The Garden of The Gods
Bagoas lays aromatic leaves on the altar fire of the sacred gardens. He pauses, breathing deep of the comingled scents of lavender and hysop. Soon the smoke intrudes and he begins his evening prayer to Ahura Mazda. The young acolyte can hear the intonations of the priests in the Temple of Zarathustra, below his balcony. The combined prayers rising toward the setting sun never fail to thrill him. He watches entranced, as the Medean city of Ecbathana turns to purple shadow in the sunset. In the gathering gloom, he returns to picking the bright blue flowers of Borage, which he intends to mix with yellow Camomile blossom and bruised Sage leaves. An infusion of this fine powder soothes the nerves.
From below on the Temple ramp, Bagoas can hear a growing commotion. Greek voices; angry, fraught. It’s apparent that the loud group of Macedonians is making for the Physic Gardens. He lays aside the bowl, wiping hands against his tunic, and walks back to the portico.
‘Hurry boy, fetch a priest. The King is on his way.’ The speaker framed in the archway is a singular specimen. Thick black hair and beard, like a mongrel dog. This black pelt also covers arms, legs and feet. The contrast against the short, white tunic is startling, made even more so by the black patch which covers one eye.
‘I am a priest, Sire. I shall receive his Majesty, I am an Initiate.’
‘And can you perform the service he will ask of you Boy?’ Cleitus glares over his shoulder. ‘Can you bring the Chiliarch, Hephaestion back to life? Can you?’
‘I am a priest of Zoroaster, Sire. I can raise prayers of intercession to the Omniscient One.’
‘Listen boy, I mean this kindly. Alexander will ask you to restore breath to his beloved.’ His voice fades to a whisper as the dead prince of Macedon is carried into the gardens.
Hephaestion lies on a low divan, draped in blue silk. Six Macedonians lower the makeshift bier from their shoulders. All high-born, dressed in the Persian court style, Iskander's Companions. Bagoas recognises the tall figure of Ptolemy, one of the victors of Gaugamela; and the King's slim, swarthy, Greek secretary Eumenes. And then the Great King Alexander enters. He's just a boy, Bagoas muses, a beautiful boy given leave to work his will on his elders.
Alexander hurries to the divan and sinks to his knees. Placing his hands on the edge he lowers his head upon the breast of his dead love. Damp, corn-yellow curls hide the famous blue eyes. His face puffy, cheeks wet and alabaster white in the early dusk. He looks older like this, thinks the priest, seeing for the first time the large puckered scar on the King’s right thigh, below the hem of the short tunic.
‘Speak Hephaestion. The King, your friend has need of you.’ He runs his fingers along the corpse’s jawline. ‘Speak to me, I command it,’ he shouts. Ptolemy steps forward to touch the king’s shoulder.
‘Come Alexander, you must allow his wife to prepare him for the journey.’
‘No.’ He rises to his feet. Bagoas sees the naked grief in the young living god’s eyes. He’s reminded of the ancient wisdom; ‘Those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad’. He sees it in Alexander’s face. He wants to still the King’s sobs which rip at everyone in the garden.` Alexander grasps the neck of his tunic and tears it to the navel. Bagoas gasps on seeing the many wounds that mark the body of the King of the Worlds.
‘Sire; Majesty. You do us great honour by your attendance here today.
The speaker, wearing the triple tiara of High Priest, walks to within touching distance of the Great King, then bows in deep obeisance. Bagoas has great respect for his superior, but isn’t convinced that Mithridates will understand the special complexities of the King’s grief.
‘Sire, it is not fitting that a King should weep so. The King of All the Worlds is above the petty weaknesses of men.’ He can see the look of disdain on Mithridates’ face. ‘Come Majesty, recollect who you are.’
Alexander drops to his knees, clutching at the High Priest’s clasped hands.
‘Father, you must use all your power. My love is cast in darkness,’ It is the soft voice of a child.
‘Of whom do you speak, Sire?’
‘Of the friend of my childhood, my strong right arm. See here.’ Alexander indicates the body with a sweep of the arm. ‘My Hephaestion. Patrocles to my Achilles; dead in my stead.’
‘And you would have us pray for his departing spirit, Sire?’
‘I would have him restored to me Father. You must ask a price of the Sun. You must tell Ahura Mazda that I would spend my Kingdom in this bargain. You must use your power.’
‘Sire, this is foolish. Your friend is dead, his race run. Only a child would believe he can bargain with the Gods.’
‘But I am a God,’ Alexander shouts. ‘Made divine by you Medes. The all-conquering God of Babylon.’ He ponders the mystery, a child with a school slate. ‘ Yet I can’t restore the life of Hephaestion? What good is divinity of that sort? Tell me Father.’
‘This is hubris Sire. Darius, the Great King on whose throne you now sit, would not act so. Your friend was simply a man, a mortal. Don’t waste your power on so paltry a task.’
With a cry of absolute despair, Alexander spins round on Cleitus. He reaches for the short-bladed sword at his companion’s belt and, in one swift, sight-blurring movement, brings it down in a vicious slash across the priest’s upper chest. The blade slices through the heavy vestments parting flesh and sinew in a diagonal tear from throat to hip. Blood sprays in a high arc across Alexander’s face and body. Mithridates topples to the side. As he flops onto his back, blood gurgles in his throat. The sword hangs limp in Alexander’s grasp. Cleitus disarms his monarch and with a single, efficient, battleground thrust he cuts the Persian’s life-force. The shocked immobility now broken, Alexander’s friends surround him, hiding the Great King from Bagoas’ gaze. The priest kneels to close Mithridates’ eyes, the features frozen in a grimace of shock and horror. Bagoas feels sure they are etched on his own face. Before getting back to his feet, he takes the prayer-shawl from around his shoulders and covers the face of his superior. Taking a deep breath, the priest parts the circle of the King’s friends. Alexander is seated on the edge of Hephaestion’s divan. Head bowed, he stares at his empty, bloodstained hands.
‘Sire, I have an infusion you should drink. It will ease your grief.’ Alexander looks up with sightless eyes, the drying blood of the High Priest painted across a waxen face. He nods, then returns to contemplation of his hands. Working quickly, Bagoas retrieves his bowl. Using a heavy pestle he grinds the contents to a powder, before adding hot water drawn from the altar-fire. The scent is heavy and sweet, and Alexander raises his head at the priest’s approach. Bagoas kneels before him. ‘Drink this Sire, then we can talk together.’
‘But I have slain your master. Here in the Garden of the Gods I have murdered their High Priest.’
‘First drink Sire. There will be time to talk all too soon.’
‘What’s in this, Priest?’ Cleitus, indicates the cup. ‘Speak truth if you value your life.’
‘Herbs and blossom, sir. It will help the King. You must trust me.’
Alexander drains the cup. Bagoas can see a little colour in the King’s cheeks. There is life behind the eyes too.
‘I killed him you know? There is always a blood price for dishonouring the Gods.’
‘My master presumed too much on your patience and forbearance, Sire. He mis-spoke your love in his own pride and vanity. And you were not in your right mind. I absolve you in the name of my dread lord Zoroaster.’
‘No, you don’t understand. I killed my beloved friend. His body lies there, bereft of life, by my actions. Hephaestion is my blood price, paid in full.’
‘But Sire, your friend died of a fever contracted in the marshlands of the Euphrates. You are blameless.’
‘Hephaestion lies here because I ordered the murder of my father’s friend; my ablest general. I sent Cleitus here, and his band of cut-throats, to kill Parmenion because of his son’s treason.’ He takes a gulping breath. ‘Parmenion was slain here in Ecbathana, only a year ago. This is the price of my sin.’
‘No sire. What you talk of is expediency. Kings are not like other mortals. They have to safeguard their throne. You cannot be judged as other men. The Gods do not call you to account for taking lives in protection of your throne.’
‘The priest is right Alexander. We all loved Parmenion, he was our brother-in-arms too. But he had to die. It was in his stars.’ Ptolemy, spokesman for the Great King’s Companions, pronounces the benediction.
Bagoas takes a wet cloth and wipes Mithridates’ blood from the King’s face.
‘Leave your friend with me, Sire. I will help Princess Drypetis prepare her husband for the afterlife. We will stand together alongside Hephaestion when you light his funeral pyre. Yes?’ The King nods. As he rises from the divan, his fingers again linger on his friend’s cheek. Bending quickly, Alexander kisses Hephaestion on the mouth
‘Goodbye my heart,’ he whispers before walking out beyond the temple arch. Cleitus approaches the priest.
‘What is your name, priest?’ he says in his loud soldier’s voice.
‘I shall remember that name Bagoas.’ He clutches the priest’s shoulder, and is gone. The darkness over Ecbathana is complete. Bagoas stands in flickering torchlight gazing down at the famous Macedonian.
‘You have done well Father.’ From the shadows. A woman’s voice, gruff with age. He turns at the sound.
‘Queen Sisygambis. Majesty.’ He bows, clasped hands out in front.
‘We must work quickly to remove any signs of the poison,’ she says, opening Hephaestion’s mouth to examine the tongue. ‘Since marrying the daughter of my dead son, this Greek Princeling claims me as his Mother. We will clasp him to our breast. His star still rises. We will have of him a Prince of Royal Persian blood. More certain now with the removal of this his too handsome lover.’ The old woman gives a short, ugly laugh.
‘And your other grand-daughter, Princess Drypetis. How does she fare in her grief?’ He struggles to keep the distaste from his voice.
‘She knows it is the price she must pay for the survival of her family. Perhaps some Digitalis rubbed on his tongue?’ She peers down the dead man’s gullet with her thumb jambed against his upper palate. The young priest nods. Sisygambis prods Mithridates’ body with her foot. ‘He will need replacing Bagoas, and your name is already on the Great King’s tongue.’ With that still hanging in the air, the Queen departs leaving him alone.
In the hissing silence, Bagoas is certain he can hear bitter laughter.