Dear friends! I am having to put my work on Thais on hold and dedicate some time to Ukrainian Vignettes, which is in the process of being published by the Night Publishing - a fantastic endeavor by the amazing Tim Roux, and a home to some of my writer friends. Do not worry, this will not be a long delay (not like my previous four-month long writing and translating hiatus).
In the meantime, in order to somehow compensate you for the wait, I am posting the entire eight chapter for your reading pleasure. This part of Thais of Athens is one of my favorites. Not only does it contain profound discussions about war, politics, history of Amazons and the role of women in history in general, but this is also the chapter where Thais acquires a new four-legged friend - a character, I know, many of my animal-lover friends will grow to love.
Please note, I have only just finished translating this chapter, and done but a cursory editing round on it. So, do not be too harsh on me for the occasional odd article or tense use.
Ptolemy saw Thais as she rode her dark-ash-colored horse, when he was coming back from a visit to the pyramids with Alexander, Hephaestion, Black Cleitus, and Leontiscus – the head of Thessalian cavalry. Alexander was riding Bucefal, exercising his beloved steed during the early morning hour. Usually, he only rode him into battle, trying not to overheat the black horse in long trips under the scorching sun of Asia. Bucefal lifted his smart head with a broad forehead marked with white and neighed to greet the mare. Salmaakh danced coquettishly, controlled by Thais’ firm hand.
Three astonished shouts sounded almost simultaneously. The three friends recognized “the fourth Kharita” unmistakably. The Thessalian froze, gazing at this small modestly dressed woman, who stopped three powerful men in their tracks, including the divine conqueror himself.
“It is her, my dream – the Athenian!” – Ptolemy exclaimed, dismounting and grabbing Salmaakh’s reins.
“Such arrogance!” – Hephaestion noted mockingly, “Yours without you?”
“I said – dream!” – Ptolemy repeated stubbornly as he gave Thais a searching glance.
She rested both hands on the horse’s whither and held her head high, with her eyes only for Alexander, as if she was mesmerized by his gaze. Frowning slightly, Thais threw her leg over and slid to the ground from the horse’s left side. She looked very small in front of the three giant men on huge horse’s. Alexander, Hephaestion and Cleitus were all an entire palysta taller than four elbows, while Thais was only three elbows, three palystas tall. Nevertheless, the hetaera hasn’t lost her dignity or daring independence that struck Ptolemy back in Athens. He could not take his eyes from her. In her feminine prime, having lost all things boyish, she became inexplicably alluring, distant and even more desirable. Thais’ horse stepped to the side, and Ptolemy had to look at her against the sun. Powerful golden light penetrated the hetaera’s light garment and wrapped her entire body in a glorious fire, as if Helios himself embraced the beautiful daughter of Hellas and Crete. Thais’ manner to gaze into the distance, as if she saw something invisible to others, she reminded him of Alexander. Ptolemy shuddered and lowered his eyes to avoid betraying his feelings.
Alexander dismounted, tossed Bucefal’s reins to Cleitus and approached Thais.
Alexander held his head even higher, than during their first meeting and squinted his eyes with a proud and perceptive expression.
“Haire,” – Thais said, raising her hand to the army leader’s chin.
“What do you wish to ask me for?”
“Nothing, my king,” – Thais said, addressing Alexander by the title of Persian rulers, “You have become so imperious in the last few years, that we – mere mortals – involuntarily pause before you with a prayer.”
Alexander listened carefully to Thais’ words, but no, they held no tine of flattery.
“I hope my forefather Achilles forgives me, but truly, you have become more beautiful than Helen of Troy, the daughter of Tindar!”
The Macedonian king looked the hetaera over, but the Athenian sensed that his curiosity was somehow different than Ptolemy’s.
“Her eyes are crystal clear, like the spring of Artemis,” – Alexander thought, “…Gray with glints of gold and blue, calm and kindly. Her lips seem to be carved out of crimson stone – their outline is so clear, just as the long cut of her eyes under narrow eyebrows. Her skin is like pale copper, transparent and silky, like thin cloth of fire, burning on an altar at noon…”
After a silence, broken only by the clanging of reins and hoof beats, Alexander said, “Remember my promise in Athens: you may be my guest whenever you wish? Would you like to?”
“Of course I would! Especially now that you surprised me by remembering a brief meeting with a girl-hetaera…”
“I was planning to invite you for a long time,” – Ptolemy interfered, “Any horses, slaves or tents are at your disposal – I have everything aplenty…”
Ptolemy caught himself under Alexander’s gaze. The army leader was looking at his comrade not with anger but with pity – or at least that was the way it seemed to Thais.
“I am but at the beginning of my path,” – the king said, “But you may accompany us. Not in battles and chases, but following me in the peaceful part of my army – with artist, philosophers and performers. Ptolemy will take care of you – he is good at that,” – a light smile scattered the awkwardness between the king’s companions.
Thais bowed her head with a heavy knot of hair arranged in a tall updo and childishly pursed her lips into an arch.
“I thank you, my king!”
“Call me Alexander, as before. And come to the celebration I am arranging for the city. Show them the high art of Helenian women.”
Alexander hopped back onto his black horse with agility that was amazing for someone so large. The horse was covered with a sweat blanket, fastened with three belts, after a Persian fashion, and wore a Persian harness of glittering gold shaped like letter xi, with gold starbursts at the intersection of the straps and under the horse’s ears. Thais swiftly mounted Salmaakh, still saddled with a worn panther hide, making the horse rear up and turn deftly after the departing Macedonians. Then she turned again and slowly rode to the spot where Hesiona waited for her, having decided to part from Nearchus for a few days. The fleet commander promised to come back before the big symposium, and their separation could not be long.
Memphis was swept up in a celebratory mood. People greeted the young “pharaoh” Alexander, marveling at his beauty, strength, and feeling of supremacy and power, exuded by the deified army leader.
As always, people were hoping for big changes in their destinies, something to alter their sad lives because of the will of the new king, hoping for the better and not understanding that course of history was slow and difficult to change. Nothing could be changed for the people who were living at that moment. Military disasters, riots, fires and floods would invariably burst into the colorless existence of human mobs with stunning suddenness. Historic experience existed only for the wise.
Among those, who greeted the victorious Macedonians and Helenians, there were a few people akin to Thais – those joyous bundles of life, with body and muscles seemingly cast out of bronze and with a steadfast soul – imagining themselves to be the masters of Ecumene.
“Will you help me, Hesiona?” – the hetaera asked on the eve of symposium, arranged by Alexander for the Memphis nobility in the so-called Southern Gardens.”
“You are very brave to perform before such a crowd of people. Won’t Salmaakh be scared?”
Thais stretched lazily and took out a bottle of dark ancient glass. From it she pulled a pinch of greenish powder with unpleasant small and placed in a small cup.
“I’ll mix this with water and give to Salmaakh to drink. A little bit of this Asian herb is enough for a man or an animal to shed the chains of embarrassment or fear. A bit more – and the body gets out from under the heart’s control. That is why, not having much experience, I shall only give her a tiny bit…”
Flames burst into the dark sky in smoky spinning columns rising out of resin-filled stone vessels. Large tent protected the guests from the north wind. Musicians and a Greek choir with actors performed a Tragedy (The Song of Goats) on the smooth tiles of the courtyard – an excerpt from adventures of Dionysus during his Indian voyage. Alexander was particularly fond of that legend.
The great victor half-reclined in the midst of his inebriated and arrogant companions. Only Nearchus and Leontiscus sat slightly aside from everyone, listening to a splendid Tinos singer. She was tall and dressed in a peplos that was black as night, looking very much like Hecate. Instead of the mean hounds – the goddess’s usual companions – she was performing with two lively female flutists, who were nude according to tradition as they accompanied her deep voice with the power well beyond that of an army captain. A broad flow of the song washed away human disappointments, like the sea, compelling everyone to be calmer, kinder and more attentive.
Drums thundered. The steady beat of the wood drum sticks sharpened. Slaves fired up the incense burners, causing bands of heavy scented smoke to undulate around the tiles of the improvised stage.
Nude Finikian dancers – dark, slender, with narrow hips and low breasts – twirled in the fragrant smoke. There were six of them. As they pulled apart and then dashed madly at one another, they presented the outrageous, coarse and straightforward portrayal of the strength of the sexual desire that possessed them. These were the victims of goddess Cotytto, obsessed with one goal – to become free of her tormenting power as quickly as possible.
Hoarse shouts of approval sounded around the room. Only Alexander himself and Black Cleitus expressed no admiration. Nearchus and Leontiscus remained calm as well. Slaves served more goblets of wine. The incense burners went out, the dancer’s bodies glistened with sweat, and the deafening drumbeat grew silent. The Finikians vanished to the last few fading beats.
Instantly, without a break, a curtain of the most delicate silvery cloth fell in front of the stage – stretched between two torch pillars. Large mirrors made of silver-covered copper sheets were placed behind the curtain and set to reflect the light of large oil lanterns.
String instruments rang out, flutes joined them in a melodious song, and eight more nude girls appeared in a beam of light from the mirrors behind the fabric. They were all small in height, muscular and busty. Their hair did not slither down their shoulders in thing snake-like braids, like the Finikians’, but was closely cropped, akin to the mythical Amazons. Their small feet stepped forth in unison, in one coordinated movement. They were Thessalians – the daughters of the ancient country of witches, and their dance looked like a magical act or a secret ritual.
Slightly fluttering silvery cloth separated the dancers from the dusk under the party tent like light fog. The Thessalians’ agile bodies obeyed a very different musical rhythm. The dance was free and flowing. As the tempo increased, the young dancers, who were just as impassioned as the Finikians, seemed to rush through the wide horse-running planes of Thessaly. The spectators appreciated the flight of their imagination and watched in silence, captivated by the feeling of tinoesthesis – a sensation through the heart that Helenians considered the embodiment of the soul. A somewhat sad Leontiscus leaned to Nearchus and said quietly, “Once upon a time I saw Thessalian women performing the dance of the Amazons. It was so beautiful!”
“Would you like to see that?” – the Cretan asked, smiling mysteriously. He already knew everything through Hesiona.
“I would pay a talant to her, who could perform the Amazon dance.”
“Very well, pay up,” – Nearchus said calmly and held out a hand.
The chief of Thessalian cavalry laughed in surprised. Just then, the curtain was removed. Reddish glints of the resin torches scattered through the tiles of courtyard. A girl in a very short ecsomida, which left her left shoulder and breast open, and with her hair down appeared near the left torch pillar. Nearchus recognized Hesiona. Nobody paid attention to her at first. The Theban raised a tambourine over her head and demanded everyone’s attention with a few sharp strikes. The bells around the rim of the tambourine jingled and Thais on Salmaakh burst into the bright circle of light. There was nothing but the bridle on the horse and nothing but an Amazon’s battle bracelet on the rider. The horse went sideways from one pillar to the other in a graceful cross-step, and then reared up tipping her small head and swinging her front hooves in a greeting. From there Salmaakh moved in the opposite direction following the beat of the tambourine, alternatively tossing her front and hind quarters, while Thais sat firmly, never moving a shoulder.
Having danced three rounds, the Athenian suddenly sent Salmaakh into a gallop. Hesiona beat the tambourine madly, while Macedonians – all excellent horsemen – yelled in rhythm with the gait.
Imitating the legendary stiganorae , Thais moved to stand on one knee at full speed, turned to face the horse’s tail, and spread over her back hugging the mare’s broad curvy neck. Having turned back to sit properly, she made the horse rear up again, and Salmaakh spun around swiftly and gracefully, making two full turns in each direction. Urged by the thrilled shouts of the spectators, Thais slowed the horse to a moderate trot and stood up on her back, holding on by one strand of the long mane and balancing perfectly.
No one noticed when the slaves covered the courtyard with heavy palm-tree boards. Thais settled down and stopped smiling, her face growing serious. Hesiona’s tambourine, scattering the rhythm of the graceful dance, echoed the beat of the hooves. Obeying the hetaera’s knees, Salmaakh drummed over the resonating wood with all four hooves. Two, then four beats of the front hooves, then steps backward, then more beats of the front hooves. Two, four, eight, twelve – grouped beats sped up, as the horse either trotted forward or receded to the back. Thais bent backward, arching her back and pointing her breasts toward the dark sky.
Hesiona, unable to stand still, danced on the spot, shaking the tambourine as hard as she could. The excited horse started jumping too, as if she was in a gallop, striking with three hooves at once, tossing her hind quarters and shaking her head.
Suddenly Thais hopped off Salmaakh’s back. Holding on to the horse with her right hand she began an old ritual dance. Rising onto her right toes, the hetaera lifted her left leg high and grabbed its ankle with her outstretched left hand. Thais’ coppery body, flexed like a bow, formed a triangle that looked like the letter gamma with a bar on top against the horse’s dark-gray hide. Then both her arms stretched out level with her shoulders in rhythm with the arching of the body and the right went up, as the left one went down. Another triangle appeared for a moment. Salmaakh hopped, moving slowly in a circle, ready to turn her other side. Thais flew up to the horse’s back and slipped down on the other side, repeating the triangle of the strange dance. The tent was now filled with roar. Leontiscus dashed forward but was stopped by Nearchus. Ptolemy appeared outwardly calm. With his hands firmly clutched together, he pressed them against his chest, glancing at the Thessalian. Even Alexander rose from his seat and almost knocked over a broad-shouldered, slightly slouching man who stood next to him and watched Thais’ dance as if his life depended on it. Salmaakh jumped for the last time. Thais was on horseback again; the horse reared and bowed to each side. Then Thais, lowered the horse to her knees, with her head pointed toward Alexander and hopping down, greeted him herself to the delighted shouts of the audience. The crowd went wild. Salmaakh became startled and jumped up, pressing her ears back and rolling her eyes. She backed up toward the backdrop of the “stage”. Hesiona caught her by the reins.
Alexander beckoned Thais to him. But the hetaera wrapped herself in an Egyptian cape with a fringe and ran off. She had to wash off the caustic horse sweat as quickly as possible, as well as dress properly for the feast.
In a few minutes Thais appeared under the tent dressed in an orange chiton with three ribbons – blue, white and red – braided into the black mass of her wavy hair.
Before Ptolemy and Leontiscus had a chance to say anything, the hetaera walked up to Alexander. The king of Macedonians took both her hands, kissed her and sat her down at the three-legged Greek table between himself and the slouching man with a short beard on his thin face, and tired intelligent gaze.
“Look at her carefully, Lysippus!”
Thais was startled. This was the first time she saw the famous sculptor who left Hellas to accompany the conqueror of the Persians. The sculptor took Thais by the shoulders and started examining her face as unceremoniously as an artist or a doctor would. The hetaera saw that he wasn’t slouching at all, but only seemed that way because of his habit to lean forward, when he wanted to look at something carefully.
“Why, majesty?” – Thais could not bring herself to call the Macedonian by name, even though she knew that Alexander was only twenty-four – a year older than she: familiarity was not in her character.
“Alexander,” – Lysippus replied instead of the king, “wants me to create a statue of you as the queen of the Amazons. He’s been dreaming of re-living the story of Theseus and Hippolita since childhood, and was disappointed to discover that the female riders of Thermodont have long since vanished, leaving behind only a legend. However, you presented yourself today as their true heiress. Look at our Leontiscus devouring you with his eyes!”
Thais bowed before Alexander in an exaggerated plea.
“Mercy, majesty! For the last three hundred years artists have been portraying the brave Helenian warriors conquering the Amazons, killing them or dragging them off as prisoners. Have you noticed that the Amazons are portrayed on foot for the most part, to avoid elevating them over the men?”
“What do you mean?” – Lysippus asked curiously.
“…Any amphorae – either red- or black-figured ones – dating to the first Olympiad or even earlier. All artists made them – both the famous and the obscure ones: Euphronius, Eukhrides, Andokides, Arkhesilaus – it’s hard to remember them all. But all of their heroes: Theseus, Hercules, Achilles – are portrayed dragging the poor Amazons off by the hair, beating them with huge bats, or piercing them through with swords and spears. I have seen almost no drawings, where the Amazons were portrayed on horseback, as they ought to be, and even fewer – where they defeated men in battle.”
“…But that is the case with the amphorae – and the old ones at that!” – Lysippus objected.
“Not at all! Remember the scenes of Antipope’s kidnapping on the bas-reliefs of the temple of Apollo! And what about our Parthenon! Have you forgotten the huge painting by Micon in the pinacotec of Athens, in the left wing of Propilea, where Helenian warriors are portrayed ruthlessly beating the Amazons? It was only been painted a hundred years ago, maybe a bit more.”
“What are you trying to say?” – Alexander frowned.
“When male pride is stung, you begin making up stories to justify yourselves. And the artists try to portray these lies as accurately as possible.”
“Why would the artists do that?” – Lysippus said.
“Because they are men too! And they too cannot tolerate the thought of female supremacy.”
Leontiscus, who approached unnoticeably, clapped his hands.
“What are you happy about?” – Ptolemy asked menacingly.
“The Amazon’s intelligence. And truth.”
“Do you see the truth in this?”
“I see the truth in the face that all these defeats, portrayed so happily by Athenians, have not taken away the Amazon’s courage, as they did with Beotians and Athenians. Their capitol Temiskira was taken by Hercules, and part of the Amazons died in Athens, but they still came to the walls of Troy to fight against Helenians. The descendants of those, who were defeated by the Amazons, cannot forgive them that or their terror-inducing lack of sensitivity toward wounds!”
Alexander laughed merrily, and Ptolemy couldn’t find anything to object the Thessalian. Lysippus asked Thais, “Tell me, what made you think of performing hippoginnes in the nude?”
“First of all – the desire to match the legends. True Amazons – the girls of Thermodont dedicated to Artemis, who lived a thousand of years before us – always fought in the nude and rode horses without sweat blankets. The story that they burned out one breast in order to use the bow is a ridiculous lie, because there is not a single ancient image of a single-breasted Amazon. The stiganorae shot directly in front of themselves above the horse’s ears, or, as they rode by an enemy, they turned and struck over the horse’s croup. True Amazons can be found on the old Clamezone vases and basins. They are shown as muscular, even stout nude girls, riding strong horses, accompanied by bearded stablemen and dogs. Ionian and Carian women, who were accustomed to freedom, could not live with the crass Dorian invaders. The bravest, strongest and youngest of them went north, to the Black Sea, where they founded the polis of Temiskira. They were not a nationality, but a group of sacred maidens of Artemis and later – Hecate. The ignorant historians and artists confused them with Scythian women, who were also wonderful warriors and riders. That is why amazons are frequently portrayed either fully clad in Scythian garb or in the short Cappadocian ecsomidae!”
“You should teach history at the Lyceum or at the Academy!” – Lysippus exclaimed in amazement.
Thais’ eyes twinkled merrily.
“I barely got out of the Lyceum alive, having met Aristotle.”
“He never told me anything about it,” – Alexander interrupted.
“And he won’t – for the same reason the Amazons are always portrayed defeated. But tell me, sculptor, have you ever heard of a woman teaching grown people anything but love? Only Sappho perhaps, but look what men did to her! And we hetaerae-friends not only entertain and console, but also educate men so that they could see beauty in life…”
Thais paused, calming her excited breath. The men watched her with sincere interest, each pondering her words in his own way.
“Also,” – Thais said addressing the sculptor, “You, whose name is ‘he who frees horses’ for a reason, will understand me, as will all of them,” – the hetaera pointed at Leontiscus and the Macedonians, “rulers of horses. When you navigate a dangerous road on horseback or fly forward in a gallop, do you not feel as if the Persian sweat blanket or any other padding get in the way? What if there is nothing between you and the horse? Do your muscles not merge with those of the horse, as they work together in agreement? You can respond to the smallest change in the rhythm and sense the horse’s hesitation or daring, understanding what it needs… And what can hold you in place better than horse hide if there is a sudden stumble or slowing down of the horse! How in tune it is with the order of your toes or the turn of your knees!”
“Praise the true Amazon!” – Leontiscus exclaimed, “Hey, some wine to her health and beauty!” – and he lifted Thais in the crook of his arm, as he held a goblet with the precious rose wine to her lips with his other hand.
The hetaera took a sip and ran her fingers thought his closely cropped hair.
Ptolemy laughed forcefully, barely restraining his jealousy.
“I speak well, I know,” – he said, “but you get too carried away to be truthful. I would like to know, how a steed can feel these little toes at full speed,” – he carelessly touched the hetaera’s foot in a light sandal.
“Take off my sandal!” – Thais demanded.
A puzzled Ptolemy obeyed.
“And now, Leontiscus lower me to the floor!” – and Thais flexed her foot on the smooth floor, causing her to spin on her big toe.
“Do you understand now?!” – she challenged Ptolemy.
“With proper aim, she could deprive you of descendants with a toe like that,” – Leontiscus laughed as he finished his wine.
The symposium went on till morning. Macedonians became increasingly noisy and mannerless. Alexander sat motionless in the pharaoh’s precious armchair of iron wood with gold and ivory. He seemed to dream of something, gazing above the guests’ heads.
Ptolemy kept reaching out for Thais with lusty arms. The hetaera kept moving away from him along the bench toward Alexander’s armchair, until the great ruler put his heavy protective hand on her shoulder.
“You are tired. You may go home. Lysippus shall take you.”
“What about you?” – Thais asked suddenly.
“I must be here, just as I must do many other things regardless of whether I love them or not,” – Alexander replied quietly and seemingly with some vexation, “I wish for something else…”
“For a queen of Amazons, for instance!” – Lysippus said.
“I think the Amazons, who dedicated themselves to Artemis and the sole purpose of defending their independence must have been poor lovers. And you, my king, would have found nothing but grief,” – the hetaera said.
“Not like with you?” – Alexander leaned toward Thais, who blushed like a teenage girl.
“I am not for you either. You need a queen, a female ruler, if a woman can be near you at all.”
The conqueror of Persians peered at Thais and saying nothing, dismissed her with a wave.
As soon as they were in the shadow of trees, Lysippus asked quietly, “Are you initiated in the Orphic religion? What is your initiated name? How much was disclosed to you?”
“Very little,” – the hetaera admitted honestly, “My Orphic name is Tiu…”
Once she told him about the Delos philosopher, Lysippus lost his suspicions and started telling her about the Orphic-like cult of Zoroaster he discovered in the heart of Persia. Supporters of Zoroaster revered kindness in the guise of male deity Ormuzd who constantly struggles against the evil – Ariman. Ormuzd wore the same three colors of Muse: white, red and blue. Lysippus suggested that, should she go to Persia, Thais wear three-colored ribbons there as well.
“I must see you again, as soon as Darius is completely crushed and I have a permanent studio in Persia. You are not an easy model for an artist. There is something rare about you.”
“Won’t I grow old by then?” – Thais laughed.
“You don’t know Alexander, silly!” – Lysippus replied. He was convinced that the final victory over the Persians was a speedy matter and that Alexander would be undeterred in reaching this giant goal.
Hesiona and Nearchus waited for her at home. The delighted Cretan congratulated Thais with unprecedented success.
“The captain of cavalry is completely struck by Eros!” – Hesiona remembered with a laugh, “You have conquered the famous hero akin to Hippolita!”
Thais asked Nearchus to tell her how Leontiscus became famous.
During the battle at Issus Alexander’s army ended up squeezed in a shore-side valley by the numerous Persian troops. Their cavalry, which was several times greater in number than that of the Macedonians, rushed from the hills to the shore, crossed the river and attacked Alexander’s left wing, which consisted of the Thessalians horsemen. Alexander sent the Frakian riders and the splendid Cretan archers to help them under the leadership of Parmenius – a very experienced army man.
Thessalian cavalry managed to hold the sea shore until Alexander’s guard – the heavy cavalry of getaerosi-comrades and shield bearers – dealt a terrible blow at the center of the Persian troops, causing Darius to flee and securing the victory.
For their heroic battle at the sea shore the Thessalian horsemen were rewarded with the right to pillage Damascus. Damascus turned out to contain all of the equipment of the Persian army: carts, slaves, money and treasure. Thus, Leontiscus was now in possession of substantial wealth. Alexander rewarded him personally along with the others who distinguished themselves in that battle, having split between them three thousand talants they took on the battle field and at the Persian camp.
“Truth be told, Ptolemy is probably even wealthier. He is a wise and patient leader, he knows how to gather and wait. I think he will have you in the end, and not Leontiscus, who is as passionate as Alexander,” – the Cretan finished his story.
Thais only raised her chin under Hesiona’s mischievous and loving gaze.
The first month of spring – Munikhion – has not yet started, when Thais found herself on Nearchus’s ship yet again, along with her friend and Salmaakh. They sailed down the east arm of the Nile through Bubastis to the First canal constructed on Darius’s orders, which connected Egypt with Eritrean Sea and Persia. Three hundred years ago, Egyptian pharaoh Neho ordered the construction of the canal. That was the same pharaoh, under whom Finikian sailors carried out an incomparably heroic deed by sailing around the entire Libya from Egypt to the Pillars of Hercules to arrive back to Egypt. However, the work started by Egyptian slaves remained unfinished. Only two centuries later, Darius the First, with an enormous number of war slaves at his disposal, finished the waterway from the arm of the Nile to Succoth located among the Bitter Lakes not far from the Gulf of Heroes – a narrow branch of water between Arabian and Sinai deserts. In Succoth, Thais was to leave Nearchus’s ship, and part with Hesiona for the first time – for some time, possibly forever. Nearchus would then sail to the Euphrates to construct the fleet, in order to be able to sail to Babylon if necessary. A possibility of defeat did have its place in the thoroughly thought-out plans of the great army leader. In that case, Alexander did not wish to repeat the difficult Anabasis – the march of the Greeks toward the sea across the mountains and plains of Cappadocia and Armenia. The Greek mercenaries were not pursued by anyone at the time, and they still lost many people. In this case, the huge Persian army would be right behind their shoulders. Alexander considered it the best strategy to retreat toward the Euphrates, put the army onto ships and sail away from their pursuers. In the case of victory Nearchus would meet them in Babylon. That was where Thais and Hesiona hoped to meet again.
They spent the last sleepless night before Succoth in Thais’ quarters. Chilly Sinai wind penetrated through heavy drapes, causing the weak flame of the luminary to flutter and making the two friends snuggle closer together. Hesiona remembered all the years spent at Thais’ household. They both cried aplenty, grieving for Egesikhora and for their own approaching parting.
Blinding sun rose from the dull low eastern hills, when the docking ropes were tossed to the pier. Ptolemy appeared in a Persian cape embroidered with silver, surrounded by a crowd of his friends. They greeted the new arrivals with loud shouts, which scared Salmaakh as much as it did during the Memphis symposium. Thais herself lead the snorting and bucking mare to the pier and handed her off to the experienced stablemen. Thais and Hesiona were taken in a carriage along the north shore of a small salt lake to the east, where the camp of Alexander’s top captains was located on a ledge above a valley. The inevitable symposium ended early – Nearchus was in a hurry. Thais returned from the feast by midnight with her eyes swollen with tears, and settled in a luxurious tent that used to belong to some Persian nobleman and was now prepared for her.
The hetaera could have never imagined that the grief from being separated from her former slave girl would be this strong.
The wound from the loss of Egesikhora and Menedem was not yet fully healed. The Athenian felt particularly lonely here, on a deserted slope, before a march into the unknown. As if guessing her state, Ptolemy came to see her despite the late hour. He captivated Thais with stories about Persia and she again fell under the spell of his intelligence, his articulate speech and incredible observance. Since the beginning of the campaign, the Macedonian kept a travel journal, capturing the amazing events efficiently and precisely. While Cretan Nearchus noticed primarily the nature of sea shores, Ptolemy turned out to be not only a supreme military man but also as an explorer of traditions and everyday life of the people in the conquered lands. Of course, much of Ptolemy’s attention was captured by women, as well as traditions pertaining to love and marriage, which were also of great interest to Thais. He told her about strange peoples living in the heart of Syria and Arabia. They treated women with very little regard and considered Aphrodite Pandemos to be a goddess of debauchery, not understanding her high gift to people. They did not understand it because they were afraid of love, which made them feel defective and apparently ugly, because they were strangely afraid of nudity. These were the people, whose women did not dare appear nude even before their husbands. Unfulfilled in Eros, they were greedy for food and jewelry and were very afraid of death, even though their life was dull and unattractive. It was difficult to imagine that they did not understand drawings or paintings and unable to recognize images. It was useless to tell them about beauty created by artists. That was how they lived on the edge of the desert – without joy, in wars and riots.
“Do they completely reject women?” – Thais was surprised.
“Not at all! They desire to have as many of them as possible. But all of it turns into crassness and rudeness. Their wives are slaves, who can bring up only slaves. Such is the payback for their ignorant and frightened women.”
“You are right!” – Thais became excited, “The Lacedemonian women enjoy much freedom, and there are no people braver than Spartans. Their heroics are legendary, just as the glory of their women.”
“Perhaps,” – Ptolemy agreed reluctantly, and noticing the gold necklace around the hetaera’s neck asked sternly, “Have you added any more stars after mine?”
“Of course. But not enough – only one. I must be growing old.”
“Wouldn’t we all wish to grow old like that,” – Ptolemy mumbled, “Show me!” Not waiting for her to respond he pulled the necklace out.
“Twelve beams on the star! And letter mu in the middle – does that stand for number twelve as well or is it a name?”
“Both a name and he number. But it is time – dawn is coming from the hills.”
Ptolemy left without a word. Thais have never seen him this glum and shrugged her shoulders in puzzlement as she slid under the light warm spread and declining even the massage, offered to her by the new slave girl Za-Asht – a Finikian. Ill-tempered and proud, with the stature of a priestess of some unknown god, she managed to win her mistress’s respect and, in her turn, grew sympathetic toward her. Za-Asht’s gloomy eyes warmed up considerably when they rested upon Thais, especially when her mistress couldn’t see her looking. Thais spent the entire next day in her tent. The dull valley surrounding them did not inspire her curiosity, and the entire large Macedonian cavalry was swept in the chaos of preparation for the next campaign. Hundreds more of Macedonian soldiers arrived all the time and were temporarily settled on the fertile lands around the Delta.
The army was going to Tyr – the main gathering point – following an ancient road going through Edom to Damascus. The first stage of the journey was four and a half thousand stadiums long, according to the experienced guides and road surveyors.
This road went through deserted plateaus, tree-covered mountains, valleys and river shores, having been witness to many campaigns of many people, forgotten bloody battles and tragic marches of those taken as slaves. Giskosi, Assyrians, Persians – and many others attempted to get to the wealthy and fertile Egypt over thousands of years. Even Scythians must have passed here from the Caucasian lands in the distant east to the borders of Egypt.
Infantry detachments formed from the best soldiers, who did not wish to part with the treasures they have gathered, have already sent their possessions to Tyr, using hundreds of carriages captured from the Persians, and were soon to follow in the same direction. Alexander managed to beat Ptolemy with his usual speed and was already in Tyr.
Thais told Ptolemy that she didn’t want to use a carriage. The tooth-shattering bumping of these vehicles along the rocky mountain roads would have ruined the entire trip. The Macedonian agreed and ordered to bring Salmaakh, to have the mare examined by the connoisseurs before the long journey. Leontiscus showed up too being the best horse expert in the entire Alexander’s army. Flax seed was being added to Salmaakh’s feed for several days including the time on the ship, in order to purge her digestive system. Her dark-ash hide, brushed out by a Paphlagonian stableman, glistened like dark silk.
Leontiscus ran his fingernails along Salmaakh back, pressing hard. The horse shivered and stretched. The Thessalian hopped onto her back and sent galloping across the valley. The even beat of her hoof made the connoisseurs nod approvingly, but the chief of Thessalian cavalry was displeased when he returned.
“Shaky trot! Look – her front hooves are rounder than her rear ones, but not any bigger. Her pasterns are too arched – she’ll wear off her hooves on the rocky roads of Syria…”
Thais ran up to the mare and hugged her around the neck, ready to defend her favorite.
“It’s not true! She is beautiful; you yourself admired her at the feast. Look how she stands – her legs are perfectly in line.”
“Her legs are a bit long, it would be better if they were shorter…”
“But look how broad her chest is!”
“Yes, but her rear is too narrow. Also, look – her groin is long and stretched out to an entire palm and two fingers. You might be light, but if we do twenty parsangs, she will run out of breath.”
“First of all, I will run out of breath. Or do you think I am anywhere near you?”
The Thessalian burst out laughing, a vertical wrinkle at the bridge of his nose smoothed out, stubbornly frowning eyebrows rose, and the Athenian saw a very young man in this stern warrior, almost a boy. Contrary to Spartans who considered a man mature only since the age of thirty, Macedonians began their military service since the age of fourteen or fifteen and became seasoned experienced veterans by the time they were twenty-five. The chief of Thessalian cavalry must have been just such young veteran, like many of Alexander’s captains.
“Forgive me. You are attached to your horse, as a true rider should be. And Salmaakh is not at all a bad horse. Still, if you are to go to Asia with us, you ought to get another horse, and keep Salmaakh for dancing.”
“Where am I supposed to get another horse!” – Thais said, offended for her mare, “…And the one better than my beautiful girl.”
She patted Salmaakh’s curving neck as the latter threw a mean sideways glance as Leontiscus, as if understanding that she was being criticized.
Leontiscus exchanged glances with Ptolemy, and the Macedonian waived at someone.
“Hey, bring a horse for mistress Thais!”
The hetaera didn’t get a chance to say anything, when she heard clear distinctive hoof beat. A boy burst out of the stables atop a chestnut stallion and barely managed to stop the spirited horse by leaning back and pulling hard on the reins.
The steed’s hide was coppery chestnut without a single spot – shiny and shimmering. His long neatly trimmed mane and tight at the base full tail were black as were his eyes, which made the animal that much more beautiful. The Athenian has never seen horses of that color.
Thais immediately noticed the longer torso with curving flanks and legs that were shorter than Salmaakh’s, with front hooves larger than the rear ones. Long flat shoulder blades, long whither, broad croup – all these advantages were obvious even to a layman. Raised head and proudly carried tail gave the stallion a particularly proud posture. The horse’s face seemed serious, even mean because of the fluttering nostrils. But as soon as one looked into the animal’s large kind eyes, any concern vanished. Thais walked up to the steed boldly, taking the reins from the boy, and patted his neck. The chestnut stallion neighed briefly and quietly.
“He recognizes you!” – Ptolemy exclaimed with pleasure, “Very well, take ownership! I have long since been looking for an Enetian horse for you with qualities that distinguish one out of a hundred thoroughbreds.”
“What is his name?”
“Boanergos (Child of Thunder). He is six years old and has been well-trained. Have a seat and try him out.”
Thais tossed of the battle cape she used to protect herself against the wind, patted the chestnut stallion once more and hopped onto his back. The steed seemed to have expected that and immediately launched into a broad trot, steadily increasing his pace. It was odd – after Salmaakh’s trot Thais felt almost no bouncing. The horse rocked from side to side, hitting with two hooves at the same time. Becoming curious, the Athenian leaned over and noticed that the horse moved both legs on the same side simultaneously – front left with hind left, front right with hind right. He was a pacer – a kind of horse Thais has never ridden before.
Delighted by the pacer’s gait, Thais turned around to send a smile to the great horse connoisseurs, which caused her to squeeze her knees a little. The sensitive steed dashed forward so quickly that the Athenian arched backward and had to use one hand to lean against the horse’s croup. Her breast seemed to form one line with the pacer’s outstretched neck and strands of the long mane. The wave of her loosely tied black hair streamed in the wind above the fanned out tail of the chestnut steed. This was the image of Thais that Leontiscus would remember forever.
As if wanting to show what he was capable of, the chestnut pacer flew forward faster than the wind, carrying his torso evenly and rocking from side to side. The hoof beat increased in pace, but the breadth of his gait did not grow shorter. Thais felt as if earth itself rushed under the horse’s hooves. The sensitive dancer’s ear could not find a single error in the precise rhythm, akin to the tempo of the maenadae’s dance during the celebration of Dionysus – two strikes to one drip of a fast clepsydra, used for keeping time in dancing.
The chestnut pacer reached far with his front legs, as if trying to cover more space. Thais filled with tenderness and patted his neck, then started gently slowing him down. Boanergos realized the skill and strength of his rider and obeyed her without delay. When the pacer slowed to a walk, she found it less comfortable and let the pacer go back to full speed when returning to the camp. She flew up to the group of connoisseurs and stopped the horse just as they were getting ready to jump out of the way.
“How do you like Boanergos?” – Ptolemy asked.
“Now do you understand what a proper horse for distant trips is like? He’ll trot for thirty parsangs. Although, the Syrians do have a saying that a mare is better than a stallion, for she is akin to a snake – she gets stronger in hot weather. Yours, however, just doesn’t have the right build.”
“Yes! Look at the breadth of his throat, and how proudly he carries his tail – he is filled to the brim with life force,” – one of the connoisseurs said, “A horse like that cannot be found for an entire talant, because he is a rarity.”
“Thais is a rarity too!” – Leontiscus said, “By the way, did anyone notice…”
“I did,” – a young lokhagos stepped forward, “The mistress and the horse are the same color! Only the eyes are different!”
“Have I earned forgiveness?” – Ptolemy asked.
“What for?” – the hetaera was surprised, “Although, if you are guilty of something, you would know better. Still, you have earned it. Catch!” – and Thais jumped off the horse straight into Ptolemy’s arms, as she did many times with Menedem. But while the mighty Spartan stood like a rock, Ptolemy wavered, despite all his strength, and almost dropped the hetaera. She managed not to fall only by putting her arm firmly around his neck.
“Bad omen!” – Thais laughed, “You won’t hold on to me.”
“Yes I will!” – Ptolemy spat arrogantly.
Thais freed herself from his arms, ran up to the pacer and patting him gently kissed his soft warm nose.
Boanergos shifted from one foot to another several times, tipped his head and lightly pushed Thais with his head, neighing softly. There was no better way to indicate that he liked his new mistress. At Ptolemy’s signal, a slave handed Thais a piece of barley bread. She unbridled the horse and gave him a treat. Having eaten it, the steed rubbed his head against her shoulder and as he was led away, Thais could have sworn that he looked back and winked at her – so mischievous was his expression.
Despite all of Ptolemy’s efforts, he could not seem to revive his old relationship with Thais. Spirited, mischievous and courageous girl, who seemed like an ideal lover to the Macedonian, gave way to a woman, who was just as courageous, but possessed greater inner strength and was mysterious and incomprehensible. Her interests no longer coincided with those of Ptolemy himself, despite the fact that he was an observant pragmatist and good strategist. Thais’ thirst for knowledge reminded him of Alexander. Ptolemy remembered one night-time conversation when he tried to engage Thais in politics.
While pontificating on the subject of Plato, Aristotle, Athenian democracy, and Spartan military state, he talked about the need to create a new city that would be more splendid and glorious than Athens. Lands conquered by Alexander have already formed a strong empire, including the entire Inner Sea coast from Hellespont to the Libyan shores. Not one of the previous state structures: polis (city-state), monarchy, or oligarchy – suited this new country. Nothing but tyranny would do – a rule by one man in possession of military force. But tyranny was short-lived, and military luck was changeable. The life of an army leader was even more subject to chance – especially the life of one as prominent as Alexander. It was necessary to immediately create a clear plan for structuring Alexander’s empire, but the king himself hasn’t even thought of the name for his new country…
Ptolemy noticed that Thais was bored and was listening only out of courtesy. In response to his forced outrage, Thais said calmly that all these thoughts appeared immature to her. One could not fantasize about the future, but had to do what was best for the people now, at the present moment.
“People? What people?” – Ptolemy asked with irritation.
“All of them!”
“What do you mean all of them?!” – the Macedonian stopped himself when he saw a patronizing smile that flickered on her face, and suddenly remembered that Alexander was telling him the same thing when he discussed homonoya – the equality of all minds.
Their road took them north. Green islands of forests appeared more and more frequently in the midst of a grayish sea of shrubs growing on the slopes of hills. Thais was used to the rough, scratchy oak, pistachio and myrtle thickets since childhood. Large areas of black-trunk strawberry trees grew here as widely as in Hellas, as did the small laurel groves, where the air was stuffy even during cooler days. Thais loved the tall wide pine trees with long needles, soft carpet of fallen needles and slanting rays of sunlight making their way through the branches. When the road passed through the crests and flat peaks of mountain ranges, the army was surrounded by the primal might of ancient cedar and fir trees. Very thick and bumpy fir trunks with their straight branches hanging to the ground, obstructed the entire world, creating a quiet, dusky kingdom of silence and isolation. The powerful Syrian sun barely penetrated their shiny coarse and short needles. The Athenian was unforgettably impressed by her first meeting with a grove of Lebanese cedars. Until then, only the oaks and very tall pines growing in sacred places filled Thais with reverence. No matter how big, the trees lost their individuality in groves and forests, becoming a crowd, from which an eye could only distinguish certain features, adding them up to the image of a tree.
But here, every cedar was a “personality”, and the multitude of colossal trees did not merge into an impression of a forest. Row after row of these remarkable incomparable giants approached, allowing one to admire every detail, and then vanished behind the next turn in the road. Their trunks up to ten elbows thick, with coarse, scaly but not very thick bark the color of Salmaakh’s hide seemed to melt under their own weight, pouring into the rocky soil in bumps and bubbles. The cedars branched out low to the ground, their huge branches undulating into most fanciful shapes. Snakes, hydras and dragons were outlined against the blinding sky. The trees reminded Thais of hecatoncheirs – hundred-armed creations of Gaya, who rebelled against heaven with all of their awkward might.
More slender trees grew further down the slopes, having escaped the axes of Finikian ship-builders and citizens of Byblos who prepared lumber for the temple of Salomon. These giants stood up straight, frequently splitting into two treetops and spreading their mighty branches to fantastic breadth. Millions of small branches with a fluff of short dark-green or sometimes bluish needles grew horizontally, forming flat patterned levels, one row after another, soaring up like the stairway of tree-dwellers – dryads.
Ptolemy explained that these were leftovers of the once mighty woods. Further to the north they turned broader and more imperious, especially in the Taurus mountains of Cilicia, in Southern Cappadocia and in Phrygia. Hearing about the woods that were cut down there, Thais thought that despite her love of beautiful ships, these most important creations of human hands were not worth a cut down giant. Destruction of a colossal tree seemed like sacrilege by men against Gaya’s sacred rights as the all-bearing nursing mother of all. This would unquestionably be punished by wrath of mother-Earth. In fact, punishment could already be seen in the endless rows of sun-scorched mountain ranges, whose searing stones emitted suffocating heat day and night.
Having passed through the cedar grove the road took the Macedonian army to a ledge leading through craggy pale-colored mountains with scant plant life, covered with dark vertical “ribs” that made them look like walls of a city. Their route was taking them closer to the sea.
“Are there any wild animals here?” – Thais ask, “Do I need to worry about the horse?”
“You might run into a lion or a panther here and there in the mountains, but they’ve become rare because of the constant hunts. Several centuries ago a breed of small elephants lived in the valleys and hills of Syria. They were hunted by Egyptians. Finikians gathered ivory for Crete and exterminated the elephants completely.”
Thais easily made daily marches of three hundred stadiums. Ptolemy did not rush, letting the last few detachments from the Delta catch up with them. Leontiscus and his Thessalians rode off ahead of everyone. Before they parted, he taught Thais how to use the Persian sweat blanket with wide straps and a military-style chest cover. The Athenian quickly came to appreciate its conveniences on a distant trip. Leontiscus gave Thais a jug of potion made of leaves and green shells of walnuts, boiled in vinegar. It was used to wipe down the horses – its scent repelled stinging insects. The Thessalian explained to Thais the rules for rubbing down sweaty horses, and the hetaera always made sure that the stablemen rubbed down her steed starting from the legs. Whenever a horse became fatigued, its ears grew cold, he said. Leontiscus told her how to massage the ears, restoring the steed’s energy. Thais found out many such small and very important secrets from Leontiscus during the five days the Thessalians traveled with Ptolemy’s men. At this point, after ten days on the road, approximately three thousand stadiums separated the detachment from the Egyptian border.
Having crossed the low mountains, they emerged into a plain. Ruins of massive ancient structured towered above the disorderly mass of small town homes on the eastern side. This was Armageddon, one of the “Wheel” cities of the ancient king Salomon, with stables that housed several hundred horses seven centuries ago. Ptolemy told Thais about an ancient prophecy of Hebrew elders. The last battle between the forces of good and evil was to take place at this very place – in the valley of Armageddon. The seers did not indicate the exact time of the battle. Later on, Thais found out that Indian philosophers predicted the time of the decisive battle between Light and Dark, but not the place. It was thought that the great contest started by the godlike rulers to satisfy their arrogance and love of power, destroyed the best of their people and started a new historic era of accumulation of anger and despotism – Kaliuga. The terrible final battle was to take place at the end of Kaliuga.
Putting the two prophecies together, Thais determined that the Armageddon battle was to take place in twenty-three and a half centuries after the year of her birth and was surprised by how people could be interested in something that might happen in the impossibly distant future. However, she remembered that Indians believed in reincarnation and series of repeated births even stronger than the Orphics: if someone believed in the endless duration of his life on earth, it was no wonder that he was interested in the events of such distant future. Thais herself, however, did not believe in the possibility of endless transformations. The Orphic teachings were yet to overcome the Helenian notion about the temporary nature of life, sucked in with her mother’s milk. And the endless wanderings through the darkness of Hades was not attractive to anyone…
The road descended to the sea and stretched along the coast all the way to Tyr. Ptolemy suddenly decided to increase the pace and they crossed the remaining four hundred stadiums in a day and a part of a moonlit night. This last dash proved to be fairly easy for Thais, who was by then sufficiently trained and had an excellent horse. Za-Asht was left in charge of a cart with Thais’ possessions and Salmaakh. Having arrived to the huge camp near Tyr, the hetaera discovered the reason for Ptolemy’s rush. Alexander had the first large disagreement with the oldest and most experienced officers of the Macedonian army. Darius sent a letter, in which he offered peace, a huge ransom as well as the entire coastal portion of Asia and Egypt. Alexander rejected the offer, replying that until Darius showed up for the decisive battle or to lay his title at Alexander’s feet, he would be pursued to the ends of Ecumene.
Parmenius – the oldest of the Macedonian captains and Philipp’s comrade – was the first to object to such arrogant reply. “If I were Alexander, I would have accepted the Persians’ conditions,” – Parmenius said. “So would I,” – Alexander agreed, “if I were Parmenius.” Senior officers believed that one ought not constantly push their military luck, especially when the enemy still had enormous resources. Heading away from the sea into the heart of the country, into the endless plains was dangerous. Macedonian army could find itself cut off from their supply chains: it was unknown where Darius was gathering his troops and when he was planning to deliver the decisive strike. While the army had a chance to rest during winter, a scorching summer lay ahead and a difficult march into the immeasurable distance. The army would get exhausted, especially its strongest part – the infantry: the phalanx and the shield-bearers. The latter were now referred to as argiroaspidae – “silver shields”; they received this distinction for their unprecedented courage at Issus. Arguments, supported by taking stock of the fantastic trophies, conquered lands and captured slaves, were so weighty that the contingent of older and more cautious officers took Parmenius’s side. Younger officers, who were missing only Ptolemy, were decisively in favor of continuing the campaign, crushing Darius completely and conquering lands to the end of Ecumene.
Alexander realized that the younger ones were carried forth by the battle spirit and love of adventures more, than by any other considerations. The great strategist himself understood the grave danger of the continuing war, but unlike the elders, he also saw the impossibility of ending it. After the battle at Issus, destruction of Finikian cities and invasion of Egypt, he could not stop at this half-way point. In a few more years his splendid army, dissipated among various stations, would stop being that reliable military force with which he could resist the scores of Persians. Even if there were no new battles, thirty thousand Macedonians would dissolve in these lands like salt in water. Alexander had no choice. Most importantly, with a stubbornness inherited both from his mother and from Philipp, he wanted to realize his long-time youthful dream: to go to the east, where the sun’s carriage rose from the edge of earth and the waters of the ocean – to the boundaries of mortal life, to the cape Tamar of the ancient maps…
Viewed from the last mountain range, the Macedonian camp was laid out in a scattering of lights. Despite the late hour, fires still burned, lighting the circles of soldiers caught in lively discussions. The others, who missed supper for some reason, were waiting for bread to finish baking and meat to finish roasting – supplies provided to the army aplenty on Alexander’s orders.
Ptolemy slowed down his tired horse and turned to find himself face to face with Thais. The hetaera rode up to him as close as she could, seeing Ptolemy’s intention to tell her something in secret.
“Listen, Orphian! Sometimes you possess the gift of foresight and point out correct solutions. What would you advise Alexander – to make peace with Darius or go against him?”
“The king needs no advice, especially from me!”
“I understand that more than anyone else. The question is for you, if you were asked to make a decision?”
“I say: forward, only forward! We must not stop! It means death!”
“I knew it!” – Ptolemy exclaimed in admiration, “You are a true companion for an army leader and, perhaps, a king!”
With these words, Ptolemy put his arms around Thais, pulling her to him for a kiss, but then pushed away with a yelp. His horse jumped into the darkness with a strike of his heels. Puzzled by the Macedonian’s disappearance, Thais looked around, and realizing what happened burst into laughter. Boanergos, who was jealously protective of his rider, bit Ptolemy as painfully as he could. In a moment, the Macedonian re-appeared.
“Let’s ride down!” – and, not looking at the hetaera, he urged his horse forward.
Subdued luminaries burned in a side attachment to Alexander’s tent. The tired army commander lay on his wide and uncomfortable bed, listening to Thais. He invited her over on the eve of their departure after keeping her from dancing for his officers. Thais enjoyed the flashes of sudden spirited curiosity in his eyes under his massive forehead, when he lifted his large heavy head from his arm. The shield of Achilles blackened with time hung over his bed. Alexander never parted with it since the day he took it from a temple at the ruins of Troy, where he left his own shield instead. The weight of the shield was proof of having belonged to a mighty hero, whose example excited the Macedonian prince since childhood. However, Alexander carried in his soul a sad disappointment he (and many before him) experienced at the Ilion hill. All of Iliad’s heroes had fought there. That was difficult to imagine, when standing in front of a small hill. Of course, nearly a thousand years passed since them, but the giant temples of Egypt, the palaces of Crete and the cities of Finikia were even older! Alexander reconciled himself with a loss of his childish fantasies about Troy only when he realized that the number of people inhabiting the face of Gaya grew every century, the boundaries of Ecumene broadened and a truly great deed would have to satisfy higher standards. He had more than fulfilled the dream of his father Philipp and the warlike Isocrates . Now, if only he could crush Darius and conquer Persia completely…
As if guessing his thoughts Thais asked, “What happens when you defeat Darius and open the gates to Asia?”
“To the east, to the ocean!” – Alexander replied, feeling inexplicable trust toward the Athenian hetaera.
“Is it far away?”
“Do you know of a diaphragm of mountain range separating dry land?”
“I know a little.”
“There are thirty thousand stadium from here to its eastern edge – cape Tamar at the distant end of land.”
“Iocheara ! To go through this, constantly fighting…”
“It’s not that much. In order to get here from Memphis, you have already traveled over four thousand stadiums. I think once we beat Darius, there won’t be a large army left to resist us. In a year – year and a half I shall reach the shores of the ocean never seen by another mortal, or even immortal, except Helios…”
Alexander’s perceptive gaze did not find the expected admiration in Thais’ face. The hetaera appeared to be deep in thought.
“Is this really your most coveted dream?” – she asked quietly, lowering her head.
“Yes! I have been obsessed with it since youth. And now I am at the threshold of realizing it.”
“And how many thousands of people will die, paving your path with corpses? Is the mysterious cape really worth it? It is probably just a bare rock on the shore of a dead ocean?”
The great army leader laughed – unexpectedly and merrily.
“A woman, even the smartest one, always remains shortsighted. Pericles’s Aspasia was the same way!”
“My mind really is small. I do not understand you, majesty!”
“It is so simple! I will only kill those who resist the movement of my army. It will go through like a plough, equaling all people. Did you not say yourself that good people everywhere are alike? Did you not admire mo disagreement with teacher Aristotle? I think intelligent people are worthy everywhere, and homonoya – the equality of mind – must unite Persia, India, Hellas, Egypt, Italy and Finikia. This can only be achieved by military force…”
“Because rulers and tyrants, army leaders and statesmen are afraid to lose their rights in my new state and to become lost in the multitude of the worthiest people. They will force their people to fight. They can only be brought to obedience by destroying their fortresses, killing their officers and taking away their wealth.”
“Are you capable of doing that amidst the endlessness of Ecumene?”
“I am the only one who can. Gods made me unbeatable till my death, and the Ecumene is not all that endless, as I told you. I’ll go to Parapamiz beyond the Roof of the World , to the Indus and further to the south till I reach the ocean, while Nearchus outlines the coast from Babylon to our meeting point at the edges of the earth.”
“When I listen to you, I start believing the teachings of Hebrew scholars!” – Thais exclaimed, “They have Sephiroth – Mind, also referred to as Heart or Vina – female beginning. Wisdom or Hokma is a male beginning. With you, I realize that if women represent considerate order, then wisdom destroying it belongs to men!”
Thais’ philosophic discussion was interrupted by the Black Cleitus. He glanced at the Athenian, noticed his leader’s slight nod and said, “Some wise man wants to see you. He says that he has an important apparatus (as Macedonians called any battle equipment) and can tell only you about it. You are leaving camp tomorrow…”
“Indeed! Some people find things out even before I do! He really must be a wise man or a great mechanic. Let him in.”
A slightly plump short man with shifty eyes entered, bowing constantly, looked over Thais cautiously, probably decided that such beautiful woman must undoubtedly be as stupid as a Beotian, and knelt in front of Alexander.
“What kind of apparatus do you have and where is it?” – the king asked.
“Presently only here,” – the newcomer pointed at his forehead and heart.
“How dare you!..”
“Do not be angry, majesty! The idea is so simple that the apparatus can be created in half an hour.” The inventor pulled out a massive, very sharp copper nail about one epydama in length with roughened surface. “You need to take wide cedar boards and nail these into them. A hundred such boards scattered in front of the enemy will stop the fastest cavalry attack, and you can make many hundreds. They are light to transport and easy to use. Can you imagine, how effective such defense would be? A horse that steps on a nail with one hoof would rip its own leg off, and if it steps on a board with two feet, it will fall and throw off its rider. If the boards are spread widely enough, he would also land on the nails – and it would be over, for he could never get up and he would die a terrible death. Your soldiers would only have to pick up the weapons and valuables… It is a very simple and very effective defense!”
“It really is very simple and effective,” – Alexander said slowly, looking at the inventor.
From the corner of his eye, the king saw disgust on Thais’ face, which the Athenian wasn’t even trying to hide.
“Were you the only one who came up with this? Does anyone else know?”
“No, no, great victor! I am – just for you… I thought only you could appreciate the value of my invention! And – reward…”
“Yes… reward,” – Alexander said thoughtfully and quietly, and then his eyes flashed with anger, “There are limits, that no mortal or even god is allowed to cross. True destiny is determined in an honest battle of the best with the best… Cleitus!” – he shouted so loudly, that the inventor who was just rising up to stand, fell back to his knees before the king.
The giant burst into the tent.
“Take him, gag him and kill him immediately!”
The inventor’s screams behind the tent stopped. Thais silently knelt at Alexander’s feet, looking up at him with admiration and gently running her hands over the deep scars on his knees. Alexander placed a hand on the back of her head under the heavy knot of hair and wanted to lift her up for a kiss. Merry voices sounded just outside the tent. Black Cleitus called out to someone. Alexander’s associates entered, including Ptolemy.
It turned out that a messenger arrived from Lysimachus: a bridge across the Euphrates near Thapsak was ready. The leading detachment of Agrians have already crossed to the left bank. Information supplied by the cryptii-spies were confusing and contradictory, which was why the crossing was delayed…
Alexander rose, forgetting about Thais. The hetaera slipped out of the tent, made a farewell gesture to Black Cleitus, who sat like a statue on a massive chest in the front section of the royal tent, and stepped out under the large stars of the Syrian night. Having descended carefully down the slippery gravel path to a creek where her tent stood, Thais paused at the entrance thoughtfully. Za-Asht called her in for the evening bath. The hetaera sent the Finikian to bed and sat down on a leather cushion from Damascus – to listen to the quiet bubbling of the creek and to watch the sky. In the last few weeks, she rarely managed to be alone with the sky, which was necessary to restore inner peace. Night’s carriage rolled on behind the hills, when gravel on the path crunched under Ptolemy’s firm heavy steps.
“I came to say good bye!” – the Macedonian said, “Tomorrow we’ll fly ahead of everyone to Damascus, and from there – to the north, across Hamat, to the Euphrates crossing.”
“How far is that?”
“Three thousand stadiums.”
“Artemis argotera!” – Thais blurted out. She always called on Artemis when she was startled.
“It’s nothing, darling, compared to what we have yet to travel. I live you in the care of the head of the detachment in charge of guarding the crossing. That is where you shall wait for the next turn of fate.”
“Where? In a military camp on the river?”
“No. Alexander himself advised… For some reason he wants to take care of you.”
“Have you forgotten that he invited me back in Athens?”
“I have! He is acting as if you are…”
“Perhaps, I would like to, but that’s not the way it is. So, what did Alexander advise?”
“Three hundred stadiums north of the crossing, along the royal road from Ephesus to Susa, amidst pine groves atop sacred hills lies the city of Hierapolis with its ancient temples of Aphrodite Militis. You shall give this silver chest with Alexander’s seal to the high priestess, and they will treat you like a messenger of gods!”
“Who haven’t heard of the Hierapolis sanctuary?! I thank you and shall set out tomorrow!”
“You won’t need any guards until you reach the crossing, and after that you will be entrusted to the one-eyed Gigamus – he has three hundred soldiers… But enough about business – it has all been decided! You shall wait for me or my messenger, or some other news!”
“I do not want ‘other news’, I believe in victory!” – Thais put her arms around Ptolemy and pulled him close, “Potnia Teron (the mistress of animals) will be on your side. I shall make rich sacrifices to her, because everyone is certain, that the plains beyond the river are under her power…”
“That would be well,” – the Macedonian said, “Unknown lies before us, frightening some, exciting others. Alexander and I remembered the time we hunted borius in the Libyan desert – a beast never seen by anyone in Egypt, and so feared by the Libyans that they wouldn’t dare even talk about it. We never found borius – I wonder whether the same might happen with Darius?”
The Macedonian left Thais at dawn, when the camp filled with the jingling of horse’s bridles. Pushing a curtain aside, Ptolemy stopped at the entrance with flashing eyes and flaring nostrils.
“Kinupontai phonon halinoi!” – he recited a verse from a famous poem, “The horse’s bridles ring of death!”
Thais made a sign of protection with her fingers, the curtain fell and the Macedonian hurried toward the tent of his commander, where the rest of the associates have already assembled. The hetaera spread out on her bed, thinking and listening, until the noise at the camp seized and the sound of hooves faded in the distance.