The Spartans

by JJPOR [Reviews - 47]

Printer Chapter or Story
  • Teen
  • Explicit Violence
  • Action/Adventure, Drama, General

Author's Notes:
More chapter creep, people; this was supposed to be the last one, and now... now it's not. The final part should be upcoming shortly. Ben and Jamie are put in a difficult position (a more difficult position!), Polly tries to do somebody a favour and Two shows his ingenuity. And no goats were harmed in the writing of this chapter!

The sun rose red over the endless gold and silver sea; as red as fire, as red as blood, lighting up the cliffs and the coastal plain; blood on the land and blood on the water. Great Ahura Mazda smiled down upon the world, greeting all of his children, Persian and Greek alike. The sun fell upon believers and heathens, loyal men and rebels; it fell upon the just and unjust alike. The seabirds swirled and screamed over the battlefield as the armies roused themselves for the final round of their desperate struggle; white-winged angels of death. It was another glorious day; bright and clear and hot; a good day to die.

And as the sun rose, mighty Xerxes was there to greet it; the first of his name; King of Persia and Media, Great King, King of Kings and Ruler of the World. Surrounded by his Magi, he welcomed the dawn, giving thanks to great Ahura Mazda for his mercy and his bounty, pouring wine and oil upon the ground in supplication as the priests chanted and burned incense around him. And then, the Great King abased himself upon the hard soil of Greece, worshipping the risen sun; the only thing before which the Ruler of the World would, or could, bow his royal head.

Out on the plain, Mardonius marshalled his forces; an endless river of men began to stretch from the camp towards the Hot Gates. The sun flashed along the blades of weapons, making swords and spears seem to have already been dipped in gore. Ahead, the narrow passage between the hills and the sea beckoned like the entrance to the underworld, and beyond the passage the Greeks waited, men already steeped in the blood of thousands, ready to sell their lives dearly to the invaders.

Even as the great army moved into position, Mardonius scanned the mountainside, waiting for the signal. There…high up on Callidromus’s craggy, tree-shrouded slopes, a flash of white; the sunlight reflected from a polished surface, the sign that all was ready. Mardonius made a gesture, and the massed horns and trumpets of the Great King’s army brayed out across the plain, a sound like thunder; the great war-drums began to boom, until the very earth seemed to shake underfoot; banners and totems flashed and fluttered in the air above the great army on the plain, a multicoloured storm front stretching from the cliffs to the crashing surf. And then the mighty host began to move, slowly yet unstoppably, towards its destiny.

* * *

The woods at the top of the mountain rustled and crackled, filled with men; brightly-coloured tunics and head-cloths barely glimpsed between scorched-brown foliage; the subtle glint of iron and bronze somewhere in amidst the dappled shadows, the camouflaging patterns of light and shade.

Hydarnes watched and waited as the last of the Immortals moved into position, completing the difficult march up the mountain path just as the first rays of the sun crept through the woods; ten thousand men ready to live or die at his word. Across the arid, straw-yellow meadow at the summit of the mountain, the Phocians roused themselves from their slumber, busied themselves with food, maybe cast a nervous glance down from their mountaintop vantage point at the black sea of Persians and Medes and Cissians and Babylonians and Phoenicians and all of the other nations massed so far below them, still oblivious to the enemies peering at them from a far lesser distance. Bees buzzed among the shrivelled flowers and the smell of cooking drifted through the air. A whispered signal passed down the ranks; the Immortals were ready. Hydarnes smiled and turned to the trumpeter who stood beside him.

Polly watched in stunned silence, the last of her energy washed out of her by her tears; the Doctor’s hand still rested on her shoulder, and she rested her own hand upon it as they both sat with their backs to one of the trees, but neither of them had spoken since before sunup; their own contingent of Immortals still stood impassively around them.

“Now!” Hydarnes swept his hand downwards like a headsman’s axe; the trumpeter blew with all his might. Even as the Phocians continued to cook their breakfasts and pull on their clothes, the Immortals erupted out of the woods with a mighty cry:

“The Great King and great Ahura Mazda!”

Phocians leapt up, turned around, stumbled backwards, shock and confusion written on every face; men reached for shields and weapons, tried belatedly to don armour and helmets. They were outnumbered ten to one; even arrayed ten ranks deep, the Immortals stretched from one side of the mountaintop to the other, overlapping and enveloping the Phocians on both flanks. This was the kind of warfare the armies of the Great King were built for, out in the open, able to play to their strengths, not confined in the crushing, iron-fenced mincing machine that was the Hot Gates.

Even as the Greek contingent scurried about in panicked activity, the first ranks of the Immortals came to a crashing halt, bracing their tall wicker shields against the ground and crouching behind them, spears extended in a defensive posture.

“Nock!” their captains called out to the rear ranks of archers; five thousand men drew arrows from their quivers in perfect synchrony; long, straight stems of papyrus tipped with shining bronze, and fitted them to their twisted linen bowstrings.

“Draw!” As one, the archers stood up from behind the dense barrier formed by the shield-bearers; With grunts of effort, muscles straining against thick, stiff recurved bows, made from glued layers of wood, animal horn and sinew; as half-dressed Greeks ran around trying to form ranks; they pulled back their bowstrings and pointed their arrowheads at the risen sun. And for a moment, they held them there, poised.

“Loose!” With a single mighty twang, five thousand hissing black arrows arced into the air; even as they were in flight, the archers were reloading and shooting again, and again, as quickly as they could. Those Phocians who had managed to retain some semblance of rational thinking quickly cowered behind their shields; the arrows washed over them like a hailstorm, pinging and rattling. The dry mountain meadow suddenly seemed to bloom as thousands of arrows sprouted from the earth in and around the Phocian camp. Those men caught out in the open, still not fully armoured, fell like corn under the scythe, dying in rows, bodies bristling with bloody shafts.

Polly looked away, biting her lip; the Doctor tightened his grip on her shoulder, but continued to watch the unfolding battle, silent and grim-faced.

At another trumpet signal, the shooting suddenly stopped. The surviving Phocians managed to stand up, covering themselves with shields dented and holed by the sheer weight of the arrow-storm, still trying to form a phalanx but still hopelessly disorganised; some of the rearmost spearmen were already starting to slip away, back down the path leading to the sea.

“Take them,” said Hydarnes, and the trumpet blasted again; the Immortal shield-bearers now rose up and charged with a great shout, eager to inflict upon the Greeks the kind of wholesale slaughter they had themselves suffered in the Hot Gates. The remaining Phocians, finding themselves attacked almost from three sides at once, fled rather than face them, scattering in all directions; some back along the path, others fanning out as best they could across the mountainside; some fell screaming down sheer cliff-faces to lie broken and bloodied in the dust far below. Some were caught and speared ruthlessly as they tried to run, falling face-down among dry grass that was now stained red.

“Do not pursue them!” Hydarnes ordered. “They are no threat! Form columns of march and get down that path! We have no time to lose!” His orders were relayed by trumpeters and by shouts from the officers; the Immortals obeyed instantly, as they always did.

* * *

“Wake up! Hey, wake up, mate! Something’s happening!” Jamie sat up with a start and a wordless cry, his knife instantly in his hand and pointing straight at Ben’s ribs. “It’s me,” Ben informed him, looking down at the weapon with a rueful expression. “Blimey, I didn’t know you’d started sleeping with the blooming thing.”

Jamie rubbed his eyes; he had started to get dark rings around them, almost like bruises, from lack of sleep.

“Sorry, pal,” he mumbled, clearly embarrassed, shoving the blade back into his sock.

“Yeah, well, I guess you can’t be too careful,” Ben said, kindly, giving him a comradely sort of pat on the shoulder; he too was armed, with his stolen javelin. Jamie was staring off into space again; he’d been doing that quite a bit since the heavy fighting against the Immortals on the first day.

“I were dreamin’ aboot Persians…” he mused.

“Yeah, well I was dreaming about Raquel Welch,” Ben grinned. “Don’t tell Pol, all right?” His grin faded as Jamie seemed not to hear this comment. “You all right, mate?” he asked. “You were a bit quiet yesterday, I thought.” Jamie irritably waved him away, scratching at his fuzz of newly-grown beard:

“I’m fine,” he insisted. “As fine as anyone else around here, anyhow.” He got wearily to his feet and pulled his sword belt over his head, looking at the stone wall. Beyond it, the drums and trumpets of the Great King’s army filled the air with noise, just as they had for the previous two days. “Ha’ they not given up an’ gone home, yet?” he asked, with mock annoyance; it was a weak sort of joke, but he and Ben both laughed.

“No,” replied Ben, weakly. “Thought they would have by now, but…” His grin cracked again and he shook his head in despair. “No, they’re not going away,” he murmured softly, “except over our dead bodies.” Jamie did not say anything; he was looking back across the rocky ground towards the crowd that had gathered around Leonidas’s tent; it seemed that half the army was there, jostling to see what was going on.

“Whassat?” Jamie asked, in bewilderment as they headed over to have a look for themselves.

“It’s what I was waking you up to tell you about,” Ben said. “About ten minutes ago, this bloke came running from over there.” He pointed to the other end of the narrow pass, in the opposite direction to the Persian army. “He looked like the devil was after him or something; I think it was one of those fellas who went marching off that way the day before yesterday.”

“The Phocians?” Jamie asked.

“Yeah.” Ben shrugged: “Well, the word went out, and all of the big nobs are in there now, confabbing with the guv’nor.”

“Och, well, it cannae get any worse now, can it?” Jamie decided, with another forced grin.

“I don’t know,” said Ben, with slightly less false optimism. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started all of this gallivanting around the universe, it’s that it can always get worse.”

“Aye, ye’re not wrong there,” Jamie agreed, wearily. They pushed their way into the back row of the gathering, with the other skivvies, and tried to get a view of what was happening.

“Psst, mate, what’s all this bother about?” Ben asked one of the Spartan helots. The man shook his head in bewilderment. At that moment, the crowd parted as Leonidas emerged from the tent, flanked by the other senior commanders; the king was his usual confident, no-nonsense self, but most of the others seemed pretty displeased about something or other; in fact, some of them looked terrified.

“Well, we knew there was a risk this would happen,” Leonidas was telling the Theban, Leontiades. “That’s why we sent the Phocians up there.” He turned to the aged diviner, Megistias, who once again had sent his helots to fetch a small white goat from the baggage train: “Read the signs for us,” he ordered, drawing his sword: “Great Zeus and Apollo,” he called out, raising the blade to the heavens, “send us a sign; how will we fare in the coming day’s battle?”

“Oh, here we go again,” Ben said to Jamie out of the corner of his mouth. “Who’d be a goat, eh?” The blade swept down and the goat bleated, once. Megistias took his own small knife and bent over the dead animal, cutting and probing. Eventually, he straightened up again.

“Well?” asked Leontiades the Theban. “What do the entrails say?” The old man simply looked at Leonidas and silently shook his head. The king nodded grimly and turned to address the gathering at large:

“Men, we are betrayed,” he announced. A murmur of disquiet went through the whole throng. “The battle is lost.”

“What’s happening?” somebody asked. “Are the barbarians behind us now?” Leonidas nodded again as he began to speak, and the army immediately erupted into a clamour of cursing and recriminations; the king held up his hand for silence.

“Quiet!” he bellowed. “Quiet, you women!” That shut up most of the raised voices. “Do you want the Mede to hear you bickering amongst yourselves like young maidens? Do you want the poems they write about this day to say that when the barbarians surrounded them, the Greeks wrung their hands and cried and moaned like a gang of senile old men? Or do you want them to say that they made a stand, that they showed their courage, that they fought to the very last and never gave in?”

He paused for a moment, breathing heavily, the veins standing out on his thick neck, fighting to contain his rage. Many of the assembled warriors were shamefaced, like children scolded by their father; the Spartiates of course, just looked smug and superior, because of course none of them had reacted to the bad news with anything less than calm determination. There were still a few mutterings of disquiet, however, here and there.

“There exists a secret route over Mount Callidromus,” Leonidas admitted, when he continued. “It bypasses the Hot Gates and allows the barbarians to attack us from both directions at once.” The mutterings started to increase in both volume and frequency. “Quiet, dogs!” the Spartan king exploded. “The next man who whines and wails in my hearing will be thrown into the sea!” A terrified silence descended over the camp. “We kept this route as secret as we possibly could,” he went on, “even from most of you, but even so, some traitor has told the barbarians; the Hot Gates are no longer a secure position for us to defend; our battle here is at an end.”

“Well, what are we going to do?” another voice asked. “Just stay here and die?”

“Spartans do not turn their backs on the enemy,” Leonidas growled.

“Well, we’re not Spartans!” somebody else retorted; one of the Thebans. “If we flee now, we can get out of here before they realise we’re gone!”

“That would be the wisest course of action,” Leontiades agreed. “We can pull back to Corinth, link up with the Athenians and the rest of your Spartans at the Isthmus; hold the Mede there.”

“I have sworn a sacred oath to defend this place,” Leonidas replied, angrily. “And as a king of Sparta, I am bound by law to face my city’s enemies, never surrendering and never retreating!”

“Then you are a fool,” the Theban commander spat.

“You’re the fool,” Dienekes responded from the front row of the crowd. “Your fear has robbed you of your wits as well as your manhood!”

“I’ve had enough of you Spartans,” Leontiades replied. “Who do you think you are? A backward, flea-bitten little dunghill of a city, yet you go swaggering around as if you were the only true warriors in the world. Well, do true warriors treat their slaves the way you treat those helots? Does beating the defenceless make you a man? Do true warriors get themselves killed because they’re too stupid to see when they can’t win?”

“I’ll rip out his throat!” roared Dienekes, leaping forward; half a dozen of his fellow Spartiates managed with difficulty to drag him back, not that any of them, including Leonidas, looked any less enraged. The Thebans, for their part, gathered around their leader; swords were drawn; members of the other contingents started shouting again, choosing one side or the other.

“Oh, crikey,” murmured Ben, nervously tightening his grip on the javelin. “I knew it’d all kick off sooner or later…” Beside him, Jamie had his own borrowed sword half-out of its scabbard, eyes swivelling from side to side as he scanned the scene for the first sign of violence.

“Silence!” Leonidas shouted. “Silence, all of you! The Mede won’t have to shoot an arrow or lift a spear to take this place if we start fighting among ourselves!” The shouting died down again, but not completely.

“I said he was a fool,” Dienekes persisted, wrestling to free himself from the men holding him back. “And I stand by that. What do you think will happen, Leontiades, if we decide to run away like cringing dogs, as you propose? The Mede’s horsemen will chase us down; when we get into the open country on the other side of the mountains, strung out along that road, they’ll sweep down upon us and cut us to pieces!”

“At least we’d have a chance of escape, however slim,” the Theban insisted. “If we stay here, we will certainly die!” There was a loud chorus of agreement from many of those watching the exchange; it seemed as if the Spartans were definitely in the minority. Eventually, after another confused interlude, Leonidas spoke again:

“Leontiades is right,” he said, to a collective gasp of shock from his own men. “We should try to save as large a part of the army as we can. We will need men to fight the other battles that will come after this one, and eventually win this war.”

“If you order it, my king,” Dienekes replied, unhappily.

“Of course, there is no question of us Spartans abandoning our posts,” he continued. Dienekes and the others practically sighed with relief. “My bodyguard and I, along with a small rearguard chosen from the rest of the army, will stay here and hold this place to the bitter end. With luck, we can delay the barbarians here long enough for the rest of you to make good your escape.”

“We will stand with you, by Eros.” It was Demophilus, the grizzled leader of the Thespian contingent, flanked by his lieutenant Dithyrambus. “Thespiae is only a day’s ride from the other side of the pass; the barbarians will burn it before your body has even been picked clean by the crows, Spartan. We have nothing to retreat for.”

“Good man,” said Leonidas, clasping the old man’s hand.

“We will also stand here,” one of the other commanders called out.

“No,” Leonidas replied. “You Orchomenians will be needed at the Isthmus. We will need another five hundred men to form our rearguard, the rest of you I command to go, as quickly as you can, without shame.” None of the other contingents seemed prepared to argue with him on this point. He turned to Leontiades: “Excuse me, but looking at your Thebans, there seem to be, well, about five hundred of them left. Just about the number I need…” The colour drained out of Leontiades’s face:

“You…” Leonidas gave him a nasty grin:

“If you counsel retreat out of wisdom, and not simply in order to save yourself, then you will stand here. If not, I will kill you for a deserter. A simple enough choice.” Dienekes and the other Spartans laughed heartily at this development. Leontiades drew himself up to his full height, visibly gathering up what was left of his dignity:

“You Spartans are not the only people to possess courage,” he stiffly told the king. “We will stand with you, if you wish it.” Leonidas nodded with grudging respect, turning back to Megistias:

“See to it that the worst of the wounded leave too,” he ordered. “Of course, the Spartans may prove difficult; tell them that any of them who can stand and carry a weapon may stay.”

“And us!” called out another voice from the tent itself. It was the disease-blinded Spartan Eurytus and his similarly-afflicted companion Aristodemus, both of them holding onto the tent flap to keep their bearings: “We will stay and die with you, my king!”

“You are brave men,” Leonidas told them, “and I honour your bravery; but I have told you before, you cannot fight with the phalanx in your current state. Go back to Sparta, recover your sight, and then avenge us upon the barbarians.”

“My king,” Eurytus protested, voice cracking with emotion, “I beg you…”

“I have given you an order; Spartans are brave but they are also obedient.” He looked around him: “I want a volunteer; a helot to guide our blind brothers along the road.” He turned to the slave Pollux, who stood nearby: “You! You will be their guide!”

“My king,” said Pollux, “I have never disobeyed any command of yours…”

“No, you haven’t, by Apollo,” Leonidas snapped, “and if you do I’ll put out your eyes! Now do as you’re told!”

“My king,” said the slave, “we helots have decided, all of us. We’re staying with you; we may not be Spartiates, but we are men of Lakedaimon, and…”

“You insult Lakedaimon by those very words, slave!” Leonidas replied. “I don’t have time to argue…”

“Er, yer royalness,” piped up another voice. The king turned in annoyance:

“Another time, little barbarian; I am not in the mood for jokes.”

“Och nae, yer royalness,” said Jamie, quickly. “I were just thinkin’, if Pollux an’ ‘is pals wanna stay, then ma pal here could lead yon blind fellas out o’ here.” He clapped Ben hard on the shoulder.

“And what about you, mate?” asked Ben, sounding sick. Jamie gave him a grotesquely false smile:

“Look, I’ve ne’er run awa’ from a battle yet,” he said. “An’ especially not if Pollux and them are stayin’, but one o’ us has tae get out o’ here alive, if only tae tell the Doctor wha’ happened. And I reckon it should be ye.”

“No, Jamie, mate…” Ben protested.

“Och, dinnae argue, man! Ye know if one o’ us has tae live, it should be ye! ‘Cause if you died here, wee Polly, it’d break her heart, ye know that!”

“And it wouldn’t break her heart if you died?” Ben asked, quietly. “It wouldn’t break mine and the Doctor’s hearts as well?” Jamie shook his head, and there were tears in his eyes:

“Jest go, yer daft great Sassenach! I’m like the Spartans, I’m too pig-headed to leave here, but ye’re supposed to have yer head screwed on! Please! If I’m yer pal, then ye’ll go, for me.”

“Don’t, mate,” Ben whispered, but Leonidas intervened.

“You, barbarian!” he barked, giving Ben a shove. “You will take Eurytus and Aristodemus out of here and put them safely on the road to Sparta. If you do not, I will kill you myself. And your lover will stay here and die with us real men. Now, go!”

Reluctantly, Ben obeyed, casting an agonised backward glance at Jamie. Jamie nodded, and turned away. Leonidas raised his voice again, to address those men who would be staying to hold the pass:

“Go now,” the told them, “and prepare yourselves for battle this one last time; sharpen your weapons, you Spartiates comb your hair. And make sure you eat a hearty breakfast. Tonight, however…” He allowed himself a grim smile: “Tonight we dine in Hades!”

* * *

The Immortals continued to file past, a seemingly endless procession of tramping feet and clanking weapons, wending their way across the top of the mountain and down the path on the far side. Hydarnes had gone ahead to scout out the route; the Doctor and Polly were left sitting in the woods back at the summit, still guarded tirelessly simply because Hydarnes had not yet told the guards to let them move.

“And how are you this fine morning?” asked a cheerful voice. It was Ephialtes, still riding the horse he had been given by the Persians, a pair of large sacks slung around its neck. “My own reward,” he grinned, patting one of the sacks; it made a metallic chinking sound.

“It isn’t a very fine morning at all,” Polly told him, icily.

“My friend is, er, yes, rather upset,” the Doctor explained. “As am I; our friends are down there, you see, where the Immortals are going.”

“Down there with the Spartans and them?” Ephialtes let out a low whistle: “I’ll tell you what, I don’t fancy their chances much…” And then he saw the expressions on their faces: “Er, look, I’m sorry, your lordship. Sorry about your friends.”

“Thank you,” said the Doctor. “It’s quite all right; it isn’t your fault.”

“That’s not what people are going to say,” Polly told him, softly. She looked at Ephialtes with dark, sorrowful eyes: “Get away from here,” she told him, suddenly.

“What?” asked the Greek, in puzzlement.

”I said get away from here!” she beseeched him. “Go and get your wife and your six children and just get as far away from here as you can, and don’t ever come back!” Ephialtes stared at her in confusion:

“What…?”

“Please,” she said. “It’s just that…people are going to think that you betrayed the Greek army to the Persians. That’s what people are going to think, and they’re going to come after you, and… Please, just go!” Ephialtes had suddenly turned very pale:

“I didn’t think of that,” he whispered. “Those Spartans…the type to hold a grudge, do you think?”

“Oh, yes!” Polly replied, adamantly. “Now, go!” He did not need telling twice; he quickly turned the horse around and galloped away, taking his chinking sacks with him. Polly looked at the ground between her feet. “At least we managed to save somebody in all of this,” she whispered. The Doctor patted her very gently on the arm, and said nothing, his eyes enigmatic pools of darkness. The last of the marching Immortals disappeared over the edge of the mountain, headed for the Hot Gates; apart from the guards, they were alone. Suddenly, a thought seemed to occur to him; he gave the guards a furtive glance as he placed his hand in his coat pocket; they did not seem to notice.

“Now, Polly,” he said, in a tiny whisper, “you wouldn’t happen to have such a thing as a nail file about your person, would you?” She stared at him for a moment. “Would you?” he asked again. Still seeming puzzled, Polly searched through her handbag for a few moments, and quickly found the item in question.

“You’ve got an idea, haven’t you?” she asked, allowing herself just a glimmer of hopefulness. The Doctor took it from her, holding it between deft fingers.

“I have nothing but ideas,” the Doctor replied, producing his dented brass telescope once again. “I find that it’s identifying the good ideas which presents the problem…” He used the nail file to pry at a tiny screw near one end of the spyglass, almost sticking out his tongue in intense concentration. “Oh, crumbs,” he commented as the file slipped, gouging a deep scratch in the tarnished brass. “Well, I suppose there’s always the direct method, isn’t there…?” Returning the file to Polly, he took hold of the telescope by the eyepiece and bashed it unceremoniously against the tree trunk behind him.

“You’ll break it,” Polly pointed out.

“Yes, I rather suppose that I will,” he sighed, “and that will be a very great pity indeed, because I think that is the one Galileo gave to me…” He gave the telescope another bash and the big front lens fell out onto the dry glass. With a little smile, the Doctor picked it up. “Now, if I can just…” He spent a few seconds angling it experimentally, watching the shadow of his hand against the ground; the lens between his fingers cast a blurry ring of grey shadow with a bright yellow dot of focused sunlight at its centre.

“Oh,” said Polly, realisation lighting up her face. “I see what you’re…”

“Shush, now, Polly; we don’t want to give the game away to our friends here…” He aimed the bright spot at a clump of straw-yellow grass at the foot of a nearby tree. After a couple of minutes, it began to give off dirty-white smoke. Then, there was a flash of crackling orange flame. The Doctor immediately dropped the lens and tried to look innocent. It was a couple of minutes more before the guards noticed the fire, by which time long streamers of flame were licking their way up the bone-dry tree trunk; glowing leaves floated away on currents of hot air, and where they fell among the dry grass, more smoke and then flames leapt into the air.

“Now,” said the Doctor, as the guards ran forward to try and stamp out the fires; “when I say…”

“Yes, I know,” Polly interrupted. “Run!” They jumped up and managed to rush past the guards in their confusion; from behind them there came shouts and the sound of running feet, but they plunged headlong into the hot white smoke, coughing and blinking their way through it, stumbling over ground made difficult by the hundreds of upright arrows still jutting from the earth, avoiding the bodies of the dead Phocians as they peered ahead with streaming eyes. Eventually, they found the beginning of the descending path and hurriedly began to follow it.

* * *

The helots had armed themselves with whatever spare weapons they found lying around the camp, mainly those belonging to those men who had already died. They sported a motley collection of swords, shields, spears and helmets; some had nothing more than knives and sticks, or Persian javelins that had been flung over the wall in the course of the fighting. Jamie had the sword Maro had given him, his own knife ready in his sock, a snapped-off spear that was now just the right length for him, and was giving serious consideration to a helmet he had found; he didn’t like the idea of being shut in like that, unable to see or hear properly, but on the other hand he didn’t like the idea of being hit in the head with a great pointy lump of iron.

“Och, will yer jest lissen to all that fuss?” he asked anybody within earshot as the Persian drumming and trumpeting went on relentlessly beyond the wall. “If they wanna attack us, why ha’ent they done it yet?”

“They seek to distract us, little barbarian,” said Maro, sat combing his hair on a nearby rock, “so that we will not notice the approach of their other force from the rear; I don’t think they know that the Phocians have alerted us.”

“D’ye think the rest o’ ‘em will get away a’right?” Jamie asked, anxiously looking over his shoulder. The last of the retreating men were marching out of the other end of the pass, disappearing around the foot of the mountain, leaving only a great cloud of dirty yellow dust behind them.

“Those craven scum?” Maro shrugged. “Do I care?”

“Hey, your king told ‘em to go,” Jamie pointed out.

“He doesn’t want those worthless dogs hanging around here sullying our heroic last stand with all of their begging and panicking,” Maro decided. “I’m not even sure we should have kept the Thebans here,” he muttered darkly, glaring across at where Leontiades and his men were likewise readying themselves for battle. He finished combing out his hair; it lay on his shoulders like black silk. “Well, how do I look?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Och, pretty,” Jamie claimed, with a slightly mocking grin. “Very pretty; ye know, if I didnae already ha’ a boyfriend, I’d…”

“Be quiet, little barbarian,” Maro replied dismissively, picking up his battered, arrow-pricked helmet and perching it atop his head. “Now, are we ready?” he asked.

“Aye, we are that,” Jamie confirmed, brandishing his spear. Alpheus and the other surviving members of the file were already forming up, ready to advance through the gate to the other side of the wall; ready to meet whatever fate might await them there.

To be continued…