The first chapter to Shield of Fire.
PART 1: THE IONIAN REVOLT
Aristagoras walked around impatiently for the Messenian slave to lead him to his master. There were these slaves, these helots all around, he noticed. He snorted in distaste. Sparta had conquered these ignorant slaves from Messenia since centuries before. They had been kept in a condition hardly humane ever since. But to be kept waiting on and on by a Messenian slave of a king; Aristagoras was not used to this. He regarded himself as an equal of the Spartan king, but yet he would be kept waiting here forever? “When can I be allowed in?” Aristagoras asked.
“For a while longer.” came the reply. “My lord Cleomenes is still not yet ready.”
Aristagoras felt like exploding. When will the damned Spartan king be ready? He remembered quickly that he was here to plead for help. He also remembered that Sparta was home to the greatest fighters of the world and the Spartan king had a hundred bodyguard ready to come to his aid. He could not afford to displease the king of q a city. Sparta, Sparta; if not for the reputation of its warriors, he would not have wasted his time with such an impoverished, small city as this.
“I will wait.” replied Aristagoras. Inside, however, he was bubbling with fury. He had met with the Great King of Persia before. Darius, the King of Kings! That emperor ruled a kingdom that stretched from the Ionian cities to the fabled princedoms of India. Yet he did not keep his guests waiting as long as this. Aristagoras yawned. No, he must continue to play the good guest. Despite the fact that he had waited on the King of Kings, despite the fact that the sun was burning hot, despite the fact that he was in fact a guest.
A slave appeared at the doorway. “You may now enter.” Finally. Aristagoras took one last look at the exterior of the small building.
The building was plain and small; not fit for an aristocrat, even less for a king. Sparta was a mass of contradictions; he had noticed that, at least. The men trained all the time even when there was no war, the kings of what could arguably be the greatest city in Greece lived in shabby buildings. There was no end to it.
Cleomenes sat on a predictably small table. On it was a bowl of black broth. Aristagoras eyed it with distaste before sitting opposite to the king. The king of Sparta ate the black broth with indifference. It was the famed Spartan broth, Aristagoras remembered. Sparta’s best dish, with a reputation for tasting horrible.
“My lord Cleomenes.” Aristagoras nodded to the king.
“I assume you are Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus.” Cleomenes said in a cold tone of voice.
“I have abdicated my position in favor of democracy.” replied Aristagoras in the same tone. “I am tyrant no longer.”
Cleomenes nodded. “I’d like to hear the story of why you’re here again. I haven’t been catching up on news across the Aegean; the Athenians have been keeping me busy.” Aristagoras rolled his eyes. There was no way Cleomenes would not know about the Ionian revolt. He felt like he was being toyed with and he had no choice but to follow the bait around.
“The Ionian Greek cities of Asia has risen in revolt against the Persian Great King.” Aristagoras explained in the most patient tone he could fine. “Long we have been oppressed by the Persian Empire. That the sons of Ionia are slaves are a grief and we will not bear it any longer. Ionia wishes to be as free as our cousins in the motherland of Greece.”
“And for this you have come to request for support?” asked Cleomenes.
“Yes, yes.” Aristagoras said quickly. “Sparta is home to the greatest warriors in all of Greece. I would be honored to have even a small contingent of Spartans fighting shoulder to shoulder with us Ionians.”
“Has any other city promised you support?” Cleomenes asked. He already knew the whole story about the Ionian revolt, and he had not the slightest intention of sending a single soldier. Argos, a city to the north, was preparing to make war on Sparta, so he needed all his men with him. He simply wanted to more information on the situation from this ex-tyrant. Cleomenes did not know how much he could believe from this man, Aristagoras, however. He could sense that this was a person full of twists and turns, with nothing more in his heart than his own personal, dark goals. The king chuckled at himself silently in his own description of Aristagoras. He knew that he himself was not too dissimilar a man from Aristagoras, only stronger, more resourceful.
“Sparta has been my first stop.” said Aristagoras. “I haven’t yet had any time to visit the other cities.”
“How large a force can the Persian barbarians field?” inquired Cleomenes. Aristagoras chuckled silently at the word ‘barbarian’. It was a good word, fit to describe a Persian, for their language was less a repetition of the word ‘barbar’ than a real tongue. He gave himself a bit of time to estimate Persia’s army.
“They can send large armies into a field at one time, but remember that Persians are orientals. They fight like women. Hell, they’d even fight with trousers on. There’s nothing to be scared from that!”
Cleomenes smiled. “Nothing compared to the Spartans?” Perhaps sending a small contingent of Spartans for the glory of the city would be a good idea after all. He then turned to his slave and ordered food brought in for Aristagoras, which pleased him because he was immensely hungry from waiting for so long. “Nothing compared to the Spartans.” said Aristagoras. In truth he knew next to nothing about the Spartan military; he’d never actually seen it in action except for while watching them training for a brief period that day. He simply needed the fearsome warriors on his side when he joined battle with the Persians. It was a lie that there was nothing to be scared about the Persians. They were the world’s superpower, after all; immeasurable armies with fanatically loyal soldiers were what the Greeks were up against. Still, Aristagoras was desperate. He was a Greek tyrant, after all, quite adept at back-stabbing and promises made out of air; a lie wouldn’t hurt. Anything for the Spartans to come. Anything. Absolutely anything.
“Persia is a great empire, is it not?” said Cleomenes. “Tell me more about it. There can be no way you can end a threat without striking at its heart. How far away is the Persian capital?”
Aristagoras considered for a moment. The Persian Empire had many great cities such as the fantastic Babylon, Persepolis and Susa. He decided to make a rough estimate to Persepolis. “Three months’ march would be a good estimation.” he replied. Cleomenes, who had been staring at Aristagoras, blinked repeatedly.
“Three months?” he asked quietly.
“Yes, and from there three months until you reach the eastern border of the Persians. Do not be afraid by how large a land they rule, though. These Persians; they are not valiant in fight. Easily beatable, easily conquerable.”
Cleomenes was still stunned by the numbers Aristagoras had just given him. Three months‘ march was a horrendously long time. He was king of Sparta and even with just the territory of Lacedaemon he could raise reasonably-sized armies; what would the sizes of an army raised by the despot of such an empire as the Persians be like? It was beyond his comprehension. He firmly made up his mind. Sparta would not have anything to do with the Ionian revolt. The food arrived and it was Spartan black broth.
“For you.” Cleomenes pushed the bowl to the Ionian. Aristagoras eyed the black soup with horror, but he could not afford to give insult by refusing to eat. He slowly tried to eat it, but it tasted disgusting. He looked up at Cleomenes; he saw a look of unease there.
Aristagoras wondered what the king was thinking. Had he made a mistake by telling him how far it was to Persepolis?
“Cleomenes, listen: the Persians are really not the foe you think they are. And imagine the rewards you would reap if the Spartans went into Asia. The Persians are rich beyond compare, their lands fertile; Ionia itself will load its treasure for you in return for your help.”
“No.” Cleomenes said finally, after a long silence. “I will not assist you in this. I am sorry, but Argos is currently a threat to my northern border. I wish you good luck in this; it’s the least I can do.” Cleomenes‘ daughter entered the room and her father affectionately hugged her.
Aristagoras’ mouth opened up but no word came out. What could he do? He desperately needed Sparta.
“Ionia pleads for your help. This is to end our slavery. Please help in our quest for freedom!”
Cleomenes laughed hollowly. “For your freedom! Are you sure that is the reason you started the whole revolt? No, Aristagoras. I know more about the revolt than you think I do. You started the revolt because you were finished. The Persians were going to displace you with another tyrant. And so you started this just to save your own skin.” Aristagoras gulped. He wonder if Cleomenes had intentionally emphasized the word ‘you‘ each time.
“Whatever the cause, it is true that Ionia’s future lies in this.” Perhaps the king wanted a bribe? “Ten talents, in return for your help. Ten talents, Cleomenes.” Cleomenes shook his head.
“Twenty?” Cleomenes still refused.
“Thirty. That’s a lot of gold.” Aristagoras looked at Cleomenes helplessly. “Forty. Forty talents, my lord.” Aristagoras disdained acknowledging the Spartan king as his superior but he was willing to do anything, to go any lengths.
“I am not wanting a bribe, Aristagoras. I will not grant Ionia any Spartan troops. I have said it and I will not take my word back.”
“Fifty?” Aristagoras tried desperately. Anger swelled Cleomenes’ face as his hand dropped to the sword in his hilt, but suddenly, his daughter cried out.
“Stay well away from this stranger, father. He is out to corrupt you. He is out to corrupt Sparta!” Cleomenes nodded in appreciation of her daughter.
“You have a very good sense, don’t you?” he said warmly. “I bid you farewell, Aristagoras. Please leave me now.” Aristagoras knew then that it was over. Ionia would not be given any Spartan troops. He thought of Demaratus, the other king of Sparta. Perhaps he could plead the man for help? No, the rumors were that Demaratus was powerless. Cleomenes was the strongman.
The Spartan king eyed Aristagoras sourly, irritated that he would not leave. He considered calling in his bodyguard to haul away the man. “Please leave us.” Cleomenes said sternly. “Make sure that I do not find you still in this city after sunset.” Without a word more, Aristagoras got up from his seat and left. He told himself quietly not to give up. To the north there were cities more prosperous than Sparta. They would give him his support. They would.
If only he could be sure.