Merlin the Archer, part 7: Escape from the Goddess Queens


Escape from the Witch Queens

Herakul marched us for two days southward until we reached the sea. There we embarked on his fleet of many brakkas and crossed the straits to Great Tirina, the Kingdom of Herakul and his queen, Hera. We marched once more for two days along the coastline around a range of high mountains and then turned south again. We passed through a rugged landscape and went past the walled citadel of a place called Mykena, on top of a rocky hill, and came out at last into the wide plain of Argo. Flat farm land stretched out before us. We tramped down a long road that ran straight through the fields, many of which were lined with cleared stones. The high hills around the plain were tipped here and there with forts and other rock-built structures. Farms and villages were numerous; I could see why Tirina was so powerful: there were many people from which to raise an army. Some of the farms were large. They put our farms to shame. At the far end of the plain we came before the famous walls of Tirina itself. In the distance beyond the citadel was a solitary tall, round hill and the glistening shimmer of the sea.
On the marches Herakul had been treating me as an equal, offering the wine-skin and giving me a horse to ride, the latter of which privileges I declined, as my men had to walk. My bonds had been loosened during the day, but tightened once again each night, and an extra guard had been placed on me as well. Herakul seemed somewhat embarrassed about this, but pretended that it was just the way it was done. He didn’t seem like an exceptionally bad leader. He didn’t really mistreat my men. Yet despite my arguing for our freedom, we were marched in bonds to Tirina.
Tirina lived up to its oft- told reputation. The walls rose above a low hill just a short distance from the sea’s edge. Lush farmland lay all around the citadel, whose mighty walls were at least three times the height of Hedra’s tallest. They truly looked as if giants had built them. Some of the stones were so big I couldn’t see how they possibly could have been moved by men. Crowds of people, farmers and ware-sellers with horses full of stuffs, women with their heads covered, dirty-faced children, and some better -dressed men lined the way, a wide, level road that led to the gates. Many more stood atop the ramparts of the citadel. Herakul rode an enormous horse and shouted to the throng on the citadel walls, who shouted back. Women trilled. Drummers and bazu players joined in, with the long notes of ram’s horns blowing, and the huzzahs and with the clattering of spears on shields of the Tirinite warriors it all made a rousing din.
As we drew near to the gate, I could see a pavilion of scarlet cloth on poles on the rampart above the entrance to the citadel. Beneath it stood several women; priestesses, and one in flowing purple robes that I guessed was the Queen, Hera. The road branched and came to the gate, which was so large that three horsemen could ride through together. Above the lintel was a carved owl, the symbol of Atena and Hera. I looked up and saw Hera’s face. She was older than me, beautiful and proud, with long black hair and full lips painted red. Her eyes were lined with black and in her hair were two snakes of copper and lapis, intertwined in a circlet. In her left hand she held a long snake of copper, painted with rings of different colors. She looked straight at me with no expression, but raised her hand slightly to salute Herakul, who beat his mace across his chest and yelled, “Tirina!”
The people cheered their King in return. As we crossed under the gate, those above spat on us to remove the evil eye, and threw pebbles down on our heads. They cried out curses and laughed at our misfortune. I felt hot from anger, but held it back, managing a defiant smile in their faces, and one for the haughty, silent queen as well.
They brought us into the courtyard of the citadel and forced us to our knees. All around us the throng stared down from the walls. Herakul dismounted and strode to our men, pulling out his knife. He reached down and cut Dukas’ cords and dragged him to his feet by his long hair, then threw him down in the dust, still holding the poor man by his hair. Herakul lifted Dukas head up, exposing his neck. Dukas said nothing.
Herakul raised the knife in his right hand.
“Hera” he shouted. A great cheer went up. Herakul swept his knife down and cut Dukas’ throat with one cut. The blood poured from his neck and Herakul dumped his body in the dust like he was throwing down a rag. He raised his bloody knife up again and stared at the Queen, who answered him in kind with her raised right hand. She showed no emotion still. The multitude cheered and the drums beat for a few minutes. Then the crowd bean to disperse slowly. The Queen and her retinue moved off along the walls. We were left on our knees in the courtyard, ringed in with spearmen. Herakul approached me. He looked grim.
“Was he a good man?” He asked, looking away from my stare.
“Dukas Silonai. He had three sons and a small farm. He did his duty.”
“I’m sorry, “said the big man, now looking at me with reproach. “The sacrifice must be made.”
“What happens now?”
“My friend, are you really as stupid as your words make you sound? This is the end of my reign. They mean to kill me.”
“And who will be king?”
“You will, you fool!” He clapped his hand on my shoulder and walked away heavily in the dust.

When the shadows of the dying day were stretching out, I was brought under guard to a well beneath the walls and washed by two young women. They touched me and my manhood responded in spite of myself. They giggled but clothed me in a tunic and robe and put a circlet of woven grape vines on my head as crown. It was getting dark as I was taken to the Queen’s chamber. It was at the end of a long passageway of huge stones that formed a tunnel, the likes of which I’d never seen. I couldn’t help but notice the fine stonework. How did they raise these huge rocks? The stones made a peak above the passageway.
Hera’s chamber was lit by several torches. The walls were hung with red cloth and her bed of woven blankets was laid out on a base of carved stone, with snakes and birds and the like hewn into the rock. She sat near a large window on a wooden bench, the legs of which had beasts’ feet carved into them. She waved off her women attendants and motioned for me to sit on a three- legged stool. On a small table between us were goblets made from gold, richer than I had ever seen. There were colored stones inset in the shining metal. A painted jug held pungent vanna.
“Sit with me, King Pelop.” She said. Her voice was smooth and practiced. She was a real queen, used to power. She looked at me with a very slight smile on the corners of her painted lips. “Tell me about Hedra, your kingdom.”
I stood defiantly. She kept smiling and made no show of her true emotions, though I could see the bronze behind her eyes. She made no move, she just sat regarding me. After a moment I slowly sat.
She took a goblet and handed it to me.” We’ll drink as rulers, together.”
It seemed more like an order than an invitation.” My men don’t have vanna.”
“What a quaint country name for it. We call it vin. And oh, but they do, “She said. “ They are being well treated. They will soon be going home.”
“And I will go with them.” I said. I looked down at the golden wine glass. The vanna was dark red, like sacrificial blood. I took a deep drink.
“Will you?” she said. Another statement; a challenge.
We sat in silence for a minute. The sound of night insects came through the window and other sounds, from far away, beating drums and many women trilling and singing. The sounds seemed to be coming closer.
“The people of Tirina celebrate tonight. Here, the tradition is for the king to be reborn every three years. It has been that way since the time of the Goddess’s dreams. The Goddess had told us that this is the law that will preserve Tirina. Tonight is that night.”
“Herakul, what happens to him?” the wine was quite heady, beyond the skill of our wine-makers in flavor as well.
“The Herakul is the consort of Afroda, Atena, and Hera. Here they are.” She clapped her hands once and two priestesses came in. One was a young grey-eyed girl of amazing beauty, the other no less striking, but maybe five years older. They sat next to Hera. We were almost touching. They were made up in the fashion of Hera. Their breasts were exposed in the manner of priestesses, and were no less alluring for that.
“I am Hera, the oldest of our three queens. The Hera-kul, the seed of the Goddesses, marries all of us. Together we are the goddess who makes the crops grow and the hunt succeed. Without us and our consort, the seeds in the field will fail and people of Tirina will perish. The Herakul plants his seed in us and we grow and give birth to new goddesses who bloom like Afroda, the spring flower.”
Afroda, Atena, and Hera herself were indeed women to excite a man. I was myself fully alive. The wine made this all seem right, somehow. I struggled to think of Vila. The sounds of women trilling and rums beating came from just beyond the window. The night was full of intoxicating energy. I drank again, draining the goblet. Afroda’s hand touched my leg. Atena reached out and stroked my face. Hera’s hand slipped up and grasped my manhood. She whispered, “You are the Herakul, my king.” I felt strangely dizzy. The three women seemed to come towards me, or maybe I fell towards them. That’s all I remember.

I awoke slowly, slipping in and out a dream of the goddesses. They were touching me and I was the earth –man -god bringing the seed to their bodies. I strained to stay there, but something hurt my back. I rolled to my side and I fell off something and hit a hard wooden floor. I jolted awake. The rocking of a sea swell lifted me up and own. The sky was grey and low.
“Wake up, drunken sea-dog!” came a deep voice.
I pulled myself up on the rail. I was on a brakka. The sail bowed out above me. There were men sitting at the rowing benches, their oars shipped as the wind swept the brakka on the waves. A familiar shape crouched on the deck in front of me, his face grinning broadly, his beard glistening with drops of water.
“Herakul?” I said.”What is happening?” My head was cloudy. I hurt, I felt sick.” Where are we?”
“You’re free of the witches’ spell, my little king. I rescued you from that fate.”
“My head pounded.” The vanna.” I was hungover as I hadn’t been in years.
“The vanna of the goddesses. It makes you a great man for a while! Then it kills you. They poison you slowly with their black potions. I knew, so Ektor and I slipped in later, when they were done with you, and we wrapped you in a blanket and brought you to the ship. “He laughed.
I stood up. My legs were unsteady, so I grabbed the rail. There were islands away in the distance, through the low clouds.
“So now I can go home. Thank you, Herakul.” I said.
“Home? “He laughed again. “You’re lucky to be alive and free! While you have slept off your madness, the west wind has blown us for two days now towards Tin-land, Karpatha. That’s where I’m bound, and you with me for now. I have only just gotten away with my life, little King. Once I’m gone to the east, you can turn the brakka around and come again to your lands.”
“But why did you capture me to begin with?”
“The witches told me if I brought you to them, I could go without being killed. During their mad ceremonies death is the usual fate of the Herakul. But they lied to me. While you were bedding the lot of them, and I was drinking to my freedom with a woman I like, their killers came to get me. I had to fight off ten men to get free. Lucky for us both, I had this ship ready in the harbor of Napli. I had the bright idea that to pay them back for their treachery I would rob them of their new Herakul. So I did! Joke’s on them, may they rot in the underworld.” He spat on his robe to ward off the vaskania of the Goddesses. “So we sail to Tin-land; then she’s all yours. We couldn’t row against this wind anyway.”
I was elated to know that I would again be able to return to Hedra and Vila, though I knew that once I got home again, I would have to build a bigger armed force to guard against the army of Tirina in the future. I pondered the traitors that had tricked me into heading east to begin with and I plotted my revenge. I would get rid of Brukos and Andros and the rest. I thought of Vila worrying and wondered if those dogs had tried to seize her and our lands already. I hoped my allies could hold it together until my return. It had only been two weeks. I wished the brakka across the waves, but there was nothing to be done for now but sail and row and wait.
“Thank you, Herakul, my shipmate!” I said, giving him my hand. He shook it in both of his and grinned.
“Just Scryonas of Makedoi from now on.”
“Somehow I think you’ll always be known as Herakul, the strong, the death-cheater!”
We laughed.
The winds built stronger and stronger until they were blowing a gale from the northwest. For two days we bailed and worked in teams to trim the sail and hold the brakka downwind so it wouldn’t broach and capsize. Herakul proved how strong he was, manhandling the tiller through two endless nights of high waves and howling wind. The men prayed to Pozdeon and every other god they had ever heard of. I trusted no gods anymore, but I had faith in Herakul’s strength as long as it held out, and my wits, as long I kept them. On the third morning since I had awakened, we sighted Karpatha, or Kreta, as some sailors called it. High mountains rose beyond dry slopes dotted with whitewashed towns, vineyards, and groves. But there was no landing for us in this gale. We were swept relentlessly along the coast. We missed one small harbor after another. At last we rounded a big point and came into slightly calmer waters. Herakul pointed ahead across a huge bay.
“Nosso, the city of Minos!”
Inland at some distance from the coast on a low hill were the usual whitewashed buildings, but this town was bigger than the others. A port lay at its feet. We managed to bring the brakka close to the shore. It held together as we rode in the heavy surf, but the waves were the kind that break right on the shore , sucking the sand from beneath them before thundering down in a wall of foam and chaos. The tail of the brakka lifted up on a huge swell, the boat turned violently on its side, and crashed upside down onto some rocks and broke apart. We were thrown into the sea and tossed about like corks. three men drowned, but twelve of us managed to get ashore, half-drowned ourselves, including Herakul.
I clambered up on the rocky shore and looked into the churning water at the brakka being broken up and sinking. My heart sank like the ship. Vila!
Herakul shook himself like a horse to fling the salt water from his shaggy hair and beard and shrugged. “You’ll find another boat. This is a land of seafarers and traders. Besides, maybe the gods have other plans for you! “
To the underworld with the gods! Herakul was ready to be here, brakka or no brakka, for he had no home to return to and the sailors’ tales of Karpatha were full of beautiful, easy-going women and fine vanna.
“They don’t make war on this island, “said one old salt.” They make love instead! The women are the daughters of sea-nymphs and will keep you forever happy in their embraces!” The sailors, like Herakul, were ready for that. “I hear they love bulls as much as men!” One of them laughed. “King Herakul ought to be right at home!” I had heard all these tales and I didn’t believe them. People are people, not old witches’ tales. I spied out the land. The town was up on a low hill, tall mountains behind that, and the little port was to the west. A small stream looked like it came right down to the coast from the citadel of Minos. Scrub trees lined the stream and olive groves lay to the west and east. The land along the coast looked worn, as if people had tended to it for many generations already. There were low stone walls among the groves and houses, some large in the distance.
We salvaged what we could from the wreck, which wasn’t much, just some rope and other odds that had floated ashore. We had no food or vanna or weapons. I scanned the water, looking for anything that might still be floating. I turned to Herakul to ask, what now? But he was looking inland and I saw the look in his eyes that warned of danger. I spun around. More than thirty archers and spearmen had come out of the trees near the stream. They spread out in a half circle around us and drew their bowstrings.
Herakul raised his arm and called out, “Peace! We come in peace. Have mercy on the shipwrecked!”This was the common plea of those who foundered in a strange land, and it generally required hospitality of whoever found them, though it was no guarantee.
A short, but powerfully built man, strangely beardless, with long, black, curly hair, stepped a little closer, his bow held at the ready. Our sailors looked less than sure of their non-warlike claims of the moment before.
The man scowled, “where do you hail from?” His accent was hard to understand, though it was a version of our tongue he spoke, and his tone was curt. “Tell us now, or die!’
Herakul bowed to the short man. “I am Scryonas, servant of King Pelop of Hedra.” Still bowed at the waist he turned slightly with his palms out humbly to point me out. I stood as tall as I could. The ten other men of our crew had slipped behind me in a knot. The short man looked at me. I didn’t look much like a king right now, I thought; soaked, sandal-less, and in a torn tunic. Still, a king may be shipwrecked as easily as any man.
Without saying anything to us, the short man called to his men to bind us.” Hedra; never heard of it.” he looked disdainfully at our motley crew.” You are trespassing on the land of King Minos of Karpatha, servant of the Goddess. Take them to the King.” He said grimly.
The Goddess. There seemed to be no escaping her wherever I went. She had certainly brought me into a lot of trouble so far. Once again I found myself about to be bound. Well, a king may be bound as any other man as well, but I had been tied up for a week, and then drugged and taken on a boat away from my kingdom and wife and child. I’d had enough.
As they were about to tie me I said to the short man, “Kill me if you like, but I am a king, and I’ll not be bound. I call on King Minos to honor the hospitality of royal house and shipwreck.” I stared at the short man, my eyes unflinching.
He stared back hard for a moment and then said, “very well, you’ll walk freely, but if you try to run, I will cut down you and your servants, king.”
Herakul shot me a look that suggested laughter. I could have let him be killed for the trouble he had brought on me.
“I’ll not run; you have my word.” I was a king, after all, despite my captor’s contemptuous doubts.
Beyond the rocky beach there was a road that led up the streamside. After a short march past the low stone fences of olive plantations, from behind which stared a few grove workers, we reached the low hill whereupon sat the palace of King Minos of Karpatha. It was a collection of finely wrought stone buildings, laid out in terraces above neatly tended olive groves. I admired the masonry; it was finer than any I’d yet seen. It made the giant-built citadel of Tirina look like a child’s pile of rocks. The stones were square cut and fitted together better than any walls back home. I wondered how they cut the blocks. On the raised terraces, there were carved points of stone I later learned were meant to be bull’s horns. Red-painted columns held up flat rooftops. I was impressed; I felt like crude villager. But something puzzled me. It didn’t seem right. Then I realized – there were no walls! So it was true; it was a land of peace. Then why were we bound and treated like prisoners of war?
The short man kept his silence all the way, despite my attempts to sound him out. He led us through a stone gate and up a set of wide, handsome stairs to an open plaza surrounded by low buildings. On the walls of the buildings were lively paintings of people, leaping sea-fish, crouching leopards, and other subjects. As we approached, a long, brown house-snake slithered away and disappeared in an opening in a wall. There were many people in the courtyard. The men, who like our guard wore no beards, looked at first like young boys, slight of build. They wore loin-cloths and colorful skirts. Some had strands of ivy woven in their hair. There were also priestesses not unlike the ones of Tirina, with open robes and strange short garments around the shoulders. They wore their hair long and flowing, with strings of shiny beads tied up and through their locks in a most attractive manner. They were all of a type, men and women both: short, thin, and dark-skinned, with long wavy black hair. I had the thought that these were the strong families, as at home in Hedra. They looked like people of leisure, if so, there were far more of them than at Hedra or even Tirina, for there must have been over a hundred just in the palace grounds alone. The fancy courtiers fine appearances made me, in my wet, torn garment and without sandals, feel like a bit of an oaf, but I stood like a king. At least I had a beard!
The leader of the guards took me into an open chamber with three walls and a porch held up by thick columns that were narrower at the base than at the top. A painting of a harvest scene graced the wall. In this scene handsome men and beautiful women gathered grapes and olives. Some held baskets of fish and fruits. Flying fish were above them. It was the nicest decoration I had every seen. I was amazed that someone had painted anything so lively. The paintings of Hedra were very crude by comparison. Carved out of a white stone was a simple yet elegant throne on a raised dais. The seat was worn smooth from use, polished and slightly stained grey. Lengths of fine cloth hung down and screened off the entryways into the chamber. There was a tripod seat. The guard bade me sit and then left me by myself in the room.
A shadow moved at one of the entryways and a slender, older woman of maybe thirty years, dressed in the colorful skirts and open jacket I had seen outside came in. Her long, black hair was bound up with strings of sea-pearls and tiny shells. Long tresses hug down seemingly with no order to them. She wore a necklace of lapis and silver that draped down between her breasts. On her right arm was a ringlet that looked like a snake coiled around her arm. She looked right in my eyes. There didn’t seem to be any malice or cunning to her face. But I was wary.
I had stood, but now she sat on the throne and motioned for me to sit on the tripod. She rested her hands on her lap and smiled slightly at me.
“I am Pasifa, one of the ladies of the court of king Minos. I speak Achaean, what we call your language, for I am originally from Mykonos, a land to the north. Please tell me about your travels and why you are here in our land. It is forbidden for travelers to be here without our approval.” She still smiled.
“It is a long story; I fear it would bore you. Shall I just say that we are shipwrecked while sailing to copper-land?”
“I would rather have you tell me the truth, King of Hedra.” She said.
So I told her the truth. There wasn’t anything to hide, except Herakul’s identity. We weren’t, in fact, there to harm the Karpathans. I just wanted to get back home. So I told her so. She asked me about Herakul. “Who is this Scryonas? He’s plainly a big man. Is he your true king in disguise?”
I tried not to laugh. “He was a king; but he left his throne”. I hoped I wasn’t sentencing him to a poor fate for his having deserted the goddess.
“You protect him; that’s admirable in a friend. I hope it’s smart. He is strong; he will ride the bulls. You will watch.” She fussed with her robe’s hem, brushing off a strand of cobweb.” You will be our guest, because I believe that much of what you have told me is most likely true. I don’t; think you have come here to do us harm. Across the eastern sea is a new great king who seeks power over all. We fear his agents. He has not yet sailed here, but our traders have seen his ships in the dawn sea. He sacrifices to different gods, this one. war gods with wings and lightning.”
“is this the faroe I have heard the sailors speak of?” I asked.
“ No, the land of the faroes is to the south and east of Karpatha. The faroe is the mightiest king of all, but the people of Egypt, his land, do not venture out I conquest, at least not so far. We trade with their kingdom.”
I nodded, but I could truly only picture a small fortified citadel surrounded by a few large farms and villages. How great could these kings be? I could bet they weren’t one-eyed giants with wings. I was a king, as well!

We were boarded in a clean hall of polished stone hung with bright tapestries and floored with woven rush mates. There were comfortable wooden chairs and benches. We were kept well supplied with vin and bread and fruit and cheese and fresh fish and lamb. The sailors felt their tall tales were justified, though they didn’t meet any quick women. We were permitted to wander the grounds of the palace at will. We tried to talk with the fine folk, who were friendly enough, but few knew our language well enough to exchange more than a handful of words. We gathered that Herakul was in training with others to dance with the bulls, whatever that meant. We agreed that if anyone could dance with bulls, it would be Herakul. Pasifa came around. She and I talked and walked on the terraces of the fine palace. It was peaceful place. But she told tales of gigantic sea waves that had swept away earlier palaces that had stood right here completely away, and earthquakes that had knocked down walls and toppled columns. She said it was the bulls of the goddess, stomping deep in the earth where they lived. The Minos, their king, was in one of those caves, praying at length to the goddess to guide him in this coming threat against the warlike eastern King. I knew the men would say the bull was Pozdaeon, the sea-god, who has the shape of a black bull as one of his many forms. I didn’t know what made the earthquake, but I know I had never yet seen a sea-bull. I thought that maybe the land was alive in own slow way, not connected to humans at all.But I kept me mouth shut, as usual.
“He is called Sharrukin, the Lu-Gal of Aggadeh.”
“Lu-Gal? What that’s that?”
“It means Big Man in their language. None speak this tongue here, though our traders who sail to far end of the east sea know a bit of it. You have seen the fine bronze bowls and swords we make?’
I had indeed seen the elegant workmanship of their metallurgists.
“The cooper comes from Kypros, copper-land, some days sail to the east. It’s not far from the great lands beyond that stretch out forever in the sands. We need the copper to melt with our Tin to make this bronze. Ours is the finest. That’s why Sharrukin, or Sargon, as the Levantines call him, wants Karpatha to pay him tribute in bronze.” She walked silently for a while. “but that’s not all”, she said,” He considers himself a god and wishes to have all worship him and make sacrifice to him. We have our own way of life here, one that is very old and peaceful. We pray to the goddess to keep him away”
Good luck, I thought, but didn’t say. Men are greedy and full of war. If he wants this place, he’ll try to take it! That’s what I had seen.

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31 Responses to Merlin the Archer, part 7: Escape from the Goddess Queens

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