Beloved Erato, muse of passion and devotion,

Reveal how the lovers came to be at odds.

A slave abandoned to his fate.

A warrior forced to undertake a hated task.

And how they faced the testing of their love.

 

Chapter One

 

ANDREAS’ HEART pounded. Time was running out. If he didn’t find Theron quickly, he would be too late. Somewhere out there his warrior lay injured and dying.

Fearing what he might find, Andreas roamed his klēros, searching his barren holding for his missing lover. His fields stretched as far as the eye could see, blackened stubble growing hazy in the remote distance. No matter how long he walked, he couldn’t find Theron.

He tasted ashes, bitter as blood, on his tongue. Gray smudges covered his once white chiton and discolored his skin. Andreas would never be free of the stain.

Sometimes he thought he’d been wandering forever. Racing against inflexible Atropos, the daughter of night, Andreas was driven to find the kryptes before she cut Theron’s thread short with her abhorred shears.

Night was coming, that time all helots feared—something terrible fast on its heels, death in its wake. Doom now stalked them both, flashes of scarlet in the growing gloom.

He’d never stood beneath any sky without the sun to protect him, protect him from the kryptes and any other monsters roaming the lightless night.

Soon. He had to find Theron soon!

But he was frozen in place, unable to move no matter how he struggled….

 

Andreas sat up with a shout. He whirled, eyes searching frantically for the red-clad peril pursuing him. His breath came in choppy gasps barely audible above the thunder of blood in his ears.

The stink of soot and fear clogged his nostrils. He took a moment to recognize his surroundings in the almost nonexistent light coming from his hearth. The fire had burned down to little more than a flicker.

Untangling himself from the sodden blanket, Andreas shivered, sweat prickling his skin. He scurried to the hearth. Scrabbling for small bits of wood to add to the fire before he lost any hope of rekindling the embers, he drove a splinter under his nail. “Hades!” But he didn’t examine his finger until the scraps of kindling began to smolder. If the flame went out, he’d have to go to Petros tomorrow and beg a coal from his hearth.

He plucked the sliver free with his teeth and spat it out on the floor. Sucking on the wound, Andreas kept watch as the fire took hold. The mix of coppery blood and wood smoke drew his nightmare back from the shadows.

But unlike in his dream, while awake he didn’t fear the darkness within. The dark without held all the danger for him. Like every helot before him, he’d been taught as a child to fear the kryptes who roamed the night, slaying all helots they happened upon. A helot’s only hope lay within the walls of his home once night fell.

Unfortunately nowhere was safe for any helot who the Spartans determined must die.

The sole requirement a kryptes had to meet in delivering their fate was to remain unseen by anyone other than their victim. Their ability to come and go undetected was part of their mystique, part of what made them so terrifying.

The flames blazed up, filling the single-room hut with light. Andreas sank down to the floor, at first unsure what had brought on the nightmare when he’d gone a month or more since the last one. All those thoughts and feelings he’d refused to give life had come boiling up.

Much too late now, the dream should no longer have the strength to haunt him. Theron was long past his help.

Andreas hadn’t seen the Hekate-becursed man since he disappeared months ago.

How many nights had he sat up worrying about the bastard? How many times had he endured that nightmare? He’d woken with a shout, covered in sweat, too many times to count. And what had he gotten for all his lost sleep? Not a cursed thing.

With his endless searching, Andreas had come to know his lands better than he’d thought possible, but the warrior eluded him, whether in life or in death, he didn’t know.

Andreas chose to believe Theron yet lived. But it was long past time for his fate to matter. Theron should have returned by now if he were still alive. Either his “lover”—Andreas snorted in disgust—had died without him, or more likely he’d left Andreas behind without a second thought. If Theron was alive after all this time, he had no intention of returning. Either way Andreas would never see him again.

Once Andreas realized this, he submerged his grief as best he could. In an effort to avoid his nightmares, he’d worked himself harder than he ever had before. He spent his days tilling his fields like a madman, channeling his frustration into the uncomplaining soil until he was too tired to think of anything while he lay in his bed. Or nursing the wine Myron gave him in exchange for helping expand his vineyard. And his plan had worked, mostly.

Staring into the blaze, Andreas wondered what had driven Theron from him and kept him away. He’d left once, soon after they’d met, but Andreas thought they’d resolved Theron’s concerns about being exposed. Theron had even proposed a solution to the problem of their being together, offering to claim him as his mothônes, his companion.

Theron must have changed his mind.

“He’s never coming back.” Something broke inside Andreas, admitting that. But did he actually want to see Theron again?

Reaching for the wineskin hanging from the head of his bed, Andreas was surprised to find it missing. Glancing around the room, he discovered the half-empty skin where he must have left it on the table when he had stumbled to bed. He needed to refill the flask in the morning.

Without wasting time finding a cup, he drank straight from the wineskin. But the familiar warmth didn’t lull him back to sleep this time.

Andreas rose and paced the short distance between the hearth and his bed. The quick temper he’d inherited from his father came spilling out like one of the plagues from Pandora’s jar. He’d thought he’d stamped the last embers of that smoldering resentment out, but maybe he’d never cared about anything deeply enough to have his belief tested. He punched the mattress a fevered Theron had lain on.

Yet another way he would have disappointed his mother had she been here to see him.

For a while after his father died, Andreas had been every bit as angry as his father before him. Father had spoken out against the annual “war” the Spartans had waged on the helots, so when Andreas had railed on about his father’s death, his mother had grown fearful.

“You’re too much like your father! And what did his anger gain him? Is it not enough I have lost a husband? I will not lose my only child as well!”

Even the tears spilling down her cheeks couldn’t keep him from insisting, “But killing someone just because you can is wrong. What did Father do to deserve death?”

“Never forget we’re what the gods made us—slaves. That is our lot in life, Andreas. What we were born for. We are not, and will never be, their equals. The Spartans can do whatever they want to us. A slave’s duty is to endure. Anything else is rebellion and results in many more deaths. Do you want to be responsible for bringing destruction down on us?”

“They murdered him!”

“The Spartans are very careful to avoid murder. They declare war on us instead.”

“It’s still murder.”

“Ah… Andreas, my heart, the gods agree with them.” Then as if to forestall him, she pulled him into her arms. “It’s hubris to think you know better than the gods.”

Hubris. That ultimate of all sins. There was no answer he could make to that.

Andreas had learned to force the anger down, hiding his feelings under obedience and hard work. And the mask had served him well, until the day a thieving kryptes arrived to set his world and his hard-won composure on its ear.

Now the anger and resentment worked their way to the surface like the fires in Hephaestus’ volcanic forge, ready to spew molten fury and rain down disaster on anyone who crossed him. If Theron were here now, Andreas would be tempted to do more than just yell at the kryptes like he had in the past.

“Foresworn godless bastard! He said he’d stand by me and protect me, but where is he now?” Andreas spat. “Oaths to a helot obviously mean nothing to a kryptes. Pretty little promises to get me to do as he wished.”

As he stomped back toward the fire, Ictis darted under the table to escape his feet.

“Couldn’t even be bothered to let me know.” Another turn back to the bed. “The coward said he’d be back and then disappeared, walked off and left me, letting me think he’d died.”

Once more at the hearth, Andreas glanced down at his gods and picked up the figurine of Apollo. “I can’t believe I asked the Lord of Light to watch over a kryptes, of all people!”

Andreas clenched the clay god tight. The terracotta form dug into his palm, Apollo’s bow pricking the skin. He stared at his fist. After a moment’s hesitation, he carefully returned the likeness to his hearth before he did something unforgivable, like crush it. He didn’t dare incur Apollo’s enmity.

“Still allowing that sneaking murderer to control me. Honorless warrior!”

The fire snapped, and a handful of embers cascaded to the dirt floor. One landed on his knee, flaring amid the scent of burned hair before he hurriedly brushed the cinder away. The small red patch stung and throbbed in reproach.

No longer hiding under the table, the ferret’s black bead eyes regarded him from atop one of the stools. Andreas pursed his lips, trying to expel all the bitterness in his mouth. “What was I thinking, Ictis? Theron would come and take me away with him?”

On the next swing, he flung himself down on his bed. “I’m a fool, aren’t I? To believe there can be anything from a kryptes other than a knife in the back.” He lay there, his harsh breaths slowing. Too angry to sleep.

Ictis pounced on him. “I know you like him. I used to like him. But that lying kryptes didn’t abandon you to your fate after placing you in danger.”

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

WITH THE night far advanced, Apollo rose from his dinner and left the rest of the feasters behind. Soft strains of music followed in his wake as his daughter Erato sang of the love between youths.

Torches flickered and picked out the jewellike pigments enlivening the bas-relief frieze depicting his mother, Leto, taking refuge on the floating isle of Delos. Hera, the jealous queen of the gods, pursued the pregnant goddess, refusing Leto a safe haven to give birth. Apollo trailed his hand down the ample swells of his mother’s gown, mind drawn back to the beautiful island where he and his twin sister, Artemis, had entered the world.

A stray beam of evening light shone through the open roof of the atrium, cutting the gloom and crashing onto the surface of the pool, strewing glittering shards across the walls. Apollo could almost hear the secrets the scattered brilliance carried.

The telltale buzz of momentous tidings filled the air. Apollo smiled.

High time to check on the men he was gathering to protect his new prophet, Cyrus. Last night, Apollo had sought out Alexios. The young prince of Dikaia and his slave were granting Cyrus, Apollo’s Voice, more consideration than anyone else. Apollo intended to reward any friends his new prophet could find. He had gone so far as to offer to train Alexios’ slave, Galen, as a healer. But they were merely the beginning. Apollo intended to draw all the assets he could to Cyrus’ side in Delphi.

He sat on the wall of the reflecting pool, watching the light fade. In the darkening waters, Apollo sought the two Spartan warriors he intended to appropriate for his service. The unnamed youth who had mourned the loss of his lover should have been the more difficult to find, since Apollo did not know his name. But Apollo had watched him when he left his lover’s pyre to wander aimlessly away from civilization. At least Apollo had a general direction for his search.

The warrior huddled in one of the many narrow valleys cut into the rocky hills bordering the Taygetos Mountains. His scarlet cloak was dulled with dust, and twigs snagged in his hair as well as the cloth.

Apollo recalled the man, covered in blood and dirt, crouching near Hyacinthus’ grave, a ring of grim-faced young warriors surrounding the grieving man.

The once strong Spartan youth who had watched his lover, another warrior, cremated on one of Apollo’s altars had been replaced by this lost creature. The dead man had taken his own life as his only course after being exposed as a lover of men. Something the Spartans reviled.

Apollo clenched his hands and ground his teeth, allowing his anger to surface. Not solely at what had been done to these young men, but at a polis that thought to deny what the gods themselves practiced.

Once again, Apollo sent the disconsolate warrior a dream of Delphi and glory in his name. Maybe this time the man would listen and make his way to Apollo’s sacred precinct to join the other warriors Apollo sought for his service.

The scuff of bare feet approaching drew his attention away from the sleeping Spartan. Halys padded toward him, kylix in hand, careful not to spill any of the ambrosia from the vessel’s shallow bowl.

Apollo smiled in appreciation as the ebon godling knelt at his side. Night-dark eyes shone with mischief below unruly curls of deepest, darkest black. Apollo had no doubt the daemon meant to ply him with the heady brew and then coax him back to his bedchamber.

Accepting the kylix, Apollo glanced back at the reflecting pool to find its surface once more dark. He wet his lips with ambrosia and set the drinking bowl on the low masonry wall he rested on.

Next Apollo needed to check on the man who had pledged himself to Apollo’s service in exchange for saving the kryptes’ life. Apollo was unsure of how best to utilize a man who could not travel, but even if Andreas never proved more than a devotee in seclusion, Apollo was not one to throw away any advantage. As the god of prophecy, he knew how often the future could change unexpectedly for mortals. Or how intractable Fate was.

Extending his hand over the water, he murmured, “Andreas the helot.”

Halys glanced at him sharply. “A slave, Lord? How could a slave possibly interest you?”

Instead of answering, Apollo ran his fingers into the godling’s thick ebony curls. Halys’ eyes closed, and he moaned as Apollo sought out and caressed his sharp, little horn buds. A rich musk edged with the sharp tang of wild places surrounded them. Apollo inhaled deeply but resisted the seduction and the hint of wantonness in the scent.

Apollo kept his hand on the exquisite pan’s head, grazing the sensitive nubs, as he sipped from the kylix. A bright spot of light grew in the pool’s depths, showing a common hut and a man flinging his arms about and shouting, “I can’t believe I asked the Lord of Light to watch over a kryptes, of all people!”

Unsurprised at the angry outburst, Apollo was still displeased at the slave’s reaction to those who were his betters. He had noticed the helot’s mood deteriorating ever since the kryptes left him. Now the helot no longer respected the warrior as he should.

“Honorless warrior!”

Apollo would teach the slave respect. He flicked his fingers and a shower of sparks leapt out at the man. Andreas cursed and brushed at his legs.

Too bad the pair was no longer together. Apollo had plans for both of them. He still had a place for the warriors, but even though Andreas was sworn to him, he was unable to leave his klēros without the protection Theron had offered.

Halys’ deep onyx eyes opened to their fullest. “A helot asked you to guard a kryptes? Was he insane?”

Apollo chuckled. “No, I think he was in love.”

“With… a kryptes?” The disbelief on Halys’ face would have been insulting if Apollo had not wondered the same thing initially. “He must have taken leave of his senses,” the demi-god muttered.

“I think the kryptes, Theron, must have felt the same.”

“Theron—Hunter—aptly named for a kryptes.” But Apollo noted Halys was not going to give him anything more than that.

In the pool, the helot flung himself down on his bed.

“What is he angry about? He had to know nothing would come of it.”

“He is bitter because the warrior claimed him as his own and then abandoned him. Andreas has not seen the kryptes in months, not since Theron penetrated him.”

Halys’ sudden intake of breath let Apollo know how shocked he was. “Even slaves do not care to be trifled with.”

Penetration was for inferiors—women, chattel slaves, whores. Andreas was a helot, not chattel. He was not a free man, but he was not a possession either. If he had permitted himself to be taken in such a fashion, he had not done so lightly.

Apollo studied Halys carefully. “Do you think I trifle with you, slave of mine?”

“No, Lord.” Halys rubbed his face on Apollo’s thigh, nudging the chiton higher. His lips brushed Apollo’s leg. “I wish you would trifle with me,” the scoundrel whispered thickly.

Apollo traced one of the black stripes covering the exposed mahogany shoulder with a fingertip just to watch Halys shudder. “Yes, my lord, like that….”

“A moment. I am not done here.”

Apollo dashed his hand over the surface of his pool, shattering the image of an angry young helot. He had hoped Theron, the other Spartan warrior he intended to claim for his service, would be with Andreas. But the kryptes was proving difficult to find.

“You are not going to escape your fate so easily,” Apollo informed the unsuspecting helot. “I have plans for you that require you to learn to respect warriors. My warriors.”

But warriors who despised the love between men? Apollo would demand no respect for them.

He nearly drained the kylix, exposing the red figure painting of Daphne transforming into a laurel tree on the bottom of the bowl. A drop of ambrosia hung, trembling on the lip of the drinking vessel. With a flick of his wrist, Apollo dislodged the golden bead and watched the shining pearl of nectar strike the surface of the water, spreading rings of light across the pool.

“Theron the kryptes.”

This time, Apollo knew the name of the Spartan he sought and had no trouble finding him. Like all other Spartans with the exception of the exiled warrior, Theron had returned to Sparta to attend Apollo’s festival, the Karneia. He strode through the Eurotas River valley, nearing one of the Spartan villages. Another young man in a scarlet cloak was approaching from behind. Apollo leaned forward, waiting to see how Theron would respond.

“Theron?”

The warrior twitched and visibly drew a breath. Clutching his knife hilt and exhaling slowly, Theron turned. His posture relaxed minutely as recognition kindled in his eyes, and he released his weapon.

“It is you! I wasn’t expecting you to return for another day or two,” the young warrior said. Glancing behind Theron, he wore a grim expression. “You’re alone?”

Who was the warrior speaking to Theron? Theron had not greeted the man by name. Not that it really mattered. Unless Apollo had some need of them, mortals were all the same to him. Just another tight-muscled, burnished young man in a red cloak—his name was unimportant.

“I’ve searched everywhere, over and over, but haven’t found Coridan. Hopefully he’s escaped beyond the ephors’ reach.” The frustration was clear in the tension in Theron’s voice and stance. “I had to come back. I couldn’t stand not knowing any longer.”

“No one has seen him since….” The young warrior glanced away. “He shouldn’t be in exile! We can’t allow the ephors to demand his death as well.”

“No,” Theron replied, “we will preserve him for Lysander’s sake.”

“Maybe Nisus has found him,” the other man insisted.

“I hope so. If you see Nisus, tell him Leonidas sent for me. I’ll find him after I talk to my mentor.”

Patting the other warrior on the shoulder, Theron entered the nighttime streets of Limnai, the northernmost of the villages comprising the unwalled city of Sparta. Apollo wondered if that was Theron’s destination, or if maybe one of the other villages housed his family.

Soon the sun would be gilding the eastern edge of the world and the polis would stir to life.

Apollo settled back, resting his chin in his hand as the vision faded.

Coridan? The bereaved warrior was called Coridan? Then Lysander must have been his lover, the youth who committed suicide.

At last, Apollo had a name. Tracking the grieving youth would be easier.

The two Spartan warriors, Theron and Coridan, would be assets to the select group he was summoning to his sacred precinct at Delphi. Apollo expected his warriors to protect his Voice, the prophet Cyrus, from the Persians the Athenians had stirred up like a hornets’ nest when they aided the Ionians in their revolt and attack on Sardis. He knew the Persian King, Darius, intended to pressure the Pythia to bend her prophecies to Persia’s advantage. But Darius was unaware of the return of the Voice of Apollo. How long that might continue to be the case, Apollo could not say. Doubtless, once Cyrus reached Delphi, Darius’ spies would convey that unexpected piece of intelligence to him.

Fortunately, with an entire empire to cross, the Persian king would not be able to take immediate action against Cyrus in an attempt to influence the Hellenes through Apollo’s prophet. And by the time he did, Apollo would have assembled his men quietly without the king’s knowledge.

Apollo smiled. He had no doubt his warriors would be more than capable of protecting his Voice from harm.

Apollo stood and reached down to Halys. “Come, slave. We have our own business to see to.”

Halys sprang to his feet, a wicked glint in his eyes, and wound their fingers together. “With pleasure, master.” Sinuous and supple as a cat, the daemon wrapped himself around Apollo, making the short distance to his bedchamber seem as far away as distant Hyperborea.

“Behave,” Apollo tried to sound strict, apparently to no avail.

“You would not like me if I behaved.”

Apollo laughed, unable to prevent himself. “Fine, you rascal! Behave until I have you in my bed, then you may do as you please.”

Halys’ grin bode well for the rest of the evening.