Sons of Zeus
By Noble Smith
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Noble Smith
All rights reserved.
NINE YEARS LATER. 431 BC. THE CITY-STATE OF PLATAEA IN THE PLAINS OF THE OXLANDS. MONTH OF AGRIONIOS (MARCH).
The fighters' torsos were locked in place like two beams hewed and fitted by a master joiner. They leaned forward, heaving in unison, chest on chest and cheek to cheek. Both men's fingers dug into the flesh of his opponent's back as anchors and they struggled with bare feet to gain purchase in the deep sand of the farmyard arena.
Despite the cold evening the fighters trained naked and dog tied — the uncircumcised foreskin of their penises wrapped with a leather thong, pulled down, and knotted to the scrotum to prevent an opponent from taking hold and seizing their manhood. Their skin was coated with olive oil and sand to keep their hands from slipping on each other's bodies. They wore thin leather boxing gloves that did little to deaden their brutal blows. They were the two best pankrators in the Oxlands. Maybe even the finest in all of Greece.
"You're like the pig who rubs the stone for water," growled Menesarkus. "And you'll get no satisfaction from me," he added, punctuating the age-old platitude with a strained grunt that escaped from his lips in a burst of vapor.
Nearly ten years had passed since he'd fought and killed Damos the Theban, and the Bull of Plataea had aged little in that time. His beard was streaked with gray, his hair was thinner, and he had gone almost completely deaf in one ear. But he was still as muscle-bound as a warrior half his age. The only outward sign of that terrible championship fight was a thick leather brace that supported his crippled knee, and the mournful cast to his dark eyes.
Nikias twisted his neck so his mouth pressed directly against one of Menesarkus's cauliflower ears and replied playfully, "Stone-rubbing pig? Know thyself, old man," and pushed back with all his might.
Nikias, in stark contrast to his grandfather, had altered much over the last decade. He was now taller than Menesarkus by six inches. Even though the Bull outweighed him by fifty pounds, Nikias was as hard muscled as a professional oarsman on an Athenian war galley. His hair, worn long to signify he was not yet of age, remained a golden blond. Despite his slightly crooked nose — broken three times in bouts since he was a child — his striking looks made girls and old women and everything in between swoon.
"The Old Bull and the Young Bull," thought Menesarkus, straining to force Nikias in the opposite direction. That's how he saw them in his mind's eye. But right now the Old Bull was losing ground. His legs were starting to tremble. It felt as if he'd run around Plataea's walls a dozen times....
"Break," hissed Saeed in his thick Eastern accent. The wiry Persian slave danced around the two pankrators, prodding them in the calves with a pointed training stick until they released their grips. Saeed's intervention was just in time for Menesarkus, whose legs were about to buckle. He glanced at his old, faithful servant and the slender Persian smiled back.
"Fight!" barked Saeed, smacking them on the backs of their legs with his quick stick.
The men squared off, rotating their forearms so their fists bobbed and weaved. Menesarkus's lower lip was puffed up and trickled blood. Nikias had already suffered two hard blows to the face, and one eye had nearly swelled shut.
Menesarkus had been taught by his own grandfather that Pythagoras of Samos was the first pankrator to box scientifically with set moves and feints. But Menesarkus believed that a psychological war against one's opponent was just as important as technique. The old fighter liked to dig at his combatants until they lashed out in anger.
"You can't beat me, Nik," said Menesarkus. "I'll get you in the Morpheus hold and then it's good-bye, sun, just like always."
Nikias had never once broken free of the hold in all their years of training and had suffered numerous blackouts for his efforts. But he'd never given up. Menesarkus admired Nikias for his persistence. And at the same time resented him for being so strong willed, a constant test to his authority. He knew the youthful fighter had the talent and physique to surpass him in skills someday. The thought was both reassuring and unsettling.
In three days Nikias would cut off his hair and burn it on the altar of Zeus with all of the other young men in Plataea turning eighteen this season. With the completion of that highly anticipated ceremony — the lad talked about it incessantly! — his grandson would officially be a man with the duty to serve as a warrior until the age of sixty-five, and the right to vote in the Assembly Hall until death.
"Maybe once you've burned your hair and stood in a phalanx," suggested Menesarkus, "you'll grow balls big enough to beat me."
But Nikias wasn't going to let himself be goaded. He curled back his lips. The smile of a hunting dog as it approaches a wounded boar. "You missed your calling, old man. You've got more lines than Euripides the playwright."
Menesarkus felt a strange fear he'd rarely experienced in the arena. Or was it a thrill? "Could this be the day he beats me?" he thought.
Nikias threw a sweeping punch at Menesarkus's head, a knockout blow. But the young fighter had put too much force behind it and stumbled when Menesarkus ducked aside. Menesarkus seized the moment. He jumped onto Nikias's back, clamped his arm around his grandson's neck, and dropped his head down low so Nikias couldn't whip back his head and smash him in the face.
"Say good-bye to the sun, Nikias," called out Saeed, stabbing his stick into the sand and crossing his arms on his chest. His job was done for the day.
For a moment Nikias did nothing.
"Come on, boy!" Menesarkus growled through clenched teeth. Two seconds had already passed. "Do something. This is too easy...."
Nikias leaned forward, dug his feet into the sand of the arena, and started moving toward a storage shed a few paces away, the veins bulging at his temples, face turning bright red. Menesarkus hopped along on his one good leg, squeezing as hard as he could to stop the flow of blood to Nikias's brain, trying to drag him down. But the young man's legs were too strong. He made it to the shed, grabbed one of the poles supporting the overhang, twisted his body with a violent effort — sending the startled Saeed scurrying out of the way — and flung Menesarkus against the wall with the force of a bucking horse. Menesarkus winced from the blow. Nikias dragged him along the wall, using the rough stucco wall to scrape the skin off his grandfather's back.
Menesarkus yelled in pain and relaxed his grip. Nikias broke free, pounded him in the face with his fist, and danced away, raising his arms in the air with jubilation, whooping at the top of his lungs.
"Surprised you, didn't I?" Nikias shouted. "I've been planning that for a month! Now you know what the hide of the stone-rubbing pig feels like."
Menesarkus shifted his jaw back and forth. It made a crunching sound in his ears. He felt foolish. Nikias had used his strength, his powerful legs, against Menesarkus's weakness. He had turned the wall of the shed into a weapon. He glanced over at Saeed, who wore a stunned expression on his usually placid face. The Persian raised his eyebrows as if to say, "Clever boy."
"The sun seems brighter," Nikias said to Saeed, shading his brow and squinting at the sky. He cavorted like a Thrakian minstrel. "No dirt naps for me today."
"Take him down, Master," urged Saeed in a harsh whisper.
"Think you're tough, Nikias?" Menesarkus limped back into the practice arena. "You beardless piece of dung." He raised his gloves and bobbed them up and down menacingly. "Pythagoras of Samos was the first fighter to box scientifically, but —"
"Quit giving lessons!" ordered Nikias with a force that stopped Menesarkus's words in his throat. Nikias appeared to have grown in stature. He moved slowly forward with such confidence, it seemed as if he carried an invisible shield — a shield that pushed Menesarkus backward.
"Come on, old man." Nikias was puffed up with the thrill of having escaped the older fighter's famous hold. "No more Pythagoras or pigs. Let's just throw some punches." He descended upon Menesarkus with a torrent of blows and then backed away.
Menesarkus realized, with a sinking in his gut, that he was afraid of his grandson. He did not want to fight him anymore today. He did not want to be beaten.
"What is Helladios's daughter doing here?" asked Menesarkus angrily, pointing a stiff finger and peering across the arena toward the women's quarters.
Nikias asked, "Where?" and whipped his head around, looking for their neighbor's daughter. But he saw no one there. He snapped back his head to face Menesarkus, and a spray of sand from Menesarkus's hand blinded him. It was followed by the Bull's perfectly timed leather-clad fist, which caught him squarely on the jaw. Nikias's knees buckled and he toppled like a dead man.
Saeed dashed across the arena and adjusted Nikias's head to free his airway, so he would not suffocate while he was unconscious.
"Old tricks still work," said Saeed, shaking his head at Nikias's folly.
"He got too excited," said Menesarkus softly. "He should have gone right for the kill when he caught me off guard."
He stood over the prostrate body, rubbing his tingling knuckles with a lopsided smile on his face. He was suddenly aware of singing coming from the women's quarters where his wife, widowed daughter-in-law, and granddaughter were hard at work, weaving cloth that would be sold in town. The movement of the wooden machinery sounded like percussion instruments, tapping and drumming in rhythm to the song.
Menesarkus recalled his earliest memory: lying on the floor next to his mother as she worked those same looms, watching the oil from the new-spun wool collect at the bottom of the tapestry and drip onto the dirt floor like dark dew. He was overcome by a disconcerting feeling. His heart was filled with incalculable joy mingled with profound sadness.
He could not hide from the world any longer. The pipes of war were on the wind. The Athenians and Spartans were on the verge of open conflict. And Plataea would get caught in the middle like an olive pit between two massive grinding stones. Would Nikias prove himself in battle and live to be a hero? Or die in ignominy like his father?
"Your grandson almost defeated you," observed Saeed.
"Almost is the same as dead." Menesarkus glanced up at the ancient olive grove on the slopes above the farm where his ancestor, the founder of the Nemean tribe, had planted them over three hundred years ago.
Hiding behind the largest tree was a stranger who had been spying on the farm for most of the day. But Menesarkus's myopic gaze saw only gnarled limbs — twisted trunks and branches that reminded him of tired old men.
The stranger wore a hooded cloak of earth-colored yarn that had been cleverly woven together with bits of twigs and leaves. His face and curling beard were daubed with watered-down clay. He blended into the landscape as though he'd sprouted there. He watched Menesarkus with a catlike intensity, his eyes peering from the shadow of his hood, wondering what the famous Olympian was thinking right now as he stared forlornly at the hills.
The stranger briefly worried that Menesarkus had seen him, and the flesh on his neck and cheeks tingled with alarm. But then Menesarkus passed a hand over his face — an expression of resignation — and turned back toward the barn, where two big male slaves were working on a broken plow.
"Bring the young master to the women," ordered Menesarkus.
The slaves dragged the unconscious Nikias across the sand and into the house. Menesarkus entered, followed closely by his man, the one called Saeed. The Persian paused in the doorway and looked back over his shoulder toward the foothills and the olive orchard, his dark mouth shaped in a disconcerted frown, as though he could sense being watched. Then he, too, disappeared through the portal, leaving the yard empty except for a few scrabbling chickens.
The stranger relaxed a little. He was safe. Yet he did not leave his post. Over the years, in perfecting his craft, he had developed the patience of a spider. He remained behind the screen of trees, as still as a statue, until the sun's chariot sank below the horizon.
He'd been spying on the farm for the last season and could recite with numbing detail the routines of every living thing on the farm, from slave to cow to master. Today he'd watched the pankration match with particular interest. Especially when it looked as though young Nikias was about to defeat his grandfather.
It struck the stranger that Menesarkus's name — in the language of the Greeks — meant flesh that endures. The Plataean seemed to be cheating death in the same way he'd just tricked his opponent.
A crow landed on the roof of the house and let forth a throaty caw, bobbing its head up and down. The black bird, the stranger noticed, had one white tail feather. The crow lifted its rear end and deposited a drop of purplish feces onto the path in front of the doorway, then flew away. The stranger let forth a gasp. This was a wonderful sign! An ominous portent!
From the stranger's vantage point Menesarkus's abode resembled a miniature fortress. It was a two-story tower with a flat roof and had only one entrance, the front portal. On the first floor the small windows — too small for a man to crawl through — were high up on the wall and shuttered from the inside. A low breastwork along the rooftop afforded protection for archers.
There were several other buildings in the farmyard, including a large storage room, a barn, a pottery shed, an olive oil mill, and a dormitory for Menesarkus's fifteen slaves. Menesarkus's prosperity was a direct result of the defeat of the Persian king Xerxes. The Plataean's wealth — like that of so many of his fellow citizens — had been gleaned from the nearby battlefield, where nearly a million Persians had been crushed by the allied Greek forces. The victors had gained Persian armor, weapons, horses, and human chattel — the spoils of war.
For Persian princes always went to war with their purses stuffed with darics and their bodies festooned with the trappings of their family wealth: rings, crowns, gauntlets, swords, and helms made of the yellow metal.
The watcher had bribed a Plataean public official for a copy of the most recent Plataean census, and so he knew there were exactly 179 farmhouses scattered throughout this part of the Oxlands, though few were more prosperous looking than this one. The city of Plataea alone contained twenty thousand men, women, children, and slaves living behind its high walls. The Plataeans could field a phalanx of almost two thousand fully armored and experienced fighters, along with cavalry support of one hundred riders and another thousand lightly armored archers and sling-wielding peltasts made up of foreign residents and slaves.
Three thousand men. A formidable army. More than a match for smaller Thebes in a battle of phalanx against phalanx.
The stranger scoured the farmstead with his eyes one last time to make certain no one was walking about, then wrapped himself in his beggar's cloak and hood and strode vigorously up the hillside. He found his exquisite horse — the mount of a wealthy man, not a vagabond — where he'd left it grazing in a secluded meadow on the edge of a pine woods, patiently waiting his return. He worked his way along the base of the mountain eastward, in the direction of the town of Hysiai. Then he headed north at a swift canter cross-country, avoiding the main road and the easternmost Plataean watchtower. He crossed the Asopus River where a small footbridge spanned the shortest distance between the banks. In less than an hour, from Menesarkus's farm to the end of his journey, the spy had ridden the eight miles back to his home — to the walls of Thebes and safety. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sons of Zeus by Noble Smith. Copyright © 2013 Noble Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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