The God of War paced back-and-forth before the black granite altar laden with offerings. Now Ares had to take the time to evaluate each gift, match it with a petitioner, and determine which prayers he would consider, which requests he would grant. It was a nasty project, requiring much more time and thought than he wanted to spend on such a beautiful summer day, but it was part of his job description and somebody had to do it.
The money offerings were the worst. Wouldn't people ever learn that he had no real interest in money? Usually he would brush the coins into a bag and drop them off at the nearest veterans' home, hospital, cemetery, or even orphanage. If he were really feeling philanthropic, he might stop by a tavern and buy everyone inside a drink, or feeling kinky, he would do the same at a whorehouse. Money was also hard to evaluate because you had to look at the donor. Sometimes a few denars from a poor soldier was a much greater sacrifice than a hundred gold coins from some rich warlord. Ares was a sucker for heartfelt gifts, and money usually wasn't one of them.
Food was also problematic. He rarely ate mortal food, and when he did he wanted more than a little salt cod or beef jerky. Why didn't people ever leave him a nice thick T-bone steak or caviar? Probably because they didn't know his schedule and in a few days time the finest steak would grow to resemble jerky or worse. He didn't even want to think about the caviar. Maybe he should consider posting a schedule, but that wasn't too godlike.
He liked the personal touch, like the blacksmith who left him arrowheads or the leather crafter who made new gauntlets. Hell, once a woman who wanted her son returned safely from a war knit him a pair of socks and left them on the altar. That one touched even his black heart; do you realize how infrequently gods get new socks?
He liked gifts of fragrance --frankincense and myrrh, sandalwood and patchouli. Candles, especially if scented and unlit, were good, too. The same could be said of wines and brandies, and he never turned his back on a nice plug of hashish. There were lots of things you could give a god if you wanted his attention, but today, nothing caught his eye until he reached the end of the altar. There, sitting by itself, on a handwoven straw mat, was a perfectly ripe peach.
The fruit was huge, almost the size of his fist, with a rosy blush on its cheeks and an aroma that, once he was aware of its presence, he realized had permeated the temple. He picked it up and ran its soft skin across his cheek. What kind of mortal would give the God of War a peach? He drew his dagger and was about to cut it in half so he could eat its ripe flesh, when he heard a female voice.
"So you like it? Does that mean you might listen to what I have to ask of you?"
Ares jumped. "You mean you can see me?" Mortals usually only saw gods when they were about to be killed by them, unless, of course, the gods had revealed themselves.
"I don't have to see you, I can feel you are here. I can tell by the peach's movement that you've been sniffing it, fondling it, thinking about burying your face in it and eating it. The God of War with a trickle of peach juice on his chin, that will be quite a site."
"Excuse me!" Ares materialized in front of the young woman, hardly more than a girl, who was standing in front of him. She was tall, slender but big boned; all arms, legs and breasts. Because of her youth, her body type had not yet been defined; she could mature into a stately beauty, a sturdy peasant, or even a warrior. He searched for a clue in her light blue eyes.
"I'm glad you like it. I picked it especially for you. I've heard stories from women in my village. Wives of soldiers. The God of War is known for his sensual. . ." She tossed her long black hair as she spoke, like a girl who knew what she wanted and one quick way to get it.
"How old are you? You're far too young to be thinking those thoughts? Do you know who you are messing with?"
"How stupid do you think I am? There is only one Ares. I need your help. I need you to train me, and all I have to tell you is that I am old enough."
"I've defended my village, fought hard but not particularly well. I need someone to teach me how to fight. I want to become a true warrior."
"And where is that? There are no villages in this area that don't have adequate men to defend them. Why should I waste my time training a woman warrior?"
"I'm from the north. Thrace. A little town called Amphipolis. Not much there, but it's my home."
He wondered how much this girl understood the path she was considering taking; and if once she started, she, like so many of her gender, would retreat in fear and disgust. It wasn't that he refused to train women to be warriors, it was just that he needed to be sure she had the desire before he invested his time and talent.
"I think I attended a Festival there once, maybe three hundred years ago, if I remember if you blink your eyes while you're walking into it, when you open them you'll be walking out."
"As I said, it's home. Can't pick your hometown any more than you can pick your parents. I didn't say I was planning to stay there, just defend it."
"So you have other plans?"
"Yea, someday, I am going to rule the world," she said with a determination he could tell was based on more than just youthful bravura.
She would be a real challenge, but maybe that was just what he needed. He was tired of skinny little rulers who had inherited their thrones from their fathers or even grandfathers. He was tired of warlords who killed only to watch the sight of flowing blood or to line their pockets with gold. He was tried of thugs who were too stupid to fight for anything but the bruises they received and a few coins. The next person he was going to train was going to have real attitude, and here was a WOMAN who said she was going to rule the world. Maybe she was the one.
"You and who else? He sneered.
"I don't think I need to answer that because you already know." She sneered back. Perhaps she was an inchoately tough as she was beautiful.
"It's not going to be easy, you realize that. Becoming a warrior is going to take a lot of work. Especially for you. I could become your mentor, but I need to know that you are dedicated and that you are not going to turn and run when the blood starts to flow."
"I could grab your dagger and cut my palm. I've heard you like that as a sign. Personally I think it is sort of stupid, every wound should have a purpose, blood should only flow..."
"Ok, got me there, too. Do you have any weapons?"
"I have a sword. Belonged to my father, he gave it to my brother who died beside me fighting for my village. I've heard the God of War has special weapons for his chosen warriors."
"You have to earn them. I don't dole them out to just anyone."
"Don't worry, I will."
"You're confident, that's for sure. Do you have any money? You'll need clothing and armor."
She shook her head and then looked down on the coins piled on the altar. "How about a loan?" She laughed as she scooped up a few hands full of money, another indication that he had made the right decision.
Ares looked again at the peach in his hand. Tossing it into the air, he cut it in half in flight.
"Nice stunt. You'll have to teach me that one," the girl commented.
"It's not a stunt, it's a talent," Ares commented as he removed the clinging red pit and tossed it on the floor. He handed half of the fruit to the young woman, who as if to taunt him, softly nibbled at the remaining red fibers that had held the pit in place, before biting hungrily into its center.
"I guess I should know the name of my latest trainee and/or debtor, " he asked with a smile, knowing she would have to stop eating to answer.
"XBBSSNNBBAA," she continued to walk and talk with the peach covering her mouth.
"Xena." She turned and watched as he held the outside of the peach to his lips, quietly licked it, and then bit into its soft, downy flesh. "My name is Xena."
As they walked out of the temple, she thought she heard Ares mutter something about being fortunate that he had stopped demanding virgin sacrifices.