.. | the walls of astyanax | chapter 9
By the evening of the next day, the setting sun found them passing through a small town, exhausted. Achatës appeared none the worse for wear, but Avicenna, still not used to such hard riding, felt he would fall from his saddle if they did not stop and rest soon. Patroklos was also beginning to drag his feet and toss his head.
But it seemed that Achatës had no intention of stopping here, even though there were plenty of out of the way places for them to at least dismount and stretch. Though weary, his eyes had a hard set of determination to them.
"I want to put Attica as far behind us as possible," he'd said.
"Where are we going?" Avicenna asked, rubbing his sore thigh.
Avicenna exhaled loudly his fatigue. "How long will that take?"
Achatës looked at him. "At least one more day and a night too if we stop. I don't want to stop."
It was then that Avicenna realized that Achatës still had not rested from his wrestling. He must have been absolutely drained and yet he kept on. He hadn't even eaten anything.
"The horses are worn out," Avicenna pointed out. He would not risk the health of their only means of transportation. "A few minutes, at least," he said, then added after a moment, "...please."
Achatës gave him a long look but then finally closed his eyes and gave a sigh. He reined in and found a quiet spot a bit outside of the town near a crumbling stone wall and a few old, bent trees. There was a small pond nearby and they led their horses to it.
Avicenna slid down with relish and leaned against his mount's side. His legs felt like they would buckle beneath him.
Achatës allowed his horse to bend its head to drink, but he did not relax his posture. Instead, he was looking off in the distance from which they'd come.
Avicenna took a swig from their water skin, then doused his head. He flicked water at Achatës.
"Will you rest?" he said, tossing the water container to the other. "And eat. I want you to eat."
Achatës looked at him as he tipped the skin back to drink. He licked his lips. There were droplets of water gleaming on his shoulder where Avicenna had splashed him, but his face, neck and shoulders glistened with sweat. His skin seemed darker too, from their time in the sun.
"I'm not hungry," he said, refilling the skin. He looked askance at Avicenna, half smiling as he spoke, almost like a challenge.
Avicenna put his hands on his hips. "You made me eat once. I'll make you if I have to."
The Spartan stood back up to his full height and stared down at him, at least a head taller than his companion. Avicenna never flinched.
"You don't frighten me, Spartan," the Athenian said.
Achatës relented and reached for the pack that had the food in it. "It was never my intention to frighten you, Cenna," he said softly.
Avicenna, satisfied that Achatës would eat, sat on the ground where he could stretch out his legs and rest his back. With a great sigh he leaned back on his hands and stared at his outstretched feet. He wiggled his toes in his sandals. They were filthy; he was filthy.
It wasn't until a moment later that he noticed Achatës had been watching him. The Spartan didn't balk at his stare, but merely continued his chewing with a half-smile on his face.
"Don't like the feel of road dust between your toes?" he said after he'd swallowed. "I would think you'd be getting used to it."
Avicenna looked off in the other direction. "I'll never get used to it. I'll never get used to any of it."
There was a momentary pause as Avicenna stared into the distance before he heard Achatës start digging around in their bags. He pulled out a rubbing cloth that was supposed to be used for their mounts' backs and quickly proceeded to unlace Avicenna's sandals. The Athenian stared at him. "What are you doing?"
Achatës doused the cloth with water from their supply. "It's not an oil rubdown, not even a wool cloth but..." he looked up at Avicenna as he began to rub his foot with the cool, damp rag. "It's the best I can give you. For now." He smiled gently. "It will get better, I promise."
Not much later they were back on the road again, riding in silence and in the dark. A cool wind had set in, giving Avicenna chills.
He couldn't tell quite how he felt at the moment. Just numb, he supposed. Achatës washing his feet had been a humbling experience, even though it was supposed to have worked the other way around. He hadn't realized how selfish he must have sounded, until now.
He stole a glance at his riding companion. Achatës didn't have to help him. He hadn't had to do anything at all for him and yet he was here, letting Avicenna tag along when surely if he had just gone by himself he would be much farther away by now.
So why was it that he was still here?
Avicenna played with Patroklos' mane. He thought back to their kiss. It had been a strong embrace, an echo of one he'd lain in years ago. Back when things were uncomplicated, when happiness came as easily as his father walking through the door.
But it was different now. He was no longer a boy, he reasoned. Time to stop the wishing and hiding. If Philip had taught him anything it was to think on his own... wasn't it?
No, he'd never even done that. All he had ever wanted was to make his father proud of him, to see Philip smile, for him to open his arms for those few and far between embraces.
He looked back at Achatës. Did the Spartan know the significance his washing Avicenna's feet held? It was a subservient practice, symbolic of hosts to their honored guests, of valets to their kings.
And of courting lovers to their beloveds.
Avicenna closed his eyes. Surely not.
But he couldn't ignore the kisses Achatës had bestowed upon him, and his mind refused to pass them off as the Spartan's toying with him.
He was suddenly snapped out of his thoughts by Achatës' hushed voice.
"Cenna?" Achatës kept his eyes foreword and spoke through clenched teeth. "When I tell you to, I want you to drive him as hard as you can up into those trees and keep going until he can't run anymore, understand?"
Avicenna's blood froze.
"We're being followed," the Spartan hissed.
Avicenna chanced a sidelong glance into the trees he was to flee into. The woods lining the road were dark and frightening, and he was just to run blindly into them?
"I can't," he whispered, the thought of separating making his heart leap into his throat in fear and apprehension.
"Ready?" Achatës said softly.
"Just go when I say." He paused and looked at Avicenna. "I'll find you, I promise," he said. "Now... go!"
Avicenna drove his heels into his mount's sides and plow-reined him into the trees as hard as he could, shutting his eyes to leaves and branches and the gods knew what else hit him as Patroklos flew deep into the brush. He would have to trust his horse's senses on this one; it was impossible to see on his own.
He kicked harder when he felt his horse slowing, urging him on with hisses and small shouts, afraid of where he was headed and worse, who was behind him. It was such a blur that he couldn't hear or see what was around him, and with his head ducked into his horse's mane, he dared not chance to look up.
At one point Patroklos jumped something and water splashed around him, then up onto an embankment they fled, into more brush and trees until finally, after an unfathomable amount of time, Patroklos' breathing became labored and he slowed no matter how Avicenna urged him to move on. The horse became reckless in his turns and jumps until finally he stumbled and rolled, throwing Avicenna to the ground where he rolled into dirt and leaves until his body finally stopped and his vision went black.
Someone was touching him. Touching him with warm, work-hardened hands and long, strong fingers. Avicenna opened his eyes and stared into a pair of dark brown ones, painfully familiar but somehow distant.
"Father," he sighed.
Philip bent his head to kiss his son's chest, his lips soft and gentle, like a feather's touch. Avicenna's head rolled back on whatever it was he was laying on and he stared up into nothingness. He felt as if he were floating in the air itself, and only Philip's delicious weight held him down. His father touched him everywhere, bringing about the most wonderful of sensations from his body that came and went in waves, oddly distant and padded feeling, like the true pleasure of them was just out of his reach.
Avicenna stretched a hand out, trying to catch hold of something but couldn't feel anything beneath his fingers. But he knew Philip was there, he had to be! He wanted to weep because he felt nothing, he was alone in this empty place. Philip had left him again.
A hand touched and held his gently, bringing it down to rest on a muscle-hard shoulder, just brushing longer, more golden locks than Philip had possessed. Achatës kissed his tears away and then moved his kisses down Avicenna's stomach, rubbing his cheek against his flesh, tongue tracing the contours of Avicenna's lower belly.
Avicenna's fingers dug into the Spartan's flesh as he arched his back, groaning out load and wondering at how the sound seemed to echo in his own ears. He felt like he could die here, in this embrace, feeling warm and secure, able to let go of all the masks and pride and simply submit to being held close, as he'd always wanted to be, but never remembered wishing for.
Avicenna opened his eyes to daylight. Above him he saw the underside of a canopy of trees. His head ached and that was all that concerned him for the moment.
He moved to sit up as slowly as possible, becoming quite aware of the pain in his back as well, but it was nothing too serious. He was a bit dazed still as he blinked in the bright light of day, listening to birds chirping and the sound of water running nearby.
He didn't remember falling at all. Ahead of him, he could see a great white blur that was his horse. A small gash on the stallion's shoulder from which several lines of now dry blood ran down his leg was the only testimony to their hasty flight last night. Otherwise, his horse was grazing peacefully, tethered to a tree without saddle or bridle. Behind him another mount, a black gelding, dozed in the shade.
Avicenna shook his head again, trying to make sense out of it. The answer was lying next to him, which would explain why his right side was so warm.
Achatës lay on his side asleep, facing Avicenna, his head cradled on an arm. He looked like he'd been in quite a fight- his hair and face were filthy, his elbows were raw and it looked as if someone had dealt him quite a blow to his head, where from his temple a still-freshly bruised cut had dripped blood all the way down his brow and cheek.
Avicenna looked around again. How in the world had Achatës found him out here? And how long had it been?
He laid back down next to Achatës and stared up at the trees that easily shielded them from the sun. His dream came back to him in bits and pieces, and his cheeks flushed hotly. Had he really cried out?
About that time, the body next to him stirred. Achatës sat up, holding his head in much the same fashion that Avicenna had and looked around. He saw Avicenna blinking up at him and he smiled.
"Thank the gods," he said, a bit hoarsely. "I was afraid you wouldn't wake up."
"What happened?" Avicenna asked, finding it hard to look the Spartan in the eye.
Achatës touched the wound on his temple to see if it was still bleeding. "You fell or he tripped, one or the other," he said, gesturing to Patroklos.
Avicenna moved to sit up again and Achatës grabbed his arm to help.
"No, I mean with the riders. Who was following us?"
"The same ones who were chasing us in Corinth, I suspect." He gave a winning smile. "They won't bother us anymore. Not that group anyway."
He stood up and stretched his back, extending a hand to help Avicenna up.
"How many were there?" the Athenian asked, accepting his hand.
"Five," Achatës answered easily, pulling him up and then slightly limping to where their packs sat at the base of a tree. He pulled out their water skins and a rubbing cloth and made for the stream that was a little further down the bank.
Avicenna followed him, discovering new bruises as he walked. "You defeated five men?" he asked incredulously.
Achatës nodded as he removed his torn tunic and gingerly stepped into the water. He splashed into the deepest part in the middle and knelt down. The water didn't come up too high, just below a large, dark blue bruise along his ribs that stretched around to his lower back. He dipped the cloth and began to clean his face with it.
Avicenna was too exhausted to give it much thought, and the crystal clear water did look inviting, so he stripped as well and moved to where Achatës sat. The shallow water had been warmed by the sun, and it offered sweet relief to worn muscles.
"Tell me how you did it," he said, kneeling down in front of the Spartan. He took the cloth from Achatës' hand and dipped it again into the water. Delicately he dabbed it to the cut on the Spartan's forehead, gently cleansing away the dried blood.
Achatës shrugged. "I fought them. One of them dropped his sword so I picked it up and finished him off with it." He laughed, which sounded a little labored. "Not very glorious."
Avicenna looked down into his eyes. Achatës' face wasn't very far from his own and again, his dream came back to him. He placed a hand on Achatës' cheek to steady his head, dipped the cloth again and resumed his cleaning.
A few more moments passed silently. Avicenna tried to concentrate on what he was doing; a wound like this could make the Spartan sick if it wasn't cleaned properly, that much he knew. But the fact that he could feel the Achatës' breath on his neck was enough to distract him. It took all he could to keep going as if it didn't bother him.
"You're filthy," Achatës said idly as he splashed water gently up Avicenna's side and rubbed it down his flesh, presumably to get rid of the dirt and grime of his fall. Avicenna pretended to be absorbed in the task at hand and not notice.
The Spartan splashed again, trailing his hand down Avicenna's side and over the top of his thigh with the honest intent of helping to clean him, but such a touch could never be taken as wholly innocent.
And still, Avicenna didn't move to stop him. He cleaned as much dirt and blood as he could from the nasty wound, but he couldn't do much more with just a semi-clean horse rag. He cupped water in his free hand and dribbled it over the cut, watching the lines of water trail down over the Spartan's brow and over his closed eye.
Avicenna wiped away excess water with soft fingers, smoothing Achatës' thick eyebrow with his thumb and forgetting what he had been doing a moment before. He was lost in large, golden eyes and it only occurred to him a moment later that Achatës had boldly placed both his hands on Avicenna's hips.
When Achatës leaned up to kiss him though, Avicenna snapped himself out of it. He placed a hand resolutely against the Spartan's chest and pushed slightly, making his intent clear.
Achatës dropped his head with a soft, emotion-filled growl.
"What must I do, Cenna?" he asked quietly.
Avicenna stood from the stream and waded over to their packs. He hastily dug through them until he found some extra clothing and he swathed himself in a thick tunic. Achatës watched from where he sat in the water, slightly slumped over, looking for all the world like a beaten man.
"What must you do for what?" Avicenna said quickly, securing his belt to hold the robes closed.
Achatës had risen from his position and moved without a sound through the water and wrenched Avicenna's shoulder around so that he may see his face.
"For you," the Spartan said angrily, his grip on Avicenna's upper arms pinching into his flesh.
Avicenna just stared up at him, his expression between anger and confusion. Did he truly not understand what Achatës had been trying to do? Had he been so sheltered that he didn't know the games that were played?
With a sigh Achatës let him go and wandered away to pull on his own clothes. When he was dressed he slumped to the ground to pull on his sandals but instead merely sat there for a moment. He ran his hands back through his hair and propped his elbows on his knees.
"If we were in Crete," he said softly, "I could just carry you off over my shoulders. Take you into the woods and hunt for you, bring you gifts."
"I'm not some woman you can just snatch from her house and family," Avicenna growled.
Achatës sighed again. "I know."
An uneasy silence passed.
"Why did you wrestle all those men?" Avicenna suddenly asked.
Achatës raised his head. "What?"
"You told me to ask you again sometime. I'm asking now. Why did you do it?" He had a determined look on his face.
Achatës held his gaze and said, "For you."
The Athenian blinked. For him? So that he could see what a brute the man was? How dirty and savage-like Spartans were? But deep in his mind Avicenna knew Achatës had gotten his point across by fighting so gallantly. To show his ability, his stunning physical prowess as a man, and as a warrior or soldier. To show how worthy he was.
He fit the description Philip had let slip one night during a long symposium when his citizen neighbor had brought up the subject of athletes. He should have a soul as brave as his body is beautiful," Philip had said.
Achatës was watching him, seeming to try and read his thoughts. His gold eyes were distinctly bright as he sat there in the sun, and his hair, wildly long to his shoulders, shined of the same hue.
Avicenna turned away. It wouldn't do for Achatës to look so... handsome and virile. It was difficult enough for Avicenna to be able to turn his head and focus his eyes on something else other than the curve of a muscular shoulder or delicate neck muscles. Even worse though; to keep his eyes from darting to the folds of Achatës' tunic that gave hint of what lay beneath as he quietly sat there.
Avicenna felt himself flush.
And what made that even more difficult was the fact that he was already attracted to the Spartan, much more than he had been aware of before realizing Achatës' interest in him.
"Why me?" he asked softly.
Achatës seemed a bit surprised at the question and took a moment to answer. "You intrigue me," he said finally. "Everything about you. Your mystery, your beauty, your whole manner." He paused. Then, "Your silence."
Avicenna looked at him again.
Achatës gave a slight, sad smile. "Why won't you talk about your family, Cenna? Where is your father?"
"I told you, he died."
"I was fourteen." Avicenna turned back to their packs and rummaged through them, clearly wanting their present conversation to end.
Achatës suddenly felt very in mind to be cruel to him, to see if he could get something out of him, some kind of emotion at all. It seemed so easy to do it too, now that he knew what seemed to bother Avicenna more than anything, besides bodily contact.
But he couldn't be cruel. Not to this boy.
Avicenna had stopped his rummaging and sat there, his back to Achatës, staring down onto the packs.
After a long silence, Achatës stood up with a sigh.
"Come on, we'd better get going."
It took longer to reach Mycenae because of their detour. However, Achatës seemed to know the country better than Avicenna knew his father's own grounds. They were back on the main roads by mid-afternoon, and on the outskirts of the large polis by dark of the next day.
And all with hardly a word spoken.
Avicenna was getting tired of the silence, but even more tired of how Achatës refused to look at him. It made him feel guilty, as if he'd done something wrong and Achatës was angry at him for it.
He sighed an irritated breath and told himself he didn't care. If the Spartan wanted to pout like a child, then he was free to.
Avicenna glanced furtively to his right at his traveling companion.
But he wasn't pouting, was he. He was just as irritated as Avicenna, perhaps even more so at their situation.
"I know people here," Achatës suddenly said, keeping his eyes forward as he spoke. "But they don't know me as you do."
"What do you mean?"
Achatës finally looked at him. "I've had to run before, and create different lives as I go. To help me hide." He smiled.
Avicenna began to get a very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Achatës waved his hand though. "Hopefully we can just lay low, though. If I don't get recognized, then we shouldn't have a-"
"Can it be? Ha! The great hedonist himself?" A voice suddenly shouted out from nearby.
An older man came up to them, smiling beneath his graying beard. His robes were rich, and he was attended by two servants who followed closely.
"Don't say a word," Achatës hissed between his smiling teeth low enough for only Avicenna to hear. He waved at the man.
"Tmolus!" Achatës exclaimed, sliding down from his horse and furtively gesturing for Avicenna to stay where he was. "Yes, 'tis I, and in much better company than the last time we met."
He embraced the man with the familiarity of a long-time friend.
"You are looking well," Tmolus said, slapping Achatës on the back. "Come, walk with me. Let us go to Phylas' keep- I was just on my way there. Surely you were planning on visiting anyway?"
Achatës grabbed his horse's reins and took control of Patroklos' bridle as he and the man began down the street.
"Of course. I'm feeling well, thank you," he continued pleasantly. There was something different about his manner that was very evident to Avicenna. He seemed... rather high-class.
"What brings you here then?"
Achatës smiled handsomely. "A journey through to the homeland, finally. I've brought my father a gift," he said, patting Patroklos on his stout shoulder.
Avicenna, who had been quite patient with the whole ordeal was in very good mind to speak up about that comment, but remained silent as Achatës had told him to be.
The older man nodded in approval, then turned his eyes to Avicenna finally.
"And who is that?" he asked with a friendly smile.
Achatës stopped and looked up at Avicenna as well. "That," he said, patting Avicenna's knee, "was a gift for myself."
He didn't. He wouldn't... Avicenna was thinking as his blood ran cold.
The older man was looking at him like a wolf to prey now. Achatës' hand hadn't left his knee, though they'd begun walking again.
"Got him from the temple at Thebes," Achatës continued. "Doesn't speak a word of Greek." He looked pointedly up into Avicenna's eyes. "As far as I can tell, it's some outer land language. I've never heard it before."
The other man was laughing. "How do you communicate then?"
Achatës smirked. "I've often felt that speaking was overrated."
They both erupted in laugher.
Avicenna felt as if he might be ill. He was too stunned that Achatës would pass him off as a slave to have any other reaction. As Achatës and the other man, Tmolus, chatted away, Avicenna could do nothing but sit atop his horse and be led about or risk blowing this ruse.
Achatës spoke with a different candor with this man. He sounded educated, sophisticated, and spoke about subjects that Avicenna had never known he had thoughts and opinions about.
What kind of person what he posing to be?
They reached the front gates of a stout estate in only a few moments. It painfully reminded Avicenna of his own home, only on a much larger scale. They entered into a courtyard with the vestibule open to the outside, lit up by torches set even lengths away along the stone walls.
A servant came up to take their horses and Avicenna took the cue to slide down, still looking about himself warily.
"He seems a bit nervous," Tmolus pointed out idly to Achatës as they entered into the archway.
Achatës looked at Avicenna, who had taken care to follow behind them, albeit probably a little too closely. The Spartan wound his arm about Avicenna's shoulders and pulled him to walk close.
"I've taken him to few symposiums before. He's a bit shy already; doubtlessly tonight will be no exception."
Avicenna walked quietly, determined to show the Spartan that he was capable of disguise, though he himself would have chosen another semblance than a mute slave. He had to carefully school his expression so that his distaste for their ruse would not be noticed.
But as Achatës and his friend chatted on, Avicenna suddenly realized what Achatës had said just a moment ago. Symposium? His heart felt like it was beating against his throat. As they walked Avicenna began to hear voices, much like the shouts and songs of the parties his father had held. He'd had always been too young to attend; he had no idea what to expect now. He could at least take comfort in the fact that he would not be required to speak.
He could smell the smoke and drink of the gathered party as they walked towards the hall. Right before they would enter though, Achatës grabbed his arm gently to stop him.
To Tmolus, he said with a friendly smile, "I'll be with you shortly."
The old man obliged and entered without them.
Achatës pulled Avicenna around the side of the opposite building where they would not be heard. He leaned close, almost pinning him against the wall. To anyone passing by, they were inconspicuous.
Achatës sighed. "I hadn't planned on this," he said, in apology.
"I congratulate you on your quick thinking skills," Avicenna hissed. "A slave?"
"It's the only way I could pass you off, with that mouth of yours!" Achatës retaliated between his teeth. Then, calming, he said, "Better to have only one of us able to speak, to keep the story straight. I told you, you don't know me as they do, you could give me away."
"But who are you to them?"
"Just a man with money who likes to talk," Achatës said. "Like the rest of them."
Avicenna sighed through his nose, irritated. "So what must I do?"
Achatës looked at him askance, as if he'd been dreading that question.
"Achatës?" Avicenna pushed.
"You've never been to symposium then?"
Avicenna began to get that bad feeling again in the pit of stomach. "Why?" he asked.
The Spartan looked uncomfortable. "Usually men sit, drink and talk all night. Many of them will have brought their favorites along with them, which is what you are to me. All you have to do is lay there with me, drink what I give you and by the gods, keep your mouth shut." He looked Avicenna seriously in the eye. "You have to act like you can't comprehend a word of anything, understand?"
When Avicenna nodded, Achatës hesitated to continue.
"But sometimes the talk can... turn to something else, which is what I'm afraid will happen," he continued softly. "It always does with this group."
Even before he'd finished his sentence, Avicenna had begun shaking his head. Desperately, he tried to get past Achatës in a last hopeless attempt to just make a run for it, but the Spartan held him firm.
"Cenna!" he hissed, grabbing both of Avicenna's arms to hold him there. "I don't like the prospect of it any more than you do, believe me." He stopped and lowered his voice. "But it's the only way we can get out of here safely. If anyone's been about asking questions, no one will suspect you and I. Please, just play along."
They stood in silence a little longer. Finally, Achatës touched Avicenna's chin, reading the boy's worries all too clearly.
"I won't do that," he said softly. "I wouldn't do that to you if you didn't want me to-"
"I don't want you to," Avicenna said quickly.
"But we still have to make it look real," Achatës replied, a bit sternly. "As long as you can keep in mind that it means nothing, I'm sure you could put up with a lot."
By the tone of his voice, Avicenna knew he would not be put off of the matter. Avicenna would have to endure some of it, but the Spartan had promised not to force anything else upon him, which was some comfort. Deep inside, however, Avicenna couldn't help his anxiousness. It was true that he abhorred the Spartan's race, but the man himself he could not bring himself to hate anymore; there had been too many encounters between them. He owed Achatës too much now not to be able to go along with this ruse which would likely save their lives if someone were to come to town asking questions.
What was worse though was the attraction between them that he'd already admitted to himself. He knew Achatës desired him and he couldn't help but feel bitter now that this afforded the Spartan with the perfect opportunity to act upon it.
Gathering himself, Avicenna followed Achatës back towards the symposium chambers, having convinced himself this ruse had to be carried through if they were to survive. However, there was one misgiving he could not shake. It was the suspicion that though he was Athenian, and Achatës a Spartan, faking a passion between them would not be as hard for either of them as he'd like it to be.
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