The sky above the dust was blue. In the distance, far out over the plain, mountains rose in purple and lavender, the most distant capped red by the setting sun. Up there, in the aether, all was peace. An eagle, best of omens, turned a lazy circle to his right. Closer, less auspicious birds circled.
Kineas felt that as long as he kept his attention on the realms of the heavens, he would be safe from his fear. The gods had always spoken to him — awake, in omens, and asleep, in rich dreams. He needed the gods today.
Noise and motion to his right distracted him and his eyes flicked down from the safety of the empty spaces to the banks of the Pinarus River, the flat plain, the scrub, the beach, the sea. And directly in front of him, separated only by the width of the river, waited thirty thousand Persian horsemen, their files so thick that they had raised a sand cloud, so deep that their rear ranks were visible over the cloud on the lower slopes of a distant hill across the Pinarus. His stomach clenched and rolled. He farted and grimaced in embarrassment.
Niceas, his hyperetes, gave a grunt that might have been a laugh. ‘Look out, Kineas,’ he said, pointing to the right. ‘It’s the boss.’
Horsemen, a troop of twenty or so, their cloaks flashing with gold ornament, their chargers heavy and magnificent, cantered along the plain toward the edge of the beach where the Allied Cavalry waited for their doom.
Only one was bareheaded, his blond curls as bright as the gold gorgon’s head that pinned his purple cloak, his horse covered in a leopard’s skin. He led them across the hard-packed sand to the General of the Left, Parmenio, just half a stade away. Parmenio shook his head and gestured at the hordes of Persian cavalry, and the blond curls shook with laughter. The blond shouted something lost on the wind and the Thessalians in Parmenio’s bodyguard roared and shouted his name — Alexander! Alexander! And then he cantered back along the beach until he reached the Allied Cavalry, six hundred horsemen all alone to the front of the left wing.
Despite himself, Kineas smiled as the blond rode towards him. Behind him, the men of the Allied Cavalry began to cheer, ‘Alexander! Alexander!’ It made no sense — few of them came from cities with any reason to love Alexander.
Alexander rode to the front right of the Allied Cavalry and raised his fist. They bellowed for him. He smiled, exhilarated, beamed at their approval. ‘There’s the Great King, men of Greece! and at the end of this day, we will be masters of Asia and he will be nothing! Remember Darius and Xerxes! Remember the temples of Athens! Now, Hellenes! Now for revenge!’
And he rode easily, his back straight, his purple cloak rippling in the breeze, every inch a king, cantering across the front of the cavalry, stopping to say this to one, that to another.
‘Kineas! Our Athenian!’ he called.
Kineas saluted, raising his heavy machaira across his breastplate.
Alexander paused, holding his horse with his knees, a horse that was a good two hands taller than Kineas’s and worth a hundred gold darics. He seemed to notice the great host of Persian cavalry for the first time. ‘So few Athenians with me today, Kineas. Be worthy of your city.’ He squared his shoulders and his horse sprang forward. As he crossed the front, the cheers began again, first the allied horse and then the Thessalians, and then along the plain to the phalanxes — Alexander. He stopped to talk again, motioned with his arms, his head thrown back in the laughter that every man in the army knew — Alexander — and then he was riding faster, releasing his white horse into a gallop with his escort streaming behind him like the cloak around his neck, and every man in the army was screaming it — Alexander.
Parmenio grunted dismissively and rode over. He motioned for the allied hipparch and his officers to join him. He, too, gestured at the mass of Persians. ‘Too deep, too packed together. Let them get to the edge of the stream, and charge. All we have to do is hold until the boy does the work.’
Kineas was younger than ‘the boy’, and he wasn’t sure that he would hold his food down, much less stop thousands of Medes from pouring over the plain then forcing their way into the flanks of the phalanx. He was excruciatingly conscious that he was here as a commander of a hundred horsemen because his father was very rich and very unpopular for his support of Alexander, and through no merits of his own. The Attican horsemen behind him included a number of his boyhood friends. He feared he was going to lead them to their deaths — Diodorus and Agis, Laertes and Graccus and Kleisthenes and Demetrios — all the boys who had played at being hippeis while their fathers made the laws and sold their cargos.
Parmenio’s voice snapped him back into the present. ‘You understand me, gentlemen?’ His Macedonian Greek grated even after a year of hearing it. ‘The instant they reach midstream, you hit them.’
Kineas rode back to the head of his squadron almost unable to control his horse. Anxiety and anticipation by turns wasted and intoxicated him. He wanted it to be now. He wanted it to be over.
Niceas spat as he rode up. ‘We’re being sacrificed,’ he said, fingering the cheap charm he wore around his neck. ‘The boy king doesn’t want to lose any of his precious Thessalians. And we’re just rotten Greeks, anyway.’
Kineas gestured at his troop slave to bring him water. He caught Diodorus’s eye and the tall, red-haired boy winked. He was not afraid — he looked like a young god. And beside him, Agis was singing an ode to Athena — he knew all the great poems by heart. Laertes tossed his throwing spear in the air and caught it with a flourish, making his mount shy, and Graccus smacked him in the side of the helmet to get his horse back in line.
The troop slave brought him water, and his hands shook as he drank it. Far away to the right, there were shouts — a long cheer and the sound of Greek voices singing the Paean. That could be either side. Plenty of Greeks over there. Probably more Athenians with the Great King than with Alexander. Kineas looked to his front, tried to put his mind back in the aether, but the Macedonian phalanxes were moving to his right, shaking the ground, more a disturbance to be felt than anything he could see through the haze of dust they raised with their first steps.
The battle haze. The Poet spoke of it, and now Kineas could see it. It was terrifying and grand at the same time. And it rose to heaven like a sacrifice or a funeral pyre.
But he couldn’t get his mind above the dust and into the blue.
He was right there on the beach, and the Persians were coming. And despite the shaking of his hands, his mind followed the actions of the battle. He could see the Macedonion taxeis in the centre moving through their clouds of dust. He could hear the shouts as the king moved the companions forward, and he felt the battle through all his senses as it flowed up the distant ridge. And the crash came as the centre engaged, the Great King’s Greeks standing like a wall against Macedon’s pikes.
The Persians to Kineas’s front took their time. Kineas was able to watch the phalanx roll into the riverbed and struggle to cross the gravel and climb the bank on the other side, time to watch the Greeks and the Persian infantry meet them at the top of the bank and stop them cold, dead men falling back down the steep banks to trip the men in the next rank as they climbed. Cheers on the wind from farther to the right.
‘Eyes front,’ said Niceas. He kissed his charm.
Just a stade ahead of him, a single Persian rider trotted into the stream and began to pick his way across. He waved and shouted and the mass of Perisan cavalry moved slowly down the shallow bank and into the Pinarus River.
Phillip Kontos, the Macedonian noble who commanded the Allied Cavalry, raised a hand in the air. Kineas’s whole body gave a great shake and his horse shied a step, and then another, his tension communicated to the beast through his knees. He’d faced Persian cavalry just once before. He knew they could ride better than most Greeks and that their horses were larger and fiercer. He prayed to Athena.
Niceas started to sing the Paean. In five words, every man in the front rank had caught it up, the volume of sound swelling and spreading like flame in an autumn field, a fire of song that sent sparks shooting across to the Thessalians behind them. The Persian cavalry was at midstream, a solid front of horsemen.