SUMMARY: Thirteen year oldAlexander is overjoyed to hear that his "most special friend" Hephaestion is returning to Macedon after a long time away but he's in for a nasty shock when he finds his devotion is no longer reciprocated. Undaunted, the future conqueror embarks on his first campaign - to recapture Hephaestion from Athens…
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is more of a companion piece than a sequel to "Hating Alexander" as it basically follows the same events from Alexander's point of view. However I've added in plenty of new scenes, so I hope that justifies this story's existence!
P.S. Sorry for being cheeky and submitting two stories on the same day, but I've got a bit of a backlog and after all, who knows, tomorrow may never come at all! Happy New Year to everyone out there!
RATING: K+ for sexual references and a bit of kissing
I fell in love with Hephaestion the first time I met him. But I fell in love with the idea of him even before that. My world at that time was a privileged but solemn and lonely one, dominated by my would-be Spartan tutor Leonidas who limited even my time in the company of my mother and her women which, while sometimes dull, was at least warm and comfortable. When I complained that I hated my tutor and had no real friends of my own, Mother insisted that he was making me strong and resilient, fit to take on my enemies and become a glorious future king. I could not be angry with her; she was beautiful and she loved me fiercely and I sensed in her the same isolation and the same insatiable hunger which tore at me. It was a strange hunger, a longing for love mixed with powerful, consuming ambition – to achieve, to possess, to influence, attract and control, even just to know. And both of us found this hunger thwarted by my father Philip. I think we both loved him a little too much; our violently passionate natures and emotional needs made demands he had neither the time nor the will to meet.
Initially it was General Amyntor I thought I loved; when he appeared at one of the meetings of my father's staff which I sometimes liked to attend, partly out of a wish to escape Leonidas, partly out of genuine curiosity, he was the only man who treated me like the little boy I was, sweeping me up in his arms and bouncing me on his knee, asking me for a kiss and calling me a "pretty little fellow." At first I was as bemused as the other officers, who treated me with some deference at least in front of my father. I was a very serious child and hadn't been coddled like this since I had been hauled rudely out of the nursery. But then my father laughed loudly and calling Amyntor a "soft-hearted old woman" and we all relaxed. And very quickly that hunger, that yearning for love, took over and I was quite content to sit out the meeting on Amyntor's lap. Afterwards both he and my father teased me about my strategic knowledge and pretended to ask my advice, and then Amyntor added, "do you know, Prince Alexander, I have a little boy not much older than you, Hephaestion is his name… shall I bring him with me next time? You could play with him!"
"I would like that," I admitted with a shy smile, "Father, can I really play with Hep- He – with Tion?" I stumbled over the name.
Both men laughed. "Why not?" my father grunted, "boys like Hephaestion, Ptolemy and the rest could be your future Companions, after all…"
And it was as simple as that. Not even Leonidas could stop it. Not even my mother, though she expressed serious doubts when word reached her. I was sitting in the palace courtyard when I saw Amyntor approach. He was a tall man, agile and handsome with black hair and a neatly clipped beard and lively dark eyes. Like my father he had his share of scars, though most of his work, I later discovered, had been in covert intelligence and diplomacy; I remember thinking his Athenian accent very sophisticated and I think it was his strong connections with that city that first attracted my father to him. By his side, carelessly grasping his hand, was a boy a couple of years older than me and several inches taller, also dark, also, I thought, very handsome. "Joy to you, Prince Alexander," the boy spoke up without prompting, letting go of his father's hand as he strode up to me with a happy smile, "my name is Hephaestion. Would you like to play "War"?"
"I… don't know the rules…" I mumbled. I was annoyed with myself, I could feel I was blushing and I had forgotten to return his greeting. How was it that I could speak politely and confidently to my father's Companions, even to visiting dignitaries, but went to pieces trying to converse with a boy? If only he wasn't so big, I found myself thinking desperately, if only he wasn't so… pretty…
"That doesn't matter," Hephaestion replied merrily, seizing my hand, "come on, I'll explain it to you…"
"Hephaestion…" Amyntor cut in before his son could drag me away, "aren't you forgetting something?"
I cringed inwardly. Was Hephaestion in trouble? Would Amyntor send him home? But my new friend just grinned, let go of me and ran back to his father, who stooped to meet him and offered his cheek for his son to warmly kiss. I felt a twinge of envy at their closeness but was not given time to dwell upon it as Hephaestion was back at my side almost at once, bright-eyed and eager. "Come on, let's go and play…"
That afternoon was a revelation to me; it was not as if I had never met other boys my age, but between my parents and my tutors I had grown to feel I was not just a boy but a future king, and playing silly children's games was not for me. But playing with Hephaestion was such fun. He treated me just as he might some other little boy he'd discovered playing in the street. I had to nothing to prove, nothing to achieve, no-one to impress.
"Have you read the Iliad?" I asked him when we finally sat down for a rest.
"Read it? No!" Hephaestion gave a breathless laugh, "but my nurse tells me some of the stories…"
"My tutor – the nice one, Lysimmachus, not the horrible one, that's Leonidas - he's helping me read it. He calls me his Achilles, my mother is directly descended from Achilles… Lysimmachus says he's like my own Phoenix, who was like a second father to Achilles…" It was on the tip of my tongue to say that Hephaestion could be my Patroklos if he'd like, but I held back. "Anyway, we could pretend I was Achilles now if you like, you could be Hector, and we could be fighting about Patroklos…"
To my distress, Hephaestion's face settled into a deep frown and he folded his arms across his chest. "I don't want to be Hector!" he pouted.
"But why not?" I asked worriedly, "Hector was a great warrior, he was handsome and kind and brave and…"
"Yes, yes, but if I play Hector, that means you get to kill me!" Hephaestion glared at me. "You want to kill me!"
"No, no, I didn't mean that, please Hephaestion, I…" I was almost on the verge of tears when suddenly Hephaestion threw his head back with a wild laugh and began to dig his fingers into my ribs.
"You silly thing, you should have seen your face!" he chuckled.
My protests were drowned out by my giggles as he tickled me with more vigour, sending me into convulsions and not leaving off until I swore I would be sick.
When at last we were forced to part by Amyntor's return, I was utterly smitten with my new friend. I wanted to declare my love then and there, I wanted to tell him I would do anything for him, go nowhere without him, defend him with my very life. But all words died in my throat when I looked up into his sure, steady gaze. "Come, Hephaestion," I heard Amyntor call, and my friend was about to turn away when I suddenly flung my arms around him and planted my lips upon his cheek.
"Please come back soon, Tion," I gulped.
He looked at me in surprise, glanced over at his father, then gave a wide grin. "I will," he said, as if it was completely his decision.
I ran all the way to my lesson with Lysimmachus, blurting out before he could reprimand me for my lateness, "Phoenix – oh, Phoenix! I've found him! I've found my Patroklos!"
And, of course, not long after finding him, I lost him. And like Achilles sending Patroklos to war in his own armour, the last time I saw him I did not know that I would not be seeing him again. All I noticed was that Amyntor was distracted and impatient that day and I was still enough of a little boy to be hurt by this, especially when he dragged Hephaestion away without letting me kiss him good-bye.
I noticed Amyntor's absence first, because while I often saw the father without the son, I never saw the son without seeing the father first. Hephaestion had never quite joined the ranks of my usual friends, partly because Amyntor seemed reluctant to let Hephaestion wander about the court without him, partly because the occasions he did bring him were rare enough for me to want to savour them in privacy. Even then I was just a little jealous of his attracting the attention of others.
Gradually I guessed something was wrong and began to fear that Amyntor had somehow displeased my father and been sent away, taking Hephaestion with him, so I was initially relieved when I heard General Antipater mention that Amyntor had "sent an excellent report" to my father and was "doing a good job." But then I heard his companion mutter that it "took one to know one" and if anyone could "see through those Athenian bastards" it was Amyntor.
"Has General Amyntor gone to Athens?" I blurted out, startling the two men, who had not noticed me behind them. "Will he be gone long?"
"Oh, a year or two, I daresay…" Antipater said dismissively.
"A year, two years, ten years, who can say?" smirked the other man, "Athenians like to talk, don't they? It will probably take a year for them all to introduce themselves…"
And that was that. As I watched them walk away, I tried to swallow down the ache in my throat. Perhaps, had I been left alone, I might have had some relief from a good cry, though Leonidas always beat me if I cried, saying it was a womanly weakness. As it was, the old sadist caught up with me a moment later and dragged me off for a mile long run and for once I did not resent it. Running took all of my energy and kept the terrible loneliness from closing in.
And so the time passed. It wasn't as if I didn't have other friends. I had real friends I valued and trusted (though even they had as much been chosen for me such as by me) friends such as Ptolemy, Erigyius, Laomedon, Harpalos and Nearchos who were to stand by me in difficult future years I could not yet imagine. There were others such as Leonnatus and Perdiccas who I liked but was not then close to; then there were boys such as the sons of Generals Antipater and Parmenion, who became part of my circle because it was expected. Of them, I never much liked Cassander yet found a sort of negative empathy between us – like me he was being forced to spend his time with boys he would not necessarily have chosen for himself. Of Parmenion's boys, I was fond of Nicanor and very taken with little Hector, but Philotas, though he was attractive and could be very dashing, was too close to my cousin and potential deadly rival Amyntas to make me trust him completely. Besides, if anything befell my father, Parmenion could represent a threat to my succession all by himself.
And even with my dearest friends, there could be tensions. I had heard the rumours about Ptolemy's mother and my father. In purely sentimental terms I would have been happy to acknowledge Ptolemy as my half-brother, having only Arridaeus, whom I loved but whose mental deficiency made me uneasy as it recalled other rumours of my mother feeding him with poison in his cradle. But Ptolemy was some years older than me and could sometimes be irritable and impatient and I could not totally dismiss my mother's assertions that he harboured a secret envy of my superior position. So, though I learned to live with Hephaestion's absence, I never stopped missing him or hoping he might return.
Not that I was given much time to muse upon my loss. My days, and my thoughts, were filled with the keeping a steady course upon the thin and fragile line I had to walk. It was not enough for me to be good at anything; I had to be that much better than my peers. Even if my father had not expected it, my mother would have demanded it. I should not show weakness or forget my dignity as a prince of Macedon. Childish infractions and errors for which my friends might be excused were unacceptable for me. I must act as a future general and ruler – I could be kind, but I must not let others forget that my place or theirs. I should not tolerate slights or insults or challenges to my authority. And no matter how hard I tried, I never seemed able to satisfy everyone. My father thought me pampered and oversensitive, my mother gullible and naïve. I knew my friends, even the closest ones, grew tired of my commanding attitude, my arrogance and my harsh self-discipline – when rules were to be broken or mischief made, I was left out. And there was no-one to whom I could completely unburden myself, no-one I could completely trust not to report back to one of my parents, thinking it would be in my best interest. Some nights I awoke from nightmares which were the more horrible for being barely realised and was confronted by the knowledge that I was utterly alone. Then I would try to conjure up Hephaestion's laughing face and easy manner and strain to hear him call me by that precious name, "Alé."
The day I heard of Amyntor's imminent return I thought my heart would burst from joy. For days and nights I could think of nothing else; I longed to be alone so that I could prepare for and fantasise about my reunion with Hephaestion. I imagined throwing my arms about his neck and smothering him in kisses. I imagined being held in his warm embrace while we talked and talked. More than anything else I found that I placed myself in his arms. It confused me; when I had been younger I had always dreamed of the games we would play, the new adventures we would share. I had thought that with Hephaestion's help I might just break a few rules like the other boys. But I was so much older now and such things seemed less important. All that mattered now was that Hephaestion would be nearby, close enough for me to touch.
All the same, the morning I looked across the courtyard where my friends and I had assembled I was stuck dumb at the sight of two figures approaching, instantly recognising the taller one as General Amyntor. The other figure was surprisingly hard to recognise, though of course logic told me who it had to be. But Hephaestion was so unlike I remembered him – he had grown so tall, he was already reaching his father's shoulder and he could hardly have finished growing yet. And he had also grown so beautiful – he had always been a pretty child, but now he seemed as perfect as the mosaics and statues of such legendarily handsome youths as Adonis, Hyacinthus or Ganymede. How stupid I felt when I recalled my dreams of hugging and kissing him – he wasn't a cuddlesome little boy anymore; compared to me he was nearly a man.
When they reached me, I was able only to focus on Amyntor. He looked a little older; there was grey weaving through his dark hair, but he was still handsome, for years now spared the savaging my own father's countenance had received from battle after battle.
"General Amyntor!" I greeted him, pleased my voice sounded light and steady, "my father told me you had returned – I am so glad to see you…" Even as I spoke I was conscious of Hephaestion's eyes upon me and of my own burning cheeks. I told myself I was a prince, not just some stupid little boy; I had to maintain my pride. I forced myself to look into his face.
"Is this really my dear Tion?" I asked, wanting to add something in praise of his newly acquired manliness but unable to think of anything that did not sound inane. I moved closer, suddenly wanting to touch him, but he crossed his arms and looked down at the ground as if warning me off. "It's very good to see you back too," I said at last, "you've grown so tall I hardly recognised you…"
"You look well My Prince, truly the gods are with you," he replied, his voice deeper than I remembered it, presumably it had broken before he had left Athens. His stiffness surprised me, but I began to think that perhaps with the years of separation he was now seeing me not as his little playmate but as a prince. Perhaps he assumed we could no longer be friends! How could I convince him otherwise without patronising him or lowering myself in front of my other friends?
"Please call me Alexander," I said, thinking it as good a place to start as any, "all my friends do. Come, we're practising our swordsmanship, come and join us…" I dared to take his arm as we made our way over. I could tell my friends were less than impressed with Hephaestion, though they would never say anything directly in front of me. I had done a poor job of concealing my excitement over his return and though I could not be ashamed of how I felt, I was beginning to realise I had been less than diplomatic. Ptolemy was the first to take a vengeful swipe; he and Hephaestion faced each other down for some minutes before halted them with some amusement and announced I would take on Hephaestion myself. I wasn't yet ready to release him into the company of the others – soon enough, I thought, they would grow used to him and perhaps start to see his charms as clearly as I did. And some of them were older than me and might appeal more to him. I couldn't bare the thought of someone else becoming his most special friend.
And so we began to duel. He lunged at me with a ferocity that both startled and excited me. So he was not afraid of me after all! In fact he feared me less than my other friends, who treated me too gently for fear of hurting me or earning my wrath. I fought back with real joy, moving as fast as I could, countering his strength with my speed. But it was my very enjoyment of it that brought me down; I was unprepared as he slammed into me and I fell back onto the ground, gasping as his wooden sword nicked the skin on my neck. I admit I felt a brief flash of rage, but then followed a rush of exhilaration. He had fought me on his own terms. He still didn't care that I was a prince! I was too winded to intervene when the other boys began shouting at Hephaestion and Leonatus pushed him so hard he landed in the dirt beside me, giving him a kick for good measure.
"Enough, stop it!" I cried as my friends seemed to get ready to give Hephaestion a beating, offering him my hand in a gesture of peace. "It was a fair fight. A real enemy in battle won't worry about what's in the rules! Come on," I said as I pulled him up, "the rest of you carry on, we'll sit it out for a while. Come, Hephaestion, we've got some watered wine, share some with me…" I kept hold of his hand as I lead him over to one of the stone benches; it was warm and strong and dry and I had the silliest urge to raise it to my lips. Instead I distracted myself by offering him wine before taking some myself in the hope that it would stop my heart from fluttering. I could not help staring at him. I longed to tell him that I had never forgotten him, that he was still my best friend, that I had missed him terribly and prayed we would never be separated again. But he was so cold, so unresponsive. Why? Was it because of my other friends? "Don't worry too much about the others," I began, using the excuse of privacy to move closer to him, "It's my fault, they're sick of hearing me talking about you… I'm afraid I talked of little else since I heard you were coming back…" He finally looked at me and I made sure I was ready with a friendly smile, though I could feel my face heating up again.
"I'm surprised you remember me," he replied, "you have so many friends now…"
"I can't always pick my friends…" I answered, his inexplicable bitterness provoking my own so that I spoke more honestly than I might have.
"You didn't pick me either. Then, as now, our fathers thrust us together!" His tone remained challenging.
"Would you rather they hadn't?" Though it hurt me I had to ask and I did so in a way I hoped conveyed to him my willingness to accept an honest answer, but I watched him very closely. Had he forgotten me after all? Had my love never really been reciprocated? He did not respond for a long time and I felt the beginning of panic tightening my muscles, as if the bench and the ground beneath it might suddenly give way, leaving me to fall with nothing to cling to. It was only then that I truly understood how much hope and faith I had placed in a boy I really didn't know.
"We have to do what our fathers tell us," he answered at last.
It wasn't much, but it was better than rejection. "In this case," I told him, tightening my grip covetously upon his hand, "I'm very happy to."
He took his hand from mine as I did so, but I did not mind. I continued to sit close beside him, simply rejoicing in his presence. He was back, he was back here with me. As we sat with our thighs pressing lightly together, Hephaestion talking only in response to questions from me, I began to have an odd but quite certain sense that he was unhappy, that something was troubling him and keeping him from returning my affection. And I thought perhaps it had to do with Athens. Athens! It already had my father under its spell and now it seemed to have claimed Hephaestion too! What was it about that city that made it feel so superior? Many said it was long past its prime, yet Macedonians seemed ready to concede anything to have its approval while its citizens sneered and shouted insults at us, even at me personally. Well Hephaestion had belonged to me – to Macedon, I corrected myself – before he belonged to Athens, and he would belong to us again! Athens had rejected his family once, it was too late for them to wake up and realise what they had lost. That day I made it my mission to claim a victory over the snobbish Athenians in my own name and, I secretly decided, in the name of my father who they had scorned so many times. I would be victorious and Hephaestion would be my prize.
It would not be an easy battle, though – that soon became quite clear. Day after day I laid siege to the strange alternating wall of fire and ice he had built between us, his frustrating coldness only ever relieved by hot flashes of anger to which I had to struggle hard not to respond to in kind. Hephaestion will never know how I bit my tongue and swallowed my pride, time and time again. Of course there were easier ways to get what I wanted. I could simply order him to be more attentive, I could have him bullied or ostracised or come up with a hundred other ways to make his life miserable; I could even bribe him or simply go over his head to his father. Oh yes, I knew all the underhand tactics I could use – I had not been brought up in the Macedonian court for nothing, nor was I blind to the machinations of my mother and father. But when it came to Hephaestion I was determined not to emulate either of my parents in their cruellest guises. I wanted Hephaestion's love, not his slavish obedience.
So I continued to fight my campaign on scrupulously honourable terms. After several weeks of fruitless effort, I awoke to find a bright, fresh morning fragrant with the scents of early summer and decided it had to be a good day; this seemed to be confirmed when Leonidas failed to come for me and Lysimmachus arrived later, managing to keep a straight face as he told me my martinet tutor had come down with a chill after following his own advice and bathing in ice cold water. This left me completely free and I ran off at once to gather my friends for a hunt.
With an arm encircling Hephaestion's waist, I chattered unstoppably on the way to the woods, telling him how much I would love to go lion hunting and have my own lion skin to wear, just like Heracles. He remained quiet and I was disappointed he did not take the chance to put his own arm companionably about my shoulders but I reasoned that the camaraderie of the hunt would bring us closer. I laughed as my favourite dog Peritas began to nuzzle and lick Hephaestion's hand. "He likes you as much as I do," I declared and was immensely gratified to see a slight blush on my friend's cheeks. But before I could continue in this vein, Peritas and the other dogs began to bristle and prick up their ears in excitement and I knew the hunt was on.
Immediately I felt my blood heat and my vision narrow. Leonatus' sharp cry of "over there!" was like an arrow into my heart and I surged ahead, for a short but exhilarating time forgetting all about my lack of success with Hephaestion. Yelling excited commands to one another my friends and I spread out through the woods in pursuit of the deer the dogs had scented. I looked across at Leonatus, at Erigyius, at Laomedon, saw the same bloodlust, the same anticipation for the kill lighting up their faces as we crashed ahead. Philotas was the first to reach it and thrust his spear into its side, but before he could complete the kill I was there, seizing its antlers as it stumbled and drawing my knife across its throat. Hot blood splattered the pair of us as our comrades cheered me with something close to hysteria. Only then, as I stood there panting, did I catch the resentful look of Parmenion's son and begin to wonder if after all I might have been wiser to let him have his moment of triumph. But it seemed impossible to me to linger on the sidelines while others flung themselves into danger or glory at my command. For a moment I considered declaring that it was Philotas who had made the kill, but I knew he would think I was patronising him.
Troubled, I glanced from face to face, looking for Hephaestion. But he wasn't there. Moments later he appeared through the trees closely followed by Cassander and his younger brother Iollas. Neither of General Antipater's sons seemed to have much interest in hunting and they often held back in such situations, but I felt a stab of jealousy as I saw Cassander talking quietly to Hephaestion, who seemed to be listening attentively. Little Hector, having followed the hunt riding on Nearchos' back, clapped his hands appreciatively at the bloody kill and ran eagerly to Hephaestion. "Did you see, Hephaestion!" he cried eagerly, "Alexander brought down such a big fat deer! Come and look!"
Hephaestion made a face and turned away. Leonatus picked up on his squeamishness at once. "They don't do much hunting in Athens, do they?" he smirked, "I heard they hardly eat meat at all!"
"My pedagogue used to say meat is what makes Macedonians the toughest soldiers," Nearchos offered matter-of-factly.
"Is that why Athens always has to hire mercenaries to do their fighting?" grinned Philotas.
Hephaestion scowled. "I heard somewhere that too much meat clouds the mind and makes you stupid," he muttered. Before I could decide whether to intervene, as I seemed to be doing so often, Leonatus stuck his hand right into the puddle of blood by the deer's throat and smeared it across Hephaestion's face, splattering his thin white chiton. "You son of a whore!" Hephaestion cried in outrage, wiping frantically at his face and only succeeding in bloodying his arms as well.
"Don't be such an Athenian girl!" laughed Leonatus as a number of our friends sniggered at Hephaestion's fastidiousness, "you have to have your first blooding!"
"I've already killed my boar," Hephaestion snarled at him, "not that I think much of such barbaric rituals!"
"You killed a boar!" Philotas jeered, "was it tied up first?"
"No," Leonatus returned gleefully, "it was already stuffed and roasted!"
"Is that true, Hephaestion?" Hector asked, wide-eyed, just as it looked as though Hephaestion and Leonatus were about to leap for one another's throats, "did you really kill a roasted boar?"
The others laughed; I tensed. Much as I loved Hephaestion, I wouldn't tolerate his taking out his bad temper on Hector. But Hephaestion just blinked at him, then rolled his eyes and shook his head, reaching out to ruffle the younger boy's hair indulgently. "It might have come to that if my father had had his way," I heard him murmur wryly as he gazed down at his bloodstained chiton and gave a weary sigh.
"Hasn't he got a pretty way of talking!" Hector said to me in a very loud whisper. I felt a sudden pang as Hephaestion gave him a softer look than he had ever given me, then felt ashamed of myself at being jealous of a child. I had always felt an affinity with Hector; he seemed to feel the absence of his father Parmenion more acutely than his siblings and had a seemingly bottomless capacity for fixating upon potential father figures – anyone Hephaestion's age or over would do.
"Don't you go falling in love with an Athenian," Philotas teased him, grabbing the smaller boy up in his arms, "they can't be trusted! Remember Nicanor's pedagogue…?"
I hung back as the others carried the carcass back to the clearing where we had left our belongings. Cassander and Iollas were once again talking to Hephaestion, but when they saw me they headed after the others. I watched them go, then turned with a conciliatory smile to Hephaestion. "I'm sorry about the blooding, Leonatus just likes to start fights…"
"I can look after myself," Hephaestion responded stiffly.
"I know you can, Hephaestion," I sighed, reaching up quite without thinking to wipe the drying blood from his face. Suddenly our eyes met and my felt throat constrict. I couldn't seem to stop my fingers exploring the curve of his cheekbone; he didn't try to stop me.
"Hector's right about one thing," I whispered, "your Athenian accent is very beautiful..."
If I had hoped to get the same tender response as Hector, I was to be disappointed. As if woken from a trance, Hephaestion's expression hardened and he flinched back from my touch. "The others will be waiting for us," he grunted and headed away.
I watched him, choked with indignant fury. To Hades with you, son of Amyntor, I felt like screaming, I never really liked you anyway! But that seemed too much like surrendering before the battle had really begun, so I breathed deeply and followed him back to where the others had built a campfire and begun preparing the kill for roasting. Bread, apples and cheese were laid out on a cloth and the wineskins were being passed around. "Here, son of Amyntor," Ptolemy said with a grin, tossing one to Hephaestion, "refresh yourself after all that exertion in the hunt!" Hephaestion scowled but raised the wineskin to his lips, taking a large gulp before I could decide whether to stop him. He winced as he tried to swallow and doubled over coughing and spluttering. "Oh, by Hades!" Ptolemy cried with mock dismay, "I forgot – you Athenians drink your wine diluted!"
"So do most boys our age," Nearchos countered, cheerfully slapping Hephaestion's back as the others howled with laughter.
"Speak for yourself," I heard Leonatus growl as someone passed the skin to me. I hesitated. I rather liked to drink my wine unmixed, but it occurred to me that Hephaestion might think me ill bred for doing so. Irritated at myself, I gulped it down and quickly began to feel light-headed. "If you ask me, only women – and Southerners – should water their wine!"
"Is that why you're always being carried out of dinner unconscious?" his friend Perdiccas put in with a cheeky grin.
"No, it's because after one or two cups he always picks a fight with someone bigger than him and ends up getting knocked out!" threw in Laomedon.
"I'm boiling," Erigyius declared before Leonatus could start a fight with the older boy, "who's for a dip in the stream before we eat?" There was a chorus of agreement and we began to strip off our clothes and made our way down to the cool, sparkling water. I had already plunged in, eager to clean myself after the hunt while the others just laughed and splashed and ducked one another under while Philotas and Nearchos took turns throwing Hector between them as if he was a living, squealing ball. Then I noticed Hephaestion sitting by the fire, his knees drawn up to his chest. Cassander and Iollas were nearby, which made me uneasy. Wading out of the water, I approached Hephaestion, naked and dripping, smiling in invitation. "Come and swim with me, Hephaestion!"
To my bewilderment, Hephaestion actually grew quite pink and turned his head away. "I don't feel like it," he mumbled.
Suddenly thinking I understood, I crouched close beside him. My proximity seemed to unsettle him further; he actually jumped when I put my hand on his knee. "It's all right," I said very softly, "it doesn't matter if you can't swim – I'll help you!"
"Of course I can swim!" Hephaestion got rapidly to his feet, pacing away from me so that once again I was left staring forlornly after him, hurt and confused. I headed back into the water to cool the sudden fever of anger and frustration before it overcame me. But after a few moments I became conscious of eyes upon me. Turning around sharply, I saw Hephaestion's gaze shift from my body to my face before being quickly averted. I ducked my head under the water to ease the throbbing in my head. Now what was I doing wrong?
Finally the savoury smell of roasting venison drew us to the bank and we sank down, sharing out the food and wine and talking lazily. Hephaestion remained quiet, still clad in his bloodstained chiton, though I noticed how he tucked into the meat with great enthusiasm, his scruples apparently forgotten. Stretched out beside him, still as naked as the others, I felt too sated and sleepy to worry that he continued to avoid looking at me.
"So what's this about Nicanor's pedagogue…?" Ptolemy asked, slurring slightly as he emptied the last of the wine into his mouth and tossed the skin aside.
"Oh yes," Philotas smirked. "My father hired him… on the King's suggestion," he added with a sly glance at me. "He claimed to be from Plato's academy and everything, but all he did was talk a lot of crap about the Sacred Band and keep trying to put his hand up Nicanor's chiton, so my father gave him a good thrashing and sent him back where he came from!"
"Bloody Athenians, they're all frauds!" I could feel Hephaestion growing tense beside me as Leonnatus said this.
"Frauds and traitors!"
"My father is thinking of getting me a tutor from Athens," I put in firmly.
"Well make sure they tie his hands behind his back before they leave you alone with him," Philotas quipped.
"It seems to me it's better for a prince to be educated by an Athenian than to be starved and dressed in rags by some Epirote who thinks he's a Spartan!" Hephaestion hissed. The comment was addressed to Parmenion's son, but as I sat up in outrage his gaze shifted straight to mine. I was quite ready to hit him when I saw the flicker of anticipation brighten his dark eyes, just as I had seen it many times in Leonatus' blue ones when he thought he had succeeded in starting a fight. Hephaestion was baiting me! He really wanted to quarrel!
I didn't know, but I wasn't going to be that easily manipulated. I took a deep breath. I could feel the expectation of my friends – they were looking forward to me putting Hephaestion in his place with either words or fists, and not without cause. Surely I wouldn't let this go? "Well we'll soon see, won't we?" I offered coolly, meeting his burning glare, "there's talk of all of my friends being educated with me!"
That winded him; frowning, he looked away, busying himself with stripping some more meat from the roast. I knew my other friends were staring at me in disbelief, wondering what magic this upstart was using to tame their usually quick-tempered prince. They had no idea. Allowing myself a small smile, I lay back on the grass and let the sun warm my skin. You're mine, Hephaestion, I thought as I closed my eyes, you have to be mine. We'll see who wins this war…
I don't know for how long I slept before the murmur of voices penetrated my dreams. I made out Philotas' first, complaining sullenly about the hunt. "…always has to show off, to get in there first! It was my kill! My father's always telling me I've got to keep up with him, if anything happens to him or Philip… well, you know as well as I do…"
"Ours is the same," I heard Cassander reluctantly complain, "he keeps saying we're not real warriors, that we should follow his example! Come on, Hephaestion, you're father must be doing the same thing, you don't like being stuck with him anymore than we do!"
My heart seemed to skip a beat as I waited for Hephaestion's reply. It never came. Presently Iollas complained, "no-one can keep pace with Alexander, he's too good at – at everything!"
"Well you know what the Epirote witch says about him being the son of Mighty Zeus," sneered Cassander.
"If Zeus really is his father," Philotas grunted, "you'd think he could have made him grow a bit bigger!"
Cassander and Iollas giggled sheepishly, but before I could decide whether to let them know I was awake, I heard Cassander ask, "where are you going, Hephaestion…?"
"Away from you," came the sour reply, "with friends like you, Alexander doesn't need his enemies!"
I could have clapped my hands with joy. As I heard soft footfalls pass me, I sprang up, making my way after Hephaestion as he headed to the stream, suddenly not caring who would see me when I threw my arms about him and told him I loved him and had never doubted him. But I stopped dead several feet away.
Like the rest of us, he had worn only minimal clothing for the hunt, in his case that plain chiton without any mantle or undergarments. As I watched, he slipped off the chiton and dipped it into the river, rubbing hard at the stains before laying it out upon the bank and wading into the water to splash himself.
All of a sudden I was acutely conscious of his nakedness and my own. At first I only focused on the development of his muscles in comparison to mine. He was taller, of course; broader too, stocky enough to stop him appearing too stringy. He had very long legs which were excellently formed. His shoulders were very impressive. His feet and hands were a little too big, but I supposed he would grow into them once he took on the full proportions of a man. I liked his hands, remembering how firm they were, how his long fingers wrapped completely around mine. Then he turned slightly in the water and I found myself looking at his endowment. In all the times I had been in the gymnasium or the baths, I had never bothered to look at the private parts of any of the other boys or even the grown men, let alone compare them to my own, yet I could not tear my eyes away from Hephaestion's. Here again he was my superior and here again he was beautifully formed. Panting softly, I took a step closer. His skin was wet and glistening and I wanted to touch it.
Just then, Hephaestion looked up at me. And though he never spoke and his expression barely changed, I suddenly sensed that for the first time he really wanted something from me, something I was not yet ready to give but was not quite sure I could refuse. His hand twitched at his side; he might as well have flung his arms wide to invite me into them.
A loud wolf-whistle shattered the spell cast over us. We both glanced around sharply to where Erigyius and Laomedon were reclined further up the bank, both brothers waving suggestively at my comely companion. Erigyius even blew him a kiss, Persian style. They were teasing, of course, but I had seen that look in Erigyius' eyes before and now I recognised it as the same look my father had when appraising some handsome new Page or raw recruit from the ranks. I began to feel sick. A new reality was forcing its way into my consciousness and I was not ready for it. Turning away, I headed up the bank to find my clothes.
And to think I had predicted this would be a good day…
When had life grown so complicated? Why did everything suddenly feel so wrong, so out of joint? Sweet things seemed to be turning sour, things which had once mattered so much now seemed meaningless. Only a short time ago winning Hephaestion had seemed an exciting challenge. But now…
I was awoken from the depths of my gloomy, conflicting thoughts by childish giggles mixing with a loud, familiar laugh. A group of small children fled past me up the steps, almost knocking me down in their hysterical stampede. One, not as fast as the others, was captured and swept, squealing, into the strong arms of General Amyntor. "Too slow, I've got you now!" he declared, "I've got you and I'm going to eat you!"
"Noooo!" shrilled the little boy he held. I recognised him as a hostage from one of the neighbouring tribes. He struggled vigorously against his captor, his face pink and shiny with delight.
"Give me a kiss and I'll let you go!" Amyntor demanded.
"Won't!" insisted his prisoner.
"Then I'll eat you right now!"
Amyntor proffered his cheek meaningfully and the little boy kissed it; Amyntor finally set him on the ground. Noticing me for the first time, he grinned sheepishly and sank down onto the steps, breathing hard. "Joy to you, Alexander! Your father has offered to appoint me Palace Nursemaid… do you think I should accept?" As I chuckled he sank down wearily onto the steps. "Come and sit with an old man for a few minutes, Alexander… I promise I won't make you sit on my knee this time!"
I sat down beside him. From any other man the comment might have seemed flirtatious, but there was nothing suggestive in Amyntor's tone or in his expression. He was a man who genuinely loved children and saw them only as children, never sex objects, even adolescent boys like me who were technically fair game. But he was not quite at his ease with me now, the way he had been when he had so carelessly pulled me into his lap during a staff briefing years ago. "I… trust Hephaestion is… behaving well in your company?" he asked a little awkwardly.
I hesitated, noting the faint apprehension in his voice. Was he having as much trouble with Hephaestion as me? Did he know how unresponsive Hephaestion was to me? Of course I could complain, get him to bring his son into line, but what good would that do? And if Hephaestion thought I had been telling tales to his father I might lose him forever. "Oh, yes," I said at last, then found it easiest to say what was true, "I'm very glad to have him back."
Amyntor frowned slightly. "It hasn't been easy… first adjusting to Athens, then coming back to Macedon… for the whole family, of course."
"I understand," I said gently, "it takes time."
Amyntor sighed, closing his eyes. "He cried so pitifully when I took him away from… here," he murmured, "poor little thing… he was so miserable I was afraid he'd fade away like Echo. Maybe I should have done what he wanted – left him here with you…"
"Was that really what he…" I caught myself; Amyntor opened his eyes and looked at me, then we both looked away. The gap was widening between us – had to widen, I knew, if I was ever to truly win Hephaestion's special friendship. Amyntor knew it too, yet I felt I had to say something, anything, to tell him I had not forgotten his kindness, nor ever believed it was merely favour-seeking for himself or Hephaestion. "I – care for him very much," I said at last.
I saw the glint of triumph in Amyntor's dark eyes, then he grinned sheepishly. "Forgive an ambitious father, Prince Alexander," he said, then turned as one of the children he had been playing with came timidly to his side and asked if he would play "hunting" with them again. He smiled, hauled himself to his feet and made his way up to where the other children were waiting.
I headed away, haunted by a sudden loneliness. Since the hunt and the bathing in the river I had deliberately adopted a reserve with Hephaestion – I was still friendly and attentive, but I stopped myself touching him or speaking too intimately with him. I wasn't quite sure why I needed to do this, but I was troubled by the looks he had given me when I had been naked and by the urge I had to stare at him while he was bathing. Then, too, I had thought about Hector's unconcealed puppy-love and wondered if I was any less obvious in my attraction to Hephaestion. Such wide-eyed devotion was endearing in Hector but surely embarrassing coming from me.
But now, this new awkwardness with Amyntor changed everything. I had been noticing it gradually with familiar and much loved servants who had not hesitated to scold me, with palace guards who had once indulged my childish prattling, even with some of my father's officers and staff – a new formality, a cautious reserve. It was natural, I knew that – I was becoming a man and would probably be my father's heir. He could fall in battle tomorrow and I might become King – or, indeed, might not. But at this moment all I could see were doors once open being shut in my face wherever I turned. For years I had been conscious of my mother's isolation; now I began to wonder if my father was really any better off. Was there anyone he truly trusted with both his life and his heart? Had there ever been? Perhaps he had learned to manage without such a friend but I knew then and there that I could not. I needed someone I could rely on to welcome me with love no matter what. I needed Hephaestion. And I would not win him by pretending to be something I wasn't.
Night after night, in the half-thinking, half-dreaming state between waking and sleep, I found myself lost in the same fantasy of Hephaestion staying over at the palace. I imagined us talking and laughing as we prepared for dinner, reading together or playing a game, then being tucked up in bed together. Sometimes my liberated, wandering mind allowed us to have a cuddle; when I was feeling truly brave the cuddle was on Hephaestion's instigation, naturally to my great surprise and pleasure.
Finally I worked up the courage to ask him in reality. He was reluctant; I did not bother to hide my joy when he finally agreed. For the first time in weeks I put my arm through his as I drew him away to the palace.
"Your bath is ready, Prince Alexander," my steward informed me as soon as we reached my rooms.
"Thank you, Hermias," I said, "this is my friend Hephaestion, treat him as you would any member of my family. He will need fresh clothes for tonight; please see to it, actually, bring us a selection so we can choose… would you like anything to eat, Hephaestion? Bring us some watered wine and some honey-cakes – for Hephaestion," I added with a meaning look to Hermias.
He gave a faint, satisfied smile. Though he never said it aloud, he despised Leonidas' Spartan treatment of me, thinking it unhealthy and disrespectful, and was always trying to slip me cakes or savoury meat pastries when my tutor's back was turned. "Very well, my prince. Actaeon," he glanced over his shoulder to my silently waiting body-servant, "attend to the prince's bath…"
"No," I said suddenly as Actaeon stepped forward to undress me. For the first time in my life I was self-conscious before my slaves. I could feel Hephaestion's eyes upon me. "Hephaestion and I can bathe ourselves, you can help us dress later…" Quickly I took his hand and lead him into the bathing area, stripping off my clothes and tossing them into the corner before stepping into the hot, scented water and sinking down to duck my head beneath it. When I resurfaced with a deep, happy sigh, I found Hephaestion sliding awkwardly in beside me.
I couldn't keep the wide, happy smile from spreading across my face as I watched him settle into the bath with a small sigh. Bathing always made me relaxed and euphoric; now it also made me reckless. Reaching for the cleansing oils I poured water over Hephaestion's head and quite brazenly plunged my fingers into his lustrous dark hair, vigorously massaging his scalp just as Actaeon would. Hephaestion tensed briefly, then closed his eyes and became quite still. Encouraged, I gently washed his neck, shoulders and back, again trying to imitate my body-servant's soothing, rhythmic strokes and was rewarded by Hephaestion relaxing passively under my hands. I even found myself singing softly, something I had not done in the presence of another for some time.
"You… have a nice voice…" Hephaestion murmured as if from the depths of a dream.
Just like a girl, you mean, I thought, recalling my father's stinging words, but I did not end the song until I reached the final verse.
Once we had dried ourselves the servants returned to dress us. My chiton was a deep, cloudy purple-grey of fine wool, spun and woven by my mother's expert hand and embroidered with gold; though she approved to some degree of Leonidas' harsh regime, determined I should have every advantage, I knew she felt frustrated when she saw me looking perpetually thin and hungry and dressed like a slave and when it came to public dinners she was determined for me to look very much a prince. Actaeon fussily picked out the various jewellery she had suggested to go with it, insisting on curling my hair and tying it with a gold band. I submitted to it in front of Hephaestion only because I knew if I protested word would soon reach Mother and she would demand to see me herself. A silver-white chiton was provided for Hephaestion before he too was set upon, though he politely refused all adornments. It didn't matter; he still looked splendid. Every bit the dashing young hero, I thought, not without a pang of envy.
Quickly I dismissed the servants and beckoned for him to sit himself on my bed, offering him the honey-cakes and wine set upon the side table, waiting until he was settled before seating myself close beside him so that I was leaning back against his shoulder. The bath had soothed us both and created tenuous new warmth between us; though Hephaestion was still quiet, he did not seem hostile. "Hephaestion, you…" I began carefully, keeping my eyes lowered, "you know you're… very dear to me, don't you?"
"I'm – honoured to hear it, Alexander," Hephaestion replied rather stiffly.
"Hephaestion, you don't have to be so formal!" I cried in exasperation, "come on now – remember how roughly you used to treat me when we were little boys? You didn't treat me like a prince back then!"
Hephaestion was silent for a long moment. "I didn't think about it much, then," he said slowly, "all I cared about was that you were a new little boy to play with."
"That's how I wanted you to think! It meant so much to me!"
"My father kept warning me to treat you gently, because you were smaller… and because you were a prince, but I thought that was silly, you were a boy and one only had to be gentle with girls, so I did what I wanted."
"You were stubborn, even then!" I said admiringly.
"No more stubborn than you," he replied, giving me an odd look, "you don't give up easily, do you, Alexander…?"
Defiantly I met his eyes. "Not when I really want something."
He glanced away. "Maybe I should have been more careful," he continued in a light, ironical tone, "I might have ended up like Patroklos, exiled from his home for killing one of his playfellows."
"Don't forget that was how he ended up living with Achilles," I said with some satisfaction, "the Gods are wise, Hephaestion, sometimes too wise for us to appreciate…" That gave me an idea. Sliding off the bed I hurried to retrieve my scroll of the Iliad, then resumed my former position against my friend's arm. "Read some to me, I'd love to hear it with a proper Greek accent," I said breathlessly, unrolling the book in my lap so that he had to lean over my shoulder to read it. In the intimacy and comfort of my room, he did not seem to mind even when I shuffled closer to him and let my cheek rest lightly upon his. Had mighty Zeus himself appeared to invite me to Olympus for the evening to dine on nectar and ambrosia, I could not have been happier.
When we were finally called to dinner I had a sudden, rebellious wish to keep Hephaestion to myself but I knew his father would be expecting us and would want to introduce Hephaestion to my father and the other Companions. All my life I had been tutored to behave like a Macedonian prince in all social occasions, to be confident, commanding and gracious, yet at the same time to be quite comfortable with hard drinking and lewd and boisterous behaviour. It would not do for the heir to the throne to be seen as prudish or censorious, to be caught shrinking away from the society of real men. That didn't mean I always liked it. I loved and admired my father when I saw him riding to or from battle or dealing with his own officials or visiting dignitaries with all the charm, intelligence and diplomacy his Greek enemies insisted he lacked; I hated seeing him growing clumsy and lecherous with drink, letting his guests take sly digs at me and my mother because he thought I ought to learn to settle my own scores. I coped by putting on my most princely front, putting on a show of nonchalant amicability until I had taken enough wine to soften my sensitivity. Hephaestion, however, apparently had no such front to protect him. I could not help taking some satisfaction from the way he stayed nervously close to me; it gave me a chance to be an attentive host and I imagined his surprise and gratitude as he realised how courteous and well mannered Macedonians could be. As it happened, my satisfaction was short lived.
Amyntor greeted us, leading us over to my father's couch to proudly present his son. The glitter in Father's one good eye was unmistakable as he appraised him; I pretended not to hear the jokes he made about Hephaestion's "freshness" but had trouble controlling myself when he smacked his bottom and the other men laughed appreciatively. I knew my father's taste in handsome young men and put my hand territorially on Hephaestion's shoulder as I got him as far away from Father as I could.
My heart was racing, my hands were trembling slightly as we settled onto our couch; Hephaestion, far from being enchanted with me or with my people, had grown steadily quieter and colder and concentrated only on eating with such speed and persistence that I wondered how he managed not to choke. I had no appetite at all and bolted down three cups of unmixed wine to try and quell the panic swelling within me as endless questions pulsing through my head. Had this been a mistake? Was I already losing the ground I had gained? What if Hephaestion thought us all vulgar? Was he offended by Father's behaviour? What if Father tried to seduce him? What if Amyntor thought he might and decided to take Hephaestion away? What if Hephaestion actually preferred Father to me? Many handsome youths had given themselves willingly to my father, and not just for material gain. I tried to focus on something else. I stole a quick look at Hephaestion as he ate. How handsome he looked in the chiton I had picked out for him, far better than I would have. Did he know it? Was that the real problem? Did Hephaestion think himself just too pretty to be friends with me? Was he right? Did I dare to ask him to spend the night? Sensing my eyes upon him, he glanced up; I greeted him with a hopeful smile but he scowled thunderously at me and turned away, so I ordered my cup refilled.
I must have got drunk very quickly because I still recall very little of the first part of the evening. The next thing I remember was waking drowsily and finding myself sprawled awkwardly on the couch with Hephaestion slumped across my chest. As I struggled up to sit up and disentangle myself from him he protested sleepily and his head slid down into my lap. My delight can only be imagined as he continued to rest there, as peaceful and trusting as a babe, his soft breath brushing my thighs while I lovingly stroked his hair. Suddenly no-one else in the room mattered, even Father's loud, drunken behaviour failed to intrude upon my moment of total bliss.
Far too soon, Amyntor appeared by our couch. I looked up, still caressing Hephaestion and smiled, knowing happiness was radiating from me; I wanted to tell him not to wake my friend but I knew I couldn't. Instead, unable to stop myself, I whispered, "he looks so beautiful when he's sleeping… just like Endymion."
For a moment Amyntor said nothing, just gazed down at his son as if sharing my vision. Then he sighed and shook himself. "Well, unlike Endymion, this beautiful youth has to be woken up!" He shook his shoulder gently. "Hephaestion… come on, sleepy-head…!" Hephaestion moaned and shifted against me. "Come, wake up now, its time we were home…"
Hephaestion lifted his head sharply, blinking perplexedly at me. I smiled back, but as I watched him struggle to take in his surroundings, sadness overwhelmed me like a flood of cold water. I did not want him to go; I did not want to return to my room alone, to lie in my bed and wonder if the nightmares which so often plagued me were waiting for me tonight. As if from far away, I heard myself say, "Hephaestion would like to stay here tonight… isn't that so, Hephaestion…?"
He looked at me with a frown; I held his gaze, unable to hide my longing. He looked away. "Yes… yes, I suppose so…"
"Do let him stay, General Amyntor…" I cried, "it's so late already…"
"I don't see why not, Alexander…" Amyntor agreed.
I watched with a stab of envy as he got Hephaestion up and then kissed him affectionately, murmuring "sleep well my love… I'll ride over for you in the morning." For a moment I actually resented the way Hephaestion took such a demonstration of paternal love for granted: I couldn't imagine my father calling me "my love" or kissing me so freely unless it was on some public occasion.
Finally we were ushered to my room, undressed and put to bed by my own servants. Overcome by excitement, I slipped my arms around Hephaestion's body, so cool, solid and still compared to mine; a blissful sigh escaped me as he hugged me in return. While I struggled to find a starting point for all I wanted to say to him, his breathing grew slow and regular and his hold loosened. Disappointed, I wriggled against him and was rewarded with a tighter grip. Unable to remain content for long, I did it again and was once again rewarded; such was my delight that a small moan escaped me, but to my dismay it was obviously interpreted as discomfort because he loosened once more. I fidgeted harder.
I heard a small sigh from Hephaestion; then, too quickly for me to savour it, his lips touched my brow and I heard him murmur against my ear, "sleep now, Alexander…"
I couldn't sleep – how could I, on a night like this? – but I kept still long enough to let him drift off, pushing my face close to his neck and breathing in his scent. Once I was sure he was too deeply asleep to be disturbed, I slid myself up slightly so that our heads were resting very closely upon the pillows and I could look at him in the moonlight. My heart was beating very quickly. Timidly I reached out and touched his cheek, running my finger along the line of his jaw. I traced the curve of his ear, stared at it for a long moment, then brought my mouth to it. "Wake, Hephaestion…" I said in barely a whisper, "won't you wake now and tell me you love me… tell me you love me, Alé, not the Prince…? It's so easy to love the Prince, everybody loves him, but who is there who I know really loves me? I know you don't want to love the Prince, but that's all right, haven't I made it clear that that's one of the reasons I love you? You're different, I've known that since the day we met, you belong to me, Alexander, not to the Prince…" Exhaling deeply, I stroked his hair. "Oh, Hephaestion, I have sworn to win you back, but how can I do it? How can I make you love me?"
Holding my breath, I touched his lips. They felt like silk beneath my fingertips. I longed to kiss them. I kissed his cheek; the corner of his mouth. I could go no further – somehow I could not steal the kiss I wanted most; it had to be given willingly, or it would leave a bitter aftertaste. "Wake, my friend…" I almost pleaded, but he slept on. Suddenly, closer than I had ever been to the boy I loved more than all others, still clasped loosely in his arms, I could not have been lonelier.
If only I could slip into his dreams as Artemis did the perpetually sleeping Endymion's, each night reaffirming her chaste love for him. At that moment I felt closer to that virginal goddess than I did to my hero Achilles – she loved purely and deeply, she did not misunderstand or confuse real love with lust. Of course she was not the only chaste goddess…
I closed my eyes. "Oh grey-eyed Athene, goddess of wisdom," I prayed, "if you truly do favour the people of Athens above all others, if Hephaestion is truly yours, please give me some hope, some sign that he truly is the one, the special friend I have yearned for…"
My belief in the gods was unwavering. Yet so, up until now, had been my conviction that Hephaestion had to be my friend. I shouldn't wait for a sign, I told myself, if there was to be one it would come when Athene thought it was time. Or perhaps she was deaf to me, angry at my declaration of war against her city, even if it was made in love. Sadness swelled chokingly inside me as I continued to stroke Hephaestion's hair and involuntarily found myself wondering if this was how my mother had felt when my father had not been as completely hers as she needed him to be. I added a silent vow to Athene not to let my affection sour to estrangement, bitterness and cruelty even if it was never requited.
I inclined my head to his one more time, kissing his brow. "Enjoy your sweet dreams, Tion," I breathed, "whoever they are of…" But just as I was about to settle back onto the pillows Hephaestion stirred drowsily, murmured something inaudible and pulled me close against his chest.
It was still some time before I slept that night; before I did, I swore again and again that come the rising of the sun I would make as generous a sacrifice to Athene as my stingy, censorious tutor would allow.
I awoke with a violent start in the early grey of dawn. Years of Leonidas had programmed me to wake at first light, but I had never before woken to find myself held in a tight grip from behind. As I searched instinctively for my dagger beneath the pillows I felt the weight of another's head against them, then took a deep breath and looked down at the arms crossed together over my heart. They were strong, but they were still the arms of a boy. My sudden panic was instantly replaced by a rush of sweet rapture. I lay still, feeling Hephaestion's breath against the back of my neck where his face was pressed; he was so deeply asleep even my reaction had not woken him. Carefully I slid around in his arms, marvelling how peaceful he seemed, how innocent, how vulnerable. He had not been trained to be alert for assassins in the night. I kissed him very softly. I would have loved to have watched him waken, to greet him with a smile and a warm embrace, to have lain there, tangling my legs carelessly with his as we whispered our plans for the day ahead. Surely after spending the night holding me in his arms he couldn't still be so cold, so hostile?
But of course it could not be. Leonidas would be here any moment to take me for my morning exercise and I had no intention of letting him find Hephaestion in my bed, of giving him the chance to pervert the innocence of it, to mock me for growing soft and girlish. Least of all did I want Hephaestion to see how harshly my tutor treated me. Sadly I gave Hephaestion a hug and another kiss before slipping from the circle of his arms and out of my bed. I washed my face, brushed down my hair, pulled on the plain, coarse chiton Leonidas favoured and left my own room with the silent stealth of an adulterous lover.
Leonidas worked me doubly hard that morning; my freezing dip in the river was followed by a lengthy run and a trip to the gymnasium. I think he had heard the talk of Father searching for a new, more learned tutor for me, someone who would educate me to the standard of the best Greek academies, because he told me he intended to make a final effort to forge me into a real man before some limp-wristed Athenian turned me into a rhetoric spouting pansy. I wasn't able to escape him until midday, when I retreated to the baths adjoining the gymnasium. Just as I threw off my towel and sank gratefully into the hot water, I heard a roguish whistle and then my name called through the clouds of steam. Gradually I made out Philotas and Harpalos as they slid into the hot pool on either side of me. "So, Alexander," Harpalos purred in my ear as he slipped an arm about my shoulders, "what's this I hear about you finally conquering Athens?"
I frowned at him in confusion, though I didn't object when he ruffled my hair. Though his lame leg meant he was excluded from many of our more boisterous activities and would never be a soldier, Harpalos never seemed to let it trouble him; he had developed a taste for the finest things in life – most particularly women, who were lured in sympathy for his disability but snared by his charm, beauty and clever wit. He liked to tease us younger boys and we let him because both sides knew teasing was all it would ever amount to. "What do you mean?" I demanded.
"Philotas has been telling tales, I'm afraid… apparently last night's dinner went very well for you… oh come on, tell me, did you really melt Hephaestion's cold heart?"
I felt my chest tighten as I glared across at Parmenion's son. "Philotas is fantasising – as usual," I declared with contempt. "Hephaestion shared my couch, that's all. He was my guest, he'd never dined at the palace before, I was making him welcome!"
Philotas gave a grunt of laughter. "I've never heard it called that before!"
"What's that supposed to mean…?" I demanded, clenching my fists belligerently. Harpalos stroked my back soothingly but I knew he took a wry satisfaction in watching would-be warriors face each other down.
"Oh come on, Alexander, you were all over him like a rash! He kept kissing him," Philotas told Harpalos, "and panting into his ear! I don't think he took his hands off him all night… except when he passed out in his arms!"
I wanted to bawl at Philotas that he was a filthy liar, but how could I when I couldn't remember exactly what I had done? The first hours of dinner, before I woke leaning against Hephaestion, was still a blur. "To Hades with you, Philotas," I grunted and began to pull myself out of the water, but then Harpalos caught my arm.
"Come on, don't be like that! We're only teasing you!"
I hesitated. Harpalos was one of the older boys who were supposed to supposed give me guidance and because he hardly ever tried to instruct me, when he did I felt I had to listen, not least because his outlook was necessarily very different from my other friends. Sulkily I sat down again. Harpalos smiled at me, then, without warning, the smile spread into a grin and I knew I had been tricked. "What I want to know," he said, "is how Hephaestion received this adoration…!"
"Like the virgin he is – he looked like he wanted to run away and hide behind his father's couch!" Philotas laughed.
I felt a stabbing pain in my heart; the heat of the baths suddenly seemed insufferable but I could not leave now so I endured.
"But he stayed the night in the palace…?" Harpalos asked.
"In Alexander's room – isn't that right, Alexander?"
"So… can you finally answer the question on the mind of all Macedonians these days? Is Athens worth all the trouble it causes?"
"With the amount of Athenian hetaerae coming in and out of your room, I think you could answer that better than me, Harpalos," I answered coolly, "but perhaps you can persuade one of them to take pity on Philotas, he seems to have so few friends at Court that he has to spend the evenings gawping at me!"
Harpalos threw back his head and laughed. Philotas glared at me; I glared back. Then, knowing each other as well as we did, we both looked away at the same time and called yet another temporary truce.
But I left the bath-house soon after, and did not go looking for the rest of my companions. Philotas' attack had wounded me far more deeply than I would ever let him know. Had I really made such a fool of myself with Hephaestion? I knew I could be forward in my affections; both my parents criticised me for embracing or kissing people they thought beneath me, but I loved to demonstrate my warmest feelings and could not help acting on such impulses.
I retreated to my room to think. The main concern was that Hephaestion might be angry with me – or at least angrier than usual. He had not seemed angry when we were put to bed; surely if he had really been repulsed by me he would not have agreed to stay with me, to sleep in my bed? Another boy might have followed meekly, but not my proud, defiant Hephaestion! As I lay on my bed, pawing distractedly over my books and thinking up a hundred useless ways to apologise for something I was not even sure I had done, for I couldn't totally trust Philotas and didn't much relish asking anyone else, I suddenly found myself looking at one of my volumes of Herodotus and thought of Persia.
Proskynesis! I had always found those complex Persian rules of kissing and greeting charming and exotic; I wondered if Hephaestion knew anything about them. I could explain it all to him and then…
And then we could exchange a kiss as equals. The Persians might not have approved of my interpretation of their customs, for I was a prince and Hephaestion wasn't, but how better to show my love, my respect than by a gesture of magnanimity no prince or king might have used before. We would kiss as equals. We would kiss… on the lips. It was perfect! I nearly hugged myself with joy.
It took me several days to organise it to my satisfaction. I told my other friends to meet me down by the woods for bathing or hunting after my lessons but deliberately hung back waiting for Hephaestion on the path I knew he would take, stepping out only when he passed me. "Hephaestion, wait," I called softly, finding my throat dry and my voice tremulous. My cheeks were on fire. Now that the time had come I felt horribly nervous and he could see it; he watched me expectantly as we sat down together on a stone bench. "Hephaestion, could I… I mean… would you… do you think you might…" I struggled to form the words; it was all coming out wrong. I had planned a long and eloquent explanation, wanting him to understand proskynesis and the real meaning of what I was offering, but all I managed to say was "would… would you like to kiss me?"
"…What…?" he cried, looking at me incredulously.
"No, no," I stumbled on, wincing as I realised how clumsily suggestive I had made it sound. "What I mean is… a sort of peace-kiss, you see, I think I owe you an apology… at least…" I frowned as I thought of Philotas. "Some of the others were teasing me yesterday about… about how I was at dinner the day before… I drank too much, and behaved in a very silly way…"
"It was nothing," he said quickly and dismissively.
I could not help the rush of relief, though I knew he might only be being polite. "No, but … anyway, I wanted to show you, do you see, to show you that – that I'm sorry… so if you'd like… like to…" I couldn't bare his intense gaze any longer; if ever I needed courage I needed it now. Resolutely I straightened up, closed my eyes and waited.
As the seconds passed I felt sure he had quietly retreated, leaving me sitting alone like an absolute fool. But then, soft and light as a summer breeze, I felt his lips on mine. I caught my breath as a wonderful little shiver spread though my body. When I opened my eyes his handsome face was still only inches from mine and he was watching me. I smiled happily at him; my heart fluttered as I saw his eyes soften and knew with absolute certainty that he was going to kiss me again. But at that moment our friends came in search of us, talking and laughing as they pounded up the path. Hephaestion sprang away from me; for the rest of the day he avoided meeting my gaze, but I did not care. Another small victory was mine.
Some sort of gift was in order, I decided. A true token of friendship. Something to show Hephaestion just how well I favoured him. I loved to give gifts, especially surprises, things which people deeply desired but felt they had no chance of obtaining. But what gift would most please Hephaestion? I had hoped to discuss it with Lysimmachus during my Greek tutoring that morning but, to my dismay, Leonidas had insisted on sitting in on the lesson to see that I "actually got some work done instead of chattering uselessly about the Trojan war," going on to add some choice criticisms about Lysimmachus' "lax" teaching methods. For the sake of my dear Phoenix I honestly tried to attend closely to my studies but my mind continually wandered to the only question which seemed to have any interest for me: Hephaestion's gift. It had to be perfect, something a boy as stubborn and difficult as he could not find fault with.
Perhaps a gold bracelet of a pure and simple style. I felt a little dizzy as I imagined slipping it up his arm where it could cling like a lover to his shapely bicep. I could have the inside of it engraved with my name and his so that when he wore it, it would be as if he was held perpetually in my embrace, as if he truly belonged to me. And of course I would have him swear never to take it off…
"Alexander my – my boy, do pay attention," Lysimmachus called nervously to me, glancing over his shoulder to the glowering Leonidas, "you made two mistakes in your last exercise…"
"You are too soft, Lysimmachus," grumbled Leonidas, "Alexander, you will correctly complete your translation exercise twice or you will be deprived of your midday meal."
"Now wait a minute…" spluttered poor Phoenix, but I quickly nodded and bent over my studies again.
Perhaps that idea was too intimate as yet, it could easily be taken the wrong way. I knew the other boys were gossiping about us already, their minds in the gutter. A gold necklace, then? But he wore little jewellery; none of the Athenians wore much compared to the Macedonians. I remembered he had declined such ornaments when we had dressed for dinner. No, something else. A new chiton, something in a rich, dark colour to set off his tanned skin? A dagger with a beautifully carved hilt? Too savage? Some books? I didn't know which ones he might have. Some plays? I liked the comedies, but he might think them stupid. Maybe something more practical. A good bow for hunting? He hadn't much cared for hunting, but maybe… a puppy! One that would make a fine hunting dog! Surely he'd learn to enjoy such sport if he had a dog to train and run by his side? Whatever the gift was it had to be just right. I felt a thrill of pleasure as I imagined his surprise and delight, knowing I had picked what he wanted most. If he was really pleased he might even kiss me again…
"Give me your hand, Alexander," Leonidas' hard voice shattered my happy dreams. I blinked, finding him looming over me, cane in hand.
"Leonidas, I really don't think…" Lysimmachus began unhappily.
"The boy was paying absolutely no attention to you," Leonidas answered with cold contempt, "if this is the way you control his lessons, it's a wonder he can read and write!"
"Now, really, I won't tolerate…"
"It's all right, Phoenix," I said firmly, putting out my steady hand to be caned, "it was my fault; I must take responsibility for it. You are the best tutor I have," I added, with a defiant glance at Leonidas. Leonidas scowled; Lysimmachus winced at the first lash and turned away. As much because it saved him pain as because it saved me, I was relieved when in the next moment one of my mother's servants appeared demanding my presence in her rooms immediately.
"Joy to you, Mother," I called as I stepped into her chamber and went to kiss her affectionately. At once I could see she was agitated; she studied my face, announced I looked pale, then caught sight of my swollen left hand and demanded to know why I had deserved a beating. I told her only I had made mistakes in my lessons, but that was enough. Warring emotions flashed through her brilliant eyes, her fierce maternal protectiveness against her insistence that I should excel above all.
"It's that boy, isn't it?" she demanded, pacing restlessly across the room, "that… what is his name…? Hephaestion! I have heard stories, Alexander – no, don't look at me like that, I am still your mother, still the only one who has your best interests at heart! – I have heard tales of you favouring him too much, placing him above all your other friends…"
"I thought you didn't like any of my other friends," I said sullenly.
"Don't be impertinent! I never said I disliked them, only that you should not trust them! Must I do all your thinking for you? When I think of the attention you give that Ptolemy, the one whose family put about rumours of his being your father's bastard! If I had my way he'd be sent away to some garrison in Illyria, somewhere he could do no harm! And as for General Parmenion's brats…" I let her continue down this path for as long as she could; I had heard it all before and it kept her off the subject of Hephaestion. Besides, though I didn't always want to hear it, I knew that about some things she was only too right. But soon enough she was back on course. "And this Amyntor, how do you know he can be trusted? He is an outsider, an Athenian, spending much of his time in the shadows; his family is not one to ally ourselves to! He might fall in a minute or be proved a traitor…"
"But I have many such friends, Mother," I said quickly, "Nearchos, Harpalos, Laomedon and Erigyius… all of them from outside Macedonia, friends and mentors you and Father chose for me…"
"I did not choose them," my mother replied bitterly, "they are all children of your father's lackeys! Hephaestion most of all!" She took a deep breath, her beautiful countenance softening as she saw the pain I could not hide. "You think me cruel, Alexander. But I think only of you. You must comport yourself as a prince, give your favours sparingly. Already you have given too much attention to this boy; it will not be long before he learns to take advantage of it! Even if it is not in his mind now," she went on before I could object, "he will have older kinsman watching, waiting to use him to manipulate you and your father... Alexander, you must not treat him with such familiarity. You should have talked to me before inviting him to sleep in your room! Think what gossip it has already aroused! I know," she sighed, reaching out to caress my cheek, "my darling, I know you are nearly a man and Hephaestion is attractive, but he does not show you proper respect! He seems arrogant and disagreeable to me, hardly a flattering choice for one as beautiful and as brilliant as you! And they are saying that you tolerate this disrespectful attitude! You must not let your father's weaknesses be yours, learn from his mistakes! Even if this boy's heart is true after all, your duty lies elsewhere. It will not be long before you will be old enough to marry and in the mean time you must not allow yourself to be distracted. In time you will need all your young companions and you should treat them as equals but keep each one of them in his place…"
Perhaps I should have been outraged, should have stormed out, telling her she was only a woman and had no business to instruct me. But behind her words I could feel her fears. She knew how much she was hated and it hurt her, a woman who craved love and adoration and power and influence as much as I did. I had grown clever at reading between the lines of her tirades. She was afraid of my infatuation with Hephaestion, reading into it things which were simply not there – she imagined me learning to enjoy the attractions of handsome young men, becoming debauched, losing my virtue, ruining my beauty, dulling my sensitivity until I became a copy of my father, at least as she saw him. She could see no gain in any of it; even if Hephaestion proved loyal to me, it would mean she had competition for my love, might even be at a disadvantage as Hephaestion could come anywhere with me, to revels and hunts, to other towns and cities, even to war, places my mother could not follow.
And how could I argue with her after all, when I was already troubled by jealousy of my own? I did not like to think of him loving anyone more than me and had to fight the urge to place him far above all my other friends or to abandon the others all together so that I might have him all to myself. And mother was right; I was swallowing Hephaestion's defiance, sometimes his downright rudeness, all in the name of victory. Had my father been here at this moment instead of my mother he would no doubt have told me winning Hephaestion was worthless if it cost me the respect of all my other friends.
"It's all right mother," I said dully, "you mustn't worry. Hephaestion… isn't that important, you mustn't pay so much attention to palace gossip. He's… just another boy, I was only trying to make him feel welcome."
She managed to smile at me. I could see she was hardly convinced, but for all her obsessive ambitions and hopes for me, she was mother enough to know her criticisms had struck home and in doing so had hurt me. "Kiss me," she said gently, putting her arms about me, "remember I love you, that you are my only joy in this cruel world and that I think only of you…"
I didn't want to think about what she had said, but of course I could not forget. If only Hephaestion would not make things so hard! Each time I thought I had gained ground he retreated back behind his defences and the war went on. When I was finally free to join my friends, I had no heart for hunting or other games, so rather than joining in the fun as I had longed to do only hours before, I sat down under a tree alone with my thoughts. How do you know he can be trusted… You must not treat him with such familiarity… He does not show you proper respect… You have given too much attention to this boy…
Unwillingly my eyes wandered to Hephaestion, talking to – or rather being talked to – by a rather over friendly Erigyius. As I watched he glanced over to me. I quickly looked away, thrusting my head into my hands with a heavy sigh.
Think what gossip it has already aroused!
I looked up as a shadow fell over me. Hephaestion was gazing down at me, his expression grave. Without a word he settled himself beside me. I swallowed hard, feeling a lump gathering my throat. I longed to take him away to one of the shady, private gardens where I could open my heart to him, confess my fears, my doubts, my hopes, the true depth and purity of my love. To risk all, then and there, to know once and for all if Hephaestion could ever truly be that one special friend, whether he cared to be, whether… it choked me but I had to face it… he was really worthy. But I could do nothing; sadness and defeat seemed to turn my body to cold, heavy stone. Craving warmth, I slipped my arm about Hephaestion's middle and let my head fall back upon his shoulder.
Quite unexpectedly I felt his arm slide around my shoulders. I did not move, did not question. One should not question succour sent from the Gods.
And it did begin to seem as if some divine influence was beginning to work, though it was happening very slowly, perhaps because of Athene herself, taking her time because she resented having to give up one of her own, perhaps because Hephaestion was headstrong enough to defy the gods themselves. As if in spite of himself grew more relaxed in the company of my friends, talked with them and even laughed once in a while, if rather grudgingly. With me he remained reserved but no longer openly churlish. Sometimes I would catch odd looks from him, interest, curiosity, occasionally even sympathy. And if I never got that open, affectionate smile I had been offered when we were little boys, I told myself I should be grateful for the progress I had made. After all, I thought with a mixture of wry humour and defiant pride, if I was as beautiful and brilliant as my mother insisted, how much longer could Hephaestion hold out against me?
One time I noticed the change in his humour was in the gym. Leonatus had been itching to challenge him to a wrestling match since the day he had appeared; naturally my friends encouraged him, eager to finally see the Athenian get a good beating even though some of them already seemed more at ease with him than they did with me. They did not yet know where to place him in the pecking order, but they had grown used to his ways. Hector had confessed he thought Hephaestion "splendid" though he quickly soothed the blow by insisting he still loved me best; Cassander's younger brothers kept staring at him doe-eyed and I knew Erigyius was watching the two of us closely, ready to move in if I finally gave up.
Finally Hephaestion accepted the other boy's challenge. He was taller than Leonatus but didn't have his bulk, or, I guiltily admitted to myself, his skill. Leonatus had the abilities of a true soldier – focus, strategy and the true instinct of a fighter, a born killer. And, of course, he simply enjoyed inflicting pain. Hephaestion was skilled in combat but he did not quite think like a hunter. I kept my expression neutral as they took their positions, knowing better by now than to make a great show of favouring Hephaestion. All the same, I could not help clenching my fists as they grappled. I struggled to master myself. One day both Hephaestion and Leonatus might be riding into battle at my command. I might have to watch them take terrible wounds, even watch them be killed, and maintain my focus not only on my own survival but the battle itself. So I did not turn my eyes away when Leonatus finally brought Hephaestion down, twisting his wrists painfully as he forced his arms back over his head, tangled their legs so Hephaestion couldn't kick him and then knocked the breath from him with the weight of his own body. Cheers erupted around the room.
In fairness, Leonatus did not try to give Hephaestion any quick, underhand injury while he held him captive; I had received my fair share of pinches, digs in the ribs or even knees in the groin while my opponent was supposedly disentangling himself from me and I was very pleased with the conduct of both my friends. Feeling very much the future General at that moment, I stepped forward and embraced Leonatus warmly. "You're still our champion!" I declared and he grinned triumphantly, happy at the unexpected attention. Only once the other boys had gathered to congratulate him did I go quickly to Hephaestion, who was sitting on the floor, scowling and rubbing his wrists. "You're still my champion, though," I consoled as I crouched beside him. I sighed as I saw the angry red welts rising on his wrists; unable to stop myself I took them up and planted a quick kiss on each of them, silently hoping the other boys weren't watching. Hephaestion looked up sharply into my eyes.
Before either of us could speak there was a loud bark of laughter and I heard one of my friends shout, "there, there, Hephaestion, let nursie kiss it better!"
"Hey, Alexander – he fell on his bum! Why don't you kiss that too?"
"Why don't you just ask him to marry you? I love a royal wedding!"
I winced, half expecting a burst of fury from Hephaestion and yet another confrontation with my other friends. But as I reluctantly looked at him, I found, to my great surprise, he was looking away and doing his very best to hide his smile. I wasn't quite sure if it was me or himself he was silently laughing at, but it was so much better than his usual frosty contempt. I was winning. Slowly but surely, I knew I was winning.
"Joy to you, Phoenix," I called buoyantly as I entered Lysimmachus' rooms. I was determined to work hard and complete my lessons quickly so that I could join Hephaestion and my other friends in the sunshine. The night before I had lain awake in perfect happiness, planning my next assault on Hephaestion's defences. Another evening alone in my room was in order, I thought, though I would try to arrange for us to take our dinner there instead of with the rest of the Court. I would then suggest casually that Hephaestion could stay the night if he wished to. What tactics were called for next would depend on Hephaestion's response.
"Oh, yes, and to you, Alexander," Lysimmachus murmured distractedly, frowning as he glanced over his shoulder at me. He seemed to consider for a moment, then poured himself a cup of unmixed wine, not his usual style this early in the day, took a large gulp of it and sat down on the couch by the window and beckoned me to join him.
"But weren't we supposed to be finishing my Greek translation…?" I asked restlessly.
"Oh, well, never mind about that now, my dear… come and sit next to me, I – well – it's time you and I had a little chat."
I frowned but did as he asked, put on guard by his obvious discomfort. "Have I done something wrong?" I asked a little wearily.
"No! Oh, dear me, no…" Phoenix gave a hollow laugh. "Ah, where to begin…? Alexander, your father wanted me to… discuss something with you…"
"If I've displeased my father in some way, let him tell me so himself!" I cried imperiously, leaping to my feet, but my tutor caught my arm and pulled me back down with surprising strength.
"Enough histrionics, young man. Your father is not displeased with you, he merely wished to give you some guidance and it is a mark of his intelligence and tact that he thought it would be easier for you to hear it from me. It's come to his attention – and mine – that you're rather taken with Amyntor's son, Hephaestion…"
"Oh Phoenix," I groaned, thinking I knew where this was leading, "not you too! Why does everyone seem to think I shouldn't like Hephaestion?"
"I don't think that at all, Alexander, and neither does your father. What concerns us both is how you conduct yourself with him. It's quite apparent that you're particularly attracted to Hephaestion. Now there's nothing wrong with having such feelings for another boy; Eros has noticed you a little early, perhaps, but you always have been precocious…"
"Eros! No, it's nothing like that!" I protested, feeling my cheeks beginning to burn, "Hephaestion and I are just friends, we don't…"
"Alexander, there's really nothing to be embarrassed about," Lysimmachus sighed, though I noticed he had turned a little red himself, "such… ah… loving friendships are quite natural and healthy at your age…"
"No, Phoenix, you really don't understand!" I insisted, desperately wishing we could change the subject, "I'm not - not in love with Hephaestion, if that's what you're suggesting, I just like him…"
"As Achilles liked Patroklos?" Lysimmachus asked incisively. "Hephaestion is a handsome, intelligent boy from a good family. What really concerns your father is how you conduct yourself not as a young man but as a prince. Hephaestion is a year or two older than you and has spent a good deal of time in Athens. As you know, Athenians have strict codes when it comes to matters of love between young men… the erastes and the eromenos… the lover and the beloved… the lover of course being the elder… however, this isn't Athens and you are a prince and you must remember who is the superior of the two of you… you must not degrade yourself or make yourself vulnerable… you must not let Hephaestion take advantage of your youth or your love for him to expect you to… to take a role in love that is not fitting your social rank…"
It was all I could do to stop myself from stuffing my fingers into my ears. I didn't want to talk about this; I didn't even want to think about it. I was actually beginning to feel sick. Was this really what everyone thought – that I was trying to seduce Hephaestion? That I had – those sorts of feelings for him? Was that what he thought? With dawning horror I remembered how happily I had invited him – even forced him – to bathe with me, to sleep in my bed, to kiss me. I still dreamed of the night I had spent in his arms; I could still feel his kiss on my lips and knew I wanted more of the same. Once again I recalled the strange, disquieting emotions I had experienced after that first hunt, watching Hephaestion bathe. Once again I recalled how he had looked at me as if he actually wanted something from me. Was it really that simple? Was that all I had to do to win him? Was that all he was waiting for? If I gave myself to him, would he love me at last?
When I finally got free of Lysimmachus I wandered slowly down to join my friends, but all pleasure I had felt that morning was gone. I didn't want to talk to any of them or even meet their eyes. Surely this couldn't be all there was to my love for Hephaestion? I dismissed that with determination, but then another, more chilling thought replaced it. Surely this wasn't all that was left of Hephaestion's love for me?
I sat away from them, quietly hoping they wouldn't notice me. But Hephaestion did. I met his gaze briefly, trying to manage a casual smile but failing miserably. For once I actually hoped he'd ignore me or even do something to anger me so that I could shout at him, tell him I didn't really love him, put him in his place once and for all. But the gods love their little jokes at our expense; instead of spurning me, Hephaestion came to sit beside me. After a silent moment he put his arm about my shoulders. I yearned to bury myself in his arms, to have him tell me they were all wrong and only he and I knew what true, special friendship was about. But all I could think about was what the others might be thinking when they saw us and whether, if I returned his embrace, Hephaestion might think I was offering something more.
A moment later he withdrew his arm, then Erigyius called to him and he rose and went quite willingly to talk to him. A lump gathered in my throat as I turned and walked away.
For weeks after my uncomfortable conversation with Lysimmachus it seemed as though I would never feel happy about anything again. A new wall had been erected between Hephaestion and I and this time not only could I not break it down, because it seemed that I had built it myself, but it grew to exclude all my other friends as well. Never, not even when Hephaestion had gone to Athens, had I felt so utterly alone.
Then, just as it seemed that there was nothing and no-one to shake me from my depression, I was relieved by some unexpected and exciting news. Philonicus, a Thessalian horse-trader, had come to Father claiming that he had found the most priceless horse in Greece and insisting it was worth every bit of the staggering thirteen-talent price he was asking for it. I had always loved horses and was beside myself with wonder and anticipation as I told my friends all about it and lead them off down to the compound where Philonicus was to meet my father.
I made out a number of familiar faces in the crowd, Parmenion, Antipater and Amyntor among them, but my attention was taken almost at once by the horse the Thessalian was trying to calm with an increasing lack of success. It was strong and sleek and perfectly proportioned, black as night except for the white blaze on its head. My heart squeezed with love and awe. Surely not even Xanthos and Balios, the immortal horses gifted to Achilles by his father Peleus, which in the Iliad had wept so bitterly for their dead charioteer Patroklos, could have been so beautiful – or if they had, this black beauty must be descended from their stock. This, of course, only made me covet him more – if I was descended from Achilles, then surely it was only fitting for this horse to be mine!
I watched in growing frustration as Black Cleitus, the brother of my nurse Lanice and one of my father's favourites, tried and failed to mount the horse, which neighed furiously, bucking and kicking out. Idiot, I thought, can't you see how agitated and frightened he is? You'll never be able to ride him! The other men laughed as Cleitus threw his hands up in disgust and one of the others took his place. Dismissing them all as "virgin girls" my father stepped forward and by sheer force and speed nearly managed to swing himself onto the horse's back before it recovered itself and threw him. The others smirked, but my heart was aching. Leave him alone, I wanted to scream, can't you see you're hurting him? I noticed the horse liked Philonicus and his grooms even less than he liked Father – obviously they had worked hard to break his wild, magnificent spirit. My blood heated at the thought of what cruelty they might have resorted to. All he needed was someone to reach him, someone to love and understand him the way he deserved. I felt a jolt of panic as I heard my father snarling at the Thessalian, accusing him of trying to defraud him, scoffing at the outrageous price he had asked and ordering the grooms to take "the black beast" away.
For the first time that morning I was conscious of Hephaestion beside me. All the worries which had plagued me since my well-meant but unhappy talk with Phoenix now seemed very far away. He was just my Hephaestion, a friend to share a confidence with. "What a beautiful animal, Hephaestion… and what a waste, they'll pass him up just because they don't know how to master him!" His expression did not reflect my rapture, however; he looked at me as if he was scared of me. I heard him say my name, but my attention was caught by one of the grooms making to lead the horse away.
"Buy him for me, Father!" I shouted before I could stop myself, hurrying over to his side before my horse and I could be parted forever. My frustration overcame any timidity I might have felt; if I was never to win Hephaestion's love, I would not be deprived of this horse as well. "Buy him for me, I want him!"
My father scowled at me, rubbing his bruised posterior. "Don't be a fool, child," he snapped irritably, "nobody can ride that! Besides, the price is utterly unreasonable!"
"My King, perhaps I could consider lowering the price by two talents…" Philonicus cut in hopefully. Father told him to shut up.
"I can ride him!" I declared with absolute faith.
Father turned and looked at me directly for the first time. A small smile tugged at his lips; there was a strange glitter in his one good eye, a mixture of scorn, pride and amusement. "Oh, indeed!" he replied, "you think you can do better than your old father and all of his best men, is that it? And what if you can't?"
"Then – then I'll pay you the full price Philonicus is asking! But if I can ride him, he's mine! Are we agreed?" I demanded with all the arrogance I could manage with trembling hands. I was not afraid of the task, only of my father's refusal and the loss of my horse.
My father's expression became quite unreadable. Suddenly he looked away from me and nodded slowly. "Go on."
I could have danced for joy. "Tell the others to stand away from us," I told him, my attention now focused totally upon the horse. Bucephalus – that was what I would call him, for the ox-head mark he bore. I could see shadows and movement behind him upset him, so I threw off my cloak, then I stepped towards him. "Joy to you, beautiful black horse…" I whispered almost soundlessly as I lifted my arms very slowly and moved towards him, "I am Alexander… Alexander… don't be afraid… you're safe with me… safe with me… that's right…" I soothed as he seemed to grow calmer, "that's right… you're safe with me now… I love you… I shall call you Bucephalus… and no-one will ever whip you or beat you again…" I continued for some moments, keeping my voice a gentle purr, reaching to stroke him very lightly, then finally taking his bridle and turning him towards the sun. "That's better… you don't like your shadow, do you… I understand you… nobody understands you but me, but I know, I know…"
As I stroked his glossy flank, all the pain and frustration which had built up in me since Hephaestion's return seemed to melt away. Hephaestion was just a boy, a boy like me; in some ways he was just like Bucephalus, confused, angry and scared. I had made the mistake of letting myself become afraid of Hephaestion just as for whatever reason he was afraid of me. Just as these men, afraid of a horse they could not understand, communicated their fear to him. Fear had to be put aside if victory was to be won.
I closed my eyes, said a brief prayer, then swung myself up onto Bucephalus' back. He snorted and pawed restlessly at the ground. Then he became quite still. I smiled down at my father and his companions, enjoying the stunned looks upon their faces. The only face I could not see was Amyntor's; he had his back to me and his head inclined, as if he was talking to someone. I could not see Hephaestion at all. Swept away in my moment of glory, I pushed him out of my mind as I nudged Bucephalus into a trot; finally he galloped the full length of the compound with me clinging on tightly and laughing with joy.
Finally I drew him to a halt by my father's side. The look upon Father's face made my throat constrict; there were tears running down his face as he reached up and caught me in his arms, fervently kissing both my cheeks. I flung my arms about his neck and began to cry a little myself as he gasped, "my son… you'd better find yourself a kingdom of your own, for I don't think Macedon can hold you!"
"Oh Father…!" I whimpered, daring to kiss him myself, "Father…!" We looked at each other, the two of us snivelling like a couple of old women, then burst out laughing.
"My son!" My father kept repeating as he led me forward to the cheering crowd, "MY SON ALEXANDER!"
Only when the hysteria had calmed a little and my father had gone to settle with Philonicus and boast about me to Parmenion and Anitpater, did Amyntor approach me with a warm but slightly distracted expression. "Well done, Alexander," he said, reaching out to grip my shoulder. I had a sense he would have embraced me, but he held back. "You've made your father very proud. I doubt you'll know how much it means to him until you have boys of your own."
I frowned suddenly, glancing about me. "But – where's Hephaestion?" I asked.
Amyntor's smile wavered. "Oh… he wasn't feeling well, he went home. Too much excitement, I suppose," he added, managing to sound light-hearted, but I had just recalled the frightened look in my friend's eyes.
"Was he scared for me?" I asked before I could stop myself, not sure whether to feel guilty or pleased.
"Oh, I don't know about that…" Amyntor looked uncomfortable, then his expression cleared, "but I'm sure he'll be pleased to hear your wonderful news! Why don't you ride over and see him?"
"Yes! Yes, that's an excellent idea!" I hurried back to mount Bucephalus.
I found him sitting alone in one of the gardens closest to his family's house. He looked pale, his eyes a little red as if he had been crying. How I loved him as I looked down at him then, cursing myself for a fool for letting the words and ideas of others trouble me. "Tion," I called, longing to share my happiness with him. How proud he would be of me when he heard I had won my wager! Surely he would let me embrace him, would want to hear all about it? But his face was cold when he looked at me. I dismounted, smiling happily never the less. "Do you like him?" I went on, putting my hand on my horse, "I'm going to call him Bucephalus, do you think it will suit him? I'm sorry you didn't stay… your father said you weren't feeling well, he said I could come and see if you were all right… Would you like to pet him?" I could feel my smile fade as he remained silent. "Tion," I began again, "I'm sorry if scared you…"
"Scared me," he growled, "scared me?" Then he let me have the full force of his fury. He called me stupid, spoilt, crazy, a barbarian, a show-off, risking everything, even my life to get my way, all because I was stupid, stupid, stupid and he hated me. He hated me!
The tirade was over as abruptly as it had begun. He stood there, flushed, panting and wild-eyed while I stared back in consternation. My heart was pounding and my chest was heaving, for a second I was blinded by a red haze of anger worse than I had ever felt against my father and mother combined. How dare he! How dare he speak to me like that!
But this was my Hephaestion, the boy I loved, my most special friend. I loved him and he hated me! Tears blinded me, sobs choking my throat as I turned away from him to Bucephalus, who returned my love and showed it by not shying away as I clutched at his mane and cried and cried until I thought I could find no strength to cry anymore. I didn't care if Hephaestion thought me a baby; I didn't care if he told all of my friends about how stupid he thought me. Nothing mattered now, nothing at all.
I heard him call me, but I didn't respond. Perhaps he was scared I would cause trouble for him now. Well let him be scared for a while! He deserved it! He might be Amyntor's son but he didn't have his father's generous heart or gentle soul.
That stirred me. It was not so much the dear pet-name as the way it was spoken. I blinked at him in confusion. A moment later he had taken me in his arms. Overwhelmed, I had no wish to pull myself free but clung on to him instead, not understanding what was happening and not much caring. "W-Why don't you like me anymore, T-T-Tion…?" I gulped out at last, "w-what's w-wrong - ? I was s-so happy when I heard you were coming back, I n-never had a friend like you…!"
"I – I don't hate you, Alé," I heard him say, his tone soft and a little puzzled, as if he didn't quite understand what was happening himself. I sighed as I felt his fingers running through my hair. Again and again he said he was sorry, so very sorry. For a few minutes more I still cried, no longer sure if my tears were from despair or relief or a mixture of both. Finally, unable to stand the confusion, I pulled back and looked up into his face.
"Do you really not hate me?"
Once again he said he was sorry as he touched my face with a gentle hand, making me shiver, "no, I don't hate you," he said, "I just didn't understand… perhaps I'm not as clever as you after all…"
"I still don't understand…!"
"I… think… I think I love you – really love you," he said. Before I absorb this wonderful confession he kissed me on the lips. Eagerly, almost frantically I returned the kiss as his hands brushed over me with the unmistakable tenderness of a lover, gasping as he finally broke the kiss to press his lips to both of my cheeks in turn. The strength and the confidence he displayed startled me a little, I was hardly prepared for such forwardness and such passion in someone who for so long had treated me with a cold reserve. When he kissed my lips again it was with an open mouth. Uncertainly I opened my own to receive him, but when I felt his tongue seeking mine I stiffened and he released me, murmuring an apology."It's what I've wanted," I admitted, "I love you too, Tion, the truth is I always have, but…"
But what? What could I say? But everyone seems to think you'll try to seduce me and I don't know whether I want you to or what to do about if I do? Because until just a little while ago I was quite happy to take you to my bed and lie in your arms without the slightest thought of doing anything but talking and sleeping? And I'm afraid you'll decide I really am just stupid after all?
But he just told me not to worry. And then he smiled, and suddenly he really was my dear Tion, playful and mischievous and full of affection and I fell in love with him all over again. "We can get to know each other first," he said, "we don't need to do anything we're not ready for…" Then he frowned. "Alexander, I'm sorry I ruined your great day, I didn't mean all those horrid things I said, I was – I was only – "
"You were frightened for me," I replied quickly, then replied with a blissful sigh, "you didn't ruin my day, Tion, you made it perfect. Now I'll remember it not only as the day I won Bucephalus… but the day I won you too…" For the first time I reached up, daring to take a kiss for myself. He pressed me close and I squeezed him tightly, wondering as I did so what possible tribute could be enough to thank the gods for their kindness to me. Today I had had demonstrations of love from my father, Bucephalus and now Hephaestion – surely no sacrifice could ever be enough?
"Would Bucephalus let me ride him? With you, I mean?"
The urgency of Hephaestion's question startled me, but I replied smugly, "He'll do what I tell him!" Adding as I saw Hephaestion's dark brows rise irritably, "we love each other!"
"More than you and I?"
"I don't know yet," I answered, helping him up onto Bucephalus' back after I had soothed the horse into submission, "you're so similar… dark, temperamental and difficult… but very beautiful too."
"Hephaestion…!" I turned as I heard Amyntor shout his son's name and saw him making his way across to us, "wait…!"
"Shouldn't we wait?" I asked, confused; I was quite happy to see Hephaestion's father, but Hephaestion seemed oddly eager to escape him.
"No, keep going," he told me breathlessly, "please… just keep going…"
And so we rode away.
We stopped at last on the very edge of Amyntor's estate, dismounting in the shade of a large, twisted, venerable old apple tree. I stood by, regarding Hephaestion with a sudden shyness as he pulled off his cloak and draped it over Bucephalus, then turned to look at me. For all my determination, my absolute assurance all this time that Hephaestion was mine by right, now I seemed to have him I was not quite sure what to do next. He stepped toward me and took both my hands in his, then drew me down beside him under the tree.
We kissed, we touched; sometimes we just hugged each other, giggling like idiots, drunk on our own euphoria. Finally Hephaestion stretched himself out lazily while I hovered above him, stroking his hair, gazing rapturously down into his handsome face and showering him with kisses, thrilled each time by the reminder that I could now kiss him and hug him as much as I liked. He smiled dreamily at me, ran his hand down my arms and back, even dared to pinch my bottom, laughing at my embarrassment and insisting once again we'd do nothing we weren't both ready for, but he loved the way I turned bright red.
"Oh Tion, you've made me so happy," I declared, "I wonder if Achilles and Patroklos were this happy when they first fell in love!" Hephaestion, who had closed his eyes, reached and stroked my hair in acknowledgement. "Do you know, the first day I met you I went to my tutor Phoenix and said I'd found my Patroklos? But tell me, help me to understand, Tion, why have you been so difficult? I really thought you didn't love me anymore, it was breaking my heart! You're such a confusing person, I wonder if King Menelaus had as much trouble with Helen as I've had with… Tion? Tion, you're not sleeping again!" I cried in dismay, "you're worse than a cat! How much can one person sleep! And on a day like today…!"
"No… I'm not sleeping, my sweet Alé…" he murmured, shifting over to nestle his head in my lap, "keep talking," he added, beginning to stroke my thigh, making me shiver a little, "I'm… taking in every word…"
I prattled on for a while but presently his hand stilled and his heavy breathing convinced me he was asleep after all. I sighed, resigning myself to enjoy the warmth of him against my thighs. I looked up as soft footsteps approached and smiled with love into the eyes of General Amyntor.
Though flushed from his long walk and more than a little vexed by our desertion, he smiled back when he saw our intimacy. "He's truly mine, now," I declared triumphantly.
Amyntor's smile wavered. "Yes," he said quietly, "I suppose he is."
Amidst my great happiness, I felt a shadow of regret. Surely this was what Amyntor wanted – had wanted the day he brought Hephaestion to play with me. Yet in winning this victory of his own he was ultimately losing too, losing his son – to me. I wanted to reassure him, to tell him I truly loved Hephaestion and would never mistreat him or put him aside or love anyone else more. But I did not know where to begin and suddenly Amyntor was turning away, telling me to get Hephaestion to bring me up to the house where his mother was preparing a light meal for us. A moment later he was out of earshot and the chance was lost.