Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be.
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in your hand
Who saith, ‘A whole I planned,
Youth show but half; trust, god: see all, nor be afraid!’
--from ‘Rabbi ben Ezra’ - Robert Browning (with slight changes by Emcee)
One morning, a fine Spring morning, when the sun was beaming through the clouds of black smoke coming from the burning pyres, giving a soft hazy feel to the day, Hercules sat immobile, watching as the last of the bodies burned brightly, lighting the way to the underworld.
He looked sad and immeasurably weary, unmoved by the growing warmth of the air, the lazy buzzing of early bees, and the chirruping of the birds as they flew around making their nests in preparation for the summer of endeavor that lay ahead. The weight of his life lay heavy on his mind and soul, the tarry taste of defeat sticking chokingly to his throat.
Another battle fought and lost. This was his brother’s response to their latest encounter, a fight orchestrated by their father, though the old man had couched it in other terms. As usual, Zeus had said he needed his help to uphold justice and protect mankind, and, of course, that had involved fighting Ares. It always involved fighting Ares, one way or another. As usual, he had won the fight and lost the battle. He was tired, tired to death of it all.
And he didn’t know how to put a stop to it, unless he turned his back on everything he had believed in, everything he had sacrificed his life for. Was this how it would always be?
“It need not be, son of Zeus.”
Hercules closed his eyes wearily. The Fates. Just what he needed.
He stood and faced them. Three crones, one looking to be still a child, though none the less powerful for that. Even Zeus feared them, and no man mentioned their names without a shiver of apprehension.
“What do you want?” he asked mistrustfully.
“We would grant you the opportunity to change that which you rail against.”
“How?” He frowned, wondering.
“Walk down Time’s path, and vanquish your enemy before he becomes one.”
“What! You expect me to kill my brother?”
“Is that how you would change your fate?” the eldest asked.
“No! I don’t know. He hates me, always has, always will.”
“Then change him.”
Hercules stared at them, stunned. “Change him? How can I change him?”
“That is for you to decide.”
Atropos looked slyly at the man towering over her. “You claim your fate is in your hands. Let it be so.”
“The Fates hand you your own destiny. You have until the sands run out from this jar.” The eldest pointed to a black jar that had appeared at her feet, sand trickling out from a small hole on its base.
“And how long is that?”
“The sun will rise and set five times before the jar is emptied.” They liked the poetic approach. Why not just say five days?
“After that, your chance is gone,” Clotho intoned, spinning many strands with well practiced fingers.
“And if I fail?”
“Then all will be as it was,” the youngest stated in a dry monotone.
“Why are you doing this?” The Fates did no favors; they were said to be unmoved by death or life.
“You asked for the future to change, and we would grant you that wish.”
“Why me? Why not someone else?”
“Because it is your fate.”
“My fate? I don’t understand.” His fate was to change his fate? Could it get more confusing?
“It’s not needful for you to do so. Simply say yea or nay, son of Zeus.”
He couldn’t see how he would be able to change anything. His last trip into the past hadn’t prevented him from losing Serena. Ah, but he had been able to prevent her death. Perhaps there was a chance he could make a difference.
“You’d have to choose the time carefully, just before I was born, so I wouldn’t run into myself.” That would be too weird--and too tempting. Had he just agreed to do it?
The eyes gazing at him held an odd look of--amusement? Pity? “It will be so, but you must decide now.”
Uncertain of their true intent, he thought for a space, but how could he refuse this opportunity to make things better? Wasn’t this what he had just been wishing for? “All right. What must I do?”
“It is already done.” He scarcely heard the reply as the world faded around him, senses failing as he dropped into a well of nothingness.
“Will he change the outcome?” Clotho asked, busy spinning the myriad threads of countless lives.
“The two sons are the key. This one seeks change, whatever the cost, and the other is capable of it. We owe nothing to Zeus, but the Olympians deserve a chance to escape the consequences of his blunders.”
Lachesis nodded. “Let it be so. Our job is done. Now it is up to them.” They faded into the sunlit motes, endlessly spinning, weaving and snipping the threads that bound the fates of worlds and men.
* * *
A cluster of tamarisk stood where gravel and dirt gave way to the flat rocks of the foreshore; these, smoothed and fissured by water, burned white in the sun. The sea moved lazily, silky and dark, its faint bars of light and shadow gently lifting and falling over the hot rocks, which blazed with scattered, brilliant pink and crimson bursts of icedaisies. A pristine world, where nothing stirred--until a clump of debris that must have washed up onto the heat-bleached sand came to sudden life and arose, taking the shape of a man.
Hercules woke up to the shadowless heat of noon. Light filled the great brazen bowl of the sky, blinding him. He was lying on warm sand, coarse grains rubbing his cheek as he struggled upright and scrubbed sandy fingers over his face. Two shadows fled across the sand, and he looked up: shearwaters, flying low, their wings skimming overland towards the sea.
He was in some elysian realm.
Yet everything told him this was Greece: the light, the sea, the land. The air was salty fresh, stinging his dry lips with a harsh caress, and he looked around for a stream, but there was none, only sand, sea and sky.
The presence of those birds told him this coast would make good fishing grounds. So it was likely that there was a village in these parts, close to a source of fresh water, where he would be able to quench his thirst and get directions to one of his brother’s temples.
He started following the shoreline while planning his approach. What would he tell Ares? Hi, I’m your half-brother from the future, please don’t hate me. Or maybe: Hi, I’m Hercules, we’re going to become enemies, but we don’t have to be. Somehow, he didn’t think any of that would cut much ice. He would have to come up with a more convincing argument if he wanted his brother to listen. And even then, would Ares want things to change? He might not see any advantage in it. Moreover, he would be giving the god a powerful weapon: knowledge of the future. That was another problem; how much should he reveal?
Hercules trudged over the silent beach, getting more discouraged as he thought about his mission, seeing all kinds of complications he had not considered before agreeing to undertake it. It was a relief to hear the sound of raised voices just ahead.
“Pretty one, thy struggle is in vain. I promise thou will enjoy this. Just give in.” A man’s voice, oily with lust, rumbled over the breeze.
“Unhand me, now!” The anger and distress in the clear voice spurred Hercules into a run, and he almost crashed into the struggling pair as he rounded the rearing spur of granite hiding them from sight.
“You heard him. Let him go!” Hercules shouted as he freed the boy with one hand and pushed away his attacker with the other. He faced his opponent, bracing for the inevitable reprisal, and looked into Poseidon’s furious eyes.
“Who dares meddle with a god?” the King of the Seas roared, then narrowed his gaze as he felt the spark of godly presence in Hercules. “I know thee not. A god, and yet not fully one. Reveal thyself,” he commanded.
Thoroughly perplexed, Hercules stared at his uncle. Why was Poseidon pretending not to know him, and why was he speaking in such a strange manner? “You know who I am, so quit the pretense, and leave the boy alone. Find somebody older and more willing. You’re as bad as Zeus. Does it have to be rape every time?” Gods, his family made him sick sometimes.
“Insolent upstart. The King of the Seas shall teach thee humility.” Poseidon surged forward--and crashed into an iron fist that flung him half a league out to sea.
“Yeah, right. You show me,” muttered Hercules, rubbing his knuckles. He had packed all his strength behind that punch, and his uncle’s jaw had felt hard as coral. A ripple of laughter made him turn round.
He had always despised men who took boys, however beautiful, as lovers. He had never perceived the appeal, much less condoned it, considering it an abuse of power.
Never understood it until now.
He stood transfixed, speared on the sharp edge of desire, his blood thumping erratically. As lightning leaps from sky to sea, so did his heart fall into the brilliant depths of laughing eyes, offering itself without thought, and beyond recalling.
“Twas well done, and better than he deserved. I thank thee, sir.” The voice was deep for such a young boy--he could not be more than fourteen or fifteen--and fluid as warm honey. Hercules listened, entranced by its soft cadence.
It was the questioning look in his new love’s eye than shook him from his trance. “No problem, any time,” he murmured, and was captivated once again by the smiling gaze.
“It were better for us to move beyond Poseidon’s reach, before he returns. For he will not be alone. Come.” The boy extended a hand, and Hercules enclosed it in his own, marveling at the silky feel of the golden skin. He followed unquestioningly, lost in a fog of unfamiliar longings, his mission forgotten as he grappled with this new and extraordinary compulsion.
But as they traveled inland following the paths left by deer and wild sheep through the blue sage and purple lavender, blood flowed into his befuddled brain, and he began to think again. The first thing he noticed was his thirst.
“Is there any fresh water to drink around here?”
The boy shook his head. “Not for some leagues.” He looked at Hercules consideringly, wondering how far he could trust the stranger. He had felt the man’s desire, but no ill intent; his instincts told him he could be trusted. On an impulse, he wrapped his arms around the massive frame and concentrated. “Hold onto me,” he instructed, hoping his powers would suffice for the task.
“What...?” Hercules closed his eyes as he felt the familiar falling sensation, and opened them to a world of glittering crystal light. They were standing in a vast cave whose walls were veined with bands of quartz, which caught the sunlight entering through an arched opening and reflected its radiance over the natural stone pillars that fell and rose from ceiling and floor. The prisms in the crystalline quartz twisted the light into rainbow-hued rays, which floated over the lake in the center of the cave, its surface rippled by a tiny waterfall trickling down from the sunlit opening. The tinkling of the falling water filled the cave with silvered sound, echoing softly like a half-forgotten song.
“Here we are.” The boy released him with some reluctance.
Hercules stared around spellbound, his thirst momentarily forgotten. “It’s beautiful,” he whispered, listening to the echo of their voices mingling in the distance.
“Tis pleasing to the eye,” the boy murmured, delighted with his guest’s reaction. “Come quench your thirst. These waters come from the high peaks of Mount Pangaeus.” He led the way to a smaller cave, open to the sky, and filled with the sweet scents of flowering bay and myrtle. The tender moss carpeting the ground was generously sprinkled with violets, button daisies, and the deep blue of forget-me-nots.
In one corner, protected by a rocky overhang, crouched a large sleeping couch of carved pearwood. Next to it, bowls of fruit and two gold goblets rested on a silver-veined marble table.
“This is my dwelling and all my work. No one but you has seen it,” the boy confided, proud of his achievement, for it had been his labor that had contrived it.
“It’s amazing.” Hercules gazed around and marveled that such a young god could have created all that he saw.
“Amazing,” the boy enunciated slowly. He looked at his rescuer with keen interest while handing him a goblet. Hercules filled it from the stream that meandered through the roofless grotto and into the glittering cave. The water was sweet and icy cold.
“Thy speech is passing strange. Some dialect I have not heard before. From whence do you come?” the boy inquired, watching him drink his fill.
Hercules stared back in surprise. Now that he thought about it, the boy’s way of speaking sounded quaint and archaic, resembling the old poetic language found in the ancient scrolls he had come across in Jason’s library. How far back had those damned crones sent him? “I come from Thebes, though I spend more time in Corinth nowadays. My brother is the king there.”
He got a strange look from the brilliant eyes. ”Cor-inth? Thebes? What and where would they be?”
“They are city states, like Athens. And they are in Greece, of course.” However ignorant, the young god must have heard of Athens at least.
The boy’s face was bright with curiosity. He thought the man-god must be confused; there were no such curious places in Greece. ”City states?”
“Yes, you know, large towns with fine stone and marble buildings, where many people live. They have rulers, kings who govern the lands around these cities...” He stopped, seeing the look of puzzlement on the lovely face.
“I know not of those places; only in Olympus are there marble dwellings.” He observed the shocked expression on the stranger’s face. He could not be from Greece. Maybe he came from Egypt, one of their peculiar gods. “I have heard that beyond the sea, large settlements of humans do exist, where they build their dwellings with stone. Are you from thence?”
“No, I told you, I’m from Greece,” he answered, puzzled by the young god’s ignorance. Surely his parents would have taught him about the human world by now.
“Speak. Tell me more so I may learn your dialect. Tell me of these state-cities,” the boy requested.
“City-states,” Hercules corrected him. “You want me to speak? Well, ok. As I said before, I was born in Thebes, which is a place near...” As he told the boy about his own childhood, his suspicions grew. Just how far back in time had he traveled?
The young god listened entranced, drinking in the language and the amazing--he liked that word--amazing things this godly giant was telling him.
“Poseidon,” Hercules asked him abruptly, “has he tried that before? Has he tried to rap--attack you?”
The boy shrugged with apparent indifference.
“It’s not the first time, no.” He looked up into Hercules’ face and admitted ruefully, “My fault, I know. Mother warned me to stay away from the coast.” He grinned unrepentantly. “But it’s hard to do that, there’s so much of it. Besides, I like to watch the waves. How’s that? Does it sound like your speech?”
“What? Oh, yeah, you sound just like me.” Hercules frowned. He could understand Poseidon’s obsession; the boy was.... He couldn’t find the words, but his parents should be keeping a closer eye on such a lovely creature, on a young, and still vulnerable godling.
“Your father should keep that old fuc--fish face away from you. Does he knows this goes on?”
The boy laughed and shrugged again. “He’s the king of the Gods and knows his brother well.”
Zeus was this boy’s father? “Zeus is the king of the Gods, right?”
The boy nodded. “Right.”
“And Hera is the Queen?”
The boy nodded again. “She’s my mother.”
Hercules stared at the boy, taking in the midnight eyes, the raven curls. Though the face still retained a childish roundness, the prominent cheekbones were clearly defined.
“And--and you are--?” His voice nearly failed him. “Ares?”
“The very same.” Ares bowed, smiling with delight. His rescuer knew of him. But who was he? “And who are you?”
Dear gods and little fishes. “I’m--I’m Hercules,” he whispered, staring in shock at his brother.
“Hercules.” Ares pronounced the name with a soft voice, and Hercules shivered involuntarily as the sound caressed his skin. “A strange name. I like it.” Ares held out his hand and smiled. “Welcome to Greece, Hercules.”
Automatically Hercules took it in his own. This ravishing boy was Ares. He was lusting after his brother.
Ares noted the anguished expression crossing Hercules’ ashen face. “Something wrong?”
“No! Yes! That is...” What could he say? “I’m a bit tired. It’s been a long trip.” Longer than he could ever have imagined. Gods.
“Then you must rest. Here, use my couch.” Ares took Hercules by a nerveless hand and led him to the bed, gently pushing him until he was lying on covers of marten skins, then sat cross-legged next to him.
Hercules found himself being studied by his young brother. The dark gaze was openly curious, examining his leather pants and shirt, comparing them to his own short tunic of sky-blue bordered with black and silver embroidery. He studied the older man’s large hands, running graceful fingers up one of the powerful arms till he reached the face, then tracing the features, lingering on the lines of laughter and pain that life had carved there, outlining the almond-shaped blue eyes. Hercules lay unmoving, trying to control his errant breathing, and failing miserably.
“You are pleasing to the eye.” Ares raked his body with a gleam that made Hercules flush. His younger brother wasn’t shy, that was certain.
“Um, thanks, you’re, er, nice too.” He felt supremely uncomfortable.
“Nice? Is that how you say it? Then you’re nice, Hercules.” Ares was determined to learn the older man’s way of speaking.
“I...um...I should have said beautiful,” Hercules admitted. Nice didn’t come anywhere near to describing the vibrant and seductive loveliness of the boy before him.
He was rewarded with a radiant smile, free of the underlying anger and hate that had always lurked in the older god. It made him feel dizzy and short of breath. He realized with growing panic that he was powerless to resist this younger Ares. Uncaring of the fact that this was his brother, and much too young, everything in him burned with the overwhelming urge to seize what he desired, and never to let go. His body, and his heart, were betraying him.
Desperately clutching at his slipping control, Hercules sought to distract his unruly senses. “You say no one else has seen this. Do you spend much time by yourself?”
Ares shrugged and leaned confidingly against Hercules’ hip, feeling the older man shiver in response. “A fair amount. My older siblings are busy with the war, and Hephy’s always at work. So I have to amuse myself. I don’t mind.” But there was a forlorn note in the deep voice that made Hercules instinctively draw the young body closer, touching a velvety cheek with a comforting finger.
“The war? Who are they fighting?” asked a puzzled Hercules.
“The Giants. Father has defeated Cronus and the Titans, but the Giants have rebelled against him.”
His reluctance to associate himself with his Olympian family had led Hercules to neglect their history. He knew what every Greek knew after reading Homer and Hesiod, and most of it had disgusted him. He hadn’t wanted to inquire further. It was enough to know that his grandfather had eaten his own children after castrating his father, that his father Zeus had in turn overthrown his own sire and imprisoned him in Tartarus. He recalled there had been a war with the Titans, and then Gaia had given birth to some Giants who tried to destroy Zeus and his family, but he was a little hazy on the full story.
“Has this war been going on for long?”
“Not long, no. It’s only just begun, and I’m hoping that Zeus will let me fight in it.” He looked proud yet a little nervous. “I’m going to be the God of War, so it’s only right I should take part in it. Don’t you think so?” he asked the frowning Hercules.
“I suppose,” Hercules murmured absentmindedly, his mind trying to make sense of what Ares had just told him. His brother wasn’t the God of War yet. Was that why he had been sent back to this moment in time? The Fates had suggested he change his brother; maybe he was supposed to prevent him from becoming the God of War. That would definitely make a difference.
“Do you want to be the God of War?” Hercules asked his young brother, ignoring, with a supreme effort, the exquisite torture that the small hand playing with the hair on his chest was inflicting. His young brother seemed fascinated by it.
“There’s no wanting or not wanting: I am the God of War. I’m just not old enough yet. Zeus says that when I’m ready, it will come to me.” He wrinkled his nose, and it was a sign of his besotted state that Hercules thought it delightful. “I’m not sure what he means by that, and he won’t really explain. He just says to wait.”
Hercules thought of the aggressive, violent god he had known all his life. He couldn’t see how this lively yet thoughtful boy could turn into that Ares. What could have happened? Then he remembered some of the history of that war: The Aloads.
“Listen, Ares, if you do fight against the Giants, watch out for Ephialtes and Otus. They’ll try to capture and imprison you in a brazen jar.” He wasn’t sure he should be telling him this. He just couldn’t bear the thought of his brother, this beautiful laughing boy, being trapped in a jar for over a year.
Ares regarded him wide eyed. “How do you know that?”
Hercules shifted uncomfortably, reluctant to reveal too much, unsure how he should proceed. “Um, let’s just say I have some insight on what will happen in the future.”
“You have the gift of prophecy? Like Apollo? You’re God of Prophecy?” Ares asked wonderingly.
How to answer this without lying, and without revealing too much? “No, it’s not like that. I’m only a half-god anyway. I just know what will happen because--because I’m from the future,” he admitted reluctantly. Maybe it was a mistake to tell his young brother the truth, but he couldn’t bring himself to lie.
“The future! You have traveled through time. I thought it wasn’t allowed.” Ares regarded him with some suspicion.
“I’m here to...perform a task set by the Fates.” He hid an involuntary smile at Ares’ look of awe. Obviously the Fates had acquired their reputation early. Although that made sense: they must have existed from the beginning of Time.
“What is this task?”
Hercules’ obvious discomfort made Ares smile. “You can’t talk about it, is that right?”
Hercules nodded, choosing to hide behind silence.
Ares accepted this with equanimity. He was used to being kept in the dark by his elders. But there was something he could ask. ”You say these two Giants will try to capture me. Do they succeed?”
Hercules groaned to himself. It was getting more complicated by the moment, but he couldn’t stop at this stage, not without losing his brother’s trust. “Yes, they do.”
“That’s all right, Zeus will rescue me straight away,” Ares stated with confidence.
There was a long silence. Ares frowned when he saw the bleak expression in Hercules’ eyes. “He does, doesn’t he?”
Hercules looked down at the stilled hand on his chest. “Eventually.”
Ares leaned forward, and turned Hercules’ face up, forcing him to meet his questioning eyes. “How long?” Ares inquired softly.
Hercules swallowed. “Thirteen months.” He didn’t know why it should hurt so much to admit this.
“That long.” Ares looked away, trying to hide his hurt. Then he turned a fierce look on Hercules. “Are you telling me the truth?”
The terse answer was more persuasive than any number of oaths. The pain he saw reflected in Hercules’ eyes convinced him further.
Unable to hide the hurt and bewilderment at his father’s apparent desertion, Ares averted his face, looking at the goldfinches darting among the flowering branches of the myrtle. “Why?”
Hercules shook his head sadly. “I don’t know, Ares. I don’t know why he hates you.”
The dark head turned at that. “Hates me! You think he hates me?”
“Ares.” Hercules sat up and faced his brother. “I don’t know when it happened, or why, but Zeus hates you. He considers you his enemy, and he...” This was the difficult part. “He turns your siblings against you.”
Ares had turned steadily paler as he listened to the stranger tell him terrible things about his father. His first instinct was to deny it all, but something told him that he shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. He had to think, to find out if there was any truth in what the half-god said.
He stood and gazed at his disturbing guest for a space. “You said you were tired. You should rest. I will be back in a while.”
“Ares! Wait!” But his brother had disappeared in a quiet whisper of blue light.
Sick of heart, Hercules sank back on the bed, fearing Ares would confront his father and then.... The longer he talked with his brother, the more pitfalls he saw yawning around him. It was one thing to change Ares’ attitude towards him, but he was in danger of changing the whole course of history if he were not careful. But wouldn’t he be doing that anyway, if he changed his brother? He could well understand why Zeus had forbidden time travel.
He closed haunted eyes and tried to rest his aching body. He hadn’t lied when he had admitted feeling tired. He had been tired for a long time now: ever since Iolaus’ death. The final struggle with Dahak had sapped his remaining energy, and now it was an effort to greet each day with even a semblance of interest. As long as he had been responsible for the Iolaus from the Sovereign’s Universe, he had forced himself to carry on, going through the motions for the other man’s sake. Now that he was alone again, nothing seemed to matter much. His life had become a burden, growing heavier, and more dreary day by day. Every single person he cared for, except for Iphicles and Jason, was dead; everything he had fought for seemed to have lost meaning.
The only one who could still rouse him from his apathy was Ares, who still managed to prick him into anger. Now his brother aroused very different feelings in him, impossible, unacceptable feelings.
The memory of those laughing eyes, and the tactile pleasure of silky flesh beneath his fingertips taunted him with want. Of all the problems he had envisaged, never in his wildest imaginings could he have foreseen this. He was afraid, no, terrified of this Ares.
The shadows had stretched their long fingers of smoky gray over the darkening cave when Ares returned. He contemplated the sleeping man, a brooding look aging the young face into a ghostly semblance of his future self. The half-god had spoken the truth. His father had received him with smiles and seeming pride at his request to fight the Giants. Zeus had mentioned two of them, Ephialtes and Otus, and how they were planning to attack Olympus. Zeus had suggested that Ares could join his siblings when the attack came, and even try out the gift Zeus had given him.
Ares had smiled back and thanked him prettily, revealing none of the rage his father’s perfidy had kindled. When his father had stroked his dark curls, he had bowed his head in apparent filial respect, but in reality, he was hiding the accusing look he couldn’t keep out of his gaze. Yes, the half-god had spoken the truth.
And why had he come? Was it to help him? Hercules had known him by name, even though he hadn’t recognized him. There was a mystery here, and he felt it in his bones that it concerned him somehow. The man-god liked him, more than liked him. Hercules wanted him, though the idea seemed to trouble him for some peculiar reason. He was indeed a strange man, but very pleasing nonetheless.
Ares stroked the sleeping face, noting the underlying sadness dragging at the eyes and mouth. Hercules was not a happy man. Ares wondered what could have carved the lines of misery on the handsome face.
Gentle fingers roaming over his brow and cheeks awakened Hercules, and unguarded tenderness and longing shone from his eyes as he gazed at his brother. “Ares,” he murmured warmly.
“Yes,” his brother answered simply, bending down to brush his soft lips over the smiling mouth. Hercules responded without thought, pressing forward for a blissful moment until reality crashed into him, and he wrenched away with a moan.
“What’s wrong?” Ares inquired, bewildered by his sudden retreat.
Hercules swept a shaking hand through his hair, pushing the tawny mane off his face. “You don’t understand, you are...we...” Hercules straightened and gazed at the boy with resolution. “Ares, Zeus is my father too. We’re brothers, well, half-brothers.”
Ares stared at him, dark brows meeting in a frown. “My half-brother! I didn’t know I had another half-brother.” He thought a moment. “Wait, you say you’re from the future, so...”
Hercules nodded, “I haven’t been born yet. I won’t be for a long time to come.”
“I don’t know. If I remember right, this war with the Giants will have taken place at least five thousand years before, and you will have been the God of War for a long time.”
“And those city-states you mentioned will exist then,” Ares mused, trying to piece together all he had learnt. “So, we know each other in the future,” he murmured, liking the idea. “Are we lovers?”
“No! Ares, I’ve just told you we’re half-brothers,” Hercules exclaimed.
“So? Mother and father are twins. And Apollo thinks nothing of it, nor does Aphro--”
“Apollo? Apollo molests you?” Hercules interrupted, horrified. Was everyone after his little brother?
“Molest me?” Ares asked, looking puzzled. “I don’t know what you mean by that. He likes to kiss me and touch me. He says he’s teaching me, just like Aphrodite. She does nice things to me.” Ares watched the expressions of shock, disgust, and...jealousy?...sweep over his brother’s face in quick succession, and wondered at his reactions.
“Ares, you’re too young. You’re what, fourteen?” This was a boy, just a boy. Then he thought of Ganymede. “Zeus doesn’t...?”
“I’m nearly fifteen, and Zeus doesn’t what? Touch me, like Apollo, and Aphrodite, and Poseidon? No, I think mother won’t let him,” he explained reflectively
Hercules sat turned to stone. It seemed that all the family desired his brother. He looked at the tender curve of the full mouth, the rosy, sensuous lips, the large, sparkling eyes, so full of life and light, saw what the others saw, and wanted it too. Dear gods, was he no better than the rest?
“Ares, what they’re doing, it’s not right. They’re...” Incest meant nothing to this god, not surprisingly. “They’re taking advantage of you. It’s up to you to decide who will...” Hercules swallowed. “...who will teach you to love. When you’re old enough, you will find someone you care for, and that’s the person who should touch you, love you.”
Ares regarded him thoughtfully for a long moment. “Is that what you did?”
“Yes, that’s what I did,” Hercules stated firmly.
“It’s up to me to choose?”
“Up to you,” Hercules affirmed, pleased and yet depressed when his brother nodded in apparent agreement. He should have been glad that his brother would now stop throwing himself at him, but all he felt was disappointment. He watched longingly as the young Ares paced in front of him and tried to control the demands of his mutinous body.
“Hercules, why did you come back in time?” Ares asked him suddenly.
Hercules jerked violently with surprise. “Um, I came, I came to...” Why had he come? Really? “I came because I wanted to make sure that we would be friends.”
“Friends! We’re not friends in the future?” The dark eyes were wide with disbelief.
Hercules shook his head sadly. “No, we’re enemies.” Then his eyes glittered with the light of startling discovery. “We’re enemies because Zeus wants us to be.” He turned towards his brother. “Ares, it’s not you, or me, it’s him. He turns you against me, and he convinces me you’re my enemy.” He felt giddy with relief. His brother hadn’t hated him, not really.
“I couldn’t be your enemy,” Ares declared stoutly. “You’re my friend, aren’t you?”
Taking his brother’s hands, Hercules smiled fondly down at him. “Yes, I’m your friend.”
“Then how...?” He couldn’t conceive how he could ever come to regard this man, his brother, as an enemy.
Hercules held him close for a moment, then replied with an unhappy sigh, “You change. I don’t know how, but when you grow older, you’re full of hate, and rage and resentment. You become vicious, stupid with jealousy, and greedy for power.”
Ares paled at the description of his future self. He didn’t like the thought of becoming hateful and vicious, stupid and greedy.
“I don’t understand. I’m not like that. Am I?” he asked, voice shaking with distress.
Hercules placed reassuring arms around the stiff, young body. “No, you’re not like that at all. You’re a wonderful, intelligent person. And I wish I knew what happened to you, because I would do anything to prevent it from happening. I don’t care how it would change the future.” And that was the truth. He didn’t care what happened to the world, to himself, if he could save his brother.
“Are you here to stay?”
Hercules saw the hopeful look in the luminous eyes and shook his head, wishing with everything he was that he could stay in this here and now. “No, I’m only here for five days. After that I must return to my time.”
The desolation that flashed across the lovely young face tore at him, and he tightened his embrace. “I’m sorry, Ares, but I swear that I will find some way to help you before I leave. Whatever it takes.” The steely tone would have been familiar to many in the future, and justifiably feared.
“All right. I believe you,” was the quiet reply. Ares leaned on him, comforted by his brother’s words, knowing here at least there was someone on his side, someone he instinctively knew he could trust. Not like his father, a father who would see him imprisoned and not lift a finger to help him. Not for thirteen months. Ares shuddered at the thought of being trapped in a tight, dark space for that long. He couldn’t trust someone who allowed that to be done to him. Regardless of his gifts...
He straightened, dislodging Hercules’s head, which had been resting on top of his, absent-mindedly rubbing his cheek over the soft, springy curls. Ares scrutinized the inquiring look in his brother’s blue eyes, saw the tenderness shining in their depths, and came to a decision.
“There’s something I want to show you. It’s a secret. Come.” He took Hercules’ hand and led him to the wall opposite the couch. When he touched the rough, lichen-tufted stone, it dissolved into an archway. Ares led the way into the dark passage before them, still holding onto his brother’s hand. Hercules had to duck more than once to avoid being brained by the wicked spurs and ragged edges of black volcanic rock that extruded from the ceiling.
He was relieved when they arrived at another cave, breathing easier as the walls receded away into the gloom. He had never been fond of enclosed spaces, and that passage had made his heart beat fast; it had felt as if there hadn’t been enough air for him to breathe.
He couldn’t help flushing when Ares waited for him to regain his composure, but his young brother didn’t mock him for his momentary weakness, just smiled in sympathy. Obviously he didn’t like enclosed spaces either. What would imprisonment in a jar for thirteen months have done to him? Hercules shuddered inwardly.
Ares led the way towards a basalt slab gleaming darkly at the other end of the cave. The way was lit by two burning lamps held by standards of light bronze on either side of the platform. Their steady flames reflected on the polished stone and the long, shallow chest of shiny olive wood laying on top. Hercules stood next to his brother and observed with interest as Ares reverently lifted the lid, displaying a long, heavy blade fitted onto an elaborately worked hilt, its pommel a silver skull.
“This is the Sword of War. Father gave it to me,” Ares explained in hushed tones. “One day I will wield it as the God of War.”
Hercules gazed with repugnance at the brooding blade, hating it for all it represented. Then his brother’s words rang in his mind. “What do you mean one day you’ll wield it?”
Ares glanced up at his brother with a sheepish look. “I’m not strong enough yet. It’s too big for me.”
The words reverberated in his brain like warning shouts before exploding into the blinding light of revelation. The sword--it was the sword that held the key.
As Ares stretched a hand towards the blade, Hercules’ own shot forward, pulling his brother against his chest. “Don’t touch it!” he warned, steering them away from the glinting sword. The blade pulsed angrily at them with reflected fire.
Startled by his brother’s violent reaction, Ares stilled, palms resting flat on the broad chest “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know, let me think. There’s something here...” Feverishly, Hercules tried to gather all the information into a coherent whole. Fact: Ares was a god, with a god’s powers, yet he couldn’t use the sword. But millennia from now, when it was stolen, he would lose his godhood. Fact: this bright, vivacious boy would somehow turn into the violent, hating god who would torment him all his life. Fact: Zeus hated Ares; he was always trying to control him, belittle him.
“It’s a trap. The sword is a weapon made, not to help you, but to destroy you.” His voice trembled with the fury and revulsion that threatened to consume him. Zeus had done this to his son. Zeus, their father, the sick, vicious, evil...
“Destroy me? How would it destroy me? Tell me! “ Ares demanded fiercely, his eyes ablaze with ire and dread.
“The bastard!” Hercules grasped his brother urgently, nearly crushing his arms with the force of his emotions. “He created it to weaken you, to make you less than you are, than you could be.”
The large, lustrous eyes searched Hercules’ face with painful intensity. “How? How does he do it?”
Hercules shook his head in frustration. “I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think it drains your godhood into itself somehow, and takes over your mind, filling it with hate and rage, clouding your thoughts, making it difficult for you to concentrate, to think straight. It becomes your master, and without it, you’re not a god. In the future, a man called Sisyphus will steal your sword, and you become mortal.” Seeing the stricken look in his brother’s eyes, he wrapped his arms around the small, rigid body, holding him close. “It’s ok. You get it back, but you see how the sword is responsible for changing you. I’m sorry, Ares. I’m truly sorry.”
The young god rested his head on his brother’s chest, listening to the heavy heartbeat as he battled with the grief and burning hate boiling inside him. His father would do this to him. He didn’t doubt Hercules’ word. There was so much he hadn’t understood about Zeus’ unpredictable behavior that now made perfect sense.
His father hated him and wanted to destroy him.
“Why? Why does he hate me so much?” he asked in a harsh whisper.
Hercules sighed heavily into the dark curls. “I think he fears you, Ares. You’re his legitimate son, his youngest son. Remember what happened to his father and to Uranus; he’s afraid one day you’ll do the same to him.” Hercules thought of Athena, how Zeus had killed the mother and swallowed the daughter, just like Cronus had done with his own children, afraid of being destroyed by her, believing Gaia’s prophecy. Now Zeus was afraid of Ares. He couldn’t swallow him, but he could cripple his son to the point where he wouldn’t be a threat. And he would use his other children too. He would use...
“There’s more, Ares.” He wanted to cry and scream and pull his hair by the roots, but that was a woman’s way. He wasn’t allowed that comfort. He released his brother and stood back, eyes leached of color by the despair filling them.
“More?” Gazing up into the agony that was his brother’s face, Ares braced for the next blow, though by now he didn’t think anything would shock or hurt him more than the last revelation had.
“Zeus--Zeus created me as a weapon to use against you.” Hercules’ face twisted with an ugly sneer, “That’s all I am to him--I see that now--just a stick to beat you with. No wonder he made me so strong.” He turned away, unable to meet his brother’s eyes. “He’s forbidden the other gods to kill me, but he’s never told me I couldn’t kill you. I think that’s what he wants, what he’s hoping I’ll do one day.”
“And would you?” Ares inquired quietly.
“No!” Hercules whirled round, “I wouldn’t kill you. Even at your worst, I have never tried to kill you. Now less than ever.” He took a step towards Ares, then stopped. “I would rather die than kill you, Ares.”
“Why not? If I’m your enemy in the future...”
“You’re not my enemy. Zeus is our enemy. I will never kill you. You’re my brother and...I love you,” he finished, voice dying hoarsely as he realized how true that was, would always be.
Ares contemplated the grim, desolate man before him. He realized that the discovery of their father’s falseness had been just as painful for his brother, if not more so. Though feeling bruised and hollow, notheless he had an unexplained urge to comfort his brother. Giving in to the urge, he wrapped his arms around the large body and rested his head on the broad chest, feeling comforted in turn when strong arms enfolded him in a loving embrace.
“Is this why you were sent back in time? To warn me?” He breathed in the clean, musky scent of his brother’s skin, already so familiar and necessary. He felt the air leave Hercules as he breathed out.
“I came because I wanted to convince you somehow not to hate me, not to see me as your enemy. I didn’t know how I would manage it, because I never really understood why you hated me so much.” He stroked his brother’s back with a gentle hand. “When I met you, I...” He stopped, but he was determined to be truthful at all costs, so he continued. “I loved you, not even knowing who you were.” In spite of your youth, he thought painfully. “Then, when I learnt you were my brother, but so unlike the Ares I knew, I realized something must have happened to you, something terrible to change you so much. I think it’s the sword that causes it, Ares. That’s what happened to you.”
Ares thought about that. It made sense. But without it... “How can I become the God of War without it, though?” he asked his brother.
“Is that what you really want?” Hercules asked
“I told you, it’s not a case of choosing. That’s what I am, or will be. But not the god you know in the future. I don’t want to be like that. So, what can I do?”
Hercules shook his head. “I don’t know, Ares. You’re going to have to find some way of controlling the sword. Do you have any connection to it at all?”
“Sometimes I feel it calling me. When Zeus gave it to me, he touched the tip to my heart, and I felt...something, some kind of link forming.”
Realizing how much his brother hated the Sword--his look of abhorrence said it all--Ares took his hand. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. We can think better away from it.” Hercules appeared to agree wholeheartedly, for he allowed himself to be led back outside without protest.
The sun had already set, and it was dark when they came out of the passage. As they made their way to the sleeping couch, Ares lit the lamps resting on silver tripods throughout the grotto. He pulled at Hercules until he was sitting down on the soft furs, then settled himself on his lap, pulling his brother’s love around him like a shield.
“Don’t worry, Ares. You’ll find some way to control the sword,” Hercules murmured encouragingly, gently carding his fingers through his brother’s silky curls. “Perhaps Hephaestus can make you another sword, and you can link it to the one Zeus gave you. But you’ll be the master of that one,” he suggested.
Ares sat up with excitement. “Yes! I could do that. I’m sure Hephy would make one for me. That’s a brilliant idea. An amazing idea.” He smiled delightedly at his brother, fairly vibrating with elation.
Dazzled, Hercules blinked hard. His fingers were tingling, and he flexed them, tangling them in the soft, soft curls, feeling afraid, mesmerized by the wondrous depths of the shining eyes smiling at him. Then he realized his cock was diamond hard, straining against the unforgiving leather of his pants, and firmly lodged against his brother’s thigh.
He was suddenly terrified, heart pounding noisily against his ribs.
“Are you all right?” Ares touched his cheek with a gentle hand.
“Yeah, just--just, it’s warm here.” His throat ached when he spoke, it felt so dry and tight. Something was wrong with him. It had to be the shock of all he had learnt today, or too much sun perhaps.
Ares touched his forehead, caressed his face. “You are warm. I’ll get you... Oh.” He felt Hercules’ hardness as he turned towards the table.
“I’m sorry,” Hercules whispered in an agony of embarrassment. Ares pressed into him, rubbing his thigh against him, the contact dizzying, terrifying. “Don’t! Don’t do that.”
“Why? Don’t you like it?” Ares turned, and now he was straddling Hercules’ hips, pressing their groins together.
Hercules closed his eyes and whispered, “Please Ares, I’m not...I don’t...”
Ares plastered himself over his brother’s chest, wishing his chiton and Hercules’ clothes away, so that they sat chest to chest, flesh to flesh.
Hercules jumped, then moaned with involuntary pleasure. Gods, gods. He cleared his throat--his mouth was dry--his lips were dry. It was hot, so hot. “Please, Ares, we can’t do this.” But he didn’t push the boy away. He was horrified to realize that his arms had snaked around his brother’s back and he was rubbing their chests together. But he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop.
Ares brought his face close and showed him a determined, eager smile. “We can’t?”
Hercules touched his brother’s smooth cheek. "You’re too young, and I’m too old for you.” And I’m your brother, but he knew that would hold no meaning for Ares, not for an Olympian god.
Ares shrugged and rested his head on Hercules’ shoulder as he considered his answer. "Not really. I’m old enough to fight, according to father, so I’m old enough to fuck.” He lifted his head and looked into the anguished heat of his brother’s eyes. “And you’re not too old; you’re just right. And you...like me, don’t you?” he asked a little uncertainly.
“Yes, I like you, I love you, but...” He became aware that he was stroking Ares’ back now, became aware that he was trying to absorb him with his touch. There was fire coursing through his body. He was twitching with desire, with lust. He tried to still his hands, stop his hands, but he couldn't. They moved down the bare back, cupped the small, tight ass, feathered over the crack. He hid his face on the young chest with a convulsive sob. Because at least this way he couldn't-- wouldn’t see his brother’s shining eyes, his soft, sensual mouth.
“You want this. You want me,” Ares murmured happily against Hercules’ hair.
" No--yes," Hercules answered hoarsely. "I've never done this...I’ve never wanted..."
Ares rocked against him, causing him an agony of sudden ecstasy, and two small but determined hands lifted his head until they were gazing into each other’s eyes. "Never wanted what? Young boys? Me?”
"Y-you. I mean--young boys. It’s not right, not fair to you." He felt dizzy, winded, ripped to shreds. There was a truth here, some knowledge he didn’t want to face. His hands caressed the shapely ass, then fingered the tight opening to his brother’s body before he could stop them, and tighten them around the slim waist instead. "H-help me, Ares. Please don’t let me do this,” he pleaded, helpless to stop himself.
Ares’ soft mouth entranced him, tortured him as he spoke. “No, I won’t help you. I want this. I want you. I want you to be my lover. I want my first time to be with you. You said I should do the choosing, and I choose you.”
"I...don't think, I..." The first one, to be Ares’ first lover--not Poseidon, not Apollo, not anyone--him. He could feel his brother’s breath mingling with his own. Their mouths were so close, so close. One kiss, just one kiss. He could have one kiss, and then--then he would stop. He could stop. Couldn’t he?
Ares brushed his right hand down his brother’s chest, down over a pebbled nipple. Hercules breathed hard as the fingers lingered there momentarily, then groaned as the tight point of flesh was squeezed. Gods, gods, he was lost.
The hand was suddenly wrapped round his weeping cock, and he bucked, surging helplessly into the small fist before forcing himself to still, go limp, to lock every muscle before he went mad, before he lost it, lost himself.
"Shh...it's all right," Ares crooned softly. "Everything's going to be all right..." He gently pumped the glistening cock, touching Hercules’ hot, sweaty face with a cool, loving hand.
Hercules was gasping. His cock was pounding with blood, harder than steel, hungry, desperate. Powerless, he gazed into the shining eyes.
"It’s ok," Ares assured him confidently. "Just relax, just let go. Just--love me."
Too late, too late he knew the truth about himself. It was too late--he was just like his father, just like the rest of them. He was damned, condemned to deepest Tartarus.
The young lips were burning hot, lusciously soft, deliciously sweet, and Hercules felt something breaking deep within him, something brittle, and fragile, and fundamental shattering for good, leaving him forever broken. And the exploding splinters jerked him forward, moved his hands back down, down, and inside the tight warmth, as he kissed his brother’s cheek, and kissed his eyes, and kissed his lips, and kissed him till he spilled his life, his broken soul into his brother’s keeping. It was only then he realized that he was sobbing, tears dripping into their locked mouths, and he tasted his own ecstasy and despair.
* * *
The morning light shone clear from a blameless sky, innocent of clouds or staining fog. It was too early yet for the sun’s rays to shine into the cave, which glowed with a cool, silver radiance. But it was light enough for the resident finches and sparrows, whose cheerful squabbling echoed off the grotto’s walls, waking Hercules. He opened shadow-filled eyes to greet the last day of his present life.
He lay quite still, captive to the boneless sprawl of his brother, who was humming a cheerful tune as he played with the hair on Hercules’ chest.
“Do you have to sleep every night?” Ares asked, writing his name with a tickling finger over his brother’s heart.
“Not really, but I’ve got into the habit, living with mortals.”
Ares lifted his head and looked at him curiously. “Why?”
“Because it worries them if I don’t. They tend to see me as one of them, just very strong.”
“But you’re not, are you? You’re more like me,” Ares pointed out.
“Yes, I’m more like you.” No use denying it. He was truly Zeus’ son.
“But you care what humans think of you.”
“Yes, I care.” Too much, he had cared too much.
“You want them to like you, don’t you?” Ares rose up until he was resting with his elbows on Hercules’ chest, face close to his, their cocks lying side by side.
Gazing into the unwavering dark eyes, he admitted another painful truth. “Yes, I’ve wanted them to see me as one of them. I couldn’t be a god. You--they all made it clear I was just a half-breed, a mongrel, so I chose to be human instead.” He had wanted to show them; he would champion humanity against his family, show his contempt for the gods, and their careless, thoughtless power. He would be better than any of them. Hubris, twisted pride.
He had based all his life, his actions, on nothing more than wounded vanity. His pride had killed his family, his best friend, everyone who came near him. They were all sacrificed for the glory of Hercules’ quest, Hercules’ pride. He was a sham, a total...
“Hey, stop that.” Ares kissed him softly. “You’re getting that look again,” he complained, smoothing the frown with a careful finger.
Obediently, he smiled at his brother, eyes softening involuntarily. “Sorry, It’s just--I’ve made a mess of things.”
“Things?” The dark brows rose, liquid eyes full of curiosity.
“My life. I fuc--” He stopped, took a deep breath, and started again. “I’m sorry, Ares. You don’t know this, but I’ve accused you, well, your older self, of being selfish, only interested in your own glory, uncaring of others. But I was no better. I just kidded myself that what I did was for the good of mankind.” He tightened his hold on the body lying trustingly on his. “But I was just doing it for myself, regardless of the consequences.” Regardless of how it affected those close to him.
Ares lowered his face until they were lying cheek to cheek. “You’ve told me about your life, and what you’ve done. Seems to me you did those things for the mortals. You helped them, and if you enjoyed doing it, what’s wrong with that?” He stroked the warm flesh of his brother’s body with a possessive touch, for it was his now, his brother, his lover. He smiled with satisfaction. His forever.
Hercules turned his head until he was nuzzling the tender neck, breathing in the sweet scent of young flesh. “All those things I’ve told you about me, the things I’ve done--they hurt people, the people I loved, but I carried on, convinced that I was right, that I was doing what I was born to do, what I thought Zeus wanted me to do.” But it had all been a sham. He had been nothing more than a tool for his father, nothing else.
He took the soft, willing mouth, losing himself in the taste and feel, the delicious texture of the silky skin under his roving hands. This was all that mattered now, all that he had left. Everything else had failed him. He had failed. However, he had one last chance to change things, to thwart Zeus and save his love, his brother. Yes, he would make certain that the future would be very different.
“Ares, promise me something. Please promise me.” His fingers caressed the velvety softness of the small cock, felt it harden and then rubbed his own against the taut, young body, drinking in the moans of pleasure coming from his brother.
“What promise?” Ares asked distractedly, wrapping his small hand around the big cock, mimicking his brother’s actions, and smiling triumphantly when Hercules groaned as if in pain, and a large finger sought the entrance to his body.
“Promise me that...Gods!... that if you can’t find a way to master the sword, if--if Zeus wins and you are trapped by it...” He held the young body poised over him, his cock nudging at the entrance. “Promise you won’t let me be used by him to taunt you.” He was on fire now, needing that tight warmth, needing to bury himself, to lose himself in his brother.
Ares pushed down on the hard length breaching him. “How? What do you expect me to do?”
“Don’t know...” He lost his voice, lost his mind. Everything centered on the ecstasy flooding his body, scalding his fist, as Ares cried out and collapsed on his heaving chest, the world disappearing momentarily in a blinding flash of white.
Sight and sound returned. He became aware of the buzzing of bees drunk on nectar, the tinkling song of crystal water, the sun’s rays gilding the soaring walls of the grotto, the honey and almond flavor of the wetness on his hand, his brother’s essence.
“I don’t care how you do it. I don’t want my life, my old life. I’m tired, tired of losing everyone I love, tired of losing hope, tired of living.”
“Was it that bad, your life?” Ares embraced him comfortingly, licking the pooling sweat on the large body supporting him.
“Yes, that bad. And I think the future, my present future, will only get worse. And in the end you’ll kill me, or I’ll kill you. Someone will die. I don’t want that Ares, and Zeus will manage to make it happen somehow.” He tightened his hold on his brother. “And if you are sgoing to end up killing me, then do it before I’m born, before I have to go through it all again.”
Ares pushed up until he could gaze into the pain-filled eyes. “But it won’t be the same, don’t you see? You’ve warned me, I know what will happen, so it won’t be the same.”
“But what if--?”
“No, listen. By coming here you changed the future. You will never be the same person, because I won’t be, sword or no sword. I know what will happen, and I’ll change it, and change your life.” He frowned in sudden realization. “In a way, I will kill you. If I change your life and mine, then you will be a different person. You won’t be you.”
“Yeah, you’re right, but if I save you from your future, then it’s worth it.” What was he losing anyway?
“Don’t you worry about that?” Ares asked him doubtfully.
“No. Just make sure that it won’t be the same. Please, Ares, promise me it won’t be the same.”
“I promise you.” The solemn promise, coming from the young boy, brought home just how far he had fallen. He was asking a child to take responsibility for his life, to decide his fate. How had he come to this? And he wouldn’t change it. He had broken all the rules that had dictated his life, and he would do it again, to save his brother. To save himself.
The final truth, the final betrayal. He was asking his brother to kill him. Asking him to ensure that, one way or another, he would not exist in the future. He had told Ares too much, and he would tell him more. He would tell him everything to ensure Hercules, this Hercules, would never be. His gift to his brother, his revenge on Zeus. His way of atoning.
He had traveled to the past to die--he realized that now--and to get his brother’s love, and now he had both.
It was a small pool and shallow, but deep enough to drown a small child of six, and no one the wiser until it was too late.
His mother thought him safely asleep on her bed, curled up on the sheepskin rug that kept her warm on cold winter nights, his new toy clutched to his chest.
But she had no need to worry, for her son wasn’t alone. Unseen by human eye, a tall, dark figure watched silently as the child happily chattered to himself of the great heroes who sailed the seas on his little toy ship, and battled with fearsome monsters. Dwarfed by the hemlock and wild acanthus growing at the water’s edge, his feet half buried in warm, sticky mud, and with jonquils tangled in corn-silk hair, he resembled a somewhat sturdy water sprite.
He launched his mighty ship again, pushing it with dimpled brown hands through the tall rushes. This time though, a soft breeze propelled it further out onto the rippled water, and he followed, sinking fast into the oozy, fudge-soft mud that anchored the mint and watercress.
The small feet could find no purchase, and he staggered and fell forward. He never hit the water for strong arms plucked him up, holding him high and safe against a hard chest.
After the first gasp of surprise, the child bubbled with happy laughter and flung his arms round his rescuer’s neck.
“You came! I knew you’d come.”
The dark man hid a smile in the fine, golden hair. “Yeah, and just in time, you brat. Can’t stay out of trouble for a second.”
The child looked into the man’s face and saw the twinkle in the black eyes.
“I wasn’t in trouble. I can swim; you showed me how, remember?”
“It wasn’t so you could fall into every pond you came across, you scamp.” But he was smiling, eyes soft. He stepped away from the water’s edge and sat on the luxuriant grass of the small meadow.
“So, what have you been up to, apart from falling into ponds, that is?”
The child settled on his lap, leaning trustingly against a rock-solid shoulder. “I’m learning to read, and I can now write my own name,” he confided with pride.
“Well now, that is clever of you. Can you write mine?”
The small head shook sadly. “Show me?” he suggested hopefully.
“Sure. Watch carefully now, so you’ll know how to do it afterwards.” He conjured up a sheet of parchment and a stylus, then wrote his name in large letters, amused by the frown of concentration on the small face and the intent blue eyes following the slow, fluid movement of his hand.
“Ok. Can you read it?”
The child nodded eagerly and, pointing at each letter with a muddy finger, he read out, ”A-r-e-s.” He looked up with a pleased smile.
The god smiled indulgently. “Not bad. But can you write it?”
The child looked less certain but accepted the stylus, and slowly scratched the god’s name in big wobbly letters, face scrunched with effort. “How’s that?” he asked doubtfully.
The dark eyes were warm with amusement but the voice was solemn. “That was very good. I’m impressed.”
The child glowed with pleasure. “How about you, are you learning too?”
Ares looked wryly into the almond-shaped blue eyes. “Oh yeah, I’m learning too.”
“What are you learning? Is it very hard?” the child asked curiously.
“I’m learning patience. And yes, it’s very hard.” The hardest thing he had ever done. But he had been learning it for a long time now, and the waiting would soon be over.