"So, it's true that Mazeus is leaving?"
Hephaistion looked back over the Euphrates to see Mazeus and his men breaking camp. He couldn't stop himself from smiling, the news he had for Alexander was only good. A deal had been struck, Mazeus would leave the forthcoming battle, returning to Babylon. When Alexander won - for how could he ever lose, Mazeus would be Governor of Babylon.
All this had been done thanks to Mazeus commanding Greek mercenaries, so out of necessity, having to speak the language. They had both talked across the river, talking alone, leaving their men, so their words could not be overheard.
Hephaistion looked at Odius, a man from his troop who had asked the question, and nodded. He headed for his tent, he had the engineers to organise, the bridges he had been sent to build could now be completed.
Mazeus had confirmed that Darius was on his way, gathering men as he travelled. They would outnumber the Macedonian army. In a few weeks the fate of Persia would be decided. Alexander would be the Great King.
"Did he say anything about the battle?" Odius asked, following Hephaistion.
Hephaistion stopped, frowning at the man. "It's not as if I could tell you, Odius. I know we have known each other a long time, but some things are for Alexander's ear alone."
A young boy came running over to Odius, hesitating as he saw Hephaistion. He was Odius' Egyptian boy, Zahur. Odius signalled for him to come over and then threw his arm around his shoulders, pulling him to him affectionately.
Hephaistion smiled. He had never known Odius to love anyone or anything, and he was not sure where Odius had found the boy, but when they left Egypt, Zahur had come with him. Zahur, was a shy thing, Hephaistion was not sure if he ever actually spoke, and perhaps he did not love Odius as Odius loved him.
Odius pushed again. "When will Alexander be here?"
"That, I can answer," grinned Hephaistion. "He will be here in the next couple of days." Hephaistion could not wait for Alexander, to hold him as Odius now held Zahur, they had been separated for too long. He nodded a farewell, then walked on.
The sound of a disturbance came from the far side of the camp. Hephaistion headed over to see a fight between two more of his men, Philonikos and Agis. Astyoche, Naukles and Epikrates were already pulling them apart. Other men were gathered round, adding their voices, shouting approval, adding their opinions. They fell silent as Hephaistion broke through the crowd.
Philonikis had the grace to look ashamed but Agis glared at Hephaistion; he had been nothing but trouble since he joined the army from Megara. It was not the first time he had been in a fight.
"Philonikis, why were you fighting?" Hephaistion asked, seeing that he was the man most injured by the fight, his nose was bleeding and his eye had been blacked.
"Take his side," snapped Agis, pulling against Astyoche to try to free himself.
"You'll both have a chance to speak," Hephaistion snapped back, then turned to Philonikis and waited for his answer.
Philonikis shook his head before he spoke. "He took my dagger; my father's dagger. I came back from the river to see him with it, but he denied it.
"I never took anything!" protested Agis.
Astyoche pulled Agis into a firmer hold, hurting him. "That dagger belongs to Philonikis," he said. He looked at Hephaistion. "Any man who fights with Philonikis will know it is his."
"Where is the dagger?" asked Hephaistion. Timanthes stepped forward and handed Hephaistion the dagger, handle first. It had the carving of a lion on it, the style of the dagger was that of Corinth, where Philonikis came from, not Megara, Agis' homeland. He stared at the dagger, sure that Agis was guilty, before looking up to him. "What do you say, Agis?"
Agis had realised that his cause was lost, but still he tried to escape the consequences. "I won it from him…in a bet…but he wouldn't give it to me and so I took it."
"Liar!" shouted Philonikis, making a move to fight Agis once more, but being stopped by Naukles.
"I am no liar," Agis appealed to Hephaistion. "I have been in trouble before but why blame me now? I am innocent."
"I'm tired of hearing of you, Agis," sighed Hephaistion. "You pick fights too easily, now it seems that you have turned into a thief. Perhaps you need something to cool your temper, some task to keep you busy. Go and find Aristodemos, tell him that I sent you, that he is to keep you busy."
"Aristodemos?" spat Agis. "He is a slave!"
"He's a better man than you," Hephaistion replied, calmly. "Perhaps digging latrines, fetching water for the horses and cleaning clothes will teach you a lesson. I've had you flogged before, Agis, it doesn't seem to have improved you one bit."
"Then let me go!" yelled Agis. "Let me fight under a proper soldier…like Cleitus."
"Cleitus would have no time for you," Hephaistion replied. "Not until you cool your temper and learn what it is to have honour."
Agis tried to reply, but stumbled over his words. He shrugged off Astyoche and stormed away.
Hephaistion returned to his tent, sighing as he looked at the pile of paperwork on his desk. He looked over at his bed, imagining Alexander lying upon it.
Putting the paperwork aside he wrote a letter to Alexander, but not to tell him of the progress of the bridges, or his talks with Mazeus, but to say how much he missed him.
He paused as he finished the letter, thinking its content might inspire Alexander to increase his pace and reach him sooner. Once more he looked over to the bed, then he sealed the letter and went outside to call for Pentheus, who acted as a messenger.
Pentheus came running over, Hephaistion handed him the letter. He felt a momentary
stab of jealousy, as he realised that Pentheus would see Alexander by nightfall. If he were not so tied by his duty, then he would have fetched his own horse and taken his message in person.
Instead, he watched as Pentheus rode off at a gallop, his orders to hand the letter to Alexander in person.
Hephaistion went down to the river, glad to hear work continuing. Mazeus had gone.
He spent time with the engineers and spoke to the men at work there. He had hoped they would be completed by the time Alexander arrived, but he did not think they would be. Whatever Mazeus' selfish intentions, he could not be seen to be standing by letting Hephaistion complete their means to crossing the river.
Hephaistion looked across the river, in the direction of Babylon, wondering what the people were like, where Darius would order his men to fight. The landscape was vast, he longed to explore it, he and Alexander had talked about it, dreamed about it, since childhood.
He returned to his tent, the paperwork couldn't wait anymore. A page brought him some bread, cheese and wine and he ate and drank while he worked on the accounts, approved promotions amongst his men and wrote a letter to Aristotle. He was left in peace, to work, finally completing everything as dusk was falling and the page returned to light the lanterns.
He picked up the fresh flask of wine the page brought and wandered outside to see that work had stopped and his men were lighting fires, sitting round in small groups, talking, singing, gambling.
He made his way to Odius' section of the camp, but Astyoche informed him that he had taken himself off with Zahur and had not been seen all afternoon. Hephaistion sat by Astyoche and offered him some wine, which he gladly took. The flask was passed round the small group of men there.
"I'd have thought Darius would have come to take a look," said Astyoche, nodding towards the bridges, silhouetted now in the dark.
"He has no need," replied Hephaistion. "He knows that a decisive battle is inevitable."
"We should have got him at Issus," said Epikrates.
"We got the family," Aischines argued.
Epikrates grinned and looked to Hephaistion. "And they thought you were Alexander, himself."
The men laughed, but Hephaistion remembered how graciously Alexander had soothed the Queen's embarrassment at her mistake. Later, Alexander had held Hephaistion in his arms and sworn, that he believed, they were truly two parts of one whole.
Odius appeared, but stayed on his feet, surprised to see Hephaistion.
"So, the lover returns," joked Astyoche. "Come, sit with us, you must be tired."
The flask of wine was handed to Odius and he took a drink of the wine, then placed the flask on the ground. He sat down amongst them. The talk turned to battles they had won; they were soldiers enjoying all the fine details of the fight, now that they had come through them alive.
As it grew darker, the night grew colder and Hephaistion wished his men health and returned to his tent.
He stripped and washed, then pulled back the blankets on his bed and lay down. Closing his eyes he soon fell asleep.
"Hephaistion!" His name was spoken in a loud whisper, somebody was shaking his shoulder.
Suddenly awake, Hephaistion propped himself up to see Odius crouched by his bed.
"Odius?" he asked, surprised to see the man.
"Mazeus has returned, he is on the far side of the river and says he needs to talk to you."
Hephaistion stretched himself, then rose from his bed and picked up his chiton and undergarments, dressing himself and pulling on his boots, before fastening on his breastplate, sword, belt and dagger.
The lamps still burnt, it was still dark outside of the tent. Hephaistion put on his cloak and stepped outside, followed by Odius. The men were asleep, the campfires had died down. The night had a chill to it, so Hephaistion pulled his cloak around him, then yawning, made his way to the bridges.
There was no need for anyone but Odius to accompany him, so he made his way silently towards the left hand bridge, looking to see, if he could see, the guards positioned around the perimeter of the camp. The moon was out but the guards were too distant to be seen by that light. He wondered why Mazeus would return; hoped he hadn't changed his mind - but then, why would he bother to come back and tell him.
"How did you know Mazeus was here?" Hephaistion asked as he stepped on to the bridge.
Odius pointed forward. "I was just standing here, and I heard a low whistle. I was going to call the guard but then I saw who it was."
"You must have keen eyesight, Odius," Hephaistion laughed, "I can only see a few feet in front of me."
Odius did not answer. At that moment, Hephaistion became aware of a knocking sound; he looked over the bridge and saw a boat tied up. Not one of theirs. He went to raise the alarm, when he felt a knife in his side; he felt an arm lock about his neck, pinning him.
"I have him," Odius hissed.
Shadows climbed up the bridge. Persians.
"Odius?" Hephaistion was shocked by the betrayal. He was pulled away from Odius, another knife pointed between his ribs, his hands were pulled behind him and tied securely.
In the moonlight, Odius looked a broken man. "They have Zahur. They said they would kill him if I did not bring you to them. He is just a boy." He stepped forward, Hephaistion could see the tears in his eyes.
"They could kill you now," Hephaistion warned.
Odius shook his head. "They have something else for me to do."
Hephaistion saw Odius look past him, heard the urgent whispers of his captors. Turning his head he saw them lifting a body from the boat, it was wrapped in a dark blanket but as they put it on the bridge the blanket fell away.
It was a man the same age as he was, with long dark hair. Greek. He was Greek. For the brief moment he saw the man's face, Hephaistion knew it was not one of his men and he was grateful for that.
Hands reached for him, removing his weapons and breastplate, then removing the metal cuffs he wore on his wrists. Hephaistion stared at Odius in alarm as they located the locket he always wore, the same as Alexander always wore. He struggled to prevent it being removed, he went to protest verbally, but the knife jabbed into his ribs and a Persian voice whispered in menace so he knew he would be killed if he struggled further.
They put Hephaistion's possessions on to the corpse.
"I have to place the body in your tent, on your bed, then set fire to it. When the men who have Zahur see the flames, they will release him."
"They might not," Hephaistion whispered.
"I am in torment," Odius cried softly. He stepped forward, embracing Hephaistion. "I am so sorry," he whispered, and Hephaistion felt Odius' tears against his cheek, then felt Odius' dagger pushed in to his belt. Odius was giving him a chance.
Hephaistion understood. He closed his eyes. "Alexander will forgive you," he said, just as the Persians pulled him away and lowered him in to the waiting boat.
Odius made a move to go after Hephaistion, he drew his sword, he opened his mouth to alert the guard, but at that moment he remembered Zahur, of his promise to secure his release. The boy had been so scared, he had promised to save him.
He fell to his knees, lifting his head to see the boat disappear into the darkness. If he raised the alarm now he would be sealing his fate, he would be executed. He had made his choice and sacrificed Hephaistion, but now he wondered if Zahur was worth the price.
Remembering the rest of his bargain, he looked over to the body. Another life had been lost because of his love for Zahur. He stood up and walked over to the corpse, bending down and gently lifting it in to his arms. He carried it along the bridge, his senses alert for any sign that he might be discovered. The moon went behind a cloud and he used the darkness to reach Hephaistion's tent.
He lay the body on the ground and removed the breastplate, sword, and dagger that belonged to Hephaistion. As he did this he noticed the locket. Hephaistion treasured it, he knew Alexander wore the same. He had done to Alexander what he feared to have done to himself; Alexander would never see his love alive again.
He took the locket, not thinking of the consequences, but to keep it safe would be a final act he could do for Hephaistion. It would lessen the betrayal.
Reaching for paperwork on Hephaistion's desk, Odius took a lamp, then placed the paper around the body and set fire to it. He stepped back then set fire to a linen partition, the blankets, the mattress. The fire took hold and Odius dropped the lamp and ran from the tent, not stopping until he could run no further.
Hephaistion pulled against the rope that bound his hands together.
His captors were joyous with success, talking to him in excited tones, laughing, pulling at Hephaistion, prodding him and threatening him.
"They say you are a dead man."
Hephaistion looked to see a man staring over at him, sitting at the head of the boat, his hands resting on his knees. He was short and stocky with a dark beard and dark hair curled in the Persian way.
"You speak no Persian," the man continued.
Hephaistion shook his head, although he did know a little and intended mastering it.
The man moved closer, leaning in, almost conspiratorially. "If you mean to conquer a kingdom, then you should perhaps know the language they speak." The man grinned,
revealing a row of rotten teeth. "I am Enayat." He moved his head to point out the other men. "They speak no Greek. I am here to interpret, nothing more."
"Where are you taking me?" Hephaistion asked.
Enayat stopped talking as a cry went up. Looking back a fire was visible, far in the distance.
"Your funeral pyre," laughed Enayat.
Hephaistion looked back. Alexander would believe he was dead. He could not bear the thought of Alexander's pain and could only think of getting back to him. In a sudden, and reckless, decision he stood and threw himself over the side of the boat, in to the river. He had only one slim chance of escape but he would take it and hope to return to Alexander.
The current pulled him under and he twisted his body, turning so that he freed himself from his cloak, which would only hold him under. He lifted his hands and located his belt, then pulled it round his body. The Gods were with him and he felt the dagger and had it in his hands.
His feet touched the bottom of the river. Locating a solid object, a rock or dead tree long submerged, he pushed himself up, bringing the dagger round to try to slice the ropes. He kicked with his feet, once more, and broke the surface, snatching a lungful of air before sinking under again.
The ropes were cut. Hephaistion wasted no time in surfacing, breathing hard, his lungs demanding air. He could hear shouts and frantically looked around, he saw the boat and swam away from it to the nearest side of the river.
As he emerged from the river and scrambled up the bank, the alarm was raised. Hephaistion looked over his shoulder. Men had been in the river, after him, the rest were bringing the boat to the side. They had seen him.
Taking another deep lungful of air, Hephaistion ran away from the river, stumbling on rocks and crashing through bushes. More shouts went up. Hephaistion hesitated, needing a moment to get his bearings, the land was too open, there was nowhere to hide. In the distance he saw the shadow of a tree, at a loss where to run, he ran towards it. Another shout went up and this time he heard galloping horses.
Hephaistion dared not look back, they were catching up with him, he could not out-run a horse. He reached the tree, just as the horses overtook and encircled him. The riders held spears. Hephaistion backed up against the tree, trying to catch his breath. He had failed.
The men on horseback waited, until the men from the boat had caught up. A rider pushed his horse forward, his words, spoken to Enayat, were angry and determined. Two riders dismounted and walked over to Hephaistion, holding him firm against the tree.
Enayat pointed to the man who had spoken. "That is Nozar. He serves Faramin, the satrap of Besipah. He was sent to fetch you. You will not try to escape again."
Hephaistion went to speak, but his words were transformed to a cry of pain as one of the men pinning him, stomped his foot down on Hephaistion's foot. The other man followed his example. Four more times they both stomped down, while Hephaistion writhed against the pain, trying to escape the torment.
They released him then, and Hephaistion slid down the tree, collapsing to the ground. He knew now that Nozar's words were not a request, but a statement of fact.
As soon as the fire had been discovered, and Hephaistion's fate determined, riders left the camp at full gallop to bring the news to Alexander.
The debris had been searched, a body found.
Odius looked on. He had played his part and now he could only stand and watch, knowing the truth, fearing for Hephaistion but wanting so badly to know Zahur was safe.
The body had burnt beyond recognition, virtually just bone was left and that had twisted in the heat. The common thought, amongst the men, was that Hephaistion had somehow knocked the lamp over as he slept, that he had realised too late, he had tried to escape but the flames had engulfed him.
Odius clenched his fist. As he released it, a slender hand slid into his own. He turned to see Zahur smiling up at him. Delight and relief overwhelmed him, all at once, and he embraced Zahur tightly, kissing his face, eyes, lips. The men had kept their bargain. He dare not speak in case the men around him heard, he was never sure how much the boy understood anyway.
Approaching horses were heard and then Alexander arrived at a gallop, accompanied by Ptolemy, Seleucus, Perdiccas, Cleitus and his bodyguard. He had obviously left the army behind to arrive as soon as possible.
Odius watched as he pulled Bucephalus to a halt at the remains of the tent, dismounting quickly, as though he might still save Hephaistion. As Alexander was shown the body, Odius broke his embrace with Zahur. It did not seem right that he should take comfort from the one he loved at that moment.
Ptolemy moved over to Alexander, his hand resting on the king's shoulder, but Alexander brushed it off. He stepped back, then hurried to Bucephalus, mounting him, turning him away and riding off at a gallop. Seleucus, Perdiccas and Ptolemy followed, but Cleitus stopped the bodyguard.
"It will be a hard blow for Alexander," Astyoche said to himself. He looked over at Odius. "Hephaistion was always good to you."
"That he was," replied Odius, tears filling his eyes.
Zahur kissed him, then held his fingers to Odius' lips, his eyes warning him to say nothing.