The vast encampment of the Persian army resembled a city from within as well as without. The small group of horsemen trotted between rows of tents that resembled busy streets, complete with traffic; soldiers marching or riding to their assigned places in the great camp; ox-drawn wagons and trains of pack animals carrying equipment and supplies; golden chariots carrying haughty lords in glittering jewellery and embroidered robes, before whom the horsemen bowed as low as they could and the foot-soldiers prostrated themselves in the dust.
“It’s…it’s amazing,” Polly decided eventually as they passed yet more tents; temporary storehouses and stables and kitchens and bath-houses. She rode perched awkwardly in front of one of the horsemen with his spear resting gently but pointedly across her body as a discouragement of any heroics she might feel tempted to try; on the horse beside hers, the Doctor found himself in a similarly uncomfortable position.
“Maybe half a million people altogether,” the Doctor wistfully informed her, looking around them. “Herodotus, of course, said five million, but then he always did tend to exaggerate, in my experience.”
“I think half a million is quite enough,” Polly replied, wiping her face. The heat between the tents was even more overpowering than out on the plain, only intensified by the cooking fires and the crowding.
“Yes, Polly,” agreed the Doctor; “it is rather a large army, but then again Xerxes is the ruler of the entire world.”
“He is?” Polly asked, rather dubiously. She thought about that for a moment and blinked: “The entire world?”
“Well, he certainly says so,” the Doctor mused. “Some of the Greek city-states, however, do beg to differ, it’s true; hence the expedition you see all around you.” They passed women and children in the streets between the tents; the families, no doubt, of some of the men who marched with the army; cooking and washing and performing all of the other supporting roles that never get written about when people write about battles, but which nevertheless no army can function without. All around them, people called out, or joked, or cursed, in at least a dozen languages. “The King of Kings has brought soldiers from every one of the many lands that make up his empire,” the Doctor went on, thoughtfully, almost as if talking to himself: “Persians and Medians and Cissians; Akkadians and Elamites and Saka and Phoenicians…”
“Saka?” asked Polly.
“Yes, they were those people with the pointy hats and the axes that we passed a little while ago,” the Doctor clarified, before continuing with his list of nations: “Israelites and Egyptians and Babylonians...” He stole a glance at a particularly brightly decorated tent as they passed by: “Oh my, even some Indians, I think; now, they are a particularly long way from home…”
There were animals, too; horses, donkeys, oxen, camels; all adding their distinctive sounds and smells to the general cacophony and miasma of the camp. There were sheep and goats too; ducks and geese and chickens, either brought all the way from Asia or foraged on the march, because this army, like every other army in history, marched on its stomach.
“Do you think Ben and Jamie got away safely, Doctor?” Polly asked in a half-whisper; the cavalryman seated directly behind her did not, in any case, appear to be interested in what she had to say.
“I do hope so,” the Doctor very sincerely replied.
“Well, hopefully they made it to those Hot Gates you pointed out,” she said, trying to sound bright and optimistic and not doing an entirely convincing job.
“Yes,” the Doctor glumly answered. “That is rather what I’m worried about.” Polly was shocked speechless for a second, before spluttering:
“You told us to run towards them!”
“Yes, yes I did,” the Doctor frowned. “At the time, it seemed to be the lesser of two evils; on second thoughts, however…” He seemed quietly appalled; after another moment of shock, Polly managed to ask the obvious question:
“Why, what’s there?”
“Another army,” he admitted. “A much smaller army than this one, but nonetheless determined; I just hope that Jamie and Ben haven’t come to any harm from them.”
“Who are they?” Polly asked. “Greeks?” She shrugged, seemingly nonplussed by the Doctor’s concern: “Well, aren’t the Ancient Greeks, aren’t they, well…civilised? I remember hearing about them in school, about how they invented democracy and philosophy, and the Olympic Games…”
“Yes, well, I suppose they did have their good points,” the Doctor agreed, very diplomatically. “And, of course, like most groups of people in human history, they had their bad points as well…”
“It was a very good school,” Polly insisted, as if to reassure him of the veracity of her assessment of the Ancient Greeks: “Private, you know.”
“Oh, I’m sure that it was an excellent school,” the Doctor answered. “I’m afraid, however, that the historical reality is sometimes a little bit different from what they teach in schools, and…oh dear, well, we’re talking about the Lakedaimonioi here…”
“The Spartans, Polly,” the Doctor explained, rather anxiously, “and they are not like other Greeks. In fact, the Spartans really aren’t like anybody that you may have met…”
* * *
“Pray to your imaginary gods, barbarian,” Dienekes suggested, still pressing Jamie into the dust with one foot on his chest and the spear at his throat, “and then prepare to go to Hades; I hope you have fare for the ferryman.”
“Och, if ye’re goin’ tae do it, jest do it,” Jamie spat back. “I havenae time to play your wee games.”
“What, you’re not even going to beg for your pathetic life?” Dienekes smiled.
“Aye, and ye’d like that, wouldn’t ye?” Jamie shook his head. “Jest do it, man, if ye’re doin’ it.” Dienekes shrugged and drew his spear back for the thrust, but was distracted for the moment by Ben’s sudden, desperate yell:
“Stop! Just stop, all right? I can explain who we are and why we’re here, okay?” He looked around him, a little wild-eyed: “Okay? Believe me, we’re no friends of those blokes on the horses; they were chasing us, weren’t they? And they’ve taken our friends captive an’ all!”
Dienekes gave a curious frown, raising his spear for the moment and leaning on it thoughtfully as he considered Ben. He still had his foot on Jamie’s chest.
“Go on, tell your tale,” he said, grudgingly. “And then we’ll kill you.”
“Right.” Ben glanced at the other two men who were still menacing him with their spears; the young man Dienekes had called Alpheus and another; they looked similar enough to be brothers. “Look, mate,” Ben said, and to his credit did so with only a hint of fear quavering in his voice, “we’re not barbarians, or whatever you think we are. I mean, didn’t you see? We were running from them!”
“If you’re not a barbarian,” said Alpheus, “then why are you wearing those?” He gestured at Ben’s brown corduroy trousers.
“What?” Ben looked down at himself. “What else would I be…?” He looked around at the Spartans; even the ones wearing cloaks seemed to have nothing underneath them. All things considered, he would have rated himself the best-dressed man present.
“Only the Medes are soft and effeminate enough to cover their legs like that,” suggested the man who looked like he might be Alpheus’s brother. In spite of his current predicament, Jamie managed a laugh:
“Och, now ye can see why I stick with the kilt,” he chuckled. Ben was too busy staring incredulously at the Greeks to respond to this:
“Effem — what? Look, mate, I’m not the one going around in the nuddy with all his big strapping mates.” He cast a suspicious glance at the gathering of Spartans, especially the ones doing the physical exercises: “I’ve been around, you know; I know what kind of fellas are into all that physical culture, polishing their muscles sort of stuff…”
Alpheus ignored the not-so-subtly-implied slur and stepped close to Ben, exaggeratedly sniffing him:
“And he wears scent,” he sneered to his near-twin: “Like a woman. Typical Mede, Maro.” Ben was momentarily incensed:
“Oi, that’s eau de cologne if you must know; Brut!” Jamie was laughing again from his rather undignified position on the ground. “Well, I’ve gotta smell nice for my bird, haven’t I?” Ben protested.
“I dinnae think Polly’d be too happy to hear ye callin’ her yer bird,” Jamie observed.
“Maybe not,” Ben admitted. He looked at Alpheus’s spear again, which was still pointing squarely at him. Dienekes, in the meantime, was looking down at Jamie, appraisingly:
“Maybe I misjudge you, barbarian,” he was saying, quietly. “Any man who can laugh in the face of death, and defy the man who is about to kill him, cannot be all bad. I will make your death a quick and dignified one.”
“Och, ye’re too kind,” Jamie told him, sarcastically. Dienekes laughed, almost in spite of himself:
“Spoken like a Spartiate, barbarian; not like your weak-kneed friend, who tries to buy his life with words.”
“Weak-kneed?” Ben sounded more than a little put out at this description.
“Enough words,” Dienekes told Alpheus and Maro: “Kill him.”
* * *
“Well, if they’re in such terrible danger,” said Polly, “we have to get them out of there at once!”
“Well, yes, of course we do,” the Doctor replied, gently. “There is, however, the small matter of currently being prisoners ourselves…” Polly did not seem to think that this was a particularly difficult obstacle:
“We’ll just have to escape, then!”
“Yes,” said the Doctor again. “Do you think you could say that again, a little bit louder, Polly? I don’t think that man at the other end of the street there quite heard you.” The horsemen escorting them, if they had heard, did not seem to mind the talk of escape.
“This is no time for sarcasm, Doctor,” Polly admonished him, but did at least lower her voice a little: “We will be able to escape, though, won’t we?” She looked around her, optimistically: “We’ve managed to escape from more secure places than this; it can’t be too difficult, can it?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t think so,” the Doctor agreed, mildly. “We’ll just have to come up with a plan, won’t we?”
The tightly-packed rows of tents suddenly opened out and the party trotted into a wider space, seemingly at the very heart of the camp. An enormous pavilion towered above them; almost like a palace, its tall sides made of sheets of red-brown leather, embroidered in gold, studded with pearls and jewels. A great red and gold banner flew above it, flapping sluggishly in the almost still air; it depicted a crowned, bearded figure seated within an eagle-winged sun-disc.
“It’s beautiful,” Polly whispered, instinctively dropping her voice in what might have been awe. She gazed at the scenes of horsemen and bowmen chasing each other across the sides of the great tent; war scenes and hunting scenes, with lions and gazelles leaping across the leather sheets. And again and again, the figure of a mighty king, also bearded and crowned, sitting on a high seat with lesser men abasing themselves before him.
“It is,” the Doctor said, also gazing up at it. “I think that we’re here now,” he added, as the horsemen slowed their mounts to a slow walk. “There is only one man that I can think of who would live in such a tent.”
“Xerxes?” Polly’s eyes were wide. “Why would they be taking us to see him?”
“I really can’t imagine,” the Doctor whispered. “Well, I can imagine, but none of the things I can imagine seem particularly reassuring at this precise moment in time…”
They passed a tall pedestal that stood in the open space in front of the enormous pavilion; an altar, upon which a bright flame burned, tended by priests in white caps and robes over white trousers. As they passed the flame, the horsemen all bowed low, as they had when the princes and generals had passed by in their golden chariots. The Doctor too inclined his head:
“Show your respect for the eternal flame of great Ahura Mazda, Polly,” he urged, out of the corner of her mouth. She did as she was told, nodding her head in the direction of the altar. “It can’t hurt our chances of making friends and influencing people around here,” he explained.
“I suppose not,” said Polly. The priests did not acknowledge their show of respect; they were too busy murmuring their prayers, over and over. Some of them were flicking droplets of what looked like oil over the sacred flame, producing crackling noises and clouds of fragrant smoke; others were raising vessels containing smoking incense high above their heads and staring up into the blue heavens. After a moment, Polly realised that they were worshipping the sun, burning high overhead.
“The Magi,” the Doctor explained, under his breath.
“What?” Polly blinked again. “Magi? You mean, like…”
““We three kings of orient are…”” said the Doctor.
“One in a taxi, one in a car,” said Polly. “One on a bicycle sucking an icicle, following yonder…”
“Well, those aren’t quite the words I know,” the Doctor protested gently. “The Magi are Zoroastrian priests,” he went on; “the state religion of the Achaemenid Empire of which Xerxes is the ruler. They are dedicated to the god Ahura Mazda, whom they worship in the form of the sacred fire and the risen sun, and they are also great astronomers and astrologers…”
“Hence the bit about following yonder star,” surmised Polly.
Beyond the altar was the entrance to the huge pavilion; not so much a tent flap as a mighty entranceway, flanked by golden pillars and covered with richly-embroidered hangings. Barring the entrance, and indeed surrounding the great tent, stood rank upon rank of men, dressed differently from any of the soldiers they had seen so far in the camp. They stood upright, motionless, in the heat and the dust, almost like statues; tall, stern men with brown skin and dark eyes, their black hair and beards styled into many tiny ringlets, slick with scented oils; they wore golden necklaces and tiaras and ankle-length robes of brightly-patterned linen from beneath which peeked yellow leather slippers. They carried bows and arrows across their backs and gleaming six-foot spears in their hands, and some had tall, violin-shaped shields of painted wicker, studded with bronze. Their spears were held point down to display the round counterweights at the butt-ends of their shafts, each an intricately crafted silver pomegranate.
“Who on Earth are they?” Polly wondered, apprehensively; for all of their rich finery, the multitude of guards had the air of proud warriors; not men to be taken lightly.
“These, Polly,” confided the Doctor, “are the Ten Thousand Immortals; they are the private army and personal bodyguard of the King of Kings himself. And yes,” he added, before she had a chance to ask; “there really are ten thousand of them.”
The group of horsemen halted before they reached the deeply-packed ranks of the Immortals, and began to dismount; Polly managed to slide inelegantly to the ground at the urging of the rider behind her; the Doctor did not so much dismount as fall off, dragging himself painfully to his feet and dusting himself down for at least the third or fourth time that day.
“You’re not very good with horses, are you?” Polly asked, amused as she often was by the Doctor, in spite of their plight.
“I prefer to think, Polly, that horses are not very good with me,” the Doctor muttered, flapping at himself with his already-grubby handkerchief. As he did so, all of the horsemen and the nearest couple of dozen Immortals, the ones standing immediately by the entrance to the pavilion, suddenly fell to their hands and knees in the dust, touching their foreheads to the ground.
“Doctor?” Polly looked down at them in puzzlement. “What are they —?”
“No need for all of you to go bowing and scraping, now,” the Doctor told them, looking around with a frown on his face. “Just shaking hands will be quite enough for me…” It took him a moment to notice the figure standing in the entrance to the monstrous tent, cautiously eyeing the pair of them.
“Prisoners for the Great King, Lord Hydarnes!” one of the horsemen shouted from where he was grovelling in the dust.
“I can see that,” said the man, still looking them up and down with curiosity written on his tanned, hawk-featured face. He was dressed much like the Immortals, but in even richer fabrics and with even more elaborate jewellery. Like them, his beard fell to his chest and was curled into many tiny ringlets; his hair, similarly styled, was bound up in a golden, jewel-encrusted ring. “Do you not abase yourself before your betters?” he asked the Doctor; the Doctor was a little taken aback:
“Oh, I, er, that is…no,” he answered. “I’m afraid I have this little problem with my knees…”
“Your clothing is strange,” Hydarnes told him, after a few moments’ further scrutiny.
“Yes,” agreed the Doctor. “Yes, yes it is; that’s because we’re travellers, you see; ah, I’m the Doctor, and this is my young friend Polly, and as you can probably tell, we…that is…”
“We’re not from around here,” Polly helpfully interjected.
“Yes, as Polly said, we’re, er, from a faraway land; much like yourself, in fact.”
“You’re not locals?” asked Hydarnes, disappointedly. “Well, the Great King has no use for you, then.” He nodded at the horsemen: “Take them away and kill them.”
“Well, just because we’re not locals doesn’t mean that we don’t know our way around here,” the Doctor said, quickly. “We know our way around here rather well, in fact; isn’t that right, Polly?”
“Oh, yes!” Polly insisted, a little desperately. “We know our way around here, like…like the back of our hands!” She nodded, as if this would make her claim more believable.
“Yes indeed,” nodded the Doctor, “as Polly says, like the back of our…” He trailed off, giving Hydarnes a searching look of his own: “Now, please tell us how we might be of assistance to you, my Lord?”
“Come,” said Hydarnes, with an imperious gesture of his hand. “You too,” he told the still-grovelling horsemen, and set off into the interior of the tent without even waiting to see whether or not they were following; he was obviously used to being obeyed without question. With the horsemen rising to their feet and surrounding them once more, and two of the Immortals also joining their escort, the Doctor and Polly did not really feel as if they had much choice in the matter.
The inside of the pavilion was cool and dimly lit in comparison to the heat and the blinding sunlight outside and the air was moist, heavy with perfume and incense; there were rose petals scattered underfoot to help keep out the stink of the camp. They followed Hydarnes along passageways and through antechambers; it really was like a palace, with walls of embroidered leather and tapestry screens for doors. There were more guards posted at every turn; Immortals, but like Hydarnes even more richly adorned than their comrades outside, and instead of silver pomegranates the counterweights of their spears were in the shape of golden apples.
“Xerxes obviously doesn’t believe in roughing it,” Polly commented, looking at the luxurious furnishings. Hydarnes, overhearing her, gave a snort of laughter:
“Would you have the Great King sleeping in ditch like a common soldier?” he demanded. “Not only would it be beneath his dignity, but he has an empire to rule; the master of the world must have everything that he needs to be able to discharge his sacred office.”
Eventually, they emerged into the heart of the great pavilion. It was a vast, cathedral-like space, lit by the orange glow of stone lamps, thronged with people. More guards lined the walls of the chamber, ever alert, ever watchful; scented courtiers queued up to attend upon their ruler, even as the business of the mightiest empire in the known world went on unabated. Officials scurried about bearing scrolls and tablets, produced by the row of scribes who squatted at their low writing tables along one wall of the chamber, scribbling earnestly. The rest of the room was arranged in concentric circuits of rank and power, all radiating from the figure who sat at the far end of the chamber, his golden throne set high upon a dais of many steps. Eunuchs and concubines and wives and children; generals and priests and royal princes; all centred upon that one man upon that throne.
He looked much like all of the other powerful men in the room; a long, patterned robe; golden necklaces and armlets; a long black beard shaped into a myriad of shiny curls, and hair done in the same style. Yet, he sat on a throne, haughty and proud, set above all others; he wore a tall, fluted crown of the purest gold upon his royal brow. Nobody looked down upon the Great King; even the tight clique of senior commanders and blood relatives who surrounded him could stand only upon the step below the golden chair. The clerks who carried messages and documents to the royal seat threw themselves flat upon the ground as they approached, cowering on their faces until a wave of a ring-covered hand told them that they were permitted to rise to their knees, to crawl to the Great King’s feet with their gifts of information.
“My word…” said the Doctor, almost involuntarily, as they were ushered into the royal presence. Xerxes glanced up at them from where a courtier was whispering in his ear; the Great King waved the lackey away with a flick of his bejewelled hand and sat up straight in his seat, expectantly. Hydarnes, he before whom even Immortals grovelled, flung himself to the ground before the throne, prostrate before his master:
“The prisoners you requested, Great King!” he announced. “Travellers from afar, yet familiar with the area around the Hot Gates!”
“I hope so, Hydarnes,” said Xerxes. He spoke softly, almost kindly; he was too powerful to have to shout. He sat there for a moment longer, looking down upon the Doctor and Polly, who stood looking back at him. A hush fell upon the busy chamber, for one heartbeat, two. When the third heartbeat came and they still had not abased themselves before the throne, a ripple of terror went through the assembled courtiers.
“Do you not know who is before you?” Hydarnes hissed disbelievingly, from where he had dared to rise to his hands and knees; he was staring at them in horror: “Mercy, Great King,” he begged; “they are but ignorant savages and do not know in whose presence they stand.” He turned back to the Doctor and Polly, perfectly scandalised by their behaviour: “Cower, mortals, while you can yet save your lives! Cower before mighty Xerxes, the first of his name, King of Persia and Media, Great King, King of Kings and Ruler of the World!”
* * *
“Kill him,” said Dienekes, still casually standing on Jamie. Alpheus and Maro did not need telling twice; only one question gave them pause:
“Do you wish to have the honour of killing the barbarian, brother?” Maro enquired. Alpheus grimaced and shook his head:
“No; I would not dirty my spear with this filth,” he decided. “You may do it.”
“Very well, brother.” Roughly, Maro pushed Ben to his knees and planted his foot in the middle of his back, forcing him down onto his hands as well. “This will be quicker than you deserve,” he said, softly, almost dreamily; it was more than obvious that he enjoyed killing men.
“Mate,” Ben said to Jamie, breathing deeply, fighting down his fear, even as his voice shook and caught in his throat: “Jamie, mate…”
“Aye, Ben?” asked Jamie, sounding close to tears himself.
“If…” Ben hesitated, composing himself; “if you get out of this alive, somehow, and you see Polly, tell her…” he shook his head, lost for words. “Just tell her, all right? You know what.”
“Aye,” said Jamie, very quietly, turning his head away. “I’ll tell ‘er, pal.”
“Thanks, mate.” Ben screwed his eyes shut as Maro raised his spear in his right hand, poised overarm for the downward thrust into Ben’s back. Dienekes and the other Spartans looked on in anticipation.
“Just what in the name of Zeus and Apollo is going on out here?” bellowed a loud, commanding voice from the direction of the wall. All present turned to see a tall, powerfully built figure emerging from the narrow gateway, draped in Spartan red; his long dark hair came down past his shoulders, and he had a beard to match it. As a man, the Spartans bowed their heads, but noticeably refused to kneel; it was probably a safe bet that Spartans knelt to no man.
“Barbarians, my King,” Dienekes said, indicating Jamie and Ben. “We were just about to dispose of them.”
“And seem to be making something of a fuss about it too,” the newcomer observed, wryly. “I know you’re all restless,” he told the group as a whole, “but the Mede is coming against us with all of Asia in his train; in a day or two, you will have all of the fighting and slaughter you could ever wish for; every man among you will commit deeds of heroism that will be remembered for a hundred generations, and with real warriors set against you,” he added, casting a disdainful eye over the two young travellers, “not poor specimens such as these.” Jamie, lying on the ground, considered the men towering over him on all sides; a gleam of calculation came into his eye as he thought about something Dienekes had said a few moments ago:
“Speak for yersel’, big man,” he called out, a little tentatively at first. “I’m as fine a specimen o’ Scottish manhood as ye’ll e’er see.” The newcomer laughed heartily:
“A big mouth for such a little barbarian,” he said to Dienekes.
“Yes, my King; most amusing.” Dienekes looked at Ben, still waiting for death under Maro’s foot. “His friend is not so stoical in the face of death.” Jamie gave a grim half-smile at the response his remarks had elicited, and quickly spoke up again, more confidently:
“An’ jest who might ye be when ye’re at home?” he asked, looking up at the laughing king.
“Me?” the king asked, seeming surprised and amused at the same time by Jamie’s forthrightness. “Tell him who I am, Dienekes.”
“This,” announced the other Spartan, trying hard to contain his own mirth, “is Leonidas, co-king of Sparta, whose deeds of martial bravery are the talk of the known world. You are not fit to polish his shield, little barbarian; how dare you speak to him with such familiarity?”
“I speak to who I please, how I please,” Jamie told them, quickly warming to his newfound role as a comedian. “An’ the only king I recognise is the King O’er the Water; I’ve ne’er bowed before no Hanoverian, an’ I dinnae reckon I’ll bow before any Greek neither.”
“He is brave,” Leonidas acknowledged, grinning through his beard. “Only a brave man would talk like that in the face of death.”
“Or a fool,” Dienekes pointed out.
“Or a fool,” the king agreed, “but then the line between a brave man and a foolish one has always been a fine one.” He looked down at Jamie: “I cannot help but like you, little barbarian,” he told him. “Dienekes, if you would not take it as an insult, I have a mind to spare his life; I would speak with him, find out what he knows about the dispositions of the enemy across the way.”
“I would not object, my King,” said Dienekes. “I must confess, I rather like the little fool; he jests even as Hades beckons before him; that is the Spartan way.”
“It is indeed.” Dienekes removed his foot from Jamie’s chest, and Leonidas gestured for him to rise: “Get up, little barbarian; you have impressed us with your staunchness and good humour; we will give you back your life, for the time being.”
“Aye, well tha’s mighty generous o’ ye, yer royalness,” Jamie acknowledged, as he got to his feet. “An’ what about ma pal there?” he asked, pointing a thumb at Ben.
“Him?” scoffed Dienekes. “He can die, the weakling.”
“Och, no ye don’t,” Jamie told him. “Tha’s ma pal there; if ye can spare me, ye can spare him too; otherwise, go on and do away with the both o’ us.” For a long moment, Jamie looked up at Leonidas, who looked down at him, and no longer seemed to be grinning. Eventually, the king spoke:
“Have a care, little barbarian,” he said, with a dangerous edge to his voice. “We Lakedaimonioi value humour and coolness when faced with death, just as we value martial prowess, but we will not be mocked or taken for fools. Have a care.”
“He’s ma pal,” Jamie told the king, quietly, meeting his dark gaze. After another long moment, Leonidas nodded abruptly:
“This one lives too,” he ordered, pointing to Ben. “For now.” Disappointedly, Maro removed his foot from Ben’s back and allowed him to rise. Ben opened his eyes, breathing hard, looking around in astonishment as if he could not believe that he was still alive.
“Now come with me, little barbarian,” said Leonidas to Jamie. “We have much to discuss, and what you can tell me will decide whether or not you live to see another sunrise.” He set off towards the gate, leaving Jamie to follow in his wake; Ben rushed over to the young Scot, almost shaking with relief:
“I dunno what you did there, mate,” he whispered, “but I’m not complaining. Thanks,” he added. “Really; thanks for…for saving me, there.”
“It’s all right,” Jamie assured him, magnanimously. “These fellas,” he went on, in a low hiss, “they love all that stuff; jokin’ around when ye’re about tae die an’ all that; I saw it jest now when yon Dienekes there was standin’ o’er me, an’ I realised, if I could jest keep ‘em laughin’, y’know, they might let us live a bit longer…”
“Yeah well,” said Ben, watching Leonidas duck through the cramped gateway ahead of them and disappear behind the wall, “now you’ve got your Royal Command Performance; you’ve just got to keep makin’ them laugh, right?”
“Aye,” Jamie agreed, dubiously. “The only thing is…”
“Yes?” asked Ben, anxiously, as they reached the gate themselves.
“Well, I’ve never been much good at tellin’ jokes,” Jamie confessed. Ben let out another deep breath and tried not to shudder:
“Now you tell me...”
To be continued…