Read Alexander: Child of a Dream Online

Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General

Alexander: Child of a Dream (8 page)

 
the sun rose they found themselves at the foot of the mountains separating the valley of the Axios from the valley of the Ludias. The beast was hiding somewhere in the midst of the oak and beech woods that covered the massif.
The King nodded and the chief huntsmen blew their horns. The sound, intensified by its echo, travelled high to the wooded peaks and the beaters heard it. They egged the dogs on, following on foot, and then they too set about making noise, beating the metal rings on their javelins against their shields.
The valley resounded with the howling of the pack of Molossians and the hunters readied themselves, forming a semicircle over an arc of perhaps fifteen stadia.
At the centre was Philip with his generals: Parmenion, Antipater and Cleitus the Black. The Persians were all arranged on the right flank and everyone was amazed at the transformation in their appearance. No more embroidered tunics and showy gowns, now the Satrap and his Immortals were dressed and equipped like their nomadic ancestors of the steppes: leather breeches, jerkin, hard cap, two javelins in a holster, a double-curved bow complete with quiver and arrows. To the left of Philip stood King Alexander of Epirus, lined up together with Ptolemy and Craterus, and after them came the youngest hunters Alexander,
Hephaestion, Seleucus and the others.
Wisps of fog floated down along the river, spreading like a gossamer veil over the green, flower-filled plain, which for the most part was still in the shadow of the mountain. Suddenly a great roar ripped through the peaceful dawn, drowning out the far-off barking of the dogs the
horses neighed excitedly, stamping and snorting, so that it was difficult to keep them still. Somehow no one moved; they all managed to wait for the lion to come out into the open. But first there came another
roar, louder this time, and immediately another one echoed
from farther away, from the river the
lioness was with her
mate!
Finally the big male came out of the wood and, finding
himself surrounded, he gave forth an even more powerful roar that seemed to shake the very mountain and this time scared the horses. The female soon appeared as well: the two beasts were reluctant to move forward because of the hunters facing them, but neither could they turn back because of the approach of the beaters. They made a dash in the direction of the river.
Philip gave the signal for the start of the chase and everyone rushed onto the plain just at the moment when the sun came over the crest of the mountain and flooded the valley with light.
Because of their position, Alexander and his companions were closest to the riverbank, and, anxious to demonstrate their courage, they spurred their chargers on to intercept the lions.
The King in the meantime was worried that the youngsters were heading towards serious danger and he set off, his javelin poised in his hand, while the Persians widened the semicircle, pushing their mounts ever more quickly to prevent the lions from turning back into the wood and facing the dogs.
Alexander, excited by the chase, was now very close and was just about to let fly at the exposed flank of the male with his javelin when the hounds burst out of the wood. The lioness, frightened, turned suddenly in the other direction and leaped at the hindquarters of his mount, bringing it heavily to the ground.
The lioness was immediately surrounded by the dogs and was forced to relax its grip, so that the horse was on its feet in a flash and fled, kicking and neighing and spilling blood over the grass as it galloped away.
Alexander stood and confronted the lion. The Prince was unarmed now, having lost his javelin in the fall, but just then Hephaestion arrived, brandishing his weapon and managing to wound the beast superficially, making it roar in pain.
The lioness ripped open the throats of several hounds and then turned towards her mate, who by then was furiously attacking Hephaestion. The boy defended himself valiantly with his javelin, but the lion was striking out wildly, roaring and lashing its own flanks with its tail.
Philip and Parmenion were closer now, but everything was happening so very quickly. Alexander managed to pick up his

 
javelin and take aim, without realizing, however, that the female was ready to pounce once more.
At that moment one of the Persian warriors, the one furthest away, lifted his bow without even stopping his horse, pulled back the string and let fly: the lioness leaped just as the arrow whistled through the air it
thudded into her side and she fell to the ground, mortally wounded.
Philip and Parmenion had reached the male now and coaxed him away from the boys. The King struck first, but Alexander and Hephaestion immediately came back to attack once more, wounding the lion this time, so that all Parmenion had to do was administer the final blow.
All around the dogs howled and wailed as though possessed, and the beaters let them lick the blood of the two beasts so that they would remember the scent for the next hunt.
Philip dismounted and embraced his son: ‘You gave me a fright, my boy, but you also made me tremble with pride. One day you certainly shall be King a
great King.’ And he also embraced Hephaestion, who had risked his life to save Alexander’s.
When the excitement had died down a little and the chief huntsmen had started skinning the two beasts, everyone remembered the crucial moment, the moment when the lioness had pounced.
They turned and saw the foreigner, one of the Immortals, immobile on his horse, his big double-curved bow still in his hand, the weapon that had struck down the lioness at a distance of over one hundred feet. He was smiling, showing off a double row of the whitest teeth in the midst of his thick black beard.
Only then did Alexander realize he was covered in bruises and grazes and he saw that Hephaestion was bleeding from a superficial but painful wound, inflicted by the lion’s claws. He held his friend tightly and had him taken immediately to the surgeons so that they could treat his injuries. Then he turned to the Persian warrior who was watching him from far off, from astride his Nysaean steed.
Alexander walked towards the man who had saved his life and when just a few paces away he looked into his eyes and said, Thank you, O Foreign Guest. I shall never forget this.’
The Immortal did not understand Alexander’s words because he had no Greek, but he understood the meaning perfectly. He smiled again and bowed his head, then he dug his heels into the flanks of his horse and sped off to join his companions.
The hunt resumed shortly after and it carried on until sunset, when the final signal was given. The bearers piled up all the prey that had fallen to the prowess of the hunters a
stag, three boars and a pair of roe bucks.
As evening fell all the hunters met under a great canopy which had been set up by the servants in the middle of the plain. As they laughed and shouted, reliving the exciting moments of the day, the cooks slipped the game off the spits and the carvers cut it into slices and served the diners first
the King, then the guests, then the Prince and then the others.
The wine soon began to flow copiously and even Alexander and his friends were given some. Their deeds that day were ample proof of the fact that they were men now.
At a certain point the women arrived too: flute players, dancers, all very expert in animating the banquet with their dancing, their lewd jokes and their youthful energy in making love.
Philip was particularly merry and he decided that all of his guests should join in a game of kottabos, asking the interpreter to translate for the Persians:
‘You see that girl there?’ pointing to a dancer who was stripping off just at that moment. ‘You have to hit her right between the legs with the last drops of wine left at the bottom of your cup. Whoever hits the bullseye will have her as his prize. Here, like this, watch!’ He slipped his index and middle finger through one of the handles and threw the wine towards

 
the girl. The drops hit one of the cooks in the face and everyone burst out laughing: ‘You have to fuck the cook now, Sire! The cook! The cook!’
Philip shrugged his shoulders and tried again, but even though the girl had moved closer and was a sitting target by now, the King’s aim seemed a trifle skewed.
The Persians were not used to drinking undiluted wine and the majority of them were already rolling on the floor under the tables. As for Arsames, the guest of honour, he couldn’t stop fondling the young blond boy who had kept him company the night before.
Other attempts were made, but the kottabos was not much of a success because the guests were simply too drunk for such a game of skill and they all grabbed the first girl who happened their way, while the King, as host, grabbed the one he’d promised as a prize. The feast degenerated, as usually happened, into an orgy a
tangle of semi-naked, sweating bodies.
Alexander stood up and, donning his cloak, moved away from the canopy and walked down to the river. There was the noise of the water gurgling among the stones, and the moon just then was rising over the crest of Mount Bermion, giving a silver tint to the water and spreading a slight opaline brightness across the plain.
The bellowing and the groaning from the canopy had subsided slightly now, while the voice of the forest was becoming stronger rustlings,
beatings of wings, whispers and then, suddenly, a song. A whistling as though from a secret source, a ringing that at first was muffled and then increasingly brighter and acute, like the playing of a mysterious harpist in the fragrant depths of the wood. The song of the nightingale.
Alexander stood there in rapture as he listened to the melody of the little songster, oblivious to the passage of time. Suddenly, however, he realized there was someone next to him and he turned. It was Leptine. The women had brought her with them to help prepare the tables.
She was watching him, her hands crossed in her lap, her
gaze clear and serene, just like the sky above them. Alexander brushed her face with a caress, then he had her sit down near him and held her tightly in his arms, in silence.
At first light they started back to Pella with the Persian guests who had been invited to stay for the formal banquet that was to be served on the following day.
Queen Olympias immediately summoned her son on his return, and when she saw him with bruises and scratches all over his arms and legs, she hugged him fitfully. But he pulled away, embarrassed.
‘They told me what you did. You could have died.’
‘I am not afraid of death, Mother. The power and the glory of a king can only be justified if he is ready to give his life, whenever the moment comes.’
‘I know. But what has happened still makes me tremble with fear. I beg you to keep your daring under control, please take no more pointless risks. You are still a boy, you have more growing to do, you must put more strength in your limbs.’
Alexander stared at her steadfastly, ‘I must go onward to meet my destiny and my journey has already begun. I know this for certain. What I do not know, Mother, is where that journey will take me and when it will come to an end.’
‘No one knows this, my son,’ said the Queen, her voice quavering. ‘Destiny is a god whose face is obscured by a dark veil.’

10
The day after the Persians’ departure, Alexander of Epirus entered his nephew’s room carrying a small bundle in his arms.

 

‘What is it?’ Alexander asked.

 

‘It’s a poor little orphan. His mother was killed by the lioness the other day. Do you want him? He has a fine Molossian pedigree and if you’re good to him he will repay the kindness a thousand times.’

 

He opened the bundle and there was a fine tawny-coloured puppy with a lighter coloured patch on his forehead. ‘His name is Peritas.’

 

Alexander picked the dog up, sat it down on his knees and began to stroke it. ‘It’s a fine name. And he’s a lovely puppy Can I really keep him?’

 

‘He’s all yours,’ his uncle replied. ‘But you’ll have to look after him. He hadn’t even been weaned.’

 

‘Leptine will take care of all that. He’ll grow quickly and will be my hunting dog and my companion. Thank you very much.’

 

Leptine was enthusiastic about the task she was given and she set to it with a great sense of responsibility. The signs of her nightmarish infancy were slowly fading and she seemed to bloom more and more with every day that passed. Her complexion was lighter and brighter, her eyes clearer and more expressive, her brown hair, flashing with copper-coloured streaks, ever shinier.

 

‘Will you take her to bed when she’s ready?’ asked Hephaestion, giggling.

 

‘Perhaps,’ replied Alexander. ‘But that is not the reason why I lifted her from the dirt in which I found her.’

 

‘No? Why did you do it then?’ Alexander did not reply.

 

The following winter was particularly harsh and more than once the King suffered from bouts of sharp pain in his left leg an

 

old wound which continued to make itself felt despite the passing of the years.

 

Philip the physician applied stones heated on the fire and wrapped in woollen cloths to absorb excess humidity and he rubbed the area with oil of turpentine, from the terebinth tree. Sometimes he physically forced the King to bend his knee until his heel touched his buttock and this was the exercise the King hated more than any other because it was the most painful. But the danger was that the leg, already a little shorter than the other one, might continue to shrink.

 

There was no mistaking when the King was in pain and was reaching the end of his tether because he would start roaring like a lion and then came the noise of plates and cups being smashed unequivocal

 

proof of his having thrown all the ointments, tisanes and medicines prescribed by his namesake physician against the wall.

 

Occasionally Alexander would leave the palace at Pella to shut himself away at Aegae, the ancient capital up in the mountains. He would have a big fire lit in his room and would sit for hours contemplating the snow that fell in blankets over the peaks, the woods of blue fir and the valleys.

 

He liked to watch the smoke rising from the shepherds’ cabins on the slopes and from the houses in the villages, savouring the profound silence that in certain moments of the evening or the morning reigned over that magical world suspended between heaven and earth. When he went to bed he would lie awake for a long time, his eyes open in the darkness, listening to the howling of the wolves, echoing like a lament through far-off hidden valleys.

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