She was a creature foaled from the West Wind—a 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:
“Zeus … Zeus … Zeus…”
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 Raiders—the 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 Oxlander—the 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 country—the 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 call—a 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 dawn—the stone that pointed the way to Athens—when 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 riders—dark shapes in the fog wearing plate armor and black cloaks … 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 road—a 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 pankration—the 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 champion—a 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 Lion—the 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 stomach—the 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 night—the 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 fighters—especially archers—to 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.…
“Faster!” he said, slapping Photine on the neck. She responded by bearing down and surging forward.
Nikias had defied the new Arkon—the leader of Plataea and a renowned general—by making this journey to Athens. The Arkon had ordered him to help round up food and animals from the countryside and bring them into the citadel while the tenuous truce with the Spartan invaders lasted. The Arkon had sent envoys to the Athenian leader begging his help, but Nikias knew that this assistance would not come. The Athenians were spread too thin in their own wars to send an army to aid in Plataea’s defense—at least, that is what an Athenian spy working in Plataea had told Nikias. But there was no use arguing with the Arkon … the fact that he was Nikias’s grandfather didn’t help matters. The great Menesarkus, the Bull of the Oxlands, demanded obedience from his heir above all other traits—even above courage.
Nikias was far more brave than obedient, and so he had decided to take matters into his own hands. Hadn’t he been the one to escape from the citadel during the Theban sneak attack? He’d warned the border garrisons and led them to the gates of Plataea, heading off the army of Theban reinforcements and saving the city in the fields in front of its gates. And then, with the help of the Athenian spy, Nikias had exposed Nauklydes as the traitor and brought him to justice.
Rounding up animals in the hills was work for a sheep-stuffing shepherd, not a warrior!
“Now! Here it is!” barked a voice from behind. “We’ll stay behind!”
The shout jolted Nikias from his thoughts like the crack of a whip in his ear. He glanced to the right. The fog had thinned considerably now and he could clearly see the shapes of horses leaping off the road and onto a path that wended its way through a wooded area of pines and oak. He counted nine of the Dog Raiders going that way.
He peered ahead into the gloom to where the road curved sharply and became narrower, dropping off into a gully. He would have to slow down soon. The riders who’d just gone off the road must be taking a shortcut. A way of bypassing this stretch of the road so they could loop back around and cut him off at the narrowest spot.
He glanced back. There were only three riders on the road behind him now. He reacted instinctively, reining in Photine hard. She came to a dead stop so fast that her hindquarters nearly touched the ground and her hooves skidded on the gravel. Then she raised her front legs in the air and he tumbled off her back, slamming onto the road on his right side. A split second later a blinding pain erupted in his shoulder.
“Gods!” he screamed.
The three startled-looking Dog Raiders charged past him in single file, but pulled up when they realized that their prey now lay helplessly in the road. As they turned around to face him one of the horses stepped into a deep wheel rut with both its hind legs. The animal’s bones fractured and it let forth a piercing neigh. It flipped onto its side, crushing its rider underneath, breaking the man’s neck.
Nikias ignored the searing pain in his right shoulder. He reached behind his back with his left hand and started to draw the sword that was strapped there, but then he stopped, shoving the blade back in its sheath.
He grabbed the handle of his Sargatian whip with his left hand, yanked it free from the breakaway knot on his belt, then got up and sprinted at the two remaining Dog Raiders, snapping the rawhide tip at the nearest rider, who was just about to throw his javelin.
Crack! The Dog Raider slumped over his horse in shock, holding a hand to his eye, howling with agony. The other horseman charged Nikias with his javelin raised. But Nikias moved his arm in a fluid motion—the leather braid made a figure-eight pattern in the air—and the whip looped itself around the surprised warrior’s neck. Nikias yanked, pulling the man from his mount. He landed on his tailbone and dropped his javelin, then clawed wildly at the leather noose around his neck, gasping for air.
Nikias tried to reach for his sword with his right hand, but his arm hung useless at his side. It was dead. He heard his grandfather’s voice shouting in his brain—
Your body is the weapon!
Nikias jumped toward the whip-choked Dog Raider and pulled fiercely on the whip, causing the man to lunge toward him. The man’s face met the heel of Nikias’s fully extended foot. It was a savage blow that sent the enemy’s front teeth down his throat. Before the stunned man could topple over, Nikias kicked again, pushing his nasal bones straight into his brain.
Nikias uncoiled the lasso from around the dead man’s neck with a quick flick of his wrist and turned to face the final mounted Dog Raider. The man held one hand to his ruined eye. He swiped the blood from his cheek and bared his teeth viciously as he drew his sword.
“You took my eye!” he howled with indignation. “I’ll make you eat both of yours, you—”
Before he could finish his sentence Nikias snapped the whip again, catching him in the other eye and blinding him. The astonished warrior clutched his face and sucked in his breath. Nikias glanced down. A javelin lay at his feet. He dropped the whip, then slipped the tip of his riding boot under the spear and flicked it into the air, catching it with his left hand. The spear flew from his grip like a lightning bolt, passing through the mouth of the blinded Dog Raider with a crunch of teeth and bone. He slid off his horse backward and lay there, bleeding his life onto the road.
Nikias took a deep breath and peered down the road. He could just make out the shapes of the other Dog Raiders—the ones who’d ridden through the woods to cut him off—about a quarter of a mile away.
He glanced over at Photine, who trotted in a big circle around the scene of carnage, blowing through her nostrils, wild-eyed, with her tail up in the air. If they’d been back home in the Oxlands, Nikias reckoned, she would have already bolted for home—something she had done in the midst of the Battle of the Gates with the Theban invaders. But here she didn’t know where to go.
“Come here, girl,” he said softly, holding out his left hand and forcing himself to make his voice sound calm. He looked behind him and saw the peaks of the Kithaerons, covered in snow, shining white in the morning sun. If he could get his skittish horse to come back to him he could ride that way. The Plataean fortress of the Three Heads was only a few miles away. Inside that stronghold was an entire garrison of his kinsmen guarding the narrow pass into the Oxlands. Nikias and Kolax had skirted around the fortress on their clandestine ride over the mountains. If only he could get to the safety of the fort! He’d go back home with his tail between his legs and beg his grandfather to forgive him. He would gladly round up every stray sheep left in the Oxlands.
His hand was almost within reach of Photine’s reins when she trembled and snorted, dropping her head and shying away from him with the agility of a cat.
“Zeus’s balls!” roared Nikias, lunging toward her with a face twisted with wrath. “Come here, you stupid goat!”
Photine turned and ran for a few strides, then faced him again with her head low, glaring at him, ears laid flat.
He took a deep breath and tried to smile. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Just—”
He stopped as he heard shouts coming from down the road. The other Dog Raiders were now coming back. They were calling out to their brethren: the three men turned to shades by Nikias’s hand.
“Where is he? Where’s the Oxlander?”
“Go back! He’s tricked us.”
Nikias took another step toward Photine. She let forth a neighing scream, then bolted past him, galloping up the road in the direction of the mountains and home.
“I’ll never see her again,” he thought. He wondered what his grandfather would say when he saw her running riderless in the fields in front of the citadel.
He reached behind and grasped the bow and quiver that were slung on his back. But his heart lurched as he realized the bow was broken—it had snapped when he had fallen off Photine. He tossed it aside angrily. He had to think of a way to hide! And then he thought of a plan. A crazy idea, but it might just give him a chance.
Working fast, he bent over one of the Dog Raider’s corpses and traded his own short gray cape for the warrior’s black cloak. He pulled off the man’s helm and squeezed it over his head, then hunched over the man’s body, kneeling with his back to the approaching riders. He stared at his dead father’s signet ring on his middle finger—a boxing Minotaur carved from jasper.
“Steady,” he said to himself. “Stay calm.”
But his brain screamed at him to run. And his hand trembled.
He heard the sound of approaching riders. Keeping his back to them, he stole a glance over his shoulder and saw eight riders enter the killing grounds. They reined in, stopping fifty paces away from him. The raiders eyed the scene warily, but none dismounted.
“Where is he?” asked one of the Dog Raiders.
“Come,” said Nikias, gesturing at the corpse and imitating the enemy’s harsh accent. “I killed him.”
Nikias waited without turning around, hunched under the black cloak. His heart beat wildly. He listened hopefully for the sounds of feet hitting the road. But the only noises he heard were horses puffing air through their cheeks.
The Dog Raider who’d spoken before gave a malicious laugh and spat, “Clever. But none of us has pretty blond hair like you, beardless one.”
Nikias felt as though his stomach had been pitched down a well. He’d forgotten to tuck his long hair under the helm!
He thought of his beloved, Kallisto. She would never know what happened to him now. The thought filled him with despair. There was no chance of escape. But he wouldn’t let the Dog Raiders torture him. He glanced down at his belt and saw his long dagger in its tooled leather sheath.
“There’s an artery in your neck,” his grandfather had told him when he was a boy, instructing him never to let himself be taken alive by Dog Raiders or Thebans. “Slice your neck there and you’ll soon be dead.”
He would take a few of them down first, though. “I am Nikias, son of Aristo of the Nemean tribe,” he said under his breath, readying himself for death, forcing back the urge to piss himself with fear.
He got up slowly, letting the whip uncoil as he stood, and turned to face the Dog Raiders. He saw the black-robed horsemen lined up in a semicircle, far out of range of his whip, with their javelins and bows raised, and their dark eyes regarding him with hate from under their helms.
His gaze flashed to a warrior seated on a dun-colored horse in the center of the pack. He had a long, black, forked beard, like a satyr. And he stared down the shaft of a tautly strung bow, a glinting bronze arrowhead pointing directly at Nikias’s head.
“Stand still,” ordered the Dog Raider commander.
Nikias didn’t have time to make a move. An arrow, unloosed by one of the other riders, slammed into his gut and his knees buckled. He hit the road in a heap and lay there, blinking, trying to breathe, but his lungs wouldn’t work. He felt as though he’d been punched by a Titan’s fist. He lay very still, with the sound of his heart throbbing in his ears, his mind dazed.
“Who shot that arrow?” shouted the Dog Raider commander. “Damn you! The Spartans wanted him alive!”
A roaring sound filled Nikias’s ears. He squinted in pain, gazing up at the sky, and realized that the fog had burned away to reveal a few patches of bright blue sky. And then he heard a harsh voice snarl, “Let’s peel his face before he dies!”
Copyright © 2014 by Noble Smith