Still, we were not discouraged, because we had anticipated such obstacles. On our climb through the driving rain up that miserable mountain path, we laboriously hauled a dozen thick planks of oak, each cunningly worked with a tongue-and-groove joint on the sides and fitted with wrought-iron handles and strap slots. In the shelter of a retaining wall on a slope in front of the fort, the last protected area before emerging into the hell of arrow fire under the towers, the men now assembled the boards with their frozen hands and hurriedly lashed and braced them together into a tight, peaked roof. It had a rain-soaked weight that would stagger five men, but which ten could easily carry when arranged beneath in two columns of five, gripping the iron handles and support braces. Thick wicker screens were hung from the sides to complete the shelter. The structure would protect not only those hoplites actually carrying it, whom we jokingly referred to as "pallbearers," but also several in the center between them, who rolled the battering ram.
The ram itself was not of cunning manufacture, and in fact was almost comically crude. It would have been impossible, though, to haul the usual bronze-sheathed logs up that tortuous pathway. We improvised with the material at hand-a rounded boulder six feet across which had been blocking the road near the top. With mason's chisels and axe heads we roughly chipped away its irregular corners and outcroppings, then bored two deep holes into its opposite sides. Into these we inserted stout iron bars to be used as handles, like an axle on an enormous, spherical wheel. This crude contraption we humped up the last few feet of the rise to the retaining wall, and set it on the path that would lead directly to the massive oaken door. Fortunately, the approach to the door was level, even sloping slightly downward. We calculated that with four strong men pushing the boulder from the axles, sheltered from the missiles by the sturdy plank roof overhead, it would attain enough speed to weaken the bar and hinges when it collided-with luck it might even bring down the entire door.
The first pass was made without the ram, as the ten pallbearers dashed out with the roof while another six "pickers" scurried beneath, slipping in the mud and the frozen slush to clear away rocks and obstacles in the path to the door. On their return run, they picked up the dead from our previous attack, whose bodies had been almost torn apart from the arrows and rocks raining down on them. Strangely, the rebels above did not impede us in this task-a few desultory arrows landed on the planks and skittered harmlessly off to the side, but otherwise they limited themselves to shouting out obscene taunts.
This we accomplished by dusk, leaving us time for only one more pass. The rain had now become a driving sleet, and the gloom of the weather and darkness of the approaching night made it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. As the pushers took their position under the roof, the army massed behind, stretching out far down the hill because of the narrow confines of the space. The stone was given a slight shove from the top of the rise; it tipped ponderously forward, and the hands of the four pushers lent it strength, until it reached the speed of a slow walk, then of a trot. The men carrying the heavy shelter eyed it nervously, lest it veer to the side and crush them beneath its implacable course, but the slope was true and the boulder well rounded. Sweating and cursing, the pushers bent their backs and thighs into the iron rods, relentlessly gaining in speed. The army behind trotted, then ran, then sprinted toward the towers, their voices mounting in a roar that resounded off the approaching walls in a rising chorus of encouragement and anticipation. By the time the boulder neared the gate the pushers were struggling to keep up with it as it leaped and bounded over the path in a fury. Fifteen yards from the gate the pushers released their grip on the axle. The pallbearers skidded to a stop and the boulder shot out from beneath the roof. Behind them stormed the lead phalanx, a crack tribal regiment of Hippothontis who had fought and bullied rival companies for the honor of leading the charge, shields raised above their heads for protection and bellowing the battle cry. The huge stone surged forward, sending sprays of frozen water and mud to the sides, and at the last, just before reaching its target, it hit a small rise and flew into the air, slamming into the door dead in the middle with a huge crash.
The stout bar inside snapped with the force of the direct hit, and the enormous slab of oak was knocked askew on its hinges, opening a gap of a foot on the top and sides, with the outer corner leaning drunkenly against the ground. The impact splintered the wood across the waist of the door and sent an enormous crack running its length from top to bottom, threatening to fold it inward like a caved shield. The collision caused a tremor that dislodged stones from the battlements above, a groan in the walls that could be felt even in the ground beneath our feet. The Athenians emitted a roar of triumph, and the pallbearers tossed away the heavy roof and rushed to seize their shields and weapons that had been stowed in the framing beneath. Howling the battle cry, the phalanx surged forward to throw itself against the weakened door and force it wide before the rebels had a chance to barricade themselves again.
But closing the door was not the rebels' intent. Even before the hoplites reached the entry, the door shuddered and lurched, and with great and ponderous effort creaked open as if of its own accord. The defenders on top of the towers stood silent and unmoving, peering down at us through the sheets of thickened rain, and the cheer from the Athenians rose up even more fiercely at this sign of the rebels' surrender. We raced up to the entrance, half blinded by the sleet and the spattering mud thrown by the thrusting feet of the men in front of us, and the huge door swung wide inward, revealing the shadowy blackness of the vault within the ten-foot-thick walls of the Fortress of Phyle. As we rushed into the gap, the dragons came to life.
Horrendous balls of flame leaped out from the darkness, the stench of sulfur overpowering us as the black, stinking liquid blasted onto the men's faces and bodies, setting them afire and sending them screaming and stumbling in blindness. Murderous streams of flame roared out thirty feet, forty feet or more, three in succession across the width of the opening; each paused momentarily in turn like creatures drawing their breath, and then they again resumed their hellish blowing. In the darkness behind we could see the faces of Thrasybulus' rebels, gleaming and ghastly in the light of the flames, their eyes empty black holes in the pits of their helmets, their teeth gleaming yellow and fierce as they threw back their heads and grimaced at the strain of their terrible task.
Screams of agony and the stench of burning meat filled the air as men fell flaming beneath the onslaught, and those foremost in the charge were roasted alive in their very armor, charring black and writhing where they fell. Their hands curled into fingerless claws and their limbs contracted as they fell dead and shriveled at our feet like spiders dropped into the flame of a lamp. Farther back, my throat constricted and I choked and gasped on the sour black smoke produced by the burning of my comrades' flesh. I could feel the heat of the deadly blasts on my face like a furnace suddenly opened, and the thought of what a terrible death lay waiting behind that splintered and broken door was overwhelming. The troops panicked.