He needed to wash his hands. He needed to do something before he walked towards him and told him it was done and the words were out. He needed to control his breathing and his anger, his frustration and his blind fear.
Hephaestion kept thinking this again and again as he walked between tents, the light of the rising sun scorching his eyes and marking the start of a dry, cloudless day. His hands were bloody, figuratively and literally. Philotas had bitten him, Philotas had cursed all gods, Philotas had soiled himself… and Philotas had confessed. Hephaestion had wanted to kill him right there and then, with his own hands. He had wanted to crush every bone in his body, scoop his eyes out and made him eat them while he slowly plucked his toenails with scorching tongs. His blind rage had equaled that of Alexander, up to the point that Kleitus, hard-set violent veteran Kleitus, had shoved him aside and rudely told him to “go tell Alexander about the traitor before you become a traitor yourself by killing him without his leave”.
His once-white chiton stuck to his torso uncomfortably, dry blood mixing with the flesh blood he had managed to take out of Philotas before Kleitus dragged him away. Each step he took was accompanied by an acute pain in the chest. What if they had never learned of it? What if they had murdered Alexander?
He was close to the King’s tent now, approaching with every breath. Suddenly, he remembered Olympias. The last time he had seen her it had been in a deserted corridor in Pella. He always tried to avoid direct contact with her, let alone in a deserted corridor right after Alexander had finally announced that they were departing towards Asia. He had intended to walk past her, but she was the Mother Queen, so he had to do what anyone else would do. He had stopped right next to her and she had done the same, perhaps shocked as he was at this timely encounter. He had expected harsh words or murderous looks, but she had nodded to him without a word. It was his cue to nod back, whisper “My Queen” and walk away, so he had done that. Only when he walked past her did she mutter, more to herself than to him, a very quiet “Take care of him”. Hephaestion never knew if he had imagined it for he didn’t dare turn back.
Whenever treason was whispered in the vicinity of Alexander, he always thought of Olympias. He could still remember the complete, almost destructive anger Alexander had expressed when he learned that his own mother had pushed Caranus and Europa (his father’s offspring by Attalus’ niece, Eurydike) face-forward into a brazier until they stopped screaming. No one knew Alexander had crawled into his bed that night, weeping like a lost child in the face of complete desolation. He kept repeating, between short breaths that came between sobs, that Caranus was merely a baby and Europa was but a walking girl. Hephaestion had cradled him, remembering the little tricks her mother used to apply with her little sister when she wept, but Alexander had been disconsolate. A few hours before dawn Alexander had asked him to never leave him. He had consented, heartbroken at the plea of a boy who had recently lost his father to a plot that Hephaestion knew implicated Antipater, Olympias and Alexander himself.
A boy King with a longing to conquer everything and quench a longing he barely understood. The same boy who once, back at Mieza, had cornered him and asked him to confess that Olympias had paid him or threatened him into becoming his friend, telling him even how to conduct himself so Alexander would like him. The same boy who had confessed to him in Illyria, right after being exiled from his father’s court and stripped of his status as successor to the Kingdom of Macedonia, that if he ever had the chance to kill his father he would do it without second thoughts. The same boy King that, even now, entered into a silent nervous collapse every time a letter from his mother arrived.
Treason, sedition, factions, murder. Hephaestion was now before Alexander’s tent. Sometimes he wished he had never been chosen. Sometimes he wondered why he never became just another one of the Myrmidons.
He took a deep breath and walked into the Royal tent of the King of all Asia.
He was lying face down on the bed, Persian robe sprawled upon the purple bed covers that could feed the whole army for a week. His face was turned away from the tent’s opening and Hephaestion knew then, by simply observing him, that he had made up his mind.
Aristotle had once pointed out their synchronicity of souls by observing them reading each other's minds through their postures. It had been a game they had played before Aristotle even came into the Pella. They would sometimes, as Pages, would challenge each other to not speak for days and communicate only through bodily expressions and movements. Only after Aristotle had pointed out how skilled they were at it, they began to consider it a form of direct communication only they could use. It was a game they continued to play, inside and outside the privacy of their shared encounters. Some days, it was the only communication they were able to share between Council sessions and military duties.
But right now, Hephaestion wished he couldn’t read Alexander that easily. No matter how angry he was, this was a decision that would create gaps and echoes throughout Alexander’s Empire. And as he watched Alexander lying motionless, he felt a hole beginning to open in his gut. Philotas had to die, in front of the whole army, javelin spear to the heart. Parmenion had to be taken off the map as quickly as possible. Plots, counter-plots, artifice, duplicity. Alexander was lost in a world Hephaestion couldn’t penetrate completely. Olympias had made sure of that since he begot his one true leverage against the whole Macedonian court. She had whispered and coaxed his son to never forget how easy the tide could turn on him, and her by extension. Olympias had made sure she could never truly leave Alexander, even if he could leave her behind.
He was about to open his mouth to tell the news that his King already knew when he heard him whisper in a tired voice.
“Tell the guards to leave his posts and make a perimeter around the Royal Tent and to make sure no one, not even a Royal Bodyguard enters into that perimeter”.
Hephaestion knew when Alexander wanted the theater of privacy. It could only ever be theater, there was no privacy for a King. But still, he did what he was asked of. The moment he returned and let the tent flap fall behind him Alexander was upon him, eyes flashing with concern. He didn’t say a word, simply removed his bloodied chiton and inspected his body for injuries, letting his hands wander all over him desperately.
“It’s not my blood and you know it” he whispered, letting his hands find Alexander’s. When he finally got a hold of them, he found them trembling.
Alexander let him stop his fidgeting, eyes looking straight at his naked torso. Hephaestion couldn’t help thinking how ridiculous this must look. He was standing, stark naked in the middle of the Royal tent, some parts of his body covered with semi-dried blood and the King was before him in full Persian attire, almost doubled over in the midst of controlling his state of mind.
Hephaestion sighed and slowly let his hands leave Alexander’s, only to slowly move down his arms all the way to his shoulders in a slow caress. Hephaestion had learned early on to touch lightly when Alexander was in this state. When they were boys, Alexander usually came back white-faced and trembling from Olympias’ rooms, and occasionally from Philip’s council chamber. Back then, he would tremble all over, hands and feet tense, chest heaving in quick breaths, eyes downcast and unreachable. Hephaestion would lightly touch him and guide him to bed, laying down beside him and curling his body against his very slowly. Once, he had actually touched and guided a bit too roughly and Alexander had punched him hard in the throat, hard enough for his voice to leave him for a couple of days. Alexander had been miserable for a month afterwards, not letting Hephaestion near him for fear of losing his self-control and hurting him again. It had also taken very light touching in a different manner for Hephaestion to convince him otherwise.
Now in the middle of Drangiane, Hephaestion’s light touch worked exactly like it used to in Pella and Mieza. Alexander slowly let his whole body fall forwards, arms encircling Hephaestion and catching him in a dead-like grip. Hephaestion encircled him back, kissing the top of his head as Alexander hid it in the crook of his neck, sobbing quietly. All of Hephaestion’s rage flamed up from the pit of his stomach, making it way up his neck into his head. He was sure Alexander felt it, bubbling up inside him and consuming his insides. They had tried to murder him. They had conspired and whispered and procured poison and even “shared” the information with a General in hope of being stopped. And that General had done nothing. That General had maybe even provided the poison.
“I’m sorry you had to do… that ” whispered Alexander in a small voice choked with feeling, face still buried in Hephaestion’s neck. His shoulder was drenched with Alexander’s tears, and between his rage and thoughts of revenge, Hephaestion felt Alexander’s pain and devastation.
“I’m not sorry the bastard bled. I’m not sorry he screamed and pleaded. I’m only sorry I couldn’t make his pain last longer” said Hephaestion between gritted teeth, hands holding maybe a little too tightly to Alexander’s back. He relaxed his hands, wanting to comfort before anything else.
Abruptly, Alexander broke away from his embrace, took a step back and looked him straight in the eye. His gaze was focused now and Hephaestion realized with surprise, it was deadly cold.
“He will pay, Hephaestion. But you will not dishonor yourself by extracting revenge with your bare hands. I could not love you if you did.”
Silence overtook the tent as they stood, close but not close enough to hold each other. Alexander was still trembling, but Hephaestion wasn’t sure anymore if pain at Philotas’ betrayal was the reason. His eyes spoke of something greater, something beyond the mortal realm. There was a big blood stain on his left cheek, having smeared his face with it when he lay in the crook of Hephaestion’s neck. The startling red in his cheek and the low light of the braziers in the tent brought out the deepness of his grey eyes, shining steadily under furrowed brows. The stench of blood was too close at hand, Hephaestion’s discarded chiton barely a few paces from them. Those eyes and that smell suddenly made Hephaestion shiver.
Sometimes Alexander scared him. In his intensity, he could transform into something more than a mere mortal. In those moments, he could believe he really was son of Zeus-Ammon.
Suddenly, Alexander broke eye contact with him, turning on his heels and walking quickly towards a low table at the back of the tent, past the massive Royal bed. Hephaestion stood fixed to the spot, fear still coursing through his veins. He would never admit it to Alexander, but he knew that his devotion to the King came from fear. But his love to Alexander came from the overcoming of that fear, right in the middle point where intensity melted into sensitivity. He lived for those moments where all hardness lifted from his gaze, when his whole stance melted and softened for him. His fear could be as deep as his love, but his fear could never burn as brightly as his love could. He could torture and be tortured for Alexander, even if he could never torture of be tortured just for the King.
Alexander came back, his whole gait speaking of the same intensity he had shown before, only this time as he locked eyes with Hephaestion, he could only see the sensitivity behind it. This was Alexander again, mortal and in pain still.
He reached out his hand and took Hephaestion’s, extending it palm up next to his. Before Hephaestion could register the image of their palms side-by-side, Alexander let a dagger slice through them both in one clean sweep of the hand, opening a big wound across them. Hephaestion started back a little, taken by surprise by the deepness of the cut. Their hands began to bleed profusely.
Alexander clasped their palms together, looking intensely into Hephaestion’s eyes.
“Swear to me, on all you hold dear, that you will never dishonor yourself in my name to protect my pride. Swear to me now, right here, under the tent we both took from Darius that you will not let me dishonor myself in your name to protect your pride either.”
Hephaestion was taken aback for a couple of seconds. Alexander was looking straight into his eyes, and he was crying. Not the pained silent tears he had shed only minutes before, these were tears that spoke of glory and love. Hephaestion saw in them the same kind of tears he had shed when he promised him, back in Pella, that he would rather die than leave for Asia without him. They were the same tears he shed in exile in Illyria, when he promised Hephaestion he would become King one day if he promised to never leave his side.
“Swear to me, Hephaestion” Alexander continued, voice lower now. “Swear to me we will surpass Achilles and Patroclus. We will not let our rage drive us, we will not let our pride blind us. We will protect each other and go beyond that. We will fight for each other and conquer for each other. And we will never let any war prize or slighted pride come between us and our love. And we will not shed blood in the name of the other while we breathe next to each other. Only after death will we claim blood for the shade of the other…” he paused at this, gaze going slightly softer. “For the shade… for whomever death claims first.”
Hephaestion was speechless. He could feel Alexander’s warm blood seeping into his palm, their intermingled blood was spilling into the Persian rug under them, staining part of Alexander’s Royal Robe. As they stared into each other’s eyes, the sound of tortured screams came from across camp, seeping into the Royal Tent. Philotas was still conscious. And in the moment of clearness that came between the echoes of Philotas’ screams, Hephaestion understood Alexander’s words. All the love and the rage at the thought of losing him surged up inside Hephaestion. He could see in Alexander’s eyes the exact moment when those feelings came through his blood to rest inside Alexander, creeping into him between their intertwined palms and setting him on fire from the inside-out.
“For whomever death claims first” repeated Hephaestion, never breaking eye contact. “I swear”.