I wrote this chapter some time ago, and it's been sitting on a computer disk ever since. For fun I thought I'd bring it out to share. I should note that I changed the setting of this scene from where Herodotus claims it took place to just outside of Sardis. As my story evolves and grows, I might have to scrap this chapter. We'll see. In any case, enjoy!!
Prince Artabanus found his sovereign at the top of a hillside that offered a panaramic view of the Sardis river and the valley it cut through.As an eldering man, Artabanus' joints creaked with every jangle of the horse's medallion encassed harness as it trotted up the slope leading to the high backed throne of gold that glinted in the sun. There, King Xerxes, son of Darius son of Cambyus some of Cyrus, king of everthying under the vast skies, was watching his denizens mill around like tiny ants beneath him. To his right stood Prince Mardonius, one of the four generals that oversaw the land army, and the king's closest relative and friend. A pool of servants, harem girls, and gaurdsmen had been husseled out of the king's view, except for his ceremonial cup bearer, and next to the boy his every-present eunic, Hermodus, who was holding a parasol above the king's head to protect him from the blazing sun above. Artabanus eyed the eunic warily. Something about him wasn't right. Well, besides the obvious.
"Oomph!"The horse snorted and lept over a pile of rocks, tilting the prince dangerously to one side. He righted himself with an effort. I'm getting too old and round for this. The troubling thing was he was not the only one.The king had over thirty commanders of the land forces, most of whom were too young or too old to be in service. Or too incompetant. How did Pharlen excpect to command the cavalry if he couldn't control his own mount? Especially if it was spooked by a mere dog? The priests proclaimed the boy lucky to be alive, in any case. Artabanus wondered if the king's brother Artobazanes could somehow meet with a similar accident. He was too ambitious by far, practically drooling at the sight of all the men and money of Persia. More imcompetence. Artabanus sighed inwardly. He was not even sure of his OWN sons abilities, his eldest an impatient man, his youngest a timid lad just short of his twentieth birthday. If only Darius was still with me. But his best, his brightest, his favorite, was lost to him forever somewhere between the waters of Thesselay and Thrace. Artabanus pushed the pain away, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand. King Xerxes, glorious king of all the east was at a cross roads, and needed to exercise caution. That was what Artabanus meant to tell him. After all, he was one of the seven councillors to King Xerxes; it was his sacred duty to see his king safe from harm.
As his horse crested the hill Artabanus could see the whole of the valley floor. It looked like Sardis had grown one hundred times over in a night; bleak army tents and coloful pavillions were pitched as far as the eye could see. The plain swept to either side of them, broken by a hill or two, moutnains a misty picture in the distance. When he arrived Mardonius was launched into a full victory monolouge, despite the lack of a war . "A real victory," he said excitedly, his eyes on the masses below. Even at this altitude the buzz of the camp was audible. "It will be the most glorious time in our kingdom." The king's bland expression did not change, his focus on the activity below. He noticed Artabanus slide off his mount and make obeisance. "How fares Phargenes, Councilor?" "He is very ill, your Grace," Artabanus replied solemnly. "Will he recover?" "The priests and doctors think so, but not for some time. He must be left behind." The king frowned at that, then nodded. "So be it. Strange days have been upon us. First the accident, then the strange men from Laconia." "You did well to dismiss those idiot Spartans," said Mardonius. He was dressed in full army fatigues, and his beard was well-oiled today. Is he trying on victory outfits? Mardonius tended to count his eggs before they hatched; he had spouted victory speeches ten years ago before they marched and sailed to Hellas, and had never even made it there himself. The gods had seen to that. "The Spartans are a strange people," the king replied in his quiet tone. "I have called High Councellor Demaratus here to explain the matter to me personaly." Usually men addressed the king through an intermary, but sometimes his councilors could talk to him face to face. " Here he comes now." Sure enough a large form was making its way on foot up the hillside. Even at this distance the sun blazed in his bright red hair streaked with snow white, his handsome face lean but with a lower jaw that could crack a man's skull. He dressed simply in a dark blue tunic with an open chest, and he walked barefoot, as was his people's custom. The king graciously acknowleged the man, who did not so much as blink. Artabanus shook his head. Did Spartans ever smile? Even the man's bow was forced; as if it blackened his soul. King Xerxes seemed not to notice. "It pleases me you came so quickly. Your explanation about your people yesterday was greatly appreciated. I wish to continue it." That should have pleased the exile, HONORED him, but the Spartan was not easily impressed. He merely waited for his overlord to continue. The king took his time, signaling to the cup bearer who, with head bowed and one hand over his mouth to not foul the drink, handed the king his golden chalice. In it was "golden water," from the royal rivers near Susa, for the king could not drink the local water lest it pollute him. After a sip the king gestured to the west. "Will these men of Hellas stand their ground? For, as I see it, even if they all assembled together, they would not be able to fight me--to abide my onslaught. I hear from Councelor Diceneas their alliance is fragile. But I would like to know what you have to say about them." The Sparta's gaze was almost bland as he look down at his king. "You value my opinion?" "Don't question your King!" Mardonius growled. Xerxes waved him to silence, unfazed by the question. "I have 19 brothers and sisters, Councelor. I am the not the eldest, nor the youngest. But thanks especially to your intervention--" here he nodded to both his relatives--"and with the support of my closest bretheren, I ascended the thrown. So to answer your question, I greatly value your opinion. Proceed." Demaratus said nothing. Now Artabanus bristled. "The King has commanded you to speak, Spartan!" Demaratus ignored him. His stony blue eyes were fixed on Xerxes's flint ones. Neither blinked. "Do you want the answer you expect, or the truth?" the Laconian asked quietly. Even after seven years the man retained his Spartan ways, right down to his brutal manner of speaking. Xerxes considered a moment, then smiled. "A fair question. I would have the truth, Counciller." "The Spartans cannot be defeated," the Laconian said without preamble, then shut his jaw as if that setteled the matter. "And?" "What?" "What else?" "That is all." Mardonius groaned. "How can you say that?" "I ruled them," "No longer." If the comment rankeled the former king took it stoically. "My absence does not change their divine spirit." Divine spirit? Then Artabanus remembered. The Spartans think they are decended from some immortal hero. Mardonius was like a dog with a bone in its mouth. "All men are driven under the whip. They will yield." "In no way will they accept your proposals bearing slavery to Hellas." "They will have no choice!" snapped Mardonius. He jerked his head towards the massive dome of pink veined marble to the south. "Besides, the gateway to Hellas is already open. We have messengers from Thrace and Thesselay in that palace as we speak." "Thessalay has many principals. If one says yay, the others say nay." "We have the important ones." Demaratus was unimpressed. "Every Doric country could be on your side and my countrymen would still challange you to battle." "Not with myriads of warriors," Artabanus put in, gestering to the sea of army tents and soldiers. Demaratus' stony look did not waver, but impatience creeped into his voice. "If there are a thousand of them ranged to fight ten thousand of you, they will. And they will win" At this the king laughed and said, "A thousand men might win against THIS?" He too waved at his ocean of retainers. "We're talking about ten to one odds at least! Would you be willing to fight with ten men? Or, if I understand Artemisia's explanation about Spartan law alloting double of everything to Spartan kings, would you be willing to fight twenty men?" "I don't claim to be able to fight with ten men or with two," Demaratus rumbled. He unconsciencly brushed where the pummel of his sword would be if allowed to carry it though. Down the hill, the councilor's personal slave held the dagger-like weapon, an unimpressive piece the Spartan was never without. "Of my own free will I would not fight with one man of Hellas. But if I had to, I would fight with one of those men who claims to be a match for a Spartan." "Mardonius frowned suspiciously at that. "And why is that?" "Because together the Spartans are better than the best trained warrior on earth." His face didn't change, but he had begun rolling his rs, and that signaled danger. Artabanus made a subtle gesture for the gaurds to come closer. Demaratus looked at him like he was an idiot. "Even the Iones will prove difficult," was all he said, though. He refused to use Persian word Yauna whenever he could, prefering the Hellenic. A small mutiny that Mardonius seemed to dislike, and the Spartan knew it. But Artabanus knew the man, knew how crucial he was to Xerxes' cause, now more than ever. Before his nephew could object he stepped in quickly. Artabanus felt he was in a dagger fight with the man, only they were sparring with words. And the three Persians were losing.
"Nonsense. They fear me," Xerxes said uncertainly. "They fear the Spartan Law much more," the Laconian vollied with iron certainty. " It compels us not to flee from the fight but to stand firm in their ranks and either conquer or die." Artabanus shuddered. Was it possible that such a fierce tribe of warriors existed? Thinking of the two feisty Laconians, and looking at their former king, it was not hard to imagine. "Ridiculous!" Mardonius declared. The man's contenence hardened drastically, causing Mardonius to shift his feet. Demaratus stepped foward, towering over Xerxes like a kraken. "You asked me my opinion," the giant said quietly. "You have it now." Mardonius said, "your opinion shows your love for your kinsmen." " The ones who stripped me of my office and the privileges that were my fathers?" Demaratus asked with ice sharpness. He did not look at the general, but the younger man shifted his weight as though expecting a fight. "They made me a cityless exile, robbed me of my inheritance. My identity." His gaze snapped back to Xerxes's. "It was your father Highness who took me in and gave me a livelihood and a house. I have no reason to lie. As its is, I have spoken when forced by yourself. But if you think that I'm lying, then I offer no more advice." He sketched a bow, the merest dip of his head, the slightest bending of waist. " I hope that everything goes as you would have it, my lord." Xerxes blinked, at a loss at the foreigners sudden change of tactic. Without waiting for a dismissal the man strode off the hillside on his long legs. Artabanus was shaken. There was something ominous in the man's words. Mardonius looked furious. "He left without permission!" he hissed, waiting for Xerxes to command the Spartan back. Instead the young king watched the foreigner exit thoughtfully. "A somber, suspicious people," Artabanus noted well out of the giant's earshot. "My father used to say a man who tells the truth is worth a million who lie," the king murmmered, half to himself. Then he sighed. Artabanus felt sorry for his sovereign. After rallying most of the troops back in Cappadocia and arriving by forced march to Sardis, King Xerxes should have been enjoying a well deserved respite, even if for a day. Instead things seemed like a quagmire of confusion, as his son seemed unable to motiviate the Indians to move west and the Egyptians were determined to drag their feet all the way east. Only a few ships had arrived, with Prince Archamenes still held up in Memphis. And there was news of unrest in Babylon. Again.