The sky glowed like molten gold as the fat red sun sank behind the jagged mountains; its reflected light made the very land seem stained with blood. A thin, cool breeze blew in off the darkening sea, doing little to disperse the stench of death that hung over the plain. Corpses and pieces of corpses bobbed in the pink-stained surf beneath the cliffs, where the repeated waves of Persian attackers had had to clear them aside simply in order to advance along the thin, carnage-choked path; seabirds wheeled and squabbled overhead, bloody scraps dangling from their beaks, their high, thin cries seeming to mock the screams of the dying.
The second day of battle for the Hot Gates had transpired much like the first, but now it was over. Campfires glowed orange in the gathering dusk, studding the darkness like jewels. Jackals skulked down off the hills, eyes glowing in the twilight, to fill their bellies from the open-air charnel house beneath the cliffs; the still night air was filled with the buzzing of hungry flies. At least somebody had something to show for the fighting.
In the shady, scented precincts around the Great King’s pavilion, the Immortals stood their eternal watch, untiring and unmoving. Among the bright robes and glittering jewellery, there were now many members of the Ten Thousand wearing plainer dress. Common soldiers who had distinguished themselves in the two days’ fighting, their bravery awarded by promotion to the ranks of the elite, replacing those who had fallen fighting the Spartans. For that distinguished corps was always maintained at full strength; that was why they were Immortal.
And in the open space before the tent, near the cheerfully-crackling fire-altar tended by the Magi, stood a tall wooden pole; atop it, the severed head of the general Artapanus, whose Medes had fled the field on the first day, stared sightlessly out across the camp, fly-blown and desiccated, gore-caked beard and hair stirring in the slight breeze; a scapegoat for the Great King’s wrath.
“It’s horrible,” Polly whispered, looking up at the gruesome exhibit as she and the Doctor headed for their tent. The evening was still warm, even if it promised to be chilly later, yet she shivered. And yet she did not look away; she had seen so many things in these two days that a head skewered upon a pole no longer held any fear for her. The Doctor offered no comment; he put her arm around her shoulders and drew her away.
“Now, I wonder what could be going on in there?” he asked, as if to change the subject; the gaily-accoutred commanders and courtiers of the Great King were filing into the enormous royal tent in their droves, attended by scribes and guardsmen.
“Oh, another boring council of war, I suppose,” Polly replied as their own attendant Immortals escorted them into their tent and took up their places guarding the entrance. “At least they’ve stopped inviting us.”
“I don’t think we’re quite as popular with the Great King as we once were,” the Doctor unhappily confided.
“Do we want to be?” Polly asked, sinking stiffly onto one of the luxuriously-upholstered couches. The Doctor looked out of the tent flap to where Artapanus’s head could still be seen, a little black blob silhouetted against the darkening sky.
“Yes,” he decided, after some thought. “Yes, I really rather think that we do, don’t you?”
“He only started to go off you when he realised you were right about him not winning a quick victory,” Polly pointed out.
“Well, nobody likes bearers of bad news, now, do they, Polly?” the Doctor replied.
“If it was the Spartans, they would have thrown you down a well by now,” Polly replied, with a barely-suppressed yawn. “Oh, I’m bushed,” she said, rubbing her eyes.
“You didn’t get much rest last night,” the Doctor observed, as she lay down on the couch, blinking drowsily.
“There were all of those wounded men to look after,” she protested, her eyelids threatening to close even as she spoke. “Do you think we should have come back here?” she asked, very seriously. “I mean, there were still some waiting to be seen to…”
“Yeshua had things well in hand,” the Doctor assured her, gently covering her with the blanket and smoothing it down. “And after I showed him how to boil the instruments and the importance of rudimentary hygiene, I’m sure most of those men have a much better chance of living through this.”
“Doesn’t that count as tinkering about with history?” Polly asked, a little distantly.
“I sincerely hope not,” the Doctor answered, in something like horror as if the idea had just occurred to him. “No,” he said, as if to reassure himself, “I’m sure it will all be all right. I hope…”
“I just wish all of this could be over,” she said, wistfully.
“It will be, soon,” the Doctor promised. “In fact, by this time tomorrow it most definitely will be.” He could not help but look a little bit anxious at the prospect.
“I mean over with all of us safe and in one piece,” Polly clarified. “You and me, and Ben and Jamie…”
“We will be,” the Doctor assured her, looking off into the distance. “Yes, we will be,” he nodded, decisively, and turned back to Polly, waving his own concerns away with his flapping, wringing hands: “Anyway, I think you should get some sleep. You’ll need to have your wits about you later on tonight.”
“Why?” Polly murmured, her eyes already closed.
“Well, because we’re going to escape,” the Doctor muttered, almost to himself, carefully watching the Immortals in case they overheard. “Tomorrow is the final day of the battle; if we don’t get Ben and Jamie out of the Greek camp tonight, then…well, yes…” he trailed off, as if he did not even want to put that possibility into words. Polly, however, was suddenly sat bolt-upright, eyes wide:
“We’re going to…?” she began excitedly, before she managed to stop herself. “How?” she whispered, nervously glancing at the guards’ immobile backs.
“Ah yes…” the Doctor conceded, putting a knuckle to his mouth. “Yes, that really is a very good question. A very good question indeed… Well, we just need to stay alert and keep our wits about us, and I’m sure an opportunity will present itself.”
“One hasn’t presented itself yet,” Polly complained, sinking back onto the couch.
“Oh, I’m quite sure Mardonius will help us,” the Doctor replied, quietly. Polly’s eyes shot open again:
“Mardonius?” she spluttered, sitting up once more. “He’s even less keen on you than Xerxes is these days! Didn’t you see the way he was looking at us when we were talking to Xerxes the other day? I thought he was about to have a stroke! If you think he’s going to help us, then…”
“I remain an eternal optimist,” the Doctor smiled, rubbing his hands together quite cheerfully, considering.
“Eternal barm-pot, you mean…” Polly muttered, turning over and pulling the blanket back up over herself.
“Well, of course, he is going to try to kill us later on tonight,” the Doctor brightly continued. Polly shot up off her bed for a third time, staring at him in disbelief:
“Kill…?” she began, before remembering about the Immortals and dropping her voice again. “Try to kill us?” she hissed, in something like horror. “You know, if you think I should get some sleep, you probably ought not to go around saying things like that when I’m trying to drop off!”
“Oh yes,” replied the Doctor, mildly, with an impish little smile. “I am rather surprised, to be honest, that he hasn’t tried it already, but I suppose us having all of these guards surrounding us the whole time probably made it quite difficult for him to arrange…”
“Why on Earth would he want to kill us?” Polly asked, smooth brow furrowing in perplexity. “I know you put his nose out of joint a bit the other day…”
“Be fair,” the Doctor frowned. “We put his nose out of joint.”
“You put his nose out of joint,” Polly persisted, “but that’s no reason to go around killing people!”
“As you may have observed,” the Doctor replied, “in this era, powerful people really don’t need much of a reason to go doing that sort of thing. Mardonius is a typical Persian nobleman of this era; very proud, very concerned with appearances, and extremely used to getting his own way. I quite honestly think he probably decided to kill us right there and then…”
“And how do you know he’s going to try tonight?” Polly asked, thoughtfully.
“Oh, it seems quite likely,” the Doctor told her, airily. “If he was paying attention to my prophecy the other day, and to your really quite excellent rendition of Lennon and McCartney,” he gave her a gracious smile.
“Oh, thank you,” Polly grinned.
“Then he knows that the battle ends tomorrow, and at the moment it’s looking rather as if my predictions are going to be proved right in every particular.” He beamed in self-satisfaction, straightening his bowtie as if he had done something impressive, as opposed to simply remembering a drunken conversation with an ancient Greek historian. “In which case,” he continued, “the Great King will probably make me Satrap of Greece, or in any event shower us with rewards beyond our wildest dreams…”
“I don’t know, I have some quite wild dreams,” Polly interjected; the Doctor ignored this:
“And, as the main naysayer around these parts, Mardonius…”
“Mardonius ends up on the pole next door to poor old Artapanus out there,” Polly surmised, wrinkling her nose in disgust. The Doctor’s complacent smile immediately snapped off, replaced with open-mouthed terror in the blink of an eye:
“Oh, I sincerely hope not,” he said. “Young Mardonius may be a rather objectionable sort of chap, but he has great things ahead of him; at the Battle of Plataea next year, he…well, that would be telling…but no, I hope that doesn’t happen; that really would count as tinkering with the timeline!”
“Well, all right, but he ends up looking like a proper Charlie, as Ben would say, in front of Xerxes and all of the other bigwigs around here.”
“Yes,” the Doctor agreed, wholeheartedly. “And for that reason, he really needs to do away with us tonight, preferably in such a way that we will be thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the Great King, so it won’t matter whether our predictions come true or not.”
“How is he going to do that, though?” Polly demanded, casting another furtive glance at the guards. “We seem to be quite secure in here…aren’t we?”
“Oh, I have the utmost faith in him,” the Doctor smiled, proudly. “I’m sure he’ll think of something; you’re really not seeing him at his best here, you know; next year, in the Plataea campaign, he proves himself to be a rather resourceful commander indeed. Of course, that doesn’t do much good in the…”
“You’re talking about somebody who’s planning to murder us in our beds, you know,” Polly reminded him, sternly.
“And I’m sure he’ll do an excellent job of it,” the Doctor replied, as if that was supposed to be reassuring. Polly’s eyes, however, lit up; it was almost as if a light-bulb had just ignited in the air above her head:
“And if he’s as clever as you think he is,” she said, slowly, “then he’ll have thought of some way to get rid of the guards…”
“I’m counting on it,” the Doctor beamed, “because, well, that’s really the main obstacle to our getting out of here, isn’t it?” Polly was shaking her head, exasperation and admiration fighting for control of her face:
“Oh, you wily old…” she threw the pillow at the Doctor, who caught it, beaming even harder, his whole face seeming to crumple into a mass of creases and dimples. “That’s why you haven’t been trying too hard to think of a plan to escape!” she whispered, trying not to laugh. “You knew all along that Mardonius was going to take care of it for us!”
“Well, maybe not all along…” the Doctor replied with feigned modesty, clearly still extremely pleased with himself all the same. “Just since he gave me that dirty look the other day in the throne room…”
“Oh you…” Polly said with another shake of her head, unable to stop herself from beaming too. “I knew you’d do it!” she grinned. “I knew you’d find some way of saving Jamie and Ben!”
“I told you I would,” said the Doctor, very softly and kindly. “And I always keep my promises, now, don’t I?” Polly nodded, and they just smiled at each other for a moment. “It will, however, take careful timing on our part,” he went on, managing to rein in the smile and arching his eyebrows very seriously. “We’ll know something’s up when the guards go away, but then we won’t have long before Mardonius…does whatever he’s planning to do…”
“Well, we’ll just have to run,” said Polly, with a shrug.
“Yes. Run like a rabbit...”
* * *
At the heart of the Great King’s pavilion, gold and silver dishes and cups twinkled in the dim orange glow of the great audience chamber. The air was heavy with the aromas of roasting meats and exotic spices as the King of Kings and his closest advisors feasted. Half a dozen servants managed to manhandle a platter containing a roast ostrich, stuffed with goose livers, onto the long dinner table; in the nearby kitchen, a whole donkey turned slowly over the fire-pit. And the high generals and courtiers of the Great King ate heartily, their plates piled high with greasy red rare flesh, washing down every bloody mouthful with draughts of wine from jewelled goblets.
Xerxes reclined at the head of the table upon a couch with silver lion’s feet, upholstered with the finest silks and linens. He pushed away his half-eaten plate of dates and lamb and sipped from a golden bowl of plain water, its edge decorated with a tiny, intricately-wrought frieze of huntsmen chasing gazelles. The Great King’s drinking water had been carried all the way from distant Susa in great silver urns to ensure its purity.
“Do you sicken, Great King?” Mardonius asked, occupying the couch at Xerxes’s right hand; he anxiously regarded the Great King’s barely-touched meal, his own fingers shining with grease as he tore a leg from a nearby roast peacock.
“I find myself without much of an appetite this evening,” Xerxes shrugged, flinging a scrap of meat to the sleek Persian hunting dogs that slinked around the edges of the table. “And I worry about my men,” he confessed, magnanimously. “There can be few among the army on the plain who are eating so well tonight.”
“The Great King has his dignity,” Mardonius insisted. “The common soldiers do not begrudge you your right to live in a manner befitting your high office; they know that it would shame the whole empire were you, of all men, reduced to feeding your guests on bread and gruel.”
“That is not the point,” Xerxes sighed, waving a hand dismissively, but with a sort of sadness rather than anger. His fury of the previous day had subsided into a kind of languid brooding; it was as if ordering Artapanus beheaded had calmed him somehow. In some ways, however, this mood was even more unsettling; those around him found themselves unconsciously bracing themselves for the next explosion. The Great King turned to one of the entourage of scribes and clerks who attended upon him even when he was at table: “Quartermaster,” he ordered, “what are the current levels of provisions for the army?”
“Great King…” the clerk began, nervousness in his voice.
“Speak the truth,” Xerxes commanded. “For a man who speaks the Truth of great Ahura Mazda has nothing to fear in my presence, however unwelcome the news he bears.”
“The army cannot stay here for longer than another day,” the man said, simply. “Maybe two. After that, Great King, hunger will begin to be a problem. It is simply impossible to keep this number of men in one place for too long; we have exhausted the provisions that we brought with us from Asia, and also those we seized on our march through Greece. And the soldiery have stripped the surrounding fields and groves like a great swarm of locusts; the local savages will certainly starve, Great King, and so shall we if we remain here.”
Xerxes nodded, accepting these tidings even if he did not look happy about them.
“You see?” he asked the general gathering around the table. “We Medes and Persians are a nation of herdsmen; our wealth has always been in our sheep and goats and horses. We cannot survive on roots and grains, like these faint-hearted savages, or expect our soldiers to fight with only fruits in their bellies; we need meat! We imagined that it was the Greeks who were in peril, when in reality it was our own situation that had become desperate.”
“We will have the victory on the morrow, Great King,” said Hydarnes, from his position on Xerxes’s left hand, with nothing of his usual pessimism. “The lord Doctor has prophesied it, and he has not been wrong yet.”
“The lord Doctor!” Mardonius sneered. “I would not place so much faith in him, Great King,” he added, with a strange sort of relish. Xerxes waved him into silence.
“The time for bickering is past,” he said, with another sigh. “I see this now; my anger yesterday was childish folly. I was warned, by this Doctor, and by you, Hydarnes, that the Hot Gates were not to be taken lightly, and I chose to disregard that counsel. What has happened here is my own responsibility; I am the King of Kings, the Ruler of the World. If I could give Artapanus back his head, I would, and an apology also, but that alas I cannot do.” He sipped his water again:
“So, all that I ask, my advisers, is that you help me salvage this situation, as we have faced problems in the past, together, as comrades of war. That is why I have not sent for any soothsayers; all they can do is predict doom or triumph. I notice,” he added wryly, “that they are rather less specific as to how doom might be avoided, or triumph might be achieved.” He managed a smile, and a little ripple of dutiful laughter went around the table.
“As I see it, Great King,” said Hydarnes, “we have two options; we can retreat from the Hot Gates…”
“Out of the question!” Mardonius cried. Hydarnes nodded:
“Of course. The prestige and honour of the Great King would be damaged forever, and the Greeks would be given new encouragement to rebel against us. In any case, as the quartermaster says, we have left a wasteland behind us along our line of march; the army would still go hungry during the retreat.”
“And our other option,” Xerxes interrupted, “is obviously to win the victory, but how might this be achieved? We have tried to storm that pass for two solid days, and all we have done is kill huge numbers of our own men.” He turned back to Mardonius: “You told me that after yesterday’s fighting, the Greeks would be exhausted and bloodied, their strength sapped by deaths and wounds; that today we would have the victory. You told me this!”
“Great King…” Mardonius began, searching for a reply. At that moment, the Spartan Demaratus spoke up from further down the table, face flushed with wine, waving around a half-eaten pig’s trotter as punctuation for his words:
“The Spartiates are not deterred by losses or wounds!” he scoffed. “They will fight on until not one of them stands alive; when their spears are snapped and shattered by your greater numbers, they will fight on with their swords! When their swords break from overuse, they will fight on with their fists, with their teeth if need be! You will not beat them so easily.”
“So you have been saying for the past week,” Mardonius snapped back.
“Hush, now,” advised Xerxes, turning back to Hydarnes: “You have sent many scouts and spies out into the surrounding hills,” he said. “Have none of them returned with tidings of some secret path over the mountain, that we might bypass the Greeks or attack them from the rear?”
“That was our hope,” Hydarnes answered, “but the locals have not given up their secrets; not even when we offered gold. Not even,” he added, “when we tortured a few. It seems that our army’s theft of their food and supplies has turned the local peasants against us.” Xerxes slumped back onto his couch with a sigh.
“Then what do you propose?” he asked.
“It will not be easy, Great King,” Hydarnes admitted, “and we will lose a great many more men before it is over, but we cannot afford to be squeamish.”
“I am not a squeamish man,” Xerxes shrugged.
”Indeed not, Great King,” Hydarnes agreed. “I have observed the fighting practices of the Greeks, yesterday and today. We would be being overly pessimistic if we thought that we had not hurt them at all; we have killed a great many of them, although not enough, it must be said. We need to maintain the pressure upon them. Instead of sending in our men a unit at a time, and withdrawing them before we send in the next contingent, and giving the Greeks the breathing space to rest and regroup, we need to feed men into the pass continuously. There must be no retreat; our men must know that they have two choices; to force their way through the Hot Gates, or to die in the attempt. There is no middle route. As I said, we must not be squeamish.”
Mardonius looked at Hydarnes across the table, his eyes gleaming with new admiration:
“I didn’t know you had it in you,” he said, softly. “I’d always taken you for one who cared too much about his men.”
“It is the only stratagem open to us that has a chance of working,” Hydarnes said, neutrally. “We will grind the Greeks down, like a stream of water carving its way through stone; slowly yet remorselessly.” He glanced at the Great King: “If need be, we will bury them alive beneath our soldiers’ corpses.”
* * *
It was much later now; the sky had turned from deep purple to black, and the cloudless night was starting to become chilly as the last heat of the sun drained out of the rocks and the air. The moon was rising in the east, highlighting the black waves of the sea with blazing silver. And in one of the narrow alleyways between the smaller tents surrounding that of the Great King, two figures swathed in dark cloaks and hoods furtively exchanged words.
“Is everything prepared?” demanded Mardonius, his voice reduced to a low hiss.
“It is,” Hegesistratus confirmed. “I have the men, nearby; low-born Greek scum from around the camp.”
“And do they understand my plan?” Mardonius asked, anxiously.
“They do, my lord,” the soothsayer insisted. “And a most clever plan it is, if I may say so.”
“You may, lickspittle dog.” Mardonius leaned closer: “Now, remember; when the candle burns down to the third increment, the Immortals will change the guard on the Great King’s pavilion; that is when they will be at their least attentive, and that is when you must strike, quickly and without mercy! What did you tell the men?” he asked, scanning Hegesistratus’s face intently.
“I told them that they had nothing to fear, that the Immortals guarding the tent had been bought.”
“And they believed that?” Mardonius wondered, a little disbelievingly.
“They did,” the Greek assured him. “They are, after all, low-born scum.”
“The fools!” Mardonius almost laughed.
“And afterwards…” said Hegesistratus, nervously, “will I be rewarded?”
“Oh, you will get exactly what you deserve,” Mardonius assured him. “Now go; prepare to act at the agreed time!” The soothsayer gave an obsequious bow and, drawing his cloak around him, hurried off into the night. Mardonius watched him go with dark, glinting eyes, his face impassive and unreadable.
* * *
As the moon slowly climbed the eastern sky, a deep hush settled over the camp and the teeming multitudes of the Great King’s army slept. Only the sentries remained watchful, staring out over the deserted plain, watching for any attempt by the enemy to strike under cover of darkness. A trumpet sounded across the open space before Xerxes’s mighty pavilion and the ranks of Immortals surrounding the enormous tent sprang to attention and began to order themselves in marching columns. In perfect order, at a parade-ground march even though there was nobody around to watch, fresh guards filed across the empty ground to take their place.
And as the guards were distracted with this ritual, figures rushed out of the darkness, black cloths tied around their faces and iron flashing in their hands; there were two dozen of them or more, and they made a beeline for the entrance to the Great King’s tent:
“Death to the tyrant!” some of them shouted, their voices unmistakably those of Greeks. “Death to Xerxes; enemy of freedom! Death to the invader!”
With a great rattling of spears, the nearest Immortals turned upon the intruders and moved to bar their way. If the attackers were surprised by this development, they had little chance to show it. Soon, a battle was raging in the precincts of the great pavilion, metal ringing on metal and screams and shouts shattering the stillness of the camp.
“Murder!” shouted somebody in the darkness. “Murder! They’re trying to kill the Great King!”
Seized by sudden horror, the Immortals surrounding the Doctor and Polly’s tent exchanged glances for a moment before running off in the direction of the disturbance, weapons at the ready. None remained behind to see what happened next. A few minutes later, as the sounds of fighting could still be heard echoing between the rows of tents, there was still nobody to see the second, smaller group of black-clad figures slip out of the shadows and in through the unguarded tent flap. From within, there soon came the sounds of breakage and destruction, of blades ripping through linen bedclothes and voices raised in anger and hatred; it went on for quite some time before silence finally fell. The sounds of more general fighting had faded too, now, apart from a last few shouts of alarm and the whimpers of the dying.
Hegesistratus limped out of the tent, his hired thugs trailing behind him, with his cloth mask dangling from one hand and a shining, bloodless sword in the other. He was just in time to see Mardonius make his entrance, appearing at the door of the Great King’s tent and giving every appearance of having just been roused from his bed.
“What has happened?” the general demanded as he tied the belt of his hastily-donned robe. “What is this din out here? My concubines are frightened.”
“Assassins, lord,” one of the Immortals replied, his dripping spear glistening darkly in the torchlight. “They sought to murder the Great King, but we have slain them all!”
“The treacherous dogs!” Mardonius exclaimed, kicking one of the bodies that lay on the blood-soaked ground next to the pavilion. “Worthless Greek scum!” Looking around him, he suddenly set eyes on Hegesistratus and his men: “Look!” he called out with a savage grin, drawing the gold-hilted short sword he wore at his side. “There are more of the dogs over there! Don’t let them get away!”
“Lord…” Hegesistratus tried to call out, before realising that the Immortals did not look interested in explanations. He and his cohorts turned and tried to run, but the guards were upon them in moments, spears flashing in the night. The blood that watered the dust underfoot seemed black in the dim light.
“Try and attack the Great King, would you?” Mardonius cried furiously, laying open the throat of one of the men with a great swipe of his sword; droplets of gore speckled his snarling face. Then, he bore down upon the hapless Hegesistratus.
“Lord, I beg you!” the soothsayer protested, casting aside his weapon and holding out a plaintive hand. “Lord…” Mardonius seized him by the shoulder with one hand, even as he drove the sword up under the Greek’s ribcage with a mighty thrust. “Lord…” Hegesistratus blinked in what could only be described as confusion, blood welling from the corner of his mouth, and then fell to his knees.
“I told you you’d get exactly what you deserve,” Mardonius whispered, with a smile, as the soothsayer pitched forward onto his face, already dead. Then, he spat upon the twitching corpse.
“Was that…?” asked one of the nearby Immortals, turning the body over with the tip of his spear.
“The Greek soothsayer,” Mardonius confirmed, shaking his head. “Hydarnes was right; I was wrong to trust him! Of all the treachery…” He turned, as if a thought had suddenly occurred to him, and looked back towards the Doctor’s tent. “And what was he doing in there?” he wondered aloud.
Mardonius cast a furious glance around the ransacked interior of the tent, knuckles whitening upon the hilt of his bloody sword as he immediately noted the lack of blood and bodies. He contained his surprise well:
“Obviously, the holy man and the woman were part of this plot too!” he declared to the guards around him. “Quickly, we must catch them before they make their escape! Fetch horses and dogs at once — we will hunt them down like jackals!”
“At once, my lord!”
* * *
“Who goes there?” demanded the sentry at the exit of the camp, pointing his spear at the figures that came running towards him out of the night.
“They’re trying to kill the Great King!” the Doctor cried, with his eyebrows raised and looking even more dishevelled than usual.
“That’s right!” Polly panted, looking behind her towards where shouts and orders were now ringing out in the darkness; the uproar was spreading slowly across the whole camp, an encroaching wave of panic and confusion.
“There were at least…” the Doctor turned to Polly: “Well, how many of them would you say there were?” he asked.
“Oh, hundreds,” Polly claimed, nodding emphatically. “At least! I mean, they were everywhere, with…with swords, and shields and…horses, and…and…elephants!”
“Elephants?” asked the guard, in terror.
“Elephants?” echoed the Doctor in astonishment.
“Yes, elephants; with men riding on them, shooting arrows at people!” Polly was convincingly wild-eyed. The Doctor shot her a quizzical glance:
“Well, I don’t think I saw any elephants…”
“Oh, they were there all right!” Polly insisted.
“Of course, I was too busy trying to stay out of the way of the war chariots,” he said, thoughtfully.
“War chariots?” The sentry picked up his hunting horn and blew a deafening blast through it. “Turn out the guard!” he yelled. “Turn out the guard! They’re trying to kill the Great King!”
“Yes, at least a thousand of them,” the Doctor helpfully informed him as he prepared to rush to the rescue. “Big, long-haired chaps, with red cloaks; yes, red cloaks I seem to remember…” The guard turned a sort of ashen green colour:
“Spartans?” he gasped, and blew the horn another couple of times: “Turn out the guard! All of them!”
“Spartans?” the Doctor gaped in mock-fright. “Is that who they were? Polly, we’re lucky to be alive! Oh, my giddy aunt!” The guard ignored him, being too busy rushing off in the direction of the commotion. A few moments later, a column of at least a hundred other soldiers emerged from somewhere off to the left among the tents, and started to mill about in confusion.
“Excuse me,” Polly helpfully called out, “they went that-a-way!” The Doctor gave them his best smile and joined her in pointing back towards where he and Polly had come from. The guards immediately rushed off again in the indicated direction.
“Thank you very much!” their captain called as he passed them.
“Oh, it’s nothing, really,” the Doctor replied. “Just glad to have been of some assistance…” Shortly afterwards there came a great, complicated crashing noise out of the darkness, almost exactly the sort of sound that might have been made by a large number of guards hurrying in one direction colliding with a party of, for example, would-be pursuers hurrying in the other. Dogs barked, horses whinnied and a voice that sounded a lot like Mardonius’s could be heard cursing everybody for fools and generally getting quite irate. “Oh dear…” the Doctor commented, looking quite shocked by this turn of events. Then, he seized Polly by the hand and they ran off together into the night.
Once they were outside the camp, the Doctor quickly made for the nearby hills, away from the obvious route across the plain towards the Hot Gates.
“Oh, do we have to go this way?” Polly gasped a little while later, clambering over rocks and boulders; her Persian dress was torn at the knees and elbows already and her hands were grazed from having to pull herself up the steep slope practically on all fours at times.
“The plain will be full of Persian sentries,” the Doctor panted, reaching down to take her hand and pull her up behind him. “And besides, if Mardonius is chasing us on horseback, he’ll run us down quite easily on the flat; it won’t be quite as easy for him in this sort of terrain.” He stopped, trying to catch his breath. “And to be frank, I don’t know if I fancy our chances just walking up to the Hot Gates and asking the Spartans to let us in; they’re not really very trusting sort of people, as you can probably imagine.”
“I suppose so,” Polly conceded. They paused for the briefest of moments, leaning against a boulder and looking back; they had climbed surprisingly high above the plain already; the sea glistened like ink in the moonlight as crickets chirped musically in the darkness. Somewhere far behind them, a little stream of tiny orange lights had emerged from the camp entrance, and now began to wend its way across the ground far below. “That’s them now!” Polly pointed.
“Yes,” agreed the Doctor. “Well, we’d just better get a move on, hadn’t we?” Taking her hand again, he set off up the hill once more; he could move much more quickly than his rather unprepossessing appearance might have suggested when the occasion called for it. Nevertheless, he grumbled and complained as he picked his way over the rocks: “I don’t remember being so terribly unfit…but then, I suppose it has been rather a long time since I last climbed a mountain. In fact, it was probably the time I helped that Hillary chap get up Everest…” Polly slipped on a loose stone and might have fell, but he held onto her with deceptive strength: “Do try to be careful, now, Polly; we can’t have you falling at the last hurdle, can we?”
“Well, where are we going anyway?” Polly asked as they reached a more level piece of ground and began to run again. There were some trees here; wizened bone-dry olives probably a thousand years old already, clinging precariously to the rocky slope with arthritic roots.
“That,” said the Doctor, pointing up at the even more rocky slopes that still extended far above them, “is Mount Callidromus. It isn’t very big by mountain standards, but…”
“Big enough for me,” Polly muttered, steadying herself with a hand on one of the gnarled tree branches as she struggled over a particularly rough piece of ground.
“Quite,” agreed the Doctor. “And,” he added, in a low, conspiratorial tone, “unknown to everybody apart from the local shepherds, there’s a path over the mountain; it leads down to the other end of the Hot Gates; we’ll be able to get into the Greek camp via the back door, as it were, find Jamie and Ben and make our escape.”
“You make it sound easy,” said Polly, looking nervously behind them once more; the bobbing line of torches might have gained ground on them, but then again it may have been her imagination; dogs barked hoarsely somewhere in the night.
“Well, it has to be easy,” said the Doctor, determinedly, “because we have to do it tonight, because…” He trailed off, awkwardly.
“Well, tell me!” Polly demanded. “You know, when you go silent like that it makes me think there’s something I should be worried about that you’re not telling me!”
“Well, sometime tonight,” said the Doctor, quietly, “a local man named Ephialtes, probably having had enough of this great big army camped out in his back yard, and probably hoping to get a reward from the Great King, tells the Persians about the path…”
“Oh,” said Polly, her face glowing white in the moonlight.
“So, the battle ends tomorrow, one way or the other,” the Doctor added, darkly; “which is why we haven’t any time to waste. Come on, now! It really isn’t as far to the top as it might look!”
“Of course it isn’t,” muttered Polly doubtfully as they pressed on. “Do you know where we’re going, though?” she asked, after a short while. “That’s a sheer cliff up there; we’re not going to be able to climb that; we need to find this path, don’t we?”
“Yes, of course we do,” the Doctor answered, looking around him a little helplessly. “I’m sure it can’t be that difficult; if I remember what old Herodotus told me, then it’s…” He pointed off to his left, then frowned and hesitated, before pointing off to his right: “Or maybe…”
“Do you know where we’re going?” Polly asked, looking him in the eye.
“Not as such, no.” the Doctor confessed with a grimace of embarrassment.
“Doctor!” Behind them, the baying of the dogs was definitely closer than it had been a little while ago; the torches seemed to be gaining on them as well.
“Well, I’m sure that if we…” the Doctor was still looking around and frowning when a footstep rattled on the slope above them, sending a few stones bouncing towards them.
“Who’s that down there?” somebody called out from the same direction as the sound.
“Er…nobody!” Polly called back. The Doctor gave her a Look:
“Oh, very convincing,” he murmured, earning a punch in the arm for his trouble.
“You’re not barbarians, are you?” asked the voice, coming closer through the trees. “They’ve been all over these past few days, robbing anything that isn’t nailed down. Can’t say I care for them much, myself.” The voice’s owner came into sight, looming from the darkness; it turned out to be a young, slightly-built man with black, curly hair and wearing what looked like a short dress and sandals.
“Oh no, we’re…” Polly waved her hands vaguely. “Distant Hyperborea. Yes.”
“Yes, that’s right, we’re travellers,” the Doctor chimed in. “Not from around these parts, and we were just on our way to Thebes, when to our very great surprise we found this battle going on here…”
“Oh yes, it’s been going on for a couple of days now,” the young man said, with a shrug. “Can’t wait for all of them to take off again, to be honest. Persians, Spartans; it’s all the same to me. All foreigners.” He looked around him for a moment or two: “You wouldn’t happen to have seen a goat around here, would you?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” the Doctor replied, looking around too as if he would see it hiding under a dead leaf or something.
“The barbarians are probably eating it right now,” the young man glumly decided. “They’re mad for meat, you know, these Medes; eat it raw, or so the story goes. Eat you if they catch you.”
“Well, I’m sure that isn’t true,” the Doctor diplomatically interjected. The young man gave up looking for his goat and shook his head:
“Twelve head of sheep they took off me the other day; this war’s going to be the ruin of me; I’ve got a wife and six kids to feed, you know.”
“Well, as I say, we were just trying to get to Thebes,” the Doctor went on, “and we, well I can tell you, we were a little taken aback to find these armies here, and so we just thought we’d take a detour over the mountains…”
“And we got lost,” said Polly, taking another look over her shoulder as if she expected to find their pursuers standing right behind her. “That happens to us quite a lot, actually.”
“I wouldn’t say that we were lost, precisely…” the Doctor said, with a pained expression. “We’re merely…well, we’re just a little bit geographically displaced at the moment. Yes, that’s right.” The young man looked at them for a moment, and gave another shrug:
“Well, I can show you the old goat trail over the mountain,” he decided. “It’s not far, and it brings you out right the other side of the Hot Gates down there; should cut out all of this fighting business.”
“Oh, we’d be very grateful,” Polly insisted.
“In fact,” the Doctor said, fishing in his pocket, “we might have some gold around here somewhere…”
“Don’t bother yourself,” the young man smiled, turning around and scrambling back up the slope. “It’s on my way home anyway, and the wife’s going to be wondering where I’ve got to by now. Come on, follow me!”
“And what might your name be?” the Doctor asked as he and Polly did as they were told. The young man did not even turn around, which was fortunate, because it meant he did not see the Doctor and Polly staring at each other in surprise at his answer:
“Name’s Ephialtes, and what’s it to you, friend?”
To be continued…