We ran in the blind night, six of us alongside the sorcerer, with the moon just rising and only the stars to light our way back to the ships and out of cursed Laconia.
Orios led us, my erastes, greatest hunter of the sacred band. He picked out the smooth ground and the open way among the little hollows and stands of trees that littered the waste ground between helot-tilled fields and the sea. I ran beside him. He had trained me well enough for that. I would have run ahead, even now in the dark and the deadly danger, to show that I was good enough, better than the last boy he loved, Aegistus, who failed and fell in his first battle before the Cadmea.
There were cries like wolves and night birds all round us and horns blowing signals farther off. The country was full of wild Spartan boys, and their soldiers would be arming and coming on behind. The other nine bands would be running to one side and the other, to draw the hunters off while we made straight for the ships with our prize.
Orios put a soft hand on my chest and raised the other in a fist to halt the rest, where a little mound might hide us in a hollow of the land. The cries of beasts and men were loud over our breathing in the silence. The sorcerer wheezed. He was no warrior, not trained for running or for standing firm, but the beotarchs wanted him.
“The bird-calls are ahead of us now,” said Orios, and I heard the dull acceptance in his voice like a heavy stone falling. “The net is drawn. We’ll be caught if we run straight. We must find somewhere to hide and hope for a chance to slip past them when they’ve run farther.”
“There.” The sorcerer pointed, with his rod that was twined with serpents, up a little hill, to where shapes like roofs or standing stones were black against the sky, rising higher than the gnarled trees about them. “The crossroads-gods say fortune will smile there.”
“We should go quickly,” said Lykos, the strong-armed wrestler. “But we must keep low, or we will show against the sky as sharp as those ruins.”
“Quiet as you can,” said Thrasios, our chief.
Crawling on our knees and elbows, we climbed the slope, trying to keep ourselves screened by the trees as best we could. Whatever road there was to the holy place or village on the hilltop, it was not on the side we climbed, and the way was steep. Lykos and his eromenos, Glaucon, supported and bore along the sorcerer, or he would never have made the ascent. They were our most excellent in wrestling and feats of strength, just as Thrasios and Phaidrus were in arms and in command, as Orios and I in finding the ways through wild country. Even borne up so, the sorcerer slipped at the last and tore a branch and a long strip of bark at its base from one the scrubby trees that circled the hilltop as he flailed to catch himself. The white wood beside black bark shone like burned flesh in the moonlight.
The night felt colder on the flat hilltop. The shapes we had seen were tombs, windowless houses half-buried in the turf. Stelae, scored and pitted beyond hope of reading the lineages and great deeds once written there, surrounded the little village of the dead like a grim fence.
“Your crossroads-gods enjoy a black joke, sorcerer,” said Thrasios. “I do not like this for a hiding place. The curse of the dead and the gods of the underworld will be worse to bear than Spartan spears. And that torn bark might as well be banner declaring we are here. Do you think their hunters are as ignorant of woodcraft as you?”
“My patrons will defend us,” said the sorcerer. “Fear no curse while you are with me.”
He passed the fence and struck the door of one great tomb with his serpent rod, and the seal split with a sound like a great jar being opened.
He gestured us closer, but before any moved to join him, Orios ran swiftly to the far edge of the hilltop. His face was grave when he returned.
“They have drawn their lines ahead of us already, as I said. I saw moonlight on the fair hair of Spartan youths like scattered stars below. We cannot get to the flat and run for the coast without being seen.”
With a slow nod from Thrasios, Lykos and Glaucon pushed the stone door open, not troubled by a weight that might have taken oxen to set there, though Glaucon, who was a superstitious youth, trembled as he shoved.
“There is nothing for it now,” said Thrasios. “We must hide and hope they pass us by, or we are all dead and our errand failed.”
It was dead dark inside, beyond the little spill of moonlight from the open door, and the air smelled of earth and age. We filed in, and Lykos pushed the door back to, and we were shut in darkness, sealed in stone. In that moment, it seemed to me that we would never leave and would lie down to join those buried here and go down into Hades unmourned and without obols for the ferryman.
I had sightless time to regret the beotarchs’ choice to send us for this sorcerer. So much he had promised them, this Hermogenes Magos, in his tablet-letter that burst from the belly of a tortoise eagle-dropped upon the Cadmea: the secret strategies of the Laconians revealed, and spells made with their names and shadows that would slay any general sent against us before the battle joined; bounty in our fields and dearth for our enemies. Prizes indeed to send us on this raid more fit for an Athenian pirate than the sacred soldiers of great Thebes. South we had sailed in twin black ships from Aulis, threescore warriors of the sacred band in thirty loving pairs, and Thrasios was our captain, most seasoned of the warriors the beotarchs had chosen.
We had pulled into the coast as sun was sinking and gone raider-swift, without our shields or panoply, only our swords at rest and spears in hand and linen cuirasses on our chests. We had seen none but sullen Helots as we made our way to where the sorcerer had named, and they raised no alarm. The sorcerer made good his written word; he had slipped whatever prison the Spartans had him in and was alone and free to meet us, but his escape was known before we had gone three stadia or taken up our proper marching pace, and then the cry went up.
These Laconians kept their youths in barracks companies instead of raising them one-to-one with a seasoned man, and rumor said they starved them until they were like half-wild dogs. Every pack of them was loose to beat the woods and fields for us, and we heard the tread of armed men in full panoply behind. Thrasios gave the command that we should split by sixes, and he would take his eromenos, Phaidrus the swift swordsman, and Orios the hunter, and Lykos the strong, both with their youths, and bring the sorcerer to the ships a fast as we could run, but the others should take crooked paths and lead the hunters on, and spend their lives or win the coast as they were able. The plan seemed sound as any could while we were three score against all the fighting men of Sparta, but it had brought us here, shut in a tomb, and I did not like the sorcerer, with his high-handed manner and his rod that was wrapped in serpents mummified in the Egyptian fashion, reeking of myrrh and dust and curdled poison.
In the breathless tomb, Orios touched my shoulder and stood close, as if to comfort me, but before I could protest and tell him I feared only dying disgraceful as a badger in its den, that I shook not for fear but for the action, ready to die glorious and bright, fighting beside my love as all the gods adored, he whispered that I should look out the crack of the door; my eyes were keenest. That far at least he knew my worth and trusted it.
I saw that I had been wrong before, there was the barest crack left, where Lykos could not close the door and keep his fingers. I pressed my face to the stone and looked to see what I could see.
I heard the Laconian youths still howling and piping and saw the half moon rising above the hills, and there was a column of soldiers coming from the city that I could see in the distance through gaps between the gnarled trees, their bronze armor and bright shields shining in the fire of their torches.
Then the piping was close, and a dozen Spartan youths in red cloaks and ragged sandals bounded to the hilltop like wild deer. They had light spears like hunters or peltasts and long knives on their belts.
“See, there!” one called, and pointed. “They have broken a branch climbing.”
“Then they passed this way already, and we’ve trampled their trail following you,” replied another.
They squabbled like geese while I stood statue-still and felt cold sweat climb down to pool in the hollow of my back. I caught a little change in the air of the tomb and heard the soft sounds of weapons being readied. The rest had heard them too, and they made ready.
But the fates smiled on us that once, as the sorcerer had promised. The party that thought we must have gone on down the hill prevailed, and they raced back as they had come, howling for our blood.
When they were gone and the night was almost silent again, the sorcerer said.
“One of you hang your cloak over the crack in the doorway, and we can have a little light. We’ll think better if we can see, and think we must. It does not seem likely this house will keep us till the morning.”
I was closest, and I did as the sorcerer bade when no one spoke against him. He had kindled a taper by some art, and it burned with a steady smokeless light. We could see the dead now, six of them laid on shelves in the side walls and a seventh on a bier against the back wall. They had vessels of clay and bronze about them, and jewels, and the one on the bier had a thin bronze sword laid on his breast.
My breath caught in my chest, and Glaucus whispered a prayer of apology to Kore and Hades.
“Have no fear of the dead,” said the sorcerer. “These were all buried well and richly, they have long since paid their obol and crossed Styx and Lethe. Nothing but their bones remains to trouble us.”
“The light is pleasant,” said Thrasios, “but what is there for us to think on? We will be safe until your careless mark on that tree has us found out, and then we will die, unless fortune should favor us and no more searchers see the broken branch.”
“Surely not,” said Glaucon, voice breaking. “There must be some way out of this place tonight. We should send a scout, at least. One man can hide better than seven.”
“Or cut our way through the starveling boys and outrun the hoplites in their armor to the ships,” said Phaidros, and fingered the sword that he was so skilled with.
“No,” said my Orios, confident that no one would think to gainsay him, wise and skillful as he was. “We may be fortunate and hide here until a chance comes, but a scout will be caught. Even I would be with so many hunters.”
We nodded and looked down at the stone floor and its drifts of dust.
“There may be a way for one to scout without being caught,” said the sorcerer, “but they must dare to pass through the borders of Kore’s kingdom. We are lucky to be here, where the door to places below is already open. As I have put you in danger by my lack of warrior’s craft, let me deliver you by the art I have mastered.”
I saw fear then, and disgust on every face, and felt it on my own. There was something unclean about the sorcerer’s smile as he offered this deadly escape.
“I will dare it,” spoke Orios, my love, boldest and best of us.
“No.” The sorcerer held up his hand, denying Orios before I could. “It must be one of the youths. Too many dead without their toll wait for you seasoned men on this side of the rivers.”
“I will go,” I said, before another or my fear could snatch the glory from me. Orios would see that I was bold and excellent. I would dare, and I would return to his embrace.
“There is a good young man,” said the sorcerer. “Your lover should be proud.”
I knew better than to expect it. Orios’s mouth was tight, his face wan in the pale light of the taper. He would not deny me a chance for glory in this desperate hour, but he would never trust me to return until I did. Still pricked by Aegistus’s death, always he urged me to caution before glory.
The sorcerer put his hands on my shoulders and looked me up and down like a horse trader.
“Strip,” he said, “and lay aside your weapons and your jewels. You must take nothing with you that might pay passage over the river and down to the dark kingdom.”
I stripped my cuirass and my clothes, my silver ring stamped with the Aegis, and my pendant of unicorn’s horn from Kush beyond Egypt. The sorcerer daubed me with a sticky red stuff from his bag at the heart and throat, as if I had been wounded unto death, and he mixed charcoal into wine and wrote words on me in Phoenician letters. From cunning slits hidden in the skin of the serpents on his rod, he pulled little packets of herbs. One he burned in a little bowl, and the smoke lingered at the roof with a heavy scent like pine honey. The other he mixed into more wine and offered me the draught.
“You will feel cold,” he said, “and it will be dark beyond all sight. You must turn away from the sound of running water, and follow the notes of the lyre up the slope. If you can do this, you will walk the world as a spirit of the air, silent and invisible, and your flesh will lie here until you return to it.”
They all looked grim, but we were in too desperate a danger for them to recoil from this passage into tales of ghosts and monsters.
His draught was sweet like honey on the tongue, but it had an acrid scent that stung the nose, and I had to clench my throat to force it down. The cold came quickly, and I felt my limbs loosen. Orios saw me shake. He laid his cloak on the stone floor for a bed and set me on it gently and kissed me before he rose.
“Return to me, beloved. I could not bear the loss.”
I tried to promise I would, but the sorcerer’s draught was heavy as lead on my tongue, and it would not move to speak.
I saw fear in Orios’s dark eyes, and then I saw nothing.
The darkness was thick as pitch, beyond chance of sight. The cold grew through my body until I could feel nothing.
I heard the rush of swift water, and I could feel again. The ground under my feet sloped and I was walking down to the water.
That was wrong. I tried to turn away, and it was difficult and easy. Difficult to will instead of floating in the darkness; easy to move weightless limbs, if limbs I had in that dark place. I strained my ears for the sound of the lyre and found it, and there was no beat of my heart or whisper of my breath to drown it out.
I climbed, and every step felt unnatural, not like the sinking down had been. If I had limbs to tire, I would have fallen, but there was only dark and timeless toil until the world changed, and I stumbled out of a shut door in the same place of tombs I had descended from.
I saw the world of the living now with different sight. They shone like candle flames, even many paces distant, and through the walls of stone, I felt the warmth of my companions and saw their lights. I had no light myself, nor warmth, but my skin was cleaned of what the sorcerer had written.
I saw also the dead, as pale and cold as I was. A crowd of them were gathered beyond the fence of crumbled stelae, and one or two wandered the tombs forlorn and seemed to see nothing of me or the world.
I went to depart and search for a gap in the net of our hunters, and I felt the earth pull with each step, for all that I was without weight or substance. Hades still hungered, and the earth pulled at me to sink down to the dark kingdom.
Where I came to the fence, the spirits gathered and blocked the way. One shouted from the throng. “Halt, boy! I smell Orios the Theban on you.”
Cold as I was, my anger was still hot to be so chided. “Who speaks his name as if it is a curse?”
The crowd of them drew back to let one stand forth, a tall man, broad and heavy, with a bloody wound, as of a tearing spear, in his right side.
“I speak it so—Alkaios of Chios. By Orios’s hand I was laid low and buried common, without an obol for the ferryman. You are not dead, but I will rend your spirit until it cannot find your flesh again, and pay Orios back with the death of his beloved, as once I paid him before and got a common grave in recompense.”
Here was the one who had killed Orios’s first eromenos, Aegistus. I did not think even for a moment of racing past. Here was my chance to show Orios that I was strong enough to never leave him in such sorrow. I would return with more than my safety; with victory enough to earn the full measure of my love’s trust at last.
“If you are set on this,” I said, “Nikanor son of Diomede will prove upon whatever body you still claim that his lover is the best man of Thebes, and that your death was just and well deserved.”
He had no more weapons than I, and so he came on with bent knees and wide arms, and we wrestled there on the turf beside the stone fence of the tombs.
We clenched and struggled, and I felt again the strangeness of this body without flesh. He was formed as tall man, and heavy with the muscle of training and the fat of rejoicing over it, and I had still the slimness of youth and was not tall among the sacred warriors of Thebes, but when we strained to pull and throw in that clench, I felt no weight or strength from him that did not match me like a mirror. We had no strength in spirit to match our seemings.
We broke, and he came at me low, bulling head down for my knees, but I kicked my legs back and caught myself atop him. I tried a throw that could not be done against a stronger man, hooking my arms around his so that he twisted over and fell on his back. I guessed no man had tried such a thing against him, so strong and big a fighter, for long years before he died. He fought me instead of turning in, and so I threw him on his back and came down on him.
I held him there with my full strength and ground him into the earth as best I could. He did not give over as in a friendly match, but he had no strength to put me off, and as I held him down, the earth pulled at us both, and I stood back when he was half-devoured in the soil, dragged to whatever waiting place Charon keeps for those who will not render him his due.
The other spirits drew back and kept whatever grievances had them dogging our steps silent as I passed to my real errand. I should have felt the lightness of victory lift me and burn in my cheeks, but all was cold and grey still, the flush left with my heartbeat in the tomb beside Orios.
With my new sight, I could pick out the young wolves of Laconia among the trees and hollows like torches flitting back and forth and the hoplite columns as creeping grassfires along the road. I looked east from the hilltop, searching for a gap of darkness with no flames that could be a road back to the ships.
More than once I saw a way open for a breath and then close. The bands of skirmishers were scattered in a careful net, and they knew their work; no broad space was left open for long. We could not make a sprint that way.
Just as I swallowed that stone and went to find my flesh again and make my report, I saw the flitting torches change their dance, and many of them gathered toward one place. I ran to see what had drawn them.
I saw too soon, and it was a sweet sadness. Twelve of my brothers had been run down together, and they had found a copse of straight-trunked trees to make their stand in, letting the trunks guard their left sides since they were shieldless. They had made a hedge of their spears, youths and lovers fighting in pairs, and already many young Spartans lay on the turf around them.
Oh what a valiant hopeless stand they made there. What a loss it was, these warriors in their prime and young men who never saw the full flower of their strength and excellence. But here their end was glorious, and maybe it would serve as Thrasios had hoped and give us a clear chance to bear the sorcerer back to our ships. I had to find the path that would make it so.
There. The southern column of soldiers was leaving the road and coming for those standing valiant, and they had drawn off that part of the hunting youths. We could go down the south face of the hill and be away before they knew and caught us, but I needed haste. Already I could see one band of searchers like distant flames climbing halfway up the west face of the hill along our trail. I doubted they had found it by the light of half a moon, but they were coming too close nonetheless.
I turned to run and saw where I had missed before a great shadow over the larger column of the Spartans on the northern road. Need ordered me back to the tomb where my brothers hid, but I was dragged toward the shadow and the marching men like the inexorable tide running out before a great wave rises to drown the land. I strove against it, but I could not even look away or slow my spirit-steps.
I saw the Spartan ranks were shade-attended, dogged by the dead they had sent down to coinless graves, and over them the mistress of the tide that dragged me to them spread her black wings. Nemesis, undeniable more than the tide or avalanche, was titan-tall, with wings to blot the stars, more solid and more black than any shadow, and in her hand lay a cruel scourge, many-thonged, and each tongue sheened like bright bronze edged by red and black like burning oil.
I quailed at it and felt a pain in my absent heart to see her there, and wondered what god we had offended so terribly that Nemesis came with our foes and cracked her scourge for us.
If my will had still commanded, I would have fled the terror of her majesty, but my feet walked me unbidden down the hill until I was close enough to throw myself prostrate before her. I did not doubt that if I had beheld the goddess with my eyes of flesh, I should have been destroyed as Semele by the glory of Olympian Zeus.
I felt her gaze on me like spears of hot iron sliding through my skin to peer into the butcher’s goods beneath, and when she spoke it was trumpets and cymbals of bronze sounding inside my head loud enough to shatter stone, and yet my spirit could abide it.
“You are not bound for Kore’s kingdom by right, little wanderer. How come you out of your flesh while it still should live?”
I was compelled to speak in answer but found I could speak more than she demanded, and so I pled: “Great Lady, if we Cadmeans have offended, I beg you tell me how we may appease whichever god has set you on us.”
She cracked her whip in idle gesture. “What care I for Cadmeans or for Laconia? I am come at the word of my cousins Hermes and bright Apollo, after the mortal who has claimed their patronage and worked spells by trickery in their name without remitting sacrifice and praise back to them, and who has angered Kore and Hades by breaching too many times the borders of their dark realm. They have no mind to see a second Sisyphus, so I shall see this tricksters dies and goes down to Tartarus without escape.”
The sorcerer, Hermogenes. Nemesis had come for him, but that meant we all would die with him when the Spartans came to do her office, unless I could return and warn my comrades and we might do it ourselves and sever the curse from us. All of them dead and cursed for Hermogenes’s hubris.
I made to go, but before I could tear my eyes away, the goddess spoke again.
“His mark is on you. That is how you wander. That I forbid.”
She cracked her scourge again and its thongs wrapped me, and the pain was a sound too low to hear vibrating in my bones, a bone-deep ache in my eyes and under my tongue and in the bones of my pelvis and my spine, like being flayed and bathed in brine and grieving loss unto utter desolation.
I gasped in breath and felt my heart imprisoned once more in my chest. I screamed and flailed and bucked, and the pain ran up and down through me like serpents in my flesh as I beat against the stone and the arms and breast of Orios and Lykos where they held me.
I had been elsewhere, but the memory twisted and fled like smoke when I grasped for it, and I could not rule my limbs or my voice. I gasped and screamed, and in the quiet as I half choked on spit, Orios shouted at the sorcerer.
“What in Hades’s name have you done to him, sorcerer?”
“All that I promised. His spirit was weaker than his daring and the journey has addled him. He will recover, but we must make a new plan of escape. He will not be of use for some time, and his memory may never be whole.”
My mind raced through fever dreams as they spoke, and I remembered a great shadow of wings and a voice beyond bearing.
“Nemesis,” I cried out, “Nemesis!”
I saw a flash of fear on the sorcerer’s face, but no one in that place made any move or sign that they had seen.
Slowly, slow as a broken man crawling from the field, I was recovering the rule of my body and the memory of what had passed. Lykos withdrew, and Orios held me down alone, gentle as my shaking lessened
“With Hermes’s help,” the sorcerer said, “we might escape in flesh through the same borders of Hades’s realm the boy traveled in spirit, but the cost to open that way is higher.”
Even I, still wracked with pain and broken memory knew what he meant, and by some trick the serpents of his rod seemed to come alive and drip venom from their mouths in readiness to strike.
Phaidros the swordsman, that bright youth, did not hesitate. “I will bear it,” he said.
Brave heart to offer himself so; and doubly cursed the sorcerer who would spend such a one to escape his traitor’s doom.
Hermogenes began to draw a door on the empty wall of the tomb, behind the bier. Phaidros stripped off his cuirass.
I remembered what I had seen and heard—spirits contending, the brave stand of our brothers that had opened our escape, the goddess who pursued the sorcerer. I stilled myself. All hung on this moment, and if the rest still thought me addled, I would not carry a debate, and even if one began and I was victor, the sorcerer might well escape and the Spartans would happily slay us without any spur from Nemesis.
I looked my lover in the eyes and hoped he knew me well enough to trust me now, even without knowing the tale of all I had dared in spirit to deserve his love and confidence.
“Your sword, Erastes. The sorcerer is false.”
He put it in my hand without question.
I rose and crossed the space in one pace, and none was fast enough to stop me, for Phaidros and Thrasios were busy preparing Phaidros’s sacrifice. The blade was bright and clean and I was strong and drove it into the accursed sorcerer’s back, through bone and through the heart until it grated on the stone behind.
Below the sorcerer as he fell limp, the tomb wall withdrew, and there were steps down toward the sound of swift and unforgiving water, and snapping thongs edged in red fire reached up for him.
“Bless me Nemesis,” I prayed, “with some of your father’s darkness.”
The moon and stars were hidden when we pushed open the tomb door, but I knew the clear road to the ships that had been opened for us. We ran, and Orios held one step back and let me lead us home. There was the sweetest victory I could have won.