Part I, Sparta– Learning her place

Medousa’s early days in the House of Archidamus were difficult. Beatings at the hands of old Megaera taught her swift obedience, and how to hide her tears. She learned to respond when ‘Chrysanthe’ was called, though she refused to forget her birth name. Her nascent friendship with Cynisca and the kindness of Maia, Cynisca’s nurse, kept her from despair. But it was a hard, bitter life for a little girl.

Her time was spent helping the kitchen staff with shopping, fetching water, and cleaning. In the evenings, Cynisca would sneak into the servants’ wing with Alala and Alexina and play with Medousa until Maia found her missing and came to get her.

As Medousa became more adept at her duties, she was assigned more and more to the nursery wing, helping to take care of the work in Cynisca’s rooms and in the rooms of Cynisca’s elder brother Agesilaus. The arrangement pleased Cynisca well enough, for she now had an obligatory playmate at her disposal.

 

One day, Cynisca was playing ball in the paddock with her friends Helen and Khalkiope.

“Keep it bouncing! Keep it bouncing!”

Their laughter could be heard all the way to the main house as the young children scampered up and down, trying to keep the ball going.

Medousa was walking along across the courtyard past the stables toward the house. She was carrying a load of firewood on her back, running between the woodcutters in the fields and the kitchens. By now, she had been in service to the House of Archidamus for a little more than nine months. She paused, as she passed the horse paddocks, looking longingly at the three other girls playing.

After a few moments, they noticed Medousa watching them. Helen missed the ball, as it got away from them, rolling in Medousa’s direction. They laughed and ran toward her.

“What are you doing?”

“I have to take this wood to the kitchen.”

“Nope!” Cynisca shouted. “You have to play with us!” She knocked Medousa’s burden to the ground and took her by the hand.

“This is my Helot, Chrysanthe,” she told her friends, “But her name is really Medousa.” Then, turning to Medousa, she said “This is Helen. She’s my best friend. And this is Khalkiope. She’s my best friend, too. So you have to be their Helot, too.”

Helen approached, looking curiously at Medousa, who stood, eyes downcast. “She has hair like mine,” she said.

“Come on!” Khalkiope shouted. “Let’s play! We can have two teams, now!”

At first, Medousa was shy, but before long, she was running back and forth with the three girls, laughing and squealing at their game. Medousa and Helen played on one side, and Cynisca played with Khalkiope on the other.

They were having a wonderful time, and then Medousa jumped, badly startled, as they heard Megaera’s piercing bellow.

Chrysanthe!”

The shout was followed by a crack that spun Medousa around and sent her sprawling.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the old woman thundered. She stood over the cowering girl and struck her again with a stick of wood from Medousa’s discarded bundle.

“Have you finished your duties for the day?”

Medousa bit back her tears. “No, ma’am.”

Megaera roughly yanked her to her feet.

“Pick up that firewood, girl. Now.”

Cynisca and her friends were also startled, and frightened, at Megaera’s violent interruption of their game. They stood dumbly as they watched Medousa collecting her load of wood again. After a moment, Cynisca came running over.

“No!” she told Megaera. “We’re playing! Medousa’s my Helot! Mommy and Nurse say so!”

Megaera gave Medousa a hard shove in the direction of the kitchens and turned to Cynisca. She regarded her with a mixture of respect for her position, and disdain for her age.

“Her name is ‘Chrysanthe,’ young mistress. And she has duties to perform. Play with your friends.”

“But–”

“No ‘buts,’ mistress. It’s bad for discipline.”

She turned to follow Medousa into the house, when she felt something suddenly hit her in the back, squarely between her shoulders. From the smell, Megaera realized with disgust that it was a horse turd. She whirled around on the children.

“Chrysanthe’s my Helot, not yours! And I’ll call her ‘Medousa’ if I want!” Cynisca shouted at the old chief servant.

Helen and Khalkiope held their breath in fear, as Cynisca stood, scowling up at Megaera, hands on hips, arms akimbo.

Megaera looked at her coldly, fists clenching. Then she turned and stalked into the house, following Medousa.

 

That night, when Cynisca snuck into Medousa’s cot, she found her Helot red-eyed and sniffling quietly. She handed Alala to her as she climbed up on the bed.

“You okay?” Cynisca asked.

Medousa nodded.

“Did Megaera beat you?”

Medousa nodded again.

“I hate Megaera,” Cynisca grumbled. “We were having fun.”

The girls were silent for a while. Cynisca leaned over to Medousa and whispered, “I threw poop at her!”

The two dissolved into giggles, and played quietly until Maia came looking for Cynisca.

“Come along, you two,” she said breezily. “Time for sleep–” Maia pulled up short as she looked at Medousa. Her brow wrinkled with concern.

“Oh, dear,” she breathed. She reached out and lifted Medousa’s tunic, revealing angry red welts covering much of her body. Some of them had even trickled blood. Medousa winced, but said nothing.

“Oh, you poor thing,” Maia said, sitting on the edge of the cot next to the children. “Was it Megaera?” she asked. Medousa nodded.

“I don’t like her,” Cynisca declared. “She wouldn’t let us play.”

Maia sighed. “Wait here. I’ll get some medicine.” She left, leaving the girls alone again.

“I wanna see,” Cynisca said, pulling up Medousa’s tunic again. She wrinkled her nose.

“Ewwwww-!” She reached out and touched one of the wounds, making Medousa twitch.

“Mommy does this,” Cynisca said, and she leaned in and kissed some of Medousa’s abrasions. “There– All better now?”

Medousa winced again, but smiled and nodded.

“Yes, thank you.”

Maia soon returned with a small basin of water, a cloth, and a jar of medicinal oil. She ordered Medousa to stand, and she sat on the cot again, facing her. Maia took Medousa’s clothes off and gently washed her cuts and bruises, and then, after patting her dry, began to apply the medicine to her welts.

“Did you cry?” Maia asked as she worked.

“No,” Medousa said, even as she flinched again when the nurse touched her injuries.

“Good,” Maia said. “Don’t. Don’t give her the pleasure of hearing you cry,” she told her. “You’re a strong Spartan girl,” she said.

Eventually, Maia finished tending Medousa’s wounds and put a clean tunic on her. Cynisca hugged her, and then Medousa was left to sleep for the night.

 

“I don’t like it,” Eupoleia said. “Cynisca should play more with children of her own station.  She’s not an Athenian female, to have no other confidantes but her own servants.”

Maia shrugged, and the Helot in charge of the household servants looked distinctly annoyed. “But there’s no harm in it, Lady,” the nurse said. “She’ll make a loyal servant to your daughter for her period of Agoge.”

The queen sniffed at the thought. “I suppose. But Megaera also informs me that she’s gaining the affections of Agesilaus, too.”

“He will be leaving for the barracks for his Agoge within the year.”

Megaera snorted. “A son of the Eurypontids? The barracks are for the common citizens. Not kings. He should be schooled at home, like his brother Agis.”

“But Agesilaus will never be king, and he does so want to go with his friends,” the nurse interceded. “It can do no harm for him to undergo his schooling under the same conditions as any other citizen. And his father insists he be treated no differently than any other citizen.”

Megaera sighed. “We were discussing the disposition of Chrysanthe. She is becoming too familiar with the Mistress’ children.” The queen paused to consider. “Megaera, keep that child occupied as you see fit, until we send her with Cynisca for her schooling.”

Megaera smiled humorlessly. “It certainly won’t hurt to get some more work out of her. And the time apart should cool their friendship.”

Maia looked uncomfortable. She seemed about to speak, but Megaera, noticing, spoke first.

“You’re too soft-hearted, Maia. You’ll only make them weak.”

 

The following day, after returning from an errand with one of the kitchen slaves to make some purchases at market, Medousa was brought to a room that she hadn’t been in before. Megaera dragged her along, purposely walking just a little too quickly for the young child’s legs to keep up. Megaera seemed to delight in finding things to be cross about. She shoved Medousa into the chamber ahead of her.

There were several warp-weighted looms up against the walls, and in the middle of the room were tables covered with spindles, cloth, and thread.

“Theisis-!” Megaera barked peremptorily. “The mistress wants this one to weave. Teach her.” She pushed Medousa toward the tall, spare woman who seemed to be in charge of the weavers. Theisis eyed the girl with tired interest. “A bit small to use the looms just yet, ma’am,” she drawled.

“Oh, I don’t care,” Megaera replied, clearly at the end of what meager stores of patience she possessed. “Start her off at spinning, then. Her name is Chrysanthe.” She abruptly turned and left.

“Withered old bitch,” Theisis muttered under her breath as Megaera retreated back down the hall. Medousa looked up at her, shocked. Noticing her, the woman smiled and beckoned her to come closer. “Come here, Chrysanthe. I’ll show you how to spin.”

Over the next several weeks, Medousa saw little of Cynisca, except near bed time, when Cynisca would visit her, bringing Alala and Alexina to play. Medousa’s days were now taken up with spinning and weaving, in addition to her normal duties.

As Medousa spun, Theisis would wander around the room, inspecting the work being done on the looms. After she had been spinning for many days, Theisis called Medousa over to one of the looms. “Let’s see how you do here,” she said. It was a tall warp-weighted loom, on which someone had been working for quite some time. There was a piece of fine linen on it, and it was woven down to a level that Medousa could easily reach up to handle.

“Now just watch closely, Chrysanthe. I’ll show you how it’s done.”

Theisis spent the next hour explaining to her charge the working of the shuttle and threads, and took care to demonstrate the proper technique.

“We’ll see how you do with this; you’re going to finish this down to the floor, you see?”

It was difficult at first, but in time, Medousa became an able weaver under Theisis’ guidance.

Medousa came to enjoy working with the weavers, mainly because it meant less time working under the baleful eye of old Megaera. But, she did miss having time to spend with Cynisca and her friends.

 

One day, Theisis had to leave the room on a brief errand. She left Medousa and the other weavers working busily at their looms. By now, Medousa was good enough that Theisis was having her weave entire garments on her own. She had assigned Medousa to one of the smaller half-sized looms that she could use without difficulty. As Medousa worked on a fine white chiton, she sensed a presence behind her. Expecting that Theisis had returned, she turned and looked up to greet her. But it wasn’t Theisis.

The woman who now stood behind Medousa was quite tall, and had flowing, dark hair. She couldn’t be called ‘beautiful,’ but she had an exquisitely handsome face. She seemed to be quietly observing the young slave at work. Medousa could not remember ever seeing her before. She was sure she would have remembered so striking a woman amongst the slaves and Helots of the house.

“Hallo, Ma’am,” Medousa chirped nervously, attempting a polite greeting.

The woman smiled warmly, and knelt down by Medousa’s side. “Hello, Medousa,” she said. Medousa’s mouth dropped open as the tall lady turned and examined the chiton Medousa was working on. No one here ever used, or even knew, the name her mother had given her.

The smiling woman touched the cloth on the loom, feeling its fineness and resilience, and studied it for any imperfections. She turned back to Medousa, still smiling, her large, grey eyes twinkling at the little girl. She seemed to be examining Medousa in almost the same way she had examined the garment.

Medousa looked around nervously. No one else in the room seemed to notice this person. The other workers carried on weaving and spinning as if this stranger were not even there. Gradually, Medousa’s eyes were drawn back to the woman’s face. She felt oddly comforted by her presence, but couldn’t understand why. Medousa felt safe by her side. Protected.

The strange woman smiled again at the child, her grey eyes practically glowing. Medousa felt like a small bird locking eyes with a serpent. The woman reached out and gently smoothed Medousa’s hair.

“I shall be watching you, Little One,” she said softly.

And then she was gone.

 

Medousa had been out that morning with Theisis to market. They had gone to buy silks and linens for the household, and they came home weighted down with several skeins of thread for the looms.

As they approached the house, Cynisca, Agesilaus, and some of their friends were playing ostrakinda. Helen, her sister Clytemnestra, and their brothers Castor and Polydeuces, were running back and forth, shouting and laughing.

They had split into teams, boys versus girls, and the girls had apparently won the current round; the boys were running around, carrying their sisters on their backs, the girls shouting with delight. As they returned to their starting line, they tossed a shell that was light on one side, and dark on the other, and started calling out “Day!” or “Night!” This time, the boys won the toss, and gave chase to the girls.

Medousa looked on enviously and sighed as she approached the house with Theisis. Theisis paused in her step, and looked at the playing children with Medousa. She looked down at the young slave, putting a hand on her shoulder. Medousa looked up to see Theisis’ face, a weary smile gracing her mouth.

“They’re having fun, eh Chrysanthe?”

Medousa returned her smile with sad eyes and nodded.

“Come on,” Theisis said. “Let’s get this material put away. Maybe we’ll be able to spare you early tonight.”

Casting back a last look, Medousa saw the girls, laughing as they now carried the boys on their backs, back to the starting line. Then she followed Theisis in to the house.

 

The sun was going down later that evening as Medousa went outside, having been dismissed by Theisis. She went over to the paddock by the stables, hoping to be able to join the other children in play. But the paddocks were empty, the children already gone by now. Medousa stood there, dejected.

She wandered around aimlessly, keeping out the way of the stable hands and grooms as they completed their work for the evening. Medousa came across a wooden hoop and idly began toying with it. She took it out and started rolling it around, trying to see how long she could keep it upright.

“Chrysanthe! Race you?”

Medousa looked up. It was Agesilaus. She returned his smile.

“Okay!”

She had some trouble at first, being unpracticed at rolling hoops, so Agesilaus showed Medousa how to properly roll a hoop for distance and speed. Once Medousa had a working understanding of the process, Agesilaus started rolling his own, by her side.

The two laughed as they started chasing their hoops, trying to keep up with them and keep them going.

As they played, Medousa noticed that despite his speed and dexterity, Agesilaus had a pronounced limp.

“What happened to your leg?” she asked him.

Agesilaus shrugged. “I was born this way,” he said “But I can still do anything anyone else can do! I bet I can still beat you in a race!”

“Bet you can’t!” Medousa challenged, laughing. Agesilaus laughed with her, and they started their hoops rolling.

As they ran back toward the house chasing after them, Medousa suddenly pulled herself up short, her face going blank. Megaera was standing there, arms folded, watching them.

“What’s the matter, Chrysanthe?” Agesilaus asked. And then, he too, noticed Megaera.

“I think I’ve got to go in, now,” Medousa said flatly.

“Aw, but we were playing…!”

“You can play with your own friends, young master,” Megaera’s voice cut through the air. “Chrysanthe– Go tend to your duties. If you haven’t got any, I’m sure I can think of something for you to do.”

Medousa hurried to comply as Agesilaus whined.

Megaera waited until both children had gone in. Casually glancing around, she picked up one of the hoops the children had dropped. She gently rolled it back and forth for a moment, then dropped it.

“Foolishness,” she muttered to herself.

Then, she too went inside to tend to her evening duties.

 

Agis was King Archidamus’ eldest son by a previous marriage. He was the king’s favorite son, and was designated as the Eurypontids’ heir, in favor over Agesilaus. As such, he held a particularly privileged position in the household, and he often lorded it over his younger half-siblings.  On this particular afternoon, Agis and some of his friends had surrounded Agesilaus in one of the palace courtyards, and were tormenting him without mercy.

“Lame little fool,” his elder half-brother called. “You should’ve been exposed at birth!”

Agesilaus stood in the middle of the small circle, stoically holding in his anger and tears.

“The only ones who’ll play with you are your baby sister and her friends! No one would miss you!”

They started pushing him around, shoving him down, then pulling him to his feet again, randomly hitting and kicking him.

Medousa had been bringing some skeins of material to the weaving room when she saw what was going on. Frightened, she thought about trying to help. On the other hand, as a slave, she couldn’t stand up to nobles of the house. She ran inside, forgetting for the moment her duties, and went to find Cynisca.

“Cynisca! Cynisca! You have to come quickly!”

The young princess looked up as Medousa rushed in. She scowled.

“You’re not supposed to order me around,” she chastised.

“But, Cynisca– Agis and his friends are beating Agesilaus!”

“What? Come on– Show me!”

Cynisca jumped up and followed her Helot outside where Agesilaus was badly losing to his elder brother and his friends.

Without hesitation, Cynisca ran straight in, punching and kicking, and scratching and biting, standing by her brother. Though Cynisca fought fiercely, and though Agesilaus himself was capable enough despite his leg, the two were still getting the worst of it from the older children.

Medousa was now even more upset. She knew she couldn’t interfere, but she didn’t want to stand by doing nothing. She wanted to run and get Maia. But then, she’d probably get beaten for shirking her duties again.

After agonizing over it for a few seconds, she ran to find the nurse. She was terrified, the vicious circle surrounding her young mistress and her brother serving to stir up recent and unpleasant memories for Medousa.

By the time Maia came, the fight was already over. Agis and his friends were gone, and Cynisca and Agesilaus, sat huddled together. They were covered in cuts and bruises, sniffling, but refusing to cry. They rose as Maia and Medousa approached.

“What happened here?” Maia asked.

“Nothing…” Agesilaus answered.

Maia raised an eyebrow and folded her arms. “‘Nothing…?'” she repeated.

The two remained silent. Maia sighed.

“Come on then, you two. Let’s get you cleaned up. Chrysanthe– you go back to your duties.”

Maia led her charges away as Medousa returned to her own work.

 

Medousa ran back to the weaving room with the material she’d been sent to fetch.

“Chrysanthe,” Theisis greeted her as she entered. “Where’ve you been? You were supposed to be here an hour ago.”

Medousa looked down, fidgeting uncomfortably.

Theisis smiled wanly.

“Running out to play, were you?”

Medousa shook her head. “No, ma’am,” she said, looking up.

“Well, what, then?”

“I– I had to help Agesilaus.”

“Help him? What with?”

Medousa blushed and told her. To her surprise, Theisis laughed.

“Oh, they’re always torturing Agesilaus like that,” she said. “It’s because of his leg, of course.”

“But, he can still do everything everyone else can do,” Medousa said meekly.

“Well, yes,” Theisis said “But it’s good for him. It’ll toughen him up.”

Medousa said nothing, but looked sad.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Theisis told her. “I’m not Megaera; I won’t beat you for something like this. But you will make up the time, you understand.”

Medousa looked up and smiled, and then returned to her work.

 

Months passed. One evening, Medousa sat with Cynisca and Agesilaus in the nursery. Medousa had been started on “handmaiden duties” to the young mistress, due in part to Maia’s influence. Eupoleia acquiesced since Cynisca would be starting her period of Agoge soon, and would have need of her own Helot. Neither Eupoleia nor Archidamus were exactly pleased that Cynisca treated her slave as she did her friends, nevertheless, they took comfort in the knowledge that at least such a relationship would ensure a loyal Helot for their daughter.

The girls sat playing at knuckle-bones, with their stuffed wolf-puppies. Agesilaus sat a short distance away, spinning a top.

“I wish you could come play with us all the time,” Cynisca said.

“Me, too,” Medousa answered. “I–”

“She can’t, cos Megaera says she’s just a slave, and Chrysanthe shouldn’t be allowed to play with princes and princesses.”

“Her name is Medousa,” Cynisca told her brother. “And she’s my Helot. Maia says so. So I can do whatever I want with her, and I want her to play with me, and Helen, and Clytemnestra, and Khalkiope, and–”

“I don’t like Megaera,” Medousa whispered. “She’s always hitting me and yelling at me.”

“She shouldn’t be allowed to beat you. You’re my slave, not hers.”

“I think she just likes being angry all the time.” Medousa said.

“Know what?” Agesilaus declared, rising. “Next week, I get to go start my Agoge!”

The two girls looked up at him.

“When can I go?” Cynisca demanded.

“When you’re seven,” Agesilaus told her. “You have to wait two whole years.”

“I’m taking Medousa with me when I go,” Cynisca said.

“You’ll probably have to kill Chrysanthe when you go to your Agoge,” Agesilaus said carelessly. He sat down with them to play knuckle-bones. The two girls looked up, alarmed. Medousa started to cry.

“Nuh, UH!” Cynisca shouted, jumping up. “Who said so?”

They say so,” her brother said. “They say that when you finish school and you’re grown up, you have to go down the hill and kill Helots.”

Cynisca flew at her brother, tumbling around fighting, while Medousa wept silently, hugging her stuffed wolf cub. Soon, the commotion brought Maia running in.

“What’s going on here?” she asked, surveying the scene. Cynisca spoke up first.

“Agesilaus says I have to kill Medousa!”

What?

“It’s true,” Agesilaus protested. “Agis said so! He told me that at the end of your Agoge, you have to go kill Helots!”

Maia raised an eyebrow.

“I think it’s past everyone’s bedtime,” she decided. “Come along.”

She helped the children clean up, and then put them to bed.

“No one’s gonna kill Medousa,” Cynisca said petulantly as she was put down to sleep. “I won’t let them.”

“Sssh,” Maia told her. “Go to sleep.” She turned to Medousa, her eyes still dropping tears.

“Come along, Chrysanthe. Bed time for you, too.”

She led her back to the servants’ quarters, and tucked her into bed.

“Go to sleep, child,” she whispered. “No one is going to kill you.”

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a faceless drone in a corporate call center, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in my dead grandparents’ house, alone, with an impressive collection of martial arts weapons, where I practice and train daily. I am not currently on any medications.
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