Xanthus was restless. He stamped and shivered, his eyes showing the whites. It could not be the baggage camels, Hephaestion thought; Alexander had ordered them downwind of the main convoy at all times, though their guttural roars and snorting still upset the more skittish horses.
They were currently six days out from Lake Mareotis, where Alexander had left his engineers scouting for a suitable foundation site. The local Greeks had come begging for a viable commercial seaport, and Alexander had readily agreed. With the destruction of Tyre trade in the region was likely to take a hit, and Darius would not be moving towards battle back in Asia for months yet; there was time enough for the new pharaoh to concern himself with such things, to survey the realm that had opened so easily to him and to make its borders secure. That was the reason given for the current excursion, which had them travelling relatively light along the coast road, westwards from Lake Mareotis.
The sea was dazzling today in the spring sunlight, even seen through the dust that rose up beneath their feet as they marched. They were mostly following the Cyrenaeans’ lead now, the further they got from the delta. They had met them three days from Lake Mareotis, bringing gifts and offers of alliance to the new ruler of Egypt – and an invitation to visit their cities. Alexander, seeing this as a good omen of his expedition westwards, had jumped at the chance. There had even been talk of acquiring intelligence on distant Carthage; ever since the capture of their envoys at Tyre, Alexander had been fascinated by news of the colony city and its involvement in Sicily.
Hephaestion knew that Alexander had been bored in Memphis once the pomp had ended: the festivals and sacrifices, the visit to Saqqara where the Apis bulls were entombed. Alexander never did well with staying in one place for long; he had already journeyed briefly to the interior, sailing up the great river with a small company while the main army stayed back in Memphis – Hephaestion among them, stuck conversing with that insipid go-between of Demosthenes, nothing to sustain him but Alexander’s letters of Craterus’ hunting failures. But it looked like Athens would stay well out of whatever Agis was planning in Sparta, thank the gods. There has also been Hegelochus’ news of revolts in Alexander’s favour in the Aegean islands; it seemed like he was well on the way to winning the sea and, come late spring, he would head into Asia itself, searching for Darius.
A scout cantered past to the front of the troop and Xanthus tossed his head, startled. Hephaestion laid a steadying hand on his neck. Once they stopped to camp, he would take him out for a run, give him his head and let him tire himself out.
In the late afternoon, just as the moon was getting up behind them, they came to Amunia, an inconsequential fishing town on the coast, just as the Cyrenaeans had said.
An hour later camp had been struck and Hephaestion was alone, riding away from the sea, into the hinterland. It was not quite desert proper here but desolate enough, with bare scrubby bushes dotting the landscape, their shadows long in the westering sun. A moderate wind blew from the south, shifting the sand from the tops of the dunes, welcome after a long day on the road. Hephaestion rode into it. He pushed Xanthus hard, concentrating on their movement and Xanthus’ heavy breaths as he ran.
Eventually he was thinking of turning back, conscious of the oncoming dark – when the next moment they were engulfed in a battering hail of sand and wind. It came from every direction at once, so suddenly that they were caught mid stride. In the dim half-light he tried to rein Xanthus up, but the horse was frightened, kicking and rearing alternately. Hephaestion called out, hoping that his voice might soothe him, but the wind stole his voice and he ended up with a mouthful of gritty sand. He dismounted, to better calm the horse, but Xanthus reared again, frantic, yanking the reins from his hands, and disappeared into the reeling onslaught of sand. Hephaestion started after him, but Xanthus was gone, and he could barely see his own hand in front of his face; he could hear nothing but the roar of the wind. He covered himself with his cloak and crouched down to wait the storm out.
Then, just as abruptly as it had come, the storm was gone, whirling off westwards.
Hephaestion stood in the near-dark; the sun was well over the horizon now. He was alone. There was no sign of Xanthus. He called, but to no avail.
He started walking, back in the direction of the sea, or as near as he could guess it by the sun and the moon. The landscape looked the same in every direction, flat and deserted.
About an hour later, he still had not got to the sea. He must have set off the wrong way. The sun was gone now. The stars were covered by cloud. He stopped and swore. It had been foolish, to set off alone into the desert. He turned on the spot, hoping for inspiration. If only he had managed to keep hold of Xanthus. At least then he would not have been so utterly alone.
And then he noticed that there was a fire in the distance, away to the west. It was too small to be the camp, but there was no other sign of life in any direction, so Hephaestion made for it, trudging through the shifting sands.
When he finally reached it, there was an old man crouched by the fire, warming his hands. His head was bowed.
Hephaestion moved closer, right hand held out in greeting. He could try Greek. The man might be a trader; there were old links between the desert and the Greek colonies on the coast.
Before he could say anything, the old man had looked up and said, in perfect Greek, “Welcome.” His eyes were dark like obsidian, and bright. “Come, child, sit beside me and share my fire. The night is cold.”
Hephaestion remained standing, just outside the glare of the fire. “Greetings, old man. Which way is the sea?”
The old man did not move. “I say again, the night is cold. Will you not sit?”
It was getting colder. And what was this old man doing here, in the middle of the desert, alone? “I must find my horse and get back to my camp.”
Hephaestion crouched down opposite the old man and made to speak again, to make himself heard and get an answer, but then started back up to his feet in alarm – for, as he saw through the fire’s glimmer, he was not speaking to an old man at all. Instead, as if at once, the figure facing him was young and strong, not yet middle-aged, with a handsome face and delicately curled hair and beard. Its clothes were of finest embroidered cloth. Gold glittered at its ears and about its throat and wrists.
Its black eyes, though, were the same.
Hephaestion took a steadying step backwards, his hand falling to his sword.
The being held up its hands. “Peace. I shall not harm you.”
Hephaestion, heart beating high in his throat, stood as if dumbfounded. Was this some god?
The being laughed, as if it knew what he was thinking. “Sit, child. I wish to speak to you.”
Hephaestion hesitated on the edge of the fire. “Are you alone?” He shifted as if to scan the darkness surrounding them but did not take his eyes from the figure.
“Yes. As you are.”
Suspicion gnawed at him. “Where is my horse?”
“You will see your horse again. I have been waiting for you. Sit.”
The being watched him with those black, black eyes. Hephaestion had never been concerned about being looked at before, but this was different. He tried very hard not to shiver.
“Let us play a game. I will ask you some questions, and you can ask me the same number in reply.”
Hephaestion nodded assent, as if against his own will.
“You have come from the sea.”
This was not a question, but Hephaestion answered anyway. “Yes. We are making for Cyrene.”
“I know it well. But you will not go to Cyrene, not in this lifetime.”
Hephaestion’s heart began to beat fast again. This was clearly some god, some dream of a god. The being never blinked, he noticed.
“You have come from Greece?”
“That is very far.” The being laughed. “And what are you doing, Macedonian, in such a place? You are far from the sea.”
“I… I was riding my horse and then a sandstorm hit.”
The being nodded. “And you must get back to your camp. You are the leader of this band?”
“No, not me. Alexander is our king. He leads us. We have come up from Memphis. He is the pharaoh.”
“No doubt. I have seen over a hundred pharaohs, all told. They were god-kings while alive, but now their bones lie wrapped forever in perfumed bindings on the near bank of the great river. There are only their names left, wound about with magic and spells in the hope that they shall never be forgotten.”
The being was silent for a while. Then: “You know this Alexander well? He would listen, if you were to talk?”
“Yes.” Despite himself, Hephaestion felt a thrill of pride.
“Good. You may ask your questions, now, and I will answer.”
Hephaestion asked, before he could talk himself out of it: “What are you?” Are you some god?
The being did not answer at first and Hephaestion feared he had offended it. But eventually it spoke. “I apologise. There is no word for my people in your language.”
This time a shiver did crawl up Hephaestion’s back. “Your people. How many are you?”
“Numberless as the sands of the desert. We are creatures of smokeless fire” – it gestured to the fire, which indeed, Hephaestion noticed at once, did not smoke – “and desolate places.”
“Are they all… like you?”
“No. Some of us have wings and fly through the air as birds. Some take the form of serpents.”
“If I wish. But this is my preferred form. The one that stops for a rest then resumes its journey.”
“Do you mean me harm?”
“I have already said that I do not.”
A sudden sick dread seized Hephaestion. “Do you mean Alexander harm?”
The being smiled and the gold in its ears glinted in the light of the smokeless fire. “I have answered the questions you asked, as many as I asked you. But come, before you leave, take a message to your Alexander. Tell him this: he is not to go to Cyrene. He is to travel south for six days. Follow my people, when you see them; they will come as needed.”
Hephaestion frowned, heart thudding against his chest. “South? Into the desert?” When the being only stared back at him he said again, carefully, “You wish me to persuade him of this?”
The being inclined its head, still unblinking. “You will do as you will. I tell you only this: he must go alone, before the god. He will not be disappointed. Farewell, Macedonian.”
Between one blink and the next it was gone, the fire with it, and Hephaestion was left in the dark. He started to his feet again, but it was no use: he was completely alone.
The stars were out now, shining hard in the sky. Without the fire it was cold. Hephaestion pulled his cloak around him and wondered what to do. He almost jumped out of his skin when he was pushed from behind by something. He was halfway to drawing his sword when he realised it was Xanthus. The horse huffed in the night air and nuzzled him again.
Despite all that had happened, Hephaestion could hardly keep from laughing loud. “Xanthus! Am I glad to see you!” He looked none the worse for wear and let Hephaestion mount him, and immediately took off in a certain direction and refused to turn aside whenever Hephaestion tried.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, this turned out to be the way back to the camp. When Hephaestion saw the cookfires of the soldiers glimmering from afar he almost shouted aloud with joy, and kicked Xanthus to a gallop.
The guards at the entrance of Alexander’s tent were evidently surprised to see him so late, but he pushed past them. Alexander himself was getting ready for bed but dismissed the pages when he saw Hephaestion’s face.
“What is it?” he asked, once the pages had departed.
“I took Xanthus for a ride and got lost in the desert.”
Alexander smiled, no longer so concerned. “You found your way back, though.”
“I saw something. In the desert.”
“It must have been quite a something to get you so worked up” Alexander teased, reaching out his hands to stroke back Hephaestion’s tangled, sandswept hair.
Hephaestion pushed his hands away. “Alexander, I’m serious. I don’t know what it was, a god or some daimon, but it spoke to me. It gave me a message for you. I swear it, upon any gods you name.”
Suddenly solemn, Alexander looked at him. “What did it say?”
“It said not to go to Cyrene. It said that you should march south for six days, into the desert. Alexander, I think it means you to go to the oracle of Zeus.”
“The oracle of Zeus? It said so?” Alexander got up and began to pace the tent, as restless as Xanthus had been. The fire was throwing innumerable twisted shadows onto the canvas.
“It said that you were to go before the god, alone, and that you will not be disappointed.”
Alexander threw him another look. “The Cyrenaeans, they spoke to me of the oracle today, when we passed the turnoff on the road. And now this… I must go. I must go south.”
Hephaestion did not know what to say but took Alexander’s hand and drew him down to sit beside him, hoping that was enough, hoping that it might remain unsaid that he would go anywhere, anywhere at all with Alexander.
They sat on the bed, watching the flames, while Alexander began to talk excitedly about oracles and preparations for the journey. Hephaestion, remembering the smokeless fire, shivered despite the close heat of the tent and tried hard not to think on the thing he had seen in the desert. He wasn’t sure he trusted it; its intentions had not been altogether good – of that he was sure. But then the gods often spoke in strange ways. And what harm could it do, to visit the oracle? They had time enough yet, and it was not so great a detour. But that smile... He stroked Alexander’s bronzed hair and drew him closer, against the dark. It was a while yet until morning.