FEEDING APPLES TO DEATH
SUMMARY: Coming of age in an army camp is not easy; neither is falling in love. Royal Page Helenus is about to find his life getting very difficult indeed – while his friend Hylas is destined for an encounter that will change his life forever.
DISCLAIMER: The real people are mine; the fictional ones are. It's a bit of a no-brainer really.
NOTES: Moon71 resurfaces for a little while! I am (honestly) working on three more Alexander stories but they aren't complete yet. Without publishing my autobiography, let me say that the Olympics have taken up a huge chunk of my time (no, I wasn't competing! Though watching those female weightlifters makes me wish I'd taken up the sport twenty years ago!) I am still reading a lot of Alexander stuff (non-fiction at the moment, there isn't much inspiring fiction around at the moment, though "Thais of Athens" has finally been translated into English and is worth looking for.)
STORY NOTES: This story focuses on my original characters, in particular the pages Helenus, Nireus, Hylas and Narcissus. Alexander and Hephaestion, while not in every scene, are a big part of the story - I have tried to explore what it was like for others besides Alexander and his Companions to be in the army, with all its wonders, dangers and variety.
I know it may not be what everyone wants to read, but I hope I've entertained everyone for long enough to be granted a little artistic freedom – above all, I hope, and think, you will all enjoy this! I had this in my head since I wrote "Competing for Second Place" and having written it down and been pleased with the results, I thought I may as well post it. I dragged my feet over it for ages, not sure whether it was appropriate to this site or not, but here it is at last, so see what you think.
IF YOU'RE CONFUSED: And if you care, this story is set before, during and after the stories Competing for Second Place and The Substitute.
When I was in Macedon I thought I hated my brother Narcissus. He was always like a black cloud moving in front of my sunlight and raining on what I thought were my warmest moments. He bullied me relentlessly, stabbing at my pride whenever he could. Worse, he was always in trouble and always getting beaten, and I hated to hear our mother's shouting and the smack of our father's riding crop on my brother's body.
One day I lost my temper and told him he was only jealous because our parents loved me more than him. To my dismay, instead of pinching me or kicking me or making fun of me, Narcissus only smiled wryly and said, "yes, I know they do."
I have never forgotten that.
But it wasn't until our father packed Narcissus off to the Royal Pages at the earliest opportunity that I truly realised I didn't hate my brother – I loved him. I loved him more than anyone else in the world.
With Narcissus things felt real. He was always into some sort of mischief and more often than not he involved me in it too. I told myself it was wrong and I hated to see him punished, but it was also good fun. I never felt bored or frustrated or apathetic when he was there.
True, I never felt content either – unlike my parents, he was never satisfied with anything, myself included. His insatiable curiosity about the doings of those around him and his need to try new things, however reckless or forbidden, got him into as much trouble as his unwillingness to bend or to see me indulged while he was disciplined. But that felt good too. When I was with Narcissus I was truly awake, not locked in some comfortable but endless dream.
I know my parents separated us because they thought Narcissus was a bad influence on me and that army life would straighten him out. But I was the one it really straightened out. I could just have stayed in Macedon forever, learned to manage my father's estates, married and led a comfortably dull life. It was what my father intended for me and I would probably have been quite happy, if rather bored. But I was just as shocked as our parents to discover that I found life without Narcissus quite insufferable. I realised in his absence how much I had relied on his independent spirit to awaken my own.
Interestingly enough it was Hylas son of Nikanor who really helped me to sort out my own mind and fix my resolve to follow my brother into the Royal Pages. Hylas' estate bordered on ours and the three of us had often played together, though he was a year younger than I was. Nikanor I remember as a very big, very handsome cavalryman who was always full of fun and used to take us for rides on his charger, Snow, when he was home from campaign. I know Narcissus, three years older than me, was more than a little in love with him; he cried bitterly when the news came that Nikanor had fallen in battle and my brother very rarely cried, even as a young child. But then we children all cried that day, boys and girls. It saddened us – but it also frightened us. Change is frightening, after all. And if Nikanor son of Telemachus, who was like a god to us, was not immortal… then we certainly were not.
After he lost his father things did not go well for Hylas. He has never spoken of it to me, but I understand from Narcissus that there was trouble between Nikanor and his father in law and when he died Hylas' mother was pressured into remarrying quickly. Her new husband was rich and had no sons of his own and was not keen on accepting Hylas as his heir, so the simplest solution seemed to be to send Hylas to the army as early as possible.
When I heard he was to go at the age of twelve, I, at the age of thirteen, stubbornly resolved to go with him. My family were not happy, but I would not back down and eventually they humoured me, reasoning, I suppose, that I would soon be begging to come home.
As Narcissus would have said had he been there, being my father's darling did have its advantages after all.
Life in the army was not easy. For someone used to the attentions of servants and indulgent parents and sisters and the luxuries of a prosperous Macedonian estate it came as a great shock. Even compared to the other boys in the camp my age I knew I was soft. Within a week I had had my first beating for reporting late for duty. For months my feet ached constantly from the long marches and equally long periods of standing guard over King Alexander.
By the time I reached the army certain traditions had already begun to change – Alexander's army was not the spare, utilitarian one my father and his contemporaries would have known under Philip. The Royal Pages were not necessarily needed for such basic tasks as preparing the king's meals, dressing and undressing him, attending him at his bath and putting him to bed; but that did not mean we were to be excused completely. Alexander might have an increasing retinue of decorously discreet Persians in his retinue, moving about his household like silent, silken shades and making us mere Macedonian boys feel rough and clumsy in comparison, but he was never left alone with them.
Nor did being a Royal Page and technically under the King's direct protection did not stop some of the rougher men in the camp from trying their luck with me and some didn't seem interested in getting my consent.
But the Royal Pages were a close-knit group – whenever I got into trouble not only Narcissus but Hyacinthus or Euxenippus were there to help and I quickly learned the value of a hard knee, a sharp finger, fast legs or even just a piercing scream.
And then there was Alexander, who was like a god.
I fell in love with him instantly and though back home everyone talked of his self-restraint and modest appetites, I quickly noticed he was not totally blind to the charms of the boys around him.
One day when I was serving his wine at a supper-party, he looked up from where he was reclining on his couch and smiled at me. His smile was so radiant I thought I would melt like snow in the sun.
"You're adjusting well to life here, aren't you son of Lysander," he said. As I mumbled something stupid in reply, he turned to the big, handsome son of Amyntor, who everyone said he loved above all his Companions and who was sharing his couch with the ease of someone who felt he had every right to do so. "Do you know, Hephaestion, the sweet fresh looks of this boy make me almost sentimental for Macedon …"
"You've had too much wine, Alexander," Hephaestion answered carelessly.
"Sometimes, Hephaestion, I think you have no poetry in your soul," Alexander sighed, and as he said so he reached up and stroked my cheek.
Hephaestion grunted. "You look after the poetry, my friend. I'll look after the grain supplies! An army can't eat poetry!"
"Shame on you! You sound more and more like Cleitos every day! Would you of all people feed the body and starve the soul? Whatever would Aristotle say?"
"I'll ask him the next time I write. Do you want to place a bet on what he'll say?"
The two looked at one another for a long moment with such intensity that I thought they might be about to strike at one another. But then they suddenly burst out laughing and Alexander pushed Hephaestion off the couch. Within moments the pair of them were wrestling on the floor like wild, careless boys. The Persians who had entered Alexander's retinue about the same time as Hylas and I looked upon the conduct of their new sovereign with a mixture of bemusement and distaste, but the Macedonians only laughed, swilled more wine and began placing bets on the outcome.
I was long forgotten, but I could not forget. I could still feel Alexander's touch upon my skin for the rest of the evening. At one point I caught my brother glaring at me across the room, but I ignored him. Alexander had noticed me! Alexander had noticed my… what exactly had he said? I had to make sure I memorised his exact words! My… sweet fresh looks…
I would have happily gone to bed and dreamed of my golden haired young king all night, but before I could lie down Narcissus cornered me, digging his fingers into my arm and scowling into my face. "Don't let me catch you at that again," he snapped at me, "do you hear me, Helenus?"
"Catch me at what - ?" I was genuinely perplexed as well as shocked. "I wasn't doing anything!"
"The next time Alexander tries something like that, you act stupid… or scared. If he keeps it up I'll tell him you're already someone's beloved."
I stared at my brother with increasing anger. "Why? Why should I? I've seen how many lovers you've got here in the camp, why shouldn't I…"
"Because I said so!"
I laughed. I couldn't help it. "Are you jealous because he hasn't chosen you?"
Narcissus had not laid a finger on me in anger since I had arrived in camp. Now he clipped me across the ear. It didn't hurt, but it sobered me. "Don't be stupid. If I wanted Alexander I could have had him in a moment." It sounded arrogant, but having watched my brother work I would have to admit he had a point. "He's not right for you and that's an end to it."
I wanted to demand the reason why, but I did not. Narcissus was hardly ever serious about anything, but when he was I knew enough to take notice. As I bowed my head in compliance, I heard him sigh. "Come on, let's get to bed," he said and put his arm around my shoulders. I wondered if I was childish in still enjoying the affection he showed me, but then I decided I didn't care. I put my arm around his waist and let him lead me away.
"But…" I suddenly asked as we were bedding down, "what if… you know… what should I do if he insists?" For a moment I was genuinely afraid. Kicking the king in the gonads or poking him in the eye? Wouldn't that merit crucifixion?
Narcissus sighed and closed his eyes. "Don't worry, he won't." There was something odd in his tone of voice which would become familiar to me whenever he spoke of Alexander; an irreconcilable mixture of disapproval and grudging respect. "That's not his way."