Achilles lay sprawled out on the wide, pillowed bench. His gaze was elsewhere, one hand plucking absently at the lyre that lay on his stomach.
Patroclus came to a halt in front of him, hands folded behind his back. He didn’t clear his throat, or greet the Prince. He simply waited, in silence.
Achilles’ gaze flicked over to him—and when he latched eyes on him, his expression shifted. The boredom vanished as a kind of hungry interest burned in his bright eyes. He sat up quickly, setting the lyre down with a clatter beside his bench, feet finding the floor as he stood in one smooth, graceful motion.
Patroclus lifted his head slightly. Did Achilles recognise him? Patroclus didn’t know why he was so surprised—His father’s kingdom was at least half a dozen times larger than the land Peleus owned. It made sense that Achilles was not as oblivious as he appeared, in person he couldn’t be so lofty as to—
“What happened to you?” Achilles asked, flicking his gaze over Patroclus’ body.
Just as quickly as pride had bloomed, it was crushed. Ice spread through his stomach and his body prickled as if a million ants crawled over him, swarming under his clothes and nibbling at his skin.
Achilles was looking at his scars.
Though Patroclus had a body patterned with wounds, the three largest areas drew most people’s interest. The first was his missing right ear, the skin on the side of his head lumpy and raised in deep furrows, and although he had grown his hair long enough to hide it most of the time, upon entering Peleus’ kingdom his hair had been shorn and his wounds exposed. The second was his left calf, which was missing a chunk of flesh, the knot of his ankle mottled with chew marks.
The third area Patroclus had managed to hide behind his back. On his right hand he was missing the two smallest fingers and the last knuckle. That was what people seemed most horrified by.
Achilles took a step forward and Patroclus took a step back.
“My name is Patroclus,” Patroclus said, although the Prince hadn’t asked. He had the strong urge to duck away, but managed to keep his eye.
Achilles bridled a little, “My name is Achilles.”
Patroclus managed a half-nod in response, regarding him warily.
Achilles finally looked away, releasing Patroclus from the intensity of his gaze. Patroclus tried hard not to sigh in relief. Achilles stooped to snag the lyre back up from the floor and said, over his shoulder, “Welcome to Phthia.”
Patroclus turned and left, trying hard not to run.
Patroclus was led to the lodging, and shown where to put his things. The other boys avoided him, wary of how wild he looked, and Patroclus didn’t spare them a thought. He managed to sleep, briefly, before he was woken up for dinner.
Patroclus ate dinner alone and was glad that nobody tried to sit near him. If they hadn’t been wary of his scars, they would have been frightened by his teeth. As he tore through a chunk of bread, he mulled over the meeting with Achilles. The staring shouldn’t have unnerved him so much. He was used to it.
By the time he finished his meal, he had convinced himself it was only the hassle of the trip, the strangeness of being in a new land. The intensity of Achilles’ gaze hadn’t spooked him. Achilles didn’t scare him.
Satisfied by this new mindset, Patroclus followed the rest of the boys back to the lodgings. Upon his return, he noticed that a circle of the pallets that surrounded his own had been vacated, and the boys that would have slept near him had moved further up the hall.
Patroclus settled in his bed, legs drawn up flush against his body, hands curled around his ankles and his chin pressed into the gap between his knees. He slept shallowly and fitfully.
“Can you still hold a spear properly?”
Patroclus ignored the taunt, not even lifting his head up from his bread. It had been about a week since he had entered Phthia, and most boys had stopped trying to goad him. Not that many had tried anyway. It was better to give boys like that nothing at all—no change in action, no response.
Until a white hand slipped forward and grabbed at the stumps on his right hand.
Patroclus yanked his hand back so fast he slapped his plate of bread, almost sending it smashing to the floor. He half-rose out of his chair, anger flaring, until he caught the eye of his tormentor.
Achilles leaned over the table, blue eyes wide and intense. He had planted his hands on the wood and pulled Patroclus’ dinner towards him, setting it back in front of the boy. His golden hair hung in loose coils.
“Can you still hold a spear?” Achilles asked again, “Or do you have to use a knife?”
All of the other boys crowed around his table, all of their eyes fixed on Patroclus. His skin crawled.
“I can use a spear,” Patroclus said, cautiously, “And a knife.”
“I can use a bow. And a shield. And a sword.”
“What caused the wounds?”
“Just one dog?”
“All at once?”
“Well, did it hurt?”
Patroclus nearly flinched. From someone else, the question would be mocking. But Achilles asked without any inflection in his voice, without any sarcasm. His blue eyes were guileless.
Four ounces of flesh were missing from Patroclus’ body.
There were small, indent scars on the right side of his nose, just shy of his eye. The scars looked like chips in marble. Achilles was smart, he could put the pieces together. They were claw marks, from where the animal had pinned Patroclus’ head down with a heavy paw while its teeth had pierced his scalp so deeply they scarred the bone.
“It...” Patroclus finally managed to find his voice, “It was a long time ago, Prince Achilles.”
Achilles watched him for a moment longer, before releasing him from his inspection. He turned away. The other boys were a little slow to follow him, regarding Patroclus with renewed curiosity, even the odd look of pity.
Patroclus felt sick. He felt hot. He pushed his bread aside, appetite lost, and stalked away, into the cooler corridors.
When he had reached a secluded corner of the building he knelt on the marble, burning skin shocked by the cold. He pressed his hands to the stone. Well, did it hurt? Achilles was unfathomably cruel, to ask that so easily, but he was hardly the first. Did you scream? Did you cry? Did you piss yourself?
Patroclus breathed shallowly. It felt like he was always drowning, crawling away from the rising tide of that night, a memory that time couldn’t take from him. Did it hurt? Did it hurt? The question rang in his head like a stone dropped down a deep ravine.
Sometimes he still felt it, the feeling dragging him from sleep, paralysed by fear. The sensation of fangs buried in his scalp, the sound resonating deep within him, the grind of teeth against his skull. The tearing and grinding and grinding.
Every muscle in Patroclus’ body was tensed. It never took much. His arms shook. Just the thought of it had summoned the feeling, the sensation of a phantom mouth against the side of his head, the canines puncturing. The blood. The hot, foul breath.
But, had it hurt?
The next few days passed uneasily. The other boys seemed to have reconsidered him, some changed their minds. The wariness with which they had treated him eased, as it inevitably would have. A few even attempted warmth, which Patroclus did not have the energy to return.
The sports master was impressed by how much Patroclus put into his training. He ran harder than the other boys, swung swords more than the others, impaled the hard earth with a blunted spear over and over and over. He worked past tiredness, past pain. He worked himself into a stupor, stumbling after the others at the end of the sessions.
He fell into his pallet each night, surrounded with empty beds. He curled up and dreamed of nothing, barely resting his eyes before the morning bell jolted him awake.
One hot afternoon when Patroclus could barely keep his eyes open, the sports master brought them out to the training field. A tub of wrestling oil had been set out ready. Patroclus felt cold dread roll over him.
Wrestling was like walking a knife edge for him. He could so easily tip into his instincts, and that would disastrous. He had to fight carefully, and loose quickly—but not too quickly. It had taken a long time to convince the sports master that he wasn’t really holding back, and it was just fear of combat that kept him weak.
The sports master called on two other boys and they lathered up in oil. Their match was only a minute long, before the smaller one’s knee gave out and they both crashed. Another two were chosen. Another two.
The sun sank lower in the sky.
Patroclus started to sweat. His mind was foggy and he felt slightly dizzy. He would just have to flunk out quickly, claim heatstroke. His leg ached. He could bear the disappointed look from the sports master.
“Patroclus,” The sports master inclined his head towards him. He glanced over the remainder of the boys, “Cyril.”
Cyril paced towards the oil tank, overtaking Patroclus. Cyril wasn’t all that muscular, but he was built with a boxer’s frame, tall and broad shouldered. He was skinnier than Patroclus, with longer legs.
Patroclus watched him from beneath a wrinkled brow. They hadn’t spoken much, but while Cyril was strong, he wasn’t cruel. Patroclus poured oil over his shoulders, wiping it into his sides.
Cyril finished oiling, standing in the centre of the ring. His shoulders were relaxed, body free of tension. Patroclus joined him reluctantly.
The sports master signalled for them to begin.
Cyril crashed into him. Patroclus managed to catch his footing, but the old scar on his calf twisted painfully. He heaved, managing to shift his footing, but his calf still burned. He had to push to meet Cyril’s height.
The two of them were locked together in the low sun. To an onlooker, they must have looked strangely still, but in reality they were straining against each other, muscles taunt and tensed like steel springs. Every small shift was hard won, like the earth shaking. Cyril’s hands were curled like manacles around Patroclus’ shoulders, Patroclus’ grip tight around his upper arm.
Patroclus felt, more than saw, Cyril lift his foot. He was going to kick at his left leg, right on the wound.
Others had tried it before. He should allow it, he could drop out without being suspicious. Patroclus’s stomach churned. His calf was already burning, a prickling, dense heat like a brand around his skin.
Just before Cyril struck, Patroclus shifted his stance, turning them around. Cyril took a moment to recover, but was too slow to use the change of footing against him. Patroclus chewed the inside of his cheek, heart beating hard.
Cyril readied to go for the foot again. It was an obvious weakness. Nobody had any sympathy for the pain such a move would cause.
When Cyril lifted his foot to kick, Patroclus threw his shoulders into the centre of Cyril’s chest. Unbalanced, Cyril stumbled back, and Patroclus struck, hooking a hand around the back of Cyril’s knee and shoving upwards. Cyril was flipped over, hitting the earth so hard air left him in a punch.
This had happened in a matter of seconds.
Patroclus looked up—and straight into familiar blue eyes.
Achilles stood at the edge of the ring, watching him with an unreadable look. He must have entered the training field during his match. Of course he had come just in time to watch him. Of course he managed to catch him off guard again.
Patroclus straightened up and felt something warm in his hands. He glanced at it—and saw blood. His nails had cut into the back of Cyril’s knee deep enough to pierce flesh. Even now, he could see red roll down his dark calf as he struggled to stand.
He couldn’t do this.
Patroclus stepped over Cyril’s struggling form and pushed through the crowd, setting off up the slope towards the building. He heard the sports master call after him, but he ignored it. As he neared the building, he broke into a run. Dust rose around him.
Without looking, some sense told him Achilles was following him.
Patroclus’ heart twisted. He hated this.
“Patroclus,” Achilles called after him, “Slow down!”
What for? Achilles could outrun him. Still, Patroclus slowed to a stop, closing his eyes, “What is it?”
“Your eyes—your eyes,” Achilles said, breathless from excitement, “Your eyes are golden. I’ve never noticed.”
Patroclus’ heart sunk. A twist of icy fear stirred in his gut. Blood was sticky in the palm of his hand. He kept his eyes shut.
“Bright, bright gold,” Achilles said, “Like golden coins.”
Patroclus massaged his eye sockets. He hated being hounded like this. Achilles was too much. The Prince had sensed he had a secret and he would tear him apart to know it.
“Achilles,” Patroclus blinked his eyes open, “What colour are my eyes?”
Achilles caught his gaze and stared at him, intently. His excitement faded and the light in his eyes dimmed. He scanned Patroclus’ face, like he was looking for a clue. Some sign of deception.
Patroclus’ eyes were brown. Brown like mud, brown like tree back. Not a rich, deep brown, but pale, like a shallow river after rain. Common.
“Brown,” Achilles frowned, “They’re brown.”
He sounded disappointed.
Patroclus rubbed his face tiredly. “Right,” He turned away, scratching the scars on the side of his head, “They’re brown.”
Achilles watched him pad away.
None of the other boys knew anything about Patroclus. Achilles knew because they would have told him otherwise. He’d made his curiosity about the boy no secret—and in an effort to please him the other boys had volunteered anything they could think of. He slept strangely, curled up in a knot. He had thin, dark hair at the base of his spine, on the backs of his hands, on the bottoms of his feet. He drooled. Nothing of any use.
So Achilles had turned to another source—his music teacher.
His lyre master was an old, thin-bones man, with defined hands calloused from playing. He was a relatively mild-natured man, but his face was drawn into a perpetual slight frown. He was playing Achilles a little ditty, keeping his movements slower than he would play in performance, so they boy could follow his chords.
“Do you think you could try that?” The man asked.
“Can you answer a question for me?” Achilles asked, watching him carefully.
“Of course, my Prince,” The man said, mildly.
“What do you know about one of the boys—Patroclus,” Achilles said, “Menoitius’ son.”
The man’s practised frown became more defined, “Strange question.”
“Do you know anything about him?” Achilles probed the lyre.
“Gossiping is not good for the character,” The man said, “Why do you want to know about him?”
Achilles paused. He didn’t quite know the answer to that question. Patroclus was like a burr that had attached to him—he couldn’t help but wonder about him. Some sense told him there was more to him than the other boys, some sort of interesting secret. He wanted, intently, to know what it was.
Achilles only shrugged.
The man sighed, “I don’t know much, but I’ll tell you what I know.”
Achilles lifted his head.
“Aren’t you supposed to be playing?” The man prompted.
Achilles’ fingers found the starting notes and he began to play, chords buzzing against his fingernails. He played from memory, watching his teacher intently. He willed him to start talking, but he didn’t start until Achilles had finished the section and restarted it.
“I only know what I overhear the servants talking about,” The man rubbed the bristle of stubble that lined his chin, “I don’t like talking about such unpleasant topics.”
Achilles watched him, hawklike.
“King Menoitius is… well, you’re lucky he’s not your father,” The man said, somberly, “King Menoitius is brutal, and halfway mad. I don’t know if what I’ve heard is true or not, but I’ve seen him in King’s meetings and I can believe it. His son—Patroclus, was it?—well it’s proof of the Gods’ mercy that he’s still alive.”
Achilles played with muscle memory, hardly noticing which cords he struck, “What have you heard?”
The man stilled. The lines in his brow seemed to deepen, as if his face was suddenly a little heavier, “You know this boy. I’m not sure it’s fair to tell you.”
“Well… Since the boy was six, for two weeks of every month, the King would banish his son to the forest. Soldiers patrolled the castle, and if they happened upon the Prince, they were told to beat him until he escaped back to the forest.”
Achilles’ fingers stilled on the lyre.
“I remember...” The man closed his eyes, “When the child was nine, he was beaten into unconsciousness. The King only ordered him to be carried back to the forest and left there. The whole court was talking about it, even all the way over here. For a Prince to be treated so... That’s why I can’t blame him for killing the child—to grow up half wild and unwelcome, it’s a surprise he can eat at the table with other boys, that he can talk and write.”
Achilles could only stare. It felt like his words had been stolen. He could hardly breathe.
“Play some more for me, Prince Achilles,” The man opened his eyes, “Don’t let yourself dwell on such horrible things. They’re in the past.”
Achilles nodded, numbly, and set his fingers back in place. His mind spun. A coldness had spread through his chest.
Patroclus woke terrified and struggling.
By the time he had come to his senses, he had already jumped out of bed crawled into the neighbouring pallet, face buried in the sheets. Not for the first time, he was welcome of his his isolated bed. He pulled them from his head, gasping.
It was dark. Patroclus cast a glance at the sky outside, and found it a little paler than he expected. Dawn soon. That was good, he wouldn’t miss much sleep. He lifted a shaking hand and buried it into his hair.
His hair had grown that night. When he went to sleep it was barely enough to cover the tops of his ears, but at some point in the night it had grown past his elbows. Hair and more hair. It was soft to his hands, dark and thick.
Patroclus wrapped a sheet around his head and padded past the sleeping boys and darted into the dark hallways.
He could see easily in the dark—a sign that he was edging towards trouble, if the hair hadn’t tipped him off.
He found a servant’s bathroom. Removing the sheet, he stared at himself in the mirror. Hair tumbled around his shoulders, darker than his eyes, almost black in the shadows. There were flecks of silver in it too, and true black.
Patroclus curled a hand around a chunk and sliced through it with his knife. It came away in a heavy clump and he tossed it into the sink, along with the next one. Strands scattered the wash room counter like dark spiderwebs.
Cutting was tougher than it should have been—another bad sign. Patroclus had the cut small sections at a time, and even then he felt the knife struggling. His hair was tougher than it should have been. Although it felt soft, the hair was course and wiry, cutting into his fingers as he held it in place.
By the time the sun was on the horizon, Patroclus had managed to cut most of it away. It was difficult, boring, painful work. His eyes itched. His knife was blunted beyond use, the blade scattered with notches made by the hair’s resistance.
He dumped the hair in the waste baskets and pushed it through the lavatories. The hair changed texture when it had been cut from him, no longer soft, more brittle and difficult. Patroclus rubbed his eyes, stuffing the last of it under the cabinet.
“Good morning,” Someone said from the doorway.
Patroclus glanced up—and barely stopped himself glaring. Of course Achilles had seen him like this. Achilles stood in the doorway, his expression was strange, his manner a lot more tentative than Patroclus had ever seen it before. He rested a hand on the wash room counter top.
“Are you alright?” Achilles asked.
Patroclus regarded him suspiciously.
“Nobody could find you for breakfast,” Achilles explained.
“I’m fine,” Patroclus said.
Achilles’ eyes raked over him, “You missed a strand.”
Patroclus’ hand shot up and caught a long strand. Luckily, it was one that he had partially cut earlier, so it wasn’t unreasonably long. He sliced it off.
Achilles watched him drop the strands into the waste bin. His eyes followed Patroclus closely. It was like he was waiting to be given something.
“Thank you for fetching me,” Patroclus said, scrubbing his eyes, “I’ll join the others soon.”
Achilles nodded, slowly. After a moment more of watching, he ducked out of the wash room and walked away.
His father brought it up first.
They were eating dinner, the candles glowing dimly. Outside, the night was cool and dark. Stars glowed brightly. Peleus signalled for more wine, and while the serving woman poured, he cleared his throat, “Your teacher told me you’d asked about what happened to Menoitius’ boy.”
“Yes, father,” Achilles said, slightly uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure he should have asked at all, now. It felt obscene, to know something so secret to him, as if he had seen Patroclus naked.
“Is that why you’re so glum this evening?” Peleus asked.
Achilles nodded, reluctantly, scraping his cutlery against the plate.
“I’ve told you worse,” Peleus said, “I’ve told you about Philomela, and the fate of Hercules.”
Achilles frowned, “But Patroclus is… someone I know. He’s someone that’s more real than the tales.”
“And those people were real too,” Peleus said, sipping his wine.
Achilles felt a sharp bite of irritation. It felt like he was being scolded for something.
“Still, I’m glad you asked,” Peleus said, “It’s important for you to be educated about other Kings and their ways. It’s especially important when it’s a way you don’t believe in.”
“You knew Menoitius,” Achilles said, “You could have stopped him.”
“We weren’t exactly drinking buddies,” Peleus said, “He wouldn’t have listened to me, and besides, he’s not my son.”
Achilles poked at his food sullenly. He had the urge to go and run to the river, but it was too dark now. He drank his sweet wine. Achilles peered at his father over the rim of his goblet, “I don’t understand why he did it. Why did he treat his son like that?”
“The man is a mystery,” Peleus said, “He’s probably not all there any more. Not that it matters much—tales will have you believe going mad is the end of a King, but in truth a lot of Kings are quite mad, but they keep enough of themselves to do business and they function very normally.”
“You don’t have any notion?” Achilles prompted.
“None. Theories...” Peleus scratched his chin, “Nothing solid.”
Achilles chewed quietly.
“You could ask himself yourself,” Peleus suggested.
“He wouldn’t tell me,” Achilles said, “It’s too personal. I don’t want to make him uncomfortable.”
“More uncomfortable than going behind his back to find out?” Peleus asked.
Achilles couldn’t stop his scowl. As he thought, his expression relaxed and he sighed. He stood up, pushing his chair back from the table.
Patroclus walked into the night.
The ground smelled fresh and cold. He had left his shoes with the rest of his things, so he could feel the dew underneath his feet. It was like a cool kiss against the chapped soles of his feet. He shifted the pack over his shoulder.
He had thought about what they might say when he returned. Was it still desertion if he wasn’t yet in the army? Would he be lashed? Exiled for real? Perhaps he wouldn’t return at all. He could push himself to stay longer. He had always tried hard to remain human, but what sort of life was he leading now anyway? What was left for him here?
Patroclus headed towards the dark forest. Even this far away, he could feel his spine loosening. All the tension he’d been holding in for the past few days was melting away. He sighed, deeply, and ran his hands through his hair.
“Patroclus!” Achilles called.
Patroclus thought about ignoring him. Achilles was fast—but he couldn’t see like Patroclus. If he was quick, and used his head-start, he could disappear before Achilles even knew what happened. He could cut off his last tether.
Patroclus paused, and looked back.
Achilles looked strange in the moonlight. He was pale, his hair looked grey and washed out, his eyes dark and colourless. Achilles was still running towards him, loping through the dark grass.
“Patroclus,” He reached him and put a hand on his shoulder, “Patroclus you don’t have to go.”
“What?” Patroclus frowned.
“I know—I’m sorry, I know your father...” Achilles paused, “You don’t have to disappear. You’re… you’re welcome here, all month round. Nobody’s going to chase you away or beat you if you stay.”
Patroclus stared back at him.
There was something desperately sincere in Achilles’ eyes. He watched Patroclus hopelessly.
“I… I appreciate that,” Patroclus said, and he really meant it. His chest was light and airy. He chewed the inside of his cheek, “But I don’t think you really understand.”
Patroclus slipped out of his grasp. Achilles watched him, head spinning. He felt slightly dizzy. He watched the other boy walk across the dark grass until he reached the treeline and disappeared from sight. Not once did Patroclus glance back. It was colder, now, a bitter wind blew across the forest. Achilles stared into the night.
Slowly, his eyes travelled upwards—to the full moon that hung, swollen and bright white, far above him.