Ares was mortal. He was no longer the God of War. He was no longer the god of anything.
Iphicles sat shivering in a rickety chair, in a ramshackle room, just watching Ares sleep in a roughly hewn bed. The king was naked beneath his blue wool cloak, and the weak fire, in the tumbledown fireplace, did little to offset the coming night's chill. Its flickering light, however, did set off the unearthly beauty of Ares. It was hard to believe this sleeping 'man', in this cheap rented room, was anything but an Olympian god. Yet, he was a god no more; the undeniable proof of this still clung to Iphicles' fingers. The king bent his head to study the faint red stains, his gaze then wandering up to the bowl of reddened water, and scrap of cloth, atop the rickety bedside table. Iphicles knew that Ares would be angry with him for taking such a liberty while he lay comatose. The ex-god of war had been unconscious since he had all but collapsed from exhaustion after shedding his muddy, bloodstained leathers for bed. Iphicles, surprised at how quickly his lover had fallen asleep, had worriedly checked Ares' pulse and breathing. Finding both mercifully strong, he had settled back to watch this vision of peaceful sleep -- but the blood staining the near side of Ares' head and neck belonged to his lover. Try as he might, Iphicles could not imagine it to be anything else. Gingerly, he had cleansed those ugly stains, bringing back that moment of sickening, heart wrenching fear.
Iphicles had been on a hunting party when he first heard the news: Zeus was punishing Ares God of War. The King of the Gods had made Ares mortal and sent word to the warlords that, upon breaking the ex-god, one of them could become the new God of War. The King of Corinth had frozen in place, his horse shying nervously beneath him, and the hunting activities stilling around him. "Where," he had choked out, only to hear that the Warlord Adracus was already taking his chances with Ares in the next valley over. The messenger was mumbling on about Adracus' plan to break Ares by torture, and then lend him to various warlords as entertainment, when Iphicles kicked his horse into a full gallop. His heart in his throat, Iphicles rode as fast as mortally possible over the rough terrain. He only slowed at the sounds of battle to check how many of his men had followed. Too few, he realised as he reached the crest of the hill and witnessed the carnage below. There were two hot spots in the battle. The nearest was centred upon the towering form of his brother Hercules, fighting back to back with Iolaus. Iphicles felt an intense wave of relief upon seeing his brother, and friend, fighting so fiercely; Ares obviously owing his continuing well being to their efforts.
Even as this thought flitted through his mind, Iphicles was already riding flat out for the second swarm of clashing swords. He had not made it more than halfway through the viciously swirling melee when a brutal axe swing felled his horse. Leaping clear of the thrashing animal, he fought against his attacker through the arterial spray of equine blood. Gasping as he slashed down his would-be murderer, he overbalanced on the blood slick ground to land heavily on his back. Winded, Iphicles struggled to regain his feet. The seasoned soldier in the king knew that death would come quickly to anyone who tarried on the ground, and these mire-like conditions made drowning a terrifyingly real possibility. Keeping a tenuous footing while parrying murderous blows, he was soon making headway towards the closely-knit battling group with Ares at its centre.
Two more of Adracus' men had fallen to his sword before Iphicles caught a glimpse of Ares through the fighting. His body jerked with the sudden adrenaline rush, but the king was tiring; he would not have got much further if it weren't for the skills of Aneanus. Without a word, the towering member of the king's personal guard had taken up a position to Iphicles' back, and their progress through the deafening, slashing, swarm had quickened abruptly. They would reach Ares yet, just a few more soldiers--
Iphicles' heart stopped in his mouth.
He could see his lover quite clearly now, fighting savagely, his sword swinging in wild, startlingly fast arcs -- yet Ares was not fighting to his usual standard. It wasn't in the exhaustion of the ex-god's stance, though his weariness was beginning to tell; it was in the wildness of his strikes. Iphicles had seen Ares fight many times before, a beautifully terrifying aspect in slashing gore. He now fought like a cornered animal, slashing back on pure instinct rather than from any sense of battle tactics. It had been working; the bodies littering the ground testified that much, but Ares' parries were now slowing, his attacks becoming painfully deliberate.
Iphicles surged forward once again, desperate to reach his lover before the inevitable blow that would strike him down.
Then Iphicles saw the soldier.
The battle suddenly slowed to an excruciating level as he watched the man raise the pommel of his sword, aiming a heavy blow at the back of Ares' head. Iphicles gulped a breath to shout a desperate warning. Ares ducked, turned, and buried a wickedly long knife into the soldier's gullet before the king's breath was fully drawn.
Then the blow came.
Not from the hacking soldiers around Ares, but from a spear ricochet far behind. The shaft of the weapon glanced across the side of Ares' head and he dropped lifelessly to the ground. Iphicles lurched forward, slashing haphazardly at anything that stood between him and his lover, fear choking and slowing his movements as much as it pushed him on.
He was nearly at Ares' side. One soldier that stood in his way went down. He would be with his lover in a matter of moments. Another soldier went down, then another, then...the enemy were retreating? Somewhere a horn was sounding and the soldiers were backing off, their reluctant curses following them from the battlefield.
And Ares was standing there.
A wave of warm relief rushed through Iphicles upon hearing his lover's growled profanities. Only then did he take in Ares' alarming appearance. Pale, and trembling with either exhaustion or anger, the newly mortal god's confused gaze scoured the battlefield in irritation, blood streaming freely down one side of his head and neck.
Iphicles advanced slowly as if approaching a wounded predator. "Ares?" he began, only to be brought up short by a vicious glare. Then he was dismissed as the ebony gaze flicked to the movement behind the king. Iphicles turned to see Iolaus and Hercules striding up to them.
"No need to thank us," Iolaus announced cheerfully, taking Iphicles' hand in a warm greeting. "All in a days work."
"A days work that was busy enough before we pulled your fat from the fire, Ares," Hercules added, taking Iphicles in a brotherly embrace. "Liked that cavalry charge, Iph," he chuckled before his gaze resettled upon the disorientated ex-god of war.
"What did you do to annoy Zeus this time?" The demigod folded his arms and awaited response.
Ares' answer was a bitter snarl. "Fuck off hero-boy. I don't need your help or your moralising bullshit."
"If it wasn't for us saving your ungrateful hide you'd be in Adracus' cage by now," Iolaus growled in return, disgust curdling his normally amiable features.
A sneer was his only response.
Shaking his head, the smaller hero turned on his heel and stalked off to meet the approaching hunting party.
Hercules stood watching his injured, ex-godly brother with mild concern. "You should have someone look at your head," he advised with small smile before turning his attention back to Iphicles.
"I'll help round up the wounded and speak to you later, Iph." He squeezed the king's shoulder and walked after his friend.
Iphicles watched Ares sheath his weapons, then wipe blood from the side of his neck in irritation. The mortalised god looked ready to collapse. Iphicles had to find some way to persuade him to rest.
"My Lord." The sound of Aneanus' voice turned Iphicles from his leather-clad problem to kingly matters.
"Thank you, Aneanus." Iphicles grinned, offering his hand for the traditional warrior's handshake. "You got me out of real hot water back there."
"Th-thank you, my Lord," the beaming guardsman returned, gingerly taking the proffered forearm clasp. "It was a pleasure to fight alongside you."
Iphicles nodded thanks at the praise, all the while watching Ares from the corner of his eye. The ex-god was growing more confused and unsettled as the moments passed, looking around as though he'd lost something. Iphicles frowned as Ares' right knee buckled and he struggled to keep his footing on the blood slick earth.
"Round up the men, see to the injured," the king instructed quickly as he saw a few of his advisors advancing towards them. "Take everyone, and I mean *everyone* back to the village we stayed at last night."
"But they have a festival starting my Lord, and--"
"Just do it, Aneanus," Iphicles growled. "This is a Royal party, they will find rooms for us somewhere."
"Yes, my Lord." The guard showed his understanding of the king's unsaid message by turning smartly to cut off the approaching councillors. There would be advancement for such a man in his king's service.
Iphicles watched the valley empty for a few moments before stepping closer to his muttering, preoccupied lover. "Lost something?" he tried in a mildly inquisitive tone.
Ares' dark glare raked over him, took in the retreating hunting party, then returned to searching the valley without comment.
"You can be such an asshole, Ares." Iphicles snarled, taking another step towards his irritated lover. "I don't expect you to fall over yourself with gratitude because I just saved your ass, but acknowledging my existence would be a start."
A seething gaze skewered him. "Thank you, King Iphicles, you're my fucking hero," Ares sneered in cruel parody. "Now piss off back to your little hunt and stop gaping at me like a wounded puppy." He turned his back on the king, and began walking up the hill to vacate the valley in a different direction from anyone else.
"Where do you think you're going?" Iphicles called disdainfully, making Ares turn and glower. "There's nothing out that way but marshland. What's your plan? Going to wade out there and hope you drown before the soldiers capture you? You're in no shape to fight off the flies let alone Adracus' men."
Ares continued to glare, his jaw clenching in annoyance. A sharp gust of wind suddenly whipped through the valley, making him shiver. "I can fight off anything you throw at me," he finally replied, but he seemed to direct the comment at the valley itself, rather than the king. "I can take ten of you, Iphicles. Mortal or not, I'm more than a match for thirty men. Remember that."
And he was turning away again.
Panic rose in the Iphicles' throat. "Don't talk shit, Ares," he affected a bored tone as he leaned on one hip. "You're dead on your feet." The king's hope rose as those dark eyes returned to pin him with disgusted denial. "If you had any brains you'd rest in the village a mile up the valley. They have a festival beginning and you could lie low for a few days to get your strength back." He barely had time to register the movement before an impossibly strong hand was choking him and Ares was suddenly snarling in his face.
"Don't you speak to me like that, you insignificant piece of mortal flotsam. I was organising campaigns and winning wars before your ancestors learned to piss outdoors."
Iphicles looked steadily back into the infuriated glare and made his decision. As quickly as mortally possible, he pulled Ares' hand from his throat, kicked out the ex-gods' weakened knee, and flipped him unceremoniously onto his back. Ares lay on the muddy ground, blinking at the sky.
The sound of Iphicles' cloak whipping in the wind was the only noise breaking the silence in the valley.
Just as Iphicles began to wonder how long Ares was going to lie on the ground, a blur of black leather barrelled into him and they collapsed to the earth in an undignified heap. Winded, they lay stunned for a moment; then Ares clipped Iphicles across the jaw and the king shoved the ex-god from him. Free from Ares' weight, Iphicles quickly rolled to his feet in the expectation of further attack. He was surprised to find Ares just sitting on the ground, dazedly shaking his head, hissing when he probed his fingers into his blood matted hair.
Iphicles advanced to crouch by his injured lover, trying to peer through the thick raven waves and assess the injury. "Doesn't look too bad," he offered, while in truth he couldn't see anything but an alarming volume of blood. "A few days rest, and you'll be fine." He smiled encouragingly.
The look of complete disgust he received in return almost made Iphicles burst into relieved laughter.
"A few days," Ares echoed with abhorrence. "I have things to do. I can't sit around in some hole in the earth village while this pathetic mortal body heals."
Iphicles grinned, offering Ares his mud stained hand as he stood. "It doesn't look like you have much choice."
The ex-god of war looked at the mortal's hand for what seemed like eternity. Then, just as Iphicles thought he would refuse, Ares reached up and took his hand in a firm grasp.
Ares had said little on the short ride to the village. Whenever Iphicles tried to engage him in conversation the ex-god would just throw out an insult. He began with Iphicles' stupidity in riding down the hill like a 'one king cavalry charge'. He then went on to sneer at the fact that Iphicles' council, obsequious little toadies that they were, were still smart enough to line the hunting party along the ridge of valley to scare off Adracus' men. He finished his tirade by criticising Iphicles' sword fighting technique, likening it to the frantic head movements of a one-eyed cat at a fishmonger's stall.
Iphicles could find little comeback for this war godly critique of his battle strategy; he could only point out that they were both still breathing because of it. When he tried to discover how Ares had got into such a mess, his lover only growled unintelligibly and kicked on his borrowed horse.
So here Iphicles sat, shivering in a cloak that was proving more inadequate against the night chill as the hours passed. As cold as he was, Iphicles still felt an unfamiliar reluctance to climb into bed beside his lover. It was easier to brave this cold than it was to face the icy rejection if Ares should wake. Yet, hours had passed and the sleeping 'man' had barely stirred. Iphicles felt confused and exhausted by the day's events, and the rough wood chair was proving hellish on his bruised back. Decision made, he cautiously pulled back the harsh linen sheets, sourly noting the muddy bloodstains, before slipping from his cloak into the body-warm bed.
He froze as Ares moved...towards him? He held a shaky breath as his lover moved a little nearer...in his sleep?
Then Ares settled once more. Iphicles let out a hushed breath. If Ares had moved, it was barely an inch, and he had slept soundly on. The mortal settled closer to the warm body beside him, edging his upper leg across his lovers', and resting an arm protectively over the broad chest. Curled around Ares, Iphicles lay his head by the smooth skin of lover's shoulder, watching his own copper curls mingle with the raven waves. And he was suddenly overcome with an almost painful need to lock Ares away where none could harm him. Reinforcements would arrive in the morning to make sure the warlord's men had left the area; it would be relatively simple to subdue Ares while he slept and take him to Corinth out of harms way. The Council would object, of course, but he was the King and they would follow his instructions. Iphicles would keep Ares safe until Hercules could sort out this mess with Zeus. His demigod brother had already set out to achieve that end. Surely it wouldn't be too long until-- Even as he conceived his plan, Iphicles knew the futility of it. He knew that the more desperately he tried to hold on to Ares, the more his lover would slip through his fingers. To reveal his emotions would spell disaster for any kind of relationship Iphicles hoped for. As a god, Ares could accept little shows of affection by attributing them to worship. As a mortal, he would scorn any display of tenderness -- equating it with pity and, so, weakness. Ares could not be seen as weak; he would not accept Iphicles' aid or comfort.
After all, who could comfort the God of War?