“Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
Tangled branches of stunted thorn and rough thickets scratched at my legs as I ran. The flat valley which sheltered Sparta was a wasteland of tangled shrubs, densely shaded olive groves and orange-brown soil crumbling under the relentless sun.
It was home, a haven sheltered by high mountain ranges to the east and west. Shimmering blue waves lapped the shores of Lacedaemon in the south.
There was only one road large enough to carry an army into Sparta. It ran northwest, where the broad valley narrowed. All eyes in Sparta watched that narrow defile, waiting for the warriors of Messenia to march through it.
I was not looking for the Messenians on that day. Someone far deadlier, a hero worthy of Homer’s epics, would be coming down into our valley. They said the earth was scorched black wherever his feet fell. I did not know whether to believe them, but I wanted to.
A slight rise hid me from sight as I crouched, overlooking the bare dirt path. Nothing moved for several hours. The whole world seemed to drop into stillness. I wondered whether he had been delayed. Would he come at all?
Then I saw the outlines of three men at the mouth of the valley. How long had they stood there for? They seemed like statues, marble figures of proud gods overlooking the realm of men.
One of them led the way, scrambling down the uneven slope. The way he moved, his short built and narrow limbs told me his name. He could be no other than Arachnion, the Spider.
Another followed once the Spider reached the bottom. This man was larger, with broad shoulders and bulging muscles shining with sweat. He was Tavros, the Bull, and he had none of the Spider’s grace. I watched as he stumbled and rolled the last few metres, sending up a cloud of dust and curses to the gods.
My hand gripped the bare stone beside me. Who were these men, who did not fear the gods? They each wore a short white tunic and carried a long spear, holding them with greater certainty than I had ever seen in the farmers or artisans of Sparta when they were called on to fight.
Was I doing the right thing? These were true warriors, not conscripts or volunteers. If I approached them as I had planned, they might kill me outright. The gods would provide no help. The Bull and the Spider had no fear of the divine.
There was a sudden movement at the corner of my vision. Where was the third man? The valley’s mouth and slope were empty. His two companions stood at its base, laughing as they sat down and unwrapped a parcel of goat’s cheese.
“Are you spying on us, boy?”
I rolled onto my back as the gruff man’s voice spoke behind me. There was Lycurgus, the Wolf. A heavy grey pelt hung over his back and I could see the silver medallion hanging at his throat. It marked him out as a mercenary, a spear which could always be bought if the right price was offered.
He was going to kill me. The murderous fire burned in his clear blue eyes.
I scrambled away, turning to run. Lycurgus’ companions stood in front of me, blocking my escape. The Spider gave a cruel, grating laugh and popped a crumb of cheese into his mouth.
“He looks like a spy to me.” he said.
“I’m not a spy.” I said, falling to my knees and shuffling around to face Lycurgus. “I’m a Spartan.”
The butt of the Bull’s spear rapped against the back of my skull, making me fall flat on my face. I lay there with my nose pressed into the dry earth, shaking as Lycurgus crouched in front of me.
“Do not tell me you are a Spartan.” he said. “The men of Sparta are strong. They would never kneel or be struck without fighting back. This was the way of things when I left. These were the lessons I taught our people.”
I drew in a trembling breath and waited for the spearhead to pierce my back. Why had I not stayed at home?
“They have forgotten.” I whispered.
“Do not lie to me. My pupil Menelaus gave me a solemn oath. He would not break it.”
“He died in the winter after you left.”
“You lie again, boy.”
My voice rose to shrill cry and tears ran down my cheeks. It was unfair, a cruel game of the fates. My mother had said Lycurgus would recognise me as Menelaus’ son. He would embrace me and take me into his company. Those were her promises, which Lycurgus had broken.
“We shall see.” the mercenary said, gesturing to his companions. “The gods will judge whether you have been truthful with us.”
The heavy ash staff cracked down again. A dagger of hot pain stabbed through my skull and my vision faded to drowning blackness.
Read about the real Lycurgus on Encyclopaedia Britannica!