|The Wooden Horse
Author: moon71 PM
Before their first meeting, Alexander gives Hephaestion a gift.Rated: Fiction K - English - Words: 4,479 - Reviews: 10 - Favs: 14 - Published: 08-22-06 - Status: Complete - id: 3117469
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
THE WOODEN HORSE by Moon71
SUMMARY: Before their first meeting, Alexander gives Hephaestion a gift.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing to do with me
RATING: Utterly harmless
DEDICATION: For Lysis / Selket – this story was directly inspired by your beautiful story, Hephaestion's Lion. The image of the little lion crying for Hephaestion lingered long in my thoughts.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks are owed (as usual!) to Fredericka, goddess of horses, for providing me with lovely pictures of "Storm Cloud."
Actaeon heard Alexander's nurse Hellanike give a heavy sigh of frustration. "Alexander son of Philip," she scolded, "if you don't get yourself into bed this minute I shall have Actaeon beat you!"
Actaeon winced. He was hardly ever required to do such a thing and never got much pleasure from it.
Alexander simply stared back defiantly. "I don't care," he replied, folding his small arms across his chest. "Leonidas beats me!"
I'll bet he does, the old bastard, Actaeon mused bitterly. He had never liked the man from the moment he had seen him, but who was interested in a young servant's opinion?
Hellanike's scowl deepened. "You get into bed now or I will tell my brother Cleitos he's not to take you riding anymore!"
That hurt; Actaeon could see the tears sparkling in Alexander's clear grey eyes, but the boy quickly mastered himself. "I don't care…" he said in a softer voice, then, with new resolution, "I don't care."
Actaeon brushed the red-brown hair back from his own brow. It had been a hot day and was turning into a very sultry night. He looked across at Hermias, the steward of the Prince's small household, and was met with a look of weary sympathy. Hermias was strict and frighteningly efficient, standing no nonsense even from Alexander himself, but he was never unnecessarily unkind to the servants under him. Actaeon did not envy him his frequent audiences with the Queen, and if they didn't get Alexander to bed soon there would be a strong chance he would be having one when the morning came.
"Alexander, you're being very naughty," Hellanike told the little blonde boy angrily, "I've told you already your father is very busy and besides, you know perfectly well you are far too young to go with him. Do you really want him to see you being so disobedient?"
"I'm not too young," Alexander replied in that same stubborn, steady tone. It would be so much easier, Actaeon reflected, if the boy would start screaming and crying and stamping his feet – at least then Hellanike could simply give him a smack and they could bundle him into bed and leave him to cry himself to sleep. Such gravity just wasn't normal in a child, especially a high spirited one like him. When Actaeon had first been assigned to his household, Alexander had been the bane of his life along with that of Hermias and Hellanike. The child had been an incorrigible little mischief, so fond of pranks and practical jokes, running away, disappearing to talk to common soldiers or to spy on his father's war councils and diplomatic audiences – he never seemed to stop talking and asking questions, growing frustrated when a mere body-servant could not answer them to his satisfaction; pulling Actaeon away from his duties to demand he help him build a fortress or arrange his model soldiers or draw a map. But he was so startlingly demonstrative, offering as much affection as he seemed to crave, that in spite of all the annoyances, Actaeon had grown to love him.
But now with that Leonidas everything had changed. Actaeon knew he was not the only one who thought the change was for the worse. Alexander had become so serious, so sombre… Actaeon had heard Hellanike confiding in Hermias that she was afraid Leonidas had "beaten all the brightness" out of Alexander, and Actaeon could not think of a better way to sum up the change. Almost overnight the boy had begun to consider himself too old for cuddles and kisses and games and stories; he refused second helpings at mealtimes though he was far too thin and wouldn't accept little treats even from his mother. He had heard Hellanike admit that she had even dared to mention the matter to Queen Olympias, suspecting that the Queen herself was grieved by this new cold reserve in her son, but when she had heard Hellanike's complaint she had grown defensive and insisted Leonidas was good for Alexander. This business tonight had something to do with that Epirote brute – of that Actaeon was sure.
"I want to see my father," Alexander was saying yet again, "I have to see him."
"In the morning," Hellanike insisted.
"He's leaving on Campaign in the morning, I have to see him now."
"Alexander, I've just about run out of patience with you… I've a good mind to go to your father myself and tell him what a wicked, badly behaved little boy you are – and then he'll never take you on Campaign with him!"
"I don't care, I'm not going to bed until I see him."
"Mistress…" Actaeon interrupted softly. Hellanike and Alexander both turned to look at him, as if noticing him for the first time. Actaeon felt his cheeks growing warm, but he persevered. "Mistress, may I speak to you for a moment?"
Hellanike turned to him wearily, her face flushed, her eyes burning. There were times when she reminded him disconcertingly of her ferocious brother Cleitos. "Oh, very well, Actaeon," she snapped, following him across the room and leaving Hermias to take his turn at reasoning with Alexander. "Yes, what is it?"
"Mistress, why don't you let me take Alexander to his father? Let the king himself tell him the truth… we all know he's far too young to be taken on campaign! Surely if he has the chance to show his father that he's willing to go, he will feel that he has proved himself?"
Hellanike's eyes softened, her face relaxing to a pretty smile. Gently she touched his arm. "You're a good boy, Actaeon. Perhaps you're right after all… but for a few moments only, I won't have Philip thinking we can't control Alexander – or that he doesn't know how to behave." She turned and called to Alexander. "Actaeon will take you to your father's study. But before you go," she added, catching hold of his arm before he could make a dash for the door, "you must make me a promise. You must promise to accept whatever your father says… and then you must come straight back to bed. And if your father isn't there, there will be no dragging Actaeon around the palace looking for him. Promise me – and Actaeon."
Alexander looked up at her solemnly, then glanced from her to his body-servant. "I swear by the divine Heracles," he said clearly. "Can we go now?"
Actaeon was struck dumb, waiting for Alexander to begin a highly vocal protest at such coddling. He had even begun to resist his own mother's caresses. But Alexander remained demurely passive in the man's embrace. "Joy to you, General Amyntor," he said with princely dignity, "are you hear to see my father too?"
"So you remember me, do you?" the man called Amyntor grinned, sitting back on the couch and placing Alexander on his knee. Actaeon watched warily. He wasn't about to leave Alexander in the company of a stranger and he didn't much like the idea of the prince being manhandled in that way, but Alexander seemed to know the man so Actaeon remained silent, watching closely.
"Of course," Alexander replied seriously, "you're from Athens. You came to see my father in the summer. He says you're to come and live in Macedon."
"What a good memory you have," observed Amyntor, "as a matter of fact, we… oh, but what's this?"
Actaeon stared in surprise at the small wooden horse Amyntor had gently prised from Alexander's little hands. He had not even noticed the boy had been clutching it – he seemed to scorn all his toys, since the advent of Leonidas. "It's just a horse," Alexander admitted reluctantly, as if embarrassed to be caught with it.
"Not just ahorse…" Amyntor admired the toy lavishly, viewing it from all angles and stroking its polished wooden surface. With some regret, Actaeon remembered Alexander's squeals of delight when that Thessalian horse-trader had presented the little dappled grey carving to him. It suddenly seemed so long ago. Even Actaeon had been affected by its lifelike beauty – it was a warrior's stallion in full charge, its glossy black mane backswept, its eyes bright, its spotted coat painted in loving detail. There was something vital and joyous about it, as if it was just waiting to have Prometheus breathe life into it so that it could charge into battle. There was even something that suggested good humour in its regal countenance. "No, not just any horse," Amyntor continued with reverence, making the horse trot across Alexander's knees.
"Oh no," Alexander admitted, "it's a proper cavalry charger - a war horse."
"But not just any war-horse," Amyntor chuckled with a wink in Actaeon's direction, "this is an exact model of your father's new charger, isn't it? Such a beautiful animal," he sighed dreamily, "what does the king call him? Thunder Cloud?"
"Storm Cloud," Alexander replied with exasperation, as if astonished by Amyntor's ignorance, and then suddenly launched into a long and detailed description of the horse' noble lineage. Amyntor listened to his prattle with infinite patience, glancing up only once to smile sympathetically at Actaeon. The servant was a little disconcerted. He was hardly used to being acknowledged unless something was required of him, but this man Amyntor, who spoke Macedonian with a Greek accent, was treating him as if they were sharing in a conspiracy to humour the unhappy little prince. Finally Amyntor cut short the boy's discourse by tickling him with the little horse's hooves and making it charge at him. Actaeon was moved more than he wanted to admit to hear Alexander's shrill, delighted giggles. Then all at once Alexander grew grave once more, looking up into Amyntor's dark eyes. "Do you know where my father is?" he asked softly, "I've come to ask him to take me on Campaign with him."
Actaeon winced, but Amyntor merely nodded seriously. "You're a very brave boy, Alexander. I've fought in only a few battles, but war is a frightening thing. Your father will be very proud to know you're so willing to serve at his side. But he's very busy – he's spending time with his soldiers, preparing them to march in the morning. He knows they like to see him before they ride out."
Alexander nodded. "When I'm a general, I'll always look after my men, and share all of their hardships with them!" Then he added reluctantly, "I suppose you think I'm too young! But I'm not! I can survive; I just need a chance to prove myself!"
Amyntor regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. "It's not about your age, Alexander… it's about your experience. You can't go into battle unprepared. Do you know what would really impress your father? For you to behave well, do as you're asked, eat up your meals, attend to your lessons and practice your riding and fighting skills. Then before you know it you'll be called to serve as a Royal Page and you'll be right at your father's side, guarding him, assisting him… looking after him, and when that day comes you'll be able to show him just how much you've learned. Soon enough you'll be ready to be an officer and fight right beside your father…" Amyntor looked thoughtfully down at the little horse. "I imagine you'll serve in the Companion Cavalry… and have a beautiful charger of your own."
"I hope so," Alexander answered quietly. Actaeon was surprised by the doubt in his tone, so unusual in such a disconcertingly forward child.
"Of course you will," Amyntor assured him, his eyes twinkling, "and soon enough all of Macedon will sigh longingly as they see the handsome young Cavalry Commander riding by on his fine Thessalian stallion."
Then Alexander startled his servant further by throwing his arms about Amyntor's neck and kissing his cheek, just as he had done so often, even with Actaeon himself, before the arrival of Leonidas of Epirus. Amyntor's eyes clouded as he stroked Alexander's yellow curls. "You're a good boy, Alexander," he sighed, "I only wish my own son was as reasonable as you!"
Alexander looked up at him with new interest. "You talked of him before! I remember his name, it's – it's – Hephayston," he articulated the Athenian name carefully. "No – Hephaestion. He's about my age! Has he done something wrong?"
"He's angry with me," Amyntor replied wryly, talking to the little boy as if he was one of his old friends, "he has been since I told him he's to leave Athens. Your father has given us a most generous estate here in Macedon, but Hephaestion has been raised in Athens and he thinks he won't like it here. I asked him if he'd like to come with me this time, to meet some of the boys his own age who live here, but he refused."
"He dared to refuse his father?" Actaeon blurted out before he could stop himself. Amyntor's casual and friendly manner and the warm, almost sleepy intimacy of the study had made him forget himself and he blushed violently. But the Athenian visitor simply smiled wistfully.
"Hephaestion has a mind of his own. I encourage that… in him, even in my daughters, to an extent. But it does sometimes put us at odds, and I don't like that."
"How old is Hephaestion?" Alexander asked suddenly.
"Oh… about a year older than you…"
"Is he taller than me?"
"A little… but he comes from a family of giants… like me!"
"Does he know how to ride yet? Has he got his own horse? Does he have a dog?"
It was as if a door in that complex little mind had just been thrown open to let in air and light. Suddenly there was no stopping Alexander's interrogation – what games did Hephaestion play? Did he have a lot of friends in Athens? Did he have a pedagogue? What subjects was he good at? Did he like stories about the Heroes? Was he good at wrestling? Did he ever get into fights? Did he win? Could he shoot a bow and arrow? Had he ever been to the theatre? When he came to Athens, would he try to kill his first boar? When exactly would he be coming? Would Amyntor let him come to Court? Would he ever serve as a Royal Page? Amyntor answered each question with gentle patience; it obviously gave him pleasure to talk of his son. Alexander listened to each answer with big, hungry grey eyes, almost as if this Hephaestion was a source of nourishment or held the key to some eternal gift of wisdom and it was vital to memorise every detail of his comings and goings.
Recovering from the shock of his own earlier outburst, Actaeon cleared his throat meaningfully, feeling as though he already knew more about Hephaestion son of Amyntor than his own mother did. "My prince, it's growing late. Remember your promise to Hellanike… King Philip isn't here, and it's time for you to go to bed."
"The young man is quite right," Amyntor agreed, pressing the muzzle of the little wooden horse against Alexander's lips to stifle his protests. "Go along now, my dear," he said as easily as if he was talking to his own boy, "a good soldier needs sleep as well as military skills!"
Alexander slid gracefully from Amyntor's lap and started towards Actaeon, but then he suddenly stopped, looking down at his little toy for a very long time as if deep in thought. Then he turned back to Amyntor, thrusting the wooden horse out to him. "Take him, General Amyntor," he said with regal condescension, "I wish you to have him."
Amyntor stared at the boy, then glanced over his shoulder at Actaeon, obviously quite genuinely taken aback. "Alexander, I couldn't possibly! I can see how much you love him!"
"But you must take him," Alexander cried, pushing the horse into Amyntor's hand, "it's a gift!"
"And I'm honoured, Alexander, but really…" Amyntor trailed off as Alexander blinked and his lower lip began to quiver ominously. "Alexander, I…"
"I want you to give him to Hephayston - I mean, Hephaestion for me," Alexander told him, "tell him… tell him I'm glad he's coming to Macedon, that its really very nice here, and perhaps… perhaps when he comes we can go hunting together with my dog, Peritas. Peritas is very good at hunting, General Amyntor, do you know, the last time I took him with me he caught a rabbit and two…"
"Prince Alexander…" Actaeon admonished gently. The boy turned to him, ready to argue, but then he nodded and turned back to Amyntor.
"I promised I'd go to bed if my father wasn't here," he said quietly.
"You're a good boy," Amyntor said once more, "I shall tell your father when he comes. And I shall give Hephaestion your generous gift… and your kind words. Now kiss me and go along with your young man." He knelt down and drew Alexander into his arms and for a moment they simply held one another. Actaeon watched, startled but fascinated by the strength of the affection between them. The boy surely missed his father, the man apparently missed his son; yet it seemed to go beyond that. Perhaps, after all, it was simply that Alexander needed to receive love and Amyntor was the type of man who needed to give it. At last Alexander kissed Amyntor again and wished him health, then meekly took Actaeon's hand as they left the study. Glancing back, Actaeon saw Amyntor gazing pensively at the little wooden animal before returning to his reading.
The prince remained quiescent as Hellanike and Actaeon undressed him and put him to bed. Actaeon watched him with an odd fascination. He seemed lost in is own little world, once again thinking his deep thoughts, yet he seemed so much more tranquil than he had earlier that evening. Perhaps he was already thinking of how to be the best Page ever to serve the King. Perhaps he was thinking of the wooden horse. Perhaps he might even be thinking of Amyntor's son.
"Get yourself to bed, Actaeon," Hermias said gently, putting a hand on the young man's shoulder.
"But – sir – Hermias – I must finish my work, I…"
"Your work is finished for tonight, my boy," Hermias assured him, "you did very well. Besides, the prince will be up with the dawn tomorrow to see his father ride out, and that means an early start for us too!"
Actaeon nodded gratefully, but still lingered as he heard Alexander whispering to Hellanike as she sat on his bed, tenderly stroking his hair.
"It was something Leonidas said to me," the boy was saying, his smooth young brow creasing pensively, "he said… he said I was a mama's boy… that I'd spent too much time in the women's quarters and I'd never be tough enough to be a good soldier… he made fun of Lysimmachus – of my calling him "Phoenix" and him calling me "Achilles." He said he was teaching me to be a… a Greek sissy."
"He's wrong, my Prince," Actaeon spoke up recklessly. Both Hellanike and Alexander turned to look at him and he shuffled uncomfortably, occupying himself with folding Alexander's chiton and picking up his discarded sandals. He wanted to say so much more after what he had witnessed in the study, but he was a servant, and servants were not supposed to see or hear and certainly not to comment. Saying no more, he padded across the stone floor, closing the door behind him.
"Still sulking, Hephaestion?" Amyntor asked wearily, brushing the dust from his riding armour as a house servant emerged to offer him a moist, scented cloth and a cup of watered wine.
"I'm not sulking," Hephaestion retorted sulkily.
"Hephaestion, we're moving to Macedon and that's the end of it," his father declared, "now please stop this."
"I'm not doing anything!"
Amyntor drew in a deep breath, draining the cool wine and handing the cup back to his servant. For years others had mocked him for his sentimental attitude to his children, indeed to children in general. He had never cared. He had grown up the eldest boy in a large family and had loved every one of his little brothers, sisters and cousins, never finding them a nuisance. His own son and daughters were a constant delight to him – which made this ridiculous estrangement from Hephaestion that much more painful. Perhaps another man would have given the boy a whipping and then starved him into submission, but that wasn't Amyntor's way. All the same, when he thought of lonely little Alexander, caught between his squabbling parents and already weighed down with the responsibilities of a royal son and heir, his patience with Hephaestion grew rather frayed. Amyntor's admiration and affection for Philip was strong and he had a quiet respect for Olympias, who he sensed was brave enough and ruthless enough to defend Alexander's position even if the rest of Macedon turned against him and was ready to endure the suspicion and spite of others to do it. But neither, he suspected, could give Alexander the unconditional love he needed. Perhaps, once he and his family were settled in Macedon things might change… but that rather depended on Hephaestion…
With a heavy sigh he sat down next to Hephaestion, reached under his cloak and pulled out the carefully wrapped bundle he had tucked into his belt. "Take it," he said, "it's a gift for you. Not from me," he added with some irony as Hephaestion regarded it hesitantly, "from Prince Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon."
Hephaestion frowned, but untied the cloth. Amyntor heard him gasp as he discovered the little grey horse, its dappled hide glinting in the Southern sunlight. He was amused to watch the boy struggling to keep the pleasure from showing on his face, but he could not keep the sparkle out of his dark eyes. "The prince really gave this away?" he asked in breathless wonder.
Amyntor nodded. "He wanted you to have it."
"If it was my horse, I'd never give it away," Hephaestion declared, turning the wooden horse over to examine it, running his finger down its thick black mane. "Still," he added with a return of his former petulance, "if he really is a prince he probably has lots of fine toys. Maybe he just didn't like it!"
Amyntor frowned heavily. "Hephaestion Amyntoros, that is a most ungrateful remark. I happen to know the Prince liked that horse very much – he gave it to you to make you feel happier about moving to Macedon, and he told me to tell you he'd like to take you hunting with him. Still, if you don't like the gift there are many little boys in Athens who don't have nearly as many nice toys as you do, I'll give it to one of them…"
"No!" Hephaestion clutched the little horse close to his chest. He was silent for a long time; then, very grudgingly, he stole a sideways glance at his father and asked, "did he really give it to you?"
"Of course he did. It's a copy of King Philip's own charger, Storm Cloud. There's no other horse like him in Macedon. When we go there you'll see him for yourself."
Hephaestion looked down at the horse once more. "What's he like, Papa?"
A warmth spread through Amyntor as he heard that diminutive from this little boy who already thought himself a man, but he kept his expression neutral. "Storm Cloud or King Philip?"
"No, no… the Prince. Alexander," Hephaestion said softly. "I mean… what does he do? Who does he play with? What other toys does he have…?"
Amyntor finally allowed a grin to spread across his face. Encircling Hephaestion within his arm, he began to talk.