Authors: David L. Seidman
The First Casualty
Dryope the Beautiful, Queen of the Forest Nymphs, sat on a throne of polished oak, watching a ring of wood sprites frolic around her in a dance of adoration. As the slim girls leapt and pranced, their queen had but a single thought: If I don't find something exciting to do, I'll start pulling the legs off these obnoxious little fairies.
The queen stifled a sigh. She had found the dances and songs of worship very sweet the first time she had heard themâbut after the first few centuries they grew dull. Wood nymphs were lovely creatures but short on imagination; they repeated themselves with tiresome frequency and at nearly endless length.
Dryope's eyelids began to droop. Slowly her shoulders slumped and her head tilted forward.
“Oh, our queen, do thy servants displease you?” wailed the lead dancer, Prissia. “Hurry, my sisters. We must redouble our efforts to inspire Her Glorious Majesty!”
Dryope jerked up and blinked herself awake. No, NO! she thoughtâbut it was too late.
“From the beginning, my sisters!” Prissia cried. Her shrill voice scratched inside the queen's ear like a dirty fingernail. “And a one and a twoâ”
“What manner of creatures are these?” called a rough voice from deep in the forest.
“Thank Hera,” Dryope muttered. Time to go to work. She rose smoothly from her throne and gazed into the trees. “Show yourself and name your name,” she demanded.
A man strode from behind a tight stand of trees. As Prissia and the other nymphs squealed and fled behind her throne, Dryope took the man's measure.
Smells pretty good for a mortal, she thought. He was big, taller than her. Black curly hair covered his broad form, from his wide shoulders and burly chest to his bulging calves. His only clothing was the skin of a lion across his body, tied at his right shoulder and left leg. His fingers, each thick as a boar's tusk, wrapped around a gleaming dagger. A blood-spattered sword hung from one hip.
“General?” called a soft voice from behind the man.
A young man emerged from behind the stand of trees that had hidden the first man. The newcomer was slim, his skin pink with fresh sunburn. “General, we're standing exposed here and you did tell us that Pastoralians could attack at any time.”
“Shut up, Honorius,” the general growled, continuing to stare at Dryope.
“Begging your pardon, sir,” the young man said quietly, “but no.” He stood straight as an iron rod. “The men are exhausted from the march. I want to make camp here.”
The general kept looking at Dryope, drinking in her blonde hair and blazing blue eyes. “No,” he said. “March the men a mile from here. I want privacy when I . . . confer with the lovely lady before us.” He flashed a gleaming smile at Dryope, who lowered her long eyelashes and blushed demurely. “Make it five miles.”
The younger man took a deep breath and stepped in front of his commander. “General Ferocius, the men are tired. A march wouldâ”
The general grabbed Honorius by the chest and shoved him against a tree. He leaned in close and growled, “Shut up, you littleâ”
“Leave him alone,” a deep voice called.
Ferocius whirled round, dropping Honorius. He saw a tall, bronzed man striding through the forest. The muscles of the stranger's arms were as big as pine cones, his chest was as broad as a door and his legs were as thick as oak trunks. But more fearsome was his expression. Clenched tight with anger, his entire face was as grim as a storm cloud and his eyes flashed as if full of lightning.
Ferocius froze. He had never seen the man before, but he recognized him at once. This was the son of Zeus, the king of the gods, and a human woman. He was a hero, the defender of the weak and the enemy of oppression.
“Hercules,” Ferocius whispered.
Dryope stared at the big man as he approached. Mmmmm, she thought. Yummy.
She glanced at Ferocius, who stood by and watched as the stranger dusted Honorius down and made sure he was all right.
“Oh, Hercules,” Dryope called, every syllable a musical note. She crooked a finger at him. “Come here. I'd like to . . . chat with you.” She sat down gracefully and crossed her slim legs. Behind her throne, the wood nymphs giggled.
“Don't do it, Hercules,” Ferocius said suddenly. “She'll ensnare you with her beauty. She nearly got me before you came along. Come back with us, Hercules,” he pressed. “We've got a war brewing and we could use your help. My whole city-state would be grateful.” In a low voice, he added, “If it's women you like, we have women aplenty, if you know what I mean.”
“I'll be happy to help you,” said the man with the gleaming muscles. He nodded at Dryope. “Another time, Your Majesty.”
Ferocius led Hercules into the misty woods. Honorius followed, troubled but obedient.
Dryope rose, tearing the arms of her throne off with a sharp snap. She squeezed and the wood burst into splinters. She shrieked terrible curses.
Prissia looked at the scowling face of her queen. “Your Majesty? I know you're upset and, well, we'd like to make you feel better . . . so . . .” She took a deep breath. “Hit it, girls!”
As a dozen dryads danced, singing a hymn to the beauty of Dryope's nose, the queen sank back on to her throne. Her mind had but a single thought: You're going to pay for this, Hercules.
A month later, Hercules sat on a beach on the island of Peloponnesus, watching a boat float off into the Gulf of Corinth and listening to his friend Salmoneus the peddler hurl loud curses at its skipper.
He was thinking of his family.
Zeus, king of the gods, had a temper as powerful as the lightning bolts he hurled from Olympus. Zeus's wife, Hera, could hold a grudge for decades. Ever since Hercules' birth, she had hated the sight of him and she frequently tried to kill him. Ares, the god of war and Hercules' half-brother, would spark conflicts that killed hundreds simply because he couldn't get fresh grapes for breakfast.
Wow, Hercules thought, I've got some special talents too. But no one could swear like Salmoneus.
“And the boat you rode in on!” the peddler concluded. “Ha! Dump us, will he?” he raged. “Some boatman. I swear, just because there's a little war coming, he gets all cowardly.”
“Relax, Salmoneus,” Hercules soothed. “He did tell us about this place.”
He looked around. For an island on the brink of battle, it seemed quiet. The sands led up to a deep forest whose only sounds were the chirping of a few birds.
The sun was setting over the water. They should find shelter. He started walking up the beach towards the forest, with Salmoneus trailing behind.
“It's not the boatman's fault,” Hercules went on. “This is a war zone.” But even as he spoke he was looking around. Where was the war?
Salmoneus smiled. “I'm not worried about trouble. I'll just soak up some local colour, pick up a few wild stories, then I'm back to Athens before the fighting starts. I write a few scrolls about the island and bingo! I'm an expert on war-torn Peloponnesus. Lecture tours, lucrative speaking fees, the world. I'll be famous all over the Greek isles.” His tone turned dreamy.
Whatever you say, Salmoneus, Hercules thought, all the while listening out for danger.
Someone was moving in the forest. Hercules caught a glimpse of a short figure, hidden among the trees. The growing gloom of dusk made a clear view hard to get.
Who was it? Pan maybe, Hercules thought. He's a short god, a forest god, and Peloponnesus is one of his homes. Better approach carefully; he's a tricky one. One blast of those pipes of his and we'd be tangled in poison ivy.
“Herc?” Salmoneus asked.
Hercules shushed him. They crept into the trees.
“This is great!” Salmoneus whispered. “Action already. Fame, here I come.”
“Hush, this could be dangerâ”
A dozen soldiers burst out of the woods on all sides. Screaming, they thrust long, blood-tipped spears at the two men.
Hercules ducked, only to find Salmoneus standing frozen, like a young deer caught by the hounds. He grabbed the peddler by the robe and yanked him to the damp ground. Ambushed! Hercules thought.
The soldiers, deprived of a target, stepped back as one.
There was something weird about them. Hercules tried to see their expressions, but the fading sunlight and the bone face-guards of their helmets hid them from sight. He did notice the daggers and the short swords strapped to their sides. The soldiers also seemed to be somewhat on the small side.
Still holding Salmoneus, Hercules leapt skyward, leaves brushing his face, and grabbed a thick branch. It creaked under his weight but held.
“Fire!” a high-pitched voice shouted, and Hercules saw the soldiers fling their spears up at them. The weapons whistled through the air, their aim deadly accurate.
Hercules let go of the branch and the spears flew by harmlessly, hitting the ground hard. Hercules flung Salmoneus back up into the tree, praying silently that he would be safe, and turned to face the soldiers.
They fanned out to surround him, pulling out their daggers, and charged. Hercules leapt like a jaguar and landed on the nearest soldier, knocking off his helmet. The terrified face of a blue-eyed boy, no older than fourteen, stared back up at him.
“Halt!” a man's voice shouted.
The soldiers froze. Hercules looked around and located the source of the voice: a sunburnt man wearing the plumed helmet of a platoon commander.
The man was slim and his face unlined, but Hercules noted the dark circles of exhaustion under his eyes and the hard set of his mouth. His iron breastplate was nicked and pitted in several places. His right hand gripped a spear; his left held a dagger. A stained calf-skin bandage was wound tightly around his forearm. The man was easily half a head taller than the other soldiers.
Hercules stood up, letting the boy under him scrabble to his feet. He turned to the commander. “What's going on here?”
“Silence!” the man ordered. His voice was slow and rough and full of fatigue. The commander turned to the boy Hercules had flattened. “Peuris,” he said quietly. “What did I tell you about going out at night?”
“Aw, Dad,” the boy said. “It isn't night yet, and look! We almost got Hercules!”
How does he know who I am? Hercules wondered.
“Looks to me like you almost got yourself killed by Hercules,” the commander retorted. He bent over and picked up one of the spears. “It also looks like you and your friends stole this equipment from the armoury.”
“No one was using it!” the boy wailed. “We're cadets, aren't we? Soldiers in training? How are we ever going to experienceâ”
“Shush. Cadets, atten-tion!” As the boys filed into two rows of six, the stranger turned to Hercules. “As for you, why did you come back here?”
“Come back?” Hercules was startled. “I've just got here.”
The commander looked puzzled. “Why are you lying to me? Maybe you don't remember me, but I was there when you met General Ferocius and the queen of the dryads.”
“General who?” Hercules asked, equally puzzled.
One of the smallest boys stepped from the ranks and approached the commander. “Captain Honorius,” he squeaked, “sorry, sir, but the general did order all soldiers to kill him on sight. You're in violation of orders 77 Beta, 82 Epsiâ”
“Thank you, Cadet Sycophantius,” Honorius interrupted wearily. “I do know my orders. Get back in rank, please.” He turned towards Hercules. “You heard the cadet. Now, either stop lying or I'll kill you.” He aimed his spear at Hercules' chest.
With a flurry of leaves and a sharp crash, Salmoneus hit the ground between them. “Lost my grip on the tree,” he explained, clambering up and rubbing his bruised bottom.
Captain Honorius scowled and looked at Hercules. “Is this moron with you?”
“Hey!” Salmoneus started. “Who are you callingâ”
Eight cadets scrambled towards Salmoneus. Hercules clamped a hand over his friend's mouth. Honorius raised one hand and the boys halted.
“He's my friend. He's harmless,” Hercules soothed. “But then again, if you want to kill me, why should I expect you to believe what I say?”
The captain sighed. “I didn't say I wanted to kill you. My general has ordered us to kill you. But if you've really spent the last two weeks among the enemy, you'll have valuable information. Cadet Peuris!”
The lad trotted forward and saluted. “Sir?”
“We're going back to town. Get four men around each prisoner, two up front to scout ahead and two bringing up the rear.” He turned away.
Peuris saluted again. He prodded Hercules with the point of his sword. “Stand still, you,” he grunted. “Cadet Sycophantius! Eight men, including yourself, on the double. And bring rope!” He glared at Hercules and Salmoneus.
Boys surrounded the pair. With blazing torches, the group marched into the night.
Hercules glanced over at Salmoneus, who was trying to find a way to make some notes. He reached into his shoulder bag for ink, a quill and a scroll, but Sycophantius poked him with his sword.
“They probably think you're reaching for a weapon,” Hercules advised.
“Doesn't matter,” Salmoneus replied. “I can always write from memory when I get back. “I and my sidekick, Hercules, fought off the hardened barbarian soldiers, but Hercules, a good-hearted fellow but not as clever as myself, got us captured.” You don't mind a bit of embellishment, do you?”
“Quiet,” Honorius grunted.
Salmoneus shut up. But something he had said tickled Hercules' curiosity.
“Captain, I've got a question,” he called into the night. “You're under orders to kill me. What for? What is it you think I'm guilty of?”
Honorius' voice was cold: “Treason.”