Aristodemos “the trembler”

Tressas, the trembler, they whisper when he walks by, Aristodemos the coward, and they despise him. I brought him blind from Alpenoi. Six days and six nights we ran, out of breath, to reach Sparta before the messengers.

In vain.

As we were entering from the Aphetais Road, we heard the wailing. It was the ninth night of the month of Metageitnion and the sixth since the death of our king and his two hundred and ninety-nine sacrificed hoplites. The three hundredth was my master, Aristodemos, who, to his misfortune, was unable to fight with his comrades in that final battle of the Pass, because he was blinded by the din and dust, and Leonidas himself told him to go to Alpenoi along with Eurytos, who was also suffering from the same illness.

I am still wearing the linen garment under the leather jerkin, moist from the sweat and blood of battle. And, as if fatigue and thirst and unbearable heat were not enough, I was also carrying Maron’s shield, to bring it to his Spartan mother.
He had asked me to do that, as he lay dying.

It was a few hours after the final battle, the battle of sacrifice. I was wandering about in a daze; I had known what would happen. I knew that the seer Megistias had seen death in the entrails of the sacrificial animal “the death which was to come with the dawn” in his words. And as soon as the barbarians left, as soon as I saw our side defeated to the last man, I ran, out of my mind, onto the small hill where they had stood, surrounded by the guard of the Immortals. I did not know what I was looking for: to see those demigods one more time; to bid farewell, although he was dead, to the seer Megistias from Akarnania, my protector, who was a descendant of Melampous and the friend of Klytoneos. I wandered thus, half-crazed, looking for some sign, listening for some groan.

I found Maron still breathing. The fearless one. He and his brother, Alpheos, sons of the veteran Orsiphantes, were the champions of Leonidas, heroes who fought next to him, for whoever is declared a hero has the privilege of fighting next to the king. They fell on the enemy like thunderbolts, hacking him to pieces. Maron’s body was covered with wounds, bits of iron everywhere; he was a bloody pulp, but he would not give up.

“Alkamenes, he called to me, I am dying...”

I stood next to him and felt ashamed that I had survived. “You are alive, Maron, I whispered to him, you are alive... I will take you on my shoulder, carry you...”
I bent over to take him in my arms and he pushed me back with his shattered arm. “I will stay here, among my comrades, he said. Only take my shield... I am lying on it...” his voice was growing faint, “to my mother...” he said, and died.

My legs are giving way, I will fall over, I tell myself, I will collapse; I who would throw myself into battle like a wild beast... and then... If I had a cup of water... water... I am here, on the Amyklai road, opposite the feiditia, the public tables; it is still night. If only I can drag myself to the temple of Artemis Orthia, leave Aristodemos here and run to his wife, the Mistress Eunike, they cannot all abandon us... a lump of blood in my throat... they cannot... for three days we have been wandering, thirsty and without shelter in the streets of Sparta... But what does Menoitos want here at this hour...


“The Krypteia· has given the order that you not help Aristodemos... you see that no one is speaking to him; they will not even give him fire... for all of them he is the trembler, the fainthearted, but the Krypteia will come after you...”
It was the first time I saw him so shaken.

“Who? Was it Derkylidas who said that? He has found an excuse to do me in... has been waiting for years to do it... But don’t you talk with me... go away... run, Menoitos, lest they see you... I will not abandon Aristodemos, no matter what they do to me”.

I see him hesitate. He is the only son of the seer Megistias; Leonidas sent him away before the final battle, so that both father and son would not die together.

“You know, when he bid me farewell, he said to me...” The sob does not let him finish, and I am terrified that he may cry, that he may be seen crying.

“Come on, tell me quickly and begone...”

“He told me to give you his scrolls... that you should continue the chronicle of events and the divination....”

I sprang up.

“I? Am I worthy? A Helot... a... I don’t understand... Megistias is bestowing such a great honor on me?”

I watch Menoitos going away and drag myself to the temple of Artemis Orthia. Fortunately, I had some hellebore and other herbs with me, which my teacher Klytoneos had taught me to use. I prepared a makeshift cataplasm for Aristodemos’ eyes and a drug to ease the pain and also to keep him from sensing the contempt of his fellow citizens. But he sensed it. He heard the cruel words of Nikomedes. And it frightens me that he doesn’t speak. He has not said a word since that moment; he is stone-faced.

He does not want me to guide him. He is blind, but he sees—by touch, by smell. He smells. He knows the streets of Sparta stone by stone. His shoeless feet know the city better than eyes.

The fearless warrior. He fought so ferociously at the Pass. And now...

I, a Helot here in Sparta for eleven years, am his helper.

I, Alkamenes, son of Lykias, from the clan of the Euneidai on Lemnos.

A sob rises up inside me. I feel that the contempt for my master, Aristodemos, is contempt for me, as well, since I survived. Better that I had died... died there with the others.

I fall onto the floor of the temple and weep, for the first time since my childhood—even though I know it is unbecoming. For the first time, all the memories of my past life well up inside me. I believed that everything I had lived through in my wanderings had been stamped out, that the ten year old boy who was taken hostage from Lemnos on Persian ships one winter morning had died. And now I see him before me, looking at me with a puzzled gaze in his big frightened eyes.

I am that ten year old boy, Thoas, and I am you.

I hear your voice. I hear you calling me. When everything sinks into silence, then your voice comes to me from unknown paths...where are you?

I believed that I had died for you, my brother. You were always in my thoughts, every moment of my life. You and Hippolyte, whom I lost a year and one-half later, during our endless wanderings with Klytoneos. Her I found. I know.

Today I am trying to find you, Thoas.

I, too, fought at the Pass. I was Aristodemos’ aide. At times I would lose sight of him in the chaos of battle, and I fought alone; I struck relentlessly. My hands trembled with the desire to plunge the spear into the flesh of the greedy, arrogant Asian, who brought all his gold treasures to make slaves of us. You, you, I said every time I struck, you came to Lemnos and destroyed the, you bound me with chains and dragged me away into slavery...

Do you remember, Thoas?

Do you remember, my brother, that wintry morning when we saw the Persian ships mooring on the shore of Myrina? How they spilled out like a few moments we saw them before us, fierce; some slaughtered anyone who offered the least resistance, while others were binding mothers, daughters, sons, in chains and leading them away as prisoners.

Thirteen winters ago, Thoas.

We were children. And now we are men. If you are still living, Thoas...

If you are still living.

I swore that I would return to Lemnos only after I washed that innocent blood from my hands. Blood for blood, I said. For thirteen years, I have sworn every day to see my homeland free. I came to Sparta solely to serve those demigod warriors, as Klytoneos described them to me, to be their servant—that was what I was capable of. And, in time, that made me proud.

Nor did I ever look for news of you. I was afraid they would tell me you were dead, or that you shared my fate, a hostage or a servant.

I was afraid, Thoas.

The hope that you had survived the brutality, that you were living peacefully somewhere, perhaps at our house in Myrina, kept me alive. Even though I knew that on that cursed morning the Persian became master of Lemnos a second time.
Will you ever be able to forgive me?

When I saw our mother lying in a pool of blood and the Persian’s sword aimed at you, I went mad. Our father already lay dead nearby. I rushed at the Persian, my lean child’s body rushed at him, and he was startled and stood there looking at me. My hand was shaking as it held a discarded Persian sword... But that gave you enough time to run and hide.

I saw you looking at me, as they dragged me to the ship. You stuck your head out from behind the marble fountain in the garden of our house and looked at me.

I saw you, Thoas, remember? Do you remember that fleeting moment when I bid you farewell? Then, I heard your voice calling me. The oarsmen were already untying the ropes from the moorings, and I could still hear your voice.

The sudden storm was my salvation.

The storm that wrecked their ships off Athos.

For thirteen years that moment has been the focus of my life. And for the first time, I am raising it up from my innermost being, bringing it clearly before my eyes. The time has come now, I tell myself, I must talk to you now, my brother. I have no more time. Hades is opening his gates, is waiting for me, because I will fight savagely wherever I find myself again. The Persian advances, burning all in his path; I will fight to die or to free you.

I tell myself that you must be living, Thoas. That the voice I hear in the still of night is your voice. I do not speak of our parents; I saw them lying dead in their blood. I am talking about you, my brother. I received no sign from Hades that you are there. And now... now that I am rushing headlong toward death, I feel the need to find you again, to touch you, the one with whom I shared our mother’s womb; we came into the world on the same day, embracing.

You are my other half.

I still feel your touch on my flesh: a tender, inexplicable touch; the touch of the womb. These thoughts emerge for the first time from the depths of my soul, Thoas, here in the darkness of the temple, with Aristodemos next to me, semi-conscious from pain and hellebore. And I feel the need to talk with you. Only when I am thinking of you do I feel whole, even though I am a Helot.

When I think of you, I am free.

For thirteen years now—two and a half of wandering with our beloved Klytoneos, whom the barbarians also dragged in chains to their ship, and eleven years in Sparta—I feel you next to me, my brother, my other half. And I tell myself that if I am killed, if I die, you will live for me. You will be me.

I know you can hear what I am telling you, Thoas. There is that communication between souls, just as Klytoneos taught us, with the word “tele,” which means to communicate from far away. I communicate with the power of the mind. It’s in that way that I feel you next to me all these years, touching my flesh with the tenderness of our mother. That is how your voice finds me.

From the window of the temple, in the pre-dawn light, I see Gorgo, the wife of our slain king, climbing up on Mount Parnon, where Leonidas liked to walk at that hour.
She is going up to call his spirit, I tell myself. To talk with him.

I hope that she does not enter the temple. I do not want her to see Aristodemos in his wretched state. This brave man, who was a devoted friend to Leonidas, and stood by him when he took the kingship from his half-brother Kleomenes, eight years earlier, and shared the kingship with Leotychides after the exile of Demaratos, the traitor—who is now marching with Xerxes, against his homeland.

I want to write all this to you, Thoas, so that you will know what turn my life has taken. I have nothing else to leave you but the recounting of my life: what I lived through as a Helot, here in the harsh world of Sparta, and what I experienced in my wanderings with Klytoneos. And I tell myself I must hurry. During the nights. During the day I will train and serve my master, and at night I will write to you on the scrolls that Megistias left me. As much as I can.

Dawn is coming.

I must go to the Mistress Eunike. To find shelter and herbs for the cataplasms. And I must do so quickly, before the city wakes.

· Krypteia: Secret police service in Sparta