Lykaon stands over a table, sorting batches of herbs into neat piles of fresh flowers, fragrant leaves and stems, rough, sticky vines, and the occasional thorn. He settles into his work, dropping the right combinations of flowers and plants into jars of olive oil. The jar he is currently focused on – lavender – will be good for sleep and easing stress.
Lykaon sighs, lost in his work and his thoughts. He stretches, finishes the lavender oil, and seals the top with cloth and wax. The mixture needs time to infuse, and he will work on more tomorrow. As of now, he has no patients in need of his skills. It is a rare time of peace in the Chora of Delphi and his presence has helped maintain that state.
It seems not so long ago that chaos and madness reigned. It is going on two years now that the masked ones – the Cult of Kosmos – were spotted in the area. He has heard nothing of their activities in that time, and sometime wonders if he imagined everything. It is on those occasions where he sees his grandmother, and, while he has not yet forgiven her lies and the harm caused, he holds her responsible for the brief happiness he knew.
Did I imagine a stranger, with broad shoulders, strong arms, kind eyes and a warm smile to match his warm heart? Did I fall in love so briefly, and so wholly, that I dreamed my lover to life? Am I Pygmalion, creating my soulmate from marble, begging the gods to grant me the simplest of things – love – so that I might worship them as humans are meant to?
Lykaon is no Pygmalion, but, that does not stop his mind from wandering, and wondering. It was a single encounter, a single evening, and yet, it consumes his dreams. He knew peace, true, ultimate peace, for one moment. He likes to think that his lover knew the same.
Sighing, he returns to tidying up his workspace, cataloging his collection as he does.
His medicines are poultices, salves, ointments, teas, tinctures. The new batch of lavender oil will join the rest in a few days, and he slips a few fragrant stalks of rosemary into a jar. It will prevent infection if he can infuse the oil just right. This one will sit in the open air, and he retrieves a red strip of cloth to tie around the jar. He picks up a piece of charcoal and makes three vertical lines on the cloth. Three days’ time, and it will be perfect.
He moves it to the other workbench. It joins another jar – sealed with a green strip of cloth – which holds something a bit more complex than an antiseptic. This green jar will cause sleep like the lavender oil, though a deeply disquieting one. This is the kind of sleep where an individual might fear that the gods are speaking into their ears, whispering threats or promises. Someday, he might ride up to the nearby fort, and drop a few jars into their water supply. What better way to reinforce peace than through a touch of unease?
Lykaon does not fear violence, and he will use what he has at his disposal to protect his home. The Chora of Delphi is no sacred playground, but it will be protected, even from the ones who speak for the gods. The Pythia who lived in the large house in the center of the village, the Pythia he remembers, corrupted, full of lies and falsehoods, has disappeared, and good riddance. There is a new representative in her place, an older woman, who speaks for Apollo and only Apollo. His grandmother assures him that this one truly does have the god’s favor.
Lykaon is not so sure – this is his grandmother, after all, a woman whose entire life is built on lies and harm – but he does not put his faith in old women who are intoxicated by the fumes from burning bay leaves. He has smelled it. Anyone forced to spend extended time in the presence of that scent might claim to speak for the gods if only to escape the stench.
A mighty yawn threatens to crack his jaw. He stretches, allows the yawn to follow its course, escaping in a loud“hawhn”from his throat. It is a satisfied sound, the reward for a day spent in service, herb-craft, the occasional poison, medicine, and quiet, calming reflection.
Lykaon puts the finished herb oils in a cool dark shelf near the back of the house. They will keep well enough there. He glances out the window, sees the sky turning a shade of pink and red, as Helios begins his long journey to darkness, and decides to gather some additional herbs from the garden before he retires for the night. Gathering by sunset is a peaceful time. Retrieving a basket and his knife, he walks to the garden.
He squats, inspecting his plants. They are growing well, healthy and whole. He must remember to leave an offering for Demeter at the shrine. The goddess of the harvest has been good to him, and it would be blasphemous to not honor her.
Lykaon cuts a few more stalks of lavender. The garden is nearly overflowing with the flowers. He should cut some extra, put the stalks in water and allow the smell to fill the house. If he takes some to his room, he might sleep particularly well. It is worth a thought. Perhaps tomorrow.
He is finishing his work when he hears kree?He lifts his head, sees an eagle, perched on the stone wall, staring at him. It flexes its wings, kree’s at him again. Lykaon squints. He recognizes this bird, with its fine golden wings and intelligent eyes. He smiles. “Ikaros?”
The bird squawks at him.
“Chaire, Ikaros. What brings you to Delphi?”
The eagle preens its feathers.
“I see.” Lykaon straightens. “Well, if your master is nearby, do give him a message for me: tell him I would like to see him again.”
The eagle gives him a look that can only be described as withering, as if saying: Go find him yourself, human, I have no time for your dalliances.
“Well, I would, but my work keeps me here. We can’t all live the life of a wandering misthios.”
The bird bobs its head.
“So you agree. Well, give him my best, won’t you?”
Ikaros surprises him by leaping from its perch into the garden. The eagle struts along the ground, shrieks in his face. Startled, Lykaon drops his basket. Herbs tumble everywhere. Confused, he starts to gather them again, but Ikaros closes its beak around a rosemary stalk and squawks softly around the plant. It drops the stem in Lykaon’s hand.
The healer is annoyed now. “What is it?”
“What? Do you want me to follow you? I do not have the time for this.”
The eagle bobs its head. Come along, human.
“Ikaros, I do not have time to play games. If your master needs me, he simply has to…”
Well, that might change this. If the bird is here, and the misthiosis not… Damn.
Lykaon nods, alarmed. “Let me put my basket away.” He returns the herbs to the house, but retains his knife. The bird surprises him again by following him to the doorway. It chirps as he puts the basket down. “What is it?”
“What? Bloody bird, I don’t understand you.”
“What? The herbs?”
Lykaon decides to test a theory. He picks up a stalk of lavender. The bird screeches at him, scolding. He drops it, and the bird makes a sound that he can only describe as a snort. He holds up a garlic clove. Ikaros stamps a foot, and kree’sat him, and Lykaon has the impression it is saying: why are you so stupid, human?
Lykaon trades the garlic for rosemary. The bird squawks softly, and takes flight. It glides to the nearby horse stable, where a chestnut steed awaits. It, too, is familiar, with a red scarf draped across his neck, and a Spartan-patterned blanket adorning the saddle.
Lykaon knows this animal, Phobos. He slowly approaches, allows the animal to smell him. Phobos shares Ikaros’ intelligence, though the horse’s eyes are warm and gentle. Carefully, Lykaon steps into the saddle, slides his legs over the horse.
Ikaros screeches, and flaps its wings several times. When the eagle is airborne, Phobos snorts, and begins to gallop without prompting. Lykaon holds onto the reins, wondering why these magnificent animals are missing their master.
The Temple of Artemis is above the Chora of Delphi, to the north. Lykaon has never had reason to come to this place, though Phobos clearly knows the territory well. Ikaros perches above the open temple door. Phobos makes no sound, but refuses to go much farther than a patch of grass. It drops its head to feed, as clear a sign as any that Lykaon is no longer needed in its presence.
The bird screeches.
Lykaon is alarmed, now. He approaches the temple. “Hello?” he calls. The interior is illuminated by torches. Someone has been here recently, and he creeps forward.
A young woman kneels in the center of the temple, her arms and throat painted with white clay, finely stitched leathers drape across her chest and hips. She lifts her head as Lykaon approaches. “Healer,” she greets him.
“How did you know?”
“You are carrying rosemary.”
“Ah, so I am. Hello,” he says, politely, cautiously. “Who are you?”
“I am a hunter.”
“I see that.” He looks around. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a misthioslately, have you?”
“There are many in this part of the world. Are you looking for one in particular?”
“Ah, the horse and bird outside, they belong to him.”
“Or he belongs to them. I confess, I am not certain who is the master or the servant.”
Ikaros squawks from the doorway.
“I believe the eagle thinks it is in charge,” Lykaon grumbles.
The woman laughs softly. “Then it seems to me that you will have to ask them where their misthiosis.”
“Funny thing,” Lykaon says, agitated, “but I can’t speak to animals.”
“I know,” She says matter of factly. “I can.”
She stands, and he is momentarily startled. The white clay painted on her olive skin compliments her black hair, her brilliant, pale grey eyes. She smiles at him, her nose wrinkling with amusement. She is taller than he first thought, strong and slender, and he only now sees the bow strapped to her back, the blade at her hip. She is lovely, fierce, and Lykaon takes a deep breath.
“Huntress,” he says, as respectfully as he can, suddenly fearful of whose presence he might be in, “I seek your aid: the horse and bird came to me. They are the companions of my friend. I fear he is in trouble. Can you help me find him?”
Her eyes narrow. She approaches him, studying his face. “The Son of Artemis hunted his enemies to the end. He bathed in their blood, and honored his cause. He slew beasts, men in the shape of beasts, men who were little better than the lowest of animals, and men who fancied themselves gods. He allowed the song of battle of consume him, and while Athena and Ares might value such things, I do not. I seek those who immerse themselves in the hunt. He did so.”
She smiles, and it is a dangerous one, fit to make Lykaon’s skin crawl. “Zeus could not tame him, and my brother—” she snorts “—feh, Apollo could not even save his own priestesses from the forces of chaos. Poseidon protected him, Hades welcomed the thousands sent to his grasp. He pleased Athena and Ares in battle, but they are small-minded, pitting their nations against one another in an endless war that seeks his heart.”
She snorts. “War. Who benefits? Not I, not my Daughters. These nations, these petty rabble, they ensnared him in war, when all he wanted was peace, a sense of belonging. Imagine, had things been different, what he and Daphnae might have accomplished, leading together. Peace might have been a possibility.” She blinks, and Lykaon sees furious tears in her eyes. “Even Hera tried, and she could not save the innocent.”
Lykaon does not understand. “The innocent?”
The air seems to crackle around them. “It does not matter. The Son of Artemis is mine,” she continues. “He hunted my beasts, brought their skins to my Daughters, and what glorious hunts they were. He honored Ikaros, and reared Phobos into a warhorse fit for the gods. He kept to my ways long before the rest, and he was mine the moment he granted Daphnae’s request. He gave her an honorable death, and leads my Daughters as the one who loved him wished. He has many who love him, and he has loved a few in return, those worthy of his soul.”
The air stills, and the huntress steps away from him. She straightens her leathers, smiles kindly at him, her tears abruptly gone. “So, tell me, healer, what help can I grant you?”
Lykaon trembles. “Mistress of the Hunt,” he murmurs, certain of who she is, “I ask your aid: where is my friend?”
“Look for the monument to the Leonidas. Follow its path to the heart, and speak to the one who was lost.”
“The heart? Lost one? Which monument?” He frowns. “You don’t mean Leonidas’ tomb? That’s in Sparta. I can’t go there.”
“You are a healer. Are there not wounded in Sparta?”
“None that my skills would save. It will take weeks to get there.”
“Hm.” She looks him up and down. “You seek to save lives, Lykaon?”
“Yes. That is my duty. He taught me that. He saved me.” He bows his head. “I was ready to kill a member of my own family. She caused such hurt, such harm. He stopped me, told me that I was not a killer. He…” His voice catches. “I have tried to live in the way he wanted since our parting. He could not stay forever, not physically, but here—” He touches his chest. “He remains here.” His finger moves to his temple. “And here.”
“A voice in your heart, and a whisper in your ear.” The woman looks over her shoulder. “Are you worthy of his soul, Lykaon?”
Lykaon does not know what to say to that. “I would like to be,” he says.
“Hera sought to bind him, soul to soul, to another.” Her expression hardens. “Hera failed, because she can only see one end, a pleasant one and nothing like the one Zeus gave her. She cannot see the reality of the world we created, even though her cruelty has made much of it.” She looks at Lykaon. “Go to the docks in Kirrha; find Barnabas and The Adrestia.”
“Is Alexios alive?” Lykaon asks, because if the misthiosis dead, there is no point.
“The Son of Artemis lives,” she assures him. She approaches, places her hand on his shoulder. “The body and mind live, Lykaon, but the soul is dying. Save his soul.”
“What should I do?”
“Go to Kirrha, as I have told you. Speak to Barnabas.” She smiles, lifts her eyes to the temple walls. “Tell him that Artemis, goddess of the hunt, mistress of animals, and protector of the forest, sent you.”
“He will believe me?”
“There is no man in Greece who believes in the gods more than Barnabas of the Adrestia.”
He rides for Kirrha, and thinks, as he does, that he hears a chorus of voices singing a mourner’s cry. He wonders what he is riding towards.
The ship’s captain is a strange one, with a single eye, and a boisterous, booming personality. “What brings a healer to our ship? Running away from the war? Ah, that’s the spirit. Don’t worry, we can always use a healer. You should see the scraps we get into.”
“Ah, no, I am looking for, er, well, one of your crew.”
“Is one of them missing?” Barnabas looks at his crew, a motley bunch of men and women, dressed in various armors, all attending their tasks with intense focus.
“Well, yes, I think so.”
“You know something I don’t?”
“Tell him that Artemis, goddess of the hunt, mistress of animals, and protector of the forest, sent you.”Lykaon swallows, remembering the woman’s words.
“Would you believe that one of the gods sent me?”
Barnabas tilts his head. “Oh?”
“Artemis sent me.”
The captain’s face freezes. “Oh, gods, did I offend her?” He looks around. “We honor Poseidon more than the Mistress of the Hunt. Gods, I should have known better. Should have sacrificed that damn boar we caught on Kythera to her, instead of eating it.” He sighs. “She’s angry with me, is she?”
Lykaon shakes his head. “No. She said no one believes in the gods like you do.”
Barnabas’ face brightens immediately. “Praise Artemis,” he breathes. “I shall make an offering when we next dock at Mykonos. Kyra will be thrilled.”
His enthusiasm is almost too much. Lykaon holds up his hands: “Captain, please, I seek one of your crew, a misthios, and—”
“Alexios? You’re looking for him? By the gods, man, come aboard. We’re looking for him too!”
Lykaon frowns. “You don’t know where he is?”
Barnabas shakes his head. “No. I haven’t seen him in months. The last I saw of him was in Messenia, and I assumed he went back to Sparta after.” He wrinkles his nose, mutters, “He wouldn’t go back to Dyme. That way lies madness.”
Lykaon nods. “Well, I was told to seek Leonidas’ resting place, and—”
“And that means Sparta! Brilliant, man. Come aboard. If Alexios is anywhere, he’s there.”
Lykaon feels nauseous at the thought of stepping aboard the ship. He never has gotten his sea legs.
“Save his soul.”
He hears the goddess’ voice, at the edge of hearing, and now he truly believes that she isthe goddess.
He inhales deeply, and boards the ship.
Two weeks pass aboard The Adrestia. She is a fine ship, a vessel forged for strong seas, battle, and leisure. Her sails display a mighty sphinx, and the beast adorns the figurehead. She is a cunning ship, this vessel, and Barnabas directs his crew’s movements beautifully. Poseidon favors this ship, and the crew sing songs of praise to thank him. When they are not honoring the sea, a few share some bawdy tavern songs, and three of the sailors recite ballads fit to bring tears to Apollo’s eyes.
Barnabas hums along, and Lykaon appreciates his company. It helps to distract him from his thoughts, his worries.
Alexios, where have you gone? I knew you could not stay forever with me, but, I need to know you are all right.
Artemis gave him his mission: “Save his soul.”
Yes, Lady Artemis. I will do what I can.
They dock in Sparta, where soldiers recognize the ship and give them respectful nods. Barnabas leads the way to a horse stable, where they borrow two steeds, and ride for Gytheion. Barnabas chatters the entire ride, telling tales of his journeys with Alexios, the wonders they’ve seen, the sorrow they’ve overcome, the triumphs and hard-won victories. “Did I tell you how I broke Alexios out of a prison in Athens?” Barnabas asks as they crest a hill.
“You did – twice in fact – on our journey here,” Lykaon responds, too tired and worried to be irritable.
“Well, I’m sure it won’t be the last time I break him out of prison. He has a gift.”
“A gift for trouble?”
“That, too!” Barnabas is endearing, positive, so cheerful that Lykaon wonders what sorrows have turned this man’s outlook. Only a man who has experienced true pain and sadness might see the world as Barnabas does, full of wonder, mystery, sights to see, and stories to tell.
Lykaon can’t help liking the captain. The man’s attitude is infectious. Were he not so worried, Lykaon might want to stay at an inn for a few nights and listen to all the stories Barnabas has not yet told him.
They arrive in Gytheion as the sun begins its slow descent. Sunset is an hour off, yet, but Lykaon does not want to waste any precious daylight. There is a small stable near the monument to Leonidas, the tomb of the late, great Spartan king, and they leave their horses.
Lykaon’s mind is a storm. What were Artemis’ riddles? The tomb, then follow the path to the heart, and the lost one? The one who was lost? Dammit, I cannot remember—
Barnabas gently grips Lykaon’s shoulder. “I think we were expected,” he says quietly. He directs Lykaon’s gaze to a grey-haired woman standing before the monument, her braid hanging down her back. She carries a spear across her shoulders, and her red tunic denotes her as a citizen. She lifts her head as they approach, and turns, a smile breaking across her face.
“Barnabas,” she greets the captain like an old friend. “What brings you to Sparta?”
“Myrrine,” Barnabas says warmly. “May I introduce Lykaon of Delphi. Lykaon, I present to you, Myrrine, daughter of King Leonidas.” He smiles. “She is Alexios’ mother.”
“The path to the heart,” Lykaon murmurs. He sees Myrinne’s pleasant smile fade slightly. “I’m sorry,” Lykaon says, “I am looking for Alexios.”
Myrinne’s face pales. She turns to Barnabas. “He isn’t with you?”
“No. I haven’t seen him in months.”
“But, but he’s your commander, The Adrestiabelongs to both of you. It’s your home.” She clasps her hands. “Barnabas, where is my son?”
“I do not know, Myrrine. Lykaon was sent to find him.” Barnabas is calm, kind, as he speaks. He looks Myrrine in the eye. “Artemis sent him to find Alexios.”
Myrrine stares at Barnabas. “Artemis,” she says flatly.
“I believe she did,” Lykaon says quietly. “She said I have to save his soul.”
Myrrine frowns. “His soul?” She looks at Barnabas. “I haven’t seen my son in two years, not since… that business.” She takes a deep breath. “You said the path to the heart?”
“Yes. That is what she – Artemis – she told me to follow the path to the heart.”
Myrrine does not look like she entirely believes him. She looks at her hands. “I believe I have enough food at home for two guests tonight. You can sleep in the room we keep for Alexios.”
“You are certain he is not here?” Lykaon asks, regretting the question.
Myrrine shakes her head. “Two years,” she repeats. “I have not seen my son in two years. I received a message six months ago, that all was well, and nothing after.” She sighs. “Oh, Alexios,” she murmurs, “please do not keep your materwaiting another twenty years to find you again.”
“I do not think it is as bad as that,” Lykaon says too quickly, and remembers, abruptly, that his own grandmother told this woman lies about her children. Myrrine is the closest he has seen to the outcome of his grandmother’s lies, and, by the gods, she does not deserve more pain. He stands up straighter. “Myrrine,” he says, “I am a healer. I believe I can help him, but I must know where he is.”
“I am the wrong person to ask,” she says sadly. “Perhaps someone else in Sparta can help you.”
“I don’t know anyone else here.”
“With Brasidas gone,” Barnabas says, “we are short on allies and resources.”
“Well, you have me,” Myrrine says, “and my family. Stentor is just back from the field, but Nikolaos is home. Perhaps they have heard something.” She gestures. “Come. At least let us show you a hospitable meal, since you have come so far.”
Dinner is roasted lamb, fresh vegetables, and wine. Nikolaos of Sparta is an imposing man, though soft-spoken, a thinker, who listens while Lykaon explains his mission and Barnabas fills in uncertain details, and confirms their combined worry for Alexios. If Nikolaos disbelieves that Artemis gave the directive, he does not say so. Myrrine asks questions, perhaps attempting to catch Lykaon in a lie, but he never contradicts himself.
Stentor, Nikolaos’ adopted son, is a stern-looking man, who regards the entire story with suspicion and outright skepticism. He visibly rolls his eyes when Lykaon mentions Artemis, and counters each claim with a challenge. “Are you certain she was a goddess?”
“She was in a temple in the middle of a forest.”
“Ah! So, a priestess who claims to speak for a goddess.”
“She never said she was a priestess.”
“A woman dressed as a Daughter of Artemis is in a temple dedicated to Artemis and is not a priestess?”
“She said she was—”
Stentor interrupts. “Well, whatever she was, I am certain Alexios can handle himself. He is a strong one, insufferable at times, but, skilled, capable. ”
“That is the first admiring word I’ve heard you say about him,” Nikolaos says with a smile.
“I said he is skilled and capable,” Stentor says, his tone a combination of annoyed and embarassed. “We do not always see eye to eye, but we are family. I respect his skills, and he respects mine. We are not equals, but I never claimed we were.”
“Regardless,” Lykaon says, “if he’s in trouble, then I need to find him.”
“You know, it is possible to simply want to find someone and not need the gods’ involvement to make it happen.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“You think it isn’t?”
Lykaon groans. “I don’t know.”
“Clearly,” Stentor grumbles. He eats, pausing momentarily to compliment Myrrine on the meal. “This lamb is excellent, mater. Better than what we have in the field.”
“I do try,” Myrrine says dryly.
“It is good, mater. Thank you.”
Lykaon grimaces at this distraction. He does not know what to make of Stentor, other than the man is clearly not worried about his adopted brother. The sixth member of their dinner is Kassandra, a sharp eyed young woman who shares many of Myrrine’s features, including her long braid. It is those same features that Lykaon recalls in Alexios’ face, including the eyes. This, Lykaon realizes, is the child his grandmother condemned to death. She is the one Alexios mentioned so briefly, the damaged, violent woman who frightened even the mighty misthios.
Whatever she was before, in the present, she picks at her food, and listens intently to the conversation around her. She never speaks, except for a soft request for more lamb. Myrrine sits closest to her, while Nikolas keeps a cushion between them. Lykaon notices that the young woman shares Alexios’ eyes. Stentor regards her with cautious respect, and avoids eye contact.
Lykaon finds this entire family strange. He sighs, makes a point of following Stentor’s lead and thanking Myrrine for the meal.
As dinner winds down, Nikolaos brings the discussion back around, and says: “She assured you Alexios was alive?”
Lykaon nods. It was the only good news the woman had. “She did. She said his body and mind were whole, but his soul was… well, she told me I have to save his soul.”
“I don’t understand what that means,” Myrrine says. “How do you save a soul if the person lives?”
“Well, Orpheus went into the underworld to save Eurydice,” Barnabas points out helpfully.
Stentor sighs. “Oh, no, not more talk of the gods.” He presses his face to his hands.
“Orpheus lost faith,” Myrrine counters the captain. “He doubted.”
Barnabas raises a finger. “And his songs brought tears even to Hades and Persephone. So moved were they, that they allowed Orpheus and Eurydice to leave the Underworld.”
“Orpheus didn’t save Eurydice,” Kassandra says, only the second time she’s spoken all night.
All eyes turn to her.
She matches each gaze. “Orpheus softened their hearts, but Hades was never going to allow him to leave with Eurydice, not unless he kept to the bargain. Orpheus suspected the gods; he did not fear them. He lost Eurydice a second time because he was proud.” She looks at Lykaon. “You cannot save a soul that does not know it is lost.”
“What?” Lykaon stares. “I don’t understand.”
Myrrine frowns, looks at her daughter. “Do you know something?”
“The nightmares,” Kassandra says. She looks at the knife beside her plate. “What is Dyme?”
“It is a small village in Achaia,” Barnabas says. He looks at her. “How do you know of it?”
“I saw it burn,” she says, her eyes locking on his. “In my nightmares.”
“Kassandra,” Nikolaos says gently, resting a hand near hers, but not touching her. “It was a dream.”
Stentor frowns. “Pater, we briefly discussed Dyme. Perhaps Kassandra overheard us. There was a Spartan camp nearby, but they could not save the village.”
Nikolaos nods grimly. “Achaia is far away from Sparta. It is difficult to care for those who are not our kith or kin.” He looks at Kassandra. “It was a dream, daughter. A dream only.”
She shakes her head. “I did not hear about it and it was not a dream. It was a nightmare. I saw him, my brother, in the midst of it, afraid, alone. I could see his face, and it was wrong. He hates himself. He hates what he has become. The fire took something.” She blinks, and there are tears streaking down her face. “My brother is… I do not know what he is. He has no hope.” She looks at Myrrine. “I think he is lost, mater.”
Myrrine takes her daughter in her arms, holds her. Kassandra sighs, leans her head on her mother’s shoulder. Myrrine looks at Lykaon and Barnabas. “Are you certain,” she says slowly, “that the entire Cult of Kosmos is dead?”
“Yes,” Barnabas says. “Alexios gave me his word. He killed Aspasia and all the rest. Even the Order of the Ancients is—”
“The what?” Nikolaos and Myrrine chorus in unison.
“Ah, they were a Persian order, and—”
“Persians?” Nikolaos gawks.
“In Sparta?” Myrrine stares.
“The gods are testing us,” Stentor mutters, rubbing his temples. “First your damned Cult, now this?”
Myrrine shushes him, and Stentor has the decency to look a bit ashamed.
Barnabas waves his hands. “No, no, they were in Makedonia. Then in Achaia and elsewhere. They stirred up some trouble, and claimed to be in league with the Cult. Alexios killed all of them, too.” He shrugs. “No more Cult, no more Order. It is done.”
“Where else were they?” Stentor asks, a firm soldier’s bite to his words. “Makedonia does not concern me. Achaia, that is a bit more of a problem. Where else were they?”
“Wait,” Kassandra says, sitting up from her mother’s embrace. “You were there. Six months ago. You told me about the unrest.”
“I remember,” Stentor says. He frowns. “There were murders, deaths, gods, so many deaths. So many civilians died, and I could never find out who was directing the chaos.” He frowns, looks at Barnabas. “You were there?”
“Alexios was, yes. The ship and I were in the docks.”
“Don’t tell me that Dyme’s burning sent him that far south. That is preposterous. Villages burn all the time, and they don’t bring murderous cults with them.”
Barnabas looks at his plate and refuses to answer.
Lykaon is alarmed. What is Barnabas hiding?
Stentor scowls, sensing the same. “I cannot help you, Captain, if you do not tell me everything.”
“Enough.” Nikolaos presses his hands into the table top. “We are all tired, and this conversation is draining. If we are to believe this woman, this priestess who might be something more, then we can rest knowing Alexios is alive and well. It seems that your destination may be Dyme, and that is far away from Sparta.”
Myrrine nods. “Rest here for the night. Replenish your supplies. Lykaon, you are a healer. You should see one of ours, see what aid they can offer you.”
Lykaon knows they are right. He is exhausted, and alarmed that Barnabas is keeping something from him.
The captain stands. “My friends, I thank you for the meal. I will ride to the docks. I sleep better at sea.”
“It is dark,” Stentor says. “Hardly safe.”
“This is Sparta,” Barnabas says. “It is the safest place in Greece.”
Stentor actually beams at that, puffs out his chest with pride. Lykaon cannot decide what he thinks about this man. He is alternately infuriating and calculating. Clearly Nikolaos’ son in mind, if not blood. Nikolaos, himself, says little more, and retires to his room. Kassandra disappears, as if she were not there to begin with.
Lykaon is unsettled. He has more questions than before, and wonders if this entire search is for nothing. What if he’s been duped? What if he has inadvertently abandoned the Chora of Delphi to bandits or soldiers or worse? What if this is all an absurd quest, and he is only setting himself up for disappointment?
Save a soul. How does one save a soul? What does that even mean?
An hour or so later, when Myrrine shows him the small room she identifies as Alexios’, he is still pondering that question. When he lies down on the pallet, trying to sleep, he sees blurry visions of Alexios’ face, his tangled hair, his laughing eyes. Then, in a flash, those charming eyes are replaced by those of a stranger, something distant, cold, a man who becomes, in the blink of an eye, a god of death and destruction. In the dream, Alexios rears back with a knife, and buries it in Lykaon’s heart, and words whisper coldly: “I no longer live here, and soon, I will no longer live your head.”
When Lykaon wakes, he is shaking, and his face is wet with tears.
He hears movement, and a soft voice humming.
He stands, wipes his face, and follows the sound.
The humming leads to the roof. Lykaon finds Kassandra, sitting on the edge, staring towards the eastern hills, towards Mount Taygetos. “Hello,” he says.
She glances at him, returns her gaze to the mountain. “We died there,” she says. “My brother and me. We died there, and I do not think either of us ever came back, not truly.”
“How well do you know Alexios?”
“Well enough that I tried to kill him a few times.” She smiles tightly. “He is a warrior. We are equally matched, and he isbetter than Stentor.”
“I’ll be sure to never tell Stentor.”
“He knows,” she says dismissively. “Stentor is a good strategist, but he is no warrior.” Her smile turns mischievous. “Barely a Spartan, to be honest.”
“Now that, I’ll be sure I never say.”
“Wise.” She looks at the mountain. “My brother haunts you?”
He weighs whether to tell her about the nightmare. She seems older than her years, possessed of an insight he cannot hope to understand. “I dreamed of him,” Lykaon admits. “In my dream, I, I think he killed me.”
“You’re troubled by that?”
“It wouldn’t trouble you?”
“In my dreams, my brother talks to me. He is always talking to me.” She shakes her head. “In my dreams of Dyme, he is not talking. He is drowning in his own pain, in his misery.” She looks at Lykaon. “It is as though his soul is dying while I watch.”
Lykaon inhales sharply. “The woman, Artemis, the goddess, priestess, whoever she was, she told me: his body and mind live, but his soul is dying.”
She looks thoughtful, leans forward, elbows resting on her knees. “If our bodies and minds are whole, how would we know whether or not our souls are intact?”
“How do you measure the health of a soul?” he posits.
“How do you gauge the existence of a soul?” she counters.
He smiles. “You have one.”
“Do I now?” She tilts her head, and he sees a glimpse of something there, deep within her gaze, something that frightens and unsettles him. It is a thing without a name, and he feels intense pity for this young woman. What did his grandmother’s lies force her to suffer?
“You do,” he insists. “We all do.”
Her gaze softens. “I suppose I might,” she concedes. “My brother gave it to me when he didn’t kill me on that mountaintop.”
“He was going to kill you?”
“I wanted him to.” She turns her head. “When you find my brother, tell him… tell him I miss him. I miss his smile, his easy way with words. Tell him I miss his company. Tell him that I will be here. When he is ready to fight again, wherever his war takes him, I will be here, and I will fight at his side, not against him.”
Lykaon smiles. “I will try to remember all that.”
“He reached out a hand to me,” Kassandra says, her eyes far away. “Will you reach out a hand to him? I can’t save my brother from whatever is killing his soul, but, I believe you when you say the goddess sent you.”
“You believe me?”
“I am not sure,” she admits. “It’s just that you were obviously hiding something from materat dinner, something you could not bear to tell her.”
Lykaon feels a chill.
“Will you tell me, healer?”
“The goddess,” he says, his voice soft, “she called him the Son of Artemis.”
Kassandra nods. “Whether it’s animals or humans, the hunt can consume us.”
“Is that what happened here?”
“I do not know what happened here. I know what I see in my dreams, and you have your task from the goddess. I suggest you follow that path to its end.”
“And then what?”
“Well that,” she says, with a wry smile, “is something you would have to ask the Pythia.”
“Would youask the Pythia anything?” he challenges.
“My paterthrew my brother and me off of a mountain because of the Pythia.” She smiles, without amusement. “Needless to say, I do not put much stock in prophecy.”
“But you trust dreams?”
“I trust my dreams, healer.” Kassandra’s eyes lock onto his. He sees a glimpse, then, of just how deep the darkness behind her eyes is. Gods, he hopes he never sees that darkness in another living person’s eyes.
“You dreamed of Dyme.”
“What happened there?”
“Your ship’s captain seems to know.”
“Alexios. He’s in Dyme, isn’t he?”
She looks away from him. “You have a soul to save, healer. Don’t be a fool like Orpheus.”
Lykaon grimaces. “You’re saying I shouldn’t look back.”
“I think it is too late for you to look back even if you wanted to. Go save his soul, healer.”
The following afternoon, Lykaon returns to The Adrestia. He took Myrrine’s advice, visited the apothecary and the healers in Gytheoin. They were friendly, full of information and advice, and one even provided a satchel full of medicine, ointments, bandages, and, to Lykaon’s amusement, lavender oil. “A secret recipe,” the apothecary winked at him. She was an old woman, with her grey hair in a flawless bun, her lined face full of grace, laughter, pride, and a life well-lived.
“What is so secret about it?” Lykaon asked.
“It helped my Timotheos sleep after every great battle and war he fought in. He carried a vial into battle with him, and insisted it granted him good dreams, even in the worst places.”
He couldn’t help asking what became of her Timotheos.
She smiled. “He’s a cantankerous old goat, never died in battle. He insists he’ll die without honor, but everyone knows his greatest battle was marrying me. If he outlives me, he’ll have his precious honor, two brave sons, and three perfect grandchildren. What greater battle is there than marriage?” Her laughter was infectious, and Lykaon wondered why such a bright spirit lived among the Spartans.
He keeps the old woman’s good cheer in mind as he rides back to the ship.
Barnabas is suspiciously quiet when Lykaon arrives. The crew does not sing, apart from one lone voice, singing a sad, eerie ballad of Orpheus. Lykaon wonders if Barnabas mentioned the awkward dinner time discussion with anyone.
Despite the songs, it is a long, lonely journey to Achaia. One day in, with hardly any conversation, Lykaon cannot stand it any longer. “What happened in Dyme, Barnabas?”
“The village burned.”
“Yes, but why? What happened? Why would Alexios go there? Why was he there in the first place?”
Barnabas looks pained, as if he is about to reveal a story that is not his to share. “How long has it been since you saw him?”
“Over two years.”
“Did he ever write to you?”
“Yes, frequently.” The parchments rest in a cedar box in his home, treasures of a lost companion, one who warmed Lykaon’s heart, stayed his hand, and gave him hope. Alexios writes brief, terse messages – I live, the war continues, do not worry and stay strong, I will see you if I make it to Phokis – and there is always a small stalk of plant encased with the pages, a seed, or a flower that Lykaon has never seen before. It is enough, a reminder that, wherever he might be, Alexios is thinking of him, possibly remembering their brief time together.
“Did he ever mention Darius? Or Neema, or Elpidios?”
Lykaon thinks. The letters were always brief, and, now that he thinks of it, they never contained any personal information. They were always personal to Lykaon, but Alexios never revealed anything about himself, not what he was doing, and rarely where he was.
“No,” he finally says. “I do not know these names. Who were they?”
Barnabas sighs. “Gods, this is not my story to tell. Dyme is a long way from Sparta.” He rubs his hands across his face. “It was a sanctuary for a time. Now, it is a tomb. By Hera, I want to believe he hasn’t gone back there.”
“What if he has?”
“Then the gods are testing him in ways I cannot imagine.”
Lykaon chews his lower lip. “In the temple, that woman, she called him the Son of Artemis.”
Barnabas looks stricken. “Gods, boy,” he swears, sounding for all the world like a discouraged father, and not a cheerful ship’s captain.
“Barnabas, what has he done?”
“He tried to abandon war,” Barnabas says. “He tried to find peace.”
“Isn’t peace what we all want?”
“Have you ever seen a misthiosin peacetime?”
“I have never seen peacetime,” Lykaon argues.
“Fair enough.” Barnabas raises his hands. “If he is not in Dyme, then I do not think he is in Greece any longer.”
“What is beyond Greece?”
“For Alexios? Only he could tell you that.”
Barnabas gives the order to continue on, and within the hour, they are on the high seas, riding the waves, as dolphins and whales breach nearby, and the occasional enormous shark makes its presence known.
Later, Lykaon sits on the bridge. His mind is still racing from his conversation with Alexios’ sister, Kassandra. He wants to tell Barnabas about it, but is not sure how to begin. Kassandra’s mind works in ways Lykaon cannot fathom, and her certainty in her dreams reminds him of his grandmother, and the certainty she had in her visions. Those vision were lies, of course, but he does not believe Kassandra lied to him during their discussion. She seemed detached, confident, as if her dreams were a practical reality that others were simply not aware of yet. She spoke to him like a student, like someone who just had to think a little harder about the problem at hand if he wanted to solve it.
Lykaon sighs, rests his head in his hands. If what she told him is true, then he has gone about this all wrong. If his own dreams are anything to go by, he fears that whatever he is meant to save will be absent by the time they arrive in Dyme. If Alexios is even there.
And if he is gone, then what?
He startles when Barnabas sits beside him, clearly troubled. “What’s on your mind?” Lykaon asks. The captain has been roaming the deck, an act that is out of character for him.
“The worst possibility,” Barnabas admits.
“I can’t speak of it. To say it is to make it real.” Barnabas looks at the ocean around them. “Poseidon protect us, aid us, grant us calm seas, a clear horizon, and welcoming harbor.”
His sincerity warms Lykaon. He wishes he had a fraction of the old man’s faith, but, for now, he will keep faith in his skills.
I will save your soul, my friend, he promises Alexios. I will save your soul, and I will grant you what peace I can. I hope I am not too late to save you.
When Lykaon drifts off to sleep, he dreams again of Alexios, his laugh and his smile, and then his suddenly terrible, empty eyes. A bow rises, the arrow glinting, and the misthiosfires, driving the arrow into Lykaon’s heart. Lykaon wakes with a shout before he can hear whatever final taunt the dream-Alexios is about to say.
He does not sleep the rest of the night.
Barnabas shakes Lykaon gently awake a few days later. The healer has slept while the ship passed through a vicious storm, though his dreams have been dark, draining, and miserable. Barnabas does not look like he has been sleeping well either. Lykaon just wants to reach dry land, to stand on Dyme’s shores, and see if this entire journey has been worth it.
He shoulders his medical satchel, and steps onto the dock. His legs shake briefly as he stabilizes, adjusting to land. Barnabas joins him, and leads him onward.
Dyme is a fishing village, content, calm. Citizens regard them with friendly, cautious greetings. The scent of smoke lingers the air, and they walk by a graveyard, filled with fresh graves, and sharp, shining marble headstones. Lykaon feels his heart sink. What has happened to this place?
“Victims of the fire,” Barnabas explains. “So many lives lost.” He folds his arms. “Do you see the house on the hill? It overlooks the village.”
Lykaon sees it.
“Let us hurry.”
It is an overcast day, and rain threatens to come at any moment. Lykaon smells the ozone tang in the air; it will be a true storm, if it comes. He adjusts his grip on his bag, hopes he will not require any of the items inside.
They hike up the hill, and Barnabas holds up his hand as they approach the fence. There is no sign of life, even though the flowers and grasses surrounding the house are clean and tidy. Vines and delicate ivy trail up the side of the house, growing onto the roof. There is a well-tended grave outside of the house, with fresh flowers laid atop it and small clay figurines carefully arranged at the base of a marble headstone. There is a small rock wrapped in a scrap of red cloth resting atop the stone. It is a memorial, clearly to someone who mattered.
Barnabas cups his hands around his mouth, calling: “Alexios? It’s Barnabas. Are you here?”
They wait, but there is no response.
Lykaon steps beyond the fence. “Alexios?” he calls. “Alexios, it’s Lykaon.”
“What are you doing?” Barnabas hisses as he takes another step.
“I have to know if he’s here, Barnabas.”
“Gods, Lykaon, what if he’s dead?”
“He isn’t,” rumbles a voice from the house doorway.
Barnabas lets out a heavy sigh. “Alexios. Praise the gods. We’ve been looking for you.”
The misthios blinks, looks between them. “I see.” He’s dressed in charcoal-grey armor, a black hood pools around his shoulders, an equally black scarf hangs down his back. His boots are polished steel, the greaves covering every piece of exposed skin. He carries a dagger and a sword, the broken spear as always, and an ornate bow. He looks ready for battle, or for a journey.
“That’s all you can say?” Lykaon is suddenly angry. “’I see?’ Alexios, no one’s seen you in months. Barnabas didn’t know where you were. Your mother didn’t know either.”
If Alexios is troubled by this revelation, he does not show it.
Instead, he looks at Barnabas. “It’s good to see you,” he says. His voice lacks any warmth, and, this close, Lykaon can see that his eyes are dull, like unpolished stones.
Barnabas folds his arms. “You, as well.” He glances at the grave. “You came back here.”
Alexios follows his gaze. “Where else would I go?”
“Kephallonia, I don’t know, maybe Athens or Thera, if you really wanted to be alone. Shit, Sparta, because that at least make sense. Speaking of Sparta, your mother’s worried.”
Alexios shakes his head. “She didn’t send you to find me.”
Barnabas looks at Lykaon. “Gods, healer, unclench your fists. You’ll break your fingers.”
Lykaon lets out a long breath, shaking, his anger curling in his chest. “I was sent to find you,” he says.
Alexios stares at him, his dull eyes unnerving, empty, and, by the gods, it’s one step removed from Lykaon’s dreams. If the misthioswere in a battle rage, it would be just like the dream. “Who sent you?”
“She is the—” He bites his tongue. Alexios will think him mad if he says more.
Barnabas nudges him. “Tell him, Lykaon.”
“Artemis sent me,” Lykaon says, shakily. Suddenly, his conviction in the goddess’ presence, in this whole quest being real, is on the verge of shattering. “Ikaros and Phobos, they came to the Chora of Delphi, they took me to the Temple of Artemis. She was there, Alexios. I swear to you, she was there. She was real.”
Alexios is still staring at Lykaon. There is no hint of emotion on his face, and his eyes grow ever farther away. Whatever he is seeing is not visible to his visitors.
“Alexios,” Lykaon says, straightening. “I am telling the truth.”
“You know?” Lykaon splutters. “By the gods, misthios, stop this now, and tell me—"
Alexios is staring over Lykaon’s shoulder.
There is a crunch of feet on the earth behind them.
Trembling, the healer whirls around, and she is there, the woman from the temple. She wears brilliant white leathers, her grey eyes sparkle, a silver crown holds her hair back from her face. She is in her element, nature, and here, in Dyme’s wild, salt air, the late afternoon heat hazing around her, she is more beautiful than the last time Lykaon saw her. She nods a greeting to each of them.
Barnabas bows his head. “Artemis, Mistress of the Hunt, we beg your forgiveness.”
“My forgiveness?” She sounds amused. “There is nothing to forgive, Captain Barnabas.” She smiles, tilts her head. “I have heard tales of your ship, how she weathers all storms, and drives the darkness from the sea. My uncle favors The Adrestia. She is a blessed ship.”
Barnabas nods. “I thank Lord Poseidon for his many blessings.”
The woman inclines her head. “Make an offering to him before you depart these shores, Captain. May you find favorable winds and calm seas.”
“You are kind, Lady Artemis.” Barnabas clasps his hands together. “I pray you, please protect my friend.” He looks at Alexios, whose eyes are fixed on the woman. His gaze is lost, darkening, and Barnabas closes his eyes. “Misthios, Eagle Bearer, demi-god, my friend. I pray for your soul,” he murmurs. He looks at Lykaon. “I will be at Poseidon’s shrine. Find us on The Adrestiawhen you are finished.”
He looks one final time at the grave in the courtyard, and mutters another prayer before he begins his slow walk down the hill.
When he is out of sight and earshot, the woman turns her attention to Alexios. “Son of Artemis.” When she gets no response, she says, “The hunt cannot consume us without consequence.”
“It is done.”
“That may be so, but the hunt has consumed you.”
“It was a good hunt.”
“Was it worth everything?”
His gaze drifts to the grave. “She is avenged,” he murmurs. “The living are safe.” He folds his arms. “What business is it of yours, Artemis? I begged your aid. You did not come.”
“Vengeance is not my way, Eagle Bearer.”
He huffs a laugh. “You and your brother slew Niobe’s children for her hubris. Was that not vengeance?” He shakes his head. “You cannot judge me for this, Artemis. Not you, nor anyone else. I did what any good Spartan would do, and for that, you cannot judge me.”
“I am not sitting in judgment, Son of Artemis.”
“No?” His tone is angry, and Lykaon sees the first spark of life in Alexios’ eyes. The mercenary raises a hand, an accusing finger aimed at the woman in front of him. “I ask nothing of the gods. I never have. The one time I asked, the one time I begged for your help, to make my arm strong, my aim true, to grant me your blessing in my time of need, the one timeI begged, on my hands and knees, where were you?” His finger redirects towards the grave. “She died in my arms, and I begged her to stay. I would have defied Hades himself to save her.”
“Eagle Bearer, you cannot defy the Underworld. You are not Orpheus—"
“Stop!” Alexios waves his hands. “Where the fuck were you, Artemis? Where was your blessing? Where was your wrath? She was a hunter, she was strong, what we made together—” His voice hitches, but his rage is more powerful than any sorrow. “We lost it all, Artemis, and where were the gods?” Silent, bitter tears slide down his face. “Where were the gods, Artemis? Where were they when the world was burning around us, and all we wanted was a bit of peace?”
“Alexios,” Lykaon whispers, his heart breaking.
The woman looks at Alexios, her eyes bright with silvery tears. “You had your peace,” she says quietly, “but with all of our power, we cannot fight the chaos that threatens our world. You experienced something real. I am sorry I could not spare you the agony of love.”
“Love.” The word sounds like an open wound. “I loved Daphnae,” Alexios says. “I killed her. I loved Neema, and she died. Phiobe, she was a child, I loved her like my family, and she died. Brasidas was my brother in arms, I loved him, and he died.” Alexios looks at Lykaon. “Everyone I love, everyone I dare to feel something for, they all die. They die horribly or alone, and I am left behind.”
“That is the nature of this world,” the woman says.
“Fuck this world,” Alexios snaps. “It takes and it takes, and what do I have left to give?”
“My soul.” He chokes a laugh. “What is left of my soul to give?”
“I am more interested in what is left of your soul to save.”
He stares at her.
“Your body and mind are alive, Son of Artemis, but your soul is dying, piece by piece, day by day. The hunt has consumed you. Do not let it run you to your end.” Her eyes flash a curious silver. “You have a long road ahead of you, Alexios of Sparta, and the hunt eventually ends for all men. You know what awaits you at the end of your war.”
Trembling, he nods.
“Daphnae, Neema, Phiobe, Brasidas, and the rest, they await you in Elyisum. I fear it will be a long time before you see them again, but, time heals.” She smiles faintly. “Or so I’m told.”
“What do you know?” Alexios shakes his tears away, the rage rising to the surface. “What do you know of time? What are you saying?”
“You have seen the city beneath the waves. You know where your fate lies.”
“How do you know about that?”
The woman looks at Lykaon. “I leave this to you, healer. My Son knows his fate, he knows what ultimately awaits him.”
“Tell me what you know,” Alexios demands. “Artemis is of the forest, not the sea. What do you know?”
“The gods hear your prayers, Son of Artemis, even if you believe us silent.” She bows her head. “You kept the invaders out of our lands. You slew them, bathed in their blood, and hunted them to the ends of the Greek world. Do not allow the hunt to chase you to your last. You are the hunter, not the hunted. Make your prey know fear, and make them know an honorable end. Chase your foes, hunt them, stalk them, kill them where they are, and keep them at bay. This world owes you more than it can ever know.”
“How do you know these things?” Lykaon demands. With all the conviction he held before, now he is uncertain again.
The woman blinks, looks at Alexios. “Beneath the waves, Eagle Bearer. We will meet again.”
“By the gods,” Alexios breathes. “You’re not Artemis, you’re Aletheia.”
She offers a sad, affectionate smile. “Good bye, Son of Artemis. Your hunt ends when Helios is extinguished. The waves hide many secrets, and the gods know all things. Fare you well, my Son.” She looks to Lykaon. “You know your task, healer.”
The crack of thunder and lightning startles them, and a vicious heat arises. Lykaon watches in horror as the woman seems to burst into white fire, her body consumed, and her words linger at the edge of his hearing, much as they did in Phokis: “Save his soul, healer.”
“Aletheia!” Alexios’ voice is a wail, a stricken cry.
Lykaon rushes forward, catches Alexios as his legs give out beneath him, and he falls to his knees. He clutches at Lykaon’sarms, and buries his face against his shoulder, sobbing, cursing. The healer holds him as the storm begins to rage.
Lykaon drags Alexios into the little house. The walls are thick, strong, and while the rain beats against them, no water gets inside. A fire burns in the hearth, and the mercenary is little help in getting rid of his armor and weapons. His expression is numb, his eyes blank. He does not resist as Lykaon works at the straps on his armor.
Once he’s stripped Alexios to his tunic, Lykaon winces at the bruises, burns, poorly healed cuts, and scars that cover the mercenary’s body. Lykaon puts his satchel on a table, unpacks the ointments, the lavender oil, bandages, and medicines. Without asking, he sets to work.
Lykaon pulls the tunic over his head, expecting some resistance, but while Alexios is physically present, his mind is elsewhere. “By the gods,” Lykaon murmurs, truly seeing the damage to the other man’s body. “Alexios, what have you do to yourself?” He does not expect a response, and makes idle chatter as he tends to the worst of the injuries. There is a horrific burn along Alexios’ left side, from ribs to hip, just starting to heal. “This will scar,” Lykaon says, inspecting the wound.
He finds rosemary oil in the bag, gently brushes some along the worst of the wounds, carefully wraps bandages in place. Alexios flexes his fingers instinctively as Lykaon’s hands touch him, wrapping cloth around his ribs, his left arm – the bow string has struck him so many times along his forearm that no amount of ointment will ease the scar – and right thigh. He has a stab wound there, a glancing strike from a sword that is on the verge of infection.
“You got these during your hunt,” Lykaon says. He glances at the window, where the grave lies. “You avenged her?”
“What was her name?”
“Neema.” His voice is raw, hoarse. The name sounds like it hurts to speak.
“You knew peace with her?” Lykaon bows his head at Alexios’ affirmative nod. “Did you love her?” It isn’t his place to ask, but he has to know what kind of connection could have led to this result. I could have shown you peace. Even if you were out in the world, I would have always had a home for you to come back to. I would have loved you.
“I did.” Alexios looks at him, blinks, his eyes slowly focusing. “I might as well have killed Neema with my own hands.”
“That is a terrible burden to carry.”
“I loved her, and it was not enough to save her.” He sighs, rests his face in his hands. “It wasn’t enough to save any of them.”
Lykaon wipes his hands clean. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to. I told Neema about you. She said what I told her about you reminded her of her brother, always wanting to what is right. She wanted to meet you someday. I wanted to invite you to come here, to stay with us.”
“Why would you want me to stay with you?”
“It would have made the birth easier,” Alexios says, with a small smile. “Her father was no help at all. I was holding her hand, and she was cursing the whole time. She said if she had her way, Elpidios was the only son we’d have, considering all the trouble he gave her.”
“The birth?” Lykaon stares. “Gods, Alexios, is your son—”
“He’s alive.” Alexios looks into the fire. “Somewhere. I will never see him again, but I know he will be safe. He will be loved.”
“Not by you?”
“He will always know that I love him. He will know his paterloves him.” Alexios blinks. “Better that Darius takes him, raises him, protects him. With me, he would never be safe. He would die. Everyone I love dies.”
There is that horrible statement again. Lykaon rests his hands on Alexios’ shoulders. “I wish you had told me about your family. I would have loved to know them.”
“Then you’d be dead too.” The words are blunt, the voice dull. Alexios raises a hand, touches Lykaon’s. “If you were gone, I…”
Alexios presses his lips to the back of Lykaon’s hand, squeezes his fingers. “You are in my thoughts, often. I dream of you. I think of what I could have done, and what I did. You are the one whose name I could never say aloud, expect to. To speak your name would invite the darkness.” He shakes his head. “I told Neema about you, though, and she’s gone. The darkness took her.”
“Do you think I cannot fight that darkness?”
“Not this kind, Lykaon.” Alexios looks at him. “The Cult is gone, and the Order of Ancients is dust. I left my enemies drowning in blood, and I have cut the heart out. I avenged Neema, and I know she rests now. I have sent her murderers to their deaths, our son is safe, and my path is clear.”
“That is not what I meant.” Lykaon rests a finger underneath Alexios’ chin, tilts his head up. “I am a healer. I am not a warrior. I never pretended to be. I tried to be a killer once, and you stopped me. I am made for other things.” He smiles. “Your role is to protect, to push back against the evil in the world. My role is to keep your darkness in check, to ease your pain, to help you.”
“A tall order.”
“The goddess gave me an order, Alexios. She told me to save your soul.”
“She is not a goddess. I don’t know what she is.” Alexios sighs. “Still, saving my soul? I would not wish that burden on anyone.”
Lykaon kisses his brow. “I will take it.”
Alexios makes a weak sound of protest. “You can’t. I have lost so many people, Lykaon. You can’t join them. Don’t become another shade to haunt me.”
“I am no shade, Alexios, and I don’t intend to become one for a very long time.” Lykaon keeps his tone light, but he feels the weight in his words. He’s just made a promise, and he will have to keep it.
Alexios’ gaze goes far away again. “What is a long time?” he muses. “How many lifetimes would I see?” At Lykaon’s confused expression, he smiles – there’s that familiar cheeky grin Lykaon fell in love with – and says, “You’d better stay alive, because if you end up in the Underworld before me, I’ll march in and challenge Hades for you. And unlike Orpheus, I’ll trust that you’re right behind me.”
Lykaon laughs. “Is that a fact?”
“That is a fact.”
“Really? You’d just trust that I was behind you, that the God of the Underworld would keep his word until we were safely back here?”
“I know you would.” Alexios smiles. “You’re stubborn. You would want out as badly as I would want to get you out.”
Lykaon laughs. “You have such faith.”
“In you? Yes.”
Lykaon smiles. He can see the spark returning to Alexios’ eyes, the weary mercenary slowly coming back to some semblance of who he was the first time they meant. He made a promise to the goddess – Artemis or Aletheia, it doesn’t matter – and he thinks he is close to fulfilling it.
“I’m glad to know I have your trust.”
Alexios takes Lykaon’s hand. “You’ve had my trust since we met.” He kisses his knuckles, takes a deep breath. “Lykaon, I do not trust many people. Trust is too close to love, and love—”
Lykaon presses his finger to Alexios’ lips. “Tomorrow. We will discuss this tomorrow.” He looks out the window at the lashing rain. “For now, you need rest.”
Alexios shakes his head. “I don’t know if I will sleep.”
“I have something to help with that.”
“Yes.” Lykaon walks to his satchel, retrieves the lavender oil. “An old apothecary in Sparta insisted this helped her husband rest after every battle.” He opens the jar, and the heady scent fills the room, the richness of lavender, and the subtle sweet hint of thyme. “She seemed a feisty old lady,” he explains with a smile. “I would wager this smells strong enough to knock out the toughest Spartan.”
“The toughest, eh?”
“Even you, misthios.”
“Gods, I will miss you.”
“When? I don’t plan to go anywhere.”
“Never mind.” Alexios smiles. “It doesn’t matter now.”
“You are exhausted,” Lykaon says, shaking his head. “You need to rest.”
“You promise you will not go anywhere?” His voice sounds desperate.
“Trust me,” Lykaon says.
When Alexios offers no further argument, Lykaon pours some of the oil onto a cloth. He strokes it across Alexios’ shoulders and neck, gently brushing his long hair out of the way. His fingers dig into stress-tensed muscles, and he murmurs soft words of assurance: “I am here, I am not going anywhere, you are safe with me, you trust me and I trust you.”
When Alexios releases a soft sigh, leaning back into Lykaon’s hands, reluctant relaxation finally taking a body that can no longer fight itself, the healer suspects that only the first part of his work is done. He wonders how he will know that he’s saved the mercenary’s soul, but for now, the body needs his attention. The goddess, whoever she was, misled him on that part; Alexios’ body is far from whole, and his mind is not far behind.
One step at a time,Lykaon reminds himself, and helps Alexios up. The mercenary’s solid body is heavy, and he mutters unintelligibly as Lykaon leads him to a pallet. Alexios is asleep almost instantly, and Lykaon kisses his brow softly. Alexios does not move.
Lykaon takes a moment, admiring and examining the body before him. Scars and bandages aside, Alexios is strong, compact, his rough hands capable of gentle affection and great violence. Those hands rest loosely at his sides, and Lykaon remembers the mercenary’s hands on his own body once, remembers the lips to his, that firm, unyielding strength against the healer’s gentle, pliable nature.
Will I ever know you in such a way again?
Lykaon’s eyes drift to the wall facing the grave outside. Neema. What peace did you grant him, and what has been lost to your death? What madness consumed him after, this sickness I believe I can cure, because I care for him?
He bows his head, prays: Aphrodite, goddess of love: Will you forgive me if I desire what Neema left behind?
A thunderclap startles him, and Lykaon raises his eyes. “Lord Zeus,” he gently scolds, “some of us need rest, and not your particular brand of encouragement.”
Alexios sleeps most of the next day. He makes no sounds, and does not wake when Lykaon creeps into his room to inspect his wounds. The burns are of greatest concern to him, though the rosemary oil proves to be an excellent aid. The raw wound already appears improved, healing, a positive sign. Lykaon dabs more of the oil along the burns, redresses the wound.
Lykaon replaces the bandages on Alexios’ arm and thigh. The thigh wound looks cleaner, less serious, the cut narrower and shallower than Lykaon originally thought. He cleans and rebinds the leg, and puts the ointments and bandages away He checks his patient for any signs of fever, which, praise the gods, the mercenary does not have.
“Well, in spite of all this, Artemis is clearly looking out for you,” Lykaon mutters.
Abruptly unsure of the goddess and the task she assigned him, he shakes his head, deciding to focus on the real. He watches his patient for any signs of distress or discomfort. The waiting is a peaceful time for Lykaon, relaxing in the quiet, listening, watching, observing.
Eventually, he reaches out his hand, rests it against Alexios’ chest, feeling the steady pulse of his heartbeat.
He sits, listening to the mercenary’s breathing. Alexios is a sound sleeper, and if he suffers from nightmares or dreams of any kind, they do not manifest in physical action. Lykaon studies him, wonders how much invisible damage this man has suffered, and again thinks of the false prophecy his grandmother gave Alexios’ mother.
I will never be able to say to you how sorry I am. I am so sorry for what my family did to yours. I saw your sister, I spoke with her. I can only imagine what things might have been like had it been you…
Lykaon squeezes his eyes shut. He has already seen the vision in his dreams of the mercenary as a violent, vicious man, the killer with dead eyes. Lykaon does not wish to see that, does not wish to imagine it ever again.
He suddenly finds the air in the house stale and impossible to breathe. He stands, stumbles outside, leans against the fence surrounding the house, taking deep, aching breaths. He looks over his shoulder at the house, but there is no movement, no sign of life.
His eyes drift again to Neema’s grave. Reluctantly, he approaches, kneels in front of the stone. He is not sure what he can say to the dead, but, oddly, her company is more soothing than the living, wounded man in the house. “I wish I had known you,” Lykaon murmurs. “You had his son, you loved him, and it appears he loved you. From the state of him, he nearly killed himself to avenge you.”
He smiles, bows his head. “I would have been honored to know someone who could captivate him like that.”
There is silence, as he expected, but he thinks he smells flowers on the breeze, a playful scent, something sweet and floral.
“Hm. Captivate might be the wrong word. Tamed, perhaps? Captured? Seduced?”
The breeze drifts along his shoulders.
He smiles weakly. “Well, perhaps you are a right. Perhaps I ama bit jealous.”
The scent tickles his senses. He sniffles, swipes a hand across his eyes. “Yes, Neema, yes, I think you’re right.” He blinks away tears. “After all, he stayed with you. He stayed.” His face drops into his hands. “Grant me your strength to make him stay.”
Let me keep him, if only for a while longer than last time. Let me have him to myself, safe, whole, body, mind, and soul. Let mebe the one to bring him back.
Lykaon does not sleep well the following night. He dreams that he hears Artemis’ voice on the wind, and sees her in a clearing. Beside her is a towering warrior, carrying a spear. Artemis says: “The body is healing. What of the rest?”
“He is weak,” the warrior rumbles. “He will never fulfill the obligations you bestowed upon him.”
“You do not know what I do.”
“Hah! I know weakness when I see it.”The warrior’s eyes glow gold in the clearing.“I know what to do with weakness. You cut it out. You run it out. You kill it, if you must, if you cannot use it, you kill it. Weakness serves no one but the weak.”
“And who are you?” Lykaon demands.
“I will kill you, one day,”the warrior promises, his voice is horribly familiar. Lykaon can hear notes of Artemis’ voice, too, as if they spoke in tandem, but the warrior is more dominant. He is the stronger of the two in this place, and that, that frightens Lykaon terribly.
Artemis must sense his fear, because she scowls at the warrior. The warrior does not shrink away, but bobs his head respectfully. Artemis looks to Lykaon: “You are so close, Lykaon. You have what you need, the tools are at hand. Do what you must, and fulfill your task.”
“Who is he?” Lykaon raises a shaking hand, pointing at the warrior. “Why does he threaten my life?”
“He is of no consequence,”Artemis says.
“Iamthe consequence,”the warrior counters. He smashes the butt of his spear into the ground. “Finish your task, healer, or I will finish you.”He smiles, baring his teeth, and there is a numbing familiarity in that smile. “And I will not be gentle.”He lifts the spear, and charges at Lykaon, as Artemis shouts a warning.
Lykaon wakes, sitting upright. His hands are tangled in his blanket, and he struggles to his feet. He takes the few strides to Alexios’ room, and peers inside. The mercenary is asleep, though Lykaon can see the spear clasped in his right hand.
He woke to retrieve it.
Lykaon creeps into the room, feels Alexios’ face for a fever. The other man is sleeping, peacefully, his face still, breathing even. Lykaon lets out a long breath. “I had a terrible dream,” he tells the sleeping man, and strokes his brow affectionately. “I am glad to see that it was just a dream.”
He sleeps restlessly, and he spends the next morning inspecting Alexios’ wounds, ensuring they are healing correctly. “You know,” Lykaon says, masking a yawn, examining the wound in Alexios’ thigh, “an inch or so the left, and you would be dead.”
“Me, die? And miss out on your ministrations?” Alexios teases. His eyes are brighter, his body more at ease. He has clearly rested well.
“Typical Spartan,” Lykaon jokes, “you think you’re immortal.”
“Maybe I am,” the mercenary says smugly.
If Lykaon did not know better, he might think sleep and rest is all the mercenary needed. Instead of commenting on the sudden turnaround in mood and attitude, Lykaon says, voice dripping with sarcasm: “Right. The Eagle Bearer is a demi-god, clearly the heir apparent to Mount Olympus. Silly me. I forgot.”
“Well, there was this Cult that certainly thought so…” Alexios grumbles. Neither finds the joke funny, though Lykaon laughs weakly enough for the both of them.
With ointments and bandages refreshed, Alexios dresses in his tunic, leaving his armor behind. He leads Lykaon down to the village, and the healer admires Alexios’ sun-ripened skin, the tension of his upper arms. He may have something of the gods in him after all, Lykaon thinks. Most men in the condition he was in would be weary, weak, barely able to move. Alexios has always moved like a predator, a wolf in a man’s body, and he does so now. The sickness, it seems, has passed, the darkness faded.
But is your soul safe yet?Lykaon wonders, and follows the taut line of Alexios’ neck as the other man brushes his hair away from his tunic’s collar. Your body is healing, and your mind is calm. What of your soul?
He has no idea how to begin deciding if that question can be answered, and before he can give it too much thought, they arrive in the village. Dyme’s village is a bustling place, full of lively conversations and cheerful citizens. People greet Alexios with gentle, friendly smiles, cheerful words, and he responds with silent nods, the occasional response. These people know Alexios as a man, a friend, not just a mercenary.
Lykaon wishes, briefly, that Alexios hadasked him to join his family here, to look over Neema and the baby. Maybe it would have been different, Lykaon thinks, and looks at the mercenary’s back. What life could we have made? What kind of family might we have created?
Alexios leads their walk, and his first stop is The Adrestia. In the four days since they landed, the ship’s crew has grown listless, bored. They belong on the water, that much is obvious. Even the captain looks uneasy to be so close to land, suspended within Poseidon’s embrace, but unable to leave without news. Alexios smiles when he sees the ship, and stands at the edge of the deck. He calls: “Chaire, Barnabas.”
Barnabas’ face lights up when he sees Alexios. He stands, practically scrambling to the ship’s dock, where he embraces the mercenary tightly, an arm braced against his neck, a boisterous “Alexios!” escaping his throat. It is a show for his crew, who hoot and cheer for their commander’s appearance. Lykaon catches the captain’s words, hushed, meant for the misthiosalone: “Praise the gods, boy, I thought you were dead.”
“I’d never abandon you, Barnabas. Never for good.”
“I have followed you from one end of the Greek world to the next.” Barnabas’ voice cracks, and he raises stricken eyes. “I never thought you would come back here.”
Alexios says, “I had to make sure she could rest.”
“I see.” The captain bites his lower lip. “And the boy?”
“Gone.” The word is hollow.
Barnabas sighs, his expression pained. “Ah, gods, Alexios.”
“I’ll live,” Alexios says.
The old captain pokes him gently in the chest. “You’re missing another piece here, though, and after all the work we did to repair it in the first place.”
Alexios ignores the comment. “You’re a good friend, Barnabas. I’ve missed you.”
“And I, you.” Barnabas looks over his shoulder. “Are you ready to return with us?”
Alexios looks at Lykaon. “I think I’m not sea worthy, yet,” the mercenary admits.
“Well, The Adrestiais.” The captain beams. “I’ve had a few people ask me to make cargo deliveries, and who am I to say no to Poseidon? We need time to get our sea legs back, and you need some time to heal. We should be back in two weeks, at the most. What do you say?”
“I hope to see you in two weeks,” Alexios says, and Lykaon hears the sincerity in his voice.
Two weeks. It will be enough, he tells himself. It must be enough.He turns his eyes back to the others.
The captain and the mercenary men embrace. Barnabas claps Alexios on the back. “Chaire, Alexios. Soon, we’ll rule the waves again.”
Alexios’ firm nod does not ease Lykaon’s anxiety, but he stays to watch The Adrestialeave port. They wave to Barnabas and the motley crew that he calls family. The sailors praise Poseidon as they leave the harbor, their singing voices clear and joyous as they embrace the tides.
Alexios lets out a long breath, watching the ship sail away. “Gods, I didn’t realize how much I missed him,” he says, voice shaking. He looks at Lykaon. “I’ve only known a few friends like him.”
“He is a great man,” Lykaon says.
“He’s one of the best. Hah, maybe thebest.”
“No man has more faith in the gods than Barnabas.”
Alexios gives him an odd, surprised smile. “I suppose you got to know him well over the past few weeks.”
“He’s a great man,” Lykaon repeats. “I think, were more people to spend but an hour in his company, they might have a speck of that greatness.”
The mercenary’s smile turns genuine. “I can think of a few men who have benefitted.” He turns his eyes back to the sea. “May the sea grant you safe passage,” Alexios murmurs. “Lord Poseidon, protect my friend, Barnabas, his ship, and his crew. Give them clear skies, calm seas, and your guidance.”
When they can no longer see The Adrestia,they walk away from the harbor, entering the market. They buy fish, caught and smoked fresh that day, fruit, and bread. Alexios looks sad as the baker hands over a loaf, and when Lykaon asks why, the mercenary only says: “It feels different than the last time.” He does not elaborate, and they walk in comfortable silence back to the house.
As evening falls, they prepare a small meal together, smoked fish, bread, cheese, olives, figs, and wine. The fish is salty and rich; it tastes of olive wood, smoke, and the sea. The bread and cheese are filling. The olives are salted, tangy and savory on their tongues. Alexios meticulously teases the pits out with a knife before popping the dark olive flesh into his mouth. Lykaon quarters the figs, marvels at the dark red pulp and seeds, offers a quarter to Alexios. The other man shakes his head. “You first.”
Lykaon eats the fig. The sweetness is overpowering, and Alexios laughs. Lykaon momentarily feels like the butt of a joke, but realizes he’s never heard the mercenary laugh like this. He raises his wine goblet, drinks to curb the sweet taste, and watches Alexios eat one of the figs. It disappears into his mouth, and he closes his eyes, concentrating.
Lykaon watches. There is an intimacy in sharing a meal with another, in tasting what they do, sharing an appreciation for a welcome bounty. Demeter has blessed this land, and Poseidon the waves. Dyme, Lykaon decides, is special, and he hopes to see more of its appeal in the coming two weeks.
They establish a routine. Mornings are spent inspecting healing wounds, and, after two days, Alexios brushes the bandages away. He battles with a training dummy in the house’s small courtyard, and goes hunting, returning with a rabbit. Even better, Lykaon notices that Ikaros and Phobos are with him. Where the animals came from, he does not hazard a guess. Perhaps Artemis iswatching over us.
The horse greets him with a snort, and the eagle squawks impatiently. “Such a rude bird,” Lykaon says.
“Such a hungry bird,” Alexios corrects, and peels a fig into pieces. The bird happily eats, chirping and hopping from foot to foot. Lykaon gathers some sweet green grass, and Phobos settles in, content to graze.
They roast the rabbit, and while it cooks, they clean the courtyard. Alexios lingers near Neema’s grave, and takes additional time to clean the stone, adjust the placement of the small objects nearby. He does not speak to the stone, and Lykaon does not ask any questions. He respects grief, and can see Alexios’ emotions are still raw over this loss. Lykaon is content in that reality; he has spoken to the dead woman, and feels that she has given her blessing. He entertains the fantasy that, should some dark fate befall him, the mercenary will inflict bloody vengeance on his behalf, much as he did for Neema.
They talk more and more. Alexios is content with silence, but Lykaon notices the light in his eyes when they talk.
Their discussions range from the state of the war – “Who do you suppose is winning?” Lykaon asks, to which Alexios snorts, and says, “I expect whichever side still has drachmae to waste” – to the possibility of going back to Sparta – “Your mother misses you, I could tell. Your family would welcome your return,” Lykaon tells him, but Alexios shakes his head. “No. We parted on good terms, they are safe, and I will always know where they are.”
“Sparta is where your family is, though. It’s home.”
“Why go back to a place that is not, and could never be, home? What is Sparta to me?” Alexios’ eyes darken. “It will always be the place I should have died.” He looks around the house, his expression softening. “It is not the place I came back to life.”
Lykaon makes a point of leaving an offering at Neema’s grave marker the next morning. He understands a bit more, now. He sees the sparks in Alexios’ eyes, his demeanor; the man is coming back to life before Lykaon’s eyes.
Is this what it is to save a soul?
This evening, a week after Barnabas left, Lykaon listens, fascinated, as Alexios relates another of his conversations with Sokrates. “I swear, that man gave me a headache each time we spoke,” he says. “Each conversation became a debate, a play on words, running in circles trying to get a simple answer. Should I kill this man, or not kill this other man? Oh, no! I should have killed this woman, one who has done nothing wrong, all to save a man I’ve never met? No. Ridiculous.”
“So what did you do instead?”
Alexios sighs. “I stabbed the bastard quarry owner in the back with my spear. His slave is still a slave, that woman – whoever she was – is alive, and I sleep just fine.”
“Do you really?”
Alexios groans. “Ugh. You sound like Sokrates.”
Lykaon roars with laughter. He likes this Sokrates fellow. Anyone who can frustrate the misthiosis worth admiring.
When their evening meal is finished and cleaned up, Alexios lights a fire. They sit before it, drinking wine, settling into silence once again. Alexios offers to take the first watch, and when Lykaon gently reminds him that there is likely no need, the mercenary’s face flushes pink. Lykaon reaches out, takes the other man’s hand, gives it a gentle squeeze. “We are safe,” he assures Alexios.
Alexios looks at their interlocked hands, smiles faintly. “I suppose it’s an old habit,” he explains, and he looks to his neatly stacked weapons and armor. “Forgive me, Lykaon. I need some air.” He retrieves the broken spear –Lykaon can see it is no longer truly broken; the shaft is wrapped in fine leather, the clear impression of Alexios’ hand in the makeshift grip, and a fine, gold pommel rounds out the weapon – and walks outside, climbing to the roof.
Lykaon recognizes the desire for privacy, and does not pry. He tends to the fire until it becomes more ashen than ember, and gathers the blanket to get comfortable. He can hear Alexios humming outside, and recognizes the tune as the one Kassandra summoned him with in Sparta. Somehow, Lykaon does not hear it a summons here. Instead, it is a lullaby, a calming melody to soothe the day away. He smiles, closes his eyes, and listens, settling in for a peaceful sleep.
He dreams of a field, surrounded by darkness, with flashes of light breaking through. In the center of the field, he sees the warrior, dressed in armor, holding an extended spear. The weapon shines gold, glimmering, hardened metal, honed to a razor’s edge. Lykaon knows that spear, and he instinctively shrinks from it. When the man sees him, the weapon lowers, and Lykaon hears the whispered words, a fusion of a man’s voice and the woman’s he knew as Artemis: “The body and mind are healed. Your task is not finished.”
“It will take time,” Lykaon’s dream-self protests. “Do you not hear him? He laughs, he smiles, and he talks to me. His soul is mending, but it is a deep wound.”
“Then stitch it closed.”
“I need time,” Lykaon says, lifting a finger. “I’ve had one week. Even Orpheus did not win over Eurydice in a single week.”
“Yet it took Orpheus less than a day to lose her.”
Lykaon recoils like he’s been slapped.
The man lifts the spear. “Time is a luxury you do not have, healer. Finish your task.”
Offended by the order, Lykaon snaps: “I am doing as you asked. I will do it my way, through honesty and trust, not in your way.”
“Honesty and trust?” The woman’s voice is higher, louder. “It is not that simple, Lykaon.”
“I am a healer,” Lykaon reminds her. “I heal and I comfort, and—"
The man’s voice interrupts, dominant, and Lykaon flinches, recognizing it as Alexios’. “You came here on the whim of one who might have been a goddess, and you think a little healing and comfort will save a soul?”
The spear’s sharp end finds his heart easily enough, drives through him with a searing pain, so furious that it rouses him from the dream. He lurches upright, covers his mouth, prevents the scream from ripping out of his throat. Disoriented, he realizes he’s lying on a pallet, covered by the blanket, comfortable in the other room. Alexios’ room. Where is Alexios?
He startles at the gentle brush of a hand across his cheek. Alexios.
“You had a nightmare,” Alexios rumbles above him, soft, soothing. “Go back to sleep, Lykaon.”
“You had a spear,” Lykaon mumbles.
“I do have one.”
“I came here to save you.”
“I need to save you.”
Lykaon grasps at Alexios’ hand. “I dreamed of you… but it was not you.” His eyelids flutter. “You would not hurt me.”
He does not hear the response as sleep reclaims his mind.
In the morning, he does not speak of the dream. Alexios senses his discomfort, the nightmare, and tells him to relax. “I’ll fetch some food from the village. Get some rest.”
Lykaon stares after him as he walks away. Alexios is wearing his armored leathers, his tunic covered in the thinnest of protection. His attitude betrays nothing, and he has not spoken of a contract or a plan. Instead, there is the visual representation of the warrior, the hints of the monster in Lykaon’s dream.
His hand creeps over his heart, where the dream-spear struck him. You would never harm me. Not you.
The nightmare returns again and again. On the third night, he sees the dream warrior’s face an instant before he pierces Lykaon’s chest with a fiery spear, bellowing: “What are youto a demi-god?”His eyes are empty of all but rage, his mouth curled back around gnashing teeth, and his voice, oh, his voice is unmistakable, and Lykaon hears his own voice plead for his life, and the dream warrior laughs – gods, he laughs– and sneers, “You are nothingto a demi-god, ‘healer.’”
Lykaon surges awake, a choked scream on his lips, and tears streaming down his face. His hands claw at his chest – I can’t breathe, there is a spear in my heart, and I cannot breathe– and it takes a terrifying moment until the dream fades and the world returns. Cursing, Lykaon wrestles with the tangle of blankets; they feel like constricting hands arounds his legs and hips. He kicks at them, sobbing in his haste to flee the fragments of the nightmare. He struggles to his feet, and he prepares to flee the room when he feels a hand on his shoulder.
Lykaon sobs, reaches desperately for Alexios. He wraps his arms around the mercenary’s neck. “You are not him,” he whimpers. “You’re not, not the one I see when I close my eyes. It’s not you.”
One of Alexios’ hands rests flatly against the middle of Lykaon’s back. The healer grips at his tunic. “It isn’t you,” he repeats.
“The, that warrior, in my dream.” Lykaon tightens his grip. “The one who kills me.”
Alexios inhales a soft breath, and murmurs, softly, “Lykaon, it is a dream.”
“Gods, I wantit to be.”
“It is a dream. You are safe. I promise you that.”
“How can you promise that? Because you are here?”
“Yes.” There is no hesitation, only compassion, a gentle comfort.
“You’re real, right here and now.” Lykaon blinks, his eyes wet. “You are real.”
“Last I checked,” the mercenary manages.
Lykaon hugs him fiercely, and a choked sob erupts from his throat. “She gave me a task,” he says. “Artemis, or, or Aletheia, whoever she is, she told me to save you. To, to save your soul.”
Alexios’ hand flexes against Lykaon’s back, his fingertips digging into Lykaon’s tunic, but he says nothing.
“I tried to forget about you, you know,” the healer says. “You said you couldn’t stay forever, and I understood that. I knew you were on your own quest, that the gods were testing you in ways I couldn’t understand. And when I found you, you… gods, I didn’t know you. You weren’t you.” He sucks in a breath. “That man in my dreams, that’s you, the you that could have been if I hadn’t come along when I did.”
“Stop. Let me talk. You hear so much, and yet you don’t hear me. Listen to me.” Lykaon takes a deep breath. He loosens his grip, sits back, stares at Alexios’ face. “You were always in my thoughts. You were in my heart. I could let you go with the knowledge that I might see you again, and hope that you were thinking of me. You told me, you said you thought of me when Neema was pregnant, that you wished I was here.” He manages a shaky grin. “I wish I’d know her, Alexios. She was so special, so bright to win you and your heart. I wish I’d known her.” His smile falls, and he murmurs, “I, I think if I’d been here, though, I would be dead too, and, and…”
“And there would nothing left of you to save.”
Alexios looks away from him.
“That’s what I’m seeing,” Lykaon says. “In my dreams, the warrior I see, that is you.” He takes a breath. “The man you might have become, had you truly lost everyone.”
Alexios nods, and voice rough, he admits: “I burned half of Messenia to the ground to avenge Neema. Imagine what I would have done if it had been both of you.”
“Stay with me,” Lykaon pleads, suddenly afraid of the dark shadow that flickers in the mercenary’s eyes. “Stay with me. Don’t leave. Don’t, don’t go to that dark place, the one I found you in when I came here. Don’t go where I can’t find you. Please stay with me.”
Shaking, he lifts his hands, brushes Alexios’ hair out of his face. “Please,” he whispers. “Please don’t leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Alexios says. He dips his head, kisses Lykaon’s cheek.
It is gentle, nothing close to what Lykaon wants or needs. “Please,” he whispers. “Stay.”
Alexios strokes his hand along Lykaon’s hair. His fingertips are rough, and the calluses will leave small scratches. His hands cup Lykaon’s head, holding him gently, studying his features, those mercenary eyes fixed on his, never blinking.
“You healed my body,” Alexios murmurs. “My mind, too. What is left of me to save?”
“Then I suppose I should keep you safe, then.” He smiles faintly. “I could not save the other parts of my soul, but you…”
Lykaon nods. “I am here.”
The mercenary kisses his cheek again, holding him, gentle, affectionate. Lykaon breathes, eyes half closed. Alexios’ mouth trails along his jaw, and then his lips graze Lykaon’s.
“More,” the healer’s voice is barely audible.
Alexios pushes Lykaon onto the pallet, and Lykaon wonders at the impossibility of saving a soul that seems determined to save itself.
Alexios has fulfilled Lykaon’s request for the past three nights. He stays, attentive, patient, a lover of the body and the mind. If both are loved equally, then perhaps the soul cannot be far behind.
For three nights, they make love long into the night,
Alexios’ body is a map of scars, old wounds, some healed poorly, and yet his skin is warm, flush with life. Lykaon knows his own skin is smooth, unblemished by war or danger, but the power in his hands, to harm or heal, holds the mercenary close.
Alexios is physically strong, cunning, and Lykaon knows the violence the man is capable of. Despite that possibility, there is such tenderness in his touch, such yearning, a desperation that Lykaon cannot help but think of as a new form of healing. Each time his fingertips trace a scar, each time the mercenary wraps his arms around the healer, holding him tightly, he wonders if they are healing one another.
On the fourth night, Alexios tugs his hand, leads him to the roof. Beneath the sun-shielding canopy, they fall upon each other, the stars and moon above, clouds gently sliding through the sky. They are isolated atop this hill, with no one to distract from each other’s needs and desires.
In sight of the heavens, they worship one another.
Lykaon does not recall the entirety of their lovemaking. Perhaps it was the cool night air, or the heat of his lover’s skin. He remembers Alexios’ body crushing against his, his strength pushing Lykaon into the blankets, holding him in place while he cries out with pleasure. He remembers the other man’s mouth on his, and his desperate moans, pleading for more.
Alexios remembers the encounter very differently, as he recalls everything. He is the aggressor, after all, and has only rarely allowed another to dominate him in any space. Here, there is no power struggle; he is stronger, more experienced, and this is no temporary release with Alkibiades, no jest-sparked marathon of sex. This feels different; it feels real.
It feels like it was with Neema.
It feels like true desire, the need to give one’s partner the pleasure they deserve, to love their body as only their soul’s companion can. Alexios half-closes his eyes, knowing that he can be that for Lykaon. He will show him.
On the rooftop, shielded from the moon and stars, he loves Lykaon’s body, his mind, and his spirit, as only Alexios of Sparta can. He brings Lykaon to heights they never explored in their brief time together in the Chora of Delphi. The mercenary holds the healer tightly as their bodies fit together, like they are a weapon and sheath, expertly crafted by Hephaistos. If they are blessed by the smith-god’s wife, Aphrodite, this night, then so be it. Alexios will pray to her when next he travels to Korinthia, and thank her for this gift.
For now, he praises her as lovers in the heat of passion do, his focus drifting back to Lykaon. He controls the direction of their lovemaking, driving his body firmly into Lykaon’s, his fingers digging into the healer’s muscles and flesh, pushing Lykaon to his earthly limits, until the other man wails, begging for release. Alexios slowly withdraws, holds Lykaon tightly as the other man reaches his climax, gasping, grunting, leaning into the mercenary’s body, sighing, shaking, contentment and pleasure leaving him, temporarily, unable to move.
Alexios wraps his arms around Lykaon’s shaking body, presses a tender kiss to his temple. “I will stay,” he rumbles. “If you are here, I will stay.” After moonrise, they dress, stealing gentle touches as they do so, and return to the house.
In the light of the fire, they embrace, clothes falling away again. This time there is less aggression, less desperation. They touch, kiss, explore one another’s bodies. Lykaon kisses every scar he can see, gently, delicately, until Alexios gasps a soft plea to stop.
Alarmed, Lykaon whispers, “Are you in pain?”
“No,” Alexios assures him, smiling. “Ticklish.”
Lykaon smiles, kisses him. Alexios leans into the kiss, holding Lykaon’s face in his hands. After, he pulls Lykaon beside him, holds him tightly, hands resting on the healer’s shoulders and side.
Lykaon rests his head over Alexios’ heart, listening to the gentle, deliberate thmp thmp. “I would wager,” the healer finally says, “that I’m close to saving you by this point.”
Alexios laughs, a low, throaty sound. “Keep it up, healer, and I’ll have you howling to the stars again.”
“I can hardly wait.” Lykaon lifts his head, presses a kiss to Alexios’ cheek.
They fall asleep together on the pallet by the fire, limbs tangled together, bodies fitted just so. A weapon and sheath, a warrior and healer, lovers, souls entangled by the gods. They sleep, unburdened by dreams or worries. Their pleasantly aching bodies and warm hearts are their offerings to the gods on this night.
It is the most restful sleep Lykaon has experienced since that first time in the Chora of Delphi. He has not slept this well in years. He did not dream or die in a dream; he saw no fearsome warrior, full of violence, possessing the voice of someone he is now certain he loves. The evening on the rooftop convinced him, and he fell asleep to the warm, calming sound of his lover’s heartbeat.
He did not hear the goddess speaking to him, and has not in days. He will take what respite he can from the task he has been given. He believes, firmly, that he has succeeded. What is a soul healed if not one that can smile, laugh, kiss nightmares away, and praise the gods through love making? If he is not serving Artemis, he is surely serving Aphrodite. He smiles. He remembers hearing Alexios murmur the goddess’ name in his sleep, and knows that their minds are of an agreement of this.
To praise you with love, with our bodies, to show passion in your name. I serve Asclepius in my trade craft, Goddess of Love, but I thank you for your gifts to me on these past few nights. I will honor you, if you will allow me.
Lykaon stands, disturbing the blanket draped over him. He picks it up and folds it, placing it on a chair. He shivers, inspects the fire. The embers are pale pink, and he plucks a stick from the floor to poke at the coals. They hiss to life, and he withdraws the stick before it can catch fire. He warms his hands, rubs his upper arms, easing heat into his body.
He retrieves his discarded tunic and robes from the floor. He dresses, finds a bowl of clean water on the table. He splashes his face and hands. He glances out the window at the grey, drizzly morning. It is a perfect day to remain inside, near the warmth, with a companion. He smiles wistfully, imagining what the rain will look like from the roof.
His reverie is broken as he looks around the room. He feels something is missing, but cannot quite put his finger on what it is. He is certain it will come to him as he walks to Alexios’ room.
He is not there.
“Alexios?” Lykaon calls.
He walks out of the house, shielding his head from the rain. Alexios is not in courtyard. He climbs to the roof, but, no, he is not there either.
Lykaon’s heartbeat increases.
The mercenary is gone.
Perhaps hunting? No, no, not in this rain. That would be foolish.
Lykaon returns to the main room. Frustrated, he scans it, struggling to identify what is missing. When he realizes, he feels the breath leave his body.
It’s the spear. The spear is gone. So is Alexios’ armor. No armor, no weapons, no coin purse, nothing. Everything is gone. The house is picked clean, all signs of life erased.
Alexios is gone.
It is as if he were never there to begin with.
If he is gone, by the gods, what if I have imagined everything.
“No,” Lykaon breathes.
He feels a dull ache in his chest, a gnawing emptiness that threatens to burst out of him. After the last few nights, the possibilities he hoped for, to find this, it is too much. He grips the doorway, his mouth dry, heart threatening to break. You left. Why? Why would you leave?
He hears movement, a step on the dirt floor, returns to the main room. Alexios is there, shaking the rain from his hair, pushing his hood back. “Good morning,” he says brightly. “I brought us breakfast.” He holds up a netted bundle.
Lykaon feels all the strength drain out of him.
Alexios dives for him as the healer’s knees give out. He catches Lykaon, who lets out a sob as they land on the ground.
“Lykaon,” Alexios murmurs, hands on the healer’s shoulders, bundle tossed to the side, forgotten. “Lykaon, what is it?”
“Foolish,” Lykaon mutters. “I was foolish.”
“Foolish for what? What are you talking about?”
“I… I thought you were gone. I thought you left.” He shakes his head, looks at the bundle. “Just breakfast.”
“You were sleeping, and I didn’t want to disturb you.” Alexios is confused, but does not remove his hands from Lykaon’s shoulders. “Are you all right?”
“I am far from it.” Lykaon bows his head. “What are we doing? What am Idoing?”
“Right now, we are on the floor.”
Lykaon scowls. “The goddess set me a task. I found you, I saved you, and… and what?”
Alexios’ confusion grows. “If I’d known leaving you alone would upset you this much, I—”
“What? You would what?”
“I would have woken you and asked you to come with me.” Alexios sighs, lowering his hands. “Barnabas and the crew made it back last night. When I saw they were here, I made a detour.”
“So I suppose that’s it, then? You’ll leave?” Lykaon says bitterly, anger and embarrassment clouding his judgment. After last night, he thought things were different, he imagined that his task was fulfilled, that Alexios was full healed – fully his. “I thought—”
Alexios kisses him, stopping the complaint. “I wanted to make sure there was room for you on The Adrestia,” he says, his voice soft and warm. “They’re leaving tomorrow. I hoped you would come with me. With all the scraps I get into, I could use a healer close by.” He presses a kiss to his lips. “You saved me, Lykaon. I could not face my fate without you at my side.”
Lykaon sighs. “I am an idiot.” He glances at the bundle. “You only left to get breakfast?”
“Well, I was certainly hungry.”
Lykaon chuckles. He cannot help it. The mercenary is back to his old self, there is no doubt.
Alexios helps Lykaon to his feet. The healer takes his hands, holds them tightly. “Whatever your fate,” he says, “whatever that goddess, whatever she said, about the waves, what awaits you there… I will follow you. If you will have me.”
“I think that is the only place you cannot follow me,” Alexios says.
“What is it?”
“Someday I will tell you. Not now, though.” He squeezes Lykaon’s hands. “That day is a long time off, Lykaon. We have other adventures, other labors to attend to.”
Lykaon snorts. “So you are Herakles, now, eh?”
“Gods, no.” Alexios rolls his eyes. “I’ve been told a time or two that I fight like Achilles. I think I like that comparison better.”
“So who does that make me?”
“Patroclus, of course.”
Lykaon wags a finger. “I’m not wearing that armor into battle for you.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it.” Alexios pulls him close. “You keep me whole. You saved my life, and you saved my soul.” He kisses Lykaon. “I will stay. Where you go, I go. Where I go, I hope you are with me.” He lifts his hands, cups Lykaon’s face, rests their foreheads together. “Neema’s death almost destroyed me, and Elpidios…” He squeezes his eyes shut.
“You might see him again,” Lykaon says. It is a lie, but it seems the right kind.
“No. He will be free, and live a long life without me.” Alexios opens his eyes, stares into Lykaon’s. “You are who I need now, Lykaon. You are who I need, who I want, who I will love, with every fiber of my being. I will worship you, love you, protect you, and care for you as best I can.”
“You told me, you burned half of Messenia when Neema died.”
“I did, and I would do it again and again, as many times as necessary, if it would bring her back. Because I know more death will not raise her, I will stay my hand.” Alexios smiles, and it is full of sadness. “I can’t promise that kind of restraint if anything happens to you, though.”
“I’ll do my best to stay out of trouble, then.”
“No promises of that if you are with me.”
Lykaon smiles slyly. “Then it’s a good thing I have a misthiosto call my own. Your kind make excellent bodyguards.”
Alexios’s smile is still sad, but his voice is serious, focused. “Lykaon, without you, there is only my fate beneath the waves.”
“Someday you will tell me what the gods have in mind for you, Alexios of Sparta.”
“For now, Lykaon, they only have you in mind for me.” Alexios hugs him tightly. “I need you. I need you in my arms, in my heart, my head, my soul. I need you.”
“I need you,” Lykaon echoes. “I have loved you since we first met. If this time, you will stay forever—”
“Forever,” Lykaon says.
Lykaon dreams of the field. The dream warrior stands beside the woman he knew as Artemis. Lykaon braces himself for the violence, for the hateful words, but the warrior says nothing, staring at him. Artemis’ voice breaks across the field: “Well done, healer.”
“A small thing,”the dream warrior rumbles, Alexios’ familiar voice tinged with disgust, annoyance. “How long does it last? I give you a year. In a year, you’re dead, and I will resume my rightful place. Vengeance is all we are, healer. We do not suffer fools, nor weakness, and—”
“Enough,”Artemis scolds, and the warrior falls silent. “You had your chance. You failed. Begone.”
“The Son of Artemis is mine, and despite your best efforts, Ares will never have him. Go away.”
Sullenly, the warrior looks at Lykaon once more. “Weakness,”he spits. “Who are youto a demi-god?”
“His love,” Lykaon says boldly, standing tall. “I hold his heart. I have the power to heal his body and mind, and Isaved his soul. What did you do?”
“I gave him strength.”
“Even Ares knows that strength comes from passion.”
“Hmph.”The dream warrior glares at Artemis. “Your hunt was successful, Lady. I salute you with honor.”He scowls at Lykaon. “You are brave, healer. Perhaps there is hope for you, yet.”With that, he plants his spear into the dirt, and fades away.
Artemis – or Aletheia, truly it does not matter, this goddess has enough power without her name causing him such fear – approaches Lykaon. She smiles, and takes his hands. “Live, Lykaon. Take my blessings, and live. The waves await him, but until that day comes, be bound, soul to soul, and live.”
“Thank you,” Lykaon says, his voice choked with tears. “Thank you for this.”
She kisses his cheek. “May Poseidon grant The Adrestiacalm seas, fair winds, and welcoming harbors.”
She fades away, and Lykaon blinks, slowly waking to the smell of a dying fire.
Alexios is awake, cleaning the last of the ashes from the hearth. He steps outside to get rid of them, and returns. He smiles, holds out his hand, helps Lykaon to his feet. “Sleep well?”
“Yes, for the first time in two weeks.”
Alexios snorts. “It’ll take me at least that long to get my sea legs back.”
“Well, that makes two of us.”
They laugh, and set about the morning business. They tidy the house, eat a small breakfast of cheese and bread.
Leaving the house, they stop one final time at Neema’s grave. Alexios crouches before the stone, and rests his hand against it. He smiles, sadly, and murmurs, “Goodbye, Neema. Rest well, my love.”
He stands, and takes Lykaon’s hand. “I loved her.” He smiles. “I love you.”
“I love you.” Lykaon kisses his cheek. “Stay with me, misthios.”
“Forever, if you’ll have me.”
They walk down the hill to Dyme, towards The Adrestia.
It is a new dawn, and an ocean awaits them.
Thanks for those of you who stuck it out with me this month while this story clawed its way out of me. I appreciate all your reads, comments, and kudos.
Apart from the source material of AC: Odyssey, two books inspired this story: 'The Song of Achilles' (Miller, 2012) and 'The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today' (Doerries, 2016). Both are excellent books, and I cannot recommend them enough. If you are keen on audiobooks (as I am), I hope you give these two a listen.
Until next time, dear reader(s).