“Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
Lycurgus did not announce his coming to the Spartans. They were toiling in their workshops, haggling in the markets or praying on the temple steps. My mother and I were the only two who had known the Wolf was near.
His band of three marched through the streets of Sparta and their advange was like the thrust of a knife. Men pulled their wives and children close, hurrying them inside and locking their doors. Watchmen dropped their spears as they ran towards the palace.
My head jolted up and down with the ambling gait of the Bull. I was slung over his shoulder like a sack of oats. It had been a long trek from the mouth of the valley, but the Bull had not once shown sign of fatigue from the added burden.
“Where are the Spartans?” Lycurgus called at each corner or crossroads. “Look, we are taking your sons to be our slaves! Where are the men of Sparta who will prevent us?”
In the lurching, shaking houses on either side I saw frightened eyes peering through shadowed windows. Anxious faces looked out to see if it was their child who had been captured. I cried out to those I recognised, my neighbours and friends. None replied. The only answers to Lycurgus’ challenge were gasps of relief that their sons were safe.
“Here is a Spartan.” a voice said. “Who are you, strangers?”
The Bull shifted my weight off his shoulder and I landed on the ground with a thud. Pain shot through my elbows and buttocks.
A dozen spearmen blocked the road ahead of us, with the painted walls of the palace rising behind them. It was only one storey high, but taller than any other building in our city. Two men emerged from the knot of shifting, wary-eyed guards.
The speaker was young, in his twenties, with hair and skin tanned walnut brown by the Laconian sun. He was our king, Charilaus. Beside him was an elderly man with wizened skin and a bald, wrinkled head. His knees shook as he faced Lycurgus and he leaned on the arm of a sentry to support his frail body.
The elder was Eunomus and he was also our king. There had always been two kings in Sparta, to ensure that no one man could rise to command the whole.
“Do you not remember me?” Lycurgus asked, walking towards the kings. A ripple passed through the spearmen’s ranks as they backed away. “Have you forgotten your old tutor, who your mother forced into exile?”
“I remember a cruel man who beat me when I was not attentive to my lessons.” Charilaus replied, moving to stand opposite the veteran mercenary.
“And did you learn anything from your lashes?”
There was a dangerous sneer in Lycurgus’ voice. It was suddenly apparent to me how different the two men were. One was made all of tight sinew and lean muscle, while the other was soft in the arms and legs. But there was muscle beneath the king’s pampered figure and he wore a sword at his waist.
“I learned not to trust the man who wears a wolf’s pelt for a cloak.” Charilaus said, reaching towards his blade.
The men turned their heads at the sound of sandals clapping on the dirt road. Ligeia ran past the Bull and Spider, sprinted up to Lycurgus and came to a panting halt beside him. My mother spared me no more than a passing glance, fixing her eyes on the two kings.
“Lords, the Messenians have been sighted.” she said, her voice scratching out from a dry throat. “They are marching towards us.”
“This is why we have returned,” Lycurgus said to the king. “In the hope that you had learned from what I taught you before going into exile. Looking at these soft men, these frail kings, I see little hope for you.”
“That may be so.” Charilaus said, sliding his sword out from its scabbard and moving close enough to his old tutor that their faces almost touched. “But we are still Spartans and we will defend our homes.”
“That is a slender hope, a Spartan hope.”
“Will you stand with us, Lycurgus?”
“I shall, if only to show these fellows how a true Spartan fights. You may be a king, but there are still some lessons you may learn from one whose spear has been proved in blood.”
Charilaus turned to his fellow king. The old man gave a nod which seemed to sap the last whisper of strength from his body. He slumped back into the arms of his guard and the spearmen carried him back towards the palace.
I stared open-mouthed as Charilaus dug the tip of his sword into the soft skin of his palm. Lycurgus did the same and they clasped each other’s forearms in a grip which stained the street red with drops of their blood.
The first horn sounded to the north and a cloud of dust rose beyond the city limits. Lycurgus turned towards the noise and raised his voice in an echoing shout.
“Men of Sparta, awake and take up the spear! Women of Sparta, take to the rooftops and have missiles to hand! Children of Sparta, watch how well your parents fight. If they turn in fear or throw down their weapons, stone them until their bones break, for they will have betrayed you.”
Read about the real Lycurgus on Encyclopaedia Britannica!