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DEATH OF THE OLYMPIAN - THE SHADOW

Spartan Eclipse - Book Four


Copyright 2019 Robert Challis

ISBN: 9780463401316

Published by Robert Challis at Smashwords

Smashwords Edition Licence Notes

An original novel by rgchallis@gmail.com under the pseudonym Robert Gregory, this e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people except under the terms set out by the publisher. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


IN THE SAME SERIES - SPARTAN ECLIPSE

Heart of The Spartan - The Dark Flower

Blood of The Rebel - The Promise

Dagger of the Slave - Kalliope’s Revenge

Death of the Olympian - The Shadow

ORIGINAL NOVEL

DEATH OF THE OLYMPIAN - THE SHADOW

CONTENTS

MAP

1. THE BLESSED ISLES

2. THE SUITOR

3. THE GOOD MEGARAN

4. THE WISDOM OF SOLON

5. A BROTHER’S LOVE

6. A SUBTLE PLAN

7. AN OBSERVANT EYE

8. JOURNEY IN HOPE

9. A PRAYER TO APHRODITE

10. A DEBT OF HONOUR

11.THE WITNESS

12. A SON’S DUTY

13. THE SHADOW COMES

14. THE SPOILS OF VICTORY

15. THE KISS OF DEATH

16. THE TEST

17. A GRATEFUL FRIEND

18. A PRECIOUS GIFT

HISTORICAL NOTES




Diotima of Mantinea (from Plato’s Symposium)

Love is a great spirit, intermediate between the divine and the mortal. He interprets between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods.”

1. THE BLESSED ISLES

It was just after dawn, a clear spring morning, but already warm. A group of thirty Messenian hoplite soldiers, carrying shield and spear and sweating under their body armour, followed a dusty road from the city of Oeniadae in Arcarnania on the western coast of Greece on their way back to Naupactus. They were marching briskly, expecting to arrive home not long after dark. At the head of the column was a wide and powerfully built man, Amiantos, twenty nine years old, and next to him his second in command, Steselaus, thirty one years old, half a head shorter, of much lighter build, his bronze helmet partially concealing his refined, handsome features.

Amiantos, conscious of his duty in bringing home his small troop of soldiers safely, was intent and serious, but Steselaus was in much higher spirits.

What will the Athenians say when we bring word of our victory?” Steselaus asked.

Amiantos smiled slightly at Steselaus’ enthusiasm. “They’ll be pleased, I’m sure, Steselaus.”

The might of Sparta couldn’t dislodge us on Mount Ithome after years of trying, and yet with the campaign season hardly started, we’ve already forced the surrender of a city they said was impregnable.”

We have the advantage of having withstood a siege,” Amiantos replied. “We understand the weaknesses of a position.”

I envy you, Amiantos. You’ll return a hero.”

Amiantos glanced down at the smaller man in surprise. “We all will. All of us here, and every soldier who stayed behind in Oeniadae.”

And your beautiful wife Melantha, her eyes will shine in adulation when she sees you tonight.”

Amiantos laughed. “So that’s the real reason you envy me, Steselaus. I’ve been married for eight years now. She’ll be pleased to see me safe, I hope, but I’m not so much a fool as to expect to see adulation in her eyes.”

You’re too modest, Amiantos. Her love shines out every time she looks at you.”

It’s time for you to marry again, Steselaus. You have a good property and business. You need an heir.”

I’ll marry as soon as I find a suitable choice. But yes, that’s also why I envy you. Of all the men in the world, you must be the happiest. The heir of Aristomenes, the hero of Messenia, married to the most beautiful woman in Greece, four charming children already and another on the way. And now you’re returning home after accepting the surrender of Oeniadae. What’s left for you except Olympic glory?”

Amiantos laughed again. “What did Solon, the Athenian sage, say? Count no man happy until he’s dead.” Amiantos paused for a moment. “I’ve always wanted to compete in the Olympics. When I was young I injured myself only days before I was due to go. Since then I’ve missed two Olympics through our rebellion against Sparta. This year, finally, I should get my chance, but there are many great wrestlers standing between me and the olive wreath of victory.”

You’ll beat them all Amiantos. I’ll wager all I have on it.”

Keep your money, Steselaus. You’ll need it for your future wife. Anyway, the winner for the last Olympics, Leontiskas will be there. Everyone’s saying he’s unbeatable. If I come up against him in the first bout, my Olympics will be over on the first day.”

He has one trick only, Amiantos. You’re far more skilful. The gods have looked down on you with favour. They’ve chosen you for greatness. They’ll reward you. I know this in the core of my being.”

Amiantos shook his head laughing, but was suddenly alert to the appearance of a rider approaching them at a gallop on the road ahead.

After the rider pulled his horse to a skidding halt in front of the column, it quickly emerged that the rider was an Aetolian, through whose country the Messenians were marching. The Aetolians were friends to the Messenians in Naupaktus and the man was riding to Oeniadae seeking help from the Messenian army when he had fortuitously encountered Amiantos and his small force of soldiers. The people of his coastal village were under attack from sea going brigands. The men who had resisted had been killed and this man had taken to his horse to ride for help. Even as he rode away, the brigands were setting the homes on fire and attempting to round up and enslave the survivors.

Amiantos immediately ordered his detachment to follow the Aetolian. They followed him in military order at a jog and before long they saw the sea ahead of them and a trireme with its prow pushed into the sand. Milling around the trireme were terrified villagers, mostly women and children, being herded like animals by a large force of men, in the process of loading them onto their ship.

There were well over a hundred brigands and Amiantos marched his much smaller force onto the further end of the beach, hoping that the sudden appearance of a disciplined group of fully armoured men would frighten the brigands into boarding their ship and fleeing. His men formed a double line from the low cliff to the sea and commenced marching steadily towards the brigands, their spears lowered.

Their enemy, however, was not to be frightened so easily, and although they wore no armour, their shields and spears lay around them on the sand. They took these up, abandoning their captives. Quickly forming their dispositions they began running towards the Messenians in very loose order. Meanwhile the Aetolian captives, now unguarded, scattered, running in the opposite direction to make their escape.

Amiantos himself was on the right of the line, actually advancing through the sea with water up to his knees. At the first clash of shields and spears, badly outnumbered, the Messenian line was broken and the men began defending themselves as best they could, standing together with others in groups and fighting hand to hand with spears or swords. Most of those on the other end of the line, including Steselaus, were able to scale the low cliff to safety. With the enemy clambering up the cliff after them in force, they tried their best to stay together and hold their position. They were able to see below them on the beach the rest of their comrades surrounded, laying down their swords and surrendering. Amiantos himself was separated from the others and fought to the end. Standing in the sea and with several enemy forming a circle surrounding him wielding their swords, he had no chance. Struck first from behind across the side of his helmet, his cheekbone was crushed. Another violent blow to the back of his head rendered him helpless. His legs went limp under him. As his men on the clifftop were forced into flight, the last thing they saw was Amiantos, weighed down by his armour, sinking below the waves, the blood from the side of his head colouring the sea red around him.

* * * *

The light went from Amiantos’ eyes and time passed, but at length, by slow degrees, awareness returned. He could see, hear and feel nothing. His eyes and his body were gone. He was in a dark void, weightless, senseless and silent. How long? Was it brief moments, or was it months and years? He had no reference point to tell.

His thoughts were slow and realisation came gradually. Was this death?

The darkness and a dim awareness persisted for ages, and finally in the centre of the darkness there was a point of light distinguishing itself from the formlessness. The light was slowly becoming brighter and larger, as if he were moving towards it. But this could not be, as he had no legs to carry him. And yet it continued to grow and grow.

The brightness that formed his only focus became all embracing. There was only light, and now his whole universe was light, and still time continued to pass.

A shadow formed in the centre of his awareness, a shadow with the passage of time, moments or years, slowly starting to take human shape. The outlines were blurred but steadily they sharpened. It was a warrior.

Amiantos had no way of knowing how, but now he was a child again, four years old, his mother standing beside him. He could feel his right ankle, uncomfortable, tightly bound. Amiantos could see himself, his mother and all those around him as if he were a bird in the sky. He was above it all, seeing everything, and yet at the same time he was also the child seeing the warrior through the child’s eyes. The warrior was King Leonidas, and with him, three hundred of Sparta’s best in crimson cloaks, their shields held to their breasts, their spears held vertically, taking their leave of Sparta for Thermopylae, from whence they would never return.

But now the scene, (memory or dream?) began to fade, as also did the four year old Amiantos and his mother, Melissa, and the crowd of which they were a part. Amiantos, it seemed, was moving again, towards Leonidas who, along with the warriors around him grew larger and larger so Amiantos was aware only of the helmeted faces. Still moving, Amiantos passed through their midst and now another dark shape began to form. If Amiantos was really moving, it was as if now he had stopped. The shape in front of him was another man, but this time unarmed, wearing a simple undyed tunic and cloak.

The face sharpened. It was Elias, Amiantos’ father. So Amiantos indeed was dead. But where was he? Elias’ mouth began to move slowly, but at first there were no words. However, there was an awareness in Amiantos’ soul. He could hear no sounds, but he could understand the meaning. Not only did Amiantos' own thoughts fly to this vision of Elias, or whatever it was, but also Elias’ thoughts flew back.

Where am I, Father?” Amiantos’ thought went out.

Amiantos had never called Elias Father while he lived. As if responding to this, the mouth smiled and the lips moved, but the words came back to Amiantos as thoughts, in no sense of coordination with the movements of the mouth.

You are where you belong, Amiantos.”

Am I dead?” Amiantos felt himself ask.

Elias nodded. “Look behind me.”

As if they had been there all the time, Amiantos could now see a line of figures behind Elias, each some distance behind the other, receding into the distance. Some wore armour, others wore cloaks.

Amiantos, these are the oath-keepers, my own father Amyntas, and his father, and other heroes, and you have joined us here in the Blessed Isles.”

Now Amiantos could tell that they were indeed on an island. Without seeing behind him he was aware of the bluest sea the mind could imagine with other lush islands, and around him on this one, green fields with trees bearing olives and figs, and every manner of fruit he had never even seen before. Men and women wandered together in quiet conversation.

There are women here too?” Amiantos asked.

Elias smiled again. “Here are all who lived true lives, men and women, and children whose lives were cut short before they knew how to be bad. I hope that one day Melissa will be able to join me here.”

And my wife, Melantha?”

Who can know, Amiantos? She will be tested, and her love for you now you are gone will be tested too. If her life is true, and her love for you, she and you will be together here again.”

And will I one day see all those I knew in life?”

Amiantos, only the good come here. The others are damned to the darkness of Tartarus forever, or until the gods relent.”

Then Leandros and Aegon are not here?”

Elias shook his head and smiled. “Here you are truly blessed.”

Amiantos had no sense of his own form or body and yet it was as if tears came to his eyes.

Do not weep, Amiantos, for now all cares are past. On this isle all your needs are met. We are on the further side of the great stream of Ocean separating the living from the dead. Here the sun wheels his journey, never rising to his zenith to burn us with his rays, nor ever dropping below the horizon to chill our bones. Here it is always Spring and it is always Autumn. Here the trees and crops drop their seed and it is sown without our effort, and in the same season is the harvest and we have only to reach out and pick what we need. Here there is no rancour and tribulation. Here is perpetual peace and ease. Welcome home at last, my son.”

2. THE SUITOR

Four years later three people stood on the boundary of a furrowed field watching as several men and women with bags strapped to them walked slowly side by side scattering barley grain with their hands.

Melantha was thirty-five years old, tall, her long hair jet black, although mostly covered by a hood, her features a little sharper and more weathered, but her beauty essentially undiminished. On one side of her was her twelve year old daughter, Kallia. Named Kalliope at birth, her father Amiantos had almost from the start used a shortened version for her, Kallia, meaning beautiful. After the loss of Amiantos, her sisters started calling her the same name, followed in time by Melantha, so for all of them, Kalliope was now Kallia. She was tall for her age, almost as tall as her mother, with a slender athletic body, still boyish in shape, and with wide shoulders inherited from her father. Her straight black hair could also have been that of a boy, trimmed functionally so it barely reached her shoulders.

On the other side of Melantha was the well dressed Steselaus. The same age as Melantha, he was handsome, his features well defined, his nose straight, his beard and moustache neatly trimmed. He was lean of build, of medium height, his eyes on a level just slightly lower than Melantha’s.

Without your help, Steselaus, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to lay down this crop.”

Steselaus nodded. “I was pleased to be able to help.”

When Amiantos was here there was his stipend as a General and we had no difficulty borrowing money for the start of the season. People offered their labour without even asking payment. All that help dried up when he didn’t return. It’s not easy for a woman on her own.”

Kallia glanced sharply at her mother. “You’re not alone. I’m old enough to help.”

Melantha frowned at her daughter. “It’s not a world designed for women. We can only make the best of it.”

Steselaus looked closely at Melantha. “It wouldn’t make Amiantos happy to see you this way.”

But Steselaus, thanks to your help, I’m sure he’d be very happy.”

It’s four years since he died, Melantha. It’s time you accept what happened.”

Melantha turned her head to Steselaus, frowning. “You’re sounding like my father, Elpenor now.”

He’s giving you good advice.”

I’m tired of it. Less than a year passed before he was telling me I should remarry. And what if Amiantos returned to find me so quickly with another man?”

And now it’s four years. Melantha, he won’t return. He can’t. I saw him die.”

But you never saw his body.”

I’ve explained this to you so many times. The sea washed it away. When we came back, the tide had turned. There were breakers. His body must have washed out to sea.”

But only if it was a body. You can’t say for sure he died.”

Melantha, I saw him struck mortally, we all saw it, first to the left side of his face, the second a crushing blow to the back of the head. No man could have survived either blow on its own. We saw him fall. Even if he was still alive, he would have drowned at once. He’s dead, Melantha. You’re the only one who denies it.”

And I will until it’s proved.”

It is already. In any case, if he survived, why isn’t he here?”

Steselaus, he can’t get back. I’m sure of it.”

Then he would have sent a message.”

Steselaus, if he can’t get back, how could he possibly send a message?”

Melantha, you have to accept it. I saw him die. I know he’s dead.”

Melantha was quiet for some time. Kallia looked at her and saw the glistening in the corner of her eyes and took hold of her hand. Melantha shrugged away her hand in annoyance.

Steselaus, I’ve never told you this before,” Melantha said very quietly. “He talks to me at night.”

Steselaus glanced at her oddly. “Who talks to you?”

Amiantos talks to me, in my heart. I hear his voice.”

We all imagine he talks to us, Melantha. I talk to him sometimes,” Steselaus said gently. “He was my closest friend.”

He still is, Steselaus. I know in the depths of me that he still lives. We talk to each other. He tells me to stay true to him.”

Melantha, I know that he wouldn’t want you to struggle in hardship. He’s been dead four years.”

But that’s the very point, how can he be dead when he still talks to me?”

Steselaus looked at Melantha and frowned.

He’s living on an island, Steselaus. He’s told me that. He says he can’t get back to me, but one day we’ll be together again if only I stay true to him.”

Melantha, I knew him. That’s not how he’d talk.”

Melantha glanced sharply at Steselaus. “I think I knew him better than you.”

You’re fooling yourself, Melantha. It’s not his voice you’re hearing in your heart. It’s your own. You can’t live the rest of your life as a widow.”

Melantha glanced at Kallia. “It was unfortunate that we never had a son.”

Kallia scowled at her mother.

And so you need a husband,” Steselaus said. “Then you wouldn’t have to struggle.”

Melantha took hold of Steselaus’ hand. “But I have you, Steselaus, my husband’s best friend. Nothing needs to change. We can survive.”

Steselaus remained silent.

Melantha continued. “I could never marry without love. I was already twenty two when I married Amiantos. Do you think I couldn’t have married years earlier if I’d wanted? I waited for love.”

There won’t be another Amiantos, Melantha, but isn’t it enough to find a man who truly loves you?”

In sudden understanding of the hidden meaning in his words, Melantha paused a moment before replying. “Elpenor said those same words to me, Steselaus.”

And how did you reply?”

Melantha was quiet for a moment, and then answered very carefully. “Steselaus, I was tired of his nagging, so I didn’t answer him, but you I will answer. If Elpenor knew of someone who loves me, but hasn’t told his love, then I would tell this man, whoever he was, that I was deeply flattered that he felt that way, but for me, unless I loved him back, it would never be enough.”

Steselaus paused for a few more moments before he answered. “But surely love between a man and a woman can develop even if it wasn’t there before. Once together, perhaps she’d start to see him differently, and knowing the sincerity of his feelings, step by step begin to love him also?”

Melantha took his hand up to her lips and kissed the back of his fingers. “Steselaus,” She said quietly and almost pleadingly, “you were my husband’s truest friend. I beg you to be my truest friend too.”

* * * *

That evening with the three younger daughters asleep inside the house, Melantha sat outside with her older two and Elissa, Elpenor’s twenty-seven year old daughter.

A lamp was burning on the table, illuminating a tablet that the ten year old Melaina was studying.

Tell me about the text before you, Lena,” Melantha said quietly to the ten year old, using the diminutive form of her name. “I wrote it out for you from memory.”

Mother, these are the words of Penelope. She’s talking to her husband Odysseus who’s returned to her in disguise after twenty years, but she doesn’t know it is he.”

The twelve year old Kallia frowned in annoyance. “She must have been stupid. How could she not recognise him?”

Lena looked at her older sister and replied seriously, “The Goddess Athena herself disguised him as an old man. No one could recognise him. Only his old dog Argus. And also Euryclea who was his wet nurse when he was a baby. She recognised him by a scar on his ankle that he got from a wild boar when he was a boy hunting.”

Then that proves Penelope was stupid if even a dog could recognise him and a dumb old servant.”

Read her words Lena,” Melantha said, frowning at Kallia.

Lena examined the words carefully. “She’s telling her husband how she used to speak to her suitors so they wouldn’t force her to choose one.”

Kallia, remembering the conversation between her mother and Steselaus, looked at her sister with sudden interest, while Melantha nodded approvingly. “What did she say to them?”

Lena began reading.

“‘Well-born Suitors, yes the royal Odysseus is dead,

but don’t insist I marry again straightaway.

I don’t want my skill in needlework to be forgotten.

Wait until I weave a worthy funeral shroud

for Odysseus’ father Laertes, ready for when he dies.

What would the women think if a man so rich and noble

should be laid down without a funeral shroud?’

I said this to them and they had no choice but to agree,

and so I set to work weaving the great shroud all day long,

but at night by lamplight I would unpick the stitches again.

And for three years they never guessed my cunning trick.’”

Melantha nodded approvingly.

Those men must have been incredibly stupid to be fooled so easily,” Kallia said earnestly. “That’s a stupid story.”

Melantha looked sharply at Kallia and the younger daughter frowned.

The expression on Elissa’s face, however, conveyed a sudden interest.

If I was there” Kallia continued, “I wouldn’t have waited for my Odysseus to return. I would have taken his bow and arrows myself and driven them from the house.”

Melantha looked at Kallia in irritation. “You’re not Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. You’re a girl.”

Lena grinned cheekily at Kallia who responded by snatching up the tablet and waving it in front of her face. “Well how is studying this going to help? From what I remember, Telemachus wasn’t much use to anyone.”

Yes he was,” Lena fought back angrily. “He helped his father fight the suitors. Give me the tablet back.”

Kallia held it out of her reach, and Lena turned to her mother for help. Melantha reached across and took the tablet from Kallia and returned it to Lena.

Seeing the angry expression on Kallia’s face, Elissa hastily intervened, putting her hand on Lena’s shoulder. Your sisters are asleep. Its your turn now.

Glancing darkly at Kallia, Lena still rose to her feet obediently, kissed her mother and went indoors. Elissa took the tablet from the place at the table where Lena had been sitting and began looking at it without understanding.

Melantha looked at Kallia and sighed in frustration. “Kallia,” she said with an effort, “real life isn’t that simple. In the story they were all evil men who wanted Odysseus’ realm for themselves. But what if those trying to make you marry are good men who think they have your interests at heart?”

Mother, does Steselaus love you?” Kallia asked abruptly.

Elissa looked up, eager to hear the reply.

That isn’t a question for you to ask,” Melantha replied coldly.

Was it true what you said to him?” Kallia continued, undeterred.

What did I say to him?”

Does father really talk to you at night?”

Melantha glanced at Elissa before replying to her daughter. “I had to tell Steselaus something. Of course Amiantos doesn’t talk to me.” She paused nervously. “He’s dead.”

Then you’re being like Penelope,” Kallia said with sudden inspiration, “telling Steselaus a lie just to put him off.”

I’m not Penelope,” Melantha replied quickly. “Penelope waited twenty years for Odysseus to return. But she was the Queen of the whole island with many servants to feed her. It’s not easy for me with five daughters to look after. And Steselaus has been such a good friend to me.”

Did he say he wants to be more than a friend?” Elissa asked suddenly, catching the other two by surprise.

While to an outsider Elissa might have appeared like a servant to the older Melantha, in fact it was Melantha who had been orphaned at an early age and had grown up with Elissa’s family. Hence there was no impertinence in the question and Melantha answered her with complete openness. “He hasn’t said it in so many words, but he has hinted strongly.”

Kallia jumped in a little rudely. “And that’s the reason you have to tell him not to come here any more.”

I won’t do that, Kallia. I value his friendship, and I need him.”

No you don’t. You have me,” Kallia rejoined.

You’re just a girl, Kallia.”

Kallia’s eyes, as dark as her mother’s, narrowed angrily. “That’s it, isn’t it. You wanted a son. I’ve always been a disappointment to you.”

I have five daughters, are you saying I’m disappointed with you all?”

No, you saved it all for me,” Kallia replied, now with open defiance. “Lena has always been your favourite with her reading and her head full of ideas. You never praised me for my intelligence or my penmanship.”

“Lena is exceptionally clever for her age, and anyway, your writing really is untidy. But you have many other attributes.”

Oh do I? And can you name them?”

I don’t need to,” Melantha replied after an awkward pause. “I’m always praising you.”

Oh are you? But when I asked you now to name one, you couldn’t think of any.”

Your eyes are so beautiful,” Melantha replied quickly. “I’ve always thought it.”

Oh, my beautiful eyes,” Kallia said sarcastically. “And you’ve never said it until now. But if I asked my father, he wouldn’t be able to stop talking about me.”

Yes, about your archery and tree climbing,” Melantha replied, for a moment moved to anger herself. “You think it was any different with your father? Why do you think he won’t let you touch his cloak from the Agoge? He’s storing that for his son.”

Kallia was silent for a moment, and Melantha immediately regretted her words, reaching her hand out to touch Kallia’s arm.

Don’t touch me,” Kallia shouted, jumping up from her seat. As she ran off into the dark, she shouted out, “You don’t know me. You never have.”

When Melantha instinctively rose to her feet to follow, Elissa held her arm in restraint.

She’s angry now. You’ll only make her worse.”

"But it's dark. I can't have her running around the streets on her own," Melantha replied, tears springing into her eyes.

She’ll be all right. Give her time. She’ll calm down.”

Do you think so?”

I’m sure she will.”

It’s just she aggravates me so much.”

You mustn’t let yourself be annoyed. You have to try to understand her.”

I try all the time,” Melantha replied.

Elissa looked at her for a moment. “She’s almost a woman, Melantha.”

Melantha looked sharply at Elissa. “She’s still a child.”

Of all of your daughters, it was hardest for her losing him.

Why was it any worse for her?” Melantha asked, a little more mildly.

She was the oldest. They were always together. She was like his shadow.”

He treated her like the son he never had,” Melantha said sarcastically.

No Melantha. You don’t know her.”

Anyway,” Melantha rejoined, “it couldn’t have been any worse for her than it was for me.”

Elissa paused thoughtfully, and changed tack. “You’ve never really accepted that he’s gone, have you?”

Melantha was some time in replying. “Elissa, deep inside me I still feel him in my heart. But that doesn’t mean he still lives. It may be his memory that I feel, or his soul in the Blessed Isles. I have the barest hope that he still lives, but that hope fades day by day and year by year. I talk to him, and I make up stories of how he still lives, and about where he could be so he can’t return to us or even send a message. So I made up a story that he’s on an island, and he wants me to wait. I pretend I’m Penelope and that, like Odysseus, he will come back to me as soon as he can.”

Why couldn’t you say that to Kallia?”

She’s too young to understand.”

You need to pay more attention to her, Melantha. Maybe I understand her because I’m a bit like her myself.”

You?” Melantha asked in surprise. “You’re not at all like her.”

It’s like she’s invisible. She wanders everywhere, and she’s everywhere unnoticed. And whoever notices me, Melantha? Most times I'm just here in the background, looking after the children or preparing the food.”

"I'm sorry if that's the way you feel, Elissa. That's not the way I see you.”

Elissa looked at Melantha seriously. “I’m not complaining. I love this family. But I feel like I have a veil of invisibility, as in the story of Sophia.”

Melantha looked at Elissa thoughtfully. “That was a veil of forgetfulness, Elissa, so nothing Sophia did seeking Aristomenes could detract from her goodness.”

Oh, so it was, and how useful it would be to have one of those.”

"And what have you ever done you'd want to forget?”

Well, perhaps nothing," Elissa conceded, “or perhaps I wish I had more to forget.

"What do you mean?" Melantha asked, looking at her open-eyed.

A little smile played on Elissa's face. "Well, perhaps I’d like to be the man in the story Lena was reading. Athena disguised him so well even his own wife couldn't recognise him. If I had a disguise like that, what wouldn't I do.”

"I don't know what you mean, Elissa. A good woman should never do anything in secrecy that she wouldn't do openly in front of others.”

"Oh, and you with five children, all conceived in private," Elissa said, laughing.

Melantha lowered her eyebrows in a frown. “But that's different. That's just normal between a husband and a wife." Melantha paused for a moment thoughtfully. "You know, you can find a man and marry. You’re not my servant. You’re as close to a sister to me as anyone could be. I want your happiness.” Melantha thought for a moment and smiled slightly. “You can have your own children, Elissa, and the two of us will look after all of them together.”

It’s not as easy as that. I’m well past my ideal age and unfortunately I don't have your beauty.”

"Oh but you do. I always admire your perfect little features.”

"Hmm, well I'm not sure if men I know think the same.”

Catching something odd in her tone, Melantha asked, “And is there a special one?”

"Well perhaps there is, and perhaps I'm invisible to him. And that's why if I could be disguised as someone specially beautiful..." Elissa looked directly at Melantha, "...like you...then maybe he might look at me.”

"Who is he? Do I know him?”

"In all honesty, Melantha, I don't think you know him at all.”

Melantha looked for a moment at Elissa with keen interest. "Are you still a virgin, Elissa?”

Elissa laughed loudly. "What do you think? I'm twenty-seven years old. Do you think I’ve never been alone with a boy?”

What do you mean, alone with a boy? Do you think you have to give yourself the first time you are alone with a man?”

You are strange, Melantha. Why do you think fathers watch us so closely?”

Melantha paused thoughtfully. “So how many times have you been alone with a man?”

Well, to be honest, never. But even if I had been alone with a man I don’t think it would have made any difference. When it comes to men, I’m like Sofia in our Messenian story. I have a veil of invisibility.

"Forgetfulness, Elissa. The Goddess gave her a veil of forgetfulness so any sins she had to commit to save Aristomenes would be forgotten. But people today don’t live lives like Sophia and Aristomenes. If the time comes you’ll be pleased you’ve saved yourself for the right man.”

Hmm, well I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

Melantha looked at the younger woman for a moment, then glanced behind her. "When will that troublesome girl return?”

Elissa lowered her voice. "If you ask me, she's nearby, and listening to our every word.”

"Do you think so?” Melantha asked, lowering her own voice in surprise.

"I'm sure of it, and waiting for us to retire to sleep before she comes back." Elissa thought for a moment. “You know, there’s truth in what she said to you. You’re harder on her than all the others. You're angry with her that she wasn't a boy, but even angrier when she behaves like one." Elissa lowered her voice to a whisper. "Be nice to her, Melantha. The loss of her father hit her very hard."

* * * *

The next morning as Steselaus turned down the street leading to Melantha’s place he was intercepted by a stony face Kallia. He stopped in front of her in surprise.

Mother says she doesn’t want you visiting any more.”

Steselaus’ surprise was replaced immediately by suspicion. “When did she say that?”

After you left yesterday, she told me.”

Well maybe she’s changed her mind since.”

No, she told me this morning to see you before you came here.”

Steselaus peered beyond Kallia to Melantha’s house. He could see the slim figure of Elissa standing at the table under the porch, looking back towards them. “If she doesn’t want me visiting any more, I want to hear it from your mother.”

I told you, she doesn’t want to see you. There’s no need to speak to her,” Kallia said, unable to prevent a note of anger entering her voice.

But Kallia, I have to insist,” Steselaus continued calmly, observing that Elissa was now walking purposefully towards them.

Kallia glanced behind her and frowned. She turned back to Steselaus and began pushing him in the arm. “We don’t need you here. Go home.”

Before she reached them, Elissa called out. “What are you doing, Kallia? Stop that at once.”

It isn’t your business,” Kallia said rudely, without looking behind her.

What’s this all about?” Elissa demanded as she came up to them.

Steselaus did not reply, but glanced from Elissa meaningfully to Kallia who was still pushing him.

Mother told me she doesn’t want him to visit anymore.”

Kallia, she told you no such thing.”

Kallia stopped pushing Steselaus to confront Elissa. “You weren’t there, so how would you know?”

I’ve been there all the time. I’d know before anyone,” Elissa replied insistently.

No you wouldn’t. I’m her daughter.”

Then let’s go and ask her,” Elissa rejoined.

Kallia’s glanced at both of them in turn. “Suit yourself then,” she said, her voice showing signs of breaking, and for fear of revealing her feelings, she turned and ran away from them, round a corner in the street and was immediately out of sight.

Twelve year old girls,” Elissa said with a smile, looking up into the eyes of Steselaus.

He smiled back faintly. “Even so, I don’t want her to be unhappy with me.”

Of course not, Steselaus. Don’t worry, it’ll all blow over.”

And did Melantha say anything about…?”

Elissa smiled broadly. “She tells me everything, Steselaus. We have no secrets. She’s looking forward to seeing you.”

As Steselaus made to continue on his way, Elissa put her hand on his arm to stop him. “She tells me everything,” she repeated. “We need to talk. I think I can help you.”

Steselaus looked down at the earnest face of Elissa, her features small and refined, but in no way unattractive. “Oh? What do you mean?”

Steselaus, just walk with me a while and I’ll explain.”

She took hold of his arm and led him away from Melantha’s place. They walked slowly, and Steselaus listened and responded seriously.

Steselaus, you know a part of Melantha still believes Amiantos still lives.”

But I saw him die myself.”

I know Steselaus. That’s her heart speaking, and the heart is so slow to accept the truth.”

Then what should I do?”

Be patient Steselaus. I’ll help you. I’ll work on her, I’ll make her accept it. Meanwhile, take it very slowly with her. Be her friend, keep visiting, spend time with her.”

Steselaus nodded seriously.

The heart of a woman is much slower to change than a man’s, Steselaus.”

Speaking for myself, I don’t think that’s true.”

Oh, it is Steselaus. It’s not something you should be ashamed to admit. It’s just the way of nature. Women are faithful but men are changeable. But if your heart for the time being is set on Melantha, I’ll help you.”

It’s not for the time being, Elissa. My feelings for Melantha haven’t arisen overnight. First I was here to help her, console her through her grief. I was here for my friendship with Amiantos. It was only after the first year that I began to recognise that I was developing a special feeling for her. And even then I still didn’t call it love. My feelings for her have been four years in the making.”

In that case Steselaus, you have to be careful you don’t frighten her away..”

Have the two of you talked about me?”

I told you, we share everything. But yesterday was the first time she guessed there was anything in your heart other than friendship.”

How could she not have guessed?”

Steselaus, I love her dearly, but there are ways in which Melantha is completely childlike. And perhaps the small spark of hope still there for Amiantos has made her blind. But now your feelings are out in the open, it will be different.”

And you’ll help me?”

Elissa still holding his arm, stopped walking and turned him toward her. She took hold of both his hands in hers and smiling sweetly, looked up into his eyes. “Steselaus, I know the love in your heart, and I swear nothing will stop me from helping your love to find its proper home.”

* * * *

Later that day, Elissa and Melantha walked together along a winding path up the mountain on which Naupaktos was built. At first the road was narrow, walls and houses on either side, but the buildings and construction became less dense as they gained height and the paved road made way for a dirt path. Lena walked some way behind with her three younger sisters, Lena holding the hand of the three year old.

Their destination was a depression in the hillside leading into a cave sacred to Aphrodite. As they walked, Elissa turned her head and looked up to the taller woman who had been annoyed all morning and still wore a frown on her face. “Where is that wretched girl? Where does she go all the time?”

Melantha, she’ll come to no harm. Everyone knows her in Naupaktos.”

Why do you always take her side, Elissa?” Melantha asked sharply.

Elissa did not directly answer her. “Sometimes you’re so old fashioned. When she gets home your neighbour will tell her where we are. Why did you suddenly take it into your head to come here today anyway?” Elissa asked.

Elpenor keeps saying that this is where the widows come to pray for a husband,” Melantha said irritably. “He wants Steselaus to marry me.”

So you’re coming here to pray for that?”

Elpenor keeps on about it. I’m getting tired of his nagging,” Melantha replied, making no attempt to conceal her annoyance.

Elissa fell silent, and they continued walking, Melantha glancing down at Elissa a couple of times, puzzled by the glum expression that suddenly appeared on her face.

It isn’t a conversation I’ve asked for, Elissa,” Melantha said finally.

Elissa turned her head to Melantha and looked at her for a moment. “You know you really are very beautiful, Melantha. Even though you’re older than me and with all these children, you could have any man you wanted.”

Melantha met Elissa’s eyes thoughtfully. “The truth is, Elissa, I’m not ready for anybody.”

I know if it came down to it in competition between the two of us,” Elissa said with an aggrieved tone, “I’d lose every time.”

Melantha stared at Elissa for a moment and her face softened. “I’ll tell you what Elissa, I’ll make a promise. As soon as you marry, I’ll consider who’s available. But until you marry, I won’t even think of remarrying. ”

Elissa looked closely at Melantha, attempting to understand her meaning. “You know I’m invisible, Melantha,” Elissa said finally. “If you make that condition you’ll never marry again.”

Melantha allowed a smile to briefly play on her lips. She put her hand lightly on Elissa’s shoulder. “Then we’ll just have to keep each other company.”

Elissa smiled briefly in response and the two, followed by Melantha’s four younger daughters completed their journey in thoughtful silence, Melantha occasionally glancing behind her in expectation of the appearance of Kallia.

They came finally to a small path branching off from the main road, leading into a patch of dense forest. Next to the start of the path was a stone which Melantha lifted into the centre of the path, a signal to any other visitors to the small cave where the shrine was located that there were already visitors and they should wait their turn. Melantha, Elissa and the children made their way along the path and emerged in a small clearing in front of the cave entrance. As the cave was small, only one could enter at a time. Elissa entered first, crawling through the entrance. Each morning an oil lamp was lit and burned all day, making the atmosphere inside smoky. This also had the effect of giving a sense of spirituality. The close atmosphere resulting from the lamp burning all day may have been the reason why some people emerged from their meditations claiming religious visions.

The cave was not tall enough even for Elissa to stand and so she crawled towards the statue of Aphrodite at the end of the cave. The statue was a baked clay Aphrodite of human size, seated on a throne and naked, although with a drape descending from her right shoulder across her thighs. Her right arm was outstretched holding a plate and her hair was garlanded with roses. The colours on the statue had faded and the statue was worn and of ancient appearance, with the exception of the eyes which still looked fresh and eerily realistic. These were constructed of carved ivory into which was set a disk of polished blue-grey moonstoon. At the centre of the moonstone, the pupil was formed by a small inlaid circle of obsidian.

As Elissa knelt in front of the statue, it was the startling and lifelike eyes that drew her own.

"Divine and lovely Aphrodite," she began, "it is I, Elissa, here before you. I am the dutiful youngest daughter of Elpenor whom he has forgotten. He has found a loving husband for my older sister, and even now the orphan Melantha whom he adopted has all his attention. He looks for a husband for her even though she had one before and has five loving daughters. She doesn’t even want a new husband, and again I am ignored, serving him and serving Melantha, no better than a slave." Tears began to fill her eyes, her head tilted upwards to the statue. "Cruel Goddess, your eyes of stone cannot see the sad yearning in mine. Your clay ears are deaf to my words of secret sorrow." She put her hand on the arm of the statue. "Your cold, dead arms are senseless to the pining warmth in mine. Oh Aphrodite, I am the invisible Elissa whom no man sees even though his eyes are on me, whose words no man hears even though he answers mine, and even if his skin brushes mine, he cannot sense the searing passion of my flesh. Oh Goddess, how much longer must I languish, my own pale beauty outshone by the one closest to me? Oh Goddess, how much longer must the deep and faithful love I have to share go unrequited and wasted in the air? The eyes of the gods are unseeing and their ears are deaf. If you truly exist, Aphrodite, and if love has any more meaning than the oily smoke around you, then I pray to you only this: take pity on this yearning, loving heart and make the invisible Elissa visible."

Elissa rubbed the tears from her eyes and remained in front of the statue for a while to allow the signs of her crying to dissipate. Finally she crawled out of the cave.

Now it was Melantha’s turn, and she made her way to the statue and knelt in front of it. Melantha’s focus was also drawn to the statue’s lifelike eyes. “Oh Aphrodite Pandemos, Goddess of the love that humans bear for each other,” Melantha began quietly, for fear that her words might carry out of the cave, “I’m here only because my father Elpenor sent me. I am here to fulfil my duty to him and pray to you, as widows are expected to, for a new husband.” She glanced behind her furtively and lowered her voice even further. “Goddess, in my heart I still have a husband, and while the spark of hope still lives in me, I ask for no other.” She paused for a moment in thought before continuing. “Oh Aphrodite, there is another love a woman holds that is even more precious than her love for her husband, and that is the love she has for her children. Enter my heart, dearest Goddess, and let me love all my dear daughters equally, for here alone with you in the near darkness, I cannot hide the sin I carry in my heart. My daughter Kallia, as first born should be the dearest of my daughters, but I confess that she was right when she said that all the resentment I have for being unable to bear a son is concentrated in her. I admit she aggravates me for no good reason, and I fail to give her credit for her good qualities, even though kneeling here in front of you, I still cannot think what they are. Oh Goddess, teach me compassion in my heart for that troublesome girl, and teach me to find some goodness in her heart when all I can see is her badness. I prayed before she was born for a son, but I would have been satisfied with a daughter, but instead I cannot praise her for her skill in using the bow or wrestling the boys because she is not a boy, and nor can I praise her feminine skills in dancing or in writing because she has none, nor do I find in her the gentle and nurturing love that a daughter should have to comfort a mother. Goddess, I do not know who she is except that she vexes me. Calm me when she makes me angry with her foolishness. She knows no better. Let me, her mother, love her as I should, even though by her nature she gives me every reason not to.”

Melantha bowed her head in front of the statue, yet it was as if the tears that dropped from her eyes onto the rock were not genuine tears of compassion for her daughter, but rather were forced from her eyes by an act of will.

3. THE GOOD MEGARAN

Five days walking from Naupaktos would take someone to the city of Megara, seated on the eastern coast of the isthmus, a relatively narrow strip of land separating the northern part of Greece from the south.

The Megaran statesman Damokles stood up to speak on the floor of the Council. The Councillors were hushed, nearly two hundred of them, occupying the rows of seats in a semi-circle forming an indoor amphitheatre. There were some who tensed angrily, others who looked slyly to each other and winked, and others again who leaned forward ready to give their rapt attention.

Damokles was considerably younger than most of the crowd, thirty years old, tall, slim, handsome despite his slightly elongated features, his naturally high hairline giving the impression of intelligence. He raised one open hand, his long fingers outstretched, and moved it slowly around the chamber, acknowledging his listeners. “Councillors, you’ve heard me say before that there is only good in the world - good or its absence. To hear a number of our speakers today, you might think the world is full of evil in different forms - in the form of Korinthians, or Athenians, or Spartans, or indeed in the opposing faction in Megara, depending on who the speaker is. But let me say to you that evil is purely an illusion. What we mistakenly call evil is merely a temporary imbalance.”

An old bearded man in the front row yawned ostentatiously and a couple of other men laughed briefly.

The natural state of man is goodness,” Damokles continued, ignoring the responses. “We were created of Wisdom in a Divine balance of forces. This balance is the source of goodness. In our own souls we experience this balance - of love and desire, of reason and feeling, of pleasure and pain, or joy and sadness. That which makes up the soul of man is the beautiful harmony of these disparate forces.”

A man high up in the seats at the back called out, “Get on with it.” There was more laughter from some others in the audience.

Damokles glanced at the man who had called out and smiled briefly. “It is only when these forces are thrown temporarily out of balance that the darker forces prevail, when man gives himself over to anger, for example, or surrenders to lust. But this is only temporary. Like a weighted doll rounded at its base, the soul of man always returns to its natural state.”

Damokles paused for a moment, opening his hand and gesturing to the man who had called out. “I beg your indulgence Councillors, but as you know it’s always my practice to begin with first principles, and hence my discourse on philosophy. If we do not begin with first principles then we have no ground to stand on. We are like a leaf in the wind, blown this way and that with no sense or purpose.” Damokles paused again, raising and opening both arms. “Within our city too, the same natural balance of forces exists. There are the oligarchs, fearful of the power of the many, there are the democrats, jealous of the power of the rich. We have seen the excesses that occur where the factions are out of balance, in our own history many generations ago, but we see them also today in other cities not yet evolved to our level of maturity. For do not forget, Councillors, that in Megara we have enjoyed civic peace for so long for the very reason that these forces are in balance.”

There was more noise in the crowd, some in opposition and others calling out their support.

Damokles turned away from his audience for a moment and took up and sipped from a cup of water on a lectern.

Councillors,” he said, turning again to his audience, “we see around us in Greece these forces out of balance. First it was Korinth with her demands on our land. I argued for conciliation, you will remember, for negotiation. But angrier words prevailed, in Korinth, and in response, in Megara.”

Several voices called out angrily.

I do not call the men who took us to war evil - they are not,” Damokles said, raising his voice over the interruptors. “They have simply allowed, for the time being, their anger to override their reason. The balance is out. It will return, sooner or later, that is the law of nature. Hopefully sooner so the damage can be minimised.”

He paused to allow the calling out to subside. “In Athens and Sparta we have salutary examples of states that are sadly out of balance. In Athens, democratic forces run rampant. In Sparta the King and Gerusia form their own special kind of tyranny, moulding the people to their warlike ends. In Megara because of our dispute with Korinth, we have been unfortunate to be caught up in the war between Athens and Sparta.”

Again there was noise in his audience, some in opposition, some in support.

It does not benefit us to fall into the orbit of one or the other.”

In response to the calling out, he repeated himself more loudly. “It does not, I say to you. The greatness of Megara, and I will say without apology, its goodness, is in its balance. Politically we have balanced the power of the great with the small. In our economic activity we also have a balance. We have a port that faces the rising sun and another that faces the sun as it sets. We look out and trade with Miletus, and on the other side with Syracuse. We have ancient colonies on all sides. Why should we make common cause with one power and reject another? We stand between Athens and Sparta. Let them both be our friends. And as for Korinth, let’s settle our differences quickly with the minimum of bloodshed, and get back to sensible discussion and negotiation.”

With that, to calls of opposition and support, Damokles calmly went to the lectern, took another sip of water and returned to his seat.

* * * *

Five days walking southwards from Megara would bring a traveller to Sparta.

In a garden in that city of ancient and modest stature, three men sat at a table set with wine and plates of food. This was in a walled compound in the home of Metrobius, the oldest member of the Gerusia, the senior governing body of Sparta. Metrobius was nearing ninety years of age - an elected seat in the Gerusia being a position held for life. He was a small man, still surprisingly sprightly, able to get around without the aid of a stick. Agamedes was the most recently elected member of the Gerusia, sixty years old, a tall, lean man, his grey beard and hair neatly clipped. The third man, sitting facing them on the opposite side of the table was Otrius, an Athenian in his mid forties, a tall powerful man. His facial features matched his body, large and coarse. In his younger days he might have been considered ruggedly handsome, but his face, apart from the scar from an old wound to the left side, was severely pock marked.

When will you be leaving?” the ancient Metrobius asked Otrius.

After midnight. I came into Sparta unnoticed and I’ll leave the same way.”

Metrobius nodded. “We’re agreed that Kimon will be kept out of this at all costs.”

That was his condition,” Otrius replied. “Next year his exile from Athens ends. Nothing must happen to compromise that.”

But you are here with his authority?” the sharp eyed Agamedes asked, leaning forward and peering at Otrius.

Absolutely. The course we’ve plotted today has his full support. Kimon never wanted war with Sparta. It was his love of Sparta that led to his exile. But as I’ve stated again today, peace requires compromise on both sides.”

We’ve done our part,” Agamedes said staring fixedly at Otrius. “I won’t disguise that there are a number of our colleagues in the Gerusia who were unhappy. Megara has always been an important part of the Peloponnesian League. Metrobius and I have spent many days convincing them to accept the neutrality of Megara. Some of them see the present support of Megara for Athens as a temporary aberration. They felt that Megara would come back to us in time whatever happens.”

They’re mistaken,” Otrius said, meeting Agamedes’ eyes with equal firmness. “Athens is talking to Megara about extending the walls of their city to their port of Nisaea. If that happens, Megara will effectively be a part of the Athenian naval empire. As Kimon sees it, Megara is currently in alliance with Athens. We are the ones conceding most in this agreement.”

Metrobius glanced to the two men in turn and laughed diplomatically. “So we are agreed on the neutrality of Megara? Our interests coincide on this.”


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