Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 33

The Reckoning

When Epaminondas finished his speech, he headed to his muster yard outside the city, between the walls and the hamlet of Andania, in the stony ground between the great olive groves of the city. Yet even before the crowd broke up, Nikôn at last appeared as promised. He had missed the words of Epaminondas and just come down his accustomed path from the summit on Taygetos. But this time the helot headed for the generals in a frenzy.

Nikôn pushed in among them and announced loud enough for the entire Sacred Band at their sides to hear, waving a walking crutch. “Kuniskos lives! The killer of our Erinna is alive. He’s not dead. Not yet. I saw Nêto as a daimôn in a dream two nights past as I slept in Artemis’s shrine and breathed her vapors. Her ghost told me of Kuniskos, just where on the vast mountain he was. Then last night up at the house of Zeus Ithomatas, I saw the hut in dreams. Just now, just this very morning on my return, one Scorpas, a half-breed uplander, came over the mountain and in through the east gate following a patrol. He said the same thing as what I had seen from the goddess. And then he handed me this crutch, Nêto’s walking stick, he says. She once lived in the jail of Kuniskos on Taygetos, crippled and leaning on a stick, or so he swears.”

Nikôn went on and retold his conversation with half-helot Scorpas. “His words, those of this trader and go-between Scorpas, went like this as I remember it: ‘Your lost helot traitor—he is up there in the high mountain glen. A mad bear hunts him or something worse. The monster can’t find Kuniskos—at least not yet. For he’s safe enough in the high house in the deep woods. Up there I saw him. He was holed up in a hut. On the crest of Taygetos, the dark mountain of death. Fifty stadia and more he was from the high road. An upland trader I know saw him two nights ago. He brings him food for gold coins. Brought back this crutch, a woman’s cane. Or so Kuniskos said it is and wanted those in Messenia to have it. Still, Kuniskos will not get far. Up high near the pass, he is cut off by the fear of the man-bear or the helot rangers amid the highest trees on Taygetos. Your Gorgos cannot get home to Sparta. Yes, I know his real name. He cannot go back to his eastern side of the mountain. He is holed up. Waiting for the bear-god to attack—or maybe to be rescued by Lichas. Or maybe in fright waiting to die.’ ”

So Nikôn finished relating the speech of Scorpas. “This time your Nikôn does not see ghosts, but has a live witness.”

Mêlon scowled. “I knew he was alive. I know the helot speaks truly, for I have had visions of a hut well before Leuktra, though where it was I did not guess. And just as my dreams of the good city of Messenê trumped those of a polis in ruins, so too I know the ghosts tell the truth of our meeting with Gorgos in a hut on high Taygetos. Chiôn told me that he has also dreamt of a mountain house in flames, with Gorgos its master.” Then he looked to Epaminondas. “I would have wished news that Chiôn and Nêto live, rather than that Gorgos is soon to die. I suppose some will follow me to find this man. I take care of my own—my way. I leave for Taygetos before dusk. Follow who wish. But none need to.”

Epaminondas stepped up to face him. “Watch out, Melôn.” He then turned and grabbed the helot. “Now wait, you Nikôn. This is just the latest of your many stories and false visions. Like those before, it too is but a phantom. It is the hatred of Gorgos that haunts you and the wish of us all that Nêto still lives and that Chiôn did not fall to the man-bear, who no doubt is some demon our grandfathers warned about. Sometimes the soul makes up pictures at night of what it wants us to believe. Or we make thoughts and then claim there are gods to be honored for giving them. Your dreams are as false as the reports of this two-shoe Scorpas. That liar whittles some wood into a cane and then calls it Nêto’s—and you give him gold for his stories? Do you want Mêlon to tramp after ghosts up on the summit, to end up like Chiôn in the highlands—dead and forgotten as he goes chasing shades and half-men monsters of myth on Taygetos? The mountain is a foul place, Nikôn. Maybe not fatal for four myriads, but lethal for four or five of you. Yes, the man-bear up there may have eaten your one-armed Chiôn, as well as the kryptes and soon you as well. If there was ever a Kuniskos up there, they are bones and ash now, though alive enough for fakers like your Scorpas to cheat a gold owl from you.”

“Yes,” Nikôn replied, “I hate the helot Kuniskos. And I know better than you of the man-bear. I’ve seen a lesser kind of that monster before even here on Ithômê. Unlike you, I have seen his victims swinging by their capes from the spruce limbs. Still, the voice in my dreams last night was Nêto’s, as real now as in the past. Her voice lives and she whispers that Kuniskos did not die in the flight from Ithômê. Maybe this man-bear is finally dead and the mountain passes are open, and so the ghost of Nêto tells me it is at last time to come up. This Scorpas, he is a peddler, not a spy. He is dense and has no reason to lie.”

“Oh? No reason other than to do the work of Lichas and get our best killed in an ambush on a high pass? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear your trader once led Chiôn up to his death on the mountain with the same stories. Or maybe he works for this man-bear bandit who scares those at the loom with stories that he is a Sinis or Skirôn come alive. I imagine this bear scare may be a run-away Spartan lord or a pack of renegades that prey on shepherds and the lost.”

Mêlon heard little of this good-sense warning of Epaminondas. He was too eager to clear the ledger with the killers of the dead Lophis and Proxenos and Staphis, too. Who could believe that anyone or anything could put down his Chiôn? More likely this shape-changer, if he were real, was already in the belly of Chiôn rather than the other way around. That might explain why Gorgos was suddenly free to call back in Lichas, free from the terror of the man-bear—free to carve a cane and claim it was Nêto’s and get back to what he did best, lying and plotting. If Gorgos were alive, Mêlon at least would know the fate of Nêto, whether she was killed long ago in his compound or perished in the flight from Ithômê. Without a live Gorgos, no one would ever learn her fate. He turned to Melissos. “Bring a pony and our arms and plenty of rope. I want to take our Gorgos alive. I think he lives and I want to see whether he really is, as Nikôn says, the foul Kuniskos of the helots—or, before I kill him, still part of him the loyal servant who walked with me each morning on Helikon. If he has Spartans with him, the better to kill them all.”

Suddenly Ainias, who had been listening to the back and forth, stepped up and grabbed Mêlon. “Son of Malgis. Something is not right about this Scorpas. A half-helot at best, maybe even a perioikos who trades with Spartans in the morning and sells his wares to helots at dusk. If Gorgos lives, why has he not sneaked back to his masters? How can he be trapped by our thin patrols on the summit? This story of Scorpas makes no sense. But all the same, I will go with you to ensure that we end up killing someone, maybe even Kuniskos or Scorpas or both.”

Melissos was already packing their gear. Ainias said that he was going back up the mountain to learn the fate of Nêto. On Taygetos he would kill some of the Spartans who had killed Proxenos. Epaminondas finished with another warning. “We will see you back here in two days—with the camp cleaned up and the army mustering. If not, I will go up the mountain and follow your trail with Pelopidas and the Band.”

So they parted. Ainias and Mêlon led toward the peaks of high cloudy Taygetos. Melissos behind followed, leading a small pony. All set out armed with spears and swords. Nikôn brought up the rear. They soon met Scorpas waiting for them on the trail ahead. Mêlon kept still and limped ahead as they went up the path to the low hills. Nikôn had unleashed Kerberos, now without his mistress Nêto. He growled more than ever, since the hound had picked up a wolf scent, one that brought back some memory of the lost Sturax; and he heard too many say “Nêto.” The dog did not like the smell of this Scorpas and twice nipped the stranger’s calf. He already had the smell of the dog-kicker Gorgos in his nostrils.

None knew much about these wilds, only that most of the snow was melted and the even spring high country was now passable. Twice they saw bones tied with red cloth, hanging from pine limbs over the trail—crow and buzzard meat, maybe a month old, maybe two, kryptes, or what was left of them, killed by whom and left as trophies for what? Scorpas had already seen bones like these and was terrified that there would be more ahead. Now he begged them to keep off to the side of the main trail that went into the high forest. The five headed for the crest of the lower peak of Taygetos, but it was soon dark and they were glad to find the huts of the woodcutters for the night at the timber’s edge.

Little was said, though they noticed fresh coals in the hearth and half-eaten deer bones by the door. If they found their old Gorgos, he would not be alone. The small party was happier for that chance of revenge nonetheless, since men had been here in the past ten days. At first light they went up another small creek bed, amid stands of spruce and fir on the banks and a few upland poplars. It rained until midday. Ainias took charge on the route, and was content enough to keep the small band hidden and dry beneath the evergreens. Again they walked in gullies near the trail above to keep away from the sight of the man-bear. But Ainias thought it queer that this hillman Scorpas could discover a mountain hut, even with patches of snow on the ground hiding the trail and with a fresh scent of men, months after the flight of the Spartans. In fact, little was known of this mysterious trader Scorpas, before never named, never seen. Much less did Ainias believe that Gorgos, the flatlander, who had hated the high farm on Helikon, would hide in the up-country. Worse still, for most of the day Ainias saw few signs of goats and so turned back often to Scorpas to question the way and complain there were no longer traces of flocks or shepherds in the shadowy vale.

Most herds were down on flat land with the last of the spring grass and did not come up before Homôloios, so his story about goats and sheep and Gorgos in a shepherd’s hut made even less sense. Proxenos was dead. Nêto too. The helots were freed. So there was nothing much left for Ainias to do down here in the south. What happened to him, he confessed, mattered little anymore, though he wanted to learn the fate of Nêto or to kill Gorgos before he left or at least find the bones of Chiôn, or kill Proxenos’s killer. The list of his targets, he offered, was endless, after all, and gave him warmth in the spring air on high Taygetos.

The guide was bundled in fleece, with that rough wool hood over his head. Two gray braids hung through to his shoulders, Spartan-style. A man of sixty or so, slump-shouldered Scorpas said he packed in for the shepherds of Taygetos bronze pots and other goods each spring and led back a she-goat or an ewe for the barter. “I am your eyes back here,” Scorpas finally called out, “to make sure we see any Spartan ambushers behind. We are near the crest. Be careful since we are ever closer to the border of Lakonia.”

Ainias patted his hilt on his sword belt and gripped tighter his spear. Melissos said little, though he grunted under a pack on his back and the reins of a stubborn pony struggling with two shields that hit the brush and boughs of spruce. If there were to be spear work, he would be at the van and take a stab at Scorpas first of all. He knew that much. Melissos had started out the lackey of Mêlon but this day he would have come, slave or not, on his own accord, since the liberation disease had infected him as well—that notion that one kills for something other than money and fame, and someone far worse than oneself. Melissos had long ceased spying out the forts and landscape of the Hellenes and pondered only how the helots had revolted—and why his masters had come south to free them.

Finally in late afternoon of their second day, Scorpas came to the fore and grabbed the arm of Mêlon. The small band spread out in the trees. “There, over there, far in the distance, in the meadow by the outcropping, see the hut? And beware, behind it there is a small cave that ends up on the other side of the peak out to an opening among a stand of spruce. There my friend said your man Gorgos hides. He is afraid of the wild monster of the forest. He won’t quite yet leave his cottage until he is forced out. There, there we go. I think dogs guard the house on the ridge. Though I don’t see them as I once did.”

Ainias was quiet at this. He signaled Melissos to put down the shields and tether the horse. He hadn’t wanted to bring the Makedonian, but now he was glad that he had the boy’s extra right arm. Nikôn also had been silent for most of the day. He whispered, “Strangers are in this vale. Not all of them enemies. I don’t know whether I dreamed this or our dead Nêto told me or I only sense it now. And now I see Scorpas has already slipped off into the trees.”

“No matter.” Mêlon motioned to Ainias. “Gorgos, not that half-helot, is our business. Now if there is someone alive in that hut, and if he is really our old Gorgos, then we learn whether he is our friend with a shred of good. Or, as you say, he is really the killer Kuniskos of the helots and more still.”

Ainias knew better and laughed out loud at that nonsense. “Learn what? Oh, my Mêlon, you always knew your Gorgos in the blink you set eyes on his no-good hide on Helikon. And I would feel better if I had killed our missing Scorpas long before now. All done quietly as well. Fouler still he is now at our backsides. Let me backtrack and grab this man. He can’t be a step or two into the forest. Then at spear point he will lead us into the hut or die in his tracks. Better yet, wait till sundown. We can crawl on our bellies into that hut in the darkness and kill Gorgos or whoever is in there in his sleep or pile boughs on his walls and smoke him out.”

Scorpas had run off the trail into the forest, since Nikôn in all the talking had lost thought of him as they spied the hut. Right now Mêlon needed every spear arm to confront Gorgos, and could hardly have Ainias chasing Scorpas down the mountain, Melissos drew his own long knife as they all quickened their pace ahead on the flat ground to the hut. He quietly spoke as he walked, “No Scorpas around here to be found. I see our Scorpas has no stomach for iron. He is nowhere to be seen. Maybe my eyes don’t spot him, or he is running through the trees to collect his wage for leading us here.”

“Yes,” Nikôn sighed, “and I am worse. I too took my eye off him for only a moment. He is gone into the shadows. Nêto’s Porpax, our Kerberos, is gone too, but on the scent of something else—something in these dark trees, since I haven’t heard him bark like this since I found him in the woods near the camp of Kuniskos yelping at the gate. Listen to how he howls on the run. He is gone after the scent of Scorpas, who won’t get far from that hound. So we four are alone. Careful now. Kerberos has let all inside the hut know we are here. There was more to this tale than I knew when I ordered you all to come.”

The two hoplites approached with leveled spears. Behind them Melissos and Nikôn had blades, choppers with one edge. They all imagined that Scorpas was even now backtracking down Taygetos, perhaps on his way for the coast near Pylos or right down to the gulf. Ahead in the opening was more a stockade than a house. It was dreary and dark, in the shadows of the tall spruces that ringed the building. Flat stones piled as high as a man’s shoulders were its sides that supported long beams. On them rested heavy stripped rafters of oak that held up a roof of broken tiles and flat stones. Sparks rose from a fire pit at the back of the house, and there was more smoke from a chimney inside. The light rain was unable to quench the burning in the pit. A small wooden stockade connected the shelter to what looked like a cave. A few goats and a steer were inside the fence.

The two hoplites were no longer crouching among the grass, but stood upright and began making their way on a path that led to the north side of the hut. As they neared, both raised their shields and leveled their spears. Nikôn was behind with Melissos and could see they were almost to the hut. In fact, the four were a hundred paces from the door. There were no windows in the hut but smoke proved someone or something was inside. Gorgos, they remembered, was good enough with a bow or javelin, and there was no proof yet that he was not in the dank hut, and if so no doubt hardly alone. The trees around offered good cover for an ambusher, and the cave even better.

Then a sharp, familiar sort of voice stopped the four who had long been seen and heard. “Hoa, you’re late, my Mêlon. Ah yes, the son of Malgis returned. Are you so rich from your winnings in Lakonia that you forgot to fetch your slave who has loyally awaited you these long months?” It was Gorgos. Gorgos was alive, after all. And now he threw open the door and waved them in.

Mêlon wondered whether this was the Kuniskos of the fur collar and forked beard of the house of Antikrates who had cut down Erinna and killed his Nêto, or the aged helot Gorgos in rags, the harmless broke-back servant of Helikon that had stoked his fires and cooked his meat—or both. It was Gorgos, that much was sure. He was bare-chested, even in the spring mountain air despite the cold drizzle, with only a small tunic wrapped around his privates. “I was asleep. So I needed wakening and your dog did that well enough.” At that he walked a few paces from the cabin toward them, palms out and open. Mêlon kept silent at his appearance, since he had not seen him in this year and a half after Leuktra, not since the day they had wagonned together to the battle.

Maybe this half-naked man was the killer Sinis whom the villagers in the foothills said had a dangerous voice and a new shape for each day to lull his victims to drop their swords. He wasn’t the man-bear, since Gorgos loved his Spartans and did not hang them by the toes from the forests of Taygetos. True, in winter on the farm Mêlon had never seen much of the helot without his tattered long cape, and even in summer he had worn two tunics, and often a hood. The muscles on this man suggested someone half his helot’s age. Yet his voice was surely that of the Gorgos he had known, though his words were longer and more delicate and with a Doric tinge. So was this an apparition?

Kuniskos turned around again, pointing to the hut. “Oh yes, the answer to your doubts is I am Kuniskos and I am also your Gorgos—or more than your Gorgos of old, I should say. You slave liberators should welcome a freed helot in his pride. Come in. Come in. There’s a chill out here from the rain, at least I feel it on my bare back. Anyway before I napped I made sure to have a surprise for you, or maybe two or three of them. Do you remember our Nêto? Yes? Or have you gone helot-freeing without a thought of your old love back on Helikon, now that you build great cities and talk of democracy and no more the small folk like us.”

Nêto?

“Oh yes, your Nêto. Well, she may not be quite dead, at least not yet. Or then again, she may be gone by now. Let me go on a bit about her. She is here, or at least something like her is. Inside, inside as I said. So come in, come in—look under the table when you enter and see if she breathes with that iron collar on her neck or maybe I replaced it with a rope. My, how age has clouded my memory. Yes, just a rope now. Or maybe the mind loses its edge up here in the high country. Dogs need leashes of some sort. I think she’s better than any dog I have. Down here they called me the little dog, so I should know. I’m not so sure she breathes with her hood and limp, and that pretty branded cheek. She is copying our gimpy master these days and has been quiet the last two in her night trances and murmuring. Yes, Mêlon, if her heart still beats, her leg is worse than yours—and likewise the work of Sparta. But come in. Let’s pull her out from under the table, take off her cape, and together see what’s left. I’m heating up some black barley broth out back. Your servant has set a table like in the old days. Though my new house is less than what I enjoyed below on Ithômê. It surely isn’t like our shed on Helikon where I slept in the dung with your animals out back. I want company. There are black rumors of a wolf-man or shape-changer out here. By Zeus, a monster in fur with an iron club who eats Spartans and tidies up his dinner plate by stringing up their bones. Or have you heard? Yes, beware you of the man-bear loose on Taygetos. How did you get by him to reach me?”

Melissos grabbed Mêlon’s arm. “Don’t go in. We have room out here to fight, Master, plenty of room to spear and stab, since this vagabond will have others like him lurking in the corners and rafters. He’s lying about Nêto. She’s dead, months ago he killed her. Or better yet, let me and Ainias go in first. Nikôn can guard our rear.”

Mêlon would have praised this Makedonian boy for his growing sense, and taken his advice as well. But he had heard “Nêto,” and wanted to find her or her body—and then kill all who had a hand in her torture or death. So he went in, spear ready, and all three followed. The room ahead was dark with a weak lamp light on a table. The four were not sure Gorgos was alone. The murmurs inside below the table were of a dying or sick dog, at least at first so they thought. But as they reached the long table, it leapt up. Alive? Or at least they thought this caped thing was something close to alive. Nêto? The four pulled it up.

It was Nêto and alive!

They could see their old Nêto beneath the dingy blanket, and the scabs and scars. Mêlon embraced her, as Ainias kept his eye on Gorgos. Melissos helped Mêlon quickly cut off her binds. Nikôn kept his blade in the face of Gorgos as they all stepped back to the wall. Mêlon grabbed some wine as he passed the table and soon had her talking and wide-eyed. She was a lot more alive than she looked, and was soon pointing to the door and crying at the same time. “No worry, Nêto, no worry ever again.” Then he sat her down gently and put himself between her and Gorgos, alongside Ainias.

The Stymphalian called the old man out. “Gorgos, you speak well for a man about to be speared, for one who invited in four of his executioners.” Ainias then lowered his spear as they all backed up to the corner of the hut and prepared to charge the helot. But first Ainias grazed Gorgos with his spear tip. “I never liked you, helot. We are here to fetch or kill you for what you have done to the Messenians and to our Nêto and to our Erinna. I prefer to end you here; the others down in new Messenê want to hang you, no doubt. Save us all much labor and come with us back to Ithômê so you can sit in the dock of the Messenians and hear their justice. They will swing you up for ten days above the Arkadian Gate until your bald head rots off.”

Mêlon kept quiet at that. He slowly made his way around to the corner of the dank room behind Kuniskos, with Nêto up and shuffling at his rear next to the wall, her hands on his shoulders. Nikôn felt for his sword. Melissos stayed near the threshold with Ainias. Both had iron ready. Kuniskos had his eye on all of them, all the time. Nêto was shaky, but growing stronger from the wine and her hatred of Gorgos. She hissed over Mêlon’s shoulder. “He’s alone, though he wants you to think his army is outside. Kill him and we go home.” Mêlon nodded and was ready to spear him.

Then the helot laughed at her. “Put those points away. Of course, I am alone. Your Gorgikos is tired of the slur of Kuniskos. I am no puppy dog, but a dragon man, a Gorgon of Helikon, watcher and protector of the farm of Malgis. The gods wish me back home on Helikon. You hate me because I killed your Erinna, yes, that red-headed Medusa sent to kill me. Was I supposed to stare at her and turn to stone? Gorgikos the loyal hound is to be killed because he bit first the master’s son who wanted to kick open his head? Master, at least give thanks to me. I both kept your dear little Nêto alive and yet ensured you need worry no more that she might like other men far better than she did you in your dotage and lameness—especially with the passing of that faker Proxenos of Plataia. Let us eat, since I know you know your way around this hut. I wager you had the same dream about it that I and your late Chiôn once did—since we met here before in our sleep, as you know from the nighttime shades that Hypnos and his son Morpheus sent to us alike.”

Mêlon ignored him and was wondering if he could stab this Kuniskos before Ainias the spear-tosser impaled him. The Thespian also noticed that, in fact, Gorgos was right. He thought that he had seen the table before in his night visions and even on the wagon ride to Leuktra. He also wondered whether, as in the apparitions, there were also two doors to the hut, not one, as it had seemed when they first entered. So he looked into the shadows at the back of the long dwelling, and in fact thought he saw some sort of a smaller rear door.

Then Kuniskos seemed hurt and wounded and so sat sunken back into his leather-woven chair. Then his voice lowered and he was almost once more what they remembered of the broken-down Gorgos nearing his seventh ten-years on Helikon. He pointed his fork at his friends and softly, slowly told them the way of their world to come. So there would be peace and a quiet descent with him as their prisoner back to Messenia after all. “The great game is over. My Spartans are broken, a race humbled by lesser folk by far. My helot people are free, as I suppose they should be. You have forgotten. I, whom you slur as Kuniskos, I too am a Messenian, born one, bred one, and so should be happy at their freedom. Even here I pick up things from my messenger, my dear Scorpidion. Yes, I heard that your Chiôn could not stop his killing on Helikon. Who else could have hung up Medios or drowned Thrattos, my friends and neighbors. So he died an outlaw now, a killer of the old and weak? Or was it all on your prompt, Master, who wishes me to face the law of bloodletting? Who is the killer and who in contrast pulls wounded boys out of battle at great risk to himself? And my, my, how everyone seems to have passed on.”

This fluent Kuniskos was for a blink confusing his old friends with his long new way of talking as Lord Kuniskos. “Are you four alone? Just four? No more? So few to come so far? Three with good legs in your new band, and two sadly now with not? I thought I spied five of you as you came down the path. Or were there shadows in the woods? Were there not five or perhaps six of you? So many to fetch—or is it to kill—your Gorgikon. No Alkidamas here? I hear he is never far from you all but always safely distant when iron is drawn. Of course, Epaminondas stays warm back in my fort, too wise to tramp up here in the spring rain. And where is my Scorpas, always the loyal messenger to the end?”

Mêlon kept his spear pointed at his helot. “Ready your things. We have a night of walking down the mountain still. Epaminondas wants you to face the diskastêria of the Messenians. Down the mountain I will settle up with you for Nêto and Lophis, if the court of the Messenians leaves me a few scraps.”

“Calm, calm down, Master, my master. Nêto no doubt will tell you soon enough that she lives due to me. I kept her safe in my fort. I tried to save Lophis, at Leuktra, though he was near dead when I picked him up from the gore of battle. How could I return to the Boiotians when your Chiôn swore he would kill me after the battle? I had no choice but to cross the battlefield, since for all my babble I loved your Lophis and you too in my way. I yelled in vain to my Lichas to let him live. I, no one else, dressed out his body. I, Gorgos, left my own good money on the road south for the priestess Kallista at Kreusis to keep him safe from the birds and dogs. I was the good servant, and you are angry only because I the lowly now am free. May Zeus bless Lichas who alone let me live free, the true, the only liberator among you.”

Mêlon stopped for a moment, and thought he heard traces of the old Gorgos in the talk of Lord Kuniskos. Indeed the helot was slumped even further in his chair, and seemed wrinkled as he always had been. Yes, he was almost the helot of Helikon once more—tired, old, flabby even. He had a tear in his right eye and slobber at the side of his mouth. Maybe he had tried to save Lophis after all?

The myth floated away in a blink with a shout of “Liar!” Nêto shrieked again, “Liar!” She may not have looked any more like the helot maiden of Helikon, but her voice was the same and she dragged her foot and closed on Kuniskos. “Liar. Dogfaced liar. You killed Lophis as if with your own hand. I know your hands that snuffed the life out of Erinna in the house of Antikrates. You can tell the jurymen all that—even more when we get down the mountain, about the dead Messenians hung up on trees, and their women sent to the Kaiadas after your play. You will drink the hemlock poison or they will throw you into the pit alive, as you did to hundreds of our own—or you will hang for the buzzards. We will stone your poisoned corpse, then hang it from the new north gate before throwing it as bora to the dogs and crows.”

Kuniskos now stared her down. “Jurymen? Trial? Aren’t you talking of your own day in court to come in Thebes, you renegades who are this year outlaws, the real lawbreakers of Boiotia?” Kuniskos shouted and all the pretense of the old good Gorgos vanished now for good. “Such hypocrites you are. You slave-owning liberators of helots.” Kuniskos could not stop. The spell was broken once his tears had not swayed any of his guests. “How do your helot folk govern themselves or keep the Spartans out without hiring Epaminondas each season? When you are through with your fun under Ithômê and all go home, who will clean up this mess, govern these wild tribes? Who gives you the power to free anyone, you who owned me, the better man, the helot who wants freedom from the likes of you and your kind? Do you plan to move down here to watch them, as if parents who must change the soiled clothes of their half-grown children?”

Nêto cut him off. “Liar, liar you are, old man. Liar on our Helikon. Traitor of your own kind, sell-out to the killers of Agesilaos.” Then she stepped up and slapped the palm of Kuniskos, thinking how these hands had squeezed Erinna and tightened the bonds on her neck. The other four went silent as they watched instead the right arm of Kuniskos, who was now up and out of his chair. As Mêlon knew from the weak lamplight, the long narrow cottage was far larger than it seemed to the eye when outside. Maybe twenty or thirty paces to the rear, eyed again the second door of his dreams—now noticed in the dark shadows as well by the sharp eye of Ainias, who usually scanned all rooms on entry as if he were on a crest over the battlefield.

Suddenly three tall shapes appeared there at the back of this single room. They swung the rear door wide open. At the same time, before Melissos could yell out, a spear tip pushed him back off the front threshold as another two men and a woman came in from the front door. Mêlon’s band had Gorgos in front of them and Spartans on both their right and left, altogether seven to their five.

Melissos grabbed the hand of Mêlon. “The cave, master, the cave, they came out of the cave.” The rescuers were trapped. Both doorways were barred by tall men in armor—Spartans who were veterans of the kryptes, and raven-haired Elektra herself, who stood blocking the light without entering all the way into the hut.

“Meet, Master Mêlon, my Spartan friends.” Kuniskos laughed and waved with each hand to the six Spartans at the two entries. “And you, my Lakonian friends, this is my master of the long whip, lame Mêlon. He is the killer of our king Kleombrotos. Over there is his new lackey Ainias, another rat in our trap who smelled some sweet cheese up here on Taygetos. They claim this mercenary thought up the ruse of attacking you from the left at Leuktra. That other wild boy from the far north does not matter. Forget the skinny helot—the one they call Nikôn. He will run when the blood flows, like all helots. Nêto over there who barked this winter under my table for a bone, whether rabbit or mine, why she prides herself the mouthpiece of the helots—yes, that brand-face in rags that stands there across the table. I doubt this time she will find a way out of my hands as before.”

The Spartans ignored the big talk of their Kuniskos and watched instead the hands of Ainias and Mêlon. There was not much room to move. Mêlon clinched his spear. Ainias backed against the wall. All five bunched up. The two hoplites shielded Melissos and Nikôn behind them, who had only their blades. Nêto in the middle of the tiny phalanx picked up the walking stick of Kuniskos. Ainias also drew his cleaver, and quickly handed his spear to Mêlon, who had Bora in his other hand. Like the Stymphalian, Mêlon had dropped his shield outside on the path before the threshold—not because either one trusted Kuniskos, but thinking they would have no room in the hut for the wide swings of the willow shield that had brought so many low at Leuktra. There was a pause before the fighting. A gruff, harsh voice of a man in the shadows took over and stepped into the lamplight of the hut, speaking more like an Athenian than an ephor of Sparta. It was Lichas himself.

“Old Chôlopous. So we meet again, the half-dead Mêlon, son of the long-dead Malgis. You are the father of the dead boy at Leuktra? All has turned out as promised. Or do you remember me? We first met on your farm when you had your first set of teeth, when you ran under your arbors before I could cut off your tiny head—and at Koroneia, and yet once more at the fight at the Nemea. On that night at Leuktra, and then on your recent visit to burn my farm at Sparta. My, my, my friend, how we’ve grown old together.”

This tall but stooped Spartan stepped even farther forward near Kuniskos while the others stayed put by the doors. Lichas was ageless like his Kuniskos, and likewise he felt no burdens of age or time. In similar fashion, Lichas felt freed by his long years and the end of Messenia and the idea he could do at last whatever he wished—which for Lichas always meant to kill without penalty whoever he wanted. Lichas continued. “I speak for a bit before you bleed. I wanted Pelopidas and Epaminondas to visit our hut and maybe Alkidamas as well, so with a clean cut today we could finish this Messenian mess once and for all and get our boys back down over there where they belong. Only the hungriest rats scampered up here, I see. Even the best trapper must put up with the rodents who clutter his nets. I brought today my son Antikrates, who killed so many of yours at Leuktra. More of our friends are here as well. You say you will take our helot back down the mountain? Oh no, no. Not this time, Master Mêlon. You will go down no mountain—not even a hill, not even dead. Where is your proud Epaminondas or Pelopidas—or even one of those brutes from the islands here to rescue you? We had soup here for both. Your islander, we hear, has gone feral. He flees the blood guilt on your Helikon. If he comes up here—and he won’t because he’s dead—by now he would have met our man-bear who bites the throat of all lone wanderers on Taygetos.”

Then his wife Elektra stepped to his side, proud with her long hair, some tresses braided and some dangling out the sides of her helmet. She boasted, “Too much talk, my Lichas. Kill them before that branded helot over there puts a chant or spell on us. Let me cut her tongue out before this Nêto bewitches us all. Or let my boy Thibrachos have a taste of her first.”

The Spartan had drawn his sword, a shiny xiphos with both edges gleaming in the candlelight. Elektra had a black pelekus, a battle-ax given to her by the king himself, and she swung if far better than did her son Thibrachos. The outnumbered band crouched and made ready for the rush, Mêlon and Ainias still covering the flanks, Nikôn and Melissos between them three steps back with drawn long knives—and Nêto in reserve with an oak staff. She put both hands on the shaft and looked for an opening. The five had backed flush against the wall, as the Spartans by the two doors covered the escapes. They could at least take down Gorgos, and maybe even Elektra before their deaths. These were armored men, Sparta’s best; and Mêlon’s side was without bronze—and with boy and a lame woman.

“Come over here, Mêlon. I want you to join your father and son, so you can all boast in Hades that Lichas sent you there.” Lichas talked more than a Spartan should, talked more than he ever had, as he shifted his weight from foot to foot to find the right moment to stab. “If you throw down your weapons, I promise a good enough burial. Antikrates over there, my best son, took out that fool of yours who built walls. What was his name, boy? Yes, yes, the soft Plataian rich man Proxenos? The grand thinker whose belly you cut open when that mob of northerners stormed our tower.”

There was to be no parley with Lichas. He meant to cut them all down and wanted them to know it before they fell. No quarter. Elektra started her ululation. Still Mêlon called out, “If you have an ax, swing, Spartan woman, don’t talk.”

Lichas had a final word. “You have it wrong, all of you. God has made every man a slave. Only a man, if he’s worth anything, makes himself free.” Lichas wanted to get closer, to cut with the sword and taste the blood flying in the air as it dotted his face. Kuniskos pulled from the rafters a cleaver and backed aside to let his friend charge through. The blade had been hidden above the table right near his head. He had taken the idea of hiding it from the dead Erinna. He had hoped to place it at the throat of Nêto and drag her outside for some final sport—or to strangle her slowly and give her his death whisper.

At the back of the cottage, facing his father on the far side, Antikrates pointed his spear with the underhand grip. He and his two henchmen had been hiding in the cave when Mêlon arrived and had quietly sneaked out to block the rear door once the visitors were inside. Lichas, Elektra, and his retainer had come around through the forest path to plug the main entrance.

“That damn Scorpas and his phantom goat-man—and without a helot patrol to be found,” Nikôn cried. “We are surrounded, with nowhere to go.” Then Melissos pointed toward Lichas. “Spartans fight in the sun. Let us out. Duel in the open air. Kill or die face-to-face like men should.” Melissos could have run, having no part in war against the tall Spartans. But no words of retreat or surrender came out. Instead, he decided to stand his ground, blade in hand, here with Mêlon, Ainias, Nêto, and Nikôn—and for something more than the love of gore or a Spartan scalp.

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