“Well, whaddya think o’ that?” Jamie asked with a proud grin.
“I think,” said Ben slowly, “that it sounded like a pregnant camel. Mind you, that’s probably called music north of the border.” He shook his head and got back to the serious business of polishing.
“Ach, watch it, Sassenach,” Jamie bantered, and started to play again. The instrument was called an aulos, according to the helot who had lent it to him, and consisted of two long flute-like pipes, held one in each hand and played simultaneously; Jamie’s brow furrowed in earnest concentration as he sat on a rock, blowing away at them.
The storm had ended after two days, and it had taken another day for the ground to bake back to its previous granite-hardness under the unforgiving sun. Jamie had taken off his shirt and tied it around his head like a makeshift turban; bare-chested, in his kilt, wearing the sword Maro had given him and playing his archaic musical instrument, he looked half like an ancient Greek himself, if ancient Greeks had turned bright pink in the sun. Ben, for his part, continued to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.
After a few minutes’ intense playing, Jamie broke off again to look across at Ben in annoyance:
“What are ye doin’, man?” he asked, blinking at the bright light shining in his eyes. Ben laughed:
“Look; finished,” he said, holding up the large, heavy shield he had been polishing, and it had to be said, using to reflect sunlight into Jamie’s eyes. It was circular, about three feet wide and bulged outwards so that its shape was like that of a shallow bowl; wood, coated with a thin sheet of bronze, which Ben had managed to polish to mirror-brightness. Every spearman in the army had one, in most cases painted with his personal emblem; animals, birds, mythological monsters. In the case of the three hundred Spartans, however, every man’s shield was identical; they all bore what looked like a large, inverted letter “V”, painted in red. Eventually, and rather grudgingly, Alpheus had explained that it was the Greek letter lambda, which stood for Lakedaimon, the homeland of the Spartans.
“Very pretty,” Jamie said, when Ben stopped flashing it in his eyes. “Ye’ve put a lot of work intae it.”
“Eat your dinner off that, mate,” Ben claimed. “That’s one thing they teach you in the Navy; how to polish things.” He looked at the rest of the pile of equipment he had laid out beside him. “Look, I’ve got spears to sharpen, helmets to shine…” He cast a glance at Jamie: “Aren’t you supposed to be helping me with this, mate?”
“Ach, yer man Maro told me tae practice ma pipes,” Jamie insisted. “I dinnae wanna disobey ‘im now, do I?” And with a rather self-satisfied sort of grin, he started playing his tune once again.
“Better,” commented one of the helots, staggering past with a pair of buckets he had filled from the hot springs. “He’s getting better, isn’t he?” he asked Ben.
“See, Pollux said I’m gettin’ better,” Jamie bragged, breaking off his serenade.
“But then again, I don’t hear so well since master Alpheus kicked me in the head that time,” the slave went on as he continued on his way. Ben laughed as Jamie frowned at this news, and then stopped.
“Kicked him in the head,” he whispered. “He’s probably not even joking about that.” They had both seen the brutal treatment the helots received at the hands of their masters, usually for the most trivial of reasons, or for no reason at all other than to remind them that they were slaves. Ben and Jamie had for the most part been spared such handling, probably because Leonidas and Dienekes had taken a shine to them, but that did not make it any easier to watch, and they both knew that to attempt to intervene would very likely result in their own deaths.
“Yeah, well, you’ve had time to practice, haven’t you?” Ben continued, gazing pensively in the direction of the wall. “Can you hear that?” he asked, quietly.
“Aye,” Jamie admitted. It was similar to the sound they had heard on the day of their arrival; the distant tramping of many feet, but this time accompanied by a great din of trumpets, horns and drums, voices raised in chants and cheers.
“I almost wish they’d just get it over and done with and bloomin’ well attack us,” said Ben, “I don’t know if I can take this waiting much longer; two days of that blinkin’ storm, another day of sitting around on our…”
“Och, well, I reckon this is it,” Jamie told him, in a low, not particularly enthusiastic tone. He indicated Leonidas’s great tent at the centre of the encampment: “I reckon tha’s what that lad come runnin’ doon off the mountain to tell the king about jest before; ever since, him an’ all the bigwigs have been in there, plottin’ and plannin’.”
“I mean, three days,” Ben said, his voice full of frustration. “I don’t even want to think about what could have been happening to Polly and the Doctor in all that time…”
“Och, they’ll be all right,” Jamie insisted, as he had a hundred times since they had found themselves here, by now starting to sound as if he was trying to convince himself as much as Ben. “Ye’ll see,” he went on; “the Doctor’ll get us out o’ here; he’ll ‘ave thought of a plan by now.”
“Well, where is he, then?” Ben wondered, glumly. “You know, I wish I had your faith in the old fella, mate, but…”
“He’ll get us out,” Jamie assured him.
“It’s not that I don’t trust him,” Ben went on, uncertainly. “It’s just, well, ever since he…changed, I…” He shook his head: “You know, the way he is; clowning about one minute, and all serious and scary the next; you just can’t tell what’s in his head. I reckon if he had what he thought was a good reason for just leaving us here…”
“Och, dinnae say that, man,” Jamie interrupted, sounding saddened rather than angry. “Dinnae say that; Polly trusts ‘im, doesnae she? An’ I trust ‘im with ma life!”
“Yeah, Polly trusts him,” Ben admitted, looking at the wall again, his face unreadable.
There sounded a sudden blare of trumpets from the direction of the king’s tent, loud and unexpected enough to make them all jump; all around them, Greek warriors emerged from their tents or sprang up from whatever activity they were engaged in to pass the time, starting to gather around as Leonidas emerged, flanked by Dienekes, by Leontiades of Thebes and Demophilus of Thespiae, and all of the other senior commanders. Alpheus and Maro and the other Spartiates of their file barged past Ben and Jamie to take their places in the gathering.
“Men of Greece!” the king bellowed in his great voice; the whole camp immediately fell silent, warrior and helot alike, to listen to his words. “The time has come! The Mede is forming up his army on the plain; a sea of men, the messenger tells me, stretching from horizon to horizon! They mean to force their way through the Hot Gates!”
“Over our dead bodies!” called out one of the Spartans.
“I think that’s the idea!” Dienekes shot back; the three hundred laughed appreciatively; Leontiades and the Thebans with him looked as if they were going to be sick.
“We fight in relays!” Leonidas continued, waving his hand for silence. “They cannot send more than a small part of their strength against us at any one time in that narrow passage, and we do not need all of ours to block the path! We can send a part of our army beyond the wall at a time, and keep replacing them with fresh troops when they tire!”
“Spartans first!” Alpheus shouted, and his cry was quickly taken up by others around him:
“Spartans first! Spartans first!”
“Naturally,” said Leonidas, not quite managing to suppress a grin, “the three hundred men of my own household will be the first to take their turn holding the pass!” This was greeted with cheers from the men in question. “I trust that our esteemed allies do not object?” he asked, with just a hint of sarcasm. As it happened, they did not. “The Phocians,” he went on, “have their own mission to perform, and I wish them well!” The Phocian commanders nodded grimly, and broke away from the main party to gather up their men. Leonidas turned back to the rest of the army without explanation: “The rest of you, make ready! Polish your shields! Sharpen your weapons! And Spartans,” he turned his attention to the three hundred, with a wolfish grin: “Spartans, comb your hair!”
* * *
A thousand servants had sweated and laboured through the worst of the storm to level one of the crags overlooking the Hot Gates, carving a vast dais out of the living rock. And on the dais was set the golden chair of the King of Kings, so that he might observe his armies as they won the day from the savage Greeks. Now, he took his seat, surrounded by his generals, advisors and guards, and looked out across the sun-beaten plain. And as he looked, he smiled:
“Is it not a glorious sight, my lord Doctor?” Xerxes asked, taking in the whole impressive scene with a dramatic sweep of his arm. “Before you stands all of Asia, bent to my will and that of great Ahura Mazda! How can a few Greek savages oppose such might? How can they even imagine that they can defy the Ruler of the World?”
“Well, yes, my word, it really is all most impressive,” the Doctor agreed, mopping at his brow with his creased old handkerchief after the long climb from the camp. He turned to his companion, sat beside him on one of the golden steps below the Great King’s throne: “Don’t you think so, Polly?”
“Yes, most impressive,” Polly muttered, staring wide-eyed at the vast assemblage of armed might arrayed before her.
The camp had all but emptied itself, and now the army of the King of Kings seemed to fill the earth; rank upon rank of soldiers, on foot and on horseback, manoeuvred into position between the hills and the sea. The ground trembled under hundreds of thousands of feet, moving in time to the thunderous beat of the drums; the air was rent by shouted orders and the blare of trumpets. Polly looked across at the Doctor, who was for his own part frowning unhappily at the spectacle, crushing the already-crumpled handkerchief in his anxious fist.
“Ben and Jamie are in there,” she whispered, nodding at the narrow gap where the cliffs almost met the sea.
“Yes, of course they are,” the Doctor curtly replied.
“What I mean is…well…” She waved a hand at the endless sea of men lining up in front of the Hot Gates. “Look!”
“I can see very well,” the Doctor responded, again a little too abruptly for Polly’s liking:
“There’s no need to snap,” she said, folding her arms.
“Well, if you will insist on pointing out the obvious,” the Doctor answered, in a somewhat sulky tone.
“You’re just cross because you haven’t worked out how to escape from that tent they’ve got us in,” Polly retorted.
“I told you, I’m working on it,” the Doctor insisted, with a pained, defensive sort of expression. “Those Immortals really are very good guards, you know,” he pointed out. “Some of the best I’ve encountered, and, well, of course…there are ten thousand of them, aren’t there?”
“It’s been days!” Polly exclaimed, casting a nervous glance around to make sure they weren’t overheard. “And now…well...” She looked out over the army again, face falling. “This is it!” The Doctor tucked his handkerchief back into his breast pocket and reached out to take her gently by the hand.
“There’s time yet, Polly,” he assured her, with a gentle smile that made his face crease up like a deflated football. “Two more days, if my memory serves me.” Polly’s mouth fell open:
“If your memory serves you?”
“Two more days,” he adamantly repeated. “We’ll think of something. I’m sure there’ll be some sort of opportunity or distraction, sooner or later.”
“Hopefully not later,” Polly sighed.
“No, hopefully not later,” he agreed, squeezing her hand again and giving it a little pat as well. “Oh, I do hope not. All’s well that ends well, Polly,” he insisted, as brightly as he could manage. “All’s well that ends well…”
Further down the steep hillside path, Mardonius paused in his climb to join the Great King’s entourage, casually allowing the painfully limping Hegesistratus to catch up to him:
“Well?” the general impatiently demanded.
“My lord…” the soothsayer began to fawn.
“Three days!” Mardonius hissed, grasping the front of his tunic and shaking him violently. “And yet the interloper still lives! You told me that you could arrange matters; that you could hire some of your fellow Greek scum from around the camp to do this thing for me — I even gave you gold to pay them — and yet he lives!”
“He is surrounded by Immortals, both day and night,” Hegesistratus protested. “Nobody is allowed to see him, and he is allowed to see nobody, save at the command of Hydarnes or the Great King.”
“Well, Hydarnes will not be persuaded or bought,” Mardonius angrily observed. “He is as much under this false holy man’s spell as anybody.” He rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “If the Immortals could somehow be enticed away from their posts…” he mused.
“How, my lord?” Hegesistratus asked. “Their discipline and obedience is legendary.”
“Some sort of distraction…” Mardonius decided, quietly. “Listen carefully, you Greek dog,” he told the soothsayer. “This is what you are going to do, either tonight or the following night, but you will have to pick your moment carefully…”
* * *
“Arm me, dog!” Maro ordered, casting off his red cloak to stand naked in front of his tent; his tanned skin gleamed in the sun. “Arm me!” Ben rushed to obey, just as all of the helots were rushing to equip their Spartan masters around him. The camp was a bustle of activity as the whole army dressed for battle; the jingle of armour, the tramping of feet and the sound of voices barking orders rang out in the narrow space behind the wall.
“Come on, quicker! I have barbarians to kill!” Alpheus exhorted Jamie as he helped him into his body armour; a vest made from many layers of linen, glued together and left to set into a thick, stiff material almost as tough as metal, but far lighter and cheaper to produce. It wrapped around his torso almost like a corset, with Jamie lacing it up tightly at the back, and there was a skirt of dangling strips of the same material to protect the lower body too, as well as broad straps that passed forward over the arms and were secured to the front of the armour, offering protection to the shoulders and neck.
“Here you go, chief.” Having finished fastening up Maro’s armour, Ben picked up his helmet too; beaten out of a single sheet of bronze, polished until it shone like gold and with a long trailing crest like a horse’s mane, dyed the same blood-red as the Spartans’ cloaks. Maro perched it on his head, tilted back to leave his face exposed; when he pulled it on properly, it would encase his whole head, with only a narrow T-shaped slit at the front enabling him to see and breathe.
Jamie knelt to strap a bronze greave to Alpheus’s left shin, the leg he would lead with when he was in the phalanx, in case some Persian had the idea of striking beneath the edge of his shield. Ben, meanwhile, was helping Maro on with his swordbelt; presumably his spare, considering that he had given one to Jamie; then he handed him the shield that he had spent so long buffing up; Maro even gave an approving grunt when he saw how brightly it shone. He inserted his arm through the strap that equally divided the concave interior of the shield, and gripped the inside of the lower rim; held like that, it would cover him from shoulder to knee when he took up his fighting stance. Finally, the warriors took up their spears; eight foot poles of ash wood with slim, leaf-shaped iron heads at one end and square bronze butt-spikes at the other. Ben and Jamie stepped back to examine their handiwork:
“Och, have ye ever seen such a bonny pair o’ fightin’ men?” Jamie asked with a smile. Maro considered his brightly-polished shield:
“Acceptable,” he decided, eventually, giving Ben a reluctant nod. “A better job than my last helot did, anyway. Before I killed him.”
“Ah, well,” said Ben, a little awkwardly, “like I was saying to Jamie, if there’s one thing they teach you in the Navy, it’s—”
“That was not an invitation to engage in conversation,” Maro cut him off, turning to Jamie: “And have you been practicing your pipes, little barbarian?”
“Aye, that I have,” Jamie assured him, holding them up for him to see. The Spartan nodded to himself:
“Then we are ready for war,” he decided, turning to his brother: “Are we not, Alpheus?”
“We are ready,” he agreed. “Now all we need is some wine.” At that moment, the trumpets sounded again from Leonidas’s tent, and once again the army rushed to assemble; this time, being fully equipped, they did not do so quite so quickly; the clinking of helmets and shields and the flash of sunlight on bronze and iron now filled the camp. The king emerged from his sanctum, armed and armoured identically to his men, nodding to himself as he surveyed his battle-ready army:
“Now, bear witness men!” he called out as some servants led a bleating white goat into the open space before the tent; an old man in a red Spartan cloak followed them, a bright knife in his hand.
“I wouldnae wanna be tha’ goat,” Jamie decided sadly.
“Yeah, well I think we know where this is going,” Ben agreed, looking away. Leonidas drew his short sword:
“Mighty Zeus and Apollo, accept our sacrifice!” he intoned, holding the sword aloft so that it caught the light. “Give your blessing to our endeavour today!” And without further ceremony, he plunged the blade into the unfortunate animal’s throat; hot blood gushed brightly, reddening the pale stones at his feet. “Megistias,” the king said to the old man, “read the signs; interpret for us the will of the gods.” The old man knelt and began to slice open the dead goat’s belly; Jamie joined Ben in taking a sudden interest in his own feet. Eventually, after some moments spent in contemplation of the animal’s innards, Megistias straightened up; a helot stepped up with a bowl of water so that he could wash his bloody hands.
“The entrails read favourably!” the old man announced to the assembled army. “We will have the victory this day!” A cheer went up from the ranks.
“And what of the next day?” asked Leonidas. Megistias shrugged:
“Ask me tomorrow,” he said, with a grimace. Leonidas gave a resigned nod:
“Very well.” He raised his voice for the benefit of the troops: “The signs for today are favourable!” he shouted. “You may break ranks and eat your breakfast; then, the Spartiates will deploy on the other side of the wall, in full order of battle! And I want the Thespians ready to relieve them at my command!”
“And what of us, my king?” It was Eurytus, the Spartan who had been receiving treatment in Leonidas’s tent on the day that Jamie and Ben had arrived. He stood with his comrade Aristodemus, both of them with their red-rimmed infected eyes swollen shut and weeping yellowish discharge, reliant on helots to lead them around the camp.
“Hopefully you will recover before this battle is over,” Leonidas replied. “Do not worry; you may yet get your chance.”
“I told you before, my king,” Eurytus answered, in deadly earnest, “I do not need to see barbarians to kill them.”
“Spoken like a Spartiate,” Leonidas grinned, clasping the man’s hand. “Yet you know as well as I that you cannot play your part in the phalanx in your current state; and the phalanx is only as strong as its weakest member.”
“You speak the truth,” Aristodemus sadly acknowledged; Eurytus nodded too, too downcast to speak. Leonidas clapped them both heartily on the shoulder and looked down at the dead goat. He gestured to a nearby helot:
“Clean it and cook it,” he ordered. “The Spartiates will eat meat today.”
As they returned to their tent, Alpheus’s file and their helots passed the Phocians, already moving out in full armour, perhaps a thousand of them, grim-faced and singing mournfully to themselves. Instead of marching towards the opening in the wall, towards the enemy, however, they were headed in the opposite direction, away along the narrow pathway between the cliffs and the sea.
“And where do they think they’re goin’?” Jamie asked incredulously. “Battle’s that way, fellas!”
“Looks like someone around here’s got sense, anyway,” Ben commented, watching them go.
“You have big eyes as well as a big mouth, little barbarian,” said Alpheus, giving Jamie a warning glance. “If you want to keep them, look somewhere else. The Phocians act by Leonidas’s command, as do we all; that is all you need to know.”
“Och, it’s part of some secret plan, like,” Jamie said to Ben, as if Ben could not work this out for himself:
“By Jove, you just might have something there,” he replied, sarcastically. “Well, I suppose these blokes are going to want breakfast, then,” he said, pointing a thumb at the Spartans. “What do you want, chief?” he asked. “We’ve got bread, bread and...”
“Wine, of course!” Maro roared. “Wine before battle, barbarian! It is the Spartan way!”
* * *
A hundred different national contingents in a hundred different strange and colourful costumes were lined up beneath the Great King’s seat. Proudly, Xerxes looked out upon them all, naming each in turn for the benefit of his guests:
“Egyptians, Phoenicians, Hebrews and Babylonians! Mesopotamians, Scythians, Akkadians and Assyrians! Pergamites and Halicarnassians and Thracians! Men of Ionia and men of the Indus, men of Macedonia!” His words were punctuated by the rattle of drums and cymbals.
“And not one of them a Spartan,” sneered Demaratus the exiled king, seated near to the Doctor and Polly, draining the last dregs from his wine-cup and holding it out to a servant for a refill.
The Immortals surrounded the golden throne on all sides, as well as lining the hillsides all around; all ten thousand of them, or so it seemed. They had dressed for battle, discarding their usual ornate robes and tiaras for linen trousers and head-wraps, still finely made and richly patterned, and loose tunics worn over short coats of bronze scales. Many of them had set aside the spears which they bore when they were on guard duty and now had their bows at the ready, their quivers bulging with arrows.
“And finally,” smiled the Great King, pointing to the largest contingent in the army, the one positioned directly before the Hot Gates: “The men of Persia itself; Persians, Cissians, and the men of my own tribe; the Medes!”
“Oh, I say, they are very well turned out, aren’t they?” the Doctor enthused, to show willing. He pulled out a brass spyglass that seemed much too large to have fitted into his coat pocket and scanned the indicated body of men. “Yes, I must say, extremely well turned out.” He passed the telescope to Polly, who peered through it in turn.
The Persian infantry were arrayed in great blocks of men, ten ranks deep. The men in the front rank wore quilted cloth body-armour and carried great wicker shields as tall as themselves, as well as gleaming spears; the eight rows behind them were archers, lightly clad for mobility across the battlefield. And the men in the tenth and rearmost rank…
“Why are men in the back row carrying whips, Doctor?” Polly wondered, handing back the spyglass; he dropped it nonchalantly into his seemingly too-small pocket.
“Well,” said the Doctor, slowly, “that’s a very good question…”
“They have to whip the dogs to make them march into battle!” Demaratus guffawed. “Barbarian weaklings!”
“That is untrue,” insisted Hydarnes, standing nearby. “The men in the rear are tasked with making sure that the ranks remain straight and closely spaced; the whips are merely a symbol of their rank. The Greeks spread the tale that our men will not stand fast unless coerced, but like many things they say about us, it is a lie.”
“Oh,” said Polly, sceptically. Demaratus merely laughed.
“There,” said the Doctor, with polite false brightness. “I knew there had to be some perfectly reasonable explanation.”
“Do you stand by your words, lord Doctor?” asked Mardonius, joining the group from wherever he had been lurking, voice dripping with fake courtesy. “Can you seriously look upon the mighty host before you and continue to doubt that our victory will be swift and total?”
“I remain quietly confident that I will be proven right in the end,” the Doctor replied, answering the general’s sneer with a bland smile of his own. “Yes.” Mardonius cursed under his breath and turned away.
“And what of you, Hydarnes?” Xerxes jovially asked from his golden chair. “Are you still filled with foreboding, even with that sight to inspire confidence in you?”
“I wish I were not, Great King,” Hydarnes confessed, “but I fear the Greeks have the best of the terrain. Ideally, we would sweep them aside with a storm of arrows, but that narrow pass presents a difficult target, and the cliffs offer them protection. Our other main strength is our cavalry, but we cannot send horsemen along that precarious path. So, it will be a matter of battering a way through with weight of numbers, and our men are mainly archers, not equipped for hard fighting at close quarters, not the way the Greeks are.”
“You raised these concerns in the council of war,” Xexes reminded him, “and indeed there is much wisdom in what you say, but have a little faith.” The Great King chuckled. “If it is a question of weight of numbers, then look upon our numbers! How can they stand against us?”
“I fervently hope to be proven wrong, Great King,” Hydarnes replied with a bob of his head. Xerxes nodded and turned to one of the other generals standing by:
“Artapanus!” he commanded. “Lead the Medes against the Hot Gates! If the Greeks surrender, then spare their lives; never let it be said that the King of Kings is not merciful towards those who throw themselves upon his mercy! I would have them paraded before my throne to beg the forgiveness of the Ruler of the World!” Demaratus laughed heartily at the very idea of his countrymen surrendering; Xerxes and his other advisors pretended not to notice.
“At once, Great King!” Artapanus bowed and hurried down the slope to where his horse was waiting.
“Have the Cissians ready to move in case the Medes fail to break through,” Xerxes was murmuring to an aide. Mardonius scowled at this apparent acknowledgement that all might not go as easily as expected. “A mere precaution,” Xerxes assured those standing close to him.
The Doctor was frowning again as part of the army on the plain began to move, marching slowly and deliberately towards the narrow pass. As the land narrowed, their orderly rectangular formations were already starting to distort and bunch up, simply in order to fit into the gap between the cliffs and the sea. By the time they were starting to enter the Hot Gates themselves, any semblance of straight, parallel ranks was gone, replaced by a crowded, jostling mass of men trying to force their way into too small a space.
Xerxes looked on impassively, the only sign of his anxiety a hand raised to his beard. Hydarnes looked far less calm.
“My lord,” said the Doctor, giving him a nod.
“What do you want?” the general asked, distractedly, eyes never moving from the unfolding battle below.
“Look at the Great King,” the Doctor said, quietly. Hydarnes glanced at him, and the Doctor fixed him with his stern, heavy-browed gaze. “If you still have any doubts about my predictions,” he said, very seriously, “then know this; before the Medes come back from the Hot Gates, the Great King will start up from his throne three times.”
Hydarnes looked up at the rapt Xerxes, and then back at the Doctor, and then away. Mardonius, who had overheard the whole exchange, only deepened his scowl. Polly turned nervously to the Doctor, also finding it difficult to take her eyes off the marching men on the plain:
“Is that really…?” she asked.
“I think so,” the Doctor confessed. “Yes, I think that it was this battle…yes, almost certainly…” He at least had the good grace to look a little sheepish about it.
* * *
“Keep your shields locked together!” Leonidas called out from his position at the front right hand corner of the phalanx. “Stand straight and stand strong; cover the right side of the man to your left, and the man beside you will cover yours! Together we prevail, divided we go down to defeat!” Those near the king passed the word down the straight ranks of the phalanx, each man repeating the words to the man beside him:
“Together we prevail, divided we go down to defeat!” The Spartans stood in front of the stone wall in the narrowest part of the pass, a block twenty-five men wide and twelve men deep, completely filling the cramped space with a gleaming, unbroken mass of helmets and shields, bristling with spear-points. Behind them, helots stood ready, some waiting to drag the wounded out of the formation and take them back behind the wall, others with musical instruments, pipes and trumpets. Jamie stood among them, wearing his sword, holding his pipes, unable to see anything of the approaching enemy for the mass of men in front of him. Some distance behind him, Ben was peering over the top of the wall, watching the approach of the Medes over the Spartans’ heads:
“Bloomin’ ‘eck!” The far end of the narrow pass was already full of men, presenting an unbroken front just as the Greeks did, even if their shields were painted wicker rather than shining bronze. They flowed along the ledge at the foot of the cliffs like an approaching flood; spears glinted in the front rows, as the men behind began to shoot arrows; a few at first, quickly thickening into a hissing hail of wood and bronze. Ben ducked as one clattered off the top of the wall near where he was perched; deciding discretion was the better part of valour, he dropped back out of sight.
“Stand straight and stand strong!” Leonidas exhorted his men; they pulled their helmets down into position, hiding their faces behind implacable, featureless bronze masks, crouching behind their shields to weather the storm. Shafts rattled impotently on shields and helmets, sounding just as the rain had during the recent tempest, some of them sticking where they struck, others glancing off. Screams rang out among the un-armoured helots behind the phalanx as some arrows found their mark. One of the Spartiates in the front row fell with a cry, pierced through the eyehole of his helmet, vivid red blood dripping from beneath the bronze mask. He was quickly pulled to his feet and passed back through the formation, before the ranks closed again as if he had never been there.
Yet, it was not the unstoppable rain of arrows that Leontiades the Theban had spoken of some days earlier; the sun was not blotted out. As the Medes crammed their vast numbers into the confines of the pass, as their straight ranks became a disordered jumble of men, all cohesion was lost, and their advance only became more disorderly as more men continued to pile in behind the first ranks. And as more men flowed in, those in the front rows were pushed along the path almost against their will; the archers had neither the space nor time to shoot as they had been trained to do, keeping up a continuous, rhythmic storm of death; they were lucky to be able to snatch a couple of shots before the flowing mass of humanity obliged them to move forward again. The shield-bearers at the front meanwhile braced themselves for close combat, rushing headlong towards the waiting Spartans.
And then, the Spartans came to meet them. Leonidas began to sing in a low, deep voice, unaccompanied at first, but then joined by the trumpets and pipes of the helots. Jamie swelled out his chest, took a deep, deep piper’s breath, and blew for all he was worth, trying to follow the ponderous, doom-laden tune as best he could; the other Spartans meanwhile took up the song, three hundred voices sounding as one, voices made hollow and muffled by their all-enclosing helmets, so that they almost did not sound human at all:
“On, sons of Sparta,
Sons of the land of the brave!
With your left hand firmly bear your shield,
And with your right hand raise the spear!”
* * *
Even from the Great King’s hilltop vantage point, even over the din of the Persian army moving into position, the voices of the Spartans could be heard drifting up from the narrow pass, a distant, haunting sound carried on the breeze. Polly and the Doctor exchanged fearful glances; Hydarnes looked shaken. Xerxes gripped the arms of his chair and leaned forward in his seat, trying to get a better view of what was happening down on the precarious ledge beneath the cliffs.
Suddenly, another voice joined the paean from somewhere much closer at hand; a deep, gruff voice, choked with emotion. And even as he sang, Demaratus wept.
* * *
And as they sang, the Spartans acted out the words of the paean, levelling their spears, pointing them underarm at the enemy as they began to advance at a slow, steady pace, in time with the music and the tempo of the song; it was a mark of their intense discipline that their ranks remained straight and true, even as they crossed the rough, rocky ground:
“On, sons of Sparta,
Show the foe your courage!
Do not fear for your own life,
For no man lives forever!”
The Medes came on in a jumbled mass, trying desperately to maintain their wall of shields; some shouted out prayers to great Ahura Mazda, others gave cries of hatred and defiance. Most sweated and panted in terrified silence, for they knew that these were no mere men they faced; even children in sun-baked villages in the uplands of Persia had heard of the Spartans, of their fierceness and their cruelty. And still the Spartiates sang lustily and fearlessly:
“On, sons of Sparta,
Do not shame your mothers!
To fear for one’s own life,
Does not become the sons of Sparta!”
And then the music ceased, as suddenly as it had begun. Jamie was taken by surprise, quickly pulling the pipes from his mouth; luckily, his impromptu solo went unnoticed, drowned out by the great ringing voice of Leonidas:
“Do not betray your fathers’ memories!” he called out. “Do not shame your mothers! Let your sons speak of you with pride when you are gone! Do not betray your comrades of the phalanx, closer to you than brothers!”
As one, in perfect unison, the Spartans quickened their pace and raised their spears overarm, aiming the points at the onrushing enemy. They overlapped their shields with an ear-splitting chiming of bronze on bronze. So tightly packed were the ranks now that the first three rows could extend their spears beyond the barrier of shields, a serried hedge of iron points. Those in the other nine ranks waited their turn, adding their weight and their voices to the advance, which had now become a headlong charge. The distance to the enemy was measured in mere yards now, as Dienekes in turn raised his voice, calling out to the men:
“Who will be the first to strike down his foe?” he demanded, and was answered by a cacophonous jumble of voices, every man in the phalanx claiming that it would be him:
“Me!” “Maro of Sparta!” “I, Alpheus!” “It will be me!” A thunderous, animal roar, barely intelligible but absolutely terrifying; caught up in the moment, unable even to see what was going on at the front of the formation, but breathing hard, able to feel his heart hammering in his chest as that familiar sensation of fear mingled with excitement washed over him, Jamie pulled out his borrowed sword and added his own voice to the din:
“Creag an tuire! The McLaren! Life or Death! Creag an tuire!”
Huddled behind the wall, the ground around him pin-cushioned with arrows, Ben murmured:
* * *
“Oh, Ben…” whispered Polly, sweat gleaming on her brow as the great cry of the Spartans echoed across the battlefield and the Doctor clutched her hand once more; whether he did so to comfort her or to comfort himself was not immediately clear.
“Oh, Jamie…” he muttered, worriedly. Demaratus was on his feet with an animal snarl, eyes flashing with excitement even as they streamed with tears, visibly stirred by the sound of the Spartans shouting their defiance. On his elevated throne, Xerxes’s knuckles stood out white as his fingers dug claw-like into the arms of the seat, his whole body quivering with tension.
* * *
And then, with a crash like thunder, the opposing armies met.
To be continued…