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Aengus Dewar - The Son of Lagus


Aengus Dewar


The Son of Lagus (working title)


novel well advanced and agented, though currently on hold




The novel follows the life of a young Ptolemy, and charts his progress from a rustic naïve child into a cynical and seasoned soldier. For this early section, I’ve taken the liberty (and it is that) of assuming that Ptolemy and his near contemporaries were proto-pages to Philip. The following chapter takes place when most of the key characters are between nine and twelve years old. Already factionalism and competing interests have emerged in the group, and much of the rivalry is centred on Philotas and Craterus, who seem utterly irreconcilable.

The king is away at war, and has not brought the younger Pages with him as he feels they are too young to be of any use yet. Instead, he has instructed their overseer (Cleitus - unable to campaign because of a lingering injury) to teach them the fundamentals of hunting larger animals. Addressing the Pages personally before his departure, Philip has impressed upon them the need to work together. But he has also offered the prize of a lavish dagger to the individual who makes the first kill. Tensions amongst the Pages are high

The Hunt

The month of Loos has always been my favourite. Summer has arrived and winter’s silence is chased away. Birdsong fills the air and the honey-bees hum in thriving choruses. The grazing grounds are sprinkled over in the crimsons and mauves of wild flowers. It is the boon of the poor, for wood need not be burnt through the night any longer; sunlight heats the household enough for its warmth to outlast the dark. Winter robes and woollen himatia are stowed away in trunks. Animals are harder to track for there is dust rather than mud along the paths, and the dew-trails of hares are burnt off the grass much quicker. In the paddocks, the horses’ coats are sleek and their ordure smells richer. About the halls, the dogs cough up fur-balls and fight with each other for sport rather than food. The innkeepers must sink the amphorae of wine deeper into their wells to keep them cool. The temples become refuges from the heat as much as sanctuaries of the Gods. In the palestra men shout louder in their exercise and have small need of oil to slick their limbs when sweat will do instead. All are less prone to drink, for the night is shorter, and when they sleep it is to the sound of cicadas singing to each other, free of the daytime scourge of lizards. I was young. And for the young there is no pleasure so fine as that of exercising in the summer.

We rose up awash with excitement on the day of the hunt. Leonidas came early into the barrack, kicked randomly at bodies on the ground until all were on their feet, and then grumpily wished us luck. He said that whoever cast off their belt and took the dagger would stand as an example to the others. It was the sort of grandiose remark that irritated me, but was calculated to fire up the more ambitious amongst us. I suspected he knew as much of our rivalries as Philip and Antipater. Once he had gone, we took Philotas and Craterus to the household alter before our quarters. Perdicass had stolen wine from the storerooms the night before, and now we poured it into a rhyton, before dribbling a precious stream of scented oil into the brazier. Without a priest, we had Harpalus make the formal incantation to the Father of Gods and Artemis. Then we had the two rivals drink a pledge to their peace on this day. Philotas’ voice was toneless, and Craterus’ was strained, as no d! oubt his dignity was strained at being reduced to such a rite for the sake of our goodwill. They clasped hands, eyed each other firmly, and it was sealed.

‘You think that will hold them?’ Perdicass whispered at me. His brow was raised with sardonic humour. I shrugged. ‘We’d better hope it does.’

In the stalls, the grooms weren’t yet awake. I bridled Menelaus speedily, and he turned to rub his head against my shoulder, as was his way when he sensed high spirits. On either side, there was clattering and calling, gibes and insults. When we mounted in the cool, dim half-light outside, even Craterus was beginning to smile. Then, with our spears and nets in hand, we galloped like Furies through the eastern edge of Pella, and out to the parade grounds.

I have never liked the smell of kennelled dogs. There were thirty odd of them, and each stank like a beggar’s corpse. So did their handlers. But I did not care. There were many new faces amongst the group Cleitus had brought to martial us, and one stood out. I remembered him as the naked joker from the bodyguards. He was straw-haired, with the strong regular proportions around his face that sculptors look for in their models. His name, I learnt, was Pausanias. He couldn’t have been more than his sixteenth or seventeenth summer, but he was so huge a figure that he might as well have seen a hundred. He was coming along, he said, for the exercise and, with a nudge to Cleitus, the entertainment. I mustered my courage and looked up at him. Even his horse was larger than usual.

‘Why aren’t you away, warring with the army?’

He stared down at me and suddenly gave a vast smile of recognition, before shouting aloud:

‘Cleitus, this is him. This is the one who said he’d castrate me.’ Then he leaned over and advised with mock sincerity: ‘Every porna in Pella would come after you in a rage, you know that? Unless you suppose you could step into my place, little man.’ He grinned warmly.

Everyone around was laughing. I did not have to correct his mistake, though. Philotas called out:

‘It was me, not him. And every porna in Pella would thank me.’

Pausanias turned in his saddlecloth. ‘All this jealousy,’ he lamented loudly. ‘I doubt you’d get any thanks if you offered yourself as replacement.’

‘Hear that?’ cried Philotas. ‘He thinks he’s Alcibiades.’

They bantered on.

Cleitus was passing around us, checking our nets. ‘Are you ready for it?’ he asked me as he tugged at the knots I had stitched into the mesh some nights before.

‘I am.’ Then, ‘Why is he coming?’ I was suspicious that Pauanias had something to do with our elders’ secretive test.

‘Pausanias? I asked for him. Apart from the dogs, he’s got the best nose for a boar I know of.’

‘The king gives up one of his guard just like that?’

Cleitus had a puzzled expression. ‘Why wouldn’t he? He wants you to learn. And he has others besides Pausanias.’

‘It’s true,’ Perdicass added beside me. ‘He comes from my people’s lands. Craterus and I have both heard of him before. He’s said to be able to hunt a valley faster and harder than any other.’

‘You’d all be wise to watch how he works in other things besides,’ advised Cleitus. ‘He’s doing well. He’s only five or six years ahead of the rest of you, and already one of the bodyguard.’

I looked at the fair-haired giant wagging a humorous finger at Philotas. ‘I suppose his size makes him . . .’

Cleitus checked me with a raised eyebrow. ‘Size? No, no, Ptolemy. It’s speed. Pure speed.’

With the stench of dogs all around us, we crossed the plains north of Pella, making for the forests and mountains. When we met with the slopes we stopped. Cleitus had us dismount and pray briefly to Artemis, before we stripped naked but for a chiton each. Then we left our horses with some slaves and continued on foot; the ground ahead would be too rocky and sheer for horses pastured on grass. Pausanias went at our head with the handlers. We came after a series of hillocks to a final stretch of level ground. The bodyguard took the best dog of the pack, a Locrian bitch, watched how her head moved, and started to run with her on the leash.

It was a lung bursting, leg wrenching run; fifteen or sixteen stadia over broken uneven ascents, and all of it at three quarter pace. None failed to feel the fire burning up his windpipes except for Pausanias. He was relentless, growing stronger with every step.

‘Soon, soon,’ he called over his shoulder several times.

‘It better be,’ gasped Harpalus. He was struggling to move his weight as speedily as the rest of us.

At last the bitch picked a scent. She writhed and tensed, and Pausanias loosed her from the chain.

Now the run really began. Philotas slapped me on the back and grunted an inarticulate sound of encouragement, as we both fixed on Craterus’ sturdy legs hammering away in front of us. It was a searing race up the rocky outcrops, through bushes and thorny undergrowth. Birds flustered in panic and shot from before us. When we tripped or fell, we sent small scudding avalanches of shale clattering valleyward. Legs, arms and faces were scratched; our lungs burnt hotter and hotter with effort. And still we ran. Ceaselessly, Pausanias forged higher and faster with the bitch.

‘You understand why he’s here, now?’ Cleitus panted behind me. I could manage no reply. The bodyguard was going to run us all to death. Far above we heard him call:

‘Come on, come on.’

Cleitus shamed us into greater exertions.

‘Move, you bastards. This is easy beside war. Move. Look at me, an older man, having to drive you forward like a pack of soft pups.’

It went on and on. We crossed a pass and pitched, stumbled and scraped down the mountain slopes into the valley beyond. There was no time to scoop a mouthful of water from the stream at the bottom; Pausanias was moving too fast for that. Then uphill again. Beside me, Perdicass was rasping for air. I wanted to spur him on with a word, but couldn’t spare the effort. Still Pausanias called from in front and above, lost to our sight somewhere on the thickly wooded slope.

‘Move,’ shouted Cleitus at our shoulders.

‘Bastard,’ cursed Craterus, driving his legs harder still.

We had thought ourselves fit before. Endless runs around the parade grounds carrying our gear had left us with limbs fit to carry weight. Now we were being taught the value of sustained speed, and it hurt. By every God in Heaven, it hurt. Behind me, I heard Perdicass slip and swear. I didn’t dare to look in case I did the same; I doubted I would be able to get up if I fell.

At last, high above, we heard fresh baying as the bitch closed on her quarry.

‘I have, I have.’ The call rolled down the mountainside, almost lost through the thick forest, and with a final heave we scrambled through some rocks and staggered up to join Pausanias.

It was a deep leafy thicket perched atop a precipice. The bodyguard gave the struggling dog back to a spent and shattered handler, and stood easily with his spear.

‘He’s within, Cleitus.’ He jabbed a thumb at the undergrowth behind. ‘I can smell him. How do you want to do it?’

There was a lot of panting and heaving. Some had thrown themselves on the ground, lying like prone starfish on an agora stall. Others leaned heavily on their spears, backs pumping like smiths’ bellows. I knew it must have been a hard run because one of the handlers was vomiting behind a bush. Cleitus brought us into a small circle and gave counsel. He said the surrounding area was too rocky and uneven for the boar to be flushed into the usual wall of game nets. We were instead to close all of the breaks in the undergrowth except for a well-worn path, which the beast had beaten flat in his habit. Some distance down this there was a clearing. There we might form with our nets a place fit for the kill.

A boar in cover will never rouse himself unless goaded; so we worked around his haunt fearlessly, although we knew his eyes were upon us. Some of the handlers were to stay by the area. When the moment had come for the dogs to harass the boar out, the men would follow, driving him towards us with shouts. We finished sealing off the run, and moved to the glade. It was too large to be covered by our nets. Cleitus decided he would have them run around it intermittently, and in each gap place a pair of pages.

‘That way,’ he told us, ‘if the boar avoids the nets, he can choose his man, rather than chaos erupting with all of you trying to get on him at the same time. We’ll draw lots to see which individual in each pair is to have the first chance to spike the pig. If the first man makes a tangle out of it, the other can have a go, but only then, not before. A boar is stronger than any one of you. You must be able to help each other if things start to go wrong. Do you all hear me? I know most of you will be disappointed, but there’s only one animal. I can do nothing to change it. Is that understood?’

We placed the nets on hammered stakes quickly and efficiently, as we had been taught, each praying silently that he would be given the chance. The sense of anticipation grew as the rings were hung from their struts. Nor was it lessened by Pausanias’ ongoing stream of advice and lewd chatter.

In spite of the uneasy truce, Philotas eyed his rival constantly. It did not go unnoticed. All realised that the pairing that had the space immediately opposite the creature as it entered, stood the best chance of winning; the boar when bent on escape usually runs straight. Both Craterus and Philotas were determined to have it. I realised now that Perdicass’ cynicism was well placed. The oath the adversaries had sworn was as good as forgotten. Their teeth were bared, and early morning pledges were as nothing to them now. Cleitus awarded the places. There was a chorus of swearing, and none louder than Craterus, who flung his spear violently into the ground. Philotas had been matched with Harpalus, and they had the best gap.

Cleitus was quick with a reprimand. ‘You’ll learn some decency, Craterus. One more outburst like that, and I’ll have your arms stripped from you. Hunting is many things, but above all it’s preparation for war. In war you co-operate. This isn’t a stage for selfishness. Pausanias, you tell that fool.’

‘It’s true. I’ve helped others take prey more often than I’ve taken it myself. That I promise you.’

‘Did you hear that, Craterus? A better hunter than you’ll ever be says that the holding role is just as important. No more complaints. And if I ever see you drive your spear into soil again, I’ll have you kneel and lick it clean, before you’re beaten.’

He drew the lots to see who would be the first spear of each couple. Now it was Philotas’ turn to get dressed down. He growled when Harpalus was awarded the front position. Cleitus roared in his face:

Shut your mouth, boy. Did you not hear a word I said? I won’t tolerate tantrums. If you want a Spartan flogging you’re on the right path to get it. You’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with Harpalus. If the boar’s old enough and wise enough, there’s a good chance he’ll try to brave one of you rather then running into the nets. If that happens, and I see your spear move a finger width before Harpalus’, I’ll have Philip grant me the pleasure of giving you your whipping. Do you hear me?’

We took our positions. Perdicass and I were some way to the side, I was dismayed when he drew the lot of the first spear. Craterus was partnered with Pausanias across from us. The bodyguard had been drawn first but he would not take it.

‘Craterus should have it. It’s his first time. I’ll be more use to him if I watch. I can tell him how to improve.’

‘Zeus be thanked, there’s one reasonable man,’ grumbled Cleitus.

I could tell, in spite of Pausanias’ accommodation, that Craterus was in a rage with his luck. I had been a fool to think a forced oath would resolve this. He might have swallowed it better if neither he nor Philotas had a better position, but with the other placed as he was, he looked inconsolable. I would have felt sympathy for him, but Perdicass and I had also been relegated to the wings. And we wanted to lose our belts and recline amongst the men as much as any other. Besides, whatever about Philotas and Craterus, Harpalus was the best of us with a boar pike. It was right that he be given the greatest chance.

We were ready. The handlers brought up the dogs, Laconians and Locrians, all of them maddening with excitement. The yelping and barking put a tingle in my blood. They disappeared up the track, and I knew that the next living creature to emerge into the clearing would be our quarry. I looked at the faces arranged around; tense and alert. One is never so alive as in those moments when the contest is about to be joined. Cleitus was standing some little way behind us. He called out:

‘I want to see calm heads.’

What he saw was quite different.

There was a cacophony of baying further up the track. It was followed by the sound of shouting. I could hear bushes ripping asunder as something hurtled through them pursued by frenzied dogs. A dirty, grey-brown shape ploughed into the clearing. It was the boar and he looked as tall as a yearling heifer. There was blood about his tusks where the bitches had come too close. The metal coloured hairs of his hide made him look old. Collected and calm, in spite of the dogs, he checked his speed as he saw us. His short legs slowed from a pummelling gallop to a canter. He swung slightly to his left, assessing the trap of nets we had laid for him. Then with a grunt he dropped his head and started towards Craterus and Pausanias, ignoring the direct escape past Harpalus. Craterus’ eyes narrowed slightly, and his companion almost imperceptibly touched him on the shoulder to tell him to level his spear. Down it went, left hand guiding the shaft, and left leg leading from right. The b! oar broke into full pace, bearing down on them.

There was a shout; determined, enraged.

‘No. He’s mine.’

We all looked.

I would never have believed him capable of such disregard, but he was. Philotas was running from his position. The hunting leathers Philip had given him were a dark blur on his shins. He was covering the ground as fast as a horse. Harpalus was slack-jawed with surprise, but that was as nothing beside the flash of livid rage that surged over Craterus’ features.

All changed in a breath. The beast had instinct and eye enough to understand what it should do. As Philotas ran, it swerved towards him, stopped, waited until he was close, then swerved again, before straightening and starting a fresh gallop towards Harpalus. The son of Parmenion had made a bad mistake. He was moving too fast to correct his angle, and the beast knew it too. He twisted enough to lunge desperately as the boar passed behind him, set on its new course. Philotas did well to make a stab at all, but he was off balance. His spear caught between the boar’s careering short legs and its shaft cracked and flew apart. Shouts of anger were erupting all around. All around except for Harpalus. His forehead and jowly cheeks were knotted with concentration as he readied himself. In an instant the animal was onto him.

Not one of us managed to see what he had done wrong. It happened too quickly. He looked to have it all aright, but his spear was flicked upwards by a short toss of the boar’s head. And then it pounded into him, as the chariot into an unwary child. I saw his legs fly up and to one side, while the rest of him flopped forward. He came down very hard, half draped over the bristly back of the boar. He was carried a few paces before, in primitive fury, the animal tossed him to one side with a powerful buck. The creature was enraged. Ignoring the dogs, which were nearly upon it, it charged again, while Harpalus tried to roll away. This time there was no chance for the page to protect himself. He was too fat to move as quickly as was needed. Utterly prone, he made a pathetic attempt to scramble aside. The stubby oncoming tusks were levelled and bulled thunderously into him. The scream that pierced the glade, shrill and terrified, made my hairs prickle with horror. I saw the boar ! pull back by three handspans for another effort, start forward, and then disappear as a scrambling, snapping mass of hounds flew into a heap on top of their quarry. Cleitus had spoken of the possibility of someone turning their kill into a tangle, but he could never have predicted it would be like this. Harpalus was swallowed by a morass of growling, struggling fur, hide and sinew.

I was aware that I was moving fast. I could sense Perdicass doing the same beside me. I heard him swear as he ran. But quick as we were, we were as worms compared to Pausanias. Nothing mortal in that glade could have matched the bodyguard’s speed. As Philotas stood stunned, and Cleitus started forward bellowing, Pausanias simply flew, like an arrow from the string. Incongruously, I was struck by how beautifully he could move at pace. He leapt the first hounds and dived beneath another that had been flung upwards by a great black snout gleaming in blood. He gave a cry and started stabbing at something dark within the confusion. I saw a spurt of red splash along his arm, and then he did it again, shouting even louder.

‘Get them off,’ he roared. Perdicass, Craterus, and I had arrived now. We dropped our weapons and grabbed at collars, heaving dogs aside. The handlers were sprinting to join us. From nowhere, Cleitus was before me, burying his hands in the ferocious turmoil, groping for Harpalus somewhere beneath. All the time Pausanias kept striking. The last of the hounds were dragged away, and breathlessly, anxiously, we looked.

The boar lay on his flank, squealing weakly. Around him two or three dogs whimpered in their death agonies. Harpalus lay face down. He looked to be dead, except that his fingers clawed weakly at the churned soil beneath him. One of his legs was dreadfully lacerated. I could see a huge rent through the soft flesh at the back of the knee, and his calf and shin lay crooked to the rest of the limb.

‘Merciful Apollo,’ whispered Perdicass.

Behind us there was a bellow of rage. I turned in time to see Craterus’ fist go straight into Philotas’ face. The other made no effort to ward it off. He knew it was deserved. He fell silently, but heavily, and then staggered to his feet.

‘Again,’ said Cleitus from behind me.

Craterus looked uncertainly to our overseer.

‘I said again, Craterus.’ The voice was implacably cold.

Philotas placed his hands by his sides and took another blow. Hard and accurate, it was driven home with as much force as Craterus could muster from his stocky frame. Once more the malcreant fell to ground, crimson with blood from nose to chin. Tears of remorse coursed down his cheeks. He still said nothing, for what excuse could he give? He had broken the first and greatest rule of the hunt and war: he had abandoned his post and companion. In preventing Craterus from killing first, he had left Harpalus susceptible without a spear at his back. There was sure to be trouble back in Pella. Philip had set us a test, right enough. And we had failed.

Just as I was once taken home on an improvised bier, so now was Harpalus. We lashed two himatia to a frame of cornel boughs, and laid him down. His eyes, at least, were open, but he was mute with shock and agony. By his pallor and the spreading red pool beneath him, we knew he was losing much blood, and we moved with speed. We unstrung the nets, finished the injured dogs with deft strokes of our spears, and gathered the rest up. The boar was cut and dressed to travel. Then we left. Pausanias and Cleitus took the front of the litter to pick a path back through the steep declines. Philotas was made to carry one of the shafts at the back so that he might be forced to look on at the consequence of his recklessness. Not once during the long return to Pella did Harpalus take his eyes of Philotas.

Perhaps Harpalus knew, even then, that he would spent the rest of his life a cripple.

Excerpt submitted to by Aengus Dewar. © Aengus Dewar.