The ancient Babylon meets Thais with its hanging gardens, the Etemenanki Tower and a series of encounters, one of which changes her life forever.
The giant number of horsemen facing the Macedonian camp surprised and frightened even the most experienced warriors. War elephants, never before seen by the Macedonians, hovered in the distance like gray ghosts. Gilded armor and spears of the “Immortals” – Darius’s personal guards – glittered in the sun, as they rode in very tight rows atop incredibly tall horses. The more experienced soldiers recognized the colorful dress of the Partheans, Sogdians, Bactrians, and even Scythians from beyond the great Asian river Oxus. It seemed as if the horde would rush through like a storm to bring death under the hooves of countless horses to the impudent army, that dared to penetrate so far into the strange country at the border between the steppes and the labyrinth of mountain ranges.
Wind rose in the evening, shadowing the entire valley in red dust, and even greater fear possessed the Macedonians. During a military council Parmenius, the commander of the entire cavalry, and the other captains started asking Alexander to strike at night, when the Persian cavalry would have no advantage over the Macedonian infantry. Alexander declined this suggestion and set the battle right after dawn, but no sooner than the soldiers were fed. Ptolemy supported his friend, although the great strategist would have been just as staunch even if he stood alone. He went to bed and fell asleep quickly. Later on, Hephaestion told Leontiscus about Alexander’s consideration. The army leader saw and felt the fear taking greater and greater hold of his soldiers, but did nothing to dispel it. Alexander showed calm that was unusual for him. He knew that a man was the most dangerous to his enemy when he was the most scared, with years of training and military discipline keeping him in formation along with his comrades. The army knew what would happen in the case of a defeat. Alexander used the fact in place of inspiring speeches and loud promises.
Had they attacked at night, when people did not feel the same sense of common support and could not see their captains, their fear could have assisted the Persians and ruined that desperate battle push, used so frequently by the Macedonian infantry and cavalry. Alexander’s calculations turned out to be completely justified.
Untried in campaigns, not molded together in battles, Darius’s giant army dashed at the Macedonians and created incredible crowding and chaos in the center. Alexander’s left wing commanded by Parmenius and including Leontiscus and his Thessalians, was crumpled by the Persian cavalry, torn in half and forced to retreat behind the temporary walls of the Macedonian camp. Parmenius asked for help twice, but Alexander did not respond. Leontiscus felt that the end was near. The Thessalian horsemen decided to not sell themselves short and fought desperately, deflecting the push of the Persian riders. Stout, broad-chested Thessalian horses exchanged bites with valley horses, pushed them and struck them with their hooves. At the same time, the Macedonian infantry-phalanx moved forward step by step in the center of the battle, in the midst of terrible chaos, cutting into the mass of enemies like a knife. The crowd was so dense that Darius was unable to use either the elephants or the carriages with sickle-like knives, designed to cut down the enemy at speed. Alexander too was unable to introduce his heavy cavalry into the battle and, having mounted Bucefal (which usually meant the start of an attack) was forced to wait, not answering Parmenius’s cries for help.
Finally, the phalanx was able to penetrate deep into the center. The light Persian cavalry was pushed to the right, and getaerosi – heavy cavalry – were able to strike in the newly-formed gap. They crushed the “Immortals” and found themselves before the Persian king’s personal guards, just as they did during the battle at the Issus.
Argiroaspides – Silver Shields – proving that they deserved their military glory, ran at the weakening rows of the Persians. The shield bearers, picked out to include the remarkably strong people, struck the enemy with their shields at a dead run. The Persians broke rank, opening their unprotected sides to the Macedonian swords.
Darius, seeing the break made by getaerosi, rushed away from the battle on a carriage. The “Immortals” followed him. The battle at the flanks continued with unrelenting rage. Alexander took some of the getaerosi and managed to make it to Parmenius from the left, immediately improving the situation for Leontiscus and his Thessalian horsemen. Side by side with the battle-fierce Alexander, Leontiscus crushed and pushed back the enemy.
Amidst clouds of dust, nobody noticed the gradual retreat of the Persians. Suddenly, they were all running. An army that consisted mostly of cavalry was able to retreat much faster than infantry. Somewhere on the right, Alexander’s Frakians and Agrians still fought with the Sogdians and Massagets, but the main Persian troops were running south-east past the left wing of the Macedonian army. Alexander ordered Parmenius and Leontiscus, who were most battle-weary, to remain on the battle field gathering the wounded and trophies, as he took some of his reserve troops to pursue the enemy. Warriors exhausted by a terrible battle were only able to chase them as far as the river. The army leader himself stopped the pursuit. It did not eliminate the enemy, but forced the Persians to leave behind anything that was marginally burdensome to the horses. The loot turned out to be even greater than at the Issus. In addition to jewels and weapons, clothes, tents and splendid fabrics, the Macedonians were able to capture the war elephants for the first time, as well as the carriages with knives and white wool tents embroidered with silver.
Alexander laughed quietly.
“You are dangerous, Athenian. Your name and death begin with the same letter . I felt how easy it was to die in your arms. I still feel very light and transparent, without desires or cares. Perhaps I am already a shadow in Hades?”
Thais lifted the king’s heavy hand and pressed it to her chest.
“Oh no, you are still filled with flesh and power!” – she said, kneeling on the floor at his feet.
Alexander looked at her for a while and then said, “You are like me on the battle field. You are filled with the same sacred power of the gods. The divine madness of the effort… You do not possess the first basis of care, which preserves life…”
“Only for you, majesty!”
“So much the worse. I cannot do that. One time I allowed myself to be with you, and a day is ripped out of my life completely!..”
“I understand, do not say anything more, beloved,” – this was the first time Thais addressed the king this way, “The burden of the shield of Achilles!”
“Yes! The burden of the one who decided to know the limits of Ecumene!”
“I remember that too,” – Thais said sadly, “I shall not ask you anymore, even though I’ll be here. But then, do not ask me either. Chains of Eros are forged faster for women and hold them stronger. Promise?”
Alexander stood up and picked up Thais like a feather. He held her against his broad chest for a long time then suddenly tossed her on the bed. Thais sat up with her head lowered and started braiding her tangled hair. Suddenly Alexander leaned forward and picked up the golden chain with a star and letter mu in the center.
“Give it to me as a memory of what took place,” – the king asked. The hetaera picked up her chain belt, thought about it, then kissed the ornament and held it out to Alexander.
“I shall order the best jewelers of Babylon to make you another in two days. …Of precious red gold with a star of fourteen rays and a letter xi.”
“Why xi?” – Thais lifted her long eyelashes in surprise.
“Remember. Nobody can explain this to you, except me. The ancient name of the river, in which we met, is Xarand. In eros you are akin to a sword – xyphos. But for a man to be with you is – epi xyron ehestai, as if on the blade of a razor."