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Prophthasia

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A wind was just getting up, as it seemed to every afternoon in this valley. It tugged at the canvas of the tent, making it billow and swell. Hephaestion hoped that it wouldn’t last all night again; he had had to send the slaves out the night before to tighten the ropes. He could hear them beginning to creak now.

Then the flap was abruptly pushed back. A royal page stood there, half blocking out the light. “The king needs you.”

Hephaestion continued unbuckling his baldric. He had spent the morning training and had just returned for a change of clothes; the page was lucky to find him here. “Tell him I’ll be along soon.”

The page – one of the senior pages, Hephaestion noted now – stepped into the tent. “No. Strict orders: I am to bring you straight to him.”

They shared a look. The boy was terrified, Hephaestion saw. He grabbed his cloak and started for the entrance.

A hundred thoughts flitted through his mind as they crossed the camp. Some further trouble with Satibarzanes? News of Bessus, ahead? Word from Antipater, behind, of another Greek revolt? Or was Olympias ill? Dead, even? Was Alexander himself—? No, Hephaestion had seen him only yesterday – and someone would have sent for him – but these illnesses could come on so quickly, and then—

He felt suddenly sick.

The royal tent was bristling with armed guards. Through the crush Hephaestion noticed Philotas and some of his men, leaving; he tried to catch Philotas' eye, to gauge how bad it was, but he turned away. He saw a couple of the other bodyguards – Leonnatus, Peithon – turn to him but he ignored them, frantically shouldering his way through to the inner entrance – and there was Alexander, in the middle of a knot of royal pages, urgently discussing something.

Hephaestion was so relieved that for a moment he forgot that anything was wrong at all. He remembered when Alexander looked up and met his eyes. That look, it came straight from Aegae: the screaming crowds under the low autumn sun, Philip’s blood pooling thick on the theatre floor.

Something was very wrong indeed.

Alexander pointed to the chamber within. Hephaestion went. He heard Alexander behind him, speaking to the pages: “Admit no one. When the others arrive, keep them waiting.”

The door was fastened, and they were alone.

Hephaestion, still half relieved, wanted desperately to hold Alexander, to touch him at least, but there was a strange tension in the air that he didn’t dare break. They stood, facing each other.

Alexander broke it. “There was a plot. Is a plot.”

Terror, like ice water, cascaded down Hephaestion’s spine.

“Who?” he managed to ask.

“Some Companion. Dimnus. He didn’t get as far as making an attempt.”

Hephaestion swore. “You have him?”

“No. He killed himself, when the guards went to arrest him.”

“Then almighty Zeus himself only knows who else is involved.” Hephaestion clenched his fists. He wanted to pace. He wanted to run someone through. He had never felt more powerless.

Alexander moved towards him at last, took his hands. “No, I have a good idea. His lover’s brother, he found out about it all. He confessed, he gave names. Demetrius. Peucolaus, Nicanor. Several others of no consequence.” He named his would-be murderers lightly, emotionlessly, as if discussing who he had invited to dinner.

Hephaestion swore again. Demetrius was one of the seven, one of the bodyguard. How could he not have noticed? He was sworn to guard Alexander with his life, and now—

“I’ve had them all arrested. They are under guard. But Hephaestion, there’s something else—"

Alexander had that look on his face again. His composure, Hephaestion realised, was hanging by a thread. He gripped Alexander’s hands in his own.

“Tell me.”

“The brother, Cebalinus. He went to Philotas yesterday, to inform him. Philotas did nothing.”

Hephaestion frowned. “What?”

“He went to him again, today. And again, nothing.”

Hephaestion stared at him. Philotas knew? “Alexander, this is treason. You must arrest him.”

Alexander shook his head. “I asked him. I called him here and asked him. He said that he didn’t think there was a realistic threat. He didn’t believe it.”

Hephaestion was beyond swearing now. An image flashed through his mind: of Philotas at the entrance to the tent, leaving.

“I’ve called a council,” Alexander was saying.

“Damn the council, you must act. Call him back now and arrest him! Who knows where he’s going!” Hephaestion tore free of Alexander, gesturing back to the main tent. “I’ll go myself.” He moved to draw his sword.

Alexander seized him, to stop him. “No, not until after the council. Hephaestion, listen. I need the council. I must know. I must make sure of my position. Hephaestion! Think!”

It was hard to think past the blood pounding in his ears. Philotas had known and done nothing.

Alexander shook him. “Hephaestion. I cannot move against him until I am sure that I will be supported. We must be careful,” he hissed, eyes furious.

Hephaestion let go of the hilt and took a deep breath. “Alright. Alright.”

Alexander took Hephaestion’s face in his hands and pulled him down to his level. “We must be careful”, he said again, quietly, and brought their foreheads together. Hephaestion could feel Alexander’s breath calm against his cheek; he settled his own breathing to match. Think. They were in the middle of nowhere, with an army still half turned towards home, and Philotas not short of friends; meanwhile Parmenion and his troops were sitting in Ecbatana, right across their lines. They were on the edge of a knife.

Eventually Alexander pulled away and looked up at him. His eyes were clear now. “Everything must be done properly. We will go to the council and ask them. I need you, Hephaestion.” I need you to help me.

Solemnly, Hephaestion nodded.

***

In the outer tent, the hetairoi were gathered, some forty of them, shouting and jostling each other in the confusion and excitement.

Alexander raised a hand and they quietened. “Friends,” he announced, “a plot against my life has been uncovered.”

From beside Alexander, Hephaestion watched as they reacted, each seeming to vie with the next man in expressing their horror at the news. He watched them listen, as the plotter’s lover was brought forward and retold the tale, stammering in the presence of so many great men. He considered them, weighing each one in his mind, like Zeus with his golden scales. Who will stand with us?

At the revelation that Philotas had known, a hushed silence; at the news that he had been let free, shocked cries. Alexander’s eyes flicked sideways to his own, for a moment. Then he called for peace.

“You have heard the evidence. Now who will speak?”

Craterus stepped forward. An Orestian, one of Alexander’s men, a rising infantry commander, fresh from the campaign against the insurgents - and no friend to Philotas. Hephaestion had expected him to speak eventually, but this surprised him. He had supposed that one of the older men would speak first, as they were accustomed to; Cleitus, turning to Craterus with a black look, must have felt similarly.

But Craterus did not notice, or did not care. “I will speak plain. You should not have let him go. You should have called the council before speaking to him; I am certain that we would not have recommended this course.”

A low murmur of assent.

“But it is done. Now I must urge you to move. Alexander, your mercy was a kindness, but not one that he deserved. His action was treasonous; and he knows it. You could be dead, thanks to his inaction - if that is indeed his only crime. I spoke to you once, in Egypt, of what I had learned of this man. I beg of you, heed me now.”

“Alexander, Craterus is right!” a man cried from the corner of the room. “This is treason!”

Some muttering, but there were also nods of agreement.

Another man stepped forward. Ariston, an older man, one of Parmenion’s many lesser satellites. “But why did Philotas not speak up? What was his reason?”

Alexander answered. “He told me that he did not believe the accusation.”

“He was part of the plot himself, no doubt!” shouted someone from the group near the entrance.

Through the tumult, Craterus spoke, his voice pitched to carry. “If that is the case then he must be brought here and made to answer to it.”

Ariston gave a sharp laugh. “Made to answer? What, Parmenion’s own son?”

“Our king’s life is in danger, you old fool!” One of Craterus’ friends. “Look at our position! We must act!”

“I only caution—”

“Involved yourself, were you?”

Alexander cut across this. “Friends, we must remain calm. But I have heard you, Craterus. Coenus, what do you say?”

Everyone turned to look, suddenly quiet. Coenus, brother-in-law to Philotas, has not spoken yet. And still he was silent, as if measuring out his words. No one was in any doubt of what Alexander was asking him. Of how everything could turn on this.

“I say Craterus speaks wisely. Philotas is a traitor.”

Amid the uproar that followed, Hephaestion caught Alexander’s eye. This was so like a battle: the tension, the constant flux of it. And then the turning tide. The victory.

Hephaestion stepped forward, into the battle, raising his voice. “Craterus speaks wisely, and we must pray that Philotas has merely acted foolishly. But we cannot be certain. Alexander’s life could still be in danger.” It hung between them all, unspoken: the theatre at Aegae – the sudden flash, the screaming.

“He must be questioned!” cried someone.

Shouts of agreement, the cry taken up. Cleitus was nodding. But then, Ariston: “I say again, you would make Parmenion's son answer?”

Hephaestion turned to him, hot with anger. “I’d do it with my own hands if necessary, to save the king.”

The man stared at him scornfully. “Then you would have Parmenion to answer to, son of Amyntor.”

“Who’s to say that the general himself is not involved?” muttered someone, low.

Alexander quickly cut in again.

“Friends, I thank you for your counsel. I have made my decision. There are many questions – Philotas must answer to them. Return to your quarters; I don’t think that I need to remind you to remain silent about what has been spoken here.”

Hephaestion turned back, to look at Ariston and make sure he understood. The man looked half sick with fear. Yes, he was beginning to understand.

As the hetairoi filed out, Alexander called back certain men, Coenus among them. He was giving out orders to announce a march for the following day.

Craterus was standing by the entrance, alone.

“You spoke well,” Hephaestion said, walking up to him.

Craterus regarded him for a moment, then extended his hand. “You also.”

Hephaestion took it. “I said only what is true.”

“And I. I would have said the same of anyone accused of such a thing.”

Hephaestion doubted that very much; among certain men, Craterus’ views on Philotas were well known. But then – he hadn’t expected Craterus to speak first.

Alexander called them into the inner chamber.

“I have ordered a march announced, to cover us,” he said, speaking quick and certain. “We move against him tonight. I will send Atarrhias to arrest him. He will bring Philotas here, to my quarters. I want you here, the two of you. I must know who else is involved.”

With my own hands if necessary. Hephaestion nodded and felt Craterus beside him do the same.

Alexander turned to Craterus. “We meet here at the second watch, when the lights are out. I thank you.”

With Craterus gone, Alexander finally collapsed onto a chair. “It was done well.”

Hephaestion remained standing. He was still thrumming, the nerves of battle running riot. “Yes. But we are not clear yet. Must we wait for the second watch?”

“It is better, to let him think it has passed. To take him unguarded. And it gives us time to prepare. The cavalry has come over; I have ordered units stationed at every entrance to the camp.”

Of course; no word would come to Parmenion of what was about to happen. No opportunity.

“Come, sit,” Alexander said, reaching out a hand, drawing him down beside him. “I’ll call for food.”

Hephaestion gnawed at a nail. “We must find out who they wanted on the throne. The Lyncestian may be plotting from his cell.”

“I have changed his guard, and doubled it.” Alexander sighed, scrubbing a hand down his face. “I wonder, why has he done this? He has the Companion cavalry still.”

Alexander wasn’t referring to his namesake now. Hephaestion frowned. “He was ever proud.”

“Yes. But what have I done to him, to provoke him to this?”

This was unlike Alexander – to question himself, to blame himself.

“You have been good to him, Alexander,” Hephaestion said, entreated. “You have never slighted him, or his brothers.” And this is your repayment. “We have always known it could come to this, or something like. That family, they won’t go down easily. As soon as we left Parmenion back in Ecbatana, the die was cast. Nicanor’s death cannot have helped matters, he will have felt increasingly isolated.”

Nicanor, Parmenion’s other son, had died of a fever not a moon’s turn ago; Philotas had just returned to camp after taking care of his funeral rites. No doubt he had been passing letters to his father throughout, saying the gods only knew what…

Hephaestion turned to Alexander, made him look at him. “Do not pity him, Alexander. He is rude and arrogant. Overbearing. Few will miss him once he is gone. And Craterus had it right in Egypt – he has long been speaking against you in private, not caring who hears it.”

Alexander took Hephaestion’s hands in his. “No… I do not pity him. Only, it is strange… We were never close; I always knew that he was Amyntas’ man, of course, brought up with him” – Alexander’s cousin, now six years’ dead, a victim of the necessary purge after Philip’s murder – “but… I keep thinking on that time Philip brought him along, when he came to reprimand me, after the Carian fiasco. And he stood there throughout, while my father told me what a disappointment I was to him.”

He looked away for a moment, then back, and now his voice was low, angry. “He was looking at the floor, but he had a smile on his lips. I remember – I remember that I had never hated a man more.”

And Hephaestion embraced him, held him close as he trembled with long-forgotten rage – Alexander, his Alexander, who could not have lived to see the next day if it weren’t for the conscience of some frightened boy.

“Beloved,” he whispered, fierce, into the space between them. “We will do what must be done. All of it.” Philotas, Parmenion, the whole lot of them if need be. “I swear it, by Zeus-Ammon.”

Alexander’s breathing hitched. He curled his fingers up, into Hephaestion’s hair, and brought their foreheads together, relaxing into Hephaestion’s grasp. Hephaestion clung on even more tightly.

At last they pulled away, breathing calmed. Hephaestion rose. “You must eat, and sleep a little if you can. It is hours yet.”

Alexander looked up at him. “You will not eat?”

“No.”

“You go to see Craterus?” The lamps had burned short; in the half-light his eyes glittered.

“Yes. I will return, before the second watch.”

Beyond, the outer tent was still busy with guards and pages. Hephaestion passed through them and paused for a moment at the entrance, breathing deep of the open air.

***

Craterus had sent his men out and poured him wine; it sat at Hephaestion’s elbow, untouched. He needed a clear head for this.

They sat for a moment, considering each other, like two dogs meeting in a courtyard, wary, waiting to see which way the other would move.

But now was not the time for pleasantries. Hephaestion leaned forward.

“What do you want? From this?”

Craterus did not pause. “What we all want. Philotas must be brought down. His actions are unforgivable.”

“And Parmenion? He should be brought down too?”

“It is regrettable, but necessary. He will not forgive the death of his son. He must be dealt with.”

Hephaestion nodded. “But then the men may not forgive us the old man’s death, either.”

“Yes, he is well-regarded, but we all know that Parmenion’s star has long been in the descent. As you say, he is an old man – past his prime.”

“And you, the rising infantry commander. It is very convenient for you.”

“That is for the king to decide. But no, I will not lie and say that I will miss him. And I will not hesitate if called upon. The king needs loyal men about him. Too long has he had to bow to these families, these men of Philip. He needs his own men.”

“And you are Alexander’s man?”

Craterus watched him, carefully. “Always. I know what you must think of me – that I have jumped at the first opportunity to bring Philotas down, a man I have hated since Egypt, a man whose father stands in my way. Think this, if you wish. But I love the king; everything I have done has been for his advantage.”

“And your own, of course.”

Craterus smiled then, and took a drink. “Of course. I am not disinterested in all that this concerns. Is any one of us? Are you? What do you hope for, son of Amyntor, when the pieces have stopped moving, I wonder?”

“I hope, above all things, that Alexander does not ever have to fear a knife at his throat again.”

“Then we are in accord. I am no enemy to the king, Hephaestion, or to anyone who serves him. As to what comes next, as I say, it is for the king to decide.” Craterus tilted his head. “Have I passed your test?”

Hephaestion laughed, despite himself. Yes, he could work with this man. “You speak well, as I told you earlier.”

Craterus raised his cup in a toast. “Another thing that we have in common. You will stay for dinner?”

“No. I must return and change; the night grows cold.”

Craterus rose, took his hand. “It is this wind, I have never known the like. At the second watch, then.”

The wind outside was vicious now, screaming down the valley like the Furies themselves. Beneath it, the camp was quiet, waiting for tomorrow. But somewhere, Hephaestion knew, men were being gathered and told their orders, sworn to secrecy. Somewhere things were shifting - and soon, if the gods were good, everything would be remade.

In the west, the moon was beginning to set.