Chapter 3 – The Prelude to War
It was four years later that found Leandros among the elite, the Skiritai. An uprising among the former Spartan Allies, the Antirhionians, had come to the attention of the Lakedaemonian King Leonidas, who rose to the occasion magnificently. Over a thousand Spartan soldiers now marched across the Peloponnesian peninsula towards Antirhion, the ground quaking beneath their very feet. At the head of the procession was Leonidas himself, flanked and supported by the Skiritai – the famed bodyguards of the King of Sparta. They numbered five hundred in total, eight hundred Spartiate warriors following them. Behind the Spartan contingent followed the Arkadians, allies from the noble kingdom of Arkadia. Kinsmen though they were, the bonds of alliances did not serve to befuddle the Spartans as to the worth of the Arkadians in battle. They were crude, untrained fighters in the eyes of the Spartans, lacking the dedication to battle that had made Lakedaemon a kingdom to be feared. Among the Hellenes, and even the rest of the known world, there were no better soldiers than the Spartans, a truth that was universally acknowledged. But where the Arkadians lacked skill, they possessed valor enough to support the Spartan attack and bolster its defense.
Leandros marched behind the king, adorned in full regalia. As a Knight in the Spartan army, and the Regent of the King, his shield bore the simple adornment of a small lambda sign etched under the large one emblazoned across every shield. His helmet bore a scarlet plume, as did those of all the Skiritai, matching the crimson cloak of all Spartan warriors. The helmet of Leonidas bore a black plume, crowning the King magnificently. The Spartiate warriors bore no plumes on their helmets, simply a metal 'plume' fashioned after those worn by the Skiritai. Leandros stood now as a peer among the Spartans, respected not only for the might and valor in battle that he had displayed countless times during these years characterized by constant warring, but for his achievements in other fields. An accomplished singer, he now sang along with the Spartiates, reciting the war poetry in a clear baritone, bringing smiles to the faces of the veterans, who doubtless recalled the days in which they too had performed for the army. At Olympeia, he had triumphed in six fields, coming second in just one, which he had registered in at the last moment, on a whim. In the armored sprint, the javelin throw, the discus throw, the bare sprints and the long distance run, he had obtained the golden wreath, doing Sparta proud. At the last moment, he had decided to attempt the chariot races, coming a close second to an Egyptian. Among the Spartan peers, his name was now spoken with a deserved respect.
Ahead they could see the churning dust that signaled the presence of the Antirhionians moving into battle formations. A hundred yards away from them, the Spartan contingent came to a halt and split into four phalanxes. Each Phalanx was headed by one hundred and twenty five Skiritai, and supported by the Spartiate soldiers. They stood tall, coolly regarding their foes. Even from this distance, the difference between the two armies was obvious. The Spartans and the Arkadians together numbered eighteen hundred men. The Antirhionians numbered roughly five thousand, four hundred. Where the Spartan spears pointed vertically upwards, rigidly straight and unwavering, the Antirhionians were faring much worse. Even over this distance, and despite the roaring winds, the distinct clatter of spear against spear could be heard, as phobos worked its own unique magic, striking fear into the hearts of the enemy. Had they been able to see more clearly through the dust being whipped through the air, the Spartans would have spied the damning puddles that now formed between the legs of more than a few Antirhionians.
It was unsurprising… the lines of Spartans, helmeted in the Trojan fashion, with eyes glaring out violently was a fearful enough view to cause immediate regret in the hearts and minds of any enemy.
Grinning slightly, Leandros muttered "Three to one, then. Good odds for any Spartan." Chuckles grew among the men surrounding him, drawing a small smile on the visage of the King. It was unfortunate, Leandros mused, that relations between the two bad come to such a head. There had been a time when Spartans and Antirhionians were brothers in arms, most notably at Marathon, where Darius of Persia was humbled by the Hellenic coalition of armies. Now, the Spartan messenger who had borne a message of peace had returned, having been repudiated by Hephaestus, King of Antirhion. There had been no alternative but war.
A basket was produced from the right flank, each man dropping a twig into it. This was how the Spartans tallied their losses. Each man would use a twig, and snap it unevenly such that one half would never fit any other twig but its counterpart perfectly. They would then scratch their names into each half of the twig, and drop one half into the basket, while the other half would be tied around their wrists. Once the battle had ended, the Spartans would match the twig around their wrists with the corresponding half. Those twigs that remained in the basket signified those who had been lost or grievously injured.
Once all the Spartans had finished this ritual, they turned their attention back to the foe. Leandros stared at them evenly from his place to the right of the King. "Sire," he said, nodding towards the Antirhionians, "a small display will leave us with but a fraction of their army to take care of." Leonidas grinned, the eerie smile flashing from the shadows of his helmet. Across the field, Leandros saw the battle standard of the Antirhionians waver.
Turning slightly, Leonidas shouted out to his men. "Spartans!"
The response was immediate. Each and every Spartan soldier, knowing what their King demanded of them, lifted both their shield and their spear, and banged one against the other in one simultaneous crash, repeating the action two more times. "Hooah! War!" The sound was deafening as it raced across the muck-covered field. The grins beneath every Spartan helmet were eerie, a glowing white flash amid the sea of darkness below the cheek-flaps of the helmet, crowned by the eyes of those who had witnessed Hades itself, then lived to tell its tale through every brutal slash of the xiphos sword.
On the part of the Antirhionians, the response was slower. For a minute, everything was silent. Then, there was a scream of terror, and the Spartans saw a single man on the right flank of the enemy drop his shield and spear, and sprint away. Almost as if that single action was a catalyst for retreat, ten others imitated him. A second later, it was a hundred who had abandoned their posts, and then it was close to a thousand. Frantically, the Antirhionian Captain signaled his squire, who blew a blast through his horn, the sound trumpeting across the field. The action served to still those that remained, but those who had fled did not even look back.
Raising a shadowed eyebrow, Leonidas smirked. Turning slightly towards Leandros, he murmured "Fucking trumpet was inconvenient, wasn't it?" The response was a muted laugh, and a nod from Leandros. Stepping forward and out of ranks, he raised his spear, flipping it around in his hand to hold it with the sharp end pointing to the ground. With a few running steps and a heavy exhalation of breath, he flung the spear. A hundred yards away, the Squire choked violently as the spear embedded itself through his throat as he blew through the horn. He stumbled backwards, eyes wide, and a gout of blood exploded out of the brass horn still held to his lips. With an almighty crash, he collapsed atop his horn, bending it. The Antirhionian standard, once held firm in his other hand, clattered to the ground.
Silence reigned across the field, a look of unbelieving shock across the faces of every Antirhionian present. A hundred yards… to throw a spear so far – and that too, the heavy Spartan spear – and with such force… it was incredible. The Antirhionian captain gazed back up from his fallen squire, and stared at the one who had thrown it. Even as he watched, he saw the man accept Leonidas' proffered spear, and point it at the ground. A second later, he crouched, and lifted another spear, falling back into ranks. Despair clouded the captain's mind, for the identity of the Spartan was now obvious.
"Leandros," the captain sighed. The man's reputation had preceded him.
Surprisingly, instead of causing the captain's men to retreat, they seemed to band together in their fear. Without the issuance of the order to charge, the men suddenly broke away from the Captain, rushing towards the Spartans. His cries to halt them served no purpose, going unheard in the din caused by the rampaging feet of four and a half thousand Antirhionians. Sighing deeply, he joined the charge, moving towards the Spartans.
The Spartans, for their part, were ready for the charge. Immediately, the front two lines of each phalanx brought their shields to port, steeling themselves for the inevitable crash of their enemies against their shields. Behind them, the Spartiates stood braced, ready to support the Skiritai in case anyone were to stumble. This was where the othismos drill, the tree-fucking, came in handy. From years of slamming against strong, proud trees in Phalanx formation, the crushing of the enemy against their shields was hardly even bruising to them. As the Antirhionians smashed into their shields, the Spartans held strong, absorbing the impact of the charge and allowing it to dissipate through their legs and into the earth. Still, they were pushed back a few feet by the onslaught, but kept their feet firmly, churning the mud under their feet into slush.
For a moment frozen in time, everything came to a grinding halt, the only motion being made by the vanguard of the Antirhionians as they jostled against perfectly still shields. Then, with an almighty crash, the front lines of the Antirhionians were flung back violently, crashing into their fellow warriors. The Spartan shields were immediately turned aside, and the front lines raised their spears overhead, plunging them deep into the chests of their enemies. Despite the armor they wore, the Antirhionian defense was no match for the forceful Spartan onslaught. The spears punched through shields, helmets and armor alike, ripping through flesh, cracking and splitting bone and tearing vital organs. As soon as the thrust was made, the spear was withdrawn smoothly out of the enemy's body, blood spewing everywhere. Then, the first line would move ever so slightly, and the second line would advance through the tiny gaps in between the soldiers of the first line, and repeat the action. Within the first minute of the Spartan assault, the formerly brown mud was soaked, stained red by the blood of the Antirhionians. Bodies littered the small gap between the two armies already. This was the might of the Phalanx as used by the Spartans… it was capable of turning a defense into an attack, and vice versa, within a split second.
The first and second lines now reversed their spears, using the 'lizard-sticker' to eliminate the wounded. With unforgiving plunges of their spears, the Spartans planted the bulbous rear-tips deep into the chests of their fallen enemies, assuring a quick, yet painful death. It was better to so inhumanely destroy the wounded enemy than to risk the chance of one of them rising from the rear of the Phalanx and striking at the backs of the Spartans. Even as their spears were turned, the third and fourth lines plunged ahead, immediately solidifying into reformed lines, keeping the phalanx intact. They, as always, had moved just in time to intercept the second plunge of the Antirhionians, deflecting their spears with ease, and slamming into them with exquisite force. Just this impact was audibly causing broken bones amongst the Antirhionians as they smashed themselves on the Spartan shields like waves upon rocks, and fell to the ground. In one fluid motion, the first and second lines attacked one after the other, skewering the Antirhionians without fanfare. Blood was everywhere, splattering not only the spear tips of the Spartans, but also their shields and bodies, making them look even more terrifying to the shattered Antirhionian forces.
Leonidas and Leandros battled side by side, Astinos and Stelios to Leandros' right, and Dienekes to Leonidas' left. Among all the Phalanxes, this was the one that did the most damage. As the enemy crushed against their shields, they did not falter in the least. With each heave, the enemy was thrown back, and they flung their spear tips outward forcefully, stabbing through the stumbling enemies. For two of the Skiritai, this was almost a playground. Astinos had moved back into the second line, and from behind Stelios' shield, cast destructive curse after curse at the enemy, tearing through their ranks with supreme ease. His each curse caused explosions of blood as entire groups of Antirhionians were ripped apart. Leandros, on the other hand, was experimenting.
With a powerful underhanded thrust, he drove his eight footer through the stomach of an Antirhionian, ignoring the bloodcurdling shriek of pain emitted by the man currently impaled on his spear. Holding his shield out in front of him for extra protection, he wiggled his spear while it was still impaled through the enemy, crudely tracing a rune and projecting his magic. The four lines of Antirhionians behind the impaled man had no warning except for the split-second flash of the traced rune in the air before the magic slammed into them. The spell he had cast was meant to deliver a huge crushing force to whatever it struck. Doubtful if it would work while his spear was sticking through the man's body, Leandros had projected a little too much magic into the spell, overpowering it to an incredible extent. The result was a horizontal arc of grey-blue light, nearly ten yards across. The spell slammed into the Antirhionians, decimating the next four lines of soldiers before it dissipated. Blood and guts rained backwards, drenching a further eight lines of Antirhionians, causing hysterical shrieks of panic, and making the rear end of the contingent break away. Unfortunately for Leandros, having a foe impaled on his spear as he cast the magic was a bad idea. The impaled Antirhionian, still gasping in his death throes, exploded in a veritable fountain of blood, spraying across the Spartan front line. Leandros, Leonidas, Dienekes and Astinos, in particular, were covered in blood from head to toe. In front of that particular phalanx, the fighting ceased for a moment, with both sides pausing: the Spartans in curiosity about where the blood had suddenly emerged from, and the Antirhionians in a level of fear that gripped their hearts and squeezed with icy, unforgiving fingers.
With a shout of savage triumph, Leandros pressed forward, stabbing his eight-footer through the abdomen of one enemy, then twisted his arm to angle the direction of the spear as it protruded from his enemy's back, further plunging the tip into the sternum of the man behind him. Choosing to discard his spear rather than spend the time wrenching it out of the torsos of his falling foes, he exploded forward while drawing his xiphos sword. As he moved forward, he leapt over the falling bodies of the two impaled Antirhionians, and flung his shield forward into the throat of an enemy about to thrust his spear forward. The man collapsed, gurgling helplessly as his crushed throat prevented him from breathing and filled his lungs with blood. The fallen man's neighbor then thrust his spear forward angrily, only to have Leandros dodge slightly and move the spear sideways with the greave on his left arm. He swung the xiphos haphazardly, slicing through the man's jaw between his open mouth, causing his jaw to open grotesquely. The force of the blow made the man spin around, and Leandros darted forward, wrapping his left arm around the man's throat and pulling him back even as he fell. He dug his knee into the small of the man's back while pulling back forcefully with his arm, and was rewarded by a loud crack as the man's back snapped under Leandros' weight. Immediately, Leandros capitalized on the forward motion as he fell, rolling forward to plant his sword into the chest of an enemy, and wrenched it upwards as he rose back to his feet, effectively gutting the man like a fish. Rising to his feet quickly, he turned sideways to avoid a thrusting spear, and grabbed it with his free left hand, bringing it down across his knee and snapping the spear in half. Even as his xiphos hacked the offending Antirhionian's throat wide open, he reversed the broken spear in his other hand, and without fanfare, flung it deep into the Antirhionian Captain's eye. Now bearing his sword in front of him, he moved back, retrieving his shield from atop a corpse, and falling back into the Spartan line seamlessly. The utter violence that he had just exhibited caused tremors in the hearts of those who had witnessed it, causing them to begin making mistakes with their already poorly-taught technique.
As soon as the first hint of phobos made itself known in the Antirhionian eyes, the Spartans capitalized. With a roar, the Spartans exploded forward, each soldier of the King's Phalanx knowing instinctively to break formation and attack. They stabbed forward with their spears, sometimes managing to impale two foes on the same spear, then drew their xiphos swords and charged in. With their short, threshing strokes, the King's Phalanx immediately tore through the opposition, hacking, cutting and tearing away through the Antirhionians. Across the field, the triumphant roars of the King's Phalanx reached the ears of the other Spartans, who replicated the actions of their fellow warriors. Spears were flung and thrust forward viciously, driving the Antirhionians back enough to give the Spartans room to unsheathe their xiphos swords and charge in. Amid the carnage, a horn sounded from behind the Spartans, and almost instantaneously they had divided, a gap being created in the middle. Through this passage stormed in the Arkadians, crudely waving their long swords and spears, but creating a effective result nevertheless.
Half an hour later, the Antirhionians numbered a little over a thousand soldiers. From the distance behind the Antirhionians, a low, mournful horn sounded, echoing across the field. Immediately, the Antirhionians paused, and the Spartans took the chance to pull back a few feet, placing themselves out of the immediate striking range of their opponents. Seamlessly integrating it into their action, they fell back into their Phalanx formations, and stood, slightly crouched, awaiting the Antirhionian response. The energy seemed to leave them, for their shoulders slumped. One after the other, they dropped their spears, swords and shields, and stepped back from them. They were escorted aside by the Spartiates, who then guarded them while Leonidas addressed the situation. A few minutes later, a runner was dispatched to Antirhion with a message of peace, offering a truce, stating that Sparta was willing to honor the alliance that it once had with Antirhion, if they would pledge to do the same. It was a tremulous peace at best, and the truce would most likely be useless while the Spartans weren't around to enforce it… but Leonidas still held out hope. That it had come to war was a tragedy… the Antirhionians had doubtless used their best fighters in the defense of the city, and those lives, that skill… it was now lost forever. Of course, Leonidas did not consider it a tragedy simply on such a superficial, selfish level. Sparta, while a warring state, was a country that fought for peace. They had no desire, no blood-drunk thirst to tear asunder all of Hellas and stain its earth with the blood of its own sons. At Antirhion, Greeks had killed Greeks, and that, above all, would stand out as a great tragedy to have befallen all of Greece.
Leonidas was no expansionist… Sparta was Sparta, it would never include the rest of the Hellenic countries and kingdoms. The truce simply called for Lakedaemon and Antirhion to be allies once more. Leonidas had been almost fanatical about reaffirming alliances with the other powers of Hellenes, constantly talking about the importance of a pan-Hellenic alliance to fend off the imminent Persian attack. The Ephors and the Council of the Elders – the Spartan Parliament – had thus far continued to dismiss the King's sentiments as lunacy, calling it an early onset of old age and senility. However, the Skiritai knew, reports of a vast army being assembled in the East were coming in frequently. As the King's personal bodyguard, the Skiritai were not bound by the Spartan law that made all warlike action dependant on the approval of the Ephors. Thus, Leonidas and his five hundred Skiritai had, in the past few years, fought skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle. In the last two years, the Skiritai had fought eighteen times, and had lost only twenty seven men in that period, a remarkable statistic. During various stints in southern Hellas, in Egypt and in Eastern Europa, reports had been slowly trickling in that told stories of a vast army being built by Xerxes of Persia. According to a particularly raucous Egyptian sailor named Bomani, Xerxes' army was the greatest army ever assembled, so large that it drained rivers dry as it passed.
In anticipation, Leonidas had started his own crusade, to unite the Hellenes under the banner of a Common Greek army which would fight the Persians, if the situation did indeed arise. That, however, had been a tragically difficult task to complete. Whether it was fear of the Spartans, arrogance, or perhaps Persian gold that swayed them, Greeks simply refused to work with the Spartans. It was with a heavy heart that Leonidas knew it would be the Spartans, alone, who would face the Persians, so he sought to gain help through whatever alliances he could resurrect. Thus far, only the Arkadians had pledged their allegiance to Sparta. Despite how the Spartans regarded Arkadian tactics and general skill at battle, it was obvious to every member of the Skiritai that when it came down to it, every man would be needed. Each and every Spartan on the battlefield knew this to be true, and rather than occupy their minds with such dark thoughts, turned to their duties with vigor.
With the battle finished, the Spartans approached the aftermath with clinical precision. The first issue they addressed was the healing of the wounded and the tallying of the dead. The basket was passed around between groups, warriors reaching in to find their twig and match it with the one strapped to their wrists. As the Ephors had approved this battle, their sensibilities offended by the repudiation of the previous alliance between Antirhion and Lakedaemon, a small band of medics were able to travel along with the Spartans. They now tended to the wounded, dressing wounds and sewing torn flesh back together, applying myrrh and other herbal salves to the injured areas. During most of the previous battles, only the Skiritai had been present, for the ephors had, time and time again, declined the King's appeal for war. Those injured in these battles were subject to 'field-treatment', a rather innocent sounding word for the Spartan practice. Wounds were cauterized by the burning tip of a spear, the soldier gagged to prevent them biting their tongue. Flesh was sewn together by hands that had once been inexperienced, but had gained skill through years of applying these techniques. It was a godsend that the Ephors had approved this campaign, for the forty seven severely injured soldiers – which included three of the Skiritai – would have far exceeded the number of capable field-treatment 'specialists'. As it was, to save lives, those among the Skiritai now worked amongst their comrades, doing what they could to keep the injury minimized. Nothing could be done for the twelve dead… a remarkably large number in comparison to the battles fought over the last two years, and a testament to the relative skill-level of the Antirhionians in comparison to many of the enemies the Spartans had recently fought.
As the prisoners of war were watched by the Spartiates, the Skiritai congregated around the King and reposed themselves, relaxing after the battle, but ready in case a new offensive was launched. It was now, after the heat of the battle, that phobos made its appearance among the Spartans. They sat on the muck churned up by their own stamping feet, ignoring the blood that still stained the ground. Those who had not had the opportunity to fight, namely the Arkadians, assisted in clearing the field of the dead, respectfully placing the bodies together to allow the Antirhionians to bury them with honor. Sitting there, they felt phobos start to grip them, as hands started shaking, teeth began chattering and faces began looking drawn. Yet they were silent, refusing with all their might to give in to it. Using techniques taught to them in the Agoge, they gripped their fear with unforgiving hands, and set out to quell it. One by one, they relaxed their muscles, starting with the face, to return the look of normalcy that they were so used to. This, above all, was the most important facet of the exercises: to return to the Spartan soldier his calm, placid outward appearance, and to guard any weakness from those who would attempt to take advantage of it. They then progressed through the body, quelling their fear. By releasing their fear, the Spartans learned aphobia, their fearlessness, which gave them the mental strength to withstand such impossible odds, such constant fighting and stress. It was no wonder that military service ceased to be mandatory once a soldier was thirty years old. There were few who could maintain their levelheaded mentality in battle for more than ten years. Among these were Dienekes, Polynikes and Leonidas himself, and a great many of the Skiritai, who usually served until they were physically incapable of meeting the standards required to be among the King's bodyguard.
Leonidas, among the first to dispel the phobia that took every soldier after battle, now stood to address his men. Seeing Leandros fighting against the tremors in his hands, and the quavering in his voice as he softly spoke to Stelios, the King laughed softly, drawing a blush on the young man's face.
"You will improve with experience, son," Leonidas laughed, drawing Dienekes' attention to the situation, too. The Captain's raucous laughter served to only worsen Leandros' blush, for the lad quickly looked at the ground, grateful for the shadow across his face. The King looked away with amusement, turning to address the multitude of warriors who now hung on his every word, having seen him rise.
"Spartans!" Leonidas called, his voice sure and steady, "Today we have won a great victory. Through the mettle and force we displayed today, we have reclaimed Antirhion as a Spartan ally." The men's cheers were raucous, loudly booming across the battlefield. Leonidas nodded, leaning slightly on his spear. The man cut a very kingly figure, Leandros thought, looking at his 'father' admiringly, with his helmet tucked under his arm, and his spear held tight in his grip.
"The Arkadians have been kind enough to provide for us tonight, so we shall eat hearty tonight." As more cheers rent the silence, Leonidas grinned, continuing, "Provided you have quelled your shakes and shudders, Daxos here has invited you all to partake of the feast." There were chuckles all around, mostly from the standing veterans, and slight blushes from the still-seated neophytes. Despite his considerable experiences over the last two years, Leandros would still humbly count himself among the latter. Excited chatter now filled the air as Leandros stalked away with Daxos, the Arkadian King, chatter among soldiers that was all too common after a battle had been fought. The topic of the conversations were everything and nothing, words simply filling the space as the warriors replayed the battle over and over in their minds. Rising in twos and threes as the warriors independently regained full control of their body, the Spartans moved toward the large tent that had been set up at the rear of the coalition's vanguard at some point during the day.
Sitting around a campfire after a successful battle was an experience that was incomparable. Still bathed in the blood of fallen foes, the Spartans mingled on the edge of the battlefield. Raucous laughter and rambunctious cheers tore the silence of the oncoming night, a dozen campfires flinging a hazy glow over the grounds and the sweaty torsos of the warriors. Now that battle was no longer a priority, there was nothing to stop the Spartans from mingling with the Arkadians and treating them as equals. In battle, of course, it was a different story entirely.
It had been a battle that served as little more than a training session for the Spartans, a fact that was both reassuring and troubling to Leandros as he pondered it, having taken the first watch of the night with some twenty other Spartan warriors. On one hand, it was extremely beneficial that the results had been so positive, but on the other hand, he knew that against the Persians, things would be different. He had enough faith in the Spartan skill in war to know that they would be well prepared for any opponent, but the numbers of Xerxes' army that were being reported by various sources had two characteristics that were extremely troubling. Firstly, they were all consistent with each other. Secondly, they were all huge.
If the Ephors made the mistake of forbidding the whole army from fighting, then Sparta would be doomed. They would all die. Thoughts such as these were troubling to any youth, but the even greater sense of responsibility to the Spartans that had filled Leandros ever since he had been named Regent made him ruminate over these thoughts even more.
Sighing, he continued walking around the perimeter, ever alert. What would come would come… no man had the power to stand against the will of the Gods.
Leandros stood at the gates of Sparta now, peering away towards the hills. The summer months were drawing to an end… within a few months, the trees would be barren, and snow would fall from the skies, crowning Lakedaemon with its sparkly, powdery beauty. The festival of the Carneia was almost upon them. Indeed, there was less than a week until the Ephors would meet atop Mount Taygetus, to initiate the festival. His gaze fell upon the mountain for a moment, his lips twisting into a sneer as he spotted the arched centerpiece that adorned it, the home of the Ephors. Filthy, disgusting creatures, they were. It was a shame that the Eurotas river streamed through the valley near the mountain… each time the Ephors bathed in it, Leandros considered the water sullied for the next few days. Luckily, the disgusting creatures only bathed once a month, on the 'auspicious' night of the full moon.
A moment later, it was not the mountain that drew his attention. His eyes narrowed as he gazed to the east, seeing a storm of dust approach the top of a hill. Shadows played through the haze, until seven horsemen broke through the dust and charged down the hill towards Sparta.
Turning to the guards on either side of the gate, Leandros muttered "Make our guests welcome. I shall inform the King of their arrival."
He turned, then stalked through the city towards the King's abode. Dienekes fell in step with him, and Leandros informed him of the arrival of their visitors. Entering the courtyard of the King's home, they saw him wrestling with his son. Leandros stifled a smile, remembering his own training with Leonidas. Those were fond memories, especially the day that he had discovered magic. Gorgo stood nearby, leaning against a pillar. Upon hearing Leandros enter, she turned. Recognizing him, she flashed him a brilliant smile, embracing him tightly and greeting him.
Leandros nodded, returning the embrace. "My Queen," he said, in response to her enquiring look, "we have a guest. A Persian, by the look of his horse."
The Queen's jaw tightened. She, no doubt, knew what was coming. Leandros nodded at her, then entered the courtyard, in time to see Basil, the King's son, dig his fingers into the back of Leonidas' knee. The King's knee buckled, and he fell to one knee, laughing. Leandros stood silently, politely waiting for the King to finish instructing his son.
"… honor and respect, indeed," the King said, ruffling the boy's hair. Basil, spotting Leandros before the King did, immediately grinned, and leapt at him, hugging him tightly around the waist.
Leandros chuckled, lifting the boy into the air, grinning as the boy squealed happily. "Lad, you'll have to eat a little more before you knock me over," he said, smiling at the energetic child. The boy pouted playfully, and Leandros set him down. "Run along now," he continued, "the King is needed for a while." Obediently, Basil scampered away, and Leandros grasped the King's arm, hauling him to his feet.
"These old bones," the King laughed, making Leandros grin. "Alright, lad?" he asked, sizing his foster son up, not letting go of the younger man's arm.
Leandros's expression grew a little grave. "A Persian messenger," he stated, knowing that was all he needed to say.
The King frowned in reply, then winked at him. "Well, let's go greet him, then," he muttered, then grinningly continued "it's hardly polite to leave the bastard waiting, is it?" Leandros, in reply, fetched the King's sword from its rack on the wall, and retrieved a sash with which he could secure it to his waist.
Dienekes, uncharacteristically playful as he chatted with young Basil, now shooed the boy away with a pat on his rear, and stood to greet the King. The Captain, King and Queen now walked out to greet the messenger, Leandros walking respectfully behind them. As a member of the Skiritai, he was ranked higher than most, but Dienekes… he was the Captain of the Skiritai. He was also a childhood friend of the King, and a close confidante. Even Leandros' status as the Regent of Sparta was not enough to grant him the level of honor 'required' to be part of the welcoming party. In entering a conversation with the Persian messenger, Leandros' rank prohibited him from being present among the group that conversed with the messenger face-to-face, though the King had made it clear that he expected his ward to stand with him, an honor that Leandros was glad to receive. Few knew this about Leandros, but his respect for the King and his Captain exceeded his respect for almost everything else. In conversing with Polynikes – ostensibly the future Captain of the Skiritai – Leandros was respectful, yet friendly. With Dienekes, however, he was nothing but professional, feeling even now, as a member of the King's bodyguard, that he was back on the training fields as a youth, with Dienekes present to instruct and correct his every action. There was no grudge, no forced respect… Leandros knew who they were, what they were capable of, and respected them above all based simply on that.
They emerged from the King's home, and met the Messenger in the promenade lined by the homes of the highest ranked Skiritai. The man stood in the middle of his group, bedecked in ostentatious jewelry that stood in sharp contrast to the darkness of his skin. Bolts of gold and silver not only adorned his neck and ears, but also pierced through his nose, eyebrows and even through the skin on his cheeks. Leandros barely held back his look of disgust, instead schooling his face into an expressionless stare. He assumed he had failed, in some degree, as one of the Persian Messenger's bodyguards glared at him, shifting slightly.
"Welcome, Persian, to Sparta," Leonidas said, standing tall and firm, somehow managing to look downwards upon the taller Persian. The man delivered a half bow, but threw his arms about as he did so, making him look like he was flailing in water. Leandros barely stifled a snort. He stood a step to the right and a step behind the King, with Dienekes standing symmetrically opposite him, behind the Queen. That he had been presented as the symbolic 'right hand man' was both flattering and terrifying for the young warrior, as it suddenly became apparent to him that if someday he was forced to actually assume the role of Regent, situations like these would be common occurrences.
"Leonidas of Sparta, I come bearing a message," the messenger spoke, his voice unnaturally low, "a message of earth and water." It was obvious that Greek was a foreign tongue to the man, for his accent made the simplest of words sound harsh. Staring into the man's depthless eyes, Leandros was surprised to see a spark of recognition as the messenger looked sideways at him.
Leonidas snorted, and Gorgo smiled slightly. Gazing at the messenger, she said "I hardly believe, Persian, that you have traveled this far simply for earth and water. Do not be coy or stupid; Spartans afford neither of those 'virtues'."
The look of immediate rage on the Messenger's face was enough to tell Leandros that the man had little to no experience with Spartan culture, for he would have accepted the Queen's words immediately. Bantering with the King and Queen while using fancy phrases was proving fruitless, for within the next minute, the look of irritation on the Persian's face grew until those standing around him could nearly feel the anger bubbling below the man's placid exterior.
Surprisingly, the man then turned to Leandros, to reason with him. "Leandros, victor at Olympeia, will you reason with your King? His Celestial Majesty Xerxes has no want to harm that which you Spartans hold dear. On the contrary, he wishes for the Spartans to take their rightful place as the leaders of his great armies!"
The man's speech, while probably delivered in a flattering way in other cultures, was hugely offensive to the Spartans. Leandros stared at the man stonily, but kept his silence, as his rank demanded. The messenger seemed perplexed as to why a woman could speak freely, but the bearer of five golden laurels from Olympeia held his tongue so, instead standing straight-backed at attention.
Leonidas glanced amusedly at Leandros, and nodded towards the Persian, saying "You have my permission to speak freely, son." The Persian blinked, the endearment causing him to look between the two in surprise, as if he were looking for evidence to prove that Leandros was not, in fact, related to the Spartan King.
Mentally shrugging his shoulders, Leandros stepped forward into the small group. "Your Master, Persian," he spoke slowly, "must realize a very simple fact before approaching our King thusly: Spartans are the masters of their own lives, and do not tolerate those who seek to make us slaves or subordinates. Our King is no stranger to such demands from Persians; I trust you recall the events that passed at Marathon fourteen years ago when Darius attempted what you now seek to accomplish. If you persist, Persian, Hellas shall rise together once again and you will see history repeated."
Having said his piece, he stepped back again, falling silent and keeping his features placid. The anger in the Persian bubbled over, an apoplectic look of hate entering his eyes.
"You doom yourselves!" he spat at Leonidas, "If you do not submit, your women and children will become slaves! Your men shall be killed! Sparta will be razed to the ground, and blackened in the annals of history!" So vehement were his words that flecks of spittle were spraying from his lips as he spoke.
The show of disrespect was enough to make every member of the Skiritai tense, though each had the presence of mind to keep their bodies steady, and avoid reaching for their weapons.
Leonidas turned away slightly, looking towards the hills around Sparta that led to Mount Taygetus. A pensive look crossed his face, deep and serious. Leandros was sure he was not the only one baffled by the King's apparent consideration for the Persian's words, especially after the insults directed towards Queen Gorgo, and the threats against Sparta. Turning once more, the King locked eyes with his Queen, a silent conversation seeming to transpire between the two in a split second before the King turned back to the Messenger. Leandros felt a slight spike of jealousy within him, aching to some day experience a relationship that deep for himself.
With a blur of motion, Leonidas had unsheathed his Xiphos sword, and had the tip an inch away from the Persian's trembling neck. The victorious, smug smirk had been wiped off the man's face, true fear finally entering the man's black eyes. Nobody moved, the Persians due to their shock, and the Spartans due to their training.
"You'll find plenty of 'earth and water' down there, Persian," Leonidas whispered, the tip of his blade unwaveringly pointing at his foe. The well that stood a mere two paces behind the Persian had dried up years ago, and despite digging deeper, more water could not be found, as the harsh rocks of the Greek lands had withstood the onslaught of shovels and picks. There was merely churned dirt and some water from the previous day's rain.
"You cannot attack me!" he insisted nervously, trembling pathetically, "No one attacks a messenger! This… this is madness!"
The King raised a surprised eyebrow. "Madness?" he asked, lowering the sword, looking almost disbelieving.
Then, he tensed, his rage pouring through as he shouted "This is Sparta!" and kicked out with his foot, striking the Persian in the chest with great force. The man's terrified face was frozen in time for a split second before the force of the kick sent his uplifted body into the cavernous well that stood in the middle of the city-center. There was an almighty scream of terror as the man fell fifty feet to his death, the sound fading away before it was finally interrupted by a sickening crunching sound.
Almost as soon as the King had exploded in righteous fury, the Persian's bodyguards moved to draw their swords. Most were lucky to even get a hand on their sword before one of the Skiritai hacked them down and flung them into the well. Leandros, for his part, grabbed at the man directly in front of him, pulling him close and using his right hand to smack the man's hand away from his sword, pulling it out himself. With his other hand, he grasped the man's throat with the tips of his fingers and squeezed, crushing his throat painfully. Pulling the long, thin sword up, he smoothly inserted the tip into the man's mouth, driving it forward forcefully through the back of his head. The man seized and shook, but was unable to do anything other than gurgle fruitlessly as he stumbled back, accidentally pitching his own spasmodically shaking body into the cavern, the handle of his own sword still emerging from his gaping mouth. Five more bodies fell into the well one after the other, falling into the darkness such that all that was visible was the terror in their white eyes, until that, too, was swallowed by the inky blackness of the well.
A look of fury still on his face, the King turned, the Queen falling into motion with him without batting an eye at the violence that she had just borne witness to.
Speaking to the Captain over his shoulder, Leonidas commandingly said "Assemble the Skiritai. War is upon us."
It was a week later that Leonidas was granted permission to scale Mount Taygetus to meet with the Ephors. He had been unsure in the beginning, as some doubt had entered his mind concerning war with the Persians. It was only after he had thought through his actions properly that he had realized that there was no other alternative but war. Sparta was independent, and would never bow down to an oppressor, regardless of who it was. Every Spartan, man, woman and child, would gladly bear arms to vanquish any enemy who sought to rule over their land. Spartans did not retreat, and Spartans did not give in… it was the law.
He had no desire to come face to face with the Ephors more than was necessary; he would have to encounter them for the celebration of the Carneia soon enough anyway, but this was a matter that was extremely urgent. By now, word would already have gotten back to Xerxes of Persia. He would know that Sparta, at least, refused to bow down before him… and the message would be delivered in the simplest of ways: namely, the notable absence of his messengers. Soon, the Persian army would start mobilizing, and if given too much time, within two months, Hellas would burn to the ground. There was no alternative, the Greek coalition would have to fight the Persians at Thermopylae… only the Hot Gates could stem the Persian attack.
So Leonidas climbed, scaling the harsh rocks of the mountain and ascending to the lower peak on which the abode of the Ephors was located. Of course, there was a footpath that wound up the mountain, and was infinitely easier to tread… but it was a 'sacred' path, one that was forbidden to all but the Ephors. It was simply another intimidation tactic used by them to further aggrandize their own self-importance, and to make the visitor physically exhausted upon their ascension to the top, thus making them appear weaker.
On his back he carried a satchel filled to the brim with pieces of gold – the bribe required these days to garner a moment of the Ephors' time. Having climbed far enough to access the stairway cut into the mountainside, Leonidas was met by an Ephor, who then led him to the dome-covered temple courtyard where the others stood in a semicircle around a fire. Everything reeked of pomp and egotism, from the splendor of the temple to the arbitrary self-aggrandizing ceremony being conducted by the Ephors. For the umpteenth time, Leonidas wished that the Ephors had never been given the final say on war in Spartan law.
When the chanting finally drew to an end – not without three misleading crescendos involved that made Leonidas believe it was ending, only to be disappointed – the King stood. Knowing better than to even begin talking before the Ephors had seen their gold, he flung the satchel to the ground, watching dispassionately as it ruptured, spilling gold pieces across the marble floor. The look of perverse delight in the eyes and gaping grins of the Ephors nearly made him lose his dinner. Bravely, however, he persevered, knowing that the fate of Sparta itself rested on the decision of the 'Holy men'.
"Holy Ephors," the King began, "Sparta approaches a war more important than any other it has ever faced before. The Persians have built an army larger than any ever seen before, and it marches on Hellas to raze it to the ground. I come here seeking your approval to defend Sparta with full force to pres-"
He was cut off roughly by one of the Ephors, who spoke angrily. "Leonidas! Must we repeat again that Sparta does not war during the Carneia? Your incessant claims of this phantom army begin to wear on our patience, Leonidas, and we Ephors will not condone such madness. We do not go to seek war, Leonidas, we merely defend our way of life!"
Leonidas, barely keeping his rage in check, replied "The army I speak of is real, and by now it is assembling its forces to strike at Hellas. Within a month, it will land on Greek shores, and given another month after that, it will be at the gates of Sparta! If we do not intercept them at the Hot Gates and crush them with the full might of the Spartan army, Sparta will be crushed. Fighting them on the plains of Lakedaemon is suicide… their numbers will overwhelm us, and our allies once again prove to be faithless cowards. Our only hope is to meet them at the Hot Gates, where their vast numbers mean nothing. There, Spartan spears and shields can overwhelm and crush the Persians."
The arguing continued, going back and forth for a while. In the end, however, Leonidas returned disappointed. The Ephors would not bend… the Carneia had to be respected, they said. No amount of arguing or even begging would change their minds. There was only one thing left to do now. The King and his Skiritai would travel to the Hot Gates and serve as a cursory delaying tactic. There, they would die, the King's death thus assuring that the Spartan army would mobilize in time to defend Lakedaemon.
The King paused, warily slipping his short knife out of the folds of his cloak, eyes staring into the darkness ahead of him. In sight of the gates of Sparta, he knew there was little danger to be had, but awareness was a virtue. Footsteps were audible, then Leandros emerged from the shadows, wearing a dark cloak. The King sighed, sheathing his blade and embracing his son in all but blood. The lad's stony face betrayed his opinion on what had transpired atop Mt. Taygetus.
"I cannot ask every member of the Skiritai to come with me to defend the Hot Gates," he whispered wearily. "Those without children will be told to stay here, to defend the city and protect the Queen. You will be among them, Leandros, you-"
For the second time that night, the King was interrupted. Leandros shook his head, instantly saying "No." Kneeling, with his head bowed, he continued, "My King… father, I do not know why, but an irrepressible feeling has been striking me, these past days. A sense of regret fills me each time I consider the possibility that I might be excluded from the force that you will lead to fight the Persians. I do not understand why, but I feel as if my destiny lies with you, at the Hot Gates. I… believe that if I accompany you, I will learn whence I came from, father. It is a question I have long sought an answer to." He seemed almost apprehensive in saying the last part.
The King sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. On one hand, his son had been named Regent of Sparta, and was therefore duty bound to stay by the Heir's side and guide him, should anything befall the King – and with death appearing to be a certainty, his role was more important than ever. On the other hand, he could not begrudge his son this curiosity – it was a question that would have eaten at him, too – and his son's skill would certainly be of use in battle. Additionally, Gorgo, his Queen, was extremely intelligent, and more than capable when it came to handling State matters.
Sighing, he pondered the two sides for a moment, then turned to Leandros. "Leandros," he started, then shook his head, pausing. "Very well," he said finally, "it is not my place to stand between you and your true family." He said it with a hint of something in his voice that made Leandros blink.
"Father," he whispered, standing and placing his hand on the King's shoulder, "Sparta will always be my home, and yours shall always be my family. I do not seek my blood parents, I do not even truly care to know why I was abandoned. I still hope to die a beautiful death, bearing the Spartan shield. I simply wish to know who and what I was before Sparta took me in. I am extremely grateful for your leniency with this."
Leonidas smiled slightly, and patted his foster son on the back, inwardly reassured. "You realize," he said, cracking a wry smile, "that if I let you come, I'll have to let that little bugger Astinos come along with us as well?"
Leandros started laughing, and the King smiled, seeing the worry in his son's eyes fade away. "Alright, lad, I shall return to my home now. Take a moment to clear your head, then I suggest you do the same." Receiving Leandros' nod, the King patted his foster son on the back one last time, and walked back into the city, leaving a pensive young man behind him.
Sitting on the ground and drawing his knees close to his body, the Regent of Sparta gazed out across the grassy plain, and over the fields where he had played on as a child, then trained on as he grew older. From his pocket, he withdrew a small object, the firelight from the nearby watch tower glinting off its shiny surface. It was the curious metal item that he had been found with, nearly twenty years ago, returned to his possession once the King had deemed him old enough to treat it with the care that the item deserved.
Leandros pressed something on the circular object, and a lid popped open, revealing a sheet of glass over a circular display of some sort. Two small lines were drawn on the surface under the glass, but one seemed to move from time to time, turning itself around the circular surface. The other, while not visibly in motion, seemed to turn around the surface very slowly, slower than would allow Leandros to actually see it move. Leandros then shifted his attention to the small purplish jewel set in the middle of the contraption, staring at it placidly as it pulsed in an almost violent manner, an odd inner light flaring then dying within the jewel. It had started doing so after the incident with the Persian messenger, leaving him perplexed. He had already gathered that the contraption was some sort of device used to tell time, but whenever he attempted to compare it to a sundial, the time displayed by the object was never correct.
He sighed, and slipped the object back into his pocket. It would not do for his mind to be occupied by the curiosities that the shiny thing offered, not when he was fighting. Standing, he walked back to his home, echoing the thoughts that had been running through his mind at Antirhion.
What would come would come… no man had the power to stand against the will of the Gods.
A/N: Righto, firstly, thanks for sticking with this story. My last semester at college was anything but easy, and it left me with little to no time to write. I've actually been nearly done with this chapter for over two months now, but I just wasn't able to spare the time to get in and fix it up for final posting. Regrettably, I once again won't have much time to write this semester, so I thought I should get this chapter out now, when the work level is at an all-time low. The next few weeks will see things pick up to a pretty blistering pace, and I knew I wouldn't be able to do it then. My deepest apologies: It really is a bad idea for someone to write fanfiction if they don't have regular spaces of free time in which to write, its not fair to the readers. I hope you can take this in stride, and the fact that I will likely update only once every 4 months or so. I will do my damndest, however, to not disappoint with the chapters that I do put up.
I've been shocked, and very pleased, by the response this story has gotten. I know its a crossover with a 'cool' fandom/movie/whatever, but to have a fair number of reviews that compliment my writing rather than praising the movie is extremely pleasing. So, thank you for all the reviews, and I hope you continue to Review with each chapter you read.
I thought I should also address another issue that has come up in reviews, PMs and forum discussions: my other stories. Yes, I am abandoning Fury of the Hellspawn, the reasons for this have been in my profile for quite some time now. I have not abandoned Chimera, but it is on Hiatus - I have neglected to mark it as such in the summary and on my profile, and I will remedy that as soon as this chapter is posted. I am open to having someone else continue both of these fics, as I am unsure whether I can keep up writing both Chimera and Death, In Glory with a schedule as hectic as I have right now. If you are a prospective author and wish to continue either Incubus or Chimera, please get in touch with me over PM through FFNet, and we can work something out. I would like to stress, however, that I would not appreciate someone 'continuing' either of these stories without conferring with me, first - I have no interest in giving guidelines as to how you should write it, that is entirely up to you - as I would like to hand these stories over to authors who have a skill level that is equal to or greater than mine. I would like nothing better than to see someone take my fics and improve upon them drastically, but I want to be able to choose the author that does so, not just throw stories that I worked on for ages and put thousands of words into to the crowd and let just anyone take it up.
The list of people I have to thank for help with this chapter once again grows. Taure and Keiran Halcyon, thanks a ton for your comments and for pointing out the mistakes that you found. Taure, I hope you like what I did with the ending of this chapter - sort of a compromise between the original and your solution for fixing it. Japanese Jew added a few useful critiques as well, so thanks to him. Also, thanks to those who chipped in at ReadCon: ToeBang, HARD WORK, highbrass, Manatheron, and of course, many thanks to Anna/Lady Skittles.