Gaius galloped into the agora, blood dripping from a gash in his forearm, horse foaming. Caelus took the reigns. "How many?"
Gaius landed heavily. "Hundred." He stalked into Dormios' house without turning his head.
Caelus handed the reigns to a villager and followed Gaius inside. Dormios presided over a pathetic council of war in his main hall, with his wife Phaidria, Esson, Tertius, and a pair of old farmers in attendance.
Gaius waved off a servant with a bandage. "Fifty men marching. More or less. Fifty more guarding their camp, at Stymphea, like the survivor said. Is he still..."
Stony faces stared back at him. He took a deep breath. "All right." Phaidria had sketched a map of the roads around Astiri on a slate. Gaius tapped a bend north of town. "My last sighting. They were marching at normal speed. This puts them here at -"
"Sundown," rumbled Esson.
"We evacuate," said Dormios, his voice loud and commanding for his small frame. "Litters for the sick and old. No time to gather treasure." Tertius nodded.
"Hold," said Esson. "Gaius, describe the bandits."
"They were well-armed and armored," said Gaius. "Their shields were marked with the lambda, and they marched like soldiers. Their leader wore a winged helmet."
Esson cursed under his breath. "We must stand here," he said. "That is the army of Agesilaus. He fought at my side in the north, and was mighty of arms, until his mind went and he proclaimed himself king of Sparta. He claims to seek the return of Sparta's glory, and to this end he lays waste to the countryside. He sells his slaves into Persia, for no Greek will buy goods so damaged."
Skiouros gasped. One of the farmers wept silently.
"His men are disciplined and will follow us before they sack the town. If we run we will still have to fight them, exhausted and in the open."
Dormios stood and motioned at his chair. "Guide us, friend."
Esson accepted the chair and sat down heavily. "Agesilaus is a good commander and his men adore him. If we bring out our farmers with their pruning hooks we will barely match his numbers. We cannot win."
"Miracles happen," said Phaidria, softly.
The dust from Agesilaus' column could be seen long before sunset. He sent no emissary and was sent none. When his men rounded the last corner they sent up a cheer. The last town had tried to surrender. This one would put up a fight.
Caelus stood behind the comically short wall and hefted a javelin. The bandits advanced in a massed line, twenty wide, shields locked. The bloody light of the setting sun shone off their shields and speartips.
He peered into their helmets, trying to find their faces, their humanity, but all he saw was shadow.
The line of defenders straightened as Esson's voice rang out.
Caelus hurled his javelin. He tracked it in its arc but lost it as the other javelins neared the enemy line. One man went down. Five more javelins stuck in shields and were ignored. The rest fell short.
Two more enemies fell.
"Why aren't they throwing theirs?" asked Anosis.
"They know we can duck behind the wall," said Caelus. "They'll wait until we withdraw. Which..." He looked at his last javelin. "We'll have to."
He glanced at Esson, regal as Ares in his scratched and battered armor. The big man was mumbling something, trading glances with Dormios, who stood in pristine, polished armor beside him. Caelus thought he saw his lips say "not enough."
He sprang up onto the wall. Someone shouted behind him. One of the bandits raised a javelin, then lowered it at a shouted command. "There's no back line," he said.
"There's no back line!" he shouted. Esson waved an assent. "Watch the town!" he shouted.
Caelus gripped his javelin hard enough to make him wince. "We should have had lookouts," he said. "Should have had a tower. Should have had higher walls. Should have had a week to plan. Should have had the Roman army."
"They should have given up when the war ended," said Anosis.
The rest of the bandits were streaming out onto the agora, beginning to form into another phalanx. Esson's voice boomed out again, and Caelus almost felt his ears pop.
The town's defenders sprinted away from the wall, desperate to close with the bandits before they formed the lower jaw of the beast that would devour them. Javelins fell among them, and men screamed.
Caelus and Esson reached the line first, with Gaius a step behind. A bandit raised his shield, and Caelus rammed his javelin straight through, into the man's head. A deep pall fell over his spirit at that moment, a disappointment he knew he would never quite lose, but he buried it under the love he felt for the oracle girl, dressed in white, huddling in the tower with the women and children, praying for his safe return.
He jerked the javelin free and stabbed another bandit in the chest. As he warded off a third man's blows he abandoned the stuck weapon and drew his sword.
Anosis was barely holding against a bandit. He stumbled as another one bashed him in the back with his shield. Plautos was on the ground, squirming against a net. Gaius and Caelus stood back to back, striking down any bandit who stepped too close, but there were so many, and the group from before the gates was marching in, leisurely.
Gaius chopped off a spearhead. Caelus dropped his ruined shield. Five men surrounded Esson until he laid them all low with a swing of his mighty lance.
"Agesilaus!" he shouted. "It is I, Esson of the Long Stride! Name yourself!"
One of the bandits from the wall group stepped over a dead villager and pried up a loose cobblestone. As Esson turned his head, and Caelus shouted, the bandit threw the stone. It tumbled end over end and cracked against Esson's skull. The huge warrior dropped to his knees, dazed.
The bandit pulled off his helmet and drew his sword. "It is I, Agesilaus, last king of Sparta," he said, or Caelus thought he heard. He stabbed Esson between the neck and the shoulder, and buried his sword to the hilt.
The Greeks cried out as one man. The battle was lost. "To the house!" Gaius shouted. "To the house!"
They broke and ran. Tertius and Skiouros were huddled just inside the door, swords drawn.
"Should have got out while we could," said Skiouros. "There's just nothing we could do."
"I made the mistake," said Tertius, "of hiring brave men as my guards."
A splintering noise echoed from Dormios' garden. Caelus felt the blood drain from his face.
A line of captives was led from behind the house, shocked women holding crying children, and in the front, held by two bandits, kicking and biting, still waving a broomstick, was Nepho.
The last thing Caelus saw was a wave of red overwhelming his vision.