Theo Khthonios (A story in Lawyers in Hell)

Lawyers in HellTheo Khthonios
(A story in Lawyers in Hell)

The spear bites low and deep, slipping between bronze and leather to skewer his hip.  He stumbles.  The enemy surges forward.  A wicker shield catches him off balance; a second spear shatters on the brow of his Corinthian helmet.  “Zeus Savior and Ares!” he bellows; faces loom over him – cruel Asiatics with curled and blood-blasted beards, lips peeled back in snarls of hate.  They had paid dearly for this.  Oh, yes.  They had paid the butcher’s bill, a hecatomb of blood and flesh for every man among them.  He falls to his knees, hears his own men cry out his name:  “Leonidas!”

Time slows.  A tracery of clouds veil the face of the sun, creating bands of light and shadow across the stony face of Mount Kallidromos.  Colors flare and sharpen:  the purple of Persian tunics, the gleam of scale and bronze, the warm chestnut of leather … all nearly hidden by a pall of blood.  Time’s flow resumes with a scream of rage.


Lawyers in HellLeonidas struggles.  He can’t raise his shield.  The twenty-pound aspis hangs like a dead weight on the end of his arm.  Instead, he lashes out with the broken haft of his spear.  A Mede in a fish-scale corselet crashes into the mud before him.  Blood gouts as Leonidas plunges the butt-spike into the fallen man’s throat.  He glimpses a hennaed beard, the gleam of gold.  An Immortal no more.  The Spartan’s gaze holds a moment longer, then he glances up … in time to see the weapon that will write his doom:  a Persian akinakes, its blade notched and slick with blood.  Greek blood.  The blood of his allies, of his kinsmen, of his precious Three Hundred.  A gory hand snatches at the neck of his breastplate; iron rasps on bronze as the akinakes pierces the hollow of Leonidas’ throat.

There is one cold moment of searing pain.  Leonidas tries to speak, but his voice is silenced by a foaming tide of blood; he tries to spit in the Persian’s eye, but he cannot draw breath.  And as he hangs there, his life’s blood pumping from severed arteries, King Leonidas of Sparta recalls words spoken over a meager breakfast, words to bolster Spartan resolve:  “Eat hearty,” he told his grim-faced Spartiates, his valiant Three Hundred.  “Eat hearty, for tonight we dine in Hades!”

And so they did.  That night, the night of their deaths at the hands of the Mede – the night they died defending the narrow pass of Thermopylae – Leonidas and his Spartans met on the banks of the River Styx.  Beneath a storm-wracked sky they dined on black broth and loaves of ashen bread.  With a smile, Leonidas recalled the broth’s tastelessness; in that moment, he apprehended the nature of this place called Tartaros, with its endless wars and opportunities for glory:  it was a Spartan paradise.

The dead king of Sparta stood now at a table topped with sand and rock, gazing over the landscape it represented.  His companion, Dienekes, had spent many long hours scouting the surrounding countryside himself and directing the efforts of the Skiritai – the cadre of scouts who were the eyes of the Spartan army.  This map was the culmination of Dienekes’ efforts, its creation aided by one of the new helots, a young foreigner clad in gray wool who died at a place called Verdun.

Leonidas studied the lay of the land with a critical eye.  He had no frame of reference, no sun or stars to tell him which direction was north; instead, he let the nomenclature of the phalanx guide him:  the Stygian Mere guarded their backs, its stinking fens nourished by the hateful waters of the Styx; on his shield side, a few leagues off sprouted a tangled and mist-girt forest, where the savage Blue Men held sway.  On his spear side, Leonidas’ spies had discovered a fortified citadel rising at the head of a long valley, held by men who called themselves Turks.  And straight ahead, through country gashed by chasms and haunted by all manner of brigands and masterless shades, the dead of Argos made their camp.

A slow smile twisted Leonidas’ thin lips.  He stroked his spade-like beard and nodded.  As they were in life, so too would they be in death … sparring partners for his restless Spartiates, spear fodder for their newfound helots and perioikoi, the infernal dwellers round about.  Perhaps not a glorious campaign, but a necessary one.  Even here – especially here – his Spartans needed practice in the art of the spear; they needed the Argives–

The harsh and dissonant blare of a salpinx scattered Leonidas’ thoughts.  He stirred from the table, turned to the flap of his tent as Dienekes appeared.  Twenty years his junior, Dienekes had been his eromenos as a youth; they were companions, now.  Shield-brothers standing shoulder to shoulder in the phalanx.

“What goes?” Leonidas said.

The younger man, stripped to the waist and sweating in the unrelenting heat, indicated the gates of the Spartan camp with a jerk of his head.  “A herald has come.”

“Who from?”

Dienekes shrugged.  “He calls for you.”

With a deepening frown, Leonidas followed his young companion out into the Stygian afternoon.  The sky overhead was the color of bronze left too long at the mercy of the elements, and the air around them stank of ash and gall.  Sulfuric clouds and the smoke of a thousand fires scudded low over the horizon.  The Spartan king heard a distant rumble, like the iron wheels of Hades’ own chariot thundering down the flinty banks of the Acheron.

The Spartan camp stood atop the crest of a low hill.  The battle squires who were with them at Thermopylae directed the efforts of a new crop of helots, men from wildly different lands who had wept at the sight of the lambda scrawled on Spartan shields – the inverted ‘V’ of Lakedaemon.  “I have searched for you, good king!” one had said, clutching Leonidas’ knees in shameful ecstasy.  “For three hundred years I’ve scoured Tartaros for some sign of you!”

Strange, Leonidas thought.  By his reckoning they had been under the earth for a little more than a fortnight….

He and Dienekes passed these same helots struggling to erect defensive walls under the tutelage of a cadre of perioikoi from Greater Greece, engineers who hailed from a place called Genoa.  They worked with stone grubbed from the hard ground and timbers cut under the watchful eyes of the Blue Men.  The wall would follow the natural slope of the hill, the engineers said, to create a glacis that would stymie potential attackers.  Not that Leonidas planned to afford his enemies time to mount such an assault – once enough arms were scavenged from nearby battlefields, the omens taken and libations made, he would lead his Spartans out against the Argives, slaughter them, then move on to the Turks.

The salpinx bleated once more, and as Leonidas neared the gates of the encampment – little more than a barricaded ox cart – he heard a man calling his name:  “Leonidas, son of Anaxandridas, come forth!”

Nimbly, the king of Sparta leapt atop the gate, Dienekes in his wake.  Two men waited outside the encampment, a herald and his salpinx-bearing slave.

“I am here,” Leonidas said without preamble.  “Who are you, and what do you want?”

The herald was clad in the manner of an Athenian aristocrat; he was a spindly-legged fellow, small and goatish with a dark face and a bristly-black beard.  He stared at Leonidas as though taken aback.  “Y-you – You are King Leonidas?”

“Did I not just say as much?”

The herald cleared his throat.  “I am Simonides of Keos, Lord, and I … I have come to bring you before the ephors!”

“We have ephors?” Dienekes muttered.

“Apparently so.  Who are these ephors, Simonides of Keos, and what do they want with me?”

“As above, so below, Lord.  The ephors are peers of Sparta, and what they want is your obedience.  Will you answer their summons?”

Leonidas’ brow furrowed.  In the sunlit world of the living, the Spartan ephors, a council of five Spartiates elected annually to counter the power of the city’s two kings, rarely summoned him – or any citizen of Lakedaemon, for that matter – in order to sing his praises to the heavens.  They were quarrelsome, motivated by base politics and personal gain, and they had been a thorn in his living side since the death of his brother, Kleomenes, paved the way for his accession to the throne.  As above, so below?  Leonidas guessed as much.

“Will you answer their summons, Lord?”

“We will,” Leonidas replied.  He turned to Dienekes.  “Assemble the Three Hundred.  We must pay our respects to our ephors.”  Dienekes nodded and turned, bellowing the order to assemble.  Instantly, a sense of urgency replaced the relative calm of the camp as the Spartiates donned burnished greaves and cuirasses, drew on their helmets and took up their spears.  Though they lacked the signature scarlet cloaks of the Spartan soldier, the lambda scratched on their broad shields left little doubt as to their identity.

Simonides raised a hand, looking nervous, his voice all but lost to the sudden clamor arising behind the barricade.  “L-lord?  They called for you, alone.”

“Alone?  Were you Spartan, Simonides of Keos, then you’d know our laws hold that no king may travel unattended by his hippeis, his guard of honor.  These…” Leonidas’ proud gesture encompassed the three hundred warriors massing inside the gate, “…are mine.”

*

In column by twos, Leonidas led his Spartans into the chasm-riddled country between their camp and that of the Argives, following a track that bore ever to the left as it snaked into the blasted highlands; with each step, the Spartan king saw reminders that they marched through a landscape shattered by eternal war.  Pallid dust caked the corroded remnants of chariots and war-wagons, providing meager cerements for the bones of hapless soldiers and would-be conquerors alike.  How many shades had arisen from the mortal grave to find new and infernal purpose as foot soldiers of Hades?  How many nursed the same desire that thundered in Leonidas’ own breast – to build and subjugate and grind the bones of his enemies under heel?  And how many had these desires abrogated by a swift blade, a spear thrust, an arrow hissing from the brazen-black sky?  Only Hades, lord of the underworld, knew such answers….

The Spartans marched to a lively tune skirling from a reed flute; they marched oblivious to the drifts of unburied bone, ignoring eidolons carved of rock and decorated with the skulls of the defeated.  They glanced indifferently at trophy mounds surmounted by altars dedicated to a thousand different gods of war.  The Three Hundred marched like jaded spectators who had seen every horror, every atrocity, every conceivable cruelty one man could inflict upon another.

“They fear nothing,” Simonides remarked, glancing over his shoulder.  The smaller man started at every shadow, averted his eyes from the most gruesome of the altars.

Leonidas followed his gaze.  “What is there left to fear?  We are, all of us, dead men in truth.”

“‘We count it death to falter, not to die,’” the smaller man quoted.

The Spartan king was silent for a moment.  “Who were you, Simonides of Keos?  Your name is familiar, yet you do not bear the aspect of a man of violence.”

“I was a poet.”

“Were you good?”

“Good enough to compose your epitaph, Lord.”  Simonides’ face flushed with pride as he put his hand to his breast and spoke with lyrical flourish:  “Go tell the Spartans, O stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie!”

Leonidas nodded.  “Adequate.  I gather our allies eventually drove the Mede from Hellas?”

“At Salamis a month after you fell, then the following year at Plataea,” Simonides said.  “Thermopylae was the war-cry of the Greeks.”  The poet looked askance at Leonidas.  “There is a name you must commit to memory, Lord.  That name is Ephialtes of Trachis.”

“Who is he?”

“He is the man who betrayed you.  The man who showed Xerxes a path around the Hot Gates.  I have no doubt he, too, resides in Tartaros, should you wish to seek him out.”

The Spartan king’s eyes sharpened to points, like whetted knives.  “My thanks, Simonides.  I will remember the name of Ephialtes, you may count upon it.”

They continued on in silence.  Sandaled feet raised a pall of dust as the road ascended alongside a ragged gorge, its bottom given over to shadow.  Thorn and black ivy clung to the side of the chasm.  Leonidas felt a sense of familiarity, as though he’d seen this place before – even as he felt the unmistakable sensation of scrutiny.

“We’re being watched,” Leonidas said as Dienekes came abreast of him.

“I feel it, too.”  Dienekes indicated the gorge with a nod.  “From down there.”

“The Ataphoi,” Simonides replied, shivering despite the stifling heat.  “The shades of the unburied.  Nigh upon animals, they are – and drawn to this place, though none know why.  I shouldn’t think they would dare attack a party of this magnitude.  Still, it is fortunate we are near our destination.”

“How near?”

“A parasang, perhaps.  Maybe less.”

Leonidas nodded.  “Dienekes, pass the word.  Simonides, have your slave blow a tune on his horn.  Long and loud.”

Simonides gestured to his salpinx-bearer, who filled his lungs and loosed a thunderous blast.  Stones rattled down.  Echo caught the voice of the salpinx and carried it deep into the gorge where the Ataphoi quailed and clapped hands to ears.  And in answer, there came from on high the brazen roar of a trumpet.

Leonidas increased his pace; armor rattled as his Spartans did the same.  The path upward became a flight of rough-hewn steps which carried them to the crest of a plateau.  It was an acropolis, in a manner of speaking, treeless and wreathed in smoke.  A circular temple dominated the plateau, its walls and columns pitted and stained black from countless attempts to burn it to the ground.

“Welcome to Caeadas, Lord,” Simonides said with a breathless flourish.

Caeadas.  The eerie hint of familiarity made sense, now.  It resembled mortal Caeadas, in the heart of Mount Taygetus – Leonidas had been to that place many times as a living king; he had stood at the lip of the gorge and presided over the execution of criminals.  There, too, was where Sparta disposed of the weak, the unfit, the deformed.  How many babes had he left on the cold and unyielding rocks?  How many had he left to the Fates?

Nor was Leonidas ignorant of the implication:  if this site served a similar function, the ephors had summoned him to the place of judgment and of slaughter.  His face settled into a grim mask as he shouldered past Simonides and made his way to the temple.

Knots of Greeks milled about the plateau.  Some wore antique armor of heavy bronze, blood-streaked and dented, while others were clad in corselets of linen.  Leonidas saw a profusion of helmets and crests:  boars’ tooth, Corinthian and Chalcidian; some like flat-brimmed kettles and others like Phrygian caps of hammered bronze.  Men of other races and nations mingled among the Greeks, as well.  The Spartan king glimpsed Persians with their curled beards, though clad in unfamiliar robes; he saw Nubians and Egyptians and pale men with ruddy complexions.  And with each group stood a fellow clad after the same fashion as Simonides, in the manner of Athenian aristocracy – some read silently from rolled papyri while others conversed in low voices with the men around them, like advocates preparing their cases.

But even the most devoted among them stopped and stared at the sight of armed Spartans cresting the plateau.  Whispers arose, and Leonidas heard his name spoken like a susurrant echo.  He gestured Simonides to his side.

“These ephors, I take it they adjudicate claims and render binding judgments?”

“They do, Lord.  They act under the auspices of she who is the Kore, to mitigate somewhat the violence of Tartaros; the aggrieved may come before them and know their cause will be heard and fairly judged.  And she only chooses Spartans for this task – for who else can offer impartiality in matters of war?”

“The Kore chooses them?”

“With Lord Hades’ blessing,” Simonides replied.  “When next she declares an Olympiad, all fighting in Tartaros must cease and she will select five Spartans to serve as her ephors until she calls for another Olympiad, and another truce.”

“So they serve four years instead of one?”

Simonides waffled.  “Perhaps it is four years, perhaps it is but one.  Time has an odd quality here, Lord.  A day might pass in the blink of an eye, or it may drag on for an eternity.  It is easier to embrace the notion that an Olympiad is as long as it pleases the Kore and let that be the end of it.”

Leonidas gave the poet a distracted nod as they neared the temple:  it was a tholos, more a meeting house than a place of worship, and it looked as though Titans had dug its foundations and erected its walls.  Half a hundred steps led up to the iron-studded doors, thrown wide open and guarded by a pair of obsidian statues – many-headed Kerberos, the Hound of Hades.  They seemed to glare down at the Spartans as Leonidas set foot on the bottom course of stairs.  He turned slightly.

“Dienekes, you’re with me.  The rest of you, stand ready.  Lead the way, Simonides.”

“We must wait –” the poet said.

“I think not.”  Leonidas ascended the steps.  Before he reached the half-way mark, he heard a voice tinged with petulant anger echoing from inside the temple:

“Is that your final decision?”

“It is.”  The respondent sounded old, weary.  “We do not seek to ally ourselves with you, Alexandros of Macedon.  Instead, you should seek to ingratiate yourself with us!  We are the ephors!  We are the Chosen of Persephone, not you!”

“So be it, Lawgiver!  But know this:  I have extended my hand to you in friendship only to have it rebuffed!  I will not extend it a second time!”  Hob-nailed sandals clashed on tile.

“You arrogant whelp!” another voice bellowed.

“Arrogant?  I conquered Persia without your kind, Spartan!  I can conquer Tartaros just as easily!”

Leonidas was but steps from the head of the temple’s stairs when a cluster of figures stormed out its doors.  Six ruddy Macedonians – scarred fighters clad in black iron and linen – ringed a seventh:  a golden-haired youth whose clean-shaven face was a mask of anger.

“Hidebound fools!” the youth said, switching from Doric Greek to the guttural argot of Macedon.  “We dwell in a new land, where new rules are in play, and yet they prefer to sit on their backsides and bask in the dusty glory of forgotten Thermopylae!”  The youth caught sight of Simonides, two imposing Spartans at his side.  Tossing his hair back, shaking his mane like a young lion recovering its dignity, he offered Simonides a smile – though his eyes remained cold black motes of rage.  “Well met, good poet of Keos!  And you, friend Spartan!”

“It is counted an auspicious moment,” Simonides replied, “when two kings meet under the banner of truce.  King Alexandros of Macedon, I give you –”

“A Spartan,” Leonidas interrupted, “for whom the glory of Thermopylae is neither dusty nor forgotten.”  His smile matched Alexandros’ own, predatory and devoid of warmth.

The young Macedonian looked him up and down.  “A Spartan and a king?  You are Leonidas, then.  You must forgive my ill choice of words.  It’s your peers, they … vex me.”

“I understand.”

Alexandros’ eyebrow arched but he said nothing.  After a moment, one of his Macedonian companions leaned closer to him, a spare and leathery fellow who wore a ferryman’s coin on a thong about his neck.  “Alexandros, we tarry too long.”

“Of course, Nearchos.”  The young king stirred.  “I would consider it a favor of the highest order if you and your men would come with us, Leonidas.  And you as well, good Simonides.  There is much I would talk with you about.”

Simonides opened his mouth to answer, but Leonidas silenced him with a brusque motion, saying, “I have business with the ephors that cannot wait.”

“I would insist, but I see that would be an exercise in futility with you.”  Alexandros sighed.  “Pity.  Another time, perhaps.  I am honored to have met you, my brother king.”

“And I, you.”  With a nod, Leonidas brushed past the Macedonians.

“That one’s trouble,” Simonides muttered, once he was sure Alexandros was out of ear-shot.  “Even in life his arrogance was well known, or so I’m told.  His mother claimed he was the son of Zeus and that was a notion he embraced, even if no one else did.  And like a scion of the god, he went on to ally himself with the Thracians, conquer the Athenians and their allies, raze Thebes, devastate Asia Minor, shatter the Persians in two battles, and march into the very heart of India.  He might have gone to the very ends of the earth had a jealous countryman not slipped poison into his wine.”

“All well and good,” Leonidas said, gaining the temple portico.  Its pitted columns were like ancient tree-trunks.  “But did he conquer Sparta?”

“No, he did not.  Indeed, a scholar from a little village called Ox-ford told me that Alexandros, or perhaps his father, I do not recall – regardless, he told me one of them sent a message to your countrymen.  ‘If I enter Laconia,’ so the message ran, ‘I will raze Sparta to the ground.’  Your peers sent back a single word in reply –”

“‘If’,” Dienekes interrupted.  “The word was ‘if.’”

“Yes.  You’ve heard this story?”

But Dienekes shook his head.

Already monumentally ugly, the sudden frown twisting Simonides’ face lent him the aspect of a fearsome Gorgon.  “Then how did you know?”

Dienekes and Leonidas exchanged knowing smiles.  “We are Spartan, poet.  What other answer could there be?  But, enough.  We will deal with this upstart Macedonian later.  Come.”

Simonides gnawed his lip, glancing from man to man as they marched past the brooding images of Kerberos and into the heart of the temple.  The air inside was still, heavy with incense and the sour stench of fear.  Things waited in the stygian darkness; Leonidas saw nothing, but he heard the rustle of leathery wings, the scrabble of claws on polished marble, the faint hiss of infernal laughter.  Perhaps they were the dreaded Erinys, waiting to deliver the judgment of the ephors; perhaps they were something else….

Ahead, hellish light seeped down from clerestory windows to illuminate a conclave of five men.  Four of them sat uncomfortably on oversized seats carved of living rock, black basalt etched with silver runes and whorls; the fifth, a giant of a man clad in an antique cuirass, stood beside an empty seat.

“Mark my words!” the giant said, his voice a basso rumble.  “That strutting little peacock will cause no end of trouble!”

“He is not our concern, Menelaos,” replied the man in the center seat.  Though frail through the shoulders and gray-bearded, he spoke with the power and conviction of a trained orator.  “We are here to prosecute the Kore’s will, not to become embroiled in petty politics.”

“Petty, Lykourgos?” a third ephor said.  He, too, had a beard more gray than black, with deep-set eyes that had seen too much of Hades’ realm.  “No.  Menelaos is right – this Macedonian is dangerous.  Dispatch the Erinys….”

“We have no cause, Agis!” Lykourgos said, ignoring the eager rustling of wings that erupted from the inky shadows.  “No charges have been leveled; thus it is not within our writ to mete out judgment against Alexandros.  We are not thugs, my friends!”

“Leave this Alexandros to me,” Leonidas said, stepping into the circle of ruddy light.

The giant, Menelaos, whirled.  “Hades’ teeth!  Who are you, wretched shade, to intrude upon the business of your betters?”

Leonidas met his gaze.  “I do not see my betters standing before me, Menelaos, once king of Sparta.  I see only my peers.”

“Your peers?”  Menelaos took a menacing step toward Leonidas.

“Wait,” Agis said.  “You are Leonidas son of Anaxandridas, are you not?”

Menelaos stopped.

Leonidas nodded.  “I am.”

“Then,” continued Agis, “you are my kinsman, though our bond is diluted as much by time as by death.  As such, I tell you this:  you risk much by barging in on matters that do not concern you.”

“I have not ‘barged’ in on your proceedings, kinsman,” Leonidas replied.  He gestured to Simonides.  “I was summoned to stand before the ephors.  Thus, here I am.”

Menelaos eased his bulk down onto his seat, glanced sidelong at Lykourgos.

“You are as arrogant as young Alexandros, Leonidas son of Anaxandridas,” Lykourgos, called the Lawgiver, said after a moment.  His eyes narrowed in disdain.  “You think yourself a king in Tartaros when, in fact, you are nothing.  You are a shade who tasted the nectar of glory in life!  What of it?  We all, every man here, have tasted the same nectar!  In this world, it is those whose trust you keep who define your place.  We are your betters, Leonidas, because it is the will of the Kore!”

Leonidas nodded in acquiescence.  “Perhaps you are right, great Lykourgos.  But if I am not as much a king in Tartaros as I was in the world above, why does this not register in the eyes of your companions, here?”  Leonidas indicated the two silent ephors, who had been gazing upon him with something akin to religious ecstasy.  Both men flinched and looked away.

Lykourgos frowned.  “Brasidas and Lysandros are young, as the dead are reckoned.  They were soldiers in life; neither ever felt the weight of the crown.”  The one called Brasidas started to speak, but Lykourgos shouted him down.  “And they know when to keep their tongues between their teeth!  You stand accused, Leonidas son of Anaxandridas!”

It was Leonidas’ turn to flinch.  “Accused?  Accused of what, good Lykourgos?  What is my so-called crime?”

“Impiety!” a voice bellowed from the shadows.  Wings beat the still air and claws clashed on marble; a chorus of hisses nigh drowned out the clatter of chains as a gruesome apparition thrust himself into their midst.  As one, Leonidas and Dienekes drew their swords and slung their shields forward.  Simonides gave a bleat of terror and fell on his belly.

The figure laughed, a sound like nails scraping flint.  At first, Leonidas thought it a man clad in blood-soaked rags.  But, when the figure turned toward him he understood that what he took for cloth was actually ribbons of mangled flesh that hung from his lower limbs and belly.  Pitted bronze manacles circled his wrists, and a veil of stringy black hair hid one eye from view.  The other glowed with the light of madness.  He pointed a black-nailed finger at Leonidas.  “Impiety and murder are your crimes, dear brother!”

Leonidas lowered his sword.  “Brother?  Is that you, Kleomenes?”

“Kleomenes!”  The figure tittered.  “Poor, mad Kleomenes!  Is that not what you called me, Leonidas?  Poor, mad Kleomenes?  Curse your abusive words!  You may have had the power to utter them then, but I have the power to do you real harm now, dear brother!  Dear, impious, murdering brother!”

“Calm yourself, Kleomenes,” Agis said.  “How do you answer these charges, Leonidas?”

“With scorn!”  Leonidas sheathed his sword.  “This is why you summoned me?  To answer the ravings of a lunatic?  I am saddened beyond words to see you in this sorry state, brother.  Especially here.  But you know as well as I that you died by your own hand!  Did he tell you that, great Ephors?  Did Kleomenes tell you how he came by those grisly wounds?  He pilfered a helot’s knife – one used to skin hares – and slashed himself from his ankles to his crotch!”

“Bah!”  Kleomenes spat.  “Your mouth opens and lies spew forth!  You gave me the knife, Leonidas!”

“No, brother.”

“Yes!  You put it in my hand and watched as I made that first cut!”

“You were alone in your cell,” Leonidas said.  “Put there by our mortal ephors.”

“No!” Kleomenes screamed.  “You put me there, you bastard!  You left me alone!  Alone in the dark!”

“No, brother.”

“Enough!”  Menelaos’ voice crashed like thunder.  “Leonidas is right!  I see no murder here, Lykourgos!”

“Nor do I,” Agis said coldly.  Brasidas and Lysandros, too, murmured their assent.

The lawgiver, his face a mask of solemnity, nodded.  “We are agreed.  The accusation of murder holds no weight, and the witness you have borne is false, Kleomenes.  Willfully false!  There must be a reckoning with the Erinys!”

Leonidas held up a hand.  “Leniency, Ephors.  I ask for mercy.  Even in death, my brother is not right in his mind.”

“Mercy.”  Kleomenes’ shoulders sagged.  “Mercy for poor, mad Kleomenes.”  Then, quick as a darting serpent, the blood-stained apparition lunged at Leonidas; it looked as though the brothers would embrace – until jags of light gleamed from the curved blade of a skinning knife streaking for Leonidas’ throat.  “Liar!” he howled.

Yet for all the madman’s speed, Leonidas was quicker, still.  He caught the wrist of Kleomenes’ knife-hand, twisted it, and mercilessly drove the bronze-rolled edge of his shield into his brother’s elbow.

Bone snapped.  Kleomenes howled in pain as the knife clattered from his nerveless fingers.

Leonidas shoved him away.

The madman fell into a crouch, clutching the injured limb to his breast.  He panted like a cornered animal, eyes darting as he sought an avenue of escape.

“That was necessary, brother,” Leonidas said.  “To keep you from hurting yourself further.”  He took a step toward Kleomenes…

…who screamed an incoherent curse and sprinted for the temple doors, barreling through Simonides.  The poet fell heavily.  The shadows exploded in rustling and clashing, hissing in rage.  Menelaos and the other ephors leapt to their feet.

They might have given chase had Leonidas not stayed them with an upraised hand.  “He is my responsibility.  I will fetch him back so you may pass judgment on him.  Even now, after this, I still ask for mercy.  Do not set the Erinys on him!”

“We will see,” Lykourgos said.  “Bring him back and we will see.”

Leonidas nodded.  “Dienekes?”

The other veteran of Thermopylae, who had been helping Simonides to his feet, looked around at the temple doors and the silhouette of Kleomenes, who seemed to have paused on the temple’s threshold and was hesitating.

Dienekes gauged distances.  “I can catch him easily enough.”

“Come, then.”

But before either man could get off the mark, Agis called them up short.  “Wait.  Look.  He returns of his own volition.”

True enough:  Kleomenes had stood there a moment more, limned by hellish light, then turned and staggered back in the direction of the ephors.  He made an eerie mewling sound, like a wet sob.  His broken arm hung slack; with his good hand he plucked at his throat.

“Kleomenes, my poor brother!”  Leonidas walked toward him.  “Let us be reconciled.  Here, no doubt, we can find good uses for your madness.”

Kleomenes sagged at the edge of the clerestory light filtering down from above.  Leonidas reached him before he could topple and eased him to the tiled floor.  The madman could not speak.  Gouts of bright red blood cascaded from Kleomenes’ mouth.  Standing out a hand-span from his throat, Leonidas saw the ragged black fletching of an arrow.

And in that one galvanizing instant he forgot his dead brother.  “Dienekes, outside!”

In tandem, the two Spartans bolted for the temple doors.  The ephors followed suit, with Simonides and Lykourgos struggling to bring up the rear.  The shadows around and above seethed with sound – a cacophony of shrieking, flapping, hissing, and scraping matched only by the howls and screams that bled in from outside.

The younger man reached the threshold first.  “Zeus Savior,” Dienekes muttered.

Beyond the temple doors, Leonidas beheld a scene of raw and bloody chaos.  Caeadas was under attack.  A horde of misshapen figures boiled over the distant edge of the plateau – grotesque caricatures of humanity, their filthy limbs askew or missing, their faces snarling and deformed.  Some staggered on stumps of legs, others trotted on three, and still others ran on all fours like feral beasts.  Leonidas saw an Athenian advocate savaged by a pair of thin, childlike creatures wielding daggers.  A Cretan hero tried to intervene only to be split nigh asunder by an ogreish thing with an axe strapped to its sole arm.  An instant later, a Nubian sent a bone-tipped spear straight into the ogre’s gaping maw, then fell under a swarm of jackal-like figures.  And at the edges of the fray, archers capered and loosed a hail of black-feathered shafts, their powerful bows sending the arrows arching over the heads of the combatants and into the ranks of those fleeing their advance.

“The Ataphoi!”  Leonidas heard Simonides gasp.  “Someone’s armed them!”

An arrow shattered on the temple steps; another rang off Dienekes’ shield – doubtless from the same contingent of archers who skewered Kleomenes.

Lykourgos’ iron-shod staff of office sparked as he rapped it on the marble floor.  “Close the doors!  Let them waste their strength against those below!”

“No!” Leonidas replied, coldly.  “If you be men of war, come with me!”

With that, the dead king of Sparta turned and stalked down the temple steps, Dienekes at his side.  Brasidas, Lysandros, Menelaos, and Agis fanned out at his back, leaving Simonides and Lykourgos alone.

Poet stared at lawgiver.

Lykourgos tried to disguise his fear beneath a snarl of contempt:  “Fools!  Help me close the doors, Simonides.”

Shaking his head, Simonides of Keos hurried to join Leonidas.

On the stairs they met a pair of Spartans coming to meet them – one was young and wounded, an arrow jutting from the small of his back; the other was older, sightless even in Hades, and he held his companion up and covered them both with the bowl of his shield.

“Eurytus,” Leonidas said.

“We were coming to warn you when young Maron, here, took one in the spine.”  Blind Eurytus moved his shield slightly to catch another incoming arrow.  It struck the bronze face like a mallet striking a bell, causing the Spartan to wince.  Leonidas reckoned he could hear the wind rushing past each arrow’s fletching.

Though unable to walk, Maron smiled.  “I’ll be all right, my king!  I can still skewer the bastards!”

Leonidas nodded.  “Rest, lad.  There will be plenty of killing to do in a few moments.  Simonides!”  The poet hustled to his side.  Leonidas clapped a hand on his shoulder.  “Take charge of the wounded.  Keep them safe.  Eurytus, here, will help you.”  Simonides took the injured Spartan’s arm and helped him sit as their blind comrade provided cover.

Leonidas turned his attention to the ephors, noting Lykourgos’ absence.  “Agis, kinsman, take the left flank.  Noble Menelaos, you have the right.  Brasidas, you and Lysandros are with me in the center.”  The ephors, the Chosen of Persephone, did Leonidas’ bidding without complaint.

At the first hint of trouble, the Spartans had performed the task for which they had been bred, arraying themselves in a tight phalanx one hundred shields long and three deep.  Now, they waited only for their king.  Despite an enemy surging toward them, baying like wolves, Leonidas paused to speak to a few of his men; he strolled through their ranks as though they stood on a parade field, taking his Corinthian helmet from a squire even as he told a rude joke.  Laughter rippled along the formation.  The crest of Leonidas’ helmet was bright scarlet—a splash of color amid the ash and grime of war.

His battle priest, stern-eyed Aristandros, waited at the center of the formation, clutching a kneeling captive by the hair.  Here, they had no goats to sacrifice, no oxen to offer the gods.  Here, they had only the shades of the dead.  This one was a slave snatched at the last minute.  Simonides’ salpinx-bearer, Leonidas noted.  No matter.  He would serve their purpose.

Leonidas grasped an eight-foot long spear and thrust it aloft.

“Spartans!” he roared.  All eyes turned toward him.  “Lord Hades is our master, now!  He has given us these dregs, these wretched Ataphoi, on which to whet our spears!  They are not worthy of this honor, but Lord Hades’ will must be done!  There is no Glory, here!  There is no Glory in the killing of such miserable creatures!  There is only Mercy!  Come, my Spartans!  Come, my ferocious Three Hundred!  Show our enemy the Mercy of the Spear!  All of this for you, Lord Hades and for Lakedaemon!”  With little effort, he drove the blade of his spear through the slave’s body.  Blood spattered the packed earth, hissing on naked rock.  The omens were good.

“For Lord Hades!  For Lakedaemon!” his men echoed.  “And for Leonidas!”

“Advance!”

Pipers played a tune on their reed flutes as the hoplites stepped off in unison, spears upright, their strides precise and unbroken.  Polished greaves and shield-faces flashed in the infernal light.  Three hundred throats chanted the paean, a hymn to Hades:

Theos Khthonios,

Pitiless in heart,

Dweller under the Earth

At stanza’s end, Leonidas bellowed a command:  “Spears!”  And with that the bristling hedge of iron dropped from vertical to horizontal, creating a threshing machine of slaughter.

Now fifty yards’ distant, the savage Ataphoi only increased their pace.  They charged like a mindless mob, in knots and clusters that held no cohesion, moving as fast or as slow as their deformed limbs allowed.  They did not spread out and try to envelop the Spartan line, but drove straight at their center, at the scarlet crest that marked Leonidas.  Their archers drew and loosed with reckless abandon … and to no avail.

The heavy bronze armor of the Spartans shrugged off this barbed rain of arrows.  The Three Hundred marched on, implacable.

Behind them came the battle squires and helots, joined by the folk of different nations allied against the Ataphoi.  From their ranks came a barrage of javelins, arrows, and sling stones that scythed into the unarmored mass of the enemy.

Howls of rage turned to agony; blood spewed as riddled bodies flopped to the ground under the rain of Spartan missiles, where the heels of their fellow Ataphoi kicked and trampled them into the dust.

A dozen yards separated them, now.  Leonidas saw a festering mass of creatures, the cast-offs and detritus of a thousand years of natural selection.  The things barreling toward him could never have survived in the sunlit world of the living:  they were denizens of nightmare, seething with jealousy and hate.

Ten yards.  Eight.  Six….

Leonidas braced his shield, its rim scraping that of Dienekes’ on his right.  Aristandros was on his left.  Knowing his brothers, his kinsmen, his friends stood in such close proximity filled Leonidas’ heart with joy.  He sang the paean:

Theos Khthonios!

Five yards, now.  Four….

He singled out his first target:  a naked, spitting thing with a misshapen head, sword clutched like a stick of driftwood in its gnarled fist.  No Glory, only Mercy.  Leonidas lined up his spear with the wretch’s center of mass.  A swift blow, through the spine…

Three yards.  Two….

Seconds before impact, through the eye-slit of his Corinthian helmet, Leonidas watched the front ranks of Ataphoi convulse.  Perhaps their dull brains felt the first tendrils of fear; perhaps the prospect of facing an unbroken wall of bronze suddenly daunted them.  Whatever the reason, their steps faltered and their braying slacked off, replaced by a keening dirge of dread.  But their close-packed ranks could not turn aside.  Momentum drove them into the flesh-grinding teeth of the Spartan war machine.

They struck with the sound of a melon meeting an anvil, a wet crack that drowned out the screams and the song and echoed over the plateau of Caeadas.  Leonidas’ spear licked out, taking his first victim high, in the throat.  Blood gushed from the hideous wound as the thing toppled backward….

Suddenly, Leonidas’ field of vision became a wall of writhing flesh, reeking of sulphur and feces and rich red gore.  Sheer numbers pressed in upon him….

A sword bites low and deep, slipping between bronze and leather to skewer his hip.  He stumbles.  The enemy surges forward.  A misshapen arm catches him off balance; a second sword shatters on the brow of his Corinthian helmet.  “Theos Khthonios!” he bellows; faces loom over him—cruel-eyed Ataphoi with curled talons and blood-blasted fangs, lips peeled back in snarls of hate.  They will pay dearly for this.  Oh, yes!  They will pay the butcher’s bill, a hecatomb of blood and flesh for every Spartan, Lord Hades!  He falls to his knees, hears a deep voice whisper his name:  “Leonidas.”

Time slows.  He is at the Hot Gates, again.  At hallowed Thermopylae.  A tracery of clouds veil the face of the sun, creating bands of light and shadow across the stony face of Mount Kallidromos.  He is not alone.  A figure helps him arise.  The Spartan sees a tall and perfectly formed being towering over him, his visage dark and brooding.

Lord Hades.

“Leonidas,” the Lord of the Underworld says, in a voice pitched to such sweet perfection that the dead king of Sparta must fight back tears.  “You are mine, now, and you have served me well.  Go, and serve me still:  henceforth you are my champion, the Chosen of Hades!  Remember your oath!”

Time’s flow resumes with a scream of rage.

Roaring, Leonidas surged upward.  He flung creatures aside, bones snapping as his shield slammed into their faces, into their torsos.  Though he bled from a wound in his hip, the dead king of Sparta was indomitable; his spear moved like a living thing, darting and biting.  With each strike, another deformed shade lost its semblance of life.  Blood slimed the stones, and steam rose from fresh pools of gore to wrap Leonidas in an infernal cloak.

The Ataphoi lines cracked against the bronze bulwark.  They showed the Spartans their backs and fought their own kind in desperation.  They fought to get away.  They fought to return to the welcoming shadows of their dread gorge:  They fought to live.

And, true to his word, Leonidas slaughtered them like cattle.

The day drew on, and when the king finally called for an end to the butchery only a lucky few Ataphoi remained to slink and scurry back over the rim of the plateau; he doubted they’d number enough to fill the seats of a small theater.  Leonidas leaned on the cracked shaft of his spear – his hip throbbed, but the bleeding had stopped – and surveyed the carnage in his wake.  It seemed as though the Temple of the Ephors rested on a sea of corpses.

Dagger-wielding helots rooted among the piles of stinking dead, dispatching those they found yet clinging to life.  Others salvaged the allied wounded.  Leonidas spotted Simonides picking his way toward him.  The poet looked ghastly.  Blood caked his hands and arms to the elbow, and he held a knife loosely by his side.

“Simonides of Keos!  You survived.”

The poet gazed in wonder at Leonidas, at the nimbus of hellish light seeming to wreathe him, and bowed.  “Lord.  We heard a rumor in the rear that you had fallen.  I am pleased to see it was unfounded.”

“I did fall,” Leonidas replied.  “But I arose again.”  He gestured to the field around them.  “Thermopylae looked much like this, on the eve of the first day.  How many of my Spartans have fallen?”

Simonides exhaled.  “Thirty, lord.”

“Thirty.”  Leonidas shook his head.  He looked up, again, to see Dienekes approach.  “Is it true, dear friend?  We lost thirty brothers?”

Though blood-blasted and limping, Dienekes’ eyes were alert.  He nodded.  “Mostly from the right.  Alpheus, ’ere he died, told me that bastard Menelaos broke formation.  Charged into the thick of them and left a hole in the front rank.”

“That son of a Mycenaean whore!  Where is he?”

Dienekes gestured up at the temple.  “Near death.  Agis had a few of the slaves cart him up there.”

A dangerous light kindled in Leonidas’ eyes.  “Follow me.  Both of you.”

*

The trio threaded through the wrack of war, stopping now and again for Leonidas to speak in low tones with his brother Spartans.  Though they exchanged smiles and jests, the malevolent gleam never left the king’s eyes.  His men apprehended danger.  By the time they mounted the stairs to the temple Leonidas’ cortege had grown.

He found the ephors in their accustomed place.  Agis, Brasidas, and Lysandros sprawled wearily in their seats, still sticky with the blood of the slain.  Pale and near death, Menelaos lay on a litter on the floor with Lykourgos attending to him.  Near them, a pair of slaves held down a writhing captive:  a naked Ataphoi glistening with sweat and blood, its hairless body deformed by a set of vestigial limbs sprouting from its back.  Startlingly blue eyes pleaded with them to let it go.

“P-please …” it croaked.

As Leonidas traversed the interior of the temple, the creatures lurking in the shadows grew silent.  Their wings ceased to rustle; their claws were still.  Their screeches faded as though gripped by fear.

“Ephors!” he said, his voice booming.  “We have won a victory!”

Before any of the others could so much as greet Leonidas, Lykourgos shot to his feet.  The old man rapped his staff against the floor.  “Victory?  What price this victory, Leonidas?  One of our own lies stricken!”

Leonidas crossed to Menelaos’ side and knelt.  Swords and axes had dealt ferocious wounds to his torso, arms, and legs.  It was a testament to his Homeric vitality that he still had enough essence to be counted amongst the living – or what passed for living – souls in war-torn Tartaros.  The wounded man’s eyes fluttered open; he saw Leonidas’ blood-grimed face and smiled.  “Rest easy,” Leonidas said.  He glanced at the captive Ataphoi, then at Agis, among the seated ephors.  “Did that thing tell you who armed them?”

Agis looked askance at it.  “It blames Kharon.”

“Kharon?”

“F-ferryman,” the creature sobbed.  “Ferryman … c-came among us!  G-gave us hateful knives!  Told us … told us to rip and slay!”

“Liar!” Lykourgos barked.  He struck the thing in the face with his iron-shod staff.  Bone crunched; blood spurted from its nose and mouth.  “I know Kharon!  He would never stoop so low!”

The Ataphoi wailed.  “F-ferryman!”

“If it speaks again, I will carve its lying tongue from its head!”  Lykourgos spat.

“Get hold of yourself, Lawgiver.”  A grim smile twisted Leonidas’ lips as he apprehended the truth:  a spare and leathery fellow who wore a ferryman’s coin on a thong about his neck.  “I did not hear it accuse Kharon of any wrong-doing.  In truth, I would wager this thing has never seen Kharon.”  Leonidas snapped his fingers.  “Look at me!  It was not the boatman of the Styx who gave you weapons, was it, wretch?  Was it?”

The thing shook its deformed head.

Brasidas frowned.  “Then who?”

Leonidas gave a mirthless chuckle.  “Earlier, did you not see a tight-lipped rogue with an obol, the ferryman’s coin, tied about his neck?  It was Alexandros’ man, Nearchos.  Though in truth, I expect it was Alexandros himself who gave the order.  The young whelp will make a worthy adversary.”

“You have cause, now, Lykourgos,” Agis said.  “Call forth the Erinys!”

“No,” Leonidas replied.  “Alexandros is mine.”

Lykourgos rounded on the Spartan king.  “Impertinent fool!  You think fighting a battle on our very doorstep gives you the right to counsel us?  We are the Chosen of Persephone!  We, alone, will render judgment on Alexandros of Macedon!  Go!  Take yourself away from here and await our summons, as it pleases us!  There is still a charge of impiety hanging over your head!  Go!”

But Leonidas did not move.  He knelt there beside Menelaos, one hand stroking the fallen giant’s sweat-slick brow.  The air in the temple grew chill despite the infernal heat.  “Simonides, you told me earlier that the Kore chooses only Spartans as her ephors.  Correct?”

The poet of Keos shivered.  “That is true, lord.”

“There must be some mistake, then, for noble Menelaos is no Spartan born, is he Simonides?  He is a son of Mycenae, is that not true?  The mantle of kingship over Sparta does not a Spartan make.”

“You are correct, lord.”

Leonidas snatched a handful of Menelaos’ damp hair and levered his head up.  “And that’s why thirty of my men have returned to the Darkness, to begin the journey anew!  Because you are no Spartan, you Mycenaean swine!”

Despite his wounds, Menelaos struggled to rise; his lips peeled back in a bloody snarl as he spat at Leonidas.  “D-dog!”

“Find me when you return, you miserable cuckold, and we will settle accounts like men!”  With that, Leonidas ripped a broad-bladed dagger from Menelaos’ own belt and plunged it into the Mycenaean’s chest.  Agis and the other ephors leapt to Menelaos’ defense, only to be beaten back by spear-wielding Dienekes.

Leonidas twisted the blade.

Menelaos shuddered, his eyes rolling back in his head.  To his credit, he uttered not a sound.

Into that gaping wound Leonidas thrust his hand; when he drew it back, slick with gore, it clutched Menelaos’ still-beating heart.

Forgotten, the captive Ataphoi howled with mirth, its blue eyes aglow.

King Leonidas of Sparta staggered to his feet and slung that gobbet of muscle into the shadows, where things could be heard scrabbling over it, hissing and biting.  He stared at Agis, Brasidas, and Lysandros.  “I have no quarrel with you.”

After a moment, Agis shook his head.  “Nor we with you.”

Lykourgos, though, strode forward in a towering rage, oblivious to the spear leveled at his breast.  “You are judged, Leonidas son of Anaxandridas!  In the name of Queen Persephone, I pronounce the Doom of the Erinys upon you!  Arise, wrathful daughters of Ouranos!  Arise and slay!”

Like a prophet of old, the lawgiver stood with his arms upraised and his eyes closed in divine ecstasy.  Perhaps he expected the shadows to roil and flow over the offending Spartan, to hear his screams as the bronze claws of the Erinys tore the flesh from his bones.  Perhaps he expected cries of mercy or of repentance as the bat-winged sisters swept down on Leonidas.

But what he got was silence.

Nothing stirred.

He opened his eyes and met the king of Sparta’s gaze.  There was no trace of mockery in his visage, only a grim sense of brooding majesty.

“I … I am the Chosen of Persephone!  I judge you!”

“No,” Leonidas said.  He turned away, motioned for Dienekes and Simonides to leave the temple, for the slaves to haul the captive Ataphoi out of his sight.  The three remaining ephors joined them, leaving Lykourgos alone.

“I am the Chosen of Persephone and I judge you, Leonidas!”

“No.”  The king of Sparta stopped; he turned back to face Lykourgos.  “No, for I am the Chosen of Hades and I am your master!  You are a coward, Lykourgos, called the Lawgiver, and I judge you unfit to wear the mantle of a Spartan!  By Theos Khthonios, god of the underworld, the dread Lord Hades, I cast you into the shadows!”

“You are nothing!  Nothing, do you hear?”  Lykourgos rapped his staff on the marble floor.  “Attend me, ephors!  Denounce him!”

Leonidas merely shook his head.  He resumed his path from the temple, and with his every step the umbra of hellish light surrounding Lykourgos shrank.

“I am the … the Chosen of Persephone!”

Leonidas crossed the threshold; behind him, the temple’s interior was plunged into darkness.  Wings rustled.  Brazen claws clashed on marble and tore flesh.  And hissing voices rose in volume, drowning out Lykourgos’ screams…
Theo Khthonios, © Scott Oden; Perseid Publishing, 2011
2011© Lawyers in Hell (Janet Morris), 2011, all rights reserved

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