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Authors: Noble Smith

Sword of Apollo

 

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For my uncles: Robert Barton Smith and Richard Noble Smith

 

To carry on, trusting in what hope he has—
that
is courage in a man.

—E
URIPIDES OF
A
THENS

 

P
ART
I

“The failed sneak attack on the city-state of Plataea was like a lightning strike that kindles a raging fire on a parched mountainside. The great war between Athens and Sparta had begun. The Spartans invaded Attika, and the Athenians hid behind their high-walled citadel, refusing to meet the enemy on land in the field of battle, content to control the seas with their vast fleet of ships. For two and a half years the Spartan hoplites and their allies ravaged the Athenian territory, burning homes, cutting vines, trampling crops. During that time they left Plataea and the Oxlands alone. But then, quite suddenly, the enemy's policy changed. Once again the servants of the dual kings of Sparta turned their rapacious eyes toward the rich plains of the Oxlands, and the proud citadel that had brazenly defied them.…”

—P
APYRUS
FRAGMENT
FROM
THE
“L
OST
H
ISTORY

OF
THE
P
ELOPONNESIAN
W
AR
BY
THE
“E
XILED
S
CRIBE

T
HE
O
XLANDS
. M
ONTH
OF
D
AMATRIOS
(S
EPTEMBER
), 429 BC.

 

ONE

An angry bull and a fearless young man faced each other with their eyes locked.

They stood on a treeless hill under the noonday sun, a gentle wind whispering through the dried thistles and tall brown grasses. The bull's tail swished menacingly against its muscled haunches, swatting the flies dancing on its hide. It snorted violently through gaping nostrils: a fierce sound that resonated from deep inside its great head—a warning to stay away. The beast was enormous. The biggest in the Oxlands. The biggest anybody had ever known.

But the young man didn't flinch. He stared unblinkingly at the bull, keeping his sturdy legs planted. His name was Nikias of Plataea, and he had trained since childhood in the fighting technique called the pankration—a skill that taught a warrior to stay alive in the savage press of a phalanx battle. His brutal training had made him strong and agile.

But most of all it had made him brave.

He continued to stand his ground, even though he knew the beast carried ten times his weight. Even though the bull had gored five men to death in its ten-year-reign as King of the Bulls.

“Steady,” Nikias whispered, cocking his head slowly to the left. He'd suffered a terrible beating some time ago that had broken his nose and an eye socket. The wounds had healed, but his features on the left side were slightly misshapen—as though a skilled sculptor had carved a handsome face on one half of a marble head before handing the chisel and hammer to an untrained apprentice to finish the work. His nose, once straight and proud, was now crooked, and the eye on the left side was set in a perpetual squint.

The bull let forth an indignant bellow and Nikias repeated his command—“Steady.” He ignored the stinging sweat dripping down his forehead and into his eyes. He lowered his rugged face and gritted his teeth. He would not back down. “Zeus Olympian,” he prayed under his breath, “watch over me now…”

The bull snorted and took a threatening step forward. And still Nikias did not flinch.

“Young master,” came a boy's nervous voice from the other side of the hill—from behind the bull. “What should I do?”

Keeping his gaze fixed on the bull's bulging and red-veined eyes, Nikias replied in a calm but carrying voice, “Bring her, Mula! Quick!”

The bull rumbled in its throat and pawed the ground—its flanks rippling as it tensed for the charge. Nikias fought the urge to run like a hare. He could almost feel the horns spearing through his guts, spilling his life into the dust.

“Mula?” he called out with mounting urgency. “I said
now
!”

There came the dull ringing of a cowbell and the bull snapped its head toward the sound with a frightening speed for such a massive creature, letting forth an excited bray.

The woolly pated head of a twelve-year-old lad appeared over the rise. He clambered up the hill, pulling hard on a rope that was attached to a sleek white cow straining to be free, the bronze bell on the animal's neck clanging with every step.

The bull reacted as though it had been struck by a god's magic. It glanced at Nikias one last time, let forth a prodigious sneeze, and then sauntered over to the cow. Before the gangly boy and the cow had even come to a stop on the top of the hill, the bull mounted the cow, plunging into it with awkward abandon.

Nikias wiped away the sweat dripping into his eyes and let forth a sigh. That had been close.

“What should I do?” asked Mula, cringing as the ravished cow mooed loudly in his ear.

“We let Asterion have his way for a while,” said Nikias with a grin, and took the rope from Mula's hand.

Asterion the bull had bolted from his pen at their farm in the middle of the night. And it had taken Nikias and Mula several hours to track the bull down across the rolling grasslands of the Oxlands—the lazy cow in tow. The sleek female, Nikias had learned over the years, was the only way of luring the wandering bull back to the farm. Once the bull had planted his seed, he would become as docile as a tamed dog, at least for a while, and follow them home, clinging to the cow's side and nuzzling her like a drunken lover.

But they were four miles from their farm and close to enemy Theban territory. And Nikias had left in such a rush that he'd forgotten to bring his Sargatian lasso: a whip that Mula's father—a man skillful with leatherwork—had woven for him from the whole skin of an ox. It was a vicious weapon that could rip the flesh from a man's bones, but it was useless against Asterion. The slightest tap from a leather thong on the bull's rump sent the animal into the murderous rage of the Minotaur. But the whip was quite useful against the hides of Thebans.

“We should go,” said Mula nervously.

Nikias made a low sound in his throat that meant, “Stop pestering.”

The hill on which they stood was in the no-man's-land between Plataea and Thebes, near the hallowed site of the final battle of the Persian Wars where, fifty years ago, the allied Greek forces had crushed half a million Persians and a small contingent from Thebes. The Thebans had been the only Greek city-state to offer earth and water to each of the two Persian kings who had tried—and failed—to conquer Greece. Hundreds of thousands of Persians had perished here … the ground was still littered with their sun-bleached bones. And Nikias's grandfather Menesarkus, only sixteen at the time, had won renown as a hero of that famous battle, leading the first charge alongside the Spartan allies against the vast earthen stronghold called the Persian Fort. There he had captured Mula's father, Saeed, who had been a groom for a ruthless Persian lord. After the war Menesarkus had gone on to become a famous Olympic pankrator and then a respected general, and Mula's father had served Nikias's family faithfully all those years. Now Menesarkus was the Arkon of Plataea—the elected leader of their independent city-state.

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