Sophus watched glumly as the galley drew away from shore. Tisander’s grumbling on a bench nearby was evidence that he had partially succeeded. He had roused Tisander from a sound sleep and prodded him into reaching the slip by dawn. By the time he had reached the residence of Tanileidas, however, there had been insufficient time to coax him out of bed in the face of his hangover before Sophus himself had to run to the harbor. At least he had elicited a promise from the pankratiast to meet them in Aegina in a few days.
A particularly shrill note from the aulos keeping time for the rowers brought a curse from Tisander. Sophus winced; the big man’s curses were nothing to take lightly. Then he turned his attention back to his oar. He could feel the blisters already forming. It was going to be a long trip to Athens.
* * * * *
Sophus leaned back in relief as the Lady Marine drew up to its slip in Phaleron, the port of Athens. They had finally arrived; now he could relax a little. He watched as the seamen poured off the ship, then wearily got to his feet and followed them.
“Everyone to your places!” bellowed Cyrus. Like the well-oiled team they were, the seamen moved into position around the galley.
Sophus’s eyes widened in shock. He had completely forgotten that the ship had to be hauled up the slipway into its shed, so that the soft fir of its hull would not become waterlogged. A waterlogged ship was slow, and a slow ship was easy prey, so it was essential to beach the galley or haul it out of the water into a ship shed. And it had to be done by main force, of course; there was no other way.
A score of hired dockhands swarmed down the slipway to assist the crew. Tisander and Korax moved to join them. Squaring his shoulders, Sophus followed. If they dropped the galley, some of them would be killed or, worse, crippled. He muttered a prayer to the gods as he took his place.
On a command from the captain, the men heaved the galley out of the water and began to haul it up the slipway. Cyrus hauled along with the rest of them; the crew would never have tolerated anything else. There were a few dicey moments, but in a surprisingly short time the ship was resting in its shed. With a ragged cheer, and a few catcalls, the crew dispersed to buy some drinks before returning to see to necessary maintenance. Cyrus stood on shore as the men left, handing out silver and exchanging gibes.
After giving instructions to Platon, the first mate, on handling matters in his absence, and paying the port fees to the port official, Cyrus turned to his new companions.
“We’re in luck,” he said. “The serpent ate a few peasants just yesterday, and this fine fellow can give us directions to the site.”
Korax stepped forward. “Which way?” he asked succinctly. He listened silently as the official explained the route. Then he turned and started walking. The others scrambled to follow.
Tisander stood over the steaming corpse of the serpent. It was ten feet long from head to tail. “Done!” he boomed. “The creature stood no chance against us!”
Sophus looked up from his fire, which he had started to test the effects on the monster’s body. “Smells pretty good,” he suggested. “Want some?” He held out a chunk.
Tisander turned and regarded him levelly. Sophus smiled innocently. Tisander marched over, seized the meat, and ate it.
His eyes lit up. “This is delicious,” he proclaimed. “Have you more?”
“Sure,” Sophus replied, a little surprised. “Done in a jiffy. Anyone else want some?”
There was no reply.
A few minutes later, Korax stood up after skinning the beast. “Here’s the skin,” he said, handing it to Sophus. “I want to look around some, but it’s too dark tonight. I’m for bed.” And he turned in without further ado.
“I’ll watch,” announced Tisander, pacing back and forth. His eyes gleamed, and he bounced up and down on his toes. “I’m not tired at all.” Cyrus and Sophus looked at him askance. He seemed almost bursting with manic energy. Then they shrugged and went to bed.
In the morning, Korax quartered the area as the others watched. Frowning, he drifted further south, with the group trailing behind him. Soon he came across another serpent trail. “Headed for Athens,” he grunted.
“We’d best follow it,” said Cyrus with a frown. “It looks like our work isn’t done yet.”
“Wait,” grunted Korax. He continued quartering the area.
Shortly he came across yet another serpent trail. “Three. This one is headed due south—but they all came from the same direction.”
“There’s a nest,” said Sophus grimly.
“We’d better find it, then,” replied Tisander. “Let’s go.”
The cave yawned before them menacingly. It was a natural cavern, perhaps fifteen feet wide and deeper than the eye could see. Clearly, something large had been going in and out of the cave. Something large and snake-like.
“Well,” muttered Tisander, “we might as well go in,” and he did so. The others followed.
At first the cave was largely featureless. After a time, the passageway divided, with two new passages branching to the left. The group studied them briefly, but seeing nothing noteworthy, they continued along the original passage.
Suddenly a crack, perhaps five feet wide, loomed in the floor ahead of them. The passage continued beyond the crack.
They edged forward to peer down the crack. A large cavern yawned below, perhaps eighty or ninety feed wide. A gentle slope led down to the cavern floor; climbing down would not be difficult. In the center of the cavern was what appeared to be a nest.
“That’s it,” exclaimed Sophus. He headed down the slope, with Cyrus and Korax right behind him.
Tisander stood in the passageway outside, frowning. “What’s that noise?” he asked.
Abruptly a serpent burst into view in the corridor ahead of him. This one was much larger than the earlier one, filling the entire fifteen-foot passage.
Instantly, Tisander turned and ran. When he reached the point where the corridor branched, he ducked into the second branch and paused to see what the serpent did. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it turn into the first branch. He watched to see how long this serpent might be. His eyes widened as its length continued flowing into the passage . . . and continued . . . and continued. Finally the tail appeared.
“That thing is fifty feet long if it’s a foot,” he muttered to himself. Then he followed, jogging down the passageway after it.
Cyrus, Sophus, and Korax watched in amazement as the creature flowed over the crack. Exchanging troubled glances, they turned back to the nest. As they drew closer, they saw that the it was filled with well over two score eggs, each over five feet in diameter. Some of the eggs had already hatched.
Sophus counted quickly. “Fourteen,” he said. “Fourteen eggs have hatched. That means there are thirteen more serpents out there.”
“Plus the mother,” said Cyrus.
“Yes,” Sophus agreed grimly. “Plus the mother.” He frowned thoughtfully at the nest. “I wonder if we can burn it.”
Without further ado, Sophus set to work, building a fire under one of the eggs. The egg heated and cracked, but the nest itself contained too much earth and would not burn.
“We’ll have to do it the hard way,” said Tisander. He raised his hammer high, then brought it down with a crash. The egg split and shattered.
The others set to with a will. Soon half a dozen eggs were broken or badly damaged.
“Stop,” said Korax abruptly. “Listen.”
Everyone stopped and went still. In the silence, they could hear clearly the sound of scales moving against earth and stone as something heavy approached.
Suddenly the serpent burst into the cavern from a passageway almost directly behind them. “Run!” bellowed Korax, taking his own advice. The others scrambled after him, hastening up the slope and out the crack.
The serpent did not slow down. She accelerated up the slope and rammed into the wall just above the crack with bone-jarring impact. Dirt and rocks rained down.
Tisander burst into the cavern from the same passageway. Seeing the serpent ram into the wall, he ran up behind her and smashed his hammer into her tail. Blood seeped from a hole in the scales made by his earlier blows in the same spot.
When shocking speed, she whipped around and lunged for him, but he had already turned and raced for the nearest of the three passageways leading into the cavern. The serpent followed him. As she turned to go, Cyrus, Sophus, and Korax rained missiles on her. Most glanced off, but a few lodged in her scales.
A moment later, Tisander trotted up to join them. “The passages join in a circle,” he said. “If you need to run from the beast, you can take any of them and you’ll end up back here.”
“A circle?” said Sophus. “Then we can expect her back in—”
Abruptly the serpent burst into view from the corridor directly opposite the crack. Without slowing down, she sped directly for the crack. The heroes rained missiles on her once again. Tisander, hurling his hand axe, scored a direct hit on her left eye. However, she closed her eyelid at the last second so that the axe sank into the lid instead of the eye itself.
Once again, the great serpent rammed into the wall just above the crack with shattering force. More rocks and dirt collapsed, and the cave trembled.
“She’s trying to bring down the wall above the crack,” Sophus exclaimed. “She knows she can’t fit through it, and she wants to deny us its use as an entrance to her nest. From the looks of it, one more blow will bring it down.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Tisander grimly. As the serpent turned and slithered out another passage, Tisander leaped down the slope into the cavern. Then he moved to the side, hammer hefted, and waited for her return. Cyrus and Korax trotted down to join him, hefting their weapons. Sophus stood his ground, sling at the ready.
Moments later, the serpent erupted from the same passage, headed for the crack at breakneck speed. As she passed, Tisander swung his hammer in a mighty arc. It bounced off her scales with little effect. Korax swung with no better luck. Cyrus ran after her and rammed his dagger into the hole in her tail. His dagger vanished into her great body, and blood erupted over his hands, burning and blistering them. He jerked them back with a shout of pain.
Sophus watched coolly as she approached, noting that the axe was still embedded in her right eyelid; she seemed unable to open the eye. As the last moment, he hurled his sling bullet. The bullet smashed directly into the creature’s right eye. Her massive eyelid slammed shut an instant too late. Blood and pus erupted.
With a bellow, the serpent slammed into the wall. The entire wall collapsed, bringing a massive slide of dirt and rocks down to bury the crack. Sophus scrambled back out of the way, then turned and ran for the junction, seeking another corridor that would bring him to the cavern.
“Now!” howled Tisander. With a shout, he leaped up onto the serpent’s back and raced towards her head.
The serpent writhed around, attempting to find and crush the interlopers. Cyrus and Korax hastily drew back.
Reaching the head, Tisander raised his hammer high and brought it down with all his strength. The gods were with him, and his great hammer found a weak point in the massive skull. Bone shattered. Tisander smashed again, opening up a gaping hole and exposing the creature’s brain to the open air. Shouting victory cries, he brought his hammer down once again directly onto the brain.
His hammer vanished into the soft matter. Surprised, Tisander barely managed to release it before being pulled after it. Frustrated, he pulled out his dagger and hurled it into the brain after the hammer.
Finding himself out of javelins, Korax pulled out his bow and began firing arrows at the beast. Sophus, running into the cavern, quickly assessed the situation and joined Korax with his sling.
Cyrus, meanwhile, grasped his last javelin and ran up to the serpent’s head. Bobbing and weaving, he waited for his moment.
The serpent bellowed in agony. Then, abruptly, she reared up to smash her head against the ceiling and crush the pesky human on top of her. Cyrus leaped forward and stabbed his javelin into the softer skin of her throat. The spear disappeared entirely into her throat, and blood gushed forth. Cyrus shouted in pain as it burned him.
Tisander, realizing he was about to be jellied, leaped into the creature’s brain case and began to stomp and rip. He attempted to grasp the edge of the skull to prevent himself from sinking, but lost his grip and sank into the muck.
Cyrus, Sophus, and Korax approached the serpent’s body warily. After long moments of frenzied contortions, it had finally stopped writhing.
“Do you see him?” asked Cyrus.
“No,” replied Sophus. “I hope he’s alive. He’s pretty tough.”
“There,” said Korax. Without further ado, he plunged his hand into the brain and hauled out a food. Sophus hastily lent a hand, and after a brief struggle they managed to pull Tisander out.
“He’s still breathing,” said Sophus. “Carry him over here.” He pointed to a flat stretch of ground near the cavern wall. After Korax gingerly set him down, Sophus looked him over carefully.
Tisander came awake suddenly. “I’m okay,” he said, brushing off the healer. “Let’s go.”
“Well, okay,” Sophus said, taken aback. He glanced at the nest. “But we should destroy the eggs first.”
“No.” Tisander’s voice was as flat as a wall. “We have to leave now.”
“You have brain on your face,” said Korax interestedly. “Looks like you swallowed some.” Tisander ignored him.
“We probably ought to destroy the eggs so they don’t hatch and ravage the land,” suggested Cyrus.
“Not our problem,” barked Tisander. “We. Have. To. Leave. NOW.”
Cyrus and Sophus exchanged doubtful glances, while Korax watched with interest. It was true that they were under no obligation to destroy the nest. The local militia should be able to deal with any babies that headed towards Athens. Those that headed into the wild would likely survive, but that provide work for other heroes, and perhaps for themselves.
“Well, okay,” said Cyrus. “Let’s go, then.”
They wearily found their way out of the cavern, and went far enough in the growing twilight that any babies still near the nest shouldn’t bother them.
“Good spot,” grunted Korax after a time. “Let’s stop.”
“I’d like to get back to Athens,” said Cyrus. “We should push on through the night.”
“No,” said Korax.
“I’m hungry,” said Tisander. Sophus absently handed him the rest of the meat he had carved from the young serpent. Tisander wolfed it down.
“I should look over those burns,” Sophus pointed out to Cyrus. “And we could all use some rest.”
“Well . . .” said Cyrus. Tisander lay down on the ground and began snoring. Cyrus scowled at him. “All right.”
Moments later, Cyrus peered over Sophus’s shoulder as the healer prepared his salve. It was bubbling merrily . . . but Sophus had not heated it over the fire.
“What’s that?” Cyrus asked nervously.
“It’s just a healing salve,” Sophus said soothingly. “It will feel good on your burns.”
“Why is it bubbling?”
“That might be due to the serpent poison,” Sophus admitted.
“Serpent poison? That thing’s blood caused these burns, and you want to put poison on them?” Cyrus straightened up in alarm.
“Of course. What can kill can also cure. You should know that,” Sophus said sternly. He finished preparing his poultices and turned to the captain. “Now, hold out your hands. It will be fine.”
Cyrus looked dubious, but after a moment he complied.
The next morning, the others tried in vain to waken Tisander. Finally Sophus leaned back in frustration. “It’s no good,” he said. “This is worse than when he’s drunk.”
Cyrus sighed. “We’ll have to carry him. Better make a litter.”
“Good thing I applied that poultice to your burns,” Sophus remarked. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to grasp a litter by now.”
“I suppose so,” Cyrus said dubiously, looking at his hands. The redness and blistering were gone, but the skin was oddly smooth.
“We return victorious!” Sophus proclaimed. An admiring crowd gathered around them in the port of Phaleron as Sophus declaimed the tale of their glory. Tisander paced back and forth, acting out the scenes.
Cyrus went immediately to the port master to report their success and claim the reward. That worthy directed him to the residence of the Regent of Athens. With a glance at his companions, much occupied with their admiring public, Cyrus shrugged and walked into the city center.
Moments later, he was standing before the Regent. “Well done!” the man exclaimed. “And which of you slew the monster?”
“Tisander and I together destroyed the beast,” said Cyrus.
“Indeed,” said the Regent. “But who struck the killing blow?”
“Tisander and I struck almost as one.”
The Regent frowned. “It is well known that fell creatures are always slain by a single hero’s blow. Which was it? You or Tisander?”
“Well . . .” said Cyrus. “I slew the monster.”
“Excellent!” The Regent beamed at him. “And I have no doubt you are eager to claim your reward.”
“We will not delay, then, worthy Cyrus. You will wed my daughter in three days.” The great lord beamed at him.
Cyrus went pale and reeled as if struck. With a monumental effort, he concealed his distress. “In . . . three days?”
“Indeed,” said the Regent happily. “It will be a wondrous celebration.” He turned to the door. “Hear ye, hear ye!” he proclaimed. “Let all prepare for the wedding games to celebrate the joining of my beauteous daughter to the hero Cyrus, slayer of the great serpent!”
“You didn’t kill the monster,” piped up the young boy. “Cyrus did. Everybody knows.”
Tisander stopped in mid-motion. He lowered his arms and stepped back from the step from which he was about to reenact his leap into the braincase.
“Everybody . . . knows?” Tisander said softly. Sophus winced.
“Of course,” said the boy. “The mighty Cyrus is to wed the Regent’s daughter three days hence as his reward for slaying the beast. She’s the most beautiful girl in Athens, and the richest. The daughter, I mean, not the serpent.”
“Is that so?” Tisander murmured. Abruptly he turned and walked away.
Tisander entered the cavern serenely. Townsfolk had dug a narrow passage through the collapsed dirt in the crack and had taken part of the serpent’s body; oddly, however, they had not disturbed the next.
Moving with great deliberation, Tisander prepared the ritual. He inscribed the curse on a ritual disk, built the fire, and prepared the sacrifice of certain parts of the great serpent. Finally ready, he began to chant.
“Might Ares, hear my call . . . . Might Ares, grant my vengeance . . . .”
Sometime later, he prepared to leave the cavern. He paused and looked at the nest, frowning. Why hadn’t the Athenians destroyed the eggs? Then abruptly he smiled and turned to go.
Cyrus woke from a nightmare with a scream of agony. He had dreamed that Ares loomed before him, hellish helmet leaning forward and massive spear descending towards him. Then, just as he awoke, the spear smashed into his groin.
The captain’s agonized screams brought servants running. “Master? Master? What is it?” they cried.
Cyrus wheezed, sweat dripping off his body. His groin was a throbbing mass of pain. “Nothing,” he gasped. “Out. Get out!” The servants fled in terror. Cyrus buried his head in his hands.
Moments later, he sent for his first mate. Platon finally staggered in, blinking sleep, or wine, from his eyes.
After Cyrus explained his wishes, Platon frowned. “Leave? But we’d miss the feast! We’d miss the free wine! Can’t we leave after the wedding?”
“I want to leave before the wedding, because I don’t want to marry her,” Cyrus explained patiently. “I don’t want to have this girl hanging onto me for the rest of my life, no matter how good-looking she is.”
“So after the wedding, we leave and don’t come back,” suggested Platon. He smirked. “She’ll be so sore after a night in your bed that she’ll be satisfied for the next twenty years. Besides, you’ll get her pregnant in no time, and she’ll be busy with the kid.” He paused. “Besides. Free wine!”
“I cannot marry your daughter,” Cyrus said bluntly. The imbecilic Regent wasn’t taking any hints.
The Regent looked at him blankly, yet again. “Why not?” he asked. “What do you mean about Olympians?”
“I am divine,” snapped Cyrus. What an idiot! “I belong to the company of gods. I will not marry your daughter!”
“Divine? Divine? But that’s wonderful!” Beaming, the Regent turned towards the rest of the house. “The hero Cyrus is of divine blood! We will have divine blood in the family!”
Cyrus turned and stalked off in disgust. He continued down the street directly to the harbor, gliding elegantly past the crowds.
At the ship shed, the crew was continuing minor maintenance on the galley. Fortunately, he always insisted that major maintenance be completed before the crew took leave, so the galley was ready to go. “In the water,” Cyrus snapped. “We’re leaving.” Seeing his temper, the men scrambled to obey.
Once the ship was underway, Cyrus gestured sharply, and two burly sailors upended a cask of naptha into the water behind them. At a second gesture, the piper began the swirling notes of the aulos.
Hearing the pipes, bystanders suddenly realized the mighty Cyrus was departing. Shouts of dismay arose from the shore.
Cyrus stepped forward, drawing all eyes. A sailor unobtrusively touched a brand to the trail of naptha, and abruptly the entire pool of naptha burst into flame.
“Fear not,” Cyrus declaimed. “I leave you with my memory. But await me not, for other tasks lie ahead of me.” He turned away as the ship glided gloriously into the sunrise.