REDOUBT OF GHOSTS
J. E. Bruce
REDOUBT OF GHOSTS
J. E. Bruce
Copyright 2008 by J. E. Bruce, all rights reserved. No portion of this novel
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This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious
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PART ONE: THE HOT GATES
Only the dead have seen the end of the war.
Plato, 427-347 BCE
As a corpse, Jes had a unique perspective on war. It gave him, if not a bird's eye view, then certainly a bug's eye view of events others only read about--if they bothered to read at all.
Witnessing history from the ground up did have its risks, but he'd had plenty of practice playing dead and he was very good at it. The secret lay in a perfect disguise combined with incredible patience.
He came to this particular assignment, like all before it, with ample supplies of both.
The drying gore spilling from his side and gaping mouth was so real that it had attracted its own willing accomplices in the deception: a swarm of flies. And he'd been sprawled in this exact spot, in this exact position since before dawn when he had slipped through the Persian line, past their dozing pickets and into the narrow Pass of Thermopylae itself, and finally over to the boulder that lay close, but not too close, to the strategic hillock. And here he would remain until well after dark, when it would be safe to rise from the dead, use his bio-sniffer to locate the best gene donors, take the precious tissue samples and slip away.
It was a tried and true method, and by being such an intimate eyewitness to the actual battle, he was able to select the most suitable candidates for later harvesting.
From his carefully chosen vantage point, the Pass was a bristling, swaying mass of spears, swords and high-plumed helmets. It was an awesome sight, even for someone like Jes, who'd seen countless battles from the perspective of a dead body.
He'd long ago learned to tune out the deafening sounds of hand-to-hand combat. It was the background noises, the low moans and weak cries for help by those abandoned on the field that wormed their way into his mind, no matter how hard he tried to block them out. Those same background whispers stole into his dreams and haunted him in his waking hours.
As the late afternoon sun beat down on him, he found his attention drawn to a Spartan with a polished bronze helmet topped with a flaming red horsehair crest. Twice before the stocky Hoplite had moved into his field of view, and twice he'd vanished into the choking curtain of dust. Now he had reappeared as he artfully drew an enemy soldier out into the open by feigning exhaustion.
Jes watched with a mixture of appreciation for the Hoplite's skill and pity for his hapless adversary as the Spartan suddenly thrust out, catching the over-confident Persian off guard and driving his sword almost up to its hilt in the man's leather-clad torso. He pulled the weapon free with a hard jerk and the Persian fell to his knees with a muffled grunt. A swift chop to the exposed neck followed and that, as they say, was that.
The Spartan, minus his traditional doru and reduced to using his sword, tightened his grip on the weapon and risked a quick glance over his shoulder, then began his own overdue retreat towards the hillock, towards Jes, each shuffling back-step accompanied by a sweep of his sword.
He was almost within reach of his companions when Jes overheard a warning yell. The Spartan wheeled around and slashed out with his sword, the full weight of his body and armor behind the blow.
The blade, blunted after two days of heavy fighting, shattered the enemy soldier's unprotected skull, but no sooner had the Persian crumpled than two more stepped out of the shimmering air to take his place. Surrender was unthinkable; retreat, even to the temporary safety of the hillock and its handful of defenders, was now impossible.
Jes sized up the Spartan, who was now laboring for breath in earnest, and then his newest opponents, a Mede and a Paphlagonian.
The two Persian conscripts exchanged glances then separated as the Spartan drew his shield close, adjusted his sweaty grip on his sword and waited for their attack.
Jes watched in growing anxiety as the three moved closer and closer. Shoo! He willed the Spartan to move then risked a sidelong glance to an open patch of hardpack. There's more elbow room over there.
The three men, oblivious to his silent entreaties, continued their dangerous dance, the Paphlagonian and Mede probing for weakness with feint and thrust, the Hoplite responding with economical use of shield and sword, each circuit bringing them nearer to Jes.
The Paphlagonian broke first as the oppressive late summer heat and mounting frustration overcame his meager training and his better judgment. With a yell, he hurled his javelin.
The tip struck the Spartan's shield squarely and he staggered back and bumped into the boulder, his right heel inches from Jes's head. Jes, unable to move, unable to even cringe, kept absolutely still while mentally pleading with the Spartan to run for it.
The Paphlagonian followed, his own slashing sword now in his hands as the Mede hung back, watching, waiting, allowing his eager young companion the experience, and the risk, of wearing down their veteran opponent.
To Jes's relief, the Spartan quickly regained his footing and moved away, easily meeting the Paphlagonian's inexpert sword thrust with his heavy shield. The crude blade chattered across the shield's battered surface, splintering the embedded javelin shaft before sliding harmlessly past the Hoplite's greaves-clad left leg and into the ground no more than a hand's width from Jes's nose.
He swallowed, hard.
Thrown off balance, the Paphlagonian stumbled. A well-placed shield blow to the back of the head sent him sprawling across Jes's legs.
With a yell, the Mede rushed forward, spear in hand, but the Spartan, leading with his sword, wheeled around and slashed out. His blade stuck fast between rib and armor.
The Mede looked down at himself in horror as the Spartan struggled to free his weapon from the man's hauberk of overlapping scales.
The stuck sword created the inevitable opening.
Jes felt the Paphlagonian shift against his legs and realized what was about to happen. He used all of his willpower to bite back a warning cry as the Persian conscript lurched to one knee and thrust his sword upwards, into the Hoplite's exposed flank.
The Spartan grunted in surprise, then roared as he wrenched his own sword free of the dying Mede and smashed his shield into the Paphlagonian's up-turned face. He finished the job with his blade, plunging it into the man's chest. Then he yanked it loose, but the effort sent him staggering sideways. He tripped and fell to his knees, then, clutching his side, he slumped back against Jes, wedging Jes firmly against the boulder that had sheltered him.
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