Chapter 4

The wilderness that stretched before the Spartan warriors melted sweetly into the horizon as they rode through the birth of the dawn. Fluffy clouds meandered lightly across the sky, the Gods gathering in the high heavens to observe the courageous men tackling their journey in its infancy. The golden corn parted before them, revealing a muddied track which appeared to them as through from some distant dream, a way of life somehow lost to them. As they rode however, their bodies glistening with the heat of the morning, vivid memories returned irrepressibly to them.

Stelios cast his mind back to the honour of marching with the finest of Spartan's warriors. It was a path he had fantasised about since childhood and his chest swelled with pride to be shouldered amongst his comrades, a battle cry raging on his tongue. His right arm, which firmly gripped his spear, shook slightly in anticipation of the battle to come; he mentally rehearsed every lesson his father had taught him as a young boy introduced to superior warfare. The melody from the pipes leading the contingent drifted through the group and each man was inspired, their footsteps quickening across the rocks. He knew that he was ready. The clouds gathered overhead as they neared Thermopylae, storms swirling threateningly over the rampant sea. Years of training and the inconceivably exhausting years in Agoge, were all for this defining moment. His blood was bubbling beneath bronzed skin; he thirsted for the clash of spear and shield, the satisfactory thrust of his spear which would destroy the Persian monsters. He was to kill many.

Astinos relived the march in the footsteps of his father. Concealed in his shadow he stood tall, thrusting his shoulders back and took powerful strides to match those of the Spartan Captain. He had long respected the tactical skill with which his father fought, surviving many battles and celebrating victory in each of his endeavours. He was to become like him; this war was not only a matter of defending Sparta's liberty, but it was to prove himself as the warrior that he was sure he could be. He had expressed potential during early years, particularly in Agoge where he was honoured for withstanding the lashing, which they customarily received, for the longest. This was the only time his father had ever expressed any interpretable satisfaction with his son. Astinos was determined that this war would alter his father's perception of him for the remainder of the time he had left in the mortal world. He would look at him with new-found admiration, just as Astinos had always placed him on a pedestal. How he had longed to be smiled at with radiant admiration and now he had the opportunity of making such desires come true. He was to receive such a smile.

Suddenly the horse reared wildly from beneath Astinos' body. The movement jolted him back to reality and induced a wild frenzy in Stelios' own beast. They thrashed violently against the strength of the Spartans who, despite greater powers of resilience and determination, were unable to control them. They were forced to get down before they were thrown off. They cautiously stepped in front of the horses, gently cooing and softly stroking their noses to calm them down. Astinos' horse snorted defiantly as he was soothed and he turned. He could see what had upset the creatures so, but he stood unsurprised at the sight which met him. He had seen it before. Now he knew exactly where to look and precisely what had happened here nearly a month ago. The once full carcass of a horse had been consumed by maggots, leaving a bloodied skeleton hollow and empty. The corpses of once contented villagers were still nailed to the blackened tree, which stood a shadow in front of the few streaky rays of sunlight able to penetrate the cloud of soot, which hung like the lid of a coffin over the merciless place. Stelios joined his side, careful not to step on the smouldered rubble which littered the ground.

"We should keep moving." He said eventually, tearing his eyes and head from the place and leading his horse east towards Arcadia.

Astinos said nothing and instead, at the gentle nudge of his horse, who was eager to remain with his mate, turned and followed the tracks of Stelios.

They had only gone a short way when voices reached their ears.

"Get down!" Stelios hissed, throwing his body on the ground.

Theron sat alone in the council chamber, studying the document carefully. The requests that had been issued were typical of Leonidas and he had expected nothing less; it was laughable really that not a single member of the council had yet considered implementing any such policies.

'Then again,' he thought, observing the marble columns supporting the great building, 'It is as though I built this with my own hands. I own this chamber and soon I will have my way with all of Sparta.' It was all he could do to stop himself laughing aloud; he would have his revenge on Leonidas. If only in death, he would have his revenge.

He cast his eye once more over the scrawled words before rolling the scroll back up and slipping it up his sleeve. It was done in the nick of time too, for at that moment the Queen emerged, concluding the circuit of one of her many solitary walks.

"Theron." She acknowledged his unwelcome presence with no attempt to conceal the bitterness in her voice.

He thrived in her contempt for him; it meant that he continued to preside over her in some way.

"My Queen," he smirked sarcastically, "Did you find the walk refreshing?"

The Queen relented in her silent pacing of the chamber and faced the councilman with a decidedly cold expression.

"I did. And how about you?" she fixated her gaze on him, "Has your time in forced isolation given you time enough to contemplate moral values?"

He gave a small laugh but his eyes flashed with formidable signs of anger.

"Time for contemplation is always valued, though I am at a loss to understand exactly which morals my Queen would have me ponder?" He knew he had frustrated her, for her body went rigid as she attempted to control herself.

"How about loyalty to your King? What about humility, respect and considering what is dutifully right despite prior legal ramifications?" she marched towards him as she spoke, each stride contributing to her stand of defiance.

"My King was nothing but a tyrant who promoted anarchy and war. Ironic, is it not, how these were the very things which caused his death? Sparta will be better without his 'helping hand'."

The Queen lunged at him, her hand raised with the firm intention of slapping him, but Theron dodged her palm and beat her in the race to the exit of the chamber.

"You should be careful, Your Majesty," he snarled, "some would relish the chance of reporting such un-Queen-like behaviour."

With one final smile he turned and strolled through the streets into which merchants were filtering with the prospect of another successful market day. The Queen was left at the top of the strong marble steps, her chin raised and her body trembling in silent anger.

Their breathing came in sharp, short rasps. They crawled, their muscular torsos brushing the limited vegetation springing from the ground beneath them. Desert terrain turned to rock as they neared the edge of the lip of the raised earth that concealed them. Stelios' dusty locks emerged, followed by his blue eyes which drunk up the sight below.

A group of Persian scouts were gathered around what appeared to be a map on the ground. There could never be an opportunity more perfect than this. There were, at a glance, around ten of them. He judged their positioning in relation to the earth's formation surrounding them. If Astinos and himself kept low then the shrubbery could hide them until the point of attack. With their backs turned and swords undrawn it would be simple enough to kill them all. He turned to his friend who was beaming at him; he had formulated such a plan himself and had already unsheathed his weapon. Stelios mischievously winked at his friend as he smiled himself and drew his sword from its leather casing.

They slithered slowly through the undergrowth, the eyes fixed, unmoving, on their Persian rivals who were communicating in a foreign tongue which neither Stelios nor Astinos could interpret. They therefore judged by their lack of response that they had remained unnoticed. They held their breath, their swords were raised, their hands clenched and they did not move. Then, without warning or signal, they sprung from their hiding place with cries of such ferocity it spooked the Persians above any sound they had heard before. Before they had a chance to fully engage with what was happening, three of them had been cut down by the steel of Spartan blades. The remaining Persians drew their swords which clashed against the vicious warriors'. Stelios and Astinos fought back to back, protecting each other from the circling vultures as they killed them. Their thrusts were weak and their observation poor; it took the Spartans five minutes before all ten of them were strewn across the ground, their blood busily being absorbed by the soil. Satisfied with what had turned out to be relatively easy work, the Spartans stood over their prey and grinned. It had begun.

The moon was their guide as they slipped noiselessly through the shadows, the tents surrounding them as black as the soles which now slept in them. It had taken hours for the remaining flickering fires to be doused, but now all was silent and they could pass through the valley unnoticed. Astinos' eyes flickered obscenely from left to right, his fist clenched and his upper lip glistening slightly with sweat. He was angry. He knew that Stelios' logic had been right; they couldn't possibly take on a band of 'Immortals' with only two of them. Though the Spartan army had defeated them, what felt like years ago and yet only a few miles away, there had been many warriors to support one another. Stelios had had more experience of warfare than he himself and so he supposed he must listen to him, as he had said;

"Sparta doesn't need another suicide mission. If we don't reach Arcadia then there is no war and Xerses stands ruler of all Greece, victorious."

So they had agreed to pass through without bloodshed. Astinos longed to steal into their tents while they slept and stab them where their hearts should be, but he knew that this did not correspond with Sparta's unspoken laws; they were not murderers, they were warriors and there was a stark contrast between the two. Besides, there would be plenty of time for killing in the battle that was to come. He snuck past the sticks from the bracken which continued to puff black smoke into the sky, polluting the clean air of their sacred country.

A wind chilled the ankles of the Spartans, lifting their capes slightly as they neared the edge of the contingent. Astinos saw Stelios dive suddenly behind one of the tents and followed suit opposite him. Peering from his hiding place, he observed two Persian men, with their backs to them, guarding the most valued soldiers Xerses had to offer. Astinos had heard rumours of the 'Immortals', including claims that they gnawed on human flesh and his first inclination was that he should leave these Persians to their fate. Then again, they had already proved their name to be false so it was possible that this rumour was likewise. He drew his sword and Stelios copied him. Stealthily they crept up behind them.

"Boo," Astinos whispered in the man's ear.

He whirled around, but before he could react his throat felt the cold contact of Astinos' blade as it was neatly slit. Astinos thought there something strangely beautiful about the colour already abandoning the Persian's body as it lay in contrast to the dark rocks.

Stelios gestured at his friend and they sprinted from the scene. It felt wrong; running felt wrong. It felt like they had committed some crime of sorts. They could only console themselves with the thought that soon they would reach Arcadia and then they would have Captain Daxos on their side; a witness to prove their innocence and an army with which they could fight.