The Battle of Marathon
Greece, 490 B.C.E.
The ground is hard and dry, littered with stones and the bodies of the fallen, Athenian and Persian alike. She runs barefoot and avoids the bodies, but cannot avoid the stones. They bite at her soles, digging into her skin, and she can barely feel it, but she knows her feet are raw and blistered, and that with each stride she leaves a trail of bloody footprints across the plain. She barely feels anything but a distant and crackling pain from her lungs and a dull hot throbbing from the wound in her side, where the poison entered her body almost four days ago. Her chiton, once white, is now almost black in places, stained with days of dirt and sweat and blood, and linen has torn at her shoulder where a vampire grabbed her while trying to take her throat.
That vampire is dead, as are a hundred others, and she is dying, too, but she keeps running.
She has run nearly three hundred miles in four days, and she is almost finished.
In her right hand she carries her labrys. Perspiration from her hand has soaked the leather-wrapped grip, turning it blacker than her filthy tunic, and fine dust clings to the point of sharpened wood opposite the ax head, the part she uses as a stake when a stake is better than a blade. The handle is scored in several places, where she has used it to block blades or blows or teeth, and the head is chipped. The staking end, however, is still sharp. This is her favorite weapon, the one she has used again and again for almost eighteen years.
But now, and for the first time in her life, the labrys is heavy. The poison riding through her veins makes her hallucinate, and when she hallucinates, she loses her grip. Twice already she’s come back to the present from her dreams to find the labrys dropped and retraced her steps to retrieve it. It matters that much to her.
Her name is Thessily, sometimes called Thessily of Thessilonikki, though no one she has ever known has ever been as far north as Thessilonikki. It is simply a name, given to the woman who was once a girl who was once a slave and who is now the Slayer.
For a little longer, she thinks. The Slayer a little longer.
She is twenty-nine years old, and ready to die.
She is twelve years old, and has been a slave all her life.
Her mother is a dream memory who died before she could talk, and Thessily has been raised in the household of Meltinias of Athens, a fabric merchant. She has been well treated, or at least never abused, because only a fool abuses a slave; they’re just too expensive to replace. She has never argued or been difficult, but Meltinias has seen it in her eyes.
Defiance exists in Thessily, and she is biding her time.
Meltinias thinks she is trouble. Smart for a slave, perhaps too smart, and growing dangerously attractive. The girl has hair blacker than the night sky, cold blue eyes that seem to judge everything, and skin that is pale like the skin on the statue of Pallas. Thessily is exotic, and Meltinias has already pocketed several coins by charging other men for the simple pleasure of looking on her. Now that she is getting to be old enough, he is considering other ways he could make more money off of his prized slave.
In truth, he might have done so already were it not for the unblinking stare Thessily so often turns his way. The look is unnerving. He thinks, perhaps, it is a look from Hades. It is a look that will certainly lead to trouble.
But not anymore, because today Meltinias has sold his exotic, Hades-in-her-eyes slave to Thoas, the high priest of the Eleusinian mysteries. Thoas is the hierophant, and if anyone knows how to deal with Hades, it is he. The hierophant, after all, is the one person in all of Greece who can guarantee safe passage into the afterlife.
Meltinias watches them go, the tall, middle-aged priest and the pale-skinned girl. Thoas was almost desperate to purchase the girl, and Meltinias will live well on the sale for months to come. Meltinias breathes a sigh of relief.
And he catches his breath, because Thessily, now outside the door, has turned and looked back at him, and smiled.
And the smile is from Hades, too.
She is seventeen and Thoas, her Watcher, is at his table in their home, pretending to be at work with his scrolls. It is only an hour before dawn, and Thessily is happy and tired and sore, and when she comes inside, Thoas looks up as if surprised to see her. She knows he isn’t; this is his game, and has been since they started. Every evening she goes out with labrys in hand, to patrol and to slay, and always before dawn she returns, and when she crests the rise above the amphitheater, she can see his silhouette in the doorway of their house, watching for her. Then Thoas ducks back inside, and when she arrives only minutes later, he is always at the table, always pretending that he was not worried.
She loves him for this, because it is how she knows that he loves her.
Thoas looks her over quickly, assuring himself that his Slayer is uninjured. If she were, he would hurry to bind her wounds and ease her pain. But tonight she is not, and so Thoas proceeds as he always does, and asks her the same question he always asks.
“Seven,” she tells him. “Including that one who has been haunting the agora, Pindar.”
Thessily smiles and sets her labrys by the door, then pours herself a glass of wine from the amphora on the table. “There was something new, a man with orange skin and an eye where his mouth should be.”
“Orange skin or red skin?”
“Orange skin. And silver hair, in a braid.”
“How long was his braid?”
“As long as my arm.”
Thoas nods and scratches new notations on his scroll. “Jur’lurk. They are very dangerous, but always travel alone. You did well.”
Thessily finishes her wine and nods and says, “I am to bed.”
“Rest well, and the gods watch you as you sleep.”
She goes into her room and draws the curtain, then sits on her bed and removes her sandals. Before, in Meltinias’s house, she was simply a slave, and not a very good one. Here, living with Thoas, pretending to be his aide, she is the Slayer.
She is damn good at being the Slayer.
It is three nights ago, and she is running through olive groves and down hillsides, trying to protect a man Thoas has told her must not die. The Persians, led by their king, Darius, are coming. They will land their ships at the coast in only three days. Athens has no standing army, and the Persians have never been defeated. It is already assumed that the glory of Athens will fall, that the city will be looted, the men murdered, the women raped, the children taken as slaves. The greatest civilization the world has ever known is only seventy-two hours from total annihilation.
But there is a thin hope, and it lives in the man Thessily follows, a man named Phidippides, who is running to the Spartans with a plea for help. It is 140 miles from Athens to Sparta, through some of the roughest terrain Greece can offer, over rugged hills and through cracked and craggy ravines. Phidippides is a herald, a professional messenger, known for his stamina and his speed, and rumored to have the blessing of Pan. He runs with all his heart, trying to pace himself, yet knowing that time is against him, and Thessily admires him for this, if not for the errand itself.
She understands the wisdom of appealing to the Spartans. They are the greatest warriors in Greece, their whole culture is built around war and honor and service and dying. She knows how fierce they can be in battle, because even though the Slayer is forbidden to kill Men, she has battled the Spartans before.
The Spartans are lycanthropes, werewolves, and though they control their bestial nature, Thessily does not trust them. But because they are werewolves, they can save Athens.
Athens knows only that Sparta is great in the arts of war, not the truth behind that fact. That is why Phidippides runs 140 miles to ask for their help.
Thessily runs because with the Persian soldiers there also travel Persian vampires, and the vampires fear the Spartans. Thoas has told her that the vampires will do everything they can to stop Phidippides from reaching his goal.
Thoas is correct.
The first assault comes only hours into the run, as Thessily parallels Phidippides’s route, staying hidden from the herald’s sight, as the terrain turns mercifully flat for a brief while. She leaps across a small creek, starlight reflected on its flowing surface, trying to stay ahead of the herald, and she sees three of them up ahead, using the edge of an olive grove for cover. The vampires aren’t even bothering to hide their true faces, and without a pause Thessily frees her labrys from where it is strapped to her back, and she flies into them.
She has done this easily a thousand times before, possibly even more than that. Thoas has never found a record of a Slayer who has lived as long as Thessily, who has survived and fought for so many years without falling for the final time. She has been the Slayer for seventeen years now, she has grown up and is growing old, and though her body is not as fast or as strong as it once was, she is still the Slayer, and there are no mortals alive who can challenge her.
She takes the vampires by surprise, and has felled one of them with the labrys before they’ve begun to react. On her follow-through swing, Thessily ducks and spins, bringing the ax up and ideally through another of the vampires, but she is surprised to find she has missed. It is a female, dressed in rags and patches of armor, and the vampire hisses and flips away, and Thessily has enough time to think that perhaps these Persian vampires are a little more dangerous than the ones she is used to when she feels the arrow punch into her side.
It feels like she’s been hit with a stone, and it rattles her insides and pushes her breath out in a rush, and she turns to see the archer, the third vampire, perched in the low branches twenty feet away. Without thinking she drops the labrys and takes the stake tucked on her belt, snapping it side-armed, and the point finds the heart, and the vampire’s scream turns to dust as fast as his body.
Then the other one, the female, falls on her from behind, and Thessily tries to roll with it, to flip her opponent. She feels a tearing of her skin and muscle and the awful pain of something sharp scraping along bone, and she stifles a scream. The vampire has grabbed the arrow sticking in her side, twisting it and laughing. Through sudden tears, Thessily strikes the vampire in the throat with the knuckles of a fist, forcing the once-a-woman back, and it buys her time.
Thessily is out of stakes. Her labrys is out of reach. With one hand, she holds the arrow against her body. With her other, she snaps the shaft in two, turning the wood in her hand even as the vampire leaps at her throat again. Thessily drops onto her back, bringing the splinter up and letting the vampire’s own motion drive the stake home. There is an explosion of dust and the all-too-familiar odor of an old grave, and then the night is quiet again.
Thessily lies on her back, catching her breath. After a second she hears the sound of Phidippides’s sandals hitting the soil in a steady rhythm, the shift of the noise as he comes closer, then passes the grove, then continues on his run. There is no pause or break in his stride, and she believes he has noticed nothing, that she is still his secret guardian, and she is grateful.
She tries to sit up and the pain blossoms across her chest, moving around and through it, and she gasps in surprise. In all the years she has been wounded, she’s never felt a pain like this. She looks down at the remaining shaft of arrow jutting from her chiton, the spreading oval of blood running down her side, and gritting her teeth, she yanks the arrowhead free. Her head swims, and she sees spots as bright as sunlight. She raises the arrowhead and tries to examine it in the starlight, sees only the metal glistening with her own blood. She sniffs at the tip, and recoils, dropping it.
The odor burns her nostrils as she gets to her feet and retrieves her labrys. The straps on one of her sandals have torn, and she discards the other rather than try to run in only one shoe. She turns and follows after Phidippides, and has only gone three strides when she feels the first distant wash of nausea and giddiness stirring.
And she knows that she has been poisoned.
It is hours later that same night, and she has fought eight more vampires, each time keeping them from Phidippides. The vampires are savage and fast, and she is already tired and hurt, and slowing.
She wins each fight.