My Latest News, Short Stories, and Updates on Works in Progress

You gotta fight like it's 331 BC!

Alexander Cover small



Chapter One

The Diviner

            A young Alexander galloped out of the California hills, his flaxen hair and confident grin visible from a distance as he raced his horse to the tents overflown by his father’s pennants. Swinging one bare leg over the animal’s powerful back, he executed a perfect running dismount, his sandals skidding to a halt on an X carefully drawn in the sandy soil. Taking a scant moment to adjust his purple-and-white tunic at the shoulder and hem, the young warrior rushed to his friend and clasped the man’s forearm.

            “Menander!” Alexander pulled the other into a manly embrace, slapping him roughly on the back as battle-forged brothers do. As he turned to kiss him on the cheek, he whispered, “Stop looking up my skirt.”

            Menander grinned back at Alexander, never breaking character. The good soldier pointed to Alexander’s uncomfortable passenger, bound and strapped over the back of his horse. “You bring a fine gift for your father, King Philip.”

             Facing away from the camera, the bearded captive awkwardly raised his head of dark ringlets and spit at Alexander.

            “Such are Persian manors,” Alexander responded. “Not to worry, sir. I will repay your impudence from our finest kegs. I will sail you home to King Darius on rivers of wine… after your tongue sings us to a Macedonian victory.”  

            Both Alexander and Menander laughed while their new captive fumed.

            “Cut!” the director cried.

            “Funny as always, Matt,” Glenn Givens said.

            Matt appreciated Glenn giving his all as Menander, though, in Matt’s opinion, he drew from a shallow well. Matt’s contacts told him Glenn had another audition set up a few days after they wrapped, this time for the lead in a Western, sure money. The kids at home couldn’t get enough TV shows about scruffy men punching or shooting each other. The odds of the studio greenlighting both pilots were infinitesimal. Matt didn’t begrudge Glenn his ambitions, but he felt Glenn was better suited to play second fiddle to his, Matt Wilder’s, Alexander the Great.

            Three men ran over and helped the stuntman doubling for John Carradine as the captured Persian general. They released his bindings, then lowered him ass-first from the horse’s flanks. “Thanks, Gary. I think we got your best side,” Matt joked. The stunt actor smiled back amiably and walked through the set, which had taken over a section of Vasquez Rocks Park. He passed the actual John Carradine, who was sipping an iced tea through a straw while using a giant sun reflector as a mirror to preen the curls of his glossy black wig and pointed beard.

            A wrangler hurried over and took charge of the towering horse playing Alexander’s storied steed, Bucephalus. Matt wished he could bring Janey and Becca to the set. They’d love these horses. He kept meaning to teach them to ride, but the timing never worked out. Maybe he could get a trailer big enough for Jan and the girls to stay in during shooting hours, instead of leaving them in Sun Valley in a rental house surrounded by loud neighbors and crabgrass. How many times Jan had begged for a “simple drive to the ocean and maybe an overnight at a cheap hotel,” he’d lost count. They were living in their fourth home in five years, thanks to the vagaries of showbiz. Now, he was working steadily, meaning he was up and out the door by four a.m. and never home before the girls were in bed. Matt was becoming a stranger to his family. That could change, if the show sold.

            Through his giggles, Matt urged the wrangler, “Give our boy extra oats on me. He’s a champ! Good boy, Flapjack! Good boy!” He gave the majestic Hanoverian’s neck two quick slaps in appreciation, earning a pleasant snort and nod in return. Sweetie! Like the horses he used to ride on his Grampa Ed’s ranch. To the director, Matt said, “Jack, I hope the mic didn’t pick up my ad lib. Couldn’t resist. We’ll fix that in looping, right?”

            “As usual, Matt. Loved the dismount,” the director said. He got paid whether the pilot sold or not. The director treated Matt well – not because Matt was a nice guy; that was too much to ask for in Hollywood – but because he brought his natural athleticism and a raw cockiness that sold these action roles. Matt had worked hard on his physique and sported a well-defined chest, a steel-worker’s arms, and a ballet dancer’s nimble legs, a Frankensteinian assembly not lost on casting directors of the female persuasion. He also liked to do his own stunts, which won over directors burdened by a limited budget.

             Matt needed allies behind the camera. In his early thirties, he was past the point of doing bit parts and in that tricky window of time. He’d either land the lead in a hit before his fortieth birthday or he’d spend the rest of his career playing the villain-of-the-week, the odd man out in a romantic triangle, or the forgettable walk-on.

            The director called out, “We’ll take the bath scene after lunch, so eat light, everyone.”

            Matt slapped his belly. “Tight as an army cot!”

            They happily fled the tent city set and drove the forty-five minutes back to the relative comfort of the studio. The commissary had a hot meal waiting. Matt sat at the table with his co-stars. The supporting cast had another table, while extras – sixty of them had to give the impression of vast phalanxes – mulled about, eating beef stew out of paper bowls.

            The legendary Carradine ate his meal quietly. He was a consummate actor but by no means social. He had made it clear he was “here to act, not make friends.” It was hard to fault him. The man had starred in Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Ten Commandments for Chrissake. More recently, though, he’d collected paychecks for low-brow fare like Sex Kittens Go To College! He’d also popped up on Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, and every other oater on the tube. He and Matt even guest starred in the same episode of Rawhide. They both bit the dust in that one. The point was that Carradine was a known quantity, a draw. People who couldn’t tell Matt Wilder from canned Spam would recognize Carradine’s saturnine face.

            Matt would beat out Spam… if the series sold.

            The Nordic sun appeared inside the commissary in the very female form of Ylsa Larsen. She joined them at the table, carrying only a salad. A decade younger than Matt, she was every inch the leading lady, and he fully appreciated all seventy of her inches – even if he had to stand on a stool for their close-ups. 

            “Finally, a ten at our table,” Matt said, beaming his little boy charm at her. The thought If I only were single… prompted a blush.

            “You’re the prettiest one at any table, Matt.” He loved the mischief in her infinite blue eyes. She chided, “With that pretty golden hair and smooth chest, I’m sure half the men on this set would love to date you.”

            That drew a laugh from Glenn, which robbed the grin from Matt’s face. “I don’t think the Macedonians shaved their chests,” Glenn said, beaming out a smile that hit folks with a big child-like innocence.

            “That was a note from the boys in the front office. They like the hairless look.”

            “I bet they do,” Ylsa snickered. She was right, Matt knew. For queer men on the make, a Hollywood studio office was the motherload. Anything, anytime, any- where.  

            “I don’t think I’d have to go that far to get a date,” Matt said. It was Glenn’s turn to lose his humor.  

           Into the awkward pause that followed, Carradine spoke up unexpectedly. “James Whale. Now there was a man who knew how to throw parties. And in those days, most people who were that way kept quiet. Not Whale. English expats indulge in forbidden fruit, you know!” With this last remark, he bugged out his eyes like a spaniel hearing a can opener. Then, as quickly as he had begun, he stopped and went back to eating his food.

            Ylsa placed her hand on Glenn’s. “Live and let live, I say.” 

            Matt casually looked over at the far side of the lunch tent. After a moment, he turned back and said, “You and I should run lines later, for our scene.”

            “The kissing scene,” Ylsa said, playing along.

            “I seem to recall there being some kissing involved.”

            She narrowed her eyes in cat-like fashion. “I see the rumors about you are well-earned, Matt. I think we’ll have to ration your rehearsals, tiger.”

            Matt turned up his smile and leaned even closer. “Your character could be a regular love interest for Alexander. Or maybe we could recast you as his girlfriend – the one he marries. Roxanne.”

            “Roxana,” Glenn corrected. “She was wife number one, and she murdered wife two and probably number three as well.”

            “The good old days,” Matt joked. “No divorce lawyers.”

           Glenn ignored his attempt at levity. “You should know this stuff by now.” Glenn had studied under Elia Kazan at The Actors Studio. He preached immersion in acting as the only true way to make the characters come to life. Matt respected his dedication, but it got on his nerves at times. “Did you read those books I gave you?”

            From somewhere inside him rose Matt’s sixth-grade self, fidgeting at being caught blowing off his homework. “I did. I read and read, but… the names swim in my head. I’ve read books and seen Burton’s movie twice, but there’s something about Alexander that escapes me.”

            “You and the producers. They’re not big on details. Today, they had a teenage Alexander – played by a thirty-something you – heroically capturing one of King Darius’ generals and delivering him to his father. Alexander doesn’t even invade the Achaemenid Empire until after Philip’s assassination by Pausanias of Orestis in 336 B.C.”

            The names! Memorizing Shakespeare was child’s play compared to dealing with the intricacies of actual ancient history. An actor was athlete, fashion model, historian, chameleon – basically whatever the production called for. Matt’s eyes had glazed over. “Yeah, you make my point for me. Look, this is a family-oriented action adventure. I get that. I can’t rewrite the producers’ rewrite of history. What I want to do is find out who I am.”

            Mischief flashed in Ylsa’s baby blues. “You should consult Madam Love.” Matt mouthed Madam Love with eyebrows raised. Ylsa shook her head and added, “She has certain insights.”

            “What, a clairvoyant? Seriously? It’s the 1960s for goodness’ sake!” Matt didn’t want to laugh at Ylsa, but the thought of some old crone in a head scarf and gold earring peering into a crystal ball struck him as preposterous.

Ylsa pressed on. “She calls herself a diviner, a finder of truth. She’s an eccentric, but she gets amazing results. She’ll help you focus. Clear out bits you should really get rid of. She taps into your inner core and pulls out reserves of energy you never knew you had.” Matt wasn’t sure he wanted anyone rummaging around inside his skull.

            “She’ll do you right,” Glenn added. “I had a sitting with Madam Love once. I learned –” His face went funny. “—a lot about myself.” He snapped his finger and someone at the next table put a pen in his hand, which he used to scribble information onto a paper napkin. “Here,” he said, handing the napkin to Matt. “I’ll call and set it up.”

            “You both recommend her? Fine, I’ll check her out this weekend.”

            Madame Love. This should be interesting.


            Both Glenn and Ylsa were in the bath scene. Matt debated whether to wear the flesh-colored swimsuit or let it all hang out. It was tempting.

            Steam rose from the heavy bronze tub as Ylsa poured another jug of water over Alexander’s distressed flesh. “My lord plays too rough. Look what they’ve done to your gorgeous back!”

            The golden-haired son of Zeus braced under the near scalding torrent. “Yes, hot! That’s good! Darius has an army of lions. I felt their claws. Fortunately, their leader is no lion. He’s a sheep.”

            Ylsa reached for another piping hot jug, but Menander appeared and took it from her. He poured the hot water over Alexander’s head. “Sheep, lions, or wild hares, they badly outnumber us, sire,” he said.

            “Oh!” Alexander laughed and shook water from his flaxen mane. “My father’s armies are more than a match for any Persian horde. Like cunning Odysseus, we will use our wits. Tomorrow, we scout a field to the northeast for the coming battle.”

            “Which battle?” Menander asked with alarm. “Your father has mentioned nothing of a new offensive.”

            “Oh, Alexander, you mustn’t. I would simply die if anything happened to you!” Ylsa’s character – unnamed in the script, probably a slave girl – threw her arms around him and wept.

            “I’ll turn those tears into tears of joy! I shall lure in Darius’ men at a time and place of my choosing and give them a taste of the Macedonian phalanx.” The camera came in for a close-up of Alexander’s self-satisfied face. The sound mixer would add a stab of dramatic music in post-production. Matt paused a moment, then said, “That sounds dirty, ‘taste of the Macedonian phalanx.’” There it was again, that patented Matt Wilder giggle.

            “Cut!” the director shouted, though the scene was clearly over already.

            “Johnny! That line.” Matt didn’t look around but spoke loudly enough to fill the set with his intent.

            The nervous young scriptwriter, Jonathan Goldwasser, appeared as if summoned by a spell, flipping through the script to the offending line. He was college-educated and a fine writer but had signed away his soul and now toiled at the whim of the producers. “Uh – how about ‘taste of our mighty spears’?”

            More giggling. “Same thing. The problem is taste and … well, anything that sounds like a… you know.”

            “A penis,” the director said, helpfully. The crew’s snickering filled the set.

          “Nothing wrong with that,” Ylsa mused aloud, not missing a beat. “Since we’re all dressed for an orgy.” The idea of a beautiful woman speaking the way men wished women talked reduced the crew to a mass of sophomoric glee. Their laughter rang louder than it had for any of Matt’s jokes, something not lost on him.

          The others didn’t understand. Sure, they thought he craved attention. If so, it was for a purpose. He was the center of gravity holding them all in his orbit. This series would either succeed or disappear along with countless other TV pilots, based on how executives and test audiences reacted to him, Matt Wilder. The future of everyone on this cast and crew, their mortgage payments, their kids’ braces, their trips to Disneyland, all rested squarely on his shoulders.

          Confirming it with the director, Matt made the announcement, “That’s it for today, folks.” He drank in the big cheer. Finally. “I’ll see everyone here on Monday morning, five a.m.! Get some rest and come back in full fighting mode! Let’s take this job seriously, but let’s have fun!”

            Mumbles of agreement filtered back through the soundstage. Not as much enthusiasm as he’d like. They’d learn.


            The radio gushed about the first lady looking stunning in an “Oleg Cassini original mauve silk chiffon embroidered with hand-sewn crystal beads. The Kennedys welcomed the president of India to the White House --” Matt clicked it off. He drove his gleaming new Shelby Cobra into the driveway, narrowly dodging a pink tricycle. It was late. The ninety-minute commute turned into three hours on Fridays. L.A. was killing him.

            The living room was barren and cold.

            “I’m home.” The silence that followed seeped all the way in.

            The kitchen’s saloon-style doors swung open, and Jan stepped out in her floral A-line dress. She looked as young and fresh as she had on their wedding day, but something was missing. He used to look forward to her big goofy smile; it had been the light of his life. Lately, though, it was if she’d stopped caring. At night, one question circled his brain, digging cruel grooves into the gray matter: had he also stopped?

            “I fixed you a plate,” Jan said. “Salmon and asparagus.” His favorite. “It’s in the oven.”

            “Thank you.” It was all perfunctory. The magic was definitely slipping away, replaced by domestic banalities. “You and the girls ate already?” Without me?

            “It’s eight-thirty, Matt. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re not doing well-enough to dine Republican. Yes, we’ve eaten.”

            She didn’t ask about his day. He wanted to tell her, but her antennae were in; she wasn’t receiving. He looked around.

            “The girls are getting ready for bed.” Jan’s voice was steady, controlled. That was never a good sign.

            “I want to tell them the news. I spoke with our head wrangler, and he says Janey and Becca can come ride Flapjack. Well, they can sit on him, anyway. They can take lessons later. He’s the sweetest horse I’ve ever met. They’ll love him.”

            “You love him. They want a pet of their own, not a loaner dog… and not a horse. You love horses. You spend more time with that wrangler than you do with your own family. Hell, we come in behind the damned horse! Don’t go filling their heads with ideas of horseback riding lessons. We don’t have that kind of money either. We could have, but, of course, there’s your two closets full of new clothes and your trips to the beauty salon…”

            “She’s a professional hair stylist.”

            “…and the fencing lessons.”

            “Weapons training, spears and swords; I have to keep in practice with both.”

            “And of course, there’s that giant toy parked in the driveway.” That was a low blow, even for Jan. Recent Jan. Early Jan would never harbor this kind of bitterness.

            “I have to present a successful image,” he argued. “You know that.”

            She crossed her arms. Uh-oh. “Your image. So, you drive a two-seater?”

           "You can’t expect me to take the station wagon to work.” Never mind that it was more rust than car, or that it was loaded with the girls’ toys and smelled like fermenting carnival candy.

         “No,” she said like the axeman making small talk with the condemned, “You’d look ridiculous with a starlet on your arm behind the wheel of a family car.”

         “Jan…” He took a breath. “What if you and I slip out and catch the late show. Burton’s Alexander is still playing at the Bijou.”

         Her foot tapped, driving an invisible nail into the floor. “Not again.”

         “So, maybe we don’t actually watch the movie.” He brushed his fingers along her bare arm, the way she liked. The way she used to like.

          And the storm clouds opened: “I’m sick of Richard Burton… and of Alexander. I’m sick of stubbing my toe on all your books. I’m sick of these hours. Matt, I’m done. I’m taking the girls to my folks’ place for a while.”

          “In Rhode Island? What’s in Rhode Island? Those fat clams? Look, I know it’s been tough, but this pilot is going to sell – I can feel it. Things will change fast. You’ll see. I’ll be making real money. We’ll get a better place. You’ll come with me to parties and events.”

         “That’s your dream, Matt. And I love that you have a dream. But it’s not mine.” Someone was trapped behind those eyes, a prisoner willing to take desperate chances to escape. “I need a home and dinner at six and bills that get paid and… I need… I don’t know what I need, but it’s not this.” 

          As if on cue, the girls thundered into the room dressed in towels and chased by the neighbor’s water-logged terrier. He hated dog-sitting, even if they were paying Jan ten dollars. The animal positioned itself dead center in the room and shook, spraying the entire contents of the tub from its fur onto the walls and furnishings. 

          “Rufus! You’re not supposed to get in the tub!” Flustered, Jan chased the dog out the back door and into the yard. He’d no doubt roll in the nearest compost heap, negating any effects of his bath with the girls.

          Matt, meanwhile, was spinning Becca under one arm and Janey under the other, their swinging feet narrowly avoiding lamps and other breakables. The girls felt tiny in his thick arms – the sessions with his physical trainer were really paying off!

           Jan returned, a bedraggled expression breaking through her former composure. “I just got them quieted down.”

          “Don’t blame me. It was Rufus’ fault. Wasn’t it girls?” Matt said, setting them down and tickling them mercilessly until their squeals shook the walls. “Hey, Daddy has a surprise for his favorite girls. We’re all going to visit with Flapjack and –”

           “Your horse?” cried Becca.

           “I love Flapjack,” added Janey, who had never met Flapjack. “When, Daddy, when?”

           “We’ll aim for next week, maybe –”

          Now Jan glared at him. “Did you not hear what I just said?” He was actively trying not to remember it, but reality was both mean and insistent. “We won’t be here next week.” She shooed the girls back out of the room, threatening them with dire consequences if they weren’t in bed in ten seconds. The adorable pair of tornadoes roared up the stairs, leaving an uneasy calm in their wake.

           “You don’t have to go to your mother’s, baby. There are only two more weeks left of shooting. We can –”

           “I’ve booked the flight. We leave first thing in the morning.”

            Matt’s heart sank to the bottom of the sea. “How long will you be gone?”

            She sat down, her skirts puffing out a gust of exhaustion. “A few weeks. Maybe longer.”


            Matt double-checked the address on the gravy-stained napkin. Glenn had a woman’s loopy-swoopy handwriting, but at least it was legible. He had the right place. Good. He’d already loaded his family into a taxi; he didn’t need any more headaches this morning.

          The Saturday sun shone down on a 1920s California Bungalow that had seen better eras. Paint peeled away from buckling stucco walls under a tiled roof with pieces chipped or missing. Out front, a shirtless boy struggled to push a manual lawn mower outmatched by the dense thicket of weeds. He swerved to avoid a sad-looking ’49 Tucker that stood on cinder blocks in the middle of the yard. A woman of a certain age sat on the front porch, drinking from a tall glass of amber liquid, her eyes fixed on the sweaty teen.    

            Matt stepped out of his smart new ’63 Shelby Cobra, walking past the boy and up the steps. “You must be Madam Love.”

           “No. She’s dead.” It was a conversation stopper, but the woman said it as casually as if she were announcing she’d run out of corn flakes. “I will do this.” Before Matt could ask anything else she stepped inside.

           Matt stood staring at the door. He turned to the teenager and shrugged. The boy shrugged back. Undaunted, Matt stepped into the front room of the house.

           Shabby drapes matched the worn fabrics on the outdated furniture. A sheer red kerchief lay draped over a single lamp, rouging the far side of the room. The walls held a number of photographs showing the woman he’d just seen standing next to a much older woman in flowing silk garb. Madam Love, he presumed. Possibly this woman’s mother. In one corner, a table stood waiting. A taper rose from an elegant silver candlestick, the only thing of any value in sight.

            “Hello?” Matt tried, answered only by a cobweb or two.

            It took a moment but the woman he’d seen earlier reappeared, the highball in her hand topped off. She had added some cheap baubles and rings to her schlocky ensemble, plus a crocheted shawl, red to match the room.  

            “And you are?”


            “Madam Sit.”

            “Sit! Hinsetzen!” The German bark made Matt jump.

            “Of course.” He took a stool by the table.

            “Not there.” The woman spoke with clipped vowels and a d sound where the th should be. She pointed to a grungy couch, its ugly pattern dissolving in a collage of food stains.

            As Matt awkwardly moved over, an arthritic orange tabby entered the room. It coughed up something wet on the rug, turned, and left the way it had come.

            “Should I cross your palm with silver?” Matt asked, grinning.

            “Twenty dollars American,” she said matter-of-factly.

            He pulled out his wallet, noticing how her eyes counted the contents, and handed her a bill so crisp it snapped when she grabbed it.

            “Do I get your –”

            “My name is not important. You are Moze Vitkus.”

            How does she know that? He hadn’t used his real name in years and even paid his publicist to keep it out of the trades. “I go by Matt Wilder now.”

            “You are who you are. Denial is a fool’s delight.” She’s watched too many movies on The Late Late Show.

            Matt began over. “I was told you could help me to –”

            She didn’t let him finish. “I know why you come to me, even if you do not.” She took a long sip of her morning cocktail. “Your mission is to understand.”

            “About Alexander the Great. The truth is I’ve done my homework. I’ve studied his life,” he said, “but I can’t seem to find the man himself – what drives him. He’s a military genius, of course, but the real Alexander is an enigma.”

            She looked at him and through him. The woman – in his mind, he named her Frau Bonkers – pointed a poorly manicured nail at his eyes. “You are seeking to understand a man you think you know.”

            “That’s right. I –” 

            She cut him off. Again. It was getting on his nerves. “I will raise your consciousness to a higher plane of learning. Hand me your keys.”

            “Why do you need my car keys?” he asked.

            The woman said, “I can’t have you getting up and driving off while you’re under the influence. Deaths are hard to explain to the police.”

            “Someone died? Wait! I could die?” Matt asked with understandable concern.

            “Scheißkopf! Nobody dies. Your keys.” It was not a request. He handed her the keys. “Besides, I need to go grocery shopping. I’m making Zigeunerschnitzel for supper.”

            “Sounds delicious.” He had no idea what it was.

            They got started on the business at hand.

          She told him to clear his mind. “Open yourself to a life you have never seen, never known. Where you once believed you knew reality, you will see new possibilities. New truths. A new past and a new future.”

            She’s laying it on a bit thick, he thought.

            Frau Bonkers stepped over to a bookcase. From an ornate wooden box, she plucked a vial of yellow-white powder.

            Now, we’re cookin!

            The woman took the vial out of the room. He heard a tap turn on in the kitchen. The juxtaposition of mixing up a magic potion with the sound of water from the local reservoir broke the mood.

            She returned and handed him a glass painted on the side with a scene of Yogi Bear carrying a stolen pic-a-nic basket while Mr. Ranger chased him. The glass held a dull yellow liquid.

            “What is it?” he tried.

            “Es ist ein Zeittrank,” the woman said curtly. Matt had no clue what she’d said, but she quickly added, “I will be watching.” This only added to his confusion. “Let the Zeittrank bring you clarity. Men need clarity. Few men find it.” Still, he hesitated. “Trinken!

            Matt gulped it down. The brew smelled like Yogi’s backside and felt slimy on his tongue. He hoped the aftertaste of ashes would fade. It didn’t. At the woman’s urging, he then laid back on the couch. He plopped his head into a cushion, raising motes of dried sweat and spent passion.

            For a minute, nothing happened. He wanted to ask questions, but the woman waved her hand, indicating for him to be calm. She ordered him to shut his eyes and relax. It was a tall order.

            Somewhere, an old clock ticked. Matt felt a tingling in his ear lobes, and enjoyed the lazy fireworks display playing on the inside of his eyelids. Otherwise, he felt nothing out of the ordinary. Then, as if someone had thrown a switch, his senses stopped. He no longer smelled the funky couch nor tasted the awful elixir.

            For an instant, he lived in an insubstantial world which refused to connect to any of his senses.

            “Has it started yet? When will this happen?” Matt asked, peeking out through one eye…

            …and meeting blinding daylight.

            “Now! Raise your sarissas, you lice-infested dogs!” An officer in a bronze breastplate cried over a tremendous rumbling. Matt was crouching in the dust, his hands clutching a long pole with a broad blade at one end. His clothes had been replaced by filthy rags that left his legs bare. Crude leather sandals, cracked and split in places, barely protected his feet. On either side of him, men hunkered down low. In unison, they angled up the eighteen-foot-long poles to expose their vicious blades. They braced the butt against the rocky dry ground. A slender line of equally ragged men, swords in hand, blocked Matt’s forward view. As soon as the officer cried out, these men ran behind those raising the poles.

            This presented Matt with a full view he instantly wished he had never seen.

           Men on horseback – perhaps fifty of them – were thundering down on their position. The horsemen wore colorful robes that whipped in the breeze. Underneath, they girded themselves in vests of ablative scales, turning them into giant warlike fish. They screamed battle cries loud enough to stop a man’s heart. The horde came heavily armed, raising spears, ready to deal out death. Some nocked arrows in powerful double-bent bows. Others swung oddly-shaped axes clearly intended to remove heads from bodies. The attackers, led by a bearded devil in a chariot, were bearing down on a meager foe. A farmer showed more mercy when slaughtering his chickens.  

          The chargers were seconds away from overrunning Matt and the others. He could already feel the bite of their blades. Death had come. The men around him showed no fear. If anything, their faces betrayed a dull acceptance that whatever happened next was beyond their control… or their caring. 

            Matt was less composed. “Mother!” he cried.  

Chapter Two

The Man on the Horse on the Hill

        The screams of the horses fired electrical terror through Matt’s body, as if he and the animals shared one nervous system. They were alike: pawns in someone’s game of war. Matt had served two uneventful years in the army after the Korean conflict. He’d never seen battle. Now, here he was in a war he’d only read about in Glenn’s books. Ancient history books. And here he was. Not reading. Not looking back. Right here.

          Matt wanted to shut his eyes, but he could not will himself to do it. Instead, he gripped his bladed pole tighter like the men to either side of him.

          First to realize his mistake was the enemy battalion commander in his battle chariot. A look of cruel confidence vanished from his face the second the Macedonian soldiers parted, revealing the raggedly dressed defensive fighters presenting the lethal tips of their singular weapons. The charioteer’s dark eyes filled with raw anger at this swift reversal of fate. His pair of horses, meticulously trained to obey despite the chaos of battle, galloped directly into the slaves’ upraised sarissas. The blades bit into each animal’s breast, momentum driving the tip deep into straining muscle, opening spigots of red.

         The defensive sarissas caught a dozen horses, either impaling them or gashing their flesh deeply, lethally. The riders who followed tried to arrest their animals’ stride, with a darkly comical effect. The beasts piled directly on top of the ones in front. A few confused riders managed to jump the sarissa line, only to discover a hoplite phalanx waiting in a high field of grain. A small detachment of soldiers created an impenetrable shell with their aspis, shields with half circles cut from each side that allowed them to jab their dorata into any living thing within range.

         Cut off from retreat, the dark riders attacked, but they met soldiers who possessed greater skill. They drove forward, unrelentingly, until their horses succumb to vicious spear tips. The bearded riders quickly found themselves surrounded and dispatched by clean-shaven, bronze-armored soldiers.

           Matt instantly claimed the newcomers as his team. Most wielded sarissas, as he had done. They also employed recurved swords with J-shaped grips fashioned in the shape of animal heads. Horses, lions, and hawks bit into man flesh as Matt watched. These kopis delivered ax-like blows that stove deeply, cutting or crushing. Fine skills played no role here.

          Looking from one scene of carnage to the next, Matt’s stomach lurched. Everywhere he turned, men were hacking mercilessly at one another. Matt had first learned to fight at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where they taught swordsman fluidity, balance, feints, and counter-feints. What he was witnessing on this field was simple butchery, men rendering each other into meat. A few of the officers demonstrated mastery of their weapons. They moved with purpose and paired off with their equals in a match of skills. Most fighters, however, singled out weaker opponents and then chopped at them, reducing a man to ragged chunks. Battles ranged from skirmishes to clashes between whole battalions. The Persians in their fish-scale armor and padded robes had counted on an easy sweep across this plane. They were disoriented and disheartened, having seen their commander slain. Matt looked down on that officer now, his eyes dead and fixed inside a head perched atop a long pole planted in the bloody soil like some awful fruit tree.

         Matt’s immediate prospects shone no brighter by comparison. A Persian survivor was taking out his fury on the nearest slaves. He thrust his spear tip into one man’s belly and jerked it to one side, sending the slave into fits of pain. In the same smooth motion, he turned and jammed the spear straight through another unarmed man, pinning him as a child might pin a butterfly. The murdered slave’s head swung back and forth and tears ran down his face as his body slid down the angled shaft of his murder weapon, settling against the bank. His blood stained a bed of white flowers that had black seedpods for faces.

         The Persian wasn’t finished. From his right hip, he pulled a foot-long akinaka, slashing the dagger through the air as he sought out his next victim. He found one, and bared his teeth in an animalistic show of dominance. The one he found was Matt, and for an instant their eyes locked.

         “Come on!” A new voice came from a man who was pulling Matt out of the madness of the killing area. Armored soldiers were moving in to finish off the Persian attackers. Macedonian soldiers.

          What the holy hell did that lady do to me?

          “By Athena’s honeyed teats, Sophos! Move or die!” The man was screaming at him. Even as they ran to escape this slaughter pen, the man’s words registered in Matt’s brain. Sophos. He, Matt, was Sophos. A Greek among proud Macedonians, and in tattered clothes. That meant only one thing: he was a defeated enemy – a slave – being used as part of some clever maneuver in an ancient battle. A slave! I am definitely going to ask Frau Bonkers to return my twenty bucks!

          His savior wore a face with the deep crags and creases of a man who lived under tremendous burdens that would kill most people. He’d lost part of one ear, meaning this man had gotten as close to danger as a man can and still be around to talk about it. Matt wanted to ask his rescuer’s name, but he also felt as if he – or Sophos, rather – should know it. Maybe he could fake a concussion. “Friend, in all the confusion, I’ve forgotten your name.”

           “Did a horse kick you in the head? Poor thing, I hope it’s able to walk after striking such a hard rock. I’m Leto. Leto! We learned together at the feet of Aristotle years before that mad cur on the hill yonder.”

            Matt – Sophos – looked around and spotted the man Leto described. He sat on a squat horse atop a nearby redoubt, framed by low mountains. The man’s helmet with its exaggerated top plumage marked him as a leader. Squinting, Matt could make out the symbol on the muscled breast of his brilliantly polished cuirass. The bronze armor sported a head with snakes for hair: Medusa. This was not a leader. This was the leader. Alexander the Great. The man he’d come to see.

            His reverie was cut short by the screams of a lone Persian in bloodied robes padded with linen. The newcomer appeared to be cut off from his forces, and an ugly gash lay open on his forehead. He raised an aršti. The word for this type of spear jostled its way into Matt’s mind as if he were recalling something from cluttered and jumbled memory. Whatever its name, the bloodied Persian was an instant away from throwing the weapon into Leto’s heart. Without thinking, Sophos shifted his full weight forward, running directly at the dumbfounded Persian.

             “Sophos! I promised your sister I’d protect you!” Leto cried out.

            Sophos launched himself as Matt had been trained to do, trained by the best stunt coordinator in Hollywood. With momentum now at his command, he jumped, making himself into a human missile. He flew feet-first at his target and, with perfect aim, planted his sandals squarely into the Persian’s solar plexus. Sophos dropped to the ground and rolled to one side. He was drunk with adrenaline and in love with what his body could do.

            The Persian stumbled back one step, maybe less. The blow had done little to stop the man, but it had certainly made him wonder at the sanity of Greeks. He looked down on Sophos and raised his aršti, clearly intending to thrust it down into the chest of his foolhardy assailant.

            A weapon penetrated deep, its tip emerging through padded garments and fish-scale armor. It was the Persian who wore a look of astonishment, his last expression of emotion on the Earth.

            The Persian fell straight forward, barely affording Sophos the chance to roll out of the way. When he recovered his senses, he looked up to see Leto holding a gore-covered makhaira.  With its S-shaped leading edge, the blade was ideal for rendering meat, be it oxen or man.

            “If you have fallen in love with death, tell me now. For my part, I would prefer to return home alive to warm your sister’s bed… if that’s all right with you.” Leto was reaching down now. Sophos clasped his hand around the other’s forearm as his friend and savior pulled him to his feet. “Let’s go.” He indicated a line of tents in the distance. Sophos was overjoyed to see that there were no skirmishes between them and this sideline encampment.

            Most of the tents were open on one side. Men lay unconscious within, bleeding from ugly wounds. Others mulled about with manageable lacerations that would no doubt become scars they would use to build stories years later.

            A large soldier with silver bits adorning his breastplate said, “You lived. Good. Now, you can bind their injuries. Then, gather some of those horses from the battlefield.”

            “The dead ones?” Sophos asked grimly.

            “It’s hard to eat the live ones, fool!” The soldier – a high-ranking cavalry commander – answered glibly. He led Greek forces and dressed in Greek fashion, making Sophos wonder how he could give such a repulsive order to his fellow Greeks.

            Sophos and Leto went to work. There were fewer than twenty wounded Macedonians in the encampment. There were three times as many wounded slaves, and many more of that caste lay on the battlefield stabbed through the gut and left to whimper their way into dark death.

            “Alexander of Macedon bleeds with his men, they say,” Leto bitterly observed. “But he freely spends the blood of slaves and mercenaries to win his fights.”

            They began to wash the men’s wounds and bind them with what cloth was at hand. The material was filthy, and Sophos said as much. “We must boil these rags and change them often or our work will go for nothing; they’ll die in a week from gangrene.”

            “What is that?”

            “The wound blackens, festers, poisons the rest of the body.”

            Leto’s eyes shot wide. “Yes, the putrid flesh. The death odor. I’ve witnessed this gangrene often. You say boiling water can prevent such misery?”

            “Yes. We’ll use it to clean the wounds,” Sophos said, gingerly probing where a horse had crushed a man’s foot. Sophos was making medical decisions far beyond the scope of Matt Wilder’s army first aid training. He was drawing loosely on what he’d picked up guest starring on doctor shows. The injured man gasped and let out a groan. “We need something for their pain.”

            “They have strong drink for that,” Leto mocked. Indeed, the soldier with the crushed foot raised a wineskin to his lips and gulped. “The Macedonians care nothing for the pain of lesser Greeks, just as they put us into their fight without proper training.”

            “Wine is far from ideal.”

             “It’s good wine – not watered down.”

            “Some of these men have belly wounds. Wine will kill them.” Something squirmed in the back of Sophos’ mind, a vague recollection. He turned to the large soldier – possibly a general – who was going from wounded man to wounded man reassuring them that victory was theirs. In his most commanding tone, Sophos said, “I need those white flowers, as many as your men can gather.”

          “You dare give me orders?” The commander’s hand was already on the hilt of his kopis. That arm! From Sophos’ darkest thoughts came an image of those powerful biceps drawing that curved blade across his throat.

            Terrified, he opted for bluster. “If you want these men to live to fight more battles, I need to control their pain so they can rest and heal. I need those flowers.”

            The commander scoffed, “A soldier does not care for pretty poppies.”

            “Pluck out the black seedpods and press them for the oil. I need as much as you can render.” A man whose arm lay flayed open from a Persian blade cried out in agony as Leto tried to clean out the grit and horse shit. “Your men need you to do this!”

          The afternoon dragged on. The sounds of battle thinned as the living became the dead. As the Macedonians gained dominance, they also found a new and terrible energy. Killing became less a chore and more an indulgence. Hades recruited greedily from the ranks of the Persians. By twilight, the field lay crowded but silent. Birds of opportunity gathered to feast.

           The Macedonian commander returned, pleased with the results from Sophos’ ministrations. “You’ve earned an extra ration, both of you,” he said in a tone as close to gratitude as he was likely to get.

            “We’re glad your men will recover,” Leto said. “Perhaps, one day, we’ll be serving them in their homes.”

            “A pleasant life.” The Macedonian laughed in earnest and clapped them both on the back. Hard.

            “There is one thing,” Sophos said. Leto leaned back, out of the Macedonian’s sight and shook his head disapprovingly at his idiot friend.

            “A favor?” the commander asked. “Take care what you request, helot.”

            “Do not call us that,” Leto protested. “We are not Spartan slaves. We will not be dressed like fools. We come from prominent families in Athens!”

            “Who sold you lightly,” the commander mocked, his anger rising.

            Sophos pushed in between the two. “I am Sophos, a man of some learning. I would like to bring word of this pain remedy personally to Alexander.”

          The big man laughed harder than before. Sophos joined in good-naturedly. They enjoyed the moment… until the commander clapped a huge calloused hand forcefully against the side of Sophos’ head, setting his ears to ringing and sending him sprawling in the dirt.

            “You expect the basileus to meet with a slave? I will show you mercy because you showed mercy to my men, but do NOT forget your place, Sophos!”

            The commander stormed off in search of wine.

            “Well, at least he learned my name,” Sophos said to Leto.

            “It’s best to get on Cleitus’ good side… if you can find it,” his friend answered.


         He and Leto reluctantly set out to gather horse carcasses, one section at a time, from the battlefield. The Macedonians had food of high quality, including some recently acquired Persian delicacies. The slaves would be eating their fill of horse meat tonight. Sophos’ heart hurt at the thought of such beautiful creatures used first as battle weapons and then as food.

           “I’ve spoken with the men,” Leto confided. “Most would rather sleep with empty stomachs.”

          “I’m pleased, but that sacrifice will not be necessary. Help me cut a hind quarter from this poor animal. Then, we’ll wrap it.” They had brought a tarp. “Meanwhile,” Sophos added, digging into the earth, “We’ll fill our pot with as many of these as I can find.” So saying, he plucked a turnip from the soil. They hastily combed the area and found more, along with enough roots and wild onions to make a soup. It would be thin, but, to a Greek, far more palatable than horse flesh. That meat would go to the company’s dogs, who were not picky.

          “I’ll bed down the dogs upwind from the boy king’s tent,” Leto joked. “Let their farts spice his dreams.” The man’s good humor lightened the strain of hauling back their wretched cargo.

           Worn to the last of their strength, the two found a stream to try to scrub off some of the day’s blood and filth. Things were finally slowing down. That was a mistake.

            A shudder ran through Sophos’ body, despite the mildness of the evening. His shoulders flew back as if some internal drill sergeant had snapped him to attention. He found himself unable to stop quaking as emotions of the deepest dread swept over him. Images from the day hung before his eyes, phantoms in the night, flickering movies projected by his brain to replay the deaths he had witnessed and almost joined. Seeing his friend’s distress, Leto took him by the shoulders and hugged him close. Sophos froze, not responding. Moments passed, and so did his shudders.

            Sophos looked down. Under the full moon, faces looked up from the gently rippling water.

            Matt Wilder and Sophos of Athens. One was the familiar, carefree face he’d shaved this morning. The other super-imposed its features: older, darker, wearier. It was an odd duality, both faces existed as one. Sophos was the face others must see in this place. Indeed, he realized at last that he felt differently. He estimated that he was at least four inches shorter than he ought to be, with curly jet-black hair and a far more prominent nose hack writers would describe as aquiline. He counted four poorly-healed scars on his arms and body and pictured more lurking out of sight.

            Sophos. The lowest of the low. This is who he was now. He threw a stone, turning his new face to ripples. “No. I didn’t come here to be some nameless slave. You,” he told his wavering image, “are going to be somebody!”


There is much more to see...

Order your copy now from Amazon!


Alexander Cover small