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This story was a response to a challenge from Nicky (again!) and it did not, in the end, turn out the way I expected. I'm not sure if I like it or not, but I wrote it so I'll own it.

PS. That story about Thais hinted at previously? Haven't forgotten. Just letting it stew over.

Title: Let It Rain
Summary: Rain, thoughts and memories.
Feedback: Useful.

Outside, the rain came down in torrents. It sheeted across the hills, turning them to dull grey shapes in the gloom. There was wind behind it, cold and sharp with teeth of ice that cut through even the most sensible cloak, flinging the rain in at odd angles so that it found every chink, every gap, sending thrills of cold water running down a man’s neck and stinging his eyes. The ground had been churned to mud, thick and heavy. It clumped on a man’s boots, sucked at the hooves of the horses, made the carts slip and stick and lurch. Philip, who had campaigned through his share of bad weather over the years, knew there was nothing for it but to hunker down and wait it out.

The wind screeched through the tent ropes and tugged at the walls, making them flap and shudder. Philip shuddered too as the cold draught swirled around him. He cursed the weather, and the Scythian raiders that had brought him so far north so early in the season, and shifted himself a little closer to the brazier. The damned thing was giving out more smoke than heat, it seemed – hardly a surprise, it had been raining for days. Everything was damp, from the firewood to his boots and bedding. When he had been young and with a kingdom to win, Philip thought sourly, he would likely not have even broken stride for this. He would have marched through it and called it merely bracing. Now he was king of Macedon, and more than that … but he had paid for it. His bones ached in the cold these days – his shoulder where the collarbone had been snapped not so long ago, his bad leg where years ago a spearhead had gone in below the knee. Even his eye, missing for more than a decade now thanks to that old Illyrian fox Bardyllis, twinged oddly. He was only a handful of winters short of fifty. He was, he decided, getting too old for this.

The campaign in Scythia was going well enough, all things considered. There had been a scrap or two for the men to enjoy – and by Herakles, they had needed it after long miserable months spent laying siege to cities that just sat there like two lumps on a log. Philip had needed it too; he would take a decent battle over a siege any day. At least a battle, even the rough and ready sort that they had found up here against the Scythians, gave a man something to sink his teeth into. Walls did not give a man anything at all. They only stood there, stone on stone, and waited. Philip could be patient when he had to be, but no man was as patient as a stone. Especially not when the cities behind those walls were being supplied from the sea, with Athenian ships cruising up the far shore. Philip had not come so far as he had by fighting losing battles; he knew when to cut his losses. Athens and her allies he would deal with another time, on ground of his own choosing. Right now, he had the Scythians to contend with, and uprisings in the northern tribes. They were not used to having a master, these savage northmen – Macedon’s power was still new enough that they forgot it, sometimes. Sometimes, they needed to be reminded.

Philip was not reminding them alone. He’d had Alexandros join him out here, to give the boy something to prove himself on, and to give Antipatros some peace. Philip smiled to himself, thinking of that – only sixteen, and Alexandros had been running circles around Antipatros with his first regency, warring with the Maedi and settling cities in the process. Philip had taken pity on his old friend and summoned Alexandros from Macedon for this campaign. It was that, or have the boy found a whole new kingdom while he was gone. At least out here he had something to do with himself, and his mother nowhere in sight. It should be enough to keep him out of trouble.

Alexandros had not come alone, of course. He’d brought a regiment of fresh troops, and a handful of his own friends. Most were those who’d been at Mieza with him, some still young enough to take their turns at squire service like anyone else. Philip made sure that they did. He liked to see what kind of men he would be getting to build his kingdom with.

They were likely enough lads, for the most part. So they should have been – a Royal Page was a Royal Page, whether he was at court or not. There were a good handful of them, young hellions to one degree or another – and one in particular who had caught Philip’s eye the moment they rode in. Amyntor’s lad, who had turned into a bronze-haired beauty while no one was watching … Philip gave a wry chuckle at that; to think that he’d had that one locked away at Mieza, when he could have had him right under his nose the whole time, ripe for the plucking. Ah well, he was late for that now, Alexandros had beaten him to it. It was a harmless thing by all accounts, an affair between boys, intense as these things could be, but no more than that. They would grow out of it, everyone said; boys usually did. In the meantime, Philip wished them joy of it. Even, he thought, if that boy of Amyntor’s had gone and grown into a grey-eyed Ganymede. He had inherited his father’s height, though he’d yet to grow into it. He was a little coltish still, all long limbs and big hands and a set of shoulders that he didn’t quite fill out, though he would be striking when he did. His face though … ah, now, that was more than striking. Steady, clear eyes the same colour as the rain clouds overhead, a mouth that looked as it if knew how to smile even when it was still – well, and how was Philip meant not to notice that? That was one thing the boy had not inherited from his father, at any rate. Perhaps that was his mother in him, or perhaps that was purely himself. Either way, he had a weapon there, if he knew how to use it. A man’s looks could be help or hindrance, either – and sometimes both. Philip knew that; he had been reckoned handsome himself, once. Hephaistion, if he was wise, would come to know it too.

He was not only a pretty face. Philip had made certain to find that out. He’d had the boy rostered to do his squire service in turn – standing guard over the king’s tent, seeing to his weapons and armour, attending him about the camp. Hephaistion had a good head on his shoulders, Philip had been able to tell that at once. He was a worker too; he did what he was set to, without fault or complaint. Philip, in truth, had expected nothing less. His father had been the same – Amyntor had always been a man who did his duty well.

The king pulled the thick bearskin cloak he was wearing tighter about his shoulders, and sipped at the warm spiced wine in his cup. One of his pages had thought far enough ahead to have it prepared for him. Philip had half a mind to find out who it had been and give the lad a day off duty, for that. There was nothing like good warm wine to keep out the chill. His bad knee throbbed; he flexed it carefully. The joint stiffened up in the rain, and it didn’t help he had wrenched it this morning, slipping in the mud. It had been Hephaistion who had stopped him from falling too, catching his arm and bearing him up, surprisingly strong for a lad still shy of his full growth. He had let his king lean on his shoulder until the bright sear of pain faded and Philip could walk again. Well, walk after a fashion … he limped like an old woman with a stick, these days. That was what came of getting a spear stuck through his knee, he supposed – the damned thing had never been the same since. Right now it felt as if it were full of broken pottery, grinding and scraping every time he moved. He rubbed at it with big blunt fingers, trying to ease the ache. He was not yet fifty, he told himself. He was too young to feel like this.

It was the boys making him feel so old, he decided. The boys, and the cursed weather. Rain had always had a way of making him feel melancholy – and as for Alexandros, ah, he was enough to make any man feel old, just trying to keep up. He was like pure energy given flesh and form, he was never still. Even in this weather he would be out doing something … hunting perhaps, or scouting, looking for a fight to pick. He was thriving on this, on all of it – the rain and wet, the bad food, chasing the enemy from rock to rock. The men were half in love with him, from what Philip could make out – and those who were not would not hold out for long. The boy had a way with armies, it seemed. That made Philip smile to himself; he knew where Alexandros had got that from, at least. He was not entirely his mother’s son, much though Olympias might rage to hear it. Out here in fact, away from Pella and away from her, he was less her creature than ever. That did not make him any more Philip’s, but what he was in himself was not so bad. Philip had always been proud of the boy, even at the worst of times. Now, without his mother around to set them at each other’s throats, he found he actually liked him, as well.

He had, in truth, always liked him. Loved him in fact, in spite – oh, very much in spite – of whatever his harridan of a mother had tried to do. Olympias would spit tacks if she knew about that. It suited her to play father and son off against each other, twisting them both about with love and hate and resentment, setting them against each other like two dogs fighting over the same bone. Philip had long since given up trying to understand why. He was a man who knew about manoeuvrings, on the battlefield and in the bedchamber both; he knew when he was being played, even if he could not tell the why of it, beyond a woman’s malice. The hell of it was that he could never resist her, any more than Alexandros could. Alexandros he could forgive for it; the lad was young yet, it was hardly a wonder if he could not see past the bitch that had whelped him. What was harder, was forgiving himself. Philip was a good deal older, and he knew Olympias inside and out. It did not bring him any closer to understanding her, or to being immune from what she wrought. He would still twitch when she pulled his strings, she could still make him lose his temper with only a look and the flick of her hand. She could still have him half senseless with desire with only the same. He should be glad, he supposed ruefully, that she was only his wife. If she had been his enemy, he would have fallen time and again.

A clap of thunder burst overhead, and there was a sudden furious drumming of rain on the oiled hides of the tent. Philip started at the sound, spilling his wine and setting his knee off on a fresh round of complaints. Distantly, he heard a mule braying in protest, and the frightened squealing of horses. Philip hoped the animals were tethered well in the lines; he did not want to be three days rounding up the horses if they broke away. Macedon was a long walk home. Especially to a lame, lop-sided old man who wanted nothing more right now than a long soak in a warm bath, and a willing body to keep him company in his bed. His thoughts strayed to dark bronze hair and clear grey eyes, but he dismissed that at once. Not that one. He was hardly going to start stealing from his son’s table, no matter how appetising the feast. He would not do himself any favours that way. Besides, he had never, when it came to this, taken anything that was not offered. Hephaistion, for all his perfect face even more perfect service, had not offered him anything. He had sworn his oath to his king, as every man in Philip’s army had. Everything else though, he had sworn to Alexandros. Philip saw that clear enough. There was an odd wrench in his gut at that, a sideways shifting that might have been jealousy, or might have been regret. Either way, he kept it down. Neither had a place here. At least, not so far as Hephaistion was concerned.

He thought about Alexandros and his young friend. They were discreet enough for decency, but Philip had a gift for reading men. Even if no one had told him what was between them two of them, he would have seen it – it was in the way they looked at each other, and how they were always so aware of the other’s presence. It was in the way they greeted each other when they had been apart, even only for a short while, and in how they sought each other out without even seeming to mean to – they drew to each other, the way a lodestone would point to north. He had no doubt that they would not be feeling the cold at nights.

Philip knew what that was, that he was seeing. Everyone said they would grow out of it. Well, they would or they wouldn’t; Philip had his own opinions on that. Alexandros was not one for fleeting loyalties, and nor would Hephaistion be, if he was as like his father as he seemed. Besides, Philip knew the way they looked at each other, the way they spoke in smiles and glances when anyone was near. He knew that language; he’d spoken it himself, once. Oh, there had been many men, and more than a few women, but as for love? Only once. Unless one counted Olympias, which he supposed was a love of sorts, or had been once. This other though … ah, it had been a strong thing, and sweet. Pausanias had always been private in public, but to Philip he had been something else than what he had seemed. He had been both friend and lover, a warm smile on a cold day, a warmer body on a cold night. It had started much as any of his dalliances had started – Pausanias was good to look at, and given to being too serious. Philip had liked coaxing him to smile, enjoyed surprising him into laughter. It had only been a matter of time before the guardsman had moved from the king’s door to the king’s bed. He had been serious there too to start with, and sweetly shy, smothering his cries in the bedcovers when Philip drove him to his peak. But then he had learned to answer Philip’s hunger with a hunger of his own, and they had begun to laugh together when the lamps were lit in the inner room and the door shut on the world outside, and Philip had come to see that Pausanias, too, was more than a pretty face. He had come to depend on it, those nights when he could shut his door and set his kingship aside, and be only a man like any other. Pausanias more than anyone else had let him do that; he had seemed to understand the need. After all, it was not the crown he loved – it was the man who wore it.

Philip could not have said when it had started, the thing that had grown between the two of them – but he knew to the day when it had ended. There had been some scandal, some foolishness between Pausanias and another boy, and the other boy had taken it too much to heart and died of it. The boy’s kin had taken it to heart too – and taken it out on Pausanias, in the worst way they knew how. Philip had seen the rope burns on his wrists from where he had struggled when they tied him and raped him before giving him to the slaves to use, seen the cruel thin lines they had cut into his face after, marking him forever so everyone would know his shame. He had seen, too, the way the last of the light had gone out of Pausanias’ eyes when his king had turned away. Philip had known then, from the pain in his own heart and the bleak look in his lover’s eyes, that it was over.

He would have given him justice, if he could. The gods knew, he had wanted to. He had had to choose, though; Macedon’s future, or the man he loved. It had been politics in the end, pure and simple. The man who had done that thing, who had ordered that thing done, was a man that Philip had needed on his side if he was going to keep Macedon whole and strong. Pausanias had been the sacrifice that he had had to make. He had never stopped regretting it. Kingship could be cruel like that, sometimes. There were always sacrifices, and if a man was lucky, he lived to regret them. Philip thought of his son, and the beautiful young man into whose arms he had cast himself. He hoped for both their sakes that they would never discover that.

“Philip? Sir?” The voice startled him out of his thoughts, making him blink as he came back to himself. Gods, what was he doing, sitting in his tent, maundering as the rain came down like some foolish old man? He had a campaign to oversee, an army to keep to heel – he was Philip, King of Macedon. He snarled at himself for a fool, and turned to see who had spoken.

Hephaistion stood in the door of the tent, his hair plastered flat with rain and water dripping off his raincape onto the ground. He looked very much like a half drowned pup, all gangly and sodden and blinking water out of his eyes. Philip smiled as the lad came to attention anyway, wet and bedraggled though he was. He wondered if he had ever been so young that he would have stood to attention with cold water trickling down his spine for anybody’s sake. He supposed that he probably had been. He decided to put the boy out of his misery. “Hephaistion. Come in lad, and stand down.” And then, as Hephaistion stepped inside and shook himself like a wet dog, “What do you want?”

Hephaistion had a jar in his hands; he held it out as the king looked at him. “Sir. I’m sorry to disturb you sir, I brought you this. It’s a salve, sir. For your leg. Alexandros made it. It worked when I wrenched my shoulder, hunting boar. I thought it might help.”
For some reason, Philip found that oddly touching. Still, he did not show it. He gave the lad a considering look.
“And what makes you think I need anything for my leg, boy?”
Hephaistion blinked. “I was there earlier sir, when you twisted it. Besides, my uncle had a bad knee too – a stallion kicked him once, and smashed the bone. He always said it griped like a harpy when it rained.”
That made Philip laugh, relenting. “Your uncle was right,” he said. “It aches like a bastard, in fact.” He held his hand out for the jar; Hephaistion gave it to him. Philip opened it, sniffed it critically. “Alexandros made it, you say?”
“Aristotle showed him, sir. Alexandros just added a few things.”
Well. At least the boy had learned something from that old stick of a philosopher. It was good to know he had paid for something. Philip nodded, set the jar aside. “Thank you, Hephaistion. Do you have duty tonight?”
“Yes, sir. I wasn’t supposed to, only Demos cried off sick.” He had also lost the toss when he and the other Royal Pages had diced to see who would fill in, but he did not tell the king that. From the gleam in Philip’s eye though, he would not have been surprised if the man already knew. There was not much that got past Philip, and besides, he had had scores of Royal Pages to deal with before now. He had probably seen it all.

Philip gave the boy a long steady look, and then drew in a deep breath and let it out sharply, as if he had been considering something and had just made a decision. “Tell you what,” he said. “Do this for me; find me Parmenion and two jars of decent wine, and you can go back to Demos and tell him the king said he’s to get up off his lazy backside and come and stand his own duty. There’s nothing wrong with the boy, he just hates the rain as much as my leg does. Then you can stand down and take the evening for yourself. Go spend the time with Alexandros, I’m sure he’d appreciate it. Can you do that, lad?”

If that was not acknowledgement and approval both, then Philip did not know what was. He watched Hephaistion understand what he was being told. If the lad was anything taken aback, he covered it well. Philip caught only the smallest hesitation, the faintest blush to his cheeks, before he said, “Yes sir. I can do that. Thank you, sir.” Oh yes, he was a fine one, this. His father must have been proud beyond measure. Philip watched him go, ducking back out the door into the driving rain, and settled in to wait for Parmenion and his wine. He thought of Alexandros in his own tent, and his sweet friend who would come to him and stay with the lamps lit and the world shut out. They would grow out of it, or they would not … but let them make the most of what they had while they could. Alexandros would be a king one day, and kings made sacrifices. Kingship could be cruel, and kings did what they must … and even love, in the end, was not proof against that.

Outside, the rain came down.
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August 2006

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