Hydaspes, 326 BC
“There is nothing more that can be done,” Philip of Acarnania, the royal physician, remarks to my kyrios¹ and philos² as I grimace on the battlefield. “It is a matter of time.”
Kyrios looks at me with pain and remarks, “He has been such a loyal companion. Credit for my triumphs goes as much to him as me. What will I do without dear Bucephalus?”
“It is a conspiracy,” I neigh. My cries are taken as sounds of pain by kyrios, his companions and echthroies³ alike, rather than the warning it was. Language is a barrier that no human-animal bond, no matter how strong, can overcome.
The ground has been prepared for Alexander the Great, the king of Macedon, my kyrios, to fall. I am but the first pawn in this treacherous gambit.
The day before, I had sustained severe bruises in the battle of Hydaspes, but they were not fatal. Having accompanied kyrios in the nineteen battles he has fought in the last eighteen years, I am no stranger to wounds.
But Philip served me poison in place of medication. My end is near.
I have lived an eventful life and don’t fear death. It is kyrios I am worried about. How do I warn him about the treachery and betrayal? How do I ensure that he does not encounter a fate similar to mine?
For the first time in my thirty years, I wish I was born human, and not a horse.
Pella, 345 BC
“The one who rides Bucephalus, the magnificent horse with the ox-head mark on his haunch, will be king of the world,” Philonicus, the trader from Thessaly, proudly declared to Philip II, the king of Macedon.
I winced and wanted to vanish from the royal playfield. The walk from Thessaly to Pella in the scorching sun had enervated me. But Philonicus wasn’t bothered.
I had no love lost for Philonicus. He and his companions had bred and trained me on his estate in Thessaly for their own selfish interests, without caring for me. Philonicus was a wealthy but greedy miser. I wished for Macedon’s king to acquire me from him so that I could escape afar from Thessaly, but Philonicus left no stone unturned to make my desire formidable.
“Thirteen talents4 is too high a sum that you are asking for this wild wall-eyed5 creature with a massive head,” Philip’s voice boomed from the pedestal. I stood with Philonicus on the ground beneath.
The king continued, “Ten of my best horse riders have failed to mount him. Of what use is this beast to me when he cannot be tamed?”
“Those riders were astos 6, not of royal blood. They are not meant to ride Bucephalus.”
“Do you mean to say that I should mount this horse myself?” Philip raged.
“I would like to try, pater7,” a voice remarked from Philip’s right. I raised my eyes to look at the orator.
He was a young boy, about ten or eleven, with short stature, fair complexion and ruddy cheeks. Even from a distance, I could see the shine in his wide-set eyes and his determined face.
“You think you will succeed where brave warriors twice your age have failed, dear Alexander?” Philip asked.
The prince nodded his head.
“I would not like the royal blood of the Argead dynasty to fail,” Philip forewarned in a sombre voice.
“I will not lower the glory of the crown, pater. In case I fail to mount this horse, I will give you the thirteen talents that this trader asks for, and will abide by any punishment you deem fit.”
After a few seconds’ pause, the king waved his hand towards Philonicus and me. The young prince climbed down from the pedestal and ambled towards us, his eyes steady on me.
The prince first patted my back, then my mane, in a reassuring way. No human had touched me with such tenderness before.
“You are such a brave, eye-pleasing horse,” he whispered. His soothing voice calmed my jarred nerves. “You need not worry, my philos,” he continued. “Trust me. I will protect you.”
‘I trust you,’ I neighed.
The prince held my reins and steered me towards a direction where the sun blazed in all glory. I could have followed him anywhere on earth, and beyond, at that moment. Gradually, I could no longer see the dark silhouette on the ground that had scared me to death. Dropping his fluttering purple cloak, the prince patted my haunch and jumped off the ground in a flash. The next instant, he was on my back. I neighed my contentment.
The prince rode me towards the king, who looked on with wonder and pride.
“Bucephalus was afraid of his shadow. I relieved him of the distress,” he remarked aloud. “Is he mine to keep now?”
The king climbed down his throne and walked towards us as the prince dismounted. I could see the tears in Philip’s eyes as he kissed his son and remarked, “O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedon is too little for thee.”
Alexander III of Macedon was my kyrios from that day. I vowed that only death will do us part.
Mieza, 341 BC
“See what our didaskalos8 has given me,” kyrios called out to his companions, a voluminous papyrus in hand. Ptolemy, Hephaestion and Cassander, who were taking turns to ride me, paused their activities. We were on the grounds outside the temple of Nymphs which served as Aristotle’s classroom for the royals and nobles of Macedon.
“This is Iliad,” remarked the handsome Hephaestion, my kyrios’ closest companion.
“An interpreted specimen, gifted by didaskalos to me. This shall forever be special. I will carry it where ever I go,” kyrios expressed.
“Can I also see it?” Hephaestion asked.
Ptolemy and Cassander had lost interest in the interchange and attempted to mount me again. I was in no disposition to oblige, more interested in the dialogue between kyrios and Hephaestion.
Kyrios was a gregarious and charismatic gentleman, having many a philos, but I comprehended Hephaestion to be his closest companion. The two spent hours discussing medicine, philosophy, morals, religion, logic, art and emotions in the sun and under the stars, with me in tow. I am the only beholder to the two holding hands during some of these interchanges.
“Of course,” kyrios replied. “I am cognisant you are as enamoured of Homer as me.”
“You two are one soul abiding in two bodies.” The voice from the back made all the nobles turn back and bow reverentially. I also lifted my hindlegs to convey my respect. Aristotle, my master’s didaskalos, had a magnificent aura.
“You, my mathites9, are destined for greatness,” Aristotle patted kyrios’ pate. “ And you, Hephaestion, will be by his side while he charts his glorious destiny. In eras to come, Alexander will be known as much for his philia10 with Hephaestion as for his military acumen in battles.”
Kyrios and Hephaestion exchanged a smile. It was one of the innumerable instances where I felt left out amid the two.
My kyrios cared for me like a philos; however, I was no rival to Hephaestion. No one was.
Aegae, 336 BC
“This is no time to mourn or rejoice, beloved king of Macedon,” Hephaestion remarked to kyrios. The two traipsed hand in hand under the stars with me as their companion. Earlier that day, Philip II had been assassinated by the chief of his somatophylakes11. The perpetrator was killed pronto by the somatophylakes of my kyrios, including Hephaestion.
My kyrios is the King of Macedon at the age of twenty. Hephaestion, working with the other nobles, had not an insignificant role in the outcome.
“What makes you say so, dear Hephaestion?”
“Athens, Thessaly and Thebes, are preparing to declare sovereignty with your pater’s death. We can’t let the rebellion simmer for long. You need to embark on the expansion of the empire your pater has established.
“You are correct. Consign someone to talk to the chief of the tribes in these states.”
“Dear king, don’t make the same mistake as your pater. Diplomacy shall not bore any fruit in this situation; you need to use the military here.”
“Use the military against my own rank and file?” I heard a hesitant tinge in kyrios’ words.
“Your rank will combat you if you do not. Even your kith and kin have no love lost with you. Your half-brothers Amyntas IV and Arrhidaeus, the three Macedonian princes, your half-sister Cleopatra Eurydice as well as your sister Europa-all have eyes set on the crown and need to be exterminated. Queen-mater12 Olympia is in agreement with me on this.”
Kyrios stopped in his tracks, and I collided with him.
“This appears to be too much bloodshed, Hephaestion,” he sighed. “Is all this required?”
“You have more foes than philoi13,my king. If you don’t destroy them, they will obliterate you.”
“You must be right if you say so. The crown sits on my head for not even a day, and I appear to have echtroies all around. I don’t know whom to trust besides you, mater Olympia and dear Bucephalus.”
I preened at being included in the august company.
“The three of us are adequate, my king. Don’t let your emotions enfeeble you. Greatness is yours for the taking. Focus on strategies to battle, and let me worry about the machinations of the wicked few in the kingdom.”
“I require you in the battlefield, too, with me, Hephaestion.”
“I shall be, where ever you need me.”
Hephaestion pressed kyrios’ hand. Kyrios kissed his upper palm.
I have no doubt that kyrios is destined for preeminence. I am unequivocally sure that Hephaestion will have a prominent role in shaping kyrios’ destiny.
334 BC, Troy
“How much more time?” kyrios asked the four pages who worked furiously on the tomb of Achilles.
“We are giving our best,” one of them remarked.
Kyrios glanced at Hephaestion, standing a few feet beside to the right.
Hephaestion nodded reassuringly. The tomb of Patroclus, Achilles’ beloved, had been excavated a few minutes before.
“We have stuck,” a page called out. A few minutes later, Achilles exhumed body came into view for all to see.
I could not comprehend what was so special about a dead body, no matter how great the living person may have been. A person’s deeds go with him once he departs the mortal world. But those living are invariably obsessed with the deceased.
Kyrios and Hephaestion came near the tombs, a garland each in hand.
Hephaestion asked kyrios, “Are you sure you want me to garland the tomb of Patroclus?”
“Yes, dear Hephaestion. Due to norms and mores, I cannot give you the status you deserve. I am aware that soon the burden of producing an heir for my kingdom would fall on me, and I would be compelled to marry a royal maiden. Prior to that, I want to seal our special relationship. What I cannot declare in the present, I will leave for posterity to fathom.”
That was the first time I saw tears in Hephaestion’s eyes.
Then, in what appeared a perfect symphony, kyrios encircled and garlanded the tomb of Achilles while Hephaestion did the same to the adjoining tomb of Patroclus. The two then shed their robes, as was customary, and ran a race naked to honour their dead heroes.
My first instinct was to follow them. I never leave the side of my kyrios when he is outside the palace. But something held me back in this instance. The two required their private space.
330 BC, Persepolis
“How dare you plot against the life of our king?” Hephaestion raged at Philotas, the commander of the companion cavalry. The commander of the somatophylakes, who was also wedded to one of kyrios’ queens, pounded the traitor’s chest even as Craterus and Coenus kept him pinned to the ground. Kyrios watched from a distance.
Philotas did not appear to flinch the slightest. I swelled with pride at my association with the soil of Macedon that produced such brave warriors with impunity.
“We Greeks invade and enslave other races,” Philotas shouted, “ and not mingle with them. Why should elements of Persian dress be imposed upon me? Why should I follow the abhorrent custom of proskynesis 14? I don’t want my children to lose out on positions in the infantry to some Persian nobleman. Our kingdom needs a king concerned about the welfare of his own subjects, not that of people from another land.”
Hephaestion slammed his wrists into Philotas’s face with full force. Philotas remained defiant.
“I am not the only one wanting to destroy Alexander. You may annihilate me, but the cause will continue until our mission is accomplished.”
Hephaestion pulled out a spear from his robe and pierced Philotas’s stomach. I had never seen so much blood come out of the form of a single person. Not even on the battlefields. And I had fought all of the kyrios’ battles- right from the campaign of Chaeronea when he was a prince to the blitzkrieg of the Persian Gate a few days ago.
There is not one of these thirteen battles where my kyrios hasn’t annihilated his opponents. And he will not lose one till he has me, Buchepalus, as his chariot.
“Shouldn’t you have asked him who the other traitors are?” kyrios asked Hephaestion as Philotas breathed his last.
“He would not have disclosed, my king. He comes from the same land as you and I,” Hephaestion proclaimed.
“Callisthenes should be the next one to be executed,” Coenus remarked after a pause.
“My historian?” I could make out the surprise in kyrios’ expression as he came forward and stood beside me. “It is true that I am unhappy with the less than flattering accounts he has penned of my Balkan and Persian conquests. But does that make him a traitor?”
“He attempts to ruin your legacy, in more ways than one. Coenus is correct; he has to go,” Hephaestion remarked. “Though that will further displease Aristotle, our didaskalos and Callisthenes’ great uncle. He has been feeling left out of the kingdom’s matters since you sieged Pelium, and is particularly displeased of having to correspond to you through me.”
“Let him remain displeased,” kyrios enunciated. “I am doubtful of a lot of his teachings. Why, his view of the terrain of the Achaemenid Empire was all incorrect! After the Granicus battle, I discarded the map drawn by him. Probably he is one of the foes Philotas was alluding to. I will deal with him.”
“You will need a historian after Callisthenes,” Hephaestion remarked. “I suggest that you give the title to Plutarch, the philosopher who writes far more than there are people that read his works. He will be happy to write history the way you want it to be written.”
“What a wonderful proposition, Hephaestion. I will instruct Plutarch to address me as Alexander the Great in his works.” Kyrios’ eyes shone. “I hereby appoint you as the joint commander of the Companion cavalry, with Cleitus. How I would like to remove Cleitus from the role. But he has been there from pater’s time, and I need him to rein the old guard in the military.”
“I am grateful, my king,” Hephaestion remarked. “Be rest assured that no misfortune will befall you until I exist on earth.”
Kyrios did not utter a word. No words were required.
326 BC, Aornos
I tried to sleep without success. The brilliant moon that lit the path to the royal stable distracted my mind.
The day ahead was going to be a long one. Kyrios was to embark to Hydaspes to battle Porus. I was aware that he held Porus in high esteem and hoped to befriend him for his future ambitions.
A silhouette on the empty path caught my eye. Then came another. The profiles moved, and I almost neighed in astonishment as Cleitus and Aristotle came into view.
What was Cleitus doing at the royal stable at this late hour? What was Aristotle doing at Aornos at all?
I edged to the stable door, determined to hear the interchange.
“My army is fatigued with the constant battles and prolonged stay away from our homeland. Many haven’t seen their wives for the last ten years. Fledglings have grown into juveniles, and juveniles into youth, in the absence of their fathers. They are further disheartened to see some of the military’s top ranks reserved for those Persians. Despite the resentment in our ranks, our king intends to continue this diktat with Porus’s forces after his triumph. We cannot let this happen,” Cleitus remarked.
“Alexander would not rest until he conquers the world. This cycle can only end with his end,” Aristotle intoned.
“As much as I hate our king, there is no one superior in military strategies. It is impossible to defeat him on the battlefield. You have taught him well.”
“That is not what he thinks. He finds it beneath him to correspond with his didaskalos directly. He has exterminated many of his kith, and my kin, to keep the crown on his head. He is no longer the mathites I taught in Mieza.”
The howl of the wind was the only sound I could hear for some moments before Aristotle resumed, “Victory is not always achieved on the battleground. Alexander is a sound military strategist, but that doesn’t mean he cannot be vanquished.”
“What are you indicating towards?” Cleitus asked.
“Alexander’s strengths come from his closed ones. His companions Craetus, Croenus, and Ptolemy. His mater, Olympia. His kouniados 15, philos, confidante, soulmate- Hephaestion. Bucephalus, his trusted horse for all battles. Obliterate them one by one. Isolate him from his companions, and he will be too vulnerable to resist our instructions and be easy to eliminate. It will take two to three years and a few wars more,” Aristotle continued, “but the end is near if we put our design to motion.”
“Mention what you want me to do, and consider it done.”
“You all will be marching to Hydaspes tomorrow. Porus is brave and will not give up without a fierce fight. Our cavalcade is bound to suffer grievous wounds. Have Philip of Acarnania, the royal physician of Alexander, cross over to our side. He must ensure that any wounds inflicted on the king’s closed ones, especially Hephaestion and Bucephalus, are fatal.”
I shivered at the audacious proposition.
“I will speak to Philip before the dawn breaks,” Cleitus remarked.
“We need to be cautious. Our adversaries should go down one at a time to avoid Alexander’s suspicions. Patience is a bitter plant, but it produces sweet fruits.”
The two retreated into the shadows from where they had emerged.
When valour had failed, the echtroies had resorted to deceit to bring down my kyrios. And I was the sole witness of their treachery.
How to prevent impending doom? Kyrios would not understand what I would attempt to tell him.
I will do my duty nevertheless.
Hydaspes, 326 BC
The tears in my kyrios’ eyes pain me more than the hardship my body endures now. I again attempt to forewarn kyrios of the danger to his life. All that comes out is a faint neigh.
“Don’t try too hard, dear Bucephalus,” kyrios remarks. “You need to rest.”
Hephaestion, standing beside kyrios with a grim countenance, pats his shoulders. This is the second time that I have seen him cry. Both of us are fond of each other, bound by the affection and loyalty for our king.
“The battles would never be the same without Bucephalus. I cannot imagine riding anyone but him. The victory over Porus seems hollow now,” kyrios expresses.
“He is embracing a warrior’s death,” Hephaestion remarks.
“I hereby proclaim that the settlement on the west bank of the Hydaspes river be henceforth called Bucephala, in honour of my dear philos. He should be given a royal burial,” kyrios ordained.
I feel overwhelmed by kyrios’ affection and devotion to me. I am also frustrated by my inability to prevent the harm that is to come.
My fallen fate is a history that will repeat itself. It would be the turn of Hephaestion next. Then someone else. Each loss will affect my beloved kyrios the most.
All the might drains from my form at this thought. Every breath is laborious.
I look at kyrios. He appears to understand and kisses my pate.
With the feel of my beloved kyrios in my soul, I close my eyes, once and for all.
I am sure that when Alexander the Great reaches heaven, he will make it his next battleground. My kyrios will find me there, all prepared, to mount him on my back.
Alexander fought one more battle, The Battle of Multan, in 325 BC, after the victory at Hydaspes.
Hephaestian died in Susa in 324 BC of a severe fever. Historians have speculated foul play in his death, with poisoning as the most likely cause. As per Plutarch, ‘Alexander’s grief was uncontrollable,’ after Hephaestian’s demise.
Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, at age 32. The historical cause mentioned is high fever, but like Hephaestian, historians have speculated assassination as the underlying cause of death.
Alexander’s half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus was named the King of Macedon by the infantry after his death. But he remained king by name, as Macedon was afflicted by dissension and rivalries after Alexander’s death. The Greek empire disintegrated soon after.
Glossary of Terms:
- Kyrios: Ancient Greek word for master or lord.
- Philos: Ancient Greek word for friend.
- Echtroies: Ancient Greek word for enemies.
- Talents: Currency of Macedon
- Wall-Eye: Blue eyes
- Astos: Commoners in Greek
- Pater: Greek word for father
- Didaskalos: Ancient Greek word for teacher
- Mathites: Ancient Greek for pupil
- Philia: Friendship
- Somatophylakes: Bodyguards of high-ranking people in ancient Greece
- Mater: Greek word for mother
- Philoi: Ancient Greek word for friends; plural of philos
- Proskynesis: A symbolic kissing of the hand, or prostration on the ground, that Persians showed to their social superiors
- Kouniados: Ancient Greek word for brother-in-law.
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