The old man’s sons lay dead at the feet of the youths. He would be next, followed swiftly by his wife and young daughter. But he would sell his family dearly. It was the time of the Krypteia. There was no escape.
The Krypteia was an old tradition in Sparta. Every autumn, the young men who had successfully completed their course of education and training– the Agoge, as it was called– were sent out to test their skills and worthiness to take their place as full citizens and members of the Spartan military. The Ruling Council would, as a matter of form, declare war upon the Helots of the lower parts of the city and the villages of the surrounding countryside, where they dwelt. The young men would be sent out into the night with nothing but a knife, their own wits, wiles, and orders to kill any Helot they might happen upon. Only Spartans who took part in the Krypteia could expect to attain rank in society, for it was thought that only those who were willing and able to kill for the polis as striplings would be worthy of leadership when reaching manhood. It was a brutal rite of passage for all Spartan males, and a time of fear and death for the Helots. This was the time of year when Spartan nobles and free citizens would come down the hill to make sure the Helots remembered their place in the scheme of things.
They taunted the old man over his sons–‘Old?’ He was only ten or fifteen years their senior. His sons had fought well, the Spartans only killing them after having themselves collected fearsome wounds. And now, as the youngsters cheered, laughing, it was the father’s turn.
His wife and daughter cowered behind him in the doorway of their home. The sounds of fighting reached them from all quarters of the village, thickening the air with fear.
One of the teenagers, smiling with glee and menace, moved toward the man, thrusting at him with his xiphos as his fellows closed in.
The man quickly stepped in, inside the youngster’s lunge, and grabbed his sword wrist, turning himself to face the boys coming at him from behind. He sharply struck his first attacker with his elbow as he twisted the wrist, disarming the boy. He stepped to the side, retrieving the fallen blade, pulling the boy along as a shield, hearing him grunt as his fellows mistakenly stabbed their daggers into their comrade. The boy fell, wounded, though not fatally.
The man rose, blade now in hand, facing the attackers, and ready to open their bellies. But they were faster. One of the assailants brought up his knife en passant, cutting through the tendon of the old man’s upper thigh. He fell heavily. The boys mocked the old Helot as they moved in to finish him off.
The woman behind them screamed.
As they turned, she leapt at them, having snatched up a fallen dagger. Her daughter, a young child of no more than five years of age, wide-eyed with terror, stood just behind the door posts of their house. She tightly clutched a stuffed wolf-cub to herself as she wailed for her parents.
The woman reached her first target, slashing an ugly wound across his chest. Spinning quickly, she opened a gash in a second fellow’s thigh.
Far from being frightened, the boys laughed anew. They closed in about her and the four of them that could still fight, overwhelmed her quickly, throwing her heavily to the ground. Before she could regain her breath, they tore at her clothing, stripping her naked, while continuing to punch and kick her. The girl child, crying pitiably for her mother, stood frozen by the house’s entrance, too terrified to move. What she saw next, she would never forget, for her mother did not die quickly.
Only when the young men had finished with her did they cut her throat.
The young men next turned their attention to the screaming child, and made to kill her as well. But their wounded leader stayed their hand.
“The child’s father and brothers fought well, and her mother was pretty– Let’s take her back for a household slave.”
They helped up their comrade, and bound his wounds. One of their number carried the child, still crying for her parents, still clutching her stuffed wolf-cub.
The child stood in a receiving hall, hard by the kitchens in a large, grand house. She had only the clothes she had been wearing, and her stuffed cub, whom she called Alala. Her eyes were large and red from crying. She stood shivering. Several tall, severe ladies stood clustered around her, appraising her value as livestock.
“The young men that brought her say her family were all good fighters,” one of the women was saying. “Her father and brothers actually gave wounds to our lads, and her mother leapt upon them when her man fell.”
The speaker, an old woman called Megaera, unceremoniously turned the child this way and that, looking at her frame. “Hmph. She’s good looking, and sturdy. She ought to do well enough as a kitchen slave.”
“Actually, she’s of the right age; we might want to make her a personal slave to the young mistress when she begins her Agoge,” another woman said.
“But what shall we do with her until then, Maia?” Megaera asked. “She’s a bit young yet to be of much use to–”
“We’ll think of something,” a third woman interrupted. “But it’s a good idea. She’ll be my daughter’s handmaid.”
Eupoleia and her Helots stood round the shaking girl. “What is your name, child?” she asked.
The girl was too frightened to speak until one of the servant women cuffed her sharply.
“The queen has deigned to ask you a question, wretched thing,” Megaera said. “Answer her.”
Crying, the girl tried to speak. The old woman raised her hand again, causing the child to flinch.
Maia interrupted. “Oh, leave it alone, Megaera; she’s a slave–we’ll give her a name.”
“Medousa,” came the tiny, frightened whimper.
They turned again to look at her.
Megaera reached out and roughly tousled the child’s hair.
“What about ‘Chrysanthe?'” she offered. “It fits her hair.”
General nods of approval.
“Ugh! And what is that thing she’s clutching?” Megaera noted with disgust. She tried to snatch the toy from the child’s grasp, but Medousa twisted away, holding her little stuffed cub tightly to her. Megaera was not pleased, especially as the other ladies were so obviously suppressing their laughter at the old woman’s failure to simply grab the child’s toy. Even the great lady of the house was amused.
“Rebellious thing!” she yelled at the child. “Well, we’ll soon have you trained out of that!”
Again, Medousa was struck. She fell from the force of the blow, and her toy went skittering across the floor.
“Alala!” Medousa cried, and went to chase after it. But strong arms held her back, dragging her to her feet.
“Alala!” she cried again, as Megaera held her.
“Oh, throw that rag in the fire,” the old woman said. Medousa cried out in protest.
But before any of the women could take Alala, another little girl toddled in and grabbed it up, giggling. “Puppy!” she declared, as Medousa moaned.
“Oh!” Eupoleia cried. “Sweetie, don’t touch that filthy thing!” She tried to take it from the little girl, but the other young child ran about the room, evading the queen. Still laughing, she ran out of the room as the queen chased after her.
Medousa looked after them, her tears flowing unchecked. “Alala,” she moaned.
“Silence!” barked the chief servant-woman. “Enough playing. Take this child and bathe and dress it. Her training will begin tomorrow.”
It was an exhausted and bewildered little girl who was put down to sleep on a small cot in the servants’ wing of the palace. Medousa turned her face to the wall and wept quietly so as not to bring attention to herself.
After passing long minutes sobbing, she noticed a presence behind her at the side of the cot. She turned with a start and stared numbly at another little girl, perhaps two years younger than herself, with black hair and twinkling green eyes. Medousa recognized her as the girl that she’d seen run off with her cub that morning.
For a while, the two girls simply stared at each other, saying nothing, Medousa sniffling.
Suddenly, the green-eyed girl held out something to her. Medousa’s eyes went wide.
“Alala!” she cried, and grabbed the stuffed wolf cub to her breast, hugging it tightly. The little girl watched her.
“Is this your puppy?” she asked.
Medousa nodded, clutching it in her arms.
“I have a puppy, too!” she said proudly. She brought out her own stuffed animal, sitting it on the cot by Medousa, as if to play. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“What’s your puppy’s name?”
The little girl giggled. “Alala!” she repeated. She jogged her own toy. “This is Alexina,” she said.
“What’s your name?” Medousa asked.
“Cynisca,” said her little benefactor. “I’m a puppy, too!”
Cynisca started to climb onto the cot with her own wolf-cub to play with Medousa, when suddenly both little girls were startled.
“Cynisca! What do you think you’re doing?”
Medousa started to cry again, and Cynisca turned to see her nurse Maia standing over them.
Cynisca backed up against Medousa on the cot, and looked up in surprise at her nurse.
“Alexina wanted to play with Alala!” she protested.
“You should be in bed, young mistress,” Maia scolded Cynisca, lifting her out of the cot and putting her down. She then turned her attention to Medousa. “And as for you…”
Medousa curled up, shivering in fear, clutching her doll to herself so tightly that her arms ached. The nurse’s stern visage softened.
“Come along,” she said. She laid Medousa down and drew the blanket over her. Then she took Cynisca by the hand, and bent close to Medousa’s bedside. “In the morning, Alala can go spend the day with Alexina. Now go to sleep.”
Medousa watched as the nurse carried Cynisca and her doll out of the room. Then she hugged Alala tightly and quietly cried herself to sleep.