It may seem to all one of my readers that I don't seem to write much. On the contrary: I write every day, but am shy about sharing my writing (and paranoid of publishing it for fear someone will a) tell me I can't publish it in book form because I published parts of it online and b) someone will steal my ideas, worth it or not). At any rate, as proof that I am indeed continuing with my story The Owl & The Eagle, here's the first part of a chapter from the POV of Artabanus, made famous by Herodotus for being the lone dove in the hawkish court of King Xerxes of Persia. Enjoy!
Sardis, Summer, 481 BC(E)
He was riding towards the blood-red cliffs of Sardis when the sun went out. The air was still hot and choked with dust, and the sounds of the army's movement still thundered in his ears, yet suddenly the world went black. One minute Artabanus could see the famed palace of Croesus, sitting high and aloof above the valley floor. The next it was gone. "Almighty Ahura Mazda!" Artaphernes swore beside him, fighting as hard as Artabanus to keep control of his mount. They looked up together, saw the moon shrouding the noon-day sun like a death garb. Other men cursed and struggled with their horses as well, while pack animals brayed and honked in distress. Humans voices joined in, and the call to halt was sounded on brass horns. "I like this not at all," Artaphernes told him as his horse danced around. Artabanus's mount was better trained, but the animal trembled so he gave her a reassuring pat. "It will pass," he told the general, wishing he sounded more confident. The sun and moon had crept towards each other all morning in truth, but with so much on his mind Artabanus had paid little attention.
The air buzzed with apprehension; an eclipse was a bad omen for an army. And this was not the only ominous event he had heard this day. The general of the Lydians had come from Sardis to escort him into the city, and tell him news of the Hellspont, the bridges smashed, the key to their victory gone before they had even sounded the call to war.
Artabanus looked up. Above the sun was nothing more than a red-orange ring in empty air, its center a portal of blackness threatening to swallow them whole. Man and animal alike waited for the phenom to pass. It seemed as if it never would. But as ever, Ahura Mazda won the battle between light and dark, and finally the sun re-appeared, to the vast relief of all beneath its rays. The horns blared an order to resume the march.
The grizzled general struggled to compose his still-shaken horse as they continued to make their way along the Royal Highway. "As I was saying before High Councilor, we have little room in the city right now. I have ordered my own soldiers out of their barracks to make way for you and the king's vangaurd, but even that is not enough. Already the city is overflowing with refugees from all over Ionia." "That is not the king's problem," Artabanus told him. "If you must remove the refugees, so be it." "As you say, High Councilor." It was obvious the general loathed to do so, though. He was popular among the Ionians and did not like ruffling their feathers. Around them a sprawling camp was already going up, Artaphernes's soldiers unloading supplies, wrestling sacks and barrels out of wagons, erecting tents of all shapes and sizes, and penning livestock where there was room. Even the camp followers were starting to swell, including merchants and whores ensured of having no shortage of customers.
As they neared the city limits evidence of the Athenian sneak attack that had started this chain of events was still visible after ten years: parts of the city's massive walls were still missing, while shells of stone buildings and charred trees littered the landscape, the populace here too poor to rebuild. The horses carefully picked their way around the debris; man or horse could easily injure themselves here. Men dressed in furs and skins despite the heat stepped aside to bow as the entourage passed, but their eyes were sullen and tired. Artabanus reined in and signaled to one of his servants to hand over a silk purse. Opening it he brought up a fistful of golden Darics and scattered them on the baked ground. The waifs clambered over each other to grab them, eyeing Artabanus's gaurd suspiciously. Once they picked up the coins they eyed them to make sure they were real. Some even bit them. None of them thanked him. So little trust, Artabanus thought as he heeled his mare foward. Little trust among the people meant unrest, and unrest led to rebellion. Perhaps the general was right to be cautious.
Artaphernes had reined up near a small ruin and was looking worried. Artabanus spared the urchins a backward glance as he spoke."Those men are not dresssed like Lydians or Hellenes. Who are they?" "Thracians, High Counsilor, driven out of their homes from the endless squabbling between mountain and valley men." "I see." The general grunted, frowning behind him. "Forgive them, High Councilor. Your robes are good for travel, but they are used to seeing purple cloaks and Court robes and so don't know you. I assure you, they mean no disrespect. And my soldiers and I will see no harm comes to you." "A Persian need never show fear in his own lands," Artabanus replied. He had dressed in blue riding breeches and a thick linen tunic belted with silver thread, his boots sheep skin that laced up to his knees, a present from a Synthian merchant. The only thing that named Artabanus royalty was the solid gold tiara atop his head. "I do not fear them any more than I fear Ionians or Lydians." Artaphernes looked dubious. "I admire your words, High Councilor, but you should know that Lydians and Ionians are much like their bretheren across the sea. Rebellion is in their blood." The man himself was dressed in tight-fitting leather breaches, surmounted by a white tunic and snug blue coat belted in gold. A pair of leather baldrics crisscrossed his chest, securing a dagger and a tassled quiver bristling with arrows. He looked like he was ready for a battle to break out at any moment. Behind a servant ceremoniously carried the general's bow and spear, a whicker shield strapped to his back. It was an effort for Artabanus not to shake his head. "Lead on," he told the general.
Once they passed through the slanting outer walls the damage from the war was less visible. The the city proper was a crush of stalls, rush-roofed houses flanked by marble temples, and outdoor eating places, all known to the Hellenes as a "market place." The Persian guard cleared a path through the maze of people with their whips, who continued to haggle even while doging the leather tails flicking at them. As they rode through a vendor called out his dish, fish wrapped in grape leaves, while another offered a pot of boiled snails. They passed stalls overflowing with pots and pans, weapons, cloth, spices, baskets, brews and wines, trinkets and toys of all manner of shape, color and size. Artabanus was baffled by the chaos. He felt better as they entered the park that stretched towards the palace. It had been built in honor of King Darius by a man named Pythius, said to be the richest man west and north of the Meander and a grandson to Croesus. The park was stunning: all lush trees, tall grasses and perfumed flowers, with water courses diverted from the nearby river. Beyond, sweeping up and away towards the sky were the smooth red cliffs of the Acropolis, and atop their jagged edges was the huge and indominable Palace of Croesus, the pale marble walls gleaming with gold and sliver inlay.