Author's Notes: I am sorry for everyone's long wait! I hope the "quality" of this final chapter shall mend that annoyance a little :) Huge, grateful thanks to Kitt of Lindon for betaing this on such a short notice! (Thank her, everyone, for getting this done and posted.) I hope you all enjoy this, as much as I have enjoyed making the whole story.
As a theme for the final chapter, we have A Perfect Circle's "The Noose" (from the album "Thirteenth Step". (Hear the song on the band's website!)
Chapter 5: Trial and Mercy
"These are my terms… And if Darius isn't a coward, who hides behind his men, then he'll come to me tomorrow. And when he bows down to Greece, Alexander will be merciful…"
- Alexander the Great before the battle of Gaugamela, from the film "Alexander" by Oliver Stone -
It had been almost two days since Rhadia fell under Alexander's control. The time had been grating to all: the local people waiting for Alexander's judgement, the king's own soldiers growing more anxious with each passing hour, Alexander's companions trying to find a way to bring their lord's mind to the matter at hand… And Alexander himself, waiting for the doctors to tell him Hephaistion was going to survive.
The atmosphere outside the city was tense, every movement drawing suspicious, nervous eyes to itself. Therefore, no one wanted to move, and an unnatural stillness hung in the air, like ominous clouds before a storm broke loose.
Alexander stood just within the tent that he had grown accustomed during the past days. By now, he knew every detail within the shelter. He had been standing here longer than was healthy, but he could not make himself leave. Not when Hephaistion lay on the bed, unmoving, pale and so broken… He had to avert his eyes again, tears threatening to break through his guarding mask. He felt alone and tired without Hephaistion at his side. Perhaps he had never noticed this before, or paid attention enough to understand it, but of all his advisors and friends, only Hephaistion soothed him from within. Not even Bagoas managed to do that with his sweet, caring actions.
He missed Hephaistion; his laugh, the mischief in his eyes when Alexander did or said something beside himself, the mere feel of completeness when they were together, and the silent support of the other man when he disagreed with the rest of the world. Alexander sorely wished Hephaistion to wake, just so he could tell this to his friend, hear the other laugh and call him a fool.
Yes, he wished Hephaistion to laugh. To smile. Because his fear was the other man would never do so again.
The day when Hephaistion was carried back to the camp in Crateros' arms, the doctors had operated on him all night. Alexander had been there, assisting in all way he could. Mostly he had just stood there, watching in growing agony how his lover's body was tended.
None of the doctors had to tell him what Hephaistion had been through. The fear that had lived within him all the while since he had first laid his eyes upon the wounded man was proven right when Crateros' protective cloak was removed. Yet he dismissed his own rage, telling himself they were not his wounds that bled again. It was not his body that had been abused in hands of others. So wrong, all this... How could this happen? How could the Gods allow this to pass? And his pain… It is my pain, too, Alexander decided. Every time I have suffered, in the past, so has Hephaistion. Regardless of his own needs, he has always been there for me – as a boy, as a man. And I… He looked at the bed again, ignoring the healers, his eyes only seeing Hephaistion. Have I ever been there for him, when he needed me most?
Some answers would never be found, Alexander knew. If he ever asked Hephaistion about the matter, he would gain no response but silence.
It took another day before a change overtook the camp of Alexander's army. By then, the tenseness was almost palpable, on the side of both prisoners and invaders. Only a few knew the true reason behind this lack of action – and those who did not started a myriad of gossips. Yet, most of the Macedonians knew this was bound to Hephaistion. Those closest to the king knew this to be exactly the truth. Yet none dared to face Alexander and tell him to make a move: this would happen when and as the young king was ready himself, not a second before.
The day when Hephaistion finally woke up was something everyone was waiting for – each in dread, without an exception. Alexander had been dead to the world since Hephaistion has been found, his focus solely upon his hurt general. When that trance-like state would pass, fate of many would be decided.
It was late afternoon when Hephaistion stirred, immediately alarming the doctor hovering near to him. He blinked in the canvas-dimmed light, frowning when pain hit him anew with the movement of lifting his face from the soft pillow.
"Lie still, my lord," the doctor said, then looked past him. "My king, he is awake…" The words were hesitant, as if he was reluctant to disturb someone, yet knowing it was necessary to do so.
Someone moved within the tent, then gentle fingers touched his temple just briefly. The touch was cool and comforting, and Hephaistion knew who stood beside him. "Leave us," Alexander spoke, and with a court bow, the doctor left the tent. The man probably knew that gainsaying the will of his king's right then would only mean defeat.
The smell of the other was soothing in its familiarity, and Hephaistion closed his eyes, content. The pain seemed to ebb away slightly, or then he was simply getting used to it. Either way, he was pleased with the situation.
"Hephaistion?" came Alexander's hesitant call, the fingers moving to brush his eyelids, as if afraid he had fallen asleep again. He opened his eyes, carefully shifting his body to see his worried lover.
Lover… How long it is since I called him that – or he, me? Too long, at any rate. Yet perhaps it is better so, for men like him are not meant to be bound, as he would have been with me… Hephaistion frowned slightly, trying to force his thoughts back in some kind of order. He had had plenty of time to think of his life, hanging between darkness and consciousness in Mazaces' prison: this was the time when he was supposed to be sharp.
Alexander mistook his silence and frown as a sign of pain, immediately starting to fuss around. When he reached to adjust his pillow, Hephaistion grabbed the hand into a determined grip, slowly forcing Alexander to sit on the side of the bed. Carefully, biting back a hiss, he turned to his back, squeezing Alexander's hand in warning when the man attempted to stop him. After several calming breaths, Hephaistion met his king's steady, yet anxious gaze.
Hephaistion soon realised he wasn't in such pain as he has first thought. The doctors had done their job well. He merely was stiff in all places, either from having lain in the same position for too long, or from the healing wounds that hindered proper movement. He steadily refused going into further details in his mind: had he done so, he would break down before Alexander. It was enough to bear that Alexander most likely knew what he had been through – as did plenty of other people. He wouldn't humiliate himself further over this matter.
What had passed was in the past. It was not worth worrying, now that all would return back to normal…
"Are you in a lot of pain?" Alexander asked, trying to keep his voice steady in vain; Hephaistion could catch every ounce of difference in it, even in his current state.
"I am fine, Alexander. Better than one might think. Soon, I'll be up." He gave the other man a smile, trying to reassure them both.
Alexander merely nodded, shifting his hands so he was able to hold Hephaistion's. "I am glad you are safe."
Hephaistion did his best not to break his teeth in irritation – or in the battle to avoid showing the emotions that swam just beneath the surface. Why did Alexander have to say such things, when both knew them for they were all too obvious? Yet he always loved Homer… "I know," he answered. "So am I." His attempts to bring out a carefree smile failed miserably. Alexander held his hand tighter – and those hands shook. The light now blazing in the king's eyes was greatly unnerving… "Alexander, what has happened?" he asked, afraid to hear the answer. "What of Rhadia?"
"The city still stands, half a mile from us," Alexander spat bitterly, swearing vengeance in his heart. "It has been five days since a word arrived to us… A word that…" Confident words turned into stammered half-sentences, Alexander's eyes wandering everywhere but in the man in front of him.
Hephaistion drew a deep breath, knowing that this moment had been coming all along. He was simply happy that it happened in private, not before all the leaders of the army. "I failed the mission entrusted to me, and for that, I apologise. I thought I could handle the situation, yet…" he bit his lower lip, recalling each of those torturing moments when the realisation hit him; knowledge that he would not survive alive from his mission. Yet here he lay, broken and defeated, and very alive. "You lost hundreds of men because of my mistake. Next time, I trust you to send me out with someone who can foresee such situations beforehand – or not to send me at all."
Alexander blinked, as if dazed. "What makes you think I blame you of any of this?" he asked, but Hephaistion didn't seem to register the words.
"I tried to make you proud, I swear, Alexander! To stand before your enemies, as your men did; they died fighting. But I…" Hephaistion swallowed, tears shimmering in his eyes, yet his control was yet too tight to let them slip. "I failed, Alexander. I broke. I let them break me. I didn't fight, not as I should have. I did not reach the glory of death, though after my failure, I doubt I would have earned such a honour."
"They didn't –" Alexander began, but the look on Hephaistion's face stopped him.
"I broke, Alexander. I fought, for hours, in vain. In the end, I couldn't stop it from happening," Hephaistion kept talking, his free hand gripping the covers in a painful grip. "I called out your name. I gave in to them, and let them bring it out of me. I never should have done it, to blemish your name so…. Forgiving me is beyond you, I know," he turned shining, self-loathing eyes at Alexander, "and any punishment you see just, I shall accept."
Alexander sat, for a blink of an eye, very still. Then he grabbed Hephaistion's shoulders, mindless of the pain it might cause to the other man. "Never will I hear those words repeated from you. Never, Hephaistion!" The loudness of his voice made them both cringe, and he turned into a more hushed tone. "You shall always be free to call my name, for ever it hasn't been sweeter in my ears than coming from your lips. And those who did this to you… They shall soon understand what that name means!" he vowed. "All that has passed was caused by a deceive of one man. Neither of us saw this coming. No crime I hold against you, my Hephaistion. Only the crime done against you and our dead kinsmen I shall seek vengeance for, and with pleasure I do so."
Hephaistion opened his mouth to speak, but Alexander shook his head. "No more foolish words: you have told me often enough to stay away from them. What you said is a lie, none of it true. I will make you see it."
"Alexander, you know I failed you, the mission given to me –" Hephaistion never finished the sentence as Alexander's lips silenced him. It was a kiss born of desperation, lacking any hint of gentleness. Yet Hephaistion welcomed it, his left hand seeking Alexander's strong neck, holding the other man. So different from a boy he had used to clutch against him.
Alexander drew away, after a while, yet refusing to retreat more than an inch. Their breaths ghosted together, their eyes locked, and Hephaistion spoke no more. Smiling, Alexander licked his lips, and brought them to his friend's again, gently this time.
Minutes later, they parted for air, and Alexander lay down beside Hephaistion, softly caressing his hair and face. It did not take long before the blue eyes slid shut, and the other's breath slowed down to an even rhythm. The king of Macedonia, Greece, and Asia lay on his place, continuing the idle movement of his hands, never taking his eyes off the vision before him.
The world outside could wait.
Alexander rose early. In all honesty, he had not slept at all, but he felt no fatigue. Keeping watch over Hephaistion was enough rest for him. The general had awoken hours later, and they had sat together for a time. Neither had bothered to talk, Hephaistion too exhausted, and Alexander too content to break the comforting silence. When had they needed words, anyway? After Hephaistion had fallen to sleep again, he had used the time well on his advance. His mind, after days of struggling, seemed able to make plans once more.
"Parmenion," he greeted as the general suddenly came into his view from between the tents.
The elder man halted, nodding his head in respect. "How do you fare this morning, Alexander?" Parmenion asked in turn.
"Better than in days," Alexander answered truthfully. "I want the camp packed and men ready to march during this day."
"What about the prisoners?" Parmenion asked, visibly confused.
"Leave enough tents to create a circle, and bring the soldiers within," Alexander answered cryptically, then walked away without further orders. It was time to make things happen… and move on.
After a walk across the camp, Alexander returned to Hephaistion's side. He had food brought for them, and when Hephaistion woke up, they ate together. The general was not happy to be denied the solid food, but Alexander gave him no other chance, and so Hephaistion was forced to swallow his soup without further complaints.
"Don't you have things to attend?" Hephaistion asked as they again lied down, Alexander's hands smoothing his hair in a dreamy pattern.
"There's plenty of time for those, later," Alexander responded, not caring to discuss about the matter.
"You never thought this way before." Hephaistion did not smile when he said this, nor did his voice carry a hint of amusement. There was simply wonder and worry.
"Do not bother yourself. I have taken care of my duties in your absence."
They fell silent, and within a few minutes, Alexander found himself to be the only wakeful person in the tent. Hephaistion was still exhausted and healing – and no doubt in a great amount of pain, even if he refused to show it – and so he slept most of the day. Alexander did not complain, yet today, he couldn't stay and watch his friend sleep, as he had taken a habit of doing lately.
Today, he had work to do, before the army would move out again.
Voices came from outside the tent, informing Alexander of the progress of his orders. He leaned down to kiss Hephaistion's temple, then stood up and left the tent, closing the flap carefully behind him. He turned to meet the mass of people gathered in the wide circle of tents still standing, wary and hating eyes directed at him as soon as he was spotted. The Rhadian captives knew their time had come.
Further outside the circle, Alexander could see the rest of the city's population waiting. In those eyes, he would see fear and terror, and hear the pleas for mercy. But the soldiers that stood before him refused to beg like worms. Not that Alexander cared: they all would feel the impact of his fury before he was done with them.
"What is your will concerning the prisoners, Alexander?"
Alexander almost smiled. It was expected that Ptolemy was the one to approach him first. He turned to his general, face completely serious, almost blank of all emotions. This was it. The moment of truth. Time for his revenge. "Keep them in check. I shall deliver my orders soon. Bring Mazaces forth." Ptolemy nodded and set out to do as he was bid. This was not a moment to question Alexander further, and any answers someone might have wanted would be given soon enough.
As two soldiers dragged Mazaces to the front of his own men, Alexander drew a deep breath, preparing himself. Sooner he was done with this, the better… "Mazaces of Rhadia, I believe you know why you are here." His voice was even, devoid of all warmth. A interpreter was standing nearby, in the case he would be needed, yet it seemed the Rhadian lord understood a great deal of Greek, even if he did not show it.
Mazaces stood proudly, attempting to shake off the restraining hands, then settled down again when this did not happen. "You have taken over my city, for no reason, killed my men and destroyed the life of my people." This all perhaps wasn't true, completely, but the point was made.
Alexander's eyes narrowed. "You deceived me to believe you would surrender to me without a fight, as an ally. Instead, you insulted my ambassador, killed my men, and abused a man I have called friend all my life." He wished to say more – and do more – but he knew it was not the time, yet.
Mazaces seemed unaffected by this, though a ghost of a sneer played on his face. "As I have already told you and your ambassador, I never offered to surrender, but to leave you alone when you passed by my lands. Come to claim my city, and I shall treat you as any enemy."
"This is how you meet all the foreign delegations?" Cassander couldn't help himself, the temptation to say something too great. Alexander did not dismiss him, and the question hung in the air dangerously. Finally the interpreter spoke it anew, in Mazaces' own language.
The lord waved the interpreter off with annoyance. "When the delegation is prepared to overtake what is mine, yes," Mazaces responded finally. "And you got what you deserve, Alexander. Too long you have raided cities, without proper defence against you."
This time, most of Alexander's generals laughed, and even Alexander himself smiled – yet it was one of a predator, not amusement. "You call your struggle a 'proper defence'?" Alexander requested. "I think you see yourself too highly. Perhaps it is time to drop you back to the level you belong in…" He shifted his stance, eyes blazing. Alexander's own men knew what was to come, and adjusted their armoury. "You killed my men, insulted me… But more than that, you hurt a man that I care deeply for. That is an insult that will not go unpunished, and you shall suffer for it – so no other has to endure your antics again."
Mazaces seemed to think of this, then his eyes gleamed in some inner satisfaction. "So your 'ambassador' is truly valuable to you… Yet even I can see that it is not his skills negotiating he is famous for. I wonder what he can do, to make his king defend him and his… tarnished honour in such a manner as this..." Shouts erupted in the Rhadian army, laughter and loud statements filling the air.
A dangerous look passed Alexander's face. "You have no idea of what you are saying. Hephaistion is a man of speech, not war. But most of all…" he halted for a moment, "you shall soon understand that in abusing him, you wounded me. For he, too, is Alexander."
The entire army of Alexander hushed down. This statement was a legend that had lived ever since Alexander took over Babylon, but most of them heard it for the first time – and from Alexander's lips.
Rhadians did not seem to understand the depth of this statement, Mazaces among them. "Weak are the men like you, unable to stand on their own, but rather leaning on his men," Mazaces stated. "Alone, you are nothing."
Just when Alexander was about to reply, a soldier rushed to his side. "My king, the people are fighting the soldiers!" he said hastily, pointing at the direction where the rest of the people of Rhadia were kept – aside from the soldiers. Most of Alexander's own army was gathered around the enemy warriors, and now the others had their hands full with common population.
Alexander's temper flared in a moment. Too many insults and loss of men he had tolerated in silence. "Lock them into the city, and burn it all down," he bellowed, eyes blazing. He gestured angrily with his hand, and a few soldiers stumbled to obey.
All eyes turned to stare at the direction of the shout, immediate silence following. The soldiers halted, unsure what to do. The king himself turned, finding Hephaistion standing behind him, wrapped in a thin cloak, his face pale but determined. "You shouldn't be up –" Alexander began, stepping towards his friend.
"What is going on in here?" Hephaistion demanded, his tone cold and full of authority. It was visible he knew exactly what was happening, yet he wished to hear it himself – from Alexander.
Alexander froze, his face unreadable. "Go back inside."
"No." The answer was firm. "I will not lay idle when you murder innocent people. For they are innocent, Alexander! They have never made a move against me," Hephaistion pointed at the people outside the circle, where women's cries and children's shouts could be heard beneath the roars of men. "They have never heard my name, only a few of them seeing me ride past when I entered their city. You can kill all you want," his voice turned into a hiss, "but not in my name. I shall not bear their death upon my shoulders for the rest of my life."
Alexander stood silent, his eyes locked with Hephaistion's. Messages passed between them, and finally the king nodded carefully. Hephaistion studied his king's face for a moment longer, his eyes shining. "So be it," Alexander finally stated, and they both turned to the two armies gathered. Macedonian and Greek soldiers nodded at Hephaistion in greeting, glad to see their general on his feet. The Asians bowed, showing their respect as well.
At that moment, among the Rhadian ranks, a storm broke. "King's whore!" was the first shout, announced with broken Greek. Hephaistion's eyes shifted in alarm, but other than that, he did not react. More voices rose in insults, and there was no way to locate their origin.
"Go back to king's tent, whore, so he shall enjoy you after blood's been shed!"
Alexander's fists clenched, his breath hitching dangerously. His eyes searched for any who opened his mouth to shout, just so he could silence the one himself. Behind him, Hephaistion still stood, unmoving. Alexander did not dare to turn and see the look on the other's face.
"Such a good lay, all ready to spread his legs. I've seen it," a man announced. Alexander saw him, standing few rows from him. He also sensed something, turning to look at Hephaistion for the first time since the shouts had begun. Hephaistion was even paler than before, clutching at the garment around him. His eyes were haunted, and Alexander realised the man spoke true: he had seen Hephaistion. And his beautiful, sweet Hephaistion…
With a yell full of rage, Alexander sprang forward. His sword was embedded to the still leering man's chest before he knew it, blood soaking his clothes. "Kill them! Kill every each of them!" he screamed, and his soldiers were happy to comply. Stepping aside from the battle, Alexander watched the Rhadian soldiers fall, one after another. He didn't care if they were innocent. He wanted them dead, to pay Hephaistion's pain with blood and corpses, to avenge the hours of torture.
Hephaistion stood still, staring at the massacre taking place before him. He couldn't force himself to move, to look away, to stop this all from happening. His mind repeated those shouts again and again, now mingled with cries of pain. The horrifying images filled his head, bringing back the hours in the dungeons, the whip digging to his skin, the hands touching him…
It all ended swiftly, Alexander's army outnumbering the prisoners, their fury unsatisfied until now. Mazaces was dragged forth, bleeding and bruised, yet still alive. "My lord," one of the soldiers addressed Alexander. "We thought you might want to end this dog's life yourself."
"That sounds like an insult towards the dog," Cleitus muttered from his place, wiping his bloodied blade on a dead man's clothes.
"Bring me his sword," Alexander commanded, his eyes never leaving the man kneeling on the ground. Mazaces' eyes did not meet his, the man too intent in catching his breath and nursing his wounds.
"It is broken, my liege," another soldier announced, handing over a sword with a shattered blade.
"Doesn't matter," Alexander muttered, and stepped towards Mazaces. "I wonder if you still think it as a great idea to attack my delegation, and throw my representative to the mercy of your dogs… Perhaps you shall think of your mistakes, when I cut you in pieces, and leave you alive enough for the vultures to devour."
"Alexander, please…" Hephaistion's shocked, broken voice halted the blade that was already lifted to the air. The general stepped forth. "He does not deserve a death like this! True, he doomed your men to die, and threw me to the mercy of his men, but he never personally hurt me. He never laid a hand on me," he emphasised the last sentence carefully, the blue eyes capturing brown.
Alexander lowered the blade in dismay. "After all he has done, you show him mercy?" he exclaimed.
Hephaistion's eyes moved at the man on the ground, who did not seem to appreciate his help one bit. Then he nodded, moving his gaze back to Alexander. "I have learned from the best, you among them; you taught me a lot about mercy, Alexander. Will you avenge the crimes of others upon one, who was not a man enough to do this himself?"
Men muttered around them, yet none spoke up loud enough to interfere. Alexander clutched the sword in his hand, his eyes travelling between Hephaistion and Mazaces. "You do not wish him to die?" he finally asked, keeping his tone in check.
"I do not object his death, but the manner of it," Hephaistion responded.
"Then kill him already!" Cassander growled. "Let us rid ourselves of this pitiful excuse of an animal."
Alexander narrowed his eyes, then moved his hand forth, presenting Hephaistion the sword in it. "Let the mercy happen: gift him with a death worthy of his actions."
Hesitantly, Hephaistion took the blade. Alexander stepped aside, so his friend would have room to manoeuvre. Hephaistion took a step forth, his eyes solely upon Mazaces. His hands shook. The blade shifted towards the other's chest, an inch, then halted. Time passed, and still the weapon did not move. Then, finally, Hephaistion stirred. He took a step back, closing his eyes, lowering the blade. "I cannot," he whispered.
Alexander frowned, but somehow, he understood: Hephaistion could kill, any day, for him, for his king and beloved. But never he would kill for himself. Gently, he pulled Hephaistion back. Opening the clasp of his cape, he shed the cloth from his shoulders, and wrapped it around Hephaistion's shivering form. Then he took the sword from the trembling fingers, stepped forth, and sank the blade to Mazaces' chest. It was a swift death, probably less than the man deserved, but he did not wish to prolong Hephaistion's suffering.
Letting go of the handle, Alexander watched the dying man collapse to the blood-stained ground. Then he turned to his generals, one hand finding its way to Hephaistion's back. "Take all the supplies that we can use, and burn down the city. Leave the bodies as they are. Take down the rest of the camp, and prepare the men. We shall march today." He cast a look at the city beside them, loathing in his eyes. Swifter they were one their way, the better.
"What about the people? Children, women, workers…?" Parmenion asked.
"They shall join us," Alexander answered shortly, then turned his attention to Hephaistion, and guided the man back inside the tent. Hephaistion did not utter a word, and neither did the generals as they departed to carry out the orders.
The city of Rhadia burned bright, smoke rising to the sky as a thick layer. The smell of death hung in the air, bodies strewn across the ground near the walls. The tents were long gone, the army on the move again.
Ptolemy sniffed, shaking his head. What a waste… This could have been a good place to leave a city under Alexander's rule. Yet now it was burning to the ground, no longer use to any. He did not pretend he didn't feel a small twinge of satisfaction, however. I just wonder if this is a story worth telling forth… He shook his head again and turned his horse to follow the others. Behind him, a tower collapsed to the ground, devoured by the flames.
Author's Notes: Here we are again, in the end. I hope everyone enjoyed the story, and if not, I would also like to hear the comments from those who disliked the whole mess! Not that I really think anyone who did not like this is with me here, still… Anyway, one can live of positive comments, but shall never get better from them: and I want to get better!
Thank you for the various good reviews – certainly I hope to get more of them, still, even if the story is over and done with. Hope to see you again, in other stories!
#bow and smile#
A Perfect Circle: The Noose
So glad to see you well
Overcome and completely silent now
With heaven's help
You cast your demons out
And not to pull your halo down
Around your neck and tug you off your cloud
But I'm more than just a little curious
How you're planning to go about
Making your amends to the dead
To the dead
Recall the deeds as if
They're all someone else's
Now you stand reborn before us all
So glad to see you well
And not to pull your halo down
Around your neck and tug you to the ground
But I'm more than just a little curious
How you're planning to go about
Making your amends to the dead
To the dead
With your halo slipping down
Your halo slipping
Your halo slipping down
Your halo slipping down
Your halo slipping down
Your halo slipping down to choke you now