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let us sing of younger men

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Diomedes doesn’t remember the funeral of his father and the others. He knows he was there, has been told of how his mother had held his hand and walked him to where the other sons were gathered, how she’d smiled as they swore to avenge their fathers. He didn’t remember his father either, but that wasn't surprising, he’d been away on the expedition for months before he’d died, long before Diomedes was old enough to remember anything.

He did remember when the messenger arrived with the news of Tydeus’ death. His mother had screamed and screamed and screamed, frightening him to tears, which Comaetho, his sister, joined in on when she realized what had happened. That cacophony and confusion and the sense that something was very, very wrong was one of his oldest memories. Not his oldest, he had a few from before, silly, childish games and odd, unimportant moments his mind had saved, but none as clear as that.

A year or so after the funeral, Diomedes met an older boy with strange grey eyes. His nurse had turned away to scold Comaetho and he’d wandered off, as he usually did. The boy was perched atop a low stone wall, swinging his feet. When he saw Diomedes, he jumped down.
“If you can catch me, I’ll teach you how to fight,” he said with a grin, turning to dash off. Diomedes followed. They’d reached a little clearing in the woods when he managed to grab onto the back of the boy’s tunic, panting but triumphant.
“Well done! You’re faster than I’d have guessed,” the boy said with a delighted laugh.
Diomedes stood back on his heels, watching him carefully.
“You let me catch you,” he said eventually, a little sulky.
The boy flopped to the ground, still grinning.
“Well, yes, I could have gotten away, but that wouldn’t have been very fair on my part. And you ran well. Do you want to learn to fight or not?”
“Yeah, but why are you asking me? Who are you?”
“I knew your father and I’d like to see you succeed. That’s all you really need to know.”
Diomedes stared for a moment longer. “Alright. Teach me.”

The boy teaches him and comes back again and again. Sometimes he’s the same boy, and sometimes she’s a lanky girl, and sometimes she’s woman in armor and a peplos. Always the same grey eyes and that same grin. There’s not any one moment when he realizes she’s a goddess. By the time he thinks about it enough to put it into words, the reality that his companion and teacher is far, far more powerful than anyone else he’s ever met feels obvious.

There is a moment when he realizes she’s Athena. It’s not the first time someone has told him how his father died, but it’s the first time someone mentions Tydeus had been a favorite of Athena, that some say a woman with grey eyes came to save him before she saw what he’d done and left him to die. Diomedes doesn’t ask her about it, but she still knows he knows somehow, saying in an almost casual voice as they took a break beneath a shady oak, “Your father was a great warrior.”
After a long pause, Diomedes prompts her, “But?”
“But not a particularly good man. Not the sort of man that should live forever.”
She glanced at him, still lying calmly beside her.
“You’re taking this better than I’d expected,” she says at last.
He crosses his arms over his chest, avoiding her eyes.
“I owe you more than I owe him,” he says, still not meeting her gaze. They don’t speak about it directly after that, but she talks about Tydeus occasionally, mostly fondly remembering his deeds, but sometimes as a warning.

The first few years are almost games, all wrestling and wooden sword and foot races. It’s around the time he figures out who she is, when he’s seven and all his older cousins have begun to train too seriously to let him tag along, that Athena really starts to teach him to fight.
She teaches him how to shoot, to throw a spear, to box. Once she’s taught him the rules of combat, she breaks them: she throws sand in his eyes, she ambushes him during a break, she mocks him until he forgets what he’s learned.
“You’ll be smaller than most of your opponents, if your father's anything to go by,” she tells him one day, having pinned him to the ground with some clever maneuver yet again, “so you’ll just have to be smarter and faster than them.”
He gets smarter and he get faster and sometimes he almost gets a good hit in on her.

He starts training with people other than Athena when he’s ten and his mother has finally persuaded Adrastus that he’s old enough. By then, he’s so used to fighting and losing to Athena that it’s a surprise the first time he ducks away, lets Sthenelus’ own weight topple him, and holds his sword to his back. By the way the others are looking at him, it’s a surprise for them as well. He doesn’t win every time, of course, he’s still much younger and smaller than the rest, and he’ll die at Thebes if he doesn’t improve, but there’s no feeling like when he knocks the sword out of his opponent’s hand and gets his own blade to their throat before they’ve figured out what happened.

His sister’s wedding to Aegialius is strange. He is too old to sit with his mother at the women’s table, but, as the youngest boy in his generation, not old enough to participate in the men’s conversations. For a wedding, the mood is tense and subdued. At the women’s table, his mother is drinking too much wine, her eyes fixed on Alcmaeon and Aegialius, who are bent together with Adrastus at the head of the table, talking in low, serious voices. Comaetho is angrily picking at the edge of her himation, sulking. The normal stories of hunts and harvests and past heroics at the men’s table are stilted and short, falling quickly back into uncomfortable silence. The only people who seem to be enjoying themselves are the musicians.

As soon as he can disappear from the wedding without being noticed, Diomedes slips into the woods. He’s barely made it past the tree line when he feels the tip of a sword poking his back. He turns around, fists up, to a grinning, grey-eyed boy.
“You still don’t pay enough attention to your surroundings, honestly, an old man with a peg-leg could get a dagger between your ribs before you’d noticed he was there,” Athena says, grinning as he sheathes his sword. Seeing the expression on Diomedes’ face, his grin drops and he straightens. “What’s wrong?”
“I think the expedition to Thebes is going to happen soon,” he says, kicking at the ground.
Athena lets out a long sigh. “Yes, you’re probably right. The armies will have had enough time to rebuild and all the sons are old enough to fight.”
The last part is said with confidence, his eyes boring into him. Diomedes crosses his arms tightly, not making eye contact. “I can’t—I’m not ready, I’m not strong enough,” he says, mortified by his voice cracking.
“You will be,” Athena says, as though it were simple, as though it were a fact. “Come on. We’re practicing stealth today.”

When Diomedes is 14, he puts on armor that feels too big, even though it was made for him, and leads an army to battle. His mother, still and silent on the ramparts, watches as they march away. He goes through the days leading up to the battle with a strange sense of calm born from the absurdity of the situation as he orders soldiers twice, three times his age to make camp and he attends war councils where half the commanders are still beardless. It’s only when he stands at the head of the army, feeling short and weak and unqualified, that reality crashes back into him, gasping and shuddering. A soldier grabs him by the shoulder and says, “We’ll be victorious, sire, I’m sure of it. After all, don’t you think Athena will look after her old favorite’s son?”
Diomedes can only catch a flash of grey eyes and the edge of a grin as the soldier disappears back into the troops.

Diomedes doesn’t remember the face of the first man he kills. His memory of his first battle is fragmented and strange. He remembers the panicked scream of a horse with a ruined leg, a tooth in the mud, his hand sinking into the spilling guts of a soldier he tried to help up, the satisfaction of a javelin hitting just right, the red boar emblazoned on a shield, a white beard pink with blood, the annoyed grimace at him when he dodged a spear. He doesn’t remember commanding his troops, hearing that one of their generals was dead, the expression as a soldier realized he’d been killed by a boy, getting an ugly slash down his arm, how he felt. He’s told that he fought well. Aegialius claps his shoulder, Sthenelus ruffles his hair, and his soldiers watch him with something that might be respect.

He’s sitting alone by a fire the night after the battle when Athena as a grey-eyed soldier walks up to him.
“Let me take care of that,” she says, gesturing at the gash on his shoulder. Diomedes glances at it, almost surprised that it’s there. She cleans off the blood with a damp cloth, dabs on ointment, and bandages it, efficient and brisk.
She gives him a smile, softer and quicker than her usual grin. “You fought bravely and with honor,” she says, standing up. When he fails to respond, she bends down and rests a hand on the back of his neck. “I am proud of you, Diomedes. You did very well today and I know you’ll do the same tomorrow, and in every other battle you’ll fight. You’ve proven yourself as a warrior.”
“Thanks,” he says, looking away and clearing his throat. When he looks up again, Athena is gone.

If going to war had felt odd, then returning home from it was bizarre. Bearing the loot of Thebes and Aegialius’ corpse, the army arrives to an Argos that is utterly different from the one they’d left. Adrastus had died upon hearing of his son’s death, which left Diomedes as king. His mother is happy, far happier than he’d ever seen her, walking grandly around the palace with a proud smile. She plans his coronation and arranges his marriage to Aegialia, Adrastus’ daughter, with a confidence and efficiency he’s never seen in her before. Even Comaetho, now a pregnant widow, doesn’t dampen her cheerfulness.

The night before he becomes a king and a husband, Diomedes slips past his guards into the forest. Once he’s out of sight, he breaks into a run, only slowing once he reaches a moonlit clearing. He collapses against a tree trunk and tries to catch his breath. It was hardly a difficult or long run, but his lungs can’t fill properly and his heart rattles in his chest and his mind won’t let him think. He closes his eyes tight and clutches at fistfuls of grass, until his body stops feeling like it’s about to burst into flames. When he opens his eyes, Athena stands in front of him, a stately woman in beautiful armor. He scrambles to his feet, trying to force his breath to remain calm.

“I’d congratulate you on your victory and new power, but you don’t seem like you’d accept those congratulations right now,” she says, her grey, serious eyes watching him carefully.
Diomedes runs his hands over his face. “They’re making me king—I can’t—and Aegialia, I came back and her brother and father are dead—that won’t—she’ll hate me—I’m not—,” he says in a rush. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, letting his hands fall to his sides and meeting her eyes before he continues, “I don’t know how to be a king. I don’t know how to be a husband. All my life, I’ve been getting ready for this, I’ve been preparing for war, to avenge my father, regain my family’s honor, I’ve been learning to be a warrior, and I never really thought about what would happen after, and now I have to—I just—what do I do?”

The last question came out as a wobble. He scrubbed at his eyes, embarrassed. After a beat of silence, he glances up. Her face is cold and majestic, every inch a warrior and a goddess.
“You’re going to go back to the palace and you’re going to become a king and a husband, and you’ll learn how to be those things, and you’ll be them as well as you can, and the reason you’re going to do this, no matter how scared you are or if you want to, is because it’s your responsibility to your family and your city, just as destroying Thebes was. You are going to become a good king and husband because it is your responsibility, and honorable men do not avoid their responsibilities and you are an honorable man. Do you understand me?” she says in a voice like thunder. Diomedes crosses his arms and nods, eyes on the ground. “Good. Now, clean yourself up and get home, Diomedes, the warrior king of Argos shouldn’t be running around the woods at night,” she says, with a hint of grin, clapping him on the shoulder. He smiles back weakly.

On the way back, the panic starts rising in his chest again. He stops walking, fists clenched, furious at his own weakness. He’ll learn. There’s no reason for him to be scared. This is his responsibility, so he’ll learn. He’ll learn. He has to learn.