Chapter Excerpt – Helena Schrader: The Olympic Charioteer

In the stables, Teleklos watched while Lysandridas finished grooming Afra. He had already groomed and tacked the mare Leonis liked best. Lysandridas had removed his bronze breastplate and greaves and was wearing only his scarlet chiton. The shadow in the door attracted their attention, and both men looked over as Leonis entered.

She was dressed for riding in a short chiton, like a youth, with sandals on her feet. Her slender legs were exposed from the knee down, and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. The elegance was gone—and in its place, something more dangerously erotic. Lysandridas was startled and then embarrassed. He turned his back on Leonis to brush the last pieces of straw from Afra’s tail, because he found Leonis so attractive that he could not control the quickening in his loins. For the first time in his life, he felt uncertain of her. Could she really still find him attractive with his emaciated body and scarred face?

Leonis led her mare out of the stables, and Teleklos gave her a leg up. “Zoë’s packing a lunch for you,” Teleklos informed them. “You can stop by the house and collect it.”

Lysandridas emerged with Afra and flung himself nimbly onto her back. They set off together without further ado, stopped by the house where Zoë handed a leather satchel up to Lysandridas, and he slipped the strap over his head and carried it on his back like a shield. They continued.

The road wound along the first outposts of the Taygetos, which stretched like fingers into the valley. They were climbing almost imperceptibly but steadily. The two horses were eager and soon sweating. They met no one on the road. Even the villages seemed deserted. Apparently everyone was in town for the festival.

Beyond the second little village, they turned off the road and started up a steep, rocky path that zigzagged up the slope. They rode for some time through forests of oak and maple, yew and myrtle, with occasional flowering chestnut, wild fig, and almond trees. Abruptly they came to an open meadow, green with tall grass and littered with wildflowers blowing in the refreshing breeze.

At first glance the red of the poppies dominated, but at closer inspection the field was also growing blue larkspur, purple field gladiolus, two-toned globularia, and many other flowers Lysandridas could not identify. He jumped down and started leading Afra toward the sanctuary standing in a semicircle of cypress trees at the far side of the meadow. The flowers came up to his thigh and the bees hummed as he waded through the meadow.

Lysandridas glanced over at Leonis. Her face was flushed from the ride, and strands of hair that had escaped from her ponytail blew in the wind. The grasses came to her waist, obscuring her naked legs. It was strangely wonderful to have her beside him. Strange—because she was at once familiar and completely mysterious. He could remember at least a half-dozen times they had been here together as children and adolescents. More often than not, she had tagged along unwanted, and he and Thessalos had done their best to shake her off or ignore her. Lysandridas smiled at her now. “You can still ride as you used to.”

“So can you,” she quipped back with a toss of her head.

He laughed.

They continued in silence for a moment, both acutely aware that they were separated by a vast gorge although their bodies almost touched. To bridge that gorge they had to explore what separated them: the past four years of their lives. Lysandridas knew what the problem was, but he didn’t know where to begin. It was Leonis who made the first tentative step to close the gap.

“Teleklos said you were living with the horse breeder Antyllus in Tegea. What was he like?”

“Antyllus?” Lysandridas was surprised by the question at first, and then realized it was as good a place to start as any other. “Antyllus is a refined, educated man. He is thoughtful—sometimes too thoughtful for his own good. Above all, he’s kind. When he bought me, he had no idea who I was. All he saw was a slave who was being beaten for being sick. He bought me in a casual gesture of kindness—never thinking there would be any benefit for himself.” And in the end there wasn’t, Lysandridas reflected with a sense of guilt.

Leonis held her breath. It hurt her to hear Lysandridas talking about himself as property that could be bought and sold. She wasn’t used to it. After all, even the helots couldn’t be bought and sold. “And when he found out who you were, he exempted you from every other kind of work? Let you do nothing but train his racing team?”

Lysandridas hesitated for several minutes, unsure if he should tell Leonis the whole truth or leave the story the way his father knew it. They had reached the little creek that plunged down the mountainside, separating the meadow from the sanctuary of the Horse Grave. Both horses stretched out their necks and started slurping up the water with loud, sucking noises, their necks working visibly. Lysandridas stroked Afra. “Antyllus offered me my freedom at once—when he found out.”

Leonis’ intake of breath was audible, and she looked at him, astonished. He did not dare look at her. “When he offered it to me, I thought my father had refused to pay my ransom. I thought he knew I was alive and didn’t want me. I couldn’t imagine going home and facing him. Can you understand that?” At last he looked over at her.

Leonis gazed at him in utter disbelief. “How could you think Teleklos would reject you?”

“Because everyone had been ransomed but me, and I knew from Antyllus that Teleklos was still alive and even racing the team. What else was I to think?” His tone was defensive.

Leonis, who had been a witness to Teleklos’ grief and then his desperation to ransom Lysandridas, at first couldn’t understand; but the more she thought about it, she knew that Lysandridas was right. Even Teleklos had been most tortured by the thought that Lysandridas would blame him for not being clever enough to recognize his pseudonym. So she did not argue, but replied: “But you know the truth now. You’re glad to be home, aren’t you?”

“Most of the time,” Lysandridas replied honestly, stroking Afra.

Leonis was horrified. “You mean, there are times when you aren’t glad? When you would rather be back in Tegea?”

“Yes, when my grandfather crosses to the other side of the street to avoid greeting me; when I watch Thessalos mishandling that magnificent team of his grandfather’s—or when Nicoles smirks at me and reminds me, ‘They won’t let me get away with it.’ Then, I wish I were back in Tegea driving Antyllus’ team.”

Leonis was hurt. She looked down, and Lysandridas—glancing over—could see the sadness in her face. He reached out and touched her cheek with the back of his hand. It was the first time he had touched her since his return, and it was like an electric shock. She looked up sharply, flushing. “Don’t be sad,” he urged her. “Come on, let’s make a sacrifice and then have something to eat.”

He leapt over the little brook and only after taking a stride, thought that he ought to offer Leonis assistance. But she had not waited for it and had already jumped the little brook on her own. That pleased him, and he smiled at her.

They hobbled the horses and let them graze. Before the little Doric temple a limestone altar stood, naked and washed by the rains. Lysandridas took the satchel off his back, opened the drawstrings, and found the apples Zoë packed. He laid these on the altar and then, opening the wineskin, he poured wine into the scooped-out bowl in the altar as well. Then they entered the low temple together.

Inside it was very dark. There were no windows, and the walls had been painted generations ago. Still, there was a fine bronze of a horse that Lysandridas had always loved. The horse stood with his ears out straight and with one foot forward. His wide nostrils seemed to sense the presence of a visitor, and his mane stood up stiff and proud. “What a waste,” Lysandridas remarked.

“What?”

“Sacrificing a horse to get Helen’s suitors to swear to help one another. If they’d spared the horse, they could have saved themselves the whole Trojan War.”

Leonis laughed. She’d been raised to see war as a good thing.

They left the sanctuary and sat down on the steps in the swaying, unsteady shade of the cypress tree. They sat facing the sunlit field of waving wildflowers. Leonis pulled her chiton down over her knees and wrapped her arms around her knees, holding it in place—evidently embarrassed with her own attire.

“Why didn’t you marry, Leonis?”

“Marry?” Her heart stopped.

“Yes,” he pressed her, looking at her hard, devouring the sight of her healthy, well-proportioned body and the well-shaped bones under the flushed skin.

“Don’t you know?” She did not look at him as she spoke, but sat with her chin on her knees, gazing at the waving flowers. “When I was a young maiden, I told my father I would only marry the man who could beat me in a race.”

Lysandridas laughed. “That was because you thought none of us ever could! Surely you’ve outgrown that phase?” He glanced at her sidelong, realizing that he hoped she had.

Her face was rigid, and she didn’t dare look at him. She just stared at the field of flowers. “No; it’s because I thought you were the only one who could beat me.”

Lysandridas looked so astonished that she felt compelled to explain herself. “When I was a little girl, I never questioned that we would marry. It seemed so self-evident that I never gave it any thought at all. Only when I started to notice how you ogled and gawked at Hermione did I start to doubt. But even then I told myself that Hermione would never choose you out of all the young men pursuing her. After all, you all gawked and ogled her, and there were many youths of better family, greater wealth, more impressive beauty, and equal athletic ability who were just as keen to win Hermione. Why should it be you? When the betrothal was announced, I was devastated. There was never anyone else for me. Then, even before I fully comprehended what had happened to me, you failed to return from Tegea.” She paused and glanced nervously at Lysandridas. He was only gazing at her wide-eyed, as if he’d truly never known—never even imagined—that she might love him.

“When you did not come home with the army, I learned that I loved you more than I wanted you. I made sacrifices to all the Gods—one after another—begging them to bring you home alive. To Persephone I gave all the trophies from the races I’d won as a girl. To Athena, the shawl my mother left on the banks of the stream when she jumped in to rescue my brother and was swept to her own death instead. To Artemis went the pressed flowers from a garland you once made for me. I promised the Gods that I would never be jealous of Hermione again. I swore that I would accept Hermione as your wife, if only they would bring you home. But instead, you were declared dead.”

“Hermione married within a few months. You could have, too.” Lysandridas pointed out softly.

“Who?!” Leonis flung back at him angrily. “For me there never was anyone but you. Never. I’m not beautiful like Hermione! No one wanted me—not even you. So you see, whether you were dead or alive with Hermione made no difference to my future, really. I lost my husband the day you promised yourself to Hermione.” She did not dare look at him as she spoke.

Lysandridas did not answer immediately. He gazed across the field, feeling the wind blowing his dark curls and playing with the skirts of his chiton. He heard the cypress trees rustling overhead and the bees in the wild asparagus beside the steps. He realised to his own surprise that she was right: Leonis was the only wife he could picture for himself.

Hermione had been his bride—and the only place he could picture her was in bed. He could not honestly picture her spinning or weaving or bringing refreshments to the harvesters in the heat of the day. A life with the pale girl Antyllus had selected for him was even more difficult to imagine. Leonis, by contrast, fit in everywhere. She’d even help him with the horses, encourage him to keep breeding and training and competing—just as she had encouraged his father when he would have given them all away. She never seemed to see his scar when she looked at him. She’d defended him to Hermione. She was desirable. He desired her.

He turned to look at her, but she had turned her face away. He saw her chest heave as she gulped for breath. He reached over and turned her head back with his hand. She had her eyes pressed shut, and tears glistened on the lashes. The lashes were chestnut-coloured, he noted with surprise. That’s why they didn’t stand out, but they were long and beautiful. He bent and kissed her eyelids one after the other very gently.

Leonis couldn’t hold her breath any longer, and sobbed once before biting down on her lips.

Lysandridas pulled her into his arms and kissed the top of her head. She smelled of lavender and thyme and sunshine. He bent his head deeper and nuzzled the back of her neck. “Will you marry me—even I can’t beat you at a race?”

Leonis opened her arms and wound them around Lysandridas, too dizzy to even be ecstatic as she should have been. She had never in her whole life been held like this. Her father, as far as she could remember, had never held her in his arms. Teleklos had not done so since she was eight or nine, except that once in the stables—and that had been in comfort, not desire. Lysandridas was not comforting her—even if her tears had been his excuse to take her into his arms. Lysandridas was caressing her, kissing her, enclosing her in his strength and warmth. He had found her lips with his and he nibbled on them, played with them gently, and parted them.

The kiss lasted a long time, and then Lysandridas ended it and matter-of-factly took up the satchel and opened it. He removed the loaf of bread and tore it in two. Taking his knife from his belt, he cut slices of cheese and sausage for them, offering Leonis everything first. He set his own portion beside him, and dug into the satchel until he found the two chipped pottery mugs with a cream glaze of typical Laconian manufacture. He stood and carried these to the brook, filled them with water, and returned. Then he tossed out a little water and poured in a touch of wine. He handed one of the mugs to Leonis. “You haven’t said yes,” he pointed out.

Leonis took the mug and held it in both hands. She stared at Lysandridas. He had never looked so attractive to her, and that frightened her. The force of her own emotions frightened her. She had thought she was in love with him ever since she had learned that girls were supposed to fall in love and marry boys, but what she felt now was overpowering, oppressive—frightening. “Yes,” she whispered, and had never sounded so uncertain of herself in her life.

Lysandridas leaned forward and kissed her again. As they drank and ate together, Lysandridas started talking about Tegea. He told about wanting to die until he saw the apple blossoms, and he talked about Dion and Ambelos and “the women of Tegea” and how they were never seen in public unless they were veiled. “They’re weak and pale and timid.”

“That makes it sound like you knew them better than you admit,” Leonis teased, beginning to relax a little.

“Not as well as I would have liked to,” Lysandridas quipped back, adding seriously, “The whole time I was a quarry slave I never saw a single woman—not one! After I was bought by Antyllus, I saw only the slaves of his household—mostly older women and a couple of younger, but distinctly unattractive, girls. They are different from our helots, Leonis; none of them have any brains. And I did not meet the mistress of the house until the day Antyllus introduced me to her as her adopted son.”

“But how could she—I mean—if she didn’t know you …?”

Lysandridas shrugged. “Apparently her consent wasn’t required. Antyllus made the decision to adopt me and he informed her about it. It was very awkward for me, but she didn’t seem to care. She was a heavy, listless woman, covered with thick make-up—white cream and red rouge and lips. Even her eyelids were painted. She held out her hand to me, welcomed me into her family, and then turned away.

“But the worst thing that happened to me with respect to women in Tegea was my betrothal. Antyllus told me when he adopted me that he wanted me to marry his niece. She had been intended for his natural son, and now she was getting ‘old’ and her father could not find a suitor. By then I knew that in Tegea men never saw women or girls of good family except at religious and family festivals. Most men married either relatives, whom they might have glimpsed at family festivals, or utter strangers selected for them by the fathers. In short, as Antyllus’ son I had no choice. He would choose a bride for me—or rather already had.”

“But an older woman?” Leonis asked, puzzled.

“That’s just it, Leonis. She was seventeen—a pale, frightened child, who had never set foot outside of her father’s house. I felt so sorry for her—being given away to a former enemy, a former slave, with a hideous scar in the middle of his forehead.” He touched it as he spoke. “She was terrified of me. At the betrothal, when they put her hand in mine, it was clammy and trembling. She barely managed to say three or four words to me the entire afternoon. It was terrible.”  He fell silent, remembering the embarrassing scene. Then, to change the subject, he asked Leonis with a smile, “Tell me about your suitors.”

“What suitors?”

“All the men you turned away while waiting for a slave to come home.”

“You were never a slave to me, Lysandridas.”

He didn’t answer, but looked down at his mangled hands.

Leonis reached over, took his hands in hers, and then bent and kissed his scarred knuckles. They smelled of leather and horse sweat, and she loved them.

Lysandridas kissed the back of her head. “Were there really no others?” he persisted.

“One.”

“Who?”

“Your father.”

Lysandridas drew back sharply. “That’s disgusting! He’s nearly forty years older than you! How dare he—”

“He was very lonely. He’d lost his only son. I was there, familiar—”

“It was an insult,” Lysandridas insisted indignantly.

“No,” Leonis told him simply, adding gently, “it was a very sweet gesture.”

“So why did you turn him down?” he challenged, still sounding outraged.

“I didn’t. He changed his mind when he realised I didn’t love him—when he realized I loved you.”

Lysandridas sat beside her for a few minutes, frowning, and then he seemed to come to terms with the thought. “More wine?”

She nodded and held out her mug. Again he fetched water and then poured the wine into it. “I want to keep breeding horses. I want to breed and train another winning team,” he told her solemnly.

“Of course.” She was smiling, amused by his intensity.

“It’s expensive. More than we can afford. Taygetos was a stroke of luck—and he’s past his prime. I’ll breed Afra with him next year and hope, but really, I’ll need a new stud stallion. Poseidon alone knows where I’m to get the funds to buy one,” he admitted somewhat gloomily.

“We’ll find the money. Do you think the Agiad team is better than your father’s and Antyllus’?”

“Yes—but not with Thessalos driving them,” he said bitterly, and Leonis knew he was jealous and didn’t mind.

“Why don’t you enter Afra in the horse race?” she suggested.

Lysandridas stopped in mid-drink. “Have you ridden her?”

“Your father said I should exercise her, since you didn’t get home very often. So I did ride her once or twice. Mostly I drove her—”

“Drove her?! But she’s never been trained to the traces!”

Leonis looked at him, uncomprehending. “But she was much calmer in the traces, I thought.…”

Lysandridas laughed and then reached over and gave her a quick kiss. “You’re wonderful!” he told her truthfully, adding, “She’s fast, isn’t she?”

“I never risked letting her have her head, but she seems very fast just watching her in the paddock. She leaves the others in her dust—but then they’re lazy.”

Lysandridas liked the thought of racing Afra, and decided to think about it, but first he refilled their mugs with wine. He was stiff from sitting on the stone steps and settled himself in the soft grass, stretching out on his side. He signaled for Leonis to join him. She stood but then hesitated, aware again of her near-nakedness. Lysandridas smiled up at her, blinking contentedly. “You remind me of Artemis standing there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She went onto her knees beside him and lay on her stomach, her head on her crossed arms, looking at him. He sipped his wine and considered her from half-closed eyes. He was remembering his dreams. In all of them Hermione had been naked and Leonis dressed like this, in a short chiton. He leaned over and kissed the back of Leonis’ neck. His hand slipped inside the back of her chiton and caressed her warm, sweet-smelling skin. She did not give any sign of protest. He fumbled with the brooches at her shoulders. “Shields,” he noted.

“Do you like them?”

“On you, yes.” He undid one pin and then the other. He pulled the chiton off her back and laid his head upon it. Her skin was white and flawless. He stroked it gently, and she seemed to wince slightly under the touch of his fingers, but then she relaxed. She let him undo her ponytail so he could run his fingers through her long hair. The bees hovered around them and the flowers swayed in the wind.

Lysandridas slipped his hand under her side and gently but firmly rolled her over. She opened her eyes wide, alarmed. The touch of the wind and sun on her naked breasts was so unusual that she could hardly get her breath. Her lips parted, and her chest heaved as she felt him looking at her naked breasts. He bent and kissed her lips. “Don’t be frightened.”

It was not surprising that Leonis was dizzied and disoriented by what followed. It was her first sexual experience, and she had the great good fortune to love the man who deflowered her, gently yet with enough passion to kindle a fire in her. It was more surprising that Lysandridas was left dazed by the experience.

As he lay beside her in the aftermath, trying to regain his breath, waiting for his heart and pulse to find a more stable pace and letting the breeze dry his sweat, he felt as if the earth had shaken under him. He looked up at the puffs of clouds sliding down the sky from the Taygetos, and he wasn’t sure where he was any more. The thought formed slowly that Hermione had been right after all: their night together had been meaningless compared to this. Leonis was all that mattered to him.

Now, he was embarrassed that Leonis was wearing only a short chiton. Now, he was ashamed he had brought her out here with no concern for her reputation. Now he wished he could wrap her in a long peplos and a himation and keep the eyes of others off her. Now she was his.

For the first time since he had returned to Lacedaemon, he was not only glad to be home, but looked forward to his future here. He was suddenly certain that he would be a good citizen and found a family, and that he would regain the respect of all of them. With Leonis to help him, he’d race again at Olympia. He’d win the right to be restored to the Guard. He’d make the others accept him.

They did not speak, but they held hands as they returned to the horses. Lysandridas gave Leonis a leg up, and then sprang onto Afra. They crossed the meadow in silence. As they entered the forest road, he said simply: “I will speak to your father at the first opportunity.”

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