Thoughts come to him now, unbidden, unwanted. Murderous thoughts, hostile thoughts – half-run tepid dreams of glory, feelings of sorrow, of drama and despair. All around him there are whispers. His ears sing to them. Plots and machinations and untruth – the want to destroy him, to steal his crown and his sword, his life, his love. An eagle cries way off in the mountains. The ground beneath begins to shake. Swaying hooves and braying; the scent of blood and smoke and treachery. His sword weighs heavy at his hip, the horse's hooves strike the ground, dust flies, the eagle shrieks. His breath leaves him in a shout.
"Sire?" asks the man beside him. He is no more than a boy, a timid youth decked out in the bloodstained armour of another. Dark hair, dark eyes. Even gods can fall. "My king?"
"Your king, am I that?" His voice sounds a stranger's: hoarse, cracked, feeble. The hooves are swaying, his mind spinning. "A king, a king . . . a king." The sword hilt bites at his flesh through the purple cloak. "What it is to be a king . . . a lost and lonely king. A crown, no more. A dream? Perhaps." The sky churns above him, the ground moves below. The stallion roars. The eagle screams. "A crown dripping blood. The golden wheat has gone. Death, all that remains. Destruction, carnage. Fields of poppies and fords of blood. Blood . . . and fire. My legacy."
The lad in someone else's armour is afraid, he can tell. The boy's eyes are dark as an abyss, the sweat shines on his brow. He must listen, he must hear, else he will not be. His hand shakes upon the reins.
"How old are you, boy?" asks the king.
"Eighteen years, sire, nineteen on the next – "
"What it is to be young." His eyes grow distant, the ground steadies, but the eagle still sounds. "I'd won a battle and killed a hundred men when I saw eighteen summers. Raged against my father as he headed the van guard, raged against my mother as she whispered with her snakes. Hephaestion beside me as we fought on that glorious red day, a woman in my bed to protect . . . Charmeia, she was called. The King's Charm she was known. My Charm, my luck, my love . . . she is gone now."
"Where, sire?" asks the lad with worry in his gaze.
The king's brow furrows as he fights to remember. The hooves begin to sway again and he slumps forward onto the stallion's neck.
"I do not know," he whispers into the sweat and fur and muscle of his mighty Bucephalus. "I sent her away from me when . . . when – " Even gods can fall. "When she looked at me with pity! With dread and hurt and worry. She no longer knew me . . . no more than I now know myself." A cry chokes him. "Your name, lad? Your name? You look so familiar – "
"Hephaestion, sire." The boy's eyes begin to melt.
"Hephae – " The king lets loose his sob. "Tion is – dead . . . he is with the gods." The boy's eyes are gone, and now his cheeks, his lips, his tongue and teeth. "Tion!" He reaches out but clutches only air. Beside him no horse treads: only emptiness, only silence. Behind, his army march, his generals brood. The eagle cries. The king shouts. Bucephalus bolts and man and horse gallop into the horizon.
Cries of king echo behind him – "Sire! Grace! Alex, please!". He ignores them all, the wind buffets in his ears, the ground is swift and sure and steady beneath those flying hooves. The mountains are no more; Babylon appears as if a dream has finally been built with brick and stone instead of memory. He rides for it, to it. His head is burning, his heart bursting. His vision blurs, the ground welcomes him.
I am dying,he thinks calmly, thirteen years of war, of blood and hate and grief, and I am dying on a dusty plain so far from home. Dust and blood fan out around him, the sun blinds him, the eagle's voice chimes. Am I dead, or am I dreaming? A cold death now . . . death is a dream and dreams corrupt life. Soft, soft, the darkness comes, transforms, consumes.