One

 

 

“ANDREAS! GET in here right now. How many times do I have to tell you that the kryptes will kill you if they catch you outside after dark?” He could hear his mother’s voice as if she were still alive, calling to him from the safety of their house.

“I’m trying, Mother!” he muttered to her shade. He would never forget that one of the Spartan warriors had slain his father for nothing more than being a helot. Andreas crossed his fingers and flicked them away from his heart in an attempt to ward off a similar fate.

Andreas scanned his surroundings, his gaze veering between his home and the tree line beyond the goats’ enclosure. The mud-brick hut with its tidy little garden dominated the otherwise smooth grounds. Silhouetted against rosy clouds, safety beckoned. However, the encroaching darkness under the trees drove a shiver up his spine.

He was all alone. Or hoped he was.

A spur of the forest behind him jutted between his house and his nearest neighbor. Petros lived on the far side, his dwelling hidden from Andreas’ sight. Petros’ family would already be safely bundled under their roof, locked up tight as twilight approached. No helot was foolish enough to brave the dark and risk death.

Even though the hut didn’t look like much, Andreas wanted to be within the shelter of his home.

But Pan, the aptly named offspring of mischief, had other ideas. For some reason, when Andreas brought his flock home, the big buck had resisted entering the enclosure. The rest of the goats were milling about, following his obdurate example as the last of the daylight bled from the sky and Andreas grew more desperate.

“Curse you, Pan! If you don’t get in there, I’ll have you for dinner. How would you like that?” Knuckles white, he raised his staff and shook it.

Almost as if he understood, Pan bolted inside the lean-to with a startled bleat, his harem quick on his heels. Not a moment too soon. Nerves pushed to the snapping point, Andreas might have been willing to leave them to fend for themselves. He muttered imprecations as he shoved the brambles into the opening, blocking their exit. Though disgruntled, he was glad he hadn’t been forced to choose between their well-being and his life.

Leaves rustled in the nearby forest despite the lack of so much as a breath of wind, and Pan bleated uneasily. Andreas strained to hear anything else, anything at all. What was out there? A rival buck? Wolves? One of the kryptes?

Andreas shivered as cold sweat covered him. Please don’t let it be one of the deadly kryptes stalking me, intent on proving himself. The young warriors, the best Sparta could produce, killed helots for sport and to hone their skills.

The final rays of sunlight faded, leaving muted colors and hushed twilight in their wake, weighing down his heart with apprehension. Andreas hoped the kryptes who had been haunting the area didn’t consider sunset to be the definition of “after dark.” By decree, the warriors killed any helot they encountered at night, holding the subjugated population in check and using terror to quell any revolts before they started.

Glancing warily around, Andreas wondered if he could reach his home before being attacked. It isn’t dark yet. I can be inside before the last light fades. He couldn’t see anyone, but a good kryptes would be nigh impossible to spot. Drawing a deep breath, he sprinted toward the hut, his heart pounding.

Nearly there! A branch snapped, and he lost his footing as he attempted to look over his shoulder. He scrambled to get on his feet and back inside before….

In his mind’s eye, a red-cloaked figure strode calmly up behind him, a sword held in one fist. “Theos save me!”

Andreas made the last bit on his hands and knees, too shaken to regain his feet. The statue of Priapos with its obscenely large phallus jutting before him guarded his doorway. The god stood ready to protect this boundary against any trespassers, wielding his prodigious cock like a club. Having never been in this position before, Andreas had no idea if the deity would be able to protect him.

He clawed at the door for a moment before he managed to slip inside. Back pressed to the thick mud-brick wall, he forced himself to draw one deep shuddering breath after another.

The sound of another twig snapping came through his open window.

Oh Hades! Someone is out there.

Andreas fought to quiet his breathing as his bowels turned to water. Had the kryptes come to wreak judgment on him as they had on his father?

A faint scrabbling at his door had Andreas attempting to wedge himself into the much too narrow space under his cot. The wooden frame scraped across the floor, the sound muffled by the packed dirt. Hiding there had been so much easier when he’d done this as a child at his mother’s insistence. He barely fit now.

If the warrior was desperate enough to enter the one-room house, Andreas couldn’t risk being seen. The young man wouldn’t draw the line at murdering a helot.

He tried to convince himself the youth merely wanted something to eat. Everyone knew the boys in the Spartan agoge were kept on the sharp edge of hunger to encourage theft; although, if anyone caught the young man at it, he would be flogged. They trained to be effective warriors, capable of foraging while on campaign, not common thieves.

Andreas might have reached the relative safety of his home, but he still wasn’t out of danger. The kryptes might yet kill Andreas to spare himself a beating for being observed. Not that Andreas would dare report him.

A breath of wind entered his home along with the intruder. Priapos’ threat hadn’t deterred the man. A shudder tore through Andreas as the door closed with a faint thump against the frame, trapping him inside with a killer.

Nearly soundless, bare feet padded across the packed earth of his floor and paused at the table. With the lamp still unlit, he could just make out the warrior’s legs and the hem of the Spartan’s crimson cloak, so close he could touch them. Andreas held his breath. If he didn’t move, the prowler shouldn’t be able to see him in the dim interior. He could all but feel the warrior’s suspicious gaze sweeping the small room and his few belongings.

Oh Theos! Where is Ictis? Now would be a disastrous time for him to wander out.

Helots who saw the legendary kryptes were rarely seen again. Would the warrior search for him and kill him?

Shaking and barely able to breathe, Andreas closed his eyes in panic. Fighting the urge to vomit, he relived his first brush with the killers.

Even though he’d only been eight at the time, Andreas could remember every detail as if he were a stele with the record of the event incised into his very being.

After slipping out of his nest of blankets in the thin morning light, Andreas pushed on the hut door, but it caught on something outside and he had to force it open. He squeezed through the gap and into the chill morning.

His father lay in a tangle of limbs on the ground, sleeping with his feet blocking the door. Had his father been drinking with the neighbor again? Mother didn’t like it when Father did that. She said it was dangerous.

“Mother’s going to be angry with you! She was worried when you didn’t come inside last night.”

Andreas reached out to shake his father’s shoulder, and put his hand in something sticky. He wiped it on his tunic, staring at the dark stain on the front of his father’s chiton. If his father had ruined his clothing, Mother would be extra angry.

When his father still didn’t stir, Andreas knelt down to get his attention. An awful blot marred his father’s tunic and spread in tributaries across his chest, pooling next to him. A fly buzzed up from the blood. Even the sunlight seemed corrupted by the revelation of such a horror.

The first scream seemed to rise out of his very soul, tearing his throat as it spiraled up louder and louder. His inability to stop was nearly as terrifying as the yawning gulf in his life.

“Andreas? What’s wrong?” His mother had to force the door wider before she could join him. Her gasp only set him off further. “Themis, Lady of Law, how can this be?”

Stunned, she dropped to her knees alongside his father’s body. Her hands fluttered a moment before grasping her husband’s. Tears burning down her cheeks, she stared at Andreas’ father like one lost.

A knife-edged keening filled the air, startling him out of his own grief. His mother suddenly released her grip on his father’s hand and flung handfuls of dirt into her hair. Andreas stared blankly until he remembered to do the same. He’d never mourned anyone before.

“Careful, the kryptes may still be about.” She pulled him into her lap, glancing around the yard and peering intently at the trees beyond the goat shed. “No. Surely he’s gone.” His mother’s leaden tone, so different from her usual cheeriness, scared him.

She rocked Andreas, providing him with what comfort she had until his sobs turned to weary tremors, her tears all the while soaking into his hair.

Throat thick with tears, Andreas could only manage “Why?”

“Because….” She faltered. “They fear us and kill the best of us.”

He stared at her red-rimmed eyes. “Why do warriors fear slaves?”

“We helots vastly outnumber them.”

“Then why don’t we make them work for us?”

“Even though they are fewer than us, all they do from the time they are young like you is train to fight and kill. The kryptes who killed your father has nothing but a knife and a cloak. He has to take everything else that he needs to stay alive. Could you do that?”

Andreas had learned the lesson well. Never excel, never earn the respect of your neighbors, and don’t do anything to catch the Spartans’ eyes.

Bitterness almost overwhelmed his terror. The monsters slaughtered helots as if they were cattle that needed culling. And maybe to their lords that was exactly what they were, just another training exercise.

His lungs burned and sweat trickled across his forehead. He prayed the young man would take the dinner he’d laid out for himself and leave before Andreas gave himself away.

As if in answer to his pleas, Andreas heard his wooden bowl clatter against the platter on the table. The warrior must be gathering his porridge and the bread. If that was all the man took, he would count himself lucky.

The door creaked in protest as the youth slipped outside.

Trying to fill his starving lungs, Andreas gulped a deep breath. Thank the gods, the youth had left. He was past any hope of remaining silent.

Andreas shuddered where he cowered under the bed. Whiskers tickled his face as Ictis sniffed his cheek. The brash ferret seemed unaffected by his alarm, unaware of the danger that had entered their home.

Once his breathing slowed, Andreas worked his way out from under his bed. This would be impossible in the future. He’d nearly reached his father’s considerable size.

When he’d grown older and it became apparent he was his father’s son in more ways than one, his mother had finally confided her suspicions to him. To demonstrate their skill, the kryptes targeted and slew the strongest helots, like his father.

Andreas had always been a sturdy child, and when he’d become a strapping youth, she’d nearly cried. He’d done what he could to limit his growth, but in the years since, working the land alone had produced a physique to rival his father’s.

With trembling hands, he splashed a drop of honey for each of the gods on his hearth. “Zeus, Most High, I thank you for my life.” The sticky libation flared on the embers in aromatic, abject gratitude.

“Athena, may you and Apollo, the Lord of Light, continue to defend me.” He knelt with his brow on the raised hearth. “Hestia, continue to guard that which is yours.” Please, keep me safe. Only the gods could preserve him now if the kryptes chose to return.

He slumped onto the floor, curling in on himself, shaking.

Had he just escaped the fate that had claimed his father?