Leonidas had been spotted. A voice called the men to attention. With remarkable unison for an ad hoc unit, the shields came to the ready. But Leonidas was now close enough to distinguish the faces under the helmets of the front rank. He halted abruptly, unable to move a step closer.
Dienekes stepped forward smartly. “Sir. May I present the three hundred volunteers of your Advance Guard, all fathers of living sons.”
“And all my friends. Is not one of my enemies willing to defend Greece?”
“On the contrary, sir. Even your brother Brotus and your nephew Pausanias volunteered, but we turned them away.”
“Just how many volunteers were there?” Leonidas looked at him suspiciously.
“1,359―not counting these men.”
“You sent 1,359 men away?”
“That’s right, sir.”
“That was not what I told you to do,” Leonidas told him in a low, ominous voice. “I told you to muster the volunteers―not to usurp my prerogative of selecting the Advance Guard.” Leonidas was beginning to get angry, and his voice carried to the front rank.
“Leo.” Alkander broke ranks to come up beside Dienekes. “It was our decision,” he said softly.
“Who do you mean by that?” Leonidas snapped back. He did not want Alkander to come north with him. The risk was too great. He wanted him here in Sparta so he could be with Gorgo, Pleistarchos and Agiatis when the news came that he was dead. He wanted Alkander to be the father Agiatis would need when she was old enough to marry. More: he was counting on Alkander standing by Gorgo and Pleistarchos in the years to come when Pleistarchos would be a boy king with too few friends and too many enemies. And even after he was a man, Pleistarchos would need the advice of the utterly loyal and profoundly trustworthy Alkander.
“The men in the front rank,” Alkander answered.
Leonidas glanced at them again. The others were still standing at attention, eyes fixed straight ahead. They were each in their way the best Sparta had to offer―even battered Prokles.
Alkander continued. “We chased Brotus away with insults and mocked Pausanias. A couple hundred others left with them to protest our rudeness. Then we put our case to the remaining men. We said they would all have the chance to show their courage soon enough. After all, the main body of troops―three thousand strong―is due to march out at the end of the Karneia; that’s only ten days away. We pointed out that this Advance Guard was in effect your personal guard, and that it was only right that the men closest to you be allowed to serve in it.”
“Why?” Leonidas asked. “Do you think I want to drag all of you down to Hades with me?”
“No. But nor will we let you face your death alone.”
“I’ll hardly be alone among three hundred Spartiates―not to mention the perioikoi and allies!” His distress made his deep voice rough; to the rankers at the back, who could not catch his words, it sounded like the growl of an angry lion.
Alkander did not answer directly; he just shook his head. “You may have made the decision to die on your own, but you have no right to tell us we cannot be beside you when it happens.”
“Damn it! I am your king! I’ll choose my own damn bodyguard!” Leonidas growled more loudly still.
“For the better part of your life you have been one of us―and proud of it,” Alkander countered calmly. He had foreseen this reaction and was prepared with his arguments. “As Brotus has never forgotten or forgiven, you are king because we made you king. No matter how much of Herakles’ blood runs in your veins, or how important it is to you that your son becomes the next Agiad king, you are still one of us. We turned away men who wanted to serve their king―in order to retain those who wanted to serve you. We will go with you, Leonidas, and die with you if need be, not as your subjects―but as your peers.”
It took a moment for Leonidas to get sufficient control of his emotions to be sure he could speak. Then he nodded, took a deep breath, and managed to say: “You are right. The best part of my life I was no more and no less than a Spartan Peer.”