On a hot afternoon in early September, Alexander emerged from his father's tent and instinctively asked where Hephaestion was. No one knew and his tent was empty when Alexander went to look. One of his horses was missing as well and his groom pointed Alexander in the direction Hephaestion had taken.
Alexander knew every one of Hephaestion's horses as well as he knew his own, and easily recognised the beautiful chestnut mare tethered in the shade of a farmhouse a few miles from Chaeronea. The battle had been a month ago now and the Macedonian army was resting, watching and waiting while the victorious Philip negotiated with the Greek city states.
Tethering his own matching chestnut gelding beside the mare, Alexander spoke to the man who came out of the farmhouse. The man went to draw a bucket of water for the gelding, while Alexander, with a word of thanks and a silver coin, headed up the small valley behind the farmhouse in search of Hephaestion.
Alexander found him lying in the shade of an ancient olive tree, upslope from the dusty trackway which wound up the hillside.
Hephaestion hadn't raised his head at the sound of Alexander's sandals on the trackway and Alexander thought he must be asleep. That was careless, alone in potentially hostile territory, and unlike Hephaestion. Alexander walked over the crackling, dry remains of the wheat sown in the patches of land between the olive trees, the cicadas chirping incessantly in the dust and the heat radiating off the hillsides around him. He halted near Hephaestion's feet.
Hephaestion was not asleep, nor surprised by Alexander's appearance. He raised his eyes to Alexander's and smiled in welcome.
Hephaestion was naked in the heat and lying on his chamlys, his sword beside him and his hand lying easily beside the hilt. There was a water flask and a dead hare hanging from the olive tree and Hephaestion looked like a young god waiting for an Olympian deity to swoop down and worship him.
Alexander dropped to his knees beside Hephaestion. Run back to Hephaestion like a dog with his tail between his legs, Attalus had said. Alexander's mind probed at the bruise on his heart, his eyes wide and wild and his thick hair tangled as he lay down at Hephaestion's side, dark-eyed Dionysus to Hephaestion's Adonis.
"A kiss for your thoughts," Alexander said, his voice husky as he laid his forearm on Hephaestion's chest, his hand curled loosely into a fist.
Hephaestion smiled at him with a soft glow in his eyes. "I was thinking about you."
Alexander kissed him, a chaste kiss on warm lips. "What about me?"
"I was thinking about what made you, you."
"Me, me?" Alexander said, a tight laugh in his voice.
"Yes," Hephaestion said, his thoughts wandering on some path unknown to Alexander. "I was thinking that a god must have been present at your birth and blessed you with vision and courage, and then you appeared with flames in your hair."
"Yes, the sunlight on the leaves made them."
Alexander laughed in his throat. "You're half asleep and full of dreams."
"No, it was an omen, Alexander. I was thinking of your victory at Chaeronea, and you appeared with a crown of fire."
"Your victory. You chose the right moment to charge. You gave Philip the victory."
"Don't flatter me," Alexander said, his voice low.
"I'm not. Surely a crown of golden fire must signify something, Alexander."
With eyes full of belief, Hephaestion watched the play of hope and trepidation cross Alexander's face.
"Perhaps it signifies that you will gain your dreams, Alexander," he said. "You will achieve everlasting glory and immortal fame. The gods must have approved of your victory, Alexander, for they have awarded you the crown."
"You blaspheme," Alexander warned, but his voice was half-convinced.
"I don't mean to," Hephaestion said, with the innocence of unquestioning faith. "But I think your mother must be right, Alexander," he said, his voice becoming quiet. "Philip may be the father of your body, but a god must surely be the father of your spirit."
"Shut up!" Alexander said, thumping his fist down onto Hephaestion's chest. Hephaestion blinked in startlement and didn't dare to move.
Alexander stared at Hephaestion, confusion and anger congesting his face.
"You're doing exactly what Attalus says you do," he accused Hephaestion.
He laid his head down on Hephaestion's smooth chest so that he wouldn't have to continue this conversation.
Hephaestion waited a moment, looking at the back of Alexander's head and not quite daring to touch the unruly hair. "Attalus?" he asked quietly.
"Yes. He says you are a bad influence on me and flatter me too much," Alexander said, his lips against Hephaestion's sun-gold skin. "He says you and my other friends make me think I'm better than my years. Better than my elders. But he says you are the worst of all because you do not know the truth from lies."
Hephaestion was silent at this piece of information, and Alexander pressed his lips against Hephaestion's breast. He laid his hand on Hephaestion's midriff and felt Hephaestion's breathing still under his touch. He stroked his hand down Hephaestion's belly and felt the quiver run down through Hephaestion's muscles to his groin.
Alexander removed his hand. Much as he wanted to forget his thoughts in sex, Hephaestion did not deserve to be used so. And it was too hot.
He raised his head to meet the unease in Hephaestion's eyes.
"Am I a liar?" Hephaestion asked in a subdued voice.
"No," Alexander said vehemently. "You are the most honest person I know. You have always told me when I am being a fool, when I am wrong. The others will find a way to twist the truth to make me look right, but you. You," Alexander said, his voice choked, "you cannot always tell the difference between truth and dreams."
"I can't?" Hephaestion said in a small voice.
"No," Alexander said, passion rising in his voice. "You want so much for things to be glorious, to be noble, for there to be Achilles and Hector in the world that you forget that Agamemnon and Thersites are in the world too."
"I won't do it again," Hephaestion said, his eyes huge and his voice strained.
"Yes, you will," Alexander said, entreaty in his eyes and certainty in his voice. "I need you to see the good in people for me when all I can see are enemies. I need you to keep dreaming for me, Hephaestion."
Hephaestion's lips tightened on a quiver. He swallowed. "You won't ever lose your dreams of glory, Alexander. They are too much a part of you."
"No, but they will tarnish without you."
Hephaestion avoided Alexander's eyes as a tear escaped from the corner of his eye and ran down his temple.
Alexander, smitten with contrition, wiped at the wet trail on Hephaestion's skin with his fingertip. Hephaestion's dreams, the world of heroes and gods he carried in his head, meant more to him than reality did at times.
Alexander watched uncertainly as Hephaestion, his eyelids lowered, struggled to cover his distress. There had been a hint of ridicule in Alexander's judgement of his love of stories. He must learn to put childish things from him. He raised his eyes to Alexander, prepared to let them go if Alexander wished.
"Do you know what Aristotle once told me?" Alexander asked hopefully.
"He said if I wanted to rival Achilles, I should keep you close to me. He said Patroclus had a good heart and so do you. He also said you dreamt of the stars and I dreamt of the earth and that together we would hold the whole world in our hands, but I think he was getting a bit poetical when he said that."
Hephaestion, with half a grin, wiped at his eyes with the heel of his hand. He said, "Alexander, now you are flattering me. And telling lies too."
"Yes, but it worked, didn't it?" Alexander said with a wild grin as he lay down on his back, his hair in the dust against Hephaestion's shoulder. "You are wholly mine again now. And always will be, the gods willing," he added under his breath.
Hephaestion lay quiet, watching the grey and green of the olive leaves curling in the heat, confusion coiling round his heart. But Alexander could not lay still and his hand found its way onto Hephaestion's chest again.
"Why is the King's favourite Page not on duty this afternoon?" he asked, rolling onto his side again so that he could see Hephaestion's face.
Hephaestion avoided Alexander's eyes with a flicker of guilt. "Favourite Page? The King's least favourite Page has been relieved of duty this afternoon. He has caught a hare for his supper and is now enjoying a well-earned rest."
"Relieved of duty?" Alexander queried suspiciously.
Hephaestion met his eyes. "Philip told me rather loudly to make myself scarce."
"Why? What did you do?"
"Spilt a bowl of water." Hephaestion looked a little uneasy.
"No," Hephaestion said, appalled at the idea. "I was at the other end of the tent."
"Was Attalus with him?" Alexander demanded harshly.
Alexander saw the uneasiness, quickly hidden, pass through Hephaestion's eyes. "Attalus," he said sardonically. "We both seem to have enjoyed his company today. What did he do?"
There was a flicker of what looked like fear in Hephaestion's eyes. "Nothing."
"Don't give me that nonsense," Alexander said sharply in his best infantry sergeant's voice.
Hephaestion's eyes flew to Alexander's in indignation. "He touched me. Intimately. That's why I spilt the water. And Philip shouted at me."
Alexander breathed in through flared nostrils. "That pretty boy needs a man to show him strength, but I'll bet ambition is a good substitute for passion," Attalus had said.
"Alexander," Hephaestion said in a man's voice, not a boy's voice, giving Alexander pause. "It's my problem, not yours. You'll only make it worse."
Alexander closed his eyes and breathed out, willing himself to let it go, but Attalus's smirk would not disappear from his mind's eye. "Alexander, leave it," Philip had said. And to Attalus he had said, taking a swig from his wine cup, "Hephaestion is a fine boy, Attalus, and too good for cynical old buggers like you and me."
"What about you then, Alexander, can I show you what a man is like?" Attalus had said.
"Alexander, sit down!" Philip had roared. "Attalus, get out, you're drunk, and don't ever insult my son's manhood like that again."
"Oh, a thousand apologies," Attalus had said. "No one must insult the great Alexander and his darling minions. Not after he rescued us all at Chaeronea. Alexander the King, Philip his general!" He had been so tipsy he had almost tripped over his own feet as he backed out.
"Alexander," Philip said as he caught his son's arm, "let it go, that's the wine talking. I need to talk to you."
"Remember Pausanius!" Alexander had spat at his father. "Attalus had Pausanius beaten and raped!"
"He had cause with Pausanius! And he would never try the like with Hephaestion."
"No, but you would." Alexander could not keep the loathing from his voice.
Philip looked at him with murder in his eye. For a long moment he said nothing, just glared at Alexander with gritted teeth. "You know what?" he said at last, harsh and dangerous. "I have a good mind to make your cousin Amyntas my heir."
"You wouldn't dare. You know there would be a civil war."
"No? Then maybe I'll get me a son on Attalus's niece to replace you. Cleopatra's pregnant!"
"Tell me something I don't know!" Alexander's voice had risen in anger.
"Oh! Your precious mother, poking her nose in again! Has she told you Amyntas is to marry your half-sister Cynane? A princess bride fit for a prince! Doesn't that make him a suitable candidate for a king?" Philip had grinned in triumph at Alexander.
"The army would not accept him over me," Alexander had said, his low voice convincing himself.
"No? But money can do a lot of talking." Philip had tried to lose his anger and be reasonable. "Alexander, take yourself out of here and do some thinking. You are eighteen. You are not irreplaceable, you do not know everything, you are not yet ready to be a king, however arrogant you are and however much your friends tell you you are better than I ever was. Grow up first, boy, before you try to take me on."
Alexander had stared at his father, shaken, and knowing that if he pushed any further, Philip would have him arrested. He had turned and left the King's tent without a word.
"Alexander?" Hephaestion said anxiously. Alexander had been staring right through him, leaving him with only the cicadas and the heat for company.
Alexander drew in his gaze and focused on Hephaestion's blue eyes. "Run to Hephaestion like a whipped dog with his tail between his legs," Attalus had smirked as he left the king's tent. "He'll lick it better."
Alexander shuddered and rolled onto his back. He stared up at the olive branches unseeingly, his mouth a tightly shut line.
"Alexander, what is it?" Hephaestion asked, rolling onto his side to look into Alexander's face with worry.
Alexander gripped Hephaestion's shoulders in hard hands. "Hephaestion, promise me something," he said, his voice as hard as his hands. He rose and rolled Hephaestion onto his back, pinning him to the ground. "Promise me you'll be careful of Attalus. Promise me you won't ride off like this alone again. Stay around people you know and trust. Promise me."
"I promise." Hephaestion's eyes said he didn't need to ask why.
"Attalus doesn't understand why you don't run around with everyone in sight. He doesn't understand purity and he will try to destroy it. And he will try to get at me through you."
Hephaestion watched Alexander's face for a moment as Alexander stared down at him. "Alexander, you don't have to protect me," he said. "I know you think I am an innocent fool, but I know why your father never meets my eye any more, why he never talks to me any more except to shout at me. I know he and his friends talk about me behind my back, especially when they're drunk. I know they think I'm just your puppet and your plaything."
Alexander pressed his lips together to stop them trembling. "I don't think it is safe for you to be a Page anymore," he said.
"Cleitus's unit?" Alexander asked, not able to trust himself to say much more.
Hephaestion nodded, knowing there had been a fight with Philip.
"He is jealous," Alexander said, his eyes dark, not doubting that Hephaestion would know who he meant. "He is jealous of me because of you, because we are young, because you are beautiful, because we have hopes and dreams he has forgotten about. We make him feel old and threatened, and he does not believe he is old. He believes he is immortal. But he is afraid I will outshine him and make his memory forgotten. That is why he wants another son."
Hephaestion became very still. "Another son?"
Alexander met his eyes. "Cleopatra is pregnant."
Hephaestion held his breath. "Does your mother know?"
"Yes. She wrote to me."
Hephaestion took his life in his hands. "Presumably Philip will marry Cleopatra when we go home in the spring?"
"Yes, the ambitious trollop," Alexander said, resting with relief on his elbow beside Hephaestion. Speaking the words aloud made them less potent than they had been in his head. "My sister Cynane is also to marry our cousin Amyntas, our would-be King Amyntas." He glanced round at Hephaestion's face.
Hephaestion took a breath. "Amyntas is very jealous of you, Alexander. Since we got back from Athens, his face is like a thundercloud every time you walk by."
Alexander cocked his head, like a dog listening. "So that is why Philip is offering him Cynane. Do you think Amyntas is talking to anyone?"
Hephaestion looked dubious. "The sons of Aeropus. Maybe. I'm not certain."
"But not Attalus?"
Hephaestion shook his head. "No, he's a rival."
Suddenly hot and weary, Alexander subsided onto Hephaestion's chest. Hephaestion's heart was beating in his ear. He rubbed a hand affectionately round Hephaestion's ribcage. "Tell me a story," he coaxed.
"I thought I wasn't supposed to," Hephaestion objected, raising his head to stare at Alexander.
"Don't be stupid," Alexander muttered.
Hephaestion opened his eyes wide as he tried to think of something, staring up at the olive tree for inspiration. "The farmer told me that many of the olive trees in this valley are over a thousand years old. He said that there is a legend that Chiron brought Achilles hunting here once."
"They were a bit far from Thessaly."
"They were chasing a giant boar which they brought to bay in the rocks at the head of the valley. There's nothing to see there, I looked, but they made camp under one of the olive trees. Achilles could have sat under this very tree, Alexander."
"Did you tell the farmer who you were?" Alexander asked, his voice muffled.
Hephaestion looked a little shame-faced. "I told him my name."
"He knew who you were and just changed the names of the local legend."
Alexander could see the disappointment on Hephaestion's face. "Gods, I'm sorry, Hephaestion," he said, rubbing Hephaestion's shoulder. "A good king should share his men's dreams, not shatter them."
"Oh, shut up," Hephaestion said. "You take yourself too seriously."
Alexander laughed, a spontaneous laugh from somewhere deep in his chest. "Don't ever leave me, you irreverent creature."
"Only if the gods tell me to," Hephaestion retorted, but softened it with a smile and laid a hand on Alexander's hair.
Alexander smiled back sleepily and closed his eyes.
They lay there silently for a while, the heat soaking into them while Hephaestion intermittently hummed a half-remembered tune and Alexander let his mind stupefy. Yet he became aware that Hephaestion had become very quiet and still.
"Alexander," Hephaestion said, his voice low and tense with warning. "I think we should leave here now. There are spirits about and they are angry."
Alexander, half-asleep, hot and sweating, raised his head and looked about as if he could see an enemy. Hephaestion felt cold to the touch and the whites were showing around his eyes as he gazed up at the olive tree. "I saw a face," he whispered.
A sudden shiver ran through the leaves, although neither of them felt any breeze.
They both scrambled to their feet, Alexander scooping up Hephaestion's sandals and water flask as Hephaestion grabbed his chamlys and sword. Catching each other's hand, they ran for the trackway where they halted and looked back at the ancient olive tree. It sat there in the sunlight, the heat shimmering balefully around it.
"What did it look like?" Alexander whispered.
"Green, and pointy, with sharp teeth," Hephaestion said, looking shaken. He blinked and looked at Alexander. "Maybe I imagined it. But I think there was more than one," he whispered.
"Your hare," Alexander said.
"Leave it," Hephaestion said. "As a peace offering."
"You bastard," Alexander said suddenly, grinning at Hephaestion. "You did that deliberately, didn't you? That was probably just a marten after your hare."
"No," Hephaestion said, trying to appear indignant around a grin. He honestly hadn't realised it was a marten, but thought it best to leave the hare as an offering to Athena anyway.
They began to walk down the trackway, Hephaestion slipping his swordbelt across his chest and his chamlys around his neck. Once he had put his sandals on and they had both had a drink of water, Alexander said ruefully, "You know what is going to happen when we go home to Pella in the spring, don't you?"
"Mother is going to start nagging me to marry and have a son to match Cleopatra's child."
"It might be a girl," Hephaestion said hopefully. "And Philip won't let you marry just anyone. You will probably have to marry some foreign princess you've never met before."
"I will marry who I choose, not anyone else's choice," Alexander said darkly, watching his feet making swirls in the dust as they walked.
Hephaestion knew better than to argue with Alexander when he used that tone of voice.
"When you are the Great King of Persia," he said brightly, "you will have a harem of hundreds of the most beautiful women on earth. A different one for every night of the year."
"You can have them."
"I don't want your cast-offs, thank you very much. I shall rescue a beautiful princess from a high mountain fortress where she is being cruelly imprisoned, and she will fall madly in love with me. We will have seven magnificent sons, and I shall call every one of them Alexander."
"That will get very confusing!" Alexander said.
"Very well. I shall only call the youngest one Alexander, so you will have to wait years for your namesake. But he will be my favourite," Hephaestion added softly.
Alexander laughed. "You're daft," he said, snagging Hephaestion around the waist and pulling him against him.
"I know," Hephaestion said, gazing into Alexander's eyes with a twinkle in his own eyes. "But it worked, didn't it?"
Alexander grinned and pressed Hephaestion against him tightly as they stood in the trackway beside a green fir tree, Hephaestion's arms raised slightly as there was no room for them with Alexander's ferocious grip.
Alexander kissed Hephaestion quickly. "Shall we borrow the farmer's bed?" he asked, his voice hoarse. His mind and heart were both still in turmoil.
Hephaestion wrinkled his nose. "We can't, Alexander. If we don't leave soon, it will be getting dark by the time we get back, and they'll be out hunting for you. And you didn't even bring an escort."
Alexander heaved an impatient sigh. "Tonight?" he asked hopefully.
"Yes," Hephaestion said, and smiled so quickly that dimples appeared in his cheeks.
Alexander would die for those dimples alone. He heaved a different sort of impatient sigh, loosened his grip on Hephaestion, took hold of his hand and walked with him back along the pine-shaded track to the farmhouse, their horses and Philip's army.