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Before Issus

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“Hephaestion. The king requests your presence.”

Hephaestion rolled over and blinked heavily. Above him, the royal page’s face was pale and drawn, his eyes huge in the flickering light of the torch. Hephaestion's boy stood behind him, half in shadow. He stifled a yawn. It could not be far past the night’s zenith. It was certainly nowhere near dawn. Hephaestion stumbled to his feet and reached, blindly, for his belt and cloak.

He caught the royal page by the shoulder as they were leaving the tent.

“What’s happening? Has he called an assembly of the generals?” A sudden change of plan, perhaps, following fresh information about the Persian position. There was something in the page’s twitchy silence that unnerved him, made him fear the worst.

The page looked at him sidelong and said, “No, he…”

Hephaestion knew, then. One of Alexander’s strange foul tempers. The page would not say it, but Hephaestion knew that Alexander had them all running scared. They were likely gathered in a skittish knot outside the royal tent, whispering feverishly of what to do – of what they dared to do – while he smouldered within, his eyes flashing fire.

“He sent everyone away. Then he asked for you.”

The page ducked quickly out of the tent. Hephaestion followed.

Outside, under a hard, glistening field of stars, the camp was eerily subdued. There were still quiet murmuring round the odd guttering campfire, but there was little laughter and no songs. Cold, on edge, aching from the forced march and still bedraggled from the previous day’s storm, most of the men were dozing fitfully rather than sleeping proper. Earlier their commanders may have cheered long at Alexander’s speech, calling on him to lead them to victory, but they were well aware that tomorrow was unlikely to be another Granicus – and not that the Granicus had been easy. Here they were outnumbered, surprised into an attack and facing not arguing local satraps hastily organised into a semi-coherent fighting force, but the King himself. The Great King of the Persians, like a figure out of myth: dripping with gold and stones and precious cloth, enthroned at Persepolis under a hundred pillars and a roof of carved Indian wood, above the stairway where the peoples of the earth came eternally in long procession bearing their gifts of supplication. The cookfires of the Persians, camp rumour said, gave truth to that line out of Homer – as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Small wonder, then, that on this stony hillside whipped about by biting winds, the men, far from home, thought on these things and shivered.

As he neared the royal tent Hephaestion watched Alexander’s silhouette, thrown onto the fabric, pace to and fro in the small ring of light thrown by a brazier. Tread carefully. He signed to the page for silence and then drew back the tent-flap.

In the tent the light was low and thick like honey, the shadows long and deep. With no one to tend to it the brazier was burning short and spitting slightly. A cloak lay, flung off, tangled and red, in a heap in the floor. Everything else was lost in gloom.

Alexander stopped and turned as they entered, his head tilted vaguely to the left. His gaze flicked sideways to the page.

“Leave us.” His voice was tense, but clear and strong as ever.

Hephaestion did not watch the page go; he kept his eyes fixed on Alexander. He was wearing only a chiton and his riding boots. His jaw was set, his hands in fists. His heavy gilded lion’s hair hung wild and loose about his face, backlit by the glow of the brazier so that he shone like some painting of Apollo as Phoebus. And his eyes – those deep-set, far-seeing eyes – were wide and pale.

A bitter wind whipped in under the canvas, causing the brazier to flare up and illuminate the rest of the tent for a few moments. The campaign desk was covered in old scrolls. Alexander saw him looking.

“It’s Homer.” As if it needed saying.

Then he was staring at some mid-point in the distance when all of a sudden he burst out: “It’s not death. I have never feared death. Even at the Granicus, when that axe came down on my head, I did not fear it. It’s not that. It is—”

He came forward and gripped Hephaestion by the forearms.

“Hephaestion. You know this.”

He knew. This was Alexander, who was so incensed by the Greek whisperings that he was nothing but an untried boy easily thrown off after the terror of his father that he arrived at the walls of Thebes within fourteen days; Alexander, who would never steal a victory; Alexander, who had taken his sword and cut through the Gordian knot all for the sake of a prophecy. His childhood hero-rivals lined up like a silent solemn procession on some time-long temple frieze: Achilles, Heracles, Dionysus – and, Hephaestion supposed, now forever enthroned as the thirteenth god in the theatre at Aegae, Philip himself.

Alexander’s eyes were hard on his. The shield from Troy glittered suddenly from a corner, caught by a stray spark.

Homer, Hephaestion thought. Ever to be the best, and to eclipse all other men. Alexander did not fear death. He feared mediocrity, a life lived without glory. Hephaestion had a sudden intense desire to gather him up, to hold him close and stroke at the thick bronzed hair as he had done to the boy in Pella years past.

Instead he said, in a low voice, “Achilles was goddess-born.”

Alexander gave a short shout of laughter in answer and dragged a hand through his hair. He broke away and resumed pacing. “I know it well. I have just returned from sacrifices to his goddess mother and her handmaidens. And to Night.”

“They will be good to you. You have always done well by the gods.”

Thoughts of fire flashed down from heaven hung between them, unspoken. Hephaestion did not know what, exactly, Olympias had said, what she had told him – or not. There were rumours enough, but rumour was not truth. She did not write of it in the letters; perhaps she had been sworn. He watched the back of Alexander’s head, red-gold in the low light. This was one of the mysteries of Alexander that he doubted he would ever know fully.

But this was Alexander, who would run only against kings. He was off in the shadows at the tent’s end again, pacing like a trapped lion. Hephaestion watched, helpless.

“Alexander.” It was half a plea.

Alexander’s head suddenly jerked back and Hephaestion saw the fierce, too-old eyes in the young face searching desperately for his own. He didn’t look the son of a god, then. He didn’t even look a king. He looked a frightened boy.

And then, somehow, Alexander was in his arms, drawn taut as an overstrung bow and alive and almost shaking, his fingers dug deep into Hephaestion’s shoulders. Hephaestion pulled him closer to steady him and stroked firmly at his hair and down his neck as if gentling a horse.

At this Alexander drew in a hissing breath, fisted his hands in Hephaestion’s cloak and gave him a kiss that started mild and ended rough. Hephaestion took him by the throat and forced his teeth open with his tongue. Alexander groaned and pushed against him in response, fingers clutching at his belt. They moved together, and Hephaestion somehow got his hand between Alexander’s thighs. Alexander gave a longing moan and clung on harder.

Hephaestion knew of old that Alexander did not like the lack of control that his desires drove him to. Above all he hated to be a slave to anything; months back, laid up in Tarsus with a high fever, his complaints and agitated sulking had been nothing short of maddening. Hephaestion smiled.

“Sometimes it is good to remember that you are mortal,” he breathed, and thought he heard Alexander sigh in return.

He bore Alexander backwards, down onto the floor, tumbling him in the furs and carpets. He resisted at first, even snarled and dug his nails in, but when Hephaestion had him pinned beneath him, both breathing deep and hot and close, he knew this was why Alexander had sent for him alone - because he was the only one allowed to do this – he was the only one who ever could. Beyond the hills, only miles away by the scouts’ reports, was camped the King of Kings, Lord of the Lands, with his scented eunuchs and his sacred milk-white horses, his bow and chariot of gold, his ten thousand Immortals with apple-ended spears and high felt hats. Hephaestion did not think of this. Instead he thought of cold frosted nights in Macedon when they could see their own breath and lay in the dark with one blanket between them, curled close, sharing confidences and touches. He bent his head down and Alexander’s mouth opened easily to his own, and then his thighs as well.

Alexander, become the boy from Pella once again, was twisted tight and hot against him, his breath coming in short pants. Hephaestion stroked his hands up and down Alexander’s sides, over the hard shuddering muscles and warm skin. They were shoved up next to each other, their legs tangled as one, both still half fighting for control. As they rocked and trembled together, Hephaestion watched Alexander’s eyes go cloudy and wandering and thought, with a poetic rush of lust and love, as he always thought at moments like this, he looks like some young god come down from Olympus itself.

“Hephaestion.” Alexander’s voice was low and rough, through clenched teeth. “Hephaestion...” He grasped wildly, despairingly, made a soft strangled sound, and then gave a sharp gasp as everything went blurred and quick both at once. As Alexander fell back, shaking and undone, Hephaestion gave a contended groan and slid a hand, wet with both their seed, up over his stomach. Alexander like this, at his moment of utmost weakness, was more divine to him than a thousand dead-eyed painted statues in a hundred temples.

It was quiet in the tent, the only sounds far-off muffled movement in the camp, the wind on the high hillside pass, the brazier sputtering its last light and their own steadying breathing. Hephaestion heard Alexander swallow, and then felt him roll closer. He kissed Hephaestion gently, softly. He was always like this, after.

They were pressed chest to chest now, Alexander’s face buried against Hephaestion’s throat. Hephaestion nosed into his hair, and sighed. Alexander was warm and heavy on top of him, smelling of woodsmoke, sweat and sweet perfume. He could feel the tickle of Alexander’s slowing breath, the hot throb of Alexander’s pulse and, above his own, the steady pounding thump of Alexander’s heart.

He remembered the sharp glare of the Ionian sun as they ran, garlanded, laughing and slicked with oil, around the high Trojan burial mound; and, before that, Alexander standing with shining eyes at the prow of the foremost ship, his hair whipped back by salt wind and spray before he put on the double-plumed helmet and claimed all Asia for his own with a single spear cast, leaping down onto the yellow yielding sand. Something surged deep within him and he whispered fiercely into the darkness, “My Achilles. You will surpass them all.”

Hephaestion felt fingers tighten suddenly on his shoulders. Alexander let out a slow, long-held breath. Then he murmured something in reply, smiled against Hephaestion's neck and curled a hand upwards, into his hair.