Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer - Chapter 1, Scene 1 - Excerpt 4

“But it would be exciting to go to war!” Chambias admitted to his friend Lychos with a grin, as he let his stallion stretch out his neck.

The two Corinthian youths, sons of leading families, were returning from Acrocorinth, where they had been trying to get a glimpse of the Spartan army. The Spartans had invoked the defensive treaty with Corinth and her other allies that required the allies to follow wherever Sparta led. For days now, allied contingents had been pouring into Corinth in response to the Spartan summons. Punctually at the start of the full moon, the Spartans themselves arrived.

As the sons of wealthy men on the brink of manhood, Chambias and Lychos were enrolled as ephebes in the Corinthian cavalry, and they took a keen interest in the impending war. They were particularly curious about the Spartans, because they flattered themselves that they understood “a thing or two” about things military, and the reputation of the Spartan army was unmatched anywhere in Hellas. They wanted to see it for themselves.

And so, taking their flashiest, most high-strung horses and carrying their javelins to underline their status as combatants, the two young men had set out to inspect the Spartan camp. They dressed in bright, patterned chitons to show off their status and wore their short cavalry capes, called chlamys, which fluttered straight out when they galloped. They also wore broad-brimmed leather hats and boots that laced halfway up their shins―all of the best quality.

They were soon disappointed. Unlike the troops of the other Peloponnesian allies, the Spartans set up a camp outside the fortress and then put up sentries that prohibited entry to the camp. Lychos and Chambias had been turned away.

The day being young and the weather good, however, they elected to ride around the back of the camp into the surrounding countryside to get away from the bustle, dust, and stink of the overcrowded city. They galloped a bit to wear off some of their frustration and energy, but now they let the horses walk on a long rein so they could talk.

Lychos didn’t share Chambias’ enthusiasm for the impending war because his father, the chief polemarch of Corinth, had returned from a symposium the previous night fuming that the Spartans wanted to invade Attica and bring down Athens’ democratic government. Lychos eagerly explained to his friend what he had learned from his outraged father. “The only reason for this war is King Cleomenes’ injured pride―or his loins. My father says there are rumors that Cleomenes has his eyes on the wife of the Athenian leader, Isagoras.”

“I thought Cleomenes was married to the most beautiful woman in Sparta! Didn’t people talk of a second Helen?” Chambias countered.

“That was years ago! She’s had several children and is probably fat and sagging now,” Lychos retorted with the wisdom of his nineteen years, his views reflecting the sum of his experience with women―his mother, grandmothers, and aunts.

Chambias nodded agreement, his experience being no different.

Lychos had inherited an interest in politics from his father, however, and he continued intensely, “What I don’t understand is why the Spartans have kings at all―much less two!”

“That’s because they are so pious,” Chambias answered, echoing his father, chief priest of Apollo. “The Spartan kings are descendent from Herakles, after all, and to cast them out would be an insult to the Gods.”

“But how can you have two men in command of an army? That would be like having two captains on a ship!” In addition to being the chief polemarch of Corinth, Lychos’ father owned a trading empire that depended on a fleet of over a hundred ships. Lychos had sailed with his father often enough to understand command at sea. “What if the two kings disagree?” Lychos asked rhetorically, adding: “My father says the present Spartan kings hate each other. Demaratus is very jealous of Cleomenes, who he thinks is vain and takes too much credit for everything.”

“Which one was which?” Chambias asked. “They all looked the same to me.” Chambias was thinking of the ranks of Spartan soldiers, all wearing red chitons under their bronze armor and red cloaks. Even the shields were identical, all bearing the lambda of Lacedaemon—except for those of the officers, who had individual shields and whose crests, rather than black, were white or striped.

“The two kings wear cross-crested helmets,” Lychos explained. “Crests that go from ear to ear. They rode ahead of the Guard. Cleomenes was on the right.”

“On the white stallion?” Chambias could picture him now.

“Yes, exactly.”

Chambias nodded thoughtfully. As the sons of aristocrats, they were both cavalrymen and connoisseurs of horseflesh. There was no denying that the Spartan kings had been exceptionally well mounted: something that surprised Chambias, who had always thought of the Spartans as infantrymen.

Lychos continued showing off his knowledge. “Cleomenes was on the flashier horse, but Demaratus won in the four-horse at the last Pythian Games, driving himself. My father predicts he will win again at Olympia.”

“They weren’t at all as I expected them to be,” Chambias admitted, looking over at Lychos uncertainly. Lychos was a fair youth with even features over a lithe body, toned to perfection in the gymnasium. Chambias was plumper, poorer, and not so sure of himself. Chambias had only had one love affair, with a senior priest, and it had been rather short and vaguely humiliating. Lychos, in contrast, had attracted a very rich, witty Athenian, the kind of lover who drew attention and could be politically useful in the future. Chambias felt a touch of jealousy. Lychos had everything: he was the heir to one of the greatest fortunes in a rich city, he was attractive, he was healthy and bright, and his father adored him. Chambias had spent most of his life trying to keep up with Lychos and always coming up short.

“What do you mean?” Lychos asked.

Chambias shrugged uncomfortably. He didn’t like Spartans. He didn’t like men who were so disciplined and unimaginative, men who did everything in groups, men who were arrogant and sure of themselves. But until the day before yesterday, he had never actually seen one. “Well, you know, they’re supposed to be taciturn and dour, but they were laughing and singing even as they marched. And today they flooded the bathhouses just like everyone else. They don’t even―”

Chambias did not get a chance to finish his thought. Without warning his horse leaped sideways, reared up, and then spun around on its haunches, dumping Chambias on the ground. The youth landed on his knee with an audible crack and blinding pain shot upward, but he had no time for it. A massive boar with coarse black hair and gigantic tusks was charging at him with such force that the earth shook under his hooves.

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