THE GOD OF DEATH by Moon71
Summary: Not long after the death of King Philip, Cleitos finds himself in the most unexpected position of confidante to a troubled Hephaestion…
Disclaimer: I don't own Cleitos – I wouldn't know where to put him.
Warning: Nothing really – anyone looking for Hephaestion / Cleitos will have to look elsewhere I'm afraid!
Author's note: No, I'm not dead! I'm just not as prolific as I used to be! A huge thank you to all those who have continued to read and review my stories; I hope you all enjoy this simple little story. I'm not quite sure when the next story will be posted, but there are still a few to come.
Extra note: As always, there are a few new Alexander novels on the market, both good and bad. I haven't read the second and third parts of John McLeod's trilogy, though I will eventually – his books aren't fantastic but they're not bad.
I would recommend "The Curse of Ezekiel" by Nabil Saleh which focuses on Sidon and Tyre and, shocking as it sounds, features Hephaestion more than Alexander – and shows him as a highly competent administrator (and spymaster when necessary.) Considering the story is more from the Tyrian POV than the Macedonian, it's very fair minded and the story and setting are good with or without Alexander.
"The theatre of the world" by C Benjamin Tracy is good too – it focuses on Alex's childhood and Hephaestion is in it almost constantly. I do have some reservations about it and the pseudo-archaic language might be tough for those who don't have English as their first language but for the most part I enjoyed it.
I would not recommend Christian Cameron's "The God of War" – in the opening chapters he describes Hephaestion as a "bitch queen from hell" who Alexander only loves because he reminds him of his "evil mother." Anachronism, sexism and homophobia all in one strike! And using Ptolemy's POV, in spite of what the back blurb says, has been done at least once before. Sometimes allowing Amazon's "search inside" facility can work against an author! Ha, ha!
It was the sound of loud, drunken laughter echoing across the courtyard that finally jolted Cleitos from the depths of a muse. He shook himself, both embarrassed and perplexed by his own behaviour. What had he been doing, staring up at the stars like some addle-brained diviner hoping to read the future in the position of the constellations? Thank all the gods no-one had caught him at it!
Damnation – it was all the fault of those two young dolts, spouting all that horse-crap about how much better a General Alexander was than his father – even going so far as to suggest that it had been Alexander, not Philip, who had really carried the day at Chaeronea! The little shits – what in Hades did they know? The pair of them were probably still being suckled by their wet-nurses when that campaign was being fought!
And these were the hot young bloods who were to inherit the future! For fools like them, men whose boots they weren't worthy to kiss – men like Philip – had fought and suffered and died. For a bunch of spoilt, effeminate brats! If they really were the future, then the future looked very bleak!
It seemed to Cleitos that Philip had made a mistake in trying to bring Hellene culture to Macedon – it gave young idiots ideas above their stations; made them think more than was good for them; made them demand more than was their lot. And it was Philip who had ultimately paid the price – brought down not in battle, as a man of his bravery and fighting prowess should have been; but through the petty, jealous squabbling of two boys called Pausanias whose heads were filled with so much romantic Greek nonsense that they were prepared to throw their lives away over something as trivial as a broken heart…
Cleitos shook himself, cursing as he raised his hand to his mouth and began to suck on his bruised knuckles. Well, blind, stupid and slow they might be, but at least one of them had an admirably hard head…
He had never been that stupid, even when he had been considerably younger than either of them. He had loved Philip – oh yes, he had loved him, as only a boy could love his first lover. Philip had been not just his erastes; he had been his hero - his own private god - and Cleitos had worshipped him devoutly. Those first months on campaign when he had been Philip's page – Cleitos had treasured every one of them. Without wives or mistresses to distract, Philip had seemed absolutely his, to wait upon in whatever capacity the king required. Even following him into battle had seemed an act of love.
And no, of course he hadn't wanted to give him up; but he had – without any complaint or reproach, even in the privacy of his own heart. It was the way of things. Macedon was not Thebes and Philip's army was not the bloody Sacred Band! The bond between lover and beloved was transitory – it came and then it went, and anyone who hoped for more was a fool!
Once again, the sound of voices roused Cleitos from his thoughts. What was the matter with him, anyway? Why was he wasting time mulling over things that could not be changed? He was a fighter, not a thinker – a warrior, not a philosopher! Even Philip had known it, had laughed at Cleitos' total indifference to politics, be they Macedonian, Greek or Persian. Muttering more curses, he pulled himself to his feet. Better to get back to his rooms and get comfortably drunk on his own rather than be caught gazing vacantly at nothing by some of the young idiots staggering home from Alexander's party. The sky was already lightening, and even the ones with the strongest heads would surely have had enough by now.
"…Wait! Where are you going…? Hephaestion…!"
"But – can't we…"
"Hephaestion, you're being completely unreasonable! You accept that it should be my decision, and yet you…"
"Please – enough, Alexander! Not here, not now…!"
"Then in the name of Zeus come back inside!"
"Tion… tell me what I need to do. Tell me how I can prove my feelings haven't changed, that this makes no difference!"
Another protracted silence.
"…Health to you… King Alexander…"
The sound of a heavy door being slammed shut. Then the clack of sandaled feet on the stone floor of the courtyard. Half a moment later, Hephaestion son of Amyntor, beloved of Alexander, wandered into view, carrying what looked like a wineskin. Cleitos rather hoped he would just pass by, but he stopped only feet away, sinking down onto one of the stone benches and thrusting his head into his hands with a muttered oath.
Well, one didn't need to be a diviner – or a philosopher – to work out what was going on there. Any fool would have noticed the sudden tension between the new young King of Macedon and his dearest companion.
Another love-affair coming to a painful end. And another young idiot, apparently not ready to accept it. It was none of Cleitos' business. He would not get involved.
And yet… how quickly time passed! Somehow it was this particular event, trivial in the scheme of things, which really brought it home to Cleitos then – Alexander was a grown man, ready to put aside the fancies of his youth. And still it seemed only yesterday Cleitos had watched with concealed amusement as a little blonde boy toddled his way laboriously across the nursery floor…
He still remembered so clearly the arrival of Hephaestion in Alexander's life. Even as a boy Alexander had taken himself so seriously, all but denying that he favoured Hephaestion above his other companions and later affecting indifference to the fact that his friend was growing taller and more handsome by the day; apparently blind to the idea that others might envy him the obvious devotion of such a comely youth.
Yet really Alexander couldn't help himself; wherever he went, Hephaestion must come too; whenever he was invited to hunt or watch the racing or allowed to attend his father's diplomatic audiences or campaign briefings the request always came, deferential but insistent, for Hephaestion to accompany him. Not that he wanted it of course; only that Hephaestion had expressed an interest, or that Hephaestion might benefit from such an experience, or Hephaestion had shown an aptitude which Alexander felt should be encouraged.
Oh yes, of course Cleitos and Philip had shared many a good joke about Alexander's transparency and Alexander's affectations; they had laughed, but never in Alexander's face. "Don't tease the boy about Hephaestion," Philip had warned Cleitos with a wry grin but a serious gaze, not long after it was clear to all the inseparable pair were finally lovers, "I wouldn't put it past the wretched child to break it off out of simple contrariness, and at least while he's rolling in the hay with Amyntor's young buck I can convince myself he really does have my blood in his veins."
Against his better judgement, Cleitos made his way over to where the young man sat. No – he should not get involved. But he would. For the smiling, amiable boy Hephaestion had once been; for the affection Philip had always held him in; for the lightness of spirit he managed to awaken in the solemn young prince; for the simple fact that the friendship annoyed Olympias and that had pleased Philip; maybe just because Cleitos knew exactly how Hephaestion would be feeling at this moment. For any of those reasons – maybe for all of them - he would speak to him.
"I would wish you joy, Hephaestion," Cleitos began gruffly, "but I doubt you would find it much of a comfort."
Hephaestion sat up sharply. "Cleitos!" For a second there was a wary look in those dark eyes; then those fine features settled into a look of gloomy affability. "That was an excellent example of the surprise attack you gave the party earlier on… Demetrius was still out cold when I left!"
Cleitos gave a scornful grunt. "So I didn't kill him, then?"
"I don't think so… but I don't know if anyone was sober enough to check properly…"
"Pity! I'll remember to swing harder next time!"
Hephaestion lowered his eyes with quiet deference. "They meant no disrespect, son of Dropidas… they're just overexcited about the future… they've longed for it, and now for them… for us… it's here."
"Hah! The little pig-fuckers can't wait to dance on their fathers' graves, is that it?" Cleitos was surprised by the force of his own bitterness, but Hephaestion merely looked a little sheepish.
"To be honest," he said ruefully, "I think it's all bravado. They're scared." He gave a troubled frown. "We're all scared. Philip was immortal to us and now… suddenly… Philip is gone… and everything has changed…"
Cleitos gave his young companion a shrewd look. "And you'd know that better than anyone else, son of Amyntor…"
Hephaestion glanced sharply up at him, then quickly looked away. Even in the pale light Cleitos could see the colour flooding his cheeks. "Ah. So you heard."
"Along with half of Pella, I would wager." Cleitos threw himself down onto the bench beside the younger man. "Listen to me, Hephaestion. You'll do yourself no favours by making a fuss. This day was always going to come. Alexander has to be seen to be a man, not a boy, and he'll find it an uphill struggle no matter how he behaves. You've heard the gossip, just like the rest of us. Everyone is watching Alexander – his friends just as attentively as his enemies. Now more than ever, he has got to be seen to bed women, even to sire a few bastards before he marries, and he shouldn't hesitate too long over that, either…"
Taking the wineskin from Hephaestion, Cleitos took a long drink. "He'll be expected to grant favours to the sons of men in powerful positions, not just those he cares for. You'll have to get used to stepping aside, to seeing others rewarded ahead of you, at least until Alexander is better established and you're older… the more you fight against it, the harder it…" Cleitos trailed off as he saw Hephaestion vigorously shaking his head. "Gods, but you're stubborn, boy! Why can't you just accept what I'm saying?"
"I do accept it!" Hephaestion blurted out, snatching back the wineskin, "I always have accepted it, damn you! I've told Alexander everything you've said but he won't listen to me! He won't listen!"
Cleitos stared incredulously at the other man for a long moment before roughly clearing his throat. "Are you telling me that it's Alexander who…"
Hephaestion nodded, taking a large gulp of wine and swallowing it with difficultly. "That was what the argument was about! He wanted me to… to stay with him tonight. I haven't; not since he became King… not in that way. I told him I wouldn't.
"I said all the things that you said; I even reminded him of the gossip, the things they were saying about him, about us… don't think we don't know what they say about us, Cleitos! We've heard it all, from who does what to whom in bed, to whether Alexander's even capable of siring children, to… oh, what does it matter? You've probably heard it all too! We used to laugh about it… or at least he'd sulk and I'd laugh, and sooner or later he'd laugh too… but that was when we were still boys… before it felt like the eyes of the world were on us…
"But Alexander says…" he hesitated, turning his head away. "He says he still loves me, still needs me… now more than ever. He says he feels as if I'm all he has left; the only one he can trust. The only one who… who really knows him. He says I don't love him; that I think more of my own pride than I do of him…"
For once in his life, Cleitos was lost for something to say. He had been quite resigned to deal with a broken-hearted youth; a few home truths, some more wine, a few bawdy anecdotes of life on campaign and possibly an introduction to some buxom local whore and his duty to Philip would be done. This was something less straightforward.
"It's not just that he still wants us to…" Hephaestion rolled his eyes suggestively. "You know. That isn't what's really important to him. The problem is he actually wants to acknowledge it publicly! When we were boys, we… we had this dream, you see… this dream of visiting Troy, and racing one another around the burial mounds of Achilles and Patroklos…"
He didn't elaborate further, but he didn't need to. Cleitos wasn't so ignorant that he couldn't appreciate the significance of drawing a parallel between themselves and those legendary lovers-in-arms. Ridiculous, sentimental nonsense; no better than those Theban idiots exchanging vows before the shrine of Iollas. Their lovers bonds hadn't saved them from Philip! "You're telling me Alexander seriously intends to…"
Hephaestion nodded slowly. "When we were talking about it, I imagined it would be while he was still a prince… something private, for us and our friends! But now he wants the whole army to witness it…"
Cleitos did not answer at once. His thoughts once again were only of Philip. Philip, who he would never see again this side of the Elysium fields, if he was lucky enough to make it there. Then, with surprising clarity, he remembered not Philip's death, but a time years before, when Cleitos, barely out of the Royal Pages, had seen Philip with another boy and known his time as his king's beloved was over – and had wished, just briefly, that he might have had just a little longer.
The very idea that he might have decided when their time was up and expected Philip to accept it too… that was quite beyond imagining. The idea that he might have wanted to – might have offered to step aside out of some noble sentiment to protect Philip's reputation or to protect his own, was beyond even that.
Cleitos shook his head in disgust. "Listen to me, son of Amyntor - whatever noble claptrap you have in your mind, you'd do best to stop wasting your time over it. Really, I don't know what useless romantic cowshit you boys had your heads filled with in Mieza, passed off as superior Greek learning! That Aristotle fellow ought to be dragged back to Macedon and horsewhipped!"
"Son of Dropidas - !" Hephaestion's dark eyes flashed indignantly. "Aristotle is one of the greatest living teachers in Greece! A student of Plato…!"
Oh yes, this one had been quite a favourite of the old man, hadn't he? No wonder he was so confused by something that would have been so simple to an ordinary Macedonian soldier.
What would Philip have made of this? He would probably have laughed – but then again, he would probably have understood Hephaestion's feelings a good deal better than Cleitos could. That was one of the many things that had made Philip great – he was every bit the Macedonian king; yet he could hold his own against any book-learned Greek.
So how would Philip have worked this out? What would Philip have expected?
"I don't care how great a teacher he was," Cleitos declared, "he wasn't much of a teacher if he didn't teach you to how to do your duty to your king! Alexander is your king now, son of Amyntor and it's not your place to question his judgement! It doesn't matter if his judgement doesn't seem sound to you," he continued before Hephaestion could choke out a protest; "right now what he needs is to have complete trust in you, and know that you have complete confidence in him. If you defy him over something as trivial as whether you two should be bedding down together or not, how can he trust you to follow his orders when he tells you to follow a defensive policy when you favour attack… or crucify some of your own men… or put the entire population of a town to the sword?"
Cleitos finished his speech with a heavy sigh, exhausted by the unaccustomed mental effort. His brain was sharp enough – he could calculate, strategise, navigate his way across all sorts of unfamiliar terrain; but this reasoned argument made a man's head ache. It had to be the wine talking – yes, the wine, mixing with this uncharacteristic melancholy. Surely by the time the sun had risen high he would be back to his old self – focusing only on the immediate future. That, he reflected resolutely, was the only sensible way for a man to live.
He grunted irritably as he saw Hephaestion staring open-mouthed at him, evidently as surprised by Cleitos' sudden eloquence as he was himself. Seeing that his young companion was getting ready to continue the debate, Cleitos cut him off with a raised hand. "Listen," he growled, "let's clear away all this crap and get down to it. What is it you want, son of Amyntor?"
Hephaestion was silent for a long time. Cleitos heard give an equally heavy sigh as he took another large gulp of wine. "I want what Alexander wants," he answered softly. "I want…" he hesitated, stealing a sideways glance at his companion, then finished resolutely, "the dream."
The dream! More fanciful nonsense! But for once Cleitos resisted the urge to sneer. "Well… if that's what you want, then have it, boy. For as long as it lasts."
"Life is very short, Hephaestion, and the fates are cruel."
"Yes, of course, but don't you see, I…"
Cleitos turned and silenced his young companion a damning glare. "I told you," he muttered with scorn, "you youngsters are all the same, wasting your lives debating esoteric points of logic and waxing so bloody superior about battles you never fought! You're so blind. You can't see him yet, can you? But he's there. Waiting and watching. You'll learn to see him soon enough, once you've fought in a few more battles – once you've sent men to certain death and seen a few of your little Mieza friends take an arrow that might have been meant for you – then you'll see him clearly enough!"
"See who, Cleitos?" Hephaestion demanded uneasily.
"Thanatos!" Cleitos hissed.
For a moment Hephaestion's eyes widened and his olive-toned skin actually seemed to grow pale. Then he scowled disapprovingly at Cleitos. But his companion scowled defiantly back at him.
"Think I'm joking do you?" he sneered. "You'll learn. I first caught a glimpse of the god of death during my first battle. I couldn't have been more than fourteen. I had been fighting behind Philip when I got slashed across the stomach with a sword. I managed to get back behind the lines before I collapsed, but the very shock of it knocked the wind out of me so I couldn't breathe, and with the searing pain and all that blood spurting out of me I was convinced I was going to die. I was so frightened I was about ready to start blubbing like a girl.
"That was when I saw him. He spared me a quick glance, full of contempt at my weakness, before he passed on – and took the life of a man lying wounded and groaning beside me. It wasn't my time then. But maybe next time it will be. Once you've seen him, son of Amyntor, seen what little regard he has for the cares and concerns of mortal men, you'll know better than to hurry to end things that will be over soon enough."
"So what you're saying," Hephaestion said slowly and incredulously, "is that Alexander and I should follow our dream and to Hades with everyone else?"
Cleitos scoffed. "Hardly that! All I'm saying is that you should let Alexander plan his ceremony in Troy if he wants it. He'll learn soon enough that such sentiments are expensive to a king.
"Trust me, son of Amyntor; learned philosophies and noble gestures are all very well, but when it comes down to it, it's a man's gonads which really do his thinking in these matters; not his brain. You're a healthy young buck and you've seen enough life at court – you know I'm right. Alexander will see the error of his ways soon enough. Some charming hetaera or some pretty page will catch his eye and it'll all be over. Probably long before the army gets within spear-throwing distance of Troy.
"What you decide to do – or don't do – is none of my concern. All I'm saying is that whatever you do, remember as you do it that Thanatos will be standing right behind you. No man is immortal, Hephaestion – not you; not even Alexander."
Hephaestion gazed at him in silence for a very long time. Then he passed the wineskin to him and got very quickly to his feet. "Health to you, son of Dropidas…" he called over his shoulder as he started off in the direction he had come from. There would be no prizes for guessing where he was bound.
Cleitos shook his head. He would feel like an absolute idiot in the morning – they both would. Dionysus had a good deal to answer for. Well, if Hephaestion never mentioned this conversation again, Cleitos certainly wouldn't.
But it hadn't all been drunken mawkishness, he reflected bitterly. No man was immortal – that much was true.
No, not even Alexander, for all his witch of a mother's pretensions about being beloved of Mighty Zeus.
Not even Philip.
Cleitos raised the wineskin to his lips once again, and drained it to the dregs.