Saturday, May 28, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer -- Chapt. 1, Scene 1, Excerpt 6

Chambias felt guilty for his earlier hostility to the Spartans. “Thank you. We would both be dead if you hadn’t happened along.”

The Spartan’s expression grew serious again. “Your friend needs a surgeon. Are you from around here?”

Chambias nodded and then, remembering his manners, added, “I’m Chambias, son of Pytheas; and that is Lychos, son of Archilochos.”

The Spartans flinched―as if they recognized the name―but made no comment. The spokesman merely asked, “Will your horses run home and alert someone about the accident, or should we chase after them?”

“Mine will probably run home. Lychos’ mare is better about staying.”

“I’ll see if Beggar and I can catch her,” the darker Spartan said to his companion; and whistling to his hunting dog, he set off. She was one of the big Kastorian hounds bred in Lacedaemon and admired around the world for their acute sense of smell, tenacity, and intelligence. This one had an ugly white patch on her face that would have made a wealthy Corinthian scorn her, Chambias noted; but she had certainly attacked the boar fearlessly. Now she bounded after her master with an eagerness and agility that was both beautiful and touching.

Chambias watched man and hound disappear behind the stunted trees and then turned awkwardly to the remaining Spartan. He found it disconcerting that because Spartans all wore identical red chitons and cloaks, he could not tell if this young man was rich or poor, the son of someone powerful or powerless. Up to now, he had always been able to tell at a glance whether he was dealing with someone of consequence. Now he could not.

The strange young man drew a goatskin off his back and offered it to Chambias, who accepted gratefully, only now conscious of how thirsty he was.

“Are you with the Corinthian army?” the Spartan asked.

“Not yet; we’re both ephebes―in the cavalry,” Chambias added proudly. “And you?”

“Peers,” the Spartan answered simply—and inadequately from Chambias’ point of view—but the yapping of a dog distracted them and they turned in the direction of the noise. A few moments later the other Spartan reappeared, leading Lychos’ black mare. “If you can climb up on that rock,” he suggested to Chambias, “you should be able to mount despite your leg.”

Chambias looked at the indicated rock, at his friend’s sweating and clearly nervous mare, and then down at his knee. The mere thought of trying to mount and ride with this knee made him nauseous. If the horse spooked and he was thrown a second time, it would be unbearable. He shook his head. “Can’t either of you ride for help? I can direct you to my father’s house. It is directly behind the Temple to Apollo; he is the chief priest.” Chambias felt it was important that these Spartans realize that even though he was not as rich and important as Lychos, he was not a nobody.

The Spartans glanced at one another, and for a moment Chambias feared that neither of these ordinary Spartans was capable of riding; most Corinthian foot soldiers had little skill with horses. But then the darker of the two decided, “You had better go, Alkander. Beggar and I have a better chance of fighting off any predators.”

The Spartan addressed as Alkander, the Apollo-like blond, frowned and seemed inclined to contradict, but the other Spartan shook his head once and the blond accepted the decision. Wordlessly and effortlessly he vaulted onto the mare before turning to Chambias for more instructions. These given, he trotted away, leaving Chambias with the other Spartan.

The latter went at once to check on Lychos, but quickly turned back to Chambias. “Could you lend your friend your chlamys? He is dangerously cold.”

“Of course.” Chambias was ashamed he had not noticed himself. The Spartans had, after all, already shredded one of their cloaks for bandages and wrapped Lychos in the second. Chambias pulled his short cape off his back and the Spartan came and took it from him. The Spartan seemed to hesitate as he noticed that the garment was of the finest wool, dyed a costly turquoise blue with an elaborate border. It was obviously very expensive. “It’s all right,” Chambias insisted. The Spartan returned to Lychos and, kneeling on one knee beside him, carefully tucked the chlamys around him.

Now that he was without a cloak, Chambias noted that the sun was behind the western mountains and it was getting chilly. He looked again at Lychos, who was rolling his head back and forth in evident pain. Chambias registered for the first time that it could take hours for someone to get here with a stretcher or litter. By then Lychos might be dead. Even if the bleeding had slowed, only the Gods knew what damage had been done to his insides. It would also soon be dark and, as the Spartan had already hinted, there were other wild beasts that might be drawn by the smell of blood.

The Spartan seemed to sense what was going through Chambias’ head, because he abruptly broke in on his thoughts. “Alkander is a good rider, and we visited the Temple to Apollo this morning. He will find your father’s house without trouble. Meanwhile, it’s a fine night. The only thing I’m worried about is that the carcass of the boar may draw scavengers.” He pointed to the wheeling vultures overhead. Finishing his thought, he added, “I’ll build a fire to warm your friend, keep the wild animals away, and help Alkander find us again. Do you have bears or wildcats here?”

“No bears; but the cats, although small, are very vicious. And there are wolves, of course.”

The Spartan nodded and started to collect dried wood, of which there was plenty. As he worked, Chambias noticed that he was holding his left arm cradled at his waist and working only with his right hand.

“Are you hurt?” Chambias asked as the Spartan went down on one knee to build the fire, still cradling his left arm.

“The boar broke my left forearm as I went in for the kill. That’s why I sent Alkander for help.”

Chambias was ashamed to think that they were both suffering from broken bones and the other was doing all the work. “Can I help?” he asked.

“If you could strike the flint it would be a big help,” the Spartan admitted with a smile.

Chambias looked blank.

“It’s here. In my hip pouch.” The Spartan indicated the leather pouch that hung from the right-hand side of his belt.

Chambias hobbled over, reached inside, and withdrew the flint; but the Spartan had to explain how to use it, and it took Chambias several tries before he managed to strike a spark. It took many more tries before he ignited the pile of dry leaves and twigs the Spartan had so carefully prepared. “I’ve never done this before,” Chambias said, defensively excusing his obvious incompetence. “We have slaves to light our fires.”

The Spartan nodded ambiguously, blowing gently to stoke the fire and then feeding it from the pile of kindling he had collected. Only after it was going solidly did he again turn his attention to the Corinthian, suggesting, “We might as well eat some of that boar.”

This was going too far. It wasn’t just that Chambias hadn’t the faintest idea of how to go about flaying a carcass; he also did not think it a proper task for a youth of his station. No priest sullied his hands with the meat of the sacrificial beasts. His father employed no less than three professional butchers to flay and filet the sacrificial animals. They were skilled men, but all were slaves or former slaves.

The Spartan apparently understood his look of outrage and shrugged. “If you aren’t hungry, we don’t need to bother. I can go without.” He then settled down to feed the fire.

“Have you spent the night out in the open before?” Chambias asked, glancing nervously at the darkening sky.

“Many times; haven’t you?”

Chambias shook his head. It had never occurred to him that spending the night out in the open might be something desirable. In his experience only beggars, vagabonds, and shepherds slept out at night. It was a mark of status that he had never done so―but somehow this Spartan had managed to turn things on their head and make it sound like a deficit of some kind.

So they sat in silence, the Spartan feeding wood to the fire with one hand while his bitch gnawed happily at the carcass, and Chambias miserably listening to his best friend die.

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