"Noble Smith brings the gory political struggles of fifth-century [B.C.] Greece vividly to life in a way that I haven't seen since the novels of Mary Renault. A superb historical novel by a master storyteller."—Angus Donald, author of Warlord, on Spartans at the Gates.
Nikias of Plataea has survived battle, shipwreck, and torture. But now the young warrior must face his greatest challenge: leading the people of his city-state on a desperate exodus to Athens while being hunted down by the largest Spartan expeditionary force in history.
From the burning forests of the legendary Mount Kithaeron, to the plague-ridden streets of Athens, to the dreaded Prison Pits of Syrakuse, Nikias has to use his fists, sword, and wits to defeat his enemies, and bring aid to a citadel cut off from the rest of the world by merciless invaders.
Award-winning author Noble Smith's Sword of Apollo brings to a close the thrilling Warrior trilogy, set during the epic war that tore apart Ancient Greece.
About the Author
NOBLE SMITH is an award-winning playwright who has worked as a video-game writer, a documentary-film executive producer, and the media director of an international human rights foundation. He is also the author of the novella Stolen from Gypsies, the nonfiction book The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life, and the novel Sons of Zeus. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and children.
Read an Excerpt
Sword of Apollo
Book III of the Warrior Trilogy
By Noble Smith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Noble Smith
All rights reserved.
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.
And Nikias's grandfather loved Asterion like a favorite dog.
"We're a couple of fat geese sitting on a log," muttered Mula.
Nikias didn't respond even though he knew the boy was right. This was not a safe place. And the bull was making a din that would wake the dead. It pumped wildly, bellowing with each thrust, as long trails of saliva dripped from its maw.
"Patience," said Nikias. "He's almost done."
Nikias peered north toward Thebes, but the rolling hills and trees hid the enemy's walls. He turned and looked in the opposite direction, scanning the gently sloping foothills of the Kithaeron Mountains to where his family's farm stood near an ancient olive grove surrounded by vineyards. All that he could make out was a thread-thin stream of smoke wafting from the chimney of the house. His pregnant wife, Kallisto, and their twin girls were there now, and he pictured the three of them in the kitchen — Kallisto at her loom and the girls crawling at her feet, playing with the weights tied to the ends of the dangling yarn.
The house had been burned to the ground two and a half years earlier when the Thebans launched a sneak attack on his farm as well as the citadel of Plataea — an attack in which Nikias's mother and most of his friends were slaughtered. But the Plataeans in the countryside rallied their forces and came to the aid of their brethren trapped in the city, defeating the enemy in a great battle at the gates of Plataea, where Nikias helped lead the forces to victory. Two weeks later the Plataeans went on to trounce a small army of Spartans — allies of the Thebans — who'd come to the Oxlands hard on the heels of the Theban attack. Five hundred full-blooded Spartans were captured where they'd made camp at the old Persian Fort.
Years ago, in the wars against the barbarian invaders, the Spartans had been allies of Plataea and Athens. But over the decades enmity had grown between the Athenians and Spartans — the two great powers of Greece. They were like a pair of wolves fighting over the carcass of a deer, each with sharp teeth clenched into the hide of the prize, neither one willing to unlock its bloody jaws. The Athenians were the masters of the seas and controlled the islands, keeping their army safe behind the walls of their vast citadel. But even though the Spartans lacked a powerful navy, they were a dominant force on land, and no Greek army dared to meet them in pitched battle.
But the small Spartan expeditionary force that had ventured into Plataean territory two and a half years ago had been filled with hubris. They did not expect the Plataeans to venture from their high-walled citadel and launch a bold attack on the Spartan encampment, and the enemy was surprised and overwhelmed.
Nikias had not taken part in the defeat of those Spartans, however. He'd been recovering from wounds he'd suffered at the hands of a Theban spy named Eurymakus, a man who'd captured Nikias on his way back from a foolhardy journey to Athens to hire mercenaries. A man who had tortured him to the threshold of death....
He glanced down at his right hand — a hand with only four fingers. The littlest one, his signet ring finger, had been cut off where it had joined to the hand so that his signet and the bloody finger could be delivered to his grandfather to let him know that his heir had been taken prisoner. The skin at the nub of the severed digit was still pink and tender. He wondered if it would ever heal.
Eurymakus had broken Nikias back then — hung him by his ankles from the rafters of a dark undercroft like a piece of meat in a butcher's shop. The enemy had wrecked his body and toyed with his mind ... hollowed him out like an ox horn that's been carved clean of its pith. And then the Theban had handed him over to the Spartans, who had in turn exchanged Nikias for a Spartan of royal blood. That warrior, though a few years older than Nikias, was his look-alike. And for good reason. He and Prince Arkilokus were first cousins — grandsons of Menesarkus of Plataea, who had traveled to Sparta after the Persian defeat as a guest-friend of the royal family. While there the young Plataean hero had been unwittingly selected for the Spartan "wise breeding" program — seduced by a female royal who harvested his champion's seed....
"Young master?" asked Mula, shaking his arm. "Shouldn't we go?"
"Do you want to try and pull Asterion away from his task?"
"No, but —"
"Then shut up, little brother," said Nikias, and slapped Mula on the back.
Mula frowned and dropped his head submissively.
Nikias's gaze traveled up the forested mountainside of the Kithaerons to the peak where the ridgeline resembled the withers of a swaybacked horse. That was where the Cave of Nymphs lay — the place where he and Kallisto had first made love. His eyes passed down to the citadel of Plataea at the foot of the mountain. The city's mighty twenty-foot-high walls, interspersed with square guard towers every hundred and fifty feet, stood like a stout armored hoplite waiting for battle.
The Thebans had not breached those walls on the night of the sneak attack. Instead the gates had been opened by one of its own citizens — the traitor Nauklydes, a Plataean magistrate who had been bought by the spy Eurymakus ... bought with Persian gold. Nauklydes had forged a secret alliance with the Thebans and Spartans. But they had been defeated, and Nauklydes had been tried and convicted of treason and given the dreaded tunic of stones as his punishment — buried up to his chest in the marketplace and stoned to death by the citizens he had tried to destroy. His bones had been cast outside the boundaries of Plataea to rot in the open: a horrible desecration of a man's flesh that was certain to cause Nauklydes's shade an everlasting torment. For surely the vengeful Furies pursued his spirit now and forever in that other world.
After their defeat, the Thebans had laid low behind their walls, licking their wounds. And the Spartans, fearing reprisal against their elite warriors being held as prisoners in Plataea, had turned their wrath against Plataea's closest ally — Athens — burning homes and trampling crops in the region of Attika while half a million Athenians and their slaves dwelled in safety behind the walls of their immense citadel.
For thirty months neither Theban nor Spartan had attempted to attack Plataea again. The Plataeans in the countryside had sown and harvested, working together to build up a storehouse of supplies in the citadel. And Nikias and his grandfather, with the help of their neighbors, had rebuilt their house, but only after Nikias had recovered from Eurymakus's torture. It had taken months to regain enough strength to hold an adze to hew a beam, or to lift heavy stones to put up a wall. But the making of that house — rebuilding it from the ground up — had slowly helped him regain his soul.
The Spartan prisoners held in Plataea had been released in small groups, a few every month to stave off a full-scale Spartan invasion — to buy the city-state precious time to prepare for a siege. But now there were only a handful of the Spartans still held as prisoners inside the citadel. Time was running out for peace in the Oxlands. Everyone in Plataea knew that this lull between two violent storms was about to end.
Mula cleared his throat loudly. "I heard something."
Nikias cocked his ear, but the noise of the bull and cow drowned out all sound. Then he felt the ground suddenly tremble beneath his feet and a rider charged up the hill, reining in his mount a few strides away, staring at Nikias and Mula and the copulating beasts with a mystified expression.
Nikias and Mula returned the stranger's astonished gaze.
"Odd place to practice animal husbandry," the horseman announced nonchalantly, resting his javelin under the crook of one arm. His dark hair fell in ringlets to his shoulders, and the spirals of his beard and mustache cascaded down his face like the curls of an ancient kouros statue. At his hip was a long sword in a scabbard embellished with precious stones, and on his head was a golden cap. His clothes were outlandish: red silk pants and a colorful padded tunic woven with silver and gold thread worn over golden scale armor.
"Breeding on the top of a hill," the rider continued. "And yet this ghastly place is called the Oxlands," he added to himself, flexing the bejeweled fingers on his right hand. It took Nikias a few moments to realize that the man was speaking in Persian, a language that Nikias had learned in his youth from Mula's father. This strange horseman was almost two thousand miles from the capital of Artaxerxes's empire.
"I said: odd place for animals to mate," the rider repeated, this time in heavily accented Greek. He looked back and forth at Nikias and Mula, and then rolled eyes that were painted round the edges with black lines. To Nikias he looked ridiculous — like an overdressed Persian warrior from a play he had seen years ago, or a ghost from the past.
"Imbeciles," the Persian muttered under his breath; then, turning in his saddle, he shouted behind him in his own tongue, "I'm up here, you laggards!"
The ground thundered and six armed horsemen crested the hill, coming to a halt next to the Persian rider. Nikias planted his feet, fighting against the overpowering urge to run, for these newcomers were Median cavalrymen — skilled warriors and vassals of the Persians.
"Zeus's balls," hissed Mula out of the corner of his mouth.
The riders, like the Persian, wore trousers and padded coats, but their outfits were plain and unembellished. They had long mustaches that trailed down past their chins, and they were armed with swords, bows, and short spears. Nikias had fought one of their kind before — a servant of the spy Eurymakus. And he had barely escaped from that duel with his life.
Nikias grabbed Mula by the arm to keep him from bolting. If the boy tried to run, the Medians would merely ride him down and slay him.
The horsemen glared at him with their killers' eyes and Nikias raised his hands in the sign of submission. Two of the Medians reached for their bows and quickly nocked arrows while the other four walked their horses slowly toward Nikias and Mula as the bull shuddered and roared one last time in triumph.
Excerpted from Sword of Apollo by Noble Smith. Copyright © 2015 Noble Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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