Part I, Sparta– Freedom

One year, at the Gymnopaedia, in Medousa’s sixteenth year, she was sitting and watching Cynisca dancing the Pyrrhike with the other girls. As always, Medousa was captivated by her grace and strength, and stared at her, longingly. Cynisca herself would often glance quickly in Medousa’s direction to make sure she was watching. Oh, how Medousa wished she could join Cynisca in the dance! But she contented herself with the knowledge that that night, they would engage together in an altogether different sort of dance before sleep.

As Medousa sat daydreaming, she felt a sudden touch at her shoulder.

“Hello, Chrysanthe.”

She looked up to see Agesilaus standing by her side. She stood to greet him. He was quite grown by now, and was himself here participating in the festival. He had never attained much height, and he was still rather plain looking, but he was still well able to keep up with his fellows in dance and combat, despite his weak leg. He had come over to watch his sister and her friends before returning again to his own troop to continue their displays. Medousa practically loomed over him, so tall had she grown over the years. She cast her eyes down and smiled as she saluted him formally.

“Good day, Sir. I’m glad to see you again; it’s been a long time since we’ve seen you at the picnics.”

He acknowledged her greeting briefly. He nodded toward Cynisca in the field, who, catching sight of her brother in the crowd, smiled widely.

“How is my sister? How has she been?”

“She is well, Master. She often speaks of you and wonders after your health and fortune.”

Agesilaus grinned at Medousa. “She writes often,” he said. “She writes often of you, in fact.”

Medousa blushed, glancing back at Cynisca, her eyes sliding longingly over the contours of her young mistress’ body, but said nothing. Agesilaus noticed, and laughing gently, continued.

“I have news for Cynisca, and a present for the festival.” He leaned closer to Medousa, and lowered his voice so that only she could hear him in the crowd. “Something that may, in fact, be of consequence to you… Medousa….”

Medousa’s mouth hung open in surprise; never had Agesilaus or Cynisca ever called her by her own name in such a public venue as this. He smiled slyly at her. Medousa was left puzzled.

At last, the women finished their dance to the crowd’s cheers. Medousa picked up a cloth, quickly soaked it in a small bowl of water, and draped a towel across her shoulder. Cynisca ran to her, and greeted her brother affectionately as Medousa washed the sweat from her limbs.

Brother and sister took each other’s hands. “It’s good to see you, Brother! I shall come to watch you at the next dance!”

“You become more beautiful each year, my Sister,” Agesilaus replied. “I am glad you are well.”

“Will you come to see me in the weapons competition tomorrow?”

“Of course, Cynisca. I’ll likewise expect you to come see me at pankration.”

They spoke of this and that, catching up with each other of the year’s events.

“I have come of age,” Agesilaus noted. “I am to be married in another eighteen months. And I have already been given a portion of my inheritance to manage….”

“Yes, yes, Brother Mine,” Cynisca interrupted as Medousa finished drying her and helped her into her tunic. “I am looking forward to it.” She grinned. “I only wish I could help you kidnap your bride.” They laughed.

“Well. I don’t think I could arrange that, Sister. In fact, I may see if I can get out of it.”

“Get out of it? But why?”

“I have someone else in mind,” Agesilaus smiled. “Besides, I’m not ready yet. And anyway, I’m hardly a good match for anyone.”

“Nonsense,” Cynisca upbraided him.

“Well, we’ll see,” her brother said. “I have a surprise for you, for the festival,” he said, brightening.

“A surprise? For me? What is it? Tell me!”

“Tell you now? Why, then it wouldn’t be a surprise,” her brother remonstrated. “Come have dinner with me this afternoon before I return to the barracks.”

Agesilaus paused and winked. “Both of you,” he said looking directly at both Cynisca and Medousa.

Again, Medousa was shocked. The girls watched as Agesilaus moved off to join his comrades for their next display. Puzzled, Cynisca turned to Medousa.

“Chrysanthe, did he say anything to you?”

“No, Mistress. Not exactly. Only….”

“Only what?”

Medousa lowered her voice. “Agesilaus called me by my own name. Here. In public.”

Cynisca looked up at her friend, eyes wide.

“He did…? Strange. And he said nothing about this surprise of his?”

“Only that it might also be of some concern to me, as well as you.”

“I shall be eaten up with curiosity for the rest of the day, now!”

They laughed and then went to watch Agesilaus in his dances.

 

Later that evening, Agesilaus joined his sister for dinner in her rooms. Several Helots stood at their stations to serve, including Medousa, who took up her place by Cynisca. Brother and sister greeted each other warmly, and Agesilaus spared a smile for Medousa in plain view of the other slaves. Medousa was both proud and uneasy as her fellow Helots’ resentment filled the air. She ignored them and kept to attention as her mistress and Agesilaus ate and talked.

“I’m glad you’ve got time to visit before returning to your barracks,” Cynisca said, at last. Remnants of their supper were taken away, and wine was brought.

“We still have a few more days,” her brother responded, referring to the festival.

Quiet for a moment, while servants filled their cups.

“And what of this mysterious surprise of yours you promised to tell me…?”

Agesilaus smiled and put his wine cup down. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the Helots.

“Not you,” he called out to Medousa as she started to follow the others out. She paused, confused, and then resumed her place, standing against the wall, out of the way, behind Cynisca. Agesilaus grinned at both her and Cynisca. Turning to his sister across the table, he placed a document down before her. He beckoned Medousa to come closer.

“It’s a poorly kept secret how you two feel about each other,” he spoke as Cynisca reached for the scroll. “So I decided that something should be done.”

Cynisca’s eyes went wide as she read the document. She rose and turned to Medousa, holding it out for her to read. “It’s your freedom, Medousa,” Agesilaus told her. “You are no longer a slave.”

Puzzled, Medousa took it from Cynisca and began to read. She felt her knees go suddenly weak.

Agesilaus beamed as the two girls embraced, holding each other tightly. And then they fell upon him, hugging him and kissing him.

Medousa’s joy was intense, but short-lived. She paused, suddenly.

“Wait–”

“What’s wrong?” Cynisca asked, planting kisses alternately on her face and on her brother’s

“Well, it’s just–I’ve been in your service my whole life; what will I do now? Where will I go? How can I stay with you if–”

“And that question brings us to this.” Agesilaus held out another document to Medousa. She took it, and read it, her eyes going as wide as Cynisca’s had. She fell at Agesilaus’ feet and embraced him around his knees, her head down in delirious reverence.

“What is it?” Cynisca demanded.

“Papers of adoption,” her brother said, as Medousa wept for gratitude. Presently, she came to herself and released him. Agesilaus sat down and laid a hand upon Medousa’s head as she knelt and looked up.

Cynisca cried out, and leapt upon her brother, dampening his tunic with tears of joy.

He stroked his sister’s hair as she rested her cheek against his chest, and looked down at Medousa. “Of course, I can’t give you any real legal standing. But you at least have a home now, as a free citizen of Sparta.”

“Oh, Gods!” Cynisca sighed. “How ever did you manage to convince our parents to accede to this?”

“As a coming-of-age present to me,” Agesilaus replied. “They asked me what I wanted, and so I told them. They allowed me to purchase Medousa’s freedom, and they even agreed to the adoption.”

“I can hardly believe it,” Cynisca said, composing herself and taking her seat again.

“Well, I did have some ‘help’ from the Gods,” her brother confessed.

“What do you mean?” Cynisca asked.

Agesilaus smiled. “Do you remember that year at the Karneia, when you were only ten…?”

Cynisca blushed. “How could I forget?”

“Well,” her brother continued, “Do you remember when Tiresias made his prophecies?”

“Yes….”

Agesilaus beamed. “I simply reminded Mother and Father that the prophet declared Medousa to be the property of Athena.”

“And they agreed to free me for that?” Medousa asked, almost laughing.

“Father called me ‘foolish,’ but Mother wasn’t unsympathetic. Still; I think that for a while, I will be able to ask no favors of them.” He laughed with her.

Cynisca drew Medousa up to sit by her and slipped her arm around her waist. “We have so many plans to make, now,” she said excitedly. She paused briefly, combing her fingers through Medousa’s hair. “I think one of the first things we need to do,” she told her former Helot, “Is to let your hair grow out, nice and long and thick…. Such beautiful hair, like gold with fire in it– You’re not a slave anymore, after all.”

 

That night, as they settled in for bed, Cynisca asked Medousa “What will you do, now that you’re free?”

“I don’t know,” Medousa sighed. “I’m not sure I know how to be ‘free.'”

Cynisca laughed, pulling her down to the bed and easing her dress off. “Well, what would you like to do?”

Medousa thought for a while as she stroked Cynisca’s hair. “I don’t know, Little Puppy.” She stretched and then snuggled under the covers with her friend. “Honestly, I’m worried.”

Cynisca threaded her limbs about Medousa’s body. “Worried? Whatever about?”

“Well, I’m free now– But what will I do? Where will I go?

“What do you mean?”

“Cynisca, I- I’ve been in service to you my whole life… I– Everything I–”

Medousa paused, trying to find the right words. She gave up.

“Oh, Little Puppy! I don’t even own the clothes I wear! What will become of me?”

“Don’t be silly, Medousa,” Cynisca scolded gently. “Agesilaus adopted you into our family. You’ll stay here with me.”

“But– Aren’t you going to be married soon?”

“Yes,” Cynisca replied. “After my Agoge. I shall be married off, and I will raise a family of my own.”

“I wish I could do that, too,” Medousa said wistfully. “Then we could raise our children together, like cousins.”

They both laughed.

Cynisca kissed her. “Well, then–Whom will you marry, my Medousa?”

“I have no idea. I wish I could marry Agesilaus, so I could stay close to you.”

“My parents have already chosen whom I am to marry. Fortunately, it’s still some years off.”

They lay back together, talking of various suitors and their families that Medousa could consider, that would allow the two of them to stay close to each other. Medousa at long last sighed.

“No one from a noble family would want me, though, really.”

“What do you mean?” Cynisca asked.

“Well, what respectable family would want me? As a proper wife, I mean.”

“Oh, Medousa! The boys flock around you at least as much as they do around our Helen.”

“Yes, but my suitors are all commoners. They’re not your class of people. They’re more like me– common. And the sons of the nobles and Ephors would just use me as a hetaera. I don’t want one of those to take me away from you.” Medousa paused again. “I don’t want to be left behind.”

Cynisca said nothing, but lay quietly, contemplating. She nestled close, tightening her grip on Medousa.

“Oh, I’ll think of something,” Cynisca told her. “Stop worrying.”

Medousa giggled as Cynisca pressed her lips against her throat and purred.

“Yes, I know the ‘something’ you’re thinking of…”

Cynisca laughed with her, sliding her hands over Medousa’s body, making her shiver.

“Of course you do,” she said. “And you love it.”

“I do,” Medousa confessed, returning Cynisca’s embraces.

 

Later, as they lay together, drowsing off to sleep, Cynisca turned to Medousa, snuggling close. “I still have five more years; you must continue the Agoge with me. There will be added honor to you if you finish your education. Not as my Helot, but as my–my–”

“Your what-?” Medousa smiled sleepily, teasing her. She sang softly in Cynisca’s ear–

What farm girl has seduced you?

Draped in burlap,

She doesn’t even know to pull her rags

Down over her ankles.

Cynisca laughed, wound her limbs around her again, and kissed her as she drifted off.

 

Inwardly, though, Medousa was fearful. The prospect of freedom was wonderful, certainly. But without resources of her own, it could just as well be a death sentence. As a freedwoman, no longer Cynisca’s slave, she would have to leave at some point. But where could she go? Medousa had no other home to go to, no money of her own, her only real possessions, her stuffed wolf-pup Alala, and the amulet given her by Athena herself.

And even if she stayed with Cynisca, acting as her handmaid, how would her life be any different? She might just as well never have been freed. Indeed, it might have been better for her never to have been freed.

Agesilaus had intended this great gift for his sister, for he and Cynisca had always been close. Perhaps Agesilaus was only fond of Medousa for his sister’s sake. Or perhaps Medousa held his affection as any loyal Helot might gain the familiar affection of her masters. But the more she ruminated upon it, the more unintentionally cruel this ‘gift’ seemed. Yes, Cynisca would no longer need to worry about the stigma of loving a mere slave…

But what about herself? What about Medousa?

 

The next day, during a break in the festivities, Cynisca and Medousa told Helen of Agesilaus’ gift to them. Although both girls appeared happy, Helen noticed right away a certain heaviness in Medousa’s mood.

“What’s wrong, Medousa?” she asked. “This is a joyful occasion.”

“Oh, she just likes to worry about things,” Cynisca said before Medousa could answer. “She thinks that I’m going to leave her behind once I’m married. Silly thing….”

A hurt look flashed across Medousa’s face just then at Cynisca’s callousness. But she quickly put on a brave smile. “Well,” she told Helen, “When Cynisca marries, how can I go with her? I’m a freedwoman, now– But I have no money of my own, no property…. What will I do?”

Cynisca pulled Medousa into an embrace. “Hush,” she soothed, stroking her hair. “We’ve still got years to think of something. I would never abandon you.”

“She’s right, though,” Helen observed. “She won’t be able to marry high enough to remain amongst us. And she hasn’t got any resources of her own.” She sighed. “Our Agoge will be over before we know it.”

Medousa sighed also, holding back tears. “What will I do?” she whined, as Cynisca continued to hold her.

Helen looked thoughtful as she gazed at her friends. “Suppose,” she said, “We sponsor our Medousa to enter the cult of Athena?”

Cynisca furrowed her brow. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, Medousa has already been declared property of the Goddess by Tiresias, hasn’t she?” Helen answered. “If she becomes a priestess of Athena, Medousa would get to live in the Temple precincts, and she’d be ascribed more respectability than she’d know what to do with!”

“Don’t be silly, Helen; Medousa and I want to stay together. I don’t want her locked away in the Goddess’ Bronze-Roofed House where I couldn’t get at her.”

But don’t you see?” Helen told them with an exasperated sigh and a laugh. “Medousa will live up here. And you will live up here, too. You’d be able to meet often!”

Medousa and Cynisca sat up. “You’re joking with us, Helen,” Cynisca said.

“I’m serious,” Helen protested. “You’ll be married off and busy with the affairs of running your own household. And what of Medousa? As a priestess of Athena, she’ll have an income, she’ll gain standing in the City, and she’ll be able to mingle with the very best class of people.”

“But–As a priestess, won’t I have to be chaste?” Medousa glanced quickly at Cynisca.

“That just means you can’t have any boys,” Helen remonstrated. “Honestly! Would that be a problem for you two?”

Cynisca and Medousa looked at Helen, open mouthed. Then they turned to one another, smiles slowly breaking out upon their faces.

“People will ask ‘When did Cynisca become so religious?'” Medousa said, laughing.

“Oh, yes,” Cynisca giggled, stealing a kiss from Medousa and encircling her waist with an arm. “I am a zealous devotee of this goddess.”

“Let’s meet after the festival days are over,” Helen proposed. “We need to make plans.”

Cynisca and Medousa nodded in agreement.

“Hey!” Helen cried. “Let’s take Medousa with us to dance the Pyrrhike today! Think of the stir it’ll cause!”

Cynisca laughed and clapped with delight as Medousa looked suddenly shy.

“Yes!” Cynisca shouted. “Come on, Medousa! Let’s go!”

Laughing, Helen and Cynisca dragged Medousa with them to the weapons competition and dances.

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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