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The Beginning of a Love Affair

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The Beginning of a Love Affair

With typical boundless energy Alexander had rousted Hephaistion from bed at crack of dawn eager to hunt, though what hunting was likely to be found so soon after the slaughter that Issus had turned into he would not like to predict. Surely any potential prey would have long since fled the area. But his protests availed him nothing; Alexander would have it there was good hunting to be found; and as he always had, Hephaistion followed where his friend led.

Boukephalos and Tachos kept pace with one another until they reached the mountains; there Boukephalos proved of surer foot. Hephaistion’s horse, larger and prettier, awarded as a part of the spoils of yesterday’s battle, was unused to rough terrain, and did not live up to his new name.

“He seemed fast yesterday,” Hephaistion said plaintively, when the gelding hesitated.

Ptolemy laughed, “All horses seem fast when fleeing the battlefield!”

Ptolemy pressed ahead; like Alexander he had retained his Macedonian mount, which stood him in good stead when following in tireless pursuit of the boar Alexander had, against all odds, rousted from the underbrush. Hephaistion and Philotas arrived in time to see Ptolemy thrust home the killing spear, to the congratulatory shouts of Alexander.

The visit to the wounded would be next, Hephaistion thought, as they made their way back to camp, carcass strung between Philotas’ horse and his own mount. Alexander never forgot those who bled for him. Hephaistion left his friend conferring with doctors over a soldier with a wounded shoulder, arguing anatomy learned from Aristotle.

At the edge of the soldiers’ tents a thriving market had sprung up overnight, catering now to the invading army where before they had sold to Darius’ soldiers. Loud argument attracted him; Hephaistion interceded before it degenerated into a fist fight, despatching the oily trader who had tried short changing a hoplite. Alexander never objected to profit; but cheating would not be tolerated from those who followed his camp. Hephaistion demanded order in the King’s name, then explored the stalls. They contained the usual trinkets, foodstuffs, and ale. Some were already displaying booty from the battlefield, traded by soldiers short of coin.

At the edge of the market one stall displayed carpets, brightly patterned in red, blue and yellow. The merchant bowed obsequiously as Hephaistion paused to finger them. A snap of the fingers and a young boy brought a stool for him to sit; another child served tea; and carpet after carpet was laid before him. What use he could have for such furnishings whilst on campaign, he was not sure. But then he remembered the sumptuous furnishings of the Royal tent he and Alexander had slept in the night before. These carpets were nothing like as luxurious as the ones Darius had used; he supposed officers – particularly newly appointed officers, perhaps raised in rank following some feat of valour on the battlefield, would have found this stall of benefit, buying the accoutrements of new status. He shook his head at the merchant; he had no use for carpets. As he rose from the stool, however, skeins of wool caught his eye: all the shades of the rainbow, and everything in between. Those his younger sister would like, he knew; and a parcel of fine wool would not be difficult to ship home to Macedon. After a few minutes haggling he left the stall, small bundle tucked under one arm.

Alexander was soaking in the bath when he re-entered the King’s tent. Hephaistion shooed out the attendant, taking over the task of pouring water over the golden head, and handing Alexander a towel when he rose. Hephaistion took his turn in the bath; it was only slightly dirty water, and after all, not the first time they had shared.

Over a simple meal of bread and cheese, Alexander speculated, “Stateira is said to be the most beautiful woman in Asia; and everyone says Darius is fine to look at. No doubt the daughters are beautiful too.”

Hephaistion looked quizzically at his friend. “Contemplating a dynastic marriage?”

“It might serve to pacify my enemies,” replied Alexander, “could I bring myself to marry cowardly stock.” He grimaced, “I wouldn’t want that in my son; breeding tells in the end.” He looked unusually sombre. “It’s a bad thing to have done: leaving them behind this way, however useful for us. It places them in an invidious position.”

The area of the camp reserved for the royal women was set off to one side and demarked by a small fence; heavily muscled eunuchs guarded its entrance. Alexander’s face was set as he approached. Wailing women were an inevitable consequence of war; but understandably not one a commander relished.

“You need not stay long,” offered Hephaistion quietly. “Some generals would not come at all; Parmenion could deal with them.”

“One has a duty to deal fairly with the victims of defeat,” Alexander replied, “and they are the royal family, after all, and due the respect of an audience with their new king.”

“Darius is bound to offer ransom for them quickly,” said Hephaistion.

“Mere money,” Alexander retorted grimly, “when an ounce of forethought and the guts to fight could have bought their freedom. Still –” he smiled broadly as he gestured to the waiting attendants to open the door to the women’s chamber, “we were fortunate he lacked both. The butcher’s bill would have been a lot higher!” Holding himself tall, he stepped forward.

Hephaistion’s first impression of the scene before them was of dignity and pride. Sisygambis stood as they entered, chin high, before calmly she began the proskynesis, facing, he realised in shock, him. They had entered at the same time; and, while neither was richly dressed, his tunic had a crimson border, while Alexander’s was entirely plain. It was an obvious mistake for someone unfamiliar with either man to make. But the eunuchs knew and their flustered anxiety tipped her off. Drawing a deep breath, Sisygambis realigned herself and dropped to her knees. Before she could complete the obeisance, however, Alexander stepped forward, and lifted her up.

“Never mind, Mother. You made no mistake; he too is Alexander.” He smiled at her confusion; and kissed her left cheek, before turning to Darius’ wife and children.

Stateira was indeed a beauty, Hephaistion thought, though the daughters less so. Both had darker hair than his little sisters; and he fancied both had brown eyes, while his sisters had green and blue respectively. But they looked very typical of girls their age. He spied a familiar looking frame beside one chair; no doubt they would be accomplished needlewomen. He stood slightly to one side watching Alexander as he made laborious conversation with the aid of interpreters, much longer than necessary for a courtesy visit. Something had caught his attention; the old Matriarch seemed also alert to it, doing her best to deflect Alexander’s interest from her daughter-in-law. Perhaps having seen her loveliness, he envisaged a dynastic marriage with the wife, not the daughters; no doubt she would be hoping for rescue before that could happen.

But after they left it was not Stateira of whom Alexander talked, but Sisygambis: her courage, and the courtesy and honour she had shown him, plus the way she had tried a few words of Greek to say goodbye as the visit came to a close, clearly carefully learned by rote from an interpreter in preparation for the audience.

Once again the Companions spent the evening in the Great King’s tent. Parmenion having declined to join them, young spirits felt unfettered; and the wine – not all of it decently watered – flowed freely. Helping a rather disinhibited Alexander to bed afterward, Hephaistion was somewhat disconcerted to find his response to a kiss included mumbled praise for, “wise old eyes far-seeing like an eagle’s”, followed by a snore. He gave up, pulled a cover over his dearest friend, and sought out Ptolemy instead.

“Where next, do you think?” Ptolemy asked. “Did he give any indication?”

Hephaistion shook his head.

“Not home, I think. He has the taste for conquest now; no matter we’ve freed the Greek cities. And Persia is an over-ripe melon, split open like this it will only rot.”

“Darius was last reported fleeing East as fast as his horse could take him,” replied Hephaistion. “Perhaps we’ll follow.”

“You think?” Ptolemy looked thoughtful as he passed over the wine jug. “My guess is he’ll consolidate the western empire first, and secure the ports and supply lines before heading after Darius. That man’s a coward; he’ll keep.”

He snaked one arm round Thais and pulled her close for a hearty kiss. “They say the best silks come from Damascus; if we head there I shall dress you fit for a prince, but keep you all to myself and become the envy of all!” He ogled his mistress, waggling eyebrows in a comic leer.

It was Hephaistion’s signal to leave. The night was clear and a bright moon lit his way back across the camp; a few pockets of soldiers stayed up drinking late but for the most part it was quiet. He nodded to guards on duty at the King’s pavilion; no challenge was offered as he entered. The detritus from the evening meal had been cleared from the outer chamber; he ducked under a silk hanging, pausing to look at the man sprawled on the golden bed. Hepahistion would follow wherever he led. He slipped off his clothes and slid in beside Alexander, pulling the shorter man into close embrace. He would have his back always.

Alexander displayed his usual boundless energy the next morning, calling sleepy heads early from their beds to pour over maps and debate strategy. A courier brought despatches from Antipater, and the usual letter from Olympias. She raised the inevitable grievance about “that man’s” interference in how she managed her ladies, and complained bitterly that Alexander was being “really very tardy in your dealings with the Persians.” Hephaistion’s eyes were sympathetic as he listened; but Alexander merely remarked that his mother would not yet have learned of his victory in battle and he must write her today; perhaps a small gift would be in order too.

“I found some rather nice wool in the market yesterday.” Hephaistion offered, “I meant it for my sister Helena; but perhaps Queen Olympias would like it instead.” He unwrapped the small package, revealing pretty rose and yellow skeins. Alexander’s eyes widened as he felt the soft strands with calloused fingers. A quick word saw the stall owner brought to the King’s tent, and a larger selection of fine wools was made, rich with magenta, violet, and purple hues, purview of royalty, in addition to various shades of blue ranging from pale sky to deepest indigo.

Once again Hephaistion accompanied Alexander to the area of the camp reserved for the royal women. This time they were received solely by Sisygambis, who looked genuinely pleased by the visit. Laboriously, through the interpreter, Alexander explained they would be moving south; and that he would like the women to accompany them. He phrased it almost as if he were asking her, rather than telling her. Very tactful, Hephaistion thought, no doubt a skill learned from dealings with his own mother. Sisygambis proffered her memory of one short visit to Sidon, years before, mentioning that city’s inhabitants’ uneasiness at Persian rule, obliquely showing her awareness of the reasons behind Alexander’s movement south. Their conversation rode the wave of good will until Alexander remembered the present he had brought. Sisygambis’ aged fingers needed help to untie the string; with swift flourish Alexander cut through the knot, and spread open the bundle of wool. Through the interpreter her polite acceptance sounded as effusive as ever, but Hephaistion noticed her face, previously animated, had stilled. This was not lost on Alexander either who asked to see the work in her frame. He, like Hephaistion, had noticed it in one corner of the room on their previous visit. Intricate embroidery in silk shot through with gold and silver was displayed.

She explained this was a favourite past-time of Stateira’s. “I, myself, have never had such skill.”

“Then the wools clearly were a poor choice of gift on my part,” Alexander said, apologising. “My own mother enjoys fine weaving, which is why I selected them; but of course people have different interests. Permit me to replace them with embroidery silks for Stateira and the girls.”

He looked at the eunuch who waited by the door. “You will see to this?”

Astonishment froze the slave’s face, though he quickly recovered, nodded hastily, and left as swiftly.

“And what does your little grandson Darius like?” Alexander enquired.

“He helps me to practice Senet,” Sisygambis explained, gesturing to table in front of her.

Two game boards were inlaid in ivory on the sandalwood top; she pulled open a drawer to show two sets of pawns.

“It was a gift from the Babylonian satrap a few years ago; I myself prefer Asseb.”

She pulled open another drawer with the markers and dice for that game.

Alexander’s eyes gleamed; he pulled over a chair to sit. “Teach me,” he commanded.

Hephaistion grinned as the rules were explained. It seemed made for Alexander: a combination of luck and strategy, racing to be first. He gestured to a slave who brought mint tea and honey cakes.

“I’ll check on the cavalry,” Hephaistion whispered in Alexander’s ear, “and tell Parmenion - you’ll be another hour?”

Alexander glanced up and nodded.

Hephaistion collected the discarded and forgotten wools on his way out. They would still do as a present for Olympias.