A pair of drunkards lurched down the path, their boisterous laughter masking their heavy footsteps. Even in the moonlight, even with the vast beach that lay in-between them, the boy could see the flush on their cheeks.
As the dying waves licked the backs of his heels, the boy watched the pair. His expression was flat, yet intense, glowering in disapproval. His little hands were balled into fists, quivering with a rage that threatened to bubble over.
One of the men glanced over at the boy and he stiffened up in surprise. With a clumsy hand, he slapped his companion's shoulder. "Angurion, look o'er there," he hiccuped. "Izzat the prince?"
Angurion looked over. "Prince Achilles?" He grimaced. "Looks like 'im. You could spot that pup from a dozen miles off." He threw his hands up to his mouth and shouted, "Izzat you Prince Achilles?!"
The boy flinched and his shivering stopped. He stood like a statue, save for his unruly mane of tangled blonde hair and billowing tunic. With his gaze locked to the men, he took a step backwards towards the ocean. "I'm visiting my mother!" he shouted. "Go away before I kill you!"
It was a childish threat, but the men were frightened off all the same. They were too spoiled on wine to think anymore smartly than panicked cattle. A fitting punishment no doubt awaited them back at their homes. Achilles grinned at the thought, his lean face brimming with delight.
Once he was sure that the men had gone out of sight, he turned back to the ocean. "You can come out now, Mother," he said.
"Excellent work, my child." A gurgling rose up from the shore's shallow waters, and a smooth pebble breached the calmed surface.
Achilles kept a close eye on the road as the pebble sprang up into the air, propelled by a tiny jet of water. The stream took shape, the glossy pebble anchoring itself as a fluid likeness of a navel was molded around it. From the navel's smooth belly grew thick thighs, from thighs to firm buttocks, and all the way down to budding toes that bled back into the ocean's surface.
The grit of the seawater floated about within her, surging into rotund shoulders, to a slim head upon a bulging neck. The finale of her metamorphosis was a fantastic spray of mist from her scalp, tumbling down her back and around her bosom.
Achilles hesitantly glanced back at her. He hated it when she took this form, that mockery of the human body. He knew that she only did it to comfort him, but he couldn't have felt any more disturbed at the grotesque 'human' likeness that stared back at him.
His joints creaked as he fully turned towards her. "Hello, Mother." He bowed.
She had no lips, nor any sign of a face that could show him pleasure, but he could almost feel her smile scratching along his cheek. "Happy birthday, my son," her voice rumbled, like a dissolving waterfall upon a bed of rock.
Achilles stood in silence, lips pursed as he looked to his mother's 'feet'. He said nothing. His father had always taught him the proper way to speak to his mother… or rather, how not to speak.
Thetis knew this, and she hated it. "Ten years have passed since your birthing," she said. Her wavering arms were brought down and hooked together just below an unruly patch of sea moss, a crude representation of womanhood.
The tide fluctuated at her every word, gushing forward to soak Achilles's bare feet. It was ice cold, just as she intended. Achilles refused to budge.
His mother seemed to frown. "Always distant," she chided. "Won't you at least give your Mother an embrace?"
Achilles shook his head and held out a single hand, his long fingers spread. "No, Mother," he said. "But I'll embrace your hand with mine." He felt his feet sinking into the sand, the grime clinging to his skin.
"You imply that we're nothing more than diplomats, my son?" Thetis brought her own hands to her breasts, her bulbous knees bending as she knelt to her son's eye level. "Are you not my son?"
"I won't deny that," said Achilles. He lowered his eyes down even further, down to the hem of his tunic. "I love you very much, Mother. I just know well what will happen if I choose to embrace you."
He felt a damp hand pinch his chin and force his head up to look at his mother's face, or lack thereof. A cold hand rested itself onto his bare knee. He nearly had to swallow his own bile to try and steady himself.
Thetis could feel her son's discomfort, but she didn't stop. "I supplicate to you, my son," she mock-pleaded, her voice keening into his ears. "Why don't you show your mother the love she truly deserves?"
Aware that the sand was beginning to suck at his ankles, Achilles forced himself to take a few steps back, away from his mother's immortal hands. "Because I know that you won't appreciate it," he replied steadily. "I'm no longer as naïve as you think I am, Mother. Do you honestly think that I can be swayed to learn your cruelty?"
As soon as he had spoken, Achilles knew that he had made a mistake in speaking his mind. The tide that could still reach his feet bubbled in irritation. His mother sharply stood, her arms stiff at her sides.
"So you're a man at the tender age of nine? Already?" Her laugh was spiteful. "I guess this means that you're ready to don a spear as tall as your head, and a shield that you could but sleep in?" Eyes sprouted from her forehead to glare down at him. They seemed to sparkle like a duo of perfect pearls. "You overestimate yourself, boy."
By now Achilles had nearly ran backwards, far enough to escape the tide that threatened to scald his feet. His cheeks burned in shame. "I'm sorry, Mother." His father had warned him not to spite her, hadn't he? He had no one to blame but himself.
Insincere as the apology was, Thetis was satisfied enough. "You're like any other mortal child, so I forgive you," she said. "It's excusable at your age… but come your next birthday I shall have to wean you away from such behavior."
Achilles dumbly nodded and stepped back again. "I must be going now, Mother," he recited. He wouldn't dare say anything else.
"Very well, the king is no doubt worried… afraid that I might whisk you away or some such nonsense."
There was no goodbye, nor a promise of another visit to come. Thetis vanished as soon as she had come, without any remnant of her arrival to remain.
Achilles allowed himself to breath, his posture finally slacking and his muscles turning to sludge as he plopped down. The air had grown cold, and he hugged his arms to his chest. He heard a gentle rustling from the bushes across the pathway.
"Achilles?" a little voice piped up, and Achilles turned to find two glittering eyes staring back at him. "Are you alright? The King has been awfully worried."
"And he sent you?" Achilles asked. He forced himself to feet and slowly trudged to the voice's source. "Honestly, Patroclus, you shouldn't be here. Mother probably saw you."
Patroclus walked out onto the path and brushed the dirt away from his skinny arms. "So? It's not like she can hurt me," he said. His black bangs tumbled over his brow, and he lightly blew them away. "She wants to win you over, right?"
Achilles was too tired to try and explain his friend's failed logic. Instead, he reached over and took Patroclus's hand. "I need to speak to Father; will you come?" he asked.
"I wouldn't force you to face him alone any day." Patroclus grinned and pulled his friend along the road.
For now, the future didn't even matter. Still caked with sea salt and brine, Achilles marched back home to happier places.