Hydarnes pulled off his helmet, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, letting the thick, ichorous air of the battlefield course through his body and into his skull. The stench of death had already begun to seep out from the piles of broken corpses that littered the harsh, bristly grass of the hillside; blood and bile staining the dry earth with festering scabs and dark sores. Hydarnes straightened his back and cleared his throat in some attempt to steady himself against the urge to gag. All around him Xerxes’ Immortals, his Royal Guard, wandered, stripping Greek and Persian alike of their worldly goods, staring up and gasping in dismay at the sky itself for what horrors had been wrought upon the day. The carrion birds had come: the long procession of blackened feather and hooked claw wove its way amongst the bodies, picking at bronze-encased flesh, stealing the sight from the eyes of the dead.
“Such is the way of Angra Mainyu,” Hydarnes muttered through pursed lips.
Worst still were the screams of the dying. Fifteen years of war could not prepare Hydarnes for their dismaying death-rattle. No man, be he Persian or elsewise, suffers a merciful death at the fleeting bite of a spear. Death is quick on the battlefield, quicker than lying in your bed and waiting for Ahriman to wrap his hands around your throat. Yet a slice of bronze stuck fast between the ribs is a death no man would wish for. Your blood pours slowly, thicker than the futile water that passes your lips, trickling out from the gaping slice that guts your belly like a fish, and all you can do is let it pass through your fingers as your innards slip out into the dust of the earth. Food for crows, that’s what you are: the very thought of it shakes your bones and tears apart your tongue and stabs at your brain but you know it to be true, so you fall to the ground and beg for Ahura Mazda’s open arms, yet it is all for naught. The moment your eyes darken and you feel yourself slip away you are lost to His guiding light, lost to the earth and lost to the sun’s warmth. You are nothing but food for maggot and crow and beast. Such is war. Such is the way of Angra Mainyu.
Hydarnes shivered at their sounds. Men called for their gods, their mothers, for mercy itself, and were met with a sharp slice through the neck or, worse still, nothing at all.
He felt the traitor Ephialtes pad up the hill wolf-like behind his back.
“Every Persian died a noble death, my Lord. As worthy as Kings, they are!” the traitor called, in his ghastly twist of Persian, placing his gnarled goat-herd’s hand on the Satrap’s shoulder.
“No man dies a noble death of the field of battle, Grecian,” Hydarnes snarled, pushing the traitor away. “You would do well to remember that. Good men, your own kin, died for your actions.”
“All in the name of Persia, your Grace,” the Greek smirked and grovelled.
“All in the name of your own skin,” Hydarnes spat, striding off down the hill. Ephialtes had secured them the day, and Leonidas’ head at that. But he was still a traitor, nonetheless. He spat a curse over his shoulder for the wretched Greek’s soul. “May you rot in your underworld,” Hydarnes muttered.
Xerxes had boomed with laughter at the sight of Leonidas’ broken, arrow-pierced body. “String him up for all of Greece to see,” he had commanded Hydarnes with a flick of a gold-bangled wrist, and so it was done. Hydarnes had three Immortals crucify the King, a nail through each palm, his mouth fixed into a smiling grimace. A gift to the sky, as Xerxes pleased. Not the Grecian way, with a coin on each eye for Charon and a lick of flame, as Hydarnes had suggested. Not a King’s death. A wretch’s death.
Hydarnes stared, and Leonidas stared back with his vacant kingly eyes. A taunt, perhaps, yet Hydarnes continued to survey the King’s vacuous sneer, seeking answers in the empty pits of the King’s pupils. So this is Sparta, the Lord mused. Even in death, Leonidas mocked the God-King. The Spartan did not bend the knee. The Spartan wears no chains. He had even taken two of the God-King’s brothers with him. The Spartan was no one but his own, and Hydarnes resented him for it. There was no pity in death: only in servitude.
Hydarnes had seen many a dead man: Leonidas and the countless bodies that surrounded him were nothing new to his thirty-five years under the sun. He couldn’t remember the first man he had killed, some Greek, probably. But the first man he ever saw dead – Hydarnes remembered that like the scar-marked skin stretched over the back of his hand.
He had only seen six winters. Seven, perhaps. Persia was Darius’ land then, and all lived in a golden age where food flowed free like rivers, and men were left to be men. Sons buried their fathers, and war was but a ghost story. Hydarnes’ father lived in a great palace with tall stone walls and gardens filled with the ripest fruit and the greenest trees, and flowers as big as your head. Hydarnes had known no world but that of the palace. Every morning, his manservant Kata came into his chambers and awoke him for breakfast, laying out his sudre and tying his kushti for him, unfolding his fresh robes for the day, constantly smiling, if only for the pleasure of the future Satrap. He would talk almost constantly: about his grandsons. “They are your age! Strong boys! They may grow up to be Immortals, and do my family name a great service,” the old man would say.
“And what about me, Kata-Baba?” Hydarnes would reply. “Will I be an Immortal?”
“Of course, my little Lord!” Kata would chuckle. “You will be the greatest Immortal of them all. You will slay one thousand Greeks before breakfast and not even break a sweat!”
This was the way Hydarnes had lived, for as long as his young mind had allowed him to remember. He loved Kata – almost as much as he loved his father. Even more so, perhaps: he certainly saw more of him than the great Satrap, for Hydarnes the Elder was one of the most powerful men in all of Persia, and spent many a month away from his family, travelling to all corners of the empire to fight Darius’ wars.
It is funny, Hydarnes mused, staring into the empty eye sockets of Leonidas’ skull, how often the actions of the son mirror those of the father. When was the last time he had seen his own son? And what was the name of his manservant? Hydarnes wasn’t sure if he could even remember his face.
One day, young Hydarnes had awoken to the sound of nothing. There was no smiling, laughing Kata. Only silence. That was one thing Hydarnes had always hated about his father’s palace: the stone seemed to swallow up sound like a void, and that morning the air trembled with its sheer absence. Hydarnes’ breath had rattled in his ears, hissing like a sand-viper. He stayed in bed for what seemed like an age. Where was Kata? The young boy considered the notion of having to stay in bed forever. When the door finally opened to a face he had never seen before, his questions were only further complicated. The man came in with hood raised and head bowed, taking care to not gaze on the young prince as he performed his duties. “Where is Kata, where is Kata?” Hydarnes had asked, but once again he was only met with the oppressive silence of the void Kata had once filled.
As soon as he was dressed Hydarnes had ran down to his mother’s chambers, where he found her basking in the sun, long robes of glimmering white silk flowing over her slender form. Unveiled in the light of the morning she was radiant: the most beloved of all his father’s wives, a golden orchid of a woman. “Mādar!” he had cried, pushing his face against the pureness of her hands. “Where is Kata? Kata is gone!” he cried.
“Be calm, young one,” she soothed, running her delicate fingers through his course black hair. “Kata has gone now.”
“You mean he has died?” Hydarnes replied, tears welling up in the deep corners of his eyes.
“He has passed on, child. They are taking him up the Dakhma today.” Hydarnes knew of the Dakhma, the great Tower of Silence that dominated the mesa above the palace, a prospective Tower of Babylon to a boy so small.
“Then I will go and see him, Mādar,” the boy stated.
“You certainly will not,” she had asserted, more times than once. But Hydarnes was never one to follow his mother’s words. He ran out of her chambers, out into the garden, skipping past the great climbing vines and the flowers all aflame and up a tree and over the wall, like he had done many a time before against her will. Out into the village.
Hydarnes opened his eyes, still feeling the chanting of the townsfolk ringing in his helmet. It was a familiar sound to all Persians; every one of them would one day face the climb up the Dakhma to face His glorious judgement. Every one of them had carried a father, a mother, a brother. All answered the call. It was in their blood.
Hydarnes had followed the pulsating call through the dusty streets of the town, taking care to remain hidden from view. He happened upon the crowd near the outskirts, nearing the hill of the Dakhma. The procession walked in pairs, each holding a white cloth between them to catch the bad spirits. All around them the hounds followed. The people threw them scraps of meat, praising their presence. A dog knows when a man was truly dead. They see things man does not. This is Ahura Mazda’s design. Hydarnes had even once heard that a dog could slay three thousand demons a night.
Leading the snaking body of people were four Nasarsarlas, chanting the prayers loudly for all to hear, bearing Kata high upon their shoulders like a sack of grain. It was odd, how peaceful Kata looked, all dressed in his robes. As almost as if he were asleep. Hydarnes looked around him: in war the dead had no such luxury, their faces fixed permanently into pained grimaces, bodies’ cleaved open with no sense of grace. They were polluted, unclean, unlike Kata; the prayers had been said for three days. He was freshly clothed, washed with bull’s urine. He was spared the torment of the bad spirits, the same that haunted the eyes of Thermopylae’s dead. Hydarnes shuddered at the thought.
That day Hydarnes was not afraid: his Kata was at peace. He followed the slithering procession up the hill, adding his own childish wail to the chanting throng. Above him the crows and vultures had already began to gather, eager for the day’s meal, squawks and screeches further adding to the congregation’s cacophony of great, tumultuous prayer. Kata’s mortal form was to be given to earth and sky, as was the Persian way, the body consumed by the beasts of the earth, eaten by the sun itself. But not his soul. That belonged to Angra Mainyu.
Hydarnes smiled upwards at the throng of carrion birds, laughing in awe at the great blackness of their wings, the khopesh curve of their talons glinting like bronze in the sunlight. The young boy looked up the hill; Kata’s journey through the mortal realm was almost at an end. Soon they would cease their screeching and feast. Such is the way of Angra Mainyu.
The Narsasarlas had already reached the foot of the Dakhma. To a young Hydarnes it was sublime in its sheer hugeness, a great circular tower jutting out of the sandstone itself. He knew that inside there were three rings of bleached white bone and sun-blackened corpse. He knew that if he were to die at that very moment, he would be placed with the other children in the centre ring.
Now, staring once again at the Grecian King, Hydarnes came to the realisation that he would meet no such fate. He would be entombed, like his father, and his father before him. He chuckled to himself: it was likely that its construction had already begun. Such is the way of Angra Mainyu.
The priest’s chanting had reached its climax, melding with the cries of the carrion birds into an indiscernible, throbbing pandemonium. The congregation of villagers had formed a ring around the priests, closing their eyes, raising their hands to Ahura Mazda, taking in His splendour. Hydarnes felt himself compelled to do the same. The carrion birds had formed their own ring, circling the Dakhma, calling out their own prayers, eager as the men and women below for the veritable banquet of Kata’s ascension. One of the priests raised his hands and shouted his final prayer to an immediate silence: the wind itself had even ceased its breathing. All that could be heard was the writhing incantations of the Nasarsarla’s tongue, and the ceaseless rustle of feathers in the wind. Up onto their shoulders the other priests hoisted Kata’s form, up into the darkness of the Dakhma’s threshold, up into the waiting arms of Ahriman, and up into the silence, up into true death Kata went.
That day Hydarnes had gasped sharply at the sight and the firm grasp of a hand upon his young shoulder. A palace guard had broken his deathly trance.
“Your mother is furious,” the guard said, looking back at the three others, garbed in silk and bronze, that had accompanied him. And so young Hydarnes silently said his farewells to his manservant with a childish huff, and went back to the tender safety of the palace walls.
Standing on the hill of Thermopylae, Hydarnes felt the firm, grasp on his shoulder once again, pulling him back from the world of the living and back into the living death of the battlefield. He looked down at the greying, calloused fingers and knew it could only be the traitor goatherd.
“What now, Ephialtes?” the Satrap uttered, feeling the venomous twist of the name roll along the tip of his tongue.
“It’s a message, my Satrap,” the traitor grovelled. “Xerxes requests your presence most immediately.”
Hydarnes sighed, rubbing the sweat from his brow with a dirtied palm. He looked once more at the broken corpse of the Spartan King. A single corpse-raven sat on his shoulder, black beak twisting in and out of his open, festering eye socket. He turned away, striding off down the hill back to camp. “Have the men take him down. It displeases me to see him so.”
By James Gregory