Photios was an excellent thief. He had been caught only once since he was old enough to steal. He had been beaten. The wooden paddle the paidonómos used had fallen seventy five times across his shoulders and his back, and each stroke had marked another mile along the river, another stealthy step to freedom. Each stroke had made him a better thief too. Lessons were hard, but quickly learned.
Photios learned much more quickly than other boys of his age, learned much more quickly than he could account for. It had been this trait that had made the elders select him for the agoge in the first place. His quickness of mind had led him to this prison and it would also lead him out of it. This was Photios’ dream.
But Photios was eight and though he dreamed of the river and the sea beyond, though he longed for freedom, he didn’t take it. There was no time; the herd was always with him, always at his side; eating, sleeping, fighting, stealing. There was not a moment away and when the herd could be distracted with wrestling or spearwork, there was still the paidonómos. So Photios fought and he was beaten, he stole and was unseen, and he thrust the spear like it was part of his own arm. He lost fights and he lost teeth, but he kept learning.
Then came the night that changed everything. It was cold and Photios had wrapped the crimson cloak about himself. It was the only possession he had, the only piece of cloth he was allowed to wear. It was not thick and a deep chill had all but settled into his bones. He ignored it, just as he ignored the breathing of the other boys of the herd, sleeping close by. He ignored the slap of hands and the rattle of cups coming from the paidonómos’ tent. He ignored the falling snow that burned his skin. But he could not ignore the footsteps coming closer.
They were careful, as someone picking a path between serpents ready to strike, but they were also heavy and dull. The owner was not troubling to keep the approach secret. A wolf, perhaps? Too heavy, too obvious. They were dull; the wolf would not approach before it had circled and picked a target. The wolf was a hunter, almost unmatchable. This was a human. A fat, unsteady human.
The footsteps fell closer and Photios kept his eyes half-closed, feigning sleep, but looking through his lashes to see who it was that stepped through the camp. The man was tall, but as fat as his footsteps suggested. He wore rich woven cloth and gold around his neck and wrists. He watched the sleeping boys with interest – eager and yet wary. He smelled of wine and sea salt. In a few steps he had passed Photios and gone into the tent with a swish of the flap. The rumbling voice of the paidonómos came drifting on the air and cups rattled once more. A friend then? But what kind?
Photios unfurled himself from the cloak and moved himself forward, making no more sound than a shadow. The herd about him slept on as he crept past, keeping low to avoid throwing his shadow on the canvas. The moon was bright and clear tonight; useful to see but harder to avoid being seen. The paidonómos had a few lamps lit, which would keep Photios’ shadow small, but one shadow could be the difference between life and death.
He settled down outside the tent in the shadow cast by Zotikos, the oldest of the herd and the broadest shouldered. He slept on his side and the shadow he threw on the tent was wide enough to allow Photios to crouch and remain unseen. Stilling the sound of his own breath, Photios listened to the talk of the paidonómos and his stranger friend.
‘So we’re agreed on the usual price?’
That was the stranger, whose bracelets and necklaces clinked together. Photios wondered why he felt the need to be gaudy, why he put his faith in gold rather than his own strength. There was also a tapping, which Photios took to be the paidonómos’ fingers drumming against his own cup. That was his habit when he was thinking.
The paidonómos drawled his words, speaking with a lethargy that he never had when berating the herds. Photios wondered what the price was and what was being bought and sold.
‘And they’re better than the last lot? What use have I for slaves that die so easily?’
‘As much as slaves that kill easily.’
Photios stifled a laugh at that. The stranger seemed less impressed with the answer, as he growled aloud and slammed his cup down on the table. At least, that was what it sounded like. The paidonómos made no noise, except the unceasing drumming of his fingers upon his cup. Such an obvious display of anger would not even worry Photios.
‘Listen well to me, I buy your boys from you and make you rich. I come to your camps in the winter like a dog in the night. I keep your duplicity a secret because the arrangement has its merits, but do not think that I am immovable in this. I have my connections.’
‘Don’t be a fool, Xenocrates. This arrangement suits us both better than an alternative. When will you bring your men to take possession? I tire of this herd.’
Xenocrates the stranger muttered a response, but Photios did not hear it. The paidonómos meant to sell the herd to this man. Photios thought of the river and the sea beyond called to him, but his place was with the herd and they had been bred to fight.