The long, winding, dusty roads twisted and turned around their meek city. The boy on this path kicked at a stray rock on the ground, and watched it roll on its side until it fell over the edge of the hill, and out of sight. He continued walking, the sandy particles of the road sticking to his wet skin, sweaty hair matted to his forehead. He was not particularly well built — he had a long, gangly body with little muscle, and had barely blossomed at all, much less into the large, sinewy strength everyone aspired for him to gain. His bare feet dragged across the ground like his legs were of no use; without muscle, they weren’t. He didn’t even have the broad shoulders of most boys his age. He hung his head thinking of these things, taking a long, deep sigh.
This was the usual pattern of his life: trudging through it, ignoring all of the problems he was faced with, balling up his emotions and pushing them far away, far enough that he could barely reach them. It was all in an attempt to be like the rest of them, who he imagined never had any feelings like this. In fact, they practically had no feelings at all.
By now, he was nearing the prerequisite of his civilization, the agog? regime, the rigorous training program where all of the boys were taught to fight and grow into cunning, vicious warriors. He could hear the clanking of swords together as boys fought each other eagerly on the vast training ground, an open field of grass lying beneath the burning sun, near the barracks where they slept. They were smiling with competitive joy, and off in the distance, the boy could hear the familiar, and not too pleasant, sound of a javelin (dory) burrowing itself into the wooden target which had already withstood years of beatings. Off in the distance, he could hear their captain, the elect of their same age, barking orders at a few stray boys who had ignored his initial requests. It was this rule that was essentially primordial: obey and be taught, endure pain and induce pain, as to create the most fearless, resilient warrior possible.
It was repeatedly taught from the moment of birth, influencing daily life until the age of seven, when all of the boys were enrolled in the agog?, and that was the moment that words became actions. Those actions were the cause of the scars on this boy’s back as he walked underneath the burning sun with nothing but a thin tunic. It was his arms and legs that were the most valuable and vulnerable, the point at which the body is to pivot, crouch, and strike with incredible force, able to deliver an unforgiving blow with pure vigor and ferocity. Most importantly, the brain must be constantly alert, evaluating every situation in order to most efficiently deliver the expected results. This was the mind of a warrior. But not every warrior had this mind; indeed, he was the only one with such keen senses and sharp instincts, able to immediately conjure crafty reactions in response to any situation he faced. The boy credited this with the books he immersed himself in, scanning each page to obtain more knowledge, more information to further his mental prowess. He used his intellect to make up for lack of talent on the battlefield. The boy looked around once more as he walked, seeing the same thing he always had: boys fighting, training, and evolving into the courageous, fearless warriors they were meant to be. The harsh, cruel punishment for failure was repeated blows, which — for most — served the sole purpose of robbing their veins of vitality. The giver of those blows had no mercy, for he was a true soldier with no mercy to give. Hits and grunts both were exchanged, day in and day out. This was Sparta.
Of course, they was no other civilization like this — no one in Greece was able to best their army, for that was the sole thing they valued: military power. And in the boy’s case, that was never good. Disobedience always resulted in punishment. If he even hinted to the fact that he never had wanted to be a part of the Spartan army, he would endure worse than what he already was going through in the agog?. He never could’ve found a way out, nonetheless — it was enforced by law that all boys who passed evaluation (of military potential) at birth were to be enrolled in the agog?. They were wrong, he supposed, for there was no soldier in him. Even with the menacing training the boy suffered from daily, it wasn’t enough to make him kill himself, just to escape it all. Sparta had taught him one thing, and that was to fight through the pain. So that was what he did, day after day.
But there was something about this day, as if the air weighed slightly more, pressing ominously upon his shoulders with creeping fingers, trying to seize whatever beings they could grasp a hold of. Danger was lurking in the air. The boy along the path recognized this newfound oppression, but cast the thought of it away, for this was Sparta and there was always despotism. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. But the more he walked, passing by boys who trained relentlessly, pounding fists into wood until their knuckles bled so that their bones grew stronger, the heavier the weight on his back felt. It tickled at the back of his mind like an itch. This was the first warning.
Somehow, the boy found a way to ignore this, clenching his eyes shut in frustration in attempt to rid it from his mind; the newfound burden remained, however. And so, it was like this, repeatedly attempting to ignore the impending doom, as the boy continued the rest of his day.
It was when the full moon, casting its luminosity down upon them, hung high in the sky that the boy received his second warning. Beads of sweat trickled down from the creases of his brow, and he stood alone in the courtyard next to where they trained. The boy was practicing, what for, even he couldn’t say, though secretly, as he clutched a glimmering sword in his hand, he almost aspired for the gifts of strength bestowed upon the others. He swung the sword, slicing it through the air, but the thought of having to thoughtlessly murder for the sake of societal progression, however, made him throw the sword from his grasp and watch it clatter along the weather-worn cobblestones beneath his feet. Killing for the sake of his own life over the enemy’s, he could justify, as anyone could in the face of danger. On the other hand, fighting to prove strength and boast of power, robbing others, robbing innocent people of their freedom, he simply couldn’t fathom. And so that sword lay on the ground without use, where it remained until the boy lost thought of what had happened.
It was a week later that the boy received another sign, the last warning: one of Sparta’s lambda-emblazoned shields, a true representation of the seemingly inexorable Spartan army, broke. Every soldier, a hoplite, was equipped with either a sword or javelin, and their trustworthy shield, made from sturdy wood and covered with a shimmering layer of bronze for added rigidity. The boy, enduring his — what had now become routine — beatings for lack of physicality and battlefield prowess, was finally released from whippings, and sent onward to further punishment. Their captain had decided to teach him what it truly meant to be hoplite. Wasting no time whatsoever, he withdrew his sword, and swung wildly at the boy, who had somehow managed to raise his shield in time to block the blows. This time, the captain swung his sword low, aiming it at the boy’s feet, in response to which he jumped and crouched behind his shield. The captain laughed; a soldier was supposed to fight back, not cowardly hide behind his own shield. And so, the boy was prompted to strike with his sword and fight, for he finally had an opportunity to attempt his feat of strength and fight the captain. To anyone in the agog?, it would seem like an honor to fight their elected member, the best among them, in an attempt to prove their aret?, or virtue (of war). But once more, the boy refused to pick up a sword and fight, and to him, he was better suited to hold a shield only, whilst other, more skilled fighters, actually were the ones who did the killing. What was the point of learning to fight if he was never good at it and didn’t want to? Upon this act of defiance, the captain grabbed the boy’s shield and threw it to the ground, where it landed with a solid impact, and skidded to a stop on the dusty street several yards away, only to expose the newly-formed crack that ran through the entire front side of his shield.
The captain paid no attention to this however, and resumed beating the boy for his disobedience. It was true that he held up the ideals of Sparta without any hesitation; if a soldier was not yet willing to fight, he hadn’t learned the true meaning of pain and loyalty to Sparta. The boy noticed the shield, and the way that it broke, as if it were bone, cracked through the middle underneath the pressure of all of the blows. As did the sword, the shield rested, unmoving on that dusty road with speckles of dirt and grime accumulating in it’s wooden fissure.
Days continued to go by, the boy not yet achieving anything remarkable in terms of the progression of his fighting abilities. He was beaten harder, estranged more so than before, and despite his best efforts, his brittle bones were beginning to strengthen, and he found that the blows he so often undertook softened every time he was subjected to them, not by mercy of the captain, but under his own fortitude. His measly arms were beginning to sculpt themselves as day after day, he labored and trained — in his mind, pointlessly — for the war he would never fight in. The constant running all of the boys had to endure slowly built strength out of the thin, dormant tissue which lay in place of muscle beneath the tanned skin of the boy’s legs. He remained cold and slightly isolated, but eventually, this discrete aura of his became more fearsome and driven by endurance and perseverance. He was becoming more confident in himself. Change was coming. At last, the boy decided to finally pick up his sword, for there could possibly be no harm in trying new things. He had read all about them, the weapons of a Spartan hoplite. Eventually, he would come to pick up a new shield as well and practice fighting with both. Now, the boy clutched only his sword, standing before a wooden target which represented the height and wingspan of any Greek enemy. Time would come before he was ready to use both the sword and shield together.
The boy closed his eyes, breathing deeply. The other boys of the agog? had gathered around — they were about to witness what had appeared to be a miracle. Despite all of the training they tolerated, they had never seen before their own eyes the boy with a sword in his hands. All the times they were around him, he blatantly refused to touch a sword; but now, this was different, for the boy cast all thoughts away and was ultimately willing to attempt to fight.
He ignored the growing crowd, focusing on just his steady breathing. He remembered, only a few weeks before, how he had tried to bring himself to fight, swinging the sword through the air, but simply couldn’t. Now he was different. After all of the years he had spent in the agog?, the blows he experienced had shaped him. He balanced the flat edge of the short blade on his hand and threw it into the air. The boy reached out, and grasped the hilt above the pommel in a more-than-natural way. He let his fingers slide into the minimal grooves of the leather grip, and let the sword hang by his side, just like how he had seen the others do.
His eyes narrowed, focusing in on the target, the enemy. He clenched his fist and broke into a charge, sliding low underneath the wooden arm of the fake adversary, slicing at the hip with ease. He emerged on the other side and thrust his sword outward, straight into the main beam right where an enemy’s rib cage would be. It seemed too easy to him — he’d seen the other boys do this a thousand times, and he was only mimicking what they had done. He imagined the enemy in pain. A wave of his recent past flooded him with memories, and the thought of murder choked his throat off. But those beatings had taught him to ignore the pain, and once more let go of all thoughts other than life and death. The boy grit his teeth, and ducked underneath the imaginary swing of the enemy that stood before him. The enemy swung again, and this time, he parried the blow, pivoting around as he stormed the target with swift feet. He then raised his sword, and brought it down with such force, the wood split.
By now, the boy was panting heavily, and he was overwhelmed with disbelief in himself. A few weeks ago, he couldn’t pick up a sword, and now he was able to fight? It was practically a miracle. But in reality, it wasn’t. It was preparation.
The boy went to sleep that night, not with a smile on his face at what he had accomplished, but with fierce determination to fight even harder and longer the next day. He abandoned all lingering, childish feelings he had left, even though he didn’t recognize it. He was desperately longing to be more like the rest of them, he could practically feel the whip of his captain lacerating his back as he cried out in pain. But pain was no more, for this was Sparta, and pain was unacceptable. A true soldier had to embrace pain, and use it to his advantage. That was what the boy had done, and that was how he had learned to fight.
Halfway through the night, the boy heard a strange sound crying out into the darkness. But this was like none other; it was not any native animal nor person. He could think of no other sound like this. It broke the silence of the night again. This time, the boy could hear it more clearly, and instantly, his thoughts were confirmed. This wasn’t any animal, nor any trader or villager. The sound rang out once more in three distinctive notes. That was the point at which the boy finally realized, despite all of the warnings, that they were under attack. Never before had the might of the Spartans been threatened, until that night. The night of their defeat.
The boy leapt out of his bed in a rush, not bothering to arouse any of the others, for he had one sole mission. Prepare. The dusty road was hard underneath his feet, and they pounded away as he felt true fear, the fear of death, for the first time. By the time he reached their armory, the fires had started. Bright crimson and gold flames erupted from the other side of their city-state; despite its size, there was no mistaking what was happening. Chaos had begun. The boy grabbed his shield and sword as a thousand different thoughts passed through his head. His mind pounded as he tried to recall all of the books he had read; war, war strategy, anything that could help him in saving the Spartans. A thought flashed through his mind: they were the Spartans. They didn’t need saving nor any amount of assistance for that matter. This was what they had trained for, and worry shouldn’t be a priority. Nobody could beat the Spartans.
He could see, far off in the distance where the edge of their city met the wild, a vast expanse of dense trees which would provide the perfect cover for the boy to attack from behind. And so he ran, without a second thought in his mind, regardless of worry, toward the trees which would shelter him. He crossed the plains, and ducked out of sight into the treeline. Here, he could see it all. Most of the Spartans had not thought to launch an attack from behind, and they wasted no time in protecting their city. A mass of hoplites, distinguishable by their nearly impenetrable wall of shields, surged forth toward the oncoming attackers with the utmost of valor. Swords rang out in the darkness as the clash began, and the boy stood alone outside the reaches of their burning city. He snuck through the trees, being careful to stay close enough to the treeline to watch what was happening, but far enough away as to avoid being seen.
It was dark underneath the cover of the trees, and the moon’s light could barely penetrate the thick veil of leaves overhead. The boy crept onward. The attackers were close now, he could see them better than before, their faces becoming stained with blood both foreign and friendly as they continued to fight on. His position was perfect, lined up directly behind and to the side of them — it was their blind spot, and especially during a night like this, the boy would have the greatest advantage.
Suddenly, he stopped. Something didn’t feel right; his ears strained, eyes narrowed, and he scanned his horizons. The gears in his head were turning as he processed all of this, and just as he was about to continue moving forth, two figures bounded over the earthy, root-covered ground, charging blindly at him. The two attackers, however, didn’t consider to give any thought about how the boy would react. They attempted to fight him from both sides, so that his attention would be drawn to one, and not the other. But they didn’t account for the boy’s instincts. He stormed one of his attackers, and hurtled himself into the air. The attacker, who was holding a long sword, was taken by surprise, and didn’t even have a chance to squirm from the boy’s grip as he was tackled to the ground. The attacker’s hand smashed against a thick tree trunk, and the sword which he was holding fell to the ground, disappearing into the thick undergrowth. The boy swung his sword at the attacker’s hip, imitating what he had done the previous day, and watched as steel penetrated raw flesh, slicing through fat with extreme ease. The assailant fell to the ground, unmoving, his hands lifelessly clutching the gaping gash in his side that trailed from his hip and down to his lower thigh. The other attacker took a wild stab at the boy upon the death of his partner, which the boy blocked, casting the aggressor’s fighting arm to the side and exposing his open torso. The boy lunged, and thrust his sword forward with the agile movements of his body; the final attacker collapsed to the ground next to his comrade.
The boy’s strength ebbed, and he became slightly fatigued, though he continued onward like a Spartan; he knew better than to give up. The boy emerged from the treeline, sword poised and ready to attack, when he saw his fellow Spartans, both warriors and those still training in the agog?, leading a blind rush into the immense sea of attackers who now had gained the advantage. The boy sprinted ahead to join them, and in a matter of seconds, he dove into their ranks, where he was gladly accepted in Sparta’s collapsing army. Fear became more evident as the Spartans noticed their thinning numbers. The skilled, muscular soldiers shockingly buckled underneath the strikes of the enemies quicker than thought possible. The fire had spread, and flames licked at their home city, roaring with destruction. It seemed all had been lost, including hope. Still, the stubborn Spartan warriors stampeded headlong into the fight, swinging with rage and passion.
The boy saw so many things happening at once. A fellow Spartan had been shot in the leg by an arrow, and he fell to the ground. Above him, an oncoming soldier prepared to deliver the final blow. Next to him, two warriors charged with their swords, but didn’t noticed the barrage of spears that were aimed toward them. And in front of him, in front of it all, lying on the ground in the defeat, lay a mass of shattered Spartan shields and swords. Such a change had overcome them, they had not expected it. Time slowed suddenly. The boy realized quickly that he had a couple different ways to save them all, but he only had the time for one. He could’ve jumped against the sword-wielding Spartans to push them out of the range of the spears; he could’ve driven his own sword up and through the head of the attacker who stood powerfully and threateningly above the already wounded soldier. Time began to speed up again, and the boy was quickly running out of options. He had to make a choice, had to spare the life, or lives, of anyone he could help. But why save those who blindly, stubbornly charged into danger when defeat was everywhere? And why should he have to save an injured soldier, and expose himself to danger, when the soldier would most certainly die from the injuries he already possessed? Help was not at Sparta, for all of their city perished underneath the deadly flames, nor was it anywhere within quick reach. So, why should he have to save them?
Despite how awful he thought Sparta was, how mindless their soldiers were, programmed only for battle and nothing else, there was something wit and cunning couldn’t make up for. . . dignity and honor. Strength wasn’t all, yet nor was intelligence. It was passion, and goodwill, and true loyalty. All of those were worth upholding, and were made even more prominent in the Spartans’ protective fight for their homeland, fighting only out of respect and righteousness.
In this mindset, the boy stood up amidst the flaming arrows, the tortured screams of those who were suffering from pain even Sparta couldn’t teach them to ignore. He grabbed the attacker, poised above the helpless, unarmed Spartan, and threw him in front of the advancing hoplites, who were forced back, out of the range of death, at the expense of the new enemy. And for the boy himself, in doing so, he caught himself in between a volley of arrows, spears, and an endless rush of heartless soldiers blinded by the love of victory over dignity.