- Published: 18 May 2021
- ISBN: 9780241420430
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $32.99
The epic new adventure through the battlefields of ancient Greece
The king of Persia looked across the heart of Athens.
The sun was hot on the back of his neck, but a breeze blew, warm and gentle, carrying a smell of sweetness – of rot and the sea. Xerxes closed his eyes and breathed, feeling at peace. The great market, the temples, the streets of households, workshops and taverns – they were all abandoned. It was intimate, somehow. He felt as if he sat at a woman’s dressing table, opening every small drawer, learning her secrets.
The soldiers in that place were all his own. They had searched Athens from one end to the other, every storehouse, shop and empty home. The only Greeks within the walls had been half a dozen mindless ancients, left behind by their families. Toothless and blind, they had hissed incredulous, nervous laughter at the strange voices of Persian soldiers. Xerxes had no need of them. Like stray dogs, they had been killed quickly. It was almost a mercy.
General Mardonius walked three paces behind the Great King, deep in his own reverie. Both he and Xerxes had experienced a strange sort of recognition as they’d entered Athens. Places and natural features surfaced from a hundred old reports, suddenly made real. The Acropolis was one, the cliff of limestone that loomed on their left hand, sentinel for the whole city; or perhaps the pale Areopagus rock, where a council of Athenian noblemen had met for centuries.
Xerxes could see the Pnyx hill ahead, rising with trees like blades and white steps on its flanks. In normal times, the famous Assembly met and argued in that place, acknowledging no king or tyrant. He would have liked to see it, those men so busy with their little laws. Yet only the breeze blew there that day. The people of Athena’s city had gone down to the port, to be taken by ship across the deep water. Rather than suffer the predations of his army, rather than learn the consequences of their arrogance, they had run from him.
Xerxes walked through streets where doors hung open and every sound echoed. Beyond a few cats warming themselves on roofs, his Immortals were the only living things he could see. They stood in long, panelled coats, ringlet beards oiled to a shine, like statues themselves. The Great King loved them as his father had, like favourite children or beloved hunting dogs, both the shield and ornament of his reign. Half their number had been killed by the red-cloaked butchers of Thermopylae. His Immortals still reeled from that blow, though they had opened the pass in the end! Xerxes had chosen to mark only that final victory, keeping them as his guards, honouring them with his blessing. The five thousand who lived were survivors: battered and bruised, but stronger for having seen the last Spartans cut down. The Immortals had not broken in that pass. Yet they had believed they were unbeatable, without equal in the world. Xerxes had witnessed their shock, their disbelief. The Spartans had made them feel helpless.
Xerxes had even considered resting the regiment, taking them out of his vanguard. Their commander was a great bull of a man – Hydarnes. With his face pressed in the dirt, he had pleaded for the Immortals then, saying they needed to work, that they would fester like a bad wound if they were given too much time to think. Xerxes had agreed. Honour could not be granted. It had to be earned through sacrifice and hard service.
At the end of a street where potters’ wheels sat untended, the light changed, brighter and airier than the roads around. Xerxes entered the famous Agora marketplace. There were the statues for the ten tribes, with stone tablets to be read out loud. He did not approach them, but he imagined at least a few warned of his own approach. His pride surged at the thought.
Xerxes looked up as a hawk keened overhead, its cry perfectly clear in the still air. The bird wove huge circles over the city and Xerxes could see the head turning, looking for prey. On any normal day, such a sound would have gone unnoticed, lost in bustle and clatter. Yet here, it was as if he sat on a mountain top and all work had ceased. It was a wonder of war, he realised, something ordinary men and women would never know.
‘I swore I would stand here, Mardonius,’ Xerxes murmured. His general only nodded, sensing the king needed no response. ‘I told my father I would finish his work, that I would bring the army to this very spot. I swore I would punish them for scorning our envoys, for refusing to offer earth and water. My father gave them a dozen chances to bend the knee, and they refused every one. They chose this, not us. Even so, to be in this place . . .’ He shook his head in simple pleasure. Mardonius smiled as he walked. Truly, on such a day, nothing was impossible.
High above those streets, the Acropolis filled the gaze wherever it fell. Xerxes could see temples up there, some of them with a wooden scaffold on the walls and unfinished columns, all to honour the deities of the Greeks. His spies had described it, even to the monuments that commemorated the battle of Marathon, ten years before. That Greek victory over the Persians had hurt his father, Xerxes knew. It had damaged his spirit, perhaps even led to the illness that tore him from the world, half his weight and all his strength gone. Xerxes felt a pulse of rage at that thought. He would take down those stones!
He paused then, seeing movement high on the great rock.
‘Are . . . people up there still, general?’
Mardonius shaded his eyes to stare up.
‘A few dozen, Majesty. Just some priests, as far as I can tell. We’ll dig them out.’
He did not tell the king that the skinny old men on the Acropolis had blocked the main route to the top. They had also armed themselves with ancient weapons and armour apparently taken from temple walls. Their presence was no more than a biting fly, but they had not been dislodged by the time the young king insisted on entering the city. Mardonius longed to distract Xerxes from his frowning concentration.
On a sudden whim, the young king glanced at the rock of the Areopagus, not a hundred paces off. Without a word to his general, Xerxes jogged to where it touched the street below and clambered up the steps in a rush of youthful energy. He was still breathing lightly as he reached the huge, flat top.
Athenian noblemen had stood there for hundreds of years. The king rested one foot on the highest point, looking up at the Acropolis as it rose before him. Even the Areopagus was dwarfed by it.
Mardonius was physically fit, hardened by months on the march. He too was breathing lightly as he came alongside. Xerxes nodded to him. The king was in a good mood, able to go anywhere he wanted, in the sacred places of his enemies.
Mardonius narrowed his eyes at movement on the Acropolis, reading the scene. There was not much to trouble him.
‘I have sent an entire hazarabam to climb the rear of the great rock, Majesty. There are more men at the foot of the steps there, to distract the Greeks above with arrows. You see them? The rest will overwhelm the defenders when they reach the top.’
‘And then make an example of them,’ Xerxes said. ‘That would please me, general. Make it so. Display the bodies for their gods to see.’
‘As you wish, Majesty.’
Mardonius saw the young king turn slowly, enjoying the elevated position. The sea was dark to the south-west and Xerxes squinted into the distance, the Acropolis at his back.
‘I will not wait, Mardonius,’ he said. ‘I want to go down to the sea, to watch my fleet destroy the last of their hopes. Have this city burned. It seems a dry place. I imagine flames will spread well enough.’
Xerxes looked at the canvas-and-wood awnings of the marketplace a couple of streets over. It was much smaller than he had realised. Its dimensions had been made larger in his imagination by the crimes of its inhabitants.
The market would certainly burn, as would streets of brick and plaster, roofs of tile and ancient wood. Xerxes smiled at the thought of embers lofting gently overhead, spreading. He wanted a great conflagration, a city on fire behind him. He wanted the Greeks to see the plume of smoke, to know their precious Athena could not be defended, that she had been plundered and overthrown and raped. It was a good thought.
‘Fetch me a brand, Mardonius,’ Xerxes said.
He was bright-eyed as the general whistled to waiting servants, never far from their master’s whims. When they understood, one of their number climbed the rock, nervous fingers working flint and steel. The fellow was skilled, scratching sparks onto a tuft held in his cupped fingers, then pressing the nascent flame to a club wrapped in oiled cloth, thick with tar. It spat and crackled as it caught, drawing the eye. The servant prostrated himself on the rock, so that dust stuck to his skin.
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