In the training at home with the eighteen-foot sarissa, a file had to be perfectly aligned front-to-back. Otherwise the formation would be tripping over its own feet. This was called advancing “on the axis.” The warrior virtue of being “on the axis” meant being sharp, obedient, never deviating. A good soldier was on the axis in everything he did.

Out east, we begin to see, there is no axis. The eighteen-foot sarissa has become the nine-foot half-pike; the phalanx exists on the parade ground only. Only two precepts remain: one, sacrifice everything in the cause of the main effort, and, two, never leave another Mack behind.

“Warfare out east,” our poet-sergeant Stephanos instructs us, “is of three types. In the plains, cavalry action. Against strongholds, siege warfare. In the mountains, mobile infantry.”

The fourth type of action was against villages. Our instructors didn’t tell us about that.


Our force of replacements is supposed to march out from Tripolis three days after we land, but we wind up stuck there for twenty-two more. Waiting for the cavalry’s horses and our own arms. This is no joke, as our bunch still hasn’t been paid (no one has), and what little shine we have left is not enough to live on. We wind up stealing like Spartans. Everyone does. The escort troops will not let us into the city, so we scrounge, scavenge, pilfer, trade, and wager. Somehow it works. I wind up with most of my kit refurbished-and a decent pair of boots to replace the ones ruined in the sea. And Lucas and I connect with a pair of Companion cavalrymen rotating home to Apollonia, who know both my brothers and have news of them.

Elias has been wounded but is well; he is in hospital now at Phrada in southern Afghanistan. Philip (Elias is nine years older than I, Philip fourteen) has been promoted to Major. He is in India now, as an envoy with Forward Operations, negotiating alliances with the native potentates in advance of Alexander’s army’s push over the Hindu Kush into the Punjab. Such place names sound impossibly romantic to me. My brothers! What illustrious fellows! How will I live up to their achievements? Will I even recognize them when I see them?

The Companion cavalry, in which both my brothers serve, is the elite arm of Alexander’s fighting corps. To be accepted into a squadron is to be made for life. A man becomes in fact the king’s companion. He may dine with him, carouse with him, address him as “Alexander” (though, it is true, few dare.) The phalanx brigades share the name Companions (petzhetairoi, “Foot Companions”). But it’s not the same thing, as the king is a cavalryman and his closest mates are horsemen too.

In theory, each squadron of Companions is composed only of riders from its home district-Apollonia, Bottiaea, Torone, Methone, Olynthus, Amphipolis, and Anthemos being the squadrons taken by Alexander to Asia. (There are eight other squadrons, from other parts of Macedonia, but these remained home to garrison Greece and the tribal north.) But in practice, outstanding riders come from all over the kingdom seeking a berth. I have known men to marry or get themselves adopted into a local family, just to have a shot in the tryouts.

The trials take place over four days. The first two are compulsory exercises; the third is cross-country; the fourth is combat. A rider must show up with a string of seven horses. He is required to use no fewer than four during the ring work (to show he is not cheating by riding a smart animal), and one of those four must serve as his mount in either the steeplechase or the fighting tests. A good cavalry mount takes ten years to train and costs as much as a small farm. Only a rich man’s son can try, unless he is sponsored, as my brothers were, by another rich man, or if he has a father who has been decorated by the king.

Both my brothers were grooms as lads and rode as jockeys in the hippodrome. I cannot tell you how many nights they came home with cracked skulls and busted shins. Nothing could stop them. In the trials at Apollonia, when Elias was only ten, he slipped into the paddock while the horses were being saddled and leapt aboard not one but two champions, placing a foot on each bare back while clasping the reins of one horse in his left hand and the other in his right; he not only rode off at top speed without so much as a watch-my-kit, but jumped the horses over both walls, in and out, all the while standing on the horses’ backs as if he were nailed to them. The thrashing he received as punishment nearly carried him off, but it was worth it; he had made his name. He and Philip, five years older, could touch down off a horse’s back at the all-out and spring back aboard, yoked only by a wrist through the animal’s mane; they could “wrap around” (swing under a horse’s belly and back up the other side). It was nothing to either of them to dice a pear with the long lance one-handed at the stretching run, and their knowledge of veterinary medicine and what we call horsemastership (everything inside the barn) was the equal of any physician in the kingdom. Yet both failed to qualify, not once but four times-that’s how many superlative riders the realm held-before finally getting sent out in the expedition’s second year with four thousand reinforcements under Amyntas Andromenes. They crossed by sea to Gaza in Palestine and joined the king’s army in Egypt.

Our own belated contingent moves out from Tripolis, now, on the twenty-third day. The season is high summer. Every surface of armor must have a woven cover; otherwise the sun will turn it into a skillet. At home we have trained to march thirty miles a day with full kit and rations. Trekking now across Syria, fifteen miles feels like forty, and twenty like a hundred. The sun squats on our shoulders; we breathe dust instead of air. Our tongues are lolling like dogs’ on the tramp to Marathus.

I fall in beside Flag. He can see I’m suffering. “The Afghan,” he says, “will make fifty miles a day afoot and a hundred on horseback. He doesn’t drink and he doesn’t eat. Hack off his head and he’ll take two more swipes at you before he goes down.”

Reveille is three hours before dawn; march-out beats the sun by two. Lead elements of the column are in camp by midafternoon, with the stragglers and baggage train catching up by dark. An hour before noon a halt is called and the asses and mules are off-loaded; the beasts can go six to eight hours, but they have to get the weight off for two, otherwise they break down. No such luck for us. We get twenty minutes, then pack ’em up! At one stop on the third day, Lucas moves off to make water. Flag looks on, disapproving. “You shouldn’t have a drop in you.” If you can still draw piss, he says, you’re not trekking hard enough.

We have our weapons now. When we make camp early, we train. Cordon operations. Block and search. We have never heard of such things. High-lining. Sweep by flying columns. These are all new to us.

On treks over great distances, the day’s march is planned to take us from one inhabited area to another-a city or town that has been tasked to supply bread and fodder, or at least provide a market for the army. Now on selected days, for training, the column begins bypassing these. We chop from nowhere to nowhere, throw up a “hasty camp,” a circular ditch-and-berm, spiked with palisade stakes. No wheat-bread in these. We dine on “mooch”-barley gruel, whipped up out of our meal bags, which every man packs (holding ten days’ grain ration) and seasoned with whatever cresses we can scrounge and the odd pullet or goose liberated from a barnyard. Breakfast is wine, olive oil, and “hurry bread” (groats soaked overnight and half-baked on flat stones from the watch fire or directly over the flame on “paddles,” the iron flat-plates of the catapults). The feed we all dread is “scratch,” millet porridge, but even this is preferable to “cicada’s lunch,” meaning no grub at all. Tollo and Stephanos build in one starve-day in seven, to lean out our guts and get us used to what’s coming.

Flag has adopted me, after his fashion, or I should say I have fastened onto him like a barnacle. At Marathus an incident occurs. We have gotten paid finally. To celebrate, my mates and I hunt up a local shop for a barbering; when we get back to camp, we can’t find our purse. Lucas keeps this with him at all times; it holds our pooled stash. Now it’s gone. This is serious. No pay is coming until next month, and we can’t stand another siege of starvation. I go to Flag, tell him the last place we’d had our wallet is at the barber’s.

“Show me,” he says.

He enlists Tollo and a Mack corporal called Little Red. The barber’s dwelling and shop are the same, a mud- brick hut with a shade canopy out front and a cooking kitchen on the side. It’s suppertime; the wife won’t open the gate. She’s a snippy bitch and dishes out a smart dose of sauce.

Flag kicks the slats in. The shops in town all lie in the market district, a choleric rat-run called the Terik, “pigeon.” In moments every stall-keeper in the lane has collected, all gibbering in their tongue and ordering us to screw off. The barber’s shack is thick with urchins and grandfolks, with three or four brothers or cousins, young men, all armed and on their feet in a state of outrage. Flag is packing his hook, a wicked weapon used for unhorsing cavalry, with a short-sword on a shoulder sling; Tollo and Red wear their blades; Lucas and I do too but, God help us, we have no intention of using them. Flag makes straight for the barber. By signs and pidgin, he lets him know

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