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Three ragged lines of armed men are strung across the dusty clearing, rocky cliffs crowding in on both sides. The summer sun is beating down, glinting on bronze spearheads and helms. Inside boiled leather breastplates and helmets, two hundred men are sweltering and restless, blinking away rivulets of sweat as they squint at the place where the enemy will appear.
I’m standing on a rock, sword at the ready, perspiring as heavily as the men below me. We’re in a ravine, the world shrunk to a narrow defile as we face the curved trail, straining our ears for the first signs of attack. The sky is vivid blue, the sun pitiless, and dust clogs the air. Eurybates, the King’s herald, his keryx, is with me, barking reminders down to the men. ‘Straighten those lines! Second rank, close up! Wait for the signal!’
Resentful eyes turn our way, but I’m the Crown Prince of Ithaca and the men keep their mouths shut. ‘Not long now,’ I call out, my voice level and calm. ‘Hold your positions!’
Then Tollus hurtles round the bend before us, hollering. ‘They’re coming! There’s too many of them! Fall back!’
Immediately the senior men echo his fear. ‘Run! Run, they’re on us!’ they shout, and within a few heartbeats our lines have disintegrated. About a third of the men have hurled away their shields, the ranks have broken, and they’re all pelting down the ravine as fast as they can. Eurybates and I leap from our rock to be swept along with the tail, screaming orders amidst the hurly-burly, straining to look back over our shoulders for signs of our attackers through the dust cloud our flight has churned up.
‘Move!’ I roar. ‘Or Ares will stick spears up your arses! Run!’
And now the pursuit is on us, roaring around the bend in the ravine, darkened outlines in the dust cloud shrieking like harpies, their size and menace magnified by the murk. Our men bellow in response and redouble their efforts to get away as lithe shapes close in on the hindmost…