A NOVEL IN PROGRESS: From an Age of Gold
"THE WRESTLING MATCH"
There was to be a royal wedding celebrated in Phthia and by royal ukase no one in the city might be absent from that.
This I heard from Aphrocleia, my hostess, the owner of taverna where I had installed myself, hidden, as paying guest. She told me that the old king had died of a fall on his great charcoal black horse while hunting, only a few weeks before my arrival. His only son, Eurytion, had succeeded him. Barely eighteen years of age, the lad was said to be already as kingly as his more pleasure-loving sire had been. Handsome, and generous, wise and courteous, if he had any fault at all, the always critical Aphrocleia declared, it was that he listened to the advice of his three older sisters over that of the male elders of the royal court. But this was not really unanticipated: the three princesses were already half grown when his mother had died, soon after giving birth to him. Together they had raised him, so naturally enough, respectful Eurytion treated the sisters as if they were his mother.
They wished him married off to one of their own friends, a woman of the second best family of Phthia, named Polydora, some years older, and beautiful, if already a widow and with a daughter. Many Phthians assumed that Eurytion would be ruled by his wife, and thus by his sisters. But then, aside from his sport, the old king he succeeded had been secretly swayed in most matters by his own three wise daughters and most thought that no harm had or would come to Phthia because of it. So matters could be worse. If the young king could keep the wife pregnant repeatedly she would be less interfering, or so Aphrocleia declared, and added that the king seemed virile enough for that easy task.
So I joined Aphrocleia and her bald, henpecked, old husband, Cleander in attending the Royal wedding festivities. Free oxen-meat – always a rare treat in that Age of the Sacred Bull -- many guest gifts, and much wine drinking were expected to make it a particularly memorable day, with sport for the younger men and even for the unmarried girls. It would be an all-day event, beginning with sacrifices at the temples of Hestia, Hera, and the Great Father, where the uniting actually would take place, with the palace’s huge outer courtyard to be the scene of the giant luncheon and celebratory games.
Forced to attend, I felt confident in my disguise of oil darkened face and neck and hands with ashes covering my fair hair until it was near black. So, when I was urged to partake in the javelin tossing and discus throwing, I did join in with the other lads and men.
At first I was casual about it, but the taunting of one young Phthian, Myrmos by name, who was as vain as he was muscle-bound, at last got to me, and so my vanity was touched and I out-raced him and I out-threw him, though he was the greater at tossing the discus. When it was clear to the crowd that we two were the best athletes present, and close in talent and strength, I then foolishly allowed myself to be matched with him for wrestling in the inner courtyard ring, at nightfall, before the royal court itself.
Partly, I must admit, this was because of the awards offered, there for all to look at and compete for: a finely worked Thessalonian saddle of tooled ox-leather, trimmed with silver; and one of Eurytion’s own steeds, albeit a male, were to be the rewards.
I had eaten well at the wedding lunch, and even better, indoors at the wedding dinner, and in between I had shown my prowess. Thus I was as filled with myself as any youth would be, when Myrmos and I appeared, nude and oiled, bowing before the King and Queen, amid the pine-tar torch-lit inner courtyard of the palace. Myrmos was of course well known to them, while I was publicized by the court herald as "a gifted young outlander, newly arrived." This could only prompt curiosity, but as Aphrocleia knew nothing more of me, neither she nor her husband could relate more to anyone asking.
Were I Homer or Hesiod now I would dramatize our wrestling match. The rough ring in the midst of a close group of mostly noble Phthians, half of them kin of my opponent; the clangor of the court herald calling us two wrestlers to our places; the blessing of King Eurytion by drops of sweet nard to each of our upper lips; the ever changing light and dark of the many flickering pine tar torches and hanging oil lamps in the courtyard; the onlookers edging closer and closer as we fought. I would provide a move by move account of our various throws and slips and holds, narrate how we recovered ourselves or released ourselves from each move, to audible relief and murmurs and even outbursts of applause from the onlookers. I have related that Myrmos was larger than I, and so he could throw me hard, leaving me breathless, into the ring. But he could never hope to hold me.
And now, recall the surprise of the Messenger God when he and I first met and I had him grasped by his winged ankles almost six years before and how I held on so tightly that it took all this strength to get me free. Then I’d been a child. Grown to be a youth now, no one could match me for grip or tenacity, and at last after one bad move, I had Myrmos in a hold from which he could not rise, nor even move a single muscle.
His townsmen would not call what so clearly was my win, so as Myrmos panted and sweated and tried and tried again, at last King Euryrion himself had to step into the ring and using a lantern bearer for illumination, touch his little scepter to point out all how both of my opponent’s shoulders and parts of both legs were as though nailed to the ground.
"Nike goes to the outlander!" the King declared then and only when the assembled wedding guests had risen and also shouted "Nike to the outlander," did I release Myrmos and let the young King raise my hand to Heaven, and receive his hot lips upon my own, as further sign of victory.
Myrmos, poor lad, was stunned by his defeat; for he had reigned undefeated in his homeland since boyhood until that moment. He had to be helped up and then both of us were given wine for our thirst, I from the King’s own "Guest’s Chalice," Myrmos from a more ordinary cup.
I swear there was no malice in Myrmos then, nothing but an intention to come to me in congratulation, although he was still somewhat dazed and still confused by the outcome of the match.
I had been led by the King himself to my regal rewards and together we were admiring the beautiful animal and the lovely tack to be given with it. Nor was it lost on me that Eurytion was already prominently exhibiting down his front a less regal and more purely masculine interest in me at that moment, for which I was glad, for I thought us well matched and looked forward to sharing his bed if he ever deigned to offer it.
When suddenly Myrmos was between the two of us, stammering something conciliatory, and I saw him stumble. As he did, his hand flew up and with it his flagon of wine. I knew the wine would splash the King – bad enough in any case, but a dreadful omen at a wedding -- and so I stepped between them and took its full wetness upon my own face, neck, and bare chest.
There was a moment of further befuddlement, increased apologies, and then laughing, Eurytion himself took up a cloth from a maid and wiped the wine off me, while offering gentle admonitions to red-faced Myrmos about imbibing too much wine with his sport.
All would have been well then had not many torches suddenly surrounded us, as courtiers approached to ensure the King’s safety.
"Look!" Crespis cried, "The Outlander’s hair!"
Prismus cried, "See his skin! Look at his face!"
As they gaped, Eurytion called for water and a cloth then to wash me down better and in minutes my disguise was gone as my hair was cleared of soot and my skin of its dark oiled hue.
"His hair like the sun. His skin like the moon. He must be one of the Hyperboreans!" cried out one old man, Prismus, for that’s what the Northern Men were called in our time and place, those nearly legendary beings who lived among giant antlered deer and white wolves, and were believed to be consorts of Phoebus himself during his darkest and most violent orgies.
So I was unmasked. All shrank back from me in fear and awe, as I stood there among them in the great light, my head glittering, as gold in the torchlight as the King’s own diadem, and my skin so pale.
I just now misspoke, because Eurytion alone of all the men did not shrink back, although others interposed themselves between us for his safety. Instead he pushed his way forward more closely to look at me, and if his black eyes had been heated with interest when he had declared me victor and rewarded me, some minutes before, now they all but smoldered in curiosity and lust
"Who are you, outlander!" The King demanded. "Declare yourself without further deception or face the consequences!"
What could I say?
So I told them all that I was Peleus Aecion, Prince of Aegina, grandson of the Lightning Throwing Deity Himself.
"An Olympian’s sireling. A demigod!" the old counselor Prismus understood it first. "Although I’ve heard tales of their existence, in all my long life, I’ve never before laid eyes on such a Blessed One before this moment."
"Our fight was a fair one," I quickly declared to Eurytion, for I had no intention of letting my prizes be forfeited. "I have only thirteen and a half years, and Myrmos is almost a man old as yourself. Also, he is half again my size and weight even if he is completely mortal."
"The fight was a fair one!" Myrmos declared. "He used no wiles or extraordinary aids. I was fairly beaten and held."
There was much murmuring then.
"Agreed." The king began, "But then, Prince Peleus, why are you covered in soot like some kitchen lad?" Eurytion asked, very amused. His courtiers roared. He hushed them, "Why did you not come directly to my court like any other prince. To the royal hall where you would receive my choicest meats and a guest–gift wrought of red-gold?"
I knew then that word of my half brother, Phocus’ death nor my role in it had not yet reached this far land, but I knew it still could arrive and then be my undoing.
"Only to you, Sire, may I disclose my reasons for this royal discourtesy," I said, and the murmuring around us grew louder. "Only to an equal or greater, may I tell why. And only mouth to ear," I added -- let the others wallow in their curiosity.
Eurytion was pleased, as I thought he would be. I had just provided him with a perfect excuse to be with me alone in private. And while I knew my task would be a difficult one for both of us, it would accomplish several different tasks and I hoped would solve my problem.
"As you wish, then," he said in a low voice.
"Peleus Aecion, Prince of Aegina, you give me great honor by coming to my wedding feast," Eurytion now trumpeted for all to hear. "Now you cannot deny that you are my guest!... Helops," he turned to an older, taller, and stouter man who wore the royal bracelets of authority. "See that Peleus is dressed aptly and by all means that he bathes well of his soot." Much laughter greeted this witticism. "Tonight we feast-- tomorrow will we have our private interview, Prince Peleus."
Eurytion swept away, greeted by much cheering from the courtiers. He went to his new wife who’d been left to wonder among her women what occurred. I could barely make him out through the crowd, but he was being gracious and even a bit explanatory toward her, for she suddenly stood up from her throne chair and looked toward our group, then back at him, and then she smiled at Eurytion as though to signify that the king must do as the king must do, and it was no matter or slight to her.
Meanwhile I was surrounded by newfound athletic fans and the curious, even some lads who had to reach up to lightly brush my hair to ensure that it was real hair and not some man-smelted metal.
"This way, Prince!" Helops ordered as much as offered, but he was not stupid enough to turn his back to me -- that would be a discourtesy. Even so, unlike the queen, I could tell he already sensed problems as a result of my appearance at Phthia’s court.
I followed him, in turn followed by sweet, muscle bound, young Myrmos who offered to be my personal cup bearer for that night, an offer I neither dared nor wished to refuse.
Bit it was his royal master who I longed for and who I later discovered had already been targeted by the flaming arrows of Eros.
©, 2016 Felice Picano