Elura The Strange – Oh good it wasn't boring! Your review made my day, thank you! Next update soon!
soso22 - Haha sorry! Cliff hangers are kind of becoming my thing. It gives me extra time to think up the rest :P YOU are the best, just thank you so much for continuing to review, it means so much.
Sunny271 – I didn't hear your scream but I did feel a slight disturbance in the Force. Glad you liked it, I wanted his apology to show sensitivity without being sickening. And you're exactly right, they are just very confused, (which is probably why they don't notice what they say to each other!) Thanks a lot!
"There! Did you see him?"
"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.
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.
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-
"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.