Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 21

Two Women

Not long after her summer parting with Mêlon, Nêto had visited Theanô, the widow of Staphis, and prepared to head south across the Isthmos. She thought that she might have a half-year, maybe more, to rally the helots and prepare the way for Epaminondas at the end of the year. Yet Nêto had never been beyond the confines of Boiotia. At least not since her childhood kidnapping and sale to Mêlon at the port of Kreusis. But she was glad to leave the north after her words with Mêlon. Alkidamas had told her the way and arranged for a guide to get her to Mantineia—and then, when near the borders of Messenia, for the helot Nikôn to lead her up to Ithômê. Still, Nêto wondered, how do northerners find a path over the peaks near Korinthos and then catch the trail that leads deep into the Peloponnesos beyond? Then do they go down farther south into Ithômê, and if so, on what road? She needed her Porpax—now no doubt in the belly of the man-bear on Kithairon.

After Leuktra, Nêto had slowly made herself believe that as a freedwoman she was no longer needed in Boiotia, much less on the home estate with the Malgidai. Chiôn with the boys could handle the chores for Mêlon as the master idled in town with Phrynê—while his terraces caved and the bindweed and thistle dotted his barley fields. Instead her new mentor Alkidamas had urged her to go south. “You speak of messages in your head from this Nikôn, whom I know as well from my travels in the Peloponnesos when I was still not considered an enemy of Sparta and walked freely beneath Ithômê. I think you will find him in the new Mantineia, or so he says he will find you should you go there. There are now twenty of you Messenians for each citizen of Sparta, yet no common voice, no plan of revolt. Our Nikôn sounds as if he has the spirit, but not yet the sense, to free his kindred. Use your prophecies and miracles in the temples to aid his cause, and tell him visions, if you have them, of things to come. Hundreds of wayfarers won’t all wait on Epaminondas and the muster of the Thebans. Already in twos and threes these men, our allies, make their way to join the new cities of the Arkadians, and soon you will find me in Messenia as well, and maybe well before the arrival of the army of Epaminondas. Still, be careful in the south. A woman without the black shroud and the toothless mouth is in as much danger on the road with men as she is alone with the man-bear on Parnassos or Taygetos to the south.”

Nêto remembered that Alkidamas had added, “About that guide for you. Well, she is a strange sort, a misfit they say, like you, maybe. I have asked her to join you when the clusters redden and the grapes sweeten. She is a poetess, by name Erinna, a follower of the Muses at Athens, born out at Tenos, where the afternoon waves swamp the fishing boats. Many would-be poets, now and in the past, have gone by that name, both good and bad students of the Muses. But she is the true one who sang of her lament for the dead Baukis, that tale which is now played in the symposia of Athens and Thebes. And she is tired of Athens and its shouting democracy and its descent into chaos. Like you, she is a restless sort, in search of a great deed, and like you she hears songs in her head of Ithômê and the great awakening to come. She claims visions of tall ramparts to rise, and is a devotee of Epaminondas, though I doubt the woman has ever met our general. Men know of her songs and perhaps her name alone will open gates otherwise shut tight. You two women will hike to Ithômê, the blind with a hand on the shoulder of the blind. Both of you will be heading to war ahead of the great throng of Epaminondas.”

All that was after Nêto had left Helikon, and Mêlon had sent no word for her to return to the farm. Now in the Dog Star days and a full year after Leuktra, the young Erinna of Tenos had left Athens to find Nêto. She waited for her for three days at the pass inn near Eleutheria as she hiked up from Athens on the high border road. Soon they were on the summer road to the south, a half-year before the Boiotians would even vote to march.

Nevertheless, the plan of Alkidamas for the two women was to head to Mantineia in seven days, and find a Lykomedes. “A trickster of sorts,” the sophist had warned, “with tusks instead of teeth in his ugly head.” Once there, they were to round up helots and head westward and to send a runner back with news of the preparation for the revolt of the Mantineians. Alkidamas reminded Nêto that she was not alone, but if she and this Erinna could rouse the helots, if Epaminondas and Mêlon could stir the Boiotians, if Proxenos and Ainias could rally the Arkadians, they all might descend like a horde of locusts, converging on the pastures of Lakonia. “Lykomedes may find you useful and so will not have his thugs slit your throat and throw you in his proud new moat. That is the custom for them when they catch a helot on the road—and a pretty one at that. So I gave him some silver Athenian coins. He promises that he has food and a room for you two under the third tower from the main gate. But be out of Mantineia by a day or so with your helots. Prick your ears up to hear word of Proxenos or Ainias, who may be crossing back and forth all year at the Isthmos, though both may not get to Mantineia until you leave. On some winter day the two will be leading an army back from Megalopolis—or so we hope.”

As the month of Theilouthios waned, Nêto and Erinna slept most of the late afternoons. They walked at sunset before nightfall when the Aegean wind came up and the stars and early moon give softer light than did the glare of Helios. In the beginning of their trek southward, it was not hard to find the road out from the border at Boiotia. All Hellas was afire this late summer, even though the congress of Boiotia would not take up the march for months more. Then the army might not set out until the cold and the year was well over. For now, the two could always tail along the mercenaries who headed for the new city of Mantineia, the rumored meeting winter place of the armies. Small parties were camping on the paths to the Isthmos, some in wagons, a few with horses. At daybreak Nêto and Erinna sought out the resting shade of the orchards and groves on the slopes of the Megarid opposite the sea.

From there they peered out at hundreds more on foot, with servants trailing laden with panoplies, all these zealots convinced that Epaminondas would soon be going south and they should wait the summer out for him down in Arkadia. Alkidamas was right. It was good that she had a companion to share the road—especially one like Erinna. From the looks of the warrior poet, she guessed that they could beat away even a determined throat-cutter. The two women made their way south on the Peloponnesos road that Proxenos and Ainias had trod so many times in the year after Leuktra, in their journeys to oversee the building of Mantineia and Megalopolis—and would make one last time after the women, marking out the grand route for the katabasis of Epaminondas to come.

As they made their way farther southward, Erinna explained her devotion to the Muses and her worship of the goddess Artemis. She gave Nêto bits and pieces of her long song on spinning and the loom. She was composing as they hiked, and by the second day the two were back walking in the light and returned to sleeping at early night. Her day speech was made with a high Attic pitch that so many of the islanders aped after living in Athens, though she had left Athens for the Boiotians because she wished to believe that men—men like Epaminondas—sought to serve their democracy rather than be served by it. But when she sang at night her song was more Doric, though more often a south Asian strain than from the Peloponnesos. “Hymen! O Hymenaeus, while the dark night in silence whirls about, darkness covers my eyes …” Nêto looked about, worried that robbers might hear Erinna’s strains, and grabbed her knife as the poetess let out loud lines in the night. As they passed the islands below in the gulf, she sang more softly how Nêto was bathed in the scarlet of the huge sun that rose over Salamis out to the east. She went on about a prophecy that a new Themistokles was coming to defeat tyranny—and other such visions that came to her on the road. Nêto dubbed her “Epaminondas” because every third word seemed to be “Epaminondas will …” or “Epaminondas can …”

They stopped at the sanctuary at Eleusis, and then slept at the fountain house at Megara before heading over the pass of Geraneia at the Isthmos. But Nêto would later remember little of the trees and mountains and sea below on their hike to the Isthmos, only that Erinna knew of an entire new universe, of Praxilla, Korinna, and moons, plants, and birds, rather than the serried ranks of men at war. She often avoided the heavy hexameters of Homer and Hesiod, and instead preferred the lighter five-footed elegies of the love poets. Erinna was no longer young but nearly thirty winters, smooth-skinned yet untouched, or so she boasted.

Nêto had heard that the poetess was a Sapphic and avoided the world of men and so was a virgin only of a certain sort. At least it seemed that way, since her songs were often threnodies about her dead friend Baukis, who had married too early and died in childbirth in service to a man not worth the birth pangs. Now as they descended above the flatlands of the Isthmos, Erinna changed her themes and began to sing even more often of the life of Epaminondas, whom she had heard debate just one time in the agora at Thebes. Her Epaminondas, like Erinna, had married no mortal. He sired no children. He left erôs to lesser mortals, as he had pledged his years left for the greater good of eleutheria and the One God of order and calm. Or so Erinna imagined he did.

At day’s end, when Nêto worried to her as the campfire roared that the Boiotians were only in a war of words, that the great army might not march until days before the tenure of Epaminondas expired, leaving him an outlaw in winter, Erinna began to chant a new refrain of Epaminondas, who would “shear Sparta of her glory” and leave “all Hellas independent and free,” as if the cities of Mantineia, Megalopolis, and Messenê were already finished, the helots beyond Taygetos freed, and the farms of Lakonia on fire, a mounted Epaminondas galloping freely over the Peloponnesos supervising the upheaval.

“I like your ‘all Hellas independent and free,’ ” Nêto answered as she heard the chorus for the fiftieth time. “But I worry that when you meet him, he will not have wings on his heels and golden locks down his shoulders, and so you may find your god merely half-divine, if even that.”

“Well, Epaminondas may need my song as his defense, if he lives and returns an outlaw to Thebes. He will need that answer when he is in the dock before the jurymen of Boiotia, the ingrates who are angry that he has saved them.” When the two could see the looming massif of Akrokorinthos in the evening sky, Nêto finally asked Erinna how they were to cross the Korinthians’ narrow land. Alkidamas has warned her that it was hard for any of the northerners to pass into the Peloponnesos. Erinna only shrugged, without worry as they had hiked up a bit along the mountains away from the Aegean to avoid robbers. There they stopped with a nice fire of dried tamarisk, and heated up a broth of leeks and barley and dried lamb.

As Erinna took off her long cloak, Nêto noticed for the first time in their three days of walking that underneath she wore a heavy leather chiton. There were leather wraps up her legs, and broader hide bands with bronze studs on her arms. Nêto had seen some leather before on a woman, but not this close and with these odd designs of stars around a crescent moon. Strangest of all, she examined in detail a small bow on Erinna’s shoulder, a Scythian type. That explained at least the hide on her arms and fingers. Erinna finally answered, “I have friends who will get us across. But I am more worried that your helots will not lead us into Messenia when the time comes and we cross from Arkadia. You talk of this Nikôn as your guide and yet confess you have never met the rebel; and yet you assure me you speak to him in your dreams. I wager I know more about him than you do. Is that how you convince me that you are not crazy as the Boiotians say, or fleeing Helikon in lovesickness? As for me, I promised your mentor, Alkidamas, I would see you safely to Mantineia, Nikôn or not. If he joins us, fine; if not, I head west anyway. I would start a school on Ithômê. I plan to train young helots to read their letters and know their Sappho, and their Korinna and Myrtis. And yes, Alkidamas gave me some silver Athenian owls to escort you safe to the south—but only half what Phrynê offered me to slit your throat here on this side of the Isthmos.” Nêto looked baffled at that last confession: Should she be angry that Erinna had come along only as a bought guide, or happy that she had refused to be a bought assassin?

Then Erinna noticed Nêto’s stare and scoffed. “The bow is not for you, so let down your guard. Leather is not for men alone. Not for a woman’s show, but to protect my arms. How else can I string and fling the arrows? Don’t raise your nose too high about my tools. At least not if you want a fresh rabbit or two for our dinner—and maybe a stag as well before we reach Messenia.” This Erinna was supposed to be, Alkidamas also had warned Nêto, something more than a poet, a woman who could strike verse or strike down a good-size man with equal skill. Nêto prided herself that she had stacked too many stones with Chiôn ever to have gone soft, and that her arms were taut after plowing and seeding the fields of the dead Staphis. But Erinna was more manlike, yet not mannish altogether. As she got up to throw some wood on the fire, Nêto noticed that Erinna’s limbs were like those of Lophis, lean and stringy, and yet her breasts and backside were full.

Erinna sensed all this, and turned back to Nêto. “Don’t believe the poets like Hipponax or Euripides of Athens that we are a helpless sort. Women are not mad like Medea or Kassandra, or bloody bitches like Klytemnestra, or eager to die as was Antigone. Only men like your Hesiod on Helikon or Sophocles and Euripides sing of such nonsense.” She laughed and cupped her hands under her large breasts. “What do I care that men line up in the phalanx or have the rudder of the ship in their hands. While they boast and babble, there are plenty of cracks in their granite for women like me to flow through. They can no more stop me than dam off the streams that cascade down the mountain.”

She restrung her bow and pulled out a feather arrow. “So, yes, we women of spirit do almost anything we want. No children, no man, no vote? Sad perhaps, but do menfolk take this quiver from me, or tear up my scrolls? Hardly. Or tell me what I can sing or when? No, while they scurry around in their men’s kosmos, and mount their wives and whores, they leave us alone. The smart ones like us, why, we simply live in a parallel world—right under their noses. Yes, just as two lines that don’t cross or the wandering planets that march across the sky side-by-side never meet. So no pity for me. I am as free as the cranes on the shore that the duck hunters will neither eat nor trap as they strut by in their beauty.”

Before Nêto could stop her, she finished with a final outburst. “Maybe we women don’t even need our one Pythagoras. I think he’s just a name for the world of numbers and order that we discovered on our own. But no mind—I told Alkidamas I would do three great things. Get his Nêtikê to Mantineia and perhaps to Ithômê as well. Start my school. And if this Nikôn kills Spartans, help raise the countryside against the Spartans. So are an odyssey, a war, and poetry enough, my Nêto—or is there to be more still from your Amazon Erinna?”

Nêto laughed, “And fourth—kill Gorgos, whom the helots fear as Kuniskos. Do that and I’m happy.”

Erinna shook her head at that command, for she had heard this past year of a Kuniskos, who put fear into the children of Messenia and had an eye for helot women for his sport and worse. Now she moved quickly around their small camp with her bow on her shoulder to patrol its edge, bringing her small sword out of her pack. “Don’t utter the name Gorgos. It is bad omen. Look, I fear demons and worse will come to the call of the evil sound. Maybe wolves or a man-bear, Nêto. We will watch for them all. I am happy to see your hilt at last peek out from your own bundle.”

What an odd woman, this Erinna, at the same time looking to kill, talking of helots, singing her poetry, serving the world of men, idolizing the general Epaminondas—all as she cooked and paced and broke into song, and went out beyond their fire to find a rabbit. She was a Prometheus who in two blinks came back with a skinny hare, hit with a shaft through its shoulders. As Erinna skinned the animal, Nêto moved a little more distant from the fire to watch her from the far side of the camp. She remembered Alkidamas’s final warning at their parting: “You may find Erinna not of your taste, but strangers will want their way with you, to rob and kill you both, to mount you on your march down. And your new protector can seduce or slit a throat with equal measure. You are too dour, Nêto, as well, and think only in lines and angles, while Erinna sings of things of the other world that do not follow your logos of numbers.”

They looked for shadows beyond the fire as they sipped their broth. In her brief quiet Nêto thought it better to blurt it out and ask her strange companion whether she was widowed, even though she knew she had never married. Erinna flashed back. “Will I bite you, Nêto? Is that your worry, that I am the mate of the man-bear? Or do you wish to see whether I have burned off a breast like the Amazons? Or do you think I have no private parts like the statues of women in the houses of the rich? Why hide what you already know—that I taste no man’s flesh, and find my erôs with those like you and me? Why not? What higher form is there for a woman than the love of the like kind, whose bodies are really our own?”

She then laughed out loud. “Did not gruff Platôn—or was it foul-mouthed Aristophanes—say it was a search for our second half? Men anyway are a nasty brood. They come stinking of the hunt, with blood and entrails on their cloaks. They use us as the playthings that we are, only when finished to turn over to snore, to fart and grunt. No, none of that was for me.” The she smiled, “Most are not like our Epaminondas. So why not sleep with whiter, softer flesh than with cuts and scars and worse among the burnt and rough? But no worry, my Nêtikê. Baukis is gone. I have no time any more for erôs. If you worry about those unwed, go ask our Epaminondas why he too has not married—and why he has not heard of Erinna, his devotee, who sings his praises and would kill or die to see his dreams as fact among men. Or better yet, look in the mirror glass and ponder why you too have no partner.”

At that, a barking erupted in the brush beyond the firelight. Nêto got up. She pulled out her blade and scouted out the source of the sound. A dark shape, with a tail shaped like a wolf’s, appeared, moving in and out of the rocks. Had Erinna seen the wild thing when she hit her rabbit? Or was it a trick the god was playing on Nêto’s eyes? Erinna ignored her friend’s restlessness. “But don’t worry, Nêto. When I saw you, I knew you weren’t one of us. I first thought your long legs and those man muscles made you an Amazon. I believed Alkidamas that you are still a virgin. But I see it not for the dislike of men—but perhaps for the like, or maybe worship, of one man you hold back.” She followed the girl and then gave Nêto a pat on her rump.

“I am going to the new Messenê with you, Nêto. As Alkidamas says, to start a thinking-place, what they laugh at in Athens as a schoolhouse, one for women who need no men, or at least need to do their own chores on the farm and hear within themselves the voices of the Muses. New Messenê will need us.” She stared beyond the fire in search of the night beast as she talked. “But all this you will see. For five days more we will be partners in our phalanx of two. I won’t press myself on you—as if your false protector would become the very thing I was to protect you against. But yes, I will put an arrow through your Gorgos—whoever or whatever or wherever this gorgon of yours is.”

Nêto turned back to the fire to slice off some of Erinna’s rabbit. “I need shielding from no man or woman. But there is a night-wolf out there and maybe my Gorgos as well, and it will take us both to cut him down. Yes, on this trip the two of us will need each other. For food and water, at least.”

Much of the way they had kept to the scrub oak of the low hills and dared not go into the long walls of Megara. Islanders were coming into the port there—and at Aigosthena and up to Perachora on the gulf. A few northerners going south tried to get the two to join their camps, but most backed off when they saw the blades on the shoulders of the two women, unsure whether the two might be two beardless ephebes eager to mix it up. Erinna flung a couple of arrows at three wayfarers with sticks and packs who were closing the distance behind them and full of threats and taunts. When the shafts whizzed over their heads, they tailed off into the scrub. “Thieves and worse,” she laughed, as she hung her bow back over her shoulder.

After another day of hiking, now with the Isthmos in their faces, the shadowy night-beast grew closer to the scent of the women. The four-leg had trailed them for three or four stadia, on a parallel course on the higher ridges where the olive groves ended. Both had seen it, or at least its outline, and had taken turns on the watch this night. Erinna warned of their danger. Was it the man-bear of Kithairon or a worse monster from Helikon? “Nêto, I think it is no bear, but a dappled wolf. My eyes are better than yours and I can see the big wolf has left his pack. Tonight he comes by the fire. He’s either a man-wolf or a wild dog that has the thirst madness. He will only get bolder when he scampers to Arkadia and he meets his own kind in the packs up on Lykaion, the mountain of the man-wolves. This follower of ours is as bad as the man-bear, if not his brother in evil. Draw that long knife. I string my bow. It has the man-wolf mania and his fangs will turn us into something like himself. Lichas no doubt sent it. Or your Gorgos.”

No sooner had Erinna pointed out the shadow than the wolf circled at the edge of their camp. Suddenly the wild thing broke out of the dark, changed course, and ran, heading right toward their fire with teeth bared. Nêto froze. She could not lift her knife in time. But then as the animal neared, she pointed to Erinna, “Put down the bow. Stop. Stop!”—just as the large dirty hound charged her at full run and jumped up to her bosom and knocked her flat.

“Porpax, Porpax. No wolf. No wolf. My Porpax, Porpax of Helikon.” Nêto wrestled with her dog with the bared fangs. Nêto laughed. “Living in the high caves on rabbits? Or on worse up on Kithairon? But you’re home with me, your Nêto—and ready for our long march.” The dog was growling but at least put his head down, as Erinna kept her bow taut.

“He may well have been your dog. But who knows what sort of flesh this Kerberos has tasted? He’s changed to man-shape and back many times, I wager. We could cook a meal from the ticks and fleas on his raggedy fur. Nêto, Nêto—let this hound rejoin his new kind. He’s gone over to the other side, either a wolf or worse. Or let me put an arrow through his head and kill off the demons in his black heart.”

“Oh, no, he is my Porpax all right,” Nêto laughed. “We will find no better guard than his long fangs.” She patted the monstrous hound. “You’ll see. He can smell Lichas ten stadia away and has Gorgos in his nose already.” The aged hound had hard sinews and plenty of scars on his legs and back—and a taste of the wild that put him on the edge between feral and tame. His wandering on Kithairon had suited him since he left Nêto that night when she bore home Lophis. A year on the mountain had taken three off his frame. In his growling after the loss of Sturax, he killed a wolf, a young one with sharper fangs but half a head smaller. Then the farm dog took over the wolf brood that feasted on the goats of the highland shepherds. With his age and a near year in the pack, Porpax had lost his paunch and the jowls beneath his fangs.

Still, Porpax was not quite gone over to the way of the wolf. And in the morning this unlikely three—aged hound, helot virgin, and Amazon poetess—trotted along between the gulf and the Aegean. Erinna had planned to meet a few girls from Sikyon. Her friends were to hike them through the harbors of Lechaion on their right and Kenchreai to the left, all the way to sanctuary at Nemea. There the two would head due south to Argos—the same trail that Ainias and Proxenos would follow in the winter to come with their red stakes. As they all headed toward Akrokorinthos, Nêto was spinning long tales to the mute hound. She went on about how often he must have tried to leave his wolves to reach Helikon, about how Zeus had once turned King Lykaion into a wolf and the guard dog Kerberos in Hades, and how Charôn on the Styx would meet them all with his wolf ears.

Erinna put all her silliness to verse—“Nêtikôn and her talking dog”—in her low singing. Then Nêto announced, “Our dog is reborn and I name him Kerberos. Yes, he is guard dog of the underworld now. Our Porpax has become Kerberos of the three heads. If Gorgos can become Kuniskos, why cannot my Porpax be renamed Kerberos? When the two meet—and I am told at night in visions that they will—may the best dog win.”

Soon the two women and the new Kerberos met the friends of Erinna. Three of them approached in cloaks, carrying two more cloaks for Nêto and Erinna, the women now all dressed out in deep green hoods, in the garb of pilgrims of the goddess Hera. The throng told strangers and the toll-men of Korinthos on the Nemea road that they were escorting the granddaughter of Chrysies, a new priestess for Hera at the sanctuary of the Argives near the sea. Most let the women be, once they saw Kerberos and feared the wrath of the goddess should her servants be touched. At the sanctuary of Zeus, the three guides left Nêto and Erinna at the guesthouse in Nemea, with a map of the road carved into an ostrakon, leading south into the valley of the Argives and then west over Mt. Parthenion to the three poleis and the valley of Mantineia.

Nêto reminded the innkeeper to be on watch for Proxenos the Plataian and a Stymphalian in the late autumn who would warn them all of a vast army to follow before the new year. The two set out southward over the pass into the Argolis, keeping the Heraion on their left and the aspis of the Argives on the right. They passed into the long walls and then beyond to the pyramid at Kenchreai, where they slept. “Keep away from Lerna and the Hydra,” the Argive guards at the garrison laughed. “The air is bad over there on the swamps and their monsters bring fever to all who get near.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Erinna countered. “We believe in no tall stories of Herakles and his hydras and whatnot. We know that the sickness comes from bad air that hangs over the stagnant water there, not the bite of monsters in the night. Anyway we have no wish to head to the sea but instead to the high peaks of Parthenion, even with Pan and his Satyrs. The mountain protects virgins and there is no sickness on its heights. Even the hoofed god up there will leave us be. Once we reach the summit, then even we can’t get lost since Tripolis and the valley of the Mantineians soon will be in sight below.”

At the end of the fourth day from the shadows of Akrokorinthos, Erinna and Nêto entered the walls of the new city of Mantineia, though there was as yet no gate and only a few makeshift timbers to bar the way. Nêto had steered them far from misty Skopê on their left, and whispered to Erinna to turn her head from the hill where in her visions told that one day too many good men of the north would perish in yet another battle. The towers of Lykomedes this summer were only half built and the channel of the new Ophis still dry. There was no word of Proxenos or Ainias, who had gone to Thespiai to finish the town’s walls and would not return south until the summer was spent. Still, the three were given a wide opening. None of the lords of Mantineia wished to test the fangs of the huge wolfhound on Nêto’s leash.

On their fourth day in his city, the long-toothed Lykomedes, chief archon of Mantineia, finally gave them an audience, with a booming shout, “Alkidamas warned me of you two.” They now spoke with him near the Arkadian gate in a small stoa where his archers lowered their bows, despite the growls of Kerberos. He had it in his mind to kill both women—whether out of spite as their cold stares met his probing eyes or out of worry that the Spartans might win still and blame him for intriguing with the helots—despite the money Alkidamas had sent him for their safe passage. But first Lykomedes was curious to find out whether they knew anything about the number of men that might come with Epaminondas and his winter army. Such an army might make even more dangerous his own ongoing secret talks with King Agesilaos and the Spartans, a way to earn Lykomedes some silver and an escape should the Boiotians not come southward after all. Because Mantineia was close to Sparta and far from Thebes, Lykomedes was not quite ready to join Epaminondas unless he might show up at the city with thousands at his back. And even then it seemed a wiser course only to plunder Sparta to strengthen Mantineia, but not to go farther west in some mad pursuit of the freedom of the helots. Better for both Sparta and the helots to stay weak, since Lykomedes figured that after Epaminondas was dead or exiled, he would himself have to deal with those on both sides of Taygetos. So he now spoke to the women carefully.

“Alkidamas urged me to help you. But I can see that you are queer folk, both of you. Why, look, you carry men’s weapons, and have a man-dog with you and are looking for phantoms in some mythical city of Messenê to come. Still, I give you leave of our polis to find your helots—for a day.”

Then the boar-tooth stuck his finger into Erinna’s breast. “But you are only to find the visiting helot Nikôn—then leave. Stymphalian Ainias for all his promises may not come back here to new Mantineia. I believe our builder Proxenos will abandon us before the walls are finished. Neither has returned of late. So we want no charge brought on us by the Lakedaimonians that we are stirring up their runaway helots. Find your troublemaker Nikôn before I do. Just follow your nose to that tanner. Then leave. Cleanse all the helots from the city. I do not trust your Alkidamas and all his wild talk of revolt and helots and a huge army from the north—not while my walls are half-done and our Proxenos is missing, and the Spartans on my borders are restless.”

The women nodded, smiling that the silver of Alkidamas had bought them safety, or at least time to round up the helots for the trek into Messenia. So they left Lykomedes. Nêto and Erinna covered their noses. It was the black pond, where open ditches dumped the public toilets and the butchers threw in the carcasses of their sheep and goats, among them an occasional corpse of a hanged thief. By early evening the two women had returned to the straw of the public stalls, and they talked late into the night about how to scour the city to find the Messenians. But before dawn they woke to an image at the doors. A tiny man in a rough cloak of wool riled the horses. Then he burst into the barn. Neither had time to reach for a blade. Nêto grabbed her cloak and covered up. Erinna jumped out of the straw and faced the intruder naked, ready to jump at his throat. Both then heard a husky voice in thick Doric yell “lykos,” and without warning Nêto answered in turn “lykos.”

“Calm down and get your cloak on, woman. Your Alkidamas sent me. So Nêto here knows our password “wolf.’ ” Then the shadow man hesitated and stepped into the torchlight. “We are to take you to Ithômê, Nêto. We leave this morning. Pack. We have twelve from free Messenia here. Another eight helots will join us on the trail. We march due west, with the warm sun at our back. I say I am Nikôn. But you knew that from your night dreams long ago.”

“We do know you, Nikôn—from our dreams.” Nêto nodded to Erinna. “I heard you from the hill in far-off Messenia calling me. I even hear you on your cliff in my sleep. I don’t believe you’re the killer they say you are. I learned that in my visions.”

Erinna glared at him and scoffed, once her hawk eyes saw a small band at the barn door. “This is your army of freedom, Nêto? I mean you no ill will, helot Nikôn. But I had heard your band is the fiercest of the rebels, and yet I see just a handful of men in rags and with the smell of cow hide and pig fat. And when we two women are taller than any of your army, well … well. I worry that the Spartans will not worry.” She kicked the straw and pulled her cloak over her head and finally picked up her bow.

Nikôn frowned. “No tall Spartan helmet crests here to scare you women. No tricking your eye with our false height. We’re not Spartans. But laugh at us, and then see if we can’t hit a cow’s eye at thirty steps with the javelin, or follow that throw with the knife to split the shaft. Ask Antikrates. Ask even black Kuniskos just how many hoplites of Sparta they have found rotting in the passes from Ithômê. Ask him why they all stay barricaded in Ithômê, and why he fears us.”

Erinna put down her bow. Good. This Nikôn was a bit mad himself—and armed, and might show her why his name brought terror even to the kryptes, the helot killers, of Kuniskos. The growing light showed that at second look these helots seemed a tough lot, with blades and worn quivers, and cornel javelins as well. Most had a savage look about them. Some of the men were pointing at the big breasts of the poet herself and beginning to smile.

Erinna laughed as she took two steps back. “We will go safer for your company—at least until we can see the peak of Ithômê.”

Nikôn turned and pointed his sword at Erinna. “Our trip is for us, woman, to decide—since we hear only a trace of bad Doric in your talk. Nêto we know of. She knew the password. But as for you, Amazon, only Alkidamas pledges his word. Where is he now? We watch—so you don’t earn silver from a Spartan krypt, or any other helot hunter. Don’t bristle; plenty of Messenians have done just that. Kuniskos was once a helot, we hear. We have been killing Spartans, lots of them, while you sing of our fights from a distance. Our fifty have become five hundred. And then again five thousand. Soon ten times that.”

Nikôn, as the light confirmed, was a dark sort, with an eye that gave off bad intent to anyone it caught. Still, once he started, it was hard to quiet him down. He was a runner as well as a cutthroat, who flitted about Taygetos with messages for plotters and firebrands. Nikôn went always with this short fellow Hêlos, who carried a long scroll and wrote down orders and messages, one of the few of the helots who could write the block letters and yet believed his illiterate master was far smarter than any of the bastard helot leaders who in private boasted of red-caped fathers. Nikôn wore no helot leather, no fur cap. But he had a black wool cape on his shoulders—and a looted Spartan breastplate beneath.

In silence Nikôn and his helots at last set out of the main road from Mantineia with the two women. As they neared the western gate of the city, Nêto was already staring at the cut square stones and bull-nose-edged corners of the foundations, and at a new course of rectangular stones that had been freshly laid. They were just like those at new Thespiai—and what she had seen at Plataia. So the proud aristocrat Proxenos had not heeded her warnings but had long been down in Arkadia supervising the finishing of the ramparts, even after her visions at the generals’ tent before Leuktra. The scent of the stone-man Proxenos was already spreading all over the Peloponnesos, as if he had stamped a beta for the Boiotians on every wall that rose. Without Proxenos, Nêto reminded her travelers, there would be no freedom here in the south.

In another day on the trail westward, Nikôn’s band passed through the stones of the sprawling Megalopolis farther down the Arkadian road, heading south over the low mountains to ford the Alpheios. They refreshed at Lykosoura. Then they all went up the side of Lykaion to the cave of Pan for the night. Soon Nêto could see the dark, gloomy shape of Ithômê, the mountain of myth, home to the gods of Messenia. At dusk on the fourth day from Mantineia they crossed into Messenia toward Andania, with a larger throng of armed helots of Nikôn’s band—maybe a hundred now, the first invaders of the great war to come. “Look at it, Erinna. Black Ithômê at last, home to Aristomenes of legend, the great refuge of the helots. The mountain rises as the beacon to all Messenians, of all helots for a thousand stadia in every direction.” Nêto had not noticed the bands of helot rangers who had been shadowing them from the woods.

These new companies of Messenians were wearing Spartan breastplates and carrying heavy willow hoplite shields with double grips. The helots had come to welcome the newcomers and escort them to the ruins of Thouria. They had often trailed the Spartan kryptes to harvest the stragglers and strip their panoplies up on the higher passes. The Eleans had sent breastplates and shields as well, so this was no ochlos but a well-outfitted phalanx of hoplites. Finally Erinna, as she neared the slopes, found her voice and began chanting her own new poem of her Epaminondas. She had added a new line about this second great city, holy Megalopolis that they left behind as they headed farther west still: “By the arms of Thebes, Megalopolis was girded with walls.”

Nêto asked, “Sing of Messenê, my Erinna. It is past time to look for the third, the greatest, the tallest of all the fetters of Sparta to rise.”

Erinna smiled. “Not yet; not until the city of our helots is free.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!