She's at her forge, engrossed in checking the measurements of a new sword, when a voice interrupts her.
"Hard at work, I see."
Turning, she grins. "Hello, Crafty One," she tells the Trickster, with his too-bright eyes and too-sharp smile.
He smirks back. "Hello, Crafty One," he retorts, their own private joke. Then he gestures to the sword laid out across her anvil. "How does your craft go today?"
"Well, I think." Pausing to scrub the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand, she holds the weapon up, giving it a loose, experimental swing, then frowning and glaring right down the centre of it, looking for a slight imbalance she can feel. "This will be a fine sword when it's complete."
"I'm sure it will be more than just 'fine'. You do yourself a disservice with this modesty. It will be the finest weapon in all of Greece by the time you're done with it."
"What do you want?"
He doesn't even try to deny his flattery, just leaning against her work bench, flicking back the edge of his traveller's cloak, his legs crossing at the ankle in effortless poise. "There is a mortal I think might interest you." Craning his neck to gaze off Olympus, he points, drawing her attention across the wine-dark sea. "There."
After a moment, she sees the object of his attention. This mortal is tall, lean, with wheat-golden hair and eyes nearly the colour of the sky. Despite his beauty, he is alone and despondent, gazing longingly across the water, towards Greece.
"He looks lost," she comments. "Lost travellers are your domain."
"He is not lost. He is captive. His father was the master craftsman who built King Minos's maze. But Minos was displeased, and killed the father, and trapped the son on Crete, held within the palace grounds."
"That is very unfortunate for him. I still don't see why this concerns me, though."
Instead of replying, the Bright-Eyed One jerks his head, drawing her attention back to the mortal. As she looks, the mortal, loitering in a quiet, wooded area of the palace grounds, plunges his hands into a pile of brush, pulling out what appears to be the beginnings of a pair of wings. His warrior's hands support the wings with reverent care, almost too gentle, as if he's terrified of damaging them. And she can understand why. Though his father may have been a master craftsman, it's clear the son has not received much share of his talent. The wings are meticulously, lovingly crafted, yet of poor design, pieces of scrap wood clumsily bound together to form the backbone of them, and feathers stuck on with wax, creating the appearance of a wing, but lacking foresight for their function. She does not need to examine them more closely to know that they will never hold.
Still, the world she overlooks is vast. Every day mortals make foolish choices.
"They all must die eventually," she points out. "You and I both know we cannot change the decisions of the Fates. If it is his time, there's nothing to be done. Why should I not let him die now?"
The Thief gazes at this mortal for a moment, silent, his expression inscrutable. "Somehow, it just doesn't seem like the right thing to do."
The human form she chooses for her visit to the mortal isn't her own, not that of a blacksmith, nor of a youthful beauty, nor a general. Instead she becomes aged, her back curling down, her joints swollen, her visage tugged loose by time. After all, any man, except those beyond help for their pride, are capable of courtesy to those who have 'earned' such manners, by power or wisdom or status. But it takes a genuinely good man to be kind to an old slave woman.
The mortal is even more beautiful when she gets to see him from close up, his body lean but solid with muscle, his frame tall, taller than almost any other mortal she's known. When she calls out to him he twitches, making a messy attempt to hide his secret work.
"Who are you?" he questions, wary.
"Gaby," she calls herself, a silly human name, but one which serves her purpose well enough. "I'm a weaver at the palace."
"I've never seen you before."
"You often spy on the women working?" She arches an eyebrow.
His cheeks flush. "No, of course not." Then, after a moment's hesitation. "Do you know who I am?"
"Of course. Son of the Maze-Builder. Everyone knows you. Illya, isn't it?"
"Your wings won't work, Illya."
For a second he seems to consider, then reject, denying his secret project. "What's wrong with them?" he demands, not friendly, but not scoffing at the notion that she may be able to tell him something of use. With her prompting he draws the wings back out, unfurling the jumble of goose feathers. She runs a gnarled hand along the back of one, testing its construction. He has the shape right, the wings will fly, but the trouble is the bones of it.
"Wax is a poor choice." She taps the crest of the wing, lightly, but even this contact is enough to loosen one of the feathers. "It deforms under pressure, melts in the heat."
Illya's face falls. "The sun."
She hums in agreement. "Helios will not steer from his path for the sake of one mortal."
"What can I do, though?" Illya sags, then sits down heavily. "I am a prisoner. I have no workshop, no tools, no supplies. And even if I did, I am no craftsman. The gods did not bless me with my father's gifts."
Setting a hand on his shoulder, she is pleased when he doesn't recoil from her shriveled digits. "Steal some strong thread. Or string. And a hatchet. If you do this, I will come back to teach you." She begins to shuffle away, pausing to toss one last piece of advice over her shoulder. "And make your prayers to those whose help you most need."
She doesn't spend her whole day watching Illya. Her duties are many. Still, as radiant Helios rides off into the west and silver-haired Selene peeks over the horizon, she retreats to her forge to look down on the latest mortal in her care.
His evening meal is simple, coarse barley bread and some wine, food fit for a prisoner or slave but evidently appreciated by the way he eyes it, ravenous. Yet before his lips touch the wine cup he pauses, then casts around his lodging, looking for a spare bowl. He stands. His improvised libation of wine flows in a thin stream into the bowl as he mumbles a few quiet prayers, one to her, she notes with pleasure, and one to—
"You know, he hasn't made offerings in a long time. You've given him hope."
She doesn't even glance over her shoulder, now long accustomed to the sudden arrivals of the Crafty One. "I can see why you thought he needed my help. Wax? Really?"
Settling next to her, his bright eyes glimmer with humour. "Don't be so harsh. Not all of us can be as skilled as you."
Bumping his shoulder with her own, she watches the human, now finished his offering, tuck into his food with enthusiasm. "How long have you been watching him?"
"A few months. I tried to convince him to steal a boat, but he's stubborn, he seemed to feel that too brazen." A grin breaks on his face. "And now you're doing my work for me, getting him to steal supplies."
She sniffs. "He cannot build something from nothing."
Despite his teasing about losing his job to her, it's the Trickster who guides Illya's hand a few days later as he sneaks into the wood shed and steals a hatchet, the Trickster who appears to him, his chosen human form boyish, impossibly pretty, when Illya needs help stealing some twine from the groundskeeper. With the supplies acquired, she returns to Crete, to her aged body which creaks when she moves. Illya seems a touch surprised to see her again, but makes no protest when she sends him off to cut down two saplings. While he's gone she finds a good rock and sits down to await his return, admiring the woods of the palace grounds, watching a hoopoe dart through the branches, the sacred bird a flash of peach feathers against the green of the leaves, which gently stir at the whim of Notos, the south wind. At the crunching of leaves underfoot she turns to find a youthful face grinning at her.
"Crafty One," she greets him. "So lovely as a human."
"And you, as weathered as the bow of an old trireme." He sits on the next rock over, golden skin oiled and shining, tipping his face up to the sunshine that ripples through the canopy. "What does Illya call you in this form?"
"Gaby. And you?"
"Are you going to stay and help us, 'Solo'?"
"Oh no. I'm the one who takes. You are the one who makes, 'Gaby'." With an effortless surge upwards he's on his feet again, dusting off his clothes, the short chiton flowing around his thighs. "I merely wished to check on your progress. I'll leave you to it, then. Good luck."
"How considerate of you," she teases, which receives a jaunty wave in response as the Trickster departs. A few minutes later Illya returns, dragging two saplings, their trunks straight and supple, perfect for her purpose. Under her tutelage he neatly strips the twigs and bark off them with the hatchet, then bends the trunks, bracing them between some rocks so they'll dry into a subtle arc. He talks little while he works, wordless in his diligence. She leaves him with a promise of more instruction once the trees have dried.
When she returns, stepping through the woods to find Illya crouched down, his broad back towards her as he runs cautious hands along the now curved saplings.
"They're ready," she comments, grinning a little when Illya twitches in surprise before turning to face her.
"Good morning," he greets her instead, rising, but then seeming to become aware of how much he looms over her and bobbing his head down a little.
"Yes, good morning," she replies absently, already brushing past him to inspect the new backbones of his wings with the haggard fingers of her current form, which she allows to dance along the smooth wood. "Next we must begin constructing the frame for the feathers to sit on. Did you collect the reeds like I told you?"
He nods, gesturing to the hidden hollow in the brush where he keeps his supplies. She tells him to fetch the reeds and the twine, then explains how the construction will work, lashing strips of reed to the saplings and using them to create a woven framework to which the feathers will be attached; lightweight, rigid yet flexible, and far sturdier than wax. Once she's done with her instructions, Illya glances away from the crude diagram she's drawn in the dirt with a stick, his eyes wide.
"You know so much," he murmurs. "My father was wise as well. And he was famous throughout all the Aegean. Yet you have improved on his design for these beautiful wings, and I had never heard your name before you introduced yourself to me. How is this so?"
She grants him a rueful smile. "Men do not like to see such skills in a woman. Such...strength of character."
He looks uneasy for a moment, then grins at her. "Yes, well, I like my women strong."
Oh yes. She likes this mortal.
Slowly, with furtive bursts of labour when he can steal away, unobserved, Illya's wings progress. She watches him from afar, itching to slap away his clumsy, unskilled hands and finish the task herself. Yet she cannot; these wings are not a gift, they are something that he must do for himself. So she often finds herself at rest after her own work in her forge, gazing across the vast field of water to Crete, as her chosen human toils and fumbles and makes mistakes so foolish that she'd never even considered warning him against them. Still, she stays away. She watches him err, become frustrated, puzzle things out and eventually fix them. His determination impresses her. Many humans would have given up on such tedious work, the repetitive precision of securing each goose feather, one-by-one, to its place in the array.
And some days when she turns her eyes his way, she spies the Bright-Eyed One with him, helping Illya distract his captors so he can get some work done, stealing more string for him, or simply basking on a sunny rock, keeping a very nonchalant watch for Illya and, more so, keeping him company. They make an odd-looking pair, Illya having known too many years of imprisonment to relax, holding himself tight and hunched over like a man far older; 'Solo' chatty and easygoing, talking enough for the both of them, unafraid and brazen. Though she supposes that in her human form she makes an even odder pair with Illya; the godlike man in his prime and the wispy woman many decades past her own.
Then again, she pictures her true form, and the Trickster's, too; pictures the golden, sculptural form of Illya standing next to them, and thinks that perhaps their trio is well-matched as any could be.
Illya has one wing fully done, the other most of the way there, when a storm hits Crete. Rain tramples down from the sky, flooding low parts of the palace grounds, filling Illya's hideaway with stray branches and rocks and mud. There's nothing to be done. The Thief tries, pleading with the winds, then, when they refuse, pleading with Zeus to intervene, but by then it's too late.
When she journeys to Crete, she finds Illya cataloguing the damage, despair weighing down his shoulders with each additional injury noted. Feathers torn off, reeds bent out of shape, a nick in one of the saplings where a rock has struck it, and everything sodden with mud, the whole resembling little more than a drowned seabird washed up on the shore.
"Good morning," she greets him.
He turns to stare at her, aghast. "Good? This is not..." His hand sweeps in the direction of the wings. "Everything is ruined." Then he turns away again, staring blankly at his creation once more before going to slump on the rock that she often perches upon while watching him work, his head disappearing between his hands. "This must be a sign. The gods mean for me to stay trapped on this island forever."
She patiently counts to ten in her head before asking, "Are you done sulking now? Let's fix this."
His head whips up. "Fix it?"
"Yes, fix it." She pushes past him, crouching to prod the wings with an exploratory finger. "You should start by removing the damaged feathers. Not the ones that are merely stained or ruffled, those are fine, and we can recondition them with oil and knit the barbs again. But the ones with bent or snapped quills. Then, you must—"
Illya shakes his head, interrupting her. "But, but what about what I just said? Perhaps this is doomed. Perhaps the gods will strike me down if I continue."
"Have the gods told you this?"
"I think if we interpret..."
"No, I mean, has Lord Zeus himself appeared to you, thunder, lighting, blinding glory, all of that nonsense," she rolls her eyes at the theatrics of her fellow god, "and spoken words of damnation?"
"Then do not presume to know the will of the gods. Now," she adds, cutting, "let us begin on the feathers."
Without another word of protest, Illya obediently walks to her side, watching her remove one bent feather, then imitating her with the next. As always, he is a quick student, picking up the work when she lets her hands fall back. Once he has settled in, she reclaims the sitting rock, eyeing him to ensure he keeps going.
"And after this we must assess which of the reeds have been damaged, which may necessitate removing more feathers, especially if we must completely replace any, but this is not at all impossible, merely an inconvenience. The saplings are scratched in a few places, but they are surface wounds, and should not affect anything. Once the structure has been repaired, you will need to replace any feathers, and fix those whose barbs were unknit. I will show you how to do this before I leave today."
Still at work, Illya shakes his head, his mouth tugging up at the corners.
"What?" she demands.
His hands pause, allowing him to turn his gaze on her. "Perhaps you are right, there is a god who favours me. You seem to appear whenever I need you most."
"Perhaps I am a god," she dares him.
"This would not surprise me," he murmurs. "Or at the very least, you are sent by one."
She climbs off the rock, staring down as he remains crouched before her, his face tipped up to her as to the radiant sun. "Even if I am mortal, will you still worship me?" The words come out sly, teasing, in a low tone that is at odds, she realizes too late, with her aged human form. If she were in her own body, it would be blatant flirtation. Now she is uncertain how it will read to him, if he will be repulsed.
Still, Illya seems pleased by her playfulness, a smile splitting his expression before he schools it into exaggerated gravitas. "Yes, of course," he declares. "I will start a cult in your honour. Even if I am the only adherent. Maybe, if there are others making wings trying to escape imprisonment, I can spread your worship."
Grinning, she gives him a soft pat on the cheek. "You are too clever for your own good. Now, get back to work."
Once again, he obeys without protest. She wonders if this is worship, in his own way.
It takes another forty days of patience and labouring, but Illya completes his wings without any further disasters. His work isn't over, though. Now he must learn to fly; something which would be far easier if he were free to throw himself off roofs or hills on the palace grounds. But since his practicing is limited to deep in the woods, he works mostly on his strength, standing and beating the wings until plumes of dust engulf his quiet clearing. Sometimes she or the Bright-Eyed One join him in their human forms, offering suggestions on his form and technique. Occasionally the two of them end up visiting at the same time, which often turns into long afternoons of 'Gaby' sitting on her rock, while 'Solo' challenges Illya to competitions of strength or stamina. They're not easy days, but they're companionable, Illya's dedication to the task never wavering, even when Solo sits on his back during his final set of pushups.
And sometimes, instead of visiting Illya, the two of them sit at the edge of her forge, gazing across the dark, curling waves to watch their chosen human. She wipes her brow, ruddy from a day at the forge, with the back of a hand blackened by soot and work, knowing she must look impossibly rough next to the Trickster, whom she's never seen bear any sign of contact with the world; no sweat on his chest, not even any dust from the roads. They are opposites in so many ways. In these moments she understands why the other gods thought their marriage some sort of joke at best, why many mortals think one of them has been cursed with the other.
Yet when she leans into his side he hums, loose, low in his chest, looping an arm around her waist with no further prompting, making another noise, this one softer still, as she presses her cheek to his shoulder. These are the moments no mortal will ever spin into music, not the subject of an epic ballad, or even something to be chanted in chorus as a work song. The image of the two of them, bodies melding together not in dramatic passions but in deep familiarity, will never be rendered in red figures on coal-black amphorae or struck in low relief on a piece of marble.
She closes her eyes, sighing in contentment, happy to keep this moment just for herself.
After a week of practicing his flight, Illya steals a chicken and a knife. When she sees that he's risked this she shakes her head, even as he takes the bird into the woods to his hideaway. As a prisoner he is denied access to a temple, but he does his best, starting a small fire just in front of the sitting rock, adorning the bird by tucking wildflowers into its plumage, washing his hands in a stream and gently letting a few drops land on the chicken's head. He holds the bird between his cupped palms, absently stroking its back while he murmurs his prayers; to the Bright-Eyed One, asking for safe travels; to the winds, a plea to aid his flight with lofting northward breezes; and finally, to her, a quiet thanks for sending 'Gaby' to help him and an entreaty for his wings to hold strong. Then he completes the sacrifice, slaughtering the chicken quickly, thanking the bird as he works, then butchering it, his stolen knife gliding through muscle and sinew to separate the cuts he burns in the fire. A normal sacrifice would have him eat the portions not burnt, but he keeps glancing at the smoke filtering through the trees, tamping the fire out before cooking anything for himself.
At last he rises, picks up his wings, and stares in the direction of the sea.
She puts down her hammer, glancing around for the Trickster as Illya strides out of the woods, pausing in a small cliff-top meadow to strap his wings on. She's certain that the Trickster is about to miss everything when she sees a palace guard wandering through the woods, drawn to the smoke of Illya's fire, whose investigations are paused when a boy runs up to the guard, sending him off the wrong way. Once the guard has left, the boy turns and winks in her direction.
Then her attention returns to Illya, now double checking the harness that secures his wings. She recalls the first time he tried them, how he'd gotten tangled up and she'd laughed until she fell off that rock, then she'd picked herself up, her hands skimming along the lines of his muscles as she helped tug everything into place. Now he can do this himself, effortless from repetition, briefly making her wish she could help him, just one last time. With his wings fanning out, grey feathers gleaming in the sun, he looks as near to a god as any mortal she's ever seen.
A few pebbles tumble off the cliff into the bucking sea as Illya creeps to the precipice, his sandals toeing the very edge. A moment of total stillness. The next second, the wind rises, and Illya leaps.
For an instant, he falls.
Then he soars.
When Illya's feet alight on the soil of Sicily, she and the Bright-Eyed One are there to catch him, stopping him from falling to his knees, his body trembling with exhaustion and doused in sweat, like a fine chariot horse after a race. He's too weak to stand, so they gently lower him to the ground as, half delirious, he mumbles confused thanks when they tip his head back and help him take sips of water. She strokes his forehead, brushing the hair out of his eyes, telling him that he's made it, he's free, while the Trickster keeps offering him small drinks, not letting him gorge and make himself sick. He slumps back against her, and she braces to catch the weight of his torso, sun-warmed feathers pressing into her breasts and stomach, his back so hot against her front that for a moment she could be back at her workshop, the molten heat of her forge reddening her face when she leans down to soften the blade of a sword.
After a while Illya falls asleep in her arms. She cradles him closer, burying her face—her own eternally youthful face, not that of the old woman—in his golden curls, the smell of damp sweat making her take a long, slow inhale. He smells mortal; hardworking, vibrant, fragile, alive.
As he sleeps she and the Thief exchange looks over his head, reaching a mutual agreement to move Illya to a nearby grove, sheltered by scrubby willow shrubs and a few arcing chestnut trees. She unfastens his wings, running admiring hands along the smooth ranks of feathers for one final time, setting them aside. They restore Illya's strength, cleanse the dust and sweat from his skin and anoint him in olive oil until he glistens with health.
"Don't be afraid," the Trickster tells Illya once they wake him.
Illya just stares.
"See, 'don't be afraid' never works," she points out. "They always end up still afraid. We really need to find a different phrase."
"Well, I don't see you coming up with anything bet—"
"Who are you?" interrupts Illya.
"You told me once that there must be a god who favours you, for you have no other explanation for my presence," she says, waiting through Illya's confusion until suddenly his eyes widen.
"Yes. And the palace boy who helped with all of your thievery?" She wraps an arm around the Thief's shoulders, grinning.
Over the course of a few seconds Illya's expression shifts, past confusion, into questioning, then finally a cautious smile emerging. She realizes that this is the first free smile she's seen on him, uninhibited by worry. She longs to press her own smile to his, to taste his joy and breathe in the scent of his mortal skin once more. And, based on the way the Bright-Eyed One is gazing at Illya when she turns her head towards the arm she still has wrapped around his shoulders, she suspects that her fellow god's thoughts have aligned in a similar direction to her own. Thoughts for another day, though. If and when Illya wants like they do.
For now, they separate to hoist Illya to his feet, watching him take his first steps of freedom. He walks past them, staring down towards the coast, stretching his arms out, fingers spreading in a seemingly unconscious evocation of wings.