That night, one of the strongest boys in the unit collapses and dies of dehydration and exhaustion. Alexandros blames himself for this, and when his unhealed nose leads to an asthmatic condition, he’s certain it’s the retribution of the gods for his “unwarrior-like conduct.” If Alexandros can’t find a way of managing this condition and becoming a warrior, he will lose Spartan citizenship and have to choose between a disgraced life and “honorable” suicide. His father, Olympieus, even asks for counsel from the Pythia at Delphi, to no avail.
Alexandros’s sensitivity constantly works against him. He blames himself for his friend’s death and interprets his physical weakness as divine retribution. The Pythia (an oracle) is even summoned by Alexandros’s father, showing how life-and-death the situation is. The Spartan mindset is that death is better than failure as a warrior.
Alexandros’s asthma attacks seem to be brought on by fear. Dienekes works with him on the discipline of phobologia, the science of fear. The science is based on the belief that fear originates in the flesh and must be combated there. If one can put the body into a state of fearlessness, the mind will follow. But Alexandros can’t seem to master these exercises of muscle relaxation the way the other boys can; the only time he's truly fearless is when he sings at public festivals.
Alexandros’s fear of failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Phobologia is not a real concept, but the basic idea is that fearlessness must be mastered both physically and mentally. As a musician, Alexandros only draws courage from singing.
Alexandros pushes himself all the harder in training, quietly supported by the other boys and by Xeo. He and Xeo talk for hours about the esoteric Spartans philosophies. One day, at the height of the tension before a war with the Antirhionians, Alexandros and Xeo get into an “all-in” brawl, the Peers watching eagerly. For the first time, Xeo perceives a “killer instinct” in his friend. When Alexandros’s lungs spasm, Xeo instinctively pulls his punch, but Dienekes furiously goads him into finishing the boy off. Xeo punches Alexandros as hard as he can, knowing that the Peers aren’t motivated by malice, but by the desire to teach Alexandros “the thousandth bitter lesson of the ten thousand more he would endure before they hardened him into the rock the city demanded.” Alexandros falls, apparently unconscious, but isn’t killed.
Alexandros desperately wants to fulfill the expectations of his city and become a Spartan warrior. He and Xeo are becoming friends by this time. However, it’s Alexandros’s job to beat Xeo senseless and Xeo’s job not to let that happen. Dienekes’ fury is actually motivated by love for Alexandros according to the Spartan outlook. It’s Alexandros’s mission in life to become a warrior, and if he fails at that, he really is better off dead.
The next morning the army marches out for Antirhion, a port on the gulf of Corinth which has not consented to ally with Sparta. If Leonidas’s army succeeds in persuading the Antirhionians, they will succeed in bottling up the gulf to protect Greece from a Persian sea assault. That night, after watching the army and the battle train head out, Xeo is abruptly awakened by Agathe, a Spartan girl of whom Alexandros is fond. He follows her to a dark copse of trees where he finds Alexandros arguing with his mother. He intends to follow the army to battle. When he brandishes his sickle, his mother finally relents. It goes without saying that Xeo will accompany him.
Alexandros decides to prove his mettle by following the army into battle, despite his mother’s protests. He and Xeo will get their first taste of warfare as the Spartans try to win over one more stubborn city-state to be their allies.