Inside the dusty barn the radio played a song of a man who had lost his wife, his dog and his beloved pick-up truck only to have been found and saved. The man in the barn was of moderate height with black hair that curled up near his neck and showed short curls where the sweat had matted it down against his head. His jeans were well worn with a repaired rip along the left side and the legs were tucked into his brown boots that showed of the color of dust and rain. The sleeveless red plaid shirt was only partially buttoned and as he picked up bales of hay to toss out down to the ground below, it flashed open to show scars only some of which had counterparts along his arms. Work gloves protected his hands and were of the same color as his boots though of wholly different material. Sunshine blazed on the landscape and showed the dusty interior of the barn in stark shafts of light that pierced through the openings between the wood slats. Out past the scrub near the house and drive to it, he saw dust being raised headed towards the entrance of his ranch, which had a metal arch with a circle at the keystone point which had three spears and three ploughs all bound together in vines. Keen eyesight had never left him and it had allowed him to see through far dustier and murkier times than the mere country dust made by honest work.
Slowly he turned his head and saw the mud spattered white Chevy Suburban stop at the entrance and then turn in.
"They must be lost," he whispered to himself as he got to the wooden ladder outside the loft entrance and descended it. Unconsciously his right hand laid upon the closed holster on his hip and he made sure that the flap was unfastened for easy access to it.
The vehicle had turned and pulled down the drive towards the house, slowing, and then turning towards the barn area as it passed the house. Squinting as he walked he couldn't make out exactly who was inside the vehicle, which pulled up next to his pick-up truck and stopped.
"Damn tinted and polarized glass," he muttered as the idling vehicle shut off and the door opened.
A woman wearing black boots and white jeans with a white shirt and forest green vest got out, her skin was pale, her hair a straight, jet black and she had on very dark sunglasses. She looked around nodding with a twisted half-smile as she took in the surroundings of the front of his ranch area. The door closed as she fluidly moved and turned towards him, her hand never seeming to have been on it nor did it leave any print on the dust on its surface.
The man stopped.
"How the...?" he whispered stopping short, his breath taken away.
She smiled as she came closer to him, her footsteps even, measured.
"Hello, brother, long time, no see," she said in a rich voice that spoke of night and wilderness.
The man inhaled.
"How did you find me?" he asked as he took one step for every two of hers and they were then seeing eye to eye as she took the sunglasses off to show eyes as blue as his were green.
Her chest shook with suppressed laughter.
"How do I find anyone, oh brother of mine? I may not look down from my celestial land, but it was hard to see much of anyone although I could get a feel for the wider sweep of things."
"You fell like the rest of us, although he spared you."
She tilted her head slightly to the right and gazed at him.
"Is that what you call banishment and stripping, my brother?"
His mouth tightened.
"The last time I saw you was after he paid the attendant in coin most dear and pushed our boat off into the sullen river to take us to our never-ending end. You were there, although your dark dress was in tatters... we were the last to be found..."
"He found you on his own, he did. I had warned him what was coming ages before that and my reward was eternal banishment from the city... not that the city stands any longer, of course. I did not betray any, dear brother, and for my resistance I would suffer just differently than you."
Taking his hand up from the holster he took up a rag from his belt and blotted at his forehead.
Smirking she looked from him to the run-down barn and old ranch house.
"No one to keep house with you?"
"Not for some time, no. I lead a simple life, sister."
"So I see..." she turned to look back at him, "Of all the women he lusted after, I was the one who could refuse him, you know, and did. I remember what he did to his wife. To each of us."
"I do, too," he said in clipped words, "and will never forget it."
"He sent the swift eagles to get me and then the century ones, horrors both, by then. He stripped me bare to get what he wanted at the foot of the mountain, then into the hole where I, too, was chained. I had no allies left, no friends to remember me, and our family was being broken once and for all."
She breathed slowly, sunlight never penetrating her fair skin and disappearing into her black hair.
"Perhaps you missed the chains on me amidst the torn beauty?"
Closing his eyes he trembled, dropping the rag to the ground.
"No..." he barely whispered, "... and I..."
She put her right hand on his shoulder.
"Each of us. I was beyond help and hope, brother. Any who opposed him were likewise done with, he was determined to be the last one standing."
He opened his eyes and the corners of his mouth twisted up.
"Oh, my, yes he did," she said in a voice with a hint of a chuckle to it, "worse than he could ever imagine."
His gloved hand was on her shoulder and he looked into her eyes.
"Well, met sister. Can I offer you something to drink, a meal perhaps?"
Nodding she stepped forward and hugged him and he hugged her in return.
"Yes, oh yes brother. I want to hear about your escape and I can tell you what happened to me..."
Pressing her firm, lithe body to his he laughed.
"We could be here years doing that!"
Together they laughed, brother and sister long parted now with each other again.
Finally she withdrew and looked at him.
"Maybe just the highlights, then. And a walk in the wilderness as it is the only place I can call home now."
The old ranch house had some modern amenities to it with indoor plumbing and electric lights, a refrigerator and freezer in the kitchen and dusty television in the livingroom. There had once been a woman here, who had kept the house and the evidence of it in the little things, the lace where a man would rest his head on the easy chair or the small arrangement of glass bottles on one shelf told of her passage. The woman had an eye to that and found a portrait of the blonde woman with the man, and five children. Picking it up the woman's eyes danced from face to face.
"Beer? I have some wine chilled. Even some mead in the root cellar, if you still drink that," he said from the open kitchen area which directly adjoined the dining and living area.
"Whatever you're having is fine," she said putting the family portrait down where it belonged and turning to the table outside of the living area, where she found a sturdily built chair to sit on.
"Do you miss them?" she asked softly.
The beer bottles rattled against each other as he took them one-handed from the fridge. He closed the door and set the bottles down on the counter and a soft hiss of escaping gas from each followed. From the cabinet he took two glasses, closed it and walked towards her with bottles as well. Shrugging he put the glasses down and poured the bubbling golden brown beer into them.
"Always. I wouldn't have married if I didn't care about her and our children."
She nodded as her eyes scanned the kitchen, dining and living area, noting hallways to the back and side of the house, as well as stairs which were set further back in the living area. Her eyes drifted back towards him and she took the full glass from him as he offered it.
"Thank you," she said softly.
"Welcome," he said as he sat down.
They clinked their glasses together and both dipped fingertips into the surface and flipped the fluid off in the direction of the fireplace.
"To better times," she said.
"Long gone," he replied.
It was a beer with some richness to it, with a flavor that had the bite of another land to it.
"Delicious," she whispered, "Dutch malt, Czech hops, California spring water."
He raised an eyebrow as he sipped.
"Its decent. I don't need much and its one luxury I still allow myself."
Taking a short swallow she licked her lips and closed her eyes. Setting down the glass she opened her eyes and gazed at him.
"You were to go..." she closed her eyes and shivered, "...I was weakened by then. With a stroke he could have killed me... I didn't even try."
His hand reached to her free one and covered it, easily.
"One drop and you wouldn't be here, sister. Not as you are, at least. He knew that it would be torture for us all."
"Such cruelty..." she whispered.
"In his eyes we deserved it. We did, too. I was with the no longer swift one and the one who could no longer be liquid joy. He had stripped me and threw my goods far and high to sit in forever night. I who had delivered so many victories to him, and yet I, too, was with you, all of you. Your twin brother..." he shook his head, "... he is... was... his chariot no longer appears. The night's light is as cold as the day's is hot."
She gave a curt nod and shifted hands to put her other one on his while she sipped from the glass again.
"He didn't think too clearly when he was disposing of us, our brother didn't. Yet something still kept in him to make the punishment appropriate, when it wasn't simply to put us where none of us should ever be," she said in low tones.
He drank with his off-hand which was just as skilled as the other, because of his training so very long ago, and his life that had led him to this place.
"We couldn't really piece together what had happened to you. He was still around for some time and we had to go into hiding. We stayed away from those places he would think to check and went to those he couldn't. All we knew was that you were... banished beyond stripped."
"I was sent to die, dear brother. He wanted me ravaged by foreigners who stood where I had stood, others that couldn't challenge him and would delight in me. His rage blinded him and he went back on his promises to me. He forgot who I was beyond those lovely evening beams of the forest night and my girlish ways."
Her brother furrowed his brow, his face as chiseled stone.
"I didn't know."
"I still knew how to make bow and arrow, brother, skill I still had even when all other promises were broken and I was stripped to be ravaged. A Wild Hunt came to get me and when it found me..." she grimaced, "... well a Wild Huntress was more than was expected."
Stone melted and for the first time a true smiled appeared on the man's face.
"Oh!!! He...." laughter, pure laughter followed.
"Nice wolves, too. The idiot who was on that sled didn't even know how to talk to them! He that had sent me to die had forgotten that each of us has something that is eternal as part of them which wasn't a mere adornment but was us as our very blood is. A Wild Huntress leaves no traces, and my bow brought me a good life until even that Hunt died. But hunting never ceases. Once he was gone I wandered far and wide, dear brother, wherever wilderness beckons. I've been to all continents that have wild lands, rarely going through villages or towns, and cities I detest even when I must go to them from time to time."
The man took a swallow from his beer, a long one and the smile on his face shone pure and bright, his green eyes twinkling.
"Yes!! I found refuge likewise, but with that other single one who has the same claims. I am no longer that which I was but I still knew how to make the tools and think. And, like you, there is small but eternal sustenance for me as well, until nothing else is alive."
She entwined her fingers through his and grasped his hand.
"But how did you escape? You were... three?"
He shook his head.
"Five total. You may have missed the waifs amongst us, they had tumbled to the bottom of the boat."
"Which ones?" she whispered.
"My constant companion of fickle nature and she who awoke early every morn of your following. They finally did grow up, after we got out."
"Ah..." she said smiling, "...they were good girls! Still it must have been a horror for them, unlike you or I."
"It was, sister. And it got worse. To escape..." he shivered, "...the minor things we had... well..." he closed his eyes and shook his head. She gripped his hand again, and then shifted to cover it.
"You know of the escapades the swift one had?"
Her eyes went round and she slowly inhaled.
"Yes. Not.... oh...."
Slowly and softly he spoke.
"It isn't true that you can't seduce that ferryman, dear sister. Even bones can succumb to such sweet seduction if you have the right things to ply it with."
"I... not that one... and the girls..."
"It is not fit entertainment for anyone alive. It was necessary. In the end we used bones and shoulder blades as paddles, very carefully as the oar was lost in some perversion. And the coins proved to be enough to help us once we got out. One apiece for such fare is fair."
Her black hair slid back and forth with her head which she held down for a moment before looking back at her brother and spoke in an even tone.
"He that we stood against is gone, now. Dust. As are those who befriended him, gave him fealty. He didn't listen to my warnings, my pleading and when he saw me against him he... detested me. And yet at every turn, my every warning, would come true."
"You were no prophet, like those at Delphi. You spoke too plainly."
Her nostrils flared as she looked into her brother's eyes.
"I could see what was moving out there, what was going to happen. No oracle is needed when those paths are plain to see. The tides were mine and I understand them, and nothing he did would stop that tide on the path he was on. In trying to grab everything, to take eternity, he forgot what is eternal and now he is gone."
He squinted briefly, looking at her.
"I always feared you. I'm sorry. No one ended up listening to you, and you..."
Her mouth twitched.
"I did what I had to, brother. It was, perhaps, not what I wanted, but that required others to help and I got none. She didn't listen and her revenge sucked us all in, but that didn't matter as the tide was already set before then."
She took a sip from her beer and got up, holding it, and walked around the kitchen area.
He took a another long draught from his glass, which was nearly empty and watched her.
"Why are you here, Artemis?"
She opened a cupboard that had in it boxes of cereal and containers of honey. Smiling she shut the door and checked the next cupboard that held bowls and plates.
"Diana, now..." she softly said as she examined the contents of the cupboard. She closed that and went to the next that held cups and glasses and gazed amongst them, finally selecting a clear glass and taking it from the shelf.
"Of course," he said, "So why are you here?"
"You mean beyond wanting to see you?"
"Yes. You have never been the flighty type. Girlish, yes. But always serious when the time required it."
"Thank you," she said closing that door, turning to look at him. Smoothly she walked to the sink with the glass and filled it with water just short of the top. She then opened the freezing compartment of the fridge and took out a tray of cubes and placed two into the clean water and replaced the tray and closed the door. She held up both glasses and looked at the one with beer still in it.
"That is your luxury..." she said moving her head to look at the other glass, "... and this is mine."
She walked back to the table and sat down, taking a long drink from the glass of water.
"Lovely, from earth to my lips and all the eons between."
Blinking he looked puzzled.
"Have you decided to speak like an oracle, now?"
With half the water gone she put that glass down and sipped from the beer.
"Never, Ares. I know where that water came from. That took me so much time to puzzle out and these moderns finally got to the answer I did, oh, two or three centuries ago. I hadn't thought about it properly and once I did," she smiled, "you cannot have your luxury without mine, you know?"
He pressed his lips together.
"I'm starting to see why Zeus wanted you torn apart and killed. And why you frighten me."
She raised her eyberows, her blue eyes framed in the black hair around her face.
"Me? But why? I'm sure you still have that power of making of things, and that you could easily keep me here against my will, maybe even kill me if you thought about it. You always had that little gift."
He shook his head from side to side.
"I would be dead. I know that, Huntress. I was in too many wars and seen the results of many others and out of all that could do me harm, you are the one I fear."
Looking down she closed her eyes and shook her head from side to side.
"Phila..." she said, "fidelity."
Clasping his hands together on the table he leaned forward.
"I love you, Diana."
She inhaled and nodded, looked up and placed her hands over his.
"I know the tides, Ares. They have no use for us any more. But they hold the one promise we never had and are setting about to squander it. I do not want to be here for more centuries... or more... until we get this chance again. I cannot do it alone. I need help."
"But... for what?"
She took her hands from his and took the glass of water up in them.
"All of this started out in the deep blackness, dear brother. I have had it with eternity here. I have tried to kill myself many times, yet that curse of eternal damnation holds because of here. I know the tides. I know what drives them. I want a real life that I can never have, here. When we are free of the bonds of Gaia we will be able to let the Fates set us a new destiny, although they will dare not follow. We will lose what we have left, and we will gain the stars. And not like Hera to be ripped apart by them, either, although I would very much like to die amongst them."
Ares' mouth hung open.
"You're serious," he whispered.
He saw the muscles in her cheeks shift as she turned to look at him.
"Yes. Plain. Open. No one listened to me before, even you. Now you've heard me out. I cannot do it alone, but I will do what I must for this to happen. And nothing, on this I swear my eternal damnation handed to me for being truthful, will stop me. If I have to find a way to drain the Styx and bring out the damned from Hades and from these other realms to do it, then let it be known that I will do so. Gladly. With a smile. With my bow... or rifle... at the ready. I've had it here and I'm leaving. How about you?"
He shivered as he looked at her.
"Your destiny..." his lips barely moved to say it.
"I am to be the mid-wife, I just never knew where that would put me. Now, I know. And when the mother seeks to turn on that child to be, I know what I must do."
Ares sat down on one of the wooden chairs that went with the long wooden table at the back of the house, a set of candles in glasses lit the table where he had served dinner. It was a simple fare of steak with roasted potatoes and green beans done on a griddle on the grill. Diana had done a batch of honeycakes on that griddle once he was done with it, and their meal together had drawn to them and he had set down a bottle of chilled mead and two half-full glasses of it, next to the empty magnum of red wine they had with the meal.
"It is a nice place you have here, brother," she said as she nodded accepting the glass from him.
"There are a few I have scattered around. Once things settled down in the 1890's I put together a continuing land trust for the places I acquire. Once I've been out of a place for 50 years, it is usually pretty safe to look at going back to it. After I got back from the latest military venture overseas I picked up a persona that I had ready and gave the trust the information on the next occupant. That was after moving the trust to a new group under the last persona. I think every 35 years, give or take, is enough to keep suspicions from being raised. There is a fallow trust for my overseas land, which allows for time away from any one region."
Diana smiled and nodded, sipping the mead.
"Delicious, if a bit too refined, if you know what I mean?"
He sipped the sweet mead and closed his eyes, letting the arome waft from his glass to his nose as he inhaled.
"Not nectar, true, but good enough for my needs."
She took one of the honeycakes from the center plate and nibbled at it, sitting back in her chair.
"I don't do that, and have no need for land or to own it. Wilderness provides and when it doesn't I will befriend a family homesteading in the wilderness and get known going to and from town with them. Like you I also built up a few legal amenities over time along with stashes, caches and just knowing where some things are means that I do not lack for anything amongst humanity. Until the last two centuries I haven't had much interaction with mankind."
Ares sat back with the glass in his right hand and looked at Diana across the table from him, the candles giving faint glow into the still and quickly chilling night air. He could barely remember seeing her at ease, at rest, anywhere.
"They had built a temple to you, you know?"
She giggled as she looked at him, smiling.
"Yes they did! I had thought they were looking for a simple shrine, you know the ones by trailsides and out in the wilderness?"
He nodded, taking another sip of the mead.
"I remember guiding the one who was looking, letting the deer show him where to build. It wasn't exactly flat or dry land, but it was a nice place of general solitude."
"Not for long," he said.
She took a nibble from her honeycake and a sip of mead watching him across the table.
"When asked for a suitable spot in an area that is somewhat wild, I can find it. Then the place goes from more than a minor shrine with a few of my bear girls serving out a year to learn the ways of the wilderness and mid-wifery, good and necessary skills for a young girl to have. Soon it grows to more than acolytes, more than priests, soon it is a huge temple of marble, not a loving place of stone, earth and water. Because of the gifts of wilderness and birthing children well, the temple grows and grows."
"It was one of the 7 wonders, or so named," Ares said, "and it was magnificent."
She smirked and took another sip of mead.
"Then it burned down and it was 'why did you foresake us, oh Artemis?'," she pursed her lips together and shook her head.
"And why did you?" Ares asked.
"That should be plain, brother. You had many shrines, as well, and they were erected on battle-sites in homage of what had been done there."
Taking a bite from the honeycake he nodded, and then sipped mead.
"How would you feel if it was put in, say, a pasture where nothing but sheep had consecrated it?"
He choked for a moment and leaned forward putting the glass and honeycake down and picking up a napkin as he choked on the cake and mead.
"Not appropriate, eh? Disrespectful, perhaps?"
Coughing he nodded and finally reached for his half-empty glass of wine and took two gulps from it.
"At least," he said gasping as he leaned up, "put it in an armory! A major fort would do, as well, as the Romans did. But... in a place not consecrated or dedicated to war?"
She smiled and took another nibble of her honeycake.
"Now a temple to Artemis is one that must abide by the wilderness. What happened to it? A city grew up for it, making it no longer a wilderness area but one that had cobblestone walkways and even roads leading not just to the city but the temple, as well. I wasn't attending to the birth of Alexander, although it had stars aligned for it this would not be a birth I needed to attend to. I didn't even notice the temple had been burned down, and was being rebuilt, until years after it happened as it was no longer part of the wilderness. By then it was for the benefit of those running a religion, not those honoring a goddess and her domain. Athena might like those trappings, but she was of the city and I am of no city nor town nor Nation. Really, how many centuries of teaching this does it take to sink in?"
Ares had recovered and gave a final cough, then drained his glass of wine.
"A good vintage that, brother. You really shouldn't gulp it," she said with a smirk.
"Diana!" was all he could gasp out, looking at her and the moment of anger passed as he looked at her kind face across the table from him.
"Yes. I decided that the Romans had almost the right idea but..." she sighed, "...it was too late. They, too, would be swept away by what was coming and by the time they got all those shrines up for besotted and debauched Emperors, my time was over. Life, however, endures."
"Yet you could have ended it..." he said watching the smirk fade from her face, "... ahhh... no, you couldn't. Inviolate and mid-wife. Zeus could not take that from you, could he?"
"Never. I was bitter for some time, Ares, yet had not the power to strike back and I took my duties to the Wild Hunt far more seriously than he who came before me. At its outer range I could barely find Greeks or those who knew of them, and when I did I saw the demise that lay at the feet of Zeus. I knew he would be gone... don't ask how it is just a feeling that I knew was true."
Taking up the honeycake and mead again, Ares took another small bite and savored the taste of it, made by the skilled hands of she who had once been so much and so distant to all.
"That changed, I take it?"
She set the remaining piece of her honeycake down and reached forward for the bottle of mead and topped off her glass.
"I'm no bumpkin as they call it in this area of the world, no ignoramus, no idiot. Amongst those who, in times past, sought to refine ideas they came to isolation in the wilderness. Many did so over time as it is the one place to experience the wild with no intervention from the hand of man, and what better place to concentrate on subjects complex but to live in the most complex of all? Quite a few of these had little idea of what it would take to actually survive in such places, and they I helped, not all but those who seemed in the very need and guidance that nature brings. For that help I did not ask coin but simple teaching, going over their basics so I could understand why they were there. Few write of such excursions as they are overwhelmed by what they see, but with wisdom final refinement comes it matters not if you are Plato, Seneca, Lucian, Newton, Liebnitz, Gauss or Einstein."
He raised an eyebrow.
"A select group," he whispered.
"A few amongst many, brother, and most were not great thinkers or doers just needing something that cities and civilization couldn't provide. It didn't matter if they only discussed with friends in the wilderness or taught me directly, I learned and saw the coming of a new dawn centuries ago. For that dawn I knew I must be prepared as it might need a mid-wife."
Eating the last of one honeycake, Ares reached forward for another.
"You've noticed it, too?"
She sat back in her chair and sipped mead, looking up into the night sky.
"Of course. Something is going on, just like it did in Greece before it collapsed, twice, then Rome. This sort of thing isn't just for those places but it happens all over where civilization reaches a crescendo and then turns away from being civilized. This time it has lasted longer than any other time. It is in this age, seeing the changes humanity does that goes beyond anything any of us could do, do I see what is happening. This is the first gasp of civilization trying to become eternal by necessity, not convenience of survival."
"Permanently civilized?" he asked.
"Well, their nature will still be with them, of course, just as ours is with us. What they will face, however, is that if they lose the ability to be civilized they immediately lose their life. Certain venues for old ways will appear, but if there is not even the veneer of learning what it means to keep oneself alive then there will soon be no life and not just for the one who has forgotten, but for all those around them. That is far harsher in space as there is nothing to fall back upon, no guarantee of nature's bounty here with Gaia. If you forget, if you slack off, if you do anything but concentrate on keeping the artifacts of civilization running then you are soon without the artifacts, civilization and life, all at the same time. Gaia has been most, most forgiving, my brother, and has always welcomed back the wretches who forgot that to be civilized means working at it. Each time this is forgotten those involved soon find themselves scrambling to stay alive but at least there is nature to help them. Once out of this very safe place, the rest of nature is not forgiving at all. And there, and only there, out of the reaches of these powers in this place can we truly live as we were meant to live."
Sipping mead he watched her face shine with reflected moonlight and remembered how she used to be as goddess and that singular beauty of the night had never left her.
"How do you propose to do this, Diana? Surely you aren't going to start up some rocket company or become one of these modern captains of industry? That would not be like you and, more importantly, would require exposure you do not want and tie you to a desk you would loathe."
Her gaze came back down to rest on him, again.
"Oh, nothing so direct, my brother. The lessons your people taught mine at Troy still are with me, and they are instructive to me through the centuries. Your presence was never overt, Ares, but your slow and steady influence on warfare could not help but be noticed. You may have never drafted a regulation nor treaty nor done any other thing and yet someone was setting a steady stream of change over centuries, teaching lessons that had been lost so they would not be forgotten. Finally they created war colleges and you, now, could turn to other things. One lesson at a time building, always building on the past."
Raising his eyebrows he shivered not just to the slow increase of chilliness in the deepening night.
"True, isn't it? You could never leave man to his own resources and when a gentle corrective to a better army was available it always, somehow, just seemed to suddenly become available and not just from generals, either. Anyone who hadn't known you would never see it, Ares. That it was happening was obvious to me after centuries, and yet I abided by your wish to not be known or found."
Ares knew he had been very, very careful about instituting morality and ethics into military affairs. It was meant, at first, to just differentiate soldiers from warriors, those of civilization from those of barbarism. The effect of that, however, transformed military affairs across centuries and it had been a harder task than fighting in any war. It had been slow, subtle and he knew that this would benefit mankind as a whole even if those that had the main benefit lost battles or wars, the lessons tended to stay with people and military establishments.
"I had thought to make it seem natural," he said in a low tone, "that those who gained understanding would be helped. Repeat that often enough and practice gets institutionalized."
"And so it did," she smiled,"I learned from Troy, brother. The Achaeoi were no match for the Ilians man for man, unit for unit, ship for ship. Numbers counted at first but they wouldn't have mattered if it was a normal war. Agamemnon learned about the idea that you do not have to have the best, swiftest or best trained men in battle to win. You taught him that deepest of all lessons and it struck so many as profound because no one had ever thought of war like that. Nothing I or my twin could do would stop it. None of us could change the affairs once started, save you, as war is your definition and place. I learned that deepest and darkest of lessons, Ares, you taught it to me very, very well, you did."
He gazed at her steadily, his face placid.
"Which lesson is that?"
She smirked and leaned forward.
"While I and Apollo thought of tactics and equipment, you taught Agamemnon of logistics and depriving Troy of trade. Her allies fell to such as Achilles and Odysseus, and other men taking to ships at sea to ravage towns and cities and islands. That gained the ire of the Hittites, but by then the course of the war was changed so profoundly that none could believe it. You did that again just recently in that second global conflict, and this time it was America that deployed logistics against better trained and armed foes until, at the end, the foes were facing better trained and armed armies with weapons unheard of just a few years before. Your fingerprints showed up clearly."
His brow furrowed for a moment as he looked back at her.
"But how does this apply to space?"
She smiled and nodded.
"All of those flashing rockets, alight into the sky, they look so beautiful but for the fact that they are an awful waste to expend so much energy for just the first few miles of atmosphere and gravity. They are the great titans of space and like all titans they are powerful and simple, not necessarily elegant or capable. These titans may put up lovely items in space but they are ill-suited to keeping them supplied. If you find a better way to do that, do it cheaper and consistently, then you have a means to permanently supply places in space and even deliver sections of new things in space if on a somewhat smaller scale. Luckily I don't have to invent that, just help back it... and then design the small pieces that will begin to allow for a permanent establishment first off of Gaia's body, then to Luna and then, finally, years and years later, out of their grasp entirely."
Slowly he nodded sipping his mead.
"But why me?"
She blinked at him, her face glowing from the moon that had crept up into the sky.
"This is a logistical operation, Ares. You are the master of logistics. I might be able to do it without you, but I can certainly do it with you and perhaps, this time, give civilization a permanent home amongst the stars so that it can never fail, again. Far better that and to give the mother an awakened sense that civilization is worth it, than to have her and the chance fail, once more. There are times when one must be tender with the mother giving birth and other times a slap on the face to stop screaming and simply push must be performed. This time the slap is appropriate, don't you think?"
"Oh, I've been burned at the stake, beheaded, torn apart by wild horses, disembowled, thrown into a volcano, put in chains and dumped into the ocean, shot, stabbed and hurled into a lava stream just a few amongst the many ways I have been killed. It isn't that I come out unharmed and it's all extremely painful, but after at most a few hours I've regenerated or reintegrated. Really the imagination of people is quite amazing when it comes to inventive and painful ways to kill."
Diana talked as she helped Ares pack his luggage into the back of the Suburban.
"What about you?"
Ares smirked as he lifted a small crate to the level of the vehicle floor and Diana grabbed a handle to help pull it on board.
"Much the same. I've been in more wars than I can name and have gotten it all from swords, spears, arrows, acids, Greek Fire, poison, cannonade, musket shot, canister shot, projectiles from various sorts of firearms, flamethrowers, incediary bombs, high explosive bombs, tank shells, all the way to modern nuclear devices as I stayed on board one of the vessels towed out into the Pacific after the Second World War. They didn't do much of a check on-board those ships once they had gotten them ready to be towed and the final inspection for the one I was on was perfunctory, at best. In-between I've gotten much as you over my life, when I'm not on a battlefield, from suspicious wives, lovers or husbands, plus the assortment of accidents and being on the wrong ship at the wrong time."
He grunted as he gave a final push to the crate and it slid partially under the rear seat.
"What is it that you have in there, anyway?"
"Odds and ends of a few wars. Weapons. Ammunition. A combat vest because healing or having my body come back together is time consuming and not a pleasant experience. These moderns also have done a good job of protecting their soldiers and it was hard to get a decently excusable death this last time around."
She nodded as she jumped down to the dusty earth that was what passed for his driveway. She brushed her hands on her hunting jeans with leather chaps running from her workboots to the top of her thighs. She wore a more practical dark green shirt with the sleeves rolled up to show her pale skin and had changed to a smaller set of sunglasses.
"No, it never is. Still better than being trapped like Hades is in his realm, with a permanent sentence there. Or any of our other family there."
Ares puffed out his cheeks and nodded.
"He got Hephaestus at his forge with a lightning bolt which stripped him, the club footed one was doomed to the icy parts since he had enjoyed the forge for so long. With those weapons Zeus had most of the resources he had lacked to put the rest of us to heel. No one even knew that he was taken after the first assault and only after could I put some of it together."
Diana walked next to her brother as they went to the barn. Early morning light filtered into it as Ares looked around.
"Not much to gather up from here. Tommy Junior will be over later today to tend to the horses. They have free run out there, but its good to let them know they can get just enough to get by on from this part of the ranch. They must learn to forage for more."
The right side of Diana's mouth twitched.
"He got the looms of Ariadne next. She was already dead but her cloth and weavings were still there."
Ares snorted as he looked at the loft area and climbed the ladder to it.
"No one knew what it was he used on Poseidon, just that it involved horses, a woman, a net and then one of weapons he had gotten."
She watched as he closed the front and back doors to it as he went around the hay bales.
"That was a bad day by the seashore, I remember it. Surely their brother noticed that?"
After latching the rear set of doors Ares went down the ladder down to the floor.
"He surely did and the quake and lightning bolt that cut the spit of land he was so that the Styx would surround him left him a ruler unable to go to his dominion. The boatman would just stay out of reach of Hades so he could pass judgement is what I heard, and as the elder brother had his other powers taken from him by the lightning and being such close kin, there is little he can do but judge and I doubt that any follow the old rites to give him more to judge."
"Even if he used the riverwater..." Diana whispered, "...it would only be to erase the memory of being damned to that place forever. And it would return soon enough, at least the knowing of it."
Together they shut the doors to the barn and Ares threw the latch across it which was to keep the doors shut, not to keep anyone out.
"The rest of us had scattered after what happened to Hera, tossed into the sky, then transfixed by lightning in the night. I had tried to stop him, with Athena by my side and I can't say I remember what hit me or her, but I awoke some 30 leagues away and knew that there was no way to stop him by direct assault. I went to Thisbe of the high caves and doves to gather who I could."
They walked to the Suburban and he had to check himself as he headed to the driver's side door.
"I saw what happened to her from the foot of the Mount as I was at the edge and fell when the earth shook with his rage. That was horrific. My twin tried to tackle him, and Demeter there to smash him with her staff. I could have fired into that, but had no bow shot that I could assure. As Zeus struggled he flung Demeter aside and put my brother to lightning directly. Hermes rushed to rescue him from Zeus, take him aloft as fast as he could. By then the Hundred Handers were rushing out and I had no time but to save myself in the forests. That would take long days."
"His death could be heard across the Wine Dark Sea, Diana."
Ares had shifted his stride to head for the passenger's side of the vehicle while Diana got in on the driver's side.
"The briefest flash of the sun... so beautiful..." she said stepping into the Suburban, "she of the Hearth was flashed ablaze with it... as well as beautiful Aphrodite. Gone so quickly as Zeus stripped not just their powers but their lives."
She shook her head and took her sunglasses off, pressing the back of her right wrist to the edge of her eye.
Ares closed the door and looked at her.
"We were all brothers and sisters, no matter who gave us birth. Family, all of us. Even Zeus who had saved us when all seemed dark. By the end he had gone after the last of the Titans, taking the life of Atlas but putting the pure power in his place. Zeus was becoming something glorious and terrible, Diana."
She sniffed and nodded, turning the vehicle on and then putting her sunglasses back on.
"It was the age of winnowing, I saw that coming from the east. It wasn't spreading everywhere, there are some lands untouched..." she shifted the vehicle into gear, "although what has happened since then is much of what happened to us. Our high days and rights become so public, so common that they were an act of neglect, not honor and worship. We were weakened by that, some close to becoming nothing, like Hestia and Demeter. We were weakened to the point that Zeus could do as he did."
She turned slowly in front of the barn and then headed down the driveway to the entrance to the ranch and she turned right.
"He had taken fire and beauty, both. There had been others before him... since... that did the same. It is a wonder to see, until you remember who had to be put down to get him to that point. I took in Hermes with fallen Apollo. To your twin, at least, we could give a proper burial, although his beloved Sun will no longer shine upon him where he is now. Dionysus had taken to slinking through poor parts of towns, moving amongst the mountain vines that sheltered him until he, too, found Thisbe. No Cyclops could find him, nor Hundreds grasp him if they could find him. It was then Zeus dealt with Haephestus and then Poseidon... Hades... we were the last. He hunted down others, Hecate destroyed by the great sunlight that was his. Nothing could stand against him by then."
Ares took a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket, their mirror finish reflecting the interior of the vehicle and the countryside as they drove through it. She drove the Suburban down the dirt road which hadn't been resurfaced and held ruts in it as well as places that had been washed over.
"Those were awful days, then, and some still held the festivals after those they were in honor of had ceased to be what they were," he said, "only those of us who are attached to things where the deed is the sacrifice are left. And unknown. Not that worship would do any of us good, now."
Diana looked from left to right seeing mountains to her right that had the full glare of sunshine on them.
"Aurora... you said she had survived."
"Yes. Luckier than Athena although without the glory of morning she was left bereft. She had been transformed and died after a long life with much hardship."
He watched as she drove, placid and yet ever watchful.
"The same with Nike?"
"She would die in my arms of old age, our children would not believe what we had been, of course. I can never forgive Zeus for that, he had no cause. No life by then, either, and I couldn't forgive him even if I wanted to find which hot place he finally found as his destination."
"I still can't hate him, brother," she said, "for Hera it was revenge... for me it was our only hope and a desperate gamble."
Ares turned to look down the road that twisted on for long miles across flat landscape, the interstate far beyond to the south.
"I still do go to war, Diana. I cannot get to every one, of course, and every bushfire conflict does not even get graced with names these days even though they can move the tides of man. I always make sure I die so as to leave no reasonable chance to survive to those I fight with. The one thing and one thing only I take heart in is that there are those who now understand that soldiers are of civilization and warriors not. That grounding I set ages back has yielded some good soldiers. There are still far too many warriors and those who seek the rule and law of war, only."
She breathed evenly, her chest moving slowly as she drove.
"There are always barbaric hunters, those who just love to kill. I once led the Wild Hunt on those, and if I was no longer Artemis then Diana of the Hunt I would be. While I don't grow old, I do grow up, my brother. There are many things upon me I thought were blessings and now I can see are curses. For all the joy I've had, for all of those I have been mid-wife to, for all of that I am cursed to be inviolate. Zeus could not strip me of that, no one can. Flight as the moderns do is not enough, even my beloved and barren Luna is held in Gaia's dance hold. I am bound to her and what I am because of her. Even dead that which she was survives and her blessings do as well. It is beyond breaking so long as she holds me here, but I am no slave to her. I am not Prometheus."
He smiled looking out to the distance.
"He was let loose, as well... now bound to a rock of Dis and subject to the defilement of Harpies is what I heard. Far better the liver only, than what those can do."
Eyeing her from the side he saw her jaw shift, her nostrils flare.
"His brother wasn't brought down by Zeus, you know?" she finally said.
"No, Zeus hadn't planned things out well enough ahead and at the end of his list he realized that he had forgotten someone. Epimetheus had a power that also went far beyond what any of us realized."
Ares chuckled and shook his head.
"It is a most lethal and deadly of powers, truth be told. Too bad there is no protection from it."
"There is a story I got from travelers of a rather big man they had been with who was, ahhh, absent minded. He traveled with them for some time, even leading their little group until, one day as they traveled, he realized that he had forgotten a map or even asking of directions on their journey through the arid mountains, of where they might find good water to drink. He foraged ahead, leaving the group behind and heard the sound of running water in a cave and went in it to seek its source. There he found a lovely pool fed by springs in the underground, which fed into a river. He had forgotten the waterskins, of course, but the water looked so inviting he just had to take a dip in it..."
He looked at her.
"The group came back, with all but one having a severe case of amnesia. The last recounts of how he had been posted to protect the rest and when he finally went to get them it was because of confused yells. There he found their leaders clothes on the ground, the other men confused into senselessness and the sound of a voice echoing through the caverns of 'now where was I going?'"
Ares laughed shaking his head from side to side.
"So," Diana said, "Maybe Hades won't be alone, forever, if Epimetheus washes up on his little island. Not that it will do either of them any good, at all."
After that they drove in silence and he gazed at her in earnest.
"You really meant it, didn't you?"
"Never doubt my word, brother. I not only mean what I say but I will do as I say and put meaning into that task. I do not want to be Queen of the World in order to get off it, but if that is what it takes, then there is nothing mortal or immortal, demon or god, from any of the heavens to any of the hells or anything in-between that will stop me."
A shiver went through him as he turned to look at the road disappearing under the tires of the Suburban. It had been a long, long time since he had seen such beauty and such horror because of the terrible nature of the beauty involved. There was no boasting, no bragging, nothing of what he, himself, had done for so long as did so many of his brothers in the family that was Olympus. Zeus had never had that earnest purpose behind him since Kronus was defeated after being forced to re-birth them by regurgitation done by Zeus. It was an amazing feat for Zeus to start against his own father, and that sort of determination wasn't near him once more until the return of this long lost sister. She wasn't asking to lead if she could get help, but if she had to lead...
Ares nodded incrementally to himself.
"You are more compassionate than Zeus ever was," he whispered.
She pressed her lips together trying not to smile and failed.
"I will not repeat his mistakes, my brother. I have options, unlike he did, and there are better, swifter, less horrific ways to get to the destination I am set to than to become ruler. That is the least, worst and longest road, not the shortest. When in the forest I will go out of my way to gain a wondrous view, but there is no wonder on that path of power. Just horror. No mid-wife would ever choose that path of killing the mother so that the child may be born and I have artfully refused that path each and every time I have been presented with it as it leaves a child who will not grow up well... dragging unwilling fathers back to be a parent... that is something else, again."