The following morning, Ajax awoke atop his bunk with an exhaustive headache. He'd only returned home a few hours prior, but even with the deprivation of sleep, he was up at the crack of drawn. His team had won the match, Aetos victoriously running the enemy flag back to their side after following Ajax's strategy— it was a night of victory for them both. After the post-game celebration, the group dispersed, and Ajax walked Leah back to the inn before returning to his own home for one last wink of sleep. As he finished dressing and strapping his sandals, a quiet but distinct voice caught him by surprise.
"You were gone awhile."
Ajax had frozen in the middle of his movement, his body stiff when he turned around to see his mother standing in the shadows of the backroom doorway.
Everyone he knew said his mother had been beautiful once. Now, Reyna Adrastos was a mere shell of what she was once upon a time; the circles under her eyes were deep, and the strands of gray in her wiry, black hair gleamed in the rebel rays of sunlight passing through the curtained windows. She was thin and tired, practically dragged through the hardships of the previous years.
Ajax swallowed the lump in his throat, steadying himself and his voice. "Mother—you startled me, I didn't see you there. I assumed you were still asleep. I was just going to meet Aetos."
He looked down, his hands slipping into the pockets of his trousers as he failed to meet her gaze. This was the woman who had brought him into the world, and yet somehow, she seemed to be becoming more and more of a stranger each and every day.
Reyna nodded, pursing her lips together before speaking. "Have you eaten?"
"Yes," he lied. Before she could question him further, he took a step forward. "I had some spare drachmas. I left them for you if you didn't see."
His mother grew quiet, her voice dropping to a mere whisper. "Yes, I saw."
Their conversations had become so formal and foreign; it was strange to be exchanging words. Still, he made the effort.
"Why don't I take it and purchase breakfast for us—" Ajax began to stand, stepping toward the loose stone in the wall where they hid their extra savings.
Suddenly her head lifted up, and she arose quickly from her chair, her hand outstretching to grab his arm before he could lift the stone. "No, don't—!"
But she was sore from the night before and it made her slow. By the time she could have reached him, Ajax had lifted the stone open, only to find an empty space. He stared at it blankly before his head lifted and he turned to his mother who had taken a step back, her head lowering to the ground.
Ajax stared at her. "Where is it?" She said nothing, and Ajax then repeated. "Where is it, Mother?"
"It's gone." Reyna's lips tightened into a thin line before she found the will to lift her head. She had been so keen on keeping him away from the stone that she had forgotten what was on her face, though it didn't seem to make much of a difference now.
Ajax's eyes widened as he took his mother's chin in his hands, seeing the bruise on her cheekbone. "Who did this to you?"
Her voice grew tight, hard with persistence. "Please, Ajax, go meet with Aetos now," Reyna started, jerking her head from her son's grasp.
This wasn't the first time something like this had happened. There had been times when Ajax was much younger, and some mornings Reyna would be too pained to even rise from her bed, and Ajax, a boy of only eight, would be left frightened and confused at his mother's state. Had it not been for Aetos, some days he might've starved. Aetos was ten when Ajax brought him one of those days for the first time, and he could still see the grave look on the older boy's face as he had helped Ajax move her, bringing her food and drink.
"Mother, who did this to you?" Ajax repeated, only this time there was anger.
Reyna shook her head. "He is long gone by now. He left in the middle of the night."
"Did he take anything else?" He repeated persistently, his tone making Reyna tremble in humiliation.
She continued to shake her head. "No, no… Ajax, please go."
"Did he take your gold?" Ajax said.
At that, she burst into tears.
The first time Ajax saw his mother cry, he was four years old. He didn't have many memories from that early in life, but it was an event that he could never forget. His infant sister, born to a different father—a stranger—had been taken by something as simple as a fever in all but a matter of days. Ajax didn't remember much of the child, but he did remember Reyna's hysterics and tears. And even as a child who understood nothing at the time, he knew that his mother needed him, and had wrapped his skinny, small arms around her to hold her.
This time was no different.
Reyna practically crumbled into her son's arms, his shoulder dampening at the consistency of her tears, trembling as she erupted into heavy breaths and soft sobs. Ajax tensed, his arms wrapped tightly around his mother as he shut his own eyes, and the guilt overtook him. Where had he been in the late hours of the night? Being reckless and careless, playing child games that should have lost their thrill years ago. Where was that money that Aetos had earned them the day before, that money that could have supplied them with weeks' worth of food?
Ajax lifted his mother up into his arms, her arms weakly wrapped around his neck as he carried her back to her bed. He ignored the garments that lay scattered across the floor, setting his mother onto the bed and pulling the covers up to her neck. Her cheeks were still wet with tears as Ajax touched his mother's face, and Reyna shut her eyes in defeat.
"I am sorry, my son," she whispered.
Ajax shut his eyes as he stood up straight, the remainder of the child in him suddenly reduced to what seemed to be nothing. "Rest, Mother. I'll be back soon."
He found Aetos behind the blacksmith's shop, still wearing the clothes he had been wearing the night before, his hair disheveled and his pipe between his teeth. He immediately lit up at the sight of Ajax, not quite recognizing the significance of his expression just yet.
"Dany and I stayed out all night after the game—we only returned sometime after first light so she could be back at the tavern before her father noticed. Wouldn't that have been an ordeal, eh? Leah filled her empty bunk with a sack of flour. You seemed to get along fine with her last night, I noticed. She's something, isn't she?"
Ajax said nothing. He only stared at him, the angle of the morning light shadowing over the bags under his eyes. He looked around and saw no sign of anyone else. Clearly, Aetos had not done his morning hustle routine for gold. "Just something," he grunted.
Aetos raised his eyebrow, sitting up from the crate he was perched on and pulling his pipe from his teeth. "What's with you?"
Ajax stood straight, his voice low and dull, yet hard. "Where are the rest of the drachmas, Aetos?"
Aetos stared at him. He knew Ajax knew, but he wanted to hear him say it again. "We spent it all last night. What are you getting at?"
"Where'd you get your tobacco this morning, then?"
Aetos suddenly was looking at him incredulously. He stood up, now towering over the younger boy. "There was a few coppers leftover. It wouldn't have even bought us breakfast; tobacco's cheaper than bread these days, you know? We'll have to make up for it all today, but—"
Ajax shoved him. Shoved him hard until Aetos's back fell back against the crate he was standing in front of, his pipe slipping from his hands just in time for it to crush beneath Ajax's feet. He wasn't sure exactly when he'd decided to attack him, the boy who had been his friend all these years, who had been his brother. But he had done it, and Aetos looked at his broken pipe, then up at him before he pushed himself to his feet, his face impossible to read as he grabbed Ajax by the neck of his tunic, turning them around so he was pinned against the crate.
Aetos looked at him incredulously, his voice rising to a shout. "To Hades! Do you want to explain to me why the hell you did that, Ajax?"
He hardly ever addressed him by his first name.
Ajax glared at him, shoving him away as he yanked himself from Aetos's grasp, beginning to walk away before Aetos grabbed him by the shoulder. Ajax already began to swing his fist, but Aetos must have known it was coming, for he dodged the attack, and it was now his turn to shove him down.
"Di immortales, Adrastos!" he swore with both anger and confusion. "Be an ass to everyone else, but not to me—not when I don't know what I've done to deserve it." Aetos's tone lightened up towards the end of his sentence, and as Ajax continued to avoid his gaze, he sighed through his nose and sunk down to the ground with him, staying silent for a long matter of moments before daring to speak again. "What happened?"
Ajax's arms shook with an anger he couldn't understand. It wasn't truly directly towards Aetos anymore, Aetos just happened to have been there during the relapse. Now he wasn't sure what to neither think nor say, other than the simple words of, "She's done it again."
And immediately, Aetos knew. Of course; Reyna had done it several times before. Since she refused to marry and Ajax's father was un-present, all their income was brought by her and Ajax, and there were plenty of times, like now, when the money she made from needlework was not enough, causing her to rely on the occupation of the night. It also wasn't the first time it had ended in violence, and the boys were the ones to care for her. More often than not, her work left Ajax to fend for himself.
Aetos was silent. He, of course, knew that the Adrastos family struggled to make their ends meet, and whenever Ajax came to him on mornings similar to this, they'd sought out to scrounge up any money and food they could find, and Aetos would follow Ajax home and help until Reyna was well again. But this time, it was different.
After a while, Aetos asked a question that demanded an answer. "Have you eaten anything at all, Adrastos?"
Ajax was reluctant in response. He was famished. "No. I'll have whatever is left over of what we get for Reyna today."
Aetos shook his head. "No." Aetos stood up, then grabbed Ajax by the shoulders and guided him to his feet. "Come on, Adrastos. I'm sure Danae will have something to spare this morning," he said as they headed in the direction of the tavern.
He wanted to protest. But Ajax kept quiet, dare not arguing even if he wanted to be finding food for his mother now. He'd already wronged Aetos enough this morning. They were still brothers.
"You sure you don't want to wash up first? You already looked like hell before I gave you a beating," Ajax muttered.
Aetos half chuckled. "That was hardly a beating. You didn't even land a punch," he said, his arm wrapping around the back of Ajax's neck in a loose headlock while leading them towards the city center, saying nothing more on the matter.
The broken pipe remained left in the street.
The tavern was near empty towards the end of breakfast—the travelers staying at the inn were finishing up their meals and beginning their departure now that the festival had ended. Danae was towards the middle of the heap, wiping down the long tables down after the morning feast when they entered. She lifted a brow at Aetos who had entered first, and immediately her feigned look of exasperation appeared; but, when Ajax entered behind him and Aetos turned away from her to shut the door, she knew something was wrong. A frown formulated on her lips as she dropped the rag she'd been using into a nearby bucket, beginning to make her way toward them before Aetos looked at her and lifted a hand for her to halt, insinuating a brief moment.
He pat Ajax on the shoulder once before discreetly making his way to her, avoiding drawing attention to himself as he leaned down to whisper in her ear. Ajax didn't stop himself from staring, and he watched as the look on Danae's face dropped to a gray expression, and Aetos leaned away with a grim nod. She pursed her lips before looking at Ajax and said something quietly to him before turning towards the back of the tavern, disappearing through the kitchen door. Aetos beckoned Ajax forward then, sliding into one of the bench seats that were connected to the tables. Ajax sat across from him.
"What did you tell her?" Ajax asked.
Aetos shrugged. "Just that your arse wants breakfast."
Ajax narrowed his eyes in an irritated squint just as Danae appeared from the door again, only this time she was holding a tray of bread and soup and a goblet of goat's milk. Ajax straightened as she set the meal before him, sparing only quick flashes of glances at him before looking away. She stood aside after the food had been delivered, looking at Aetos who gave her a slim reassuring look, and she returned it with a thin smile.
She began to walk away before she stopped and hesitantly turned, her hands folded in front of her as she cleared her throat. "Ajax if you... ever need anything, just come around the back and I'd be happy to—"
Ajax smiled. "Thanks, Dany."
She nodded, and Aetos smiled to himself as she went back to her work.
Ajax was nearly finished with his meal when Aleithea made an appearance, walking down the stairs in a simple, yet recognizable expensive white chiton, her brown hair pinned back with a gold necklace lying against her collarbone. Ajax froze, jerking his head away though he was certain she had seen him, and he stared pointedly down at his empty soup bowl, poking at the few floating vegetables at the bottom. Aetos eyed him before laughing to himself and cleared his throat. Ajax could practically hear the smirk in his voice.
"Why good morning Leah, you look lovely today," Aetos said in a lighthearted tone, despite the situation at hand.
"Good morning, Aetos," she smiled as she walked up to their table. "You... ah—"
Aetos laughed. "No, even I can't help but agree that I look like I slept in the gutter. I think I'll just leave you two here and see if Dany has a bowl of water I can wash up with. Cheers." He smiled and kicked Ajax lightly in the shin underneath the table before taking his drink and stood up, walking off to find Danae. Ajax bent his spoon back.
"Hi, Ajax," Leah said.
Ajax lifted his head, seeing her face across from him. She looked at him with big green eyes, her face vibrant as she folded her arms on the edge of the table. He swallowed his soup, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. "Morning, Leah," he said.
Leah smiled thinly at him, but when he avoided her gaze, her face changed to a questioning look. When he said nothing else, she broke the silence. "Danae told me you and Aetos were down here. I admit, didn't expect to see you two this morning."
Ajax shrugged. "Yeah, I don't think we did either."
Leah nodded, pursing her lips. "Are you and Aetos doing anything today?" she asked curiously.
Ajax raised an eyebrow before he shook his head. "No, not really," he lied. He really wasn't sure exactly what they'd do, but he assumed that after they left, they'd seek out food for Reyna. "We'll probably just do our regular rounds today. You can make some half-decent trades with some of these foreigners. Then I'll probably finish a few errands for my mother.."
"That sounds like a lot of fun," she pointed out. "Oh, I'd love to meet your mother. Might I tag along? It's boring hanging around here all day, Dany hardly even has time to talk, except of course when Aetos is around." She smiled at the last bit.
Ajax heart sank. He hated being short with her and knew he was acting odd, but he obviously could not take her to see his mother. He hoped Aetos would come back soon.
Where is he, anyway?
"She's… not really well today. The festival took a lot of energy out of her. But I'm sure she'd like to meet you, too." He wasn't so certain about the last bit. "I don't know if you'd really want to join us, we're not doing anything particularly exciting."
"Oh," Leah said, frowning. "Well, sure, perhaps another time, then."
Ajax nodded, and before he could respond, there was a loud commotion from outside. The sound of a clatter and yelling emerged from the door as it opened and a man yelled, "Fight! Fight! Lykarion's son is in a fight!"
The two of them froze, staring at each other for a long short moment before they quickly stood up, rushing toward the door and outside. A small crowd had gathered around outside the tavern and inn, but through the spaces between everyone, Ajax could make out a struggle and a string of curse words.
The voice was all too familiar.
Ajax's eyes widened as he burst into a run, slamming into the crowd as he pushed to the front where the action was happening. On the other side, there was Aetos, his fist slamming into the face of another man. He was short and stout, as well as bald, and there was an unlikely look on his face. Aetos, who towered over the man despite his age, had a busted lip, blood drawn from it, though the bald man had a much more damaging gash on the side of his head as if he'd been thrown against something. However, the bald man's companions had decided to join in on the breakout, and soon it was three against one. Danae was screaming as they lunged toward Aetos all at once, but this was Aetos, who had his mortal father's pride, and he continued to beat his fists and stay on his feet.
"Aetos!" Ajax yelled, and he proceeded right into the middle of the fight, shoving one of the men on Aetos, taking him down to the ground. Aetos cursed in anger, the older men yelling obscenities and in anger. Ajax scrambled to his feet just as Aetos and his opponent had stood up, about to go about another beating before Ajax came up from behind his older friend, pulling him back. "Stop!"
"It's done, anyway!" Aetos announced, wiping the blood from his lip as he tried to make forth the bald man again, whose face was purple from what appeared to be several blows to the face. Aetos, even when outnumbered and younger, had won the fight. "If you ever come back here, you filth of the gods, I'll do to you much worse."
"You're all but a boy, and you'll be sorry," the other man snarled, and his fellow mates began to make their way to Aetos again before Ajax raised his voice again.
Aetos snorted, inhaling loudly before spitting in the bald man's direction. "Burn in Hades!"
Ajax grumbled, hitting him once in the arm to shut him up as he dragged Aetos away from the crowd while the other men did the same, muttering curses. The bald man had more damage on him than young Aetos alone.
Aetos sat down on the steps outside the tavern as Danae hurriedly appeared back with a cloth, beginning to wipe the blood from his mouth, her hand shaking. Leah was behind her.
"I'm alright, I'm alright," Aetos kept saying to her, yet Danae looked at him with both fury and worry, her breath shaky as he let her clean his face.
Ajax, however, shook his head and paid no attention to them, instead of looking at Aetos and demanding an explanation. "Now what the hell was that?"
Aetos laughed bitterly, his bruised hand taking the cloth from Dany and petting her dainty hand as he took over and washed his own face, still watching as the bald man got on his horse from the opposite end of the street, making his way to the shipyard. "I simply did to his face what he did to your mother. The bastard was going on about it in the halls. Here's your gold back, by the way," he said, tossing the small sack of drachmas into Ajax's grasp. The gold the man had taken from Reyna, the same man who then left her with a mark on her face. It wasn't much, but at least now he could afford a small expense of dinner for his mother.
The bald man had turned around on his horse, looking at the four of them with disgust, the bruises already beginning to form on his face. Aetos shook his head, removing the cloth from his mouth as he suddenly stood up on the steps, calling out to him with his bloodied lip.
"For Minoa and for Greece, burn with Troy in the east!"
Good kings always defended their kingdoms and everyone in them.
Aetos was the king of kings.
Ajax placed a kiss on his sleeping mother's temple before leaving her bedside, rising from the chair he had been sitting on and exiting the room, shutting the curtained doorway behind him. The fire in the main room was now reduced to soft glowing embers, and he left it as it was, wandering down the hallway to his bedroom. He sat down on the bunk, sliding off his sandals before lying back on the mattress and staring up at the weathered ceiling. Ajax rubbed his eyes, exhaling an exhausted sigh before closing them, the room quiet as a warm night breeze passed through his half-opened window.
He was half asleep when he heard her voice.
Ajax's eyes snapped open as his voice was called from outside the window. Groggy, he raised an eyebrow and blinked several times before slipping out of bed, walking over to the window sill and leaning out to see Leah outside. She wore a green cloak, her hood covering her brown hair, but he could easily recognize her face in the moonlight. A smile appeared on her face when she saw him.
"Ajax!" she whispered.
"Leah?" he said in question, unsure of why she was there.
"Are you busy at this very second?" she asked, the light in her eyes flickering.
He smiled, but only just. "No, I suppose not."
Leah laughed quietly, beckoning him down. "Well, come on then!"
He pursed his lips and then nodded, pausing a moment as he left the window and pulled on his boots and cloak, returning to the window as he swung his legs over and climbed out, jumping down the short rest of the way. Leah smiled and walked up to him as he got to his feet.
"Come on," Leah persisted with smiling eyes, her hand wrapping around his arm as she tugged him eagerly.
"Where are we going?" Ajax asked, sparing a yawn.
"You'll see," she grinned.
The two of them skidded through the empty, dark streets- it was at least an hour past might. By now, even most of the drunks in the tavern were beginning to lose their stamina, slipping into slumber. Leah continued to pull them down the road, and they bypassed the shipyard, making their way to the trail that led up to the ridge. The moon shone against the deep indigo Aegean Sea, the sky clear. The air was a relaxing, brisk temperature for summer.
As they made their way up the trail, they slowed down just so they could ascend the climb, some of the rocks still wet from the earlier tide. Leah was timid with her footing.
"Watch your step on the rocks," Ajax muttered as they became the rocky slope, and he found himself holding onto her arm securely as she used him for balance.
"We're nearly there," she kept saying.
As they reached the top Ajax bypassed her and climbed up first, turning around as he offered Leah his hand, pulling her up. She climbed up in one swift motion, steadying herself and nodding with a sure smile before looking up, her expression lightening as she motioned with her chin. Ajax blinked, tilting his head back and looking up. He had noticed the stars were bright, but now that he really looked, Ajax could have practically reached out and pulled one right from the sky. The stars shined big and bright all across the night sky, almost dazing.
Both of them turned, and a laugh slipped from Leah as Aetos and Danae sat with their backs against one of the rocks, his arm draped over her shoulder. "Pleasure for you kids to join us," Aetos remarked, his eyes flashing back and forth between the two. Danae was seated at his side.
"Evening, both of you," she said to them. "Good to see you, Ajax."
"You too, Dany," Ajax said back, bidding his head in a stiff nod before Leah took his hand and pulled on his arm, urging him to sit. Ajax nodded his head with a slim smile before sitting down next to her, putting Danae and Leah on the inside, Aetos and Ajax sitting on either end.
"Leah has a slight obsession with astronomy," Danae said, nudging her younger cousin in the shoulder while her cheeks flushed.
"Better than your obsession with tavern cleaning," Leah said back.
Aetos laughed and Danae turned around, her jaw dropping as Leah grinned. Ajax smiled at the pair before Leah suddenly gasped, her finger pointed up to the sky. "Oh look, you can see Orion clearly!"
Danae looked up, seeing it as well. Her lips turned into a smile. "Oh, Mother used to tell me that story all the time."
"What?" Aetos asked, looking up with squinted eyes at the collaboration of stars. Ajax turned his neck as well.
"There," Leah said, pointing her finger as she traced the alignment of the hunter and his bow. "See how those bright stars formulate in that line?"
"They're all bright and formulated," Aetos muttered.
"I see it," Ajax said quietly.
Leah turned to him, and a smile formed on her face as Ajax stared up at the sky, Orion flickering against the black canvas of the night.
Danae's voice seemed so far in the background as she recited the tale. "Orion is one of the few men who hunted with the virgin goddess Artemis. They hunted together on this very island. But Apollo, Artemis's twin brother disliked their friendship, and using his sister's bow, the sun god shot Orion and killed him. Artemis placed him in the sky and never again hunted with another man. Some even say they were in love."
Ajax was quiet the rest of the time up there, finding the constellations Leah pointed out and listening to the legends of each. Danae and Aetos engaged in a quiet conversation, exchanging soft laughs and words with their heads close together.
When they finally did head back down to the city, Aetos and Danae took the lead, Ajax and Leah's following suit.
Eventually, the question slipped.
"Do you really believe in that story about the hunter?" he asked.
Leah looked at her feet as she stepped. "Don't you?"
Ajax paused unsurely. He hardly believed in stories like that anymore at all. "I don't know why Artemis would bother with a mortal," he decided.
Leah shrugged. "Orion was supposedly one of the most beautiful men in the world."
"Perhaps Apollo was simply jealous then," Ajax suggested, watching as Danae and Aetos finished the climb down, already at the bottom, hand-in-hand.
"Maybe," she said, looking up at him with a smile open to anything. "The gods are a lot like us, I like to think."
He stepped down to her level, nodding, and they continued their soft chatter all the way to the bottom of the cliff, the trek seemingly endless. When they finally were at ground level, Aetos and Danae were long out of sight. Leah looked to Ajax who only shrugged, and she mirrored his response with a blush and chuckle.
"Too bad he doesn't have his pipe anymore; we could've just trailed the smoke," Ajax inquired with a shake to the head.
"Perhaps. Though I never see him smoking when he's around Dany," Leah remarked.
"Well, the shit is a damn good actor."
And Leah burst into laughter, one that filled the street and could have awakened the entire town. Ajax then laughed as well, smiling one of his rare full grins as she chuckled, her hand resting on his shoulder as she caught her breath.
When they made their way back to the tavern they were still laughing, though it dulled as they neared the dim light of the overhung torch. Just on the outline of the shadows the two of them stood, Aetos holding her face to his hand while Danae's hands were around his arms, her eyes shut as they kissed. Ajax lifted his eyebrows as Leah's hands covered her mouth, stifling a squeal while a low whistle escalated through Ajax's pursed lips.
The two of them stiffened, Danae's eyes widening as she quickly pushed Aetos away, her face turning rose red as Aetos turned around and shot a glare to Ajax, who suddenly burst to laughter again, Leah joining him.
Orion soared across the sky above them.