Ever since he had moved to the house, the younger boy, Gryllus' son, had filled the courtyard with his singing, matching the caged birds note for note in beauty and tunefulness. He was never happier than when sitting in the sun at his mother's feet, chanting children's songs and Homeric verses she had taught him by drill, striving to hold to the complex rhythms and sing-song stresses of her training.
Though not much to look at-he was short in stature and thin-chested for his age-he was talented. This much everyone knew, for he had sung already at a few of the banquets hosted by his father, attended by some of Athens' most renowned citizens and artists. The boy had received the highest of praises from both statesmen and poets for the clear, bell-like quality of his voice, and for his poise. To the boy, however, the compliments of diplomats were as water to a drunkard when compared to the praise of his father, which was rarely and grudgingly bestowed, for exceptionally fine performances only. Even then it was more from gratification at having pleased his guests than from any inherent pleasure he took in the boy's singing.
The boy had a name, of course, but his mother called him by it only when reprimanding him, and his father rarely addressed him directly at all. He most often answered to his nickname, one that had most naturally developed as a result of his skill. He was called Aedon, the songbird, and the unusual nickname seemed to augur further fortune for his developing talent. Not, of course, that such talent had any long-term prospects: His family was ancient and wealthy, and the life of a singer or poet was not something to which great families aspired for their children. Nevertheless, it was diverting, it garnered him a bit more attention from his father than he might otherwise have received, and it helped keep the boy occupied in the home until his formal education was to begin.
The older boy, Aedon's second cousin and two years his senior, was Proxenus, a squarely built little ruffian with an irrepressible grin and a swagger. Just as Aedon was a born poet and singer, Proxenus was a soldier from birth, and despite their different inclinations and interests, the two were fast friends, beyond a mere blood relationship. At least daily, Proxenus would startle Aedon out of his frequent reveries in the courtyard by whacking him on the head with his makeshift wooden sword, sending him into a chase that would end with the boys racing through the house, wrestling on the hard tile floors and getting underfoot of the long-suffering elderly servants who attempted to maintain order. Proxenus being the older and stronger of the two, Aedon invariably got the worst of their battles, but he rarely gave in to the bigger boy's repeated demands to surrender. When pinned, he preferred to disarm Proxenus by grinning spastically and singing faintly obscene ditties that would soon have his older cousin collapsed in paroxysms of laughter.
But even on the few occasions that Proxenus was not present, Aedon was never alone, for he played and talked animatedly with an imaginary friend, a being who, he said, was always with him yet whom he refused to name, saying only that he was a little god. This was a source of great hilarity to the family at first, as Proxenus and the slaves would sometimes pretend to trip and fall, saying that Aedon's little god had gotten underfoot, or they would blame missing articles on the covetousness of his little god. Over time, the godlet made his way into the pantheon of the family's household deities, at first as a joke, then more as an unconscious habit. Long after the boy had grown older and ceased to openly communicate with his mysterious friend, his mother and slaves still occasionally referred to the deity's presence in passing.
During this time we rarely saw Aedon's dour, distant father. Even during his brief forays home from his diplomatic or military duties, Gryllus had little time for boys, having constantly to attend to the comings and goings of strange men, men important and self-important, who would come to talk and argue with him far into the night. Gryllus' reputation as an officer was formidable, and he had thus far acquitted himself well in the war. He had even managed to retain most of his body parts, with the exception of the loss of an eye injured by a glancing blow from a Spartan spear point, which had become infected from, he swore, a quack army surgeon's treatment of it with plaster of cow dung and vinegar. The eye had to be removed, which Gryllus insisted on doing himself with a spoon, to avoid exposing himself further to the perils of the physician's science. The eye's cavity healed sufficiently, although it occasionally leaked a watery fluid tinged with blood if Gryllus engaged in strenuous physical activity, and the wound was a source of pride and wonder for the boy.
Occasionally Gryllus would take the boys and his old battle squire Leon back to the abandoned estate at Erchia, by this time practically a ruin. Gryllus retained a deep love for the land, and although his plans to make the fields productive had to be constantly postponed because of the exigencies of the war, he was nevertheless determined that his son not be deprived of familiarity with the earth. He maintained several fine horses, cared for by Leon's lame son, and would take them on long forays and hunts in the countryside. Even when Aedon was too young to ride by himself, he would sit up on his father's mount between Gryllus's strong thighs. Gryllus was so fond of riding that when his son tired he would take him back to the house for a nap, and then depart again immediately for the remainder of the day, without the slightest rest. He once took me along for company, lending me a smaller horse that he intended to give his son when he became older. Gryllus said that if the war continued, Aedon himself would serve as an officer, and that if I were to be his battle squire, I would need to have at least the same riding and military skills as my master. "I will be proud," he would say, "when my son kills his first Spartan."
Gryllus talked ceaselessly about the war, and his hatred for the Spartans and their destruction of Athens' prosperity was unfathomably deep. He despised their crudeness and lack of culture, and their swaggering, domineering attitude toward other Greek cities, allies and enemies alike. He ridiculed their blind devotion to their pathetic little mud-hut city, and their willingness to expend unimaginable effort to impose their overbearing system of police control on the grand cities they conquered. I vividly recall the time Gryllus used the Spartans as a lesson to Aedon, Proxenus and me, when he felt us to be lacking in diligence in some task or another.
"Aedon," he snapped after roughly lining up the three of us before him, "do Spartan boys shirk their duties? Do they argue with their parents?"
"No, Father," the boy automatically replied, but his voice lacked sincerity and his eyes were merry. Gryllus looked in disgust from Aedon's face, to Proxenus', to mine and back again, and his own expression took on a hard cast.
"Proxenus, what's that in your hand?"
"Honey cake, Uncle," Proxenus mumbled, his mouth full. Proxenus had chosen an inopportune time for his snack.
"Honey cake? Open your hand." Proxenus did, and Gryllus slapped the contents roughly to the floor and ground it underfoot. Proxenus flushed crimson, and his eyes welled up with hot tears, but he remained silent.
Gryllus looked at the boys sternly, his voice low and heavy with disdain for our pitiful softness. The sinews in his neck stood out in his tension. "Spartan boys your age get one meal a day. Watery black broth, not with their families, but on the ground outside, with their classmates. Spartans believe that a well-fed soldier is a poor soldier, so as children they are starved. If their classmates are caught stealing food, the entire class is beaten-not because of the stealing, but because they were clumsy enough to be caught. If they survive the beatings, they are taught to beat their comrades in turn. Do you understand?"