Storm of arrows
T he conqueror of Asia stalked into his tent and tossed his golden helmet at the armour stand by the camp bed. It hit the wooden post with a bronze clang. The servants froze.
‘Where the fuck are my recruits?’ he yelled. ‘Antipater promised me eight thousand new infantry. He sent three thousand Thracians and some mutinous Greeks! I want my Macedonians!’
Members of his staff followed him into the tent, led by Hephaestion. Hephaestion was not afraid of his royal master, certainly not his master’s temper tantrums, and his bronze-haired head was high. He was smiling.
Behind him, Eumenes and Callisthenes were more hesitant.
Alexander scratched his head with both hands, trying to get the sweat and the dirt out of his hair. ‘Don’t stand in the doorway like sheep. Come in or get the fuck out.’
Hephaestion handed him a cup of wine, poured another for himself. ‘Drink, friend,’ he said.
Alexander drank. ‘It’s not fair. If people would just do as they were told…’
Hephaestion raised an eyebrow, and they both laughed. Just like that.
Alexander swirled the wine in his cup and looked at Eumenes. ‘Did he say why?’
Eumenes — shorter, not godlike in any way — accepted a goblet from Hephaestion, who rarely served anyone but the Great King himself, and met his lord’s eyes. They were mismatched, blue and brown, the blue eye ringed in black and opened just a little too wide. Eumenes sometimes thought that his master was a god, and other times that he was mad. Either way, Eumenes, a brave man and veteran of a dozen hard fights, disliked meeting Alexander’s eyes.
Eumenes of Cardia was a Greek and not a Macedonian, which made the bearing of bad tidings all the harder. Men competed to bring Alexander good news. When the news was bad, men conspired to avoid being the goat. Eumenes, the foreigner, the smaller man, was the goat.
‘Lord,’ he said carefully, ‘would you like to read the letter, or shall I tell you what I think?’ In the right mood, Alexander craved straight talk. Eumenes lacked Hephaestion’s touch with his lord, but they had an emergency and he needed Alexander to act like a king.
‘Just tell me,’ Alexander shot back.
Eumenes looked at Hephaestion and received no sign at all. ‘Reading between the lines, I would say that Antipater sent an army to conquer the Euxine cities — and perhaps the Sakje tribes.’
‘Sakje?’ Alexander asked.
‘The Western Scyths,’ Callisthenes answered.
‘Amazons?’ Alexander asked.
Callisthenes snorted contemptuously. Alexander whirled on him. ‘Why are you here, sir?’ he asked.
Callisthenes raised an eyebrow. ‘Because you can’t tell the difference between a Scythian and an Amazon.’
Alexander seemed pleased with this remark. He flung himself on a couch. Hephaestion came and lay with him. Servants brought food and more wine.
‘So Antipater made a campaign against the Scythians,’ he said.
‘Not in person. He sent Zopryon.’
‘Shit for brains,’ Alexander said. ‘I assume he cocked it up?’
Eumenes nodded. ‘I think that’s where we lost our missing recruits.’
Alexander snorted. ‘They’re off chasing Amazons, eh?’
Eumenes shook his head. ‘No, lord. If I’m right, and my sources are firm on this point, all our recruits are dead.’
Alexander rolled off the couch and stood. ‘Zeus Ammon my father. Zopryon lost a whole taxeis?’
‘Zopryon lost a whole army, lord.’ Eumenes waited for the explosion. ‘And died himself.’
Alexander stood rigid by the couch. Hephaestion reached out and put a hand on his hip, but Alexander struck the hand away. Hephaestion frowned.
‘They almost defeated my father. Philip, my father. He was wounded — wounded badly.’ Alexander was speaking very softly.
Eumenes could remember it. He nodded. ‘Yes, lord.’
‘And Darius — these Sakje defeated Darius.’ Alexander’s face was immobile. He stood like a schoolboy reciting for his tutor.
Callisthenes shrugged. ‘Not so much defeated as avoided, if Herodotus is to be believed. They made Darius look like an ass, though.’
Alexander glared at him.
Callisthenes raised a shaggy eyebrow. ‘Of course, it took Athens to defeat Darius.’
Alexander’s face burned as the blood rushed to his cheeks. ‘Athens checked Darius. Sparta checked Xerxes. I conquered Asia. Macedon. Not Athens and not Sparta.’
The philosopher glared at Alexander, who met his look and held it. Long seconds passed. Then the philosopher shrugged again. ‘As you say,’ Callisthenes said, with a nod.
A tense silence filled the tent. Outside, the new recruits could be heard being shepherded to their quarters in the sprawling camp — a camp so big and so well built that men already called it a city.
Alexander sat on the couch again. ‘And Cyrus,’ he said, as if continuing an earlier conversation.
They all looked at him, until understanding dawned on Callisthenes. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, as you say, Alexander. Cyrus lost his life fighting the Massagetae. Well to the east of here.’
‘Massagetae?’ Alexander brightened. ‘Amazons?’
‘The Massagetae are the Eastern Scythians,’ Callisthenes said. ‘Their women do fight, and they sometimes have warrior queens. They pay tribute to the King of Kings. There are Massagetae serving with Bessus and with Spitamenes. The queen of the Massagetae is Zarina.’
Alexander raised his goblet in salute to Callisthenes. ‘You do know some useful things.’ He drank, staring out of the door of his tent.
Eumenes fidgeted after the silence stretched on too long. Callisthenes didn’t fidget. He watched Alexander.
Alexander ran his fingers through Hephaestion’s hair. Then he watched a Persian boy retrieve his helmet and polish it with a cloth before hanging it on the armour stand. Alexander gave the boy a smile.
Callisthenes continued to watch him.
‘Antipater has cost us more than a few thousand recruits,’ Alexander said some minutes later. He leaned back so that his golden curls mixed with Hephaestion’s longer hair. ‘Our own legend of invincibility is worth a pair of taxeis and five hundred Companions.’
‘You are invincible,’ Hephaestion said. From another man, it would have been fawning. From Hephaestion, it was a simple statement of fact.
Alexander allowed himself a small smile. ‘I cannot be everywhere,’ he said. He rolled off the couch again and motioned to the silent slave who waited at the foot of the bed. ‘Take my armour,’ he said.
The silent man opened his breastplate and put it on the armour stand. Alexander shrugged out of his tunic and stood naked, the marks of the armour clear on his all-too human flesh.
Naked, neither tall nor especially beautiful, Alexander picked up his wine, found it empty and held it out for a refill. Slaves tripped over themselves to correct the error.
Callisthenes laughed at their eagerness and their fear. Alexander smirked. ‘Persians make such good slaves,’ he said. He drank off the whole cup and held it out again, and the pantomime was repeated. Even the Cardian had to laugh. The slaves knew they were being made game of, and that made them more afraid. Wine was spilled, and more slaves appeared to clean it up.