Helenus awoke the next morning with a raging headache and a sweetish taste in his mouth.
That decoction had really knocked him out. He hadn’t slept like that in a long time.
His body was quite stiff and he carefully stretched his neck and shoulders.
The water in his jug was very cold. He drank some of it and used some other to wash his face. As the headache slowly subsided, he still felt a little dizzy, but more clear-headed than he had been in months.
He had forgotten how it was like to feel well-rested. But he knew that the feeling would be short lived: without Aesacus’ decoction, sleep would escape him again.
His life was so messed up that even sleeping was an ordeal…
Grymas called him from the temple’s hall and he tried to set the thought aside.
Standing in front of the altar, Artemis’ high priest stared at him.
“Have you eaten anything at all yesterday? You were already fast asleep when I came back” he asked.
“Yes” Helenus lied.
… after all, he was quite sure that there had been some honey in that decoction.
“Well, grab a slice of bread or something before we start. We have a long day ahead of us” Grymas replied, looking unconvinced.
Helenus forced himself to eat a slice of bread.
Since the temple had been closed on the previous day, it was a quite busy morning. He helped Grymas with the foreign worshippers and tended to his usual chores until they closed the temple in the afternoon.
He retired to his room, glad to be finally alone, and lay on the bed with a deep sigh. He tired so easily these days…
He needed to think things over. And he needed to be honest with himself.
As a boy, he had often felt miserable but he had assumed that adulthood would be better. That he would find his place in the world, becoming what he was meant to be, and that he would find at least serenity, if not happiness.
It had not happened yet, and now he was in his twenties.
Things would not get better just like that.
And he was getting more and more aggressive and mean. Where would that wickedness lead him? He was scared to even think about that.
There had been things he enjoyed, now he just survived. He didn’t look forward to anything.
What was the point of living like that? He hated every instant of his life.
One thing was certain: he couldn’t go on like this. So either he ended his life, or he changed it.
The first option was still appealing. It would be quick and it would work for sure.
The second option was less promising. For once, he didn’t know how to make things better. He had tried for a long time to block his anxiety with the worshippers: it never worked. He had tried to force himself to eat: he had ended up being sick instead. Moreover, there were so many things going wrong that he didn’t know where to start.
Aesacus had said that there were other solutions to his problems. Like what? Coping with his anxiety, getting closer to his family, being a better person? That was easy to say!
Now he had to answer a simple question:
Did he really want to die?
Please. He had spent a whole night with a knife in his hand and hadn’t used it – and not because he was scared of the pain.
If he had really wanted to die he would be already dead by now.
The truth was that he was just playing with the idea – because as long as that option existed, he didn’t need to try and do something about his life.
This was the truth.
So now, instead of waiting for the day when things would get better, he would stand up and go to Hermes’ temple and he would at least try.
Without losing a moment, he put on his cloak and set off before he could change his mind.
On the way, he fought to silence that small voice inside him.
He was going to sink into the ground with shame. Aesacus was going to throw him out of the temple.
“Helenus! I’m glad to see you. Come in, come in” said Aesacus with a broad smile, relief clear in his voice.
Aesacus lead him to the kitchen, the only warm room of the temple, and they both sat close to the fireplace.
It looked almost as it had looked the last time Helenus had been there: the wooden table with the bench, clay tablets and an array of dried herbs.
Now that he was here, Helenus found that he didn’t know what to say.
Why had he decided to come here? What a stupid idea! Now that he was here, Aesacus would make him spit everything out. He should just pretend that he was here on a courtesy visit and go back to his temple as soon as possible.
“Did you sleep well last night?” asked the older priest.
“Yes, I… I slept well. Thank you for your decoction, it was… very helpful”
“As I told you, it is not something you should be drinking often. But I can make you a lighter one if you have trouble sleeping” offered Aesacus.
He fell silent again
“What seems to be the problem with sleeping, my dear? Do you have trouble falling asleep, or disturbing dreams?” Aesacus asked again.
He should just say that he didn’t want to talk about it and go back to his temple, point!
But Aesacus’ voice was so kind and understanding. If he walked away, then he would be alone with his misery again.
He didn’t have the strength for that.
“I… mostly I… just lie awake and cannot sleep” he answered after a moment.
“What do you think about when you lie in bed like that?” asked Hermes’ priest.
“I… everything. The temple, my family, the war… all of it” he replied, trying to keep his voice flat, trying to pretend he was calm.
But who was he kidding? His voice was quivering, his hands were shaking. He knew that he was close to the limit, he felt it.
Aesacus sat closer to him and started stroking his arm. Somehow, the physical contact throwed down Helenus’ defences.
“I can’t… go on like this, it’s… it’s too much… I d-don’t know what to do…”
“Listen, my dear” said Aesacus calmly. “I know that it feels overwhelming now, but it can get better. It will require time and patience, but you can overcome it”
“I don’t think I can do that” he whispered, cursing himself. Why was he so ridiculous?
“Of course you can do that” replied Aesacus confidently. “For one thing, you decided to come here. It looks like you are willing to make some changes. You are much stronger than you think”
Helenus laughed bitterly.
“I’ve known you since you were born. I’ve been your teacher for years. I will say it again, you are stronger than you think. And I am proud of you” replied Aesacus patiently.
“Stop that!” yelled Helenus, suddenly angry. “You know nothing! When the Achaeans first tried to besiege the city, I didn’t care! Did you know that? Oh, and did I mention that an Achaean tried to make me join the enemy and I almost accepted? And did you know that, when Cassandra went insane, I felt happy? And let’s not forget that I joined Artemis’ temple just because I wanted to leave the royal palace, did you know that too?! You are done with your compliments now, aren’t you? So go ahead and kick me out!”
He went silent, panting heavily. He realized that he had stood up and was now towering over Aesacus. Hermes’ priest was still sitting and looked calmly at him.
He had lost it again. It was the second time in two days that he yelled at Aesacus like that.
And now his teacher would dismiss him, disgusted.
Helenus didn’t dare to move.
Aesacus stood and stepped forward.
“I will not kick you out, Helenus. And I stand by what I said before”
This was the last thing Helenus was expecting to hear
Before he could say anything, Aesacus hugged him and started stroking his back. Helenus fought hard to hold ack the tears. But he knew that it was a losing battle and he finally broke down.
Aesacus kept stroking his back without a word until Helenus managed to regain control.
“I am very sorry that I yelled at you again. I was insulting. Lately I… I just can’t help it sometimes. I am so sorry…” he whispered, not daring to meet Aesacus’ eyes.
“I know, Helenus. I’m not angry at you. Now sit back there, would you? I will fetch you a warm drink and then we’ll see what we can do”
“It reminds me of that huge fight we had some years ago” said Molossus in a quiet voice.
“Which huge fight, please? It was not a fight, you yelled at me” replied Helenus pointedly.
“That’s exactly what I mean. I yelled at you and you reacted sort of like Aesacus did” clarified the younger prince. “Was it… intentional?”
Helenus hesitated for a moment, then he answered.
“Yes. I was reminded of that conversation while you yelled at me. I thought about myself at your age and… I did not yell back”
The two men were silent and Helenus took another sip of his wine.
“So… you talked, eventually?” Molossus asked, almost shyly.
“We talked for hours. I told him more or less the things I have told you tonight, although in a much more confused way. I was… a mess”
“And… did you feel better?” the younger prince asked again, after a while.
His stepfather stayed silent and Molossus almost regretted asking such a personal question.
But then Helenus spoke again.
“Difficult question. At first no, it was just hard. I told Aesacus things that did me no credit, but he didn’t judge me, he didn’t kick me out. Eventually, I felt relieved. And… I made a discovery”