily.

“Specifically.”

“That hoplite regiment will do.”

Patroclus yanked on the reigns, sending them pelting towards the Thessalian elite force. Achilles grabbed a javelin and aimed it at a tall, muscular-looking man, whose inlayed armour and decorated helmet suggested a captain of some degree. This was confirmed by the surrounding soldier’s look of horror once the spear had hit its mark. The man’s knees had barely bit the dust before Achilles was reaching out again.

“Another.”

Patroclus passed him another javelin and Achilles flung it, spearing three Thessalians where they stood so that they looked like the Anatolian delicacy Leptine was so partial to. They carried on in this manner, Achilles taking down soldier after soldier while Patroclus concentrated on manoeuvring the chariot and avoiding the upsurge of spears that were being flung in his direction. Soon they had carved a neat path through the hoard, the wheels of the chariot defeating nearly as many as the spears, although they were still liable to need finishing off at sword point. Patroclus was just fighting off a man who had attempted to climb into the chariot when Achilles grasped his arm painfully.

“Over there!” he exclaimed, voice laced with excitement. “Nekros!”

With a crushing sense of dread, Patroclus squinted towards the man Achilles was pointing out, hoping against hope that it wasn’t him. But there could be no mistaking that scorpion shell armour, nor that look in his eye as they settled on Achilles, a look of deepest, direst loathing. Nekros saw them approach and his thin lips curled into a sneer; he hitched the reigns of his own chariot and, with a merciless whip for his warhorses, pelted towards them.

Automatically Achilles held out his palm; Patroclus pressed a spear into it and Achilles threw. Patroclus held his breath as it glided through the air, straight and true as any arrow but just as the point neared Nekros’ temple he raised his shield, throwing it off as if it were no more than a passing mosquito. He reached behind him for his own weapons and flung. Patroclus did not need Achilles’ pressing arm to tell him to duck; the shaft soared over their heads, so close that Patroclus could feel it ruffle his hair.

“Forward!” Achilles yelled and Patroclus hitched the reigns. The horses sped up, their hooves flicking massive clouds of dust and dirt into the air as they galloped towards the enormous black chariot.

As they neared Nekros Patroclus looked at Achilles. His eyes were narrowed in concentration and they seemed to be blazing, more gold than green, and Patroclus knew that he was calculating. He also knew that he was considering doing something very, very stupid.

“Don’t do it,” said Patroclus warningly. “Please. Whatever it is.”

“I can make it,” Achilles muttered, more to himself than to Patroclus. “If we just get a little more of an angle…”

The chariots were barely ten feet apart now. Patroclus could make out every one of Nekros’ pearly teeth, gritted in hatred behind his twisted black beard. He remembered what Odysseus had said he’d planned to do if he caught either of them and nausea mixed with fear in his gut. He shook his head and steeled himself. This was no time for cowardice. Achilles was chewing his bottom lip, a frown creasing his smooth skin and Patroclus understood. He was measuring the distance between the two chariots.

“No,” he said instinctively.

“Hold this,” Achilles ignored him irritably, pressing his shield into Patroclus’ arms. Nekros’ chariot was six feet away now. Patroclus watched, dumbstruck as Achilles proceeded to bounce lightly on his toes, fingers twitching slightly as he prepared to jump.

“Achilles,” Patroclus just had time to gasp before Achilles launched himself from the chariot.

It was as if time had slowed. Patroclus saw a flash of pink heel disappear from the chariot wall and suddenly Achilles was in the air, both knees bent, one leg crooked behind him, his body arched like a perfect bow. His head was flung back, revealing his beautiful throat and his arms were taut above his head holding the sword, its edge glinting in the apocalyptic sun. Nekros’ black eyes grew wide, his mouth fell open as Achilles flew in a graceful arc and Patroclus knew that in those few seconds he was not a boy at all but a God, a God of perfect light and speed.

Then Nekros raised his spear. Patroclus screamed and the God gave a very human cry of pain.

The point ripped through Achilles’ shoulder, dragging a bright scarlet line which continued long after the flesh had ended, flying like the sash of a girl’s dress into the wind. At the same time Achilles brought down his sword and made a wild slashing motion; Patroclus saw that he had aimed to bring it across Nekros’ jugular but the hit had wavered his accuracy and he sliced across the face instead. Nekros let out a tremendous howl as blood began to flow and his hands flew to his eyes. Achilles seized the advantage and plunged for his loosened breast plate, however out of calculation or plain instinct Nekros flung himself to the side and the sword fell through the air before killing Nekros’ cowering charioteer. Then, without further hesitation Nekros leapt from the chariot and began to sprint across the plain. Patroclus drew up beside Achilles as he straightened up, flinging insults at Nekros’ retreating figure.

“LOOK AT HIM RUN!” he screamed. “FIGHT BACK, YOU COWARD! FIGHT BACK!”

“Achilles, your shoulder!” Patroclus snapped.

Achilles looked down at the wound as if he had only just noticed it was there. The spear had not penetrated through to the other side, however it was still deep although there was too much blood in the way for Patroclus to see how bad it was.

“You’re bleeding,” Patroclus gabbled stupidly.

Achilles raised an eyebrow. “Did you think I ran on pure sex appeal?”

Patroclus was too stunned to answer. All his brain energy was engaged in comprehending the simple truth which he had only just now allowed himself to consider.

Achilles could bleed. And that meant he could be killed.

The sight of Achilles, gritting his teeth against the pain bought him back to earth. He ran up to Nekros’ dead charioteer and rifled through his armour until he got to his under tunic. He shredded the hem off with his knife and used it to bind Achilles’ shoulder, ignoring the impatient sighs and mutterings arising from Achilles’ need to chase Nekros into the dust. The second Patroclus tied off the bandage he had re-shouldered his shield and was just about to follow him across the plain when Calisthenes came running to meet them.

“Captain!” he waved, eyes bulging fearfully.

“What’s the matter?” asked Achilles.

“The Thessalians chased Deiomachus’ unit into the low hills. They’re trapped their and outnumbered. They need aid sir, urgently!”

Achilles’ shoulders sagged. He looked regretfully across the plain where Nekros was getting further away by the minute. Patroclus could see how badly he wanted to chase him, but on the other hand he could not leave his own men to die. Understanding, Patroclus put a hand on his arm.

“Go after him,” he told him. “I’ll go back with Calisthenes and get help to rescue the others.”

Achilles looked at him with an expression of mixed gratitude and reluctance. “I don’t want you going off on your own,” he said.

Patroclus suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. “I’ll be fine,” he told him firmly. “Anyway, we’ll all be a lot safer with Nekros dead. Go now, before he gets away.”

Achilles allowed another moment for a brush of worry to flit across his face before nodding and leaping out of the chariot. Patroclus watched him run, his legs covering more ground than it was possible for any other man until he was consumed by the cloud of dust left in his wake. Then he turned and sprinted with Calisthenes across the battlefield and towards the cover of the hills where the Myrmidon soldiers had been trapped. As he ran he passed Odysseus who was locked in battle with an enormous man nearly twice his own size. The warrior was red faced and shiny with frustration, for every time he swung his ham-like fists Odysseus merely sidestepped and cut him with a sneaky strike of his long knife.

“Hello Patroclus,” Odysseus sang as the massive Thessalian, made clumsy with exhaustion, went for a hit that left his whole left side exposed, allowing Odysseus to fell him with one final blow. “In a hurry?”

“Some of our men need help,” Patroclus called back. “The Thessalians have them cornered.”

Odysseus nodded, wiped the sweat off his forehead and gestured to some of his men. “Eustor, Karpos, with me. Lead the way Patroclus.”

Once they’d reached the hills they followed the sound of clashing blades until they discovered the trapped soldiers. The Thessalians had them completely at their mercy and the looks on the Myrmidon faces were those of men who were ready to go down fighting. They were replaced, however, by expressions of pure euphoric joy at the sight of Patroclus, Odysseus and his men rushing to their aid. Deiomachus let out a whoop as Patroclus ran up behind a Thessalian and brought his sword quickly across his throat.

“That makes the second time I’ve saved your skin today,” he informed him, helping Deiomachus to his feet.

Deiomachus grinned amiably. “I think it’s about time I returned the favour,” he replied. “Whoopsidaisy.”

He stuck his foot out at a passing soldier rushing towards them, sending him sprawling into the dirt. Patroclus and Deiomachus sunk their swords into him simultaneously before turning to help Odysseus who was currently facing three men. At the sight of Patroclus one of them spun to face him, aiming for his Adam’s apple. Patroclus parried the sword with his own and hit the man in the stomach with his shield. He doubled over but recovered quickly, blocking Patroclus’ blow before it struck. His next swing caught Patroclus on the calf, drawing blood but leaving his neck exposed. Patroclus drew his word down, slicing sharply and the man collapsed at his feet.

Beside him, Deiomachus was plunging a spear into the body of his own opponent. “Twenty,” he announced with a grin.

Patroclus looked at him, scandalised. “Like hell you’re on twenty.”

Deiomachus shrugged and blocked a blow from an engaging soldier as Patroclus lurched forward and shoved him with his shield. The man staggered back, dazed and disorientated and both Deiomachus and Patroclus stuck their swords in his chest.

“Twenty-one,” sang Deiomachus. “We make a good team.”

“Let’s not bang out the harp yet,” Patroclus retorted through gritted teeth. “Look.