STORMCLOUD by Moon71
SUMMARY: A small sequel to "The Wooden Horse." As King Philip returns victorious from battle, Alexander is determined to celebrate the occasion with the boy he has already decided is going to be his best friend…
DISCLAIMER: Not mine. The original idea for this story was inspired by Lysis' lovelystory "Hephaestion's Lion."
DEDICATION:TO ALL MY DEAR READERS – HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND THANKS FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT AND ENCOURAGEMENT!
"Alexander, son of Philip, for the last and final time will you keep still! Do you want to greet your father with half your curls burnt off?"
Alexander continued to wriggle impatiently. "But there's no time left, Lanike!" he protested as she made yet another attempt to take the hot iron to his blonde hair, "he'll be here any moment! I have to go!"
"Alexander, you're being quite silly as well as shamefully naughty," Hellanike scolded, "would you like your father to arrive back to the news that you've been sent to bed early for disobedience?" Alexander's nurse suddenly made a face as if she was tasting something bitter. "I might not agree with the… methods… of Leonidas of Epirus… but by Hera, if you don't mend your ways in the next few minutes I will have no choice but to send for him to remind you of your duties!"
At the mention of the name of Leonidas, the little prince seemed temporarily cowed. Hellanike glanced up from her work to cast Alexander's young body servant Actaeon a look of grim satisfaction. But her triumph was short lived.
"Prince Alexander!"Elektra, a maidservant who usually assisted Hellanike in her duties (when she wasn't playing various maidens in distress for Alexander to rescue) suddenly burst into the room, her round, pretty face flushed with excitement. "Prince Alexander, you asked me to tell you when Menidas returned with news!"
"Elektra, what in the name of all the gods do you think you're – "
Hellanike did not have time to complete the sentence before Alexander began to struggle free of her grip once more, crying out excitedly. "Have they arrived? Are they really here?"
"Mentor confirmed it!" Elektra declared breathlessly, "they arrived just after dawn!"
"There, you see, Lanike?" Alexander half pleaded, half demanded, turning back to his nurse in an urgent manner, "I have to go!"
"That's quite enough, Alexander!" Hellanike cried in exasperation, "just because they've arrived doesn't mean they'll be in any fit state to come out all this way at a moment's notice. They'll be hot and tired from such a long journey!"
"But Lanike…!" Alexander seemed on the verge of tears. "He'll come if I ask, I know he will! You've got to let me go!"
Hellanike's dark eyes softened just a little. "My sweet, I know you're excited… we're all excited about the return of your father! Don't forget my own little brother rode out with him!"
"Cleitos isn't little, Lanike!" Alexander scoffed.
Ever the little pedant, Actaeon thought, biting back a smirk. Leonidas hadn't changed that. But the prince's stern tutor had changed a great deal in Alexander – there were times when it seemed as though the affectionate little boy Actaeon had helped to care for in the nursery had been completely transformed into the perfect young warrior-prince; a true Spartan in his precocious self-sufficiency.
Today, however, it was as if the old Alexander had suddenly broken through into the light after being locked away in darkness for an age. Actaeon had not seen him so passionate, or so stubborn, about anything since…
Oh, yes. Since King Philip had left on Campaign, and the little boy had been greatly put out at his exclusion from the army which followed him. But even then he had tried to get his way by cold, resolute logic. Now he was pestering and pleading like any other little boy. And in spite of his fear that it might earn Alexander a beating at the hands of his would-be Spartan of a tutor, Actaeon could not deny a small wave of pleasure at the sight of it.
"…And anyway, it's my duty to welcome them, as my father can't be here to do it, and I promised I would, and I sent a gift and everything and so if I don't go they'll think all Macedonians have no manners and aren't fit to lead the Greeks against Persia, and…"
"Alexander son of Philip!" Helanike almost screamed, "so help me, if you don't stand still and do as your told, I will personally go to Leonidas and borrow his strongest, hardest – "
"What is the meaning of all this noise, Lanike?"
The room fell completely silent at once as Queen Olympias drifted in, cool and poised despite the frantic, feverish atmosphere pervading the entire palace. Her glittering eyes took in the scene before they slowly lowered, awaiting an explanation.
Actaeon could not help catching his breath. Olympias was beautiful on any occasion, but never more so than when she was dressed for a state occasion. It was something far deeper than her physical appearance – like her son, she seemed to overflow with a wild, volatile energy which might promise great danger – or great delight.
For a moment, Hellanike and Alexander stared accusatively at one another in a way that might have been comical if the Queen had not been there. Then both began to speak at once.
Olympias was as well known for her passionate temper as for her beauty or her rumoured practising of witchcraft. But today, amidst so much hysteria, she remained quite calm, waiting until both child and nurse had had their say.
"Alexander," Olympias said at last in a voice as smooth and sinuous as one of the snakes she adored, "I have your word?"
"Yes, mama," Alexander replied gravely, gazing up at her with wide grey eyes Actaeon would have found very hard to resist.
Olympias returned his gaze coolly for a moment before turning to Hellanike. "Let him go. Actaeon, get that young Mentor to ride over with him."
"I can ride by myself!" Alexander protested recklessly.
"No, Alexander. I won't have you riding alone in such an excited state," his mother told him in a tone that left no room for argument. "You may take your pony, but Mentor will ride beside you. Go on now… and don't forget you have given your word."
Alexander was gone in a flash.
"Olympias…!" Hellanike protested helplessly. "The victory celebrations… if Alexander isn't here when King Philip returns…"
"Do not worry, Lanike," Olympias replied, raising her head and giving a small, proud smile that made Actaeon's pulse quicken. "He is my son. He knows his duty."
In spite of his anxieties that they would not be in time, Alexander felt a warm glow of happiness as he and Mentor made the ride over to Amyntor's estate. His mother had understood – she had understood exactly how she felt and she had trusted him to do what was right! He loved Lanike, but she still treated him like a baby. He wasn't a baby anymore, and besides – everything simply had to go right today!
He didn't know why it was so important; only that it was. Ever since General Amyntor had told him about Hephaestion Alexander had longed for his arrival. He had always liked Amyntor so much and felt happy when he was with him. He knew he was rather hoping Hephaestion would be a smaller version of him; one who was as clever and friendly and funny as his father, but one who was Alexander's age; one he could play and train and study with.
There was no-one quite like that amongst his friends in Macedon. No-one who he could trust and confide in the way he imagined himself doing with Hephaestion. He had already trusted an imaginary Hephaestion with secrets he would never have dreamed of revealing to anyone; even his own mother.
He had tried to find out as many facts as he could about Hephaestion since then – he had only seen Amyntor once or twice since then but he had learned that Hephaestion was a good student and could read and write well enough but was better at mathematics and problem solving and had a good memory for details. He didn't hunt much, because there wasn't much game in the south, but he knew how to ride and how to handle a spear, though he was better at wrestling than armed combat.
He liked playing with his soldiers and often organised them into regiments and divisions. He had a big appetite and he liked honeycakes and milk puddings and cream and fresh bread. He could be stubborn and didn't like being told he couldn't do something and was not good at admitting he was wrong, but most of the time he was a good son, and he was fearless and didn't complain if he got hurt.
For Alexander, anything Hephaestion said, did or thought had to be right. There seemed simply no way Hephaestion could be wrong about anything.
But there was always a chance… just a small chance… that Hephaestion might not like Alexander…
Alexander quickly dismissed the thought. He knew Hephaestion was going to be his friend. There was just no question about it!
When the calls came, Hephaestion had been wandering aimlessly up the stairs which led to the roof of the new house, carrying the wooden horse he had kept with him day and night since they had embarked for Macedon. It had become soiled with dust and grease during the journey, but his nurse Aithra had taken it away that morning, ignoring his cries of dismay, and returned it looking shiny and clean. Aithra was not very cuddly as nursemaids went, but Hephaestion had thrown his arms around her and kissed her.
"So you're back home, Stormcloud," he declared to the dappled grey horse, "this is Macedon!"
He still wasn't sure he wouldn't rather be in Athens. During the long trip, when he wasn't playing with Stormcloud, he had listened avidly to his father's stories of King Philip – and his son Alexander. But then again, it was either that or be bored witless by the gossip of his mother and sisters and nurse as they all travelled together in the cart. As they got further north and the more familiar scrub turned into thick, dense woodland, Hephaestion began to feel distinctly uncomfortable. His sisters' worries over bears and lions and wild boar, combined with Aithra's declarations that many of the tribes who lived in the north were barely civilised, only added to his gloom. But he tried to reassure himself that if Prince Alexander had been generous enough to send such a beautiful gift as this precious little horse, Macedonians could not be all bad.
"Son of Amyntor, son of Amyntor!" One of the new maidservants who had been waiting for them when they arrived – Hephaestion still had not learned her name – came running breathlessly up the stairs. "Quickly, you must come down! Prince Alexander is here to see you!"
Hephaestion felt a sudden jolt of fear and clutched Stormcloud possessively to his breast. Did the prince want his horse back? Why else would he come here in such a hurry, only hours after Hephaestion and his family had arrived? Maybe his father had misled him – maybe Alexander had only said he could borrow it, and now he expected Hephaestion to give it back!
He considered quickly. He could try to hide on the roof… he could try climbing down and escaping, but it looked a dangerous drop, and besides, the prince might have men waiting outside on guard! He could hide Stormcloud somewhere… but the thought of leaving the little horse alone up here in what would soon be the baking heat of midday filled him with distress. "What does he want?" he asked finally.
But the maidservant had already started back down, and as he could not remember her name, he could not call after her. A moment later, Hephaestion heard the deep, resonating voice of his father demanding he hurry down at once, and he gave a weary sigh, tucking Stormcloud into his pocket. If Alexander wanted him back, he would have to fight for him!
Except Hephaestion did not know what sort of boy Alexander was. His father had insisted he was charming and affectionate – and small - but Hephaestion's father was almost as big as one of those giant Cyclops Aithra told him about, so everyone must seem small to him! What if Alexander was really big and fierce? What if he really was a barbarian?
Just as he was about to start down the stone steps once more, a small, golden haired creature sprang out to block his path, panting breathlessly and looking very pink in the face. "Heff-eyss-teeon!" he gasped, looking immensely pleased with himself, as if he had just managed to solve a very difficult sum. "Come on! Quickly! We can't be late, we have to hurry!"
"Who are you?" Hephaestion exclaimed.
"I'm Alexander," the boy replied impatiently, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Before Hephaestion could respond, the Macedonian prince was already running back down the stairs and he felt he had no choice but to follow.
It was only when his father promised to ride over to join them as soon as some last household matters were concluded that Hephaestion agreed to clamber onto the sturdy white pony behind Alexander. A moment later they were riding at a speed unlike any Hephaestion had ever attempted at his riding school in Athens; it came as a great relief to him when the young man called Mentor, who Alexander said was a palace guard, took hold of the pony's reigns and slowed them to the same pace as his own horse.
"I was so worried you wouldn't arrive on time," Alexander was saying, the speed at which he babbled out his words making Hephaestion's head spin even more than the fast ride. "I mean, you'd still have come, and that would be fine, but it wouldn't be the same, do you know what I mean? From the moment the news came that Father had been victorious in his campaign, I thought Hephaestion has to get here in time, and Lanike – she's my nurse – kept saying that it was such a long journey from Athens and even if you got here in time you'd be tired and all sorts of stupid, boring things like that, just like grownups always say, but I knew that you'd want to be here and you just had to see him riding back in glory, and I even checked to make sure he hadn't been hurt or – or – hadn't suddenly lost his nerve and tried to run away from the battle, just in case, but I knew he hadn't really, I was just making sure, and I…"
"Prince Alexander…" Hephaestion cut in. Aithra and his mother were always telling him it was rude to interrupt but he decided that if he didn't Alexander would keep on talking until he ran out of air and suffocated and died, and Hephaestion didn't want to be accused of murdering a prince on his first day in Macedon.
"Yes?" Alexander didn't seem to mind the interruption.
"Uh – I'm sorry, but… who are you talking about…?"
They had come to a halt in a large courtyard, in front of what must be the royal palace. But before Hephaestion could look around, let alone take in the gathering crowds, Alexander had almost pulled him from the back of the pony and was dragging him by the hand into the vast edifice. At the question, Alexander actually stopped, just for a second. "Why – Stormcloud of course!" he laughed, "come on, silly!"
Hephaestion let himself be hauled away with a growing reluctance. So Alexander really loved Stormcloud too – the real Stormcloud at least. His father had been saying something about victory celebrations that morning and had vaguely mentioned taking Hephaestion over to watch King Philip's triumphant return if there was time. Hephaestion had been quite excited at the prospect of seeing the living horse – and his rider – but with the bustle of moving in and the fussing of all the adults around him, it hadn't seemed a very likely event. Now he should have been filled with excitement – but his heart was heavy.
"Prince Alexander…" he began, as he was led down a long corridor with elaborate and beautiful mosaic panelled walls.
Before he got any further, their progress was arrested by the appearance of a tall, thin man with sharp, hawkish features, glowering ferociously down at the little prince just like a bird of prey swooping down to strike. "Son of Philip, I have heard word of your disgraceful conduct this morning, disobeying your nurse and arguing with your mother! I would consider it a suitable punishment for you to – "
But Hephaestion never heard what the suitable punishment would be. Alexander shoved him roughly through a doorway and slammed the door shut behind them, leaning back on it as if he was afraid the man would try and break it down. "That was Leonidas, my tutor!" he explained, laughing a little giddily, "even he wouldn't dare follow me into the women's quarters! The last time he tried, one of my mother's ladies started beating him with her shoe!"
"Prince Alexander…" Hephaestion tried again.
"It's just Alexander! Come on, the best view is from the balcony in Mother's rooms… oh good, we've still got time," he added, leaning out over the balcony. He turned in surprise when Hephaestion tugged roughly on his arm. "What's wrong now?"
"I…" Hephaestion sadly held out the little wooden horse. "I thought… well… I suppose you love him very much, and might want him back…"
Alexander looked at him blankly. "Well – no! I mean – I do love him, but I gave him to you! I thought… I thought that way, when you came to Macedon you and I could be friends!" Suddenly the sadness Hephaestion had been feeling only a second before seemed to be reflected the prince's eyes. "If you're giving him back, does that mean you don't want to be friends with me?"
Confused, Hephaestion shook his head. "No! No – I just thought…"
Alexander brightened once more. "Well that's all right then! I have some wooden soldiers too, and one or two more horses… except they're not as big as Stormcloud… we could play with them later if you…"
Any further words were drowned out by a deafening cheer from the courtyard below. Alexander hurried to lean out as far as he could, pulling Hephaestion with him. "Look, Heph – He – look, Tion! Oh, look!"
And there he was. The real Stormcloud, riding in as proudly as if he had won the battle himself. Hephaestion felt his heart beating very quickly. It was unmistakably him – the thick, glossy black mane and tail; the grey dappled hide. So like the wooden replica, and yet so different. The wooden horse was beautiful, but the real horse was… magnificent. His entire body rippled with hard sinew, throbbing with vitality and potential energy, as if at any moment he would gallop right over the walls of the courtyard and take off into the air like Pegasus. This real Stormcloud had scars, some old, some new – probably jabs from spears or swords or arrows. But that just made him even more wonderful. Hephaestion could hear him breathing – could almost catch his scent on the air. Overwhelmed by the moment, he felt a lump gather in his throat and was afraid he actually might burst into tears.
But as his gaze shifted shyly from the horse to his rider, he drew back with a gasp. His own father might be the size of a Cyclops, but Alexander's really was one! With his gleaming armour, his hard-muscled body and his scarred face, King Philip was quite terrifying.
"Father!" Alexander was screaming, "Father, over here!"
Apparently hearing the little boy's cries even over the roar of the crowd, Philip looked straight up at them and waved, grinning widely. Hephaestion relaxed a little. For all his scars, his sunburnt skin and his one eye, his smile was curiously like Alexander's. After a brief hesitation Hephaestion waved back.
At that moment, whether guided by some subtle command by Philip or some instinct of his own, Stormcloud reared up on his hind legs and gave a loud neigh, as if cheering the Macedonian victory himself. Forgetting his nerves completely, Hephaestion clapped his hands and waved and shouted until his throat hurt and heard Alexander laughing and calling beside him.
Hellanike made her way tiredly towards Olympias' rooms. All she really wanted was to go down to see her brother Cleitos; to really see him with her own eyes and know he really was safe and well and maybe hear a little of his adventures before he got stinking drunk with Philip and General Parmenion and the others and was too incoherent to hold a decent conversation.
But there was Alexander to prepare for the banquet, and if he was as difficult as he had been earlier that would probably take a long time. The ride to General Amyntor's estate had made a mess of his curls and smeared his face and his chiton with dust and dirt and sweat. He would need to be bathed and dressed all over again…
She sighed as she walked in and found him playing on the balcony floor with a group of wooden soldiers and horses. Kneeling opposite was a dark, slightly bigger little boy who was presumably the cause of all the day's trouble – Hephaestion, son of Amyntor.
"Alexander…" Hellanike began, approaching the boys with a weary sense of purpose.
"Let them play, Lanike…"
Olympias had been so quiet and still that Hellanike had not even seen her reclined on a couch in the corner. She began an apology, but the Queen waved it aside. There was a soft, almost sad little smile on her lips.
"I will see that Alexander goes down to greet his father," she told her firmly. "Go to your brother, now. Let them play a little longer… there will be plenty of time for duty in the long years to come…"
WRITTEN ALL IN ONE GO IN A SUDDEN FLASH OF INSPIRATION, 12/1/08 FINALLY FINISHED OFF