THE IVORY EROS
SUMMARY: Hephaestion is dead and Alexander is going mad, but a glimmer of hope comes from a very unexpected source. Rated NC17 to be on the safe side
NOTES: I would like to dedicate this story to Veronique2 – the idea for it first came to me when I was reading the most excellent "second chances" – but I hope its different enough not to seem like a pirate job!
I would also like to say a huge, massive thank you to all of you who wrote such kind and generous reviews of my last two stories – I was quite overwhelmed!
As it's that time of year as I post this, I want to wish a very happy Christmas to all who celebrate it, and many blessings and much happiness to all of you who don't!
DISCLAIMER: (Yawn…) No I don't own anything, anything at all.
He awoke with a heavy head and a churning stomach. His throat was raw. The air he breathed in was stale and thick and his clothes clung clammily to his body. And he was cold. He supposed he had passed out, but why had no-one undressed him, put him to bed? And where was he? Reluctantly he opened his eyes, taking in the red draperies embroidered with golden vines heavy with fruit. He had chosen them himself. So he was in Hephaestion's room. Hephaestion…
Oh Gods, what a nightmare. It had only been a nightmare. Hephaestion was lying asleep beneath him. Asleep. Only asleep. But he was cold too. He was cold as ice.
Alexander began to scream. Again.
"My Lord… Alexander… please… for Hephaestion's sake, if not your own… at least… you must eat… bathe…"
Alexander turned wildly upon Bagoas, still clinging tightly to Hephaestion's body. "Did you poison him? I've heard you were jealous! Did you?"
"My Lord…!" The Persian eunuch's beautiful eyes filled with tears.
Perdiccas put a hand on the boy's shoulder, drew him back. "He's right, Alexander. The embalmers are waiting, you can't leave him like this. You must give him his dignity! Think of his shade!"
"Did you kill him, Perdiccas?" Alexander hissed, "did you fancy yourself as Chilliarch?"
"That was unworthy of you, Alexander," Perdiccas replied stiffly, "Hephaestion was my friend too – "
"NO!" Alexander tore at his own ragged hair, "no, no, none of you loved him as I did, none of you! He was mine! He was the one person I knew was truly mine! He loved me," he cried, "He loved me! And I won't let you snatch him from me!"
"Alexander – "
"Not yet!" A deep groan broke from him as he buried his face in Hephaestion's dampened hair and smelled death in it. "Not yet… leave me alone with him… just a little longer… please!"
Perdiccas gave a heavy sigh and nodded to Bagoas. The boy lingered, wanting to speak, but Alexander looked away from him and at last heard the door closed once more. Blinded by tears, he gazed down at the face of his beloved. But there was no comfort to be found in it; the spark of life had gone, the skin had taken on a dull greenish-grey pallor, the eyes would never open again. Reluctantly Alexander looked around the room, suddenly sickened by its ornate luxury. "Oh my love," he sobbed, "how worthless it all seems now… all of it, all the glory, all the struggling, the suffering… what is gold worth to me now? What is silk worth? What is Persia, India… even the crown of Macedon, when my heart is broken and empty?"
Suddenly his eyes settled upon the small statue which stood upon a plinth in the corner. Drawing himself up with painful slowness, he stared hard at it. He did not want the memories it recalled, yet the more he stared, the more clearly he could hear Hephaestion's voice, could see him lying on this bed, just as he was now, but with his face animated with life. He could still hear the words, the words he had not wanted to hear then, the words he now feared would haunt him for the rest of his life…
He had been lying there when Alexander had broken in upon him in an irritable mood and had looked up at his king with a small but suggestive smile. "You look very handsome tonight, my love. Though I do like our Persian costumes, the sight of you in a simple short chiton… giving me a fine view of your legs… is highly pleasing…"
Alexander folded his arms impatiently. "Hephaestion, if this is your idea of a joke your King is not laughing. As it is I've had to walk out of a banquet to wander around the palace looking for you! If you weren't well why didn't you send a servant with an excuse?"
"There's nothing wrong with me, Alexander…" Hephaestion murmured, "I've just been lost in a muse…"
Hephaestion nodded to something over Alexander's shoulder. Puzzled, Alexander turned around and came face to face with a statue of a boy carved from the purest ivory he had ever seen, painted only minimally. Its curly hair was gilded, as was the bow it held loosely at its side as it gazed into the distance, as if watching the flight of an arrow it had just let fly. "Eros, Hephaestion? Are you growing old and sentimental?"
Hephaestion shook his head. "Look at him, Alexander. Look closely. I went to commission a likeness of myself to send to my parents and there he was, smirking across the workshop at me, and I had to buy him. Can't you see it yet, my friend? Who does he remind you of?"
Alexander scowled at the sculpture, which smiled smugly back at him with all the self-assurance of youth. "Who made it? I hate them taking liberties with my likeness!"
"You love them taking liberties," Hephaestion sighed, rising to pour himself some wine from the pitcher by his bed. He held out the cup to Alexander but the King shook his head. "He's even got your lovely grey eyes, and he holds his head just like you do… where do you think he came from? It's as if he was made for me… who else would remember you so vividly at that age?"
"What age?" Alexander demanded in growing vexation.
"Can't you see it?" Hephaestion moved over to the sculpture and touched its delicate face. "He's exactly the age you were when we first became lovers! How fresh, how beautiful you were then… even had your mother never said it I would have believed you the child of a god… do you know, in the weeks after I first met you, I'd wake up each morning convinced you were a dream, and each time I'd make my way to our meeting place in the palace grounds my heart would squeeze with joy when I'd see you waiting for me with a smile… Great Gods, how I loved you, even then… but once we became lovers… then… I was convinced after that I would die in my first battle, because to have that much good fortune at so young an age… one couldn't be blessed with long life as well!"
Involuntarily Alexander moved closer to Hephaestion, drawn into the intensity of his mood. Hephaestion turned to him with a dreamy look in his dark eyes; his hand against Alexander's cheek was surprisingly cold. "My love, we must go and join the others…" Alexander sighed, "come, I will help you dress…"
Hephaestion didn't seem to hear him. "Do you remember… it must have been a couple of months after we became lovers… I dared you to sneak off with me so we could make love instead of attending a banquet King Philip was throwing for some dignitaries from Athens?"
Alexander couldn't help smiling. "Of course I remember. You convinced me it was a worthy sacrifice to Eros, who was after all the son of Aphrodite and the creator of all lovers! My father was not impressed."
"Nor was mine. When the King told him he whipped my backside so hard I couldn't sit down for a week, or ride a horse for two!"
Alexander's brows drew together. "You never told me he beat you!"
Hephaestion shrugged. "I understand why he did. He was afraid for me… afraid I'd begun misusing my influence with you, or at least that your parents would think so and have me exiled… or worse…"
Alexander shifted restlessly. "Hephaestion, why bring this up now?"
Hephaestion took a sip of wine, then laid the cup aside and met Alexander's gaze with fierce defiance. Alexander started slightly as Hephaestion's arms locked about his waist and drew him close. "Because I want to know if there's anything left of him in you. Is there, Alexander? Do you still have any of his passion, his joy? His mischief? Will you help me make another sacrifice to Eros? Will you snub your guests one more time to make love with me?"
Alexander relaxed, chuckling. "Hephaestion, you are incorrigible. Come, my love, much as the offer tempts me, I – "
Before he could complete the sentence, Hephaestion kissed him, deeply, passionately, challengingly. When he let him go they gazed at each other, breathing hard. "Well… beloved?" Hephaestion panted.
Alexander was embarrassed to find himself blushing. "What excuse would I send to my guests?"
"The simple truth… that you were off having sex with the Grand Vizier!"
"You think the Companions will accept that?"
"No, you're right… tell them you were off having sex with the Chilliarch!"
"Hephaestion – "
"I love you, Alexander…" Hephaestion's words were little more than a soft breath on Alexander's neck as he brushed his lips against it. A fire lit in Alexander's body, a fire only Hephaestion could ignite. In a moment they had shed their clothes and scrambled beneath the sheets like excitable boys, touching and kissing as if for the first time. Alexander was overwhelmed by his own ardour, the kisses he took from Hephaestion's lips were rough and greedy, his probing fingers left red marks behind them. He clung to him as if snatching him back from thieving hands, fighting back tears when he reached his climax and whispering again and again, "you're mine… mine… mine…"
And Hephaestion had only encouraged him, willing him on to greater and greater frenzy, "yes, Alexander, yes, take me, yes!" Almost as if he was competing in a duel with Hephaestion as both the opponent and the prize.
But afterwards as he reclined in Hephaestion's arms, accepting a cup of wine from him, he was troubled. "What is it, Hephaestion?" he demanded suddenly, "what is this all about?"
"Didn't you enjoy it?"
"You know I did. But something is bothering you, I can feel it. Its not Bagoas is it? If the boy's getting under your feet… or being cocky with you…"
"Bagoas is irrelevant, Alexander, he always has been."
"Roxana then? I know she's been unhappy since the new marriages…" Alexander hesitated. "That's what this is about, isn't it! You've been in a strange mood since your wedding!"
"Marriage changes a man," Hephaestion joked airily, but Alexander was not to be put off.
"Is it Drypetis… does she displease you so much? You know why I chose her, I thought…"
"Alexander, there's nothing wrong with her. As a matter of fact, I've become rather fond of her, we may even make you an uncle before you know it, the Gods willing… and assuming you don't send me away on any long missions…" He shifted, leaning forward to look at Alexander. "Do you know, that's the first time you've asked me about my wedding night?"
"I wasn't exactly asking about…"
"It was quite a new experience for me. I never thought I could enjoy being with a woman in that way, not after you… I mean, as a boy, even after we'd become lovers, I expected to marry, but then when we became men and we were still lovers I just forgot all about it. When the wedding night finally came I was afraid I wouldn't be able to perform, after all, she's so plump and soft and feminine, I couldn't exactly close my eyes and think of you… but actually it worked in my favour. Drypetis tells me gossip spreads like wildfire through a harem – our intelligence networks have nothing on theirs! And in a very discreet way she let me know that she had an idea I was a virgin to women. We ended up giggling together like a couple of girls, which was reasonable enough for her but a bit embarrassing for me…"
"Hephaestion, I still don't understand what this has got to do with…"
"She is an enigma to me, Alexander… in some ways so innocent, in others, wise beyond her years. She is willing to trust me with her heart knowing full well that mine belongs to you. And it makes me wonder if a so-called barbarian, a girl almost half my age who has seen little of the world beyond one harem after another, doesn't know more about finding the key to true happiness than an army of Greek philosophers. I even considered writing to Aristotle about it… then I changed my mind."
"I'm very glad for you, my friend," Alexander replied sullenly, "its good to know that you've managed so quickly to achieve the sort of harmony with your wife that I have never achieved with any of mine, or any other lover for that matter besides you." He shifted petulantly away when Hephaestion clucked soothingly and ruffled his hair. "Another timely demonstration, if tonight wasn't enough, that I need you more than you need me!"
"Alexander, that's unworthy of you," Hephaestion reproached him, leaning back into the pillows, "this isn't about Drypetis! She's just reminded me of what I once had with you."
"So you're just like all the others! You're sick of Persia, sick of…" Alexander glanced about at their lavish surroundings, "all of this, you want to dismiss all these people as barbarians, say they haven't touched you, then skulk off back to Macedon and pretend you're still as Greek as Athens!"
Hephaestion gave a very deep sigh. "Alexander, you know this has nothing to do with Persia or anything in it. I'm not like Crateros or those other thick-headed boors! I happen to love these rooms; I happen to love this palace. And unlike some of your officers, I happen to be quite happy with my Persian bride! That has nothing to do with… with tonight. Do you really not understand, or do you just not want to?"
Alexander flung himself testily out of Hephaestion's bed. "Enough of this, come on, get dressed, we can still join the others, I'll think of some excuse."
Hephaestion lay where he was, staring up at the ceiling. "There was a time you thought there was no greater pleasure than for us to lie in each other's arms and talk. Now it seems you'd rather get drunk than listen to me."
"Now it's you who speaks unworthily," Alexander retorted. "Come on, I said enough of this nonsense, get up."
Hephaestion shook his head. There was no anger on his face now, it was smooth as a mask. "I've got a headache, I think I'm coming down with something. Go on, I'll come to you in the morning. Health to you, my love." And with that, he turned over and went to sleep.
"You fool!" Alexander cursed himself again and again, "you stupid, blind, lecherous fool!" Why had he not paid more attention to Hephaestion that night, why had he not seen the signs – the cold hands, the hot brow, the overbright eyes, the morbid turn of thought – and recognised the symptoms of coming sickness instead of worrying about how his words unsettled him and stabbed at his self-assurance? He had made use of that precious body, ravaging it, violating it, instead of nurturing and tending it.
Worst of all, he had very nearly passed up what had proved to be his last chance to make love to Hephaestion, just because of a witless drinking contest designed to relieve his increasingly troubled mind and persistently restive spirit. The next day Hephaestion was there, apparently happy and well and devoid of his strange melancholy, though he seemed rather remote. That night the drinking contests resumed and by the next day Hephaestion had fallen sick.
"And I wasn't even there for you, my own dearest love…" Alexander sobbed afresh, "but I understand now… I understand, and you're right, you're right…None of this matters, none of it, it's all meaningless without someone to share it with, someone to trust your heart, your dreams, your hopes to…but why did they have to take you from me to let me see that? I thought the gods were with me… now I know they were only laughing at me, watching me fly closer and closer to the sun so they could melt my wings… "
Alexander turned sharply as he heard the sound of weeping outside the door. Drypetis? He had been cruel to her, hadn't let her come to her husband. He hadn't let anyone come to Hephaestion. But it didn't sound like her. He thought it was one of Hephaestion's pages, maybe the youngest one, who gossip suggested was in love with his Commander, though Hephaestion had never taken advantage of it. He ought to let the embalmers in, let others pay their respects. But he did not want to. He did not want them to mourn with him. What was their grief next to his?
A sacrifice to Eros! Alexander snarled contemptuously. Eros paid no attention to you, Hephaestion, none! He did nothing to protect our love when we needed him most! Slowly his gaze shifted to the ivory statue, who smiled back at him with a knowing expression. Hephaestion had been right, it looked frighteningly like he had at that age. "I hate you!" he screamed at it, "you, you pompous, self-satisfied little prig! Thought you knew it all, didn't you, son of Zeus! What have you got to look so smug about? Do you think you loved him better than I did? You had it all too easy – he made it easy for you! He gave you whatever you wanted, he knew what you needed, he even loved you in a way that protected your precious sensibilities! What did you know about the price I've had to pay for your wild dreams? You'd never imagine your father being murdered and people believing you did it, never feared friends turning on you, you'd never have… have killed someone you loved in a drunken rage… you'd never have to make the choice to massacre a city full of people… to crucify your own men… yes, its your dreams I have to suffer for… your wild ambitions he had to suffer for, your beautiful Hephaestion, your philalexandros!" In a sudden burst of murderous rage, Alexander leapt off the bed, staggered over to the statue and lifted it, determining to dash out its ivory brains against the wall.
The King froze, then whirled around. "I said I was to be left alone!"
His shout echoed in the empty room. Alexander glanced about him, his head spinning, beginning to doubt his senses. Slowly he became aware that he had his hand locked around the Eros' neck. And that its neck was warm. And that it had a pulse.
Madness had come at last. Silently, not moving his hand or looking around to see what it clutched, he closed his eyes and murmured a prayer. He was not quite sure whether he feared insanity or welcomed it, so he simply asked for guidance.
"Alexander, remove your hand from my throat. When the gods honour you with their presence, you should not try to choke them to death. That's better. Now open your eyes and look at me."
Reluctantly, Alexander did as he was told. As a child he had dreamed of a moment like this, longed to be visited by the gods just like the heroes of the past. Now he felt a cold, sick panic. His belief in the immortal ones had never wavered, but then nor had his sense of acting with their absolute support, until Hephaestion's death.
His eyes fell upon the ivory Eros. Only it was no longer ivory. It was, at least in appearance, now a boy of flesh and blood. And not just any boy.
"Who are you?" Alexander demanded in a thin voice, looking down into the dreamy grey eyes, "Eros? Zeus? Or just an echo of my own past, a younger self back to reproach me for letting Hephaestion die?"
"In a sense I am all of those," the boy responded, grinning infuriatingly at him, "in a sense, I am none." He cocked his head as if in mocking imitation of Alexander. "Perhaps the gods have taken pity on your terrible grief. Perhaps, after all, the little sacrifice you and Hephaestion made to me did not go unnoticed."
"Or perhaps I have lost my mind…"
"Oh, well… if that is the case, who or what I am doesn't matter, does it?" Suddenly the boy looked down to the bed. "How peaceful he looks. And he will be at peace, very soon."
"So that's why you've come…" Alexander groaned softly, blinded by tears, "as Patroklos came to Achilles, begging him to put him on his pyre without more delay? If that's all which summoned you, couldn't you have sent Hephaestion himself? Let me talk to him one more time? Let me ask his forgiveness for not… not…"
"Are you never satisfied with the gifts the gods shower upon you, Alexander, son of Philip?" the boy asked, raising one golden brow meaningfully.
Alexander sank down onto the bed. "If you are truly divine – "
"Forgive me, forgive me, I can't think… but I had hoped, wished, just for a moment…"
"Be careful, Alexander," the boy admonished, "be careful what you wish for. Think before you speak."
But Alexander could contain himself no longer. If this was a dream, he was certain waking from it would drive him to madness, unless, as he suspected, he was already mad. But if it wasn't... "If you are truly divine then you know what I want," he gasped, "can you grant my wish? Could it be done?"
"Again, I ask you to think before you ask it. There are other possibilities. I know you fear an eternal separation. What if you are, after all, the son of Zeus and he only a man? You could ask for him to be made a God – immortal, all powerful! The wish would not be granted," the boy added with a wry shrug, "but he will be accepted as a Divine Hero! What a fine honour for your brave beloved! And, when your time comes…"
"No... no!" The words broke from Alexander in a wail of despair, "no, what comfort can there be in that now? If you hadn't come, if I had asked, alone, in good faith, perhaps then…"
"Yes, I know… and yet, I had to come… I did not come before, and…"
"You know what I want!" Alexander interrupted, not understanding the boy's musings and not wanting to. "If you won't say it, I will!"
"Alexander, let me say again – "
"Can you do it? Can you bring Hephaestion back to life?"
"There is a terribly high price to pay for such things, Alexander, Conqueror of the World…"
"My life!" Alexander blurted, "my life for Hephaestion's!"
To his fury, the blonde boy actually laughed. "What good would that do? You would still be separated – the only difference is that he would be lying here weeping instead of you! No, the price is much higher than that – nor," he added, holding up his hand to silence the King's protests, "can it be chosen by you, or him. You are asking to change a future already laid out for you. Balance will not be easily restored. And Hades is not easily appeased."
"Whatever the price, I'll pay it," Alexander whispered. His head was swimming; he was now half certain he was about to awaken from this dream and steeled himself for the rush of utter despair. "If you can't do it then say so and wipe my mind of this vision – or take my life now and end this waking death!"
"You speak so certainly…" the boy moved with youthful grace around the bed to stand at Hephaestion's shoulder, stretched out delicate white fingers to touch the cold brow. "We will see, Alexander son of Philip, we will see just how long your certainty holds…" Without warning, he leaned right across Hephaestion's body, slipped his small hand behind Alexander's head and kissed the king with an open mouth, his childish lips surprisingly strong and firm. Alexander gave a muffled gasp as dizziness overwhelmed him, for a brief second he felt certain he was dying, that in order to fulfil his request to be reunited with Hephaestion the Eros intended to kill him too. Let death come, he thought, if it means eternity in Hephaestion's arms… But death didn't come. All at once the boy released him and with the tenderness of a lover, fitted his lips over Hephaestion's dead mouth. For a moment Alexander stared, then tore his eyes away in horror and confusion. If this is a dream, he thought, then please forgive me, Hephaestion, it wasn't one I could control. Weak as a newborn, he sank down on to the bed, gradually becoming aware of a warmth pulsing up through his body, of a strange, lightening, floating sensation, a mellow dreamlike version of the euphoria which sometimes gripped him when he had only just escaped death in battle. Then he felt nothing at all.
He started violently, his head jerking up as he caught the first convulsive motion from the corner of his eye. For a moment Hephaestion's body seemed locked as if in a dying spasm. Then came the first wheezy breath of life. Seconds later, colour flooding into his waxen cheeks, Hephaestion began to struggle up with the helpless, uncoordinated movements of one fighting to awaken from a nightmare. As Alexander ran instinctively to his side, his lover was seized by a violent, wracking cough so harsh it seemed to tear through him. Vacant eyes snapped open then squeezed shut as he leaned over and began to throw up enormous quantities of a thick, foul black liquid. Ignoring the splatter which struck his face and clothes, Alexander took hold of Hephaestion and thumped his back before locking his arms around him, not daring to let him go for fear a break in human contact might allow him to sink back to wherever he had been. "Perdiccas!" Alexander screamed, "Bagoas! Anyone! Get in here now!"