Ashes in his mouth
Ares dreamed he was mortal. Desperate to stay in Greece, even knowing he was doomed, he placed his trust in Xena. He begged Xena to need him, blatantly seeking human immortality through children, unable to admit how much he needed her respect and love. She couldn’t be trusted to help him though, only to help herself. His dream-self spoke, injecting the unstated passion into less revealing words.
“I can help you, Xena.”
“You’re no help to me now, Ares.”
He saw the disgust and worse, the pity in her cold blue eyes. She saw nothing good in him, treated any gesture no matter now small or large with the same cavalier attitude. Closeminded bitch, he thought. She could believe in humanity, but not him, human as he was now.
Her voice hardened. “You can’t even help yourself,” she said. Nudging her horse gently in the ribs she rode away.
He woke with his heart racing, the blood rushing in his veins, his arms outstretched. Always the same dream. Always she left him, mortal, alone. He slumped back onto the bed, resuming his troubled sleep.
Again he dreamed but this time the images were bizarre, disjointed. Impossibly large armies marched in strange lands, crushing all that stood in their way. Outlandishly clad men and women fought, armed with hideously lethal weapons, destroying land and life alike in their quest for victory, caring nothing for their enemy or their future. Machines destroyed friend and foe alike, destroying their bodies beyond hope of a warrior’s fiery funeral. The part of him that had been War revelled but his human soul cried out in anguish at the sickening waste.
“Why?’ he screamed unheard into the void that surrounded him. “Why does it have to be like this? Why can’t we change?”
The tall, armoured man stood at the foot of the bed, at parade-rest. His stance and arrogant bearing would have betrayed him even if he dressed in rags; this man bowed his head to no one. He stared silently at the old man, dying in his pauper’s bed. This was no end for a true warrior. He offered no words of condolence, no platitudes, only companionship so that the old man need not face the end alone as he’d lived most of his life. Removing his red plumed helmet he rested it on the bed and stared into the old man’s pallid, wrinkled face, seeking a spark of recognition in the dull, rheumy eyes.
The old man stared, visibly shocked by his visitor. When he spoke his voice was dry and cracked from disuse. “You came.” He coughed feebly, his chest rattling.
His visitor inclined his head briefly, lips pursed at sickness which would never mar his perfection.
“I don’t know.” His voice was clipped, embarrassed. “All I know is that I need to be here, now.”
“Is this the end, then?” asked the old man, curious.
“Yes…. and no.”
“That’s no answer.” He smiled wryly. “But you’re a god – you don’t do straight answers.”
“Are you ready?”
“Yes.” He paused, lowering his voice. “I want to end this.”
“There is another choice.”
He laughed, coughing again. “No, there isn’t. I’ve seen the future; I want nothing to do with that abomination. Do it. Do it now.”
The soldier drew his sword smoothly, the sharp grey metal whispering softly as it slid from its scabbard. One, two, three steps forward and he thrust it fiercely between the ribs, angled up to pierce the old man’s heart instantly. He shuddered, then relaxed into death with barely a trickle of blood to show how he had died.
Withdrawing the sword gently, the old man’s assailant bowed his head respectfully and left as silently as he had come.
The Fates spin the cloth of history and yet they do not colour the threads; that degree of free will is given to all sentient creatures, to shape themselves. Patterns of events can be discerned by the experienced eye in the tapestry of the past and the half-shaped threads of the future. The twilight of the Greek gods had been visible for a long, long time. Oracles heard it in the rustling of the sacred oak trees, inhaled it with their pungent fumes, and glimpsed it in the entrails of the sacrifices. Madmen crouched on stone pulpits in the agora prophesied the downfall of the gods, foreordained since the beginning of time, cackling as they spoke of the end of the world.
Zeus, frightened by the impending catastrophe lifted his ban on time travel to see for himself the appalling events to come. Many events and individuals could be blamed: the Olympians’ weakness after the assaults of Dahok on their realm, the new religion of peace and forgiveness stealing their worshippers, lack of faith as the Greeks turned their backs on the gods.
There were many opinions on solutions as there were causes. Zeus and the other members of the Twelve debated heatedly as lightning ravaged the summit of Mt Olympus and thunder echoed throughout Greece. Should they could remove Xena from history, or prevent Gabrielle, the mother of Dahok’s child from being born herself. They were gods; anything was possible and morality could go hang. Ares and Hera championed the idea of killing Hercules at an early age, well before he could preach his atheistic policies to Greece or murder his own father.
But would small changes be enough? Even gods were severely limited by the relentless force of fate. Bold actions were required to escape their destiny. If the Greek gods were destined to fade and die, then they would no longer be the Greek gods. Travelling back to the dawn of the Roman Empire, they would inspire a new race of humanity to heights of civilisation. Trusted priests and priestesses would foster the birth of their new cults, under the benevolent guidance of the Twelve. Ares himself would father the founders of Rome.
Each of them chose some central part of him or herself to leave behind in Greece, a doppelganger with enough of the god’s life force to make them believable. Until they undertook the change the gods had never realised just how much of their true nature was defined by the people they ruled. The force of human belief had moulded them more than they realised. Freed of the underlying beliefs of the Greek people, they could look back on their lives, begin anew with the experience of the past vividly in mind. Zeus left behind his philandering ways to the shadow that remained, becoming in truth the benign patriarch Jupiter.
Ares chose to leave his heart behind, a heart that belonged to the Greek people, full of passion and confusion; the part of him that still believed he could save Xena and himself. As Mars, cool and practical, he inspired the Roman people to victory after victory, expanding the Empire’s borders, encouraging sustainable growth with civilising force. Respect, honour and obedience: all these things were his. He guided the finest generals, controlled legions beyond anything that walked the earth.
Most sweetly anticipated of all came the day when the Roman hold on Greece was complete. Roman legions marched the roads where the phalanxes of Athens and Sparta had once strutted proudly. Greece was conquered, yet not subdued. The gods had thousands of believers now. Let them believe what they will, was the policy. We are immortal.
With the gaudy paraphernalia of the spring festival brightening the sparsely furnished sanctuary in the temple on the Capitol Hill, Mars usually found himself keenly anticipating the renewal of hostilities with Rome’s more restive and less respectful neighbours. The daily spectacle of his priests, leaping and dancing through the streets of Rome heated his blood, and he prowled the lonely battlefields-to-be, visualising glorious victories. This year, a shadow was cast by the death of he’d granted only days before, subduing the pleasure and his spirits.
Why had Ares been so ready die? Had his mortality weighed on him so much? He’d refused to hear Mars’ offer, welcoming death with an unhealthy enthusiasm. Surely he had to know that he would be offered a way out, yet he chose not to continue.
Mars shifted in his simple, backless chair. His strong hands gripped the wrought metal arms tightly, betraying his unease. Ares had been part of him, once. He always thought of Ares as being the more bloodthirsty part of his soul, the uncaring force of nature that didn’t care about right or wrong, justice or mercy, only blood, carnage and the passions of the flesh. What had learned as a mortal that made him seek death so eagerly?
Part of him had died but surely the best remained. The future was bright, promising. This day celebrated the anniversary of his birth as well as the birth of the New Year for the Empire, a double cause for rejoicing. He should be pleased at the reverence displayed, the richness of the gifts, the promises of victories to come, the jubilation of the Roman people honouring his name.
The taste of victory was ashes in his mouth.