Authors: Diane Stanley
“Show me, then.”
“Yes. Leander, watch and learn.”
“A whole lap?”
So he sets off again around the track, alone this time, concentrating on his shoulders and head, feeling awkward. Running is something he's always done by instinct. Once he starts thinking about his form, it throws everything off. But soon he gets the feel of it, imprints the new stance into his muscle memory. When he rounds the bend and returns to the master, he is smiling.
“Good. Now, Leander, did you learn anything from watching the prince?”
“He moves his arms more than I do.”
“That's true. Anything else?”
“He's more graceful.”
“Also true. But what about his stride?”
“I .Â .Â . I didn't notice.”
“No, Master. I was .Â .Â . I didn't.”
“Alexos,” he says with an exaggerated sigh, “would you demonstrate for Leander? And yes, a whole lap, please.”
Alexos laughs out loud. He's not sure why he thinks this is funny, but he does. He's feeling strangely elated. Off he goes, running gracefully, moving his arms, keeping his shoulders over his hips, smiling the whole way. He's breathing somewhat harder when he stops this time.
“Thank you, Alexos. Leander?”
“His strides aren't as long as mine.”
“Very good. Is that because you're taller? Are your legs longer than his?”
“No, Master. We are the same.”
“And what do you deduce from that?”
“I deduce that my strides are too long, for if his were too short, you would have mentioned it.”
“Well, high marks for logic. I'd rather you thought about it from a physiological perspective, however. Tell me, what happens when you take those big, long strides?”
“I was always under the impression that I went faster that way. But I'm guessing that is not correct.”
“Demonstrate for us, please. Notice how your forward foot lands.”
Alexos watches intently. He's raced with Leander a thousand times, but has never really
at how he runs. And yes, his upper body is too tight; his arms don't swing free from the shoulders. His strides are
very longâand he lands on his heel with every step.
“I come down on my heels,” Leander says when he returns.
“And what do you suppose that does?”
“It forces me to recover from every step.”
“It slows me down?”
“I am astonished. I was actually
to do the wrong thing.”
“That's not so unusual, Leander. Now as to the arms .Â .Â .”
Soon they progress from stance and form to the strategy of racing. As before, this is first discussed, then practiced on the track. They have to learn to pace themselves, not to wear themselves out in the beginning. They need to know how to cut over to the inside edge and stay there, because that's the shortest route. To do this, they must slip effortlessly through the gaps between the other runners, never at too sharp an angle, as that adds steps and wastes time. To practice this, the other boys are recruited to race with them.
Every day they have increased the distance they run in the training session. Today Alexos will be going the full six miles, the same as in the actual race. But
Leander will stop at twenty laps. The first qualifying round is the following morning and the master doesn't want him to tire himself.
This is the last time they will run together like this, just the two of them. Alexos looks over at Leander and notes that he doesn't seem the least bit anxious. He's fresh and eager, jogging in place as they wait to begin, flapping his arms like some large, demented bird, working out the kinks in his muscles, loosening up his shoulders. He shoots a bright smile at Alexos, who responds as everyone does when smiled at by Leander: he feels a sudden surge of elation; then he smiles back.
“Runners, get ready,” the master calls.
The boys position themselves for a quick start.
“On your marks.”
Stance adjusted, muscles tense, they fill their lungs with air.
And they are off, legs flying, arms pumping. Within seconds, Alexos has forgotten Leander and his smile. He has moved to the calm center of his mind where there are no distractions, there is no goal, there is only running. He monitors his posture, the placement of his shoulders, the angle of his head, the fluid movement of his armsâand then forgets them. He looks at the track, not his feet, leans into the turns,
gripping the sand with his toes.
His rhythm is light and fast. He feels the air moving as he streaks through it. He is thrilled by the speed, drunk with the pleasure of it, completely unaware of the crowd that has gathered on the grassy verge to watch. He doesn't hear the master as he calls out the laps or notice when Leander leaves the track. He just runs, and runs, and runs, faster and faster.
And for this brief spell of time, Alexos is transformed into the boy he might have been had he been born to some other father, if he had not chosen the amulet for greatness on the day of his birth: unburdened, free, and full of joy.
For however long it takes to run six miles as fast as he can, Prince Alexos is at peace.
FRESH FROM THE BATHS
his muscles released from the strain of running by hot water and a brisk massage, Alexos leaves the gymnasium and cuts through the agora, headed in the direction of the palace. But he leaves the path as he nears the broad, grassy lawn that slopes down to the river, hoping the lady mistress will finally have relented and let his brother come out.
Alexos has known her all his life. Long before she was put in charge of Teo's nursery, she had care of Alexos. But she was a different woman then: younger, more energetic, and completely subservient to the king. Anything Alexos wanted to do, any childish comfort or luxury he desired, was forbidden because “your father wouldn't approve.” The lady mistress always seemed quite sorry to refuse. But her marching orders were
clear: Alexos must not be pampered. He mustn't be spoiled with sweet words and motherly attentions. He must grow up to be strong and independent.
All these restrictions flew right out the window when Teo came along. No one cared whether he was spoiled or not. Teo wasn't heir to the throne; he wasn't the chosen one. He was just a sweet little boy who'd been abandoned by everyone except his brother (and the women of the nursery, of course). So whatever the lady mistress had been forced to withhold from Alexos, she has lavished on Teo.
But in her new motherly guise, the lady mistress still tends toward excess. So every time Teo sneezes, he must be wrapped in blankets and put to bed like an invalid. And judging by the length of this latest disappearance, he must have sneezed twice, perhaps even three times.
Ah, but there he is, waiting at the edge of the river with his favorite nursemaid, Carissa. He spies Alexos and runs to meet him, arms upraised. Alexos catches him on the fly and up Teo goes. He's flipped in the air, swung in circles upside down, righted, and hugged. Then they take hands and join Carissa by the river.
She is all smiles, as usual. Carissa is pretty and she knows it.
“Your Grace,” she says, “Prince Teo very much
wants to go fishing. But I told him you may not have the time for it. I didn't promise him anything.”
“Of course I have time for it. I've missed him like mad. Where have you been hiding, you little rascal?”
“Lady Mistress said I had a fever. But I didn't really. Just a watery nose.”
“As I suspected. Carissa, you can go back and assure the mistress that Teo is in excellent hands. We'll be back in time for supper, which I perfectly well remember is uncommonly early, and you may set a place for me.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Carissa says with another pretty smile and a graceful curtsy. But already the boys have turned away from her.
“Shall we stay here or take out the skiff?”
“The skiff!” Teo says. “Oh, please!”
Alexos doesn't really have the energy for rowing after running six miles as hard as he can go. But he can't disappoint his brother. So they put their gear into the boat and cast off, heading for the usual spot, the section upstream where the river widens. The current is slow there, the water almost glassy smooth. It's a bit of work to get there, but after that it's all floating and fishing.
While Alexos rows hard against the current, Teo stares lazily at the passing landscape, which is not in the least picturesque. Everything is brown and dry.
The crops are withering in the fields and half the trees are dead. It hasn't rained in months, not since the spring floods. Now, day after day the sun beats down on hard-packed earth, causing it to crack and split. The winds, when they come at all, catch the dust and spin it up into the sky. It has been the worst summer Alexos can recall.
It occurs to him with a stab of sorrow that his brother has never seen a bright green forest. Alexos himself can barely remember how it used to be. Suddenly his sadness turns to alarm. Why, after hundreds of years, have things gotten so much worse so quickly? It has to mean something. It's bound to be important. But he's afraid to explore the subject any further, afraid of what he might find.
“Alexos?” Teo says, interrupting his thoughts. “Did you see me there this afternoon? Carissa took me to watch you practice.”
“What? No. I hardly even noticed there was a crowd. I'm sorry, Teo. I would have come over to see you.”
“That's all right. It was very exciting.”
“That's good, then. I'm glad you enjoyed it.”
They've arrived at their fishing spot. Alexos ships the oars and starts baiting Teo's hook.
“Carissa says you're going to run in the festival race.”
“And I get to go this year. I just know you're going to win.”
Alexos sighs and hands the pole to his brother. Teo takes it and carefully drops the baited hook into the water. Then Alexos starts on his own.
“Don't get your hopes up, little man,” he says. “You'll just be disappointed.”
“No, I won't. Carissa says you're the fastest thing on two legs.”
“Teo, look at me. I want to explain something.”
Alexos drops his own pole in the water. “I'm a good runner for a boy my age. But I'm not âthe fastest thing on two legs' and I can't seriously compete with experienced athletes twice my age. So when someone I love expects more from me than I can possibly deliver, that doesn't make me happy and proud; it makes me sad. Don't you see?”
Teo squints thoughtfully and furrows his brow.
“All right then, what if I said: âI am absolutely sure you can row this boat up the river all by yourself'âhow would that make you feel?”
“But you know I can't do that.”
“There you go. My point exactly. And now let me tell you something else: I don't want to run in that
race. Father is making me do it. And I'm afraid I'll fail horribly and make a fool of myself in front of all those people. So that's hard for me and I don't really want to talk about it anymore. All right?”
Teo nods and frowns, so serious. Alexos leans over and raises his pole, which is dragging in the water.
“I wish we could do this all the time,” Teo says. “Just be like this together, you and me.”
“So do I.”
“But you have important things to do.”
“Yes, but nothing I care as much about as being here with you.”
Teo gives a happy little sigh. “I know.”
A boat passes them, headed downstream. They've seen this particular fisherman before and he clearly knows who they are. He smiles at them and bows from the waist as he rows by. Teo waves.
“Alexos?” he says after a while. “Let's talk about when you're king.”
This is an old game Alexos started ages agoâor it feels like ages anyway, though it can't have been much more than a year. It embarrasses him now, but Teo loves it.
“Remember, you said I shouldn't be the royal fisherman, because that wasn't important enough for a prince? You said I should either be your chancellor or
the commander of your army.”
“Of course I remember.”
“Well, I've decided to command the army.”
“Why? You seemed so keen on being chancellor. And you could stay here in the palace and not have to sleep in a tent and be cold all winter.”
“But you'll be down at the borderlands and I want to be there with you. We could share the same tent.”
“Oh, we would, definitely. But maybe I won't have to go there at all. Maybe things will have changed by then.”
“Because you'll go up to Olympus and talk to Zeus and make him be nice to us again? That's what Carissa says.”
“Oh, dear gods!” Alexos is horrified. “Let me tell you something, man-to-man: Carissa is a very pretty, kindhearted girlâbut not everything she says is true.”
“And while I'm flattered that she thinks so highly of me, she's really just spinning a lot of harebrained fantasies. So whenever she tells you something like thatâthat I'm the fastest runner in the kingdom of Arcos or I'm going to fly up to Olympus and admonish the godsâyou might want to ask me first before you start believing what she says. All right?”
“All right.” Then after a brief, thoughtful moment,
“So it's not true about the goddess either?”
“I don't know, Teo. What did she tell you? I can only imagine.”
“As I expected. Look, we got a late start, and I'm tired, and the fish aren't biting. Give me your pole and let's head back; I'll tell you about it as we go.” Teo reluctantly hands over his pole and Alexos stores them both away and puts the oars back in the water. He could just float downstream now, but it's easy rowing with the current, and he did promise to get back in time for supper.