King Philip was pleased with himself for coming up with the idea of Mieza. Apart from all the obvious reasons like getting his son away from Olympias's influence and giving Alexander a first rate education, which Philip himself had only been able to snatch tasters of when a boy in Thebes, going to Mieza might just stop Alexander from getting himself killed.
The boy had turned thirteen this summer and as soon as he sprouted his first hairs, he was going to think he was a man and could go to war. He was so reckless and headstrong that once he hit the age where boys' brains got totally addled by excitement, if he went anywhere near an army in action, he would get himself killed. Philip could not afford this. Apart from the fact that no man wanted to lose a child, Alexander was his only viable heir. Alexander also, though this was a secret Philip held close against his heart in case it proved a wasted weapon, showed enormous promise both as a soldier and a leader.
If Aristotle could train that mind, get it to see that there were more things in life than horses and the army, then Alexander would be a Prince of Macedon no man would be ashamed of.
Once the news of Mieza became general knowledge, Philip had fully expected to be inundated with fathers pleading the case for their sons to be included in the prince's companions, and he was not disappointed. What he had not expected however was to have a lady pleading her son's case.
She was still young, still slender as a girl, and still beautiful enough to raise the pulse when she dropped her veil.
She stood in the audience hall in Pella, accompanied by a middle-aged servant and an elderly waiting woman. Clearly very nervous, she was holding onto a young boy's hand tightly, more to reassure herself than to comfort him.
The boy was a pretty, dark-haired twelve year old, standing quietly by his mother's side without any apparent nervousness. His bright blue eyes were alert and friendly without drawing attention to himself.
The lady curtsied deeply to Philip, the boy bowed, and she said, "My lord, I am the widow of Amyntor, the son of Demetrios the Athenian. I hope you remember my husband, my lord."
"Indeed, I do, my lady," Philip replied from his seat on the dais.
Amyntor had been a dark-haired, laughing, handsome young man and Philip had been much attracted to him a dozen years ago. However, Amyntor had been so in love with his beautiful young wife and infant family that he'd scarcely even noticed the King's interest. He'd been killed in the early days of the siege of Methone, and Philip remembered him fondly as a beauty who had gotten away, when Philip still had two eyes to see him with.
"When my husband was killed in your service, my lord," the lady said, "he left me with a young daughter and an infant son."
"Amyntor's death was an honourable one, my lady. He gave his life for his King, his comrades and for Macedon."
"I know, my lord," the lady said, her eyes glittering.
"And in all these years you have never remarried, my lady?" Philip said in a softer tone, leaning forward in his seat.
"I have remained faithful to my husband, my lord."
"I am saddened to hear this, my lady. You must be lonely," Philip said. He sat back in his chair. "But why have you brought Amyntor's son to me?"
"My lord, I have no male relations of an age to care for my son, to show him what he needs to know to be a man, to watch over him and to help him make his way in the world."
"Are you quite alone?" Philip asked.
"No, my lord. My husband's mother and his widowed sister keep me company. And I have my daughter," she added with a little smile.
"Is she of marriageable age?" Philip asked.
"Not quite, my lord. Perhaps next year. But I have an understanding with a neighbour, my lord. His son and my daughter have had an affection for each other since childhood."
"Ah, you have managed for your daughter, but not your son. Would your neighbour not care for your son?"
"He has four sons of his own, my lord. And we are a proud family. I do not wish to be beholden to anyone."
"But you would be beholden to me, to your King."
A wave of distress crossed the lady's face. "My lord, I have come here to ask you, for the sake of the friendship you once held for my husband, to allow Amyntor's son to accompany your son to Mieza. With a good education, with the chance to meet the right people, my son can be a valuable asset to you and to your son. He is an intelligent, brave boy. All he needs is a chance."
Philip's instinctive reaction was to say no. The boy was too young, too pretty, and brought up by a houseful of women, likely to be soft and spoilt. The older boys who were going would bully and tease him mercilessly. Alexander never had any trouble competing with older boys because he was so determined to win that they usually gave up before he did: they were more afraid of getting hurt than he was.
Philip looked into the boy's clear eyes and saw an innocent soul, a happy and loving child who had had a joyful, secure childhood. No. It would be too unkind.
"I want him," said Alexander's high voice.
"You want him?" Philip said incredulously. He turned his head to look at Alexander, who was seated some distance to his right. Gods, but Alexander could be a brat at times.
"I mean, I would like him to come to Mieza with me, father. Please," Alexander remembered to add.
Philip turned back to the lady and her son. He had noticed some time ago that she was trembling with nervousness. "Why has no one brought this lady a chair? What am I running here, a farmyard?"
Alexander himself jumped down from the dais and took the chair a servant brought forward. He placed it behind the lady and glared up at Philip, knowing that Philip would only have bothered with a chair for her when he was sure it wasn't a waste of his time. Mieza might also stop Philip from knocking Alexander's head off his shoulders.
Alexander took the lady's arm to help her to be seated, while her son assisted her on the other side.
"What is your name, boy?" Philip asked.
The boy looked up at him with those clear blue eyes. "Hephaestion, sir."
"And have you no tongue to plead your own case, boy?"
"Yes, sir, but my mother wished to speak to you before I did." Beautifully mannered and not nervous.
"Perhaps you can teach my son some manners," Philip said. "What other talents have you to offer?"
"I have been told I am an excellent story-teller, sir."
"My sister, sir."
Philip let out a laugh. "I think she might be biased."
The boy coloured but he was not abashed. "My dog also likes my stories, sir. He never falls asleep in them."
Philip laughed with genuine amusement this time. "What sort of stories?"
The boy's eyes moved towards his mother with a little smile. "My mother, my grandmother and my aunt have told me many stories about my father and his bravery in your service, sir." Philip wondered if the boy had been primed with this answer. "And I know many stories of the gods and heroes, sir," he added brightly.
"Who is your favourite?" Philip asked, fully expecting to hear Achilles.
The boy looked a little shamefaced. "I have a fondness for Theseus of Athens, sir."
"Why is that?"
The boy put up a hand to brush a strand of hair off his cheek. He was not so calm then, and he was no fool either. He knew Theseus would make him stand out, and that he had to make it good. He looked up at Philip, and suddenly seemed to change his mind. "I like the bull-dancing in Crete, sir. It seems so graceful and frightening. I should like to dance for the gods, sir."
After a moment, Philip stirred. "Alexander. This boy is much younger than most of the boys who are going with you. If I let him go to Mieza, will you make him your responsibility?"
Alexander, standing on the other side of the lady, faced him with that luminous gaze that brought points of light like stars into his brown eyes. "Yes, father."
"Very well, Hephaestion, you have your wish." It might teach Alexander something about responsibility if he had someone more vulnerable to watch out for. "Have this lady taken to the women's quarters and see that she is well-cared for. Alexander, wait a moment." Philip kept his voice friendly. He didn't want Alexander scowling at him when they spoke.
The lady curtsied deeply again to the King. "Thank you, my lord," she said. "My family will always be at your service."
Hephaestion bowed to the King, turned and took his mother's hand. He smiled up at her with joy and excitement, and she returned his smile with so much excitement and understanding that she looked scarcely older than he did.
Philip had never seen such a look pass between Alexander and Olympias. He watched Alexander gazing at them with something akin to hunger in his big brown eyes and felt a pang of regret. "Alexander," he said.
Alexander tore his eyes away as the boy and his mother walked towards the door. Then he reluctantly stepped up onto the dais before Philip and watched over his shoulder as the group made its way outside.
"Alexander," Philip said quietly. He caught hold of Alexander's fingers and gently shook his limp arm. He looked up at Alexander as he turned his head, and Philip tried to remember that this was still a child, his child, with his head full of dreams of future glory. Alexander was not yet wholly an angry young man who fought him at every step, nor saw him as a war to be won.
"Why did you want this boy?" Philip asked.
Alexander shrugged. "I don't know." He didn't meet Philip's eyes and looked like he didn't want to tell his father the real reason. However , he didn't remove his hand from Philip's.
"Was it because he's pretty?"
Alexander reddened, but he met Philip's eyes. "No. He looked kind, and I think he likes to laugh."
Philip decided to let it go. "Should you like to dance for the gods?"
"Yes, father. But it would be the war dance of Achilles, the war dance of Alexander."
"And is Hephaestion to dance it with you?"
"He's already dancing for the gods, father."
Philip nodded. Alexander had seen the boy's qualities before he had. "Love him, Alexander," he said. "I think he might be the brother you've always wanted."
"I will, father," Alexander said. He bent and kissed his father's cheek, smiled at him, and took the two steps down off the dais in one go, almost running towards the door.
Outside, the little group and their carriage were being sorted out by servants as Alexander approached. Alexander came up behind Hephaestion and touched his shoulder. Hephaestion turned his head and smiled shyly at Alexander.
For a moment Alexander simply stared into his eyes, his heart moving in ways he didn't fully understand. He had a curious feeling that either he or Hephaestion had just come home. He smiled tentatively at the other boy. "Welcome," he said.
"Thank you," Hephaestion replied, looking at Alexander with round eyes. "My mother wished me to welcome you to our family. She says you will always have a home with us should you wish it."
Alexander didn't know what to say. "I am honoured."
Hephaestion smiled slightly. "Would you like to meet my dog?"
Standing in front of Hephaestion and watching them as if he understood every word, was a large hound. He was an old dog but a magnificent tawny Molossian with a heavy head, thick ruffed neck, huge lion-like paws, black nose and black tips to his bent-over ears.
"Is that your story dog?" Alexander asked Hephaestion, their faces barely a handspan apart.
"Yes," Hephaestion said. "He was my father's dog."
"He's marvellous, as tall as a lion," Alexander said, holding out his hand to the dog, who stepped forward and sniffed it. "Have you ever taken him lion-hunting?"
"I've never hunted a lion," Hephaestion said, "and he's too old. Your father gave him to my father."
"Have you got any pups?"
Hephaestion shook his head. "Only mongrels."
"Let's go to the kennels," Alexander said. "I know exactly the bitch to mate him with. The master of hounds will be able to tell you who his sire and dam were as well. He remembers the pedigrees of all the King's hounds for the last twenty years."
"I recognise that dog," Philip's voice said behind them.
The boys looked up at him. "We're going to take him to the kennels," Alexander said, beginning to move away.
Hephaestion, his head turned to look up at Philip, stared uncertainly at the King's blind eye.
"Go on, boy," Philip said, motioning with his head after Alexander.
Hephaestion smiled at him suddenly, warming Philip's heart.
"Come on," Alexander said, coming back and grabbing Hephaestion's arm. "We'll see you later, father."
"Thank you, Philip," Hephaestion called, grinning as he was dragged off.
Philip grinned to himself, wondering if he was going to regret this.
"Thank you, father," Alexander shouted back, making Philip smile as he watched the pair and the dog run off to the kennels.
Philip looked round and caught the eye of Hephaestion's mother. She dropped her gaze in confusion and raised her veil as Philip smiled smugly, well pleased with himself.