(c) January 1998
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Spring evening. 22 years ago. Temple to Ares, God of War.
Darkness. Ares' favorite time of day, thought the man stepping out in full armor to the clearing before the temple. Appreciative blue eyes traveled up the massive columns of the temple's entrance. The flared frill style at the top and bottom of each was unique to the temples of this region and appropriately called Corinthian.
Corinth province, the largest organized area outside Athens, had been won for Ares by Atrius of Amphipolis, and other men like him. Warriors all, they separated from family for months on end to secure the Corinthian borders and the seaside from invasion, season after season.
Atrius couldn't remember a time when he had not served the greater will of the God of War. From the moment he had, as a pre-adolescent, raised his first sword to the skies, the dark-haired thick-chested man was compelled by Ares' battle cry, feeling it pulse through his veins, his head and his heart.
He studied the likeness of Ares, a marble statue at the entrance to the supplicants' altar, and whispered thanks. Thanks for direction, for purpose, for life on the battlefield.
"And for my daughter," Atrius recalled to himself. The girl, his second child with Cyrene of Amphipolis, was a precious seven years old today, and had lifted a sword in play against her older brother, Toris, for the first time. There was no joy greater for a warrior than to see his children reveal the same bloodlust, the same courage. No matter the age.
Atrius was doubly thankful to Ares, for his first child had been a sore disappointment. Already ten summers old, Toris would not lift a sword, preferring the crooked farming implements of the field to the sleek shininess and sharp slice of a finely honed battle blade. Atrius blamed Cyrene for the softness of his oldest son's heart, which is why he had taken both Xena and the youngest, Lyceus, quickly in hand as soon as they were weaned from their mother's breast.
Already, Xena, and the blond echo of her slender darkness, Lyceus, were excellent riders knowing how to lead a horse with only the legs, even at the tender ages of seven and six. Atrius fostered in them all the skills they would require as warriors, quickness, tracking, horse and weapon handling.
Which brought him to this visit to Ares. Atrius had seen the darkness well up in his daughter when she held her brother at swordpoint. It was time to discover her destiny as the God of War commanded it.
Atrius pulled the small supply sack off his shoulder and knelt on one knee to rummage through its contents. Finally, he came up with the wooden sword his daughter had wielded, and the caged adolescent lynx he'd trapped as a sacrifice to call upon his patron deity.
Lifting the lynx free of the cage, and solemnly enduring the vicious scratching of the animal, Atrius approached the guards at the entrance. "I have come to offer sacrifice to Ares."
Nodding at the display of the lynx and the wooden sword, the guard stepped aside and pushed open the heavy doors to the temple's interior. "Mind you, be careful. Ares is upset about the loss of his troops in his latest battle with Athena."
"I may have the answer to his prayers." It came out as a barely murmured comment, but the thought, now finding voice, heartened Atrius as he stepped inside. His armor, studded leather after the kind half of Greece wore, was well oiled and did not creak in the quiet of the temple corridor.
Torches in wall sconces cast their flicker every ten paces illuminating the homage mural the Corinthian artisans had made following the liberation war from Athens. It depicted the Corinthians in close hand-to-hand, only a generation past, driving away the Athenian soldiers from fields of browning hay grasses and golden flax. Striking blows pushing the Athenians away from seaports full of foreign trading ships, and the locals' fishing boats.
The imagery was presided over by the glorified image of Ares, garbed in his impenetrable black armor, looking down with a satisfied arrogant black-eyed glare. Gauntlet protected arms crossed over a massive chest. Greaves-covered legs spread wide, straddling a map of Corinth. Down in the opposite corner, looking up past the Athenian troops at the victorious Ares was the broken body of an owl, the representative of Athena.
The godly brother and sister had been opponents since before the dawn of history, each wanting to prevail and rule all of Greece. Their primary battleground was the border between Athens and Corinth.
Atrius looked to the priest standing by the altar, and presented the lynx. With a nod, the priest passed over the short ceremonial dagger. The blade, shaped like a writhing snake, glinted in the firelight from the altar flames. Atrius turned it over and over in his hand. This was as close to Ares as he'd ever been. Always here, sacrificing, praying for superior strength. He'd prayed to Ares for guidance when his wife wanted him to be a farmer; and been rewarded with a battle he had to flee to the very next day.
Ares had always answered his supplications, but never in a personal manifestation. It was the one thing Atrius missed when he came to the temple each time. He began sprinkling the collection of herbs atop the altar preparing it according to ritual tradition.
"I praise you, Ares, every moment of my days with the blood of your enemies and those of the Corinthian state. Amphipolis is a great center, a leader throughout the known world in commerce and exportation of war goods, as you desire."
Atrius raised the knife and looked into the eyes of the lynx, which struggled beneath the hold of his massive fist in its neck fur. "Blood calls the warrior... Sings in his veins every day of his life. Songs of killing, of battles and vengeance. My blood sings your song, Ares. I offer it to you!" With a vicious slice through the jugular of the small predator cat, Atrius spilled the sacrificial blood in great spurts over the marble altar stone. As the spurts slowed, he dashed the body on the cardinal points of the square top. "Praise to the God of War! Praise Ares!"
Atrius flung the carcass of the lynx onto the fire of the altar, watching with heaving breath, excitement pounding in his veins, as the glowing orange flames devoured the flesh. When it was charred thoroughly, he looked up the altar's spires, toward the ceiling, and the likeness of Ares carved into the dark stone overhead. The likeness pulsed in the firelight, seemingly alive, and Atrius directed his next remarks to the image.
"Today, I had another sign that I have served you as you desire, my lord Ares. My daughter, now seven winters old, raised a sword -- this sword." He held it high overhead in both hands, showing it to his patron. "And I saw the lust, the intent, the promise in her blue eyes. I know within her small chest beats the heart of a warrior, as it never did in my son, Toris. With the consumption of this sword -- the mark of her first steps into your service, my lord -- I wholly commit her to you!"
Atrius tossed the sword now into the fire alongside the lynx carcass, smoking as it finished being consumed. "I commit the soul of Xena to the service of the God of War... to you, mighty Ares!"
With the firelight glowing in his blue eyes, Atrius watched the sword with excitement. It was untreated wood, yet for the longest time the flames only licked along it, rather than consuming it. As it began to catch, at the narrowed tip, and in the pommel, suddenly it leapt from the flames, becoming suspended over the altar fire.
Surprise made Atrius back up judiciously and he looked around to see if anyone else witnessed his private miracle. A voice boomed from above the altar, seemingly from the sword itself:
"Atrius, you serve me well, offering appropriately and frequently the gifts of blood and service I require." Atrius nodded, dumbstruck for the moment, and unable to find his tongue.
A form began to coalesce on the altar, amid the licking flames and the drying blood. In the hand, which materialized first, rested the sword Atrius had tossed into the flames.
Atrius fell to his knees as the massive human form of Ares, God of War, finished forming in a sitting position on the altar. He was turning the scorched wooden sword over and over in his hands.
"Atrius!" Ares leapt off the altar and threw the sword down at their feet. "Do not presume to tell me in whom I should invest my time. A girl child is nothing to me. Nothing!" Ares turned his back on Atrius and ran a finger through the blood pool on the altar. His eyes gleamed with pleasure at the sweetness of the odors.
Atrius "I only serve you, my lord. To whom else would I even consider offering her skills in service?" Ares spun. Atrius backed up.
"What would I do with a woman warrior?" Ares spat. "Women are weak, a girl child even more so. Better you should kill her, than think the bring her to me."
Atrius cowered, but he firmly believed Xena was for Ares. Perhaps he should have investigated her Fate first with a visit to the Temple of the Sister Fates. "I know not exactly what her future holds, Lord Ares. But I swear on my honor to you, I did see the fire. Hear the pulse pounding through her body in time with the warrior's heart. I saw the fire in her eyes." He stood but stepped back. "It is the same fire in your eyes, my lord. I see it myself every moment during battle. It is there."
Ares shook his head. Probably there wasn't any harm in seeing the girl. Finally he raised a hand toward the entrance. "If she is so special, bring her here! Let me see for myself if the fire of war consumes her."
Atrius bowed deeply. "Anything you desire, my lord Ares. I promise you she is everything you could desire to mold into your finest warrior."
Ares shook his head. "We'll see. Bring her to me before dawn and I'll see."
Atrius stumbled from the altar area and out into the night air. Its cool crispness did nothing to quell the confusion and elation warring for dominance in his body. "Xena to Ares. I must bring Xena to Ares." Continuing to mutter, Atrius clutched the dagger tighter in his hand, dripping with the blood of the lynx. He shouldered his sack only absently, spilling its contents because he had not secured it before setting it upside down on his shoulder.
Scrabbling in the dirt, he collected up his belongings and the container
of herbs he'd used to bring a pleasing aroma to the altar. "Must bring
Xena," he murmured again, finally settling the pack safely on his shoulder.
He secured the ritual dagger in his own thigh sheath and dashed back through
the woods toward Amphipolis, home and Xena.
The moon was only another single notch higher in the sky when Atrius stumbled into the village, and turned down the central road toward the inn his wife ran to make the family income. His first thought, as he looked at the hulking structure, two stories and long amidst tiny single family huts and overshadowing the inn's stables, was that there was still a candle alight in his daughter's room, despite the lateness of the hour.
"Cyrene!" He yelled into the silence of the night, calling for the bride of his father's choosing. For a moment he had a brief spurt of pride in his wife, for birthing him the child which would curry him the ultimate favor from Ares.
A slender woman appeared at the entrance to the inn, waving her hands for silence. "Hush, you foolish man! Gods be praised you are home."
"Where is Xena?" Atrius would not waste words when he could feel his prize so close. "Ares wants her."
Cyrene's face lost its smile and she shook her head. "No. No, Atrius."
"You will not gainsay me wife! Xena is for Ares!" Atrius shoved her aside and looked into the tavern. "She is up in her room?" Atrius looked over his shoulder at Cyrene and the woman frantically shook her head.
Voice quivering as Atrius loomed over her, Cyrene shook her head again. "No, no!" Atrius pulled the dagger from its sheath.
"Do you see this, wife? Ares himself has given me a mission. I have never failed him. I will not withhold anything he desires!"
Cyrene pushed him. Atrius shoved her and then grabbed her by the linen of her dress. Both heard it rip, and Cyrene shivered. "I will kill you if you stand in my way!" He shoved his face into hers and growled. "I swear it on Ares!" He shoved her away from him.
Cyrene frantically beat on him forcing him back from the inn. She screamed at him and yelled prayers to Hestia for strength. "You will not give my daughter to Ares!" They separated. She ran for the kitchen of the inn and a large carving knife. He ran for the stables and a large axe for woodcutting. Charging each other, Atrius swung first and praise to Hestia, Cyrene managed to duck in time. The axe chipped into the doorway of the inn with a loud thunk. Atrius ripped it from the wood and turned, only to feel the carving knife cut deep in his right shoulder. The axe fell from his suddenly nerveless hand.
"If she is for Ares, her fate is written already, wife! The gods hold dominion. I will expend my life seeing that the will of Ares is obeyed!" He spun on her, bloodlust to serve his god plainly filling his blue eyes.
Cyrene felt the rage coursing through her at her husband's desire to sacrifice their daughter to Ares and seized on it even as she grasped the handle of the axe. So large she should be barely able to heft it, the axe felt suddenly at home in her small palms and she swung only once, burying the axe head deep in her husband's chest.
Atrius fell to the ground, his eyes wide and his mouth open to yell even as there was suddenly no breath to make a sound.
Cyrene let go the axe handle and shivered from reaction. "Oh, the gods!" she whispered in astonishment. "What have I done?" Looking around suddenly aware she was standing in the middle of Amphipolis' deserted main road, Cyrene saw no one else on the dark street.
Her heart raced and she grabbed her husband's arms. She dragged him
out of the open night air. The nearest place was the stable, its dark interior
could conceal her crime until she could figure out what to do.
Cyrene dug through the night, placing her husband under the sod of the rearmost stall. The dirt was soft and she was able to dig it deep enough to bury her husband, and the memory of her crime. Shivering in the pre-dawn air, Cyrene hurried away from the stable and returned to the room above the inn she had shared with her husband.
As the sunlight began to break the night darkness, she heard movement in the next room. Xena's room. Cyrene laid back in bed and waited for the girl's ritual of coming to fetch her father for their morning ride.
A quiet knock sounded at the door. "Come in, Xena."
Taller than Cyrene remembered from only the day before, Xena, a slight girl with brunette hair, dressed in a smooth leather tunic and short boots, peered around the door. "Is Daddy up yet?"
Cyrene sat up in bed, brushing her curly hair from her face. "No. He .. He did not return home last night."
Xena fingered the bow strapped over her shoulder. "He was going to teach me to shoot today. Said I was finally big enough."
Cyrene shook her head. "I'm sorry. When he returns, I'm sure he'll remember."
Xena straightened, and Cyrene's heart tightened at the devotional look flashing in the girl's eyes. "Of course he will. Daddy never forgets anything."
Cyrene slid out of the bed and walked toward her daughter. The two females met in the middle of the bedroom. "Can you help me get your brothers out of bed this morning?"
Xena looked up at her mother. "I'll get Lyceus! We'll go clean the stables first."
"Um." Cyrene hesitated. "Not this morning. I need some help around the tavern today." Certainly, she thought, the children would not find their father's body, but she wanted to wait a while before allowing them into the stables. She needed to find a chance to move the body elsewhere.
Xena pouted, her lower lip protruding delicately. The gesture was probably the only delicate thing about her hoydenish daughter. Cyrene smiled. "You and your brothers should stick close for a while. I don't want you running off into the woods." Cyrene took a deep breath, and fabricated a lie. "Your father said that the woods are dangerous right now. Some pirates landed last week and that's why he left last night."
Xena was quiet for a moment as she turned the explanation over in her head. "So he went off to fight the pirates?"
Cyrene's smile came in a rush of relief when she heard the pride in her daughter's voice as Xena accepted the story. "Yes, that's right. Now, let's go get your brothers and go downstairs."
She put a soft hand on her daughter's shoulder and walked down the hall
alongside Xena toward the boys' bedroom.
Late day found Ares standing in his temple, talking quietly with his priest.
"I'm certain he will be here soon, my lord Ares," assured the priest.
"Drunken beast," muttered Ares. "I will wait no longer." The priest shook his head as Ares turned and strode toward a wall, disappearing into the ether before reaching it. In the same instant he put the ravings of a devoted but obviously deluded warrior out of mind.
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