Revenge –on to the Pillars of Herakles
When I was through sitting with her, keeping company with her lingering shade, if there is such a thing, I carried her wrapped in her cloak down to the precinct of the Goddess. Aon was there, with the old priestess. I laid the light bundle on a flat stone in front of the temple. Other priestesses had gathered quietly. They stood back respectfully, their heads covered in veils of the same grey cloth that wrapped Vila’s body.
I turned to my boy, who stood gravely, looking at what had been his mother. I put my hand on his shoulder and bent over to talk to him.
“My son, I need you to wait for me here. I will be back in a few days. Then we will go on a journey together with my friends. You will like them and you will become a man in their company.”
He nodded. The old priestess put her arms around his shoulders and held him very gently, a soft smile on her cracked, aged lips. Clouds were darkening over Tomaros.
If the traitors of Hedra had ever dreamed I would come back, they hadn’t planned on a war general who had led armies for Sargon of Akkad and Pharaoh Pepi coming back to deal with them. I had forty men plus Finn and mighty Herakul at my side. We came over the ridge to the east of the town, marching boldly and openly. I shot the first five men I saw who appeared with arms. By then, Brukos had run out of his villa with his bodyguards. Herakul, Finn, and I came forward and met them, three against seven. It was no match. Herakul was worth ten men by himself. Brukos, coward that he was, tried to run when he saw his men fall to us, sword and axe to spear and mace. But I caught him and cut his guts out with the same dagger that had taken my Queen’s life, leaving them to trail through the dust and stones of the road that led to my old house, though he cried out his innocence and begged for his miserable life. He tried to scream, but his voice quit him before his life did. He crapped himself as he stumbled and pissed his robes. He grabbed at his trailing entrails, but soon he fell face down, his bleeding, broken nose and sightless eyes against the sharp little stones of the road. Up the little hill, at my old house, the King’s house, Andros and his men were pushing carts together to make a barricade, but we charged it and slaughtered them. I shot Andros from ten feet away, right through the throat. I was in a full rage; the wrath of the Gods, as they say. While he yet breathed, I took an axe and cut off his right hand and thrust it down his throat, where the arrow shaft had broken in two. I then impaled him on a sharp-pointed fence post and ordered the men to back away from the houses. There would be no killing of women and children. Instead, I brought all our company to the big wall that I had constructed. We took long, wooden fence railings and brought the walls of Hedra down. The big rocks tumbled into the valley below. We went around until all the walls were fallen. I bade the households to seek their future shelter elsewhere, but not in the direction of Dodona. Hedra was to be no more. My men wanted to take the women as spoil, but I forbade it. Instead, we went back east to Dodona and I made an offering of sheep and goats taken from my old city as an offering to the Goddess and to the shade of Vila, Queen of Hedra and mother of Aon.
Then we went to the ship and sailed away, never to return.
28 Hunting the Stag
The leaves rustled slightly; a zephyr perhaps. They crouched unmoving, wrapped in the green maze of a forest-bound thicket of pig brush. Aon watched as slow drops of water dripped from the tips of the broad, bright green leaves that covered his hiding place; one, two, thee, four… A snap of a tiny twig. No question: something was moving stealthily in the trees beyond the little brook. The stream itself murmured an endless song, like a thousand whispering voices, each issuing from beneath a pebble, a reed, a tangle of water- worn streamside tree roots. Someone had tried to dam the brook with large stones and the flow gurgled around these head-sized boulders. The grey sky seemed darker than the forest, as if the broad, bright leaves retained the sunlight of forgotten blue days, glowing luminously in waves and sheaves, so thick that Aon couldn’t see twenty feet in front of him.
His father sat with his legs drawn up to his chest at the base of a big tree, under a canopy of greenery that hung down like a bed curtain. He simply listened, hearing the great stag creeping forward. He could now hear distinctly the tearing of the new grown shoots in the great deer’s mouth as the animal tore them gently, but with precision and power, from the branches. Aon could see his father’s intent eyes from where he waited, his bow ready. He felt the cool, polished stone wristguard on his skin, the tension of the nocked arrow in the taught string. Now he saw the antlers above the tops of the thicket. They waved like branches in a breeze, tipping one way and the other as the deer moved his head to eat. Aon pulled the arrow back with the greatest care and ever so slowly lifted the arrow’s point to the level of the stag’s breast. Right behind the shoulder blade, just far enough down to be sure the arrow wouldn’t glance off. One shot, that’s all he’d get.
The great buck was no more than twenty paces away now, working his way towards the hunters. The wind blew towards the men, concealing their scent from the wary prey. There was a clatter as a bird took wing from the three above. The stag looked up and at the same time, Aon stood and shot.
The arrow flew true and straight and punctured the flank of the great stag, plunging in so deep only the last foot of the shaft with its duck-feather fletches stuck out from the side. He bolted sideways with a loud clattering as his twisting antlers broke branches and his hooves struck rocks and then he ran. Aon was off too, seemingly as fast as the stag itself, chasing it through the forest thicket, trying to keep the sound of the frightened, wounded animal within hearing, for he couldn’t see it. Soon the sound was fading away far ahead and he had to slow and follow the trail of broken twigs, and muddy hoof prints. The way was obvious and the blood that was left here and there made it clear that the shot had done its damage.
Pelop came upon Aon and the dressed-out stag at late dusk. The old man had taken his time, as he had to now. Aon’s trail was easier to follow than the deer’s. But the stag had run more than a mile, which was a long way for a man with one good leg to walk.
Pelop sat down heavily on a fallen tree trunk and said, “Good shot, my son. I couldn’t have done better.”
Aon knew this was a lie; no one could out -shoot his father even now. But Pelop could no longer run, so his hunting days were limited to small game and birds. He left the big stuff to his son, who at nineteen was in his prime in many ways.
We first sailed from Epirus across the wind-tossed straits to the west and came to the south-facing shore. Winter was lifting into spring. After a long passage we saw in the distance a huge smoking mountain that stood above a land of fine harbors and large towns. Herakul did some trading in these ports, for provisions, and spent some time brawling in taverns. But I now had my young son, to whom I was a stranger, in my care, and I coerced my huge, rowdy friend to quit these towns. Locals told us that the mountain was home to a race of Cyclops, one- eyed giants, and Herakul wanted to have a look for himself. I persuaded him to make the climb another time, when we wouldn’t be putting the life of a child in jeopardy by our adventuring. He was miffed, and vowed to return someday, but we sailed on. We had no need to go anywhere fast, so we traded and harbored and very slowly made our way along, sometimes staying in a good place for a few days or even weeks.
I spent my time with Aon on the deck, teaching him about the sails and even giving him a turn at the oars, though he wasn’t capable of lifting one by himself. We rowed together on one oar. He was silent at first, and I respected the fact that he had lost his mother and knew me only from tales. His whole life had been spent under the shadow of illness and death among the priestesses of Dodona. He had been on his own in that wild and lonely place. I could see he had looked within himself already. He was suspicious of the world, but not afraid. He readily learned the ways the sails set in different winds and swells. He had only swum in the cold streams of Epirus, and found the sea delightful. Along these coasts the waters were clear and warm. You could see deep down where large fish swam which we caught for our meals on hand lines and with spears. Some of the sailors were accomplished divers, who could hold their breath for several minutes and come up with treasures from the bottom, large shrimps and other delicacies. Before long, Aon was going down far past where I felt comfortable. Swimming seemed to bring him a little out of his shell; he would laugh and show off a sponge or some other rarity he had plucked from Pozdeon’s blue lair.
The men took him under their protection. He was our ship’s boy, our good-luck charm. He and I watched the starry skies at night and talked about the vast arrays of shining lights in the heavens. He told me the names he had been taught. He believed them to be signs of the gods. The great warrior with his shining belt and mighty shoulders, followed by the brilliant star called the Dog Star, was his favorite, though it meant colder weather was coming and more storms would upon us when it began to rise in the east after dusk. I didn’t tell him what I thought about the gods and the stars. There would be time for that someday. For me, I saw his mother in him, bright and intelligent and quiet. She had suffered no fools, including me, and I could see that Aon carried her inner bearing. He would sit and listen and not make needless jokes. He was comfortable being alone. I wanted to ask him about himself, but refrained, instead I watched as well. For my part, I told him stories of the Sargon and Karpatha and Egypt of the great pyramids and Kanaa. He listened and took it all in, perhaps not fully trusting my tales. Most times, there were others within hearing that made comments and rude jokes in the natural way of the sailor. Aon sorted it out in his quiet mind and kept his own counsel.
When we stayed in harbor, we would go ashore and hunt. He had my talent with the bow. I showed him a couple of tricks, but he was a good shot and a stealthy hunter. Those long, lonely winters on the slopes of Mount Tomaros had been a good school for him. Finn and Herakul were impressed by him.
“He has your calmness and thoughtfulness, “said Herakul.
“He’ll be a better shot than you before long, “added Finn, “ and fortunately for him, his mother must have been good looking, ‘cause otherwise he’d be in trouble.”
The one in trouble, pretty much all of the time, was Herakul, whose insatiable lust for women kept us rowing out of harbors ahead of angry chieftains and mobs half the time when we had come to harbor. It wasn’t his entire fault; women wanted him for his size, which was a quick legend wherever we went. Later I heard him referred to as the father of the Celts, the northern people. By this it was meant that he had certainly fathered quite a few children wherever he went. And no one forgot him. Sometimes we heard tavern singers, blind men with harps, who sang for drink and food and lodging, tell of the hero Herakul, or Heracles in the western way, the slayer of this beast or that, the man who had done many fantastic labors. Well, he had done many things, I can attest, since he did many of them around me. Truly, no one was stronger in battle and less fearless than my old friend. But he was wild. The singers said he was born of Dyaus, or whatever god was worshipped in whatever place we found ourselves. I daresay he began to half believe this nonsense himself. I left him largely in the care of Finn, who was only one step behind Herakul in size, courage, and wildness, and who would come to be a legend in his own land someday, with a similar name, Finn Ma’Kul. I thought the harpers pulled our legs for a few drinks, for they also sang about me, telling tales of my archery and my so-called intelligence. They said I had magically lifted stones to build the great man-mountains of the Pharaohs. This stones were moved with ropes, levers, and muscles; not magic. If I had believed them, I would have thought myself a proper hero, worthy of a place among the half-gods. Fortunately, I knew I had been mostly a slave and came from a tiny village in the Snow Mountains and had no father that I remembered, only a mother named Mata, who had been killed by those heartless raiders when I was just a little older than Aon now was. I was no god’s son. I was a man.
We traveled north slowly for months along mountainous coasts, seeing another huge smoking mountain above a great bay. Eventually we headed towards the west and storms compelled us to winter at the mouth of a river. Here, Herakul fathered many children, no doubt. I believe it was from this sojourn that his legend spread west and north and most likely in all directions, though I never went east again, so I can’t say what tales were told in Epirus or Troja or Karpatha. Because we were without anything to do and winter- bound, and to keep the men out of trouble, we built a temple of standing stones in a circle to thank the locals for helping us through the cold months. The temple was appreciated by the villagers, who in truth had had to put up with us for a few months. I directed the cutting and raising of the stones. Using the techniques I had learned from Ikaron in Egypt, I had the men split off rocks from a formation that the people said had healing powers. We slid the man -sized stones on sledges of peeled logs during the time when the ground was frozen. The ice made an easy road for the blocks. Levers and ropes and strong muscles did the rest.
On problem I faced was that in contrast to Egypt, where workmen built long, sloping ramps up which to haul the stones, here we needed to stand them up on end. I solved this by building a small ramp for each stone, using the dirt and stones from holes half the height of the standing stones. We then pulled, lifted and levered that stones up the ramp until they were resting, balanced right on top of the pile of dirt. Then we simply slid the stone into the hole and pulled it upright with several ropes, each pulling from a different quarter. We quickly filled in the hole around the stone and there it stood. To make a true circle, I used the Egyptian way of putting a peg in the ground at the center of the circle we planned, and then tying on a rope. I merely walked the rope around the peg, inserting other pegs to show the future positions of the stones, each one the same distance from the center. When we had finished putting up twelve standing stones, I put a smaller, more slender one right at the center; with a big flat stone for the sacrifice before it in the direction of the rising sun, since it was the sun that most everyone thought of as the main god. It made a handsome temple, building it kept the men mostly out of trouble, and it brought great good-will upon us from the local chieftains, who helped keep us in drink and girls while we stayed.
“We’ll do that next winter, too, “I said to Aon, who had been a good student and had easily grasped the measurement with string and other aspects of the construction., “ but next time, we’ll add one more stone outside the circle and line it up with the center to mark the passage of the rising sun at the short day. That way, the locals will know when the New Year has begun. Then they can plant their seeds the same way each year. ”
Aon looked hard at me. “You are very smart, father.” He said quietly. My heart fairly felt like it would bust at these words from my son, who had not yet made much in the way of comment about me in our first year together.
We coasted slowly westward, making many stops along the way. We passed great bird-filled sea marches and saw places where cliffs dropped sheer into the sea. We made point after point, many of them sheltering harbor towns with the usual taverns and women. Despite our easy progress, before long we had left winter behind and were in the warm sea waters that Herakul loved.
“Wait ‘till you see this place, my little king! It’s ours for the taking; beautiful girls, warm beaches, and no great god-kings to make a slave out of you.”
He was right. As we made our way south, the coast was not unlike the land where we had seen the smoking mountain the year before. But where that had faced west, this opened to the south and east and warm winds off the sea made for a fine air. The great sun rose like a fiery chariot out of the sea in the morning, reflecting off the generally calm waters and tinting the coastal hills with a rosy glow. The waters were warm and clear, full of fish and porpoises, which gamboled beneath our bows, much to the happiness of my boy, who was coming slowly out of his shell, like a snail. Bit by bit, he began to laugh with more ease and enjoy himself with the men. He was noticeable taller than when we had found each other. Almost two years had passed now.
I myself was growing older. I tired to count my years, but the closest I could come was perhaps thirty-five. I had been just coming into my manhood when the Ottars took me and killed Mata. Now, I had been a slave, a king, a slave of god-kings twice more, had a boy of ten years, and was a free man. My companions were of the best kind; robust men like me. Herakul was turning grey in his hair and beard, but still was as strong as a bull. Finn’s hair had long ago turned pure white, though he too was fit and able. My hair was still fair. I cut my beard short and sliced off the long ends of my hair. Aon looked like his mother, with thick hair, the color of dark honey. His eyes were grey as hers had been. We counted thirty-eight men in our band, many of whom I was have to classify as old sea-dogs. There was a sense among us all, except for a few younger lads, that it was time for an easy life.
And here it was. Although mountains stood inland, they were not tall. Along the coast there were coves and longer beaches with rich farmlands between the sea and mountains. Things grew by themselves, and the local villages were not places of starvation. At each stop we made for any length of time, we lost one or two men to the wiles of local girls, so that by the time we came to the place under the big mountain, we were not a crew that would intimidate a town. We settled on a fishing town with about two hundred families or so in the area. We made our place south of the town so as not to ruffle the feathers of the local cocks to much. There was plenty of land to go around, and town had a rough tavern and a market for bartering. We built a stockade and huts and stayed there for five years. Over time we made bigger and better houses, until we had small palaces of a rude sort for almost every man that wanted one. I found the plough to be hard work, but I had quarried stone blocks for Pepi the Pharaoh. Compared to that, it was easy farming my own fields for me and my son, if rather boring much of the time. We grew garden foods and fished and hunted. Aon and I worked on his bowmanship; he became almost as good as me. Women slowly joined in to our community, drawn by the handsome men. There was a girl who just kept coming around until she ended up staying. Though I did not love her, I did like her and she was kind to Aon. He name was Evonna. She was dark and small, as were all the locals. She had had a man, but he drowned while fishing, a common tale in these parts.
We kept the ship in good repair in a tiny harbor we made at a stream mouth, and took frequent trips up and down the coast and even out to the two big islands that lay off at some distance to the east, lands in their own right, especially the larger of the two. Herakul slowly traded way the last his goods for things we needed. On one trip to the south along the coast we came to a remarkable place, which made Herakul want to pick up and move. It was a tall, commanding headland, a great rock, really, it seemed, with sheer cliffs facing to the east : a finger of land pointing south off the coast. The locals said that the great ocean lay beyond and we didn’t doubt it, as the swells were bigger there and marched from the west through a strait we could see across. On the far side of the strait was a another massive mountain that seemed to match this one, so we sailed across the windy passage and saw that it did appear to be a continuation of the same more northerly great hill. We returned and made camp at the base of the northerly landmark, for surely it was one, there being no place so memorable anywhere nearby, and truly few places so dramatic anywhere, except for the islands of smoking mountains far to the east..
“I wonder what lies beyond these gates, “I said, as we sat around a fire. There were small apes that lived on the huge rock, and they came close to fire, seeking a handout. Herakul amused himself by throwing them some fish-scraps.
“If you go far enough, you come to the green land of my people, “answered Finn. He had grown quiet of late.
“The villagers told me when I was getting this wine that there is a great land in the midst of the sea beyond. Ships come here bringing tin. The men are fearsome and their ships are made of animal skins.” said Herakul.
Finn brightened up, “Those are the ships of my folk, “he said. Our boats are made of skins over wood frames.” He looked as if he was seeing them in his eyes now. Then, quietly, he said, “I really should be getting back before…” his voice trailed off.
“What, before we run out of wine and girls?”” laughed Herakul. “Your land’s cold and dark and ruled by witch-men and little green people, if we are to believe you. Who’d leave this for that?”
Finn laughed, and countered, “Well, fair enough.” But I could see that he was serious.
We went back to our village, but Herakul kept talking about the great rock.
“I like that place, “he said as we worked on the ship’s rigging one day. We tied some new ropes for the sail and repaired a few broken things.
“I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, “he paused as if unsure if he should go on.
I looked at him with mock surprise, “I know you’re crazy, my old friend. Come on, out with it.”
He knotted his great forehead so that a dozen deep lines formed. Sweat dripped across his skin from the sun and the exertion of pulling ropes taught. “Let’s go down there and put up a couple of your stones, little king.”
I tied off the last of the ropes. “And why?”
“Because I think the place is worthy of a temple.”
“And since when do you believe in the gods, oh mighty Herakul?” I laughed. It was unlike him to be so serious.
He sat on the deck and crossed his legs.” You know, little king Pelop the archer, we’re not getting any younger. I’d like to leave something before I die.”
“Something beyond a thousand children? “ I laughed again. He grinned back.
“Something for all my many children and their children to remember me by until the end of the world. I think two great stones, tall as three men each, with a stone across on top. Out on the flat part above the strait.”
“A task worthy of Herakul the son of Dyaus.”I said.
I thought for a moment. I was used to looking at stone wherever I went and knew that there was plenty that could be quarried there, right from the cliff face. Twenty men can pull a huge stone a short distance. Getting the lintel on top would be tricky for stones as big as the ones he was talking about.
“For you and your memory, I would gladly do it, “I said.
We set out a month later, when our harvest was done, with eighteen men. Aon was now a hairy man of fourteen, almost as tall as me, and went with us. Evonna wept when we pulled away from the shore. She had had a bad dream about me. I put it down to the attachment of women. After Vila, there would never be another true love for me. We sailed easily down to the great rock and set up a camp at a spring. The cliffs were at hand and I could already see a dozen possible stones for our project. I had collected very hard stones over the years that I used as cutting axes for softer rock. I looked for fault lines in the cliff face and soon we broke away three great stones and dragged them to the edge of the flat area overlooking the sea. It was magnificent place, all right. The matching southern mountain to the great rock loomed up across the strait. No doubt this would become a famous place. Already people used it for sacrifices and ceremonies. We swept away the debris of past fires and cleared a spot for the two huge uprights. We used our hammers to flatten the end that would go up, so we could balance the lintel stone on it. I had my doubts we could actually get a stone up twice as high as a man, but we prepared for it anyway. Then we dug our holes, as deep a men are tall. We laid down a road of flat stones to drag the upright on until the big stone was in place, with one the non-flat end pointed at the hole. We had cut stout trees to use as levers. Herakul and Finn and the other really strong men would lever up one end of the stone a few inches, while my team quickly piled boulders under it. Aon‘s sharp mind worked perfectly with mine and he directed one group of stone jammers, while I matched him on the other side of the huge rock. Then Herakul’s crew would go the other end repeat the process. Bit by bit we raised the stones up as tall as a man’s head. That took three days. Then we carefully began to lower the end that was above the hole, while continuing to raise the other end ever higher. We finally got it to slide right into the hole, so it stuck up and out at an angle. From there we used levers, ropes, more stout tree trunks as braces, and a lot of sweat to gradually pull the stone completely upright, which I measured with an Egyptian-style plum line. While most of men held the stone straight up with ropes and tree-branch braces, the others rapidly filled in around the base with the rubble we had used to raise the stone to begin with until the great stone was securely upright. Then we stood back and cheered and drank wine, exhausted but triumphant.
The second stone was a bigger problem. One thing after another seemed to wrong, but after a week we had that one in position upright in its own hole as well. The two stones stood the height of two men, not the three that Herakul had envisioned but bigger than most any stones this side of the Land of Pharaohs. They were ten feet apart, with the gap between them opening to the rising sun, so that the stones matched the peaks of the great rock and the mountain across the strait, like a symbol of the two great mountains and the sea channel between them. The lintel stone we had cut would fit across them with some to spare at each end. It was a huge piece. Putting the lintel up was going to be the hardest work and the most tedious. We had to make a pile, really a small hill of rubble all the way to the top of the stones. I tried weakly to talk Herakul out of it, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I recovered my pride and we set to work. We had caught the interest of the local tribesmen, who we engaged to help in our sacred task, claiming the glory of the temple for their sun god, who they called So. Herakul and I didn’t care what god the temple was thought of being for. He wanted to leave a monument. I wanted to see if it could be done. That is how our minds worked.
When we had our hill built, I had the men construct a long ramp at a much gentler angle than the hill, which served as a base for the ramp. It took us two weeks to get it done, with all the locals hauling stones and baskets of dirt and pebbles. At last the ramp was complete and we began the treacherous and back-breaking task of dragging the enormous stone up to the top. We had thirty men, fifteen on each thick rope, pulling side by side on the ramp above the stone and another crew coming up behind, using wedge-shaped rocks and tree-branch levers to keep the stone for sliding back down the slope. The ramp was only just wide enough for the lintel stone near the bottom, but I had had the men make it actually wider at it got to the top. I worried endlessly that the whole hill would slide away under the weight of the massive lintel-stone, but by luck and good guessing on my part it held. If the stone slipped off to one side, that would make the whole project very difficult to finish, so we were very careful, making sure of each move before we made it. I also ran ropes that went right over the tops of the uprights. I had worn smooth grooves in the edge of the uprights to fit ropes through and kept the grooves wet to ease the wear on the ropes and make them slide more easily. There were ten more men on each rope pulling from the ground on the far side of the ramp. Bit by bit we slid it up and finally reached the top, which was actually higher than the tops of the upright stones. We levered the stone ahead until it was balanced right between the uprights. The slightest mistake would send it sliding down, and we’d be sunk. But with braces and ropes, we secured it as well as we could. Then we very slowly raised the downhill end of the stone up by adding stones underneath it until it was level. Herakul and Finn manned the tree-trunk levers. This was truly Herakul’s greatest feat of his famous strength, as lifting the stone even a hand-width was all the crew could do, and then only for a moment while we jammed in fist-sized rocks and ever so slowly leveled the mighty lintel.
Once we had it in place, we used ropes and braces and poles to swing it around in its peak of rubble until it was right above the uprights. We slowly and carefully dug out the rubble underneath the stone and it settled on the flat tops of the mighty standing stones. We had done it.
A great cheer went up. By now, all the women and children and many men had come from far around the area. They had made a large, festive camp around the stones. There must have been two hundred men, eager to help.
“Herakulis! Herakulis!’ they cheered, his name sounding different in their language. He climbed up on the lintel stone and raised his hands to the skies, as if in offering. Aon and I stood up there with him, and Finn as well. Wine skins were produced. It was a great triumph. Now I knew it could be done. Standing up there I could see in my mind’s eye how a whole ring of great lintel-capped stones would look.
The locals all pitched in and we cleared the ramp and rubble in less than two weeks. I set a ring of waist-high stones around the great monument in a big circle. I didn’t bother to align the ring with the rising sun or anything too fancy; it was just to provide a setting for the great triloton.
“We did it, little king! “ Boomed Herakul. The sun was setting. The last ring stones were in place and the locals were having a feast around a great fire made of the tree-trunk braces and levers to celebrate their new hero, Herakul, or, as it sounded in their tongue, Herakles.
“They’re calling it the Pillars of Herakulis, “he said proudly.
“I would think people will remember that name for long time, “I said.