The palaistra in the Palace is a great rectangular courtyard surrounded by two storeys of pure white marble columns. The ground is not flagstone but plain earth, since that’s what a man most often fights on, worn almost barren of grass by hundreds of feet. There are two trees with scars all over their trunks. The men and boys train here, in sacred nakedness; armoured fighting and big maneuvers they practice out in the field north of the city.
I’m seven and the men are all talking about going off to take Olynthos and drive the Athenians out of Chalkidike. They keep saying a name, “Demosthenes,” and spitting. I gather he’s Athenian, an orator, who speaks against my father and us all the time.
I’m too young to go onto the ground, but I can lurk among the columns to watch. When the men come and go, they tousle my hair with their big weapon-callused hands. I can get away with more when the boys of eight to eleven are practicing. Since before I can remember, I’ve been going nearest the smallest ones and imitating them, using sticks I find in the grove of Zeus for my sword. Start kneeling with my right knee up and foot planted, right elbow on the knee, left knee down but toes curled under, ready to spring up, left arm hanging straight down ready to pick up my sword, which is lying on the earth to my left. Spring up, pick it up under the guard with my left hand, then grab it by the grip with my right, and “draw.” Or the various blows: stab at face, stab at guts, cut for neck, cut for thigh. Then same with a longer cornel-wood stick for a spear.
One day there’s a new boy, tall and lanky and Thessalian-looking, with brown hair in tight pin-curls and big ears that stick out. He’s keeping his eyes straight ahead as if there’s an enemy there while he practices the move, the way you’re supposed to, not looking at your sword on the ground as if you don’t know where it is. I creep up behind the column nearest him and wait until he’s just put it down, knowing I have to grab it clean; no way I’ll win a tug-of-war with him, since he’s a head taller than me.
I grab it and run, giggles bursting out of me. “Wha... hey, hey!” My plan was to hide behind one of the columns too quick for him to know which, but he’s too fast. “You! Little brat! Come back with that!” His accent is Thessalian, sure enough. He’s right behind me, and gaining on his long legs. I weave through the columns like a grape-vine until I know I have him expecting that, and jump him by going all the way around one instead of onto the next. I stick out the sword, and he runs into the end belly-first. “Ow!”
“Ha! You’re dead! Say you are!”
“Fine, I’m dead, you little sneak—give me that! Who do you think you are, being here with big boys?”
“Alexander!” I hand it to him, hilt-first as the students do. “Who’re you?”
His scowl eases. He has dark eyes and a wide, strong chin. “Hephaistion.”
“’Tion,” I say, as if we’re best friends. It seems right.
“Son of Amyntor,” he adds into the silence. That’s a southern version of the name Amyntas, it sounds like. He thinks I’m too young to know that I should give my father’s name too, I find out later. I just figure everyone in the world knows it. “I... I’ll see you later.” He turns to run back to the class.
I hang around until they’re done and spot him coming out. Now he’s awkward, all formal, calling me “Prince.” Someone’s told him whose son I am. I can tell he’s not used to having so many people around him, all of whom know and are friends with each other, especially royalty. He must be from a part of Thessaly that’s out in the country, the plains where they raise their horses, and people have the same few people around them all their lives.
“Don’t call me prince, just call me Alexander,” I tell him. “You’re my friend.” I invite him up to my room, but he says his mother’s expecting him at home. “I’ll come visit you, then,” I say.
I introduce him to everyone we run into on the way to the Palace gate. He grows redder and redder as he has to say over and over, “Hephaistion son of Amyntor, Hephaistion son of Amyntor.” As we get closer to the gate, he says amazed, “You know so many people, how do you remember all their names?”
“I’ve always known them. Where are you from?”
“We were up in the highlands north of here,” he says. “But we really come from Thessalia, from a little north of Larissa. The land is flat there, like here. My dad is a horse warrior and we moved here because he gets paid better as a Makednian and we will still get some money even if he gets killed, thanks to King Philip.”
“Every name I know, there’s lots of them, five or ten or sometimes even more,” I say. “There’s nine other Alexanders in the Palace and I have two uncle Alexanders, one living and one dead—he was Alexander II which is why I’m Alexander III. But I’ve never heard of a single other Hephaistion. Why’re you called that?”
“It’s a prayer. I was born with one foot turned inward. My father didn’t want to leave me on the hill, so they named me as part of their offering to Hephaistos. Because He’s lame Himself. It worked, too, that and their offering to Asklepios. Else I couldn’t be a warrior.”
We saunter up to the gate and almost get away, but sharp-eyed Menesthes Lanikos’s is on guard duty. “A-LEX-ander Philip’s! Have you forgotten your father’s orders? You’re not allowed out of the Palace without a grown-up.”
Hephaistion won’t qualify, I see right away. “So come with me, Menesthes!” I say. “Then I’ve got one. Or two, if you both want to come.”
“You know we can’t do that,” he says. “Or even one of us—that’s leaving our post! At least without permission.”
“Then get permission!” Why do grown-ups make these things so complicated? They stare down at me for a bit, look at each other then back at me, then Menesthes goes off inside, and comes back after what seems like forever with two other guards. Off Hephaistion and I go onto the road down into the city with our escort on either side towering over us. He gets a look that’s a mix of bewilderment and a happy realization of what having me for a friend means.
“What’s your dad?” I ask him as we go.
“Ilarch… that means he commands two hundred horse warriors. He doesn’t have land though. He only just got promoted. We’re sure we’ll get some somehow… I mean, the King will give my dad some for winning somewhere. But he gets to keep his horses in the royal stable and I get my war-training. When I’m fourteen, I’ll get to be one of the King’s—your dad’s—Royal Boys, if I’m lucky.”
I have a twinge of a not-good feeling about that, but don’t understand it well enough to say anything, especially when he so wants it. We get to the first crossroads in the houses of Pella, and stop. “Where’s your house?” I ask him. He sort of jumps. He’s forgotten he’s the only one who knows the way there.
It’s in what he tells me is the horse warriors’ quarter, northwest of the agora, far away from where the men like Parmenion and Attalos and Antipater, rich enough to wear purple and have guards of their own, keep big houses. It’s a little house in a row like all the others, made of grey stone with a roof of red half-pipe tile, the shutters and door-frame painted with simple red and blue patterns. The door is open, and a delicious sweet baking smell wafts out. “Mama, I’m home! And there’s someone I want you to meet!”
Hephaistion’s mother has a broad, plain, warm face, with the same wide chin he has. She wears a long pale blue chiton with only a narrow embroidered border and no gold thread, her wavy black hair tied back in a plain tail with a white ribbon. Her hands are little white, like those of the cooks in the kitchen when they’ve slapped the flour off their hands but haven’t washed them in water yet to get it all off. Her eyes go wide and blink as she sees two Palace guards in her front room. From behind her chiton-skirts, a tiny curly head peeks out, and then another a bit lower, with less hair, their big brown eyes huge showing white all around the brown as they see the guards’ polished-to-gleaming bronze greaves.
Hephaistion reaches up for his hug and she leans down to give it to him, and then he says, “Mama, meet my friend, Alexander son of Philip the King.”
Her eyes look a little scared for a moment, but she does a big smile anyway and says, “Welcome, Alexander!” and holds out her arms to hug me too. Up close, she smells of barley and honey and a trace of sweat. Hephaistion hugs the two little ones. She pulls me in just as she pulled him in, her big arms wrapping warmly all around me like a blanket, her breasts and belly pressing softly against me.
It’s a hug like I’ve never felt before in my life. It’s as if the whole world is in her arms somehow, enwrapping me all around, making everything go still. All over my skin, spreading out from her touch, I feel a kind of peace that seems somehow ancient, as if I knew it a long time ago but have forgotten. It’s like the feeling of the dreams I sometimes have, of wandering through a field full of flowers, or riding Pegasos over green land and blue sea, his wings still like a gliding gull’s, the places where there are no worries at all in the world, not a single one, where you can’t even think of worries. I feel something inside like a hooking and pulling in my heart, and the warmth behind my eyes of tears that also feel like long, long ago.
I don’t understand, but I want her never to let go of me for all eternity. She does, though, straightening up away from me and saying “Beer, gentlemen? Thinned perhaps? Would you care to sit, or may you?” I’m not allowed to cling to her; I’m too old, I’m not her son. I swallow the tears and make the smile stay on my face, while the feelings ring echoing through me.
Everything in here from the earthen floor up is simple and straightforward; the leg of a chair or the handle of a spoon is just a smooth-wrought stick, unadorned; a pot is just a plain pot with perhaps a zig-zag line or two at most, no glazed athletes or warriors striving. The guards take one cup each but stay standing, since they’re on duty. “Goat’s milk, boys?” We take the cups. “The honey-cakes are nearly done, and then all may have one.”
The two little ones come out from behind her, the older wearing a tiny chiton, the younger just a diaper, both with big bright-eyed smiles. “My little sisters, Timona and Kleandra,” Hephaistion says. “Tima, can you say ‘Alexander?’ How about you, Klea?”
“A-lessa-der,” the older one says, with grave formality, then holds out her arms for a hug. “A-we-sa-deh,” the younger one, barely more than a baby, says in exactly the same tone, and holds out hers, too. They both attach themselves to me at once, and I think, I should hug like their mother, and try to make it as much like that as I can. But they’re gone almost as fast as I can get one arm around each, Kleandra squealing “Mama! Ho’ey-cay!” Their mother just laughs, and hands them out.
Our hands and faces are soon all sticky and crumb-adorned, and Hephaistion and I laugh at each other’s milk-moustaches. It’s all so peaceful here, like in a story. His mother’s hug, I see, is at the centre of it, like a brazier that keeps a whole house warm.
We hear the step of a horse-boot on the sill. Hephaistion’s father is home, geared up, his helmet under his arm. He’s surprised to find two Palace guards in his greatroom, too, but he takes his blades and cuirass off and gives me a hug along with all his kids. Except for his muscles making his arms and chest hard, his hug is just the same as hers. I feel the all-ness and peace of it again, the hooking inside, the slight urging for tears. I try to soak it into myself like a sponge so it’ll still be there when he lets go.
Once we’ve had our fill of honey-cakes, Hephaistion and I go to his room to play. It’s so tiny, it’s barely big enough to hold his bed, which is made of plain posts and planks. He has only a few toys, and they’re crudely-carven and painted by someone who’s not an artist. I’m going to fix that, I think. “Once my sisters are too big to sleep with my mama, my Dad’ll built a bed on top of mine for them… or maybe have it made, since he’s an ilarch now,” he says. “But for now it’s all mine. And, right now, yours.”
“Mine’s bigger and I have lots of beautiful things… I’ll show you tomorrow after war-training. You have to be careful you don’t sit on any snakes; they’re my mother’s but they like to come into my room too. Where you were born, could you see Mount Olympos?”
“Yes. I never saw a God though, I think because its peak is always covered in cloud. It was a long time ago, so I was really little, and it’s a bit like a dream. We moved to the highlands here and I had friends, but now I’m lonely, because my sisters are too little.”
“Me too,” I said. “My big brother is slow in the head, my big sister too busy because she has to learn fighting as well as women’s things, and my little sister is like your littlest, still a baby. There are other boys in the Palace but none of them are like you. We can be like brothers, except better, because brothers sometimes plot against each other for their father’s stuff. You’re going to get your dad’s stuff, and I’m going to get mine, so we can just like each other.”
“All right.” He smiles his wide smile, and we throw our arms around each other.
He hugs like his parents do. Smaller, but with the same spirit. Well, how else would he?
I have to make myself let go. I want him near me always... I don’t want to go home to the Palace without him. I tell myself I’ll see him again tomorrow, and that my life has changed. I skip back between the two guards.
I lie on my bed and think about it, their touch still echoing burning-warm on my skin. My father’s hug is tight-chested and hard-armed and half there because he’s always busy thinking about important things. My mother’s arms are always a little cold, like snakeskin, and I have to be hard myself in case she somehow draws something out of me, because her eyes are always calculating, wanting something. Lanike’s hug is closest, but it’s always held back some because she knows I belong to my mother, not her. Everyone else is careful, as if their arms are whispering “son of the King” or “it’s not proper to hug you except formally.”
I wonder how Father Zeus hugs. My mother says she knows His embrace. It must be like Hephaistion and his parents, I think, but much bigger, because He’s a God.
With him for a best friend and them for my best friend’s parents, I feel like everything has been deepened and opened up somehow, that I’ve been given another whole world, in the possibilities of love there now are. I feel full in a way I didn’t know I was empty, and set free, like in the Pegasos dream. It’s so good I see I must thank the Gods. They must have led me to him; that’s why I called him “’Tion.” I throw two double-handfuls of incense on my mother’s fire that night, one for Aphrodite, and one for Father Zeus, and fall asleep sweetly, imagining being with Hephaistion again tomorrow, and feeling such arms all around me.