Merlin the Archer , part 6: Herakul the King

Herakul the King

I suppose the people said that Hedra was favored by the Gods in those days. With the alliance of Manas of Itakoi, we defeated the last of the warring towns and tribes to our east and south farther than the great lake and the hills and valleys that beyond and a relative peace settled over the lands. Without the interruption of war, farms flourished and people cleared new fields and traded olives, figs, sheep, and cows, and all the other goods and services that peaceful people thrive on. The wheeled cart was soon used by all, and roads for carts stretched out in every direction. I was pleased by the prosperity, though I noted that the important families expanded their share of the plenty, while the less fortunate by birth had a harder struggle. When I occasionally voiced this thought among the members of my council, all members of strong families, I got the sage advice that a rising tide lifts all brakka. Spoken like brakka owners, I thought.
My own wealth increased as well. By my twenty-first summer I had many sheep and goats and some fine cows and bulls. As King, I had three servants and three farmhands, all young boys with no other family for one reason or another. Spyros, a real adventurous rascal of fourteen summers, was my secret spy. He and the other hands, who he ordered around as if he was a little warlord, managed to watch the flocks and everyone else’s business as well. I had to cuff him occasionally for stealing from other farms, though I didn’t mind so much if I knew they were lifting the grapes of Brukos’ or Andros’ places.
These two men had grown rich in the last three years. They were both outwardly affable, but with the smiles of mask-dancers, and I knew they plotted against me in secret. Andros, like old Kurgan, thought he should have been king, not me. Brukos felt the same way, but in addition he begrudged me Vila. Both men were overly harsh with their servants and workers. They kept female slaves in misery. I knew because the girls confided in Spyros my thief. My boys were not slaves; I set them free. I had no desire for anyone to feel the lash from a bad owner. I had felt it myself. That left me free to honestly just yell at free men and reason with them sometimes, too.
Vila’s family, the Adilonai, came to accept that I was king despite Brukos’s jealousy. They also had to accept the fact that their headstrong daughter Vila had fallen in love with me, and I with her. She was unlike the other women I had known. Little Pelopa had been sweet, but subservient, mild. Other women were wild or seductive or meek. Vila was my equal, and she let me know it. She wasn’t impressed by my warrior deeds or my kingship. She looked at what I did and let me know if she thought it was smart or not. If she thought I was making the wrong choice, she told so and she told me why.
“If you run a road past Andros’ farm to the market, he will be beholden to you, “She said one day, as we were walking on the hills behind the town.” Right now, Lykos’s land prevents Brukos from rolling his carts all the way there. Lycos wishes to marry my cousin Artema.” She needed say nothing else. She was crafty, but also wise. Brukos could be tamed by his own self-interest.
“And what price do I ask of Brukos?” I asked her, laughing a little.
She smiled back, “Nothing. That will drive him crazy!” We both laughed.
I felt her tummy with my right hand. “He’s kicking.” I said
“You mean she.” She laughed again. The price had been steep: a hundred sheep and a grove of olive trees to her father for her hand. I gave the sheep, but the olive trees were within my own groves, accessible only through the King’s property. We smashed the vanna beakers, sacrificed a young bull to Dyaus and a lamb to Afroda, and she moved in to the King’s house. Before long, I needed to add two rooms; one with a little stream for washing running through an opening in the wall, water diverted from the Eson’s pools. We waited for our baby now.
“He will be strong and clever like his father, her mother said. Vila’s mother had taken the coughing sickness and looked like an old woman at forty summers. Vila had the rarest of people in her family, an aunt who was beyond sixty years! She was as withered as a dry fig, but she still cackled at a bawdy joke and liked her vanna!
Little Aon was ready to be born in the last of the harvest days. Vila began to get pains and we called the midwife and the priestess of Afroda. Vila still felt a kinship with the goddess. I was anxious enough that I secretly offered a prayer myself. I wasn’t allowed to be there, so I took my bow and went up into the hills. Spyros would run and call me with the news. I wandered up the ridge behind the town until I came to my favorite rock outcropping. This is where I came to ponder the King’s decisions. There were clouds floating in from the straits, tall, climbing clouds, with dark patches underneath and streamers of rain hanging down, the kind that doesn’t reach the ground. They looked like jellyfish of a higher sea. A steady wind blew, as it so often did from the west. It whistled through the bushes. The silvery leaves of the olive trees below shimmered in the breeze. I let my heart try to settle. This was childbirth, not battle, after all.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ said a man’s voice.
I spun around, my hand on my dagger. An old man stood two lengths away. He was thin, almost skin and bones; his skin was weathered like leather. He leaned on a rough staff. He put up his left hand and shook it. “No, no. “He said softly, “There is nothing to fear from me.”
His eyes were sad. He sat slowly down on a rock, moving as if it hurt him. I looked at him. He looked somehow familiar, though he was not of this kingdom; I knew all my subjects.
“Who are you, my friend? “ I asked. There was a hint of suspicion in my voice, I guess.
“No need for that, “he said, “I’m just an old man on a long journey.”
“A journey from where, to where?” I asked again.
“He looked up at me.” It’s the same journey we are all on. We don’t know where from and we don’t know where to. We think we get somewhere, but the journey never stops at all, really. One thing is for certain. I am almost done with mine.”
A crazy old wanderer. “ And where will mine take me?”
“No one can say. I have found that the unexpected has always been at my back. Mind the boars of Ikiros.”
I looked at him. The boars of Ikiros? Suddenly, I saw in my mind’s eye the man who gave me the flint blade when I was a captive slave boy. Was this the same man? A wave of dizziness came welling up from my gut.
A small voice called from far below. I turned around and saw Spyros running up the hillside. “King Pelop! King Pelop! It’s a boy!”
I raised my hand above my head and cried out, “Spyros!” he looked up, his smile gleaming. I turned back to the old man, my own grin from ear to ear no doubt, but he was gone. I looked beyond the boulders, but he was nowhere in sight at all. Vanished. I shook my head as if to wake from a dream. Then I shouted at Spyros again and ran down the hill to see my new son.

“Hold on to my hands, little Aon, “I said. My boy tried his wobbly legs and fell. Vila and I laughed. It eased her heart to see her son at ten months learning to walk. Vila’s mother had just died, being old at forty-one years.
“He’ll be shooting your famous bow soon, “she said. Aon’s little curls fell across his brow. He had his mother’s eyes and my hair. Vila put her hand across mine. Our fingers wrapped together. I felt a strong bond between us. Many men had wives who came to them as part of a deal between families, but this was different. Vila and I were of like minds. Our son looked like both of us. I could see the light of life in his eyes, the desire to walk into the world. I remembered my own childhood with Mata and it made me cry. But Vila took me in her arms and whispered, “don’t cry, little Stek.” I had told her my old name.
But Kings don’t cry; they rule as best they can. Though prosperity and peace had been on the lands for two years, I could sense trouble trying to crawl from its rat holes. There were disputes between the strong families about boundaries and rights to groves and springs. Petty nonsense, but both men and women can be roused to hatred over the slightest hurt. Once again I felt that Brukos and his friends were plotting against me.
“He meets with Andros and the three families, “said Spyros, who I had made my head of household. He had grown into a tall young man, only a year younger than I had been when I first became a soldier. I had taught him how to shoot the bow and fight with a sword. His gang of orphans, like skinny Janos and fat Mumo, had been trained bit by bit as well. They could patrol and keep watch over the land. But Andros and Brukos had young, hot-headed men who worked for him, too, as did other strong families. There were fights sometimes between them. I kept the peace, but tension was rising. I could count on the Adilonai and several other families, but there were many I could not trust.
I often climbed above the town to my ridge top, half seeking the old man. I never saw him, though. It was as if he had been only a dream. A dream or a visit from a god? I didn’t have the answer. Becoming a father had changed me a little. I had softened my conviction that the gods were false. Vila believed in Afroda. It was hard not to want to think that Fortune smiled on us. I forgot how fickle a God Fortune can be.
A messenger came in the fall from Manas in Itakoi. King Herakul had raided in the east with his army, as near as the town of Trona, a week’s march away. This was too close for comfort. Trona was on the main trade route to the east, at the base of a mountain pass. The messenger said that Herakul had a small band, only fifteen sextas – ninety men. I didn’t want to fight this time. We had trade enough with the north and by sea, why make war with Great Tirina? But the council shouted me down. The goods of several families went east by that road. Among the louder voices were those of Brukos’ allies, the Ellonai and Severai. I couldn’t back away from the fight without looking weak. If Brukos could build that notion into the people, I was through. My life and my family’s life would be danger if I was ousted. Being a king is like being the biggest, meanest dog in the pack; let them turn on you, and they’ll kill you in a second.
So I formed a war-party. I made sure Brukos and Andros were with me, because if one must keep one’s friends close, one must keep one’s enemies closer, but I made up the troop of more of my allies than theirs. Like me, they couldn’t refuse though the circumstances were less to their liking than they might have wished. I left Spyros in charge of the house, and brought Vila’s family there as well, with their men and servants. We would strike out and try to damage Herakul’s band and come quickly back. I had no illusions about killing Herakul himself, but I thought we could discourage his incursion into our lands by a show of force. I secretly thought there was a deal to be made. Trona was not that important to Hedra and it was a long way from Tirina. I didn’t guess the real reason for the incursion.
I was almost ready with the preparations for war. My new armor had been sewn and my bow and arrows were tied and strung. I was sitting on the front steps of our palace when I saw Janos, one of my field-boys, running up the hill as fast as he could go. I stood. He came and threw himself down at my feet, grasping my ankles. My face froze in fear.
“Let them kill me! “He cried, his young boy’s tears breaking out of his dusty eyes. “Let them take me!”
“I reached down and pulled him off my feet and stood him up. I felt my anger rising.
“What have you done?” I said as calmly as I could.
“Out with it!” I said.
“We were caught near the vineyards of Andros. They came up on us. Spyros killed Antygus. It was in self-defense!”
My heart reeled. Spyros! I had counted on him to keep order while I was gone on this raid.” Is he still alive?”
“He’s hiding in the barns below.” Our barns, three rings of low rock wall with a thatched roof. Not much of a castle. I picked up my bronze long-sword and called Vila to bring the family in. I set seven guards around our house and told Janos to stay put as well. I whistled for my two hunting dogs, a pair of fierce wolf-killers. I set off down the trail to our barns.
There was a crowd of more than twenty men, all armed with one weapon or another. They were from Andros clan and the related families. There would be no fighting this one out. I approached and Andros confronted me harshly.
“Your boy has killed one of mine – on my property. You know the law!” Andros’ fury at the breaking of the code was justified, but it only thinly disguised his deeper hatred of me. He would be most pleased to cut the throat of my head boy. I held up my hand to signal a moment of no action. Andros stepped back. This was the time-honored way of letting one last chance have its possibility. I looked through the thatch and saw the wild eyes of my favorite, Spyros, for whom I had such high hopes. I took a deep breath and tried to not let it show to the others. I called him out.
“Come, Spyros, we must reason out the charges. You know the law.”
Spyros slowly came out from the barn, his eyes darting in every direction, gauging the crowd. We were completely outnumbered.
“Tell us what happened.” I said. I stood apart from him, between him and Andros’ men. I held my sword in my right hand. There was a commotion. A group of four men came up carrying the dead boy’s body on a makeshift littler of poles. One arm hung down. It was streaked with blood. Andros’ veins were standing our on his forehead; his face was red, his fists clenched.
“Did you do this?” I said to Spyros?” he nodded but didn’t look down. “And why?” I asked
“We were going down the road. Antygus attacked me when I wasn’t looking.”
“Liar!” yelled Andros, “You were in my vineyards, stealing grapes!”
Spyros looked up.” I was in the road. Antygus and three others were laying in wait for us to pass. Then they came at us. He had a spear. I defended myself with my knife.” Spyros looked straight ahead. I judged him to be telling the truth.
I Turned to Andros and the others. “If a man is attacked he has the right to defend himself.” I said clearly.
“It doesn’t matter, “hissed Andros.” Blood for blood. He or one of yours must die!”
“And then we will have to kill another of your clan, and so on.” I said.
“It is so, that is the Juna.” Said Andros. I moved over closer to Spyros. He was like my brother, my younger brother I’d never had. But his killing of Tranos, no matter how justifiable, would bring endless bloodshed on Hedra.
He looked at me, unflinching. I grabbed his hair and with one quick move, raised my arm and slit his throat. His mouth opened in surprise but he kept looking at me, and I held his gaze until his eyes went dark. I held his head as his body went limp and his warm blood poured all over my hand and arms and splattered on my legs. He became lifeless in a few seconds and I let his body down gently and closed his open eyes with my bloody fingers. I crouched next to him, silently wishing his soul a safe journey to the next world, whatever that was. Then I straightened up and looked Andros in the eyes.
“I have ended it by my hands. There will be no further blood-feud.”
Andros stared back darkly. I had robbed him of his blood letting. But this was the law of the Juna; a hard law for Spyros and for me. I was sure he had only acted in self-defense.
We burned Spyros’ body at dusk at the top of the ridge. His ashes mixed with the sea=breeze blowing off the distant straits. I sat there by myself long after the embers had died down, letting dust pour through my fingers.

Vila brought our son Aon to me as I stood in the road before the new city gates. The men were lined up behind me in a long row. I was dressed in my leather armor and I wore a boar-hide helmet with copper plates sewn into it and a horse-hair plume that she had tied for me. My horse, who I called Tarn, after my childhood friend, pawed the dusty ground. I would ride this time, as befitted a warrior king. I carried my bow and my new sword of bronze. My men shouted and stamped their spear-butts into the dust. Brukos and Andros and their men stood in the back of the column. They couldn’t face me, but they had their obligation to the war-party under the Juna.
“For Hedra! “ I shouted. “For Pelop!” They answered. I took Aon in my arms and kissed his little forehead. I looked into Vila’s eyes.” For Vila and Aon, “I whispered. I held back a welling up. Vila stayed steady and noble. She took back Aon in one arm, then Janos handed her a cup of vanna from our vines. She poured it on the ground.
“For Dyaus and Afroda!” She called, and the men raised a war-cry. Clouds had been building and there was a rolling of thunder in the mountains to the east. The men cheered this hopeful omen. I wasn’t as confident in it. My heart was heavy with Spyros’ death, my anger with Andros, and my parting from my family.
As the column crested the low pass behind the town, I turned in my saddle and looked back. The town looked safe, with its high walls. The plains below were peaceful, silvery groves stretching out towards the sea.
“I’ll be back soon enough, “I said to myself.
At the last moment, I looked down the ridgeline. There in the distance was perhaps a figure silhouetted by the rocks. The figure seemed to raise an arm. A shepard? The old man? It might have been a bush blowing in the west wind. I couldn’t be sure. A shudder ran down my spine, but I turned away and accepted a skin of vanna from Trakles, a trusted old soldier friend. Others of our party were singing a bawdy marching song about a soldier’s manhood and the enemy’s mouth.
“Off to war! “He said merrily. “It’s been too long!”
“Too long. “I answered. I drank a deep pull, praying to the vanna-god to help me match his spirit.

We sent young boys running ahead to spy out the land. I wished I had Spyros with me, as the fastest runners were of Brukos’ group. I felt secure enough in Manas’ messenger’s information and didn’t look for Herakul to be this far west. We traversed three ranges, and on the third night we camped along the bank of a small stream that flowed from a pass that lay before us. I judged it to be safe. We’d enter the pass at dawn, or find a way around it. Trona still lay at least two marches ahead. I did order no fires, though this caused some to grumble. There’s always grumbling among soldiers, especially when they haven’t been on a campaign for a while. There was vanna a -plenty in skins; too much, I thought. I went among the troop, ordering them to slow down. I set pickets at some distance.
I had a hard time sleeping. I kept hearing noises in the darkness. Around the midnight time, I crept out to one of the pickets, a young lad named Patreas. He was from a trading family and I knew he had been as far as Trona the year before. He was sitting on the hillside hidden in some bushes. I sat with him and we watched the shooting stars. I asked him about his family, made small talk. What did he know about this pass?
“It’s famous for its big boars,” He said.” It’s called Ikiros.”
I stood up quickly, and then I bent over him and hissed,” be on guard!” I hurried back to the camp and made my weapons ready. The old man! The Boars of Ikiros!
Still, nothing happened. After a few hours, I must have dozed in spite of myself. I woke to harsh cries of war.
“They’re upon us! Dyaus!
Arrows were whistling through the dawn air and there was a clatter of war-club and arrows on leather armor and copper helmets and cries of men, angry yells. The attackers were swarming out from the pass and from the slopes above where Brukos’s men had been picketed. I jumped up, pulling on my helmet. I knocked an arrow and shot a man running right at me, then another, but here were far too many. We were soon overrun, overpowered, and captured at spear point by a force four times the size of ours. I ordered the men to throw down their weapons and shouted out as loud as I could.
“Your King! I will fight your king! I am Pelop, King of Hedra!”
A huge, slightly older man came out of the trees. He was powerfully built and quite tall, almost a giant out of a child’s night–tale. He had a long, reddish beard and carried a war-club. His face was ruddy and his eyes blue, contrasting with his dark hair. He wore a helmet made of a giant boar’s head, complete with tusks that curved down along his sideburns. He grinned at me and said, “Ah, my King Pelop. Good to see you again.”
“Fight me, Herakul!” I snapped.
“Not at this time. You are going to be my guest, my friend. We can reason out our disputes. Or not!” He leaned back and roared his laughter. His men brought ropes and tied my men hand to neck to ankle. He said, “you ride with me, young king.” He had my horse Tarn on a lead. But I refused and insisted on being bound along with my troop.
“Suit yourself, “Shrugged Herakul. He wheeled on his enormous horse and rode off, leaving us surrounded by spearmen. There was no point in resisting. Maybe we would be ransomed. That must be his plan, I thought. I looked around. Brukos and Andros were not among the captured. Treachery! I vowed that if they hadn’t been killed in the attack, I would do the job myself as soon as I was free.
Herakul marched us hard in a southeasterly direction. At nightfall, we camped. My men’s bonds were somewhat loosened, though not removed. There was roast pig and vanna enough. Herakul untied me and had me eat with him
At first I ate in sullen silence, but Herakul was a gregarious giant. He kept talking about Great Tirina and his herds and the walls of the citadel, and Queen Hera, who was replaced every year by a younger woman, who took the name of each the three mother goddesses in turn. The King ruled in name only for three years, until all three goddesses had been his consorts. The Queen and the powerful witch-priestesses of Afroda, Atena, and Hera held the real power. At the end of his reign, he was to be sacrificed. Herakul therefore wasn’t this man’s real name; he was “The” Herakul.
“Scryonas, that’s me,” he mumbled through a mouthful of boar leg, “from Alkyon in the far north, the land of the Thrakioi and Makedoi. The witches think they’ll kill me, but I’m too strong!” he laughed and quaffed vanna from the wine-skin.
But I had seen what priestesses could do. In my own childhood land men had disappeared forever and people whispered fearfully of the wild women, who became possessed of the goddess under the feasts of the changing moons and killed, some even said ate, men in their bloody frenzy. New men always filled the gap left by the ones who vanished. Some undoubtedly ran away, but others were just gone. The witches had great power. Their three goddesses made one eternal goddess: young seductress Afroda, Wise mother and Queen Atena, and old wise witch and crone, Hera. The oldest priestesses were only thirty summers or a little more. People didn’t live long enough to get truly old. Vila’s shriveled old vanna- drinking aunt was a rare exception.
“How many moons do you have left.” I asked.
“One!” he laughed even louder and slapped his knee with his greasy hand. He wiped his hand on his tunic. His beard was streaked with boar- fat and flecks of dirt and twigs. He wasn’t very king-like, but he was bigger and stronger than anyone else. He leaned forward across the edge of the fire and looked at me as if to share a secret.
“In Copper-land there is no Goddess. I hear than men rule without fear. They have wings on their backs and walk above the sea! And beyond, in the land of the Faeroes, there are temples that look like mountains. They reach the sky!”
He grinned conspiratorially.” I am going there. You should come with me!”
He was drunk enough that I thought I might later make my escape, but I said, “The Faeroes? Never heard of them.” Of course, I had heard the tales, but didn’t give them much credence. I also heard of fire-breathing snakes and Gods that rode across the sky on golden horses. All the nonsense of simpletons, though I’d never say that aloud for fear of being killed by the same mob of simpletons. There’s nothing more dangerous than a believer, or a group of them- even worse.
“They’re living gods who walk the earth. Their kingdom is beyond the sea, but they’re real. Our traders go there. The lands are all sand, and there are horses that have great humps on their backs and live without water!” he slapped his thigh again and let out an enormous belch.
I egged him on, pretending to drink more vanna, while actually not sipping at all, letting him drain the wine-skin by himself. The more he drank, the more he carried on. Still, there was something direct and straight forward about Herakul, or Scryonas, or whatever his real name was. Under other circumstances, I would have drunk with him and enjoyed it. For now, all I could think about was how to get me and my men free of him.
“I’ll go with you,” I said, “But I have to go home and prepare my kingdom for my absence. There are those I can’t trust.” The truth wasn’t a bad tack. I figured he was so drunk, he might even agree and set us free. But to my surprise, he sat up straight and looked me in the ye,
“That’s true enough, “he said. I wondered what he knew. ” But you have to come to Tirina and see the walls first. Then we’ll talk.”
Herakul then rose and directed his men to tighten the bonds and tied me too.
“I may be a fool, “he said, “But I’m no idiot. Sorry.”
With that he retired. I lay down next to the fire, hog-tied and useless. Tomorrow was another day.

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