Bio Talk Books Extra

The Fires Of...

S.L. Gray

"Achilles, come down."

They were the first words I heard. The first words I could remember hearing that came from anyone's mouth but his. How many times they had been spoken, how urgently, with how much desperation or despair I cannot say. They were the only words in the world, and they licked at me like flame.

Like the flicker of the torches even now held at the ready, the burning brands poised to dip and set the pyre alight. They bit, they blazed and yet I could hardly feel them, hear them. I saw nothing but lost youth, of promise and potential and power thrown away. There was no color in the world, nothing but the pale, still grey of his skin and the flicker of white sparks, like stars come to mock his passing.

"Achilles "

I turned my back on him. On my companion, on my friend. No, more than that. On my brother, my confident, my heart. My joy. I turned my back on him and stepped down the unshored wooden staircase. I brushed shoulders with the general Odysseus, I think it was and felt nothing. I continued on, down into a sea of upturned faces I could not see. I had no eyes for anyone.

I could not remember the line of any other jaw, the curve of any other lip, though I had been kissed and kissed in return too many to count. There was no pair of eyes that watched me that were more than cold, inhuman stones. None could match the light, the warmth, the chilling depths of blue that were his. No mischief could dance in them the way it had in those that were forever closed, no matter how flame glinted as they watched me pass.

"Light it." I do not know his name, the man who heard me speak those heavy words. I did not ask. I did not care. He was a shell, a tool, a part of ritual, an object to be used, not recognized. He hesitated, drew a breath; I turned my head and met his gaze.

What he saw when he looked at me is not my tale to tell. Whether I was hero or monster in that moment, ask him yourself. It did not matter. I did not care. At him, through him, past him, they were all one in the same. I think he nodded, acknowledged my command. I think he gave some sign of acquiescence before he gestured, sharp and short, and flame touched wood.

Then there was light and heat behind me, a living thing I could not face. It roared and I was voiceless. It consumed and fed me.

They call it tribute and fitting for a fallen hero, this death by fire, this release in flame. Burn away the body and the soul is free to rise, unbound by cares and worries, shed of this mortal life. And yet, though I stood there waiting for that last sigh, the release before his body fell all to ash, I felt no exaltation, no great relief as he ascended. I felt a tug, instead, a lingering, clinging need. A hot wind stirred and lifted my hair and I swear no, I know I felt his fingers brush my cheek. No lungs, no tongue, no lips to give him voice, but it was as plain as if I held him and he whispered in my ear. There was no peace in death for him.

###

He was a boy when I met him. Too long of limb, too concerned with grace and elegance to be good at fighting. He had the will of a warrior, but not the heart. How he followed me, how he dogged me at the heels, eager for each scrap of wisdom that tumbled from my careless lips.

He was not the first to seek me out in hopes that I might take him into my confidence, impart to him the secrets of my great success. I was unstoppable, undefeated. I had turned away a dozen such boys with a few days' unkindness. I had no need of shadows save those cast by the sun, nor would I lend my name to bouts of shameless boasting. My answer to their pleas for mentoring was the same: I berated and abused them for their clumsiness, I frustrated them to the point of tears and when they challenged me, I served them up humiliation and sent them home.

And yet when he lay bruised and bleeding on the stones at my feet, he did not bow his head or hate me with his eyes. He wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand and sat, catching his breath as he watched me. "Do you ever get angry?"

"I'm furious," I lied.

"No." He shook his head and pushed unsteadily to his feet. There was a curious lightness in his eyes. "Tired and disgusted with me, maybe, but not furious. So I ask again, are you ever angry when you're fighting?"

I could have lied again, fed him a tale of blood red battle hazes and the sea of bodies in my wake, but something in that earnest if amused gaze stopped my tongue and made me speak honesty. "Anger is not a weapon. It is a blindness. No, I'm never angry when I'm fighting. "Tired and disgusted," I stole his words, "but never angry. Pick up your sword."

It was a trick, a trap, a teacher's test. Would the student be obedient or wise?

He made me an elegant, very well-schooled bow and turned his shoulder, not his back, to me. He showed me respect in that gesture and it was my mistake to be flattered. He stooped for his blade and his fringe of golden hair fell forward for a moment, shielding his eyes. I thought to deliver him another lesson on his carelessness. But as I stepped forward, he turned on me and for a moment, held the point of his sword at my throat. It was no longer than a heartbeat, no more enduring than the flicker of triumph in his eyes, then his blade was gone again and I had one of his arms twisted up behind him and the keen edge of my own weapon laid just beneath his chin. It was a good trick, a well-played trick, and for that, for that

"You'll eat when I eat, sleep when I sleep." I let him go and put him back on his feet. "You'll do as you're told and I will explain the things I teach or why I refuse. You will come when I call you, leave when I bid you go and if I find you practicing lessons on anyone but me, you'll go home. Is that clear?"

He glowed in that moment, beautiful and golden. Relief and pride melted together and warmed his skin. His smile was never brighter, his eyes never a truer blue. He pledged himself to me in that instant and I was his, though I did not know it then. "Get your sword," I told him, and smiled to see him hesitate. "The lessons are done for now," I said and sheathed my weapon. "Go on. Pick it up."

###

He became a man at my side. He studied with a hunger I knew only in myself. If I was hard on him, he was moreso, and he thrived under that punishment. There was nothing I could ask him that he would not do, no hardship he would not have borne if I called it good.

He made himself beloved of first my allies, then my company. He was our bright-eyed errand boy, and our brother-at-arms. He observed and absorbed and improved on what I taught until there were only two or three I might have named better. And yet, I forbade him to set foot on the battlefield.

How many nights did I argue with him over his readiness, over whether he would strap on armor and go out to fight with us come sunrise? How many times did my own men sue to me on his behalf, praising his skills, his loyalty, his patience. All of which I heard and to all of which I agreed. But that battlefield was no place for my golden boy. It was a weakness. My greatest flaw, curse of the gods aside. There was no power in all the world that could convince me to send him out to wade through swords and spears and bodies.

Yes, he would have been a wonder, fighting in our midst. Countless the battles that would have been shortened by the addition of his blade. Endless the horrors that would have been visited upon him as he slept the night after he'd slain his first man. No one knew his little shifts of expression the way I did. No one recognized how each man of ours that fell stole a little more of that glorious, gleeful enthusiasm from his eyes, how his smile was a little more shallow each time he put it on. I knew. I noticed. I mourned each change.

So I left him behind, to strike and raise our tents, to carry armor and water horses and help to mend our shields and swords. I left him with the women, and he resented me. But he was safe. He was hidden from the fools and tyrants of the world. Travel though he would with me, he remained untouched.

###

But not ignored. He would not let me ignore him. How many women did he watch come and go when we camped and campaigned? Did he count the number of times my tent flaps stirred while I meant him to sleep? Did he listen to whispers and whimpers and breathless laughter as he gazed up at the stars and hate me? Perhaps. He never spoke of it. He was as kind to them when he brought us fruit and wine as he was to me when we ate alone.

In the silence between us was where he found his courage.

I cannot recall what battle it was, or where we camped. Which king had command of us at the time. None of these things matter. I remember that we ate cold lamb and hard cheese and that the wine did little to warm us. There was an ache in my ribs from the day's fighting and though it was late, I could not make myself sleep. Nor could I make myself offer him any comfort or consolation. It was a hard day.

He sat beside me with an earthen jar in his hands and I realized that I had neither seen nor heard him move. He did not ask before he lifted his hands to unfasten my tunic, to unpin my cloak. When I said his name, he smiled only briefly, hardly daring to meet my gaze before he looked away. I remember that he wet his lips and that they moved as he whispered something I couldn't understand. An oath. A prayer. A hope. I cannot say.

I laid down at his bidding and he uncorked the jar, smearing warming lineament along my hurts as he had done a thousand times before. I remember the feel of his fingers, long and delicate, bumping with utmost care over bruised bone. He leaned over me, his ever unbound hair sliding forward to brush my skin and I thought he might whisper some admonishment for my injury. I felt another sigh shiver out of him, instead, thrilling over me and raising gooseflesh before he turned his head and kissed my throat, lingering press of lip to pulse.

His eyes were gone to pupil, wide and dark when I pushed him back and he murmured, "Let me." He kissed me then, lips soft against mine, and the air hummed with the sound of pleasure, low and sweet. He leaned against me, a welcome weight, a comfortable burden. He was hard against me, stroking himself against my hip as he gasped and whispered my name.

How long had I wanted this, how many nights had I lay awake in the cradle of another nameless woman's arms, drifting and dreaming not of her, but of him? How long had I denied myself the act in deed but committed it in fantasy? The want that came upon me stole my breath away as I turned and pinned him beneath me.

How he arched against me when I curled my hand around his cock and what sweet sounds he made as I stroked him, kissing the column of his throat as he struggled for breath. How I loved the tangle of his fingers in my hair as I thrust against him, both of us slick and hot and burning with need. How the echo of the first, sharp cry as I claimed him would come upon me from that night forward, hardening me as I stood poised on the brink of battle or in the baths or in counsel when my thoughts could not afford to stray. I played him and he sang, begging me for another touch, another kiss, each whimper louder than the last, each moment sweeter. I stroked inside him as he thrust into my hand and he came with a sweet-voiced cry that echoed through the camp. I followed hard behind him, pouring my self my soul into him and he did not refuse me.

And when he slept, he slept with boneless abandon, too contented to stir until my hunger roused again and I coaxed him awake with eager caressing.

###

"It is not yet morning."

"It is early enough." I wore the armor, now, my sword a weight that blazed, dry and thirsty for blood as I went through camp.

"You can not go alone."

"It is mine alone to do."

Though they followed, they dared not stop me. I would have killed the man who tried.

There was no peace in his death. There would be none until the death was avenged.

I knew hate and fury and rage. I knew sorrow and nothingness and utter despair.

I went to battle angry.

Content and design (c) S.L Gray 2013-2014