A word of background
After completing my novel, “The Seedling,” I was casting about for ideas for another work. Though I had germs for a sequel to “The Seedling,” something else found fertile soil and blossomed in my imagination.
It began while I was reading H.G. Wells’ history of the world. Like most folks, I was familiar with only the vaguest details of the origins of our modern marathon–a Greek had run into Athens after the battle of Marathon, shouted “Nike,” (“victory” or “I need new shoes” in Greek) and collapsed. Wells gave more detail about the event, and it fed my natural curiosity, both as a runner and as a lifelong Greek geek (sick, but I’ve read the Iliad and Odyssey more times than I’ll fess to). I began reading Herodotus and other Greek and Roman writers–as well as a few histories by moderns–and the vision sharpened of one of the most incredible events in Western civilization. Much has been made of the 300 Spartans and the stand at Thermopylae, but more needs to be made of Marathon.
What follows is a draft I put together that I had hoped to turn into a novel or screenplay or play or graphic novel or something, but time had other plans for me. I share it now because I love the story and would like for others to appreciate the greatness of this epic moment as well. About 85 percent of this is accurate history; some liberties have been taken, particularly on romantic front. Regardless, I think it’s a good story!
Where Free Men Stand
By Lee Graves
Miltiades, king of the Chersonese, anxiously stands at the bow of one of his triremes as the ships depart Cardia for his homeland — Athens. He is eager to leave the peninsula; the situation has become dangerous. In the past he could balance Greek interests against Persian aggression, but now rebellion and war threaten the region. The good graces of Darius, king of kings, have been stretched thin. “Has the tyrant discovered I was ready to betray him in the Scythian campaign?” Miltiades wonders. Phoenicians vessels are nearby, at Tenedos, and the net is closing about him. Perhaps it is too late. If they can just clear the gulf of Melas and make it around the western peninsula, escape may be possible. But the Phoenician fleet is waiting, and only by quick manuevering does Miltiades avoid disaster. Four of the five triremes make it to the safety of Imbros. However, the fifth, which is piloted by Miltiades’ son, Metiochus, is captured. Certain the youth is as good as dead, Miltiades has little choice but to continue to Athens, where he arrives safely.
The scene switches to the court of Darius, who is dining in· splendor befitting the most powerful man in the world. At his elbow is Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens who was banished in 510. At the king’s back is a servant, uttering in fearful, hushed words the phrase he was instructed to repeat again and again:
“Sire, remember the Athenians.”
Yes, remember those upstarts who were brash enough to assault Sardis in 498; the memory still smarts. But the situation has changed. Miletus has fallen, and the six-year Ionian rebellion has been quelled. Darius explains to Hippias that the time is right to extend and tighten his grip on Greece. Mardonius, his son-in-law, has been instructed to organize a large expedition of both naval and land forces.
Hippias savors the news; he lives for the day he can avenge his expulsion and the murder of his brother. “After you conquer these Athenians, you will need someone to rule them, someone who can bend their stubborn necks to your will, sire. I know these people. I know their weaknesses.” He is interrupted when guards bring in Metiochus, Miltiades’ son. Hippias listens in stunned silence as Darius, rather than punishing the son of this prominent Athenian, treats him with great civility, presenting him with a house and a Persian wife. Hippias wonders, “Is the son bait with which to catch the father?”
In Athens, Miltiades has experienced a far different reception than he expected. His enemies have charged him with conducting an unconstitutional and despotic government in the Chersonese. After all, he’d been sent there by the hated Hippias and his brother, and he’d aided Darius in the Persian campaign against the Scythians. Arguing that he needed time to put his affairs in order, Miltiades has been able to postpone the trial, but the day finally arrives. He responds to the attacks with an impassioned speech. How can he be accused of being a friend to Hippias when it was the despot himself who ordered the murder of Cimon, Miltiades’ father? And have the Athenians forgotten that it was he who urged the Ionians to disassemble the bridge across the Danube, an action that would have left Darius stranded in Scythia? What of his heroics in capturing the island of Lemnos? What of the glory his father brought to Athens with his three Olympic victories in charioteering?
Miltiades senses he is beginning to sway the judges, but his defense is interrupted when the herald Pheidippides rushes in. He brings news from the north — the Persian expedition under Mardonius has overrun Thasos; the islanders were too intimidated to lift a finger. Now, Pheidippides says, the Persian fleet is proceeding along the coast toward Acanthus, and, eventually, Eretria and Athens.
Miltiades seizes the moment. “Would I be in Athens if my loyalty were to Darius? You call me a despot, and yet I have returned to my homeland in its moment of greatest peril, to help you face the greatest despot of all. Fellow Athenians, treat me as you will — it is better to be judged by free men than enslaved by a tyrant.” Miltiades so moves his listeners that not only is he immediately acquitted, but after the trial he is appointed general by popular vote as well.
The judgment is celebrated at a party hosted by the aristocrat Euphorion, whose sons Cynegirus and Aeschylus praise Miltiades’ conduct. The former toasts his bravery and asks the gods to give them all such courage against the Persians. Privately, Aeschylus confides that he puts less stock in the blessings of the gods than in the will of free men defending their freedom. He discusses with Miltiades a play he is writing, one that breaks with the old traditions in both content and form.
While the aristocrats converse, Pheidippides eats hungrily in the kitchen. He catches the eye of Eugenia, a slave in the household of Euphorion. He asks how a slave, especially such a pretty one, can stomach such talk of freedom. She snaps at him and rushes off, but another woman tells him Eugenia has noticed him in the past and expressed a fancy for him. Intrigued, the herald watches her more closely. He does not know, however, that the slave is Cynegirus’ mistress.
The scene switches back to the court of Darius, who is beside himself with rage. The Mardonius expedition has failed; 300 ships wrecked and more than 20,000 men lost in a gale near Mount Athos. He pounds the map with his fist. “I will not stop until Athens — and Greece — are mine.”
He tells Hippias his emissaries are demanding tokens of submission of the various townships. Another expedition, larger than before, is being planned. Hippias offers, “Sire, you need someone familiar with the area to accompany the fleet. My spies can provide valuable information as well.” Darius, who doesn’t completely trust the former Athenian, relents and appoints him as adviser to the expedition. He leads Hippias to believe the ousted tyrant will rule Athens after its defeat.
For the moment, however, the Athenians are less concerned with this Persian threat than with exacting retribution from the Aeginetans, whose latest affront has caused a simmering rivalry to boil over into war. Pheidippides again is the carrier of the news, and he rushes breathlessly through the agora toward the house of Euphorion. There he tells Aeschylus and Cynegirus — and all in the crowd that has gathered — that the Athenian state vessel containing their father, Euphorion, and numerous other dignitaries was captured by the Aeginetans while the Athenians were on their way to make preparations for the festival at Sunium. All are appalled at this treachery. Cynegirus rushes off to call a council of war. Aeschylus comforts his mother and invites Pheidippides to refresh himself and eat in their household.
Eugenia serves him, and through her questioning we learn the background of the conflict. The Aeginetans had bowed to Darius’ emissaries, giving them the tokens of earth and water that implied submission to Persian interests. The Athenians, convinced the Aeginetans would side against them in the coming war, enlisted the aid of the Spartan king Cleomenes, who took as hostages 10 of Aegina’s most powerful citizens. These were turned over to the Athenians, the Aeginetans’ bitterest enemies. When Cleomenes died, the Aeginetans sought the return of these hostages, but the Athenians refused. Hence, the Aeginetans seized the Athenian state vessel.
Pheidippides becomes aware that Eugenia knows the answers to half the questions before he replies. She doesn’t want him to leave. Since meeting her some months ago, he has watched her and become fond of her. Unlike many slaves, she is quick, perceptive and lively. She is gentle and kind, but he has noticed in her a quiet defiance, an unwillingness to resign herself to her slavery. There is a spark to her countenance that enhances her otherwise common features. He is attracted to her, but since she is a favorite of Cynegirus’ he must repress his inclinations. The meal is done, and their conversation lapses into awkward silences, but neither wants to leave. Pheidippides offers to play a tune on his pipes — Pan is his patron god, he explains. She listens; the lilting melody carries her back to her homeland and conjures up visions of her husband, so strong and brave in his bronze armor. When the music ends, Pheidippides and Eugenia clasp hands. Neither notices Aeschylus watching from the doorway, and he glides away without disturbing them.
The war council has decided to take immediate action against Aegina. With the help of the Corinthians, the Athenians assemble a fleet of 70 ships and sail for the island. Once aboard, Aeschylus learns from Miltiades that an Aeginetan named Nicodromus has been bribed to betray the Aeginetan government by having the townspeople rebel on the appointed day. But the Athenians are a day late. Nicodrodomus has fled, and the Aeginetans have dispatched 70 of their own ships to meet the Athenian fleet. A fierce naval battle ensues with heavy losses on both sides. The Athenians prevail, however, and confirm their victory by defeating a combined Aeginetan-Argive host on land. Euphorion and the other dignitaries are freed.
During Cynegirus’ absence, Pheidippides and Eugenia become more intimate. She tells him about Lesbos, where her father and husband were prosperous merchants, of watching her family being murdered by pirates. She also tells him about Cynegirus’ lust for her and her shame at being treated as a slave. “And a woman slave at that. Is there anything lower?” Pheidippides comforts her — maybe Cynegirus will free her eventually. “For what purpose? Who would want a warrior’s whore?” she asks bitterly. “I would,” the herald replies, and the two make passionate love.
While Athens and Aegina are at each other’s throats, Darius proceeds with his plans. Datis and Artaphernes, Darius’ nephew, are named to command the expedition; their orders are to reduce Athens and Eretria to slavery and bring the slaves before the king. Hippias is to serve as adviser to the generals. A large, well-equipped force is assembled on the Aleian plain in Cilicia, where they are met by a naval contingent of 600 vessels. The horses of the dreaded Persian cavalry are loaded in transports while the troops occupy ships of war. The armada takes a course different from Mardonius’ ill-fated outing the year before and sails to Naxos, the first objective. The Naxians have fled to the hills. The Persians capture some and carry them off to slavery, then they burn the capital and temples. Hippias at first gloats over the destruction and envisions the same happening to Athens, but he also feels a tinge of sadness at the prospect of having his beloved city defiled.
Back in Athens, Miltiades and several other generals are mulling over news of the Persian advance during an intimate dinner party. The defeat of Naxos was no surprise, but the events at Delos were. Datis not only spared the island, which its inhabitants had abandoned, but he also burnt 300 talents-weight of frankincense on the altar as an offering to Apollo and Artemis. After the Persians departed, the island was shaken by an earthquake, the first experienced there. What are the Athenians to make of this?
Miltiades is less confused than the others. A veteran of Persian affairs, he explains that the enemy’s gesture in sparing Delos was ammunition for future ruses. “Can’t you hear them now? ‘We’ll spare your home just as we spared Delos’ all the while plotting to rape our women and murder our children. We must fight the Persians at every turn.”
The other generals are not convinced. The Persians have superior cavalry, their archers are the best in the world and they far outnumber the Athenians. Besides, no Greek force has ever faced them on the field. Wouldn’t it be better to abandon Athens, at least to save their lives and avoid slavery? Callimachus, war archon, observes that emissaries from Eretria will ask the full council tomorrow for aid. “Perhaps we can prolong that siege enough to get aid for our own struggle.” Miltiades counters, “Siege? When have the Persians ever lost a siege? They must be met in open warfare, on our terms. Eretria will have our aid, but we can look for little hope there.”
The scene switches to the tent of the Persian commanders outside the walls of Eretria. The defenses are shattered, smoke billows from the temples and the smell of death is heavy in the air. Datis, Artaphernes and Hlppias watch as hundreds of captives are loaded onto ships. It has taken six days to win the siege, and they are relishing the victory. They are joined by Euphorbus and Philagrus, well-known Eretrians who betrayed their town by opening the gates the seventh day in return for becoming its rulers. Hippias tells Euphorbus he is surprised to find no Athenian soldiers among the captured.
“There well might have been,” the traitor responds, “if not for Aeschines. The Athenians graciously dispatched 4,000 to our aid, but this fool told them the battle was lost before it even had begun. He told them to go back home, which, of course, they did. They were in no mood to help a lamb face a lion.” They all laugh but Hippias, who only smiles at their mockery.
After the Eretrians leave, the Persian leaders debate their next step. “The time is right to strike for Athens,” Datis insists, “but we must find a landing spot suitable for our cavalry to maneuver in.” Hippias spreads a parchment map, runs his fingers over its surface and finally points to a spot on the eastern shore of the Attican peninsula. “There is a plain here within a day’s march of Athens. It will provide sufficient room for our troops and cavalry to disembark and assemble. It is sacred ground, dedicated to Heracles, and holds special meaning for me. My father, Pisistratus, landed here on his way from Eretria to Athens. The Athenians, such simpletons, were easily duped and barely put up a fight against the old man, so that he was able to become master of the city for the third time.”
“And the name of this plain?” Artaphernes asks.
Hippias smiles. “Marathon.”
Athens is in an uproar. The peril is nearly at their doorstep. Eretria has fallen, and the Persian fleet is sailing toward Attica. Miltiades, knowing Hippias’ desire to repeat his father’s success, guesses the armada will land at Marathon and tells the council that every available man should be dispatched there immediately. Several argue that the army should stay at home, and the city should prepare for siege. “And end up in chains like the Eretrians?” Miltiades answers. “I say meet them in the field. However, I am but one of 10 generals — 11 counting Callimachus — and we will decide by vote when the time comes. In the meantime, we must appeal to our allies for aid. The Plataeans can be counted on, and perhaps the Spartans as well. This will take time, and a show of force at Marathon might cause the Persians to pause.” The council votes to follow Miltiades’ plan. The men leave to don their armor and prepare for the march. Pheidippides is chosen to deliver the message to Sparta.
Before leaving Athens, Pheidippides makes a hasty visit to Eugenia. He caresses her abdomen, swollen with child. “I don’t know if you’re mine or not,” he speaks to the unborn baby, “but I want you to grow up proud of me. I will run like Hermes and fight like Heracles.”
To Eugenia, he says, “This is it, the moment of great deeds. Pray to the gods that I will earn a hero’s honor.” She weeps openly. “I pray that you will return alive, and that I will not be a slave to new masters.”
After Pheidippides departs, Cynegirus and Aeschylus, clad in their bronze armor, clatter through the hall. Cynegirus, too proud to say goodby to a slave, strides manfully past the doorway. Aeschylus, however, pauses, then enters Eugenia’s room. “He thinks of you. And of the chiId. He has a warrior’s pride, and his heart is hardened for war.”
Pheidippides begins the arduous run to Sparta, nearly 150 miles away. The road, sometimes just a path, is rocky and steep, the footing so treacherous he must take care not to twist an ankle. But he is sped along by his sense of destiny. Generations will sing of the deeds to come, and he wants to have a place in those songs.
As usual, he gauges his stride by the playing of pipes in his head, only now the pipes sound different, hauntingly real. He runs on and on, past Megara, past Corinth, until nightfall leaves only the light of the half moon to guide him. Twice he stops to eat from his pouch and nap briefly, then resumes his trek. As day breaks, he is winding his way along the shoulder of Mount Parthenium, above Tegea, when the pipes become louder and louder.
Suddenly, he stops, stunned — there, sitting on a rock outcropping cloaked in mist, is Pan himself, piping an eerie melody.
“Pheidippides,” the god asks, a twinkle in his eye, “what causes you to run with such urgency?”
Pheidippides explains, although he is certain the god already knows.
“Yes,” Pan nods, “Athens is in need of aid, and they have sought the blessings of the gods. But you alone among the Athenians have paid Pan his due. Ask your comrades why they have ignored me. I’ve been their friend in the past, and I can be helpful in the future. Ask them. Now be off.”
Pan resumes his playing, and Pheidippides, too overcome to do more than nod, finds himself running again, the haunting melody still echoing in his head. New energy flows through his veins, and his muscles forget their soreness. He ponders Pan’s message as he runs, senseless of the miles that pass, and by late afternoon descends into the plain of Lacedaemon. Now a new question dominates his thoughts — will the Spartans provide troops to aid a city that has not always been their friend?
Pheidippides is ushered immediately to the assembly. “Men of Sparta, the Athenians ask you to help them, and not to stand by while the most ancient city of Greece is crushed and enslaved by a foreign invader. Already Eretria is destroyed, and her people in chains.” The Spartans are moved by the appeal, but they are in the middle of a religious festival, which local law forbids them to interrupt. They cannot take the field until the ninth day of the month, when the moon is full. Despite his fatigue, Pheidippides resolves to carry this discouraging message to the commanders at Marathon, another 140 miles away. The Spartans persuade him to rest and refresh himself, but he sets out well before the sun has risen the next morning.
While Pheidippides is in Sparta, the Persians land at Marathon. Hippias busies himself with disembarking the troops and arranging them into position. He tells Datis of a dream he had the previous night. “I dreamt I was sleeping with my mother, safe in our home in Athens. I believe the dream means I will return to Athens, recover my power and die peacefully at home in old age.”
“You’re already an old man,” Datis scoffs, “but I am cheered by the omen.”
After Datis leaves, Hippias is overcome by an unusually violent fit of sneezing and coughing. One of his teeth, loose with age, is coughed out onto the beach, and is lost in the sand. Hippias searches for it in vain. Finally, he turns to his companions and says, with a deep sigh, “This land is not ours; we shall never be able to conquer it. The only part I had in it my tooth now possesses.”
Before he can explain further, messengers shout that the Athenian army has arrived; their armor can be seen glistening along the ridge above the plain. Hippias, the omens fresh in his mind, tastes fear in his mouth but sneers at the sight. “How can a mere 10,000 stand against our tens of thousands?”
Pheidippides is in a daze. His mind is disconnected from his body, and he watches with fascination as his legs continue to churn even when he knows he is about to drop from exhaustion. The lifetime of physical conditioning is paying off, but there are limits even the best of runners must observe. A hero wouldn’t stop, he tells himself; a hero could run forever. A voice in his head answers, “A hero is wise, too. The message is more important than the man. If you injure yourself, the news will never get through.” The thought has barely crossed his mind when he stumbles and sprawls down the mountain path. His elbow smashes against a stone; pain blackens his mind, but he struggles to remain conscious. Against his will, tears burn his eyes and trickle down his cheeks. He weeps silently for a moment, then his resolve hardens.
“By all the gods, I swear I will go on.” Cradling his bruised elbow against his chest, he staggers to his feet and jogs onward. The eerie piping returns to his head like a balm; his feet automatically follow the rhythm of the music. He runs on.
It is late the next day when Pheidippides approaches the Athenian encampment. The stumble had been the worst part of the run; a nap, food and some water at noon had given him the energy and determination to finish. His elbow is deeply bruised but not broken; he’ll still be able to carry a shield. After pausing to splash water on his face at a stream, he strides proudly into camp. The soldiers hail him and press him for news, but he continues straight to Miltiades’ tent, where the 10 generals and Callimachus, the war archon, are gathered.
“The Spartans will come, but not until the moon is full,” Pheidippides says. He then tells them about Pan on Mount Parthenium and suggests they make a sacrifice immediately to the god for aiding him on his journey. Miltiades orders it done, then commends the herald. “You have done what none of us could do.” He dismisses Pheidippides, who begins to walk aimlessly through the camp until he sees Aeschylus, who invites him to his tent. Pheidippides all but collapses once inside.
The news causes a heated debate among the generals. Opinion is evenly divided: s
Some argue that the Athenian force, even with 1,000 troops newly arrived from the Plateans, is too small to risk battle; others urge it. For a moment, it seems the weak-hearted generals will prevail. But Miltiades appeals to Callimachus , who holds the decisive vote.
“Never in the course of our long history have we Athenians been in such peril as now,” Miltiades says. “If we submit to the Persian invader, Hippias will be restored to power in Athens — and there is little doubt what misery will ensue. But if we fight and win, then this city of ours may grow to be the greatest in all of Greece. Generations to come will honor the place where free men took their stand.” Callimachus casts his vote with Miltiades, and the generals discuss tactics.
Meanwhile, Hippias, Datis and Artaphernes devise their own plans. Hippias’ allies are preparing treachery in Athens while the army is gone. He argues in favor of splitting their force. “Leave the army here on the plain to deal with the Athenian hoplites, but load the cavalry onto ships and send them to the city, where they have been promised easy entry by my spies.”
The commanders are reluctant to split their strength, especially the cavalry, which is the pride of their army. Hippias assures them, however, that Athens is theirs for the taking if they act quickly. “One of my spies will flash a shield in the sunlight as a signal that all is ready. The cavalry must be ready to strike then.” Datis gives his consent, saying, “We still outnumber them six to one. They are doomed once they get within bowshot.”
The moment Miltiades learns the Persian cavalry is being loaded onto the ships, he knows the Athenians must act quickly. Word is spread that they will attack tomorrow, and the camp is readied for the engagement. Before dawn, the troops are spread across the mile-wide plain in a long line, with the Plateans on the left wing and the various Greek tribes strung along the middle and right wing. The generals have agreed on two tactics: The troops are to march to just beyond bowshot range, then advance at a run to foil the archers’ aim; and if the wings beat back the Persians, then they are to swing toward the center, which is weaker, rather than fight straight ahead. As dawn breaks, a preliminary sacrifice is made; it promises success.
The invading soldiers, mostly slaves from captured countries, are literally whipped into formation for battle — a brief one, they believe, thinking the Athenian assault suicidal. They watch the sun flicker off bronze as the Greek line nears.
“Sires, you are watching history being made,” Hippias tells Datis and Artaphernes. “Greeks are not turning tail at the sight of Persians.”
Archers, arrayed behind the Persian front line, nock their arrows confidently; few foes have withstood their withering hail. Just as the Persians draw their bows and aim, however, the Athenian hoplites break into a run. The bowmen shoot in confusion, and the cloud of arrows buzzes harmlessly over the Greeks’ helmets. Before another volley can be launched, the Athenians, shouting like madmen, crash into the Persian vanguard.
Aeschylus, fighting beside his brother, Cynegirus, on the right wing commanded by Callimachus, rams into a Persian with his bronze shield, shoves the man’s wicker shield aside and thrusts his sword through the wicker breastplate. He can hardly believe his eyes. Wicker? Against metal? And instead of swords they have ungainly spears and stabbing knives. He looks at his brother, who is howling delightedly at the easy slaughter.
Without their archers and their cavalry, the Persians are easy prey. Aeschylus, hot to spill more blood, presses forward. Bodies pile up quickly, and the wing begins slowly to push the Persians toward the beach.
From the center, Miltiades watches the two wings making headway. His men aren’t so fortunate. The pride of the Persian force is in the middle, where the Greek line is the weakest. His hoplites aren’t getting killed as much as being physically pushed backward, and soon they will have to give under the weight of numbers. He prays to the gods that the other commanders remember their plan.
Pheidippides, in the Greek center, is smeared with blood. He and Epizelus, an old friend, have between them killed two score Persians in the hours since the battle began. But the work of fighting is taking its toll on the herald. His elbow throbs from the fall he took, and each blow he takes on his shield weakens his grip. The exertion of the run also has sapped his strength.
Suddenly, a man of great stature rams his spear against Pheidippides’ shield, turning it to the side. In a single, swift motion the giant smashes the spear’s butt against Pheidippides’ ribs. He falls to his knees. Before the Persian can make the kill, Epizelus slays him with a lunging thrust to the neck. Pheidippides staggers to his feet and continues to fight despite the pain in his side.
The Greek wings are turning the battle into a rout. The Persians start to flee back to the ships. Instead of pursuing, however, the flanks swing toward the middle in a pincers movement. Miltiades shouts for his men to redouble their efforts. The invaders sense the trap and begin to panic. Those at the rear head for the beach, leaving the others to be slaughtered in the crush.
Now the entire Greek army is free to press the attack to the water’s edge, where they meet heavy losses. Callimachus is run through by a Persian spear. Aeschylus and his brother reach one of the ships, but a Persian wielding an axe cuts off Cynegirus’ hand as he reaches for the stern. Aeschylus abandons the fight and comforts his brother during his final moments.
The Athenians seize seven ships, but the rest escape with the troops aboard. Suddenly, a flashing light — a shield reflecting the sun — appears on the ridge. It is a signal, and the Athenians suspect treachery.
“The fleet will make for Athens in hopes of reaching it before we do,” Miltiades says. “Unless the citizens know differently, they will assume the Persians are victorious and will yield the city to them. Word of our victory must be sent immediately.”
The commanders send for Pheidippides, the only runner fleet enough to cover the distance in time. The herald says nothing of his ribs or his exhaustion.
“This is your moment of glory, Pheidippides,” Miltiades exhorts. “This triumph will have been in vain if Athens surrenders. Run your swiftest, and may Pan lighten your steps.” As Pheidippides sheds his armor and sets out, the army licks its wounds and closes ranks for the march to Athens.
Athens is only 22 miles away, a short distance compared to Pheidippides’ earlier runs. But he is hurt — his ribs feel broken, and every breath is like a knife being thrust into his side. He is exhausted — his muscles have been pushed to the limit. Hunger and thirst gnaw at his stomach. Only two things keep him going, and he focuses on them with all his mind: Eugenia and the unborn child; and the exhilarating victory that has just been won.
With blessed relief, he hears the music of the pipes again, and his feet fall into their rhythm. The pipes block out the sound of his hoarse gasps; they trill away the taste of blood in his mouth; they breathe life into his limbs. The world becomes a blur as the miles pass by, and reality becomes illusion. “Is that the city ahead? It can’t be, not yet,” he thinks. “Is that Pan, dancing beside the road, piping merrily and waving onward? And Eugenia, with a young boy in tow? Wait for me. I’m coming as fast as I can. I’m coming.”
Meanwhile, life has come to a standstill in Athens. Eugenia accompanies Aeschylus’ mother to the agora, where the citizens are debating what to do. “The army has been gone too long,” says Cuphagoras, an old man and former archon. “Our soldiers have been killed. The Persians will overrun the city presently. We must leave or die.” Another man counters, “But if the Persians were near, we would see smoke from the homes and temples being burned. I say we stay.”
Suddenly, a cry goes up from the outer walls. A herald is approaching, but he is staggering, barely able to keep his feet. The gates are opened, and Eugenia,watches in horror as Pheidippides, blood trickling from his mouth, stumbles past the walls. There is a moment of tense silence. No one dares to ask what seems to be obvious — the army has been defeated.
Pheidippides stands unsteadily, looking questioningly at the faces. Is this real? Has he finally reached Athens? His breath comes in thick gurgles; he shakes his head and seems to see clearly for a moment. Yes, there is Eugenia, the real Eugenia.
He raises one hand, draws a deep, searing breath and shouts, “Victory. Athens is saved.” Overcome by pain and exhaustion, he sinks to his knees, then collapses to the ground. Eugenia rushes to him and cradles his head in her hands. But his eyes are glazed; death is in them. She hears him whisper one last word, “Victory.” His body goes limp. Pheidippides is dead.
On board the Persian command ship, Datis is furious with Hippias. “It was your suggestion to pack up our cavalry. With them, it would be Athenian corpses, not our ships, floating in the water now. Our only hope is to round Sunium and reach Athens before their army.”
Hippias is sullen but silent. How could he have foreseen an attack by those upstarts? He stays at the ship’s bow until they come within sight of the city’s chief harbor, Phalerum. But his heart sinks, for there, at Cynosarges, the Athenian army stands at the ready. They have arrived first! And again they are encamped on ground sacred to Heracles, just as at Marathon. “We cannot fight the gods,” Hippias mutters. The generals anchor the fleet and wait for a sign — another flashing shield. But none comes. Resigned to defeat, the Persians depart for Asia.
A joyous tumult welcomes the army back into Athens, but the elation is mixed with sorrow as families lament sons and fathers who will never return. Eugenia is in the house of Euphorion. washing the body of Pheidippides, which Cuphagoras helped her carry.
Aeschylus, his armor stained with blood, comes in leading another soldier by the hand. It is Epizelus, Cuphagoras’ son, and the warrior is unwounded but blind. He had been fighting in the thick of things, he says, when a giant Persian came at him. The warrior was about to crash into him when he inexplicably passed him by, killing the man at Epizelus’ side instead. That was the last he saw.
Aeschylus leaves the two and joins Eugenia, who is tenderly washing the last traces of blood from Pheidippides’ face. “He died a hero’s death,” he says, pausing before adding, “as did Cynegirus.”
Eugenia is stunned — Cynegirus dead, too. “My child will have no father.” Aeschylus touches her hand. “If not for them, you and your child would be dead. But your child will be born free.” Eugenia gasps — her freedom! To be a slave no longer is a miracle beyond hope. Aeschylus continues, “They both fought and died in the cause of freedom. They would have it this way.”
The next day, Miltiades makes a formal oration, describing the battle and praising the army. He tells of Pheidippides’ account of the meeting with Pan on Mount Parthenium. It is only fitting, he concludes, that a temple be built for the god and that the herald be honored as a hero.
Later in the day, two thousand Spartans arrive, disappointed that the fighting is over. Eager to see the battleground, they depart for Marathon. They return the following day and relate that, according to their count, 6,400 Persians were slain as opposed to 192 Greeks. They commend the Athenians for a job well done and leave.
The tale closes months later as the shrine to Pan is completed. Aeschylus and Eugenia, a baby boy in her arms, watch the sacrifices being made. “Do you believe, Eugenia, that Pheidippides actually saw Pan? That it was the god’s protection that saved Athens?” Aeschylus asks.
“I believe he saw Pan, yes. And the god must have been watching over us. But. .” she pauses, “since I’ve become a free woman again, I feel how precious that freedom is. I would die for it now.”
“Yes,” Aeschylus says, “there is no ground more sacred than where free men stand for their freedom.”