Author's note: Hello everyone and Happy New Year! Yeaaaahhh, well this Chapter did take me ages, sorry about that. My writing mojo left me for a bit but it appears to have come back. Not sure if this Chapter is any good (or makes much sense!), again I have no proof reader, beta or anything like that. Hope you enjoy and please do review, they do keep me going!
As I sat at a long table situated in the very centre of the room, I closed the heavy and worn leather folder that had lay open in front of me a bit of a start. This sudden movement caused a cloud of dust to rise from the crumbling document the folder contained right up into my face and I sneezed quite expectedly as a result. By this time I had already grown used to – even fond of – the unique odour of decaying parchment, flaking inks and old leather. However, I was not so much a fan of how filthy spending a day there made my hands and fingernails as I handled such things. I tried to ignore a sudden itch that niggled the crease of my nose, as to tend to it with my fingers would have caused a dark smear across my face. I wiggled my nose in desperation to try to rid myself of the infuriating sensation, which only caused me to sneeze again.
There was no echo of my sternutation as the walls around me were tightly packed with row upon row of shelves containing bundles, more folders and piles of parchment, pretty much from floor to ceiling which absorbed the noise. These ledges practically creaked under the weight of all the written records, stories, prayers and spells, histories, poetry and wisdom they held.
Perhaps there were not many inquisitive minds or ardent readers at the Palace, I considered dolefully; for I was the only soul in that room, the grand records vault of the palace. Actually, I stand corrected – I was the only conscious soul in that room, it would be very unfair for me not to also count the Librarian, an elderly man named Nereus. He was possibly the oldest person I had ever known, so wizened and bent he resembled a gnarled tree branch.
Although Nereus had never spoken a word to me (I am not sure that he was able), he was very sweet: he was all toothless smiles and compliant nods; he fetched me water when he thought I was thirsty; when I enquired on a subject I wanted to read about, he was surprisingly rapid in locating the source. I found it marvellous that he knew exactly where everything was, as the clutter of documents did not appear to have been filed in any sort of obvious system to my mind. Still, whatever I asked, Nereus was quick to point a bony finger at a shelf, or to fetch me piles of relevant papers, no matter how obscure my requests seemed - and to my surprise, he would even enthusiastically ascend a rickety-looking ladder when required. Mindful of his advanced age and slow hobble, I offered to do this myself but Nereus would not hear of it, always humbly dismissing my help with a gentle shake of his head, combined with that cheery, toothless smile.
After my sneezing fit, I looked over to where Nereus sat near to the large entrance to the records vault. He had fallen asleep: his wrinkled eyes were closed and he was snoring softly. He was leaning back in his high-backed chair slightly, the hand resting on the heavy desk before him twitching as he dreamt. Not even I had disturbed him.
Just as I was considering trying to replace the tome in front of me back on the shelf myself so as not to bother Nereus in his slumber, a lightning-fast brownish blur followed by whoosh of air came close to my head. It startled me and I instinctively ducked. With my head still bowed close to the table, I caught sight of a small speckled downy feather as it lightly floated its way down onto the folder before me. Ah. Bo had just arrived.
Bo was an eagle owl who usually lived on a wooden perch near Nereus' desk, although he was allowed to come and go as he pleased. Bo must have just flown in via one of the high windows after having been out hunting for his dinner, no doubt. I wondered how many rabbits he could swoop on and snatch in a night, he was certainly large enough to easily take on such a task, with his massive talons, sharp black beak and large eyes that glowed alarmingly orange.
I was fascinated and fearful of Bo all at the same time. I would not describe him as a pet, a wild animal now tamed; to me Bo simply tolerated us ridiculous humans. I had once heard that Athena had a companion owl which revealed unseen truths to her: an advantage for a goddess perhaps – but what of a mere mortal, like myself? There were many truths I was certain I did not want to be aware of. Granted, they had tormented me on my first night at the palace and they brought with them nothing but suspicion and nightmares. I now tried not to let any questions play on my mind in the fear that the fruitless pursuit of any answers – or the actual answers themselves - would send me quite mad. Then what would become of me? Locked away and forgotten in some far tower like the King's Hetaerae that Thais gossiped about?
I supposed I was not far off being abandoned in a tower right at that moment – I was sat in a tower alone and feeling slightly forgotten after all. Please do not assume that the records vault was so named as it was situated in some underground, windowless room, for that is not that case. It was referred to as a 'vault' due it's the impressive architecture of a high, arched ceiling. In fact, its location lay directly above the memorial armoury in one of the palace towers.
The first time I had been there, it had been too dark to even see the laden shelves let alone the grand décor but now I fully appreciated the beautiful reaching struts that supported and formed the roof. At every crossing point, there was carved a stone face that stared down at me. Some were female and benevolent, some were very masculine and fierce and the worst were cartoonishly grotesque. The decorated plaster on the ceiling was faded although I could still make out a geometric blue star pattern that had been painstakingly painted up there long ago.
I wondered if this depiction of the night's sky made our resident owl more comfortable. I looked to Bo as he nonchalantly arranged the feathers on his broad wings whilst he got comfortable on his perch. With the black-brown ear tufts sprouting from his head resembling horns, Bo stopped and regarded me not nearly as angrily as usual, before blinking and resuming settling down for a day's rest. Even the bright sunlight streaming in from the high windows did not seem to bother him.
Yes, it was only daytime – morning in fact - but I felt as if I had been up for hours. Over the past few days, I had hoped and waited for sleep to come but it had been elusive. I sighed to myself. The waiting frustrated me; Hector frustrated me. It had been nearly a week since I had seen him and dispirited by this, I was fast beginning to wonder if I would ever see him again.
It had been Hector who had brought me to the records vault, it was the "something else" he wanted to show me after our impromptu little meeting in the memorial armoury below. Since then, I had returned at least once a day in the hopes of seeing him there - but it had been to no avail.
That night was still fresh in my mind, mainly because as it drew on it became something altogether quite bizarre. To begin with however, that evening had started out comfortably enough - perhaps really that was strange in itself.
Hector had silently led me by the hand out of the memorial armoury to a narrow set of winding stone stairs which climbed up to the records vault, although at the time I had no idea about where he was taking me. I did not know the Palace well enough to speculate and he did not once give me a clue. He had meant it to be some sort of surprise, I suppose. I remember that I felt quite nervous as we ascended those stairs; I was not as sure footed as he was, it was an unfamiliar place and the lamp flames caused strange black moving shadows in the stairwell which could have easily tricked the eye.
Despite this, I found it fascinating how the dimness and the claustrophobic dimensions of the staircase made other senses other than my sight become more acute. I could smell the mustiness of the vault already yet at that time it was a strange and alien odour to me. I became very aware of Hector's hand holding mine, it was very warm; I could feel callouses across the top of his palm and a strong heart beat reverberating through his large thumb. I knew it was only his grasp that would stop me from tumbling on the uneven stairs which each seemed to have a dip in the middle, worn by hundreds of pairs of feet over hundreds of years most likely. What he wanted to show me was a mystery indeed but never once did I question our path, never once did my trust in him falter.
Finally safely to the top stair, Hector let go of my hand and took a lamp from its holder on the wall as the room before us was totally in darkness. Sadly, the small torch only really illuminated a small, dim pool of light directly around us. Hector turned to look at my face expectantly but enveloped in the shadows that the evening brought, wherever we were seemed like a cave to me. It was terribly humid and the musty smell in the risen heat was almost overpowering. I wrinkled my nose in reaction and frowned in my bafflement. This seemed to frustrate Hector. He exhaled heavily, his broad shoulders hunching, his eyes darkening.
"You can read - YES?" he asked gruff and suddenly impatient. He was not looking at me now, he was running a hand through his curls and looking at the ceiling in slight exasperation – I only later considered that he might have been a little embarrassed by just how distinctly underwhelmed I was, clearly not the expected or intended reaction.
This was the rudest that Hector had ever been to me in our short period of acquaintance. I did not know whether to be outraged or upset. I just stood there, my eyebrows raised in disbelief, wondering how and why his benign temperament had changed so swiftly.
Perhaps the look on my face made Hector realised how curt he had just been towards me as his shoulders softened slightly. Perhaps he realised he had not explained himself very eloquently – or that I was not astute as he had perhaps given me credit for.
"Erymas once told me that he had taught you how to read and write." Hector said much less harshly, although his eyes still had a keen urgency about them.
"Yes." I almost whispered with an affirmative nod, still a little upset and wondering where he was going with this strange line of questioning.
"I suppose you cannot see much of it at the moment as it is too dark but this is the records vault of the palace. If you take enjoyment from reading, I thought you may like to spend some time here. Granted there are some incredibly boring documents on the shelves … trade agreements with the Hittites for instance … those are the ones I unfortunately mainly deal with … although there is some poetry, stories, legends … that sort of thing … if you look hard enough." He rambled, his pupils widening as his gaze projected out into the in the shaded room.
I was bewildered. I had indeed enjoyed reading, although it had been some time since I had indulged. After father's death I was listless in my enthusiasm and lately, with all the drama with Sophus, I had not been inclined. Still, reading is not something one can unlearn, I suppose. I was flustered into silence and slightly unnerved at Hector's perceptiveness. How could he even remember such things my father must have told him years ago, in passing? Knowing that the Army Captain's young daughter was literate would have been such an insignificant titbit of information for him, after all.
Hector continued to rattle on, something that I began to find rather charming as I had always imagined and experienced him to be such a self-possessed character. Right then however, he seemed anxious: "After seeing you at the banquet tonight, I thought this might be an alternative from the norm for you … the Librarian Nereus is here during the day … he will help you find anything you want. He is rather aged, do not be alarmed. We have offered him retirement numerous times of course but he refuses to relinquish the post he loves so dearly … I do not want you to think ill of us for putting an old man to work …"
"No, of course not my Lord" I mumbled, not really taking in what Hector was telling me nor considering what was coming from my own mouth. What was the 'norm' for crying out loud?
I then realised Hector was walking, leading me across the front of the room, the light from his lamp flickering like a guide on the floor, past a large desk by what must have been a main entrance and towards the landing of a larger, wider staircase leading to some other unknown place. Would the palace ever stop feeling like a maze and start feeling like my home? I concentrated hard on memorising the routes Hector was taking me for the hopes I may, one day, actually be able to find my way back there. It seemed like an impossible feat at that moment.
"… Not Lord or Prince, Phile … not to you. Just call me Hector, remember?" Hector requested gently.
He had stopped at the top of the landing. Those words – and the manner in which he said them - marked a sudden change in his temperament back to something more affable and less uneasy. It jolted me from my furious concentration and I naturally looked to him. He now was bathed in the orange glow of the many lamps that dotted down the wall of that particular staircase rather than just the previous dim, solitary one he had held. I could see that he was no longer frowning – and he could see the embarrassing reddening blush on my cheeks.
"Remember?" he reiterated again with his eyebrows raised in eagerness and an alluring smile playing on his face.
Of course I did - that night, before he joined me in my bed for the first and only time, he had asked me to call him by his name. How could I forget?
"Of course not - Hector" I replied bashfully, self-consciously correcting my previous mistake.
Hector thoughtfully yet unexpectedly stepped towards me. "I like the way you say my name." he breathed.
I looked up to him, hoping he could not detect me tremble slightly as he brought up his right hand and affectionately caressed the top of my head with his large palm before his fingers travelled softly down my cheek. I closed my eyes in pleasure at his touch. I expected him kiss me. I wanted him to kiss me. Instead he tenderly ran his thumb ever so gently over my bottom lip. I felt it awaken the prickly stirring sensation from my loins up to my spine although I could not help but to exhale audibly in longing for his lips instead. I only opened my eyes when I felt him remove his thumb. I was disappointed of course and wondered why he teased me so. I had to settle with Hector taking my hand once more as he led me down the other flight of stairs. The moment was over.
As we neared the bottom step, Hector asked:
"Do you recognise where you are yet?" as if he had read my disorientated, mused thoughts earlier regarding the intricate and warren like network of staircases and hallways in the palace.
I frowned in contemplation. My cranium was now pounding a distracting beat – perhaps it had been the brief excitement and subsequent frustration after Hector's touch had brought so much promise? Was it a rush of blood to the head due to just plain tiredness? Maybe it was just because the palace layout did confound me so much?
"Do not worry." Hector continued, giving my hand a brief and reassuring squeeze when I did not answer him: "Soon the palace will be as familiar to you as the lines on your palm, I promise."
As we turned a sharp right down another corridor, I happened to glance out of a window and immediately recognised the naked lady fountain in the South Courtyard, glowing softly as the silver moonlight seemed to bathe her and the very tops of the bushes out there. I knew my location then - we were near the Great Hall and Hector was definitely leading me towards my apartment. My confused mood suddenly darkened. What if he intended to join me there? I suddenly recalled the awkward way Hector dominantly pinned me to the bed, the surge of pain as he invaded me – then the blood, the embarrassment. I shuddered. I did not desire that again – but I did desire something; and it was vexingly intangible to me. How terribly anxious I became that he would join me in my chamber - but at the same time I would be so terribly disappointed if Hector did not. It was a dilemma indeed and I was bothered that this man already held such a sway over me.
As we stood before the door of my quarters, Hector bid me a simple "Goodnight". His voice sounded suddenly so distant and my heart sank as I realised that he definitely did not mean to come in. I felt slighted and repellent. I was not totally despairing at this point, actually I found myself annoyed with Hector. I felt as if he was toying with me, tempting me then letting me down for his own amusement. It was extremely infuriating.
"So you do not wish to come in?" I still stuttered sullenly, prolonging my own misery and trying not to sound desperate or needy although I doubt it came across as cavalierly as I had hoped. Why was I asking when I already knew the answer?
At that moment, I could only find the courage to stare straight ahead whilst Hector certainly rejected me. All I could see before me was Hector's chest, he was so tall. It seemed twice as broad as my own slight shoulder width and I noticed he wore nothing around his neck, no golden necklace and no garland. Instead, peeking from his robe I could see a hint of tanned, taught skin, smattered with hair. Not realising how provocative this was to me at the time, the sight of his bare flesh simply brought to my still-naïve mind ripe fruit just asking to be bitten. I could not look to his face because I could not bear to see an expression of pity or wretchedness play across his face again, the same face he had after he had tried to deflower someone he found so terribly unattractive – me. Even worse than that, I could not bear it if his face held an air of indifference. I could feel the gaze of those black eyes burning on me though.
"No Phile. You look tired and I have to rise early tomorrow." Hector replied carefully before adding: "So do you I imagine, seeing as Korina will be your wake-up call!" He seemed to jest casually then, no doubt an attempt to lighten the strained situation. This seemed to stick the dagger of disenchantment further into my gut before giving it a twist for good measure.
"Will you ever wish to come in?" I muttered irritably. A bold-faced question yes, but I just had to know. I am sure he could detect my resentment towards him; I was never very good at masking my temper. He did not reply immediately, considering a tactful and sensitive answer no doubt.
Suddenly, there came a voice from down the dark corridor, wavering and ethereal - interrupting us. I dare say Hector had been relieved.
"Brother!" it called, seemingly disembodied before a figure floated into view out of the gloom. She seemed to glide towards us soundlessly, her light gown diaphanously draping her figure. She was thin in the way people who live on their nerves are, although her face was remarkable, so very pale that it seemed to loom in the dark. It was framed with unbrushed thick dark hair and her eyes were so wide they were wild. I was certainly startled for a moment, stonily rooted to the spot as my eyes followed her path – I assumed I was seeing a spectre of sorts. But in the few seconds it took for the woman to near closer to us, I was relieved to see she was a solid person. She smiled warmly at Hector and embraced him very fondly, almost violently in her enthusiasm. He seemed almost as taken aback as I was; he clearly was not expecting to see this woman.
"Hector!" she teased, still with her arms tight around him: "you have not been to visit me in days! How is Andromache? What scrapes has Jasper got himself into now? I need to hear all the news!"
I was suddenly rather suspicious of this very strange woman; who was she and why she was so familiar with Hector? Then I scolded myself for that particular stupidity – she did just call him 'brother'! Perhaps I was more tired than I first realised, perhaps Hector had not been making an excuse.
"First thing is first, Cassandra" Hector laughed as he untangled himself from her. He straightened himself up and gestured to where I stood "I have company. This is …"
Cassandra turned to me and gazed calmly at my face in a way that I found overfamiliar. Her eyes were almost as dark and unfathomable as her brother's although not as focussed perhaps. Her mouth blossomed into a full smile then, as if she recognised me. I was puzzled. There was definitely something about Cassandra that was not quite right. I am ashamed to say I actually pondered whether she was drunk.
"Oh, I know who she is, brother. I saw her coming, I just did not know when".
"Cassandra …" Hector replied with a definite edge of warning in his voice, his brow furrowing in concern.
Clearly she had crossed some unspoken boundary already, although she did not seem to heed his admonition. She placed a long thin hand gently on my shoulder and her eyes suddenly became glassy as she addressed me again, more serious this time.
"Phile - like Theia, sister-wife of Hyperion, you will bring forth the sun"
"Cassandra, please! You will scare the poor girl!" Hector chided, raising his eyes quickly to the ceiling and back again in exasperation. He seemed to do a lot of that.
She did not witness this as she had still not taken her own eyes from me, clearly undaunted at slightly arousing Hector's fury. She looked thoughtful, almost stoical as she gazed at me whilst she replied to him: "Scare her? She is determined and fearless like you, brother. Or at least, she will be."
I was dumbfounded. I did not know what any of her words meant or her rationale behind saying them. She seemed to be lucid although not totally stable so perhaps they were not worth dwelling on altogether. Baffled, rather than enlightened, I hardly realised that Hector had excused himself quickly from my company, taking his sister with him.
"Father would not be pleased if he knew you were roaming the corridors alone at night, wearing nothing but your nightgown!" he scolded Cassandra as she linked her arm through his grudgingly and he led her away.
That was the last time I saw Hector.
Footnote: Bo the owl was inspired by Bubo in the 1981 film, Clash of the Titans. I LOVE him (and the film, have done since I was a kid). To my joy, the film was on TV over Christmas! ;o)