Authors Note - Hi all! Sorry, it's been a while. You know how it is, life just gets on top of you sometimes. I did not forget about Phile and Hector however, far from it! So here you have it, Chapter 12. I can't promise Chapter 13 (unlucky for some!) won't take as long but I am hoping not! Anyway, as always, hope you enjoy (and don't be shy, hope you review!) x
Dinner was certainly an assault to the senses: the Great Hall was packed with all manner of people and although the King himself was present, it was the opposite of the decorous event I had expected.
There were drums and singing battling against many rowdy, loud voices and raucous laughter; the festive cacophony seemed to rise towards the ceiling faster than the charcoal smoke from the fire pit at the back of the room. The largest boar I had ever seen was being slowly turned on a spit over the flames there, it was so huge in fact that it's blackening tusks were almost as long as my forearms. Three or four shaggy hounds sat patiently and eagerly nearby, at a surprisingly calculated distance, especially to avoid any physical reproach for being a nuisance from the servant who worked the wheel of the spit. That poor man was already being harassed enough by the guests, impatient for some delicious pork and indeed, the roasting beast did look and smell magnificent. The hounds were clearly hoping to be thrown a juicy bone when the meat was finally served, or at least to snatch up anything that may be dropped to the floor. The impatient revellers were not so reserved – or as clever – as the hounds. The infuriated servant despondently had to resort to warning jabs of the hot fire poker to deter their stealing hands. Woe betided him if anyone but the King had first taste.
Meanwhile, steaming platters of freshly-roasted whole birds, baked bread and spiced fruits were brought to the tables in endless streams. Many greedy mouths, moistened with plentifully flowing wine and beer, made short work of anything that was brought forth, even the sweetbreads (seen as a delicacy, although they had always turned my stomach; I was never one in favour of consuming offal).
If it seems to you that I was very suddenly remarkably relaxed in a room full of strangers in my extraordinary new home, then you are perceptive.
The only way I could explain the change in me was that I could slowly feel my tenacity return much like a twig, after being forced to endure the harshest of winters, would finally begin to produce budded leaves in the first thaw of spring.
Before I had left my quarters that night, all trussed up in the red robe and collar, Korina had given me a large goblet of strong wine that she simply insisted I gulp down rather than sup. I did not question her logic then - or when she told me in no uncertain terms that I was Hetaerae to the Prince now, and a beautiful, bright young thing at that. She said I must conduct myself in a manner that was befitting not just to Hector but I must also be true to myself.
Something about her encouraging advice added fuel to a flame just barely smouldering in my belly. As Korina had diligently washed away my blood and tears before sliding the draping crimson robes over my bare shoulders, she essentially transformed me from frightened little girl into a striking young lady. Even though I had worn those robes before, that was the first time I felt empowered, even desirable. I was truly a woman, my precious virginity claimed by Hector, the handsome Crown Prince of Troy. Although technically, that moment had been brief, I belonged to him – and I was not resigned to this, more electrified by it. I ran my hands down my body, smoothing the robe from the sides of my full breasts to the deep curve of my waist, out to my wide hips and then to my rounded bottom, wondering how those dark eyes truly viewed me. Perhaps the wine was taking effect as a prickly stirring; a strange kind of thrill seemed to climb from my loins and up my spine as I thought of Hector. I actually felt some excited anticipation about seeing him at the banquet. I hoped he would notice me. Perhaps if I showed some confidence, he may not feel so terrible about me, or what had happened that night in my chamber I reasoned. Hector had mentioned that he liked my strong will. I could recall the delicious seduction in his voice as he told me that, how I had shivered when he touched my face before he leant over to kiss me. The taste of him was still vivid, the memory of the way he captured my quivering bottom lip masterfully in between his own made me instinctively touch my mouth there with my fingers, trying –and failing – to recreate the sensation. I considered that perhaps I may never be kissed by him again, a notion that made me rather glum.
I had started to feel rather ashamed that since our acquaintance, I had been nothing but the quintessential damsel in distress – fainting, crying, trembling, weak, nervous and forlorn. Father would have been disappointed. My dogged determination decided that if Hector ever gave me the opportunity, he would finally see some self-assurance from me, if only for my own dignity.
Oh yes, my stubborn nature grasped at these ideas with both hands. With new clarity, as I walked alone to the Great Hall, any steps I took were naturally without a timid gait. Indeed, it was a physical challenge to do anything but to hold my head up high, keep my back straight and slink in the crimson robe and collar uniform.
It was not difficult to find my place at the right table in the Hall despite the rabble previously described. The other Hetaerae stood out a mile, an island of crimson in a tumultuous sea of joyful excess. I quietly slid into my waiting seat at the table going largely unnoticed, or so I had assumed.
The other Hetaerae were engrossed in some sort of gaggle of excited conversation. They appeared to lean away from me in varying degrees towards the other end of the table, around one woman in particular, like a group of cheeping chicks gathering around a clucking mother hen. The woman looked at least twenty years older than me judging by her cold, hooded eyes and brittle looking skin. If I were to be unkind (and unsisterly) I suppose I would have called her a 'faded beauty', although something about her haughty and self-assured countenance told me I should definitely not say this to her face anytime soon.
I tore a hunk of bread from the still-warm loaf in front of me and bought it to my empty plate, gingerly picking at it as I looked around myself in awe. Unlike the symposium on my joining night, the Hall was filled with more formal benches and chairs, although they were dotted around in a shambles. It looked to me as if they had begun the night in structured manner with avenues to allow for easy access, although now some tables had been evidently pushed together to accommodate larger groups and benches and chairs had been shuffled; many guests did not sit, they simply milled about from table to table, forcing the poor servants in attendance to appear more like acrobatic performers as they were dutifully obliged to dodge obstacles whilst balancing platter and jugs. The often and emphatic clunk of cups on wood began as the music paused.
The head hen then stopped her secretive blathering and narrowed her eyes at me, finally noting my presence:
"Ah ... Phenie is it?" she enquired haughtily across the table. The others turned to stare at me.
"Phi-LE." I corrected, over pronouncing the last syllable so there could be no continued confusion. She knew full well she had incorrectly spoken my name, I could tell by the smirk on her face that the mistake was a deliberate tool of subtle belittlement.
Korina, seemingly an expert on all the hidden nuances of all palace dynamics, had previously warned me to pay no heed to any nasty comments that would be fired in my direction. "And there will be," she had assured me "as the Hetaerae are known to be a formidable pack of vixens when brought together, quarrelling over incidentals and such. Do not be trapped by their tricks; do not be dragged down to their lowly level. You are better than that!"
Taking her advice, I smiled coolly and beatifically back at the woman and looked away from the group, determined not to lose my composure. I would not give them the twisted pleasure. My eyes were naturally drawn to the raised platform at the front of the Hall – or dais as I later learnt it was called (a way of denoting the royal family's divinity compared to the throng of commoners below, no doubt). The King, seated on that grand throne, supped leisurely from a jewelled goblet, the rings on the fingers wrapped around the stem glinting in the candle light. As he drew the fancy cup away from his face, he wiped away wine that had soaked into his silvery whiskers. How could Sophus claim that Hector was the bastard son of a barbarian? He resembled his father remarkably, despite the advanced age of the King. I could see it in his nose, they had the same strange ears and as I watched the King's mouth move when he spoke a few words to someone next to him, I could see the similarity even in their expressions. It was then I realised that the King was actually talking to his eldest son. My stomach did a little tense flip as I focussed on him. Unlike the symposia I had accompanied him to, this time he appeared much more relaxed and ebullient. He reclined comfortably in his chair-throne and listened intently to his father as he used a small, sharp knife to skilfully slice a large red apple, methodically transferring each moist sliver from fruit to mouth with the flat of the blade. He did this with great dexterity, never taking his attentions away from the King. I could not help but to stare at the scene curiously, because it seemed so distinctly ordinary.
They were interrupted when the tiniest man I had ever seen, dressed in a patchwork of bright cloth, ran from the sidings to the very front of the dais, bowing deeply with a grin before pulling out an equally tiny lyre from his robe. To the delight of all, he began to play a merry jig on his ridiculous instrument, his stumpy legs kicking out here and there in some comical attempt at a dance. He warbled some words, turning the tale of the Battle of Frogs and Mice into an amusing song.
Hector was clearly entertained by this, especially at the part where Zeus ponders on what can be done to save the frogs before tossing down one of his great thunderbolts. Hector threw back his head and laughed with unselfconscious abandon into the air, his whole body shaking in mirth. When he had composed himself, he lazily wrapped his arm around the back of the chair to his left. Seated next to him there was his wife, Princess Andromache. Like me, she seemed charmed by her husband's seemingly uncharacteristic lack of restraint. With her face turned to him - those fine cheekbones, a high brow and gentle, wise eyes – he leant over and quickly rewarded her with an affectionate (and not at all chaste) peck on the cheek. The sudden pang of jealously that I felt at seeing that surprised and disgusted me all at the same time. I ignored it, locked it away deep within. I was Hector's - yet he was not mine. I was well aware of that fact from the day he had chosen me. So why did that kiss bother me so much?
Then, as if he could somehow sense my eyes on him, Hector looked directly at me. He appraised me quietly and quickly. He seemed gratified in what he saw as his mouth pulled into that same private and tiny smile he flashed to me after I had fainted. He lifted his goblet to me slightly with a nod in my direction to greet me. Although this moment only took place over a few seconds, I felt my insides liquefy and fall away most pleasantly indeed. I returned his smile, flustered by those unsettling eyes and looked away bashfully, feeling a blush break to the surface of my cheeks.
"So ... Phil-LE. The Prince could not defy custom any longer! Here you are, even though he did not want you." Mother hen suddenly crowed, apparently at me, with vitriol from her spot across the table.
This nasty comment had the desired affect it seemed as it turned my dreamy smile into a confused frown as my insides hardened. Mother hen smirked again as she turned back to her conversation to the adoring chick sat to her left.
One of the chicks next to me had leant over and whispered conspiratorially as soon as Mother Hen's attentions were turned elsewhere. I looked to the girl's face, searching for an explanation, wary that I should not trust anyone currently sat on my table. This girl was young, three or so years more than me, certainly. She was still just a child really. She had a round face and jet black hair that tumbled from her clipped bun in unruly tight curls. Her eyes were small yet bright and her mouth was smiling and relaxed, certainly not gathered in guardedly like the others.
"She is just jealous ..." the girl continued with a nonchalant shrug: "you are younger, more beautiful ... And her Kyrios never acknowledges her in public."
Oh. I had been so engrossed in watching the goings-on at the front of the hall; I had not even considered others may have seen Hector's gesture towards me. I deduced then that it was not the usual protocol.
"Who is her Kyrios?" I wondered out loud, although the girl was more than willing to answer for me.
"Her name is Acantha. She is one of the King's Hetaerae."
Ah. That explained the mother hen act, the haughty countenance. Because she belonged to the King, she thought the rest of us were beneath her! Wait! She was 'one' of the King's Hetaerae? Where were his others? I put this query to the girl and she answered, matter-of-factly:
"She is the only one left, apparently."
I visibility reeled at this information. The worst possible scenarios of Hetaerae 'disappearing' as they King grew bored flashed through my mind. The horror must have played out very well on my face as the girl giggled, immediately realising the terrible things I was imagining.
"No, nothing that harsh!" she smiled reassuringly: "From what I have been told, he had four. One died years ago, complications as she birthed one of his bastards. Another went quite mad and had to be locked away from the world for her own safety and the safety of others. The other died of natural causes – the king took his Hetaerae many, many years ago remember and sadly, time has the same effect on us all. So you see, Acantha is the only one now".
I tried to imagine growing old with Hector but for some reason, I could not picture it in my mind's eye, no matter how hard I tried.
The girl, clearly assuming she had found a new ally since we had broken the proverbial bread over some scurrilous gossip, then wasted no time in introducing herself to me. Her name was Thais, only just turned sixteen that past summer and was the Hetaerae of Hector's brother Polites. She was pleased at my arrival she said, as she had been the newest addition to the brood of hens before me. Apparently to bully and ostracise any newcomers was almost a rite of passage. She assured me she would not join them in any heckling they may direct at me, mainly as the humiliation she had suffered at their hands was all too fresh in her mind. She did not want me to endure the inevitable alone.
I was unsure whether to believe Thais, no matter how earnestly she seemed to offer me friendship. Trust had to be earned, my father always used to say. I glanced at the tapestry that resembled my father on the wall. Somehow having that image benevolently looking down on me made me feel more secure. I weighed up my options on the matter as methodically as my father would have and admittedly, there were more pros than cons. I did not want to sit and eat my evening meal in silence, self-consciously feeling the watchful gazes of Acantha and her cronies boring a hole into me. Besides, perhaps this Thais may be a useful source of information. Knowledge can be a powerful thing (again, a little saying of my father's).
However, Thais seemed happy to talk at me. I let her run her mouth off; she was young, quite enthusiastic and it meant I did not have to put much effort into any conversation, if you could call it that.
"How are you getting along with the Prince? ... Actually, it's too early to answer that, isn't it? It took a while for Polites to even speak to me ... he was more interested in my body than my brain ... how I hated our first night together! ... Mind you, that was over in a blink of an eye ... Polites did not have much staying power, if you know what I mean ... Which can be seen as a good thing I suppose ... Things are much better now ... They do get better ... Mind you the Prince seems to be fond of you already ... you may be one of those lucky pairings that do not need to learn to like each other..." she gabbled on.
Her last statement obviously struck a chord with me and I could not help but ask the one question that I had wanted to scream at the top of my lungs for the last half-an-hour. I had to muster up all my strength not to pin her to the table to force an answer out of her in fact:
"If that is the case, why did Acantha claim that Hector did not want me?"
"Oh, it's a stupid theory really ..." Thais shrugged nonchalantly then paused, wondering how much she should tell me. As she saw my eyes widen and my lips thin in darkening anticipation she did finally continue:
"Well ... A married man usually takes his Hetaerae during the first year of marriage, yes? Well, Hector has been married almost four years. No-one is really sure why it has taken him this long, although everyone - including Acantha - has their own theories ..."
"Such as?" I encouraged
"There have been some real laughable ones ... that Hector's true desires lay with his fellow men and that his wife is just a smokescreen to mask his homosexuality. Another is that Hector does not feel any desire at all because he was castrated in a battle ..."
"That is just ridiculous!" I snorted, not knowing whether to be amused or disgusted at such unfounded slander.
For a start, even just to watch Hector and Andromache together, it was obvious that his sexual appetite was firmly on the side of women. As for being castrated, I knew that first hand not to be true. I may not have seen the thing the other night but it was most certainly there.
"I know!" agreed Thais emphatically. "Acantha's theory is a little less implausible I suppose but still sounds a little far-fetched to me. She thinks Hector has only taken Hetaerae now after great pressure from his father, priests and council. She heard the Prince and King argue once about it, she says. He had resisted because he loves the Princess so much, he has the rather modern belief he should stay totally faithful to her. The thing is, his heir is yet to be born. A little arrival was expected after their first year of marriage – and now they have been married almost four. People are even saying that the Princess is barren. Acantha thinks you have been brought in to give Hector a child of royal blood. She thinks it would be taken from you soon after birth and given to the princess where she would pass the child off as her own."
Strangely I laughed. I am not sure why. At first it sounded ridiculous but the more I imagined the scenario, the more I could see that it was not that implausible, as Thais had said.
I reached for my goblet of wine sitting in front of me, previously untouched. I did not realise my hand was shaking so much. I grabbed the goblet so hard my knuckles drained of colour and quickly put it to my lips, drinking down the deep, rich liquid quickly.
Thais eyed my body language, not having any difficulty in seeing how disturbed I was by this notion.
"Do not worry." She whispered reassuringly: "As I said, they are just stupid theories. Besides, any child of Hector's you would bear would most certainly you resemble you too - and you obviously look nothing like the Princess!"
I gazed at the dais again. Princess Andromache seemed to me to be the epitome of poise and modesty. She daintily ate grapes from her plate, naturally impervious to the carousing around her. Hector's large hand reached across the table covering her long, thin fingers that where resting on the tabletop there. She wrapped them lovingly around his, a silent signal to assure him that all was well with her, a perfect gesture of the deep intimacy they clearly shared.
Yes, Thais was right – I was nothing like the Princess.
On my way back to my apartment that night, my belly was pleasingly full although my mind and legs were restless. I must have taken a wrong turn as I found myself in a strange room. It was circular in shape and large, almost cavernous. I quickly and correctly guessed that I must be in one of the four corner towers of the palace. Moonlight streamed in from the small, arched windows and tall lamps, which ringed the inside the walls and burnt brightly - so brightly in fact that it was difficult to tell how late into the night it really was. I listened to my own footsteps echo in the silence as I made my way into the centre of the room, where there sat a large, circular padded seat. I took no rest on this however when I realised the room was so bright because the light was actually reflecting from objects laid carefully out on plinths and stands around the edges of the room. My eyes widened as I took some of these grand-looking items in and understood they were relics of Troy's great military past: empty suits of armour standing proud, many huge bronze swords, giant shields and such other decorations. As I moved closer to the ones directly in front of me to gain a better look, I realised a few of the breastplates were pierced and that one or two the helmets were dented. Even some of the swords were broken. It was clear to me immediately that some of the owners of these particular pieces probably did not survive the injuries their armour suggested. Nevertheless, somebody had taken great care in cleaning, polishing and presenting them, probably as a memorial to the fallen.
I moved around the room, studying each piece. One suit of armour struck me as very strange indeed and I paused to take it in fully. It was rather ornate, the breast plate depicting a naturalistic relief of two rearing horses. It brought to mind the imagery on Priam's throne and Hector's own breastplate. This suit must have belonged to a royal, I deduced but I could not figure out how exactly, mainly as the suit was smaller than the others, however it was too big to fit a child and not slender enough to encase a woman's figure. My puzzled frown as I considered it was broken by a sudden, deep voice coming from behind me.
"It was mine, when I was a boy." It said, startling me so much I span round reflexively to discover the source. I assumed I was alone. I had been alone.
Hector was sat on the circular seat behind me, watching, his feet planted firmly on the floor as he leant forward, his forearms rested on his thighs. His fingers came together in the space between his legs, the fingers and thumbs absently toying with each other.
My innards felt like they had jumped up and were resting in my throat. How did I not even hear the sound of his footsteps? Surely they should have been louder than my own? My first impulse was that I should politely bow and retreat out of the room but as Hector's dark eyes regarded me almost expectantly, I took a deep breath to slow my racing heart and as casually as I could, approached the chair before perching myself carefully next to him.
Not wanting there to be an uncomfortable silence and still staunch in my resolution to display some confidence, I asked him at what age that suit of armour was smithied for him.
"It was my twelfth summer." He answered simply, staring blankly ahead at the bronze in question.
I was rather taken aback by this. By the size of the armour I had expected him to tell me perhaps seventeen, maybe more.
"You were big for your age!" I almost gasped.
Hector smiled for a moment at my comment. As he still considered the armour his face soon became blank again. I wondered what he was thinking but did not enquire further; I felt it was not my place. However, Hector did not keep me in suspense:
"I wore that suit in my first battle; the very day I took life for the first time."
Perhaps it was the slight tinge of sorrow that quickly flashed across those dark, usually unfathomable eyes; perhaps it was the oddly monotone sound of his voice but I suddenly felt a great sadness for him. I imagined him, a naive yet eager young boy, wanting to prove himself and needing to please his father. I knew little of battle as my father did not describe it to me. This was not a matter of indifference on his part, more a matter of protection. The horrors of war, heard in tales or experienced first-hand, were not for the ears or eyes of children. I understood that well enough.
"Were you scared?" I blurted tactlessly.
Hector's mouth did again twist into a small smile for a moment so at least he did not seem offended that I would ask something so brazen.
I found it telling he did not answer me directly. He proceeded to reel off a strangely official-sounding statement, as if it was the same, vague story he had been telling people for years.
"My father was very proud." Hector continued, looking at me this time. His face performed that now familiar act where his mouth smiled but his eyes did not. I was not fooled. "He said it was the day I became a man."
I lowered my eyes from him, not knowing what to say. I stared at the light, buffed floor watching the flame from a lamp flicker and dance there in hazy reflection. Hector silently rose from his seat, yet my eyes did not follow his path, too fearful was I that he was abruptly taking his leave from me. However, after a matter of moments he returned. He stood before me, holding something rounded and shiny carefully in his hands. I only looked up when he offered the object to me.
It was a bronze helmet, the same as all the others I had seen Hector's men wearing: domed with long nose and cheek guards. I clearly wrinkled my nose in confusion before Hector finally explained:
"It belonged to your father."
I did not hesitate in taking the helmet from him. Fascinated and so very pleased all at the same time, I turned it round in my hands, studying it carefully and smoothing the metal with my fingertips. I hoped I could feel his energy remaining, conducting through the bronze. I was sure I could. How happy it made me feel.
"I am sorry the helmet was not returned to your mother with the rest of your father's armour." Hector said suddenly. I had been so engrossed in the helmet; I had forgotten he was there, still standing before me.
I looked up to him and was pleasantly surprised to find he was smiling too, with both eyes and mouth. It did not register with me until long afterwards that it had pleased him to make me smile.
"Father would have wanted you to have something of his, to remember him by too." I explained truthfully.
I was not upset he had kept it. I was glad he had. Sophus had pawned my father's armour for it's worth in bronze; it would have been smelted down soon afterwards so that helmet was the only thing left – and it had obviously been cared for, seen worthy enough to be kept in that room.
I held it aloft and it handed it back to Hector. He took it and thoughtfully held it up to his face, staring through where a face would have stared back, regarding it almost as if it was my father.
"Have you ever worn it?"
"No. I have not had the heart to." He answered simply as he walked to the helmet's home plinth, placing it back carefully. "Besides," he continued: "Erymas must have had a sizeable skull to house that large brain of his, I fear my own head cannot fill it adequately!" he added with a grin.
I sniggered a little, surprised by Hector's sudden playfulness. Before I knew it, he was standing there before me again, holding his hand out to me.
"Come." He said. "I have something else to show you."
PS - You can read the Tale of Frogs and Mice here: