No Achilles in this one, sorry folks :( next chapter, promise. In the meantime, thank you all so much for your lovely reviews. They are like the spinach to my Popeye.
soso22 - Thank you, glad you liked it!
Sarah - My Gods woman your vocabulary. Put a leash on that mouth before it runs away from you.
Guest - Alright point made ;) thank you. (wtf my friends are such extremes.)
sunamikei - Aha thank you so much! For some reason they come very easily to me, probably because I read far too much fanfiction. I'll try!
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…
"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?"
"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.
"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.