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Goddesses

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It was the time of evening when goddesses walked through the slanting sun under the trees, their gowns moulded against their slender limbs, their hair winnowing in the breeze. Their voices ran through the air like fresh water as Hephaestion walked through the long spring grass, the strong breeze ruffling through his hair like the goddesses' fingers.


He drew a breath and stopped under the shade of an oak tree, watching Alexander as he stood with his back to him out in the meadow. He looked young and vulnerable, his hands on his hips, his head bowed. His parents had been arguing again and he had been caught up in the middle of it, the reason and cause of their rows. At times they were like dogs scrapping over a bone, and there was not much flesh left on it after they had finished ripping it apart.


Hephaestion had heard a lot of it, waiting outside as the King had shouted at Olympias and Alexander had shouted back at him. Philip had eventually ordered him out of the room and he had stormed out, wounded and angry. Hephaestion had stepped forward, offering support, and Alexander had looked at him with anguish in his eyes and fury in the set of his mouth, and walked straight past him.


Hephaestion had hesitated, unsure if his friend wanted him. Then instinct told him to go, and he went after him. He could tell from the set of Alexander's back that he was in pain, torn between hurt and anger.


Alexander had eventually walked himself out and stopped, head bowed in defeat. Hephaestion did not know if he knew he was there, or whether he had simply expected Hephaestion to follow him. He girded his resolution and walked forward. He stopped several feet from Alexander and waited. Alexander must have known he was there, but did not turn straight away.


"Was she wrong to ask for the honour of taking my grandmother's name?" he asked, turning round, his face anguished. He talked rapidly, pouring his distress into Hephaestion's ear. "He has appointed me his regent. That is virtually saying I am his heir if something should happen and he does not return from Byzantium. She would be the mother of the king. Should she not have a royal title?"


"Perhaps he thinks it is a bad omen. Perhaps he thinks she is wishing him dead and you king."


"It is a name! He has honoured me, why can he not honour my mother too?"


"You know the rumours about his mother. She was a dangerous and powerful woman. She took lovers and may have murdered his brother."


"Why are you defending him?" Alexander asked angrily, his hair tossing in the bright light.


"I am not! I am just making you see that maybe he has a point. She will see it as licence to act as regent. She will undermine your authority." Hephaestion hadn't thought of that when he was listening to the argument. "But I doubt he is worried about that. He just doesn't like being told what he should do." He knew Philip had been affronted, but he didn't think Alexander realised that.


Alexander looked at him blackly, breathing quickly.


"He fears you and she will unite against him."


"How, when he has the army?"


Hephaestion shrugged. "He likes to set people against each other."


"He called me a bastard!" Alexander turned aside, an angry catch in his voice.


"You're not!" Hephaestion took a step closer. "You're not, I see him in you every day."


"Then why does she keep saying he is not my father? Why does she keep planting that seed in his mind?"


"To annoy him! And to keep control of you!" Hephaestion paused. "He knows you are his son. Anyone with eyes knows you are his son. He would not have appointed you regent if he thought you were not his son. And just now he didn't threaten to take it away from you!"


Alexander scuffed at the ground with his toe, his hands on his hips.


"Maybe," Hephaestion said. "Maybe she means that a god took Philip's form and lay with her."


Alexander looked sideways at him through his hair, fire and anger in his look. "You are so lucky," he said, "not to have your family tearing you apart every day."


Tears misted Hephaestion's eyes. He dropped his gaze so that Alexander should not see. "I miss them," he said softly. He did not see much of his family these days. Alexander was all he had.


Alexander heard the hurt in the air. He moved close to Hephaestion and gently laid his hand on Hephaestion's bare chest, his hand between his breasts.


"No," Hephaestion said, and stepped back, his eyes meeting Alexander's.


Alexander looked at him, the low sunlight making his eyes amber and dangerous. A tremor ran through Hephaestion at his friend's strangeness, but he held his ground, knowing how Alexander could insist on having his own way.


"Why not?"


"It's a consolation. It doesn't answer anything." Hephaestion knew he was right, although he could still feel the heat from Alexander's hand against his skin.


Emotions congested Alexander's face. He could explode or he could run away. He could strike Hephaestion or weep at him. Hephaestion watched the threatening storm in apprehension.


"Can you hear the goddesses singing?" he asked.


Alexander dashed the heel of his hand against his damp eyes. "What goddesses?"


"The goddesses of the evening who sprinkle peace and dreams. Listen. They will be gone soon and then it will be dark. Then there will be stillness and peace."


"Dream on," Alexander muttered, wiping at his eyes, but still he looked around, hoping to see the goddesses that Hephaestion could feel.


He looked around the meadow at the waving grass and the rustling trees. As the sun set, the breeze died, the trees became still, listening, and a solitary blackbird began singing, loud and bright, his own paean to the evening from the top of the oak tree. As the blue of the sky deepened, a solitary star appeared in the sapphire, like the glint of an angry god's eye.


Alexander began to sing at the star, his voice quiet at first, but gathering strength and courage as his clear voice filled the glade. His song was a war song, a song that filled men's hearts and chests, made them stand together, swelled with pride and brotherhood. Hephaestion stepped to his side and joined his voice to Alexander's, abandoning himself to the song.


Still singing, Alexander turned his head and flashed him a quick smile, then returned to address the star. Hephaeston slid his hand into Alexander's and squeezed tightly, singing as hard as he could. Their voices blended and rang out in pride and defiance at the gathering darkness.


At the end of the song, Alexander looked at Hephaestion with a quick, wry smile. "Could I at least have a hug?" he asked. "A hug wouldn't hurt, would it?"


Still catching his breath, Hephaestion laughed. "No, a hug never hurt no one," he said, gathering Alexander into his arms.