WAITING IS HELL by Moon71
SUMMARY: Newly deceased Hephaestion encounters some bureaucratic difficulties at the River Styx
DISCLAIMER: Well nobody owns death
RATING: A bit of violence, a bit of kissing and making up, not much else.
DEDICATION: This is one of those stories which has existed in a sort of limbo in the back of my mind for years because I couldn't work out how to write it. The fact that it is here now is entirely due to the fun I had reading Purple Lolly's Eternal Love and because of that this story is dedicated to her.
P.S. For those of you like me (and like Purple Lolly, unless I've got it wrong) enjoying a bank holiday on Monday, have fun! For those of you who aren't (the rest of the world, presumably) - well, life's tough, isn't it? Take this story as compensation!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I did my best with the details of Greek mythology here; I apologise for any mistakes. But then again if we didn't bend the facts a bit there'd be no stories in this genre! And yes, I should have called this "waiting is hades" or "waiting is Tartarus" but it just doesn't sound as good, does it? Just be thankful for small mercies - its working title was "Hell's Waiting Room."
Ferrying the dead? As ways to pass eternity go I suppose it has its moments.
When Hades first became Lord of the Underworld and appointed me, I was captivated by the dead. No two individuals seemed to have the same reaction to death – the lingering emotions left from their earthly lives varied from anger, indignation, grief and incomprehension to resignation, relief, pride and even something akin to joy. They all had stories to tell, and at the beginning I was only too happy to listen as I ferried them across. I was even young enough, in immortal terms, to feel some regret at the thought that soon they would drink from the waters of Lethe and all those stories, all those unique memories would be lost forever.
The Age of Heroes was the highlight of my career. Ah, those men of bronze – those were real men, many of them sired by gods; all of them handsome, brilliant and brave and egotistical! Brave adventurers like Theseus Perseus and Jason; wily, scheming kings like Agamemnon and Pelias; resilient, noble Trojans like Hector and Polydamas; wild, unstoppable Argives like Diomedes, Menelaus and Achilles – all of them on their way to the Elysium fields. Patroklos lingers in my mind because of the way he waited on the bank, sad but patient, before we allowed him to return briefly to the upper world to admonish his beloved Achilles to arrange his funeral rites. To pass the time he told me wonderful stories of Achilles' bravery and strength even when they had been boys together. Clever, cunning Odysseus was another favourite, because of course I had the honour of meeting him before and after his death. And the women! Breathtaking Helen, murderous Clytemnestra, bewitching Medea, brave, noble Andromache; women almost equal to goddesses!
After their age had passed – that was when I began to lose interest in the dead. Nothing seemed original; nothing any of these new dead did or said seemed to startle, perplex or amuse me. I gave up talking to them, staring wearily into space as they handed over their coins and I ferried them across.
So when that young man appeared, almost as handsome as a man of bronze and quite as arrogant, I was rather pleased by the disturbance he caused. At least at the beginning.
I was standing by, punt in hand, bored as usual; my hand out to collect the coins. One old woman hesitated, then burst into tears and confessed to me that she had no coin – she had died alone, a penniless, childless widow. I was used to this and didn't bother to look towards her as I explained that the payment was only a gesture and she could board anyway. I ignored her sobs of gratitude. Nothing new in any of that.
But then I realised something was wrong. One of this new crowd was not ready. Instantly I stuck out my hand, barring the way. "Not you," I grunted.
"What do you mean, not me?" The commanding tone rather surprised me; death does tend to intimidate even the most forceful people. I still didn't bother to look at him.
"You're not ready. Get out of the way, you're holding up the queue. Next!"
I heard a sharply indrawn breath – the newly dead do breathe by habit; it's only later, when they've taken the drink, do they forget how to do it – and suddenly a large, strong hand seized a hold of my arm. For the first time in at least three hundred years, I bothered to look up at one of the dead.
It was a relatively young man who was staring down at me with dark, blazing eyes. His features were exquisite; had he been a few years younger I could have imagined him catching the eye of one of those notorious boy-chasers like Herakles or even mighty Zeus himself. He had scars, though; and he held himself like a warrior. But I was not impressed. I looked slowly from his face to the hand upon my arm. "Move aside," I snarled. "I said you're not ready."
The young man was obviously not used to being denied. "Now you listen to me, Grandfather," he growled, "I don't know how fast news travels down here, but let me tell you I am Hephaestion, son of Amyntor, Chilliarch and beloved of Great Alexander, King of Kings! And I am not used to being made to wait anywhere, for anything! So kindly let me board!"
Something awoke in me that had been sleeping for too many centuries. I was actually angry! It felt good! I felt a thrill of something else too – excitement! I jumped off the ferry onto the bank and struck the young man so hard in the chest with my punt that he stumbled backwards and landed in a heap, surrounded by his curiously watching dead companions. I heard one or two pointing and whispering his name. "Now you listen to me, young man," I scolded, "It doesn't matter what you were in life – in death you're just another shade! You must be a very stupid young man to think that being the only person ever to give Alexander the Great a good shafting somehow qualifies you for special treatment around here! And don't call me Grandfather," I added over his squawk of indignation, "I've ferried both your grandfathers across this river and let me tell you they had far better manners than you'll ever have, so you just mind your place!"
That knocked the wind out of him. He frowned bemusedly, then slowly unclenched his fist and held out a coin. "But I've got the fare…" he mumbled.
"That doesn't matter, you stupid boy! You haven't had your obsequies yet! No funeral, no cremation… you should know the rules! Or were you the kind of wicked little boy who daydreamed his way through his religious instruction?"
The young man, Hephaestion, shook his head. "I haven't been cremated? But why? Why would Alexander leave me like that?" He glanced up in sudden trepidation. "Unless he's dead too!"
"Of course he's not dead, idiot! Do you see him anywhere? No? Then how could he be dead?"
"But then… why wouldn't he see to my rites…?"
I grinned scornfully, hitting him hard on the shin with my punt before jumping back onto the ferry. "Maybe he forgot!" I shouted over my shoulder as I pushed away from the bank.
Hephaestion was still sprawling where I had left him when I returned to load the next lot of dead. A number of them had now gathered to stare at him but he didn't seem to notice; he was staring forlornly at the ground. As the ferry bumped against the bank he looked up hopefully but I shook my head. I was rather hoping he would challenge me again, but the fire seemed to have gone of him and soon enough it began to die in me too. I lost interest in him as ushered on the next group of shades. A brief period of excitement was over.
But just as I was returning to the side where the dead waited for the third time, I caught sight of something brilliantly golden flashing across the sky and a high-pitched screech echoed through the still air of Hades. I gazed in wonder when I recognised the bird – the owl treasured by wise Athene, daughter of Zeus. Screeching once more, it flew low over Hephaestion and let something drop from between its talons, straight into his lap. In spite of myself I stepped off the ferry to have a look at the gift.
At first I could not hide a small smirk. It was a beautiful hand mirror, cast in fiery bronze and decorated with sparkling stones. Perfect for a man as vain as this young Hephaestion. But I watched his face change as he stared down into its reflecting surface, and realised I should have known better than to expect the grey-eyed goddess of wisdom to be playing a fatuous joke on the favourite of the Macedonian conqueror. "Alexander…" I heard Hephaestion whisper in dismay. Affecting a casual air, I leaned over his shoulder. "Alexander, no…"
To me the mirror only reflected Hephaestion's fine face. Athene never did have much of a sense of fun. "What do you see…?" I asked nonchalantly, eaten up with curiosity for the first time in so very long.
Hephaestion continued to stare down into the glass, his eyes sparkling with tears he had not yet forgotten to shed. "Alexander…" he murmured, "I see my dear Alexander…"
"What's he doing?" I sneered, "picking himself a new beloved…?"
Slowly, Hephaestion shook his head, tears rolling down his cheeks. "He's weeping… oh Alexander… he's clinging to me… to my body… and he's weeping…"
"Well, that explains why you haven't been cremated!"
"Shut up, you old bastard!" Hephaestion suddenly swung at me with the mirror, but I stepped out of the way with the speed only an immortal can possess, even a decrepit old one like me. "How dare you laugh at him? What are you… some stupid old ferryman! He is a glorious king! You wait and see if he doesn't challenge Hades himself for his throne – and when he does he'll throw you to the bottom of the Styx!"
I laughed, stimulated by his anger, but the mood didn't last. Hephaestion rose slowly and dejectedly, clutching the mirror to his heart, and retreated through the gathering crowd of dead people to the very edge of the riverbank. There I saw him sit down under a tree, draw his knees up to his chest, and continue to gaze mournfully into the mirror.
"Sentimental fool," I muttered resentfully, and turned my attention to the more obedient souls awaiting transport.
Some sort of morbid fascination drew me back to him several voyages later when I noticed he had laid the mirror aside and was staring blankly into space.
"Well?" I asked, "what is your Alexander up to now?"
Hephaestion shrugged. "They came and dragged him off my body," he said dully, "and sent the embalmers in. He was… screaming… I couldn't watch after that. Have I been cremated yet?"
"Not yet," I replied coolly.
"Oh," he said, then with a heavy sigh of resignation, he picked up the mirror once more. At first, a painful frown creased his brow, but gradually his expression softened and I saw his shoulders relax. How the dead cling to the memory of their mortal bodies! "My poor love…" he murmured, touching the mirror, "how tired and worn he looks… yet he's still so very beautiful… a true golden lion, magnificent and deadly…"
"Another homicidal lunatic," I countered coldly; "this latest generation of mortals… they have no style, no sense of glory… all they know is how to kill one another… and they can't even do that with any élan!"
"You're wrong," Hephaestion protested dreamily, "Alexander was worthy of any hero of the Iliad…"
"The Iliad!" I jeered, "a mere shadow of the real thing! Those were men like gods! Your Alexander is nothing compared to them!"
I'm not quite sure how long we argued about this, or why we bothered. But in spite of myself, I began to enjoy pausing to talk to young Hephaestion in between voyages. When we weren't talking, he was staring into that mirror with anxious, troubled eyes. Apparently Alexander wasn't reacting well to his death. He was drinking heavily, mixing in doubtful company, hardly sleeping and behaving increasingly erratically.
Several days after Hephaestion's arrival, a distinguished man of middle age appeared amongst the usual consignment of the dead. Most of them ignored Hephaestion, stuck under his tree, but this man suddenly spun on his heel and strode up to him. "Glaucias!" Hephaestion exclaimed, scrambling to his feet, "my physician! Are you dead?"
By way of answer, the doctor slammed his fist into Hephaestion's face, sending him reeling back into the tree trunk. "Alexander had me crucified!" the older man screamed at him, "crucified! Didn't I tell you not to eat, you greedy, disobedient little bastard? Didn't I tell you to fast? A whole chicken he stuffed down his throat," he growled to me, "a whole bloody chicken!"
"I felt hungry…!" Hephaestion whimpered, rubbing his jaw. He was still feeling pain! These dead never learn!
"And about half a gallon of wine!"
"I was so thirsty...!"
"Exactly, you wretched boy!" Glaucias yelled, "why do you think I told you to fast! Hunger and thirst were symptoms of your fever! I told you you weren't better! He sent me away to watch the games," he added to me once more, "he virtually ordered me away – why do I want to sit around in some hot arena watching some stupid boy's race? – just so he could stuff his face as soon as my back was turned! And Alexander crucified me!"
"I'm… sorry…" Hephaestion mumbled, but Glaucias turned his back on him, holding out his coin to me with a polite inclination of the head.
"Venerable Charon, ferryman of Hades," he said graciously, "I beg you to take me across the Styx. Believe me, the ignoble end to my career is something I am only too eager to forget."
Smirking over my shoulder at Hephaestion, I lead the doctor away.
Those were happy days, I suppose. At least they seemed happy compared to the days that followed. I had grown so used to Hephaestion's presence that it came as quite a jolt when Hades himself appeared by the ferry, scowling heavily. It was spring in the upper world – Persephone had returned to her mother and Hades was, as always, in a thunderously bad mood. "Charon," he snapped, "we have worked together for more eons than I care to count. Never until now have I had to question your efficiency… well, except for that business with Odysseus… and that business with Orpheus… and that time when Herakles stole Cerberus…"
"That wasn't my fault! The gods…"
"Don't interrupt!" And so the lecture resumed. What it boiled down to was that Hephaestion's obsequies had finally been performed in Babylon. Which meant that Hephaestion was now fit to cross the Styx. And I hadn't even noticed.
"Oh yes, I know," Alexander's Companion answered indifferently, still gazing into his mirror, "I saw the funeral! It was magnificent! There was this enormous painted ziggurat, and…"
"Yes, yes," I hissed testily, "I'm sure it was very tasteful. I couldn't imagine your dear Alexander being excessively ostentatious about anything! But now it's time for you to cross the river! Come along!"
Hephaestion blinked stupidly at me. "I've… mislaid the coin!"
"That doesn't matter," I replied impatiently, "it's only a formality. Hurry up, the others are waiting!"
"I'm not going," Hephaestion declared.
I stared at him, simply not understanding. "What in the name of Hades are you talking about, you young idiot?" I choked out at last. "Get up this instant!"
Hephaestion looked down into the mirror again. "I'm not going yet. Alexander still looks terrible, he's obviously not well. I need to know that he will be all right. Once he's recovered from his grief and he's well again, then I'll go!"
"You'll go this very minute!"
"No! I have to see him," Hephaestion cried desperately, "when he dies he'll almost certainly be a god – a demi-god at least! If I can't spend eternity with him, at least I can embrace him one last time!"
I had to think fast. It wouldn't be long before Hades would return demanding to know why Hephaestion was still on this side of the bank. "Your grandfathers are waiting for you, Hephaestion! They've been asking after you!"
He looked up, interested in spite of himself. "Have they really…?"
"Oh, yes!" I cried in what I hoped was an encouraging tone. "They can't wait to see you again and hear all about Alexander!"
But then Hephaestion frowned severely. "Hang on one moment, Charon – if you ferried my grandfathers across then they must have drunk from the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, so they wouldn't remember who I was…"
"Well, no, but…"
"And if I cross over and drink from it, I won't remember them!"
"Or Alexander!" Scowling, Hephaestion clutched his mirror close. "I'm not coming!"
I tried the gentle touch. "Now Hephaestion, I know adjusting to death isn't easy…"
"What do you know about it?"
That was the final straw. "What do I know about it?" I bawled at him, "what do I know about death? You listen to me, you little brat – what I don't know about death doesn't deserve to be known! Death is my life! Without me, idiots like you would be wandering around on the bank, endlessly lamenting for all eternity! And if you don't board that ferry soon I'll send Cerberus to teach you some manners!"
I stormed off.
Over the next few voyages I made very little progress. Once I brought him a cup of water from the Lethe and tried to persuade him it was nectar sent from the gods, but he wasn't fooled. I tried to explain that I was making an exception for him, letting him forget before he crossed the Styx, but he wasn't impressed. In the end, help came from Olympus. Hades himself, a little calmer now that he had adjusted to Persephone's absence, came with the news, which I eagerly brought to Hephaestion.
"Congratulations, my dear boy, congratulations!" I grasped his hand, slapped him on the back, did all the stupid things mortals seem to think must necessarily accompany glad tidings. Hephaestion watched me suspiciously. "Your Alexander has petitioned the Oracle at Siwah! You are to become a Divine Hero! No more ordinary death for you! You're off to the Elysium Fields! You'll spend eternity in the company of all those magnificent men from the age of heroes! Achilles, Hector, Ajax, Teukros…"
"Alexander did that…?" Tears were bright in this emotional person's eyes. "My Alexander did that for me…?"
"So now you need not fear an eternal separation! You're a demi-god! Now if you'll just come with me, I'll…"
"No." Hephaestion folded his arms. "If I'm a demi-god I must have certain rights! And I claim the right to stay here until I know for a fact that Alexander is all right!"
I threw up my hands and left him with his mirror. If Hades wanted him gone, Hades could come and get him himself.
It couldn't have been that long, even by mortal terms, when I noticed Hephaestion weeping yet again. "Now what's the matter…?" I demanded irritably, wondering why I could not leave well enough alone.
"It's Alexander!" he wailed.
"What a surprise. Has he got married again? Or has he found a new beloved after all?"
"He's dying…" Hephaestion sobbed, his tears splattering onto the little bronze mirror. "He's really dying…! Look at them, circling around him like vultures! Not one of them deserves his empire! They didn't look after him! They let him do this to himself, I tell you! They've neglected my dear love; let him drink himself to death! Even Perdiccas – I trusted him! And Ptolemy! And Antigonus! Bastards! And as for that idiot Medius and his stupid drinking parties…"
"Tragic, tragic – bastards, as you say, all of them…" I agreed cheerfully, glimpsing light at the end of the tunnel.
"It shouldn't be like this," Hephaestion sniffed, "I had comforted myself that I could still share in his glory – watch his conquests, see his children grow up…"
"But at least Alexander will be with you very soon…"
"Yes…" Hephaestion looked up at me for the first time. "Yes, you're right, Charon!" Suddenly he put aside the mirror and stood up, brushing down his clothing. "I can't believe it! I'm going to see Alexander again! And I'm a Divine Hero too! How do I look?"
"Divine," I quipped, cracking the first joke I'd made in about a thousand years. It was not a success.
Nor, as it happened, was Alexander's arrival. Hephaestion ran to meet him with outstretched arms, only to receive a hard slap around the face. I was actually beginning to feel rather sorry for the poor fellow – death did not seem to mean the end of pain for him, physically any more than emotionally.
"Damn you, Hephaestion!" Alexander screamed at him, "why couldn't you control your bloody appetites just for once?"
"Alexander…!" Hephaestion called plaintively as Alexander stormed away in completely the opposite direction from the waiting ferry.
"Leave me alone!" Alexander shouted back over his shoulder, "I can't stand the sight of you! You've ruined everything! Look at me, I'm dead! Dead! At my age! And not even in battle! I didn't even get to invade Arabia – and it's all your fault! Now what will happen to the Empire? You were supposed to outlive me, that's the way I planned it! If anything happened to me you'd inherit the lot! Wasn't that enough to make you take proper care? I'll never forgive you for this, Hephaestion, not for all eternity!"
I groaned deeply. Hades would not be amused.
After another dressing-down from Hades, I was finally forced to go looking for the Macedonian king. It was all getting too embarrassing; he and Hephaestion were expected in the Elysium Fields and the Heroes had been complaining about the delay. Achilles was waiting to challenge Alexander to a duel and the god Herakles seemed to have amorous designs upon Hephaestion in spite of his age.
I found the great conqueror sulking under a tree, looking into the mirror Hephaestion had discarded. "They're ruining my empire," he said sullenly, "I'm hardly cold and they're already fighting over who gets what!" He gave a squeal of indignation as I snatched the mirror from his hands and threw it far over my shoulder. It landed with a heavy splash in the Styx and sank like a stone.
"Enough of that!" I snapped. "If you can't learn to be dispassionate about events in the upper world then you won't be able to view them! I've had enough of both you and your pretty boy! Now go and make up with him and let me guide you to the Fields before I send you both to Tartarus!"
"He's not my pretty boy!" Alexander shouted back, clenching his fists, "he's not my anything! I hate him! It's his fault that I'm dead!"
"Oh it is, is it?" I sneered, "nothing to do with all those badly healed wounds, those long marches, that stingy diet of yours, your general neglect of your health… and those all night drinking parties…?"
Alexander pouted like a spoilt child. "I drank like that because of him! Because I couldn't… because I couldn't cope… without him…! It hurt too much!"
"Then tell him that, you witless boy!" I cried in exasperation, "how stupid are you? Now you've got him back, you're going to sit here sulking instead of spending eternity with him in the Elysium Fields! Mortals! You really are quite impossible!" I shook my head, my patience now at an end. "Here." I held out the same cup I had once offered to Hephaestion, but this time I did not bother to hide the nature of the contents. "Drink this. It's water from the Lethe. It's not necessary for those bound for Elysium, but in your case I think it will help. It will let you forget your empire, your life… and your love. Go on, drink it and forget him!"
Alexander stared down into the cup, frowning deeply. "I… I don't want to forget him…" he mumbled.
"Then I'll drink it!" Hephaestion appeared as if from nowhere, snatching the cup from my hand. "I want to forget you!"
He raised the cup to his lips; but before he could drink, Alexander struck the cup from his grasp and pulled Hephaestion into his arms. "Forgive me, my dear, dear friend…" he gasped, clasping him in a hold that would certainly have killed a living man, "forgive me… it hurt too much… it hurt too much…"
I watched Hephaestion gasp at the crushing embrace then suddenly relax. Yes, he had finally learned that he did not need to respire; that pain was only a memory. I wondered if he would realise that the same was equally true for pleasure. Watching the delight the two of them seemed to take in the caresses they exchanged, I had my doubts. Suddenly I recalled Hades' surprisingly insightful words to Achilles when that stubborn young article had continued to sulk about the inglorious tedium of the afterlife even after Odysseus had brought him news of his son. Death, like life, is what you make of it. The key to a successful death lies in what you choose to keep and what you prefer to discard. If you're wise, you keep the happiest bits and throw off the rest.
"It's… it's over now, Alexander…" I heard Hephaestion say as he stroked Alexander's golden hair. "It's all over… we're together again and that's all that matters…" I allowed myself a very small, very wry smile. He wasn't quite as stupid as I'd thought!
I watched in faint disgust as they kissed and touched and whispered to one another. Mortals, immortals, were there really any difference? Hades and Persephone were not much better when she returned from her summer holiday with her mother. All I knew, as I none too gently ushered the lovers in the direction of the ferry, was that the dull, repetitive, monotonous routine of ferrying the ordinary, unremarkable, cooperative dead had suddenly grown attractive to me all over again.