I expected dying would hurt, so when I woke up, the fact that I wasn’t in shrieking agony, splattered across the basalt of Mount Olympus, was surprising. The fact that I woke up at all was downright shocking. I had expected to wake up in Tartarus, probably with Charon prodding at me with a boat oar, if the invaders hadn’t killed him as well.
I was still cold and wet, but the storm was gone, and I was under unfamiliar stars, with something sharp digging into my spine. I hadn’t been to much of Tartarus, but I didn’t think there were pine trees there.
I heard screaming – that checked with Tartarus – and smelled fresh blood, which didn’t. Whatever I had landed on wasn’t happy about it, and wriggled away. I heard snorting and growling, and I pushed myself upright and looked around, seeing a grey-and-black furry mass disappearing under a huge fallen tree.
Well enough then. Where in the name of Hades was I?
Hoofbeats, screaming, and crying children – wherever I was, I needed to do something about it, since the Fates had decided that I was to live. I stood up, wobbly-kneed as a fresh lamb, and took a breath of this strange, cold air. Out of habit, I snapped my fingers, hoping to conjure a ball of flame.
Nothing except a stinging sensation and a tiny, almost invisible spark that vanished like a breath.
All right, I couldn’t use my fire, but I could go try and help. They had to have spared me for something. I staggered down the slope towards the screaming. I heard the distinct scrape of flint against steel, and my ears perked. Someone was trying to start a fire.
“Lady of Flames, help me, help us, please!” Scrape, scrape, scrape.
“Mama, they’re coming, they’re coming!”
“Lady, please!” Scrape, scrape, the sound of metal hitting rocks.
I snapped my fingers again. A tiny ball of fire, pale and weak, but still, flame. I would forgive the mortals the informal address this time. I felt warm breath on my back and turned. Nothing there, but I decided to start running, just in case. I cradled my little flame close to my breast, and headed to where I was needed.
I slid down the end of a rocky scree and landed in a tangle. I immediately clenched my fist around the flame, and felt it grow. The scrapes and bruises seared into my skin, but healed.
I smelled burning wool, and heard the prayers coming from a small hollow in the rock, along with the screams of the children. The night wind was cold on my face, but I ran as quick as I could.
Dark shapes of men and dogs were advancing on the hollow, and fitful light was rising, throwing ghastly shadows onto all the trees. I saw bodies on the ground, goat-legged and human alike, and beasts tearing at their flesh. An altar was tossed aside, a brazier spilled into the damp bracken – a brazier bearing the horns of my own symbol. A woman’s body was draped grotesquely over the remains of the altar stone, her clothing torn apart, bloody streaks dark in the starlight on her pale flesh, cold and still as marble. A satyr lay dead at her feet, his hand still clutching her ankle, weapon in his other hand and cold steel protruding from his chest.
I was not a goddess of battle, but these mortals were mine and I would protect them.
I screamed with all the power of a vengeful goddess, and in that moment, I felt the warmth course through me. The fire roared high, and leapt from its cradle of wool, rising up and blossoming into a great blazing nova of white-hot death, searing invader flesh from bone and one to crumbling ash in the space between heartbeats.
The flames sank back to a small blaze, warm and comforting, and I approached the mortals. Two women, three children, huddling close against the rock wall. I knelt down by the fire, and held my hands over it. It was far larger than the twist of wool should support, and I smiled. Flames licked at my fingers, soft as kitten fur. This was my fire. The new scars were bright against my skin, and I was glad they were there. They would make sure I never forgot this night.
The older of the two women clutched her son close, and I could see that he had cloven hooves, saw the flowers strewn through her hair. Nymphs? But why would nymphs fear me?
The younger one held her two girls, but she didn’t cower.
“Lady of Flames? You came…”
“Of course I came, my dear. I always come to those who ask my aid,” I said, the urge to hunt down those who desecrated this place riding high under my skin. “Where are the rest of you?”
“The pack tried to lead them off, but we got separated,” she answered. “We came to the shrine, thinking they would respect that, but…”
“I saw. I will personally see that their shades go to Elysia,” I vowed, and she closed her eyes, holding her girls. They were looking at me, eyes bright as new pennies in the firelight. The blossoms in their hair were just beginning to bud, hard little green lumps amid the tangled curls. They were just babies.
“I’m going to go find your mates,” I said, and pushed myself to my feet. “Stay by the fire. It will keep you safe. My fire will always keep you safe.” I unpinned my cloak from my shoulders and draped it around the five of them. “I will go find your pack.”
I did not know this place, but I knew satyrs. They would be where the fighting was thickest, especially if their girls were in danger. They would have led them away from this place, so…follow the trail of carnage. The satyrs would have the advantage, fighting amongst the trees, so no doubt the humans would try to shift the fight to a clearing.
I found them, or what was left of them. There was a clearing, all right, and it was choked with bodies of man and beast and satyr alike. Old bucks wielding axes, young bucks fighting with bare hands and stolen swords, humans gutted and shredded, faces twisted in death agonies as they attempted to hold their guts in.
Across the clearing, a few survivors huddled in the deeper darkness under the trees – pine trees, sacred to Pan. I heard faint prayers, gasped phrases that ended in bubbling wheezes.
Moving quickly as I could, I knelt among the wounded. Most of these here would survive, given time and just a bit of luck. Satyrs had a keen instinct when death was nearby, and would likely have granted as much mercy as they could to those who had fallen on the field.
“Come on, boys, your girls need you,” I said, lifting a young warrior to his feet. He had a nasty gash into the deep muscle of his shoulder, but it was already clotted. “What’s your name, handsome?”
“Hector, my lady,” he grunted, trying to get his feet under him. “I’m all right, help my brothers.”
He stood guard while I did so, but there wasn’t much for me to do. They were pulling themselves up, hasty bandages applied, water and wine offered.
As they all managed to stand, I looked around the area under the tree. There had been a shrine here too, of a different sort, horned skulls and antlers scattered about and shards of amphorae in the distinct red-brown of Greek clay. I saw a smiling face holding grapes before a large cloven hoof came down on it, grinding it to dust.
“He didn’t come for us, my lady, but you came for our does and our kids, and for that, we swear our service to you,” Hector said, and knelt down. One by one, the survivors knelt, the worst wounded bowing their heads.
“Lady of Flames, Goddess of Hearth and Home, we are in your debt for coming to the aid of our wives and children. We are yours to command.”
The faith was palpable, and I shivered.
“Let’s go find the rest of your pack,” I said, and led the way across the battlefield. I stopped at every satyr’s corpse and laid drachma over their eyes, praying that Charon would give them swift passage to Elysia.
Once I had gotten them on the path back to the girls, I turned and faced the stinking clearing once again, and sent my newly renewed flame to burn the satyrs’ bodies, leaving their attackers to slowly rot and be devoured by scavengers.
I heard the happy shrieks of children and lovers being reunited behind me as the braver does came looking for their bucks. There were cries of anguish as well, and weeping, and a couple of the nymphs came to stand beside me, mute with grief. I put my arms around them and hugged gently. I will protect them, I swore to the heavens. These are my people now.