This is the story of my death, and it begins with the darkest details of my life: I was a thief, and it's possible I never knew my father.
I was abandoned by my mother at the age of two, left under care of an orphanage ran by King Peleus of Phtia. What was revealed upon my later questioning of the staff there, is that my morher had appeared to be a well-off, although distressed woman. She had stormed into the orphanage's halls on a cold winter evening, carrying me on one of her arms and a golden-bathed lyre on the other. Such an extravagant possession, in addition to the luxurious silks of her robes, had given her position away: she was of rich origin, graceless daughter of a royal advisor, perhaps, or mistreated wife of a prince. Our territories were not particularly short on spiteful monarchs and ambitious, heartless traders.
Whatever her case, she had found herself in a tight position, and she had seen it fit to be rid of me, leaving a valuable instrument in compensation for her unexpected arrival. The staff would have had no choice but to take me, either way. That was King Peleus' number one rule when it came to running his orphanage: every child, no matter his age, rank or set of observable abilities, was to be allowed in and immediately accommodated. After all, the storerooms of the kingdom were rich with gold and silver and precious stones which could grant their care, but most importantly, the King's ambitious projects were always in need of unwanted children who could grow into indebted men to be put at his service. He intended to provide them with a home, nutritious meals and adequate training, and expected, in return of this, that had they not been adopted out by eighteen years of age, they chose either to join the kingdom's army, sacrificing their lives on the frontlines, or become a personal servant of the royal family, spending the rest of their lives among castle corridors and private offices. These options, naturally, were the only ones available: if an orphan refused to serve the king in any of the two ways presented, they were to be immediately exiled or put to death, depending on the degree of offense the king took after each betrayal.
Thus began my upbringing, solitary, uneventful, and harsh. Nothing remarkable could be said of me once my personality and skills became apparent with age: I was not strong, I could not sing, my introduction never left a lasting impression on hopeful spouses or army recruiters. Not many of my fellow orphans found me a desirable company, and I was not crowded by friends. The best that could be said of me was that I was not sickly, I never complained (or voiced my thoughts otherwise) and I became rather studious by the time I was twelve. That earned me a place among the apprentices. Unlikely adopted or recruited youth, but capable students of medicine, geography, and art, they were offered a more comfortable position within the palace's servitude. My instruction as a medic was provided by a most capable and patient teacher, Master Chiron, who I managed to impress with my persistence, my gifted memory, and a passion for avoiding the quarrelling and scheming inherent to military training. The orphanage's library quickly became my solace, and I rejoiced in every opportunity to spend the day among its cool shadows and worn-down copies.
However, going back in time, it is three years after my arrival to the palace when the most important event of these years took place: a prince was born. His story, to many, could be considered more tragic than mine. It begins like this: King Peleus, in search of a suitable wife who could provide him with a golden heir, had turned to the Gods. He was favoured among them, stories of his victories in battle and unparalleled leadership told both in Olympus and Earth. So clear was their approval of him, that they did not hesitate to honor him with a wife.
Not much except rumours were revealed about the new queen, for she was never presented before the people of Phthia by command of the Gods. Some said she was a deity, too, but others retorted that no, she couldn't be, they never agreed to mingle with mortals. She was surely the most beautiful and fertile woman of a faraway kingdom, kidnapped by the gods in favour of our King, and kept in secret to avoid conflict. Whoever she was, this mysterious woman had reserved different plans for herself than becoming Queen of our land.
The arrival of our prince to the world was announced one year after the marriage of King Peleus had been consummated. I was too young to know this, then, but the wicked tongues of servants, physicians and cooks had spoken of miscarriages, of our mysterious Queen conspiring with forces unknown to rid herself of many a child, which had resulted in the King having her locked away for several months. After a long period of expectation and intrigue, the upcoming birth of a healthy heir was finally announced. Our prince left his mother's womb the following summer, during an afternoon of unexpected storm and furious tides.
The King, elated by the birth of his heir, should have known better than to ignore these omens of misfortune, celebrating and distracting himself with his courtiers instead. In the late hours of the night, carrying our Crown Prince in her arms, our obscure Queen had managed to slip past the palace watch, disappearing into the shadows forever.
After their disappearance had been noticed, the King in his fury had sent his fiercest bands into the wide expanse of our islands, searching hill to shore and shore to hill again, but to no avail. The Queen and Prince had banished, seamingly leaving the grounds of the kingdom without a trace. Outrage and disappointment shook the cities, crumbling temples and offerings down. The Gods, alarmed by these offenses, met once more with the King and reached an agreement. They exchanged what they knew of the mystery for the restoration of their temples, and the case was closed, at least for the commoners.
Nothing but gossip and confabulations continued the story of our wayward queen and stolen prince. Shrines were placed in his honor across our cities and countryside alike, and they were kept through the years, the neverending grievance of our people in full display. Peace returned to Phthia for a longer era than any neighbouring kingdoms enjoyed, a period long enough for an entire generation to grow oblivious to treachery, tragedies and tribulations inside our walls. King Peleus' administration was stern and effective: our crime rates were low, and rarely did children starve in his lands. Quite a few of his army's soldiers were deployed to distant lands as aid: our kingdom had been free from any serious foreign threats for over two decades.
Our peace was disturbed the day Mycenae and Troy cried war. I was already grown by then: out of the orphanage, and working as a permanent staff member at the palace. I had grown to be quite the respectable physician, having the honor to assist his majesty on more than one occasion, especially after the passing of my tutor, Master Chiron. I was still adapting to his loss when havok broke.
The news of war quickly spread through the corridors of the palace and into the streets, much to his majesty's dismay. He was in a fit of stress those days, wandering in and out meetings and councils and embasseys, welcoming foreign dignitaries into his palace, where dinners and breakfasts had become tense. Such tension came to a climax when Peleus gave a public speech: Helen of Sparta had been kidnapped during a cowardly scheme orchestrated by Paris of Troy, and her husband, Menelaus, brother to Agamemnon of Mycenae, was readying his revenge. The brothers planned to invade Troy and pluck it clean of its riches, setting fire to its dishonorable reign and vasaging its citizens. Any men who joined the fight were promised generous rewards and an eternity of glory, which gave away the truth at least to me: this war would be bloody, and return to the motherland was hardly promised. And still, many of our ships would sail, as brave men from throughout our islands arrived to join the draft, perhap enchanted by the king's tales, perhaps bored of their uneventful lives.
My own life quickly proved to be the opposite of that: I was summoned before the king one grim afternoon, which I made haste for, only to be met with the most bitter of requests.
"You are to join the army, valued Patroclus. Your skills as a medic will serve our troops and save our friend's lives. I have spoken to Master Phoenix already. It is decided. You are expected to leave for battle in a fortnight. I trust you will make us proud, and perform your duty with the highest of commitments."
I was possessed by a grim mood, which left me feeling cold and desperate. I was unable to respond accordingly. I stared at my king, displeasure clear on my face, incapable of forming a coherent answer. A powerful fear gripped me, and I stood frozen under his gaze.
"Let me be clear, young man. This is an order from your King. Were you to refuse to fulfill it, exile is in order."
I was dismissed quickly after accepting his request. I don't remember how I got around to adressing him, whether I thanked him, whether the surprise was too much and I said nothing but "yes, your Majesty". My mind was in a haze, refusing to take in the gravity of my situation, the deep jeopardy of my safety and comfort. I'd always dreaded the battlefield, more than I could put into words. It was the stuff of my nightmares, and I was haunted by stories of gore, violent death and conquest, men that left courageous lionhearts and came back as barren ghosts. I had always been of the utmost certainty that, were I to be sent out to war, I'd be consumed by a total panic and die a miserable and painful death. The promise of a medical tent to harbor me was of no comfort at all.
And so I'd ran to the medical study. I'd drowned myself in tasks, running up and down the palace, willing my foolish heart to steady. It mostly did not, until, returning from a trip to the greenhouse to restock herbs, I ran into them.
Two corpulent soldiers, judging by their garments, were standing shoulder to shoulder inside the treasury, frantically bagging everything they could get their hands on. The door had been torn open, a window was shattered on the ground inside. Three guards laid dead on the ground, the signs of stabbing and violent struggle burning into my memory: in all my years as a physician, never had I bore witness to injuries such as these. The blood was still flowing warm out of their chests and necks, the attack must have happened in the blink of an eye, premeditated to perfection.
Speed and stealth were not presicely my strongest suit: Before I could even map an escape, I had been caught stearing, and the soldiers on the treasury were running towards me, weapons drawn. In a sharp moment of clarity, an idea dawned on me, and I spoke it into existence before I could understand its full meaning myself.
"WAIT! NO! I'LL GO WITH YOU!" I screamed at their face, running forward with just enough leeway to escape into the cold interior of the treasury, jumping over the dead bodies by the entrance. I was, by some miracle, carrying the leather bag I used to transport medicide around the palace. I promptly emptied its contents into the floor, adding to the shattered glass, and began filling it with gold.
"What the fuck you think you're doing, smartass?" One of the soldiers rang, flying towards me once more. The other one simply looked stunned, watching the corridors for signs of movement.
"You must be planning some sort of escape." I said, voice shaking, breathing in disarray. "I don't care where the hell it is you're going, you're taking me with you."
"Or what, dollface, you think you're tough?" He demanded, and his terribly rough voice gave away a sense of frantic stupor. I looked him in the eye, summoning all the courage I could muster.
"Or you'll be dealing with another body in your hands. I'm a doctor, and a damn good one if you ask me. Wherever we go, I can be of service to you both."
They had no time to keep retorting, or making new swings at me. Footsteps, many sets of them, rang throughout the staircases around us, and in a quick procession of movements I was being hauled up the shattered window, climbing over a set of rails, and running for my life across the rooftops of the palace, towards the mountains. In my years inhabiting the place, I'd never known this barren side of the rooftops, and I was frankly surprised to find out it was precisely the area above the treasury that was unwatched. The realization dawned on me hours later: it had, most certainly, been watched. It was them who were assigned the task, the same who had perpetuated its attack. Their escape plan had been meticulously conceived, for they were in possession of horses and provisions for the journey ahead. We briskly stole another horse for me, and so we left the palace unscathed, crossing streets and entering the woodlands at the speed of sound. I was lucky to have known how to ride a horse, or my intentions of joining them would have been futile.
At first, my presence made them tense. They were not sure how to go about having me as a companion, and they did not make efforts to introduce themselves. Neither did I. They did promptly ask my name, and the reason for my escape. I told them it was Patroclus, son of Chiron, the late palace physician, and I refused to join the draft. I asked the same of them. Their names, and the purpose behind their act of treason. Their station seemed well off to me: they were skilled warriors, no doubt, and according to their insights on the workings of the palace, they had been trusted for a very long time. However, they answered with even less honesty or clarity than I did. They gave a pair of smug smiles and said their names were Agammemnon and Menelaus (which was, for obvious reasons, false) and they were ready for greater things in life. Relatives they must have been. Cousins, perhaps, or even half-brothers. The resemblance between them was undeniable. Their true identity was kept a mistery, but that much would be obvious to anyone.
We traveled parallel to the ocean for six days, with little rest. We stopped when the horses demanded it, and even then only one of us slept at a time, the other two stood watch. So far, there were no signs of the royal guard, but that didn't mean they couldn't be nearing us, ready to ambush and arrest. It was during my second time standing watch that I decided to separate from them. The harbour they intended to reach was rearing close, according to their calculations, and I was frankly terrified of stepping foot into civilization once more. We had been avoiding small woodland settlements like the plague, making sure to leave no trace in people's minds.
I was contemplating what I would do once my companions reached their destination, when something off the corner of my eye caught my attention.
It was nighttime, "Menelaus" and the stallions slept in pure darkness, and yet, among the darkness, something glistened. The sparkle was coming from one of the leather bags, the ones reserved for the gold they had stolen. It was tightly attached to one of their horses, as were my own profits to mine, and an opening allowed for its contents to shine under the moonlight.
Curiosity got the best of me, and I peeked in while Agamemnon wandered deeper into the clearing, his back to me. What I found inside stopped me in my tracks, heartbeat spiking.
It was a lyre, but not just an ordinary one, it was finely carved and bathed in gold, a most unique piece of art if I had seen one. It was so spotlessly polished that its surface glistened under my flashlight like the waters of a lake at sunlight, and this added to the instrument a magical quality, the sort I imagined objects crafted by the gods would possess.
I turned it around in my hands, observing each detail and crevice, each strand of its strings, while a story came back to me. It was that of my mother, running into the orphanage's doors, carrying me and a precious lyre in her arms, about to dispose of both. I could not be sure by any logical means that this was the same instrument that had sealed my fate, and still, no doubts were present in my mind. Very few lyres as refined as the one before me would end up in any palace's treasury, so refined indeed that it became almost exotic. I stared, dumbfounded, at this piece of my obscured past, willing it to uncover its secrets to me.
I do not know what I was planning to do with myself when, in the near distance, the violent galloping of horses rang.
"IT'S THE ROYAL GUARD!" Screamed Agammemnon, running back to our position, starting our stallions and sleeping comrade awake.
I wasted no time.
I held onto the lyre and ran back to my horse, quickly shoving the instrument into my share of stolen riches. I climbed into my seat in one motion, and ran away without looking back.
"YOU SON OF A BITCH, COME BACK HERE!" Screamed the terrible voices of my abandoned companions, as they scrambled to make their own escape.
But I was already possessed by a new fire, the fates tugged at my strings and pulled me towards something new, and as I galloped the mountainside, a more descifrable yearning seized me.
A life of my own. A life full of being my own master, the sole conductor of my destiny, the creator of a much brighter stage for myself.
The new day dawned as I left the clearing behind, and I bumped into the ocean by midday. There were no signs of human inhabitants yet, this corner of the island too distant yet from any civilization, and not even a passing shit could be seen in the horizon. The midday sun itched something terrible, burning my skin and drenching me in sweat, agitating my stallion as well.
Not to far from where I was, I noticed the threshold of a cave among the stone, curtained by wild ivy. It was wide and tall enough to fit both my horse and me, and I dearly welcomed the shade it would provide. I approached it with delight, only to be stopped in my tracks once i stepped foot inside.
This cave had no more than two walls, instead of the three I expected. It's entrance dissolved into an endless hallway of sorts, at the end of which sunlight beamed.
Deep in confusion, I gripped my horses' rains and wandered in, following the way out. I had been expecting, perhaps, to find a small clearing, a nice, comfortable solace in the rocky mountainside, where surely wildflowers would grow and rodents would roam. What I bumped into, instead, was a splendid valley, gigantic and hidden by tall ladders that caved in.
And standing in the midst of it all, bathed in sunlight, was a tower.
An abbandoned tower.
I ran towards it like a moth to a flame.