Prayer to broken stone
Snow was falling, great big feather-puffs that filled the cracks between the broken stones, softening the harsh contours of jagged edges and shattered marble. A serene and silent world, rudely interrupted by the man's panting breaths clouding the frozen air. His mane of fiery hair and the darker red of glittering ruby blood stained the pristine white blanketing the ground.
He had survived a desperate fight against overwhelming odds by stubborn will alone. But the flight from his attackers had winded him, and though the ragged gash on his side wasn't deep, he had lost enough blood to make him feel light-headed. The falling snow made it hard for him to see, and worse than that, he was lost.
His fault, all his fault, as he well knew. He shouldn't have ditched the guards that were his constant shadows. He was the king, no longer an unimportant mercenary, free to wander at will. But...ah yes...but, it had been one of those days, and his dear brother had been there and not there--as usual. He had felt invisible, used, forgotten. Flouncing off alone into the countryside had been one of his more stupid ideas, as his brother wouldn't fail to point out when...if he got back alive.
He looked around and realized he had taken refuge in the ruins of an old temple. The split anvil-shaped altar told him it had been Hephaestus'. The huge, blackened ring of the dead forge reminded him that he was freezing. If his attackers didn't kill him, the cold would. Maybe he wouldn't have to listen to his brother's nagging after all, though knowing Hercules, he would probably visit him in the Underworld just to scold him for his foolishness.
He hadn't prayed to the gods for a long time now. What need was there when they wondered at will through his castle. One of them, at least, treated it like his own. He should have felt honored, but the god wasn't there for him. He was just the convenient lie the world believed.
He looked at the broken chunks of the gray altar and wondered if Hephaestus would listen to his prayers. No reason why the god should. He had always been a soldier, with few manual skills except those needed in battle. And Corinth had always been Aphrodite's domain. The city was renowned for her temple priestesses, more than a thousand at the last count.
Still, what harm was there? If he were going to die, he might as well perform one last act of piety. He had nothing to offer the god, only his broken sword and his blood, but then he didn't expect an answer, so it would suffice.
He mumbled the prayers all blacksmiths utter before beginning their work, a prayer perforce learnt by any soldier needing frequent repair to his weapons and armor. Afterwards, cold and exhausted, he slowly surrendered to the deadly embrace of yielding snow and fell asleep convinced Thanatos awaited nearby.
The world outside was white and grey, icy and dead. Inside the caves, everlasting fires and rivers of molten stone kept the temperature high and dry. The rough, volcanic walls were hot to the touch; the ground shivered with heat. It was home to the God of Fire.
Hephaestus hammered the curved edge of a kopis to razor sharpness, while contemplating his sleeping guest. The hair, now dry, glimmered with the warmth of polished copper. The sensuous lips, no longer blue-tinged, were a warm dusky-rose. The mouth reminded him of his brother. He had been there and not there four days ago, treating the place as his own. But Ares didn't come to visit him. Sometimes he felt invisible, forgotten, used.
When he had heard the prayer coming from an old temple of his, he had wondered why Hercules' mortal brother should be invoking him, for the man had never been one of his followers; he had always belonged to Ares. Hephaestus didn't even have a proper temple in Corinth; that city belonged to his wife. So he had been half-tempted to ignore the man. But he hadn't talked to anyone--not even his busy wife--for days. And Ares would be pleased. His volatile brother would hate it if Hercules went around moping over the mortal's death, feeling too guilty and miserable to get together with his lover. Hephaestus would never hear the end of it. Besides, the mortal was worth saving.
Fascinated, the God of Fire observed how the flames from the forge gilded fluttering eyelashes, lighting up the opening eyes to glowing amber. They stared at him in puzzlement.
"Erm....where am I?" The voice was husky and musical, like Ares'.
"You're in my workshop."
Hephaestus observed the amber gaze sweep around the firelit cave, taking in the familiar weapons of war, lingering on the curious mechanisms he had created for his own amusement, wandering back to him and then down to his own bare torso, fingertips caressing the spot where an ugly slash had marred smooth mortal flesh.
"Thanks, for saving me, and for this." The mortal's eyes were full of curiosity. "I didn't think you'd listen to my prayer," he admitted.
Hephaestus shrugged. "It was nothing."
"It was my life. That's not nothing. And I'm a stranger, not even one of your followers."
"You're not a stranger: you're Iphicles, Hercules' mortal brother."
The full mouth twisted. "Yeah, that's me, Hercules' other brother." There was tartness there. "So, I owe my life to him. Again. How nice."
Sparks fountained from the anvil as steel kissed steel. "Ares wouldn't want to lose you either."
"You mean he'd notice I wasn't around?" The laughter echoed emptily round the basalt walls. "Oh yeah, there would be a new king, so Hercules wouldn't go to Corinth any longer. Nice to know I'm good for something."
Brown eyes considered the mortal resting on the soft furs of Aphrodite's favorite couch. "Flits in and out of your place, does he?"
Iphicles shrugged a bare shoulder, muscles sculpted into soft angles by fire and darkness. "When Hercules comes to visit."
Hephaestus nodded and bent over his task. The blade shone with blue-black iridescence as he turned it to the brightness of the flames. "He comes round here too. They both do."
"What's the excuse?"
Hephaestus flinched, then nodded, accepting the implication. "Hercules comes to get stuff for this or that. Ares to get weapons for himself or his warriors. You?"
Iphicles glared at the Medusas winking knowingly with snaky smiles from their round shields. "I'm Ares' catamite. Didn't you know? That's what half of Greece believes."
"Hercules must be grateful for your help."
Another laugh, sharp as soured wine. "Is he? He hasn't said. Probably thinks I don't care, with my reputation."
"Reputation?" Hephaestus was frowning.
"Yeah, I'm...easy. People think so, anyway. Not like Hercules--he's the virtuous one. Can't have the world believe he's fucking one of his half-brothers." He shrugged with elaborate indifference. "It's all right. I guess he's entitled. After all, I used his name to win my wife. This is payback for that, I suppose."
The hammer clanged down on the anvil, making Iphicles jump. "And Ares? What do you owe him?"
Iphicles looked puzzled. "Owe him? Nothing really. He's just..." He wrinkled his brow. "He's Ares." Their eyes met; a tenuous filament of awareness was forged between god and man.
The workshop spread over the end of a vast vaulted chamber, the gaping mouths of cryptic passages disappearing into glowering darkness. Iphicles drifted restlessly from rack to rack, fingering the flame-leafed edge of a sarissa here, rubbing a winking ruby on a sword pommel there, finally stopping before a polished granite slab prostrate on bronzed harpy's claws. Hephaestus noticed wistful amber eyes resting on the wine jug.
"Have some. It's Dionysus' best."
"Thanks." Iphicles poured a generous measure into a gold-chased goblet and started to drink, then remembered his host. "And you?"
Hephaestus observed the tanned length of graceful fingers as Iphicles handed him a brimming goblet--the king of Corinth was a comely mortal. He sipped his wine, noting the man drank it with familiarity.
"What do you think of the wine?"
"Good, as always." Iphicles noticed the raised eyebrow, and shrugged, smiling faintly. "I get to finish the wine Ares brings with him."
"I thought Hercules didn't drink," Hephaestus mused.
"He doesn't, only the odd sip from Ares' mouth." Iphicles grimaced. "Sometimes they forget I'm there." At times, he felt like part of the furnishings; the prerequisite king to match the necessary castle.
He could never forget the first time the God of War had appeared to him. The godly aura surrounding Hercules had always irritated Iphicles. But the staggering power emanating from a full god had shaken his very bones. Terrified he might disappear into the stygian depths of Ares' eyes, he had pretended to be unimpressed, clutching desperately at stone walls for support as the god had crowded him. The heated gleam of interest shining through the menacing threats had buckled his knees, and he had found himself panting with a nameless longing, trembling and weak.
He would never know what might have happened. Hercules had stormed in, his face a gorgon's mask of hate and...something else.
The air had shuddered with the overwhelming violence of the grappling god and demigod, furniture shattering into splinters as they crashed around the chamber. He couldn't to this day pinpoint the moment when their struggle had morphed into a tangle of limbs clutching with furious lust, blows turning into hungry caresses, flesh and bone straining torturously in their fervor to become one being.
He had sagged against the cold stone, drowning in the sharp aroma of sex and terrible desire pouring from the frenzied bodies rolling on the marble floor. He came in unison with them, his moans drowned by the thunderous roar of the two creatures at his feet. The walls had trembled, dust raining from the cracking ceiling. That had been the beginning.
Iphicles shook off the haunting memory and found himself gazing into Hephaestus' sable eyes. He read...not pity, but understanding in the god's sad gaze.
"They're obsessed. They forget the world when they're anywhere near each other. It's like a sickness with them." The god tried to comfort the unhappy mortal.
"Yeah, that's what it's like." Iphicles flushed, confessing with something akin to bewilderment, "I didn't know Hercules could be like that. He's always so controlled, but not with...him. When they're together, he's like a stranger."
Hephaestus nodded. "Those two, Hercules and Ares, they have more of Zeus than any of us, I think. Like calls to like, however much they rage and fight against it and each other."
"He's more god than man, isn't he?" Iphicles gazed at Hephaestus for a long moment, eyes full of unexpected comprehension.
The god turned his disfigured side to the shadows, uneasy under the intense gaze. "Yes, he is. Hercules struggles to remain human, but his mortal side will wither with time and only his godly nature will remain. Zeus made him so."
"You know, most of my life I've lived under his shadow. I've resented how he was always better at everything." Iphicles laughed shortly. "But I see now I was competing with a god. How could I ever win?"
The god patted the tense shoulder of the human with a gentle paw. "You are a good king, a brave warrior, a worthy man, and your subjects, your mother and your wife surely think it so."
He was disconcerted by the bitterness his words provoked. "My mother preferred Hercules. She didn't even remember me at the end. My wife died in childbirth. I wasn't there for either one of them."
"I didn't know," was the god's inadequate reply.
Iphicles shrugged. "Why should you? I'm nothing to you."
"I don't have much contact with the mortal world. My work is here, and then I'm..." Hephaestus found himself apologizing, troubled to find an echo of the mortal's pain within himself.
"I understand. And then your wife must be..." Iphicles hesitated, unsure whether commenting that Aphrodite must be a handful would be appreciated by the god. The tales of her infidelity were only too well known.
Hephaestus turned back to the anvil, studying the kopis' curved edge with concentration. "She's very busy. Her duties make great demands on her time."
"Yeah, Corinth alone must keep her pretty occupied." Iphicles agreed, careful to keep any hint of pity out of his voice. "And you are a well-respected god, with many worshippers. They must make demands on your time too."
The god gazed into the heat-filled shadows. "I hear their prayers, but I answer them from here. It's better that way."
Hephaestus turned and faced the mortal, letting the ruddy flames light his disfigurement. "Yes, better. I'm not--this is not the face of a god mortals want to see." The bitterness bled through, regardless of his efforts.
Iphicles looked at the god steadily. "Humans would be honored by your presence. I know I would."
Hephaestus studied the mortal's eyes for any deception, but read only sincere admiration, and a spark in their depths he couldn't identify. He turned back to his work, unaccountably breathless.
"Perhaps you can tell me what goes on in the world of mortals while I finish this blade."
"It would be a pleasure. Mind you, my views of certain things might be colored by my job." Hephaestus shot him a look of inquiry. "Being the king of Corinth tends to affect my take on things."
"Like the latest machinations of the Athenians, or their arrogance towards their neighbors, or their tendency to boss the rest of Greece around."
"Athena is very proud of her city." Hephaestus commented. "She's very proud," he added somewhat ruefully.
There were overtones in that comment that puzzled Iphicles until he recalled the tale of Hephaestus' less than successful amatory encounter with the goddess. "The Athenians are in danger of outdoing her. They'll end up choking on their pride if they're not careful."
Hephaestus looked interested, so Iphicles filled him in on the latest confrontation between the Athenians and the Spartans, and the likelihood of the League breaking up. Iphicles feared he might be boring the god with mortal affairs that he wouldn't consider his concern, but Hephaestus continued to listen, making the odd comment or question that reassured the king he had a willing and interested audience.
Time passed. The wine jug never emptied, though Iphicles refilled his goblet and the god's several times; he felt a warm glow coursing through his veins, but his mind remained clear, and his body steady. The fires reflecting ruddily from metal and stone warmed him to the marrow. He had never felt so comfortable and at ease with anyone.
"You know," he suggested daringly, "if you like, I could keep you up to date with what's going on out there. I'd visit you..." His voice faltered, uncertainty drying up his throat.
Hephaestus' surprised stare increased his embarrassment. He had been too daring. The god would ridicule him for his presumption. Why would the God of Fire want to be bored by the blatherings of an unimportant mortal king? Mortified by his own stupidity, he glowered into the winy depths of his goblet, waiting with hunched shoulders for the expected put down.
"You'd want to do that?" The god sounded pleased.
Iphicles raised his head and encountered a warm gaze. "Sure. Anytime. Well...whenever you--and I," he added ruefully, "had time to spare from our work."
"I'd like that." Hephaestus smiled, and Iphicles suddenly understood why, however often the Goddess of Love might stray, she would keep coming back to him. He found himself smiling back, something in his chest tightening with unnamed feelings.
"It's a deal then. I'll come here..." He stopped, realizing he had no idea where here was, or how he had arrived.
"Just call me, and I'll take care of the rest," Hephaestus answered the unspoken query.
"You can always come to the palace; you'd be more than welcome."
Hephaestus grimaced. "We'll see. Besides, one god wandering around your place is probably more than your people can handle."
"My people and the furniture," Iphicles acknowledged with a telling look. "They get carried away at times, and not even the stone walls can stand up to them."
"They repair the damage, I hope?" Hephaestus demanded with a frown.
Iphicles shrugged. "Mostly."
Hephaestus looked down at the finished sword. His voice sounded unusually gruff as he said, "Maybe I can do something about it, if you want."
Iphicles stared. "Thanks, um, that's--thanks. But you don't have to bother. My people are used to it." He added with a droll look. "I'll have you know that I'm really popular with the masons and carpenters of Corinth, as I provide them with a never-ending supply of jobs. I'm beginning to suspect they pray for your brothers to come visit more often."
His attempt at humor was rewarded with another sweet smile. He made a vow there and then to incite as many of them as he could manage in the future. Then their eyes met, and there was a long, electric silence.
Feeling as if his lungs would burst, Iphicles breathed out. "I think I should be getting back. My people must be worried." His voice sounded rusty, hoarse.
"Yes, perhaps you should." Hephaestus gave a last swipe at the blade and extended the kopis hilt first to the mortal. "Here, you'd better have this. I noticed yours was broken."
Iphicles approached and wrapped a thankfully steady hand around the gold-chased hilt. "Thank you," he said quietly. "It's beautiful."
The god shrugged. "It's okay. I'll make you one better, exactly suited to you. This will serve until then."
They were standing less than two hands' breadth from one another, and their gazes met again and held, neither of them seemingly able to look away. Iphicles breathed in sharply and closed the distance. Eyes fluttering closed, he softly brushed his lips over the god's mouth, deepened the kiss, then retreated.
Stunned, the god stared wide-eyed at the mortal. His callused fingers unconsciously rubbed his tingling lips, as if pressing in the imprint of Iphicles' warm, full mouth. Finally he murmured, "Remember, call me and I'll..."
"I will," Iphicles finished for him. His face lit up with sudden happiness. "Soon as I can make it."
Hephaestus nodded. "I look forward to your next visit."
"So do I," Iphicles agreed softly. Brown eyes looked into amber, and both smiled faintly, pleased with what they saw.
"Until next time," Hephaestus waved his hand and Iphicles found himself outside the thick, nail-studded doors of his palace. The guards hurried to his side, while a shout rung out throughout the ramparts and into the main hall with the happy news that the king had returned. Iphicles walked into the warmth and was soon surrounded by a crowd expressing their relief and joy to have him back safe and sound.
The snow lay piled in drifts against the grey-black battlements where the sentinels paced and shivered, counting steps to pass the time till their reliefs arrived. Inside, a roaring fire warmed the marble floor and frescoed walls of the king's bedchamber. Iphicles sprawled contentedly on a fur lined chair, basking in the caressing heat of the flames. He cradled Hephaestus' gift in his arms, softly running a thumb over the gleaming blade of his new sword.
He would build a new temple where Zeus' old one had stood. The king of the gods already had one by the agora, so this one would be for Hephaestus. Corinth was renowned for its craftsmen, and it was time they were provided with a fitting place to worship their patron god. The marble lying waste in the ruins where he had taken refuge would provide part of the material needed. As for the temple itself, he would ask Hephaestus to design it. Yes, that would be the best. They would have much to discuss next time they met.
Iphicles stared into the flames and smiled with anticipation.
Hephaestus stared into space, absent-mindedly rubbing his lips. He would do a bronze--no, gilded silver would be better, with touches of red gold. Life size, he thought, with shield and sword, maybe the greaves, and nothing else. He had a fair idea of the measurements, but he would get a more detailed picture on the next visit; he would ask Iphicles to pose for him. Smiling with anticipation, the god started calculating the amount of ore needed for the work.