by Graham B.
A battle-weary warrior finds his way home.
| There is a place where the rays of the rising sun touches the fields and turns the flowers to gold, if for a moment.
A battle-scarred warrior sits upon the stump of an olive tree, watching the sun rise. His shield, battered from repeated blows, leans heavy against his hip. His spear lies quiescent upon the ground. His eyes glint between the slits in his helmet, harder than the bronze of his armor like twin arrowheads.
In his head, he hears the clash of blade on shield, the grunts of men thrusting spear and sword, the cries of the dying. The sounds are a dream that has followed the dreamer into the waking.
“Good morning to you, warrior,” says a voice. “May the gods smile upon your path.”
The warrior turns and sees a man, tall, fair-skinned, and his hair with streaks of gray. His countenance is friendly, and he smiles, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes as deep as canyons in the morning sun.
“And to you, friend,” says the warrior.
The man is familiar, someone the warrior has seen many times, even conversed with in the short, clipped sentences of the laconic, Spartan way.
The man is carrying a wineskin, which he gently pats, sloshing the liquid within.
“May I offer a mighty hoplite a drink, Anastasios?” says the man. “Helios’s fury is potent today.”
Anastasios? Yes, that is the warrior’s name. But who is the familiar man who stands before him?
“It is far too early for spirits,” Anastasios replies. “And I have my kleros to attend to. The crop yields have fallen.”
“Ah, yes,” says the man. “It seems that the helots become lazy when the army is away. It would not do for them to see their master drunk while he oversees his estate, would it?”
“Don’t I know you?”
The man chuckles.
“You have known me for at least the morning,” he says. “If we occupy this place on Earth together, are we not even brothers?”
“He speaks in riddles,” grumbled Anastasios. “You must be Athenian.”
“And you are garrulous for a Spartan,” says the man, laughing. “We have met halfway, my friend. In any case, I will bend your ear no longer. For you have responsibilities, don’t you?”
The man walks away, leaving Anastasios to rub his neck, sore from the weight of his helmet.
The sun is high overhead, blistering in its heat just as the stranger had said, and Anastasios’s helmet is of little comfort, but he bears it without complaint, as any Spartan would. He hears the whisper of arrows, and the thuds of their impact on shields.
Anastasios is looking down from a cliff at his estate. Soon, another sound intrudes – the sounds of children, and the voice of their mother. Do those children sound familiar? Then he hears the woman shouting at them to sit down and something clicks in his war-weary brain. It is Korinna, his wife, practical as always. Even now, she is setting the table for a meal. His two little daughters, Kassandra and Menodora, are arguing about something childish. Kleon, his son, not even old enough to enter the agoge and begin his training as a warrior, is already showing signs of the man he would grow up to be. Anastasios smiles. He should join them at the table.
The helots are out in the fields working at his barley crop. A slight breeze ruffles the rich fields, now ready for harvest. His eyes stray to the house, from which the sound of laughing children drifts. He aches to join them, to toss his daughters in the air, to hold Korinna in his arms, and to watch Kleon do his gymnastics. But he cannot make himself walk to the house.
He hears the voice of the stranger who is not a stranger in his mind: “How would you greet your family, warrior? Will you put down your shield and enter your home?”
Instead, Anastasios walks down the road toward town, a soldier in full armor, alone and nowhere near a battle. No one pays him any attention.
The sun is setting, and a cool breeze washes down from the mountains, finding the cracks in Anastasios’s armor. He is near the theatre and can hear voices raised in poetic dialog of a play – something by some Athenian playwright of note. It is for the benefit of merchants and foreigners, for few Spartan citizens would have an interest in such things.
As he listens, Anastasios realizes that he is hearing a play about the Battle of Marathon. The actor is delivering the lines of Miltiades with a full-throated vigor that would make any soldier snap to attention.
“Quite stirring, isn’t it?”
Anastasios turns and sees the man with the wineskin standing next to him.
“Unfortunate that Sparta had to wait for the full moon, or you could have had glory on the field alongside the Athenians, no?” the man continues.
“Glory is overrated,” says Anastasios. “It is a thing craved by those who would wear the uniform for all to see, but never brave the battlefield.”
“Spoken like a true Spartan!” says the man. “Nevertheless, you must admit that the Athenians and the Plataeans acquitted themselves well.”
“They say so often enough,” grunts Anastasios.
“Shall I soften your mood with a little wine? It will cool the palate and brighten your spirits!”
“Who are you?”
The man smiles.
“You know me from your own childhood, Anastasios. Remember? You were in the agoge at the time, and you tried to steal my purse.”
Anastasios’s brow furrows.
“And none other than Leonidas caught me! You are Hesiodos, his favorite helot!”
Hesiodos’s grin widens.
“As you say. And if memory serves, Leonidas himself gave you the worst trouncing of your life for getting caught!”
“Those times will never leave me, old friend. Why didn’t you say who you were?”
The old slave’s smiling face saddens.
“You speak of time, and it is running out. Do what you must do.”
Anastasios starts, his pulse quickening.
“What do you mean? Speak plainly!”
But Hesiodos turns away and melts into the evening crowds.
Anastasios is standing before the temple of Apollo. Torches blaze in fury, driving back the night, but even they cannot drive out the full moon. He sees the priests entering the ancient, crumbling building, hears their chants. They are praying for the souls of those fallen in battle. Whose souls are they praying for?
Hesiodos emerges from the temple and approaches Anastasios.
“Have you finished what you came for?” he asks.
“I do not know what you mean!” says Anastasios. “Why am I here?”
“You wanted a day. Just one day, you said.”
“To do what? My duty is to my unit, and my king!”
Hesiodos’s eyes are steady and bore into Anastasios’s.
“You speak of duty to the king, but the gods require more.”
“What do mean? And where is the king? Why are you not with him?”
The chanting grows louder, and Anastasios can hear the paean being sung for heroes now departed. He hears the names being offered in prayer, one after another, and fury boils up in his chest. He hears the shouts of soldiers, the battle-cry of captains. He can feel the eyes of Leonidas upon his men.
“You have deserted him!” he shouts. “Leonidas is your sovereign! Why did you not die with him, coward?”
He readies his spear and aims it at Hesiodos, but instead of fear, the man shows only sadness.
“Abandon your anger, old friend,” he says. “It will not serve you any longer.”
With a cry of battle-rage, Anastasios’s muscles tauten and his spear sings as he thrusts is toward Hesiodos’s throat, but the helot effortlessly evades. His eyes still on Anastasios, he steps away, and the full light of the moon shines on his graying hair, making him glow with silver light. The priests raise their voices as they sing their paeans, oblivious to the conflict.
“Come with me,” says Hesiodos. “Put down your spear and drink the wine.”
“Your blood is not worthy of my spear,” says Anastasios through gritted teeth, and he stalks away.
The sky is brightening again, the flowers seem to be awakening in the fields. The Spartan warrior is standing with shield on one arm, spear in hand, eyes on the eastern mountains. He hears the sounds of his family behind him. Oh, how he wants to go to them!
Footfalls approach, and Hesiodos is standing next to him.
“Your time has ended, Anastasios,” says the helot.
“Leonidas is dead,” says Anastasios. “You were trying to tell me so.”
Hesiodos doesn’t answer.
“My unit, my friends, my kind. Dead in battle!”
He drops his spear and falls to his knees, his greaves crunching into the light soil.
“I am the coward!” he cries, tears streaming from his eyes. “I should have been there! I should have died with my unit, with Leonidas! Why was I not there?”
Hesiodos kneels in front of him and pulls the helmet from his head.
“You have fought long and hard, all the days of your life. From the shores of Ionia, to the cliffs of the Hot Gates.”
“What do you mean? I was not at Thermopylae! Leonidas died without me!”
Hesiodos takes Anastasios’s face in both hands, and his eyes are the color of summer seas.
“You were there, friend, as was I. Your blood mingles with the king’s in the sand.”
The sun peeks above the eastern mountains, and the fields leap into golden splendor. It seems that they would burst with the flowers that crowded every inch of soil there.
“I was there,” says Anastasios. “I remember! I faced the Persians with my shield locked in place with the others. How did I make it back?”
“You didn’t,” says Hesiodos.
He grasps Anastasios by the arms and draws him to his feet.
“You are no coward, but you were not completely committed to the battle,” he says.
The sounds of Korinna preparing the table for breakfast drift toward him, but they sound so far away.
“Even as you stood with your comrades and thrust your spear into the enemy, your mind was with your family,” says the Athenian. “Do you think they will not forgive you for leaving them?”
“I did not want to leave them…”
“But you fulfilled your duty,” says Hesiodos. “There is nothing for your family to forgive. They will remember you as one who stood with Leonidas and gave his last breath.”
He pulls a flagon from his tunic and fills it from the wineskin.
“Drink and walk with me. Find forgiveness for yourself, for it is waiting.”
“Drink…” whispers Anastasios.
He turns toward the house, now taking a golden glow from the rising sun. He sees shadows moving inside and hears the sounds of life. He takes a deep breath, taking in the smells of his barley fields.
“Goodbye my daughters, Kassandra and Menodora who will be strong as Spartan women should. Goodbye my son, make me proud, for I will be watching. Goodbye Korinna, my heart. I will meet you in the next life.”
Anastasios grasps the flagon and drains it with a single draught. The most wonderful taste he has ever experienced floods his mouth with the tang of every ripe fruit of the Peloponnese, the scent of windswept fields, and the faint saltiness of the sea. Wiping his mouth, he looks at Hesiodos, who smiles as brightly as the sun.
“Leonidas awaits you in the Elysian fields,” he says.
Together, the Spartan and the Athenian walk away through the golden flowers.
Word count: 1941