For Whom the Gods Will Call
by Richard Ong
part 1 of 2
Fire engulfed the fields outside the walls of Athens. Not a single crop was spared in the wind-blown conflagration.
A young sentry, Demodicus, coughed and spat on the ground. He sighed with relief that the color of the wetness was not that of his blood. He looked up towards the distant sound of drums and flute music.
The Spartans regaled everything with music; and everything that they did was about war. He saw the glint of metal from several heads in the fading light of the day. He envisioned the protective Spartan helmet covering most of the gaunt face underneath like an invincible gift from Ares.
Their armies had burned all the crops around the city, taunting the wall sentries with their inhuman war cries against the occasional volley of Athenian arrows launched towards their approaching phalanx.
Demodicus’ head felt warm and his throat hurt. A strange hoarseness had begun to constrict his voice. He dropped his shield and spear on the battlements and cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Sentries, behold! Someone approaches the gate and she does not share drinks with the Spartans! Sentries, ho!”
Though his throat felt raw, he repeated his shout across the wall until he heard the creak of the large wheel being turned to lift the heavy iron bars of the gate.
Two other sentries took up positions beside him and began a fresh volley of arrows towards the enemy. Spartan shields went up to shrug off their attack.
It was at that moment that a woman stumbled and ran through the burning fields towards the newly opened gap in the wall. Demodicus picked up his long spear and threw it with every bit of strength that he could muster. He didn’t wait to see whether its intended target was hit and ran down the steps as fast as he could.
He grabbed a sleeping robe from the barracks and threw it on the shoulders of the young woman as she dove underneath the bars of the gate that had already begun its downward descent. Her eyes shone from the glow of the burning fields and her olive skin was covered in soot as if the dying trees had spat her out as a last act of defiance to the Spartans.
“Thank you for saving me,” she whispered to Demodicus.
He stared at her without saying a word then shook his head. He led her towards the barracks and gave her a cup of water.
“My thanks, soldier,” she said. Her dark hair reminded him of the night. “I would appreciate it if you could direct me towards the home of my father.”
“Who is your father, my lady?”
“His name is Pheidias, the sculptor. He worked for General Pericles on the temples of Athens. I have come a long way from Corinth to find out what has become of him. I have not received a letter from him for a long time.”
“You are too late, my lady,” said Demodicus. “The master sculptor left Athens years ago. He was accused of stealing from the people a great amount of wealth that should have gone to building the temples. He escaped from prison, never to be heard from again. I am truly sorry that you have come to Athens in vain.” He coughed and his body convulsed as he leaned against the wall.
“Are you ill?” the young woman asked.
“Lady, everyone in Athens is ill.” He looked at the spit on his palm and there was blood.
* * *
Socrates stared at the dark-haired nymph dancing at the foot of the great statue of Athena Parthenos inside the spacious chamber of the temple. The philosopher could not recall a time in all his forty years when his own tongue had been rendered immobile by a woman.
Yet here he stood, with a painful cramp in his side as he leaned forward to catch a glimpse of her half-naked body while at the same time trying to conceal his rotund form behind a pillar. His breath was laboured, and he pressed his ribs against the hard marble. There would be some bruising in the morning, he thought. He’d have to weave a convincing tale to his friends about it.
Then he saw the young woman looking in his direction. The intensity of her stare forced Socrates to turn around and cringe behind the stout pillar. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his dusty robe.
When he looked back, she was once more absorbed in her ritual dance. She undulated to the beat of her bare feet lightly tapping the smooth floor of the east chamber. She clapped her hands, arched her back, and looked up towards the towering gold and ivory likeness of the goddess. Her face glowed under the firelight in exultation. She fell on her knees and raised her hands with a shout, singing in a language that was unfamiliar to him.
The thick wooden doors of the chamber opened and the weight of each leaf crashed against the wall with a startling noise that echoed throughout the room. Two pairs of bronzed muscle clamped down on the dancing nymph on both arms. Their fingers dug deep into her supple skin as she took a sharp intake of breath at the sudden assault.
A third man wearing the robes of a high priest viciously pulled her hair back and forced her to look up to his deeply lined face. He spoke to her in a voice that was barely audible. Socrates strained in the shadows of his hiding place, trying to make out the words. The high priest grabbed the young woman by the jaw and squeezed his fingers until she cried. Tears streamed down her face and a volcanic anger rumbled within the philosopher.
“How dare they put their hands on her?” he hissed as he stepped out of the shadows.
“Hold!” A hand touched his shoulder with the feel of an authority and a voice that was all too familiar to him. “You never cease to surprise me every day, philosopher. For many years you’ve bandied words and parried sagely against me and my beloved, but never have I known you to take such a rash and dangerous action as you are about to do tonight.”
Socrates shrank back into the shadows as reason struggled to take hold of his emotions. He heard the familiar sound of a slap on the face followed by a stifled cry. The high priest shouted at the guards to take her away. Within moments, the doors of the chamber slammed shut and the petrified silence that followed was almost as palpable as the thick, musty air of the temple.
From out of the darkness emerged the beautiful ivory face of Athens’ true power in the general assembly.
* * *
Socrates and Aspasia followed the mob down the Acropolis from a discrete distance and stayed hidden within the shadows. The large expanse of the western terrace ended at the top of the stone stairway wider than any road in Athens. Above them loomed the towering columns and frieze-adorned roof of the Propylaea gate, the main entrance to the temples of the Acropolis.
“Look, they are headed towards a gathering at the Agora,” said Socrates as he pointed towards the northern slope of the hill where at the bottom stood a circular cluster of buildings around an open space.
At the central podium stood a man dressed as an official speaking to a rapt audience that nodded from time to time, raised their fists in the air and shouted with a spontaneous clap of their hands.
The officious-looking individual smiled and raised both arms to silence the people. His eyes turned towards the approaching mob that dragged the half-naked young woman like an offering to a god.
“I knew it!” Socrates spat as he reached the bottom of the hill and sprinted towards a merchant’s stall where he could get a clear view of the Agora without being seen. He stared at the most dangerous man in the Assembly, the one who had always coveted the leadership of Pericles and would stop at nothing to take secure it.
“My Lady Aspasia,” he muttered as he heard her approach from behind. “Is there nothing we can do to save her? You must rally the soldiers! Lycemedes will not hesitate to gain the support of the mob by sanctioning this offence against an innocent woman.”
The white of Aspasia’s face glistened under the moonlight. No one other than her husband, Pericles, knew what she looked like under her painted mask. Her figure remained trim, and the skin on her arms remained smooth as a young woman’s despite her decades-long association with the leader of Athens.
Many had whispered of her being a sorceress bent on prolonging her youth. Nevertheless, her true power did not stem from the mystery of her outward appearance, but from her ability to sway the lawmakers of the Assembly with a clever tongue and the quickness of her mind. Socrates had always suspected her as being the puppeteer behind the leadership in Athens.
“Patience, my dear philosopher. She will come to no harm, I promise you that. But first, you must listen and do what I say. To confront the mob without a plan will bring ruin not only to you, but to the House of Pericles.”
Lycemedes addressed the mob around him. His voice was strong and it carried far across the Agora towards where Socrates and Aspasia hid behind the merchant’s stall. “My poor, suffering people! Where are our leaders when you need them the most? Where is the great Pericles who claimed to be most favoured by the gods?
“Did he not spend millions of your drachmas to build the greatest temple of Athena, our most beloved patron? Why then did our goddess forsake us with this plague? Why did the goddess allow our children to be taken from us? How did our greatest and strongest ally, Sparta, become the enemy that threatened to bring down the walls around the city?
“But the most important question you should ask yourselves is this...” Lycemedes paused and stared at the young woman held down by the temple guards. He stepped down from the podium and placed his hand under her chin.
“The question you should be asking yourselves, my dear fellow Athenians, is what we are going to do with this whore from Corinth, a city widely known for its brothels of shameless women like her. Her self-proclaimed relation to the fugitive sculptor, Pheidias, justifies her guilt.
“As you recall, Pheidias was found guilty of robbing you, my fellow citizens, of your hard-earned silver coin! The great statue of our goddess was long completed, yet he continuously insisted on charging the people for its construction. Even as he was found guilty, someone from the council helped him escape from imprisonment. This must have made our goddess angry!
“The plague was only the beginning. If we allow this harlot’s desecration of Athena’s temple to go unpunished, what then? How much more do we dare offend our gods by our inaction? What say you, my fellow citizens of Athens? WHAT SAY YOU?”
The crowd’s roar was deafening. It was clear that nothing short of the spilling of the blood of the young woman would calm their fury. The streets of the Agora trembled as the people stamped their feet and pounded the ground with their staffs.
“Come,” said Aspasia to Socrates as she gripped his arm and pulled him towards her. “We must hurry!”
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Richard Ong