At the time that Xeo is giving his story to King Xerxes, the Persians are advancing unopposed into Greece. Despite the near-constant demands of war, Xerxes demands that interviews with the captive Greek continue to be recorded. Xeo is eager to continue, saying that the story seems to be “telling itself” at Apollo’s direction.
Xerxes continues to be fascinated with Xeo’s story, suggesting that Xeo’s outlook is novel to him. And Xeo feels himself to be under the compulsion of Apollo, suggesting there’s a higher purpose to the storytelling.
To relate something of the nature of the Spartan training of youth under the Lykurgan warrior code, Xeo tells a story that occurred six years before Thermopylae, when he was 14 years old and not yet employed as Dienekes’ squire. He was working as the sparring partner of Alexandros, Dienekes’ protégé and the son of a Spartan war leader, Olympieus.
The Lykurgan warrior code was the traditional set of laws that governed Sparta, particularly the training of all male citizens as warriors. Xeo moves back in time to when he was still serving Alexandros.
Alexandros, the son of a noble family, is an accomplished musician and a gentle spirit. Once, when both boys were 13, both were whipped for various infractions, and Xeo took the beating much better than Alexandros did. To rub his nose in this, the drill instructors assigned the two as sparring partners, with instructions that Alexandros fight Xeo until he was capable of “beating the hell out of” him. This arrangement suits Xeo just fine.
Xeo hopes to move up in the Spartan world by becoming Alexandros’s squire in time. As a helot (slave), it’s unlikely he could ever become a Spartan citizen, so this arrangement is probably the best possible path to advancement for him. Alexandros is introduced as a gentler spirit who takes the Spartan rigor harder than most.
The army was on a regimental exercise called an eight-nighter, with rigorous drills and mock assaults, and very limited rations. Though brutal, the exercise is marked by “relentless hilarity” among the men. Even King Leonidas was not exempt; his good humor and willingness to share the men’s misery endeared him to them. The purpose of the eight-nighter, however, is to drive the entire unit beyond humor, to toughen their minds and teach them to “produce victory on will alone.”
While Spartan life is far from unrelentingly dark, the toughest training is meant to push the army beyond themselves and muscle through victory regardless of difficulty and feeling.
Just before the last night of the drill, Alexandros gets in trouble with Polynikes, the 23-year-old Knight and Olympic champion. He has accidentally “defamed” his shield, leaving it facedown in the dirt. Polynikes orders Alexandros to urinate in his shield, since he’s treating it like a chamber pot. But Alexandros is too frightened and dehydrated to obey. Polynikes orders the other boys to take up Alexandros’s slack while he interrogates Alexandros about shield protocol. He ends up lashing Alexandros’s face so badly that his nose is broken, then forces the entire unit to spend the night pushing a tree over with their shields, resuming their training on no sleep the next morning.
Polynikes appears in the story for the first time and shows that he has something personally against the young Alexandros, singling out the young boy’s cruelly. This event will leave a psychological mark on Alexandros as well.