Hunger of the Flesh
The smoke stings my eyes but I cannot move. Numb, I watch as the flames consume my brother's body, the flames licking up his calves and moving towards his sleeping face. The priest begins the mourning lament but I cannot join in. I feel only a cold certainty; I know who did this. I know who has taken my brother away from me. In our world of honour and shame, I find it hard to believe that one man, a high ranking soldier, could murder a young man. I know my brother wasn't perfect; he was arrogant and thought himself invincible. The Gods punished him for his insolence for no man should think himself a God.
The pressure on my shoulder rouses me from my thoughts and I look to find a large hand with mangled knuckles resting there. In my father's eyes I see a deep-rooted sadness.
'You know you must do it, Korrina.' My father's voice is steady though his hands tremble as they have since the accident.
My breath catches in my throat.
'No. Let me grieve for my lost brother.'
'Don't you think I want to grieve too, Korrina? But we will lose our honour if we don't strike soon. That is what your brother died for – honour.'
A mirthless laugh tumbles from my lips as I turn towards my brother's body. Bein died out of insolence and greed. Was that truly honour?
'What good is honour now, Father? Your son was murdered. Bein's death is a stain on the house of Glauce. Accept that and move onwards.'
A strand of my hair stirs when my father sighs.
'Maybe I should, Korrina. But I can't. Please understand. Bein must be avenged.'
Then my father spoke the words I had been dreading since we found Bein sprawled across the family threshold, his dagger wound seeping blood.
'Kill Commander Nikolaos Caecilius. Kill him and then return home to us.'
Course bristles are dragged ruthlessly through my hair. I wince as my head is yanked back an inch.
'Mettala, please be careful, my mother would hide you if she knew you were being so careless.'
The slave-girl bows her head and murmurs soft sounds of apology. Exasperated by her shoddy work, I dismiss her. The candlelight glances off the small handheld mirror lying on my vanity desk. That mirror had been a present from Bein. Raising the mirror to my face, I numbly catalogue my features.
I have pale skin, pale lips and green, wide set eyes. Just like Bein.
'Dinner is ready, Mistress Korrina.' That slave-girl had returned.
Supressing a sigh, I set down the mirror and with it, the memory of Bein's face and prepare to face my father once more.
In the great hall, the chink of my goblet as I place it upon the table echoes in the silence. My mother flinches and I smile apologetically. But her eyes drift past me as if I were just another chair at the table. As the heir to the family, Bein had been their most prized asset – something they created and nurtured together. In my mother's eyes, I was just a pawn in their political game. My hands ache with the longing to reach out to her for comfort, for absolution from the guilt that plagues me. My heart knows that killing someone, sinking a knife into their flesh would destroy me.
Yet when I remember how my strong, proud brother died; gasping on the family threshold, my fingers itch for the cool calmness of a blade. I can almost taste the metallic tang of the murderer's blood on my tongue.
The soft slap of my mother's sandals reverberates in the air, breaking the stilted tableau we are locked in. I watch my mother's shoulders shake as she hurries away from the room. My father's low voice snakes between the goblets and plates.
'Korrina, please, you must do it.'
Mute, I shake my head. Frustration edges his voice.
'Do you have any clue what happened to our family?'
I refuse to look at him lest he see my wavering resolve.
'No marriage prospects, our reputation diminished. How can you sit there and let the house of Glauce crumble?' His voice rises to a crescendo. There's a pause and when I look up, he is looking at me tenderly.
'No woman of nineteen should have to kill a man. You can never understand how much I wish I could do this for you, but…'
He spreads his hands before him in a gesture of helplessness. The battle that had brought honour and wealth to our family had also damaged my father's hands to the point where they shook and quivered constantly.
'Sleep well tonight, tomorrow we will arrange your passage to Pylos, where your uncle lives. He has agreed to let you stay at his villa as a slave. The murderer is camping with a band of soldiers.'
I try to remain calm but my guilt and frustration shortens my temper till I burst out.
'Why can't Uncle kill him? He is a man. He knows how to kill. Why must you make me a murderer?' I ask.
'Your uncle never approved of Bein. He has made his disgust at your brother's frivolous lifestyle known by refusing to avenge him.'
I gape at my father.
'Uncle said that? But that's ridiculous, Bein was never that reckless.'
My father shakes his head sternly and rises from his chair stiffly. It is clear the discussion is over.
As he walks past my chair I feel his light touch on my shoulder. Soon, it is gone and I watch the door swing shut behind him. Sitting in an empty hall, with the Gods' stone faces turned towards me, I weep for the first time since Bein's death.
As soon as Helios, the sun God, has driven his chariot across the sky, replacing the suns warmth with moonlight, I am bundled from my home. The journey to Pylos takes many days and by the time the horses have stopped at the cusp of my uncle's land, I am disorientated and pale in my exhaustion. A slave boy grasps my waist and gently guides my feet to the floor. Leaning my face against his shoulder, I feel his muscles jerk as he suddenly tenses. Then I hear my uncle's voice.
'Slave boy, hand me the girl.' Hastily I am relinquished to my uncle. A hand wraps round my arm, calloused fingers squeezing my soft flesh. My uncle has always been an intimidating figure. Years of battle have moulded him into a hard and callous man, more suited to a military role than that of royalty.
As I am dragged towards the entrance of the Great Hall, my drowsy eyes wander. There is a herd of great white tents sitting on my uncle's land, candlelight illuminating them from within. A short distance away, two men are stripped down to their under clothes, practising lunges and jabs. As I watch them, they execute the same drills that Bein did a mere few weeks ago. Resentment burns through me, chasing my lethargy away. The sound of colliding swords ceases. One of the soldiers stiffens as he registers my gaze. He slowly sets down his canteen of water and takes a step towards me.
My feet drag through the dirt as I instinctively slow to a halt. His face is in shadow and I long to see who he is. But my uncle, with a muffled oath, jerks me away from the soldier and our connection is broken. As I am propelled forward I glance behind. The soldier has already returned to his companion, torchlight flickering upon the contours of his muscles.
The sun has barely risen before I am shaken awake by a warm hand. As I slowly open my eyes, the blurry form hovering above me crystalizes. The intruder is a woman, hunched over with age. The frown she wears merely adds to the collection of lines that ripple across her skin.
'What you staring at? We got work to do so stop gawping and get up. '
Her impetuous manner appals me for she is a slave and I am of royal blood. To address me in such a disrespectful tone goes against everything I have been taught about slaves.
After fiddling in the crude wooden chest by my bed, she returns to my side, carrying an off-white garment in her arms.
'Get dressed,' my companion barks and thrusts the dress into my limp arms.
Surprised by her abruptness, I clutch at the dress but my sluggish reaction is too slow and we both watch as the white material floats to the dusty floor.
The woman glares. I hastily scoop it up, shaking the dust from its folds. It is plain, a far cry from the sumptuous togas I wore before, and the pleats were so stiff with golden embroidery I could hardly move.
Swiftly, I strip down and slide the dress over my head, the cool cotton slipping over my skin. Running a hand down the fabric I turn to the slave woman expectantly.
She merely gives me a disdainful stare before glancing away, as if bored of my appearance.
'You will do, I suppose. Just don't go near any of the royals, especially not our owner. Now run down to the kitchen, you have to serve the soldiers at dawn.'
Without another word she hobbles through the doorway and is finally gone. I hope I never have to see such a rude slave again.
I recall her parting words. The serving woman thinks I am a mere slave girl; my uncle has not told her my true identity or plan. The message is clear. I will have no further aid off my uncle.
A swell of panic surges. I had thought my uncle would instruct me on how to kill Nikolaos Caecilius. How to murder a man had never been taught in my lessons as a child. I will have to hope Nemesis, Goddess of revenge, will guide me when the time comes.
The dew which clings to the long grass seeps in between my sandal straps. I feel my feet slipping around inside as I follow the other slave girls to the field. Up ahead, the soldier's shouts drift towards us. I grip my wine glass so tightly it trembles.
Steeling myself, I step inside the soldiers' encampment. All around me men swarm. Some sit on barrels outside their tents and roar with laughter while others are stripped down to their undergarments, furiously grappling with each other.
Looking for guidance, I search for the other slave girls. They have already integrated themselves into the camp and are passing round cups of wine and plates heaped with bread and meat, glancing coyly up at the soldiers.
I cannot demean myself in this way, serving men of an inferior rank and flirting with them like a woman of loose morals. Backing away from the encampment, I turn to flee when I catch a glimpse of a man. He has not dropped his sword with the promise of food but stands separate from the others. Though light had been scarce, I instantly recognise him as the solider from the night before.
Reminding myself that I am from the proud House of Glauce, I take a deep breath and walk towards him. I'm a few feet away when his head darts up and his eyes fix upon me.
'Would you care for some wine?' I ask politely though my voice is tight with nerves.
There is a moment of silence before he replies.
I can feel his eyes scrutinising me as I pour a measure of wine into a clay goblet. He drinks slowly as he appraises me. Shifting on my feet, I deliberate whether or not I am supposed to leave.
'Why was Lord Georgias carrying you last night?'
I cock my head to one side as I think how to answer his abrupt question. Fear forgotten, my mind whirls with possible excuses. He shifts irritably by my side. I cannot think of anything plausible. Praying my mother's advice will not fail me; I take a step closer and, after placing a light hand on one forearm, ask:
'Before I answer, won't you grant me a question?'
While he is clearly confused at my sudden character change, he nods slowly.
'I suppose that is fair.'
I duck my head, fighting a smile.
'Please allow me to know your name?'
'I am Commander of this battalion, Nikolaos Caecilius.'
At his answer my facial muscles slacken, the smug smile I wear fades from my face.
I have found him. I could reach out and touch the hand that has slain my brother, feel the life thrum through his veins. Nemesis, the Goddess of revenge has delivered him to me. I hastily send up a prayer to my goddess, thanking her for her gift.
A gentle touch stirs my thoughts. Jerkily, I turn my head. A hand rests lightly on my shoulder. Tracing my eyes up the arm, I gaze into the eyes of the murderer. For a moment we are perfectly still. Then I feel the faint beating of a pulse against my skin. His thumb is resting in the hollow of my collarbone, its pulse a mocking reminder of what Bein lost.
I blindly step backwards. His hand slips off my shoulder and it instinctively returns to his sword hilt.
'Are you sure you are well?'
My tongue is heavy and thick in my mouth. As I remain mute, his expression changes, his soft gaze fading as he stiffly straightens.
The toe of my sandal scuffs against the ground, tripping me when I turn too sharply. Before the Commander can say anything, I run.