The Persian army has continued its advance unopposed into central Greece. One evening the Greek is brought in before the King, eyes bound, and an incantation is spoken so that the Greek may speak in the King’s presence. The Greek prisoner identifies himself as Xeones, son of Skamandridas of Astakos. He explains to Xerxes that his tale “would not be of generals or kings,” but an “infantryman’s tale,” as he is merely a youth and squire of the heavy infantry. Xerxes replies that this is exactly the tale he wishes to hear.
The theatrics surrounding King Xerxes—with Xeo not even allowed to see or speak to him at first—give a sense of what kind of king he is, in contrast to the Spartan king who will be introduced later. Xeo is from a seaside town in western Greece. He will tell the kind of story that isn’t typically recorded in history books—the everyday soldier’s tale. This signals to the reader that Pressfield’s novel is no mere retelling of Herodotus’ Histories.
Xerxes wishes to know what kind of men these Spartans are, who slew 20,000 of his best warriors. He especially wishes to “acquire a sense of the individuals themselves,” whom he only observed from a distance. After praying to his gods, Xeo agrees and asks for the King’s patience, since he must begin with events long before the battle, in order to give the lives and actions of the warriors “their true meaning and significance.”
This further sets up the kind of story Pressfield wishes to tell—one that will dwell on individuals, not just battlefield dynamics. Xeo’s piety and reliance on his gods is evident; he is guided by them in everything he does. He will tell the story by providing context for the warriors’ lives long before the war took place.
Xeo begins his story. He begins with what he believed would be his death. He was slain by an Egyptian spear through the ribcage. Xeo recalls being overwhelmed by emotion and the memory of all those he loved. He also felt a tremendous relief at not being separated from his beloved comrades in arms. Yet he also felt a keen grief at the thought that the story of Thermopylae would die with the men.
In the first of many flashbacks, Xeo explains how he got where he is—he very nearly died at Thermopylae, and his desire to die alongside his comrades was even stronger than the desire to be reunited with his family.
Xeo suddenly sees Apollo moving among the dead and dying men. His eye turns to Xeo, and Xeo knows he is the one who has been chosen to go back and speak. He feels himself being restored to consciousness as Egyptian marines drag his body from underneath a pile of corpses. Xeo prays to Apollo, asking him for help in telling the tale.
For the first time, the significance of Apollo to the story appears. Apollo isn’t an abstract deity, but a personal god in whom Xeo strongly believes. He appointed Xeo to live and share the story of what happened—explaining Xeo’s devotion to recounting the story to his enemy in what follows.