Tensions at the base were high. Having arrived first, Hephaistion, and Nearchos took charge, two to one when Krateros arrived shortly after. Even without Alexander present, his threat remained in force, allowing Nearchos to impose a nominal peace between the two men.
Then word came.
The king had been mortally wounded.
That was the first message. Hephaistion opened it in his tent and literally fell to his knees, unable to breathe. "No, no, no, no," he whispered. Either I kill him or no one does.
A subsequent message, arriving just a few hours later, informed all that Alexander yet lived, if by a precarious thread. Hephaistion ordered the entire camp to make immediate sacrifices to Darron, the Macedonian god of healing also known as Asklepios. It was done with alacrity.
Four subsequent days floated by in a foggy dream. Didn't Hephaistion want Alexander dead? Brought low for what he'd done? Hephaistion had intended to kill him for it as soon as he had the chance.
Except he'd had several chances, not least on that last night, when they'd quarreled in his tent. Furthermore, as a Somatophylax, he'd had access to Alexander in intimate settings few could match. If he'd really wanted to kill him, he'd missed quite a few golden opportunities. He'd told himself it had to be public because his shaming had been. But did it really? He was going to die immediately after, by his own hand or another's, and the reason for the murder would be brutally obvious wherever it took place: an honor killing, not politically driven assassination. His loyalty to Alexander was beyond question.
But now Alexander really might be dying far upriver and this enormous rift remained between them. Hephaistion wasn't reconciled. Alexander had dealt him a blow from which his honor couldn't recover without the king's death, or grace. But right now, none of that mattered. Alexander sat on the doorstep of Hades's House and Hephaistion needed to see him before he crossed over.
He gave orders to his men to conceal his absence as long as possible, then hired two trusted Indian guides and, with three of his men, traveled by land upriver to the king's current camp outside Malli. It was a foolish journey through hostile territory, but he didn't want anybody aware he'd come until he arrived. He had to show his face to the sentries, but ordered them to silence, then wove his way through the camp's dirge-like atmosphere towards the great, striped tent of the Great King.
Outside stood Leonnatos and Perdikkas on guard. When he took off his hat and unwound the scarf from his face, they gaped. "By Zeus!" Perdikkas gasped.
"He's alive?" Hephaistion asked.
Hephaistion didn't bother to request entry, just shouldered past. Inside, physicians and servants hovered. Hephaistion shoved them out of the way, and despite his disfavor, none dared to halt the King's Octopus.
Alexander looked terrible, one step from death indeed, his face waxy-pale, deep blue hollows under his eyes, cheeks sunken, and the screaming red skin around the packs and plaster over the wound in his left upper chest where the arrow had penetrated and been cut out. His unwashed hair was greasy, beard stubble gold-brown on cheeks and chin.
Hephaistion knelt by the army cot. "Alekos," he whispered. "Krusionos mou." My Golden Boy.
There was no immediate response and the king's physician said, "He's been mostly comatose. But his mind is there; he can hear you. Talk to him."
"Out!" Hephaistion yelled at the rest. "I'll call you back when I'm finished."
From a boot sheath, he withdrew his dagger. This, he laid in Alexander's right hand. Then he whispered, voice breaking, "I'd planned to kill you. You defamed me. You'd die, then I'd die, by my own hand, if not by others'. You stole my timē. I wanted it back. How could I command or live without it? I might have helped you try to introduce proskynesis, but I'm not groveling at your feet. Then the Indians almost stole you from me and I realized I didn't give a damn about any of that. I don't want to kill you. I just want you to defend me as you should have, instead of abusing me." Abruptly he broke and leaned over, head to Alexander's shoulder, weeping. "We defend our friends and hurt our enemies, yet you treated me like an enemy. You said you're sorry, but how can that return my honor? You humiliated me in front of everyone. Still, I won't kill you. I can't. I'm not Pausanias. I love you too much. Maybe that makes me weak. I'll go back now, to base camp, and keep order until you can reach it."
Abruptly, he stood, wiping tears away. He stared down at the still unresponsive face, and left. After he ate, and slept a little in Perdikkas's tent, he let his Indian guides take him back with his men. Nearchos had done a good job of covering for his absence. Few realized he'd been gone.
"Alexander?" Nearchos asked upon his return.
"He's alive. Clinging to the edge, but alive."
Anxious weeks passed. After his initial, despairing visit, Hephaistion made no second trip. Base camp was a madhouse, rumor rampant despite official releases that the king was recovering. The men feared Alexander dead and the rest covering it up.
Desperate times called for desperate measures, so Hephaistion showed up at Krateros's tent. "Please alert the strategos I wish to talk to him," he told one of Krateros's guards.
Rather than inviting Hephaistion in, Krateros came out, appearing astonished. "What do you want?"
"This camp is tearing itself apart. They don't believe us, think we're concealing the king's death, each trying to stage a coup. We need to do something or Alexander will string us both up."
Krateros cocked his head and considered. He was a good ten years older, his curly red hair half-gray and thinning at the crown, brown eyes bearing permanent crow's feet at the corners from squinting over hill, plain, and battlefield. He might look up at Hephaistion a little but had fifteen or twenty mina on him in muscle weight. "You went to the camp outside Malli." It wasn't a question.
"You saw him, and he was alive."
"Do you think he's dead by now?"
"No. He was in bad shape, but … he's Alexander."
"If he dies, you and I, we have to get the men out of here."
That might be a truce. Or it might be a hand offered to conceal the intention to pull him off-balance.
"If he dies," Hephaistion allowed. "I told you, he was alive."
"Very well. We'll make a statement tomorrow morning. You can tell the men what you saw."
And so it was. A little after dawn, Hephaistion, Krateros and Nearchos gathered all the soldiers down near the river and Hephaistion hoisted himself up on a raised platform. He was no public speaker, but addressing a crowd was necessary with command.
"Alexander's Men!" He began. "Citizens and soldiers of Macedon! Three weeks ago, I traveled north to the camp where our king lies wounded. I know you've heard fearful rumors, but I saw him myself. At that point, while grievously wounded, he was very much alive, and his physicians were hopeful of his recovery."
Hephaistion paused. He wasn't good at this. Speechifying was Alexander's gift, but Nearchos, standing below, touched his ankle in encouragement.
"Soldiers! You well know my attachment to the king. If I'd thought him truly close to death, do you think I'd have returned here? The fact I came back should reassure you that our king will be joining us as soon as his physicians deem it safe."
He got down off the plinth, receiving a pat on the back from Nearchos and a slight nod from Krateros.
A week later, word came that the king's fleet had disembarked, bearing south along the Indos. Discouraging rumors remained in camp, despite Hephaistion's speech, but the worst of it had faded. Hephaistion joined the other commanders at the river dock, watching and waiting as the ships appeared on the horizon. In the foremost, a still figure lay on a raised bed, and seeing it, many soldiers misunderstood, believing the boat to be a funeral barge. They let up a great wail.
The figure on the bed raised a hand and the wail abruptly stopped, turned to cheering.
Privately, Hephaistion's heart soared. He hadn't been altogether sure he would meet Alexander again, this side of the Styx. And if he did, then what? He'd admitted his intention to kill the king, even left the murder weapon in Alexander's hand. Hephaistion returned to his tent to finalize his personal affairs in anticipation of his arrest, leaving a written confession to shield his associates and friends, in addition to what was already in the casket. Only one man would fall, though in truth, he'd fallen already. There wasn't much worse that could be done to his reputation.
The order came later than he'd expected. A full two days after Alexander's return, Hephaistion was summoned to the king's tent. Prepared, he followed the royal Page. It was mid-morning. Most soldiers were at drill or seeing to preparations for their continued march downriver. Hephaistion was grateful for Alexander's discretion: the camp wouldn't see him carried away in chains.
When he arrived, Alexander sent out everyone else, even his secretaries and the Somatophyalakes. "Hephaistion will guard me," he said, which was ironic, considering.
Then, somewhat to Hephaistion's shock—yet not—he produced the dagger Hephaistion had left, offering it up. "This is yours." Hephaistion stared. Alexander was giving him back the weapon by which he'd intended to commit regicide? Not issuing orders for his arrest? Hephaistion could take it, reclaim his timē. All he had to do was plunge the blade into Alexander's heart, make the king a sacrificial animal on the altar of Hephaistion's pride.
Except he couldn't.
"I abused you badly, acted hubristically towards you." Alexander still held the dagger Hephaistion hadn't taken. "I heard everything you said when you came to me while I lay between life and death. It gave me a reason to live. To fix it."
Finally, Hephaistion approached to settle on the bedside and take the dagger, but only to return it to the sheath in his boot.
"Phaistonaki, I'm sorry I hurt you. You said 'sorry' isn't sufficient. But I keep thinking, if I say it often enough, it might be, even though I know it won't." That came out oddly pitiful.
Voice bitter, Hephaistion admitted, "I've loved you for half my life. I love you still. But I also hate you. You ruined my honor."
"My responsibility. I'll fix it. Trust me. You are Alexander, too."
Hephaistion snorted, dubious. "All right. Sleep, Alekos."
He started to rise, but Alexander grabbed his arm. "Sleep with me. I need to feel your body."
Hephaistion shook his head. "No. I haven't forgiven you."
"But at least you won't kill me?" This was offered with humor, albeit masking pain.
"I told you, I couldn't have anyway. I'm not Pausanias."
"And I'm not Philip. You'll see."
In the end, Alexander's version of "fixing it" shook not only Hephaistion but upended the prior command structure of the army.
A week after his arrival at base camp, Alexander had his officers help him onto a plinth placed at the center of camp, so he could address his men. There were far too many to be able to hear him, even if he'd shouted. These days, he no longer had breath for shouting. Part of one lung had collapsed and he'd never again be able to bellow the way he once had. Instead, his words were carried from the front to the rear by verbal relay.
First, he thanked the men who'd risked their own lives to save his in Malli, then he named Peukestas as an eighth Somatophylax for his bravery. It wasn't the first time he'd altered Macedonian military structure, but the tradition of the Somatophylakes went back well over a century, at least, and perhaps all the way to the first Alexander, son of Amyntas. Peukestas received the honor with stunned solemnity.
"Finally," he said, "while I recovered after Malli, I realized we have a structural problem at the command level. We've had it for a while; it led to the massacre at Marakanda. I should have corrected it then, but I was too stubborn, too wedded to our Macedonian nomos." Their ancient customs. "At Marakanda, I blamed the generals, not the real problem.
"That same problem resulted in my two top officers pulling swords on each other." Soldiers murmured at the reference to more recent events, and Hephaistion's spine stiffened. He didn't look at Krateros. "Instead of correcting it, again, I blamed them. They shouldn't have fought"—he glanced first at Krateros, then around at Hephaistion, his blue eyes hard—"but they shouldn't have been put in a position that led to it."
His own embarrassment aside, Hephaistion puzzled over what, exactly, Alexander meant.
"The problem," Alexander went on, "rests with me."
Dead silence. Kings didn't admit to failure, not so bluntly. Especially not this king.
Hephaistion remembered to shut his mouth.
"What's the problem? Simple. A failure to clarify the command chain. In Macedon, the King's Companions have always stood equal before the king, as I've been recently reminded." By Hephaistion. "That's how it's always been. In combat, units have officers, but even there, taxiarchs and other commanders are equal. That got good men killed at Marakanda because they fought over who, ultimately, was in charge. While Parmenion lived, he was my Second, but since, there hasn't been one. I even divided the command of the Companion Cavalry, then split it again six ways. And outside combat, there never was any hierarchy at all, except a king's favor.
"That can't continue." This pronouncement brought a swell of murmurs like the sound of the sea lashed by spring winds. Alexander waited until it subsided. "It might have worked for a small kingdom on the edge of the Thermaikos Gulf, but we're not that kingdom anymore. My father changed the army, made it a hundred times more efficient, but he didn't change the basic command structure. Neither did I.
"But I will now. I have to. I may be King of Macedon, but I'm also Great King of Persia and Pharaoh of Egypt. Going forward, there will be a clear chain of command, in peace as well as in combat. As always, I'll assign officers based on their seniority and demonstrated skill. Yet each man will answer to the officer above him, and not just on a battlefield."
The army had begun murmuring again, a little louder now. Hephaistion couldn't tell if it were in approval or disapproval. Probably both. He was also stunned at just how bluntly Alexander addressed this issue, no longer trying to deny that Marakanda had been a debacle because he hadn't been there to give orders that wouldn't be contravened. Privately, most of the army had known that, but since the murder of Kleitos, no one had been willing to say so above a whisper.
Perhaps almost dying had finally knocked some sense into the king's hard head.
"If there's a dispute on a matter of fairness, any Macedonian may approach me for resolution, just as has always been our custom. I am, still, a Macedonian king. But I will impose order. Officers, no matter how senior, will not challenge each other or pick fights over status, because going forward, their relative statuses will be as clear as Sidonian glass."
Hephaistion risked a glance at Krateros finally, who'd apparently risked a glance at him at the same time. Their gazes crossed and locked.
"In addition to a pyramidal command structure, I'm going to restore the Persian office we call the Chilliarchy: a formal second-in-command, not just one informally recognized, as Parmenion enjoyed." Abruptly, Alexander turned to look down at Hephaistion in the crowd around the plinth. "As for who my right hand will be—it's who it's always been. I called him another Alexander once, and so he remains. Hephaistion Amyntoros will be Chilliarch."
No applause followed, almost no sound at all for several breaths. The army as well as the upper echelons of Alexander's Companions needed the space to adjust to the abrupt and decisive elevation of a man who, just a month ago, had been perceived to be in total eclipse.
On his left, Nearchos muttered, "You're fucking unsinkable, you son of a bitch." But it was said with amused fondness.
Finally acclamation did come, spreading out from the men of Hephaistion's Hipparchy into the army as a whole. Alexander offered Hephaistion his hand. "Get up here. I can't pull you."
Hephaistion was standing on the wrong side and didn't want to push through men to the steps; Nearchos and Perdikkas boosted him up beside Alexander, on the king's right. The king clapped his back. "Will this do, to return your honor?" he asked under the roar of men shouting Hephaistion's name.
Hephaistion wasn't quite crying, but it was a close thing. "Fuck you," he muttered back. "You could have warned me."
"I like surprises."
"No, you like theater."
"So you've said. And I do. Almost as much as I love you." He gripped Hephaistion's left hand and raised a gold ring so the watching men could see it. It wasn't one of his own. He must have had it made just for this. He slipped it onto Hephaistion's forefinger. The face bore an octopus carved in ocean-blue lapis.
A seal ring. His seal ring.
"Khilliarkhos Oktopos," Alexander shouted to the army's acclamation. He grinned like a madman.
Notes: In Greek, the term "hubris" or to act "hubristically" means more than how we use it today in English. It was a crime for which a man could be prosecuted in court, involving an affront to the honor i(timē)/i of another man, or family. When Alexander admits he acted hubristically to Hephaistion, he doesn't just mean he acted arrogantly. He means he committed a crime against his best friend. He has to make it right with more than "sorry" or "I love you." Greece was a shame, not guilt, culture, so public standing was everything. Medea killed her own children to get revenge on Jason when he dishonored her. Another, similar example of murder to reclaim honor involved Harmodaios and Aristogeiton, the Tyrant Slayers of Athens, plus, of course, Philip and Pausanias. Hephaistion's planned murder-suicide is in the same vein.
Though I doubt she'll ever read this, I owe Dr. Reames for the basic idea. The somewhat different translation of the infamous put-down is from the original Greek, although I used expletives to get across the emphasis (Ἀλέξανδρος ἐλοιδόρει τὸν Ἡφαιστίωνα φανερῶς, ἔμπληκτον καλῶν καὶ μαινόμενον, εἰ μὴ συνίησιν ὡς, ἐάν τις αὐτοῦ τὸν Ἀλέξανδρον ἀφέληται….[Plutarch, Alexander 47.6]).
I blame delos13 for great conversations that resulted in this story. And if readers catch a few parallels to my earlier story, "Making Amends," it was intentional.