Upside Down 1-2
All the Olympians know that Hera never forgets an injury, however slight. Some remember that she never forgives and will repay, eventually, and make it their business to be out of sight, hoping that means they will be out of her mind, whenever Zeus wanders off philandering again and she needs a target for the anger she cannot venge on him.
The Goddess of Marriage and Queen of Heaven was beside herself with rage and the storm thundered around her apartments. Iris, with a dexterity born of long experience in bringing her mistress bad news had delivered her latest piece of gossip from Helios - the Sun was always a reliable source of information about who was doing it with whom and where - from just inside the door and fled. The rainbow arcing rapidly across the sky warned everyone else that Zeus had found himself another compliant nymph to dally with. Gods and goddesses with reason to be fearful crept away from Olympus.
Hera stopped throwing the furniture around her room and sat on the one unbroken chair. She hurt, and she wanted to hurt someone in return. Who would it be? Who deserved payback? Hercules was still top of her list - forever and always - but what else could she do to him? She mulled over all her thwarted attempts on the blonde *****'s by-blow. He'd even managed to destroy the two Enforcers she created to kill him. Of course, he'd had help, first from Nemesis, now, she recalled with grim satisfaction, languishing somewhere as a mortal and the second time from Hades. Hades! Not only had her dear, darling brother set one Enforcer against the other but he had allowed the sickeningly goody-good hero to take his irritating blond sidekick back from the underworld. Yes, Hades was definitely high on her list.
But how could she get at him when he rarely left his domain, and in it the King of the Underworld could deal with anything she could throw at him and make sure she regretted her attack. What would make him suffer? It was early Spring so Persephone would have just left and he was besotted with the girl. He'd be desperate to have her back. Persephone trusted her, so if she ...... No. Threatening Persephone would inevitably get Demeter involved. Facing the combined wrath of Hades and Demeter wouldn't get her anywhere - except back to Tartarus! Dead end. She could make him mortal but to do that she needed to get him on the earth where she had the greater power, and she needed him to be distracted so he wouldn't realise his danger until too late.
She conjured a goblet of nectar and pondered the problem more deeply as she sipped. What was the agreement about the three Kings travelling in each other's domains? With permission, or on specific business, if Poseidon was calming a flood for instance, or Hades dealing with the dead on a battlefield. That was it!
"Ares!" she commanded, "Come here. Mother wants you."
The God of War appeared in an instant. Hera was pleased to see he looked apprehensive. She smiled at him, increasing his nervousness.
"I need a massacre," she said.
Ares rolled his eyes upward and opened his mouth to protest. "There isn't a war at ..."
Hera cut him short. "Are you answering back?"
The black curls shook in denial. "I'm trying to explain that ..."
"I need a massacre big enough for Hades to sort out. If you haven't got one ready, arrange one. Have one of your warlords destroy a village. No. Give me a few names and I'll organise it myself."
"Yes Mother," Ares said. He thought for a moment before adding, "Mykos is looking to make a name for himself. He's brutal, psychotic and almost clever. He should be eager to serve you."
He moved to kiss her hand but she waved him away and he left her to her scheming.
Hades woke with a stiff neck. It was the third night on the run he'd fallen asleep in his armour at his desk. Even without the sun to show time passing he knew he'd overslept and it was late in the morning. He stood slowly and stretched. He needed a bath. No, he needed Persephone back here by his side where she was meant to be. He leant back against the desk and looked into the dark well of another 23 weeks of loneliness. The first month was always the worst as he buried himself in work to fill the void she left in his heart but it never worked. He brushed a few stray curls off his brow and his fingers snagged in the tangles. The thought of Persephone teasing him about being untidy and the pleasant sensation when she groomed his hair back into its usual order cheered him a little. Tomorrow he would mope less. Now he would bathe, change, eat and get himself back under control.
An hour or so later the neat, precise and tidy God of the Dead was on his rounds in the Asphodel Meadows when he was hit by the shock of many souls crying as they w ere violently and painfully ripped from their lives. This major disturbance in the life-force created a link between the realms of life and death allowing Hades to travel to the earth to guide the new. Without the usual rituals of laying out and grief to help them find their way to the Underworld, these souls needed the succour of the Underworld's King.
Hades moved among the distressed souls judging and directing, some to Tartarus and others to the Elysian Fields. There were one hundred and seventeen spirits in all, men women and children, killed in what looked like a senseless raid on a poor village. Most of the buildings were burnt to the ground although wood still smouldered here and there. The villagers' few meagre possessions, their best clothes and bedding were strewn across the ground. Hades' face grew bleak at the sight of such mindless destruction. If Ares had anything to do with this, they would have words. Mortals could do this well enough on their own without divine intervention.
He was so engaged in uniting a distraught mother with her baby and calming them both that he did not see the peacock eyes flash across the heavens. He felt Hera's power though as she reached out and seized his helmet. His cry of protest silenced as seconds later a blast of lightning screamed through him and he fell unconscious and naked amid the corpses.
Ares knew better than to argue with his mother when she was in one of her moods. Give her what she wanted, get out quick and watch what she did with it, ready to deal with the mess. If she ever went too far he could always snitch to Athena, although he was prepared to bet his half-sister kept an eye on things herself, but let him get on with it. She wasn't Goddess of Wisdom for nothing, after one of Hera's rampages Ares was always the one in trouble with Zeus for not stopping his Mother. Always the one stuck in the middle of one of their rows: a real lose:lose situation.
So he watched Mykos and his men on their "training exercise" slaughtering almost defenceless farmers and all their families. This wasn't war and it sickened him, but he did nothing. He could do nothing until he knew what his mother's plan was. He realised who her target was almost as soon as Hades appeared but he forced himself to stay
still and quiet while Hades' godhead was ripped out of him; to lie low and say nothing until Hera was gone.
Then, and only then, did Ares materialise by his uncle's unconscious body. Hades' stillness and pallor worried him. Hera hadn't held back on her blast and mortals had died from less. His uncle's skin was so white it almost reflected the sunlight. Without touches of colour in the dark gold curls, the pale brown aureola and the richer gold of the fur cradling the limp prick and covering the balls behind it, the god of the dead could have been carved from marble by Praxiteles. For someone who spent his life behind a desk he was remarkably fit. To Ares' relief the ashen skin was warm to the touch and Hades had a steady and strengthening pulse and was breathing slowly. The war god checked the comatose form thoroughly for broken bones and other damage. He found a couple of broken ribs and some internal bleeding which he quickly fixed. Hades groaned and his eyelids flickered as Ares turned his attention to setting the broken collar bone and the dark god was gone.
Light forced its way under Hades' eyelids and into his brain driving him back to awareness. He groaned and opened his eyes to the searing blaze of the sun. The spikes of pain forced him to roll away from the brightness. His hand found cold flesh. Shock turned him the other way to touch a cold wetness. He screamed in panic and sat rocking with his knees pulled tight to his chest and his head resting on them to cut out the sight of the horror around him. The air chilled his skin and a pervading stench turned his stomach. He remembered Hera's blast and knew he was alone, naked and mortal. The God of the Dead surrounded by corpses and for the first time in his existence fully aware of the smell of burning flesh and blood. There was blood on his hand and he didn't like its feel.
"Are you all right?" someone asked hesitantly, from behind him. A man's voice, warm and friendly.
Hades felt the newcomer approach him slowly and carefully as if not wanting to scare a nervous animal, and kneel behind him. A hand, a warm, living hand, was gently placed on his shoulder.
"What happened here? How did you survive?"
Hades looked up and met the sympathetic gaze of the stranger's hazel eyes and found he couldn't speak. His mouth opened but no words emerged. How do you explain to a mortal you're a god who happens to be mortal for now?
"It's OK," the young man continued, "this kind of thing is always a shock. Can you stand up?"
He put his arms around Hades' waist and lifted. The god was surprised to find he could stand.
"I'm Atreus, by the way. Lean on me. We'll sit you down by the well and then I'll see if I can find you some clothes and a horse. We need to report this in Thebes."
In moving Hades discovered his left arm really hurt. The smell and the pain made him dizzy and his stomach rebel. They were nearly at the well when his stomach turned inside out and spilt its contents all over the ground. Atreus let him sink to his knees and left him to continue retching, even though there was nothing left to throw up. The dry
shuddering heaves were exhausting.
Atreus returned to Hades side as the spasms quieted, first wrapping the pale god in thick wool cloth and then offering him a cup of warm water.
"Sip it," the warrior instructed. "I'll make you some tea later when the water's boiled. Now come and sit by the fire."
Hades could see that some of the smouldering timbers had been arranged to provide a useful fire. A small cooking pot was suspended over it.
"I'm a mercenary," Atreus explained. "I spend a lot of time on the road. You get to be adept at making something from nothing." He lifted Hades onto his feet again and, Hades thought, carried him over to the heat. Hades cried out when his sore arm jarred as he was lifted and set down.
"May I?" Atreus asked, gently feeling the injured limb and across Hades' chest. "You've broken your collar bone." The warrior arranged the god's arms to provide support for the injury. "I'll set it after I find you some clothes."
Hades was surprised to find the pain easing from the young man's simple first aid. The warmth from the fire helped him feel better too. He watched his rescuer at work, systematically sifting through the discarded items. The mercenary was young, maybe in his early twenties, but a big, well-built man, almost as tall and broad as his nephew Ares. He had a look of Ares too but was clean-shaven and his long curls were brown with redder highlights not black, and tied neatly back not flowing loose. Atreus wore dark brown leathers over a gold shirt and carried a plain, but clearly serviceable, sword.
It wasn’t long before Atreus returned to the fire with an armful of clothes and a few other bits and pieces.
“Here,” he said to Hades, dropping the pile beside the pale god, “See if any of those will fit. They are clean. I’ve shaken the dust out of them. Good. The water’s boiling. I’ll make the tea.”
Hades began to pick through the assortment while the young man fetched a few things from his saddle bags. The clothes were clearly the villagers’ festival wear, worn seldom and well cared for. Some pieces looked as if they had been passed through a few generations. He abstractedly let the brocades and fine wools slide through his fingers enjoying the textures and was beginning to worry about which of the dead around him had worn what when Atreus snapped him out of his cogitation.
“Right. We’ll let that brew for a bit while I fix your arm,” the young warrior declared. “And look,” he added, waving a pot in front of Hades’ nose, “ I found honey! That makes this tea taste better. Takes the bitterness out of the herbs I’ve added to ease the pain after I’ve sorted you out.”
Hades was still finding it difficult to speak, otherwise he might have protested, but the frank and friendly look in the hazel eyes reassured him that his companion wouldn’t hurt him deliberately, so he gritted his teeth while Atreus moved the bones back into their right place and strapped his shoulder so they would stay there. It hurt. It hurt so much he was drifting into stupor and could feel tears trickling down his face by the time it was finished. Atreus carefully slipped him into a shirt and placed the injured arm in a sling and it was all over. Hades slumped against his rescuer relieved for the moment to rest his head against the broad brown shoulder. Atreus pulled the sick man close to his chest and cradled him, comforting him as one might a small child.
When Hades managed to whisper, “Thank you,” he was released and allowed to sit unaided.
“Here,” Atreus said, offering Hades a cup of steaming liquid, “ Be careful. It’s hot. Sip it slowly. I think these should fit you.” He handed over a pair of dark blue trousers with a slightly lighter coloured wool tunic and black boots. “If you need any help with
fastenings just shout. I’m going to see if the raiders missed any horses. If we don’t ride, we won’t make Thebes before night.” And he was gone.
Without Atreus or his chatter Hades found himself alone with only the sound of his own thoughts to fill the silence and it terrified him. As a god he could hear the music of the universe and the tunes of life all around him, and in the Underworld there was always the comforting background hum of the spirits letting him how things were going in the different parts of his domain. Now his mind was a jumble of questions piling fast one on the other. How was he going to get his power back? Why had Hera done this? Should he ask Zeus for help? What would happen at home without him? Why should his sister attack him? Would he see Sephe..? Could he bear to be rescued by his little brother? Again. What about Sephe? And Charon left unsupervised.... And, most importantly, how was he going to convince Atreus that he really was Hades? It was a mess, a really big nasty mess, and for a being whose primary compulsion was always neatness and order it was completely disorientating. For the first time in his existence the god of the dead didn’t know what he should do, so he sat and stared at the fire.
The steam rose from the cup and the sweet fragrance of the herbs and honey filled his nostrils with a faint echo of Persephone’s scent and a touch of hope entered his heart. If he could find his way to his wife everything would be all right again. She would make everything better. Atreus might know the way. Atreus had told him to do something. What was it? Drink the tea. And get dressed. So that’s what he would do. He sipped cautiously. the liquid wasn’t unpleasant and it warmed him inside.
Ares slipped out of sight between the burned out shells of two cottages and trudged across the fields to the horses he’d seen one of the dead farmers hide as the raid started. So far so good. His mortal disguise was a minor illusion, the idea of using Iphicles’ appearance from ten years before amused him and would confuse his mother. But not being able to fully use his powers and just be wherever he wanted to be was a pain. He still had a distant recollection of his times as a mortal and walking was only one of the parts that really sucked. However, Hera would be checking regularly on Hades to enjoy his torment and distress, and any large use of divine energy near him would have her hunting down its source, so it was safer to walk.
There were four animals in all with unkempt coats and manes, clearly bred more for the plough and the cart than riding. He doubted whether any of them had been ridden much. There was one bay mare, neater than the rest, who would be upto his weight. He could ride her and put Hades on his own roan gelding. He released the other horses to graze freely, jumped on the mare’s bare back, kicked her into a canter and headed back towards the village.
Ares was more concerned than he cared to admit, even to himself, by slowness of Hades’ recovery. He couldn’t entirely dismiss the possibility that Hera’s strike had damaged his uncle’s memory, or mind, as well as his body. If that was the case he would have to yell loudly for reinforcements and hope that Athena would take him under her aegis for a century or two.
His concern increased as he rode into the village to see Hades, now in trousers as well as the shirt, kneeling to bathe the dirt off the face of one of the dead women. The other bodies in the ten yards or so between his uncle and the well were now clean and neatly arranged on their backs with arms across their chests and eyes closed. The bits of clothing and other possessions had been folded and piled neatly.
As Ares dismounted and tied the horse next to his own mount, Hades called to him, “Bring that boy over here. The ten year old with the red tunic. He’s her son.”
Ares obeyed and laid the child next to his now peaceful looking mother. The intestines which had been spread around her had been pushed back and covered with a stray scrap of fabric.
“How do you know?” he enquired, searching the pale god’s eyes for signs of madness.
A clear, lucid blue gaze met his own. “Because I’m Hades,” his uncle replied simply. “ I know who they all are. I know the tunic you gave me belonged to that man there, Egeus.” He pointed to a large man with a hairline receding into a bloody pulp sprawled a few yards further on. “He was married in it. Do you have any coins? Charon gets so cranky when he doesn’t get paid. I keep telling him massacres are an exception to the rules, but he moans every time.”
“You’re really the God of the Underworld?” Ares added a touch of incredulity to Atreus’ voice and an ironic lift of eyebrow. “But you’re mortal. You’ve got broken bones and bruises,” he argued.
Hades ran his uninjured hand through the dark blond tangles and earnestly tried to explain. “Hera took my godhood for some reason and made me mortal. Then she knocked me out and left me here. Maybe she arranged for this.. slaughter,” he gestured at the devastated village. “just to get me here.”
“Yeah right,” Ares muttered, and relief that his uncle was more like himself set him laughing. If the old boy was back to his rules, he must be recovering.
Hades ignored the laughter and moved to the body of an old woman. Ares picked up the bucket and cloth and followed. He pulled his disguise more tightly around his thoughts.
“We need to leave,” Atreus said.
“These people need to be properly laid out,” Hades replied, calmly setting to work. “There’s no-one else to do it now. This is Elena. The village midwife. She used to observe my rites. Helping people into the world and out of it.”
Ares watched as his uncle’s ministrations turned the tangled mess of limbs and blood became a plump woman with iron grey hair and a cheerful face.
“We haven’t time for this,” Hades’ rescuer objected. “We’ll still be here at sundown. We need to get on out way to report this in Thebes.”
“It has to be done. It’s in the rules.” And Hades was on to the next. Ares mentally cursed his uncle’s rules and methodical nature.
“If what you say is true,” he argued, “and Hera’s after you then maybe she’ll persuade who ever did this to come back to kill you.”
The war god wouldn’t put anything past his mother, and Mykos was psycho enough to believe that killing a god, even one in mortal form, would make his name forever.
“Zeus would never allow that,” Hades protested. “One Olympian can’t kill another. It’s a rule.”
Ares focused more on his mortal guise and tried to argue from Atreus’ point of view, “But, you are mortal right? Hades looked up at the young warrior and nodded. His serious blue eyes met the concerned hazel ones above as Atreus continued his pleading. “So you can be killed by another mortal. “ A more reluctant nod as this possibility is considered and accepted.
Atreus is heartened by this. “Look. I don’t know if you are Hades or mad. You believe what you’re saying, and I don’t think you’re mad but there are only two of us. I’m useful in a fight but I wouldn’t last long against a gang of the kind of thugs who could do this. Zeus didn’t stop Hera attacking you, so I wonder if he even knows. And I bet Hera wouldn’t have to do much to convince whoever did this that killing you would bring him all sorts of power and glory. Would she?”
Hades considered his elder sister’s character briefly before shaking his head.
“And if he kills you, Zeus can take whatever revenge he likes but you’ll still be dead,” Atreus went on.
“And trapped in my own kingdom with a new ruler,” Hades finished grimly, eyes narrowing. “I would never be with Sephe again! I wish I knew what I’d done for sis to hold this sort of grudge.”
“So we’re leaving?”
“We’re leaving. As soon as you help me with the boots. I couldn’t deal with the laces with one hand.”
“Sure,” Atreus replied.
The decision made they lost no time in getting packed and Hades into boots and tunic and onto the gelding. The god of the dead paused for a last look at his new subjects as they left.
“Don’t worry,” his companion reassured him,” once we’ve reported this people will come to bury them properly.”
Hera was annoyed; very,very annoyed. Her son’s fears had been well-founded. She had convinced Mykos to return to the village to kill ‘the one person they had missed’ but it had taken hours. First, to convince him that there was a survivor, an eye-witness who could land them all in trouble, then for him to break up his men’s celebrations, and get enough of them sufficiently sober to form another raiding party. Once this was over she would have Ares explain why he nominated this particular imbecile. She would enjoy that. She had many devices and techniques to make sure Ares wouldn’t. She smiled.
The troop was on its way, a little unsteadily but going. Hera settled back on her throne, idly stroking Hades’ helmet set as a trophy beside it and sipping a cup of nectar, and watched their progress. Then she switched her attention to the village.
It was empty! No. This was not happening. She concentrated harder. There were faint traces of an immortal but she couldn’t work out which one. Would any god be foolish enough to interfere? Athena possibly, but not this quickly. It might simply be a residue of Hades’ own power still clinging to his mortal form. She scanned every inch of the place and found no sign. Her brother had gone. But where? And how? She’d left him injured. Her frustration increased.
A peacock screamed long and loud over the ruins. Mykos heard it faintly and took it as a sign of encouragement urging his men to ride faster.
In the opposite direction Ares also heard, although the sound was too far away for mortal ears to pick up, and knew his mother would come hunting and the sooner they reached Thebes the safer Hades would be. Gods might spot each other easily, but finding one mortal among many was a long and tedious business. He dampened his divine energy down as far as it would go.
“Not far now,” he said to his uncle,” let’s gallop.”
He kicked the mare upto her full speed and his gelding followed. Hades was looking faint and drawn, not riding but merely concentrating on holding on. The sooner Ares got him food and into bed the better.