Short Story

Hercules

Prologue

Long ago, when the world was new and the people in it were tasting life for he first time, the great God Zeus bestowed upon it an equally great gift. He had rather foolishly fathered a son with a beautiful mortal and, sensing some hostility from the newborn’s uncle Hades, Zeus felt that the safest place for him would be the world of mortals. He believed that his son’s strength and Godliness would prove a huge asset for the relatively new beings. So naming him Hercules, Zeus left the infant with the kin of his earth-bound mother.

 

I

Hercules grew into a fine, handsome young man. He possessed the physique as befitted a demigod and the softest, blue eyes that echoed his mother’s beauty. The great God’s kind gift had indeed proved a huge asset to the world, particularly the village of Lithica, where Hercules had made his home.

From the age of just seven, this charming child had taken it upon himself to perform the arduous chore of harvesting Lithica’s corn. Each year the villagers would come together at sunrise to watch in awe as Hercules single-handedly scythed, gathered and stored the corn of thirty fields. By sundown the outbuildings would be stacked to the rafters with enough food to keep Lithica prosperous for another year whilst Hercules had barely broken into a sweat. He married, at seventeen, the famously beautiful Freya, daughter of the village elder. The young couple lived an idyllic life. They laughed together, danced and sang together. In fact their love was so strong, the whole world felt their joy. People sought to emulate the couple’s happiness and laughter soon spread throughout every land. As the people danced, the Underworld shook. As the Underworld shook Hades mood grew darker.

Of course, he knew the cause of all this sickening joy and happiness that was corrupting his kingdom of doom was his long-lost nephew. Furthermore the source of it all was clear too; an insignificant village in the foot of the mountains named Lithica. Hades closed his tar black eyes and a slow, menacing grin played across his sallow face. In that precise moment he had come up with a plan. An ingenious plan to rid the world and himself of Hercules, thus enabling him to once against fear and evil into the minds of mortals.

 

II

As Beltane approached, the crops in Lithica’s thirty fields were bursting with ripeness. Corn the colour of sunshine and life swayed lazily in the breeze as the villagers gathered to watch their adopted hero do his thing. The sun peeked over the mountains, glinting off the magical scythe that Hercules held across his chest. Never had he seen the blade sparkle so, he thought to himself. As he ran his finger along its length, an incredible force entered into him. Unnoticed by all, his eyes changed from blue to black as he raised the scythe above his head and brought it down with little effort.

It took just seconds for the fire to take hold. The villagers screamed for Hercules to stop but our hero only heard cheers. They ran from the fields as each one became a bed of flames, but Hercules only saw loose corn to be gathered. As he worked tirelessly through all thirty fields, the villagers frantically threw buckets of water to douse the fires. All to no avail. The crops were being destroyed in front of their eyes and their beloved hero was responsible.

 

III

The morning after that fateful harvest Hercules was still uncharacteristically asleep. Freya was staying with her father who was himself chairing an emergency meeting with the rest of the village. She hadn’t slept for all the tears and now, exhausted, she just wanted to see her beloved husband. But not how he had been on the previous day, with eyes of black and a mood to match. Freya wondered if a good night’s sleep would mend him. She grabbed her things and set off for home.

The village was quiet, black smoke still filled the air with an acrid odour and made Freya’s eyes sting. As she made her way across the square, towards the fields, she caught sight of something. A lone figure sat hugging their knees in the middle of the first field that been eradicated. Sensing who it might be, Freya hurried towards the centre. She trod carefully through the blackened crops until she was standing next to the wretched soul. Placing her hand gently upon the shoulder, she spoke softly, “Oh my love, my Hercules.” Slowly the hooded head turned to look into her tear-brimmed eyes. She gasped, “But you’re not…” A claw-like hand flew out from beneath the cloak and grasped our astonished beauty around the waist. “Ahh…” Hades sighed, “You must be my niece!” He pulled her into him so her terrified face was nose to nose was his. “Hi,” he hissed, “I’m your uncle Hades…”

 

IV

Yawning, Hercules rolled over to where his wife should have been lying next to him in bed. Sitting up, he called her name, “Freya! Surely you’re not up yet,” He pulled on his toga, the same one he wore every year for the harvest, “The sun’s not yet up so there’s… Oh!” He stopped and blinked in the sunlight that washed through the window, then wandered through to where Freya usually cooked their breakfast. She wasn’t there. “Freya!” our hero called again. Confused, he rubbed his head and watched as a piece of singed corn fell from his hair to the floor. Bending down, he picked it up and scrutinised it closely. Suddenly a voice spoke his name from above. A boy hovered below the ceiling by beating tiny wings at a tremendous speed. “Hermes?” Hercules asked incredulously.                           “You remember me! I said you would, I said, ‘My King, I know Hercules shall know me.’ He said you wouldn’t, of course but ha!! Wait until I tell him. Great God Zeus indeed!” He flitted excitedly. “Hermes,” Hercules interrupted, “What are you doing here? Is it father?”                                                                                                                                                            “Your father? No, of course not. No, Hercules, it is you who needs help. Oh dear, oh dear, you poor boy.” Hermes wrung his hands together and hovered a little off the floor in front of our hero. “Me? Why, I need no help! Wait, Freya!” As quick as a flash he had Hermes by the throat. Hermes emitted a powerful  shock, enough to floor most people but just enough to force Hercules to let him go. “Hercules, sit down,” He did. “and listen up.”

After Zeus’ faithful messenger had recounted the sad tale of Hades revenge upon Hercules and his father, the two old friends pondered what to do next. “You must first see the elder of the village, Freya’s father,” insisted Hermes. Hercules knew this and with a heavy heart replied, “I shall go immediately. Though the heaven only knows how I shall inform him of fair Freya’s kidnap.” He had taken some convincing by Hermes that the annual harvest had already happened but as he heard of the diabolical spell Hades had placed upon his scythe and the subsequent fires, he recalled the piece of corn that had fallen from his hair and knew it all to be true. As wretched as that news made him feel, it was as nothing compared to his utter desolation upon realising his beloved Freya’s fate. With his father’s help corn could be regrown – maybe stronger but Freya could not be regrown. She was perfect and beautiful. She was light and strength. She was his and he wanted her home.

 

V

The meeting with his father-in-law went as well as Hercules had dared to expect; shock was followed by tears, which was followed by anger and rage. Surprisingly, little of his rage was aimed at his bereft son-in-law for the sight of the forlorn husband’s face was enough to know he was suffering enough. But the elder had the whole village to appease and they had, at the hands of a bewitched Hercules, lost their food and livelihood for the next year. So it was decreed that the hero should carry out a task.

For a good many years the area to the west of Lithica had remained unfarmable, yet, with the river Heathen running through it, the land was lush with plant life and infinitely sustainable. It had a couple of ports and a small community of traders who provided Lithica with ceramic pots and pans. But away from these vibrant dwellings, into the fields and forests no person ever ventured. For these were the domains of a most formidable beast. A beast so cunning that it’s presence could not be felt to any mortal until it was too late. A beast so voracious that no other living soul could be found in a ten-mile radius. The people of Heathen had grown tired of living in the shadow of such a monster and implored Lithica for help. Until now, Lithica had ignored their pleas but with a ruined harvest and a harsh year beckoning, they decided to set the problem of the beast in front of Hercules. If anyone cold rid the land of the infamous Grinderman, it would surely be the great demigod, Hercules.

 

VI

As Hercules left the village hall his heart was full of new hope. He knew the beast he had to slay was an adversary like no other but he also knew that Grinderman had the heart of Hades, God of the Underworld, uncle and captor of Freya. Unknown to his fellow Lithicans, his Godliness should be more than a match for the treacherous beast. Moreover, in taking the stag-like head the curse that surely bound his beloved to the Underworld would be lifted. With his mighty sword strapped to his back, Hercules set off to put his world back onto its axis. The whole village looked on as he disappeared over the horizon. None of them expected to ever see him return.

 

VII

IMG_7564The journey started well for Hercules. His unnatural athleticism made light work of the miles he had to cover. Before the sun was high in the sky he had reached the land’s end, where the infamous river Heathen had eroded jagged cliffs into the landscape, making for a rather daunting descent to an awaiting ship. Once aboard, Hercules began to formulate a plan. He sharpened his sword and thought his beautiful Freya. He wondered how she was coping – knowing her as he did, he imagined her defiant as Hades left his minions to torment her gentle soul. He could see her now, head held high, elegant chin thrust forward and her brows furrowed. With a heavy heart and determined mind, our demigod vowed to have her back by his side by sundown.

By the time his sword had been sharpened to a hair-splitting edge, the ship was docking at Devil’s Port, the largest port in Heathen. As the sun passed over the yard arm, Hercules embarked on the next leg of his journey; navigating a conicle through the Rocky Rapids of Hades. If he survived all that this narrow stretch of river threw at him, he’d be at Grinderman’s door (so to speak) in plenty of time to achieve his goal. So far all the Gods had been kind. However, that was about to change.

 

Interlude

Now, let me tell you about Grinderman.

Even further ago than long ago, way before the world was born, two young Gods were bored. Zeus and Hades were brothers and, like all boisterous siblings, enjoyed a healthy rivalry that usually resulted in the two of them exchanging punches and hurling insults. But unlike other brothers Zeus and Hades possessed extraordinary powers, which meant their insult hurling often resulted in catastrophe for the fledgling world. It was on such an occasion that the beast known as Grinderman came into existence.

The brothers were out hunting one day, a mortal sport that they both enjoyed. However, as the world was new there was very little to hunt. So the two Gods took turns in creating quick-footed beasts that could provide them with a spirited chase, each one trying to outdo the other. With two beasts apiece, all was equal. But, of course, ‘equal’ would not do at all. One of them had to be the victor. “I know,” said Hades, “We shall join all our created beasts together! The one who successfully kills it will surely be the greatest huntsman of all.” Zeus agreed and so it was done.

IMG_7574

Grinderman was born with Zeus’ magical wings and a stag’s head with gold antlers and Hades gruesome talons and lizard tail and tongue. But Hades tricked Zeus. Along with the physical attributes he added an evil intent. Knowing that Hades would trick him, Zeus also added a little extra – free will. So, even to these Godly siblings, the beast proved unbeatable. The brothers never again spoke of their creation and so Grinderman was left to terrorise the Gothica  Mountains and the Murky Forest.

 

VIII

Unknown to Hercules, Hades was well aware of his quest. He had watched through the clouds as his nephew strode out of Lithica. He saw him procure a ship to take him to the other side and he noted, with interest, how the young hero attacked the formidable raids that bore his name. “Your husband is getting a little too close!” he mused. Freya looked anxious as she watched her beloved battle through the treacherous current. “Please, whatever you want from me, take it. But save him!” she pleaded. Hades laughed, “I want nothing from you, mortal! You were merely a distraction that needed removing. However,” he looked back at Hercules, the determination in his face was terrifying, “I can see that I may have underestimated his ‘desire’ for you.” With a flick of his wrist, the conicle that held Hercules flipped upside down, plunging him unceremoniously into the murky depths of the fast flowing river. Thrown from rock to jagged rock, Hercules’ senses were stunned for a brief time. But Hades really had underestimated the bond between our golden couple. Like a bolt of lightning, Freya’s voice cut through the pain and filled his head. “SWIM, HERCULES. SWIM!” In that instance our hero knew all he needed to know; she was alive! With renewed vigour, he grabbed at the oar nearby and used it to anchor himself firmly between two boulders. Then he pulled himself onto the bank, at the edge of the Murky Forest. There was no time for rest, Hercules’ Godly blood was fired up. With the strength of an army, he set off into the dense forest. He ignored the monstrous trees that seemed to move out of his way. He barely noticed the distinct pathway that had mysteriously appeared beneath his feet. His course was set for the lair of the beast, as his proud father watched on with an anxious smile. It was Zeus versus Hades and the hunt for Grinderman was on once more.

 

IX

The air was still, not a single creature existed this deep inside the forest. Hercules, sword drawn, eyes wide and adrenalin pumping, stood in the clearing. Then a voice entered his head once more. “BEWARE MY SON FOR THE BEAST IS INVISIBLE WHEN WRAPPED IN HIS WINGS. LISTEN FOR HIS HEARTBEAT.” So he did. He stilled his own and tuned in deeply to his surroundings, as he did so, he heard a faint sound, ba-dum, ba-dum. It grew louder as Hercules took a cautious step forward. Then another… BA-DUM, BA-DUM, BA-DUM! The heartbeat was quite deafening to our hero’s finely tuned ears. With steadiness, he drew back his sword slowly, then with tremendous force, he plunged it deep towards the source of the beat.

 

X

As Grinderman fell backwards, the magical wings unfolded around him, revealing the beast to Hercules. It’s beautiful gold antlers lit up the forest as it’s large, sad eyes closed for the final time. Hercules marvelled at the contradiction of this majestic creature; both grace and malice co-existing in such a wondrous form. Gripping it’s antlers, he took the head with a merciful swipe of his sword. As the blade sang, Hercules’ world righted itself. What was lost was returned, old scores between brothers were resolved and a young hero stood with his beautiful wife by his side as the sun started to dip behind the trees.

 

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