House of Thebes: The BeginningCourtney Cole
To the fans of The Bloodstone Saga.
Thank you for loving these books so much that you wanted more.
This book is for you.
In every love story, there is a beginning.
There is a place where time and tragedy have not touched, a place that is new and beautiful and shines with hope.
My story is unique in that Cadmus has always been mine, even before we knew it. Our souls were once one, until Zeus split them into two. A bond such as that creates a permanence between two people that cannot be broken, cannot be diminished, cannot be revoked…no matter what the circumstance might be. A bond such as that is real and true. A bond such as that is rare.
And so, because I have been blessed by the gods with this bond, by my grandfather Zeus, by my parents, Aphrodite and Ares, by the universe and all the energies that it contains, I am thankful.
I am thankful to be with my love, because no matter what sadness we have faced in the many lives that we have already lived, we are together now. Cadmus holds me every night until I sleep, whispering into my ear that everything will always be alright because he will make it so. And every night, I believe him.
We watch our beautiful daughter thriving in the Underworld and we relish each moment of our lives, because everything is perfect now. We have fought many battles and have won them in order to get to this point, this place in which we are so happy.
We are together now and Cadmus will walk by my side for all of eternity. I am forever grateful. And today, as I sit in the beautiful gardens of my home watching Cadmus at play with our daughter, I cannot help but think back to a time before everything began.
Every love story has a beginning.
This is mine.
I was quite sure that my home was the most beautiful place in all the world.
The lush green hills of the Spiritlands rolled for miles beyond the gardens of Zeus’ palace. Beyond acres of hills and sculpted gardens, white marble walls framed the grounds of our home, the crown jewel of Olympus. The palace had been designed by Zeus personally and was a shining object of beauty, a place where so many of us called home and lived together in our own particular brand of dysfunction.
My father Ares, who also happened to be the god of war, glistened in the light of the morning sun as he practiced his archery on one of those very hills behind the palace, amidst wildflowers and waving grass.
As I sipped a morning cup of nectar from my balcony railing, I watched as Ares carefully eyed his target and pulled the string of his bow taut, holding it for a moment before he let it fly. It landed on the far edge of the circular bull’s eye.
Ares visibly sighed before stalking to it and ripping it out of the wood. Apparently, close to the mark wasn’t close enough. As he stomped back to where he had been standing, I pushed away from the railing, turning to face Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
“Mother, I do not understand why Zeus will not allow you and father to marry,” I said, brushing away her fluttering hands. “It’s not right.”
As always, my mother was attempting to ‘beautify’ me. She was constantly trying to dress me up, do fancy things with my hair or offer instruction on feminine wiles. She was far more worried about marrying me to a good husband than in being concerned with her own business…the small matter of marrying the love of her life. It was slightly frustrating.
“Harmonia,” she sighed. “We’ve been through this a hundred times. I don’t see why you are so concerned with it. Your father and I love each other. That is the important thing. Zeus will never allow us to marry because he promised Hephaestus that he would never grant Hephaestus and I a divorce. Hephaestus is proud. He does not wish to suffer a divorce.”
“Is it better to suffer the thought that you and Ares are cavorting about beneath his nose for all to see?” I sniffed.
I couldn’t help it. The idea that my own parents could never marry had always bothered me. It shouldn’t, because what my mother said was true. She and my father were wildly, madly in love. Everyone knew it, including my step-father Hephaestus. And a few vows uttered in front of Zeus would never make their bond any more real or concrete than it already was. Their love was legendary.
“Mother, wouldn’t you feel better being officially married to my father?”
Even to me, my voice had become thin and discouraged because I already knew her answer.
Aphrodite shook her head, her honey-colored hair fluttering in the fragrant Olympus breeze. I could smell the lotus blossoms from here as their scent wafted onto my balcony from the gardens below.
“No. I feel just fine as it is. Wonderful, in fact.”
Aphrodite laughed, a tinkling peal of bells and I marveled as I frequently did, at my mother’s universal appeal. One of her unique traits was in always seeming perfect and charming to the person whom she was with. Anyone who interacted with my mother saw her as their own personal idea of the most beautiful, alluring woman possible. It was one of her greatest gifts. She had practically leveled kingdoms with it.
She turned back to watch my father and waited for him to release his next arrow. It left the bow in a straight line that embedded directly in the center of the target. Ares let out a triumphant crow and turned to Apollo, the god who stood next to him.
Apollo’s great shoulders slumped and it appeared from here that he had just lost a challenge. It was slightly unheard of. Apollo didn’t lose. But then again, neither did my father. It was always a treat to see the two go head to head in any sort of competition. It was guaranteed to be colorful, at the very least.
My mother waggled her fingers at Ares from my balcony and he bowed low in an exaggerated bow. Aphrodite blew him a kiss and Ares beamed from ear to ear, lighting up his face. Both of my parents were beautiful.
Ares was large and strong with dark hair, tanned skin and dark eyes. He was the only Olympian besides Apollo and Hades whose eyes were not silver. Apollo’s eyes were usually silver, but they could turn gold, depending on his mood. Both Hades and Ares had eyes that remained dark, almost black, at all times.
Ares’ muscled frame was tall, his attitude fierce, but he was also fiercely loyal to those close to him. It was a deadly mistake to trifle with anyone who he loved.
Aphrodite was his polar opposite. Slender and slight, her dark blonde hair brushed her shoulders. Her eyes were the traditional Olympian silver, her skin fair and perfect. She was beautiful at all times, night or day and was prone to dramatic statements and gestures. As the goddess of peace, I had fallen in the middle of my parents’ two extremes.
I turned to wave to my father, as well. He grinned cockily and gestured toward his winning arrow, which was still embedded in the target, in an effort to make certain that I saw it.
Apollo rolled his eyes and I laughed. Ares was a character. If you were in his inner circle, he graced you with his true personality which was funny and witty. If you were not, you only saw what the world thought him to be, ruthless and bloodthirsty. And to be fair, if the need arose, he could certainly be those things too.
From his left, a shadow moved and I watched curiously as a man emerged into my field of vision. Tall and broad-shouldered, he was as handsome a man as I had ever seen. Hair as black as night fell to his shoulders. His arms and legs were thick with muscle although his waist was slim. He had a chiseled jaw and perfect proportions and I found myself holding my breath as I looked at him. I made a conscious effort to breathe before I broached the question to my mother.
“Who is that?”
Aphrodite glanced at me sharply, before answering.
“That’s Cadmus, your father’s slave. Remember, Harmonia? He killed your father’s favorite dragon a few years ago. Surely
you remember the drama that your father kicked up over the entire affair.” Aphrodite rolled her eyes for effect before continuing.
“Cadmus is a Phoenician prince, the son of the King of Tyre. I might have caused Zeus to fall in love with Cadmus’ sister, Europa. It was a slow day and I grew bored. Having love in the air is always a good thing, right?” Aphrodite raised an innocent eyebrow at me. I rolled my eyes in answer. One thing my mother was not, was innocent.
“Anyway, after Zeus fell madly in love with Europa and had stolen her away, Cadmus’ father, Agenor, demanded that his sons find her from wherever Zeus had taken her or not to bother coming home at all. Europa was the apple of Agenor’s eye, better loved than even his wife, and he desperately wanted her found. The boys set out, but one by one, they either gave up or perished during their search. Years later, out of all of Agenor’s sons, Cadmus was finally the only one left standing. He traveled far and wide to find Europa because he was still determined to find his sister.
“Anyway, blah, blah, blah, long story short, along the way, Cadmus killed your father’s most favorite dragon and your father demanded justice for this most grievous crime. Zeus sentenced Cadmus to eight years of slavery to your father as compensation for the foul deed. I personally am glad that the dragon is gone. Ares spent entirely too much time with it, anyway. Some silly mortals claim that the dragon was actually Ares’ son. Isn’t that funny? They’re such smelly creatures. I don’t see what your father sees in them. Dragons, I mean. Not mortals.”
I was not distracted by my mother’s prattling or her airy re-telling of this tale. I did remember the affair. It had been a huge scandal some years back and I searched my memory for the details.
I had never seen this man, the subject of such controversy, because I tended to steer clear of the trials in Zeus’ court. As the goddess of peace and harmony, I shied away from discord. And there was always anger, resentment and back-biting in Zeus’ court.
“He’s a mortal,” I remembered out loud, my eyes still frozen on the perfect man. Ares had just handed him the bow and I cringed, hoping that Cadmus knew Ares enough to not best him. Ares did not like to be beaten.
Cadmus drew back the bow string gracefully, just as Ares and Apollo had before him. I held my breath as he aimed, paused and released the quivering arrow.
It struck its mark, splitting straight through Ares’ arrow and landing in the center of the target. An impressive feat. My eyes flew to my father. Ares stared at the arrow for a moment and at the splintered shards of his own before he burst into loud laughter. I expelled the breath I hadn’t realized that I was holding.
Ares slapped Cadmus on the shoulder and I smiled. My father was surprisingly friendly with his slave. As Cadmus turned to grin back at my father, with what I couldn’t help but notice was a beautiful smile, his gaze caught mine.
His eyes were dark, almost as dark as Ares’, but very kind and sparkled with warmth. He looked surprised for a moment and stopped what he was doing as he stood still and our eyes locked from across the field. Time seemed to stand still. The electricity between the two of us was almost palpable and I drew in a sharp breath.
Ares followed Cadmus’ gaze and when he saw me, his eyes narrowed, then he stepped between us. With his back to me, they continued their conversation and my heart started beating again.
“Of course he’s mortal,” my mother answered, as she carefully watched my face. “He’s a Phoenician prince. Don’t become taken with him, Harmonia. He’s a slave and I’m certain that once he serves his time, he will return to his home. He is King Agenor’s only remaining son, after all. He is not free to be with you. And your father would have heart failure, anyway.”
“Father will have a heart attack no matter who I end up with,” I replied absently, still trying to catch another glimpse of the beautiful man standing with my father. “And besides. Ares is immortal. No amount of heart attacks that I cause him will ever be fatal.”
“That’s beside the point,” Aphrodite announced, squaring her thin shoulders. “It’s never wise to seek out that which you cannot have. I should know.”
I glanced at her and found her attempting to look sad. I knew her well enough to recognize it as an act, however, and laughed.
“Mother, not five minutes ago, you were telling me how perfectly happy you are and how you do not need to marry my father. Don’t try to draw parallels here where there are none. Besides, I haven’t even met this man. Yet.”
With that last word, I did my best imitation of a flounce as I headed for the door. I heard my mother sigh as I rounded the corner and out of her sight. I smiled in response. It did her good to worry. She was very used to getting things her own way. This would be a nice change of pace for her.
I wound my way through the opulent halls of the palace and slipped out the back doors, through the gardens and into the fields beyond. I turned just once to find Aphrodite watching me, her silver eyes filled with…something. Anxiety? Worry? Curiosity? It was difficult to say, but I put it out of my mind. It didn’t matter.
I crested the top of the hill and burst upon the trio of men as they good-naturedly bickered back and forth, arguing about which of them possessed the most impressive skills.
They stopped speaking as I approached and all three turned to watch me.
I instantly felt self-conscious and a blush flared across my cheeks. I dared a glance at Cadmus and found the corner of his mouth twitching, as though suppressing a smile. He found my embarrassment amusing, which caused me to blush all the more.
Ares narrowed his dark eyes as I stopped short in front of them.
“Yes, daughter?” he demanded. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
I stared at him. He knew there was nothing wrong. But I could see that he didn’t want me here. That was interesting, as well.
“Of course not, father,” I assured him. “I simply wished for you to teach me the art of archery.”
My father watched me silently for a moment before he burst into laughter.
“You? Archery?” he laughed again and I felt my flush returning. So I wasn’t the most athletically inclined. There was no need to be mean about it.
“Yes,” I answered firmly. “You spend hours shooting and hunting with Ortrera, but never with me. I simply thought to spend quality time with my father doing something that he loves to do.” I pasted the best innocent expression that I could muster onto my face.
Turning the tables on Ares and making him feel guilty for something he hadn’t even done was always effective, as much as I hated to do it. It was a trick that my mother liked to use, not me. But I felt an incredible need to meet this man, this prince of Phoenicia. There was something about him, something oh-so-appealing.
“Your sister enjoys the hunt,” my father answered uncertainly. “I had no idea that you had an interest in it. By all means, daughter. We can start your lessons in the morn.”
“Oh.” My shoulder slumped. “I thought we could start now,” I stuttered. “I mean, you have your shooting equipment out here now and I’m here now so it just seemed convenient.” I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could.
“They are called bows, daughter, and yes, we do have them,” my father began, before he quickly narrowed his eyes again. “And yes. It does seem convenient. Too convenient. Come here.”
I eyed him as I walked forward. I wasn’t sure I liked the gleam in his eye.
“Come, daughter,” he motioned impatiently to a spot directly in front of him. “If you would like to learn to hunt, I have the perfect opportunity.”
I followed his gaze and found a majestic peacock preening his colorful iridescent feathers in the sun some fifty yards from us. I gasped and spun to look at my father.
“Surely you don’t intend for me to shoot that beautiful bird!” I cried before I could stop myself. “He’s not hurting us.”
My father gazed at me quietly, knowingly. “Do you not wish to hunt?”
He was calling me on my bluff. He knew it and I kne
w it. Apollo knew it. But Cadmus did not know it, because he didn’t know me. Yet.
I swallowed hard and forced out the hateful words.
“Yes. I’d like to learn to hunt.”
This time it was my father’s mouth that twitched but I ignored it as I positioned myself in front of him and he handed me the bow. Leaning forward, he adjusted my hands and offered me instruction.
“Pull back slowly and fluidly,” he advised. “Keep both eyes open.”
I automatically squinted one eye as I examined the bird in front of me.
“Keep one eye open,” Ares reminded me, his voice close to my ear. “Still your breathing. Focus. Don’t. Even. Blink.”
The bird continued to peacefully preen its feathers and I gulped as I eyed him. He wasn’t afraid. He had no idea that his life was almost at an end. He was calm and quiet and was simply enjoying the morning sun.
I took aim, my fingers shaking.
I squinted one eye, then quickly remembered and opened it.
I stared at the bird and gulped.
Then gulped again.
“I don’t want to do this,” I told Ares quietly. When he didn’t respond, I whirled, the bow still in my hands. “I don’t want to do this. That poor bird has never done anything to me.”
But in my inexperience, I accidentally released the arrow from the bowstring. With a whistle, the arrow whizzed directly past my father and impaled itself in Cadmus’ strong thigh. He dropped to the ground like a stone, his hands gripping the bloody arrow embedded in his flesh.
To his credit, Cadmus didn’t yell and he didn’t curse. Instead, he looked at me with calm, dark eyes.
“And what, pray tell, did I do?”