Everyone knows the story of Leonidas and the Spartan 300 at Thermopylae. But there was another side to the story.
Stand as Gods
It is hot, and I am small.
And haven’t I walked just as far as all the men in this camp? But I don’t see them standing in the blazing tent reciting their lessons.
“The founder of the empire?” Bazos says to me. He is old and fat, but his hands are quick and he pinches my ear if I am slow to answer.
“Cyrus son of Cambyses, may he be taken to the hall of the gods and made welcome.”
“And after him?”
“Cambyses son of Cyrus.”
“Then comes Darius, first of his line, may his star blaze in the heavens.”
Bazos nods. “One more.”
This one is very easy. Isn’t he in the golden tent just over the rise? “Xerxes the Magnificent, may he live forever.” I cast a glance through the tent flap. There is a rumble and a rising shout. Are the men returning? “May I go?”
“Not quite. How far from Perse to Greece?”
I stare at him. “Who can know this?”
“You can. Have you neglected your mathematics?”
Of course I have neglected my mathematics. Are we not at war? Are the men not fighting every day the accursed Greeks? Who can spare attention for doing sums? But I cannot say this. Instead I say, my eyes wide and my face clear of falsehood, “Not I. Mathematics is water and life to me. I have merely forgotten.”
Bazos tugs his beard—that is why it is halfway to his belly now—and a rumble sounds from his chest. I think he is laughing at me. “Do the sum. Then you may go.”
I drop to my knees in a flash and draw my writing-stick. Two hundred parasang from Persepolis to Babylon. One hundred fifty from Babylon to Aleppo. Two hundred more to Byzantion. I hate that city. Nearly drowned there. Sweat drips from my forehead and patters on the ground, smudging my sums. If I wipe it, though, Bazos will flick me with his reed crop across the back.
Only one more. One hundred fifty from Byzantine to . . . “Master, what is this place?”
Bazos says something that sounds like a camel spitting. I look up. He says it again. “Thermopylae. It is Greek for Hot Gates.”
“Why do the infernal Greeks not just say so?”
“They speak another tongue. What is your answer?”
“Seven hundred days of walking,” I say. Two years. Seven hundred parasang. And I have walked every single one of them.
Bazos scowls, which means I have it right. He begins to wave his hand that I may go, but I am out the tent door before he finishes.
The sun is very low, and I must shade my eyes, but even so I do not like what I see. Men are being carried up the hill on their shields, and there are far too few of them. Where is the cheering, the insults for the miserable handful of men that oppose us on the stinking beach?
Nowhere. We have lost. Again. That is two days now. How can such a thing be?
I slide around the tent of my master and make for the big fire fifty paces away. I pull from off my head the long rag that shades my head. It will serve to polish their shields, and if I do this, they will allow me to stay. And they will talk.
“Did the Immortals not engage?” says one soldier.
“Hush,” says another, looking under his arm. “It must not be spoken of.”
“But there are so few of them! They are only Greeks, too. We should sweep them into the sea. They cannot stop the will of the King, may he live forever.”
Heads turn, but no one answers. The second man hangs his head, and shows a long slash down his forearm. “They have fearsome weapons, a long spear, as long as four men laid down. It is very sharp.” He winds a cloth about the arm as he speaks, stopping the bleeding. “And they are not like the Greeks we have met before. They call them Lakedaimon, or Spartans. They fight like demons. Beside,” he says, putting his hand to his eyes and looking into the sun, “the way is tight. We cannot all come at them at once.”
The first man spits into the dust. “Excuses. The King—may he live forever—will have none of those.”
“No, he won’t. But he won’t have that pass without a miracle, either.”
I run. To hear of the defeat of the King’s army—may he live forever—is treason. Until now no such news was ever given. What manner of men are these Spartans? Then I seek the ridge which looks down at the Greek camp. I have to see them with my own eyes. Are they ten cubits tall? As wide as three remen?
I am disappointed. In the distance their campfires wink like the stars, but around them I see only men, normal men, tiny in the west as if I could brush them aside with the back of my hand. Yet they are still there, and we remain here. It cannot be. It must not stand.
But I am ten years old. If these hundreds of thousands behind me cannot crush them, what hope do I have?
Late that night, I lie awake on my mat. My teeth hurt from grinding them. My fists clench and unclench. But who can I strike? To my left, Bazos snores like the saws of the temple builders.
On the tent wall, shadows move back and forth, some sort of gathering. I hear low voices. “The King…a back way…Greek shepherd says he can take us…”
My heart hammers in my chest. One of the Greeks has seen the brilliant light of the King, may he live forever! He will help us through the pass! I must see this thing.
I roll softly to my feet. Outside the tent door I slip on my sandals and wind the wrap on my head. One quick peek back through the tent flap. Bazos has not moved, nor would he if the heavens opened with a trumpet call.
The King’s tent—may the King live forever—is this way, merely a hundred paces. I cover the distance in a few seconds, my feet soundless in the dirt. Yes, here is the gathering. They strap on greaves, helmets. Shields are retrieved, swords sheathed. They are going.
I suddenly know I will go with them. I can follow them easily. I am a shadow in the darkness. I would see these Greeks. I will watch them die, and the glory of the King—may he live forever—will rise as the sun at dawn. We will descend on the Greeks from behind and cut them down like wheat.
There is the Greek shepherd. He is nothing to look at. Crooked nose, slumped shoulders, a coat of sheepskin. He smells like a shepherd. Do the Greeks never bathe? They call him Efi-altes. It must mean something like “coward” in their tongue.
But he leads them—leads us—upward into the mountains to the north of the pass. He is surefooted in the dark. We make little noise, though there are a thousand men in the party, and two thousand. More. I have no need to hide. Everyone believes me to be the squire of another. The mountain is steep, rocky. We could not have come this way in our hundreds of thousands. Even this group must stop every few cubits to re-form our lines.
As the moon drops below the pass, we are discovered.
One moment all is quiet, and the next the man near me grunts, and an arrow sprouts from his arm. There are cries of pain, shouts in the darkness. It is an ambush!
I long to grab a weapon and charge the pitiful Greeks, but one of our men throws me to the ground and stands over me, sword drawn, as if he will defend me with his life. In the moonlight his helmet shines like the mane of a god.
It feels like hours before the whistle sounds to let us know the way is clear. The ambush fails, and we are once again on our way. We will leave some behind, though not as many as I feared. Is that the best they can do?
At the beginning, I was full of energy, thrilled to be with the army at last, striking a blow for the King, may he live forever. But the hours drag. Will it never be day? Will the mountain go on forever? My feet ache, and my eyes close on their own, whether I wish them to or not.
Suddenly I wake. We have come down the mountain. I bounce along on someone’s back—it is the man who saved me in the night. He sees I am awake. “Good morning, little spirit,” he says. “Have you awakened at last?”
“I never slept,” I lie, and he laughs beneath me like an earthquake. He sets me on my feet, where I sway, unsteady, still half sleeping. He laughs again. Hotly, I say, “Now we will kill the Greeks, and open the way for the King.”
“May he live forever,” my hero says.
But it is far from simple. We have yet many hundred paces to go. I wish for the wings of the gods to carry me, but there is nothing but marching. It is far past midday when we reach the pass, and come up behind the hateful Spartans.
My hero takes me by the shoulders and stares into my face. “Up there,” he says, pointing, “is a rock. Perch on that and keep watch over me. Do not move, whatever you see.” His eyes glitter under his helm as a creature from the deep. I shudder, for all I love him.
“I will not move, my lord,” I say. I don’t know if he is a lord, but it is well to be safe. He nods, and I scramble up the rock face and there before me is the battle.
The Immortals! They are engaged! They pour down on the Greeks like rain. Arrows blot out the sun. Spears, swords. Screaming. Any moment they will break through.
But they do not.
The Spartans stand as if made from the bones of the earth. They fall slowly, as the sun descends. Our party charges them from behind, and there is a cry, but still they do not give way. My eyes follow my hero into the battle, but he is lost in the smoke and the dust.
And still, the Spartans do not fall.
Finally, with a shout, the last of them gives way. A ragged cheer erupts from our throats, and the narrow pass is finally open, or it will be when the bodies are cleared. So many bodies. Is my hero among them?
All evening our men file past the sacred site of battle. Deep silence holds like the canopy of night. As they pass, our Immortals clash spear to shield in honor of those who died here.
For a long time, all my life I think, I stand and look down on the scene. What manner of men are these? How can there be such courage in Greece? In all the earth?
As the sun descends to the rim of the sea, my hero calls from the foot of the hill. He is alive! But he leans heavily on his spear, and his side is wet and red. “Come, little spirit,” he says. “We march again.”
I scramble down the hillside and take hold of his spear, to help him hold it steady. “A fellow named Bazos looks for his missing page,” he says.
I look up into his face. “Bazos? I do not know that name.”
He laughs, but there is pain in it. “As you wish, for tonight, little spirit. Stay and watch with me.”
Our silence falls again as we gaze back at the pass. Thermopylae. It is a name to remember. “Who are those men?” I finally say, in a whisper.
“They are gods,” he says. “And may the gods grant we see no more of their kind.”
It is long before we find a tent, and longer still before we sleep.