See disclaimers in Part 1
The Lion and the Lamb: Part Two
With breakfast over and the dishes done, Marlysa thought about what she should do that day. Ares had given her permission to visit the village and she decided to take advantage of it. Over breakfast, she had discussed the situation with Ares' high priest and they decided that she would take a couple of warriors with her to see what her reception would be in the village and to help her retrieve the belongings that she wanted from her home.
With a small wagon, Marlysa with Arianne, Ketlin, and another priest from the temple, Junhar, pulled up next to her wattle and daub house. Expecting it to be in a state of disarray, she was surprised when she found the opposite was true.
Her little home looked as though it had been scrubbed recently and new reeds placed on the roof. Wildflowers had been planted just outside the door. New oilskins covered the windows. A new rain barrel sat in one corner.
"Well, I never expected this!" Marlysa exclaimed to her two companions as Ketlin helped her down then handed her Arianne in her basket. Junhar glanced at him and he nodded in silent affirmation.
"Stay by the wagon, milady, while we check things out," Junhar ordered.
Drawing their swords, Ketlin approached the door while Junhar went around back. Ketlin went inside and closed the door behind him. Nervously, Marlysa waited. Several moments passed before they appeared.
"All looks as it should be inside," Ketlin reported. His sword had already been returned to its' holder.
From around the back, Junhar appeared, sheathing his sword as he walked. "Your garden should have a bountiful crop this year."
Puzzlement shown in Marlysa's face. "Garden?" she repeated. "I was too big to put one in. Altimius was going to share his with me this year."
"Well, there's a fine one growing back there now. And not a weed in sight." He grasped a couple of empty crates from the wagon as Ketlin reached in to help.
Marlysa approached the door that she had run out of in such a hurry on the day that Arianne was born with some apprehension. In many ways it felt good to be home amongst the things that she was familiar with and loved. Yet, in other ways, she didn't know what to expect. She knew that Tarmenous hadn't been liked within the community yet there were those who thought that she had lied about who Arianne's father was even though they did not believe Tarmenous' demon theory.
The inside of the home smelled of the familiar scents of herbs and woodsmoke from the fireplace. It was a single room dwelling, much smaller than the cottage that Ares had given her to use, with a small table and two chairs, a cabinet with her few dishes and food supplies near the fireplace, and a bed just big enough for two. Next to the bed hung her two everyday woolen dresses and her one good dress. At the foot of the bed sat the new cradle that Altimius had made.
Marlysa breathed deeply, remembering the good times and bad that she had faced in this home. Her marriage, her husband's death, talking with neighbors and friends, and just everyday living. Now she wondered when she would get to come home to stay. All Ares had told her was that he couldn't return her to the village yet. He had never said why and she felt it wasn't her place to ask a god for his reasons.
Junhar entered with a crate filled with straw. He set it down on the packed earthen floor then began layering her few dishes and other cabinet items amongst it so they would not break during the return trip. Ketlin set aside his sword, grabbed the quilt that lay on her bed, folded it and put it into another crate. Marlysa set Arianne's basket down in a safe corner and took down her dresses. While the temple cottage wasn't quite home, she was going to enjoy having her own things about her again.
"It shouldn't take us long to empty the cottage, milady," Junhar commented as he buried a cup next to a plate, "especially since you won't be coming back here."
"Not coming back?" she repeated in astonishment. She paused in the folding of her dress and looked at them as Ketlin and Junhar looked at each other warily. "What are you talking about?"
Ketlin spoke first. "You were not told?"
"Told what? All Ares told me was that I would be staying at the temple for a while longer. He said nothing else." Ketlin said nothing more as silent communication passed between him and Junhar. "Well? What is going on?"
Finally, Junhar spoke. "I made an assumption I shouldn't have, milady. Please forgive me."
"Don't placate me!" she retorted. "There's something going on and I want the truth of it."
Ketlin sighed as he rolled up the mattress. Darius had told him to make sure that everything she owned was brought back; that she would not be returning to stay per Lord Ares' orders. Yet he didn't want to be the one to break the news to her. "Word around the temple is that you will not be returning here. We assumed it was the truth since you moved to the cottage out back and Darius sent us to help you retrieve your things. As Junhar said, we made an assumption based on rumor and it appears to be wrong. Forgive us."
Marlysa simply nodded then returned to her work. She'd find out the truth as soon as they returned if she had to brow-beat Darius to do it. This was her home. This is where she belonged. No one was going to tell her otherwise and that included Mr. High-and-Mighty, Lord Ares.
A knock on the open door broke her out of her angry reverie. A familiar smile greeted Marlysa as she turned around. The sound of steel being drawn from leather sheaths greeted her ears at the same time.
"Altimius!" Marlysa almost flew into the arms of her mentor. He wrapped them tight about her, hugging her to him as though he was afraid she would slip away on him.
"Marlysa! I was afraid you would never return to us," he said softly. Marlysa looked into his craggy, care-laden face and brushed away the tear that appeared in the corner of his eye.
"I wish I could stay," she said, "but Lord Ares won't let me." Altimius' down-trodden look prompted her to hurriedly say, "But I can visit you whenever I wish and you can visit me. At least we can see each other."
Altimius smiled. "If that is Ares' will, then so be it. It will have to do." He gestured to the room at large, where Ketlin and Junhar had returned to packing. "The people of the village felt badly about how they had treated you and Elksar thought that keeping your house up would be a help to you."
"Barancus' wife?" Her eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open in astonishment at his words. "She never helps anyone. Indeed, she keeps asking for help. Generally from me."
"What you say is true," Altimius agreed. "That's why I found it hard to believe. Still, it was her suggestion that we make repairs to your home and put the garden in. Her children have been tending to it faithfully."
Marlysa sat down at the table and put her hands in her lap just as Arianne shrieked for attention. He picked up the basket and placed her on the table. "My, how she has grown. Such bright, blue eyes."
Before Marlysa could tell him of the progress of her daughter, footsteps heralded the approach of another person bringing the smell of fresh baked bread. "Marlysa!" Cortone, the village baker, put a couple loaves on the table and grabbed her, holding her tight to him. "It is good to see you." Upon seeing the disapproving stares of Ketlin and Junhar, swords in hand and bearing down upon him, he released her and gestured for her to follow him.
Curiously but cautiously, Marlysa went to the door. Outside, the villagers had gathered in the front yard. Everyone was silent but smiling as Barancus approached her. Ketlin and Junhar watched the crowd warily.
"Marlysa," he said loud enough for all to hear, "all of us want to apologize to you." He paused and allowed her to gaze upon the repentant faces of her fellow townspeople. "Why we listened to Tarmenous that night no one seems to know. Some have suggested it was the fact that Peditol hadn't been home in some time and you turn up pregnant. When no male amongst our villagers would accept responsibility and you kept claiming the child was your husband's, what were we to think? We did not believe you were lying but gods and demons take many forms. We did not want to hurt you-"
"But you would have hurt my child." The statement lay between her and villagers like an open, festering wound. "A tiny baby. Not a threat to anyone. Now I understand why Lord Ares doesn't want me here. He is still not convinced that Arianne and I are not in danger."
Elksar came to her husband's side and took Marlysa by the hand. Ketlin and Junhar moved in closer, brandishing their swords higher. "There is no danger here for you or your child. We were wrong to listen to Tarmenous. He was the evil one among us. Can you forgive us? Come back home where you belong?"
Marlysa remained silent, searching her heart for words to convey the confusion that she was feeling. These were the people that she had grown up with, that she knew by heart. She had shared in their life's burdens as well as their happiness. And they had shared hers. Could she forgive them?
Altimius' voice broke through her thoughts. "I know it is difficult for you, Marlysa, but we both know that people can be led astray. There have been times when you and I have been led astray. Find it in your heart to forgive them and you will be able to live easier with yourself."
Marlysa nodded at the truth of his words. Always had he guided her path with her best interests in mind. But could she truly do it? Forgive them, yes. But the trust that was broken? Could it be mended? She decided to wait and see. Finally, she faced the crowd and spoke. "I do forgive you-," a loud cheer interrupted her and she waited for it to end, "but I can't stay. Lord Ares has decided that I am to remain at the temple."
"But why?" someone shouted. "You're safe here. We would never harm you." Many a head bobbed in agreement with him.
"I know," she said. "In my heart, I know you speak the truth. But I must follow his wishes. And he wishes for me to remain there. He has said, however, that I may return here to visit when I want. I don't see why you can't see me there as well. Unless Lord Ares says otherwise." She looked back at Altimius, Junhar, and Ketlin for support. None of them could come up with a reason.
"Many times we've gone to the temple to see you only to be told that we couldn't," someone else cried out.
"I was very weak for a long period of time. If it had not been for Lord Ares' intervention, I would have died that night." Silence, laced with embarrassment and shame, reigned between Marlysa and her neighbors.
"I'm glad it was Tarmenous instead. Lord Ares did us a favor ridding us of that vermin." The man spoke with undenied hatred.
Marlysa smiled. "I will tell him of your words. He will be pleased."
With the tension broken between them, talk ensued for a while along with gifts that had been brought for her personally as well as little Arianne who found herself the center of attention, much to her delight.
Finally, Ketlin announced that they had to return. Everyone's disappoint was evident that she couldn't remain, yet hope also ensued for now she could see her friends and neighbors again.
The kettle bubbled merrily over the fire full of different colored vegetables with a touch of fresh herbs from the courtyard. Adding to the enticing smell was a haunch of venison broiling over an open flame. The table was set, complete with forks and wine provided by Darius, with fresh bread, fruit preserves that she had canned the previous year, and honey. It was a simple repast but it would be filling for a hungry warrior.
Marlysa finished feeding and changing Arianne as the light in the cottage began to slowly dim into the magic of twilight. What started out as an apprehensive day had turned into a happy one, she noted as she changed her dress in anticipation of Ares' coming.
She stood before the small mirror in her bedroom and carefully drew her blond locks back with a ribbon that she tied in a bow. As she put her comb down, one end of the ribbon came up and pulled itself loose from her hair only to drop to the floor.
She stared at it in disbelief as she felt behind her for some reason as to why it came loose. She had tied it tight enough. Well, whatever the reason is the reason, she decided as she picked it up and tied it once more.
Again the ribbon fell to the floor as the cloth of her dress drooped over her shoulder. She put the dress back in place and bent over to pick up the ribbon. The back of her dress shot up over her torso, covering her head until she pushed it back. But it wouldn't go any farther than her waist. Her drawers dropped around her ankles then disappeared, leaving her exposed to whomever was doing this. Panic began to build in her. The whispery soft feeling of large hands caressing her backside accompanied the pounding fear of her heart. Then she heard familiar laughter.
"Right you are, little girl," he said as he continued to stroke her womanhood.
The same heat of longing of the night before surged through her as she sought to get her bearings and bring her heart under control, but Ares would have none of that. As merciless in sex as he was in war, he maneuvered her so that she lay bent over the bed, face down, legs spread wide to accommodate his wishes. Two fingers slid into her and she bucked slightly at the intrusion. He patted her backside, removed his fingers and slid in a semi-stiff tubular sponge soaked in oil that appeared in his hand. As her vaginal muscles eagerly squeezed out the lubricant, he removed the codpiece to his pants allowing his godhood to spring free. Quickly he grabbed the sponge at the same time her muscles did, pulled it out in rhythm with her moan and replaced it with himself.
The warmth of her cradling him only made today an absolutely glorious one, he decided. The bloodbath that he had doused himself in earlier in battle had only whetted his sexual appetite. Usually, he took a couple of women to his bed when he was done clearing the air and used them mercilessly to sate his lust. This time his lust took him to Marlysa. Here he would satisfy that lust.
He began to thrust in and out, savoring the tightness of her sheathing him, the helplessness of her before his bloodless sword and felt his masculine power. He reached around her thigh, probed gently for her dagger of pleasure, and was rewarded with a gasp when he found it. As leather slapped bare skin faster, together they moved as one, each seeking their own release in each other.
With a soft cry, Marlysa found hers moments before Ares thrust deep once more and joined her on the summit of ecstasy.
His body lay hard and unyielding yet warm across hers as she took in several gulps of air, wishing all the while that she was in a position to simply hold him close to her. But, in her heart, she also knew that he was not the type of person that allowed anyone to get too close. Small pockets of affection like sex with her or the curt friendship that he showed Darius were as close to it as he would allow himself to get.
His hand brushed her long blond locks away from her face and she found that he was scrutinizing her closely. She smiled at him, a look of peaceful satisfaction on her face and he knew that she had needed that release also. He caressed her cheek with the back of his hand then pulled out of her slowly, savoring the sensation.
When she went to get up, he pushed her back down with one large hand on her back. "Stay in that position," he ordered as a washcloth and a basin of warm water appeared. He cleansed both of them, taking his time while stroking her womanhood and an involuntary moan of pleasure escaped her. He chuckled. "Insatiable!" He slapped her naked backside hard enough to cause her to shriek and stand up quickly to protect herself, hands across her derriere.
He grinned while she glared at him. Tucked in her basket, Arianne started to cry at the noise that had startled her. Ares simply pointed toward the baby and walked out into the main room, leaving Marlysa wishing that she had the nerve to slap him back. Insatiable? Her? She hadn't started this. He had. He was the insatiable one. Trying to prove that to him would be an exercise in futility. Still, a person could get even without resorting to violence. And the means had presented itself to her.
She readjusted her clothing, picked up Arianne's basket, and tried to comfort her. But Arianne would have none of it. Sighing, she followed him to the next room. "Insatiable?" she repeated in disbelief. "I'm not the one that started that." She jostled the baby gently, hoping the motion would settle her down.
He sat down in the rocking chair near the fireplace and continued to grin at her reaction, knowing that he was upsetting her. Ah, yes. Life was wonderful when you had a battle to be fought, bloody or not. "No, you weren't," he agreed. "But you were more than willing to continue it."
She looked at him sitting there, completely smug in his male dominance and wished she knew exactly how to tumble him from his loft perch at that moment. Then it came to her.
Taking Arianne out of her basket, she placed the infant in Ares' arms. "Watch her while I finish dinner, please."
Ares' reaction was one of surprise as Arianne let forth another bloodcurdling yell. "What am I supposed to do with her?" he asked, panicked by the child's vocals.
"Rock her. She'll settle down shortly." Leaving Ares to deal with Arianne as best he could, Marlysa poked the vegetables with a fork, decided they were done, then took them off the hook and set them on the hearth. She picked up a knife and made a quick incision and parted the venison, all the while trying not to laugh as she listened to him trying to quiet the child. No pink shown through. It was finished. She took it off the fire and withdrew the spit, placing it on the platter. Next to her, Arianne's concert was in full chorus. Ares had a terrified look about him, not knowing what to do. Marlysa picked up the meat and turned away from him, trying to keep her emotions under control, not wanting to give him any kind of an edge. He gave her the impression of someone who was totally out of his element and very much wanted to strangle her for putting him there.
As she cut the meat, she smiled at him. He glared at her. "Insatiable, huh?" she asked as she moved a slice away from the main hunk. "There's the end result." She pointed to Arianne.
He opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it. He knew from experience that most women were better verbal fighters than men were. And, while he was better at it than most men, he knew he'd met his match. "Touché," he said as Arianne's song ended. The little girl rubbed her nose with her tiny fist, shifted position slightly and drifted off to sleep.
Ares moved the blanket just enough to see the light of the fire dancing over her. Now that she was quiet, she seemed so small and helpless. Her trust and dependence was absolute. He briefly wondered if this is what Marlysa had looked like as a baby. Somewhere deep inside him, pride came bubbling to the surface and he found himself wishing that he were her father in truth. So many things to teach her, stories of battles to tell - and it could never be. The knowledge settled like a weight gripping a chain around his heart.
Marlysa stopped and watched him rocking her. He may be the God of War, she decided, but he gave a good impression of being a doting father and husband. The gentle, almost loving way he handled Arianne, the protectiveness that he gave both of them, even his rough but not-too-rough sexual appetite had pleased her. The bruises from last night didn't even bother her. But it couldn't last. Deep in her heart she knew that. She wished that he was a mortal instead of a god. She knew she could be happy with him and he with her all of their days. She returned to her work, spooning the vegetables out of the kettle she'd boiled them in but her mind wasn't on what she was doing. As she set out the rest of the meal, she thought back to the comment Junhar had made and the question she was burning to ask him. Finally, with everything on the table, she put Marlysa in her basket and they sat down to eat.
"Smells good," Ares complimented her. He picked up the fork next to the plate. "Been to see Darius, too."
She smiled as she folded her napkin in her lap. "Actually, he brought them out to me. Told me to keep them out here." She picked hers up. "It still feels awkward."
"As I said yesterday, you'll get used to it." He buttered a slice of bread then popped it into his mouth as she filled up his plate with food then hers. "How did the rest of today go?
"Quite well. It was good to see everyone again." She buttered her bread and took a bite. "Did you know that they repaired the roof and actually planted me a garden? It was growing quite well. And Elksar, who is forever asking for my help, actually asked what she could do to help me? I admit, I was in shock."
He laughed. "Amazing what the fear of a god will get some people to do. It's a handy little trick I use all the time." He took a swallow of wine. "You know, many people are afraid of me. Sometimes it's nice. It put me in control of the situation. Other times..."
"...you wish you could put someone else in control," she finished. He nodded. "And to think there are people who envy you."
He laughed. "Not many people envy the God of War. Dite, yes. Me, no."
She looked at him, taken aback by his attitude. "I wouldn't say that. Many a warlord would covet your position and powers."
"Oh, what little ye knows," he groused as he took a bite out of a piece of broccoli. "They only want it until they find out what all it involves. Having to deal with people you'd rather run through is one of them. Then there's all the villagers that get mad at you because their village lies in ruins. They all think I choose the battlefields."
"If you don't, who does?"
"People's anger and warlords who think they know what they want."
"People's anger?" she repeated quizzically.
"Yeah." He took another sip of wine. "Haven't you ever noticed how peaceful villagers will sometimes start fighting with each other over the stupidest things? And it just seems to continue on forever? Even to the point of trying to kill each other?"
She thought hard on her little village. Sometimes, usually at the tavern, she had seen people arguing with each other, once in a great while it would go to fists, but nothing like he was describing. She shook her head no. "Your temple is the farthest I've ever been away from my village and it's always been peaceful. I've always wanted to see other lands, though."
He sighed. She had no experience or point of reference for his words. "Well, let's just say that anger builds up in different spots and fights erupt. My job is to take that anger away and leave peace behind. You told me that yesterday. You were right on the dinars."
Her mouth dropped open in awe. "I was?"
"Yes. You were." He leaned back in his chair. "So far you're the only mortal who has ever managed to figure that out. For all her smarts, even Xena didn't do that."
He smiled at his remembrance of her. "A warlord I've never seen the likes of before. Beautiful, brash, dangerous - soldiers would actually fall at her feet when she walked by." He smiled at the memories she stirred. "Still, she never had a clue of what she was actually doing. Making my job easier. She thought she was out to rule the known world."
Jealousy erupted within Marlysa at the sound of the reverence in Ares' voice but managed to keep it in check. "She's no longer with you?"
"No. My goodie-goodie half-brother, Hercules, turned her against me and now she's got a little twit of a friend helping to keep her there. She thinks she's doing good. When I think of all the good she did do..." He sighed. "I've tried to get her back, but no go."
Marlysa wondered why she should be feeling jealousy. It was none of her business. She was merely a ward of the God of War, not his wife. He didn't have to answer to her.
Perhaps it would be best for her to return to her village. Then she could get on to the day to day living that she needed to do, creating a life for her and Arianne. Winter would be coming before she knew it. She had to get food supplies ready. The first of the harvest would be upon them before long.
"Ares," she began hesitantly, "when I was at my village today, Junhar said something about my not returning there and that it was your orders." She prayed she wasn't going to anger him.
He looked at her and nodded the affirmative. "My reasons for you staying here are my own. You may, however, have them visit you and you visit them whenever you like."
She said no more, knowing she would have to be happy with that.
It had been several days since Xena and Gabrielle had come across a town in all their wanderings. Fighting had begun to take its' toll as the duo plus Argo strode into the marketplace. In spite of their protests, dinars that had pressed upon them by grateful villagers in their last battle against a warlord that wanted both the town and the town beauty for his wife, softly clinked in their purses. They had taken only a few to buy what they needed to survive.
"Meat pies for sale."
"The best cloth available for sale."
"Chickens for your table do I have."
More cries greeted their ears from booths with awnings overhead, each vendor intent upon a sale. People pressed against them from all sides as they looked at the wares and made their selections.
Gabrielle paused and leaned on her staff as she took in the sights and smells around her. Xena smiled at her innocent friend's ability to make each place a new experience. It was like watching herself when she was younger. Now she felt old, decrepit, and used sometimes standing next to the growing woman. She knew what Gabrielle would tell her were she to ever say what she felt. "You are *not* old, Xena. You're as young as you think you are." But Xena knew it wasn't her body that felt old. It was her heart and soul.
Still, being able to watch and be a part of Gabrielle's development into a fine young woman was more than Xena had been able to hope for after she had parted from Hercules.
"Welcome to the Festival of Earthly Delights," a man in a both next to her spoke. His wares of cloth and ready-made clothing items were spread out on the table, ready to be bought.
Xena turned in surprise at the familiar voice. "Salmoneus?"
"Xena!" he exclaimed with unbridled enthusiasm as he leaned over the top of the booth in an attempt to give her a welcoming kiss on the cheek. She moved slightly out of his reach, much to his chagrin. "Yes, it's me. Always ready to turn a dinar. Whose your friend?" he asked as he gave Gabrielle the once-over, clearly admiring her.
"This is Gabrielle. Gabrielle, Salmoneus."
"Welcome! Welcome to the Festival of Earthly Delights, young maiden!" His smile was as wide as his sincerity of the welcome. "Any friend of Xena's is a friend of mine."
"Thank you," Gabrielle replied, a little overwhelmed by Salmoneus' exuberance. "What is the Festival of Earthly Delights?"
Xena looked around at the corners at the young men and women trying for privacy in the invading darkness and smiled with remembrance at seeing it for the first time. "It's a festival to honor Aphrodite. Tomorrow, couples will take their vows to each other and the unions are blessed solely by her. If she does not approve of the union, no marriage takes place. It is also a widely known fact that she will not bless an arranged marriage that has no love."
Salmoneus nodded in affirmation of Xena's words. "Any marriage that she has blessed has been both fruitful and loving. Never have I heard of one that hasn't been."
Gabrielle picked up an apple from the edge of his clothing display and handed him a dinar before taking a bite. "No one has ever had a problem with their mate?"
Xena smiled at Gabrielle's naivete and turned to answer her question, but Salmoneus beat her to it. "Oh, they've had the same problems as everyone else, but, since love remains, always has it been worked out."
"Thanks for the information."
"My pleasure." Salmoneus beamed at her. "I hope you enjoy yourselves. Do stop back by. I have some lovely items for ladies like yourselves. A necklace that would go marvelously with that adorable Amazon outfit. Only 10 dinars. Handmade by Hephaestus himself."
Xena grabbed Gabrielle by the arm and dragged her away before Salmoneus could make another sales pitch. Then she bid Salmoneus a good night.
"Let's go find the livery and a room for us for the night," Xena said, looking at the kissing couples. She found herself hoping that it wouldn't remind Gabrielle of her long dead husband. Morosity she couldn't handle tonight. She was just too beat.
The livery owner was kind enough to direct them to a nice nearby inn and, now with a room being readied for them and Argo taken care of, they paused at a sideboard filled with food. Gabrielle's mouth began to water as she took in the succulent smells of beef, chicken, and pork along with fresh baked bread, vegetables, and other dishes she couldn't identify.
She smacked her lips and said reverently, "Dinner!" and began to fill her plate to overflowing.
Xena laughed at her. When it came to loving food, Gabrielle had no equal.
Quickly they filled up their plates and found a table to sit at. A mug of ale each was placed by their plates a moment later. As Xena took a sip, Gabrielle began to eat with gusto.
"Slow down," Xena said as she watched her friend barely take the time to chew.
"I'm hungry!" she said, around a mouthful.
"Eat too fast and get fat," a third voice chimed in as a plate plunked down beside Gabrielle. The debonair form of Autolycus, King of Thieves, sat beside Gabrielle.
"I don't recall inviting you," Xena said dryly as she began to eat.
"Well, I didn't want to embarrass you."
"Good. Then leave and you won't embarrass me," Xena said as she turned to her plate. Autolycus gave her a side glance as Gabrielle tried not to giggle at the banter.
"That's enough out of you, young lady," Autolycus said in his best fatherly fashion to Gabrielle, ignoring Xena's comments. "You should show your respect for the King of Thieves." She tried to control it to no avail. He simply sighed and tried to ignore her lack of respect.
As he cut his meat, he attempted to keep up a civilized conversation with the two women. "Have you come here before for the Festival of Earthly Delights?" He wagged his eyebrows meaningfully.
"Can't say that we have," Xena responded as she took a bite.
"But Salmoneus told us all about it," Gabrielle said with a mouthful. She swallowed then continued speaking. "It really sounds wonderful. Aphrodite has gotten herself quite a coup here."
"Ah, yes. The Goddess of Love. Beautiful lady." He picked up another piece of meat, chewed, and swallowed it before continuing speaking in a soft, almost conspiratorial voice. "I don't suppose you two have heard the latest about her brother, Ares?"
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks, knowing that anything that involved Ares usually led to trouble. "What about the miscreant?" Xena asked as Gabrielle picked up her drink to take a swallow.
Autolycus waved his hands as though he could keep trouble at bay by doing it. "It's strictly rumor. Nothing is confirmed or denied, but rumor has it that he has taken a wife and now has a child."
Gabrielle spewed out her ale at the news, trying hard not to choke on it. Autolycus smacked her on the back while she fought for air. Xena watched her carefully, hoping her skills wouldn't be needed. Finally, Gabrielle got a long drought of air into her lungs and took control of her coughing.
"Everything okay, here?" The concerned innkeeper rushed over, hoping that she wouldn't lose a patron. It was bad for business.
"Fine," Xena replied. "We just heard some startling news and it surprised my friend." She waited until the innkeeper had left before continuing. "He has a wife?!"
"So rumor has it." He took a bite of his bread. "No one seems to know much about her except that she is from a neighboring village near his main temple. And she is rumored to be very, very beautiful. Supposedly she makes Aphrodite look like a bow-wow."
"I feel sorry for her," Xena said matter-of-factly as she took another bite. Gabrielle nodded in agreement.
"Who starts this crap?" The familiar bell-ringing voice of the Goddess of Love accompanied a flash of silver light and she appeared seated next to Autolycus. "None of it is true. He hasn't got a wife or a child." She picked up a piece of bread from the plate in the center of the table and started to munch on it. "And she's pretty enough but she's no raving beauty."
Xena smiled patiently. "I take it you know her?"
"Oh, yes. I play with the baby all the time." She giggled as she thought of little Arianne. "Cute kid. But my brother isn't her daddy."
"How did this woman get involved with Ares then?" Gabrielle asked.
"Well," Aphrodite started as she signaled for a mug of ale, "someone in her village claimed she was carrying a demon child and the others believed him. She ran for her life and her baby's and ended up at Ares' temple. He protected her and she's been there ever since." She took a sip of the mug that was placed in front of her. "I think he likes her cooking," she declared helpfully.
"A demon child?" Gabrielle said in a small voice, thinking of her own daughter, Hope.
"Not the real thing. This guy was upset because she kept rejecting him. The kid is totally mortal and cute as a bug's ear." Aphrodite grinned at the image. "Ares said that he had sent her husband back to her for that one night because he'd gotten word that he would be killed the next day in battle."
Autolycus pushed his now empty plate aside. "Why is she so special?"
"Don't know. He's never said." She picked up another piece of Xena's bread.
"Whatever his reason, it's his business," Xena declared. "I'm just glad I'm not involved." She noticed the distant, sad look on Gabrielle's face. "Gabrielle?" Gabrielle smiled at the table wistfully.
"Oh, forgive me!" Aphrodite said as she noticed Gabrielle's demeanor. "Ares told me all about your daughter. I'm so sorry. I'd forgotten about that." She reached across the table and hugged Gabrielle impulsively. "Don't worry about things," she whispered. "There's a husband and lots of normal children in your future. Trust me. I know these things."
Gabrielle managed a small smile. "Thanks," she said as she got up, trying to pretend a heartiness she didn't feel. "I'm going for pie. Anyone else want a piece?"
"I'll take one," Autolycus said as Xena shook her head no. Aphrodite also opted for a piece.
For the remainder of the meal, Xena and Autolycus tried to get more information from Aphrodite, but she remained silent on the subject, talking instead about the upcoming festival marriages. Gabrielle simply remained quiet, listening intently, but not contributing to, the conversation.
Finally, Autolycus announced that he was retiring to his room and Aphrodite said good night also, leaving Xena and Gabrielle alone at the table. The dishes had been cleared some time ago and now only a small group of people remained, talking softly amongst themselves in the darkening gloom.
"Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, "are you alright?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Yeah. I was just thinking how difficult it must've been for her." She stared at the table, tracing a knothole with her finger. "And how nice it must've been to have the accusation turn out to be false."
Xena said nothing since she couldn't stop the pain Gabrielle felt. Instead she hugged her friend, thought about her own dead child, and wished that things had turned out better.
Since the old armory was now in good condition and kept that way by her, Marlysa had again found time on her hands. While wandering around the temple in her best village dress, more and more village people talked to her, seeking her advice on how to approach the God of War, what tribute was appropriate, where and when to pay homage. Often they talked with her about their lives and families, and oh'd and ah'd over Arianne, much to the baby's delight.
Warlords were a different matter.
She found most of them arrogant and difficult to deal with. Many made remarks that she found offensive-one even went so far as to lay a hand on her posterior, which earned him an earful from Darius-but she simply showed them to a reception room and Darius dealt with them. Just because she was a villager was no reason for their actions, Darius told her. It would not be tolerated within the walls of the temple.
This particular day was beautiful with soft breezes flowing through the open throne room from the courtyard to the front entrance. The fragrance of the flowers and herbs along with the buzz of tiny insects drifted through and around the altar. Villagers stopped in small groups, talking quietly amongst themselves and with her. As she passed the altar where Darius stood, she saw a small girl put a bouquet of wildflowers down and say a quick prayer. She was reminded of herself at that age. She said a quick prayer silently that she knew Ares would hear to spare the children as much as possible, even though it was impossible to spare all of them. Yet she also knew that many would starve to death if they were spared. He had been right on that account, she thought, remembering a conversation they had one evening. Sometimes a quick death was a better one than prolonged suffering. She wondered what comment, if any, he would make when he returned from the battle he was currently engaged in.
As she approached the main door, she spied a group of warriors by the entrance, looking as out of place surrounded by the splendor of the temple as the temple seemed to awe them. With the exception of one of them. He had an air about him that bespoke of someone whom had been here before many times. His armor was of excellent quality, the tan leather soft and supple, the metal burnished and gleaming in the light as were his companions. Swords, daggers, and other weapons completed their ensemble. One man held a small, locked wooden chest.
"May I help you?" she said, then regretted her words as the man leered at her, looking her over as though she was on the day's menu. In spite of the cleanliness of their armor, she drew back a little at the stench that covered them, but it was their leader's attitude of superiority that made her despise them. She readjusted Arianne's basket away from them as though the baby might catch a parasite if left too close to them.
"You sure can. Come see me a little later. I'll let you satisfy me." The man winked at her and rested his hand near his groin. "But for right now we'll settle for Ares."
Marlysa stiffened and said nothing in response to his remark. "And you are?"
"Lord Fekken, wench." He grinned toothlessly, enjoying her unease in spite of her attempts not to display her loathing of him. "Get the name right for someday the you and the world will bow to Ares and me."
"You mean under you someday, don't you?" The warrior laughed too loudly at his own joke as the others joined in.
"I bow only to Lord Ares," she said evenly. The men formed a semi-circle around her and she found herself trying to control the fear she was beginning to feel. She took a step or two away from them.
"I'll bet you do." Again they all laughed, much to her discomfort. She waited for them to stop then moved out in front of them again, hoping to leave enough space so she wouldn't smell them.
"If you will follow me, I'll take you to a place where you may wait." She led them down a side hall to a reception room and opened the door. "In here," she said, standing to one side to allow them to pass. "Darius will be with you in a moment."
Darius caught the wave of her hand to him and nodded in acknowledgment.
As she turned to leave, the warlord grabbed her by her loose arm and pulled her into the room, closing the door behind her with a thud. She tried to wrench her arm free without upsetting Arianne's basket to no avail. A warrior reached out and took it from her.
He smiled thinly. "I'll take good care of this."
Marlysa tried to grab the basket back but Fekken pulled her up tight against him and smiled like a feral wolf approaching an easy meal. "How about you joining me tonight? Ares has always favored me with my choice of women. Especially village women."
"Must I remind you that you are in his temple?"
Fekken ignored her as he pawed her breast through her woolen dress, twisting it, and Marlysa screamed in pain at the tightness of his grip. Liquid warmth surrounded the nipple area and she found herself wondering if it was milk or blood that flowed into the flax and woolen cloth. "And I favor you. We'll have such a good time. You tied down tight and me bucking hard into you." He grabbed the back of Marlysa's head by her unbound hair and bent it to press his lips tightly against hers. She tried to fight back but her blows were futile against the armor. Seeing this, she grabbed at a jeweled dagger on his belt and attempted to stab Fekken with it.
"We'll have none of that, wench. The only dagger that's going to be used is mine on you." He grabbed for her hand but was unable to hold it as she maneuvered her arm between them, out of his reach. Again, she tried to stab him, to get him to let go.
Fekken pushed their bodies together, trapping the dagger and rendering it useless. He tightened his grip on her left arm and again attempted to kiss her. Marlysa felt the grinding of his lips against hers and fought to draw back. A low growl issued from Fekken's throat as he forced her mouth open and thrust his tongue inside. Marlysa gagged from the fecal taste of him but he brought his hand up to the back of her head to increase the depth. Still unable to move the arm that held the dagger, all Marlysa could do was scream into his mouth. She felt the hard length of him against her abdomen as she heard the men's laughter and taunts. "Let her know what she's in for."
"Liking it, are you?"
Arianne, sensing the panic of her mother, began to cry.
"Hey, there's a baby in here." He pulled the blanket off of her and Arianne cried all the louder.
Fekken broke the kiss off but kept his tightened grip on Marlysa as he peeked in at Arianne. His jagged toothed grin grew wider. "Talk about luck. This must be the bitch that everyone hereabouts been talking about. Ares' whore. Rumor has it that's Ares' kid."
"Rumor has it wrong," Marlysa heard a deep, familiar voice say. She turned to see Ares standing just inside the door, sword drawn. "Release her, Fekken. She isn't one of the choices."
Fekken pushed her away from him and his hand went for his own sword as Marlysa tumbled to the floor in front of Ares as Darius, Ketlin, Junhar, and several other priests came through a back door, swords drawn. The dagger remained in her hand.
"Do you really want to be that stupid?" Ares asked as he moved to put himself between Marlysa and Fekken. He hoisted his own sword a little higher.
Fekken considered his options, or lack of them, and sheathed his sword, motioning for his men to do the same.
"Smart move. First smart thing you've done since you came in here." Ares also sheathed his as Marlysa regained her feet, but his priests kept theirs' in hand. She took Arianne out of the warrior's hands and held the crying child against the breast that the warlord hadn't touched. After tucking the dagger into her kirtle, she took the basket and quietly left, trying to hold back the tears of her fright and pain.
Ares watched her gather her pride around her and go, hoping she would understand why he couldn't hold her and check her over as carefully as he longed to do, to see if she was okay. He then dismissed all the priests but Darius.
Fekken gestured for the chest to be brought forward. The warrior laid it in front of Ares. Ares ignored the tribute, knowing that Fekken now used it to try to placate him. "Know this, Fekken, if you ever touch another woman in my temple again without my permission, I will kill you myself."
Fekken nodded his understanding. Darius sheathed his sword but stood watch over the proceedings, arms crossed as Ares and Fekken plotted the coming battle.
The day was almost over when the cottage door opened to reveal Ares walking in as he had done so many times before. Marlysa stood up from stirring their dinner on the fire, adjusted her top to accommodate her aching breast, hoping he wouldn't notice, waiting apprehensively to see what he would do, wondering what his reaction would be to incident in the temple with Fekken. The dagger she had taken from Fekken lay on the kitchen table within easy reach.
The door gently snickered shut behind him, not loud enough to disturb Arianne's sleep. She heard the sound of his footsteps, the scrape of the chair as he pulled it out. Even though she could've sworn he could hear her heart beating, it was so loud, she said nothing, merely continued to see to their dinner. "Marlysa?" he said softly as he sat down at the table. "Tell me what happened."
She paused in mid-stir, wondering what Fekken might have told him, wondering if Ares blamed her. "All I did was show them to one of the reception rooms and told him that Darius would be with them in a moment. When I turned to leave, one of his men grabbed Arianne's basket and Fekken took liberties with me. Said that- you- had always favored him with his choice of women. And I was his choice."
"You did nothing to encourage him in any manner?"
Marlysa's mouth dropped open and indignation and anger gathered within her as she whirled around. "Nothing! I did nothing!"
She approached him, dripping spoon in hand. "Did he tell you that I did?" No answer was forthcoming from the God of War. He simply continued to watch her in silence. Again, Marlysa tried to get an answer from him. "Did he? If he did, he's a liar!" She strode back angrily to the pot and thrust her spoon into it, stirring with all the venom she could muster at the silent accusation, her heart pounding, tears beginning to fill her eyes.
Damn men like Fekken. And damn the gods who championed them. Why was it always the woman's fault?
Behind her Ares smiled, watching the proud curve of her back. Marlysa wasn't a woman who could hide her emotions. Instead she wore them upon her person well. One always knew where one stood with her. Yes, he decided, she was telling the truth. He, himself, had seen her greeting others, warlords and villagers alike. Darius also had said that she had never been anything but polite to anyone in spite of some of the rude comments warlords had made to her. She had always put them in their place without offending them. But this time, she hadn't had the chance to do so.
It didn't surprise him. Fekken was a take-all leader. Just the kind of man Ares liked. But not in Ares' territory. Fekken had to learn his place. And learn it he would out on the battlefield when he lost. His victory would not be assured.
He heard her sniff and knew that she was crying, trying to hold it back but failing. He stood up and took her by the shoulders to face him. She looked down at the wooden floor, not quite daring to meet his eyes. He tilted her chin as her water colored purple irises gazed into his. The unasked question filled them. "I believe you," he said softly, lowly. "I always did. I've seen you with others. Always have you been the lady. But I had to be sure before I mete out his punishment."
He kissed her lips caressingly, then with more vigor. She responded a little tensely at first then he felt her give her whole being into it. His tongue thrust in and out of her mouth, tasting the sweetness of her being. His body responded to the stimuli of her closeness, her willingness. He swept the length of her body with his hand, holding her close to him, wanting to take in all of her. His hand trailed its' way up to her breast and he gently cupped it, feeling the weight of it, pinching the nipple.
Her cry of pain against his lips broke the sexual tension that had been building and she grabbed his forearm to keep him from touching it further. He paused, watching her carefully, wondering how he could have hurt her. He'd been much rougher in the past and both had reveled in that roughness. But never had he caused her this kind of pain. His eyebrows knotted in concern.
She shook her head at his words, willing him to give her a moment and took a deep breath, wanting time to get the pain under control, hoping she wouldn't have to tell him why, knowing he'd demand to know why.
Ares didn't give her a choice. He grasped the shoulder of her dress and pulled it down to reveal a breast with imprinted red streaks made by Fekken's armored hand. Marlysa's face turned as red as her breast as she attempted to cover it back up. Ares pushed her hands away and pulled her bodice down to her waist to examine it more carefully. She hissed in pain as the last of her support was taken away.
The entire area of the breast was swollen in addition to the redness. Spots of blood were welling around the nipple where Fekken has twisted it. Ares gently squeezed the nipple and a combination of blood and milk dripped into his hand as Marlysa gasped and attempted to push his hand away. He wiped it off on a nearby towel.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked as his hands began to glow. While one hand supported her breast, he stroked the other over it. She closed her eyes and sighed in relief as the pain receded.
"Marlysa, why didn't you tell me?" he asked again.
"I hadn't had the chance to and the reception room wasn't the place to do so." She hung her head back in mild ecstasy. The warmth and closeness of this god was going to drive her over her limits.
He grinned at the complacent look on her face. He loved watching her expressions. They told her immediate story. The red streaks and spots of blood disappeared under his ministering hands. Finally, with all of the damage repaired, he again tweaked her nipple hard enough to bring milk to the surface. White without a hint of blood, he noted. He also noted her reaction this time was that of delight and not pain. Her eyes opened a moment later when she realized that he was done.
He nodded then touched her shoulder again. Her coarse, woolen villager's dress was replaced by a long-sleeved, V-necked dress similar to that of the other priestesses' except that it was floor-length while theirs' were very short. A delicate gold necklace that bore the temple symbol of Ares adorned her long throat. "When you come to the temple to greet people, you will wear this from now on," he said sternly. "It will identify you as belonging there. Also, stay away from the warlords. Let Darius handle them. Understood?"
She nodded as he gazed into her violet eyes and thought about how she had attempted to defend herself and her child. "I'm proud of you. Most village women don't stand up for themselves, especially against a warlord like Fekken." Hues of red, green and blue glinted off the jeweled dagger she had taken from Fekken that now lay on the table caught his eye. A sheath suitable for it attached to a belt that matched her necklace appeared in his hand. He put the dagger into it and buckled it around her waistline. "Let this knife serve as a symbol of your courage, your willingness to fight for yourself and your child." He sat back down at the table.
"Thank you," she said. "I do so enjoy talking to the villagers."
He merely smiled and pointed toward the fireplace. He was hungry.
The word itself often wrought visions of flames and endless torment.
A part of Hades' domain. Just as much as the Elysian Fields.
Every mortal came sooner or later to him. What tributes they had paid him during their mortal life meant nothing when they were judged. All that mattered was how they had lived their mortal lives.
This is what Hades found himself trying to explain to Hera, not that she even wanted to try to understand. Of course, she never did. All she wanted was what she wanted and nothing else mattered.
She stood in front of him with her want now, wanting him to take this young woman and condemn her to Tartarus simply because she was involved with her son, Ares, God of War. Hades recognized the young woman as the same one that Ares wouldn't allow Celesta to take not that long ago. He had taken another, far worse soul instead in her place. In fact, Hera had already tried to convince him to release Tarmenous to her. Again, Hades had refused her. But Hera continued to push her wishes at him. Hades wished she'd return to Mount Olympus and leave him to the peace and quiet of the dead.
"Look at her! Leading my son on!" Hera yelled as she pointed to the moving picture on the wall of Hades' office. It was a small, dark place with no sunlight. Only the redness of Tartarus provided any light through the windows. And, with Hera's presence, it seemed even smaller and darker to him. "I tell you she is trouble. She will ruin him. He'll no longer be fit to be God of War."
Hades laughed in disgust. "If that happened, maybe I could get back on track. Your son has sent me more soldiers lately than I've had in a long time. Seems to me he's doing just fine as the God of War."
He watched as Marlysa and Ares kissed in the small kitchen of the cottage then settled down to dinner. He simply shrugged his shoulders. "Besides, it looks to me more like they're about to eat food, not each other." The picture disappeared.
Hera turned on him. "They do eat each other. Every single night. They fornicate like two rutting cats."
Hades smiled, remembering how much he liked his time in bed with Persephone. "Sounds enjoyable. Sounds very mortal and god-like. And not something that I'll send someone to Tartarus for."
He paused in his words, wishing with every fiber of his being that she would depart and let him get back to work. The cases were stacking up. And, in spite of the improvements that he had made to get those who definitely belonged in one place or the other there quicker, more and more cases were becoming a judgement call that only he could make.
But Hera wasn't to be put off. "All you have to do is take her. Put her in the Elysian Fields for all I care although Tartarus would be more fitting for her. In fact, as Queen of the Gods, I demand you take her now."
"No, Tartarus isn't fitting for her. She's never harmed or wronged anyone." Hera took a breath to argue with him, but Hades put his hand up for her to hold her thoughts. "I don't give a damn that you are the Queen of the Gods. You have no power in my domain," he said, pronouncing each word deliberately. "I will not take her until it is her time and I will not release Tarmenous simply because you wish it. He is here in my domain, under my judgement, and here he will remain!" His voice grew louder with every word he said. "Is that understood?"
Hera simply glared at him then vanished in her fury.
Hades breathed a sigh of relief that she was gone.
Upon returning to Mount Olympus, Hera continued her vigilance, waiting with a patience that only she had. Waiting to deliver the stroke that would tumble Ares from his throne of independence.
And Hades wasn't about to stop her plan. If Hades wouldn't release Tarmenous, then she would.
Darius watched time passed peacefully enough. He knew Marlysa's mornings began with waking up next to Ares, sharing their thoughts on yesterday and the day ahead. Sometimes it included getting a late start to the day as they enjoyed each other's bodies as well as their thoughts on various subjects and problems. There was very little he didn't know about the two of them. He had eyes. He had ears.
He also had very confidential conversations with Ares on a regular basis, not only about temple matters, but also about Marlysa and Arianne.
Darius kept Marlysa busy during the daytime hours, making sure that they were filled with greeting people from many villages, and the evenings and nighttime filled with Ares. Occasionally, she informed him when she was going to her village to see Altimius and to gather the harvest of her garden and care for her house.
Some would claim that she was a kept woman. Some had quietly voiced that opinion even within the temple walls.
It was a chancy thing to do considering the temper of the God of War and Darius had made sure that they understood not to do so again, even in private. He didn't want the talk coming back to either Ares or Marlysa. He knew Ares would either shrug it off or kill the people who were talking. But Marlysa would be hurt beyond measure with no protection. He also didn't want Hera hearing of it in one of her temples.
He also knew that Marlysa and Ares didn't want their relationship to end. But Darius knew it had to. Still, he wasn't inclined to end it any sooner than he had to. But time was running out on Ares. He was aware of it. Darius reminded him of it time and again. Hera would find out sooner or later if he didn't.
But it was time to remind Ares again.
And this time, Darius had a possible solution for Marlysa. One that Ares might go for.
Darius found Ares in the map room, studying several possible campaign situations. Some would say that Ares simply enjoyed playing with his toys, but such was not the case. At the moment, he was trying to work out the logistics of the plan he had laid out with the warlord Fekken.
Darius waited silently for permission to speak. Several moments passed before Ares glanced up from his work. "Something you wanted?" he asked as he put several houses into place around the fortress.
"Yes, sire." He paused, not knowing where to begin, knowing that he might anger him, knowing that Marlysa's safety might depend upon him. "I know that we have discussed Hera before-"
Ares put the hut down anywhere on the map, no longer caring about the battle. He had had this conversation too many times with Darius before. Always it achieved nothing. "I told you I didn't want to discuss her anymore," he snapped.
"I know, sire," Darius said, more to placate him than anything else. "It is a very unpleasant business. I wish I had a permanent solution for you. I truly don't think any of the other gods care what you do with Marlysa."
"Then why are you bringing this up?"
"Because, sire, I think I might have a possible solution for Marlysa."
Ares looked down at the marble floor, wanting to know what Darius had in mind, hating the idea that he might have to give it honest consideration. Darius was right. Time was running out. And, so far, he had done nothing to try to either break the spell or give her a future beyond him and his temple.
"Continue," he said reluctantly.
"I wonder how much you know about Matimus, Fekken's second-in-command?"
"Enough to know that he was a Roman soldier. Is there anything else that I need to know?"
"Yes," Darius sat as he sat down on the lounge chair. "I've done some hard investigation work into him. Beyond being a former Roman soldier, he's also taught Fekken's troops all the Roman soldiering knowledge that he knew. He's the man who trained them, not Fekken."
"I figured as much. Fekken isn't bright enough to train troops that well. As it is, I'm considering putting him in command of this region, not Fekken."
"What would you do with Fekken then?"
"Kill him. Turn him over to The Master for what he did to Marlysa and tell him to make it slow and painful." Ares smacked his lips in relish at the thought. "That would be sweet to watch and listen to. Hear him scream louder and longer than any woman before he dies."
Darius was startled at this turn of events. Ares hadn't mentioned this before. "I thought we had prevented him from harming her."
"Not completely." Ares told him of the damage done to Marlysa's breast.
Darius shook his head in sorrow. "Forgive me, sire. I really thought we had gotten in there soon enough."
Ares smiled. "It was easily fixable. I know she's fed Arianne from it without difficulty or problem. But we were talking about Matimus..."
"Oh, yes," Darius said as he shifted his thoughts back to the reason he had come in. "To continue with my description of him- as I said, he's a former Roman soldier, a peace-loving man. He wants nothing more than to gain enough dinars to buy a good-sized plot of land, settle down, raise a family, and train soldiers for battle."
"Does he entertain any thoughts of returning to the Roman empire?"
Darius shook his head no. "He's completely loyal to you. He wants nothing more to do with Caesar."
Ares nodded. "And you think Matimus would be a good husband to Marlysa and father to Arianne?"
"Yes, I do." Darius watched Ares closely and saw that the God of War was trying very hard to control his temper. But he was losing the battle. And it broke Darius' own heart to see that.
As Ares turned back toward him, Darius saw the sword in Ares' hand. He waited for the blow that never came. Instead Ares faded out as the sword point dropped sadly toward the floor.
Darius felt his own emotions churning at the thought of what his god was going through. He wished he could take the pain away.
Finally, it was the day that Warlord Fekken had planned and trained for all of his life. No longer would he be disdained as a destroyer. No longer would he be thought of as just another power-hungry warlord. Today, he would king of his own kingdom. Today, he would be the exalted one.
Fekken thought back on the meeting that he'd had with Ares as he approached the command tent. Yes, the plan would work and work well. Of that he had no doubts, especially since surveying the battlefield once again. The stupid soldiers manning the gates suspected nothing. Most of his men were already on the inside and beginning the takeover by dispatching the regular soldiers and taking their place. This kingdom of gold would be his by nightfall.
Yet he had one thing that bothered him.
Not that it had anything to do with the kingdom. Quite to the contrary.
The unpleasant situation with the woman weighed heavily on his mind.
Oh, he'd understood that he'd taken liberties with the woman that maybe he shouldn't have. After all, it wasn't wise to anger the God of War. And it was true that he hadn't asked permission since she was just a simple peasant. Hardly worthy of Ares' attention. In fact, what he saw in her, Fekken simply could not understand.
Perhaps it was the fact that the encounter had taken place in his temple that had caused Ares to end it. It was Ares' territory after all. And the last thing he would want would be to have women accosted there. Gave a god a very bad reputation. It would prove him to be untrustworthy and weak, not being able to even defend a woman in your own temple. And when you advocate villages and farms being destroyed and families torn apart, it would make him appear to be even worse. Yet Fekken had asked for pardon. Ares had said nothing at the time. Simply started looking over his ideas to take the kingdom.
Yes, Fekken decided, that must be it.
Still, on second thought, there was that rumor. The one about Ares having a wife and child. But if that was her, what was she doing in village dress? Why didn't she wear something far more worthy of her status? And what would she be doing working at the temple?
No, she must simply be what he originally thought. A simple peasant woman that he accidentally accosted on Ares' territory. He had stepped on the god's toes doing it and he would not do so again, he vowed. Besides, only her pride had been hurt. He could tell that she had wanted him. Women loved a strong man. One who would put them in their place. Why, he'd hardly gotten started on what they would have enjoyed. She'd have been crawling on the ground in sheer pleasure by the time he got done.
Fekken walked toward his second in command, Matimus, trying to turn his mind back to the situation at hand. A former Roman soldier, Matimus had proven useful in a fight time and time again. Always did Fekken know he could count on him.
Matimus was looking over the written battleplan laying on the table in front of him. He smoothed out an edge of the paper as a slight breeze threatened to whisk it away from him.
"Good day for a battle, sire," Matimus said upon seeing Fekken's approach. He turned his attention to a particular spot on the map.
"Yes, it is," Fekken agreed.
"I've got the trajectories worked out for the catapults that Ares' was talking about. The ram is also ready for the castle gates. We should have this place taken by noon with Ares' plan."
"The men are getting into position?"
"Yes. Soldier's positions on the inside are almost secure. They've made certain that
"Excellent." Fekken rubbed his armored hands together. "That leaves this afternoon to enjoy the fruits of our labors then. And I plan on having at least three of those 'fruits' together." He grinned, thinking of all the pleasure that lay before him.
Ares checked the ramparts of the castle and positions of Fekken's soldiers silently. He was impressed by the thoroughness of the soldiers' work, but knew that Fekken wasn't responsible for it. Matimus was. He was the man that had truly pulled together Fekken's men, creating an army that Ares could be proud of. Not since Xena's had he seen a better army, the might of the full Roman army not withstanding.
The only problem with Matimus was the fact that he would be happy to rule a small kingdom and go no further. He was the kind of soldier who only fought when he thought it was necessary. He didn't do it because he loved battle as most young soldiers did.
No, Matimus was too much a caretaker, Ares decided. Better he secure this kingdom and bring it back to its' full potential of supplying food, clothing, and other essentials for those who would continue to fight for Ares. Let it be a training ground. Let him do what he did best. Give him what he truly wanted.
Ares knew that he could secure Matimus' loyalty. Of that he had no doubt. Darius agreed with that ascertain.
Darius had also pointed out that Matimus might make a good husband for Marlysa and father to Arianne.
For that Darius almost lost his life.
It was past time to admit it to himself, he thought as he looked down into the courtyard. He was definitely in love with her. He liked waking up next to her in the morning, feeling the warmth of her naked body cuddled within his, seeing her thick light brown eyelashes laying against her skin in sleep. He enjoyed talking with her, verbally sparring with her on occasion, seeing her feed and care for Arianne, greeting the villagers in his temple. He felt pride in her.
She was a dream.
And he was in love with her. He could at least admit that to himself now.
Darius had also reminded him of Hera.
He knew he'd have to face it at some point in time. Losing Marlysa would not be easy. But at least it would give Hera no reason to go after her.
Maybe now was the time. So far Hera hadn't paid any attention to him. He kept her powers at full strength like he was supposed to. And, other than Marlysa, he'd made sure that he had done nothing out of the ordinary to attract her attention.
Marlysa's future was something else he had to think about.
She was a widowed mother with a small child. She would need someone strong enough to protect her yet gentle enough to love her the way that she deserved. Not the way he had done with her.
Yes, he had protected her and cherished her and Arianne in his own way. Never had he abused them. But he was using her to rid himself of his sister's spell and the knowledge gnawed at him. What would become of her when he finally did admit he loved her? How would she react when he changed after his declaration? Indeed, would he change back to his old self afterward? Or would he also feel the loss? Or, worse yet, would love remain despite his sister's promise that the spell would be broken?
He wondered if he could say it to her while she slept so that the pain wouldn't be as great for her. But if he then took her back to her village, she would definitely be confused, wondering if she hadn't done something to anger him.
He could just let her wonder. Or he could explain the situation to her.
And hurt her in the process.
The only way around that would be to change her memories of her time here. But other people would know. And they might just mention it to her. It would be impossible to keep that from happening.
Maybe Darius was right.
Maybe Matimus would be the ideal husband and father.
Sure, he was big and brash but Marlysa could handle that. Never had he seen him abuse women the way Fekken did.
He walked a bit further, invisible to all, seeing people scurrying to and fro as they went about their business. Most of the people had been up since dawn. What little bit of laundry there was he saw hung out to dry in the bright sunshine. Vendors hawked their wares in the streets, calling out in booming voices to make potential buyers aware of their existence. Smoke rose from fires created outside of huts to allow the heat to escape while women cooked over them. Here and there a small child played with another.
"Peaceful, isn't it?"
Ares turned to see Aphrodite beside him bent over the ramparts, her curvaceous backside sticking out into the walkway.
When Ares didn't elaborate, Aphrodite pressed the unasked question. "So. Why are you going to make war here?"
"It's peaceful on the surface only."
" 'Bout like you, huh?"
He didn't answer her remark. Instead he turned and walked down the stairs, Aphrodite following him. "The real problem isn't here. It's within the fortress. That's the air that I've got to clear."
"That's not what I was talking about." Ares froze in his steps and his lithe body stiffened, wondering if she had been reading his mind. "I can feel you're in a bummer mood," she continued. "Do you want to talk or something?"
"No," he said softly, then thought better of it. No one understood love better than Aphrodite did. No one in his family cared more about him than she did. Even if she did screw this one up. "Yes, maybe I do. I need your opinion." Although he knew they would not be seen or heard, he still took her by the hand and led her into a darkened corner under the ramparts. They sat down on a couple of storage boxes and Aphrodite waited for him to begin.
"I've been thinking really hard about the spell and Marlysa and what's going to happen to her when I finally do break it."
"You know she's fallen for you for real."
Ares hung his head and rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. "Yeah. I know. She hasn't said as much, but I can feel it. I also know there is no way that I can let her down easy. I know spells of forgetfulness exist, but I also know that it doesn't take much to break them."
"Especially when the love is this strong."
He nodded in agreement then changed the subject slightly. "I was thinking of Matimus as a husband for her and a father to Arianne. About putting him in charge here."
"Instead of Fekken?" she asked in surprise. "I think that would be a great idea. Marlysa would make a great queen. She's not a strong leader, but she sets a good example."
Ares found himself pleased that Aphrodite agreed with him even if she didn't understand the situation in this kingdom. "Then all I've got to do is to break the spell."
"And that's the hard part."
He half-laughed. "Yeah. That's the hard part." The beginning of the hard part, he mentally corrected. The part I really don't want to do. But he knew it had to be done sooner or later. Aphrodite leaned over and gave him a quick hug before disappearing. He scowled and endured her embrace.
He found himself hoping that Marlysa would understand what was at stake. Why they couldn't be together for the rest of her mortal life.
The signal had been given earlier that morning. Catapults had unleashed their fury against the massive stone wall surrounding the fortress. Soldiers with ladders had stood by to climb either to victory or to their own deaths. Many on both sides had not survived. But more had survived on Fekken's side because of Matimus' training. They were prepared for almost anything that could be thrown at them. Ares found his admiration of Matimus growing with every passing attack. Finally, they wore the numbers of the rampart soldiers down and swarmed over the wall and into the outer courtyard, cutting down men who tried to stay the advance to no avail. Word had reached them of the death of the king but not of his son. Ares hoped he would find the child alive. He would play an important part in Matimus' ability to rule here.
Ares felt his mood rise out of the doldrums as he, Fekken, Matimus, and several soldiers entered the almost secured citadel. Here and there he saw a dead soldier, felt the anger surround him and move through him. Across the length of the wide corridor, he caught a glimpse of a group of four enemy soldiers creeping toward them, trying to get behind them to attack. Matimus gently poked two of the soldiers in front and each went on either side of the advancing enemy. The rest closed ranks around their leaders. Moments later, the leaders heard the low screams of the enemy soldiers as they paid for their loyalty with their lives.
Ares moved away from the main group, sword in hand, feeling the anger and despair in the air as it touched his sword and touched him. It wasn't as bad here as it was in other spots around Greece, but the plans had already been prepared for the taking this fortress.
There hadn't been much fighting done to take the town. The villagers showed nothing but indifference toward anyone who would attempt to rule them. It was a typical attitude. Villagers simply continued on with their work. It mattered not to them who they paid their taxes to. They knew that someone would continue to see to its' collection. The simply hoped that whomever was ruling wouldn't take more than they could afford to give.
Fekken had been upset that Ares wouldn't allow the destruction of the town. Ares had simply reminded him that, without the town, there would be nothing to rule. Besides, with every battle fought here, more and more villagers left for safer places. Ares knew it was time to end them in this location.
The main throne room was soon approached by the threesome, Fekken, Ares, and Matimus. They had received only a token resistance on their journey through the palace. Most of the servants that they had come across merely bowed and went on their way, seemingly unconcerned about their new ruler. Finally, they paused outside the massive wooden doors to the throne room. Two enemy guards stood on either side of the doors but neither made a move to stop them. In fact, it seemed as though they didn't even see the group. Ares found himself wondering why and Matimus' brow dipped inward in puzzlement. They looked at each other as Fekken strode ahead.
"I've heard this room is spectacular," Matimus said. "It was the talk of Rome for a while when it was built. A Roman architect actually designed it but it is not of a Roman design. Supposedly, it's covered in gold."
"Then I'm looking forward to ruling here," Fekken said as he pulled on the doors to swing them open. "It will fit me immensely."
As they entered the room, they were greeted by tall Corinthian columns made of marble with a golden vine design twined around them and holding a vaulted ceiling at reached skyward for the sun. Light filtered in through the blanket of leaves in the windows at the lower level of the room, casting shadows on the golden walls. The upper windows allowed light to enter uninhibited by anything, diffusing itself to brighten the room even further.
To the front of the room was the throne itself. Huge in size, it could easily accommodate a man much larger than the very young lad with a crown on his head that sat there now. He held a sword longer than he was tall in both hands although the actual weight of it lay against the marbled floor. Ares doubted the child could even lift it. Several men, all richly garbed, stood on either side of him. Advisors no doubt, Ares thought.
Ares watched Fekken stride up to the young king and attempt to take the sword from him. The young king did not attempt to stop him as the warlord placed his hand on the hilt. A scream was wrung from him a moment later and Fekken held his hand out in front of him, not daring to believe what had happened. Blackened skin hung from his fingers, muscle and blood burned away in less than a heartbeat.
Ares approached Fekken who continued to stare silently in disbelief at his hand. "Didn't you learn all that you could about this kingdom before you decided to take it?" Ares chided the warlord. "That sword has been part of the royal family for centuries. My sister, Artemis, had Hephaestus make it for the king and his descendants several centuries ago as a thank you for helping her Amazons. It prevents a total takeover by anyone. Only they, and a god, can handle it without repercussion. Didn't you wonder why all the villagers weren't upset by your presence? Why I didn't want you to destroy the town?"
Ares approached the boy who looked up at him with wide eyes. Still the lad and his advisors said nothing, they only watched and waited to see what the God of War would do. Ares took the sword from the young king and sheathed it in the golden scabbard next to the throne. He turned back to the group and continued his talk. "In order to rule this kingdom, you have to rule the boy. You cannot kill him. If you do, this kingdom disappears forever along with everyone in it. That is the power of the sword. You can only rule indirectly as these men have done." Ares indicated the men on either side of the throne. "They've kept it a real good secret over the past few decades."
Only part of Ares' words reached Fekken's brain. His eyes widened as he realized that he would never be called king in this land. He had sacrificed lives for this land, this title. And it would never be fully his.
Matimus sat down in one of the chairs facing the throne and was silent for several minutes, allowing the news to permeate his mind. Finally, he stood and faced Ares. "Why didn't you tell us that before?"
"I don't have to tell you anything," Ares replied, smirking at Fekken's anger. "If I want to use you for a battle, then I can do so."
"So rule must be done through the lad only," Matimus spoke.
Ares nodded. "Yes. In this case, you're lucky. He's young. You'll be able to teach him to rule your way."
Fekken looked back up from his hand. "You're saying that I can rule here, but only through him."
Ares smiled as he gazed upon the hopefulness in Fekken's face, knowing that he would thoroughly enjoy the next few moments of Fekken's life. "No. I'm saying that Matimus will have to rule through the lad."
Matimus' mouth dropped open. Never had he planned on ruling anything more than a small piece of land that he could call his own.
Fekken became confused by Ares' words, then his anger grew as he realized the import of them. "You never intended for me to rule, did you?" he yelled as he drew his sword with his good hand in an attempt to rush him.
An arc of lightening from Ares sent the sword flying in the other direction, the force of it pushing Fekken to his knees before the God of War. "No. I never did. You aren't fit to rule. Oh, I'm all for enjoying women, collecting the gold, and plundering villagers. But you can't do that to your own people. That was your first mistake, Fekken. Your second was thinking that I would go along with you doing it all over again and again. You do that too many times and there's no one left to rule over. Your third was hurting Marlysa in my temple."
He briefly wondered what the bitch had told Ares then decided that it didn't matter. "But I didn't hurt her. She enjoyed what I was doing to her."
The depths of Ares' eyes grew darker at Fekken's lies. "I know for a fact that she didn't. I also know for a fact that you did hurt her. Her blood was in her milk for the babe by the time you were done."
"It's never bothered you before. You've never given a damn about any peasant woman before." Fekken tried to reason this out. What was this woman to Ares?
"You've never accosted a peasant woman in my temple before. The fact that she was there put her under my protection. That makes it my business. And you will pay for your indiscretions with a session with The Master of The Chamber. It will be a pleasure watching him work on you."
A ball of fire leapt from Ares' palm toward Fekken and he disappeared with a cry as a shaking Matimus watched. The entire room was silent, waiting for what the God of War would do next.
Ares motioned to the guards at the door. "Take the advisors to the dungeons. They are to die tomorrow at dawn. Have their families escorted to the borders of the kingdom. Leave the boy where he's at." The soldiers flanked the advisors on either side.
"Please, my lord, allow us to go with our families," one advisor said as he flung himself to the floor in front of Ares.
Ares looked down disdainfully at the pathetic figure. "You dared to fight me. For that you die. Be grateful that I'm allowing it to be swift. The Master would love additional subjects upon which to practice his art. Take this piece of filth."
A soldier bowed and moved to do his bidding as Ares approached Matimus.
"I know this is more than what you had planned on ever ruling. But you're the right man for the job. I've been watching you train the men and seeing Fekken take credit for it. And I know that you're not interested in war full-time anymore."
Matimus bowed his head at hearing Ares' description of himself. "You are correct, my lord," he said, unable to deny Ares. "I've seen too many campaigns. It's time for me to turn myself to quieter pursuits. All I've longed for is a small spot that I can call mine. A place to raise a family."
"Then raise your family you shall. But you'll do it here, training soldiers for me and keeping them supplied in everything that they need. Also, in exchange for this, I might arrange your marriage for you. But you'll get along fine with the woman that I have in mind and she with you. She does have a child, though. A daughter. A way to truly secure your position in time."
"Marriage of the child to the boy," Matimus said.
"Exactly," Ares agreed, pleased that Matimus saw the connection immediately. "In the meantime, enjoy all the women that you want."
Matimus smiled at the thought. "I shall do so, my lord."
Ares turned and motioned to the young king. "Come here," he ordered not unkindly. The boy silently climbed down from the throne. Matimus realized that he couldn't have seen over seven summers in his lifetime. He stopped a ways from the God of War and looked at him fearfully, sniffling, attempting to hide his tears. Ares smiled, knowing that even doing that took a lot of courage from a child so young.
Matimus knew that now was the time to curry the child's favor so he would forever look to Ares and himself as friends, not enemies. He got up from his chair and knelt before the boy, making level eye contact, taking the boy's small hand in his. "You have nothing to fear from me," he told the child gently. "I won't hurt you. Lord Ares won't hurt you either. Together you and I will rule this kingdom for Lord Ares." The boy looked at him then at Ares, searching for confirmation, something to put his fears at ease.
Ares nodded. "What he says is true. Your father is gone. You are king now. Together, you and Matimus will rule this kingdom. And he's going to need lots of help from you."
"My father is dead?" he asked in a small voice.
"Yes," Matimus replied. "He died a brave king's death, fighting to protect his kingdom."
The boy nodded in as much understanding as a child can then turned around and looked to the back of the room where a woman, also richly dressed, waited. She curtsied low before the men. "I'm King Binard's nurse, my lords," she said.
"We'll talk later, my boy," Matimus said as he gently shoved the lad in her direction. "Get to know one another better. I'll tell you about my life as a Roman soldier and you can tell me about your father and your life here."
Binard ran into the open arms that he knew and his nurse took the young king out of the throne room as the lad's tears finally began to fall.
As Ares left Matimus to begin cleaning up the aftermath of the battle, he thought about what he had seen of his personality, his gentleness toward the child. Yes, he decided, Matimus and Marlysa would do well together. He would be a good father for Arianne.
Yet, he didn't want to do that.
His head said that he should let her go. Let her get on with her life.
But his heart refused to.
It had been several days since she had been to see the baby and time to do so, Aphrodite decided. Also time to see how her big brother was doing in pressing his suit with Marlysa. Perhaps he was ready to break the spell. He hadn't been last time she had talked with him. She just hoped it wouldn't break him.
The evening air was warm yet humid with the rain that had just fallen when she alighted on the courtyard path. Several visitors looked up in surprise, priests drew their swords then relaxed when they saw who it was. Aphrodite glanced around at all of them in disgust. "Always so suspicious," she muttered under her breath then walked to Marlysa's cottage.
Ares was sitting on the porch, his long legs stretched out so that his heels rested high on a porch post when Aphrodite approached. "Hey, sister!" he greeted her cheerfully. Arianne lay in her cradle beside him sleeping peacefully.
Well, this wasn't like him. Usually he growled at everyone. "Hi, bro!" She leaned over and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Quit the mushy stuff!" he ordered. She smiled. Now that was the Ares she knew.
She pushed his long legs out of the way, summoned one of her lounge chairs and placed it next to the cradle. She glanced in to see a sleeping Arianne. "Don't you dare disturb her!" Ares ordered. "It took me quite a while to get her to sleep."
"Oh, I won't." She glanced around at the cottage as Ares fell into his usual silent self. He tolerated her as long she didn't talk too much, which was difficult for her, because she did love to talk.
"So, how's it going between you two?" she finally asked when the silence became too much.
"Oh, not bad." He grinned, remembering how responsive in bed Marlysa had been the night before. "In fact, it's going very well."
Aphrodite's face brightened. "Then you're ready to break the spell?"
His face fell at the reminder along with Aphrodite's heart. "I've thought long and hard about that conversation we had before Fekken's battle. I've found that I don't want to break it," he said softly, looking out over the flowers and fountain. "I like things the way they are. I've got my battles to keep me occupied during the day and I've got Marlysa and Arianne to come home to each evening. I spend my nights deep inside her, knowing that there may not be a tomorrow with her. I wish there were. I want to settle down with her. I want to have little gods and goddesses with her." Pain entered his voice. "But I know I can't."
He turned toward her, trying for a gaiety that he didn't feel. "For once in my life, I'm happy. I can honestly see what you've been going on about with all your talk of love." He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you. Even if things don't work out the way I've planned with Matimus and I have to return her to her village, at least I'll have had this. And Hera can't take that away from me."
"But are you ready to tell her you love her?"
Ares thought hard for a moment, looking out on his domain to avoid the inquisitive eyes of his beautiful sister. "No, I'm not ready to. I may never be ready to." "Gonna have to do it at some point. Time's running out, big brother. Horsey-face is gonna catch on soon."
"I know," he answered quietly, almost whispering. "I know."
Marlysa paused just inside the door and out of their sight, feeling sick to her stomach.
The past couple of months of happiness had been all due to a spell. And Ares was planning to give her to another man. And just who was this 'horsey-face' and what did they have to do with her and Ares?
She wrapped her arms around herself feeling used. Yet her heart didn't want to acknowledge what she had just heard.
She turned back into the room, away from their conversation, hurting inside. Tears came to her eyes and she quickly wiped them away on the hem of her apron. It wouldn't do for him to see her like this. But, gods, it was so hard. She thought what they had was real. That he really wanted her the way she wanted him.
But it was a lie.
A dirty lie.
How could he?
How could he simply sit there, day in and day out, pretending that he cared about her and Arianne? He was simply using her.
And she felt that use to the bottom of her soul.
She thought back to a conversation they'd had ages ago. Back to the first day that she and Arianne had been allowed out of the temple following Arianne's birth. Ares had said that there would be a steep price to pay and she had said that she would gladly pay it. Perhaps that what she had been doing. If so, she would continue to pay that price. For as long as he wanted her to pay.
She grasped her emotions by the throat and throttled them into submission as she walked out the door.
Yes, her heart was breaking. But she still wanted him. Still wanted to touch him, to feel him close to her, to see him when he came home safe and unharmed, elated with victory over his enemies. Still wanted to see him cuddling little Arianne.
The image struck her as a contradiction in terms. He was the God of War, ruthless and merciless toward his enemies, a lion to behold in battle, yet gentle as a lamb toward herself and Arianne.
She found herself wondering when the lion would get hungry enough to eat the lamb.
Hera listened closely to her son's boastful words, ...Hera can't take that away from me.
Can't I, my son? she thought. Enjoy yourself now. The deeper and harder you fall, the more you'll remember the lesson. The more you won't want to remember. Oh, I'll take it alright. I'll make it too painful for you to remember. Hades isn't going to stop me.
She turned her attention to Marlysa. Go ahead. Lead him on. You'll pay dearly for getting involved with my son. He's mine and mine alone.
It had been a long but wonderful walk, Marlysa decided as she approached Altimius' home on the outskirts of her village late one morning. Arianne had slept while the birds sang around her and the sun shone down brightly upon them. Small amounts of dust was kicked up by a horse and cart that passed by her, leaving dust on them but she paid it no mind. It was a beautiful day and she was going to enjoy it. Yet her heart was heavy with the weight of the knowledge that she had gained from accidental eavesdropping on Aphrodite and Ares.
She knocked on the door that led to his cottage. When she received no answer, she opened it and went inside. No one was there but the bed was made and stew sat simmering in a pot on the fire. She put Arianne's basket down on the floor next to the table then stirred the stew.
Leaving Arianne in the house, she went into the shed that served as a barn for Altimius' cow and his donkey. The odor of manure wouldn't have been pleasing to Aphrodite, but it smelled wonderful to Marlysa. Home, she decided. That's what it reminded her of. Could be one reason why she liked the location of her cottage at Ares' temple. She heard the neigh of the horses and the sights, sounds, and smells associated with them. And it comforted her.
But right now what she needed most was to talk with her stepfather. She found him sitting on a small stool, a well-kicked wooden bucket under the cow's udder.
"Hello, daughter," Altimius greeted her without looking up from what he was doing. The cow moved slightly and he gently rubbed her flank to comfort her.
"Hi, Daddy," she answered quietly.
"Something's on your mind." How he always knew that, Marlysa wasn't sure.
"Yes. Something is."
He continued to stream the warm milk into the bucket.
Marlysa sighed and found herself hanging on to the stall post for support, almost reluctant to start; not knowing where to start. But she did know that she didn't want to mention the "payment" that he had intended to exact from her. It would solve nothing. No, she had to work out where she stood with him before she could decide whether this was the payment he was talking about or not. But she had to sort her own heart out first.
"Well?" he said impatiently.
She half-smiled. "I don't know where to begin."
"How about the beginning? It's always worked for me."
"A few days ago I had made dinner for Ares and myself. While I was cleaning up the dishes, he took Arianne out to the porch. Aphrodite stopped by and I overheard them talking. They were talking about how well a love spell was working." She choked on the words as tears formed in her eyes. "I didn't know what to do or say. So I pretended that I never heard a word."
"But it's bothered you ever since?" Altimius had stopped to give her his full attention.
"Yes," she answered softly, half-sobbing, looking at the ground. "I'm grateful to him for saving us. I really am. But now I wonder where things really stand between us."
"Did they say that the spell was on you?"
She stood quietly, trying to remember all the wording of the conversation. "No," she finally said. "No, they didn't."
"Then how do you know they were talking about you? Gods are responsible to and for many mortals."
She wished Altimius' words could be true. Yet she knew it was her they were talking about. After all, Ares had mentioned that he liked things the way they were. That he liked coming home to her and Arianne. That he wanted to have children with her but he always faltered on truly talking about it. This she told Altimius who simply took the information in and considered it. She also mentioned that he had said that there might not be a tomorrow with her.
Altimius frowned at this news. Could he have been speaking of some unknown danger to her? Or was he simply toying with her?
Ares was a hard god to figure out sometimes. If there was danger, Altimius knew Ares would protect her and Arianne. He had given his word. For now, Altimius had to make sure that Marlysa stayed with him. Ares would be able to protect her better at the temple than here.
As her stepfather, though, he intended to have a talk with the God of War. And the sooner, the better.
Altimius stood up and faced his daughter. "Do you trust him?"
Marlysa suddenly stared into his craggy face in understanding. "Yes," she said slowly. "Yes, I do. He's only done what he thought was best for Arianne and I. To protect us."
Altimius nodded, ignoring the cow's insistence mooing that he get back to his job. "Trust is a major part of love. Zenar and I trusted each other very much. Without trust, there can be no true love." His voice broke and his old eyes grew misty as he spoke of his dead wife. "For thirty years I loved her. Trusted her. Never once, in all those years, in good times and bad, did she betray that trust.
"Love is hard to find, young lady. I believe that what you and Lord Ares have is real. I don't believe he gives it, or gives in to it, easily. He's much too hard inside for that. One simple spell isn't going to do that, love goddess or not." He turned back to the cow, sat down on his stool, and gently pumped away at the udder. "I don't know what this spell is so I'm not quite sure what to tell you. The best advice I can give you is to talk to Lord Ares about what you heard. It's what lovers do."
She said nothing, considering his words.
"One question, child. Do you love him?"
She looked up at her stepfather, startled. Did she love him?
Yes, her heart sang.
"So, you do," Altimius answered for her, noting her reaction. "But other question would be, does he love you?"
She sighed but had no answer to give him.
Now where was he, Hera asked herself as she wandered in and out amongst the inhabitants of Tartarus. She had thought about sending a messenger to get him, but decided against it. Lately, they hadn't been too reliable and with Hades as adamant as he was about Tarmenous not leaving, she didn't want to leave anything to chance. Besides, she enjoyed the punishments that many were receiving for their immoral lives.
She passed by a group of chained men, each being tickled by a feather. Not one of them looked anything like him. Some of them probably didn't look anything like they had been in mortal life either, she reasoned. Gruesome caricatures of men and women applied themselves to never ending tasks like the man who was constantly pushing a very large boulder up a hill only to have it run down again. Another man constantly reached for a bright red, shiny apple to eat that was just out of his reach. Still another moved a mountain of sand, grain by grain, from one location to another. These were the tasks that Hades had given to them for eternity in retribution for their crimes.
Red and blue mists surrounded each individual, wrapping them in a blanket of pain as they went about their jobs. She looked at each shrunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked male prisoner, but none of them were the person she was looking for. No, not just anyone would do. It had to be Tarmenous. Oh, revenge would be sweet for both of them. She could see her stiff-necked son bending it to her will as he was supposed to do. She could imagine the gratitude that Tarmenous would have for allowing him the chance to achieve retribution on the woman who had him sent here to this hideous prison.
Hera finally found Tarmenous at the far end of one of the caverns, his tied-down, spread-eagled, naked body wracked in pain from the neverending blows it received from a stout club. Blood from broken limbs, ribs, feet, and head would gush from the wounds only to have the damage repair itself to be broken again. His screams from the pain each time the club hit him echoed in the cavern. Hera stopped to gaze while he become a misshapen pool of blood and broken bones, his voice dying in whispers. She watched in joyful fascination as his body slurped up the blood and put it back into his mending veins, his bones meld together, and the skin sealed itself up as though nothing had happened. He pulled hard on his bonds and his voice climbed in pitch as the club began to batter his legs, hands, and arms first. His former life's sustenance spurted out of ruptured arteries as the club raised and lowered itself in increasing strength as it shifted to his torso. Hera smiled. She thought she was good at this torture routine. Hades had her beat. Too bad he didn't take enjoyment in it like she did.
Still, it wouldn't do to make an enemy of this mortal before he could assist her in her plans. Oh, she could use one of her creatures, but it would be much more enjoyable to see the bitch get hers from the man she thought was dead.
Hera was a patient person. She knew that Ares had been watching over the child, Marlysa, all these years. She knew that he had prevented her death when Celesta had attempted to take her. After all, she was the one who had planted that phony idea of the child being a demon in this man's mind and then having him spread it throughout the village. Damn Altimius anyway for his interference. She would have to deal with him soon. After she had finished her lesson with her son.
Hera raised a single finger toward Tarmenous and the chains snapped. His screams of pain became moans of relief as his body put itself back together again. He took several deep breaths, wondering when the club was going to fall. When it didn't and he realized he was free, he put his arms down at his sides and sat up in bewilderment.
Hera smiled at his confusion, knowing what he was anticipating. "It's not going to hit you. I've taken care of it."
He looked around and found the club lying still on the ground. His grin was one of relief then he thought more about it. "Who are you and why did you release me?"
"I'm Hera, Queen of the Gods, and I think you're going to like the why," she said as she sat down on a rock. "I have a proposition for you. If you accept it, you will leave here. If you refuse it, I'll return you to your former misery."
Tarmenous took in her jade green eyes and dark red hair, the peacock feathers that formed a ruffle around the back of her neck. He knew of the vanity and cruelty she possessed in everything she did. Everyone knew of them.
"Do I get to know what it is first?" he asked slowly, not sure if he wanted to anger her.
She merely smiled at his caution. "We don't have time to waste here, but I will say that it will give you a chance to - even the score with Ares and Marlysa, shall we say?"
He started at this news. Here she was, mother to Ares, and she was talking revenge against her own son, the God of War. Well, it appeared that even the gods of Olympus had their troubles. "All right," he said slowly, "I'll go along with it as long as I don't have to face Ares."
Hera's smile widened. "I guarantee that you will deal only with Marlysa."
He grinned and laughed. "It's sounding better all the time. Let's go."
Marlysa thought hard on Altimius' words as she slowly walked the long, dusty road between the temple and her village. She knew she would have to hurry if she were to make it back before nightfall thereby keeping her promise to Ares, but she really didn't feel like it.
It had been a good visit. An enlightening visit. Marlysa and Altimius had continued to talk about love during the midday meal and now she found herself comparing her long-dead husband and Ares. Oh, they were alike in many ways. Both were handsome, well-muscled. Her husband had a tendency to treat her as though she would break. Ares was much rougher with her, but had never abused her in any manner. It was a gentle roughness between them. Often he would simply pick her up, throw her on the bed, tear her dress off of her, and thrust into her. But it was never painful. He made sure of that. Yet his zeal for sex was almost overwhelming to her sometimes, especially after a battle.
Other times, he was extremely gentle with her. Very late dusk often found them in the courtyard on the swing, neither of them saying anything, neither needing to, simply enjoying the other's company. It was a time that was almost magical. When their problems and the world melted away and only the three of them remained, looking at the stars twinkling above.
She found herself looking forward to seeing him as she did every night since he took up semi-permanent residence with her in the cottage. He talked about putting up a better home where the cottage currently stood but always faltered in his words on it. Something bothered him. That she knew. But never could she get him to talk about it. He always changed the subject. The last time she had approached it, trying to see if there was some way she could help, his frustration with whatever it was caused him to snap at her then he disappeared. It was a few days later that he finally reappeared and apologized for his actions. She made a vow at the same time never to approach the subject again.
But did he love her?
He had never said as much. But then, perhaps he was one of those men that never did say one way or the other. Rarely had her husband said the words. He showed her his love through his deeds instead. The house that he had built. The flower seeds that he had spent precious money on when they had so little of it. Often he had despaired that he could not provide for her in the manner that he had wished. She knew better than that. Perhaps their financial outlook wasn't what they would have liked, but he had treated her like a queen.
And now- now her future lay elsewhere. She didn't know if it lay with Ares or not. If not, she would always hold these precious days close to her heart.
Perhaps it was time to find out where she stood with him, she decided as she took a crying Arianne out of her basket alongside the road.
The first light that whooshed by her Celesta recognized as belonging to a god or goddess. Which god or goddess she couldn't say since it went so fast. The second light was a strange one, one she didn't recognize.
Celesta paused in her never ending travels. A family, caught in a burning house, waited for her below. She knew she should go directly there, but that second light peaked her curiosity. Who was that? Someone who was just made a god or goddess and probably shouldn't've been? Or was someone up to no good?
She remembered Hades being extremely upset by Hera's interference not that long ago. She had stopped in for a moment after the Queen of the Gods had left and he had poured out the entire story to her. He hadn't mentioned anyone else trying to free someone. Still, Ares would do it without even talking to Hades if he could. And there were others that would as well. It was no wonder that her brother hated his job.
Celesta decided that the family could wait a moment more, the fire would kill them of smoke inhalation first. They would know no pain. She had to find out who they were.
Silently, she followed them to Hera's quarters on Mount Olympus. There, she hung back in the shadows as only she could, using her powers of invisibility to mask her presence.
Celesta almost gasped out loud as the balls of light bounced for a moment then became the forms of Hera and Tarmenous. What Hades had feared would come to pass did. Quickly Celesta left Mount Olympus, knowing that she had to inform her brother of Hera's interference. But there were those three souls still in the burning house to get and many more souls to take before this day would be over.
She decided to get the souls first and then have Charon pass a message on to her brother. He had to stop Hera before she could act on whatever devious plan she had this time.
The timing was perfect, Hera decided as she looked into the still waters of the bath. Her target sat along side the road feeding her child between Ares' temple and her village. "Now, my dear son, you shall get your much needed lesson," she said aloud to herself. Tarmenous stood next to her, watching Marlysa and Arianne.
"It'll be a pleasure to get rid of her." He smacked a fist into his other hand. "Painful and slowly. Just like my cheating wife."
Hera watched him with growing amusement. Soon - soon her son would remember his lessons learned at her side. Again he would become someone to be feared and hated. His greatness would rise.
And so would her powers.
But, to keep Ares in control, she must insure that the lesson was truly learned. To do that, the girl must never walk the earth again. She walked over to a small cabinet filled with vials containing various liquids and powders. She moved several out of the way, searching for a particular one. "Ah!" she said as she closed her hands over it.
Hera touched the club that he had brought with him from Tartarus with the yellow liquid, spreading it over the bulbous end. "This will ensure that no one, including my son, will be able to resurrect her." She corked the bottle then put the deadly container back on the shelf.
Tarmenous looked the club over curiously. "Make sure that you do not touch it or you will forever be condemned to Tartarus. This is your only warning."
He nodded gravely with understanding. "I will make sure that I don't touch it."
"Begone with you then!" Tarmenous disappeared in a sparkle of silver dust.
Then, laughing to herself, she sent for her son.
Charon approached Hades very gingerly. The God of the Underworld hadn't been in the best of moods lately. Not since Hera had made an appearance.
"Only the messenger boy," Charon mumbled to himself. "Wish Celesta would've found someone else to deliver this message. If he takes it out on me..."
Charon paused in the light, reddish gloom of the fires and stared at the back of Hades as he continued to sit in judgement on those entering his domain. A man groveled in front of him pleading for mercy, trying to explain why Hades should show mercy to him. Thank goodness he couldn't pass judgement on those who only did right their entire lives, Charon thought. These past few days Hades had been particularly harsh on those whose lives were borderline cases. Used to be that if someone had truly caused no one harm they were allowed to enter the Elysian Fields. Now he was sending them to Tartarus for a while.
Hades felt Charon's eyes behind him, studying him as he wrote the name of the person in front of him on the scroll. "Something you wanted?" he asked, continuing to write. He waved the person in front of him away, ignoring the man's pleas for mercy.
"Ah...ah....yeah," Charon finally said then reverted to mumbling for a moment. "Only the messenger boy..."
Hades waited impatiently knowing that if he attempted to hurry Charon, he'd only get a diatribe on his treatment from everyone in general.
"Celesta said to tell you that Tarmenous is with Hera," Charon blurted out then ducked to avoid the outburst that he knew would follow the announcement.
Hades stared at the cringing Charon for a moment in disbelief then threw the quill down at the floor. "Damn her!" he yelled at no one in particular. "I told her not to!" He got up from his bench and strode into his quarters, followed by Charon. "How long ago did Celesta tell you this?"
"Well, let's see...there was the three people to bring over that she brought...the time to drop them off at the Elysian Fields..."
"Charon!" Hades yelled in frustration as his monitor to the world outside his domain came on.
"A couple of hours ago!" Charon finished then headed out the door as fast as his black robes and arthritis would allow, leaving a fuming Hades behind.
***The grass was green and soft under the tree that she chose to sit beneath. She spread a small, tightly woven blanket of Arianne's out then sat down beside her child. A breeze pushed a small butterfly past her, trying as it might to valiantly fight against the wind in an effort to gain ground.
So much like me, she thought to herself. The more I try to push against what I'm feeling, the more ground I lose. I have no more control over it than this butterfly does the wind. She watched the tiny creature give up and allow the wind to take it where it might. Perhaps I would do well to go with the breeze and not confront him. If he has decided that I need another husband, so be it.
It was a difficult decision she had made. She picked up Arianne and wiped the tiny tears that she had cried away with a small cloth that she kept in the basket. So small, she decided as she traced the trail the tears had left. Arianne caught a finger with her hand and Marlysa let the child wave it around.
Hades watched Marlysa as she played with the baby. It all seemed peaceful with her. He glanced further around the area and saw nothing unusual. With a sigh and a wave of his hand, he intruded in Hera's quarters and found that all seemed quiet there. In fact, he saw Hera at her writing desk and, for once, she seemed to be minding her own business. Not a trace of Tarmenous was to be seen. Yet, Celesta's message had said that she had seen Tarmenous and Hera together.
It was perplexing to him. Celesta never lied. But still he felt uneasy. Unless...
He returned to Marlysa. She still sat on the ground but now she was feeding Arianne. He felt like an intruder for an instance, then shrugged it off. Her safety was far more important than her privacy. He widened the screen to include more of the background, hoping that he would be wrong. He changed the angle, trying to scrutinize every part of the area, trying to locate Tarmenous before he got to Marlysa.
Hades almost passed up the shadows laying on the ground through the bushes behind Marlysa. The shape said a human arm and a club. As he gasped, the club raised then lowered hard against Marlysa's head. As Hades vanished, hoping against hope that he would be in time, the club continued to batter Marlysa's body. Beneath her Arianne began to scream.
"What in Tartarus does she want?" Ares asked Darius, trepidation in his voice.
Darius simply shrugged his broad shoulders. "I really have no idea, sire. All I know is that she sent a summons."
Ares felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and every point of warning that he had ever known clanged in his body and mind.
Somehow the bitch knew.
"Gone to her village to visit Altimius."
Ares' heart went into his mouth as he realized that he'd been played for a fool by his mother.
The sound of malicious laughter almost over powered the screams of Arianne's fright as Hades materialized just behind Tarmenous. His strong hands grasped the forearm that bore the club downward before it continue another stroke.
"Back to Tartarus with you!" A spherical ball of light developed in the midsection of Tarmenous' body and quickly enveloped him. He dropped the club in an attempt to fight it, but was unsuccessful as he disappeared with a scream of his own.
Only the sound of Arianne's voice filled with terror at her quiet little world being torn apart remained as Hades turned his attention to Marlysa.
Her body lay crumpled before him over Arianne's, shielding her child even as she lay dying. He quickly he extracted the child from beneath her mother and returned her to her basket. He set it behind him then turned his attention to the woman. "Damn Hera!" he muttered as he took note of her injuries. A broken arm, split ribs puncturing her lung, blood coming from her ears and mouth, her shallow breathing, all of it indicated that she was in a bad way. Blood littered the area where she lay. Still, he reasoned, Ares should be able to set her to rights. He hadn't arrived that late.
Then he saw the yellow streak on the club that Tarmenous had dropped. His heart went up in his mouth as he picked it up to confirm his suspicions. Yes, it was there. Hera had seen to it that her son would pay dearly for the little bit of happiness he'd had. Damn her again. Damn her for time and all eternity.
With a heavy heart, hating to part her from Ares, Hades reached deep within Marlysa, pulling her soul from her body. She resisted at first, but finally, reluctantly, her shadow stood before him.
Her first thought went to her child. "Arianne!" Her shadow tried to lift her baby from her basket, but her hands passed right through her. Agitation and fear crossed her face as she attempted again and again to lift her child and soothe her. She looked up at Hades, finally recognizing who he was, what was going on. Death had come for her. It would take from her all that she wanted.
"No!" she said softly. "I won't! I won't leave Arianne! I won't leave Ares! I love him!"
He bent down beside her and took her arm as she attempted to grasp her child's basket again and again. "I know you do but there is no choice. But, if you desire, you will be with them for all eternity."
She pushed against him, connecting with something solid this time, but his own body would not yield to her. He pulled her to her feet and waved his hand before she could argue with him. "To the Elysian Fields with you."
"No!" she screamed as she began to slowly dissipate.
Hades turned in time to see Ares' arrival. As Ares moved to get around him, Hades stepped in front of the God of War. Ares tried to push him out of the way in his haste to reach Marlysa, but Hades pushed back.
"You can't! Hera has made it impossible." Hades indicated the club streaked with yellow. Ares barely paid him any attention.
"Get out of my way!" Ares ordered as he reached for his sword.
"Ares!" Even though she was fading fast, Marlysa tried to reach him through Hades, but he remained a black wall between them.
"I'm warning you, Hades," Ares growled, raising his sword. "Get out of my way!!"
Hades let loose a volley of power, staggering the God of War backward, hating the fact that he had to do it. By the time the spheres dispersed, Marlysa and Hades were gone, leaving behind a broken body, a child crying for her mother and an angry, grieving God of War.
High up on Mount Olympus, deep within the silence of her rooms, Hera laughed in delight.
Although he had been traveling for several hours in search of Xena and Gabrielle, Joxer could still barely believe his luck. In his hands he held a scroll meant only for them, straight from the hands of The God of War himself. He was not to give it to anybody else and he was not to read it either. Ares' orders. But it didn't matter to him because finally, after all these pain-filled years and the sacrifices he, Joxer, had made to him, The God of War was going to help him become a warrior if he would simply deliver this to Xena and Gabrielle. A dream was going to come true.
It was a good thing that he hadn't heard Ares and Darius talking about him after he left. Both had agreed that he would never be the warrior that his father had wanted him to be. It was Darius who suggested that the time be used to teach him that being a warrior just wasn't in his future. Ares had agreed, but how to do it? Darius suggested that he be dropped in the middle of a town ravaged by a warlord and let Joxer put it back together again. The answer didn't feel satisfactory to them, but neither could come up with a better one. Maybe they'd get lucky and time would present a solution to them.
Joxer finally found was he had been looking for in the last little village that he came to. Xena and Gabrielle had been through there earlier that day. With a little luck, he just might catch up with them before nightfall.
It was late in the day when Argo announced Joxer's presence to the duo moments before he strode into their camp. Xena was hard at work repairing the horse's bridle while Gabrielle fried fish and baked flatbread on a hot stone. It smelled enticing to Joxer who wondered again for the umpteenth time what it would be like to come home to her after a hard day's work and have her want him as much as he wanted her.
"Hi, Xena. Hi, Gabrielle," he greeted them.
"Joxer," Xena said in return before cutting the thread with her teeth. Gabrielle pointedly ignored him.
"That does smell good," he hedged, trying to get any kind of response out of Gabrielle. She ignored him. "I've got some fresh fruit to go with that."
"Sounds good," Xena answered. "It's been a while since I've had any." She rose to put the bridle next to her saddle.
"Good thing Xena caught more than we'll eat. Get your plate out," Gabrielle finally grumbled at him. She picked up the two tin plates next to her and dished the fish out, adding a third of the bread to it. Joxer put his pack down and dug deep, retrieving his plate, the fruit he had promised, and Ares' scroll. He presented the plate and fruit to Gabrielle who gave him a portion of their meal in return and divided the fruit evenly between them.
They ate their meal in silence, listening to the sounds of the forest around them. "That was very good, Gabrielle," Joxer said as he smacked his lips. "You'll have to teach me your way of cooking it sometime."
"Sure, Joxer," Gabrielle agreed, wishing he would depart for parts unknown and never return. She gathered up the dishes and headed down to the edge of the stream to clean them.
Joxer picked up the scroll next to him and handed it to Xena.
"What's this?" Xena asked as she turned the scroll over in her hands.
"It's from Ares," Joxer said proudly. "He asked me to give that to you and he promised to help me become a warrior if I did."
Xena raised an eyebrow. She knew that Ares didn't think Joxer could really be much of a warrior. She thought he'd make only a marginally competent one and then only with a lot of training. This scroll must really contain something he wanted very badly to promise Joxer that.
She opened it carefully, then began to
read silently to herself while Joxer practically jumped and down wondering
what it had to say.
To Xena and Gabrielle,
I know we've had our differences in the past, but I'm asking for your help. A baby's life hangs in the balance. I'm not trying to manipulate or deceive you. I truly need this favor. I'll owe you one. Come to the main temple in Athens.
"Gabrielle!" Xena yelled to be heard above the rushing water.
Gabrielle gathered the dishes quickly at the urgency in her voice and almost ran back to camp. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing yet," Xena said as she handed the scroll to her. "Read that."
Gabrielle smiled a moment later. "What's he trying to pull?"
"I don't think he's trying to pull anything."
Joxer looked at Xena then at Gabrielle. "Trying to pull what? What are you two talking about?" He felt miffed at being left out. The women ignored him for the moment.
Gabrielle handed him the scroll as she sat down, leaving the dishes to dry near the fire. "Then what do you think it is?"
Xena thought for a moment before answering. "Remember when we came into that town where the Festival of Earthly Delights was taking place?"
"Yeah. What about it?"
"Do you remember the conversation we had with Aphrodite and Autolycus at the supper table at the inn?"
Memories of that talk came flooding back to her. "I didn't take it seriously. Somehow, I just can't see Ares ever caring about anyone."
Xena smiled at her friend's lack of knowledge concerning her former boss. "He does care. In his own, twisted way, he does care. I think we should find out what he wants."
Joxer looked back and forth at them, feeling like a ball caught between the two as the conversation bounced over and around him, but not at him. "What are you talking about?"
Xena glanced his way then answered as briefly as she could. "Rumor has it that Ares has taken a wife and had a child with her."
Joxer smiled, knowing that he had one up on her for once in his life. "He did. She's dead now. The wife that is. I saw her body at the temple when Ares gave me the scroll and wanted me to find you. She was all battered and bloody. Only way to tell it had been a woman was by the dress. He also had a baby in a basket next to him."
Gabrielle stared hard at Joxer in disbelief as Xena took his words in without conveying her own emotions. "Who would want to be wife to the God of War?" She shivered slightly at the thought. "Not me."
"Or me," Xena agreed. "But he's not totally heartless."
Silence ensued for a moment while the trio contemplated their next move.
"So, what are we going to do?" Joxer asked.
"Gabrielle and I are going to bed shortly," Xena replied. "In the morning, she and I are going to start for Ares temple, alone."
Joxer nodded his understanding. Sometimes he was allowed to go along, other times he got told to get lost. This was one of the latter times and he knew that Xena didn't mean it personally. There just wasn't anything he could do to help. Still, he had done his duty and delivered the message. Now, he would get his reward from the God of War and finally, truly become Joxer the Mighty. His heart beat fast at the thought.
Gabrielle put the dishes away and pulled her pan pipes out of the sack. The threesome sat around the fire, listening to her play.
The stars had risen in the sky a while later, twinkling their pristine brilliance against the velvet background. The fire had died down to embers and Xena and Gabrielle prepared for bed. Joxer had retired a short time earlier and was already snoring on the other side of the fire. Gabrielle glanced his way and grimaced at the noise he made.
Gabrielle pulled out her hairbrush and began stroking it while Xena removed her armor and made sure her weapons were close at hand.
"Xena," Gabrielle said as she paused in mid-stroke, "if Ares did lose a wife, how do you think he's coping with the grief of it? Do you think he's grieving at all, like we do? And what do you think he wants with us?"
Xena closed her eyes and was silent for a moment, remembering her own grief at losing people that she loved before answering Gabrielle's question. "I think he'll grieve in his own way. I just hope he doesn't decide that an all-out war is the way to handle it." She punched up her sack slightly to create a softer pillow. "As to what he wants, I really couldn't say. That message was not like him."
"Could someone else have written it?"
"If Joxer hadn't stated that Ares had handed it to him, then I'd say, yes, that was a possibility. But you know as well as I that Joxer is not a good liar."
Gabrielle laughed. "That's a fact." She put her brush back into her sack. As she prepared her bed to her liking, a flash of silver illuminated the area. Immediately, Xena was on her feet, chakram in hand.
"Whoa, hold it!" came the dulcet tones of Aphrodite. Xena relaxed her stance as she realized who their invader was. "I just need to talk to you. Please! I can't take any more fighting."
Gabrielle's mouth about dropped open as she surveyed the usually fastidious Aphrodite. Her always clean, every-hair-in-place doo looked as though it hadn't been cared for in weeks. Her clothes were torn, spots of red and brown were splattered all over her pink chiffon lingerie. Dirt was encrusted around her elbows and knees, and streaked around her face. "I know," she said softly, "I look a sight."
Xena put the weapons back in their place. "So talk," she said rather harshly. She did not appreciate the midnight visit.
Aphrodite hesitated a second, not sure where to begin. "I need your help," she finally said.
Xena smiled wryly. "So does everyone else," she said.
Aphrodite just looked at her quizzically then dismissed Xena's vague words. "My problem is Ares. Remember when we were at the inn and Autolycus was talking about the rumors about Ares' taking a wife?"
Now Gabrielle smiled. Aphrodite looked at her then Xena quizzically. "Is there something funny about what I just said?"
Xena spoke. "We just received a summons from him stating that he needed our help."
Aphrodite let out a sigh and her shoulders slumped from weariness. "Thank you, Daddy," she said softly as she sat down on Gabrielle's bed.
A swift flicker of concern past Xena's face then was gone. "Why don't you tell us what's going on."
Aphrodite's mouth dropped open in surprise. "You haven't seen it? Felt it?"
"Felt what?" Gabrielle asked.
"The fighting going on around us," Xena supplied. "I've been hearing things about fights breaking out in various places and then they end up hugging each other. It doesn't seem to last too long, though. They go right back to fighting."
"Tell me about it. I've been working my fingers to the bone," Aphrodite groused as she looked at her hands. Her face scrunched up in tired dismay. "Oh!!! I've broken another nail!!" she wailed. Xena ignored her comment. "Aphrodite?" she prompted.
Aphrodite reluctantly ignored her nails in favor of Xena's help. "Where was I?" she mused for a second. "Oh, yes. Marlysa. Well, I had a hand in starting all this. But I didn't mean to put him in a bad position. I just wanted him to be happy." Quickly she told the tale of her brother and Marlysa, leaving out his connection to Hera per her promise to him. "...and now that she's dead, he doesn't even pay any attention to his duties. Fights are breaking out everywhere in hot spots. Without him to help people control their anger, my love just can't seem to do its' job. Hate and anger are too strong," she concluded. "Please, help me get him back on the job. I can't keep this up. I mean, look at me. I'm a wreck. My hair is dirty and I haven't had a bath in ages. This is no way for the Goddess of Love to be seen." She broke into tears and blew her nose on a handkerchief that appeared out of nowhere.
"I've gotten him back on the job once. I suppose I can do it again," Xena said, sighing. Next to her, Joxer snorted then turned over, resting in Morpheus' arms, oblivious to the conversation taking place.
"Oh, Xena, I could hug you!" Aphrodite exclaimed. One dour look from Xena caused the goddess to back up a step instead of going toward the other woman. "On the other hand, maybe it would be better to offer to help you sometime if you need me."
"I'll keep it in mind. In the meantime, take the rest of the night off and get some rest."
Aphrodite nodded, smiled and disappeared as quickly as she had come. Xena sat down on her bed beside Gabrielle.
"How are we going to Ares back to work?" Gabrielle asked as she settled in under her blanket.
"Simple," Xena replied. "He wants a favor. I'm going to ask for one in return."
Gabrielle smiled. The answer really was simple. "I'm good with that."
Now Xena smiled at her friend's response. "Go to sleep," she admonished. "We have a long journey ahead of us."
With Argo between them, Xena and Gabrielle approached the main temple of The God of War. Used to seeing something more dark and foreboding, Gabrielle was surprised to find this one matched the lighter tones of the other temples in the surrounding countryside. Trees hemmed in the open area surrounding it.
"Why is this one much brighter than any of his others?" she asked Xena as she tied Argo's reins to the hitching post at the front of the temple.
"Zeus commanded all of the gods and goddesses to have at least one temple that would be open and inviting to everyone. He told them that they were to build here."
"So Ares didn't have a choice."
"Not in this one. Unless you're involved with war, you can't get into the others." Xena's quick eye and hearing took in the lack of movement and sound around the temple. Although the other gods' temples were close to each other, Ares had chosen to build his a bit away from the rest. Knowing of his reluctance to let others get close to him in any manner, his decision had not been protested by anyone.
Quickly and quietly, they walked past the temple guard, Xena nodding to them as they passed. Although the surroundings were bright when they entered, a sense of darkness and foreboding filled the air and Gabrielle shivered slightly, but it was not enough to overcome her sense of curiosity as she viewed the pictograms on the walls.
"Are these what I think they are?"
"Yes," came the sound of a new, male voice. "They show Ares in some of his greatest battles."
"Darius," Xena said delightedly. "How have you been?"
He smiled at her with a warmth that comes only from knowing a person well. "I've been doing fine, Xena. I thank you for coming." He turned his attention to her companion as they walked into the main temple room. "You must be Gabrielle. I've heard a lot about you."
"I'll bet you have," she said smiling.
Darius laughed, knowing what she meant. "Oh, yes, some of that, too, but I've also heard him express his respect for you."
She thought about what he said and decided that it was better not to inquire further.
Xena paused for a moment, causing Darius to look back at her and wonder what was going through her mind. "Darius, did Ares take a wife and is the child his?"
He sighed, wondering how much he should tell her. "Legally, she was never married to him and the child is not his by blood. In every other respect, yes."
Xena nodded and said no more as they resumed walking.
The group stopped short at the door as a blinding flash of light at the front of the room caught their attention. His back to them, Hades faced his brooding nephew who was lounging across the armrests of his throne. A darker look toward anyone Ares had never given, Xena thought as she observed the argument that ensued. The trio couldn't hear them at first, but there was no mistaking the fact that Ares ordered him to leave. When Hades didn't obey, Ares exploded off the chair, fire from the palms of his hands striking Hades in the center of his torso. Hades staggered back for a moment and went down on his posterior, stunned by the venom and power of Ares' hatred for him. Hades caught sight of Xena starting to rush forward and he shook his head, warning her away from him. Xena stopped short as he rose unsteadily to his feet.
He spoke loud enough for all to hear his next words. "Ares, you know that if I could return Marlysa to you, I would do it. You can strike me all you want, but it's not going to change the facts. Marlysa wants you back as much as you want her back but your mother made that impossible." Ares only glowered at him but he did appear to be listening. Hades took that as a good sign. "Even though I cannot bring the two of you together again, I do have a message for you from Marlysa."
Ares sat up in surprise, not expecting this from his uncle.
Silently, his uncle spun a spell within his hands, expanding them outward until Marlysa's image appeared between them. Her long, blond hair cascaded down her shoulders, past the temple symbol necklace that he had bestowed on her, and she smiled gently but tearfully at him. The image began to speak.
"My dearest love," she started, then faltered. "Strange how I always felt that in my heart and never told you. I think I've known that from the day Arianne was born. I'm not sorry that I fell in love with you. I'm just sorry that I never told you how I truly felt about you.
"Hades told me that Hera had released Tarmenous from Tartarus. He's back where he belongs and I pray that he will remain there. If it eases your mind any, I didn't feel anything beyond the first blow and I'm not too sure I even felt that. Everything went black. I'm just glad he never got to Arianne. That she's safe.
"Hades tells me that you refused to give her to Altimius or any of the villagers to raise. I know you had never planned on being a father to Arianne, but I know you will be good father to her. All I ask is that you let her know she's loved and wanted the way Altimius did for me when I was a child.
She paused to gather her thoughts. "I wish, my love, that we could have had eternity together. Hades tells me that it's impossible, thanks to Hera. But he has said that I will be in the Elysian Fields where you and I will always be together in my memories. Think of me and I'll be there with you, my love."
The picture that Hades held between his hands fell silent with Marlysa smiling down on Ares before it faded. In the back of the temple, Gabrielle wiped at the tears with her small hand that had started falling. "I've badly misjudged him," she said. "All this time I thought he didn't have a heart."
Xena smiled sadly and hugged the younger woman, remembering her own life. "I knew it was there. But he had buried it the same as I did, only a lot deeper. First Hercules, then you have been my awakening. Seems to me this woman was his."
Gabrielle took the proffered handkerchief from Darius and struggled to regain her composure as he spoke. "Yes. Marlysa certainly was that."
"Do you have any idea why he sent for us?" Xena asked, watching the silent Ares closely. He sat on his throne, staring at the space where the visage of Marlysa had been. She saw Hades depart in silence.
Darius shrugged. "I have no idea."
"It's unusual for him not to confide in you," Xena remarked.
"Yes, it is. But he's hardly said a word to anyone since Marlysa died. He's been spending most of his time with little Arianne."
"Is she the child?" Gabrielle asked as she blew her nose.
"Yes," Darius replied. He didn't get a chance to say anymore as Ares noticed the pair.
"C'mon," Xena said and moved forward. Gabrielle followed.
Ares didn't say a word as the duo approached him, but rather watched them warily. Several moments past silently before any words were spoken. "I admit, I'm surprised you came," he finally said.
Xena nonchalantly regarded him. If she had met him elsewhere dressed as a villager, she might not have recognized him, she decided. On the whole he was rather unkempt in appearance, something very unusual for the usually fastidious god. His goatee was as scraggly looking as his normally, shiny raven-black hair was long and white marks of some kind dotted his black leather vest. His eyes seemed to have lost their mischievous gleam, the black of his outfit made his skin seem even lighter than before. A general gauntness molded his skin to his tall frame, giving him the appearance of being a shadow of his former self. Even his voice spoke of his sadness. Xena found herself worried for a moment, then thrust it aside angrily. He had taken care of himself for centuries. He'd get over this.
But she hadn't pushed her thoughts away quickly enough. Ares noticed it and a slight smile curved at his lips. "What's the matter, Xena? Never seen me this way before? Thought I didn't have any feelings? That I couldn't care about anything or anyone? Well, you're wrong."
Xena said nothing as she continued to watch him, prepared for anything he might throw at her, prepared to protect Gabrielle.
Ares ignored her as he regarded her younger companion. "It's you I really needed to see."
Gabrielle felt astonishment for a moment, then eyed him warily. Although they had finally created an uneasy truce between them over Xena, she still didn't trust him. She caught sight of Darius smiling at her. "Me?" she finally said.
"Yes." He rose from his throne to tower over her. "Are you still part of the Amazon nation?"
Her mouth fell open. "I...I wasn't aware that you knew about that," she stammered, "but yes, I am still an Amazon princess."
"Good," he answered harshly. "Come with me." He walked off boldly to his left, not wanting to let her know how much this was hurting him to do this. But he had to, for Arianne's sake, and to keep his promise to Marlysa in the only way that he could. Gabrielle hurried in his wake, Xena bringing up the rear.
He opened the door to Arianne's room. A woman was seated in a chair, rocking the cradle while knitting that the sleeping child lay in. The bed that she had been born on lay pushed up against the wall, ready for the next occupant. "Go see Darius and take your things with you. You will not be returning here," he told her gently. She got up, bowed, and left with her sack.
Ares knelt next to the cradle and gently lifted the sleeping child into his arms. She stretched and rubbed her tiny nose at this intrusion into her rest, but did not awaken. Gabrielle smiled in delight as she viewed the child.
"Xena, Gabrielle, I'm asking you to take her to the Amazons and have them raise her amongst them."
His pronouncement left them speechless and, for a moment, Ares thought that they might refuse his request.
Xena spoke first. "If we take her to the Amazons, they're going to want to know what's going on."
"Tell them that you found the child and have no other information." Xena raised her eyebrow at this blatant lie of The God of War, a god that had once told her that a god need never lie. He did not elaborate and she felt it best not to ask. Xena considered his words, the information supplied by Aphrodite, her promise to the Goddess of Love, and the wars breaking out over the lands they had passed through. "If Gabrielle decides to do this, I want to see you take your sword in hand before we leave. I want your word that you will go back to doing the job you were born to. Do so and the debt will be paid in full."
Ares paused, knowing that he didn't want to, knowing that he had to. He nodded. "All right, Xena. You have my word."
Gabrielle gently reached for the child in his arms. "She is so beautiful, Xena. She's going to make a wonderful Amazon. I just know it." She saw a flicker of sadness cross Ares' face and felt it before he tried to hide it beneath lackluster bravado. "She'll be fine. She'll have plenty to eat, she'll get a good education, and she'll have plenty of people to love her."
He nodded, torn between wanting to get this over with and wanting to never let Arianne go. "If it's possible, Gabrielle, make sure that she gets passed between several tribes before she finally has a home. And she is never to know that she was born outside of the Amazon tribe. She is never to know that she has any connection with me whatsoever."
Confusion marred Gabrielle's good looks. "Why?"
"It could mean her life," Xena spoke. "It will be as you asked, Ares."
"Thank you. Everything you need for your journey is being packed on a horse now." He gazed down for the last time at the baby he called his daughter in his heart. "Goodbye, little one." He kissed her gently on the forehead then stepped away. Gathering his waning strength, he raised his hand and his sword appeared, dimly radiant in its' power. As its' force swept through his body, the light gathered in brightness until he was only a ball of fire before it subsided into nothingness.
"I hope he comes to terms with this," Gabrielle said softly. "It's so hard to lose someone you love."
"It's even worse for him," Xena remarked. "He didn't know what love was until she came along. He found happiness he didn't think existed for him for a short while and now he has the centuries to come to try to live without it." She turned to leave. "Come on, we've got a long hike ahead of us."
Ares couldn't believe his ears. Hera had the gall to summon him so soon after he gave up Arianne to the care of the Amazon nation. He silently hoped that she would leave the child alone. But her words indicated that perhaps it was not to be, he thought as he knelt before his mother in her chambers at Mount Olympus.
"So, you thought I didn't keep track of your activities, did you? Thought you could get away with your masquerade," she spoke harshly as she rose from her throne. "Well, as you can see, I do. I've known that you watched that brat grow up, just as I know you have given the child to Xena and Gabrielle to raise amongst the Amazons."
Ares looked up at the steely green eyes of his mother glaring at him in anger and felt fear for Arianne gather inside him. He knew Xena and Gabrielle would defend the child with their lives should it be necessary but hoped it wouldn't be.
Hera regarded her treasonous silent son with disdain. "I'm surprised that you haven't realized what an honor was given to you to serve me when I bore you. Instead of being thankful, you chose to repay me by scheming with your sister, the little bitch. I hope you did enjoy your whore, though. It looked like you did." And you can't touch her, Ares thought in grim satisfaction. Zeus would destroy you if you did do anything to Aphrodite and you know it. As for Marlysa, Hades has made it impossible for you to do anything further to her. Arianne and I are the only ones you've got to take your temper out on.
"And what am I to do about your treason, hmmm?" she purred as she touched her hand to his cheek and began to feel her way around the back of his neck as she walked around her silent son. He almost pulled away in revulsion but held himself in check. She knew where Arianne was. She could still kill her. "Did you learn your lesson?"
The sweeping train of her dress caressed him across the back of his legs as she stopped in front of him and put her hand under his chin, forcing him to look at her. Her eyes perused his manly form and she ran her hands over his broad shoulders. It was strange, he thought. It had been ecstasy when Marlysa had done that, but he hated having his own mother do it. Was this truly love that he felt or lust for her? Aphrodite had said that the only way to break the spell was to tell her that he loved her. But he had never risked his heart to tell her when she was alive. He hadn't wanted to. Now it was too late. Would he forever be doomed to carry this ache in his heart? Was this his punishment? Or was Hera his punishment?
"Should I kill Arianne too as punishment for your treason?" His head jerked up slightly at her words. He had allowed her to ramble on while he had remained deep inside his own thoughts but now her threat came through sharp and clear. He had to think fast, to placate her in hopes that she would leave Arianne alone.
"If you kill Arianne, I guarantee you I will not supply you any more. I have a way out of it."
She glared at her son's defiance in mock surprise. "Do you? I left you no way out of it. I made sure of that!"
He stood suddenly, towering over her. "Yes, you did. I will find the Hinds' Blood dagger wherever it is and use it on myself. Your powers will be gone and so will you."
Hera's face drained of all color as she considered the loop hole she had missed and the consequences to herself if he did so. But maybe she still had a card to play. A way to keep him by her. In the meantime, she had to find that dagger. "And what about your responsibilities? The wars you love so well?" "What about them? There will always be wars. Besides, I can turn my powers over to Discord before I die. She would learn to handle war and love it. Then I'd be with Marlysa forever and you-- you would be no more."
"Are you that sure?" She tried to goad him into an answer, but he remained silent, unwilling to give her any more weapons to stick him with.
Hera remained silent as she thought about her son's words before speaking. Perhaps there was yet another way to secure him as well as the time to find it. "Very well, then. A compromise. I'll leave Arianne alone and you continue supplying me. If I suspect the slightest bit of treason, Arianne dies slowly."
His mouth almost dropped open. Ares couldn't believe his bluff had worked. He had no idea where to find the dagger or even if it still existed. Evidently Hera didn't know either. "All right," he said slowly. "But if I find that you have harmed Arianne or interfered in her life in any way, I will carry out my threat. Understood?"
She nodded in defeat. "Understood."
"Then I will continue to supply your powers as long as you keep your word." With that, Ares vanished from his mother's sight, feeling satisfaction knowing that he finally had the upper hand, the first time since his birth.
Two things remained for him to do. The first wouldn't take him long, the second, burying his heart again, might take centuries to do.
Only Ares and Darius remained at the temple. At Darius' discretion, everyone else had been sent to various temple locations in Greece some time ago. All was silent as the God of War faced the cottage that had been his love's home for these past few months. He raised his arms and hands outward. Fire flew from him as he poured his feelings of love and grief into the powers that was his by right of birth.
Timber and rushes changed composition becoming stone. Higher and higher the walls of the structure rose as swirling silver dust whizzed around the building forming Greek doric columns reaching for the sky while supporting a portico on the tomb that bore only her name. The front of the house recessed and the door split into two solid gleaming gold doors that opened silently. Light as bright as the sun shone from the inside as his heart continued to direct his powers' actions.
Darius watched Ares closely even though he was fascinated with the extent of the true powers of the God of War and what he was creating. Never had he seen the likes of this before. The light dimmed revealing a rectangular box made of a clear material he had only seen a few times in all his centuries. In the center, looking as though she were only sleeping, lay Marlysa's body, repaired, waiting only for its' owner to return. Sadness filled Darius at the thought that she would never return. Her sweet voice and laughter would never again echo in the main temple room, gladdening his own heart. And Arianne- she would grow up without ever knowing her true mother or the extent of her love for the God of War.
Around the outside of the new building, thick, leafy vines grew rapidly, covering it with the flowers that Marlysa had loved. The God of War paused, staring at the body that rested within his handiwork. Her skin was again unblemished, her limbs whole and uninjured. The temple gown she wore was spun of the finest gold cloth available and around her throat, set in diamonds, was the necklace bearing the temple symbol of Ares. In her hands lay a large bouquet of flowers, the ones that she had adored. Beside her final resting place was a small golden coffer, jewels gleaming in the sun created by love.
Neither spoke, not a sound could be heard as Ares approached her. He paused, gazing at her, knowing what he had to do, hating what his mother had forced him to, hating her as much as he loved Marlysa. A scroll appeared in his hand and he put it into the box.
"This, my love," he said softly as tears flooded his own cheeks, "is our story, our lives. I bury it here with you, along with my heart." He closed the box and the lock clicked, the sound echoing in the chamber, echoing the emptiness that he felt within himself. "Goodbye."
The winds rose outside as Ares disappeared. The doors closed with a soft clang and Darius knew it would be a long time before the God of War ever came here again.
Local legend has said that, on a clear, moonlit night, amongst the ruins of the Temple of Ares, one can still hear the steady creak of the swing and hear a baby coo.
And, if one deigns to stay, one may catch a glimpse of the God of War himself as he visits the mausoleum he built to his beloved.