Does that bother you, Proxenos?” Ainias had an eye for small things when his men marched. This day of assault he had found his Proxenos a little slow and quiet, even for his aloof nature. Ainias had tried to look at his wound, even as his friend had pushed him away. So he was not so puzzled now that the Plataian lingered in the moments before the great fording. Proxenos had begun to walk even behind the lame Mêlon and the slow-cart servant Melissos who carried a shield and pole and pack. Ainias hoped that Proxenos’s sloth meant, as his friend had once laughed, that the lack of stone here no doubt bored the architect of ramparts. The plains of Sparta were aflame, and its hoplites were running or hiding. Did that mean Proxenos was not so much hurt as bored, since here were no stones to set or tear down? Ainias asked again, “Why do you fear the River Eurotas, man? Stop here for a blink and let me see whether your bandage is bloody.”
Proxenos ignored him and whispered again, “Did you hear me—are we to the river?” He waited for no answer. “Is it really to be the water, the black Eurotas?”
Ainias was relieved that his friend was at least talking and still walking, though he did not like the sound of the “black Eurotas,” since the river ahead was icy and white but not dark. Still, Ainias went on to try to cheer his friend as they slowed and brought up the rear of the column. “Let them go ahead, Proxenos. We will stop up ahead, since your brow is wet and your face flushed. I’ll wash the wound and salve it with the honey in my pouch. But I also wish we’d leave the crippled king alone over there. Since there are no bridges left over the river, and the fords are all guarded. Even Megas Epaminondas cannot cross what you call the black Eurotas in this weather.” Ainias mistook the silence of his friend as a friendly nod to go on. “Now I see that even without Spartans on the other shore, we couldn’t ford this icy water. Then climb the mud of the banks? Impossible. I agree. But do not tell our Iron Gut that. Oh, no. Many will die trying. Many who shouldn’t. Instead we should be marching westward to free right now the helot folk—or better yet just go back to camp and let me at last take a look where Antikrates nicked you.”
Proxenos smiled at the thought of going home to the Asopos and his own orchards and vineyards near Plataia. Then when they were close enough to hear the roar of the swollen river, he finally spoke a bit more to his friend Ainias. “Oh, no bother. The wound closed. My breastplate keeps it warm. I slow you down, because I’m not sure why we are heading to the river, or why it is so cold so far south. You know that our strings are measured. A man can no more extend his own than he can stretch dry rope.”
Ainias at first ignored his babble, and planned to force him to stop near the bank ahead, even if it meant holding him down and, with Melissos, tearing off his heavy breastplate. Proxenos talked more now as if they were lounging at the symposion than marching to battle the Spartans. Had the Spartan Antikrates knocked the sense out of Proxenos when he nicked him earlier at the farmhouse of the Lichades? Gone was the boasting of the wall builder of the past year that men are the measures of things and live or die according to their own merits. So Ainias countered him with a frown as they waited for a column of northerners that had joined their own phalanx at the crossroads to Gytheion. “If your wound does not bleed, and there is no fire on your brow, then at least clear your head. This black bile does not suit you, Plataian. We have men of bronze and iron to cut down. You have a city to found. A third one for the helots. Raise your shield. Show us what Plataia can do.”
A sense of finality had come over Proxenos after his run-in with Antikrates. As he staggered along, Proxenos was measuring a life up before the black clouds above his brow closed in. His children were near grown. His Aretê had a good dowry of a house, one with three stories inside the very walls that he had rebuilt. Their two hundred plethra above the banks of the Kephissos made good oil and wine, all with a view of the wide bend below. Yes, he had three hundred more olive trees on the rolling slopes nearby. His wife lacked for nothing with a strongbox of ten thousand Athenian owls, good silver that his father had earned with the Ten Thousand, and the booty share given to him by Xenophon and the Spartans. His grandfather Ladôn had left behind a strongbox that was buried deep under the floor of the tower.
At somewhere more than thirty seasons, his wife, Aretê, Proxenos figured, if she avoided the summer riverbank fevers, the Egyptian pox, and hot-face Helios that blisters the face and arms and spins the head, had a good ten years left. He had made Ainias, when they set out southward, promise to visit her in Plataia, as they joked over the rantings of Nêto and her warning that Proxenos was not to cross the Isthmos. The breasts of his Aretê were deep, her hips firm—as Ainias, he wished, would soon learn. And himself? His teeth were still white and all there, his beard black as the raven’s wing. His muscles were firm without the sagging of flesh in men half his age. But there was no life force. Proxenos felt no different from the collapsed puppets in the agora once the strings of their masters had been put away.
All his land, the height of his tower, the beauty of his wife—all that meant nothing in the snow of Lakonia. Or perhaps less than nothing here in the mud of the Eurotas far to the south where he was soon to be just another rotting spearman too far from home. Proxenos, although he had volunteered to come south despite the fears of Nêto, still thought it unjust—no, a real madness—that he, the man who had crafted the three great cities of the Peloponnesos, was a mere soldier in the ranks, for whom a single spear-jab to his gut meant no walls of Messenê or a wrong tower in Megalopolis. So in his delirium he thought Epaminondas or at least his friends should have kept their holy Proxenos in camp, a man of genius like Daidalos of old not to be wasted in cheap battle. But he also knew that often we are hardest on those we love most, and treat the friend roughly either because we demand his company in shared danger, or out of friendly envy want him to remember in our shared risk that he is no better than us. So Proxenos, the architect of the greatest cities of new Hellas, was but a common hoplite at the Eurotas. If here was where they wanted him, so here he would stay.
The two hoplites were soon standing at the rear of the column. They had kept falling farther behind the Thebans as the phalanx was nearing the banks of the Eurotas. Ainias tapped his silent friend with a light blow to his helmet to see whether he flinched from his stupor, and took off his pack. He wanted to force him down and probe his cut, but Proxenos was still standing and slapped away his hand. Ainias now sensed his friend was waning, and that he could do little to cure either his body or his soul, and perhaps should play this final act out until the end of the drama. Nonetheless, he wanted Proxenos of Plataia to show the army that he was a hoplite of the first rank who took his wounds in front and fell in the first rank. “Wake up, man. Even lame Mêlon has passed us up and waits at the fore with Epaminondas. Pelopidas needs our counsel at the spear tip. He has no spirit to fight ice and Spartans together. Hey, Proxenos. Hypnos has you again, man. Your eyes—they’re rolling, ever since that farm. Shake it off, this black bile. Spit out the lotus-eater in you. Come back from the other shore.”
Proxenos paid him no heed. Instead he continued to limp in the direction of the Sacred Band. But now his head sagged and he felt a strange urge to fall asleep, armor and all. At some point failure became pleasure. Resistance to the creeping ice inside him meant only pain. He felt a funny kinship with thousands gone—with tens of thousands unseen—but less affinity with the hundreds he could make out at his side. Where to find his knot of strength? It had vanished out of his mouth, left him unstrung. Cold voices of the dead began to whisper in his ears. The warm talk of Nêto was not among them to drive these furies out.
Proxenos, Ainias knew at last as he glanced at his friend, was doing the arithmetic of death. This starts when a man of the middle age begins to add up what he has done and what lies ahead—and sees that the climb up was far better than the trudge back down. He saw the Plataian gasping, breathing out steam that rose from his sagging helmet, and noticed there was blood at the corner of his lower lip and foam as well. For those who dare to do such summing up, even without a wound, the life force itself can sometimes vanish and leave nothing but empty flesh in its wake—a lyre fallen silent without a song or player. He wanted to throw Proxenos down and cleanse his wound, but he also wished for his friend to stand tall with his spear at the Eurotas rather than drift into sleep here on the march.
Proxenos sensed his wound was behind all this mad thinking, but its full malignancy was still not quite clear to either him or his friends. So the Plataian was unsure whether this sudden waning of his strength was not a failure of his own will. Had he any courage left, he could have been at the forefront with Epaminondas, despite the spear poke that Antikrates had given him. Chiôn and Mêlon had suffered worse wounds and yet were always at the van. Had he incurred a bad daimôn? Perhaps there were Olympian gods, after all. Had his impious neglect of Zeus and Apollo on Parnassos and the earth-shaker Poseidon at the Isthmos in favor of the one deity of Pythagoras—had all that come back to haunt him in his final time of need? The gods, not Antikrates, had done all this to him?
Nêto had no power against the deathless ones to change or honey-coat her pronouncement of the doom he would face after crossing the Isthmos. The Plataian, through strange voices along the river’s edge, was given a final gift of visions of things to come, majestic sights in hues of purple and soft yellow, all to the music of the pipes of Thisbê. Now pictures came to him of the finished Megalopolis, and of Epaminondas standing guard as the new gates of Messenê rose, then leading the army back home in triumph across the Isthmos.
Yes, his eyes were full of color and his ears of flute music. Proxenos could hear the voices to come of the demogogues at the trial of Epaminondas back home, swaying the judges to kill the general as he sat in the dock on the Theban Kadmeia. Did Ainias not see this—their general dragged into the bêma to be jeered before being hanged? Yes, there would be the bickering on their return; but then, as the envy and jealousy cooled, maybe also would come applause for the magnitude of the Theban achievement when fully grasped, no doubt only after they were all dead. He, Proxenos, the lord of a vast estate overlooking the Asopos, would have to stand in a Theban court while the rabble cobblers and tanners pelted him with fruit and jeered at his half-Attic speech and damned him for joining Epaminondas—only to be found guilty of designing the three greatest cities of Hellas and freeing the men of the Peloponnesos and making the Boiotians all safe.
Such is the way of men, Proxenos reckoned in these final moments, when given a great gift, to complain about the quality of the present or the motive of the giver or the circumstances of the largesse, all to lessen the need for gratitude and indebtedness—and fouler dependence. Proxenos in his delirium saw that there would be a need for more invasions to the south to come. Sparta was hard to break and helots were harder to free. Allies would switch and join the enemy if their deliverer became too powerful, or if he seemed too weak. He knew Lykomedes was already half with the Spartans, half with Epaminondas, unsure which side in the end would win and thus he should join. It is a human habit to relax in triumph and take the boot off the neck of the wounded foe who has not quite expired. Soon Epaminondas would have to lead out the army to finish what he could not quite this morning.
Would he, Proxenos, wish to spend the rest of his life trudging down here on the tail of Epaminondas, to end Sparta? Leave all that marching each summer to Mêlon and all the other zealots who had made the conversion to the cause of the helots. A Plataian, as Nêto warned, had no business in the ice of Lakonia. All this was too much, this monotony, this predictability. Now no matter how Proxenos tried to keep in step with the hoplites, he could not fight off a new tightness that was rising into his chest and neck at the same rate it had crept down his thighs. Since he knew all that was ahead, why the need to put off what was foreordained?
Ainias gave up trying to stop Proxenos and so instead hit his breastplate again. “Wake, do not let the ghosts take you, man. Not now, not when we are to burn the wasps in their very nests.”
Proxenos, through his helmet that had fallen back down over his face, mumbled to Ainias, who heard him clearly—strangely so, as if the gods had stopped the river roar and muzzled the grunts of the hoplites and the clatter of their bronze, “Do you like Sophokles, Ainias?”
“This is no time for that, man. But if you must know—no. He was a pompous old man. But keep to the river, not the words of the dead poets.” Ainias thought that if he kept Proxenos talking, the Kêres would stay away.
“Do you know his Aias, Ainias, his Philoktêtes? I never cared to watch Oidipous or Antigonê, especially to see us Boiotians on stage as eye-stabbers and woman-killers.”
“Yes, once, at the big theater in Korinthos. But Aias was a suicide. I never put much faith in his ‘Live nobly or nobly die,’ not when it was by his own hand.”
“But you do, Ainias! That is why you march with Mêlon and me—because so do we. All three of us are Aiases of sorts—here far from our homes, no friends of the Thebans or the Messenians, but merely for the idea of it all, the last breed of the Hellenes, with no expectation that we are to live through it. We live for a code that sets us apart, and now the toll comes due as it must. Why else would a Stymphalian, a man of Thespiai, and a Plataian all be near this accursed river in winter—for the helots?”
“It helps to hate the Spartans. Or have you forgotten that, my dear Pentheus who rages as he sees two suns and the sky in a swirl.”
Ainias stopped the mad Sophokles talk because he knew where it led—as if a Proxenos were an Aias without a future or a Philoktêtês who with wound was exiled by those who needed his skill. As the two argued, the mist was lifting. Most of the army had stopped and was drawing back up on the riverbank. All were stunned at last by the sight of Sparta itself, the city that they had heard of only in widows’ tales to frighten young Boiotians to come inside from the courtyard. Not a wall to be seen, just countless hoplites on the banks opposite to provide ramparts of flesh against the invader. Some of the faces of their own hoplites at the head of the Boiotian snake were white, but not just from the cold. It was a terrible thing to look across the icy Eurotas at a long line of red-caped hoplites kneeling with spear and shield. Epaminondas saw this terror and worried it had already ruined his army this day.
So he threw off his green cape and mounted his red Boiotian pony. The general galloped up and down the column and ordered his men as he reined his mount and for a moment pranced it on two legs. “No fear. No phobos. To me. Ford into Sparta with me.” Five thousand of his hoplites thronged the banks and hit their raised shields with their spears. “Shields high, men, as we get wet. Hold them over our heads as these Spartan cowards try to hit us in the water. The water will touch our waists but not our chins. There are no stone walls over there. Cross the river here at the ford. The Eurotas is cold, but not deep. Wade it—and we are inside Sparta. She is ours for the torching. Who is afraid of a little water, a little wet?”
But as Epaminondas charged back and forth along the high banks of the river, the lame Spartan king yonder across the water was also visible to the Thebans through the whirling mists. Agesilaos limped along the Eurotas, always shadowing Epaminondas, pointing this way and that with his spear, sending companies of spearmen anywhere he saw a possible ford. What a small man he was, Mêlon saw—half the size of the Agiad king Kleombrotos at Leuktra. Smaller even than short Epaminondas. Were these Eurypontid kings dwarves? The king limped far worse than Mêlon did himself. So this lame-foot man was all that kept Epaminondas from storming Sparta? Not quite all—for there was something else on the far bank, a figure standing next to Agesilaos. Mêlon, who was at the side of Proxenos, yelled out to his aide Melissos, “There, look. There, boy, there is the killer, Lichas. Look at that foul spearman. Bare-headed, with his white braids. No helmet.”
The bleary eyes of Melissos thought he saw nothing other than the fuzzy shapes across the water. But he sensed the furor in Mêlon, who faced Epaminondas and called out again, “He’s there, our Lichas, near the king Agesilaos. He is the one who dares us.”
Then the king was gone, as quickly as he had appeared, into the hedges across the river. In his place ran his granddaughter, hair in the winter wind, with a black sword in her right hand. Now there was no mistaking her. She darted across the line of crouching Spartan spearmen, her klôpis hitting their wooden shafts as she reminded them, “Your king and my Lichas are with you. Stand fast and spear the pigs from the north. Leave Epaminondas to me.” Her voice easily carried across the water.
Melissos cried out to his master, “I can hear them, Thespian, I can hear your Lichas and the king in their fury on the other side, and his demon bitch, all cursing our Epaminondas. Can they see us as well? Why not cross and kill them? I can help, I can do that.” But Mêlon grabbed the Makedonian by the neck and drew him back from the water where the arrows were beginning to hit near their shins. The last bridge had been destroyed by the king, enraged that a Theban had shut his men inside his city when they were used to marching a thousand stadia abroad into the lands of others. Still, this Melissos was proving to be as brave as any in the phalanx.
Agesilaos came back out of the bushes and bellowed to the Thebans when he caught sight of the mounted Epaminondas. A wind came up and all the Thebans could hear his slurs from across the river. “O wild man” the king pointed at Epaminondas, shaking his spear, “you will not cross this ford, fool, you cannot without a bridge. Never touch the polis of Leônidas. You can’t cross, not now, not ever. We are the better men. Our Elektra is a man, and you are women.” For once the aged royal spoke true, as the army froze at the water’s edge, stopped there by the fog and sleet and ice combined with arrows and javelins hurled from the Spartan side.
Mêlon spoke to the boy Melissos, as if he were a general like Epaminondas, as they both watched the throng across the wide cold river. “This morning is not our day. It is not fated, Melissos. I see that now. We are not to kill Agesilaos and Lichas today. Too high the water, too cold, too many Spartans on the banks.” Even if they got across the current, the Thebans would be inside the hornets’ nest. To fight in the streets of Sparta was a battle few welcomed. No wonder the Arkadians, the Eleans, the Northerners, even the Argives wanted no part of this. It would mean being pelted by roof-tiles and hit by the pots tossed down by frenzied women, as the Boiotians got caught in winding and dead-end streets and trapped in courtyards. Lampito, younger sister of Lichas, along with Elektra, his wife, had organized the women into lochoi, ten to a roof, sixty houses among them each. The Boiotians remembered the stories of their grandfathers. They had told of the Thebans who had once stormed into the streets of nearby Plataia. Few had made it out alive as the women and boys of the town had buried them with hard clay from the rooftops.
Until the sun broke through the heavy fog around noon, each time Pelopidas and the Sacred Band reached a new sandbar of the river, hundreds across the water ran up to the banks. The Spartans knelt down with spears on their shields to meet them, then lowered their heads as their archers and javelin throwers at the rear targeted the throng of Thebans with a volley of missiles. The Spartans had mocked that arrows were the work of women. But now they flung anything they could to stop Epaminondas at the Eurotas.
A few of the foolish among the Boiotians who had reached halfway into the current were already floating downstream, with javelins stuck in their necks and thighs. In vain, Epaminondas had ignored the advice of the veteran Ainias and Pelopidas, and of Mêlon as well. They had all warned him to avoid the city. Instead, why not burn the dockyards at Gytheion to the south? For this day leave Agesilaos alone. Once more, let Lichas be. Mêlon was at the general’s side, trying to grab his reins and get Epaminondas off his red horse. He tried to talk over the shouting of battle. “Mad Theban. Don’t ruin our army in the water when twenty myriads await us in Messenia. Join the Arkadians as they burn the countryside. This Lichas, he baits us. He’s your nemesis. Wants us to climb out soaked on his side. Don’t. Stay here. Burn and loot and overturn their farms. The Eurotas will be our warden and bars.” Mêlon had remembered Malgis’s stories of the Athenian slaughter at the River Assinaros in Sikily, and he began to see that even Lykomedes and his looters had the better advice this morning. So he kept on with his early-morning warning to the mounted Epaminondas to avoid the water. “They will slaughter us. As if we were the Athenians in Sikily. Water is their helper. Back off, Theban. Today is not our day. Not this day.”
Ainias saw in the lifting fog that his friend Proxenos had drifted off and was standing on the bank—deliberately in range of the Spartan archers. The Stymphalian damned himself again that he had allowed his friend to arm that morning when Proxenos should have stayed inside the warm tents of Pelopidas and finally had his wound cleaned and oiled.
Proxenos was the first to plunge in the icy waters and the last to lumber out as the rising waist-high current barred the way. Did he wish to be hit or to drown? Now on this last attempt, the Plataian had to be pulled out. He fell down, shivering on the bank, but had at least shown the Boiotians how a Plataian braves the missiles of the Spartans and cares little for the cold of the Eurotas. Ainias at last could treat his friend, still breathing on the bank, nearly blue in his wet armor, muttering of his visions of white women with barbed wings and bloody fangs. His eyes closed. With a whisper he touched Ainias’s hand. “No man a slave. None really are. Where is my Nêto?”
“Eyes open, man, before you freeze.” Ainias pulled Proxenos up at the arm. He ordered the hoplites to bring oil and woolen cloaks. Melissos ran up with his pack, a blanket, and a flask. He had seen Proxenos stagger into the Eurotas, shield high, and wanted rare men like this to live; he tore open his pack and tossed oil, honey, and cloth to Ainias.
The river, Proxenos knew, was no longer fast and cold, but strangely warm and slow. He wanted to crawl back into it. He still heard his friends jabbering; too loud, harsh, and grating, they were like the harsh crows fighting each other to pick apart the rotting sucker-fish on the quay. Were they Kêres now? So he looked instead across the river, and now found the floating shades far more to his liking with their soothing calls to ford the warm river. There were heroes, not Kêres, across the Eurotas. Scarlet and purple, these images sang from across the water, “Come across, Proxenos, son of Proxenos, hero of Plataia, guest-friend of Sparta. The water is warm here, my son, where you belong.”
The rough, hard figures of his friends standing above him were of a tired world, one he was leaving behind. Across the Eurotas, there he saw the outline of his long-dead father Proxenos, friend of Sparta, in his armor at Kunaxa, waving for him to join him. Across the water there were not Agesilaos and Lichas, and Elektra with her bare breasts, but there now appeared in the mist Spartans enough, or at least a red-caped mob of shades milling around the angry spear-pierced King Kleombrotos. The ghosts were torn with the terrible wounds from the blows of Mêlon and Chiôn at Leuktra. Even Kleonymos and his companions who drifted to the banks and rattled their spears at him could do him no real harm—or so the voices in his head assured him.
The shade of Sphodrias was shaking his fist at Proxenos. The dead Deinon was screeching as well. There was Klearchos drifting up, who at Leuktra had at least taken down Staphis before being brained by Chiôn. Then Proxenos saw in the distance the ghost of a smiling warrior. He spoke the Thespian brand of Boiotian, and sang to him in the formal tongue, “I am Malgis, O Proxenos, son of Proxenos, friend of your father. Join us over here, O weary man. Come for the laurels you deserve. You served my son so well and brought the Boiotians out of their infamy—enough for any, all that. Join us, bask in the rising of your three cities; we can see them all from here. My grandson Lophis is here with me—and is a hero of the Boiotians, greater than Pagondas, greater than Ismenias, greater than any since Oidipous. Our farms are fine. Your work is finished. Now it is our time to rest. There is no more strife on this side of the river, on our sweeter side. Pay no attention to these red-caped men. These Spartans will float apart for you when you cross Styx. None of us endures the burdens and pains of the flesh here in Elysion. Over here there is order and law, just like among the good men of Plataia. There is no rabble and shoving and jeering along the upper banks of the Acheron, here in the green meadows with the nobles of Elysion.”
Proxenos forgot the melancholy and felt warm with recognition of years well lived. How fortunate he was to be cresting before his wave broke and turned to tiny eddies and stagnant backwash of old age. He could feel for a while longer two men bent over him and saw the faces of Mêlon and Ainias barking and shaking him, as the Makedonian Melissos spread the blanket over his midriff. It was a gift to go in his glory as Proxenos of the dark hair and with beard black and thick, and full in his armor, the greatest builder in Hellas in its greatest age of stone. No more worries about hunting down Lichas or the traitor Gorgos or fears of the turncoat Lykomedes. As in sickness, the approach of death severs one from the world of cares, or the people that scurry about without a hint that they too live on mortgaged time, with bodies no more than Korinthian glass, a small break away from a mess of shards. Even for the healthy and young, death is not always unwelcome. No, Proxenos would exit the stage before the crowd tired of his voice.
And so he did.
In a blink the man of stone, the aristocrat from Plataia, Proxenos son of Proxenos went cold—only to skim over the black waters and reach a far different shore where weight and worry were only faint burdens of the memory.
“Wake man, wake, wake!” Ainias shook his friend, who was cold. “More oil, Melissos, more oil.” He turned in disgust to Pelopidas, who had also reached him with a dozen of the Band. “He has left us, he left us. He simply gave up when we, when I, needed him most. He went into the river and caught a chill. His unknowing Aretê, even now a thousand stadia to the north in Plataia, sings of his safe return as she coddles his sons with stories of his high ramparts—and of his fame to come.”
But Pelopidas was the cooler head and paid the grief-stricken Stymphalian no matter. Instead he had the breastplate of Proxenos taken off, and was wrapping him in a cloak. Mêlon scolded Ainias, “That was not his way. His ticket on Charôn’s ferry was not of his own buying.” Then Mêlon took over from Pelopidas and gently probed that slash below the dead man’s navel. Two palms in width it had grown in the last day, right across the gut where the breastplate ended, the naked zone of flesh above his leather skirt. The jagged tear was now black and yet oozing foul pus, yellow and black. “This is no bile, but old rot. His gut is seeping through as well. How he walked these last days, only Zeus knows. I reckon the wound rotted him from within. He has had his finger on it to keep the mess inside since Antikrates cut his insides nearly in two.”
Ainias wept, in loss and in embarrassment of his momentary anger at the departure of his friend—and the greater anger that he had not thrown his friend down and treated his wound before they had set out that morning.
Mêlon ignored him, “So ends Proxenos. This is a man who achieved rather than suffered death.”
Ainias interrupted the silence as he stared down at the white face of what once was Proxenos and his black beard already spotted with ice. “The stones of the free cities of the Peloponnesos are his markers. He lies here dead cold for the helots. Pray to the One God that they were worth it. Dead for the damned helots.”
“No,” Mêlon answered, “for his pleasure. It was his pleasure to come south. That is enough for me. You can figure out the rest.”
Meanwhile, Epaminondas had drawn the column back from the river. The army began its retreat to camp, cold and tired and disheartened that they would never cross the Eurotas. While the four had worked to keep Proxenos warm and breathing, the last fording had failed. Epaminondas was waving all back as arrows whizzed by his head. This was the first time Epaminondas had tripped—and yet it would be his last mistake. King Agesilaos had been right after all: No man of Boiotia would ever bring fire to the very heart of a defeated Sparta. The women were braver on the banks, and hurling insults at the Thebans, baring their icy breasts in mockery and throwing rocks into the river in disdain. In front of them always was shrill Elektra, like Medea of old, holding up one bare shriveled breast, waving her left hand above her head, spitting and ululating all the while. “You all need this teat like the babes you are!” she cried.
Nêto also had been right in her visions when she had long ago warned that none born in the countryside of Thebes would kill Lichas or his son Antikrates. Dozens were wounded and sixty Theban hoplites dead for this failed mad gambit to defy the prophecy. Proxenos was borne on a bier back to camp, with Pelopidas and Melissos carrying the front corners of his litter. Mêlon and Ainias did the same at the rear.
Yet none saw behind them the new Proxenos swimming across the eddies of the hot Eurotas. He waved to them all as they turned out of sight on the main road and headed to the camp north of town. He ascended the bank opposite. The Spartan shades, as promised, did the Plataian no harm. So the Olympian gods with their heaven and Hades were real after all? Now too late the Pythagorean Proxenos must concede that—even as he flitted as an empty ghost among the heroes of old who drifted about just as Homer had sung? Proxenos looked in vain for his Nêto for help, as if he felt she too were somewhere near or maybe already across the Styx at this very moment. Instead here were the Elysion fields of deep green and the marble homes of the hemi-gods.
So all the fables of the ignorant were true. Where would his soul end up in such a place as an unbeliever in Olympos, as an apostate follower of Pythagoras—down lower next to Sisyphos or Tantalos or in the depths of Tartaros? But then came noise and light. In another eye blink all these fantasies of his first twenty years of life disappeared. The false shades of Kleombrotos and Kleonymos dissipated. Proxenos felt himself in a vortex. He was whirling upward toward a bright sun. There was certainly no Zeus here.
Heat, heat of all things amid the ice, came over him, and in an instant Proxenos was given knowledge of how the plan of it all worked: that the good man alone finds peace and that the end of all things was, as his One God of Pythagoras had promised, not Hades at all, but a return to his very beginning. So Epaminondas had saved him, after all, as he knew he might. He was not in Persia like his father with Xenophon, on the royal wage, drenching his spear arm in blood for Spartans and for gold and land as well. He was not scheming to keep his olives free from the tramp of armies, but down here on the Eurotas for nothing other than his pleasure and the visions of Epaminondas for something called Hellas. For all that his soul had been made deathless a year earlier, and now he would learn that, as he would come no more again to the physical world, even as the crow or dog, but had won the battle for his soul in his brief life as the aristos of Plataia. The last thing he remembered as Proxenos of old was the soft murmur of Pythagoras’s warning, “When you are traveling abroad, look not back at your own borders.” Proxenos searched no longer for Ainias and his funeral march. Not now as he reached the light and became something better than he had been.
Ainias shuddered and almost dropped the corner of the bier. His breath stopped when a warm—hot even—draft from the south swept across his ice-bitten neck. Then he caught himself and whispered, “So it is. So as our holy one promised, my Proxenos.”
But at that moment far away on the other side of snowy Taygetos, Nêto shuddered as if an icy breeze had reached her.
She wept. “Our Proxenos crossed the Isthmos, but not the Eurotas.”