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Bitter Shields [MultiFormat]
eBook by Jack Adler

eBook Category: Historical Fiction/Mainstream
eBook Description: Can a disenchanted Spartan aristocrat and his Jewish wife find freedom from their oppressors in ancient Greece and then in exile in Jerusalem? Can they find solace from their ordeals through their separate religions of worshipping multiple deities and faith in one invisible God? The adventures of this highly unusual couple reveals many of the contradictions, rivalries and mysteries of the ancient world while coming to a dramatic and shattering end.

eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net/ebooksonthe.net, Published: ebook, 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2009

Chapter 1

Sharp iron-tipped spears sped at him like thunderbolts from angry gods! His body was bare, unprotected by armor. Where was his guard? No hoplites rushed to his aid. Raising his shield to ward off the hurtling lances, Agis crumbled to the earth as helmeted, dark-faced soldiers rushed toward him with their short swords ready to slash his limbs into bloody parts. Why was a king of Sparta left so defenseless? What conspiracy was this? Had word of his plans to restore the heart and glory of his beloved city spread and brought about this savage assault? Was he to be struck down even before he had the opportunity to implement his reforms? Had the gods decided he was too vain and proud as a mortal?

But now there was no time to discover who sent these attackers. Cruel eyes set behind metal slits showed no mercy. As their swords were about to pierce his body, certain that death was imminent and furious at his fate, Agis awoke with a violent start, a silent scream poised on his lips. Sweat streamed down his face, and his back was drenched. But Agiatis, his bride, still slept peacefully at his side, her long dark hair falling over her soft and untroubled face.

Unable to fall sleep again as the vision of this strange attack remained vivid, Agis decided at last that he must hasten to find out the meaning of this horrible dream. What fate for him and his reforms did this attack augur? Would his kingship be a successful reign? Were the gods, as well as man, opposed to his plans? Would he be able to save Sparta from its decline and restore the city to its former glory?

A slew of possible meanings tugged at his mind as he slid out of bed, careful not to disturb Agiatis. With her soft voice, and calm manner, she would try to allay his fears. But he had to get an interpretation. Making as little noise as possible he slipped out of their one-story stone house, and made his solitary way to consult the priestess at the nearby Temple of Athena of the Brazen House.

"King you may be, but it is the gods that rule our destinies."

"Yes, I know," Agis said, as the venerable, black-robed priestess stared at him with burning eyes that drove through his body like spears of fire. Her thin white hair ran down her scalp like strands of tiny snakes. Blotchy red gum and teeth as yellow as gold showed when her mouth opened. "But what do your divinations say of my future?"

"There is light, much presence of light, and then a darkness. A long darkness."

"What creates this darkness?"

"That I do not know," the priestess said. "But it is there nonetheless. Be so advised."

The omens at the temple were not auspicious, Agis thought, though what portent was signified by the entrails of the sacrificed goat, and the flight of the sacred doves, were a mystery to him. Nonetheless, the cold-eyed priestess, hag of an oracle, looked with chilling severity at his eyes as if another meaning could be discerned there, a truer and darker message. But all she would say was that his mission would be a perilous one.

Ha! This he knew already! Past oracles had predicted what had already taken place, that all this new-found love of gold and silver, of luxury and comforts, would weaken the Spartan character and bring on the city's downfall. Yet other predictions still said all was well and Sparta would prosper even when her military might was spent. When oracles conflict, who should one listen to? Whom do the gods favor? Was one's destiny already ordained, or was it better to risk the god's wrath by listening to the dictates of one's own mind?

"Kings are but men, and the gods will punish those who exalt themselves beyond their station," the priestess hissed as if she could let fly her own thunderbolt.

Deeply troubled by the seer's warnings, Agis strode through the dark corridor past fluted columns rising from the cold black and blue tile floor. Small bronze busts of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt and Poseidon instructing a dolphin stood on polished lintels. Plates of fruits, cereals and cakes were placed at the altars of the gods with the sweet odor of fresh honey, spread over the offerings, wafting through the gloomy passageway. White boars' teeth, set in rows, were painted at the edge of the stone walls.

Stopping at the entrance Agis bowed his head in deference before a large bronze sculpture of spear-holding Athena, her stone eyes still reflecting her serene wisdom. He hoped the goddess would impart some of her knowledge and understanding to him as he fought his feeling of dread...

Caught in uncertainty Agis stood outside the heavy-gabled temple as if thrust into a well with no visible way to climb to safety. Light now broke through the darkness. A rosy tier stretched like an advancing sea against the gray sky, and birds chirped as if announcing their own signals for a new day. He was far from a fool despite his youth, Agis thought, as he stood for a moment listening to the whispering of the wind through the fluttering leaves of the eucalyptus trees lining the banks of the softly flowing Eurotas River. He knew quite well there would be resistance to his plans, but Sparta must be restored to her former glory. Now that he, Agis, son of Eudamidas and a rightful descendent from the royal family of Eurypon, had become one of Sparta's two kings, he would strive with all his might to make his city the strongest power in Greece. So he had already vowed, a sacred oath taken at the temple. But he also recognized the need for caution. The true meaning of the darkness the priestess warned about was unclear. Did this bleakness spring from the soft ways of his countrymen now and the resistance his proposed reforms would initially bring about? Or did it mean the blackness would suffocate his reforms? But the priestess said the darkness will come after the light. What did such a change in what could be seen and not be shrouded in night portend? Or did the fearful hag simply invent this mysterious prediction to justify her role?

Regardless, it was now in the year of 244, well over 100 years since Sparta defeated the Athenians in the Great War; and yet the city's situation had worsened every year. The greatest disaster, Agis realized, was the brutal defeat at Leuctra in 371 only fifteen years after defeating the Athens when Epinamondas and his Thebans broke through the Spartan ranks, and the flower of Spartan manhood was slain. As surely as night follows day, Sparta's spirit was destroyed as the reputation of its military prowess sank throughout Greece. Still, there were ways to repair Sparta's battle tactics and defeat the Theban phalanx.

As he strolled along the banks of the river, Agis felt a deepening surge of pride in his reforms that would save Sparta from itself. Yet he must beware of excessive vainness or the gods would surely strike him down. Perhaps, he stopped as if struck by a sudden revelation, this was the priestess' sole but unstated meaning?

Still, his plans--untold to any but Agiatis, his fair wife, and Amphares, his most loyal and cherished confidant--were against many of the harsh practices of the past, such as forcing all boys at the age of seven to leave home and live in communal barracks. Revealing his desire to expand Sparta's citizenship would cause an uproar. The old guard would charge he was a would-be tyrant trying to curry favor with the masses.

Many difficult changes had to be enacted, and much opposition had to be overcome. Now his course was clear. He must go to court and present himself to the ephors, pretending to be only a warrior king. Since he was barely nineteen, his youth and inexperience would be held against him.

Infused with the grandeur and worth of his plans, Agis felt a rush of purpose as he strode away from the temple. His mission was set, whatever the priestess' interpretation of his dream meant. He would persevere. Sparta was mighty once; so, now he vowed with another burst of fervor, his city would be again.

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