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Fighting Fate

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Hephaistion strode down the halls of the palace, missing the simple rows of tents of the earlier campaign. He felt heavy with dread. Alexander’s enemies were conspiring, he knew it, and he felt his death and Alexander’s own grow close. He had pushed too hard the last time they had spoken of it, however, and their comfortable intimacy had suffered. Hephaistion sighed and covered his face with his hand, rubbing at the tension in his forehead. If he could only get Alexander to listen. His pride was like a wall, serving as a buffer against any convincing words. He was as intractable as his ancestor Achilles, sulking in his tents. It was no wonder, either, as Alexander had always styled himself as Achilles come again, and Hephaistion as Patroklos.

Hephaistion stopped short, with a quick intake of breath. That was it. It was the only way to get through to him. Gods help me, he muttered. Make him listen. Soften his heart to my words, and I will never ask another favor of you again.

He paused at the door to Alexander’s room. A year ago he would have strode in without hesitation, but things had changed. He took a deep breath and walked in anyway. Alexander was at his desk, writing, with Bagoas at his feet. Hephaistion waved the boy out, ignoring the indignant glare he got in response. As Hephaistion walked up behind him, Alexander barely noticed, deep in thought on campaign plans and sketching troop placements.

Hephaistion took Alexander’s head in his hands and began stroking the thick mane of hair, the way he used to do every night. As he massaged the tension out of Alexander’s scalp his eyes closed in pleasure, and Hephaistion smiled. “I miss this,” he whispered. “I miss you.”

Alexander’s eyes opened slowly and he turned to face his friend. “I miss you, too. I miss the way you used to support me in all things. Hephaistion, you have to know that what I do is necessary to unite the empire behind me as we advance to India. Persia will not remain mine if I cannot be High King to them.”

“You’re right,” Hephaistion agreed. Alexander’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “I’m just not convinced advancing to India is necessary. I’m worried it’s one step too far, Alexander. You are the most amazing leader--the most amazing man--the world has ever seen. But I fear that if you are not satisfied now, with the whole of Greece and the Persian Empire in your hands, you will never be satisfied. And that way lies your death. Every tragic hero followed that path, Alexander. You can choose another.”

Alexander frowned, and turned away. Hephaistion had avoided using the word hubris, worried about wounding his pride further. How could he explain, without diminishing the majesty of the king and the dignity of the man he loved? He picked up Alexander’s hand and led him to the divan, where they could both sit comfortably. There was only a little tension in Alexander’s arm before he assented and followed. He wants to be persuaded, Hephaistion realized then. He just needs a good precedent to follow.

I’ll make him one, Hephaistion decided. “Let me tell you a story,” he began.

Alexander’s mouth turned up in a half-smile and rolled his eyes back toward his desk. “I don’t really have time for this, you know. There is much to be done before we pick up stakes and move East.”

Hephaistion frowned at him now, him and his stubborn pride. “Let me tell you the story of Achilles and Patroklos, but with another ending.” At this Alexander laughed. “To what end? I know this story like the back of Boukephalos’s head, and so do you. What purpose could this possibly serve?”

“Humor me,” Hephaistion pleaded. “It will not take long, and if I am not persuasive, you can go back to your plans and I will not hinder you. In fact, I will do all in my power to work toward the smooth transition of our troops to the East. But if I am persuasive, we will have new plans to make, and there is no point in continuing those if we are about to throw them aside.”

“Unlikely,” Alexander scoffed. “But, by the love I have borne you since we were boys, and the love you bear me still, I will listen.”

“Good,” Hephaistion sighed with relief. “Good. Now, as you know, Achilles and Patroklos were, like us, joined at the hip since they were young boys, ever since the day Patroklos and his father Menoitios arrived out of Opoeis...”

***

Achilles and Patroklos had been joined at the hip since they were young boys, ever since the day Patroklos and his father Menoitios arrived out of Opoeis, the roaring vengeful family of the boy Patroklos had slain hot on their heels. Patroklos had been cheating at their dice game, and the his playmate had taken such affront that he had drawn his small boys’ knife. Patroklos didn’t understand why he should be punished for defending himself, but his father had just slapped his mouth silent when he protested, and brought him to Peleus for sanctuary.

Patroklos stood there, listening with only half an ear to his father’s explanation and supplication. His eyes wandered to the boy at Peleus’s right hand--his son, he supposed. The boy was shorter than Patroklos, but possibly no younger. He was eyeing Patroklos back, to be sure, in a way that was measuring and analytical. When Menoitos got to the part of his story that concerned the cause of their flight, the boy’s eyebrows rose to his hairline, and then his gaze returned to Patroklos, reassessing. He appeared impressed.

Then Peleus assented to bring Patroklos into his household as Achilles’s squire, indicating the boy as he said the name. This was an endurable fate, Patroklos decided. Achilles was smaller, but no less trained than he--that was clear. The boy balanced well on the balls of his feet, every muscle pulled taut as if he were about to rain arrows upon Patroklos, just for looking. He scowled, and Patroklos couldn’t help but grin. He wondered if Achilles played dice.

***

“My mother is a goddess,” Achilles told Patroklos a few days later, after they had settled into a routine, but not yet into a relationship. He was watching the older boy closely to see what his reaction to this announcement would be. Patroklos had noticed that the other boys of the household avoided him, not just because of his rank, but also because of his divine heritage. The gods were fickle and quick to anger; it stood to reason that demigods were as well.

“Really,” Patroklos replied. It wasn’t a question. “Do you see her often?” Patroklos answered Achilles’ gaze with his own. The younger boy was a mystery--dark, intriguing. So far their lives together had consisted of dressing, bathing, training, and eating. Patroklos was learning the household and its idiosyncrasies, and found that Achilles did not lord his rank over him. He accepted the attendance as his due, but he did not abuse it. And he gave Patroklos leave to wander the grounds, share his meals (and his rooms), and try to pin him in wrestling exercises. He hadn’t managed it. Not yet.

Achilles shook his head. “Not often. It pains her to see me, I think. I am mortal, as is my father, and she knows one day we will both die. It hurts her too much to dwell on our fates, so she only makes short visits. Besides...” he trailed off, unsure whether he had already told Patroklos too many details of the inner life of the goddess Thetis, and his own pain--doubtless visible in his face--in her absence.

Patroklos took his hand and squeezed it. “Besides?” He pretended not to notice the tears welling in his young lord’s eyes.

Achilles sighed. “She told me once, before I had begun my training, that I had two potential life paths. I could be the finest warrior that all Achaea had ever seen or will ever see, but die very young. Or I could live a long, full life in obscurity. If I refused to fight, if I refused to train, if I refused to pursue honor, I could live almost forever. What kind of choice is that? No, a life without honor is no life at all. And when I told her so, she left. She could no longer bear the sight of me, already dead in her eyes.”

Patroklos reached out to Achilles, cupping his face in his hand. “You always have a choice. There’s no reason to stop your training; it’s good to exercise the body and the brain. But there will be chances ahead of us, chances to cheat fate. Trust me. I’m a master fate-cheater.” He grinned at the younger boy, willing him to smile. He couldn’t bear to see the dark cloud remain on his brow any longer. He only got a half-smile, so he tackled Achilles and wrestled him to the floor. “Say it,” he whispered into his ear. “We’ll cheat fate together.” Achilles shook his head, but he got his smile.

***

When Odysseus’s ship appeared just above the horizon, Patroklos rushed into Achilles’s rooms to be the first to announce it. They had known the war and its recruiting generals were coming; a scout ship bearing a messenger had arrived the night before. Achilles and Patroklos both were excited to join the Achaeans’ cause. In bed, after dinner, Patroklos stroked the still-downy hair on Achilles’s chin.

“We’re old enough, you see.” Patroklos indicated his own infant beard. “They’ll have to let us join.”

Achilles frowned at the reference to Patrokloss’ slightly coarser facial hair. He did not like to be reminded that Patroklos was the elder, even if only by a little. “Peleus will permit me to fight, I am sure.” He frowned at the air now. “I’m not sure about Thetis, however.”

These words still rang in Patroklos’s memory as he dashed through Achilles’s empty rooms. “Achilles? Achilles!” He was not there. He was not on the beach, and he was not on the roof, where sometimes the young men watched the sun set over the ocean and the mainland to the west of them. Patroklos began to suspect that Achilles was not on Aegina at all.

When he arrived in the throne room, he saw Odysseus and Peleus deep in conversation. He hovered around the edges of their retinues, not wanting to overstep his place, but vibrating with the need to know what they knew--and to find Achilles. It didn’t make any sense. Where could he have gone?

Odysseus was returning to his men with a purposeful stride. “Back to the ship, men. Achilles is not here. We must seek him in Lykomedes’s court. Calchas prophesied that Troy cannot be won without the boy. We must have him join us!”

Lykomedes’s court? How was that possible, when only last night Achilles was safe in his own bed, in Patroklos’s arms? Patroklos started with a gasp. Only by the power of an immortal could such a thing take place. “Thetis,” he muttered.

Odysseus, never a man to miss a detail, stopped and turned his attention to Patroklos. “What did you say, boy?”

“I am sorry if I spoke out of turn,” Patroklos stammered, suddenly faced with the king of Ithaka’s intense, searching gaze. “I am Patroklos, Lord Achilles’s squire. He and I have spoken of his mother, sir...and, well, I suspect she may be behind his disappearance. It will not be as simple as sailing to Skyros and collecting him. She will have hidden him, to keep him safe.” Patroklos gulped, and then ventured further. “I know him, better than anyone sir. You should take me with you. I can find him anywhere.” Patroklos’s eyes were pleading, and Odysseus’s heart was touched. He nodded. “Be warned, however, young squire, that you must then accompany us on to Ilium. Skyros is between here and there, and we will not be returning. You and Achilles must both fight for us.”

Patroklos nodded. “But of course, my lord. That was our intention all along.”

***

“I cannot help you,” Lykomedes stated firmly. “I run the risk of offending my patron goddess by even entertaining you here. You should go, and count yourself lucky.” Lykomedes was surrounded by his many daughters and their serving girls, and Patroklos found his eyes roaming back to one maid in particular. She was a fair enough girl, but that wasn’t what he found so compelling. What was it about her? Godsdamnit, why was he staring at a girl when he was supposed to be looking at Achilles?

Looking for Achilles, he corrected himself mentally.

And then he paused. Maybe his first thought had been right after all.

He looked at her again. That stormy brow, the stolid stance. Oh, Zeus preserve us, it can’t be.

“Lord Odysseus, sir. May I have a word?” Patroklos turned away from Lykomedes’s line of sight and whispered into the general’s ear. “She’s put a glamor on him, hidden him among the serving girls. I’m sure of it. He must be bewitched himself--there’s no way he’d stay put otherwise. I don’t know how to prove it, though, sir. Nor how to break the spell.”

Odysseus grinned, a twinkle in his eye. “Best leave that part to me.”

***

Later, Achilles and Patroklos were bunked in the sleeping quarters of Odysseus’s ship--Achilles wrapped around Patroklos as if he feared that Thetis would steal him away once more. “Thank you,” he murmured into his lover’s ear, “for coming to get me.”

“What else could I have done?” Patroklos laughed. “Not only can the Acheans not win Troy without you, you’ve spoiled my ability to fight beside anyone else. I imagine I’d have died on the first charge up the beach without you there to protect me.”

Achilles pulled away from Patroklos, holding his eyes in his own. “Don’t say that. Never say that! If you must die, let it be only after my own death. And let our bones rest in the same coffer, intertwined in death as we are in life. I could not live without you, Patroklos. It was bad enough living apart from you as a maid in Lykomedes’s court,” and at this thought Achilles sneered, wounded by the dishonor he felt his mother paid him in dressing him as if he were female. Thank the (other) gods her glamor did not extend deeply enough to prevent him from desiring and grasping the weapons Odysseus had planted among the baubles and silks with which he had gifted the ladies of Lykomedes’s court. “I do not think I could stand it if you were to die before me.”

Patroklos brought his forehead to Achilles’s, closing his eyes as he felt their bond stronger than ever. Achilles was normally spare with words of love, preferring words of war, of honor and of glory, even as his hands spoke a softer language, and his tongue no language at all. “We are off to war, beloved,” he smiled at Achilles’s perpetual gravity. “Death comes to us all in our time, but I promise to do my best to avoid its early arrival. Will you do the same?”

Achilles squeezed his eyes shut, sighing at both Patroklos’s words and his tongue, licking at Achilles’s throat as if parched for him after their long separation. “I have no choice. You know this. I will die young. It is fated.”

Patroklos sighed and stopped his ministrations. “Well, obviously not. Thetis wouldn’t have bothered to try to prevent it if it were unpreventable. I’m just not convinced that you cannot fight and live at the same time. I don’t think this is a life that holds only two choices, Achilles. We are off to war, yes. We will not hide and shame our fathers, no. But that doesn’t mean we have to die, either. How many men live to be grizzled old generals? Why can we not join their ranks? Look at Odysseus himself, that wily man. I aim to be like him, I do.”

Achilles just grunted and quickly changed the subject without any words, as he was wont to do. Patroklos was too sore with longing for him over the course of the interminable sea voyage to press the issue.

***

Achilles was, indeed, a wonder. There was no warrior, on either the Trojan or Achaean side, that could match him. Patroklos’s heart swelled with pride whenever he caught side of his lover on the battlefield, striking down Trojan lords and barely even breaking a sweat. Patroklos comported himself well enough, but often found it necessary to do his own fighting beyond Achilles’s line of sight. Having the divine Achilles sweep in to protect you from taking a wound was gratifying on one level, and mortifying on another.

The Achaeans spent almost a full ten years failing to breach the walls of the city. Raids were made to the border towns, and the surrounding countryside. Much loot and honor was won in these raids, and the Achaeans were content for some time to continue sapping the countryside of its young men, young livestock, and life-sustaining crops. Near the end of these ten years, however, Agamemnon--the general in charge of the campaign--an arrogant, resentful man, took as his prize the daughter of a priest of Apollo. Being the stubborn ass that he was, he refused her father’s pleas for ransom, and so brought Apollo’s arrows, full of plague, down upon the Achaeans.

When he was finally convinced to ransom the girl back to her father, he demanded--despite the bounty of gifts the priest had paid to have her returned--another girl, a prize given to Achilles. Achilles did not care for the girl--he had set her to serve as a cook and a drudge, preferring to share his tent with Patroklos only. But Achilles and Agamemnon had been at each other’s throats since the beginning of the campaign--Agamemnon thought the younger man lacked piety and respect for his elders, and Achilles thought Agamemnon hubristic and unworthy of his position as the leader of the men. Agamemnon’s taking of Briseis was a literal theft of Achilles’s honor.

***

“You’re worse that Leonidas, Hephaistion,” Alexander interrupted. “I know this already. Lysimachos explained the honor of war prizes to me when I was eight if you recall.”
“Yes, I do recall,” Hephaistion replied, “As well as I recall your first response to Achilles’s decision to withdraw from battle over the loss of the girl. You thought it was stupid.”
“That’s because I didn’t understand that it was a matter of honor,” Alexander sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “What is your point?”
“My point, Alexander, is that there is honor, and then there is honor. Achilles earned his glory on the battlefield, with his exploits and his skill. That glory could not be taken him simply by seizing this one war-slave.”
“Honor is honor, Hephaistion. Honor earned by exploits and honor embodied in a war-slave. They’re the same word in Greek.”
“But not in Macedonian, and not in Persian,” Hephaistion countered. “You’re shedding Greek customs like snakes’ skin behind you as you advance East. And you cling to this one?”

Alexander’s eyes shot up to Hephaistion’s, for the first time since he had entered Alexander’s room that evening. Good. He was finally getting through. “Will you be silent, now, and listen to the end of my story?” Hephaistion pleaded. “I promise to stop playing the pedagogue. I know you know the Iliad by heart.”

Alexander smiled indulgently, softened by the flattery, and by Hephaistion’s acknowledgment of their shared love for Homer’s epic. “Continue, then.”

***

And so Achilles sulked in his tents, his heart curled and blackened by the dishonor Agamemnon had shown him. He prayed to his mother to come to his aid, and plead an intercession for him with Zeus. Zeus, for his part, turned the tide of the battle so that the Achaeans were out to sea. Without divine Achilles, they were lost.

Patroklos paced the floor of the tent, where he remained with Achilles, out of love for him. It was plain to see that he was not pleased by their inactivity, however, and when the wails and ululations traveled through the air and into the tent where they remained apart from the death and the fighting, Patroklos balled his hands up into fists and ground his teeth.

“How much of this will you make them endure?” he asked Achilles, as Diomedes prepared to battle Hektor. "At what point is it enough? If Agamemnon brought Briseis back to your tents this very night, would you reenter the battle?"

Achilles pondered this, smiling strangely up at Patroklos. “Is this not what you wanted, love? If I am not in battle, I cannot die before my time. Agamemnon has already had my honor taken from me, so why not die an old man, in your arms?” He reached for Patroklos, but he pulled away.

“No,” Patroklos stated simply. “No, this is not what I wanted. I wanted you to live as you are. The divine Achilles, striking down man and beast that would stand between him and the gates of Troy. Achilles, who wins the day for the Achaeans, over and over again. As long as you are that man, you cannot die. This? What you’re doing now? This dishonors you infinitely more than the loss of that girl ever could. To sit idly by while your compatriots die for lack of you? I’m disappointed, Achilles. This is not you.”

Achilles’s eyes flashed with anger. Those words, in any other mouth, would warrant a death sentence. As it was, he trembled with the strength it took to keep from attacking Patroklos right there in the tent. “How dare you say such things to me? Thetis has informed me further that my death fate is to die if I kill Hektor. And here I sit, not killing Hektor. I am fighting my fate. For you. And you call it dishonor?”

“Yes. Because you can fight other Trojans without killing Hektor. There are more than two choices, Achilles! I have been telling you so since we were boys, and yet you continue your hard-headed and hard-hearted ways of choosing all or none at all. I vow to you Achilles, if you do not reenter the battle this day, then I will. And I will do so wearing your armor, so as to give the Achaeans reason to rally once more.”

“Fine. Go. What do I care? My point has been made. The Achaeans suffer. You can rescue their chances now, if you like.”

Patroklos could feel his own death-fate now, like a shadow in the back of his mind, clouding up the corners of his eyes with black mist. “I tell you truly, Achilles, if I enter the field without you, you will die.” Patroklos snapped out of his last statement as if he had been possessed by an oracle. “Ah! Yes, it’s the only thing that makes sense. The puzzle pieces begin to fall into place.”

“What are you on about?” Achilles sneered, still angry at Patroklos’ accusations.

Patroklos turned to Achilles, light and understanding dawning in his eyes. “Your terms of honor are to stay in this tent and let the Achaeans miss your prowess. Mine are to leave this tent and fight beside them. I cannot hide here from the carnage and call myself an honorable man. You will die if you kill Hektor, but you believe if you stay in this tent you will live a long life without glory? But you already have glory enough for one hundred men. That path is no longer open to you.” Patroklos started pacing again. “So if we continue on this path, you will kill Hektor. What could possibly stir you from this tent and your black sulk to kill the man you know will lead to your death?”

Achilles was intent now on Patroklos’s words, all anger and resentment gone. Patroklos nodded, pleased by the effect his logic had had on Achilles’s soul. He’s never been much of a thinker, that man, but he recognizes logic when he hears it, thank the gods.

“If I leave this tent wearing your armor, Hektor will kill me. It’s the only explanation.”

“No. No, no, no, no!” Achilles started keening, startling Patroklos out of his reverie. “We are doomed, fortune’s fools. Oh, my Patroklos!” Achilles clutched at him, as if he were sliding down the wall of a ravine, and Patroklos were the only purchase.

“Achilles, no. Wait.” Patroklos held his lord and lover’s head in his hands, and forced his gaze up to meet his own. “Don’t you see? Now that we know that twisted fate, we can avoid it. And avoiding it is simple. Enter the field with me. Protect me as you have always done, and Hektor will not have a chance to kill me. Decline to kill him yourself, and neither of us has to die.”

“But...” Achilles struggled to understand. “Thetis said...”

“She doesn’t want you to die any more than you or I do. She was trying to avoid your death in battle by cutting you off from fighting at all, which clearly didn’t work, and never would have. But what if you can fight and still live? What if you can fight and win? What if we can both leave Troy, alive and intact, and return to Aegina with your victorious Myrmidons? Trust me. I think we can do this.” Patroklos kissed Achilles then, the kiss of a long-committed pairing, full of love and wisdom, and a promise of more later.

“But Patroklos, there is still the matter of Agamemnon’s dishonor done me.” Achilles protested. “I don’t think I can bring myself to fight for that man if his slight is not repaired.”

Patroklos grinned, a twinkle in his eye. “Just leave that part to me.”

***

“So Patroklos asks Odysseus to speak to Agamemnon, then, I take it?” Alexander interrupted again. “In this version, the mediation Phoenix attempts between Achilles and Agamemnon works?”

“As indeed it should have,” Hephaistion assented. “Seven unused tripods, ten talents of gold, twenty cauldrons, twelve horses, and seven women of Lesbos, in addition to the return of Briseis, should have been enough to placate any man’s wounded honor. Sulking further at that point was just hubris. It was enough.”

Alexander looked thoughtful. “And you think that Persia should be enough to placate me?”

Hephaistion sighed. “If you truly want to conquer all the known world, I will be right by your side until the last. You know this. But you love Persia and the Persians. Why not stay here and rule, instead of conquering more? Campaign here, and no further. Strengthen the borders. Quell the rebellions. Send home the most intractable of the Greeks, those who will never be able to see the Persians as anything but barbarians and slaves. Your attempts to integrate them have been thorough and thoughtful, but there are some who will never open their hearts and minds to this land and its people, and you may as well let them go. But if you stay, and I stay, and we raise our families here together--the next generation of Greek-influenced, Macedonian-trained, Persian-mannered leaders--well, what could we not accomplish? I’m thinking of the longterm legacy of the divine Alexander, my love. I don’t think it resides in India. Let Persia be enough.”

Alexander shook his head angrily. “It’s not up to me, Hephaistion. My fate was foretold at the beginning of the world. I must continue on this path.” His face softened a bit as he looked upon his beloved. “No matter what I truly want. Zeus told me so at Siwah.”

Hephaistion smiled sideways at his lover. “What if that wasn’t Zeus? What if that was your own mind, projecting its desire? And if that desire remains unchanged, so be it.” He took Alexander’s hand in his own again. “But if it is no longer what you want, you have the power to change course. Look at you! You have conquered so much. You have brought back the glory of Hellas, greater than Athens ever did. You have won every battle you have ever fought. How is it possible you could be defeated by fate? What is fate? It is nothing but air, a wisp of thought. You can blow it away from us with one breath. You are not Achilles. I am not Patroklos. Their end does not have to be our end. Let us retell their story, and make new choices for their sake, as well as our own. If any man has that power, you do.”

Alexander gazed out the window at the setting sun in the Persian sky. He remembered the original purpose to this campaign, and how he had achieved that so easily. The Greek colonies freed from the Persians, and then the conquest of Persia herself. He thought of the glory he had gained as the High King of the Persian Empire, and of the cruelties he had ended. He thought of Bagoas, and vowed again to put an end to the practices that had tortured him so. If he left Persia, he could not guarantee his changes would remain, his wishes obeyed. Was it enough? The emptiness gnawed the guts inside him, emptiness that only accomplishing the impossible had been able to fill. Accomplishing what his father could not. Was it enough?

He turned to Hephaistion, who was visibly holding his breath. Alexander softened, and put his arms around the other man. “It is enough.” He nuzzled Hephaistion’s ear as he murmured the words at last. “It is enough.”