Thais finally receives news of Alexander's army. Pushed to a breaking point, exhausted and lost, the army and its leader can move no further. They turn back to return home, but the journey turns out to be almost more perilous than anything else they'd encountered over the course of the Indian campaign.
Alexander continued pushing to the east with the same zeal, crossing one river after another, working his way through battles in a hilly country inhabited by the Aratts – brave Indian tribes who lived without kings. The Macedonians had to fight over thirty-eight fortified towns and settlements before they crossed the rivers Akesinas (Chenab) and Hydraot (Ravi). During the battle at the fortress of Sangala Alexander’s army lost twelve hundred people. The army reached the fifth river, Hyphasys (Bias), and Alexander continued moving east along the impossibly tall mountains visible from as far as a thousand stadiums. The ridges marched in steps toward the hilly country and there were no changes in their surroundings. Nothing indicated that they were nearing any type of boundary. All of upper India was behind them, but no one knew what lay ahead. The most experienced cryptii did not know the local language and could not find out even a little bit about the way forward.
And so, the fifth river flowed before them, as swift and cold as those they had crossed before. The same hills stretched beyond, wrapped in blue mist and the greenery of thick woods. The army stopped.
Porus told his conqueror about the land of Magadha beyond the Hyphasys, whose king had two hundred thousand infantry soldiers, twenty thousand horsemen and three thousand elephants. Officer Chandragupta who was imprisoned there and escaped had confirmed Porus’s words. In the south-west, there was a land of the mighty Aparajit (undefeated) tribes who owned many particularly large battle elephants. Nothing was said of the boundaries of the world or of the giant ocean! Suddenly the Macedonian soldiers realized that further travel was pointless. The land inhabited by skilled warriors could not be taken by surprise. India was so vast, that Alexander’s entire army could be scattered and lost there, their bones buried among the endless hills. The loot no longer attracted the tired army. Their infallible and unbeatable leader went too far in his search for the Great Ocean, leading them to the land he no longer possessed the knowledge to conquer , his luck almost running out at the Hydaspes. There, the army was saved by the selfless courage of the phalanx and the shield-bearers. But the veterans no longer possessed their former daring, broken by the terrible battle and the endless war. Once they refused to obey, the army insisted: the march ahead made no sense, they had to return home, while they still had the energy to cross all that space.
Alexander was beside himself. He insisted that the end of their journey was near. The Ganges was close, and the ocean was just beyond, and then they would all sail home, past India to Egypt.
During a war council with Alexander, Kenos, a Hydaspes battle hero represented the army. He said that the information collected by the cryptii were being held secret from the soldiers: the Ganges was not close at all. It was three thousand stadiums away. There was no ocean beyond the Ganges, only the endless mountain ranges. Couldn’t Alexander see, how few Macedonians and Helenians were left in the army? Did he not keep track of the numbers of killed, wounded, deceased from the illnesses or left to stay for a long time, if not forever, in the new cities he built? Those who were still alive and able were worn out like horses who’d been ridden too far and too long.
At the sign from Kenos, seven tall Macedonians stood before the king naked, wearing only their helms and showing them many scars and sores from the old and still-bleeding wounds. They shouted, “Alexander, do not make us go forth against our will! We are not the same as we were before; if we are forced, we will become even worse. We can no longer support you, or have your eyes lost their sight?”
The great leader became enraged and tore at his own clothes, intending to show these “weaklings” his own scars and wounds, of which he had more than any of the soldiers, but then stopped himself and retired to his tent, taking no food. Finally, he sent a messenger to the soldiers, telling them that he would obey the will of gods.
It has been long since the army had watched the old seer Aristander, who barely bore the difficulties of the march, with such anxiety, when he cut open the sacrificial sheep on the shore of the Hyphasys. Before Aristander could pronounce the menacing foretelling, Ptolemy, Seleucus, Kenos and all other officers standing nearby saw clear signs of failure and death. They could not cross the river! When Alexander ordered the army to turn back, the soldiers’ loud cheers demonstrated that their patience was at its limit. He also ordered twelve stone columns to be erected on the bank of the Hyphasys, marking the end of his Indian campaign. The army returned to the rain-flooded Nikea on the Hydaspes, where the fleet was being constructed. Kenos died of exhaustion upon arrival, having served a great service to his comrades before his death.
Four days later a messenger arrived and told her that Alexander was waiting for her at Hephaestion’s tomb. Thais twirled in front of the mirror, choosing a lavender ecsomida just above the knees and the earrings from the Heavenly Empire – the gift from the yellow-faced man. Having thought about it, she also added the necklace from the talons of the black gryph – the memento from the Eridu temple. Only a firm demand from Thais forced Eris to stay “home”, which meant accompanying the Athenian no further than the city walls. Twelve year-old Boanergos scattered the measured hoof beat of a pacer as swiftly as before.
Alexander sat on the top step of the mausoleum without armor, helm or weapons, wearing only the leg coverings he did not like taking off, because they hid the scars of terrible wounds on his legs.
He took the pacer’s reins and caught Thais as she was dismounting, gently tossing her up into the air. The smart horse walked away without command and hid in the shade of the elm. Alexander peered at the Athenian, seeing her for the first time after a long separation, ran his fingers over the talon necklace and touched a tinkling carved earring. Thais explained the meaning of the gryph’s talon – the sign of the Guardian of Secret Paths – and told him how she came to have it.
Alexander listened, as his gaze glided over her figure, clearly outlined through the transparent ecsomida.
“Are you still wearing the chain belt?” – he asked noticing the glint of gold, “Still with the xi?”
“There cannot be another one, impossible!”- Thais replied quietly, “I wanted to thank you, king! For the house in the New City, near the Lugargira gate.”
“I use it to escape sometimes,” – the king chuckled sadly, “but I cannot stay long.”
“There are too many matters of state and also…” – Alexander suddenly switched from the dispirited manner of speaking he had adopted recently, “Sometimes I wish to throw myself into the fire of Eros,” – he spoke energetically, “To feel like a young man again. In you I have found the divine madness, which also inhabits my soul akin to the underground fire. You cracked the stone walls and let it out. What man can resist such force?”
“In order to awaken it, one requires a force in response, as a salamander requires fire!” – Thais said, “And there is not one, except you.”
“Yes, when I was the way I met you in Memphis, no – in the middle of the Euphrates. That man is far away now,” – Alexander said, subsiding.
Thais looked at the king’s beautiful face, finding the unfamiliar traces of tired and disdainful cruelty, unsuitable for Alexander’s prior image – that of a dreamer and the bravest of the brave warriors. Such people could never be either disdainful or cruel. His low forehead seemed more rounded from the pronounced eyebrow ridges. His large straight nose was emphasized by the sharp creases near the mouth, whose full lips have already started to stretch over the strong round chin. Deep vertical lines cut through the once-smooth outlines of his cheeks. His skin remained as smooth as before, reminding of the very young age of the great king. In Sparta, Alexander would have reached the age of a grown man only two and a half years ago.
“Are you very tired, my king?” – Thais asked, filling the question with all the tenderness she was capable of, as if the great conqueror and ruler had suddenly become a boy not much older than her Leontiscus.
Alexander lowered his head in silent agreement.
“Does the urge for the boundaries of Ecumene still burn in you?” – the Athenian asked quietly, “Perhaps, you’ve chosen the wrong path?”