Helias only laughed. He was twelve years old, and big for his age, and the smaller boy's blows barely registered on him.
"Dirtywhoredirtywhore..." he chanted in a sing-song voice. "Iphicles's mother's a dirtywhore..." His friends took up the chant in a ragged chorus, growing louder with every repetition. Encouraged by this show of support, Helias planted his hands on Iphicles's chest and shoved him backwards into the dirt. The other three boys promptly piled on top of him, pinning him down.
"And Iphicles is a diiiiirty boy, a diiiirty boy...." Helias scooped up a handful of dirt and rubbed it into Iphicles's hair. "'Cause he's the son of a dirtywhoredirtywhore..."
Held down by three larger bodies, Iphicles could barely more. He tried to bite Helias's hand as it passed over his face, and got a mouthful of dirt for his trouble. He was shaking all over, from anger and humiliation. Helias, taking the reaction as a sign of fear, only laughed louder.
Until a pair of small but impossibly strong hands gripped the back of his shirt and heaved him into the air.
"You leave my brother alone!"
Helias howled as he flew through the air, to land in a heap on the other side of the clearing. Another boy followed in the same manner, before the remaining two got the hint and took to their heels. Within seconds, the clearing was empty except for Iphicles, sitting up and spitting dirt, and Hercules, watching his brother with concern.
"Iphy? Are you hurt?"
Iphicles climbed to his feet, and glared at his brother in red-faced fury.
"What'd you do that for, you idiot?"
"I--" Hercules took a startled step backwards. His lower lip trembled. "I was trying to help."
"I don't need your stupid help! I coulda taken them myself! You always have to ruin everything!" Iphicles knew he was being unfair, but the humiliation of being rescued by his baby brother was worse than anything Helias and his gang of bullies could do. He knew he'd never live it down.
"But Iphy--" Hercules began. Iphicles chucked a handful of dirt at him.
"Don't call me that! Stupid baby, you can't even say my name right! Go away, will you?"
Hercules just stood there, staring at him. A big fat tear trickled down his cheek. Iphicles felt a sharp pang of guilt, which only served to fuel his anger.
"Go on!" he shouted. "Scram!"
Hercules scrammed. Iphicles sat down on the ground, and scrubbed at his face with his sleeve. His eyes stung, his mouth felt gritty, and his body felt like one big bruise. He wanted to throw up.
"Stupid baby..." he muttered. "I coulda taken them..."
"No you couldn't have."
Iphicles yelped and whirled around. He could've sworn he was alone in the clearing. Yet now there was a man leaning against a tree less than ten paces away, watching him with narrowed eyes. A very big man, dressed all in black, with black hair and beard, and a sword nearly as big as Iphicles strapped to his side. He stood with his arms folded across his chest, looking as if he was trying hard not to laugh. It was that smirking look that kept Iphicles from bolting. The man was scary, and a stranger, and Momma had warned him about strangers, but he was now too angry to run.
"I could too," he insisted, struggling to his feet and lifting his head up -- way up -- to meet the stranger's eyes.
"You were outnumbered four to one, and they were all bigger than you. There's no shame in losing at those odds." The man crossed the clearing and squatted down, putting himself at eye-level with Iphicles. "There is shame in boasting of things you know you can't do."
Iphicles frowned and thrust his chin forward. "It's not fair. There's always gonna be more of them, and I'll always be smaller."
The stranger looked him up and down, like a horse buyer inspecting a colt at market. "You won't always be smaller. And life isn't always fair. Come here."
Iphicles hesitated a moment, his mother's warning ringing in his ears, but he was no longer afraid. Not much, anyway. The man wasn't smirking anymore. And he didn't talk to Iphicles in baby words, or in that phony voice that so many grown-ups used when speaking to kids. He sounded like one grown-up talking to another and, though neither his voice nor his eyes were particularly kind, somehow he made Iphicles feel bigger and braver just by looking at him. Fighting down the last remnants of his fear, the boy stepped forward.
"Make a fist," the stranger ordered. "No, not like that. Keep your thumb on the outside of your fingers. You'll get a tighter fist that way, and it'll hurt less when you hit." He adjusted Iphicles' fingers to the correct position. "Now when you're punching, don't flail around like a windmill, you'll never get any force behind it like that. Pull your arm straight back, then extend forward. Put your weight into it." He put one hand on Iphicles' shoulder and one on his elbow, and guided his arm through the motion a few times, then let go and watched Iphicles do it himself. "Good. That's the way to do it."
Iphicles punched the air a few more times, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. "Will I be able to beat them up now?"
"No. But you'll look less stupid when you try."
"Oh." Iphicles stopped bouncing. "Uhm... okay. Thank you. I guess."
"You're welcome, I guess." The man stood up, once again towering over Iphicles like a big black mountain. "Go home now. Clean yourself up." He turned away, obviously ready to leave.
"Wait!" Iphicles called out.
The man stopped in mid-stride, and frowned at him over one shoulder. "What?"
"What's your name?"
The man looked surprised. "Ar--" he began, then broke off, and coughed into his fist. "Atreus."
"I know. Go home and clean up, Iphicles. Your mother's worried." And then he was gone, a black shadow fading among the trees.
Iphicles, left alone in the clearing, realized that it was getting dark, and that he was going to need a bath before supper. Throwing one last practice punch at an imaginary Helias, the boy hurried towards the road, and home.
Ares slouched on his throne, one booted foot slung over the armrest, the other tapping impatiently on the floor. In front of him, a high tripod supported a polished bronze shield that gleamed in the torchlight, reflecting a faint red glow onto the god's glowering face. Only a few seconds before, the reflection hadn't been there. Instead, the shield had held an image of a dirt road bordered by trees, and one small, grubby mortal child limping down that road.
What in Tartarus had possessed him to show himself to the brat? Not to mention giving an impromptu lesson in basic fisticuffs. He must've been delirious. At least he'd had the sense not to give his real name. With his luck, the kid would've babbled it to the whole town, and word would've gotten back to Zeus. The King of the Gods would not take kindly to Ares hanging around this particular family.
It had been morbid curiosity that drove Ares to that small village outside Thebes. He'd wanted to see what it was about that particular mortal bimbo, and that child, that kept Zeus so obsessed. One would expect the old goat to get bored and move on, especially since the woman, apparently, had not put out since that first time. But no, he was always checking on them from Olympus, or sending Hermes over to secretly look in on them, or visiting the Fates to check on the boy's thread -- as if he could do anything about it! Hera was having epic hissy fits, Aphrodite pranced around looking smug, and family gatherings on Olympus were becoming even more unpleasant than usual. So Ares decided to go and take a look.
He hadn't been impressed. Alcmene was pretty enough, but pretty blondes were a dinar a dozen. And the little bastard was nothing special either, just another whiny brat, full of nonsense talk and endless demands for attention. And the way his mother slobbered over him was enough to make a god throw up.
He didn't even notice at first that there was another child in the family. And once he did notice, he wasn't sure why he cared. No, not cared. Felt mildly interested, that's all. Enough to stay an extra day and watch. He certainly never intended to do anything more than watch.
Until he saw the kid sitting there in the dirt, stubbornly not crying even though there was no one there to see him, insisting to empty air that he hadn't needed any help, oh no, not him. Ares understood that reaction, deep down in his gut. The humiliation of being rescued in defeat could be a thousand times worse than the defeat itself.
Ares scowled and shook his head in an attempt to shake loose unpleasant memories. It did no good. They crowded in on him, images bright and vivid as newly spilled blood, though not nearly as pleasant.... Darkness so complete, he might've gone blind without ever noticing. Chains weighing him down, growing ever heavier as his strength ebbed away, constricting his chest until every breath was burning agony. No room to move, no way to relieve the throbbing ache in every bone and joint. No hope.
And then -- metal scraping against metal as the lid above his head was pried loose. After thirteen months of blackness, the light stabbed his eyes like a white-hot spike. He squeezed his eyelids shut, flinching, not knowing what to expect. A dark shape blotted out the light, and he felt a sharp stab of fear. Then Hermes's voice drifted down to him, amusement mixed with a barely detectable note of concern.
"Hey, bro! You look like something the cat coughed up."
He had never hated anyone as much as he'd hated Hermes at that moment.
Ares slammed his fist against the armrest with enough force to make the massive throne shudder. It's ancient history. Get over it. The Aloadi had been dead for centuries. The other gods didn't even needle him about it anymore, having moved on to other amusements. Damn that brat for bringing it all back.
He wouldn't go back to Thebes. He didn't need this shit. Let Zeus have his fun, if he was so determined. The God of War had better things to do.
The walk back into town took Iphicles nearly twice as long as the walk out. By the time he made it home it was dark, supper was cold, and Hercules had told their mother all about the fight in the clearing. Alcmene didn't actually yell or lecture, but Iphicles could tell she was upset.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, staring at the floor. The dirt in his hair was getting itchy, and he stuck his hands in his pockets to keep from scratching. "I didn't mean it."
"I know you didn't, dear." Alcmene kissed him on the nose. "Now tell that to your brother."
So Iphicles shuffled over and apologized to Hercules, who promptly forgave everything. Things got a lot cheerier after that. Alcmene peeled Iphicles' clothes off and helped him clean up, wrapped him in a blanket, and brought him supper in bed. It felt so nice, he almost didn't mind getting beat up.
He sort of hoped Alcmene would sit up with him a bit, but she told him that she had to go wash his clothes, and that he had to go to sleep early and get some extra rest. Iphicles tried to complain -- it wasn't nearly his bedtime yet, and it was stupid to have to go to sleep before Hercules did -- but he really did feel tired. Alcmene kissed him again, carefully confirmed the absence of monsters under the bed, and left. A few minutes later, he could hear her in the front room, telling Hercules a story. Iphicles crawled out from under the covers, tiptoed over to the door, and pressed his ear against it, so that he could hear, too.
Zeus and Hera were having one of their little heart-to-heart talks. You could hear the shrieking from a mile away. Ares stood outside the throne room, one hand against the door, and wondered if he should come back at another time.
He had just done speaking to Athena, as unproductive a conversation as any he'd had in centuries. The bitch had stopped a perfectly good war, just because a gaggle of dirty farmers had trooped into her temple and asked her to! When Ares objected, she went all cool and superior on him, and cited seniority, which meant she wasn't going to listen to a thing he said. Getting into a full-fledged war with her was not an option, so he was left with the unpleasant choice of either putting up with her interference or appealing to Zeus. And Athena, of course, was Daddy's little girl, and could do no wrong.
There was a loud crash inside the throne room, followed by an impressive string of curses. The Queen of the Gods had a vocabulary that would put a hardened warlord to shame. Ares committed some of the choicer phrases to memory, and decided to come back later. He was just about to step away from the door when it swung open, and he found himself face to face with his father.
Zeus' eyes were flashing, and his mouth was set in a thin, angry line. The air around him crackled with energy, little bolts of white lightning flashing in and out above his head. Behind him, Ares could see black scorch marks on the walls, and shards of a broken vase littering the floor. Hera was nowhere in sight.
Zeus looked at his son as if he'd just crawled out from under a flat rock. "What do you want, Ares?"
"Nothing." Ares stepped aside to let Zeus pass. "I was just going."
He faded into the aether before Zeus had a chance to reply, and reappeared a few moments later in his own throne room. With a roar of frustration, he hurled a red bolt of energy at the nearest wall. The room shook. Bits of stone rained from the ceiling. A double-headed battle axe mounted over the mantlepiece crashed to the floor. It wasn't quite as satisfying as dropping a fireball on Athena would've been, but it served to vent his temper a bit.
He prowled the room for a couple of minutes, finally coming to a stop in front of his shield, still mounted on its tripod. A flick of his hand, and he was looking at a battlefield near Sparta. Armies clashed with a noise like thunder. Shields shattered under the impact of sword and spear, flesh gave way to metal. Blood streamed along the ground in rivulets, and the screams of the dying rang in the air. Ares's mouth curled into a wide, feral grin. Life wasn't all bad.
He let the shield flicker from one image to another, guided by impulse and chance. Great battles, or petty village raids, it was all the same to him at the moment. It was War.
The image of shouting children on a green riverbank -- that one took him by surprise. He frowned, looking closer. The scene was so familiar, he thought for a moment that he was looking a day back in time by mistake. But no, it was definitely the present. And there was Alcmene's mortal brat, getting pummelled by the same damn bullies in the same damn clearing. Did the kid make a hobby of this, or what?
Ares popped into the clearing, invisible, unsure of why he was there. He was filled with a simmering, unfocused anger, and he didn't know where it was coming from or what he was going to do about it. He wasn't going to kill these children -- that would be stupid and wasteful, and serve only to alert Zeus to his presence in Thebes. And a children's quarrel was not a war. It wasn't even a real fight. It was a joke, and not a very funny one at that. He had no business being there, really. He should leave.
With a snap of his fingers, Ares transported himself and Iphicles half a mile up the river bank.
There was another clearing there, smaller and less accessible. Iphicles sat down onto a soft patch of grass, and Ares stood over him, glaring.
"And what was that all about?" he demanded.
"Who's there?" Iphicles looked around wildly, and Ares realized he was still invisible. He popped into sight, and the boy jumped. For a moment, Ares thought he would run. Instead he grinned, and bounced up and down on the grass with gleeful enthusiasm.
"Atreus! Did you see? I hit him just like you said! He was saying bad things about Momma, and I made a fist the right way, and I hit him like you showed me, and he fell down on his butt!"
Ares fought down an undignified snort. "No," he admitted. "I didn't see that. But I wish I had."
"Oh." Iphicles seemed to deflate a bit as his enthusiasm wound down. He looked around again, apparently just now catching on to the fact that he was in a new place. "How did I get here?"
"I brought you."
"Oh.... Did you bring my boat?"
Ares blinked at him. "Your what?"
"My boat. I was playing with it in the water, and then Helias came and started saying--"
"--bad things about your Momma. Yeah, I got that part. I didn't see any boat."
"But it's my boat!" Iphicles' eyes grew wide, and his chin quivered. "My Daddy made it, when I was real little. I gotta have it back!" He gave a loud, ominous sniffle.
Ares rolled his eyes. One minute the kid was bouncing and laughing, the next he's getting ready to blubber. It was a wonder any child ever lived to adulthood.
"All right, all right, stop snivelling. I'll go look for your damn boat."
He hopped back to the first clearing, invisible to mortal eyes again. Helias and his friends were still there, wandering around in blinking confusion, searching for traces of their vanished victim. Ares ignored them. He strode over to the edge of the water and peered down. Sure enough, there it was. A crudely made wooden sailboat, small enough to fit into his cupped hands, with a bit of blue linen for a sail. Ares snatched it up with a disgusted grunt. He was going to throw a tantrum for this?
Iphicles was still sitting there sniffling when Ares reappeared, but the tears vanished as soon as he caught side of the boat in Ares's hand.
"You found it! Thank you!"
He jumped to his feet and lurched forward. Ares, much to his disgust, found his legs clasped in a tight, awkward hug. Iphicles had been playing in the river and fighting in the dirt. He was damp and filthy. This would not do. Ares concentrated for a moment, and made the dirt vanish off both of them. Iphicles didn't appear to notice.
"Thank you," he whispered again.
"You're welcome," Ares growled. "Let go of me and take your toy, will you?"
The boy let go. Ares held the boat out to him, and Iphicles took it reverently, holding it as if it was a jewel of rare worth. He looked up, and Ares thought he was going to thank him again, but Iphicles just stood there and stared at him, mouth half-open, as if a word got stuck on its way out.
"Well?" Ares demanded impatiently. "What is it? Is there something else I can fetch for you?"
Iphicles ignored the sarcasm, or maybe he just didn't recognize it. He took a step backwards towards the river, cradling the boat against his chest.
"My Daddy went on a boat once," he said. "To Knossos, to fight in a war. He made this when he came back. I don't remember that, but Momma told me." Iphicles paused to adjust the mast, which had jostled loose in transit. "My Daddy was a great warrior," he announced.
Ares said nothing. The brat's father, if he recalled correctly, was a perfectly mediocre soldier who died in an minor skirmish in an unimportant war. But children always had an inflated opinion of their fathers. Mortal children, anyway.
There was a tug on his arm. Iphicles had finished fiddling with the boat, and was now pulling at Ares's wristguard with one grubby hand. "Do you want to play?"
"Do I what?" Ares nearly choked on the question.
Iphicles shifted from foot to foot, looking mildly impatient, and not at all aware that he'd just asked the most ridiculous question in the entire history of humanity.
"Do you want to play?" he repeated. Then, without waiting for an answer, he scampered over to the river's edge and squatted there, moving the boat through the water in random zig-zag patterns. He looked a bit precarious, perched in the slippery black mud that bordered the water, and Ares found himself edging in closer. It would be annoying, he thought, if after all the trouble he went through the brat fell in and drowned.
Iphicles looked up at him. "Make a storm," he demanded.
"Huh?" Why would the kid want a storm? It was a perfectly nice day.
"Make a storm," Iphicles insisted. "Like this." He swept one palm through the water, making waves. The boat bobbed up and down, the little sail flopping in the breeze. Ares stared for a moment, then reached down and dipped his hand in.
"Yeah." Iphicles beamed at him. "Perfect."
"I'm worried," Alcmene confessed. She was leaning against the garden fence, talking to her friend Thisbe, having waved the older woman over as she was passing by. "Iphicles has never been the most well-behaved child in the world, but he's never told such... such outright lies before."
Thisbe smiled. She had successfully raised six children to adulthood, and could afford to be tolerant of a young mother's fears. "They're not lies, Alcmene. Not to him. Think of it as... a very serious game."
"A game he's been playing for three weeks?"
"Yes. It's not so unusual, believe it or not. A lot of children have imaginary playmates, especially if..." Thisbe trailed off, looking embarrassed.
Alcmene sighed. "Especially if they don't have any real ones?"
Thisbe had the grace to blush. "Well, yes. For... whatever reason, Iphicles doesn't get along with the other kids in town. So he's made up this-- what did you say his name was?"
"So he's made up this Atreus to be his friend. A friend who's bigger and stronger and better than all the boys who won't play with him. A friend who can make himself invisible, who is always there when he calls. It makes perfect sense."
"But it won't help him make real friends, will it? And he has a brother close to his age, why can't he--"
"Alcmene, Alcmene, Alcmene..." Thisbe was shaking her head. "It is a fundamental law of human nature, that no boy ever wants to play with his little brother. Don't try and force it. It won't happen. Let Iphicles have his Atreus, he'll get tired of the game in due time." She chuckled "When my Ariadne was ten, she had a talking pony named Pumpernickel. Now that had me worried for a bit!"
Alcmene stifled a laugh. "So what happened?"
"She grew out of it. As will Iphicles. Give it time. Stop worrying"
"You're probably right." Alcmene sighed again. She wished she could be as calm, as rational about things, as Thisbe was. She wished she could stop worrying on command. She wished... she wished Amphytrion was there to help her. Parenthood had seemed so much easier when she didn't have to do it alone.
"I'm definitely right." Thisbe patted her arm. "And I'm also definitely late. I'd better go now, before all the good vegetables are gone."
"Mommy, Mommy!" Hercules poked his head out the back door, laughing and waving at her. "Hi, Aunt Thibby! Mommy, you wanna see what I made?"
Alcmene said a quick good-bye to Thisbe, and hurried back into the house. She had left Hercules in the front room, with a pot of finger-paint and a few sheets of parchment, and she had a sneaking suspicion that "what I made" was going to involve a big mess on the floor. But when he laughed like that, it made it all worthwhile...
"I hate my brother."
"I said, I hate my brother!"
"And I said, hmph. Are you going to throw the ball, or what?"
Iphicles scuffed one foot against the ground, looking sulky. Over the past month, Ares had grown very familiar with that look. It meant, among other things, that the ball was not going to get thrown any time soon. With a resigned look at the heavens, Ares sat down and patted the ground next to him.
"All right, brat. Sit down. Say your piece."
Iphicles sat, and started plucking blades of grass and tossing them into the water.
"I think Momma likes him better than me."
Ares thought so too, but he wasn't about to say it. "Don't be ridiculous."
"I think everyone likes him better than me."
"You don't think so?"
"I don't like him better than you."
There was a long silence. Another piece of grass landed in the water, and spun away downstream.
"You're my best friend."
Ares shifted uncomfortably in his seat. What in Tartarus was one supposed to say in response to that? He was the God of War. He had worshippers, enemies, victims, allies. He did not have friends.
Iphicles, of course, didn't know he was the God of War. But Ares had a sneaking suspicion that the brat wouldn't care.
"Come on." Ares pushed himself back to his feet. "Let's throw the damn ball."
"Hey, Unc, what's with the all the mudstains?"
Ares looked down, and swore under his breath. He'd forgotten to clean up after leaving Iphicles. A stupid mistake, and one he couldn't afford to explain. Fortunately, it was only Strife. Ares scowled at him. "Why? Are you offering to do my laundry?"
"Oh, no. You're on your own with that one!" Strife gave a grating, high-pitched giggle, and spun around like a drunken top. "You look like you've been rolling in it. Is there something I should know, maybe?"
"Yeah. When to shut up." Ares snapped his fingers, and the stains on his vest disappeared. "And when to leave. As in now!" He punctuated the last word with a fireball aimed right at his nephew's feet. Strife jumped back with a yelp.
"Hey! Take a chill pill, Unc! I was just going, see?" He winked out of the throne room in a pale white flash of light.
Ares conjured up a mirror and looked himself over, to see if there was anything else he might've missed. He couldn't afford to get careless.
He'd spent most of the afternoon in Iphicles's company. The boy had arrived at their usual meeting place by the river carrying a ball, but showed no interest in either kicking or throwing it. Instead, he wanted to talk. And talk. And talk.
He had gone to a horse fair that morning, apparently, and saw a big black horse. And he was going to be a great soldier when he grew up, and ride a big black horse at the head of an army. A normal person, Ares thought irritably, would take about ten seconds to convey this information. Iphicles took about two hours.
He also had some very strange ideas about what constituted the mechanics of a cavalry charge. Ares tried to correct him, but Iphicles hadn't wanted a lesson in cavalry warfare. He just wanted a "horsey-back ride."
So Ares had conjured up a horse. A big black one. And Iphicles tried to mount it by grabbing the stirrup and pulling himself up, with predictable results. The saddle slid sideways, the horse shied, and Iphicles wound up on his back in the mud. Well, at least he didn't land in the river.
Ares had calmed the horse and mounted it himself, pulled Iphicles into the saddle in front of him, and the two of them trotted 'round in circles for the rest of the afternoon. Ares hadn't even noticed that all most of the mud was rubbing off Iphicles and onto him.
He could just imagine Strife's reaction to that explanation. Not to mention the other gods. It would be the biggest laugh on Olympus since Pan tried to hit on Athena at Aphrodite's Winter Solstice party, and she reversed his goat and human halves.
He'd just have to be careful, that's all. He wouldn't forget again.
Alcmene sat up straight on her stool, and held the wet shirt up to the light to make sure all the stains were out. She thought they were, but it was hard to tell. She'd started later than she planned, and now the room was too dark to see well, even with the candle.
Laundry day was always a major production, what with all the water that had to be fetched and heated. Hercules had helped her, lugging the heavy buckets around as if they weighed nothing, beaming proudly every time he dumped another bucketful into the tub. He spilled nearly as much as he carried, but Alcmene pretended not to notice. His strength resulted in so many mishaps and accidents, that any attempt to use it constructively had to be encouraged. She didn't want him to grow up thinking he was a freak.
It had all gone so well, until Iphicles announced that he wanted to help too, tried to grab the bucket from his brother, and ended up spilling water all over himself, Hercules, and the floor... Alcmene sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose, wincing at the first faint throb of a headache. She probably shouldn't have yelled at him. But it took an unconscionably long time to get both boys back to their proper dry state. And when she tried -- and she really, really did try -- to calmly and reasonably explain why ordinary, non-demigod children shouldn't try to carry big heavy things, he grew sulky and announced that Atreus thought that Hercules was an "annoying, whiny little bastard."
She wondered if Iphicles knew what "bastard" really meant, and why it was such an awful thing to say about his brother. She wondered where he got the phrase in the first place -- it sounded like something an adult would say, not an seven-year-old child. If he'd overheard it in town... Alcmene didn't care what the local gossips might say about her. But she hated to think that the vicious talk might be spilling over onto Hercules.
The candle flickered. Alcmene dragged her attention back to the business at hand. She looked the shirt over one more time, and decided to call it clean. Laying it aside, she picked up the next item in the pile, a pair of Iphicles' trousers. With habit born of long experience, she turned out the pockets before tossing the pants into the water. The one time she'd failed to do so, she ended up fishing a not-so-freshly dead frog out of the laundry tub.
Something small and shiny fell to the floor with a clatter. Alcmene picked it up, and felt her breath catch in her throat.
It was a little toy horse, carved from some dense black stone and polished to a gleaming smoothness. The workmanship was exquisite, every detail perfect, right down to the inlaid amber eyes. The mane and tail looked as if they would be soft to the touch. The little saddle was gold, edged with chips of ruby and emerald. Alcmene had never really seen rubies and emeralds, of course, but she was sure these were real.
It was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen, and there was no way Iphicles could've come by it legitimately.
She turned toward the back of the room, and the closed door leading to the boys' bedroom. They'd be asleep by know. She hated to wake them up. But she couldn't leave it till morning, either.
She stood, clutching the toy horse in her fist, and flung open the door. Two sleepy young faces blinked at her, illuminated by the soft yellow glow of the banked fire. Alcmene swallowed, and tried to keep her voice firm but non-threatening.
"Iphicles? Come out here, please. I need to speak to you."
He clambered out of bed and came over, rubbing his eyes and yawning. His pajamas had a hole in one knee, she noted absently. She'd need to mend them in the morning.
"What is it, Momma?"
She held up the horse. "Where did you get this?"
A guilty expression crept over his face, and Alcmene's heart sank.
"I wasn't supposed to show anybody," he said.
"You didn't show anybody. I found it myself. But where -- and how -- did you get it?"
"Atreus gave it to me. Its name is Thunder."
Alcmene closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out again. She would not lose her temper. She wouldn't. But this was getting out of control.
"Iphicles, I know you like telling stories about Atreus, but this is different. This is a very, very, expensive toy. I have to know where you got it, so I can give it back to the real owner."
Iphicles' eyes widened with alarm. "But it's mine! Atreus gave it to me! He said I could keep it forever, he did, he said--"
"It's mine! You can't give it back! He gave it to me!"
And that was all he would say, no matter how many times she asked.
It was a miserable night. She couldn't give the toy back to Iphicles, of course, not without knowing how he got it. But her refusal drove him to loud, seemingly endless tears, and nothing she could say or do would calm him down. In the end, she had to put him to bed alone, and take Hercules into her bedroom to sleep. And the laundry never did get done.
In the morning, she took the toy into town and showed it around, but no one would lay claim to it, and none of the shop owners remembered selling anything like it.
"Are you kidding?" Niklos, the toy shop owner, handed the horse back to her with an unsteady hand. "You could buy my whole shop for that trinket, and throw in the bakery next door, too. No one around here can afford such a thing."
Even Thisbe's eternal calm was shaken.
"I have to say, Alcmene, this doesn't look good. Either he stole this off a wealthy traveler who's since left town, or--"
Alcmene could feel the blood draining from her face. "Or what?"
"Or there really is an Atreus, and he really did give it to him."
That was exactly what she did not want to hear. "But who is he then? Why is he keeping hidden? Why is he giving expensive presents to my child? Why--"
"Alcmene." Thisbe reached over and gripped her shoulder. "Calm down. You won't get any answers by standing here yelling at me. Now listen, this is what you do. First, give him back the toy..."
"Hey, brat!" Ares bent down and scooped Iphicles into his arms, ready to perform the customary lift-high-and-spin-around greeting ritual, but one look at the boy's red, swollen eyes stopped him.
"Have you been crying?"
Iphicles blushed. "Only a little. It's okay now."
"It's not okay till I say its okay," Ares growled. Iphicles looked as if he'd cried for hours. "Tell me what--"
"Who are you?"
Ares whirled around, nearly dropping Iphicles in the process. A large number of his mother's choicer phrases ran through his head all at once. Standing just a few paces away, having obviously followed her son to the clearing, was Alcmene.
Iphicles waved at her, blithely unaware of the disaster that had just struck.
"Momma, Momma! This is Atreus! He gave me Thunder. Tell her, Atreus! Tell her I didn't steal it."
Ares looked at Alcmene, trying very hard to appear calm and nonthreatening. He didn't think he was succeeding. Alcmene's face was an interesting mixture of fear and iron determination. For a moment, Ares actually had an inkling of what Zeus might have seen in her.
"Put him down," she said softly. Her voice, like her eyes, had an unexpected layer of iron to it.
Ares lowered Iphicles to the ground, never taking his eyes of Alcmene's face.
"I mean no ha--" he began, but she wasn't listening.
"You're one of the gods, aren't you? What do you want with my son? Does Zeus know you're here?"
If he told her his name, things would only get worse. If he did anything, things would only get worse. So he did what seemed, at the time, to be the least of all possible evils. He reached down, and gave Iphicles' shoulder a parting squeeze.
"Sorry, brat," he whispered.
It was worse than the night before, Alcmene thought hopelessly. Iphicles was heartbroken. He lay curled up in bed, sobbing, clutching the toy horse in an unbreakable grip, and he wouldn't let anyone get near him. Not her, not Hercules, not Thisbe. If anyone tried to touch him, he fought like a tiny demon, screaming that he hated them, that they made his best friend go away, that didn't want to live with them any more, he wanted to go and live with Atreus, and never see any of them again. Alcmene sent Hercules to stay with the neighbors, away from the overwrought atmosphere, and spent most of the day sitting on the floor near Iphicles's bed, talking to him in a soothing voice, trying to explain why she had to do what she'd done, trying to make him understand the danger he'd been in. Useless. He wasn't listening.
Now she stood in front of the altar in the temple of Zeus, feeling frightened and shaky and more tired than she'd ever felt in her life. She could hear the tremor in her own voice, despite all her efforts to keep it steady.
"Zeus? Are you there? Can you hear me? I need to speak to you!" It felt so strange, calling out to the King of the Gods in that familiar manner. She half-expected to be struck by a lightning bolt at any moment. "Please?" she added, just in case.
And then he was there, on the other side of the altar.
"Alcmene. You know you don't have to plead with me."
This was only the second time she'd actually seen him looking like himself. He had disguised himself as her husband in order to seduce her -- something she still hadn't entirely forgiven him for, though forgiving the King of the Gods seemed like a rather moot point. Since then, he'd appeared to her only once, to own up to the deception, and to tell her of her younger son's birthright. He was remarkably handsome, but in a remote, not-quite-human way that made her feel small and insignificant. She understood, in a way, why he always approached his mortal lovers in disguise. Now that she knew who he really was, she couldn't imagine making love to him. It would be like making love to a flame.
Atreus, or whoever he was, had been much the same. She'd known, as soon as she saw him, that Iphicles's "imaginary friend" was a god. She even had a guess as to which god he was, and the thought made her weak with fear. She had to be sure.
She described the events of the past month, finishing with a detailed description of Atreus. Zeus listened in silence, but she could sense his anger growing, gathering in the air like an impending thunderstorm. She could smell the promise of lightning in the air.
"Ares," he said when she finished. His mouth twisted as he spoke the name, hatred and disgust evident in every line of his face.
She'd guessed right then. Alcmene shuddered.
"What does the God of War want with my son?"
Zeus could only shake his head. "Nothing good, I'm sure."
"Keep him away from here. I've already lost my husband to War. I will not lose my child. Either of them."
"I know." Zeus reached out across the altar to cup her face in one large hand. It felt just like a human hand, warm and rough-callused, but she knew he could kill her with one flick of those seemingly ordinary fingers. And so could Ares. Mortals were ever at the mercy of their gods. "I'm sorry, Alcmene. I had hoped that by staying away, I could keep you out of my family's plots and schemes. I see now it's not that easy. But Ares will be dealt with, I promise you."
And then he was gone, and she was alone in the temple again, her face still tingling from his touch.
"What in Tartarus did you think you were doing?" Zeus demanded. He stood on the dais in front of his throne, glowering at his son with an expression that made Tartarus seem like not such a bad place to be. "Did you really think you could insinuate yourself into Alcmene's family without anyone noticing? What did you hope to accomplish?"
Ares's jaw was beginning to hurt from gritting his teeth so hard. "I was not. Insinuating. Myself. Anywhere. I was just--" he stopped. There was no way to end that that sentence well, was there?
"You were just what?" Zeus' voice was dangerously soft. "Just using the boy? Turning him against his family? Trying to get to--"
"No!" Ares clenched and unclenched his fists, fighting to control his temper. "I was just... spending some time with him, that's all."
"Oh, right. Out of the goodness of your heart, I suppose?"
That was the crux of the matter wasn't it? He couldn't explain his reasons. He didn't even know them himself. And whatever he said, Zeus wouldn't believe him anyway.
"What's it to you, anyway, Zeus? He's not your kid. You didn't think twice about cuckolding his father, what do you care if I toss a ball with him every now and then?"
"I will not have you near that family, Ares. Stay away from them all. Alcmene, Hercules, and the older boy."
"His name is Iphicles," Ares ground out.
"Whatever. Stay away from them."
"Why? What do you care? Do you seriously believe I'd hurt Iphicles just to annoy your little mortal bimbo?"
He didn't even realize he'd been struck until his back slammed into the opposite wall. The marble slab actually cracked at the impact. The entire throne room shuddered.
"Enough!" Zeus roared. "You will do what I say, Ares. Or you can go keep your grandfather company in the Tartarus pit. Do you understand?"
"I understand." Ares rose slowly to his feet, sliding his back along the wall for support. His chest still burned where the lightning bolt has struck him, and his head was spinning. Zeus had not held back on that one.
"Good. You're dismissed."
Zeus gestured, and the doors to the throne room swung open. Ares pushed away from wall.
"I'll remember this... Father."
He kept his back very straight as he walked out. He did not look back.
The woods were different in the dark, Iphicles thought. He'd never noticed before how scary the trees looked, with their branches like claws, or how many things there were to trip over. He'd fallen five times already. His left knee was scraped raw, and he'd lost one sandal somewhere along the way. But he still had Thunder in his pocket, wrapped up in a handkerchief, and he was still stubbornly making his way toward the clearing where he and Atreus always met. He'd never been there at night before, but he was pretty sure he knew the way. And Atreus would be there. Atreus was always there.
He tripped again, flung out his arms to break his fall, and felt his heart leap into his throat as his hands met thin air. He opened his mouth to scream, and a large hand grabbed him by the back of his collar, spun him around, and hauled him back to solid ground.
"Where do you think you're going?" a familiar voice growled in his ear.
"Atreus!" Iphicles reached out and clenched his fingers in the folds of a leather vest. "I knew you'd be here!"
"Oh, you did, did you? Do you even know where here is?"
Suddenly, the woods were no longer dark. A ball of white light hung in the air overhead, like a tiny moon. Iphicles could see Atreus squatting in front of him, looking pale and angry. He could also see that he was nowhere near the clearing, or any other part of the woods he's been in before. He wasn't even on a path. And just ahead of him, just a couple of steps away, the ground dropped off sharply into nowhere.
Iphicles shivered, and tightened his grip on Atreus' vest. "I'm sorry. I couldn't see."
"No kidding. So what were you doing, tramping through the woods in the middle of the night? Does your mother know you're out here?"
Iphicles shook his head. "She thinks I'm asleep. I climbed out the window."
"I wanna go with you!" Iphicles felt the words pouring out of his mouth in one great rush. "I don't want to live here anymore, I hate everybody here, and they hate me, and they said I can't see you anymore ever again, and--" he had to stop because he was out of breath.
Atreus wasn't looking at him anymore. He had turned his head away and closed his eyes, and he was biting his lip so hard, it had to hurt.
Iphicles took another breath. "I won't be any trouble. I'll be really quiet, and clean my room, and go to bed on time every night, and--"
"Iphicles!" Atreus grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a shake. "Listen to me. You're angry now, and you're saying a lot of things you don't mean. And even if -- no, don't interrupt, I'm talking here -- even if you did mean it, it's not an option, do you understand? It's not. Going. To happen. Your family won't allow it. My family won't allow it. And I won't allow it, because where I live is no place for mortal children. And if you keep running away to look for me, you're going to get me into a lot of trouble."
Iphicles had been getting ready to argue some more, but Atreus' last words gave him pause.
"You'll get in trouble?" he said in a small voice.
Atreus bit his lip again. "Yes."
"Would you be punished?"
"Are you going to be punished for talking to me now?"
"Only if I get caught. So can we please get you home before someone catches us?"
He didn't want to say yes. But he didn't want Atreus to get in trouble, either. "Okay."
"That's my brat." Atreus stood, and lifted Iphicles up onto his shoulder. "Let's go."
Atreus could've popped them right back into his room, Iphicles knew. But he didn't do that. He walked all the way back to the house, carrying Iphicles on his shoulder the whole time.
EPILOGUE: 15 YEARS LATER
Iphicles knelt in front of the altar, feeling awkward and self-conscious. He had asked the priest if he could pray in private, and the man had guided him to this alcove and left him there. And now he didn't know what to say. What if he was wrong?
He swung his pack off his shoulder, and dug inside until his fingers closed around the smooth, familiar shape of the toy horse. He pulled it out, looked at it for a moment in the dim light, then stepped forward and laid it on the altar.
"My lord Ares. I bring you this... offering. I don't know if it actually means anything to you. But if it does, maybe you could... I don't know... give me a sign? Please?"
Nothing. Iphicles waited, silently counting the seconds. He would wait three minutes, then leave.
Five minutes. Nothing happened. Iphicles climbed to his feet and turned to leave the alcove.
Iphicles spun around. The God of War stood in the alcove, one hand resting absently on his sword hilt, one booted foot tapping against the side of the altar. He looked exactly the same, though he no longer seemed quite so impossibly tall. He was, Iphicles noted with a little twinge of amusement, shorter than Hercules.
"Atre-- Ares. It was you, then." He hadn't really believed it. Even after seeing the statue in Tegea, with that hauntingly familiar face, he hadn't been sure.
Ares snatched the toy horse from the altar and threw it back to him. Iphicles caught it automatically. His eyes never left Ares's face.
"Keep it," the god growled. "What am I supposed to do with a child's trinket?"
Iphicles tucked the horse back into his pack, feeling relieved. He hadn't really wanted to give it up.
"I used to sleep with it under my pillow."
"Didn't stop till I was almost sixteen. Hercules teased me about it. He didn't know where I got it."
"I'm surprised it hasn't fallen apart, really. Most of my toys were in pieces long before I grew out of them."
"Hephaestus does good work." Ares was drumming his fingers on the altar now. He looked impatient. Iphicles was beginning to feel self-conscious again. He shouldn't have come. Ares hadn't changed, but Iphicles had.
"I guess I didn't turn out the way you hoped, did I? I can fight well enough, but I'm not a great warlord or anything." He smiled awkwardly. "No cavalry charges on big black horses."
Ares raised his eyes to the ceiling, as if searching for patience there. Iphicles remembered that look. It made him feel seven years old again.
"I know no one seems to believe this, but I really didn't have an agenda regarding you. You could go and raise chickens for a living, I don't care. Why did you come here, anyway?"
Iphicles shrugged. "I wanted to know if it was really you."
"So now you know."
"And I wanted to thank you. I don't know why you did it, but it meant a lot to me." On an impulse, Iphicles stepped forward and held out his hand. "So thank you."
For a moment, Ares just stood there, staring at Iphicles's outstretched hand as if wasn't sure what it was for. Then he reached out, with barely visible hesitation, and clasped Iphicles's forearm just above his wristguard. His grip was strong and warm. His arm felt like solid rock under Iphicles' fingers.
They stood that what seemed like a very long time. It was Ares who pulled back first.
And he was gone, just like that. Iphicles slung his pack onto his shoulder again, and left the temple, ignoring the curious eye of the priest, and the two rough-looking soldiers kneeling at the main altar. He thought he heard a gruff voice muttering "take care, brat," as he walked out the door, but that was probably wishful thinking.
Still, it was a nice thought.