“My Phoenix is a hero and a champion, and while in his heart he’s a farmer, he is not backwoods. And I will not have you insult him.”
He grinned at her words. She always chided him whenever he insulted himself, and then used the battle name the others had dubbed him to remind him that he was more than what he felt in his heart. He didn’t know what it was about her, but she could always make him feel like a king with nothing more than a single glance or a few words.
Leaning back, she pulled him with her. “Now come inside, my lord, and find your pleasure.”
And when she bent her knees and spread her legs for him, he no longer had the ability to deny her request. Cursing himself for his own weakness, he laid his body over hers then gently slid inside.
Bathymaas gasped at the thick fullness of Aricles filling her body. For several heartbeats, neither moved as they stared at each other. She smiled up at him. “I love you, Ari.”
The intensity of those blue eyes scorched her. “I love you, too. With every part of me.” Slow and easy, he began to rock himself against her hips.
Gasping, she moaned at how good he felt. He dipped down to give her a kiss that stole her breath.
She savored the warmth of his body in and around hers as she brushed her hand against the sharp, hard ridges of his abdomen. He was all strength and power.
And best of all, he was hers.
He’d never touched another woman like this. Never shared this part of himself with anyone else. It made her love him all the more.
Suddenly, he quickened his strokes and ground his teeth. An instant later, he growled and shuddered against her.
Her smile widened. “See, I told you.”
He laughed quietly. “And you were very right. It was amazing. I finally understand why my brother is so fascinated by women.” His breathing ragged, he lifted himself up on his arms to stare down at her while they were still joined. “I love you, my goddess, and I swear to you that I will never willingly touch any woman save you.”
She cupped his face in her hands. “You’ve made me whole.”
Aricles held his breath as raw panic filled him. He was thrilled that she was happy, but deep inside he couldn’t stop thinking that this wasn’t right and that somehow the gods would punish them both for daring to love each other.
June 2, 12,249 BC
Bathymaas withheld her smile as she listened to the crowd cheering for her beloved Ēperon as they rode through the gates of Corinth while she stood on a palace balcony. They were resplendent in the gleaming bronze body armor she’d created for them. When they held their shields and stood side by side, it covered every inch of them and kept them safe.
Over the last year, they had earned a name for themselves in battle that guaranteed all seven of them would go down in the annals of history as some of the greatest champions who ever lived.
They had more than proven themselves worthy successors to the Chthonians who continued to war against one another. Most of the pantheons had now learned to behave, but still the Greeks warred on with reckless abandon and disregard. It infuriated her that Apollo, Ares, Zeus, Poseidon, and Leto couldn’t stop preying on the humans.
Or worse, they would raid the Atlanteans as if they wanted war between the two pantheons so that there would be countless mortal lives lost.
It was something she couldn’t allow.
So she kept her vigil over her men as they returned from battle. Ever since Apollo’s vicious attack on Aricles, she knew to watch for more treachery from him.
And speaking of, she felt Apollo’s presence behind her.
“Well, well… I was hoping you’d come.”
Turning away from the procession below, she faced the young Greek god. “Why do you continue to tip the scales of justice?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Not at all.”
He reached out to touch her face. “It’s to get your attention.”
She scowled at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“Don’t beg. It’s unbecoming of a goddess so beautiful.” He put his hands on each side of her waist and pulled her against him. “Is it really true you have no feelings?”
She pushed against him, but couldn’t loosen his grip. Stamping down her irritation, she knew better than to show it. “It is.”
“So if we were to have sex, you would be ambivalent to it?”
“I would assume.”
“Should we test it and see?”
She blasted him away from her. “No. We shall not.”
Apollo caught himself against the wall and glared furiously. “You shouldn’t deny me, Bathymaas. I don’t take rejection well.”
“You should learn.”
That only angered him more. He flashed himself to stand in front of her then backhanded her so hard, she fell to the floor. Blood suffused her mouth as a most foul pain exploded through her head, stunning her. She’d never dreamed how much a blow hurt, and it gave her an all new respect for her Ēperon and what they went through in battle.
“Did you feel that?” Apollo growled as he seized her again. He reached for the top of her gown.
Suddenly, he went flying past her as an enraged bellow sounded.
A blur followed after him and slammed him into the wall. It took her several seconds before she realized it was Aricles beating on the god.
“Aricles!” she breathed, rushing toward him before Apollo recovered enough to return the attack.
As soon as she touched his arm, he stopped pounding on Apollo and stepped back. “Are you all right, my goddess?”
She cupped his cheek and nodded then she turned to face Apollo.
He pushed himself up from the floor, glaring at them. “I demand retribution for his hubris.”
She bit back her furious disbelief. “Hubris? How so?”
“He attacked a god.”
“To protect a god. His actions were justified and you should be grateful I don’t unleash him on you for what you dared. You know better.”
Apollo spat the blood in his mouth onto the ground, where it made a bright red splatter. “I will have my revenge on him for this.”
“Touch him and I will have your heart in my fist. Now get out of here while you’re able.”
Aricles didn’t dare move for fear of what he’d do to Apollo until the god was gone. But as soon as they were alone, he cupped Bathymaas’s cheek in his hand to study the bruise that was forming on her delicate skin. “You should have allowed me to kill him.”
“And risk his mother or father calling out for your head? Never.”
He pulled her gently against him and held her in the safety of his arms. “I should have been here for you.”
A tic worked furiously in his jaw. “What if he attacks you again?”
“I will be careful.”
She kissed him lightly to silence his protest. “Nothing’s going to happen to me. You’re the one I worry over. How did you know I needed you?”
“I don’t know. I had a bad feeling and I couldn’t breathe until I got here.”
Rising up on her tiptoes, she hugged him close. “I’m glad you came to investigate it.”
Apollo cursed as he saw his face in the mirror. That human bastard had ravaged his beauty. Fury made his hand tremble as he washed the blood from his lips, nose, and cheek.
“What happened to you?”
He met his mother’s shocked gaze in the mirror. Like him, she had golden-blond hair, but her eyes were the same color green as his twin sister, Artemis. “One of Bathymaas’s Ēperon attacked me.”
“On the battlefield?”
“No. I was just teasing her and the bastard started pounding on me.”
His mother gaped. “Did she not punish him for it?”
“Of course not. They’re her pets.”
Leto lifted her chin as fury darkened her eyes. “And you are my son. How dare a mortal lay hand to you!” She closed the distance between them to gently inspect his face. “I will take this up with her immediately.”
“She won’t listen. I already demanded restitution and she said it was justified.”
Leto curled her lip. “She’s no business being the final say on our kind. She’s too capricious with her laws of fairness. I’m still seething over how you and Artemis were forced to be born, and the curse Hera gave you both with no repercussions. No matter what that bitch says, it was not justified.”
“Believe me, Matisera, I know. I should rip the throat out of her Ēperon guard with my fangs and let her see for herself how fair that curse is.”
“I would agree, but she’d only kill you for it and claim that as justice, too. No… we need something to take to the other gods. Something that shows she’s not impartial.”
Leto let out a heavy sigh. “We have to catch her breaking the rules.”
“And how do we do that?”
“We follow her, dear boy. Sooner or later, she’s bound to screw up something.”
October 22, 12,249 BC
“Is it just me or does it seem like the gods have a vendetta against us?”
Aricles looked up from his carving to meet Hector’s gaze. “They want us dead.”
“Ah, good. I’m not the only one who’s noticed. And here I thought it was just me.”
Grimacing, Galen moved to sit on the foot of Aricles’s bed. “It is disconcerting, isn’t it? And battle isn’t all I thought it’d be.”
Aricles arched his brow at his brother’s somber tone. “Is that remorse I hear?”
“It’s remorse. I keep going back to that day on the farm when they came to recruit us. Do you remember what you said to me while we packed?”
“Not to forget your cloak?”
Galen laughed and shook his head. “You told me that battle wouldn’t be the same as the war games I’d played. That the day would come when I’d grow tired of walking through blood-saturated fields.”
“And has that day come, brother?”
He nodded. “I never gave thought to how young some soldiers would be. Or how wroth the gods would become with us.”
Hector let out a heavy sigh. “I think we are all feeling that. I swear one of the soldiers I killed today couldn’t have been any older than fifteen… if that.”
Haides moved to sit on Galen’s bed next to them. “It’ll soon be four years since I was last at home. My sister has married and had two children since I left… I miss my family.”
Galen sat back. “Our brother had a baby… a son almost a year ago and we’ve seen nothing of him. And for some reason, I keep thinking of Talia.” He met Aricles’s gaze. “Do you remember her?”
“She was beautiful and thought you hung the very moon in the sky.”
Galen smiled sadly. “Aye, she did. But she was too circumspect for me. I always thought she’d be a better match for you.”
Aricles bit back the reminder that Galen’s other problem with her was that she’d refused to bed him. “And now?”
“I should like a wife with such morals and convictions, and sweet nature. One I can trust to remain faithful to me should I ever be away. Do you think she might still be available?”
“I know not, little brother.”
Haides jerked his chin toward Phelix who was asleep on his bed across the room. “Ever notice even he has stopped sharpening his sword?”
Monokles nodded as he joined them. “I keep thinking of something my father used to say to me – Fight on, my son. Not only with sword and spear, but with everything you have.” Sighing, he shook his head. “But now, it’s the words of an Athenian priestess that haunt me – you should reach the limits of virtue before you take up your sword and cross the border of death.”
“We’re all homesick.” Aricles glanced at each one in turn. “But we have taken a vow to fight for our goddess and for the people of our homelands. As the old saying goes, only the dead have seen the end of war. We cannot forget that well begun is only half done. People have learned to watch for our red cloaks and black armor. They turn to us for protection now. How can we abandon them?”
Galen sighed wearily. “Interesting words considering the fact that you’re the only one of us who didn’t want to be here.”
Aricles paused his carving. “I still have no desire to make war. But I am not a coward and I won’t have the gods or anyone else making that allegation toward me.”
“He’s right,” Haides agreed. “They would mock us if we withdrew.”
Aricles offered them a sad smile. “I think we could all use a furlough. I’ll talk to Malphas and the goddess to see if we can have a week to ourselves so that we can see our families and make peace in our hearts.”
Monokles clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re always looking after us. Thank you, brother.”
Aricles inclined his head to them. “Anything for you, you know that.” He set his carving aside and left their barracks to head to the small temple they’d erected for their goddess. Every time they came home from battle, they’d leave an offering to her for her favor and honor. Not that it was needed. She always watched over them.