The Craven, by Edward Knight

SFReader 2005 Story Contest
Second Place Winner

“Coward!”

Aristodemus ignored the taunt. The accusing citizen spat on his feet as he passed; the bronze sword at his side was no deterrent. Others glared at him as he worked his way out of Lacedaemon. At the city gates, a Spartan hoplite used his spear to block the way.

“Running away again?” the guard said. “I see you still have the device of a Citizen Soldier on your shield, the device of an officer at that. Give it to me.”

“What?”

“Give me your shield. No coward can carry a Spartan shield.” The hoplite turned the spear, its point inches from Aristodemus’ breastplate.

With a motion as smooth and swift as running water, Aristodemus drew his sword and clipped the head from the hoplite’s spear. The hoplite started to draw his short sword, but thinking better of it he shoved it back into the sheath.

“I won’t do honor to a craven by crossing swords with him. Leave. You might carry the shield of Sparta, but you aren’t a soldier of the state.”

The sun was just rising as Aristodemus stepped through the East Gate. His eyes still burned, his vision blurred by the disease that brought him to this disgrace. Once outside the city, he turned the shield on his back to the south and walked north. Aristodemus didn’t know what to do, but he knew who did. He had to ask the Oracle. He had to go to Delphi.

***

It took many days for Aristodemus to get to Delphi. The trek had been long and dry, and he spent the little silver he had for food at the few villages along the way. A heavy mist lay about the mountain as Aristodemus made his way to the top. The path to the Oracle was steep and rocky. At the apex, he came to a pair of stone pillars, an entrance to a stone courtyard. In the center was a dais with a stone seat at the top. Upon the seat sat the Oracle, hooded in dark robes.

“Why have you come?” she said in a caressing, promising voice. “Is it truth or wisdom you seek?”

Aristodemus had to think for a moment. “I seek truthful wisdom.”

The oracle stirred. “A good answer–wisdom can’t be false, and truth leads to wisdom. One can’t exist without the other. Who are you?”

“Aristodemus, a Spartan.”

“Ah, Aristodemus, the craven.”

He lowered his eyes.

“You were at Thermopylae weren’t you, with Leonidas?”

He nodded.

“Three hundred Spartans were with Leonidas,” she said. “They held the pass for many days against an army of two hundred thousand Persians. In the end, Leonidas and all that were with him fell beneath the power of the Persian sword. Did you know Leonidas came to me before the battle?”

Aristodemus looked up, surprise lingering in his swollen eyes.

“Leonidas asked me what must be done to save Greece from the Persians. I told him that a Spartan king must die if Greece is to have a chance to survive.”

Understanding came to Aristodemus. There would have been no shame for Leonidas had he retreated from Thermopylae, but Leonidas was a king. Leonidas sacrificed himself and the men fighting with him to save Greece.

“You survived,” the Oracle said. “How is that? It’s said that a Spartan will return from battle either carrying his shield victoriously or borne upon it as a corpse. You are neither victorious nor dead.”

“The eve before the battle, a disease took my sight,” Aristodemus said. “That night Leonidas ordered me to retreat to a small hut a good distance away from the pass. He said I could return when the fever broke and my eyes cleared. The next morning I heard the sound of sword on shield. The Persians had found a path through the mountains. They circled to the rear, trapping Leonidas in the pass. I called to my Helot for my sword and armor. My hair was braided for battle, and I was ready to die; but by the time my blind eyes found the pass, the fight was over. When I returned to Lacedaemon, I was labeled a coward.”

“What do you wish from me?” the Oracle said.

“What am I to do?” he asked. “I can’t live this way.”

“You have a choice,” the Oracle said. “It is always good to have a choice.”

Even though Aristodemus could not see them, he could feel the Oracle’s eyes bearing down. The weight was enormous, the stress intense. He had heard tales about the Oracle’s pronouncements. She often spoke in riddles. Every word might have hidden meaning.

“Yes,” the Oracle said, “a choice is a good thing to have. Sometimes the choosing is difficult.” She stood, and the unseen glare from the shadowed hood intensified. “You may take the easy way. There is a tree just outside Lacedaemon. In the tree is tied a rope. There, you can end your suffering; you can die the craven.”

Aristodemus felt a flush of anger rise in his face.

“Easy… it’s the coward’s way out. Even in the grave I will forever be called a coward.”

“The second choice leads down a road that may bring greater dishonor.”

“There is no greater dishonor for a Spartan than to die a coward.”

“So be it, then. Here’s what you must do. Seek out the soothsayer with three eyes. He will lead you to your doom or your redemption. You will find him on the road back to Lacedaemon. Beware the false consul.” The Oracle raised her robed arms and with a flash of smoke disappeared, leaving the dais and the stone seat empty.

Aristodemus rubbed his sore eyes, believing them false.

***

Aristodemus got an early start in the morning. Some hours from Delphi, he saw a rider coming toward him on the road. Whoever it was came slowly, apparently in no hurry to get where he was going. As the rider drew near, he could see the mount wasn’t a horse. It was a very old mule.  

“Good day to you,” the rider said. “He threw a hand up to shield the sun. “Sol is in a joyous mood. It’s especially hard on a man with only three eyes.”

Aristodemus froze at the statement. Beneath the shadow of the man’s hand he could see a patch covering one of the man’s eyes.

“Seems you are in need of education,” Aristodemus said. “I see one eye in your head.”

“Ah, but I have two more leading me everywhere I go.” He patted the mule. “Helen, here, sees all and tells no one.”

“Three eyes!”

“That’s the way I see it.” The man laughed at his own joke. “Three eyes are better than two, I say.”

“You are a soothsayer,” Aristodemus said.

The man’s expression turned pale. “Who told you that?”

“The Oracle said I would meet a three-eyed soothsayer on the road today. You are a soothsayer?”

“Some say that I am. Some say I’m a cracked vessel. Others say I’m a fraud.” He climbed off the mule’s back and stretched. “And what did the Oracle say I am to do with you?”

“She said you would be either my doom or my redemption.”

“I’m not generally known for my redeeming qualities. Hmm, don’t I know you? Seems I’ve seen you somewhere?” He studied Aristodemus. “You’re the one they call a coward, the one who ran from where Leonidas fell.”

“My name is Aristodemus,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Oh, none of that matters to me. I thought Leonidas a fool. It was like trying to stop a bull with a feather. He never had a chance”

“Leonidas did what he had to do.”

“And, so did you. A smart man.”

Aristodemus could not respond.

“So, I’m to be your doom. You look like you might be able to use that sword—if you can manage the courage to draw it.”

Aristodemus had the sword drawn before the rider finished the taunt. With the other hand, he dragged the man off the mule and shoved him into the ground. He held the blade to his throat.

“You’ll lead me to my redemption,” Aristodemus said.

“Now hold on, lad.” He tried to push Aristodemus’ sword away, but the rock hard arm didn’t budge. “What do you want from me?”

“The Oracle said you would lead me to redemption. That’s what I want. I want the people to know that I’m not a coward.”

“If the Oracle said I would lead you, then who am I to argue. Let me up.”

Aristodemus roughly yanked the seer to his feet. The man dusted his tunic and took hold of the mule’s reins.

“What’s your name?” Aristodemus asked.

“Demaratus.”

“Not the exiled prince?”

“I see bad news travels like dust in the wind. Yes, I was exiled, but I’ve returned. It seems my reputation needs a little redemption too.”

“Rumor has it you’re in Sepias.”

“Rumor is wrong.”

“I didn’t know you were a soothsayer, a seer.”

“It’s little known, but that’s why Leonidas kept me so close, up until a few years ago. My… abilities… made me an excellent consul until they failed me. One time, only once, I read my visions incorrectly. The result was the death of one of Leonidas’ brothers. That’s why I was exiled. It’s a hard king that exiles a man for one little mistake.”

“Leonidas wasn’t known for softness,” Aristodemus said. “But, I loved the man. I should have died with him. But, the Fates didn’t allow that.”

“I’ve heard your story during my travels. They say you ran from battle.”

“I’ve never run from anything, no man or no army. I was stricken with disease the eve before the battle. It took my sight. I couldn’t see to fight. I tried. I tried to get to Leonidas, but I was too late.”

“Hmm, it couldn’t be that you lingered a bit on your way to the battle. Maybe you hung about the hut too long—maybe just long enough.” Demaratus’ features carried an oily grin as he made his accusation.

“I got there as quickly as I could,” Aristodemus said with a sneer.

“I’m sure you did,” Demaratus said doubtfully.

“Which way are you going?” Aristodemus asked.

“Why?”

“You’re supposed to lead me. I just want to know which direction you intend to take me.”

“I need to consult the inner eye. Give me a moment.” Demaratus drew a small crystal from inside his tunic. It was hanging about his neck by a leather cord. He gazed into the crystal with his single eye for several minutes as the sun bore down on the two men and the mule. Finally, the seer came out of his trance. “We will go west, to Plataea.”

“Why Plataea?”

“Because the crystal says so.” That was all the answer Demaratus gave. He mounted the mule and turned south with Aristodemus following.

***

It was several days before they reached Plataea. When they got there they were surprised to find the city under siege by a massive Persian army.  

“What are we to do now? Aristodemus said.

“We must enter the city,” said Demaratus.

“How? The city is surrounded.”

“The crystal has shown me the way.” Demaratus took the tack off Helen and slapped her on the rump.

“What about your other two eyes?” Aristodemus said.

“They know where to find me when I need them.”

They circled the city at a safe distance and came upon a road that approached from the north. They hid in a ditch at the roadside and watched. Several times, they caught glimpses of Persian infantry. The army was massive, over one hundred thousand men. But they were still far outside the siege lines. Demaratus smiled when he saw a cart pulled by two donkeys coming down the road. He dropped deeper into the ditch and Aristodemus mimicked his actions. When the cart eased by Demaratus scrambled out of the ditch, drawing a long knife from his belt as he did so. Aristodemus drew his sword. Demaratus jumped up on the side of the cart and slashed the driver’s throat. He grabbed the reins and brought the cart to a stop. Looking in the cart behind the driver’s seat, he saw that the cart was loaded with smoked mutton shanks, supplies for the Persians. Demaratus took the driver’s tunic. Putting it on, he threw the driver out into the road.

“Kick his body into the ditch and hide beneath the meat.”

Aristodemus did as he was told and the cart began to slowly make its way toward the Persians. Before long he heard Demaratus shouting, but he was shouting in Persian—something about supplies to go to the front. The cart kept moving, and as it did so night came. Finally the cart came to a stop.

“Get out,” Demaratus whispered.

Aristodemus carefully pushed the mutton aside and climbed out of the cart, withdrawing his shield from the pile as well.

“We’re right at the Persian front,” Demaratus said. “We should be able to slip right up to the city’s wall.”

“But how will we get in?”

“I know of a secret gate. Follow me.”

Demaratus took the inner eye from inside his tunic. He held it up and blew on the crystal three times. Each time the crystal glowed bright blue in the darkness. A torch atop the city wall waved three times in answer and Demaratus led them to a small gate that was well concealed behind a stunted fig tree. He knocked—a short staccato series of hard taps.

“Who is it?” a voiced called through the door.

“Spartans in need of a bed and a fire,” Demaratus answered.

The man on the other side of the door cracked open a small flap cut into the door to peek at the two men.

“I know you, Demaratus, but what about this other fellow?”

“Would anybody other than a Spartan carry a shield like this?”

Aristodemus held up his bronze plated shield for inspection, its device glowing in the light seeping through the rough cut peephole. A few moments later the door swung open.

“Thank the gods,” the guard said. “You’re an officer.” He was an elderly man, but still strong. He had a battle hardened look that Aristodemus recognized right away. “We have men here, almost two thousand. Nearly eight hundred are Spartan hoplite, but we have no officers. The last one died this morning while turning back a Persian raid. The men need a leader.”

“I’ve never led an army,” Aristodemus said.

“Don’t tell the men that,” the old guard warned. “Look, times are desperate. These men need a leader, a man that inspires courage. I’ve been a soldier for a long time—too long. I know what is happening here. Fear is taking hold. Without an officer to bring this lot together we won’t last past the next raid. You have commanded men in the past?”

“Yes, smaller groups, but never an army.”

“You are the highest ranking officer here. Duty and Spartan law demands that you take charge.”

Aristodemus thought for a moment and then nodded solemnly. He had seen the Persian army outside, knew that they greatly outnumbered the army inside Plataea. As he followed the old warrior through the city streets he tried to remember all that Leonidas had taught him.

“I will need a veteran captain, someone who knows the situation and the men. You can be a lot of help to me,” Aristodemus said. “What’s your name?”

“Europias,” the old man said.

“That would be Captain Europias,” Aristodemus said.

The man grinned in appreciation and rapped his breastplate with a closed fist in salute.

“What’s the situation here?” Demaratus asked.

“The Persians came three days ago,” Europias said. “Our scouts saw their movements from the hills and came to warn the Citizens. Everyone came inside the city walls. There was little time to prepare. The Persians stopped all supplies from coming in. In another three days, we’ll be out of food. We must break the siege or surrender. We have a few refugees here from Lacedaemon—”

“Lacedaemon?” Aristodemus said.

“According to the refugees, Xerxes’ army went there first. He used the same siege tactics he’s trying here. He sent in a consul under a banner of truce into the city. Xerxes offered quarter to the Citizens if they agreed to be branded with his mark, making all the people his servants. They refused and Xerxes sacked the city three times. Not many survived.

“The most experienced soldiers are meeting now in the war-room, but they lack tactical knowledge. Besides the eight hundred Spartans, the rest of the men are made up of Thebans and Athenians.”

“It’s funny that a common enemy can force a brood like that to come together. A few years ago they would have plotted to kill each other,” Demaratus said.

“They aren’t exactly friendly with each other now,” the old guard said.

“What makes you think that they will follow my orders?” Aristodemus asked.

“About two months ago, the Hellenic Council sent word that they were sending a great general, a stratego to take command of the force here at Plataea. They never named the man, but when the others see you, they will gladly assume you’re him. I don’t see any reason to let them think differently.”

“There might be someone there who could recognize you,” Demaratus said, giving Aristodemus a knowing look. “Somebody will certainly know your name if it is given.”

“Oh, are you well known?” Europias said.

“Possibly, but not as a great general.”

“Just announce him as Hawk,” Demaratus suggested. “There are many Spartan captains who use pseudonyms in battle. It helps to protect their families from persecution should they fail. Now, what can we do to disguise his appearance?”

“Let’s stop by the armory on our way to the war-room,” the old guard said.

***

“What is it?” a soldier yelled over the din in the war-room. 

The door opened, and Europias entered.

“I brought the general you’ve been waiting for.”

A man stepped through the door. He was a large Spartan in full battle armor, a panoply of silver etched greaves and a breastplate to match. His ornate helm had plates that almost completely concealed his face.

“I am Hawk,” the man said.

None of the men questioned Aristodemus’ authority. They seemed relieved that the burden of command now belonged to someone else. The hoplites were especially glad to see the Hellenic Council had sent a Spartan to lead them.

“Here’s what we are going to do,” Aristodemus said.

Some hours later, Hawk stood before his army as they crammed into the city courtyard.

“Tomorrow, we will meet the enemy, the same enemy that struck down Leonidas at Thermopylae—Leonidas, the man who gave all so that Greece might live a few more days. With three hundred men, Leonidas cut the Persians to half their numbers. With two thousand, we will send them running.”

Cheers erupted from the men.

“Tomorrow we fight to honor Leonidas,” Hawk yelled. “Tomorrow we fight to free all Hellenic States from the grip of Persian conquest.”

That night, Aristodemus didn’t sleep. Thoughts of the upcoming battle wouldn’t allow it. There was also another concern. Demaratus was missing. The soothsayer was nowhere in the city.

***

The next morning the city gates opened and the army inside came out to meet the Persians. The enemy broke camp hurriedly, surprised to see the Hellenic force going on the offensive. The Persians quickly formed ranks and began a slow march toward the smaller Hellenic force. They seemed almost lackadaisical in their approach, seeming confident in their superior numbers.  

Quickly, the Theban and Athenian soldiers rushed the Persian lines. The attack was such a surprise that the Persian advance came to a halt for a short time. But, the attack fell back almost as quickly as it started. The Thebans and Athenians were in a running retreat, and the Persians broke ranks and charged in a frenzied attempt to run them down. As the Persians closed, the Thebans broke left and the Athenians broke right. The Persians ran head long into the Spartan phalanx.

Row upon row of overlapping Spartan shields made an impenetrable mass with nothing exposed but the tips of hoplite spears. On Aristodemus’ command, the hoplites advanced methodically, pressing the phalanx into the oncoming Persians.

Aristodemus positioned himself on the front right corner of the formation, the most vulnerable spot. There, he fought like a madman, a man determined to display his courage.

The battle lasted hours. Once joined by the Thebans and Athenians, the Spartan phalanx was unstoppable. Persian upon Persian died upon Hellenic spear and sword. The front lines of the formation were a gory mass, and the men in the rear pressed forward with their shields in the backs of the men ahead of them. If a Spartan fell, the man behind him stepped up to take his place. Finally, the Persians broke and ran. Aristodemus reined in his men as they gave chase. The battle was over.

Xerxes’ tent stood on a hill just to the north of the battlefield, a white banner of surrender flying from a standard just outside. Aristodemus chose Europias and a small contingent to attend him. They stepped into the tent with spears leveled. Xerxes sat in a chair behind a small portable desk. Only one attendant in a dark hooded robe stayed to attend him. All the rest had fled before the Hellenic forces. Xerxes didn’t stand when the men entered, but he leaned back in the chair and studied the man in ornate armor.

“I suppose you wish to discuss terms,” Xerxes said.

“Terms?” Aristodemus said.

Xerxes laughed. “I was told you were a coward, a craven.”

Europias leveled his spear at Xerxes’ chest. “Hawk is no coward.”

“Hawk is it?” Xerxes laughed again. “He has been known to fly. Isn’t that right, Aristodemus?”

Aristodemus removed his helm as the men around him whispered words like coward, craven, and Thermopylae.

“I’m no coward,” Aristodemus said. “Blindness kept me from the battle at Theropylae, but I was not blind today. Many Persian soldiers will never see home again because of my spear and sword.”

“You are a wonder,” Xerxes said. “How many men did you command?”

“Two thousand,” Aristodemus said.

“Well,” Xerxes turned to the robed figure at his side, “at least you got that right.”

“I warned you before, Xerxes, that sometimes the inner eye can mislead.” The man pulled back his hood to reveal a face with a single eye.

“Demaratus!” Aristodemus stepped back in shock.

“You’ve made a liar out of me, Aristodemus.” Demaratus moved to stand beside Xerxes. “I told Xerxes that there was no way he could lose to such a small force, especially being commanded by a craven.”

“Traitor! You’ve been consulting against your own people.”

“His consultation has been flawless, until today,” Xerxes said. “He was especially useful when we came through the pass at Thermopylae. The inner eye was working fine when it suggested that hidden mountain trail, allowing us to trap Leonidas.”

“You helped him against Leonidas?”

“Yes, I helped him,” Demaratus sneered. “Leonidas exiled me. For one missed sighting, one small mistake.”

“It seems that Leonidas and I have something in common,” Xerxes said. “He lost a brother because of your mistake, and I lost a war. I think you’ll find that Leonidas was much more forgiving than I am.”

Xerxes pulled a dagger from beneath his tunic and thrust it into Demaratus abdomen. With a practiced twist and upward shove he finished the killing stroke. Demaratus’ eyes glazed and he collapsed to the dirt floor.

“You wanted to discuss terms,” Xerxes said without the least bit of remorse for the deed.

“No,” Aristodemus said, “there will be no discussion. My terms are unconditional.”

***

Aristodemus returned to Plataea at the front of the columns of men he commanded. He returned carrying his shield victoriously. 

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