Timotheus must travel far from Athens, behind enemy lines to give his father the proper burial rights and release his soul. His slave girl, Serrae goes with him, but has her own agenda.
Waves lapped at the beach in the darkness, reflecting the blaze of the funeral pyre. A gentle sea breeze fed the flames, and fingered Timotheus' curls where he crouched at the edge of the firelight, a blanket thrown loosely over his shoulders. Though the breeze brought with it a nights worth of ocean cooling, he didn't feel the chill. He watched the fire consume his father's belongings, feeling himself likewise consumed, but with anger. The body was burning well; a glorious blazing pyre as was fit for a loyal soldier. But Timotheus only felt shame, curling around at the bottom of his anger.
His father had not been the same since Daria had died, a few years ago. She had always been his favourite daughter. More; she had been his favourite anything, save the gods, of course. Her death was hard on them all, but it had shattered Stephanos. He had left for war, and the family had all wondered whether he was seeking death. At any rate, death had found him. And now the consequences overshadowed them all.
Timo remembered the last night he had seen his father. It had started the same as many others, at the symposium, enjoying good wine, good food, and good company. Especially Serrae's company. But the wine had been too good, and the company too lively, and a drunken brawl had broken out. He had hoped to shelter the storm in Sesserrae's little room, but the storm had come to him.
He remembered the press of a cool cloth to his forehead drew him from the depths of unconsciousness. Before him was Sesserrae, and he held her hand against his head for a moment, trying to dispel the sharp ache.
"How is your head?" she asked, seeing he was awake.
He groaned, "Don't talk of it." He released her hand and she smiled as she dipped the cloth into a bowl, squeezed it and reapplied it in dabs to his forehead.
"Aye, but is that the wine or the knock to the head?" she asked, flicking him a wry smile. He made a face at her, then winced, making her laugh. "Barbarian," she murmured, squeezing out the cloth again.
"You seem to have escaped no worse for wear?" he replied, following his own counsel even if she would not.
"Your unconscious body blocking the doorway did much to help me there," she said, hiding her wrist behind her back, but he caught the motion and held it before him gently.
"What is this," he asked morosely, tracing his fingers lightly over her swollen wrist.
"I fell," she said, watching him examine it a little nervously, for it pained her still.
"It needs strapping, girl," he replied, "Where are your bandages?"
Syros knocked at the door of the small room as she fetched them.
"Syros, my friend, enter," Timo smiled, strapping her wrist, "we have our own battles to fight here, eh? Why should we need to go elsewhere to find them?"
"And better company here too," Serrae added.
"And better food," Timo agreed, smiling at her.
"Your mother grows worried for you, sir" Syros said, examining Serrae's bandage and finding to his surprise the work was carefully done for once, despite the traces of drink still slurring Timo's speech.
"She worries always, whether there has been a riot or not," Timo muttered, rubbing at his head. Then music began to drift from the chamber beyond, disturbing his thoughts of freeing himself from the unwanted bothering of his mother.
"The symposium is restarting, I must go," Serrae told Timo, rising, then added quietly to Syros, "Bring a horse, it is too far for him to walk like this."
"And bring some dinner. I did promise you dinner, didn't I?" Timo added, catching at her good wrist and pulling her too him, "Nay, stay with me a little longer, til Syros returns." She sank beside him on the bed, shaking her head at his self-centeredness, but softening it with a smile. She had learned not to expect better from him.
"And what did you have in mind to do til he returns?" she asked, brushing his curls out of his eyes.
"My head aches so, kallos," he murmured beseechingly with a mischievous smile, "help me forget it."
Syros returned with food enough to line half a banquet table, knowing Timo's fondness for eating well. It was not something you would guess from looking at him, he was as lean and muscular as the youths that had done their military service. Timo had not felt the need to join the army yet. His father needed him for the family businesses, which gave him interesting activity during the day and left the nights clear for enjoying life.
"Your mother will be angry that you eat this and not her preparations," Syros commented.
"I can eat her food anyday," Timo waved away his words, "And I do, everyday. It's not often I get to celebrate a special feast like this." And yet he ate only a little, the pain in his head making his stomach curl, and left the rest for Serrae and Syros.
"What is the event we are celebrating?" Syros asked, savouring the pastries.
"Brother, today it is a year since I first met Serrae. Is that not a cause for great celebration?"
"I can think of none more worthy," Syros smiled, for what master called his slave 'brother'?
"Ay, you are a true friend," Timo sighed, looking at Serrae glancing towards the music, itching to get away, "Alright, run along my pretty, but don't dance too well, or they'll forget you're mine, hear?"
She kissed him and ran lightly out. Syros helped him to his feet.
"How did you manage to hit the front and the back of your head?" Syros asked, shaking his head.
"A fist – was it a fist?" Timo mused, "Maybe a cudgel – for the front, and the floor for the back."
"Nay it was nothing as gentle as the floor," Syros said, "Perhaps the bed, or the door frame; you are cut."
"Don't make it bleed! Keep your paws off it," Timo scowled, "Mother will be in fits if she sees blood."
When he had finally made it home, both his mother and his father waiting up for him. It didn't bode well, and his head throbbed just at the thought of having to converse with them before bed.
They knew, of course, that he had been at the symposium. It was where he spent every evening, in the company of the girl Stephanos had hired for him. Hagne didn't begrudge this girl that they had spent all their spare money on. She knew Serrae made Timo happy, and as such she was worth her weight in gold. For Timo was his father's son, and a deadly moroseness ran like a curse through the men in his family. When her eldest had been born, she watched closely, fearing to see any of the tell tale signs. But she was relieved to find him as happy and friendly a child as any in Athens. And so he had remained, until Daria's death had brought Stephanos to his knees. Hagnes had watched as Timo's smile grew all too rare, as he lost interest in the things he enjoyed, his friends, his siblings, and took to spending all his spare time by himself. Serrae had changed that, and Hagne thanked the Gods that there existed something in this world that could turn her son from his dark destiny. Even if meant she barely saw him, unless she sent Syros to bring him home, and like as not drunk and resentful.
"Son, you are hurt?" his mother asked nervously, drifting closer, her hands longing to mother him.
"Nay, I'm fine," Timo replied, dreading her attentions, and pulling himself straighter. He was a man after all, not a child anymore. "Leave off, Syros! I can walk."
"There was a riot at the symposium," Syros said quietly, "He was hit."
And before, before Daria's death, Stephanos would have replied with a crack about his brave son enduring such punishment like a stoic. But now, he stared at the table in deep silence. His grief weighed heavy on all of them.
"Come father," Timo said, squeezing his shoulders, "It's late and I'm fine, let us all retire."
"Your father has decided to join Artaxes' army," his mother said vey softly, when his father did not move.
"Artaxes…? But it's years since you were in the army!" Timo glanced at each of them, but there was no reply. The deep silence of late night told him nothing. Perhaps there was nothing to say. "When are you leaving?"
"He has been waiting for you," his mother replied, "He didn't want to leave without saying goodbye." Timo then noticed the bundles waiting by the door. His aching head, the late hour, the suddenness of the news; it was all too much to grasp properly what was happening, and react. He could hardly think.
"But, the business…?" he asked, his mind whirling.
"It has all been arranged," his mother replied, and Timo could think of nothing further to say. His father, who even in his grief had been the backbone of the family, was leaving. Not on a business trip, which he did often, and Timo had frequently accompanied him, but to war. War was not something that happened to his family. Until now.
His father rose finally, and Timo went to him.
"Goodbye father," he said quietly, embracing him. His father embraced him back, gently, with none of his usual strength, and Timo felt dread creeping into is heart.
"Syros will look after him," his mother had said into his ear as they watched Syros lead the horse that bore Stephanos away. And for once he welcomed the warmth of his mother's arms.
Syros had done his best. But he couldn't stand in the way of death. He had brought back the body for burial rites at home. The retreat in the final battle had been rushed – there had been no time to cremate the fallen there. Despite the other passenger's protestations, Syros had found passage for the body all the way back to Athens. He, a slave, would not back down under their arguing, all through the long sea voyages. For this, Timo was deeply grateful. Another slave might have submitted, given up, even run away; but Syros was a rock.
Then, when he had brought the body into the family compound, Syros had spilled his secret. This was not Stephanos. Stephanos was still left behind. Publicly, everything went as normal. Privately, the family were in disarray.
When morning rose, Timo left the beach to its smoldering pyre and climbed into the craggy, crumbling hills. Here was his sister's tomb, where he knew his mother would visit every morning, taking over his father's routine in his absence.
Though she knew people would talk of her visits, Hagne felt the need to sit by Daria's tomb to keep her company til Stephanos could join her. He couldn't be with her now, as he was still lying on a barbarian battlefield, but nor could he join her in Hades, until the proper rites were carried out, and his soul freed. The thought tormented them all.
Timo hated the endless cycle of waiting and grieving that consumed his family, and was determined to set them free of it somehow. He sat on the rock platform beside his mother, the inscription above the tomb catching his eye and deepening his unhappiness. Stephnaos had had inscribed above her: "Goodbye, beloved daughter."
"At least they are together" Hagne said, fingering the writing gently.
"They should be together," Timo murmured, "But they are not."
Visions of a river plagued him. His father on one side, his sister Daria on the other, staring at each silently while the water flowed on and on. He knew what river it was. It was the Styx, and his father waiting for his soul to be freed so he could cross.
Timo knew what he had to do. He had to find his father's body and do what was needed, what was required of him as the eldest son. It would mean a long voyage to the barbarians lands, finding a way in, and back, without being taken prisonner and killed. Or worse; enslaved. But he had to do it. His father could not rest until it was done. The family could not rest easy, or hold their head high, knowing the shame of their secret. He would fix all of this. He must go.