Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sperthius Part 1

Part 1 of a new chapter from The Owl & The Eagle, told from the POV of Sperthius, a soldier known to his peers as The Boar of Sparta. The novel is progressing along nicely btw, with me taking notes and editing and adding and subtracting, etc. Hopefully one day an agent/editor/publisher will stumble upon this blog and think: Hey! We should ask this girl to send us a full transcript...

Parnon Mountains, Sparta
Summer, 481 BC(E)

The forest air was permeated with the sickly stench of opened bowels.

“You found him like this?” “Yes sir,” said the old soldier. "We were patrolling the Serpent Road and saw him.” “A boar,” the young soldier beside him insisted. "The animal, I mean." He was barely out of the barracks if a day, but he spoke with all the assurance of a seasoned war veteran. Sperthius did not have to see the face beneath the bronze helmet to know those features were smooth of scars. At near fifty the Boar of Sparta was older than either man and had seen more battles, as the puckered skin beneath his scarlet tunic and cloak could attest. Behind them a small cluster helots with their masters' heavy bronze shields strapped to their backs stood silently in the shadow of a large twisted oak, warily eyeing the underbrush around them for wild animals. “My Inspirer once hunted a beast just as big and twice as mean," said Orestes, the smooth-faced soldier. His dark hair was neatly divided into cords, and his bronze cuirass was undented and polished to a shine. "It almost did him in, but Aristodemus gouged its eyes out with his own hands.” Your Inspirer is full of shit, Sperthius thought as he frowned over the corpse. The day had barely begun, but the summer sun already threatened to be burning hot. Even with the shady wood above their heads they would have to move the body fast. Above, birds chirped and sang. They were purched in a dense cluster of fir and pine, hungry for the worms that had already begun to gnaw at the dead man's extremities. It seems cruel that birds should sing on a day like this. But Sperthius had long since learned that life was nothing if not cruel.

“Did you inspect the body at all?” The old solider hitched wide shoulders beneath his cloak, a ragtag cloth that like his knotted hair had more gray than red in it. Derkylidas was a veteran of a dozen or so campagins against Argos and Athens over the years, and blood and death were nothing new to him. His cuirass was dented and dull from use. “You're our commander. You should inspect it first.” It was the right answer, and so Sperthius merely nodded as he bent down to inspect the body.

He had been watching a foot race in the gymnasium when Orestes' helot came sprinting up, pushing his way through the crowd to tell him news of a fallen messenger found alone on the Serpant Road. "My master says it's not a Dweller," the boy announced too loudly, rubbing the back of his head where angry soldiers had cuffed him for trying to push them aside. Sperthius had snapped at him not to yell that out--there was no reason to draw attention to it--but it was too late. Just as he started to order one of his subordinates to take a small squad and investigate, Prince Cleombrotus turned around from where he was standing with the other generals and barked at Sperthius to see to it himself. "And don't go wasting the new recruits' time! They have too much training to do." One did not refuse a polemarch, and certainly not an Agiad prince, so Sperthius alone had followed the anxious helot out of Kynosoura, heading east then north, towards the Serpant Road.

The dead man was face down, sprinkled with fallen pine needles and splotches of speckled bird droppings. The short woolen cloak that fanned out over the narrow dirt path was so crusted with dried blood it was hard to tell what color it had been. The tunic beneath was by turns blackish red and gray, no doubt once a blinding white. Boots thin and travel stained but clearly yellow covered the now stiff feet. Oddly, the dead man wore some sort of hood the same color as his boots, the end tapering down his neck. Bulis had seen nothing like it. An outsider? That made no sense. Only Dwellers were allowed to travel outside of Laconia freely, and even then secret paths like the Serpant Road were not revealed to them. Only a Spartiate could know of it. Sperthius scratched at his gray-shot beard and tounged the gap where his two front teeth had been. If he was an Best not jump to conclusions.

Sperthius motioned to the cowering helots. "Get over here!" Timidly, two of the older slaves came foward. "Turn him over." One helot walked around the body while adjusting the dog-skinned cap on his shaggy brown head nervously, then bent down to support the back of the dead man’s neck while the other grabbed his feet. Together they turned him over as they would turn meat on a spit, the man's juices leaking onto to the ground along with loose pine needles. The stench was suddenly even more nauseating as the slaves set the corpse on its back; unbidden tears welled in Sperthius’s eyes. He blinked them away and forced himself to look. The dead man's gray and already sunken face was not familiar. The tear the boar made was terrible, slicing up through the man's bowels and towards his sternum, a bloody mess of blackish blue and red and yellow intestine. The helot with the cap retched into a cluster of nearby bushes while the other wailed. "Shut up or I'll shut you up!" Derkylidas snapped, making a threatening gesture with his spear. "And if you get any vomit on my shield Clubfoot, I'll kill you myself!" The helot shrank back, terrified. The Boar of Sparta ignored them as he studied the corpse.

Sperthius had been long in the war dance. He had seen various injuries, opened veins and deep gouges from spear points, ugly gashes from shield rims and nasty piercings from a sword's edge. But the heavy bronze armor Spartans wore to battle rarely failed to prevent the more mortal wounds. It took a skilled warrior to know where and how to strike, and none were as skilled as a Spartiate. Still, he had seen this kind of injury before in Laconia. Men grew careless when it came to the hunt, as his own Inspirer, an ugly brute called One Thumb had learned one muggy summer's day. A day like today. Wild boar attacks were more common in the Taygetos foothills, but some beasts still managed to hide in Gaia's green and golden hues here in the northern edge of the Parnon mountain chain. The fact that the messenger had not seen his attacker until it was too late was not surprising. His being on a secret road that was so narrow and winding it was more of a dirt track was. A herald coming from the North along a road only known by free men. Why?

Sperthius’ eyes moved to the messengers left hand, where something gleamed dully in the morning light. A blood-smeared dagger was still clutched tight in a fist. The sight of the dagger tickled his memory, but not becausae of One Thumb. He looks like Cleomenes the day I found him, he thought with a chill. That had been after they dragged the Mad King back from Sellasia, cursing and screaming and attacking people with his staff of office. The ephors had ordered him to be put in stocks to keep himself from hurting anyone, and ordered a handful of men to take turns watching him, including the Boar of Sparta. When Sperthius went to check on the king later that night he had found him --or rather of his disembowled body-- slumped on the floor of the Agiad mansion, the helot who had freed him dead beside the king. The memory of that gruesome sight was ten years old, yet seemed as fresh as yesterday. This messenger died a far less gruesome death, Sperthius reflected as he leaned forward to try and pry the knife out of the man's hand. And quicker. One Thumb had died quickly too, albeit in terrible pain. I have no bloodless memories. But then, few Spartans did.

When the body refused to yield the weapon Sperthius began to mutter under his breath. “You’re dead you stubborn bastard, let go!” Finally the corpse obeyed. Sperthius let the hand fall back onto the ground and held out the dagger for somebody to take. “Check that for a signet.” “Sir?” Orestes pointed. “There’s something there."

A square-shaped item was peeking beneath one stained fold of the cloak. Sperthius frowned and carefully pulled it out, holding it up to a ray of light that managed to break through the dense phalanx of pine needles above them. It was a block of wood, thickly coated in wax. Sperthius turned it over in his hands. There was nothing on it. No symbols or writing that he could see. He began to grow frustrated. As a soldier he had no patience for riddles. He flung the wood at the younger soldier. "Here!" Orestes managed to catch it in mid-air, moving fast despite his cuirass. It was obvious by the tilt of his head the youth was trying to face dowwind, though there was little wind this morning. Sperthius did not chide him for it; even he had to admit the smell was bad. "Did you find anything?" he asked the old soldier. "No, Sir. No marks on the dagger." "I see."

Sperthius flicked back his cloak and searched through the messenger's strange clothes, ignoring the blood and bits of gore on his hands and earth-colored tunic as he searched for something that would identify the man. Spartans wore wooden tags in battle to help identify the fallen, Athenians had shields that were specific to their families, Corinthians had signet rings, and messengers usually had the emblem of their city somewhere on their person. This man had nothing. Nothing except a blank tablet of wax and a dagger.

Sperthius sat back on his heels, at a total loss as to what it could mean. Bulis would understand. His Hearer had a talent for puzzling out these kinds of things. Again he tounged the fleshy bit of exposed gum where his upper two teeth had been. A lone messenger. No escorts. No gaurds. Nothing. Maybe he's not really a messenger?

Sperthius noticed the increasingly warm air just then, and the sickly sweet odor of death growing with it. Enough thinking for now. It's time to move. He turned his head to order the helots to take the body back with him to Kynosoura when he suddenly heard birds scatter into the sky above them. The three soldiers froze, as did the helots. Sperthius knew then he had been wrong about being alone. Something is coming.