Merlin the Archer : Boy King


The sword of Adilos finally broke beyond repair at the battle for Kerkryon, on the west shore of the Land of Great Tirana. I had a new sword by then, anyway, a fine one inlaid with traces of silver and lapis near the hilt. I took Adilos’ sword shards and buried them alongside the body of Lukos, who fell at the walls of Kerkryon. He had still been afraid after all these three years of war and glory. I also tossed in an arrow. He had been a fine archer, but, as they say, the Gods grew weary of him, or jealous.
The Gods had favored me, maybe the more so because I turned away from them. Oh, I made outward obeisance; the others wouldn’t understand if I didn’t attend to the sacrifices and the like, the omen reading, the feeding of the house snake, the Mysteries, the seers and oracles. But inwardly, I scorned the divine ones and those that blindly believed in their unseen guidance. I thought, with all I’ve seen, if there are Gods, then they’re very poor ones, no better than the worst humans. I spat at their stone and wooden images and even pissed on them when no one was looking or when I’d had too much vanna. I felt no fear. I would die. I could see that all people die. I would even tempt death to take me. What did it matter in a world where the good died just as easily as the bad?
I had soaked myself in war. At twenty summers, my blood ran hot for it. And I was very good at it. I was the best shot with the bow in all of the western lands around Hedra, and I had the ability to lead men into battle and back out again. I was growing bigger and stronger, though I would never be a big man. My muscles grew long and powerful and fast. I could fight with the sword and the staff, and wrestle men almost twice my weight. I found I could drink hard and take many women as well. They came seeking me, as I realized they had since I was a boy. Now they were the rightful spoils of the warrior. Men even offered their wives to me to curry favor as I became a leader.
Kurgan reckoned himself the King of Hedra after Adilos’ death, but no one liked him, and soon a faction promoted me to the throne of the city.
Hedra sat on the foothills of the rugged line of mountains across from the strait of the now burned-out city of Karfu’. I had found Pelopa there after all, her throat cut, a lifeless body in the shell of a burned-out house. She had died in our attack. I had killed the Big Man, but she had died anyway. Her death made me turn even farther away from the path of peace and simplicity, and reinforced my feelings of rootlessness. Hedra was poor and bare like the hills around it, though the river Eson did bring water enough for olives and some grapes and other crops. The sea at least was rich and villages aligned with our city brought their catch to market. It was a town like many others, with one main difference. Because, as the stories said, it was founded by the hero Aeon, it had walls around it. Aeon was the one, if he ever really existed, who brought the worship of Dyaus and Perunas to these lands, throwing under Awa, here called Afroda, to a secondary role. But the women, those witches who had been Awa’s servants since the dawn times, still worshipped Afroda anyway. The warlike men of Hedra and the other towns had had to build walls to keep each other from sacking their towns. There were over a thousand people in and around Hedra. We had a band of two hundred warriors, which could be brought up to four hundred if we were invaded.
We tried to forestall invasion by attacking our neighbors first. This also allowed us to take their goods and women. It was fair; they did the same to us when they could. The cycle of war was endless, only slowing down during rains and harvest times. I had no desire to be a farmer or fisherman, so I was glad there was war. Within two years I was the King of Hedra and its undisputed war-leader.
We raided ever farther afield for loot and security. Our neighbors hated us and sometimes formed alliances to attack us. But we had our allies too: the tribes and towns were full of untrustworthy men who could be bribed or forced through kidnapping to come along on our expeditions.
We made an alliance with the King of Itakoi, an island to the south. They had a strong force, with many brakkas and bowmen. The western plain of Great Tirina, the land of King Herakul, was like a ripe orchard ready for harvest by our combined forces. The Itakoian king Menes and I brought our men in many brakkas to the west of Great Tirina and plundered. We sacked the small city of Kerkryon, where Lukos fell. But no force of Tirina appeared to challenge us. I was disappointed. We all knew of the strength of Herakul, the consort of Hera the Goddess of Tirina. It was said that the goddess was still strong there and that the king was born at the beginning of the year and grew to full manhood by summer and then died at the mid-winter short day.
Of course, I didn’t believe that. No one could do that; it was just the kind of thing that simple people believed, like stories of blood-drinkers and flying horses. But King Herakul was reputed to be a very strong man and a smart King. We camped along the beach of the western shore and drank vanna and roasted some of Herakul’s sheep and laughed.
They attacked at dawn, when most of our men were sleeping off a good vanna sickness. Herakul came before them. He was huge, bigger even than the Big Man had been. He strode among our warriors, killing them without mercy with a bronze-edged war-club. We were heavily outnumbered and had no choice but to flee to our ships. But as we pulled away from the beach, He waded out into the waves and shouted to me.
“Come try our hospitality, Pelop the Pirate. I will serve you your head on a roasting stick with your cock stuffed in your mouth!” he roared his laughter. Even I had to laugh. He was most impressive. I called back.
“Set the table and pour the vanna! I’ll be there. Alive!”

Outside of making war and sleeping with any woman I wanted, I soon found the job of King to be both dull and bothersome. I had to sit listening to the complaints of the people of Hedra and the lands around it every day. Disputes over missing goats, a daughter’s lost honor, broken agreements to buy olive oil; it was as endless as it was boring. I longed to be out in the hills hunting or leading a raid. Even the women were tiresome. Each captured beauty tried to become my favorite at the expense of another, until I just wanted to be left alone by all them. They were like cats fighting. My male companions were somewhat better, though I saw the same infighting over who was closest to the King. I worried about a few of them as well. An arrow can easily find the wrong target during battle, and many young men wanted to be King. I also had to consider the older men who had been passed over by the people who chose me as their leader. I was an outsider, an upstart. One man, Andros, who had over thirty summers, had a hard time looking me in the eye. I knew he wished to plot against me. I had to watch my back.
I was given the King’s house, which was the finest building I’d ever lived in. It overlooked the valley of the Eson. A nearby waterfall made music for me. The house had stone pavements and stout columns painted red and blue. In the biggest of its four rooms was the Throne of the Adanoi; just a stone bench, really, with scenes of hunting birds and lions and the like painted on the walls of the room. The temple of Dyaus, where the men made sacrifice, was just across an open space. Further up the slope of the hill above the last of the whitewashed houses was the old temple of Afroda, who I still called Awa to myself.
All around the town, but especially near the place of the king and the temples, were walls made of large boulders. Simple people said the big stones had been put there by a race of one-eyed giants. It would seem that that it would take a giant to move such boulders. But when a stone rolled away or a section of wall fell from a ground shaker, the men used stout tree limbs and ropes to move the rock bit by bit into position until the wall was repaired again. I found that even the biggest stones could be manhandled. It was my responsibility to see that the walls were strong and whole. They were two man-heights tall and a few defenders could hold off attackers by throwing rocks or shooting arrows. Even women and children could throw things effectively. Wall and temple repair was a never ending and backbreaking task. I only wanted to hunt and fight, or take my rest with women and vanna. Fixing walls didn’t bore me, but it seemed brutish and harder than it should be. Also, the walls could have been stronger, with fewer gaps and loose stones.
So I thought about how I might make it easier and quicker. I have to admit I couldn’t come up with anything other than the rolling logs, logs we could put under the boulders either as skids or rollers. It was Fineus, a potter, who gave me a clue of how to improve our building technique.
Fineus was from the east, from a land called Hattu. He made cups and vessels on a wheel. It had a round rock at its base, with a column a hand’s width thick and two feet tall, held upright by carved wooden braces. On the top of the column was another round plate of stone. Fineus mounded his clay on the plate as he spun the wheel with his feet. It turned easily, and he cleverly held his hands and raised the clay into perfect bowls and beakers. As he finished each one, he ran a string through its base and lifted it off and put it to dry. In this way he was able to make ten bowls in the time it took other potters to fashion one. Before long, all the potters had copied his wheel.
As we were trying to move some fresh cut stones from a quarry to the section of wall that had to be replaced, I suddenly had the notion to take Fineus’s wheel and turn it on its side. I had my woodwrights try to do that. It took a few failed attempts, but at last we made a big flat table with two wheels made of big, joined tree-rounds mounted on a stout column, or, as Fineus called it, an axle. Braces that held the axle were fixed on the underside of the table, and a long tongue was attached at the front. We could tilt the whole thing over and slide a big rock on it, then slowly right it until it balanced, then haul and push it across the ground. Our first attempts broke and slid downhill, but each time we made one that worked better than before, and we soon found that we could move very heavy stones with much less effort than we ever had. Daedlos was the one who thought of harnessing horses to the tongue. We had to clear flat road areas at the base of our walls to roll this wheeled beast on. We found it to be so much easier to move the stones on our new cart that we built a long new section of high walls around the north side of the town. It was stronger than any of the giant-built wall. Other carts were constructed and people began hauling all manner of goods. I had to order the clearing of roads. Slowly, Hedra became the finest town anyone had heard of this side of Tirina.
But for all the building and warring, I was growing restless. One afternoon, when my mid-numbing daily audience was at last concluded, I wearily walked up above the acropolis and sat on a rock. The sun was lowering over the sea across the plain. I could see the mountain of Karfu’, now my subject land, across the strait, above the haze, many miles away. I could hear the lowing of cattle as they were driven in and voices of mothers calling to their children, the rattle of daily life. The west wind blew through the thorn bushes that clung to the dry outcropping. Below was the temple of Afroda.
A solitary figure moved in the shadows of the house walls below: a woman coming to Afroda’s temple. I did not recognize her at first. She plainly had the attributes of a woman the King would seek out, or who would seek out the King herself. She was slender without being too thin; her curves were guessed by the garment’s being pressed by the wind. Her hair was long, and strangely light. Almost everyone in these parts had dark hair. My reddish blonde was an exception. Hers was the color of dark honey. I wondered who she was. I slipped from my perch and made my way behind some boulders to sneak a closer look. I peered out from behind a rock not thirty feet away and watched her as she climbed the few rough-hewn steps to Afroda’s sanctuary. It was Vila, Adilos’ youngest sister. But I had not noted her beauty before. I guessed that her family had been secluding her. I had seen her three years before, when Adilos was killed, but she had only been a girl then. Now she was a woman.
She walked up the steps and into the temple. Just before she entered, she turned to look into the setting sun. The light framed her face. She was perfect, like an image of Afroda herself, with arched eyebrows and large eyes, full lips and a gentle, curved nose. Her hair was drawn back partially with ties away from her face. I was struck in an odd way. I was excited. But I bade my time and waited until she entered the temple to leave my hiding place and make my way back to the King’s house.
The following weeks were full of the king’s business, hearing disputes, building roads, and digging wells. I did my best, driven mostly by the fact that for some reason, I seemed to be somewhat more able to get things done than others were, despite the fact that my own skills were never as good as those of the people I directed. They needed me to bring them all together. But I found my mind wandering back to the vision of Vila Adilonika. I pondered her family. It was plain they didn’t want me to be King. They thought Adilos’s younger brother Aktyon should have been chosen. But the truth was, Aktyon was not the warrior his brother had been. He liked to drink too much, and was a bit of a coward in battle, though he had a knack for showing up right as a successful fight had taken place. He wasn’t a bad man, just not a natural leader, though there were some who fancied him above me. His older cousin Brukos was a dangerous man with ambition to be King as well. I saw Brukos as another one to be watched and taken seriously.
But I wanted to find a way to bring Vila into my sphere. The Adilonai were a proud family and Vila was not just some wench I could couch. She was royal blood. If they had been keeping her away from me, who did they have in mind for her? Perhaps her own cousin Brukos. I invited the leading families to a feast in Dyaus’ honor. I had killed a large boar and there was food and vanna a-plenty. I made the royal invitation complete on each family, so we ended up with every squalling brat and tottering crone and dribbling old man of fifty winters eating me out of larder, but it was worth the trouble, for Vila did come. She was indeed as divine up close as she had been at a distance, but she was surrounded by her mother and sisters and cousins. A man could not just speak to a single woman in public. He had to engage the whole family. I was as charming as my role required me to be, that is to say, I was somewhat haughty and let them know who was king while also complimenting the older women of the house. But I shot Vila looks and I caught her looking at me more tha once as well. I know her mother and aunts were like hunting falcons and probably didn’t miss a thing.
The next week was the summer’s high day feast, a day and night of merry-making for all. There was much vanna and bir and music and dancing. I had to sit on a throne and watch the revelry for too many hours. I had too much vanna as well, but instead of engendering a youthful wildness, this time it made me tired and irritable. At dusk, even as the people were becoming wilder, I slipped way up to my perch above the town. I wrapped myself in a dull grey cloak and became one with the stones. The sounds of the feasting came up, but the more I listened to it, the more it faded, until I was tuned to the wind and calls of the night hawks and owls hunting in the fields and across the dry ridgelines. I was watching one hawk float silently, riding the breeze, in place above a ravine, intent on its unseen prey below in the rocks. I was startled when a woman’s voice spoke almost in a whisper.
“It will wait until the vole makes a mistake and then fall on it.”
I looked up and my heart involuntarily jumped when I saw Vila standing a few feet away. Without speaking, I indicated she could sit with me on my rock. She settled own on her feet like a crouching lioness, relaxed, but still on her toes. She had dusky blur-grey eyes. I thought of Mata, my childhood mother. I had the thought that Vila was of our northern race, but could not see how that might be so. I turned back to the hawk, which was dipping and rising few inches on the wind. I nodded at the great bird.
“Like one who waits for a sign of weakness in a King.”
“Surely a King is not like a vole?” She asked, laughter in her voice, and yet a challenge as well.
“A lion is soon turned to mouse by a palace and a daily council. His mane falls out from having to listen to foolish disputes and he shrinks ever smaller until a cat could carry him off. The hawks are watching; that I know!”
The hawk now dove and then rose with flaps of his majestic wings, but with empty talons.
“Missed.’ She said.
“Mice are smart; they are aware of the hawks.”
“And how does a mouse king run his country?” she said.
I thought for a moment. This was smarter conversation than I usually got from my subjects. Most didn’t openly question the King. “A mouse does the best he can, even though he’d rather be drinking vanna with the other mice or raising little mice, or off fighting mouse wars. Perhaps one day the mouse grows tired of the hawks and runs away.”
“Running away would make sense for a mouse, but not for a King. Perhaps you don’t want to be a King?”
I stood up to ease a leg cramp. “I am a King by accident. I was a slave from the far north. I have lost everything I have ever had. Now I have more than I ever dreamed of. The gods have shown me favor, but I don’t know why.”
“You have invented carts, “She said. “Not many Kings can say that. Someday you’ll be called Pelop the WheelMaker, King of the Western Lands!” She laughed a little and I did too. We were at ease with each other.
I asked her, “Why has your family hidden you from me?”
“Why does the mouse hide its children from the hawk? You are known to take many women, but none for a queen.”
“Slave women, captives, and wives who are bored. None have been worthy.”
She rose gracefully to her feet and took a step away.” Perhaps you will find one who is.”
“Perhaps I shall, “I said. Then she was gone into the twilight.

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