Authors: Noble Smith
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author's copyright, please notify the publisher at:
The god of battle is our liege lord.
Many famous adventures begin with a foolhardy young man defying his patriarch and charging headlong into grave peril. This tale is no different.
APYRUS FRAGMENT FROM THE
AR BY THE
She was a creature foaled from the West Windâa muscular white mare racing down a fog-covered road at dawn. A young horseman leaned over her neck, his strong legs hugging her rib cage, moving with the rhythm of the animal's strides, floating above her lather-slick back. He uttered the name of the Great Protector, begging him for help with every exhalation from his heaving chest:
“ZeusÂ â¦ ZeusÂ â¦ Zeusâ¦”
The rider's name was Nikias of Plataea, and the god of death was hunting him down yet again.
He could hear the enemy's hooves pounding the road behind him. They had chased him for over two miles, and showed no signs of giving up. They were Megarian Dog Raidersâthe vicious marauders who inhabited this rugged region. They wore helms covered in the hides of wild dogs and they peeled off the faces of their living victims as a warning to all who would challenge them.
Nikias squinted against the rushing wind, his scarred but handsome face wet with mist, long blond hair whipping out behind him. He wore the tall leather boots, plain tunic, and short wool cape of an Oxlanderâthe hardy farmers who inhabited the region north of the Kithaeron Mountains. A Sargatian whip, coiled like a long and deadly snake, was tied to his belt. And strapped securely to his broad back, in a battle-scarred travel sheath, was a sword with a pommel bearing the image of a boxing Minotaur.
The thick fog gave Nikias the unsettling sensation that he was riding in a murky gray sea. He imagined that the road might end at any moment, sending him and his mare plummeting off the edge of the world. For they were in rough countryâthe rocky and barren foothills of the southern slopes of the Kithaeron Mountains. But there was no turning back on this dangerous road.
And the enemy was getting closer.
One of the Dog Raiders let forth a wordless hunting callâa sound full of bloodlust and hate. The other riders took up the noise. It wouldn't be long before he'd be within range of their javelins: short spears they could throw with deadly accuracy even at full gallop. Soon the fog would be gone, burned off by the rising sun, and no longer offer protection. He could almost feel a spear tip in his spine.
“Keep going, girl!” Nikias urged. He could see his horse's eyes bulging from the sides of her head in terror and she was starting to lag. Photine was the fastest creature he had ever known, but she was only good for short bursts of speed, and became unnerved when chased.
Nikias wished that Kolax was still riding by his side. The child had been raised in the wild grasslands of Skythia, far from Greece and could shoot three arrows in as many heartbeats, hitting his mark every time. Damn that boy for riding off! If they had stuck together they might have stood a chance.
The two had made the journey down the mountainside the night before. They had just found the road marker at dawnâthe stone that pointed the way to Athensâwhen the Dog Raiders had appeared out of nowhere. Kolax had bolted in the opposite direction, leading half of the two dozen enemy riders back toward the mountain. The boy, no doubt, was dead by now.
Nikias felt Photine slow as she came to a bend in the road. He glanced quickly over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the ridersâdark shapes in the fog wearing plate armor and black cloaksÂ â¦ spear tips glinting in the gray morning light. He dug his heels into his horse's sides and she jolted forward.
Another mile or so. That's all Photine had in her.
His heart sank. Athens, the city he was urgently trying to reach, was twenty-five miles away at the end of this treacherous white limestone roadâa road scored on either side with deep tracks that had been carved by cart and chariot wheels. And it was getting harder to keep Photine in the center of the road. She kept veering to one side. If she stepped in one of those tracks her leg would snap like a stick and he would be thrown over her neck, landing in a helpless broken heap upon the road.
“Better to die facing your enemy than with a spear in your backside,” he mused grimly. “Better to go out swinging.” That's what his grandfather always said.
He kicked Photine with his heels and she went faster, putting some distance between them and the Dog Raiders. Nikias hoped he might come to a bridge or someplace where the road narrowed. There at least he could make a stand, using his bow and arrow to kill the enemy horses from a distance, blocking the way with their corpses. He would much rather fight on his feet than on horseback, for he had been educated since childhood in the art of the pankrationâthe battle training that turned every part of a man's body into a weapon, from the heel to the crown of the head. Despite his youth he was one of the best pankrators in the Oxlands, quite possibly in all of Greece. He was the grandson of a renowned Olympic pankration championâa man who'd taught him to be fierce by punching fierceness into his flesh, like a blacksmith hammering a sword.
His training had worked.
Even though Nikias had just turned eighteen, he was already famous in his independent city-state of Plataea. He'd fought men to death with his bare fists and wielded sword and spear in the wild and bloody chaos of battle. He'd faced down the enemy Theban invaders with the courage of the Nemean Lionâthe legendary beast whose name his family of warriors had taken as its own.
But now, chased on horseback down the road to Athens with a pack of Dog Raiders gaining on him with every second, Nikias felt more like a terrified fawn than a deadly predator. He touched his elbow to the Sargatian whip coiled on his belt. His grandfather's Persian slave had braided it from the entire hide of an ox, and it was an excellent weapon, especially when wielded with skill. By the time he was eight years old Nikias could snap a fly off a wall from twenty feet away. But the whip was impossible to use when riding at full gallop.
He heard something made of wood clatter on the road behind. One of the Dog Raiders had thrown a javelin at him, but it had fallen short. Nikias was still just out of range. He touched his stomachâthe place where he wore a heavy leather pouch strapped to his midriff. The pouch was filled with Persian gold coins: enough wealth to buy several prosperous farms in the Oxlands. The coins had been found hidden in the traitor Nauklydes's house. It was blood money paid to the traitor for his part in opening the city gates of Plataea and letting in a Theban attack force. A little more than a week had passed since that terrible nightâthe night when Nikias's mother and most of his friends had been killed by the invaders. But the Thebans had failed to conquer Plataea.
Nikias planned to use this tainted fortune in Persian gold to lure a small army of mercenaries back to Plataea to help defend the walled citadel from Plataea's newest threat: an army of Spartans that had appeared in the Oxlands hard on the heels of the defeated Thebans. The Spartans had demanded that Plataea break its alliance with Athens, or else they would lay siege to Plataea. Nikias knew that his city needed good fightersâespecially archersâto help man the two and a half miles of walls that surrounded the citadel. Too many good Plataean warriors had been killed during the Theban sneak attack. But to get to Athens and its abundance of sellswords, Nikias had to first pass through Megarian territory: a land crawling with Dog Raiders.
“Watch for it!” cried one of the horsemen behind him. “Up ahead! We're close.”
Nikias wondered what the rider was shouting about. He glanced around but could see nothing through the fog except the lead-colored shapes of rocks and trees. He couldn't see any place to get off the road and make a break for it overland. He was stuck on this road, running out of time.â¦